Little Brother – Chapter 3

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 3

We passed a lot of people in the road on the way to the Powell Street BART. They were running or walking, white-faced and silent or shouting and panicked. Homeless people cowered in doorways and watched it all, while a tall black trans hooker shouted at two mustached young men about something.

The closer we got to the BART, the worse the press of bodies became. By the time we reached the stairway down into the station, it was a mob-scene, a huge brawl of people trying to crowd their way down a narrow staircase. I had my face crushed up against someone's back, and someone else was pressed into my back.

Darryl was still beside me -- he was big enough that he was hard to shove, and Jolu was right behind him, kind of hanging on to his waist. I spied Vanessa a few yards away, trapped by more people.

"Screw you!" I heard Van yell behind me. "Pervert! Get your hands off of me!"

I strained around against the crowd and saw Van looking with disgust at an older guy in a nice suit who was kind of smirking at her. She was digging in her purse and I knew what she was digging for.

"Don't mace him!" I shouted over the din. "You'll get us all too."

At the mention of the word mace, the guy looked scared and kind of melted back, though the crowd kept him moving forward. Up ahead, I saw someone, a middle-aged lady in a hippie dress, falter and fall. She screamed as she went down, and I saw her thrashing to get up, but she couldn't, the crowd's pressure was too strong. As I neared her, I bent to help her up, and was nearly knocked over her. I ended up stepping on her stomach as the crowd pushed me past her, but by then I don't think she was feeling anything.

I was as scared as I'd ever been. There was screaming everywhere now, and more bodies on the floor, and the press from behind was as relentless as a bulldozer. It was all I could do to keep on my feet.

We were in the open concourse where the turnstiles were. It was hardly any better here -- the enclosed space sent the voices around us echoing back in a roar that made my head ring, and the smell and feeling of all those bodies made me feel a claustrophobia I'd never known I was prone to.

People were still cramming down the stairs, and more were squeezing past the turnstiles and down the escalators onto the platforms, but it was clear to me that this wasn't going to have a happy ending.

"Want to take our chances up top?" I said to Darryl.

"Yes, hell yes," he said. "This is vicious."

I looked to Vanessa -- there was no way she'd hear me. I managed to get my phone out and I texted her.

> We're getting out of here

I saw her feel the vibe from her phone, then look down at it and then back at me and nod vigorously. Darryl, meanwhile, had clued Jolu in.

"What's the plan?" Darryl shouted in my ear.

"We're going to have to go back!" I shouted back, pointing at the remorseless crush of bodies.

"It's impossible!" he said.

"It's just going to get more impossible the longer we wait!"

He shrugged. Van worked her way over to me and grabbed hold of my wrist. I took Darryl and Darryl took Jolu by the other hand and we pushed out.

It wasn't easy. We moved about three inches a minute at first, then slowed down even more when we reached the stairway. The people we passed were none too happy about us shoving them out of the way, either. A couple people swore at us and there was a guy who looked like he'd have punched me if he'd been able to get his arms loose. We passed three more crushed people beneath us, but there was no way I could have helped them. By that point, I wasn't even thinking of helping anyone. All I could think of was finding the spaces in front of us to move into, of Darryl's mighty straining on my wrist, of my death-grip on Van behind me.

We popped free like Champagne corks an eternity later, blinking in the grey smoky light. The air raid sirens were still blaring, and the sound of emergency vehicles' sirens as they tore down Market Street was even louder. There was almost no one on the streets anymore -- just the people trying hopelessly to get underground. A lot of them were crying. I spotted a bunch of empty benches -- usually staked out by skanky winos -- and pointed toward them.

We moved for them, the sirens and the smoke making us duck and hunch our shoulders. We got as far as the benches before Darryl fell forward.

We all yelled and Vanessa grabbed him and turned him over. The side of his shirt was stained red, and the stain was spreading. She tugged his shirt up and revealed a long, deep cut in his pudgy side.

"Someone freaking stabbed him in the crowd," Jolu said, his hands clenching into fists. "Christ, that's vicious."

Darryl groaned and looked at us, then down at his side, then he groaned and his head went back again.

