The Nine Thousand Names of Freedom

Aren't Some Websites Stars of Freedom Dotting the Vast Night-sky of Ignorance and Obfuscation? And Web-servers Dot the Miles and Miles of Fibre, and Twinkle with Knowledge and Information?

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. There is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in just such a twilight that we must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

– William O. Douglas

“This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint. “As far as I know, it’s the first time we have been asked to supply a dissident or ‘truth telling’ website with our Automatic Traversal Algorithm. I don’t wish to be inquisitive, but I should hardly have thought that your — ah — establishment had much use for such software. Could you explain just what you intend to do with it?”

“Gladly,” replied the dissident, adjusting his woolen beret and carefully putting away the mobile-phone with which he had been messaging his co-conspirators. “Your ATA can carry out any standard tree traversal involving up to one hundred million nodes, using the most efficient path. However, for our work we are interested in traversing actual routers and web-servers on the Net, not nodes of a data-structure. As we wish you to modify the code, the software will not only traverse nodes but also execute an instruction on each node.”

“I don’t understand …”

“Here’s my other b-card,” the dissident said, handing Wagner a business-card, a different one from that with which he had introduced himself.

“Hal L. Burton, Ph.D., President, Burton Microprocessor Research?” Wagner finished on a surprised note, reading the business-card. “I see — so that’s how you earn your money then, and I suppose freedissident dot-com is where you spend it.” Wagner warmed to his visitor. “You know, I, I …” he trailed off. After fifteen years of authoritarian rule under FEMA and the so-called ‘USA Patriot Act’, personal freedoms were severely restricted and it was not wise to express admiration for any dissident activity. Still, he said, “Actually, I visit freedissident dot-com quite often. You do great work, you’re gutsy folks.”

Wagner meant it. That website was only about three years old but had quickly developed a reputation for occasionally managing to expose government secrets and lies, and breaking suppressed news-stories. The government had tried to shut it down but had failed.

Burton smiled. “Thank you, Dr. Wagner. Been in and out of prison for it.”

Wagner smiled too, feeling a new respect for his customer. “Hoder. Call me Hoder.”

“Hoder? Nordic?”

“You’re right. Norwegian and German extraction. So tell me, how I can help you — in any way.”

“This is a project on which we have been working for the last three years — since freedissident dot-com was founded, in fact. It is perfectly in keeping with your line of work, so I think you will be able to provide the solution after I explain it,” Burton began.

“Ooo-kay.”

“It is really quite simple. It’s because of the CPU-virus and worm menace that started a few years ago. Remember Stuxnet? — that was the grandpa. My team has made a self-learning firmware patch, a one-time universal patch that takes care of several entire classes of these damn things. Nobody will have to care about any CPU virus or worm for several years, especially with new server-boxes, and therefore new chips, not being available anymore. We want to traverse the Web and apply the patch to every web-server and router.”

“Excellent idea!” Wagner was enlivened. “So you wish to start at triple-a dot-com and work up to, say, uh, … zygote dot-org …”

“Exactly–”

“… not that the actual process would be executed alphabetically,” mused Wagner thoughtfully.

He had seen the immense benefits of Burton’s plan at once; it was the need of the day, literally. Only personal desktop computers were available to Joe Blow; these machines were made such that they could not be used as web-servers. Server-class computers and routers were strictly regulated and were not available to the general public. Apart from the government and the armed forces, servers could be sold only to businesses and they too had to fill out a variety of forms to establish ‘need’, and even so, permits were granted to a minority of applicants. All the personal and independent media websites in the country ran on repaired and re-repaired machines that were over ten years old. Ten years ago, after coordinated hostage-takings and bomb-blasts in Peoria, which were blamed on foreign ‘terrorists’, the Department of Homeland Security had demanded the law regulating servers and routers, and had been given what it had asked for. Wagner knew that it was critically important to take good care of the old machines that the general public and individuals were using, and to minimize their vulnerability to viruses and worms. Personally, he suspected that the N.S.A. was behind many of the viruses that regularly crippled free-thought and dissident websites.

“You know how the Baldur chip works, right?”

“In general, yes,” Wagner nodded. He thought back to the second Bush-Cheney administration when the Baldur chip had been invented and mandated as an etched integrated-circuit on every CPU. First, it had been the V-chip. Then, the RFID chip. It had been only a matter of time before something like the Baldur chip would be proposed, be legislated for electronic devices, and become ubiquitous — every web-server and router carried it now. It provided the means to disable or lock, and re-enable or unlock, any device it was on-board on by means of one kilobit lock or unlock instructions and an accompanying and suitable five kilobit key.

“Because it’s not possible to install a firmware patch when the CPU is operating, what we plan to do is to make two passes: on the first pass, we disable the CPU and install our patch. And on the second pass, we attempt to upgrade to a different version of the firmware patch by applying a delta on the old patch for any CPU that needs it, and re-enable the CPU. I am afraid it would take too long to explain why we need this dual-pass system, even if I knew all the technical details behind it.”

