The bug arrived in stealth, without warning. And it was virulent, so bad that some – the closet mystics amongst us – supposed it sprang from the occult. A visitation? they murmured, keenly tracking an inexplicable disorder. More sober thinkers took a dimmer view. They were unsure of what had stolen in, but the devastation was plain enough. Infestation was their spin. Yet, they too were ignorant of the grim extent of what was really happening. Only Irving Heywood had it right. He was in an emergency session of the High Council. “Look,” he said, leaning far back in his chair and stroking a ballooning paunch – in bad situations Heywood often acted nonchalant – “there is no remedy.” Although he seemed unruffled, he felt otherwise. Hugging upper arms to his chest to hide stains of perspiration growing on his shirt, he shrugged, adding, “We’re just about wiped out. No embassy’s been spared. I tell you, it’s like a plague.”
The tag stuck. It entered Service history. That black day of digital destruction seared all our memories.
Cyberspace velocity and a voracious appetite for ruination – these were the overt symptoms. But the bug also possessed an inner wizardry, because it was precisely targeted, like a smart bomb. Years of assurances from the techies had wrapped us in a comfortable cocoon. We had come to believe that the Service communication network was invincible, closed to outsiders, protected by a wall of silicon as unscalable, as impenetrable – so its designers claimed and they were never short of hubris – as that cast-in-concrete aberration that once snaked its way through Berlin. But in an hour, maybe less, the years of network building went for nought. Vital spirits gushed from the Service as water through a burst dam. Ten thousand linked computers scattered over all the diplomatic outposts were sabotaged with one stroke. Emptied of all contents, they went dead. Our shocked techies stood by, helpless and slack-jawed. Outside in the rest of the world all the other networks went about their business in robust good health. Why us? Why no one else?
The bug’s origin was eventually pinned down, of course. An ancient, deserted monastery in Transylvania. A satellite dish sat on the roof. Beneath it there may have been a bookless library, or a chapel which long ago ceased to house God. Painted on the roof around the dish in a circle, in crude strokes from a broad brush dipped in a sickly yellow paint, were words in the Romanian language: Cursed are they who deny, for they shall be denied. It sounded like a translation of the writings of an ancient Judaic cult.
A two-minute briefing on the meltdown from Claude, chief of technical operations, was all Heywood had, and much of it was gibberish. Closed-system vulnerability, integrated software suites, geometric arrays of servers, spokes and hubs and mega-baud lines linking macro and micro missions: technical hocus-pocus, meaningless words, all of it passing through Heywood’s mind as water does through gravel. When he finished, Claude searched for a sign he’d been understood, but all he saw was the Czar rising, fixing his gaze on the door, and initiating the long slow trek to the High Council chamber. Half into the hallway Heywood hesitated. “What’s really going on, Claude?” he asked quietly. “What’s causing it?” The network engineer shrugged. Heywood pressed one last time. “And what happens now?” Claude looked blank. He had no idea.
But Heywood did. Blackness descending on ten thousand computers had a cause which, once known, would demand sacrifice. And in the eventual rite he could end up being the one supine on the altar waiting for the knife. From experience he also knew – with the disaster still breaking – that he might find some toehold with which to turn events to his advantage. That required authoritative answers to tough questions and, with Claude struck dumb, the Czar was only too aware that he would live or die by his wits alone. By the time Irving Heywood walked into the High Council chamber his opening lines were honed.
“At approximately seventeen-twenty Greenwich Mean Time, a bit past the noon hour here, the watch in Network Overview noticed a couple of overload lights flashing on the board. Only one technician was on duty…the lunch break…and he wasn’t responsible for network overload, so he waited. I ought to say, network overload is not necessarily regarded as dangerous. It shows everyone around the world is busy. That’s good. It’s what we want. The main impact is that when you click a ‘send’ button the response is a bit slower. So it’s no big deal.”
This, more or less, was fact.
In the following years Rachel’s career took off. Articulate, self confident, polished – she was born for the work she had chosen. In Vienna she out-performed the city’s entire stuffy diplomatic corps. In the international meetings no one was more adept at confronting the sulking delegates and high-nosed ambassadors; she had a way of nudging them towards compromise. Anne-Marie said Rachel had friends everywhere; she was nearly a public persona. She appeared on the society pages. She was invited to fine restaurants, exclusive concerts, a VIP box to see Vienna’s famous white horses, and balls and elaborate garden parties. Yes…true. But I also knew what she was doing on the weekends spent privately.
During Rachel’s Vienna years I once had an opportunity to ask her about her personal life. I did it elliptically and it boomeranged. Rachel was in town for consultations. One Saturday morning, a fine winter day, not excessively cold, with fresh snow, an azure sky, and cold, clean, diamond-hard air, I called her on impulse at the hotel and suggested cross-country skiing in the hills north of the city. She was immediately keen. We sorted out the details of getting her equipment and by early afternoon were in the rolling landscape, racing over tree shadows, following a trail taking us deep into the forest. Rachel was wearing improvised outdoor clothing and wasn’t the best dressed cross-country skier out that day, but her strides were smooth and forceful. Born for glittering ballrooms and global conference chambers, out on the trail she showed she was a child of nature too.
