A commercial interlude
As you read through this free ebook, you’ll notice that it is dotted, here and there, with appreciations of great bookstores — stores that I love, stores that have shown me love. As a former bookseller and a book hoarder for life, bookstores are my natural habitat. It’s my hope that as you read this, you’ll (ahem) bookmark these stores for regular visits and show them the love they deserve.
I’ve also dotted this ebook with “commercial interludes,” in which I shamelessly pitch the commercial editions of this book. This, after all, is my living. It’s how I feed my family. It’s how I come to have the extraordinary privilege of sitting in an office all day, making up stories and putting them down in words, which is all I ever wanted to do, since I was six years old. This being the 21st century, there is no way I can force you to pay for this book before reading it — you can get pretty much any ebook on the Internet for free with no more difficulty than you’d undergo if you were to buy it through legit channels — so I hope that by giving you this, and trusting you, that you will reward me by helping to support me and my publisher (whose contribution to this book can’t be overstated).
Now, perhaps you’re thinking, “Hey, I don’t really need a commercial ebook, and I don’t want the print book — can’t I just say thank you some other way?” The answer to that is a resounding yes. As with my other recent books, I have assembled a list of librarians, teachers, and people from other public institutions who would like to get a free copy of Homeland for their kids and patrons. I pay an assistant, the wonderful Olga Nunes, to check out each of these people and ensure that they are who they say they are, and then we list them here:
If you want to tip me for this book, don’t send me cash. Instead, send one of those institutions a copy of this book — buy it from your local store and have it shipped, or buy it online — and that way a bunch of kids will get access to it, and I’ll get the sale credited to my name, which means bigger advances, bigger publicity budgets, and more foreign sales for me. It’s a way to pay your debts forward in realtime, and it’s pretty nifty (if I do say so myself).
(And I do)
Back to buying the book. This book is published by Tor Teen, and like all Tor books, all of its ebook editions are DRM-free. The hardcovers (and the paperbacks, when they ship) pay me a healthy royalty, and go to support a publisher that has poured huge amounts of money and time into making my books better and bringing them to the world. In other words, they’re not just good books — they’re books that do good. Here’s how you get yours:
Amazon Kindle (DRM-free)
Barnes and Noble Nook (DRM-free)
Google Books (DRM-free)
Apple iBooks (DRM-free)
Indiebound (will locate an independent store near you!)
Barnes and Noble
You don’t have to buy the book from an online seller, either. Here’s a tool that will find you independent stores in your area that have copies on their shelves.
This section is dedicated to Chapters/Indigo, the national Canadian megachain. I was working at Bakka, the independent science fiction bookstore, when Chapters opened its first store in Toronto and I knew that something big was going on right away, because two of our smartest, best-informed customers stopped in to tell me that they’d been hired to run the science fiction section. From the start, Chapters raised the bar on what a big corporate bookstore could be, extending its hours, adding a friendly cafe and lots of seating, installing in-store self-service terminals and stocking the most amazing variety of titles.
This book is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license. That means:
You are free:
- to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
Under the following conditions:
- Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
- Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
- No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.
For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link ‹http://craphound.com/homeland›
Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get our permission
More info here: ‹https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/›
See the end of this file for the complete legalese.
GOSH: London, England
London’s GOSH doesn’t even stock my books. They’re strictly graphic novels. But what a store! They’ve got this absolutely choice corner store on Berwick Street, right in the middle of Soho, amidst the dirty bookstores, brothels, vintage vinyl stores, upscale dim sum places, and rad Australian coffee-houses. The store is spacious, having successfully resisted the comic-store-manager’s traditional vice of piling stuff up and stacking it close to maximize the funnybooks and tchotchkes. Instead, it has this brilliantly curated look-and-feel, dominated by huge tables full of brilliantly hand-picked choices, and a basement full of oversized hardcovers and long-boxes full of old singles. You really couldn’t ask for a better comic store in a better location.
The Creative Commons license at the top of this file probably tipped you off to the fact that I’ve got some pretty unorthodox views about copyright. Here’s what I think of it, in a nutshell: a little goes a long way, and more than that is too much.
I like the fact that copyright lets me sell rights to my publishers and film studios and so on. It’s nice that they can’t just take my stuff without permission and get rich on it without cutting me in for a piece of the action. I’m in a pretty good position when it comes to negotiating with these companies: I’ve got a great agent and a decade’s experience with copyright law and licensing (including a stint as a delegate at WIPO, the UN agency that makes the world’s copyright treaties). What’s more, there’s just not that many of these negotiations — even if I sell fifty or a hundred different editions of this book (which would put it in the top millionth of a percentile for novels), that’s still only fifty or a hundred negotiations, which I could just about manage.
I hate the fact that fans who want to do what readers have always done are expected to play in the same system as all these hotshot agents and lawyers. It’s just stupid to say that an elementary school classroom should have to talk to a lawyer at a giant global publisher before they put on a play based on one of my books. It’s ridiculous to say that people who want to “loan” their electronic copy of my book to a friend need to get a license to do so. Loaning books has been around longer than any publisher on Earth, and it’s a fine thing.
Copyright laws are increasingly passed without democratic debate or scrutiny. In Great Britain, where I live, Parliament recently passed the Digital Economy Act, a complex copyright law that allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement; it also creates a “Great Firewall of Britain” that is used to censor any site that record companies and movie studios don’t like. This law was passed in 2010 without any serious public debate in Parliament, rushed through using a dirty process through which our elected representatives betrayed the public to give a huge, gift-wrapped present to their corporate pals.
It gets worse: around the world, rich countries like the US, the EU and Canada negotiated secret copyright treaties called “The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” (ACTA) and “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that have all the problems that the Digital Economy Act had and then some. The plan was to agree to them in secret, without public debate, and then force the world’s poorest countries to sign up for it by refusing to allow them to sell goods to rich countries unless they do. In America, the plan was to pass it without Congressional debate, using the executive power of the President. ACTA began under Bush, but the Obama administration has pursued it with great enthusiasm, and presided over the creation of TPP. The secret part of the plan failed — ACTA ran into heavy opposition in Congress and has been rejected by Mexico and the European Parliament — but the treaty isn’t dead yet, and has supporters on both sides of the house who keep attempting to bring it back under a new name. This is a bipartisan lunacy.
So if you’re not violating copyright law right now, you will be soon. And the penalties are about to get a lot worse. As someone who relies on copyright to earn my living, this makes me sick. If the big entertainment companies set out to destroy copyright’s mission, they couldn’t do any better than they’re doing now. Just as this book is coming into print (February, 2013), the big American ISPs and big American entertainment companies are rolling out “six strikes” — a voluntary plan to harass people accused, without proof, of downloading, and ultimately, to disconnect them from the net.
So, basically, screw that. Or, as the singer and American folk hero Woody Guthrie so eloquently put it:
“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
Most of my previous books have been released under a slightly different Creative Commons license, one that allowed for derivative works (that is, new creative works based on this one). Keen observers will have already noticed that this book is licensed “NoDerivs” — that is, you can’t make remixes without permission.
A word of explanation for this shift is in order. When I first started publishing under Creative Commons licenses, I had to carefully explain this to my editor and publisher at Tor Books. They were incredibly forward-looking and gave me permission to release the first-ever novel licensed under CC — my debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (‹http://craphound.com/down/)›. This ground-breaking step was only possible because I was able to have intense, personal discussions with my publisher.
My foreign rights agents are the inestimable Danny and Heather Baror, and collectively they have sold my books into literally dozens of countries and languages, helping to bring my work to places I couldn’t have dreamed of reaching on my own. They subcontract for my agent Russell Galen, another inestimable personage without whom I would not have attained anything like the dizzy heights that I enjoy today. They attend large book fairs in cities like Frankfurt and Bologna in order to sell the foreign rights to my books, often negotiating with one of a few English-speakers at a foreign press, who then goes back and justifies her or his decisions to the rest of the company.
The point is that this is nothing like my initial Creative Commons discussion with Tor. That was me sitting down and making the case to editors I’ve known for years (my editor at Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, has known me since I was 17). My foreign rights are sold by a subcontractor of my representative to a representative of a press I’ve often never heard of, who then has to explain my publishing philosophy to people I’ve never met, using a language I don’t speak.
This is hard.
Danny and Heather have asked — not demanded, asked! — that I consider publishing books under a NoDerivs license, so that I can consult with them before I authorize translations of my books. They want to be able to talk to potential foreign publishers about how this stuff works, to give me time to talk with them, to ease them into the idea, and to have the kind of extended conversation that helped me lead Tor into their decision all those years ago.
And I agreed. Free/open culture is something publishers need to be led to, not forced into. It’s a long conversation that often runs contrary to their intuition and received wisdom. But no one gets into publishing to get rich. Working in the publishing industry is virtually a vow of poverty. The only reason to get into publishing is because you flat-out love books and want to make them happen. People work in publishing for the same reason writers write: they can’t help themselves.
So I want to be able to have this conversation, personally, unhurriedly, one-to-one. I want to keep all the people involved in my books — agents, subagents, foreign editors and their bosses — in the loop on these discussions. I will always passionately advocate for CC licensing in all of my work. I promise you that if you write to me with a request for a noncommercial derivative use, that I will do everything in my power to see that it is authorized.
And in the meantime, I draw your attention to article 2 of all Creative Commons licenses:
Nothing in this License is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any uses free from copyright or rights arising from limitations or exceptions that are provided for in connection with the copyright protection under copyright law or other applicable laws.
Strip away the legalese and what that says is, “Copyright gives you, the public, rights. Fair use is real. De minimus exemptions to copyright are real. You have the right to make all sorts of uses of all copyrighted works, without permission, without Creative Commons licenses.
Rights are like muscles. When you don’t exercise them, they get flabby. Stop asking for stuff you can take without permission. Please!
Pandemonium: Cambridge, Mass
As you might expect, a town like Cambridge, Mass, is full of amazing nerdware purveyors. When you’re in spitting distance of both MIT and Harvard, there is a hell of a built-in market for Cool Stuff. But sitting atop the mountain of geeky stores is Pandemonium Books, a comics/RPG/book store right on Mass Ave (they used to be in The Garage in Harvard Square, and their departure has left a huge hole in that space). There is practically nothing I like better than to start a walk at MIT (possibly with a stop at the MIT bookstore) and up Mass Ave, to Harvard, with a long, lingering stop at Pandemonium. There’s always something going on there — someone playing a tabletop game, trading Magic cards, or just talking animatedly about the kind of books I love.
Every time I put a book online for free, I get emails from readers who want to send me donations for the book. I appreciate their generous spirit, but I’m not interested in cash donations, because my publishers are really important to me. They contribute immeasurably to the book, improving it, introducing it to audiences I could never reach, helping me do more with my work. I have no desire to cut them out of the loop.
But there has to be some good way to turn that generosity to good use, and I think I’ve found it.
Here’s the deal: there are lots of teachers and librarians who’d love to get hard-copies of this book into their kids’ hands, but don’t have the budget for it (teachers in the US spend around $1,200 out of pocket each on classroom supplies that their budgets won’t stretch to cover, which is why I sponsored a classroom at Ivanhoe Elementary in my old neighborhood in Los Angeles; you can adopt a class yourself at ‹http://www.adoptaclassroom.org/›.
There are generous people who want to send some cash my way to thank me for the free ebooks.
I’m proposing that we put them together.
If you’re a teacher or librarian and you want a free copy of Homeland, email ‹email@example.com› with your name and the name and address of your school. It’ll be posted to ‹http://craphound.com/homeland/donate/› by my fantastic helper, Olga Nunes, so that potential donors can see it.
If you enjoyed the electronic edition of Homeland and you want to donate something to say thanks, go to ‹http://craphound.com/homeland/donate/› and find a teacher or librarian you want to support. Then go to Amazon, BN.com, or your favorite electronic bookseller and order a copy to the classroom, then email a copy of the receipt (feel free to delete your address and other personal info first!) to ‹firstname.lastname@example.org› so that Olga can mark that copy as sent. If you don’t want to be publicly acknowledged for your generosity, let us know and we’ll keep you anonymous, otherwise we’ll thank you on the donate page.
I’ve done this with a ton of books now, and gotten thousands of books into the hands of readers through your generosity. I am more grateful than words can express for this — one of my readers called it “paying your debts forward with instant gratification.” That’s a heck of a thing, isn’t it?
For Alice and Poesy, who make me whole.
The second commercial interlude
Me again. That’s all the forematter. I admit that there’s rather a lot of it. You’re not obliged to read it all (though I think it’s pretty cool, especially the part about buying copies to give to schools and libaries ).
And you’re not obliged to read this interlude, nor the ones that follow. I’ve been giving away free ebooks for nearly a decade now, and my readers have rewarded my generosity with generosity of their own. I’ve had a pair of New York Times bestsellers, quit my day-job, and now I write full time. And I’m still giving away ebooks, and trusting that you, the reader, will reciprocate. You can either buy a book or ebook (always, always, always DRM-free) from one of the big online sellers, or buy a copy from a local bookseller .
Amazon Kindle (DRM-free)
Barnes and Noble Nook (DRM-free)
Google Books (DRM-free)
Apple iBooks (DRM-free)
Indiebound (will locate an independent store near you!)
Barnes and Noble
BakkaPhoenix: Toronto, Canada
This chapter is dedicated to BakkaPhoenix Books in Toronto, Canada. Bakka is the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world, and it made me the mutant I am today. I wandered in for the first time around the age of 10 and asked for some recommendations. Tanya Huff (yes, the Tanya Huff, but she wasn’t a famous writer back then!) took me back into the used section and pressed a copy of H. Beam Piper’s “Little Fuzzy” into my hands, and changed my life forever. By the time I was 18, I was working at Bakka — I took over from Tanya when she retired to write full time — and I learned life-long lessons about how and why people buy books. I think every writer should work at a bookstore (and plenty of writers have worked at Bakka over the years! For the 30th anniversary of the store, they put together an anthology of stories by Bakka writers that included work by Michelle Sagara (AKA Michelle West), Tanya Huff, Nalo Hopkinson, Tara Tallan –and me!)
Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.
I adjusted my burnoose, covering up my nose and mouth and tucking its edge into place under the lower rim of my big, scratched goggles. The sun was high, the temperature well over a hundred degrees, and breathing through the embroidered cotton scarf made it even more stifling. But the wind had just kicked up, and there was a lot of playa dust — fine gypsum sand, deceptively soft and powdery, but alkali enough to make your eyes burn and your skin crack — and after two days in the desert, I had learned that it was better to be hot than to choke.
Pretty much everyone was holding a camera of some kind — mostly phones, of course, but also big SLRs and even old-fashioned film cameras, including a genuine antique plate camera whose operator hid out from the dust under a huge black cloth that made me hot just to look at it. Everything was ruggedized for the fine, blowing dust, mostly through the simple expedient of sticking it in a zip-lock bag, which is what I’d done with my phone. I turned around slowly to get a panorama and saw that the man walking past me was holding the string for a gigantic helium balloon a hundred yards overhead, from which dangled a digital video camera. Also, the man holding the balloon was naked.
Well, not entirely. He was wearing shoes. I understood that: playa dust is hard on your feet. They call it playa-foot, when the alkali dust dries out your skin so much that it starts to crack and peel. Everyone agrees that playa-foot sucks.
Burning Man is a festival held every Labor Day weekend in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock desert. Fifty thousand people show up in this incredibly harsh, hot, dusty environment, and build a huge city — Black Rock City — and participate. “Spectator” is a vicious insult in Black Rock City. Everyone’s supposed to be doing stuff and yeah, also admiring everyone else’s stuff (hence all the cameras). At Burning Man, everyone is the show.
I wasn’t naked, but the parts of me that were showing were decorated with elaborate mandalas laid on with colored zinc. A lady as old as my mother, wearing a tie-dyed wedding dress, had offered to paint me that morning, and she’d done a great job. That’s another thing about Burning Man: it runs on a gift economy, which means that you generally go around offering nice things to strangers a lot, which makes for a surprisingly pleasant environment. The designs the painter had laid down made me look amazing, and there were plenty of cameras aiming my way as I ambled across the open desert toward Nine O’Clock.
Black Rock City is a pretty modern city: it has public sanitation (portable chem-toilets decorated with raunchy poems reminding you not to put anything but toilet paper in them), electricity and Internet service (at Six O’Clock, the main plaza in the middle of the ring-shaped city), something like a government (the nonprofit that runs Burning Man), several local newspapers (all of them doing better than the newspapers in the real world!), a dozen radio stations, an all-volunteer police force (the Black Rock Rangers, who patrolled wearing tutus or parts of chicken suits or glitter paint), and many other amenities associated with the modern world.
But BRC has no official surveillance. There are no CCTVs, no checkpoints — at least not after the main gate, where tickets are collected — no ID checks at all, no bag-searches, no RFID sniffers, no mobile phone companies logging your movements. There was also no mobile phone service. No one drives — except for the weird art cars registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles — so there were no license plate cameras and no sniffers for your E-Z Passes. The WiFi was open and unlogged. Attendees at Burning Man agreed not to use their photos commercially without permission, and it was generally considered polite to ask people before taking their portraits.
So there I was, having my picture taken through the blowing dust as I gulped down water from the water-jug I kept clipped to my belt at all times, sucking at the stubby built-in straw under cover of the blue-and-silver burnoose, simultaneously observed and observer, simultaneously observed and unsurveilled, and it was glorious.
“Wahoo!” I shouted to the dust and the art cars and the naked people and the enormous wooden splay-armed effigy perched atop a pyramid straight ahead of me in the middle of the desert. This was The Man, and we’d burn him in three nights, and that’s why it was called Burning Man. I couldn’t wait.
“You’re in a good mood,” a jawa said from behind me. Even with the tone-shifter built into its dust-mask, the cloaked sand-person had an awfully familiar voice.
“Ange?” I said. We’d been missing each other all that day, ever since I’d woken up an hour before her and snuck out of the tent to catch the sunrise (which was awesome), and we’d been leaving each other notes back at camp all day about where we were heading next. Ange had spent the summer spinning up the jawa robes, working with cooling towels that trapped sweat as it evaporated, channeling it back over her skin for extra evaporative cooling. She’d hand-dyed it a mottled brown, tailored it into the characteristic monkish robe shape, and added crossed bandoliers. These exaggerated her breasts, which made the whole thing entirely and totally warsome. She hadn’t worn it out in public yet, and now, in the dust and the glare, she was undoubtedly the greatest sand-person I’d ever met. I hugged her and she hugged me back so hard it knocked the wind out of me, one of her trademarked wrestling-hold cuddles.
“I smudged your paint,” she said through the voice-shifter after we unclinched.
“I got zinc on your robes,” I said.
She shrugged. “Like it matters! We both look fabulous. Now, what have you seen and what have you done and where have you been, young man?”
“Where to start?” I said. I’d been wandering up and down the radial avenues that cut through the city, lined with big camps sporting odd exhibits — one camp where a line of people were efficiently making snow cones for anyone who wanted them, working with huge blocks of ice and a vicious ice-shaver. Then a camp where someone had set up a tall, linoleum-covered slide that you could toboggan down on a plastic magic carpet, after first dumping a gallon of waste water over the lino to make it plenty slippery. It was a very clever way to get rid of grey water (that’s water that you’ve showered in, or used to wash your dishes or hands — black water being water that’s got poo or pee in it). One of the other Burning Man rules was “leave no trace” — when we left, we’d take every scrap of Black Rock City with us, and that included all the grey water. But the slide made for a great grey water evaporator, and every drop of liquid that the sliders helped turn into vapor was a drop of liquid the camp wouldn’t have to pack all the way back to Reno.
There’d been pervy camps where they were teaching couples to tie each other up; a “junk food glory hole” that you put your mouth over in order to receive a mysterious and unhealthy treat (I’d gotten a mouthful of some kind of super-sugary breakfast cereal studded with coconut “marshmallows” shaped like astrological symbols); a camp where they were offering free service for playa bikes (beater bikes caked with playa dust and decorated with glitter and fun fur and weird fetishes and bells); a tea-house camp where I’d been given a very precisely made cup of some kind of Japanese tea I’d never heard of that was delicious and sharp; camps full of whimsy; camps full of physics; camps full of optical illusions; camps full of men and women; a kids’ camp full of screaming kids running around playing some kind of semi-supervised outdoor game — things I’d never suspected existed.
And I’d only seen a tiny slice of Black Rock City.
I told Ange about as much as I could remember and she nodded or said “ooh,” or “aah,” or demanded to know where I’d seen things. Then she told me about the stuff she’d seen — a camp where topless women were painting one others’ breasts, a camp where an entire brass band was performing, a camp where they’d built a medieval trebuchet that fired ancient, broken-down pianos down a firing range, the audience holding its breath in total silence while they waited for the glorious crash each piano made when it exploded into flinders on the hardpack desert.
“Can you believe this place?” Ange said, jumping up and down on the spot in excitement, making her bandoliers jingle.
“I know — can you believe we almost didn’t make it?”
I’d always sort of planned on going out to see The Man burn — after all, I grew up in San Francisco, the place with the largest concentration of burners in the world. But it took a lot of work to participate in Burning Man. First, there was the matter of packing for a camping trip in the middle of the desert where you had to pack in everything — including water — and then pack it all out again, everything you didn’t leave behind in the porta-potties. And there were very strict rules about what could go in those. Then there was the gift economy: figuring out what I could bring to the desert that someone else might want. Plus the matter of costumes, cool art and inventions to show off… Every time I started to think about it, I just about had a nervous breakdown.
But this year, of all years, I’d made it. This was the year both my parents lost their jobs. The year I’d dropped out of college rather than take on any more student debt. The year I’d spent knocking on every door I could find, looking for paid work — anything! — without getting even a nibble.
“Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is cash-poor and time-rich,” Ange said solemnly, pulling down her face mask with one hand and yanking me down to kiss me with the other.
“That’s catchy,” I said. “You should print T-shirts.”
“Oh,” she said. “That reminds me. I got a T-shirt!”
She threw open her robe to reveal a proud red tee that read MAKE BEAUTIFUL ART AND SET IT ON FIRE, laid out like those British “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, with the Burning Man logo where the crown should be.
“Just in time, too,” I said, holding my nose. I was only partly kidding. At the last minute, we’d both decided to ditch half the clothes we’d planned on bringing so that we could fit more parts for Secret Project X-1 into our backpacks. Between that and taking “bits and pits” baths by rubbing the worst of the dried sweat, body paint, sunscreen, and miscellaneous fluids off with baby wipes once a day, neither of us smelled very nice.
She shrugged. “The playa provides.” It was one of the Burning Man mottoes we’d picked up on the first day, when we both realized that we thought the other one had brought the sunscreen, and just as we were about to get into an argument about it, we stumbled on Sunscreen Camp, where some nice people had slathered us all over with SPF 50 and given us some baggies to take with. “The playa provides!” they’d said, and wished us well.
I put my arm around her shoulders. She dramatically turned her nose up at my armpit, then made a big show of putting on her face-mask.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go out to the temple.”
The temple was a huge, two-story, sprawling structure, dotted with high towers and flying buttresses. It was filled with robotic Tibetan gongs that played strange clanging tunes throughout the day. I’d seen it from a distance that morning while walking around the playa, watching the sun turn the dust rusty orange, but I hadn’t been up close.
The outer wings of the temple were open to the sky, made of the same lumber as the rest of the whole elaborate curlicue structure. The walls were lined with benches and were inset with niches and nooks. And everywhere, every surface, was covered in writing and signs and posters and pictures.
And almost all of it was about dead people.
“Oh,” Ange said to me, as we trailed along the walls, reading the memorials that had been inked or painted or stapled there. I was reading a handwritten, thirty-page-long letter from an adult woman to her parents, about all the ways they’d hurt her and made her miserable and destroyed her life, about how she’d felt when they’d died, about how her marriages had been destroyed by the craziness she’d had instilled in her. It veered from wild accusation to tender exasperation to anger to sorrow, like some kind of emotional roller coaster. I felt like I was spying on something I wasn’t supposed to see, except that everything in the temple was there to be seen.
Every surface in the temple was a memorial to something or someone. There were baby shoes and pictures of grannies, a pair of crutches and a beat-up cowboy hat with a hatband woven from dead dried flowers. Burners — dressed and undressed like a circus from the end of the world — walked solemnly around these, reading them, more often than not with tears running down their faces. Pretty soon, I had tears running down my face. It moved me in a way that nothing had ever moved me before. Especially since it was all going to burn on Sunday night, before we tore down Black Rock City and went home.
Ange sat in the dust and began looking through a sketchbook whose pages were filled with dense, dark illustrations. I wandered into the main atrium of the temple, a tall, airy space whose walls were lined with gongs. Here, the floor was carpeted with people — sitting and lying down, eyes closed, soaking in the solemnity of the moment, some with small smiles, some weeping, some with expressions of utmost serenity.
I’d tried meditating once, during a drama class at high school. It hadn’t worked very well. Some of the kids kept on giggling. There was some kind of shouting going on in the hallway outside the door. The clock on the wall ticked loudly, reminding me that at any moment, there’d be a loud buzzer and the roar and stamp of thousands of kids all trying to force their way through a throng to their next class. But I’d read a lot about meditation and how good it was supposed to be for you. In theory it was easy, too: just sit down and think of nothing.
So I did. I shifted my utility belt around so that I could sit down without it digging into my ass and waited until a patch of floor was vacated, then sat. There were streamers of sunlight piercing the high windows above, lancing down in grey-gold spikes that glittered with dancing dust. I looked into one of these, at the dancing motes, and then closed my eyes. I pictured a grid of four squares, featureless and white with thick black rims and sharp corners. In my mind’s eye, I erased one square. Then another. Then another. Now there was just one square. I erased it.
There was nothing now. I was thinking of nothing, literally. Then I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking about nothing, mentally congratulating myself, and I realized that I was thinking of something again. I pictured my four squares and started over.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but there were moments when the world seemed to both go away and be more present than it ever had been. I was living in that exact and very moment, not anticipating anything that might happen later, not thinking of anything that had just happened, just being right there. It only lasted for a fraction of a second each time, but each of those fragmentary moments were… well, they were something.
I opened my eyes. I was breathing in time with the gongs around me, a slow, steady cadence. There was something digging into my butt, a bit of my utility belt’s strap or something. The girl in front of me had a complex equation branded into the skin of her shoulder blades, the burned skin curdled into deep, sharp-relief mathematical symbols and numbers. Someone smelled like weed. Someone was sobbing softly. Someone outside the temple called out to someone else. Someone laughed. Time was like molasses, flowing slowly and stickily around me. Nothing seemed important and everything seemed wonderful. That was what I’d been looking for, all my life, without ever knowing it. I smiled.
“Hello, M1k3y,” a voice hissed in my ear, very soft and very close, lips brushing my lobe, breath tickling me. The voice tickled me, too, tickled my memory. I knew that voice, though I hadn’t heard it in a very long time.
Slowly, as though I were a giraffe with a neck as tall as a tree, I turned my head to look around.
“Hello, Masha,” I said, softly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Her hand was on my hand and I remembered the way she’d twisted my wrist around in some kind of martial arts hold the last time I’d seen her. I didn’t think she’d be able to get away with bending my arm up behind my back and walking me out of the temple on my tiptoes. If I shouted for help, thousands of burners would… well, they wouldn’t tear her limb from limb, but they’d do something. Kidnapping people on the playa was definitely against the rules. It was in the Ten Principles, I was nearly certain of it.
She tugged at my wrist. “Let’s go,” she said. “Come on.”
I got to my feet and followed her, freely and of my own will, and even though I trembled with fear as I got up, there was a nugget of excitement in there, too. Of course this was happening now, at Burning Man. A couple years ago, I’d been in the midst of more excitement than anyone would or could want. I’d led a techno-guerrilla army against the Department of Homeland Security, met a girl and fallen in love with her, been arrested and tortured, found celebrity, and sued the government. Since then, it had all gone downhill, in a weird way. Being waterboarded was terrible, awful, unimaginable — I still had nightmares — but it happened and then it ended. My parents’ slow slide into bankruptcy, the hard, grinding reality of a city with no jobs for anyone, let alone a semi-qualified college dropout like me, and the student debt that I had to pay every month. It was a pile of misery that I lived under every day, and it showed no sign of going away. It wasn’t dramatic, dynamic trouble, the kind of thing you got war stories out of years after the fact. It was just, you know, reality.
And reality sucked.
So I went with Masha, because Masha had been living underground with Zeb for the better part of two years, and whatever else she was, she was someone whose life was generating a lot of exciting stories. Her reality might suck too, but it sucked in huge, showy, neon letters — not in the quiet, crabbed handwriting of a desperate and broke teenager scribbling in his diary.
I went with Masha, and she led me out of the temple. The wind was blowing worse than it had been before, real white-out conditions, and I pulled down my goggles and pulled up my scarf again. Even with them on, I could barely see, and each breath of air filled my mouth with the taste of dried saliva and powdery gypsum from my burnoose. Masha’s hair wasn’t bright pink anymore; it was a mousy blonde-brown, turned grey with dust, cut into duckling fuzz all over, the kind of haircut you could maintain yourself with a clipper. I’d had that haircut, off and on, through much of my adolescence. Her skull bones were fine and fragile, her skin stretched like paper over her cheekbones. Her neck muscles corded and her jaw muscles jumped. She’d lost weight since I’d seen her last, and her skin had gone leathery brown, a color that was deeper than a mere summer tan.
We went all of ten steps out from the temple, but we might have been a mile from it — it was lost in the dust. There were people around, but I couldn’t make out their words over the spooky moan of the wind blowing through the temple’s windows. Bits of grit crept between my goggles and my sweaty cheeks and made my eyes and nose run.
