“Damn ! Damn! Damn! Double damn damn!”
Mr A was hitting the DSTV remote on the edge of his seat repeatedly. Luckily the thing seems well made enough. The battery cover popped off and the two AA batteries rolled under his chair. He got even more worked up fishing around for them with his stubby fingers under the seat.
Outside it was raining cats and dogs. I don’t mind. If anything it suited my mood perfectly.
I know why I am here. I am still trying to figure out Mr A’s motives. I can’t say he’s driven by a strong ideology because his utterances tend to change along with whatever programme is on the DSTV channel he happens to be watching at any given time.
You probably won’t agree with my motives either. You see I am plagued by the big “C”. Cancer of the bowel and it’s terminal. I have gone through all the stages to finally – acceptance. That I might just make it past 40. But that still doesn’t explain what I am doing in this nondescript building. You see, I have always been a loner. And before I found out what the cancer was doing to my innards I had finally made it past daydreaming to actually asking a girl out. Unfortunately I didn’t quite do it right. Rejection twice in a row and in the midst of all that came the diagnosis. That pushed me into a really dark place. I finally emerged after I accepted the reality of my terminal existence. But I was a changed person. So when I hooked up with certain people who thought they could use my skills, it wasn’t because I believed in their ideology: it was more an opportunity to make my “passing” mean something: to leave a mark. You can call it whatever you want. A midlife crises coming at the end of my life if you like. You see, there is never going to be an acceptable reason for doing the things I do knowing the havoc, the panic, the sorrow, the destruction that are the final fruits of the things I create: you just choose a side and do what you want: “do what thou will”.
“Do you think if we rotate the dish outside the signal will return?” Mr A broke into the chain of my thoughts.
“Mr A. We have discussed this before. That won’t help.”
“Yeah. You said it’s the technology. Something about the dish size right?”
“Yes. You see. The DSTV you now have uses the KU-band satellite technology. This allows the receiving dishes to be much smaller so that more people can afford it. So DSTV sells more and makes more money. The downside is that the transmission strength is very weak and is affected by the weather. Especially rain. If you remember the big swimming-pool-size dishes from several years ago. Those ones use the C-band technology. They are very powerful and more expensive of course. But they are not affected by the weather.”
“Yes. Yes. I remember now professor. I still don’t know why you all insist on this Mr A, Mr B, Mr C business? After all we have been here several months. If we have been infiltrated, the police would have been here by now. Anyway, as you know my real is on the underside of my suitcase. If you ever want to know since you insist I must not tell you.”
“Mr A. It’s better this way. If something were to happen, you know one can’t give up information you don’t have even under torture. It’s more for your protection. Me. I am gone soon.”
Some day when the my “reality” had weighed extra-hard on me, I had dropped my guard and told him about the cancer and the grim diagnosis.
“At least write it somewhere I can find it after you go” (emphasis on the go)
“Speaking of which” he continued. “I read there is a proposal by one of the satellite company to put a tracking device in planes so that if they disappeared like the Malaysia Airline’s plane, it would be easy to track them down”.
“Professor, I think someone like you should be able to find a way to exploit that for our cause?”
He knows I don’t particularly believe in their “cause” but that’s nitpicking given the fact that I was in that house doing what I was doing.
“Yes” I said. “I read the same article and it got me thinking. You see you are actually more brainy than you give yourself credit for.” I said.
He beamed at me, “It’s from rubbing shoulders with you and some of the others.”
“I know when you think there is always results. What good things have you discovered now? About this tracking business I mean.”
“True I have thought about it. You see what the company is proposing is like the GPS in your phone. Or even the GSM technology at a terrestrial level. Right now as you move around your phone reports itself to the cell towers of your GSM telco. That way even if you switch off your phone, there’s a record of when last you were seen on the network and where.
But at the scale at which aeroplanes operate, you know, right across the world, the same way masts are tall and way above you to cover particular areas and ensure you get service, the same applies to planes: you will need something above them to track them in an efficient, accurate way at reasonable cost. You could do it using masts as well I guess, but it would be costly and the number of agreements that would have to be signed between countries and business organizations would be horrendous. Also what happens when they are over water in no-mans-land? Floating masts? You see?”
“And putting the infrastructure so close to the ground is just calling for trouble. It would be hacked in no time. Not that we or our brothers will be complaining though. If anything it will be a heaven sent. Another means for the will of our God to be done.”
