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‖ -from Shaar Ruach Hakodesh I by Chaim Vital ―I think this place is full of spies. I think I‘m ruined. Didn‘t anybody Didn‘t anybody tell you? Didn‘t anybody tell you this river‘s full of lost sharks?‖ -The National, ―Secret Meeting‖ ―Only a machine can appreciate a sonnet written by another machine" -Alan Turing
BOOK ONE: The Hermit & The Hanged Man
ONE: I Read the News Today (Oh Boy)
I. ―So you understand what you‘re signing up for?‖ Aaron Zeitlin leaned back in his chair and tented his index fingers on his stomach, a posture he believed made him look relaxed although in truth, nothing made him look relaxed. His tendency to slouch when standing and slump when sitting only accentuated a perpetual tenseness in his body, as if even at twenty seven, he still hadn‘t burned off all the energy he‘d possessed as teenage boy. He watched the potential client drum on the knuckles of his left hand and sweat. Chicago‘s July heat and the broken AC in the stifling third-floor office were partly to blame, along with his weight, which, like most of Aaron‘s potentials, was above average. ―I mean, yeah,‖ the potential said, ―I came all the way out here, right? And you were pretty clear on the phone and all.‖ His voice sputtered out of him, weakly, as if from a punctured tire. Middling height, slightly balding, quiet and unassuming. More and more these were the people he dealt with: reductions of actual men. He wondered if this was the function of the Internet as Old Testament god, reiterating the Genesis narrative. Through a series of Biblical miscommunications, lifespans were cut from the Methuselan to a paltry hundred year upper limit. Through a series of technological overestimations, maybe the human race was being scaled back to quiverers, blubberers like this potential sitting in front of him. ―What was your name again?‖ Aaron asked abruptly. ―Harry. Harry Lime.‖ Aaron chuckled a little and the potential stared at him. ―That‘s funny,‖ Aaron said. ―What‘s funny about it?‖ the potential asked defensively. ―Harry Lime was a character in The Third Man,‖ Aaron explained. ―I don‘t know what that is.‖ ―It‘s a movie Orson Welles was in before he got—― He paused. ―Got what?‖ Fat, Aaron thought.
―Older,‖ Aaron said. He paused, took a deep breath and fixed the potential with a stare he hoped was full of meaning. ―She must be pretty special,‖ he said, dipping back into the script. This is what the script was for, why he had set it to memory: a limited branching program that always funneled towards a sale. On paper, it was glorious. It was immaculate. It even occasionally worked in practice, if his brain could run the fucking software. The drum solo stopped. The sweat reabsorbed into his brow and the potential lit up like Aaron was playing his favorite song. The script is holy, he reminded himself, the script is scripture. ―Helen‘s all the world to me.‖ He grinned, and corrected himself. ―I mean, part of the world,‖ he said. As though he were taunting a snagged fish with a last moment of freedom, Aaron let the line of his questioning go slack. This moment too was part of the script. ―You could include a provision in your will,‖ he shrugged, looking out the window. On the street below, Vietnamese kids held down stoops with their collective weight and glared defiantly into the heat haze. They did not sweat. They pointed cell phones at one another menacingly, like Star Trek phasers, texting to those three stoops away that nothing was happening here and nothing was likely to happen. ―The law is still fairly arcane,‖ Aaron continued, turning back to the room, ―but a lot of attorneys are more savvy in dealing with these situations than you might think.‖ The potential made a study of his shoes, which Aaron had already noted looked cloddish and uncomfortable. Like hooves, reinforcing Aaron‘s image of him as ovine. ―Maggie and I…my wife…we made our wills together. We have the same lawyer and everything. Total transparency, that‘s what marriage is all about, right?‖ ―Rilke says its about protecting one another‘s solitude,‖ Aaron said, and instantly wished he hadn‘t. ―I‘m sorry?‖ ―I wouldn‘t know,‖ Aaron admitted, feigning a sort of embarrassment. ―Haven‘t been lucky enough. Yet.‖ ―That sounds hypocritical, doesn‘t it?‖ ―There‘s no judgment here,‖ Aaron said. ―I know in a certain way it makes me a bad…a bad husband? A bad person, even?
But when I met Helen…‖ The potential‘s eyes went vague and dreamy. ―On a tech support site,‖ Aaron read off the paperwork on his desk. This prompt redirected towards the core of the script: the open space of confessional into which the potential was to step. Once there, the potential would relate a highly personal, highly unique story that was nearly identical to every other potential‘s story, within a few variation factors, all of which the script took into account. ―A Mac forum,‖ the potential sighed, lovesick. ―It‘s the old story, you know? I‘d upgraded to Snow Leopard and it was glitching every time I went to a site with any Flash in it. I‘d been on hold with the Apple store for hours, this was after the launch when it was still buggy. I mean, not beta buggy, but. I thought maybe on one of the sites, people might have run into the same thing. She…Helen…she isn‘t even like a Mac Genius or anything. She was so kind, you know? Walked me through the command line stuff, waited to see if it unglitched. I know it was wrong to send her a follow-up email. I mean, to say thanks, right? But then she asked maybe I wanted to meet up in Earth-2 sometime—‖ ―You‘re only a man,‖ Aaron said. ―And when it started to become…explicit,‖ he continued. ―We had rules, you know? She, I think, has someone else too. Someone she didn‘t want to…hurt. But we agreed, all of that, all of our lives, stayed out of it. It was like we were a whole world, the two of us.‖ The potential looked down at his shoes again. ―Two halves of our own little world.‖ ―That‘s very romantic,‖ Aaron deadpanned. He could imagine the romance of it. Sweaty fat man, knuckles shuffling desperately under the desk while his wife snored away upstairs. Seeking that moment he could look back on as some sort of communion with another, but an annihilation of self. La petite mort. Aaron rubbed once at his eye before forcing his hand back down. ―And if something were to happen to me…in this world,‖ the potential was prattling, ―I wouldn‘t want her not to know. Or to think I‘d …abandoned her somehow.‖ All of this fell comfortably within the script. If anything, the potential had played his part better than Aaron had. ―Well, that‘s what we do,‖ Aaron said confidently. We statements, he found, made the potential feel there was a whole company involved, a team of experts, rather than
just Aaron. The script was rife with we statements. ―In the unfortunate event something happens to you, she‘ll be informed exactly according to your wishes. And obviously, this will be completely separate from any arrangement you and your wife…‖ Aaron let this trail off, but it still sparked a mild panic in the potential. He looked over one meaty shoulder, then the other, as if his wife might have been crouching behind one of the filing cabinets the whole time. ―She won‘t know at all?‖ ―We pride ourselves on discretion,‖ Aaron smiled. ―All we need from you is your signature.‖ Usually, this was the moment the potential relaxed and entered into the familiar ritual of signing a document. But the potential began a new routine of fidgeting, a convulsive and repetitive gripping of one hand in the other. ―That‘s it?‖ the potential asked? ―I mean, how does it work?‖ The piece of sand in his right eye was on the move again, Aaron was sure of it. He wanted a drink. He wanted to scream at this little blob of a man that he was already fucking here, so why not sign the fucking contract already? His mood of minor annoyance, with its tendency to snowball and accrete other annoyances onto itself, turned into anger. Aaron rose from his chair, keeping one hand on the desk for balance. With his free hand he gripped the scrub pad of dark hair and straightened himself out to his full six feet of height. This adjustment of posture left him towering above the potential. The little fat man cowered in exactly the way Aaron had hoped he would. ―We use a piece of proprietary software, engineered by myself, which, once you sign that paper, will run a constant search for your name and any known aliases—‖ ―I don‘t have any—‖ ―—in death certificates and obituaries from every hamlet, township and city in the world. If you died on a riverboat in Kuala Lumpur, we‘d know about it by the time your body washed to shore.‖ ―Do they have rivers in Kuala Lumpur?‖ ―No idea. But if they did, and you were to drown in one, Mavet would find you.‖ ―That‘s – that‘s unsettling,‖ the potential stammered. ―The likelihood of drowning during a boat trip is surprisingly low,‖ Aaron said. ―Not that. I mean, the idea there‘s a program out there running all the time,
hoping to find me dead.‖ Aaron sat on the edge of the desk, looking down on the potential like a teacher reprimanding a pupil. ―It‘s a program,‖ he explained. ―It doesn‘t hope for anything. It does. If you die, Mavet tells us.‖ ―Mavet?‖ Aaron put his thumb and middle finger to the farthest points of his eyebrows and squeezed. He drew a sharp breath through his teeth. ―In certain traditions, when a child is named, the name goes on a list held by an angel named Malach-ha-Mavet. The, well, the angel of death.‖ ―That‘s…that‘s even worse,‖ said the potential, looking at Aaron beseechingly. Aaron replied with a smile Alice used to refer to as his rictus. ―We here at Death Information Services like our little jokes.‖ ―Was that one of them?‖ the potential asked, wiping sweat from his upper lip. It was, of course. When he‘d started the company three years ago, Aaron had jotted a dozen ominous sounding acronyms on a legal pad. END. CRYPT. GHOST. Electronic Notification of Death. Cover or Remove Your Private Things. Getting Hacked Offers Spiritual Terminus. He felt like Ian Fleming concocting evil spy organizations. But he chose DIS. Not only because it was the name of the capital city of hell, but also because it was the counter to all the language of social networking sites, a language he‘d helped create. DIS undid connect. It was the anti-like. Some of the best rebellions are quiet and personal. ―I don‘t mean to rush this,‖ Aaron said, changing tack, ― and I can understand if you‘re uncomfortable with the workings of the Mavet program. If it seems, to you, like the Welsh hand of death.‖ ―The Welsh whatnow?‖ ―On the cover of Sgt. Pepper‘s?‖ Aaron said. ―The Beatles album? There‘s a hand over Paul McCartney‘s head. Some people said it was a sign he was about to die. Or was already dead.‖ ―I‘ve never heard that.‖ ―No shoes on Abbey Road? ‗I buried Paul?‘‖ Still no response. Aaron‘s brain was switching into random access mode, pulling facts from deep in the banks. He wanted to stick to the fucking script, but the script had become a hyperlinked mess, every word
