Tom and Bequi: The web journal that brought down the wall
INDEPENDENT FEDERATION SPACEPORT DELTA 2 November 2051
Tommy Cowde leaves the shuttle ramp with the rest of Alliance Tech School 3721's senior field trippers. In two straight lines they follow Ms. Nguyen into the terminal, and Tom finds himself for the first time beyond the Great Encryption Wall, deep inside the territory of the Independents.
The terminal is strange, primitive. Sensors and conduits dangle from the ceiling, out in the open. Maintenance ports and data plugs gape everywhere. The screens set into the concourse walls run ads for local products in a style hardly changed from early Cina.
They're met at the barrier by a kindly officer who checks the student decks for viruses, and they're each introduced to Indie "hosts," local kids. Ms. Nguyen reads the list, giving thanks that this will at least split up Cowde and the Finnish ambassador's kid, little Hueckel. Those two have been a trial.
And so Tom Cowde was assigned to Bequi Thatcher and, quite unexpectedly, fell in love.
Bequi wears outlandishly old-fashioned jeans and a replica t-shirt with the old Microsoft logo. She thinks this will be a nice gesture to the Allies, and it drives her mom up the wall. Bequi's eyes are bright and playful, the eyes of a kid. But she obviously doesn't take the maturity-delaying hormones that have been mandatory for females in Tech School ever since the 2016 study proved them conducive to good order and efficient learning.
On the bus to the hostel, each Alliance kid must sit with their Indie host. Tom ignores her, tries to sit in the back with the Finn, but Ms. Nguyen stops that right away.
Bequi is quiet, proud. Tom takes out his deck, noticing that Bequi's looks like a museum piece: no holoscreen, no laslink. You could even see cable ports cut in the side, just like in a museum.
Bequi marvels at the custom brushed synthex that encases Tom's deck while Tom checks the scores. The Yankees are leading the Blue Wave in the 7th. Bequi, who has been trying to maintain the poised reserve proper to a Meeting with Foreigners, is lost in admiration for the resolution, the color purity, the sheer polish of every detail.
"I've never seen a video buffer that good! Did you make it yourself?"
Tom looks at her, blinks. "Of course not. It's part of the deck. You can't just change stuff -- everything needs to work together."
Bequi flinches at this quote from Alliance scripture. But her class had been prepared well. Posters everywhere: "Be gracious representatives!" "Show our enlightenment -- and our good manners!"
The old-fashioned gaselectric takes them through the city. Here is the Great Penguin, just like in the movies. Monument Square, with the mystic icons of mschmidt and toke, the fray flammifer, the eastern gate, the list apart. Over there, a stone bridge built centuries ago and still in service: talk about underfunding maintenance!
The streets are full of people. Half of them don't even have a deck. They buy stuff right there in front of you. No privacy, no identity, no Passport.
The Indie kids are wearing black armbands.
"Do you guys always wear those black things?" Tom asks Bequi, hoping he isn't asking something foolish.
"Just on days of mourning."
"Of course not. It's November 2, the anniversary of the Great Betrayal. The day the old U.S. sold out to Microsoft." Bequie remembers her manners. "But I think it's all old-fashioned. We should be friends! I'm NOT observant. Just 50 years ago, my great uncle actually did contract work for Microsoft itself!"
Another awkward silence. Tom's ears redden.
The tour is pretty cool, actually. Tom likes old stuff. The way Indies leave everything open and unfinished makes it more interesting. It's ugly and unsafe but it's fun to see the guts.
Nothing seems to work quite right -- not like at home -- and there always seem to be people jacked in, making repairs or changing things around.
Last stop, afternoon: the new Marine Laboratory Farms. The MarLab guide is a skinny, pompous old guy who tries to turn everything into an ode to "Independent Spirit."
It is interesting, Tom thinks, how they rig the bots to wander without much guidance, fixing problems they literally bump into.
"I guess if they're cheap it doesn't matter if they're stupid," he whispers to Bequi. "Like freshmen."
She smiles brightly. They wander over to a repair station, where a girl not much older than Bequi is working on a ComBot. "I've been having a lot of trouble with this little baby," she tells the kids. "She keeps dropping packets. Just clumsy, I guess!"
The woman and Bequi get into some sort of a riff about changing the firmware. No planning, no architectural permission, no usability consult. Just cut and code. It makes Tom cringe.
"But what's the problem?" the tech asks Tom. "If it doesn't help, I'll just send Fetch out to pick it up and we'll rollback the mod." Tom tries to explain the Three Laws of software engineering, but the Indie girls only smile.
They notice the tour group has moved on. They leave hastily.
"Which way did they go?" Tom asked Bequi, but she only shrugs. They look here. They look there. They run in the hallway.
They barely hear the explosion.
The sudden shivering of the module doesn't alarm them at first. Later they consider mass and volume, ponder the resistance of the ocean, realize how much force it must have taken.
When the autoseals slide shut, they assume it's a demo.
Later, they would read about the rebel forces, the demands, the counter-attacks. They'd read about the wreckage, the writeoff, the tragic loss.
But all this will be on Independent sites. Tom will keep searching, but there will be nothing on the network portals, just rumors of another setback for the Indie ocean project.
They're cut off, sealed in, alone, adrift. They hit bottom minutes later.
