[this page is a mirror of this original].

DF! Masthead

Postage Due

Carl Bussjaeger

Joe MacPherson glanced out the living room window and saw the mail truck pull away from his box. He pushed his keyboard away and went out to check his mail.

Out at the curb, he opened the battered metal box and removed the day's delivery. He shuffled through it, categorizing. Junk mail, junk mail, magazine, bill, bill, publisher response...

"Postal Service?" he asked himself as he eyed the last item. He shrugged and walked back inside with his mail. Back at his desk, he quickly reviewed the junk mail, decided none was worth keeping, and threw it away. He tossed the magazine onto a growing stack by the sofa, then ripped open the two bills and read the statements. They seemed to be more or less correct, so he opened his checkbook and wrote out checks for the appropriate amounts, stuffed and stamped the return envelopes. "Post Office. Whatta we got?" he mumbled as he opened the remaining item and began reading. "What in the bloody...!" The missive read:

"This has got to be some kind of freaking joke," MacPherson muttered and looked at the second enclosed sheet. It appeared that he was being billed the current First Class rate of thirty-four cents for... "Six hundred eight letters?!" The total was $206.72, and a polite note asked him to please remit payment immediately at his servicing post office, no personal checks. "Aargh!"

"Uh oh," MacPherson said aloud, as he pulled into the packed Post Office parking lot later that day. He slipped into the first slot he found, realizing that parking was at a premium; there was a line of people stretched out the Post Office doors, and down the sidewalk. Joe joined the growing queue. Dreading the answer, he asked the woman in line ahead of him, "Umm, you here about the e-mail bill, too?"

The angry woman, turned around to look at him, and snarled, "We're all here for this bull! Can you believe this garbage?" She clutched angrily at a familiar-looking envelope.

"I was hoping it was some kind of practical joke; but looks like everybody's been hit," MacPherson observed. "How can they get away with this?"

The steaming woman answered, "They won't, if I have anything to say about it!"

The line advanced slowly. More irate computer users fell in behind Joe. A bearded gent immediately behind him inquired, "How much are these highway men dunning you for?"

MacPherson glanced at the crumpled bill in his hand and answered, "Over two hundred dollars." He snorted.

"You're lucky. They're hitting me up for more than a grand."

Joe's eyebrows lifted. "You must spend a lot of time online!"

The bearded man's only reply was a sheepish look and a shrug.

MacPherson eventually reached the service counter, where he faced a smug clerk.

"May I help you?" the clerk inquired brightly.

"Yeah; you can tell me what this excrement is," MacPherson answered, holding his bill up in the clerk's face.

The clerk removed the paper from his hand, and glanced at the total. "That will be two hundred-six dollars and seventy two cents. Will you be paying cash, certified check, or money order?"

"I'm not going to be paying at all!" MacPherson bellowed. "Where do you get off billing me for my e-mail?"

"Sir, as your bill explained, all correspondence delivery falls within the purview of the U.S. Postal Service. As have so many, you have been utilizing this service without paying. We are rectifying this error. Postage is due."

"The heck I haven't been paying! My ISP bills me eighteen dollars every month!"

"No, sir," the clerk corrected primly. "That is merely a private contract to obtain a virtual mailbox. You must still pay for the actual delivery of correspondence."

MacPherson put his hands on the countertop and considered leaping over the divider. It must have shown in his eyes, because the clerk stepped back in alarm. "Sir, please calm yourself, or I'll have you removed from the building."

Joe's muscles bunched as he fought to keep control of his temper; the room reeked of the sweat that had been forced from others who'd made the same struggle before him. "Remove this, you little..." He stopped, then started over, "You never made any delivery. My ISP did. And I paid them," he stated firmly.

The civil servant explained patiently, as though speaking to a child: "Sir, your service provider only provided the mailbox. Legally, only the Postal Service may deliver mail; so we have charitably adopted this virtual mailbox doctrine in order to protect the service providers from charges of illegal mail delivery." He smiled. "We believe this is quite generous. But you must pay your postage."

"Two hundred dollars...?" MacPherson paused, and a thought that had been niggling away at his subconscious finally worked its way out. "Say, where did you get that count on e-mails, anyway?" he demanded.

"Frankly, it's an estimate, based on your actual usage during an eight day monitoring period."

"You had my ISP monitor me for eight days?" Joe asked in disbelief.

"Certainly not, sir," was the indignant reply. "For a private organization to monitor your communications and pass that on to a third party would be a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act."

"Then how did you…"

"We tapped your phone."


"Please, sir. Don't raise your voice," the clerk admonished, his tone as much as wagging a finger at MacPherson. "It was all quite properly done."

Joe couldn't believe it. "You found a judge to sign court orders for..." He gestured in the general direction the line behind him. There were still at least two hundred people waiting. "...all of us?"

The clerk feigned puzzlement and answered, "Why, no. Pursuant to the provisions of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Postmaster General authorized it himself." He grinned and added, "Quite a useful Act, that CALEA."

MacPherson's eyes bulged. "You... can... you..y-y.." he stuttered.

"Now, sir; if you'll make your payment, or step away from the counter so I can help someone else..." the man prompted.

"You little son of a... You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"There's no law that says you can't enjoy your work," the clerk made a stiff little smile. "This is even my better than my last job."

"Last job...?"

"I transferred from the IRS," he answered. "I used to be an auditor."

