Tagged: signals and noise

Signals and Noise, Chapter 00011110 (Pregnant Logos)

Signals and NoiseThe spirals again. Zach was back in a deprogramming room trying to recall the previous twenty four hours, the week, and the year. A thin rubber belt spun the red spiral in the glow of lights emanating from behind him. The walls were white and with the regulation textures of modern drywall, unlike the SCIDE installation in the reactor. There were other signs of middle-class Americana, too, like the shadow of a lamp Zach thought he had seen at Ikea. The spiral was the least interesting thing in the room and he tried to move, but was stopped by firm strapping on his arms, legs, and his forehead.

Not this again, he said loudly. The spirals don’t do anything.

Quiet, except for the faint hum of the motor powering the rotating infolded circles.

Is anyone here? he asked loudly, then yelled a haphazard help that emerged truncated because of his inability to stretch his neck as he raised his voice.

Aphrodite spoke from behind in the dark. Hey, hey, cool it, calm down, Zach. The spiral stopped and she walked into the light and pulled the Velcro holding his arms and head and legs loose with quick sawing noises. He rubbed his arms and asked her How long? How long have I been here?

Just a few hours, she responded. Let’s go meet everyone. Glad you’re back.

She led him into a common area that was more modern than the decrepit nuclear facility. The people were more polished, too, and older, ranging from the early teens to the twenties. Many were dressed in combat fatigues, but with distinctive SCIDE patches on their arms.

Is this place new? Zach asked after Aphrodite.

New? No, not really, it’s the next step in the war.

The war against The Signal?

Yeah, The Signal and the evil behind it. We are engaged in war on all fronts.

What happened to the reactor facility? Zach ventured, and Aphrodite stopped and turned towards him, her eyes narrowing briefly and then flaring above her nostrils.

It served its purpose and then we let it go. We are all here now, she said cryptically.

There were no small children in the hall, no technojunk hanging from tents. Everyone was officious with assault rifles pulled apart and being cleaned on chamois-draped tables, with handheld radio sets radiating strange spiral antennas, with whiteboards dense with mathematical signals, maps, and complex diagrams. Zach tried to align the faces he saw to the people from the reactor facility and thought he could see traces of identities, grown older and leaner, but there was no way to be certain. It had only been a matter of weeks, too, casting doubt on any recognition of the people around him.

They entered a large hall filled with tables with walls of LCD displays. People in uniforms hurried about. There was an intensity to the chatter. A huge projected map lit the far wall and, on a raised dais in the center, LAment stood in a leather duster, his hair tied into a neat knot at the back of his head. He was slowly rotating, watching the efficient chaos swarming around him. They had evolved, but far too quickly for evolution or human effort, Zach thought. It was impossible or, retreating from the term, improbable, yet they weakly confirmed the consistency of his background and the palace of memory. Zach walked forward towards the platform and LAment noticed him and acknowledged his approach with a silent nod before asking a young woman nearby how far the tank columns were outside Los Angeles. Zach instantly correlated what LAment said with the bundles of red and blue icons on the projected map. There were clusters along the I-10 corridor, dipping down towards The Inland Empire.

Are they attacking LA? Zach asked towards LAment.

He was older than Zach remembered him, but he responded after a brief pause over a computer monitor: not yet, he said. They are massing in support of the rescue efforts. Rioting has begun, and looting, so the National Guard is being deployed, but they seem to have rather remarkable orders to kill coastal residents. They are after the liberals, as far as we can tell, with that group fairly loosely defined as anyone in the coastal cities. The quake is a pretext to weed out their numbers, to cull the masses, if you will. The Signal is at the heart of it. LAment shook his head at the screens before him.

How is The Signal responsible, Zach asked, truly perplexed.

LAment clicked his tongue, continuing: Its presence and manifestations on TV and on the internet increased in recent days, and more and more people are beginning to sound off about the evil ways of the coastal cities. The quake was retribution, God’s judgment. We can’t do anything more than monitor the situation at this point.

Zach told LAment in a low voice that he had discovered something about The Signal, masked by the pulse of activities around him, but he felt Aphrodite edge up almost to touching him from behind as LAment descended the platform and stood before him.

What is it?

Ferret Communications created a shell company in Simi Valley that used work from a USC professor to create The Signal, Zach quickly sputtered. His mind was racing at this point, wondering if there was anything to game, any leverage built into the situation, but the effort and coordination around him seemed too real to demand anything more than participation. It’s easy to join in against a mysterious and unjust opponent, Zach thought, briefly trying to raise his level of cynicism, but then retreated to the comforting thought that they were at war and war demanded concerted effort and obedience. Obedience. The very thought made Zach feel like a pet, yet he couldn’t oppose the burning fires before him.

LAment frowned and scowled, first at Zach and then at Aphrodite. I thought so, he muttered, and turned back towards the consoles. We have to attack on all possible fronts, LAment yelled down to Zach, we have to throw a boot in the guts of the machine. He suddenly jumped at Zach again.

This is it, my man. This is where justice is woven out of thin air. This ain’t no party. They have taken over the minds of America. They want to kill us, now. They began with surgical actions driven with The Signal. Your school shooting. The murders in Germany. The quake. EuropaShip. It is all being coordinated by Ferret and their overseers. When you hold the keys to the media and the internet, when you control minds, you also control the entire body politic. They are engaging in class warfare, summoning up the resentments of the land-owning producers of the old days: ranchers, mineral wealth, oil—all against the producers of the new world, media, graphics, CGI, you name it. Storytellers, liberals, gays, the creative class, all are being picked off one by one. We have to stop it, Zach. We have to take the war to them directly, before the tanks roll over the remnants of what once was.

