The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) (7 page)

She found the pay-as-you-go card she had bought from T-Mobile in Berlin and put it into her telephone. Then she used it to go onto the net. Maybe she should have been far away in another part of the world, dressed up as her alter ego, Irene Nesser.

If the security people at the N.S.A. were diligent and on top of things, they just might be able to trace her to Telenor’s base station here in the block. They would not get all the way through, at least not with the technology now available, but it would still be close and that would be very bad news. Yet she reckoned the advantages of sitting here at home outweighed the risk, and she did take all the security precautions she could. Like so many other hackers, she used Tor, a network by which her traffic bounced about among thousands and thousands of users. But she also knew that not even Tor was watertight – the N.S.A. used a program called EgotisticalGiraffe to crack the system – so she spent a long time further improving her own personal security. Only then did she go on the attack.

She sliced into the platform like a blade through paper, but she could not afford to become overconfident as a result. Now, quickly, she had to locate the systems administrators whose names she had been given and inject her Trojan into one of their files, thereby creating a bridge between the server network and the intranet, none of which was simple, not by any means. No warning bells or anti-virus programs must be allowed to start ringing. In the end she used the identity of a man called Tom Breckinridge to penetrate NSANet and then … every muscle in her body tensed. Before her eyes, her overworked, sleepless eyes, the magic unfolded.

Her Trojan took her further and further in, into this, the most secret of the secret, and she knew exactly where she was going. She was on her way to Active Directory – or its equivalent – to upgrade her status. She would go from unwelcome little visitor to superuser in this teeming universe, and only once that was done would she try to get some sort of overview of the system. It wasn’t easy. It was more or less impossible, in fact, and she did not have much time either.

She worked fast to get a grip on the search system and to pick up all the passwords and expressions and references, all the internal gibberish. She was on the point of giving up when finally she found a document marked
– no foreign distribution – not particularly remarkable in itself. But together with a couple of communications links between Zigmund Eckerwald at Solifon and cyber-agents at the Department for the Protection of Strategic Technologies at the N.S.A., it turned into dynamite. She smiled and memorized every little detail. Then she caught sight of yet another document that seemed relevant. It was encrypted and she saw no alternative but to copy it, even if that would set alarm bells ringing at Fort Meade. She swore ferociously.

The situation was becoming critical. Besides, she had to get on with her official assignment, if official was the right word. She had solemnly promised Plague and the others at Hacker Republic to pull down the N.S.A.’s trousers, so she tried to work out who she should be communicating with. Who was to get her message?

She settled for Edwin Needham, Ed the Ned. His name invariably came up in connection with I.T. security, and as she quickly picked up some information about him on the intranet, she felt a grudging respect. Needham was a star. But she had outwitted him and for a moment she thought twice about giving the game away.

Her attack would create an uproar. But an uproar was exactly what she was looking for, so she went ahead. She had no idea what time it was. It could have been night or day, autumn or spring, and only vaguely, deep in her consciousness, was she aware that the storm over the city was building up, as if the weather was synchronized with her coup. In distant Maryland, Needham began to write his email.

He didn’t get far, because in the next second she took over his sentence and wrote: <
that you should stop with all the illegal activity. Actually it’s pretty straightforward. Those who spy on the people end up themselves being spied on by the people. There’s a fundamental democratic logic to it>
, and for a moment it felt as if those sentences hit the mark. She savoured the hot sweet taste of revenge and afterwards she dragged Ed the Ned along on a journey through the system. The two of them danced and tore past a whole flickering world of things that were supposed to remain hidden at all costs.

It was a thrilling experience, no question, and yet … when she disconnected and all her log files were automatically deleted, then came the hangover. It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner, and those sentences that had seemed so absolutely right a few seconds ago began to sound increasingly childish and more and more like the usual hacker nonsense. Suddenly she longed to drink herself into oblivion. With tired, shuffling steps she went into the kitchen and fetched a bottle of Tullamore Dew and two or three beers to rinse her mouth with, and sat down at her computers and drank. Not in celebration. There was no sense of victory left in her body. Instead there was … well, what? Defiance perhaps.

She drank and drank while the storm roared and congratulatory whoops came streaming in from Hacker Republic. But none of it touched her now. She hardly had the strength to stay upright and with a wide, hasty movement she swept her hand across the desktops and watched with indifference as bottles and ashtrays crashed to the floor. Then she thought about Mikael Blomkvist.

