by Tony Bove
Paul McCartney guided John Lennon away from the naked edge of the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios. With no railing separating him from a killing fall, John had been staring out into space wondering what was wrong. He'd taken some pills he had thought were speed, but now that familiar grinding feeling in his stomach impaled his thoughts to the night sky. It spread to his throat and then buzzed his entire body. LSD, of course. He'd picked the wrong color pill. And now, "Getting Better" was taking on an entirely new meaning. Paul had cautiously followed John up to the roof, and pulled him away from the edge, whispering in his ear. "Let's go over to my place," his place on Cavendish, just a block away. "Maybe it's time I tried it, too." A fear of death passed between them in that moment, a fear that found its way into their music, especially the White Album.
* * *
Andrew Tinker awoke from this dream, the Beatles book he'd been reading the night before still open, facedown, on his chest. He savored this moment of grace upon awakening. He could see the history of his life, the history of his rock music heroes, the guitar feedback, the groovy light shows and sound gear, the wall of sound years, the emergence of glam rock, of punk, of new wave, of synthesizer music, giving way to funk and groove, to the poetry in motion of rap, to hip-hop, to ambient and techno, and up to the present day. It was all connected, he thought. All spurred on by the rage produced by having to live one's life in poverty, in war, in the repressive dullness of commercialism. Then transformed into spiritual energy, invoking the ancient fertility rites, embracing magick. Then increasing as a spiral of energy, erupting in the 1960s and continuing to this day, ever-widening, embracing all art forms, embracing even technology and industry, changing two decade's politics with sound, changing our everyday lives. In every culture there was, had to be, a counterculture. And in today's culture-of-the-counterculture, in which the mores and styles were evenly distributed over the political left and right without the slightest convictions, more of a collage of styles than any particularly identifiable style, there must be something brewing underneath that will one day bubble to the surface. Something irreverent, provocative, full of conviction and idealism; and ultimately liberating. A new counter-counterculture! It was one of those massive thoughts that hang in there for a few minutes in the early morning and then dissipate, to be remembered only as some kind of flashback. Then he got up to pee.
Early mornings were for wasting time. Tinker would put on his Thinking Jacket, an old denim jacket with a red and white polka-dot mushroom sewn into the lapel by his wife, Charlotte, before they had even decided to go steady, way back in his UC Berkeley days. In a field of ordinary blue denim the mushroom popped out like a logo for a head shop, but tinged with danger; its polka dots foretold of a bright, vivid horror, like having a bad trip, or being stranded in a Peter Max landscape. Tinker would stare at his own lapel in a fetal position on the beanbag. Focusing on the music of the Beatles around the Sgt. Pepper period, he tried to retrieve this morning's dream.
A month had passed since he was laid off from Electric Onion, now part of Aggregate. He never did find out if he'd been singled out due to his candor at the logo meeting. All they told him was that his position had been eliminated, and that it had nothing to do with his performance on the job. The knowledge he had in his head about Electric Onion's products no longer mattered. Companies all over the Valley and in the City were dropping human assets like hot potatoes. Companies were outsourcing now; Tinker had picked up a contract to write a tech manual for a small encryption software company.
"You think you'll know today?" Charlotte called out plaintively from the kitchen, and in the process she knocked over a frying pan that set in motion a wild clattering of pots and pans falling. The noise woke him from his daydream. He glanced at the wall clock. Late again. Tinker was born late. His mother had explained that the reason she nearly died in the hospital during his birth was because he'd been a day and a half late. She frowned as she said it, as if it had been his fault. And so it was that Tinker always felt some unconscious twinge of guilt around women.
"Don't worry. I have some ideas, some contacts to make. Jobs are plentiful," he lied, and left before she could finish picking up the mess. An advice column Charlotte had read recently provided a list of tips to look out for to determine if your spouse might be cheating, and Charlotte made a mental note: Andrew seemed vague about his plans and had a propensity to tell little white lies and repeat that everything's alright. That's tip number four on the list. She frowned as she picked everything up, and tried to stop thinking about keeping such an absurd scorecard. Her own mother used to tell little white lies and repeat that everything's alright.
* * *
Tinker pulled out of his short dirt driveway in the hills above Woodside, the northwestern edge of Silicon Valley. It was a crisp blue-sky morning filled with limitless opportunity for everyone but Tinker. The sky mocked him in its glory, suggesting that there were other things in life besides worrying about paychecks, and that survival planning simply postponed the inevitable. He gunned his retooled VW bug up the extremely narrow dirt road threaded through various ancient redwood trees, swerving and squealing all the way to the top of the ridge, the dividing line between worlds suburban and forest, Skyline Drive.
South on Skyline, on his right, fog coming in from the ocean crept up the forested slopes of the coastal range and dissipated in the dazzling sunlight at the ridge, as if the heat of civilization was too much for it. On his left, vast, sprawling Silicon Valley was laid out before him like a giant circuit board, the central processor powering the global economy. He saw it as a dysfunctional circuit board, suffering from intermittent weirdness -- weeks of prosperity and then, suddenly, days of dementia and destruction that stretched into months of despair. This morning, brown smog as inevitable as poverty covered the giant circuit board, and the background looked felt-green like a pool table, with brown and black streets and dull, lifeless-yellow buildings.
Tinker turned left and clutched-and-geared down a twisty, curvy road, heading to a tentative job in this ruthless arena. He tried to recall the days when the Bay Area seemed so much more exciting, the radicals in Berkeley coffee houses, the Haight-Ashbury scene, the Pranksters in the redwoods, and hippies working for computer companies. That's how he got started in this business. He never actually chose computers; he'd studied the works of the counterculture writers and had contemplated for decades the meaning of acid-rock lyrics. His buddy Charlie O'Brien had been the opportunist, suggesting first the S.F. Post Office, a known refuge for hippies, and then one of the first computer companies in Berkeley. Tinker considered himself a saboteur-in-waiting; the only way to sabotage the Machine was to first understand how it worked. But in the intervening decades they had matured, and had been easily assimilated into the thriving culture of the personal computer industry. The industry peaked during that period, and when the subsequent dot-com wave crashed, Tinker and Charlie were beached.
