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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 21

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XXI

When the adjourned committee meeting reconvened at Simon's house on the following Tuesday evening, Jimmy noted that the others looked rather subdued. He and Pat were careful to conceal their own triumphant delight, because he wanted to bring out his discoveries gradually. He suspected that Geoff, present by special invitation, had guessed that there was something in the wind, but Geoff was like that.

Jimmy lost no time in coming to the point, inviting those present to state what plans they had formulated during the past week.

There was a brief silence, then Simon shrugged his shoulders. 'I'm afraid you were right when you said that we haven't enough facts to use as the basis for plans. We know quite a lot, but there are vital facts missing. For example, we don't know when the computer goes into service.'

'Yesterday.' Jimmy slid the word into a pause for breath, and Simon gaped at him.

'Are you sure?'

'That was the schedule.' Jimmy glanced at a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, as if checking his facts, but made no further comment. Geoff smiled quietly, guessing that this was the first of a whole string of surprises. Only he had spotted the large bundles of paper that Pat had smuggled into the room and hidden under the table.

Seeing that Simon was temporarily speechless, Robin put a question. 'That's very useful information, Jimmy. Can you tell us what the computer's doing?'

Calmly selecting a small sheaf of papers, stapled together neatly, from his briefcase, Jimmy handed them to Geoff for onward transit to Robin.

Glancing idly at the top sheet as he was about to pass the papers on, Geoff was suddenly motionless. Jimmy smiled quietly. It was a rare achievement to make Geoff express surprise so obviously.

Geoff turned to him and spoke in even tones. 'This appears to be a policy statement issued by the Colonel, summing up his intentions.'

'Yes. You'll find his signature on the last sheet.'

Jimmy's calm statement was followed by absolute silence, eventually broken by a bark of a laugh from Geoff. 'Well I'm damned! I knew you were planning some surprises, but I never thought you'd produce anything like this! Where did you get it?'

'Out of the Colonel's files. He keeps them in his cellar at home. That's a copy. I left him the original in case he needed it.'

The others were beginning to recover from the shock now and they all wanted to talk at once, but Geoff held up his hand. He looked strained but hopeful.

'Jimmy, you are incredible. Did you, by any chance, find any correspondence with the, er, potty politician?'

'I'm not sure. You didn't tell me his name.' Jimmy was delving into his briefcase once more. 'Would that be him?'

Looking at the papers Jimmy had thrust into his hand, Geoff gasped. For a moment, the hand holding the paper trembled, then he was leafing through the sheets, glancing briefly at each in turn. Putting the papers quietly on the table, when he had looked at them all, he placed his hands on them and sat with his head slightly bowed, blinking his eyes as if trying to control strong emotions.

Without raising his head, he spoke softly. 'I'm not a religious man, but I have prayed to God that such papers as these might come into my hands, not for my sake, but for the sake of the country, perhaps for the sake of the world. Perhaps I was guided to entrust the work that I could not do to the one man who had the guts and imagination to carry it out. Jimmy, I feel it is an honour to know you.'

It was Jimmy's turn to be surprised. He had had no idea of the strength of Geoff's feelings in this matter. He could only say quietly that he had not been alone. 'I intended to be, but Pat had other ideas. I'm glad she did, because she saved my life and made it all possible. I can only say, Geoff, that we are glad to have been of service.'

Recovering now, Geoff managed a wry smile. 'One day, you may both realise what service you have done. We can now hope.'

Simon stood up and held his hand out across the table. 'Jimmy, I've been rude to you often enough in the past, because I can think faster than you can in things that don't matter. I'll never be rude again. You and Pat make me feel insignificant and useless.'

When the others had expressed similar sentiments, they demanded the full story and Jimmy told how they had penetrated the Colonel's lair.

Geoff was delighted by the note of thanks, which he said was a perfect touch. 'What they're thinking, I would hate to imagine. I doubt if the troops will tell the Colonel, but it will probably demoralise them completely. Now, have you got any more shocks up your sleeve?'

