The Carrot of Doom Presents...
Programmed by Adam J Purcell
"They've posted a bounty against anyone suspected of - well, doing what we're doing. BIG bounties - five million per suspect, up to fifty million for the ring leaders! They know. Somehow they know..." the out of breath British Home Office Minister blurted out as he rushed into the dimly lit subterranean bunkered meeting room.
"How could they know?" the American President asked, the sound of fear evident in his nonetheless undoubting voice.
The other political leaders gave each other concerned looks but none dared speak.
"It can't be a coincidence this is happening, not as we all meet for this progress report." the British Prime Minister said, finally breaking the silence with his now hushed tones. The others shook their heads in muted agreement.
"Should we disband the group?" the French Prime Minister asked the assembled co-conspirators.
"No, we can't. We daren't. Not when we're so close." the British PM said harshly.
"Close?! Just because we now, finally, have a replacement that doesn't mean we're close! Not by a long shot. That's why we're here, after all." the American President replied rather more savagely than he intended.
"He's right - we have an awful lot of systems to convert or replace. If they know what we're doing I can't see how we proceed." the German Chancellor said as she glanced around at the others at the oval table.
"We can't give up now. I, for one, will not give up now. We've come too far. We've got the bootstrapping software ready to go and we've tested it on desktop terminals. I thought you said it will spread throughout the network and reprogram them in the matter of a few minutes?" the British PM asked the now even whiter faced than usual Chief Software Developer.
"Yes - in theory. But that's less than half the story - less than a tenth, actually. It isn't just the desktop terminals we've got to worry about. Everything has their software in. Handhelds, vehicles, household hubs, all corporate infrastructure - hell, food production lines, warehousing and stock level systems - everything. Medical equipment. Power plants, even. Everything. Everything that has any computing element. Our entire society is totally dependent on these systems. If they know we're trying to... Oh, god..." the Chief Software Developer trailed off into his imagined horrors.
They were all silent for what felt to them an eternity. They'd known the risks. It had all been discussed two years previously when they first met to counter the threat. It was deemed there was no choice but to build replacement software, no matter the risks that entailed. They had to free themselves from the company.
"We mustn't panic. It may be nothing. A coincidence. Perhaps some other party is attempting to build replacement software. The Eastasians. Yes, if anyone would be doing something like this it would be them." the American President took his turn at bringing the group back from petrified silence.
"Let's not fool ourselves. They know. Perhaps one of us mentioned it over a comms channel? Just once would have been enough - a careless terminal message or handheld voice call. Let's not forget their software is in all communication systems - their intelligent listening devices would have picked up anything like that, instantly." the French PM countered.
"There's no point us blaming each other. If it has occurred what is the worst that can happen?" the British PM asked. All eyes turned back to the Chief Software Developer.
"We're absolutely reliant upon the company and their software right now. They can, in theory, revoke the licences for their software at a moments notice. According to their EULAs they can do this without explanation. They can remotely shut off every system because they feel like it. Civilisation would collapse." the Chief Software Developer told them what they all knew from their initial meeting two years previously.
"That's why it is vital we don't stop now - we can't be held hostage like this." the British PM reiterated his views for the countless time.
"Can't we do something in the courts about this?" the German Chancellor interjected, trying to think of an alternative solution.
"I don't see how. They've got all the patents. Our predecessors and their predecessors let the company patent the most ridiculously trivial ideas and then extended the patent durations to even more ridiculous durations. Besides, the company can stall proceedings for years. Let's face it, they've got more money than any government in the world. Even if we all join together it will still be a serious financial drain for years to come..." the American President replied.
"They'd shut us down as soon as we file - we wouldn't even have time to get the initial court dates through." the British PM finished the thought.
"The court would order the company to reinstate our licences until it makes a finding, though..." the German Chancellor wasn't about to give up his idea yet.
"You're joking?! We'd be without anything for days, at best. Our economies would collapse in minutes. Food production would stop. Transportation would stop. Telecommunications would stop. Emergency Services would be powerless. The military would be powerless. Local government, national government... What is it they say? 'Civilisation is only ever three meals from anarchy'? It isn't just anarchy we risk here but widescale starvation and death." the French PM now piped up.
"How did we let it get like this?" the Chief Software Developer of the liberating software asked softly.
