By 2014: According to Asimov and Clarke

asimov_clarkeAmongst the sci-fi greats of old, there were few authors, scientists and futurists more influential than Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And as individuals who constantly had one eye to the world of their day, and one eye to the future, they had plenty to say about what the world would look like by the 21st century. And interestingly enough, 2014 just happens to be the year where much of what they predicted was meant to come true.

For example, 50 years ago, Asimov wrote an article for the New York Times that listed his predictions for what the world would be like in 2014. The article was titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014”, and contained many accurate, and some not-so-accurate, guesses as to how people would be living today and what kinds of technology would be available to us.

Here are some of the accurate predictions:

1. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use.”
In short, electroluminescent displays are thin, bright panels that are used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs. What’s more, personal devices are incorporating this technology, in the form of OLED and AMOLED displays, which are both paper-thin and flexible, giving rise to handheld devices you can bend and flex without fear of damaging them.

touch-taiwan_amoled2. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.”
Oh yes indeed! In the last thirty years, we’ve seen voicemail replace personal assistants, secretaries and message boards. We’ve seen fax machines replace couriers. We’ve seen personal devices and PDAs that are able to handle more and more in the way of tasks, making it unnecessary for people to consult a written sources of perform their own shorthand calculations. It’s a hallmark of our age that personal technology is doing more and more of the legwork, supposedly freeing us to do more with our time.

3. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”
This was a popular prediction in Asimov’s time, usually taking the form of a videophone or conversations that happened through display panels. And the rise of the social media and telepresence has certainly delivered on that. Services like Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime and more have made video chatting very common, and a viable alternative to a phone line you need to pay for.

skypeskype4. “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
Multitasking is one of the hallmarks of modern computers, handheld devices, and tablets, and has been the norm for operating systems for some time. By simply calling up new windows, new tabs, or opening up multiple apps simultaneously and simply switching between them, users are able to start multiple projects, or conduct work and view video, take pictures, play games, and generally behave like a kid with ADHD on crack if they so choose.

5. “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If you define “robot” as a computer that looks and acts like a human, then this guess is definitely true. While we do not have robot servants or robot friends per se, we do have Roomba’s, robots capable of performing menial tasks, and even ones capable of imitating animal and even human movements and participating in hazardous duty exercises (Google the DARPA Robot Challenge to see what I mean).

Valkyrie_robotAlas, he was off on several other fronts. For example, kitchens do not yet prepare “automeals” – meaning they prepare entire meals for us at the click of a button. What’s more, the vast majority of our education systems is not geared towards the creation and maintenance of robotics. All surfaces have not yet been converted into display screens, though we could if we wanted to. And the world population is actually higher than he predicted (6,500,000,000 was his estimate).

As for what he got wrong, well… our appliances are not powered by radioactive isotopes, and thereby able to be entirely wireless (though wireless recharging is becoming a reality). Only a fraction of students are currently proficient in computer language, contrary to his expectation that all would be. And last, society is not a place of “enforced leisure”, where work is considered a privilege and not a burden. Too bad too!

Arthur-C-ClarkeAnd when it comes to the future, there are few authors whose predictions are more trusted than Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, he wrote nearly three dozen nonfiction books and countless articles about the future of space travel, undersea exploration and daily life in the 21st century.

And in a recently released clip from a 1974 ABC News program filmed in Australia, Clarke is shown talking to a reporter next to a massive bank of computers. With his son in tow, the reporter asks Clarke to talk about what computers will be like when his son is an adult. In response, Clarke offers some eerily prophetic, if not quite spot-on, predictions:

The big difference when he grows up, in fact it won’t even wait until the year 2001, is that he will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house.

internetIn short, Clarke predicted not only the rise of the personal computer, but also online banking, shopping and a slew of internet services. Clarke was then asked about the possible danger of becoming a “computer-dependent” society, and while he acknowledged that in the future humanity would rely on computers “in some ways,” computers would also open up the world:

It’ll make it possible for us to live really anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through his device like this. And this is a wonderful thing.

Clarke certainly had a point about computers giving us the ability to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe, also known as telecommunication, telecommuting and telepresence. But as to whether or not our dependence on this level of technology is a good or bad thing, the jury is still out on that one. The point is, his predictions proved to be highly accurate, forty years in advance.

computer_chip1Granted, Clarke’s predictions were not summoned out of thin air. Ever since their use in World War II as a means of cracking Germany’s cyphers, miniaturization has been the trend in computing. By the 1970’s, they were still immense and clunky, but punch cards and vacuum tubes had already given way to transistors, ones which were getting smaller all the time.

And in 1969, the first operational packet network to implement a Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established. Known as a Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), this U.S. Department of Defense network was set up to connect the DOD’s various research projects at universities and laboratories all across the US, and was the precursor to the modern internet.

In being a man who was so on top of things technologically, Clarke accurately predicted that these two trends would continue into the foreseeable future, giving rise to computers small enough to fit on our desks (rather than taking up an entire room) and networked with other computers all around the world via a TCP/IP network that enabled real-time data sharing and communications.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out the Clarke interview below:


Sources:
huffingtonpost.com, blastr.com

The Future is Here: Smarty Rings

smarty-ringsOkay, its not exactly here yet, but the implications of this idea could be a game changer. It’s known as the Smarty Ring, a crowdfunded idea being advertised on Indiegogo by a group of inventors in Chennai, India. And at its core is a waterproof, stainless steel band that will feature an LED screen and connect to your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology.

For some time now, the Chennai-based group has been the source of some controversy, due mainly to the fact that they have no working prototypes of the ring, but also because they have not identified themselves beyond giving their location. They also freely admit that the photos of the Smarty Ring on Indiegogo and on their website are photoshopped.

smarty-rings1Surprisingly, this has not prevented them from being able to mount their campaign to raise money for its development. While the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has rules requiring creators to be clear about the state of a project’s development and show a prototype “demonstrating the product’s current functionality,” Indiegogo has no such rules.

However, this has not stopped their campaign – which officially closed at 11:00 am ET on Dec.11th, 2013 – from raising a total of $299,349 from their original goal of $40,000. Numerous blueprints of what the watch would look like, including detailed images of its electronics, are also available on their campaign page. What’s more, the group is still taking advanced orders and offering discount pricing to anyone who orders one before Dec.30th.

smarty-rings3Also, the group has become much less clandestine since the campaign closed. In response to questions, group spokesperson Karthik said the project was founded by Chennai-based mechatronics engineer Ashok Kumar, and that their team of inventors includes electronic and computer engineers with experience in robotics and nanotechnology.

