Continued from last week…
Synopsis: Dancing Fawn, an abandoned mother with few options, has discovered a little piece of cyberspace where all communications are anonymous and untraceable. After setting up a business there, she decides to explore a bit and maybe find out why the place is called 'the new badlands.'
Mrs. Chang* suggested that it was time for Fawn to make some badlander friends, so now she sat at her kitchen table, music on, red wine in hand, and wandered through the MEET THE BEST chat room. She noticed one of the patrons was named David Bowie and, never having met a rock star before, struck up a conversation.
Fawn: So, are you really David Bowie*?
Bowie: Yes, that's right. By some fluke of chance, I was also given that badlands name.
Fawn: How about a song?
Bowie: Sorry, love, but I'm not very good on the keyboard.
Fawn: Where's your next gig?
Bowie: Uh-uh. You got the last question. It's my turn.
System: Nairobi Bombay*, female, DARK CITIES*, has entered the room
Bowie: What are you wearing right now?
Somehow, 'dirty t-shirt and panties, no bra' didn't seem like a good answer. Or, perhaps it was, but she wasn't going to give it.
Fawn: A long, tight evening dress. Black, long sleeves, high neck, with diamond earrings.
Bowie: God, I bet you even have your hair up, too?
Fawn: Of course.
Bowie: Well, love, this is a good time to let it down. I promise I won't try a grope. Honest.
Nairobi: Hell's Bells, he's at it again. God save the women of the world.
Bowie: Christ, just like you were me sister. And me about to ease her into a private, too.
Nairobi: Hello. Since he has no manners, allow me to introduce myself.
Bowie: Nairobi Bombay, cub reporter. This is Dancing Fawn, someone who has some manners.
Fawn: You write newspaper articles?
Bowie: Aw, criminy, I guess this lot's done for.
Nairobi: Bye bye, Bowie. Catch you later, OK?
Bowie: Right, love, when I can get you alone. Later, Fawn. Don't pick up any bad habits.
System: David Bowie, male, ROCKY ROAD*, has left the room
Fawn: He's a hoot. You known him long?
Nairobi: Years. At least it seems like it. He's fun and spices up the place, at least I'll give him credit for that.
Fawn: You think he's really David Bowie?
Nairobi: You're new here, right? No, I think he's a twelve-year-old boy hiding in a closet.
Fawn: I suppose that's no worse than the kitchen table.
Nairobi: You sitting at your kitchen table right now?
Fawn: Oh, was that one of the things I wasn't supposed to tell anyone?
Nairobi: No, but, please, which OS are you running?
Fawn: Excuse me?
Nairobi: Your wheels. Whose software are you running on it?
Fawn: I don't really know. GOBI DESERT* set it up for me.
Nairobi: Good. OK. You're covered. They use a good wheel house.
Nairobi: Two years ago I was almost caught in a raid. I managed to get away, but had to chuck my wheels. Not knowing why it happened, I decided to change everything: login site, computer manufacturer, OS, VPN, proxy, doorbell address, everything but my crossing house*.
Fawn: And that fixed it?
Nairobi: Well, I haven't been in a raid since.
Fawn: Did you figure out how the civs found you?
Nairobi: Probably. Several other badlanders had the same experience about that time. The only common thread was that we all used either a Microsoft or Apple OS. No one who used an open-source OS ever got caught in a raid.
Nairobi: Apple and Microsoft both compile their source code and then supply only executables to their customers. Other vendors supply the source code instead. In fact, they make a point of advertising it, calling their software 'Open-Source' because anyone can get the source code and look at it.
Fawn: So why did that make a difference?
Nairobi: Because you can have an independent cracker check what's in the code and then have a buddy compile it into an executable. That guarantees that there isn't anything hidden in your OS that you don't want there.
Fawn: And you think there is in the Microsoft and Apple systems?
Nairobi: No one knows for sure. Their executables are too hard to pick apart. But no one running an open-source OS has been caught in a raid, so everyone thinks they installed some sort of tracker in their code to rat-out anyone who entered the badlands.
Fawn: So how do you know I'm safe?
Nairobi: The reputable crossing houses only install checked open-source code on their wheels. If you're using an OS you got through GOBI DESERT, you're safe.
Fawn: Good, thank you.
Nairobi: That doesn't mean you can feel comfortable, though. Are you connecting to the Internet through your home Wi-Fi?
Nairobi: The badlands is a belt-and-suspenders kind of place. Just to be safe, in the future you should only make a crossing from someplace away from home. I suggest a pub with lots of exits and good beer.
