"That dashboard clock might not look like much, but it's deadly accurate."
Jason looked up with a start to see Mercury grinning at him from behind mirrored sunglasses. The old pickup truck accelerated slightly, passing another mile marker.
"Oh, I'm sure it is - " stammered Jason.
"Relax, son - everything's right on schedule." Mercury switched on a dashboard map light. As Jason's mouth began to form a question, a soft chime sounded through the stereo speakers.
"Oh. I suppose that was the - "
"So how will we know which vehicle to meet?" asked Jason.
"That's the beauty of the system, Jason - we don't. This exchange is what we call a 'mid-air' - two nodes hit the same stretch of highway at the same time, and neither goes active unless there are at least ten other vehicles within range. If traffic is too light, one or both nodes stay quiet, and the exchange happens at another drop or works its way through the system in other ways."
A soft pinging sound issued from the speakers, and Jason grinned.
"That sounds just like the submarines in the old war videos," he chuckled.
Mercury threw back his head and laughed. "That's exactly what it is! Nodes run standard software, but there are ways to customize some of the feedback effects. I decided that this old boat needed to deliver an honest ping sound. Now, we'll see if anybody responds."
Jason peered at nearby traffic, and Mercury responded sharply.
"Eyes front! Don't gawk, boy - you'll give us away!" Jason sat bolt upright, then stared out the passenger window as the scenery rolled past.
"That's better." The sound in the speakers changed from steady pinging to the screech of an old-fashioned telephone modem, followed by a "Ta-Da!" musical fanfare that made Jason twitch in his seat.
"That - that sounded like - but it couldn't be, could it?"
"They're just sound effects, Jason - combined with a twisted sense of humor. The modem sounds told me that we were exchanging crypto keys, and the fanfare tells me we've got a friendly node session established. No, I'm not running SDS - not on this rig." At the mention of SDS, Jason gave a mock shiver. "I run that crappy monopolistic OS at work and whenever I want every keystroke logged, but never for anything important. I suppose I owe somebody some kind of royalty fee for stealing the SDS trumpet fanfare and playing it in an unauthorized manner, but you know what? Screw 'em."
The sound switched to a simple series of musical notes, repeated over and over, and Jason drew a blank.
"Music from an old quiz program, back in the days of broadcast television. This little song played while the contestants answered the final question. It means we're exchanging data."
Minutes passed as Mercury casually wove through traffic, maintaining the posted speed limit. Finally, another trumpet fanfare drew a tight grin from Mercury and he flicked the map light switch off.
"That was it?"
"That was it - another load delivered safely, both ways." Mercury stayed with the flow, eating up the freeway on the way to Detroit. Somewhere behind, or ahead, another driver did the same.
"What do you suppose was in the packages? I know we sent and received data - do you know what any of it was?" Jason remembered to act cool and disinterested in case anyone was watching, but he was brimming with questions. Mercury drove in silence for a few miles.
"No telling, really - mail, software, pictures of a new baby, marriage proposals, video letters from one lover to another - could be anything, I guess. It's all heavily encrypted. Even if we turned the node over to Homeland Security and they hit it with everything they've got, they couldn't crack it until long after we're dead."
"Whoa. So what happens if our node is, you know - "
"Compromised? Lost? Destroyed? There are redundancies built into the system, checks and cross-checks. The data will stick around until delivery receipts are processed back through. If we get busted, there will be a delay - but the data will get through, regardless." Mercury slipped in a minidisc, and music Jason had never heard before played softly.
"This is the way underground movements have done business since the dawn of time, Jason. Individuals are both invaluable and expendable - the movement needs operators and effectives, but the network has to assume that individuals will be lost every now and then. Above all else, the network has to survive."
Mercury fell silent, chewing over old memories. Jason was used to the long silences by now - in the two days they had been on the road, the pair had alternated between hours of talk and long empty stretches of highway. Jason had learned a few things about Mercury, mostly superficial stuff, not including his real name - and Mercury had subtly tested Jason in dozens of ways, forming an opinion about the young man who aspired to be a Skynet courier. Mercury had been instructed to show the new guy the ropes, but decades of experience had honed his paranoia to a fine edge - he had been handed screwballs and infiltrators before, and he had never lost a Node. Mercury was cagey, not yet ready to show all his cards. For the moment, he just kept driving, watching the mile markers pass by. At sundown, he rolled off the freeway for food and fuel. Automated scans identified the truck, noting date and time, and all the lights went green.
"More fries?" The truck-stop waitress popped her gum and looked at Mercury, and he paused, checking his watch. Jason slurped his pop noisily.
"No, thanks, actually - you know what? I'm good." Mercury smiled at the waitress, and she withdrew to the kitchen, popping her gum.
Jason finished off his burger, burped, and looked around furtively.
"So - when's the next exchange?" he asked.
Mercury sipped his coffee slowly, reflectively. "Nothing more until Detroit," he replied. "And - kid? Shut up."
