One-Click Banishment — Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert’s fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Ideomancer, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies Seeds of Change, Federations, and Polyphony 4. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and Podcastle podcasts. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist—and he shows off each of those skills in his Dr. Roundbottom project, located at www.clockpunk.com. He lives in Colorado, with his wife and cats.

In everyday life, when people use the word “wizard,” they’re almost always talking about a “computer wizard,” and that’s no accident. There are many striking parallels between the wizards of old and our modern-day IT folks. Both are conversant in inscrutable languages full of strange symbols where even the tiniest error can spell disaster, both spend hours locked away in rooms full of books and equipment, and both can produce dazzling effects.

In fact, to most people computers seem like magic. In one Too Much Coffee Man comic, the hero’s computer attempts to explain to him how it works, in terms of RAM and binary numbers and machine code. A skeptical Too Much Coffee Man tears the computer apart only to reveal what he’s always suspected—inside is nothing but a tiny devil standing on a flaming pentagram.

It’s no surprise then that many fantasy writers have speculated about how sorcery and computers might intersect. Our next tale is one of a series in which Tolbert utilizes his formidable knowledge of computers to present a world in which hackers and geeks are also wizards and witches, where a “sprog” (“spell” + “program”) can do almost anything, and where spam can be deadly.

ONE-CLICK BANISHMENT

by Jeremiah Tolbert

STUCK THREAD * Six Lessons Learned in MAA’s Captive Servitude

Posted by Hidr at 7:42 PM Yesterday

Yeah, the rumors are true. Big Mother caught me (note the past-tense, indicating that it happened in the past and it’s no longer the case. Isn’t language fun?). Before I get started, I want to make one thing very clear—anyone who asks me when Tometracker will be back online will be banned from the board and cursed with a sprog that turns your dick into a cactus. If you don’t believe I own that sprog, just ask @DedJonny. The word on Tometracker is, I’m working on moving the servers. It takes time when they’re located on an astral plane.

Some of you kids might not know who I am. I’ve stayed away from the general forums for a long time because I can’t stand the crap you nerds talk about. Check my two-digit user ID and tremble, n00bs. But I’ve come in here to share with you some very important lessons.

Everybody’s got a talent, and mine’s damned useful when you’re a m4g1ck pirate (yarr). My handle is Hidr for a reason. I make things very hard to find. I’ve been evading the MAA’s goons and daemons for almost a decade. Yes, by your standards I’m an old geezer. When I joined up, we downloaded sprogs on 28.8 baud modems. My 8086 barely had enough processing power to cast even the most simple cantrips. Also, I walked to school uphill both ways without an energy boost sprog. Oh, and our music was better than the crap you kids listen to.</old fart>

You are using defensive or obfuscation sprogs that I crunched from tomes or coded myself. I’ve personally developed a toolbox of tricks that Big Mother has not been able to beat. Until a few days ago.

Your MAA countermeasures are only as good as your own personal paranoia. MAA has been slow to catch on to our tactics and methodology (you learn slower when your organization is made up of immortal wizards born in the time of cave people, I guess), but they had someone new, younger, working in their Anti-Piracy division. I was not expecting to be taken out by a fucking social engineering hack.

I won’t go into the personal details. It’s too embarrassing. Let’s just say that Big Mother never would have caught me if it wasn’t for my weakness for nerdy redheads. Stay off of Craigslist, boys and girls. They are probably still planting honey pots in the form of geeky love interests that don’t exist. Well, they might exist, but they’re not posting in the “casual encounters” area of Craigslist.

They tagged me because I was running a minor glamour on my jailbroken iPhone, covering up some acne scars from my misbegotten youth. Even something small, low-mojo-using, makes you stand out in a crowded restaurant to their scryers. Lesson number one: run obfuscation at all times. You should have enough mojo to do that, and if you don’t, better start collecting it. (Plenty of files in the FTP for you to put on tracker sites with a personalized collector sprog.)

So the worst of it is, they weren’t even trying to catch a higher-up like myself. They were canvassing for any m4g1ck pirates they could find and got lucky. Go figure. But you want to hear all the gory details, huh. Here we go.

So the ordeal starts with MAA agents sucking me into a Box sprog running on what looked like a pretty necklace worn by the undercover MAA agent. Turns out to be a mini-computer the size of a USB stick. It’s pretty awesome. I’ll tell you more about it later—

—Hold on, I need to reboot a router. I’ll pick this up in the next post.