Not, it turned out, that the Internal Revenue Service was left out of the excitement. Following a precedent established when the IRS began collecting child support debts for social service agencies, the Postal Service also turned to the taxmen for delinquent payments. And lawmakers who had been worried about the unrestrained growth of the Internet breathed a collective sigh of relief when the sudden increase in cost brought system expansion to a screeching halt. For a while, users relieved part of the financial burden by exchanging letters via File Transfer Protocol rather than e-mail. This little victory was short-lived, however; almost immediately a Federal district court in Memphis ruled that such transfers constituted parcel delivery--files billable on a per megabyte basis. Other options sprang up.

Two men sat in a small home office, examining a display on a computer screen. The taller man peered over the shoulder of the other, seated at a desk. The sitting man spoke, "I'm telling you Mike, it's easy money." He looked up in appeal. "It can't miss."

"Chuck, you're nuts," the other protested. "You're talkin' about delivering e-mail. You know what they'll do to you for that?"

"They've got to catch us first," Chuck said. "How're they gonna do that?"

"The same way they catch everyone else who tries this stunt," Mike explained slowly. "CALEA and Echelon gave them the tools to watch everything on the 'net, and the bans on encryption put everything in plain sight for 'em." He shook his head. "Nope, it won't work."

Chuck grinned up at him. "We..." He paused. "...have something else in mind."

"Yeah, right," Mike said derisively. "What? Another one of those 'purloined letter' systems; compressing the data, and hiding the mail in fake overhead bits?" "I hear the last guys who tried it..." He shivered. "Well, the ones who survived the ATF raids are doing time in the FEMA camps. You can leave me outa this."

Chuck nodded matter-of-factly. "Agreed. The feddies are too well wired into the Internet and PSN to try that. It's suicide." He smirked. "Like I said, we're doing something else."

"Okay," Mike surrendered. "I'll bite. What's the deal?"

"Ever hear of packet radio?"

"No... " Mike snapped his fingers. "Wait. The computer network thingy the amateur radio operators used?" he asked.

"Bingo," Chuck confirmed. "We're putting together our own variant system, with modified controllers, and real routers instead of software emulators. Getting a great deal on the routers, too. With all the 'net restrictions killing any private growth, the IT industry has been depressed. Hardly anyone buying new routers but the feds. And us now."

"But isn't packet radio pretty low bandwidth?" Mike wondered. "And how does this tie into the 'net? How would I send an e-mail?"

Chuck rolled his chair away from the desk and stretched his legs. Then he spoke. "It isn't true packet radio; more of a hybrid between IP and packet. Sort of a packetized IP, though that sounds redundant. But it ain't." Mike looked puzzled, and Chuck elaborated. "Now go easy on me because I didn't design this; I'm just gonna operate a node. But what we do is take regular IPv6 packets from the routers, bundle 'em into radio packets with node headers, like an address for the node, so when the signal goes out over the air, only the right receiving node and router will listen for the packet." He paused, and Mike blinked.

"Believe it or not, I think I got that," he said. "Sort of a wireless Internet." Then he frowned. "Gotta be more to it than that. The Feds will pick up the broadcasts and hear every message you send. And I still don't see how you'll make money at it."

Patiently, Chuck answered. "Mike, money part first. I'm one of the core investors in this, so I get a share of profits from the overall network. The network makes money by charging people a fee to establish another node on our network. He's paying for connectivity." He paused to think for a moment. "And individual node owners make money by selling e-mail accounts."

"No way," Mike argued. "How do you get customers without getting infiltrated by some postal disservice weenie? And how do you figure to get paid?" He sat on the edge of Chuck's desk. "Answer me that," he challenged.

Chuck smirked. "Well, we obviously don't advertise on TV. Word of mouth only, new customers only accepted when vouched for by a trusted person. Payment, by individual subscriber, node operator, or by the network ops is electronic cash. All transactions encrypted." Another smirk. There're way too many copies of PGP out there for the feddie crypto bans to mean much."

"So to use this, you still have to use the Internet for e-cash anyway?" Mike asked. "Seems a bit of a waste..."

"Nope," Chuck interrupted. "E-cash can be handled by e-mail on our own network." He chuckled. "Guess who the very first investors in this scheme were? The way I hear it, someone from e-gold or one of the other digi-cash outfits first saw some kids running a packet scheme like this somewhere out in the People's Republic of California. They saw the potential, and got some engineers to scale it up." He shrugged. "Guess they saw the authoritarian writing on the wall, and decided to move their ops somewhere the feds aren't."

"Hmmph. Might work at that." Mike rubbed his chin while he considered this. "Still, what's bandwidth like? And how long do you think you can run a radio station before the FCC notices?"

"Compared to a wired network with T3 feeds and OC48 backbones? Bandwidth sucks," Chuck admitted. "But for our needs, it'll be good enough. We don't need massive pipes so kids can surf bloated websites. We don't connect to the web. This is e-mail and file attachments only. Mostly text, so the bandwidth requirement is relatively low."

"Okay, I'll buy that," Mike replied. "But what about the FCC?" he insisted.

Chuck sighed, then brightened again. "Weeeelll..." he drawled, "Seems that it's tougher to triangulate on a moving target than a fixed transmitter. And since this's a wireless broadcast system, I don't need to be stuck in any one place, just a general area where my customers can hit my node... Remember, they'll be accessing me via a packet controller that comes as part of their subscription... I did say that, right? It's just like I hit the other nodes." He grinned at Mike again. "Now ya know why I bought that little travel trailer."

