Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive

By Barry King

Illustration by Andrew Ostrovsky

Lights of Encryption by Andrew Ostrovsky

Lights of Encryption by Andrew Ostrovsky

“I don’t know the first thing about hostage negotiation,” I said. The oscillating fan left me alternately clammy and hot, while the skinny bald guy called Nichols glared at me from across my formica table from the kitchen corner. The other guy, the young, pale, pug-nosed one, was waving a butterfly coil through my remaining curls. He kept running it over my left ear, which was triggering the salivary reaction on the other side. When he got too close to the skin, I could hear muttering voices in the hum of the fan. They were trying to complete a full Wernike/Broca tuning in hours what usually took three weeks of sleeping in a rig.

Nichols sighed and waved the other guy off. “You keep saying that like we don’t know it, Stephens. It’s not the point. Baumgarten’s demanding you, and it’s you we’re going to send in.”

“I don’t understand. I mean, Marvin’s always been religious, but he’s not crazy. He wouldn’t be involved in something like this.”

“Be that as it may, there are seventy-eight innocent people in there. Twenty-three are children. We can’t assume anything.”

“Ready, sir,” said the other guy.

“You ready, Stephens?” Nichols raised his eyebrows. It’s the first hint of concern I’d seen from them since they hammered my door down at 2 AM.

I nodded, silently; the rig engaged and Nichols’ face fell off, leaving a blur in its place.

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What I hadn’t told Nichols was that I knew all about the hostage situation; probably more than him. Marvin had contacted me, the night before. Uncharacteristically, like some amateur, he’d sent a presentation under simple 3DES. It showed the laboratory from above, a floor-plan, and some tactical schematics from the NVCPD that I’m sure would get me brought up on charges for possessing if it ever came to court. Included also was a hierarchical data file of all relevant feeds and streams, and two other files: a biometric signature each for Rachel and Judith. “It’s the twins, Andy. They have my girls in there.” Nichols must have known about it, and its contents, but he was keeping schtum. I also hadn’t told Nichols that the real message had come in to my mixmaster letterbox ten minutes prior.

Not everyone keeps a Faraday cage in their basement, but Marvin knows I do. Two things I learned from working for No Such Agency: one is that the most effective decryption device is a rubber hose deftly applied; the second is that anybody who knows what they are doing puts more effort into reception intercept than transmission intercept. I’d seen devices from before I was born that could read a targeted CRT from a block away, and the R&D they were pumping into remote viewers and genetic algorithms for CRC-5-USB de-fuzzing when I was still working there showed that they had had a hand in Marvin’s quantum-field-interference technology, not just a mole in his lab. They were building their own QFI devices for probing consumer electronics while he was working on the wetter circuitry in the human skull.

So whenever I get something in the letterbox, I power up the basement capacitors and the DMZ subnet (where 16,384 honeypot VMs ceaselessly pass files between themselves on a closed segment), which I then physically dump to a dumb pre-1993 tape drive before decrypting onto encrypted diskfiles on the old Debian box unconnected to anything: the one I painstakingly and personally compiled each and every package before installing, and built out of parts from random used machines. Marvin called it my “Art Installation”, titled A Monument to Paranoia.

The message was simple: “It’s time.” It was digitally signed by Marvin, and Rachel, and Judith, and also, as I had long been awaiting, a signature from the NSA backdoor key. I took the tape with me to throw into the firebox and put the server to work overwriting its own disks.

Glen Canyon changed everything. For me, it killed the idea of a nation. For Marvin, a loving companion. I’ve learned the sting of both, now, and I’m not sure which is worse.

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I’m one of those that doesn’t take a new rig easily. Even though I was braced for it, I had to run to the sink, clutching my mouth. I shuddered at the bile and looked out the black window at my reflection, the two men behind me.

“Where the hell did you get this rig?” I asked the reflection of Nichols.

“It’s the real thing. Got it directly from NVC External Ops.”

Yea, with both hands she giveth,” said the other guy, smirking. Nichols shot him a glare.