“Far enough,” she said, and let go of my wrist, holding her hands before her. I saw that the fingertips on her left hand were weirdly deformed and squashed and bent, and I had a vivid recollection of slamming the rolling door of a moving van down on her hand as she chased me. She’d been planning to semi-kidnap me at the time, and I was trying to get away with evidence that my best friend Darryl had been kidnapped by Homeland Security, but I still heard the surprised and pained shout she’d let out when the door crunched on her hand. She saw where I was looking and took her hand away, tucking it into the sleeve of the loose cotton shirt she wore.
“How’s tricks, M1k3y?” she said.
“It’s Marcus these days,” I said. “Tricks have been better. How about you? Can’t say I expected to see you again. Ever. Especially not at Burning Man.”
Her eyes crinkled behind her goggles and her veil shifted and I knew she was smiling. “Why, M1k3y — Marcus — it was the easiest way for me to get to see you.”
It wasn’t exactly a secret that I was planning to come to Burning Man that year. I’d been posting desperate “Will trade work for a ride to the playa” and “Want to borrow your old camping gear” messages to Craigslist and the hackerspace mailing lists for months, trying to prove that the proverbial time-rich kid could out-determination cash-poorness. Anyone who was trying to figure out where I was going to be over Labor Day weekend could have googled my semi-precise location in about three seconds.
“Um,” I said. “Um. Look, Masha, you know, you’re kind of freaking me out. Are you here to kill me or something? Where’s Zeb?”
She closed her eyes and the pale dust sifted down between us. “Zeb’s off enjoying the playa. Last time I saw him, he was volunteering in the cafe and waiting to go to a yoga class. He’s actually a pretty good barista — better than he is at being a yogi, anyway. And no, I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to give you something, and leave it up to you to decide what to do with it.”
“You’re going to give me something?”
“Yeah. It’s a gift economy around here. Haven’t you heard?”
“What, exactly, are you going to give me, Masha?”
She shook her head. “Better you don’t know until we make the handoff. Technically, it would be better — for you, at least — if you never knew. But that’s how it goes.” She seemed to be talking to herself now. Being underground had changed her. She was, I don’t know, hinky. Like something was wrong with her, like she was up to something, or like she could run at any second. She’d been so self-confident and decisive and unreadable. Now she seemed half crazy. Or maybe one-quarter crazy, and one-quarter terrified.
“Tonight,” she said. “They’re going to burn the Library of Alexandria at 8 P.M.. After that burn, walk out to the trash fence, directly opposite Six O’Clock. Wait for me if I’m not there when you show up. I’ve got stuff to do first.”
“Okay,” I said. “I suppose I can do that. Will Zeb be there? I’d love to say hello to him again.”
She rolled her eyes. “Zeb’ll probably be there, but you might not see him. You come alone. And come out dark. No lights, got it?”
“No,” I said. “Actually, no. I’m with Ange, as you must know, and I’m not going out there without her, assuming she wants to come. And no lights? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For a city of fifty thousand people involved with recreational substances, flaming art, and enormous, mutant machines, Black Rock has a remarkably low mortality rate. But in a city where they laughed at danger, walking after dark without lights — lots of lights, preferably — was considered borderline insane. One of the most dangerous things you could do at Burning Man was walk the playa at night without illumination: that made you a “darktard,” and darktards were at risk of being run into by art bikes screaming over the dust in the inky night, they risked getting crushed by mammoth art cars, and they were certain to be tripped over and kicked and generally squashed. Burning Man’s unofficial motto might have been “safety third,” but no one liked a darktard.
She closed her eyes and stood statue-still. The wind was dying down a little, but I still felt like I’d just eaten a pound of talcum powder and my eyes were stinging like I’d been pepper-sprayed.
“Bring your girly if you must. But no lights, not after you get out past the last art car. And if both of you end up in trouble because you wouldn’t come out alone, you’ll know who’s fault it was.”
She turned on her heel and walked off into the dust, and she was out of my sight in a minute. I hurried back to the temple to find Ange.
WORD: Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn is full of kick-ass indie stores, but if I had to pick just one to visit (thankfully, I don’t!), it would be Word, the tiny, adorable, perfect little store with the big basement that is a hub for community events. They’re smart, sassy, and forward-looking, and their staff room (where visiting authors get to sit down and eat a quick take-out dinner) is full of funny stickers and posters — even moreso than the usual indie store staff-room.
They burn a lot of stuff at Burning Man. Of course, there’s the burning of The Man himself on Saturday night. I’d seen that on video a hundred times from a hundred angles, with many different Men (he is different every year). It’s raucous and primal, and the explosives hidden in his base made huge mushroom clouds when they went off. The temple burn, on Sunday night, was as quiet and solemn as the Man’s burn was insane and frenetic. But before either of them get burned, there are lots of “little” burns.
The night before, there’d been the burning of the regional art. Burner affinity groups from across America, Canada and the rest of the world had designed and built beautiful wooden structures ranging from something the size of a park bench up to three-story-tall fanciful towers. These ringed the circle of open playa in the middle of Black Rock City, and we’d gone and seen all of them the day we arrived, because we’d been told that they’d burn first. And they did, all at once, more than any one person could see, each one burning in its own way as burners crowded around them, held at a safe distance by Black Rock Rangers until the fires collapsed into stable configurations, masses of burning lumber on burn-platforms over the playa. Anything that burned got burned on a platform, because “leave no trace” meant that you couldn’t even leave behind scorch marks.
That had been pretty spectacular, but tonight they were going to burn the Library of Alexandria. Not the original, of course: Julius Caesar (or someone!) burned that one in 48 B.C., taking with it the largest collection of scrolls that had ever been assembled at that time. It wasn’t the first library anyone had burned, and it wasn’t the last, but it was the library that symbolized the wanton destruction of knowledge. The Burning Man Library of Alexandria was set on twenty four great wheels, on twelve great axles, and it could be hauled across the playa by gangs of hundreds of volunteers who tugged at the ropes affixed to its front. Inside, the columned building was lined with nooks that were, in turn, stuffed with scrolls, each one handwritten, each a copy of some public domain book downloaded from Project Gutenberg and hand-transcribed onto long rolls of paper by volunteers who’d worked at the project all year. Fifty thousand books had been converted to scrolls in this fashion, and they would all burn.
LIBRARIES BURN: it was the message stenciled at irregular intervals all over the Library of Alexandria, and sported by the librarians who volunteered there, fetching you scrolls and helping you find the passages you were looking for. I’d gone in and read some Mark Twain, a funny story I remembered reading in school about when Twain had edited an agricultural newspaper. I’d been delighted to discover that someone had gone to the trouble of writing that one out, using rolled-up lined school note-paper and taping it together in a continuous scroll that went on for hundreds of yards.
As I helped the librarian roll up the scroll — she agreed that the Twain piece was really funny — and put it away, I’d said, unthinkingly, “It’s such a shame that they’re going to burn all these.”
She’d smiled sadly and said, “Well, sure, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Ninety percent of the works in copyright are orphan works: no one knows who owns the rights to them, and no one can figure out how to put them back into print. Meanwhile, the copies of them that we do know about are disintegrating or getting lost. So there’s a library out there, the biggest library ever, Ninety percent of the stuff anyone’s ever created, and it’s burning, in slow motion. Libraries burn.” She shrugged. “That’s what they do. But maybe someday we’ll figure out how to make so many copies of humanity’s creative works that we’ll save most of them from the fire.”
And I read my Mark Twain and felt the library rock gently under me as the hundreds of rope-pullers out front dragged the Library of Alexandria from one side of the open playa to the other, inviting more patrons to get on board and have a ride and read a book before it all burned down. On the way out, the librarian gave me a thumbdrive: “It’s a compressed copy of the Gutenberg archive. Fifty thousand books and counting. There’s also a list of public domain books that we don’t have, and a list of known libraries, by city, where they can be found. Feel free to get a copy and scan or retype it.”
The little thumbdrive only weighed an ounce or two, but it felt as heavy as a mountain of books as I slipped it gravely into my pocket.
And now it was time to burn the Library of Alexandria. Again.
The Library had been hauled onto a burn-platform, and the hauling ropes were coiled neatly on its porch. Black Rock Rangers in their ranger hats and weird clothes surrounded it in a wide circle, sternly warning anyone who wandered too close to stay back. Ange and I stood on the front line, watching as a small swarm of Bureau of Land Management feds finished their inspection of the structure. I could see inside, see the incendiary charges that had been placed at careful intervals along the Library’s length, see the rolled scrolls in their nooks. I felt weird tears in my eyes as I contemplated what was about to happen — tears of awe and sorrow and joy. Ange noticed and wiped the tears away, kissed my ear and whispered, “It’s okay. Libraries burn.”
Now three men stepped out of the crowd. One was dressed as Caesar in white Roman robes and crown, sneering magnificently. The next wore monkish robes and a pointed mitre with a large cross on it. He was meant to be Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, another suspect in the burning of the Library. He looked beatifically on the crowd, then turned to Caesar. Finally, there was a man in a turban with a pointed beard — Caliph Omar, the final person usually accused of history’s most notorious arson. The three shook hands, then each drew a torch out of his waistband and lit it from a firepot burning in the center of the Library’s porch. They paced off from one another, and stationed themselves in the middle of the back and side walls, and, as the audience shouted and roared, thrust their torches lovingly in little holes set at the bottom of the walls.
There must have been some kind of flash powder or something in those nooks, because as each man scurried away, great arcs of flame shot out of them, up and out, scorching the Library walls. The walls burned merrily, and there was woodsmoke and gunpowder in the air now, the wind whipping it toward and past us, fanning the flames. The crowd noise increased, and I realized I was part of the chorus, making a kind of drawn-out, happy yelp.
Now the incendiary charges went, in near-perfect synch, a blossom of fire that forced its way out between the Library’s columns, the fire’s tongues lashing at sizzling embers — fragments of paper, fragments of books — that chased high into the night’s sky. The heat of the blast made us all step back from one another, and embers rained out of the sky, winking out as they fell around us like ashen rain. The crowd moved like a slow-motion wave, edging its way out of the direction of the prevailing wind and the rain of fire. I smelled singed hair and fun fur and a tall man in a loincloth behind me smacked me between the shoulders, shouting, “You were on fire, sorry!” I gave him a friendly wave — it was getting too loud to shout any kind of words — and continued to work my way to the edge.
Now there were fireworks, and not like the fireworks I’d seen on countless Fourth of July nights, fireworks that were artfully arranged to go off in orderly ranks, first one batch and then the next. These were fireworks with tempo, mortars screaming into the sky without pause, detonations so close together they were nearly one single explosion, a flaring, eye-watering series of booms that didn’t let up, driven by the thundering, clashing music from the gigantic art cars behind the crowd, dubstep and funk and punk and some kind of up-tempo swing and even a gospel song all barely distinguishable. The crowd howled. I howled. The flames licked high and paper floated high on the thermals, burning bright in the desert night. The smoke was choking and there were bodies all around me, pressing in, dancing. I felt like I was part of some kind of mass organism with thousands of legs and eyes and throats and voices, and the flames went higher.
Soon the Library was just a skeleton of structural supports in stark black, surrounded by fiery orange and red. The building teetered, its roof shuddered, the columns rocked and shifted. Each time it seemed the building was about to collapse, the crowd gasped and held its breath, and each time it recovered its balance, we made a disappointed “Aww.”
And then one of the columns gave way, snapping in two, taking the far corner of the roof with it, and the roof sheared downward and pulled free of the other columns, and they fell, too, and the whole thing collapsed in a crash and crackle, sending a fresh cloud of burning paper up in its wake. The Black Rock Rangers pulled back and we rushed forward, surrounding the wreckage, crowding right up to the burning, crackling pile of lumber and paper and ash. The music got a lot louder — the art cars were pulling in tight now — and there was the occasional boom as a stray firework left in the pile sent up a glowing mortar. It was glorious. It was insane.
It was over, and it was time to get moving.
“Let’s go,” I said to Ange. She’d taken the news about Masha calmly, but she’d said, “There’s no way I’m letting you go out there alone,” when I told her that Masha had insisted on meeting me.
“That’s what I told her,” I said, and Ange stood on tiptoes, reached up, and patted me on the head.
“That’s my boy,” she said.
We threaded our way through the dancing, laughing crowd, getting facefulls of woodsmoke, pot smoke, sweat, patchouli (Ange loved the smell, I hated it), ash and playa dust. Soon we found ourselves through the crowd of people and in a crowd of art cars. It was an actual, no fooling art car traffic jam: hundreds of mutant vehicles in a state of pure higgledy-piggledy, so that a three story ghostly pirate ship (on wheels) found itself having to navigate through the gap between a tank with the body of a ’59 El Camino on a crane arm that held it and its passengers ten feet off the ground and a rocking, rolling electric elephant with ten big-eyed weirdos riding on its howdah. Complicating things was the exodus of playa bikes, ridden with joyous recklessness by laughing, calling, goggled cyclists and streaming off into the night, becoming distant, erratic comets of bright LEDs, glowsticks, and electroluminescent wire.
EL wire was Burning Man’s must-have fashion accessory. It was cheap and came in many colors, and glowed brightly for as long as the batteries in its pack held out. You could braid it into your hair, pin or glue it to your clothes, or just dangle it from anything handy. Ange’s jawa bandoliers were woven through and through with different colors of pulsing EL wire, and she’d carefully worked a strand into the edge of her hood and another down the hem of her robe, so she glowed like a line drawing of herself from a distance. All my EL wire had been gotten for free, by harvesting other peoples’ dead EL wire and painstakingly fixing it, tracking down the shorts and faults and taping them up. I’d done my army surplus boots with EL laces, and wound it in coils around my utility belt. Both of us were visible from a good distance, but that didn’t stop a few cyclists from nearly running us down. They were very polite and apologetic about it, of course, but they were distracted. “Distracted” is a permanent state of being on the playa.
But as we ventured deeper into the desert, the population thinned out. Black Rock City’s perimeter is defined by the “trash fence” that rings the desert, not too far in from the mountain-ranges that surround it. These fences catch any MOOP (“matter out of place”) that blows out of peoples’ camps, where it can be harvested and packed out — leave no trace and all that. Between the trash fence and the center of the city is two miles of open playa, nearly featureless, dotted here and there with people, art, and assorted surprises. If Six O’Clock Plaza is the sun, and The Man and temple and the camps are the inner solar system, the trash fence is something like the asteroid belt, or Pluto (allow me to pause for a moment here and say, PLUTO IS TOO A PLANET!).
Now we were walking in what felt like the middle of nowhere. So long as we didn’t look over our shoulders at the carnival happening behind us, we could pretend that we were the only people on Earth.
Well, almost. We pretty much tripped over a couple who were naked and squirming on a blanket, way out in the big empty. It was a dangerous way to get your jollies, but nookie was a moderately good excuse for being a darktard. And they were pretty good-natured about it, all things considered. “Sorry,” I called over my shoulder as we moved past them. “Time to go dark ourselves,” I said.
“Guess so,” Ange said, and fiddled with the battery switch on her bandoleer. A moment later, she winked out of existence. I did the same. The sudden dark was so profound that the night looked the same with my eyes open and shut.
“Look up,” Ange said. I did.
“My God, it’s full of stars,” I said, which is the joke I always tell when there’s a lot of stars in the sky (it’s a killer line from the book 2001, though the idiots left it out of the movie). But I’d never seen a sky full of stars like this. The Milky Way — usually a slightly whitish streak, even on clear, moonless nights — was a glowing silvery river that sliced across the sky. I’d looked at Mars through binox once or twice and seen that it was, indeed, a little more red than the other stuff in the sky. But that night, in the middle of the desert, with the playa dust settled for a moment, it glowed like a coal in the lone eye of a cyclopean demon.
I stood there with my head flung back, staring wordlessly at the night, until I heard a funny sound, like the patter of water on stone, or —
“Ange, are you peeing?”
She shushed me. “Just having a sneaky playa-pee — the portasans are all the way back there. It’ll evaporate by morning. Chill.”
One of the occupational hazards of drinking water all the time was that you had to pee all the time, too. Some lucky burners had RVs at their camps with nice private toilets, but the rest of us went to “pee camp” when we needed to go. Luckily, the bathroom poetry — “poo-etry” — taped up inside the stalls made for pretty good reading. Technically, you weren’t supposed to pee on the playa, but way out here the chances of getting caught were basically zero, and it really was a long way back to the toilets. Listening to Ange go made me want to go, too, so we enjoyed a playa-pee together in the inky, warm dark.
Walking in the dark, it was impossible to tell how close we were to the trash fence; there was just black ahead of us, with the slightly blacker black of the mountains rising to the lighter black of the starry sky. But gradually, we were able to pick out some tiny, flickering lights — candle-lights, I thought — up ahead of us, in a long, quavering row.
As we got closer, I saw that they were candles, candle lanterns, actually, made of tin and glass, each with a drippy candle in it. They were placed at regular intervals along a gigantic, formal dinner table long enough to seat fifty people at least, with precise place settings and wine glasses and linen napkins folded into tents at each setting. “W. T. F.?” I said, softly.
Ange giggled. “Someone’s art project,” she said. “A dinner table at the trash fence. Woah.”
“Hi there,” a voice said from the dark, and a shadow detached itself from the table, and then lit up with EL wire, revealing itself to be a young woman with bright purple hair and a leather jacket cut down into a vest. “Welcome.” Suddenly there were more shadows turning into people — three more young women, one with green hair, one with blue hair, and…
“Hello, Masha,” I said.
She gave me a little salute. “Meet my campmates,” she said. “You’ve met before, actually. The day the bridge went.”
Right, of course. These were the girls who’d been playing on Masha’s Harajuku Fun Madness team when we’d run into them in the Tenderloin, moments before the Bay Bridge had been blown up by parties unknown. What had I called them? The Popsicle Squad. Yeah. “Nice to see you again,” I said. “This is Ange.”
Masha inclined her chin in a minute acknowledgement. “They’ve been good enough to let us use their dinner table for a little conversation, but I don’t want to spend too much time out here. Plenty of people looking for me.”
“Is Zeb here?”
“He went for a pee,” she said. “He’ll be back soon. But let’s get started, okay?”
“Let’s do it,” Ange said. She’d stiffened up beside me the minute I’d said hi to Masha, and I had an idea that maybe she wasn’t as cool about this meeting as she’d been playing it. Why should she be?
Masha brought us down to the farthest end of the table, away from her friends. We seated ourselves, and I saw that what I’d thought were bread-baskets were in fact laden with long-lasting hippie junk-food: whole-wheat pop-tarts from Trader Joe’s, organic beef jerky, baggies of what turned out to be home-made granola. High energy food that wouldn’t melt in the sun. Masha noticed me inspecting the goods and she said, “Go ahead, that’s what it’s there for, help yourself.” I tore into a pack of jerky (stashing the wrapper in my utility belt to throw away later at camp — turning gift-economy snacks into MOOP was really bad manners) and Ange got herself a pop-tart, just as Masha leaned across the table, opened the little glass door in the candle-lantern, and blew the candle out. Now we were just black blobs in the black night, far from the nearest human, invisible.
I felt a hand — Masha’s hand — grab my arm in the dark and feel its way down to my hand and then push something small and hard into my fingers, then let go.
“That’s a USB stick, a little one. It’s a crypto key that will unlock a four-gigabyte torrent file that you can get with a torrent magnet file on The Pirate Bay and about ten other torrent sites. It’s called insurancefile.masha.torrent, and the checksum’s on the USB stick, too. I’d appreciate it if you would download and seed the file, and ask anyone you trust to do the same.”
“So,” I said, speaking into the dark toward where Masha was sitting. “There’s this big torrent blob filled with encrypted something floating around on the net, and if something happens, you want me to release the key so that it can be decrypted, right?”
“Yes, that’s about the size of things,” Masha said. I tried to imagine what might be in the insurance file. Blackmail photos? Corporate secrets? Pictures of aliens at Area 51? Proof of Bigfoot’s existence?
“What’s on it?” Ange said. Her voice was a little tight and tense, and though she was trying to hide it, I could tell she was stressing.
“Are you sure you want to know that?” Masha said. Her voice was absolutely emotionless.
“If you want us to do something other than throw this memory stick into a fire, you’re goddamned right we do. I can’t think of any reason to trust you, not one.”
Masha didn’t say anything. She heaved a sigh, and I heard her unscrew a bottle and take a drink of something. I smelled whiskey.
“Look,” she said. “Back when I was, you know, inside at the DHS, I got to know a lot of things. Got to see a lot of things. Got to know a lot of people. Some of those people, they’ve stayed in touch with me. Not everyone at DHS wants to see America turned into a police state. Some people, they’re just doing their jobs, maybe trying to catch actual bad guys or fight actual crime or prevent actual disasters, but they get to see things as they do these jobs, things that they’re not happy about. Eventually, you come across something so terrible, you can’t look yourself in the mirror anymore unless you do something about it.
“So maybe you copy some files, pile up some evidence. You think to yourself, ‘Someday, someone will have the chance to speak out against this, and I’ll quietly slip them these files, and my conscience will forgive me for being a part of an organization that’s doing such rotten stuff.’
“So what happened is, someone you used to work with, someone who got a bad deal and has been underground and on the road, someone you trust, that person contacts you from deep underground and lets it be known that she’ll hold on to all those docs for you, put them together with other peoples’ docs, see if there are any interesting connections between them. That person will take them off your hands, launder them so no one will ever know where they came from, release them when the moment comes. This is quite a nice service to provide for tortured bureaucrats, you see, since it’s the kind of thing that lets them sleep at night and still deposit their paychecks.
“Word gets around. Lots of people find it useful to outsource their conscience to a disgraced runaway outlaw, and, well, stuff does start to trickle in. Then pour in. Soon, you’re sitting on gigabytes of that stuff.”
“Four gigabytes, by any chance?” I said. I was feeling a little lightheaded. Masha was giving me the keys to decode all the ugliest secrets of the American government, all the stuff that had so horrified loyal DHS employees that they’d felt the need to smuggle it out. Masha herself would be so hot that she was practically radioactive: I could hardly believe that space-lasers weren’t beaming out of the sky to kill her where she sat. And me? Well, once I had the key, no one could be sure I hadn’t downloaded the insurance file and had a look, so that meant I was, fundamentally, a dead man.
“About that,” she said.
“You have no right to do this,” Ange said. “Whatever you’re up to, you’re putting us in danger, without asking us, without us knowing anything about it. How dare you?”
Masha cut her off with a sharp “Shh” sound.
“Don’t shush me –” Ange began, and I heard/felt/saw Masha grab her and squeeze. “Shut up,” she hissed.
Ange shut up. I held my breath. There was the distant wub wub wub of terrible dubstep playing from some far-away art car, the soughing of the wind blowing in the slats of the trash fence, and there — had I heard a footstep? Another footstep? Hesitant, stumbling, in the dark? A soft crunch, there it was again, crunch, crunch, closer now, and I felt Masha coil up, get ready to run, and I tasted the beef-jerky again as it rose in my throat, buoyed up on a fountain of stomach acid. My ears hammered with my pulse and the sweat on the back of my neck dried to ice in an instant.
Crunch, crunch. The steps were practically upon us now, and there was a bang that made me jump as Masha leaped away from the table, knocked over her chair, and set off into the dark of the playa.
Then there was a blazing light, right in my face, blinding me, and a hand reaching out for me, and I scrambled away from it, grabbing for Ange, screaming something in wordless terror, Ange shouting too, and then a voice said, “Hey, Marcus! Stop! It’s me!”
I knew that voice, though I’d only heard it for an instant, long ago, on the street in front of Chavez High.
“Zeb?” I said.
“Dude!” he shouted, and I was grabbed up in a tight, somewhat smelly hug, my face pressed against his whiskered cheek. His blazing headlamp blinded me, but from what I could feel, he’d grown a beard of the same size and composition as a large animal, a big cat or possibly a beaver. The terror drained out of me, but left behind all its nervous energy, and I found myself laughing uproariously.
Suddenly, small strong hands separated us and Zeb was rolling on the playa, tackled by Masha, who must have circled back and recognized his voice. She was calling him all sorts of names as she wrestled him to the ground, straddling his chest and pinning his arms under her elbows.
“Sorry, sorry!” he said, and he was laughing too, and so was Masha, and so was Ange, for that matter. “Sorry, okay! I just didn’t want to disturb you. The girls told me you were down here. Thought a light would kill the atmosphere.”
Masha let him up and gave him a kiss in a spot on his cheek where his beard was a little thinner.
“You are such an idiot,” she said. He laughed again and tousled her hair. Masha was a totally different person with Zeb, playful and younger and not so totally lethal. I liked her better.
“Ange, this is Zeb. Zeb, this is Ange.” He shook her hand.
“I’ve heard of you,” she said.
“And I’ve heard of you, too,” he said.
“Okay, sit down, you idiots, and turn off that damned light, Zeb.” Masha was getting her down-to-business voice back, and we did what she said.
I still felt angry at her for what she’d done to us, but after being scared witless and then let down an instant later, it was hard to get back to that angry feeling. All my adrenaline had been dumped into my bloodstream already, and it would take a while to manufacture some more, I guess. Still, things were far from settled. “Masha,” I said, “you know that what you’ve done here is really unfair, right?”
I couldn’t see or hear her in the dark, and the silence stretched on so long I thought maybe she’d fallen asleep or tiptoed away. Then, suddenly, she said, “God, you’re still a kid, aren’t you?”
The way she said it made me feel like I was about eight years old, like I was some kind of hayseed with cow crap between my toes, and like she was some kind of world-traveling superspy underground fugitive ninja.
“Up yours,” I said, trying to make it sound cynical and mean, and not like I was a widdle kid with hurt feewings. I don’t think I was very successful.
She gave a mean laugh. “I mean it. ‘Fair’? What’s fair got to do with anything? There is stuff going on in the world, bad stuff, the kind of stuff that ends up with dead people in shallow graves, and you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Is it fair to all the people who risked everything to get me these docs for you to walk away from them, because you don’t want to have your safe little life disrupted?
“Oh, M1k3y, you’re such a big hero. After all you bravely, what, bravely told other people’s stories to a reporter? Because you held a press conference? What a big, brave man.” She spat loudly.
Yeah, it got me. Because you know what? She was right. Basically. Give or take. There’d been plenty of nights when I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling and thought exactly these thoughts. There’d been kids in the Xnet who did stuff that was way crazier than anything I’d done, kids whose jamming had put them right up against Homeland Security and the cops, kids who’d ended up in jail for a long time, without any newspaper coverage advertising their bravery. Some of them were probably still in there. The fact that I didn’t know for sure — didn’t even know all their names, or how many there were — was yet another reason that I didn’t deserve anyone’s admiration.
Every bit of clever, flashy wit ran and hid in the furthest corners of my mind. I heard Zeb shuffle his feet uncomfortably. No one knew what to say.
Except Ange. “Well, I suppose not everyone can be a sellout,” she said. “Not everyone can be a snitch who gets to sit in the hidden bunkers and spy on the ones who’re getting beaten and jailed and tortured and disappeared. Not everyone can draw a fat salary for their trouble until the day comes that it’s all too much for their poor little conscience and they just have to go and run away to a beach in Mexico somewhere, lying in the bed they made for themselves.”
It made me smile, there in the dark. Go, Ange! Whatever my sins were, they were sins of omission: I could have done more. But Masha’d done the worst kind of evil: sins of commission. She’d done wrong. Really, really wrong. She’d tried to make up for it since. But she was in no position to shame me.
Another one of those long silences. I thought about dropping the USB stick in the dust and walking off in the dark. You know what stopped me?
Because Zeb was a hero. He’d broken out of Gitmo-By-the-Bay and instead of running, he’d come and found me at Chavez High so that he could pass on Darryl’s note. He could have just hit the road, but he hadn’t. And I’d told his secrets to the world, put him in harm’s way. This wasn’t just Masha’s mission, this was Zeb’s mission, too. They were a team. I owed him. We all did.
“Enough,” I said, swallowing hard on all the stupid emotions, trying to find some of that Zen calm I’d attained at the temple. “Enough. Fine, it’s not fair. Life’s not fair. I’ve got this thing now. What do I do with it?”
“Keep it safe,” Masha said, her voice back in that emotionless zone that I guessed she was good at finding when she needed it. “And if you ever hear that I’ve gone down, or Zeb’s gone down, release it. Shout it from the mountaintops. If I ever ask you to release it, release it. And if you haven’t heard from me by the Friday of the next Burning Man, one year from now, release it. Do you think you can do that?”
“Sounds like something I could manage,” I said.
“I figure even you can’t screw this up,” she said, but I could tell she was just putting up her tough-chick front, and I didn’t take it personally. “Okay, fine. I’m out of here. Don’t screw up, all right?”
I heard her feet crunch away.
“See you at camp, babe!” Zeb called at her retreating back, and his headlamp came back on, dazzling me again. He grabbed a pop-tart from the basket and opened it, chewed at it enthusiastically. “I love that girl, honestly I do. But she is so tightly wound!”
It was so manifestly true that there was nothing for it but to laugh, and so we did, and it turned out that Zeb had some beer that he gift-economied to us, and I had some cold-brew coffee concentrate in a flask that we dipped into afterwards, just to get us back up from the beer’s mellow down, and then we all needed pee camp, and we went back into the night and the playa and the dust.
Barnes and Noble: USA
This section is dedicated to Barnes and Noble, a US national chain of bookstores. As America’s mom-and-pop bookstores were vanishing, Barnes and Noble started to build these gigantic temples to reading all across the land. Stocking tens of thousands of titles (the mall bookstores and grocery-store spinner racks had stocked a small fraction of that) and keeping long hours that were convenient to families, working people and others potential readers, the B&N stores kept the careers of many writers afloat, stocking titles that smaller stores couldn’t possibly afford to keep on their limited shelves. B&N has always had strong community outreach programs, and I’ve done some of my best-attended, best-organized signings at B&N stores, including the great events at the (sadly departed) B&N in Union Square, New York, where the mega-signing after the Nebula Awards took place, and the B&N in Chicago that hosted the event after the Nebula Awards a few years later. Best of all is that B&N’s “geeky” buyers really Get It when it comes to science fiction, comics and manga, games and similar titles. They’re passionate and knowledgeable about the field and it shows in the excellent selection on display at the stores.
