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The Digital Dream

by

Michael J. Cale


 


The Time?
The future. Hours, days, week, months. A couple of years, maybe.

The place?
Here, I guess. Wherever here is. Our computers and networks make the world a single place. It’s all becoming one. Isn’t it?




PART ONE


1

I remember it clearly, that night, when everything started to come apart. In the case of the bird, I mean that literally. Of course. I was there in the control room when disaster came spiraling through the sky like a kamikaze moon.

But that was also the night when Garner officially announced his candidature. I’d never met him and I never would. Of course. He changed my life, though.

***

I can’t tell you what kind of night it is outside. My world is nothing but concrete walls in the bunker and ghostly illumination from the computer screens. I can smell the faint ozone smell from the machines mingled with the odor of stale sweat. I have the feeling that the only thing that would be stirring beyond the building would be a moonlight cat. Or a rat. Animal or human. Creeping through gutters and shadows. And I am here inside, locked in a capsule. If you’ve worked graveyard shifts, you’ll understand.

(Don’t ask me where I am. Somewhere in Illinois but I can’t tell you more than that and it doesn’t matter, anyway. Geography is ceasing to have any meaning in the wired world. You could be working in Boston but your body could be in Buenos Aires. It doesn’t matter, anymore. As long as you’re connected, you’re where you ought to be.)

But I am here. Worse luck. I’m not good at being a spectator. Like, if I can’t be playing sport, as I often was in slightly younger days, no way do I want to sit and watch it. Watching drives me crazy. And, here, for most of the time, there’s nothing for me to do but watch the others. That’s how I first came to see Garner. I’d wandered through into the off-line area with Lorca and was checking out the TV news. Our man got his regulation thirty-second sound bite. Down at the back end of the late-night bulletin. Meaning he was enough of a curiosity to attract some attention but that nobody at the network thought much of his chances. But, even then, something about him struck me, as I’m sure it did countless others. It wasn’t just that he was good-looking and photogenic. His delivery was perfect and, although I can’t remember exactly what he was saying, he said it really well…

The news finishes and I stare out the plate glass window at the control room. Just a few operators on duty, hunched over their workstations. The system? The system works fine. Has done for weeks since user-testing sign-off and the final install. I can’t take credit, understand. This isn’t my project. My normal thing is computer and network security, running audits, recommending new ways to keep out the evildoers. I’m only here as a stand-in, since Jensen got appendicitis and the firm decided someone else at partner level needed to be seconded. This is a big client and a big client equals big billings.

I sit at the back of the room and think those odd disconnected thoughts you get when you have to stay awake but the action list is void. Most of the workstation chairs are empty now. There’s just a couple of the agency workers. And the supervisor, Lorca, behind me in the off-line area. I stare at the man directly in front of me. His name is Bogdan Karshowki. He’s what my more politically-correct-cynical friends might call "body-weight challenged." Layers of flesh overlap his collar. I stare at the greasy hair on the back of his neck. Try to analyze, to pass the time. Not unsympathetically. There’s a particular breed works in these places. My pick is, his best emotional connections are to the computers. Machines engage his intellect. They communicate with him without prejudice. They satisfy his needs. They alleviate his insecurities. They are remotely warm and comforting. He does not need to touch them. He imagines his thoughts reaching out like tendrils and embracing their electronic ganglions. Outside work, he probably hangs out in the chat rooms, where appearance and prejudice are separated and he can be as young and svelte as he can convince someone he is.

Maybe we’re not so different, Bogdan and me. We’re here together in the virtual world. The network is the computer and the world’s the network. You only need access to a PC, nowadays, to be part of what’s going on anywhere in the world (and, occasionally, off it, as millions discover when they plug into web sites featuring those little roaming machines we send to disturb the dust on other planets).

The room’s in an underground complex, miles from the nearest sealed road. Like I was saying, the climate is carefully controlled but my guess is that Bogdan Karshowki’s body is still uncomfortable. He doesn’t know that I’m looking, thinking about him. He remains hunched over the terminal. His mind remains free. His mental caress reaches across thirty thousand miles.

