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Looking for a Brighter Day

Written by: Kuwanger

Section 1

Weather-worn rocks protruded through the barren brown dirt forest floor. A gentle, gray mist hung throughout the foliage. And young Jay Matherson scrambled forward, scraping with his free hand up a steep hill up to the forest plateau. How much of a head start he had, he wasn't sure. Without a clock handy, he was a horrible tell of time.

It must have been fifteen, maybe thirty, minutes ago when they had caught on. At least, that's as soon as he realized he wasn't alone. Typing on his laptop, he thought he noticed a file change. That couldn't be right, he thought. No one's supposed to be using this account.

Scrolling back, the change was there and apparent. Someone was there, and they must have noticed by now the changes he made. Maybe they thought it was someone else? And then his connection was terminated. *Shit*, he thought. The only reason they'd do that is if they already knew where he was.

Quickly putting on a pair of shoes, Jay grabbed his laptop and took off. If he was lucky, he could get to the other side. At least there, he could blend in. Surely Frank would let him crash at his place.

Running forward, he started arcing east, hoping to find the bridge. Trudging across the river would ruin his shoes, and he hated the thought of what would happen to his laptop. They didn't make them like this anymore.

Past trees and the unlikely bush, Jay ran across the Alaska countryside. He hated the chilly winter mornings. Looking back from time to time, he heard the distant hum of an approaching helicopter. Must have been more important stuff than I had thought, thought Jay.

Only a couple more minutes. Hopefully a couple more minutes. Even having hung around in the forest for long stretches at a time, he still could hardly tell where he was. Hiding out in the forest patch was only good when the hunters went by foot. Few bothered tracking through the forest for long, figuring anyone stupid enough to willingly go hang out in the radioactive dump wasn't worth the money to try bringing back alive.

But Jay knew the radiation wouldn't kill you. Not right away at least. You could survive a few weeks in the forest if you didn't kick up the dust too much and generally stayed huddled in one of the rock alcoves. Though near the end, you'd start losing some hair. That was the sign to get the hell out as quick as possible and hope the trackers had given up.

He still wondered how the trees survived around here, though he supposed they had very deep roots. Their bottom trucks all were a thickly layered black color thinning out to what otherwise looked like a healthy tree. Elm? Oak? Birch? A tree's a tree. He only guessed they weren't dying.

But back to the problem at hand. The area around the bridge was a clearing. Surely the helicopter would hover around it, waiting for him to cross. Worst of all, it'd kick up a lot of dust, and the last time he had hung out the forest was but a month back. He couldn't wait for long, and he couldn't very well go running through a radioactive dust cloud. The guys at the camp couldn't save him from that much exposure.

So, it meant trudging across the river. He arced more west, where the trees went out to the water's edge. Hopefully his shoes wouldn't melt too much. But above all else, he wasn't go to let his laptop in the river. Any new one would end his games, with their authorized-programs-only "feature". It was only a feature to the government. What better way to prevent you from tracking the latest toxin dump?

Not that the toxin dumps were the worst things. But, they were the most persistent. Who was it that was the government's sponsor this year? The contract must be really good to be producing twice as much as last year. Computer chips? Coal harvesters? It had to be somewhere in-between those two, given virtually no other industries still existed. Who needs a real car when you can get a virtual one virtually free?

Live, grow, and die in the computer world. At first the idea was fun for Jay, Frank, and the others. But, then the crackdowns came. Oh, not the old kind. The new crackdowns just meant a fix and a virtual cash dump. If it's virtual cash, it's not really yours anyways, right? And all the new computers began being only able to interface with the computer world. And people who wanted to could continue living in the real world.

But the real world was boring. You were so fixed on what you could do. So virtually everyone began staying on night and day: working, sleeping, and eating while connected. The hardcore traditionalists stayed offline, though most of their children didn't. And a few hacker camps like Franks stayed offline and only dabbled on enough to keep people abreast of the real world.

Not that most listened. The government would acquire another provider, there'd be a short spurt of outrage at Frank's virtual newspaper, and then the next day life would go on. Who cared if the government bought another provider? It just meant lower rates, right? And that'd mean I could work a little less at my job, my virtual job.

