Little Brother – Chapter 16

The following chapter from Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother is used with permission via a license (details at end). Please support the author by buying his book (click the image below).

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Chapter 16

At first Mom looked shocked, then outraged, and finally she gave up altogether and just let her jaw hang open as I took her through the interrogation, pissing myself, the bag over my head, Darryl. I showed her the note.

"Why --?"

In that single syllable, every recrimination I'd dealt myself in the night, every moment that I'd lacked the bravery to tell the world what it was really about, why I was really fighting, what had really inspired the Xnet.

I sucked in a breath.

"They told me I'd go to jail if I talked about it. Not just for a few days. Forever. I was -- I was scared."

Mom sat with me for a long time, not saying anything. Then, "What about Darryl's father?"

She might as well have stuck a knitting needle in my chest. Darryl's father. He must have assumed that Darryl was dead, long dead.

And wasn't he? After the DHS has held you illegally for three months, would they ever let you go?

But Zeb got out. Maybe Darryl would get out. Maybe me and the Xnet could help get Darryl out.

"I haven't told him," I said.

Now Mom was crying. She didn't cry easily. It was a British thing. It made her little hiccoughing sobs much worse to hear.

"You will tell him," she managed. "You will."

"I will."

"But first we have to tell your father."

#

Dad no longer had any regular time when he came home. Between his consulting clients -- who had lots of work now that the DHS was shopping for data-mining startups on the peninsula -- and the long commute to Berkeley, he might get home any time between 6PM and midnight.

Tonight Mom called him and told him he was coming home right now. He said something and she just repeated it: right now.

When he got there, we had arranged ourselves in the living room with the note between us on the coffee table.

It was easier to tell, the second time. The secret was getting lighter. I didn't embellish, I didn't hide anything. I came clean.

I'd heard of coming clean before but I'd never understood what it meant until I did it. Holding in the secret had dirtied me, soiled my spirit. It had made me afraid and ashamed. It had made me into all the things that Ange said I was.

Dad sat stiff as a ramrod the whole time, his face carved of stone. When I handed him the note, he read it twice and then set it down carefully.

He shook his head and stood up and headed for the front door.

"Where are you going?" Mom asked, alarmed.

"I need a walk," was all he managed to gasp, his voice breaking.

We stared awkwardly at each other, Mom and me, and waited for him to come home. I tried to imagine what was going on in his head. He'd been such a different man after the bombings and I knew from Mom that what had changed him were the days of thinking I was dead. He'd come to believe that the terrorists had nearly killed his son and it had made him crazy.

Crazy enough to do whatever the DHS asked, to line up like a good little sheep and let them control him, drive him.

Now he knew that it was the DHS that had imprisoned me, the DHS that had taken San Francisco's children hostage in Gitmo-by-the-Bay. It made perfect sense, now that I thought of it. Of course it had been Treasure Island where I'd been kept. Where else was a ten-minute boat-ride from San Francisco?

When Dad came back, he looked angrier than he ever had in his life.

"You should have told me!" he roared.

Mom interposed herself between him and me. "You're blaming the wrong person," she said. "It wasn't Marcus who did the kidnapping and the intimidation."

He shook his head and stamped. "I'm not blaming Marcus. I know exactly who's to blame. Me. Me and the stupid DHS. Get your shoes on, grab your coats."

"Where are we going?"

"To see Darryl's father. Then we're going to Barbara Stratford's place."

#

I knew the name Barbara Stratford from somewhere, but I couldn't remember where. I thought that maybe she was an old friend of my parents, but I couldn't exactly place her.

Meantime, I was headed for Darryl's father's place. I'd never really felt comfortable around the old man, who'd been a Navy radio operator and ran his household like a tight ship. He'd taught Darryl Morse code when he was a kid, which I'd always thought was cool. It was one of the ways I knew that I could trust Zeb's letter. But for every cool thing like Morse code, Darryl's father had some crazy military discipline that seemed to be for its own sake, like insisting on hospital corners on the beds and shaving twice a day. It drove Darryl up the wall.

