This chapter is dedicated to Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, my drop-dead all-time favorite comic store in the world. It's small and selective about what it stocks, and every time I walk in, I walk out with three or four collections I'd never heard of under my arm. It's like the owners, Dave and David, have the uncanny ability to predict exactly what I'm looking for, and they lay it out for me seconds before I walk into the store. I discovered about three quarters of my favorite comics by wandering into SHQ, grabbing something interesting, sinking into one of the comfy chairs, and finding myself transported to another world. When my second story-collection, OVERCLOCKED, came out, they worked with local illustrator Martin Cenreda to do a free mini-comic based on Printcrime, the first story in the book. I left LA about a year ago, and of all the things I miss about it, Secret Headquarters is right at the top of the list.
Secret Headquarters: 3817 W. Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90026 +1 323 666 2228
But it was Van, and she was crying, and hugging me so hard I couldn't breathe. I didn't care. I hugged her back, my face buried in her hair.
"You're OK!" she said.
"I'm OK," I managed.
She finally let go of me and another set of arms wrapped themselves around me. It was Jolu! They were both there. He whispered, "You're safe, bro," in my ear and hugged me even tighter than Vanessa had.
When he let go, I looked around. "Where's Darryl?" I asked.
They both looked at each other. "Maybe he's still in the truck," Jolu said.
We turned and looked at the truck at the alley's end. It was a nondescript white 18-wheeler. Someone had already brought the little folding staircase inside. The rear lights glowed red, and the truck rolled backwards towards us, emitting a steady eep, eep, eep.
"Wait!" I shouted as it accelerated towards us. "Wait! What about Darryl?" The truck drew closer. I kept shouting. "What about Darryl?"
Jolu and Vanessa each had me by an arm and were dragging me away. I struggled against them, shouting. The truck pulled out of the alley's mouth and reversed into the street and pointed itself downhill and drove away. I tried to run after it, but Van and Jolu wouldn't let me go.
I sat down on the sidewalk and put my arms around my knees and cried. I cried and cried and cried, loud sobs of the sort I hadn't done since I was a little kid. They wouldn't stop coming. I couldn't stop shaking.
Vanessa and Jolu got me to my feet and moved me a little ways up the street. There was a Muni bus stop with a bench and they sat me on it. They were both crying too, and we held each other for a while, and I knew we were crying for Darryl, whom none of us ever expected to see again.
We were north of Chinatown, at the part where it starts to become North Beach, a neighborhood with a bunch of neon strip clubs and the legendary City Lights counterculture bookstore, where the Beat poetry movement had been founded back in the 1950s.
I knew this part of town well. My parents' favorite Italian restaurant was here and they liked to take me here for big plates of linguine and huge Italian ice-cream mountains with candied figs and lethal little espressos afterward.
Now it was a different place, a place where I was tasting freedom for the first time in what seemed like an enternity.
We checked our pockets and found enough money to get a table at one of the Italian restaurants, out on the sidewalk, under an awning. The pretty waitress lighted a gas-heater with a barbeque lighter, took our orders and went inside. The sensation of giving orders, of controlling my destiny, was the most amazing thing I'd ever felt.
"How long were we in there?" I asked.
"Six days," Vanessa said.
"I got five," Jolu said.
"I didn't count."
"What did they do to you?" Vanessa said. I didn't want to talk about it, but they were both looking at me. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I told them everything, even when I'd been forced to piss myself, and they took it all in silently. I paused when the waitress delivered our sodas and waited until she got out of earshot, then finished. In the telling, it receded into the distance. By the end of it, I couldn't tell if I was embroidering the truth or if I was making it all seem less bad. My memories swam like little fish that I snatched at, and sometimes they wriggled out of my grasp.
Jolu shook his head. "They were hard on you, dude," he said. He told us about his stay there. They'd questioned him, mostly about me, and he'd kept on telling them the truth, sticking to a plain telling of the facts about that day and about our friendship. They had gotten him to repeat it over and over again, but they hadn't played games with his head the way they had with me. He'd eaten his meals in a mess-hall with a bunch of other people, and been given time in a TV room where they were shown last year's blockbusters on video.
Vanessa's story was only slightly different. After she'd gotten them angry by talking to me, they'd taken away her clothes and made her wear a set of orange prison overalls. She'd been left in her cell for two days without contact, though she'd been fed regularly. But mostly it was the same as Jolu: the same questions, repeated again and again.