And the government knew well enough to never attack Frank and his group directly. Spies like Jay would find a connection on the other side, to be sure we weren't being filtered. Some of Frank's camp was half way around the world, but the majority of us would head out, find a connection, do a little "tweaking" to get past the latest generic blocker, and see if we could spot any trouble.

Jay had stumbled across a news report that was coming out later today to announce the now future attack by a "hacker" group. It seemed like a good report to make a few minor changes. Would they notice the slight change saying the hackers were sponsored by the government? They had caught Jay's change though, before he had time to clean up the evidence of his break-in.

Oh well, thought Jay. At least they probably didn't notice the wedge he put in should he or his group have a need to get back in. The next computer audit left them at least a 2 month envelope before they'd have to break in again.

But breaking in is such a crude way of putting it. You had to massage the system a certain way. Trying to take the metaphorical sledge hammer and smash your way in just alerted them to an attack. That was fun to do, if you were tunneling through one of the mega-corps. But, it was no way to actually find out anything useful. So, you used one hole to carefully watch as people come and go. And if you were lucky, you could tailgate in behind someone with high enough authority to make a small back door for entry.

Once inside, you quickly looked for any logs to wipe them of your entry and the small hole. Then, you unpacked enough so others who didn't know how couldn't get in as well -- fill in the cracks in the cement with your own lock. Some of the more subtle bugs kept being quietly patched in the process of the unpacking. The last thing you wanted was they system to go down and be audited. Not that the audit would turn up much. But, they were paranoid and did a clean wipe from an independent source undoing the work in a way you couldn't trap.

Out upon the water's edge, Jay prepared to take the plunge. The water was a nice rosy pink today. He hoped it was the happy and cheery pink and not one of the more caustic ones. Shoving his pants down into his shoes as best he could and tying the laces to hold them in place, Jay looked down the river.

As he expected, he could see in the distance a search light peering down around where the bridge was. They'd probably give up soon and go more downriver. No sane person would willingly go trudging through a pink river. Jay realized just how much sanity he had had to give up to get out of their world.

Placing the laptop on his head and holding it in place with both hands, Jay began his trek across the river.

Section 2

The caustic pink joy fizzled as Jay's foot began to splash through it. In careful, sturdy steps, Jay trudged through the river as quickly as he thought he could. Midway through, Jay was mostly submerged, holding his laptop in extended hand above to avoid the possibility of splashing eating through the protective cover. Twenty meters, ten meters, and then the shore. On the river's edge, Jay quickly stripped out of his clothes, down to his socks and underwear. He knew they were a lost cause and only a repository for eating through his skin.

Less than a meter past the river, Jay dropped the clothes and then a large rock. If the clothes were discovered, the hunters would think he had simply been dissolved away. Another "tragedy" to their pocketbook, no less. Most hunters did it for the sport, though. They too wanted to still live in the real world. But if everyone else is in the virtual world, isn't it the real world?

Jay thought about it for a moment, then dismissed it as philosophical junk Frank was sure to enjoy. Carrying his shoes in his free hand, hoping they at least could be salvaged, Jay set out for the compound. The brown barren forest floor turned to mosses then a covering of vegetation. It had taken him and the group many months to clean up all the fallout around the camp. The crops lay inside the compound itself though, carefully monitored for any signs of radiation or poison.

By now, most of the mist had lifted revealing patches of blue-green sky. Resting for a moment, Jay pulled out his laptop and checked the range. No, he was still clearly outside of the uplink's range. Or maybe it was just the trees, as always. He wished his group had had more portable uplinks when he had left. But resources dwindled and their satellite was aging anyways.

Packing up, Jay set off again, pausing from time to time to pick from a berry bush or the infrequent loose edible bark. It was always good to be prepared for some trading. Then began the steeper incline. The camp was situated upon a ridge for some added protection. Truth was, dirt goes downhill, and that made keeping the place clean easier.

Jay wondered if there would be anyone about this morning. It's not like hiking was a big pastime, but occasionally someone would decide to "live in the *real* real world" for a change. Why was it when they set out alone for a few weeks they always brought their laptop? At least they didn't take a few cans of food along as well.