"So you're gonna what? Just live on the road now?" Mike asked curiously.

"Yep. Dropping out; or as an acquaintance puts it, 'unsubscribing from the gov.'"

"Cool. I think." Then appraisingly, "Sounds like you do have a handle on it. But why tell me everything?"

"Simple enough," Chuck told him. "I want to offer you a job."

Mike looked startled. "Say what?"

"You'll be my salesman, hooking us up with customers. You get free e-mail, obviously, and a commission on each new customer." Mike started to speak, but Chuck held up a hand and continued. "Commission payable after a customer stays on for 60 days. That's so you won't get too careless and sell an account to a feddie stooge by accident. I figure having to wait for your money, hoping we don't get infiltrated, will keep you careful."

"Commission, eh? What kind of money are you talkin'?"

"Well," Chuck began, "We'll have a scaled tier of accounts, with different services to offer. A typical basic account is going to run thirty bucks for sign up, and thirty per month…"

Mike broke in. "Thirty dollars per month? Isn't that a little steep for e-mail? I mean, my old ISP account was only twenty; and I got web space and surfing with that."

"Yeah. But that old account of yours wasn't being provided on the sly; it wasn't illegal. We have additional risks above those of a straight ISP." He smiled. "Besides, I think the sort of people this product will appeal to will be quite willing to shell such a pittance for security. This isn't for your grandmother to send birthday greetings, after all."

"No, I guess not," Mike agreed with a chuckle. "So. What's my commission on this 'basic account'?"

"Sixty-five dollars on one of those. Upper end for what I have planned now would be around five hundred for a corporate multi-user account. That'll vary somewhat depending on the number of users." He paused to think for a moment. "I saw a report that said there used to be 100,000 'net accounts in the metro area. Figure just five percent of those would like one of our basic accounts. That works out to…." He grabbed a calculator and punched buttons. "Three hundred twenty-five thousand dollars." He eyed Mike speculatively and offered Mike his hand. "Deal?"

"Heck, yeah!" Mike replied, finally enthusiastic. "I don't know that it's easy money; but there's definitely a profit to be had." He grinned back at Chuck.

"Profit, indeedy," Chuck concurred. "Handy, that. Some of us will be needin' a source of funds..." He let the comment trail off.

Mike's grin faded, and he gave Chuck a wary look. "Now I don't think I wanna know what you mean..."

"That's right. Up the revolution, baby."

"Oh, jeez..."

Shadow networks such as Mike and Chuck's did well for a time. Then, following a precedent established in Texas in 1993 by the FBI, the FCC obtained Bradley fighting vehicles from the Army, and rigged them for RF direction finding. They didn't bother with arrests.

The e-mail privateers responded by going to carefully scheduled, point-to-point, burst transmissions that were much more secure than the previous continuous broadcasts. Another common ploy was to place a long distance call from one pay phone to another with a prepaid calling card, connecting the phones to throwaway packet radio controllers and CB radios; instant cross country network, albeit a slow one. Sacrificing a couple hundred dollars' worth of gear, a black market mail provider could do several thousand dollars' worth of business before the FBI's CALEA taps detected the mini-network. Bulletin Board Systems, once rendered nearly obsolete by the Internet, started making a comeback as well, but it was risky business. Even BBS's with Internet access that were not smuggling e-mail tended to be raided by Postal Inspectors on the theory that if they were able to, they must be providing mail service.

One such Sysop sat in his darkened bedroom and watched his computer screen. Clients were using his BBS's secure chat mode.

The Sysop considered, and tapped a key.

Eventually, the Mail Police shut down any BBS they could find. It finally occurred to them that people might actually be dialing them up via long distance, but by then the damage was done.

The Postmaster was most unhappy. "Harry, revenues are down fifty percent. Despite a hundred percent INCREASE IN TRAFFIC!" he raged down at his director, whom he'd specifically appointed because of his diminutive stature. "What's going on?"

The director flinched at the Postmaster's tone. "Well, sir," he replied, "it's the manual processing. It's killing us. And the repairs to jammed sorters are costing us a fortune."

"Why are we still manually processing?" the Postmaster asked angrily. "We've banned handwritten addresses."

"Yes, sir. But..."

"And we put a stop to ZIP code omissions."

"Yes, sir."

"Then what's the problem, Harry?!"

"Umm... Typos, sir." the director answered hesitantly.


"Uh huh. Transposed ZIP code digits usually. Columbus OH, instead of GA. Southeast roads for southwest roads."

"We're being run out of business by typos?" the Postmaster questioned in disbelief.

"Yes, sir. And it's worse than it looks. Every time a new problem pops up, it does it everywhere at once. This past Monday, we got deluged with thirty four million postcards addressed to Four Seventy Five L'Enfant Southwest."

"That's our address!"

"Yes, sir."

The Postmaster considered. "Okay, from now on, misaddressed mail goes to Dead Letter immediately. Don't attempt redelivery. We can trash the darn mail and still collect the postage." He stopped and massaged his temples. "We should have done that right off anyway. Don't know why we didn't; mental inertia, I suppose."

"Very well, sir." The director paused, grimaced, then continued. "What about the stamps?" he asked.

Confused, the Postmaster said, "What about them?"