I look up at the ceiling as if I can see with X-ray eyes. See her up there. The machine is REGNAR 407. She’s a NASA bird, newly launched, handed over to INTERSPACE for positioning as part of a new comms hub. Commercial, owned by a consortium of corporations in the US and abroad. She’s humming through space, right now, somewhere above the North Pole. Heading our way. She’s the latest of her kind to snare Bogdan Karshowki’s affections, but I know he’s fickle. Not for him the long-term relationship. His machines: he helps them make their first moves, guiding them towards the role that will be their lives. When they settle down, he’s gone, like an eternal womanizer, always looking for the new conquest.

Someone told me that REGNAR 407 is INTERSPACE’s twentieth bird this year. Only the third using our new system, though. The previous two worked fine. This will too. Our software engineers are the best and most expensive, working away in virtual labs all over the planet. You want to know about REGNAR? She’s special. A GEO. A geostationary. Most new satellites are LEO—Low-Earth-Orbit—devices only 400 or so miles above the planet’s surface. Millions of them circling. Cheap and nasty, is how I see them. Even more fickle than ol’ Bogdan there. GEOs like REGNAR are different. Rare and mega-costly. They hold still forever, once in position. They live their lives 23,000 miles up. Monarchs. REGNAR cost more than some countries’ annual budgets. She’s a queen, throning it, way above the everyday rabble. This isn’t my specialty, understand, but I’d have to be blind and deaf not to know that the launch of this bird carried with it some heavy publicity. NASA claims REGNAR is part of the most advanced telecoms system ever developed, capable of switching millions of voice or data circuits simultaneously. Even the President joined the act, one eye on the nearing elections, traveling to Canaveral to make his Kennedy look-alike speech, poetizing about the tin can as symbol of the superiority of America’s electronics industry, democracy and way of life.
Everything should be cool but I have this feeling… Squint your eyes and the room seems shadowed and sinister. It’s ridiculous but I have a premonition of evil. Must be midnight nerves. I haven’t been sleeping well of late. I decide to stretch my legs. In the control room, Bogdan Karshowki is whistling tunelessly to himself. Eleanor Rigby. Song reminds me of faraway once-home. English fields and lines of trees. Picking up rice where a wedding has been. The half-life tune is the only sign that he’s alive. I guess imagination must be kept well disguised in this place. Imaginative thought is viewed as one step away from instability. I picked that up on day one. Nonchalance is de rigueur. The operators are expected to be like their computers, calculating and emotionless. Still, I imagine that Bogdan’s thoughts travel with the signals from his terminal, a thousand miles along the earth’s surface to a control station deep inside the New Mexico desert and then across the vast stretch into space, whence the station in turn beams its signals to REGNAR. Yesterday’s virgin will soon be with others of her kind. Bogdan will use her, enjoying the exercise of feelings in her, sensations that have never before been roused and will soon be put aside, never to be employed again. Soon, he will introduce her to the company of others of her kind, to take her mind off the loss when he slips out the door.
As I watch, he moves, leaning forward slightly to press buttons on the keyboard. I stand and step forward, figuring I ought to show some sign of interest. On the screen, I can see the status image change. All vital indicators green. Good. She is content and well, up there. I walk over to the coffee stand, pour myself a strong black, wish I could light a cigarette: but I’ve given up again and this time it’s held for three months. Longer than ever before. Benefit of untangling some of the knots in my personal life, I guess. Michelle long gone and I never think of her. Except just then, of course. I wonder if I like living alone. The freedom to drop socks and fart when I want. The loneliness of dark insomniac nights.


***


So that’s how it was on the graveyard. Things were busier elsewhere. The techies pieced it together, later. Here’s some of what was happening.

***

Inside a telecommunications center in the basement of a skyscraper in Singapore, a routing computer receives a message from a user in Hamburg, Germany. The center’s an unremarkable lights-out facility, a switchboard of sorts, allowing millions of computers in various parts of the world to communicate with each other, either on the Internet or through private networks. No human is there to see as the router checks the incoming instructions and finds them to its liking. The machine accesses a linked server computer and uses it to dial the number of a UNIX computer in Sydney, Australia, on a public telephone line.

