The cavern of Zach’s room, his private space, is rarely invaded by his mother. He feels confidently, quietly isolated there, protected and enwombed as he reaches out through the broadband into the virtual caves of the web, into blogs, AetherFaces, AetherFaces, IRC chat rooms, web sites, and secure shells into compromised foreign computer systems. Visually, there is warmth to the space because of the dun shade over the compact fluorescents and the wall hangings in bands of color. Under pressure from a compact, oscillating fan, stellated icosahedrons in pocked metal and wood drift like interlopers to the solar system of the collections of plastic superheroes and creatures from horror movies perched along every available surface.
There was an era not long ago when a teen inordinately quiet, obsessively detailing balsa wood planes or role playing miniatures, would have been worried over by a parent from a generation before, whose parents were themselves worried that their own children were listening to radical hippie music, but Zach’s mom was too distracted by the pressures of her job as a marketing VP to be able to divert her energies to worrying over Zach. Zach was used to it. It rarely bothered him. He had his cave, school, self-determination and a private life. Her comings and goings were barely noticeable for weeks on end, though she often sent him tight, loving text messages reminding him of deadlines and updating AetherFaces with ecstatic praise and notes about her own complicated life. He was at the top of her to-do list, but just one more project in a cataract of them. Even his very existence was a project of sorts. Zach’s father was a sperm bank and he had been conceived out of a scheduling lull and nagging insecurity on his mother’s part that her biological clock was moving out of range of thoroughly healthy outcomes. He had known many nannies in his early years, and many sitters later on, loving each one with increasingly romantic desire, but Mom always made herself present enough that he had never really felt abandoned or maltreated.
If that is enough to consign him to an interest in cyberpunkery, in hacking, in hunting down bragging rights among the cognoscenti of the internet multiverse, then it had to be through his mom’s acceptance of his regular retreat to his bedroom, his finding solace in the reaching out through wires while ensconced in the protectorate of his statuary and quiet cavern, that he became who he was, an inveterate introvert, thoughtful but with a wanderlust that could be managed through the online worlds that he simultaneously inhabited. She was happy enough that he didn’t seem to care for dope, for booze, and always came across to teachers as bright and challenging, resulting in mostly exceptional grades, though occasionally tinged with Bs due to nervous boredom and distraction. And so he was allowed the freedom of his cavern and trusted, and so he nurtured the trust with just the right application of effort and signaling to maintain the reservoir of good will and autonomy.
Zach has the worm by the tail in his cavernous lair. The digital signature is complex, variegated, pulsing with regularity in a hexdump visualization of the code. The header is an injector, overwhelming buffers in scripting languages, overlaying the rendering code of the web page with its reticulated coil, and the body is a pattern language for generating images, dense with mathematical cycles beyond his ken. That’s how far he’s gotten with it in five hours. He hasn’t executed it again in toto, though, because he isn’t altogether certain what happened back at the coffee shop. Shakey had interrupted the mesmerizing images, but did the interruption snap him out of a trance or had he just been fascinated by what he was observing? He wasn’t sure. It scared Zach to not understand that, most of all, and he had never been scared of technology before. He veered, then tacked, leaving the analysis for a time and began a search for the pattern in the wild, finding records strewn through servers that showed elements of the header, but only seeing the most exotic part of the signal in surfaced logs for AetherFaces.
He logged into a hacker chat room and searched recent records. It hadn’t been noticed, he concluded, after a half hour of inventing search terms to try to isolate any random curious queries. It was tempting to set it out there like a prize, asking the diaspora of renegades around the world to unravel the puzzle the code presented, but Zach would get more cred if he already knew the answer and could tempt the crews with hints about Soviet nuclear core management controllers or Finnish social networking analytic tools. If he couldn’t crack it, then he would need to engage a master, quietly, until light began to shine from within and the explanation emerged. He texted Shakey, telling him to keep it quiet. It was The Signal, now, and Shakey agreed but demanded bragging rights, then switched to comments on hacks of political websites. Zach was continually amazed at the scattershot of interests that percolated through Shakey, but he knew Shakey would follow-through on his request or, at worst, would fail to do so only because he forgot. He could trust in him that much.
He was back into the cavern of the code, locking out the buzzing, bubbling nags of tweets and texts and updates, when he got a hit on a search. It was in AetherFaces and he triangulated on the source, flushing browser caching and anonymizing through a server out of Taiwan. No breadcrumbs, no tiny motes, no trail. A man, just an ordinary dumbfuck trying to look toughguy in his pic, out of Bethesda, Maryland. Drives a truck, works as a pipe fitter. Just an ordinary dumbfuck. The header was tucked away in a comment, ready to pounce when the full message was opened, posted by Anonymous today at 9 PM. It was the last comment on the wall. Zach followed out to Dumbfuck’s friends and their comments all stopped around the same time. He bookmarked everyone and gave up for the evening, dropping into sleep at 4 AM.
There they are again, the shapes limned in the cavern of white, the luminous orbs submerged beside contrasts of shadow, fluxing in and out of focus. Why is it so difficult, so painfully difficult for the mind and eyes, to drag the shapes out of the mist and materialize them for inspection? And why the irritating fatigue, the orbital pressure pushing back behind the eyes themselves, into the cortex, demanding some sort of relief, like the odd logic problems of trying to invert syllogisms according to some scholastic thaumaturgy. How the powerful images work on the head may be mysterious, but here in the confusion of dreams, they are relevantly close for Zach. He reaches for one, his arm erupting with Kirlian auras, and he flexes his hand against something almost solid, like the uncertain brush against a girl in a crowd that sets off alarms over the potential motives of her against the bending, rushing torrent of people, and then it is gone again and he reaches out again against nothing. And nothing again and again. The mist collapses a bit and there is a park, bushes and wind-molded cypresses finally materializing out of the retracting moisture, but the creatures are gone, now, and Zach walks forward towards the back of a woman in a red dress, vivid against the black churning ocean in the distant background. He can see the pale of her arms and neck as she turns her head to the side. Beli, Belinda, mature yet in oddly period dress, a delicate frill of hand woven lace around her neck and sleeve. Her eyes are closed as Zach wakes into the barbarous howl of his alarm clock.
7 AM again, and school will not wait. He texts his progress to Shakey as he grabs a Diet Coke and slab of cheese. Mom is gone already. She left a note on AetherFaces. She loves him and will be back from New York in a few days. Eat something, stay safe, and good luck on his English project.