Tinker was a technical writer; technical writers were the dreamers of the computer industry --not the practical visionaries who invented things, but the lazy dreamers who could see the interface between fantasies and real life. Technical writers could grok the raw inventions and make sense of them, interpreting technospeak into the languages understood by ordinary people, punctuated of course with acronyms. There were strict deadlines and lots of pressure; every year seemed to be The Year that Everyone had to Work Harder. He had to describe technology that opened up to him like a deranged Swiss army knife, changing its function every time you closed a blade.
Tinker's career as a tech writer, producing important documents for engineering teams, had eventually petered out. This was a bad year, and he needed any kind of work he could find, which is why he augmented his recent contract with a part-time job ghostwriting and editing the blubbering musings of a famous Silicon Valley millionaire and latest has-been, Peter Moaning.
Tinker let up on the accelerator and glided through the Lower Woodside estates, the richest sector of the Peninsula foothills, obsessively charmed with token redwood groves that mingled uncomfortably with the foreign-bred highly competitive eucalyptus. This tension between ancient native trees and modern conquering trees went unnoticed, though it affected the fabric of everyday life. The neighborhood drew in the conspicuously wealthy with their maids, butlers, lawyers and other parasites. He turned a corner and glided down a perfectly straight road lined with peeling eucalyptus and manzanita trees.
By now Moaning would have already jogged in his designer sweatsuit around his Lower Woodside estate for an hour. The finish line was a trestle of rhododendrons over his driveway, bookended by statues of gargoyles that had been caught and preserved in the act of screaming.
Tinker was not ready to face him. Moaning had chewed him a new asshole the day before, ranting on and on about giving 110 percent. Tinker had wanted to point out that since the job only paid about 10 percent of his income, he should only have to put out 10 percent; but instead he kept his mouth shut. They had been working at friendship for years, giving each other high-fives, "hey dudes" and hippie handshakes, swapping tales of sexual exploits. But Tinker sensed that real friendship eluded them, and that it was largely Moaning's fault.
Fortunately, Moaning seemed to be busy that morning with some men in blue suits who'd arrived in black Ford Escorts. "Such a quaint concept," Moaning was telling one of them. "You can't really kill Bill Gittelson," he went on, seated at his fancy leather couch in the living room. Gittelson was the billionaire CEO of Aggregate Networks. "He's not really human, he's a force of nature. Even if someone killed the physical being, a clone would pop up somewhere else." The agent was, unbelievably, writing this down.
Tinker quietly crept through Moaning's living room to the den, waving at him an old-fashioned floppy disk with the finished assignment. He could have emailed it but Moaning insisted on face-to-face meetings every day, "to see what you're doing and where you're at," Moaning had lectured. This was a form of intimidation; while Tinker could be strong and confident on the phone or in email messages, he could be easily intimidated in face-to-face encounters.
After dropping off the disk, Tinker turned to leave but Moaning yelled from the living room. "Wait a minute, Tink -- I need you to come back later today, I need to put out a special bulletin about the attempted Gittelson assassination."
Tinker stopped, leaned backwards from the doorway into the living room, and adopted a concerned, serious attitude. "I could write something first, email it, and then you'd have some time to think about it before we get together," he replied with some trepidation.
Sure enough, Moaning pounced. "No! I need you here!" He put up his hand to indicate a pause in the interview with the blue suits. "You have to know what I'm thinking. We have to sit down together and brainstorm this." Which meant, really, that Tinker would have to sit down and take notes while Moaning pontificated, pacing back and forth.
"Sure thing, boss," replied Tinker quickly, and exited, cursing under his breath. About a mile down the road was a small, upscale market in the center of Woodside, and next to it the breakfast café, the Lucky Saddle. Obscured from the rest of Silicon Valley by redwood-studded foothills, this café was an otherworldly place, a seat of power, a popular spot for a few well-known CEOs and their financial partners from Sand Hill Road. Featuring stuffed sharks, giant jukeboxes, and memorabilia from dozens of ancient technology companies, the Luck was a great place to hear rumor and innuendo. The owner would come out from the kitchen to greet regular patrons, who would put aside their swords of business to share eggs and pastries in an almost convivial atmosphere, a minor escape from the formalities of a wealthy lifestyle. Tinker went there regularly, to find any kind of tributary that would lead to the money river.
The people at the closest table were discussing encryption software. Tinker hadn't selected a table yet when out of the bathroom came Mort Gill, the inventor of the Halfway Decent Encryption (HDE) package based on open source software, and the founder of HADES, the company that developed it. Gill wore similar khaki shorts all year long, rain or shine, as if on a safari hacking through the industry underbrush. His kaftan and silk blouse clashed with this outfit, as if he were part great white hunter and part ashram guru. This combination of African jungle and Indian spiritual regeneration was wrapped up in a mock law enforcement jacket that read Key Escrow Agent on the back, and supported by a pair of New Balance tennis sneakers. Flamboyant, yes, and so over the top, but in this business crowd he shined like a hip messiah. Tinker knew Gill fairly well from his UC Berkeley days and had even recently accompanied Gill and Tina, his latest flame, to the nude parties at the hot springs near Stinson Beach.
"Tinker! Great to see you." Gill was very enthusiastic about something this morning. He introduced Tinker as "one of the best technical writers in this industry" to the folks at the table.
The talk grew more animated with Gill back at the table, about export controls on encryption software, and the requirement for a "back door" to every encryption system for use by government enforcement agencies. "People take all this stuff for granted. Network security is something that is either on or off." Gill was warming up. "But what lies between the on and the off? What if the 'security' is total fabrication?"
"It is a total fabrication," replied an arrogant older man, casually dressed, who Gill had introduced as the world's greatest expert on transaction networks. "Financial institutions won't even say how much they lose to electronic thieves each year. They hire the best hackers to test their systems, but still the money still flows like bootleg wine at a mob wedding."
The arriving waitress broke everyone's concentration. This particular waitress was there every morning, always leaning over, exposing a marvelous cleavage, and making a fuss over the men while remaining aloof to the women. She poured coffee, and gave Tinker a warm smile -- just enough of a perky curl of her upper lip to suggest something -- as she took his order. He emphasized "over-medium, not raw" eggs, and no butter on the toast.