When the UNIX machine answers the call, the router sends a message requesting access.

The UNIX machine is protected by inner and outer defenses. The latter are simple. It knows that dial-in calls can only come from seven authorized users, all with numbers in the Singapore area. When it receives a dial-in request, it is compelled to check that the message contains a four-digit code that will allow it to identify which of the users is calling. It will then break the connection and place its own call to the valid phone number to give the user access.

So far, it has received four thousand, three hundred and twelve requests from the comms center in Singapore. Each message has contained a different code but none of them has been valid and, in each case, it has calmly broken the connection.

This request is different. The code, at last, is a match to that in its internal password system. The system still clears the line but now it dials out, waiting for the local number (as it thinks it is) to respond. As it is dialing, the computer in Singapore also disengages and, within seconds, re-engages on a different phone line. The UNIX system is instantly confused by the new connection, thinking that its own dialed-out signal has been answered and that the user now on the line is valid and authorized. Its outer defenses are lowered.

The machine is not yet violated. It still has its interior defenses. Other security systems stand guard of the inner walls. Only the entry of correct codes will give remote users access to the application programs that it runs.

But its outer ring of software is now accessible.

In response to a further incoming command, the UNIX system transmits part of its own memory bank, a messaging block, to its far-off counterpart. The block includes a store of passwords that other, valid, users have recently fed into the system. The modem pool re-routes the message back to Germany. Thirty seconds later another message, accompanied by a valid password, transits through the route on its way to Sydney.

***

High above the earth’s surface, REGNAR 407’s on-board computer detects a minor fluctuation and pulse-fires a retro-rocket. The cylindrical space vehicle experiences a slight adjustment to the 100-RPM rotation that keeps it positioned on its axis. Its antenna shifts marginally on its platform, its position driven by a small electric motor, to allow it to continue pointing towards its controlling antenna in New Mexico. The sun gleams off the satellite’s solar panels, the machine shining like a metallic angel in the cold wastes, spinning, lancing through the dark, skating ever closer to where the great satellites hang in space in their never-changing orbits.


2

AMALGAMATED METALWORKERS INC
MANAGEMENT INFORMATION SYSTEM
CONFIDENTIAL. AUTHORIZED USERS ONLY

ENTER USER ID...
PASSWORD...


\Sikpuppi leans back in his chair and grins. The plastic Godzilla stares on impassively from the top of the computer terminal. Sikpuppi winks at it and his hands return to the keyboard.


RUN KEYBREAK

"Run it, sucker, see what transpires." He whispers, like he’s scared that someone other than Godzilla will overhear. Godzilla moves not a muscle.

The computer program goes through its repetitive routine, flashing sequences of numbers and letters onto the screen next to the message ENTER USER ID. The blur of characters goes by too quickly for Sikpuppi to keep pace.

"Amateurs." Sikpuppi lives to crack systems. Has contempt for his victims.

There is a break in the flash of numbers. In the middle of the screen, the message has changed:


ENTER USER ID ALAN

Beneath the message, next to the line that reads PASSWORD, the stream of characters continues.

"Take it easy, sucker. Any time in the next five seconds’ll do."

Sikpuppi stands and stretches his legs. Takes paces round his cramped bedroom. Mucho exercise, this, by his standards. He looks in the mirror and grimaces. He is large and blotched. Snub nose, shock of carroty hair. He remembers his old man once compared his shape to a beanbag, whatever the fuck a beanbag is.

He stoops and pulls up the covers of the unmade bed, the bedclothes making a hump under the quilt. The room smells of stale sweat and hot plastic. Around him on the bedroom furniture are more models, Dracula, in a long black cape, out of place against more modern monsters, Darth Vader and the Alien Queen. Models of the original Starship Enterprise. And Discovery. X-Files posters on the wall jumble against others from science fiction art, matching the covers of the paperback books that line the sagging shelves. In the way they’re positioned, it’s like they all radiate from the system, a Pentium 6 with more power and disk space than even Sikpuppi will ever need. It huddles like a metal rat on the old school desk, the eye-screen on top of the processor, the tail-cable at the back, the vein-wires to one side connecting through the in-board modem to the phone jack. It’s what gives Sikpuppi his social life, his freedom to rap, surfing the Net, talking to cyberfriends, checkin’ out the message boards. Chatrooming the girls. Online, he’s six-two, really, lean, twenty-three, quarterback king. Cool dude.