Darryl's mother hadn't liked it much either, and had taken off back to her family in Minnesota when Darryl was ten -- Darryl spent his summers and Christmases there.

I was sitting in the back of the car, and I could see the back of Dad's head as he drove. The muscles in his neck were tense and kept jumping around as he ground his jaws.

Mom kept her hand on his arm, but no one was around to comfort me. If only I could call Ange. Or Jolu. Or Van. Maybe I would when the day was done.

"He must have buried his son in his mind," Dad said, as we whipped up through the hairpin curves leading up Twin Peaks to the little cottage that Darryl and his father shared. The fog was on Twin Peaks, the way it often was at night in San Francisco, making the headlamps reflect back on us. Each time we swung around a corner, I saw the valleys of the city laid out below us, bowls of twinkling lights that shifted in the mist.

"Is this the one?"

"Yes," I said. "This is it." I hadn't been to Darryl's in months, but I'd spent enough time here over the years to recognize it right off.

The three of us stood around the car for a long moment, waiting to see who would go and ring the doorbell. To my surprise, it was me.

I rang it and we all waited in held-breath silence for a minute. I rang it again. Darryl's father's car was in the driveway, and we'd seen a light burning in the living room. I was about to ring a third time when the door opened.

"Marcus?" Darryl's father wasn't anything like I remembered him. Unshaven, in a housecoat and bare feet, with long toenails and red eyes. He'd gained weight, and a soft extra chin wobbled beneath the firm military jaw. His thin hair was wispy and disordered.

"Mr Glover," I said. My parents crowded into the door behind me.

"Hello, Ron," my mother said.

"Ron," my father said.

"You too? What's going on?"

"Can we come in?"

#

His living room looked like one of those news-segments they show about abandoned kids who spend a month locked in before they're rescued by the neighbors: frozen meal boxes, empty beer cans and juice bottles, moldy cereal bowls and piles of newspapers. There was a reek of cat piss and litter crunched underneath our feet. Even without the cat piss, the smell was incredible, like a bus-station toilet.

The couch was made up with a grimy sheet and a couple of greasy pillows and the cushions had a dented, much-slept-upon look.

We all stood there for a long silent moment, embarrassment overwhelming every other emotion. Darryl's father looked like he wanted to die.

Slowly, he moved aside the sheets from the sofa and cleared the stacked, greasy food-trays off of a couple of the chairs, carrying them into the kitchen, and, from the sound of it, tossing them on the floor.

We sat gingerly in the places he'd cleared, and then he came back and sat down too.

"I'm sorry," he said vaguely. "I don't really have any coffee to offer you. I'm having more groceries delivered tomorrow so I'm running low --"

"Ron," my father said. "Listen to us. We have something to tell you, and it's not going to be easy to hear."

He sat like a statue as I talked. He glanced down at the note, read it without seeming to understand it, then read it again. He handed it back to me.

He was trembling.

"He's --"

"Darryl is alive," I said. "Darryl is alive and being held prisoner on Treasure Island."

He stuffed his fist in his mouth and made a horrible groaning sound.

"We have a friend," my father said. "She writes for the Bay Guardian. An investigative reporter."

That's where I knew the name from. The free weekly Guardian often lost its reporters to bigger daily papers and the Internet, but Barbara Stratford had been there forever. I had a dim memory of having dinner with her when I was a kid.

"We're going there now," my mother said. "Will you come with us, Ron? Will you tell her Darryl's story?"

He put his face in his hands and breathed deeply. Dad tried to put his hand on his shoulders, but Mr Glover shook it off violently.

"I need to clean myself up," he said. "Give me a minute."

Mr Glover came back downstairs a changed man. He'd shaved and gelled his hair back, and had put on a crisp military dress uniform with a row of campaign ribbons on the breast. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and kind of gestured at it.

"I don't have much clean stuff that's presentable at the moment. And this seemed appropriate. You know, if she wanted to take pictures."

He and Dad rode up front and I got in the back, behind him. Up close, he smelled a little of beer, like it was coming through his pores.

#

It was midnight by the time we rolled into Barbara Stratford's driveway. She lived out of town, down in Mountain View, and as we sped down the 101, none of us said a word. The high-tech buildings alongside the highway streamed past us.