All day long, people had been telling me that the weather man said we were in for a dust storm, but I just assumed that “dust storm” meant that I’d have to tuck my scarf under the lower rim of my goggles, the way I had been doing every time it got windy on the playa.
But the dust storm that blew up after we left Zeb behind and returned to the nonstop circus was insane. The night turned white with flying dust, and our lights just bounced back in our faces, creating gloomy grey zones in front of us that seemed to go on forever. It reminded me of really bad fog, the kind of thing you get sometimes in San Francisco, usually in the middle of summer, reducing all the tourists in their shorts and T-shirts to hypothermia candidates. But fog made it hard to see, and the dust-storm made it hard — nearly impossible — to breathe. Our eyes and noses streamed, our mouths were caked with dust, every breath triggered a coughing fit. We stumbled and staggered and clutched each other’s hands because if we let go, we’d be swallowed by the storm.
Ange pulled my ear down to her mouth and shouted, “We have to get inside!”
“I know!” I said. “I’m just trying to figure out how to get back to camp: I think we’re around Nine O’Clock and B.” The ring roads that proceeded concentrically from center-camp were lettered in alphabetical order. We were at Seven Fifteen and L, way out in the hinterlands. Without the dust, the walk would have taken fifteen minutes, and been altogether pleasant. With the dust… well, it felt like it might take hours.
“Screw that,” Ange said. “We have to get inside somewhere now.” She started dragging me. I tripped over a piece of rebar hammered into the playa and topped with a punctured tennis ball — someone’s tent stake. Ange’s iron grip kept me from falling, and she hauled me along.
Then we were at a structure — a hexa-yurt, made from triangular slabs of flat styrofoam, duct taped on its seams. The outside was covered with an insulating layer of silver-painted bubble wrap. We felt our way around to the “door” (a styro slab with a duct tape hinge on one edge and a pull-loop). Ange was about to yank this open when I stopped her and knocked instead. Storm or no storm, it was weird and wrong to just walk into some stranger’s home.
The wind howled. If someone was coming, I couldn’t hear them over its terrible moaning whistle. I raised my hand to knock again, and the door swung open. A bearded face peered out at us and shouted, “Get in!”
We didn’t need to be asked twice. We dove through the door and it shut behind us. I could still hardly see; my goggles were nearly opaque with caked-on dust, and the light in the hexayurt was dim, provided by LED lanterns draped with gauzy scarves.
“Look at what the storm blew in,” said a gravelly, jovial voice from the yurt’s shadows. “Better hose ’em off before you bring ’em over here, John, those two’ve got half the playa in their ears.”
“Come on,” said the bearded man. He was wearing tie-dyes and had beads braided into his long beard and what was left of his hair. He grinned at us from behind a pair of round John Lennon glasses. “Let’s get you cleaned up. Shoes first, thanks.”
Awkwardly, we bent down and unlaced our shoes. We did have half the playa in them. The other half was caught in the folds of our clothes and our hair and our ears.
“Can I get you two something to wear? We can beat the dust out of your clothes once the wind dies down.”
My first instinct was to say no, because we hadn’t even been introduced, plus it seemed like more hospitality than even the gift economy demanded. On the other hand, we weren’t doing these people any kindness by crapping up their hexayurt. On the other other hand —
“That’d be so awesome,” Ange said. “Thank you.”
That’s why she’s my girlfriend. Left to my own devices, I’d be on-the-other-handing it until Labor Day. “Thanks,” I said.
The man produced billowy bundles of bright silk. “They’re salwar kameez,” he said. “Indian clothes. Here, these are the pants, and you wrap the tops around like so.” He demonstrated. “I get them on eBay from women’s clothing collectives in India. Straight from the source. Very comfortable and practically one size fits all.”
We stripped down to our underwear and wound the silk around us as best we could. We helped each other with the tricky bits, and our host helped, too. “That’s better,” he said, and gave us a package of baby wipes, which are the playa’s answer to a shower. We went through a stack of them wiping the dust off each other’s faces and out of each other’s ears and cleaning our hands and bare feet — the dust had infiltrated our shoes and socks!
“And that’s it,” the man said, clasping his hands together and beaming. He had a soft, gentle way of talking, but you could tell by the twinkle of his eyes that he didn’t miss anything and that something very interesting was churning away in his mind. Either he was a zen master or an axe-murderer — no one else was that calm and mirthful. “I’m John, by the way.”
Ange shook his hand. “Ange,” she said.
“Marcus,” I said.
Lots of people used “playa names,” cute pseudonyms that let them assume new identities while they were at Burning Man. I’d had enough of living with my notorious alter ego, M1k3y, and didn’t feel the need to give myself another handle. I hadn’t talked it over with Ange, but she, too, didn’t seem to want or need a temporary name.
“Come on and meet the rest.”
“The rest” turned out to be three more guys, sitting on low cushions around a coffee table that was littered with paper, dice, and meticulously painted lead figurines. We’d interrupted an old-school gaming session, the kind you play with a dungeon master and lots of role-playing. I’m hardly in any position to turn up my nose at someone else’s amusements — after all, I spent years doing live-action role-play — but this was seriously nerdy. The fact that they were playing in the middle of a dust storm on the playa just made it more surreal.
“Hi!” Ange said. “That looks like fun!”
“It certainly is,” said a gravelly voice, and I got a look at its owner. He had a lined and seamed face, kind eyes, and a slightly wild beard, and he was wearing a scarf around his neck with a turquoise pin holding it in place. “Are you initiated in the mysteries of this particular pursuit?”
I slipped my hand into Ange’s and did my best not to be shy or awkward. “I’ve never played, but I’m willing to learn.”
“An admirable sentiment,” said another man. He was also in his fifties or sixties, with a neat grey Van Dyke beard and dark rimmed glasses. “I’m Mitch, this is Barlow, and this is Wil, our dungeon master.”
The last man was a lot younger than the other three — maybe a youthful forty — and clean-shaven, with apple cheeks and short hair. “Hey, folks,” he said. “You’re just in time. Are you going to sit in? I’ve got some pre-rolled characters you can play. We’re just doing a mini-dungeon while we wait out the storm.”
John brought us some cushions from the hexayurt’s recesses and sat down with crossed legs and perfect, straight yoga posture. We settled down beside him. Wil gave us our character sheets — I was a half-elf mage, Ange was a human fighter with an enchanted sword — and dug around in a case until he found hand-painted figurines that matched the descriptions. “My son paints them,” he said. “I used to help, but the kid’s a machine — I can’t keep up with him.” I looked closely at the figs. They were, well, they were beautiful. They’d been painted in incredible detail, more than I could actually make out in the dim light of the yurt. My character’s robes had been painted with mystical silver sigils, and Ange’s character’s chain mail had each ring picked out in tarnished silver, with tiny daubs of black paint in the center of each minute ring.
“These are amazing,” I said. I’d always thought of tabletop RPGs as finicky and old fashioned, but these figs had been painted by someone very talented who really loved the game, and if someone that talented thought this was worth his time, I’d give it a chance, too.
Wil was a great game-master, spinning the story of our quest in a dramatic voice that sucked me right in. The other guys listened intently, though they interjected from time to time with funny quips that cracked one other up. I got the feeling they’d known one other for a long time, and when we took a break for fresh mint tea — these guys knew how to live! — I asked how they knew one other.
They all smiled kind of awkwardly at one another. “It’s kind of a reunion,” Mitch said. “We all worked together a long time ago.”
“Did you do a startup together?”
They laughed again. I could tell that I was missing something. Wil said, “You ever hear of the Electronic Frontier Foundation?” I sure had. I figured it out a second before he said it: “These guys founded it.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “You’re John Perry Barlow?” The guy in the kerchief nodded and grinned like a pirate. “And you’re John Gilmore?” John shrugged and raised his eyebrows. “And you’re Mitch Kapor?” The guy with the Van Dyke gave a little wave. Ange was looking slightly left out. “Ange, these guys founded EFF. That one started the first ISP the San Francisco; that one commercialized spreadsheets; and that one wrote the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.”
Barlow laughed like a cement-mixer. “And turned teraliters of sewage into gigaliters of diesel fuel with tailored algae. Also, I wrote a song or two. Since we’re on the subject.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Barlow also wrote songs for the Grateful Dead.”
Ange shook her head. “You make them sound like the elder gods of the Internet.”
“Enough with the ‘elder’ stuff,” Mitch said, and sipped his tea. “You certainly seem to know your Internet trivia, young man.”
I blushed. A couple of times on the playa, people had recognized me as M1k3y and come over to tell me how much they admired me and so on, and it had embarrassed me, but now I wanted these guys to know about that part of my life and I couldn’t figure out how to get it out without sounding like I was boasting to three of the all-time heroes of the Internet. Again, Ange saved me. “Marcus and I worked with some EFF people a couple years ago. He started Xnet.”
Wil laughed aloud at that. “That was you?” he said. He put on a hard-boiled detective voice: “Of all the yurts in all the playa, they had to walk into mine.”
Mitch held out his hand. “It’s an honor, sir,” he said. I shook his hand, tongue-tied. The others followed suit. I was in a daze, and when John told me that he “really admired the work” I’d done, I thought I’d die from delight.
“Enough!” Ange said. “I won’t be able to get his head out of the door if it gets any more swollen. Now, are we here to talk or to roll some goddamned dice?”
“I like your attitude,” Wil said, and thumbed through his notebook and set down some terrain tiles on the graph paper in front of us. Ange turned out to be a master strategist — which didn’t surprise me, but clearly impressed everyone else — and she arrayed our forces such that we sliced through the trash hordes, beat the mini-bosses, and made it to the final boss without suffering any major losses. She was a born tank, and loved bulling through our adversaries while directing our forces. Wil gave her tons of extra XP for doing it all in character — barbarian swordsmistress came easily to her — and her example led us all, so by the time we got to the dragon empress in her cavern at the middle of the dungeon, we were all talking like a fantasy novel. Barlow was a master at this, improvising heroic poetry and delivering it in that whiskey voice of his. Meanwhile, Mitch and John kept catching little hints that Wil dropped in his narration, discovering traps and hidden treasures based on the most obscure clues. I can’t remember when we’d had a better time.
Mitch and Barlow kept shifting on their cushions, and just as we broke through into the main cavern, they called for a stretch break, and got to their feet and rubbed vigorously at their lower backs, groaning. Wil stretched, too, and checked the yurt’s door. “Storm’s letting up,” he called. It was coming on to midnight, and when Wil opened the door, a cool, refreshing breeze blew in, along with the sound of distant music.
Part of me wanted to rush back out into the night and find some music to dance to, and part of me wanted to stay in the yurt with my heroes, playing D&D. That was the thing about Burning Man — there was so much I wanted to do!
Wil came over and handed me another cup of mint tea, the leaves floating in the hot water. “Pretty awesome. Can’t believe these guys let me DM their game. And I can’t believe I ran into you.” He shook his head. “This place is like nerdstock.”
“Have you known them for long?”
“Not really. I met Barlow and Gilmore a while back, when I did a fundraiser for EFF. I ran into Gilmore at random today and I told him I’d brought my D&D stuff along and the next thing I knew, I was running a game for them.”
“What kind of fundraiser were you doing?” Wil looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him.
“Oh,” he said, and stuck his hands in his pockets. “They brought me in to pretend-fight a lawyer in a Barney the Purple Dinosaur costume. It was because the Barney people had been sending a lot of legal threats out to web sites and EFF had been defending them, and, well, it was a lot of fun.”
I knew him from somewhere. It was driving me crazy. “Look, do I know you? You look really familiar –“
“Ha!” he said. “I thought you knew. I made some movies when I was a kid, and I was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and –“
My jaw dropped so low I felt like it was in danger of scraping my chest. “You’re Wil Wheaton?”
He looked embarrassed. I’ve never been much of a Trek fan, but I’d seen a ton of the videos Wheaton had done with his comedy troupe, and of course, I knew about Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
“That’s me,” he said.
“You were the first person I ever followed on Twitter!” I said. It was a weird thing to say, sure, but it was the first thing that came to mind. He was a really funny tweeter.
“Well, thank you!” he said. No wonder he was such a good narrator — he’d been acting since he was like seven years old. Being around all these people made me wish I had access to Wikipedia so I could look them all up.
We sat back down to play against the megaboss, the dragon empress. She had all kinds of fortifications, and a bunch of lethal attacks. I figured out how to use an illusion spell to trick her into moving into a side corridor that gave her less room to maneuver, and this made it possible for the fighters to attack her in waves while I used a digging spell to send chunks of the cave roof onto her head. This seemed like a good idea to me (and everyone else, I swear it!), right up to the time that I triggered a cave-in that killed us all.
But no one was too angry with me. We’d all cheered every time I rolled a fifteen or better and one of my spells brought some roof down on the dragon’s head, and no one had bothered too much about all those dice-rolls Wil was making behind his screen. Besides, it was nearly 1 A.M. and there was a party out there! We changed out of John’s beautiful silk clothes and back into our stiff, dust-caked playa-wear and switched on all our EL wire and fit our goggles over our eyes and said a million thanks and shook everyone’s hands and so on. Just as I was about to go, Mitch wrote an email address on my arm with a Sharpie (there was plenty of stuff there already — playa coordinates of parties and email addresses of people I planned on looking up).
“Ange tells me you’re looking for a job. That’s the campaign manager for Joseph Noss. I hear she’s looking for a webmaster. Tell her I sent you.”
I was speechless. After months of knocking on doors, sending in resumes, emailing and calling, an honest-to-goodness job — with a recommendation from an honest-to-goodness legend! I stammered out my thanks and as soon as we were outside, I kissed Ange and bounced up and down and dragged her off to the playa, nearly crashing into a guy on a dusty Segway tricked out with zebra-striped fun fur. He gave us a grin and a wave.
We didn’t see Masha or Zeb again until the temple burn, on Sunday night, the last night.
We’d burned The Man the night before, and it had been in-freaking- sane. Hundreds of fire-dancers executing precision maneuvers, tens of thousands of burners sitting in ranks on the playa, screaming our heads off as fireballs and mushroom-clouds of flame rose out of The Man’s pyramid, then the open-throated roar as it collapsed and the Rangers dropped their line and we all rushed forward to the fire, everyone helping everyone else along, like the world’s most courteous stampede. I flashed on the crush of bodies in the BART station after the Bay Bridge blew, the horrible feeling of being forced by the mass of people to step on those who’d fallen, the sweat and the stink and the noise. Someone had stabbed Darryl in that crowd, given him the wound that started us on our awful adventure.
This crowd was nothing like that mob, but my internal organs didn’t seem to know that, and they did slow flip-flops in my abdomen, and my legs turned to jelly, and I found myself slowly sliding to the playa. There were tears pouring down my face, and I felt like I was floating above my body as Ange grabbed me under my armpits, struggling to get me to my feet as she spoke urgent, soothing words into my ears. People stopped and helped, one tall woman steering traffic around us, a small older man grabbing me beneath my armpits with strong hands, pulling me upright.
I snapped back into my body, felt the jellylegged feeling recede, and blinked away the tears. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry.” I was so embarrassed I felt like digging a hole and pulling the playa in over my head. But neither of the people who’d stopped to help seemed surprised. The woman told me where to find the nearest medical camp and the man gave me a hug and told me to take it easy.
Ange didn’t say anything, just held me for a moment. She knew that I sometimes got a little wobbly in crowds, and she knew I didn’t like to talk about it. We made our way to the fire and watched it for a moment, then went back out into the playa for the parties and the dancing and forgetting. I reminded myself that I was in love, at Burning Man, and that there might be a job waiting for me when I got back to San Francisco, and kicked myself in the ass every time I felt the bad feeling creeping up on me.
Temple burn was very different. We got there really early and sat down nearly at the front and watched the sun set and turn the temple’s white walls orange, then red, then purple. Then the spotlights went up, and it turned blazing white again. The wind blew and I heard the rustle of all the paper remembrances fluttering in its nooks and on its walls.
We were sitting amid thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, but there was hardly a sound. When I closed my eyes, I could easily pretend that I was alone in the desert with the temple and all its memories and good-byes and sorrows. I felt the ghost of that feeling I’d had when I’d sat in the temple and tried to clear my mind, to be in the present and throw away all my distractions. The temple had an instantly calming effect on me, silenced all the chattering voices in the back of my head. I don’t believe in spooks and ghosts and gods, and I don’t think the temple had any supernatural effect, but it had an absolutely natural effect, made me sorrowful and hopeful and calm and, well, soft-edged all at once.
I wasn’t the only one. We all sat and watched the temple, and people spoke in hushed tones, museum voices, church whispers. Time stretched. Sometimes I felt like I was dozing off. Other times I felt like I could feel every pore and every hair on my body. Ange stroked my back, and I squeezed her leg softly. I looked at the faces around me. Some were calm, some softly cried, some smiled in profound contentment. The wind ruffled my scarf.
And then I spotted them. Three rows back from us, holding hands: Masha and Zeb. I nearly didn’t recognize them at first, because Masha had her head on Zeb’s shoulder and wore an expression of utter vulnerability and sadness, absolutely unlike her normal display of half-angry, half-cocky impatience. I looked away before I caught her eye, feeling like I’d intruded on her privacy.
I turned back to the temple just in time to see the first flames lick at its insides, the paper crackling and my breath catching in my chest. Then a tremendous column of fire sprouted out of the central atrium, whooshing in a pillar a hundred yards tall, the heat and light so intense I had to turn my face away. The crowd sighed, a huge, soft sound, and I sighed with it.
There was someone walking through the crowd now, a compact woman in goggles and grey clothes in a cut that somehow felt military, though they didn’t have any markings or insignia. She was moving with odd intensity, holding a small video camera up to one eye and peering through it. People muttered objections as she stepped on them or blocked their view, then spoke louder, saying “Sit down!” and “Down in front,” and “Spectator!” This last with a vicious spin on it that was particularly apt, given her preoccupation with that camera.
I looked away from her and tried to put her out of my mind. The temple was burning along its length now, and someone near me drew a breath and let out a deep, bassy “Ommmmmm” that made my ears buzz. Another voice joined in, and then another, and then I joined in, the sound like a living thing that traveled up and down my chest and through my skull, suffusing me with calm. It was exactly what I needed, that sound, and as my voice twined with all those others, with Ange’s, I felt like a part of something so much larger than myself.
A sharp pain in my thigh made me open my eyes. It was the lady with the camera, facing away from me, scanning the fire and the crowd with it, and she’d caught some of the meat of my thigh as she stepped past me. I looked up in annoyance, ready to say something really nasty, and found myself literally frozen in terror.
You see, I knew that face. I could never have forgotten it.
Her name was Carrie Johnstone. I’d called her “Severe Haircut Woman” before I learned it. The last time I’d seen her in person, she’d had me strapped to a board and ordered a soldier hardly older than me to waterboard me — to simulate my execution. To torture me.
For years, that face had haunted my nightmares, swimming out of the dark of my dreams to taunt me; to savage me with sharp, animal teeth; to choke me out with a tight bag over my face; to ask me relentless questions I couldn’t answer and hit me when I said so.
A closed-door military tribunal had found her not guilty of any crime, and she’d been “transfered” to help wind down the Forward Operating Base in Tikrit, Iraq. I had a news alert for her, but no news of her ever appeared. As far as I could tell, she’d vanished.
It was like being back in my nightmares, one of those paralysis dreams where your legs and arms won’t work. I wanted to shout and scream and run, but all I could do was sit as my heart thundered so loud that my pulse blotted out all the other sounds, even that all-consuming Ommmm.
Johnstone didn’t even notice. She radiated an arrogant disregard for people, her face smooth and emotionless as the people around her asked her (or shouted at her) to move. She took another step past me and I stared at her back — tense beneath her jacket, coiled for action — as she strode back through the crowd, disappearing over the horizon, hair beneath a stocking cap that was the same desert no-color as her clothes.
Ange squeezed my hand. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
I shook my head and squeezed back. I wasn’t going to tell her I’d just seen the bogeywoman on the playa. Even if that was Johnstone, so what? Everyone came to Burning Man, it seemed — software pioneers, fugitives, poets, and me. I hadn’t seen any rules against war criminals attending.
“It’s nothing,” I choked out. I looked over the crowd. Johnstone had disappeared. I turned back to the burning temple, tried to find the peace I’d felt a moment before.
By the time the temple burned down, I’d nearly convinced myself that I’d imagined Johnstone. After all, it had been dark, the only light the erratic flicker of the temple. The woman had held a camera to her face, obscuring it. And I’d seen her from below. I’d been visiting all my ghosts that night, seeing the faces of friends lost and betrayed and saved in the temple’s fire. I’d only seen the face for a moment. What were the odds that Carrie Johnstone would be at Burning Man? It was like finding Attila the Hun at a yoga class. Like finding Darth Vader playing ultimate frisbee in the park. Like finding Megatron volunteering at a children’s hospital. Like finding Nightmare Moon having a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese.
Thinking up these analogies — and even dumber ones that I won’t inflict upon you — helped me calm down as Ange and I walked slowly away from temple burn with the rest of the crowd, a solemn and quiet procession.
“Going home tomorrow,” I said.
“Exodus,” Ange said. That’s what it was called at Burning Man, and it was supposed to be epic — thousands of cars and RVs stretching for miles, being released in “pulses” every hour so that the traffic didn’t bunch up. We’d scored a ride back with a Lemmy from Noisebridge, the hackerspace I hung around at in San Francisco. I didn’t know him well, but we knew where he was camped and had arranged to meet him with our stuff at 7 am to help him pack his car. Getting up that early would be tricky, but I had a secret weapon: my contribution to the Burning Man gift economy, AKA cold-brew coffee.
You’ve had hot coffee before, and in the hands of a skilled maker, coffee can be amazing. But the fact is that coffee is one of the hardest things to get right in the world. Even with great beans and a great roast and great equipment, a little too much heat, the wrong grind, or letting things go on too long will produce a cup of bitterness. Coffee’s full of different acids, and depending on the grind, temperature, roast, and method, you can “overextract” the acids from the beans, or overheat them and oxidize them, producing that awful taste you get at donut shops and Starbucks.
But there is Another Way. If you make coffee in cold water, you only extract the sweetest acids, the highly volatile flavors that hint at chocolate and caramel, the ones that boil away or turn to sourness under imperfect circumstances. Brewing coffee in cold water sounds weird, but in fact, it’s just about the easiest way to make a cup (or a jar) of coffee.
Just grind coffee — keep it coarse, with grains about the size of sea salt — and combine it with twice as much water in an airtight jar. Give it a hard shake and stick it somewhere cool overnight (I used a cooler bag loaded with ice from ice camp and wrapped the whole thing in bubble wrap for insulation). In the morning, strain it through a colander and a paper coffee filter. What you’ve got now is coffee concentrate, which you can dilute with cold water to taste — I go about half and half. If you’re feeling fancy, serve it over ice.
Here’s the thing: cold-brew coffee tastes amazing, and it’s practically impossible to screw it up. Unlike espresso, where all the grounds have to be about the same size so that the high pressure water doesn’t cause fracture lines in the “puck” of coffee that leave some of the coffee unextracted and the rest overextracted, cold-brew grounds can be just about any size. Seriously, you could grind it with a stone axe. Unlike drip coffee, which goes sour and bitter if you leave the grounds in contact with the water for too long, cold-brew just gets yummier and yummier (and more and more caffeinated!) the longer the grounds sit in the water. Cold-brewing in a jar is pretty much the easiest way to make coffee in the known universe — if you don’t mind waiting overnight for the brew — and it produces the best-tasting, most potent coffee you’ve ever drunk. The only downside is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to clean up, but if you want to spend some more money, you can invest in various gadgets to make it easier to filter the grounds, from cheap little Toddy machines all the way up to hand-blown glass “Kyoto drippers” that look like something from a mad scientist’s lab. But all you need to make a perfectly astounding cup of cold-brewed jet fuel is a mason jar, coffee, water, and something to strain it through. They’ve been making iced coffee this way in New Orleans for centuries, but for some unknown reason, it never seems to have caught on big-time.
All week, I’d been patrolling the playa armed with a big thermos bottle filled with cold-brew concentrate, pouring out cups to anyone who seemed nice or in need of a lift. Every single person I shared it with had been astounded at the flavor. It’s funny watching someone take a sip of cold-brew for the first time, because it looks and smells strong, and it is, and coffee drinkers have been trained to think that “strong” equals “bitter.” The first mouthful washes over your tongue and the coffee flavor wafts up the back of your throat and fills up your sinus cavity and your nose is all, “THIS IS INCREDIBLY STRONG!” And the flavor is strong, but there isn’t a hint of bitterness. It’s like someone took a cup of coffee and subtracted everything that wasn’t totally delicious, and what’s left behind is a pure, powerful coffee liquor made up of all these subtle flavors: citrus and cocoa and a bit of maple syrup, all overlaid on the basic and powerful coffee taste you know and love.
I know I converted at least a dozen people to the cult of cold-brew over the week, and the only challenge had been keeping Ange from drinking it all before I could give it away. But we’d have jet fuel in plenty for the morning’s pack-up and Exodus. I’d put up all the leftover coffee to brew before we went to the temple burn, and if we drank even half of it, our ride would have to let us out of the car during the Exodus pulses to run laps around the playa and work off the excess energy.
Thinking about this, I took my thermos off my belt and gave it a shake. “Want some magic bean juice?” I asked.
“Yum,” Ange said, and took the flask from me and swigged at it.
“Leave some for me,” I said, and pried it out of her fingers and drank the last few swallows. The deep, trancelike experience of temple burn had left me feeling like I wanted to find someone’s pillow camp and curl up on a mountain of cushions, but it was my last night on the playa, and I was going to dance, so I needed some rocket fuel.
Just as I lowered the flask, I spotted Masha and Zeb again, walking stiffly beside each other, faces set like stone, expressionless. They were at least fifty yards away from me, in the dark of night, and at first I thought they were just in some kind of deeply relaxed state from the extraordinary events of the night. But I soon saw that there was something definitely wrong. Walking very close behind them were a pair of large men in stocking caps just like the ones Carrie Johnstone — or her twin — had been wearing, and they had tight grey-black scarves pulled over their faces, though it wasn’t blowing dust just then. The crowd parted a little and I saw that they were dressed as Carrie Johnstone had been, the same semi-military jackets and baggy pants and big black boots. There was something wrong with them, and I couldn’t place it for a moment, but then it hit me: they were darktards — no EL wire, no lights. And for that matter, Zeb and Masha had gone dark.
I saw all this in a second and mostly reconstructed it after the fact, because I was already moving. “This way,” I said to Ange, and grabbed her hand and started to push through the crowd. There was something really wrong with that little scene, and Masha might not be my favorite person in the world, but whatever was going down with her and Zeb and those two guys, I wanted to find out about it.
Even as we pushed through the crowd, part of my brain was already telling me a little story about how it would all be okay: It’s probably not even them. Those two guys probably have EL wire all over their clothes, but they’re saving battery. Boy, is Ange going to think I’m a paranoia case when I tell her what I thought I saw —
The four were heading out into the dark of the open playa now, and there was someone bringing up the rear, emerging from the crowd behind them. It was Carrie Johnstone, and I saw her profile clearly now, silhouetted by the orange light of a flamethrower flaring a fireball into the night as a mutant vehicle zoomed past. There was no doubt at all in my mind now, this was her. She was sweeping her head from side to side in a smooth, alert rhythm, like the Secret Service bodyguards that shadowed the president when you saw him on TV.
Ange was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her, and she was pulling on my hand, so I let go of her, because I knew it was Carrie Johnstone, and I knew that Zeb and Masha were under her power. I had been under her power. So had Ange. I knew what that meant, and I wasn’t going to let her snatch anyone else.
All five of them were vanishing into the night and I began to push and shove my way through the crowd, not caring anymore if I stepped on someone’s toes or bumped into them. People swore at me, but I barely heard them. My vision had shrunk to a narrow tunnel with Carrie Johnstone at the end of it. I patted at my utility belt and found my thermos, which was made of hard metal alloy. It didn’t weigh much, but if you hit someone from behind with it, as hard as you could, they’d know they’d been hit. That’s what I was going to do to Carrie Johnstone.
I was making a wordless noise. It started off quietly, under my breath, but it was quickly turning into a roar. No, not a roar, a battle cry. For years, this woman had haunted and hunted me in my dreams. She’d humiliated me, broken me — and now she was doing it again to someone else. And I had her in my sights and in my power.
Someone on a playa bike nearly ran me down but swerved at the last moment and fell over right in front of me, clipping my shin. I didn’t even slow down. In fact, I sped up, leapt over the bike and took off at a run.
But first, an interlude
This is a dirty trick. I freely admit it. I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you scrolled straight to the action, but before you do, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of this book for a deserving school or library ).
Or perhaps you’ve got a hankering to own a well-made, DRM-free, interlude-free print or ebook version of this book. This handy link will find an indie bookseller in your neighborhood who’s got stock of it. And if you don’t want to leave your chair there’s always:
Amazon Kindle (DRM-free)
Barnes and Noble Nook (DRM-free)
Google Books (DRM-free)
Apple iBooks (DRM-free)
Indiebound (will locate an independent store near you!)
Barnes and Noble
I’d never run like that in my life, a flat-out sprint with my feet barely touching the ground. I was just taking another step when the whole night turned hellish orange around me, and then there was a terrible whoomph sound, and a blast of heat and noise and wind lifted me off my feet and threw me face first into the dust.
