Big Blue Was Watching You


A Live RPG at SwanCon XV


Jeremy G Byrne


In 1993 the IBM mega-corporation released the I586, continuing the sequence of microchips which began in the early eighties with intel corporation's 8086 and evolved through the 80286 and 80386 to 1989's 80486 (also known as the i486, after intel). The big "I" now stands for IBM, which absorbed intel in 1990. IBM plans to launch its next chip in the near future. It is rumoured that this chip will change the face of computing forever and unassailably confirm IBM's place as the world commercial superpower. Rumour also has it that this chip will be a self-contained example of a technology previously believed to be impossible - the true Artificial Intelligence.

Late in 1996, B-Grade actress Angelica Jagger became Vice-President in charge of publicity at IBM and is rumoured to be having an affair with IBM's Chief Executive Officer, James Cannavino. Mario Cuomo is President of the United States. Michael Gorbachev is lifetime President of the New Russian Republic. Li Peng rules a Post-Second Cultural Revolution China. It is September 5th, 1997 and the world is not well.

Live Roleplaying is hardly a rare activity in these enlightened times. There are apparently castles in England converted for the purpose where, for extraordinary sums, one can spend a weekend stumbling about in poorly lit corridors fighting people dressed as goblins. As Programmer for SwanCon XV, in organising LRP at the Con (to which end I was amply assisted by Edmund Bosworth, then President of UWA's UniSFA, and a couple of other friends) I was aiming to provide attendees with something to do outside primary programming time. As it transpired, I actually attracted people away from the main program and tied myself up into the bargain. Nevertheless, the entire event was (he says modestly) rather successful. In this brief reminiscence I'll try to answer the questions of both those who played and those who watched (and believe me, there were lots of questions) and possibly entertain those of you who weren't within a thousand miles of the place at the time.

Before I begin, I'd like to make a brief point by way of explanation to those not particularly au fait with the world of the microchip. "Big Blue" is the computer industry's nickname for IBM, in reality the most powerful computer company in the world. By the way, everything mentioned below as having occurred prior to the actual date of the game (the Australia Day weekend, 1990) is either true or very slightly romanticised, under poetic licence, to make the game more logically consistent or simply funnier. On the game-mechanics side of things, I'd just like to say that combat in the game was limited and dice-driven. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, I'd hoped this would foster a sense of team effort and a wish to steer clear of the circle-of-death, Brutus-and-Cassius-take-note style Killer Extravaganza which is typical in fandom. Thinking and sleuthing were to be the key to this thing, or at least that was the plan.

Players were encouraged to ask the Games Masters for any literature they thought they might need to solve mysteries within the plot, although issues of magazines or publications with dates beyond 28th of January 1990 would be restricted to GM use only. The "research library", was actually quite limited. It included many, many things by H.P Lovecraft and his imitators, two of the Erik Von Daniken "Chariots" fantasies, the Illuminati Novels in a single volume, Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, three different copies of The Bible, a strange old tome called Ritual Magic, a scholarly exposition on the Cantos of Nostradamus, Venetia Newlall's Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic and a copy of The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the significance of which would eventually become plain. A badge (bearing a "nu", for Nu-Prometheus League) and a single six-sided die were issued to each player, along with the introduction printed in the box below (which, see). On the back were some additions to the "future history", which I'll paraphrase before getting on with the tale.

In the late nineties of "Big Blue is Watching You", IBM's private police bear the job title "Supervisor; Information Network", are known colloquially as SINners or "The SIN", and operate outside state or federal law. Activities such as being a member of the NuPL or accessing a Hackers' Bulletin Board are likely to result in a visit to IBM HQ quite devoid of tea and biscuits.
The Hackers' BB is an example of the extremely tenuous state of non-sanctioned electronic communications in this dark-future 1997. Simply a repeated transmission of data over the least jammed medium available at the time, a BB will be swiftly tracked by the ever-alert Expert System PS/3s in IBM's Open Communications Division and jammed, ICEd and back-tracked out of existence. If one is quick enough and stupid enough, one can break through the ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures; Electronic), filter out the jamming signals and receive the communication before the SINners track it to its source or otherwise terminate transmission. Such "Hacking" can be life threatening.


