Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!

Source: wired.com

Visualizing the Internet

Submarine fiber optic cables around the worldOrdinarily, when one talks about visualizing cyberspace, they think of massive neon-structures or cityscapes made up of cascading symbols of data. While these images – the creation of writers like William Gibson and film makers like the Waschowski Brothers – are certainly visually appealing, they are not exactly realistic, and hardly do the real thing justice.

Thankfully, a recent article over at policymic has presented us with a new and interesting way of visualizing this thing we call the World Wide Web. By compiling images of the various deep-sea cables that allow us to transmit information at the speed of light, author Laura Dimon reminds us that while the internet may be made up of trillions of bits of data moving about at any given moment, it is dependent upon real-world physical connections.

Submarine Cable Map 2012And these connections are extensive, with more than 550,000 fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor that are responsible for transmitting trillions upon trillions of interactions per day. According to the Washington Postthese cables “wrap around the globe to deliver emails, web pages, other electronic communications and phone calls from one continent to another.”

But surprisingly, few people seem to truly appreciate this. In an age of WiFi where more and more networks are being added to our public airwaves every day, the perception that all this information is something ethereal seems to have become rooted. Luckily, real-world events – such as the severing of several Seacom cables off the coast of Alexandria back in March – have managed to remind people just how grounded and potentially vulnerable the internet is.

Global Internet Map 2012Given our immense and increasing reliance on the internet for business, personal communications, entertainment and shopping, one would that we as a people would possess at least a passing knowledge of how it works. But as Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, claimed in his book The New Digital Age: “The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.”

Luckily, Laura provides a breakdown in her article which is a good start:

It consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, and governments. There are three major parts to its construction: the networks that physically connect to each other (with about 12 that are particularly significant); the data-storing centers; and the architecture that lies in between. That is where it gets really interesting.

Global Internet Map 2011And just in case this doesn’t provide a clear picture, there are numerous images that have been created by organizations like Telecom Maps and The Fiber Optic Association. These show just how immense, extensive, and crisscrossed the cables that bring us all our emails, videos, blog feeds, and ability to surf are.

In addition, they also remind us that the historic gap between the developed and underdeveloped world persists into the information age. For every network of cables, there are cable landing stations that connect the deep sea lines to the continent they are servicing. As the maps show, Europe has more international network capacity than any other world region.

Global Voice Traffic Map 2010

They also remind us that the once undisputed technological supremacy of the United States has been slowly eroding as humanity enters the 21st Century. This has been especially apparent within the last decade, where localized service providers have eschewed the US as a central hub and begun to connect their networks to other countries and regions.

Fascinating, and educational. I hope someday to be able to use these sorts of visualizations in the classroom, as a means of letting students know what enables all their surfing habits. I imagine most of them will be surfing on their smartphones as I speak!

Sources: policymic.com, telegeography.com, thefoa.org

2013, As Imagined By 1988

bladerunnerTwenty-five years ago, Los Angeles magazine envisioned what the world would look like in the current decade. And unlike Blade Runner, they avoided the cool but standard science fiction allegories – like massive billboards, flying cars and sentient robots – and went straight for the things that seemed entirely possible by contemporary standards.

The cover story of the magazine’s April 3, 1988 edition showed a futuristic downtown L.A. crisscrossed with electrically charged, multi-tiered freeways permeated by self-driving cars. The article itself then imagined a day in the life of the fictional Morrow family of the L.A. suburb Granada Hills, as “profiled” by the magazine in 2013 by science fiction writer Nicole Yorkin.

LAtimes_2013aIronically, the magazine did not envision that it would one day go out of business, or that print media would one day be lurching towards extinction. Nevertheless, the fictional article and the world it detailed were interesting reading. Little wonder then why, earlier this month, the LA Times along with an engineering class at USC, revisited the archives to assess what it predicted correctly versus incorrectly.

Together, pro­fess­or Jerry Lock­en­our and his class made a list of the hits and misses, and what they found paints a very interesting picture of how we predict the future and how its realization so often differs from what we expect. Of the major predictions to be found in LA of the 2013, as well as in the lives of the Morrow family (get it?), here is what they got right:

Smart-Houses:
smart-house_vCe6I_25016In the article, the Morrows are said to begin every morning when their “Smart House” automatically turns on. This consists of all the appliances activating and preparing them breakfast, and no doubt turning on all the environmental controls and opening the shades to get the temperature and ambient lighting just right.

While this isn’t the norm for the American family yet, the past few years have proved a turning point for home devices hooking up with the Internet, to become more programmable and serve our daily needs. And plans are well under way to find a means of networking them all together so they function as one “smart” unit.

Self-Driving Cars:
chevy_env_croppedThe writers of the article predicted that by 2013, cars would come standard with computers that control most of the settings, along with GPS systems for navigation. They also predict self-driving cars, which Google and Chevy are busy working on. In addition to using clean, alternative energy sources, these cars are expected to be able t0 self-drive, much in the same way a pilot puts their plane on auto-pilot. Drivers will also be able to summon the cars to their location, connect wirelessly to the internet, and download apps and updates to keep their software current.

But of course, they got a few things wrong as well. Here they are, the blots on their predictive record:

Homeprinted newspapers:
news_appThe article also predicts that each morning the Morrows would begin their day with a freshly printed newspaper, as rendered by their laser-jet printer. These would be tailor-made, automatically selecting the latest news feeds that would be of most interest to them. What this failed to anticipate was the rise in e-media and the decline of printed media, though hardly anyone would fault them for this. While news has certainly gotten more personal, the use of tablets, ereaders and smartphones is the way the majority of people now read their selected news.

Robot servants and pets:
kenshiro_smallIn what must have seemed like a realistic prediction, but which now comes across as a sci-fi cliche, the Morrows’ home was also supposed to come equipped with a robotic servant that had a southern accent. The family’s son was also greeted every morning by a robot dog that would come to play with him. While we are certainly not there yet, the concept of anthropomorphic robot assistants is becoming more real every day. Consider, for example, the Kenshiro robot (pictured at right), the 3D printed android, or the proposed Roboy, the Swiss-made robotic child. With all of these in the works, a robotic servant or pet doesn’t seem so far-fetched does it?