***

Posted by Hidr at 8:14 PM Yesterday

Time’s funny in a Box. I lose track of it banging on the glass-smooth walls and screaming obscenities. I burn through a gig of mojo trying to crack my way out. Enough time goes by that I can write a sprog in Aleph-code to try to overwrite the Box’s World-Object-Model. But I’m Hidr, not Escapr. I carry just about every defensive sprog ever cracked, but I don’t carry escape tools when I go out on a date. Paranoia FAIL. That’s lesson number two. You can never be paranoid enough with the MAA around.

When they crack open the Box, I slurp out into an interrogation cell with two MAA pirate hunters. These assholes are so stereotypical. They’re in black suits and dark shades, all business, but the menacing Fed look is ruined by the unkempt gray beards and pointed wizard caps. So yeah, I can finally say that I have seen not one but two agents in person. I’m just guessing here, but they probably don’t wear the hats in public. Which is where I would like to be right about now: in public.

Before I can even hit “Run” on my Get Out of Jail Free sprog, Agent #1 tasers me.

If someone ever offers you the chance to be tasered, pass. While I lay on the floor convulsing like a meth addict in need of a hit, Agent #2 rummages through my pockets and takes my phone, my backup PDA, my USB sticks, and a couple of sentimental charms that probably don’t do shit (and definitely don’t protect against Box sprogs or fucking taser guns).

They sit me up in the chair and chain me down with the Manacles of Morteus. Good sprog, actually. We bootlegged that one a few years back. Chained up, this is when I expect the beating and shouting to begin, but Agent #1 just smiles real funny while Agent #2 waves his hand over my belongings and they vanish in a puff of purple smoke.

The agents move kind of weird, almost like marionettes. They talk in clipped tones. I wonder if they’re from another world, or if they’re imps in disguise. Something ain’t right. Maybe it’s just the way MAA stooges are.

They call me by my True Name, and that scares the hell out of me. I can only figure that they did a records search once they had me in the Box. “Mr. [True Name Deleted], please be patient and remain calm,” they said. “Magister Atretius will be with you momentarily.”

(Oh, there’s no way I’m posting my True Name here for you bastards. The last time one of you got ahold of it, I was RickRolled in my sleep for a month. Do you know how disturbing it is to be about to get it on with some hot girl and have her transform into a singing, dancing Rick Astley? I’m sending the therapy bills to whoever was responsible just as soon as I track you down. I’ve got daemons on your trail armed with sprogs full of vengeance. I hope you like peeing rainbows. Literally.

Good hack though, I have to admit.)

So another MAA agent I assume to be the Magister ’ports into the chamber. He’s—okay, he’s younger than me—wearing ill-fitting blue jeans and a size XXL black t-shirt for HackCon IV. He’s kind of a lard ass, but who spends sixteen hours a day behind a keyboard and isn’t, right?

The Magister doesn’t seem to notice me. He fiddles with a mojo-charged gadget that I swear is some kind of hacked Zune. It figures that one evil empire would be using the products of another. That’s what cube jockeys call synergy.

He looks up as if surprised to find himself in the dank concrete cell with a surprisingly untortured prisoner, then smiles and nods. He waves to the agents, and they port out leaving only the smell of grandpa farts.

I wiggle a bit to confirm that my chair is bolted to the floor. When I do, I notice that the pendant that launched the Box sprog is still on the table. The stone table rises in a seamless piece from the cell floor between the chairs. I palm the pendant as quick as I can, hoping that the Magister doesn’t notice. Thank Cthulhu, he doesn’t seem to.

Magister Atretius slumps into the chair across from me, sighing. I readjust my age estimate downward. This kid looks like he’s barely out of high school. “I really hate to bring you in, Hidr. I’m a big fan. I’ve been reverse engineering your sprogs since I was in junior high.”

I try to muster up some spit, but my mouth is dry from all the shouting in the Box. “So you’re a turncoat.”

He shrugs. “Piracy doesn’t pay. Literally, in money or power, and I don’t mean ‘mojo.’ Pirates are like children playing with firecrackers. The MAA has nuclear warheads. I’m just the kind of guy who wants access to the biggest bombs.” He taps his finger on the screen of his gadget, reading something. “I’m sure you know why you’re here,” Atretius says after a moment.

“Yeah I know why, but your goons didn’t bother to read me my rights. I think I can get this case thrown out. Plus, it was entrapment or something.”

“Or something.” He sighs again. “We can charge you with as many counts of spell copyright infringement as we want, aiding spell copyright violation, facilitating the avoidance of MAA authorities, and a dozen other charges you’ve never even heard of.”

Only one of those words really mattered to me. “  ‘Can?’ Not ‘will’?”

