Tony's office was a mess. The large desk was littered with mugs of coffee, sandwiches and soft-drink cans in various stages of decomposition. Books, scraps of paper and computer disks buried a printer but the computer itself was relatively free of litter. Sat in front of it was an overweight, unshaven man, deep in concentration. He had been in more or less the same place for several days, stopping for sleep for perhaps an hour or two at a time.
Tony considered himself the Robin Hood of the information era. He made his living hacking into computer databases belonging to large businesses, banks and governments around the world. He had a strict moral code not to interfere with the delicate workings of electronic finance (some of his colleagues illegitimately moved the equivalent of millions of dollars in electronic currency every day). Tony was a thief, but he stole information.
Tony was well known and respected in the computer underground, he was good at what he did - some said he was the best. Nobody knew what he looked like. None of the people he conversed with every day would recognise him if they met him in the street, yet the closest of his friends could recognise his keyboard style or prose in an instant. His e-mail address (email@example.com) was no help to the many authorities who wanted to find him. He could have been anywhere in the world.
The secret to Tony's success was keep your eyes and ears open. A conversation overheard in the street could be a clue to a vital password. He had many dozens of computer disks filled with information that could one day be very useful. He worked with hundreds of other hackers around the world, any one of whom might know some seemingly trivial piece of information which could be very useful to him. He also had a large repertoire of tricks and techniques which he regularly used to fool the world's computers into thinking that he was their friend.
For the last few days Tony had been pooling his resources to access some files in a computer belonging to a notorious drug baron. These files, he believed, would prove that the governments of certain countries were in league with the drug barons. The publication of these files on the internet would be very embarrassing to these governments, and he believed that there would be great financial advantage in not doing so. Whether he was going to publish or not depended on the stakes, and he had not yet made a decision.
Right now Tony was at a dead end. The computer he was trying to access had a secure password. A usual technique would be to compile a dossier of the owner of the password, in order to try and guess it. He had discovered a great deal, but none of this information gave him any clue as to what the password might be. Another technique he often used was to contact the programmers who designed the security system of the computer. A little blackmail could persuade them to reveal the "back door" that they used to access the computer if it failed or the password was forgotten.
He had discovered that one of the programmers had left the team and become involved in research into the Earth's core and magnetic field. On a hunch, he chased up the lead and managed to gain access to the computer belonging to this ex-programmer. The first thing he noticed was that most of the files on the computer were somewhat out of date. The computer had not been used much since it's owner had made her career move. No vital information was kept on the computer. There was a lot of data on magnetic flux curves, self-induction in liquid ferrous substances and various technical and statistical information which was meaningless to him. He discreetly encrypted the files and sent them to a trusted scientist friend, Ronnie Bradford, who he thought might be able to make sense of them.
Tony did a search for financial records on the computer, but found nothing. This was very unusual. Since the turn of the century, cash was virtually non-existent in the western world. Almost anything bought was paid for with a "smartcard" which automatically debited the user's bank account. They were pretty secure - the multiple levels of encryption including fingerprint and retina recognition meant that the technology needed to break into the system was more expensive than the maximum amount of money the card was usually authorised to transfer. Increasingly many purchases were being made over completely digital electronic networks, which meant that the computer inevitably became the universal automatic accounting system.
The fact that the programmer, Jessica Orford, had made no electronic fund transfers over the last five years was very surprising to Tony. She had an unusually small amount of money in her bank account, he discovered, and had used her smart card for only the smallest purchases. He concluded that she must use real, old-fashioned cash for nearly all of her shopping, a practice almost unheard of in recent times.
He looked up her address, and discovered, to his surprise, that she, like he, lived in New York, in fact just a short maglev journey from his own flat. He e-mailed several shop owners in the district, to discover how many of their customers regularly used cash. The figures ranged from none to several dozen, just a fraction of a percentage of total retail.
The puzzle was deepening, and Tony continued to pursue it despite its apparent irrelevance to the task he had started on. Tony sat back and considered the possibilities:
1) Miss Orford was an eccentric, who simply preferred to use cash.
2) Miss Orford was scared of computers (unlikely, since she had once been a programmer).
3) Miss Orford's bank account had been infiltrated, and could not be used.
4) Miss Orford had a very large supply of tinned food.
Option 3 made no sense: why did she not simply open a new, more secure account? Option 1 seemed the most likely possibility.
Tony sent an e-mail message to Jessica's computer using his alternative e-mail address which he kept for legitimate business:
Re: Smartcard survey
As part of our customer opinion programme, we are conducting research as to how
to improve our smartcard system. You have been selected to take part in this
survey. Please complete this short questionnaire at your earliest possible
convenience and return it via e-mail. You will be reimbursed for the cost of
A) Do you use your smartcard for all your financial transactions?
B) How often do you use your smartcard?
Several times a day
Several times a week
Less than once a week
C) What is your limit on single transaction
Less than $100
Less than $200
Less than $500
Greater than $500
D) Are you happy with your smartcard?