BIG BLUE IS WATCHING YOU

Life is tough for the small software house in 1997. After all, when you're up against a mega-corp like IBM, you might as well go back to fixing calculators. But your pride makes you press on . . . until the mega-corp shuts you down by force. Then it's war!

In 1989 IBM, formerly known for its conservative corporate style, began to make a move on the technological forefront of the microcomputer market, releasing advanced products in an uncharacteristically gung-ho fashion. In 1990, IBM jumped eleven places in the Fortune 500 index and took over it's long-term microchip supplier, intel, merging two of America's largest computer chip R&D facilities. In 1991, in a move surrounded by dark speculation, IBM bought out Microsoft, the world's largest software production house, following the mysterious death of its founder and president, Bill ("Pearly") Gates. In a speech to the 1991 Comdex Computer Industry Business Conference, James Cannavino, formerly head of microcomputing at IBM but now company president, explained that the "I" now stood for intel and the "M" for Microsoft, but the world knew the Big Blue "B" was all that mattered.

In 1993, with the release of its "Supermicro" PS/3 series, IBM came to completely dominate the computer industry. Having rapidly shed its own interests in mainframe computing, IBM quickly subsumed floundering US and Japanese manufacturers and jumped to number three in the Fortune 500: the third richest company on earth. Astonishing breakthroughs flooded from the IBM labs as never before and the benefits to consumer culture were enormous.

It is now 1997 and the face of Big Blue has darkened. In the past four years, its economic interests have expanded well beyond the computing sphere, incorporating many of the Military-Industrial Complex industries left floundering since the end of the cold war with the Eastern Bloc. It is now the largest and most powerful corporate entity on the planet, and it brooks no competition. During the past year, the small hardware and software development houses, filling specialist niches in a market IBM owns and formerly encouraged by the corporate megalith, have been starved of the information, technical assistance and cooperative marketing that has kept them alive.

As a member of the Nu-Prometheus League, an organisation originally founded in 1988 to distribute Apple Macintosh source code to promote free exchange of ideas and now a secret net of computer hackers and innovators outside IBM, you are now sworn to discover the rents in the giant's armour, to infiltrate IBM, uncover its secrets and break its stranglehold on the world. It's not going to be easy.

The "Front End" of the IBM Information Net comprises a full-colour, all-the-bells-and-whistles terminal on every street corner throughout most of the western world and in any household which can afford the $US16 per month rent (ie. almost everyone). Users access the terminals via a smartcarded Personal Identity Code and Password (much like a PIN number) issued free to every citizen of voting age, with charges on a per-hour basis. News, personal telecommunications, EFT and myriad other useful functions are available via these marvels of the new age.

In reality this was a section of the wall near the Registration Desk with a six foot sort-of-semicircle marked around it in gaffer tape. Messages, representing hackers' transmissions, were posted in very small type so that nobody outside the tape could read them until IBM's ICE was breached. A certain well known Policeman did try to subvert this through the use of the telephoto on his camera, but was not notably successful.

Early on a chilly Thursday (actually 10:00, Sunday morning) the NuPL President Dexter Meredith (Edmund in a silly cowboy ha.t and a bad Texan accent) addressed the assembled worthies at a secret meeting. They were told that recent analysis of the I586 chip using Scanning-Tunnelling Electron Microscopy, as reported by a Finnish Hacker connected with the lab that performed the operation on a stolen PS/3 CPU, revealed technology "beyond normal electronic science".

"The chip," continued Dexter, "Does things at the quantum level which are, quite frankly, impossible. The mechanism seems to involve the determination of quantum interactions, which violates Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Or at least it looks that way."

Dexter called for volunteers to raid an IBM transport to obtain annotated blow-ups of the chip masks for the I586 - one of IBM's best kept secrets. Using information from unnamed sources, Dexter had learned that these masks, virtually circuit diagrams of the chip, were arriving from Houston for storage in the new high security premises here in Philadelphia. It seemed there were elements within IBM that still felt Hardcopy to be the safest medium.

