The afternoon grew ominous with petty aggravations. The merciless Sunnyvale sun blared through Tinker's dirty windshield like a chorus of Motown screamers through a scratchy speaker. He fought for a space between a car and a dirty truck as he merged with the freeway. It seemed that everywhere he drove there were cars moving aggressively toward him, threatening to cut him off, moving at terrific speeds down wide, clogged thoroughfares only a short distance to the next red light. It was unsettling. He felt so blithely inadequate down here, just another failure looking for a job, getting jostled and pushed around, no closer to the money flow than he was when he first learned of its tributaries. Maybe the world was just going past him. It was all too big now, millions of information workers, all of them younger.
What a great frame of mind to be in, to start a job interview. His Starbucks spilled over the lid, burning his wrist, leaving drops of coffee in the groin area of his neatly pressed slacks. He gathered up his briefcase and jacket, and crossed the sun-baked parking lot, just one of thousands of mini-mall parking lots spread out in the Valley, just one of thousands of valleys across the world paved over in asphalt and office buildings. A culture that had reached the limits of its influence; it could only retreat into pathetic caricature.
I just gotta find a way
To get through another silly day
Without thinking about
-- David Crosby, "Traction in the Rain" (D. Crosby)
The interview had been exceedingly dull, held in a cement-and-steel office building near the junction of Highway 101 and North First. The armpit of San Jose. Dull gray streets and sun-baked parking lots, a deli that looked like just another office building lobby, a Denny's, not much else. Nothing but highways and work.
The interview had gone sour when the project manager quizzed him on SOAP, J2EE, JavaBeans A new alphabet soup for Tinker, who had hop, skipped and jumped over each new wave of high tech in the last two decades but now had somehow lost his momentum. He bluffed his way through the interview to get a free lunch, which unfortunately was brief. He hardly got a bite in before he had to explain why, after all these years in the exciting fields of tech journalism and multimedia, did he want to settle down and write documentation about wireless devices.
"Well, it's been a hard year." Why indeed? Could it be he had no choice? He was at heart a tech writer, and tech writers are expendable. As soon as computers became easy to use, Tinker could no longer make a living writing about how to use them. Engineers dreamed of making devices so easy that they don't need manuals. Tech writers typically came from the ranks of failed programmers. Tinker could see the pain on the face of the man who interviewed him, of years of disrespect for tech writers. The man had asked him to write an example in Java, and when Tinker resisted, he asked Tinker to explain a code fragment he'd hastily magic-markered on the white board. Tinker had swallowed hard and explained that his skills were in getting the information out of programmers, not in reading the code itself. The man registered the pain of working on the fringes of the priesthood, silently rebuking Tinker for not having progressed further, whacking Tinker's self-esteem in the process.
How am I supposed to know
What's for real and what's for show?
-- Flying Other Brothers, "Tell Me It's OK" (R. McNamee)
On Highway 101 heading north, Tinker interrupted his feeling sorry for himself and swerved just in time to avoid another car ablaze in the right lane. Was this becoming a trend? The freeway shot north through the smoggy, diesel-fueled industrial corridor linking the Valley with San Francisco. As he approached the City, the cars seemed to move a little faster, switch lanes without the slightest warning, make dive-bomb runs for exits. San Francisco was an edgier place than the Valley, more like an East Coast city; so much so that it seemed logical to have to take more risks while traveling through it. Agitation rose in waves from the City's skyline.
Tinker found Charlie outside at Rikki's, a favorite bar that often held Grateful Dead tape nights. He followed Charlie through the sweating dread-locked dancers, neatly sidestepping a portly fortyish twirling couple in tie-dye, back to a line of seats behind the pool table. Up front the crowd was reeling and rocking to Dead tapes. DJ St. Stephen played rare live recordings from the band's early years.
"Moaning is set up in Jamaica," Charlie started, "And we wanna be there with him."
"But Moaning's a maniac," countered Tinker. "He has a habit of ripping people off."
