Monday, July 30, 2007

Chapter 27. Zero Day

Joel was recovering well after two days. Both his eyes were still blackened from the blow to his face, but Max had restrained himself enough that he hadn’t actually broken Joel’s nose after all. The lunatic had Linda to thank for the last minute mercy. If she hadn’t asked Max to go easy, Joel would have been in much worse shape. Nevertheless, he wore his protective foil cap down low on his brow and kept his distance as Linda and Dr. Murray prepared Max for the trip back to Perske’s corner of the dark net.

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Max stretched out in the lounge chair and Linda placed a pair of headphones over his ears. She swung around a set of goggles mounted at the end of a jointed boom, and positioned them in front of his face. The contraption looked like it had been kluged together with parts scavenged from a dental drill, an optometrist’s testing station, and the guts of a microwave oven.

“If that thing slips,” said Max, “you’ll crush me.”

Linda winked at him and continued about her business, twisting the positioning knobs and lining up the eyepieces. She beckoned Joel to help her. He approached hesitantly, careful to keep Linda between himself and Max.

“Can you see the test pattern?”

Max focused on the image in the lenses.

“Yep, there are the cross hairs. The focus looks about right.”

“And you can still hear me?”

He nodded.

“It’s a little muffled.”

When everything was set, she stepped back to survey the set up, and then climbed into the twin lounge chair nearby.

“Wait,” said Max, “I thought I was going with Joel.”

“No, it’ll just be you and Linda,” said Dr. Murray as he began arranging Linda’s equipment. “May Ted guide and protect the both of you.”

Max lifted the headphones off of his ears.

“I’d really prefer it if he came along instead.”

“You and Linda will make a more cohesive team,” said Dr. Murray. “He’s going to work on finding a vulnerability for us to get you in. That’s really more in keeping with his talents.”

“We’ve worked things out haven’t we Joel? Come on, it’ll be fun”

Joel shook his head in a silent but vigorous negative reply before busying himself at the keyboard and monitor across the room.

Max pushed the goggles to the side.

“What’s the matter?” Linda asked. “Don’t you trust me? Or is it because I’m a girl?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“I’m a much better shot that Joel. Much better than you too, as I’ve heard.”

Max stammered, “This isn’t the way I thought it would go down.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know. It’s just not what I expected. That’s all.”

After a moment, he pulled his goggles back in place.

“I’ll try to adapt.”

Joel made himself small at the terminal. Linda fiddled needlessly with the equipment mounted to her lounge chair.

Dr. Murray broke the awkward silence by describing the zero day exploit. Joel, he explained, was scanning the recent security bulletins for high priority patches and the flaws that they addressed. The inevitable delay between the announcement of a vulnerability and the installation of patches by sysadmins, he said, means that there is almost always a window of opportunity for a fast moving hacker to take advantage of a security flaw. Places like the University, where staff were likely to be less attentive on the weekends, are particularly vulnerable to flaws announced in bulletins released late in the day, at the end of the week, and over holiday breaks.

“In the summer,” said Murray, “they might as well hand us the keys during happy hour on basically any Thursday or Friday you like, Ted willing.” He checked his watch. “It’s five thirty Joel. Anything promising?”

“There are a few possibilities,” Joel mumbled.

“Lets get started,” said Linda. “We’ll hang out on the inside until you find an exploit.”

Dr. Murray placed a hand on each of their shoulders and blessed them and their mission in Ted’s name. He stepped back, flicked the switches on a pair of small vacuum pumps resting by each of their chairs, then opened the valve at the top of an insulated liquid nitrogen canister. Max recognized the hum of a large power supply, but the sound of a rustling wind quickly drowned it out.

He found himself standing at the prow of a large boat, with the deck rocking lazily under his feat and the distant horizon rising and falling with the rhythm of the long, low swells.

Linda squatted nearby, rummaging through an equipment locker.

“What are we doing here?” he asked.

