It was dusk, the car media link set to play music. The lights came on as Luc Genn drove into the parking lot. As soon as he stopped the car Jaqui ran up to him.
“They searched your room,” she said, leaning in his window. “They’re up there now.” She looked around nervously. “I’ve gotta go.” She ran off behind the fraternity across the street.
Luc started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, his heart pounding. He called up the news on the link and scanned. It didn’t take long. It was a hot story.
“Federal Security Agents announced that they have narrowed down the search for the originator of the ‘Merry Pranksters’ virus that within hours of its release became a global e-menace that may end up costing governments and corporations billions of dollars. They have traced the virus to a computer cluster on the campus of LeDuke College. If apprehended, the author or authors face up to fifteen years in prison and fines of–”
Luc shut off the link. How the hell did they trace it? He had thought of everything. Well, obviously not, he must have missed something. It didn’t matter. They were on to him and his back had a bulls-eye on it now.
Oily water dripped from the roof down into the puddle at his feet. Luc had never been so sick with fear in his life. He had abandoned his car and left his wallet and personal link on the front seat. What could he do? Couldn’t even buy a sandwich. Not a bus ticket, not a drink, not a telephone call. All his friends would be watched. His family. Every place familiar. Federal agents would be looking for him.
Wet, greasy pavement, cars inching slowly by, police vehicles with flashing blue lights. An ambulance came to pick up somebody’s pieces. Men with wasted, unshaven faces hung in the shadows. Human refuse. Luc shuddered, acutely aware of them as he had never been before. He was one of them now.
Had to get off the street. The club was anonymous, dark, filled with dark, anonymous people and whirling holographic images of celebrities among the sweating bodies on the dance floor. Music pounded and there were drinks left on tables. Luc sidled over and downed in a gulp whatever he could find. Two bags of pretzels, potato chips and nacho twists were dinner. Luc risked grabbing a couple more drinks. Then he leaned against the wall waiting for the buzz to catch up. He stared at the image of Sugar 8, whose dynamite hit was blasting his ears.
“Looking for some fun, coy boy?”
He couldn’t tell if she was real or another hologram until he felt her hand slip down his pants. Funny how free he felt, nothing to rip off, no link, no cards, nothing. He let himself go numb, the sensory overload of the club washing over him.
Where to sleep? The Park was dangerous with gangs and random animals. Mustn’t be seen on the streets or he might get picked up; then it was all over. But it was all over anyway. He didn’t have anywhere he could go. Maybe out of the city, maybe to another city, but he wouldn’t get far with no link, not even a cash card.
He found a discarded shipping carton, but someone was already in it. Rags, newspapers, the smell of alcohol and urine. He kept walking. He had nothing to be mugged for, but his body was vulnerable. They could do things to his body. He could be beaten or worse.
Whores laughed on the sidewalk. One leaned into a car, the long fringe of her tight, brief vest dipping into a puddle at the curb. The smell of fried food, Chinese food, Mexican food, Indian food. Thick glass of shop windows taped with alarms. Displays of stuff. Cheap stuff; expensive stuff. Stuff it would be wonderful to have, so the ads said. Buy stuff and be happy.
Luc couldn’t buy. He no longer belonged.
He kept walking.
All around and above him safe within their walls were people who followed the rules, worked all day, picked their kids up from daycare and went home to cocoon at night. They had their home links, with all the games, movies, shows, chat rooms, whatever they wanted. Pizza delivered, beer, wine or buckets of sushi, safe indoors, just work all day and pay the bills and then you can do whatever you want, as long as you behave. Life is fabulous and the prosperity just goes on forever. Twenty-four hours ago Luc had been plugged in to that world, safe and with a place and purpose, but he had done a very, very bad thing. It had been so much fun at the time, seeing the havoc it caused, feeling really smug and important, an intense high, intense satisfaction. Now he was paying for it. Forever.
Luc felt them following him, a group of well-dressed men laughing among themselves and getting closer. One was talking into a personal link. Luc ducked into an apartment building. A woman was screaming at some children who ran down the hall. She went after them, pushing past Luc, ignoring him. On the top step a boy sat playing with an antique gameboy. Luc waited for a while, slumped in the hallway, tracing the patterns of stains on the carpeting. He’d seen places like this on the screen, in movies. But, people didn’t really live like this, did they? It stank.
