"Something broke in your father. He loves you.
We both love you. You are the most important thing in our lives.
I don't think you realize that. Do you remember when you were ten, when I went home to London for all that time? Do you remember?"
I nodded silently.
"We were ready to get a divorce, Marcus. Oh, it doesn't matter why anymore.
It was just a bad patch, the kind of thing that happens when people who love each other stop paying attention for a few years. He came and got me and convinced me to come back for you.
We couldn't bear the thought of doing that to you. We fell in love again for you.
We're together today because of you."
I had a lump in my throat. I'd never known this.
No one had ever told me.
"So your father is having a hard time right now.
He's not in his right mind. It's going to take some time before he comes back to us, before he's the man I love again.
We need to understand him until then."
She gave me a long hug, and I noticed how thin her arms had gotten, how saggy the skin on her neck was. I always thought of my mother as young, pale, rosy-cheeked and cheerful, peering shrewdly through her metal-rim glasses.
Now she looked a little like an old woman. I had done that to her.
The terrorists had done that to her. The Department of Homeland Security had done that to her.
In a weird way, we were all on the same side, and Mom and Dad and all those people we'd spoofed were on the other side.
I couldn't sleep that night.
Mom's words kept running through my head. Dad had been tense and quiet at dinner and we'd barely spoken, because I didn't trust myself not to say the wrong thing and because he was all wound up over the latest news, that Al Qaeda was definitely responsible for the bombing.
Six different terrorist groups had claimed responsibility for the attack, but only Al Qaeda's Internet video disclosed information that the DHS said they hadn't disclosed to anyone.
I lay in bed and listened to a late-night call-in radio show. The topic was sex problems, with this gay guy who I normally loved to listen to, he would give people such raw advice, but good advice, and he was really funny and campy.
Tonight I couldn't laugh. Most of the callers wanted to ask what to do about the fact that they were having a hard time getting busy with their partners ever since the attack.
Even on sex-talk radio, I couldn't get away from the topic.
I switched the radio off and heard a purring engine on the street below.
My bedroom is in the top floor of our house, one of the painted ladies. I have a sloping attic ceiling and windows on both sides — one overlooks the whole Mission, the other looks out into the street in front of our place.
There were often cars cruising at all hours of the night, but there was something different about this engine noise.
I went to the street-window and pulled up my blinds.
Down on the street below me was a white, unmarked van whose roof was festooned with radio antennas, more antennas than I'd ever seen on a car. It was cruising very slowly down the street, a little dish on top spinning around and around.
As I watched, the van stopped and one of the back doors popped open. A guy in a DHS uniform — I could spot one from a hundred yards now — stepped out into the street.
He had some kind of handheld device, and its blue glow lit his face. He paced back and forth, first scouting my neighbors, making notes on his device, then heading for me.
There was something familiar in the way he walked, looking down —
He was using a wifinder! The DHS was scouting for Xnet nodes. I let go of the blinds and dove across my room for my Xbox.
I'd left it up while I downloaded some cool animations one of the Xnetters had made of the President's no-price-too-high speech. I yanked the plug out of the wall, then scurried back to the window and cracked the blind a fraction of an inch.
The guy was looking down into his wifinder again, walking back and forth in front of our house. A moment later, he got back into his van and drove away.
I got out my camera and took as many pictures as I could of the van and its antennas. Then I opened them in a free image-editor called The GIMP and edited out everything from the photo except the van, erasing my street and anything that might identify me.
I posted them to Xnet and wrote down everything I could about the vans. These guys were definitely looking for the Xnet, I could tell.
Now I really couldn't sleep.
Nothing for it but to play wind-up pirates.
There'd be lots of players even at this hour. The real name for wind-up pirates was Clockwork Plunder, and it was a hobbyist project that had been created by teenaged death-metal freaks from Finland.
It was totally free to play, and offered just as much fun as any of the $15/month services like Ender's Universe and Middle Earth Quest and Discworld Dungeons.
I logged back in and there I was, still on the deck of the Zombie Charger, waiting for someone to wind me up. I hated this part of the game.
> Hey you
I typed to a passing pirate.
> Wind me up?
He paused and looked at me.
> y should i?
> We're on the same team. Plus you get experience points.
What a jerk.
> Where are you located?
> San Francisco
This was starting to feel familiar.
> Where in San Francisco?
I logged out. There was something weird going on in the game.
I jumped onto the livejournals and began to crawl from blog to blog. I got through half a dozen before I found something that froze my blood.
Livejournallers love quizzes. What kind of hobbit are you? Are you a great lover? What planet are you most like? Which character from some movie are you? What's your emotional type? They fill them in and their friends fill them in and everyone compares their results.
But the quiz that had taken over the blogs of the Xnet that night was what scared me, because it was anything but harmless:
What's your sex
What grade are you in?
What school do you go to?
Where in the city do you live?
The quizzes plotted the results on a map with colored pushpins for schools and neighborhoods, and made lame recommendations for places to buy pizza and stuff.
But look at those questions. Think about my answers:
There were only two people in my whole school who matched that profile.
Most schools it would be the same. If you wanted to figure out who the Xnetters were, you could use these quizzes to find them all.
That was bad enough, but what was worse was what it implied: someone from the DHS was using the Xnet to get at us. The Xnet was compromised by the DHS.
We had spies in our midst.
I'd given Xnet discs to hundreds of people, and they'd done the same. I knew the people I gave the discs to pretty well.
Some of them I knew very well. I've lived in the same house all my life and I've made hundreds and hundreds of friends over the years, from people who went to daycare with me to people I played soccer with, people who LARPed with me, people I met clubbing, people I knew from school.
My ARG team were my closest friends, but there were plenty of people I knew and trusted enough to hand an Xnet disc to.
I needed them now.
I woke Jolu up by ringing his cell phone and hanging up after the first ring, three times in a row. A minute later, he was up on Xnet and we were able to have a secure chat.
I pointed him to my blog-post on the radio vans and he came back a minute later all freaked out.
> You sure they're looking for us?
In response I sent him to the quiz.
> OMG we're doomed
> No it's not that bad but we need to figure out who we can trust
> That's what I wanted to ask you — how many people can you totally vouch for like trust them to the ends of the earth?
> Um 20 or 30 or so
> I want to get a bunch of really trustworthy people together and do a key-exchange web of trust thing
Web of trust is one of those cool crypto things that I'd read about but never tried.