The tension had eased now and there was almost a festive air about the meeting. Jimmy pretended to consider the question. 'Well, let's see. Complete set of plans of the excavations under Odstone Down?'

Pat pulled a bundle out and dumped it on the table. Jimmy grinned and said it was her turn. She put her head to one side. 'Complete wiring diagrams for same?'

Another bundle appeared, then another, until the table was piled with papers. The last to appear was smaller than the rest. Pat explained that it had been made up of odd items that she had copied at random while waiting for Jimmy to finish his own part of the work. Simon undid the bundle and leafed through the copies idly until one made him give a sudden yell.

'Command codes! The one thing I hadn't got. Now I can make my gear work. Come on, let's try it.'

A little mystified, they followed him into his workshop, where they all managed to find somewhere to stand or sit within view of the television-like apparatus he had shown Jimmy and Pat on an earlier visit. Consulting a list of numbers, he dialled one on the adjacent telephone. A voice answered and he cut the call immediately.

'Not that one, obviously. Let's try the middle of the list.'

This time, he was satisfied and letters began to appear on the video display screen, spelling out the words IDENTITY PLEASE. Simon operated the keyboard after a glance at another list. A series of numbers appeared on the screen, then letters began to spell out the words PASSWORD PLEASE. Simon keyed in six more characters, which had no visible effect.

He explained that these were the letters of the password. 'They don't appear, because you might not want them to be visible to someone looking at the display. Now the command code for...what shall we pick? File search?'

Geoff put forward a restraining hand. 'Do I gather you are in communication with the Colonel's computer?'

'Yes, that's right. Why?'

'Can he tell that you're doing it?'

Simon considered. 'He might be able to find out that someone's doing it, but he couldn't possibly find out who it was.'

'In that case, go ahead.' Geoff sat back with an air of expectancy. evidently relieved by Simon's answer.

The pressure of a key brought a lengthy message onto the screen letter by letter. It was headed SELECT MODE and consisted of a series of numbered phrases.

Simon grinned happily. 'That's what I call service. This is a good program, easy to use.'

Geoff was less happy. 'It may mean something to you.'

'Nothing difficult about that.' Simon was supremely casual. 'These are the options available. You just key in the number shown opposite the option you want. If I press this key we should get the Positive List file.'

He watched complacently as the displayed changed.

    POSITIVE LIST
    + TO ADVANCE
    - TO RETRACE
    0 TO REVERT

'There you are.' Simon waved a nonchalant hand. 'All simple stuff. Nothing up my sleeve. Now we can press the plus key to get the first entry.'

The display changed again and the first word to appear was MARKHAM.

The name made Geoff gasp. 'This must be the Colonel's own file.'

'Probably.' Simon was infuriatingly calm. 'I used the first code number in the subscriber list. He's the sort of man who likes to put himself in first place.'

The information given by the display was precise and comprehensive, with a footnote indicating that further information could be obtained by keying in an appropriate symbol. Simon explored the whole of the data relevant to Markham.

Robin said it was very interesting. 'It confirms most of my ideas about the man. I don't think he'd be very pleased to know that I was reading it.'

Geoff chuckled. 'A magnificent toy! I could play with it for hours and not a moment would be wasted. Could we have a look at the Negative List? We might find it even more interesting.'

The first entry was headed FARNFIELD.

Geoff examined it with interest, going through all the related displays thoroughly. He said he was most impressed. 'Someone must have done some top class work to get that together. It even told me something. But it's very embarrassing to be analysed like that. I wonder who comes next on the list.'

When the next entry heading proved to be FERGUSON, Jimmy felt it was a compliment.

At first sight, the information seemed to be surprisingly complete and up to date, but Jimmy soon saw that there were some interesting gaps. His marriage was noted, but Pat's name was not given, suggesting that this item of information had been obtained through informal channels rather than from formal records. Jimmy's connection with Geoff was not mentioned, showing that Geoff's caution over lines of communication had been successful.

