April 2010

Despite this, I continued reading the message:

The result of this is that people are distancing themselves from reality, from the glaring gap between what society tells them and what they know to be true. Thanks to digital information, people can choose which truths they’d like to believe and filter their input accordingly. A blog, a biased news source, message boards–people are creating their own truths out of whole cloth, based not on how things are but how they should be.

And thanks to our belief systems–that there is no objective truth, only personal truths–this mass of contradictory information grows. People withdraw into it, into their insular information communities where no one questions them. Nobody right, nobody’s wrong, nothing is deleted, and information ceases to evolve. It’s drowning us, forcing humans further apart. This proliferation of worthless information will destroy the fabric of our civil society–in fact, it’s already begun. You can see it in the evening news.

We’ve got to stop this decline and bring things back into equilibrium. People that can use computers and manipulate information are increasingly powerful in this new digital age, and it’s our responsibility to act. Garbage information has to be weeded out in favor of what’s truly useful to society and future generations. That’s what our new system is capable of, if we take it to its logical conclusion.

It was signed, simply, “The Firewall.”


“Greetings, Captain Lebedev,” the man said, without standing. “I am Colonel Grigoriy Sergeyevich Berenty, of the Second Chief Directorate. I trust that, as a military man, you know what that means.”

“I am in MORFLOT now,” Lebedev said, sitting behind his desk. “Naval affairs do not concern the merchant marine, nor do the activities of the KGB. They did once, but no longer. Please tell me why you’re here; I am a busy man. The Marshal Nedelin is to depart in one month’s time.”

“Yes, I know,” said Berenty. “Officially the vessel is to conduct oceanographic research on currents and the like. But you and I both know that is not the case; this is only a front for Project Narodnaya Volya.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” said Lebedev. He uncorked a bottle from the left drawer of the desk and poured himself a glass. “Now, as I said, I am very busy. Thirty days is hardly sufficient time for my assignment.”

“New orders have been issued,” said Berenty. “You are to depart immediately.”


The number, along with its cousins 183, 283, 383, and so forth, have regularly occurred in your life, across time and circumstance too vast to be coincidental.

83 miles to your grandparents’ house. 183 inches around the outside of your childhood bedroom. 283 applications for the position your firm offered. Flight 383 from San Francisco to Newark.

You asked a mathematician about it once; she responded with jargon about frequency and primes. Your co-worker said the pattern was based on obsessive compulsion on your part, a mind for minute details that came in handy during working hours but played strange tricks outside them. Friends came to groan when you pointed out fresh examples of 83, or things that boiled down to 83. One of your lovers even left you after a tiff brought on by an “inspected by 83” tag.

However, when a promotion led you to an inspection tour of number 8383 Industrial Way South, you knew that something more than mere coincidence was behind it.

She always signed the name Bir Tawil when one was required, since the term had meaningful, if esoteric, relationship to her perception of reality.

When the Brits had been busily carving up Africa like a choice turkey, they’d drawn a border between Egypt and Sudan–ruler-straight, as such externally imposed lines tended to be. A few years later, they’d gone back and, with uncharacteristic attention to native concerns, adjusted it to give Egypt a little plot of land south of the line and Sudan a little plot north of it since local tribal shepherds used the land to graze. Egypt and Sudan had fallen to fighting over the larger part, called Hala’ib, but the border was such that whoever claimed Hala’ib had to deny ownership of the smaller part at the same time. Called Bir Tawil, the patch of land was unclaimed by either one in favor of something they valued more.

So when Bir signed something with her name of choice, she was symbolically casting in her lot with that wretched 800 square miles of desert that nobody wanted. There had even been a time she’d harbored a dream of moving there–an act of solidarity with something as abandoned as she.

Jimmy and his fellow club members used to troll the Omnipedia looking for righteous battle–wrongs that needed righting. The fact that none of them possessed more than a layman’s knowledge of history, sociology, or other popular topics was utterly beside the point.

There was always grammar and spelling.

Cam, for instance, went into a rage whenever he saw the word ’till’ used instead of ‘until.’ Which was a lot. “Tilling is something you do with farm dirt, not time!”

Then there was Remy, who’d taken it upon himself to add the rapidly-fading word ‘whom’ back into popular parlance, liberally sprinkling it across user-edited entries as esoteric as ‘Carcinogens’ or ‘The Panic of 1837.’

They all were united in an opposition to the sinister incursion of British spellings like ‘programme’ and ‘colour.’ “Just because the damn Brits conquered the world they think they can shove their unnecessary letters down our throats!” Jimmy had been heard to remark. The fact that there were equally active groups actively seeking to promulgate British wordiness only served to incite furious edit wars that seesawed back and forth for weeks.

And then things started getting out of hand.

Sneezes are like fingerprints–utterly unique to each person.

Some men have such powerfully overblown sneezes that they echo for minutes afterwards, and the neighbors telephone to say ‘bless you’. Sneezes that are too thunderous to be natural; it’s obvious that this kind of man, in days gone by, had sneezing contests with their buddies over a pint of snuff.