"What's your standing with the government, now that the Encryption Act passed?" The question came from a querulous middle-aged man that Gill had introduced as the world's most astute analyst in the enterprise software market.
"Ah yes, encryption with a twist: a back door for law enforcement, a paradox," Gill replied, smiling. "How can anyone be secure knowing that law enforcement could invade at any moment? What political group in its right mind would use encryption software that allows the FBI, one of the most incompetent law enforcement agencies in our time, to walk in the back door? Real, uncorrupted, and uncorruptable encryption will always be available to meet demand."
"To meet the demand of terrorist groups? Electronic thieves? Hackers who disregard copyright law?" The arrogant expert was peeved.
"Yes, and to meet the demand for truly secure financial networks, for truly secure methods of communication for your hackers in your efforts to thwart their hackers. Encryption is the grease for all these projects," Gill flashed his trademark grin at everyone and folded his hands, reminding Tinker of the Maharaji holding a press conference with the Beatles in India. "Without it you are all quite vulnerable to the whims of incompetent agencies."
When Tinker's dish eventually arrived, he was disappointed to see that the eggs were sunnyside up and the toast slathered with butter, but he tipped her anyway.
* * *
Tinker drove out to the freeway, which was already in progress, starting up Jethro Tull's Benefit, Ian Anderson's flute an excellent accompaniment to the freeway rippling majestically through the misty green foothills of Woodside, Portola Valley, and Los Altos Hills.
Why am I crying I want to know?
How can I smile and make it right?
-- Jethro Tull, "With You There To Help Me" (Ian Anderson)
The flute solo hit its peak as he drove over the Stanford Linear Accelerator, a thin building several miles long -- once the longest building in the world. The first quark was discovered there, along with the "charmed" quark. One end of the building is buried in the northern range of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the other in the bedrock of Sand Hill, a physical reminder of the linkage of science and finance. Thousands of people pass this point on the freeway every hour and do what Tinker did, which is look sideways, and in a second that stretches to eternity, gaze at this building that stretches to infinity, disappearing into the misty green foothills, which, with Jethro Tull music as soundtrack, were now populated with leprechauns and druids, trolls and beautiful virgins Those virgins were now turning into nymphs. No, it couldn't have anything to do with that miles-long linear accelerator violently penetrating the wild Santa Cruz Mountains, shattering atoms and shooting out quarks...
A puff of dark cloud hovered over the area where the building burrowed deep into the mountain. That black cloud seemed to be following him. So was the military plane from Moffett Field, which roared overhead and reminded him that it was war, or the threat of war, that had funded his high-tech career.
Tinker was now floating on freelance contracts, playing Silicon Valley Roulette. Again. Fortunately the company was near Interstate 280. Two major freeways served the Valley from the north. Highway 101 ran straight down the peninsula from San Francisco and was nearly always gorged with traffic. It shot straight through mostly poor residential areas and industrial zones. There were few BMWs or Mercedes on 101 -- mostly decade-old wrecks and belching trucks. The other, snaky foothill route -- I-280 -- was a freeway for engineers and entrepreneurs, linking startups in the Valley with the venture capital firms of Sand Hill Road. In California, the best homes and lifestyles were found in the foothills that bracketed the vast valley wasteland of industry and misery.
Tinker had stayed out on the edge and had lucked out. Private Key Systems was in Cupertino, in an area of modern office buildings on the western edge of the Valley, with views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. And yet, there was a macho work ethic about the place. The imposing rule was the CEO's in-by-8 a.m. and out by 8 p.m. Tinker could never fit in, commuting as he did from the hills. He got around the 8 a.m. sign-up sheet by coming in through the back entrance, the loading dock. The CEO had once escaped from persecution in Hungary, or was it Czechoslovakia? During the last Great War. But what did 8 a.m. have to do with it? The man had built himself a worker's palace of cold steel and glass, stucco roof and cinderblock, brisk carpets and networks, modular cubicles and corner offices with views of the mountains.
Inside, away from the relentless sun, ensconced in a womb of non-static carpeted cubicles and safely tucked into his headphones, Tinker worked on the reference manual for a new system for encrypted networks. The system was based on previous work, and Tinker was reverse-engineering the documents from that work. This was not considered unethical in the software industry. It's more like Hollywood directors working to a formula. The unspoken thing about it: he wasn't sure whether he was putting himself, and some programmers, slowly out of work simply by doing his job. Like painting himself into a corner, only to jump out the window There's that black cloud again.
The knock on the cubicle post didn't alert Tinker, so Ted Anson entered the cubicle and poked his shoulder. Tinker looked up sheepishly and took off his headphones.
"Hey! What are you doing here?" Tinker knew Anson from his UC Berkeley days but had never connected with him on any other level than acquaintenance, and besides, wealthy people unnerved him.
Anson ignored the question and looked around inside Tinker's cubicle, in which posters of various counterculture heroes, from Timothy Leary and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to John Lennon and Firesign Theater, crowded out the calendars and work notes to fill up every inch of inner cubicle wall space. Anson's gaze stopped on a Firesign Theater poster, shaped as a triangle, advertising a performance of "Everything You Know is Wrong."
"We need to talk, somewhere in private," Anson announced, turning back to Tinker. He was dressed in khakis and blazer, a Jerry Garcia tie, a beeper, a cell phone, and the latest miniature email device attached to his hip.
"The cafeteria," said Tinker.
"Fine. So how's the wife and kids." Anson's question was more a statement than a question, as he walked fast to the cafeteria, and Tinker tried to keep up. Before Tinker could really reply, Anson continued. "Did you hear that the Other Ones are playing Shoreline?" They reached the cafeteria, but didn't go for coffee. Anson pressed on in his usual fashion. "I want you to get in touch with your friend up north, you know what I mean." Tinker nodded and they sat down. "I need it by next Monday. We've got backstage passes. The CEO of Sports International will be with me."
"Sure," said Tinker, smiling, wanting to be helpful.
