I wrote Exeunt sometime around 2005. It’s the only short story I’ve ever submitted for publication (Clarkesworld Magazine, back in 2007). The story itself was rejected, and lived on assorted hard drives since. For the sake of at least preserving historic writing, I give you: Exeunt.
Exeunt by Ilya Popov
Cormac McTavish sits at his desk, staring bleary-eyed at the monitor before him. The computer screen stares right back, with a Bring-It-Buddy ‘tude. He types away at his keyboard, his fingers racing on par with wild Clydesdales over assorted URLs, pounding electric hieroglyphs onto digital type. Beside him rests his nourishment of the day: empty cans of Pepsi performing a Tower of Pisa impression, doubly acting as glorified paper-weights for the papers that colonize the spaces between and around the mouse-pad and keyboard. Cormac has evolved beyond fashion statements to the state of practicality. Simply put, he’s using every inch of space available to him.
And right now, he is, to use a term that’s been proverbially barbarized by the collective popular culture of the North-American continent, surfing the web. Although perhaps a better term would be “typing” and “running programs.”
His face is a battered mirror reflection of the process occurring on the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). He doesn’t even notice his eyes blinking. But then, who does? What’s happening right now is that an electron beam is moving back and forth across the back of the screen he’s looking at. It’s like looking at vaguely opaque glass – like reckless teenagers having a Friday night kegger that involves smearing weeks old radioactive yoghurt over your dashboard. Each time the beam passes over the screen, it lights up little phosphor dots on the inside of the glass tube in the back of the monitor, thusly illuminating portions of the screen. You do this quick enough, and draw the lines in the right way, and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, let there be light.
A window pops up, a stale white canvas slowly melting to grey-scale as pixels begin teleporting onto hyperbolically skeletizing polygons, and the pixels hereafter flip like pancakes to brutalizing 256 colour. The sound of a bell whistles from the speakers which have been delightfully duct-taped onto the monitor – to get the best sound possible, naturally. The more level a sound-wave is with the ear-cavity, the clearer the polyphonics. That’s the rationalization Cormac applied, anyway. Download finished, all two-thousand files sit somewhere on the hard-drive, saved for later use, although probably not. The world is compleat, and in less time than it took God, and with a fatter pipe than anything Adam could get Eve with the shekels he oxygenated in his pockets.
A shower of colours drift across Cormac’s face as he reads the sign that says ‘Welcome to the Megaverse: Where Life Knows No Limits.’ He says nothing in the darkness of his room. McWorld Land here, there, he didn’t give a shit. But he still digs the Pepsi sign. He clicks on the right mouse button and slowly drifts forward, because replicating actual human movements, the awkwardness of every single dip, can have nauseating effects, and really, it’s unnecessary. As he begins moving forward, the client-server software begins making sweet love to the fibre-optic cable that ends in a black plastic would-be carcinogen on Cormac’s table (were he more bored and feeling perkily anarchistic). But modems are modems, regardless of their eyesore status.
He wanders through the gates of this Online Perdition; a digital McWorld. Because the program he’s using isn’t terribly advanced in all manners, he can’t really modify what he looks like. Not that he cares. See, the way Megaverse works is on a payment basis: You get what you pay for. It’s like ordering a Big-Mac. You want to get sketched out in the newest silks and robes? Drop the e-green and get your dreams. Otherwise, you’re just Clone # 248723697. Sipping his Pepsi (the irony is killing him) he wanders to the nearest E-Bank. The screen halts like a kamikaze pilot slamming at 4 G’s into a Titanium wall. But at least the demonic music of the Megaverse has stopped, only to be replaced, when it’s finished loading up the E-Bank, with its succubus cousin: the Product-Placement Jingle.
“What would you like to sell today?” asks the orange hallucinogenic on-screen text. It doesn’t really care what you want. Have the right name and pin-code? If you answered yes, then you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s amazing what numbers can do to you. They can help you measure the length of your car, make a bank transaction or build a hydro-nuclear bomb.
He rolls his tongue over the front-row aisle of his jaw, and enters a series of seemingly meaningless numbers, that don’t follow any specific order, which to the uninitiated, is like slamming God in the face with a 2×4. This is followed by a brief Tab and then – voila! – entrance of one D underscore Castor. The window has a hot-flash in the dark and a list of menus and options Tetris their way onto the screen. It’s so instantaneous that it would give freak flash-fires the hizzies. And he’s using SSL now, so all the data should be tighter than a virgin.