In the parking lot, systems murmured to one another quietly, unattended and anonymous. Mercury spent precisely five minutes drinking his coffee, then waved for the check. Back in the truck, he started the engine and noticed that the "Check Engine" indicator lit for five seconds - another load, delivered safely. Jason didn't notice, and Mercury didn't bring it up.
Back through the gates, departure time noted - green lights, and the old truck was back on the freeway. Tires hummed along the concrete, and Mercury hoped that Jason would give up and go to sleep for the last leg into Detroit.
No such luck - the boy wanted to talk.
"So, do you use the commercial network for anything at all, or do you just send everything through Skynet?"
"Oh, I use the commercial net all the time - I read and send mail, do most of my shopping and banking and bill-paying, just like everybody else. I wander up and down the network, forward jokes and funny pictures, the whole bit."
"All that activity leaves tracks in the system, doesn't it?"
"Absolutely - that's why I do it. I try to stay somewhere in the thick of the herd when it comes to network activity - that way, I don't attract attention. If I dropped off the commercial network completely, the AIs that monitor traffic would get suspicious." Mercury looked over at Jason and grinned widely.
"What kind of stuff do you send through Skynet, then?"
The grin left Mercury's face suddenly.
"That's a damned impertinent question, and I refuse to answer it. If you seriously want to have anything to do with Skynet, you're going to need to keep questions like that to yourself."
They rode in silence for the next half hour.
"Anyway, that's beside the point. It doesn't matter what I or anyone else sends through Skynet - the important thing is that we can send whatever we want to whomever we want without oversight, censorship, monitoring, or interference."
"Is it really that bad?" asked Jason. "I mean, do you really think everything on the network is monitored?"
"Son, it was bad twenty years ago - that's why we created Skynet. People were losing jobs after making comments in online forums, others couldn't get a job because simple searches turned up questionable material, and email was about as secure as writing on the back of a postcard."
Mercury pulled out to pass a tour bus, floored it, then settled back into a comfortable rhythm.
"Fast-forward through twenty years, trillions of dollars thrown down the 'cyber-terrorism response' rathole, large-scale quantum computing, and AI development - these days, we're tracked and monitored more closely than ever before. Sure, there's more traffic now than there was back then, but computing speed and power are orders of magnitude greater than they were just a few years ago. We're probably spending more on network monitoring than we are on indigent health care."
"With all that monitoring, how do you get away with running Skynet?"
"Not all the top cryptographers and systems people are in bed with the government. So, we've got some good guys on board who can develop and maintain the Nodes - and we've got a whole lot of paranoid people and former spooks to run the network."
"Surely you don't think Skynet crypto is unbreakable!"
"Not at all. In fact, we know it's breakable. The trick is to make it more trouble than it's worth - to create crypto systems that will take somebody 100 years to crack. By that time, the decrypted data is effectively useless. It's all in the mathematics. Even though they've got quantum grids and we don't, we can still run good enough crypto to tie them up in knots until long after the cracked data is valuable. In some ways, it's similar to asymmetric warfare - like Vietnam." Mercury looked over at Jason, but the Vietnam reference had obviously gone right over his head. Mercury let it go.
"Why don't they just round everybody up?"
"There are a lot of us, and most Skynet users are a lot more secretive about it than I am. They'd never get us all. Besides - we're useful enemies. If people like us didn't exist, the government would have to invent us, in order to justify their own paranoia. They know we're out here, and we get hassled occasionally, but our operational security is actually pretty good. We're highly compartmentalized, and that helps a lot - like I said before, the loss of a single node or courier can't bring down the whole network. Even the software and crypto development process is widely distributed and massively redundant - if we lost two-thirds of our crypto and systems guys tomorrow, the network would pick up the slack and keep going."
Finally, Jason wound down and went to sleep. Mercury turned down the stereo and drove on through the night.
Around midnight, the alternator light blinked off and on several times - Mercury frowned, but didn't look around. Somewhere within range, something was pinging for Nodes - either a rogue Node with out-of-date crypto, or a Node hunter from Homeland Security looking to get lucky. The truck made no response, but the GPS coordinates and time were noted. Mercury knew that these attempts were passed on to the Skynet spooks, and he wondered whether one of the field teams might be dispatched to sniff out the situation in more detail.
He didn't wake Jason.
The rest of the trip passed without incident, and Mercury rolled into Detroit at about one-thirty. He herded a sleepy Jason into the motel room, then started fiddling with a travel alarm clock. Jason blinked at him owlishly.
"What are you doing?"
"Setting an alarm - we've got to get up and get to the auto show by nine."
"Yeah - you know, the show I've been planning to see for the past month. The reason I took vacation time and drove clear across the country." Mercury grinned.
Jason frowned, yawned, and flopped headlong on his bed. Mercury rolled his eyes, shook his head, and was right on the verge of making a sarcastic comment when Jason popped up with a surprised look on his face.
"Ohh! I get it - You mean - " Mercury cut him off.
"Exactly. Now, get some sleep."