“I’ve been kissing my superior’s asses all day to get you this deal, so I want you to listen to me before you get sarcastic and all ‘down with the man!’  ”

“Big Mother can suck Donkey Kong’s dong.” My heart’s not really in the insult, but I feel it’s expected. (Don’t you even ask me who Donkey Kong is, or I will not be responsible for my actions.)

The Magister shakes his head, tsking. “  ‘The Magical Association of Atlantis is an organization made up of numerous individuals and as such cannot comply with your demand.’ Would you believe that’s verbatim from a memorandum on ‘prisoner relations’ I got yesterday? Look, I’m not asking you to turn in anyone. We haven’t even managed to take down your distribution network. Even with all your gear, we still can’t crack your obfuscation. Routing the connections through routers in Chaos Space and the Outer Realms is brilliant, by the way. Oh, and it’s your skill with server obfuscation that is one of the reasons you are perfect for this job.”

I laugh just a little hysterically. “You’re offering me a job?” Before I can explain how I wouldn’t work for MAA if my balls were on fire and they had the last glass of water in the world, he interrupts.

“Piracy is not the only concern of the organization. Before both our times, the MAA was primarily tasked with knowledge control—keeping dangerous stuff out of the hands of people too stupid to know how to use it. The relaxed attitude your upstart cabals have about recruiting means stopping piracy and controlling access to the lore is the same thing now.”

I nod. I think I remember having read that somewhere before, maybe in Captain Bl00d’s manifesto. Ancient history.

“We have a problem that our most technically-inclined mages are unable to solve. Have you heard of 1CB?”

It sounds Web 2.0 trendy, but doesn’t ring a bell. I shake my head.

“One-Click Banishment. An unknown party has put up a website that allows users to enter the True Name of anyone and with the click of a button, send the target immediately to the Gray Fields.”

I stare at him. “How is that even possible?”

“I don’t know, but I assure you it is. We have been overwhelmed with transport work. Do you know how much mana it costs to bring them back and wipe their memories? We need a better tactic. We need to shut it down.”

“It shouldn’t be hard to take down a website,” I say. “A denial of service attack can do it, and I know you guys know about those. You’ve tried them on TomeTracker. And failed, of course.” I allow myself a smirk.

“Guy before me. Real idiot. Our zombie nets do come in handy, but not for dealing with the likes of you. I could see right from the start that your obfuscation techniques would protect from DoS attacks. They don’t work on your sites and they do not work on 1CB for the same reason. But because my superiors are idiots, over half the world’s bandwidth is being taken up by a MAA DoS attack on 1CB. The server’s load times have not been effected one millisecond.”

“Huh,” I say. Even I can be at a loss for words sometimes. “A sprog capable of transporting mundanes to another plane costs terabytes of mojo, or mana, or whatever you call it. That should make it easier to track down. Who has that kind of juice?”

“We can only account for registered, legal stores of mojo, and while they are taxed by our relocation project, every focule of energy is accounted for.”

I mentally run through a list of what underground groups might come close to having enough stored mojo to power the 1CB sprog. The Spam Kings, maybe. They powered the unduplicatus spell that our fellow Buccaneers used to escape the MAA a couple of years back, and that thing was a mojo hog. Of course, the Pornomancers have mojo to spare, but ’porting eyeballs away from screens would run contrary to their whole gig. I check off our Order right away. Since Captain Bl00d was routed to dev/dead, we’ve been too disorganized to pull off anything like this, and besides, I would have heard about it. (You kids can’t keep a secret. Soon as you learn something juicy, you’re on the forums spouting off.)

The Socialistas can keep a secret, but they probably haven’t accumulated that kind of mojo. They burn it as fast as they get it on lovey-dovey good-will crap. The HardC0re have buckets of juice, but are worse than us about agreeing on anything. They dissolve into a Playstation vs. Xbox flame war any time they try to make a group decision.

“Any idea what kind of traffic the site has seen?” I ask. “It hasn’t appeared on the social news sites, has it?”

The Magister shakes his head. “Our moles are limiting the public knowledge of 1CB. We’re blocking emails, tweets, and SMS that include the url by retasking Project Echelon. Yeah, we can do that. But we can’t control the spread through person-to-person communications, not with our mojo taxed rescuing the targets from eternal boredom. Our last count put the number of banished at over fifty thousand.”

“How the hell do fifty thousand mundanes disappear without it being noticed by the media?” I can’t help myself—I’m getting into the mystery.

He stares at me, waiting for me to remember who I am dealing with.“Like I said, the cover-up is a considerable drain on our resources. I don’t have an agent I can put on this. I’m the ideal candidate, but I’m busy keeping my superiors from doing anything . . . drastic. Which brings us to you. You’re more skilled than most of my agents anyway.”

