This chapter is dedicated to Amazon.com, the largest Internet bookseller in the world. Amazon is amazing — a "store" where you can get practically any book ever published (along with practically everything else, from laptops to cheese-graters), where they've elevated recommendations to a high art, where they allow customers to directly communicate with each other, where they are constantly invented new and better ways of connecting books with readers. Amazon has always treated me like gold — the founder, Jeff Bezos, even posted a reader-review for my first novel! — and I shop there like crazy (looking at my spreadsheets, it appears that I buy something from Amazon approximately every six days). Amazon's in the process of reinventing what it means to be a bookstore in the twenty-first century and I can't think of a better group of people to be facing down that thorny set of problems.
"I'm thinking of majoring in physics when I go to Berkeley," Darryl said. His dad taught at the University of California at Berkeley, which meant he'd get free tuition when he went. And there'd never been any question in Darryl's household about whether he'd go.
"Fine, but couldn't you research it online?"
"My dad said I should read it. Besides, I didn't plan on committing any crimes today."
"Skipping school isn't a crime. It's an infraction. They're totally different."
"What are we going to do, Marcus?"
"Well, I can't hide it, so I'm going to have to nuke it." Killing arphids is a dark art. No merchant wants malicious customers going for a walk around the shop-floor and leaving behind a bunch of lobotomized merchandise that is missing its invisible bar-code, so the manufacturers have refused to implement a "kill signal" that you can radio to an arphid to get it to switch off. You can reprogram arphids with the right box, but I hate doing that to library books. It's not exactly tearing pages out of a book, but it's still bad, since a book with a reprogrammed arphid can't be shelved and can't be found. It just becomes a needle in a haystack.
That left me with only one option: nuking the thing. Literally. 30 seconds in a microwave will do in pretty much every arphid on the market. And because the arphid wouldn't answer at all when D checked it back in at the library, they'd just print a fresh one for it and recode it with the book's catalog info, and it would end up clean and neat back on its shelf.
All we needed was a microwave.
"Give it another two minutes and the teacher's lounge will be empty," I said.
Darryl grabbed his book at headed for the door. "Forget it, no way. I'm going to class."
I snagged his elbow and dragged him back. "Come on, D, easy now. It'll be fine."
"The teacher's lounge? Maybe you weren't listening, Marcus. If I get busted just once more, I am expelled. You hear that? Expelled."
"You won't get caught," I said. The one place a teacher wouldn't be after this period was the lounge. "We'll go in the back way." The lounge had a little kitchenette off to one side, with its own entrance for teachers who just wanted to pop in and get a cup of joe. The microwave — which always reeked of popcorn and spilled soup — was right in there, on top of the miniature fridge.
Darryl groaned. I thought fast. "Look, the bell's already rung. if you go to study hall now, you'll get a late-slip. Better not to show at all at this point. I can infiltrate and exfiltrate any room on this campus, D. You've seen me do it. I'll keep you safe, bro."
He groaned again. That was one of Darryl's tells: once he starts groaning, he's ready to give in.
"Let's roll," I said, and we took off.
It was flawless. We skirted the classrooms, took the back stairs into the basement, and came up the front stairs right in front of the teachers' lounge. Not a sound came from the door, and I quietly turned the knob and dragged Darryl in before silently closing the door.
The book just barely fit in the microwave, which was looking even less sanitary than it had the last time I'd popped in here to use it. I conscientiously wrapped it in paper towels before I set it down. "Man, teachers are pigs," I hissed. Darryl, white faced and tense, said nothing.
The arphid died in a shower of sparks, which was really quite lovely (though not nearly as pretty as the effect you get when you nuke a frozen grape, which has to be seen to be believed).
Now, to exfiltrate the campus in perfect anonymity and make our escape.
Darryl opened the door and began to move out, me on his heels. A second later, he was standing on my toes, elbows jammed into my chest, as he tried to back-pedal into the closet-sized kitchen we'd just left.
"Get back," he whispered urgently. "Quick — it's Charles!"
