Prof’s green eyes settle on that point down from the thick glass window of her adviser’s office in the Department of Computer Science past the hill on the concrete road past the gray industrial zone that sits on what once was a beach past the dark-green waters and the increasingly bluer waters and where the waters are clear where the sun sinks into the sea. She smiles and breathes in and senses the muscles of her face relax beneath the makeup. The small blue USB stick rolls in her palm. She plugs it into the computer and her heart starts racing. So it begins.
Some years ago, while she was recovering from surgery to correct a certain congenital defect, she was toying around with Euler’s analysis of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg and the foundations of graph theory. As her pain subdued, and it dawned on her that now, as far as the realm of the senses was concerned, she was a so-called real woman, she started pondering over the capacity to hide secrets—like the arrangement of one’s chromosomes—in a society of ever-increasing surveillance. Between visits from Aya, her partner and lover, and Mira, her best friend, she sat up in her bed, infatuated with the elegance of Euler’s analysis, drawing diagrams and equations. It was then that she imagined the paradoxical computational possibility of one party conveying knowledge of a secret to another party, without revealing any information about the secret itself. When she was discharged from hospital she started running her idea through the university’s computational software programs.
“Now you’re locking yourself up like a lab rat! Now that you have the unequivocal right to use the women’s dressing room at Gordon beach and model that new bikini I got you! What’s the matter with you?” Mira would taunt her over the phone.
With computer simulations, using colored graphs and other methods, Prof thus invented what she called the “No-knowledge Proof of Knowledge.” Secure multiparty computation was possible if one could set a no-knowledge protocol. Suspecting this would have profound impacts on cryptography, she shared her results with her adviser. Professor Grunich was skeptical but said he would discuss it with some friends in the US.
When she prodded him on the subject some weeks later, he said there were issues of international security involved with the discovery, and that she would have to be patient. They didn’t want the US government to ban the invention prior to its full development. On his table she saw a handwritten note saying, “The Zero-knowledge Protocol.” He told her it was nothing, just a reminder on his to-do list.
The sun sinks further down into the sea and red clouds hang restlessly on the horizon. He has a precious panorama, Professor Grunich. His computer asks her for a password. She unfolds a small paper and types it in. She had already infested the computer with spyware documenting every keyboard strike. To obtain the password all she had to do was look at the top of each daily log. The password is the first thing Grunich types in the morning.
Grunich published a groundbreaking paper about the zero-knowledge protocol, as sole-author. She was mentioned, with her deadname, as his research assistant. Now there is a theoretical capacity to prove possession of secret information—from credit card numbers to military access codes—without giving any of the information away. The understanding of the notion of mathematical proof itself hasn’t seen such a breakthrough since Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. But it was Prof’s breakthrough, not Grunich’s.
“You should be grateful for the acknowledgment I did give you,” he told her.
She was not grateful. Instead, she was furious. She had been naïve to trust Grunich. How foolish to hand over her work to him! Since she had used the standard software, the University of Tel Aviv owned her original computations. She could not prove intellectual ownership. No, the case for the no-knowledge proof was lost. But she would have revenge, her own way.
Grunich had worked in tandem with Israeli and American intelligence agencies to ensure that actual computer protocols would not be completely zero-knowledge. The agencies could not give up on their thirst for control. The result was that the internet itself was centralized and built in with intentionally jeopardized security. In recognition of his compliance, Grunich received the prestigious Turing Award. Her own theoretical baby was sold to the powers that be.
Ironically, she was then offered a tenure-track position at Tel Aviv U. As she hadn’t even officially completed her dissertation, she suspected this was Grunich’s attempt to pacify her and keep her under his eye. “Keep your friends close and your enemies like a bone in your fucking throat,” Mira would say. Cornered by a swelling debt for her surgery and transition, she accepted the offer. He sent her a congratulatory card, I’m certain great things lie ahead of you.
Now she is teaching the same fresh-out-of-military menaces who might grow up to plagiarize the work of people like her. As the shimmering threads of sunlight shift westward, her students move like stick figures on the grass down the hill towards the city. A cold concentrated calm settles. Images from the rituals of Aya and Mira come up. She thinks of her ancestors and of the other beneficiaries of her vengeance. Alan Turing, the genius who was tortured to death for being gay, and whose work was recuperated for the use of his own murderers.