Lightly through the forest trees were glimpses of the compound. Square and gray with a fort-like structure more for show than actual defense, the compound had space for at least a hundred in emergencies. Thankfully, none of those kind tended to happen. He could only imagine all the available floor space lined with sleeping bodies and tangled cords. It didn't take one for him to trip over and break something (thankfully usually another one of Frank's "creative" earthen pots). Frank seemed really forgiving for them: from the earth and to the earth. The exception of course were those rocks we call computer chips. But Jay understood that.

Looking up, almost certain the trackers would be tracing the outline of the compound, searching for people trying to sneak in, Jay was a bit perplexed there were none. Maybe they'd found his clothes already? But even then, they liked to keep tabs on as many people as they could at the compound. Frank, meanwhile, would neither confirm nor deny anything they stated. Seeing they'd get nowhere, most trackers left at that. The few more cocky ones would make a threat or two, but Frank stood his ground, and they eventually left.

Well, without the hovering birds, there's not even a need to sneak, thought Jay; there goes my fun. Circling around, still at least ten meters into the foliage, Jay made his way to the north side. A bit tired from all the hiking, he shortcut across towards the north gate once he had cleared the east side. After rapping against the outer wall for a bit, the morning watch asked who was there.

Jay responded, "Open the fucking gate!" The guard said he didn't know anyone by that name here. "Red, you fucking well know who it is." Red in mock coy, asked who might at this hour be speaking like such a dirty sailor.

"So, what are you excited about?" Red asked.

"Seen any hawks?"

"Oh, one of those again. No, you're clear." Red replied.

With Red finally opening the gate, Jay quickly went inside and got a few giggles from Red. Red stood about 1.7 meters, with red locks she rarely tied up -- she claimed it was from all the teasing from when her mother always made her wear pigtails -- and a gentle freckled face. Jay asked where Frank was, and was told he was asleep, of course. It was rare for Frank to be up before noon. Frank would stay up to all periods of night though.

Realizing he had a good bit of time before he debriefed himself, Jay went to the mess tent and ate some breakfast -- warm cornbread -- while going over his bounty. Looking over it, Jay realized maybe it was less important than he had thought. In any case, he at least had news to report of the upcoming attack.

Time ticked away, more life stirred from the camp, and Frank came in in slippers to get his morning drink. Seeing that Frank was still a bit bleary eyed, Jay waited until Frank saw him and sat down. His tall glass of milk half-empty, Frank began to play with it as Jay described his little escape.

"So, are you going to report about it in the Eurohacker thingy?" asked Jay.

"No, probably not. Just the usual, making us look busy the day of the attack so we have an alibi."

"I thought as much. We really need to do more than just cover our own asses."

"What are we to do? Launch a wide-scale attack?" Frank chuckled.

"No, of course not. Then we'd just be more vilified. But if we continue to do nothing, the erosion is going to continue? Is this where you thought we'd be 20 years ago?"

"Twenty years ago..." Frank paused for a moment. "Twenty years ago, I hardly used a computer. Sure, I 'dabbled' on the internet. Oh, you know what that means. But all the information was so free after the bubble. If they thought they had a right to charge money for it, so what? I'd just get information from someone else."

"Except there's no one else if only they can speak."

"Right. But anyways, they were the ones making the music. Well, paying someone to make it. And they made the movies and the software. Why shouldn't they make a little money off it?"

"Right. A 'little' money."

"But then all the free music started drying up. Lawsuits, then technology. And in the new world, there wasn't a way to steal. Hell, why steal when the music's so cheap, right? But, then I realized I couldn't listen to some of my music. And I couldn't bring it on. I mean, no one listens to my music but me. So, why should I let them use their music key so they control my music?"

"So, can we just shortcut this speech and get to you saying the future is through legislation?"

Frank frowned. "Fine. I wish you'd take the suggestion more seriously. It's the sheep who don't use the system that are the problem. But the politicians only see them for their wool. I just wish people were more wolves."

"And the government would be offering a bounty on them, claiming they were raiding chicken coops." retorted Jay.

"You're just negative."

"You're an optimist."

"At least we know where we stand."



Section 3

The rest of the week was rather uneventful. With Frank's group armed with the knowledge of the hacker attack, nothing happened. Jay borrowed a pair of clothes from Frank to be paid for with the usual farm duty. And a helicopter did stop by, though it was more for tourism and trade than anything. While Frank's camp was far from a tourist trap, it was well known enough that the rare time someone did unhook from the virtual world, some would invariably stop and trade with the "quaint" disconnected few.