Summary:
Between these four major predictions and which came to be true, we can see that the future is not such an easy thing to predict. In addition to always being in motion, and subject to acceleration, slowing and sudden changes, the size and shape of it can be very difficult to pin down. No one can say for sure what will be realized and when, or if any of the things we currently take for granted will even be here tomorrow.

Alpha Moon Base at http://www.smallartworks.ca
Alpha Moon Base at http://www.smallartworks.ca

For instance, during the 1960’s and 70’s, it was common practice for futurists and scientists to anticipate that the space race, which had culminated with humans setting foot on the moon in 1969, would continue into the future, and that humanity would be seeing manned outposts on the moon by and commercial space flight by 1999. No one at the time could foresee that a more restrictive budget environment, plus numerous disasters and a thawing of the Cold War, would slow things down in that respect.

In addition, most predictions that took place before the 1980’s completely failed to predict the massive revolution caused by miniaturization and the explosion in digital technology. Many futurist outlooks at the time predicted the rise in AI, but took it for granted that computers would still be the size of a desk and require entire rooms dedicated to their processors. The idea of a computer that could fit on top of a desk, let alone on your lap or in the palm of your hand, must have seemed farfetched.

CyberspaceWhat’s more, few could predict the rise of the internet before the late 1980’s, or what the realization of “cyberspace” would even look like. Whereas writer’s like William Gibson not only predicted but coined the term, he and others seemed to think that interfacing with it would be a matter of cool neon-graphics and avatars, not the clean, page and site sort of interface which it came to be.

And even he failed to predict the rise of such things as email, online shopping, social media and the million other ways the internet is tailored to suit the average person and their daily needs. When it comes right down to it, it is not a dangerous domain permeated by freelance hacker “jockeys” and mega-corporations with their hostile counter-intrusion viruses (aka. Black ICE). Nor is it the social utopia promoting open dialogue and learning that men like Bill Gates and Al Gore predicted it would be in the 1990’s. If anything, it is an libertarian economic and social forum that is more democratic and anarchistic than anyone could have ever predicted.

But of course, that’s just one of many predictions that came about that altered how we see things to come. As a whole, the entire thing has come to be known for being full of shocks and surprises, as well as some familiar faces. In short, the future is an open sea, and there’s no telling which way the winds will blow, or what ships will make it to port ahead of others. All we can do is wait and see, and hopefully trust in our abilities to make good decisions along the way. And of course, the occasional retrospective and issue congratulations for the things we managed to get right doesn’t hurt either!

Sources: factcoexist.com, LATimes.com

Of Search Terms and Hits

0427_Cyber_full_600Recently, I went by my traffic page to see just how many hits I was getting in recent days. Naturally, I was sure to take a gander at the referrals and search term portions of this page, just to see who was looking for what and who else might have led them to me in the first place. Needless to say, it was interesting, and pretty consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the last few months.

Ah, but then, I decided to look at the All-Time totals to see just how much of my traffic I owed to certain subjects. You can tell much about your own page and the impact it’s having by seeing what search term more than any other led people to you. And after looking over the grand totals, I thought I might list the top 15 and see what I could conclude from it.

So, here are the top 15 search terms which have led people to my site since it went online in March of 2011:

  1. Joker:  10,060
  2. The Joker:  4,813
  3. Bath Salts Zombie:  2,267
  4. Bath Salt Zombie:  1,585
  5. Predator:  1,010
  6. Moon:  918
  7. COD (Call of Duty):  887
  8. Bayonet:  820
  9. Tiananmen Square:  607
  10. Firefly Serenity:  607
  11. Firefly:  535
  12. Zombie Apocalypse:  511
  13. Zombie Weapons:  495
  14. Desert Eagle .50 cal:  442
  15. Futuristic Guns:  412

What to conclude from all of this? I’m not sure I want to think about it much. If I did, I might have to admit that maybe my site mainly appeals to gamers, gun enthusiasts and people who like reading about insane clowns, zombies and recreational cannibalism. Not exactly the reason I started writing this thing in the first place!

But then again, I could just as easily conclude that, like me, these people enjoy a good romp through nerd territory, complete with dystopian fiction, post-apocalypticism, cool weapons, cool games and cool franchises. And maybe, just maybe, they enjoy learning about history and engaging in some thoughtful discussion along the way.

Hey, a man can always dream, right? 😉

Mona Lisa Overdrive

Welcome back to the BAMA*! At long last, I’ve come to the end of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. For those who don’t remember, this began with Neuromancer and Count Zero many months ago. I had hoped to include this third and final review in short order, unfortunately other books got in the way. And by other books, I mean a tall stack that I’ve been reading, reviewing, and putting down to make room for even more! I tell ya, being a sci-fi reader/writer/reviewer can really burn your brain somedays!

Luckily, I concluded the book just yesterday and am ready to comment on it at last. And let me begin by saying that it’s very interesting, having read every novel that Gibson has written up until this point, to look back and see how his writing began and evolved over the years. It is also interesting to see how certain thematic elements which would appear in later trilogies – i.e. The Bridge and Bigend trilogies- made their first appearances.

Elements common to cyberpunk, such as high-tech and low liing, were common to all three books in this series, but were also an intrinsic part of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The stark divide between rich and the poor and the transformative power of wealth, so important to the Bigend Trilogy, was also to be found in these earliest works. And of course, stories focusing on freelancers who find themselves in the employ of enigmatic figures, and the power plays that go on behind the scenes between various brokers, were present in all of his novels to date.

However, after completing this novel, I can honestly say that I felt let down. Prior to reading it, I was told that it was the greatest of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the reviews claimed that it was Gibson’s “most engrossing story to date”. I came away feeling that it was less than engrossing and definitely not the best of the three. For one, it seemed lacking in much of the cool elements that made Neuromancer and Count Zero so very fun and intriguing.

However, before I get into all that, I should summarize what this book is about. Here goes…

Plot Synopsis:
The story, much like all of Gibson’s works, contains multiple threads that are interrelated and come together in the end. In the first, we see a Japanese girl named Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss who has decided to send her to London in the midst of a war between the various crime families.Her only companion is a construct named Colin, a personality that inhabits a portable Maas-Neotek biochip.