“You’re a RiqBan?” I asked Puggy.

He shook his head, grinning. “MilTel. ATCC.”

“Anti-Terror? How long in CyCorps?”

“Since twenty-seven. I joined after Glen Canyon, but now…” he said, but Nichols cut him off.

“Ogilvy’s a specialist contractor. That’s all you need to know.”

“He’s a kid,” I said.

“Smart kid,” said Nichols.

I ignored him. “So you think the RiqBans are terrorists, Ogilvy?”

Puggy shrugged, “I don’t write policy, I write code.”

“Besides,” said Nichols with an wry grin, “they can’t be — we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

“So, what are they, then?”

Puggy looked at Nichols, then back at me. “They’re just a DN like any other. No better, no worse.”

“I mean,” I said, pointedly choosing my words, “are they loyal Americans, or are they religious extremists?

“You old guys never get it, do you?” Puggy sneered, starting with Nichols, but rounding on me, “you talk country, religion, company, army, alliances. It’s all bullshit. It’s a DN — they’re one and the same.”

“Where did you get this guy?” I asked Nichols, “he’s not ATCC. Not now, at least.”

“Wake up Stephens, we’re all outsourced these days.”

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DN: Dark Net. RiqBans called them Domain Names now, and sometimes Directory Nodes. Marvin, when he was a founding chair of the Dominion of North Virginia, started that trend, or at least I think so.

He was different when we were roommates at Virginia Tech. Back then, the RiqBans were just privacy activists, reacting against spyware in embedded systems by converting existing proprietary systems to their own OS. Marvin gave them legislative backing and an ideological canon, heavy on the millenarian imagery.

“Obfuscation of jargon is half the game,” Marvin lectured to our dorm ceiling on beer five and three sheets to the wind… it must have been back in ’15, and maybe he was right.

“…it’s like ‘hacker’. Used to mean ‘code junkie’ back in the day, before black hat and white hat. ‘Dark net’ just meant ‘out of sight’, before it meant kiddy porn and plans for suicide vests. Have to take that one back from the Man.”

“‘The Man‘, Marvin? Who’s the Man?”

“You know, ‘the Man’.”

“No, seriously Marvin, who’s the Man?”

“The Man? I’ll tell you,” he said, but stared at the ceiling for a while.

I took a swig. “Well?”

“It’s like this. There’s one Man. Let’s call him Adam. He gives the names to everything. Got me so far?”

“Like Badger, badger…”

“Shut up! I’m serious. It’s the way the Internet works. There’s one of everything for every name. One Man, one shop, one library, one newsfeed, one encyclopedia, one OS… Plato’s brain-default… Ideal form. There’s… copies, but they’re just shadow-puppets… don’t matter…. When they emerge, they get merged into the one…. Mergers…. Everything that rises must converge.”

“And then Adam meets Eve, and…” I smirked.

“It’s just a metaphor… jackass,” he slurred.

I didn’t care. I was just pushing his buttons. “OK, so there’s this one thing with one of everything, and everything gets sucked into it. So what?”

“What about freedom?

“Oh, for Crissakes, you’re not going to get all Rand Paul on me, are you?” The electioneering that year was making me hate all politics.

“No, I mean it… I mean freedom of choice. Where’s the choice, when everything is just one option?”

“Yeah, well, there’s only one planet. You don’t get to choose that,” I said, “‘sides, everything’s global now. Y’know?”

“We need choices…” he said, vaguely, his eyes scanning blankly at the ceiling.

“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have to breathe the same air you fart in, but I’m stuck with it.”

A thrown pillow knocked the half-empty beer out of my hands. I laughed, threw it back, and threw a towel on the puddle. I got up unsteadily to rinse the towel in the sink, and when I turned back, he was staring at me from his bed.

“What you said about Eve,” he said.

“Yeah? Whatever. Sorry, man. Just joking around.”

“No. You’ve got a point. Ever hear of Lilith?”

I shook my head, started mopping the spilt beer with my bare foot and the towel.