“Just waiting,” said Linda. She lifted a rifle from the locker and tossed it to him, then pulled out a weapons belt like the one Joel had demonstrated. “You said something the other day about going on a cruise. I thought that this was the least we could do.”

She strapped the belt around her waist before reaching in the locker for another and handing it to Max. She tapped her belt’s root kit button and faded to a vague outline. Although he could still make her out as a translucent distortion against the background, she was nearly invisible other than a ripple that became more distinct when she moved. She reappeared after a few seconds with her hand in the act of falling away from the belt, where she had apparently toggled the setting back off.

“Try yours.”

He located the button on his belt and pushed it. Although he felt no change, and his extremities looked to him to be as visible as ever, Linda nodded in approval.

He clicked the button again.

“Excellent,” she said. “Should we go over the plan again?”

Max shrugged. “It seems simple enough. I show you the way in and cover you if we get in a pinch. Once we get close to Perske and the Jasons, you’ll take care of the rest. Then it’s back out in a hurry.”

He leaned over and peered into the empty locker. “Where’s that little fire cracker Joel showed me?”

Linda pulled at the collar of her plain white t-shirt to reveal the pendant on a chain around her neck.

“Do I get one?”

“No,” said Linda. “If we get close enough to set it off, we won’t have time for a second try. One’s enough.”

“Sounds exciting," said Max. "Incidentally, thanks to Joel’s little demo session, I know how to bail out in an emergency. What about your escape plan?”

Linda shook her head. “I get out the same way we go in, or I don’t get out. At least not in the same shape I’m in now.”

“What happens if you don’t make it?”

“Based on what we’ve seen in the past, short term dementia is the best possible outcome.”

“Really?" said Max. "So we’re not the first from the Freedom Club to give it a shot?”

“We haven’t sent many in, but there have been a few, and it’s never turned out well.” She rested her rifle barrel against the railing. “Joel was probably the luckiest. He was catatonic for a few days. The first week was touch-and-go; teaching him to swallow, then to chew. He’s not what you’d call normal yet, but at least he can wipe himself.”

Max whistled softly. Joel’s aluminum foil cap didn’t seem so outrageous in light of what he must have been through.

“It’s a risk you’re still willing to take?” he asked.

Linda slung her rifle on her back and tightened her belt, but said nothing.

“Alright then,” said Max, “I guess we’ll have to make sure everything goes off as planned.”

She pointed at a dark smudge on the horizon beyond the ship’s bow.

“It looks like they found us a way in.”

Max shouldered his rifle as the smudge spread across the sky like ink soaking into a cloth. When all the sky was at last dark, the deck of the ship bucked, sending Max and Linda stumbling toward the railing. He extended his arm to steady himself and found his hand resting on a warm, smooth surface.

It was the desk in his home environment on the University system. Everything was in its place, just as he remembered it. After weeks of trauma and struggle to adapt to the primitive conditions of the Freedom Club, it was a comfort to find himself in a place so familiar, so perfectly tailored for his needs.

Linda studied the walnut desk, the ceiling fan and the ancient filing cabinet.

“Welcome home Sam Spade.” She lifted the telephone receiver and tested its weight. “Where to now?”

Max scratched his chin. “I guess I need to find the message from Perske with the attachment she sent me the last time.”

He opened the filing cabinet drawer that held his email and flipped through a few of the recent files.

“I never had a very good organizational system. Hold on a moment. It’s better if I have Betty handle it.”

“Who?” said Linda.

“You’ll see.”

Max called for his virtual assistant. The door on the wall across from his desk opened immediately and Betty entered. She was dressed in her usual mob moll garb with the diving cleavage, heavy black high heels and tight skirt that stopped just above her knees.

“Betty, could you find the last message that I opened from Dr. Perske? The one with the attachment please.”

She sauntered to the cabinet and reached into the drawer to select a sheet of paper and the box that went with it. She handed them both to Max, perched herself on the edge of the desk, and pulled a nail file from her frilly sleeve.

