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Wolf Tracks


By Carl Bussjaeger

The author deadpans, "I'm afraid I don't much trust bureaucrats." Amen. I thought "Postage Due," which I found on Carl's Web site, was a perfect fictionalization of government mindset -- and a neat portrayal of a freedom-loving response. Fun story, besides. Thanks, Carl, for letting us post it here.

Joe MacPherson glanced out the living room window and saw the mail truck pull away from his box. He pushed his keyboard away and went out to check his mail.

Out at the curb, he open the battered metal box and removed the day's delivery. He shuffled through it, categorizing. Junk mail, junk mail, magazine, bill, bill, publisher response...

"Postal Service?" he asked himself as he eyed the last item. He shrugged and walked back inside.

Back at his desk, he quickly reviewed the junk mail, decided none was worth keeping, and threw it away. The magazine he tossed onto a growing stack by the sofa. He ripped open the to bills and read the statements. They seemed to be more or less correct, so he opened his check book and wrote out checks for the appropriate amounts. He stuffed and stamped the return envelopes.

Post Office- whatta we got? he thought, as he open the remaining item. He pulled out the enclosed letter and began reading.

"What in the bloody...!" he exclaimed.

Dear Postal Customer:

The United States Postal Service is chartered by the federal government as the sole carrier of routine correspondence within the United States.

This position has been uniformly upheld by the Courts, ruling that private carriers may not offer general correspondence service.

Accordingly, we at the USPS have recognized our responsibility for all such correspondence carried by various providers utilizing the Internet. We have determined that it is within the scope of our charter to regulate messaging via electronic mail; the Postal Service has primary authority over correspondence, regardless of the medium, whether paper or electronic.

Therefore, we have reviewed your electronic postal usage for the past year and have billed you accordingly for the postage due.

WASHINGTON DC 20260-2200

"This has got to be some kind of freaking joke." He looked at the second enclosed sheet. It appeared that he was being billed the current First Class rate of thirty four cents for "Six hundred eight letters?" he shouted. Total: $206.72. Please remit payment immediately at your servicing post office, no personal checks.


"Uh oh," Joe said to himself, as he pulled into the Post Office parking lot. He pulled into the first slot he found, realizing that parking was at a premium- there was a line of people stretched out the Post Office doors, and down the sidewalk.

Joe joined the growing queue. Dreading the answer, he asked the person ahead of him, "Umm, you here about the e-mail bill, too?"

The angry woman, turned back towards him, and replied, "We're ALL here for this bull! Can you believe this garbage?"

"I was hoping it was some kind of practical joke; but looks like everybody's been hit," Joe observed. "How can they get away with this?"

The steaming woman answered, "They won't, if I have anything to say about it."

Slowly the line advanced. More irate computer users fell in behind Joe. A bearded gent immediately behind him asked, "How much are these highway men dunning you for?"

Joe glanced at the crumpled bill in his hand and said, "over two hundred dollars." He snorted.

"You're lucky," responded the depressed inquirer. "They're hitting me up for more than a grand."

Joe's eyebrows lifted. "You must spend a lot of time on line," he observed.

The man just gave a sheepish look.

Eventually Joe reached the service counter, where he faced a smug clerk.

"May I help you?" the clerk inquired brightly.

"Yeah; you can tell me what this excrement is," Joe answered angrily, holding the bill up in the clerk's face.

The clerk removed the paper from his hand, and glanced at the total. "That will be two hundred-six dollars and seventy two cents. Will you be paying cash, certified check, or money order?"

"I'm not going to be paying at all!" Joe shouted. "Where do you get off billing me for e-mail?"

"Sir, as your bill explained, all correspondence delivery falls within the purview of the U.S. Postal Service. As have so many, you have been utilizing this service without paying. We are rectifying this error. Postage is due."

"The heck I haven't been paying!" Joe replied. "My ISP bills me eighteen dollars every month."

"No, sir," the clerk corrected primly. "That is merely a private contract to obtain a virtual mail box. You must still pay for the actual delivery of correspondence."

Joe put his hands on the countertop and considered diving over the divider. It must have shown in his eyes, because the clerk stepped back in alarm. "Sir, please calm yourself, or I'll have you removed from the building."

