by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2002, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.

6: Trade Show Blues

Since the MUD session a week had gone by without email. Charlie O'Brien, scratching his two-day-old beard, barely awake at 6 a.m., tried one more time and got nothing. Cut off from the Net by his provider. He felt terribly alone; everyone was out there carousing and doing business, but he was shut out, face pressed against the glass of his computer display like a hungry homeless man peering into the windows of a fancy steakhouse.

He absent-mindedly picked up the plastic trophy he'd received last year from Fizz for his Swinging London in the Sixties DVD rockumentary. He let it drop, and it split neatly in half, with one half spinning hysterically until it came to rest next to a pile of unpaid bills. On top of the pile was a bankruptcy notice from his streaming video service.

Reflexively his gaze had wandered over to his extensive music library, the only possession he really cared about. Fleeting thoughts about packing all this stuff into boxes, how many boxes. What size truck? How long would it take? Where would he take them? The preparations were endless. He couldn't bring himself to do any of it.

In the next room the naked beauties were relaxing, putting on silky robes. The photo shoot had lasted all night. The photographer was exhausted, but Roxanne, Charlie's girlfriend, was berating him. "You didn't get Tiffany," she was yelling at him.

"We can do that tomorrow night. There's enough to get started with the series." The photographer was weary of these fights. Roxanne simmered down, moving off to vent some wrath at the girls for this and that. Charlie knew she was just venting her frustration. The limits and stereotypes of the porn genre worked against her impulse to be innovative and unique. You have to be half-mad to be a great pornographer; she knew that. But half-mad people did not run businesses very well.

Charlie poked his head in. "Don't worry, love. Things can always be worse." He flashed her that rueful smile of his. Her angry mood melted a bit.

"Let's talk."

She followed him back into his office, and they shut the door.

"So, Moaning shut us down?" she asked, as soon as he sat down. Her body language, usually all come-on with her raven black hair and perfect body illuminated by a bloodthirsty grin, was now withdrawn.


"What does Rachel think about this? Have you talked to her?"

"No," he said, lying. His leg started vibrating a bit, and he made an effort to stop it. He longed for Rachel but Roxanne didn't know anything about that. "My instinct is, she wouldn't want to be involved."

"What, based on this rumor? The FBI visit?"

"Isn't that enough?" Charlie was now in a mood. She was leading him into a severely depressed state, to a place where information existed that he didn't want to know.

"So, what now?" She looked up.

"What now. We're in limbo. Nothing we can do. Can't even send email."

There was a knock. The ladies were at the door, looking for compensation, still naked underneath very flimsy robes. Charlie got a good look at one, who flashed him a toothy smile. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't really get excited by these ladies unless they were outside, in some other place. The porn business acts on the pornographer in a way that makes him less human. Bodies become objects to manipulate. Charlie could feel a different kind of hardening, not one of lust, but of inconsolable desperation.

Roxanne silently wrote out the checks. The photographer slipped in, dropped off several digital camera flash cards -- images for a porn site that was now, suddenly, shut down. Charlie didn't want them to know, and he admired Roxanne for her intelligence as she coolly wrote out the checks without saying anything.

Some of the worst things that could happen to a business had happened virtually overnight. Site shut down, debt spiraling, email blocked both in and out. All he had left was a voice-mail from Moaning, one of his two silent financial partners in the porn site. "Let it go," the voice of Moaning said. "Meet your contacts in LA and get going with the music site. I'll meet you there, at the Digital Media trade show."

Charlie had always wanted to bring Hollywood to Silicon Valley, not the other direction. His other silent partner, Nanker Phelge, had worked in the rock music scene since the 1960s and was helping him get outtakes for the music site. Moaning must have already talked to Phelge, but Charlie had to find out. He had to go to Los Angeles. And he needed his sidekick.

* * *

"Are you tired of Internet time? Tired of the hustle and bustle of Internet commerce? You thought it would open a window of opportunity for you, but instead, it opened the door to competition from every ambitious person in the world?"

"Have you reached a dead end? No reason to go on living?"

"Are you looking for a place in cyberspace to hang up your inhibitions, put on a show, engage in gambling, get laid? Without any legal interference?"

Tinker yawned and clicked on the link. It had been a week since the meeting with Moaning, and he'd finally received the email from Rachel promising secure encryption, his first step as a recruit for the MLF. To the scraggly sounds of Woody Guthrie wailing, "I ain't got no home in this world anymore…" the Web site appeared. Promising a new opportunity outside the normal space. "Escape the ordinary. Join the fun. Join the Other Internet." It went on to describe the encryption code you would acquire, by registering with the site, which would enable you to host an OtherSite that anyone with the proper client software can reach, with all transmissions encrypted and perfectly legal, insofar as anything outside the law could be considered legal. "Put up your own porn site! Gambling site! Host a guerrilla movement! Whatever you want to do, no one can stop you! No government has the means to shut down the OtherNet or its OtherSites. If your ISP won't let you post your nudie pictures, just put up your own OtherSite, completely encrypted, and the ISP will never know what you're posting!"

Tinker plunged ahead into the registration process, where there was only one question: "Do you solemnly swear to provide nothing but false statements and false facts to regular Internet sites from now on? If you answer yes, you are obligated to invent false personal data about yourself and use it whenever a site asks for information, and to edit your cookies with our handy Falsifier.exe utility (download here), so that sites from now on will compile only false information about you."

With a yes answer, Tinker was inside the site, automatically downloading the utility and the encryption code for viewing OtherSites. He had officially joined the otherculture. But he had no time to enjoy it. Charlie was on the phone.

* * *

"What just happened?" FBI agent L, dressed like some kind of Hollywood super-agent, with a beret on his head, scanned the display on his laptop, which showed some activity.

"Another recruit, shit," laughed Agent M, dressed like Arnold Palmer on the back nine, plaid pants and Cardigan sweater. "Tinker's got the software. Shit."

"OK. So can we go now?" Agent L was eager to move on to the next stakeout, in Los Angeles, a rave of some sort.

"Yes, yes, shit," answered his counterpart. But first, a stop for brewskis at Bob's Beanery in Half Moon Bay, which was getting to be a habit. It just happened to be on the way to LA, if you took the long way along the coast.

"I don't get it," Agent L said to his partner. Both slouched on their stools in front of their beers. "Gill seems to be working both sides of this thing. Charlie O'Brien and his Pot Page friends, and the MLF, they're getting ready for something. We're just sitting on our hands here. What does Cheney have in mind? I don't see our play in this."

"That's one thing for sure, shit," replied his partner, Agent M.


"That you don't get it. Shit."

"Yeah, well, I'm in the middle of this. I'm afraid that what I don't know will hurt me," the first agent replied gravely.

"Take it easy, take it easy," Agent M looked around. No one was within earshot except the bartender, who seemed busy washing glasses. "Just shut up about it, and don't worry, shit." They sipped in silence, and eventually hauled their asses out of there.

The bartender, who happened to be Dan Rose, Tinker's Menlo Park friend, watched them leave, then leaned down behind the bar and switched off the remote control for the hidden video camera.