A man with red-rimmed eyes, eating something wrapped in plastic, came out of a door and glared at him. Luc moved on. The lights changed along the boulevard. The men were gone.
The buildings got more broken around the edges. Trash filled planters and soda bottles bloomed in window boxes. He was near the Park. Followed again, but not by well-dressed men. Oversized clothing, baggy, jackets with colors on the back. Blue eyes in blackened and smeared faces like a minstrel show, the new cool, like white rap. They grinned.
“Got anything for us?”
“No!” he cried honestly, and pulled the pockets of his coat. Wadded Kleenex fell out.
“Let’s check you out.”
Luc tried to bolt. Too many strong hands gripped him.
He was rag-doll helpless when he heard yelping around him. Swearing, choking, coughing. Harsh burning stung his eyes and nose; he began to choke, too. A hand pressed a cloth over his face.
“He’s got no ID on him.”
“Of course not. He would have pitched it all.”
Luc passed out, sick.
Dizzy, spinning, coming awake. Luc couldn’t see clearly. He couldn’t speak. They guided him over to a sink and he spent the next few minutes flushing cold water over his face. Finally he was able to look up. A man who looked like an Aztec ninja handed him a towel. “Here you go, kid.” His eyes were black as ink and so was his hair which was wrapped up in a multi-colored bandanna. The room was dimly lit, crudely furnished, no windows.
A woman dressed identically to the man asked, “Your name Luc Genn?”
With a poor attempt at bravado, he retorted, “Who’s asking?”
From across the room, “I am.”
Blinking, he tried to focus on the source of the voice. With a squeak of metal, a person in a scuffed desk chair pivoted around to address him. Male or female, he wasn’t sure at first. The person leaned back in the rusty chair and gazed at Luc appraisingly, then glanced down at a folder open in a gloved hand. “You look about right. Hard to tell with your eyes peppered and that welt on your cheek. Are you Luc Genn?”
He decided the person was female. Older. Loose-fitting shirt and pants, high boots splattered with mud, scarves around her neck and head, tightly wrapped so that only the oval of her face was visible. A stout cane with an eagle’s head leaned against the desk.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“You created the ‘Merry Pranksters’ virus. We want to pin a medal on you.” She spun around in the chair again to face the desk. The chair creaked. “Let’s go.”
The garage was on the first floor. A door lifted up and the car rolled out into the street. There was an old black man driving.
“Who are you?” Luc asked.
She took a pipe out of a large, worn, woven shoulder bag. The bowl of the pipe was yellowish ivory, carved into the shape of a cupped hand. She took a beaded pouch out and began filling the pipe. “You haven’t said who you are yet,” she replied. “I’m operating on the assumption that you are who we think you are.”
“Okay, I am Luc Genn.”
“Good.” She pressed the stuff in the pipe bowl down with her finger. “You’ll have a chance to prove it shortly.” She took out a match, striking it on the sole of her boot. She lit the pipe.
“So, will you tell me who you are now?” Luc wrinkled his nose at the smoke.
Shaking the match out, she cracked the window and pushed it through the crack. “Very well. My name is Remira Avian.”
His mouth tightened in frustration. “Seriously.” She glanced at him with arched eyebrows. “Come on,” he said, “Remira Avian was killed during the raid on the Dakota Anarchist compound. They all burned to death in the fire. That was years ago.”
“That’s what they said on the news, yes,” she agreed.
“Are you trying to tell me it isn’t true?”
“Kid,” she said, drawing on the pipe and blowing the smoke in the direction of the window, “You’re going to learn that you can’t believe everything you hear in the media. You’re going to learn it first hand.”
They drove through the Burbs. Miles and miles of residential housing and malls, trees and lawns, strung together with wire, linked to the great, nurturing, sheltering Web by cable and satellite. Remira leaned over the front seat.
“Gregg, would you see what’s on the news?”
“Sure thing,” the driver replied. He turned on the car link and scanned through a few items, finally settling on a news report about the fugitive computer hacker who had created the criminally destructive “Merry Pranksters” virus. He had been identified as Luc Genn, a student at LeDuke College. Those who knew him described him as a loner, seemed nice enough, but had a bad attitude towards authority. He listened to a lot of retro music. Books of a questionable nature had been found in his room. Materials relating to computer hacking methods had been confiscated by the authorities. Although he did not have any kind of a police record, he had a reputation among his peers for negative attitudes and anarchist sympathies.
