A spiral is an ancient symbol—a snake, an eye, a womb—and a hypnotic focus for mesmerizing the compliant into a hypnagogic state. A spiral is a flow into a singularity. A spiral is a whirlwind. The spiral before Zach’s eyes was generated by a light projector, he knew, and by a filter that was spinning before the projector. He focused and heard only a faint dripping. The fuzziness was falling away from him like he was shedding a cocoon, though, and he soon felt bindings of his arms behind him, metallic and cold, mirroring the cold of the room around him. The spiral was spinning gently, like a pinwheel in a breeze, and Zach found it comforting. It was a flow into a black hole, the negation of everything material, yet the lines of flow never altered or diminished, but extended into forever. A cold universe, empty of the luminous, yet beautiful in its existence, is still cold, he reasoned as he felt the chill rise out of the chair, into his damp back, and his arms. The spiral kept spinning with clockwork regularity.
He finally heard steel slide against steel and a light bloomed to his left, incandescently warm and yellow. A human shadow marched in and stood quietly before him. He didn’t speak at first, waiting to try to see who it was, though suspecting a female form from the subtle hints of hip and slender arm as the shadow moved around him. She slid into the light of the spiral and he recognized Aphrodite from the beach, her hair tamed slightly by a band compressing the afro into three cottontail puffs, above, left and right. She finally spoke, low and even, declaring him cleansed and purified. Purified of what, Zach wasn’t sure, but he said great, then let me go, and she moved around behind him and he was suddenly rubbing the cold out of his wrists and hands. There was moisture everywhere, and he asked Aphrodite where he was and what had happened. But she just told him to follow her and walked back towards the yellow doorway. He looked back at the rotating spiral as he left, seeing the heavy wood chair—like an electric chair—that he had been fixed to, and the icy white light of a video projector that was shining the spiral on the wall. He longed for the spiral briefly. It was perfect and infinite.
They walked in a column through tight corridors of rusting steel with disintegrating fitments, like in a ship, but there was no sense of roll or hum to the place, so Zach doubted they were at sea. Flickering low-power lights and occasional oily torches lit the path through shadowy mazes of barrels and becalmed machinery until they opened into a large room lined with tents and shambling people dressed in the hippie extravagances of colored rags like Aphrodite herself. She stood still along the rusting rail, the dance of torchlight from tall poles enhancing the angles of her face and lips. Where are we, Zach asked, and she laughed and simply said that they were in SCIDE, though Zach heard it as inside and asked inside what? No, she replied, we are in S-C-I-D-E, the Society for Creative Infiltration and Destructive Energies. SCIDE, she reiterated. This is where we operate from. Operate what, he asked. She smirked at him. Zach, Zach, we have freed your mind now. Think back to who you were and what you were doing. That world is a prison, she said, and your mind was a prisoner of The Signal. Don’t you remember?
He remembered The Signal, sure, but was doubting his sanity now even more than when he saw the bird earlier in the day. It was a dream, he thought, an elaborate dream that allowed him the shaky self-awareness that he was feeling, like a hypnagogic state of sorts. He followed Aphrodite as she dropped towards the floor of the massive steel room on a metal staircase. He was mesmerized by the rag couture of the youth that surrounded him as they made their way across the floor, between groups who hushed one another and paused as Aphrodite and he passed. They seemed to be looking at him more than at her. They made their way to another portal and slipped through. There was a burning fire in the center of the room and Zach recognized Zane in the gold shadows, dancing to an unheard music, among many faces. The low murmur of the room stopped as they entered and Zach immediately sensed the center of gravity was around a teenage boy seated by the fire, his face painted with logic symbols and his thin chest bare to the cool air.
He’s here, Aphrodite waved her arm at the room as she announced their arrival. Zach just stood looking around him. They were a motley lot, dressed in rags and decorated like the boy with logic symbols and tribal face paint. Some had circuit boards sewn into their clothing like beads. The teenage boy waited for the murmur to subside and announced himself as Lord Ambrosia—yes LAment—he said, and Zach immediately knew who he was from his online identity. LAment, Zach responded. I enjoyed your work on the LA County Sheriff’s records. LAment laughed that it was nothing much special, but that he had invented a variant multisource attack based on dictionary methods that rotated slowly through IPs to prevent filtering. He seemed pleased by Zach’s comment and invited him to sit down. Zach did and waited briefly and then blurted out that this entire place seems highly dubious. What were they all doing there and why was he brought there?
