Authors: Bruce Sterling
© 2010 by Bruce Sterling
Copyright for digital edition for all languages
© Digitpub srl 2010
via Adige 20 - 20135 Milano, Italia
Cover di Roberto Grassilli
Published in ebook by August 2010.
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The ethical journalist protects a confidential source. So I protected “Massimo Montaldo,” although I knew that wasn’t his name.
Massimo shambled through the tall glass doors, dropped his valise with a thump, and sat across the table. We were meeting where we always met: inside the Caffe Elena, a dark and cozy spot that fronts on the biggest plaza in Europe.
The Elena has two rooms as narrow and dignified as mahogany coffins, with lofty red ceilings. The little place has seen its share of stricken wanderers. Massimo never confided his personal troubles to me, but they were obvious, as if he’d smuggled monkeys into the café and hidden them under his clothes.
Like every other hacker in the world, Massimo Montaldo was bright. Being Italian, he struggled to look suave. Massimo wore stain-proof, wrinkle-proof travel gear: a black merino wool jacket, an American black denim shirt, and black cargo pants. Massimo also sported black athletic trainers, not any brand I could recognize, with eerie bubble-filled soles.
These skeletal shoes of his were half-ruined. They were strapped together with rawhide boot-laces.
To judge by his Swiss-Italian accent, Massimo had spent a lot of time in Geneva. Four times he’d leaked chip secrets to me—crisp engineering graphics, apparently snipped right out of Swiss patent applications. However, the various bureaus in Geneva had no records of these patents. They had no records of any “Massimo Montaldo,” either.
Each time I’d made use of Massimo’s indiscretions, the traffic to my weblog had doubled.
I knew that Massimo’s commercial sponsor, or more likely his spymaster, was using me to manipulate the industry I covered. Big bets were going down in the markets somewhere. Somebody was cashing in like a bandit.
That profiteer wasn’t me, and I had to doubt that it was him. I never financially speculate in the companies I cover as a journalist, because that is the road to hell. As for young Massimo, his road to hell was already well-trampled.
Massimo twirled the frail stem of his glass of Barolo. His shoes were wrecked, his hair was unwashed, and he looked like he’d shaved in an airplane toilet. He handled the best wine in Europe like a scorpion poised to sting his liver. Then he gulped it down.
Unasked, the waiter poured him another. They know me at the Elena.
Massimo and I had a certain understanding. As we chatted about Italian tech companies—he knew them from Alessi to Zanotti—I discreetly passed him useful favors. A cellphone chip—bought in another man’s name. A plastic hotel pass key for a local hotel room, rented by a third party. Massimo could use these without ever showing a passport or any identification.
There were eight “Massimo Montaldos” on Google and none of them were him. Massimo flew in from places unknown, he laid his eggs of golden information, then he paddled off into dark waters. I was protecting him by giving him those favors. Surely there were other people very curious about him, besides myself.
The second glass of Barolo eased that ugly crease in his brows. He rubbed his beak of a nose, and smoothed his unruly black hair, and leaned onto the thick stone table with both of his black woolen elbows.
“Luca, I brought something special for you this time. Are you ready for that? Something you can’t even imagine.”
“I suppose,” I said.
Massimo reached into his battered leather valise and brought out a no-name PC laptop. This much-worn machine, its corners bumped with use and its keyboard dingy, had one of those thick super-batteries clamped onto its base. All that extra power must have tripled the computer’s weight. Small wonder that Massimo never carried spare shoes.
He busied himself with his grimy screen, fixated by his private world there.
The Elena is not a celebrity bar, which is why celebrities like it. A blonde television presenter swayed into the place. Massimo, who was now deep into his third glass, whipped his intense gaze from his laptop screen. He closely studied her curves, which were upholstered in Gucci.
An Italian television presenter bears the relationship to news that American fast food bears to food. So I couldn’t feel sorry for her—yet I didn’t like the way he sized her up. Genius gears were turning visibly in Massimo’s brilliant geek head. That woman had all the raw, compelling appeal to him of some difficult math problem.
Left alone with her, he would chew on that problem until something clicked loose and fell into his hands, and, to do her credit, she could feel that. She opened her dainty crocodile purse and slipped on a big pair of sunglasses.