On Friday morning the IBM transport (five of us wearing "IBM" badges and carrying a sign saying "VAN") was literally blown to pieces in a mass assault. The NuPL successfully captured the chip masks and recovered from the wreckage a mysterious box marked "vehicle parts" containing three strange, cylindrical and typically high-tech devices which could have been weapons, as there were obvious press-studs, though nobody was eager to test the theory. The chip masks were immediately whisked away by Dexter Meredith for electronic broadcast in the interests of "public access to advanced scientific techniques", while the significance of the second, unexpected prize would not become apparent for some time.

Here was the news for Friday, September 6th:

Over the next couple of days, pieces of information of diverse origin and enormously varied credibility began appearing on the Hackers' Bulletin Board: Through careful pattern matching and signal decoding, the NuPL were able to determine that the first four transmissions originated in Hong Kong and were very likely to have been sent by the same hacker - the self-titled "Seagull God" of the third message. Strangely, the "Seagull God" appeared to be a phantom, unknown to anyone in Hong Kong or other parts of South East Asia.

A great many fascinating theories sprang from this information. One NuPL stalwart immediately saw a connection between the Bangladesh floods and the Nazca Plain revelation, discovering that a Diameter through the Earth's core came very close to linking the two sites. The Foucault's Pendulum connection, with its links to the Templars and thus to the Illuminati, had several others intrigued, while yet others began to browse Lovecraft's Mythology in search of further clues. Fortunately, the Biblical references did not go completely unnoticed, and a precious few began to thumb those pages also.

Late on the Saturday following, Meredith called the faithful together to discuss recent events. Appearing uncharacteristically stressed, Meredith began a confused diatribe against IBM's CEO Jim Cannavino, who he claimed had founded the NuPL before "selling out to the Blue Bastards". Unfortunately, before he could get to the point, a pair of heavily armed and armoured SINners burst into the secret meeting-place laughing maniacally and spraying high energy and automatic weapons fire into walls and ceiling, and dragged the hapless Meredith away before the shocked assembly could more than blink. That shook things up a bit.

The News for a bleak Sunday, September 8th, 1997:

The Hacker's BB was abuzz again:

The vital information from the sympathetic "IBM Insider" stirred the NuPL to action. On the Monday morning a meeting of the League resolved to rescue their erstwhile leader from the clutches of the SIN. The all-out charge through the corridors of the Paraguan embassy to the dark and dismal cell where brave Dexter Meredith lay in post-torture torpor resulted in the death of five of the inhuman SINners and twice as many of the selfless NuPL before the defences were breached. Then came the soul-wrenching discovery, lying in a cold corner of his cell, of the poor, martyred Texan, his twisted form wracked by the agonies of interrogation and clutching his Ten-Gallon hat to his chest. To confuse matters further, carved into Meredith's arm with a shard from the shattered face of his own gold Rolex was the message "3 EMP Projectors". Could this have been a reference to the strange, cylindrical objects found with the I586 masks? It certainly seemed so.

By this time a few of the more contemplative of the NuPL had at least some idea of what they thought might be going on. Obviously the Biblical Apocalypse was at hand and it appeared that the prophecies of Nostradamus (as subtly perverted in the Lyons communication, above) were proving as valid as those of John. There was something important about Angelica Jagger, but what exactly that something was, and how she fitted in with the enigmatic Isao Manichea (the significance of whose surname--Manicheanism was a Heresy which held that Satan is capable of feats of independent creativity --was clear to the NuPL by this time), was yet to be determined. The mysterious, almost deus ex machina assistance from the "Seagull God" and some force or forces inside IBM itself seemed to make some sense, but what about the Lovecraft connection, the UFOs, Kali . . . and Kylie? What were red herrings and what of real significance?