Joe steeled himself and muttered, "Remove this, you little..." He stopped, then started over, "You never made any delivery. My ISP did. And I paid them."

"Sir, your service provider only provided the mail box. Legally, only the Postal Service may deliver mail; so we have charitably adopted this virtual mailbox doctrine in order to protect the Service Providers from charges of illegal mail delivery." He smiled. "We believe this quite generous. But you must pay postage."

"Two hundred dollars...?" Joe paused, and a thought that had been niggling away at his subconscious worked its way out. "Say, where did you get that count on e-mails, anyway?" he demanded.

"Frankly," admitted the clerk, "it's an estimate; based upon your actual usage during the eight day monitoring period."

Astounded, Joe asked, "You had my ISP monitor me for eight days?"

"Certainly not, Sir," the clerk said immediately. "For a private organization to monitor your communications and pass that on to a third party would be a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act."

"Then how did you.."

"We tapped your phone."

"WHAT!?" burst from Joe.

"Please, Sir. Don't raise your voice," the clerk admonished. "It was all quite properly done."

Shocked, Joe asked, "You found a judge to sign court orders for..." He gestured in the general direction the line behind him. There were still at least two hundred people waiting. "...all of us?"

The clerk feigned puzzlement and answered, "Why, no. Pursuant to the provisions of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Postmaster General authorized it himself." He grinned evilly and added, "Quite a useful Act; we've found it to be a valuable tool."

Joe's eyes bulged. "You... can... you..y-y.." he stuttered.

"Now, Sir; if you'll make your payment, or step away from the counter so I can help someone else..."

"You little son of a... You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"There's no law that says you can't enjoy your work," the clerk smugly replied. "This is even my better than my last job."

"Last job... ?"

"I transferred from the IRS," he answered. "I used to be an auditor; but when I heard about this, I knew it would ever so much more fun."

Not that the Internal Revenue Service got left out of the excitement. Following a precedent established when the IRS began collecting child support debts, the Postal Service also turned to the taxmen for delinquent payments.

And lawmakers who had worried themselves over the unrestrained growth of the Internet breathed a collective sigh of relief when the sudden increase in cost brought system expansion to a screeching halt.

For a while, users relieved part of the financial burden by exchanging letters via File Transfer Protocol rather than e-mail. This little victory was short-lived; almost immediately a Federal district court in Memphis ruled that such transfers constituted parcel delivery- files billable on a per megabyte basis. Other options sprang up.

Two men in a small home office, examining a display on a computer screen. The tall man peered over the shoulder of the other seated at the desk.

The sitting man spoke, "I'm telling you Mike, it's easy money." He looked up in appeal. "It can't miss."

"Chuck, you're nuts," the other responded. "You're talkin' about delivering e-mail. You know what they'll do to you?"

"They've got to prove it first," Chuck said. "How're they to know?"

"What? You think bulletin boards are something new? Like the Mailmen never heard of them?"

"`Course not. But I'm throwing in a few new angles. I'm not just running my own solo board. I'm part of a network."

"Networks are nothing new, Chuckie," Mike challenged.

"Just listen, first; okay? Look at this." Chuck grabbed a notepad and started sketching. He started with a small box to one side surrounded by smaller boxes. "Here's me, the host BBS, and my customers. They're gonna run my proprietary server terminal software. We'll look like a conventional chat board, with downloads for stuff like movie reviews, TV schedules, weather reports. You know, anything the feddies don't call mail yet."

Mike nodded, dubious. "Sure, but how does this get e-mail through?"

"Easy. Remember when the big online services started going to proprietary comm protocols?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, I'm doing it,too," Chuck answered. "`Cept, my protocol isn't going to waste the overhead bits just on error correction."

"Huh?" Mike looked blank.

"Those old protocols were sort of like ordinary file transfer modes like Zmodem; they used CRC tests to make sure data didn't get corrupted. But instead of one way file sends, they worked in real time duplex. Mine does the same."

"Great, Chuck," Mike asked, "but how does that help?"

"Well, say you send a thousand twenty four byte block. Out of that k, it looks like 48 are are overhead for doing checksums."

"Got it. So?"

"So really, the system is already running compressed. Of the kilobyte, only 500 are the realtime data flow." Chuck grinned. "The rest is compressed mail packets. I'm using a variation on the old QWK format."