“Thank you Betty. That will be all for now.”

“Interesting,” said Linda as Betty slipped off the desk and exited.

“Isn’t she though?”

He set the email on his desk and lifted the toy car out of the box.

“This might be a tad disturbing, but it’s how we get in, I think.” He flipped the car over and found the small switch on the bottom that set the toy lights blinking and the horn beeping. “Just follow my lead and you should be fine.”

He turned the car around and stared into the stroboscopic headlights. The fuzzy caterpillar sensation erupted in his forearm. The room began to spin. He felt his eyes roll upward.

Here we go again, thought Max.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Chapter 26. Target Practice

Read about the Dark Net Target Practice game inspired by this chapter.

At first glance, the rolling green hills, brilliant blue sky and puffy clouds looked reasonably convincing. But the illusion didn’t hold up well under close scrutiny. Everything had the shoddy artificialness of a low budget virtual environment, like an old fashioned sound stage in some epic film from the glory days of Technicolor Hollywood. Max imagined if he were to climb the nearest hill, he would find that the distant horizon where the earth met the sky was nothing more than paint on a rippling canvas backdrop.

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The half dozen creatures frolicking on the artificial turf a few dozen yards away weren’t rendered any better. There was a cat that was apparently made of scraps of paper swept up from the floor of an artist’s studio, a cartoonish dog walking on his hind legs and wearing a red cape, a bearded man with an Elizabethan collar that Max assumed was supposed to evoke Shakespeare, a levitating UFO about the size of a basketball, and a claymation Albert Einstein. The final creature was the most animated of the bunch – it was a twisting, cavorting, spastic paperclip with googly eyes that Max recognized as the annoying office assistant from some ancient word processor program.

“Ready for target practice?” Joel asked as he hefted a rifle to his shoulder and took a bead on the dancing paperclip flitting through a patch of yellow flowers. He squeezed the trigger and fired off a shot that froze the creature in mid frolic.

“That just hangs the process,” said Joel. He tilted the rifle and twisted a knob on the stock. “You can adjust how long you want it to halt with this. Watch him. He’ll get going again in a second.”

After a few moments, the frozen paperclip jerked back into motion just as Joel had predicted.

He flipped the rifle over and pointed to a switch just in front of the trigger guard. “This lets you set it to corrupt the bugger all together. Wanna try it?”

Max shook his head. “After you.”

Joel aimed again and shouted, “Hey dude, it looks like I’m writing an obituary.”

The paperclip bounced spastically. “Would you like help?” it screeched.

“I think I know how to compose this one.”

Joel fired a shot. The grinning paperclip melted into a blob of gray goo that seeped into the grass.

Joel thrust the weapon into Max’s hands.

“Give it a go. It’s fun.”

The faux wood stock was warm and smooth. The rifle had a comfortable heft.

Max set the switch back to the pause position and pointed the gun up to the sky at a cloud that was unconvincingly drifting by. The butt bucked lightly against his shoulder and a jagged portion of the cloud stopped in its place, while the remainder continued on its way. He lowered the rifle toward the ground and pulled the trigger again. A spot on the shimmering grass dimmed a bit.

Finally, he aimed at the claymation Einstein. The first shot went wide right, and the second was too low. The third was dead on, freezing Einstein in place.

“If we’re going in there armed with these,” he said, “I hope you’re not counting on my marksmanship.”

Max turned as he spoke, and Joel leapt back clumsily stumbling on his robes.

“Watch it,” he squeaked. “Don’t point that at me.”

Max lowered the muzzle.

“Excuse me. Is it dangerous to humans?”

“Indeedy,” said Joel. “They tried it on me once. It was only set on pause of course. Have you ever been wrapped in a wet rubber sheet?”

Max admitted that it was not a pleasure he had ever experienced.

