"Man is a product of Nature...whatever he does, it must be
part of his nature to do it - or he could not do it. He is
not, and cannot be, unnatural...He is an instrument of natural
--John Wyndham, Web
Chapter Forty Three
"Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Dot and Gerald were not one of the worst off families in the
Network countries - in the main, those were located in the South
American Network - but they were equally far from being amongst
the best off households. Those tended to have research scientists
in their number, though Gerald's stint as co-designer of the
Phoenix brought in an extra fifty thousand pounds per year, which
helped to dispel any obligation which Shaun may have felt to help
Even the poorest Network families were well fed, if only on
protein wafers, and lived in reasonable comfort - with a solidly-
built home and access to a private Terminal for information and
entertainment. Every Networker under the age of twenty four was
well educated, with a solid grounding in philosophy, the English
language and science at the very least - though not necessarily
in that order.
There wasn't even a "working class" left, as such, any more. All
manual work was performed by remote-controlled machines by now, a
trend which began with the Industrial Revolution had reached its
culmination in the Network. Nobody worked on assembly lines any
more - there was no need. Ever since the year two thousand and
one - oh, the celebrations of that year! And the irritating
renaming of computers as 'Hal'! - computers had been used to
design computer-controlled assembly lines. The bugs were worked
out, and cheap robots built, using Bargachev's microchips, to
replace the earlier function of people in unjamming the line.
The differences between the poor and the rich in Wye's Network
lay mainly in the luxuries which they had access to. Their
clothing could be used to tell them apart - the richer Networkers
tended to dress in fairly drab colours in 2019, while the poor
leaned more towards solid, bright primary colours - plus, the
handlinks owned by the rich tended towards VAS capabilities,
while the poor still used keyboards exclusively.
Perhaps there's a warning in there, Wye thought, A society
delineated according to the kind of interface people use to
communicate with their computers. The thought tended not to
linger, however - there were more important things to consider.
Even the poorest Networkers were wealthier than non-Networkers.
Everybody in the Network countries had something to do, if they
wanted something to do. Roughly one third of the population was
teaching another third who aspired to join the final third and
become scientists, engineers, technicians or - in their turn -
teachers. Artists died out.
At least, as in Van Gogh's time, there were very few who
dedicated their lives to the Arts. The artists tended to be part
time - and, mainly, members of the Church of Wye who were busily
trying to fill their Thought Hour.
As to religion, the few organised religions which still existed
within the Network were relatively-innocuous - neither
fundamentalism nor expansionism could survive in the intellectual
climate of the Network's educational system. And so it was that
the evangelical movements, and similar cases of both blatant and
subtle proselytizing, died their natural deaths.
Many religious groups survived this process, however. The
Society of Friends continued their quaking well into the twenty
first century, and beyond, while the neo-liberal islamic sects -
while they won few new converts - managed to retain most of their
existing believers. And Judaism simply adapted to the new climate
and continued to exist within it, as it had always done.
By 2019, the only expanding quasi-religion was the Church of
Wye. With the great advantage of having its pragmatic moral
philosophy as the bedrock of the Network itself, it quickly
mopped up more and more adherents as each new generation passed
through the Coming of Age ceremony.
Life was busy. And life was great. For the Networkers.
The only thing missing was democracy. Self rule. So long as the
Dictator's announcement of 2002, broadcast publically in 2007,
stood, the Networkers found it difficult to continue in absolute
calm. So long as that announcement was still valid then somebody,
somewhere, considered that they were all still merely children at
And that somebody was the Dictator. He had taken them this far -
why couldn't he take them just that little bit further? Oh, the
forty percent of Networkers who - by this time - had passed
through the whole of the educational system, they realised that
they could revolt.
They realised that the threats of their Dictator's early years
had been empty. The revelation that the Massacre of '99 had been
a hoax had demonstrated as much. And, if that was not enough, the
Mercy Posts used during the Embargo had shown the soft-hearted
Dictator for what he was.
The problem was that they didn't want to overthrow Absolaam Wye.
They wanted him to lift the restriction voluntarily. The children
wanted their father's approval.
On the first of January, 2019, Absolaam Wye, Great Dictator of
the Network, announced that there was to be a day of absolute
celebration throughout the Network countries on the eighth of
June in that year. Nobody was to be left out - all were to
celebrate. And drink alcohol.
To the youngsters in the Network countries, alcohol was
virtually unknown - their drug of choice was generally cannabis.
Nonetheless, stills were built throughout the Network. The entire
six month output of the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg,
Tennessee, USA, was bought up by the various countries, and Wye
himself received several cases of bourbon as gifts.
On the day itself, a little before two in the afternoon, GMT,
the vast majority of Networkers sat in their places at long
tables erected in the streets, all over the world. They were
waiting for the promised word from their Dictator - the word
which would tell them what they were actually celebrating.