“Uh, thanks. So we can be sure that this is a major power play by an unknown. Also, nobody offers this kind of power for free. There’s a catch somewhere,” I scratch my chin, thinking. “I can see why you guys are worried, I guess.”

He runs a finger across the screen of his device and the Manacles sprog vanishes. I rub my wrists.

“We have of course been interested in apprehending you for some time. It seems like a coincidence that we caught you in Operation LittleHeadThinker when we did, but perhaps the Fates have conspired to bring you to us. I noticed similarities in the hosting methods of 1CB and your illicit site early on in our investigation. And when I saw your name on the containment roster, I pulled strings, and here we are.” Despite his apparent enthusiasm, for a moment he does not look happy. I wonder why he isn’t accusing me of building the damned thing, but I’m not going to bring it up if he isn’t. Something must have proved my innocence.

I evaluate my options. I don’t have many. I’m caught up in the situation whether I want to be or not. Whoever is running 1CB is using my bag of tricks. The routers are, you guys have to admit, one of my moments of brilliance. Routing data traffic through the Chaos plane and then the Outer Realms makes it impossible for anyone to find the servers. Do a traceroute and you end up at some tiny ISP in Argentina. You’ll get anything but the route to the actual servers. It as much a matter of pride now as anything else.

Plus, I don’t want to be banished or executed just yet. “Fine,” I say. “I’m in.”

Okay, so, my stomach is going to strangle me with my intestines if I don’t get something to eat right now, so hold tight. The story is just starting to get crazy.

***

Posted by Hidr at 11:14 PM Yesterday

Say what you will about the Magical Association of Atlantis and the graybeards. The Noodly One knows I have. But they have some awesome toys.

After letting me out of the cell, Atretius gives me supervised access to part of their store of High Artifacts.

That’s right, nerds: I totally got to play with Artifacts.

You might not be familiar with the term if you haven’t been in the cabal long. Artifacts are ancient implements from before the time of mechanical or digital processors, like hundreds of years old at least. They look like mundane junk, but their platonic representations in the World Object Model have been overwritten by Elder Gods, aka They Whose Awesome Powers Will Make You Shit Yourself. We’re talking beings with intellect so vast and calculating that they can work through sprog equations as easily as you add 2+2. Their mojo comes from the millions of human souls (the old school mojo source of choice) that they acquired through the centuries by trading with mages for processing time on their intellects. If you think a bored kid playing a Flash game is a good source of mojo, imagine what you get from that bored teen playing a flash game for one-hundred thousand years.

Luckily for us, the giant evil bastards were banished, bound, or annihilated when the computer revolution hit and they were no longer a “necessary evil” of m4gick. Hard to believe, but at one point the MAA were the good guys. You have to give them some credit for insuring that we aren’t all sex toys of Cthulhu as trade for a few m4gickal tricks.

The first totally awesome m4gickal trick and artifact the Magister hooks me up with is a silver medallion to protect against banishment. Passive, grounding me to the material plane like a cosmic paperweight. It scans oddly dull for energy, but Atretius assures me that’s part of how it works.

“Our mystery party may try to banish you if they find out you’re onto them,” he says. “This will stop them. All our agents are wearing them right now.”

The second thing he gives me is a broom. No sleek sports car for this MAA agent apparently. Thank the Noodly One, it doesn’t work by flying. For a moment I was honestly shitting myself at the idea of flying through the air at Mach 2 sitting on something barely wider than my thumb. Instead, it teleports me from one place to another via the Dusty meta-plane. I arrive at my destination looking like a vacuum cleaner bag had exploded in my face, but I get there in one piece.

Lastly, they returned my miscellaneous personal belongings, in particular my iPhone, newly loaded with documents pertaining to the case.

“So, what’s your plan?” Atretius asks as he escorts me through processing. It turns out I’m in some kind of massive subterranean detainment center. I’m so excited to be getting out, I don’t even hesitate to tell him.

“Inspect the site, look for clues to who is behind it. After that, we’ll see.”

“Headed back to your lair then? Good. Well, keep me informed,” he says sternly. I flip him the bird and with that, I’m outta there and back to my Bat Cave.

Now my cat needs to go out. BRB

***

Posted by Hidr at 12:41 AM Today

Back at my lair, I spend the first fifteen minutes checking on my servers. At this point, they’re still up (but of course. I run Linux only in my sanctum), but something really odd is showing up in the admin logs. I notice weird packets transferring through my routers that aren’t originating from me or my servers. They shouldn’t be there. If I could spare the time to pick them apart, I would, but they don’t seem to be causing any downtime. Their volume doesn’t match what I would expect from 1CB, and they’re not on the right port for a web server anyway. I file it away for later inspection and turn to the MAA files.