Likewise, certain women have sneezes so proper, so dainty, that it’s obvious they’ve been rehersed for hours in front of a mirror. Such a powderpuff ‘ah-choop!’ is best left to poodles.

Charles had once been told by an old girlfriend with an obsession for hygine that his sneeze was ‘perfectly average.’

“You’re the only person I know who actually says ‘ah-choo’ when they sneeze.” she’d said. “Jim used to wake me up when he sneezed.”

Rolling his eyes at another reference to his girlfriend’s ex, Charles had said “I thought everybody did.”

“Nope. It’s not unique. People like to be unique. Your sneeze–perfectly average.”

Perfectly average described many things about Charles, not the least of which was the minivan he was driving down the interstate nearly fourteen years later to the day.

And he was sneezing a lot.

The screen blinked, and Jenny accepted the incoming transmission.

“Low-priority target in your sector,” a voice said. “Level 2 compensation, plus bonuses if applicable.”

“Ah, what the hell,” said Jenny. A Level 2 was barely worth getting up for, but with a nice bonus it’d pay for a generous Thai take-out dinner. Granted, that was more time on the treadmill or another pricey Fem-A-Slim injection, but she was hungry.

Jenny opened her bedroom closet arms locker. “The Denel?” she muttered. “Nah, for a Level 2, let’s stick with the Accuracy.” She contemplated putting on a robe, but the transmission had been audio only. A t-shirt was more than enough.

The sniper rifle was well-oiled, and Jenny’s practiced hands assembled and loaded it quickly. Her window slid open at the touch of a button, with the gun mounting easily to the lug on the sill. Within a few moments, she had the target in sight–a portly man making a poor attempt to make himself inconspicuous.

“Boom,” said Jenny. “Easy money.”

Bert’s team specialized in “turning around” houses—buying them cheap on good land, fixing them up, and then selling them at a profit. If they’d been doing business the normal way, he never would have looked twice at the ad in the paper, but sometimes business was slow, and the team had to be willing to take jobs for hire.

He’d gotten a call from Harvey, the realtor who Bert did most of his Cascade business with. A vacation cabin, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a two-track road that didn’t even have a name, only a vague description.

“Who the hell’d want to vacation that far out?” he’d said.

“Hey, some people like to get away. Maybe they were Australian looking for a bit of that homely feel. The point is, Bert, the place is sitting with the next of kin, and they’re ready to give it up as a derelict. I’ve already got some interested buyers lined up—more Aussies, maybe, who knows—but they’ve all got ten thumbs. City types, you know.”

“I know,” Bert had grunted. Part of the beauty of his job was that the noise and pointy things tended to keep people away.

There was no question of who was to blame: Thompson has said it himself, in blood-red oil paint wired to his neighbors’ fence. Gilvery had done it—or, rather, had driven Thompson to. That much was plain as day.

The real wrinkle was that no one knew who Gilvery was, or what they could possibly have done to provoke such a response.

That morning found Vincent Gaines strolling down Main Street in Porthaven, hands in pockets and a satisfied grin on his face.

“Congratulations, Mr. Comissioner of Schools,” called Sam Joliet, Porthaven’s premier greengrocer, from his storefront. “I voted for you, so I knew you’d win.”

“Thanks, Sam,” said Vincent. “I can’t say I’m too happy myself, though. Whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth. Unless that’s the rutabagas I bought from you yesterday, that is.”

“If the rutabaga leaves a sour taste in your mouth, it’s just doing its job,” Joliet laughed. “No, I mean Thompson. Run into him?”

Vincent sighed. “I’m not sure I want to see him. You saw the posters that he put up?”

“Which ones? The ones that accused you of being an anarchist, or the ones that said you’d spawned a mulatto bastard in Port au Prince?”

It was 1990. I was 27; I was invincible. And I was working as a courier for International Solutions, LLG. Never heard of them? I’m not surprised; the company was never really interested in publicity, only in getting jobs done and stashing checks in the Cayman Islands. We specialized in getting things where they needed to go, no questions asked, signed and sealed, guaranteed.

Some of the IS couriers were about what you’d expect—tough, ex-military types with pistols under their shoulder, in their sock, jammed up their ass. They had their uses, but IS had found out that, in general, more shooting meant less profit, and the gung-ho Rambo types tended to shoot first and ask questions never. That’s where I came in.

I wasn’t a rippling sack of meat and the only gun I’d ever held had been at IS’s orientation, but the company was more interested in my tongue (silver, of course) and my eye (golden, I suppose, since I wore those terrible 1980’s shades all the time). My first orientation test had been to talk my way into a car-impound lot in LA; my second had been to deliver an unwanted package to a high-security area of my choosing. I passed the first by renting a limo and writing a bad check; I passed the second by studying an FAA badge and pretending I gave a shit about the Red Sox.

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