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to create a high-tech gadget that would also double as “high-end fashion jewelry,” according to an email to CBC News from the team’s marketing director, Karthik, who did not give his last name. The group also claims on their website that the average smartphone user checks their phone every six minutes, and promises to make that unnecessary, saving time and the battery life of the smartphone.

smarty-rings4According to the The Smarty Ring’s site, the features are to include:

  • A clock with stop watch, timer and alarm
  • Notifications of calls, text and email messages, and social networking updates from services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype
  • Phone controls that let users accept or reject incoming calls, make outgoing calls to preset numbers, and control music or the phone’s camera
  • A phone tracking feature that beeps when your phone gets more than nine meters away from you
  • The ring charges wirelessly and its creators guarantee 24 hours of battery life

The Smarty Ring team says the retail price for the device will be $275, but backers and people who preorder before Dec.30th will be able to get one at the reduced price of $175. They estimate that delivery will begin sometime in April of 2014. They are also offering cheaper versions that include only the tracking feature or the clock and tracking features.

smarty-rings5Needless to say, if this is a scam, it is clearly a well-thought out and elaborate one. Not only is the idea of a smart ring that can connect wirelessly to other devices and do the job of a smartphone entirely within the bounds of current and developing technology, its a very cool idea. But if it is in fact real, its realization could mean a new wave of innovation and design for the smart devices market.

Currently, designers and developers are working towards the creation of smartwatches, smartphones, tablets and phablets that are not only smaller and much thinner, but also flexible and transparent. An even smaller device, such as a ring or bracelet, that can do the same job but be far more ergonomic, may be just what the market ordered!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this promotional video from the Smarty Ring website. And be sure to check out their website and determine for yourself if they are liars, inventors, or just plain dreamers:


Sources:
cbc.ca, indiegogo.com

The Future is Here: inFORM Tangible Media Interface

tangible_mediaThe future of computing is tactile. That’s the reasoning behind the inFORM interface, a revolutionary new interface produced by the MIT Media Lab and the Tangible Media Group. Unveiled earlier this month, the inFORM is basically a surface that changes shapes in three-dimensions, allowing users to not only interact with digital content, but even make simulated physical contact with other people.

Created by Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer and overseen by Professor Hiroshi Ishii, the technology behind the inFORM isn’t actually quite simple. Basically, it functions like a fancy Pinscreen, one of those executive desk toys that allows you to create a rough 3-D model of an object by simply pressing it into a bed of flattened pins.

tangible_media3However, with the inFORM, each of those “pins” is connected to a motor controlled by a nearby laptop. This not only moves the pins to render digital content physically, but can also register real-life objects interacting with its surface thanks to the sensors of a hacked Microsoft Kinect. In short, you can touch hands with someone via Skype, or feel a stretch of terrain through Google Maps.

Another possible application comes in the form of video conferencing, where remote participants can be displayed physically, allowing for a strong sense of presence and the ability to interact physically at a distance. However, Tangible Media Group sees the inFORM as merely a step along the long road towards what they refer to “Tangible Bits”, or a Tangible User Interface (TUI).

tangible_media4This concept is what the group sees as the physical embodiment of digital information & computation. This constitutes a move away from the current paradigm of “Painted Bits”, or Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), something that is based on intangible pixels that do not engage users fully. As TMG states on their website:

Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the GUI based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The TUI builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space. TUIs expand the affordances of physical objects, surfaces, and spaces so they can support direct engagement with the digital world.

It also represents a step on the long road towards what TMG refers to as “Radical Atoms”. One of the main constraints with TUI’s, according to Professor Ishii and his associates, is their limited ability to change the form or properties of physical objects in real time. This constraint can make the physical state of TUIs inconsistent with the underlying digital models.

tangible_media1Radical Atoms, a vision which the group unveiled last year, looks to the far future where materials can change form and appearance dynamically, becoming as reconfigurable as pixels on a screen. By bidirectionally coupling this material with an underlying digital model, dynamic changes in digital states would be reflected in tangible matter in real time, and vice versa.

inFORM45This futuristic paradigm is something that could be referred to as a “Material User Interface (MUI).” In all likelihood, it would involve polymers or biomaterials that are embedded with nanoscopic wires, that are able to change shape with the application of tiny amounts of current. Or, more boldy, materials that are composed of utility fogs or swarms of coordinated nanorobots that can alter their shape at will.

Certainly the ambitious concept, but as the inFORM demonstrates, its something that is getting closer. And the rate at which it is getting here is growing faster every day. And you have to admit, though the full-scale model does look a little bit like a loom, it does make for a pretty impressive show. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the inFORM in action.


Source:
tangible.media.mit.edu

The Worlds First Brain to Brain Interface!

Brain-ScanIt finally happened! It seems like only yesterday, I was talking about the limitations of Brain to Brain Interfacing (BBI), and how it was still limited to taking place between rats and between a human and a rat. Actually, it was two days ago, but the point remains. In spite of that, after only a few months of ongoing research, scientists have finally performed the first human-to-human interface.

Using a Skype connection, Rajesh Rao, who studies computational neuroscience at the University of Washington, successfully used his mind to control the hand of his colleague, Andrea Stucco. The experiment was conducted on Aug. 12th, less than month after researchers at Harvard used a non-invasive technique and a though to control the movement of a rat’s tail.

brain-to-brain-interfacingThis operation was quite simple: In his laboratory, Rao put on a skull cap containing electrodes which was connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. These electrodes read his brainwaves and transmitted them across campus to Stocco who, seated in a separate lab, was equipped with a cap that was hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine.

This machine activating a magnetic stimulation coil that was integrated into the cap directly above Stocco’s left motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movements of the hands. Back in Rao’s lab, he watched a screen displaying a video game, in which the player must tap the spacebar in order to shoot down a rocket; while  in Stocco’s lab. the computer was linked to that same game.

braininterfacing-0Instead of tapping the bar, however, Rao merely visualized himself doing so. The EEG detected the electrical impulse associated with that imagined movement, and proceeded to send a signal – via the Skype connection – to the TMS in Stocco’s lab. This caused the coil in Stocco’s cap to stimulate his left motor cortex, which in turn made his right hand move.

Given that his finger was already resting over the spacebar on his computer, this caused a cannon to fire in the game, successfully shooting down the rocket. He compared the feeling to that of a nervous tic. And to ensure that there was no chance of any outside influence, the Skype feeds were not visible to each other, and Stucco wore noise cancelling headphones and ear buds.

brain-activityIn the course of being interviewed, Rao was also quick to state that the technology couldn’t be used to read another person’s mind, or to make them do things without their willing participation. The researchers now hope to establish two-way communications between participants’ brains, as the video game experiment just utilized one-way communication.

Additionally, they would like to transmit more complex packets of information between brains, things beyond simple gestures. Ultimately, they hope that the technology could be used for things like allowing non-pilots to land planes in emergency situations, or letting disabled people transmit their needs to caregivers. And in time, the technology might even be upgraded to involve wireless implants.

brainpainting-brain-computer-interfaces-2One thing that should be emphasized here is the issue of consent. In this study, both men were willing participants, and it is certain that any future experimentation will involve people willingly accepting information back and forth. The same goes for commands, which theoretically could only occur between people willing to be linked to one another.

However, that doesn’t preclude that such links couldn’t one day be hacked, which would necessitate that anyone who chose to equip themselves with neural implants and uplinks also get their hands on protection and anti-hacking software. But that’s an issue for another age, and no doubt some future crime drama! Dick Wolf, you should be paying me for all the suggestions I’m giving you!