Charles Walker and I don't get along. We're in the same grade, and we've known each other as long as I've known Darryl, but that's where the resemblance ends. Charles has always been big for his age, and now that he's playing football and on the juice, he's even bigger. He's got anger management problems — I lost a milk-tooth to him in the third grade, and he's managed to keep from getting in trouble over them by becoming the most active snitch in school.
It's a bad combination, a bully who also snitches, taking great pleasure in going to the teachers with whatever infractions he's found. Benson loved Charles. Charles liked to let on that he had some kind of unspecified bladder problem, which gave him a ready-made excuse to prowl the hallways at Chavez, looking for people to fink on.
The last time Charles had caught some dirt on me, it had ended with me giving up LARPing. I had no intention of being caught by him again.
"What's he doing?"
"He's coming this way is what he's doing," Darryl said. He was shaking.
"OK," I said. "OK, time for emergency countermeasures." I got my phone out. I'd planned this well in advance. Charles would never get me again. I emailed my server at home, and it got into motion.
A few seconds later, Charles's phone spazzed out spectacularly. I'd had tens of thousands of simultaneous random calls and text messages sent to it, causing every chirp and ring it had to go off and keep on going off. The attack was accomplished by means of a botnet, and for that I felt bad, but it was in the service of a good cause.
Botnets are where infected computers spend their afterlives. When you get a worm or a virus, your computer sends a message to a chat channel on IRC — the Internet Relay Chat. That message tells the botmaster — the guy who deployed the worm — that the computers in there ready to do his bidding. Botnets are supremely powerful, since they can comprise thousands, even hundreds of thousands of computers, scattered all over the Internet, connected to juicy high-speed connections and running on fast home PCs. Those PCs normally function on behalf of their owners, but when the botmaster calls them, they rise like zombies to do his bidding.
There are so many infected PCs on the Internet that the price of hiring an hour or two on a botnet has crashed. Mostly these things work for spammers as cheap, distributed spambots, filling your mailbox with come-ons for boner-pills or with new viruses that can infect you and recruit your machine to join the botnet.
I'd just rented 10 seconds' time on three thousand PCs and had each of them send a text message or voice-over-IP call to Charles's phone, whose number I'd extracted from a sticky note on Benson's desk during one fateful office-visit.
Needless to say, Charles's phone was not equipped to handle this. First the SMSes filled the memory on his phone, causing it to start choking on the routine operations it needed to do things like manage the ringer and log all those incoming calls' bogus return numbers (did you know that it's really easy to fake the return number on a caller ID? There are about fifty ways of doing it — just google "spoof caller id").
Charles stared at it dumbfounded, and jabbed at it furiously, his thick eyebrows knotting and wiggling as he struggled with the demons that had possessed his most personal of devices. The plan was working so far, but he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing next — he was supposed to go find some place to sit down and try to figure out how to get his phone back.
Darryl shook me by the shoulder, and I pulled my eye away from the crack in the door.
"What's he doing?" Darryl whispered.
"I totaled his phone, but he's just staring at it now instead of moving on." It wasn't going to be easy to reboot that thing. Once the memory was totally filled, it would have a hard time loading the code it needed to delete the bogus messages — and there was no bulk-erase for texts on his phone, so he'd have to manually delete all of the thousands of messages.
Darryl shoved me back and stuck his eye up to the door. A moment later, his shoulders started to shake. I got scared, thinking he was panicking, but when he pulled back, I saw that he was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
"Galvez just totally busted him for being in the halls during class and for having his phone out — you should have seen her tear into him. She was really enjoying it."
We shook hands solemnly and snuck back out of the corridor, down the stairs, around the back, out the door, past the fence and out into the glorious sunlight of afternoon in the Mission. Valencia Street had never looked so good. I checked my watch and yelped.
"Let's move! The rest of the gang is meeting us at the cable-cars in twenty minutes!"
Van spotted us first. She was blending in with a group of Korean tourists, which is one of her favorite ways of camouflaging herself when she's ditching school. Ever since the truancy moblog went live, our world is full of nosy shopkeepers and pecksniffs who take it upon themselves to snap our piccies and put them on the net where they can be perused by school administrators.