"I know, I know. He even did it to me," explained Charlie. "I helped him set up that whole Web news operation last year. I even brought him Eric Mauer and other heavy hitters. Ahh... he just fucked us all."
"Like it's usually done," said Charlie. "We go in, spec out the contract for the software, and he pays us up-front to get started. So we get into it, I had to put in new servers at my place to support the effort, yada-yada and, y'know, we get to a point where he just wants everything different, everything changed..."
"He's a maniac," offered Tinker.
"Right. He wants to follow a plan, then he changes the plan. He gets up at 4 a.m. and takes a deep breath of his rich life, and then he changes things."
"And he harasses you until you do things his way."
"That's right. He's always looking over your shoulder, always criticizing. He doesn't want to hear anything. If you have any ideas you keep your mouth shut. He's impossible to work for."
"It's a wonder he can still operate, with so many programmers burned."
"Actually, if you look at his commercial operation," explained Charlie, "he keeps hiring young ones, right out of college, or people who don't know his history. I mean, how many of these hotshot programmers stay around working for Moaning? I know of only one guy who's stayed with him for more than a year, and he's pretty abnormal, anyway. I mean Troy Sultan."
"Whaddaya mean, what's wrong with him?"
"I mean the guy dresses up in women's clothes and puts out pictures on the Internet," said Charlie, laughing. "Moaning's got him working on something special, and he must have cut him a deal."
"Or the guy likes to be treated that way."
"Anyway, Moaning didn't pay us, refused to pay us in the end, and it was for about three months work, maybe 15 grand."
"Geez," Tinker wheezed, immediately depressed. Moaning owed him only $5,000, which he had promised to pay. "What did you do?"
"What could I do?" Charlie arched his eyebrows. "I had no paperwork. It was all a verbal agreement."
"I guess I'm in the same boat," said Tinker. "He told me if I'm not willing to work for him with an agreement over the phone, then I'm not capable of working for him from home. He put me on the spot and I agreed to work for him without paper."
"Yep," said Charlie, sadly. "That's the way it's done. And you can't sue without getting it on paper first."
"But you work with him again and again," said Tinker. The rowdy song ended and the dancing people, and most of the people at the bar, turned to face the DJ booth to applaud as if it were the stage of a live Dead concert. Embarrassing, yes but they needed to applaud something. The Dead had long ago disbanded with the death of Jerry Garcia, but these folks went right on clapping at the DJ booth, their visions of Jerry and Phil and Bobby and the rest of them appearing right before their eyes on the windows of the booth.
"Yes. I'll let you in on a secret." Charlie leaned close. "Moaning agreed to fund my porn site, which kept me going for nearly a year."
"So you got something out of him."
"Then he shut it down, since he also controls the service provider. He was the one who shut it down, not the Feds."
Tinker just stared back, uncomprehending.
"It's just that, well, we're moving our operations," said Charlie. "Moaning is fronting it again. The OtherNet is taking root in an offshore location. Jamaica."
"So So that's where you're going?" asked Tinker as the applause subsided.
"Why not? I got him to pay me an advance, and I'll be there. Y'know, you have to do business with one or another of these assholes, and Moaning's is the only game in town."
The DJ had put on a very rare live version of the Dead's "Cream Puff War" and nearly everybody was up and dancing. "Wait a minute now, whatcha doin' with your time?" Jerry sang. Indeed. Why not jump on the bandwagon? Later, over pizza, Charlie outlined the deal. Moaning had said he wanted Tinker in the project anyway. Moaning already had several C-Dome veterans, numerous others, an angel investor from Sand Hill Road -- "You know him, Ted Anson" -- and so on. But the clincher was Charlie.
"We got to do this together. Just like old times. Remember back in high school, we'd trip out and listen to that album, what was it Jefferson Starship, Blows Against the Empire. Remember that? Hijacking a starship?"
