Monday, August 20, 2007

Chapter 35. After the Crash

Note to readers: This is the final chapter of The Dark Net blognovel.

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Max piloted the motorcycle-and-sidecar rig up an embankment and onto the dirt maintenance road that ran along the superhighway. Linda giggled and clapped her hands. It always made her laugh when the rig heeled over precariously. He had to smile at her infantile joy, despite the sweat rolling down his spine as he wrestled with the handlebars to prevent the overloaded rig from tumbling down the hill and onto the roadway strewn with immobile vehicles.

Listen to the
Chapter 35 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.

The motorcycle was archaic, a motorized dinosaur from before the days of GPS, stability control, and basic safety equipment. But at least it worked, chugging along slowly and relentlessly, unlike the millions of modern vehicles that had depended on their networked processors for everything from climate control to automated guidance, and which now sat moldering on the roads.

He’d found the machine meticulously preserved in an abandoned tourist-trap museum outside of York that had been dedicated to World War II relics. It had taken him a few weeks to get the engine back in running order and adjusted to handle the ethanol he’d gotten from a moonshiner in exchange for the last of the Freedom Club’s medical supplies. The trade had been a tough call – drugs and medical instruments were valuable commodities now that nearly all commerce had shut down. If you couldn’t make something, or get it from a neighbor, you simply had to learn to do without it, and folk medicine was a lost art to nearly everyone but the Amish.

Linda was coming along well. After ten months, she’d learned several dozen words, mostly having to do with food, toys, animals and the need to defecate and urinate.

Joel had been less fortunate, despite Dr. Murray’s attempts to resuscitate him. A life-support system might have kept him going for a while, but because his basic motor functions had been scrambled, he wouldn’t have lasted long. Besides, like the cars, planes, and countless appliances that were now no more than piles of inert machinery, any modern life-support devices would not have functioned after the massive network failure. When the Freedom Club residents packed up their farm implements and animals, they simply left Joel behind and dispersed into the hills as they had planned.

Linda would have died as well, an infant deserted in the wilderness, if Max hadn’t stayed with her. He attributed her rapid progress – crawling after a few weeks and taking her first tottering steps only days later – to the fact that the neural connections in her brain were intact, even though her memories and experiences had been thoroughly erased.

It wouldn’t be long, Max guessed, before she would develop to the intellectual level of a kindergartener, and would begin asking the questions that naturally occur to any curious child. He wondered what he should tell her when she finally raised the issue of her origins and the reasons for the technological ruins all around them, particularly because he only barely understood everything himself.

In the days before the Freedom Club finally disbanded, Dr. Murray had attempted to explain it. The confetti-filled cube, he’d said, represented minuscule bits of data that did not disrupt PCs and servers directly as most previous viruses had, but instead triggered suicide code embedded in machines and systems over the course of decades. The Freedom Club, beginning with their founder Ted, had distributed the code with conventional Trojans and worms, but because it was meaningless and benign on its own, it had not come to the attention of network security experts. It was designed to appear to be the programming equivalent of junk DNA, the inert filler in living genomes. Only when the equally inscrutable data Herman had hidden inside Betty was released did the parts come together to disrupt infected systems, fulfilling Ted’s vision of using technological attacks to destroy the technology that he believed enslaved humanity.

As clever as the two-part virus was, it would have done little damage if Neumann had not existed. Networks like the Internet are very robust against most attacks. Destroying a random set of servers is no more destructive than snipping a portion out of a spider web – there are always intact paths to follow around the damage. But Neumann existed in information traveling between machines throughout the Internet. He was, in effect, everywhere at once. Infecting him was the same as infecting the entire network simultaneously.

When the Internet shut down, so did systems controlling power grids, fly-by-wire planes and vehicles, sewage and water services, household appliances, and any other networked devices, which meant just about everything in the ultra-connected modern world. Like Joel’s brain, total disruption of basic functions, even briefly, caused the entire infrastructure to rapidly collapse. And no one had ever thought to build a life-support system for the Internet, or worried about the risks of relying too heavily on networked technology.