tying itself to another concept, pushing off into useless digressions. He thought of a fifties movie robot droning does not compute, smoke beginning to pour from the ventilator shafts of its ears as every connection met every other connection in its circuitry and shorted out. ―It‘s a whole thing,‖ Aaron said, waving his hand and returning to his seat. ―The point here, we‘re all going sooner or later. Mavet isn‘t going to bring that about any faster, nor is keeping your name off the list going to prolong your life. But if you sign this paper—‖ Here Aaron shoved the contract towards the potential. ―—and, god forbid, something does happen, we‘ll know about it. And we‘ll be able to inform Helen in a way that is both discreet and compassionate. The way you want it. The way you‘ve asked us to do it.‖ The potential leaned forward, looking at the contract. Then he looked up at Aaron. ―But first, you need to sign.‖ II. One nice thing about a bad intake was the likelihood that the next time Aaron had to deal with the client, said client would be dead. Since opening Death Information Services three years before, Aaron had become skilled at handling the dead. In the days and months following a person‘s death, their ghost wandered the internet restless and lost. Their profiles haunted InterEm and Holler. Their old blog posts, ownerless and authorless now, manifested in search results like unquiet spirits rattling tables and guiding planchettes. Without Aaron‘s guidance, many of these ghosts would never find peace. He tidied up their corpses, removing unsightly files and browser histories. He bequeathed passwords to otherwise lost and locked accounts. More importantly, he protected their loved ones from the bedeviling digital echoes of them. He whispered to them in code and laid them to rest. But in all that time, he‘d never gotten any better at dealing with clients while they were still alive. Aaron shut the office door behind him and locked all four locks, working from the top down. He made his way down the stairs and out onto Argyle, with the Red Line stop depositing its daily delivery of itinerant lunch enthusiasts in the heart of Viet
Town. The locals, who mostly tolerated or disregarded the presence of Aaron‘s office above the Cathay Bank branch, stayed off the streets during lunch hour. Aaron decided to treat himself to a drink at My Lai. Dac, the owner, made far and away the best pho in Chicago, but only worked the lunch shift, preferring to spend the evenings with his family. In the years he‘d known him, Aaron had never determined what number of people this term encompassed. ―My family‖ served as a linguistic shell around them, keeping them distinct and indeterminate. Once, Aaron summoned up the nerve to ask Dac why he‘d chosen the name My Lai for a Vietnamese restaurant. ―We massacre hunger,‖ Dac informed him inscrutably. From what Aaron had been able to gather, Dac had learned to cook from his father, a chef and single father in Hai Phong; Dac‘s mother having passed away from a disease Dac would only refer to as ―something very mysterious.‖ After a period of mourning that stretched blackly across the boy‘s childhood, Dac‘s father had fallen for a minor bureaucrat in the US embassy whose kitchen employed him. The kind of buttoned-up grey statesman who peopled Graham Greene novels. The bureaucrat had brought father and boy back to the States after the fall of Saigon, but the State Department in the late seventies wanted all its homosexuals good and bearded. Forced to choose between love and country, the bureaucrat chose the latter and, armed with a pocketful of hush money, Dac and his father drifted across the country, finally settling into its middle. All this Aaron had pieced together from occasional autobiographical snippets over their four years of acquaintance, usually in the form of new commentary. Troop drawdowns in Tengistan prompted a tale of Dac and his father air-lifted out of Saigon as part of Operation Frequent Wind, Dac crammed under the trembling arm of no less than Graham Martin, US Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. A presidential candidate‘s comments on health care led to a description of Dac‘s mother and the mysterious illness that so desiccated her a young Dac tearfully insisted they put her into the tub so she might re-inflate like a dried out sponge. A statewide public proposition on gay marriage, defeated by a wide and virulent margin, evoked stories of those short-lived halcyon days in suburban DC when Dac once had again found himself with two loving parents. My Lai was in a basement with small windows near the ceiling to let in weak
shafts of daylight. It was a serviceable place to start drinking in the early afternoon. One thing he liked about Dac was that their lack of a shared culture made all social interaction reliably awkward. Aaron wasn‘t entirely sure how well Dac spoke English and how much of his terse cadence was affect, but there was a comfort in neither needing nor expecting to be understood by the person to whom you were speaking. Aaron assumed everything he said to Dac seemed as much of a non sequitur as everything the proprietor said to him. Dac poured him a drink without asking and Aaron nodded in thanks. Behind the bar were three large televisions, beaconlike in the dim. Dac kept the news on each of them during lunch and the TVs were arranged from right to left to correspond with Dac‘s assessment of the news channel‘s political views. CNN sat dead center with the sound up, while Fox News raged silently to the right and MSNBC lipsynched ineffectively to the left. Patrons who didn‘t want to hear about it sat at the booths, out of earshot, but Aaron made a point of sitting at the bar. Partly for speedy drink service, but also to hear Dac‘s running commentary on the headlines. Dac followed the news like Aaron‘d followed certain soap operas in college, with a sense of distance and irony. ―News not history,‖ he‘d told Aaron. ―When news happens to people, they call hotline, show up on channel, ‗witness to incident‘ under their name. When history happens to people, they never know about it. People in your towers, history crashed into them, they never knew.‖ The news anchor was tanned like a catcher‘s mitt. He delivered the war reports and entertainment news with perfect equanimity. ―Frank Sinatra would be great news man,‖ said Dac. ―On weekends, he‘d have gig dancing on Cronkite‘s grave.‖ ―Walter Cronkite‘s not dead, Dac,‖ Aaron informed him. ―You keep telling yourself that,‖ Dac replied. The alcohol spread a warmth through him, melting the jagged edges off the morning‘s intake and leaving him feeling confident again. The anchor came back on with the hour‘s human-interest story. The president of Kandaq had joined InterEm, claiming it was a good way to keep in touch with his people. The anchor delivered this news with the smug assurance that only the president of Kandaq, whose name he repeatedly and variously mispronounced, would attempt such a clumsy piece of media
manipulation. InterEm, the anchor informed them, now had over five hundred million members, meaning if it were a country, it would be larger than Japan. The anchor delivered this bit of information as if to say, in your face, Japan, and mispronounced the president of Khandaq‘s name. The president of Khandaq had five thousand friends on his page within the first hour. ―Real news for the day,‖ Dac said. ―President of Kandaq has friends.‖ ―Turn that shit off,‖ Aaron muttered, his mood soured at the mention of InterEm. Days earlier, the European press had reported on the liquidation of a newspaper office outside the Khandaqi capital of Shiruta. The president had long since claimed all businesses and citizens as assets of the country, allowing the euphemism liquidate to be applied to property seizures and assassinations. The story hadn‘t made it to the US press; they were busy reporting on the president‘s InterEm status updates. He could see Kandaqi soldiers, standing with guns cocked behind a row InterEm users at their terminals, screaming at the users to click the ―like‖ button. Aaron downed the rest of his drink, crunching the ice cubes between his molars, and tossed a twenty on the bar before walking out. III. Aaron stepped out of the bar an owl in the daylight. His hand found brick and he guided himself along the front of the building, willing his pupils to pinhole. Halfway down the block objects rose out of the milk of his vision: the shapes of cars, the sheet-draped ghosts of passersby. Colors slowly tuned themselves in and Aaron, half-drunk in the midafternoon, rejoined the world. It was of course changed. The street seemed to throb, its browns going red, its blacks gulping light in rhythm with Aaron‘s pulse, which announced itself in his temples. He should have eaten something; the alcohol had shot through his stomach and was coursing in him. The office, a chair, a nap, he thought. Goals, aspirations. A halfremembered song thrummed in his head, something old and psychedelic, all reverb, stretched vocals and swirling guitars. Baby, your phrasing is baaaaaad, and it’s driving me maaaaaad.
Opening the door to the office was like stepping into a lungful of smoke. He fell into his chair, letting it lift him up, keep him off the floor. His head lolled back and he let it. He put his hands to his lips as if in prayer, then pressed his long nose into the small gap formed by his thumbs, letting his palms cover his face. He spread them to break the contact between the meaty butts of his hands and exhaled spent alcohol. It was only then he noticed the fax machine was beeping. The one wired to Mavet. One more soul claimed by the Angel of Death. ―Baruch dayan emet,‖ Aaron muttered as he rose from the chair. For the past three year, the fax machine had been the only true judge Aaron could comprehend. One of the first programs he‘d ever written, Mavet was never wrong. The program had started as a joke. In high school, Aaron had devised a search protocol that could trawl the internet constantly for certain criteria, alone or in combination. Eric would realize and capitalize on the practical applications of this, mostly in allowing people to perpetually search for mentions of themselves, and a version of Mavet, renamed Mirror Mirror, would become one of the premium services InterEm offered its users. But when he came up with it, Aaron decided the best use would be to enter in a massive roster of B-list celebrity names and have Mavet search for news of their deaths. Mavet would then cue a messenger program, called Yophiel, to send out a mass email notifying people. The idea of thousands of strangers receiving an email informing them that Buffalo Bob Smith or Harry Caray had died struck a teenage Aaron as the height of comedy. Years later, with most of his programs stolen from him, he still had Mavet. With a little tweaking, the program was the kernel from which DIS grew. Now Mavet‘s near blank faxes pronounced final and unarguable judgement. Aaron picked the paper out of the tray. The letters were tiny on the vast white of the page. Jaime Martinez, Mavet informed him. And all the air went out of the room.