And of course, there’s a video of the experiment, courtesy of the University of Washington. Behold and be impressed, and maybe even a little afraid for the future:


Source:
gizmag.com

The Future is Here: Augmented Reality Storybooks

ar_storybookDisney has always been on the forefront of technological innovation whenever and wherever their animation is concerned. Augmented reality has been a part of their operations for quite some time, usually in the form of displays put on at Epcot Center or their Haunted Mansion. But now, they are bringing their efforts in AR to the kind of standard storybook that you would read to your children before bedtime.

Thanks to innovations provided by Nintendo DS, the PSP, tablets and smartphones, books have become alive and interactive in ways that were simply not possible ten or twenty years ago. However, one cannot deny that ebooks simply do not have the same kind of old world charm and magic that paperbacks do. Call it nostalgic appeal or tradition, but reading to a child from a bounded tome just seems somehow more meaningful to most people.

disneyhideout-640x353And that’s where Disney’s HideOut project comes into play, a mobile projector is used to create an augmented reality storybook. How it works is simple enough, and in a way, involves merging the best of electronic and paper media. Within the book, certain parts will be printed using special infrared-absorbing ink, so that sentences and images can be tracked.

The mobile projector, in turn, uses a built-in camera to sense the ink, then projects digital images onto the page’s surface that are animated to interact with the markers. In this way, it knows to show certain images when parts of the book call for them to be displayed, and can turn normal pictures into 3D animated segments.

disney_argameAnd storybooks aren’t the only application being investigated by Disney. In addition, they have been experimenting with game concepts, where a user would moves a mobile projector around a board, causing a character to avoid enemies. In another scenario, a characters projected onto a surface interacts with tangible objects placed around them. This would not be entertaining to a child, but could be educational as well.

The applications also extend to the world of work, as the demo below shows. in this case, HideOut projects a file system onto the top of a desk, allowing the user to choose folders by aiming the projector, not unlike how a person selects channels or options using a Wii remote by aiming it at a sensor bar. And the technology could even be used on smartphones and mobile devices, allowing people the ability to interact with their phone, Facetime, or Skype on larger surfaces.

disneyhideoutAnd of course, Disney is not the only company developing this kind of AR interactive technology, nor are they the first. Products like ColAR, an app that brings your coloring book images to life, and Eye of Judgment, an early PS3 game that accessed CCG cards and animated the characters on-screen, are already on the market. And while there does not appear to be a release date for Disney’s HideOut device just yet, its likely to be making the rounds within a few years tops.

For anyone familiar with the world of Augmented Reality and computing, this is likely to call to mind what Pranav Mistry demonstrated with his Sixth Sense technology, something which is being adopted by numerous developers for mobile computing. Since he first unveiled his concept back in 2009, the technology has been improving and the potential for commercial applications has been keeping pace.

In just a few years time, every storybook is likely to come equipped with its own projector. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it quickly becomes the norm to see people out on the streets interacting with images and worlds that only they can see. And those of us who are old enough will think back to a time when only crazy people did this!

In the meantime, check out this demo of the Disney’s HideOut device in action:


Source: extremetech.com

Cyberwars: Massive Government Surveillance Uncovered!

wire_tappingOn Friday, Washington DC found itself embroiled in controversy as revelations were made about the extent to which US authorities have been spying on Americans in the last six years. This news came on the heels of the announcement that the federal government had been secretly cataloging all of Verizon’s phone records. No sooner had the dust settled on that revelation that it became known that the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs was far greater than anyone had imagined.

According to updated information on the matter, it is now known that The National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting everything from audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that would enable their analysts to track foreign targets.

prism3This information was revealed thanks to a secret document that was leaked to the Washington Post, which shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing. Equally distressing is the names being named: U.S. Service Providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.

The document further indicates that all of this has been taking place since 2007, when news disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced then-president George W. Bush to look for new authority to justify his program warrantless domestic surveillance. It’s continuance and expansion under Obama has created a great deal of understandable intrigue, and not only because of promises made that “illegal wiretapping” would not take place under his watch.

prism1The joint FBI-NSA program responsible for mining all the data is known as PRISM, and it may very well be the first of its kind. While the NSA and FBI have a long history of monitoring suspects via phone records and computer activity, and are both accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers, such a vast program has never before been possible. In the current information age, there is an immense wealth of information out there, and where better to access all of this than in Silicon Valley?

Not long after the news broke in Washington, London’s Guardian reported that GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same internet companies through an operation set up by the NSA. According to the same leaked information, PRISM appears to allow the GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required in Britain to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside of the country.

prism2But perhaps worst of all is the fact that this process is entirely above board, at least for the companies involved. Back in 2007, Congress passed the Protect America Act, and then in 2008 followed it up with the FISA Amendments Act, both of which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection against prosecution. And late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

An anticipated, a bi-partisan amalgam of Senators came out to defend the initial reports of phone record monitoring shortly after it was announced. In a rare display of solidarity that cut across party lines, Democrats and Republicans from both the Senate and House came forward to say that the program was justified, only spied on terrorists, and that law-abiding citizens need not worry.

National Security Agency - aerial view
National Security Agency – aerial view

Once again, the argument “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” finds itself employed by people who do not want to voice criticisms about a government spying program. Echoes of the Bush administration and McCarthy era all over again. Needless to say, all of this has many people worried, not the least of which are people opposed to government intrusion and the protection of privacy for the past decade.

Ever since it became possible to “mine data”  from numerous online digital sources, there has been fear that corporations or governments might try to ascertain the habits and comings and goings of regular people in order to effectively monitor them. For some time now, this sort of monitoring has been somewhat benign, in the form of anticipating their spending habits and using targeted advertising. But always, the fear that something more sinister and totalitarian might emerge.

government-surveillanceAnd with the “War on Terror”, the Patriot Act, domestic warrantless wiretapping, the legitimization of torture, and a slew of other crimes the Bush administration was indicted in, people all over the world have become convinced that “Big Brother” government is just around the corner, if indeed it is not already here.

The fact that such processes have continued and even expanded under Obama, a man who originally pledged not to engage in such behavior, has made a bad situation worse. In many ways, it demonstrates that fears that he too would succumb to internal pressure were justified. Much as he was won over by the Pentagon and CIA to continue the war in Afghanistan and UAV programs, it seems that the constellation of FBI and NSA specialists advising him on domestic surveillance has managed to sway him here as well.

Stealth-Wear1One can only hope that this revelation causes the federal government and the Obama administration to reconsider their stances. After all, these are the same people who were convinced to stand down on the use of UAVs in oversees operations and to take measures that would ensure transparency in the future. We can also hope that the NSA and FBI will be required to once again have to rely on the court system and demonstrate “just cause” before initiating any domestic surveillance in the future.

Otherwise, we might all need to consider getting our hands on some stealth wear and personal cameras, to shield ourselves and create an environment of “sousveillance” so we can spy on everything the government does. Might not hurt to start monitoring the comings and goings of every telecommunications and Silicon Valley CEO while were at it! For as the saying goes, “who watches the watchers?” I’ll give you a hint: we do!

