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

13: Maze Love



"You can be the goddess of love, this time around! You can be anybody this time around!" The voice of the long-gone Timothy Leary blasted from the speakers at the ticket window of Maze Love, the San Francisco cyberclub owned in part by Peter Moaning.

Two days before the start of the Internet Vegas Show, Tinker had kept his prearranged appointment to meet Charlie at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Now they were about to walk into the club, as part of Charlie's plan to rendezvous with Eric Mauer, who hadn't been seen in nearly a month but had made his presence felt through ICE-d emails directed at Charlie.

A public videowall showed the interior of the club, with people at computer stations, in booths, and in the VR arcade, and a video clip of Peter Moaning, the public face behind the club, highlighting the club's features. "Get your Maze Love Smart Card! Tonight you get a free drink from Aggregate Networks if you visit its new privacy enabling site, which offers free privacy and protection from viruses and unwanted surveillance. You also get a special discount on the Tokyo theme room if you make a reservation for a Maze Love station!" He spoke the last line in a singsong manner.

The line was moving quickly enough. People would get their faces snapped with a digital camera, type something in, and receive a magnetic-striped card. They would make a reservation for a station, navigate by mouse through a 3-D simulation of the inside space of the club to select a station or booth (a shared station for a group). Then off they'd go into the dark, noisy club. They got behind a sleek raven-haired woman of about twenty with purple makeup and a Morticia Addams dress with a hole cut out for her navel-ring. She preened for the camera like a model for a Nike ad -- just another good-looking girl out to have some fun. Click, then Charlie was next.

He protested that he didn't want his picture taken, so they gave him a choice of avatar faces. There were categories of original cartoon faces, all designed by local artists, divided into menus labeled superheroes, rock 'n' rollers, dinosaurs, rare fish, goofy farm animals, fierce-looking beasts of the jungle, and generic-looking humans of different races and colors. The caricatures menu offered cartoon faces of a couple of dead presidents, rock stars, and computer nerds.

From the menu labeled Rock 'n' Roll Heaven Charlie chose Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not many other caricatures were left this late in the evening; stars like Kurt Cobain, John Lennon and Jim Morrison were taken early, but Vaughan's was almost never used, for the obvious reason that Vaughan's face wasn't extremely attractive. The club allowed only one use of a special caricature per night, so that there wouldn't be a room full of Elvis impersonators (the exception was the caricature of Pee Wee Herman -- there was an unlimited supply). He typed the pseudonym "Double Trouble" for his club ID, and paid a $50 up-front cash fee to establish a limit. Tinker followed along, choosing Sonny Boy Williamson II for his avatar, and "King Biscuit" for his club ID. They set up a temporary Web page for the night, a standard issue music site featuring links to the BluesNet and Guitar Player and other commercial hosts. Glancing quickly over some of the features, "Double Trouble" showed "King Biscuit" the capability to use the videoconferencing system, and they selected the option to have their avatars appear on the face wall -- a giant bank of video monitors off to the side of the main stage. This setup took less than 30 seconds, and they were off into the dark club.

Around the corner, the club was no longer dark. Giant video monitors glared down from the sides of the room, playing clips on request. Computer stations were everywhere, playing games, videos, browsers, and colorful screen savers. Computer memorabilia hung from the ceiling, and attendants in zoot suits with blinking ties scurried about helping people get settled with the station controls. A local band was covering a Stone Temple Pilots anthem with as much energized angst as they could muster.

Spin me up, spin me, spin me out

Station to station send me up and out

Is that what life and love is all about

I think I think so

-- Stone Temple Pilots, "Big Bang Baby" (R. DeLeo/S. Weiland)

Patrons were singing up front with the band, moshing along. Behind the band, a wall of video monitors displayed a single picture, a video clip of double-decker busses entering and leaving a terminal, superimposed over a 3D image of a circuit board up close. As usual, every station was taken. The VR Arcade was crowded at that moment with bussed-in attendees of an e-business marketing convention, some of whom had forgotten to take off their badges.

They split up. Tinker cruised over to the shrine encasing the original wirewrap circuit boards of the first model Planet computer and other memorabilia from the optimistic days of the personal computer era. Next to the exhibit, a Japanese-style beverage machine offered him a choice of Sam Adams beer, Mendocino chardonnay, Red Bull, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Soma, or Japanese beverages such as Porcari Sweat. He chose a beer and swiped his card in the slot.