“Kind of a beta version of Eve. Proof-of-concept. The Eden thing… myth… is two older stories duct-taped together. ‘Lilith’ is the brand of tape. It’s how they make Eve exist in the first story before her creation in the second. Follow me?”

“And…” I said, thinking “No.” I hated how Marvin worked the Bible into everything.

“Adam didn’t choose Lilith, she came with everything else, but he chose Eve.”


“Well, there might be one choice Adam can make, but it’s his choice.”

“Kind of one-man-one-vote thing?”

He started to stare at the ceiling again. “Yeah. What if you chose your own Internet?”

“Like choosing your own planet?”

“World. Choosing your own World.”

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“Rachel, what are you doing?” I asked, peering over my shoulder at the girl. She was reaching up towards a hissing cat, with tiny fingers and arms still chubby with baby fat. The cat was drawing himself into the shelf, just beyond reach. Rachel was hopping up and down on tiptoes. A porcelain figure, just heavy enough to hurt, was in danger of falling on her.

I leapt up, dismissing my floaters, and took down the figure, putting it safely aside on the desk. I was “babysitter” after all.

Rachel turned to me, with her hands under her chin. “Want to play!” She was jumping in place with excitement.

I chuckled, “I don’t think Mr. Pants wants to play, Rachel.”

“Make him play!”

“But Rachel, it’s not playing if you are forced to.” She looked up at me, head cocked. I deplored my lack of experience with child rearing. I wanted to say “would it be fun for you if I made you play?” but she’d say yes, it would, because she wants to play right now. In the back of my mind, the NarraFeed was reminding me that fires were burning all up and down South and East Lost Angeles. I tried to concentrate on Rachel, and forget that her father was in the riots, over there, looking for her mother.

“Rachel, what if Mr. Pants is tired? What if he doesn’t want to play?” She looked down at that. “It wouldn’t be nice if I made him play with you when he doesn’t want to.”

She kept her eyes lowered. “Mama makes Judy play.”

“Judy is your sister, so we ask her to try to play with you.”

“Tell him to try!”

“But Mr. Pants can’t understand what we tell him, and it’s cruel to pretend he can.”

She looked at the cat. “I shouldn’t be mean to you, Mr. Pants,” she said, with the kind of seriousness only a five-year-old can pull off, and walked out of the room.

I went back to my floaters, spreading them all 360 degrees around me. I could see Marvin’s DroneCam gathering data, passing samples up into a more accessible 2D format. The map showed a dot somewhere near Echo Park, inside an area delineated in red. I had no idea what this meant.

What it meant is that Rebecca would not be coming back to her girls, and Marvin would not be the same when he returned.

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Two years after the Glen Canyon disaster broke LA’s water supply, the electric grid, Californian agribusiness, and brought the economy to a grinding halt, the process of de-federation was more or less accomplished, and I was out of a job.

The Agency was still there, but all federal funding was limited by a complex system of buybacks from the Confederations of States. I worked out of Laurel, Maryland, and was technically in federal jurisdiction, but Marvin stayed near Tyson’s Corner, so our “BZ Technologies” was incorporated under the New Virginia Commonwealth. Marvin was working on the prototype rig in those days. This dovetailed nicely with the RiqBan-dominated Commonwealth’s attempts to establish the same control over territory and currency that they already held over the local DN I was a field-tester for the first portable unit, the first “rig”, which did near-field data sharing within a freenet-based P2P network which used PKI chains of trust to make membership both exclusive and easy to bestow or revoke. Basically, you share reality with your friends, and nothing can be censored or deleted between you. Just like Marvin said: a World. The BZ rig gave that world perceivable reality, if not physical form.

“The q-spin dampener is now pretty much foolproof, so you don’t need to worry about your dental work anymore,” said Marvin, as he pulled the crown down over my temples. “Or large ferrous objects hurling themselves at your cranium.” He smiled. I returned a rictus of doubt.

“It takes some getting used to, like lucid dreaming,” he said, turning to the debugging console, which was a closed plastic box with several optical fibres running from it to behind my head. I was resting in an articulated couch made of plastic tubes and webbing. The similarity to a dentist’s chair had me worried.

