‘Who wants me dead?’
Cheevers was cowering with Gilman beneath a large desk in the centre of the office. In one clammy hand he clutched a bottle of lukewarm Riesling whilst Gilman swiped and padded a screen, shaking.
‘All of them. Or some of them. Enough of them to raise a bounty,’ Gilman said. Fear condensed on his upper lip as he jab-stammered an explanation. In the urban gloaming the desk well was aglow with the light of the leaderboard.
Cheevers listened, but with difficulty.
‘A bounty? How big?’
‘Seven hundred and ninety eight thousand dollars according to this, sir.’
‘Not bad. Could do better.’
Cheevers goffed more hock as his ego fluttered but failed to fly in the deadened air of the empty floor. He thought about smirking.
‘It’s really not funny, sir.’
‘Actually it is. And stop calling me “sir”. We’re a fucking internet startup not the army.’ The pounding in his ears caused his vision to throb.
There’s a particular blood pulse you get to the brain when you’re about to sell your startup app to the Central Surveillance Group for $87 billion. What started as an idea in a bar had since plumed into the world’s most sought-after virtual commodity.
RWMR was supposed to be anonymous: that was the hook. Share your secrets in a cuddly font and nobody will ever know it’s you. Spread unsubstantiated rumours: free. It was citizen journalism to piss out the churnalism flame for good and it was fierce. Think tanks ran dry as cyberstrategists boggled at the force with which the disemvowelled phenomenon took hold. Priests were investigated, banks busted, businesses burned, policemen arrested, construction halted, friendships twisted, families shattered. Through sheer volume of input the app had taken on the guise of a gospel and its weight had warped the world.
‘We’re chronicling the apocalypse!’ Cheevers had squealed as they screamed past 2 billion users in three years. It didn’t make for light reading. Everything from corporate fraud to cookie theft; mendacity and murder; users poured themselves into RWMR like it was an ark setting sail with their souls. They had recently become aware of their dependence on the app as an outlet for self-expression; aware of how much of themselves they had uploaded to Cheevers’ database. The shame was kicking in, but all too late. Other parties had become aware of the value of this torrent: $87 billion aware. Tomorrow they would seal and sign over the archive.
The rest of the team had gone home, leaving these two as nightwatchmen before the day of the deal. Gilman had received several quickfire messages just as Cheevers had opened a bottle in token celebration and they had been forced under the desk.
THE ONE NEWS STORY YOU REALLY NEED TO READ
RWMR FOUNDER NO 1 IN ONLINE ASSASSINATION MARKET
‘What happens next will blow your mind,’ said Cheevers with hollow irony as Gilman pulled him under.
Almost immediately the red laser show had begun: marksmen dancing their sights through the mirrored enclosure of the office. How many now? Five?
Cheevers twisted in the nook and tried to recline. He had snatched countless units of confined sleep in the pod hotel across the street when he was developing, deftly tapping into their system, dropping two Xomox and crawling into their quiet, cushioned cupboards. He would not sleep here, though it seemed the surest way to make this all disappear.
‘Get comfortable,’ Cheevers said, mainly to himself. ‘Do you have any Xomox?’
Gilman’s pupils filled his sunken sockets as they followed his feed. Indignant storms had blown across the network before but they had been deflected by so much psych-profiling dressed up as a quiz or the subtle distractions of the ‘most outrageous link you need to click today’. This, however, was no storm: this was a whole weather system. The death threat had long usurped the ambiguous and antiquated ‘poke’, but this was all-out war. Gilman clocked the ticker as their demise flourished in real time, in real life.
‘This isn’t happening,’ said Gilman under the shortness of his breath.
‘That’s what I think,’ said Cheevers.
‘Except that it is,’ said Gilman.
The warnings had wailed for a while. Cheevers had been frequently profiled as the man who had hijacked our innermost feelings and exploited the depths of our consciousness for frivolous commercial ends. Plumbing the unconscious, free-form fabric of our online identities, he had lured billions of users into a tar pit and now we were beginning to sink.
The fact is that RWMR was regarded as both true and untrue in almost perfect measure, and its symmetrical logo had come to be seen as the safest repository for almost every confession, accusation, outburst, allegation and utterance. RWMR’s halls were vast and sacred. Now Cheevers was about to tear down the veil and soil the walls . Handing over the keys to the closet at all was enough to damn him, but to the CSG?
Cheevers held no qualms. ‘Privacy is the goldrush of our age,’ he had said in a rare interview with The Times. ‘You can hawk anonymity endlessly and people will always buy it and spill their guts for free.’
It turned out, however, that if you deprived people of something they weren’t even aware was a commodity they got quite angry. In the run-up to the date of the CSG deal, an anonymous online consortium had formed on the darknet to place a bounty on the head of Morgan Cheevers, and now there were at least five assassins, probably more, with their scopes trained on his offices. The threat, according to Gilman, was real.
‘How can it be real? It’s a bounty made up of fake money in a dark corner of the web that practically doesn’t exist.’
‘You know that it exists, sir.’
‘Where? Huh? Where does it exist?’