Every Terminal burst into life at exactly two PM, GMT. No matter
that somebody was making a call, accessing the Network library or
watching a film - the Terminal broke off to show the Dictator's
face, broadcasting from the Phoenix, which was now his permanent
"Hi," Wye said, "I hope you're all enjoying yourselves.
"This will be short," he went on, "You will see on the records
released today that, for the past five years, Network voting on
proposals has been binding. Not just advice," the Dictator
continued, in the face of the cheers ringing across the planet,
"But they have been law - the only modifications have been minor,
and are listed in the same file.
"Watch the records, my people," Wye said, "And celebrate - you
have been free and Democratic for five years, but you didn't know
it until today."
The 'modifications' Wye referred to simply made sure that the
votes of those who had passed through the full nine years
education under Wye's system counted twice - but only if that
individual had also undergone the Coming of Age ceremony. Matt
black Cards, then, quickly became more than a simple emotional
status symbol - they became a signal of the real, voting status
of their owner.
The party itself, however, lasted all week.
Almost four months went by before there was a significant
Network-wide proposal which required Networkers everywhere to
exercise the vote which they only now knew was valid and
meaningful. Almost four months.
November the first, 2019, saw the Dictator's new proposal. He
wanted to disband the armed forces of the entire Network, and
replace them by an assassination squad.
The buzz crossed back and forth all over the planet - and even
back out to the Phoenix and the newly-founded scientific base on
Ceres. What was this squad? Who were its members? Was it all just
another one of the Dictator's bluffs? How could anyone be sure?
The answer to the last question came soon enough - too soon for
The proposal which was eventually agreed to said that the
"assassination squad" would handle the next security problem
which might otherwise have required the full armed forces. The
armed forces would remain intact, in other words, at least until
after it could be determined whether Estelle Demot's squad was an
Two days after that proposal was agreed to, the President of the
United States of America - in the middle of his re-election
campaign - saw his chance to call Wye's bluff. Believing that the
Network was, temporarily, unprotected, he launched an attack on
that part of the Network which had been Ecuador.
His idea was, of course, to capture the Network's main
spaceport. If Ecuador ground control were in the hands of the US,
he reasoned, then he could blackmail Wye - and so generate enough
good publicity at home to get himself re-elected. It was a good
plan, and might have worked.
Sadly, the instant that the US marines set foot on Ecuador's
soil, their Commander-In-Chief died of a heart attack. As did the
newly-promoted Vice-President when he ordered the attack to
It wasn't until the third president in as many hours took office
that the US troops were recalled from Ecuador. Oddly enough, that
third president lost the upcoming election - though he did keep
Other than the two erstwhile US presidents, no lives had been
lost in the attempted invasion of the Network.
The following day, the Network armed forced were disbanded -
replaced by the assassination squad.
The Demots - as the assassination squad came to be known -
consisted of one hundred and twenty five hand-picked and
supremely trained assassins, organised, in cells of five, along
the same lines as the Maquis.
Each individual knew the identity of - at most - four other
Demots. In general, Demots kept in contact via the Network, with
their identity concealed. Each individual was responsible for
choosing and training his or her replacement, in the event of
their own death.
All orders came from a vote by seventy-five percent of adult
status Networkers, as with any other proposals, but individual
cells did have some freedom of action in extreme circumstances.
For example, MI8 was reorganised along the same lines as the
Demots - in fact, effectively became an additional group of Demot
cells - but its brief was to act as a watchdog, a guard against
attempted take-overs by MI7, the Demots, or other MI8 cells.
Since there was little or no knowledge from cell to cell as to
the identities of the members of other cells, this method of
ensuring security would - Wye figured - prove effective.
Particularly since even cells of MI8 agents were, in their turn,
kept in check by others.
The only potentially-weak link in the chain was the Network
coordinating computer system. Hagbard was involved in tallying
the votes of Networkers and keeping the identities of Demots and
members of MI8 secret, as well as handling and coordinating both
the circulation of electronic "money" and all communications
throughout the Network.
If somebody could capture or control Hagbard, the Network - and
thus the world - could be held to ransom. Which is why Hagbard
was entirely distributed. As well as having several centralised
data banks, Hagbard had backups of everything, scattered all over
the Network. And every major decision was checked by three,
randomly-selected sites before being implemented.
What came to be called the Tell me three times veracity check
was also used in voting on a Network-wide proposal. All votes
were sent, separately, to at least three - usually more -
separate locations, and tallied independantly at those locations.