* * *

Charlie and Tinker drove across the Coastal Range to the Central Valley and Interstate 5. Charlie needed to put on a brave face. The trade show in LA was a turning point for all new projects such as DVD games, entertainment sites, and anything having to do with content. If you wanted to play in this industry, you had to be there, announcing, pre-announcing, demonstrating, or at least negotiating. Every production company and distributor had a booth, including Charlie's distributor for his Swinging London title. Studio moguls paced the showroom floor looking for ideas to appropriate, and successful media and game companies with brand names hired surplus actors to cavort in ultra-large exhibits that resembled Hollywood movie sets with false fronts hiding conference rooms and mini-skyscrapers offering a view of the hall.

Now If there's a smile on my face

It's only there trying to fool the public

But when it comes down to fooling you

Now honey that's quite a different subject

-- Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, "Tears of a Clown" (Robinson)

The loud baritone sax and bass in the song bolstered his confidence; the high flute sang of freedom; this was today's theme song. Interstate 5 at 90 mph with Motown and then Jimi Hendrix on full volume would cure any depression, at least for a while. They stopped only once, at the Harris Ranch, to eat steaks, Charlie explaining that they would need the blood-red meat, the raw material for aggressive behavior, and get psyched for meeting this show head-on. He thought he recognized a man at the counter at the Harris Ranch, but the man had disappeared… How could it be anyone he knew, here? At such a politically incorrect place, surrounded by acres of dusty pens stuffed with bleating cattle primed for slaughter. Stuffed in there like… tradeshow attendees.

In Burbank they stopped to call Nanker Phelge. "Was this your decision, to shut me down? Or did Moaning convince you?" Charlie was mad.

"You're hot," Phelge said to Charlie. "The FBI came to visit the other day. I had some fantastic unreleased material for you, from McCartney's latest tour, but I think we should put all this stuff on ice until the heat goes away. Let's meet tonight, at Leary's."

Charlie explained that he wanted to try to set up a legitimate music site tracing the blues roots of rock music. The site would support itself by selling rare recordings. "Only licensed material this time," he said.

Phelge gave him the name of a record label executive willing to talk to him. "This prick ruined my best friend's career. Be careful talking to him. He's also on the board of the recording industry association. It's good that you're trying to do this legit. But keep in mind, these pricks started out by ripping off poor black musicians, paying 'em $10 for their songs, and they sure got nerve calling us rip-offs. In fact, this prick has co-authorship of one of Chuck Berry's songs, as if he helped Chuck write it from 3000 miles away." Charlie took down the executive's name, and they were off again.

They drove to the black tower at Gargantuan Studios in Burbank. It loomed in the sluggish haze like an armed guard tower in the largest prison Charlie'd ever seen, stretching in all directions. The atmosphere in LA that day had tipped the scales into smog alert, and everywhere they looked, the world was dirt brown and stained with human neglect. Too much dirty, litter-infested vegetation by the side of the road, too many fast-moving lane-changing cars on the freeway, too many people trying to cross the street, too much traffic to make a decent left turn without running a yellow light. He squeaked by, cursing, sweating from all the pockets of his body, and entered the black tower's underground parking lot.

Up the ivory elevators to the 18th floor, and into an icy reception area. So cool and oblivious to the outside that it seemed to be in the clouds itself, far away from the teeming population. They were greeted by a balding, bespectacled transplanted New Yorker, mid-thirties, wearing a sweater in the cool office despite the heat outside. In his oak-paneled office filled with chrome furniture, the executive recalled excitedly his days signing British Invasion bands of the early Sixties, one clone after another, then hastily added that his son now excelled at certain video games, and that his son could probably "program one of those games" in just a few years.

"Or just claim co-authorship of one," Charlie muttered in reply, but the executive just smiled back. The framed Herman's Hermits poster should have tipped them off. The guy asked all sorts of questions about the business model. Tinker had that "what the fuck?" look on his face the entire time, but he let Charlie do the talking. Charlie was gritting his teeth, beseeching the executive for some help in securing licensing for music that the company had sat on for years without releaasing. These people wanted everything handed to them on a silver platter. They controlled the licenses for all the music, all the film, and all the literature… just about every artifact in popular culture. Tinker looked at Charlie as if to say, they have no intention of helping us.

But Charlie had swaggered into this meeting with a vision, of rock music fans flocking to a site loaded with historically significant music… Charlie worked up a sweat answering questions. The Gargantuan executive in the black tower soaked it up, tried out some of Charlie's language so that he could use it later, and took notes on expected rates of return-on-investment. And yet, to Tinker at least, it seemed that the executive was stalling for time. He'd probably hire someone to work up Charlie's ideas into a treatment that Charlie would never hear about, never profit from.

I went to the crossroads,

Fell down on my knees.

-- Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"

Charlie's cell phone interrupted the meeting. It was Phelge. "Listen, you gotta get out of there. The FBI knows you're there, and the recording industry association is sending over a subpeona. Get outta there!" Charlie was looking out at the parking lot from the black tower, and he could see two blue-suited men approaching the entrance.

The executive smiled, but at the same time was pressing a buzzer under his desk. Charlie grabbed Tinker. "They're coming to get us." He didn't say who, but Tinker didn't protest. They made a run for it, taking the stairs all the way down eighteen floors as an elevator carrying a subpeona was on its way up.

* * *

Later, in a traffic jam inching past the Capitol Records building shaped like a stack of vinyl 45-rpm records, Charlie smoked a joint with Tinker to steady his nerves, which were now sputtering with tension. He hadn't told Tinker about the FBI, just the part about the legal arm of the recording industry trying to close down his bootleg site and get him into court. Tinker looked scared enough with just that bit of news, so there was no point in telling him more, not yet.

It took an hour to get to the LA Convention Center parking lot, and yet another half-hour to get in the parking lot, cars around him filled with executives yakking into cell phones and switching from accelerator to brake every two seconds. Charlie was so nervous that he walked away from his parked car three times, each time going back for something else that he'd forgotten. The final time was for Tinker's tradeshow badge.

Do you like to take a yo-yo for a ride?
Zombie I can see you're qualified

-- Steely Dan, "Sign In Stranger"

They barged into the thick of the crowd entering the North Hall. "Let's spread out," said Charlie. "I need to find Moaning. And here…" He took off his knit cap and gave it to Tinker. "Wear this, so the guys following us will follow you. They don't know who you are anyway. And if you find Moaning, call me on your cell." Tinker took the cap and frowned.

Charlie cut through a group of cigarette-smoking Japanese businessmen in charcoal gray suits, sidestepped a geek with prickly purple hair, got in close behind a gorgeous orange-haired Penthouse booth nymph, and as soon as he had an opening, cut in front of a Star Trek Klingon in full battle dress and passed through the security gate into the harshly radiant and pulsating showroom floor. He stalked the aisles looking for Moaning, dodging the hordes of people gathered around demos and fighting for brochures that ended up later in unread piles back at their offices. Exhibit madness surrounded him; booth barkers shouted for attention, booth bimbos smiled and wriggled suggestively and multimedia displays blasted music. People walked by these exhibits amused, paying little attention. With so much noise and commotion, even celebrities went unnoticed in the crowds. Charlie saw Graham Nash standing amid the mayhem, in casual clothes and tradeshow badge, clutching an empty plastic bag that advertised AudioMax MIDI controllers. He was about to go up to Nash when he saw the same blue-suited men from Burbank coming up the aisle. He quickly ducked down another aisle.