“I’m sure it would,” said Wagner hastily. “Go on. I’m curious about, I mean, how are we supposed to crack those one-K instructions?” Not even any single government branch possessed those two one kilobit instructions’ bit-sequences. Each instruction was split up into three components. The Federal government was the custodian of the lower-order 512-bit-sequence, and the State governments and the Judiciary were the custodians of the higher-order bit-sequence with the 512 bits of each instruction equally split between them. This would be a first, if they pulled it off. And an underground effort, at that.

“We’ve hacked it,” Burton said with a trace of smugness. “That’s what we’ve been working on for the past three years. That, and the universal patch. But for the traversal, you’re the experts. That’s why I’m here.”

“Of course, to successfully unlock a chip, the re-enable code must be accompanied by — doesn’t the key … I mean that doesn’t it have to somehow mesh … in that there has to be a — an equivalence between the bit-wise ORs and the bit-wise ANDs between the one-K disable instruction and the key’s one-K chunks … ?” trailed off Wagner in a querying tone. He was not at all sure as to just how all this worked; he was a through-and-through Language Theory & Automata man. One or two of his specialists would certainly know this Baldur-chip business backwards, however.

Burton laughed. “I’m even more in the dark than you, but we’ve got that part nailed down. My boys are all set with the keys, the instructions, the whole shebang on that end. All we need from you is a guaranteed traversal of every node, every leaf, every router, every web-server on the Net in North America. And then they’ll be safe from these virus-making crazies.”

“Thanks to you.”

Burton smiled. “I wouldn’t say that. Thanks to us, if you must.” Shifting his weight to one side, he pulled out a chequebook from his hip-pocket. “There are just two other points—”

Before he could finish the sentence, Wagner replied, “Don’t even think about it, Hal — we’re in this together.” He smiled at Burton and rose to shake his hand.

*****
Wagner stretched out, leaned back, and slid his hands behind his head. He contemplated the situation. This thing was straight out of left-field but he couldn’t have been happier. He had made it clear to Hal that his company would do the project gratis; he felt it was the least he could do. Hal had invited him to visit his FreeDissident operation the next evening and have a beer with him and his lieutenants, and Wagner was looking forward to it. He was thinking of pairing Greg and Chuck on this project. Not only were they his two most talented and reliable engineers, both were dedicated Constitution-First activists. In fact, it was as a result of their common activist interests that the two of them and one of his sons were becoming good friends. And personality-wise they made a classic complementary team: Greg was poetic, mercurial, visionary; Chuck was prosaic and pragmatic, a nuts-and-bolts professional.

*****
The three seeds that had sprouted the vines that were now strangling the Web had been sown in the late nineties and the early 2000s. Firstly, recently declassified documents had revealed that the American power-elite had had a twofold interest in having the Pentagon and other governmental branches give MCI, then MCIWorldCom, preposterously over-priced sweetheart contracts. The first reason was to keep intact the U.S.A.’s largest InterNet backbone and prevent the chains of routers and servers from getting fragmented so as to retain a single point-of-control, and the second reason was to have financial leverage over the company so that governmental agencies such as the F.B.I. and the D.I.A. could access the routers and servers whenever they wanted to, to get information about whomever they pleased. In fact, to retain MCI’s dependence on governmental largesse and ensure the pliancy of its corporate officers, Bush-Cheney I had also doled out a very generous Telecommunications ‘reconstruction’ contract to that company after the illegal war against Iraq earlier in the century. Secondly, free-thought and dissident websites had come under not only scrutiny, but outright harassment; the F.B.I. and the Secret Service had used police-state tactics to bully website operators into giving them whatever information they had about their subscribers and surfers. Misusing FISA, which was unconstitutional to begin with, they would collect email-addresses and IP-addresses which they then used to keep tabs on, question, and detain individuals. Under direction from their corporato-capitalist masters, they had been especially hard on websites having to do with the Latin-American worker-peasant and the American social-justice movements. And thirdly, as the climax of a tragicomedy, the people themselves had asked the government actually to take away some of their Web freedoms! Unbeknownst to the public-at-large, governmental agencies such as the C.I.A. and the D.I.A. had been behind the explosion of child-pornography and financial crimes on the Web — Cybercrime — not for financial gain but for cynical, well-thought-out reasons; this was the first thrust of a three-pronged attack. The second thrust was the manufacture of a number of purported activist groups who had noisily demanded ‘Web regulations.’ They were funded by questionable money and many of the ‘activists’ were low-level governmental employees simply doing what their bosses had told them to do. And as the third, coldly treacherous, thrust, the potential and reality of Cybercrime had greatly been exaggerated and whipped-up by the corporate-controlled media. Yet again, the governmental agencies and the controlled media were acting at the behest of the plutocratic oligarchy to whom the Web was a threat because of the dissemination of truths and facts that they wanted to suppress, and because of the Web’s innate qualities which enabled common people and just-folks to come together and unite. As the plotters had anticipated, the general-public obligingly blundered into the trap like a herd of spooked cattle and lobbied the very people who were the brains behind the spate of Cybercrime — real and imaginary — to do the very thing that they wanted them to do — regulate the Web and take away Web freedoms. Subsequently, the legislation stemming from the Strasbourg conventions on Cybercrime from the beginning of the century had been grossly abused in the U.S.A. to limit Web freedoms. Worse, the internationalist power-elite had rigged up and used false-fronts such as the ‘World Summit for Information Society’ and the ‘Working Group on Internet Governance’ to restrict Web freedoms in other countries as well. The witch-hunt of Julian Assange and the shutting down of the WikiLeaks operation had been the logical and inevitable outcomes of the insidious and merciless cyber-throttling.

