The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“I’d like a word with you. And I guess it ought to be with Brad, too.”

They exchanged glances. Suzy said, “Brad won’t be here—he’s listening. But Sweetwater’s the first alternate councilman.”

“Fine.” His palms sweated, his belly was taut, but in his head there was a great cool calm. The four of them found chairs and sat down a little apart from the rest of the party.

“Well, what is it?” Ted rumbled eventually.

Sandy drew a deep breath. He said, “I realized a few hours ago that I know something about Precipice that you don’t.” They waited.

“Tell me first, though: am I right in thinking Hearing Aid is defended by a tapeworm?”

After a brief hesitation Sweetwater said with a shrug, “I’d have thought that was self-evident.”

“The Fedcomps are getting set to kill it.”

That provoked a reaction. All three of his listeners jolted forward on their chairs; Ted had been about to light his favorite pipe, and it was instantly forgotten.

“But they can’t without—” Suzy began.

“I don’t want the details,” Sandy interrupted. “I’m just assuming that you have the biggest-ever worm loose in the net, and that it automatically sabotages any attempt to monitor a call to the ten nines. If I’d had to tackle the job, back when they first tied the home-phone service into the net, I’d have written the worm as an explosive scrambler, probably about half a million bits long, with a backup virus facility and a last-ditch infinitely replicating tail. It should just about have been possible to hang that sort of tail on a worm by 2005. I don’t know whether yours has one or not and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that while I was a systems rash with G2S recently I moused around the net considerably more than my employers required of me, and I ran across something I only today spotted as significant.” They were hanging on his every word now.

“For about eighteen months they’ve been routinely copying Class-A Star data from G2S and every other hypercorporation with a maximum-national-advantage rating and lifting the copies clear of the net for storage. I thought maybe they were tired of hypercorp execs pulling the White House Trick and other similar gimmicks, so they needed a standard reference to appeal to. It didn’t occur to me that this might be the preliminary stages of a worm-killing job. I never guessed that big a worm was free and running. Now I see the implications, and I guess you do too, hm?”

Very pale, Ted said, “Too true! That makes nonsense of the virus facility, let alone the simple scrambler aspect. And in fact our worm doesn’t have the kind of tail you mentioned. Later, we were vaguely hoping we could add one… but Washington’s tolerance of Hearing Aid was wearing thin, and we didn’t want to irritate the authorities.”

“They must hate us,” Sweetwater said. “Really, they must loathe Precipice.”

“They’re scared of us, that’s what it is,” Suzy corrected. “But… Oh, I find it hard to believe they’d be willing to clear up the sort of mess our worm could cause. I’ve always understood it works in two stages: if someone tries to monitor a call to Hearing Aid it scrambles the nearest major nexus, and if they did try to kill it, they’d find over thirty billion bits of data garbled randomly but not know where the damage had been done. It might be years before the returns all came in. We never found out whether that virus facility actually works, but the front end—the scrambler—that works fine, and the BDP once proved it to their cost.”

Sandy nodded. “But they’re prepared to cope with the virus aspect now. Like I said, they’ve lifted the max-nat-ad stuff out of the net altogether, ready to be slotted in again afterward.” He leaned back, reaching for his glass.

“We’re obliged to you, Sandy,” Sweetwater said after a brief silence. “I guess we better put on our thinking caps and see what we can—”

He cut her short. “No, I’ll do it. What you need is a worm with a completely different structure. The type they call a replicating phage. And the first thing you must give it to eat is your original worm.”

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