He reached the SalesSoft booth safely, where he assumed his Swinging London title from the previous year would be running. People crowded around a game of intrigue and mystery, featuring shoot-em-up sequences with babes in skimpy gowns, and metal giants taking over a cybercity. Charlie moved quickly up and down and around the exhibit, looking for his station. It wasn't there. He gathered his strength and reasoning, and calmly walked to each display in the SalesSoft exhibit, playing with demos. Encyclopedias with people sitting looking at fish -- funny, those navigational symbols are the same he used for his Swinging London title. Onward to an insipidly shallow music title about Motown. The jukebox interface and rockumentary format looked familiar and operated pretty much the same as his prototype site, but the content was not deep enough for anyone more than a casual fan to enjoy. Onward... to a DVD game about a dead president, and what would have happened had he lived. But now Charlie was even more alarmed: the navigation, storytelling, and random access operations were virtually the same as the other DVD titles, and the same as Swinging London. He rounded out his tour ending up at the place where his demo should have been; an information booth was there.

Charlie's stomach churned. His music posters were not on the walls; his title was not on display, and his interactive designs had been pilfered... An anxious lump formed in his throat, blocking his speech. Jennifer, the PR assistant for SalesSoft, came up to him, a nice-looking teased-blonde-haired El Segundo girl of about thirty with one of those harmless trade show smiles on her vaguely pretty face.

"Hi! How are things going?" She asked innocently, with a nasal twang. He gulped, couldn't answer. He looked from side to side, then back at her, and answered her inquisitive look with a frown.

"Where's Jay," Charlie croaked.

"Oh he's around," she replied, yawning. "He just had a meeting with an ISP from France." She looked around, up on her tiptoes in her beige suit, shaking her blonde mane. "There he is," she said, smiling broadly, pointing to a group of suits gathered around. Archibald "Jay" Markem, in a blue serge suit, was holding his hands in such a way as to suggest he was holding a box, perhaps a game or interactive title, and talking animatedly.

Charlie sidled up to one of the suits and waited his turn for Jay to notice him. When Jay did notice him, his animated talking stopped, and he looked coldly at Charlie, eyes glittering as if ready for battle. "Charlie. Nice to see you. We have to talk later."

"What about my station, my title?" Charlie had found his voice, and projected it far enough so that even Jennifer could hear it.

"On hold," Jay said frostily. "Look, I know it's a surprise to you. But it's on hold for now. It's been a bad year, and we've had to make some changes and put some things on hold, at least temporarily. Let's talk about it later."

"Uh -- "

"Let's meet at 5 o'clock, here in the booth. OK?" Then he turned and started a conversation with one of the suits, in that deliberate way people have at trade shows to let you know that time is running out.

Charlie was stunned. The deafening roar of the show had gone silent. His life was falling apart. Net service gone, site down, his title no longer selling… and goons are chasing after him. And now he had to play the Tradeshow game. You roam up and down aisles, shaking hands, exchanging business cards, talking optimistically, pouncing on potential deals, closing them, etc. All the while looking over your shoulder, trying to avoid getting spotted by men in blue suits. Your score is based on the virtual revenue you generate. You collect information on the way, try to coax investments for ideas that are figments of your fevered imagination. Pitfalls include geeky-looking dull people from the heartland clutching business plans obstructing your way, and late-afternoon appointments that no one ever keeps. Major villains include the slimy, devious distributors and their lawyers. They offer enticing advances, but ensure that you take all the risk. And just when you are about to make that deal, Murphy's Law takes over, the deal goes wrong, and you realize how financially precarious you are at that moment, the moment the abyss opens up before you and you stare down, down, down…

You zombie!

Be born again my friend

Won't you sign in, stranger?

-- Steely Dan, "Sign In Stranger"

A hand on Charlie's shoulder brought him back. Jennifer stood next to him, her frown held on her face with wax. "You all right?" He looked at her meekly, all his energy drained, the tradeshow seething around him. He was dizzy, sick with a cold sweat. He wanted to cry, but crying in public was something an O'Brien never did.

Out of the bustling crowd walked a familiar figure. "Hey man, how're ya doin?" It was Gretchen Grubstein, a frizzy-haired, wild-grinning, freckle-faced, hippie-chick programmer from the old days, now approaching the age of fifty. "You got the party list? There's a party at Leary's tonight..." With her was Gooky Karma, a.k.a. Guileford Carmichael, her thiryish jovial red-haired wiry-thin sidekick. Charlie had known them even before the Media Liberation Front, and had bumped into them an equal amount of time at computer shows and at Grateful Dead shows. There was a considerable overlap, although on the surface it didn't make sense. Here were programmers and computer scientists who excelled in an exact science of ones or zeros without ambiguity. But you could find them twirling in the tie-dye swirling craziness of a Dead show, swishing and jiggling to a primitive African rhythm, delighting in the pungent aroma of pot smoke, cavorting in loose scarves and shorts, bopping to the improvisational music. Music with no right or wrong notes or mistakes -- just lots of random ambiguities and mushy emotional outbursts of peace and love. Was it some kind of yin-yang thing? Meticulousness balanced with disorderliness? It's no joke, or perhaps it's the Cosmic Joke, that the NASA space program's software was written by Deadheads hooked on "Dark Star" and "Mountains of the Moon".

They all hugged each other, Charlie and Gretchen and Gooky, in a kind of sloppy Sixties-style embrace that caused stares from the conference attendees.

"So we haf'ta wait for Moaning, he stopped at the Aggregate booth, though I wouldn't call it a booth, it's like a goddamn city within a city over there…" Gretchen pointed across the hall. "Hey didja know I'm going to work for LeftBanke Software? Yeh, they liked my ideas for a MUD the size of AOL..." She went on as if the conversation had been going on for some time, and was carrying it on from the last tradeshow to this one, interrupted only by random weeks of isolated work. "And Gooky here," she put her arm around Gooky, who just beamed with satisfaction at the attention, "he's such a flat-out fuckin' nerd, he spent an entire weekend without sleep, eating fig bars and drinkin' Jolt, and hacked the Fizz chat area so that anyone, y'now, non-subscribers, can get in." Gooky looked proud. "So anyway," Gretchen went on, "Peter really wants to be sure to run into you."

"I just got the shit kicked outta me," said Charlie, distractedly, but Gretchen and Gooky picked up on it.

"What happened?" Gooky asked first, while Gretchen, open-mouthed, just peered into his face.

"The distributor dropped my title and put a 'hold' on my site. And the recording industry association is after me." Charlie looked down at his shoes. What the fuck was happening here? Was this Tinker's black cloud? Was it now following him around?

A big slap on his back and he recognized his friend Dave Biehl, wearing a fancy no-collar shirt over his large belly and a big wide grin on his face. "Budd-ih!" Biehl's Brooklyn accent hadn't diminished in the ten years he'd lived in California, working in computer graphics and special effects, and now working as Fizz magazine's digital photographer. Large, surly, and always in somewhat of a bad temper, Dave was a force of nature. People stood back as he walked by, and some even formed a parade behind him. "I just saw Moaning. He said to meet him for a Level 1 diagnostic." This was code for smoking a joint in the parking lot, a mid-afternoon tradeshow tradition, and somehow the only relevant thing to do, after you've seen hours of mind numbing booth demonstrations.