“That’s not true!” he cried. “Computer hacking methods, shit, all I had were books on computer programming! And what the hell is wrong with listening to retro music? Lots of people do!”
“You’re learning,” Remira said.
They stopped for food. The burger place didn’t have any fries because of a screw-up with deliveries. The guy at the window apologized. That damn virus. Munged up the computers at the warehouse. Wish the Feds would catch the son of a bitch who did it. Goddamn anarchists.
They took their order to go.
Luc chewed and swallowed. “I don’t have any political position,” he protested.
“That, in itself, is a political position,” Remira replied. “So why did you do it?”
“The ‘Merry Pranksters’ virus? God, I don’t know. It started out as just me and some other computer geeks talking about it, like, if we were to write one how would we do it. And we worked on it, just for fun. It was a challenge, trying to think of something really foolproof, something none of the screens could block. I guess I sort of obsessed on it more. The other guys got involved in other stuff but I kept working on it. Then, I guess, I just wanted to see if it would work. I mean, I was sure I wouldn’t get caught. I thought the way I did it nobody could trace it. Anyway, I didn’t think it would do any real harm. No big deal.”
“It would seem that some very powerful people would disagree.”
About dusk, they passed the new Rockefeller Correctional Facility. It was immense, looming up like a mountain range beyond the chain link fence that marked the Frontier. It stretched for miles, tall grey walls with razor wire on top. Luc shivered. They had a cell there waiting for him. He glanced over at Remira. She was reading a book, the pipe, unlit, in her hand. Her cane leaned on the seat beside her. Her outfit made him think of something between a gypsy and a Cossack. She wore gloves. Always. And her head always covered. He wondered if it was some kind of religious thing. What little of her he could see was darkly tanned and wrinkled. Her eyes were intense. Green and piercing. She had to be at least fifty. She’d been active during the Global Economic Trade protests. Supposedly burned to death. Burned, but not to death.
Luc slept in the car, twitching with unpleasant dreams. It was dark when they stopped. They were in the city again, but much further south. Industrial. The street was practically a tunnel through steep walls with elevated trains and streets above, supported by grids of metal, corroded with flaking paint. Windows were barred and grated.
“What’s that stuff?”
Remira looked out of the car window. “Dripping out of that pipe? Probably untreated sewerage. Or possibly industrial waste.”
“But, that kind of thing is illegal, isn’t it?”
She shrugged. “What does that matter?”
“How can they get away with it?”
“Who’s to stop them? The Corporations control the Government, the Government controls Enforcement.”
Luc stared. “But, wouldn’t people notice? Say something? Protest?”
“The Corporations own the Media, the Media makes reality. None of this exists.”
Luc sank back into his seat, absorbing that.
They pulled into an alley.
“Time to change vehicles,” Remira said. She leaned over the front seat before getting out. “Thanks, Gregg. Give my best to Ruby.”
They were joined by several of the Hispanic types with the black clothes and the multicolored bandannas. “Looks good,” one of them said. “Joplin’s at the front door.”
They followed a maze of corridors, grimy, poorly lit, with paint peeling, piles of abandoned office equipment shoved in corners, dead computer screens staring blindly. The doorway to the street was not lit.
Standing by a Jeep parked at the curb was a man with a black wide-brimmed hat, denim jacket and jeans. Short and wiry. Remira smiled. The man saw her and grinned back. “Hello, Remira.”
“Joplin,” she said, and went over to him. They embraced. Hugged, crushingly, like very old friends. She slapped his back. They separated, and he looked past her at Luc.
“That’s right. What’s the news?”
Luc felt he ought to know who this was. The man’s face was pitted, acne-scarred. But he had refined, regular features and large, dark eyes. Neither particularly handsome nor particularly homely. Rather distinctive in a way. His voice was distinctive, too. Incongruously deep and powerful for his size. He looked to be in his forties, anyway. Luc racked his brains and finally came up with a last name to go with Joplin: Berserker. Punk rocker turned political activist from about twenty years ago. Had something to do with fighting against warning labels on records. Anti-censorship. Defended a lot of really off-the-wall bands, violent rap groups and transvestite singers and stuff. Was barred from speaking at a rally at LeDuke the year before Luc got there. There was a riot when he tried to show up anyway. Campus police hauled him off. A bunch of left-wing radicals took over the student union building in protest and a lot of people got arrested. Probably still guests of the Rockefeller. They had been chanting anti-corporate slogans.