“Signor Montaldo,” I said.
He was rapt.
This woke him from his lustful reverie. He twisted the computer and exhibited his screen to me.
I don’t design chips, but I’ve seen the programs used for that purpose. Back in the 1980s, there were thirty different chip-design programs. Nowadays there are only three survivors. None of them are nativized in the Italian language, because every chip geek in the world speaks English.
This program was in Italian. It looked elegant. It looked like a very stylish way to design computer chips. Computer chip engineers are not stylish people. Not in this world, anyway.
Massimo tapped at his weird screen with a gnawed fingernail. “This is just a cheap, 24-K embed. But do you see these?”
“Yes I do. What are they?”
“These are memristors.”
In heartfelt alarm, I stared around the café, but nobody in the Elena knew or cared in the least about Massimo’s stunning revelation. He could have thrown memristors onto their tables in heaps. They’d never realize that he was tossing them the keys to riches.
I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible—we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s—but nobody had ever manufactured one.
A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.
I sipped the Barolo so I could find my voice again. “You brought me schematics for memristors? What happened, did your UFO crash?”
“That’s very witty, Luca.”
“You can’t hand me something like that! What on Earth do you expect me to do with that?”
“I am not giving these memristor plans to you. I have decided to give them to Olivetti. I will tell you what to do: you make one confidential call to your good friend, the Olivetti Chief Technical Officer. You tell him to look hard in his junk folder where he keeps the spam with no return address. Interesting things will happen, then. He’ll be grateful to you.”
“Olivetti is a fine company,” I said. “But they’re not the outfit to handle a monster like that. A memristor is strictly for the big boys—Intel, Samsung, Fujitsu.”
Massimo laced his hands together on the table—he might have been at prayer—and stared at me with weary sarcasm. “Luca,” he said, “don’t you ever get tired of seeing Italian genius repressed?”
The Italian chip business is rather modest. It can’t always make its ends meet. I spent fifteen years covering chip tech in Route 128 in Boston. When the almighty dollar ruled the tech world, I was glad that I’d made those connections.
But times do change. Nations change, industries change. Industries change the times.
Massimo had just shown me something that changes industries. A disruptive innovation. A breaker of the rules.
“This matter is serious,” I said. “Yes, Olivetti’s people do read my weblog—they even comment there. But that doesn’t mean that I can leak some breakthrough that deserves a Nobel Prize. Olivetti would want to know, they would have to know, the source of that.”
He shook his head. “They don’t want to know, and neither do you.”
“Oh yes, I most definitely do want to know.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me.”
“Massimo, I’m a journalist. That means that I always want to know, and I never trust anybody.”
He slapped the table. “Maybe you were a ‘journalist’ when they still printed paper ‘journals.’ But your dot-com journals are all dead. Nowadays you’re a blogger. You’re an influence peddler and you spread rumors for a living.” Massimo shrugged, because he didn’t think he was insulting me. “So, shut up! Just do what you always do! That’s all I’m asking.”
That might be all that he was asking, but my whole business was in asking. “Who created that chip?” I asked him. “I know it wasn’t you. You know a lot about tech investment, but you’re not Leonardo da Vinci.”
“No, I’m not Leonardo.” He emptied his glass.
“Look, I know that you’re not even ‘Massimo Montaldo’—whoever that is. I’ll do a lot to get news out on my blog. But I’m not going to act as your cut-out in a scheme like this! That’s totally unethical! Where did you steal that chip? Who made it? What are they, Chinese super-engineers in some bunker under Beijing?”
Massimo was struggling not to laugh at me. “I can’t reveal that. Could we have another round? Maybe a sandwich? I need a nice toasty pancetta.”
I got the waiter’s attention. I noted that the TV star’s boyfriend had shown up. Her boyfriend was not her husband. Unfortunately, I was not in the celebrity tabloid business. It wasn’t the first time I’d missed a good bet by consorting with computer geeks.
“So you’re an industrial spy,” I told him. “And you must be Italian to boot, because you’re always such a patriot about it. Okay, so you stole those plans somewhere. I won’t ask you how or why. But let me give you some good advice: no sane man would leak that to Olivetti. Olivetti’s a consumer outfit. They make pretty toys for cute secretaries. A memristor chip is dynamite.”