“You can imagine what it feels like. Anyway, we’re not relying on your aim. Linda’s a crack shot. She’s the one who popped me. I can tell you, I wasn’t standing still for it. She hit me at fifty meters and a full run.”

The image brought an involuntary smile to Max’s face.

“Besides,” said Joel, “you don’t have to aim very well with these.”

He lifted a portion of his robe to reveal a belt with a collection of canisters hanging from it. One was marked with the red letters FB, another bore the marking DOS, a third was labeled ZB, and the final canister read Ctrl-Alt-Del.

“This,” said Joel as he removed the first canister from his belt, “is a fork bomb. I like to call it a wabbit, ‘cause it breeds processes like mad.”

He pulled a tab at the top of the canister and heaved it into the field near the scrap-paper cat. After a moment, a series of translucent blobs about the size of softballs erupted from the canister and rolled in lazy trajectories on the grass. Several of them stuck to the cat, which was soon enveloped in a mound of the jelly blobs.

“The zip bomb,” he said as he launched a second canister into the midst of the animated characters, “hogs memory and slows all local processes to a crawl.”

The canister went off with a muted thud. The walking dog and the Elizabethan poet, although still animated, moved with fits and starts, like characters in a movie recorded on a scratched DVD.

“This one,” said Joel holding out the DOS labeled can, “is a Denial of Service beacon. It won’t work here because this system is isolated. There has to be at least some network connection for it to have any effect. It’s handy if you need to block a portal and shut off network traffic for a while.”

He replaced the beacon and pointed to the final canister.

"Control-Alt-Delete grenade - it's old fashioned, but it'll do the trick if you need to stop a lot of local processes in a hurry. I'm sure you can figure that one out on your own."

Max nodded. “That’s quite an arsenal. It looks like you’re all set to make real nuisances of yourselves. What do you need me for?”

Joel cinched the belt tighter around his waist. “Someone has to show us the way around. You’re the only person who’s ever been in and made it back out intact. Don’t get me wrong. Finding your way in is easy enough. It’s taking care of business and getting back out that’s tough, at least with all your wits about you.”

From what Max knew of Joel, it seemed he had little to fear when it came to losing his wits.

“Is there anything else?”

Joel tapped the belt at his waist and pointed toward a small red button.

“This enables a root kit. It’ll give you some stealthiness in most systems, but it’s not fool proof, just helpful. And then there’s this.”

He lifted a pendant on a chain around his neck. It was a black fob about the size of a peach pit and similar in shape.

“It’ll compromise just about any program in range, as well as mangle data and corrupt executable code. You just activate it like this.” He jerked the pendant off the chain and held it between his thumb and index finger. It glowed a menacing red and flashed, slowly at first and then gradually faster.

“Count to three and chuck it.”

He lobbed the pendant. It exploded with a brilliant flash, instantly incinerating the cluster of animated creatures and leaving a charred scar on the ground. At the point where the jewel had detonated, a small fireball hovered like a tiny sun. Max grimaced at the destruction and held up a hand to shield his eyes from the brilliance of the fireball that pulsed and swelled.

A circle of seared grass slowly expanded as shining blades curled, blackened and erupted in smoke like hair in a match flame. Max and Joel stepped backward in response to the increasing heat.

“Now what?” shouted Max through his clenched teeth.

“I’m going to run like hell,” said Joel, “but you can take a shortcut.”


Joel reached out and grasped Max with one hand on each shoulder. He simultaneously pulled down and lunged forward, slamming his forehead into Max’s face. The grinding crunch of his breaking nose sent Max reeling back onto the ground.

Over the roar in his ears that came from a combination of the flaming fireball and the agony in his face, Max heard Joel holler, “Now we’re even. See you back at camp.”


Max returned to consciousness with a start. The pain was gone, but the throbbing memory of it was still vivid. He whipped his head around in search of Joel, but only the empty lounge chair stood where the bastard had been hooked up to the Freedom Club’s crude virtual environment interface.

