by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2003, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.


16: The Key of E



When the lights went out in Vegas, the desert seemed to reclaim this bawdy Sodom and consign it to the sands of time. Vegas was completely, utterly dark, with tiny stars of headlights like fireflies, dancing around freeway overpasses and lining major arteries, trying to escape the black hole that occupied the phyical and moral center of Las Vegas. It was as if the desert had taken over again with a vengeance, wiping out years of development, shrouding the housing tracts in a cloak of blackness.

The Pyramid light that usually shined into outer space was, of course, suddenly extinguished. It took about half an hour before all of Vegas was restored and the Pyramid beam was turned back on. Beings from the planet Ononotthemagain, completely out of sight orbiting the planet Neptune but monitoring that section of Earth known as Area 51, interpreted the sudden change in the beam's consistent illumination as a signal. The humans on Earth had never before recognized intelligent life outside their own planet, but perhaps they were ready now. Perhaps the blink near Area 51 had been an invitation. The Ononotthemagains resolved in a special meeting that plans would be drawn up to make their next visit to Earth openly, in full view. They would forge a relationship with humans. They would read to them passages from the human race's esteemed philosopher, Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a text that was essential for their explorations. Oh yes, this visit would be much different than previous Earth visits, in which they posed as members of a French team of stem-cell researchers with a laboratory at the South Pole. The deception had proved to be quite successful, as they were able to visit with scientists all over Earth without arousing suspicion with their eccentricities. But now was clearly the time for First Contact. They scheduled the visit for the year 2010, to commemorate yet another great Earth philosopher.

* * *

As a true Adept, Eric was in awe of the power of coincidence. He was also a student of Murphy's Law, paraphrased as "if something could go wrong, it will go wrong." The number of people involved in this MLF operation increased the Murphy's Law factor exponentially. He always knew that if you wanted to do something right, you had to do it yourself.

This operation involved the insertion of special code into the Internet backbone at a control point that would affect the entire West Coast, and allow hooks for Eric's version of the OtherNet, the one true OtherNet, to be implemented. At some point, unnoticed by the rest of the world (so preoccupied would they be with other attacks), strong encryption would be initialized, creating an encrypted network on top of the existing one, interleaved within the data streams of the existing one, virtually indecipherable. A totally secure OtherNet would be formed, with no back doors and only two known Conduits and Eric as the SuperConduit. The planned electronic skim on the casino networks would divert a decent-sized stream of revenue into numbered Cayman bank accounts without a trace. Those accounts were for Eric, Charlie, Tinker, Gretchen, Gooky, the Bill clone, and Rachel Smolder.

This backbone control point, located a few miles from Pahrump, Nevada, only about 50 miles from the decoy site, in a wide flat valley criss-crossed with power poles and dotted with satellite dishes, in a bunker the size of a rural ammunition depot… this was the real target. Moaning and the MLF had been counting on its Aggregate insider; only Charlie and Gretchen knew that Eric might have another plan.

The power blackout in Vegas and the surrounding areas had provided him a way to get inside the main gate at the bunker. He surprised the guard at the entrance and made short work of tying up the technician inside. He reached the main computer console and inserted a CD he'd brought with him. As the power came back on, the console restarted and booted the CD, and the insertion was successful.

* * *

In the darkness and confusion of the casinos right after the power outage, people were screaming and bumping into each other as their eyes tried to adjust to sudden, inky blackness. For a full minute there was pandemonium. Then, hotel and casino emergency lights and exit lights came on, piercing the darkness, catching people in the act of stealing chips from the gambling tables. Security guards blockaded the exits and searched people as they filtered their way to the blackness outside, where the only lights were headlights of cars stalled in traffic jams.

When the lights came back on, and every computer in Vegas rebooted, hundreds of bots developed by Eric for the MLF scurried about the Las Vegas node of the Net gathering pertinent data from each of the casino's computer systems. In the movie Ocean's Eleven, the character played by Sammy Davis Jr. drove the trash truck loaded with the goods out of town. In this caper, the monetary data traveled at light speed without any garbage collection. Billions of dollars were transferred in an instant to offshore bank accounts, and passwords were collected for future access. Eric's diversion for his own accounts left no tracks.

* * *

"So, is it a heist? What is it?" The beefy US Marshall followed the younger National Security Agency staffer into the Quonset hut in the desert outskirts of Las Vegas, where the enforcement agency big shots were meeting to coordinate activities.

"We don't know yet," said the NSA staffer. "We know only that the different groups working together are doing things for different reasons."

"What's that supposed to mean?" The Marshall was naturally suspicious of these government hacker types, especially ones with goatees.

"It means what it means," said the staffer. "From what I've heard, the Media Liberation Front are a bunch of idiots -- they're just looking for attention. Peter Moaning took over the group, and with Ted Anson's funding from somewhere, most likely the Smolder Foundation, instigated this operation. But he had help; we're not sure from where, and it could have even come from our own ranks," he paused, raising his eyebrows, then continued, his goatee twitching as he talked. "Moaning had been contacted by Grogan, so we know that Grogan's network was involved. The FBI had a man on the case, Ray Cheney, and he is now missing, presumably undercover. He was also looking into Rob Smolder's disappearance. We don't have anything on that now, though." He paused again, this time with a downcast look. "Our servers behind the firewall were hit last week, we think by the Webomber. We lost all our files on Smolder."

