In the Clickstream, Part 3

(I know; it’s a day late for Friday Fun. This is Part 3 of an ongoing series of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching composition might look like twenty minutes into the future. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.)

I’m a civilian, and as a civilian, there are things I’ll never know or understand about Cadets. First among those things is the emotional baggage with which Cadets approach their time at the Academy, and their time in what comes after. Not a single one has doubts about where they’re all going after graduation. Whether it’s our high-intensity local conflicts in Sudan and Indonesia; the emerging flashpoints in Guyana, Belarus, and Sri Lanka; or our dwindling counterinsurgency garrisons in the Middle East — they know they’re going to be in harm’s way. Their guaranteed graduation prospect is that soon, someone, somewhere, will shoot at them. As the Brian Turner poem puts it: here, bullet.

What I can’t get used to is that the guarantee of mortal peril makes Cadets the most fatalistically cheerful students I’ve ever met. There’s no time here for being sad, for performing unhappiness, real or purported. Here there are no drama queens.

I turn to Mala. “Is he on?”

She thumbs, nods. He’s not only on, he’s realtime, in front of his webcam. From a Sri Lankan satphone, though, there are drops, so they cut out the sound and refresh the headshot every ten seconds, with the T9 filling in the nuance. PONNAMBALAM THURAISINGAM shows up at the bottom of the screen, but Mala thumbs him as Tim. I’m one of my generation’s dwindling population of breeders, but I’ll admit: from his headshot, he’s a hot boy. Although Tamil by heritage, he wears his Sri Lankan Army uniform with pride, and it’s clear he knows he looks good in it.

“Tell him what’s going on,” I say. “Free channel. You know to be careful.”

It’s unsecure communication, and of course it’s monitored, but there isn’t enough human power or computing power to process every language instance, and so the Army has copied insurgent countereavesdropping techniques: interspersing messages with vague generalities and irrelevant hot-words. Code-spamming. Mala and Tim mix it up a step further, throwing in Tamil slang and obscenities to the point where it’s almost impossible to follow, military abbrevations scrolling up the small screen intermixed with T9 contractions and interjections of NASAM ARUPU and AMUKU and ISAKU PISAKU. The practice, of course, is nothing new, with the Army’s and Marine Corps’ use of code talkers in the previous century, and the Papua and Aceh separatist terrists making substantial use of a mix of Ternate and Borai-Hattam in the ongoing Indonesian conflict. Protecting the right to one’s own language becomes an arm of military strategy.

The Indonesian conflict, in fact, is the point of origin for the essay that’s gotten Mala in trouble. Battlefield automation is as old as Reginald Denny and the previous century’s radioplane, and gained widespread use in the early years of this century, but the Indonesian conflict is where the Army and Air Force first rolled out its true next generation. In typical military fashion, the two service branches chose an acronym for their project, calling them secure wireless armed redundant munitions. The thought was that these small, internetworked secure-channel swarms wouldn’t pack enough of a punch against a modern, heavily armored force, but that they’d be highly effective against mobile, lightly armored or unarmored insurgency forces. The Air Force first showed their effectiveness in joint exercises with the Indonesian army in Northwest Australia, and promptly lost several of the small prototype robots.

Eighteen months later, the LTTE’s Tamil separatist movement began using something similar in Sri Lanka, only lighter and unarmed, with a camera, microphone, and high-capacity storage. And they were kicking the hell out of the Sri Lankan military. What the Army and Air Force had produced was a weapon. What the LTTE apparently reverse-engineered it into was an eavesdropping device for managing information warfare. Tim, Ponnambalam Thuraisingam, is doing high-profile engineering work on distributed intelligences, and Mala cited him in her essay on networked information warfare, or what the Rand Corporation first called Netwar in the late 90s. Mala’s essay, in turn, was widely cited, and that’s what got her pinged for an honor violation: she’s being accused of plagiarism as misrepresentation of sources. She cited Tim’s research on the LTTE’s modification of the swarms, and the honor ping is coming from someone who thinks she should have cited the white paper issued by the Army and Air Force joint project, rather than just aggregating it as a tertiary source. And I’m betting that the hit in Mala’s clickstream from Australia wasn’t a porn hider user agent at all: I’m betting it came from our Air Force base at Kulumburu.

Mala thumbs LVUBYE and shuts down the connection. She’s even more rattled. “Tim says the timelines fit,” she blurts. “It could be constructed as me giving him the information for the LTTE swarm variants.”

“Rather than him doing the research himself,” I reply. “So the implication is that Tim, because he’s ethnic Tamil, is the one who did the reverse-engineering of the Air Force swarms and gave the information to the LTTE, rather than studying how the LTTE did it.”

She nods, her lips still pressed in that thin line. “Which means it’s not just an honor violation, sir,” she says. “It’s giving Aid and Comfort.” She’s figured it out: the LTTE is a terrist organization, and thereby an enemy. She’s not just facing an Honor board, she’s facing a court martial, for treason. If the Air Force can sell that, there won’t be any high-profile congressional testimony about who lost what prototypes. Mala’s a victim of her own popularity, her own good public writing.

“Sir,” she says. She keeps any quaver out of her voice, but she has to ask the question. “What am I going to do?”

I don’t answer for a moment, mentally searching through possibilities. And there’s really only one. “Cadet Casey,” I say. “You’re going to write an essay.”

(To be continued.)

In the Clickstream, Part 3

4 thoughts on “In the Clickstream, Part 3

  • February 25, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Love this. Love the installment plan–a cyberserial. I’ve read some of Turner’s book (love Alice James Books, too, while I’m at it)and am interested, interested. . .will say more to you at the 4C’s.

  • February 25, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    If anyone ever told me that “You’re going to write an essay” was a kickass cliffhanging line, I would have thrown my drink at that person. That sloshing ound is a beer hitting my hair…cause that is one kickass cliffhanging line.

  • March 1, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks, Joanna. Doc and Dennis — yeah, I’m having a little fun with the over-the-top breathless plot-twisty thriller genre, and trying to poke some fun at the melodramatic high seriousness and end-of-the-world tone of such things — but then, I also know and have some guilty fondness for the genre. And certainly, since this is intended to be a thriller centered around a possible way I’m imagining composition, I had to spin one of the cliffhanger moments as the point of writerly exigency. 🙂

    If I were me, I’d have thrown my beer at me too.

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