"You can bring it by my office anytime this week," said Anson. "But be discreet. I have some important meetings going on. Wear something a bit more formal than what you're wearing now." He said all this with a straight face, not a touch of irony.
"OK. But I could use an advance," mumbled Tinker.
"No problem." He handed Tinker an envelope with $400 in crisp, new twenties. "So how's the new job?"
"It's a contract. I'm not sure. If layoffs happen like the rumors say, I'll probably be one of the first to go. I'm not sure what I want to do next." Tinker looked up, realized he was being too morose for a guy like Anson.
"You should know that by now," said Anson, abruptly and to the point, looking at him with penetrating eyes. "Let's talk sometime soon. I've got to go now. Take care, and say hello to the wife and kids." And he was gone, just like that.
Tinker just sat there. It was still morning and he felt like he was on a roller coaster with a half-digested hot dog in his gut. He grabbed some coffee to chase away the nausea, which he knew would only aggravate it but there was nothing else to choose, and then walked back through the maze of identical cubicles to his cubicle.
An envelope containing a pink document sat on top of a larger manila envelope on his chair. He already knew what it was. Companies always hand-delivered these envelopes; they were always placed on chairs rather than in the boxes in the mailroom; they always contained pink documents. The color of cowardice is yellow; Tinker thought pink must stand for flamboyant indifference, saying, "You're no longer part of this family, and the show must go on, tra la la."
"What?" The tech writer in the next cubicle stood up. Tinker winced; had he been thinking out loud?
"Nothing. Just thinking."
"Where have you been?"
"I had some things to do. Anyway, I'm addressable," Tinker replied, smart-alecky, pointing to his cell phone.
"A security guard delivered that," the writer said, pointing at the envelopes.
Sigh. Double-sigh. If sighs were espressos, perhaps this was a double-double latte, with chocolate on top. Tinker opened the first envelope. Folded inside the pink document was a letter from the CEO, who Tinker had never met. "The company is going through a transition, and it must downsize expenses," Tinker read out loud, with yet another royal sigh.
Tinker tried to let the thought sink in, but there seemed to be nowhere for it to sink into. He felt, instead, that detachment of self one feels when suddenly sliding down a roller coaster. He had been "let go" as they say, as if he had been a wild man held in captivity. It's not that he did anything wrong, it's just that this black cloud kept following him
"So what are you going to do now?" The tech writer asked.
Tinker just looked at him. It is the typical question people ask when someone's suddenly laid off. And someone suddenly laid off typically has no answer. The question dug into him, revealing a naked soul lacking in aspirations. He whirled around to see if anyone else was looking at him over the rims of their cubicles. Co-workers who had always laughed at his jokes were now taking great pains not to look at him. Unemployment settled over him like leprosy. Perhaps they thought they could catch it, not by touching him but just by looking at him. They hung their heads like scared rabbits awaiting the abattoir, and burrowed into their work.
The florescent lights bathed everything in a false white. Tinker became aware of a hum emanating from the lights, mixed in with the low whine and methodical clicks of machinery, and the occasional nose-sniffing, throat-clearing, and key-clicking sounds of the other information workers. Sometimes their hands moved so fast, the clicking noises sounded like mice scampering around behind a wall.
He looked inside the manila envelope. It contained a check, a ten-page non-disclosure and non-compete agreement, and various other documents. He flashed on the coincidence of receiving two envelopes at once, and that each one would change his life. The first held crisp bills headed for an illegal pot farm in Northern California. The second held his severance check, and freedom, whether he wanted it or not.
"You know, it's not your fault," the tech writer whispered, soothingly. "It's the fault of management."
"Right," Tinker snorted. "But I pay the price."
The tech writer looked bleakly at him. Tinker thought he had better keep his mouth shut. In a mild state of shock, he stood motionless in his cubicle, until he noticed the two security guards that had taken up positions at the entrance to his department. He took down his posters, boxed up his personal stuff, and checked all the drawers while his computer started up. Then he checked his email, scanning the subject lines:
Weight loss is just a click away!
Seized and unclaimed property
Warning: Anyone has access!
Make Big Money Exchanging Foreign Currency
The Ultimate Revenge Guide
Get Paid Everyday Guaranteed!
Want a larger penis?
Fire your boss; triple your income!
Giant facial site, very nasty!
How to cheat at online gaming
Married but lonely women 4 U
REQUEST FOR URGENT BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP
Smolder gone but not forgotten
Why be normal?
Rudy wants to buy youse a drink
Is it all fall down? Is it all go under?
Everywhere you go everybody's doin' that rag
Tinker almost clicked on the spam that would take him to an urgent business relationship with a member of the Nigeria Export Promotion Council, who needed to transfer millions of dollars to a U.S. bank account -- a typical scam that involved spending and losing $5,000 to some con artist. But he saw the message about Smolder and clicked on that instead.
This is how it will happen, said the message, when you go. Your friends will find out by email. They will be sitting at a desk somewhere, read the news, and not know what to make of it. You will occupy their thoughts for a little while until something else, something even more tragic or more comic, occurs to them. Then will you not quickly fade from their memories?
Rob Smolder left this world without looking back. It is obvious that the many different versions of the so-called suicide note are hacks. His widow, Rachel, spends most of her days staring out to sea from her window. Is she awaiting his return? Will she entertain visitors?
We must honor Rob Smolder's memory. We must divine his intentions. Remember what he said in this "first" suicide note -- that some of the disgruntled pioneers of his generation know enough about encryption to be dangerous.
Get involved in the unmasking of Rob Smolder's true intentions. Join the Search for Smolder MUD (multi-user domain -- join by clicking here). It's free, and highly entertaining. Join now!
You were only waiting for this moment to arrive .
P.S. To be removed from this list and receive no future mailings, click here.
It had been a month since Smolder's jump off the Bridge. Tinker had attended the funeral. There had been no casket, no urn; just flowers, as the body had never been found. Rob Smolder had been the most successful multimedia artist and producer of the previous decade, and the most skillful fundraiser for humanitarian-related projects. Tinker knew him from their shared UC Berkeley days, when Smolder ran the concert board. His wife Rachel was a beauty queen and also the lead programmer on the team that had created an open-source version of the leading operating system. Everyone was in love with Rachel, but Rob was the kind of guy that could pull her heart.
