Agents of the Internet Apocalypse (19 page)

BOOK: Agents of the Internet Apocalypse
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“Okay, Quiff, so what happens next? You tell me.”

“You will be blamed,” he said. “You will be discredited. And you will be vilified.”

Then, almost by cue, my old friend Senator Bramson came on the radio.

“I've been warning this administration and anyone who will listen about this so-called messiah for months. And for good reason. Look what this movement has done. And what does this administration have to show for it?”

I knocked back my drink and put my head in my hands, running my fingers over my face and through my hair like I'd seen exasperated men do.

“We'll figure this out, Gladstone,” Tobey offered weakly.

“Cheer up,” Quiff said. “Don't you realize Senator Bramson just became your best friend?”

“Ooh, with benefits?” Tobey asked.

“Shut up, Tobey.”

“Yes,” Quiff agreed. “Take a break, Tobey. We get it. You're a moron.”

“How is she my friend?” I asked.

“Well, think about it: She's blaming the NSA. The NSA just released you. So—”

“I was being held by the NSA?” I asked.

“Who did you think?” Quiff asked.

“Well, I dunno. That Rowsdower seemed like such an FBI guy.”

“He is. Was. But he's been tasked as a foot soldier in the NSA's effectuation of the NET Recovery Act. So anyway. If Bramson is blaming you, the NSA has two choices: They can arrest you again and try to bury the fact that they ever let you go. Or they can dispute Bramson's allegations, which means you won't be blamed. We have to get you on TV. Deny any involvement. Condemn the attacks. Help the government help you, because y'know, if they do need you to be the bad guy for this, then nothing can help you.”

“You think that's all it takes? Go on TV and say, ‘Hey, I have nothing to do with this?'”

“Well, think about it. You'll be so grateful to the U.S. government for not wielding its NET Recovery Act power on your ass for something you didn't do, you'll keep your nose clean. Think of it as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“But that's bullshit,” Tobey said. “This movement goes on. And if they lock up Gladstone, we'll only grow stronger.”

“Hey, good for you Tobey!” Quiff said.

I hated everything about Quiff's tone, but I also knew he was right.

“So, no,” Quiff continued. “I think you should go on TV, but I don't think it's enough. It's a stopgap. It saves your ass for now and allows the government to save face, but you'll be compromised and they will never stop planning your destruction, because if they lock you up again, Tobey's right, that buys them another problem. But for now, yes, going on TV will work.”

“Why so sure?” I asked. “You think I'm that charismatic that no one will doubt my performance? You think the government will take comfort from that?”

Quiff laughed. “No, Gladstone, you're probably right. If the government had to rely on that alone they'd probably be more nervous, but I think they have another ace up their sleeve. Any guesses?”

Tobey thought hard. “Aliens?”

“Tell us,” I said.

“The Internet. I predict within the week the Net will make a temporary return. Just enough to quell unrest.”

“What does that get them?” Tobey asked.

“What does that get them?” Quiff barked. “How can you of all people ask that? Indifference. Apathy. It gets them that. You've had the most motivated productive month of your life without the Internet! It's Governance 101. A content people are the least likely to rebel.”

“I thought that was the purpose of religion,” Tobey said.

“Yes, that too,” Quiff agreed.

“Professional sports,” I offered.

“Right again. These are the things that make capitalism work. The things that make you take your eyes off how the system is rigged to fuck the common man on behalf of the elite. You might be working more and more for less, but hey, wasn't that World Cup exciting? And don't worry, you'll go to heaven ultimately while the rich burn in hell, so take comfort in that.”

“I feel like we've gone off-topic here.…”

“Not at all,” Quiff insisted. “Because religion, sports? They don't have a thing on the Internet.”

“It's bigger than Jesus,” Tobey smirked.

“Bigger than Jesus, the Beatles, and Elvis combined. You can steal content for free! You can communicate without long-distance charges. You can zone out and do nothing while feeling like you're doing something for hours, days, your whole life. Why am I explaining this to you, Gladstone? I read your book.”