They don’t tell a different story from what the Magister had explained, and I get bored reading them less than halfway through.

My first real action as an agent of the MAA is to poke at the 1CB server.

Traceroute sure enough pointed at an internet café in Hong Kong. Ha, not likely. I used a sprog to look through the monitors at the café’s clientele, but it’s just a bunch of kids playing video games.

I take a look at the site in a custom version of Mozilla I wrote for investigating things like this. The site is one page, with a very simple, clean design style. It’s not running any presentation-layer sprog code, so it’s not trying to bespell the user.

It consists of a form field for the name and a button labeled “Banish” and that’s it. The submit action on the form looks like a 256-bit encrypted Aleph symbol-set. Not a workable lead there. It would take literally all eternity to decrypt it and identify the processing sprog.

Time to test the site then. Who to use as my victim? I take an old high school yearbook from my bookshelf and flip pages until I see Danny de Marco. All my tortured nerd pain comes rushing back. Oh yes. He will do nicely.

I enter his name, checking it for typos (very carefully!) and click “Banish.” A modal window pops up with a user agreement. Ha! So not “one-click.” I move my mouse to click “accept” without thinking like I always do but then . . . I have a hunch and I have to pry my mouse finger back with my left hand. It goes against every computer-using instinct I have to not click through.

Must. Not. Succumb. To. Legalese.

I scroll through twelve pages of the usual “you can’t sue us” garbage before I find what I’m looking for.

by accepting this agreement, user will bequeath user’s metaphysical-essence energy, hereafter referred to as “soul” to the entity known as baalphorum. this is a nonrefundable transaction. all hail his demonic visage. he will return to take what is rightfully his and all shall tremble before his glory.

And then the doc runs back to legal-speak standard bullshit. One paragraph of pure contractual evil buried in legal cruft. Clever. Nobody ever reads the user agreement text before checking the box and continuing. I’ve heard people joke that we were giving away our souls in the damned things, but I’d never seen anyone actually try it.

Here in the U.S., the user agreement constitutes a legal contract—the parties being the site user and this entity Baalphorum, who I have never heard of but I am pretty certain is one of the lesser Elder Gods. Those entities have always codified their arrangements with humans in contracts. Guess modern contract law has provided them a few new loopholes and tricks since the days of Mephistopheles.

I click “cancel” and close my browser. I consider setting fire to my computer, just to be sure. Giving away your soul in exchange for a single banishment is what we in the m4gick game call a sucker’s deal.

(That’s lesson number three. If you are going to trade your soul for anything, it’s got to at least involve a computer with more processor cores than a hydra has heads. Not what amounts to an annoying, even if amusing and powerful, prank.)

I Skype a contact of mine in the Socialistas, an old-school pagan New Ager who likes reading the dusty books even if they don’t have spells in them. Me, I could never be bothered. Her name is Cristina. No handle. That’s how boring the Socialistas are.

The call beeps for five minutes (I’m patient) before Cristina answers in a mush of words I can’t make out.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Do you have any fucking idea what time it is?’ ”

I look out my window. “Uh . . . dark?” I don’t even know what day it is. I glance at my system clock and see that it’s been a week since I was captured, and, oh, it is currently 4 AM.

“What do you need now, Hidr?” I hear another feminine voice in the background asking a question. Christina covers the mic and I can’t make out his reply. I hear a giggle as she comes back on. “Make it quick, I have company.”

“You always have company, you lucky girl. This won’t take long and I’ll send you a gig of mojo for your trouble. I need to know if you’ve heard of an Elder God named Baalphorum.”

Christina hmms. “Maybe. Hold on.” The call goes quiet, then I can hear the fwit-fwit of pages flipping. “  ‘Classified as a lesser Arch-Demon. He is the Prince of Journeys Gone Afoul. A patron demon to highwaymen and cutthroats.’ The MAA banished him in the late ’40s, locked him up in a deep Outer Realm. You know, I think I’ve read somewhere that cultists over the years have made several attempts to free him. Apparently, he was an easy date back in the day. What’s going on?”

I sigh. “It looks like someone has found a new way to bust him out.” I explain 1CB and ask if it could free the demon somehow.

“Promised souls are souls ‘in the hand’ for some spells. He would need to quickly reap the souls or face a mystic backlash that would slingshot his thorny ass past Andromeda, but it would work.”

I file that tidbit away for later use. “How many souls would it take for a demon of Baalphorum’s stature to break out?”