"Nobody is buying the full rate stamps. All they want are the one-centers." He held up his hands in hopeless resignation. "It's killing us. Did you know that fifty stamps on an envelope can actually boost the weight into another rate bracket? But we can't charge for it... And all the stamps obscure the addresses." The little man shook his head in hopeless resignation.

"Well, damn it! Stop selling the one cents!" the Postmaster shouted.

"We already did; we ran out. But still no one buys the fifties. They make us meter their envelopes at the counter. The overtime is incredible."

"Then we won't pay overtime! The military doesn't. We'll draft everyone," the Postmaster added brightly. "We can do that since the President signed the national emergency order."

The director squirmed nervously. "Weeelll... that's another problem."

The Postmaster stared grimly. "What?"

"We experimented with that in Kansas already," the director continued. "The next day, only one employee showed up for work."


"And he only stayed long enough to shoot his supervisor."

Of course, there were less principled postal employees who found they had a taste for the work. Such mail carriers took to wearing flack jackets and helmets. And steel-toed boots…

BAM! BAM! BAM! came the pounding at Granny Godfrey's door. Shocked and startled, the elderly lady looked up from the cookie dough she was rolling out on her kitchen counter top.

CRASH! The door flew open, spraying splinters across the kitchen and the old woman shrieked. A uniformed Mailman toting a shoulder bag and truncheon stormed in. Club at the ready, peering around the kitchen. He spied the baker, and closed in on her. "Anabelle Godfrey?" he barked.


"What the heck are you trying to pull, lady?" the carrier raged.

"I-I don't understand..."

The Carrier reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out an envelope. He slapped it down on the counter. Mrs. Godfrey flinched and jumped back. "This, lady!" He pointed to the correspondence. "Where's your frickin' postage?"

The old woman's face paled. "I'm s-sorry... I must... I must have forgotten."

"No, lady. You don't forget to pay postage. Don't you know mail fraud is a felony?"

"But I didn't mean... I have the stamps... they're in my purse, there. I'll get them." She wiped her hands on her apron, and stepped forward.

The Mailman pushed her back roughly. "I'll get `em myself," he corrected. He grabbed the indicated purse and rummaged through it. He found a wad of stamps and shoved them into his shoulder bag. Then he opened her wallet and pulled out the bills within.

"My money!" the woman wailed.

The carrier sneered. "It's a fine." Stuffing the bills into a pocket, he turned and headed back towards the shattered door frame. He paused and looked back. "You're gettin' off light old lady. You do this again, and I'll FEMA your butt. You won't like the camps." He turned to go.

"Please... Sir," the old lady called. The Carrier looked back. She held up the envelope, hands shaking nervously. "My mail?" she asked.

Without a word, the bureaucrat snatched the envelope and left. From her kitchen, the woman heard his truck door slide shut; the engine started. She waited. The truck moved down the street, the sound fading in the distance.

BOOM! Glasses rattled on the shelves.

Mrs. Godfrey smiled. "Postage paid, scumbag," she muttered. As she took off her apron, a teenage boy entered through the remains of the kitchen door. "Tommy!" she called. "I'm glad I was able to stall him long enough; he was in a dreadful hurry." She gathered up the scattered contents of her purse, and dug out her keys.

"You did great, Grandma," the boy assured her. "But I think half a kilo was, um... overkill." He smiled. "In fact, maybe we should stick to thermite next time; it's not so messy."

Mrs. Godfrey took a last look around her kitchen, then turned back to Tommy. "Best not to be around when the Inspectors show up. Let's go now."

Tommy looked wistfully at the cookie dough. "I guess. I sure was looking forward to your cookies, though."

"Never you mind that. Time to go now."

Elsewhere, a hobbyist looked up from a prototype on his bench and listened carefully to the news report. "The recent wave of terrorism is having another dramatic effect on mail service," announced the radio voice. "With several Carriers and Handlers killed and wounded in mail bomb blasts, the Postal Service has announced a moratorium on the processing of physical mail. This includes home delivery and pickup, as well as traditional post office services. Until further notice, only electronic correspondence will be processed..." The experimenter reached over and turned off the radio. He grinned. The hackers were going to love this.

A stereotypical band of unwashed revolutionaries they weren't. And no one but federal agents would have called them terrorists anymore either; anti-'terrorist' fervor went out the window when everyone stopped receiving their magazines subscriptions and mail order items. It is difficult to e-mail a physical object; a truism lost on bureaucrats. The physical mail moratorium was costing businesses billions, and seriously annoying consumers. So anti-'postie' activities were becoming downright popular...

While Greg Hennessey checked himself over in the mirror, his secretary finished her phone call. "...And thank you for your time. Mr. Hennessey will be there promptly at ten." She carefully placed the handset back in the cradle. Then she stuck out her tongue and gave the instrument a raspberry.

"Now, now, Jennie," the man playfully chided. "Is that any way for a nice executive assistant to behave?"

"When dealing with Mailmen, yes," the pretty redhead replied. She looked him over. "Very nice. You should wear a suit more often; it suits you." She grinned.

"Danke, I think." He straightened his tie a final time then looked about, searching for his briefcase. Accustomed to his absent-minded ways, Jennie pointed down by his feet.

He looked. "Oops."

"I hope you'll do better in the meeting. We do want the Post Office to buy our software," she said, mock reprovingly. "Be a shame to waste all the time spent in development, and making the pitch to the Inspectorate."