Zach was processing LAment’s soliloquy with an unusual commitment to what he was saying. A sense of dissonance rolled over him briefly. The notion of a right wing conspiracy was discussed in some circles, and had been a mouse to Shakey’s cat for years, but converting that conspiracy into real actions driven by malevolence was almost unbelievable. Yet many narratives had clogged Zach’s sense of reality over the past several months and this one possessed the highest level of consistency with the events that Zach remembered with the greatest clarity. That dissonance dissipated slightly as he realized that that was more-or-less the best that he could do. He tried to mesh the signals together. He tried to make them accord one another. He watched for disconfirmations. And, despite all his efforts, he was floating in a confluence of inconsistencies. Only the fever-pitch of necessity driven by civil war pulled him up, lifted him, he thought. LAment wanted action and he wanted to join in the ideological conflagration. He was a young rebel on the eve of insurrection. He was a pioneer before the wilderness.

What can I do to help? Zach asked, quietly at first, but then again with greater volume.

LAment smiled and shook his head. Great, this is important. It’s a first step, LAment said, and Zach felt Aphrodite’s willowy arms fold around his neck. She kissed him lightly on the shoulder and he felt he had risen above the cannibalistic past and was confronted only with choices, with heroism, and so he began planning with them along the wall of the displays. He wasn’t offered gear because he had to remain an outsider to the SCIDE establishment. He had to find a single target and he had to eliminate the threat. He was solidly with them as the map flickered and zoomed on the grand display. There were confluences of actions that held in juxtaposition. If this threat was not eliminated, if he remained, if the dominos were not set in motion, then there would be a cascade of failures and the war would be lost. There were tanks on I-10. There were gunships prowling Valencia. Drone craft tilted their all-seeing eyes from above. SCIDE would be attacked soon enough and they had to minimize communications. Zach would be on his own in the field, one man against the might of an evil imperium that had harnessed the greatest weapon ever imaginable—the power to twist human minds.

The maps zoomed down on a crest line in green that tracked along a snaking highway to the east and another off to the west, and Zach recognized his waypoints just enough to discern that it was the mountain cabin where he had found the servers weeks before. The realization shook him out of his obsequious nodding and he knew that elimination meant killing and death. He had been there in the building before. He had been standing before the steadfast dark eye of the observational drones that were haunting all of America. He could see the red and blue icons crowding the maps like hallucinatory ants. But he doubted that he could do what they wanted him to do. LAment kept speaking at him as Zach slowed and stared back until LAment slowed his pace and asked if he was OK.

I’ve been there before, Zach said. I walked in the back door and there were servers in the basement. The Signal is there, he mumbled.

LAment slapped his hands together and reached upward. Haleluyah! he yelled and Aphrodite was smiling fangs of white teeth across the monitor. That’s great! Another confirmation that our intel is correct. Destroy the equipment, Zach. End the game. Kill the man and it ends there.

Zach tried to grin with LAment but was doubting his own resolve. The quiet of the hillside that day combined with the ordinariness of the place were shades to the precision and determination of LAment and SCIDE. Aphrodite pulled a small backpack out from beneath the table and opened it, revealing a black and chrome handgun and a survival knife nestled beside a satellite phone with a dangling USB port projecting out of the bottom of the mouthpiece. Zach looked it over and Aphrodite demonstrated cocking, loading, and releasing the safety on the handgun. Zach had never touched a gun before but was too cool to admit as much and he grabbed the pistol with confidence and inspected the switches and levers before releasing the magazine and reloading it in short, fluid motions. Aphrodite laughed. You’re a natural, she said.

In minutes Zach was led up and out of the facility into the warm desert night. A steroidal VW bug with racks of lights and noisy, spattering exhaust tubes came to life as he approached and he strapped in, holding his backpack in his lap as the bug bounded and shimmied along gravel and dirt roads for a half hour until they approached an outer parking lot of a desert golf course. Fans of sprinklers clicked in a desynchronized chorus across the grasses as the VW shut down and rolled to a stop. The driver, from under his full-face helmet, muttered good luck to Zach and he stepped out. A faint odor of humid grass surrounded him. A compact car was parked nearby and Zach circled it uncertainly for a few moments and then approached it. In the dim light he could see keys hanging from the ignition.

He got in and dropped the backpack into the foot well of the passenger seat after pulling out the phone. Flipping up the cover revealed a smart phone beneath the fat antenna and Zach began playing with the menus. He had a calculator, an image viewer that was empty, a video viewer, and a GPS-enabled mapping system that put him past Palm Desert. He entered the coordinates of San Chardin and approximated his travel time at three hours after he varied his route to avoid the LA basin and the massing tanks. He found a browser and tried to load AetherNews but the signal was replaced with an emergency broadcast service web page that declared communications were unavailable until further notice. Zach started the car. He hadn’t driven in a while but after a few jerky rolls through the small parking lot, he was heading out through quiet neighborhoods with xeriscaped dirt and rock opposing the greenery of the course. He followed the directions from the phone as it instructed him in an emotionless female voice with an Australian accent.