I was dazed for a moment — we all were — and then I rolled over and picked myself up. My nose was bleeding, and when I put my hand up to it, it brushed against my lip and it felt weird, numb and wet, and I thought, in a distant, abstract way, I’ve really done a number on my face, I guess. That same part of me quietly chided myself for violating first-aid protocol by moving around after an injury. Even if I didn’t have a spinal injury or a concussion, I might have broken some small bone that hadn’t had a chance to start sending pain-signals to my brain yet, might be mashing that broken bone under all my weight as I climbed to my feet.
I told the voice to shut up. I remember that very clearly, actually thinking, Shut up, you, I’m busy, like you’d do to a yappy dog. Because whatever had turned the sky orange, whatever had sent that gust of heat and wind and sound through the night, Carrie Johnstone had been responsible for it, and it had been part of her plan to take Zeb and Masha out. I knew it. Not in the way I knew what my address was, but in the way that I knew that a ball thrown straight into the air would come straight back again. A logical certainty.
I set off back in the direction that Masha and Zeb and Johnstone and her goons had been heading, out into the darkness, limping a little now as my right knee started to complain, loudly. I told it to shut up, too.
They were gone. Of course they were. Unlit, moving fast, out there on the playa, they could have disappeared just by moving off a hundred yards in nearly any direction. They probably had night-scopes and all sorts of clever little asshole-ninja superspy gadgets that they could use to avoid me if they wanted to.
If she wanted to. Carrie Johnstone probably could have killed me without breaking a sweat, and I’m sure her goons could have done the same. They were some sort of soldiers, while I was a scrawny nineteen year old from San Francisco whose last fight had been settled in Mrs. Bapuji’s day-care with a firm admonishment to share the Elmo doll with little Manny Hernandez.
But I didn’t care. I was on a mission. I wasn’t a coward. I wasn’t going to sit back and wait for other people to do all the work. So I lurched into the dark.
There was no sign of them. I called out their names, screaming myself hoarse, running this way and that, and I was still running when Ange caught up with me, grabbed my arm, and pulled me bodily back to the infirmary tent. There were a lot of us there, waiting to be seen by the paramedics, nurses, EMTs, and doctors who streamed from across the playa to help with the aftermath of the worst disaster in the history of Burning Man.
Octotank, the art car that exploded, had started out life as a ditch digger, and it retained the huge, powerful tank treads and chassis. A maker collective working out of a warehouse in San Bernardino had removed everything else, and meticulously mounted an ancient Octopus carnival ride atop it. You’ve seen Octopus rides, though your local version might have been called “the Spider,” “the Schwarzkopf Monster,” or “the Polyp.” They’ve got six or more articulated arms, each one ending in a ride seat, sometimes just a chair with a lap bar and sometimes a full cage.
Now, that would have been cool enough, but then the mutant vehicle designers had mounted a flamethrower to the roof of each of Octotank’s cars and hooked them up to an Arduino controller that caused them to fire in breathtaking sequences. They all drew their fuel from the same massive reservoir mounted to one side of Octotank’s body, but each one had a mechanism that injected the fuel with different metal salts, and these impurities all burned with different bright colors. When Octotank was in motion, all eight cars swinging around in the night as it trundled across the playa, shooting tall pillars of multi-colored flame into the sky from the swirling mandalas of its cars, well, it was magnificent.
Right up to the moment it exploded, of course.
The fuel reservoir was already half empty, thankfully, otherwise it would have done more than knock me (and about a hundred other people) on my face — it would have incinerated us.
Miraculously, no one was incinerated, though a couple dozen were burned badly enough that they were airlifted to Reno. Octotank had been built by careful, thoughtful makers, and they’d put in triple fail-safes, the final measure being that the reservoir had been built with its thinnest wall on the outer, lower edge, so if it ever did blow, it would direct its force into the ground and not the driver or the riders. The force of the blast had knocked Octotank over, snapping off two of its arms, but the riders had been strapped down by their lap belts and had rolled with the vast, broken mechanisms, getting scrapes and a few broken bones.
As for me, my nose was broken, I had a pretty ugly cut to my forehead, and I’d bitten partway through my lip and needed three stitches. I had a sprained knee and a headache that could have been used to jackhammer concrete. But compared to a lot of the people who crowded in — and around — the infirmary camp that night, I’d gotten off light.
Ange and I sat with our backs against an RV in the infirmary camp. A woman in a pink furry cowboy hat and a glittering corset who’d identified herself as a nurse asked me to stick close so that they could watch for signs of concussion. I didn’t want to sit still, but Ange made me and called me an idiot when I argued.
We didn’t find out what had happened right away, couldn’t have. We weren’t looking at Octotank when it blew. Ange, being short, had been lost in a forest of taller bodies, trying to catch up to me (one of the reasons she didn’t get hurt is that she was in among everyone else, and found herself in the middle of a pile of people — once she was sure that the people on the bottom were being seen to, she’d taken off again after me). I’d been running around in the dark, looking everywhere for Masha, Zeb, and the goon squad.
So we got the story second-hand and third-hand from people in the infirmary. There were lots of wild theories, and everyone was buzzing about the Department of Mutant Vehicles, which certified all the art cars on the playa, and which was staffed with legendary mechanics and pyrotechnicians. Could they have missed some critical flaw in Octotank’s build?
I didn’t think so.
Wild Rumpus: Minneapolis, MN
This chapter is dedicated to Wild Rumpus, a store that is, all on its own, a reason to go to Minneapolis (there are other reasons to go to Minneapolis, but even if they went away, this one would do). They have a very nice chicken at Wild Rumpus, who wanders the countertop and greets the customers. You can buy her eggs. There are rats under the floor at Wild Rumpus, and you can see them through transparent panels (in the horror section, of course). And there are books. Great books. Lots of them. And nice places to sit and read them. Plus, very clever people to help you find the book you need to read next.
I convinced Ange to let me go and get some water from the infirmary’s big cooler — “My butt’s getting numb” — and took the chance to survey the human wreckage. It was terrible, and I thought I knew what had caused it.
When I got back to Ange, I handed her my water bottle and watched her drink, then said, “Ange, if I told you something crazy, would you listen?”
She rolled her eyes. “Marcus Yallow, you’ve been telling me crazy things since the night I met you. Have I ever not listened?”
She had a point. “Sorry,” I said. I leaned in close to her. “Back at the temple burn, do you remember a woman walking around with a camera, right in front?”
She shrugged. “Not really. Maybe?”
I swallowed. What I was about to say sounded crazy in my head, and it was going to sound crazier out in the air, and it was just for starters. “It was Carrie Johnstone,” I said.
Ange looked puzzled for a moment, like she was trying to place the name.
“Wait, Carrie Johnstone? The Carrie Johnstone?”
I nodded. “I got a couple of good looks at her. I’m sure.” I didn’t sound sure. “I’m pretty sure.”
“So she’s a burner now? That’s weird.”
“I don’t think she’s a burner, Ange. I think she was here to kidnap Masha and Zeb.”
“Uh-huh,” Ange said. “Marcus –“
“Dammit,” I said, “you said you’d listen!”
She shut her mouth, opened it, shut it. “I did. Sorry. Go on.”
So I told her about what I’d seen, Zeb and Masha and the goons, and my stupid, half-baked attempt to catch them as they’d marched into the night.
“So what are you saying?”
“What do you think I’m saying, Ange?”
“It sounds like you think that Johnstone and her pals kidnapped Masha and Zeb.”
I didn’t say anything. Of course that’s what I was thinking, but that was just for starters. I had another idea, one that was even more crazy-sounding. I wanted to know — had to know — whether it would occur to Ange, too, or whether I’d just had my brains rattled when I face-planted into the gypsum flats of Black Rock Desert.
“What?” she said. Then she opened her eyes a little wider. “You think that Johnstone blew up Octotank to — what, to cover her getaway?”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear to look at Ange, because she was staring at me like I was nuts.
“Look at it this way: they’ve been driving fire-breathing art cars around the desert for decades now, without a single major mishap. The first time one goes boom, it happens just as Carrie Johnstone, a war criminal with a history of ruthless disregard for human life, is in the middle of kidnapping a rogue agent who has been trafficking in giant troves of secret documents. The timing of the explosion is perfect, and a hundred percent of the attention on the playa is occupied for the next several hours. Meanwhile, they could get away in a million ways — hell, they could just stroll over to the trash fence and hop over it and leg it out over the mountains, or jump into a waiting car. The Black Rock Rangers will all be scrambling to help the wounded, not patrolling with night-scopes for people trying to sneak in without a ticket.”
“Yeah,” Ange said. “I suppose.” She squeezed my hand again. “Or: people have been driving home-made flamethrowermobiles around the desert for decades, and it was only a matter of time until one blew up. And you saw someone, in the dark, do something that looked like a kidnapping, but at a distance, and right before you had your head knocked around and broke your nose, after a week’s worth of sleep deprivation, recreational chemical use, and caffeine abuse.” She said it calmly and evenly, and kept hold of my hand as I struggled to go.
“Marcus,” she said, grabbing my chin and forcing me to look into her eyes. I winced as she put pressure on the sutures in my lip, but she didn’t loosen her grip. “Marcus, I know what you’ve been through. I went through it too, some of it, at least. I know that improbable things happen sometimes. I was there when Masha gave you her key. You have the right to believe what you believe.”
“But,” I said. I could hear there was a but coming.
“Occam’s Razor,” she said.
Occam’s Razor: the rule that says that when you’re confronted with a lot of explanations for a given phenomenon, the least complicated one is the one that is most likely to be right. Maybe your parents won’t let you into the locked drawer in their bedroom because they’re secret spies and they don’t want you finding their cyanide capsules and blowdart rigs. Or maybe that’s just where they keep their (eww) sex toys. Given that you know that your parents have had sex at least once, and given that (in San Francisco, at least) odds are good they’ve bought the odd dildo or two over the years, the super-spy hypothesis has to be shuffled to the bottom of the pile. Or, to put it another way, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“I like Occam’s Razor,” I said. “It’s a useful thinking tool. But it’s not a law. Sometimes, the unlikely happens. It’s happened to both of us. I saw what I saw, and I saw it just a few days after I saw Masha, who is mixed up in all kinds of espionage stuff, and who was acting paranoid as hell. Maybe she had a good reason for that.”
“Yeah. And maybe all that stuff primed you to interpret anything that happened in the days that followed in dramatic and scary ways.” She let go of me and looked away at the crowds of people. “Marcus, if you think you know what happened, you know what you should do. Masha told you what to do.”
If you ever hear that I’ve gone down, or Zeb’s gone down, release it. Shout it from the mountaintops.
You know what? I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d been so fixated on rescuing Masha, or proving I wasn’t losing my mind, I’d totally forgotten that I was her insurance policy, that she’d fully expected that she might “go down” and that she’d entrusted me with her personal countermeasure.
Now that I thought of it, I found that the idea terrified me.
“I don’t know what’s in her insurance file,” I said, “but I’ve got an idea that if we were to make it public, it’d make some very powerful people very angry at us.” I flashed on how I’d felt when Johnstone had been standing right over me, that paralyzing horror that started somewhere at the bottom of my spine and froze me to the spot. I believed that Johnstone had kidnapped Masha to keep the contents of that file a secret. What would she do to me if I released it?
Worse: what would she do if Masha told her I had the insurance file?
“Oh, crap,” I said. “Oh, Ange, what’ll we do?”
We both agreed that we didn’t have to do anything that night. I was injured, we were in the middle of the playa without functional laptops, and, to be honest, we were both scared witless about the insurance file and what might happen if we were to go public with it. I still had the USB stick with me — I’d kept it in my utility belt, in its little secure zip-up money-belt section. I kept compulsively checking it until Ange made me stop. After a few hours, we decided that I didn’t have a concussion and snuck away before anyone could disagree with us. We caught a few precious hours’ sleep in the tent, holding tight to each another, before the alarm on Ange’s cheap, rugged plastic watch went off, weep-weep-weep, and we got up to break camp and start Exodus.
We’d slept in our clothes — it got cold at night in the desert, even with our sleeping bags zipped together for shared warmth — and when we got outside the tent and stood, I saw that my burnoose and the front of my T-shirt were crusted with dried blood from my broken nose and swollen lip. My nose and lip felt like they’d ballooned to elephantine proportions in the night, though when I brushed the dust off a nearby car’s side mirror and checked my reflection, I saw that they were merely double their normal size. I looked like I’d been run over by a tank, one of my eyes blackened, my mouth distorted in a weird, pouty sneer, my taped-up nose misshapen and bulbous.
“Groagh,” I said, and my lip split again and began to seep blood. My face hurt. They’d given me some Tylenol 3s at the infirmary and I took two of them, washing them down with cold-brew, undiluted straight from the mason jar, then kept on swigging at the bean juice. I needed energy if I was going to help Ange break down our camp and lug our gear across Black Rock City to the camp where the guy who was giving us our ride had been staying.
Ange said, “You just sit down, Marcus, I got this.”
I shook my head and said, “Nogh,” a painful syllable that made my face bleed some more.
“Forget it, sit down.”
I shook my head again.
“God, you’re stubborn,” she said. “Fine, kill yourself. Don’t come running to me when you’re dead.”
I waved at her and handed her the cold-brew jar. She made a face. “There’s blood in that one.” I looked at the rim and saw it was smeared with red from my lip. I dug another jar out of the ice chest and passed it to her. She went to work on it. “Got to drink plenty of water, too,” she said. “Remember, this stuff is a diuretic.”
She was right. I alternated two swigs of water for every swig of cold-brew at regular intervals over the next forty-five minutes, as I crammed, jammed, piled and mashed our stuff into our bags. The biggest item to pack, by far, was Secret Project X-1 and all its assorted bits and pieces.
When I joined Noisebridge, I hadn’t really known what I wanted to do. All I knew was that these maker-types had set up a hackerspace in the Mission, filled it with lathes and laser-cutters and workbenches and drill presses, and that anyone could join and use the gear to make, well, anything. I’d hung around for a month or two, dropping by after classes to just sit on the sofa and see what people were up to, bringing along my laptop and school-books and studying in between watching as my fellow Noisebridgers invented every mad and amazing thing under the sun.
Noisebridge was a fantastic place. It had its own space program. Seriously. Almost every month, they launched homebrew weather-balloons crammed with cameras and instrument packages to heights of seventy thousand feet and more and retrieved them. There were people hacking robots, cars, clocks, pet doors, toys, and rollerblades — not to mention video-game consoles, server hardware, autonomous flying drones, and so on and so on.
And they had 3D printers, devices that could produce actual physical objects on demand, based on 3D files they made or downloaded from the net. Most of these had started off life as MakerBots, an amazing and popular open source 3D printer kit that you assembled yourself. MakerBots printed in plastic, using spools of cheap plastic wire, and the results were pretty amazing, especially considering that the kits cost less than a thousand dollars, and you could make one for less if you scrounged around for the parts in surplus catalogs and the prodigious bins of spare electronics at Noisebridge.
Being open source, MakerBots were a hacker’s paradise, and people all over the world had modified their printers to do extraordinary and amazing things. The big excitement when I joined Noisebridge was a successful conversion to laser-based powder printing, which involved using an apparatus to spread a thin layer of plastic powder on the printing surface, then melting it into specific forms with a laser, then adding another layer of powder and melting it again with the laser, over and over, until you’d built up the whole solid shape.
Powder-based printers cost a lot more than MakerBots — like $500,000 or more — and they were all locked up in a complicated set of patents that meant that only a few companies could make and sell them. But patents didn’t stop people from modding their MakerBots to do powder, and once they started, it became the most popular form of MakerBot modding in the world. Naturally it was: the objects that came out of a powder printer were much smoother and more detailed than the stuff that came out of a plastic wire printer, and with a powerful enough laser, you could use metallic powders and produce precisely made objects in stainless steel, brass, silver — whatever you wanted.
But what interested me wasn’t printing in steel: it was printing in sand. There were lots of people around the world who were experimenting with alternatives to plastic or metal powder as a printing medium, because, well, anything you could melt with a laser could be fed into a printer. You could print the most wonderful stuff with sugar or make brittle, tragically short-lived stuff out of the whey powder they sold in bulk for body-building. But like I say, sand was the stuff that caught my imagination. When you melt sand, you get glass, and a beautiful, streaky kind of glass it was, and every day brought more amazing sculptures and jewelry and action figures and, well, everything made of melted sand. As a printing material, sand was as cheap as it got, cheaper even than whey powder.
But there wasn’t any sand on the playa. What we had instead was dust. Gypsum dust, the stuff that they make drywall out of. In other words, stuff that you could (theoretically) make some wicked structures out of.
That was my plan, anyway. I made my own MakerBot, downloading the plans from their site, lasercutting the balsa wood, building the Arduino-based controller, scrounging parts when I could, buying them when I absolutely couldn’t find them, but only through surplus stores. In the end, it cost me less than $200, and took me about two months, and it worked beautifully. As soon as I got it working, I promptly broke it (of course) and tried to get it running as a powder printer. That was a lot more complicated, and the powerful laser it required cost as much as the rest of the printer. But I got it working, too.
And while I was gutting through that breakdown/upgrade/fix cycle, I hated every minute of it, felt like the world’s biggest idiot for not being able to do something that everyone else (for some extremely specialized definition of “everyone else”) seemed able to pull off. But you know what? I couldn’t stop. Because whenever something went wrong, it always seemed like the solution was tantalizingly within reach, and if I just did one more thing I’d have it all working. One more thing and one more thing and one more thing again, and then, miraculously, it worked! I went from nearly comatose to elated beyond all reason in one millionth of a second, as the air above my workbench was filled with the sweet, toxic smell of melting sand and a bead of glass formed on the build platform. The bead took form, and my calibration testfile, a block with several holes in it that were sized to snugly fit a collection of standard bolts I kept in my pocket for testing, began to take shape.
I didn’t need to use them. I could see that it was working. I’d taken that stupid printer apart and put it back together hundreds of times. I knew its movements like the movements of my own hands and its sounds like I knew the sound of my own heart. I laughed and danced on the spot, for real, and watched it go through its paces for a few minutes, before the excitement got to me and I raced out onto Mission Street, ready to grab the first person I could lay hands on and drag them back to Noisebridge to see my machine working! Of course, as soon as I got out the door, I realized it was three in the morning, and there was no one to be seen.
So that was my MakerBot, and the plan had been — what else — to mod it to print in playa dust, using melted sugar as a fuser. Sugar’s strong — melt some caramels and brush them onto a 2 x 4 and clamp another 2 x 4 to the spot overnight while the “glue” sets and you’ll get a joint that’s so strong the wood will tear apart before the glue gives. But sugar is also water-soluble, so when I was done, my playa-dust prints could be dissolved in water. “Leave no trace,” just like Burning Man principle eight says. I did some test runs, using powdered drywall that I ground up in an old hand-cranked coffee grinder, and I had it working pretty well when I disassembled the MakerBot and packed it up to take to the playa.
That was Secret Project X-1, and I swear it worked like a charm when I left San Francisco. I have no idea why it failed so miserably when we got to Black Rock City. The solar panels tested out good, and I borrowed a multimeter from another camp and checked every circuit and contact, and everything seemed to be in working order. But the stubborn, evil bastard refused to even turn on.
Even bloodied and bruised and traumatized and terrorized, I still felt a pang when I packed away X-1 again. I had this incredible plan to 3D print the most amazing shapes and objects out of playa dust — fanciful animals, busts of famous monsters, all the best junk from Thingiverse, the online library of free 3D forms. I was going to be the best, coolest, cleverest burner in the history of the playa. A legend. Instead, I was the guy who sweated and swore at his invention for 24 hours straight before his girlfriend went upside his head and told him to stop swearing at his printer and get out there and enjoy Burning Man. She was totally right, and everyone liked my cold-brew, but man, it hurt to pack away X-1 without having printed a single widget.
“You’ll get it working next year,” Ange said. “Don’t worry.” She looked off at the cloud of dust rising from the playa as fifty thousand burners packed up and got ready to turn Black Rock City back into Black Rock Desert (though there’d be cleanup teams staying behind for a few months going over the whole desert, erasing the final signs of human occupation). “We have to go.”
DreamHaven: Minneapolis, MN
Back in chapter 5, I mentioned that there were other reasons to go to Minneapolis, apart from the wonderful Wild Rumpus. Well, of course there are. Minneapolis is a hotbed of dangerously awesome science fictional activity: birthpplace of the Scribblies, a group of writer that includes Emma Bull and Will Shetterley and Steve Brust; home to Bruce Schneier, security expert and explainer par excellence, and, of course, the home of Dreamhaven Books. Dreamhaven is a fantastic sf/f/h store with a prodigous comics section, a huge collection of great memoribilia (my favorite zombie mask comes from there) (yes, I have a favorite zombie mask. Also a second-favorite zombie mask, but that’s another story). They’re also a publisher of brilliant, odd and beautiful sf/f/h books, including a very nice line of Neil Gaiman limited editions.
We hardly spoke on the long drive home. Our ride, Lemmy — a guy in his forties who had been coming to Burning Man for twenty years — told us that Exodus was usually like a party, with people getting out of their vehicles between pulses and hanging out, dancing, chatting. But after the night’s explosion and injuries, no one wanted to party down. The hourly pulse of cars released onto the winding road to Reno was like a funeral procession, and it was no better once we got to the little Indian reservation towns on the way to Reno and stopped for gas.
That matched my mood perfectly, to tell the truth. I was all beat up, and the painkillers made me groggy, while the jerking and jouncing of the car on the roads kept me from sleeping. Ange took over the driving in Reno, and I finally found my way into sleep, waking up briefly when we gassed up again in Sacramento, and then the next thing I knew, I was back home on Potrero Hill, at my parents’ front door.
I kissed Ange good-bye and dragged my knapsack and duffelbag to the front door, fumbling my key into the lock. I had planned on calling my parents from Reno to let them know I was on the way, but sleep had taken precedence, and now I was heading home with a face that looked like it had been through a meat grinder and a pocket full of government secrets that were being hunted by a ruthless torturer. Hey Mom, hey Dad! Funny thing, you’ll never guess what happened to me while I was out in the middle of the desert. Yay, this was going to be f-u-n.
The house was a mess. That was the new normal. It started when Dad lost his job and started spending a lot of time at home. Who knew he was such a slob? Mom refused to pick up after him (yay, Mom!), but she also turned out to have a high grodiness tolerance. By the time she lost her job, well, the place was already a pit. And it didn’t get better after that.
I stepped over the scatter of shoes by the front door and dragged my junk through a pile of old newspapers, knocking them over and sending them slithering to the floor. “Hi, guys,” I said. I wished that I’d be able to get my butt upstairs and into bed before I had to hold down a conversation, but I knew it wasn’t very likely.
“Marcus!” Mom called from the living room. “We were so worried!” And one second later, there she was in the hallway, and gasping at my face. “Oh my word,” she said, her British accent and funny little Britishisms ramping up the way they did when she was stressing.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “There was an accident at Burning Man and –“
“We heard all about it,” she said.
Duh. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the stuff that happened at Burning Man would be news in the rest of the world. San Francisco was the birthplace of Burning Man, so of course they’d heard. And then they hadn’t heard from me. Christ, I was a rotten son.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really. It’s better than it looks. I just had some painkillers before we left and fell asleep or I would have called –“
Now Dad was in the hallway, too. “God, Marcus, what happened?”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. “Can I make you a deal? How about if I tell you what happened really quickly, then I go have a shower and sleep, and then we can talk it over?”
This is what I love about my parents: they both looked at each other with their eyebrows up, like, That sounds reasonable to me, and nodded, and said, “Okay,” and then gave me a crushing hug that felt so good, even if I was so tired I could barely stay vertical.
I unlaced my boots — bending over caused a fresh headache to blossom right behind my eyes — and kicked them off with two little puffs of playa dust. Dad cleared a pile of books off the sofa while Mom made tea for me and her and coffee for Dad (I’m embarrassed to say that despite all my efforts to educate him, Dad still drank — ugh — instant). I told them the story as quickly as I could, leaving out the part about Masha and Zeb and Carrie Johnstone. Here, back in San Francisco, it all seemed, I don’t know, remote? Like something that happened to someone else, or something I’d read about in a book. Maybe it was the painkillers, or Ange’s (understandable) skepticism, but I found myself questioning my own memories.
“Oh,” I said, as I was finishing up. “Someone offered me a job, too! Someone running for senator who needs a new webmaster or something. I’m going to drop them a line in the morning.”
“That’s fantastic, sweetie,” Mom said, looking like she meant it. Dad said some nice things too, but I could tell that he was thinking about the job he didn’t have. After my trial and conviction — for stealing Masha’s phone, of all things — he “mysteriously” found that he couldn’t get his security clearance renewed. So that meant that a lot of his consulting gigs dried up. We’d been worried, but not totally freaked, because at least he had his adjunct professorship at UC Berkeley. But then California went broke — really, really broke, not like all the other times it had gone broke as I was growing up — and the UC system got its budgets slashed to practically nothing. Adjuncts had been the first to go. And of course, when he lost his job, I lost my discount on tuition, and started piling up the student debt. That’s right: my Xnet stuff cost my dad his job, and that cost me my college education. I think that’s called the “law of unintended consequences” but I just like to think of it as FAIL.
“Okay, shower now,” I said, having a sip of my tea. It was milky and sugary and strong, the way Mom liked it, and it was the taste of my childhood, the flavor of the sick days when Mom had taken care of me while I lay in bed with the flu or a stomach ache. I decided to take it up with me, to finish after I showered. But I didn’t make it into the shower. I didn’t even undress. I flopped down on my bed amid the piles of clothes I’d pulled out of my bag while I was repacking the week before to make room for X-1, and I was snoring in seconds.
When I woke up the sky was dark and my tea was cold. I finally had that shower, staying under the hot water until it ran ice cold, scrubbing the dust out of my pores. Then I went into my room and started piling up laundry and separating out gear that needed to be hosed down outside in the driveway or wiped down on my workbench. Finally, I unpacked my utility belt and found myself holding on to a dusty USB stick.
Normally I’m pretty careful with my data. That means that I don’t leave anything important on a USB stick. People lose those things all the time. The first thing to do with something important is to stick it in a computer — my latest frankenbook, a hand-built laptop called Lurching Abomination that was the distant descendant of Salmagundi, the first laptop I ever built for myself. Lurching Abomination had a whopper of a hard drive, two terabytes, and I used TrueCrypt to give myself a “plausible deniability” partition, so that if you just turned it on and entered a crypto key, you’d get what looked like a normal ParanoidLinux installation with a browser and an email client that was hooked up to my public email addresses and Xnet accounts, where I got all the spam and friend requests from strangers and bots and stuff.
But if you — or if I — entered another password when starting up the machine, there was another ParanoidLinux instance hiding on that monster disk, and this one was only hooked up to my private accounts, my private bookmarks, my private calendars, my private social nets, and so on. With a little bit of monkeying, I could boot into the secure, secret version of my computer, fire up a virtual computer in a window, and put the plausible deniability version in that.
Next to Lurching Abomination was a standalone hard drive, and Lurch was smart enough to check every few minutes and see if the disk was connected, and if it was, to back itself up. That disk was also encrypted (duh — what would the point of doing all the crazy stuff with Lurch’s disk be if I was going to make an unscrambled copy of all the data and leave it on my desk?). The disk’s enclosure had enough smarts to try to periodically hook up to one of the big servers at Noisebridge and try to make a copy of itself there.
This all more or less worked, most of the time, and it meant that within a few minutes of copying any files onto my laptop, they would be encrypted, copied to my desktop drive, and copied again to Noisebridge’s array. That server was synched up with a massive storage farm run by and for hackspaces, located in an old nuclear fallout shelter somewhere in England (seriously!). So yeah, do your worst, steal my laptop, burn down my house, nuke San Francisco, and I’ll still have a backup. Mwa-ha-ha. Yeah, it’s crazy-paranoid, but: a) I’d been through some paranoid stuff, and b) it wasn’t much harder than just using a commercial backup program, only my solution was safer and more robust and cheaper.
My hand hovered over the USB port. The USB stick was a no-name version, squarish and cheap looking, its case glued shut unevenly by some fifteen year-old chained to a machine in China. You saw them lying smashed on the sidewalk, and people advertising banks or soda pop pressed them into your hands when you came out of the BART station. There was no way to tell if it was a 4GB stick or 500GB. It could hold all the books ever written or a video of someone’s cat chasing a laser pointer or a buttload of ugly pornography.
Or it could contain the key to a trove of military and state secrets so hot that Carrie Johnstone would come out of the night and kidnap you to get them back. Only one way to find out.
The keyfile was less than 5K. It was just a long string of random numbers, and somewhere out there was the torrent file that they’d decrypt. But the keyfile itself was so small that I could have read it aloud to Ange on the phone, if I didn’t mind reciting stuff like “I_?4Wac0`5_9`Ym4|PL” for an hour or so, and if Ange was willing to write it all down without getting a single letter, number, or weird piece of punctuation wrong.
Once I’d copied the key to my computer, I found myself sweating, my heart thundering in my chest. My hands shook as I typed the command that forced an immediate backup — I didn’t want to wait ten minutes for the next scheduled backup. I didn’t want to risk having Carrie Johnstone and her goons break down the door and stick a bag over my head and shove me into a waiting helicopter headed straight to Afghanistan. Of course, the next thing I did was start to download the torrent file.
If you haven’t been paying close attention, you might just think BitTorrent = “pirate movie download” but there’s plenty of cleverness in the way it works. Files are broken up into thousands of little pieces, and you can request any of the pieces you’re missing from anyone who’s got it. As you get more and more pieces of the file, you start to get requests from others, too — the whole thing is called a “swarm” and as you can see, the more people who are downloading, the faster the download gets. That’s pretty cool, since in the physical world, the more people there are trying to get something, the harder all of them have to try to get at it. Imagine if food was was like BitTorrent: every time you ate a meal, there’d be more food left over for everyone else to eat.