"Jeez, is there any sense to it?"

"Yeah, there is, if you follow O'Brien. I think he's the one masterminding the heist part of it. Supposedly the FBI's man has been on this guy from the beginning."

"Hmm." The Marshall looked thoughtful. "So, what are they gonna steal, besides the loot from the casinos?"

"Beats me. Must be a high tech scam of some kind."

The senior director from the National Security Agency had the podium. The assembled enforcement agency men -- not one woman in the entire group -- sat fidgeting on metal fold-up chairs, and the noise of all this movement sounded like one large squeaky wheel.

"We arrived too late," the director said with a sigh. "The perpetrators have dispersed, presumably with new identities."

He paused as the fidgeting squeak quieted down.

"They left behind a Web site with dossiers on each member of the group, a group that called itself the Media Liberation Front, or MLF. You can go to each member's diary, or biography, or whatever. Some of them wrote about themselves in the third person; they're a pretty eccentric group. All of them joined more or less permanently about a year ago. We suspect the group of being responsible for at least half of the Web attacks of the past year, and for the mass uprising of pirate media sites on what they call the OtherNet, which at this point is just a collection of offshore servers that we've successfully isolated from the real Internet."

There was a bit of murmuring on that factoid, until the NSA director cleared his throat.

"You can find information at the MLF's Web site. In particular, you are all encouraged to play a game you can download from the site. When you play the game, you have to find the informant, or as they say in the game, 'throw the switch on the witch,' in a certain amount of time before the informant finds you. There are at least seven levels; unless you have encryption experience and training, you should start at level 1."

The director paused, and the crowd started murmuring again. The director cleared his throat louder, to get their attention.

"Everyone, please note: there is an extraordinary amount of detail in this game, which we now know was developed by the MLF in conjunction with Mort Gill and an independent hacker named Eric Mauer, who is still missing. The game offers blueprints for taking down the entire Internet."

At this point there was quite a lot of fidgeting, and the NSA man nearly lost his voice groaning to get their attention.

"In fact, gentlemen, the game unveils one of the biggest secrets of the Internet. It mathematically models the current real-world Internet and identifies a set of just five electronically vulnerable sites that, if compromised, would take down the five Internet backbones, essentially disconnecting most of the next tier from each other."

"One of the campaigns in the game is extremely sophisticated, and everyone should take note of it. It involves an assault virus carrying a destructive payload, capable of making PC drives unusable and the data on their drives anything between inaccessible and gone forever. Further, consistent with the messages used in the last major attack from the Alpha terrorist group, it overwrites key files and displays a message box that says, 'Another haughty bloodsucker… You think you are god, but you are only a chunk of shit'. My apologies for the language, but that is verbatim."

A wave of nervous laughter swept through the audience, reviving at least temporarily the smug attitudes that law enforcement officers have about the criminal element and how stupid criminals often are. But this smugness dissipated in the face of the complex scenario presented by the NSA man.

"We believe that there will be an extremely widespread assault involving the simultaneous release of five-to-six times more new threats than the virus companies can handle, which is currently, I believe, 50-70 per day in what they call their 'routine mode'. We believe these viruses will be combined with address-book-poaching worms as carriers. We believe the perpetrators will use the currently available spam lists as a first-burst measure, but they will also hack the antiviral pattern files, so that the often automatic act of fetching updates could become a vehicle for delivering the damage."

The NSA man allowed that thought to sink in for a second, then he leaned against the podium with his elbows, hunkering down as if delivering the end of a sermon. "Folks, we have a lot to go on. We've received early warnings of anomalous packet events, strange packet patterns that might be interpreted as probes of a sort that could reasonably precede an unspecified denial of service assault."

A murmur spread through the audience, but was quickly hushed.

"But folks, we also know the MLF's action, which knocked out power and Internet access for all of Las Vegas for a short while, did not in fact harm any of the five vulnerability points. Something must have failed in their plans, and apparently that's why the FBI's man hasn't reported in yet. Now, we don't have the resources in the next few hours to cover all points, some of which are in this country and others on foreign soil, but we are moving as fast as we can do so as soon as possible. In fact, we have just learned that a special FBI task force has been dispatched to a location only about fifty miles from here, which happens to be one of these vulnerability points."

* * *

Outside the hut, nearly a quarter of a mile away, Mal Contour sat in Brendan Barcode's self-sufficient, solar-powered Econoline van loaded with electronics gear, using his latest gadget that Barcode had somehow scored from his hacker network. It could re-create, out in his van, the pictures on a computer screen over a quarter of a mile away from its electromagnetic energy. Combined with the high-powered long distance microphone, Contour could hear the entire NSA man's speech and see his presentation.