In order to fix the voting, somebody would have to control every
fibre-optic link into and out of every single one of Hagbard's
computing nodes - a greater task than taking control of the
In order to take over Hagbard, more than three thousand sites
would have to be taken, individually and simulataneously. And the
locations of several of those sites were known only to Hagbard
itself - having been located by that computer and built by robots
according to the blueprints of another, already existing,
If a node's behaviour was erratic or suspicious, suggesting
malfunction or sabotage, then its records were erased and it was
cut off from the rest of the Network until it could be repaired.
Maintenance was, of course, also handled directly by Hagbard,
using robots and blueprints from its own records. Naturally,
copies of those blueprints were kept in every node - and were
Tell me three times checked before being used.
This not only ensured that revolution was impossible without a
seventy five percent vote of the Network population, it also
ensured that censorship of books, films and so on could not be
At random intervals, every piece of data in the Network would
(during Hagbard's relatively-idle moments) be systematically
checked against every other copy of that data. Discrepancies, if
any were found, could then be resolved by copying the correct
text (assumed to be that found at the majority of computing
nodes) to the errant nodes.
The guards, finally, were guarded.
The celebrations, this time, had been planned long in advance -
this particular party was more than a year in the making, and Wye
had not instigated it. Indeed, he would have probably urged that
it be cancelled if he had known about it. But only the Dictator
had been kept in the dark.
At one second before one fifteen AM, BST, in the morning of the
twenty third of November, 2019 CE, General Absolaam Wye, Absolute
Dictator of the Network countries, flicked his Terminal override
into action, ready to make an announcement.
As the Dictator's face appeared on Terminals all across the
world, and - after several minutes - out on Ceres in the asteroid
belt, fireworks exploded across the planet, and bottles of Jack
Daniel's were cracked open.
A cheer echoed around the globe, all over the Phoenix, the Ceres
base and the Lagrange orbiting factories. People cheered in the
British Isles and in Ecuador. There was cheering in South Africa
and in what had been New York City. A massive cheer resounded
from the walls of the thriving lunar colony. Where the
Netherlands had once been, the Networkers cheered.
Their Dictator grinned, happily, when he heard the cheers, and
allowed one chorus of a traditional song, wishing a happy
twentieth birthday to the Network, to come to its end before he
When Wye opened his mouth to speak, there was a hushed silence
across the world. The silence continued for minutes after the
Dictator's two-word announcement.
The two words he said were: "I abdicate."
Chapter Forty Four
"You only have one crack at this life, so for God's sake do
your best to enjoy it."
It was a black night.
In space, the night was always black - and it was always night.
On the other hand, the stars are crisp and clear, and the sun
makes a sharp circle in the distance. Or would, if the polarising
effect of the viewing windows did not automatically hide it from
It was three O'clock in the afternoon, as measured by British
Summer Time. According to the Gregorian calendar, the date was
the twenty sixth of September. The year was two thousand and
thirty of the Common Era.
The ship was the Gulliver - a shuttlecraft, built in space. It
was currently en route from the Phoenix space hotel to the Ceres
base, carrying a very special passenger, the retired Dictator, to
his new home.
But Absolaam Wye was dying.
Chapter Forty Five
"Nothing's Right...Except what you feel and know."
--Clive Barker, Cabal
The heart attack, sudden but not entirely unexpected, had been
swift in coming. To assist his passenger, the ship's pilot had
tried to restrict his ship's acceleration to below that which
would be produced by the Earth's gravity - 9.8 metres per second
But even this meagre strain had proven too much for that
passenger's dilapidated heart to bear.
Much was said, later on, about Wye's death aboard the Gulliver.
Many and varied Last Words were attributed to him. Some claimed
that, with his final breath, Wye had spoken of the Network. They
claimed, confidently, that the retired Dictator had given, as his
final command to the Networkers, "Think for yourselves," and then
had breathed his last.
Others were equally certain that Wye's last command had been "To
the stars!", while still others said that the immortal words were
"More light!" Graham and Deborah Greene, the only people present
when General Wye's last words were spoken, refused to resolve the
Absolaam would have liked that.
In fact, Absolaam Wye's final thoughts before expiring were of
his life. He was not too surprised to find that the old cliche
about your life flashing before your eyes just before you died
was not true, and so - defiant to the end - decided to damn well
make it do just that.
As his heart surged spasmodically in his chest, Wye thought back
to that day, thirty years ago, when he had awoken in a strange
room in ten Downing Street to find himself ruler of the British
Rapidly, the pages of the years turned in the Dictator's mind as
he reviewed the events since then, and found that he was
satisfied by almost all that had taken place:
The literacy classes. The new education system. Lao Tzi's Church
of Wye. The first National Network. Philosophy classes.
MoneyCards. The Phaelon.
Thoughts of the doomed Phaelon turned Wye's mind to the BLA and
Estelle Demot's MI7, which made him think of the Demot
assassination squads. Which turned him back to thoughts of his
only major failure: the USA and the...