CONNECT ONE It‘s such a simple word and Terry‘s making it so complicated for himself. What does it take to get people to like you? What does it take to like someone? Does he, after all, like his mother? Certainly he loves her, in the abstracted and resentful way a nineteen year old should, but does he like her? He likes his bandmates, especially Marnie, their drummer, who he‘d like to like in a more substantial way if she wasn‘t totally into Bruce, which was so typical for girls to go for the singer and never the bass player even though in the reality of the band, it was him and Marnie who were the rhythm section, who were a team. But even there, like spirals out, becomes like like, becomes is totally into, becomes is on a team with. Where are those options? Where are the buttons for all of those? It‘s the binary of it he‘s having trouble with. The Vowels of Pain have never set out to be a likeable band and now he is trying to present them to the world as a like-able band. The relationship with an audience is so much more complicated than that. He knows that even from the handful of gigs they‘ve played. The audience is supposed to experience this whole spectrum of emotions towards the band, from the band, in fucking proximity to the band. And then somehow they‘re supposed to go home and just like it? But the booking guy at the Doug Fir, who sometimes hires locals to open for bigger out of town acts, said he never hires a band with less than two hundred likes. And Terry is the only one with any skill on computer stuff. Not that this is really computer stuff. So he makes a guess at their genre and immediately regrets it when the other options turn from black to grey. He picks out pictures of the band: Bruce spitting into the crowd at a basement show. Marnie breaking her sticks on her floor tom. He makes them look as pretty as he can, as like-able as he can. And Terry waits.
TWO: I Saw Her Today at the Reception There are deaths that are unthinkable not because they are impossible or even implausible, but only because we haven‘t thought of them. Jaime had belonged to what Aaron thought of as his old life, a phrase that incorrectly assumed he‘d constructed a new one since. It wasn‘t that Aaron never thought about those days, but he didn‘t think of them as susceptible to change. He could fathom the four years since he‘d last seen Jaime, since they‘d spoken about anything other than affidavits and depositions. But he thought of Jaime as somehow in amber the whole time, imagining he could pick up the phone at any point and pick up their friendship again mid-conversation. Yesterday that might have been true. He‘d lost Jaime four years ago, but only now, with Mavet mercilessly printing out details of Jaime‘s death, did he realize the loss. The University of Chicago had made them roommates and it was more effort to not talk to him than to become friends. In the beginning, Aaron had thought about accessing the Residence Life computers and getting himself a single room, but he to admit Jaime was a sweet kid. Aaron equated Jaime‘s dark skin with health, his slight Spanish accent as infinitely more cosmopolitan than Aaron‘s own Midwestern nasal. Jaime was endearing in a way that bordered on clingy and Aaron recognized a certain desperation in the way Jaime made friends. There was a need to be liked in him that Aaron sympathized with, even if he wasn‘t able to admit it as a quality they shared. Unlike Aaron, Jaime‘s need to be liked resulted in social success: he was well known and well liked by seemingly everyone on campus, although, like Aaron, he was permanently without a girlfriend. Unlike Aaron, Jaime never had a bad word to say about anyone. Although he came from money, he never made an issue of it. Aaron, with his abysmal transcripts and off-the-chart test scores, had earned a special scholarship at his admissions interview. Halfway through the interview, he came around the interviewer‘s desk, displacing her from her ergonomic chair, and, in under twenty minutes, designed a program that effectively automated two-thirds of the undergraduate admissions process. The strange thing was, if this program had been used to sort Aaron‘s application, he‘d be languishing at a state school instead of sharing a dorm room with a trust fund kid. Despite their economic disparity, Aaron found himself won over by Jaime‘s largesse and spent more nights eating extravagantly out in Chicago on Jaime‘s dime than gagging
down the dining hall fare his meal card afforded him. Just as Aaron‘s presence at U of C depended on keeping up his grades for the scholarship committee, if Jaime‘s GPA were to drop, bank accounts would freeze faster than the edges of the lake. ―There‘s no word for failure in Spanish,‖ Jaime told him once. ―Fracaso,‖ Aaron said. ―Well,‖ replied Jaime, ―there‘s no word for failure in Chilean.‖ The rest of the report came in on a second fax. The Chicago Police Department responded to a report of a gunshot fired in a high end apartment building on Schoepenhauer. Ten minutes away this whole time, Aaron thought. A jump on the El. A long afternoon‘s walk in the summer heat and they could have been having a beer, four years gone in four miles. A neighbor heard a bang in the middle of the night, followed by a thud. Door broken down on suspicion. Victim found in bedroom. Self inflicted GSW, upper palate. Pronounced dead on the scene by the officers. No attempt made to resuscitate. There’s no word for failure in Spanish, Aaron thought, dropping the paper and letting his face fall into his hands. II After locking up the office early and catching a near empty El train home, Aaron fumbled for his keys as . cried plaintively inside. ―Coming, honey,‖ he muttered as he opened the door, shutting it quickly before the corpulent silver tab could slip out into the street. She banged her head against the door in her frustrated attempt, mewing at him before following him into the kitchen. It was a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. It was more house than he needed. These were the ways he thought about the house to avoid thinking about the money that bought it. Aaron checked Rambam‘s food dish, which was perpetually half-full. Aaron imagined there was a layer of food at the bottom of the dish that had never been touched. The slightly pudgy kitten had grown into a massive hunk of cat under Aaron‘s care, which made him worry about his potential skills as a parent. He moved to the living room and Rambam trotted along at his heels with the
pendulum of her belly dusting the hardwood floor. He shoved a stack of books off the coffee table and onto the floor, where they joined other stacks of books and papers. The papers were reams of code Aaron now and then turned his mind to in the same way one might decide to pick up an old calculus textbook. The books had no theme to tie them together. Delmore Schwartz and Oliver Sachs. Sartre and George R.R. Martin. A biography of Mayor Richard Daley and an analysis of Jewish songwriters in the big band era. Brewer‘s Phrase and Fable and Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. The DSM IV and the Harlem Book of the Dead. Aaron wished he had pictures. More than that, he wished he were fundamentally the kind of person who needed to be surrounded by pictures of friends and family staring at him approvingly from the walls. The house only showed evidence of Aaron, with the occasional artifact of Alice deep in the strata. Rambam, he thought as the cat jumped heftily into his lap, was maybe the best proof Aaron‘s life had ever crossed with anyone else‘s. He adopted Rambam at Alice‘s insistence. Given that she was allergic to cats, it should have been the first sign the relationship was coming apart, but looking back on it, Aaron often wondered if the whole nine months they‘d been together wasn‘t a series of signs the relationship was coming apart, right up to the day he came home to find she‘d removed all of her things from his apartment. She‘d said a cat would give him a way to talk to himself out loud without feeling like a crazy person. Aaron had initially dismissed the idea. He argued it was morally wrong to bring another life into the world, as if this theoretical cat didn‘t already exist but would be brought into being by Aaron‘s need for feline companionship. Whenever Aaron moved a personal decision into the world-impact stage, Alice went into the kitchen and poured herself a drink. They‘d argued about every aspect of getting the cat. Alice pushed for a pet store, but Aaron would only adopt from the SPCA. Alice liked the Siamese with the shifty eyes, while Aaron fell for the pudgy tab who pissed on his sweater. Once they got her home, they put the kitten on the living room floor and sat together on the couch to come up with a name. ―Maimonides,‖ Aaron stated proudly. The kitten looked up at him puzzled and Alice crossed her arms. ―What kind of name is that?‖
―He was a Jewish philosopher in the twelfth century,‖ he explained. Alice was unimpressed. ―A Guide for the Perplexed?‖ He got up to find try to find his copy on one of the shelves. ―First of all, she‘s a she. Secondly, what would you call her for short?‖ Aaron tried diminutives of Maimonides in his head (Deez? Mami? Moni?), none of which seemed to work. He remembered Maimonides had also gone by the name Rambam, which, if nothing else, was much cuter, and offered it to Alice. She rolled her eyes and shrugged. ―Rambam?‖ he asked the kitten. She mewed in affirmation. ―See, she likes it.‖ ―You two will be perfect for each other,‖ Alice said, then walked into the kitchen and poured herself a drink, making a point of slamming the cupboard door. Aaron tried to remember Jaime‘s face exactly, but any detail he could some in on forced another out of focus. He could think of the angle of Jaime‘s nose perfectly, but the resolution of his eyes or chin fell off in proportion. He could remember the timbre of Jaime‘s voice, the slightly hitched r‘s that were nearly ready to roll, but not anything he‘d ever said, and when he could recall quotes, they were flat and toneless. If he‘d been at the office, a quick search of InterEm would bring up dozens of images, assuming Jaime had never taken down his profile. But there were no computers in the house and Aaron‘s memory was corrupted. If, as he suspected, the brain worked like a hard drive, information was never lost, barring some catastrophic physical damage, but Aaron couldn‘t retrieve the files for his friend‘s face. He began to read over the additional documents he‘d printed out about Jaime‘s death, which he noticed, danced carefully around labeling it a suicide. Everywhere in the documents, Aaron could see the deft hand of Jaime‘s family already at work, hushing things up. No funeral home or church services had been publicly listed, although a little digging revealed that Jaime‘s body was at Smith Corcoran Funeral Home on Cicero and that the Hernandez family had reserved St. Clare of Montefalco on Washtenaw for a service the next morning. The police were not following up on the incident, and in the digital version of the report, the ―self-inflicted‖ gunshot wound had become officially ―accidental‖. An uninvestigated gunshot wound. A hole no one would look into. It occurred to Aaron Jaime‘s death was being kept so quiet, Alice probably wouldn‘t hear about it. Everything Jaime‘s family was
―Alice it‘s me. I don‘t know. I hope you know. Jaime. Jaime…died. I think the family wants it quiet. So we don‘t talk about how it happened. But I‘m going. And if you want to go, here‘s where it is.‖
III. After several hours outpaced by drinks, Aaron called a cab. The cabbie balked when Aaron gave him the address, but Aaron promised to add twenty bucks to the tip. The funeral home was in a part of town Aaron had never been. Despite the late hour, the lights were on, so Aaron asked the cabbie if he‘d wait. Aaron tried the door, but it was locked. He knocked sternly a few times on the glass, then put his hand to his face and turned back to the cab. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, then walked slowly back and stood up against the door. He waited a moment, then began banging on the glass with his open palm. The cabbie got out of the car and called to him across the car‘s roof. ―They‘re closed, man,‖ he said. ―I know,‖ Aaron said. ―I know.‖ As he started back to the cab, he heard the key in the lock. It seemed incredibly loud in the quiet street. He turned back and saw a small pale man framed in light. ―Enough with the pounding,‖ the man said from the doorway, ―I‘m working here.‖ As if to prove it, he was wearing a spattered white apron and long black latex gloves. A pair of safety goggles rested on his forehead. ―Can I help you?‖ the man asked. ―I want to see my friend,‖ Aaron said. The man looked at him. ―Is it Mr. Hernandez?‖ he said after a moment. ―Yes,‖ Aaron said. ―You squeamish?‖ he asked. ―I don‘t think so,‖ said Aaron. The man nodded and seemed to size him up. ―Come in,‖ he said. ―I‘m almost done working on him.‖ Aaron started towards the door. ―What the fuck, man,‖ called the cabbie. ―Am I supposed to wait here?‖ ―Pay your cab,‖ the man said.. ―We‘ll call you another.‖ Aaron paid the driver in cash with the promised twenty dollar tip, then followed the man into the funeral home.