Of course, the downside of BitTorrent is that if only a few people have copies of a file, then there are only a few people who can share it with you. I typed “insurancefile.masha.torrent” into the search fields for a dozen BitTorrent search engines starting with The Pirate Bay, the biggest of them all. There were about ten “seeders” — computers that had whole copies of the file — out there on the net, and two other machines downloading it. That was interesting. Maybe they were evil government spooks who wanted to try to crack the files and find out what Masha had. Or maybe they were just random copyright-enforcement bots that downloaded everything and checked to see whether it contained anything worth suing over.
Either way, I wasn’t going to use my IP address to download that file. My parents got their Internet through AT&T, a scumbag phone company with a track record of handing over their customers’ data to the cops without court-orders. Grabbing sensitive files off the net through them was like calling up the director of the DHS and saying, “Hey, are you missing any sensitive data? Because I’m small, defenseless, and unarmed, and I got ’em. Want my address?”
Which is why, no matter what, I always scraped up the money to pay for a subscription to IPredator, the proxy service operated by the Pirate Bay folks. IPredator was specifically designed to make it impossible for anyone else to tell what you’ve been downloading. It ping-ponged your data between Copenhagen and Stockholm, across an international border, and kept no logs or records of who was doing what. It was blazing fast — for a proxy, which are never as fast as a naked net connection — and it was run by some of the world’s baddest-ass hacker anti-authoritarians, people who made me look like a goody two-shoes obedient toddler who could barely turn on a computer. If anyone could make my download anonymous, it was those cats.
While the file trickled in, I hit my email. I’ve never been much of an email user — it’s not like my friends and I used it to figure out when to hook up, we all used Twitter and Xnet’s Facebook overlay (which scrambled our updates and messages) — but all my profs had used it while I was at Berkeley, and then everyone I was hitting up for work expected me to give them an email address. God, but email was tedious. People expected you to answer all of it, and there was: So. Much. Spam. When it came to Twitter and Xnet, I could just take everything that had come in while I was at Burning Man and mark it as read, and no one would get pissed off at me. But people who sent you email took it personally if you didn’t reply. It was just how email worked. Even I felt put out if someone didn’t reply to my email.
Download download download. Spam spam spam. Delete delete delete. The stupid email ritual, so beloved of my parents. So boring. When I finally whittled down the huge log of crap to a little toothpick of actual mail, my eye jumped to one sent by “Joseph Noss.” Of course, it was probably a fund-raising appeal, since my email address seemed to have found its way into the mailing lists of every political candidate in the state. But in my notebook, there was the email address for Joseph Noss’s campaign manager, carefully copied after Mitch Kapor had written it on my arm with his Sharpie. The coincidence was…interesting.
I opened it.
> From: Joseph Noss <email@example.com>
> To: Marcus Yallow <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> Subject: Webmaster
> Dear Marcus,
> My campaign manager, Flor, tells me she heard from Mitch Kapor that you were thinking of coming on board to be our webmaster. Your name sounded familiar so I looked you up, and, well, you know what I found. From what I can see, you would be absolutely perfect for the job. Can you give me a call when you get this? We really need to make this happen, like, YESTERDAY. My personal cellular number is 510-314-1592.
I read it twice and reached for my phone, everything else forgotten. After all these months of searching and begging, someone was offering me a job, and it was someone so cool his phone number was the first seven digits of pi. I mean, woah.
I dialed his number without having to look back at the screen — seriously, that was the coolest phone number I’d ever seen — and listened as the phone rang. Just before he picked up, I looked at the clock on my computer and realized it was nearly 11 P.M. on Sunday night. I fought the reflex to hang up the phone as he answered.
“Joseph Noss speaking,” he said, and yup, that was him all right. I’d heard his voice on TV and YouTube enough to recognize it instantly, a deep growly sound like the “This is CNN” guy or an old soul singer.
“Um,” I said, and pinched my leg to make myself stop saying Um, which is a trick Ange taught me. “Hello, sir, this is Marcus Yallow. You sent me an email? I hope it’s not too late –“
“Not at all, Marcus, I was up late working. Sorry to say it, but 11 P.M. is prime time for me.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I’ve always been a night owl.”
It’s funny, but I liked him right off. Something in that voice — he sounded like someone who thought hard about things, and who was listening hard to everything he heard.
“I’m glad you called me, Marcus. I know you’ve been involved in little-p politics before, but as far as I can tell, you don’t have any experience with the big-P kind, the kind that involves elections and so on. Is that right?”
“That’s right, sir.” I thought, Ah well, it was worth a shot. I didn’t have the experience he was looking for after all.
But he said, “That’s fine. We’ve got lots of experience with that sort of thing around here. Listen, Marcus, I want to give you a sense of the challenge we’re up against here, and then maybe you can tell me whether you think you’re the right sort of person to help us out.
“Now, California’s got a reputation for being a little crazy, but we’re trying to do something that’s crazy even by California standards. You know I’m an independent candidate, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“The received wisdom here is that ‘independent’ is a synonym for ‘unelectable.’ The Dems and the Republicans have got all the major donors sewn up, they’ve got efficient machines, they’ve got close friends at every TV and radio station and newspaper in the state, and they’ve got national organizations they can draw on. Independents start with a huge disadvantage, and it only gets worse when push comes to shove, because if we gain even a little ground, well, the big boys bring in their big boys and crush us like bugs.
“I could have gotten the Democratic nomination. They know me from my days at City Hall, they know that this district is one where African-American candidates generally do well, and I’m thought of as a decent sort who can be relied upon to raise a decent amount of cash and stay honest and sober once he gets elected, which puts me far ahead of most of the jokers around these parts.
“I could have had the nomination. Between you and me, they asked, several times, and in several ways. They seemed pretty sure that a campaign for Joe Noss would be something of a sure bet. But the more I thought about this, the more I realized that I didn’t want the nomination. I’ve seen what it means to be elected with major party support: it means that you have to toe the line. By which I mean, when there is a vote where your conscience tells you to go one way and party discipline tells you to go the other way, well, you’d best tell your conscience to sit that one out.
“That wouldn’t be so bad if you could trust the party, but I can’t say as I trust either party in this country. You’ve got ‘progressive’ Democratic presidents who believe it’s legal to assassinate American citizens overseas, who think that we should be spying on phone calls and email without warrants — well, I could go on, but I think you know what I mean.”
“I do,” I blurted. Maybe it was all the weird events of the past week, but listening to Joe talk made me excited, made me want to go out and man a barricade for him or something. It was the way he talked, even over the phone; it made you feel like whatever this guy was doing, it was going to work, and that if you were lucky, you’d get to be a part of it.
“I believe you do, Marcus! But it’s not just the Dems, of course. I know many Republicans who are honorable, generous, thoughtful people. My father was one such Republican. But there are power-brokers in the Republican party who are insane. I don’t say that as a figure of speech. I mean it literally. There are important movers and shakers in the RNC who believe that the Earth is five thousand years old. And these are people who made their fortunes pumping sweet crude in Texas! You think they tell their geoengineers to only pump oil in places that accord with the Young Earth theory of creation? Now, those people are hardly the worst — there’s plenty who think that torturing isn’t just something you have to do when there’s no alternative, but something you should do all the time. People who believe that anyone with ten million dollars is, by definition, good, and anyone without ten cents to his name is, by definition, a criminal. The thought of being beholden to these, well, let’s use the word my daddy liked, because Daddy was a polite, well-spoken man, and he’d have called these people dunces, these dunces, well, I never even considered it for a moment.
“No, I thought to myself, ‘Joe, there’s some smart people who think you could win this election with their help. Maybe you could win it without their help. Maybe if you took up positions that people believed in, positions that were grounded in evidence and compassion, not ideology or lining your pockets, you’d be able to beat the all-powerful party machines and show up in the Senate without a single corporate logo sewn onto your suit jacket.’
“Of course, there was no way I’d be able to do this using the old-fashioned methods — all the tactics we developed to win elections in the last century. I knew that this campaign would rise or fall on the strength of our technology use.
“Now, I might be over twenty-five –” he chuckled, a sound as deep as the ocean “– but I know a thing or two about technology. Enough, at least, to know how much I don’t know. Finding the right tech people has been my top priority since I started this thing, and I think I’ve found some good people who can do top-level strategy and such. But I haven’t found anyone to be my special forces commando, if you will. A doer, not just a thinker. So when your name came up, well, it made me excited, Marcus. I think you could be the delta force ninja of our technology team. Does that sound like your sort of thing?”
My mouth was so dry I could barely talk and my palms were so sweaty I could barely hold the phone, but I managed to blurt out, “Yes, absolutely, that sounds like my dream job!”
“I was hoping you’d say that. Now, it’s not my job to hire you, that’s my campaign manager’s job. But my recommendations do carry a little weight around here. I’m looking at her diary right now, and it looks like she’s free tomorrow morning at 8:30 A.M.. That’s a little early for a night owl, I know, but if I were to put a meeting with you in her calendar, do you think you could make it?”
“Even if I have to stay up all night, Mr. Noss.”
“Call me Joe. And I hope that won’t be necessary. Get yourself some sleep and set an alarm. I’ll tell Flor to expect you at 8:30. That’s Flor Prentice Y Diaz. Let me spell it for you.”
“It’s okay, I’ve just googled her,” I said.
“Of course you have,” he said. “Do your research now, then get yourself into bed and don’t forget the alarm!”
“I won’t,” I said.
I spent the next twenty minutes poring over everything I could find about Flor Prentice Y Diaz — parents were Guatemalan refugees, raised in the Bay Area, master’s in public policy from Stanford, former executive director of a big homelessness charity. A photo showed a handsome but severe Hispanic woman in her fifties, wrinkles around her eyes and deep lines around her mouth, big dark eyes that seemed to bore straight through me. Then I noticed where the photo had come from: a profile in the Bay Guardian by Barbara Stratford. I checked the time in my menubar. It was coming up on midnight, which was probably too late to call Barbara and ask her to put in a good word for me. But I did send her an email asking her to drop my name to Flor Prentice Y Diaz if she got a chance. Email did have its uses.
I checked the status of my big torrent download. The file was halfway down, and there were eight more downloaders in the swarm. I wondered how many of them worked for three-letter spy agencies in the DC area.
There was a soft knock at my door. I opened it. It was Mom.
“Hey, you,” she said. “How long have you been up?”
“A couple hours, I guess,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t come downstairs, but when I checked my email, I found a message from Joseph Noss asking me to call him about the job, so I called him and he wants me to go in tomorrow morning to meet with his campaign manager at 8:30 A.M.. I think I’ve found a job!”
Mom smiled and reached out and stroked my hair, the way she used to do when I was a kid. It was a tell she had, whenever she was feeling especially proud of me. It made me happy all over. “That’s wonderful news, love. How are you feeling, though?” Tentatively, she touched the tape over my nose. I flinched a little. The painkillers had worn off.
“Well, my nose is still broken, but my headache is gone. Apart from that, I feel fine. It looks much worse than it is. And it could have been a lot worse. As it was, I basically tripped and fell on my face.” I shook my head. “There were lots of people who got hurt worse than me, caught right in the explosion.”
She took her hand away. “I wish you’d called. We were — well, we were worried, Marcus.” She didn’t say anything about the other times I’d gone missing, like after the Bay Bridge blew up, when I was being held and humiliated on Treasure Island by Carrie Johnstone and her jolly friends from the DHS; or when I’d gone underground, run away with Zeb only to be caught by Johnstone again, this time for a round of simulated execution on her waterboard. Neither of those incidents had been very pleasant for me, but they’d been hell on my parents, too. I was a jerk.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was fast asleep by the time we got back into cell-phone range. But yeah, you’re right, I should have called.”
We sat there silently for a little while, each of us remembering the bad times before. “How’s your job search going, Mom?”
“Oh,” she said, “oh, don’t worry about me. There’s little bits of contract work coming in all the time. Nothing earth-shaking, just a little freelance editing and such. But between that and the savings and Dad’s severance, we’re getting by.”
I didn’t bother to ask what they would do when Dad’s severance ran out. I’d overheard them talking about that enough times to know that it was a sensitive subject — and the fact that they always shut up about it when I entered the room told me that they didn’t want me to worry about it. Dad had sold his car the month before and they’d listed the parking spot in our driveway for rent on Craigslist, which I thought was pretty clever, even if it would be weird to have some stranger using our driveway. But yeah, I could see what they could see: first you lose your job, then your car, then what? Mom had torn up her flowerbeds in the back-yard and planted vegetables, which tasted great, but I knew that taste had less to do with things than the grocery bill. The drawer full of takeout menus hadn’t been opened in months, and Mom and Dad had a tendency to disappear on the bus whenever Safeway had a big sale on meat, coming back with huge bags full for the freezer. I didn’t have anything against saving money, but I couldn’t help but wonder where it might all end. There were a lot of For Sale signs on our block, and one or two empty places with foreclosure notices taped to the door.
“Well,” I said. “Got to get up early tomorrow!”
“Are you going to wear a suit?” Mom said. “I could get something out of your father’s closet.”
“Mom,” I said, “they’re hiring me to be their webmaster — I’m pretty sure they don’t want a dweeb in a suit.”
She opened her mouth like she wanted to argue with me, then shut it again. “I’m sure you know what you’re talking about,” she said. “But just be sure to dress up smart, all right? No one likes a slob, even if he is the webmaster.”
“Good night, Mom.”
“I love you, Marcus.”
“Love you, too.”
Good thing I set three alarms. I managed to switch off both my phone and my alarm clock without even waking, but the raging music blaring out of Lurching Abomination’s external speakers — Trudy Doo and the Speedwhores performing “Break It Off,” which features some of the craziest death-metal screaming ever to be committed to MP3 by an all-girl post-punk anarcho-queer power-trio — was impossible to sleep through. It was 7:15.
I showered and peeled off the tape over my nose and grimaced at my beat-up face. Oh well, nothing to be done about it. Thinking of my mother’s advice, I dug through my closet and found a white button-up shirt that I’d last worn to my graduation, and the grey wool slacks I’d worn at the same event. I even found the brown leather shoes that went with the outfit, and gave them a vigorous wipe with an old sock, bringing out a bit of a shine. As I buttoned up the shirt and tucked it in and got the line of buttons even with my fly, I found myself growing excited. Mom was right (as usual): dressing up made me feel competent, like the kind of guy you’d want to hire.
Dad was already at the kitchen table, eating oatmeal with sliced bananas and strawberries.
“Woah! You’re looking suave, son,” he said. I saw that he’d shaved off the stubble he’d sported the night before, and was dressed in his workout clothes.
“You going to the gym?” I said.
“Jogging,” he said. “Just started. We’re not using the gym anymore.” Translation: we can’t afford the gym anymore.
“That’s great,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, and I wished I hadn’t said anything, because he looked embarrassed, which wasn’t usual for him. “Your mother told me about your big interview. There’s more oatmeal on the stove and there’s sliced fruit in that bowl.”
Dad hadn’t made me breakfast since I was thirteen years old, when I started insisting that I was too old to have breakfast prepared for me and switched to grabbing some toast on my way out the door. I realized he must have gotten up early just to make sure that I went off to Joe’s office with a full tummy. It made me want to hug him, but something held me back, like acknowledging what a big deal this was would have spoiled the illusion of normalcy.
I hadn’t seen 8 A.M. in the Mission since I dropped out of school. I stopped in at the Turk’s for a lethally strong pour-over and let him fuss over me when I told him I was going in for a job interview. The Mission’s always been a place with a lot of homelessness, but it seemed like things were worse than they’d ever been. At least, I couldn’t remember seeing quite so many people sleeping on the edge of the sidewalk or in the doorways of boarded-up stores. I couldn’t remember smelling quite so much pungent human pee-stink from the curbs.
I finished my coffee just as I reached Joseph Noss’s campaign headquarters, between 22nd and 23rd on Mission, in a storefront that had been a huge discount furniture place for most of my life, but which had shut down the year before and had been sitting empty until now.
The big windows were plastered with orange and brown NOSS FOR STATE SENATE signs, neither Democrat blue nor Republican red. I checked my phone: 8:20. I was early. I tried the door, but it was locked. I rapped on the glass and peered in, trying to see if there was anyone inside. It was dark, and no one answered. I knocked again. Nothing. Oh, well. I stood by the door and waited for Flor Prentice Y Diaz, trying to project an air of employability.
She arrived at exactly 8:29, wearing blue jeans, a nice blouse, and a kerchief over her hair, and carrying a take-out cup from the Turk’s. She had a serious, almost angry face on as she walked down the street, like there was a lot on her mind, but when she saw me, she smiled, then frowned as she took in my battered face. “Marcus?” she said.
I smiled back and extended my hand. “Hi there! Sorry about this –” I scrunched up my face. “I was at Burning Man last weekend and, well, a car exploded at me. It looks a lot worse than it is, really.”
She shook my hand. Her grip was gentle, dry and warm. “I heard about that,” she said. “Are you sure you’re okay to be here? If you want to reschedule –“
I waved my hands. “No, no! Honestly, I’m fine. Besides, Joe — Mr Noss — said that he was in a hurry, right?”
“Well, that’s very true. All right then, let’s get inside, shall we?”
She dug a big key ring out of her handbag and opened the doors, reaching out with one hand to hit a lightswitch. The fluorescents flickered on all around the cavernous space, revealing trestle-table desks with snarls of power-strips beneath them. There were still signs advertising cheap sofas on some of the walls, and a long checkout counter that was now covered with silk-screening stuff. Someone had installed a big extractor fan over the table, but I could still smell the paint-y smell of the silk-screening station. Clotheslines hanging from the stained old drop ceiling were draped with shirts and posters in the campaign’s orange and brown.
“This is where the magic happens,” she said, crossing to a desk right in the middle of the floor. It had more papers on it than most, and a big external monitor. She slid a laptop out of her purse and connected its power cable and monitor cable and woke it up and entered her password. I politely looked away as she typed it, but I could hear that it was admirably long and complex — there was also the telltale sound of a shift key being depressed and several of those unmistakable spacebar bangs.
“Sounds like a good password,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she said. “Ever since I had my Yahoo mail compromised a few years ago and everyone I knew got an email saying I was stranded in London after being mugged and asking for them to wire money to help me out. I expect you’ve got your own little security rituals, right?”
I nodded. “Just a few. But as soon as you start looking into security, you discover that there’s always more you could be doing.”
She was staring intently at her screen as her email streamed in. I noticed she wasn’t breathing, which was something I’d read about: email apnea. People unconsciously hold their breath when they’re looking at their inboxes. I made a mental note to mention it to her later if I got the job.
“I like your taste in coffee,” I said, as she slumped back and gasped for air. “The Turk is awesome.”
“He’s one of a kind,” she said, sipping. She’d pulled some papers from her purse. I recognized my resume. She tapped my address. “You live pretty close to here, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I went to Chavez High, just up the street.”
“I sent my kids there, too. But that would have been before your time.”
I was feeling good about the interview. We were bonding. We had all this stuff in common — Chavez High, the Turk… We hadn’t even talked about Barbara Stratford.
She set the resume down on her desk. “You seem like a very nice person, Marcus.” Suddenly, I was a lot less confident. Her expression had turned into a professional mask. “But you don’t exactly have a lot of work experience, do you?”
I felt my cheeks burning. “No,” I said. “I mean –” I took a deep breath. “My dad got laid off from UC Berkeley last year and I had to drop out. No more discount tuition. So I’ve been looking for work ever since. But I’ve had some campaign experience, the Coalition of Voters for a Free America for two summers.”
“Yes,” she said. “Volunteer experience, right?”
“Right,” I said. “We were all volunteers. But I’m very responsible. And I believe in Joe, and I believe that the Internet can change politics for the better — make it more accountable, more transparent. That’s why I want to work here.”
As I said it, it felt like exactly the right sort of thing to be saying. But when I was done, her expression was harder than ever. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve heard all that before. I’ve been hearing it for twenty years now. But the fact is that elections are won by a lot of shoe leather and a lot of money and a lot of hand-shakes, the way they always have been. I know that Joe has lots of pie-in-the-sky ideas about reinventing elections and reforming politics, but I run the campaign and I think that reforming politics will be a big enough job to get through, and maybe we can leave the reinventing stuff for the next candidate.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Some innate, primitive sense of organizational politics told me I should just keep my mouth shut.
“We’ve got a lot of people around here with big ideas about how the world should be run. That’s fine. That goes with the territory when you’re running as an independent — you get independent-minded people working for you. But the bottom line is that this is a campaign to elect a candidate. It’s not a lab for egalitarian, consensus-based organizational reform. It’s not a high tech startup.
“Right now, this campaign needs a webmaster. That’s someone who’ll put up a website that doesn’t get hacked the minute we stick it online. That website’s got to help us raise money, it’s got to help us mobilize voters, and it’s got to help us win an election. I want to make myself clear on this point, because I’ve hired a few webmasters in my day, and I know a thing or two about some of the problems endemic to the trade. I’m looking for a website that gets the job done: nothing more and nothing less. I don’t want it to be one micron prettier than it needs to be. I don’t want it to be one quantum more technically elegant than it needs to be. And because our webmaster is also going to be our IT department, I need someone who can keep us all reasonably secure, keep our computers backed up, and keep the network up. Someone who’s available on-call twenty-four-seven right up to election day.
“So, now that you’ve heard my little speech, I need to ask you, does that sound like you, Marcus?”
But Joe said he wanted a delta-force ninja, is what I didn’t say. I had already figured out enough to know that what Joe wanted and what Joe got was filtered through his campaign manager, who held the decision to hire me in her hands.
“I have done all those things in the past,” I said. “I’m reliable. I’m a fast learner. I believe in Joseph Noss. I may not have had much work experience, but that’s only because no one’s given me the chance. There are lots of people in San Francisco who could be your webmaster, but how many of them have helped run an underground network that beat back the DHS and restored the Bill of Rights to San Francisco?” I spent most of my life telling people that M1k3y was just part of a movement, scuffing my toe when people told me how much they admired me. But something told me that this wasn’t the right time to be humble.
Her smile came back. “Okay, that was well said.” She finished off the Turk’s coffee. “I’ve asked around about you. Barbara Stratford called me as I was on my way in to work this morning to put in a good word for you. There are lots of people who think the world of you as a leader and a techno-guerrilla. But none of them have ever employed you, and we have more than enough ‘leaders’ around here. Have you ever read The Time Machine, Marcus?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wrote a paper on it in AP English.”
“Then you’ll remember the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi were the privileged surface dwellers, enjoying a life of high-tech sophistication and ease. But under the ground, there was an army of Morlocks, toiling away night and day in the subterranean engine rooms, making sure that everything was humming along tickedy-boo.”
“You want Morlocks, not Eloi, right?”
She smiled. “Bright boy. Yes, exactly. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s the job that needs doing. What I’m asking you to do now is look inside yourself and ask, ‘Do I want to do the job that needs doing, even if it’s boring and workaday and merely necessary and not at all exciting? You say you believe in Joe — do you support him enough to join his army as a grunt and not a general?”
I could see why she was the campaign manager, and not Joe. Joe had made me want to take to the streets, but she made me want to prove I could get the job done. They must make a great team.
Which is not to say that I wasn’t disappointed. I had hoped that I’d be greeted as a revolutionary hero and given a squadron of tough info-commandos to boss through a series of action-hero adventures. But the way that Flor Prentice Y Diaz pushed at me, implying that I was just a kid who wanted the spotlight more than he wanted to help, it was like a set of spurs in the belly. So even as I was thinking, Man, that’s an effective motivational technique, I was also thinking, I’ll show her!
I made a showy salute. “Yes ma’am, general, ma’am.”
Her smile got wider. “All right, all right. I’m giving you a hard time this morning, because you come with a lot of advance recommendations, but there are also lots of warning flags. You’re a bright young man, and bright young men are nice to have around, but in my experience, they need quite a lot of adult supervision. So I intend on supervising you very closely until I’m convinced that you have learned the difference between what we need and what you’d like us to have.”
I blinked and replayed what she just said. “Does that mean I’m hired?”
She waved off the question. “Oh, Marcus, you’ve been hired since we sat down here. Joe loves you, or at least he loves your reputation, and he’s as excited as a puppy about having you around here. But I needed to make sure you understood what working here entails.”
I couldn’t stop myself, I held my arms over my head like a quarterback after a touchdown: “All right!” I shouted.
She laughed at me. “Down, boy. Yes, you’ve got a j-o-b. Marian, our HR person, will talk over your pay and such with you later. But before we get started, there’s one thing we need to discuss, and that’s all this hacker business.”
I composed myself. “Yes?”
“Don’t. Do. It. You’ve done all sorts of clever things with computers, no doubt. You’ve outsmarted the feds and raided their data, you’ve gone wandering around computer systems where you had no business being. It’s all in the grand old tradition of the Bay Area, but it has no place here. The first time I catch so much as a whiff of anything illegal, immoral, dangerous, or ‘leet'” — she made finger quotes — “I will personally bounce your ass to the curb before you have a chance to zip your fly. Do I make myself crystal clear?”
“You can really turn on and off the scary voice at will, huh?”
“I can. I find it’s a useful way of indicating to my colleagues when I expect to be taken seriously.”
“And you can do this really kind of stone-faced, severe facial expression, too. That’s really amazing.” What can I say? I’d just gotten a job. The joy was was bringing out my inner weisenheimer.
“This face? This isn’t my severe face. This is about gale force one. You do not want to be around for a force five.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Joseph-Beth Booksellers: Cincinnati, OH and Lexington, KY
Joseph-Beth Booksellers is a small chain of huge stores in the midwest. People who are lucky enough to live in a town anywhere near a Joe-Beth already know about it: it’s that massive store, open late, with incredible events, a great restaurant, and well-informed helpful staff. Visitors to towns like Lexington, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Crestview Hills may not understand that when they pass by that “Joseph-Beth Booksellers” sign that they should be braking hard and swinging into the parking lot. I mean, all those towns have things to see, but could any be so marvellous as a well-managed, handsomely appointed, well-stocked bookstore? Plus, the last time I signed at a Joe-Beth (Charlie Stross and I kicked off the tour for Rapture of the Nerds at the Lexington store), they took me bourbon shopping afterward, which was well above and beyond the call of duty.
Joseph-Beth Booksellers: 2692 Madison Road, Cincinnati OH 45208, +1 513 396 8960
Joseph-Beth Booksellers: 161 Lexington Green Cir, Lexington, KY, 40503, +1 859 273 2911
I spent the rest of the morning jumping straight into the work with both feet. The previous webmaster, a volunteer, had just gone back to school at Brown, but she’d left behind a neat sheet of passwords and configuration data, as well as information on our network contracts. I figured the thing to do was to conduct an audit of everything I’d be in charge of, checking that it was all where it was supposed to be, doing what it was supposed to be doing. I grabbed a stack of one-side-printed paper out of a recycling box and three-hole punched it, then snapped it into a used three-ring binder I found in a supply closet. I could have used Lurch to take notes — I’d brought it in, booted into its plausible deniability partition, with all that deadly secret stuff locked away on disk sectors that were indistinguishable from random noise. But I needed to be able to walk and write, sitting down at peoples’ desks and getting their names and copying down their network cards’ MAC addresses and such, and paper is just easier for that sort of thing. I’d type it all in later.
Every so often I’d look up and see Flor watching me from her desk in the middle of the room. She’d catch my eye and then nod in satisfaction — at my hustle, I assumed. It made me feel good — like someone was noticing how I was busting my butt to make a good impression on my first day. I may be a Morlock, but it was nice to know the Eloi were looking on in approval. After talking with Flor, I’d remembered that the Morlocks ate the Eloi, which made the whole analogy a little weird. I wondered if she’d intended that, and if so, what it was supposed to mean.
Joe had swept in around 10 A.M. with one phone pressed to his head and another in his hand, and had been swarmed by about a dozen staffers and volunteers with urgent questions. He clamped one phone between his ear and shoulder and used his free hand to point at people in the mob and then at places they were to wait for him, all the while without losing his place in the animated conversation he was having. As the crowd dispersed, he said his good-byes and dropped his phone into one pocket, then did the same with the other one.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered black guy with his greying hair cropped short. His skin was somewhere between an americano and a macchiato, a few shades darker than the high-necked sweater he wore over comfortable-looking blue-jeans and black Converse. I decided I could dress down for work the next day.
I was in the middle of going through every line of the WiFi router’s configuration file, plugged straight into it at the very back of the room. Much as I wanted to jump up and introduce myself, I decided to play it morlock and let him get on with all the urgent stuff he needed to do and try to find a quiet moment later to say hello.
But Joe scouted around the room, spotted me, and said, loudly, “Marcus, all right!” and half jogged straight to me, hand already out.
“Hello, sir,” I said.
“Marcus, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re joining us. Flor tells me she’s very impressed with you. I’m not surprised. I imagine you’ve got plenty to do to get up to speed, but please ask Flor to put you in my diary for tomorrow, whenever she can squeeze you in, so we can talk about strategy, all right?”
“All right,” I said, making an effort not to stammer. In person, Joseph Noss just radiated charisma, and it made me tongue-tied. Here was a guy who just felt, I don’t know, important and smart, and I wanted to impress him, but everything I could think of to say felt too boring to burden him with.
“Good man,” he said, and slapped my shoulder before turning on his heel to jog back to Flor’s desk, pointing at the staffers he was ready to hear from as he went. They converged in a huddle at Flor’s desk and I went back to work.
“Marcus?” someone said from behind me, a few minutes later.