"They really hated you," Jolu said. "Really had it in for you. Why?"
I couldn't imagine why. Then I remembered.
You can cooperate, or you can be very, very sorry.
"It was because I wouldn't unlock my phone for them, that first night. That's why they singled me out." I couldn't believe it, but there was no other explanation. It had been sheer vindictiveness. My mind reeled at the thought. They had done all that as a mere punishment for defying their authority.
I had been scared. Now I was angry. "Those bastards," I said, softly. "They did it to get back at me for mouthing off."
Jolu swore and then Vanessa cut loose in Korean, something she only did when she was really, really angry.
"I'm going to get them," I whispered, staring at my soda. "I'm going to get them."
Jolu shook his head. "You can't, you know. You can't fight back against that."
None of us much wanted to talk about revenge then. Instead, we talked about what we would do next. We had to go home. Our phones' batteries were dead and it had been years since this neighborhood had any payphones. We just needed to go home. I even thought about taking a taxi, but there wasn't enough money between us to make that possible.
So we walked. On the corner, we pumped some quarters into a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper box and stopped to read the front section. It had been five days since the bombs went off, but it was still all over the front cover.
Severe haircut woman had talked about "the bridge" blowing up, and I'd just assumed that she was talking about the Golden Gate bridge, but I was wrong. The terrorists had blown up the Bay bridge.
"Why the hell would they blow up the Bay bridge?" I said. "The Golden Gate is the one on all the postcards." Even if you've never been to San Francisco, chances are you know what the Golden Gate looks like: it's that big orange suspension bridge that swoops dramatically from the old military base called the Presidio to Sausalito, where all the cutesy wine-country towns are with their scented candle shops and art galleries. It's picturesque as hell, and it's practically the symbol for the state of California. If you go to the Disneyland California Adventure park, there's a replica of it just past the gates, with a monorail running over it.
So naturally I assumed that if you were going to blow up a bridge in San Francisco, that's the one you'd blow.
"They probably got scared off by all the cameras and stuff," Jolu said. "The National Guard's always checking cars at both ends and there's all those suicide fences and junk all along it." People have been jumping off the Golden Gate since it opened in 1937 — they stopped counting after the thousandth suicide in 1995.
"Yeah," Vanessa said. "Plus the Bay Bridge actually goes somewhere." The Bay Bridge goes from downtown San Francisco to Oakland and thence to Berkeley, the East Bay townships that are home to many of the people who live and work in town. It's one of the only parts of the Bay Area where a normal person can afford a house big enough to really stretch out in, and there's also the university and a bunch of light industry over there. The BART goes under the Bay and connects the two cities, too, but it's the Bay Bridge that sees most of the traffic. The Golden Gate was a nice bridge if you were a tourist or a rich retiree living out in wine country, but it was mostly ornamental. The Bay Bridge is — was — San Francisco's work-horse bridge.
I thought about it for a minute. "You guys are right," I said. "But I don't think that's all of it. We keep acting like terrorists attack landmarks because they hate landmarks. Terrorists don't hate landmarks or bridges or airplanes. They just want to screw stuff up and make people scared. To make terror. So of course they went after the Bay Bridge after the Golden Gate got all those cameras — after airplanes got all metal-detectored and X-rayed." I thought about it some more, staring blankly at the cars rolling down the street, at the people walking down the sidewalks, at the city all around me. "Terrorists don't hate airplanes or bridges. They love terror." It was so obvious I couldn't believe I'd never thought of it before. I guess that being treated like a terrorist for a few days was enough to clarify my thinking.
The other two were staring at me. "I'm right, aren't I? All this crap, all the X-rays and ID checks, they're all useless, aren't they?"
They nodded slowly.
"Worse than useless," I said, my voice going up and cracking. "Because they ended up with us in prison, with Darryl —" I hadn't thought of Darryl since we sat down and now it came back to me, my friend, missing, disappeared. I stopped talking and ground my jaws together.
"We have to tell our parents," Jolu said.
"We should get a lawyer," Vanessa said.
I thought of telling my story. Of telling the world what had become of me. Of the videos that would no doubt come out, of me weeping, reduced to a groveling animal.
"We can't tell them anything," I said, without thinking.
"What do you mean?" Van said.