"I still have it, the LP version, which has all that stuff on the sleeve and the insert." The lyrics, mostly written by Paul Kantner, were about hijacking a future starship and turning it into a latter-day Noah's Ark for "cooks, dancers, energy centers, astral navigators; experts in explosives, wave mechanics, laser technics, atomic and trionic physics, labrian tantronics, telemetry; telepaths, machinists, chemists, woodworkers, physicians, craftsmen, poets, artists, recording engineers, moon pair, & particularly people who don't have any idea what they're all about." The record sleeve told all those who were interested, " you will not be contacted immediately. Please just prepare your minds and bodies. Experiment -- move your mind."
Hijack the starship!
Carry seven thousand people past the sun
Our babes will wander naked through the cities of the universe
-- Jefferson Starship, "Hijack" (Paul Kanter, Grace Slick, Marty Balin)
"You will not be contacted immediately," said Charlie, laughing. "Well, that's certainly true. We had to be chased by the FBI first, not even knowing why." He laughed again.
"Remember that record shop?" Tinker was getting into the spirit of this adventure. Years earlier, in their last year in high school together, they'd worked a summer in a record store in the Samson Street area of Philadelphia, their hometown. That's where Charlie dreamed up the idea of printing flyers and putting them all around the city, announcing the formation of the Philly chapter of the Starship Foundation, quoting liberally from the booklet and sleeve notes of Blows Against the Empire. Recruiting the hipsters for the next millennium conquest. Signing up names for the record store's mailing list. That's how Eric Mauer, living in Philly at that time, came to find them in the store, following a poster's directions.
"And Eric walked in, thinking it was real," Charlie laughed.
"I know! He was so serious "
Charlie gave him a look. "Eric's with us now. He's on the run, but he can't leave the country yet. He says he has a job to do here, and I believe him. He's on our side."
The Starship Foundation had been Tinker's first taste of escapism. Charlie had engineered it. Now he would step out of his past life and join Charlie in some new, unimagined present. They were going to hijack some new starship.
At first, I was iridescent
And then Tinker remembered where he'd seen that line before. Not just on the Blows Against the Empire album. Rob Smolder! His last words. This was all connected somehow. Tinker was almost certain that Smolder was still alive.
"Which side is that?" asked Tinker. It was a valid question. Who, really, was on Tinker's side?
"Mort Gill is making a deal with the government," said Charlie. "He's going to show them how to crack ICE. In return, he gets out, along with Drew Anatole."
This took a moment to sink in. With C-Dome veterans loose in the world, setting up new encryption systems the government can't crack, what was Gill doing working for the government? "I don't get it. Which side is Gill on?"
"He's his own side, all his own," said Charlie with a knowing smile. "He doesn't want the tools that can destroy the Internet in the hands of the wrong people. Not until he's got enough of the new encryption stuff out there."
"He can't hurt the MLF? What about all those plans they have? Those plans Moaning talked about, with Rachel."
"Rachel's too hot. They think Rob Smolder is alive, and somehow behind the Webomber. You read the latest? The Webomber struck a bank, man. Wells Fargo, the branch in Woodside."
"Shit, that's my bank!"
"Well, maybe it's bad news, and maybe it's good! Didja owe any money? You could probably argue them down."
Tinker was essentially broke, so perhaps it was good news. He could disavow any of the checks that hadn't cleared yet. Maybe just withdraw as much cash as he could "Say, are the ATMs working?"
"Probably not," said Charlie, "but you could try. Look. There's a flight tomorrow morning out of SFO to Minneapolis. Don't ask why Minneapolis. Moaning bought electronic tickets. You just show up, outside at baggage claim, and use the automated boarding pass machine. Just bring carry-on, no luggage. Then all you do is show your ID at the gate, and when you get inside the plane, that's where you'll find me. Departure's at 8:30."