“And for birds and fish and rivers and sand dunes,” Aya utters quietly in the back of Prof’s head. Prof nods. Her shoulders slightly shiver, concave over Grunich’s keyboard. She activates her mega worm.
The implications of her early work on no-knowledge proofs led to a daring notion: the possibility of obfuscating the foundations not just of a proof but of a computer program to the extent that it would be used without revealing its inner-workings. Without revealing even its own existence. Wizened by her previous experience, she had no intention of resigning this theoretical framework for self-acclaim and recuperation. She developed this new, dangerous idea in complete secrecy, working on computer software she designed and pirated for herself on isolated and protected computers. She would exploit the hegemonic need for control and centralization against itself.
After several years of frustratingly tedious work producing giant, uncontrollable albatrosses, she had finally succeeded in creating an elegant yet deadly monster. A standalone program capable of reproducing itself and spreading to other computers, consuming so little bandwidth so as to completely avoid detection. Her mega worm would be able to not only spread, but gather information, change existing programs, install backdoors in infected computers, penetrate elaborate security systems, and transform itself to respond to updates. In a couple of years, it would replicate so massively that Prof would be able to singlehandedly cause an informational apocalypse. She would be able to communicate with the worm with use of a password, pirate Grunich’s work at the point of its creation, spy on corporate credit systems, and access military communications and drone operations. And that was just the beginning of it. If exchange with the worm would trigger detection, agents could be captured and disassembled by the enemy without revealing the program’s secrets. At worst, they would lead to the originally infected computer. Grunich’s office computer.
She stifles a mischievous laughter, extracts the flash drive, and eliminates traces of her visit. A last sliver of sunlight droops off the horizon. She breathes in deeply, checks again for traces, stretches, stands up and leaves. Her big black dress falls to an inch of the floor and floats behind her as she strolls to the exit. The janitor greets her, “Leaving early tonight?” She returns his wink and excuses herself. At home she finds Aya sitting and reading a book on the windowsill.
“Reading that new Aviem Khouri?” Prof unwraps her black scarf and hangs it on the coat rack.
“No, it’s an old one I haven’t read yet,” Aya says, not lifting her eyes off the paper.
“What’s the story?”
“It’s about a planet in which the legs of all people are bound in some funky sci-fi ropes at birth. People still manage to walk on their feet somehow, and a whole narrative is created to attribute their capacity to walk to the ropes themselves. And doctors, scientists, police, everyone participates in the scam. Then there’s this girl who is very thin and weak, and no one pays any attention to her. But at night she slides out of the ropes and walks around, upright and agile like nobody else.”
“What happens in the end?” Prof flicks the switch, and the kettle starts whispering.
“I don’t know, I just started.” Aya finishes the line and folds the book. She lifts her gaze at Prof, now snacking on dates. “Are you turning into a workaholic again?”
“You wouldn’t believe what I just did, love.” Prof throws her cell phone into the bedroom and shuts the door behind it.
Pause. Prof stares at her. Aya puts the book away.
“Well?” says Aya.
“I released that thing I’ve been working on.”
“Wow,” Aya says.
“I might be the most dangerous woman in the world.” Prof smiles. “That is, until they catch on to this and send me to Guantanamo.”
Aya places a shushing finger on her lips. “What made this the right time?” She asks.
“I’m not sure,” Prof says. “Better late than never.”
“And it’ll take a while until it’s useful anyway.” Aya gets up and stands on her toes to kiss Prof on the lips.
Prof holds Aya around the lower back and Aya strokes Prof’s graying hair. They smile at each other.
“Good. I love you.” Another kiss. “Let’s not talk about this ever again.”
“Okay,” says Prof.
Night has fallen but the city stays awake, throwing about five gigawatts of power into the dark purple sky, gemmed, for its own part, by a few stars still visible to the naked eye. As cellular towers, satellites, and optical fiber cables transmit raw information of over a million people in the metropolitan area, this conversation drowns in the sea of data, and Prof’s mega worm slowly slithers, undetected, making its way through the meta logs.