Also, be sure to check out the gallery of artist Adam Harvey, the man who pioneered “stealth wear” as a protest against the use of drones and domestic surveillance. To learn more about sousveillance, the concept of a society monitored by common people, check out Steve Mann’s (inventor of the EyeTap) blog.

Sources: washingtonpost.com, guardian.co.uk, policymic.com, ahprojects.com, eyetap.blogspot.ca

 

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.”

Data Miners – Chapter 6

Six

Nina was about nine minutes late getting to her desk that morning. Gareth had borrowed the car again last night and casually forgotten to fill the tank up when he dropped it off. Typical Gareth behaviour, but she was forced to take some of the credit. Had she not let him sleep over, he wouldn’t have been around to disrupt her morning routine. She could have superseded him simply by setting her clock, but such behavior is for grunts. Let the new kids greet the day, she decided long ago. Now that she’s got some clout around her office, she refuses to be a slave to an alarm clock.

The drive was pleasant, if a bit rushed. It was a pristine West Virginian morning, the air nice and dewy and mildly warm. It’s the kind of morning that’s pleasant for the first few hours, before the noon sun turns it all into sweltering heat. By then the residents of the sleepy town of Clarksburg were all too happy to retire to a working environment that boasted some kind of air-conditioning. Those that did not enjoy this luxury would just have to suffer or find some other way to stay cool.

Nina had broken a bit of a sweat getting to work and was pleased with herself for making sure her desk was outfitted with a box of Kleenex that was waiting for her on arrival. Grabbing a handful of the tissues, she dabbed at her face and around her neck, letting the AC do its job and cool her down until her pores closed. She looked at her keyboard and noticed there was a note sitting there with a prescriptive message scrawled across it.

Check our surveillance files, following j-pegs:

*TBK.192.jpg

*AU.298,jpg

*ACLU.0098.jpg

Possible forgeries detected! Need to know basis.

Mark J.

Nina was about to get herself a cup of coffee and ease her way into her work, but someone obviously intended to light a fire under her. The note also seems to suggest he got here a lot earlier than her today. What could have been so important as to warrant a really early start? She hops right onto her computer and calls up their surveillance database. Entering the names of each file, she waits as the machine does a search and pulls up each one. She sends each to her desktop for eventual printing and picks up her phone. Punching in Mark’s extension, a quick call ensues. Explanations are necessary, and they better be good! No one starts their morning with something like this without a damned good reason!

Nina looks around to make sure she’s alone. One after the other, the damning photos are rolled off and set down in the printer’s tray, their fresh, glossy surfaces reflecting the room’s fluorescent lighting back at her.

The photos are on the nearest side table a second later and Nina grabs a black and a white marker. She circles the pictures in white, underlines the name at the bottom in black. Grabbing a manila envelope from the shelf, she slides the three photos in and leaves the copy room in great haste. She is at the dark mahogany door with two plaques not a moment later. One reads Dave Griswold, Deputy Director, and the other, Law Enforcement Services Branch. Without announcing herself, she walks right in and slams the envelope down on his desk. He is in the process of finishing a call and looks up at her just in time to hear her speak.

“Sir, I think we’ve been hacked. I was alerted to these forgeries this morning.”

Griswold takes the folder and opens it carefully. Years of dealing with sensitive materials has conditioned the habit in him to treat every file folder as if it were containing anthrax powder or a copy of the constitution. He lays the photos out, and immediately forgets this habit. The three photos spread out around the desk so he can see all three circles that Nina has drawn.

“What the hell are these?”

“Fakes, sir. Found in the surveillance files. Not too convincing ones either.”

“Just what are you saying here, Righetti?”

“I’m saying that Johnson reported that someone hacked into the CJIS and planted these is our files.”

“Johnson came to you with this when?”

“This morning. He says he got a call from some press agent over at the Washington Post, something about these photos being sent to him from an anonymous source within our department. They wanted confirmation that they were real.”

“Confirmation…” Griswold said with a laugh. Trust the good ol’ boys at the WP to actually check first. Unlike most of their liberal counterparts, they knew how to take national security seriously. “So what have we told them?”

“Well, nothing yet sir. First thing I did was pull the photos and send them down to Criminal Investigations, asked if they knew anything about them. They said they had no idea what I was talking about, so I asked them to examine them for us. They all came back as a fake.”

“Jesus clusterfuck!”

Nina clears her throat. There’s something about a boss swearing so openly that makes her want to laugh, which she cannot allow right now. Combining religious obscenity with a compound word that strongly denotes group sex makes that especially hard. Why the hell is that word so popular with government people?

“They do look real enough, don’t they?”

“People can do some amazing things these days with Photoshop, sir.”

Griswold looks up at her. He is the first to admit that he’s not the most technologically literate person in the world. That’s why the Bureau is in the habit of hiring these young ‘uns. They do the leg work while the old workhorses do the thinking.

“Okay, so what else?

“Well, sir, I asked Johnson to start a more thorough search of our surveillance files, just to see if there’re any more fakes. In the meantime, I think we should consider giving the Post a statement.”

“Forget the Post,” Griswold replies. “A hundred papers must have their hands on these by now. There’s no way this isn’t going to be big news. We can expect to get reamed real good, real soon.”

“Yes, sir.” Nina’s stance tightens up some more. She knows this is serious. He’s using a butt metaphor. He looks down at the photos again and takes a deep breath. Reaching for the phone, he fetches it from its cradle and hits the button to connect him to the Criminal Investigations Branch. As it rings, he issues some new orders for Nina.

“I need to send these up the line. You get over to Johnson and ask him exactly who the hell contacted him at the Post. See if you can’t suck any more information out of them, like who sent them these.” A pause as the phone beeps a few times, waiting for the CIB to pick up. “I need to talk to the Cyber Division on this. Find out how in the hell those bastards let someone get into our files.”

She is about to leave when Griswold stops her for one last reminder.

“And for God sakes, keep this under your hat!”

Nina nods and is waved away as the answering service at the other end picks up his call. She can hear his bawling into the receiver just as she leaves the office.

“Andrei! I’m sending you something my grunts just brought to my attention. We’ve got a fucking leaky ship and I’m putting the blame squarely at the feet of your Cyber Division! PATCH YER FUCKING HOLES!”

The door shuts and all she can hear now are the muffled thuds of the DD’s explosive tirade. The noise follows her down the hall until she is finally back in the vicinity of her office space. Just about everyone she has passed is looking in the direction of the DD’s door.