And, away from the relative order of the Web and the chatrooms and the message boards, it takes him to places that aren’t meant to be so welcoming.

Strings of characters continue to flash across the screen.

He peers out the window. On the sidewalk outside, Mrs Smolenski from next door is taking her corgi for a walk. The woman is massive, fatter than Sikpuppi, who has no fellow-sufferer’s sympathy. The dog, disproving ancient axioms, is thin and weedy. Little rodent must dine off the scraps from the old girl’s table, thinks Sikpuppi. Laffs. As he watches, the mutt stops and crouches by a lamp post. Mrs Smolenski looks at some distant spot way off down the street as if unaware that the dog is even with her, letting alone crapping all over the sidewalk. Sikpuppi, who hates dogs and all other animals, looks idly up the street in the vain hope that a policeman will appear. His juvenile mind plays a fantasy about la Smolenski being cited for street pollution, arrested by a night squad, beaten up and held in the cells by a pair of fat dike policewomen to be raped by a police dog...

The computer beeps. "What kept ya?" Sikpuppi sits, rubbing his hands unconsciously over his stomach. The message in the center of the screen now reads:


PASSWORD **** ROBOT ****

ENTER ANY KEY TO CONTINUE

Sikpuppi picks up a giant-size chocolate bar from beside the keyboard. "Soul food, man." His mom would have a fit if she saw it. She’s always yappin’ on about his fuckin’ weight problem. Yackity yak. It makes him sick. That’s what she doesn’t realize, with all her nagging. It makes him so uptight, he has to eat to relieve the tension. Ha ha. Laffs.
He leans forward and presses the ENTER key and the screen blanks for a moment before filling with new messages.


AMALGAMATED METALWORKERS INC

MANAGEMENT INFORMATION SYSTEM
MAIN MENU

1. Current clients register
2. Information access system
3. Accounting and billing systems
4. Housekeeping routines

ENTER CHOICE TO CONTINUE...


Pulling absently at the sparse fuzz on his cheeks, Sikpuppi enters the number 2. Again, the screen blanks and then refreshes with new lines.


AMALGAMATED METALWORKERS INC

INFORMATION ACCESS REGISTER

ENTER CODE OF THE DATABASE YOU WISH TO ACCESS....

At the bottom of the screen, another line reads:

PRESS F1 FOR HELP


"How obliging, little sucker." Sikpuppi presses the F1 key and sits back as the screen changes yet again. He pushes another piece of candy into his mouth, absently licking at the melted green-brown stains on his fingers as he watches the screen. Lips move near-soundless. It’s happening, man. He is about to boldly go where no hacker has gone before—well, as far as he knows. Breaking and entering cyberwise. And once he is inside... He is an intruder. A saboteur. A destroyer. When he raps to others on the hackers’ boards, he says that this is the best moment of all, the greatest excitement, better even than sex. Not, in fact, that Sikpuppi knows a hell of a lot about sex, apart from what he’s read in the porno mags his mate Skip-Rat steals from his old man. And he only reads them for form. He plays the game when the other boys pass them round and expect him to pore over them with grunts of enthusiasm, but it isn’t really what he is into. It all seems rather messy. Apart from which, there’s better available on the Web if you know where to look.

See, this. This is the real thing. He reads the help instructions and enters a stream of characters. The English words disappear from the screen, replaced by a stream of alpha characters. Machine-level code.

More key depressions and a small window appears in the center of the screen.

"I got a little present for you, sucker. Time for Sikpuppi’s little surprise package."

He types in another RUN command and sets loose the virus that will soon replicate itself within the target machine, seeking out the arteries and vital organs of the system, dividing, conquering.

