all right." She smiled, feeling sexy as she put her watch back on in front
of the guard. "I love getting frisked," she said. "It's better than having
Past security, she continued down a hallway and into an empty reception
area. With the swearing-in taking place across the river, most of the
Pentagon was closed down for the afternoon. Kay had known George Bush
for years, and had high hopes for his presidency. The media take on the
new president as some sort of bumbling idiot was a joke. As anyone who
knew the real story would tell you, Bush was the balls. Even back
in '73, it was Bush who'd urged President Nixon to ignore the Democrats,
to insist upon his beloved rationale, national security, even if it meant
endorsing a few indiscretions. This might not have been very good advice,
but it certainly wasn't cowardly. It always made Kay smile, the American
public's willingness to manufacture its own misinformation.
On the third floor, she caught up to Mitchell Frenkle, deputy director
of the DCA. He walked carefully, trying not to spill his coffee on his
way past the elevators. "Hi, Kay. Recognize the joint?"
"Sure, it never changes."
The man groaned. "Well, we like to play around with our acronyms every
now and again, but what the hell."
The door to Frenkle's office opened automatically as they reached the
end of the corridor. Swissshhh . . . space age! Kay looked over
her shoulder, nervous around these hi-tech contraptions. The door closed
"Look who's here," Frenkle said. His outer office was spacious, with three
secretaries' desks and a leather sofa, some magazines on the coffee table.
A middle-aged man in a light suit half-rose from the sofa and shook Kay's
"NSF, I'm Barney Crain," he said. "It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Tree."
Christ, she thought. First the branch, then the name-these people in Washington
sure have some weird priorities.
Still holding Kay's hand, Crain asked, "When are you folks over at Georgetown
going to send us some decent interns?"
Kay took her hand back. "When we have some decent students, Mr. Crain."
It was returning to her now, the Washington josh. Almost a form of social
currency in these parts.
Frenkle broke in: "Crain is head statistician for the National Science
Foundation. He'll be working with us today." He led the way into the next
room and closed the door. On his desk, an answering machine fluttered
its red eye-six quick flashes and then a pause. He shook his head. "I
tell people to use the e-mail, they don't listen."
"Give it time." Crain tossed a pair of high-density floppies onto a round
conference table and settled into his chair. Hitting Play on the answering
machine, Frenkle listened to his messages, the usual Inauguration Day
"Hi, Muh-Mitch? Thuh-this is Dan here." Coughing, the voice deepened.
"That's Mister VeePee to you, pal, heh-heh. Just kiddin' there.
"Shut the fuck up." Frenkle deleted the message, then joined the others
at the table. Crouching down, he inserted both disks into a hard drive
and hit the power button. The lights dimmed theatrically as a sixty-inch
monitor came down from the ceiling. On the screen, a blue image showed
an outline of the forty-eight contiguous states. White lines curved from
one point to another, like missiles launched and exploded halfway across
Blinking at the bright screen, Crain resumed his original thought. "Telephones
are so bloody old-fashioned, it's pathetic. Even the utility companies
have wised up. I still remember AT&T, back in '64, '65, AT&T telling
Paul Baran that packet switching was a doomed concept. Now they're all
lining up. You'd think this was the only thing we do."
Kay tried not to listen as the two men traded inside jokes about the eggheads
at AT&T. She hated computer talk. She'd been around it ever since
coming to Washington in 1969, and to this day she still favored the lunchtime
solitude of her office to the chatter of these swashbuckling men with
their hi-tech delusions. Who among them could muster up the same passion
for a Strauss opera, those last liquid moments of Der Rosenkavalier,
say, with the voices seeking chromaticism and yet still reaching with
a backwards longing for the court and parlor? Macheath always preferred
Verdi to Strauss, but he and Kay never argued about such trifles. So the
man had a thing for "La donna è mobile," so what? At least he had a wide
range of interests. Botany, yes, of course, and glassmaking, but also
Scottish literature, typography, Bauhaus art and architecture, combat
theory, semantics, even cross-country skiing. He cared about things,
you see. For all their talk of the coming information revolution, men
like Frenkle and Crain were ignorant of the world beyond the network.