Tom's deck can't get a connection; the wireless relays are back upside with whatever is left of the station. An entire section of the MarLab seems to have broken off, shifted. They can't find a way out.
Bequi has almost no software onboard; she keeps everything in the forge and only checks out what she needs right away. Thats the Independent way, and even Bequi has to admit that some of the old ways are OK. Tom's deck has gorgeous UI, but of course it's useless without the relays.
Or maybe not. "You mean you have a complete Net suite right there?" she exclaims when she finally catches on. "Locally?"
"Of course. It's part of the system. Ever since the old days. The black armband, you know?" Tom is pleased to see Bequi blush. "But there's no signal, it's useless."
"I bet my deck can interface with the harvester bots. They must have some Net access or nobody would know when they broke. But I'd need your deck to talk to them....."
It takes a few hours (and some irreparable damage to the brushed synthex case) for Bequi to rig a connection between Tom's deck, her deck, and the Indie oceanNet. It's just a low-bandwidth, low-traffic net for controlling dumb bots -- harvesters, weather watchers, whale minders.
But it's the Net. They can get web pages, slowly, through an old debugging port. Tom can push email out to the bots; it seems pointless, but makes Bequi laugh in delight. Bequi has to top this! She convinces one of the bots to forward its mail through a porn filter in Finland. Kelp harvesters don't read email, there isn't any way to get inbound mail, but they can send. Of course, the Alliance spambots will devnull their mail as soon as it hits the Wall.
"Hueckel's dad is the Finnish ambassador!" Tom finally gets it. "They'll see your email traffic and tell him we're here!" Bequi is skeptical.
To get to the Allied net, they'd have to break through the Great Wall of Encryption that the Alliance set up in '23. Even if they could find a workaround, Tom's authentication system would be useless. Any Alliance system would sniff Bequi's Indie software right off, and that'd blow Tom's passport.
Neither Tom nor Bequi notices the time, or cares. Eventually both begin to yawn.
They fall asleep, that first night, on the floor of the maintenance lab. Tom wonders if he should find a different room, but, to be honest, the idea of being alone in the wrecked lab, cut off from everything, seems a little frightening. So he just moves a few feet across the room before he falls asleep.
The floor is chilly. They move closer. Their arms touch, enfold, entwine. They are barely awake when they kiss. She is soft. He isn't. They don't really know what they are doing, but the organic tech works in its ancient rhythm. Later, they sleep.
Morning. Aches, chill, memory.
"It's not fine, Tom. We're in trouble. Bad trouble."
"I know." Tom tries to think of something reassuring. "I'm sure the Alliance will launch a rescue mission soon."
"Maybe it already failed. Maybe that's why there's nothing on your nets."
"We have food, water. The airplant is fine. I think."
Bequi stops, thinks, reaches a decision.
"Tom, I know you'll think this is silly. But, remember, I was raised Indie. I know you weren't, I know that everything they teach us about your people isn't always right. But ... we might be here forever. We might die. We're taught you have obligations -- to the community, to the planet, to the Net. Tom ... we've got to start a weblog."
"Now, Bequi. That's something your grandmother would say. And we aren't that bad off."
"If something more went wrong, there mightn't be time. And that's the worst thing you can do. The very worst. To be, well, closed." To her, the word is obscene.
"Well, if it makes you feel better, I guess I don't see the harm."
"Tom, I want you to have one too."
Bequi's journal goes live that night. A few Indie kids find it. They link to her. They visit every few hours. So do their friends and readers.
It's odd. Having to be open, so brutally honest about what is happening. Her First Time -- with an Ally! She knows they will die soon; something will break, everything will end. It's her duty to be open until it's over.
One of Bequi's readers shows the page to her mother, who sends it to a Sim partner who happens to be on the Board of the Kaycee Nicole Memorial Foundation. An emergency meeting is held, funds allocated, press releases composed. "You don't suppose it's OurFirstTime.com again?" the hesitant director asks.
They have air, enough to last forever. Probably. Tom isn't really confident his simulation takes everything into account. Plenty of food, too, he guesses. Assuming that Bequi is right about the synth-rice.
What they don't have is audience. Readers. Ratings.
Yeah, Bequi has a few Indie readers, but what can they do?
Tom checks the Times again: nothing. He checks MSN: nothing. He checks scripting news, which is back in the Alliance this year. He checks Whitehouse, where kids from Redmond are rolling eggs in the Rose Garden. But nothing about the explosion.
They shout through nets woven round the world, but nobody hears.
In the end, together, they found a way.
Nobody knows exactly how they got the portals to let them through. Some think Bequi learned how to clean the Independent traces from her packets. Perhaps that was where their money came from, for Tom and Bequi soon seemed to have plenty.
Perhaps Tom found a crack in the Great Wall.
Perhaps some Allied High Commissioner read their logs in the privacy of his home, fell a little in love, and decided to make a call.
The word got through, somehow, and a few days later the secret Finnish sub bumped located the MarLab wreck. Hueckel was among the first through the hatch.
Tom and Bequi were married the next year, shortly after their daughter Linnea Gates Cowdethatcher was born. Thirty years later, Independent President Cowde-Thatcher entered the election for the Head of the Allied Council, and her victory reunited the planetary web as earth resumed its long-delayed march to the stars.
(This is a work of fiction; any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental. © Copyright 2001 by Mark Bernstein. All Rights Reserved)