Fact is I don’t believe in whatever God they profess to worship. Certainly not a God that wants what we are doing. If he truly wants it, he doesn’t need our help for sure if he’s God. No, this is not the God of any of the popular religions no matter the affiliation these guys may claim. They are confused: the God they worship is the God of self-actualization; of ego and plain self-delusion on a grandiose scale.
“But I digress. Your question was if we would be able to exploit this technology if and when it comes online?”
“Yes professor” he said with a laugh. “And try to avoid the big big terminologies eh? I get a headache from them knocking around in my little brain.”
“I shall try. But you don’t have to pretend. Some of the stuff I have seen you read on the internet betrays your otherwise convincing attempt at ignorance.”
“But here goes. So according to the story, one of the biggest (space) satellite technology providers is suggesting they track flights at roughly one dollar per flight. That’s still a lot of money if you consider the hundreds of thousands of flight taking off and landing every day. Even if we exclude local in-country flights. But we are not concerned about money of course.”
He nodded in agreement.
“So something of this nature will probably call for a small chip or even software loaded into an existing one. But due to intellectual property issues and the self-interest that drives capitalism I would suggest that they will implement it as a new chip. They will load some software on it. Thus turning it into what some would call a firmware. This combo would be quite small to start with. Even the code will be say a couple of thousands of lines. Written by a bunch of very sharp guys. The satellite company is going to proclaim the greatness of the code. How much man hours they spent on regression analysis to ensure there are no bugs in there. But of course due to the nature of the beast, and to keep it from people like us, they can’t make that code available for peer review. No open-sourcing there sir. That won’t stop the security agents of each country trying to get their hands on it by crook or by force of course. Neither would it stop us or our brothers pursuing the same goal. I will get to the why in a minute.”
The rain didn’t seem to be letting up. So the last frame was still frozen on the TV screen: a big man trying to get into a little cab.
“The company would start off saying the chip once made cannot be written into. So they wouldn’t have included any sort of NVRAM or related tech to start with. In fact just about the only thing it would be able to do is indicate it’s position which is all well and good.
So let’s say some of the airlines agree and this chip ends up in several planes. Then a few planes have mishaps and the chip helps to locate them. Both the airline and satellite companies will do some chest thumping which is in fact marketing. They will issue press releases as to how this new technology in collaboration with others of course has allowed the families of those involved get closure, how it has saved millions in dollars they would have spent on searching etc. in short it’s the next best thing since we invented the bread toaster.”
“That’s capitalism for you.” Mr A interjected.
“Completely true” I agreed. “So it’s likely to result in more business for all concerned. For the satellite company, any holdout airlines would probably have a rethink. No CEO wants to be the one in charge if something nasty happens to one of his planes and it becomes known that he resisted implementing a technology that could have helped.”
“For the airlines themselves, may be several more thousand people who would not fly before would be more confident now to do so. At least even if the technology itself can’t save you (for now), it can help your relations get your body back for closure and proper burial. It never ceases to amaze me the sort of attachment people have for lifeless bodies. Once a person dies, that body that remains is not much better or more important than say a similar body of say a cow or goat. In fact it’s more expensive. At least you can eat a cow or a goat. A human body takes up space. And inconveniences the living if you don’t take adequate steps such as embalming it. Which costs money. Why do you think Jesus said “let the dead bury the dead?”.
I had tested this limit several times and found that the most fanatical of them actually tend to read the good books of several religion to try and figure out what’s going on in their target or opponents heads, or how those targets are likely to respond in any given situation, so making references to those books or people therein was not a taboo as one would have expected looking in from the outside.
“You know, that’s where the ancients civilizations and still some cultures today got it right. Burn up the body. The ashes return to the ground as fertilizers. The cycle of life continues. The dead doesn’t care and even if they do, there is nothing they can do about it. There is nothing such as ghosts. Maybe demons and angels. But no ghosts. If we had such powers after death the world would be a better place.”
“But I digress again.”
“So now we have a chip. It’s a winner. It’s a win-win for all involved. We are good right? No. That’s the thing with humans. That’s also what makes us superior to animals. Our quest for perfection. For improvements. Take the bear for example. It’s been eating his meat and fish and vegetables raw forever. Has it ever crossed its mind that maybe cooking it might make it more palatable? Or tenderizing it? No.”