It must have been the alcohol. Blomkvist had a way of popping up in her thoughts, as old flames do, when she was drunk, and without quite realizing what she was doing she hacked into his computer. She still had a shortcut into his system – it was not the N.S.A., after all – and at first she wondered what she was doing there.

Could she care less about him? He was history, just an attractive idiot she had once happened to fall in love with, and she was not going to make that mistake again. She’d much rather get out of there and not look at another computer for weeks. Yet she stayed on his server and in the next moment her face lit up. Kalle Bloody Blomkvist had created a file called
and in that document there was a question for her:

She gave a slight smile, in spite of it all, and that was partly because of Frans Balder. He was her kind of computer nerd, passionate about source codes and quantum processors and the potential of logic. But mostly she was smiling at the fact that Blomkvist had stumbled into the very same situation she was in, and though she debated for some time whether to simply shut down and go to bed, she wrote back:

And what happens, Blomkvist, if we create a machine which is a little bit cleverer than we are?>

Then she went into one of her bedrooms and collapsed with her clothes on.



Despite his best intentions to be a full-time father, and in spite of the intense moment of hope and emotion on Hornsgatan, Frans Balder had sunk back into that deep concentration which could be mistaken for anger. Now his hair was standing on end and his upper lip was shiny with sweat. It was at least three days since he had shaved or taken a shower. He was even grinding his teeth. For hours the world and the storm outside had ceased to exist for him, and he even failed to notice what was going on at his feet. They were small, awkward movements, as if a cat or an animal had crept in under his legs; it was a while before he realized that August was crawling around under his desk. Balder gave him a dazed look, as if the stream of programming codes still lay like a film over his eyes.

“What are you after?”

August looked up at him with a pleading, clear look in his eyes.

“What?” Balder said. “What?” and then something happened.

The boy picked up a piece of paper covered in quantum algorithms which was lying on the floor and feverishly moved his hand back and forth over it. For a moment Balder thought the boy was about to have another attack. But no, it was rather as if August were pretending to write. Balder felt his body go tense and again he was reminded of something important and remote, the same feeling as at the crossing on Hornsgatan. But this time he understood what it was.

He thought back to his own childhood, when numbers and equations had been more important than life itself. His spirits rose and he burst out, “You want to do sums, don’t you? Of course, you want to do sums!” and the next moment he hurried off to fetch some pens and ruled A4 paper which he put on the floor in front of August.

Then he wrote down the simplest series of numbers he could think of, Fibonacci’s sequence, in which every number is the sum of the preceding two, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and left a space for the next number – 34. Then it occurred to him that this was likely too simple, so he also wrote down a geometric sequence: 2, 6, 18, 54 … in which every number is multiplied by three and the next number should therefore be 162. To solve a problem like that, he thought, a gifted child would not need a great deal of prior knowledge. Balder slipped into a daydream that the boy was not disabled at all, rather an enhanced copy of himself; he, too, had been slow to speak and interact socially, but he had understood mathematical relationships long before he uttered his first word.

He sat beside the boy for a long time and waited. But nothing happened. August just stared at the numbers with his glassy look. In the end Balder left him alone, went upstairs and drank some fizzy water, and then settled down again at the kitchen table to continue to work. But now his concentration was gone and he began absent-mindedly to flick through the latest issue of the
New Scientist
. After half an hour or so he went back downstairs to August, who was still sitting on his heels in the same immobile posture in which he had left him. Then Balder noticed something intriguing.

A second later he had the sense of being confronted by something totally inexplicable.

Hanna Balder was standing in the kitchen on Torsgatan smoking a filterless Prince. She had on a blue dressing gown and worn grey slippers, and although her hair was thick and beautiful and she was still attractive, she looked haggard. Her lip was swollen and the heavy make-up around her eyes was not there purely for aesthetic reasons. Hanna Balder had taken another beating.

It would be wrong to say that she was used to it. No-one gets used to that sort of abuse. But it was part of her everyday existence and she could scarcely remember the happy person she once had been. Fear had become a natural element of her personality and for some time now she had been smoking sixty cigarettes a day and taking tranquillizers.

