by Tony Bove
The next morning, Rachel Smolder tapped the keys of her laptop, which she had finally restored. The morning sun had just peeped over the horizon near the bump of Mt. Diablo in the East Bay and cast a bright light on the desk in front of her, and a long shadow behind her.
The day would be filled with power calls to finance experts and lawyers, a meeting on the Smolder Foundation's charter, and the ritual stamping of approval on contribution checks bearing large sums. But at this hour of the morning the sunlight reflected off all the surfaces in her study, and in the dazzling sunshine, she loved to just sit on the couch facing the bay window, like Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, staring out to sea, waiting for her hero lover Humphrey Bogart to return. While husband Rob flitted in and out of her mind like a buzzing fly, she was thinking of someone much more fleeting
She hadn't heard from Charlie O'Brien in weeks. The previous week had been hectic, with the Pot Page bust and then Rob's endless series of meetings. Her status as Queen of the upcoming Software Developer Conference in San Francisco had almost been in jeopardy due to too many missed appointments and too much intrigue. Now it had all come together, the switch had been turned.
I've got fury in my soul
Fury's gonna take me to the glory goal
-- Laura Nyro, "Save the Country" (Nyro)
By mid-morning she was responding to questions in a live chat session set up for the public to talk to the Developer Queen. In public appearances, young nerdish guys surrounded her, and she loved to flirt. How many of these faceless audience members in the chat session had seen her up close? Did anyone stalk her? But she refused to be unnverved by all the attention. She had a role to play, and for the public, she needed to be neutral on the copyright controversy and, whenever possible, diss the free encryption movement, of which she secretly was a part.
"Security break-ins are hoaxes perpetrated by companies selling encrpytion software," she wrote in reply to a question. "There really isn't any reason to think that your computer can be invaded through the telephone line. Besides, you can always unplug it."
She sat back, smugly and diffidently teasing her flaming red hair, waiting for the heated response she knew would come. The chat window scrolled over and over with responses, each line punctuated with a finger pounding the Enter key, and it is only slightly exaggerating to say that the key was located in exactly the tingly spot of her conceptual delta. She just loved being controversial. It made her real; it gave her a purpose.
As usual, she answered only the first and last ones, and with dignity. Boris the calico, usually finicky about emotion, nevertheless had an instinct about when it was right to jump onto Rachel's lap for a bit of stroking, and sure enough, this was a good moment. Boris purred in Rachel's lap, stemming the tide of tingly sensations, and Rachel absent-mindedly stroked the cat while reading the screen.
Finally the response stream slowed to a trickle. "It's zany for everyone to be so paranoid about hackers," she wrote. "These vendors are just whipping up a frenzy for their own profit. Why would hackers want to get into *your* computer anyway?"
Another brief shower of response, but this time it slowed to a trickle much sooner. Then there was the cyberspace equivalent of smoking a cigarette in silence, which is faster in cyberspace than in real life, lasting only about ten seconds. It must be over, she thought, and in her head she started to compose her sign-off speech.
A solitary message appeared on the screen. "My dear Mrs. Smolder," it began, then skipped a line, "Is it true that your husband Rob is dead?"
At just that moment the phone rang, and she jumped. It was a San Francisco detective. She responded with just the right mix of astonishment and fright, the most natural first response a person has when first hearing that a loved one may have committed suicide. When the call was over, she sat down on the couch near the bay window, exhausted. Boris found her lap. Her gaze wandered over to her laptop. It had crashed, seemingly for no reason, displaying only an empty dialog box with a question mark.
She managed a half-smile. The day had only just begun.
* * *
That morning, Mal Contour, hangover in tow from the Electric Onion party, entered the South of Market precinct station just in time for the start of the press conference. Word of the hastily prepared conference had arrived by email that morning. It was an important affair. Even Jill Metrose, the editor-in-chief at Fizz magazine, had shown up with her assistants bowing and taking notes.