―You know viewing hours aren‘t until tomorrow,‖ the man said as he led Aaron down the hallway. ―I know.‖ ―And there‘s no viewing.‖ ―It‘s closed casket?‖ ―It‘ll be open for the family before the service, but closed by the time it gets to the church. You‘re not family?‖ ―No. He was my roommate in college. My friend.‖ The man nodded and pulled open a heavy door. ―You look a little too pale to be family. Of course, at the moment, he looks a little too pale to be family.‖ He stopped with the door halfway open. ―Are you sure you want to see him? I‘m almost done, but I‘m not quite.‖ ―I‘d like to see him,‖ Aaron said. ―It‘s not a good idea,‖ he said, beginning to shut the door. ―I could get in serious shit.‖ ―I won‘t tell anyone,‖ Aaron said. ―Ah, what are they gonna do to me?‖ the man said, shrugging. ―Make me spend all night with a bunch of dead bodies?‖ He opened the door into a room that was entirely metallic. Cold blue fluorescents hummed from the ceiling and caromed off every surface. Jaime‘s body lay on a long table, a white sheet covering him up to his mid-chest. ―He‘ll look better by tomorrow,‖ the man said. ―I‘m a bit behind in my work. You hear the one about the undertaker in a hurry?‖ ―No,‖ Aaron said. ―Ah, it‘s more of an industry joke, you know? There is one, though. So, there‘s this Jewish couple, elderly. They save up their whole lives for a trip to the Holy Land. And they go there and she, the wife, she dies. And the undertaker says to the husband, ‗Well, you can have her shipped back home to Boca for five grand. Or we can bury her right here in the Holy Land for a hundred fifty bucks. And the husband says, right off, ‗Let‘s ship her home‘. ―So they make the preparations, they ice her up for shipment and all. And the undertaker says, ‗I gotta ask. Why is it you wanted to spend all this money to send her home when you could have had her buried right here in the Holy Land?‘ And the
husband says, ‗Two thousand years ago, they buried a guy here, and three days later, he came back from the dead. I couldn‘t take that chance.‘‖ Despite himself, Aaron let out a little laugh. ―It‘s not bad, right?‖ said the man. ―I feel like I need to shave three more beats off it. Originally the punch line was ‗I felt like I couldn‘t take that kind of chance‘, but I cut it down. Not quite there yet. Anyway, he won‘t be so pale tomorrow.‖ ―He was never pale like that,‖ Aaron said. His hand floated above the body, afraid to touch it. ―His skin. His skin was so much darker than mine.‖ ―It‘s the exsanguination,‖ the man explained while rearranging bottles on a shelf, his back to Aaron. ―You wouldn‘t think it would necessarily affect someone with darker skin, but it does. Not as much as it will you or me. But still.‖ ―And he won‘t tomorrow?‖ ―Be so pale? No, I‘ll be applying bronzer in a little bit. A little blush over that.‖ ―His eyes are closed. I thought dead people‘s eyes were always open.‖ ―It‘s one of the first things I do. Seal the eyes. Gives me a better sense of what I‘m working with, what I‘m working toward. But yes, the natural state of the eyes is to be open, even in death. Something to that, I suppose.‖ ―How did it happen?‖ ―It didn‘t happen, the man said. ―He did it. I mean, the gun didn‘t jump into his mouth, did it? Guns don‘t kill people and all that. You want the truth? He wouldn‘t be getting a Christian burial if his family wasn‘t rich. I‘m sorry, I shouldn‘t say that. The family, they‘re very Catholic. Although I suppose no one‘s a little Catholic. Sort of an all in proposition. They‘ve had it put down as an accident.‖ ―How did he do it?‖ ―Here,‖ he said. He took Jaime‘s face in one hand and lower jaw in the other and gently pried them open. He pulled a penlight out of his pocket and shined it into Jaime‘s mouth, encouraging Aaron to peer in, like some first year dental student. There in the middle of the upper palate was a small void, no bigger than a nickel. The skin around it looked freshly blistered. ―Small caliber,‖ he said. ―Which is risky. Sometimes the bullet lodges. Bounces around. Only takes out non-essential parts of the brain, leaves a live drooler. Your
friend was a lucky shot. Through the soft palate, into the medulla oblongata. Med-oooola,‖ he sang, ―oblong-aahhhhh-ta.‖ He looked around nervously. ―Sorry,‖ he said. ―I‘ve always thought that had a musical sound to it.‖ He took Jaime‘s head and jaw in his hands and worked it shut. ―Jaw muscles are a bastard,‖ he said. ―Lockers.‖ He took a moment to make sure the molars in Jaime‘s mouth matched up, massaging the jaw until it clicked. ―It‘s the biggest choice a person can ever make,‖ he said, ―and they‘ve taken it from him. There‘s so much caught up in it. Shame. Anger. But his life had become a burden to him, so he let it go. No fault in it. But now it‘s their burden. Yours, too. And they all say If only he’d asked us for help. But he‘s asking now. He‘s saying, I couldn’t carry my life anymore. I need you to carry it for me.‖ He ran his hand along the cold surface of Jaime‘s cheek, then suddenly pulled his hand back. ―More often than not,‖ he said, ―they don‘t. They carry the death with them and no one is left to carry the life.‖ He looked at Aaron with the same appraising look he‘d given him in the doorway. ―Give me your hand,‖ he said. He put Aaron‘s hand against the crown of Jaime‘s skull and pressed it there. The spot had an odd feel to it, a give like a large piece of stryrofoam. Aaron thought of a baby‘s fontinelle, how you were never supposed to touch the top of the baby‘s head where the skull wasn‘t yet there. ―You feel how strange that is? How it‘s not right?‖ he asked. Aaron nodded. He wanted his fingers back, he wanted to not be touching this, but his hand was held there against the back of Jaime‘s head. ―It‘s not skull,‖ said the man. ―I made that. I built that. The bullet left an exit wound almost four inches across. Most of the brain was gone when he got to me. No skull in the back.‖ ―Why are you showing me this?‖ Aaron asked. He knew that he‘d asked for it, that he‘d banged on the door to be let in. Once in, he was wondering what door he could bang on to be let out.
―I‘m showing you his death,‖ the man said. ―Which I worked. I prepped it. No one else will see it, because tonight, after you leave, I‘ll finish covering it up, so that none of them will have to face it. Tomorrow, they‘ll see him sleeping, not dead.‖ Aaron looked at Jaime‘s face. It looked nothing like his friend; it was a play upon his friend. Variations on a theme. The man grabbed his hand and laid it on Jaime‘s chest. The skin was cold, fishlike. The man held Aaron‘s hand there. ―This is his body. This is his death. They will say nice things about him,‖ he said, ―about his life, and they will bury his life and they will all carry his death out with them into the world.‖ He ran Aaron‘s fingers along the y-cut, a jagged tear in the chest sutured with thick dark stitches. He dragged Aaron‘s hand down to the base of Jaime‘s stomach, ran it up the chest and traced both lines to his shoulder blades. ―I want you to see his death,‖ he said. ―To know that it is here, in this body, that in two days will go into the ground. I will take his death and I will keep it and I will hide it. It‘s mine now.‖ He took Aaron‘s hand off Jaime‘s chest, pressed it against Aaron‘s own chest. Aaron felt his heart beat against his own fingers. ―I want you to carry his life,‖ the man said. III. Aaron wasn‘t sure he‘d ever been in a church before, but St. Clare of Montefalco restored his faith in the sci fi fantasy trope of compression. Doctor Who‘s TARDIS, Harry Potter‘s Platform Nine and Three Quarters, all made sense after he‘d stepped through the storefront door sandwiched between Deluxe Hair & Nail and a pawnshop specializing in useless electronics. It led into an ornate isthmus that opened into the narthex of an inconceivably large Catholic church. Given the height of the vaulted ceilings, Aaron couldn‘t believe he‘d failed to notice it looming behind the block‘s retail establishments. There were a few people entering the church in front of him and each of them dipped fingers into a bowl of what Aaron assumed was holy water, crossing themselves
and leaving dabs of moisture on their shoulders. After doing this, they looked to the rafters as if waiting for someone to acknowledge what they‘d done. Bypassing the fingerbowl, Aaron hung his head sheepishly for a moment on entering, pausing to see if some divine wrath would be visited on the back of his neck. When none came, he kept his head down so none of the other mourners would notice his, he thought, obvious Jewishness attempting to sneak under the Catholic radar. Aaron twitched inside his suit, which had fit perfectly when Jaime had bought it for him, insisting he‘d need it for some high end business meeting that, when it finally came around, both of them had been excluded from. Aaron must have stood taller and held his shoulders wider back then, and now he looked like a teenager going to prom in his father‘s suit, except around the middle, where the cloth pulled taut. At the front of the church, near the dark mahogany casket, Jaime‘s parents were greeting mourners. A line of people stretched back to the middle of the pews. Aaron noted how composed they both were. They stood next to one another in front of the coffin like a wall protecting their son from the rest of the world, now when he needed it least. Aaron remembered the first time he met Jaime‘s father, moments before he‘d met Jaime. His father had come into their dorm room on move-in day lugging large box and betraying no indication it might be heavy. Aaron was sitting on his bare mattress reading a book and Jaime‘s father set the box down to glare at him. ―What are you doing here?‖ Jaime‘s father had asked. ―I live here,‖ Aaron said. Jaime, carrying what looked like much lighter packages came into the room after, followed by his mother, carrying nothing but her purse. A discussion ensued switching so rapidly that Aaron couldn‘t keep up. Jaime paused the conversation to explain things to Aaron. ―Sorry about this,‖ he said. ―I guess I was supposed to have a single.‖ ―You will have a single,‖ his father insisted. ―I don‘t know dad,‖ Jaime said, ―it might be nice to have a roommate.‖ Jaime‘s father sized Aaron up. ―He‘ll be a distraction from your studies,‖ he concluded. Aaron had never been described as a distraction before. The conversation lapsed back into Spanish, but ended with Jaime‘s father‘s face set in the same expression he wore now, a resignation to the fact his son‘s decisions and their consequences belong to Jaime alone, as much as his father might have wished it otherwise.