Dirk dropped by Tinker's cubicle to offer condolences. A white bearded man in a plaid shirt, khakis and sneakers, Dirk was one of those skeletons in the closet of the high-tech industry. He had worked at Lockheed, at Boeing, at Control Data; had written military-spec docs, had done all you could do in technical writing, and Tinker was in awe of him, of his dedication to working the back rooms of engineering without credit.
"Is that Smolder's obituary?" asked Dirk, in his excitable, excruciatingly naive voice.
"No, it looks like spam from someone trying to take advantage of him," murmured Tinker.
"Well go ahead, click on it, see what happens," Dirk winked at him. Dirk was an amateur sci-fi writer, peddling in his spare time a draft of a story centered on a theory that email was some kind of alien plot to denature the human race with electronic impulses, to better prepare humans for their eventual assimilation into a robot race. Mort Gill's friend Drew Anatole knew Dirk and once told Tinker that he had hung out with Dirk out near Area 51, in Nevada, at a radio station, on an evening when a mysterious object had occupied the dark heavens and the imaginations of the local residents. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
So he clicked, why not, and up popped a window with the idiotically smiling cartoon face of Bob (of the Church of Bob the SubGenius) inside the text of the suicide note on the Web.
"It's a hack," said Tinker, resignedly.
"I dunno," Dirk replied, "I knew the official Smolder site would get hacked, we all expected that. Rob Smolder had a lot of hacker friends."
Tinker thought, was all this a prank? He waited a moment, his heart beating, nearly expecting that Smolder himself would appear from behind with a crowd of cackling dwarfs like some Monty Python movie, and everyone would dissolve into hysterical laughter. He waited... But nothing happened, except that his laptop disk drive kept whirring, doing something.
Perhaps it had been Rob Smolder himself, sending out one more Beatles quip from the Other Side. You were only waiting for this moment to arrive.
He said goodbye to Dirk, and absent-mindedly began copying files of a personal nature from the company desktop to his laptop. He copied all the documentation he'd written the past month, including the reference manual for a new encryption system that would no longer be marketed. A vague notion of including the documents in his samples portfolio crossed his mind. It was clearly useless to anyone, anyway, especially now that the company was moving back to supporting the government-sanctioned encryption standard. He thought nothing more of it as he packed everything up.
* * *
A few minutes later, after restrained farewells, Andrew Tinker walked out of the building for the last time. He wasn't really tired; in fact, he was quite restless, aware of the mounting traffic jam in the Valley that peaks in the morning and all afternoon, and never really goes away. At first his retooled VW wouldn't start. What gives? This is the most reliable car on the planet. After a few tries, it sputtered to life. He was far too restless to sit bumper-to-bumper on the major highways, so he took the surface roads straight from Cupertino into the middle of the Valley, and slowly drove up the El Camino Real, the main drag all the way up the Peninsula.
He drove past the used car lots of Sunnyvale and the rundown shopping centers from older times, with their dingy convenience stores, beauty parlors, Indian restaurants and fast-Chinese-food joints squeezed between cheap apartment buildings. He maneuvered past slowly moving cars loaded with families from India, Pakistan, Korea, and others that migrated here with husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons on work visas in the high-tech industry. Billboards advertised enterprise software companies, dot-coms, and brokerages to people who barely spoke English.
Riding on that New Delhi freight train
And I left my life behind.
-- Little Feat, "New Delhi Freight Train"
A panorama of misery unfolded as Hondas and Toyotas and four-wheel drive vans zipped by his ancient VW, skirting the Middle Eastern drivers and cabbies in turbans, trying to beat the rush hour traffic and get there a few seconds or even a whole minute faster. He drove slowly in the middle lane through the middle class neighborhoods of Mountain View and on into the tony suburb of Palo Alto, the engineer's haven, home of Hewletts and Packards, and finally to Menlo Park, a yuppie-intense coffeehouse he used to hang in. All the way, he was followed by a black sedan, which was itself followed by a white van.
Tinker belonged to a lost, confused generation. Arriving at the tail end of the 1960s, idolizing rock stars and liberal politicans, Tinker's class was caught between world annihilation and the white light of illumination, and confronted with the assassination or commercialization of its heroes. The Beatles' White Album could appropriately be recalled as the most representative work of art of that period. It also marked the beginning of the end of the Beatles. Tinker's class at that prestigious school back East did not produce a president, a member of Congress, a literary heavyweight, a powerful CEO, or a popular entertainer, as other generations of classes did. Tinker's classmates became failed painters, actors, and writers, or semi-successful accountants, businessmen and computer scientists with eye for uncertainty. Personal ambition became "do your own thing." For those short on ambition, like Tinker, there would always be a bit of insecurity about what that "thing" should be.
The park across the street from the coffeehouse was a revered spot, a place where Tinker used to play music on Saturdays with a shaggy, long-haired homeless duo who called themselves the Graceful Duck. They weren't exactly homeless -- Bert lived in his van in the driveway of a friend, and Bart lived with his girlfriend, a Stanford junior. They weren't there, but Dan Rose, one of the original park dwellers from that time, who used to play bongos, was sitting in the coffeeshop.
"Yo Dan," Tinker tapped on his shoulder. He was a wild haired, scraggily bearded forty-something bear of a man. His laptop was plugged directly into a power socket underneath the counter, allowed because the part-time coffee jerks were mostly sympathetic Stanford students.
"Tinker you ole stinker!" Dan laughed that hearty, we-were-there when-they-dropped-acid-in-the-stew belly laugh, a lean, middle-aged Santa Claus.
"I'm the prophet of doom," replied Tinker, taking a seat next to him. Dan eyed him suspiciously. "I got laid off today."
Some heads turned. Nearby conversations died out. A young, energetic-looking mother of three paused for a moment in her search for the perfect coffee mug. A banker in shirtsleeves and tie, waiting in line for coffee, looked pointedly at them. Dan lost his grin and reached around to pat Tinker on the back. "That sucks."