“I’m going to turn on the optics, now. It will give you a 3D surface to work with.” He touched a spot in the air with a gloved hand and an opacity flowed across my field of vision, a bland surface of shifting pastel-coloured lights shimmering in cyclic patterns.

“It looks like when you press your eyes, only milder,” I said.

“Yes, that’s the idea. Now I’m going to charge the Chladni generator. This is why I told you not to eat anything.” He touched another point in the air.

The device was silent, but suddenly I was thrown into a curious sensation of being two places at once, both lying on the chair and floating in the air, weightless as if falling.

“OK, concentrate on the new spacial feedback.”

“What do you mean?”

“Focus on the ‘other body’.”

With effort, I found I could shift between the two feelings of corporality, like switching views in the optical illusion from faces to vase and back again. There was definitely something “real” to the other body, and I realized this was similar to being asleep, dreaming that you are walking, although you’re also vaguely aware of lying in bed.

“OK, now I’m going to turn on the B/W unit. You’ll get some auditory feedback.” A white noise began in which I could barely make out scraps of words, and some music.

“Now, think about something auditory. A voice is best. Maybe some poetry?”

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan, my grandfather’s voice began without prompting, A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alf, the Sacred River Ran…

“You’ll find the visual field more malleable as you focus on the second body,” said Marvin.

I spun aloft under the dome, as broad as Hagia Sophia, as intricate as the Dome of the Rock, and as ponderous as the Acropolis of Rome. It was all of these things at once, and falling in an icy cascade, a river poured through the central aperture, coiling down serpentine columns to a bright brass filigree in the floor. The water was deafening, and in it, granddad’s voice was speaking, …Down to a sunless sea.

Marvin spoke, damping the image slightly, “I’m going to turn on the glove now, and you’ll be able to manipulate the visual field directly.” He said something else under his breath. I couldn’t hear it over the echoes of the caverns and the caves.

“What did you say?” Curiously, the voice continued reciting the poem despite my speaking, and I saw gardens glowing beyond the Moorish arches.

“A little joke. ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand.’ Get it? Hand?” he said, and switched on the glove.

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The SUV was waiting on the helipad, and we got in. Puggy drove, with Nichols in the back seat, leaning in between us.

“They’ve got EMP cannon, so we’re grounded from here in. Marvin says you’re cleared up to the gate, but you’ll have to walk in. How’s the rig?”

I’d been getting used to it. Any new rig is like new glasses. You have to move around to get a sense of depth, only in more directions and fields of perception. It helps when you keep the second body tied to the first and don’t drift into dream-walking. With the two bodies in sync, you get avatars for people, spacial tags as visible objects, and audio in a NarraFeed. I don’t like falling into split-syncro. I’m too old-school to inhabit more than one body.

“We’re good,” I said, more hopeful than convinced.

“So again: Marvin’s your safe passage in. The RiqBans will be letting you in from our side, as long as you keep their rig on. The embedded device is inert until you get a trust-sig from Marvin. Once you get the trust sig, the DN will supplant your communications, but the satellite downlink will give us one crack at directory node pollution. You’ll be entirely in RiqBan space, so you’ll get a lot of dissociative feedback while the downlink does its work. Expect synesthesia. Just hold tight, and let our boys do their work. Then we’ll find the hostage-takers and take them out. Stick close to Marvin. He’ll be your safe-passage out as well.”

“You’ve got it all planned.”

“As long as you can trust Marvin,” he said and leaned back.

After a moment, he leaned forward, “Can you trust Marvin?”

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“Here, watch this,” said Marvin as he ushered me from the foyer into the living room. Both girls, now almost as tall as their father, were standing in a space near the bay window, facing each other, each of them gesturing at the other with their gloved hands. The motions were graceful and expressive, as purposeful as if they were engaged in a virtual game, but I couldn’t see anything going on between them but empty space.