Data Miners – Chapter 5

Alone in his cubicle again.  The clock is moving so slowly it’s almost running backwards.  The memory of some weird dream has been taunting him all day.  It was one of those cut offs, when you wake up suddenly and your mind is able to hang on to the tail end of it for a few minutes, but every waking minute makes it that much duller.  He received a shock of déjà vu when he came to his desk at 9:08 (late again, but no one really noticed).  The dream had to do with work.  He was at his desk, people were crowded around.  The woman who works in the cubicle a few blocks down was sitting on top of his desk.  Her short skirt was hiked up and she was clearing Prad for a landing.  He was just about to get into that skirt when she clocked him.  Remembering that part wasn’t too nice.  Prad had been just settling into his chair, hoping he might be recalling a nice sex dream when that embarrassing detail emerged.  Then he remembered the rest, how everyone else in the office was pointing and laughing at him, and how his teeth started to fall out.  One by one, the molars, the incisors, the front two.  They all just seemed to painlessly come loose and he began pulling them out.  Tiny shards of the rest followed.  He looked in a mirror at the remainders and saw that they were chipped beyond repair.  Not a nice dream.  He was happy to have forgotten it and tries to do so again.

Coffee’s better today, and Prad makes sure he sneaks a few cups while the current batch is still hot and fresh.  Artificial stimulation is necessary given the mood he’s in.  He’s somewhere in the hump of the week, it feels like Thursday but its damn near impossible to tell. The anticipation that comes with the late afternoon, so close to Friday, which in turn is so close to the weekend, has not yet hit him.  Still feels like a Wednesday.  But at least he has the six o’clock report to look forward to.  It might be early, hard to tell.  Any day now they are expecting their little “story” to break.  Every night since Tuesday, Prad and the others have been waiting on the press conference.  They figured it would take until Friday, just in time for the weekend edition on every network in the country.

The anticipation is making him uneasy.  He can barely acknowledge the stripper who’s filling the Youtube screen with her massive rack.  His other task, the matter of sorting through lines and lines of code, is moving at a rate of about one key a minute.  Were it not for the anonymity of the modern office space, he would have been fired several times over by now.  Once he’s done with a scheduled task, he pulls up the template form for a task report and fills in the idiot boxes.  He then attaches it to an email for the people down at filing.

That reminds him.  He hasn’t dropped in on Rohit lately.  MSN is forbidden during work hours, so he can’t send him a message to join him in the rec room.  But a quick pass by his cubicle is always permissible.  He finds Rohit with his back to the room, filling in some forms that look like they should mean something to him.

“Hey, Roti!  How are your caffeine levels?”

Rohit turns around in his seat and checks his pulse.  “I could stand a top up.”

“Great, come on.  I got something to tell you –  Oh shit!”

Prad remembers that he left the stripper running on his machine.  He jets back to his cubicle and shuts down the internet, runs a quick clean to erase the web directory’s memory and all temporary internet files.  He does this every day, his way of staying ahead of the corporate snoops.  Now is as good a time as any, and he jets back to the break room to find Rohit already waiting for him.

“Hey, sorry.  Okay, so what’s up?”

“What do you mean?  You called me in here.”

“Oh yeah,” Prad needs a second to remember what he wants to talk about.  Then he remembers Angie’s orders.  No bragging.  He needs something else to talk about, quick!

“So how’s the layoff talk?”

Well done, he tells himself.  It’s the perfect diversion, and something he probably should care about.

“There’s supposed to be a big meeting this Friday with HR.  The execs are going to be reviewing people’s files.”

“Uh-oh.  What are they looking for specifically?”

“Complaints.  Indications of bad work ethics, unprofessional attitudes.”

The way he says it leaves little doubt who he is talking about.  Prad sneers at him for the self-righteous attitude.

“It’s so hypocritical.  Why do they even file those things anyway.  No one ever reads them, not until it’s time to fire people.”

“Same with all the work logs.  Which, by the way, they’re going to be sorting through the day before.”

Prad nods.  So between a bad attitude and poor work performance, the brass will have their one-two layoff punch ready.

“Well, I know I’m up to date on my task reports.  HR might be a problem.”

“Now you take me seriously?” Rohit asks.

“Guess I’ll have to hack into their files and wipe my record clean.”

Rohit chokes on his coffee and looks at the door again.  He can’t tell Prad to shut up in words right now, so puts his hands on his shoulders and gives them a hard squeeze.  Taking a few breaths, he clears his wind pipe and is able to speak again.

“Are you fucking kidding me?  Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Don’t even talk like that.”

“C’mon, Roti!” Prad says, shaking loose from Rohit’s grip.  “No one ever reads those things anyway.  Who’s gonna’ know?  I could fix your file too.”

“Last thing I need is another excuse for them to fire me.”

“No one will know, Roti.  I got the skills to make it happen.  All you need to do is give me the green light.”

“You know, you keep saying that, but I’ve never seen you do anything that proves you have any skills whatsoever.”

Angie’s orders are ringing in Prad’s ears.  His mouth desperately wants to open but his lips are clamped shut and refuse to budge.  Her wrath would be terrible, should she ever find out.

“I mean, you work here, man.  What’s that say about you?”

Prad needs to talk.  The words are bulging in his throat like a log jam and threatening to break it open.  Rohit’s taunts are deeply distressing to him and it’s overriding his orders.

“Top of the line white hats make software companies, man.  They design computers in their garage and take the world by storm with new innovations.  They’re not second rate programmers working in a cubicle.”

“Second rate!” Prad’s voice has broken free.  “Hey, I don’t need this job.  This is a pathetic waste of my abilities.”

“Then why are you still here?”

“You’re here.  What’s that say about you?”

“And I’m your superior,” Rohit reminds him.

“Oh, sorry, sir.”  Prad does a mock salute.  “You know, maybe my days here are numbered but I’ll have opportunities afterward.”

“Oh yeah?” Rohit’s grinning at him now.  More acid-tongued words are coming, Prad can sense it.  What the hell?  He’ll never meet Angie.

“Yeah,” Prad replies.  “Just ask Congressman Dangle.  He’ll tell you just how fucking good I am.  Oh, actually he can’t, because he has no fucking idea it was me!”

Rohit’s looking down at him with unbelievable incredulity.  He has no idea what he’s talking about, and can’t fathom how he’s come up with such a tale.  They’ve been joined too by Donna, cream lady, who is not to be talked loudly around.  This complicates matters further.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he whispers to Prad.

“Wait and see, I’m sure it’ll be in the news real soon.”

Prad leaves Rohit standing at the counter with his fresh cup of coffee.  He tries to follow him but his coffee spills from the sudden forward momentum, forcing him to go to the sink and wash his burnt fingers.  When he finally manages to clean up the mess he’s made and place his cup safely on the counter, he storms after Prad.  They end up in the men’s room, which at the moment is slightly more private.

“What are you talking about, Prad?  Did you do something illegal?”

The words are whispered and one of his ears is kept open for sounds of flushes or people coming in behind them.  Prad meanwhile has both eyes on the road and both hands on his wheel, smiling like he just got it waxed by some hottie in the supply closet.  He says nothing as he goes to wash his hands and Rohit is still hanging on him.

“I’m serious, man!  If you did anything that’s going to threaten your job here, or mine, I’ll fucking squeal on you.  I’m not going down as an accessory for anything.”

“Calm down,” Prad says as he shakes his hands off and grabs a paper towel from the dispenser.  “I told you, no one knows I had anything to do with it.  I shouldn’t even have said anything to you, you’ll probably squeal on me anyway.  God knows you can’t keep anything a secret.”