"You're kidding. You know when the feds get your BBS license request, their gonna be monitoring you forever... How you plan to hide the data?"

"Encryption, of course. They can't bust me for mail delivery if they can't see mail." He spun his chair to the side, and stretched out his legs. "So what happens, is the client writes his letters, QWK packages them, encrypts `em, and sends them to me as overhead. `Course, all that's automatic in the client software." He jerked his thumb at the computer. "The BBS gets the packet, decrypts it, opens the QWK packet, and routes the mail. Mail goes out to the clients the same way, hidden."

Mike shook his head, still doubtful. "Might work. But what's the draw? Why's anybody going to go to so much trouble and risk jail, just for local mail?"

"`Cause it ain't just local. Network, remember?" Chuck waggled his finger at Mike, who nodded. Chuck went on, "I'll have a licensed Internet connection. I'll use the same camouflage system to up and download mail packets from other local nodes. It's an old anonymous remailer, more or less."

"It still isn't going to work- How are you going to hide enough mail traffic to make any money?"

"Well, no pun intended, much anyway, but I'll be using the purloined letter." Chuck flashed a confident grin.


"Nobody's gonna believe I'm licensing an Internet connect just for movie reviews and weather reports. So I'll carry mail. All legal and above board. Standard rates, no less."

"Then what's the point in the stealth packets?" wondered a confused Mike.

"`Cause some people don't want their mail read by the the Mailmen. And they're willing to pay for the privilege."

"You're going to provide secure communications for criminals? Are you nuts?"

"Yep," Chuck replied. "But that's beside the point." He reached over to his keyboard and tapped at a key. The screen blanked. "The real point... points rather, are privacy, rights, and financing.

Nervously, mike said, "I don't think I follow you..."

"Okay, by the numbers... Privacy. The NSA and FBI ban on private encryption is bull. Fightin' crime, my rear end; it's all about being able to know what people are thinking. So they can make sure we don't think nasty little unapproved anti-feddie thoughts. Second, rights. We have a right to talk to whoever we want, how we want. Without paying Uncle Sugar for the privilege, or asking his permission. The Internet, the WAN's, LAN's; they were working fine without the Mailmen... so why are we paying them for an infrastructure we built." He paused for breath. "Finally, financin'. " He grinned an evil grin. "Anymore, if we want the first two, we're gonna need cash for the fight."

Mike's eyes got a bit bigger. "Now I don't think I wanna follow you..."

"That's right. Up the revolution, baby."

"Oh, jeez..."

The Sysop sat in his darkened bedroom and watched his computer screen. Clients were using his BBS's secure chat mode.

DRIFTER: It's crazy. They have the IRS beat. With the Revenuers, you just work off the books. But you can only do just so much mail on the black channels. And commercial outfits _have_ to use the USMail.

ASMODEUS: Yeah, and that's the worst part. Every time we send regular mail, the Post Office makes more money. Which they turn around and use to make more rules. We can't win.

DRIFTER: I heard they're going to follow some other countrys lead and nationalize the phone companies, too. Like the German PTT.

ASMODEUS: They might as well. The Wiretap law already gave virtual control anyway.

The Sysop considered, and tapped a key.

S: You give up too easily.

ASMODEUS: Hi. How so?

S: Consider. You say that every transaction you complete with the Mailmen contributes to their coffers. Yes?

DRIFTER: Yeah. So?

S: So make it not so. Why is it so profitable for the PO to handle large volumes of mail?

DRIFTER: Automation. Ah. I see.

S: Yes. I suggest we start with just one item at a time. First, start addressing all mail in cursive handwriting... the sloppier, the better.

ASMODEUS: They'll just change the rules. Require typing, or something.

S: True. But they are bureaucrats. By the time they get the revisions through, we'll already have the system clogged with manually processed mail.

The Postmaster was most unhappy. "Harry, revenues are down fifty percent. Despite a twenty percent INCREASE IN TRAFFIC!" he raged at his director. "What's going on?"

The meek little director flinched at the Postmaster's tone. "Well, sir," he replied, "it's the manual processing. It's killing us."

"Why are we still manually processing?" the Postmaster asked angrily. "We've banned handwritten addresses."