E) If not, suggest how it could be improved
Thank you for taking the time to complete this questionnaire. If you have any
further enquiries about the system, please contact us at:
Tony clicked the mouse pointer on the "send" button, switched off the computer and looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight, so he set about clearing up the mess around his working area. He collected together the notes he had made, put them in a file and placed this in the top drawer of his filing cabinet. Most of his colleagues would have arrogantly kept them on computer, but Tony, being more aware than most of the vulnerability of computer systems, kept his most confidential files in the relative safety of a locked filing cabinet.
He grabbed a plastic bin bag from the next room and swept a large pile of rubbish from the desk into it. He moved the various mugs to the sink, where he emptied them and ran the hot water to wash them up. The room was beginning to look tidy again. He sprayed some air freshener around and went to run a bath.
* * *
After a hot bath, a good night's sleep and a shave, Tony looked and felt far more human. He left the flat and replenished the refrigerator the old-fashioned way. Electronic shopping was very convenient, but he knew that if he submitted to that particular luxury he might never see the light of day again, besides, he liked peering through shop windows, loved the smell of the bakery and found that whatever problem he was puzzling over often solved itself given enough open space.
* * *
Tony returned to his computer to discover half a dozen messages. Two were junk mail, the others were either requests for some obscure piece of information or the replies to earlier requests for more information. There was no message from Jessica Orford. Answering the e-mail took less than an hour, and when he had finished he still hadn't had a message from Jessica. He decided that she probably didn't use her computer more often than once a week, and impatiently decided to call her.
He had noticed that she had a videophone connection, and decided to take advantage of it. His videophone, unlike most, was computer based, and had a message recording facility. He had various recordings which he hadn't bothered to delete, and one of these was perfect for what he wanted to do. He played the short recording to himself. A man in a suit appeared, said "Oh, sorry. Wrong number," and hung up. He set up the computer to send this down through the videophone link when the line became active, and dialled the number, making sure to switch on the recording facility. It rang only once, and a bespectacled face appeared in a window on Tony's monitor. Jessica's hair was red, shoulder length and frizzy, and she was wearing a nondescript navy blue sweatshirt.
In the background was some kind of machine - basically cylindrical but with what appeared to be some sort of engine at one end. Tony's first guess was that it was some sort of geophysical monitoring apparatus, but he quickly realised that it looked more like an electrical generator, probably running on fossil fuels. Why would a scientist want or need that? Why would anyone? In New York in the year 2010 power failures were unheard of.
Tony ran the recording through an image enhancement program and took a good look at the generator, for that's certainly what it seemed to be. Unexpectedly, the computer gave out a beep and a message appeared on the screen, making Tony jump. Someone was sending him a message. He clicked the button to confirm he wanted to read it. It was cryptically short:
Have come to startling conclusion based on data you sent me.
Little time. Get in contact ASAP.
Ron's videophone was switched off, so the conversation was audio only.
"Ron, Tony. What's up?"
"Is this line secure?"
"1000 bit RSA. No government in the world could possibly be listening."
"OK. That data is about flux variations in the earth's magnetic field."
"Yea, go slow, I don't know anything about that."
"Okay, you've got your magnetic north pole and your magnetic south pole at opposite ends of the earth."
"And they aren't quite at the same place as the real north pole and the real south pole."
"The magnetic poles don't stay in the same place - they wobble about."
"I never knew that."
"They're moving about all over the place. It has been suggested that every couple of million years they flip around completely. North becomes south and south becomes north. That hasn't happened in the time the human race has existed, though."
"So what are you saying - that it's going to do one of these somersaults pretty soon?"
"Possibly within the next few days. The worst bit is yet to come. It was always thought that it took thousands of years to change, but if this data is correct it could happen in just a few hours. The fluctuation patterns are getting wilder by the day. I've got a couple of students taking some measurements right now."
"So what's all the hoohah? And why isn't this public knowledge?"
"You know what happens to electrons in a moving magnetic field?"
"They get pulled along with the field. If the poles were to flip, we would see some pretty spectacular thunderstorms."
"I still don't get it."
"According to my calculations, up to several amps of current could be induced in every wire in the world. That much current would fry every piece of electronic equipment you can think of. Every silicon chip would be useless, every computer down, every disk wiped." There was a long pause before Tony answered.
"Ha! Very funny, Ronnie, very funny. Not."
"I am deadly serious. This has got to be made public. And, if you don't mind me asking, where did you get this data?"
"A friend of mine works in the field. She may not know what she's found."
"She knows all right. Contact her, and then release this. Draw as much attention to it as possible. Get people to back up their computer files to paper or optical disk. Magnetic disks will all be wiped. And get yourself a generator. When the poles flip all the power will be out." A generator. Of course, that's why she had a generator.
"Can't we shield against magnetic fields?"
"In theory, you could, but have you got a box with half mile thick steel sides?"
"I see. You realise this could have serious consequences for my business?"
"Tony, this is going to have serious consequences for everybody, especially if all their money is in cyberspace." As the consequences of the discovery were realised, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together.
"How long have we got?"
"Since I've never seen any phenomena like this before, I have no way of knowing. It could be tomorrow, it could be a thousand years."
