THE ADVENTURE OF THE EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION
written by Cory Doctorow and narrated by Derek Perkins

 

Holmes buzzed me into his mansion flat above Baker Street Station without a word, as was his custom, but the human subconscious is a curious instrument. It can detect minute signals so fine that the conscious mind would dismiss them as trivialities. My subconscious picked up on some cue—the presence of a full stop in his text, perhaps: “Watson, I must see you at once.” Or perhaps he held down the door admission buzzer for an infinitesimence longer than was customary.

I endured unaccountable nerves on the ride up in the lift, whose smell reminded me as ever of Changi airport, hinting at both luxury and industry. Or perhaps I felt no nerves at all—I may be fooled by one of my memory’s many expert lies, its seamless insertion of the present-day’s facts into my recollections of the past. That easy facility with untruth is the reason for empiricism. No one, not even the storied Sherlock Holmes himself, can claim to have perfect recollection. It’s a matter of neuroanatomy. Why would your brain waste its precious, finite neurons on precise recall of the crunch of this morning’s toast when there are matters of real import that it must also store and track?

I had barely touched the polished brass knocker on flat 221 when the handle turned and the door flew open. I caught a momentary glimpse of Holmes’s aquiline features in the light from the hallway sconce before he turned on his heel and stalked back into the gloom of his vestibule, the tails of his mouse-colored dressing-gown swirling behind him as he disappeared into his study. I followed him, resisting the temptation to switch on a light to guide me through the long, dark corridor.

The remains of a fire were in the grate, and its homey smell warred with the actinic stink of stale tobacco smoke and the gamy smell of Holmes himself, who was overdue for a shower. He was in a bad way.

“Watson, grateful as I am for your chronicles of my little ‘adventures,’ it is sometimes the case that I cannot recognize myself in their annals.” He gestured around him and I saw, in the half-light, a number of the first editions I had gifted to him, fluttering with Post-it tabs stuck to their pages. “Moreover, some days I wish I could be that literary creation of yours with all his glittering intellect and cool reason, rather than the imperfection you see before you.”

It was not the first time I’d seen my friend in the midst of a visit by the black dog. Seeing that man—yes, that creature of glittering intellect and cool reason—so affected never failed to shake me. This was certainly the most serious episode I’d witnessed—if, that is, my memory is not tricking me with its penchant for drama again. His hands, normally so steady and sure, shook visibly as he put match to pipe and exhaled a cloud of choking smoke to hover in the yellow fog staining the ceiling and the books on the highest cases.

“Holmes, whatever it is, you know I’ll help in any way I can.”

He glared fiercely, then looked away. “It’s Mycroft,” he said.

I knew better than to say anything, so I waited.

“It’s not anything so crass as sibling rivalry. Mycroft is my superior in abductive reasoning and I admit it freely and without rancor. His prodigious gifts come at the expense of his physical abilities.” I repressed a smile. The Holmes brothers were a binary set, with Holmes as the vertical, whip-thin 1, and Mycroft as a perfectly round 0 in all directions. Holmes, for all his cerebral nature, possessed an animal strength and was a fearsome boxer, all vibrating reflex and devastating “scientific” technique. Mycroft might have been one of the most important men in Whitehall, but he would have been hard-pressed to fight off a stroppy schoolboy, let alone some of the villains Sherlock had laid out in the deadly back-ways of London.

“If my brother and I have fallen out, it is over principle, not pettiness.” He clenched his hands. “I am aware that insisting one’s grievance is not personal is often a sure indicator that it is absolutely personal, but I assure you that in my case, it is true.”

“I don’t doubt it, Holmes, but perhaps it would help if you filled me in on the nature of your dispute?”

Abruptly, he levered himself out of his chair and crossed to stand at the drawn curtains. He seemed to be listening for something, head cocked, eyes burning fiercely into the middle-distance. Then, as if he’d heard it, he walked back to me and stood close enough that I could smell the stale sweat and tobacco again. His hand darted to my jacket pocket and came out holding my phone. He wedged it deliberately into the crack between the cushion and chair.

“Give me a moment to change into walking clothes, would you?” he said, his voice projecting just a little louder than was normal. He left the room then, and I tapped my coat-pocket where my phone had been, bewildered at my friend’s behavior, which was odd even by his extraordinary standards.

I contemplated digging into the cushions to retrieve my phone—my practice partners were covering the emergency calls, but it wasn’t unusual for me to get an urgent page all the same. Private practice meant that I was liberated from the tyranny of the NHS’s endless “accountability” audits and fearsome paperwork, but I was delivered into the impatient attentions of the Harley Street clientele, who expected to be ministered to (and fawned over) as customers first and patients second.