Between the brain-stem and the receptors and sensors in his eyes, chemicals are having an anti-globalist rave, and Cormac’s mouse-fingers have become their U-2 rockets of love. Tonight, D_Castor dies. And on the internet, no one can hear you scream. Except perhaps your portfolio and accountant.
A few minutes and a chair-swivel later, fingers and text are making the music of the spheres as dalnet performs a server ident, ip check and password req. And Cormac, now hieroglyphically decked out as Nunchuku_Pizza, joins channel ‘2901,’ and carts into a electron seizing queue: someone claims to have obtained the Godhead of Godheads, Linus’ Great Pumpkin: The Coca-Cola formula, which has just been smuggled onto the internet.
Cormac estimates that if this is the Real Deal, that shortly thereafter – based on, let’s say, the EST Time Zone, that in the time it would take him to brush his teeth and masturbate, Georgia would riot, and that an army of soldiers armed with ties, briefcases and business-cards set-to-kill, would unleash the digital equivalent of a twenty megaton bomb on the internet.
“What’s the use of living in North America if you can’t have some good wholesome fun?” asks an online hieroglyphic identity named KroKl0wn.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
D_Castor, here known as the username David A. Castor, is asleep on a reclined futon that earlier in the evening had doubled as a park bench for a collexion of two-fours. He doesn’t wake up till his army of watches begin storming synchronously at 0900; digital rooks pecking at his skull – it’s mediaeval torture reinvigorated for the modern age. Mendelssohn touches down and one two three, Overture for Midsummer Night’s Dream smashes into his room like an ice-storm, emanating from the Holy Bose tabernacle.
One shower and time-wasting shave later (“It always grows back, so why bother?” he tends to think), D_Castor endeavours to enjoy the combo-plate breakfast before him. There’s a fine art to eating French toast, Rice Krispies, tea, orange juice, yoghurt, and a banana. Never mind that it’s such a healthy and balanced breakfast that most infomercials would have infomatic seizures just trying to strip him of all self-individuality and incorporate his very being into the Corporate Whole. But the timing has to be just right – it’s a race against sogginess with breakfasts, and it’s a delicate matter for Dave.
Yoghurt comes out first, the breakfast aperitif. Then the banana: the cock-tease prelude. Out comes the Krispies, because the toast is still hissing and crackling on the element like Medusa being given the ultimate ancient Greek head-job by Apollo. Then the tea and toast slide down the water-park of his oesophagus, coalescing like a wet-kiss along the insides of his Jejunum. And then finally, the OJ rockets down his throat to settle everything in a collective United Nations peace treaty within his stomach. And then David is packed, and off to work. Exit door: Front.
He drives to the train station, monthly pass in tow, and boards the locomotive, which will deliver him to his final destination at a speed of roughly 33 – 60 mi/h (55 to 95 km/h). He never actually knows where he’s boarding, because the way trains are designed these days, they’re equipped with a control-cab, which is located on either end of the train, meaning that there’s no need to uncouple, run around, and then recouple the train. It has lost all sense of front and back. David boards and parks in a not-so-uncomfortable plastic chair a shade away from testicular puke. Fourty minutes – and one screaming group of uni students he’d like to pile-drive with God’s Almighty bulldozer later – he’s weaving his way to Skyscrapera generica to the ¾ rhythm of the Stone Roses.
He sees flashing blue lights as he pops the corner of an avenue: a phalanx of police copulate before his geographical destination. He passes into the entrance and engages Samantha, a petit Level 1 uni grad who’s been learning the finer arts of economics and yoga. Right now, she’s tight-roping the line between conundrum and high-voltage confusion.
“Morning Sam,” says David. She smiles weakly and reciprocates his greeting.
“Why the blue and white decoration outside?” he asks.
“Apparently, the company was attacked last night – mostly just networks. We’re still trying to figure out the W’s and H of it all. But Mr. Mayhew thought it a good idea to ring the police regardless.”
David arches his eyebrow, nods to Sam, and heads for the lift. A button and lift ride later, he’s sitting down to his desk. The keyboard tray roller-coasts outward to a smooth and compleat halt. He clicks on the mouse, and the CRT opens its eyes, revealing a smooth rectangular box that contains two empty chambers, one for the UserID, and one for the password.
The screen blinks and proverbially punches David in the face. INVALID USER ID OR PASSWORD. Please try again.
He re-enters all the information slowly, and the results: The Same. He heads to the IT department, and is told by one of an army of system-admins, this one looking like he spends his Friday nights coking out at a club whose membership requires body-piercings of the most detrimental kind, that they’re working on the problem.