There was no air conditioning in the little Toyota and Zach was glad it was night. There was still residual heat from the day in the vinyl of the seats. As he followed minor highways north he saw military vehicles heading south. They had to be moving to support the attack, he thought. Within hours he had circled up through Tehachapi, then down into the lower Central Valley, and was working his way towards the coast. He emerged north of San Chardin and began moving through the crumbling switchbacks towards the town on PCH1. It was late night and cold along the coast, forcing him to roll up his windows. The small car chugged past his school and he slowed down, suddenly diving into the turn lane that took him inland and up until he was crawling along in front of his house. The windows were mostly dark, then a sparkle of television glow splashed up against the ceiling. He pulled the Toyota into a parallel park in front of a neighbor’s house and opened the door. The phone said it was one thirty AM. The air was salty and cold. He could see the lines of breakers in the darkness below and to the west. Zach wanted to check in. He wanted to ease into his room and sleep through the night. He figured his mom was crazed at him being missing for so many days. She probably thought he had been caught in the quake and was injured somewhere, but there was no one to take her call in Los Angeles, and so she just waited and waited, and the fear subsided as the hours passed. Zach walked slowly towards the house, the satellite phone in his hand, and stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. He looked up and saw a jet arcing along the coast, its rumble lost in space and trapped inside the hiss and moan of PCH down below.

Zach stood still for a few long minutes until the phone buzzed in his hand. He almost dropped it but raised it up and saw a text message below the chubby antenna. What’s your status? it read. He wandered back to the old Toyota as he responded, In San Chardin. Moving down the coast. He fired up the car and started back down the hills until he was back in the queue of intermittent headlights heading north and south. He leaned over, carefully, and pulled the handgun from the bag. There was an industrial quality to it; burled steel along the grip and cold metal for the barrel. It was unlike the technology he was used to in its inertness. The secret was in the trigger. There was no need to boot it up. There were no signals that had be found and connected to and correlated. Zach rolled down the window as the sulfurous streetlights absconded in the darkness of the road south and switched the gun to his left hand. His thumb ran along the side until he found the safety, lightly coated with perspiration from the damp air. Zach rotated the car through a dark switchback and rolled out towards the distant horizon as the vehicle chugged up towards a hairpin on a crest. There was the infinite again. He pulled the wheel to the left and began the turn downwards. There was no one ahead. He could see for miles. He squeezed the trigger and the gun quickly discharged, the crack and brief smell of powder disappearing with the cold wind. Zach slowed the car a bit and took another shot, listening to the snap and feeling the rhythm of the gun in his hand. It jumped, he realized. It didn’t recoil.

As he pulled the gun back through the window, he could see the crest of the coastal mountains as a faint crimson luminescence was beginning to rise. The color grew and expanded in sharp lines into the darkness above until an alien glow covered everything outside the beams of the tiny car’s headlights. Zach slowed and pulled into a beach access point, rolling down his window. It was three in the morning and he felt like a Martian as he emerged from the car. EuropaShip had emerged over the western coastal range and was pulsing purple into red above him, filamentary yellow threads sliding westward like the contrails of a Japan-bound jet. The tans of the dirt rises and cliffs were tainted red and purple. He could see seabirds circling rocky inlets below him, finding enough light to come out in the deepest hours of the morning. Looking directly into the phenomena was hard; blooms of color faded towards empty black and then into new twined arrows of light. Zach leaned against the sharply sloped hood. He could see a lone pair of headlights far to the south of him, carving through the switchbacks, but the colorful maze above him kept drawing his attention back.

He dropped back into the driver’s seat and started south again, arriving along a tree-lined stretch of road that he recognized as where he had emerged from the hillside weeks before. Up above was the cabin. Up above was the basement and the stack of servers. Zach slowed and watched for side roads. He passed several but was unable to identify them based on his memories and because he had been hiding in a car and scrabbling down slopes of dirt and brush. He pulled into a driveway and killed his headlights. He fished out the sat phone and pulled up the mapping system, zeroing in on his destination. He had overshot by a quarter-mile. Zooming in with spreading fingertips revealed the road number and a short curve on approach.

It was too late and too early to drive up to the house, Zach decided. The man who lived there had rifles. He must know people were after him. He would be prepared. Zach pulled into a siding long the main road and got out. He was about a quarter mile down the hill from the cabin, he estimated. There was a wash of dim azure filtering through the trees and brush, so he decided to try to walk up to the house the way he had come down. The estimates looked reasonable from his recollections, though he realized that there was no way to be sure. He began walking in and making his way upwards. The slope of the hill grew more difficult but then let up a bit as Zach navigated the violet glow. EuropaShip was easing its way west, shifting across the indecisive coastal canopy. Zach stopped periodically and checked the satellite phone’s mapping system, adjusting his arc subtly as he ground his feet into the dry hillside in his climb.

By four he was there and eased himself around the dim compound. There was a light on somewhere inside that faintly glowed through the front windows. Zach found a tree that offered a view from above and rested. He was tired, but there was adrenaline alive in his bloodstream. A text came through the sat phone asking what his status was. He responded that he was at his destination and monitoring the situation. He fingered the cool of the gun in the backpack. The back door had been open before. He could probably sneak in now. The man would be in bed, a shadowy bump in the darkness. It would be easy, he thought, but his mind raced with the chasm of possible alternatives: detected on entry, his target rising just as he comes in, the ratchet of a shotgun pump. Cowardly planning. Zach consoled himself that there is nothing more sensible than sense itself. He sat and waited. Birds began to stir in the trees and the fading of EuropaShip to the west was paralleled by the growing eastern dawn.