“Emma’s place?” Remira asked Joplin.
“Hell, no,” Joplin replied as he started the Jeep. “Downtown is crawling with jacks and spies. I can’t talk to anybody without some jerk reporting it into a link. McBride’s place is clean. We’re meeting there.”
A few streets down, Joplin looked in the rear-view mirror. “Shit.”
Remira turned around. A battered car was catching up with them fast. “It’s Carl,” she said. “Pull over.”
A tall, thin man with grey hair and a suit jumped out of the car. “The meeting is off,” he said, leaning in the window.
“What happened?” Joplin asked.
“McBride found out one of his people is an informer. They canceled everything.”
“Son of a bitch!” Joplin said furiously, slamming his hand against the steering wheel. Carl glanced nervously down the street.
“Get in,” Remira said. “Joplin, drive around the block.”
When he got a good look at him, Luc recognized Carl Carter, perpetual Green Party candidate for president and long-time environmental activist, making news from time to time fighting for some cause or another. Luc almost wanted to laugh it was getting so freaky, riding around in the back of a Jeep in some rotting corner of the city with this bizarre Who’s Who of aging radicals.
“God, Remira,” Carl said as the Jeep turned the corner, “I can’t believe you did this. Of all the stunts to pull, to grab the most wanted fugitive since the Montana Bombing!”
“They don’t know we’ve got him,” she said.
“They do now! You’ve got to turn him in!”
“I don’t think so,” Remira replied quietly.
“He’s a hot potato, Remira!”
“He’s a weapon, Carl,” Remira replied.
“I don’t want to go down that road! We’ve always kept things legitimate, worked within the law–”
“And you see what it’s fucking gotten us!” Joplin interrupted. “The movement is going nowhere! We’re toast! A bunch of toothless dogs yapping about taking back the government and fighting the big soulless corporations. They laugh at us! They’ve just gotten bigger and stronger and richer and all we’ve gotten is old!”
Carl bristled. “That’s not true! We’ve made progress, important progress! But if we turn to criminal tactics and violence we’ll lose what little mainstream support we have–”
“What mainstream support?” Joplin shot back. “Most people don’t even know we’re alive! The media has shrouded us, and the only publicity we can get is bad publicity. Jesus, Carl, pay attention! While you score a few symbolic victories, the government whittles away at what little free speech we’ve got left!”
“I know, Joplin, they’ve hit you hard–”
“No shit!” Joplin shouted, starting to shake. “Six months of testimony, and they pass the Decency Act anyway! They raided my offices the next day! Ninety percent of the bands I have under contract have been declared obscene or guilty of promoting improper values or corrupt messages! I’m bankrupt! I’ve got three lawsuits pending against the California Department of Standards and the FCC, and I have to drop all of them!”
“I know that’s a terrible set-back for you–”
“Set-back?!? Fucking Jesus, Carl! I’m banned from speaking in fourteen states because of my political message, and I could get sued anywhere else for anything from slandering the beef industry to wrongfully encouraging a negative image of a government agency! If I’m not careful, I could end up like Mumia Abu-Jamal!”
“I hate to say it,” Carl said carefully, “But you’ve brought a lot of it onto yourself. You’re so confrontational. You get into people’s faces too much. And what you and Remira are doing now is only going to make it worse. Remira, please, you’ve got to listen to reason. We can’t do this. We’ve got to surrender Luc Genn to the authorities.”
“Like fucking hell!” Joplin yelled. “We’ve got him and we intend to use him!”
“Look,” Luc interrupted angrily, “Nobody’s asked me what I want! Maybe I don’t want to be your weapon! Maybe I don’t want to be involved in this at all! Shit, I don’t even know what the hell you’re planning!”
“That was what the meeting was supposed to be about,” Joplin growled, scowling at the wet, black pavement. Somewhere, far above, it was raining. Down at their level it was nothing but an oily drip. Greasy puddles reflected the headlights.
“It’s difficult to explain in a handy soundbite,” Carl told Luc, “But generally speaking there has been a dangerous trend in the past century towards a greater and greater concentration of wealth and power among fewer and fewer people. Multinational corporations are taking over the governments of the world, eroding laws protecting the rights of individuals, exploiting people and resources, polluting the environment, destroying habitats, animals, indigenous peoples–”
“Yeah, sure, I know about all that,” Luc said. “But you can’t stop progress, and you can’t fight the government, and you can’t fight big money. So, what are you gonna do?”