Once there, she makes the acquaintance of a freelancer named Sally Shears (aka. Molly Millions) who has been hired out by her father’s people to keep her safe. In addition, Sally is being blackmailed by Swain, the head of the London mob, who has ordered her to kidnap the famous simstim star Angie Mitchell and replace her with the a body double.

In thread two, we meet the intended double, a 16-year old prostitute named Mona from Florida who travels to New York with  Eddie (her pimp) after he closes some lucrative deal. However, when they arrive, Eddie is killed and Mona is forced to undergo the surgery that will make her look exactly like Angie, whom she knows from all her simstim movies and admires greatly. Angie’s back story, about how she was the daughter of the man who invented biochips and placed bioenhancements in her brain (all of which takes place in Count Zero) is all recounted, as is her failed relationship to Bobby (aka. “The Count”).

In thread three, we learn that Angie has returned from rehab after developing an addiction to a designer drug her company was supplying. After a brief stay in Malibu, she learns that it was someone in her inner circle who was giving her the drug in the hopes that it would alter her brain chemistry, thereby disrupting her ability to access cyberspace and communicate with the AI’s now living there (the lao, or Voodoo god personas the AI’s had taken on).

In the fourth and final thread, we are introduced to three residents who live together in an abandoned factory located in “The Solitude”, an uninhabited area in the Sprawl. Gentry is the defacto owner of the place, a cyberspace jockey preoccupied with the way it has changed since events in Neuromancer where AI’s began to permeate it. Slick is his roommate, a robotics enthusiast who builds giant battledroids with the help of his friend redneck friend Bird.

Things for them become interesting when Slick’s associate, Kid Afrika, drops off a man who’s permanently jacked into cyberspace and asks them to take care of him. He leaves the man (Bobby Newmark) and a registered nurse (Cherry) with instructions to keep them safe. After examining the aleph (a biochip with immense capacity) that he’s plugged into, Gentry learns that it is an approximation of the whole data of the matrix.This is where he has been living for the past few years after breaking up with simstim star Angie Mitchell.

In the course of the story, we also learn that Lady 3Jane has died and now inhabits the aleph as a construct. At some point, Bobby stole the aleph and now inhabits it with her. After checking in with her jockey friend, Tick, in London, Molly learns that 3Jane is behind the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and replace her, and begins to work to unravel these plans. She travels to New York to meet with the Finn, himself a construct now, and learns that since her operation to Straylight, things have been changing drastically in cyberspace.

Now, 3Jane is looking for revenge, and Angie is intrinsic to that plot. After recruiting Swain and key members of Angie’s entourage to help her, she attempts to conduct the kidnapping while Angie is in New York. However, Molly intervenes and grabs Angie and Mona, who is being set up to replace her, and begins to travel to the Solitude. Angie, under the influence of the lao, is directed to Factory to reunite Angie with Bobby.

Meanwhile, Kumiko, who is alone in London, goes to find Tick and find out what’s going on. Ever since Molly left, she is advised by her Maas-Neotek construct Colin to seek refuge from Swain. When she finds him, she too learns about how cyberpsace is changing and how a massive data profile has entered into the matrix (which turns out to be the aleph). When they jack in, they are pulled into the aleph with 3Jane who attempts to hold them prisoner.

Things come together when Molly arrives in the Factory and Sense/Net mercenaries begin to show up to take Angie back. Meanwhile, in the aleph, Colin comes to their rescue by neutralizing 3Jane’s control over the construct. He also reveals 3Jane[‘s motivations. In the wake of her death, after a life of pettiness, greed and obsessive control, she has become jealous of Angie Mitchell and her abilities. Molly, since they know each other from the Straylight run, is pretty much on her shit list as well!

In the end, Angie Mitchell and Bobby die together, but not before their personalities come together in the aleph, to be forever joined by 3Jane and the Finn. Mona is picked up Kid Afrika who assumes that she’s Angie Mitchell, and is taken off to take over her starlet life. Molly takes the aleph and travels off into the distance while Slick and Cherry get together and head off to start a new life together. And finally, Gentry, who refused to leave Factory, stays behind to contemplate the matrix’s growing complexity.

Meanwhile, a final mystery is resolved. Inside the aleph, Angie, Colin and Bobby are picked up by the Finn who explains how and why the Matrix changed. After Neuromancer and Wintermute at the end of the first novel, the combined AI indicated that there was another like him, a construct similar to the Matrix in Alpha Centauri. Apparently, after he went there, he came back changed and divided into the lao, and the Matrix itself changed. Now, the Finn is taking them there, to meet the alien cyberspace and all the mysteries it holds…

Summary:
As I may have said already, this book was my least favorite of the Sprawl Trilogy. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But it was diminished in that Gibson’s usual dark, gritty, and decidedly cyberpunk style – which ranges from opulent to gothic in its appraisal of technology and its impact on society – seemed to be watered down by a much cleaner narrative. In the end, it felt more like reading from the Bigend Trilogy, in that the settings and feel were quite similar.

Aside from taking place largely in London and New York, there was also a lot of buildup and not much in the way of action. And of course, the diversions into the fields of fashion, mass media and the cult of personality; these too felt like they would have been much more at home in the Bigend Trilogy. That was the trilogy that dealt with all these elements, whereas the Sprawl was all about the nitty-gritty, about cool gadgets, mercenaries, cyber-ninjas, deck jockeys, corporate bad guys, high-tech and low-life.

To top it all off, the ending felt quite abortive. Gibson is somewhat notorious for this, but whereas Neuromancer and Count Zero contained plenty of gun-toting and cyberspace runs, this book kept all the action til the very end. And at that point, it was complicated by a rather odd narrative structure and some pretty weak explanations. After learning that 3Jane was pulling all the strings and determined to wreak revenge, it seemed weak that it was all for the sake of punishing Angie out of jealousy.

If anything, I thought her motivations had to do with the Straylight run. That after fifteen years of waiting and plotting, she finally found Molly and decided to kill her and anyone else involved in changing the Matrix. To know that it was motivated by her jealousy of Angie’s abilities just rang hollow. In addition, I thought the usual motivations, like how the wealthy are constantly trying to cheat death, might have been a fitting motivation. I seriously thought at one point that her true intentions were to find herself a vessel, and Angie Mitchell proved to be the perfect choice due to the veves in her hand. Through these, 3Jane could simply download herself, provided she had her in custody and hooked up to the aleph… or something.