Fawn: Should I disconnect now?
Nairobi: No. If they've traced you, it's already too late to do anything. But next time, hit the pub. And wear something that will blend in. Slinky and black probably won't do. Even if it is your normal kitchen outfit.
Fawn: You caught that?
Nairobi: I snoop a lot.
Fawn: You're really a reporter?
Nairobi: When I have something to write about.
Fawn: How do you get your ideas?
Nairobi: I hang out here. Any suggestions?
Nairobi: Yeah, I seem to be hitting a dry hole everywhere. Well, next stop is the snitch market. It's expensive, but usually fruitful.
Fawn: Snitch market?
Nairobi: Thieves Emporium. Damn, you don't know?
Fawn: I'm new here.
Nairobi: Come on, girl. We got shopping to do!
* * *
The Thieves Emporium was not a place for the faint of heart. It was the dark underside of the free market, where merchants from all over the world came to sell every form of exotic good. If it was prohibited, illegal, or immoral, it was for sale here.
Women love shopping. They have since one first dropped from a tree to pick up a shiny stone. Fawn and Nairobi were no different. Any market, especially one as free-wheeling as this, excited a deep thrill in both of them. The implicit danger and forbidden nature of the wares only made the experience more enticing.
Fawn sat enthralled, alone in her dark kitchen, transfixed by the display on her wheels. Before her, a home page shimmered and dazzled like something out of the Arabian Nights. The index of services included:
Or, if she just wanted to buy something, there was:
And for everyone who wanted to sell, someone was also advertising to buy. There were even Help Wanted ads if she ever decided to give up her business.
What did she want? Jewelry made from prohibited stones? Blood diamonds? How about exotic woods? Or genuine ivory? Or perhaps clothing made from some protected species? How about a polar bear coat?
Something with a missing title? Here was a diamond necklace at 1/10 the retail price. Or a Maserati with updated VINs and papers.
Perhaps she preferred intoxicants? Everything from plain marijuana leaves to refined cocaine, from magic mushrooms to processed and certified heroin. Taxes were getting so bad that even cigarettes were now for sale in bulk. Or, if she wanted to grow her own, there seemed to be a complete seed bank and nursery at her disposal.
How about a fast poison instead? Want something quick-acting? Tasteless? Undetectable in an autopsy? Hey, and for the old folks, some are even painless.
And, of course, there was her specialty: Meds. This is where the old folks came to buy on the cheap, everything from blood pressure to chemo pills. It was all here, reasonably priced and quick.
Any form of intellectual property also seemed to be available: Music, books, videos, software, everything you might buy on Pirate Bay. And guaranteed safe delivery. Want to build a nuclear bomb? A better IED? The plans are here.
And, if all else failed, there were 'Persuasion' or 'Termination' services.
Persuasion. Termination. Euphemisms for torture, maiming, and killing. Long ago, Fawn had developed a live-and-let-live attitude towards victimless crimes. Even the open sale of stolen goods didn't bother her. But offers of violence hit her hard. They were wrong. Just evil and wrong.
A text message arrived on her screen:
Nairobi: Well, what do you think?
She thought how dangerous her life had become, and how little she could do about it.
Nairobi: It bothers you?
Nairobi: The first time I came here, it was hard for me, too.
Fawn: But you're still here.
Nairobi: Good with the bad.
When no reply came back again, Nairobi asked,
Nairobi: What bothers you the most?
Fawn: The violence. The killing.
Nairobi: And that doesn't go on in the real world?
Fawn: It's just so open here.
Nairobi: Does that make a difference? If a killer gets hired here or in some real-world bar, does it matter? Someone still dies.
Nairobi waited for that to sink in, then asked,
Nairobi: You still live your life, don't you? In the real world?
Nairobi: Do the same here. You can't control what other people do, so don't accept the burden of their actions. Just forget about it, like you do in the real world, and go on with your life.
Fawn: Doesn't it scare you?
Nairobi: Everything scares me. Here and the real world. Be careful everywhere, but don't dwell on it.
After another pause to give Fawn a little space, Nairobi asked,
Fawn: Is there anything that's not for sale here?
Nairobi: If it's not illegal or overtaxed, you won't find it here. The overhead is too high. If eBay has it, buy it there. But if some civ* wants to throw you in jail for buying it, it's here.
Fawn: eBay's the same thing, only for legal stuff?
