Aaron had come to realize he needed bars. They provided him with a type and level of socializing he craved. It was a need he’d as soon be rid of, but needs didn’t work that way. Aaron knew how to operate in a bar. Not in the sense of meeting women. The more any interaction moved towards a sexual encounter, the more Aaron’s ability to operate broke down. He worked well on the broad and shallow scale bars provided; myriad points of light interface, each easily broken off in favor of another. He could move from point to point, gathering or dispensing information. The data that moved back and forth in bar chatter was unfraught, and behavioral expectations were simple enough to figure out. Socializing in a bar was not unlike the web surfing he used to do late at night, back in college. He controlled the levels of interaction, he flitted from one site to another, drawn by information and the willingness to exchange it. The web gave up its information because it had been programmed to do so. People chose to give up little bits of themselves into the social world, to one another. Partaking in the commerce of these microexchanges, even while aware of it as commerce, had a humanizing effect on Aaron. It was a comfort to him he’d found a way to satisfy it in the thrum and rush of crowded bars. And the Real World, as much as he might hate to admit it, was his bar.
The Real World was different from most of the bars that sprang up during the Boom in that it was geared mostly towards techies. For the grand opening, flawed bits of code had been sent as invites, indecipherable to layout experts and content providers. With a series of deft fixes by the recipients, the code opened into an elaborately designed invitation. The bar felt sleek and sparse until you needed something, at which point you realized it had been close at hand the whole time. There was comfortable seating that gave groups of any size the feeling of privacy, the acoustics of the room keeping conversations focused in on themselves to prevent eavesdropping, while still creating the light din of a lively bar even on slow nights. Pinkish lighting balanced out the wan skin of the patrons, imbuing hollow cheeks with healthy glows. Most importantly, drink service was ruthlessly efficient, with cocktails mixed to perfection and poured into glasses that fit in the hand like the hand of a lover. In the early days, the Real World functioned as a place for money to court talent. Bloggers were treated like Hemingways, designers touted as Picassos. Looking back on it, Aaron thought of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and wished he’d been around when the first overnight CEO saw the initial spots on his hand, the sign the fete was over and there was nothing left but to bleed out. The Real World managed to maintain its mystique for techs and hackers long after unemployed bloggers and busted dotcom entrepreneurs had decided the web was financially done for, and darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
Aaron and Alice frequented the bar during their time together, had even had one of their more spectacular arguments there. The tech head clientele treated Aaron like a cross between a celebrity and a prodigal son. Everyone knew his story and everyone took his side. He was one of them. The Real World welcomed him with open arms.
In a corner, Aaron spotted his objective for the night: Takashi, hunched over a table fiddling with something, sweat already beginning to bead in his dark hair and trickle down the collar of his pressed shirt. Aaron started in that direction when he collided with a woman a foot shorter than him. Careful not to spill his drink, he looked down at the pixie grinning up at him, pigtails striped bright blue and green.
Ganesha was a few years younger than Aaron and carried the spark of a freshly-escaped undergrad. There was no weariness about her; she crackled with an energy and a righteousness. Her generation within the hacker community had adopted a pirated middle management fashion aesthetic, a storm front where professionalism and punk crashed. Ganesha’s khaki’s were cut off, the legs at different lengths, and ragged bits of her chambray shirt’s sleeves had been used to tie up her hair. It seemed to Aaron that generations lasted about three years, and though he’d been left confused when youngsters like Takashi had abandoned tee shirts and torn jeans for Brooks Brothers and Paul Smith, he was comforted when Ganesha and her cohort began taking scissors to their All-Cotton Dockers and spray-stenciling profanity onto Geoffrey Beene ties.
