The weekend came in with skating the tubes under the ghost lights of the nearby self-storage facility until a cop flashed them with his spotlight and they broke up and headed their separate ways. Mom was out until late, drawn into a party thrown by a coworker. Her work, her life. Zach settled in for late night TV and pizza rolls, amused at the banter that had broken out with Belinda on her AetherFaces page. She was a quick wit but needed time to assess her adversary and overcome shyness. Zach decided she was more tiger than sheep. He slipped off another salvo in the repartee, looking forward to meeting her on Saturday.
By midnight he was back in the cave and back shuffling among the servers that were the islands of his Odyssean wanderings. He was poking through an encrypted list of encrypted passwords and targets on a machine somewhere in the financial district of Jakarta when he noticed an IP address that was familiar. It was the basement rack of servers. It came flooding back to him and he realized that he had somehow blanked out the rummaging about in their workings and their connection to The Signal. He logged in and began touching different aspects of the file system. It was all still here, he thought, plunging down through the strange analytical database engine that was cranking out the mathematical filigrees that defined the colored blobs. How had he been enraptured by a process, he wondered, a process that was as unfeeling as a car door? Yet here was the source, the font, the wellspring of the peace he had felt many times. There were bits of blogs cataloged in the server architecture, too, and Zach began parsing out the strange and variegated history of rants and lunatic ramblings.
The fate of democracy was to converge to socialism as the electorate votes more and more for more and more government. They can’t help it because they are plebes. The arguments were against popular vote, against the wishes of the people, because they could be wrongheaded. It was Socrates and Plato all over again. Don’t trust the institutions of governance because they are inherently flawed. Business can be trusted because commerce is derived from a different channel, though there were nascent doubts about that, too. Businesses might manipulate the political system for gain. Duh, thought Zach, yet he was intrigued by the abstractly ideological reasoning. It was as if the right wing had ingested Marxism and shit it out in a spat of diarrhea. The logic was self-confirming and self-referential, and there were few disputes within the archives that Zach could find. If you were on the board, you were onboard. If you were a hater, you were never admitted. Zach became cognizant that the dates of the discussions were recent and started looking at log files to correlate access IP addresses. He copied the collected matrix to another server and went back to the discussions themselves.
The universe of man, of economics and politics, was moved by unseen forces. They were the righteous ones who saw the pattern in the noise. It was a pattern of decrepitude that was motivated not by a will to power but by a desire to control. Democracy was a hag dressed up in gowns by ideologues who did not and could not see the ugliness beneath the frock. These few souls, united in purpose, had discovered the true rhythms of the world and wanted to expose them for what they were. Yet they had no solution other than lifting environmental protections to allow some unaccountable form of business freedom, or selling off public lands to any and all. That would change things, improve everything, for them. Any government intrusion was unnatural and even satanic. Zach found it increasingly maddening as he read through the messages. He did searches looking for the relevance to The Signal and found nothing. There was no discussion of hypnotic colors or blurring, weird user interfaces. There were no lost hours as they contemplated the universe. Yet they were collocated with the very source of the signal dynamics.
Zach began looking at the postings with a clinical and analytical mindset. If these people were crazy, their craziness was some combination of detachment from the everyday process of weighing facts against each other. Tenth of April, that year, ZombieRand asserted that the Food and Drug Administration was creating food-borne illnesses because they were over-regulating the food supply. If you drop regulation, the companies will self-regulate. Zach read through the congratulatory and adulatory responses that praised the comment. All regulation inherently backfires. All laws have unintended consequences. Zach couldn’t imagine why it was that government workers were all so stupid while companies were all so intelligent. He wanted his food and drugs certified by someone and the idea that companies could be trusted to do so struck him as naïve. They were naïve, but their naïveté was paradoxically sophisticated—wrapped up in a complex collection of anecdotes, juxtaposed economic forces, and hypothesized motivations for the different parties. The language and its referents were remarkably private and the logic was consistent under the rules of the group.
DontTreadOnMe was apocalyptic with a consistent Jeremiad about the loss of American might that began with FDR and was accelerated with The Great Society. America was chosen by God as a Christian haven that fulfilled a central ideal of the Divine One. Freedom emerged from the free choice of belief that was unknown to any other religion but Christianity for DontTreadOnMe. All other faiths were false and were part of crumbling civilizations that played no part in God’s plan except as a kind of playground for demonic forces. And they were steadily attacking America. Illegal immigrants, polytheists, expansive government, liberals, the ACLU, progressives, taxes. It was all leading towards a fall, a collapse, and only the righteous would survive the impending doom. DontTreadOnMe lamented the destruction of America but also cherished the arrival of the end times. God was approaching like a comet towards the Earth and would test us all. And no one questioned his claims.