"We can't tell them anything," I repeated. "You heard her. If we talk, they'll come back for us. They'll do to us what they did to Darryl."
"You're joking," Jolu said. "You want us to —"
"I want us to fight back," I said. "I want to stay free so that I can do that. If we go out there and blab, they'll just say that we're kids, making it up. We don't even know where we were held! No one will believe us. Then, one day, they'll come for us.
"I'm telling my parents that I was in one of those camps on the other side of the Bay. I came over to meet you guys there and we got stranded, and just got loose today. They said in the papers that people were still wandering home from them."
"I can't do that," Vanessa said. "After what they did to you, how can you even think of doing that?"
"It happened to me, that's the point. This is me and them, now. I'll beat them, I'll get Darryl. I'm not going to take this lying down. But once our parents are involved, that's it for us. No one will believe us and no one will care. If we do it my way, people will care."
"What's your way?" Jolu said. "What's your plan?"
"I don't know yet," I admitted. "Give me until tomorrow morning, give me that, at least." I knew that once they'd kept it a secret for a day, it would have to be a secret forever. Our parents would be even more skeptical if we suddenly "remembered" that we'd been held in a secret prison instead of taken care of in a refugee camp.
Van and Jolu looked at each other.
"I'm just asking for a chance," I said. "We'll work out the story on the way, get it straight. Give me one day, just one day."
The other two nodded glumly and we set off downhill again, heading back towards home. I lived on Potrero Hill, Vanessa lived in the North Mission and Jolu lived in Noe Valley — three wildly different neighborhoods just a few minutes' walk from one another.
We turned onto Market Street and stopped dead. The street was barricaded at every corner, the cross-streets reduced to a single lane, and parked down the whole length of Market Street were big, nondescript 18-wheelers like the one that had carried us, hooded, away from the ship's docks and to Chinatown.
Each one had three steel steps leading down from the back and they buzzed with activity as soldiers, people in suits, and cops went in and out of them. The suits wore little badges on their lapels and the soldiers scanned them as they went in and out — wireless authorization badges. As we walked past one, I got a look at it, and saw the familiar logo: Department of Homeland Security. The soldier saw me staring and stared back hard, glaring at me.
I got the message and moved on. I peeled away from the gang at Van Ness. We clung to each other and cried and promised to call each other.
The walk back to Potrero Hill has an easy route and a hard route, the latter taking you over some of the steepest hills in the city, the kind of thing that you see car chases on in action movies, with cars catching air as they soar over the zenith. I always take the hard way home. It's all residential streets, and the old Victorian houses they call "painted ladies" for their gaudy, elaborate paint-jobs, and front gardens with scented flowers and tall grasses. Housecats stare at you from hedges, and there are hardly any homeless.
It was so quiet on those streets that it made me wish I'd taken the other route, through the Mission, which is… raucous is probably the best word for it. Loud and vibrant. Lots of rowdy drunks and angry crack-heads and unconscious junkies, and also lots of families with strollers, old ladies gossiping on stoops, lowriders with boom-cars going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa down the streets. There were hipsters and mopey emo art-students and even a couple old-school punk-rockers, old guys with pot bellies bulging out beneath their Dead Kennedys shirts. Also drag queens, angry gang kids, graffiti artists and bewildered gentrifiers trying not to get killed while their real-estate investments matured.
I went up Goat Hill and walked past Goat Hill Pizza, which made me think of the jail I'd been held in, and I had to sit down on the bench out front of the restaurant until my shakes passed. Then I noticed the truck up the hill from me, a nondescript 18-wheeler with three metal steps coming down from the back end. I got up and got moving. I felt the eyes watching me from all directions.
I hurried the rest of the way home. I didn't look at the painted ladies or the gardens or the housecats. I kept my eyes down.
Both my parents' cars were in the driveway, even though it was the middle of the day. Of course. Dad works in the East Bay, so he'd be stuck at home while they worked on the bridge. Mom — well, who knew why Mom was home.
They were home for me.
Even before I'd finished unlocking the door it had been jerked out of my hand and flung wide. There were both of my parents, looking gray and haggard, bug-eyed and staring at me. We stood there in frozen tableau for a moment, then they both rushed forward and dragged me into the house, nearly tripping me up. They were both talking so loud and fast all I could hear was a wordless, roaring gabble and they both hugged me and cried and I cried too and we just stood there like that in the little foyer, crying and making almost-words until we ran out of steam and went into the kitchen.