He watches as the virus returns messages. It’s all that he hoped for. The tiny program has taken up residence in a central computer and is now copying itself to other machines on the Local Area Network. This is a client-server, one large virtual machine comprising multiple physical components, its disks holding master databases, its channels connecting to any number of remote computer systems. The program will tunnel its way into each of them, spreading its infection and working through the disk files on each, sowing seeds of destruction.

The screen flickers again. Sikpuppi grunts with surprise as he reads the new message.

INTERSPACE INC

SGS (SATELLITE GUIDANCE SYSTEM) MENU

ENTER PASSWORD TO CONTINUE...

The virus seems to have traveled from the first machine to one in another organization. Sikpuppi scratches his head. Somebody from the second site must have been online to the first in order to allow the virus to spread beyond its initial target. Whatever. He now has another target. Cool. He wonders who or what the fuck INTERSPACE is. Satellites! Ha! They sound like the ultimate victim. Way back in the early days of hacking, sometime in the prehistoric eighties, some kids in Boston or somewhere hacked into a meteorological company and actually got their satellites to change course. Sikpuppi’s eyes gleam. On the boards, a trick like that would be hacker immortality.

He needs a password, though. On an impulse, he enters the ROBOT password from the previous system and is rewarded by a new display. On the screen, now, a series of lines appear on what looks like a graph. It means nothing to Sikpuppi. He presses a further key and the window reappears on the screen, displaying more messages from the virus. The software is worming, copying itself from system to system. A number of new machines within the new company, INTERSPACE, are now infected. He sits back and waits for the virus to continue its rampage.
The screen flickers and changes. The lines on the graph are still there but, superimposed on this image, is another message.


> Please identify yourself


Weird. This ain’t supposed to happen. For some reason, it seems like the target system is bypassing the virus and sending messages directly to him. This could still be good, though. Or maybe not so good. He leans over the keyboard. Head in hands. Thinks. If he is being asked for ID, this is probably the end of the line. Too bad. His little surprise parcel has already been more successful than he would have dared hope.

On an impulse, he enters the name and password of the first user. Almost instantly, the system responds with another message.


> Do you need help with something?


"Fucked if I know." Sikpuppi blinks and thinks. "Let’s try something stoopid and see what ya do."


o I want to know how to use the system.

> That’s what i’m here for, robot.

> Your name is robot, isn’t it?



"Huh? Robot?" He wipes his hands unthinkingly on his sweater. "Oh yeah, the password. Try this, sucker."


o Yes

> Just checking. Robot, my records show that you are with our accounts department, am i correct?


"Oh, sure". He chuckles. The bastard’s fucked!

o Yes.

> The system is very simple to use. I am bambi. Anything you need help with, just ask me.


"Information, information..." Sikpuppi gives Godzilla a leer. This isn’t quite what he’d expected. Most computer systems are set up to hold some sort of conversation with a user, but usually the responses, being pre-programmed, feel rigid. This seems free form, almost as if he’s talking to a real person.
The thought brings with it a first ripple of unease.


3

I’m wired with caffeine and sleeplessness now and it’s like I can see the dance of the electrons happening in my mind as I shamble back towards good ol’ Bogdan’s workstation. Maybe Bogdan feels the same way. Maybe it’s only his mind frees his soul from the shackles of his body. He is, I guess, a study in ugly. Hunchback, forehead too large and over-hanging his face. Hollywood did real-life monsters no favors. We expect bestiality. Maybe he has a gentle spirit. His brain must work well enough to see him employed here. This company practices positive discrimination on behalf of the disabled. They claim enlightenment, a useful policy for a firm that spends half its time dealing with politicians.

I stand behind him and watch the display. Concentration wanders in the spacey reaches of the upper atmosphere. It’s a moment before I hear the intercom crackle.

"... the telemetry command equipment." Lorca’s voice, even scratchier over the intercom than usual.

"Yeah, what?" I see Bogdan ease himself into his seat and crouch over the microphone. I guess Lorca irritates him at the best of times. He takes his own sweet time responding.

"Check your telemetry readout. You’re straying."