Contour knew the other press people. There was Howard Marker from Fizz with Metrose. There was the guy from the SF Examiner and the other guy from the SF Chronicle (might as well have been the same guy). There was, of course, the crazy middle-aged hippie in the gray flannel three-piece suit with the shopping cart filled with video gear, Brendan Barcode, who showed up a press conferences the way ambulance chasers showed up at accidents. He claimed to be a video journalist, but all anyone knew about him was that he showed up all the time at these events, his shopping cart parked outside the ballroom entrance; and he worked the crowd, shoving his video camera in everyone's face, always in front, and always on the edge of a temper tantrum. Contour had never seen any of the video footage, and he suspected that Barcode never committed anything to disc or tape.
Barcode brushed by him, "s'cuze me, gotta get up front," elbowing him with a tripod. Then Barcode turned back to Howard Marker as he stepped on the toes of someone in front. "Hey Marker. Have you looked into the Smolder Foundation?" Barcode was shouting, embarrassing Marker, the four-star journalist. "Where they got their money, a-and what they're using it for?" Barcode's eyes spoke of conspiracies. He glared around at the crowd. Then he barged through to the front row, muttering all the way.
This was more like a wake than a press conference. Contour recognized other denizens of the newsroom-dot-com world. Smolder's jump had already become the hot topic of the Internet. The bored-looking police brass had assembled with their mouthpiece at the podium, a short gray-haired smiling man from the giant public relations firm Skill & Scrotum, dressed in a herringbone jacket, wool slacks, and penny loafers; a dinosaur of the media industry. He never stopped smiling. The press conference speech was quick and to the point: Smolder had left the car and a note with a Web site address, the Web site contained a farewell message, and a tourist had caught the act on video, but there were no eyewitnesses, no body, etc. The investigation was continuing. Smolder's "farewell message" was not confirmed as actually having been written by Smolder, and it had been removed from his Web site at the request of his wife.
The first question was from the Examiner reporter, something about a connection to the Pot Page that had been shut down by the FBI. The police had no comment, and an awkward silence fell on everyone. Then, as if on cue, Mal Contour cleared his throat, and everyone turned to see the muckraker from the Bay Radical in the long trench coat. Smiles flickered around as those who knew him, or knew of him, expected a controversial question, and fingers were poised above laptop keyboards.
"So what about the Whole Planet Multi-user Domain? Have you, uh, investigated" -- he slurred the word like a drunk -- "the virtual suicide of Smolder's avatar?" An audible sense of wonder rippled through the crowd of reporters. It seems that none of them had actually visited this particular port in cyberspace, where Smolder's avatar, a Gumby-shaped male with a bright orange head feather, gave speeches from a redwood stump in an enchanted virtual forest.
The typical multi-user domain, a.k.a. MUD, was a minor blip on the radar of high technology. So minor it hadn't been reported on in years. But the typical MUD had evolved a bit since the introduction of The Sims Online a few years back, with three-dimensional settings spanning the Net that were not yet photo-realistic but nevertheless interesting. Even more interesting were the easy-to-assemble "avatars" that act as puppets in these settings, communicating instantly with each other across vast distances and impenetrable borders.
With no answer forthcoming, Contour cleared his throat again. "Apparently he showed up in the MUD, gave a speech, something about overreaching capitalists and the commercialization of history " He paused for effect. "And then his avatar disintegrated."
The murmurs approached a dull roar before one of the police brass took the podium. "We have no information to offer at this time," he said calmly, then joined the other cops. The roar dissipated, and everyone started to pack up laptops.
"Hello, Howard," Mal Contour said to Marker, extending his hand. Marker didn't smile at him, but gave him a perfunctory handshake. "I've been reading up about faked suicides," Mal Contour continued, although Marker seemed indifferent. "More than half a million people succeeded at faking their deaths in the last decade. I checked that, because it didn't seem right. That's more than twice the estimated number of hippies that dropped out in the late Sixties. Think about it. They disappeared forever. Their bodies were never found, and the disposition of their cases were closed, as it is not against the law to disappear."