I did what I always did when I came home: got myself a glass of water from the filter in the fridge and dug a couple cookies out of the "biscuit barrel" that mom's sister had sent us from England. The normalcy of this made my heart stop hammering, my heart catching up with my brain, and soon we were all sitting at the table.
"Where have you been?" they both said, more or less in unison.
I had given this some thought on the way home. "I got trapped," I said. "In Oakland. I was there with some friends, doing a project, and we were all quarantined."
"For five days?"
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah. It was really bad." I'd read about the quarantines in the Chronicle and I cribbed shamelessly from the quotes they'd published. "Yeah. Everyone who got caught in the cloud. They thought we had been attacked with some kind of super-bug and they packed us into shipping containers in the docklands, like sardines. It was really hot and sticky. Not much food, either."
"Christ," Dad said, his fists balling up on the table. Dad teaches in Berkeley three days a week, working with a few grad students in the library science program. The rest of the time he consults for clients in city and down the Peninsula, third-wave dotcoms that are doing various things with archives. He's a mild-mannered librarian by profession, but he'd been a real radical in the sixties and wrestled a little in high school. I'd seen him get crazy angry now and again — I'd even made him that angry now and again — and he could seriously lose it when he was Hulking out. He once threw a swing-set from Ikea across my granddad's whole lawn when it fell apart for the fiftieth time while he was assembling it.
"Barbarians," Mom said. She's been living in America since she was a teenager, but she still comes over all British when she encounters American cops, health-care, airport security or homelessness. Then the word is "barbarians," and her accent comes back strong. We'd been to London twice to see her family and I can't say as it felt any more civilized than San Francisco, just more cramped.
"But they let us go, and ferried us over today." I was improvising now.
"Are you hurt?" Mom said. "Hungry?"
"Yeah, a little of all that. Also Dopey, Doc, Sneezy and Bashful." We had a family tradition of Seven Dwarfs jokes. They both smiled a little, but their eyes were still wet. I felt really bad for them. They must have been out of their minds with worry. I was glad for a chance to change the subject. "I'd totally love to eat."
"I'll order a pizza from Goat Hill," Dad said.
"No, not that," I said. They both looked at me like I'd sprouted antennae. I normally have a thing about Goat Hill Pizza — as in, I can normally eat it like a goldfish eats his food, gobbling until it either runs out or I pop. I tried to smile. "I just don't feel like pizza," I said, lamely. "Let's order some curry, OK?" Thank heaven that San Francisco is take-out central.
Mom went to the drawer of take-out menus (more normalcy, feeling like a drink of water on a dry, sore throat) and riffled through them. We spent a couple of distracting minutes going through the menu from the halal Pakistani place on Valencia. I settled on a mixed tandoori grill and creamed spinach with farmer's cheese, a salted mango lassi (much better than it sounds) and little fried pastries in sugar syrup.
Once the food was ordered, the questions started again. They'd heard from Van's, Jolu's and Darryl's families (of course) and had tried to report us missing. The police were taking names, but there were so many "displaced persons" that they weren't going to open files on anyone unless they were still missing after seven days.
Meanwhile, millions of have-you-seen sites had popped up on the net. A couple of the sites were old MySpace clones that had run out of money and saw a new lease on life from all the attention. After all, some venture capitalists had missing family in the Bay Area. Maybe if they were recovered, the site would attract some new investment. I grabbed dad's laptop and looked through them. They were plastered with advertising, of course, and pictures of missing people, mostly grad photos, wedding pictures and that sort of thing. It was pretty ghoulish.
I found my pic and saw that it was linked to Van's, Jolu's, and Darryl's. There was a little form for marking people found and another one for writing up notes about other missing people. I filled in the fields for me and Jolu and Van, and left Darryl blank.
"You forgot Darryl," Dad said. He didn't like Darryl much — once he'd figured out that a couple inches were missing out of one of the bottles in his liquor cabinet, and to my enduring shame I'd blamed it on Darryl. In truth, of course, it had been both of us, just fooling around, trying out vodka-and-Cokes during an all-night gaming session.
"He wasn't with us," I said. The lie tasted bitter in my mouth.
"Oh my God," my mom said. She squeezed her hands together. "We just assumed when you came home that you'd all been together."