“Any idea of how to trace the attack?”
“That entirely depends,” says the Masochist IT.
“On who or what the in the hell Zu is.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In Megaverse, Cormac is chatting with another Virtua Doll; another Clone like himself – someone too lazy to give Megaverse even a cent. They’re standing outside a theatre, alongside a Greek statue that’s spouting water from its mouth, which eventually spreads all around itself in a spiral arc and is then piped to return to itself; a kind of Vicious Greek Circle.
It’s been fifteen hours since the American government and Coca-Cola, in coalition with the NSA, began tapping out the entire country, milking every digital cable connexion, every wireless network, every analogue phone system, waiting, with extreme irritation, for something to give. Their response time has been nigh-legendary, a rampaging wolf with a heroin-withdrawal seizure, and armed to absurdity with hydro-nuclear lawyers. It’s been a whirlwind day, with the quickest court-approved country-wide tap ever seen. Coca-Cola has been robbed – the world is now officially at risk. In Georgia, the populace have managed to demolish their own phone-lines – everyone’s calling everyone else within the border. And it’s pissing the US government off. Roderick Pearce, of Calhoun, NC, has just spent the last hour tying up his family’s phone line, talking long distance with Rhode Island. Newnan to Metter, Tifton to Commerce, the entire state stands in some kind of weird sociopathic standstill. The proverbial gates of Heaven have been stormed by an army wielding digital RPGs, they’re blowing shit up like its pyro-night at the local Boy Scout’s Club, and St. Peter’s entrails are barbecue decorations.
Cormac sips his Pepsi slowly; since last night, there hasn’t been a damn thing on the net that hasn’t acted like it wasn’t tied to a four-tonne Acme anvil. Lag persists even in the Megaverse, where conversation looks like tidal-waves moving at 5 frames per second. IRC looks mostly unfazed, mainly because it’s just text. Right now, barring the occasional local server reboot that causes an ocean of disconnect messages, text is taking that much longer to jump from client to host, which is making every open channel look like the world’s slowest digital printing press. Cormac can barely load CNN – the gifs and jpegs that normally clutter the site are replaced by empty boxes with size 12 sub-headers written in a perky Times New Roman font. But the obvious is evident – the power of Coca-Cola is staggering: Shipment rates by Pepsi have soared, phone-lines are crashing, and the internet has come to a virtual standstill.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
David Castor is sitting in a controlled temperature environment, sprawled over assorted cables, excavating network settings, trying to figure out how a crack-team of anarchistic troglodytes managed to evade the jaws of death that the kingdom of social-norm defying network admins have spent their entire post-trauma high years building as an alternative to boring general education 101 courses in Robber Baron-versities.
The same thought has been bouncing around in his head like a tennis ball moving at mach 20 – “What the hell is Zu?” He pulls out a company laptop, loads up Mozilla, and begins looking for this shapeless entity that has slapped down networks across the continent like the fires of Olympus. He hits up Google, and lets the internet sweep him away down the data-streams, one link log at a time.
D_Castor sifts through endless logs of Counter-Strike matches, of Mordecai, Zu_Yu and BobSaget and PrisonMartha shanking one another with MP5’s and flash grenades, and records of assorted forums, where bored high-schoolers battle out with one another on the nature of cleavage and flammable and explosive chemicals. After an hour of searching, he decides against tempting the headache that’s slowly canvassing outwards inside his frontal lobe.
He returns home that night, his brain chilling out to the party-mix of Coca-Cola and Rum. “What kind of calling card is Zu?” he thinks to himself. The alcohol coalesces with his brain-fluids, dulling the receptacles of his brain with a peanut-butter thick coating of inebriety. He wakes up hours later, his clocks leaving a sonic calling card in the halls of his inner ear-cavity; his head feeling like a hockey puck that was physically violated by the Boston Bruins.