Contour could not believe what he was hearing and seeing. Barcode, of course, had gone apeshit, raving on about conspiracies and the Webomber and Smolder's disappearance and how everything is linked. Well, Barcode could rave on forever and no one would take him seriously.

Contour, on the other hand, had quite a story to tell, but he feared that no one really wanted to hear it. The NSA man had said, "the often automatic act of fetching updates could become a vehicle for delivering the damage." As people tried to prevent infection, they would instead increase that infection.

Indeed, this was a parable for spread of Western civilization itself. Fundamentalist terrorists around the world were trying to beat it back, even resorting to Western technology to beat it back. It was as if they were desparately using as weapons the shovels they would need to dig their own graves. There simply was no escape.

* * *

At first it seemed as if nothing had happened. The power came on, and the Internet was back up on everyone's machine in Vegas looking the same as it always did. The tradeshow computers presented the Media Liberation Front's message, 'Click on This', and many people did. "Why not?" asked a booth bunny. Why not introduce a little mystery into your life?

The virus attacks set up by the MLF were not successful beyond the Vegas networks, but the attacks were monitored diligently by the enforcement agencies by a worm that reported back to a specially encrypted site. The first entity to log on to that site would be the initial suspect. The NSA man was statistically certain of it. But he grunted when he found out that the first log-on was Andy Ames, checking into his Aggregate account with what he thought was a secure password. They secured his log-on location and sent in a team of agents, but the NSA man knew it was the wrong guy -- someone had pranked Ames by diverting his log-on sequence to the MLF site. Aggregate was probably monitoring the situation for security reasons, and the company was probably monitoring the NSA's activities at that moment.

Andy Ames had nearly shit in his pants when he was first handcuffed at Caesar's Palace, but he held on to his reserve. Sure enough, within minutes he realized that the Feds had him for something else. They didn't know about his connection with SWLABR, and how he had consistently fed the assassination organization the logistical information it needed. Andy had dodged a bullet. Within days he would disappear, and even Aggregate Networks would not be able to locate him.

The next person to log on, from his self-sufficient solar-powered mobile van in the desert not far from the enforcement compound, a person who never ran out of power, was Brendan Barcode. Unfortunately for Brendan, this would make him the likely suspect. Swarms of police surrounded his van, and Brendan and Mal Contour stepped out into the cool desert night and had the cuffs slapped on them.

* * *

Rachel Smolder scanned the dark horizon from the control post in the Armagosa Valley ranch, dubbed Ground Decoy, using night-vision binoculars. A column of vehicles was crossing the desert, followed by low-flying blinking helicopters attracted like wasps to a stream of soda water. The FBI team was streaking across the nighttime desert toward them.

Rachel had used an old pay phone at the nearby country store to make a call to a public phone in a café in Jamaica, near Blue Mountain. Perhaps it had been traced. But that was not her worry now. The FBI was closing in. She would happily give them Moaning and any information they needed about Grogan. But she didn't trust their competence and was afraid they'd track down Charlie. Above all, she needed to get to Charlie, and get away.

She turned to the notebook attached to the makeshift network and printer, and opened a document she'd been keeping for just this moment, a document that would explain a lot of things and divert attention from her. She hit the print key, and left the tent, making eye contact with Gretchen that said, the time is now. She hopped on her motorcycle and took off.

Gretchen got Gooky's attention and commandeered a Jeep. Word spread quickly through the camp, creating enough of a diversion to allow Gretchen and Gooky to escape. By the time the FBI convoy showed up, most of them had fled by Jeep, car, cycle, or on foot, scattering in all directions into the desert that, two decades earlier, had been a home for the Charlie Manson family.

* * *

As far as Peter Moaning knew, the operation had been a failure. He was handcuffed in the passenger seat of Cheney's Jeep, in the midst of a full FBI invasion of the dusty camp. In the glare of headlights, Cheney showed him Rachel's document.

"Sez here, you're the one connected with Grogan," said Cheney.

"That's bullshit. Mort Gill brought him to me," said Moaning.

"Ahh, well, Mort Gill…" laughed Cheney. "We don't know which side he's on, do we?"

"Gill doesn't take sides," said Moaning, then looked up at Cheney. "What do you care? It was a failure. Grogan didn't get his encrypted network."

"And you didn't get millions from the casinos," said Cheney. He didn't mention that his hackers had recovered 90 percent, leaving 10 percent of the revenue, roughly $50 million, unaccounted for. "But we need to find Eric Mauer, Charlie O'Brien, and Andrew Tinker. And, for good measure, Rachel Smolder, the writer of this letter. Do you think they're planning an operation on their own?"

Moaning rolled his eyes. The thought had crossed his mind. Eric was certainly capable of it.

"And what does this mean, in this document," asked Cheney, "'Whatever the software encrypts becomes free. You can't reverse the process.' What does that mean?"

"It means," laughed Moaning, "that you can't stop it. I think Eric is up to something, but I don't think Grogan will have any advantage, and neither will you."

* * *

Charlie had met Tinker at the rendezvous behind the Hilton, near the Sports Book, and they had booked it up Sahara away from the Strip and its traffic jams to Highway 95, which gave them access to the desert road that would take them to Pahrump, where they expected to rendezvous with Eric.