Aaron was about to join the line of people giving their condolences when a woman stepped in front of him. She was nearly as tall as Aaron, standing with her arms folded across her chest. She had Jaime‘s dark eyes, but her face was sharp where his had been softly rounded. Jaime‘s younger sister Inez looked at him like a mother wondering how many times she‘d told her son the very thing she was about to repeat. ―What the fuck are you doing here, Aaron?‖ she asked, immediately crossing herself after the cursing. Aaron had met Inez over Christmas break freshman year when Jaime, learning that Aaron was planning on staying in the dorms for the holiday, invited him to spend Christmas with the Hernandez family in a chalet in Wisconsin. Aaron had explained that as a Jew, Christmas was not the nexus for family and emotional stress it might otherwise be, but Jaime had insisted in the gentle way that Aaron had already learned he was powerless to refuse. Jaime‘s only stipulation was that Aaron not bring any marijuana into his family‘s house, which seemed reasonable. It was Aaron‘s first encounter with withdrawal since he‘d started casually smoking pot in high school, and giving up what had become a once or twice daily habit resulted in a simultaneous resurgence of Aaron‘s libido and the return of dreams to Aaron‘s sleep. Alone in the guest room at night after an evening spent chatting around the fireplace like a Rockwell painting recast for the coming century, Aaron found himself beset by vivid and prurient dreams about Jaime‘s skinny sister, then a junior in high school and the kind of tomboy who doesn‘t yet realize her sexual power over men. As a direct result, he found it nearly impossible to make eye contact with Inez for most of his stay, instead focusing his attention on the one part of her that seemed innocent enough, a half-healed scab below her right knee, still angry and red against the deep tan of her leg. But even this focal point had failed to derail his thoughts, and Aaron made excuses to leave the room whenever Inez entered, agonizing on those occasions they ended up next to one another on the couch. Aaron shot a look at Inez‘s knee below the line of her black dress to see if he could discern a scar, to see if the scab that had haunted his dreams still haunted her skin, but there was nothing there. ―I‘m here to pay my respects,‖ he said, still failing to hold eye contact all these years later. Inez had grown up, Aaron wondered if he could say the same about himself.
Her expression softened, and she closed her eyes slowly. ―That‘s very sweet, Aaron. He would have wanted you to be here. He talked about you a lot. Not about the case, but about you.‖ ―Did he—‖ Aaron tried to find the right way to put it, but every combination of words he came up with sounded awful and self-serving. ―We didn‘t know,‖ Inez said. ―I knew he was having a tough time of it, but nothing this bad. I‘d been trying to get him to let the case go for the past year. Dad refused to pay any more of the legal bills, Jaime was handling it all on his own.‖ ―He should have come to me if he needed money,‖ Aaron said. ―He never would have asked you for money for that. You made…he knew how you felt about it. I don‘t think it was about the money anymore.‖ Inez looked nervously over her shoulder at her parents, who were shaking hands and allowing themselves to be hugged. ―Aaron, you shouldn‘t let them see you.‖ ―Should I leave?‖ he asked. A petulance rose up in him, like he‘d gotten all dressed up for nothing. ―Stay in the back, okay? Your other friend is back there.‖ She pointed to the corner of the church and Aaron turned quickly to look, half expecting to see Eric. Sitting alone in the back, with her hair like fireworks launched from the black of her dress, was Alice.
IV. The church was near the school where Alice taught, so when the service let out, Aaron and Alice slipping out the back before the priest finished the benediction, she was able to find them a bar. A happy hour crowd was beginning to filter in, and Aaron fit right in with his rumpled suit and loosened tie. ―I think we‘re supposed to tell stories about him,‖ Alice said from behind her first beer. ―I can‘t think of any story about Jaime you wouldn‘t have been around for,‖ Aaron said. ―Or at least heard before.‖ ―It‘s what you‘re supposed to do,‖ she said, already annoyed with him, the way she
often was when he failed to exhibit what she thought of as normal human behavior. ―You start,‖ she said. Aaron tried, but none of the stories he could think of seemed appropriate to the situation. Alice showed him how easy it was, reminding him of the time the three of them had snuck into a broken down ambulance behind Doctors Hospital on Stony Island Avenue with a bottle of wine for each of them, and how before they left, Jaime had been careful to wipe everything down with his shirt, not to eradicate fingerprints but germs. Which reminded Aaron of the time they‘d stayed up all night watching every episode of The Prisoner and how Jaime had fallen asleep in the middle of an exam the next morning, even though the marathon had been his idea. They talked about playing whirlyball against a group of Pi Kap meatheads and getting kicked out of trivia night at Lottie‘s for being underage, ending a two month winning streak. The stories they chose tended to be from the early part of their friendship, before they‘d met Eric, but after a few drinks, they eased into stories that included him as well. Alice was telling about the July Fourth the four of them had spent running around a baseball diamond in Riis park, holding roman candles like magic wands until they spat fire into the night, when Aaron noticed something on the TV behind the bar. ―Hold up a second,‖ he said. He asked the bartender if he could turn on the sound, and since there didn‘t happen to be anything on the jukebox then, he obliged. CNN was showing footage of a flashmob at the World Trade Organization headquarters in DC. It brought a lump to Aaron‘s throat the kids still thought the Internet would save them if they could only embody it, bring its spontaneity and play into the real world. Inflict one reality on another. Aaron waited to hear what damage had been done to the building or how many cops had been injured to warrant news coverage, but nothing came. From what he could tell, it had been an assemblage of bodies. Back as far as the Boom you could barely ride the El past Wicker Park without thirty hipsters opening umbrellas in unison for some obscure political purpose. But this was near the top of the hour, tucked in with the real news. Police were looking for the organizer, who went by the nom de guerre Iktomi. The anchor described him as a known anarchist and hacker, pronouncing the word like a neologism (―Hah-kerr‖) and following it with an explanation that Aaron found reductive.
―A ‗hacker‘‖, the anchor explained, ― is a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.‖ Aaron had self-identified as a hacker for most of his twenties, and it depressed him how the anchor omitted the element of skill from this definition. As he‘d seen it, a hacker was an artist who chose information as their medium, elegance and efficiency as their aesthetics. The news went on to display a quote from a statement by Iktomi, emailed to the head of the WTO an hour after the DC police had dispersed the mob. The letters appeared on the screen in red and the newscaster read them with suitable contempt. ―They look for a way to unify us under something meaningless. Race. Class. Nation. Nation, the most meaningless of them all. The one that‘s empty without another signifier. So they offer us one nation under a flag. But they soak their flags in blood. So offer us one nation under the dollar. But the dollar can only buy narcotics. It can‘t give us anything we need. So someone else steps in. A salesman, another trickster. They point to something else. So they offer us a nation of affinity. They claim it will be yours. But it‘s theirs. Nations are always theirs. And we‘ve seen what their nations do. ― The newscaster moved on to celebrity gossip. Alice ordered another beer and looked uninterested. ―Friend of yours?‖ she asked. ―No,‖ Aaron said. ―It‘s strange they‘d be reporting on it at all.‖ ―You know the internet has become very popular these days,‖ she told him. Something had broken, the easy flow of stories between them had been cut off and now it was Aaron and Alice again. For a few hours it had been like Jaime was with them, making everything better, but he‘d left them and they were sitting in the bar alone with each other. ―How‘s Rambam?‖ she asked. ―She‘d good,‖ he said sullenly. ―She‘s getting fat.‖ ―You overfeed her.‖ ―She whines if she doesn‘t get fed,‖ Aaron said, signaling for another beer. ―She whines because she knows you‘ll feed her if she whines. I‘d think a feedback loop would be within your understanding.‖ ―That‘s an ‗Aaron‘s a robot‘ joke, right?‖ She smiled indulgently as if she knew he was going to say that.
