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 reverse-transcripterase 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 air-conditioned room. He slugged it back, bitter and sharp, and shut the computer down.