The destination that afternoon was Herridge Cabin. Nestled amongst birch, oak, spruce and pine, fashioned from rough wood with a steeply sloping roof, the cabin is straight out of a fairy tale. When we got there a fire was burning in the stove. Lean, flushed, friendly skiers came and went. We were steaming from our effort and finding the interior too warm, sat down outside on a bench against the cabin wall to share a bottle of water. Looking at the sinking February sun, we talked, though not long. I can count on one hand the conversations I’ve had with Rachel after she left on her postings, and each one, each phrase she uttered, each nuance in her words has etched itself into my brain.
I recall being interrupted then by a gentle tapping on my door. It sounded hesitant, from someone respectful, someone reluctant to disturb me. All the same, because my line of thinking was broken, I was instantly exasperated and nearly shouted through the door to come back some other time. There was a second round of tapping. Sighing loudly, I got up and pushed my chair backwards. With too much force. It tripped over a temporary cable on the floor and banged into a flimsy table. A leg buckled. Some journals, my briefcase and a pile of disks clattered to the floor. The noise and the mess fuelled my anger. I swung the door open. In the hallway, with her head cocked to one side, stood Heywood’s acolyte. She looked up at me, obviously amused.
“What?” I demanded.
“What do you want?”
“Thought I’d introduce myself.”
“I know who you are.”
“All right. And I know who you are. Got five minutes?”
“I’d like to compare notes.”
“I haven’t any notes. None you’d be interested in.”
“Maybe I’ve got some you’d be interested in.”
“I don’t think so.”
“The virus came in through the server you use a lot.”
This surprised me. My expectation was that Heywood’s groggy technicians would need weeks to figure that out. “So,” I said, rattled by her steady, happy, goodwill look. “That ought to be old news by now.”
“Yeah. Never fails, right? The barn door stands open, but even so, everyone wants to know how the horse bolted. Speaking of old news, I’m retrieving files. Most of you down here are back at work.”
“Their gratitude will be boundless.”
“My files are my business.”
“You didn’t lose any? Everybody else’s got kayoed.”
“Then help everyone else.”
She persisted. Unperturbed, like a shrink, she asked me to explain if I had any special vibes when the virus arrived. Had I felt chilled? Had I had the willies?
“My computer went blank,” I sneered. “I heard a noise. I opened my door, stood where I’m standing now, watched people go berserk. It was forgettable. Do you mind? I’ve got stuff to do.” With this I slammed my door.
On Nairobi’s outskirts, when the police motorbikes have peeled away, the convoy calms. The road climbs through coffee plantations and dense stands of trees. It climbs still more to heights too cold for coffee, up to eight, nine thousand feet. On the left through the trees Rachel catches glimpses of a chasm in the earth. Soon there’s a viewing point where they halt and get out to experience the earth falling away from their feet. Samson says: “New York has the Empire State building. In Kenya we make do with the Rift Valley.”
For Rachel, New York’s skyscrapers are tawdry toothpicks compared to what she’s looking at. It must be a kilometre down and the features in the valley, squatting extinct volcanoes that witnessed Homo sapiens taking his first upright steps, are razor sharp, as if there’s no air. On the far side, more than forty kilometres off, the Rift’s other edge is a dark mysterious wall begging for exploration. Rachel removes her hat because the brim restricts the vastness of the panoramic sweep.
The many long years of pawing through paper files were useful preparation, Heywood realised, for what he was now learning. Files are files, and his knack for getting the most out of them – giving free rein to lightning bolts of intuition – was wonderfully transferable. Access to paper files had always increased as he moved up the Service hierarchy, and whenever that happened so did his pleasure that he’d now know more. Yet, as the joy level went up, so did anxiety. Because of what this knowledge expansion implied. The nagging question was always this: if each time he was promoted there were new files, were there still more, ones he knew nothing about? Who in his position would not feel insecure? But now, under Jaime’s tutelage, the question was becoming moot because all restrictions were falling away. “Should have learned this long ago,” he would say curtly, as she showed him the finer points for gaining still wider access. “Quite the nipper, you are, Irv,” Jaime would reply. “Your fingers are on a tear on that keyboard.” And it was true. His fleshy hands were learning to dance with blinding speed. Had confidence tricksters observed it they would have marveled at his skill. Every day three hours were set aside for practice.
They’d start with the easy pickings: some do-good organisations. “Let’s get to the ones that promote political correctness,” was Heywood’s opening gambit, because he had never admired that crowd. Step by step Jaime showed him how to get at them. The next easiest batch for developing good hacking technique were the journalists. “I love this,” he said, taking time to read e-mails, reports and feature articles in various stages of completion. “It’s good to know I can have fun when I eventually retire.” Jaime suggested they have a go at the prime minister’s office. “An inspired suggestion,” the Czar agreed. “Let’s see if we can find out whether there’s truth to the rumour that he’s about to recall our ambassador in Washington.” Next came The Supreme Court, which was a disappointment, because they were expecting that getting into that network would be tougher. All the same, it confirmed that the exalted judges were spending much of their time being just petty rivals.