I looked up, and into a semi-familiar face. It was a guy about my age, or maybe a little younger, with a scruffy beard, and he was grinning so widely I thought his head would fall off. I recognized him from somewhere, but I couldn’t think where. I decided I’d try to fake it. I stood up and shook his hand. “Hey, man!” I said. “Great to see you again!”
He clapped in uncontainable delight. “Dude, I can’t believe it’s you. Are you the new webmaster? Really?”
“Yup,” I said. “Sweet gig, huh?”
He shook his head furiously. “No. Way. I can’t believe it! Marcus Yallow is our webmaster? Oh man!”
This was more familiar territory — someone going all gushy and me not knowing what to say in response. Been there, done that, still don’t know what to do when it happens. “So, uh, what have you been up to?”
“I’m the swag barista,” he said, thumping his chest. He was wearing a SAN FRANCISCO NEEDS NOSS shirt, done like an old-timey sci-fi movie poster, with a giant Joe standing astride the Golden Gate bridge. “I design the T-shirts and posters. I try to do a new one every couple days, and screen them on demand. Keep it fresh, mix it up, you know? One thing I wanted to ask you about was whether you could put up a Threadless clone for the website so I could do little shirt-community for all the Nossers out there?”
“Uh,” I said, “yeah. Sure, why not?” We were running the site on OpenCampaign, which was a free mod of WordPress designed for election campaigns. It could run WordPress plugins with no additional work, and the one that was based on the Threadless user-generated T-shirt site was one I’d looked at before. It didn’t seem like it’d be too hard to run.
“You are such a dude. God, I can’t believe this! Wait until I tell Nate. He is going to flip out.”
And that’s when I remembered him. “Liam?” I said.
“Yeah, of course! Liam! I’ve been volunteering here all summer! Ever since I saw Joe’s July Fourth video. That stuff was straight-up inspiring, yo.”
I had friends who ended their sentences with yo, but always ironically, making fun of the people who were trying to talk all “street” and badass. Liam wasn’t being ironic. He really did end his sentences with yo.
“Yo,” I said, then felt mean about it and gave him a friendly slug on the shoulder. “Liam, man, I didn’t recognize you at first with the beard and all. How cool that we’re going to be working together?”
“Me too. Look, do you have lunch plans? Want to get a burrito? I know a great place up on Valencia –“
“Sure, burritos sound great,” I said. I hefted my notebook and said, “I’d better get back to work if I’m going to get time for a lunch-break, then.”
He did a couple of dance-steps on the spot, then gave me a surprise hug, a real crusher that involved lifting me a couple inches off the floor. “See you at lunch!”
Once upon a time, I’d been part of a tight foursome of awesomely close friends. Darryl, Jolu, Van, and I had done everything together since we’d been little kids. But after the whole Xnet thing, well, one thing happened and then another. Van and Darryl started dating, and Van didn’t like Ange at all (and there was all the weirdness about the fact that she’d been secretly crushing on me, which loomed up like an invisible wall whenever we saw each other). Darryl went off to Berkeley, and we’d seen each other a little at first, but between classes, Van, and his psychotherapy for all the crazy nightmares and freak-outs he still had thanks to the horrors of Gitmo-by-the-Bay, we barely had time to say hi. Jolu, meanwhile, had graduated from his job at Pigspleen to a sweet gig as a programmer on a startup that was commercializing municipal data, cranking out services based on the feeds put out by City Hall. He had a ton of new friends, including a bunch of intimidatingly smart civic hackers, and when they were all really going at it, I could only understand about half of what they said. We didn’t see much of each other.
And then there was Ange, who was the world’s most perfect girlfriend: funny, smart, exciting. She liked the same movies and games that I did, liked the same books and music, and was always up for keeping me company when she wasn’t at school — she’d gotten into SFSU for communications studies and was acing her courses. So even though I missed my friends, it wasn’t like I was actually lonely or anything — so somehow I never got around to calling them or IMing them or poking them and seeing how they were doing.
But it had been a long time since I’d had a regular gang of friends, a little posse of my own. And I missed that.
Liam’s friend Nate joined us for lunch, taking BART down from his mom’s place downtown. He, too, gave me a crushing hug, and then he and Liam exchanged one of the same. These guys were as Californian as they came, and they loved their physical contact. I’d been born and raised in San Francisco, but my mom was British, and so I just hadn’t gotten into the whole super-huggy scene ever.
We ended up at my favorite burrito joint, and I got tongue, which Ange had convinced me to try and which turned out to be amazingly tasty, provided you didn’t think too hard about the fact that you were, you know, eating a tongue. Liam ordered one, too, and raved about how good it tasted and how he wished he’d tried it sooner.
“I still can’t believe you’re our webmaster,” Liam said. “That’s like, I don’t know, Bruce Lee being your bouncer or something.”
“Or Jack Daniels being your bartender,” Nate said. He had the same beard as Liam.
“I think Jack Daniels is dead, or made up,” Liam said.
“Okay, it’s like Steve Wozniak fixing your PC,” Nate said.
“Dude, old school,” Liam said. “Woz is the guy who built the first Apple computers,” he said to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
“Oh,” Liam said. “Yeah! Of course you do! Listen to me, huh?”
I wanted to find some way to politely say, “Hey, Liam, don’t worry about impressing me, okay? I already like you, and all this stuff is just making you sound kind of desperate.” But every way I could think of saying that would make Liam feel like a loser and make me sound like a dick.
“What are you up to, Nate?” I said, pointedly changing the subject.
He shrugged. “Being unemployed. Polishing my nonexistent resume.” Another shrug.
“I know how that feels,” I said. “I was unemployed until this morning.”
They both boggled at me.
“No way,” Liam said. “How could you be out of work? I assumed they’d poached you from some rad start-up or Google or something.”
Now it was my turn to shrug. It seemed like unemployment talk always involved a fair bit of shrugging and looking away. “Dunno,” I said. “I dropped out of school months ago, couldn’t afford it anymore, and I’ve been looking ever since.”
“Man,” Nate said. “That’s crazy. If you couldn’t find work, what hope do I have?”
I didn’t have an answer for him. I was starting to actually feel guilty about having a job, and I’d been employed for less than a day.
We finished our awkward lunch and went back to work, and I went back to mapping out the network and figuring out what needed fixing and what didn’t, and I didn’t even think about the torrent I’d downloaded the night before until I got home and rebooted my computer into my secret partition and the machine reconnected to IPredator and started seeding the file again.
The torrent contained a huge — HUGE — zipfile that was encrypted. Of course, I had the key. And somewhere out there, Masha was being held captive — or worse — and I was pretty sure that she wanted me to dump the file and the key now.
I really wanted to talk this over with someone. Ange, of course. But she was still in class and wouldn’t be out for hours. And this wasn’t the kind of subject I wanted to talk about over the phone or email or IM or — well, I kind of felt like we should talk about it in a soundproofed room at the bottom of a mineshaft, but I didn’t have either of those things.
I had been avoiding thinking about this for nearly thirty-six hours now. I’d had good excuses: I’d been blown up. I’d been doped up. I’d been asleep. I’d gotten a job. I’d had my first day at work. But I’d run out of excuses for inaction.
But wait! I just thought of a new excuse: it would be insane to have the decrypted file sitting on my drive, even on a secret partition. I couldn’t get over the thought that a snatch team could break down my door at any time and haul me away. If I was loaded up on my “secret” partition at that point, it’d be easy for them to see what I was up to.
I decided I needed to build a few more layers of security into the system before I started to handle this info-plutonium.
First things first: go shopping for a virtual machine. Let me explain that, because VMs had become my best friends lately.
You can write a program that works just like your computer’s microprocessor. You designate a file to act as your virtual computer’s hard drive, and then you load it up with an operating system and any programs you want to run. When you “turn on the computer” — that is, when you run the program — it looks at the virtual drive and loads in the virtual operating system and follows all the instructions it finds there, passing them on to your real computer, which is running underneath all this.
It used to be that the main use for VMs was to simulate old computers on new ones — so you could simulate some ancient game console, an old Game Boy or whatever, and play all the vintage games. There’s a mega-huge games VM called MA.M.E, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, that can play pretty much every old game, ever.
The key word here is “old.” That’s because running a pretend computer inside a real computer is slow. But computers double in speed every eighteen months or so — this is called Moore’s Law, for Gordon Moore, who helped start Intel. That means a brand-new computer will be about sixty-four times faster than a computer you could buy for the same money six years ago, which means that so long as you’re working with old VMs, you probably won’t even notice the lag.
But lately, computer manufacturers have been figuring out how to design chips to run VMs more efficiently, so the gap between a VM and the real computer it runs on keeps shrinking. This means that it’s easier than ever to try out new operating systems and new programs. If there’s something you’re really paranoid about, you can just run a free VM program, install a free OS on it, and run anything you want in that little sandbox. Nothing that happens in that VM can affect your real computer — not unless you give it privileges to see your real hard drive and real files. The VM is like a head in a jar, and you can tell it anything you want about what’s going on in the world and it’ll have to believe you.
You can download hundreds — thousands! — of VMs from the Internet and just fire them up as you need them. Want to turn an old computer into a router or a file server for an hour or a day or a year? Various sysadmins have bottled up perfectly tuned VMs that run any specialized function like that out of the box. There are even user-reviews to help you figure out which ones are the good ones. And since it’s all built on open, free code like Linux, anyone can modify, improve, and redistribute them.
I went hunting for an extra paranoid VM, and I found one. It started with a copy of ParanoidLinux, my own favorite distro, and nuked any programs and services you didn’t need, to make it all the more bulletproof. ParanoidVM also stored its user files in TrueCrypt plausible deniability chunks, so there was no way to tell from the forensic examination of the disk how many users there were and how many files they had.
That was good for starters, but I wanted a dead man’s switch: something that would cause the whole thing to lock itself and shut down if I didn’t do something every fifteen minutes. So I wrote a little script that hit me up for a password every quarter hour. If I didn’t enter it, it would issue a system-wide command to kill any VMs that were running, then erase itself. So if a snatch squad were to nab me, all the work I’d done on the files would disappear unless they could torture the password out of me in a quarter of an hour.
They’d still have the key and the torrent file, but they wouldn’t know whom I’d shown anything to or what we’d talked about. All I’d have to do is key in my password every fifteen minutes, and not go off to the toilet or forget and go to dinner, or I’d lose everything I’d worked on up to the last save-point.
There’s a technical term for this kind of security work: yak-shaving — wasting time doing silly chores to avoid something harder and more important. There was an old essay I liked about working for Google by a hacker called Dhanji Prasanna, which talked about “shaving the entire yak pen at the zoo, and pretty soon traveling to Tibet to shave foreign yaks you’ve never seen before and whose barbering you know little about.”
That’s the territory I was heading into. It was time to decrypt the file.
It had been a while since I’d decrypted an encrypted ZIP file with a very long password. There was a specialized command you could use to specify that the password was in a file, and I couldn’t remember it at first. I looked up how to do it. I did it. The list of files scrolled past faster than my eye could follow. Lots of files. LOTS AND LOTS of files.
What had Masha said? Eventually, you come across something so terrible, you can’t look yourself in the mirror anymore unless you do something about it.
That was a lot of dirty laundry, yo.
I could tell at a glance that they had human-generated file names — weird punctuation, weird capitalization, and both were all over the place. Computers might do weird capitalization, but every file would have been weird in the same way. Some had pretty descriptive names like “bribes paid to senate Def Cttee.doc” and others were more cryptic, like HumIntAfgh32533. There was a file called WATERBOARDING.PPT, a set of PowerPoint slides. My stomach curdled into a hard ball just looking at it.
I double clicked it. The first slide was just a title: “STRESS INTERROGATION SEMINAR 4320.” The next slide was a long confidentiality notice, naming a bunch of private military contractors who, apparently, had been involved in producing this presentation. And the next slide —
— showed a boy, about my age, restrained in padded cuffs at the ankles, wrists and chest, strapped to an angled wooden board that held his head lower than his feet, mouth covered tightly in saran-wrap, having water poured down his nose in a splashing stream out of a bucket with a spout, held by two large, clean, white hands. The boy’s body was arched up like a bow, straining against his restraints, pulling so hard that every muscle in his body stood out. He looked like an anatomical illustration.
He looked like a torture victim.
The saran wrap was an evil touch. The water is poured down the nose, but it can’t go into the lungs, because the body is tilted backwards. His body is tilted backwards. The body — his body — knows that there’s water going into the windpipe and it’s desperate for air. His mouth gasps, but the saran wrap only lets the air go out, because every time he tries to suck air in, the plastic makes a tight seal. The only place air could enter is his nose, and the water is pouring into his nose and so he can’t breathe that way.
Eventually, his lungs empty out entirely, collapse like spent balloons, shrivel like raisins. His brain, starved of oxygen, begins to die. He may pull his bonds so hard he breaks his bones.
The government likes to call waterboarding a “simulated execution.” It’s not a simulation, though. They nearly kill you. If they don’t stop, they will kill you.
One of the men at Guantanamo Bay, America’s secret prison, was waterboarded more than 180 times. Nearly died 180 times. They say he planned 9/11. Maybe he did. But whatever he told them, they’d be crazy to trust it. When you’re being slowly murdered, you will say anything and everything to get loose.
But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was hypnotized by that boy, by the expression on his face, the veins standing out in his forehead, the terror in his eyes. I’d been there. I’d had that look in my eyes.
And then, the image disappeared. The window it was in disappeared. The VM that was in disappeared. My dead man’s switch had been prompting me for a password, had run out of time, and had killed the VM and deleted itself like a good boy. I hadn’t even noticed the password prompt. I’d been staring at that picture.
That picture was only one slide, from one file, out of more than 800,000 files. This was going to take a while.
Ange rang the bell around dinner time, and my mom sent her up to my room. She let herself in and snuck up on me and put her arms around my neck and kissed the top of my head. I pretended I didn’t hear her or see her reflection in my screen. It was a game we played. We were adorable.
“Hey there, workin’ man, how was your first big day at the office?”
“Pretty much like I said in my texts; I’m mostly trying to figure out what the job will entail, trying to get a handle on everything. I told you about that Liam guy, too, right?”
“Yeah, how weird is that? Small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”
“Well, he got less sweaty about things by the end of the day, came by for a real chat, and it turns out he knows his stuff pretty well and had lots of good ideas for me, some authentication ideas I hadn’t thought of for managing guest laptops.”
“I think it’s adorable that you’ve got a little groupie,” she said, pulling up my spare chair and transferring the clutter of MakerBot parts to my bed before sitting down.
“It’s embarrassing,” I said. “How was class?”
She crossed her eyes. “I thought that after high school I’d get to start learning like an adult, without everything being about how many factoids I can regurgitate on cue during exams. But pretty much all of my courses give seventy-five percent of the grade based on exams.”
“Well, you could always leak the exams,” I said, and her hands were over my mouth before I’d gotten the words out.
“Don’t. Even. Joke,” she said.
Ange’s deep, dark secret is that she stole and published the No Child Left Behind tests when she was in the eleventh grade, along with the answer-sheets. The school board never figured out who was responsible for it, and they claimed that the stunt had cost millions. Served ’em right.
“Sorry,” I said. “But there’s worse ideas. And who better to do it?”
“Tell you what, let’s figure out what to do about Masha’s little bombshell first. We can recycle anything we come up with for any final exams I should happen to find myself in possession of.”
“That’s why I love you; you’re always thinking.”
We joked a lot about love, but the truth was, I did love her, with a weird, scary kind of intensity. It probably had to do with drifting away from my gang of friends and dropping out of school — Ange was pretty much the only person I saw on a regular basis who wasn’t a parent of mine. Every now and then, this freaked me out a little. I think it freaked her out, too — I was looking forward to getting a little more balance in my life from having a job with co-workers.
“So, what have you got?”
I felt that little paranoid shiver. You could eavesdrop on a room by bouncing a laser off the glass. The sound waves from the voices in the room made the glass vibrate, and the laser picked up the vibrations. I’d seen a demo of this in a YouTube video of a presentation from DEFCON, the big hacker conference in Vegas. The sound wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. Good enough to pick out every word and recognize the speakers’ voices.
“Um,” I said. “Give me a sec, okay?”
I plugged a set of speakers into my laptop and then stretched out their wires until I could press them on the window-glass. Then I used my computer’s random-number generator, /dev/random and requested some random white noise. The speakers began to hiss with staticky sound. I cranked them up to the point where I couldn’t stand it, then turned them down a notch or two. I made sure the blinds were seated over the speakers again. Maybe a laser could pick up on the sound in the room, but I couldn’t think of any way to subtract random noise from the audio signal. That didn’t mean it was impossible, but at least we couldn’t be eavesdropped on by anyone stupider than me.
“Huh,” Ange said, observing this ritual. “Well, that’s pretty intense.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It sure is.” We moved the chairs so we could both see my laptop and I showed her my VM and the dead man’s switch.
“Not bad,” she said. “Okay, you’ve convinced me that you’re worried about this stuff. Which, I suppose, means that you’re sure that you saw Masha and Zeb get taken off the playa, and that means you think the explosion was deliberate.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Back down the rabbit hole, here we go.”
“Wait till you see.” I brought up the VM, brought up the directory listing. Sat back.
“What is this I don’t even,” she said, staring wide-eyed at the listing. I handed her the mouse. She started clicking, beginning from the top. The first item was budget_8B5S.xls. It turned out to be a spreadsheet listing income and outgo. The titles down the left side were peoples’ names. Across the top was a list of companies with bland names like “Holdings import/export” and “Property Management Ltd” and in the middle were dollar figures. None of them were very big — $1,001, $5,100 — the biggest was $7,111.
“A lot of ones in those figures,” I said.
Ange nodded. “Yeah. That’s interesting, isn’t it?” She stared at them for a while longer and got out her laptop. “You still like IPredator for anonymity?”
“Generally. But why don’t you run it through Tor after IPredator.” Tor — The Onion Router — would bounce the browser requests through a bunch of random computers, and none of those computers would know where the request came from and where it was going. It was slow — slower than IPredator, which was slower than the raw network connection. But there’s a time to be paranoid, and this was it.
I stared at the mysterious spreadsheet for a while. The dead man’s switch asked for a password and I entered it.
“There you go. I knew I’d read about this. The number one appears more frequently than other numbers in financial data.”
She showed me the article, a summary of a paper at a security conference. “A lot more stuff costs between $10 and $19 or $100 and $199 than $20 and up, or $200 and up. Retail psychology: people are more likely to buy stuff that costs $9 than $10; it’s a big jump. Ninety-nine dollars has less psychological weight than $100, but $999 is a lot less crazy than $1,000. So you get a lot of clusters of numbers with ones in them. But when people make up numbers, faking their finances or cheating on their taxes, you get a much more even distribution of numbers. It’s one of the ways the IRS looks for tax cheats. I read about it in a book on data-journalism — tried to get my section’s TA to read it last year but she said she had to get us ready for the exams and to show it to her again afterward.
“So all these ones, they’re inserted by someone who knows he’s making up numbers and wants to be sure that there’s plenty of extra ones to make the statistical distribution look right. Someone who doesn’t expect a human being to look at these numbers closely, but worried that a computer might spot them.”
She peered at my spreadsheet and started to type again, but the dead man’s switch wanted a password again and I didn’t grab the computer in time to enter it. The VM disappeared.
“That’s frustrating,” she said.
“I’ll teach you the password.”
“What if you set the timeout to longer? Thirty minutes?”
I shook my head. “I think I could probably hold out against someone who wanted my password for fifteen minutes, especially if they were on a snatch team that broke the door down and didn’t have any time to prepare. Thirty minutes, though…”
“Oh,” she said.
“There’s a presentation in there on how to do waterboarding. A PowerPoint. It’s got bar-graphs showing the time to brain-damage based on age and general health.”
“Oh,” she said again. She knew that there were times when showering would give me uncontrollable shakes. Being executed will do that to you.
I brought up the VM and opened the spreadsheet again. Ange started to enter the names.
“They’re all staffers for Illinois State Assemblyman Bedfellow. The logical next step is to look up which committees that Assemblyman is on, and what all he voted on. Data Journalism 101 — or it would be, if there was a Data Journalism course in my program.”
“Let’s do it,” I said.
“No,” she said. “That’s just one file. There’s 800,000 more. We can’t do this retail. We have to find a wholesale approach.”
“We need Jolu,” I said. “This is his thing.”
We’d been brainstorming for hours. Ange was even more paranoid than I was. She had me clone the VM — easy, just copy the data file — and then set up a new TrueCrypt file that had one copy of the VM in its regular storage, and another copy in a hidden plausible deniability partition.
“Here’s how it’ll work: the snatch squad comes in, bags and tags you and grabs the computer. They start looking around, but before they can get very far, there’s a password prompt. They start to rubber-hose you for the password, but you gut it out. Whoosh, the dead man’s switch trips, the VM takes itself down, the data is scrambled.
“But then what happens?”
I chewed my lip. I had thought this through this far before and hadn’t liked what came next. “They try to get the password out of me to decrypt the file.”
I said, “And if you’re here, they can work on you, too.”
“Which is why we’re doing this. Because right away we can give them a password, and that password will unlock this copy of the VM. It’s got a full set of the leaks. But that’s not the copy we work with. That’s the one we hide in the plausible deniability partition. And that’s where we keep all our notes, any mailing lists of people who know about this and work on it with us. We never give them that password. Our story is, we kept the leaks on this encrypted VM, and we didn’t keep notes on them. We didn’t know what to do about them. It’s believable. I mean, we don’t know what to do with them.”
We did that. We came up with two long, crazy passwords and practiced them on each other until we had them memorized. Then we stared at each other.
“We need Jolu,” I said again. “He’s all about wholesale data these days.”
Ange nuked the VMs, turning them back into random-seeming gibberish. “Those speakers are driving me crazy,” she said. “Are you sure they’ll stop this laser-listener stuff?”
I shook my head.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s turn them down for a while, anyway.
“So, Jolu. You know that bringing Jolu into this is pretty much the same kind of dick move that Masha pulled when she brought you into it.”
“I know. But it’s different with Jolu. He’s my friend. One of my best friends.”
She chewed on some words for a while. “Marcus, no offense, but is that still true? When was the last time you guys actually hung out? When was the last time you even talked?”
I squirmed. She was right. “Okay, point taken, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still friends. We don’t dislike each other, we’re just, you know, busy with our own things. I’ve known Jolu for most of my life, since I was a little kid. He’s the right guy for this.”
“I don’t mean to make you all defensive, all right? It’s just that you’re about to put Jolu into a really hard spot, and it’s the kind of thing that you should be really, really sure about before you do it.”
“Jolu wouldn’t turn me down. This is important.”
Ange gave me a long, long look. Here’s what she wasn’t saying: If this is so important, why didn’t you drop everything to do something about it? Why didn’t you go to the cops, or the press? Why are you screwing around with a new job instead of making this your top priority?
It was a thought that I kept having too, and of course, I knew the answer, and so did Ange. I was too scared to go public. The last time I spilled everything to the press, I’d ended up in a torture chamber. The stuff Masha had dumped on me was a lot more important and scary than what I’d had to say that time, too, if our small samples were anything to go by.
Besides, Masha hadn’t told me to rescue her. She’d told me to get the material out. I would. Maybe if the material was out there, Carrie Johnstone would realize that snatching Masha would do no good and let her and Zeb go.
Book People: Austin, TX
Austin, TX is one of those cities that turns out to be an unlikely and distant suburb of Berkeley, a counterculture town where “Keep Austin Weird” is the citywide mantra. Of course, it’s got a lot of great places to buy books, but man, Book People is a hell of a store. I visit most of these stores as a touring author, but stepping through their doors instantly turns me into a reader, and all I want to do is browse the shelves, read the staff reviews, and pick over the staff-picks. Book People is one of the stores where the urge to do this is strongest.
I’ve always done my best work at night, and I knew all the tricks — combining careful doses of coffee, catnaps and showers to get my tortured, sleep-deprived brain to perform during daylight, while still cranking away through the vampire hours, where inspiration lurked in every shadow.
Jolu was the same, and that was one reason we got along so well. I can’t count how many 3 A.M.s I’d shared with him over Skype or IM, or in person as we snuck out of the house to go dingledodie around the streets of San Francisco. So even though it was 8 P.M. when Ange and I finally finished arguing, I didn’t worry about whether he’d be free for the evening.
Though I did feel a little weird as my finger hovered over his icon in my speed dial. That thing, you know it: you haven’t called someone in a long time, so it’s weird to call them, so you don’t call them, and more time goes by, and it gets weirder…
“Marcus!” he said. There was a lot of noise in the background, clinking bottles and glasses and loud talk.
“Jolu!” I said. “Look, man, I’m sorry to call you out of the blue –“
“One sec,” he said. “Let me go somewhere quieter.” I heard him navigate what sounded like a busy party. “Hey dude! Long time no speak!”
“I’m sorry to call you out of the blue –“
“No, no, it’s cool. It’s great, actually! Nice to hear from you.”
Wonder if you’ll feel the same way after I turn your life upside down.
“Can I meet you somewhere? It’s important.”
“Marcus?” he said. “Important how?”
“Important important. The kind of important I don’t want to talk about on the phone.”
I distinctly heard him say Oh shit under his breath. “Of course,” he said. “Right now?”
“Yeah, now would be good.”
“Um.” A long pause. “What about the place where you met Ange?”
“You mean –” I stopped myself. Good old Jolu. Anyone listening in wouldn’t know where I met Ange. He was more paranoid than I was, and that was before I told him what was up. He really was the right man for the job. “Okay, when?”
“Give me an hour?”
“Okay,” I said. “And Jolu? Thanks.”
I heard him snort, and I could totally picture the half-smile that went with it, one bushy eyebrow raised in a quizzical expression. “No need. Anytime for you, man. You know that.”
Friends. Nothing like them.
I met Ange at a key-signing party Jolu and I threw at Sutro Baths on Ocean Beach. The weird old/new ruins were spooky and dramatic, and the night was burned into my memory forever. Ange laughed when I told her where we were headed. She’d taken me there again on our first anniversary, with a picnic supper, and we’d watched the sun go down and necked on the blanket before we got too cold.
“I think we should switch off our phones,” Ange said.
“Yeah,” I said. That’s the thing about paranoia — it’s catching. But she was right — our phones would send our location to the phone companies, and if someone really wanted to snoop on us, it was always possible that they could find some way to tap into the GPSes on them. Then there’d be this really clear data-trail: Marcus called Jolu, then Ange, Marcus and Jolu all met up at Ocean Beach. Might was well get reflective orange vests and stencil CO-CONSPIRATOR on them. I took the battery out of my phone for good measure.
We were a quarter of an hour early — the buses were with us — and Jolu was ten minutes early. He hugged us both tightly, and Ange kissed him on the cheek. It had been months since I’d seen him — he’d dropped in on an open data lecture at Noisebridge — and he looked different. He’d grown a tidy little mustache and pointed sideburns, and had his hair styled in a short razor-cut that looked somehow grown up, cool, and business-like all at once. He’d always been better-dressed than the rest of us, but he was particularly natty that night in a button-up shirt with slightly wiggly stripes that made my eyes cross when I stared at them, heavy old denim jeans with big rivets, and elaborate leather shoes. I was in my old thrift-store jeans, beat-up motorcycle boots caked with playa dust, and a hoodie, and I felt like a slob.
He had wine on his breath. “I hope it wasn’t a totally excellent party,” I said.
“Just a release party for a new traffic-predicting app,” he said, shrugging. “We get users’ anonymized GPS data at different times on different roads and try to predict traffic jams ahead of time, also looking at all the planned road maintenance and anything realtime from the DOT. You share your calendar with us and we look at where you’re going and use that to give you advice on what roads to avoid to get there on time.”
“Woah, creepy,” Ange said. I’d been thinking it, but hadn’t wanted to say anything.
Jolu wasn’t offended, though. He just grinned. “Yeah, it is. I mean, everyone is opt-in, and we anonymize the data when we get it so we don’t know where you’ve been, just that someone has been there. But yeah, if we had a data leak, there’d be an awful lot of stuff there you might not want the world to know.” He sat down on a rock and fished some gum out of his pockets, offered it around. It was black licorice gum, his favorite, the kind that turned your tongue and spit disgusting black. Just the smell of it made me smile and sent me spinning back in time to the old days.
“Or if the police seized your servers,” Ange said. “It’s so weird that we do all this Xnet stuff to keep our personal information from being captured by the government, but we give it to companies and the cops can just waltz in to their data centers whenever they want and just take it all.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Jolu said. “Get me to tell you about the lawful intercept stuff some time, okay? It’ll curl the hair on your toes.”
“So, speaking of the police and servers,” I said. “I’ve got an interesting technical problem I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I figured you might.”
“Before I start — is your phone on by any chance?”
He pulled it out of his pocket and removed the back, showed me the missing battery. “Dude, estoy aqui por loco, no por pendejo,” which was the punchline to the funniest Spanish joke I knew. Okay, the only one. Google it.
Jolu listened attentively, asking a few questions as we told the story. I put in my theory about the explosion on the playa and Ange didn’t say anything about not believing me. When we were done, we both looked at him across the darkness and the grey no-color of the light leaking from the streetlamps on the cliff above us.
“So what do we do now?” he said.
He shook his head. “Duh. Yes, ‘we.’ Did you think I wouldn’t get involved?”
“The last time you sat where you’re sitting and I sat where I’m sitting, you told me that it was different for you. You told me that the risk was bigger if you’re brown than if you’re white.”
“Yeah, I said that. It’s every bit as true today as it was, then, too.”
“But you’re in.”
He looked out into the darkness and didn’t say anything. I smelled his gum.