My fingers were just on its corner when Holmes bounded in again, dressed in his usual grey man mufti; Primark loafers, nondescript charcoal slacks, canary shirt with a calculated wilt at the collar, blue tie with a sloppy knot. He covered it with a suit-jacket that looked to all appearances like something bought three for eighty pounds at an end-of-season closeout at a discounter’s. As I watched, he underwent his customary, remarkable transformation, his body language and habits of facial expression shifting in a thousand minute ways, somehow disguising his extraordinary height, his patrician features, his harrowing gaze. He was now so utterly forgettable—a sales-clerk in a mobile phone shop; a security guard on a construction site; even a canvasser trying to get passers-by to sign up for the RSPCA—that he could blend in anywhere in the UK. I’d seen him do the trick innumerable times, with and without props, but it never failed to thrill.

“Holmes—” I began, and he stopped me with a hand, and his burning stare emerged from his disguise. Not now, Watson, he said, without words. We took our leave from the Baker Street mansion flats, blending in with the crowds streaming out of the train-station. He led me down the Marylebone Road and then into the back-streets where the perpetual King’s Cross/St Pancras building sites were, ringed with faded wooden billboards. The groaning of heavy machinery blended with the belching thunder of trucks’ diesel engines and the tooting of black cabs fighting their way around the snarl.

Holmes fitted a bluetooth earpiece and spoke into it. It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me. “You understand why we’re here?”

“I believe I do.” I spoke at a normal tone, and kept my gaze ahead. The earpiece was on the other side, leaving Holmes’s near ear unplugged. “You believe that we are under surveillance, and given the mention of Mycroft, I presume you believe that this surveillance is being conducted by one of the security services.”

He cocked his head in perfect pantomime of someone listening to an interlocutor in an earpiece, then said, “Precisely. Watson, you are an apt pupil. I have said on more than one occasion that Mycroft is the British government, the analyst without portfolio who knows the secrets from every branch, who serves to synthesize that raw intelligence into what the spying classes call ‘actionable.’”

We turned the corner and dodged two builders in high-visibility clothing, smoking and scowling at their phones. Holmes neither lowered his tone nor paused, as either of those things would have excited suspicion.

“Naturally, as those agencies have commanded more ministerial attention, more freedom of action, and more strings-free allocations with which to practice their dark arts, Mycroft’s star has only risen. As keen a reasoner as my brother is, he is not impervious to certain common human failings, such as the fallacy that if one does good, then whatever one does in the service of that good cannot be bad.”

I turned this over in my mind for a moment before getting its sense. “He’s defending his turf.”

“That is a very genteel way of putting it. A more accurate, if less charitable characterization would be that he’s building a little empire through a tangle of favor-trading, generous procurements, and, when all else fails, character assassination.”

I thought of the elder Holmes, corpulent, with deep-sunk eyes and protruding brow. He could be stern and even impatient, but— “Holmes, I can’t believe that your brother would—”

“Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant, James.” He only called me by the old pet name of my departed Mary when he was really in knots. My breath quickened. “For it’s true. Ah, here we are.”

“Here” turned out to be a shuttered cabinet-maker’s workshop, its old-fashioned, hand-painted sign faded to near illegibility. Holmes produced a key from a pocket and smoothly unlocked the heavy padlock to let us both in, fingers going quickly to a new-looking alarm panel to one side of the door and tapping in a code.

“Had an estate agent show me around last week,” he said. “Snapped a quick photo of the key and made my own, and of course it was trivial to watch her fingers on the keypad. This place was in one family for over a century, but their building was sold out from under them and now they’ve gone bust. The new freeholder is waiting for planning permission to build a high-rise and only considering the shortest of leases.”

The lights came on, revealing a sad scene of an old family firm gone to ash in the property wars, work-tables and tools worn by the passing of generations of skilled hands. Holmes perched on a workbench next to a cast-iron vise with a huge steel lever. He puffed his pipe alight and bade me sit in the only chair, a broken ladderback thing with a tapestry cushion that emitted a puff of ancient dust when I settled.

“I was deep in my researches when the young man knocked. I may have been a little short with him, for he was apologetic as I led him into my study and sat him by the fire. I told him that no apologies were necessary. I have, after all, hung out my shingle—I’ve no business snapping at prospective clients who interrupt my day.”