I looked at Marvin and was about to speak; he held up a finger in front of my face. I closed my mouth. Then he gestured with his hand for me to raise mine. We touched forefingers, and I was prompted for a key exchange. It had a very small chain of trust, and the CommonName was Baumgarten Household, signed by BZ Technologies itself. I accepted the trust, and agreed to add my signature to the chain as well…

…and suddenly the room was filled with light. I stepped back in surprise from the massive Christmas tree that branched out in front of me, joining as if in a canopy with boughs of pine and holly, laden with golden ribbons that festooned the walls.

The girls stopped their work, hanging glittering balls of whirling snow onto the lower branches, and turned to me with surprised smiles. Apparently, I had not been visible to them up to that point.

“Uncle Andrew,” said Rachel, running to give me a hug. Judith, always the quiet one, followed more delicately and laid her arms around both of us before stepping back into a diffident pose.

“It’s beautiful,” I told her, looking up at the tree. “Did you do it all yourselves?”

Judith grinned and nodded. Rachel launched into an explanation. When she got to the branches themselves, “Judy did the dev work. Something about prime numbers and spiral limits. You know,”

Math,” we said together. I had been her tutor on occasion, and sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. Judith did. Rachel didn’t, and flaunted the fact.

Eventually, the girls were back at it, and Marvin and I walked out of the room towards the kitchen.

“It seemed to me to be better than cutting down a live tree,” shrugged Marvin, “and it gives the girls something to do.”

“They’ve got talent. Both of them.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “Rachel is more like her mother, though.” Marvin sensed the tension in me, and sighed.

“Sorry, Andy.”

“It’s OK,” I said, but it wasn’t.

“It’s not. But thanks for spending Christmas with us.”

“Well, Tomás’ family… you know. We don’t speak,” I said, and he nodded.

“It’s hard…” I said, and tried to say something over the lump in my throat.

“Oh, Andy. Who would have expected both of us to be made widowers, so soon?”

He clasped the back of my neck, and I let hot tears soak into the fabric at his shoulder.

“I’ll get a bottle of malt open, and we’ll watch something terminally stupid, like we used to do,” he said.

I pulled away, nodding. Nowadays, when I think of Marvin, that’s what I remember.

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I sat up and tried to catch my breath. The angel lifted the chalice to my lips again. “I bid thee drink, and be healed.”

Two devils were being trussed up with bindings of light by two angels, and two haloed men in white robes stained with blood-of-the-lamb stood on either side of the road, carrying pale white automatic rifles. Our SUV was on its side in the middle of the road, fluid leaking from the hood. I invoked a Mapp to get my bearings, but all the familiar names were renamed using a hodgepodge of Old Testament places. Pulling out into space, I saw that all of the visible area was within a segment of North Virginia beginning at Fairfax County and ending in Shenandoah, then south as far as Roanoke and Richmond. The rig had no access outside of the New Virginia Commonwealth. Our destination, the lab, wasn’t even listed, nor were any of the access roads to it.

“You’re RiqBans.”

“We are new-made vessels, yes.”

I switched off the rig. Nichols was pretty battered. He hadn’t put on his seat belt, and he was grimacing in pain from the handcuffs. His headband had been disconnected and was hanging around his neck. The same for Puggy. The men in camouflage with the M16s looked like weekend paintball warriors, not professionals. A game for grown-up boys.

“You know why I’m here?”

“We have been expecting you, yes.” Not avatared as an angel, the young technician seemed much smaller, although her face was the same shape, but more freckled.

“Baumgarten requested me personally. You were supposed to give us safe passage.”

“We will take you to the Archangel, and deliver the enemy, with his devices, to perdition.” She lifted the device from the box by her side. It had been cut from the neoprene armour, but was still deactivated.

One of the paintball types hung it around Nichols’ neck.

“Come,” she said, and sat me in the passenger side of a jeep, and one of the paintball types hopped up behind her, his rifle casually aimed at my head. I powered up the rig and conjured up a news feed. Normally, the NSA VPN could have penetrated the local firewall, but all the routers in the area were auth-keyed to DN traffic only, so my only access was to RiqBan DN. There was no mention of the laboratory, the siege, or any of the Baumgartens.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked the driving angel.