As dawn grew into light, Zach moved behind the tree, hiding his body behind the needle-covered hill it grew out of, and laid down on his stomach to watch the house. He could see the kitchen window and door from his vantage point. The hood of the sedan was half visible from his position, so he felt confident that he could monitor comings and goings. The exhaustion had become a mild, hazy buzz as dawn broke, and Zach was uncertain of his judgment. There was always a moment in hacking deep into a new day when he would notice a mistake or spill his coffee or forget what he was doing. That could happen here and now, he realized, and when handling a gun it could be more than fatal. He decided he was exposed and needed to leave. He turned and edged down the hillside, out of any lines of sight of the house, and began working his way back down the hills to the car. He climbed in and drove back down the gravel access road until he was almost to PCH1, driving slowly as he descended and looking for places he could hide the car.

After more than an hour he heard the crunch of gravel and the moan of springs moving down the road above him. He was on the move, Zach thought, though he was unsure who exactly he was. As the dirty sedan edged by and paused on the threshold of PCH1, Zach started the decaying Toyota and waited until the car accelerated outward, north along the coast. He was quickly behind the car, leaving his lights off as he drifted along, tracking the taillights of the car ahead of him. There was a distinctive pattern to the shadows within the car’s taillights and Zach made an effort to memorize their similarities and differences as the car passed one other and was passed by another in the gray morning light.

The first rays of direct sunlight were tagging coastal rock formations as they approached San Chardin from the south. Zach’s target zigged and zagged on a frontage road until it eased into the parking lot of a diner. Zach followed in and found himself driving in directly behind the car before turning back into the rows of vehicles and finding a space. By the time he had come to a stop, the lights of the sedan were off. He visually searched for movement and could only make-out a shadow at the cash register through the diner door as a short, fat woman grabbed a menu and led the shadow deep into the building. He was gone, Zach realized, lost in the mean faces of early morning workingman breakfasts. He could wait until his target emerged from the restaurant but Zach felt an urgent pressure mounting. He was overtired and buzzing. He needed coffee and to finish the job so he could sleep. He wanted to drive back home afterwards, ditching the crappy Toyota over the bluff, throwing the satellite phone into the surf after texting that it was all over. He wanted back into the cocoon of youth.

A black crow landed on the peak of the entranceway to the restaurant and Zach grabbed his backpack and walked to the door. He quickly formulated a ruse, then reformulated it after realizing that if his target were near the door it would all be over. He was feeling nauseas as he approached the hostess at her station, the odors of coffee and fried foods warmly intercepting him as he breached the dual doors. He tried his ruse. He was looking for a man who just came in. He was supposed to meet him. Oh, the hostess pointed down a row of booths to the end where a lone man sat. His back was a brown coat topped by a baseball cap. She grabbed another menu and began leading the way, but Zach said, Sorry, that’s not him. Can I sit at the counter? Sure, she deviated and Zach asked to sit at the far end, around the bend, so he could see the man. He ordered coffee and looked over the menu of eggs, hams, omelets, and pancakes while quickly emptying the cup of the ugly diner brew.

Zach felt slightly better. The edge of hazy agitation lifted slightly as he looked over the top of the menu at the man in the booth. From his angle and distance, he looked unimpressive. There was a blue-checkered collar emerging from the top of the jacket which looked to be canvas or suede. The hat had a logo on it. He was a bit heavy, Zach thought, but not obese, though the jacket made it hard to determine. The man suddenly looked over towards Zach and Zach averted his eyes down to the menu again. Why was he on this mission and what could come of it? The physicality of the man and the ordinariness of the place robbed the act of stalking and killing him of the enervating narrative that had pulled Zach initially towards a robust belief in the rightness—even perfection—of what he was trying to achieve.

Zach set the menu down and pulled open his backpack. There was the gun and the phone. The phone had drifted onto the cellular network according to the tiny blue LED near the tip of the fat antenna. Zach pulled it out as the waitress approached him across the counter. She eyed the oversized telephone with its jutting antenna as a relic of some ancient era as she asked him what he wanted to eat. He went with pancakes and she left again. Zach checked his messages but they were empty. His call record seemed missing as well. He ate in silence, trying to avoid looking at his target too much while punishing himself with more and more of the kettle coffee until he could hear a faint whistle behind the noises all around him. As he finished the pancakes, he felt a need to pee coming on and decided he better take the opportunity as soon as possible. He made his way to the long, shining bathroom and upon returning, he sat back into his seat and realized that the man was gone. A burning sensation flushed through Zach as he looked around at the crowd, then out through the windows of the diner. Nothing.

He stood and walked to the windows. The parking lot was stationary. He could see the dark crawl of PCH down below. Zach was flushing from the loss of his prey and of the opportunity, and was confused at what he should do next. He stood briefly and stilly, an apparition before the large plate windows glowing with the morning light and the faint tint of EuropaShip, then returned to the counter and finished his pancakes. His tab was manageable and he left the diner in another ten minutes, finding the old Toyota where he had left it. A crow flashed away from the roofline as he approached, squawking about the interruption to its duties as it flew off.

Zach settled into the car and heard the phone chirp from within the bag, announcing a new text message. The buzzing of the coffee and exhaustion were overtaking sensibility, Zach realized, and he lowered the seatback and closed his eyes, shutting out the lines of purple and rose lacing across the windshield from the sky above.

Signals and Noise, Chapter 00010100 (Deprogramming)

cover-design-epubA 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.

Signals and Noise, Chapter 00000011 (Cavern)

cover-design-epubThe 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.