―You know you told me within five to ten years you would‘ve been able to record someone‘s consciousness into a computer? A program that would give grieving families a reasonable facsimile of their dead loved ones to talk to?‖ ―And did you tell me that would be ghoulish and awful?‖ ―Five to ten years.‖ She mused on this, twirling her beer by the neck. ―I‘ve always been an optimist.‖ ―But you said would’ve been,‖ she said, as if she were now realizing it. ―You were always saying would’ve been.‖ ―What tense is that? Future imperfect?‖ ―Woulda shoulda coulda.‖ ―You didn‘t just say that,‖ Aaron said. Alice turned on him. ―So you wouldn‘t want some Jaime program to talk to right now?‖ The truth was he wanted Jaime there right now more than anything. Jaime with his unflappable calm. Jaime with his shrugging conviction that everything was headed towards being all right. The truth was he couldn‘t reconcile the Jaime he‘d known with the body he‘d touched the night before, couldn‘t imagine how that much hope had been exhausted. His own giving up made sense to him, but he couldn‘t make sense of Jaime giving up and wished he were here so Aaron could ask him why. If there was anyone he could share his frustration with, his anger, it was Alice. But if he let that go, Aaron wasn‘t sure what he‘d have left. ―He was alive the past four years I didn‘t talk to him,‖ Aaron said defiantly, not looking at her. ―The only time I ever heard from him was whenever he wanted me to testify.‖ ―Which you never did.‖ ―He wanted to go off and Quixote didn‘t mean I had to Sancho Panza after him.‖ ―That and you would‘ve forfeited your blood money,‖ Alice said. ―Don‘t call it that,‖ Aaron told her as if she‘d referred to him by some childhood nickname. ―You always called it that.‖ ―My bloody, my money,‖ he said. They both turned to their drinks. Someone had put money into the jukebox and the opening chords of ―The Dream Police‖ filled the
bar. As far as Aaron was concerned, the only thing more ridiculous than playing Cheap Trick in a Chicago bar would be playing Chicago in a Chicago bar. ―If he‘d lived another five years,‖ Alice said, ―maybe you coulda sent him a program of you to testify in your place. As good as the real thing.‖ ―Better, probably.‖ ―In your case, probably.‖ ―Do you understand how little people expect from their interactors?‖ Aaron said, sitting up straight for what felt like the first time in hours. A dull ache awoke in the small of his back. ―I‘m talking here computer, other person, shitzu, whatever. Minimal. They built a program in the sixties based on Rogerian mirroring therapy. That‘s when you talk and you say I was thinking about x the other day and the therapist says How do you feel about x? And back and forth. The computer looked for the keyword in the sentence, then formed a question around it, some vague flipping of the statement. On every fifth prompt, it affirmed the statement the patient gave. People ate it up. Talked to it for hours. Thought of it as a friend.‖ ―No one would fall for that for hours,‖ she said. He raised his eyebrows to signal, oh yeah? ―My record was two hours, fourteen minutes,‖ he said. ―You used the program for two hours fourteen minutes?‖ ―I ran the program for two hours fourteen minutes,‖ Aaron said. ―I used it on someone. It‘s a set of conversational protocols, a person can run it as well as a computer. Better, probably. In my case.‖ ―Bullshit.‖ ―I used it on you,‖ he said. ―Dinner,‖ he said. ―Square Kitchen. Two weeks before we broke up. I started on the walk over, stopped when we started making out in the cab home.‖ ―Asshole,‖ she said, shaking her head. ―You were annoyed with your manager at Blick. Debbie something. She made checklists. It reminded you of when you had to stay with your aunt when you were in high school. Lists of chores broken down by day, by week. And they both made a tsking noise. You hated that. You went on about it for a while.‖
―You never fail to disappoint, do you?‖ she said, grabbing her purse from the hook under the bar and rising from her barstool on legs that slightly quivered. ―Have a good night, Aaron.‖ Aaron soaked in the useless glory of winning an argument, the bitter victory of hurting her one more time. ―Does this mean I‘m buying your drink?‖ he asked, trying to sound smug but only coming off as tired and sad. ―You can afford it,‖ Alice said, reminding Aaron that, as usual, he hadn‘t won anything at all.
CONNECT TWO We are all Aabam Sallah Video of peace protester Aabam Sallah being brutally tortured in police custody. Please repost. How much longer will we allow the Bakamar government to torture its citizens, even while the government‘s policies keep her people poor? Today it was Aabam Sallah. Tomorrow it could well be you or me. July 24 at 7:23pm · Like/Unlike ·Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah A Khandaqi who is almost 60 years old has cut his hand veins today in front of the High Court. He works for the government and he earns 67 Khandaqi pounds a month (about 12 dollars a month) and he has not been paid by the government for four years!!! Some corrupt Khandaqi government officials own whole islands and have millions of Khandaqi pounds. Khandaqi government corruption has no limits. July 24 at 8:07pm · Like/Unlike ·Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Very Important: We will be doing a FULL live coverage of protests in Khandaq and all other protests that are taking place worldwide to support Khandaqi protests today Tuesday 25th. Please follow me on Holler (#aabamsallah) and on the InterEm page here. If you haven't already invited all your friends, please do this now. 25th July is our big day. July 24 at 8:13pm · Like/Unlike ·Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Now: Groups of youth are walking around the area shouting slogans: Freedom and Bread are every Khandaqi request. July 25 at 5:25am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Large crowd in front of the High court in Shiruta now
July 25 at 5:45am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Three marches have started now from: Shiruta Univ Bridge, Magra residential district and the central police station, all towards the city square… July 25 at 6:01am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Protesters at the High Court break down the Police siege and run towards Shiruta square. Our reporters say: Amazing scenes there. July 25 at 6:23am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Protesters moving to opera house from Shiruta square. Their number is well over 1000. July 25 at 6:38am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah Very large crowd. Police cordon is broken and police are now surrounded by protesters for the first time in Khandaq's history. July 25 at 7:02am · Like/Unlike · Comment/Share We are all Aabam Sallah If you are in Shiruta and you were waiting for something real to happen for you to decide to go to the protest. It's happening. Time now to join protest. July 25 at 7:33am · Like · Comment/Share
THREE: Baby Your Phrasing Is Bad I. One of the nice things about weed was its tendency to reinforce routine. Aaron woke up the morning after Jaime‘s funeral, face buried in his pillow, one leg hanging off the side of the bed, and Rambam exerting her considerable weight on his upper back. For a few minutes he lay there, thinking about everything he‘d said to Alice the night before and resigning himself to the fact he wouldn‘t be getting up until Rambam decided to let him. Eventually she did and Aaron‘s first decision of the morning was to pack a bowl and take two solid puffs from it. Mildly stoned by the time he hit the shower, Aaron found the prospect of facing the day much more manageable. It was shaping up to be another armpit of a day and as he pulled a teeshirt over his head, it clung wetly to his skin. At the office, he argued feebly with the air conditioner, then set about working on a project he‘d been putting off but knew would take several days of his attention. He began sorting through years of blog entries by a client, a Chicago bike messenger who‘d met his end on the front grill of a Goose Island Beer truck two months ago on one of the first hot days of the season. The entries ranged from diatribes on traffic patterns and the certain collapse of any city designed primarily for automobiles rather than people, to a slothropian mapping of secretaries and administrative assistants bedded across the city, although more often than not it wasn‘t a bed involved but the boss‘s desk. Not one to kiss-and-tell-everyone, the client had kept the blog mostly private, but he had apparently been more worried about his own honor than that of his paramours. His contract with DIS called for the entries to be collected into a manuscript to be printed and shipped to several prominent publishers in New York. Aaron read each entry and ruminated on it until he found a classification for it. Chapters formed in his mind. Conceptual Failures of the Radiant City. Polyamory in the Age of Interconnectedness. Fractures, Scrapes and Sprains. Tesseracts of Downtown Chicago. Introduction to Bicycle Maintenance. The Kama Sutra of the Ergonomic Office. After he clocked out each day, usually an hour or so before the sun crept into the lake, Aaron went home and smoked himself up again. He threw himself into massive reading projects. He fell asleep reading Shakespeare‘s history plays with The Kinks are
the Village Green Preservation Society playing on the stereo. He fell asleep reading Proust in the Lydia Davis translation with Serge Gainsbourg‘s Histoire de Melody Nelson on the stereo. He fell asleep reading the DSM-IV with Pink Floyd‘s Saucer Full of Secrets playing on the stereo. Each night, a different tome slipped through his fingers and fell open on his chest as he dropped into the shallow, dreamless sleep of the habitual pot smoker. Rambam, jealous of any physical object other than herself that might get to sleep on Aaron, shoved each book onto the floor with her forehead. Aaron woke each morning with his weighty literature replaced by a weighty feline, and the needle scratching rhythmically against the record label. With this regular application of weed and work, Aaron managed to avoid thinking about his dead friend for exactly six days. On the seventh day, he opened the drawer of his nightstand and found the Ziploc bag that had been full of pillowy buds at the beginning of the week was empty but for stems and resin. The drawer held a skunky smell like the ghost of the drugs, but Aaron had let his supply dry up. He showered and brushed his teeth, amazed at how violent these processes turned out to be. The washcloth scourged his skin and the toothbrush scoured his gums. He spat a mouthful of blood and saliva into the sink and stared down at the pink spiderwebs on the ceramic. He searched the medicine cabinet for floss and, finding none, realized lack of dental diligence had brought on some scurvy-esque gum bleeding affliction that would probably cost him his teeth. He fled the bathroom mirror and dressed in a panic, and as he locked the door behind him, Aaron realized he was heading into work with absolutely nothing to do. Hours of idle thought stretched out like a chasm before him and the nerves that held the pain of Jaime‘s death in them began to tingle malignantly. II. When he reached the third floor, there were two men waiting for him outside his office he knew were not potentials. Wearing matching grey suits and dark shades despite the dim of the hallway, the pair screamed law enforcement, federal level. One of them, taller than Aaron and half again as wide, had the rigid at ease posture and closecropped haircut of former military; the other, short, stocky and grey-haired with rimless round glasses and a pencil mustache along the edge of his upper lip, stood slightly
behind the larger man, arms akimbo. He reminded Aaron of a flaccid Teddy Roosevelt. ―Aaron Zeitlin?‖ asked the larger man as Aaron approached. A flight response flooded his limbic system, his mouth full of slick, coppery saliva. ―Who wants to know?‖ ―Agent White,‖ said the larger man, flipping his badge open and shut. ―Agent Strunk,‖ he said and tilted his head on its redwood trunk of a neck towards the smaller man. ―FBI. We‘d like to ask you a few questions. Can we step—‖ ―May we step,‖ interrupted his partner. ―May we step into your office?‖ Aaron assessed the breadth of the two men, one across the shoulders and the other across the middle. ―You can try,‖ he said. ―I‘m not sure we‘ll all fit.‖ Nerves rankling with adrenaline, Aaron jangled the key into the lock and shouldered the door open. He tossed his messenger bag into the corner and took his seat behind the desk in an attempt to establish territorial authority. The two agents crammed into the room such that Strunk‘s paunch rested on the edge of the desk and White straddled the desk‘s corner, the desk giving a minor lift to what Aaron couldn‘t avoid noticing was a prodigious bulge in his pants. It shot through Aaron‘s mind that in gaming speak, an agent referred to a non-player character, a program within the program. With his left arm pinned to his side by the filing cabinets, White put his right hand on his hip, jostling Strunk with his elbow and pulling back his own suit coat to reveal an also prodigious firearm. Aaron felt sufficiently cowed. ―Mr. Zeitlin, I‘m going to shoot straight with you,‖ White said. Aaron wondered if, given the reveal of the gun, this was intended as a joke.―Agent Strunk and I are part of a special task force on Information Terrorism. I‘m sure you‘ve heard about it.‖ ―Not really,‖ Aaron said. Agent White nodded glumly. ―To be honest, since the whole War on Terror revved up, there have been less man hours—‖ ―Fewer man hours,‖ said Strunk. ―Fewer man hours and…fewer attention?‖ Strunk shook his head.