Massimo was staring raptly at the TV blonde as he awaited his sandwich.
“Massimo, pay attention. If you leak something that advanced, that radical… a chip like that could change the world’s military balance of power. Never mind Olivetti. Big American spy agencies with three letters in their names will come calling.”
Massimo scratched his dirty scalp and rolled his eyes in derision. “Are you so terrorized by the CIA? They don’t read your sorry little one-man tech blog.”
This crass remark irritated me keenly. “Listen to me, boy genius: do you know what the CIA does here in Italy? We’re their ‘rendition’ playground. People vanish off the streets.”
“Anybody can ‘vanish off the streets.’ I do that all the time.”
I took out my Moleskin notebook and my shiny Rotring technical pen. I placed them both on the Elena’s neat little marble table. Then I slipped them both back inside my jacket. “Massimo, I’m trying hard to be sensible about this. Your snotty attitude is not helping your case with me.”
With an effort, my source composed himself. “It’s all very simple,” he lied. “I’ve been here a while, and now I’m tired of this place. So I’m leaving. I want to hand the future of electronics to an Italian company. With no questions asked and no strings attached. You won’t help me do that simple thing?”
“No, of course I won’t! Not under conditions like these. I don’t know where you got that data, what, how, when, whom, or why… I don’t even know who you are! Do I look like that kind of idiot? Unless you tell me your story, I can’t trust you.”
He made that evil gesture: I had no balls. Twenty years ago—well, twentyfive—and we would have stepped outside the bar. Of course I was angry with him—but I also knew he was about to crack. My source was drunk and he was clearly in trouble. He didn’t need a fist-fight with a journalist. He needed confession.
Massimo put a bold sneer on his face, watching himself in one of the Elena’s tall spotted mirrors. “If this tiny gadget is too big for your closed mind, then I’ve got to find another blogger! A blogger with some guts!”
“Great. Sure. Go do that. You might try Beppe Grillo.”
Massimo tore his gaze from his own reflection. “That washed-up TV comedian? What does he know about technology?”
“Try Berlusconi, then. He owns all the television stations and half the Italian Internet. Prime Minister Berlusconi is just the kind of hustler you need. He’ll free you from all your troubles. He’ll make you Minister of something.”
Massimo lost all patience. “I don’t need that! I’ve been to a lot of versions of Italy. Yours is a complete disgrace! I don’t know how you people get along with yourselves!”
Now the story was tearing loose. I offered an encouraging nod. “How many ‘versions of Italy’ do you need, Massimo?”
“I have sixty-four versions of Italy.” He patted his thick laptop. “Got them all right here.”
I humored him. “Only sixty-four?”
His tipsy face turned red.“I had to borrow CERN’s supercomputers to calculate all those coordinates! Thirty-two Italies were too few! A hundred twenty-eight… I’d never have the time to visit all those! And as for
Italy… well… I wouldn’t be here at all, if it wasn’t for that Turinese girl.”
“‘Cherchez la femme,’” I told him. “That’s the oldest trouble-story in the world.”
“I did her some favors,” he admitted, mournfully twisting his wineglass. “Like with you. But much more so.”
I felt lost, but I knew that his story was coming. Once I’d coaxed it out of him, I could put it into better order later.
“So, tell me: what did she do to you?”
“She dumped me,” he said. He was telling me the truth, but with a lost, forlorn, bewildered air, like he couldn’t believe it himself. “She dumped me and she married the President of France.” Massimo glanced up, his eyelashes wet with grief. “I don’t blame her. I know why she did that. I’m a very handy guy for a woman like her, but Mother of God, I’m not the President of France!”
“No, no, you’re not the President of France,” I agreed. The President of France was a hyperactive Hungarian Jewish guy who liked to sing karaoke songs. President Nicolas Sarkozy was an exceedingly unlikely character, but he was odd in a very different way from Massimo Montaldo.
Massimo’s voice was cracking with passion. “She says that he’ll make her the First Lady of Europe! All I’ve got to offer her is insider-trading hints and a few extra millions for her millions.”
The waiter brought Massimo a toasted sandwich.