Joplin groaned, muttering something about ignorance and apathy. Carl smiled sadly and shrugged. “Whatever we can,” he said simply. “You see, Capitalism is a classic pyramid scheme. Its success relies on the constant and ever-increasing drive for new sources of raw materials and cheap labor. These sources are finite, and when the end is reached, the collapse will come. And it will be catastrophic.”
“We’ve been saying this for years,” Joplin sighed. “I’m beginning to feel like a goddamn Jehovah’s Witness predicting the end of the world.”
“I know,” Carl said, “But the deterioration of the environment is becoming a steep J-curve. Technology is only just barely able to keep ahead of the curve. Catastrophic global climatic change may force the issue.”
“Unless we put a stop to it,” Remira said. “That is where you come in, Luc.”
“Me? What can I do?”
“Let me out here,” Carl said, “I don’t want to be hearing any of this.” He nodded to each of them when he stood on the pavement. “Think about this carefully. Whatever you decide, good luck.”
Joplin started driving again. Remira explained.
“We need a global catastrophe, but an artificial one. A catastrophe that won’t affect the poor, the environment, animals, indigenous populations, or us. We want you to disable the Web.”
“Holy shit. You’re serious?”
“Dead serious,” Joplin said. “It’s all we’ve got left to attack the corporations with. It would cripple the rich. It would cripple the government. It would scare the bejeezus out of all those cocooned, complacent folks who think the boom will last forever and they’ve got theirs so who cares about the rest of the world.”
“Can you do it?” Remira asked him.
Luc took a deep breath and blew it out. “Wow. I don’t even know if it can be done.”
“I guess the more important question is, will you try?”
Luc thought about it. “What if I say no?”
“We drop you off here to take your chances.”
Hell of a choice. Luc shrugged. “Okay. I’ll try.”
Luc didn’t see Remira Avian again after that, but like God, her presence was manifested in her agents. The “Remiristas” were a loose band of mostly Hispanics and a few Blacks who were all related to each other in some way. They had exciting and rewarding day jobs, like cleaning toilets or picking up garbage. Then there were the white suburban “Luddites,” plugged-in people with professional jobs and nice houses who felt guilty about it. And there were the Greens, the tree-huggers, who would have been the “Save the Whales” crowd back when there were whales to save.
Their only connection to one another was their shared anti-corporate ideals, and that somebody reliable knew they could be trusted. There was nothing to infiltrate. Most had no idea who Luc was or his mission, only that he was a part of the Resistance, jamming the culture of the materialistic society they opposed.
As soon as it could be arranged, Luc became David Lee and he went to Canada. Then he went to Great Britain, to Mexico, then to Manila. Everywhere he went there was a Remirista or a Luddite or a Green waiting for him, to tell him where to go and who to trust.
Finally he settled in Nairobi, where the Web cafes had good links and there was a thriving new computer culture among the educated class.
He was sitting at a table, sipping latte and working at his laptop. Someone pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down; a short man in sunglasses and a baseball cap wearing a T-shirt with something in German stenciled roughly on the front.
“Hi, Joplin,” Luc said.
“How’s it going?” he asked, helping himself to Luc’s latte.
Luc shrugged. “Fine. I get to sit around all day and blog and surf, and screw around with software.”
“We’re not paying your bills so you can indulge in cyber masturbation. What have you got?”
Luc shrugged and closed up the laptop. “Let’s go talk.”
The room was small, with cheap furniture and woven mats hanging on the plaster walls, but it was clean, had electricity, and the plumbing worked. The mats had an ugly lion design on them. There weren’t any lions left in Africa. Or elephants. The jungles had been plowed under to try and feed the world.
Luc put the laptop on the desk and plugged it in to recharge. Joplin sat on the bed.
“I’ve hooked up with the Sabots,” Luc said.
Joplin’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve heard of them. Hackers, aren’t they?”
“The cream. They don’t do destructive hacking. They count coup. They think intellectual property is bullshit. So they break into secure databases and steal exclusive programming and codes just to prove they can do it. Then they share it.”
“They don’t know what you’re up to?” Joplin asked with a frown.
“Hell, no. They’d box me out and rape my laptop if they did.”
“But you’re getting what you need from them.”