However, there was plenty of interest in between all that. While many chapters kind of dragged for me, I did enjoy the scenes where the history of the Tessier-Ashpool clan were reconstructed. The revelation about the Alpha Centauri matrix, which was only hinted at at the very end of the Neuromancer was also very cool. And the detailing of the lao and the evolution of the Matrix since Wintermute and Neuromancer came together, that too was interesting. In the end, I just wished there had been more of this.

And given that this novel did wrap up the previous two novels and brought closure to the whole Sprawl trilogy, I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether or not it was the best or weakest of the three books, it is the final chapter and contains many important explanations and resolutions, without which the series would never be complete. On top of all that, it is hardly a weak read, and I know for a fact that many people consider it to be better than the others. So who am I to stand in anyone’s way of reading it?

Kudos to you William Gibson. I have now read every novel you wrote. I now move on to Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, plus any other bits of short fiction and thoughtful essays I can get my hands on. Despite all the little things I have come to criticize about your work, you remain one of the best and most important writers in this reader’s bookshelf! And if I really didn’t like you, why the hell do I model so much of my work on your prose? Like Aeschylus said of Homer, any work of mine dealing in cyberpunk and high-tech is pretty much the crumbs from your table!

Good day and happy reading folks!

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

*          *          *

Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

Data Miners – Chapter 9

Tuesday night.

Prad is standing outside Angie’s apartment door. He’s been invited this time, so it’s all good. Everyone within the Society has though so it’s not exactly special either. But there is an occasion. News of their accomplishment has spread like wildfire through the DeeP underworld. The New York Times and Seattle Times ran the story, CNN and MSNBC have picked it up, and even Fox News is running segments where pundits are saying this is some kind of liberal conspiracy, which only adds weight to the scandal. The fulcrum of the scandal appears to have been the FBI, who chose not to comment when the story first broke. That, they knew, only managed to fuel all the media speculation. As they had anticipated (quite brilliantly, in Prad’s opinion) the FBI has neither confirmed nor denied the legitimacy of the Dangle photos. If they deny their authenticity, they’ll be admitting publicly that they’ve been hacked. Confirming them will ruin the Congressman’s reputation, a man who supports the controversial work they do. Either way, they’re screwed, so naturally, they choose the path of least resistance: say nothing and let the jackals assume what they want.

Prad knocks for the second time. He can hear tunes playing from inside and some bantering. The bottle of Absolut Citron is sitting against his forearm and its starting to bite. He doesn’t even like the stuff, but he knows Angie and some others like Vodka tonics so it’s what he chose to pick up on the way. Since he drove himself, it only seemed natural to bring something he wouldn’t be drinking. Simple common sense.

Prad can hear footsteps approaching the door and a shadow falls across the peephole. He smiles and waves, hearing a click from the door’s locking mechanism. The door slides open, Lynette has shown up to greet him.

“Yammie,” she says, a touch annoyed. “You’re late. Angie was starting to get pissed.”

“Why? Sounds like things started without me.”

“She says the DeeP’s are on Skype, waiting to deliver a message. She’s had them on hold until everyone got here.”

“Oh shit,” Prad says, pushing his way in and thrusting the bottle towards her. “I got held up on the freeway. Didn’t mean to hold things up.”

“Whatever, just get in there!”

Prad pushes forward into the living room. Lynette declares his arrival when he gets there. There’s little reaction, everyone is huddled around Angie’s computer, the Skype screen minimized in her tray. Angie is sitting in front of it in her work chair, momentarily looking back to acknowledge Prad’s arrival.

“Good of you to join us, now let’s get this party started.”

Everyone closes in a little tighter around her terminal when she brings the Skype function back up to fill the screen. She hits the Call button to continue the conversation; the enlarged picture of a face covered with a black cowl opens up inside the box. Prad hears a few titters from the group and chuckles himself. Clearly these guys take the whole anarchist thing to the very edge. The face is alone, and even through the cowl, they think they can see some beady eyes admitting defeat.

“On behalf of the DeeP nation,” the person begins, even the voice is altered. Probably some Radio Shack voicebox modulator they picked up for Halloween. “I am authorized to congratulate you on your exploits. You have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have what it takes to take on the establishment. Fight on brave data warriors!”

The black cowled figure lets his righteous fist fill the screen, then reaches over to the cameras left side to click their mouse. The image is gone, the call ended. In the air hangs the sweet satisfaction of victory. Sa’id is the first to break the silence with some well deserved hoots and hollers.

“WOOOOOOOOO! Fucken eh!”

Achebe joins him. “Bragging rights! Who has bragging rights?!”

“Uh, we do! That’s who!”

High fives are given all around and Angie jumps off her computer to give out hugs. The first one is to Scott, predictably, and then she works her way around. Prad is last. She’s awkward about it too. There’s the momentary hesitation, followed by some palatable tension when it’s over. Even Scott appears to be shuffling his feet. To make matters worse, only the four of them get hugged, leaving out the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t come.

It’s a bad moment, until Prad suggests what the next step in their partying might be.

“Okay, who wants to get drunk?!”

Getting close to ten o’clock and most of the guests are soused. Rage and a few of their offspring are playing from her iTunes, just a few albums seeing as how he’s heard a couple songs repeated by now. Lynette has also turned his vodka into a punch with a tall bottle of Angie’s grapefruit juice. The cocktail is a hit and Prad is on his third glass in as many hours. He’s proud of the restraint he’s shown tonight, but for some reason, he feels obliged not to embarrass himself, maybe even give some people a ride home at the end of the night. He’s not sure what reason he has for this sudden upswing in social responsibility, but there are several culprits. The new guy is one, the crap his parents have been giving him since his little outburst over the phone is another. Then there’s the very real possibility that he might be fired by the end of the month.

Yes, it’s all a rich tapestry, plenty of reasons to act all grown up. And it’s killing him. The punch is really good, and Sa’id’s drunk off his ass on it and the set of Rogue beers Claude brought. Being sober around him is just a tad bit annoying. Now he knows how other people must feel around him when he’s under the influence. At the moment they are standing together in the kitchen, Prad being nice and fetching Tania a refill while Sa’id keeps him company. The way he’s hanging off Prad’s shoulder and telling him how great he is is virtually intolerable while sober. He sees the bottles that have been arranged on Angie’s nice marble counter. He’s tempted to open one up and suck whatever is in it straight, at least until Sa’id’s fun again. Luckily, he can think of some interesting topics to talk about. For one, he’s got a chance to ask Sa’id some questions that have been on his mind for some time.