“Aaron,” she said, touching his elbow. “It’s good to see you. I was so sorry to hear about Jaime.” It hadn’t occurred to him anyone in the World would know or care about Jaime, who Aaron was sure hadn’t set foot in the bar in four years. “Does everyone know?” he asked, half to himself.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It seemed sort of hushed up. I came across the obituary researching something else. Had you talked to him lately?” She kept her eyes fixed on him, the irises so dark they made her eyes seem cartooned, perfect black circles floating in white fields. Aaron had determined she was of Southeast Asian descent, somewhere humid. The fact she never seemed to sweat, even as Chicago’s heat index crept upward, was his chief evidence. He imagined her skin would be cool as a clay pot.
“Not in a long time,” he said.
“You know the judge had denied a request to subpoena some of InterEm’s internal emails a couple weeks ago.”
“I haven’t been following the case.”
“The family dropped the suit three days ago,” she said, “before they even put him in the ground.” She paused for a reaction, but Aaron didn’t give one, except to nod solemnly. Ganesha had gotten subtler in her lines of inquiry, but it always amounted to the same thing. Since the moment she’d learned who he was, she’d been determined to get the details of Aaron’s story. She’d once offered to sleep with him in exchange, an offer he’d politely declined but which had been the subject of numerous fantasies, especially since his breakup with Alice. Ganesha had appointed herself the official scribe of the Internet, claiming this was possibly the first major advance in human communication that could be documented as it happened.
“When all those cave paintings went up in Lascaux,” she’d explained to him, “no one was around to say, Holy shit, we made some cave paintings. No one’s ever done that before, we should totally write down how we’re feeling and why we decided to do this. Or like, when Gutenberg made his printing press, Channel Zwei News didn’t show to say, like, Hey Steve, how’s it feel to change the face of human interaction for all of history?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s Johann.”
“I’m pretty sure that was a joke. But here we are, totally cognizant of the fact that we’re altering not just the way we communicate, but the way we cogitate. We are the Gutenbergs and the cave painters. And it would be criminal if our stories weren’t told.”
And when she said it, Aaron had realized it was a central tenet of the Internet: the criminality of an untold story, the felonious nature of a feeling or thought undocumented. Ganesha didn’t see her questioning as invasive; she saw his evasion as an affront to the nature of culture.
“I don’t know anything about InterEm’s company policy,” Aaron said.
“But you must have had some say in policy when you were there.”
“When I was there, there was no company. It was me and Eric and Jaime working out of a shitty little apartment.”
“But you’ve got to admit the way the site is built makes certain assumptions about privacy.”
“The way the site was built makes certain assumptions about how the site had to work,” Aaron said. “As for assumptions about privacy — ”
She cut him off, “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m in reporter mode. Permission to treat the witness as non-hostile. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’ve already got one,” he said, making a move to walk by her. It wasn’t just that Aaron didn’t want to talk about InterEm; it was that he didn’t want to still be able to get upset about it. It was like seeing Alice again. He didn’t hate seeing her, he hated that the moment he saw her, whole ganglia of what should have been dead nerves lit up again.
“Aaron, I’m sorry. We’ll have a drink, we’ll talk. Regular people, no interview.” She smiled at him and he found himself smiling back.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“You can ask me anything,” said Ganesha. Her fingers brushed his arm.
“Have you ever heard of Iktomi?” This did not seem to be the question she was expecting and she drew back her hand to scratch her head.
“Hacktivist collective,” she said. “Started up around 2004, seems to go back to a couple chat rooms. Anarchist leanings, from what anyone can tell. Mostly harmless, although they’ve pissed some people off.”
“But it’s not one guy?”
“No, they’re headless horsemen. Global brain stuff. Anyone could be Iktomi at anytime,” she waved her fingers in front of him in a spooky motion. “Even me.”
“Not me,” Aaron said.
“Do you have a minute to chat?”
“I’ve actually got to catch Takashi real quick,” he said. He might not even mind a bit more interrogation; the morning’s run in with the FBI had taught him there was a comfort in using Raymond Chandler novels as a conversational plug-in script. Under interrogation, he might not feel as anxious around Ganesha as he did right now.
