Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother was just plain awesome. In it, a 17-year-old anti-authoritarian hacker named Marcus takes on the Department of Homeland Security after they enact a police state in San Francisco, post terrorist attack. However, in the end, Marcus is saved from a Guantanamo Bay-like torture facility by the San Fran Police Department and the court system, and goes on to work from inside the system to shape voter consciousness and “get the right guy in office next time.” Huge misstep, Mr. Doctorow! Since the book is under Creative Commons copyright, I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the ending. I’m not saying I can write better than Cory Doctorow (who is also just plain awesome), I’m just tagging a less (and in some ways more) hopeful ending onto a really great work.
Below is a chunk of Doctorow’s text from Chapter 20, inside << >>s. My text comes after.
You can find the whole work here: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/
<<“Maybe we should give you a bath, then,” she said. She nodded, and my guards carried me to another stretcher. This one had restraining straps running its length. They dropped me onto it and it was ice-cold and soaked through. Before I knew it, they had the straps across my shoulders, hips and ankles. A minute later, three more straps were tied down. A man’s hands grabbed the railings by my head and released some catches, and a moment later I was tilted down, my head below my feet.
“Let’s start with something simple,” she said. I craned my head to see her. She had turned to a desk with an Xbox on it, connected to an expensive-looking flat-panel TV. “I’d like you to tell me your login and password for your Pirate Party email, please?”
I closed my eyes and let the ocean carry me off the beach.
“Do you know what waterboarding is, M1k3y?” Her voice reeled me in. “You get strapped down like this, and we pour water over your head, up your nose and down your mouth. You can’t suppress the gag reflex. They call it a simulated execution, and from what I can tell from this side of the room, that’s a fair assessment. You won’t be able to fight the feeling that you’re dying.”
I tried to go away. I’d heard of waterboarding. This was it, real torture. And this was just the beginning.
I couldn’t go away. The ocean didn’t sweep in and lift me. There was a tightness in my chest, my eyelids fluttered. I could feel clammy piss on my legs and clammy sweat in my hair. My skin itched from the dried puke.
She swam into view above me. “Let’s start with the login,” she said.
I closed my eyes, squeezed them shut.
“Give him a drink,” she said.
I heard people moving. I took a deep breath and held it.
The water started as a trickle, a ladleful of water gently poured over my chin, my lips. Up my upturned nostrils. It went back into my throat, starting to choke me, but I wouldn’t cough, wouldn’t gasp and suck it into my lungs. I held onto my breath and squeezed my eyes harder.>>
(line leading up to Doctorow’s ending edited out)
<< The dipper was emptied into my face.
I heard her mutter something to someone in the room, then to me she said, “Just the login, Marcus. It’s a simple request. What could I do with your login, anyway?”
This time, it was a bucket of water, all at once, a flood that didn’t stop, it must have been gigantic. I couldn’t help it. I gasped and aspirated the water into my lungs, coughed and took more water in. I knew they wouldn’t kill me, but I couldn’t convince my body of that. In every fiber of my being, I knew I was going to die. I couldn’t even cry — the water was still pouring over me.
Then it stopped. I coughed and coughed and coughed, but at the angle I was at, the water I coughed up dribbled back into my nose and burned down my sinuses.
The coughs were so deep they hurt, hurt my ribs and my hips as I twisted against them. I hated how my body was betraying me, how my mind couldn’t control my body, but there was nothing for it.>>
That night in my cell, I thought nothing could keep me from escaping into the oblivion of sleep. Not the fetal position they shackled me into, binding my arms and legs, not the cold, and not the hard concrete floor they left me on. But the moment the door was locked, something began that could and did keep me from blissful unconsciousness.
Red and green strobe lights began to flash from the ceiling. They had no pattern, so it wasn’t as if I could grab onto their rhythms and let my brain rest around them. Even when I closed my eyes, they flashed behind the dark lids like they were wired into my neurotransmitters. Red, red, red, green, green, red, red, green, red, green. The dark intervals between were usually short, but sometimes a few seconds longer. During the longer intervals a fruitless hope swelled in me that the sensory attack would end soon. But it didn’t.
Then the music started. It blared over speakers that were hidden somewhere I couldn’t see, even as I scanned the room in the flashes of light.
“This is the song,
La la la la,
As the cloying, cutesy music played over and over at high volume, I began to wonder about the Sesame Street shirt I’d bought with the slogan “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” on it. Did they know about it? Had they been following me that closely? Was this punishment that connected to my day to day life?
“This is the song,
La la la la,
I didn’t sleep all that night. I would have tossed and turned, had I not been shackled in one place. As it was, my mind did the tossing and turning my body could not.
At what I suspected would have been dawn for the world outside my prison, the lights and the music stopped. I wondered if I would be allowed sleep fifteen, ten, five minutes even. Then I heard the lock on the door click open, and two guards walked in. They were impersonal and stoic. As they unshackled me and dragged me to my feet, I realized that I was non-human to them. I was a strongbox, a safe they had to crack to get at what was inside. They cared no more about me than bankrobbers care about a locked vault.
I realized I had pissed myself again during the night, probably while the strobe lights were flashing their non-rhythm into my brain. The cold, clammy feeling on the lower half of my body alerted me to this fact, but I could not pinpoint when it had happened.
They took me back to the shower room where I had been waterboarded the day before. Severe Haircut was there, her face a composed mask.
“How was your night, Marcus? Sleep well?”
“Like a baby,” I said. She knew it was a lie, but I felt a slight satisfaction in finding a target to throw the emotions I’d felt all the previous night at. She accepted the attack unfazed.