“Always wondered, dude, aren’t you forbidden from drinking?”

He knows from experience that Sa’id is a practicing Muslim, but every time they go out, he’s there tossing pints back or drinking some funny shit Prad’s never heard of. At some point, he knew he’d need to clear this up.

“Yeah, technically,” Sa’id replies mournfully. “But it’s a Persian thing, man. We do everything with wine. It’s kind of like the Turks. Them they got that Raki and Ouzo shit, just like the Greeks; been that way for centuries. So how do you tell people to give up something that’s such a big part of their culture?”

“Didn’t know that,” Prad admits. “Thought you all did the temperance thing.”

Sa’id slaps Prad’s shoulder playfully and laughs drunkenly, the kind of laugh that sends spittle and beer foam into the face of the listener. “Naw, we aint like those Arab or Kurdish fuckers who can get by on coffee and Sisha. Strict fucking dudes! No, people like us, we got too much to celebrate!”

“I thought you were Arab,” Prad says. Sa’id was in the middle of a sip and lowers the bottle. His face is twisted into a strange expression of betrayal and shock, until he’s had a second to remember it’s Prad he’s talking to and erupts in laughter. His hand lands on Prad’s shoulder a few more times.

“Dude! Don’t go saying shit like that to any of my relatives. They’ll kill you!”

Prad laughs and has to wait while Sa’id explains to him why this should be considered offensive. Apparently, and this is some surprise to Prad (in part because he can’t believe he didn’t already know this) Persians, Turks and a whole lot of Asians besides who just happen to be Muslim don’t like being called Arab. The reason: ethnically, they’re not, and it is offensive to assume otherwise. The confusion is a by-product of media misrepresentation and cultural ignorance. This Prad nods to and understands fully.

“Just like I don’t like being confused with a Chinese person, or a Cambodian,” which has happened to him repeatedly in his youth, as Sa’id knows. They’ve shared many a laugh over it, while drunk, no less. “I get it. You’d think I would have known better.”

“Yeah, you of all people,” Sa’id says half-seriously.

“Us half-breeds know best.”

Sa’id erupts again, spewing bits of beer and foam in all directions. Prad is able to join him this time, finding his own wit quite awesome. Done with their business in the kitchen, Prad and Sa’id bring Tania her drink and join the conversation already in progress. Tania, Lynette and Claude are sitting in semi-circle fashion in front of Angie’s couch, having hogged all the seats and the room’s chest. Achebe, Angie and Scott (her left leg strewn across his lap) have taken the couch with Achebe straddling the cushioned armrest. He looks to the balcony and accounts for Zuhair and Tommy, both of whom appear to be enjoying a thin joint. Prad looks longingly at them, his mouth watering at the thought of the sweet, sticky Buddha. But the couch seems to be emitting its own gravitational pull. He finds himself irresistibly drawn to it, if only to demonstrate how good he’s being.

He’s a little surprised to hear the topic of conversation, at least the path it’s taken.

“I’m just saying, I think this might have been a mistake,” he hears Tania say. It takes a few seconds of listening, but in time it’s clear that some kind of moral debate has erupted, one concerning the nature of their mission. It doesn’t take long before he also notices that a sort of partition has set in between the party guests. The little discussion groups appear to be more than just spatially divided. Now that he thinks about it, something has been amiss ever since Angie gave out selective hugs to people. Some must have felt left out, or possibly upset that others chose to do something they didn’t approve of and got away with it. Either way, he’s totally forgotten about Tommy and Zuhair and is dedicating his full attention to the debate before him.

“I mean really, what separates the DeeM’s from the DeeP’s now?”

“I told you Tania,” she replies calmly. “I’ve declared that we are a DeeMarchy now. The days of being a simple society have passed.”

“Right,” Tania says dryly. “And in this new order, are we allowed to ask questions?”

“Of course!” Angie says angrily. “We have not abandoned our principles just because we’ve upgraded. Everyone here has a say. I’m just in charge, is all.”

“Okay, but really, aren’t we supposed to be against doing all that illegal shit? I thought we were supposed to different from those DeeP dicks.”

Prad has to restrain himself from guffawing. He’s sure he saw a movie called that once, on pay-per-view or one of his many, favored many sites. Everyone else seems oblivious to the fact that she just said something potentially filthy since they are still talking about scruples.

“She’s right,” says Claude. “You guys could seriously get in trouble for this.”

“What are you talking about, we got away clean!” Achebe protests.

“For now, maybe, but what if you missed something?”

Sa’id laughs. “Missed something? Do you know who you’re talking to?”

Angie calls him over for a high-five. Their celebratory remark has only seemed to empower the detractors in their own little camp.

“Don’t be stupid. You guys went up against the feds; Christ, against the system! You think this is just going to blow over?”

It’s Lynette saying this now, and Achebe seems to be smarting a little from the remark. He looks over at Prad like he’s expecting him to say something. At first, he thinks he wants Prad to come to their defence. Then he remembers the objections he raised in private. It’s true, he did have doubts, but clearly he doesn’t like someone else giving him crap for this. A challenge was issued, and no one should make them feel ashamed for it now.

“C’mon, it’s not like we did anything wrong,” Sa’id replies. “All we did was plant some dirty and embarrassing photos of a very bad man where they could be found. The only reason we did it was to show we could.”

“Exactly,” Lynette says. “You always liked saying that the one thing that separated us from them was the fact that we could do what they do, we just don’t.”

“Right,” Angie says with a nod.

“I think it’s safe to say that that era has run its course.”

Prad looks at Lynette angrily. It might just be because she’s the oldest of their group, but she’s starting to sound quite pedantic. Those in the opposite camp can’t help but feel chastised. He’s been holding his tongue up until now, but he’s rapidly losing patience for her and her flock of doubting Thomases. But Sa’id and Achebe aren’t done with them yet.

“Hey, we don’t go around hacking people’s databases and selling the information off, alright? We do what we do because we believe in something, because we’re good at it.”