Nairobi: No. This place is unique on Earth. It's a meeting place for double-blind transactions. In all history, there has never been anything like it.
Nairobi: Buy something on eBay, the site operator knows who you are. Buy through the mails, you have to send someone a check or take delivery somewhere. Both leave trails. Even if you trade drugs on the street corner, someone still sees your face. Until now, there has never been a market where both the buyer and seller are anonymous.
Fawn: That's what you mean by double-blind?
Nairobi: Right. Anonymous in both directions. The badlands is a shifting web of double-blind links with this place at the center and crossing houses around the edges.
There was more silence on the chat line. After a short pause, Nairobi asked,
Nairobi: Well? What do you think?
Fawn: Let's shop!
Nairobi: Want a diamond necklace to go with the black evening dress you wear in your kitchen?
Fawn: OK, cut it out. You ever buy any of this stuff?
Nairobi: No. If I get caught, I want as clean a record as possible. So I just come here for business.
Nairobi: Where all the good dirt is buried. The Snitch Market.
Half an hour later, Fawn was still sitting at her kitchen table, her third glass of red wine almost gone. In front of her was her laptop, logged into the Thieves Emporium Snitch Market. Along the top of the screen was a chat bar, below it two browser windows took up the rest of the display.
The chat bar said:
Fawn: Look, I know where Elvis is buried!
Nairobi: No, you don't. See, I have his phone number and address.
One window read:
ELVIS PRESLEY. Elvis Presley did not die in 1977 as claimed, but was killed by the CIA on 1/1/2000. I have proof, as well as all the details, including where he is really buried! An autopsy will confirm my proof and make you famous and rich. For more details, please contact me NOW! Wild Bromeliad
The other said:
ELVIS PRESLEY. Yes, he is alive! You can actually talk with him! See him for yourself. For details, contact me. My rates are very reasonable. Red Fly
Fawn: You rely on these people for serious leads?
Nairobi: Yeah, I know. But I have no choice.
Fawn: Can't you just hang out in bars or, you know, whatever?
Nairobi: The times, they are a-changing. No one wants to speak up any more unless they're sure they won't be caught.
Fawn: Hasn't that always been the case?
Nairobi: No. It used to be that, if you got caught, you might get fired, maybe sued, but that was all. You could always get another job and you could defend yourself in open court by just proving that what you said was true. Truth was always a perfect defense.
Fawn: So that's changed?
Nairobi: Now everyone is beholden to the government. Get caught snitching and they cut off your rent subsidy or your food stamps or your Social Security. And that doesn't even count what the IRS can do. And none of it requires legal justification on their part. If you don't like it, you have to sue them to get your benefits back. But good luck, they're the government.
Fawn: This place is different?
Nairobi: Just like anywhere in the badlands, whistleblowing here is a double-blind activity. You pay them, they give you the dirt. If it can't be traced back, the government can't find out who they are even if you wanted to tell. They know that. This is the only place where a source is guaranteed anonymity.
Fawn: So how do you decide if one of these guys is for real?
Nairobi: Good question. I doubt that Red Fly has a very good approval rating. He might be a solid and trustworthy guy, but he probably hasn't sold enough snitch to build a rep. So I don't actually go to these guys. If I was considering contacting Elvis, I would go to a reputable snitch house with the lead. They would act as an escrow service.
Fawn: Like a middle-man?
Nairobi: Right. They'd find out what I wanted and then look at what Red Fly had to offer. If it looked like he really had something I wanted, the snitch house would arrange a negotiation for a fee and put their rep on the line to back up what I bought.
Fawn: So if I want to find out where Elvis is buried, who should I contact?
Nairobi: Screw Elvis. I'm getting hints that something stinks in FEMA's homeless camps. So, I offer to buy snitch about anything going on there. Leads get sent to me c/o the EVERYTHING REVEALED Snitch House. If they get anything interesting, they let me know. Then we negotiate.
Fawn: Anything good so far?
Nairobi: What paper did you say you write for?
Fawn: Sorry. First rule, right? Never ask too much.
Nairobi: It's just that I do have something, I'm just not sure what. If I publish, you'll get the first copy.
On a whim, Fawn ran a search of her own.
Five minutes later, alone in her dark kitchen, she stared at her laptop. The search turned up a lead, one she never thought she would ever see. Reaching out from the screen, hitting her between the eyes like a thrown martini, was an offer to sell snitch on her missing husband.
* See Appendices for a list of characters and crossing houses and a glossary.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.