The most interesting omission of all was Jimmy's address. He had been interested to learn, for the first time, where Geoff lived. That had been entered at the start of the display, immediately below the name. In the same position on Jimmy's display there was an empty space, indicating the the Colonel had not yet traced him back to the flat.

This gave Jimmy an idea. He asked whether it would be possible to find out whether Robin was on the list. 'It would tell us whether he's a suspect from the Colonel's point of view. We might as well put this thing to practical use.'

'Sure. No problem at all. We could plod through the entries one by one, but that might take some time. We don't know how many entries there are. Besides, we might come to my entry first and I may want to edit that before you have a look. So we press zero to revert to Select Mode, like that... Now we want extraction by name...so. Finally, we type in Robin's surname and...up he comes.'

They all leaned forward to read the display, with the exception of Robin himself, who looked rather unhappy.

Geoff scanned through the initial details quickly and then grinned. 'It seems that Robin is neither positive nor negative. He's on the Reserve List. Good enough, Jimmy?'

Before Jimmy could reply, Simon said they might as well look at the whole thing and called up a further 'page' of display. The others read it in silence. It was headed by a note to the effect that Robin should be kept in mind as useful material, and quoted certain past misdemeanours that might be useful as a way of ensuring his co-operation.

Robin broke the silence, speaking in a rather strangled voice. 'Switch it off, Simon. It looks as if Jean could come back to the flat safely enough, but if she read that she probably wouldn't want to.'

Skilfully smoothing the troubled water, Geoff said he felt they had seen enough for the moment and should pause to consider the position. They adjourned to the living room, where Simon provided drinks all round, saying that he thought they needed them.

Geoff then took the floor. 'I'm a little confused. What Simon has been showing us ought to have been impossible. It should be extremely useful, of course, which is why I say it ought to have been impossible. The Colonel must have been very anxious to keep this information to himself, yet Simon was able to tap it with comparative ease.'

'I disagree.' Simon spoke firmly. 'We had to have specialised equipment, based on knowledge of their computer code and transmission standards, we needed telephone numbers, code references, passwords, command codes...and we had to know how to make it all work. Do you call that easy?'

'Oh, I'm not belittling the achievement.' Geoff smiled. 'You've all done a great job, but you've done it. That shouldn't have been possible. The Colonel's a rogue, but he's no fool. He certainly wouldn't knowingly set up a system that could be tapped like this. So what went wrong, Simon?'

'No one thing in particular.' Simon spoke slowly, as if he wanted to be sure of his facts. 'We had to have all the information I mentioned just now to do anything at all, and we had to work pretty hard to get it. We couldn't have got it at all by legal means, I'm sure.'

'Perhaps not. What's worrying me is this. A good deal of official government information is stored in computers these days. So is bank information. Could the Colonel get at that, in the same way that we've been able to tap his own files?'

'In theory, yes.' Simon was wary now, seeing the trend of Geoff's thoughts.

'Don't you find that alarming?'

'Not particularly.' Simon was frowning, as if puzzled by Geoff's concern. 'Records like that have always been vulnerable, to some extent, even when they were filed in the old fashioned way. Jimmy brought away copies of the Colonel's paper files. They weren't held on a computer. No, you'd still have the protection of commercial security, and it can guard much more compact information. If Archer hadn't been careless with the subscriber list, for instance, we couldn't have done a thing.'

'There's some truth in that, but it seems that ordinary commercial security may not be enough.' Geoff paused for a moment to consider. 'It strikes me that the theft of a subscriber list might be regarded as a major crime, one day, but making use of the list might not be thought of as a crime of any kind.'

Jimmy put a tentative thought. 'That's rather like saying that stealing a key is serious, but using a stolen key isn't...'