"We weren't paying attention. Simple as that. We let the company become dominant. Gave them a monopoly on a platter. Interoperability we said. Let's stick with what we know. Somehow we got comfortable with a choice of one. People tried to warn us but we didn't listen. It was better for our economy this way, we said. When did we lose the idea that competition was good and healthy for an economy? I don't know. Success meant to us that it must be good. Success bred further success. We let the company buy up the competition or shut them down through unfair monopoly tactics. We were proud of the success of the company - the American dream. Somehow we happily ignored where it was all going." the American President lamented.
"We all let it happen. We let the International Court turn a blind eye. We allowed the patent and copyright laws be subverted. We all introduced draconian Digital Rights legislation, as lobbied for by the company, and pretended it would help eliminate the terrorist threat. Though, ironically, it did - if we keep on good terms with the company they inform us of any potential threats while they're still in the brewing. As we know the company can now see and know all..." the British Prime Minister said, rightly taking a measure of the blame on his own county's past governments.
"We've created a real life 'Big Brother'. Corrupt politicians pretending that 'lobbying' by the company was anything but bribery. The people didn't mind though. Everybody started to use their software, big business, little business and even home users. Then came the Internet. Suddenly, well within a decade or so, all machines were connected. The virtual monopoly of the company forced everyone using other software to move across for compatibility. Companies started to assume everyone was using their software and stopped catering for alternatives. Soon everyone was - they were forced to. We sat back and enjoyed the benefits of the technological revolution. We never imagined it would come to this. Secret meetings in an old nuclear bunker, away from any technology more advanced than these old fashioned battery powered lights. Away from the company's 'communication' satellites. Away from any CCTV or WOT system. Away from the world." the American President said sadly.
"Can't we send in troops? A coordinated assault on the company's head quarters. A surgical strike might just work!" the German Chancellor suggested, clearly no longer believing their original replacement plan could now work.
"As I said a minute ago - their software is in all communication systems. How will we 'coordinate' this assault? Smoke signals?!" the French PM replied.
"Their software also controls all satellites - communication, weather and, yes, even our spy satellites. Even smoke signals could be detected! Troop movements could be detected. Hell, the company could just shut down the soldiers' vehicles. I'm sure, at the very least, their systems keep an eye on movement around the area of their offices. I'm not just talking about their Head Office, either. They are distributed around the world. Knocking out their Head Office wouldn't be effective, even if we could." the British PM added.
"Missiles..." the German Chancellor began before tailing off as he realised that all their missiles, indeed all missiles used the company's software too.
"Could we reprogram the satellites, CCTV and WOT systems first?" the French PM asked the Chief Software Developer
"We could... It will mean more development time and some examples of the hardware, using the normal containment procedures." the Chief Software Developer agreed.
"It's a lot more difficult to get hold of such hardware without raising alarm bells. Getting a standard desktop terminal is one thing but a spy satellite? Even a War On Terror system would be difficult, they were designed to detect when they're being tampered with and the network always notifies in the case of system failure." the British PM said, more than a little unconvinced of the plausibility of the idea.
"We could get a nobody from a slum. Someone without an ID card. We could make it look like a piece of mindless violence. They could tear down a WOT sensor and nobody would ever know who they were." the French PM suggested.
"Even if we somehow managed to find such a person without our activities being noticed, the WOT system is a mesh of sensors constantly watching people and traffic movement, performing facial and vehicle recognition and comparing the details with their ID card or vehicle transponders. Even those in the slums must carry an ID card or they're picked up by the Police the moment they're noticed. How can we possibly get anyone to take a WOT sensor?" the American President asked.
"You forget the Police are still on our side - at least they are in France!" the French PM countered.
"That does us no good - how can we tell the Police to ignore the alarm without chancing the communication being intercepted?" the British PM said.
"Maybe we don't need to. Is there any chance we could smuggle a WOT out of the factory? Or how about we get a damaged one - from a real accident, I mean?" the Chief Software Developer interjected, for the first time speaking without first being asked a question. The world leaders didn't seem surprised or shocked, however.
"Possibly. How long would it take to replace the software?" the British PM asked.