These men craved information, but only for its statistical value. Information
was something to be channeled, transmitted, systematically converted,
broken down into packets and later reassembled as text and color. The
last thing anyone wanted to do was read it.
"Kay, we're looking at an overview of the system as it stands today. I'm
sure you've seen something like it before."
She pulled her glasses out of her purse, then peered up at the screen.
"I don't know," she said. "I haven't been paying much attention lately."
"Kay's been too busy teaching cryptology to graduate students," Frenkle
said, making it sound like an indulgence, a housewife's distraction. Kay's
been taking a pottery class on Wednesdays.
"God, how dull," Crain muttered. "What's to teach?"
"Not much, I guess," Kay said. This was something her youngest daughter,
Lydia, had never learned. Around men, sometimes it's best just to let
things go. Leaning back in her seat, she added, "The most promising
students, I pass on. I send them across the river to Frenkle."
"Where they are never heard from again,' he laughed with insane abandon."
Pleased with his joke, Frenkle cut the banter short. "Anyway. Here nor
"Agreed. So, Kay, to bring you up to date . . ." Crain tapped the mouse
button, causing the image on the screen to fade behind a grid. "Ignore
all that. I'm sure you're familiar with the old ARPANET."
Frenkle glared across the table. "Jumping the gun a bit, aren't you Crain?"
"Old, new, whatever, we need to start somewhere." A new picture hovered
across the screen, depicting the original four IMPs set up by Bolt Beranek
and Newman in the late sixties. Seeing this again, Kay remembered the
time, her own life back then. Things were different when her husband was
still alive. Macheath's world was a world of slow communications, where
one had to choose each word carefully, for every mistake meant endless
backtracks, cross-outs, crumpled pages in the trash can. Had he not died
in 1968, would he too have shelved such habits in favor of newer, speedier
modes of communication? Had technology itself brought about this blanding
of shared thought?
"As you can see," continued Crain, dragging his mouse to erase the map.
"That system has since been replaced by a larger, more complicated array
Annoyed, Frenkle set down his coffee. "You write it off so easily," he
said. "Those IMPs supported our activities for nearly two decades."
"Relax, Mitch. Credit due. But we all knew years ago that the network
eventually would grow beyond the capacities of any single agency. If it
didn't, we would've failed."
Frenkle folded his arms. "I just want Kay to understand the topography
as it stands."
The two men stared at each other, then smiled. It really was silly, in
a way. This whole thing.
"Okay, Mitch. Good point." As Crain spoke, different views of the network
passed across the screen-very professional, just like a movie. "It is
now January 1989. The IMPs of the past are largely worthless, since high-speed
routers-manufactured by IBM and maintained by the Gloria Corporation-provide
us with a more efficient means of controlling traffic. This new development,
quite naturally, will diminish the role the Defense Communications Agency
plays in determining network priorities."
"Getting out of the computer business, Mitchell?" Kay smiled.
Frenkle paused to finish the last of his coffee. "We'll always be around,
Kay," he said.
Crain continued his presentation. "The demographic makeup of groups using
these networks will change dramatically over the next few years. With
the rise of personal computers, the Net will soon host dozens-possibly
hundreds-of sites maintained by unknown individuals. Security issues will
become more and more of a factor. The need to keep a clear perspective
on where information is originating from, how it moves along the network,
and where it winds up is of critical importance."
"I sense a bottom line around here somewhere."
"Oh, she's good."
"Of course she is, Barney," said Frenkle. "It's Kay's job to see the words
behind the words."
"Well, since you asked, the problem is this." On the screen, the map gave
way to a drawing of an RS/6000, T-3 compatible bit processor. Flow arrows
demonstrated a progression through an in point, into a computer core,
and then out along a variety of links. The diagram did not indicate the
size of the contraption; it could have been as tiny as Frenkle's teacup
or as large as the Pentagon itself.
"What is it?" Kay asked.
"The Gloria 21169. Your key to a better future."