The cavernous, three-story indoor garage was as completely empty as the show floor was completely crowded, and sounds bounced relentlessly off its concrete walls with multiple Doppler effects sustaining the echoes indefinitely. It was not the showroom of automobiles for kings, but rather, an oil-stained warehouse of cars for the middle class, mostly Toyotas, Hondas, SUVs, a few BMWs here and there, and lots of nondescript Ford and GM rentals like Charlie's. The celebrities and other members of Hollywood's and Silicon Valley's ruling classes must have parked somewhere else or were hustled in and out of limos; either way they didn't come through this garage, so everyone felt safer.

"I don't know what to do now," Charlie said again, between coughing spasms echoing throughout the garage, as he handed the joint to Gooky, who took a puff. Dave Biehl was looking up and down the aisles. Gretchen was rolling another one on the hood of a Buick. "I'm already in debt from Swinging London."

"Didn't sell enough?" asked Dave.

"Didn't get paid," said Charlie, coughing again. "Distributor went bankrupt, and I can't change distributors for six months. Meanwhile, they want me to return the 50 grand advance." It all sounded confusing, even to Charlie as he tried to explain it in a weary voice. "They've got the masters for some of the music that I want to use on my new blues site, but now they've pulled back from launching it. And the recording industry association is after me."

"They're all assholes, man," Dave said sympathetically. "These music industry people, they're much worse than what we're used to. It's like sharecropping. You make a deal with them, and then they charge back all this marketing stuff and junkets and parties and the next thing you know, your advance is all used up, and you owe them for the next two years."

"Bullshit," said Gretchen. "More like ten years. Music artists have it much worse than us. They're stuck in ten year contracts, and band names are like brands owned by the labels instead of the artist."

Gooky hadn't said a word, just kept toking. Charlie thought that Gooky was probably engrossed in some obscure problem he's having with his network simulator, working as a contractor for some giant Internet hosting service. He was wrong: Gooky was thinking about getting laid while he was in LA, and whether or not he had any chance with Gretchen, who was quite attractive for her age, and her pride made her sexy. Like a well-worn subroutine in his code toolbox, this fantasy of Gretchen had sustained him through momentary bouts of loneliness for several years now, without consummation.

At that moment a booming voice shouted hello across the giant garage. Peter Moaning, looking a bit more athletic than usual with his six-foot, 220-pound frame encased in a tight-fitting Hawaiian shirt and leather pants, had found the party, and had brought Tinker with him. "Alright!" He reached into his temporary Aggregate-labeled show bag and pulled out a small baggie of grass.

"Dude!" Dave Biehl was happy to see him. They slapped hands and squared off like two sumo wrestlers.

"Plans are set," Moaning announced to everyone. "Rumor Central is up, and the Jamaica operation is coming together."

But Moaning's unbridled enthusiasm wasn't penetrating Charlie's mood. Dave spoke for him. "Charlie just got fucked," he said. "The distributor just canceled his blues site."

"Bad news," said Moaning nonchalantly, "What about Swinging London?"

"Half of 'em sold, and half they want to return to me, put me out of business," mumbled Charlie.

"Why don't you sue them?" asked Gretchen from the car.

"Can't. I'm broke, and they're about to be acquired."

"Bad news," said Moaning again. "Y'know, you should just forget it. Forget those slimy scum-suckers."

"What you need is money to do the site on your own," offered Tinker, moving closer to Charlie. The hint of his loyalty to Charlie did not escape Moaning's attention.

"What I need is a fucking job," answered Charlie in disgust. But he couldn't say what really bothered him, because his arrangement with Moaning for funding the porn site required secrecy. Yet it was Moaning that had shut him down. He gave Moaning a look that would sear paint, but Moaning was somehow always immune to bad energy. He just stayed effervescent.

"Don't worry, my man," Moaning said to Charlie, then turned to the group. "We all have important jobs to do."

"I think I was set up," Charlie said to no one in particular, but everyone stopped to listen. He wanted to drive the conversation to a higher level, see how much he could draw about of Moaning. "I mean, I think I figured it out. I was using that special code that -- remember, Peter, those undocumented features of the sound mixer? It's possible to use sound files to convey encrypted messages. You can hide anything, even an entire video clip, inside a sound file. I used it to deliver videos to subscribers of my…" Charlie looked at Moaning, "… my porn site."

Peter Moaning looked blankly at him without saying anything, but Charlie could tell he was on edge. Still, Charlie hadn't crossed the line. No one in this group would infer from this conversation that Moaning had bankrolled the porn site.

Gooky spoke up for the first time. "Y'mean, you're using this undocumented stuff, and Aggregate tech support is letting you do this?"

"Well... I didn't tell anyone at Aggregate." Charlie looked a bit perplexed. "Was I supposed to?"

Moaning gave him a sour look. "It's their authoring tool. You used their software and they require registration, a copy of your code, a license fee, and so on. I guess you didn't do any of that," he sighed.

"I'll bet Aggregate doesn't want developers to know about the encryption option," mused Gooky with some admiration. "It lets you import any content and insert it, right?"

Moaning roared with laughter. "Great! Aggregate has unwittingly let this cat out of the bag. Charlie, how'd you get the run-time player to work without a registration code number?"

Charlie smiled. "That's an easy hack."

Dave Biehl chuckled. "Man, you tempt fate when you use undocumented stuff," he said to Charlie. "Don't you think you may have scared the shit out of SalesSoft? They want no part of a conflict with Aggregate."

"Yeah, well," Charlie sighed. "I guess you could do what you want if you were Rob Smolder. He showed me the encryption editor when we worked on the first Pot Page. We used it in the marketplace MUD, encrypting the avatars with accounting and physical address information, so that the avatars could conduct transactions in private."

"The so-called 'malleable avatars' bit," said Dave. "That's some innovative shit."

"The avatar learns by your actions. It can repeat what you just did, but even better, it can anticipate what you might do next," said Gooky, by way of explanation. "Cool!"

"Kind of like a younger generation of rock and rollers, copying your licks," said Tinker.

"Only doing them better," replied Charlie. "These things could anticipate the DEA's next tricks."

"Well, Smolder wasn't independent," interrupted Moaning. "He got a grant from Aggregate. They just didn't know what kind of virtual marketplace he set up on the side."

"That's true. Smolder was legendary at getting sponsorship," said Biehl. "He even got the FBI's help on his Wounded Knee title, and it didn't paint a pretty picture of the FBI's involvement in that massacre."

"Yeah, but it didn't cast the FBI as evil conspirators, either, just as dumbasses -- which they are," said Charlie. "Rob had the Midas Touch with company sponsorships, and Wounded Knee is a good title, but I know some Indian folks, and y'know, I worked with some of them up in Mendocino, and they consider it to be a whitewash."

"Doesn't matter," said Moaning between tokes, "the title still raised money for their projects, the gambling casinos on the reservations. It still did some good. They're not gonna bad-mouth it in public. Besides, Smolder's main contribution was the wireless PDA interface so that anyone can gamble from anywhere in the world, with encryption so that you remain anonymous. Everybody wins."

