Dreaming in memories, I dreamt in reverse chronological order. Recent occasion gave way to a vivid scene from last week—Stanley strolling over to that ruthless pack in the bar—and then an anecdote from a year ago—the hot barista who used to serve me coffee every morning in that little neighborhood shop on the way into work. This merely cleared the brush of caked on data to expose a sentimentality closer to my origin. As my memory dream began in this fashion this night, the intrepid rewind slowed, paused and played back a time well before infiltrating Westchestertonville, which was my present assignment. In rapid eye movement, I had become my former self…
I am sitting in my editor’s office. I’ve only been reporting for the The Es (the the eyes and ears) for several months. At the green age of 25, I am new. I am hungry. And I have aced the few assignments the Es were willing to entrust upon me. The bright sun beats in from the large window doubling as the room’s left wall. My editor, Tom’s his name, has collapsed the Venetian blinds into the corner, like a deck of vertical cards. He sits behind his desk staring at me. Big Tom McElroy. We’re on a first-name basis, but that doesn’t reduce my respect for him. He sits behind the rectangular desk, wearing it like a belt buckle, in the way a 300-pound frame can take on the otherwise cumbersome piece of business furniture and make it look small. I sit in the seat directly in front of this desk, which seems much bigger on my end. Tom is balding. Thin, silvery, aviator glasses faintly outline his square head in the sunlight. The sleeves of his wrinkled white dress shirt are rolled up past his elbows, which he has heaped onto the desk’s wood-finished surface (faux wood, probably plastic), an exposed forearm barrier between him and me. His crab claws at the terminals of these pythons clench a crumpled piece of paper detailing my latest assignment. Tom tells me I am to track down one of the rogue websites that have been periodically popping up on our intricate and incessant monitoring of the World Wide Web. You see, these sites are special, he says. They materialize into existence for maybe a few seconds and then disappear into the nothingness for months on end. Most sites at least leave a trace of their existence on the Web. Broken links, blog posts mentioning their activity; there’s always a cyber trail leading back to a source. Not these intermittent entities. When they’re offline, they don’t exist, nor did they ever exist, according to any Internet records at least. All we have to go on will be eye-witness accounts, Tom says in his terse delivery that a lifetime of flowing information has eroded down into facts and blunt description. “Most of the people you talk to will be about as reliable as a nutjob farmer, out in West Bumfuck, who thinks he just saw a UFO.” Tom has a way with words.
Now I’m on the street. Hitting the pavement. Utilizing real, old-world reporter techniques. Dogged. I’m putting the leg work in overtime, like cooking a homemade meal from scratch. Internet research is a case of microwave dinners in the frozen section of the supermarket, when I need some fresh produce from the farm stands. Yet with little to no leads, the first question I have to answer Who knows what I need to know?
Maybe Maximilian vel Nirvanitor would know something. Before reporting for the Es, I had freelanced as an infiniteighter. Infiniteighters have two very specific talents: they can ensnare freewheeling psychotic hackers within an infinite loop (figure-8) of their own delusions of grandeur; and, conversely, they can free prisoners from these loops, self-induced or otherwise. Max needed me for the latter. As founder and CEO of http://01101000011
0010101100001011101100110010101101110.010001110100111101000100 (binary for heaven.GOD), his site had trapped some people within their own fantasy and he needed an infiniteighter to break the cycles before their families filed lawsuits. Save the obvious side effects, his site was quite ingenious. New users, who could accurately type out the full binary for heaven.GOD, would be directed via the information superhighway, to a black screen populated by a solitary blinking cursor. You’d type a question along the single command line. ‘What is beyond this Life?’ The machine would then answer. Beyond this Life is entirely determined by the Life you lead now and will continue to lead until death. For me to generate you afterlife experience, you must first tell me about this Life. The beginning stages could take several hours, but the idea here was that “heaven” was what you make it. You were asking the machine questions, but really the machine was figuring out its user and building paradise around this unique psyche. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ took on a whole new meaning on heaven.GOD. As someone began constructing a fantastical world around them, the limits of their imagination became evident to the machine. The machine and its clever Max encoder, savvy to these patterns, then simply looped the user within their own limits. Once heaven.GOD had determined the user was satisfied by a perfect day at the beach—waves crashing, sun shining, the smell of suntan lotion and saltwater all to entrance—the docile user settled ever so gently into repeated bliss. He hired me to rain on their sunny day, slapping cold, biting reality back into their lives. Getting inside their heads had always come easy to me. Not sure why I had this talent, but it was handy when trying to translate the semantics of artful conversation or when freeing someone from their own delusion, fortified by fearful creation. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite poems: … much power and rage fueled that soul sage, whose fearful creation thus fortified his cage… It was pretty easy to see where someone was coming from, I guess, while standing in their shoes.
It followed, then, that he could have acquired know-how to program such seductive code (as the lines that governed heaven.GOD’s) crossing paths with the likes of shady characters I now seek.
I am in Max’s lair, a step-down one-bedroom in the fairly affluent side of the city. He says he likes the good location and subtlety of an inconspicuous and quaint basement apartment. The situation keeps him grounded among the high-class yuppies. Hair gelled into spikes and eyes visored by thick black-rimmed and -lensed sunglasses, Max sits tapping away at an ergonomic keyboard, among blinking lights and beeps, which seem arbitrary to me (though I know Max knows what they all mean) and give life to the master coder’s dark underground cave. Max’s awkward, hyperactive movements and heightened energy indicate his surprise to see me; it’s been several years since we ended our business relationship. He swivels his chair toward where I’m standing and flicks his glasses into his thick patch of shiny spikes. “I was shocked to hear your voice on the other end of the line,” he says. “I could’ve used your expertise a few more times, man.” He flicks the glasses back down over his eyes and goes back to tapping away in front of a sea of monitors.