I sat forward in my seat. I got close enough to Quiff to see his eyes were blue like mine. Blue like that not-Net creature I'd imagined in the Statue of Liberty at the end of my New York investigation.

“What's wrong?” Quiff asked.

“Nothing, I just hate it. I hate this. Why does everything have to be just … fuck.”

Quiff turned to Tobey, who nodded in agreement. “What he said.”

“Look, I know the Net was created by geniuses in conjunction with the military,” I said. “But can't it just be a symbol of our ingenuity instead of just another form of control? Can't it just be a pure thing?”

“Like what?” Quiff asked? “Nuclear power that can solve the world's energy concerns with just an occasional Chernobyl? Or television that can bring Shakespeare plays into people's homes, as well as attack ads during presidential campaigns? Grow up, Gladstone. There are no pure things. People are dirty.”

I thought back to college. Romaya had taken a job at a mall Starbuck's kiosk before quitting due to all the sexual harassment coming from her ecstasy-chomping hippie boss. I'd come to pick her up too early one day. I was always too early, but this day I used the time to wander the mall.

I wasn't looking to buy anything with just twelve dollars in my wallet and too little in my checking account to make a twenty-dollar minimum withdrawal, but I saw a dollar store and wondered if I might find something stupid and fun to give her. Before I entered, I saw a father with three girls, all with tidy, clipped, ridiculously blond hair, walking toward the store. His T-shirt and jeans were stained, and I assumed he had a job that didn't require him to shave every day. Despite having girls looking to be about ages twelve, ten, and eight, he couldn't have been more than thirty.

The girls were leading the way, but before they entered, they stopped and looked back at their dad, who said proudly, “All right, girls. You can have anything you want!” They squealed and ran into the store like contestants on a shopping-spree game show.

“What's choking you up, Gladstone?” Quiff asked, but I didn't answer. How could I explain to him what I'd seen? How could I tell him about a father who had nothing, but found a way to create a moment of unbridled joy for his children? Were there words to describe the hope, or at least the possibility, of this man patching together enough tiny moments so that by the time his girls realized how desperately poor they were, they'd already have had a happy childhood? Or could I explain what this father must have felt knowing that, in a world trying to crush him with everything he didn't have, for this moment, he was a hero? How could I explain any of that to a man who didn't believe in pure things?

“I don't think I can explain it to you, Quiff,” I said. “I believe in pure things.”

“I know you do, Gladstone. You're a true believer, and that's why going on TV isn't enough. After you do that, you'll have a choice to make. You'll have to stop your investigation and go away, or raise a real army and shut this whole thing down. You find the latest Internet phone book, narrow your lists of suspects, and I'll help you raise forces for attack.”

“Wait a second,” Tobey said. “If you think the government can just turn the Net back on, doesn't that also mean you think the government shut it off? I thought we didn't know who was responsible. I thought that was the point of finding the newest Internet phone book: to limit the list of suspects to just a few.”

Quiff paused for a second. “Yes, good point, but everything is connected always. No one can sustain anything without some form of collaboration. Now it's time to gather your forces. It's a matter of survival.”

“I don't want an army. I don't want to fight anyone.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to explain. I want to teach. I want to sit with even a man like you, steeped in pragmatism, and explain that pure things exist.”

“You'll be sitting a long time, Gladstone.”

“Well, then I want to go home. Take me home. I have no idea where you've taken me.”

“You are home,” Quiff said, unlocking the doors. I looked out the windows for the first time to see we were right outside Tobey's apartment. “We were just circling while we talked.”

I got up to leave without saying good-bye.

“Gladstone,” Quiff said, handing me a blank business card with a handwritten phone number. “Promise to call me when you need that army?”

 

Part III

 

9.