"Yes, sir. But..."

"And we put a stop to ZIP code omissions."

"Yes, sir."

"Then what's the problem, Harry?!"

"Umm... Typos, sir." the director answered hesitantly.


"Uh huh. Transposed ZIP code digits. Columbus OH, instead of GA. Southeast roads for southwest roads."

"We're being run out of business by typos?" the Postmaster said in disbelief.

"Yes, sir. And it's worse than it looks. Every time a new problem pops up, it does it everywhere at once. On Tuesday, we got deluged with thirty four million postcards mistakenly addressed to Four Seventy Five L'enfant Southwest."

"That's our address!"

"Yes, sir."

The Postmaster considered. "Okay, from now on, misaddressed mail goes to Dead Letter immediately. Don't attempt redelivery. We can trash the darn mail and still collect the postage."

"Very well, sir." The director paused, grimaced, then continued. "What about the stamps?" he asked.

Confused, the Postmaster said, "What about `em?"

"Nobody is buying the full rate stamps. All they use are the one centers." He held up his hands in hopeless resignation. "It's killing us. Did you realize that fifty stamps on an envelope actually boost the weight into another rate bracket? But we can't charge for it? And all the stamps obscure the addresses."

"Well, damn it! Stop selling the one cents!"

"We already did; we ran out. But still no one buys the thirty eight cents. They make us meter them at the counter. The overtime is incredible."

"Then we won't pay overtime! The military doesn't. We'll draft everyone." the Postmaster added brightly.

The director squirmed nervously. "Weeelll... that's another problem."

The Postmaster stared sternly.

"We experimented with that in Kansas," the director continued. The next day, only one employee showed up for work."


"And he only stayed long enough to shoot his supervisor."

Of course, there were less principled postal employees who found they had a taste for the work. Mail Carriers took to wearing flack jackets and helmets. And steel-toe boots.

BAM! BAM! BAM! came the pounding at the door. Shocked and startled, the grandmotherly old lady looked up from the cookie dough she was rolling out on the counter top.

CRASH! The door flew open spraying splinters. The grandmother screamed.

A uniformed Mailman toting a shoulder bag and truncheon stormed in. Club at the ready, he peered around the kitchen. He spied the baker, and closed on her.

"Anabelle Godfrey?" he inquired loudly.

"Y-y-yes..." the frightened woman replied in a quavering voice.

"What the heck are you trying to pull, lady?!" the stormtrooper raged.

"I-I don't understand..."

The Carrier reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a large envelope; he threw it on the counter top. Mrs. Godfrey cringed and jumped back.

"This, lady!" He pointed to the parcel. "Where's your postage?"

The old woman's face went white. "I'm s-sorry... I must... I must have forgotten."

"No, lady. You don't forget to pay postage. Don't you know mail fraud is a felony?"

"But I didn't mean... I have the stamps... they're in my purse, there. I'll get them." She wiped her hands on her apron, and stepped forward.

"I'll get `em myself," he corrected. He grabbed the indicated purse and rummaged through it. He found a wad of stamps and shoved them into his shoulder bag. Then he opened her wallet and pulled out the bills within.

"My money!" the woman wailed.

The Mailman sneered. "It's a fine." He stuffed the bills into a pocket. He turned and headed back towards the shattered doorframe.

"Please... Sir," the old lady called. The Carrier looked back. She held up the oversized envelope, hands shaking nervously. "My mail?" she asked.

The bureaucrat snatched the parcel and left. From in her kitchen, the woman heard his truck door slide shut; the engine started. She waited. The truck moved down the street. The sound faded in the distance.

BOOOM! Glasses rattled on the shelves.

Mrs. Godfrey smiled. "Postage paid, scumbag," she muttered. She took off her apron, and gathered up the scattered contents of her purse. She found her keys, and went out the smashed door to her car. Best not to be around when the Inspectors showed up.

"The recent wave of terrorism is having another dramatic effect on mail service," announced the voice from the radio. The hobbyist looked up from his prototype on the bench.

"With several Carriers and Handlers killed and wounded in mail bomb blasts, the Postal Service has announced a moratorium on the processing of physical mail. This includes home delivery and pickup, as well as traditional post office service. Until further notice, only electronic correspondence will be processed..."