―Less attention. Given to our unit. Meaning each of us tasked to Infoterrorism must do their best—‖ ―His best,‖ said Strunk. ―His?‖ ―Or her.‖ ―Huh. To make the most of those hours. Meaning, we have minimal patience for the usual…what‘s the word I‘m looking for?‖ ―Obfuscation,‖ offered Strunk. ―No, that‘s not it.‖ ―Prolixity,‖ offered Strunk. ―Well, that, of course, but no.‖ ―Dissembling,‖ offered Aaron. ―Exactly. Used by your sort. We‘ll ask questions and you will answer them directly and concisely. Understood?‖ ―Sure,‖ Aaron said. ―Good.‖ White took a notepad out of his inside jacket pocket. ―What is the nature of Death Information Services?‖ Aaron ruminated a moment, omitting needless words from his response. ―Digital estate management,‖ he concluded. ―And what does that mean?‖ ―Concisely?‖ ―Don‘t try to aggravate me, Mr. Zeitlin.‖ ―Irritate,‖ said Strunk. ―Really?‖ asked White. Strunk nodded sternly. ―There‘s a difference?‖ Strunk nodded again. White absorbed this information, then decided to change tacks. ―Mr. Zeitlin, what do you know about an individual who operates under the alias Iktomi?‖ ―The guy on the news?‖ Agent White nodded. ―We have reason to believe you‘ve been in contact with this
individual.‖ ―What reason is that?‖ ―We believe you and him—‖ ―You and he,‖ said Strunk. ―—float in the same circles.‖ ―I don‘t float in circles anymore,‖ Aaron said. ―But you are something of a celebrity within the hacker community, Mr. Zeitlin,‖ said Agent White. ―Are you asking me or telling me?‖ ―Asking.‖ ―There is no hacker community,‖ said Aaron. ―What, do you think we have meetings?‖ ―You were involved in the creation of the social networking site, InterEm, isn‘t that correct?‖ ―I was involved.‖ ―You must make a lot of money,‖ Agent White said, giving a critical eye to the cramped office with its flaking paint. ―I‘m no longer involved,‖ said Aaron. ―Do you know a Mr. Eric Hardy?‖ Aaron grinned bitterly. ―I knew a Mr. Eric Hardy.‖ ―You two are no longer acquainted?‖ ―We stopped sending Christmas cards a while back.‖ ―I was led to believe you were Jewish.‖ ―That was part of the reason.‖ ―Was there bad blood between you?‖ ―If he‘s a suspect in anything, I‘m happy to testify against him.‖ Agent White looked at him to determine if he was being serious. ―He‘s not a suspect, I saw him in a magazine. I don‘t think the article mentioned you.‖ ―They generally don‘t,‖ Aaron said. Agent White nodded and added something to his notepad. ―Irregardless of that,‖ White began, but Strunk cut him off by clearing his throat
loudly. ―Nevertheless, we believe that through your ties to the hacker community, you may be in possession of information related to this individual‘s identity.‖ ―What exactly has this individual done?‖ ―I‘m afraid that‘s none of your concern.‖ ―Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,‖ stated Aaron, although it had occurred to him how minimal he‘d been keeping that involvement lately. ―I‘m sorry?‖ ―John Donne,‖ explained Strunk, giving Aaron a nod to indicate he was duly impressed. Aaron found himself nodding back. ―Mr. Zeitlin,‖ said White, casually touching the butt of his gun, ―let me leave things at this: there is an ongoing federal investigation surrounding this individual, an investigation in which you are now formerly a part.‖ ―Formally,‖ said Strunk. ―Your friends and loved ones may also be subject to investigation.‖ ―I don‘t have any friends and loved ones,‖ Aaron said. ―Or,‖ said Strunk. ―Regardless,‖ White said tentatively, looking to his partner for approval before continuing, ―we always get our man.‖ ―I thought that was the Mounties.‖ ―It‘s us too.‖ White pulled his jacket over his gun and buttoned up. ―I would strongly suggest that if you remember anything about this individual, you contact us immediately.‖ ―Of course,‖ said Aaron, smiling politely. ―If that‘s all, you gentlemen will forgive me if I don‘t climb over the desk to let you out.‖
II. For a long time after they‘d left, Aaron sat silently at his desk. It seemed unlikely the FBI was mistaken entirely and more likely Aaron had encountered Iktomi at some point and simply failed to notice. There had been a time when he‘d been conversant with any number of hackers, and not always in a chemical state to remember the arcana of their
changing handles and aliases. In fact, Yog Soggoth, the grand old man of Aaron‘s onetime hacker friends and the only one he was still in occasional contact with, was also the only hacker Aaron knew who‘d kept the same nom de guerre for his entire storied career. The name Iktomi sounded vaguely familiar, but Aaron couldn‘t place it. He tried to focus on his short to-do list, but the name kept nagging at him. He turned on his desktop to do a search, but as the screen lit up, it occurred to him Agents Strunk and White had all but told him his computer was being monitored. Aaron looked at the phone, daring it to ring with new business. He looked at the door, willing a new potential to knock. He looked at the fax machine, but even death had abandoned him. He told himself he should forget about it, then, ignoring that thought entirely, shut off the computer, hit the lights and got onto the train towards Wicker Park. Until last year, Aaron had used the computers at the public library for any internet activity he wanted to keep anonymous. The initial prompt asking for a library card number was easily gotten around and a simple encryption script would make it difficult for anyone to track what he‘d been up to even if they‘d determined what computer he‘d been using. But the Chicago Public Library had come up with an unhackable system. A dour stereotype of a middle-aged female librarian now stood guard over the terminals, checking and recording the names and identification numbers of all users. Faced with this impenetrable firewall, Aaron had resorted to using the public terminals at Filter, the last café in Chicago to provide them for the rare Wicker Park hipster without a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Filter had once been housed in the knifepoint of a flatiron building that stabbed into Wicker Park, but it had lost its lease to a Bank of America branch several years ago and moved into an old appliance store with unreachable ceilings crisscrossed by the heavy metal vents and pipes that remained a necessary vogue in Chicago design circles. Left over from the former incarnation were electrical outlets in the floor at radial intervals approximately the length of an electrical cord. Filter was a paradise for laptop users. Every seat at every couch, carrel or table was within reach of a recharge and the wifi signal was strong enough to pick up in your fillings. Filter also maintained two pairs of public terminals: two Macs and two PCs. None of them were the sexiest models on the market. They were dated and dowdy compared to some of the pretty young things the clientele brought in, the weightless and cloud-
based. But they were serviceable and difficult to trace. Aaron bought an Americano and two hours of access, paying cash. He was relieved to see the PC in the furthest corner was unoccupied and set up at it. He tucked his coffee behind the screen to cool and pulled a silver Walkman out of his messenger bag. He placed it on the table next to the keyboard and fed it a tape of the Sonics, a garage band from Tacoma in the sixties. Many bands from that era were considered garage bands, but the Sonics were the only one Aaron could picture in their suits, thrashing guitars and screaming in some suburban garage. He plugged a pair of dated headphones, foam gripped around low-rent speakers, into it and started the tape. The Walkman had developed a sped-up quarter turn every fourth time the pins made a turn, bending whatever note Gerry Rosalie was wailing, but Aaron had learned to incorporate this into his listening experience. Aaron took a second to scowl at the Graphic User Interface, the agreed upon mediator between the person and the machine. Most people only felt annoyance with GUIs when they aggressively asserted themselves as talking paperclips, idiot puppies or condescending install wizards, but like most programmers and hackers, Aaron despised GUIs from the moment they presented themselves. The closest correlative he‘d been able to come up with was the Latinate mass. GUIs were full of ceremony and spectacle while they obscured the real goings on from the common user and simultaneously assured her she was in full control as she swallowed the body and the blood, the file and the folder. He rebooted the computer and before the startup could kick in, bypassed to command line with a series of finger contortions that looked like complicated piano chords. Here was communion. The blinking white cursor on a black screen greeted him. From here, it said to him, anything is possible. With a whoami command, Aaron made sure no other users had access to the terminal. It was virginal white. He set up a triple reroute before accessing the internet through a telnet program: Filter‘s wifi linked to a mirror in San Francisco, remirrored somewhere within a massive server in Russia. Russian servers were notoriously unsecure but saw so much traffic that to find any particular activity would be like finding a needle in a needlestack. Aaron accessed 4Chan, the dark matter of the Internet. It was nearly unobservable but defined the physics of the Internet as a whole. It birthed memes and nurtured them until they were ready to assault the general populace. It