Charlie strolled through the semi-crowded dance floor over to the tables, and took a seat in a small booth by himself, with an extra seat, to wait for some kind of word from Eric. He punched up the food menu on the computer at the table, and identified himself with a swipe of his card. It immediately displayed a menu on the right side and his avatar face on the left. He dragged the image of a cheeseburger over his avatar face, and a prompt appeared with icons for ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, onions, lettuce, tomato, and so forth, with one icon for "everything", one for "Western style", one for "Chicago style," and so on, and a final icon for "other" that required some typing on the keyboard to be specific. At this point he could have clicked his way into the entire history of the cheeseburger and the historic use of condiments, but he was hungry, so he dragged over the icon for "Western style" which featured onions, bacon, and barbecue sauce. He went through a similar process with fries, and then dragged the icon for Guinness Draft beer over his face.

The computer tallied the result, listing all his choices, and he clicked the Submit button. A progress chart appeared, showing the message going through credit approval and so on, all the way to the kitchen. After a minute or so, the chart showed that his meal was on the fire -- no substitutions or refunds after this point. By this time a cute waitress, looking just like the redhead in a miniskirt in those Ruby's Diner ads with the bun hairdo, delivered his beer.

He had interrupted the table computer's attract loop -- a video clip of Peter Moaning explaining the features of the cyberclub -- to browse through the faces and handles of the people currently in the club. Moaning was here, so was Mort Gill. Jill Metrose, the editor-in-chief of Fizz magazine, was looking prim and proper in her face snap; she was probably in one of the VIP lounges. Howard Marker, one of her feature writers, was also here, probably in the same place. They were all dangerous now; Charlie couldn't really trust any of them. No sign of Eric.

He hadn't gone very far when the computer beeped (not just "beep" but the "Beep Beep, Beep Beep, Yeah!" from the Beatles, "Drive My Car"). A message appeared at the top of the screen saying an anonymous person was calling using the videoconferencing system. Charlie turned to the screen, clicked on the message, and up popped a video window in the middle of the screen, and he knew immediately by the high quality of the picture that it was a link to a caller inside the club, not from the public Net. It was Rachel. Her red hair framed a lively, triangular face with a sharp nose and a silly grin with freckles on top.

"You miss me?" She was smiling, nearly ecstatic. He could hear her voice through the computer's special acoustic speaker system suspended from the ceiling. The ambient noise of the club would have normally prevented this technology from working properly, but Moaning had paid a handsome sum to modify the system with the latest directional audio placement technology. The sound was much better than over a telephone; he could hear the emotion in her voice as if she was standing next to him.

"How did you find me?" Charlie glanced back at his Stevie Ray Vaughan avatar face on the left side of the screen, still up on the face wall, in the upper right corner in the newcomer space. Next to it was Rachel's real face.

"Lucky I guess," she flashed a wide grin. "Actually, I saw you walking through, saw you the old-fashioned way."

"Eric is coming," he said, matter-of-factly changing the subject. "He set up this meeting."

"Good," she said, turning away to smile at a friend, her nonchalance not convincing. She and two others occupied an enclosed station closer to the stage, and all three were on their own computers. She turned back to the small camcorder attached to her computer that beamed her picture across the room to Charlie's booth. "He'll have a surprise for you, I hope," she snickered.

"So I'll be busy," Charlie said with determination. "Don't fool around. I'll see you later," and he clicked the off button. The video image dissolved, replaced by the face list he'd been searching. He posted a flag on the message board to send him a message if anyone named "The Mad Shirt Grinder" appeared, expecting Eric to use that pseudonym, along with the face of Nicky Hopkins, another infrequently used avatar from the Rock 'n' Roll Heaven menu.

To pass the time and not be disturbed by anyone's random video calls, he set the message option temporarily to NO MSG (no messages), which happened also to also be the message most often attached to orders from the Chinese menu. He called up one of his favorite games, Total Distortion (Pop Rocket), to play at his table while eating.

Tell me why you're here

I came to disappear…

-- R.E.M., "Disappear" (Buck/Mills/Stipe)

Tinker wandered around the club, checking out various rooms, and was right near the stage when the MC announced the Web Site of the Moment. First he showed various sites that were equivalent but not quite as good. These sites appeared behind him on different screens of the video wall as he spoke. Tinker winced; here were the intelligentsia of the information age, gazing up on their own creations paraded about in an award ceremony, absolutely oblivious to the suffering world outside. Then the MC clicked the mouse at his podium, and the entire video wall filled with one screen, the Web Site of the Moment. It was Rob Smolder's suicide note site.