The experimenter reached over and turned off the radio. He grinned. The hackers were going to love this.

The stereotypical band of of unwashed revolutionaries they weren't. While Greg Hennessey checked himself over in the mirror, his secretary finished her phone call.

"...And thank you for your time. Mr. Hennessey will be there promptly at ten." She carefully placed the handset back in the cradle. Then she stuck out her tongue and gave the instrument a raspberry.

"Now, now, Jennie," the man playfully chided. "is that any way for a nice executive assistant to behave?"

"When dealing with Mailmen, yes," the pert blonde replied. She looked him over. "Very nice. You wear a suit more often; it suits you." She grinned.

"Danke, I think." He straightened his tie a final time then twisted about, searching for his briefcase."

Accustomed to his absent-minded ways, Jennie pointed down by his feet. He looked. "Oops."

"I hope you'll do better in the meeting. We do want the Post Office to buy our software," she said, mock reprovingly.

"That would be nice. Money is good. But I'll settle for running my demo on one of their computers just once." He reached down to the briefcase and opened it. Peering in he verified, "Notebook, CD, floppy, the doc's, rate schedule... Looks like I got it all. I'm outa here. See you after lunch." He headed for the door.

"Hold it, buster." Jennie intercepted him by the door. She reached up and pulled his head down closer to her own and gave him a quick kiss. "You be careful with those thugs. The Postal Inspectors are dangerous. If they catch on..."

"Don't worry," he protested. "I'll be fine. What can go wrong? It isn't as if there's any viruses on the disks." They both grinned. He leaned over and gave her a fast peck on the cheek. Then he left.

Alone, Jennie unplugged the phone and put it in a waiting box. It already held the few files and wall hangings they had used as props. She gave the office a last, thorough inspection for evidence. Finding non, she lifted the box and carried it the door. She killed the lights and closed the door behind her as she left.

At the Post Office, Hennessey waited. As expected, even though he had arrived seven minutes early the Inspector kept him waiting. He killed time by striking up a conversation with the other gentleman waiting in the outer office.

"Hi, Greg Hennessey," he introduced himself. "Software. Database applications." He noted the laptop the other carried. "You in computers, too?"

The man looked at him, then, "Collin Pedersen." He held out a hand and they shook. "Yes, I am. Antivirus work."

"Really? Anything new in the field? Professional interest, of course."

Pedersen nodded slightly. "A bit. I've some enhanced detection routines. Gives more reliable detection of the polymorphic virii the terrorists have been using. Runs a bit faster, as well." He offered Greg a business card. "Look me up. We have some add-on modules for macro psuedo-virii that get embedded in some spreadsheets."

"Thanks. We try to be careful of our own stuff, naturally. But we have considered incorporating some detection; for some of our less diligent clients." Both businessmen smiled. Greg offered Pedersen his own card, which was graciously accepted.

"Mr. Hennessey," the receptionist called, "The Inspector will See you now." You could hear the capitals.

Greg excused himself and entered the Inspector's inner sanctum.

A typical midlevel bureaucrat's office. The walls were half-panelled with with cheap woodgrain vinyl-on-fiberboard. The upper half of the walls were painted a clashing blue pastel. The only furnishings were a too-large desk with executive's chair, a straight-back wooden visitor's chair, and an American flag in one corner. On the wall behind the seated Inspector was the newer version of the USPS logo; the same old stylized eagle, but executed in severe black and silver.

"Good day, Mr. Hennessey," the Inspector said. "Sit down. I am Major Vadala, of the Postal Inspectors."

Greg stepped forward and offered his hand, saying, "Good morning, Major. Glad to..." The Inspector merely looked at him poker-faced. Greg sat.

"Let's not waste time, Mr. Hennessey," the grim visaged Major said. "I've reviewed your literature. The product is interesting enough to a warrant this meeting, I'll admit. But you must convince me that it is worth the expense of upgrading." He stared at Greg. "What ,makes your text searcher such an improvement over our own?"

Greg open his briefcase and removed a floppy, speaking as he did so. "Major, you've read the basic documents, so you've seen my claims- I can give you an expanded database of keywords, and a hundred fifty percent increase in search speed; at the same time."He handed the disk to Vadala. "This will allow you to increase the percentage of e-mails reviewed for criminal indicators. Alternatively, you may opt for a greatly expanded database, and perform more comprehensive reviews of approximately the same number of posts."