"It's a router," Frenkle snapped. Crain's sense of dramatics seemed to
be getting on his nerves.
"It's a very bad router. Or so we think. Let me bore you with some theory
for a moment." More symbols, more diagrams. The picture on the screen
clarified nothing, even though Crain's tone of voice suggested that it
did. "The network has always functioned as a hierarchy of layers. This
is not likely to change. It only makes sense that as long as there is
a network, there will be a distribution of roles. This is the nature of
"Take a tip from Uncle Sam." Frenkle rubbed his nose, feinting at each
nostril with a bent finger. January allergies rustled in the throats of
Crain continued: "Routers are specialized computers designed to conduct
the flow of traffic. Certain routers handle business within autonomous
networks. Other routers are configured to serve as an interface between
two distinct networks."
"The Gloria machine," Kay said, unsure of herself. She did not mind Crain's
pedantic tone; while she'd worked with network prototypes for many years,
she'd always utilized preexisting software and thus knew very little about
computers on the bare-bones level. As a cryptographer, it was her job
to scramble the thoughts of others, not to devise ones of her own. "So
we've got a computer that doesn't know what it's doing."
Here, Crain seemed genuinely puzzled. "Maybe . . . but I don't think so.
Let me explain." He set his pen down on the table. "Do you remember Bob
Kahn?" Kay did; she'd seen him at MIT in the mid-sixties, and in Washington
a few years later when she was hired to create a cipher for the TCP/IP
project. "In the early days of the ARPANET, Kahn outlined four basic principles
central to network communications. The first three, I don't remember."
He looked at Frenkle, who shrugged-search me. "The fourth rule
was simple. There can be no global consolidation of power in a system
of this size." He sighed. Through the thick, tinted windows of the Pentagon,
the noise of the inaugural parade sounded dull and ominous, like the boom
of an underground explosion. "It seems the Gloria router may not have
gotten the message."
"I don't understand." Kay rubbed her eyes, missing the clarity of a well-lit
room. "Weren't the Gloria routers manufactured according to the government's
"They were, but so what?" Crain grabbed a sheet of paper and sketched
a diagram-positives and negatives and decimal expressions of relative
proportions. In the dark, Kay could read none of it. "Look. The way the
protocol's designed, a host computer sends a message. The router receives
information from the host describing where the message should wind up.
Based on that information, the router makes a decision. It can send the
message on to its destination; it can relay the message back to the host;
or it can redirect the message to another router. The important thing
is this: In order for the network to operate effectively, these decisions
must be made on the basis of the overall system. Each router has its own
role to play. These roles were determined when the network was set in
Excerpted from The Egg Code by Mike HeppnerCopyright
2002 by Mike Heppner. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
scope, flair and originality, Mike Heppners debut explores our secret
lives and most desperate impulses even as they are penetrated by a global
web of mysterious provenance and dubious promise.
Few who live
in Big Dipper Township have even heard about anything called the Egg Code;
theyre busy enough as it is. At one end of this tiny Midwestern
community, a motivational speaker starts choking on his own words, while
at another, an impressionable dancer struggles to realize her recurrent
dreams of flying. An estranged wife becomes a counterfeit folklorist,
while an aging typographer is besieged by regret. Andin one householda
living arrangements salesman is harried to the verge of losing
his livelihood, while his wife stage-mothers their talentless son and
eventually decides to take destiny into her own hands.
however, is a lone hacker bent on destroying the demon among them all:
a router, the Gloria 21169, that, along with thousands of others, trafficks
in information from all the world over to comprise the Internet. But the
Gloria, or the corporation that controls it, has taken command of the
entire network, at a tremendous cost to this young mans family and
to the consternation of parties on both sides of the technological revolution.
of these many lives reveals how much (if at all) these quantum shifts
in our society have affected our hopes, behavior and prospects. As much
Our Town as 2001, and as funny as it is suspenseful, The Egg Code
is both a hugely entertaining novel and the announcement of a spectacular
Mike Heppner grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, received an M.F.A. from Columbia University,
and now lives in Providence, Rhode Island.