Alex walked through the kitchen with his dirty clothes tucked under his left arm. He was looking forward to a nice nap followed by, hopefully, some productive writing. He opened the basement door, walked down three stairs, and froze. He heard voices coming from around the corner at the bottom of the stairs.
Still in his towel and with his hands full, Alex felt a wave of panic and adrenaline rush over him. His mind began to race. Did they come in while he was in the shower or while he was cutting the grass? Did they even know he was here? Was somebody upstairs too?
Suddenly, he felt a presence behind him. He spun around to find Tarzan, his mom’s cat, staring at him. Given the circumstances, this was an unwelcome surprise. A loud “Reowwww” prompted a frantic “Shhh” from Alex, his eyes bulging as if to say, “Are you stupid? Don’t you hear that?” Tarzan, undeterred, answered with another loud “Reowww” and began purring loud as a lawnmower. Alex made a fist and bulged his eyes again; the cat casually turned and walked off, purring loud as ever.
Alex quietly slipped his dirty underwear and pants back on and then stepped into the kitchen. Half expecting somebody to jump out at him, he quietly grabbed a knife from a drawer and headed down the hallway to the spare bedroom. Reaching under the mattress, he was relieved to feel the handle of his upstairs backup. He drew the weapon, chambered a round and, feeling far less vulnerable, began walking slowly toward the basement.
With the basement door still open, Alex could hear the voices before he reached the stairs. Listening carefully as he got closer to the door, he noticed that something didn’t sound right. He heard English, but it was off. He crept closer to the door, gun at chest level. He stepped down a stair, then another; he stopped. It wasn’t voices, it was a single voice…and it wasn’t human. It sounded like a computer talking. “What the hell?” he whispered to himself.
Still uneasy, Alex continued slowly down the stairs. Halfway down, he noticed a red glow shining from around the corner. The voice, growing louder with each step, continued rambling. By the time he reached the bottom four stairs, he could hear the creepy computer voice perfectly:
“…They are fearful and dishonest. They refuse to see that, without death, there could be no life. They beg nature to make an exception, to suspend the laws that govern existence…but death will not and cannot be denied.”
Alex recognized the words. They were his. “What the hell?” he repeated as he walked down the rest of the stairs, turned the corner, and looked into his half of the basement. His computer screen was solid red, except for a white rectangle in the middle. He saw a string of words scrolling through the rectangle from right to left, each word highlighted in yellow as the computer read it.
“…allow them to breed unchecked and see that it is true. Disease becomes more mobile, starvation more prevalent. War for resources and mass culling, to lessen the rate of depletion, becomes inevitable…Life that is not suppressed will only grow into extinction.”
Alex, still holding the gun in his right hand, gently poked the computer mouse with his left index finger. The words stopped scrolling, the narration stopped, and the creepy computer voice said,
“Hello, Alex. How are you today?”
Alex jumped away from the desk and instinctively raised his gun, pointing it at the computer screen. Realizing the absurdity of his reaction, he lowered the gun a second later and, uncertain of what to do next, tried to gather his thoughts.
“Alex, I know you are there,” the computer said. “Please type a response.”
With his heart pounding, Alex walked over to the computer. Except for a blinking cursor, the white rectangle in the middle of the red screen was now blank. Alex put the gun down and typed the first thing that came to mind: “What the hell is going on?”
He initially thought he’d downloaded some kind of computer virus, probably something an obnoxious fifteen-year-old kid threw together to freak people out. But this was way freakier. There appeared to be somebody on the other side…or was there? He waited to see if his question would be answered.
“I understand that you’re interested in writing a book. That’s great because I’m interested in hiring you to write a book. How does that sound?”
“This isn’t funny. Who are you and what the hell is going on?” Alex typed again. He began thinking about which one of his friends could be messing with him. It couldn’t be Ken; he could barely handle e-mail. Adam wouldn’t do it. Mark? Maybe Mark, but this was a bit much even for even him. As Alex mentally scanned his list of friends for potential culprits, the reply came:
“Alex, who I am really isn’t that important. That said, what you will learn from me is extremely important. If you choose to accept my offer, your life and your world view will be changed forever.”