“The Archangel has summoned you.”

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Rachel paced the floor while Judith sat in the chair by the door. It was the twins’ eighteenth birthday, and they’d driven from Tyson’s Corner to Laurel, through three checkpoints, in a rage. Well, Rachel had. Judith seemed more amused than furious.

“Do you know how God-damned embarrassing that is, uncle Andy? To realize you’ve been lied to?”

“He’s just forgetful.”

“Forgetful! Forgetful? The kind of forgetful like “I’ve left the bath overflowing while I’m on vacation” forgetful!”

“I’m sure he thought it was for your own good.”

“I’m still writing my baccalaureate papers. People will read them. Grown-up people, who will read it, look at my sources, and think ‘Oo, what a prim little fundie she is.’ Now I have to re-do everything.”

“Look, he couldn’t have known.”

“Of course he knew. He…”

“Forgot, yes,” said Judith and started to laugh. Rachel turned on her.

“Oh, yes, it’s just a big joke to the math geek.”

“It is! It is!” Judith squeaked.

“Yes, all your sources are G-rated.”

I answered a call from Marvin. His avatar stood sheepishly in the middle of the room. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I forgot to end the SafeKeeper contract.”

“For six years, Daddy? Nobody keeps a censor-nanny active on anyone over twelve. Maybe fourteen for congenital twerps. But, no I get to find out we’ve been bubbled only when the contract auto-terminates? Do you know how weird it was waking up and discovering that I’ve been studying in the elementary school section all my life?

“Everything you needed was available… just filtered for objectionable…” he began.

“No. Get out!” She waved her hand and he disappeared.

She glared at me. Then at Judith. “Did I agree to this? I don’t think so.”

“Well, serves you right for being such a know-it-all,” she replied. “After all, none of us are ever working with a complete deck. We’re all just…” She tried to get her breath.

“Say it, Judy,” Rachel fumed.

“…Just… full… of… ourselves,” said Judith through her laughter.

Rachel glared at me. I couldn’t help myself from laughing either. Pretty soon we were all in tears.

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I made the mistake of engaging the technician in conversation.

“No, to answer your question,” the angel said, pulling into the parking lot, “I don’t worry about it. That’s what the Keepers are for. I can trust them to filter what’s true and what isn’t. I don’t have time for that stuff.”

“You’re not afraid you’re being manipulated?”

She cut the engine and looked straight at me. “Me? Me being manipulated? This from a guy who doesn’t even know if he’s a man or a woman?”

“Now wait a second. Listen to—”

“No, you listen. I can see the mark of Sodom on your forehead because it’s true. That’s why I trust the Keepers. They protect me and my boys from creeps like you. People who crave… confusion. Now get out.”

Choking down a reply, I opened the door and stepped out. Paintball Hero stepped down and motioned for me to follow. It was a motel, and there were armed angels along the bannister of the second floor. When we got to the landing, he touched fingers with an angel holding a long brass trumpet. “Habeus Corpus,” they said together, and then the angel motioned me to take off my rig.

It was Marvin.

“Come inside,” he said, “We’ve got a cage set up.”

Judith was standing just inside the door. As I stepped in, she threw a switch and the ‘net went silent.

“Had enough?” she said.

“More than,” I said, “you’ve got a lot to answer for, Marvin.”

“For the record,” Marvin said, “this was not my choice. The RiqBans sat down at my table, dropped their cash, dealt the cards, and now we all have to play their game.”

“But we finally have our ace,” said Rachel.

I nodded. “I saw the NSA signature. So you’ve interpolated the private key?”

Judith grinned. “I wish I could publish. The proof is NP, sadly, but it’s an unexpected flaw in RSA which can be exploited from a large number of signatures and an encrypted known value of more bits than the key size.”

“Which you got from scanning each rig that went into production and the control files,” I completed the thought. “I knew that NSA insistence on a backdoor would hoist them by their own petard.”