Vanessa took off her jean jacket and then pulled off the cotton hoodie she was wearing underneath it. She wadded it up and pressed it to Darryl's side. "Take his head," she said to me. "Keep it elevated." To Jolu she said, "Get his feet up -- roll up your coat or something." Jolu moved quickly. Vanessa's mother is a nurse and she'd had first aid training every summer at camp. She loved to watch people in movies get their first aid wrong and make fun of them. I was so glad to have her with us.

We sat there for a long time, holding the hoodie to Darryl's side. He kept insisting that he was fine and that we should let him up, and Van kept telling him to shut up and lie still before she kicked his ass.

"What about calling 911?" Jolu said.

I felt like an idiot. I whipped my phone out and punched 911. The sound I got wasn't even a busy signal -- it was like a whimper of pain from the phone system. You don't get sounds like that unless there's three million people all dialing the same number at once. Who needs botnets when you've got terrorists?

"What about Wikipedia?" Jolu said.

"No phone, no data," I said.

"What about them?" Darryl said, and pointed at the street. I looked where he was pointing, thinking I'd see a cop or an paramedic, but there was no one there.

"It's OK buddy, you just rest," I said.

"No, you idiot, what about them, the cops in the cars? There!"

He was right. Every five seconds, a cop car, an ambulance or a firetruck zoomed past. They could get us some help. I was such an idiot.

"Come on, then," I said, "let's get you where they can see you and flag one down."

Vanessa didn't like it, but I figured a cop wasn't going to stop for a kid waving his hat in the street, not that day. They just might stop if they saw Darryl bleeding there, though. I argued briefly with her and Darryl settled it by lurching to his feet and dragging himself down toward Market Street.

The first vehicle that screamed past -- an ambulance -- didn't even slow down. Neither did the cop car that went past, nor the firetruck, nor the next three cop-cars. Darryl wasn't in good shape -- he was white-faced and panting. Van's sweater was soaked in blood.

I was sick of cars driving right past me. The next time a car appeared down Market Street, I stepped right out into the road, waving my arms over my head, shouting "STOP." The car slewed to a stop and only then did I notice that it wasn't a cop car, ambulance or fire-engine.

It was a military-looking Jeep, like an armored Hummer, only it didn't have any military insignia on it. The car skidded to a stop just in front of me, and I jumped back and lost my balance and ended up on the road. I felt the doors open near me, and then saw a confusion of booted feet moving close by. I looked up and saw a bunch of military-looking guys in coveralls, holding big, bulky rifles and wearing hooded gas masks with tinted face-plates.

I barely had time to register them before those rifles were pointed at me. I'd never looked down the barrel of a gun before, but everything you've heard about the experience is true. You freeze where you are, time stops, and your heart thunders in your ears. I opened my mouth, then shut it, then, very slowly, I held my hands up in front of me.

The faceless, eyeless armed man above me kept his gun very level. I didn't even breathe. Van was screaming something and Jolu was shouting and I looked at them for a second and that was when someone put a coarse sack over my head and cinched it tight around my windpipe, so quick and so fiercely I barely had time to gasp before it was locked on me. I was pushed roughly but dispassionately onto my stomach and something went twice around my wrists and then tightened up as well, feeling like baling wire and biting cruelly. I cried out and my own voice was muffled by the hood.

I was in total darkness now and I strained my ears to hear what was going on with my friends. I heard them shouting through the muffling canvas of the bag, and then I was being impersonally hauled to my feet by my wrists, my arms wrenched up behind my back, my shoulders screaming.

I stumbled some, then a hand pushed my head down and I was inside the Hummer. More bodies were roughly shoved in beside me.

"Guys?" I shouted, and earned a hard thump on my head for my trouble. I heard Jolu respond, then felt the thump he was dealt, too. My head rang like a gong.

"Hey," I said to the soldiers. "Hey, listen! We're just high school students. I wanted to flag you down because my friend was bleeding. Someone stabbed him." I had no idea how much of this was making it through the muffling bag. I kept talking. "Listen -- this is some kind of misunderstanding. We've got to get my friend to a hospital --"

Someone went upside my head again. It felt like they used a baton or something -- it was harder than anyone had ever hit me in the head before. My eyes swam and watered and I literally couldn't breathe through the pain. A moment later, I caught my breath, but I didn't say anything. I'd learned my lesson.