"That would be nice. Money is good," Greg agreed. He reached down to the briefcase and opened it. Peering in he verified, "Notebook, CD, floppy, the docs, rate schedule... Looks like I got it all. I'm out of here. See you after lunch." He headed for the door.

"Hold it, buster." Jennie intercepted him by the door. She reached up and pulled his head down closer to her own and gave him a quick kiss. "You be careful with those thugs. The Postal Inspectors are dangerous. If they catch on..."

"Don't worry," he reassured her. "I'll be fine. What can go wrong? It isn't as if there's any viruses on the disks. And the scanner works exactly as advertised." They both grinned. He leaned over and gave her a fast peck on the cheek. Then he left.

Once alone, Jennie unplugged the phone and put it in a waiting box. It already held the few files and wall hangings they had used as props during previous meetings with postal officials. She gave the office a last, thorough inspection for evidence. Finding none, she lifted the box and carried it the door. She killed the lights and closed the door behind her as she left.

At the Post Office, Hennessey waited. As he had expected, even though he had arrived several minutes early, the Inspector kept him waiting. Power tripping, Greg figured. He killed time by striking up a conversation with another gentleman waiting in the outer office. "Hi, Greg Hennessey," he introduced himself. "Software. Database applications." He noted the laptop the other carried. "You in computers, too?" he inquired casually.

The man looked at him, then, "Collin Pedersen." He held out a hand and they shook. "Yes, I am. Antivirus work."

"Really? Anything new in the field? Professional interest, of course."

Pedersen nodded slightly. "A bit. I've some enhanced detection routines. Gives more reliable detection of the polymorphic viruses the rebels have been using. Runs a bit faster, as well." He offered Greg a business card. "Look me up. We have some add-on modules for macro pseudo-vireo that get embedded in some spreadsheets."

"Thanks. We try to be careful with our own stuff, naturally. But we have considered incorporating some detection; for some of our less diligent clients." Both businessmen smiled. Greg offered Pedersen his own card, which was graciously accepted.

"Mr. Hennessey," the receptionist called out. "The Inspector will see you now." You could hear the capital letter in her emphasis.

Greg excused himself and entered the Inspector's inner sanctum, a typical midlevel bureaucrat's office. The walls were half-paneled with cheap woodgrain vinyl-on-fiberboard. The upper half of the walls were painted a clashing blue pastel. The only furnishings were a too-large desk with an executive's chair, a straight-back wooden visitor's chair, and an American flag in one corner. On the wall behind the seated Inspector was the newer version of the USPS logo; the same old stylized eagle, but executed in severe black and silver. "Good day, Mr. Hennessey," the Inspector said. "Sit down. I am Major Vadala, of the Postal Inspectors."

Greg stepped forward and offered his hand, saying, "Good morning, Major. Glad to..." The Inspector merely looked at him poker-faced. Greg sat.

"Let's not waste time, Mr. Hennessey," the Major said. "I've reviewed your literature and reports of your earlier demonstrations. The product is interesting enough to warrant this meeting, I'll admit. But you must convince me that it is worth the expense of upgrading." He stared coldly at Greg. "What makes your text searcher such an improvement over our own?"

Greg open his briefcase and removed the CD, speaking as he did so. "Major, you've read the basic documents, so you've seen my claims. I can give you an expanded database of keywords, and a one hundred percent increase in search speed at the same time ."He handed the disk to Vadala. "This will allow you to increase the percentage of e-mails reviewed for criminal indicators. Alternatively, you may opt for a greatly expanded database, and perform more comprehensive reviews of approximately the same number of posts as you do currently."

"Thus, increasing the number of false hits which my inspectors must personally review," Vadala interjected.

"Quite the contrary, sir," Greg corrected politely. "It wasn't in the initial package because we were still polishing the code; but we've added another feature. A very elegant contextual search mode."

"Context?" Vadala inquired.

"Yes, Sir," Greg replied. "Where your more conventional text searcher will key on the word 'killer', for instance, ours may not. We can automatically examine the surrounding text to determine if a hit is warranted. 'The killer shot the clerk' will generate a hit, and flag the letter for human attention. But 'I went to a killer concert last night' will not." Greg gave a small proud smile.

"Very nice, indeed," Vadala admitted. "If it works. And you still maintain search speed in this mode?"

"We had to make some tradeoffs. Contextual searches don't operate with the external user-configurable database. To keep runtime reasonable, we had to hardcode the process. But I think you'll find that we've included a satisfactory range of keys and contexts."

"This does sound intriguing," Vadala said. He examined the disk he held. "A demo copy?"

"The complete package; including a small sample database and electronic documentation. Please, try it out," Greg invited.

Vadala slipped the disk into a slot on his desktop computer and slid his keyboard closer, then tapped away briefly. He looked up at Greg with no apparent expression. "I hope you won't be offended if I run a virus scan... one can never be too careful." He watched Greg appraisingly.

"Not at all. We run a clean house; but as you say..." He shrugged.


The screen flashed and displayed text. Vadala grunted approval to himself and manipulated his mouse. Once the computer pronounced the CD to be clean, Vadala asked, "How do I start it, Hennessey?".

"Click 'run' on the start menu, then browse. Search the ROM drive for flagit.exe, and go. It'll prompt you for the search path." Greg paused. "You can run a search on our test file." He reached into his briefcase for a floppy. "It's named DEMOdotDAT..."