After breakfast the next morning, Mercury and Jason drove over to the regional auto show and exposition. It was an enormous affair, covering dozens of acres. Spectators and automotive fans from several states attended, along with a large number of people who drove cross-country to be there. As they waited in line to get into the parking area, Jason spoke up.
"I'll bet there are some spots in this parking area that would be ideal for radio traffic!"
"You're right - there are several sweet spots I can see right off the bat. That's precisely why we're going to play dumb and park where the nice man tells us to. Skynet will work out the connection topology for us - there's no need to call attention to ourselves by parking in the obvious sweet spots."
Jason mulled that over. "You think there are people looking for us, then?"
"Probably. Big crowds of people make Big Brother nervous on general principles. We like to do a little bear-baiting, too - I imagine there will be a few Skynet spooks angling for those choice parking places with decoy cars and fake Nodes, just to give the local fuzz something to do during the day."
Mercury followed the gestures and directions from the parking attendants, finally parking the truck on one edge of the enormous lot. He and Jason piled out of the truck, locked it, and ambled over to the main entrance.
"So, what do we do now?" whispered Jason.
"We stop whispering and acting suspicious, and we spend the day checking out the cool cars," Mercury responded.
As the two of them walked from one exhibit to the next, standard hailing signals from decoy cars pinged noisily across the parking lot. Other cars quietly took note, calculated a pseudo-random frequency hop scheme, and started a sidebar conversation.
"I imagine people come in from all over for these big shows, don't they?" Jason looked around at the throngs of people admiring collectible cars. Mercury gave him a sidelong look.
"Yes, they do - events like this draw people with common interests. They come to see the exhibits, swap stories, and catch up on the latest technologies."
In the parking lot, vast streams of data raced along the growing network of Nodes. Mail, news, and multimedia content shared the spread-spectrum bandwidth with software updates and classified Skynet files. Homeland Security technicians noted the increase in RF emissions and started triangulating signals.
"The real fun, though, is getting people together face-to-face."
"What I mean is this - there's just no substitute for a group discussion. When a group of car nuts gets together in a seminar, they can collectively solve problems a lot faster than they could by working individually."
After the initial wave of data transfer, the Nodes fell silent, emitting only brief bursts of data as they self-organized into a parallel multiprocessor array. The decoy cars fired ping signals at random intervals, and the watching technicians puzzled over the resulting chaos. In the command trailer, the Homeland Security AIs started narrowing down search candidates. The Nodes' traffic was lost in the background static due to their non-standard (and thus highly illegal) frequency-hopping pattern, but the decoy cars honked away at one another like clockwork toys, daring anyone to come and find them.
"So, then - these guys come here to 'network'?" Jason asked.
"Just exactly. When you get a lot of bright people together, a group dynamic forms that can crack some really tough puzzles quickly."
Out in the lot, the Spook software took over the network. Data sets were distributed, protocols established, and then the grid roared to life in a massively parallel computation. By lunchtime, it had cracked three simple crypto systems and was busily munching on a stack of intercepted government signals.
Following directions whispered in his earpiece, the HS officer made his way down a line of vehicles. When he approached a green four-door sedan, he nodded his head as he visually confirmed the license plate. When he touched the door handle, the car alarm went off - he swore, then jimmied the door open, popped the hood, and silenced the alarm within thirty seconds. During that time, the decoy Node transmitted "I'm hit!" and wiped itself. The other decoys took note, switching up their transmissions and laughing at the AI in the command trailer.
Mercury handed Jason a beer.
"Man, it really does take a full day to see all the sights, doesn't it?"
Mercury sprawled in a chair, crossing his ankles. "Yes, indeed. This is what vacation time is supposed to be like - no hurry, plenty of things to see and do."
By midafternoon, three more decoys were offline. The grid put in a solid three more hours of work, completed a massive statistical analysis, and dissolved itself at sundown. As the crowds streamed into the parking area, no one paid any attention to the empty parking spaces that had belonged to the decoy cars.
The next day, the miles rolled away easily as Mercury and Jason drove west. Mercury noted that his alternator light blinked again at the same milepost on the return trip - and his Node noted it as well. There was definitely something out there, and Mercury knew that someone would come around and have a look when this new data hit the network.
When he dropped Jason off at the bus station, Mercury shook his hand.
"Good trip, man - we'll have to do this again sometime."
"Definitely," Jason agreed. "So, what's next for you?"
"I've got to be back at work in the morning, but I'm looking forward to the oldies rock concert this Saturday night. Should be a good-sized crowd, don't you think?"
"Right," grinned Jason. "See you around, then," he added, turning to join the line in front of the ticket window.
Mercury drove home and parked the truck, then fumbled with his keys at the front door while the Node in the truck chatted with his home network. Later, as he ate a microwave dinner, he listened to fresh East Coast tunes and caught up on his correspondence.
"Jason's all right, I think," he muttered to himself. "Might make a decent courier, with a little more experience. We'll see."