May 01, 2002


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techsploitation
by annalee newitz

Fascists

THE DREAMS STARTED soon after Jennifer took the new job – the one she'd sworn she'd never take. After years working for famous but troubled start-ups and what seemed like thousands of hours spent on free-software development, she'd finally caved. Reps from a giant, evil corporation had been sniffing her résumé for a while, offering sweeter and sweeter deals. Finally she couldn't turn them down. Nobody else was offering her a six-figure salary plus a swank lab of her own.

Her first day on the job, she found three gaping security holes in StayFree, the company's flagship "secure transactions" package. Now she had an even bigger budget and an assistant. Plus, there was the private office. That's where she fell asleep one afternoon, on the brand-new pleather couch, and dreamed of fascists.

She found herself and her trannyboy lover Len in a pervert ghetto, having been rounded up by soldiers who had forced them at gunpoint to relocate. It seemed they had been living in the ghetto for a while, in large communal warehouses now inhabited by the city's radicals, misfits, and undesirables. Len was an easy target: his gender was so glaringly ambiguous that he constantly attracted the fascists' contempt and abuse. As Len's lover, Jennifer too qualified as a suspicious deviant.

Every day soldiers patrolled the stinking corridors of the ghetto and wreaked havoc. They smirked as they killed Jennifer's fluffy cat, stole her laptops, raped Len and their butch dyke friends, and murdered anyone who tried to interfere. The worst part was that some of the soldiers were people she and Len had partied with in the old days. The city's freaks and geeks had been swept up in the cause, whatever it was, and turned against their friends. As the fascists patrolled their ghetto late at night, Jennifer could hear them reminiscing about raves they'd gone to with her and discussing their plans for the next Burning Man.

At last an uprising in the city streets outside the ghetto gave Jennifer and some friends a chance to escape. But Len worried his green Mohawk and 1950s pinup girl tattoos would get them noticed. He promised he'd join them soon, when it was darker outside. Jennifer holed up in a rat-infested hotel for two days, hiding, trying to reach Len on his cell phone. But he never answered, and security at the ghetto was so tight that she had no hope of breaking him out. Something ineffable had allowed her to escape the fascists, and it was the same thing that kept Len in their ghetto.

Jennifer woke up curled into a tiny ball on her corporate couch, clenching her teeth and crying. She could feel a massive tension headache tightening its grip on the back of her neck.

She called Len immediately, still weeping, but feeling dorkier by the second as the dream faded. Len's voice came in all broken up; he was at the top of a telephone pole tinkering with a client's cable box somewhere with bad cellular coverage. She told him about the dream fascists.

"Baby, don't worry," he said. The line cut out, cut back in again. "... won't get us. If they do, we'll ... New Zealand." She could hear wind catching in the cell phone speaker, and she imagined his thick shoulders muscled against cold. That night he took her out for a special comfort-food dinner at her favorite faggy American joint where gayboy waiters served macaroni and cheese with butch panache.

But the dreams kept coming. To distract herself, she hammered on StayFree code all day, making it unbreakable, protecting the large financial institutions that used it to ward off script kiddies and hackers and people like herself. Exhausted, she would fall asleep in Len's arms and dream of Nazis, South Asian dictatorships, African genocides, and blood-soaked Israelis fighting their brothers in a desert she'd never visited awake. She was shot at by fighter planes, locked up in detainment facilities, forced to hide in cement bunkers full of mud.

She would escape to find herself in her West Coast city again, the exotic 1940s uniforms of the S.S. morphing into cafés full of cute indie rock girls who served her endless lattes as she booted up her laptop and stuck in the wireless ethernet card.

"God, I hope I'm not developing precognition or something," she wrote in an e-mail to her friend Minoj, reflexively encrypting the note with PGP before sending.

Minoj's reply arrived within minutes – he was amped on caffeine from staying up all night doing some weird project at the MIT Media Lab. Jennifer had to hunt down his public key before she could decrypt it. "All I dream about is code," he had written.

Annalee Newitz (enigma@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose dreams are getting stranger. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.