Signals and Apophenia

qrcode-distortThe central theme in Signals and Noise is that of the inverse problem and its consequences: given an ocean of data, how does one uncover the true signals hidden in the noise? Is there even such a thing? There’s an obsessive balance between apophenia and modeling somewhere built into our skulls.

The cover art for Signals and Noise reflects those tendencies. There is a QR Code that encodes a passage from the book, and then there is a distortion of the content of the QR Code. The distortion, in turn, creates a compelling image. Is it a fly creeping to the left or a lion’s head tilted to the right?

Yes.

A free hard-cover copy of Signals and Noise to anyone who decodes the QR Code. Post a copy of the text to claim your reward.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 00010101 (Ennui)

cover-design-epubWhat 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.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 15 (Synaesthesia)

The drift from daylight into twilight held an anxiety for Zach. There was a liquescent feeling to the air that was a result of the luminous ocean, the cars, and the windows of the coastal homes. The morning was much bolder in its transition—less lackadaisical—because the coastal range blocked the light into a striated glow until finally rolling over town in full heat, bearing down on the fogbank that stretched out to the south like twirling cotton candy. He woke up scared in a way that he rarely ever did. There had been days when he awoke in a full flush, bounding out to the living room to peer out through the blinds, marveling that the FBI had not yet arrived, but there had always been a mischievous edge to his fears. If he had been arrested, taken in, interrogated, it was all part of the stripes associated with his own actions. This time was different for Zach. He was scared that there was something else going on that he did not understand, and he was not at all used to not understanding or, at least, thinking he understood.

The online universe had not changed and PoorGore was not back in The Spinner’s miniverse. He checked in on the Idaho papers, narrowing to the southwest corner of the state, watching for anomalies. Pollution, grazing rights, indigenous casinos and their impacts, car dealerships going under, property taxes—it was all normal for the time being except that PoorGore had vanished and nothing significant had happened. Zach’s mental math suggested he could be anywhere in the United States given the elapsed time since PoorGore’s last post. He peered at FC’s house from space again, but the satellite imagery had not changed. The red truck remained the bright spot among the grays of the season. Zach contacted an online acquaintance from Eastern Europe and tried to get access to the cell phone system. He wanted to track FC, to disprove that he was actively plotting some nefarious act. In broken l33t speak, CY411 offered passage into one of three major cell carriers in the United States, but wanted two hundred bucks for the info. Zach knew he was good for it and the information would be accurate, but he was not about to pay for the privilege of getting in a back door to check something so simple. He offered a trade with some hints concerning a banking network in the United Kingdom and eventually CY411 offered to get him the information he wanted. It would take a day or so, he said, because he was just heading to sleep. Zach had to wait.

The text alert didn’t come until after school, leaving him the day to think about whether PoorGore had said anything about the place The Spinner had chosen for his incomprehensible last stand against the oppressive anti-freedom powers. He surfed through this question at lunch, brushing off Shakey and the pugnacious and plump Wilmer to focus on his phone between slices of tasteless pizza. There had been some rumblings and theories about why the school had been chosen shortly after the event. imPalin44 had offered the first speculation, claiming that The Spinner had gone to school there and knew how the system was brainwashing the kids into accepting the dysfunctional liberalism of California as normal and healthy. The teachers were following a script concocted by an army of dilettantes bent on Marxist subjugation. They were collateral damage in imPalin44’s worldview (Zach recoiled at the notion that there was such a thing as a worldview but it was a temporary placeholder for him, as useful as the shorthand of cultural anthropologists trying to stay objective while witchdoctors exorcise demons from cancer patients). But PoorGore had stepped in at that point, derailing the suggestion because he could not believe that The Spinner would have succumbed to something so limited. He had a bigger plan, PoorGore asserted, and dozens more agreed with the assessment. Zach was impressed that there were even a few moments of disagreement among The Spinner’s cognoscenti, but saw how PoorGore had stepped into the role of central Alpha through a series of quick corrections and focusing of the group’s attentions. He had waited just enough for the initial, malformed and malleable suggestion, then responded with a forceful objection and choreographed series of alternate hypotheses that were followed by a promise for more soon. He had implied that he knew the answer or at least an answer, and had heightened the tension by suggesting a scaffold of supporting evidence. There had been no note with the body or in the home, implying that The Spinner had been trying to avoid intervention in his plan by vigilant enemies or spies, and that he had not planned on killing himself. He had driven his silver Ford truck directly into the staff and visitor parking lot and had parked rather than stopped in the fire lane, implying that he had planned to return to his vehicle rather than having gone on a suicide mission. To PoorGore and his audience these facts seemed to support a narrative where The Spinner had been after something specific and had perhaps not been planning to kill at all. His suicide on the beach wasn’t a suicide at all, but had been staged to simply resemble one.

Zach was impressed by the reasoning that emerged herky-jerky from the collective posts of PoorGore and others. They were rational when confronted with a problem that challenged them, and set aside the magic and fear enough to make progress on the dilemma at hand. Zach looked through the police reports and press stories for confirmation of each of the factual claims and found them to be true. He also dug up a sketched map from a detailed next-day news report outlining how The Spinner had traversed the school. He had walked right past the main office and headed for the science wing, it appeared. His shooting began there, but not immediately inside the doors. He had walked past three classrooms to open the door of a fourth, shot twice, killing a girl and the teacher, then moved on. He was not a pachinko ball deflected among random interactions until firing without thought. He had had a goal.