Zach was stunned by the collaborative ego boosts. If there was a feature of the hackerverse that was consistent it was the competitive nature of the game. Claims were tested. Bullshit was flushed away. Without proof, without facts, there was no hack. It was as simple as that. And the level of the boast was considered inversely proportional to the probability of truth. The same was true at the skate parks. If you claimed you could ride, you probably couldn’t. The ones who could did. That was the cutting room floor. Yet here was an online universe where intellectual conceptions of history and economics were tossed about with passion and it was the passion alone that seemed to matter. No one cried foul. There were no sarcastic jabs. Everyone was in line for the expansion of fear of some shadowy possibility that never quite arrived.
Zach was fearful now, too. Here were people who were inspired enough to murder and who talked glibly about “Second Amendment remedies” yet who didn’t challenge the foundational principles that they were promoting. It was the antithesis of thought. The only way to check the animalistic and largely male urge to power over others was to cut them down to size. The elemental tango of acid and reflection.
He broke away and settled into sleep late that night, unknown and unconscious until late in the morning when he awoke and spent minutes deciding on a T-shirt for the Belinda encounter later that day. He reconfirmed with her via AetherFaces and then set out to skate down to the coast and back. He arrived late at the coffee shop, its dark sign constructed out of sharp lines drawn by a caffeine addict, but not intentionally. Belinda hadn’t even thought of leaving. It had only been twenty minutes. She had gone a bit more Goth than she normally did in school and Zach wondered if it was all for him, built from the protectorate of hopes and speculations about his bad boy image. It didn’t matter though and he felt comfortable with her as if the lunch at school had never ended that day. The memory of the bird drifted back to Zach as he sipped his espresso and they compared notes on school and parents. She was doted over, pressed and preened, with channeled expectations befitting hopeful immigrants. Her mother was a local realtor and her dad was in city government. Her sister had been pressing her to bring her along to the coffee shop. She really liked English, despite the flaws, and was torn between journalism and international relations for her college plan. Zach had no college plan but fully expected to go. He would hack it, he thought, and worried that she would recoil as he blurted out as much to Belinda. Hack it made her think of changing grades or criminal mischief, but Zach meant only, through the burden of settling on a common language, that college was a game that he could win. It was a construct and he knew the architecture of those places. It was too abstract for Belinda and she kept asking him what he might do to which he tried cool and distance at first. Unknown: each situation requires its own hack. Then, as the caffeine warmed through him into an electric aura, he admitted that hacking was just a state of mind that largely had the same outcomes in school as normal behavior. But the state of mind helped to put it into perspective. With perspective came power, he claimed. She shrugged into her lavender shirt collar and Zach lingered over the gold chain around her neck. Two lentigos in dusky rose hid between her breasts, just below the strands of the Roman chain that had been a gift of her father to her on her thirteenth and upon which he made some important declaration about her future and womanhood. Zach was lost in those specks as she spoke, drawn into them as deeply as the energetic sinks of The Signal. It was a signal as powerful as the electronic masquerading as important. The imperfection and beauty of the flexing pale unknown before him, sipping her coffee and drifting into rhetorical whirlpools that ended in a giggle. It was enough, Zach thought, enough and more for now. There was no conspiratorial regimen pulling levers behind the curtains. There were no fibers pulled through the fabric of the world and infested with progressive bedbugs bent on destroying civilization. The jeremiad was over in Belinda’s few anointed freckles.
She had to leave, though, after a few short hours and a few cups of effervescence. Zach’s eyes were wide awake as he leaned in towards her. She smelled of coffee oils and he did too. She looked panicky but passive, so he turned his face and hugged her, her arms initially limp doll at her side and then moving up and grasping him and holding him for a moment longer than just friendly. He released then, and she backed away, heading towards the boulevard and pick-up by her mom, waving nervously back to him as her bangles slipped into lower and lower orbits around her wrist. Zach was alone and the afternoon was turning moist and cold behind the sea, so he planted his board and pushed up and over the rises. His mind was on Belinda and processing the day. The streets slipped past without notice.