The crowd roared in amazement. This was the most hacked-upon site in the universe, changing almost hourly, as new hackers tried to outdo the ones that came before, so that the site had long since become a parody of a suicide note, then a parody of a parody, then a party page, then a page of random faces, then a page of random feces, and so on. At this point it was totally unrecognizable from the page that first appeared after Smolder's jump. In fact, someone was hacking the page at that very moment, and it changed again while up on the video wall. It was now displaying a link to Web pages dedicated to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then it changed to pages dedicated to Sonny Boy Williamson II and then to Nicky Hopkins. Then, just as quickly, it changed again, but the message had made it through to Tinker -- Eric was in the house.

The plan was to hook up in Maze Love. Tinker took a seat at a station in the game room, and switched to the 3D Maze Love cyberworld, where he could either use a full-body version of his face avatar, or pick a new one just for Maze Love. He decided to go incognito, and chose a standard male stud-puppy body in a matador's outfit. Before long his avatar had found a room in the maze with a very sexy blonde babe, a Kim Basinger avatar in a slinky white dress right out of Tim Burton's Batman. As soft-porn video clips graced the walls of the room, the two avatars swirled through the room under mouse control, throwing virtual kisses at each other, each one seeking a way to bring the avatars together, to make them cuddle. The tension was building as the owners, unknown to each other, maneuvered their avatars to mash into each other. The program had been designed so that the avatars could stay locked together in an embrace while dancing throughout the room. The effect was stunningly erotic.

Tinker signaled the owner of the babe avatar to meet again in a Webcam link, where they could see each other. He got no reply, and signaled again, and again, until the babe avatar dissolved in his embrace. The Webcam window popped up automatically on Tinker's screen, as the owner of the babe avatar finally honored Tinker's request. The window showed three burly college-age men laughing hysterically, and one of them quickly ripped down his pants, bent over, and gave Tinker a full view of the moon.

* * *

At that moment Charlie's Total Distortion homemade music video, which he'd worked on in two beers' time, was interrupted with a video call from "The Mad Shirt Grinder". Charlie smiled; only Eric could break through the NO MSG lockout, and without crashing any stations. Eric wrote most of the cyberclub's operating system under contract to Moaning. He could enter this club anonymously and do as he pleased. Sure enough, it was Eric in the video window, not some avatar. He was calling from the total immersion room, where he was entirely enclosed in a coffin-like body station that offered sensual thrills as well as surround-sound and the equivalent of an IMAX Theater experience.

"Move into Maze Love." Eric was terse.

"OK." Charlie clicked his way into a Maze Love room with walls of pink coral. His Stevie Ray Vaughan face appeared on the avatar body of a serpent. Charlie was momentarily startled, because he seemed to have no control over it. Eric's avatar, with a Nicky Hopkins face on the body of a T-Rex, prowled around the room. Eric must be showing his tendency for anger with this T-Rex avatar; perhaps he meant to chew my head off because I made a deal to work again with Moaning.

Eric had brought a baby T-Rex avatar with him, or more like a miniature T-Rex, with the face of Babe Ruth. The mini-T-Rex held a scroll in one of its clawed front feet, which he extended in Charlie's direction. "Take a look at this," said the Babe face on top of the mini-T-Rex. At that moment, the room's walls changed from pink coral to video clips of an approaching thunderstorm.

Charlie's avatar changed automatically from a serpent to a revolutionary war hero in a tri-cornered hat standing like George Washington in a dinghy crossing the Delaware. It unsettled Charlie to not have control over these avatar changes -- did Maze Love really allow this? But he had some control over movement, so he had his avatar grab the scroll and unroll it. The scroll immediately morphed into a free-floating cube with the same video clip playing on all sides. It showed Peter Moaning shaking hands with someone Charlie didn't recognize, a man in a ponytail. When the man turned around, Charlie could see the man's FBI field jacket. The next scene was Moaning again, shaking hands this time with a shadowy man in a trenchcoat. The scene changed to a terrorist training camp. It dissolved into an animation showing a complex system with a rather large, cartoonish back door and a huge green foot coming through it.

When the animation finished, Eric's T-Rex had changed into a Confederate general, with his aide now a bandaged soldier with crutches right out of Red Badge of Courage.

The gist of Eric's message was clear. Moaning had provided versions of ICE to the Feds and to the terrorists, and they both had their own back doors. Only Charlie's version, copied from the Jamaican site and hidden in music files copied across the Net, would be useful as a base to build a new version.