LAment seemed disbelieving. This is SCIDE he said, waving his hands at the crowd around him that erupted in light laughter. This is our hacker heaven, he said. We are here fighting the war against the signals, Zach. You must know that. You were our operative. We saved you. Zach was in disbelief at this line of reasoning and confident that he had not been controlled in any way in his investigations. His mind was playing media-seeded memories about the improbability of what he was seeing around him, flashing to The Matrix and Hackers, then to post-apocalyptic Mad Max child tribes. It was ridiculous, he thought, yet they seemed tangible and LAment was as real as any hacker out there for Zach.
How did you save me? Zach asked. They were closing in, ZMan, LAment said, invoking one of Zach’s online identities. You don’t think they would just sit around and let you peer through the looking glass, do you?
The cabin? The servers and The Signal? Zach was grasping to understand before their collective grinning. He didn’t like being on the dark side of the information gap and he felt submerged in the mud of fragmentary knowledge and manipulation.
Sure, the cabin. The sent an emissary for you, too. He was closing in on you.
The bird? Zach asked.
A bird? LAment queried back at him. Hmmm, it might have been a bird. We don’t know what form it would take because The Signal is randomized so much by the encryption that the most we can usually glean is that there is something happening and, by correlating the IP addresses, we can also generally discern the target of the attack. They were zeroing in on you, ZMan, getting ready to erase you. You were too close and even touched the honey pot at one point. They don’t like that.
Who are they, LAment? Who made The Signal and why?
That’s a direct question and it deserves a direct answer, Zach. But, alas, in the zigs and zags of the cybercommunity, I can’t find an answer for you. As far as we can tell, The Signal circulates around and nests in different servers. It is an elaborate system that requires fairly significant distributed computing horsepower, but we can’t find any evidence that the owners of the machines have a clue what it is or why it is running on their systems. We’re not even sure what it is for but we do know that it can change people, twist their minds, by exploiting some kind of visual processing backdoor in the brain. The shooter at San Chardin High we think was one of The Signal’s victims. There have been others, too, and we see traceries and code fragments in advertising banners and coded into mainstream music. That’s why we are here.
Here? Where is here? And how many are you?
LAment laughed again and sparked a stubby cigarette with a fat, gold Zippo. About two hundred worldwide, with about seventy five here. This is the Palermo Canyon Nuclear Reactor on the Central Coast, or what’s left of it. We stay here, away from any signal, waiting for the end to come, man. I’m serious, too. There are no computers here. No cell phones. Just the rusted relics of our nuclear past.
How do you hack, then? Zach asked.
Missions into the towns, the cities, down the coast. We gather supplies and stop in coffee shops. We keep our equipment in lockers and sheds along the way, then replace it back there when we return. And everyone who touches the machines gets deprogrammed every time. No exceptions. There is too much at risk.
How did you learn to deprogram if you don’t know what the signal is?
Good question, but beyond your pay grade right now. Now that you are free and clear, you need to relax here for a while and then we need your skill set for some missions, you dig?
Zach was quiet. He had acquiesced to his fate, though the people and situation were sending waves of paranoia through him. He waited and watched as conversations devolved away from him, noting the banality of what they were doing and discussing. Individuals stood and left for the toilet, then returned or not. Kids were smoking and getting high, and wrestling and slap fighting. It was a perfectly normal rhythm superimposed on an abnormal syncopation. Soon he needed to piss and got directions from a boy around twelve. The bathroom was old tile gone to rot, and the toilets were covered in crap and piss spray like they had never been cleaned. There was water in some of the bowls and half the urinals looked functional. He tried one and was able to flush it, wondering how they had kept the water on over all these years.