The root reason behind these machinations was the fact that the World Wide Web was that greatest of ‘unknown unknowns’ — a random techno-sociological mutation in an otherwise (mostly) ordered and controlled world; an ‘unknown unknown’ whose unforeseen birth and stupendous power to capture and exhibit the evasive and coquettish Truth had thrown off-course, and was hampering, the march towards that unholy concentration of wealth and power — the ‘New World Order’ — which the European-originated money-lending power-elite clans had so carefully been planning for centuries.

*****
The view from the office tower’s viewing deck was vertiginous, but in time one gets used to anything –almost anything. Greg Hanley, standing at the secured railings, was enjoying the view of the sunset over the Potomac, though he was not as impressed by the new 50-storey tower itself, up the street from the Kennedy Center. Chuck and he were working on this project on the top floor where Burton’s company had given them a spacious office, big enough for half-a-dozen people. Chuck had started a build of the software after Greg had checked in — submitted — a few new files of code to the repository — a special storage area on disk. In another three days they’d be done. The live run was scheduled for the wee hours of Monday — at 4 a.m. Eastern. That was because the least Internet traffic in any three-hour interval, which was about the length of time they would need, was between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. Eastern on Mondays.

This, thought Greg, was the most satisfying thing that had ever happened to him. Chuck and he were both volunteers with an activist movement, ‘Winter Soldiers & Rainy-day Patriots’ — an apt twist of a two-century-old American concept — to restore (true) Republican government, and so the nature of this project and the linkage with freedissident.com gave him a good feeling. His thoughts drifted to the erosion of civil liberties. Besides a question of ideals, he had personal reason to be concerned: he had been detained in prison for a fortnight without any charges, simply for submitting a withering short-story about the government to a publisher — someone there had probably ratted on him. A number of laws contradicting and subverting the still-constitutionally ‘guaranteed’ free-speech were on the books now. These anti-constitutional laws had various sections — ‘dissent,’ ‘incitement,’ ‘sedition,’ and so forth. They had either been in existence since 2001 by way of un-American legislation or had been enacted during Bush-Cheney II or Clinton-Lieberman I. He was a boy when it had all started, but he knew that except for a few (true) patriots who invoked Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, the majority of the populace, apathetic and afraid, had not bothered to challenge those repressive Totalitarian laws.

Greg heard the heavy wooden door slam in the wind as Chuck joined him on the balcony.

“Dude! Clean compile,” Chuck said. The software they had been working on that day had built successfully.

“Sounds good! Seems like we’ll beat the schedule. You told Shrub?” ‘Shrub’ was their private nick-name for Sam W. Jaffe who was nominally partnering them from Burton’s team. On their very first day, he had delivered a near-monologue about a documentary he had seen on the San ‘Bush-men’ of the Kalahari Desert. He had gone on a little too long for Greg’s liking, and had finished by telling Greg and Chuck that, in his opinion, ‘the Bush-man’s way of life is thoroughly depraved, degenerate, and inhuman.’ After that, Greg had started referring to him as ‘Shrub.’

“Yeah, he’s happy. I’m likin’ this so far. Wanna go get some coffee?”

“Sure.”

They walked back into the office and out to the corridor.

“You seem kinda … a little subdued …” ventured Chuck after a couple of minutes, as they were descending in an elevator.

“Thinking about this project made me think of the Unpatriotic Act, FEMA, and all the shit that came after that,” said Greg, and cut loose with a few obscenities. “It’s perverse to have called something so un-American and anti-patriotic the ‘Patriot Act’!” he said loudly, and punched the elevator door as it was opening.

“Well, one reason was to fool the public into buying it, so that they would not protest against it,” said Chuck matter-of-factly. “Doing anything on New Year’s?” he asked hurriedly as they turned left at the Christmas tree in the main lobby, wanting to get Greg’s mind off the USA Patriot Act.

“Maureen and I are just getting together with a few friends. And being grateful we’ve made it a quarter of the way into the century … without blowing everyone up, despite all the carnage and mayhem. Hey, you and Janie, if you don’t have plans, why don’t you join us?”

“Aw-ight, thanks dude. I’ll tell her. Guess she’ll give you guys a call,” answered Chuck as they entered the cafeteria.

He picked up a bar of chocolate from the packaged foods rack. “Wonder which of the F3 this benefits,” he groused.

“Huh? F3? — what are you talking about?” Greg said, not comprehending.