The Trade Embargo. The new legal system. Eris. The end of the
Embargo. The defeated proposal to depose him. Deborah's Coming of
Age ceremony. The Phoenix. The Heinlein memorial. The Lagrange
factories. The lunar colony. The Ceres base. The ten years of his
The expansion of the Network into Siberia, California, then
through almost the whole of Asia and South America (Brazil and
North Korea still remained independent), rang through his mind.
Wye's stream of consciousness dwelt for a moment on the troubles
when the citizens of California had decided to secede from the
United States, when the US President of the day, a fierce
nationalist, had sent the National Guard into that state.
But Wye's mind quickly moved on to cheerier events, as he
recalled the expression on that president's face when the
Networkers had - almost unanimously - voted to impose another
Trade Embargo unless he withdrew his troops. The troops had
pulled out within hours.
Names ran through his mind: Colin Simoney, Dmitri Bargachev,
Sharon Kelly, Graeme Skildon, Gerald, Dot, Adam, Shaun, David
The ex-priest's name ran into thoughts about the organised
religions - how they had collapsed in the Network countries, the
Church of Wye almost entirely replacing them - at least in the
hearts and minds of Networkers in their mid-thirties and younger
- in every place which had been linked in to the Network.
And so it was that the last words of General Absolaam Wye,
retired Dictator of the Network, were: "Careful with the Tar
Just before he sank into oblivion, Wye's mind cast back to that
day, scarcely a decade before, when he had abdicated. The events
which followed were the final thoughts in his mind as he sank
into - as the Bard might have put it - a dreamless sleep from
which he would never wake.
Immediately following Wye's abdication, a proposal had been made
by one of the citizens of the Network - you can look up the name
on your Terminal if you wish - that there be an election to
select the next leader of their countries.
In the event, the proposal took the form of an electronic ballot
paper similar to those used in local elections. Two options were
available: "Somebody" and "None of the Above."
Even without allowing for weighting of the vote according to
matt black Card holders, ninety eight percent of the electorate
voted for "None of the Above."
At Wye's request, the election was repeated a month later, when
several candidates had had their chance to put their various
cases for becoming the new Dictator of the Network. Again, ninety
eight percent of the electorate voted None of the Above.
In the ten years since, nobody had succeeded in achieving the
simple majority vote to call a new election - the record so far
was five percent in favour of electing a new Dictator. And even
that was a temporary blip at the time of the disturbances in
After the second election resulted in a second overwhelming Nota
vote, Wye made what was to be his final announcement as Dictator:
"We have made great strides together, you and I," Wye began,
that day in 2019, "We have moved on from politics and its
tempting but utterly false illusion of democracy until, at last,
we have created the real thing.
"One by one, you have been abandoning your crutches - both
literally and figuratively - and learning to stand up by
yourself. To walk. And now, finally, I hope that you have learned
The paragraph which now rolled before his eyes on the autocue
went unsaid by the Dictator. Later historians unearthed the
records, however, and made great play from those words. Religion,
it read, was a crutch which was used to prop up society for
thousands of years. It was used to justify the moral basis of all
of our lives. And when science took over from religion, as it
inevitably would, we were left with no morality. Together, in the
Agreements, you and I have found a new basis for that morality.
Together, the unread passage went on, We have chosen to base our
morality on the real world - rather than in some supernatural
ideal. It is morally wrong to harm other people because - whether
directly or indirectly - doing so will cause harm to yourself. It
is morally wrong to steal from somebody else because, if it were
not, then nothing of your own could ever be safe.
This is the thoroughly pragmatic basis of our morality - and on
this rock we built our society.
Once this passage had scrolled, at high speed, past, Wye - with
scarcely a pause - continued with the speech itself: "There are
things that I ask you to remember as the years move by.
"Firstly, remember that science and technology are your tools,
not your masters. No scientific discovery, no item of technology,
is intrinsically harmful or helpful - all that is important is
the way in which you use that knowledge.
"Never forget that computers - even those with sophisticated
interfaces, such as the VASes - are still merely tools. Despite
appearances, they are not intelligent. They cannot reason. And,
until they do, always bear in mind that old GIGO principle:
Garbage In, Garbage Out.
"A computer's 'advice' can only be as good as its data and its
programming - and probably not as good as a rational human's. Do
not give your computers the last word - always ensure that the
final decisions are made by voting. Voting by humans.
"And do not lose your compassion, for it is your compassion
which makes you human.
"But, above all, I ask you - all of you - always to remember
that you are all Wye's children."
The retiring Dictator grinned, annoyingly, and took a sip of
Jack Daniel's as the Network collectively groaned at the
appalling pun on which Wye had decided to end his reign.
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