'A good parallel. The point is that you can be caught using the key, but it may not be possible to catch you when you're using a subscriber list. It's no use making something a crime if the crime can't be detected.'

Now it was Simon's turn to make a suggestion. 'It would be possible to overcome this technically, at the expense of a certain amount of inconvenience. You could arrange matters so that the subscriber had to ring the computer to ask for service and then hang the phone up. The computer would then ring back, but only if the call was from an authorised user. It couldn't ring any number that hadn't been pre-planned.'

'Ah! That's more like it.' Geoff sounded relieved. 'I suppose this technique is used for computers with secret files as a matter of course.'

'I don't think so.' Simon's smile was wry. 'Not many people think that deeply about it. They rely on ordinary security methods.'

'Which often don't work. Well, at least there's a possible solution. Now, here's another point. You said something about editing your own entry. Can you change the stored files?'

'Oh, yes.' Simon was casual again. 'No difficulty about that. There was an option in the mode select list. I'd have to explore it before I knew exactly how it works, but I think it was a prefix you keyed in before selecting the mode. We'll try it sometime.'

'Not yet. I want those records intact. Does this mean that the Colonel could tamper with records in other computers?'

'I doubt it. Most of them simply hold reference files, which are updated directly on local peripherals. That means that fresh data can be read in by, say, punched cards, and the remote terminals can only look at the result. In time-shared systems, of course, each subscriber has his own working area to play with...'

'That's quite enough of that. I don't understand a single thing. I'll have to accept your overall opinion.'

Geoff seemed satisfied, but Robin was not. 'The whole thing seems damnable to me. I feel as if the Recording Angel has given me a going-over. You know all about me, now. You know that the Colonel sees me as a possible recruit, and you know why.'

'Nuts.' Sensing the trend of Robin's thoughts, Pat spoke forcefully and inelegantly. 'You might get a few shocks if you knew as much about my history, and I'm sure some of Jimmy's dark deeds weren't spelt out. In any case, we've committed worse crimes than that between us since we all started working together.'

She broke off, realising that this would have a special implication for Simon, but he remained calm, even managing a smile. 'That's very true. You know, Robin, you shouldn't consider yourself privileged. There was a time when I was regarded as suitable material for the Colonel's outfit. I might still be on the Reserve List myself, if he hasn't promoted me to one of the other lists.'

Susan had been sitting very quietly, listening to the discussion, but she now spoke softly in a way that held their attention. 'I don't see what Robin's worried about. I don't see what any of you are worried about. Maybe I'm being innocent and impractical, but I can't see that there's anything so terrible in the truth. If Robin had told us himself, we probably wouldn't have thought much about it. I doubt if Jean will, providing he tells her before she finds out some other way.

'You seem to be making a fetish of secrecy for secrecy's sake. It might be better if we knew that everything we did might become public knowledge. A few reputations might suffer for a while, until new standards established themselves, but at least we'd all know where we stood.'

'It's a nice thought.' Pat laughed, not unkindly. 'A bit Utopian, though. Everyone would be scared to sneeze, in case they were labelled for life as a source of infection. We'd all be pulled down to harmless and boring mediocrity. I think you're right about Robin, though. Dipping your fingers in the petty cash is silly, but there are much worse things. He's upset because the image he's tried to create has slipped a bit. I think he's mainly annoyed with himself.'

Robin looked at her with an odd expression, reproachful but smiling. 'You're probably right. You usually are. It was a shock to see it dragged out into the open. I'd just about managed to forget it ever happened. I'll tell Jean about it. Not because she might find out, but because what Susan said is very true. Every time you create a secret, you create a risk. You never know, she might tell me something in return, then we'd both be happier.'

Deciding that he had achieved his immediate objectives, Geoff stood up and said he must be going. 'I think I'll be able to get back to normal working soon, thanks to Jimmy's surprise packet, but that doesn't mean you won't be needed any more. I'll let you know if and when you can consider yourselves to be lawful citizens again.'

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002