"Thus, increasing the number of false hits my inspectors must personally review," Vadala interjected.

"Quite the contrary, Sir," Greg corrected politely. "It wasn't in the initial package because we were still polishing the code; but we've added another feature. A very elegant contextual search mode."

"Context?" Vadala inquired.

"Yes, Sir," Greg replied. "Where your more conventional text searcher will key on the word 'killer', for instance, ours may not. We can automatically examine the the surrounding text to determine if a hit is warranted. 'The killer shot the clerk' will generate a hit, and flag the letter for human attention. But 'I went to a killer concert last night' will not." Greg gave a small proud smile.

"Very nice, indeed," Vadala admitted. "And you still maintain search speed in this mode?"

"We had to make some trade offs. Contextual searches don't operate with the external user configurable database. To keep runtime reasonable, we had to hardcode the process. But I think you'll find that we've included a satisfactory range of keys and contexts."

"I like the sound of this," Vadala said. He examined the disk he held. "The demo?"

"Oh, no. The complete package; includes a small sample database. Zipped, of course. Please, try it out."

Vadala slipped the disk into a slot on his desktop computer. He pulled his keyboard closer and tapped away briefly. He looked up at Greg. "I hope you won't be offended if I run a virus scan... one can never be too careful." He eyed Greg appraisingly.

"Not at all. We run a clean house; but as you say..."


The screen flashed and displayed text. Vadala grunted approval to himself and manipulated his mouse. The PC began decompressing the data from the floppy. The screen blinked, and the computer emitted a chime.

"How do I start it, Hennessey?" asked Vadala.

"There's a bat set up already. Just call 'GO' from the program manager. It'll prompt you for the search path." Greg paused. "You can run a search on our test file; it's named DEMO dot DAT. Or you can provide your own test path and file."

Vadala gave Greg a disapproving look. "My own test, naturally." He turned his attention to the keyboard. "I assembled the test file myself; so I know exactly... Eh?" Puzzled surprise. "Done already?"

Greg smile and said, I did mention a speed increase."

Vadala frowned. "But at a sacrifice of accuracy, it seems. It's given me 51 hits. There should only be 50."

"Perhaps if you reviewed the flagged items..." Greg suggested.

"Hmmph." Vadala performed more mouse antics. "Eh? What's... Well. I'd forgotten that one." He turned back to Greg. "Congratulations, Hennessey. Quite satisfactory. It even picked out an entry that had none of our usual keywords; I believe your contextual search found that one."

Greg gave another proud smile and asked, "Then we have a deal, Major Vadala?"

"Deal, Mr Hennessey?" Vadala affected puzzlement.

"A contract for the search engine..." began Greg.

"There will be no contract." Greg started. "We are exercising eminent domain."

"You're what?" Greg demanded.

"Eminent domain, Hennessey. In the interest of national security. And cost effectiveness. But I'm sure the GAO will compensate you appropriately." Vadala rendered a smile verging on a sneer. "Is that the documentation? Please turn it over, now." He held out his hand for the ringbound pages. Greg, seemingly in shock, quietly handed the manual over to the bureaucrat.

"Good day, Hennessey. Please leave your address with my secretary on your way out."


"Good day." Firmly.

That evening, Greg and Jennie met with some friends and accomplices.

Greg was describing the morning's meeting. "If I were really trying to sell the damned package, I'd have ripped the little SOB's throat out. He nationalized the software, by god!"

Jennie slapped him lightly on the wrist. "Oh, be quiet," she admonished. "We halfway expected that. And he did the same thing to Pedersen after you left."

From the recliner across the room, the antivirus scanner salesman spoke up. "And it serves him right. I think it's pretty funny. Not only did he steal my virus scanner; but he stole the very trojan it's designed to let through." He grinned and upended his beer bottle. He swallowed and continued, "I wish I could see his face when he finally catches on in a few months."

"If he catches on," put in the third man. "The Mailmen don't have a particularly good record for figuring out these scams."