An hour later they were parked along a two-lane blacktop off the main highway, about 200 yards from the hub compound which was surrounded by a chain link fence and barbed wire.

"Charlie, what's the deal?" Tinker, sitting in the back seat, put his hand on Charlie's shoulder. "What's next?"

"I've got to check the perimeter. Stay here. If Eric shows up, give him this." Charlie handed him a silver CD-R, and dashed off around the side of the fence into the darkness.

Tinker sat in the Jeep for what seemed like an eternity. The CD-R given to him by the FBI was still in his pocket. Tinker was not ready for this. It was like looking at cracks in a windshield about to explode, looking at his world at this moment. How could he be here, sitting in this Jeep like this, involved in some kind of wildly criminal act, involved with terrorists for Christ's sake? How could he betray his long-time friend?

Tinker knew that Charlie's alternative plan was not so ambitious as to bring down the world's Internet, and as far as he knew, it was not driven by some foreign terrorist network. But they were in Eric's hands now. Shouldn't he cooperate with the FBI? Maybe Charlie's been duped as well… He sat there, sweating in the cool night air, trying to put it together.

Then Tinker remembered. There was only one person he could really trust. In a panic, he looked around the Jeep and under blankets, looking for a place to hide the FBI's CD-R. Under a blanket on the floor in the back, he discovered the semi-automatic rifle.


* * *

Eric was confident in his moment of clarity. It is the moment when everything falls into place, and nothing is beyond his grasp. When he runs through the finish line ahead of everyone else. When the code he is writing suddenly works. Something akin to a religious ecstasy, a literary epiphany, the crystal clear awareness of his life, in real time. And now it was time to make the journey that had been always been his destiny.

He sat in the bunker, hunched over the main computer console, furiously tapping the keys to install the One True OtherNet from CD into the machine, getting it all in before the world came tumbling down around him. He heard noises outside that almost distracted him. Is this what it's like? Is this Death, arriving at some inopportune moment while he could still hear life outside, while he could still somehow resist it, and join the others, outside? Does Death come for people like this, wrenching them away from the controls, while they can still hear a world going on outside? He hoped, instead, for an unequivocal moment, a pushing of one side to the other, perfectly binary. Nothing messy to interfere with, to keep him from focusing on the clarity of the moment.

The Eric personality bot was fully developed now. He had fully transmuted a cyberspace avatar into a container for a life's worth of knowledge. His avatar identity could populate the Net, doing things it wanted to do of its own volition, learning as it went, perhaps even improving the system wherever it went.

Now all Eric needed to do was let it go, let his identity flow into the machine, out into the Net. He was prepared to leave his body if he had to; he had studied Eastern meditation and Western monasticism, had worked his life in code, both sacred and programmatic. He believed the cybernetic facets of Earth culture to be something inherited, more or less, from cultures out in space that may have colonized this planet a million years before. He believed his essence, in code, would travel to those far distant worlds.

The noise outside grew louder, distracting him. He put on headphones, still tapping furiously. Not a moment too soon, he clicked the last bit off to the Net, and turned just in time to see a flash of light as the power came on, and the door opened.

"Hey man!" It was Charlie.

Eric sagged in his chair. "Man, you freaked me out."

"So is it done?"

Eric nodded in exhaustion. "Everything but the charges for the explosives," he said, pointing at his pack.

"What about the CD I was supposed to give you? From Grogan? And what about the insider? He didn't have a chance to insert the hooks."

"Forget that. I took care of everything. Now get lost. I'm starting the charges. Don't wait for me. Just take off." Eric turned to his knapsack.

* * *

Outside, Charlie came back to find Tinker standing there with the rifle in his hand.

"I see you found it," Charlie smirked. "Now you finally understand. I mean business."

Tinker smiled. The tension of the moment relaxed a few degrees. "There's something I forgot to tell you."

There was a rustling in the darkness, as two people came down the road and into view, one of them dragging their feet. It was Rachel dragged by the FBI agent Tinker had met before.

"Yes there is something he forgot to tell you," the agent said in a commanding voice, pulling a whimpering Rachel by her elbow. "My name is Cheney. And I'm from the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

"You mean Incompetence," Rachel hissed at him. "Fraudulent Bureau of Incompetence. You let Grogan escape while you are out here chasing us."

"Now now," Cheney chuckled. "We all make mistakes." He looked over at Tinker. "Now Mr. Tinker, you're not going to make a mistake, are you?"

Tinker held the rifle askew against his hip, like a picture of the revolutionary hero Che Guevera, his hand on the grip and his finger on the trigger. It felt so light, almost like a toy… such a marvel of engineering, a tool of such immense power but so little weight. Wielding it seemed to carry no responsibility. In this moment of madness, Tinker looked up and grinned. Everyone was looking at him. Suddenly the gun went off.

Everyone dived for cover. "Yo, man!" was all that Charlie could say. Tinker threw the gun in a ditch and also dived for cover.