“Tell you what,” she said, putting her hand on his arm again, above the elbow, “I’ll buy your next drink.” Aaron was unused to being touched and pulled back from it before allowing his arm to relax against her hand.
“If you can find me,” he said, a weak attempt to flirt.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you,” she replied, a much stronger attempt to flirt. She slid away as if on rollerskates, brushing up against him in a way that had to be intentional. Aaron wondered how bad it would be to tell his story. Even if her one time offer had been in jest, it might be nice to sit for a while, maybe a long while, with someone like Ganesha and talk. He’d never spoken to anyone but Alice about how things with InterEm had ended up, and those conversations were as much about Eric’s betrayal of Alice as they were about Eric stealing Aaron’s work. He wondered if Ganesha would have to drag the story out of him under questioning, or if it would come out of him, birthed full and complete from wherever in him it had been gestating these past few years. But part of the problem was Aaron didn’t find his story all that compelling, and he worried it was only withholding the story that made him remotely interesting. The world was full of hardluck stories and all of them were, at the root, alike.
Aaron remembered why he had come and continued his path across the bar. On the way, he was jostled again as someone bumped into his arm. He turned to look at the man in question, stringy blonde hair, thick-framed glasses and a Ramones tee shirt.
“Fuck off, Angel of Death,” the Ramones fan said, scowling at him. Aaron’s jaw worked soundlessly for a second.
“What did you — ” he started, but the Ramones fan had already turned and walked away. Aaron strode across the bar and plopped into a chair, a thing of plush velvet and plastic that was a tweak on Saarinen’s womb chair that actually made a plop as Aaron’s weight dropped into it. Takashi, decked in a midnight blue pinstripe suit that made Aaron self-conscious about his slovenly attire, looked up at him through glasses that gave the impression his head was cocked to one side. One massive circular lens in a tortoiseshell frame and one small rectangular lens in an imperceptible wire rim made Takashi look as if one eye was wide with alarm while the other squinted skeptically. Before he’d moved to Chicago, Takashi had been based in San Francisco, running a cell of the Ephemeral Technology Application League, or ET AL. A collective of half-artist, half-scientists whose credo was an inversion of Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
Takashi had spent much of his time in San Francisco working with spiritual metallurgists to build radio transmitters out of scrap metal from abandoned factories that, Takashi insisted, still vibrated with a spectrum of emotional frequencies they’d picked up during their time of use. If correctly stored, certain metals carried a form of hope and trust in the future that was near impossible to find in metal produced post-Watergate. He’d gotten his start in ET AL building a network of these radio towers, located at specific locations chosen by a group of cartomancers, who Takashi referred to as “the scary map kids”, which linked together to blanket the coast from Portland to Los Angeles with a loop of the chorus of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”: despite all the amputations, you could just listen to the rock and roll station, and it was all right. The signal showed up on the fringes of other radio signals, like static in the pattern, but Takashi insisted it was also resonating constantly in whatever metal people in the blanketed area carried with them. Humming softly in their car keys. Whispering to them through their fillings. He scanned Aaron over whatever he was working on at the table and then snapped off his glasses as he did whenever he made a point.
“You need drugs,” he proclaimed.
“You don’t even know,” Aaron replied. It was obvious Takashi didn’t know about Jaime’s death, which came as a relief. Takashi’s world somehow didn’t contain the fact Jaime was dead. Aaron envied him that.
“Finish your drink and come on. Noob!” he called to a chubby kid with bad skin and an ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US tee shirt. “Watch this.” He pointed to the device on the table in front of him. “Don’t touch.” The chubby boy snapped to attention and moved to a seat closer to the device. Takashi pulled Aaron out the chair, which had begun to absorb his weight, and dragged him to the men’s room, brightly lit and extremely well ventilated.
“That kid totally wanted to fuck you,” Takashi said, once they had established the men’s room was empty. “He wanted you to pop his noob cherry.”