“Hey, we’re not talking about the usual crap you pull around here that I’m always covering for.  If you’re doing something on the side that could wind you in jail, I’m not going to protect you.”

“Like you could!”

Prad leaves and has Rohit following him back to his cubicle now.  He is extremely self-conscious about all the people who might hear them, but refuses to let the topic go.  Already Prad is feeling stupid for bringing it up.  Not for fear of his job or the law, but because of the trust he might have betrayed.  No one needs to know that the Society did something it wouldn’t ordinarily do.  That’s the whole point of a one time thing.  You do it once, and forget about it.  Those who wouldn’t understand are kept in the dark for just that reason.

“Prad, just tell me what you’ve done and maybe I can help get you out of it.”

“Nothing serious,” he says finally.  Taking his seat, he swivels in it a bit to make sure the gears are still sliding just right.  “Just had a little fun with some government resources.  That’s all.  And no one is going to know about it, provided everyone who now knows keeps their fricking mouth shut!”

“Who else knows about this?”

“Only a couple people, but they helped.  So it’s just us, and you.”  Prad admits with a shrug.  “And I wasn’t exactly supposed to share it with anyone, so consider yourself part of my inner circle,” he finishes uncomfortably.

Rohit shakes his head mournfully.  “Breaking your conspirators trust should be the least of your worries, man.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t.  So, can I count on you not to say anything?”

“I don’t know,” Rohit confesses.  “You sure this can’t be traced back to you?”

“Positive, Roti.  You and I both know the system’s ins and outs, which is why it’s an insult for the both of us to be working here.  Speaking of which, were you done telling me about layoffs?”

Rohit looks relieved to be talking about that again.  Only comparatively is the thought of being laid off not a source of stress for him anymore.  “Well, next week they’re thinking of starting up interviews.”

“Interviews?  What, for like new people?”

Rohit chuckles sardonically.  “No, I mean that’s when they drag all of us in, one by one, and ask us to explain how we’re productive and useful around here.  They start with the senior people and then work their way down, section by section.  You’re asked to explain, in your own words, what you bring to the company.”

“Lazy shits!  They want us to do their work for them!”

“Yeah, basically.  It’s easier than taking an interest in what your employees actually do on company time.”

“And they’ve got our HR files and our work reports to compare it against?”

“It’s so they catch you in lie.  If you say you work hard, they pull up your reports and demand to know why it took so long to do this, why you haven’t finished that, etc.  And then they ask about your fellow employees, and if you say you get along, they point out how people have complained.”

“Fucking inquisition.”

Rohit leans in and looks all self-conscious again.  “Keep your voice down.  And don’t say I didn’t warn you.  You’re going to have some serious explaining to do come next week.”

Rohit is about to leave, but Prad stops him with a little reminder.  “Dude, just remember, I can have a look at the files HR’s got on you and me.”  He illustrates with his fingers, playing air keyboard.  “Few strokes, all complaints are gone!”

Rohit leans into his cubicle again.  “Just do me one favour, Prad.  If you have to start looking for a new job, don’t list me as a reference.”

Data Miners – Chapter 4

Tuesday night, t-minus five and a half minutes.

Puget campus is virtually deserted, at least in the vicinity of the main student residence.  Prad and the rest have dressed accordingly for an evening of felony hacking; dressy casual, all dark tones.  No hoods or black toques, those would bring campus security running faster than a plea of rape or assault.  Their best approach is to walk right in, playing it cool, set down to do their work then walk out like they just had a nice evening of gaming.  That’s still the cover story, and Achebe has the Warlords disks to back it up.  Prad, meantime, has the ICE breaker on his decorative flash drive, the one he’s been working on all week.  Sa’id and Angie have been in regular contact with him, plus a few black hats he knows, letting him know everything they can about the FBI d-base.  If they were wrong, they’ll know soon when the FBI boots them and does a trace to find where they’re working from.

But if things go well, Achebe’s lovely little creations will be circulating in the FBI’s files.  That way, when the press gets a hold of them, a gift from an “anonymous source”, they’ll be able to confirm that the evidence is real.  Angie’s anonymizer site, whichever she’s selected for this op, will come into play then.

All the bases are covered, all they need is for Angie’s “friend” to show up.

Their synchronized watches indicate that it is now midnight.  Feet are getting itchy and nerves are on edge.  Prad waits a few seconds before saying what he’s sure everyone must be thinking at this point.

“Where the hell is this guy?”

“He’ll be here, just wait!”

Prad grumbles, then realizes he has inadvertently confirmed that Angie’s friend is in fact a dude.  He is further disappointed when the dude proves punctual and darkens the front foyer of the building they intend to enter.  He does a little circular scan of the foyer and walkway leading up the front door, then pushes it open.  He leans back against the door to hold it open, trying to appear calm for all the cams that are able to see him now that he’s outside.

“So who is this guy anyway?  Some kind of grad student or something?”

“Yeah, looks a little old for living in residence, Ange.”

Angie looks at Achebe and Sa’id with daggers.  She further corrects them on that a few facts.  “He’s a doctoral student and I never said he lives here, he just has an ID.”

“You two dating?”

No sooner are the words out of his mouth than Prad wishes he could shove them back in.  But like a wet vapour in a very cold room, it’s out there and frozen solid.  Nothing in the world could erase it now.  “We’re friends,” she says defensively.

“I’m not hearing nooooo,” Sa’id interjects.

“It’s time, you dickheads.  Okay now, nice and cool,” Angie commands, and they walk nonchalantly towards the door.  The cameras only scan the front and until now they’ve been beneath the shade of a tree.  Prad thinks that such blind spots must be the subject of a lot of complaints.  There’s enough room in the area they’ve been standing in for the last few minutes for several assaults or rapes to occur.  For most people, this would be considered a strange observation.  To Prad, its just plain fact, much like how the cameras are hopelessly out of date.  No one is fooled by those tinted glass domes that cover them.  Everyone knows they only point one direction.

Another observation:  Scott is actually kind of handsome, in a starving artist, student-for-life kind of way.  Sa’id’s description was bang on.  The beard, button down plaid shirt and blue jeans, not to mention the glasses, all scream mature student.

“Everyone, this is Scott. Scott, this is everyone,” Angie says by way of introduction.

“Hi,” he says coolly as he closes the door behind them and takes the lead in their little procession.  The lounge is just a few corridor lengths ahead, on the ground floor underneath layers of student residences.  They round a corner and enter a gleaming white computer lounge and Prad feels like he stepped into a hospital.  The colour, cleanliness, and availability of technology are all consistent with an operating room, a communal one at that.  As predicted, there are only a few students there, the keeners or poor kids who are busy working or too poor to afford a laptop so they can check their MSN at home.

That’s certainly what the one redhead in the corner is doing.  She types, pauses to read, laughs, types again.  The Asian dude in the other corner only takes his eyes off the screen long enough to blink.  Not a casual computer lounger.