The irony of it, as far as Max was concerned, was that the destruction of the computational network had forced people to rebuild their personal connections. The small world of the Internet, with essentially instant connections across continents, had been replaced with a network of nearest living neighbors. This was how people must have lived before the net, phone lines, and even the pony express. Messages, goods, and just about everything else were transferred hand to hand. It was, Max imagined, like living in the Stone Age.

In fact, it was the social network that had kept the two of them going during the first challenging months. They had spent the fall and winter living off the generosity of local farmers, in addition to meager supplies Max scavenged from a truck stop he’d found over the hills from the Freedom Club compound. Once Linda was mobile, he brought her with him when he went to work in the nearby fields. Although she had the mentality of a child, her size and strength made it too dangerous to leave her with the children of the families that employed him. Instead, he would sit her down nearby and sing songs or recite half-remembered stories as he cleared brush, mended fences or shoveled manure.

When he was finally sure that she understood enough to stay seated in the sidecar, Max loaded up the rig with food, water, cans of ethanol, clothes and blankets. He kept a small bag dangling from the handlebars filled with bitter valerian roots, which he chewed periodically to prevent his seizures.

An Amish woman at one of the farms had taught him to recognize the plant’s fragrant white flowers. Once he knew what to look for, he saw them everywhere. He made a mental note to collect a reserve supply before they stopped blooming in September.

Max doubted the rumors of roving gangs of hoodlums robbing travelers and pillaging towns. He had seen no indication yet that the crumbling of the country’s infrastructure had done anything more than revive the frontiersman ethic of aiding those in need. Nevertheless, he kept a small-caliber rifle strapped beneath the sidecar where it would be out of sight, and yet within easy reach in the event that they stumbled into any trouble. It would also come in handy if they ran short of food and he had to resort to hunting the deer that occasionally crossed the highway in front of them, sprinting between the cars that, in the past, would have meant their instant doom, but now posed no threat other than leaking poisonous but temptingly sweet antifreeze and other toxic fluids.

The trip back to the university in Maryland would have taken only a few hours, back in the day. With the rig’s modest top speed, even on open ground, in addition to weaving through the surreal traffic jam and frequent stops to let Linda work off her energy playing among the trees, they were lucky to cover fifty miles before it was time to set up camp each evening.

They pulled into the supermarket parking lot down the street from his old apartment on the morning of the fourth day of their trip. Orderly rows of vendors’ tents crowded the parking spaces near the vacant storefronts, where autopiloted cars had once come and gone in rapid succession. A steady stream of foot traffic flowed across the walkway beneath the darkened traffic lights. There was no need of the crosswalk signals, even if they had still worked, now that the only vehicles in sight were handcarts and occasional horse-drawn wagons loaded with produce.

Linda waved joyously at the pedestrians who stopped and stared at the curious sight of the chugging rig before stepping aside as Max slowly negotiated his way to a stall packed with an assortment of hand tools, books, and second-hand clothing. He put the motorcycle in neutral and shut off the engine.

“Whatcha got there?” said a grizzled man sitting on a stool behind the table. “That an old Beemer?”

“Don’t think so,” said Max, helping Linda out of the sidecar. “As best I can tell from the markings, it’s Soviet, probably Ukrainian.”

“Look at that, Miranda,” the old man called over his shoulder. “They don’t make them like that anymore. Looks bulletproof to me.”

“That so?” said a woman who appeared to be in her thirties and was sorting through a box on the table.

“Where’s Ukraine exactly, Miranda?”

The woman snorted impatiently. “Google it yourself, idiot.”

“I can’t,” the old man snapped at her. “I traded the Britannica for your wedding dress this morning.” He sat forward on his stool and whispered conspiratorially to Max. “I’m not losing a daughter, so much as gaining a little peace.”