“Call in the angels, you really are obscene,” said Rachel, and we laughed.

“OK,” Marvin followed up, “as long as we’re going to be hoisting anyone in RiqBan headspace, I think the period of ‘the Two Witnesses’ is just about right. We’ll give it 1260 days. We just have to assume that the plan to allow export of BZ rigs to anyone is going to move forward,” said Marvin. “The combination of total control and limited external influence is just too great a temptation for the worst regimes. There won’t be many places without rigs by then. And then… we unlock the doors.”

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Out on the motel balcony, Marvin passed me the binoculars and pointed. I could make out the top of a sprawling building, the lab, peeking out from the tree cover.

“Are we far enough?” I asked.

“Three miles, give or take,” he said.

“How will we know Nichols was lying?” I asked, lowering the glasses.

My answer came in a flash of red light that threw our shadows against the wall beside us. I had heard that any munition large enough will create a mushroom cloud, but I’d never seen one before.

“There. Now I’m dead… and you’re dead, and the twins are dead. All witnesses, too.”

“So… the contracts must already be underway.”

“Without heirs, BZ reverts to the State, so, yes.”

Just then the boom rolled over us. Judith and Rachel came out onto the balcony and watched their laboratory rise into the atmosphere.

“Anyone still in there?”

“Just Andy’s handlers,” said Marvin. “We risk that somebody works out that we guessed their plans. Our saving grace is that that,” he pointed at the cloud, “leaves no remains.”

“We were on our last legs when I left the Agency,” I suggested. “I suspect that nobody will want to risk their job raising uncomfortable questions.”

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I was proved right. So was Marvin. The proprietary chipset, with the NSA backdoor, rolled out of the Manassas manufactory and was distributed worldwide en masse to local rig-makers as an income-maker for what was left of the Fed. Some nations banned it outright, and there was a movement led by Finland to have it controlled by treaty, but this only affected the signatory countries. Even then, there were so many self-installing onion network plugins that worked with rigs, locally controlled PTTs had to give up trying to control their use via deep-packet firewalls.

As expected, it was low-intensity conflicts where rigs became most used. Rock-hard circle-of-trust and encrypted communications were a real winner for warlords at any level.

That was, I like to tell myself, the justification for what we did next. It was meant to be subtle, something that creeps up on the system slowly and changes it before anyone notices. “Boiling the frog,” Judith called it.

“It’s your accomplishment, and your future. It’s really up to the two of you,” I said to them on the night we chose for the event. “If we do this, many people who are living and happy will not be.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re deciding winners and losers, though,” said Rachel. “People can’t get away from each other anymore — can’t move to another continent or another planet and set up some exclusive religion, or trade-zone, or nation-state without affecting everyone else, so we have to take everyone and everything into account. If we’re going to survive as a species, we’ve got to do it together.”

“If we share a planet, we should also share all our information,” added Judith.

“That was the idea all along,” I said.

“Then let it be done,” said Marvin, and held his finger up.

Each of us touched fingers together, exchanging keys with Judith, signing her key, and then passing the uplink to our external freenets: USG, EIII, IMU, NSA, all the acronyms we had associated with all our lives. From there, any node that expressed a query to another node would find that the trust went on, and on, through every rig in the world, via the NSA backdoor. Each search would compile a new set of results, a new cache-hit, and, in a day or two, even the hardest, most extreme DN would contain indelible information from totally different DNs, a completely different world-view. Facts against dogma. Likewise, stored information from any source, behind a firewall, locked in an encrypted datastore, behind a paywall — if they were shared by a DN, they were shared by all DNs.

Judith opened some not-very-good-or-cold champagne. We took our glasses.

“What, exactly, are we toasting?” asked Rachel.

“Babylon the Great has fallen. In one hour, her judgement has come,” said Marvin.

I grabbed a pillow from the couch and knocked his glass out of his hand.

“I always said turnabout is fair play,” he chuckled, and went for a towel.

cipher disk

Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive © 2015 Barry King
Lights of Encryption © Andrew Ostrovsky