"This industry sucks," replied Tinker, a little too quickly. He couldn't quite put his finger on what actually sucked about it. Perhaps everything. He stared out at the afternoon Menlo Park traffic as a bag lady walked by. She wasn't so old that they couldn't see that she looked real good at some point in her life, long ago. She was certainly having a hard year.
He turned back to the counter to order a soy latte. As he finished paying, a thirtysomething woman in scarf and cape leaned into his space, perfuming his atmosphere, to complain to the management about the bag lady cackling outside and bothering the customers at the outdoor tables.
"So you hear anything new about Rob Smolder?" Tinker asked Dan, taking a sip of his latte.
Dan nodded, said nothing for a full minute, staring out the window. Then he cleared his throat, took a sip of hot coffee, and spoke what seemed like a prophecy. "He's not dead."
"He's not dead. It was staged. He wanted to disappear." Dan was certain of it.
"Funny, you don't ask why," replied Dan, looking at Tinker disapprovingly.
"Well then, why?" Tinker asked impatiently.
"Anything can be done. Eventually you can answer the question of how with certainty, it just takes time." Dan looked into his cup.
"OK, OK. Why?"
"To get away, obviously," said Dan, looking around him nervously for the first time. "Look. In the Sixties, the government went after the counterculture, and Black Panthers, the underground media. Subversives were killed, jailed, or discredited in some way. Some escaped. These days, hackers are feeling the heat."
"Wow, such paranoia."
"Or maybe he just owed money."
"Ahh, the man was golden," said Tinker. "And he had the golden touch." And at that moment, Tinker realized that the latte was not soy, but half-and-half. As he was lactose-intolerant, this small bit of incompetency on the part of the counterperson left him doubling over with a gas explosion in his stomach.
"Well you'll find out soon enough." Dan stood up to leave.
"Wait a minute..."
"Gotta go," Dan chuckled.
"No wait," pleaded Tinker, holding in his gut. "What did you mean, Smolder's not dead?"
"Look," said Dan, reaching behind the mahogany counter to unplug his laptop. "I'm just not surprised that they didn't find the body. Not surprised at all. You knew Smolder -- hell, he's capable of it, of staging the whole thing." He paused. "It's just that he had no reason to commit suicide, he had everything going for him... except that maybe he wanted out." Dan paused in thought. "But he was too classy to bail out," Dan continued. "Too much of an agent provocateur to leave it be. Besides..." he paused again. "It's the simplest explanation, and the simplest is usually the correct one. I think he just escaped."
"Escaped? You mean, escaped from his life?" Tinker could barely stammer it out, trying to hold back the contents of his intestines.
"Escaped from his life, with his life." Dan gathered his stuff. The place grew quiet. They both looked over their shoulders. "Everybody's having a bad year," said Dan as he gathered up his laptop and cord. "Even Aggregate's laying off people, which is a first as far as I know. But those people get million-dollar parachutes."
Outside, on the sidewalk, Dan turned to Tinker. "You know, if you're serious about checking out what happened to Smolder, you might want to 'follow the money' as they say. Smolder had something going with this cult of crazies, they call themselves the Media Liberation Front."
"I've heard of that," said Tinker, and they approached the intersection where the traffic was nearly loud enough to drown out any talk, Tinker nearly limping with the gas in his stomach.
"Aggregate has been trying to put this cult out of business, because they have been hosting these huge warez parties, distributing music and software for free."
"You know. They crack the copy protection, then locate a bunch of idle servers in the corporate world, link them together as one virtual server, and put all the unprotected content on the virtual server, then send out notices for a 'privacy party' to download the stuff. The most recent one took over some of Aggregate's own servers at its headquarters in Seattle. What balls!"
"But I thought Smolder had a contract with Aggregate. Why would he help the Media Liberation Front?"
"Yeah, why indeed. Maybe our friend was working both sides of the street. Maybe he infiltrated the MLF for Aggregate."
"Or maybe he infiltrated Aggregate for the MLF!"
"Either way, he could have been in big trouble. Maybe that's why he disappeared. Y'know, Aggregate is not a company to mess with."
They parted at the intersection. Dan flashed a peace sign with his fingers as he walked to the driver's side of his van, on which a bumper sticker proclaimed: "Give in to the grin!"
The humor of the situation slowly evaporated as Tinker found a place to relieve himself. Maybe Charlie was right, it was time to liberate the content, and make some money in the process. Tinker needed to do something to break out of his rut, which was, it seemed to him now, shaped like a grin when viewed in cross-section. Just one mighty grin had held him trapped for years, promising a respectable life if only he worked hard. No, he would no longer give in to it, he thought as he drove out of snug, settled Menlo Park, a town of people who might complain a lot but would never, ever challenge a company like Aggregate Networks.
* * *
Stopped at a light at the corner of one of the walled communities outside Stanford University at the beginning of Sand Hill Road, Tinker saw the Buckskin Madman on the island stoplight, just like every other day, standing there grinning into the traffic, cigarette in one hand. Just grinning away.
The Buckskin Madman, a blond-haired burnout in a buckskin jacket. Someone told Tinker that the guy was a relic from the Sixties that had burned out on acid, or had been shell-shocked in Vietnam, or both shell-shocked and acid-burnt in Vietnam, or something like that. He was now an outpatient at the nearby Veterans' Hospital. Every day he would stand on that island, all day it seemed, smoking cigarettes (where did he get them?) and wearing his buckskin jacket, growing his dirty blond hair and beard longer and longer. Tinker would see him at that spot every time he drove by, standing there dressed like an extra from an after-the-war movie, the imaginary sequel to Apocalypse Now. Then one day he showed up shaven and shorn... and the process repeated, the hair grew out again. Was it really years? Had Tinker really seen this guy over and over, almost every day, for years, without once talking to him?
He pulled his car over, someone honked at him, bad place to stop, but still, he had to stop and talk to this guy. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to get some perspective. On what? Let's just see... He left his car, crossed the street, and walked up to the zombie in the buckskin jacket, who stopped his grinning and looked at him with a half-smile.