"No," I said, the lie growing. "No, he was supposed to meet us but we never met up. He's probably just stuck over in Berkeley. He was going to take the BART over."
Mom made a whimpering sound. Dad shook his head and closed his eyes. "Don't you know about the BART?" he said.
I shook my head. I could see where this was going. I felt like the ground was rushing up to me.
"They blew it up," Dad said. "The bastards blew it up at the same time as the bridge."
That hadn't been on the front page of the Chronicle, but then, a BART blowout under the water wouldn't be nearly as picturesque as the images of the bridge hanging in tatters and pieces over the Bay. The BART tunnel from the Embarcadero in San Francisco to the West Oakland station was submerged.
I went back to Dad's computer and surfed the headlines. No one was sure, but the body count was in the thousands. Between the cars that plummeted 191 feet to the sea and the people drowned in the trains, the deaths were mounting. One reporter claimed to have interviewed an "identity counterfeiter" who'd helped "dozens" of people walk away from their old lives by simply vanishing after the attacks, getting new ID made up, and slipping away from bad marriages, bad debts and bad lives.
Dad actually got tears in his eyes, and Mom was openly crying. They each hugged me again, patting me with their hands as if to assure themselves that I was really there. They kept telling me they loved me. I told them I loved them too.
We had a weepy dinner and Mom and Dad had each had a couple glasses of wine, which was a lot for them. I told them that I was getting sleepy, which was true, and mooched up to my room. I wasn't going to bed, though. I needed to get online and find out what was going on. I needed to talk to Jolu and Vanessa. I needed to get working on finding Darryl.
I crept up to my room and opened the door. I hadn't seen my old bed in what felt like a thousand years. I lay down on it and reached over to my bedstand to grab my laptop. I must have not plugged it in all the way — the electrical adapter needed to be jiggled just right — so it had slowly discharged while I was away. I plugged it back in and gave it a minute or two to charge up before trying to power it up again. I used the time to get undressed and throw my clothes in the trash — I never wanted to see them again — and put on a clean pair of boxers and a fresh t-shirt. The fresh-laundered clothes, straight out of my drawers, felt so familiar and comfortable, like getting hugged by my parents.
I powered up my laptop and punched a bunch of pillows into place behind me at the top of the bed. I scooched back and opened my computer's lid and settled it onto my thighs. It was still booting, and man, those icons creeping across the screen looked good. It came all the way up and then it started giving me more low-power warnings. I checked the power-cable again and wiggled it and they went away. The power-jack was really flaking out.
In fact, it was so bad that I couldn't actually get anything done. Every time I took my hand off the power-cable it lost contact and the computer started to complain about its battery. I took a closer look at it.
The whole case of my computer was slightly misaligned, the seam split in an angular gape that started narrow and widened toward the back.
Sometimes you look at a piece of equipment and discover something like this and you wonder, "Was it always like that?" Maybe you just never noticed.
But with my laptop, that wasn't possible. You see, I built it. After the Board of Ed issued us all with SchoolBooks, there was no way my parents were going to buy me a computer of my own, even though technically the SchoolBook didn't belong to me, and I wasn't supposed to install software on it or mod it.
I had some money saved — odd jobs, Christmases and birthdays, a little bit of judicious ebaying. Put it all together and I had enough money to buy a totally crappy, five-year-old machine.
So Darryl and I built one instead. You can buy laptop cases just like you can buy cases for desktop PCs, though they're a little more specialized than plain old PCs. I'd built a couple PCs with Darryl over the years, scavenging parts from Craigslist and garage sales and ordering stuff from cheap cheap Taiwanese vendors we found on the net. I figured that building a laptop would be the best way to get the power I wanted at the price I could afford.
To build your own laptop, you start by ordering a "barebook" — a machine with just a little hardware in it and all the right slots. The good news was, once I was done, I had a machine that was a whole pound lighter than the Dell I'd had my eye on, ran faster, and cost a third of what I would have paid Dell. The bad news was that assembling a laptop is like building one of those ships in a bottle. It's all finicky work with tweezers and magnifying glasses, trying to get everything to fit in that little case. Unlike a full-sized PC — which is mostly air — every cubic millimeter of space in a laptop is spoken for. Every time I thought I had it, I'd go to screw the thing back together and find that something was keeping the case from closing all the way, and it'd be back to the drawing board.