There was a moment of silence. Then, an explosion rocked the desert, and the bunker was obliterated. Rachel choked at the sight, freeing herself from Cheney and clutching at Charlie. Could Eric have survived? And if he was gone… If he had time to implement his plan… His "entity" would occupy the Net. Eric would be… in the Net. Rachel truly wanted to believe this. Eric's very soul embodied in code, adapting to its environment, learning how to evade detection, and continuing to provide new keys to keep encryption safe. A true ghost in the machine.

Cheney dashed over to the rubble that was all that remained of the bunker. Charlie, seeing Cheney go, looked over at Tinker, who was shaking in the ditch, and clutched Rachel harder. "We've got to split now. Right now!"

* * *

Good old-fashioned explosives -- they'll work every time. Eric had suffered a sprained ankle and a few bruises, but he was OK, hiding in the underbrush near the bunker, watching Cheney poke through the rubble. Finally Cheney stopped poking and looked around. "Eric!" He shouted. "I know you can hear me! Eric!"

Eric didn't answer.

"Listen Eric, the troops are coming. If you help me, I can help you escape. All I need is the password for the song you sent out, 'Escape Key'. All I need is the password."

But Eric wouldn't answer. He had studied the ways of the jackrabbit in the desert and knew how to survive. The FBI troop convoy arrived, raising a huge cloud of dust, making it quite easy for Eric to make his getaway.

With no more responsibilities and a new identity to assume, Eric had resolved in his mind to go, and keep going, until he found a beautiful woman with the intelligence to leave him be, someone like that Tiffany he had met before. He would head north and west, to Independence California, where he could find a motel, plug in his laptop, and get started with this new identity kit.

Cheney searched the surrounding brush looking for Eric. He really didn't care that the rest of them had split with the Jeep. The others probably didn't know the password anyway. Eric was the key. But when he finally reached a clump of tumbleweed with a piece of paper attached to it, he cursed. On it was one word: "swordfish". Now he had nothing. He'd fallen into the same trap as his brethren in law enforcement, and he had nothing.


* * *

An hour later, as the false dawn streaked the horizon over the high desert, Charlie pulled over at a deserted gas station on Highway 95 south of Beatty. Charlie drove Rachel's motorcycle with Rachel on back, and Tinker drove the Jeep following him.

Charlie spoke directly to Tinker, who sat in the driver's seat of the Jeep among the strewn electronics gear and debris, like St. Francis of Assisi presiding over the birds and animals. "They're gonna keep following us," said Charlie. "We're gonna have to split up for a while."

Tinker was afraid, the fear suddenly pausing the blood flow in his body. "What am I supposed to do now?"

Charlie was unfazed. "Well, Tink, that gun play was brilliant. Now the FBI will think we're terrorists."

"I didn't know the safety was off!" Tinker's blood started to flow again. "Is there a safety on it?" He asked meekly.

"Tink, godammit, you should have checked first!"

"Enough," interrupted Rachel, frowning at her immature partners. "Let's get down to business."

"Right," said Charlie, regaining his composure. "Tink, we have accounts set up. You have an account too. It won't be traced." He reached out to Tinker, grasping his hand and arm. "This is our chance. This is our key… to escape!"

"You realize," said Tinker, "if this guy Grogan ever does find us…"

"We're dead." Charlie stared back at Tinker. A chill passed between them. Then Charlie broke the spell, pawing the ground with his foot. "All the more reason to split up. You take the Jeep."

"Alright, let's get it together," said Rachel, organizing the packs. Charlie distributed Identity Kit CDs, created by Gretchen from Eric's original version of ICE, the one that had been encrypted within the song "Escape Key" and dispersed across the Net. "Here's the new identity kit, and here are your account numbers. Ten million dollars in each account." She paused to let that sink in. Tinker let out a low whistle. Rachel smiled at him. "I knew you'd come around."

"Use the numbers only after you've established your new identity," Charlie warned Tinker. "It takes about a day for the kit to do its thing, requesting birth certificates, social security numbers, and so on. And if you screw up your next life," he laughed, "the kit lets you set up at least 20 more identities before any danger of a trace can occur. So you have 20 lives. Use them well."

Tinker didn't respond. He just stared at a point out in the wide-open desert.

"You know what's going on," Charlie almost pleaded for his respect. "We're the good guys. We're a team. We helped establish an uncensored network, and the entire world will benefit from it. We sidestepped the bad guys and took their money. It's as simple as that."

"I know it." Tinker said, then swore into the wind. "But it's a bad fucking situation for Eric, isn't it?"

Charlie and Rachel were silent as Tinker brooded. "Look, maybe Eric made it out," said Charlie after a while. "Maybe he's already on his way to someplace else."

"Like Jamaica?" said Rachel, her eyes glittering.

Charlie seemed satisfied with her response and turned back to Tinker. "OK. The plan is to scatter. We won't meet again -- not for a while. Take on your new identity. Don't try to contact us. Wait for a sign on a Web site dedicated to the Beatles. You know the URL, the one with all the 'Paul is dead' clues."

Tinker took on a sudden interest. "So you are… you know who the Webomber is?"