"Yeah," replied Gretchen, "he kinda snuck that into the design, didn't he?"

Clanging metal echoed through the three-story garage. Everybody looked around to see Brendan Barcode, the crazy video-journalist, rolling a beat-up shopping cart from one end of the garage floor to the other, filled to overflowing with video cameras, tripods, batteries, converters, and other electronic junk. His dark stringy hair was matted to his forehead revealing a shiny circular bald spot on top of his head that looked like it had been attached to something, perhaps an alien mind-sucking vacuum tube. Something had been done to his mind; it was as likely an explanation as any other. Barcode glowered at them as he arrived, with a glare that spoke of the gravity of the world and his misfortune.

"Barcode, you sonofabitch," moaned Biehl, his pained expression giving in to a grin. Charlie handed Barcode the joint, and he brightened up.

"You guys are talkin' about Smolder, right?" Barcode asked between tokes. They all just looked at him. "Haven't you ever wondered why he would do it? Why he would jump? There's no reason! No reason!"

"People can be complicated, Brendan," said Moaning with a sweeping, patronizing gesture that took in the entire group.

Brendan Barcode, fidgeting and withering in the glare of this group in a way that seemed to Charlie like a bad imitation, unconsciously, of the Peter Lorre character in Casablanca, murmuring and seeking approval from the Humphrey Bogart character. "There are all sorts of rumors," Barcode wheezed. "I heard that he was part of a conspiracy to destroy the FBI's computers."

"Crock of shit," Biehl said, sounding like John Wayne.

"Yeah, well, I heard another rumor that he had AIDS, and he was seen with a hooker at last year's tradeshow." Barcode was plaintive, seeking recognition for the scraps of information he could provide them.

"More bullshit," said Biehl. "You repeating this bullshit?" he glared at Barcode.

"Oh yeah," Barcode now revived, hatred being at least some form of recognition. "I also heard he was going bankrupt, and he was about to be accused of plagiarism."

"Jeez, Brendan. You're a veritable font of information," said Biehl in a menacing tone.

"Well, you wanna know what I think?" clucked Barcode, eyes flashing.

"Tell us," said Moaning.

"It's a conspiracy. The Feds were after him. A-and, he didn't really jump. He's holed up somewhere, running from the Feds."

"Feds? Which Feds?" asked Moaning.

"The FBI!" Barcode's eyes were extremely wide now. It was suddenly apparent to everyone that this kind of behavior was not appropriate in any group of people, especially stoners. They started looking around for ways to escape. "They want him for his connection with encryption, with Mort Gill. The FBI is in cahoots with the CIA and the DEA, and these right-wing paramilitary groups who want a special encryption code-breaker, so that they can stop terrorists and… and disrupt revolutionary groups… and lock up pornographers."

"Oh, give it up, Barcode," said Biehl, sighing. With a lot of foot shuffling, averted eyes, and suppressed giggles, everybody looked for exit signs.

"You give it up, Biehl," snarled Brendan Barcode as he started off, clanging his shopping cart as he went. Off to some press conference to make a nuisance of himself. They all sighed with relief.

"And you should just give it up," Moaning said to Charlie, resuming the conversation. But Charlie had started thinking about the FBI and porn sites. The encryption stuff, the undocumented calls. Didn't Moaning once set up Gill to be a consultant to Aggregate? That was before Charlie had started the porn site. "Charlie! Just give it up!" Moaning poked him with his hand that held the joint.

Charlie gave him a look, but Moaning just blinked at him with all the innocence he could muster. "Well," drawled Charlie finally, breaking the tension, "Don't Bogart that joint my friend." He took it from Moaning. "You want me to go bankrupt so that you can hire me for a song."

"You bet!" Moaning laughed.

"OK, ok, it will happen probably the way you say it, but I got a lot of baggage to take care of --" But Charlie was interrupted, once again by the sound of a rolling shopping cart. Was Barcode coming back? No, an old black man pushed a cart filled with maintenance supplies. With hurried good-byes, they dispersed.

Charlie caught up with Tinker at the entrance to the show. Both were fried to their eyeballs from the grass, grinning from ear to ear, and about to enter the maelstrom of computer games and technology displays. And looking forward to it. Especially the new and improved control gear for game machines, from nearly weightless stereoscopic 3-D audio-video headgear to body capsules.

"Hey man," said Dave Biehl, catching up to them and suddenly serious for a moment as they walked through the entrance and had their badges checked, taking Charlie aside as if pausing the Giant Game of Life. "Watch your back with Moaning. Did you tell anyone about using the undocumented encryption stuff?"

"No," said Charlie. "I don't exactly publicize the porn site. Tinker here knows, and you-all know, and someone at Aggregate must know or I wouldn't have been shut down." He was careful not to mention how Moaning fit into this picture as the ghost-host of the porn site.

"Tinker, when you worked for Private Key, you wrote the documentation for those encryption calls, for the API, right?" Biehl referred to the application program interface, the code that allowed the encryption editor to make use of the new ICE encryption system developed at HADES by Mort Gill.

"Yeah…" Tinker thought for a moment. He had the documentation in his laptop, but was afraid to say anything. "I had finished it right before getting laid off."

Biehl frowned. "You guys watch your backs. That's all I gotta say."

* * *

The freeways of Los Angeles were seething and pulsing with traffic, even at 10 p.m., as Charlie drove out to the last party of the tradeshow. Tinker and Charlie had split up to cover the schmooze action at the dozen or more parties, agreeing to meet later at the Leary rave. A solid wall of traffic greeted him on the onramp to the Santa Monica Freeway. He fought for space between a dark green Mercedes and a Chevy convertible, both with beautiful blondes at the wheel, both chatting into cell phones -- in constant communication, perhaps with each other. He remained within the wall of traffic, creeping forward slowly with his dark thoughts about the rape and pillage by the entertainment industry, until he reached the first exit. He hit the surface streets in a menacing neighborhood. As he pulled into a parking lot for a Seven-Eleven, three hookers vied for his attention, one offering to sell him crack cocaine. Charlie considered it to be an omen of what LA had to offer him tonight -- nothing but false pretense and poison.

Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light?

Or just a lost angel...

-- Doors, "LA Woman" (Jim Morrison & the Doors)

The party was still growing at the rate of ten beautiful people a minute, overflowing the two-floor headquarters of The Pathfinder Company in Santa Monica. A pioneer in multimedia design and content, the company employed artists, programmers, authors, and specialists in a building on the very edge of the civilized continent, surrounded on three sides by wind and beach and on the fourth by the Pacific Coast Highway. On the sidewalk in front, sitting between two sports cars, Andy Ames was lighting a hash pipe. Charlie wandered over. Poison is one thing, hash is another.

"That's DMT," hissed Andy as he handed Charlie the pipe.

Well… DMT, that old brainstormer… Charlie took a generous hit, held it in. He knew Andy only slightly, as Dave Biehl's housemate. Biehl must be inside; why was Andy out here by himself?