So I knew exactly how the seam on my laptop was supposed to look when the thing was closed, and it was not supposed to look like this.
I kept jiggling the power-adapter, but it was hopeless. There was no way I was going to get the thing to boot without taking it apart. I groaned and put it beside the bed. I'd deal with it in the morning.
That was the theory, anyway. Two hours later, I was still staring at the ceiling, playing back movies in my head of what they'd done to me, what I should have done, all regrets and esprit d'escalier.
I rolled out of bed. It had gone midnight and I'd heard my parents hit the sack at eleven. I grabbed the laptop and cleared some space on my desk and clipped the little LED lamps to the temples of my magnifying glasses and pulled out a set of little precision screwdrivers. A minute later, I had the case open and the keyboard removed and I was staring at the guts of my laptop. I got a can of compressed air and blew out the dust that the fan had sucked in and looked things over.
Something wasn't right. I couldn't put my finger on it, but then it had been months since I'd had the lid off this thing. Luckily, the third time I'd had to open it up and struggle to close it again, I'd gotten smart: I'd taken a photo of the guts with everything in place. I hadn't been totally smart: at first, I'd just left that pic on my hard drive, and naturally I couldn't get to it when I had the laptop in parts. But then I'd printed it out and stuck it in my messy drawer of papers, the dead-tree graveyard where I kept all the warranty cards and pin-out diagrams. I shuffled them — they seemed messier than I remembered — and brought out my photo. I set it down next to the computer and kind of unfocused my eyes, trying to find things that looked out of place.
Then I spotted it. The ribbon cable that connected the keyboard to the logic-board wasn't connected right. That was a weird one. There was no torque on that part, nothing to dislodge it in the course of normal operations. I tried to press it back down again and discovered that the plug wasn't just badly mounted — there was something between it and the board. I tweezed it out and shone my light on it.
There was something new in my keyboard. It was a little chunk of hardware, only a sixteenth of an inch thick, with no markings. The keyboard was plugged into it, and it was plugged into the board. It other words, it was perfectly situated to capture all the keystrokes I made while I typed on my machine.
It was a bug.
My heart thudded in my ears. It was dark and quiet in the house, but it wasn't a comforting dark. There were eyes out there, eyes and ears, and they were watching me. Surveilling me. The surveillance I faced at school had followed me home, but this time, it wasn't just the Board of Education looking over my shoulder: the Department of Homeland Security had joined them.
I almost took the bug out. Then I figured that who ever put it there would know that it was gone. I left it in. It made me sick to do it.
I looked around for more tampering. I couldn't find any, but did that mean there hadn't been any? Someone had broken into my room and planted this device — had disassembled my laptop and reassembled it. There were lots of other ways to wiretap a computer. I could never find them all.
I put the machine together with numb fingers. This time, the case wouldn't snap shut just right, but the power-cable stayed in. I booted it up and set my fingers on the keyboard, thinking that I would run some diagnostics and see what was what.
But I couldn't do it.
Hell, maybe my room was wiretapped. Maybe there was a camera spying on me now.
I'd been feeling paranoid when I got home. Now I was nearly out of my skin. It felt like I was back in jail, back in the interrogation room, stalked by entities who had me utterly in their power. It made me want to cry.
Only one thing for it.
I went into the bathroom and took off the toilet-paper roll and replaced it with a fresh one. Luckily, it was almost empty already. I unrolled the rest of the paper and dug through my parts box until I found a little plastic envelope full of ultra-bright white LEDs I'd scavenged out of a dead bike-lamp. I punched their leads through the cardboard tube carefully, using a pin to make the holes, then got out some wire and connected them all in series with little metal clips. I twisted the wires into the leads for a nine-volt battery and connected the battery. Now I had a tube ringed with ultra-bright, directional LEDs, and I could hold it up to my eye and look through it.
I'd built one of these last year as a science fair project and had been thrown out of the fair once I showed that there were hidden cameras in half the classrooms at Chavez High. Pinhead video-cameras cost less than a good restaurant dinner these days, so they're showing up everywhere. Sneaky store clerks put them in changing rooms or tanning salons and get pervy with the hidden footage they get from their customers — sometimes they just put it on the net. Knowing how to turn a toilet-paper roll and three bucks' worth of parts into a camera-detector is just good sense.