They get to work occupying four computers side by side.  Prad takes a moment to familiarize himself with his machine, which is clearly the same as all the others.  Dell PC, 54.0 Mbps wireless connection, 2.0 GHz, Windows Vista operating system; not up to the latest of Mr. Pradchaphet’s standards, but enough to do tonight’s deed.  Meanwhile Scott walks down the row to distribute pieces of paper with names and logins for them to enter.  Prad looks at his with some scepticism.

Arlene Tomkins.  Atomkins098.

“Come up with that on your own?” he asks the character Scott.  Scott smiles from beneath his red beard and moves on to give Angie hers.  She smiles at him when she takes it, sending more bristles up Prad’s back.  With their fake student logins entered, Achebe passes around the copies of Warlords Online. Waiting for the computers to install it proves to be a test of patience.  Bloody college computers.  It takes a few minutes, then Prad calls up the FBI database and downloads his icebreaker.

Ten minutes have elapsed, putting them past midnight.  The lounger is done doing her thing and gets up to leave.  The icebreaker is still being downloaded into Prad’s machine, a small window showing the progress while the gleaming red, white and blue of the FBI homepage sits in the background.  With only one person left in the room, and being far away and consumed by work, Sa’id thinks it’s safe to talk.

“Now we’ll know for sure whether or not all those years staying one step ahead of the NSA was worth it,” Sa’id says.

“Don’t toot your own horn too soon,” Angie reminds him.  “Get into the game everyone except Prad, and lets look like we’re doing something non-threatening.”

Prad continues to wait.  Finally, he is told that the piece of program he helped craft has finished downloading.  He calls up the file and orders the computer to execute the executable file.  That takes a little more time.  While the others are busy designing custom characters for Warlords, he is waiting for his program to get to work and looking over his shoulder at the Asian dude.  The Warlords program is minimized in his tray just in case he needs to call it up in a hurry to fill the screen.  On the screen next to him, a dwarf in leather armour brings his battleaxe down to split the head of an adventurer, and his screen changes as the FBI site opens up to him.  The CJIS, Criminal Justice Information System, for which his ICE was specifically designed to crack.

“I’m in,” he whispers.  His fingers get to work typing while the others get to work on clearing the room.  For the next minute or so, the boys make a lot of noise while Angie yells at them to shut up.  When they finally notice that they’ve caught they eye of the young man in the corner, they add to the annoyance level.

“Are we bothering you, fellow?” Achebe yells in a loud, done up West African accent.

The Asian fellow is mortified to look up and see people talking to him so directly, being rude and forcing him to point it out.  “No, its okay,” he says politely.

“Cuz if so, we can move,” Sa’id says, adding a little slur to sound just a little drunk.  A loud crazy laugh follows and he turns back to his keyboard to notice he’s being killed by a level 10 Elf archer.  “Fuck me!  You pointy eared cocksucker!”

“Shut up, dude’s trying to work!” Prad yells.

By now the dutiful student has gotten the message and packs up to leave.  Prad minimizes the FBI screen and looks like he’s playing with his buds.  As the guy walks by, he offers a few more polite dismissals as Achebe calls after him with feigned apologies.  But he’s gone at last.  They nod at Angie.  Prad’s console becomes the focal point of all attention and seats slide over on their wheels to join him.  He flips back to the FBI site and begins navigating the CJIS’s database. Achebe produces the third and final flash drive from his pocket and slips it to Prad who shoves it in the only USB slot the computer has left.  He pops open the file on the drive marked Photos (next to the one marked rejects) and begins opening them up onto the computers desktop, arranged in order.

“Okay, let’s start with the honourable Reverend Fred P. Johnston and his whacked out ministry,” he says and types in the name.

He gets a series of files the FBI has been keeping on him since the 50s.  As predicted, the files are grouped based on the FBI’s surveillance of the outspoken preacher from Topeka, Kansas.  Ironically, they begin with his involvement in the civil rights movement.  There’s a few years of relative inactivity, then they move onto his more recent work assailing gay marriage and denouncing Muslims and illegal immigrants.  Prad decides to insert Achebe’s first creation into the former area of pictures – a mock-up of the Congressman attending a service in the Westboro Baptist church.  The topic of the day, in all likelihood, is why God hates fags and revels in the death of soldiers.  The picture they used to duplicate the Congressman’s image is a few years out of date compared to the picture of the congregation, but they’re pretty satisfied with their work overall.  No one is likely to notice it’s a fake until they take the time to examine it more closely.  An annotation at the bottom is provided, making sure his name is provided in full along with other noteworthy members of the congregation.

“That ought to confuse the hell out of people who think he supports the troops,” Sa’id says.

“Yep.  Now how about the Aryan union?” Achebe asks.

“Okay, one sec.” Prad begins a new search in the database for anything they might have on these fellows.  The file is voluminous, and from the looks of it, updated on an almost weekly basis.  Finding a single file of photo surveillance proves to be difficult.  They are seen outside of Southern Baptist churches, funerals, federal and gubernatorial buildings, marching in protests, and having cook outs, any form of organization that would place them within the bounds of the law.  Prad searches for a while before he finds a series of photos that look like they might be innocuous enough to support their own contribution.  Then, Achebe’s second creation is inserted, a photo of Dangle shaking hands with Butler in a parking lot in his home riding.  A black leather bag is in Butler’s other hand.  No bills are leaking out the side, but the implication is clear.  An illegal, off-the-books financial contribution is taking place, and they got it all on film.

“Done!  Next.”

“Last we got the good Congressman visiting a porn boutique.  Arguably, my best work,” says Achebe.

“It’s just him darkening the doorway,” Prad smirks.

“Still good work.”

Prad finds a random place for this one.  It really doesn’t fall under security issues.  It’ll just look good, and ironic, come the six o’clock news.

“Alright, crumbs are placed.  Now let’s just pray the techies can find ‘em all.”

“And do the right thing by reporting it,” Angie adds.

Prad leaves the site, erases the photos from the desktop, clears the web browsers history, and raises both hands.  Low fives and a few laughs follow.  Now it’s Angie’s turn.  Passing Achebe’s flash drive to her, she moves the photos onto her desktop and calls up Firefox to make some emails.  Getting onto the anonymizer’s web page, she opens three windows in Yahoo and types in the email addresses for the press desk at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Seattle Times.  A simple cut and paste email, stressing how the source of these photos is anonymous and no explanation of how she came across them.  Then a nice little line about how they want “the truth to come out.”  She attaches Achebe’s files from the desktop to each one, and then hits send.  She wipes the desktop clean, erases the anonymizer, and ejects the flash drives.

“And-we-are-finished!” she declares and raises her hands above her head to receive some high-fives.

And then… a weird silence.  No one is sure what they should be feeling exactly, but everyone agrees it’s a bit anticlimactic. They just hacked the FBI and incriminated a terrible, though for all intents and purposes, innocent old man.  They ought to be feeling something.  And yet, there’s really nothing to it.  No fireworks or overwhelming sense of relief, just the quiet drone of computers and the room’s air conditioning.