Zach wandered to the science wing, modestly active due to lunch schedules. He saw the classroom shown in the drawing. It was closed and locked with a sign behind the crossed wires of the vertical window indicating that classes had been moved down the hall. He peered over it and saw a few desks at slight angles but little more. If there had been blood it had been cleaned up. The science teacher had had an accent, Zach recalled. He was Southeast Asian and a first generation immigrant. Zach had been transfixed by the news and had watched the man’s life story unfold like a flower in the morning sun. He was Cambodian and had fled the Khmer Rouge with his family, making their way to the United States. He had studied chemistry at UC Northridge, but then took his Masters in education. He had been married but was divorced for a year or two after eight years of teaching. There had been photos of happy times on TV. There had been photos of Mr. Buna as a kid, smiling with an ice cream at Disneyland in the late 70s.

Zach remembered something else, though. He had thought he had seen an Asian man walking outside during the shootings. It had to have been The Spinner but never quite fit for Zach. If the man had been The Spinner, why was he in the quad at that time? He was starting to doubt the standard narrative but didn’t know whether there was any sense to the new narrative that was trying to crowd out the standard one. There were inconsistencies that were beginning to become amplified, and it made Zach nervous. He wanted to warn someone but was acutely aware of the level of paranoia that he would be projecting if he made the series of unsubstantiated and insubstantial claims that he was contemplating.

The bell rang and Zach was shivering a bit. He had sudden fight or flight and started to jog towards the rear exit from the wing. He could see faint tufts of palms rocking and whipping in the winds. Stay away from crowds. Stay away from school. The impulses subsided lightly as he threw open the door with a clang of the cross bar and hit the blacktop below. A few students pushed their way passed him, absorbed in their discussions, and reset Zach against the nagging of the quiet in the empty hall, and back to the chirping of the birds of youth.

Back to class, Zach saw, heard, and felt tension. There was a buzz in his ears and the air was again liquescent, thick and suddenly humid. He tried to focus on the lecture about cross-sections of curves, miniscule slices of an envisioned model of how physical systems interacted. There was something almost tactile about the model, just briefly, as the thin segments scratched in chalks narrowed down towards infinitesimal. Zach didn’t believe that there was any possibility that the image came first, before the mathematical complexities that were imperfectly projected on the cave wall. It couldn’t, he surmised, because there was no way to connect the squeezing of the infinitesimals to the symbolic transformations that were swirling beside it. The equations came first during play, he suspected. First was the realization that the differentiation could be mechanically rendered using a few almost algebraic flips of the pen, writing long down the columns of old parchment by candlelight. Then came the interpretation, the visual phantoms erupting days and weeks later in trials at forming an explanation of what it all could possibly mean. Then, suspiciously, the visual compression of the slices into something thinner than air itself took on a physicality that felt like touching sharp claymation intent on animating the imagery of possible explanations.

Zach felt the same about The Spinner and his web. He could again taste the metallic fear that had dried his tongue as he crouched beside his desk. He could feel the weight of panic and intrigue, the silenced breaths, hanging around him as the shots had echoed behind the dividing door. Reconciling that deathly fear with the facts was opening a new canyon beneath him. He had been standing for an hour at the docks watching a yacht. He was trying to score the cell phone records of some nut from Idaho. He could stop briefly, hold in place, but he could not completely deactivate the swirling mental processes that began with ponds of paranoia drawing thin filaments between events and people, then poured away most of the thicket like hot metal from the mouth of a mold. There were patterns and hidden variables and he was attuned to touch and feel them. He watched and felt the lecture reach a crescendo as the final answers were revealed: pi over 3 square meters. Zach’s sensorium registered relief as the result emerged from the tangle and it made perfect sense to him that there were complex variables rigidly resolvable in the fluidity of the argument about change and slopes. That slope’s the dope, he thought, and didn’t bother to do the homework problems.

The user and password did not arrive on time and Zach was tracking his source while waiting on the train after school. He cajoled and exhorted but CY411 was cold, nonresponsive. Then, with a l33t yawn of indifference, he was back in the chat rooms that morphed from continent to continent, server to server, and had the keys to the kingdom of the boring world of call detail records. Zach took them away and secreted them on a server in the gray universe of open Ukrainian servers. He imagined young men in black leather blowing into their hands to warm them as they set up email servers for Russian mobsters, for botnets, and kiddie pornmeisters hiding behind the complexities of international law. He had a small corner there where he stuck sensitive materials, with redundancy in the backwaters of an Indonesian military contractor. He felt around a bit for strange signals and rootkits, then encrypted the data into a random field of peaks and valleys before trying his first access to the cell phone system.

He was in immediately and started familiarizing himself with the landscape. There was a central database with many tables for customers. There was a second database for corporate employees. He did not have credentials for that one. And then, with a shallow breath and gulp of energy drink in the late afternoon of his cavern, Zach found Finley Carlton of Idaho. It was a clean find, too, because Finley Carlton was unambiguous. If he had been searching for Jim Smith he would have had problems. The billing address was a match, as well. Zach stared at the screen and it almost pulsed at him for a moment. The clarity was just so perfect. He spilled the call record and sorted by date and time, isolating the last few days.