She had known for a while that Westman regretted having been so generous to Frans. In fact it had been a mystery from the start. Westman had been relying on the money Balder sent them for August. For long periods they had been living off it and often he would make Hanna write an email full of lies about unforeseen expenses for some educational expert or remedial therapy, which obviously the funds had never gone anywhere near. That’s what made it so odd. Why had he given up all of that and let Balder take the boy away?

Deep down Hanna knew the answer. It was hubris brought on by alcohol. It was the promise of a part in a new detective series on T.V.4 which had boosted his confidence still further. But most of all it was August. Westman found the boy creepy and weird, even though to Hanna that was incomprehensible. How could anyone detest August?

He sat on the floor with his puzzles and did not bother anyone. Yet he had that strange look which was turned inwards rather than outwards, which usually made people smile and say that the boy must have a rich inner life, but which got under Westman’s skin.

“Jesus, Hanna! He’s looking straight through me,” he would burst out.

“But you say that he’s just an idiot.”

“He is an idiot, but there’s something funny about him all the same. I think he hates me.”

That was nonsense, nothing more. August did not even look at Westman or at anyone else for that matter, and he surely did not have it in him to hate anybody. The world out there disturbed him and he was happiest inside his own bubble. But Westman in his drunken ravings believed that the boy was plotting something, and that must have been the reason he let August and the money slip out of their lives. Pathetic. That at least was how Hanna had interpreted it. But now, as she stood there by the sink smoking her cigarette so furiously and nervously that she got tobacco on her tongue, she wondered if there had not been something in it after all. Maybe August
hate Westman. Maybe he
want to punish him for all the punches he had taken, and maybe … Hanna closed her eyes and bit her lip … the boy hated her too.

She had started having these feelings of self-loathing ever since, at night, she was overcome by an almost unbearable sense of longing and wondered whether she and Westman might not actually have damaged August.

It was not the fact that August had filled in the right answers to the numerical sequences. That sort of thing did not particularly impress a man like Balder. No, it was something he saw lying next to the numbers. At first sight it looked like a photograph or a painting, but it was in fact a drawing, an exact representation of the traffic light on Hornsgatan which they had passed the other evening. It was exquisitely captured, in the minutest detail, with a sort of mathematical precision.

There was a glow to it. No-one had taught August anything at all about three-dimensional drawing or how an artist works with shadow and light, yet he seemed to have a perfect mastery of the techniques. The red eye of the traffic light flashed towards them and Hornsgatan’s autumn darkness closed around it, and in the middle of the street you could see the man whom Balder had noticed and vaguely recognized. The man’s head was cut off above the eyebrows. He looked frightened or at least uncomfortable and troubled, as if August had disconcerted him, and he was walking unsteadily, though goodness knows how the boy had managed to capture that.

“My God,” Balder said. “Did you do this?”

August neither nodded nor shook his head but looked over towards the window, and Balder had the strangest feeling that his life would never be the same again.

Hanna Balder needed to do some shopping. The refrigerator was empty. Lasse could come home at any moment and he would not be happy if there was not even a beer for him. But the weather outside looked ghastly so she put it off, and instead she sat in the kitchen smoking, even though it was bad for her skin and bad in general.

She scrolled through her contacts two, three times, in the hope that a new name would come up. But of course there were only the same old people, and they were all tired of her. Against her better judgement she called Mia. Mia was her agent and once upon a time they had been best friends and dreamed of conquering the world together. These days Hanna was Mia’s guilty conscience and she had lost count of all her excuses. “It’s not easy for an actress to grow older, blah, blah.” Why not just say it straight out?: “You look worn out, Hanna. The public doesn’t love you any more.”

But Mia did not answer and that was probably just as well. The conversation would not have done either of them any good. Hanna could not help looking into August’s room just to feel that stinging sense of loss which made her realize that she had failed in her life’s most important mission – motherhood. In some perverse way she took comfort in her self-pity, and she was standing there wondering whether she shouldn’t go out and get some beer after all when the telephone rang.

It was Frans. She made a face. All day she had been tempted – but did not dare – to call him to say that she wanted August back, not just because she missed the boy, still less because she thought her son would be better off with her. It was simply in order to avoid a disaster.