On his way to the loo, he passes by his ancient, dust-bunny propagating shelf of books from uni. He has a thought and his hand whip-lashes out towards the Ancient Mythology book that he’d utilized for a General Humanities course during his less productive years in uni. “Computer Geeks love making mythological references,” he thinks. He sits himself down on the throne and begins excavating the text like an archaeologist with a hard-on. At the Mesopotamian section, he uncovers a reference to some kind of ancient tablet held by Marduk. The stone tablets were later stolen and eventually recovered, but it was the perpetrator that caught his attention: A demonic half-man, half-bird bird named Zu.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hour 53, Twenty-Five Minutes, and a Pocket Change of Seconds since Coca-Cola was violated by a Mesopotamian Hacker Cult. The pan-anarchy had propagated to new proportions: All files pertaining to wiretapped citizens within the halls of the NSA were no longer to be found; their hard-drives were wiped so thoroughly so as to compete with the nigh-invincible powers of Mister Clean. Around the country, banks were finding credit-card histories ripped out of their systems. Hospitals discovered that digital birth-certificates were vanishing, physical copies evaporating. The identities of citizens were slowly being wiped out. Every transaction record, mortgage document, car-payment, university diploma – it was all vanishing with the speed of an antediluvian flood. The digital quintessence of the American citizen was blinking out of verifiable existence.
D_Castor, the citizen once known as David A. Castor walks into the skyscraper he calls “Work,” unleashes a determined smile at Samantha, and makes his way up to his office. A small universe of seconds later, the lift dings itself to his floor and immediately he’s on his way towards Masochistic Network Admin Central. The floor is riddled with a slowly fertilizing colony of Snickers candy bars and Pepsi cans, the solitary comfort to geeks in their hungry time of need. He looks around for anyone lucid or sober enough to talk to him in a semi-coherent manner, and finds Punk Category 41: ‘I’m a Guitarist Who Sleeps Around and Spends His Weekends In a State of Compleat Inebriation’ plunged face first in a book on mythology.
“His name is Zu,” David says determinedly. “The Robin Hood to the Mesopotamia Sheriff of Nottingham – the God Enki.”
Punk Category 41 looks up from his book. He doesn’t ask how David knows. An intelligent comment or inquiry never elicits such a question from Authoritatus Geekus. They’re better than that.
Geekus Punkus grins. “And he thinks he’s stolen the tablets.”
David shoots back a smile, because he knows they’re reading the same page and suddenly their minds are doing a percolating dance of synchronicity.
He smiles and puts his hand out. “Richard Spark.”
David returns the smile and handshake. “Very apropos. Breakfast?” Punk Category 41, username Richard Spark, smiles at D_Castor.
The café is abuzz with a nervous tension that rides the current of human emotion like a free-loading parasite.
“It’s not one person,” says Richard. “Zu was only one in a series of bothers to the Mesopotamian Gods.”
Spark nods and downs his coffee with the intensity of someone who’d just realized that God’s Holy Sandal was trying to squash him. “They’re trying to take the codes away from Enki – reverse hack society into a previous age. Move backwards, almost.”
“Anti-Globalist?” asks Richard between bites of his pancake.
David nods. “It seems a likely answer. What better way to kill a super-structure than to kill all its supports. If you’re going to kill God, you supuku the hell out of His Saints and supporters. Make sure he can’t come back and Smite Thee Out-of-Existence.”
“What suggestion do you have for putting a stop to it? Other than leaving back-door surprises?”
David scratches his five-o’clock shadow. “I want to suggest new encryption codes and tighter systems for every major network on the planet, but that’s a massive endeavour on par with shipping out a thousand war-ships armed to the proverbial teeth with enough firepower to turn the world into a glowing nuclear cockroach in one day’s time. And not even God has that kind of power.”
“Or,” says Spark, “We could try finding the coked out chimps who’re trying to bring about the world’s biggest blue screen of death, and steal their stone tablet away from them. But where do you look?”
“Think about it – in the mythology book, where did it say the tablets were kept?” says David. “The Ziggurat.”
“Ok, let’s say that’s true. Where do you find a Ziggurat? We’re talking about a group of people with a decentralized network – they’re likely scattered all over the country, if not the entire planet.”
“Think about it though, we’re dealing with myths here, and with users who think in declarative terms, rather than in procedural terms. There’s going to be an associative nature to their behaviour.”
“So the Ziggurat we’re looking for doesn’t actually exist in the physical plane,” says Spark. The electrons in his head were doing loop-de-loops through rings of fire.
“It’s going to be somewhere on the ‘net. They’ve got to have some kind of meeting-place somewhere. It’s just a question of who and where. And where’s the likeliest place you’d find people with secrets? Who would have something to gain by letting techno-anarchists run amok?”