This is the simplest way to catch a spy-cam. They have tiny lenses, but they reflect light like the dickens. It works best in a dim room: stare through the tube and slowly scan all the walls and other places someone might have put a camera until you see the glint of a reflection. If the reflection stays still as you move around, that's a lens.
There wasn't a camera in my room — not one I could detect, anyway. There might have been audio bugs, of course. Or better cameras. Or nothing at all. Can you blame me for feeling paranoid?
I loved that laptop. I called it the Salmagundi, which means anything made out of spare parts.
Once you get to naming your laptop, you know that you're really having a deep relationship with it. Now, though, I felt like I didn't want to ever touch it again. I wanted to throw it out the window. Who knew what they'd done to it? Who knew how it had been tapped?
I put it in a drawer with the lid shut and looked at the ceiling. It was late and I should be in bed. There was no way I was going to sleep now, though. I was tapped. Everyone might be tapped. The world had changed forever.
"I'll find a way to get them," I said. It was a vow, I knew it when I heard it, though I'd never made a vow before.
I couldn't sleep after that. And besides, I had an idea.
Somewhere in my closet was a shrink-wrapped box containing one still-sealed, mint-in-package Xbox Universal. Every Xbox has been sold way below cost — Microsoft makes most of its money charging games companies money for the right to put out Xbox games — but the Universal was the first Xbox that Microsoft decided to give away entirely for free.
Last Christmas season, there'd been poor losers on every corner dressed as warriors from the Halo series, handing out bags of these game-machines as fast as they could. I guess it worked — everyone says they sold a whole butt-load of games. Naturally, there were countermeasures to make sure you only played games from companies that had bought licenses from Microsoft to make them.
Hackers blow through those countermeasures. The Xbox was cracked by a kid from MIT who wrote a best-selling book about it, and then the 360 went down, and then the short-lived Xbox Portable (which we all called the "luggable" — it weighed three pounds!) succumbed. The Universal was supposed to be totally bulletproof. The high school kids who broke it were Brazilian Linux hackers who lived in a favela — a kind of squatter's slum.
Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.
Once the Brazilians published their crack, we all went nuts on it. Soon there were dozens of alternate operating systems for the Xbox Universal. My favorite was ParanoidXbox, a flavor of Paranoid Linux. Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
I'd burned a ParanoidXbox DVD when they first appeared, but I'd never gotten around to unpacking the Xbox in my closet, finding a TV to hook it up to and so on. My room is crowded enough as it is without letting Microsoft crashware eat up valuable workspace.
Tonight, I'd make the sacrifice. It took about twenty minutes to get up and running. Not having a TV was the hardest part, but eventually I remembered that I had a little overhead LCD projector that had standard TV RCA connectors on the back. I connected it to the Xbox and shone it on the back of my door and got ParanoidLinux installed.
Now I was up and running, and ParanoidLinux was looking for other Xbox Universals to talk to. Every Xbox Universal comes with built-in wireless for multiplayer gaming. You can connect to your neighbors on the wireless link and to the Internet, if you have a wireless Internet connection. I found three different sets of neighbors in range. Two of them had their Xbox Universals also connected to the Internet. ParanoidXbox loved that configuration: it could siphon off some of my neighbors' Internet connections and use them to get online through the gaming network. The neighbors would never miss the packets: they were paying for flat-rate Internet connections, and they weren't exactly doing a lot of surfing at 2AM.
The best part of all this is how it made me feel: in control. My technology was working for me, serving me, protecting me. It wasn't spying on me. This is why I loved technology: if you used it right, it could give you power and privacy.
My brain was really going now, running like 60. There were lots of reasons to run ParanoidXbox — the best one was that anyone could write games for it. Already there was a port of MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, so you could play practically any game that had ever been written, all the way back to Pong — games for the Apple ][+ and games for the Colecovision, games for the NES and the Dreamcast, and so on.
Even better were all the cool multiplayer games being built specifically for ParanoidXbox — totally free hobbyist games that anyone could run. When you combined it all, you had a free console full of free games that could get you free Internet access.
And the best part — as far as I was concerned — was that ParanoidXbox was paranoid. Every bit that went over the air was scrambled to within an inch of its life. You could wiretap it all you wanted, but you'd never figure out who was talking, what they were talking about, or who they were talking to. Anonymous web, email and IM. Just what I needed.
All I had to do now was convince everyone I knew to use it too.