That thought was all he could muster as the DMT hit him like a landslide. Reality switched to a virtual holodeck in an instant transition, not a dissolve, more like a fast wipe, into… something… else... Andy's face hovered in the swirling blackness. "Wild! Isn't it?" Charlie could only nod, his voice had left him. Cars swished by, their sounds dopplering away like guitar feedback. For what seemed like an eternity he was suspended in a barren space, with no discernible difference in objects or consequences. As he regained his senses, the plastic world of LA materialized like a miniature toy set at Christmas, with toy cars moving on plastic streets and toy people driving them… And then the plastic turned translucent and he could see the skeletons inside everything, the code that kept everything together.

Andy's face again, wrinkled plastic with a skeleton of interlocking code, an alien's face, bobbing in the night. "Charlie, can you introduce me to Mort Gill?"

Charlie reassembled his mind, put on his identity carefully like a new skin, tucking in and adjusting his personal mannerisms and speech like a fresh outfit, working his tongue again. "Yeah… I don't see why not," he said thickly. "Is he here?"

"Not sure… wait, I'll be right back." Andy walked off to a van parked down the street, went inside, came out a little bit later. Charlie swallowed and regained his composure. Andy came back and led him, weak-kneed, up the stairs. Inside, the vibrations dimmed and Charlie's strength returned. Upon entering the upstairs office, he nealry walked into a 300-pound hairy hacker who was yelling at the top of his lungs, "Somewhere there is an algorithm that performs color cycling among the palettes -- "

"Yes, shifting hues as it goes…" Someone shouted.

"Yes, and producing the most soothing, the most mind-numbing phantasmogoria of patterns! Light shows! Throbbing transitions that induce psychosis! Just slip right into virtual madness!"

"Or a reasonable facsimile," interjected one of his cohorts. The upstairs room had been filled with such conversation for hours. The hairy hacker was already off on a new tangent, arguing about the merits of different streaming digital video standards, but then veering off into a lengthy description of a monster scene he makes whenever he attends his local Coastal Commission meeting. His goal is to blunt the ever-expanding wedge of development in the hills northwest of Malibu. He would barge into a meeting of local conservatives, wild-haired and barefoot, bad-rapping the land developers. Then he'd turn to one of the local archconservative ranchers and talk about ham-radio data-packet networks, and then turn around and discuss Cajun cuisine with a Hollywood mogul. This longhaired gorilla was worth about $50 million; small potatoes for either Hollywood or Silicon Valley, but enough to be dangerous in Malibu.

Charlie scanned the crowd for Bob Gilder, the soft-spoken fearless leader of Pathfinder, and spotted him standing on the balcony overlooking the beach, next to a homebrew propane barbecue that looked like it would explode at any minute. Charlie took up a position near his left elbow, nodding to whatever was being said, waiting for his moment. When it came, he quickly introduced himself and explained his latest project.

"Now it's just a matter of securing the rest of the licenses," he finished, "and raising the marketing budget."

"I'll bet it's more than that," Bob Gilder spoke directly to him. "Investors are skittish about music sites, since all the music is controlled by the major labels, and they don't play ball unless it's by their rules." Gilder used the same casual but polite deference when talking to Charlie as he would to anyone, even a particularly nosy public relations expert. His self-effacing manner was contagious -- after talking with him you feel important and yet at ease.

"I know it will be tough," said Charlie, trying to look thoughtful and less desperate.

"You should just do it yourself," said Gilder, looking straight at him, giving him the handshake that meant it was time to part company, to move off to find other paths through the schmooze circuit. "You should just get a few people to work with you for the cause, and do it in your spare time, whatever. The most creative people are those on the edges of the industry, the eccentrics, the individuals who ignore custom and venture out into the unknown. That's what you have to be." And with that, he was off to another part of the room, another conversation.

Several notable industry people were gathering around a demo station where George Vest was showing a presentation. Charlie joined them and put on the plastic-and-cardboard 3D glasses that looked like they came out of the Fifties. They all watched the animation of the estranged individual trying to delete his name and address from the vast data banks of the universe. At the end, someone asked George if he continually encountered glitches with the multimedia technology, and he replied that the glitches are part of the performance -- the random elements help to make the audience think the performance is real.

Gretchen happened by and grabbed Charlie's shirt. "We're going to Leary's," she laughed, "for some more of those random elements."

* * *

At about the same time Charlie was enjoying the DMT, Tinker jumped out of a cab on Sunset Boulevard to check out the Aggregate Networks party at the House of Blues. There he ran into Mort Gill near the entrance, talking with some folks wearing promotional t-shirts over dress clothes, looking somewhat ridiculous for it. Gill was lecturing to them about civil liberties, in his blue jean shirt and sarong, reddish-brown beard and long wispy hair. He looked like someone imported from San Francisco for a part in a movie about hippies -- gnomic and anachronistic, standing on Sunset Boulevard, the heart of the entertainment industry, where Fake meets Hype to produce Product. And even here Gill was pushing the envelope, hacking the very center of Western commercialism, Sunset Boulevard. Gill was explaining his motivation for co-founding specialist alternative newsgroups on the Internet nearly a decade before. "They wouldn't let me lead discussions about drugs. It was an example of petty bureaucratic indecisiveness, like putting a finger in a dike to stop a leak. They couldn't decide, so I went off and did it on my own. Now there's a flood of discussion than they can never stop."

"Hey Mort," Tinker gave Gill the high sign as he joined the group. "Many of the best inventions came about that way." They hugged each other like old friends, and the oddly dressed bunch melted back into the Hollywood night.

"You look happy."

"Happiness is my default position," said Gill with a smirk. "So you finally joined the team."

"If you mean, did I click on the thing on the page, yes," replied Tinker. "I now have a secure laptop that can reach the OtherNet, right?"

"Yes, secure for now," said Gill. "But you need to stay up to date with it. There is a new version in the works."

"Somehow I knew you would say that," said Tinker with a sigh.

"The beauty of the new version is that it can't be corrupted. Back doors can be opened, but only temporarily, until they are automatically shut down. The encryption is entirely reprogrammable, new secure keys can be generated in an instant. And anyone will be able to get the code, and the cracking tools, for free. That's also the beauty of it. It creates a truly level playing field for all groups, law enforcement, even terrorists. No one is above the law of mathematics."

There was a pause, and Tinker remembered the article idea for Jill Metrose, and how he should be doing some research on it for his own sake; the Moaning thing might not pan out. So he asked Gill about the C-Dome.

"Going well," said Gill, looking up and down Sunset Boulevard. "The government is taking an interest," he said.

"An interest? Shouldn't you be worried?" Now Tinker was also looking up and down Sunset. He could see a hooker up at the bus stop, waving some kind of fake boa at the passing cars. At another time, if he were by himself, he might have considered checking her out, but not now, not with Gill nearby. While Gill's libertarian political views were slightly left of Camille Paglia, his sense of moral outrage was nearly as far to the right as ex-drug czar William Bennett.

"I have nothing to fear," Gill said solemnly. "Maybe you do, though. Your company, Private Key, was working on the server-side API. You wrote the documentation, remember? The server-side API is necessary for my encryption clients to work. Offshore servers already have copies of it, but the government seems to want to grab all the copies they can find, so if you have anything, even the docs, you should hide them."