"Fuck." Bogdan drops the cigarette into his coffee cup and gazes at the screen. I can see what he sees at a glance. Oh fuck. Less than a thousandth of a degree off course but the correction will need to be precise. My first thought is that our software’s straying. The correct will need to be enough to get the vehicle back on its original heading and compensate for however long it’s been off course. Tricky, but not too bad: our system will calculate the degree of change. I’m about to tell Bogdan but he’s ahead of me and I keep quiet and watch. He starts the corrective sub-system and, as soon as it responds, I see him send the message. He’s good. Fast and accurate. I lean over the desk next to him, waiting for the response, and see his eyes flicker quickly to my face and back to the screen. The radio signal will travel at the speed of light to REGNAR, through the earth station and out to space, the same amount of time to come back. Allow for computer lag, though, and some earth-bound line transmission delays... A couple of seconds. Seems like forever.

The signal comes back. The screen stutters. Transmission breakdown, maybe. I wonder what the weather’s like outside. Heavy rainfall can sometimes interfere with signals. Scatter interference, it’s called, the atmospheric water becoming radio-reflective at high frequencies. The forecast had been clear, though.

"Get your fuckin’ telemetry sorted out," growls Lorca’s voice from the speaker. The supervisor sounds calm, almost bored, a dangerous sign, I know from the pre-launch briefing sessions. The guy’s got an anger management problem. Bogdan re-types the signal, presses ENTER, waits.

This time the response shows movement. Course correction. "Fuck you, cocksucker," I hear Bogdan breathe, his hunched body hiding the raised finger from the watcher in the control room. We wait while the system computes the effect of the correction.

"Oh, god damn it. What the fuck?" He looks up at me again, like I know more than him, which I don’t. Like I said, this isn’t my system and all I know I picked up in the hand-over briefing. He enters strings of validation messages, waits as the status reports come back. I concentrate on the display, wondering what’s going on.

"You went the wrong fuckin’ way, didn’t you?" The voice makes us both jump. Neither of us saw Lorca step through from the off-line room. The bastard’s right behind us. At the next desk I can hear the other operator, Schwartz I think he’s called, stifling a snigger. God damn. We can’t have been wrong. I’m sure we had the command OK. Bogdan looks back at his boss and then at me. In the glow of the computer monitor, his face looks green. He seems to be waiting for me to do something and I lean past him and set the re-calculation routine again and when it responds I take a second to check that it’s right and then send the correction myself. Lorca, dark, thin, compact, rests a hand on the desk and leans over our shoulders, watching the display. Seconds pass, then the new status screen appears.

"I don’t fucking believe it." Pseudo-New England accent, "wetback bastard" Bogdan calls him behind his back, says Lorca thinks he’s cooler than West Coast Valleyites like him. It’s Bogdan he talks to. "What are you on, Quasimodo?"

"It’s not his fault," I tell him. When the screen refreshes, I can see that the correction has pushed the bird further off course. I feel hot flush under my hairline. I can’t have got it that wrong. Bogdan knows it. He looks up at me with an expression close to terror. My fingers fly over the keyboard now and I re-send the signal. Two seconds. No change. Re-send. Wait. Two, three, five seconds. Still no change.

"What the fuck’s going on?" Bogdan mutters.

"You better find out and quick, boys." Lorca grating. "That’s over a billion bucks you’re throwing about up there. Take a long time to get that back out of your salaries."

Man thinks he’s a fuckin’ comedian. I see Bogdan’s face screw up in frustration and resentment but there’s no sign that he wants to take over the keyboard again. His hands are trembling and he shifts them into his lap and then clasps his knees around them. I reverse out of the screen I’ve been using and try a different approach to get a status read-back. By this time, I’m beginning to suspect that we’re in deep shit. I half-expect to see the wrong status report come up. I wonder what the fuck the damages clause on our software contract says about the loss of a full-blown GEO.

I’m still typing commands when I realize that they’re not going anywhere. The screen is frozen. I forget the company rules about always caring for clients’ premises and equipment and smash a fist against the keyboard. The computer makes no response.

Signals from REGNAR 407 might still be going somewhere, I figure, but I was fucked if I knew where.


 

END OF SAMPLE



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