"What's up?" Tinker stood there feeling foolish, asking such a foolish question. We're standing in the middle of traffic! What the hell could be up?
But the Buckskin Madman just smiled. Then he took a drag of his cigarette.
"Why are you out here?" Tinker was trying a dose of reality on him. Nothing. Just the smile. Perhaps he was deaf and dumb, but he made no attempt to communicate. Probably autistic... but friendly, oddly enough. Tinker fished a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to him. He looked down at it, smiled again, and looked up and grinned as hard as Tinker had ever seen him grin. That was it, the extent of the communication.
Just then a raggedy old woman, the same bag lady from the coffeeshop, appeared on the sidewalk across from the traffic island, cackling about something he couldn't hear. The Buckskin Madman just kept on grinning. The thought suddenly occurred to Tinker that more homeless people would be coming, drawn like a magnet to his aura of generosity. He fled the traffic island to the relative sanctity of his car.
From inside his car, he turned to look back at Buckskin Madman, who was still grinning at the traffic. But now the old cackling woman was with him and had already appropriated the twenty dollars. So be it, thought Tinker. Then he saw a black sedan stop near the intersection. Two blue-suited men got out and grabbed Buckskin Madman and the woman and dragged them both into the sedan. Tinker watched it happen in his rear-view mirror, unable to move, unable to think about what to do. Why would anyone want to kidnap homeless people? Would the homeless people welcome kidnapping as, perhaps, a way to get shelter and food? Was this some new form of aggressive charity?
But the sedan stayed where it was, and nothing happened for about 20 seconds. Tinker drove off into the greenish brown hills of Woodside, a town as unreal for Tinker as next month's rent.
* * *
Andrew and Charlotte Tinker and their two children lived in a reconverted garage on a ranch in the hills above Woodside. The landlord was a retired venture capitalist, once a lion of the Sand Hill Road elite, now just another nattily dressed dandy with a bimbo on his arm at the Woodside School charity auctions. Across the gravel parking lot from Tinker's home was a guest cottage usually inhabited by various Stanford students that changed every semester. From his car Tinker watched an incredibly well built, over six-foot tall young man with sandy hair lifting weights in the small lawn next to the cottage. An attractive young brown-haired teenage girl, in halter-top and short shorts, came outside and offered the muscle giant a sparkling glass of lemonade. The giant took a long cool drink, smacked his lips, and offered the rest to her. Then a thin, black curly-haired, pimply, nerdy-looking teenage boy joined them on the lawn, carrying a pogo stick. Sure enough, they were each going to give the pogo stick a try, clasping the pogo stick between their legs and riding it like a horse. Halter-top girl bounced on the stick like a rabbit, and her breasts jiggled like jello. After a while even this surrealistic tableau grew tiresome.
Charlotte was nursing a cut on her finger, the result of an encounter with a jagged bread knife. Her mournful look suggested that the entire day had gone that way.
"Well..." she looked at him. "You have no idea."
"You're right, I don't."
"You have no idea how badly these kids behaved today." While she said this, the kids ignored them, playing games on their computers.
"I don't," repeated Tinker. "Why don't you tell me." He tried not to sound patronizing.
"At least you have people, adults, you can talk to," she replied.
No argument there. Tinker's response, when levelheaded and optimistic, was usually to take her in his arms and comfort her. Tonight, it seemed like such a false gesture, that she would see through it. Still, he hugged her and she responding by chilling out. She smelled the same as usual, of hard work and cooking, of cleanser, not at all glamorous, but wholesome and healthy.
When he talked to Charlotte again, it was about the spam about Rob Smolder, and how Dan Rose thought that he'd faked his death.
"Ohh god, poor Rachel."
Tinker shot her a look. "Why poor Rachel? Why not poor Rob? What if he was trying to get away from her?" Tinker instantly regretted saying that.
Charlotte hissed back at him. "That's what you want to do."
"Right," Tinker hissed back. "Typical."
"Men are so self-absorbed," Charlotte shot back. "They set up such high expectations for life. And when they fall, they bring their loved ones down with them."
Tinker sighed, and brought the topic back to Smolder. "The question is, did he actually die. Or did he take off, go find a new life?"
Charlotte shot him a look, and made for the kitchen, where life was about keeping the pot of spaghetti from boiling over. "What about your job?" she called from the kitchen.
"Job's over," he called back from the living room. "Like I thought it would be."
"Well... I look for another job. That's what." Tinker got up and went over to his laptop desk.
"Maybe you should look for another career," Charlotte prodded from the kitchen. "This high-tech thing is over. The CEOs and CFOs and CIOs and COOs that broke the rules -- they won. You work hard and play by the rules, and you lost. And when you're dead and gone, what will you be remembered for?"
"I wish it was that simple. But it's not. I'm going to have to figure out what to do next."
She thought, he almost said "by himself" and that's what he meant. There it is again, that vague and uncomprehending attitude, like his mind is somewhere else. That was number five on the list of tips on whether your spouse is cheating.
But Tinker cluelessly busied himself with his laptop, to avoid continuing this conversation. Slowly his focus narrowed, his shoulders hunched forward, and he reached a kind of satori with the machine that he could never reach with humans. The direct manipulation of objects on his desktop, rearranging and organizing programs and data icons, inbued him with a power he never felt in the real world.
He launched the Web browser, forgot to turn on his ISDN modem, sat back while the software took forever to figure this out and respond with "Connection not made" and "OK" -- and really, how could it be OK? After a restart, he brought up the spam on Smolder and clicked on the smiling Bob cartoon in the window. It led to the Whole Planet MUD, Rob Smolder's favorite playground when he was alive. The window filled with a photorealistic enchanted forest. He spent a few minutes navigating around the space and through the forest, eventually reaching a wide meadow with crystalline pieces jutting up where there would have been prairie grass. A group of avatars, all different colors and shapes, some of them low-budget stick figures, were congregating, chatting about Rob Smolder's accomplishments. He switched from linear output in the chat window to cartoon-style pop-up balloons linked to each avatar.
