What does one do when one is only living? What does one do when there is nothing to be done. Waking back to the abandoned reactor was already boring after only one night. It was late in the morning judging from the portals of light in the hall outside his cell. He was famished and athirst as he walked down to the central room. Only a few children milled between smoldering fires. He could smell food, though, and followed the scent. It was bacon, he thought, and his mouth began salivating. He hardly ever ate bacon, but he often craved it. He found older kids cooking in a functioning kitchen, though they had converted the sinks into fire pits and were toasting bread and frying bacon in iron skillets thrust into the hot coals. He waited in line for a helping and gobbled it down with his hands off the tin plate that they handed him. He looked behind the cooks and saw several large, blue coolers filled with milk cartons, eggs, and slabs of meat on top of mounds of ice. Zach thought that they must have brought that in this morning since there was no electricity at the facility.
A boy approached him as he leaned against a wall and drank deeply from the cup of milk that he had been given. You a hacker? the boy asked, stammering and averting his gaze just a bit as he spoke, then raising his eyes directly towards Zach until Zach returned the look. Yeah, I spose. Why? Oh, dunno. I’ve never touched a puter, he said, seeming proud of his accomplishment. Really? Zach asked. How long you been here? The boy grinned at him. I was born here, he said. Zach was perplexed at the timeline. There were children here being raised outside exposure to digital communications yet their parents bartered or bought or stole eggs and bacon to feed them every day. What do you do every day? Zach asked, slumping into a diffident and cool pose that he had perfected when dealing with lesser beings who seemed susceptible to his influence. The boy shrugged at his question and said living, I guess, but there was a searching quality to his face and eyes that were supported by the awe that the hacker term had held for him. He idolized those who did more than just live. The hacker was the sports star or rock musician for him, cutting out the dull heart of everyday existence and replacing it with challenge, romance, and intrigue. That was how Zach wanted to be, too, and he felt a pride that he hadn’t felt in a very long time as the child looked up to him. He had special powers and they weren’t inconsequential. The long hours and deep nights were part of a greater effort milled out of the aether and the dark. There was a greatness to that and he wanted to convey it to the child. He could rise out of the wreck of this failed communal world and challenge the magisterium that surrounded it, and even create a bigger community that believed in something more. And with that, Zach felt a mild revulsion overwhelm him. What was he advocating exactly? Was the world that he experienced through the lens of local TV news the real one? It was carjackings and homelessness and budgetary conflicts. Was the world of celebrity even more real? It was voyeurism and fame and endorsements. And the hackerverse? It was egos and taunts and intellectual bravado. He was longing for things that were at least as empty as rummaging through the sharp steel walls of this decommissioned reactor, but even more densely empty as wandering down to the fracturing coastal hills under the constant impulse of the Pacific.
He finished his food and volunteered to clean the dishes, working beside other older kids, some of whom were parents themselves, and who carried themselves with more determination than the others. As he rinsed a plate he asked a girl, perhaps sixteen, where she had come from. Here, there, the Central Valley, she responded. She had followed her boyfriend here, then broken up, then gotten pregnant from another boy, then become a mom, and now she just washes dishes and clothes and goes on supply runs. That’s life, she said, and Zach felt the emptiness again thinking about the loss of her education and future as she took on the role of a primitive. How was this better than civilization? The result is toil and some kind of freedom that is so self-limiting that it feels like a prison cell.