The woman threw a handful of silverware into the box, snatched up a yellowing world atlas and slapped it down on the table, then returned to her work.

“Never mind,” said the man. “I can look it up later. It’s not like you have to know the answer to everything just his moment. Tends to stifle polite conversation, IMHO. Where y’all headed in that fine piece of communist iron?”

“Oh,” said Max, “just stopping by the University, then going down to the shore, I think.”

The old man pondered Linda for a moment. “Taking her in for rehab? They have a fine program at the University. Not much else just now. But classes should be starting up soon.”

“No. I think I can handle it myself. Linda’s doing all right, all things considered.”
The old man clucked his tongue softly. “That’s good. Plenty turned up worse than her after the crash. But those that made it through at the beginning seem to come along pretty quick. She your wife or something?”

“A friend.”

“Well, that’s awfully good of you then. Damned ’puters. My grandma always said they’d rot your brains. Too bad she wasn’t around long enough to see how right she was. Have you heard? The government is trying to get them running again.”

“That so?” said Max absently.

“Yup. My future son-in-law tells me they’ve already got a server and some old laptops going down there in Arlington. DARPA, I think he said, is working on it. Damned fools, should leave well enough alone. Some folks never learn.”

“I’m sure they have their reasons. It’s hard to know sometimes,” said Max as he picked through a box of tools, “what’s the best thing to do. You can’t always tell how things will turn out.”

The old man harrumphed cynically. “They didn’t turn out so good last time, now did they? That’s what separates us from the animals, and machines like your bike there or my lobotomized Civic. The ability to learn from our mistakes.”

Max turned his attention to the items spread out on the table, in part to derail the conversation. He eventually traded a leather jacket he’d picked up at the same museum where he’d come across the motorcycle and sidecar rig for a nearly complete set of metric wrenches and some juice for Linda. He shooed away the children who had gathered around the sidecar to beg for rides, and gave a few pointers to a group of men interested in converting an antique gas tractor to ethanol, before he and Linda continued on their way.

The old man was right; the University was quieter than Max ever remembered it. Even during summer break, there had always been a fair amount of activity in the old days.

The Institute where he’d worked for so long was entirely deserted. One of the double doors at the front entrance was missing. The other stood wide open. He took Linda’s hand and led her up the steps. He waited a moment to let his eyes adjust to the shadows, and then followed the familiar twists of the central hall to his old lab. He gathered up some papers from a pile in the hall, wrapped them into a tight tube, and lit the improvised torch with the lighter he kept in his pocket.

His office had been thoroughly ransacked, but whoever had gone through it clearly saw no reason to make off with the memory cards that at one time had been neatly cataloged on the gray metal bookshelf. Instead, they had simply scattered the gigabytes of backup data on the floor. He sifted through the pile until he found the card he needed, and then guided Linda back out to the bright daylight.

He helped her into the sidecar. As he checked that Linda was secure in her seat, she reached for the card in his hand.

“See?” she said.

He held out the card and let her touch it.


“Not now,” said Max. “Later.”

“Mine,” she insisted.

He bent over and pointed to the words he’d written on it years ago.

“This says, ‘Linus and Minus, source code and training data, session number one.’”

Linda inspected the writing without showing any recognition of the meaning. It would be a long time before she’d understand the connection between text and spoken words.

“Have it?” she asked.

“Someday, maybe,” said Max as he slipped the card into his pocket. “But first we’re going to go find a boat. Do you remember the boats we saw on the river?”

Her face lit up.


“Then, who knows,” he shouted over the puttering engine, “maybe I’ll teach you to play backgammon.”

Max turned the sidecar rig around, headed out of the University, and turned east. They’d make it to the shore in a few days. All he’d need to do is trade the bike for the biggest fishing boat he could wrangle. It wouldn’t be a pleasure cruise exactly, but it would do.

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