Jay preferred to stay out of sight. Frank preferred preaching about the joys of the simpler life. What was simple were the tourists, thought Jay. On parting, they bought a few hand-woven scarves. It was the only thing anyone in the camp actually knew how to make to some reasonable completion. But, with the tourists out of the way, and a few gold pieces jingling in his pocket, Frank merrily flushed out Jay for a game of chess or Go or whatever other diversion could be made.

The following Monday, Jay sat down to try to further fill in the chronology. It had been slightly over ten years ago since the "accident". The reports were sketchy even now. The story at the time was that the military of Russia was performing a routine test of some of their ICBMs. On a test firing of one, the missile arched up, its engine cut out, and the missile quickly arched back to earth. It's payload, a 50 Megaton nuclear warhead, detonated on impact, detonating three nearby "disarmed" warheads.

The fallout cloud blanketed most of the polar regions killing most all forms of life not deeply rooted enough to find clean sources of food. Tons of carbon dioxide near instantly were released from the blast itself. The temperature in the arctic rose, tons of permafrost melted, and even more carbon-laden materials were digested by bacteria. The rapid carbon release more than doubled the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Five years ago the temperature rise began to taper off. By then, however, most of the world had moved from the unlivable equator. The continued migration north and south required huge construction costs. Canada invited the United States in with the financial support of several merged corporations. China, on the other hand, moved into Siberia at its own expense, providing Russia with its needed military support having lost most its usable nukes in the accident.

Since China and Russia's merger some seven years back, ties with the western world were cut off. In what began first as a joke, being called a red curtain, the term had persisted for those still interested enough in world affairs to talk about it. The red curtain troubled Jay. It troubled Frank too, though he rarely wanted to talk about it.

But how on Earth did they mistake a nuclear warhead for a dummy warhead, wondered Jay. And why did the other warheads go off? Why were they even there? Even if he knew the answer, Jay knew it meant little good to him now. Since the corporations began sponsoring the new joint US/Canadian government, the virtual world became a big hit. When you're packed like sardines from a rash need to move, the virtual world must seem a perfect escape. But it was no escape for Jay.

Jay sighed. What were they up to today? That was the burning question in Jay's mind. Under one über-umbrella, there was little separation between business and government. But who actually owned the government today?

All of Jay's spying had actually resulted in relatively new information. Sometimes a name would appear, but it was one of a list of names who all seemed of equal authority. They couldn't all be the ringleader of the current affair. Frank didn't think it mattered. Frank was still obsessed that democracy still existed.

In some vague way it did. But with the corporation(s) in control, you never heard of a candidate except through them. They were the filter, and the people got their limited selection. So, Frank insisted to try to sway the people. He believed that the carbon could be re-sunk if we tried. And in the few times his paper would gain in noticeable reading, the government/corporation would respond on the ludicrous cost of doing it. "Let nature take its course. We don't want another accident."

So, Frank continued on in his crusade. Jay continued the planning of his virtual warfare. Most of the rest of the camp leaned towards Frank's approach. And the shadowy real military arm of Frank's camp was rarely mentioned. Even Jay thought using real bombs wasn't the answer. All Jay's hiking around and virtual warfare was more to draw attention to the cause. Killing people only distracted from it.

With Jay teetering on his radiation limit, there was little chance for much of a hike for him. So, he tore into his farm duty as merely as he could. Jay didn't really like the simple life, but he didn't want to become more simple. Weeding and watering were his main duties. From time to time, in the passing months he'd be able to feed and milk the few cows instead. At least it didn't involve hours of bending over.

Finally, Jay was lifted from his farm duty, though he and bargainer Frank knew he'd be back when he ran out of supplies. The doctor of the camp said he'd be clear to go out hiking again, but as always the doctor recommended against it. Traipsing around intentionally into radioactive dust, even if you were sure to stay under the safety level, was not a recommended pastime. Jay assured the doctor he'd be careful. The doctor sighed and nodded condolences to himself.

So, Jay set out on another adventure across the river and through the woods to the government's house he go. But in his story, the wolves were helicopters on the government's side.

Copyright 2005, EuroHacker Magazine