spewed virals and antivirals like a geyser of intellectual filth. It was the shadow of everything and most people who stumbled on it backed away from its fierce unintelligibility like the site was rabid, which it largely was. Most of the traffic was pure text, the images and videos that moved through the site were generally porn, a statistically aberrant amount of it Japanese in origin and a statistically aberrant amount of that involving cartoon women being raped by octopi or squid. One of the central tenets of the Internet, according to the weird hivemind god of 4Chan was that whatever you could think of, there was porn of it. Another was that if there wasn‘t porn of it, you needed to make porn of it. There was always some 4Chan user willing to enforce these rules. Once onto the site through a pure-text portal, Aaron entered a search for Iktomi. If someone had asked him why he was bothering to look into Iktomi at all, he would have been unable to articulate it. He might have said something about pattern recognition, or about noticing a glitch in a program before it spiraled outward into a crash. He might have even admitted it was because today was the day he‘d run out of drugs and things to do that didn‘t involve thinking about Jaime. He was skeptical anything would turn up, but it was better to assess the glitch now, and besides, he had the time. The 4Chan search yielded a few dozen results, but the most popular seemed to be IkChat, so Aaron selected it. The system asked him who he would like to log in as. DUMA, he typed, using the name of the angel of silence. He waited for a password prompt and got none. As simple as that, he was in the chat room, which immediately introduced him to the rules. 1. We are Iktomi, the screen informed him. 2. Iktomi is legion 3. Iktomi never forgives 4. Iktomi can be a horrible, senseless, uncaring monster 5. Iktomi is still able to deliver 6. There are no real rules about posting 7. There are no real rules about moderation either – enjoy your ban Aaron had always enjoyed a good set of commandments, and there was something nice and concise about seven. The window showed there were almost six
hundred people in the room, all of them with names of six characters or less. Someone going by the name NE1 was holding court. i vote pizza strike, NE1 said. cz its 2002 rite? asked REDX u hate on them cz they fked yr medz, said MMM. fked yr mom, said NE1. no info=no strk, said KYOT. pstrike needs no info, said NE1. they r the douche no info=no strk, repeated KYOT. Against his better judgment, Aaron entered the conversation. came late, he typed. who? duma short for dumass? asked HVNCDY. bringing pn to bristol myers squbb, said NE1. 4why? asked Aaron. 4 bing fkers, said NE1. best you can do? asked KYOT. In the pauses of this conversation, a dozen others raged, most of them in strings of expletives. Any chat room had its backbone narrative and its chaff, and Aaron suspected this conversation was the one to follow. It had a lower tendency to fall apart after three posts. He was also coming to realize it was KYOT and not NE1 in charge, to the extent anyone was. need info, NE1 posted. info=yr mom is a whore, posted DBLO0. info=fked yr sister, added MMM. thomas.loc.gov/legislativedata.php?&n=Record/hr11785, posted REDX. The central conversation paused as the participants, including Aaron, went to the link, which Aaron built another window to read. The link was to a Congressional House resolution that enforced a strict trade policy in southern Africa restricting the sale of a line of generic AIDS drugs, a group of reverse-transcriptase inhibitors that had proven particularly effective in treating HIV, especially if it was diagnosed before symptoms set in. The policy was heavily lobbied for by the drug company Bristol Myers Squibb, who held the patent on the name brand version of the drug: azidothymidine, commonly known as AZT and marketed as Retrovis.
vs.http://en.wikipedia.org/zidovudine#development, posted REDX. The link described how the National Institutes of Health had created a powerful reversetranscripterase inhibitor, zidovudine, which proved remarkably effective in the treatment of early stage HIV. The wiki entry carefully elided the fact that the government had gifted the patent to Bristol Myers Squibb, but both ends of the story, where the drug was developed and where it ended up, were quite clear. vs.securethefuture.com, posted REDX to finalize the argument. The linked site was a pabulum from Bristol Myers Squibb about their dedication to the treatment of AIDS in southern Africa. The Secure the Future foundation had been formed by Bristol Myers Squibb three years after the house resolution to promote the donation of AIDS drugs to South Africa. crt case went three yrs, posted REDX. 3mil s africans dead on bms tab. mils more go fullblown and untreatable. now they are tx brk city for charitable wrk. fk pizza strk, posted MMM. fk bms, posted RVR, who had yet to be heard from. A chorus joined in, mostly fucks and yeahs. fx bom? asked TITUS. Aaron fondly remembered the days of fax bombing, where you blacked out a sheet of paper with a sharpie and faxed it to someone you wanted to piss off. Done repeatedly, it wasted massive amounts of toner and, on occasion, caused the fax machine to overheat and burst into flames. It was a childish prank, what he‘d thought of as a hacker prank, back when he‘d drawn a fine line between hackers and programmers and placed himself firmly on the latter side. Back then, hackers were poltergeists. Professional fuckers. Programmers were the ones who cared how things worked. Now hack was simpler slang. It meant the best way to get something done, in program or off. wek, said MMM. dds, said NE1. uge dds need funds 4bots, said KYOT. get funds, said NE1. get funds, said KYOT. A flood of promises followed, amounts ranging from five dollars to five hundred. Aaron knew this drill well enough from his brief dealings with Yog Soggoth, who was famed for his Direct Denial of Service attacks. To bring down a
website by traffic overload, you needed a daunting number of computers all making simultaneous service requests. One way to do this was to virally slave bits of unsuspecting computers‘ attention, so that unwitting users were helping to bring down a site. This was exactly the kind of activity a GUI blinded its user to: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, even if he happens to be a three hundred pound Scottish hacker. Another was to purchase time on the same massive banks of idle Russian computers Aaron was currently using to reroute his signal. But access to those computers at that scale cost money. As Aaron watched, the money poured in. Leaning back from the keyboard, Aaron wondered if Agents Strunk and White were somewhere in the six hundred users in the chat room, if they were jotting meticulous notes with impeccable spelling. He wondered how you could prosecute a viper‘s nest of righteous anger. Most of these users would have taken even more precautions than Aaron to protect themselves from being traced to their home terminals. After all, he could stand up and walk away from this computer and be utterly untraceable, while their personal IP addresses were at the tail end of whatever serpentine series of bounces they‘d set up. Most frustrating was that none of them was Iktomi. Kyot seemed the most likely, but it also seemed Iktomi might be nothing more than a channel for broadcasting vitriol, a way to take anger and collectivize it into something that mattered. Aaron picked up his coffee, which had dropped below the temperature of the airconditioned room. He slugged it back, bitter and sharp, and shut the computer down. III. As the red line train rumbled out of Armitage stop headed north, taking up its usual argument with the tracks, Aaron found himself wondering, as he often did, why he no longer owned a car. Chicago was not a convenient city to get around in by transit, although the traffic was no less enjoyable. He imagined his old Toyota was still rusting away by the curb out front of the apartment the four of them had once shared. Or maybe Eric, for the sake of completeness, had stolen that too. At Fullerton, a half dozen men and women in trench coats, each carrying some sort of satchel, loaded into the car. They gave no indication of knowing one another, but
Aaron kept his eyes on them. For a moment, it occurred to him he was about to die in a terrorist attack, but the faces of the men and women, actually boys and girls was closer to the mark, were all those of bright, cheerful white people. Unless everything he had been told about terrorists was wrong, he was probably safe. That, and the likelihood of terrorists attacking a train outbound red line seemed low. Still, Aaron lifted his book higher to allow himself to eye them without their noticing. Two more stops passed without incident, but after the train had pulled past Wilson, the trenchcoated youths all opened their bags and pulled out paper masks of Wile E. Coyote, which they pulled over their bright, cheerful Caucasian faces. Each of them approached one of the advertising panels in the car and began to wallpaper over it with posters. When the masks came out, Aaron remembered where he‘d heard the name Iktomi before. It hadn‘t been in a chat room or 4Chan but in an anthropology class in college. Iktomi was was a Lakota trickster god, a local version of Coyote, the more celebrity Native American trickster. Aaron moved towards the nearest poster as the masked, trenchcoated boy plastered it up. CTA discriminates against the poor. #CTAkers, the poster read. Below this statement was a chart showing the median incomes in Chicago neighborhoods and the amount spent by the Chicago Transit Authority on repairs and safety upgrades in those neighborhoods. From CTA according to its ability. To Chicago according to its need. #ELementarymydearmarx, read the slogan below the chart. And a third one, more oblique, with a Mayor Daley‘s face photoshopped onto a nude fifties pin-up body and a slogan that read Only the Emperor is Wearing Clothes. #NortonV. As the train slowed into the Argyle stop, the trenchcoated youths finished smoothing down their new posters and approached the doors. Aaron grabbed one of them by the sleeve. The boy turned his cardboard mask to Aaron, the overconfident smirk of Wile E. Coyote, that most hapless of tricksters. ―Are you with Iktomi?‖ Aaron asked, strangely sure this was the right question. ―Of course we are, Aaron,‖ said the boy, the mask muffling his voice, which was already buried in the screech of the train‘s brakes. ―Aren‘t you?‖ The boy shook himself loose from Aaron‘s grip and stepped off the train, leaving Aaron holding the upper bar as the train continued on past his destination.
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