“You’re off it,” Aaron said.
“You’re like ultra-leet. You sweat leet. Half these dough-facers come in here with wet dreams of talking to you. They want to catch your kung-fu like it’s the clap.”
“You’re disgusting,” Aaron said.
“I’m a poet,” Takashi corrected. “I also haven’t had sex in like a decade. The libido bubbles up into the syntax. What’s up with you and Ganesha anyway?”
Aaron cocked an eyebrow at him.
Takashi began rifling through jacket pockets excitedly. “She wants to fuck you. Leet or not. She’s pretty leet herself, you know. You want smoke or something more…nuanced? I’ve got something here that’ll take that knot out of your neck.”
“Smoke,” replied Aaron. With one hand, Takashi produced a bag and a pipe, and with the other a small vial of pills.
“You don’t mind if I?” he asked, rattling the vial gently. Aaron shook his head and Takashi dry-swallowed an indeterminate number of pills. “Brain food,” he explained as he set the pipe on the onyx sink, packed it, tamping it down with his thumb, and handed it off to Aaron.
“Light?” Aaron asked. Takashi produced one from another pocket and Aaron lit up. He took a deep hit, filling his lungs with heat. He blew the smoke in the general direction of a vent and passed the pipe to Takashi.
“You ever deal with a hack called Iktomi?”
“Aunt Nancy?” Takashi asked, throat clenched to hold in his inhale. “Everybody knows the spider. He’s no hack, though. More of an info junkie. Practically a journalist.”
“So you know him?”
“Never met him. Can’t think of anyone who has. Yog Soggoth, maybe.” They both shuddered at the mention of the name. “But Aunt Nancy holds the world record for FOIA requests. Some of the Et Al folks think he can’t be one guy, cause he’s logged like a million of them. And he’s put some information in our hands that’s maybe not declassified. Tech, pharm. Some military.”
“You guys are dealing in military tech now?”
He shrugged. “If we can get our grubby mitts on it. Tech’s tech, man. Why do you want to know about the Spider?”
“No reason,” Aaron said.
The pipe passed back and forth in silence, hidden once behind Aaron’s back when another patron came in, even though the smell permeated the room. When it was cashed, Takashi handed the dime bag off to Aaron, who pocketed it quickly, and the two went back to their seats.
“You’ve got to come to this show tomorrow night at Lincoln Hall,” Takashi said as he sat down. “This guy is using a bit of tech I built, you’ll love it.”
“Is he leet?”
“I love it when you try the slang thing,” Takashi said. “You’re like a rapping grandma.”
“I don’t do shows,” Aaron said.
“Do this one,” Takashi pleaded. “Think of it as me showing off.”
Aaron gave him a shrug. “How could I resist?” he asked. Relaxed now, he leaned forward to look at what Takashi had been working on. From this angle, it looked like two slabs of mahogany hinged together like a book.
Takashi turned the device on the table to face Aaron and he realized it was a sort of a laptop, its casing made of oak, its screen glowing behind a green tinted glass that reminded Aaron of old Coke bottles, wavy and uneven. Its keys were an odds and sods collection of old typewriter parts.
“What is it?” Aaron asked, resting his fingers lightly on the keyboard.
“Don’t be thick, man. Use it if you want to use it.”
Takashi grinned at him. “I’m showing off for girls, man. I wouldn’t bring it if it didn’t work. I call it the Lightning Box.” Aaron typed in a web address, the keys clacking with authority, a sound passing out of cultural hearing, like the scrape of needle on a record label. The page loaded instantly, graphics and type swimming in a sea of green.