And there it was: a call from San Chardin to Idaho dated yesterday, lasting two minutes and thirty three seconds. Mid-afternoon, while Zach walked the quad, heading for the parking lot. Zach’s breath was shallow again and he heard his heartbeat in his ears. He was here, he thought. He was here and no one knew it but Zach. He grabbed the phone receiver and stared at the amber keyboard. What would he tell them, though? What made sense when no crime had been committed? Maybe PoorGore/Finley Carlton just wanted to see the scene of The Spinner’s alleged crime spree (the introduction of “alleged” served both as a prospective acknowledgement of the kind of neutrality that the local news haphazardly engaged in and as a recognition of the vague unease that Zach now felt about the facts of the shooting incident). Maybe he wanted to try to unravel the tangled motivations that he attributed to his former friend and acquaintance. In either case, Zach was panicky enough that he double-checked the door lock and spent twenty minutes peering between the front blinds. He did not just glance, either, but stilled his breathing and encompassed the visual scene, watching for abnormal stillness in the grasses across the road. He slid across the window to see the blue Honda parallel parked: no occupant. There was anticipatory dread, though Zach knew that PoorGore had no idea who he was. It had little impact on the fear that had enveloped him. He stayed by the window until his mom returned home at eight, Thai take-away in her arms. He was so glad to see her he hugged her as she came in the door. She sensed a crisis moment and started to run through lists of responses that she had found online. The list was long, though, and she didn’t have any bearings to navigate the reasons for this sudden assault of affection, and finally untensed and leaned into her son and they were still for a few moments as his breathing slowed to normal against her neck.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 24 (Psy Ops)

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.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 7 (Parsimony)

Monotony is the essential character of those late nights, so familiar to Zach and all his fellows. Monotony, but restful and calm, withholding the sharp edges and the intaglios of faces that define everyday interactions, while still remaining a part of the web of life. He could send an AetherNote or email and get a response, but without the complexities of the face had he been talking to the person. There were gigabytes of missed nuance, pursing lips, pauses, dilating pupils, flush responses—all lost behind the veil of electronica. Moreover, he could pause for that brief moment without any awkwardness, and they could pause as well, waiting for the ideas to filter out of the calamity of neural collisions. When everyone can order thoughts a hair faster than ever before in history, yet still interact deep into the night like they were sitting at a pub or around a campfire, there is an acceleration of competitiveness, a capacity for intellectual posturing. The new assholes, the new religionists, the new atheists, the new technologists, the strident politicos, the snarky personalities—everyone primps and props their online identities behind this veil of witty pretense, hearts racing as they snap at the refresh icon, waiting for the cannonball retort.

Democratizing it is, but with the side effect of drowning out the instant, unfiltered and emotive response on the one hand, and the dramatically conditioned and elaboratively intellectualized riposte on the other. There was too much lag for spontaneity and too little for detailed flourish. It is a channel that emphasizes bluster and bombast in securely short constructs. And thought followed suit. Thought on the average got better, but the best thought was drowned out by the long tails of opinions washing through them like the wake of a whale. Acceleration itself accelerated, too, and bloggers were posting faster than responses could be read—two or three times a day—and emails were sent just to assert a role in the ongoing Sturm und Drang, like minor keys singing provocatively against the quiet of those nights, against the monotony, the essential quiet that once was empty.

Zach was feeling again through The Spinner’s world, listing out his connections and zeroing in on their backgrounds, sifting through county records and USENET backgrounders, watching for their signals. There was a process, of sorts, but it was like the foraging of ants following pheromone trails. A tidbit led to a scent, then another tidbit, then a possible payout of information. But the payout was tentative to start with, and was only held down like a cat’s paw holds down a butterfly, until there was sufficient resolution and cover of all the linkages, otherwise releasing the facts back into the wild. Ignore it. It was nothing. Start again: prodigal gathering then sifting down through a filter of parsimony. Ambiguity was the enemy, especially for names and dates. The more ambiguity, the more parsimony and care that was required. But when there was resolution, it was a little victory, and Zach strutted around his room, tweeting his kingness and texting victory signals out from the cavern.

The Signal was in there, too, but was constantly darting out of site like crawfish in a muddy ditch. Even as Zach zeroed in on a faint reflection—an echoed reminder of the patterns he kept seeing—he was beginning to doubt that the pattern was meaningful. If it was significant, why wasn’t it significant enough to erase its own trail? There was a dissonance to its own existence that Zach had never seen in anything else. Code solved problems. Code sold click-throughs. Code instrumented desires. Code did not slither and leave trails. Code was not snails.

Signals and Noise, Start of Chapter 17 (Cannibalism)

The fear of cannibalism is encoded in the recesses of the Greek mind. It was an observational archetype that lent nothing to Zach’s understanding of Homeric epics, but Harrington was insisting on the significance of eating people as a placeholder for the antiquarian origins of the Greek culture. He briefly considered questioning the teacher deeply and humorously as to how exactly they ate people. Did they begin with the heads and brains like the Pacific Islanders? Or maybe they preferred the soft parts first like eyes and genitals, following the predatory predilections of dogs, cats, and wolves? The difference between the animal and the human condition was the difference between survival and a ritualistic misunderstanding of the origins of power, and Harrington’s lecture was conveying nothing about whether that distinction was at play. He just wanted to shock a little bit, to tantalize the minds of his charges with incongruities that might provoke them into learning. Zach thought about raising his hand and asking if cannibalism would be on the test.