Vadala gave Greg a disapproving look. "My own test, naturally." He turned his attention to the keyboard. "I assembled the test file myself; so I know exactly... Eh? Done already?"

Greg smiled proudly. "I did mention a speed increase."

Vadala frowned. "But at a sacrifice of accuracy, it seems. It's given me 51 hits. There should only be 50."

"Perhaps if you reviewed the flagged items..." Greg suggested carefully.

"Hmmph." Vadala performed more mouse maneuvers. "Eh? What's..." He referred to a sheet of paper beside his computer, and ran his finger down a list. He blinked and looked surprised. "Well. I'd forgotten that one." He turned back to Greg. "Congratulations, Hennessey. Quite satisfactory. It even picked out an entry that had none of our usual keywords; I believe your contextual search must have found that one."

Greg gave another proud smile and asked, "Then we have a deal, Major Vadala?"

"Deal, Mr. Hennessey?" Vadala affected puzzlement.

"A contract for the search engine..." began Greg.

"There will be no contract. We are exercising eminent domain."

"You're what?!"

"Eminent domain, Hennessey. In the interest of national security. And cost effectiveness. But I'm sure the GAO will compensate you appropriately." Vadala rendered a smile verging on a sneer. "Is that the documentation? Please turn it over, now." He held out his hand for the ringbound pages which Greg had already removed from his briefcase. Seemingly in shock, he handed the manual over. "Good day, Hennessey. Please leave your address with my secretary on your way out."


"Good day."

That evening, Greg and Jennie met with some friends and accomplices. Greg was describing his meeting with the inspector. "If I were really trying to sell the damned package, I'd have ripped the little SOB's throat out. He... nationalized the software, by god!" He took a gulp from his bottle of beer.

Jennie slapped him lightly on the wrist. "Oh, be quiet," she admonished. "We halfway expected that. And he did the same thing to Pedersen after you left." She laughed.

From the recliner across the room, the antivirus scanner salesman spoke up. "And it serves him right. I think it's pretty funny. Not only did he steal my virus scanner; but he stole the very trojan it's designed to let through." He grinned and upended his own bottle of beer. "I wish I could see his face when he finally catches on in a few months."

"If he catches on," put in the third man. "The Mailmen don't have a particularly good record for figuring out these scams."

From Greg, "No joke, Tom. Those clowns still think polymorphic viruses are state of the art." He took a smaller sip from his bottle. "I imagine none of 'em have even heard of a binary virus." He grinned.

Tom asked, "How long do you think it'll take to kick in?"

"Hmm." Pedersen considered. "Hard to say. Depends on a bit of random chance. We've got the virus-proper in e-mails scattered all over the country." Noting Tom's raised eyebrows, he added, "Stegonographically encoded, of course. Nothing's going to see it but the context search engine."

"Which will promptly begin assembling the pieces into the actual virus." Greg continued.

Pedersen again took up the torch. "Which my scanner will allow to infect every Mailman system it's resident on. Then it has several trigger dates meant to allow it to reproduce quietly for a time before trashing data. Which date triggers it depends on how soon the search engine finds and assembles the virus."

Jennie raised her beer in a toast. "To stupid bureaucrats."

"That's redundant." Laughter.

"Hear, hear!"

Within a week, Greg's pirated trojan had successfully recombined the virus. The likewise stolen and disseminated scanner program dutifully ignored the virus and lied through its virtual teeth about what a wonderful job it was doing. As it was actually an excellent scanner for any other virus, the postal inspectors were quite pleased, and provided the scanner to several other federal agencies with glowing recommendations. Six weeks after the initial viral infection, every affected hard drive erased itself. Panic-stricken bureaucrats dutifully restored from their backups, which were also infected. The archived viruses took one look at the system clocks, and once more the computers committed electronic seppuku. Things did not look good for the home team. Eventually, the Feds rebuilt their desktops from uncontaminated scratch. But the data on most 'subversives' was lost forever. Which had been the whole point of the exercise.

Steps were taken to prevent a recurrence of the disaster…

The electronics hobbyist dialed up his authorized mail server to check his box. His computer muttered electronically for a few moments; then:

His eyebrows shot up, and he considered possibilities. Then he called for his mail.

Willy Babik laughed. Those poor, poor SOB's! They'll never know what hit 'em. The ball was in his court now. He thought about The Thing in the garage and laughed again.

The next morning, Willy leaned against the garage wall and grinned as his friend Bob eyed The Thing. Bob stood back from the contraption and considered the monstrosity. It was six feet long, and more or less cylindrical. It appeared that Willy had bundled a few dozen lengths of iron rebar together, and wrapped them in a few miles of fine wire. He said as much to Willy.

The hobbyist kept grinning, laughed, and said, "That about sums it up." He nodded general agreement. "Okay," Bob allowed. "But what's it for?"

"Well... It's a magnet, more or less."

"A magnet?" Bob responded dubiously. "The dang thing must weigh a ton. You gotta be kidding."

"Nope. And with the capacitors, it weighs about twenty-two hundred pounds," Willy said proudly.

Bob looked seriously confused. "But still, what for?"

"I guess you could say I'm putting together a car bomb."

"What!" Eyes wide, Bob began backing away. Very carefully.