“Wow, so what do we do now?” Sa’id asks.

“Anybody actually want to do some gaming?” Prad suggests.

“Naw, lets look at those rejects, just for fun.”

Prad calls up the photos Achebe made that didn’t quite make the cut.  In truth, everyone suspects he made them just for fun seeing how over the top they are.  There’s Ahmadinejad and Dangle sitting together in a carriage sharing a laugh, Kim Jong Il and him playing polo, and international bogeyman Osama Bin Laden and him holding hands like young lovers back in the 1980s.  The backdrop is some sunny hillside in Afghanistan, the faint blur of a Russian Hind in the background pushing up smoke with its rockets.

“Class, all class,” Prad says.

“How about we send these to the media too?  I mean, you know, after the story breaks… if it breaks.”

It’s Angie suggesting this, surprising seeing as how this was her challenge.  Strange to think she’s actually unsure of success this late in the game.

“That’d just be like adding insult to injury.” Achebe replies.  “We wanna’ make sure we can string them along for a bit first before we burst their bubble.”

Sa’id agrees.  “Yeah, seriously.  The idea here was to just cause some trouble, right?  I mean, no ones going to actually believe the Congressman’s this dirty are they?”

“Right,” Angie nods.  “Silly idea.  I guess I’m just feeling squirrelly.”

“Still…” announces Achebe, arms raised.  “Kudos to our fearless leader and organizer for preparing this little smearjob.”  He points to Angie.  People begin to crowd around her and exchange high fives.  This goes on for a few minutes as Angie receives and returns different variations of them.

“Ahem!” Prad finally says, looking around at them.  “All due credit to the Captain, but who exactly was the pilot of this here frickin’ operation?”

The boys pat him on the back.  Angie screws up her face in such a way that says she knows he did well, but will be damned to admit it.  By way of diversion, she looks over at Scott who’s been standing there with his arms crossed and a placid smile on his face the whole time.

“And let’s not forget our boy Scotty.  He did get us in here, in more ways that one.”

“Yeah, how did you come up with those student logins?  You got a friend at student services or something?”

“Nope, all me,” he says blithely.  Sa’id and Achebe look at him with newfound respect.

“Well, grad student by day, hacker by night.  A black hat pretending to be a beret, huh?”

“He’s not a black hat,” Angie corrects them.  “He’s actually…”

“Hatless.”  Scott finishes the sentence.  They share a laugh, and Prad wants to puke.  The way she’s shifting from foot to foot and looking antsy just screams intimacy.  Everyone can smell the awkwardness and sexual tension.  She looks like she just wants them to leave so they can celebrate privately.  Prad would rather see Scott’s head hit by a semi and tries to stall.

“I say we celebrate!  Who’s up for hitting the pub?”

He’s hit by a wave of indecisive shrugs.  “We really should…” Angie begins. The other boys get the hint and decide to pull Prad away.

“Yeah, why don’t we save that ‘til later?  We got day jobs to think about and I’m sure Scott needs to study.”

Angie laughs again and Scott just smiles.  Sa’id and Achebe remove the Warlords program from their machines and log off.  Prad takes a little longer.  He needs to wipe the web directory clean and erase all downloaded copies of their programs, then there’s the desktop pics to trash.  He cleans out the recycle bin and logs off before saying his own goodbyes.

“Next Tuesday?” he asks her.

“I’ll let you know.  We ought to all meet to let the others know how it went.  But no talking about it online with anyone, okay?”

“Okay.  Well, goodnight,” he says to her and nods at Scott.

At the front, Sa’id and Achebe are waiting and looking pretty pleased overall.  Once they are out of the well-lit and surveillanced foyer, they begin to feel something welling up inside them.  It’s as if what they’ve done has finally hit them now that they’ve left the scene.  Hoots and hollers begin to spew forth.  More low fives and slaps on the shoulder are exchanged too before words of congratulations are passed around.

“We did it!  I mean you did it, Prad!  I mean, we helped, but you did it!”

“Ah, I can’t believe how easy that was!  God I wish I could have done something to help you out there!”

“Oh yeah, like what?” Prad asks.

“I dunno,” Sa’id replies.  “Like maybe let the fuckers know exactly what I think of them.  Maybe even crash their wiretapping software while I was at it.”

“I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” Prad says.

“Oh, they’ll figure out they’ve been had.  Then it’s just a matter of time before they figure out how…” Achebe pauses as another rush of enthusiasm hits him.  “But they aint gonna’ know who did it because we’re so fucking good!  AM I RIGHT?!”

Sa’id and Achebe bump chests and laugh some more.  Prad stands there quietly for a second before they realize he’s not joining in.  That’s when it hits them and they start to calm down and show him some sympathy.

“Hey, tough break, man.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, but you know how it is.”

“The lady was sure to have friends, sooner or later.”

“I know,” Prad says coolly.  “It’s fine.  Really, it is.”  A pause, then he renews his suggestion for beers at the pub.  The offer receives the same cool response it did back in the lab.

“We were actually serious about getting home, man,” Sa’id says diplomatically.

“Oh, yeah, that’s cool too.  I guess it is a work night after all, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, sorry.  We’ll all hook up next week though right?”

“Yeah, Angie said she’d let us know about that.  I guess she wants us all to meet in person again to let the others know how it went.”

“Yup, bragging rights.” Sa’id says, summing it up succinctly.

“Right.  Oh, and remember that we’ve got a gag order put on us in the meantime.  No bragging ‘til everyone’s around to hear about it… in private.”

“I’m always discreet,” Sa’id declares.

They have a final laugh and Prad says goodnight to them one last time before heading off to the parking lot.  His Miata is there waiting for him, its seasonal protection undeployed against the dewy evening air.  He is suddenly annoyed by this and the number of obstructions strewn across the seats as he gets in.  A half-smoked joint is sitting on top of a few cases in his disk holder, a small burn mark from where it burnt itself out a few nights ago.  He puts it to his lips before starting the car.  A quick press of the lighter to get it burning, and he’s off.  Looks like it’s partying alone for him again tonight.

It’s strange, he thinks as he comes to a stop at the intersection just outside the college property.  He should be flying.  He should be a mile high right now.  If anything, the pot should be evening him out.  But it isn’t.  The pot is kicking in and the red light seems to drag on into infinity.  He sits there looking ahead and resting his chin on his left fist, propped up against the armrest.  The warm wind blowing across the nearby grassy fields makes him think of the end of summer.  It’s that time that calls to him from his deepest memory when summer was coming to an end and the cold winds began to roll in from the north pacific, announcing the coming of winter… with its rains and monster storms.  That’s about what it feels like right now, except that the wind is from the south, and it’s the beginning of spring.

All he can think about is how alone he really is.  No warm body to keep him company in his spacious bed and his cool linens.  Not even the thought of Brianna Banks or his adult dating site seems to hold any appeal for him right now.  All he can think about is how Angie will be with someone else tonight, how she likes this man and gets all nervous around him, and how his presence seems to break her poise and cool demeanor.  Most of all, he thinks about how it’s this other man, and not him that does that to her.