This was a different Bay Area to the one I lived in, more like the suburban America I sometimes saw on TV. Lots of freeways and subdivisions of identical houses, towns where there weren't any homeless people pushing shopping carts down the sidewalk -- there weren't even sidewalks!

Mom had phoned Barbara Stratford while we were waiting for Mr Glover to come downstairs. The journalist had been sleeping, but Mom had been so wound up she forgot to be all British and embarrassed about waking her up. Instead, she just told her, tensely, that she had something to talk about and that it had to be in person.

When we rolled up to Barbara Stratford's house, my first thought was of the Brady Bunch place -- a low ranch house with a brick baffle in front of it and a neat, perfectly square lawn. There was a kind of abstract tile pattern on the baffle, and an old-fashioned UHF TV antenna rising from behind it. We wandered around to the entrance and saw that there were lights on inside already.

The writer opened the door before we had a chance to ring the bell. She was about my parents' age, a tall thin woman with a hawk-like nose and shrewd eyes with a lot of laugh-lines. She was wearing a pair of jeans that were hip enough to be seen at one of the boutiques on Valencia Street, and a loose Indian cotton blouse that hung down to her thighs. She had small round glasses that flashed in her hallway light.

She smiled a tight little smile at us.

"You brought the whole clan, I see," she said.

Mom nodded. "You'll understand why in a minute," she said. Mr Glover stepped from behind Dad.

"And you called in the Navy?"

"All in good time."

We were introduced one at a time to her. She had a firm handshake and long fingers.

Her place was furnished in Japanese minimalist style, just a few precisely proportioned, low pieces of furniture, large clay pots of bamboo that brushed the ceiling, and what looked like a large, rusted piece of a diesel engine perched on top of a polished marble plinth. I decided I liked it. The floors were old wood, sanded and stained, but not filled, so you could see cracks and pits underneath the varnish. I really liked that, especially as I walked over it in my stocking feet.

"I have coffee on," she said. "Who wants some?"

We all put up our hands. I glared defiantly at my parents.

"Right," she said.

She disappeared into another room and came back a moment later bearing a rough bamboo tray with a half-gallon thermos jug and six cups of precise design but with rough, sloppy decorations. I liked those too.

"Now," she said, once she'd poured and served. "It's very good to see you all again. Marcus, I think the last time I saw you, you were maybe seven years old. As I recall, you were very excited about your new video games, which you showed me."

I didn't remember it at all, but that sounded like what I'd been into at seven. I guessed it was my Sega Dreamcast.

She produced a tape-recorder and a yellow pad and a pen, and twirled the pen. "I'm here to listen to whatever you tell me, and I can promise you that I'll take it all in confidence. But I can't promise that I'll do anything with it, or that it's going to get published." The way she said it made me realize that my Mom had called in a pretty big favor getting this lady out of bed, friend or no friend. It must be kind of a pain in the ass to be a big-shot investigative reporter. There were probably a million people who would have liked her to take up their cause.

Mom nodded at me. Even though I'd told the story three times that night, I found myself tongue-tied. This was different from telling my parents. Different from telling Darryl's father. This -- this would start a new move in the game.

I started slowly, and watched Barbara take notes. I drank a whole cup of coffee just explaining what ARGing was and how I got out of school to play. Mom and Dad and Mr Glover all listened intently to this part. I poured myself another cup and drank it on the way to explaining how we were taken in. By the time I'd run through the whole story, I'd drained the pot and I needed a piss like a race-horse.

Her bathroom was just as stark as the living-room, with a brown, organic soap that smelled like clean mud. I came back in and found the adults quietly watching me.

Mr Glover told his story next. He didn't have anything to say about what had happened, but he explained that he was a veteran and that his son was a good kid. He talked about what it felt like to believe that his son had died, about how his ex-wife had had a collapse when she found out and ended up in a hospital. He cried a little, unashamed, the tears streaming down his lined face and darkening the collar of his dress-uniform.