“Dude! You mean you don’t know?! The F3 — that’s Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto — they’ve a lock on all foodstuffs. Throughout the Americas. Happened during Clinton-Lieberman II. Not even a giant like McDonald’s gets its beef now without it passing through one of the F3.” Chuck kept up with the minutiae of economic developments much more than did Greg who was naturally inclined to ideologies and abstract concepts.

“Oh!” Greg sighed and shook his head in disgust. He thought back to the second Hillary Clinton-Joseph Lieberman administration and the merger of the two political parties. Soon after their increasingly lockstep economic policies had become undeniable and obvious, the show ‘Democracy’ had been dispensed with and the Democrats and the Republicans had made their marriage official. It had ostensibly been ‘to foster inclusiveness, put an end to partisanship, and bring all Americans together under one tent.’ Exalted sentiments, tawdry reasons … and Totalitarian phraseology. The new combined party — the aptly-named ‘Federalists’ — pointed to the disorganized, little-known Constitution Party as evidence of a thriving ‘Democracy’. Standing at the packaged-foods rack, Greg subconsciously smiled wryly and shook his head in the midst of his ruminations that were triggered by Chuck’s little nugget, causing one or two people nearby to stare at him. The strange part of it all was that even though large bodies of voters would agree amongst themselves that they had voted for a Constitution Party candidate, that candidate would somehow almost never win the election. The Max McKinney crisis of the previous election was evidence of that. But the strangest thing was that frequently the media’s ‘scientific polls’ too would be at odds with an honest person’s investigation of reality. Everyone and their dog would tell you that they had voted for populist, popular activist Green, yet the ‘polls’ would show capitalist, well-connected businessman Gray holding a ‘twenty percent lead.’ It was as if normal, sane people were saying one thing to their friends and families but saying something else to these ‘pollsters’… .

*****
Greg and Chuck were back at work the next day, taking a break after finalizing and testing the component that would hit every Domain Naming Service server by reading off all the entries for the traversal while eliminating duplicates, when Chuck noticed Sam at the doorway of their office. “Hey, Sam, what’s up,” he called out. Sam was not a software engineer, he had simply shown them the disk-directories on which they could find the anti-virus and anti-worm firmware patches, the necessary lock and unlock bit-sequences, and the algorithms that would generate the five-kilobit keys; and had issued appropriate permissions to their user-ids so they could access all the disk-directories that they would need to. It seemed he was a systems administrator and their liaison with Burton; all the design and coding work for the pre-fabricated components that Greg and Chuck would use had been done by some engineers who had taken off on holiday but were available should they be needed.

“Howdy guys,” replied Sam, walking into their office. “Hal just sent me a secure message. He’s not sure if you’ve been told but absolute secrecy is essential for this project; if any governmental agency — any snoop — gets wind of it, they’re going to try to halt it, sabotage it, whatever.”

“You bet,” answered Chuck. “Hode — that’s our president, Dr. Hoder Wagner — told us. Yeah, I can imagine that the Pentagon warlord, the A-G — all those Anti-American dictatorial creeps — would not like web-servers and routers getting virus and worm-proofed.”

Their concerns were well-founded. For the past two decades, the government had maintained a network of informants within the general public, reminiscent of the long-gone U.S.S.R.

“Mum’s the word,” Greg chimed in. “So, where does Dr. Burton keep himself?”

Sam made no answer. Greg and Chuck stared at him, then glanced at one another.

“He usually, er, he has another concern that … that he spends his, um, time at,” said Sam uncertainly.

“If you mean freedissident dot-com, we know about it,” said Greg.

Sam looked relieved. “Well, I wasn’t sure you did. Yes, these days he’s usually over there. That setup is in a basement, a townhouse near Tysons Corner.” Tysons Corner was an expensive commercial and semi-residential area in Northern Virginia, about half-an-hour’s drive from Washington D.C.

After a pause, Chuck said, “It’s odd that they — the government — didn’t take down at least some part of the Web by fiat. What I mean is that I’m surprised they haven’t really tried.”

“I suppose they know that … that if they messed with the backbone or the routers, the Web would go underground,” offered Sam. “People possess routers and web-servers. Activists would create an alternate mini-Web … like a bits-and-pieces Web.”

“You’re right, we could patch up something, hmmm …” Greg mused. “Yeah, one-oh-nine-B, cable hookups, plain old copper … all underground,” he continued; he was thinking out loud more than talking to Sam. “Though I wouldn’t have thought that they’d, I mean the Feds, woulda been able to think around that curve,” he finished, addressing Sam now.

“Well, I’ll leave you guys to your work,” Sam said, walking to the door. “The Web is a prized freedom and this project is important. In fact, it should have been done years ago — previous generation should’ve taken care of it.” Sam winked at them conspiratorially as he left their office.

“Shrub’s a funny guy,” said Chuck. “But he’s awright.”

“The previous effin’ generation was complacent. Complacent! Those dumb-asses kept blabbering about America being the most free country in the world even though that wasn’t true and even as our freedoms were gradually being … being chopped down, like a bloody forest being clear-cut,” said Greg, turning back to his computer. “Our freedoms are like the species: once plentiful, now declining.”