* * *
The magnetic levitation train was one of the triumphs of twentieth-century engineering. It maintained no physical contact with its rail, it was held up and driven along by the force of magnetism. As a result, it was very efficient, having no need to battle the forces of friction, apart from that of the atmosphere. It was also quiet, having no moving parts except for the doors. A maglev train passing sounded much like a breath of wind, ideal for inner-city transport. Maglev trains were also very fast. However, this particular one seemed to be going far too slowly for Tony's liking...
Eventually it reached it's destination, and Tony disembarked and ran as fast as he could to the apartment of Jessica Orford. He rang the bell, and waited. She had to be in. She was in just half an hour before... The door opened a crack, a security chain prevented it from opening further.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Tony could just see the face he had seen on the videophone earlier.
"I'm a friend," he panted. "What do you know about magnetic flux fluctuations?"
"I'm probably the world's foremost expert in magnetic flux fluctuations. What do you want to know?"
"I've heard rumours about some kind of impending event."
The door closed, the security bolt was removed and the door opened just enough for Tony to squeeze through, then it was shut tightly again.
"All right, tell me what you know, and how you know it."
"I'm not an expert in the field, but a friend of mine has told me about the possibility of the magnetic poles of the earth switching over with possibly devastating consequences."
"Really? I thought I was the only one working in the field. Who's your friend?"
"Ron Bradford at MIT."
"I've never heard of him. Coffee?"
"I need to know what you know about the event - how soon it might happen, and what the consequences will be. Black, thanks."
"Look, I don't even know your name."
"What's your interest in this anyway?"
"If I'm correct, this has serious consequences for pretty much everyone. I think I have the right to know the truth."
"Well, I guess you'd better sit down, Tony Adams. This is a bit of a long story."
Jessica disclosed how she had been doing research into the earth's magnetic field at university, while working part time for a computer security firm. During this time she had made the discovery that the fluctuations in magnetic pole position were getting increasingly intense, and had left her programming job to continue research on this.
She had discovered that, although the poles normally took many thousands of years to change position, since the turn of the century the speed and unpredictability of the movement had become exponentially larger. It was Jessica's theory that the proliferation of magnetic levitation trains had been the principal cause of this, the large amounts of magnetic flux leaking from the unshielded rails having leaked right through the earth and affected the core.
"But why didn't you tell anybody?" asked Tony.
"Like I said, I couldn't be sure it was true," replied Jessica.
"Sure enough to move all your money out of the bank, and set up that generator over there?"
"I didn't think anybody would believe me without further evidence. I could be condemned as a crank, and besides it's always wise to take out insurance against such things."
"Ronnie said your data checks out."
"Okay, maybe I should have released it. Maybe I thought I might have some kind of advantage over everyone else if I have a bit of extra time to prepare before the chaos."
"How soon is this going to happen?"
"I don't have enough data to say with any confidence, but according to my calculations it could be as soon as next week."
"When were you going to tell somebody?"
"Well, I was doing the final calculations right before you arrived. I should have finished those by tomorrow, and then I'll make a statement to the press."
"Tomorrow could be too late. Can you make it any faster?"
"Not by myself, I can't."
"Would a team of research students come in handy?"
"They're ready and waiting." Tony picked up Jessica's videophone and dialled Ronnie's number.
* * *
An hour later the calculations and measurements were nearing completion. Tony was busying himself with Jessica's computer. He had deleted the unread e-mail message he had sent, and was putting the machine through its paces with a game.
"Tony, we've finished," said Jessica.
"What's the story?" replied Tony.
"It's worse than I'd thought. There's an 80% probability of pole-switch within the next two days."
"Okay, collect the evidence together, I'll write a message to tell everyone what's going on."
"How are you going to get anyone to believe you?"
"These figures you've got should mean something to someone. Also, I'm well known and respected on the net. A message that's come from me is bound to carry some weight."
Within minutes, the message was read by thousands around the world. Within hours, it made the headlines of on-line news and newspapers around the world, and was the only story on television and radio news. The world panicked. Billions of dollars in cash was withdrawn from bank accounts in every country, forcing many banks to close their doors. Chaos reigned. All the stock markets collapsed, the suicide rate soared and normal life ground to a halt. No-one knew who was in control: no-one was.
* * *
Twenty-four hours later, Tony was busy rigging up a surge-proof radio transmitter from parts salvaged from an old television set, and instructions pulled from the net. He hadn't slept for more than a day, and neither had Jessica, who had given countless videophone interviews and was now answering questions via e-mail.
Suddenly, several things happened at once. The mariner's compass which Jessica kept on a shelf in her computer room started spinning violently, and fell off the shelf. Tony yelled as he received a violent electic shock from the radio he was working on. The computer in front of Jessica began to emit smoke and the videophone blinked into lifelessness. A second later, the lights went out. It was a moment before either of them realised that it had happened. The end of the first age of computers had arrived.
The hemisphere of the earth not illuminated by the sun was plunged into darkness and into silence. It would take many years of hard work to restore the level of technology to what it had been before, and many decades to sort out the chaos caused by the incident. A single voice, riding a radio wave, resounded through the darkness, that of Tony Adams. The voice said not to panic, that everything was going to be okay, and that life was going to be a little different from now on.