Tinker's avatar, Sonny Boy Williamson's face with the body of a Confederate infantryman, arrived in the room. It seemed to be the cue for a thunderstorm to approach from the distance, its ferocious howl gaining in amplitude. "Give me the key to the copy," Eric spoke first. "The FBI's already in the house, trying to track us. There's also another group following you, and I'm not sure who they are."

"Here," said Charlie, and he typed the peer-to-peer protocol and URL for retrieving a copy of the song "Escape Key" from the net. "Use this password." He typed the password. "But why did you need this copy? Why didn't Moaning or Gill already get it to you?"

"Look, you can make a deal with Moaning, but I don't trust him," said Eric through his avatar in a voice clipped, Germanic, baritone. "I don't trust anyone anymore, not unless I know what they want. This is my code, I wrote it. And Gill is under too much scrutiny right now."

Tinker was about to ask a question but Eric's avatar suddenly grew huge. "The cyberclub system now has a nice feature, not documented, that lets you essentially eavesdrop on other private Maze Love sessions."

"Wow," said Charlie. "Isn't that an ethical or moral issue?"

"Maybe," said Eric, "but the club couldn't get insurance without the ability to monitor these sessions. So anyway, check this out. The MLF operation is about to begin."

A window opened up to occupy one entire wall of the room, and it felt as if they were actually in the room, hiding inside a painting on the wall.

* * *

Mort Gill's avatar looked like Mort Gill, and his current girlfriend Tina's avatar looked just like Tina, sitting in his lap. Howard Marker, the journalist, was using a Sam Spade avatar holding a notepad. Gill was holding forth on a topic dear to his heart: the war on drugs.

"Look at who this war benefits. Follow the money. First, the politicans, then the enforcement community. The politicans use this war to gain votes, by appealing directly to people's fears. The enforcement community and the prison industry get subsidies for overtime pay, electronic gear, weapons, and so on. And they can keep the money and property they seize in drug busts. Did you also know that the prison industry is the fastest growing industry in this country, faster even than high-tech?"

On it went in the 3D party room, other avatars rapt with attention at his feet, until Peter Moaning's avatar, looking of course just like Peter Moaning, joined the group, bringing with him a gorgeous blonde female avatar, who introduced herself as Tiffany.

Back in the wall, eavesdropping on the party room, Charlie's avatar nudged Tinker's avatar, nudged it again, and then winked. "I know that girl, Tiffany. She's one of my models. You should see her with nothing on except her earrings." Eric's avatar seemed to perk with interest, turning a mellow yellow.

Then Gretchen's avatar entered the party room with what seemed like an entourage but was actually only Gooky's avatar, talking rapid-fire about the coming media apocalypse. "To the OtherNet! Hip hip, hooray!" Gretchen's avatar raised a virtual glass of champagne.

"And now, we start the real party," said Moaning, and his avatar pressed a large button that had appeared in mid-air. "Eric's got the setup rigged. My eternal gratitude to you, sir," his avatar bowed at Mort Gill's avatar, "for the loan of one of the greatest hackers of all time."

"You are more than welcome," replied Gill, his avatar raising a virtual glass of champagne. "You and the entire Media Liberation Front have helped to advance the cause of freedom, and that makes you all modern-day heroes."

Gretchen noticed Howard Marker's avatar and moved her avatar closer to his. Gooky was reading aloud from a virtual window that appeared in front of his avatar, shouting stats. "90 seconds, already we have 100,000 copies in progress… 2 minutes, 200,000 copies…" Marker's avatar looked at Gretchen's avatar, who, with what seemed like a furrowed brow on the avatar face, looked back at Moaning. Moaning's avatar nodded at her. "Folks," announced Gooky, "5 minutes into this party, and we now have over 1 million copies in progress."

Gretchen's avatar touched Marker's avatar's shoulder. "Yo, this is way off the fuckin' record, you got it?"

Marker's avatar nodded. "Off the record. Absolutely."

"What you're seeing here, organized by the Media Liberation Front, is a new kind of privacy party," said Gretchen. "You know what a privacy party is, don'tcha? You get someone using Napster-like software, y'know, peer-to-peer, and putting large quantities of copyrighted warez on the servers of unsuspecting companies for an evening or a few days, and announce a privacy party, and millions jump into the party and download the warez."

Howard Marker sighed. He knew about privacy parties. They were no big deal. It cost the music industry very little, even less of a hit than a day's worth of Napster sharing back when Napster was at its height of popularity. Gretchen sensed his sudden relief, and ratcheted up the volume of her considerable voice. "But like I said, this is a new kind of privacy party. The MLF mean business with this one. People are copying millions of works to the OtherNet, not just to their own systems. They are unknowingly creating the largest library of free content ever seen on this planet. It's a new Alexandria."