When it was all done, Barbara went into a different room and came back with a bottle of Irish whiskey. "It's a Bushmills 15 year old rum-cask aged blend," she said, setting down four small cups. None for me. "It hasn't been sold in ten years. I think this is probably an appropriate time to break it out."

She poured them each a small glass of the liquor, then raised hers and sipped at it, draining half the glass. The rest of the adults followed suit. They drank again, and finished the glasses. She poured them new shots.

"All right," she said. "Here's what I can tell you right now. I believe you. Not just because I know you, Lillian. The story sounds right, and it ties in with other rumors I've heard. But I'm not going to be able to just take your word for it. I'm going to have to investigate every aspect of this, and every element of your lives and stories. I need to know if there's anything you're not telling me, anything that could be used to discredit you after this comes to light. I need everything. It could take weeks before I'm ready to publish.

"You also need to think about your safety and this Darryl's safety. If he's really an 'un-person' then bringing pressure to bear on the DHS could cause them to move him somewhere much further away. Think Syria. They could also do something much worse." She let that hang in the air. I knew she meant that they might kill him.

"I'm going to take this letter and scan it now. I want pictures of the two of you, now and later -- we can send out a photographer, but I want to document this as thoroughly as I can tonight, too."

I went with her into her office to do the scan. I'd expected a stylish, low-powered computer that fit in with her decor, but instead, her spare-bedroom/office was crammed with top-of-the-line PCs, big flat-panel monitors, and a scanner big enough to lay a whole sheet of newsprint on. She was fast with it all, too. I noted with some approval that she was running ParanoidLinux. This lady took her job seriously.

The computers' fans set up an effective white-noise shield, but even so, I closed the door and moved in close to her.

"Um, Barbara?"

"Yes?"

"About what you said, about what might be used to discredit me?"

"Yes?"

"What I tell you, you can't be forced to tell anyone else, right?"

"In theory. Let me put it this way. I've gone to jail twice rather than rat out a source."

"OK, OK. Good. Wow. Jail. Wow. OK." I took a deep breath. "You've heard of Xnet? Of M1k3y?"

"Yes?"

"I'm M1k3y."

"Oh," she said. She worked the scanner and flipped the note over to get the reverse. She was scanning at some unbelievable resolution, 10,000 dots per inch or higher, and on-screen it was like the output of an electron-tunneling microscope.

"Well, that does put a different complexion on this."

"Yeah," I said. "I guess it does."

"Your parents don't know."

"Nope. And I don't know if I want them to."

"That's something you're going to have to work out. I need to think about this. Can you come by my office? I'd like to talk to you about what this means, exactly."

"Do you have an Xbox Universal? I could bring over an installer."

"Yes, I'm sure that can be arranged. When you come by, tell the receptionist that you're Mr Brown, to see me. They know what that means. No note will be taken of you coming, and all the security camera footage for the day will be automatically scrubbed and the cameras deactivated until you leave."

"Wow," I said. "You think like I do."

She smiled and socked me in the shoulder. "Kiddo, I've been at this game for a hell of a long time. So far, I've managed to spend more time free than behind bars. Paranoia is my friend."

#

I was like a zombie the next day in school. I'd totaled about three hours of sleep, and even three cups of the Turk's caffeine mud failed to jump-start my brain. The problem with caffeine is that it's too easy to get acclimated to it, so you have to take higher and higher doses just to get above normal.

I'd spent the night thinking over what I had to do. It was like running through a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, every one leading to the same dead end. When I went to Barbara, it would be over for me. That was the outcome, no matter how I thought about it.

By the time the school day was over, all I wanted was to go home and crawl into bed. But I had an appointment at the Bay Guardian, down on the waterfront. I kept my eyes on my feet as I wobbled out the gate, and as I turned into 24th Street, another pair of feet fell into step with me. I recognized the shoes and stopped.

"Ange?"

She looked like I felt. Sleep-deprived and raccoon-eyed, with sad brackets in the corners of her mouth.

"Hi there," she said. "Surprise. I gave myself French Leave from school. I couldn't concentrate anyway."

"Um," I said.

"Shut up and give me a hug, you idiot."