Luc stood by the wall, picking at a frayed edge of the cheesy lion mat. Sure. He’d spent days learning the jargon and coding techniques they used to evade the Web police. To evade the strictures used to control the Web. He’d cultivated close connections with several of them, passing long messages back and forth, sometimes about just whatever they felt like talking about. It was the coolest fraternity he’d ever been a part of. Pure infotech, just for the love of it.
One thing had been bugging him. He said, “Even if I can figure out a way to crash it, you know they’ll just rebuild it.”
“Sure,” Joplin said. “But if the power structure collapses, it’ll give us a chance to get control, to make sure the same mistakes don’t get made. Look, that’s our business. Your business is to tell me what you’ve got.”
“Okay. There’s this guy, he calls himself ‘Dr. Schlossen’. He’s brilliant. There’s absolutely nothing he can’t figure a way around.” Dr. Schlossen was Dutch, lived somewhere near Brussels, was overweight, single, addicted to pastries, had a wife once who divorced him because he spent so much time linked, and he hadn’t seen his kid in years. Luc had gotten real close to him. Late night IMing about tech and just stuff. Luc had almost confided in him.
“You figure he can supply the key you need?” Joplin put his feet up on the bed, settling back.
“He’s working on cracking Global’s latest security. When he does, he’ll share it with the rest of us. I’ve already learned enough from him to worm into everything else. Global is the last firewall.”
“Excellent.” Joplin got up. “You call us as soon as you’ve got it.”
Luc lay on the mattress in his room, staring at the rough patterns on the ceiling, sweating in the heat, his head feverish with logarithms, his eyes aching from staring at a screen. The message had come from Dr. Schlossen a few hours ago. Because Luc was his buddy, he’d shared it with him first. Luc had the key, the way to bypass it all, before anyone knew it was out there and could program a defense against it. He could make it happen.
Around his neck was a leather thong attached to a Djibouti carved wooden fetish which concealed a travel disc. He felt like he was carrying a phial of plague. He took out his personal link. Joplin showed up within 24 hours.
It was the same room just as he remembered it. No windows, crude furnishings, a battered desk and creaking swivel chair. Remira Avian was in that chair, eyeing Luc thoughtfully.
“Second thoughts, eh?” she said, pressing her fingertips together.
“Wimping out is how I’d put it,” Joplin said coldly.
“Fuck you, Joplin,” Luc said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this and what it really all means. It’s going to create havoc like nothing since the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.”
“Well, good,” said Joplin. “Bravo. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is a lot of people are going to get hurt. People are going to get killed. It’ll probably take out power as well as communications. It’ll hit everything that depends on the Web. Everything that runs through those cables or signals and is hooked up in any way to a link. Any or all of it could get corrupted and just pressing the reset button won’t fix it. I mean, hospitals are going to get shut down. People in elevators, people in subways. People riding in airplanes, for god’s sake!”
Joplin’s eyes were dark and cold. Menacing. “You figured out a way to melt down the Web. That’s what we talked about back when Remira first hauled your ass off the street and got you into protection. So what’s different?”
“Me,” said Luc. “I was a dumb kid who took this on because the alternative was prison. A dumb kid who couldn’t think beyond the two dimensions of it, like it was some damn computer game. Yeah, sure, save the world from the big bad techno-tyrants. I mean, is it really worth it? Isn’t there some other way?”
“We’ve been trying other ways for thirty years, asshole!” Joplin shouted. “Since before you were born!”
“Come on!” Luc shot back, “You talk so much, but what have you really done besides try to defend a bunch of weirdos who just want to shit on stage and scream ‘Fuck!’?”
Joplin slammed Luc up against the wall with a sudden violence that stunned the wind out of him.
“You snot-brained little git! It’s Freedom of Speech! Something they don’t talk about any more, not since the National Security Act shredded the Bill of Rights!” His eyes were dark with fury as he spat the words into Luc’s frozen face. “I’ll explain it to you in nice, simple words that even an idiot geek like you can understand! It’s your right to stand up in public and say whatever you want, to stand on a stage and shout ‘Fuck,’ or shout that you’ve been fucked by the government, and nobody has the right to shut you up, no matter how much money or power they have!”
“Joplin, let him go!” Remira’s voice was a whipcrack.
Joplin reluctantly stepped back, but kept Luc pinned to the wall with his stare.
Remira leaned against the desk and pushed herself to her feet. “Luc is young. He doesn’t have the same perspective that we do. He doesn’t know what’s been lost, nor does he fully understand what is at stake.” She took her cane and came around the desk, gently nudging Joplin aside and taking Luc’s arm.