Holmes spoke in his normal tones, the raconteur’s humblebrag, without any hint of the nervousness I’d detected in him from the moment I’d stepped through his door. We might have been in his study ourselves.

“I knew straightaway that he was a soldier, military intelligence, and recently suspended. I could see that he was a newly single man, strong-willed, and trying to give up cigarettes. I don’t get many visitors from the signals intelligence side of the world, and my heart quickened at the thought of a spot of real intrigue for a change.”

 

“I understand that you are a man who can keep confidences, Mr. Holmes.”

“I have held STRAP 3 clearance on nine separate occasions, though at the moment I hold no clearances whatsoever. Nevertheless, you may be assured that Her Majesty’s Government has given me its imprimatur as to my discretion.”

My visitor barked a humorless laugh then. “Here stands before you proof that HMG is no judge of character.”

“I had assumed as much. You’ve brought me a document, I expect.”

He looked abashed, then defiant. “Yes, indeed I have,” and he drew this from his pocket and thrust it upon me.

 

Holmes drew a neatly folded sheet of A4 from his inside pocket and passed it to me. I unfolded it and studied it.

“Apart from the UK TOP SECRET STRAP 1 COMINT markings at the top, I can make neither head nor tail,” I admitted.

“It’s rather specialized,” Holmes said. “But it might help if I told you that this document, headed ‘HIMR. Data Mining Research Problem Book,’ relates to malware implantation by GCHQ.”

“I know that malware is the latest in a series of names for computer viruses, and I suppose that ‘malware implantation’ is the practice of infecting your adversaries with malicious computer code.”

“Quite so. You may have heard, furthermore, of EDGEHILL, the TOP SECRET STRAP 1 program whose existence was revealed in one of the Snowden documents?”

“It rings a bell, but to be honest, I got a sort of fatigue from the Snowden news—it was all so technical, and so dismal.”

“Tedium and dismalness are powerful weapons—far more powerful than secrecy in many cases. Any bit of business that can be made sufficiently tedious and over-complexified naturally repels public attention and all but the most diligent of investigators. Think of the allegedly public hearings that demand their attendees sit through seven or eight hours of monotonic formalities before the main business is tabled—or of the lengthy, tedious documents our friends in Brussels and Westminster are so fond of. If you want to do something genuinely evil, it is best for you that it also be fantastically dull.”

“Well, this document certainly qualifies.” I passed it back.

“Only because you can’t see through the lines. EDGEHILL—and its American cousin at the NSA, BULLRUN—is, quite simply, a sabotage program. Its mission is to introduce or discover programmer errors in everyday software in computers, mobile devices, network switches, and firmware—the nebulous code that has crept into everything from insulin pumps to automobiles to thermostats—and weaponize them. All code will have errors for the same reason that all books, no matter how carefully edited, have typos, and those errors are discoverable by anyone who puts his mind to it. Even you, John.”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

“Nonsense. A nine-year-old girl discovered a critical flaw in the iPhone operating system not so many years ago. The systems have not grown less complex and error-prone since then—the only thing that’s changed is the stakes, which keep getting higher. The latest towers erected by our offshore friends in the formerly unfashionable parts of London rely upon tuned seismic dampers whose firmware is no more or less robust than the iPhone I made you leave under a cushion in my flat. The human errors in our skyscrapers and pacemakers are festering because the jolly lads in signals intelligence want to be able to turn your phone into a roving wiretap.”

“You make it sound terribly irresponsible.”

“That’s a rather mild way of putting it. But of course, we’re discussing the unintended consequences of all this business, and my visitor had come about the intended consequences: malware implantation. Watson, allow me to draw your attention to the very bottom of the deceptively dull document in your hand.”

I read: “Could anyone take action on it without our agreement; e.g. could we be enabling the US to conduct a detention op which we would not consider permissible?” A cold grue ran down my spine.

Holmes nodded sharply and took the paper back from me. “I see from your color and demeanor that you’ve alighted upon the key phrase, ‘detention op.’ I apologize for the discomfort this thought brings to mind, but I assure you it is germane to our present predicament.”

My hands were shaking. Feigning a chill, I stuck them under my armpits, wrapping myself in a hug. My service in Afghanistan had left many scars, and not all of them showed. But the deepest one, the one that sometimes had me sitting bolt upright in the dead of night, screaming whilst tears coursed down my cheeks, could be triggered by those two words: detention op. I did not sign up to be an Army doctor expecting a pleasant enlistment. What I saw in Kandahar, though, was beyond my worst imaginings.

