On the Internet the Gloves Came Off and People Said Things They’d Never Say in Meat Space

Excerpt from the novel Rising Storm icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by S.M. Stirling icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

S.M. Stirling's "Rising Storm" book cover. [Formatted]


     John clicked a few keys and found himself on the Sarah Connor Website; the von Rossbach estate might look like the Paraguayan equivalent of backwoods, but the satellite-link communications were first-rate, with outlets in every room.
     Things had calmed down at the site over the last few months. There were occasional updates, and old E-mail got cleared away, but it was very different from the days when it was new.
     What he was here for was the secret Luddite chat room, where things remained hot. In fact, the Luddite movement seemed to be getting stronger and more active worldwide—it had practically gone mainstream, putting up political candidates and organizing outreach stations and Web sites. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by an increase in terrorist acts both large and small every day, everywhere.
     The tone of the conversation in the rooms was different, too. It lacked the almost pleading exasperation of previous listings that wanted to teach and had become more militant. Much more us versus them. And that attitude, too, seemed to be becoming more mainstream with every passing day.
     John simply lurked in the topic and chat rooms, gathering information, but he’d noticed one user, styled Watcher, who occasionally shook things up. Lately the threats the Luddites made against Watcher for questioning their methods and ideas had become chilling.
     He decided to seek out this character. Someone with that sobriquet might know some very interesting things, and might be someone he could add to his growing list of informants on the Web.
     He was in luck; Watcher was on-line, discussing a recent bombing with the Luddites. If you could call such a hostile exchange a discussion. Good thing Watcher isn’t in the same room with these people. On the Internet the gloves came off and people said things they’d never say in meat space. But if you were right there with them when they were saying it… who knew what would happen.
     He glanced around his whitewashed bedroom with its black quebracho-timber rafters and tile floors. E-presence was very different from the physical world. It liberated the id. Maybe the people threatening to wear Watcher’s intestines as suspenders wouldn’t harm a fly in reality. But with all the bombings and beatings and vandalism going on, who could be sure anymore?
     John checked out the address at the top of Watcher’s messages and found it a dead end. But, he thought, there are other ways of finding you, buddy. After a tedious half hour he found the time Watcher had logged on, then correlated that with an IP address. That brought him to the MIT Web site in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cool, he thought, and not surprising. It was pretty obvious from his posts that Watcher was protechnology.
     Narrowing it down to the university was good, but he’d need some power to get the information he wanted. He constructed a password that got him into the operational side of the MIT site—a little lockpick-and-insertion program that Dieter had brought with him from the Sector was very useful here—and registered himself as a systems administrator. That essentially made him a system god, giving him access to all the on-site users’ real tags.
     He continued to trace Watcher, which was turning out to be a job and a half. This guy knows how to cover his tracks, he thought in admiration. Very definitively a good recruit if all worked out. Finally he located Watcher’s origin.
     Aha! A freshman student at MIT, Watcher was Wendy Dorset. John hacked into her school records, finding a picture. Cute, he thought. Not important, but nice to know. He pulled up an encrypted talk request and sent it to Watcher.
     *I’d like to talk with you,* he sent.
     There was a long pause. Finally she accepted the request, creating a secure shell in which they could speak. John’s screen split into he said/she sad columns, as did hers. Now they could communicate in real time.
     *Who are you?* Watcher asked.
     John’s tag was AM, which stood for Action Man, not necessarily something he would ever reveal.
     *I could be a friend,* John typed. *Why don’t you blow off these bozos. I think we have similar interests.*
     *Similar interests?* she asked.
     *Beyond making fools of fools,* he typed with a smile. *But first we should get to know each other.*
     *And how are we going to do that? And why should I trust you?*
     *Trust?* he wrote. *You trust these guys? Hey, at least I’m not threatening to kill you if we ever meet.*
     *Good point. Okay, I’ll ditch the creeps. They’re getting more excited than is good for them anyway.* Watcher was gone for a moment then came back. *So, what do you want?*
     *What drew you to that particular site?* John asked.
     *It’s rude to answer a question with a question,* Watcher pointed out.
     *True, but I’m asking.*
     And he wasn’t going to answer any questions until he had a satisfactory answer. *Whatever. I was just looking around when I found it. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just killing time. Y’know? But something about the Sarah Connor story reached me. Maybe it was that lone-wolf thing. I’m a sucker for underdogs.*
     Underdog, John thought. Yeah, I guess that pretty well describes my mother. At least in the old days. God! He was still only sixteen and he actually had “old days” to refer back to.
     *It turned out to be a really strange site,* Watcher went on. *And as for these idiots, I just can’t help myself. I’ve gotta poke ’em.*
     *People who take themselves very seriously can also be very dangerous,* John warned. *So how’s the weather on the East Coast?* e asked, deciding to throw her a curve.
     There was a long wait for Watcher’s next post. Hope I haven’t scared her off.
     *Probably not as warm as it is waaaay down south,* Watcher finally replied.
     John caught his breath. Sure hope she doesn’t scare me of. *Okay,* he wrote, *this demonstrates why it’s a bad idea to tease the crazies. One of them might be computer literate.*
     *It may be cocky,* Watcher replied, *but I like to think of myself as being a little more than merely “literate.”*
     *Actually I think you are, too. The dangerous part is in assuming that because you’re smart no one else is. It’s always unwise to underestimate people. Leads to nasty surprises.*
     Listen to me, he thought, I received this advice from masters and I’ve found it to be true.
     Once again there was a long pause. *Are you warning me against yourself? Whatever. What I really want to know is, what do you want?*
     His brief review of Dorset’s school records had made her sound like a straight arrow. What he’d observed of her interactions with the Luddites told him she had nerve and could think on her feet. The way she’d hidden her tracks told him she was damn smart. The way she’d found him told him she might be dangerous if she wasn’t handled right.
     *I’m head of a kind of watchers’ group, no pun intended,* he explained. Or I would be if I hadn’t just thought it up this minute. You’ll be my first recruit! He hoped. *We keep our eyes on military/industrial projects, just in case they get it into their heads to do something hinky. We’re always on the lookout for new talent. Want to join?*
     *Okay, here’s my problem,* she answered. *Think of where I met you. Now, how do I know you’re not a Luddite extremist yourself?*
     *Tough one,* he agreed. *Ideally I would meet you face-to-face.* Which I would loooove to do, he thought. *And that would give us an opportunity to get a feel for each other. But that’s obviously not going to happen. I could call you,* he suggested.
     *All right,* she replied, and typed a number. *Four o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Eastern Standard Time.*
     *Why not now?* he asked.
     *It’s not my number,* she wrote.
     Then she was gone. Wow, John thought, grinning wryly, I’d better practice my adult voice.

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