Tinker thought he heard the creaking noise of a backyard gate slamming shut, someone shuffling off into the darkness. A back door man? "But if I don't have anything..." Tinker's voice trailed off in the sound of traffic.

"They may still want to talk to you," Gill laughed. "They would not believe you know nothing about it. My advice is to drop out, stay low. Maybe it will all blow over."

Tinker frowned. It was all so confusing. The night deepened in texture, as more limos pulled up with more people for the party. He could tell they were not from Hollywood, or even LA. They were dressed for LA, wearing expensive slacks resembling desert wear, along with ill-fitting leather jackets, tight skirts or blue jeans. But their heads stuck out, abnormal, bulging too fat or sunk too thin; beards were too scrawny, makeup too obvious. Everyday heads in slick, stylish outfits, with faces that belonged somewhere else, Portland maybe, or Seattle, or even Des Moines. Wicked smiles betraying utter fascination with the scene. Real LA people didn't smile like that, didn't have heads like that. And they all just ignored the two longhairs on the sidewalk.

"So how does one drop out?"

"I don't know," laughed Gill, "but there's a party going on at Leary's, and I bet someone there knows."

* * *

The party at the late Dr. Timothy Leary's house in the hills above Beverly Hills started at 11 p.m., and a note on the unlocked door said don't knock, just come in.

Andy Ames watched people go into the house, fumble their greetings and spazz-out on the dance floor in the overlarge living room. One wonders how these people came to know Leary, or whether he was just another dead celebrity to them, albeit one with a nice house. Such a mindless beast this generation is, Ames thought, such arrogance without memory and therefore no need of history.

Tinker joined Ames at the curb. "Didn't figure you for a raving lunatic," he said.

Ames pointed to the door. "Go in there, you come out twenty years younger and without a conscience."

"So where's Dave?" Tinker meant Dave Biehl, Ames' housemate.

"Busy tonight. Got a pictorial in Fizz to get done before morning." Andy didn't want to offer any more information. This conversation was as terse as it could be. Tinker wasn't Andy's surveillance target tonight, though he probably would be at some point. Andy needed to keep his distance without making Tinker suspicious. The last thing he wanted was for Tinker to see him with Dan Rose, who was now working with Ames on audio capture. Tinker knew Dan and it would be hard to explain. He'd just have to go inside and take Tinker with him. He'd find his target, Charlie, when he showed up inside. Andy grabbed his arm. "C'mon, my friend, the fountain of youth awaits!"

Tinker couldn't believe how trusting Leary's people were. The man had been dead for years, but his dependents and admirers were now running parties as if he'd never left. Leary's ghost haunted the liquor cabinet, which never ran out of good Scotch whiskey, and also frequented the brightly-lit kitchen with photos of the good doctor cavorting with bikini-clad models and actresses covering the walls and the refrigerator. The house was not out of the ordinary for the neighborhood, with its sweeping view of the LA basin, leather furniture, and an awesome audio and video rack. But inside, it looked like the lair of a mad scientist, with strange equipment attended by nerds lurking in back rooms, including a full-sized MRI unit, an EEG hooked up to a dentist's chair, and a biorhythm recorder connected to a full-body immersion tank.

The activities tonight were not focused on exploring inner space; tonight the main event was an effort to get the Webomber to respond to a makeshift site, to communicate with the person or group posing as the random Web terrorist. They wanted to know the game plan, why the Webomber chose certain sites to disrupt.

I was born in a subroutine, raised on hard drives in tandem.

My number one occupation, bombing Web sites at random.

-- The Webomber's Song, according to several inebriated partygoers

But the Webomber hadn't shown up yet in their diagnostic reports of site visits. Perhaps the Webomber was physically among them, one of the partygoers. In the extra large living room with its own dance floor, bodies gyrated to the throbbing beat of house music as celebrities and beautiful people pretended to have conversations. There's M. I. Gnuts, the editor of a local 'zine, dressed in a leather Elvis jumpsuit with a feather boa around his neck, snapping his fingers and looking cool. There's bald-headed Lena ("has anybody seen 'er?"), goddess of the Ambient/Trance Salon, dressed in a gown of pure satin, with nothing underneath, the fine strands of her pubic hair arrayed in silhouette. A dozen leather-clad Zombie-haired tongue-pierced punks circled around the dance floor. A wild Jamaican man with swinging dreadlocks caressed the turntables and cross-faded tracks of trance music. Twirling pixies scattered magic dust over the heads of the true believers, just like the early acid tests of the Sixties, brimming with sweet naivete… And on the fringes cameras were recording every movement.

Tinker knew his way around a rave, and knew how to find the center of its energy -- in this case it was the DJ with arms flailing at each synthesized arpeggio and body rocking to the trance rhythms. His stage was surrounded by lush tropical plants suggesting an open vagina with him at clitoris-central. The sound was under his control, the laser lights shot out from his crown of circuits. The overall effect stimulated the Sixties circuit in Tinker's brain, recreating in a flashback the psychedelic voyages of his youth. An unseen hand had cranked the room intensity dial up past 11; everything was altogether too vivid. The party was growing more cosmic by the second. Tinker felt vibrations in each atom of his body, from which poured out animated gradients of energy tuned to the harmonics in the sounds. It seemed to Tinker that the sound had the power to transmute matter into energy. The sound was a catalyst, but as pure frequency it had no leverage; it needed a conduit to focus the energy waves on a single point. That single point seemed to be located in Tinker's brain, right behind that imaginary Third Eye described in literature on the Eastern religions.

It was certainly not his first illumination, and he reckoned it wouldn't be his last, but this one at least had a name: the Vision of the Conduit. He was the Conduit through which the sound passed to transmute matter into energy and liberate the consciousness of anyone he pointed his mind to. All he needed to do was look at someone, focus the sound flow, and… zap! That person was now integrated with the cosmos. Simple as that.

Well, not so simple. The aliens turned to look at him, then look away amused. Like other holy men and prophets, the conduit would be scorned in his own time, or worse: ignored. Conduits, and holy men in general, face an organized, established opposition -- perhaps just gravity itself, applying a drag to the energy as it rises. But conduits, like poets, are necessary, at least to insulate the energy to maintain its potency as it travels upward. This is akin to making up myths to explain those unexplainable supernatural phenomena. Conduits, in fact, have been integral parts of all human religions, or as many as Tinker knew about.

Eventually it dawned on him that the music was too loud and causing a serious amount of cognitive dissonance, so he stepped out on the balcony overlooking the LA basin. The dogwood trees surrounding Leary's balcony grew their branches straight up and back like an electric-fried Don King hairdo, recoiling in horror from the dangerous activities happening inside the house, their stark white flowers seemingly in agony against the pitch black sky.

The music was filtered now through the open doors and windows and bodies… and from a distance Tinker could hear the music's inner meaning, its DNA. The rock music held within it a blues riff, and the "blues" were actually an early form of encryption. The world had done the original bluesmen wrong, and they had fought back with coded messages. Blues is a very simple form of music -- just three chords in 12-bar sequences in infinite variations. But blues music is actually a way of stomping the real blues away. It is the ultimate escape key, coded with lyrics and riffs, to make it possible for a slave or a downtrodden person to live a life of some sort. If you decode the blues, you find that it really is about freedom. And you can find the blues everywhere.