Marker's avatar looked up in virtual alarm. "That means the content is… will be… always available?"

"That's right," boomed the voice of Moaning from across the room. "It's the piracy party to end all piracy parties! It's the one that keeps on giving, and it goes on forever!"

Eavesdropping on this party in cyberspace, Charlie's and Tinker's avatars slapped high-fives. "Shouldn't we be in there, enjoying this celebration?" asked Tinker.

Before Charlie could answer, Eric's avatar got in close as if to whisper. "If we can eavesdrop, so can the FBI, and so can Grogan. Think about it: do you want to pop up on either one's radar right now?"

"Yeah," agreed Charlie. "Besides, this is Gretchen's show. She kept things secret for us. Let's not disturb things. We'll catch up with her in Vegas."

The party room was still going strong, but Tiffany, Moaning's date, was restless and bored. Her avatar twirled around the room, attracting Eric's attention as he watched with Tinker and Charlie. Then her avatar left to explore the maze.

Eric's avatar hovered for a moment, indecisively. "You guys should take off. The FBI is here, watching the front and back entrances, so go through the service door in the game room. I'll see you in Vegas."

"What about you?" Charlie asked Eric, but Eric's avatar was already moving quickly down the route that Tiffany's avatar had gone. The storm on the walls of the 3D room had dissipated, leaving behind a clear night sky. Eric's "mini-avatar" morphed into a butterfly held in a spotlight. The butterfly spread its wings, and flew around the room; as it flew over a section of the room, a portion of a miniature replica of the cyberclub would appear there, complete with tiny stations and the appearance of people. Little captions appeared, labelling the FBI agents. One label indicated an agent from Grogan, which put the fear into them. Charlie's avatar turned to Tinker's avatar. "Let's split."

* * *

A hand touched Charlie's shoulder, warm, pressing down. A real hand on his real shoulder. The virtual room dissolved into tiny pixels, and Charlie looked up from his screen to see Rachel standing there, hand on his shoulder, a drink in her hand.

"Hello," she teased.

"I just finished talking to Eric," Charlie said, looking up.

"So what?" she flirted. "So how is he?" she asked, serious again.

"I don't know. All I know is, the heat is here and they're after us. They're also after Eric. But he did something, made them temporarily blind, so we have a chance to split. He's already gone."

"You know Eric," Rachel smirked. "He's always on his own."

"We're all on our own," said Charlie.

The music had switched to ambient techno. Rachel's face shone above her drink like a harvest moon. Charlie longed for nothing more or less than Rachel's fragrant body draped over him. He logged out of the station. As the music swelled and developed a jungle beat, they held hands and skirted the crowd, navigating through the rush of dancers, and in the heat of the dance, without anyone seemingly noticing except Tinker, they went out the service door, Tinker following, and disappeared into the night.

* * *

Eric, his physical self, escaped the immersion body station unnoticed, and snuck through a side door into one of the unoccupied alternate control rooms for the club. He sat behind a bank of computers, darting across a row of keyboards in a rolling swivel chair and pounding mouse buttons in sync. This man behind the curtain was controlling three operations at once, while also tracing the path that Tiffany's avatar had taken, in an effort to communicate with her. He had seen her before, in his only face-to-face meeting with Moaning, and he had been bewitched into silence. Beautiful women did that to him, and he resented it.

But this beautiful woman was not someone to resent. Like an exotic butterfly, she was something to capture. She had slipped him a note at that previous meeting, just one word, and he knew it to be a special password. Indeed, the password had worked to get them into eavesdropping mode for the cyberspace party. He wanted to thank her for that bit of 'social engineering' as hackers called it. But she had dumped her avatar and had most likely escaped the club. And he still had work to do.

The MLF had its Alexandria Project, a.k.a. privacy party to end all privacy parties, going full-force now, completely protected from outside scrutiny. But Eric had piggybacked another project onto its search-out-idle-servers routine. Companies with idle servers were not just lending themselves to the largest copyright piracy act in history; they were also now being used to flood the National Security Agency's phone and data wiretaps that were operating on all international streams. Hackers everywhere were tuned in and disrupting taps with bogus phone calls and emails using trigger words. The effect was a momentary meltdown of the enforcement community's surveillance efforts all at once. Eric laughed, thinking, blame this on the Webomber. As usual, Eric left no signatures of any kind to mark his work.