“I have no idea. Math’s your game, pal.”

“Give me a guess. Less than fifty thousand?”

I can almost hear her shrug. “Probably more than that. Say, one-hundred thousand? Isn’t this what the MAA is supposed to take care of when they’re not harassing us?”

I stammer, but there’s no sense in lying to a Socialista. They always know, especially Cristina. “They’ve got me freelancing on this problem. Their resources are tied up in getting the mundanes back.”

A long pause. “Well, we’re all doomed then.”

“Gotta go, Christina. Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

I disconnect and call Atretius, who helpfully loaded his contact info into my phone before returning it. I start talking as soon as the call connects.

“This whole thing is a sucker deal in disguise. It’s in the EULA.”

There’s a long enough pause that I think maybe I’ve dropped the call, but then: “Shit. I can’t believe nobody read this thing. Do you know who or what this ‘Baalphorum’ is?”

I give him the details. He swears again.

“So we know where the mojo’s coming from to power the banishments,” Atretius says. “Baalphorum probably has mana stores in his prison. He shouldn’t be able to get anything out from the prison, but the MAA containment budgets have been slimmer since we’ve redirected our resources, so maybe there are some cracks showing. At least we know what Baalphorum is getting in exchange.”

“Someone has to be helping him on this side, but fuck if I know who,” I say. Something is bothering me that I can’t quite place. “I verified that they’re hiding the server with the same trick of Chaos space that I used on mine. The only way to trace it would be to have the actual astral encryption keys that were used to create the routing table, but I don’t have the ones used to hide 1CB, so the site itself is a dead end.”

“You better think of something quickly because . . . ” I hear the clackity-clack of a classic IBM keyboard. “The fecal matter just hit the fan. The link is out in the wild. The site just made Digg. It’ll be posted again to Metafilter and Reddit in minutes.”

What!” I nearly shout. “How did they get through?”

“Someone set up a redirect engine. It’s being submitted with different URLs every time. Someone’s been busy registering domain names. I’m transferring our DoS bots to take down all the social networking sites, but it’s going to take a bit.

“You’ve got to get out there and find who’s responsible for the site and shut them down,” Artetius says. “It’s our best chance of stopping this.”

“Yeah, sure. There’s just the one thing. I’ve got zero leads! Well, other than that whoever put the site up knows my methods of obfuscating a server. I explained how to maybe six people in the world, but I don’t know who they really are or where they live. We’re all anonymous in Bl00d’s Cabal.”

My phone dinged to announce new email.

“I’ve just sent you dossiers on your cabal mates.”

“Holy shit! You have this information?”

Atretius yells something unintelligible in the background. “Can’t talk any longer, I need to manage things on this end. Start kicking in doors.” Click.

I scan the files, take a look at the first name and address. Before I go, I try to equip myself better, just in case. I ransack my place for gear and I turn up my old smartphone. It has a processor slower than a turd and a whole 128 megabytes of space. But it’s better than nothing. I pocket it and then broom-port to my first “interviewee.”

I arrive in a cramped basement apartment, coughing, eyes watering, gray all over with dust. A teenager, not a second older than fourteen, lies slumped over a keyboard snoring. The file says this is DedJonny, but I can’t believe it. It makes me feel so much older.

I scroll through my selection of curses and prepare to squeeze him for info.

DedJonny nearly pisses himself when I clap my hands and wake him. He babbles. “Oh shit, oh man, I didn’t do it, please, don’t—”

“Shut up,” I say calmly. “I’m Hidr. I have some questions.”

He looks relieved. “How’d you get through my defensive sprogs? Oh right—you wrote them, must have put in backdoors huh? That’s so chill.”

“I’m offended you would think that. I have ethical standards,” I snap, putting on my best “angry adult” voice. “What do you know about One Click Banishment?”

“One-what?” He blinks unconvincingly. Even an under socialized geek can see he’s lying.

I swipe the screen on my phone and select the cactus-dick curse (see the first post in this thread). I pour 100k of mojo into the spell and hit him with it.

It won’t last long, and the effect isn’t as pronounced as it would be with a few megabytes, but it does the job. He screams and paws his crotch, and that doesn’t make things any better.

“I’ve got worse than that here. Do you want to see how much worse?”

“No! It was me, okay? We go to school together, and he, he—started dating my girlfriend after we broke up—augh, why is my junk covered in needles?”

Hmm. Not the confession I was looking for. “Who?”

“OneEyedPete. I used the site on OneEyedPete. Isn’t that why you’re here? I knew he’d get back somehow, I just wanted to teach him a lesson is all.”