“Right, until now. Now we do what they do.”

“Except for free,” adds Claude.

“Fuck oooooooooff…”

Every eye in the room turns towards Prad. He’s a little surprised himself that the words came from his own mouth, but they’re out now and he can’t exactly put them back in. It’s like breathing wet vapor into cold air, the whole thing crystalizes before he can withdraw it. And at the moment, he’s not sure he wants to either.

“You got something you want to add to this little discussion, Yammie? You sound kinda pissed,” says Lynette.

Prad eyes her next. She did not just call him that! He directs his first response at her.

“Excuse me if I’m tired of all your little barbs and insults.”

“Well, you’re not exactly unbiased in this discussion, are you? After all, you did take part.”

Lynette says this and Tania scoffs, which only angers Prad more. Pedagogical moralizing he can respect, if not stand, but the way these other two are riding her coattails and sitting on their high horses tonight is beyond tolerable. Prad knows he’s only going to make things worse at this point, but something needs to be said in their defense. And since they’ve clearly given him the floor…

“Yeah, I’m biased,” he begins. “But so are you. You all backed out of doing this for personal or legal reasons, you didn’t say shit about the moral implications. And if you had a problem with it, I seem to recall Angie gave you a pass and said no one would think less of you. For you to come here tonight and judge her like you’ve got any right to do so seems kinda hypocritical.”

The three of them are taken aback, and a look over at Angie seems to confirm that she’s agrees. He’s a little impressed with himself right now. He’s got her in her corner and he’s even managing to smack people down in a debate. Amazing how not getting fucked up at this party seems to working in his favour.

“So we’re hypocrites, then?” Tania says. “Because we’ve pointed out that you’ve done something illegal? I mean, forget the morality for one second, you did commit a crime.”

“Since when did that stop us? Do you paid for your music or all those videos you download? Since when have any of you been against using your computers for a little guilty pleasure and social justice?”

“Are you comparing downloads to –”

Prad raises his hand to stop Lynette before she can make her perfectly valid point.

“Okay, not a fair comparison! But honestly, are you gonna’ look me in the eye and tell me you give a damn about the law? Are you really concerned with all that, or are you guys just the slightest bit jealous?”

“You think we’re jealous?” Claude asks directly.

“Yeah, I think you are,” Prad says with just a trace of self-satisfaction. “We did something pretty awesome. Might have been out of character, might have been a little crazy and just a little more illegal, but sometimes you gotta step up. And Sa’id’s right, it’s not like we did anything particularly wrong. All we did was make sure a bad man got a taste of his own medicine. You, me, we always complain about who controls the information, how bad men abuse the media and innocent people suffer. And we always say that the law is stacked against people changing things, don’t we?”

He looks at Tania and uses one of her annoying sentence starters, just to show her once and for all how annoying they are: “I mean, just look at the progression: bad men buy up more and more of the countries print and television media, and the amount of institutionalized evil just goes up and up. We got hijacked elections, illegal wars, civil rights being suspended, the government spying on its people, and no one seems to know how to stop it. We all say ‘if only we could get the truth to people’ –”

“We get the point, Prad!” Claude interrupted with his fiery Haitian baritone. “What the hell does this have to do with what you guys pulled?”

Prad stops for a second and re-marshals his thoughts. He himself is even thankful for the disruption; Lord knows he was beginning to run that particular train off its tracks and make himself look foolish in the process. He was also getting pretty far off topic.

“Sorry, folks. The point is, for once, we did something about it and made sure the right people got egg on their face for once. The only irony is we had to break the law in order to do it. You gotta know the system is fucked if you got to do that.”

“So… you’re Robin Hood now?” Claude asks gingerly. Prad can tell he’s kidding, but he treats the proposition with some seriousness. He’s sure that was the tagline from the movie, might as well work with it.

“We’re always saying how things need to be done, but so far, what have we done to make things better? As I see it, we got nothing to feel guilty about, and who knows, some good might actually come of this. At best, Dangle’s been embarrassed and might even be politically hurt from all this. At worst, we get in trouble and people feel inspired by the example we set.”

“You really think so?” asks Lynette. She sounds semi-serious too when she asks. Prad treats it as such at any rate.

“Yeah, I do. It was peaceful, it was precise, and best of all, it was appropriate. Tell me there aren’t millions of people nationwide who won’t be happy this happened. Hell, we know people hate the cocksucker, and it’s sure to piss off those right-wing assholes that support him.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Sa’id says, raising his bottle in salute. Prad nods and summarizes for them:

“And all we had to do to was pull a little stunt that just happened to be illegal. I don’t know about any of you, but I consider that a pretty sweet deal.”

Well, Prad thinks, how about that? For once, he argued on the eloquent side of things. The opposition group is far from convinced and begin to nitpick some of the points he’s raised, but Prad decides to take a rest to listen from the sidelines. His one man assault has not won anyone over, but it’s clear that the moral tone has been dropped from the debate.

He looks back at Angie. He notices that she’s staying out of the debate too. In fact, she’s looking at him from time to time, bypassing her conversation with Scott to do so. She even looks a little… impressed.

Wandering back to the kitchen to fetch something non-alcoholic to help him sober up some more, he begins to wonder about that very thing. Why should she be impressed that he spoke on her behalf, or the groups for that matter? Does it surprise her that he happens to share her beliefs? He thought that was abundantly clear at this point. But then again, had he ever given her cause to think they had that in common? Come to think of it, have they ever had a conversation that didn’t involve sex positions or porn? Actually, during their last conversation, she brought up the subject of porn. He just threw some innuendo and sexual references her way. But who knows? Maybe if he tried talking to her more about what they do and less of what he wanted to do to her, she might actually show him some respect!

He feels a blow strike his shoulder, startling him and spilling the can of ginger ale he’s just opened. He turns around to see Sa’id again, who also appears mildly impressed. It’s hard to tell though, his expression is kind of disarrayed.

“Dude, that was cool!” he says breathlessly. He has apparently run himself out of breath just making it to the kitchen. “I didn’t know you thought all those things. Man, we should hang out more. I got some websites I think you would enjoy. My sis even runs one of them from back home.”

“Yeah, that sounds cool,” Prad replies.

“I mean it, man! We should definitely hang out more. We don’t do enough together and I think my pals would like you some.”