He lurched forward and tried to stand. A firm but gentle pressure pulled him down from behind.

“Your OK. Take it easy.”

It was Linda’s voice.

“My god,” Max choked. “He broke my nose.”

“I know. He told me.”

Linda stepped in front of his chair, still holding him with one outstretched hand.

“He wasn’t supposed to do it that way. But he made the point.”

“What the fuck point was that?”

“Shush, you’re alright now,” she said. “The point is that you can get out at any time, provided something triggers a seizure. Pain is the quickest way.”

Max’s chest heaved. He touched his nose gingerly. It was intact and painless.

“How convenient,” he said, “all I need is for Joel to assault me and I’m out.”

Linda shook her head. “No, anything painful enough will do. I suggested breaking your arm. Dr. Murray thinks a dislocated finger would do it. Joel did this on his own.”

“I’m gonna kick his ass.”

“Maybe you should,” Linda said. “But you might want to change your pants first.”

Max looked at the wet spot that extended from his crotch and down his right thigh.

“I don’t want anything to do with you lunatics. I thought Joel was the only madman. You’re all crazy.”

“It’s up to you," said Linda, "although I don’t know where you’re going to go. They’d find you if you set foot anywhere near your apartment.”

“Somewhere else then.”

“OK,” said Linda, “any ideas?”

“I don’t know,” he snarled, “anywhere. Maybe a cruise. I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise.”

Linda shrugged. “It’ll cost you. And even if you have money, you remember what happened when you bought the soda back at the fuel station.”

Max grumbled wordlessly.

“I’ll set you up with supplies, if you want to take off on your own. But the minute you resurface, you’ll be in trouble. The way I see it, you can help us take them down, in which case you’re clear and we’re on our way to liberating everyone else.”

Max wanted to be angry, but her calm tone dampened his fury.

“So you’re out to destroy them and the whole Web? That’s a tough job.”

She walked over to Joel’s lounge chair and sat on the arm.

“Constant struggle. That’s what revolutions are all about.”

“If you succeed,” said Max, “then what?”

“We put the skills we’re learning to the test. Live like we’re living now, the way nature intended.”

“Like cave men?”

“Like natives. Humans. Not slaves to the machine they call the Internet. You can help us, or you can go your own way. I’d prefer it,” she said softly, “if you helped.”

Max slipped off the chair and stood. He pinched the leg of his pants and pulled the damp cloth away from his thigh.

“When are you planning to go in?”

“Soon. Probably on a weekend. We’re waiting for a zero-day vulnerability we can exploit.”

Max shook his head. The term was lost on him.

“Think about what you want to do and I’ll explain it to you if you decide to join us.”

“First,” said Max, “I’m going to find Joel and exploit his vulnerability for a while. Then I’ll let you know.”

“Good enough.” Linda led the way to the door that opened onto the stairs to the landing at the front of the farmhouse.

“After you change,” she said when Max was halfway down the steps, “you might try looking for Joel in the north barn. That’s where he hides when he knows he’s in trouble.”

Max rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Thanks,” he said as he reached for the doorknob. “I’ll change after I check out the barn. No point in washing up now just to have to clean his blood off later.”

“Max, don’t be too rough on him.”

“Goodnight Linda.”

He walked across the porch, flexed his hand, and imagined how good it was going to feel breaking Joel’s nose for real.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Chapter 25. Weatherman

The hottest part of the day was past, but the evening breeze that alternately lifted the plain white curtains and pressed them flat against the screens in Linda’s cabin was still too warm to be of any comfort.

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Max sat on the edge of the small bed, stripped to his underwear and t-shirt, sweating and waiting for the dinner bell. After dinner, he imagined, he would lie here and wait for breakfast. Then lunch, and then dinner again. Eventually he would become nothing more than a great, fat, sweating lump, venturing out only to eat.

Joel was right – if you’re going to drop out you have to commit to it. This was about as out as he could get.