Charlie shook his head. "I never needed to know. All I know is, whoever it is, he or she, I don't know and I don't care. The Webomber's still watching over us. You'll get a signal, maybe six months, maybe a year."

The wind shivered through them, taking all their secrets away. They didn't look at each other. The desert was calling for them.

Charlie spoke first to Tinker. "Go northwest, toward Death Valley." He paused. "This is it. We did it, we hijacked the starship. Now we're on our own planet. You hear me? We really did it."

But Tinker seemed unconvinced. Charlie didn't look back as he walked over to Rachel's motorcycle and hopped on behind her. She looked back, though, with a smile. Then she gunned the motorcycle and took off with Charlie northeast, towards Beatty. Tinker started the Jeep and headed off toward Death Valley.

We are leaving

You don't need us.

-- Crosby Stills & Nash, "Wooden Ships" (David Crosby, Paul Kantner, Steve Stills)


* * *


"It's about creating a new Internet, above the current Internet," said Mort Gill to the class of elite software engineers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, the morning after the power outage nearly 500 miles away in Las Vegas. "One that adheres to new standards for encryption. One that permits all types of commerce across all borders of all countries -- completely unregulated. As the forces of darkness lay waste to the Internet frontier, we create a new one."

The students were at full attention, and many nodded in agreement.

"It's about flattening all countries into one. It's about floating above the mess of this world, creating a New World Order that is not hemmed in by nationalistic ferver or corrupted by private interests. It's about creating a resistance movement that recognizes the Earth itself as the only 'country' worth fighting for."

Again, the murmurs of approval, the nodding of heads in agreement.

"And yet, we are human. Once everyone logged onto the OtherNet, they found basically the same things. The stuff that people make; that ordinary humans conceive. We haven't yet transcended human nature, human fallibilty. We may have reached a new level of security awareness and strong encryption, but there are many more levels to go to reach any sort of nirvana we might recognize. This new level looks the same, and offers the same temptations for corruption."

The students were silent, trying to grasp what this meant.

"But we must keep moving forward," Gill continued, "challenging these people who presume to have power over the flow of information. We must recognize the enemy, and the enemy's propaganda. For example, here's a quote from the president of one of the largest music labels. 'Once consumers can no longer get free music, they will have to buy the music in the formats we choose to put out.' And what happens when consumers revolt? Here's what happens: Those who create the tools to hack these formats will be treated as terrorists. But what the entertainment industry doesn't yet realize is that this reaction is a recipe for its own destruction. Fighting your customers is a sure path toward failure."

Mort Gill waited for all this to sink in, and scanned the back rows of the classroom for the FBI undercover agent he had recognized before. Spotting them was so easy. There, there he is. Gill smiled right at him, and continued his speech.

"And so I quote that famous refrain, sung so long ago for another era but now updated for this time and place…"

Meet the new Net!

Same as the old Net!


* * *

By morning, out in the desert, the Bill clone had grown weary of Tiffany's talk about her lonely, destitute life, so he pulled over in the dusty parking lot in the sagebrush outpost of Olancha, near Death Valley. He stopped the car and just sat there.

"You know, I read somewhere that there are now more than 300 billionaires on the planet," she went on, her voice sticky as if she were chewing cellophane. "Just a decade ago there were only 50." She paused for effect. The Bill clone just stared off into the desert. "I guess that's what happened to the War on Poverty. The rich won it." She smiled at him, fondling the gearshift.

Mark, the Bill clone, looked at her like she was an accessory, a premium with the rental package. Convertible, FM stereo, power steering, cruise control, ample breasts bulging out of a tight dress. "Everything's OK," he said to her. "But I gotta go off by myself now."

"Oh," she caught her breath, looking around, frowning. "But what about me? I thought you were taking me somewhere."

He looked westward toward the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Mt. Whitney dominating the horizon with its snowcap gleaming in the sun.

"You're not gonna leave me out here in the desert, are you?" she asked with a catch in her throat.

"Where do you want to go?" he asked her, a headache starting to peek from behind his words.

"Well I certainly don't wanna be left here," she said crisply. "This is Charlie Manson country."

"Don't worry," he reassured her. "I'll see to it that you get somewhere."

"C'mon," she lowered her voice to a catlike purr. "I thought you were rich, the richest guy in America. You can afford to take me with you, can't you?"

The Bill clone looked eastward, out into the desert. The beauty of it was indescribably lonely, the wind blowing sand cones pirouetting in the bleak sunlight. Yes, he could do anything, or nearly anything. The corporate credit card and driver's license were fake, but they worked, and the credit limit was high enough to fly them around the world. But he just didn't want to be with her right now, or with anyone. He needed to get this woman immediately off to her destination, before she could make his life complicated.

He got out, walked over to a phone booth, called United Airlines, and made a reservation for Larry McNealy from Las Vegas to Jamaica. Then he called the limo service Aggregate Networks used in Vegas, and arranged to be picked up at the Olancha Motor Inn later that evening.

"Hey, what's your last name?" he shouted from the phone booth at her.

"My real name is Rosemary DeSantis," she shouted back.