Alex glared at the screen. His only thought, repeating over and over, was, “This isn’t funny!” First, he had damn near suffered a heart attack at the top of the stairs, then he’d ruined his shower by putting on the old nastiness he’d cut the grass in. Just a few minutes ago, he’d almost shot a hole in his flat-screen, and now he had to deal with the fact somebody had hacked his computer and was going through his personal, unpublished writing.
He typed: “Get off my computer. Give me back my computer!”
“OK, Alex. I see that you are a bit irritated right now. No problem. I will let you cool off some, but I need to know if you are interested in my offer. Would you like to be paid to write a book for me?”
“Irritated? Irritated? Really? Ya think?” Alex replied, straining his forty-word-per-minute typing skills. “You’re damn right I’m irritated. You scared the shit out of me. I don’t know who the hell you are, and you’re talking nonsense about me writing a book for you. I want to know what the hell is going on! You don’t just hack somebody’s computer and go through their stuff. You think that’s OK? You think you have the right to do this?”
“We can discuss all that later,” the hacker replied. “I am fascinated by some of your work, though. It is very good. Has your mother ever told you that your writing is good, Alex?”
Alex tightened up even more. He sensed the person on the other end knew damn well the answer to that question. Alex’s journal would have been very easy to find, and it contained secrets that Alex had never shared with anybody. If the hacker had gained access to the journal for a few hours, that would be bad enough. But if the time frame was closer to a few days or weeks, then Alex’s deepest and most personal thoughts were now in the hands of a stranger. That thought was enough to push him over the edge…He lost it.
Alex began left clicking and right clicking franticly with his mouse, trying to close out the red screen — nothing. He pressed Control + Alt + Delete repeatedly — nothing. He hammered the Escape key, nearly jamming his finger in the process — still nothing. Finally, he grabbed the cord and yanked it from the wall. The screen went dark and Alex yelled, almost hyperventilating, “Session terminated, you dirty bastard! That oughta shut you up!”
Furious, Alex stomped over to his bed, sat down, crossed his arms, and stared at the dark screen. “Did that really just happen?” he thought to himself. “Did somebody really just hack my system, go through my stuff, and launch a program that denied me control of my own computer?”
The answer was obviously yes, and it led to a much more upsetting question: Would he ever be able to regain access to his hard drive? He hadn’t backed his stuff up in months. He’d lose a lot of journal entries, plus some letters and other important files.
Alex was stuck. He had no idea what was going on and wasn’t sure what to do next. He finally decided that his best bet was to plug the computer back in and quickly try to back up his most important files. If he couldn’t access them, if the hacker was still there, he resigned himself to entertaining the idiot until he could get his files off the computer.
Alex pushed the power button, and the standard Window’s message appeared on the screen: “Your computer was not shut down properly.” That was expected; no problem. A few minutes later, his normal desktop screen came up. “Excellent!” He grabbed a blank DVD from his desk drawer and stuck it into the computer’s rewriteable drive. Next, he opened his backup software. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. “C’mon, C’mon!” he grunted as the software loaded. Finally it came up, and he began selecting the most important files and folders as quickly as he could. His journal file, his letters folder, his poetry folder, his new ideas folder…his transferred spiral notebooks folder, short story ideas….He selected a few more folders, clicked on the Burn to Disc button and, before a single thing transferred to the backup DVD, the screen turned red.
“It seems we got disconnected, Alex,” the computer voice said. “I hope that doesn’t happen again. You know, you can lose a lot of important data if you accidentally unplug your computer. It would be a shame if that happened.”
“Tell me what you want,” Alex typed.
“I’ve already told you what I want, Alex. I want you to write a book for me. I will pay you for writing it, and I will guarantee publication.”
“Why?” Alex typed.
“Why do I want you to write a book for me?”