They split up outside. Tinker walked the streets of the lower Haight, past hookers, crackheads, dealers, and students from UCSF slumming in neighborhood cafés and bars. There was nothing left for him to do. Moaning's project could just as well be the logical climax to his life. He wanted to slam the door impulsively on his past, and shed every last bit of clothing, aspirations, life. To break the bleak pattern of his life. It was a night made for hard thoughts. Sharp, single stars pierced the blackness, with no sweep of friendly light, no comfort of a Milky Way. Just single, chilled points of light, as unromantic as sharp knives. And there, in the black sky, a knife heading straight for him.
Tinker decided not to dodge it. He owed it to himself to meet this crisis head-on. He had been stranded in some kind of spiritual cul-de-sac, with the whole world converging elsewhere. It was time for him to step out. The ATM was still working, so he took out as much as he could. It occurred to him that perhaps the Webomber had hit this bank on purpose, just for him. But it couldn't be related. Nothing like that, nothing that momentous, had ever happened to him before.
* * *
It's just as well that Tinker took the money, thought Andy Ames as he watched Tinker walk away from the ATM. He'd been shadowing Tinker since Rikki's, and he also noticed the FBI suits that had been following Tinker, but was sure the suits hadn't noticed him. What a bitch, and what a stroke of luck. The FBI had just slapped a lien on Tinker's funds to keep Tinker from traveling. Son of a bitch, not two hours later, the Webomber struck that very same bank, coincidentally removing the lien. It was as if a guardian angel watched over Tinker, giving him just what he needed to get away.
Ames' client wanted him to spy on Moaning and Gill and others like them -- the people at or near the top of their organizational pyramids. But Ames preferred to study the lesser ones, the weak links: the people who filled out the organizational pyramids. He learned more by following them. Just like tonight, he learned a great deal more about the Moaning operation from O'Brien and Tinker talking in the pizza parlor, than from other surveillance work.
At first he'd considered the possibility that FBI surveillance itself was the only link among these so-called conspirators. You watch lab rats long enough and they begin to perform for you. But now, Ames was certain of more than that, and he didn't need proof. Neither did his client, Aggregate Networks, a global conglomerate that acted for its own interests, which were much larger and far more intricate and global than any one country's interests. Aggregate moved in mysterious ways, only tangentially involving Ames.
And Ames had his own interests. The C-Dome hackers were loose. Maybe there was hope. Maybe Gill and his cohorts will prevail, and enforcement agencies won't have the goods on all of us. That is, if Gill really is on our side... Ames was a Star Trek fan. He believed the world would get better, more benign, in the future. He believed in the future, and in the Prime Directive. He didn't believe in the sterile future of the TV version of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, but a future where Kirk is caught getting a blow job from his yeoman in the conference room, where Dr. McCoy and Spock get together to indulge in pot and mushrooms, where Scottie is drunk at the helm of the starship. And it wouldn't matter that these people had faults, the universe was, still, theirs to explore. Ames loved the old episodes, and even the ones from the Next Generation, like the one where the chief engineer wakes up one day to find everybody different, in some kind of sinister conspiracy to do heaven knows what. Only Ames would like to think it was a benign conspiracy. He identified with androgynous beings, he was a fan of the Spiders from Mars...
Look south, to where your mother dwells
If she knew what's going down, she'd give you hell
I'm the kind of man she warned me of
'Till there was rock you only had God
-- David Bowie, "Sweet Head"
Smolder's jump had been the start of something. Ames wasn't sure what. But all the evidence pointed to a new, perfectly encrypted and safe network, with offshore servers far from the reach of U.S. law enforcement, and even far from the reach of his client. And now it all made sense that Peter Moaning had left for Jamaica.
* * *
The Webomber jokes were growing stale. "Hi, I'm the Webomber" had already been used in David Letterman's Top Ten List several times, as a girl pickup line, as the words of apology that should have been spoken by the President, as the angry shouts of the Yankee coach to the umpire, as the political pitch by the mayoral candidate for New York City, and countless other comedic bits.