Who were these clowns? They weren't wearing insignia. Maybe they were terrorists! I'd never really believed in terrorists before -- I mean, I knew that in the abstract there were terrorists somewhere in the world, but they didn't really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me -- starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia -- that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorists. Terrorists killed a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worrying about them always struck me as about as useful as worrying about getting hit by lightning.

Sitting in the back of that Hummer, my head in a hood, my hands lashed behind my back, lurching back and forth while the bruises swelled up on my head, terrorism suddenly felt a lot riskier.

The car rocked back and forth and tipped uphill. I gathered we were headed over Nob Hill, and from the angle, it seemed we were taking one of the steeper routes -- I guessed Powell Street.

Now we were descending just as steeply. If my mental map was right, we were heading down to Fisherman's Wharf. You could get on a boat there, get away. That fit with the terrorism hypothesis. Why the hell would terrorists kidnap a bunch of high school students?

We rocked to a stop still on a downslope. The engine died and then the doors swung open. Someone dragged me by my arms out onto the road, then shoved me, stumbling, down a paved road. A few seconds later, I tripped over a steel staircase, bashing my shins. The hands behind me gave me another shove. I went up the stairs cautiously, not able to use my hands. I got up the third step and reached for the fourth, but it wasn't there. I nearly fell again, but new hands grabbed me from in front and dragged me down a steel floor and then forced me to my knees and locked my hands to something behind me.

More movement, and the sense of bodies being shackled in alongside of me. Groans and muffled sounds. Laughter. Then a long, timeless eternity in the muffled gloom, breathing my own breath, hearing my own breath in my ears.

#

I actually managed a kind of sleep there, kneeling with the circulation cut off to my legs, my head in canvas twilight. My body had squirted a year's supply of adrenalin into my bloodstream in the space of 30 minutes, and while that stuff can give you the strength to lift cars off your loved ones and leap over tall buildings, the payback's always a bitch.

I woke up to someone pulling the hood off my head. They were neither rough nor careful -- just...impersonal. Like someone at McDonald's putting together burgers.

The light in the room was so bright I had to squeeze my eyes shut, but slowly I was able to open them to slits, then cracks, then all the way and look around.

We were all in the back of a truck, a big 18-wheeler. I could see the wheel-wells at regular intervals down the length. But the back of this truck had been turned into some kind of mobile command-post/jail. Steel desks lined the walls with banks of slick flat-panel displays climbing above them on articulated arms that let them be repositioned in a halo around the operators. Each desk had a gorgeous office-chair in front of it, festooned with user-interface knobs for adjusting every millimeter of the sitting surface, as well as height, pitch and yaw.

Then there was the jail part -- at the front of the truck, furthest away from the doors, there were steel rails bolted into the sides of the vehicle, and attached to these steel rails were the prisoners.

I spotted Van and Jolu right away. Darryl might have been in the remaining dozen shackled up back here, but it was impossible to say -- many of them were slumped over and blocking my view. It stank of sweat and fear back there.

Vanessa looked at me and bit her lip. She was scared. So was I. So was Jolu, his eyes rolling crazily in their sockets, the whites showing. I was scared. What's more, I had to piss like a race-horse.

I looked around for our captors. I'd avoided looking at them up until now, the same way you don't look into the dark of a closet where your mind has conjured up a boogey-man. You don't want to know if you're right.

But I had to get a better look at these jerks who'd kidnapped us. If they were terrorists, I wanted to know. I didn't know what a terrorist looked like, though TV shows had done their best to convince me that they were brown Arabs with big beards and knit caps and loose cotton dresses that hung down to their ankles.

Not so our captors. They could have been half-time-show cheerleaders on the Super Bowl. They looked American in a way I couldn't exactly define. Good jaw-lines, short, neat haircuts that weren't quite military. They came in white and brown, male and female, and smiled freely at one another as they sat down at the other end of the truck, joking and drinking coffees out of go-cups. These weren't Ay-rabs from Afghanistan: they looked like tourists from Nebraska.

I stared at one, a young white woman with brown hair who barely looked older than me, kind of cute in a scary office-power-suit way. If you stare at someone long enough, they'll eventually look back at you. She did, and her face slammed into a totally different configuration, dispassionate, even robotic. The smile vanished in an instant.

"Hey," I said. "Look, I don't understand what's going on here, but I really need to take a leak, you know?"