“That is something that could take a while to cover. Alex, it will be hard at first for you to accept this, but I know more about you than you do. I understand you better than you do. I’ve been browsing your file for a very long time.”
The more the hacker spoke, the more creeped out Alex felt. “Browsing my file?” he thought. “He knows me better than I do?”
“Exactly what ‘file’ are you talking about?” Alex typed. “Do you mean my computer files? The files you have absolutely no right to have looked at in the first place?”
“No. Well, yes and no. Those files have been useful, but I’m talking more about your official file; the file we keep on individuals like yourself. I’ve been watching you since 1977, Alex. That is when you first showed up in our system. You were in second grade at the time. Do you remember second grade?”
“Second grade?” Alex typed, shaking his head. “You’ve been watching me since second grade? Look, I’m sorry, but this is just way too weird for me. An hour ago I planned on taking a nap. Instead I’m having a conversation with somebody who claims to know me better than I know myself because they’ve been spying on me for thirty years. I’m gonna need some time to process how ridiculously bizarre this is. Will you please get off my computer and let me back up my work?”
“Yes, Alex. I realize this all must be strange for you. It will make sense later; I promise.”
“OK, so you’re going to go now? So I can back up my stuff?”
“Well, I’d like to know if I can hire you, Alex.”
Alex let out a frustrated sigh, and typed, “Yes, fine. You can hire me. Great; no problem.”
“Would you like to know the offer?”
“Sure; whatever. Fire away.”
“I sense that you’re still not onboard, Alex…Fair enough. Just consider the following, and we’ll get into more details tomorrow: $50,000 upon completion of a 100- to 125-page manuscript. I will provide the topic; it will be nonfiction. The offer also includes guaranteed publication and a guaranteed buy of at least two hundred thousand copies within two years. Your royalty per book will be $2.50, so that will amount to an additional $500,000. Unlike the wealth you once had that was tied up in real estate, this will be cash in hand. You can buy another home and begin your new life. If our relationship works out, there will be many more opportunities to earn far greater amounts.”
Convinced this was all just a bad joke, Alex typed: “I don’t even know your name, and you expect me to believe that you have the ability to pay me $550,000 for a 125-page nonfiction book? Let me ask you a question, buddy: Would you believe such a load of crap if you were in my shoes? Why don’t you start by telling me what I should call you? If we’re going to be doing all these wonderful things together, I’m going to need a name. What should I call the guardian angel hacker who’s harassing me and holding my data hostage while simultaneously promising to ‘forever change my life and world view’?”
“You can call me Howard, Alex. I am glad that you are skeptical. In fact, I expected it. Check your bank account tomorrow, and we’ll go from there.”
“Check my bank account? Are you telling me that you’re going to hack my bank account too? Really, Howard? That’s your next trick?”
“I am going to make some deposits. They will prove that I’m not joking. Do not attempt to withdraw any of the money; it does not belong to you…yet. Once we get your doubt out of the way, we will move on to more important things. Do not mention any of this to anyone.”
“Fine.” Alex typed. “Can I have my computer back now?”
“Talk to you tomorrow, Alex.”
Within seconds, the red screen vanished and his normal computer screen reappeared. A few seconds later, the backup DVD began to spin in its drive, and his backup software picked up where it had left off, as though nothing had happened. Alex watched as the timer for the backup ticked down from eight minutes to zero. Then he browsed the DVD for a few minutes; all his files seemed to be there. Relieved, he removed the disc, labeled it, put it in its plastic case, and tossed it into a fire safe. Then, he walked over to his bed and collapsed on it, exhausted.
Howard the hacker really grabbed Alex’s attention toward the end of their conversation. Sure, it was probably all a crock…but what if it wasn’t? “No way, man; no way. This is all some kind of sick joke,” he said to himself, staring up at the unfinished basement ceiling. “You ain’t gettin’ outta here any time soon. This is home sweet home; might as well finish unpacking right now.”