She came out of the crowd and bounded toward us. Darryl has had a thing for Van since forever, and she's sweet enough to pretend she doesn't know it. She gave me a hug and then moved onto Darryl, giving him a quick sisterly kiss on the cheek that made him go red to the tops of his ears.
The two of them made a funny pair: Darryl is a little on the heavy side, though he wears it well, and he's got a kind of pink complexion that goes red in the cheeks whenever he runs or gets excited. He's been able to grow a beard since we were 14, but thankfully he started shaving after a brief period known to our gang as "the Lincoln years." And he's tall. Very, very tall. Like basketball player tall.
Meanwhile, Van is half a head shorter than me, and skinny, with straight black hair that she wears in crazy, elaborate braids that she researches on the net. She's got pretty coppery skin and dark eyes, and she loves big glass rings the size of radishes, which click and clack together when she dances.
"Where's Jolu?" she said.
"How are you, Van?" Darryl asked in a choked voice. He always ran a step behind the conversation when it came to Van.
"I'm great, D. How's your every little thing?" Oh, she was a bad, bad person. Darryl nearly fainted.
Jolu saved him from social disgrace by showing up just then, in an oversize leather baseball jacket, sharp sneakers, and a meshback cap advertising our favorite Mexican masked wrestler, El Santo Junior. Jolu is Jose Luis Torrez, the completing member of our foursome. He went to a super-strict Catholic school in the Outer Richmond, so it wasn't easy for him to get out. But he always did: no one exfiltrated like our Jolu. He liked his jacket because it hung down low — which was pretty stylish in parts of the city — and covered up all his Catholic school crap, which was like a bulls-eye for nosy jerks with the truancy moblog bookmarked on their phones.
"Who's ready to go?" I asked, once we'd all said hello. I pulled out my phone and showed them the map I'd downloaded to it on the BART. "Near as I can work out, we wanna go up to the Nikko again, then one block past it to O'Farrell, then left up toward Van Ness. Somewhere in there we should find the wireless signal."
Van made a face. "That's a nasty part of the Tenderloin." I couldn't argue with her. That part of San Francisco is one of the weird bits — you go in through the Hilton's front entrance and it's all touristy stuff like the cable-car turnaround and family restaurants. Go through to the other side and you're in the 'Loin, where every tracked out transvestite hooker, hard-case pimp, hissing drug dealer and cracked up homeless person in town was concentrated. What they bought and sold, none of us were old enough to be a part of (though there were plenty of hookers our age plying their trade in the 'Loin.)
"Look on the bright side," I said. "The only time you want to go up around there is broad daylight. None of the other players are going to go near it until tomorrow at the earliest. This is what we in the ARG business call a monster head start."
Jolu grinned at me. "You make it sound like a good thing," he said.
"Beats eating uni," I said.
"We going to talk or we going to win?" Van said. After me, she was hands-down the most hardcore player in our group. She took winning very, very seriously.
We struck out, four good friends, on our way to decode a clue, win the game — and lose everything we cared about, forever.
The physical component of today's clue was a set of GPS coordinates — there were coordinates for all the major cities where Harajuku Fun Madness was played — where we'd find a WiFi access-point's signal. That signal was being deliberately jammed by another, nearby WiFi point that was hidden so that it couldn't be spotted by conventional wifinders, little key-fobs that told you when you were within range of someone's open access-point, which you could use for free.
We'd have to track down the location of the "hidden" access point by measuring the strength of the "visible" one, finding the spot where it was most mysteriously weakest. There we'd find another clue — last time it had been in the special of the day at Anzu, the swanky sushi restaurant in the Nikko hotel in the Tenderloin. The Nikko was owned by Japan Airlines, one of Harajuku Fun Madness's sponsors, and the staff had all made a big fuss over us when we finally tracked down the clue. They'd given us bowls of miso soup and made us try uni, which is sushi made from sea urchin, with the texture of very runny cheese and a smell like very runny dog-droppings. But it tasted really good. Or so Darryl told me. I wasn't going to eat that stuff.