She looked right through me as if she hadn't heard.

"I'm serious, if I don't get to a can soon, I'm going to have an ugly accident. It's going to get pretty smelly back here, you know?"

She turned to her colleagues, a little huddle of three of them, and they held a low conversation I couldn't hear over the fans from the computers.

She turned back to me. "Hold it for another ten minutes, then you'll each get a piss-call."

"I don't think I've got another ten minutes in me," I said, letting a little more urgency than I was really feeling creep into my voice. "Seriously, lady, it's now or never."

She shook her head and looked at me like I was some kind of pathetic loser. She and her friends conferred some more, then another one came forward. He was older, in his early thirties, and pretty big across the shoulders, like he worked out. He looked like he was Chinese or Korean -- even Van can't tell the difference sometimes -- but with that bearing that said American in a way I couldn't put my finger on.

He pulled his sports-coat aside to let me see the hardware strapped there: I recognized a pistol, a tazer and a can of either mace or pepper-spray before he let it fall again.

"No trouble," he said.

"None," I agreed.

He touched something at his belt and the shackles behind me let go, my arms dropping suddenly behind me. It was like he was wearing Batman's utility belt -- wireless remotes for shackles! I guessed it made sense, though: you wouldn't want to lean over your prisoners with all that deadly hardware at their eye-level -- they might grab your gun with their teeth and pull the trigger with their tongues or something.

My hands were still lashed together behind me by the plastic strapping, and now that I wasn't supported by the shackles, I found that my legs had turned into lumps of cork while I was stuck in one position. Long story short, I basically fell onto my face and kicked my legs weakly as they went pins-and-needles, trying to get them under me so I could rock up to my feet.

The guy jerked me to my feet and I clown-walked to the very back of the truck, to a little boxed-in porta-john there. I tried to spot Darryl on the way back, but he could have been any of the five or six slumped people. Or none of them.

"In you go," the guy said.

I jerked my wrists. "Take these off, please?" My fingers felt like purple sausages from the hours of bondage in the plastic cuffs.

The guy didn't move.

"Look," I said, trying not to sound sarcastic or angry (it wasn't easy). "Look. You either cut my wrists free or you're going to have to aim for me. A toilet visit is not a hands-free experience." Someone in the truck sniggered. The guy didn't like me, I could tell from the way his jaw muscles ground around. Man, these people were wired tight.

He reached down to his belt and came up with a very nice set of multi-pliers. He flicked out a wicked-looking knife and sliced through the plastic cuffs and my hands were my own again.

"Thanks," I said.

He shoved me into the bathroom. My hands were useless, like lumps of clay on the ends of my wrists. As I wiggled my fingers limply, they tingled, then the tingling turned to a burning feeling that almost made me cry out. I put the seat down, dropped my pants and sat down. I didn't trust myself to stay on my feet.

As my bladder cut loose, so did my eyes. I wept, crying silently and rocking back and forth while the tears and snot ran down my face. It was all I could do to keep from sobbing -- I covered my mouth and held the sounds in. I didn't want to give them the satisfaction.

Finally, I was peed out and cried out and the guy was pounding on the door. I cleaned my face as best as I could with wads of toilet paper, stuck it all down the john and flushed, then looked around for a sink but only found a pump-bottle of heavy-duty hand-sanitizer covered in small-print lists of the bio-agents it worked on. I rubbed some into my hands and stepped out of the john.

"What were you doing in there?" the guy said.

"Using the facilities," I said. He turned me around and grabbed my hands and I felt a new pair of plastic cuffs go around them. My wrists had swollen since the last pair had come off and the new ones bit cruelly into my tender skin, but I refused to give him the satisfaction of crying out.

He shackled me back to my spot and grabbed the next person down, who, I saw now, was Jolu, his face puffy and an ugly bruise on his cheek.

"Are you OK?" I asked him, and my friend with the utility belt abruptly put his hand on my forehead and shoved hard, bouncing the back of my head off the truck's metal wall with a sound like a clock striking one. "No talking," he said as I struggled to refocus my eyes.

I didn't like these people. I decided right then that they would pay a price for all this.

One by one, all the prisoners went to the can, and came back, and when they were done, my guard went back to his friends and had another cup of coffee -- they were drinking out of a big cardboard urn of Starbucks, I saw -- and they had an indistinct conversation that involved a fair bit of laughter.