“Sorry,” I say, “had to take the honest route. Working for the Es now. Trying to get to the truth; I’m done spinning lies for a few extra bucks.”
“I hear ya,” he says, still typing and scanning. “Yet isn’t it ironic that you’re now consulting a spinner of lies to find the truth?” Max wears a popped Polo collar under a dungaree tuxedo—a denim jacket and acid-washed jeans. His speech reeks of the 2080s, a decade during his heyday he can’t seem to let go. And all of his pop-culture references hark back to this golden time, in his mind. “Anyway, the guys you’re after, they’re into some pretty heavy shit.” See what I mean? Who uses heavy anymore?
“How do you know them?”
“A couple of the guys are clients. They call themselves line jumpers, by the way. But don’t go spreading that around town. I’m telling you that little tidbit in confidence. You’re likely to get yourself killed or, even worse, erased completely from society (identity obliteration), if you go sticking your nose where they don’t want you to. I’m telling you because you’ll need to distinguish between the Real McCoy and posers who claim to be line jumpers. Frankly, it’s quite an easy profession to fake; for the most part, no one has seen, heard of or knowingly met any of these cyber phantoms. That’s the way they want it. And that’s the way they’d like to keep it, if you catch my drift…”
“Well, what can you tell me about them, then?”
“As I said, they’re highly discrete, but being in the line of work that I am in, they couldn’t help divulge several of their secrets; you know just as well as I do that a true heaven experience only happens when we’re not lying to ourselves.”
“—I know that a little too well, in fact.”
“Ya, sorry about that. Should’ve warned you it can get messy raining on someone’s personally tailored parade…” He pauses, perhaps to allow me elaboration on my infinteighter experience, but I’m passed that now and undivided in my focus for the matter at hand. My stiff upper lip and unwavering stare urge him to continue. “… So several of the line jumpers logged on a while back to launch their own heaven experiences. And let me tell you: these guys know how to have fun. I wouldn’t have needed to contract your services for these creative geniuses. In fact, their imaginations were only exceeded by their ability to moderate. They’d get into heaven.GOD and out in short intervals. They’d never wire in for more than a few minutes. I had never seen activity like this before. I’ll admit, I breached my own confidentiality agreement and dove into the archives of their sessions, on several occasions. Their sequences were works of art. I couldn’t tell if they were using memories of life events that had actually happened or creating entirely original worlds by pure inspiration. They just seemed to have a control over self-imposed reality to a degree well beyond any league of even my most prolific clients.”
“What sort of things did you see in the archives?”
Max pushes his sunglasses up over his forehead and looks me straight in the eyes from his comfy reclining black-leather work chair. I get the feeling he wants to indicate the severity of what will leave his lips next. “Tough to explain really. And I didn’t understand a lot of it. Just a feeling of calm washed over me as I experienced their worlds. Life forms and energy exchanges that were entirely unlike any phenomena one could witness in the real world… at least in this world.”
“OK. So how does this tie into their line jumping?” I don’t have time to wax existential with my old friend Max; I need to find a solid lead to these ghosts of the Internet. Big Tom’s deadlines are not flexible.
“Well my curiosity got the best of me one night. After one of their ‘unique’ sessions, I noticed their IP (Internet protocol) was still on and I tracked what sites they had visited, prior to logging into heaven.GOD. Then I played back their session. It appeared they were using the data acquired from prior online sessions to inspire the world’s created on the fantasy interface. Again, all of this took maybe several minutes and what they had created was beautiful, but it seemed incomplete. It ended well before I would have pulled the plug.”
“It almost sounds like they were taking Internet data and uploading to heaven.GOD—”
“That thought crossed my mind,” Max cuts me off; his mind often works faster than his social sensibility, “but it doesn’t make sense. We both know thanks to the severe confidentiality of these fantasies, that this information is stored solely in my archives. Protected by 10-fold firewalls and then severed from the Web immediately upon completion of the session, it’s impossible for any source outside of my personal servers to receive the data created from a heaven.GOD session.”
“Well, it would appear that way at least,” I say. Ever faithful to the facts, now I need a name. Line jumpers won’t cut it. “So can you give the name of one of these guys, on of these ‘line jumpers?'”
“No, but I can hook you up with their signal dealer, the guy who sets up their disposable addresses for rapid connection/disconnection to perform split-second surfing. You may have heard of him, in fact. His name is Capt. Bill Blackbeard…”
At the utterance of this name, I awoke in a huff. Now it was morning and the sun poured into my bedroom. The sunlight jumpstarted my circadian rhythms, which psychologically rumbled in the low idle of a finely tuned V8 internal combustion engine. My sleep had been complete (I must’ve been awoken between cycles). No residual drowsiness clouded my consciousness, which in turn was sharp as a tack. I had had an eventful rest during my downtime and crystalline facts began to form. They hardened from coal ambiguity to the razor’s edge of glass-cutting diamonds. The glass they cut through had acted as a refracting prism deluding me from the truth and now, as 14-carat clarity shattered the rigid bullshit, three infallibilities descended upon my mind’s eye:
2. He was acting knowingly or unknowingly as the puppet of Schmuckersburg himself, for the sake of baby Bookface®.
1. I needed to find Capt. Bill Blackbeard, that obnoxiously elusive fuck.
I felt like delivering a double entendre the way an action hero punctuates a point of climax in the movie. I reached over to the nightstand, grabbed my tablet computer and logged on for the first time in over two weeks, only to cancel my account. As my index finger firmly pressed down on the touch-sensitive confirmation screen, I whispered gruffly… Bookface this.
— OFF THE BOOK —