Minutes later, they’re surfing the internet with the speed of a death-wish biker on the Autobahn, looking for the yearly revenues of every major cola company in the world, and every sponsor Big 8, Pepsi Cola, and a hundred other companies ever signed under their banner, from theatre chains to internet sites. After a few minutes of recursive thinking, Spark and Castor both find themselves looking almost exclusively at forums, text-based groups, and online worlds. The likeliness of socially awkward techno-philes getting together at a local sports bar during a Red Sox game to discuss new and fascinating means in which to bring about the compleat and utter decimation of modern society was a stretch. But a digital world where everyone could mask their identity behind a face that was no different from anyone else? The perfect disguise.
Castor and Spark ready themselves for a rousing match of Battleship: Internetica, as they load up the Megaverse. The OC5 connexion they’re hooked up to doesn’t even blink as it begins download all the necessary files needed to wander a digital polygon-based world stripped of all humanity but outfitted with an outlandish sense of physics that would send Descartes and Newton into raging fits. In the Megaverse, most anything you want, if you know how to program it properly, and have the right amount of e-cash, can be yours to design.
They don’t even notice the Elevator Music from Hell. Instead, they download maps displaying the most recently charted regions of the Megaverse. The problem with a place like this is that it’s always changing, like a construction project – a nightmare Bostonian Big Dig – spiralling wildly out of control. You see, the Megaverse is laid out in an X/Y axis coordinate design, with each location, as it’s built, destroyed, rebuilt, or moved, designated its own particular coordinate.
And right now, the centre of Megaverse, the Downtown, if you will, looks rather like a star in premature stages of hyper-obesity. Ever since people realized they could pretty much do and create whatever they wanted to be in the Megaverse for a paltry cost, it experienced a kind of sensational urban boom relegated only to the wealthiest of cities. Spark stares at the most recently charted map of the Megaverse, and tries to determine just where they’d find digital anarchists hanging out in large groups. And asking local netizens seems like just the worst policy right now. They log in, and choose names for themselves.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Cormac stares out at his monitor, at the festival of text that pollutes the bottom of his screen. “It’s really quite amazing,” he thinks, reclining in his chair. Around him, a small hoplite force of clone-faced pan-anarchistic soldiers shuffle around the flat-roofed ziggurat, which currently sported a statue of Hermes Trismegistus, his arms wrapped around a large grey tablet. And right now, two new names were shuffling up the steps, names that Cormac had not before seen: Enlil and Vicious_Sid.
The router Enlil and Vicious_Sid are sharing is hooked up to a tracer program, which, the way they have it set up, is currently sending packets of data outwards at every single virtual doll around within a 30 foot radius. Back on their end, they’re logging every single ip that bounces back – which can ultimately be traced back to a home user. Even users on regular modems – 56 k or weaker – who have dynamic ips which are different every time a user logs on, can be reverse-traced to an approximate location.
And right now, Cormac McTavish and about thirty other dolls are being pinged by an OC5 set to stun.
A third computer, nicknamed The Archive, is hooked up to the router, and acts as a kind of tributary for their River Nile, sending all relevant data directly to the Pentagon.
As Enlil and Sid approach, a small band of Virtua-Dolls encircle them, the digital Children of the Corn, with all the threatening power of a pack of snapping turtles going up against kamikaze troops armed with a ridiculous level of explosives. In the Megaverse, Virtual-Dolls begin freezing up – a reciprocal effect of their client software losing temporary connexion to the server-side program. Minutes later they simply vanished; ethereal statues with a limited lifespan. All the while, Castor and Spark amass a Great Big Hit List for governments and companies around the world. Cormac’s eyes widen in horror as he realizes what’s happening, and thrusts towards his modem like a man on fire as the lights indicating net-usage begin spiking like a napalm fireworks show.
As Castor and Spark unleash a tidal-wave of assault-ready data packets, the NSA let loose a mighty wave of warrant-armed soldiers across the US. And one by one, the country-wide servers that comprise the Megaverse begin to emulate heavy chain-smokers and shut down. And quadrant by quadrant, users are kicked out of the Megaverse, as it experiences the biggest digital earthquake in recorded history.
But ultimately, it was too late. The actions of a small group of geographically displaced – and frequently bored – computer geeks had taken root, and the effects were far-reaching. And no amount of force, government or corporate, could curtail the snowball effect that unravelled across the world. Within months, the Capitalist Curtain was falling, and no one knew exactly what to replace it with. At least it wasn’t Coca-Cola. For now, the internet was free again, due to mass deregulation by governments world-wide. Even puppet regimes saw the advantage of not raising the ire of armed internet miscreants with an almost unfathomable amount of creativity. And in the Megaverse, a lonely Greek statue stood in a pool of water, holding the secrets of Coca-Cola.