The News of Tuesday, September 9th, served only to heighten the sense of impending disaster:

Late on Wednesday the eleventh of September (about lunchtime on Monday in the real world) a letter arrived at the home of the ersatz secretary of the NuPL (a position theoretically known only to the upper echelon of the League). The mysterious communication was postmarked in Jamaica and smelt heavily of ganja. It came from someone who signed himself "Reverend Father Ziggy Johnson" and was addressed to "you Nus who know".

The letter contained the lyrics and music to a reggae song titled "The Light of the Son" which told of the conversion of a voodoo priest from the worship of the Loas and "the black man in the pit", who the writer seemed to have known quite intimately, to the flock of the "shining father and his bright and happy son". It ended with some uninterpretable stuff, about someone changing his jacket because it'd got too old, which the writer seemed to consider very important. The final lines were:

Sadly, the song itself was neither tuneful nor profound.

At nearly the same time, a less-than-prominent member of the NuPL came forward with a napkin-full of fascinating information. She had scribbled it down the night before whilst eavesdropping on the half-drunken ramblings of a less than conscientious IBM Technician in the booth behind her in a downmarket little Philadelphia bar. She managed to record the gist of what to her meant very little, but meant a great deal to the more technically minded of the NuPL. The crapulous IBMer was boasting about the marvels of a new system he had just finished installing in the high-security section of the IBM Building in the City. It seemed there was a "magnetic cline bottle" protecting the system while it was in its vulnerable "power-up boot" phase, which lasted thirty seconds, until its own inherent defences (and here he seemed vague - perhaps confused) took over. This "bottle" took a considerable amount of power to generate and wouldn't operate if the system was using internal or auxiliary power to boot. The system was also protected by heavy lead shielding it seemed, which could only be opened by entering the system's own Personal Identity Code at its keyboard. Why an inanimate object should have a PIC was not obvious to the fellow, who claimed that things at Big Blue were becoming mighty strange these days.

All of this lent vigour to the NuPL detective work (at last they started asking for the right books). From the Seagull God's final communication they traced the "Second Royal Book" reference to the Second Book of Kings in the Old Testament. It took them a while (despite everyone having access to a bible, courtesy of the Gideon Society) to discover the reference to the "demon" Baalzebul, actually a God (the name means "Lord of the Flies") in the city of Ekron, in 2 Kings 1-3. Hadn't they heard that name before? Or was it Akron? The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic had a complete section on Baalzebul or Beelzebub, including biblical references which they found and read. In Ritual Magic they discovered a quotation from The Lesser Key of Solomon, a Mediæval Grimoire of evil repute, detailing Solomon's conversations with a number of demons, including the aforementioned Lord of the Flies. The conversations involved ways and means by which the demons could be summoned and banished, a subject about which they seemed quite happy to wax lyrical. Amongst the three or four methods Baalzebul cited was the name used by the "Romans", perhaps the Roman Catholics, to dismiss him. It appeared that the simple mentioning of the angelic name "Eleêth" would send him scurrying back to the Pit in terror. Here was a clear link to the Reverend Johnson's masterwork. Nevertheless, things were still far from crystal.

And then it was Black Friday (well, actually it was a bit after 3:00 on quite a pleasant Monday), the day that would see the launch of the new IBM chip, an event that everyone seemed to know would be the turning point--the critical mass that would weigh their efforts in the balance, as it were.

The final News, for Friday the 13th of September, 1997, lacked a great deal in the bright-and-cheery department:

For some hours the combined might of the still-living NuPL sat around their new secret headquarters and metaphorically banged their heads against the wall. They still had almost no idea of what they had to do to stop the IBM Chip Launch, beyond just that: stop it. But then there came an hour of sudden, incredible insights (assisted by some subtle hint-dropping from the big-hearted GMs) where they finally came to understand the connection between Angelica Jagger and the forces of evil. Bizarre as it seemed, she was Baalzebul (after all, she was born in Akron, played a succubus on film, her Password ("MIHOLE") was not only one of the names of God spelled backwards--a sure sign of the devil according to Kabbalistic lore--but obscene sounding to boot, she displayed a penchant for corrupting innocent female pop-stars and she was generally a strange person). They remembered that William Golding, Billy Golding, had written an obscure little work titled The Lord of the Flies, and were looking for its "priest". They knew that the new chip had to be destroyed by first exorcising Baalzebul to remove any threat of demonic magic, cutting power to the chip to drop the magnetic Klein Bottle that protected it in four dimensions, entering its Personal Identity Code, whatever that might be, on its control terminal to open the lead shielding protecting the fragile workings, and (this was the fun part) blasting it to kingdom come with the three EMP Projectors. What they didn't know was why.