He made the Motor Inn reservation in her name, and came back to the car. "It's simple," he told her, and she brightened up. "We stay in Olancha tonight, at the Inn. Or at least, that's where I'm staying until I get picked up tonight. You can stay, or leave, as you wish. With the car, I might add."

"I can keep the car? It's a rental."

"Well…" he paused. "I might as well tell you. It's rented for an entire week. You don't even need to return it to the same city. In fact, here's a trick. You don't even have to return the car to the rental lot. Just park it in the airport departure zone where the skycaps pick up your bags, and leave the key in it."

"Wow," she said. "Never thought of that. You'll call it in stolen, right?"

"No, it's something Bill -- " he caught himself. "Something I do all the time," he said. "And it works. The rental company sends someone to pick it up -- that's all. I don't even pay the parking tickets. My secretary calls, and says I would have missed the plane otherwise. They never complain."

"Wow," she repeated.

"No," he laughed. "They never complain about what rich people do."

She smiled and looked down at the gearshift, blushing slightly.

"So… I guess it's goodbye, unless you want to stay awhile," he said, looking off at the desert.

She got out and walked around the car, then looked back at him. She gave him a look up and down. "Billionaire, huh? Well I don't think so. A millionaire's enough for me." Then she made perhaps the smartest decision she had ever made in her life. "Well, I think I'll move on up the road in this here red Chevy convertible. Thanks anyway, mister, but who knows, maybe I'll meet a millionaire in the next town. What is it?" She looked up the highway at the sign. "Next town, Independence."

And without any further word or even a look back, Tiffany drove off to Independence. About twenty miles up the road she saw a hitchhiker, and was startled to recognize him. It was Eric, a bit weathered, smiling at his good fortune.

* * *

The MLF had scattered, leaving behind enough incriminating evidence to jail the entire Northwest chapter of Earth First along with them. But they had adopted new identities and disappeared, leaving the Earth First members to deal with the long arm of the law.

Ray Cheney, promoted to bureau chief for Northern California, continued to file reports on ongoing hacker activities that needed to be pursued and characters that needed to be brought to justice. He had weathered the storms created around his unorthodox procedures in Las Vegas and had paid off the hackers who were threatening to expose his smoking habit.

Ted Anson emerged unscathed, still in charge of the Smolder Foundation (which had recently received a huge grant from Aggregate Networks). He continued as an investor in Silicon Valley, this whole episode ending up as nothing more than a blip in his life.

Aggregate Networks beefed up its espionage unit, despite its horrendous failure at security. Never again would the company outsource its most important surveillance work. Andy Ames had exposed the company, and his audio specialist, Dan Rose, had disappeared with valuable recordings. Rose had dropped out entirely, not even bothering to pick up any personal belongings from his Menlo Park cottage. The only proof that he survived was an email he sent to Andy a few days later, just a quick note: "Give in… to the grin!"

Mort Gill continued to give speeches around the country about the need for freedom to use personal encryption software. His company's stock quadrupled in value in six months as sales skyrocketed. Meanwhile, thousands of gambling and porn sites were deployed on OtherNet servers around the world, financed by anonymous investors through Cayman Island bank accounts.

Rumors circulated about an electronic version of Eric roaming the Internet, with copies of the source code for the One True OtherNet stashed in secret locations, including one embedded in the music stream for the song "Escape Key", which reached number 10 on the Web radio Top 40 and stayed there for three weeks. With a bullet.

No more reason for strife…

It's just a blip in the life.

-- Flying Other Brothers, "Blip in the Life" (T.Bove/G.E. Smith)

* * *

"Boss, don't go down 'dere today." Ben the rastaman was squatting by the hut entrance, the canyons of Blue Mountain behind him misting in the morning Jamaican sun, handing the aging white bearded hippie a large spliff. "Bumba clot! The Man, he is everywhere. Maybe he go away real soon, but not now boss."

The aging hippie took a huge hit off the spliff, coughed, and handed it back. "It's not a problem, my friend. I don't need to make any more phone calls. Take my laptop and these discs and destroy them. I have no need for them anymore."

"You gone! Laptop's worth money, mon. Can I-mon keep it?"

"No, Ben. It's evidence. Incriminating evidence. You must destroy the discs and the laptop."

Ben thought about this for awhile, then took another hit off the spliff. "No more calls from your woman?"

"She's got a new life now," said the aging hippie, smiling back. "She will carry on without me. The transition, my friend," he beckoned for another hit off the spliff, "it worked. Everybody's happy. Everybody 'cept the Man."

"Bumba clot! The Man is never happy."

How true. The aging hippie sat and smoked with his friend. But he couldn't resist one more showing of his most creative project. "Ben, my friend," he grinned wildly, the grin he always used when he gave demonstrations to corporate sponsors. "Did you ever see my best work? Let me show you." He slipped one of the discs, a DVD-R, into the laptop and started the movie.