That has the ring of truth. I dispel the curse. And by the way, DedJonny, if you’re reading this, sorry about that, man. You’ll understand why I had to do it by the end of this. I owe you some mojo.

I don’t waste any time apologizing (I did that by writing the above). I move on to the next name on my list. And another, and so on until each one convinces me they have no idea who is behind One Click Banishment and it definitely isn’t any of them.

It’s only when I come to the end of my list when I realize that one name is missing: “LongDongSilver.” Some of you may remember him. He was initiated into the Cabal a little bit after Bl00d’s death. He was really eager to get to know everyone then. Check his posting history. He was crude and a little naïve, but he really got the nuts and bolts of networking protocols, so I brought him in on the private networking forums.

So how can the MAA have records on us so thorough, but be missing one Cabal member, who just happens to have access to my private forum?

I haven’t wanted to consider the possibility, not really. It means we’ve been infiltrated for a long time now. And it explains the detailed records.

Just as it all makes sense, I am force-shifted across planes to the Gray Fields. It happens in a blink, without even a sound. One minute I am on the street outside a San Francisco apartment watching the sun rise, the next I am in the empty, barren wasteland of the Fields, surrounded by thousands of confused douchebags. Jocks, corrupt cops, snitches, power-hungry teachers—anyone who had ever pissed of a computer savvy geek is here, and more are arriving every minute.

They bitch and moan like the worst has happened to them but they’re just being inconvenienced; their pranksters are going to pay for it with their souls.

I tear off the obviously fake medallion and throw it to the ground. I walk for ten minutes until I’m away from the smell of Old Spice and sit down. I swear by the Noodly One, I will fucking pwn Magister Atretius for this.

My phone rings. Impressive to receive a signal here, especially for AT&T. “Guess where I am?” says Atretius, a/k/a “LongDongSilver,” calling to gloat.

I suggest something about carnal relations with a capybara.

“Wrong. I’m in your inner sanctum, stealing your IP tablez.”

“How the fuck?” Of course he bugged me, probably via phone. See, n00bs? Not paranoid enough.

“Why do you want my tables?” I think I know, but I want him to say it.

“You haven’t figured it out yet?” He laughs. “You are getting slow in your old age.”

“Why don’t you explain it to me, junior. It must be killing you not to share your genius plan with someone.”

He sniffs. “Do you realize how much power the Elder Ones have? He’s taught me so much already in little messages.”

“But how has he been talking to you?”

“I have you to thank for that. One of your routers was close enough metaphysically for him to connect to your little ethereal network. Even a ‘lesser’ being like Baalphoruum has a mind capable of more processing than every computer on the planet. They’re the original super computers. And I’m gonna have sole access to it.”

“This is about hardware? What a nerd.” I am beginning to rethink my openmindedness towards the socially inept.

“Of course it is! In return for freeing him, Baalphoruum has promised me twenty years of Elder-processing time. Do you know what I can accomplish with that? I could create my own pocket universe!”

“There’s no way he’s going to let you get away with that. The Elder Ones always get the upper hand. Duh, they’re smarter than the entire planet?”

“They are bound by laws, and my uncle’s this big-time contract lawyer. When I found his messages in your router packets—”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve covered this. So you were a plant in our organization from the beginning? They brought you into the MAA to infiltrate us, I bet. But you had bigger plans than being a MAA stooge. Hell, the MAA gave you the tools to make sure your stupid scheme didn’t backfire on you. And then my idiot self gave you the basic principles of my network protocols so you could make sure nobody could put a stop to your soul collector. You probably even planned to pin it all on me. That about right?”

His silence was enough confession for me.

“What I can’t figure though, and yeah, maybe it’s because I’m old and slow, but why in the hell would you let me out and send me to track your own scheme down? You had me locked up. I was the only person who could possibly stop you.”

I stopped, hit with revelation. “But you needed my IP tables to free him. You’re bringing him back through the routers.”

“If there had been any other way, I would have used it. Even having captured you, there was no way you would hand over your IP tables. And finding the great Hidr’s inner sanctum didn’t work, never did. But you talked enough on the forums about your kind of girl, and dropped enough hints that I knew what city you were in, so I launched Project LittleHeadThinker. I brought you in and gave you just enough rope to run back home. Admit it, I’m just more clever than you.”

Actually, he had just given me the means of my escape, so I guess, in a way, he was, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it.

“There, all done.” He stopped typing. “Baalphoruum will soon be on his way. You were pretty hot shit once, Hidr, but I’ve taken the netgeek throne.”

“You’re just keeping my seat warm, you little shit,” I shouted. I hung up, threw down the phone, and stomped it to bits. This served two purposes. It made me feel better, and it prevented the bastard from seeing what was coming next.