There were also serious, thoughtful discussions on talk shows. Speculation of how long it took for encryption to be used as a terrorist weapon. Comments on how fast the world's networks could be compromised for evil purposes. Comparisons to the Unabomber of yore were obvious. Did this Webomber, if it was one person, have a manifesto? The acts were more like those of the Joker from the old Batman TV series.
Eric Mauer watched a lot of TV, when he wasn't out walking the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin, looking like another homeless person. He had lots of time on his hands. There was a Kinko's up on Market, and another downtown, and an Internet café around the corner on Mission. He'd rented a room in the dingy Retch Hotel, and he had made it there unobtrusively, ditching his car out in the Mendocino woods and hitchhiking back into Marin County, then over the Bay on the Tiburon ferry, dressed up in a suit and tie. He reached the City and holed up in the dingy hotel room, singing the blues.
What was it like when you saw your whole life go under?
Did you cry?
Was there someone there
Or were you on your own?
-- Little Feat, "Somebody's Leaving" (Bill Payne)
He missed his ex-wife about the same as he missed all the comforts of his so-called life. As a very real suspect that the FBI wanted to find, he might as well be the Webomber. And since he wasn't, with his skills and connections, he would probably be treated worse. If this were another country they'd simply kill him. And yet, everyday, the USA seemed to be turning into some other country.
* * *
Tinker got off the phone and sat down in the airport lounge. He had just finished a shouting match with Charlotte. At least it was a lot of shouting on her end. On his, Tinker just kept repeating a mantra about going to San Diego.
"Gather up the kids, get in the car, take the credit cards, and head south to your mother's house in San Diego. Stay there until you hear from me. I'll be gone for at least a week, maybe two. So get the kids together and go. Do it! Do it now!"
"So this is what you've been planning all along!" she yelled back through the line. "You have a girlfriend now? Is that it?"
"Whatever," he said, and instantly regretted it. He kept repeating the message to gather up the kids, etc., each time more distinctly, as if there was something in his diction that wasn't getting the message across correctly.
She was not very understanding, even though she had been told nearly everything Tinker knew, that he'd been followed by the FBI, that the C-Dome had been raided, that their friend Eric was on the run, and that they were thought to be connected to all these people. But it just didn't sink in. Tinker kept repeating his mantra. Get going. Her shouted words ran together into a stream of shouting that he could not understand. It sounded only like noise. He had hung up on the noise, and that was that.
Now Tinker sat, exhausted from this mix of emotions, looking out at planes bound for many destinations. This was not a fantasy, not like the many fantasies he'd had before, of running away, escaping a boring life, diving into the unknown. As a pre-teen he would walk the boardwalk of Atlantic City as an excuse for sneaking a cigarette. On those lonely walks, from one end to the other, out to the ends of piers, the farthest you could go, he would dream of leaving on a ship to cross that dark ocean. He was never really special in his own family, but he was determined not to fade into the woodwork and live the sort of lives they were all destined to live. Looking out to a sun-emblazoned horizon, to the East, the sky filling with pink cotton candy as the sun set in the West, the first notes of a song he sang to himself back then
If you smile at me you know I will understand
'Cause that is something everybody everywhere
Does in the same language.
-- Jefferson Airplane, "Wooden Ships" (David Crosby, Paul Kantner, Steve Stills)
A war is on. The refugees are haunting the land. Dark Forces have laid everything to waste. A human being from one side meets, he doesn't know, something or someone from the other side. Who won? It doesn't matter anymore.
You stare as all your human feelings die.
We are leaving
You don't need us.
-- Jefferson Airplane, "Wooden Ships" (David Crosby, Paul Kantner, Steve Stills)
Feeling somewhat irrelevant as part of a large Philadelphia family, Andrew Tinker naturally gravitated to its fringes, to cousins that dabbled in the hippie lifestyle, uncles that drank and told jokes, a grandmother who would always smile and serve ice cream, no matter what was happening. And, of course, his great-uncle Adam, the closet catatonic. It was family folklore that Adam had once been a mathematics prodigy at age five in 1926 and had predicted the stock market crash of 1929, but no one took the five year old seriously. Adam had degenerated by the time the Roaring Twenties was in full swing, and was institutionalized. The shock treatments did not help and in fact brought on excessive bouts of catatonia.