"You covering this case for the Radical?" Marker snapped at him, recalling the competition all journalists faced.
"You bet. I'm thinking of a lead story, five thousand words. A photo of the Bridge, from the perspective of Alcatraz -- it's a metaphor for the tenuous grip on reality the high tech industry has, it suspends disbelief." Contour was revved up, gesticulated wildly, his face turning red, his bad breath in Marker's face. "There it is, stretched across a narrow strait, supporting traffic through a raging wind. One strong gust could blow you off. Y'know, if he really didn't fake it, then he's just dead, and that's it. He wouldn't have survived the fall, and even if he did, he would have drowned or died of hypothermia. No one saw him, and no one heard his body hit the water. The walkway is about 270 feet above the waves. A body falling from that height reaches about 75 miles per hour before hitting the water." Contour paused and calmed down. "I've done quite a bit of research I could share with you."
"Thanks, that's OK," said Marker, averting his eyes. "See you later." There would be no sharing of research. But Contour waited until after the conference adjourned, then approached the police captain, who eyed Contour sternly. "Hello," Mal Contour introduced himself, showing his Bay Radical credentials. "I can be useful in helping you investigate Rob Smolder's background."
"Really?" The top cop kept up his stern look. "And why would we need your help? Wasn't it your paper that published that trash about the Police Chief?"
Contour grinned. He was used to this kind of treatment. "I didn't write that. Besides, I do a lot of research. The rumors I've read on the Internet are almost as plausible as anything said here."
The cop gave him a look that suggested that he leave right away.
* * *
The warehouse front belied the cool, ultra-hip interior of Fizz magazine in the SoMa district, where game machines were just as prolific as PCs. The devil-may-care attitude at Fizz could be traced back more than two decades to the years before Sonic the Hedgehog and the Mario Brothers, when adventure games like Spacewar were played on the ARPANET (the U.S. Dept. of Defense network). An autographed copy of Stewart Brand's book Two Cybernetic Frontiers, in which Spacewar first became known to the public, was placed prominently next to Ted Nelson's classics, Computer Lib and the eerily semi-interactive Dream Machines on Jill's desk. Jill Metrose, editor-in-chief, still used an old roll-top, into which she installed the latest iMac with a sliding keyboard tray, etc. Hooked continuously to LibertyNet, the net service provider for most of the interesting neighborhoods of San Francisco, her iMac, nicknamed Fleetwood, was revealing (at T1 speed) Smolder's suicide note.
Standing in the florescent light around Metrose's desk in the factory space of the magazine's production area, gazing at Smolder's suicide note Web site for the first time, was Fizz writer Howard Marker, and behind him the entire magazine production crew. Marker stood in front, leaning in to manipulate the mouse while snickering about Mal Contour's theories. Jill Metrose startled Marker's reverie with a bark, just a bit on edge, but smart and decisive. "Howard, you realize that this Web page could have been tampered with. Or it could be a practical joke."
Marker smiled his all-knowing smile. "Not a practical joke," he said, quietly. "The cops were the first to get the URL, and they pulled it off the net before anyone could hack it."
A photographer voiced his doubts, as a grainy photo appeared on Jill's screen, askew in an avant-garde way, becoming un-pixelated, slowly, as the Web page unfolded -- the image becoming sharper and clearer. The image of a smiling, perhaps even smirking, Rob Smolder, cyberculture hero and media entrepreneur, with his Gumby-like avatar sitting on his shoulder.
"But tampered with. That's not only possible, it's highly probable," barked Metrose, crossing her arms over her breasts as if for protection, and staring hard at the screen. And just then, as if on cue, the photo of Smolder suddenly took on a purple shade, and a Groucho Marx mustache started sprouting on the image's upper lip, growing until it had reached comic proportions. The work of Smolder, or a practical joker-hacker?
"Ah-ha!" laughed someone in the back row. "You know, he could have done this himself. He could be trying to make you think it's a practical joke."