“Marcus,” he said. “Have you noticed how messed up everything is today? How we put a ‘good’ president in the White House and he kept right on torturing and bombing and running secret prisons? How every time we turn around, someone’s trying to take away the Internet from us, make it into some kind of giant stupid shopping mall where the rent-a-cops can kick you out if they don’t like your clothes? Have you noticed how much money the one percent have? How we’re putting more people in jail every day, and more people are unemployed every day, and more people are losing their houses every day?”
“I’ve noticed,” I said. “But haven’t things always been screwed up? I mean, doesn’t everyone assume that their generation has the most special, most awful problems?”
“Yeah,” Ange said. “But not every generation has had the net.”
“Bingo,” Jolu said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t terrible in the Great Depression or whatever. But we’ve got the power to organize like we’ve never had before. And the creeps and the spooks have the power to spy on us more than ever before, to control us and censor us and find us and snatch us.”
“Who’s going to win?” I said. “I mean, I used to think that we’d win, because we understand computers and they don’t.”
“Oh, they understand computers. And they’re doing everything they can to invent new ways to mess you up with them. But if we leave the field, it’ll just be them. People who want everything, want to be in charge of everyone.”
“So we’re going to win?”
Jolu laughed. “There’s no winning or losing, Marcus. There’s only doing.”
“Man, I leave you alone for a couple of months and you turn into Yoda.”
“So what do we do?” Ange asked again.
“Well, we’re not going to be able to look at 800,000 of these.”
“810,097,” I said.
“That. I think we need to build some kind of site for these things, something secure and private, where we can run searches on them, try to find the good stuff, leave notes for each other.”
“And then what do we do with them?”
“We release them.”
“Duh,” Ange said. “But how do you think we’ll do that? How do you put the information in a place where people will see it and care about it, but not a place that can be traced back to us?”
Jolu shrugged and stared at the ruins. “I don’t know. I guess it depends on the kind of stuff we find. Maybe we google journalists who sound like they’d be interested in the story and email the docs to them from throwaway accounts. Something else, maybe. I don’t know. But when you’ve got a problem that has two parts, and one part comes first, and you know how to solve that part, the best thing to do is solve that part and see if a solution to the rest suggests itself while you’re working.”
“That sounds right,” I said.
“I suppose,” Ange said. “But, Marcus, what about Zeb and Masha?”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t know how we work that out. Maybe releasing the material will put them in more danger. Maybe it’ll take them out of danger. We know who took her: Carrie Johnstone. That’s got to be part of the story, however we release it.”
“You’re sure it was her?” Jolu asked.
“There are some faces I’ll never, ever forget. Hers is one of them. It was her.”
“Okay, okay. Let’s talk about forward secrecy,” he said.
It turned out Jolu had been hanging out with some heavy Tor dudes who were working on “darknet sites” — “hidden services” that could host files and message boards, sites that anyone could reach, providing they knew the address. But these were unlike regular sites: even if you knew the address, you couldn’t figure out where the physical computer it led to was, who was running it, what server you’d have to sieze to shut it down. Darknet sites were places you could visit but couldn’t shut down.
“So you’ve got these rendezvous points, they’re servers that know some other servers that know some other servers that know the way to reach the darknet site. You ask a rendezvous site to introduce you to the server and it does this dance with the other servers down the line, and creates a temporary circuit that bounces your connection through a one-off route to the darknet machine, so every time you visit the site, there’s a different, random way to reach it.
“What I want to do is grab a cheapo server-on-demand VM and slap a ParanoidLinux install on it — nothing unencrypted, ever. Then we slap a copy of your data on it, and a clone of Google Spreadsheets. Grab a doc, put its title in the first field, a description in the next field, and a place where you can put some keywords. Smack together a script that runs every couple of minutes and searches for those keywords in the uncategorized documents, and automatically suggests possibly related ones.”
“And then what? We look at 800,000 documents, us three?” I figured I might be able to do a hundred docs a night, depending on how complicated they were. At that rate, it’d take us three a year or so to get through them all. Too slow.
“No, not us three. With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. We’ve got to bring more people in. People we can trust.”
Jolu said, “Yeah, I know a few of those.”
I was almost late for work the next day. After coming home, I’d stayed up for hours banging away at the document dump. I hadn’t meant to, but Jolu’s idea of searching for words in the dump gave me some ideas.
The first thing I searched for was “Masha” and “Zeb.” I got a few documents with “zebra” and “mashallah,” but nothing else. I tried “Marcus” and “Yallow.” There were five “Marcus”es but none of them were me.
Then I tried “Carrie Johnstone” and hit the jackpot.
Carrie Johnstone had been a busy little soldier in Iraq. There were more than four hundred documents that mentioned her by name. I went after them alphabetically at first, but it was all confusing, until I had the bright idea of sorting them by date and starting with the oldest and reading toward the newest — a document that was just over a month old.
Reading those four hundred documents — some very short, some very long — kept me up to three in the morning, and the more I read, the more I learned about Carrie Johnstone’s weird and terrible career in and out of the U.S. military.
The first documents dated from Johnstone’s career at FOB Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s old palace. There was a memo she’d written describing the handover of a bunch of Iraqi prisoners to the Iraqi police. I didn’t see at first why anyone would bother to save the document, but the next memo explained it. It was a memo explaining why they hadn’t told the Red Cross about the transfer of prisoners, and hadn’t gotten any kind of chain-of-custody receipts from the Iraqi cops. A little googling and I figured out what that meant: fifty-one men, women and children had vanished into the custody of Iraq’s police force, and no one knew whatever became of them. They had been arrested after anonymous tips, or snatched off the street for “suspicious behavior.” And for all anyone knew, they were nameless and rotting in a jail somewhere, while their families wrote them off for dead. Or maybe they were dead, dumped in a mass grave.
Then she’d ended up at FOB Grizzly, working as an “intelligence officer” alongside the military police. She’d been reprimanded for unauthorized “stress interrogations” of suspected terrorists, and had overseen an arrest sweep that brought in more than five hundred suspects, all of whom had been released over the coming months as it emerged that they had nothing to do with terrorism.
It was around then that she left the military, and though she’d written a letter of resignation, there was also a memo from a commanding officer to Army Human Resources Command saying that she’d been “shown the door” after an “incident” involving “materiel.” Another memo was more explicit — she’d been involved in a plan that delivered American guns and ammo to private mercenaries working for a military contractor, and those guns and that ammo had been part of a massacre that killed over a hundred people.
From there, she’d gone private, working for the military “contractor” — hired killers, according to a quick search — and had distinguished herself with a very lucrative bid to take over the management contract for the FOB she’d been fired from.
It was ugly.
As I lay in bed with my thoughts swirling, I wondered if Carrie Johnstone had snatched Masha because the leaks file had so much embarrassing material about her, personally, or whether she’d been hired to retrieve them for the U.S. government. How could the Army fire her one day and then re-hire her to do the same job at ten times her old salary a month later? Were they on crazy pills?
I couldn’t afford to drag my ass around work the next day, so I didn’t. I pounded the Turk’s coffee and munched chocolate espresso beans and finished my inventory and network map. Joe surprised me by scheduling me for lunch. The first I heard of it was when he showed up at my desk at 12:30 and stood over it, smiling expectantly at me.
“Hi, Joe,” I said.
We went to a nice veggie place where they knew him by name and seated us right away. He knew their names, too, and greeted everyone from the waiter to the guy who filled up our water glasses personally, switching to Spanish as necessary and asking sincere, friendly questions about their wives and husbands and kids and health.
The sincere part was the weirdest thing. When I was really on fire and feeling very, very sociable, I might remember half of the names of the people I saw. I just sucked at names. And when people told me about their kids or parents or siblings or whatever, I tried to be interested, but I mean, how interested can you really be in the lives of people you barely know or have never met at all?
But Joe had the uncanny ability to seem really, genuinely interested in people. When he talked to you, you felt like he was also listening to you, carefully, thoughtfully, and not waiting for you to finish talking so that he could say whatever he was going to say next. It made him seem, I don’t know, holy or something, like one of those people out of a religious story who overflows with love for his fellow man.
And the weirdest part? He didn’t make me feel like a dick for not being that interested myself. Instead, he made me want to try to be more like him, more caring.
After our water glasses were full and we’d put in our orders, he said, “Thank you for making the time to see me today. I know you must be busy.”
If it was anyone else, I’d have thought he was blowing smoke up my ass, but he really sounded like he thought being the webmaster/sysadmin/net guy was the hardest job in the world and he felt lucky that all he had to do was run around and try to get elected.
“You’re welcome — I mean, it’s a pleasure. I mean, it’s wonderful. I’m so glad to have a job, and it’s such a cool job, too. Everyone’s really nice and interesting and I really believe in your platform, so, well, it’s just great.” I was babbling like an idiot and I couldn’t seem to stop — and he didn’t seem to notice.
“You remember when I spoke to you on the phone the other night, I mentioned how my campaign would need great technology to be successful. And I’m sure that when you and Flor chatted she had some pointed opinions about that and what her side of the campaign needed from you. You might be wondering who wins in a little struggle like that. I wanted to give you some context to help you resolve that.
“Flor is your boss — and she’s my boss, too. She’s in charge of the campaign from top to bottom, and I’m familiar with her ideas about what campaigns need vis-a-vis boots on the ground, knocking on doors, and raising money. She’s right as far as she goes, and that’s why I let her be my boss.
“But I’m the candidate, and I have some additional priorities. I say ‘additional’ — not ‘different.’ Flor is right about needing money, boots and door-knocking. But once you’ve got all that running to the best of your ability, there’s more that I want you to get thinking about. I want you to tell me how technology can help me reach people who would otherwise be beyond my reach. I want you to tell me how technology can transform the way that voters and their representatives collaborate to produce good, accountable government. Every wave of technology, from newspapers to radio to TV, has transformed politics, and not always for the better. Some people think that the Internet is a tool for politicians to raise money or coordinate volunteers, but I don’t think that’s even one percent of what technology can do for politics. I want you to help me figure out the other ninety-nine percent.”
Woah. “Okay,” I said. “Do you want, what, an essay or a website or something?”
He smiled. “Let’s start with a chat, like this one, tomorrow at the end of the day. I’ll have Flor put it in both of our schedules.”
It made me feel good and a little scared — I really didn’t want to let him down, but all I could think of was darknet sites and leaked docs. I wondered what he would say if I told him that I was sitting on more than 800,000 confidential, compromising government memos. But I also remembered what Flor had said: The first time I catch so much as a whiff of anything illegal, immoral, dangerous or ‘leet’ I will personally bounce your ass to the curb before you have a chance to zip your fly.
I went over to Ange’s after work. Jolu had already set up our darknet site and grabbed a copy of the docs off BitTorrent. I’d handed him a USB stick with the key on it, and by the time I got my computer up into a secure mode with a dead man’s switch and an anonymized, private network connection, the site was ready to go.
In fact, it was already going. Jolu had met with Van on his lunch break, and she’d plowed through more than fifty docs while I’d been bringing the Joe for Senate servers’ patch levels up to date. I wondered whether Van had had a chance to talk to Darryl. He’d been my best friend, as tight as a brother, but I hadn’t seen him in months. It was all too weird between us — the fact that he was with Van and that Van had confessed that she’d once had a crush on me; the unwordly fragility of his mind after his time in Gitmo-by-the-Bay; his constant struggle to keep up with even a half-time courseload at Berkeley. I thought of what seeing that nasty little waterboarding PowerPoint would do to Darryl.
It wasn’t just Van working on the docs, either. Jolu had enlisted some of his other trusted friends, people with cryptic handles like Left-Handed Mutant and Endless Vegetables. I hoped Jolu was right to trust them. I hoped he’d been cagey about where the docs had actually come from. Out of curiosity, I googled the strangers’ handles and confirmed to my satisfaction that they didn’t appear to have been used before. It would have been such a basic mistake to recycle a nickname that you’d already used someplace that could be linked to your real identity.
Endless Vegetables was working his (or her) way through a gigantic pile of documents on student loans, judging from the tags and summaries. I vaguely knew that the government guaranteed student loans made by universities, which were sold to banks that collected on them. The darknet docs went into disgusting details — like a series of jokey emails between a congressman who’d gotten a tearful letter from a constituent who’d been hit with crazy penalties that turned her $20,000 loan into a $180,000 loan and an executive at the bank who’d assessed the penalties. The congressman sounded like he was pretty good friends with the banker, and they made it sound like this girl’s problem was hilarious.
Jolu had added an “I’m feeling lucky” button to the spreadsheet that would bring up a random, uncataloged doc. I hit it and found myself looking at a cryptic set of numbers and acronyms. I tried to google the search terms but found myself getting nowhere, so I grabbed another, and then another. It was mesmerizing, like channel surfing on a massive cable network that only got heavy, strange programs about corruption, murder, and sleaze.
“Jeebus H Christmas,” Ange said. “Have a look at the doc I just checked in.”
I resorted the spreadsheet by author and found Ange’s latest contribution, loaded it up. It was an instruction manual for a “lawful intercept” network appliance sold to cops and governments for installation at an Internet Service Provider. The appliance monitored all incoming requests for updates to Android phones, and checked to see if the phone’s owner was on a list of targets. If they were, the appliance took over the network session and sent a fake update to the phone that gave spies and spooks the power to secretly turn on the phone’s GPS, camera, and mic. I stared in mounting horror at the phone on the bed next to me, then flipped it over and took out the battery.
“Keep reading,” Ange said. She’d been following the auto-linked documents and found a bunch of captured emails and phone sessions. One was a complaint from a DHS field operative about a target who’d installed “ParanoidAndroid” on his phone and couldn’t be gotten at.
“What’s ParanoidAndroid?” I asked.
“I’m reading up on that now,” Ange said. “Looks like it’s a fork from the CyanogenMod.” I knew about Cyanogen, of course — hackers had taken the source code for Google’s Android operating system and made a fully free and open version that could do all kinds of cool tricks. “It doesn’t accept updates unless their checksums match with other users and the official releases. Lets you tell whether an update is real or a spoof.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s install it!”
Ange pointed at her phone, which was already cabled to her laptop. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“Do mine next?”
There was more. Other lawful intercept appliances would disguise themselves as iTunes updates for Macs and PCs, and another one worked by sending fake updates to your browser. Then there were the saved emails between a senior DHS IT manager who’d worked at one of these companies before going to Homeland Security. His old boss was explaining how they were using a shell company in Equatorial Guinea — a country I’d never even heard of! — to market their products in China, Iran, and other countries.
It just got worse. Logs of law enforcement requests to install spyware bugs on people involved in peaceful protest groups. Reports of break-ins by suspected criminals who’d used the systems to spy on their victims.
I was trying to figure out how all this stuff could possibly work. After all, software updates usually went over SSL, which used cryptographic certificates to verify the identity of the sender. How were they spoofing connections from Apple and Google and Microsoft and Mozilla?
Oh, that’s how. A search on “certificates lawful intercept” brought up another email exchange, this one with a huge American security company that had one of the “signing certificates” that were trusted by all browsers and operating systems. They’d been supplying blank certificates to the DHS for years, it seemed — certificates that would give the government the power to undetectably impersonate your bank or your company, or Apple, Microsoft, and Google.
Ange and I split up the remaining lawful intercept docs, getting deeper and deeper into the terrifying secrets of snoops and spies. Before I knew it, it was 2 A.M. and I could barely keep my eyes open.
“Want to stay over?” Ange said as I yawned for the tenth time in five minutes.
“I think I already have,” I said. We’d started staying over at each other’s houses that summer, and while it had been weird at first (especially over breakfast with the parents!), everyone had gotten used to it. My parents had more important stuff to worry about, and Ange’s mom was just one of those cool grownups who seemed to have an instinctive grasp of what mattered and what didn’t.
University Bookstore: Seattle, WA
This chapter is dedicated to the University Bookstore at the University of Washington, whose science fiction section rivals many specialty stores, thanks to the sharp-eyed, dedicated science fiction buyer, Duane Wilkins. Duane’s a real science fiction fan — I first met him at the World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto in 2003 — and it shows in the eclectic and informed choices on display at the store. One great predictor of a great bookstore is the quality of the “shelf review” — the little bits of cardboard stuck to the shelves with (generally hand-lettered) staff-reviews extolling the virtues of books you might otherwise miss. The staff at the University Bookstore have clearly benefited from Duane’s tutelage, as the shelf reviews at the University Bookstore are second to none.
Once upon a time, terrorists blew up a bridge in my city and killed over four thousand people. They told me everything changed. They told me that we didn’t have the same rights we used to, because catching terrorists was more important than our little freedoms.
They say they caught the terrorists. One of the guys, who had been killed by a drone in Yemen, supposedly thought the whole thing up. I guess I’m okay with him being dead if that’s the case. I hope it’s the case. No one would show us the proof, of course, because of “national security.”
But “everything is different” turned out to be a demand and not a description. It pretended to describe what the new reality was, but instead it demanded that everyone accept a new reality, one where we could be spied on and arrested and even tortured.
A few years later, everything changed again. It seemed like overnight, no one had jobs anymore, no one had money anymore, and people started to lose their houses. It was weird, because now that it was obvious that everything had changed, no one wanted to talk about how everything had changed.
When the streets are full of armed cops and soldiers telling you that everything is different, everyone can point at one thing, a thing with a human face, and agree, “It’s different, it’s different.”
But when some mysterious social/financial/political force upends the world and changes everything — when “everything is different now” is a description and not a demand — somehow, it gets much harder to agree on whether things are different and what we need to do about it.
It was one thing to demand that the armed guards leave our streets. It was another to figure out how to demand that the silent red overdue bills and sneaky process servers with their eviction notices go away.
I was nearly late getting to work the next day, but I just squeaked in. I’d stolen back one of my T-shirts from Ange’s laundry pile (she liked to steal mine and sleep in them), and it smelled wonderfully of her, and put me in a good mood as I came through the door and made a beeline for my desk.
“Dude!” Liam said, practically bouncing in place by my chair. “Can you believe it?”
“What?” I said.
“You know! The darknet stuff!”
All the blood rushed out of my head and into my gut and swirled there like a stormy ocean. My ears throbbed with my pulse. “What?” I said.
“You didn’t see?”
He leaned over me and moused to my browser, went to the front page of Reddit, a site where you could submit and vote on news stories. Every item on the front page talked about “darknet leaks.” Feeling like I was in a horror movie, I clicked one of them. It was a story on wired.com, about a file that had been anonymously dumped into pastebin.com, instructions for using a lawful intercept appliance to take over Android phones and work their cameras. Whoever had dumped the file had sent an email to a reporter at wired.com saying that there were more than 800,000 documents like it on a darknet site, that volunteers were combing through them, and there was a lot more to come. It didn’t say where they’d come from or who the volunteers were.
I went back to Reddit and checked the others. How many darknet docs had leaked? It seemed like everyone had the same story, in different variants — 800,000 docs, darknet, more to come, but nothing more. I started to calm down.
“You’ve got an Android phone, right?” Liam said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do. But I run ParanoidAndroid — it’s an alternate OS that resists that kind of spyware.”
“Really?” Joe said. He’d walked up on us on cats-paw feet while we were talking, and I jumped in my seat. “Woah, sorry, calm down there, Marcus. I’ve got an Android phone, too. Tell you what, I’ll order in pizza for lunch if you’ll give us a workshop on keeping our phones secure. Sounds like the kind of thing we should all know about.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Of course.” Though as soon as I saw the Wired story, I’d started scheming to take lunch off and find a WiFi network with weak, crackable WEP security so that I could hop on, tunnel into the darknet, and try to figure out what had just happened. I mean, I knew better than anyone that there was no such thing as perfect security, and I understood that it was likely that someone, someday, would get a look at the darknet docs who we hadn’t invited in. But I didn’t think that day would be the day after we set up the darknet!
But I couldn’t screw up my job. I’d been desperate for work for so long, and it was such a cool job. The fact that I might now be the target of a ruthless mercenary army didn’t mean that I didn’t have to help Joe get elected.
So I did my job, and when the pizza came, I stood with a slice in one hand and a white-board pen in the other and sketched out a little flowchart of how your phone could be taken over, and what could be done with your phone after it was pwned.
Joe munched thoughtfully at a slice, wiped his fingers and his mouth, and put up his hand. “So you’re saying that the police could take over our phones?”
“No!” Liam said, vibrating in his chair. “He’s saying anyone could –“
I put up my hands and Liam calmed down. “What I mean is, once the intercept appliance is installed at the phone company’s data center, anyone who has a login and password for it could use it.”
“But who has that login and password? The police, yes?”
“Probably not, actually. The leaks suggested that these appliances were managed by the phone company or ISP. So a police officer calls up the lawful intercept technicians and they set it up for him. So the list of anyone who could break into the ISP’s network, anyone who could bribe or blackmail someone at the ISP, anyone who can convincingly pretend to be a police officer to the ISP, anyone who can get a real police officer to give him access, or anyone who can pay someone to do any of the above.”
“So you’re saying that turning anyone’s phone into a superbug is as easy as fixing a parking ticket?”
“I’ve never fixed a parking ticket,” I said. “I don’t drive. Is it hard to fix a parking ticket?”
Joe drummed his fingers on the table. “Not if you’re rich or well connected. Or so I’m told.”
“Yeah,” I said, “rich or well-connected people could turn any phone into a mobile bug. In theory there’s no reason this is limited to Android phones. It could work by pushing out updates to iTunes, or Firefox, or any app. They’d just need a signing certificate and –” I stopped talking, because I’d just remembered that there hadn’t been anything about the signing certificates in the leak. “And things like that. So theoretically, any computer, any phone, anything that updates itself automatically could be turned into a bug once these things are installed.”
My hands were sweating. Joe and the rest of the office might not know what a “signing certificate” was, but Liam did, and he looked like he was committing every word I uttered to memory. “Uh,” I said. “Also, once your computer is infected with this stuff, it’s possible that people other than the police or whoever bugged you will start to watch what you do.”
Joe put his hand up again. “Explain?” he said.
“Oh, well, here’s how it would work. Say I pay someone to bug your computer. Now your computer has some malicious software on it that can, I don’t know, look out your camera, listen to your mic, watch your keystrokes, snatch files off your hard drive, the whole thing. The bug will have some kind of control software, a program that I run to access your computer. Maybe that program lives on a server somewhere else, in which case anyone who breaks into that server can then break into all the infected computers and phones and stuff. Or maybe it lives on your computer, so if I take over your computer, I can jump from it to all the infected computers. But also, if someone figures out that your computer is running the bug, maybe they can connect directly to your computer — like they could hang around outside your house and crack your WiFi password and wait for your computer to log on, and then snag it, or maybe they don’t know who you are and they just sit at Starbucks all day waiting for anyone with the bug to join the network and then they grab the computer’s controls.”
Paranoid commercial interlude
This is the part that always freaks people out, me included. The idea that there’s someone inside your phone, listening, watching. Gives me the creeps just looking at it. There are a lot of libraries that won’t stock ebooks at all because they refuse to give in to the publishers’ demands to use DRM, so they rely on print copies, like the ones you can donate here ). This has the side effect of reducing their patrons’ reliance of spyware-vulnerable machines designed to accommodate the DRM.
When it comes to the commercial editions of my books, you can always be sure that they’re DRM-free. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lucky for me, my publisher Tor agrees: All of its ebooks are DRM free, always. But when I love a book, I want a hardcopy, something I can shove in a friend’s hand and say, “here, you have to read this.” Either way, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of this book:
Barnes and Noble Nook (DRM-free)
Google Books (DRM-free)
Apple iBooks (DRM-free)
Indiebound (will locate an independent store near you!)
Barnes and Noble
Flor put up her hand. “How realistic is this? I mean, this all sounds pretty scary, but can you give me an idea of how many computers have been infected this way? In the real world, is this something I need to worry about? Or is it like being struck by lightning?”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m the wrong guy to ask about that. I’ve never used this stuff, never shelled out a hundred grand for one of these boxes. I’m guessing if the police buy them, they must use them. I mean, you could think of this as HIV. Your computer has an immune system, all the passwords and so forth that stop it from being taken over by parasites. Once it’s bugged, it’s got a compromised immune system. So parasites can come in and infect it.” I thought a moment. I was calming down. No, that’s not right, I was just excited now, and not scared, because it was kind of cool that everyone in the office was hanging on my every word. It made me feel important and smart. “Actually, it’s like the network has an immune system, including things like Internet Service Providers who don’t conspire to trick your computer into downloading malicious software. When your ISP’s router tells you a file is coming from Google or Apple or Mozilla, your computer assumes that that’s where the packets are coming from. But once you start monkeying with that, once you create a procedure that tells ISPs to start secretly lying to their customers, well, it seems to me like you can expect that to start happening.”
“So what do we do?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, for Android, that’s easy. It’s open and free, which means Google has to publish the source code for the operating system. A group of privacy hackers have created an alternate version called ParanoidAndroid that checks a bunch of places every time it gets an update and tries to figure out how trustworthy it is. It used to be really hard to install, but it keeps on getting easier. I’ve made up a little installer script that you can download from the intranet that makes it even simpler. Just plug in your Android phone and run the script and it should just work. Let me know if it doesn’t.”
“But how do we know we can trust your script?” Flor said. “Maybe you’re bugging us all.”
Liam practically leapt to his feet: “Marcus would never do that –“
I had to laugh. “No, she’s right. You’re right, Flor. You’ve got no reason to trust me. I’ve only been here a couple of days. I mean, you guys asked me to work here, so it’s not likely that I’d have planned to take over this place with malicious software, but maybe I’m the kind of guy who goes around doing it all the time.” I thought about it. “So, you could google everything I just told you and download ParanoidAndroid yourself — but maybe I planted all that information there for Google to find. I guess it all depends on how paranoid you’re feeling.”
“I’m feeling moderately paranoid, with a side of prudence and common sense,” Joe announced, getting a laugh. “I’ll install it. Then what do I do?”
“Nothing, unless your phone throws a warning about an update. Then you can google it or ask me, or rely on your own judgment. There’s a paranoia flag for Ubuntu Linux, too, if any of you are running that — it’ll tell you if an update doesn’t match up with the fingerprints on the public servers. Sorry, but I don’t know about anything comparable for Mac or Windows.” I stood with my hands folded again. “Is there any more pizza?”
Jolu threw a little instant browser chat app up on darknet for us, and started it off with
> ALL RIGHT, WHO SPILLED THE BEANS? FIRST RULE OF DARKNET IS NO ONE TALKS ABOUT DARKNET -Swollen Rabbit
“Swollen Rabbit” was the handle he’d chosen for himself — he’d also put up a nickname generator to help us all choose random, single-use, cool-sounding handles for the system.
I felt like he wasn’t taking this very seriously — all those caps and the jokey tone. We were dealing with a plutonium spill and he was treating it like a minor nuisance.
> This is serious folks. Swollen Rabbit, are you sure it was a leak from one of us and not a break-in? -Nasty Locomotive
> it’s impossible to be sure but yeah. I’ve been over the logs and I don’t see anyone except us. Maybe someone’s got a screenlogger infection or something? -Swollen Rabbit
Oh yeah, of course. Maybe we were bugged. That’d be a weird form of humor: to use a bug to spy on someone who’d found a leak about bugs and then leak the leak to the press using the bug… It was weird enough that it made me feel dizzy if I thought about it enough. I decided to fall back on Occam’s Razor. The idea that someone blabbed was a lot simpler.
> I know I can trust you and the rest of our crew and Tasty Ducks
— that was Ange —
> but what about all your friends? -Nasty Locomotive
> Wait why should we trust YOUR crew? Who died and made you infallible? -Restless Agent
That was one of the people Jolu had brought in, though I didn’t know anything else about him (or her). Jolu and I had decided it’d be better if we kept everything on a need-to-know basis. I didn’t need to know who Restless Agent was, just that the handle represented someone Jolu trusted utterly.
But Jolu or no, I found myself getting ready to clobber this Restless Agent person. How dare anyone call Darryl and Van and Ange and me into question? Ange, meanwhile, had already read the message on her screen. She was sitting cross-legged on my bed, hair in her eyes, bent over her laptop. As soon as my fingers began to pound angrily on the keyboard, she said, “Woah there, hoss. Calm down.”
“But –” I said.
“I know, I know. Someone is wrong on the Internet. Count to ten. In ternary.”
“One. Two. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Twenty. Twenty one. Twenty two. One hundred. One oh one. One oh two.” I stopped. “Wait, I lost count. Is one-oh-two ten or eleven?” I could count in binary when I was angry, but counting in ternary — base three — took too much concentration. “Fine, you win. I’m calm.”
> You’re right, you can’t. -Tasty Ducks
> You don’t know us and we don’t know you. And we can’t keep this up if someone here is showing off by letting blabby writers into the darknet. So what do we do? Shut it down? -Tasty Ducks
> I could turn on logging and make it visible to everyone. Then we’d know who got to see every document. If a doc leaked we’d have the list of everyone who saw it. If enough docs leaked we’ll be able to narrow down the list and find the one person who saw everything -Swollen Rabbit
> Assuming only one person is blabbing -Nasty Locomotive
> Yeah maybe we’re all running our mouths -Poseidon Snake
That was another of Jolu’s buddies.
> Logging sounds like a good plan. If we can all see what everyone’s done, it’ll keep us all honest -Nasty Locomotive
> Unless I’m the rat in which case I could be editing the logs and you suckers would never know -Swollen Rabbit
> Ell Oh Ell. You’re such a comedian. If you’re the rat we’re all dead meat. Don’t be the rat, dude -Tasty Ducks
“All right, fine, that’s settled for now,” I said. “Thanks for keeping me from turning into Angry Internet Man.”
“Any time. It was kind of weak for you to just say ‘how can we trust your friends’ where everyone could see it.”
I wanted to argue, but it wasn’t really an arguable point. After all, I’d lost my cool when Restless Agent did exactly the same thing.