“Well, waterboarding didn’t work yesterday,” she said. “But we can see from your record that you’re a slow learner. Time for a new lesson plan. Today you’ll meet the dogs.”
With that she left the room.
In the minutes that followed, I was left to wonder what exactly “meeting the dogs” would entail. My imagination moved directly to the worst. Then, from outside the door, I heard a low growl, followed by a vicious bark. The barking became a chorus. I couldn’t tell how many dogs were out there, but it sounded like a pack of them. They sounded pissed off, as if they hadn’t been fed, or had been tortured themselves. I listened to their growls and barks for a few moments. Then the door slid open.
I lost track of time. Days and nights blended together, a never-ending stream of assaults on my senses and my body. I began to lose my grip on reality. Sometimes during the torture, I made up stories. Every teacher, adult, authority figure I’d ever known had been an al Qaeda operative, bent on recruiting me. I babbled these stories to my torturers, and sometimes even believed they were true. They recorded my rantings and played them back to me at night. They became the dreams I was deprived of.
But through it all, I never gave them my password, or told them about Xnet, or sold out my friends.
One day after a torture session, I was dragged down a different hallway than usual. One of my guards, talking over me as if I wasn’t there, addressed the other guard.
“Let’s put him in with the Broken Keyboard tonight. Let him see what we can do to people who don’t talk.”
They dragged me into a room with two bunks. One the lower one was a mound under a thin, scratchy-looking blanket.
From the mouth of this non-human looking mound came the most awful sounds. Screams, whispers, groans. A senseless stream of numbers and letters was being emitted. I could see why they called him the Broken Keyboard.
“Goodnight, M1k3y,” one of the guards said. “See you bright and early.”
I curled up in my own ball on the top bunk. The fetal position they’d had me shackled in for many nights seemed etched into my muscles; I couldn’t lay any other way. Below me the stream of nonsense continued to rise and fall, growl and sing. It was as random and erratic as the flashes of the strobe light. I knew I would never sleep.
Until a pattern began to emerge.
“Emm one kay three why.”
I thought for a moment I’d been imagining it. My mind was not as clear as it once had been, after days (or maybe weeks) or torture. But then, after a few moments of babble, it came again.
“Emm one kay three why.”
Mikey. He was saying Mikey.
I raised my foot an imperceptible bit, as if it were spasming, and thumped once on the rock-like mattress to indicate yes. My own code was rudimentary, but I thought the person below me would be able to figure it out. He did.
More nonsense. Then: Why zero ewe four are three emm one kay three why.
You are Mikey.
I tapped once again for yes.
His mind had perhaps cracked, but he was outsmarting them by reverting to how someone out of the know (like my old high school principal) would have pronounced leetspeak. It was simple, but like many simple things, pure genius.
A long period of babble in which I couldn’t make out anything ensued. Then, interspersed in the senselessness, I caught: Six one vee seven hhh three emm why zero ewe are pee four five five doubleyou zero are dee.
Give them your password.
Was he working for them? I had no way of knowing. But I also had no choice but to respond. I tapped twice for no.
After minutes of nothing, it came again: Six one vee seven hhh three emm why zero ewe are pee four five five doubleyou zero are dee.
Give them your password.
Again I tapped twice for no.
“One seven dee zero three five enn seven emm four seven seven three are four enn why emm zero are three.”
It doesn’t matter anymore.
I tapped twice for no.
The babble lasted minutes this time. It went on and on. I began to question if they hadn’t really broken the person below me into madness, but his messages had been clear thus far. His next message made no sense to me at all.
“One four emm emm one kay three why.”
I am Mikey.
I tapped twice for no.
“Why three five. Why three five.”
For a moment I didn’t respond, hoping to show my confusion. A pattern emerged again. Whispered all the way through.
“Why zero ewe are pee are zero eff one ell three hhh four five bee three enn enn sea ell four three dee.”
Your profile has been cleared.
Hope swelled up in me. Van! Van had used my Pirate Party password to wipe M1k3y clean! Hope swelled in my chest. Then another message emerged.
“One four emm emm one kay three why. Why zero you four are three emm one kay three why. Tee hhh three are three emm one kay three why five three vee three are why doubleyou hhh three are three.”
I am Mikey. You are Mikey. There are Mikeys everywhere.
I remained still to show my confusion. Then my mind traveled back to the day of the press conference, the day Ange and I had sat on her bed taking turns at being Mikey. I tapped once for yes. I paused, then tapped once for yes. Soon I was thumping out single thumps excitedly. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
“Why zero ewe four are three one enn pee are one five one zero enn. Emm one kay three why one five eff are three three.”
You are in prison. Mikey is free.
I tapped as hard as I could. YES.
I breathed the first real, deep breath I had breathed in days or maybe weeks. Perhaps the person planted below me was a ruse, a hope to trick me. But I didn’t think so. He thought like an Xnetter, not like one of them. I had no choice but to believe it.
Tomorrow I would give them my password, but it would give them nothing. Tomorrow I would pretend they had broken me. And yes, me Marcus, they had broken. They would probably continue to break me. But M1k3y they could never touch. M1k3y was a web, a network, as endless as the hope and fight that had fueled me, Jolu, Ange, and all the others. M1k34y was immortal, indestructible as long as there was one person with enough sense of right and decency to carry his name. We were all M1k3y. M1k3y was out of my grasp. They would never end M1k3y.
Below me the babble stopped with a few loud sighs. There was blessed silence. I enjoyed it for a few moments, like the winner of a race enjoys the pure gulps of air that stream back into his or her tired muscles.
I closed my eyes. There was nothing but darkness and silence, simple pleasures I hadn’t known for so long.
For the first time in weeks, I slept.