“Take your time.” There was a rare and gentle note in my companion’s voice. It made me ashamed of my weakness.

I cleared my throat, clasped my hands in my lap. “I’m fine, Holmes. Do go on.”

After a significant look that left me even more ashamed, he did. “I said to my visitor, ‘I presume that you are here to discuss something related to this very last point?’ For as you no doubt perceived, Watson, the page there is wrinkled and has been smoothed again, as though a thumb had been driven into it by someone holding it tightly there.”

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

Holmes continued his tale.

 

“I had done many of these insertions,” the man said, looking away from my eyes. “And the checklist had been something of a joke. Of course we knew that we could break something critical and tip off an alert systems administrator. Likewise, it was obvious that exposure would cause diplomatic embarrassment and could compromise our relationships with the tech companies who turned a blind eye to what we were doing. As to this last one, the business about detention ops, well, we always joked that the NSA was inside our decision loop, which is how the fourth-gen warfare types talk about leaks. Christ knows, we spent enough time trying to get inside their decision loop. The special relationship is all well and good, but at the end of the day, they’re them and we’re us and there’s plenty of room in that hyphen between Anglo and American.

“But the truth was, there was always a chance the Americans would act on our intel in a way that would make us all want to hide our faces. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Holmes, we’re no paragons of virtue. I’ve read the files on Sami al-Saadi and his wife, I know that we were in on that, supervising Gaddafi’s torturers. I don’t like that. But since the Troubles ended, we’ve done our evil retail, and the Americans deal wholesale. Whole airfleets devoted to ferrying people to torture camps that’re more like torture cities.

“Have you ever read an intercept from a jihadi chat room, Mr. Holmes?”

“Not recently.” He gave me a look to check if I was joking. I let him know I wasn’t.

“The kids don’t have much by way of operational security. Loads of ’em use the same chat software they use with their mates, all in the clear, all ingested and indexed on Xkeyscore. Reading the intercepts is like being forced to listen to teenagers gossiping on a crowded bus: dirty jokes about mullahs whose dicks are so short they break their nose when they walk into a wall with a stiffie; trash talk about who’s real hard jihadi, who’s a jihobbyist, complaints about their parents and lovesick notes about their girlfriends and boyfriends, and loads of flirting. It’s no different to what we talked about when I was a boy, all bravado and rubbish.”

“When you were a boy, you presumably didn’t talk about the necessity of wiping out all the kaffirs and establishing a caliphate, though.”

“Fair point. Plenty of times, though, we fantasized about blowing up the old Comprehensive, especially come exams, and some of my mates would honestly have left a pipe-bomb under the stands when their teams were playing their arch-rivals, if they thought they’d have got away with it. Reading those transcripts, all I can think is, ‘There but for the grace of God . . .’

“But they’re them and I’m me, and maybe one of ’em will get some truly bad ideas in his foolish head, and if I can catch him before then—” My visitor broke off then, staring at the fire. He opened and shut his mouth several times, clearly unable to find the words.

I gave him a moment and then prompted, “But you found something?”

He returned from whatever distant mental plain he’d been slogging over. “They wanted a big corpus to do information cascade analysis on. Part of a research project with one of the big unis, I won’t say which, but you can guess, I’m sure. They’d done a new rev on the stream analysis, they were able to detect a single user across multiple streams and signals from the upstream intercepts—I mean to say, they could tell which clicks and messages on the fiber-taps came from a given user, even if he was switching computers or IP addresses—they had a new tool for linking mobile data-streams to intercepts from laptops, which gives us location. They were marking it for long-term retention, indefinite retention, really.

“I—”

Here the fellow had to stop and look away again, and it was plain that he was reliving some difficult issue that he’d wrestled with his conscience over. “I was in charge of reviewing the truthed social graphs, sanity-checking the way that the algorithm believed their chain of command went against what I could see in the intercepts. But the reality is that those intercepts came from teenagers in a chat room. They didn’t have a chain of command—what the algorithm fingered as a command structure was really just the fact that some of them were better at arguing than others. One supposed lieutenant in the bunch was really the best comedian, the one who told the jokes they all repeated. To the algorithm, though, it looked like a command structure: subject emits a comm, timing shows that the comm cascades through an inner circle—his mates—to a wider circle. To a half-smart computer, this teenager in Leeds looked like Osama Junior.

“I told them, of course. These were children with some bad ideas and too much braggadocio. Wannabes. If they were guilty of something, it was of being idiots.

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