Then the door at the back of the truck opened and there was fresh air, not smoky the way it had been before, but tinged with ozone. In the slice of outdoors I saw before the door closed, I caught that it was dark out, and raining, with one of those San Francisco drizzles that's part mist.

The man who came in was wearing a military uniform. A US military uniform. He saluted the people in the truck and they saluted him back and that's when I knew that I wasn't a prisoner of some terrorists -- I was a prisoner of the United States of America.

#

They set up a little screen at the end of the truck and then came for us one at a time, unshackling us and leading us to the back of the truck. As close as I could work it -- counting seconds off in my head, one hippopotami, two hippopotami -- the interviews lasted about seven minutes each. My head throbbed with dehydration and caffeine withdrawal.

I was third, brought back by the woman with the severe haircut. Up close, she looked tired, with bags under her eyes and grim lines at the corners of her mouth.

"Thanks," I said, automatically, as she unlocked me with a remote and then dragged me to my feet. I hated myself for the automatic politeness, but it had been drilled into me.

She didn't twitch a muscle. I went ahead of her to the back of the truck and behind the screen. There was a single folding chair and I sat in it. Two of them -- Severe Haircut woman and utility belt man -- looked at me from their ergonomic super-chairs.

They had a little table between them with the contents of my wallet and backpack spread out on it.

"Hello, Marcus," Severe Haircut woman said. "We have some questions for you."

"Am I under arrest?" I asked. This wasn't an idle question. If you're not under arrest, there are limits on what the cops can and can't do to you. For starters, they can't hold you forever without arresting you, giving you a phone call, and letting you talk to a lawyer. And hoo-boy, was I ever going to talk to a lawyer.

"What's this for?" she said, holding up my phone. The screen was showing the error message you got if you kept trying to get into its data without giving the right password. It was a bit of a rude message -- an animated hand giving a certain universally recognized gesture -- because I liked to customize my gear.

"Am I under arrest?" I repeated. They can't make you answer any questions if you're not under arrest, and when you ask if you're under arrest, they have to answer you. It's the rules.

"You're being detained by the Department of Homeland Security," the woman snapped.

"Am I under arrest?"

"You're going to be more cooperative, Marcus, starting right now." She didn't say, "or else," but it was implied.

"I would like to contact an attorney," I said. "I would like to know what I've been charged with. I would like to see some form of identification from both of you."

The two agents exchanged looks.

"I think you should really reconsider your approach to this situation," Severe Haircut woman said. "I think you should do that right now. We found a number of suspicious devices on your person. We found you and your confederates near the site of the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen. Put those two facts together and things don't look very good for you, Marcus. You can cooperate, or you can be very, very sorry. Now, what is this for?"

"You think I'm a terrorist? I'm seventeen years old!"

"Just the right age -- Al Qaeda loves recruiting impressionable, idealistic kids. We googled you, you know. You've posted a lot of very ugly stuff on the public Internet."

"I would like to speak to an attorney," I said.

Severe haircut lady looked at me like I was a bug. "You're under the mistaken impression that you've been picked up by the police for a crime. You need to get past that. You are being detained as a potential enemy combatant by the government of the United States. If I were you, I'd be thinking very hard about how to convince us that you are not an enemy combatant. Very hard. Because there are dark holes that enemy combatants can disappear into, very dark deep holes, holes where you can just vanish. Forever. Are you listening to me young man? I want you to unlock this phone and then decrypt the files in its memory. I want you to account for yourself: why were you out on the street? What do you know about the attack on this city?"

"I'm not going to unlock my phone for you," I said, indignant. My phone's memory had all kinds of private stuff on it: photos, emails, little hacks and mods I'd installed. "That's private stuff."

"What have you got to hide?"

"I've got the right to my privacy," I said. "And I want to speak to an attorney."

"This is your last chance, kid. Honest people don't have anything to hide."

"I want to speak to an attorney." My parents would pay for it. All the FAQs on getting arrested were clear on this point. Just keep asking to see an attorney, no matter what they say or do. There's no good that comes of talking to the cops without your lawyer present. These two said they weren't cops, but if this wasn't an arrest, what was it?

In hindsight, maybe I should have unlocked my phone for them.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .