Thursday, February 3, 2011

Webber's Moon

They knocked down my door at three o clock in the morning. They were waving Microsoft badges, but these guys weren’t Special Internet Squad. They were something else. They wore teflon bike helmets, jump boots, and mauve lab coats. The leader, a tall skinny man with a face like a turtle’s back, waved a wrist-light in my eyes. “Software Police”, he said, flashing an ID card that I couldn’t read. I was only capable of alarmed grunts. Someone turned on the light. I was surrounded by heartless geeks. I’d heard about them:  Microsoft Special Ops, otherwise known as Gaters.

“You haven’t paid for software since ninteen ninety two. That’s twenty eight years. Quite a run”. The tall guy was talking to me but he was reading from his heads-up display; his eyes were focused on his glasses. “You’ve copied Space Birds a hundred forty two times for friends. You’ve been using Word 2000 for decades without registering. You’ve got five hundred and eighty seven violations of the Download Code. Seven hundred incidents of using duplicate numbers. I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with us.”

They put me in a cubicle. I was at the center of a vast chamber full of cubicles. If I could see what the security cameras were seeing, I would have viewed myself diminishing like the planet earth receding as the scale of the universe enlarged. I could hear interrogations like the murmuring of a room full of telephone operators. In the next cubicle someone was saying, “We can take your wifi license away from you, you know? Turn it off. How would you like that? Are you ready to tell us who gave you the unauthorized copy of Etherscape Modulator?”

Now that I think back, it was heavy handed enforcement like this that led to the AOL-Microsoft civil war. First came the Pooki Virus Riots, then a lot of people were ripped off by the Devil Snatchware bug. The government was useless. Bill Gates and Steve Case were having a hard time agreeing about the new wraparound. People started wearing AOL hats and t-shirts and calling themselves owls. The MS battalions responded in kind; but the name Softies stuck, and it drove them crazy. There were street brawls; there were hack attacks. No one could read email or chat for twenty nine days, and you can imagine how tense people got. Computers are very emotionally charged objects. A tweeter named Al Turnhauer got on the roof across from the AOL office and started firing an AK-47.

AOL lost the war, of course. Softies had all the terabytes. Their hard drives were bigger. Gates dictated the terms of the wraparound after eleven days of warfare in and around the big cities. The new company was called AmeriKaSoft. Owls and softies became mowls.

So I’m listening to this shit in the next cubicle when a gater appears over the top of the partition. She’s got bangs, thick black sixties glasses, and her chatreuse lab coat was open to reveal a bit of cleavage. There was something sexy and menacing about her.

“So you’re Webber Mendelsohn,” she said, taking the other ergonomic chair. She wore an ID on a chain that said Paula Shapiro, but she didn’t introduce herself. She too, was looking at the display on her glasses. I hate that about the new technology: there isn’t any more eye contact.

“You say that like I’m some kind of famous guy. I mean, ‘So you’re Webber Mendelsohn’ sounds like I’m somebody, and I’m not, believe me, I’m just a do-nothing putz who spends too much time at his computer, I mean...”

The Gater lady held up a hand, which stopped my nervous rattling. “Nonsense. You were a Colonel-Hacker during the civil war. You had twelve hundred computers in your network.” For a moment, there was a flicker of eyes looking outward, at the objective world. She almost, but not quite, looked at me.

“Is that why I’m here? This isn’t really about violations of the download code.”

The woman scratched herself right below her collarbone. “You have a lot of special skills," she said.  To get to the itch, she had to move her blouse a little farther apart. It may have been a calculated gesture, but that was beyond me. The lady was deep into bureaucratic narcissism. I didn’t really exist.

“You, Webber Mendelsohn, are the hacker who mooned the world from the jumbo-tron at Super Bowl Fifty Two.”

My shoulders went up towards my ears and I squinted like I’d been caught masturbating in a public toilet stall. That was my first reaction. Then I felt pride: at last somebody knew and acknowledged my stupendous feat of hackmanship.

“That was just me, a computer and a video camera in a garage in Wackasauckee. All I had was six gigs of RAM, a crappy old Belkin ethernet , but tell you the truth I coulda done it with a Mac Plus and a dial-up modem."