I picked up the WiFi signal with my phone's wifinder about three blocks up O'Farrell, just before Hyde Street, in front of a dodgy "Asian Massage Parlor" with a red blinking CLOSED sign in the window. The network's name was HarajukuFM, so we knew we had the right spot.
"If it's in there, I'm not going," Darryl said.
"You all got your wifinders?" I said.
Darryl and Van had phones with built-in wifinders, while Jolu, being too cool to carry a phone bigger than his pinky finger, had a separate little directional fob.
"OK, fan out and see what we see. You're looking for a sharp drop off in the signal that gets worse the more you move along it."
I took a step backward and ended up standing on someone's toes. A female voice said "oof" and I spun around, worried that some crack-ho was going to stab me for breaking her heels.
Instead, I found myself face to face with another kid my age. She had a shock of bright pink hair and a sharp, rodent-like face, with big sunglasses that were practically air-force goggles. She was dressed in striped tights beneath a black granny dress, with lots of little Japanese decorer toys safety pinned to it — anime characters, old world leaders, emblems from foreign soda-pop.
She held up a camera and snapped a picture of me and my crew.
"Cheese," she said. "You're on candid snitch-cam."
"No way," I said. "You wouldn't —"
"I will," she said. "I will send this photo to truant watch in thirty seconds unless you four back off from this clue and let me and my friends here run it down. You can come back in one hour and it'll be all yours. I think that's more than fair."
I looked behind her and noticed three other girls in similar garb — one with blue hair, one with green, and one with purple. "Who are you supposed to be, the Popsicle Squad?"
"We're the team that's going to kick your team's ass at Harajuku Fun Madness," she said. "And I'm the one who's right this second about to upload your photo and get you in so much trouble —"
Behind me I felt Van start forward. Her all-girls school was notorious for its brawls, and I was pretty sure she was ready to knock this chick's block off.
Then the world changed forever.
We felt it first, that sickening lurch of the cement under your feet that every Californian knows instinctively — earthquake. My first inclination, as always, was to get away: "when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." But the fact was, we were already in the safest place we could be, not in a building that could fall in on us, not out toward the middle of the road where bits of falling mortice could brain us.
Earthquakes are eerily quiet — at first, anyway — but this wasn't quiet. This was loud, an incredible roaring sound that was louder than anything I'd ever heard before. The sound was so punishing it drove me to my knees, and I wasn't the only one. Darryl shook my arm and pointed over the buildings and we saw it then: a huge black cloud rising from the northeast, from the direction of the Bay.
There was another rumble, and the cloud of smoke spread out, that spreading black shape we'd all grown up seeing in movies. Someone had just blown up something, in a big way.
There were more rumbles and more tremors. Heads appeared at windows up and down the street. We all looked at the mushroom cloud in silence.
Then the sirens started.
I'd heard sirens like these before — they test the civil defense sirens at noon on Tuesdays. But I'd only heard them go off unscheduled in old war movies and video games, the kind where someone is bombing someone else from above. Air raid sirens. The wooooooo sound made it all less real.
"Report to shelters immediately." It was like the voice of God, coming from all places at once. There were speakers on some of the electric poles, something I'd never noticed before, and they'd all switched on at once.
"Report to shelters immediately." Shelters? We looked at each other in confusion. What shelters? The cloud was rising steadily, spreading out. Was it nuclear? Were we breathing in our last breaths?
The girl with the pink hair grabbed her friends and they tore ass downhill, back toward the BART station and the foot of the hills.
"REPORT TO SHELTERS IMMEDIATELY." There was screaming now, and a lot of running around. Tourists — you can always spot the tourists, they're the ones who think CALIFORNIA = WARM and spend their San Francisco holidays freezing in shorts and t-shirts — scattered in every direction.
"We should go!" Darryl hollered in my ear, just barely audible over the shrieking of the sirens, which had been joined by traditional police sirens. A dozen SFPD cruisers screamed past us.
"REPORT TO SHELTERS IMMEDIATELY."
"Down to the BART station," I hollered. My friends nodded. We closed ranks and began to move quickly downhill.