“Every component has been struck by lightning. The casing? From a tree out in the burbs that was hit in that big storm last year, split right to fuck in half. All the glass, all the silica?” He chuckled to himself. “Fulgerite. This friend of mine, he’s a lightning harvester. Goes out to the beach during storms, shoots arrows into the clouds. Very Lear on the Heath. He attaches the arrows to metal filaments he grounds in the sand, so when the arrow hits the cloud, the lightning runs through the filament and bang: glass.” A waiter showed up with another drink for Aaron and one of whatever Takashi was drinking, a deep red cocktail that involved an infusion of beets. Looking over, Aaron saw Ganesha smiling at him in a way that was slightly predatory and not unattractive.
“I’ve got someone who blows it for me for the screen,” Takashi continued. “She needs a bit of practice. Chips and processors I’m making myself. They’re not where I want them to be, but they’d be on par with, say, Intel couple generations back? Pre-Pentium.”
“What are you running on here?” Aaron asked. Takashi looked at him blankly. “What’s the OS?”
“Ababa or something?”
“Ubuntu,” Aaron said. “You might as well put Windows 95 on here.” He leaned in towards the screen and started typing at speeds that would make stenographers blush.
“It works fine,” Takashi said.
“You’re going to crash within a week,” said Aaron. “You’ll start to notice it slowing down in two days and it’ll crash out in five to seven, tops.”
“You know this how?”
“It’s generating a deadend file path for every operation the system performs. At the rate they’re aggregating, the system won’t be able to find its way back to its own ass in a couple days.” He finished typing and struck Enter sharply. “There.”
“You fixed it?”
“Ubuntu’s still a bullshit OS, but it’s fixed. Whoever built this OS for you should have their fingers broken.”
“Shit,” said Takashi, “I might want to fuck you.”
“So give me the why.”
“See, this is were all those sci-fi guys, your Gibson and Stephenson, led everybody wrong. Everyone wanted this virtual reality thing, which was going to be like the real world only shinier. Sharper edges, higher res, higher def, whatever. All holodecks and light-up goggles. The digital world was going to be phenomenal. Not in the sense of awesome. But literally: perceivable through the senses. We were going to strap on these prosthetics you could touch and see to access a whole other world you could touch and see.
“But what happens is, the digital world is based not on phenomena but on numena. Perceptions wholly other. It’s not held together by physics, it’s held together by concepts. Networks and memes and code. The hardware’s only the access point, but what it accesses is a numinal world. It only makes sense to try to build numinous objects to access a numinous world.”
“I know you’ve told me this,” Aaron said, “but what is a numinous object. He took a long drink and considered the possibility Takashi had only gotten him stoned so he would sit through this conversation.
“Varies. Like you have certain things that are important to you. Lucky whatever. And they get imbued with this other energy and the energy stays in the object. And you could charge an object up with it or something. When someone gives you a gift, or brings you something from a trip? It’s all forms of resonance, right?”
“I’m not sure lightning is the way to go at it, but what else can you think of that bridges numena and phenomena at once? You can see it, right? What it does. The houses ruined, the whatever. Wasn’t there that show where someone got hit by lightning and ended up with a streak of white hair?”
“It turned Barry Allen into the Flash,” Aaron said.
“Exactly. But have you ever been convinced it’s caused by differences in electrical levels between clouds and the ground? Doesn’t Zeus chucking bolts off a mountain make more sense, Occam’s razorwise? Has shocking your little sister by rubbing your socks on the rug ever not been the coolest magic trick?”
“It is pretty cool,” said Aaron, who had never had a sibling to shock.
“The ultimate interface is direct. It’s USB ports behind the ear and shit. Do you know the raw bandwidth of your optic nerve? Only about a hundred kbps. It’s the encode/decode rate, the software, that’s amazing. At some point, we’ll be able to feed directly into the brain at a rate higher than the optic nerve could handle. But until then? Until the physical side of things is further developed? Shouldn’t we try getting into a world of pure thoughtform with devices that have been touched by the gods?”
“What the fuck did you take anyway?” Aaron asked. Takashi blinked his eyes rapidly as if to clear them. He took off his glasses and shook his head back and forth.
“I don’t know. I think they were purple maybe?”