Although Linda had promised to explain everything to him, the information she’d offered was vague and minimal. She and her compatriots at the Freedom Club, she said, had been keeping an eye on Herman Grunding, as well as Perske and a think tank that Linda called the Jasons. How a bunch of granola munching Luddites in the Pennsylvania Mountains managed that was not something she was willing to go into, just yet anyway.

Max had only come to their attention when he’d logged in as Herman and started raising red flags by lumbering around and asking lots of questions that Herman would surely have known the answers to.

The door opened and the curtains snapped tight against the screens. Linda stepped into the room, leaving the door open behind her.

“Here you are,” she said. “Is everything all right?”

“Sure. Just doing my part. Staying low, dropping out.”

“Had enough of hornworms?”

“Yep,” said Max. “It’s not much of a hobby. The tomatoes are as good as dead anyway. I figure Joel can collect them himself, if he’s hungry.”

Linda shrugged and stood quietly for a while, apparently in search of a reply. When she didn’t find one, she made her way to the bathroom. The water ran briefly in the sink, then she stepped out as she dried her hands on the rough hand towel from the hook next to the bathroom mirror.

“You know,” said Max, “it’s not as exciting being on the lam as I might have imagined.”

“It never is.” She tossed the towel into the bathroom where it landed soundlessly on the tile. “There are,” she said as she crossed the room to sit beside him on the bed, “ways to pass the time.”


She placed her hand lightly on his thigh.

“Not board games.”

Max blinked. “It’s very hot, you know.”

Linda plucked at the leg of his boxers.

“It would be cooler without these.”

He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you like me?”

“It’s not that. I have,” he said slowly, “a problem. It’s the drugs, mostly.”

She slid closer to him, pressing her leg against his.

“Are you sure? Have you tried?”

“Of course,” said Max. He stood and stepped away from the bed.

“Would you like to just lie down for a while? Until dinner.”

She pulled her shirt over her head, unbuttoned her shorts and pushed them down to the floor, then stretched out naked on the bed.


Max climbed onto the bed and she snuggled against his side.

“I’m sorry – about your problem,” she whispered.

“So am I.”

He stared at the ceiling as sweat trickled off his brow to the pillow behind his head. When the bell finally rang in the distance he took a shower, dressed in a fresh shirt and overalls, and walked with Linda down to the tent to eat.

“Attention, brothers and sisters,” called a man standing by the fire pit where the Freedom Club members gathered after dinner. He was dressed in robes similar to Joel’s but much cleaner. Even from a distance of twenty feet or more under the dim light of the crackling fire, Max could see that the man had wispy white hair and skin that was dry and loose.

Despite his announcement, the chattering of the crowd subsided only slightly. “Your attention please,” he said more forcefully. “I have a few announcements to make before this evening’s workshop.”

Linda patted Max’s knee and leaned back to rest her elbows on the blanket she had spread across the grass for the two of them. But for the most part, no one else appeared to pay any mind to the host.

“Holy robots,” the man shouted. “People shut up.” The crowd fell silent with the exception of what sounded like a woman softly whimpering.

“Thank you friends. The quicker we get started, the quicker we can wrap this up.”

He glanced at a single limp sheet of paper in his hand.

“First of all, I want to remind you that tomorrow is silent Thursday. Please avoid speaking for any reason other than absolute emergencies. Take time to reflect on your autonomy -- your individuality and separation from society. This is especially important for the new comers.

“Secondly, Friday’s workshop will focus on skinning and cleaning of small game. Brothers Alan and Justin will lead the class. Guys,” he said to a pair of young men seated next to the fire, “do you have anything to add to that?”

One of the men stood up. Max recognized him with a shuddering start. It was the hoodlum who had stripped the clothes from him in the parking lot outside the café.