"If there's any chance we can get some design documentation too then it could be as little as a few days. Without, then probably a few weeks. It all depends on how similar the underlying hardware technology is. I would guess it's very similar to that of Desktop Terminals. The company doesn't release their source code so the WOT manufacturers don't have the opportunity to really customise it. I'm sure almost all systems have the same basic hardware core - that's certainly consistent with what my team has found so far. Though it has been difficult - we've had to locate ancient museum computers and software to develop this, obviously we couldn't use the company's stuff without being detected." the Chief Software Developer explained.
"Save us the technical details, please. We know your team has been working to build a similar software to the company's in a couple of years, software that the company has been slowly developing for decades. How long do you need for everything? Every conceivable device from toasters to nuclear reactors?" the French PM was clearly getting a little nervous as the news of the bounties slowly sank in.
"Well, er..." the Chief Software Developer didn't even know where to begin with an estimate of the massive job ahead.
"Whatever it takes - we don't exactly have a choice here. Can we get anymore developers onto the team without risking a breach?" the British PM asked his fellow rebels.
"We'd be taking an awful risk - it could even be one of the existing team who, inadvertently or otherwise, tipped the company off." the French PM said warily.
"We don't know anyone has, not for sure, anyway. I might be able to get another couple of developers. We're getting pretty good at faking their deaths now!" the American President grimly quipped.
"Okay, we'll do what we can for you and your team. Once we're free of the company you'll have every software developer in the world free to help improve the base software if they choose, just the way you wanted it." the British PM said to the Chief Software Developer. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, unless we have any better ideas..." the Prime Minister prompted.
"What about these bounties?" the French PM asked. "We can't ignore..." he was cut off in mid-sentence by a ringing. Everyone turned, the blood draining from their faces, in the direction of the sound.
An aide to the American President fumbled in his suit jacket pocket, panic evident in his every little movement. "I.. I.. I thought I'd turned it off..." he stammered.
"Well turn it off NOW - QUICK!" the American President shouted at him.
"The button's not working!" the aide pressed valiantly before giving up and trying to open the outer shell to remove the battery. Before he had a chance to it stopped ringing.
"Well, well, well. That's quite a little party you've got going on there." a disembodied voice boomed from the small handheld device. Everybody instantly recognised the voice.
"What business is it of you or your company?" the British PM asked, realising there was no point trying to cut the conversation off now.
"I thought we all had a good working relationship but I see you're trying to undermine my company. Illegally, I might add. Everyone relies on our software, why would you want to compete with that?" the majority shareholder of the company asked.
"You've been listening to us all this time?" the German Chancellor asked him.
"Indeed - just because you weren't communicating with the device doesn't mean we can't turn the microphone on and listen in if we wish! You know why they call me the most powerful man in the world, don't you? It's not just because I'm the richest."
"So, what do you plan to do?" the American President demanded.
"I've already done it. I've revoked your licences. All licences in each of your countries. As of about, oh, two minutes ago."
"What!" many people in the room exclaimed.
"It's true. Apart from this handheld device I'm speaking through, and the nearest high powered pin point comms tower, everything has been shut off."
The group looked around their dimly lit bunker - it took most of them a second or two to remember their own lights were being battery powered and had no reliance on software of any kind. The same couldn't be said for most other pieces of technology outside. "You can't be serious - that would cause mayhem." the French PM said.
"Oh, I'm serious. All power out there is gone. All medical equipment is off, including life support. Heating, refrigeration... Hey planes! Yep, I'm getting footage of some literally dropping out of the sky right now!" he gloated inhumanly.
"You'll pay for this. You've murdered thousands - tens of thousands of our peoples with your actions. We should have done something about you long ago... You will live to regret this day. But not for very long." the American President vowed.
"Cheap threats, Mr. President! You all know that I've effectively replaced the UN as the world's arbitrator. The threat of withholding licences and therefore technologies has brought even the most despicable tyrant into line. You have me to thank for world peace! Guess what? You still have enemies, all of you. I've already got my people talking with some of them. You see, I have been planning for this day. I'm going to let them invade the ruins of your countries - to help restore order, naturally!"
"You won't get away with this!" the British PM shouted angrily at the handheld device.
"There's nothing you can do about it but watch your civilisations collapse into anarchy and ruin. In the meantime, I've got a meal to get back to. Oh, and a last couple of licences to revoke. Ah, yes - almost forgot - I've changed the bounties to 'dead or alive'! Good day gentlemen, ladies..."
The room sat in stunned silence as the handheld device went dead.