“I mean it too,” Prad replies insistently.

“Okay, man. And I mean it! I think it was cool what you said. I’ve never heard the fight characterized so perfectly. And what the hell is up with those bitches, anyway? Why are they busting our chops tonight, of all nights?” He leans in close to issue this last part.

“I don’t know,” Prad says, taking a sip of ginger ale to soothe his tired throat. “Guess we just didn’t count on people feeling left out, is all. And I guess Angie did kind of pull an executive decision, didn’t she?”

Sa’id looks at him through half-closed, glassy eyes. His face is still able to register confusion though, even through all the hooch. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, I…” Prad takes another sip of ginger ale and wonders himself where he was going with that. “Maybe they just wish she consulted them first before accepting the challenge.”

Sa’id ponder it over, staring off drunkenly. He smiles and scoffs, blowing some spittle Prad’s way.

“Eh, man! Everyone’s got to take orders sometimes. Even us DeeMarchists!”

Prad nods and chuckles. He has to concede that. Not everyone can be anarchists and still be functional. He can only imagine how the DeePs do their thing. Probably with a lot of arguing and some bullshit dominance, kind of like they did tonight. Hopefully, this will be the last time they have to deal with those pricks. It’s bad for the group’s Feng shui.

“So whatta you wanna’ do now?” Sa’id asks him finally.

Prad thinks that one over. He sighs and wishes he could crack another beer or smoke a joint. Being responsible doesn’t exactly leave a lot of options. But then again, he’s been good for a few hours now and the urge for mischief is starting to back up inside him.

He casts a look back in the direction of the living room. The sitting circle has broken up and people are performing multiple tasks now. Claude and Tania are playing Xbox, Achebe and Lynette are surfing on Angie’s computer. And on the couch, Angie and Scott appear to be getting all lovey-dovey, talking all close and intimately like, punctuated with the occasional kiss. He thinks ahead to the end of the evening, when everyone else will be gone and Scott will be the last one here… with her. Oh things will start out slow, a few kisses, some petting, and some foreplay as they gradually make their way to Angie’s bedroom and slowly undress each other –

A devilish thought suddenly occurs to Prad. Should he? It seems risky, but then again, what’s playing it safe gotten him lately? And they’re in Angie’s apartment finally, it’s not like he’s going to be here again anytime soon! And now is the ideal time, while she’s totally preoccupied with that Scott fucker! When will he have this chance again?

He leans in close and whispers conspiratorially to Sa’id:

“Let’s go check out Angie’s room.”

“Prad, I don’t know about this.”

Sa’id whispers nervously from behind Prad’s back. His footfalls are remarkably stealthy for a drunken man. He’s obviously had lots of practice, probably from sneaking into such a well-populated house as a teen after a night of binge drinking with his hot-blooded pals.

“Take it easy, dude. I just wanna’ see what kind of digs the boss lady has.”

“You’re in her apartment, isn’t that enough?”

“Hell no, I wanna see where she goes to ground. Can’t understand a woman unless you see where she sleeps.”

Sa’id grumbles. “This is some stalker shit, man. I can’t believe you suckered me into doing this.”

Prad laughs quietly and steps forward, one toe at a time.

All in all, her bedroom is pretty much what he expected. Light blue coat of paint, cool and relaxing. Perfectly conducive to sleep, if you’re the kind of person who likes its cool. There’s a quaint little work desk with a lamp, a book case and armoire in one corner, and a double bed next to the wall. Everything smells like lavender and a hint of familiar smelling perfume, plus the faint scent of fabric softener. His feet inch their way intuitively towards the bed. Something about its size is comforting. Two people could never fit there, comfortably.

Wait, he tells himself. Why is that good for him? It would be bad for Scott, but where would it leave him if…? He shakes the thought off. Not good to let his mind slip in that direction. Not when he’s already trespassing in her room.

“Jesus, it’s not like I’m going through her panty drawer, take er easy.”

“Man, I figured that was next for sure.”

Prad chuckles quietly. He’s sure Angie would blow a gasket to see the two of them rifling through her underwear. And one look at the armoire tells him that they must be in the top drawer. Why is that? What is it about a top drawer that suggests underwear storage? Maybe if he were just to check…

“Dude, if you start jerking off on her pillow, I’m going to freak.”

Prad looks back at him in shock and disgust. What’s he think, that he’s some kind of pervert? This is just for fun, simple curiosity. It’s what the grunts must periodically do, tear the veil off the cool exterior of their superior officer to see what’s behind. Wasn’t it the moral in the Wizard of Oz that everybody needs to pull back the curtain to see where the real wizard resides? It’s totally harmless, provided they don’t get caught!

“I’m out, Prad. Anyone asks, you’re in the john.”

Prad waves him out. What a pussy! At least now he’s free to roam without all the noise to distract him. Drunken Sa’id! Lord knew that if he’d been around much longer, he would have alerted everyone in the apartment as to their whereabouts. His freakish negativity is also something he can do without right now. Angie’s bed is looming before him, and the last thing he needs is perverse suggestions to make him feel guilty. Leaning forward ever so slightly, he opens his nostrils and takes a deep breath. Her pillow is where her long hair is laid out every night. He can see that glorious dark mountain of curls spread out across it, trickling down her shoulders and reaching out to the pillow next to it. Whoever’s there probably thinks it’s a nuisance, but what a lovely nuisance! He doesn’t want to think about that too much, or he’d be forced to acknowledge that someone else has that pleasure.

Too late, he thinks. His mind has gone there, and it’s a mighty sad place, not to mention pathetic. Someone else gets to sleep in that bed; meanwhile, he’s stalking around her room like it’s some kind of exercise in political subversion. Ah, whatever, he hasn’t done anything irredeemable yet. And he can still leave while that’s still true. Straightening up, he eyes the door, his escape route, and starts to inch his way towards it. Just a few feet and he’s free, nothing to answer for and no reason to hang his head in shame. Just a few feet, one foot in front of the other…

Once clear, he spots the bathroom to his left. Away from the living room, where everybody, including Sa’id (who he must thank for planting the suggestion in his head), are busy rambling about stuff. He can hear the music, a song by Tom Morello. He’s heard this one at least twice tonight. Now seems like a good time to void his bladder and justify that alibi.