The soundtrack was Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" (Syd Barrett) from the live album Ummagumma. There was Rob and Rachel Smolder preparing a dummy. "We used water-soluble clothing and lead weights," he interjected. As the sound effects in the song reached a crescendo, the scene changed to Rob driving his car south on 101 through the Waldo Grade Tunnel and onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Then it panned to another car, pulling into the vista point parking lot on the Marin side. Dan Rose, their friend from Menlo Park, got out of the car and carried a large sack over to the bridge's pedestrian walkway.

The soundtrack moved on to "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" (Waters, Wright, Mason, and Gilmour) from the same album. During the musical buildup, Rob walked from the San Francisco side to the bridge and up the pedestrian walkway to the halfway point. The camera panned, then, to Dan Rose, carrying the sack and then pulling out the dummy, dressed to look like Smolder. As the screeching part of the song reached its climax (during which, presumably, Eugene wasn't careful with that axe), the two threw the dummy over the railing, and the camera angle changed to show the body falling into the raging waters of the Golden Gate.

The song dissolved into "Saucerful of Secrets" from the same album, with its stately finale resolving all paradoxes. An edit of the previous scenes appeared, with filters added to make the picture more like the result of a handheld camera. Rob Smolder was on the bridge walkway, looking over the edge of the railing, as seen from the San Francisco parking lot. One of his legs appeared to be going over the railing, then his entire body turned so that only his back was visible. The rest was the footage of the dummy falling.

"Bumba clot! That's you, mon!"

"Ben," he chuckled, "Listen, I want you to do something with this. Don't destroy this disc." He took it out of the laptop. "Instead, mail it to this address. I think this guy would appreciate it. I want to give it to him, a kind of reward for his efforts." He wrote the address of Mal Contour, care of the Bay Radical, on a manila envelope.

"Yah mon, I take it for you." Ben was very happy with his new assignment. "We are part of the revolution, mon. The revolution is happening! And we play a big part, right mon?"

"Yes mon," chuckled Rob Smolder, the aging hippie, leaning back into his hammock. "Big part!"

"Now what you gonna do man?"

"Don't you know, Ben?" Smolder took a long drag of the spliff. "Of course you know. Why do you think that yacht is waiting for me, down in Negril?"

"Boss, dat boat goin' out tomorrow night!"

"That's right, my friend," Rob sighed. "I'm gonna be on that boat. I'm going back to my island, my kingdom. Where I'll be completely safe, and so will the biggest library in the world, the only uncensored one. My lush paradise, just off the Florida Keys, outside American territory, in the Caribbean Sea halfway to Cuba."

"Yah mon, I know dat island."

"Yes, and we have a new name for it: Escape Key."

* * *

Tinker stepped on the accelerator. The Jeep seemed uncomfortable on this paved asphalt, unable to flex its muscles. Its gyration-prone wheels seemed bored on the highway through Death Valley, which offered no more than a few bumps. The Jeep seemed depressed, even, with the need to be restrained for this drive. It needed to venture out into the rough and tumble desert.

He stopped at Zabriskie Point, not far from Furnace Creek in Death Valley, one of Charlotte's favorite places. A Sixties exploitation movie of little consequence had been filmed there, and Charlotte had bought three copies for some reason. There was no point to it, just like there was no point in filming a movie about the Sixties at Zabriskie Point. It was a spur of the moment thing. It's amazing what people will do in any given moment, given the uncertainty of the messages we receive from the world.

Tinker drove the Jeep up a steep incline until it could go no further. He got out and carried a canteen and some candy bars up a steep canyon to a crumbling ledge overlooking the valley. And sat down. The world shimmered before him, alive but unmoving, changing but staying the same. The desert looked a bit like Silicon Valley except that everyone had escaped and the buildings had crumbled and dissolved into caked, dried mud. There were no black clouds following him. Stocks, schemes, technology -- all meaningless out here. He had finally escaped. Into what he had escaped, he couldn't decide. According to Charlie he was rich, yes, but that fantasy had yet to gain market share of his mind. The relentless tragic desert wind scalloped his thoughts, leaving a blank canvas, and as his eyes followed a dust devil his mind spiraled down into a catatonic state, reaching some point of meditation that few in his world of family and friends knew about, perhaps only his great-uncle Adam, the closet catatonic who'd lived through the most interesting century of the human race without ever learning its messages, encrypted as they were in stuff we've come to call reality.

And Tinker stared at the desert for hours, and the hours became days.


* * *


Charlotte and the kids had grown weary in San Diego at her mother's house creating a new kind of chaos her mother could only frown at, waiting for word from Tinker. She had put aside the scorecard of his indiscretions. If he never called back, wellŠ wasn't it obvious? Maybe he had found himself another life, and that's just what she should do. As she moved quickly through decisions and took out the credit card that was about to expire, she felt smart. Confident. For once in her life. And she went out and put a down payment on a brand new Winnebago. She loaded up the kids and they set out for the desert beyond the Sierra Nevada range with a burning desire to visit Zabriskie Point, one of her favorite places in Death Valley.

Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pull their socks up
Everybody put the foot down

-- John Lennon, "Everyone Had a Hard Year" demo, eventually used in "I've Got a Feeling" (Lennon/McCartney)






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