Looking back, it seems time stood still throughout that circular Caribbean trek. Ferried from island to island, leaning into the wind from the bows, mesmerised by the play of light on water, I was still further transformed. Pangs of well-being, that same lightheadedness I felt in the Great Smokies, grew stronger. Sea smells, the dull thudding of diesel engines, a shared gulp of cheap rum now and then, saltwater spray in the face, scenery so fine that either you wept or had to ignore it – all this gelled, and cleansed, and took me to a new pinnacle of serenity.
On the tramp steamer, once out on the open sea, I went to lie down on my bunk. Flat on my back, eyes closed, sensing unity with the ship’s rolling, I was euphoric with the bearing I now had: physically it was southwest; metaphysically it was into an unknown.
“Another thing you’re good at is staring down the bigwigs,” she laughed. “You don’t kowtow. How it bothered them. I remember watching their squirming. It was refreshing.”
Even so, having seldom ventured outside my Service cell, whatever strengths I had were monkish ones, unsuitable for deployment in the tumultuous settings where Rachel had magically pulled the strings. In the places she thrived, I said emphatically, I would be dysfunctional.
Glibly she replied: “What you’re really saying is that you intend to hold yourself back.” She counselled the opposite, urged me to re-invest in myself, to prepare a new focus, a new passion. “In a year or two, who knows, you could be leading an nternational movement. It wouldn’t be difficult, not for you.”
“Rachel, you’re talking in riddles. Leading an international movement? Me? I’m the wallflower, remember. Years ago you called me that. Anyway, people instinctively avoid me. I think they see something misshapen, a werewolf, something like that.”
“Werewolf? No. And now that I think about it, not a wallflower either. Maybe you’re a cross, a wereflower, or a wererose: a few prickly thorns, but when the bud opens it’s priceless. Anyway, I’m not suggesting you go out on the street to wave placards and lead people on marches. You can lead them with ideas. There’s no end to the subjects you could investigate and explain. And you could come up with sensible suggestions for action. Take new international security concepts. Few people understand the linkages between population growth, disease, the environment, the arms trade, the economy and the comforts of living in the suburbs. Or look at the challenge of forcing organisations running the world’s affairs finally to become responsible. Organisations are inherently arrogant. They always convince themselves they are right all the time. Which ones admit to error? Which ones learn? Imagine putting that in the light of a thorough rational analysis. You have a tracking nose, Carson. You know where to find information. You know how to present it and draw convincing conclusions. You have all the skills.” Rachel shrugged and spread her hands to emphasise that for her all this was obvious.
The elevator delivered the Czar to ground level, but halfway through the Service complex’s entrance foyer, the urge to know what Jaime sent him became too strong. He interrupted the walk to Operations Tower, whisked the high-tech device out of the holster, and fingered tiny buttons to activate encrypted communications. Firewall transit came first and was smoothly accomplished. A short wait now for access to Zadokite Port. It being just after lunch the foyer was full of visitors coming and going and the numerous voices gave rise to a subdued din. None of this got through to Heywood. Outwardly his stance was tranquil, but inwardly he trembled – as if he was feverish. The revelations which Jaime used to orchestrate had been addictive and, just as then, his temperature was now rising. His palms went sweaty. He swallowed hard waiting for the rush. It came. Zadokite Port divulged that Jaime’s Progress consisted of two information items.
In his statuesque seclusion the Czar pursued a complex path of commands which took him down long highways, across sealed borders, through impenetrable fences, to the other side of guarded doors. He’d been in this place before – the hushed archives of a US Army medical centre. Click, click, click and Carson’s file popped open. The beauty of it. Were it not for the screen preventing contact, the Czar would have grabbed and hugged that file. So what was new? Huh, huh, two weeks ago Carson was still listed as psychologically fragile. Good. And last week, yes indeed, he was still taking strong medication. Okay, that made sense too. What else? What? Suddenly declared fit for discharge? Left three days ago?
Creepers, Heywood thought, is the son-of-a-gun on his way back?
Perturbed by item one, he frowned and activated item two. It was quicker to get at, taking less than a second. A newspaper article appeared on the screen, a reproduction of page 8 of The South California Spiritualists’ Chronicle. There was a headline with a bolded intro. Heywood gasped.
New Spokesbeing for Pan-Credoism.
The latest arrival at the Rice Valley Pan-Credo
Monastery, located in the shadows of the Big Maria
Mountains, is Carson Pryce.
“Jumping Jesus!” Heywood muttered. “Pan-Credoism? What in God’s great universe is that?” It had the ring of some kind of crustacean getting cooked in a pot. And why had Carson arrived at a monastery? What had those army shrinks done to him? Pumped him full of mood ointments extracted from God knows what kind of weird plant? Still, the image of Carson spending his future wearing a robe made of animal hair piqued Heywood and he scrolled farther.