In contrast to her bedroom, the bathroom is a warm pink. The wall next to the bathtub is tiled up to head level. And the seat cover is pink with fluffy edges. The colour scheme is a little bit outside his comfort range, but it too feels appropriate given the purpose of the room. Nothing like a warm-feeling room to get guests to unclench. He finds it easy to urinate under these circumstances, and is even polite enough to do it sitting down.

And it appears the party is winding down when he returns. Tommy is passed out on the couch, Zuhair sitting next to him, not far behind. The weed they brought appears to have been a little too strong for their taste. Lynette and Claude have split a cab and left while Tania and Achebe are smoking the remains of Tommy and Zuhair’s second joint – the one they couldn’t finish – on the balcony. He looks back at Angie again. That look of newfound respect appears to have faded somewhat, but she’s still looking at him strangely. It’s the kind of look you give someone when you’ve seen a whole different side of them, almost like coming to grips with a whole new person. And she starting to look tired too. So is Scott, he notices. It seems pretty clear they want people to leave so they can have some alone time.

“So…” he says, searching for something appropriate to say. He’s determined to end the night on a good note, go out with a final display of maturity, no matter how small. He can see Sa’id is about ready to fall on the couch, the one occupied by Tommy and Zuhair. He’s quick to grab him by the arm and slink it over his shoulders.

“Ready to go, bud?” he asks.

“Huh? Oh, yeah!” Sa’id mutters. He’s still able to stand on his own, but Prad can tell he’s more than his fare share of weight on his shoulders. “Yer’ the best, man. Taking me home like this.”

“Doesn’t mean we’re married,” Prad replies. Angie and Scott titter. “Alright, let’s go. Goodnight, guys. Thanks for the party.”

“Yeah, goodnight man.”

“Goodnight… Yamal.”

Prad would stop and turn around, but with Sa’id on his arm, the best he can manage is the former. Another first for the night. He can’t recall Angie ever using his first name. If Sa’id weren’t so close to him right now, he’s sure he’d be getting chubby in his pants. Or at least he’d be feeling a warm sense of satisfaction, the kind that’d put a swagger in his step. But that’s not possible either. He smiles and carries on, his left foot, Sa’id right’s foot, their middle foot. It’s a three legged race to get to the door. Once there, Sa’id is able to put his weight on the small table by the closet while Prad gets his jacket and keys from the table. He spots them in a small pile, the auto lock with the Mazda logo identifying them. They’re right on top of a pile of mail, next to a brown box which appears opened at one end. The small piece of twine running down the length of it gives him a curious feeling of déjà vu.

Prad grabs his keys with one hand and pushes the other bits of mail away so he can get a better look at it. The inkling he had a second before becomes a full blown torrent. The box’s edges were secured with duct tape, now torn but neatly folded over. Next to the table, in a wastepaper basket, he spots the telltale bit of crumbled brown paper. He reaches in and grabs hold of it, using the table to unroll it.

“Prad, what are you doing?” It’s Angie asking this. She’s spotted him from the couch, picking through her garbage and examining the contents. On any other day, he might be worried how this looks. Not right now though; he needs to see if the printing is a match. Then he’s sure he’ll feel a lot of worse.

“Prad! Will you answer me please?” She’s up and coming to the door now, Scott not far behind her. The writing is exact, the same block lettering, done with a fine-tipped permanent marker.

“Angie?” he says, the last vowel heavily inflected. “When did you get this?”

“What, that?” She points to the box’s remains. “A few days ago, why?”

“Was there a book inside?”

“Yeah, ‘Ghost in the Machine’.” While Prad is deathly silent, pondering the possible meaning of this, she draws an obvious conclusion. “Did you get one too?”

“And there was a note inside? A yellow sticky? Said something like, ‘Read this’ and ‘learn’?”

“No,” she shakes her head. “If I remember right, it said, ‘Consider this a gift. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it’, or some such thing.”

“Where is it?” Prad demands.

“In my room, on my bookshelf, why?”

Prad is out of the doorway, past Angie and Scott and back down the hallway to her room before anyone can stop him. Hopping back over the threshold that guards her cool little cell of a room, he makes his way for the bookshelf he spotted during his earlier recce and begins rifling through the stacks. Angie is quickly behind him, standing in the doorway and demanding answers.

“Prad, what the fuck are you doing? Get out of my room!”

“Where is it?”

She groans and enters the room. She grabs a book that was on its side, on top of a stack and facing with its pages outward. Checking the cover to be sure, she then thrusts it into Prad’s chest and raising her arms out sideways, palms up. “Satisfied?”

Prad looks it over. Same exact copy, same exact publisher and everything. Only difference appears to be the broken binding, which only proves that Angie has been doing what Prad was instructed to do with his.

“I got one just like it the other day, in the mail.”

“Really?” Angie asks, her tone flat.

“Angie, who’s sending us these?”

Another groan. Her arms are now folded across her breast. He can tell she’s really annoyed. “Did you bother to read the foreword?”

“What? No, why?” Prad asks innocently.

“Because if you did, you might have noticed it’s by Professor Germaine. As in Albert Germaine, the man who educated us and is now sick.” She says all this calmly but emphatically. Flipping open the book, he turns to the aforementioned foreword section. Sure enough, the title reads, Towards a New Understanding: Behaviouralism and Metaphysics in the study of human thought. What more proof does he need that Germaine was behind this?

He looks up at Angie, who is still staring down at him. She’s not seething anymore, but everyone in the room, which now includes Scott and Sa’id, can tell she’s pissed. Prad, for his part, is standing there perfectly still, looking at her with vacant-eyes and a neutral-ish frown. When he finally gets around to saying something, all he can think to say is: “Oh.” A long pause. “Sorry.” An even longer pause. “Guess I should read it, huh?”

“I believe that was what the prof asked you to do.”

Prad smiles nervously. Another pause, this one terribly long. Angie takes back the book and returns it to her shelf. She doesn’t appear all that angry now, just a little disappointed, and expectant for sure. Without waiting to be told, Prad decides to try to salvage whatever dignity he has left and leave before he does anything else stupid.

“Okay! Well, I got to go! Sa’id, we got to go!”

“Sure, right, man.”

“Thanks for everything, and uh, you know, sorry again.”