“Please bring your knife,” said the ruffian, displaying the toothy smile that still haunted Max. “We’ll have a few squirrels and rabbits for those of you who don’t have a chance to trap one of your own, but not enough for everyone. So if you’re relying on us, you might end up just watching this time.”

“Thanks Alan,” the host said.

“You’re welcome Dr. Murray.”

“Third,” the old man continued, “I want to recognize sister Lorraine.”

The soft whimpering grew louder at the mention of the woman’s name.

“As you all know, her son Richard turned four last month and it was time to place him with a host family. Ted bless him.”

The whimper escalated to a muted wail.

“Ted teaches us that rebels beget and nurture more rebels. Our precious young revolutionaries are the greatest export that we can send to heal the world.”

The wail was broken with racking sobs.

“As you all can hear, sister Lorraine is overcome with joy at the prospect of her second son following the first in venturing out to plant the seeds of revolution. I’m sure we’ll learn great things about Richard in the decades to come. Would someone please help Lorraine to her cabin where she can celebrate her son’s transition in privacy for a while? Thank you.

“Finally, I want to welcome our guest, Max Caine. Most of you have met him by now. He’s been through a lot, as you all know. He’s staying in cabin twelve for the time being, and Linda has moved temporarily into the big house.

“He has walked among the enemy, and returned to tell the tale. He’s the only one we know of to have done so. We have a lot to learn from you, Max, and I hope we can teach you a thing or two as well. You’re welcome and safe here until it’s time to return and take up the battle again.”

Max asked Linda in a whisper what the hell the old man was talking about.

“He’s being a little dramatic,” she whispered back.

“Now, brothers and sisters,” said the old man, “let us recite from the manifesto.”

He raised his hands over his head and began a droning speech. Linda and the rest of the Freedom Club members muttered along with him.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” they said in unison, “have been a disaster for the human race. Over socialization leads to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, and guilt. Science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race or to any other standard, obedient only to the psychological needs of the scientists and of the government officials and corporation executives. Freedom means having power; not the power to control other people but the power to control the circumstances of one's own life. Industrial-technological society cannot be reformed. We resort to modern technology for only one purpose: to attack the technological system.”

“Thanks be to Ted.” The old man said. He let his arms fall to his sides. “Tonight we’re going to focus on the restriction of freedom in modern society. Consider the ways that people have become enslaved by the very technology that is claimed to free them. A supposedly free citizen labors day in and day out to earn the money to buy machines – cars, washing machines, refrigerators – to save, of all things, labor. How absurd it is to work all your life to build machines, and then buy those same machines, only to have them do the things you don’t have time for because you’re building machines. Why be a slave to your car when you can walk? Why sell your freedom for a washing machine when you can buy a basin and some soap for a thousandth the price? Refrigerators? They are no more than tools of the enslaving industrial complex designed to prevent you from producing your own fresh and wholesome food.”

He glared at his audience, as if daring anyone to contradict him.

“There’s nothing new about this. Absolutely nothing that Bookchin or Proudhon, Tzu or Zeno, or any of countless other anarchists didn’t already know. Despite all their wisdom and insight, however, there is one insidious evil they didn’t see – one that they couldn’t possibly imagine. Since the beginning of recorded history, so-called civilization has been nothing more than an effort by the powerful and rich to harness the strength of your body. But even Whitney, Stevenson, Deere and Ford couldn’t dream of what Gates, Jobs, Anderson, Page and Brin had in store for us. I would gladly turn back the clock to the time when all they could steal was the strength of my right arm. Manual labor is yesterday’s currency. Today’s unit of exchange is the mind.

“My friends, when a person boots up a computer, when they turn on their GPS, when they sign into an ATM, they’re not logging into the system, they’re logging out of life. Ask yourself why email and I M are so seductive. Why do technophiles get the shakes when they can’t connect? Why would a person adore their Second Life lover more than their spouse? And why do so many people coddle and refine their avatars more than they play with their children?