“Nice, that’s a good analogy, partner. Hey, how many species are there?” enquired Chuck. Responding to his own question, he continued, “After these climate-change-related extinctions, I think there’s, hmm … The Nine Billion Names of God … I mean, er, names of God’s creations,” he corrected himself, having taken a stab at flowery speech and felt embarrassed at the results.

“Uh, not billion, but million,” Greg said. “Nine million species.”

“Oh, yeah … ‘scuse me!” Chuck laughed at his mistake. “Though our freedoms have vanished at a rate far faster than the species,” he mused, on the same bent. “Ya know, I hacked into a Fed server one night and hit paydirt.”

“Welcome to the club,” grinned Greg. “But what do you mean, ‘paydirt’?”

“Yeah, was gonna tell you — it had a bunch of Top Secret white-papers and research reports. One was about freedoms, I’ll never forget that one. A complete list, and then some, of all the freedoms that man has and has had. Sociologists have determined that there’s precisely nine thousand freedoms.”

“Like?” prodded Greg curiously, swivelling in his chair to face Chuck.

“We-e-ell, it had all types of … of details; stuff about Paine and Mill and Nietzsche, and sociometrics and ethnograms and biostatistics … and I don’t know what — government’s technocrats have waded through all kinds of crap. They’ve concluded that 21st century humans have, or can have, exactly nine thousand freedoms. Like, just take one freedom, Communication. From plain talking to coded speech to music to … um, yes, ritual gift-giving to, what was it … gypsy-camp markers to smoke-signals, would you believe we have, if I recall correctly, exactly six-hundred and-seventeen modes of Communication? At least that’s what that research report says.”

“Six-seventeen? What were some of the others? I mean the other modes of Communication?”

“Gawd, I dunno. I remember they’ve, like, enumerated different ‘elemental’ freedoms within … what was it, a ‘group-level’ freedom, and those are within a ‘top-level’ freedom. Like ‘eye movements,’ ‘head movements,’ aah … yes, ‘muscle tone,’ ‘foot shifting,’ ‘finger-tapping’ and so on fell under ‘Body Language,’ which itself falls under a ‘top-level’ freedom, ‘Communication.’ Man, it’s freaky, I tell ya. Supposed to be a ‘research report’, but what with its different volumes it’s really like a book. It’s over three thousand pages.”

Sam appeared in the doorway of their office, looking a little flushed. “Hey, guys. Just on the news. The invasion got underway.”

“Oh, great! Now we’re killing Norwegians!” exclaimed Greg, opening a web-browser and going to news.yahoo.com.

“What’s the government-controlled media gonna call this? After all the ‘Oil Wars’, now the ‘Water Wars’?” muttered Chuck morosely.

*****
Chuck was fixing a minor bug when Greg walked back into their office holding a couple of coffee cups. They had had another productive day; it was late afternoon and Greg had gone downstairs to get some coffee. “What’s that lying by your keyboard?” he asked, as he handed Chuck a cup. “Is that … mistletoe?”

“Um, yeah,” answered Chuck sheepishly.

Seeing Greg’s querying expression, a sly, insinuating grin spreading on his face, Chuck continued, “Hey, I found it in my pocket! I don’t know — perhaps it fell in … perhaps Janie put it there. So what?” he ended on a petulant note.

Greg clapped Chuck on the shoulder and laughed out good-naturedly at his defensiveness, setting Chuck laughing too.

“So nothing … dude!” he said, in a friendly way. “That first dynlib we built, the one for the disable-and-patch, it’s still just ‘oh dot d-n-l.’ We needed a name for it. I’ll call it ‘Mistletoe’.” Greg was referring to the dynamic-library which would, at run-time, disable or lock the CPUs on the first-pass and apply the anti-virus/anti-worm patch.

They turned back to their workstations, still working but easing off for the day.

“Damn!” said Chuck suddenly. “Hey, we gotta stress-test that random key-sequence generator I wrote before we leave for the day.” Glancing at the time, he continued, “Oh hell, Greg, Hode will be here soon. We should’ve started testing it earlier today.”

“Already banged the hell out of it. It’s good to go.”

“Oh … you did? Cool! Ya know, I wonder though that there’s no test-team. I mean what’s Hode thinking, and that guy Burton? We’re testing each others’ stuff. Should’ve had a couple of good QA guys.”

“Well … I suppose Hode knows that what we write doesn’t need testers,” said Greg with a touch of conceit. Grinning and crooking an eyebrow at Chuck, he continued, “I mean, in these past few projects, how many bugs — I mean material defects — have been found in what you and I have written? All that’s happened is that the QA guys have wound up getting an inferiority complex because they couldn’t find a single, real bug!”

Chuck smiled and shook his head, and both of them ended up laughing at Greg’s hot-shot ego-stoking. Though egotistical, his vanity was not misplaced; neither was Chuck’s caution: in the three projects that they had worked on together, the testers actually had felt dispensable — Greg and Chuck were not only exceptionally talented, they were also very careful with their coding and debugging. Yet the lack of an independent, professional Quality Assurance unit in any software project considerably increased the chances of a calamitous defect being discovered post-deployment — when the software went ‘live.’