I never believed I was anointed. Not really. But sometimes, if I didn't think too much about it, I did feel watched over. Even as a child. I guess it's just a form of narcissism to believe the world puts things in a certain order for your eventual success. It's like the people who say everything happens for a reason. If I examine that thought, I find it both absurd and repellent. But if I don't think about it at all, then yes, that time you run late because you've misplaced your keys, then miss your plane that crashes … sure, it's hard to not feel like someone is trying to tell you something.

Leaving Quiff's car, however, I felt none of that. I felt like I was on my own and nothing short of more work than I was capable of would change my future. Even with Tobey walking beside me, I felt alone. Even worse, I felt my heart and lungs and ribs existing in my body. The physical signs of a panic attack. Dr. Kreigsman had taught me to recognize them. They say knowing is half the battle, but they don't tell you there is no second half, and fifty percent of anything is never a solution.

So it was with as much comfort as surprise that we found Jeeves sitting in Tobey's doorway reading
Fangoria
magazine. (The Apocalypse had been so good to print.)

“Jeeves, what the…”

He got to his feet with a bit of effort and held out his arms for a hug. I put my head on his shoulder and hugged him tight and squishy.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“It seems you need me,” he said.

“Yeah, but this all just happened. How could you get here so fast?”

“Came yesterday. Felt it coming.”

Tobey interrupted. “Um, Sylvia Browne, if you knew it was coming, how about calling in a tip?”

“No, prick, I didn't know about the trolley. Just that Gladstone might need me.”

Nothing good ever happened in Tobey's apartment, and I didn't want to go inside. I had a better chance of avoiding the panic if we kept moving, so I suggested we get into Tobey's Matrix and take a drive. Tobey picked Mulholland Drive, and Jeeves and I clung to our door handles as Tobey took turns with too much confidence, tempting the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I thought this would cheer you up, Gladstone,” he said. “Y'see, L.A.'s like two cities at least. There's L.A.—y'know Beverly Hills, Venice, and all that—and then there's The Valley. You can see both from up here.”

He addressed the last part of the narrative to the rearview mirror because Jeeves and I were in the backseat.

“Can you watch the road?” Jeeves asked.

“We're high enough to look down on it now, but all that smog and pollution that releases to the ocean on the L.A. side just sits in The Valley. Also, it's, like, always ten degrees hotter.”

“Why would that cheer me up?” I asked.

“Because, y'know, the Lynch movie,
Mulholland Drive
? Remember that hot lesbian scene with Naomi Watts?”

Tobey pulled off Mulholland and headed south, turning right on Highland.

“Hey, the Hollywood sign,” Jeeves said.

I hated to admit it, but I always wanted to see that up close.

“Who built that?” I asked Tobey.

“I don't know,” Tobey said.

“And why?”

“Um, still don't know?”

“Yeah, I should research that,” Jeeves said, and we looked at him. “In a
library.
Y'know, I do still know how to do that.”

With the sightseeing and fear of imminent death over, we started bringing Jeeves up to speed as he looked us over with increasing incredulity.

“Yeah, it's a lot to believe, huh?” I asked.

“No, that's not what you're seeing, Gladstone. If I understand you correctly, you basically have one clue. A list of suspects in some Internet phone book.”

“Yes,” I said, handing it over to him. “Can you feel anything from it?”

“No, I can't feel anything from it, but that's not the point,” he said, and then turned still and confused.

“What is it?”

“You,” he said. “You look different.” He stared and then looked down at my hat on the seat between us before placing it on my head. “Ah, there you are,” he said with a surprising amount of relief. “There's my Messiah.”

He smiled and straightened the hat before remembering he was annoyed with me. “Oh, anyway, the point is you're looking for the most recent version of this phone book so you can further narrow the search, right?”

“Yes.”

“That's the part that's killing me. Am I correct that you've still done no actual research on the names in this book? I mean some of these people might be dead now. Some might have formed corporations together. There are connections. Clues.”

“Well, in my defense,” I said, “yeah, we started. We visited a former UCLA professor from the book, but that's when I got locked up. I've been held by the NSA for the last three weeks.”

BOOK: Agents of the Internet Apocalypse
6.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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