"Oh, not exactly. It doesn't really explode. Think of it as a magnetic cannon, or a magnetic pulse bomb." Willy grinned widely. "Puts out a heckuva mag pulse; does terrible things to compasses." He chuckled.

"I don't get it," Bob stared around the garage nervously. His eyes kept drifting back to the 'bomb'.

"It's easy. That's one of the biggest electromagnets you ever saw." He pointed to the rack of cylinders below his 'cannon'. "And those are some big freaking capacitors. Rolled 'em myself. Sixty of `em. Each one's got about a hundred-fifty feet of foil spaced with plasticized tissue paper. You don't want to know the actual capacitance... DON'T touch that!" he ordered.

As Willy spoke, Bob had moved closer to look at the capacitor bank, and had reached out a hand to one of the terminals. At the shout, he pulled back. "What?"

"You want to vaporize that arm?" Willy demanded. "Those caps are charged. They'll give up a regular lightning bolt if you try to touch 'em," he warned.

"Jeez, Willy; what're you up to?"

"Ain't just me. Come Tuesday, a coupla thousand of us around the country are going for a drive." He grinned again. "And we'll all develop engine trouble at our neighborhood Post Office."

"I still don't get it."

"Well, I'll tell you. Since the Post Office only handles e-mail anymore, their entire operation is electronic." He paused.

"Yeah? So?"

"So my little magnetic cannon is going to wreak havoc with their electronics."

"You're in the Resistance?" Bob exclaimed. He swore softly and backed further away.

Willy laughed. "Um, so to speak. Oh, get back here. You aren't going to get into any trouble." Bob looked doubtful, so Willy continued. "Mostly I just took offense at the posties an' other feddies tapping my phone, reading my mail, screwing up comm across the country, and making me pay through the nose for the privilege of letting 'em screw me. There useta be somethin' called the Constitution and Billa Rights." He paused and stared into distance. "Yeah, well. Anyway, they're so clumsy, they're on the way out anyway." He gestured at the cannon. "This'll put some of the finishing touches on their exit."

Bob started backing away again. "You're nuts."

"Thank you," Willy replied. "Look, like I said: the idiots are on the way out anyway, but they're dragging the rest of the country with 'em. And that's hurting everybody. If we can shut down all the PO mail servers at once, the Post Office will be paralyzed for days, at least. That'll be time enough for some rational people to settle the issue."

Bob eyed Willy, then the door. "So, why are you tellin' me all this?"

"Because I need your help loading the darned thing into the back of my truck."

"That's it?"

"Sure. What'd you think I wanted? You to storm the Post Office yourself?"

"Heck, Willy, I wasn't sure what to think." He frowned suddenly.

Willy noticed the expression. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"You say this thing messes with electronics?"


"Tested it yet?"

"Sure," Willy confirmed. "At low power anyway. Why?"

"You by chance test that thing Saturday evening?"

Curious, Willy answered affirmatively.

"Goddam it, Willy!" Bob exploded. "I knew it! I was watchin' TV Saturday night when the dang screen just sorta... warped. Picture's been all distorted, an' weird colors ever since." He closed in and stared down at his friend. "You owe me a new TV set, Willy!"

That Tuesday, Willy checked the electromagnet under a tarp in the back of his '67 Dodge pickup, then climbed into the cab and cranked up the old truck. He put the vehicle into gear and pressed the accelerator. The pickup moved like a barge. Willy headed out into the street and began the short trip to the Post Office. Within a few minutes he reached the parking lot of the imposing brick structure, where he maneuvered his sluggish vehicle to back into a slot. This left the back end angled toward the building. He climbed out of the truck and watched a Mailman pass by with a bomb-sniffing dog on a leash. Willy hid a grin and walked to the building, intent on mailing a letter to justify his presence.

Willy hadn't explained the entire 'bomb' process to Bob; in reality, he only had half a bomb. The north end, to be specific. Somewhere on the other side of the building someone he'd never met should be positioning a similar electromagnet; but with the south pole oriented toward the post office building. And elsewhere, a third unknown held a remote control device that would trigger the magnets simultaneously. The fields from Willy's north pole and the other's south pole would reinforce each other.

He waited patiently in line, only occasionally checking his watch. Finally, he reached the counter. He handed his letter to the officious clerk, who began reading.

"What's this about malt and alcohol?" the clerk asked.

"It's a recipe for brewing beer," Willy replied

"Making alcohol yourself's illegal," said the busybody.

"Not beer. Not yet."

"Hmmph." The clerk scribbled down a note on a pad. "We'll see. I've got your name, Babik."

"Wonderf..." Willy began, when a crack of thunder split the air. The ceiling lights flickered briefly as Willy noticed a monitor behind the counter flare and go out. Willy could almost swear he felt heat in his teeth, and on his wrist. "What the hell," he thought. Obviously, the pulse bomb had gone off. And it had clearly worked miracles. In fact... He glanced at his watch. Sure enough, dead. He noticed that the metal case was warm, and realized that the magnetic field must have caused some induction heating. Then he remembered the fillings in his teeth.

Meanwhile, the clerk was staring at a blank CRT and rapping at an unresponsive keyboard. Willy grinned, pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet, and ruefully eyed his credit cards. "Here. Postage paid. I need a receipt." He made the clerk write one out with pen and paper, as no terminal seemed to be working.