The dazing effect of irrelevant information had consequences, but Zach knew his peers well enough to understand that there was nothing that could truly provoke them short of blatant sexuality or gratuitous violence. The former worked on everyone, but the latter had a negative counter-effect on all but those predisposed to voyeuristic fascination with the horrors that the human mind was capable of. The only solution was to teach with porn, Zach thought, imagining vignettes with Helen of Troy servicing shiploads of sailors in gratitude for her safe delivery to the walls of the great, impenetrable city. Impenetrable until the protection tore just a little and the famous sneak attack carried the wiggling penetrators in to finally sodomize the city into submission. The gods were wowed by the cleverness, dropping their robes in a frantic embrace that resulted in more jealous coupling still until Odysseus got lost between all the bed sheets.

Zach was hardly concentrating by this point and instead sat up and leaned forward. Belinda was looking at him again. Little Beli no more, he reminded himself. He turned towards her in a slow, controlled motion and she turned away with equal effort. He stayed looking intently at her profile and watching her eyes flicker up and down, and then just a bit towards him. She hugged herself and put her chin against her collarbone, eyes closed, for long enough that Zach finally turned away. He was no cannibal, he thought, for brains or hearts. He wasn’t sure what he was, locked into this cycle of school lessons, skating, hacking, and mortal combat with a mystery that was only growing more evasive the deeper he penetrated into it. Cannibalism was easy, hunger was hard, he thought as Harrington pushed the metaphor of order out of chaos in the core of the ancient mind.

We haven’t changed in that regard, Zach thought. There was always the impossibility of other minds, shuttered behind words and complexions. The eyes did nothing but reveal faint signals through a gentle lift of a brow or squint of happiness. They were no window to the souls at all. Belinda was just historically more predictable than The Spinner, but only because he had done his infamous deeds just outside in the hall, and she had not. Or she had not yet, he thought. What did it take to carry any of them over that horizon of horror? What made the cannibals eat their neighbors in those proto city states in Scythia and Ionia and the Peloponnesus? Fear was occluding reason for Zach again and he turned away from his uncomfortable visual confrontation and sank into his desk, watching Harrington try to stir the imaginations of his classmates, stoned and worried over their AetherFaces identities, dedicated to posturing and college admissions, and inattentively pawing at their notebooks. He shook and went flush when a door far out in the aural expanses of the hallway snapped closed. There was panic here, but he closed his eyes and breathed for a moment, then another, and the buzzer finally rang and he sat still as the shuffling began. Belinda moved fast past him and was gone, her miniskirt matched to her miniboots, black against the pink of her thighs.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 9 (Trance: beginnings)

States of consciousness satisfy wildly different conceptions with equanimity. Here we have epiphenomenalism, where the feeling, the self, the I, are all freeloaders on some deeper commingling of logical prescriptions and mathematical calculations. We can stop right here, though, and track about in the cathedral of those subjective essences, reveling in each distorted recollection and episodic fumbling, worried that we are deflating the heart of the matter, the emotional character, draining out the seed that is essentially who we are. With time hanging like this—stopped, frozen—the propositions and their statistical basis functors start to rise into clarity, and the ripples of their influence trickle into sensibility. I did in fact do that, say that, because it did in fact make sense. I am aware of that now and the blip of clarity, momentary as it was, reflects that underlying matrix of contending feelings, driving hopes, and social posturing.

But here we have dualism, reflecting every folk psychological wire in our hypothetical soul. We are distinct and apart from our bodies, like parasites hitching a ride, implanted by some god or first principle back behind our brow ridge. Oh, yes, we are subjects of the body and brain, but we are also their master. We command, they obey, at least until they buck and collapse under duress, laziness, and pain. The signals come back in and there is not enough will, despite our separation behind the bunkered walls of gauges. There is not enough will, somehow, to push a bit further, because we are in fact the fatigue, the pain, the boredom. We realize this at those passing moments when we are at the limit and the structures seem too porous for there to be any reason to the proposition. Yet, once again, the next morning, we wake to the default position and are in command again, not noticing the irony in needing to clear our head with coffee, to get on task, to conquer the residue of sleep that clouds our minds. Even the ownership empowers the broken metaphor: “our minds.” We have no minds. We are mind.

Zach was in a trance, having run through a three-phase meditation exercise that began with a breath, a centering, and a focused visualization of a small green ball floating in a pool. It was part of the exercise to try to stop worrying about the details of textures and colors and settle on some representation that was adequate enough for holding a mental focus. The pool changed from day to day. The ball was always neon green, though, with fluorescence pulsing along the seams and at the corners. The ball stood out against even the chlorinated brilliance of the pool water, against the rippling sapphire.

The second phase was more physical and less eidetic. By pure concentration, relaxation was impressed on the entire body, beginning with the toes. It actually felt more like vibration to Zach. He wasn’t sure exactly what relaxation felt like, but knew that by the time he finished moving up and along the lines of his body, ending with a final tumble down across his nose and into his cheeks and lips, that he would more often than not be drifting into a hypnagogic peace. He sometimes would take the final deep breath that concluded the second phase and just sleep, hearing faintly the distant sounds of the city in repose.

But if he made it through that phase there was a final visualization that crossed imagining sensations like being on an elevator with an inchoate claim about drifting into a void, an abyss.  There was a countdown process, going deeper, deeper, deeper, until finally Zach was fully quiescent. Yet there he was, his body frozen with the tingle of extended non-motion, and as the meditative entrainment and procedural mantras ended, he was back and self-aware, refusing to break the physical lock-down for minutes as his mind began to reassert the coded blur of imagery and words. He would sometimes try to tamp it down, but it was like stuffing cotton balls in a dyke. The mind is porous—unkempt—he thought, then wanted to unthink it.