The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“Yesterday you’d have had to come here,” Nick amplified. “If there’s one thing BDP has brought to a fine art, it’s preventing the public from digging unpleasant truths from behind the scenes in government… right?” A rattle of agreement: from the students on principle, but from several reporters too, who looked so glum one might presume they’d encountered that kind of trouble.

“Well, that’s over. From now on: ask and you shall know.”

“Hey!” In an incredulous tone from a man beside Rose Jordan. “All kind of weird stuff has been coming off the beams since yesterday, like they’ve been paying women to bear kids that are sure to be deformed. You mean this is supposed to be true?”

“What makes you doubt it?”

“Well—uh…” The man licked his lips. “I called my office half an hour back and my chief said it’s been authoritatively deeveed. By Aylwin Sullivan personally. Something about a saboteur.”

“That must be me.” Cocking one eyebrow. “Any word of this sabotage being stopped?”

“Not that I heard.”

“Good. At least they didn’t make that ridiculous promise. Because it can’t be stopped. I guess you all know about tapeworms… ? Good. Well, what I turned loose in the net yesterday was the father and mother—I’ll come back to that in a moment—the father and mother of all tapeworms.

“It consists in a comprehensive and irrevocable order to release at any printout station any and all data in store whose publication may conduce to the enhanced well-being, whether physical, psychological or social, of the population of North America.

“Specifically, whether or not anybody has required a printout of it, information concerning gross infringements of Canadian, Mexican and/or United States legal enactments respecting—in order of priority—public health, the protection of the environment, bribery and corruption, fair business and the payment of national taxes, shall be disseminated automatically to all the media. For this purpose ‘gross’ is defined by setting a threshold: no such infringement shall be published unless at least one person made from it an illegal profit of at least ten thousand dollars.” He had straightened as he spoke. Now he was arrow-rigid, and his voice boomed in huge resounding periods like the tolling of a death bell.

“This is indeed the father and mother of a tapeworm. It’s of a type known as parthenogenetic. If you’re acquainted with contemporary data-processing jargon, you’ll have noticed how much use it makes of terminology derived from the study of living animals. And with reason. Not for nothing is a tapeworm called a tapeworm. It can be made to breed. Most can only do so if they’re fertilized; that’s to say, if they’re interfered with from outside. For example the worm that prevents the Fedcomps from monitoring calls to Hearing Aid, and the similar but larger one that was released at Weychopee—Electric Skillet—to shut down the net in the event of enemy occupation: those are designed to lie dormant until tampered with. That’s true of all phage-type worms.

“My newest—my masterpiece—breeds by itself. For a head it wears a maximum-national-advantage rating, a priority code that I stole from G2S. It was allocated to the corporation because like other hypercorps it’s been treated for years as though it were above the law. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to make known all the bribes, all the graft, all the untaxed kickbacks, which don’t appear in G2S’s annual report to the stockholders…

“Right behind that, my worm wears a U-group code, which does the same for individuals. The owner of a U-group code will never find himself in court. Never. No matter if he rapes the mayor’s daughter at midday on Main Street. You don’t believe me? Go punch a veephone. Ask for a plain-language printout of the status label worn by a U-group code. As of about an hour and a half ago it will print out for anybody… and it’s enlightening.” Two or three people rose in the body of the hall as though bent on confirming Nick’s assertion. He paused to let the disturbance subside.

“In back of that again, there’s the key which opens the secure data banks at all secret psychological research establishments, including Tarnover and Crediton Hill. Behind that is one which opens the Treasury files on tax-avoidance suits unpursued by presidential order. Behind that is the one which opens similar files belonging to the Attorney General. Behind that is the one which opens the files of the Food and Drug Authority. And so on. By now I don’t know exactly what there is in the worm. More bits are being added automatically as it works its way to places I never dared guess existed. The last I found out about before I came along to talk to you was a key for the CIA’s sexual-blackmail file. There’s some raunchy material in there, and I predict it will be popular home viewing this winter.

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