After some time, Greg rose from his chair and stretched. However, with the first step he took, he stumbled, and awkwardly and noisily toppled across a chair. Startled, Chuck got up. Grasping the edge of the table, Greg got back on his feet and voiced an oath or two.

“Dude! You okay?” enquired Chuck. “You know I’ve seen you do this before … like, stumbling, lurching — maybe there’s a balance problem?”

“Yup, there is. Inner-ear problem. In fact, that’s what saved me from my — ah — ‘elective service’,” replied Greg, holding on to the table and grimacing at the words ‘elective service.’ “Not that I’d have enlisted, I’d rather rot in prison than kill innocents abroad.” Except for the spoilt brats of the super-wealthy and powerful, who somehow received unlimited deferments or took refuge in the National Guard, all males had to enrol compulsorily with the armed forces. The draft was back in force in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Except that it was not called ‘the draft’ any more. It was called ‘Elective Patriotic Service.’ Such Orwellisms were consistent with the by-then usual government practice of redefining old terms and inventing new ones to befog the minds of the people.

“Oh — okay.” Chuck looked on with some concern as Greg settled himself in his chair. “I was deferred because of my sciatica. Same here; I’d have chosen prison over getting brainwashed by the armed forces into massacring other peoples.”

He went on, slowly, “Ya know, it’s the armed forces themselves who shoulda bailed us out of this horror. Before it got to this point.” He was voicing a thought more than talking to Greg, blankly gazing into the distance.

“I can’t understand why the national guard, the army — they all … they all attack us, arrest us, when we simply demonstrate,” said Greg. “Are they crazy? Just for holding up signs?! Don’t they understand that we’re doing it for them besides for us? They’re the ones who get traumatized and sick and maimed for life, if not killed, in these wars and invasions!”

“That’s the way it goes — you know,” Chuck replied softly, resignedly. “The oligarchy and the Zioneocons, they make sure to recruit Afros and Hispanics from poor neighbourhoods, and those they call ‘hicks’ and ‘trailer-trash’. They’re expendable — cannon-fodder — to the powers-that-be.”

After a moment of silence, Greg said passionately, “Yes. Young guys all of them, and what a waste. Those stupid, stupid lame-brains. They’re made to feel special by being told they’re heroes, by being given their purple hearts and silver stars. Heroes on their two-bit military pensions, with amputated limbs, strange illnesses. And shattered consciences … or, or brutalized humanities from the horrors they perpetrate on innocent humans. But those corporate plutocrats and Zioneocons — the scum of humanity — they make their millions off those wars and laugh all the way to the bank.” Though conscientious and a true patriot as was Chuck, Greg was seldom quite so bitter.

Chuck said nothing; he knew that staying on the subject would only get Greg wound up. Greg was right, he thought. The public had at last realized that the mega-corporation’s main function was simply to be a front behind which the super-wealthy and the privileged few hid to further their narrow interests and accumulate ill-gotten wealth, and that the ‘humanitarian’ and ‘pre-emptive’ wars had been nothing other than wars of loot and plunder for American corporate officers, stake-holders, and Zioneocons. Those ‘pen for hire’ writers who had sung to their tune earlier in the century had been rewarded with book contracts, positive publicity by the corporate-controlled media, and outright payoffs disguised as ‘grants’. But the few courageous writers who had exposed the truth had seen their works damned with faint praise or trashed altogether. And the writers themselves had had their names smeared and been hit with ruinous lawsuits; and those residing overseas had even been murdered by U.S. puppet-regimes or C.I.A. hit-men. Chuck shook his head as he gazed vacantly at his monitor, lost in his thoughts. Murdering writers had become a frighteningly commonplace activity for the American government after they, in concert with Royal Dutch Shell, had murdered Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa early in the century. Neither had had to face the consequences of their crime, for the American people had remained blissfully ignorant and unconcerned. They systematically had been deceived by the controlled media into believing that Arabs, Afros, drugs, ‘terrorists’, and other such hobgoblins hiding in the bush were the enemy, so as to divert their attention while the power-elite and the Zioneocons had been proceeding stealthily with their treacherous conquest of the U.S.A. and its economic structures and financial systems, all the while subverting the ideals of the founding fathers. American citizenry had finally woken up to reality, but it was nearly too late now… .

Chuck’s thoughts were suddenly but poetically interrupted by Greg; still in a fit of passion, he burst out in declamatory tones: “You would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, That old Lie! Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!” He spat the words, with venom and bitterness.

Startled for a second time by Greg in twenty minutes, Chuck began “What was th—” when the door opened. It was Wagner.

“Hello, men,” he said, briskly walking into the room. “Now there’s a set of domains we don’t want to hit,” he said, coming up to them. “No dot-gov or dot-mil sites and apart from those, the ones written on this list. Doable, right?”