Lasse wanted to get the child support again.
God knows what would happen
, she thought,
if he were to turn up in Saltsjöbaden to claim his rights
. He might even drag August out of the house, scare him out of his wits and beat Frans to a pulp. She would have to warn him. But when she picked up and tried to say that to Frans, it was impossible to get a word in edgeways. He just went on and on about some strange story which was apparently “totally fantastic and completely amazing” and all that sort of thing.

“I’m sorry, Frans, I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” she said.

“August is a savant. He’s a genius.”

“Have you gone mad?”

“Quite the opposite, my love, I’ve come to my senses at last. You have to get over here, yes, really, right now! I think it’s the only way. You won’t be able to understand otherwise. I’ll pay for the taxi. I promise, you’ll flip out. He must have a photographic memory, you see? And in some incomprehensible way he must have picked up the secrets of perspective drawing all by himself. It’s so beautiful, Hanna, so precise. It shines with a light from another world.”

“What shines?”

“His traffic light. Weren’t you listening? The one we passed the other evening – he’s been drawing a whole series of perfect pictures of it, actually more than perfect …”

“More than …”

“Well, how can I put it? He hasn’t just copied it, Hanna, not just captured it exactly, he’s also added something, an artistic dimension. There’s such a strange fervour in what he’s done, and paradoxically enough also something mathematical, as if he even has some understanding of axonometry.”

“Axo …?”

“Never mind! You have to come here and see,” he said, and gradually she began to understand.

Out of the blue August had started to draw like a virtuoso, or so Frans claimed, and that would of course be fantastic if it were true. But the sad thing was that Hanna was still not happy, and at first she could not understand why. Then it dawned on her. It was because it had happened at Frans’ house. The fact was, the boy had been living with her and Lasse for years and absolutely nothing like this had happened. He had sat there with his puzzles and building blocks and not uttered a word, just having those unpleasant fits when he screamed with that piercing voice and thrashed backwards and forwards. Now, hey presto, a few weeks with Pappa and he was a genius.

It was too much. Not that she was not happy for August. But still, it hurt, and the worst thing was: she was not as surprised as she should have been. On the contrary, it felt as if she had almost seen it coming; not that the boy would draw accurate reproductions of traffic lights, but that there was something more beneath the surface.

She had sensed it in his eyes, in that look which, when he was excited, seemed to register every little detail of his surroundings. She had sensed it in the way the boy listened to his teachers, and the nervous way he leafed through the maths books she had bought for him, and most of all she had sensed it in his numbers. There was nothing so strange as those numbers. Hour after hour he would write down series of incomprehensibly large sums, and Hanna really did try to understand them, or at least to grasp the point of it all. But however hard she tried she had not been able to work it out, and now she supposed that she had missed something important. She had been too unhappy and wrapped up in herself to fathom what was going on in her son’s mind, wasn’t that it?

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Don’t know what,” Frans said in irritation.

“I don’t know if I can come,” she said, and at the same time she heard a racket at the front door.

Lasse was coming in with his old drinking buddy Roger Winter, and that made her flinch in fear, mutter an apology to Frans and for the thousandth time dwell on the fact that she was a bad mother.

Balder stood on the chequered floor in the bedroom, the telephone in his hand, and swore. He had had the floor laid because it appealed to his sense of mathematical order, with the squares repeating themselves endlessly in the wardrobe mirrors on either side of the bed. There were days when he saw the multiplication of the squares reflected there as a teeming riddle, something with a life of its own rising up out of the schematic in the same way that thoughts and dreams arise from neurons or computer programs emerge from binary codes. But just then he was lost in quite different thoughts.

“Dear boy. What has become of your mother?” he said aloud.

August, who was sitting on the floor beside him eating a cheese and gherkin sandwich, looked up with a concentrated expression, and Balder was seized by a strange premonition that he was about to say something grown up and wise. But that was obviously idiotic. August remained as silent as ever and knew nothing about women who were neglected and had faded away. The fact that the idea had even occurred to Balder was of course due to the drawings.

The drawings – by now there had been three – seemed to him to be proof not only of artistic and mathematical gifts, but also of some sort of wisdom. The works seemed so mature and complex in their geometric precision that Balder could not reconcile them with August’s mental limitations. Or rather, he did not want to reconcile them, because he had long ago worked out what this was about.

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