I did. It felt good. Better than good. It felt like I'd amputated part of myself and it had been reattached.

"I love you, Marcus Yallow."

"I love you, Angela Carvelli."

"OK," she said breaking it off. "I liked your post about why you're not jamming. I can respect it. What have you done about finding a way to jam them without getting caught?"

"I'm on my way to meet an investigative journalist who's going to publish a story about how I got sent to jail, how I started Xnet, and how Darryl is being illegally held by the DHS at a secret prison on Treasure Island."

"Oh." She looked around for a moment. "Couldn't you think of anything, you know, ambitious?"

"Want to come?"

"I am coming, yes. And I would like you to explain this in detail if you don't mind."

After all the re-tellings, this one, told as we walked to Potrero Avenue and down to 15th Street, was the easiest. She held my hand and squeezed it often.

We took the stairs up to the Bay Guardian's offices two at a time. My heart was pounding. I got to the reception desk and told the bored girl behind it, "I'm here to see Barbara Stratford. My name is Mr Green."

"I think you mean Mr Brown?"

"Yeah," I said, and blushed. "Mr Brown."

She did something at her computer, then said, "Have a seat. Barbara will be out in a minute. Can I get you anything?"

"Coffee," we both said in unison. Another reason to love Ange: we were addicted to the same drug.

The receptionist -- a pretty latina woman only a few years older than us, dressed in Gap styles so old they were actually kind of hipster-retro -- nodded and stepped out and came back with a couple of cups bearing the newspaper's masthead.

We sipped in silence, watching visitors and reporters come and go. Finally, Barbara came to get us. She was wearing practically the same thing as the night before. It suited her. She quirked an eyebrow at me when she saw that I'd brought a date.

"Hello," I said. "Um, this is --"

"Ms Brown," Ange said, extending a hand. Oh, yeah, right, our identities were supposed to be a secret. "I work with Mr Green." She elbowed me lightly.

"Let's go then," Barbara said, and led us back to a board-room with long glass walls with their blinds drawn shut. She set down a tray of Whole Foods organic Oreo clones, a digital recorder, and another yellow pad.

"Do you want to record this too?" she asked.

Hadn't actually thought of that. I could see why it would be useful if I wanted to dispute what Barbara printed, though. Still, if I couldn't trust her to do right by me, I was doomed anyway.

"No, that's OK," I said.

"Right, let's go. Young lady, my name is Barbara Stratford and I'm an investigative reporter. I gather you know why I'm here, and I'm curious to know why you're here."

"I work with Marcus on the Xnet," she said. "Do you need to know my name?"

"Not right now, I don't," Barbara said. "You can be anonymous if you'd like. Marcus, I asked you to tell me this story because I need to know how it plays with the story you told me about your friend Darryl and the note you showed me. I can see how it would be a good adjunct; I could pitch this as the origin of the Xnet. 'They made an enemy they'll never forget,' that sort of thing. But to be honest, I'd rather not have to tell that story if I don't have to.

"I'd rather have a nice clean tale about the secret prison on our doorstep, without having to argue about whether the prisoners there are the sort of people likely to walk out the doors and establish an underground movement bent on destabilizing the federal government. I'm sure you can understand that."

I did. If the Xnet was part of the story, some people would say, see, they need to put guys like that in jail or they'll start a riot.

"This is your show," I said. "I think you need to tell the world about Darryl. When you do that, it's going to tell the DHS that I've gone public and they're going to go after me. Maybe they'll figure out then that I'm involved with the Xnet. Maybe they'll connect me to M1k3y. I guess what I'm saying is, once you publish about Darryl, it's all over for me no matter what. I've made my peace with that."

"As good be hanged for a sheep as a lamb," she said. "Right. Well, that's settled. I want the two of you to tell me everything you can about the founding and operation of the Xnet, and then I want a demonstration. What do you use it for? Who else uses it? How did it spread? Who wrote the software? Everything."

"This'll take a while," Ange said.

"I've got a while," Barbara said. She drank some coffee and ate a fake Oreo. "This could be the most important story of the War on Terror. This could be the story that topples the government. When you have a story like this, you take it very carefully."

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