Forth-coming (A Christmas Tale)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
29 November, 2016
Editorial: 51
Fecha de publicación original: 24 diciembre, 1996

Date of publication: 24/12/1996. Editorial 51.

Necessity knows no law

The first sign that something was wrong was the message that came over the intercom. “Would the passenger who is using a mobile telephone please turn it off – it is interfering with the plane’s communications systems.” The second was the three men that suddenly burst into the cockpit. All three of them, like me, were travelling first class. The door closed behind them and I looked in bewilderment at the person sitting next to me. It was only then that I noticed he was talking on his mobile-watch and that he probably had been doing so for quite some time. Wanting to seem friendly, I said “I don’t suppose it could be you who’s interfering with the plane’s communication systems, could it?” He glared at me in a dark way and carried on talking in a low voice. An air hostess walked past me heading for the cockpit. She tried to open the door without any success and turned round, an expression of anguish written all over her face. Something was definitely up and a little worm started to gyrate in the pit of my stomach. Then with a sickening jolt, a little voice in my head started up: “For the love of heaven, not another hijacking, not just before Christmas!” As a telecommunications expert, working for the second most powerful mobile communications company in the world, I had been travelling all over the planet for the last four years. And in less than six months, I had had the misfortune to be involved in two hijackings, one in the Philippines and the other in Kuwait. In both cases, local guerilla groups had demanded the release of their imprisoned colleagues. Fortunately, on both occasions I had lived to tell the tale.

But now I was on my way home to New York. Who would want to take control of an aircraft in the middle of the Atlantic? Why hadn’t they waited until they were nearer the coast? Or was it a commando group from one of those Central Asian republics who were going to make us turn round and fly all the way back again? But that didn’t make any sense – the plane was already halfway across the ocean and it would be far too risky to add so much on to our flying time. In short, it probably wasn’t a hijacking at all but just a product of my fertile imagination which still hadn’t got over the shock of the previous two (I tried to tell myself so I would cheer up).

I looked to my neighbour for reassurance. Of course, he didn’t look in the least worried. He was completely absorbed in playing about with something that looked like a fountain pen, if rather more bulky. Suddenly it unfolded itself into a small convex umbrella with a circumference no larger than a compact disc, which he then placed carefully on the fold-out table pointing towards the window. He had next to him an electronic pad (one of those gadgets the size of a notepad which had recently become all the rage on the electronic consumer market) and he was plugging his mobile-watch into it. He put on cordless headphones and started to talk. “Good heavens”, I said to myself, “nobody is going to deter this guy from explaining to his wife the full menu for Christmas dinner he wants.” He fed a card into the e-pad, muttering incessantly as he did it. At that moment, the pilot came on the intercom and addressed the passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen. There is no need for alarm. I have with me in the cockpit some gentlemen who wishes to establish negotiations with the White House. Everything is under control. The only unknown factor at the moment is the exact location of our final destination”.

I closed my eyes, screamed only for my lungs to hear “Shit!!” and the gentleman in the next seat touched me on the arm. When I looked at him, he was pointing a mini-video camera at me.

“What on earth are you doing? You want to record all this for posterity? Well, try something else because we probably won’t get out of this alive.”
“No, Mr. Preston, it’s you who is being recorded for posterity. At the moment, only a few thousand internauts are watching you, but in about l5 minutes, that number will be in the millions.”

My image was on the screen of the e-pad. The man muttered something into his watch and my face was gone.

“I’ve just sent it to the Web that’s broadcasting this whole operation live. Wait – they’ve just told me that at the moment there are more than 265,000 people connected. Not bad, eh? It looks like the network is warming up.”
“You…you…you’re one of the hijackers!! What do you want?”
“Don’t worry. All we want is something very simple – to keep on flying until midnight. If everything works out right, we’ll land one minute before Midnight Mass. You’ll be late for your family dinner, but you’ll get there.”

I tried desperately to tie all the loose ends together but all I ended up with was a tangled mess. Now I understood everything that my fellow passenger had on his table: a complete Internet server connected to various satellites. Doubtless he was broadcasting audio pages to other servers located around the world. Suddenly, I realised that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to interfere with his signals. He was almost definitely sending them masked as part of the aircraft’s own system. But why, what for, in exchange for what? In the whirlpool of ideas rushing round my head, something rose to the surface like a rubber duck in the bathtub:

“How did you know my name?”
“We took the precaution of flying in your company. In fact, if you think about it carefully, we prepared your departure date with the problem that came up on the switchboard in Albania. If the Army manages to interrupt our communications in any way, we’ll always have you to help us open up enough channels in the atmospheric orbit satellites of your company. But don’t worry, we probably won’t need you. Excuse me – just a moment….”

The man took one card out of the lap-top and replaced it with another.

“Look, here we have your excellent home page. We’ll use it as part of the operation’s Web. You have a very interesting biography. I should imagine that when they see that I’ve got you here at my side, they’ll stop trying to shut down the transponders that we’ve got under our control. By the way, they tell me that there are now l2 million people connected to our servers. There are thousands of messages arriving asking about us – about who we are and what we want – and asking about the passengers. We’ve got more than 200 people out there answering these messages. Oops! Here I’ve got a request for a chat with you. It’s from Mr. Kessler, the president of your company. You’ll excuse me if I don’t let you have a complete audio connection. You can speak through the mobile-watch but your words will be automatically transcribed to text. Speak normally – the whole conversation will appear simultaneously on the Web, just like the one my colleagues are having with the White House.”

I had nothing to say to my president. What could I say to him, when he already knew via the Internet much more than I did? He advised me to consider very carefully any request for “collaboration” from my hijackers, but that I shouldn’t do anything that would endanger anybody’s life. In other words, that I was free to “hack” some satellites should circumstances make this unavoidable. He had hardly said goodbye when the transcription of the whole conversation started to appear on the screen, interspersed with images of Mr. Kessler. It was already on the Internet. My neighbour smiled with an intensely annoying composure.

Translation: Bridget King.