“You are right,” she said. “This is very big. I expect you are feeling some of the same reservations that the scientists who created the atomic bomb felt. We should not take this lightly.”
She stopped by the desk, turned and faced him. “The monstrous corporate entities that we are fighting have become all-powerful. But they are mindless, soulless, operating under laws as irresistible as the laws of physics, driven by profit, greed, acquisition of power, all the worst elements of their human creators. Corporations have become a cancer which cares only for its continuing expansion, regardless of the consequences.”
“But,” Luc protested weakly, “It isn’t all bad, is it? I mean, look at all the great things that have happened because of technology, things that make life better—“
“For some, perhaps,” Remira said. “For a few. But you have seen enough of the world now to know how many are left behind, how many suffer to support the wealth of the few.”
“Yeah, but in time, maybe…” His voice faded. She was shaking her head slowly. Then, she leaned her cane against the desk. She reached up and began to unwrap the scarves from around her face.
Luc stared in fascinated horror as the scarred, puckered skin was revealed.
“I am the Earth,” Remira said. “What they have done to me, they have done to the world. Ravages that cannot be undone.”
She had no ears, just ragged growths around two holes in the sides of her head. Luc heard a low moan behind him, and turned to see Joplin grimacing with anguish. Remira smiled past Luc at Joplin. “I have survived.” To Luc she said, “The Earth will survive. If we give her a chance. You hold that chance in your hand.”
Luc nodded, sick to his stomach. He imagined her whole body looking like that, hairless, hideous. Yet her eyes were so bright, so green.
“The Web, Luc. It is a trap. It is the fibrils of a deadly organism that will ultimately destroy its own host. It pours its wastes into our waters and poisons us. We are its tool, forced to adapt to its needs. Our communities crumble, our relationships with each other deteriorate, our culture becomes impoverished, homogenized, made to conform to the needs of the market. Our bodies become weak, overweight, sickly. Vast numbers of us are exploited or simply pushed aside to accommodate the demands of the disease organism sustained by the Web. It is grotesque, parasitic with enough appearance of symbiosis to fool the host into supporting the thing. But if we do not kill it, it will certainly kill us.
“When a living thing is threatened, it reacts. The disease has provoked an immune response. Antibodies. We are the antibodies.”
Her voice held him spellbound. The horror of what had been done to her held him. What she said fired him with a sense of profound purpose.
“Antibodies, Luc.” Intense green eyes held him frozen and fascinated. “Antibodies.”
Luc looked out the window as they drove out through the street on their way to an anonymous public link at the Gates University library. He thought of Dr. Schlossen. He thought of the Sabots. He was about to destroy their environment. Pour toxic waste into their ocean. I am not an antibody, Luc thought. I am an assassin.
“I’ll go in with you,” Joplin said. He grinned at Luc. “I want to be on hand for the historic launch.”
Luc felt the man at his back as they walked through the hall, down the flight of stairs to the computer links. Most of them were being used by students engaged in serious research of way cool websites. Two men hovered over a screen and chortled with glee over what they had found. No one paid much attention to Luc and Joplin.
Luc plugged the travel disc in the port and opened the file. He began to sweat. Before this moment there had always been the option to change his mind. To back out. Now, this was it. He was about to blow this busy, humming world, familiar and comfortable, to smithereens. Chaos purred in the disc drive.
“Problems?” Joplin inquired in hushed tones.
“No–I–I just want to be sure I haven’t forgotten anything.”
“Good, good. You be sure of that.” Joplin was still grinning at him, but he had that look in his dark eyes. Cold. Menacing. He had followed Luc in here to make damn sure he didn’t lose his nerve.
Luc hesitated. One keystroke away. One keystroke to change the future, to warp it severely from its juggernaut course.
Joplin reached over and hit the key.
“Thanks for letting me do the honors,” the man said with smooth irony. “That was a real privilege.”
“Don’t mention it” Luc mumbled. He took the drive out and put it back into the fetish.
Slumped in the back seat of the car, discarded, he reached into his backpack. Earbuds and a player. The consolation of music. But it couldn’t quiet the ugly murmurs in the back of his head, no matter how loud he cranked it.
Not an antibody. Not an assassin. An electric tool. Permanently unplugged.
His face hardening, Luc Genn wrapped his fingers around the fetish and its concealed drive within, and opened his eyes.