“It’s because every time you log off, part of you stays behind. They are kidnapping you, thought by thought, experience by experience. The average person used to watch four or more hours of television each day. They said that we were trading our lives and culture for bland mind candy. Now, most workers spend six or more hours a day online, only to go home to hours more time with their interactive entertainment system. At least when we watched TV, the information only flowed one way, only came into our heads. Now it goes the other way.

“The evil of television is that it added something to your life that you found addictive. The Internet, video games, and interactive entertainment can’t work unless they take something from you – your input. And when you step away, that stays behind. Your bank account, your emails, your web page, your blog. If I erased all that, the average person would effectively disappear. They’re not addicted to the Internet, they’re incomplete without it.

“That’s part of the reason why we’re here – to become whole again. But there’s more to it, as you all know. Otherwise we would be no better than our primitive Amish neighbors. No my friends, that’s not enough. That’s merely selfish. Ted tells us that we have a mission. Technology is evil. Evil is seductive. Someone has to be strong enough to resist the seduction and put an end to it, not just for us but for everyone.”

The old man took a step forward and scanned the crowd deliberately.

“Are you strong enough to resist? Are you committed enough to fight? Think about it.”

He brought his hands together and knit his fingers. “Now gather in your workshop groups and discuss ways that you will resist the insidious, creeping influence of technology and mind control. I want each of you to tell your group at least one thing you’re willing to do. Would you follow the example of our new friend Max and risk your very existence to venture into the lion’s den? Could you walk in Ted’s footsteps and attack the technological backbone of society? Be bold. Be creative.”

The crowd shuffled and divided into small clusters. Linda turned on the blanket to join a pair of couples sitting behind her, while Max kneeled up to get a better view of the exercise. Some groups launched into vigorous discussions almost instantly, others talked casually. The bunch near the fire that included the skinners Alan and Justin seemed to Max to be particularly ill at ease, as the two young men dominated the conversation. Although he couldn’t hear everything they said, he made out a few words from the thugs, including suicide vest, improvised explosives, and air burst. Linda’s group focused more on passive resistance and demonstrations.

The old man wandered from place to place, asking questions and making suggestions. When he caught Max’s eye, he grinned broadly, marching over and thrusting out his hand.

“How are you Mr. Caine?”

“You can call me Max.”

“Certainly,” said the old man. “My name is Henry. What do you think of all this?”

“I think,” said Max, “that you don’t need a weatherman.”

“To know which way the wind blows?” said Henry. “Very old school, Max. That’s excellent. I hate to drag you away from all this, but I think we should take a walk. Linda, would you like to join us?”

The three of them stood and Henry led them along a path toward the big house with its glowing window eyes.

“Linda has told you a little about us, I imagine.”

“Not much,” said Max as he strained to make out the dim crease of the path in the darkness.

“We’ll fix that.”

They climbed the creaky steps of the farmhouse and Henry stopped on the unlit porch. He knocked on the pitch black door. It opened slightly and a beam of light from inside illuminated Henry’s face.

“What’s the password?” asked a voice behind the door.

“The password, Joel, is ‘let us in.’”

“Righty ho.”

Henry pushed his way through the doorway with Max and Linda close behind. Max squinted at the relative brightness inside. Despite a dull and worn carpet, and a rustic mantelpiece of stained wood, there was little that resembled the country house that Max had expected. Instead, racks of instrumentation, much like the equipment back at the university lab, lined the walls. In the panel above the fireplace, where a mirror or family portrait had probably once hung, a video panel displayed several news feeds, two in English, one in Chinese, one in Arabic, and one in German.

Joel stood next to a rolling stool parked beside a screen with a shot of the gathering outside the dining tent, with the Freedom Club members rendered in the glowing green of a night vision camera.

“High tech,” said Max. “Aren’t you worried about Jobs and Gates stealing your souls?”

“We’re just stirring up the weather.” Henry smiled and winked. "If you know what I mean."

Max had no idea, but it didn't sound good.

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