The plan was this: disguise several NuPL members as Military Officials, complete with faked ID (no problem for the consummate hackers), break into IBM's Security System and add the faked identities to the guest list for the Chip Launch, arrange for yet another group of doughty Leaguers to physically cut the well-protected power lines on cue and hope everything would come clean on the day. This was the fate of the world they were playing with - I'm glad the world didn't know.

And this is how it went.

The luxuriously appointed, superbly comfortable miniature lecture room was dominated by an enormous screen, before which sat the unassuming object set to change the world. Beneath a black cloth, seemingly unconnected to either the screen or the keyboard which controlled it, was the mysterious new chip. The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" played softly over the muzak system, in case anyone still had doubts. James Cannavino stood to the left, his short and surprisingly unpolished welcoming speech over, while Angelica Jagger, curiously prominent for a PR Vice President, began her delivery. Sitting quietly off to one side was the strange, hunched figure of Isao Manichea. Watching from the semi-darkness were thirty seven Pentagon and State Department Officials, with a liberal smattering of anarchic small-systems software engineers, free-information fanatics and plain, old-fashioned computer hacks thrown in.

Jagger (Angelica, not Mick) spoke seductively but interminably, reciting platitudinous pseudo-history mixed with plenty of hype. At last she seemed close to finishing. "And thus, although there has been a minor adjustment in the official designation scheme", she said, moving inescapably towards the obvious conclusion and leaving her NuPL audience (the players, if not the characters) far, far behind, "IBM has, in this chip, concluded the line of development which began with the humble 8086 and has recently seen the advent of the I586. So, without further ado, I present the IBM Artificial Consciousness Processor, the I666."

Aha. Yes, OK, but what exactly did it mean? No matter, for the NuPL now knew what the chip's PIC was (the long string of numbers common to all senior IBM PICs they already had, but now they had the terminating sequence: 666, of course), so the plan could go ahead. By now Jagger has unveiled the unassuming, featureless black box with the strange, shifting unrightness in the air around it, and started its boot sequence from the keyboard. In thirty seconds it would have been fully operational. Then the power went.

The lights stayed on, but the large, friendly numbers counting backwards from thirty on the big screen stopped for a good two seconds at eighteen and a small message in red appeared at the bottom of the screen saying, quite politely and without a great deal of fuss, "I666 Boot Sequence Interrupted--Continuing on Internal Power. Satan's Will Be Done". But the shimmering in the air was gone, and it was time for the action to begin. With all the subtlety of a herd of swashbuckling rhino, the NuPL jumped from the audience, threw off their disguises and began to shout slogans, battle-cries and profanities in complete disregard for the seriousness of the moment.

The demon also abandoned disguise and his long masquerade ended in the shifting madness of Jagger's face, a very male voice booming "Despair fools, for the Beast must rule a Thousand Years of Darkness before the light!" in blatant melodrama. But the name of William Golding's forlorn witness to the awesome majesty of a wild pig's flyblown skull--Percival Wemis Maddison--broke his hold on the earthly plane and sent him tumbling back to the Lake of Fire.

Like a marionette with broken strings, Isao Manichea, greatest electronics genius the world had ever seen, stumbled to his feet lurching drunkenly and shouting confused questions in ungrammatical Japanese. Cannavino, seemingly elated, shouted "Thank God! I'm free at last. Leave Manichea; he's nothing without his puppeteer." Several Generals wet themselves in fright while most took cover beneath their seats to avoid the firefight breaking out between the dozen or so SINers standing guard about the room and the NuPL soldiers of misfortune. In the confusion, someone managed to enter the chip's PIC at the keyboard and, with the count-down at "6", the black casing split open along its length, thick lead shielding snicked smartly back and the bare circuitry lay exposed like a schoolboy's backside waiting for the cane to fall.