He showed them a printout; they looked at it. It had several hundred host-names or ‘domains’. Many of them were easily recognizable as being those of the largest and most powerful corporations and the rest were those of large corporate-controlled media, wealthy political foundations, and such.

“Can-do,” said Chuck, brow furrowed. “Just curious why.”

“Talked with Hal earlier today; he brought up a good point. We don’t want to virus-proof the government’s or military’s computers! And if these giant transnationals or big-media get hit with viruses and go down for a while, screw ‘em,” Wagner said with distaste.

“Oh yeah — cool!” replied Chuck. Greg grinned and nodded approvingly.

“Good. I just emailed it to both of you; encrypted of course. Stick it where needed. So, you guys ready? Meeting starts in thirty minutes.”

“So? How goes it?” Wagner asked as they walked up to the elevators.

“How goes it? Great!” said Chuck. “To be honest, Hal’s guys have done all the donkey work. Greg and I have the easy part and we’re ahead of schedule. Web’s gonna get vaccinated now, thanks to the Baddler — I mean the Baldur chip. Jeez, what a weirdo name — why, why would they call it that!”

“It’s the name of some god … North European, perhaps; a god of beauty, light, and stars, I think,” Greg said, trying to be helpful, interpreting Chuck’s rhetoric literally. “And that’s apropos — you know, aren’t some websites stars of freedom dotting the vast night-sky of, of ignorance and obfuscation? …and web-servers dot the miles and miles of fibre, and … twinkle with knowledge and information.”

“That’s pretty, Greg,” nodded Chuck appreciatively and Wagner concurred.

Greg chuckled and said that he hadn’t meant for it to come out the way it did as they entered an elevator.

*****
“It’s goin’ good — mistletoe’s, like, hitting the Baldurs,” said Chuck, looking at his monitor, evidently unwilling to accept the fact that poetic speech was Greg’s forte, not his. He was referring to the first pass which he and Greg had set off fifteen minutes earlier. He pushed off on his wheeled office-chair, away from his desk and back to the table nearby.

Greg, Chuck, and Sam were having coffee and doughnuts in the office, a very early breakfast. They had reached the office by 3:45 a.m. on Monday and had set off the live run at four.

“Let’s see what the latest is from Norway … and also how that standoff with Brazil is developing,” said Greg, turning to his computer and bringing up a web-browser on his monitor.

“You guys think and talk a lot about wars and stuff,” commented Sam.

Greg looked at Sam and then looked through him. His face broke into a half-smile, a joyless smile; his eyes communicated the pain born of a compassionate humanity and carried a jadedness unnatural to their age of thirty-two years. He spoke very softly. “Sam, we Americans have been talking of warfare and dealing in wanton wickedness for over a century. We wouldn’t have to be talking about it and confronting it now if folks at the beginning of only this century hadn’t gotten things as totally out of hand as they did.”

Nobody replied.

“You know,” said Chuck, changing the subject, “I wonder why they asked us to randomize the keys the way they did. I mean, all the CPUs are going to be disabled for what — two, three hours? Nobody’s going to be able to crack any one-K key in even months so we might as well have used the same key for every CPU.” Chuck sounded perplexed. He looked at Sam.

Sam looked at Chuck, tilted his head, and shrugged. “That’s what Dr. Burton and his chief programmer decided.”

“I suppose they had a reason,” said Greg. “Or maybe they just didn’t think of it. Anyway, we’ll find out when Hal comes in this morning — we can ask him.”

If he knows, if there was a reason,” said Chuck, still bemused.

“Speak of the devil…” said Sam as Burton walked in the door.

“Greg? Chuck? Pleased to meet you,” Burton said, pleasantly shaking hands with them. He gave each of them a business-card.

“Hal I. Burton, Ph.D.,” said Chuck, mis-reading the business-card.

“That’s ‘L’, not ‘I’,” corrected Burton.

“Oh! Yes, sorry. What’s the ‘L’ stand for?” Chuck asked amiably, trying to make small talk.

“My middle-name? Oh, that’s kind of embarrassing!” laughed Burton. “Blame my classicist parents! And their flights of fancy. But anyway, it’s Loki.”

“Huh! Loki. Never heard that name before.”

Greg, however, had. He frowned and smiled wryly to himself. ‘Baldur’. ‘Mistletoe’. And now ‘Loki’. A peculiar coincidence … eerie, in fact… .

Six military policemen silently entered the office and stood along a wall. Greg and Chuck, quite perplexed, stared at them, looked into their faces. Not that they found any variety or even individuality: each man had the blank, glazed, obedient face of an automaton who does as he is told; the face of an ever-increasing number of Americans, in truth.

“Change of plans, boys. We’re not starting the second pass this morning,” said Burton, as two men appeared in the dim corridor outside the door.

Greg and Chuck now looked at these two new arrivals. One of the men was elderly and squat and had a shuffling gait, the other seemed equally elderly but walked with a jaunty strut. They came into the office. Both men were remarkably ugly; their countenances bespoke the arrogance and corruption of unrestrained and untrammelled abuse of power.