Not everyone

Can carry the weight of the world

-- R.E.M., "Talk About the Passion" (Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe)

The third project was somewhat personal. The FBI's Carnivore "black box" allowed agents to bug a keyboard or remotely capture keystrokes from outside the building in one of their ubiquitous black SUVs. They could follow a trail of Web browsing, email, instant messages, whatever. But Eric had switched on a magnetic field to disrupt the electromagnetic energy the "black box" tapped into. The FBI saw nothing on their displays outside but swirling displays of computer graphics, a sort of up-to-date lava lamp.

At some point Eric knew he had to leave the club, at least physically. He had been working on a special program that could act on his behalf, a super-agent, that could mimic all his activities in proper sequence and continue the operation of all three projects -- an Eric bot. After a deliberate pause, he hit the mouse on his recording software, and the super-agent was ready. He tested it once, then switched on the autopilot. The Eric bot took over.

Quietly, stealthily, he gathered a few backup cartridges and discs, put them in his backpack, and left the room. No one saw him leave. No one knew where he was going, except those ready to receive him. Eric had contacted them a few years ago, when his research in cabals had reached dizzying heights. His father had given him the calling card, when he was 20, to use only in an emergency. The address was a mansion on Broadway in Pacific Heights, near other embassies. It was the embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) -- the Knights of Malta -- which is extraterritorial property and not subject to the laws of the host country, just as any embassy for a foreign sovereign land.

Long ago the Knights of Malta had been organized as the third oldest order of Christianity, consisting only of non-clerics, and had served as a secular infrastructure and military arm of the Vatican during the Crusades. Expelled from Turkey for fomenting political conspiracies, the order settled in Malta until the island was taken over by Napoleon. Since then, the Knights of Malta existed as a sovereign state without land, but acted mostly as a charitable organization allowing the royal families of Europe a chance to mingle with the newly rich. There were rumors that SMOM diplomatic pouches, especially ones transported from various places in South America to Los Angeles, were used in the drug trade, as it was sovereign protocol to pass these pouches through customs without inspection.

Eric knew he'd be safe in the embassy for a few days, and the Knights of Malta computers would be safe from electronic eavesdropping. The FBI had most likely found his Redwood City hideout by now, but Eric had abandoned it with time to spare. With all his files encrypted on the network, and with the most important source code hidden within songs dispersed on servers around the world, the computer hardware didn't matter anymore. He appreciated the irony of his using the Knights of Malta, a tiny pocket of sovereignty. Eric wanted to transform the Net so that each individual in the world could make himself the equivalent of a sovereign nation, untouched by local laws, unlimited in scope and power, using encryption "packets" to pass information without inspection, just like those diplomatic pouches.

Yes, Eric was about to go way beyond the MLF's concept of the OtherNet. He was about to install the software infrastructure that would guarantee secure encryption, with no "back door" for law enforcement of any type. He would create a new nation in official cyberspace that anyone could join and become a citizen. Mort Gill had kept him on a short leash, on a "need to know" basis, but Eric had his own agenda. Eric had followed the Webomber's electronic trail; he'd poked into Tinker's computer without his knowledge and read the documentation. Gill himself had let a few nuggets slip in conversation. Eric knew, for example, that the contact within Aggregate was high enough in the organization to use Bill Gittelson's own laptop and slide presentation program. That was supposedly how the initial insertion would be made, the hook to get Eric's code into the infrastructure at the control point. Once again, it involved a bit of social engineering.

Eric also knew that some of the Conduits were corrupt and at least one, Grogan, was linked to real terrorists. He suspected that another was an FBI infiltrator. They seemed to be involved in an arms race over 'back doors' to the encryption system. Eric's agenda was to undermine this roundtable of Conduits with a single, immutable infrastructure, one that could not be corrupted, one guaranteeing freedom of censorship of any kind.

Eric himself would assume the Super-Conduit role, and he would have to drop out of his normal life in order to do it. He smiled; he had already virtually dropped out, just not in name, and not in physical space.

The gates of the mansion filled him with those old-fashioned feelings of courage and destiny that were the very foundations of all the conspiracies that had existed from antiquity. The Knights of Malta, the Knights Templar, the Hasheeshin, the Jesuits, Opus Dei, and so many other orders and sects used these feelings to manipulate their members to do unspeakable acts, and to imbue them with the sense of purpose and order to the universe, however fleeting that may be. And Eric, a student of all these conspiracies, believed he was now ready to assume the role of a master.



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