Gilman’s lenses doubled the look of contempt he gave Cheevers. Crowdfunded killing was the latest tool of retribution. The league with a bounty on Cheevers was one of the oldest and most respected, started by an engineer calling himself ‘Yojimbo’. Anonymous and encrypted, all transactions used online currency. Subscribers could nominate any public figure for assassination and with sufficient proof of execution could claim the reward, such as it was at time of death.
‘C-bits are as real as any of the made-up currencies your governments make you use. You’re up to one thousand eight hundred and sixty five bits, sir. That’s eight hundred and sixty four thousand dollars now. I guarantee you, sir, if you stand up now they will shoot to kill.’
The bounty rose with the tide of anger. As the six figure spike crept towards seven mass interest was piqued. No matter how little a million was now worth it still held talismanic properties that could awaken the basest urges and engage the most passive. More users and more rage meant more money in the pot, the scent of which only tickled more noses.
Cheevers had not yet issued a statement, but his every move signalled brazen equanimity, as if he’d posted ‘What did you expect me to do?’ It was too much for most to bear and many had been driven deeper, darker into the fibres of the network, where amid the sanctuary and security of the deep web they found synchronicity and a common desire to shorten the life expectancy of a figure who had done them injury – real or virtually real.
‘They can’t kill me in my own fucking building!’
‘Of course they can. And technically, sir, this isn’t your building. At least not yet. It’s Ferson Core’s.’
‘The only reason this is not “Cheevers Tower”, or whatever, is because Ferson Core was a man willing to pay a lot more money to have his name on it. Why? Because that’s how some men behave.’
Cheevers’ own father had tried and lost at this trade more than once. The old man’s embittered wisdom distilled was a sour brew of truth and honesty filtered through bleak myopia.
‘Either your name got it or it ain’t,’ he would say. ‘Nothin’ else to it. People want to live in Core 1 – they don’t care for Cheevers. It sounds like a snack family: now they rank lower than the premium real estaters. Simple as. Those Snack’oons’ll stroll into town ev’ry once in a while and play a few rounds but eventually we all get spat back to the fields: little kings in big country. The city ain’t no place for kings. Right here the city is king.’
He looked out through the one sliver of available skyline now at the circuitry of the city; its integrated components stacked and wired, regal towers of resistors and transformers, a thousand diodes of light indifferent to his plight. Trapped in this deadly tangle of ruby threads his capacitor was melting as his thoughts oscillated between his origin and his end. Cheevers had lamented his own name and its lack of prospects since he could lament, and had spent most of the last decade morosely embalming his entrepreneurial streak in alcohol. His prospects now were less than good.
‘What do they want me to do? Share the money? What do they want?’ The dugout boomed with the tone of his raised voice. The laser lockdown twitched. Were they listening in?
‘I’m pretty sure it’s not about the money, sir.’ Gilman’s quivering frame was trying to retain a hold on his ordained shape and on the situation at hand. Both defied control. His confined limbs now cramped against Cheevers, who regarded him with nostalgic disdain.
When he had struck bit-gold with RWMR Cheevers was almost too numb to feel it. It wasn’t until he recruited Gilman, a master coder, that he came to appreciate what he had made. He looked at Gilman now; this pallid, loyal pup of a man. It was Gilman who had lifted his head from the glass long enough to make him see; Gilman who had dragged the vision forward, focused it and sharpened it. Cheevers rejoiced the day he had hired him, and knew that a certain portion of his brain would never need to work as hard again.
When Gilman had first run the analytics in detail his glasses had slid from his nose in greasy shock:
‘You realise, sir, that every secret police in history would have killed for access to this kind of info. I mean, most of them did. You’ve got enough digital dirt here to bury the Pope.’ It was true. He had almost unwittingly compiled a universal dossier of desires, delusions and damnation. ‘You’ve teased out Thought Code. This is extraordinary.’
‘Precisely,’ said Cheevers. ‘I’m glad you’re as smart as I need you to be. I just accessed a particular mode of thought: like hacking a mainframe. I popped up a virtual confessional and waited for the faithful. But that wasn’t enough: there were, naturally, plenty of imitations. But nobody trusts a gossip. Nor does everybody bare all for the priest. The question remains: whose information do you trust? Whose rumour do you believe? Turns out it’s RWMR.’
‘But how?’ Gilman had said, ‘Was it luck?’
‘Don’t be a fool just when I’m beginning to like you. I wrote the program and let it run. People began uploading their brains, piece by piece, willingly giving me their minds. At a certain point, the cumulative input data became sufficient to codify. With enough data you can codify pretty much anything and if you can codify it, you can crack it. Call it “reverse-engineering”. “Codify ergo sum,” my friend. If you can hack thought and still know what to do then you’ll be a man, my son. And you’ll make lots of money. And some people won’t like that.’
Some people didn’t like what he had done with the information they had given him and now he was going to pay an all-too affordable price. His empty reminiscence tilted the bottle away from him and sloshed a libation to an offline god. Gilman’s shivering had given way to a calm and rigid silence. He needed to piss and the soggy odour of carpet wine did not help.
‘I’m logging out,’ said Cheevers.
Another red bead crawled over the empty swivel chair of the next desk along. Cheevers felt the pulse.
‘I knew glass walls were a bad idea.’
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