Willy left the service area and headed back to his truck. "Great. But what the heck was the blast?" he whispered to himself. Then he saw his truck. It looked, naturally enough, as though a bomb had gone off under the tarp. The material was shredded, and wire scrap littered half the parking lot. Finally, it dawned on him that the huge current surge from the oversized capacitors had charged the coils, then vaporized them. Explosively. He took in the scene quickly. Fortunately, the light wire hadn't really carried very far. While a lot of people were standing around astounded, he saw only one obvious casualty: the bomb squad Mailman. But the dog appeared unharmed. "Well, I'll be darned. Who says there's no justice?" he asked himself. As nonchalantly as he could, he vacated the scene.

In Washington, Harry rapped on the Postmaster's office door a third time. When that failed to draw a response, he gulped and went in anyway. His boss, the third presidential appointee in as many months, stared at a dead computer monitor, oblivious to the real world. The Postmaster was as much a victim of the magnetic pulse that wiped out the mail servers in the basement as his defunct desktop computer. Harry grasped the man's shoulder and shook him briskly. "Wake up, sir. This is important!"

The Postmaster looked up bleakly. "My ass. Nothing's important now."

"Sir, if you don't pull yourself together, and make some sort of response to this... bombing, the president is going to have you for lunch."

"Really? What's he going to do? Replace me?" Head shake. "With who? Who's left to take the job? And what's he going to do it with?" He spied the report in his director's hand. "That's Glover's paper?"

"Yes, it..."

"Good. Then you already know the answers. The bombs wiped our networks, so we can't process electronically. And there's not a computer or router company out there who would help us rebuild. How do you coerce a technician into being technical?" He rubbed his temples. "And we can't do the job manually either; no people. No one comes to work any more. They no more want to be seen working for the Postal Service than Forestry types want to be seen in uniform in Nevada. Worse, really. No one wants to be associated with the federal government at all, other than those morons on Capitol Hill."

"Sir, perhaps we could borrow assets from other agencies, pool resources..."

Laughter. "From who? Did you hear what happened to the FBI and ATF?"

"No," cautiously.

"Somebody repeated the magnetic cannon trick on them." More laughter. "So much for the firearms registry."


"But nothing, Harry. Face it, we're screwed. Any inter-agency resource and asset pooling should have been at the beginning of this nightmare. Should have clamped down hard from the get-go. None of this piddling around putting out brushfires. Now we don't have the resources to do it." He shivered. "And, somehow, I don't think all those hackers, virus-writers, techno-terrorists... Hell, even the straight corporate types aren't going to let us get another chance."

"So what are you going to tell the President?"

The Postmaster glanced at the blank computer screen. "Not a damned thing." He rose and head for the door. "You tell him. I quit."

"You can't..."

"Did they get the elevators working yet?" asked the ex-Postmaster from the outer office.

"Um. No. But..."

"Oh, well. I need the exercise anyway."

Less than a month later, the offices of an Internet service provider in a Midwest city entertained a rather less despondent meeting.

"... You were right about the demand on the network, Dean. I never imagined that the customer base would grow so quickly."

"Told you so," snickered the portly sysadmin. "Before the crackdown, growth was strong enough. Now all these 'net junkies that've been in withdrawal want their fix. We need another T3, a couple more hubs, more web and mail servers, the RAID needs to be..."

"I know, I know. Do it."

Dean blinked. "Just like that, Brian? Cool. What about financing?"

"No difficulties there. Amanda over at the bank says our past revenues and projections warrant a bit of a loan. You can have your toys."

"Yeeha! You want to use ITS for the expansion?"

"Yeah, they're already familiar with our installation, that should save time and trouble. But let me know if you decide to get anything that wasn't on that shopping list of yours."

"Great! I'll give Brent a call now, and get things started."

"Sounds good. When you get to the haggling point, bridge up on the call." The ISP boss smiled and headed back to his own office.

Dean wasted no time; he pressed a speed dial button on his phone, waited, then, "Hey, Brent! Just the guy I wanted to talk to. This is Dean Hubbard over at Indy NetSol." Pause. "Yep, I'm going to make your day. I've got a little expansion job in mind, and thought I'd pass some business your way."

Across town, Brent Hogan chuckled into his handset. "Well, I was about to go to lunch, but if you're going to help make me rich, I guess that can wait awhile. What have you got in mind; that new RAID we talked about?" He tapped on his keyboard to bring up a tickler file on NetSol.

"That and more. The boss is springing for the whole package."

"Ah. Then you're going to help make me very rich."

"Probably so. You want to come over here and talk it over? You can look over the current set up while you're here; refamiliarize yourself with our network."

"Sure, I can..." Brent paused as another phone rang. He scanned the office and realized that he was alone. "Dean, do you mind if I take another call real quick? I'll be right back."

"No prob."

Brent hit hold, then picked up the other line. "Indy Technical Services. Brent Hogan."

"Good afternoon, this is Marsha Sinclair in Purchasing at the General Service Administration."


"Yes, sir. One of our local HEW offices has suffered a router crash. Our regular network contractor won't... isn't available to repair the difficulty. We were hoping that you might be able to send a field engineer out this afternoon..."

"HEW, huh?"

"Yes, sir. This is part of the link to the IRS for the deadbeat..."

Brent disconnected her. And, "I'm back, Dean. Sorry about that."

"So. Lining up another big job?" Dean wondered.

"Not in this lifetime."

(c) 2000


Table of Contents

Write a Letter to the Editor

Send Feedback to the Author