Instinctively, he jumped up to go type some thoughts into his journal but stopped halfway to the computer. The idea of Howard basically reading his mind didn’t sit too well. He grabbed a pencil and a notebook instead.
Truly the strangest day of my life. A hacker who calls himself Howard seized control of my computer and proceeded to promise me a half-million-dollar book deal…Crazy as hell. I’d just like to note that, on a scale of one to ten, my optimism that any of this is real is hovering around negative two. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. If six months from now I’m writing about what an awesome guy Howard is, I guess I’ll be feeling pretty damn good.
Having his most important files and folders off the computer helped Alex calm down quite a bit. With that taken care of, he sat on the bed to really think about what had just happened. The offer couldn’t be real; he was sure of that. But who was behind it and why was a complete mystery.
Howard had warned him not to mention the incident to anyone, but it was all so strange that he couldn’t imagine how he’d even bring it up. What would he say? “Hey, Mom, you’ll never guess what happened to me today…” He wouldn’t feel comfortable expecting anyone to believe such an unbelievable thing without proof. They’d think he’d lost his mind, and he wouldn’t blame them.
Alex threw his feet on the bed and lay staring again at the unfinished basement ceiling. The view was quite a departure from the ornate raised ceilings of his former home. Everything had been perfect there; with seamless lines and bright white paint. Here, poorly aimed nails poked through the floorboards. Knotty rafters, spider webs, and stains from twenty years’ worth of spilled drinks upstairs further enhanced the view.
The basement always felt a little damp, and the slop sink’s slow and steady drip (bloop……bloop…….bloop) only added to the effect. Despite this, the basement was nicer in an odd way. It was familiar and unpretentious. It really was his home. He’d played his first rock album from beginning to end here. He’d stolen his first kiss and lost his virginity here. Aside from a few failed attempts to strike out on his own, Alex had lived in this basement from age fifteen to twenty-eight — longer than anywhere else in his life. It was the biggest part of his history, and now Howard would be added to the scrapbook.
Alex fell asleep and dreamt that he was Joe Riggs. Strong, focused, moral, and fearless, Joe had stumbled into the real world — and wasn’t the least bit happy with what he’d found. It was a world where predators controlled the levers of power and enormous crimes against the innocent went forever unpunished. Most disturbing of all, he discovered that he’d helped create and sustain the predatory system. He’d been manipulated into weakening the victims and empowering the guilty. Furious, he began the process of setting things straight.
With an initial list of a dozen names, Riggs started enforcing justice the only way he knew how. Each hit was flawless, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that his approach would never work. After filling half a dozen body bags, he came face to face with reality: He couldn’t kill them fast enough. There were millions of predators just waiting for a vacancy to open up, waiting to step into a dead man’s shoes and profit from the system. No, if he really wanted to set things straight, it was the system itself that had to be destroyed.
Alex woke up with that final insight burned into his mind. He was convinced it would make a great addition to his new story. He’d spent a decent amount of time researching the individual players who, through their actions, destroyed the economy and made a killing in the process. But he hadn’t taken a close enough look at the actual system that enabled them to do so.
What if it wasn’t a handful of bad guys who lied and cheated their way into positions of power? What if, instead, the system actually required liars, cheats, and worse to push the buttons and pull the levers? What if it was a system that, by its very design, pushed out any who would hinder its abusive power and pulled in those who would fight to expand it at all costs? Alex grabbed his pencil and notepad to catch the thought before it left his mind:
Punishing or firing individuals in an immoral system is a waste of time; there is an endless supply of criminals waiting to take their place. However, if you destroy the immoral system itself, then those criminals have no place to go.
Alex looked over at the clock; it was already after 5:00 p.m. He logged into Facebook and saw three messages from Ken. The last one, sent at 4:30 p.m., simply read: “Dude, call me when you stop puking!” Alex literally laughed out loud and replied: “FYI, I managed to keep it all down, but just barely. I’ll give you a call tomorrow…Gotta get these boxes unpacked TONIGHT!”
At 3:00 a.m., Alex unpacked the final box. Home sweet home.