As he emerged from the dark toilet he looked through a thin glass window and saw sandy beach hills topped with clinging ropey vines and grass tufts. It was night out there and the sky was blank from a high marine layer. Sharp horizontal lines of white like slashes emerged from the dark behind the hills, announcing a moderate surf, though not enough for any killer waves. Zach decided to wander a bit since he was not under guard it seemed, and slipped up a metal staircase and through dusty halls flickering with occasional fluorescent tubes. Broken furniture and rusted steel machinery lined the hallways like the decrepit ghosts of the Cold War. Radiation symbols faded by time and the lick of moisture crowded the walls. Zach eventually got to a door that he could push open and was out on the roof of the building, wandering on gravel among quiet air conditioner units and broken aerials. There were weak spots where the roof had partially collapsed and he circled around those areas with a wide allowance and slow, careful steps to gauge the solidity underfoot. He could see another building nearby covered in graffiti and the half-collapsed cooling tower like the corseted waist of a Victorian dancer to the south. He thought about running, fleeing back to San Chardin, via PCH 1 and 101 or whatever ribbon highway snaked around through the hills, but the specter of the bird kept reappearing to him as he thought about back home, as if emerging from the multispectral hue of The Signal. And something more, too: there was the shooting and the mystery about the The Spinner’s intentions. It was all back there, down the coast, hidden behind a veil of normalcy that seemed insane here among the post-apocalyptic children of tomorrow. They were caricatures drawn from a comic book but they felt more real and focused than the sleepy world of home to Zach.
He stood at the edge of the roof and watched a small group of shadows emerge from somewhere below him and wander up over the dune hills, then found the door and the stairs and made his way back down to the living areas. The kids were a sight in their motley rags and dead technological couture. There were rabbits in cages and tiny propane stoves with cans bubbling atop them. A few turned to glare at him as he approached and he stopped suddenly and asked, quietly and non-confrontationally, why they were looking at him, suppressing an urge to shake them as if a shaking would loosen this fantastical utopian vision of youth in revolt and return all of them back to their families. They responded calmly that he was well known in the cyberworld and that they couldn’t believe that he had been taken by The Signal. They wanted to understand if there was a moral failure intrinsic to hackers that led them over the edge and if every one of them would succumb too. They wanted to know what to avoid. Zach granted that he didn’t even realize that he was under the control of anything. He didn’t feel any different even now, but suggested that they look at their screens indirectly a bit. Maybe that would help. He felt stupid saying that but they shook their heads slowly like they were in agreement, though with the eyes of lost confusion, then went back to their quiet conversations. Zach looked at what was between the two boys, around age twelve, and saw that it was a sheet of yellowed paper scribbled with a scripting language for text processing. They were plotting and writing code, but in a way that mimicked a priestly enterprise, removed and cold, rather than the active engagement that hacking was traditionally about.
Zach found Aphrodite drinking rum with Zane beside a smoldering fire an hour later. They invited him to party with them, but he demurred and asked where he could sleep. She laughed and became a caricature of a concerned mother briefly, wrapping her arms around him and rubbing his head, though with a constant edge of sexual dominance and aggression that made Zach uncomfortable, then led him down a hall by his hand and suggested a random doorway that, when opened, revealed a room full of rusting equipment. Oops, she giggled, and finally deposited him in a small cell-like bedroom with a dusty cot in one corner. There was a candle on a low table and a box of matches. Zach lit the candle for a few minutes and examined the room. Dirt piled in the corners, driven in by a past wind he guessed. The walls were steel plates with heavy rivets. The door was a lockable portal, though the locking mechanism could only mildly engage due to the gentle shrug of metal fatigue over the decades of abandonment. It seemed unlikely to Zach that a place like this could exist, undetected. There should be security. There should be a caretaker who monitors the facility. The candle was half gone and he worried about leaving it burning in case he needed to rise or pee later on, so he blew it out, sending a few pinpoints of hot wax against his hand with his quick blow.
He slept that night and dreamed of that snowy field again, a tattered flag over a cabin, but there was a dead bird on the porch as he approached, and he bent over to look at its still form but saw only the inert black of the sea in its feathers.