I just couldn’t stop myself from talking. My right leg was going back and forth about fifty times a second and I was twitching my left knee up and down from the pivot of my ankle.

The gater woman swung the rollers on her chair so that she was facing me, about fifteen inches away. I could see the characters rolling across her heads-up reflected in her glasses lens. I could smell soap.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been this close to a woman in four years. She inhaled, and I couldn’t stop myself from watching that little inch of cleavage rise towards my face and then recede.  Rise and recede, rise and recede.
It was hypnotic.

“Mr. Mendelsohn, look....” I was going to tell her to call me Webber, but the hand went up to forestall me.

“We know about your hacks. We know how many times you've hacked the DOD, the CIA, we know you
wiped out Citibank's credit records for three million people.  Bank of America would love to get their hands on you.   A modern Robin Hood, that's what you are.  Debt disappears from peoples' credit records and they don't even know what happened.  The ones that don't tell, they get away with it.  And believe me, nobody tells any more.   That's your doing. You've cost the banks billions of dollars."

This was making me nervous.  I worked hard to make my deletes anonymous.  If they were on to me, I was  in deep legal shit.  They could put me in jail forever.

Paula Shapiro watched me, her eyes actually tracked my face as if she knew what I was thinking.  She didn't have to be a genius to know what I was thinking.  Beads of sweat had popped out on my forehead.

"We have a job for you," she said, in a tone that allowed me to keep my dignity.  I was grateful for that.
She was treating me with respect.  I was just wondering what the price would be, what they would require of me to wipe the slate clean.

She wasted no time in telling me.
"We want you to do it again. We want you to do a big moon, just like at the Super Bowl.  Only this time your moon is going to be at the Pan Arab rally in Damascus during Bin Laden's speech.”

I opened my mouth a couple of times, fishlike. I was caught. I’d seen this scenario in a thousand Clancies. If I did the job, they’d drop the charges. Right. And I'd be working for THEM the rest of my life.

“My moon? My butt up there on a seventy eight foot TV screen, for the benefit of the entire Islamic world?”

The woman brushed a wisp of dark brown hair back from her forehead. “We can provide you with the latest equipment. We have a million mbps fiber optic modem…”

“Wait a minute. If you want me to do this hack, you better put me in a garage somewhere with a monitor that has fried-chicken fingerprints and a keyboard encrusted with boogers. I gotta have the right working conditions or my inspiration dries up.”

So the idiots put me in a quonset hut somewhere in Maryland. It was partitioned to look like a garage, but it wasn’t the real deal. As the date for the Pan Arab Rally came closer, I knew I had a little power. I was sure they had fifty other guys trying to replicate my moon-hack, but it was a question of ‘touch’. It really wasn’t so technically daunting, just a matter of style, finesse and the unique Mendelsohn decryption subroutine.

So I told Paula, “Look babe, this isn’t working. If you really want my hairy ass in Osama’s face, you better take me back to Wackasauckee or at least someplace where smack is getting dealt on the streetcorner. Someplace real, you know?”

That’s how I ended up in a garage in Philadelphia, with my old equipment. The Mitsui monitor had years of my snot on it. If I held the keyboard upside down I could feed my cat for a week.

So what can I say? The thing went down. There was Osama, Asad, the Sabha family, the Sudan guy, the emirs from the gulf, Taliban, Abu-what’s- his name from Pakistan, all kind of getting along uneasily, pretending they didn’t want to plant those blades with the rhino-horn handles into each other’s spines.

The Akbar stadium was packed with well-trained crowds with banners, doing the Islamic version of the wave. And Osama got up to speak. As I watched Al Jazeera's feed from my Philly garage, Paula raised three fingers, two, then one, and nodded. I hit Enter, dropped my overalls, and there was this hairy Jew boy’s butt seventy eight feet big over Osama’s head. The crowd let out a moan like I’ve never heard. Everybody in the world who hated Osama hatched a new plot that night. The dictator of Islamistan was toppled the next day for a benign democratic regime, which was toppled the next week by Osama’s asshole cousin.

Me and Paula are doing fine, playing Space Birds in Wackasauckee.