The new week brought with it the requirement for a visit to a psychologist. Zach had passively agreed to avoid any requirement for explaining the SCIDE kidnapping and encounter, crows, or the fragile nature of the universe. He had to follow through, too, to reclaim the autonomy that was essential to his character, so he planned on a pleasant conversation with a clinical mastermind in the misty afternoon on Monday. The doctor’s office was like other doctor’s offices but with a few odd additions like the small cube white noise generator that was beside the stacks of Forbes, Sports Illustrated, and Sunset magazine in the waiting room. It was to interfere with hearing the confidential discussions pulsing behind the walls. Zach found that odd because he didn’t plan on revealing anything secretive in any foreseeable discussions with Emily Hue, Ph.D., but knew that he would have to at least appear sufficiently vulnerable and self-aware that she would conclude that he was stable and normal. He considered constructing an alternate self filled with impossible fantasy elements but then realized that some of his antics and encounters recently qualified enough as fantasy that he could likely just confess openly to facts and would not be believed. That was the essence of delusion and psychosis, he thought. When reality deviates from the bland happiness that is as un-noteworthy as Tolstoy’s Karenina it becomes interesting and fantastical. Zach leaned into the white noise and tried to fashion pareidolic voices from the empty rhythms that he heard in the sound rush. There was laughter in there, just briefly, then whispers. There were lots of whispers, not resolving but creeping at the edge of attention. Zach had only seen television noise in movies but had heard it on AM radio late at night, punched through by the whistles of cosmic rays spiraling in and shedding their energies. The noise spoke of biases and fears by surfacing the contents of his consciousness, he thought, and was suddenly impressed with the possibility that Dr. Hue was cannier than someone who listened to teenager’s problems could ever be simply through the unconscious unintended consequences of buying a noise generator.
It was Zach’s turn soon enough as a dark girl of thirteen or so, dressed in simple jeans and checkered shirt, was escorted out. There was Dr. Hue, mid-forties, mostly trim but with a looseness to her flesh that suggested limited physical activity walking beside her and recommending a follow-up appointment schedule for a month out. She finally turned towards Zach as he leaned into the white noise generator, trying to see how close he needed to be to mask out the nearby conversations. She crossed the room with quick, sterile perfection, extending her hand outward with a correspondingly gentle smile that was disarming and noncommittal at the same time. He pulled his head out of the mystery stream to hear the tail end of her introduction and shook her hand with indifference, then followed her to her office.
The room was simple with two chairs facing one another rendered out of black leatherette of some kind. Two smaller chairs perched nearby and there was a large cabinet filled with prescription bottles and sample boxes behind glass and filigreed metal that gave the appearance of security to the Americana piece that looked, on closer inspection, to be veneer-covered. She sat and pulled a clipboard from the table beside her and asked a few introductory questions about sleep schedules and school and diet. Zach admitted he stayed up late some and tried to be frank and open. The questions turned towards the shootings and she said she was seeing lots of kids who were upset by the whole thing and was he upset? Zach had expected this line of questioning and he had prepared a kind of script. He paused a bit and acted conflicted. He realized that he was conflicted and so he was not really acting. Why was he pretending when the script was a fairly accurate narrative of how he had felt about the shooting? In thinking through the narrative, he had consolidated categories, bucketed considerations, and found labels for ideas and emotions. That in itself had been useful and interesting. He had been scared. He had been numb. He had tried to find answers but had found only more questions. He had sought solace in trying to intellectually appreciate the event, but that had perhaps masked the emotional component, and he had still felt anxious and uneasy, though it seemed to be fading over time. Zach poured that out for the woman who wrote a few notes and asked a few tentative follow-up questions, giving an unusually large berth for him to continue his monologue if he so wanted.
He was asked several more times about his sleep schedule and she finally gave him a few sample boxlets of sleeping pills and he was out the door after scheduling a follow-up in two weeks. Try the pills, she urged, and he passed through into the waiting area where another boy, Hispanic and Goth, pierced and tattooed, sullenly looked him over from the perch beside the white noise generator. Zach didn’t bother to call his mom for pick-up right away but tossed the sleeping pills in the trash can of the coffee shop just down the hill from the office park and bought himself a large cup of coffee declared bright and floral by the chalkboard hovering over the baristas. It was hot and jittery on first sips but Zach thought he understood what they meant by floral after a few gulps. He had emerged and was unscathed from the encounter. The world was still what he had always imagined it to be: boring and delicate. Dr. Hue had lapped at the dish of milk he had set out for her without noticing the curtain, and he had held his gaze steady enough for a while before shifting away now and again to punctuate the pattern with a mild and natural trail of discontinuities. For Zach, that was enough right now. The Signal, SCIDE, and the trail of uncertainty that was wrapped around events after the shooting were still in the fog. He needed more time and he doubted that Dr. Hue’s clinical history could help him process them into a cohesive narrative at this point. He needed time.