“We are going to have to delay that second pass; indefinitely,” the ugly squat man said. Greg and Chuck realized with a sense of confusion that this new visitor was the Attorney-General, Sandler ‘Sandy’ Farm.

“And that’s strictly confidential, strictly confidential,” the ugly jaunty man offered, flashing that roguish grin he doled out like spare change to the fawning, vacuous hacks and flacks of the American media. He shook hands in a faux-friendly manner with Greg and Chuck. They were struck dumb, for this was the Secretary of War, Ron S. Field.

“After all, you are working for the Government of the United States of America so your absolute secrecy is required,” said Farm. His usually sullen — literally ashen — face was beaming, even cheery. “But I thank you gentlemen most sincerely for bringing this project to a successful closure.”

“I guess I can tell you now why we used different bit-sequences so as to manufacture unique five-kilobit keys for every CPU that’s being locked,” Sam said. He wore a smirk and it made him look both stupid and crafty at the same time. “Even if some bunch of idealists somehow cracks the standard re-enable instruction, it would take literally years of cracking for them to figure out the five-K key with which one particular CPU has been locked. And if they do, so what? You can’t use that same key to unlock any other — virtually any other — CPU.”

Chuck looked at Greg, not making full sense of it. Greg returned his gaze.

“You’re very smart engineers, breaking into government computers and reading our white-papers and research reports,” said Field. Nodding at Chuck, he continued, “If you had read that one all the way through — I mean ‘Mankind’s Nine Thousand Freedoms’ — you would have found out that here in America, fewer than several hundred freedoms now remain for the riffraff … I mean for the common man. The top-level freedom to think straight — ‘Unconstrained and Noise-free Cognition,’ they call it — that freedom’s, of course, the fundamental one, and it plus all its derivatives has been off the table for … what, over fifty years now.”

Everyone remained silent. Field went on, addressing both Greg and Chuck, “A small group of people have been working on this project to create voluntary free-slaves for more than two centuries — since shortly after the country was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your idealistic way of thought. And the Web, now –’The World-Wide Web’ is the linchpin freedom.”

“The Web was the linchpin freedom, was the linchpin!” Farm shrieked, punching the air in quite an uncharacteristic spasm of excitement. “That’s why — Yes, yes! — I, I wanted to be here! … when i-i-it it-happened!” he babbled, and started laughing in a manner that was quite maniacal. His face was twitching and his eyes were bulging and glinting as he cackled uncontrollably.

“What … what do you mean?” asked Chuck, distracted and repulsed by Farm’s demeanour. He was still not comprehending, or perhaps not wanting to comprehend. Greg realized in a flash that there would be no second pass. They had been taken. He fell back limply in his chair.

Burton answered. His demeanour too had changed, though in a different way. His very face seemed to have undergone a transformation — as if a snake had moulted its old skin. He looked triumphant, but apart from that emotion, base cunning, greed, and evil had manifest themselves, as if settling into their rightful home after a necessary absence. “I’ll tell you what he means. The Web and the Internet started off as the ARPANet. It was not meant for –and I’m not even sure how … the rabble managed to get it. But we know how to scaremonger the little people, we know how to control you, even if the process is slow and gradual. We’re the rulers, we want the Internet back, and this time we’ll keep it for ourselves. Forever,” he said, leaving nothing to interpretation.

“All right,” said Field, now wearing a cold, disdainful smile. “Time to clear out. You’ll be debriefed at a location in Fort Meade.”

“Hoder’s waiting there,” said Burton, smiling the smile of the serpent.

Someone switched off the lights. The room was now lit only by the corridor lighting seeping in and the glare of six or so computer monitors.

Chuck walked a step or two past Greg, and started to whistle but gave it up immediately. This roomful of hostile strangers silhouetted in the dim light of the monitors did not encourage such ebullience. Greg remained seated, he felt light-headed and nauseous. There was one thing whose loss he was never going to be able to get used to… .

At a signal from Burton, two military policemen walked up to Chuck and Greg to escort them out.

Chuck glanced at his watch. “Should take only an hour more,” he murmured over his shoulder to Greg. Then he added, in an afterthought, “Wonder how many hosts have been hit? It should be halfway through about now.” He felt a sense of desolation, a stark desolation, as he said that.

Greg didn’t reply so Chuck turned around to see why. Just a moment earlier, Greg had swivelled his chair to a nearby workstation, opened a web-browser, and typed in ‘news.yahoo.com’. Chuck could just see his face, a pale, drained oval staring at the monitor.

“Look,” whispered Greg, and Chuck looked at the monitor. (There is always a last time for everything. Even the Web.) Well knowing that all was lost, Greg had acted on emotion in bringing up that website, just for the sake of looking at it once more. But it was not to be. The familiar white-and-blue home-page loaded only partially before the web-browser froze –

‘Error: Server not responding.’

Across America, without any fuss, the Web was shutting down.

Kersasp Shekhdar believes the quill is mightier than the A-bomb. Kersasp can be reached at: shekhdar_home@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Kersasp.