by Rob Harding
(Part 2 of a serialised prose fiction endeavour. Read part 1 here.)
I do the digital equivalent of slipping off the main street down a back-alley, activating two spongy ‘legal’ VPNs at once to provide the paper-thin security necessary to sneak an actual functional VPN into life without precipitating a time-delayed ISP shit-fit. It’s a sort of rite of passage, at least for British free-internet users, to accidentally break the vestigial mess that is the remains of the Snooper’s Charter and get a whiny message in the actual mail six months later complaining about it. The word ‘terrorism’ was almost entirely inflated to meaninglessness well before Meme War propaganda began labelling the entire world simultaneously with it in white-hot strobe-flashing GIFs, so the strident accusations and threats that are all the government can do about you breaking the rules aren’t particularly punchy any more. It can be another strike towards losing your net neutrality privileges, though. Besides, much nastier things lurk in the same patch of those particular legal waters, and the absolute last thing you want to do is thrash about and make a fuss.
Once there, I head for one of the less dodgy sites in my preferred dodgy part of the net (conceptualising decentralised online spaces like this sounds a bit pretentious, yeah, but someone suggested it in therapy and I liked it, so no harm no foul) and pop into the deliberately outdated looking WordPress-esque blog of the larger of the Campaign for Free Human Intellects’ current subfactions.
In a way, they’re a deeply conservative set of people. The page is plain text, written without the benefit of SEO or even the most basic pseudo-memeweapons common to even ‘90s sites – no autoplaying videos or even links to social media here, just an austere set of text posts – research reports, news posts, fundraising requests and poetry, black letters on a white background. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s pleasantly relaxing, especially after the screaming noise of the average social media feed. It’s almost like reading a book, one of the paperbacks that have come into fashion again after DeepGrey screwed up e-readers, by forgetting to test in-text product placement on humans before implementing it and then refusing to get rid of it.
If you do know what you’re looking at, it’s like reading a book that’s been pinned to the side of a nuclear submarine. Behind that innocuous facade there’s the fire and fury of a bunch of quite clever, very determined people who’ve declared war on the most powerful and boring god in history, and this is their public face. Below the surface there’s weapons and security measures that make the North Atlantic Botnet look like a first year coder’s fizz-buzz test. At least three major governments want this place shut down or turned into a torrent of DeepGrey, and the fact that it remains anything but that is rather suspicious. Still, for now, it endures.
I read the poems, more out of habit than because I enjoy poetry, and click through to the forums. The List of the Fallen began as a joke in very bad taste, then became a meme, then a vital necessity when DeepGrey began sending sleeper agents. My hands don’t shake at all as I type my former friend’s name, details, and accounts into the simple bot that runs the list, and I minimise the window before his name is added to the carved stone-textures of the monument to a skirl of pipes. It’s the default song setting – as a newbie, already half infected perhaps, he probably didn’t want to set something different. Personally, I’ve got a remix of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ mixed with samples of Rowan Atkinson saying ‘I’m glad I killed the bastard’ ready for when the time comes.
Because I think it’ll be funny, and I’m a sucker for old stuff sometimes.
I log into the forums, passing through layers of captchas and logic traps that I know for a fact don’t work if the recently lost was able to get through them, and leave a quick post documenting my last interaction. A modbot will pass it on to the people at the sharp end if there’s anything interesting in it, but this is likely the tail-end of the last outbreak so I doubt there’s much to learn. One more cautionary tale of a fallen comrade, if you listen to the nicer end of the movement, or one more idiot normie seduced by spreadsheets if you listen to the other.
After that I random-walk the forums, scrolling through posts here and there, skimming the ones with substance, downvoting the ones without. The forums run on very basic rules – to someone fully immersed in the bright, frantic world of modern social media, it’d be the equivalent of asking a neurosurgeon to work with two sticks and a sharpened flint – but I’m used to it, and besides, it’s safe. No need to worry about the adblockers or the counter-meme plugins being asleep at the switch (or worse, compromised). Like all wars fought by the civilised world since the big one, this war is fought with jokes and encouragement, old-school non-carnivorous memes, and comparatively gentle internet outrage – but the strain is still there. This is a safe space (no matter how much you may recoil from those words, tainted as they are by Meme Wars area denial), and a place to relax. Start throwing weaponised images around or trying to doxx people and the Campaign will block you very quickly, and then contact your local branch of freelance Large Scary People and get them to pop by for a chat.
I check in with the Attack Map, an interactive graphic the Campaign’s analysis wing put up, tracking both the various cyberattacks being flung around the world and the efforts of the major digital power blocs to subvert or destroy each other. The vast grey blanket that is DeepGrey remains dominant, with a red-and-white Nazi blob sitting some distance from it, the occasional probing attempts of online wannabe sturmtruppen represented by tentacles of red and white stretching between them. The frontlines, if such things could be said to exist in something as complex and abstract as the modern internet, seem pretty static this morning. The Campaign is a pinprick off to one side of the map, while the square blocks of the various national and supernational governments remain inviolate, but surrounded on all sides by blurry DeepGrey tendrils. That part’s optimistic conjecture. We all know the damn thing’s already inside them.
Featured image by Nick Tregidgo
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