And fall it did. The "Daggers of the Wise" shot their invisible tight-beam electromagnetic pulses into the hapless silicon wafer, crisping its infernal circuitry and ending the pitifully brief sojourn of the AntiChrist on the mortal plane. The count-down stopped, dramatically but perhaps predictably, at "1", and it was over.

During the wind-down after the SINers had all been dispatched, the Generals sent home and the IBM Corporate Machine returned to "idle" by order of its CEO, Cannavino took a few moments to explain things to the NuPL survivors.

It seemed that in late 1990 James Cannavino signed a pact with Baalzebul/Jagger who was taking time out from his Hellish activities to play the role of a succubus/incubus in the upper world (having recently modernised his method of dismissal - even demons like to keep up appearances). In exchange for his soul, Cannavino wished for personal power. What he got was Manichea. Baalzebul took one Japanese peasant with an allegorical origin, stirred in the intellectual powers of a genius and a great deal of infernal knowledge not vouchsafed to humankind, and served him up to Cannavino as his familiar. With Manichea's knowledge, Cannavino built the I586, rose to control IBM and set out to do the same with everything else.

It wasn't until nearly six years later that he realised he was, in fact, doing Hell's work and preparing the way for the coming of the AntiChrist. As this didn't quite fit in with his long term plans he began, as quickly as he dared, to disseminate information critical to the success of any counter-movement. He was the Seagull God. He was the IBM Insider who passed information to the NuPL and secreted the EMP Projectors in the chip mask transport. It was he who recommended the unfashionable, seedy little bar he knew NuPLers loved so well to a loosed-lipped drunkard from the Technical Security section. I666 was the AntiChrist--the Seven Headed, Ten Horned Beast of Revelations--and Jagger was the Whore of Babylon and the Evil Prophet rolled into one. Why Led Zeppelin persisted in the belief that their music had relevance in the modern world, even Cannavino couldn't explain.

So there it was. Everything tidied away with a good two or three minutes to spare before the Closing Ceremony. But then I handed what is written in the box (to the right) to the remaining players and stood back to watch. Their reaction made it all worthwhile. I might even do it again, one of these years.


WHAT COMES AFTER

With the destruction of the AntiChrist by the Hackers of the Nu-Prometheus League, the satanic Millenium never comes to pass. Unfortunately, IBM, using the resources of the entire US arms-and-industrial manufacturing sector which they had bought up when the cold war became irrelevant, had supplied China with a very nasty collection of weapons and equipment including the "Water Dragon" transports, orbital rail guns, Superfortresses, chemical, biological and neutron bombs, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, the cobalt cased B-53 80-megaton device and "The Big Apple", a secret weapon created, but incompletely understood, by a high-tech New York company in late 1990, which turned out to involve the reversal of the spin on all Fermionic particles within an 18km radius.

Late on September 13th, the combined forces of the US Advisory Team in Nepal (178,000 men) and the Russian Fourth and Fifth Shock Armies, representing the collected troops of the Far East Military District, reached Beijing. Simultaneously, the Japanese Self-Defense Force retook Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, landed 37 brigades on mainland China and Air-dropped propaganda sheets and tofu bars over all centres of Chinese population over 8,000.

Li Peng, realising the situation was less than favourable and in surprisingly Japanese style, elected to end it all honourably. The Big Apple, in reversing the spin on that group of sub-atomic particles which includes all quarks, leptons and neutrinos, caused the atoms making up the City of Beijing to no longer wish to remain intact. This, in turn, caused a large surfeit of energy with nowhere to go but out. Debris reached the orbit of Mars within three days and the Solar System now has two asteroid belts. Needless to say, Big Blue is no longer watching anyone.







Originally appeared pp21-33, Eidolon Issue 01, May 1990.
Copyright © Eidolon Publications, 1990. All Rights Reserved.

[EMAIL] [INFO] [HOME] [BACK]