Aphrodite appeared as they finished the dishes and took Zach away. He was needed for a mission, it seemed. Soon they were in a garage with a half-rusted VW van and there were four other boys dressed in torn T-shirts and surf shorts, holding skateboards. They had his board there, too, and everyone climbed into the van. The vehicle struggled up the rutted dirt road and into the mosaic shadows of the twisted coastal oaks until they finally emerged onto a feeder road that took them to 101. They were southbound at a struggling sixty miles-per-hour and Zach watched the traffic zig and zag around them, humming where they were chugging. Everyone was quietly anticipatory, and only the lead kid identified himself as LeetOne, though Zach suspected the online spelling was with threes for the ees. They traveled for almost an hour until they pulled into a parking lot and the van door slid open. LAment was standing there in khakis and a pale-blue button-down shirt. His hair was slicked back with some kind of styling product. Zach could see a strip mall with strange combined gas stations and fast-food joints lurid with neon signs and uniformed crews in the near distance. LAment handed a large black backpack to LeetOne, who saluted him. LAment looked over at Zach and started laughing and snapped his fingers then pointed at him like some caricature of an Eighties teen star. The door closed again and the van fired up and they were chugging up hills and into tight bends, rising in altitude as the boys sat quietly in the back of the van.
They finally stopped an hour later and the end of the asthmatic Volkswagen engine released the tension that was hanging over all of them as LeetOne suddenly and aggressively declared: It is time. He began pulling laptops out of the bag that LAment had handed him and started passing them out. They were new with logo stickers on the palm rests. Zach raised the screen and saw that it was fully charged. There was WiFi from a nearby coffee shop, open and unprotected, and Zach logged in to AetherFaces to check his status. Everyone was looking for him, including his mom. Her posts were increasingly frantic and so he posted that he was OK and would be in touch soon, realizing that the police might be looking for him. LeetOne interrupted him after a minute and told him the target: Ferret Communications had scored a large collection of political communications that had been stolen from unknown sources. The objective was to find the data and steal it—a quick cybertheft of high-value data. The kids around Zach began mumbling codewords that suggested their approached and Zach waited to gather as much intel as he could. The server IP addresses were known, but they were just the public social media machines. Anything worth protecting was behind a firewall. He listened to the collaborations and divined that there were several overflow hacks starting and at least one effort to brute force a dictionary password hack. He decided to go in another direction and began looking at the news on corporate executives, scouting for likely names and potential passwords. He settled on a list of five candidates at the executive level and began working on guessing passwords, sifting through known family names and reaching out to public databases for birthdates and hints. The vice president for global emerging markets, Valery Pausen, failed first with a password that was identical to her vanity plate, registered in The Empire State: VPKITEN. On an Aston Martin, nonetheless. Zach loved how she had likely gotten around password change requirements by exerting her will and her early hire date. Hubris killed the beast, he thought, and was into her mail and skittering around the servers. The data was mentioned in her email several times and Zach was able to find his way into the unprotected parts of the accounts of other executives who were involved in the data analysis. Chris Geltin, IT Director for Special Projects, was cautious but left lists of the files in temp directories that pointed Zach at certain disks. VPKITEN’s credentials were not sufficient to get at the data, so he instrumented software keyloggers on several key machines and was root in twenty minutes. In the van he betrayed no emotion through all of this, hiding behind the poker face instrument of his sunglasses as he screened out the banter around him. It was warm in the sealed VW with the kids and the laptops humming together, so LeetOne opened windows, creating the odd closed world of the hackers attacking their keyboards while the hum of traffic mixed with everyday voices drifted in through the yellow light windows of the van. The humans were practicing the mundane acts that defined their lives, commenting on food and friends and their next destination, while Zach finally struck gold, unzipping a collection of texts that were pointed at by the powers that be. He read a few of them and they said incomprehensible things in ordinary English. The space bar moved him through broad swaths of these texts but they meant very little to him. The code words were obscure and the topics strangulated by metaphorical language. Zach saw an opportunity, though, and remote copied the archives to a server he had owned for several years, then uploaded the content to a cloud environment that promised anonymity and obscurity all at once.