From Greg, "No joke, Tom. Those clowns still think polymorphic viruses are state of the art." He took a sip from his own bottle. "I imagine none of `em have even heard of a binary virus." He grinned.

Tom asked, "How long do you think it'll take to kick in?"

"Hmm." Pedersen considered. "Hard to say. Depends on a bit of random chance. We've got the virus-proper scattered across ten different e-mail posts" Noting Tom's raised eyebrows, he added "Stegonographically encoded, of course. Nothing's going to see it but the context search engine."

Greg picked up. "Which will promptly begin assembling the pieces into the actual virus."

Pedersen again took up the torch. "Which my scanner will use to infect every Mailman system it's resident on."

Jennie raised her beer in a toast. "To stupid bureaucrats."

"Hear, hear!"

Within a week, Greg's pirated trojan had successfully recombined the virus. The likewise stolen and disseminated scanner program dutifully installed the virus on every hard drive it could reach, and lied through it's virtual teeth about what a wonderful job it was doing.

Four weeks after the initial viral infection, every affected hard drive erased itself. Panic-stricken bureaucrats restored from their backups, which were also infected. The archived virii took one look at the system clocks, and again the computers committed electronic suicide. Things did not look good for the home team.

Eventually, the Feds rebuilt their desktops from uncontaminated scratch. But the data on most of the 'subversives' was lost forever. Which had been the whole point.

Steps were taken to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.

The electronics hobbyist dialed up his authorized mailserver to check his box. His computer electronically muttered to itself for a few moments; then the screen showed:




His eyebrows shot up, and he considered possibilities. Then he called for his mail.

Dear C. W. BABIK-

Due to circumstances beyond our control, the United States Postal Service has found it necessary to discontinue noncentralized mail service. Recent criminal action has interfered with our ability to provide you with the previous fast speedy service for which we have always been noted. We regret to inform you that in the future all mail must be processed directly at your servicing Post Office.

This will be a simple process, and will have the added benefit of bringing you personalized service. Please bring your correspondence to the service window. It must be typed using OCR-A font, with 1 inch margins. After your personal clerk has reviewed your proposed letter for content and format, he will personally scan it for speedy electronic transmission. For your convenience, the original will be maintained in the Postal Service's efficient archives.

Postage due will be payable upon receipt of the communication for review.

Thank you for your cooperation.


WASHINGTON DC 20260-2207
(postage due: $.49)

Willy Babik laughed. Those poor, poor SOB's They'll never know what hit `em. The ball was in his court now. He thought about The Thing in the garage and laughed again.

Willy leaned against the garage wall and grinned as Bob eyed The Thing. His friend stood back from the contraption and considered the monstrosity.

It was six feet long, and more or less cylindrical. It appeared that Willy had welded a few lengths of railroad track together, wrapped them in a few miles of fine wire, and encased the mess in in two fifty-five gallon drum welded end to end. He said as much to Willy.

The hobbyist kept grinning, laughed, and said, "That about sums it up." He nodded general agreement.

"Okay," Bob allowed. "But what's it for? And why did you need to buy my old van for it?"

"Well... It's a magnet, more or less," Willy answered.

"A magnet? The dang thing must weigh a ton. You gotta be kidding."

"Nope. And with the capacitors, it weighs about twenty-two hundred pounds," Willy said proudly.

Bob looked seriously confused. "But still, what for?"

"I guess you could say I'm putting together a car bomb."


"Oh, not exactly," He said reassuringly. "It doesn't really explode. Think of it as a magnetic cannon, or an EMP bomb."

"I don't get it."

"Real easy. That's one of the biggest electromagnets you ever saw." He pointed to the rack of cylinders below the 'cannon'. "And those are some big freaking capacitors. Rolled `em myself. Sixty of `em. Each one's got about a hundred-fifty feet of foil spaced with plasticized tissue paper. You don't wanta know the actual capacitance... DON'T touch that!"

As Willy spoke, Bob had moved in to take closer look at the capacitor bank. He had reached our a hand to the terminals of one. At the shout, he pulled back. "What?"

Willy looked at him in disbelief. "You want to vaporize that arm?" he asked. "Those caps are charged. They'll give out a regular lightning bolt if you try to touch `em."

"Jeez, Willy; what're you up to?"