By the time JFK took office, Adam was the old, lovable "Uncle Adam" living in a specially outfitted walk-in closet under the stairs at Tinker's grandmother's house. Grandma would come out smiling with trays of ice cream despite mom's complaints about how it would spoil their appetites. Grandma served the ice cream oblivious to these complaints, using senility as a filter that let in only nice thoughts, her eyes wide in wonder just like the kids. Tinker stood near the mantle trying to figure out how Grandpa had put that sailing ship inside that bottle. Sailing ships, on the water, very free and easy Grandma came over and knelt down, looked at the bottle with Tinker, and just giggled like a little girl. "Yeah, what is that? How did they do that? I don't know! It doesn't make any sense, does it?" As a kid, Tinker thought that kids and grandparents were about the same. As you advance up the parabola of life gaining emotional and financial security, you lose that innocent, unprejudiced wonder about life. You peak at around age 40, or perhaps 50 -- the peak age seems to have creeped ever upward over the last few decades as people live longer, continue to work past "retirement"-- and then you go downward, retreat actually, back to childlike behavior. That's when you become Uncle Adam. On cue, Adam would come out of his closet dressed in an undertaker's suit, walking with a limp and cane, and kneel down next to Tinker, smiling, reeking of stale cigar smoke. Grandma would frown, and tell him to go sit down, and to stop scaring the children. And Adam would go off and stand in a dark corner, lurking forever on the fringes of the family.
Charlie O'Brien had sparked his first adventures in high school. Charlie knew every city they'd ever played in, especially the first, Philadelphia. Charlie knew uptown, downtown, how to act in black neighborhoods, where to go for cheese steaks, how to dance on Two Street with the other Two Streeters in the bar near Second and Passayunk. Frankie Avalon and Fabian came from this neighborhood. So did the Italian Stallion, Sylvester Stallone, and Irish heroes like John Kelly and his lovely daughter, Grace. Charlie was an original Two Streeter. His father was a Two Streeter. Tinker could still see Charlie, lanky and strutting, an unbuttoned wool coat with fur trim ballooning out and around his thin frame, top hat and cane, dancing the Mummer's strut out on Broad St. with his old man as the Two Street brigade strummed banjos in the New Year's Day Parade. Charlie's father was a silent, brooding Irish ex-Marine with a top job at the shipyard, and an upbringing in West Philly that left him with angry red hair and a permanent frown. Tinker had a lot of respect for Charlie's father and feared him. There were rumors that Charlie's father was involved with the Mafia, helping to control the shipyard. Any other time of year Charlie and his father would be arguing or at least casting furtive glances at each other; his father wanting him to behave himself, to carry his name with dignity, to stay away from drugs, to sit and eat with the family, to sit and entertain relatives... But on New Year's Day, South Philly's major holiday, Charlie and his father dance, share a flask, and pound each other's backs, all in plain view in the middle of the street in the middle of the parade.
Years later Charlie and Tinker would be best pals at UC Berkeley and Eric would also be there, lurking in the computer lab. They'd left behind the angst and coldness of the East Coast, the clashing ethnic styles and overly humid weather. Tinker had not quite recovered from the shock of being eligible for the lottery for Vietnam. His number had come out high, and the very next year the lottery was abandoned. But he had come too close.
As a kid he had watched the sad horizon from that Atlantic City boardwalk and hoped for a glimpse of the wooden ships, like the one his grandfather had somehow stuffed into the bottle. Now he watched the airplanes take off, bound places unknown. His flight was next. He would meet Charlie in Jamaica, and dance like a Two-Streeter.
And it's a fair wind
Blowing warm out of the south over my shoulder
Guess I'll set a course and go
-- Crosby Stills & Nash, "Wooden Ships" (David Crosby, Paul Kantner, Steve Stills)