“Yeah, okay, fine.” I paged up and down through the monster spreadsheet with its 800,000-plus rows. “So what are we going to read through today, anyway?”
“More of the lawful intercept stuff, I guess. There’s hundreds more suggested docs. Since the story’s out there, it’d make sense to find out more.”
“Okay,” I said. “You take suggested docs from the first half, I’ll take the ones from 400,000 onward. My mom says you’re welcome to stay for dinner, by the way.”
“Deal,” she said, and we got to work.
One thing about the darknet docs I should probably mention: they were mostly unbelievably boring. Rows of numbers. Indecipherable memos written in bureaucratic jargon, laden with acronyms and names of people and agencies I’d never heard of. It was tempting to skip over these and look for juicy ones — or at least ones I could understand — but every so often I’d find something that made some other doc make sense, a piece of the puzzle falling into place, and I’d be glad I’d read it.
For example, there was a list from the San Francisco Unified School District about schools that had participated in a “laptop anti-theft trial” that had run the year before. It used some kind of phone-home software on all the school-issued laptops that checked in with the school district every day or two. The district used it to track down stolen laptops — getting IP addresses from the software and turning them over to the cops. I noted without much interest that Chavez High was on the list of trial sites, the name standing out immediately, seeing as how I’d carried a backpack with the school’s name through four years of attendance.
But ten or fifteen documents later, I found myself looking at a brochure for a product called LaptopLock, which was the product used in the trials. I wondered why Jolu’s algorithm had tagged this stuff as relevant to the lawful intercept documents — which keywords had made it jump out. It turned out that the matching words were “covert activation” and “webcam.” “Covert activation” was self-explanatory — if you had software that phoned home after a laptop was stolen, you wouldn’t want it to advertise that that was what it was doing. “Attention thief: I am about to tell the police your IP address. Do you want me to continue? [OK] [CANCEL].”
But why would you want to activate the webcam on a stolen laptop? I paged through the brochure. Oh, right, to take pictures of the thief. The software could covertly activate the webcam — turn it on without turning on the little “camera on” light — take a pic and silently send it back to the school board. Well that was creepy. I wondered if any students had ever found a password and login and used that little “feature” to spy on other students. My laptop sat open on my desk all the time — when I was sleeping, when I was getting dressed, when Ange and I were —
So then I went digging for more docs. I had a product name now, something I could use to search on, and hoo-boy were there a lot of hits for LaptopLock in the darknet docs. I did my sort-by-date trick and found myself reading through emails from a worried IT manager at the San Francisco Unified to her boss about the fact that there was a principal who was using LaptopLock’s administrative interface to watch students — not laptop thieves — at all sorts of hours, including early in the morning (when they might be getting dressed), and late at night (when they might be sleeping).
The IT manager had looked at the principal’s shared-drive folder and found thousands of pics of students and their families, sometimes naked, sometimes asleep. There was also audio and video of students and their parents having private conversations. The IT manager’s boss was furious — because the IT manager wasn’t supposed to be “snooping” on school principals. The argument got more and more vicious, as the IT manager pointed out that her snooping was nothing compared to this principal, and ended with the IT manager’s resignation letter. I felt bad for her — she was an honorable geek, and it wasn’t easy to find new jobs in this bad old modern world of ours.
It wasn’t just the San Francisco United School Board where a principal got a little power-crazy with the old LaptopLock control panel. It turns out that pretty much every school district had someone (or a few people) in positions of power who felt that spying on students was part of their job. But in the case of the San Francisco Unified School District, that someone was a certain school board member named Fred Benson.
Once upon a time, Fred had been a vice principal at Chavez High, and from that lordly height, he’d presided like a warden or a king, doling out harsh justice against anyone who offended his delicate sense of conservative morality.
Such as, ahem, me.
But old Fred had “retired” when it became clear that San Francisco and California were no longer going to put up with a city occupied by the forces of “law and order” — that is, the torturing, kidnapping, lying paramilitary who’d taken the city hostage in the name of “protecting us from terrorism.” It had been so sad to see him pack up his desk and hit the bricks, just another casualty of the war on the war on terror.
But Fred was a retired athlete, the kind of thrusting, vigorous guy who just can’t take it easy. He’d run for the school board — unopposed, except for a crank candidate who’d been convicted of three counts of felony fraud in a real estate swindle, who nevertheless got nearly half the vote — and had been collecting a tidy public salary and enjoying his ascent to the exalted pinnacle of the education system by bossing around teachers and trying to impose his “leadership style” on the whole school district.
In case you didn’t catch it, I don’t like this guy.
But even I was surprised to discover that old Fred was such a prolific user of the district’s LaptopLock system. After all, he wasn’t responsible for students at all, but look at that, he requested so many specific LaptopLock activations that the district’s IT department had given him his own login, to save on work. Someone in that department wasn’t happy about it, and that person had helpfully logged Fred’s many, many, many uses of the system.
Did I say uses? I mean abuses.
“Come on, we’ve got to leak this,” I said. “I mean, come on, Ange. Seriously? You don’t think I should go public with this?”
“No, Marcus, I think it’s a really stupid idea. You’ve just got through yelling at everyone about a leak. Once you do it, everyone’ll do it. We agreed that we’d catalog the whole dump, decide on the highest priority stuff, then publish it in a way that kept us all safe. If you get us all busted tomorrow, Masha and Zeb are doomed. Hell, we’re doomed. You don’t have any right to put us all in jeopardy just to settle a score with some vice principal you have a hate-on for.”
“He’s a Peeping Tom! It’s not just a personal vendetta. People have the right to know that this guy is spying on their kids. That could have been me, Ange. I’ve still got friends at Chavez High, kids that Benson hates — you can bet he’s all over them, night and day.”
“You’re just picturing him sitting in his house and rubbing his hands and getting off on all his power and secrecy, admit it. Benson’s not the worst monster in these files. Look at what the others have been up to. Look at 439,412.”
I scrolled to the line, read the summary:
STATE DEPARTMENT BILL OF LADING. FREIGHT FORWARDING FOR LAWFUL INTERCEPT APPLIANCE TO SYRIA. SEE 298,120
EMBASSY STAFF INTELLIGENCE REPORT ON TORTURE-MURDER OF DISSIDENTS CAUGHT WITH LAWFUL INTERCEPT APPLIANCE
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Oh. So cut it out. Maintain discipline. This isn’t kid’s stuff, it’s the big leagues.”
And before I had a chance to get angry with her — really angry, the kind of angry you get when you’ve been totally wrong and someone calls you out and you don’t have any excuse so you get mad instead — my mom called up the stairs, “Marcus, Ange, time for supper!”
There’d been a time when we’d had “family dinner” practically every night — either something that my mom or dad cooked in a huge frenzy of pots, pans, clatter, and smells, or, if everyone was too tired, something from a delivery restaurant. I’d even been known to cook from time to time, and I liked it, though it took a lot of energy to get started. Facing down the empty kitchen always seemed like a major chore. But I made a mean rack of lamb, and when I cooked pizza, there weren’t ever any leftovers, no matter how much I made.
Family dinners had evaporated along with my parents’ jobs. The contract work they got in pieces sometimes kept one or another away at suppertime, but the real reason was that they were trapped in the house together all day, and half the time I was there with them, and so no one much wanted to spend an hour at the table playing pass-the-peas. There just wasn’t much small talk available to us. “How was your day?” was a painfully stupid question when the farthest apart you’ve been since getting up is about five yards.
But everyone put in an effort when Ange came over. My parents really liked her. Hey, so did I. Plus it was fun to watch her eat.
“Smells great!” she said as she came into the kitchen, as she always did. She already had her mister in her hand. When I’d met her, she was mixing up her chili oil at about 200,000 Scovilles, as hot as a mild Scotch Bonnet Pepper. But she was always in training, working her way up to higher heights of culinary daring. She mixed up a new batch of oil once a month, starting with a lethal, tight-stoppered bottle of crushed Red Savina Habanero in a few ounces of oil. She diluted this a little less every month, playing with the levels until it was just right. For Ange, “just right” was the temperature that made sweat appear on her upper lip within a minute of putting a drop of oil on her tongue.
A couple times a year, she’d actually taken the temperature of her oil, mixing a little alcohol in with her month’s dose, then progressively diluting it in sugar water until she could barely taste the heat. The last time she checked, she’d been up to 320,000 Scovilles. It was around then that I started insisting that she brush her teeth between her eating and us kissing. I was starting to get chemical burns on my lips.
“It’s just chips and sausages,” Mom said. “Proper British comfort food, you know.”
“Cooked by an American, no less,” Dad said from the stove.
“Oi! I put the chips in the oven, didn’t I?” Mom said. When Mom says “chips,” she’s speaking British and means “fries” — specifically the sweet potato oven fries she makes herself and freezes. I have to admit, they’re pretty awesome.
“Yes, my dear, you certainly did. Plus, you supervised.”
Dad set down the platter of faintly sizzling meat on the table. He once did some freelance work helping an organic meat cooperative with its data mining and ecommerce tuning, and when he’d written to them asking if they had anything else for him, they’d taken pity on him and offered to sell him some meat at employee rates. So we had all the emu, venison, and buffalo sausage we could want, as often as we wanted. I especially liked the venison, which tasted very good, assuming you didn’t think too much about Bambi while you ate it.
Dad went back to turn off the stove’s extractor fan, which had been humming loudly while it sucked out all the delicious meaty smoke and steam. Then he smacked himself in the forehead. “Wait, Ange, you’re a vegetarian, aren’t you?”
I hid a smile. Ange had gone veggie at the start of the summer, but Burning Man had brought out her inner carnivore — especially the trips to camps where they were handing out kick-ass barbecue.
“It’s okay,” Ange said. “Beef is just a highly processed form of vegetable matter.”
“Riiiight,” Dad said, and forked a couple of sausages onto her plate before sitting down himself.
It felt curiously wonderful to be having dinner as a family again, with a big plateful of food in front of me and my parents making bright conversation as though they weren’t in a mild, continuous panic about the mortgage and the grocery bill.
But it couldn’t last. I had to say something stupid.
“I saw the coolest thing the other day,” I said. “It was from a history of crypto in World War II and there was this chapter on the history of cipher machines — Enigmas and such — at Bletchley Park, in England.”
“Which ones were they again?” Mom said.
“The ones the Nazis used to scramble their messages,” Dad said. “Even I know that.”
“Sorry,” Mom said. “I’m a little rusty on my Nazi gadgets.”
“Actually,” Ange said, swallowing a huge mouthful of buffalo sausage, “the Enigmas weren’t exactly ‘Nazi.’ They were developed in the Netherlands, and sold as a commercial product to help bankers scramble their telegrams.”
“Right, I said. “And all the Axis powers used them. So the first generations of these were, you know, beautiful. Just really well made by some totally badass engineers, copying the Dutch models, but after adding a bunch of cool tricks so they’d produce harder-to-break ciphers. There were about ten iterations of these things, the Enigma and its successors, and they kept on adding rotors and doing other stuff to make them stronger. But at the same time, they were using up all their best raw materials on killing people. So by the end of the war, you’ve got this box with twelve rotors, up from the original three, but it’s made of sandwich metal and looks, I don’t know, boringly functional, without any of that flair and craftsmanship of the first generation. I guess they were in a pretty bad mood by then. They probably spent half their time overseeing slave labor or tending the death-camp adding machines. So, basically, everything elegant and beautiful in these things was just sucked out by the war, until all that was left was something you wouldn’t call ‘beautiful’ unless you were totally insane.”
“Woah,” Ange said. “Symbolic.”
I play-punched her in the shoulder. “It was, doofus. It was like a little illustration of the collapse of everything good in a society. I’ll show you the pictures later. Those first-gen machines were awesome, just amazingly made. They were like works of art. The last versions looked like they’d been built by someone who was absolutely miserable. You’ll see.”
Mom and Dad didn’t say anything. I didn’t think much of it, then I saw a silent tear slip down Dad’s cheek. I felt weirdly ashamed and embarrassed. Dad got up wordlessly from the table and went to the bathroom, came back a few minutes later. None of us said anything while he was gone, and the silence continued after he got back, his face freshly washed and still slightly damp.
He ate a few mouthfuls and said, quietly, “Amazing how a society can just slide into the crapper, huh?”
Mom gave a brittle laugh. “I don’t think it’s as bad as all that, Drew.”
He put his fork down and chewed and chewed and chewed at his food, chewed like he was angry at it. The words that came out after he swallowed had a choked, tight feel. “Isn’t it? There were three more foreclosures on our street today, Lillian. Today. And as for slave labor, just think about how much of what we own is stamped ‘Made in China,’ and how much of our ‘Made in the USA’ came out of a prison somewhere.”
“Drew –” Mom said.
“Marcus, Ange, I’m very sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay Dad,” I began.
“No, I mean I’m sorry that you’ve inherited such a miserable, collapsing old country. A place where rich bankers own everything, where you’ve got to be grateful for a part-time job with no benefits and no retirement plan, where the most health insurance you can afford is being careful and hoping you don’t get sick, where –“
He clamped his lips shut and looked away. I’d seen a bill on Mom’s desk from a health insurance company warning us that we’d lose our coverage if we didn’t make a payment. I’d tried not to think too hard about it.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said again. His skin had gone pale beneath his beard, and it made the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and in his neck stand out. He looked twenty years older than he had at the start of dinner.
“Cheer up, Drew,” Mom said. “Honestly, it could be much worse. There’s plenty who’d be grateful for our problems. Let’s have a glass of wine and watch The Daily Show, all right? I PVRed it.” When my parents got rid of their cable box, I’d built them a cheapie PVR using MythTV and an old PC. It only worked with the few HD broadcast channels that aired in San Francisco, but it automatically converted the files so they could play on our phones and laptops, and snipped out all the commercials.
Dad looked down and didn’t say anything.
“Come on, Ange,” I said. We were pretty much through with dinner anyway. And there were darknet docs to plow through.
Mysterious Galaxy: San Diego and Rendondo Beach, CA
This chapter is dedicated to the incomparable Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, California, and Redondo Beach, CC. The Mysterious Galaxy folks have had me in to sign books every time I’ve been in San Diego for a conference or to teach (the Clarion Writers’ Workshop is based at UC San Diego in nearby La Jolla, CA), and when I’ve stopped in LA on tour. Every time I show up, they pack the house. This is a store with a loyal following of die-hard fans who know that they’ll always be able to get great recommendations and great ideas at the store. In summer 2007, I took my writing class from Clarion down to the store for the midnight launch of the final Harry Potter book and I’ve never seen such a rollicking, awesomely fun party at a store.
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302 San Diego, CA, USA 92111 +1 858 268 4747
2810 Artesia Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA 90278 +1 310 542 6000
If you ever want to blow your own mind, sit down and think hard about what “randomness” means.
I mean, take pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Everyone who’s passed sixth-grade math knows that pi is an “irrational” number. It has no end, and it never repeats (as far as we know):
And so on. With a short computer program, you can compute pi all day long. Hell, you can compute it to the heat-death of the universe.
You can grab any thousand digits of pi and about a hundred of them will be 1s, a hundred will be 2s, and so on. But there’s no pattern within those digits. pick any digit of pi — digit 2,670, which happens to be 0. The next digit happens to be 4, then 7, then 7, then two 5s. If you were rolling a ten-sided die and you got these outcomes, you’d call it random. But if you know that 047755 are the values for the 2,670th – 2,675th digits of pi, then you’d know that the next “dice roll” would be 5 (again!). Then 1. Then 3. Then 2.
This isn’t “random.” It’s predictable. You may not know exactly what “random” means (I certainly don’t!), but whatever “random” means, it doesn’t mean “predictable,” right?
So it would be crazy to call pi a “random number,” even though it has a bunch of random-like characteristics.
So what about some other number? What if you asked your computer to use some kind of pseudorandom algorithm to spit up some grotendous number like this: 2718281828459045235360287471352662497757. Is that random?
Well, not really. That also happens to be a number called “e,” which is sometimes called “Napier’s constant.” Never mind what “e” means, it’s complicated. The point is that e is a number like Pi. Every digit in it can be predicted.
How about if your random-number generator gave you this number:
Is that random?
Well, duh. No.
Why isn’t it random? Because if I said, “What’s the one hundredth digit of a number that consists of a thousand twos?” you’d know the answer. You wouldn’t be surprised.
It turns out a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to come up with a decent definition of “random.” One of the best definitions anyone’s ever come up with is “A number is random if the simplest way to express it is by writing it down.”
If you just went lolwut, don’t panic. This is hard, but cool. So, take our friend pi again. You could write a program to print out pi in, like two hundred characters. Maybe less. pi itself is infinite, which is a lot more than two hundred characters long. So the simplest way to express pi is definitely to write the “print out pi program” and not to write out all the infinite digits of pi.
And if pi is easy, “222222222222222222222222222222222222222222” and so on is really easy. In python, it’d be: “print ”.join([‘2’]*42)”. Perl’s more compact: “print 2×42”. But even in verbose old BASIC, a programming language that’s so flowery and ornate it’s practically Shakespearean, it’s:
10 PRINT “2” 20 GOTO 10 30 END
That’s thirty characters, which is shorter than 222222222222222222222222222222222222222222 to infinity. A lot shorter. So if we mean a random number is a surprising one — one that has no easily expressed pattern or structure, then we can say that:
A number is “random” if the shortest program you can write to print that number out is longer than the number itself.
This has a neat compactness to it, the ring of a good rule: short, punchy and to the point. A guy named Gregory Chaitin came up with this neat rule, then he came up with a hell of a twist on it. He was so proud of this feat that he mailed a paper to one of math’s great mad geniuses, a guy called Kurt Godel (pronounced “Girdle,” more or less) and messed everything up by asking, “How do you know whether you’ve come up with the shortest program for printing out a number?”
Which was a good point. Programmers are always coming up with novel ways of solving problems, after all. And there may be some hidden pattern to a number you didn’t even realize was there. Say I asked you to write a program to print out this number:
Look all you want, you probably won’t find any pattern at all (if you do, it’s a product of your imagination). So is it random? Nope. It’s part of pi: digits 100,000-101,000, to be specific. Now you can write a very short program to print out that number: just add a line to the “print out pi” program that says, “only start printing when you get to the 100,000th digit, and stop 1,000 digits later.”
What Chaitin realized was that no one could ever know for sure whether a sufficiently long, interesting number could be printed out with a program shorter than it. That is, you could never tell whether any big number was random or not. In fact, maybe there were no random numbers. He called this “incompleteness” as in “You can never be completely sure you know if a number is random.”
Godel was already famous for the idea of “incompleteness,” the idea that mathematical systems couldn’t prove themselves. Chaitin saw incompleteness in the way we thought about random numbers, too.
As far as anyone knows, he was right. We basically can never know whether something is random or totally predictable. He is one of mathematics’s great smartasses.
Fun fact: Godel went crazy at the end of his life and became convinced that someone was trying to poison him. He refused to eat and ended up starving himself to death. No one knows exactly why he went crazy, but I sometimes wonder if all that uncertainty drove him around the bend.
I didn’t leak the docs on LaptopLock. Neither did Ange. Neither did Jolu. According to the logs, we were the only ones that had touched them.
But they leaked anyway.
Of course, Liam knew about it before I did. He pretty much ran over to my desk as soon as he saw the story on Reddit. “You went to Chavez High, right?”
“Did you know this Fred Benson skeeze?”
He didn’t have to say anything else, really. By that point, I knew exactly what this had to be about. But it was worse than that. The pastebin dumps of the stuff about LaptopLock were all headed “DARKNET DOC ______” with the number of the document. The highest-numbered LaptopLock document happened to be 745,120, and several people had already noted this and concluded that somewhere out there, there was a site called “darknet docs” with at least 745,120 documents on it.
We were blown.
“It’s amazing, right? I mean, can you believe it? I wonder what else they’ve got?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Huh. Wow.”
Liam dragged a chair over to my desk. He put his head close to mine. He smelled of Axe body spray, which may just be the most disgusting scent known to humankind.
“Marcus,” he said, in a low voice, “dude. You remember yesterday, when you were talking about root certs and stuff? It sounded like maybe you knew more about the subject than you were letting on.”
“I mean, look, you’re Marcus Yallow. If there’s a darknet, you’ve gotta be all over that shit, yo. I mean, seriously, dude.” He seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I never knew what to say when someone ended a sentence with “yo.” They always seemed to be acting out some script for a bromance comedy movie that I hadn’t had a chance to see. But Liam was so excited he was shaking a little. “Come on, hook me up, man.”
Ah, there it was. Liam wasn’t stupid. He was enthusiastic and a little immature, but he listened carefully and knew that 10 plus 10 equaled 100 (in binary, at least). His heart was in the right place. And Jolu had brought his friends into the darknet clubhouse. But I couldn’t just randomly start signing up overenthusiastic puppies like Liam without talking to everyone else. Especially as there appeared to be someone in our base, possibly killing our doodz.
“Liam, I seriously, totally, honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“Really? Like pinky-swear really?”
“Cross my eyes and hope to fry. I don’t even have a Reddit account. I can’t believe how much stuff they’ve dug up on the administrators who were using LaptopLock.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Liam said, already forgetting his conviction that I was the ringleader of some leak-gang in his excitement at the awesome power of the Internet hivemind. “You should see what happens when Anon d0xxes someone.”
I knew about Anonymous — the weird non-group that was an offshoot of /b/, the messageboard on 4chan where everyone was anonymous and the name of the game was to be as humorously offensive as possible. I knew that they kept spinning out these sub-groups that did something brave or stupid or vicious (or all three), like getting thousands of people to knock PayPal offline in protest of PayPal cutting off Wikileaks. I knew that they had some incredibly badass hackers in their orbit, as well as plenty of kids who drifted in and out without knowing much about computers or politics, but who liked the camaraderie or the power or the lulz (or all three).
But I can’t say as I spent a lot of time on them. I’d had my time in the cyberguerrilla underground and I had decided I didn’t want anymore to do with it, especially when it came to crazy, impossible-to-describe “movements” that spent as much time squabbling among themselves as they did fighting for freedom and lulz.
“D0xxes,” I said, trying to remember what it meant.
“Yeah, they get really righteously pissed at someone and they d0x them, dig up all the documents they can about them that they can find — court records, property records, marriage, birth and death, school records, home address, work address, phone number, news dumps… everything. It’s insane, like the DHS turned inside out, all that weird crap all the different agencies and companies and search engines know about you, just, like, hanging out there, all of it where the search engines can find it, forever. The stuff they found about your douchey old vice principal is nothing, man. If Anon gets on this tip, bam, it’s going to be sick.”
Now I remembered what d0xxing meant. Yikes. “Do you ever wonder if there’s anyone else who can do that sort of thing?”
“What do you mean? Like the cops or the FBI or something?”
“Well, I mean, sure, yeah, of course they can do all this stuff.” And more, I thought, imagining what you might dig up with a lawful intercept appliance. “But what about, I don’t know, some CEO? Or a private military contractor?”
“You mean, is there someone like Anonymous out there, but doing it for the money instead of the lulz? Like hackers for hire or whatever? Oh, man, I’m totally sure there are. It’s not like you have to be an angel or a genius to learn how to do an SQL injection or crack a crappy password file. I bet you half the creeps who used to give me noogies at recess are laughing it up at private intelligence outfits these days.”
“Yeah,” I said. I wondered how many of those particular kinds of creeps were drawing a paycheck from Carrie Johnstone and whether any of them might be hanging out in our darknet, messing with our heads.
I took a long lunch (feeling like a total slacker for grabbing extra time off on my third day at work) and asked Ange and Jolu to meet me in South Park, which was about the same distance from Ange’s school and Jolu’s and my offices. It was a slightly scuzzy little park right in the middle of SoMa — south of Market — but it had been ground zero for a whole ton of dotcom start-ups and tech companies and it was always full of the right kind of nerds. I felt comfortable there.
Jolu arrived first, looking cool and grown-up as usual. A couple of the people eating their lunches on the benches around us recognized him and waved at him.
“How do you do it?” I said when he sat down.
“What?” he said, smiling like he and I were in on some enormous joke together.
“I don’t know; how are you so cool? I’m crapping myself over this darknet stuff, I look like I dressed myself in the dark, I can’t figure out how to cut my hair so I don’t look fifteen years old, and you, you’re so totally, I don’t know, you know, styling.”
He gave me that easy smile again. “I don’t know, Marcus. I used to be kind of anxious all the time, did I look “cool,” was I going to get in trouble, was the world going to end or whatever? And then one day, I just thought, You know, whatever’s happening, I’m not going to improve it by having a total spazz attack. So I decided to just stop. And I did.”
“You’re a Zen master, you know that?”
“You should try it, pal. You’re looking a little freaked out, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Well, you know: ‘When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.'”
“Yeah, I’ve heard you say that before. I guess what I’m asking is, how’s that working out for you?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my hands on my jeans. “Not so good.”
“Why don’t you try just cooling it down for a minute or two, see if you can’t get your head right before this all kicks off?”
If it had been anyone except Jolu, I might have been offended, but I’d known Jolu forever, and he knew me as well as anyone in the world. I remembered that feeling I’d had in the temple that time I’d lain in the dust among the gongs and the Omm, the total peace and calm that had washed over me like a warm bath. I could remember how that felt, but I couldn’t feel it — the harder I chased it, the more elusive it felt.
Jolu put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a gentle shake. “Easy there, hoss. Don’t sprain anything. You look like you’re getting ready to kung-fu my ass. This is about relaxing, not stressing out. If it’s hard, you’re doing something wrong.”
I actually felt really bad, like I’d failed at something. To cover up for it, I kind of hammed it up, putting my face in my hands and acting like I was experiencing some kind of artistic torment.
“Don’t sweat it, Marcus. Just something to keep in mind, all right? There’s the stuff that’s happening out there in the world, which we only have limited control over, and the stuff that’s happening in our heads, which we can have total control over — in theory, at least. I’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time trying to change the outside world, but not much energy on changing how the outside world makes your inside world feel. I’m not saying you should give up on changing the world, but you might try doing a little of both for a while, see what happens.”
He was smiling when he said it, and I knew he wasn’t trying to be a dick, but it still made me feel ashamed. I guess because I knew he was right. All my life, people had been telling me to chill out, calm down, take it easy, but for some reason, taking it easy was hard, while freaking out came naturally.
He looked worried now. “Okay, forget I said anything. I only brought it up because you asked. Let’s talk about the current situation, right? As in, what the hell’s going on with the darknet? Who’s reading over our shoulders? What are they up to?”
“Good,” I said. I was relieved by the change of subject.
“Start with the process of elimination, because we need to start somewhere. The logs say no one but me, you, and Ange accessed those docs. Are you sure Ange didn’t leak them? Don’t get mad, okay? It’s just about covering all the bases.”
“Yeah, I get that. No, I can’t imagine why Ange would do that. She practically tore my throat out when I suggested that we should go public with the stuff about Benson.”
“So you wanted to leak them?”
“What? No. I mean, yeah, of course my first reaction was to nail all those bastards to a wall, but Ange told me not to be an idiot and I reconsidered it. Besides, all I wanted to do was talk to everyone else about it, not go rogue and do it myself. I don’t even know how I’d leak it if I wanted to — whoever’s doing it is good. They stick it up on pastebin, and Reddit goes crazy and the press follows.”
Ange arrived then, looking absolutely beautiful in a chunky black sweater with a pixel-art Mario/Cthulhu mashup worked into the front, black-and-white striped tights, and a red skirt. She topped it off with ancient, cracked motorcycle boots the color of old cement and a 3D-printed plastic bracelet on each wrist. Ange was basically the most perfect woman I’d ever known, and my best friend in the whole world, and every now and again I’d see her coming down the street or walking through the park and I’d realize that I was pretty much the luckiest man that ever lived.
There’s no way Ange had been leaking stuff behind our backs.
She gave Jolu a warm hug and then gave me a warmer one, with a big long kiss that ended with me burying my face in her neck and breathing in the heavenly smell of her collarbones.
“Hey, guys, so have you solved all our problems yet?”
“Not yet, but we’re working on it.”
We unpacked our lunches. I’d made myself a sack of PB&Js and thrown in an apple, some cookies, and a little bottle of cold-brew before leaving the house that morning. I’d realized I’d need to start brown-bagging it when I started thinking about how little of my paycheck would be left over if I blew eight bucks every day on coffee, a burrito, and horchata. Ange, like always, had made herself a perfect and awesomely cute bento box with rice and vegetables and cold tofu and beef arranged in precise, colorful patterns. Jolu had one of his badass homemade energy bars, big as a two-by-four and twice as dense with all kinds of nuts and seeds, studded with bits of smoked bacon and dusted with his secret mix of spices. I’d seen him live off one of those for a whole day while on a camping trip, having a casual gnaw at it whenever he got a little peckish.
“Before we go any further,” Ange said, around a dainty mouthful of rice and marinated eggplant, “Jolu, you’re not the leak, are you? I mean, no offense, but –“
He laughed. “Yeah, I know. You should have seen Marcus here when I asked if he thought it could be you.”
“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere. I’m not the leak, for what it’s worth. I wish I was, because it would mean that no one was inside our security, messing with us. But Jolu, you haven’t answered the question yet — are you the leak?”
“No, Ange. I wish I was, for the same reason. Because I don’t like the alternative, either. I mean, either someone’s really seriously compromised the security of my server, which would be pretty goddamned hard because there isn’t a single byte of cleartext going in or out of that box, or –“
“Or someone’s rooted your computer, or mine, or Ange’s.”
That was the possibility that had been going through my head all morning. Someone with total control over my computer, someone with the power to light up the camera and the mic, to grab text off my screen or files off my hard drive. It wasn’t a possibility I liked to think about. The darknet docs showed that Fred Benson had grabbed over eight thousand photos of one student alone, some poor kid the old bastard had a hate-on for.
How many times had my com