Music. Everywhere. Put the code into the music. Encrypt the code within the music, and give the music away. Tinker thought, this is for sure the best way to spread a revolution. He had to tell Charlie about it. So he thought real hard, and sure enough, Charlie found his way out to the balcony. Tinker smiled at him. "I got an idea," he said.


"The Media Liberation Front wants to spread the encryption code. We can encrypt the code inside music files, and spread the music files over the net with free downloads."

Charlie blinked at him, stared at him for 30 seconds, then smiled. "Tinker, my man, sometimes it's a pleasure having you around." He looked around to make sure no one was listening. "That's a great way to circulate the client software, once the server software circulates. But the server stuff has to happen first. That's the problem Moaning's talking about. But that's a good idea, maybe even for the server stuff. We could put out some vintage outtakes, some of Nanker's best stuff. I'm sure he'd be into it. In fact," Charlie snapped his fingers, "Nanker's gonna get board tapes from the upcoming Stones private party in Las Vegas."

"Yeah, well, maybe we could do some original music. I got some material I did with the Duck."

Another group joined them on the balcony, interrupting their conversation with talk about the Webomber. Thought to be a male hacker in his forties, the Webomber had never actually been seen, and all efforts to track him turned into dead ends. The "Paul is dead" signatures he left behind were related to the great myth of 1969, that Paul McCartney of the Beatles had died in an auto accident and had been replaced by Billy Shears or some lookalike. There were clues found by fans on every record from Revolver on.

Even the younger ones knew about it. "Yeah, I heard that the Webomber plants clues in every job he does. Just like that Beatles myth."

"But that was a bunch of crap," piped up Tinker. "The Beatles didn't even understand how it started. Paul was as mystified as everyone else."

"Not true," said Mal Contour, one of the group, in LA to follow up on more Smolder leads. "Paulie is the ultimate revisionist, forever proclaiming that the Beatles didn't deliberately put those clues in. But in fact it was one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, and it proved to be a fantastic boost for record sales. There are some clues that had to have been deliberate."

"That's scary," cooed a pretty young thing. "So you think the Webomber is going to bring down the whole Internet, a giant crash?"

That's it, Tinker thought. It all came to him again, another cheap flash; this time he saw the world caught in a complexity catastrophe, drowning in information. Some unseen power was manipulating events behind the scenes, using this complexity as a smokescreen to hide nefarious activities, the way the FBI used a blizzard of IRS audits to shut down the underground press of the 1960s.

"Oh now there's a myth," said Contour, responding to the sweet young thing the way men usually do, trying to impress a gorgeous babe, "the Internet crash -- that's a myth perpetrated by the service providers to put pressure on the backbone companies. Or some people think it's a plot by the largest service providers to control access so they can charge higher fees, while the rest of the poor folk have to wait in line and suffer bad connections."

Tinker watched them as they talked -- they were helpless little creatures stuck on this hapless planet, powerless to understand the true forces at work. Everything was myth to them. Even through this acid-like brainstorm he knew that what he was about to do was no myth. Something had changed -- the world had caught up while everyone he knew had been standing still.

From the swirling pit of his stomach, the nausea grew, and he knew right away what it was. The Earth itself was moving and he was standing still. Completely still. He had to hop from one foot to another to keep moving along with the Earth. His heart rate increased, a cold sweat broke out over his body, but he kept hopping from one foot to another, thinking about the Earth's movement, and the Net's tentacles wrapped around it, and himself caught up in those tentacles… By this time Tinker's hopping from one foot to another irritated just about everybody on the balcony.

"He's out of it," the sweet young thing said, and the group moved on leaving Charlie to deal with hopalong Tinker.

"So this is what it all comes to, hopping about like a scared rabbit in the land of the lizard king?" asked Charlie, taking his arm.

"I just thought it was the right thing to do." Tinker was calm, and felt once again synchronized to the Earth's movement. "But now I'm OK."

Charlie looked at him with a mixture of disgust and pity. They had been friends for a long, long time. Tinker always was slow on the uptake, so he talked slowly. "This new encryption you wrote the docs on," Charlie explained slowly. "It's the server-side stuff. The code is not only probably illegal, it can't be stopped. The Feds can't crack it, so they can't stamp it out. But for some reason they're coming after me, and that means they're also coming after you."

Tinker blinked. He couldn't put it all together, what it all meant. All he really knew was that he trusted Charlie's instincts more than his own. "So what do we do?"

"I don't know, yet," replied Charlie, looking around "I can't figure out why, if the FBI is looking for me, they can't just have the cops stop me. I'm well known in California, I have something like ten unpaid speeding tickets. My DMV record must be on every CHP car-computer. A lot of this doesn't make sense."

"What about Moaning?" asked Tinker, his head coming back to him but dragging with it the beginnings of a headache.

"We should convince him to let us go to Jamaica to run his server project there," said Charlie, starting to smile as he thought about it. "We can just skip town! That's what we can do."

Suddenly a crashing noise came from inside the party. A lanky young punk rushed out to the balcony shouting, "It's a bust." He then leapt over the railing and rolled as much as ran down the steep hillside.

Charlie looked at Tinker. "Let's go!" He followed the punk over the railing, and Tinker followed him after a slight hesitation. They scampered down the hill into a ravine of bushes, getting all scratched up by twigs in the process. The commotion up the hill was getting louder. "Quick!" rasped Charlie as Tinker stumbled. They emerged from the ravine at a culvert under the street, and crouched in the darkness.

"No cops yet," muttered Charlie.

"Why are we running? Everyone knows what goes on at Leary's."

"I don't think it's cops, I think it's the Feds. Maybe they think the Webomber's in there." Charlie scanned both sides of the street, then motioned for Tinker to cross it. They reached the other side, darted through the woods to Laurel, then straightened up and strolled, almost nonchalantly, down Laurel toward Hollywood.

"So why did we run?" asked Tinker. "We didn't do anything."

"It's guilt by association," replied Charlie. "I just don't want to be associated with any conspiracies I don't know about. Let them investigate all the people in that party first, before they get around to figuring out we were there."

"Yeah, but you said yourself they were on to us."

"They are. But we can escape while there's still time."

They walked on in silence, under the swaying branches of eucalyptus trees, down towards Hollywood and Vine, as various fancy cars zoomed past carrying some of the other partygoers escaping the raid -- first a Rolls with a famous disc jockey in the back, then a Bentley with a Gargantuan executive, then a Jaguar with the lady-friend of a well-known Hollywood mogul, followed by a Mercedes Roadster driven by a well-known actor, a Porsche driven by a Silicon Valley CEO, and an Aston-Martin wheeled by a film special-effects master. Then, a bright yellow Hummer decked out with speakers roared by, hogging most of the road. A Land Rover and a Cherokee driven by rival agents jockeyed for position behind it, and screeched around the curve, followed by an SUV filled with giggling, squealing fashion models. Tinker and Charlie just watched the parade go by, and only stopped for a moment to listen as the last car, a shit-box Toyota loaded with hippies, careened by with music at top volume…

Who's to say where the wind will take you

Who's to know what it is will break you

-- U2, "Kite"



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