When complete, Zach held his hand aloft, slowly at first, like he was doing a karate chop, and announced that he had done it to the assembled kids. They stopped their kibitzing for a brief moment and then he heard bullshit from a boy down the line. Believe what you want, but believe it today, he said and sent the collected crew a URL to the repositories he had copied to a remote public server. He wasn’t even certain of the machine’s physical location (Java, maybe, just possibly), but there were oohs and aahs as the motley crew clicked through and began to look at the content that Zach has amassed. It was then that he began to feel queasy, realizing that he didn’t understand why he was hacking. There were the objectives that materialized out of the desire to prove oneself. For that, the penetration was enough. There were objectives that were based on revenge. There were objectives that were motivated by greater social goods. Yet, there was Zach hacking into a company that produced exaggerated political caricatures (as far as Zach was concerned) and were labeled kingmakers, and Zach had no idea what the goals of his exploits actually were.
LeetOne congratulated him with a props sign and said they had heard he had skills. Zach asked what they were doing with the information and LeetOne said that he wasn’t sure. They had to package it and deliver it and there was money that was transferred to their offshore accounts. This was the source of the bacon and eggs, LeetOne said. Zach was bored immediately at the thought that they were just hired blackhats. He had thought they were doing something more, something noble, something that was opposing The Signal and its relentless drive through cyberspace, capturing minds in a transformative lock. He set his laptop down and stood in the back of the van, gingerly tiptoed through the splayed legs and released himself into the brightness of the parking lot. He had been at it for a couple of hours and needed a stretch. As Zach wandered away from the van he looked out towards PCH1, crawling with bursts of incremental optimism as the traffic opened for instances under the gating pulses of the signal lights. A commercial bus glided along promising that an express trip to the Blackhawk Rancheria, its smoked windows reducing the passengers to shadowy silhouettes above a black bird soaring over short coastal hills lined by vineyards, could only result in fortune and fun. It was the black bird again and Zach thought he saw the painted eye of the creature rotate to watch him as the bus slid past and out of sight behind a nearby wall. His knees felt weak and he backed towards the van again, slipping inside and back into his position. The hack was done and the team had made the transfer. The money was in and they made the call to LAment to come pick up the hardware. Everyone wanted Zach to teach them but he was coolly detached and feigned egoless and effortless control, a pose that he had honed for years but was usually only managed at a distance or with a crowd of familiar faces and attitudes. He was an elder among these young minds, he realized, and there was a teaching aspect that would only increase his caché if he gave away a few hints here and there. The New York DMV access was critical, he admitted, and that was only possible because he had a bag of tricks that had been accumulated over time. He continued on that the worst was when you remembered a bit of code or trick that was hidden somewhere in some server but couldn’t recall the IP address, user name, or password in order to get at the critical data. He sounded like an old man. He sounded like Aristotle perching Alexander on his knees. But the black eyes, animate, of the bird kept appearing for him and, even as he feigned calm and cool perfection, the thought of the bird was causing his heart to rise up into his throat to such an extent that he shut down after just a minute of braggadocio and folded inward and just surfed the net and looked at anime porn.
Zach had to admit to himself on the drive back up the coast that at least the hack had been more exciting than the long empty evening and slow morning at the SCIDE encampment. He suddenly realized that he dreaded the return to the technological wasteland of the reactor facility—and after only one day. There were only people there, he thought—mostly children—and while there were a few cute girls there wasn’t anything new or informative among the young minds. They looked to him for knowledge, for Christ’s sake, he thought. He had no knowledge, just some shallow digital pools that were arguably more interesting than shopping at the local mall. There was no more reality in the secret world than there was in the real world; maybe there was even less. But at least when he hacked he felt like there was something new and something more. He worried over this, though, and thought of the alien texture of Aphrodite’s puffy ringlet hair. Could he somehow substitute the slow information cycles of people for the effervescent intellectual drama of zipping from target to target in the disconnected universe of web intrigue? He doubted that. He was a posture that had been nurtured in a complex sea of self-generated tides and winds. People were not immediate to him but were saturated with distracting overlays of their digital identities that pushed them into the background. He could interact with Aphrodite and even love her but she would be captive behind her eyes and words, and those words were strained by the immediacy of needs and action. The Fresnel lens of our digital lives shape us into something greater than that, Zach thought, and he considered ripping open the VW door and leaping into the cool grasses that labored to remain rooted against the persistent coastal cacophony. He thought about pain and being alone, without his phone, and decided to wait it out. Maybe he was suffering withdrawal symptoms caused by The Signal.