Jill Metrose didn't share their sense of humor. She had been in touch with Rob Smolder just three weeks earlier. He had proposed a story about Aggregate Networks and accounting irregularities. So, the man had committed suicide, put up a note on the Web, or so it seemed and Fizz magazine was determined to publish the note. The family might sue. Wonderful.
As she angled for a better look at the screen and the suicide note page, the animation stopped, and Howard Marker scrolled down the page until he found the text.
Over 1,200 people have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge since it was built, so I'm not doing anything unique. This notoriously liberal city known as a playground for the depraved and a mecca for the homeless somehow did not fulfill the fantasies of these troubled souls, or perhaps over-fulfilled them. Such a lively, vibrant city, a city of rock stars, nightclubs, dot-com dreams, artist lofts, community coffeehouses, and cheap heroin -- it simply wasn't enough.
Smolder's note rambled on in this hopeless vein. Metrose didn't think it really was Smolder's writing, or it was something done tongue-in-cheek. Marker scrolled down to where the text mentioned the information age. A sense of urgency vibrates in everyone, in everything, it said. The recent technology gold rush propelled a few thousand entrepreneurs into billionaire status and the rest of the hard-working population into a state of heightened anxiety aimed at really no other purpose but to survive.
"Survive, indeed," said Marker, looking annoyed, but he continued scrolling down.
But the technology has also accelerated the pace of revolution. Terrorist organizations are coming out of the closet, armed with encryption and viruses, the weapons of the new millennium. Governments are increasingly hostile to free speech and control the export of high-tech products. The arms trade has shifted to trading information, software, and documentation.
The note went on, but Marker took his mouse and highlighted a section for everyone to read, and he read it out loud. Encryption is the key piece of technology that enables both terrorist and enforcement organizations alike. It also enables free speech without retribution.
The Fizz staff quietly listened to Marker's solemn reading, weighing Smolder's supposed last thoughts. This was a man with everything in life going for him -- fame and fortune that he had earned, not inherited. But for some reason, Smolder was incensed by what had happened to his peers. There are many pioneers in the technology industry who've been ripped off, passed over, or just left holding awards and a few million dollars while the suits took over and made billions before wrecking the economy. Some of these disgruntled pioneers know enough about encryption to be dangerous.
Marker stopped reading aloud, to let that sink in. He scrolled down some more, to the end of the text, which included a symbol of a fist and the words MEDIA LIB! emblazoned in 3D underneath. Under that was his sign-off:
No longer at email@example.com, sorry!
Try my widow, firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. God bless you, Rachel. Good luck with the foundation. No, I don't think that having kids would have been the answer. Try number nine, in reverse.
Second, I would like to thank all of the members of the Whole Planet MUD, for making it so easy for me to become part of your cyberlives, however fleeting they may be now that MUDs are on the way out.
At first, I was iridescent
Then, I became transparent
Finally, I was absent
Everyone was silent for a moment, taking in those last words. Then Marker clicked on the Whole Planet MUD link, which opened another window on his screen, showing the MUD's enchanted forest, where the orange-feathered Gumby that served as Smolder's avatar was standing in front of a burnt-out redwood stump serving as a podium, quoting Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Just as the avatar finished, there was a perceptible jump in the animation, as if a tape was rewinding very fast, and the avatar repeated its motions of talking. But this time, the speech had obviously been changed by a hacker in real time:
I saw the best minds of my occupation destroyed by venture capital, burned-out, paranoid, postal,
dragging themselves through the Cappuccino streets of Palo Alto at
Dawn looking for an equity-sharing, stock option fix,
HTML-headed Web-sters coding for the infinite broadband connection to that undiscovered e-commerce mother lode in the airy reaches of IP namespace
At this point some other hacker must have gained control of the orange-feathered Gumby avatar, and as the Fizz group watched in slack-jawed silence, the avatar faded in a reverse of interlacing, degenerating into blobs of large pixels, just like the patches that cover up the pubic regions of naked bodies on Japanese TV.