All during this, his BusyBot window kept popping up reminding him, annoying him really, about special sales at sporting goods sites for wet suits, tickets for the upcoming film festival, exciting new music from Sony, registration for the Internet Vegas trade show, and so on. After just a few minutes of this, he switched back to the system's control panel and turned off the BusyBot option.
Coincidentally, while mucking about in the control panel area, his computer was invaded. The intruder was a software virus with a set of instructions. The virus had no trouble installing itself. Then it systematically copied everything from Tinker's hard disk that was of any value as information, including accounting files, email, preferences, and so on, capturing passwords in the process. It was more or less a complete theft of his digital identity, though not really theft -- only a copy.
Finally, before self-destructing, it installed an embryonic version of itself, undetectable, that would monitor all system activity from that point on, bundling the data packets and sending them back to its home server, which was housed in a nondescript regional FBI office in San Mateo, just a few miles up the peninsula from Woodside.
* * *
After what seemed like an eternity of spousal indifference, Charlotte put on a CD and turned it up loud.
How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening
And have nothing to say?
-- Bonnie Raitt, "Angel From Montgomery" (John Prine)
Tinker was used to this kind of treatment, and reacted by selecting a tune from his MP3 library on his laptop, and turning up the volume.
It's getting to the point
Where you're no fun anymore
-- Crosby Stills & Nash, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (Stephen Stills)
Eventually Tinker reasoned with himself that this tension would only be dissolved by him, and it would happen quickly if he would only make a move toward love. He broke the ice with a smile, a touch, and finally a hug, and by the time they were huddled on the couch, kids tucked into bed, the volume turned down and only one CD playing, the warm glow of family life had settled on them.
Making up after a fight was Charlotte's favorite activity, and she pulled out a crinkly, bent joint, softened by her body curve against the tight jean pocket lining. "This came from Rachel about two months ago, before Rob, y'know " She frowned, but then brightened up. "I'm sure she'd want us to think nice thoughts now."
Tinker took the joint and lit it up, without drawing too much, so that his handing it to her would seem a bit like old-fashioned chivalry. But euphoria was hard to come by, with bills piling up and his career in ruins, and he just wanted to suffer alone, with neither criticism nor comfort. He was afraid that he would stop loving her, that she would detect his lack of devotion, and as a result the tiniest faults in their relationship would lead to earthquakes. He wanted life to seem normal, at least to his wife and kids. Any slip in the amount of attention he gave her would be reason for alarm. So when he suddenly heard disk access noise coming from his laptop, he decided not to leave her embrace to find out what it was, even though he was curious.
She suggested that they watch her favorite Sixties movie, Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. They sweetly touched hands during the musically charged scenes of naked flower children cavorting erotically on the floor of Death Valley. But Tinker kept getting distracted by the disk access noise. The computer always seemed to be doing something out of his control.
Eventually he could stand it no more, and he left the couch to check out his laptop. Charlotte frowned but kept watching the movie. Tip number eight on the list, the list of tips that suggest your spouse is cheating, was excessive use of the computer, especially after you've gone to bed. Was he communicating with someone? Charlotte kept one eye on him and one on the movie.
Mysteriously, the BusyBot option had somehow turned itself on in Tinker's laptop. He was getting solicitations from sporting goods sites again, then another one from Aggregate Networks reminding him to update his browser. He remembered the spam about Smolder, and decided to click his way through the MUD it pointed to, until he could find something of interest. Indeed he did find something. A longhaired, bespectacled stick-figure avatar claiming to be Mort Gill's agent was giving a short testimonial about the new HADES product, HDE (Halfway Decent Encryption). He clicked on the button for downloading and that was that. He opened up the folder after logging off, and restarted his system with the new HDE security extensions. Everything seemed to start up OK. No funny messages, and no goofy come-ons. The system was now supposedly secure, even from pesky law enforcement agencies. But what would anyone want from his computer?
Charlotte had put on another CD with the volume turned up.
There's no time to lose I heard her say
Cash your dreams before they slip away
-- Rolling Stones, "Ruby Tuesday" (Jagger/Richards)
She was rubbing her ankles on their bed, in her nightgown, smiling. Let's see if he's still interested in me. Tinker saw her, gave his laptop another thought, but then gave up on his laptop and came to the bedroom, returning her smile, grateful that the fight was over.
But his laptop was still on, and as he left for the bedroom, it was invaded again. Now there were two mysterious digital strangers lurking inside his computer, preparing to do battle with each other like a deranged version of the Disney movie Tron, armed with encryption-cracking subroutines.
As the digital invaders attacked each other silently, without so much as a flicker on the computer's screen, Tinker buried his head in Charlotte's breasts. She was his anchor in the world, and at that moment she represented the Earth Mother. His primal urge to plant the seed made his longing pure, his lust perfectly natural. Mounting the usual way, he found her spot and she welcomed him. Ahh yes And as he came, thoughts about the girl across the driveway danced through his head And Charlotte decided that he'd passed the test of tip number 18, that he still enjoyed having sex with her.
Around the time of Tinker's climax, the war in his computer ended. One virus had defeated the other, but the owner of the lost virus, receiving a steady stream of information, did not notice when the information turned false. The victorious virus had simply infected the defeated one, using it as a Trojan Horse, co-opting its agenda.
Sometime in the night, toward morning, Tinker had another dream. Keith Richards was sitting on a couch, looking on as Brian Jones played him the dulcimer part he'd learned for "Lady Jane". Brian's shiny blond hair jumped as if startled by every note he plucked on the dulcimer. Keith in a flash saw that Brian's genius, his contribution to the world, and to the Rolling Stones, was to push the envelope of experimentation, to go out to the very edge with different sounds. Keith realized then that Brian would burn brightly and die quickly. And he felt sad for Brian, Keith did, knowing that he and Mick and Andrew, the Stones' manager, were edging Brian right out of the band, because Brian couldn't keep up anymore, and the Stones had to move on and make the kind of hard rock the audience wanted -- this was a commercial venture after all. Fragile Brian, the innovator, the one who could pick up any instrument and learn to play it right away, would eventually have to be sacrificed. And Tinker woke up shaking, pleading for the life of Brian in a darkened, empty room.