"Ain't just me," he began. "Come Tuesday, about a thousand of us around the country are going for a drive." He grinned again. "And we'll all develop engine trouble at our neighborhood Post Office."

"I don't get it," complained Bob.

"Well, I'll tell you. Since the Post Office only handles e-mail anymore; their entire operation is electronic." He paused.

"Yeah? So?"

"So my little EMP cannon is going to wreak havoc with their electronics."

"You're in the Resistance?" Bob exclaimed.

"Um, so to speak." Wily shrugged. "Mostly I just took offense at the feddies tapping my phone, reading my mail, screwing up comm across the country, and making me pay through the nose for the privilege of letting `em do it to me. " He gestured to the cannon. "This'll put some of the finishing touches on their downfall."

Bob backed up nervously. "You're nuts."

"Thank you," Willy replied. "Look, the idiots are on the way out anyway; but they're dragging the rest of the government with `em. And that's hurting everybody. If we can shut down all the PO nameservers at once, the Post Office will be paralyzed for days, at least. That'll be time enough for some rational people to settle the issue."

Bob eyed Willy, then the door. "So, why are you tellin' me all this?"

"Because I need your help loading the darned thing into the van."

"That's it?"

"Sure. What'd you think I wanted? You to storm the Post Office yourself?"

"Heck, Willy," Bob answered. "I wasn't sure what to think."

On Tuesday, Willy climbed into his new van and cranked her up. He put the vehicle into gear and pressed the accelerator. With the huge weight in back, the van moved like a barge. Willy headed out into the street and began the short trip to the Post Office.

Within a few minutes he reached the parking lot of the imposing brick structure. Willy maneuvered his sluggish vehicle to back into a slot. This left the back end angled toward the building. As Willy climbed out of the driver's seat, a Mailman walked a bomb-sniffing dog past. Willy hid his grin and walked to the building entrance. He planned to mail a letter, to justify his presence.

He waited patiently in line, only occasionally checking his watch. Finally, he reached the counter. He handed his letter to the officious clerk, who began reading.

"What's this about malt and alcohol?" the clerk asked.

"It's a recipe for brewing beer," Willy replied

"Making alcohol yourself's illegal," said the busybody.

"Not yet, it isn't," challenged Willy.

"Hmmph." The clerk scribbled down a note on a pad. "We'll see. I've your name Babik."

"Wonder..." Willy began, when a crack of thunder split the air. Sparks shot from the computers and scanners behind the counter. Willy felt heat in his teeth, and on his wrist. What the..., he thought.

Obviously, the pulse bomb had gone off. And clearly it had worked miracles. From the looks of the sparks and smoke, more than electronically stored data had been wiped. In fact... He glanced at his watch. Sure enough, deader than heck, he thought. He noticed that the metal case was warm, and realized that the magnetic field had caused some induction heating. He considered the fillings in his teeth.

Meanwhile, the clerk across the counter was looking about in disbelief. Willy grinned, pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet, and ruefully eyed his credit cards. "Here," he said to the clerk, holding out the bill. "Postage paid. I need a receipt."

Numbly, blankly the clerk complied. Willy left the service area and headed to the parking lot. Great. But what the heck was the blast?, he wondered.

But only until he saw the van. It looked, naturally enough, like a bomb had gone off in it. Clearly, under the huge current surge from the oversized capacitors, the coils ad charged, then vaporized. Explosively. Shrapnel had sprayed across the parking lot.

Willy took in the scene quickly. Fortunately, the blast had been largely contained and redirected by the metal drums enclosing the coils. While a lot of people were standing around astounded, there only appeared to have been one casualty- the bomb squad Mailman. Even the dog appeared unharmed.

"Well, I'll be darned. Who says there's no justice?" he asked himself. Then he considered his position, and vacated the scene.

Faced with shrinking revenues, growing expenses, the destruction of all but two of its e-mail nameservers, disgusted employees walking off the job, and the clear fact that a a private national communication system still existed despite its best efforts... the Postal Service capitulated, and closed its doors forever. After more than two hundred years of near monopoly, the government yielded to the reality that private industry did it better, cheaper. The Internet came out of hiding.

Copyright 1996 by Carl Bussjaeger. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without the express permission of the author.

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27 February, 1999