The van strained to summit the coastal hills on the thin dirt roads and then careered down the backsides with dangerous zip, like a controlled fall, while the boys leaned into the invisible shifts in momentum. They finally arrived and the van was pulled through a garage door manned by child dervishes in brown, bits of technology woven into their hair and clothing. Zach moped back into the central encampment and wandered, peripatetically, among the groups of kids. There were miniature soccer matches being played off a metal wall, fire-starting lessons, knitting, leather punching, stick whittling, bragging contests, and at least two young couples making out under the cover of old canvas that smelled of tar. Zach sought out the older cadre to see what they were doing and found many of them organizing boxes of food and cylinders of propane near the kitchen. He jumped in and started moving things around. It was exhaustingly boring and he asked a boy, just his age and named Kevin, how often they did this. Twice a week, Kevin responded, when we bring in new supplies. It is a never-ending process. The younger kids have some duties like cleaning bathrooms and dishes and stuff, but we do most of the work, he said, swirling his arm around at the teenagers sweating in the contained space of the pantry warehouse. How long have you been here? Zach asked. Two years, Kevin said. He had been living on the street in San Francisco. His dad lived there and worked there but was hardly ever home. Kevin had been in with a druggie crowd and had to run away because a friend was busted for possession with intent to distribute and he had been named as a partner in crime. He was heading south and got to San Luis Obispo when he met SCIDE kids outside a shelter. He tried to deal to them initially but they told him that they weren’t interested and asked if he wanted to come and live in a new place. He had been working ever since. He still got high now and again, when stuff came in, but had mostly set that aside because the kids needed him.
Zach felt equally protective of the children around him. They were emerging from the pupae of childhood without the complexities of school and television and fashion as guiding hallmarks. They trusted the teenagers and the teenagers had adapted to become trustworthy. This was a strange utopia, Zach thought, that was neither the bleak and animalistic world of Lord of the Flies where the mores of civilization are unhinged in a primitive urge to power, nor was it bound to strange rituals of explanation like so much bad Science Fiction. The teens had wanted to be free of The Signal and had found a place, and the children needed to be taken care of. They rose to the challenge and did so without complaint. Zach wondered if that was the case in reality, though. Had kids been on the edge of starvation at one time? Had they had cholera outbreaks until they started managing sanitation? He could see the strain of maturity in the faces and eyes of the teen girls, especially, who were bearing children, raising them, and managing the place while the men hunted in the transient garden of the hackers.
Kevin pulled him away as the logistics exercise completed and took him to another building that had a collapsed roof and exterior walls grown up with weedy masses. They entered from the north through a void in the wall and Zach saw cultivated lines of tomatoes, beans, peas, corn, and pot growing along strings stretched through the shadows of the roofless structure. This is paradise, man, Kevin cooed, and snipped a small bud from one of the reddish pot plants. Paradise to get high? Zach asked. Sure, that too, Kevin responded, and I’m not trapped by responsibilities like at home. For what? Zach asked. You know, school and stuff like that, Kevin said. Zach thought of the hour moving crates of foodstuffs around and dissected the irony as Kevin lit a tiny pipe and offered it to Zach, who refused for no real reason other than he was confused by the goals of these people and whether his life or theirs made more sense. Zach was bored again and feeling a bit panicky. Getting high wouldn’t help with the latter though it might be useful for the boredom. But to what end? He saw himself here moving crates around in this tragic experimental idyll. He took a leak outside, along the wall, then randomly decided to walk towards the ocean, absorbing the peace of the winds and sting of sand as he worked his way along a ridge and down towards the crumbling cliffs.