“But not so with humans. Soon someone is gong to wonder why since the investment has been made in the chip already, what else can it be made to do? Maybe we can put a bigger battery in there so that even if the plane goes down it will continue to work for a while? But we already have the black box for that? Yeah. But that does something else. Besides you can think of it has redundancy. Hmmn. What if we put a little NVRAM in there? Then we can make it store some relevant data? What if both pilots suffer some unfortunate issue such as a heart attack at the same time? Very unlikely but probably right? But we don’t engineer for every possible corner case right? That would make systems too complex and expensive. Remember Ocam’s razor? But what if we could? This isn’t good enough. We can’t spend money and time changing the chip every time we need to upgrade it. What if there is a bug? We have to change the whole chip? In hundreds of thousands of planes? That would wipe out our profit! Em. What happened to the exhaustive regression testing? But you know there is no guarantee that any nontrivial software code is bug-free?”
“So now after a few cycles, we get to version 4.0 of the chip. It’s the latest and greatest. It’s gone from a few thousand lines of code to a couple of tens of thousands of code. It’s gone from read-only to read-write. It’s gone from a closed sandboxed system to being integrated into the plane’s central control system. But that shouldn’t concern the average traveller right? After all, it’s got self-verifying code in there so it’s tamper-proof. Every person that so much as breathes the air around it during production has the highest government-level clearance possible.”
“Prof. The rain has stopped. But I really want to know where you are going with this. Though I have a good idea already. The signal’s back on and the match of the day’s about to start.” Mr A said beaming at me while turning down the volume on the TV a notch.
“True. But you got me started.”
“I wasn’t expecting a thesis prof.”
“That’s OK. Where was I? Yes. Now that the chip can do a thousand things, in fact all but serve alcoholic beverage to the passengers, guess what, we, the so-called bad-guys haven’t been idle. The fact is that nothing is impossible if you want it enough. The chip becomes another way to 9-11 all over again. Of course this won’t succeed more than a couple of times before that avenue is shut down but still. This time no one needs to even physically hijack planes anymore. We just hack it remotely, upload some hostile code into the memory, do a buffer overflow or some other exploit, run the hostile code and presto we are in control of the plane. It becomes just like flying the Microsoft flight simulator. Remember there is talk of a windowless plane taking to the skies soon? Hyper-automated of course.”
“OK. OK. In summary. What you are saying is that once this chip is in place, we can hijack planes remotely and do as much damage as we want?”
“Yes. You could say that.” I replied.
“Prof. You just said now that nothing is impossible if you want it enough. Can I take that to mean you didn’t want that girl’s love enough? That’s why you just gave up when she said no?” There was an evil twinkle in his eyes and a smirk on his face.
He threw me a curve-ball I wasn’t expecting.
“Touché. That’s a different thing entirely. And there are other extenuating factors.”
“Like the big C? You know that’s just an excuse. You just chickened out. What I can’t then understand is how you went from that to this? At least I know why I am here. I am a believer. We are going to countermand the new order with our own order even if it’s effected in blood and tears. But you – I just don’t understand. I know you get paid. But what do you do with the money? Give it out to your relations? You still drive your old jalopy when you can obviously afford a new car. Your reasons defy logic and I think if not because we have thoroughly investigated you, one would have thought you were a spy or something. And if that was the case, we won’t be here having this nice conversation we are about to end. You would have been buried somewhere minus your brainy head.” He said it jovially enough, as if it was another comment on the weather when in reality, it was exactly what would have happened if I had been found to be a spy.
I look out the window. I don’t see the rain which is picking up again. I imagine her standing out there. In the rain. I like it when it rains. I don’t know if she feels the same way – about the rain I mean. A smile on her face. My pulse quickens. I feel it. Just the thought of her.
Maybe just as well. I won’t be around for that much longer.
I am going out on my terms: with a Big Bang. The IED is practically ready. If you can call it that. Apart from being made in a private house, there is nothing improvised about it. It’s going to flatten a whole block of buildings. In a couple of days, there is going to be a gathering of the worst of the group’s members in this same house. A celebration of sorts before they deliver the IED to its intended target.
I have sent the mails already so people will know what happened here. They say the only secret is what’s known to no more than one person. It’s my sendoff gift to myself and the world. I conceived it. I am implementing it. I am going to see it to the end. It won’t be a secret anymore after I am gone. But for now no one else knows.
I will be like the emperor, accompanied by a thousand of my clay soldiers – my “brothers” on my journey of no-return. I was never their brother, but they are not to know that. It’s a wonder how I got away with it. I never built a single IED that was used in the “field”during all these months here because of course with my credentials, I came in for the “big job”.
I hope she will think of me once in a while. Not just sleep over it and forget. Maybe I am already forgotten.
But it won’t matter then. Nothing will matter. At least not to me because I will be gone.