Which will have to come after I write a few emails. Stay tuned for the stunning conclusion.

***

Posted by Hidr at 2:15 AM Today

Having routers stashed all over the outer planes, it turns out, is not the best idea when it comes to the safety of the world, but it comes in handy when you find yourself stuck in one of said outer planes.

My back-up smartphone has just enough memory to run a scan sprog. I didn’t personally deliver my routers to the outer realms, but I would be an idiot if I didn’t have a way of locating them for repairs. If Baalphoruum was sending suckers to the Gray Fields, that meant I had a router along the way.

I push through the crowds, keeping an eye out for MAA agents, following the sub-etheric signal from my router. Sure, they could get me back home, but I’d be brainwashed in the process, and that isn’t going to do anyone any good.

After what feels like days, I locate the router, locked in its protective field, humming with mojo tapped straight from my private cloud storage space.

I plug my piece of crap smartphone into the router with a USB cable and tap the mojo. It’s barely enough, and using it will take down my sites, but it’ll get me home.

I might be getting old, and I might be a little out of touch with the hip things these days, but I still can code Aleph like nobody else. I whip up a matter-to-data transportation sprog based on a teleportation spell insprog based on a teleportation spell in the Maleficus. It’s probably something very similar to what Atretius is writing to bring Baalphoruum to him. I’m counting on my skills as a sprog hacker now to get me back before the demon does.

Let me just say to you kids that being made up of nothing but encrypted UDP packets is not all its cracked up to be. Worse, my code was a little buggy, and I’m missing a toe now. I should have written better error-handling. But I got back, even if it wasn’t in entirely one piece.

I find Atretius in my Bat Cave, my inner sanctum. He’s set up an altar that looks like it was made by Ikea. I can smell defensive sprogs thick in the air, I can taste the gigs of mojo burning up. Within a protective summoning circle of Cat-5 cables, Atretius sits coding at a laptop. He has discarded the casual wear for the traditional black robes of evil-doing. I think that the entities are kind of old-fashioned when it comes to formal wear or something. I’m determined not to let the bastard impress his master with his sense of fashion.

I launch every attack sprog I have, which isn’t many given my crap phone. They error out immediately, stymied by the defense sprogs. Atretius doesn’t even look up. I laugh and give my attack sprogs my backdoor passwords, counting on his arrogance.

Oh, yeah. Lesson number four: there’s always a backdoor password.

Sure enough, he is using my own work to defend himself. They come down leaving him defenseless but also leaving me out of almost out of mojo.

Atretius looks up then . . . and smiles.

A rip in the fabric of space, like the universe’s own dead pixel, forms before the altar. Something huge is trying to squeeze through. Distracted by this, I’m not ready when Atretius hits me with the Manacles again. I’m down. The Magister sighs and steps out of his circle.

“If you just pin your arms to your sides, I’ll pull on your horns,” Atretius says.

“That’s something you know a lot about, huh? Jerking on demon horn,” I say.

He lets loose of the demon and turns his full attention on me. I can sense him drawing mojo from his hacked Zune. But it’s suddenly cut off by my inner sanctum’s network defenses coming online.

“This is a nix-only house, asshole,” I say with a grin which quickly fades to terror.

Baalphoruum exits the portal with a slurping sound, followed by a deep and teeth-shattering laugh. The demon fixes his hundreds of red eyes on Artetius. He frantically pushes buttons on his gadget to no effect.

“YOUR SERVICES WILL NO LONGER BE REQUIRED, BARRY,” Baalphorum says in a voice like ten thousand babies crying. “I AM INVOKING THE TERMINATION CLAUSE OF OUR CONTRACT.”

“What—what termination clause?” The “Barry formerly known as Artetius” stutters, but then his head is several feet from his neck. I guess his uncle wasn’t such hot shit at contract law after all. With the turncoat deader than Kurt Cobain (Google him, kids), the manacles dispelled.

Unfortunately, now Baalphoruum has turned his attention to me. And it seems he’s intent on killing me slowly. He wraps a six-fingered fist around my neck and lifts me into the air to stare at me with his many fiery eyes.

You know, I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I don’t know any badass moves to take out a demon. (I’m more old-school in my entertainment. I grew up watching a little movie called Monster Squad. You can catch it on cable every once and a while. Check it out.)

So, lesson number five: like a wolf man, arch-demons have ’nards.

A well-placed kick drops me to the floor and my vision fades back in around the edges. I had a plan before coming in, but I hadn’t counted on physical contact with a demon. I’m a little winded, but then, so is Baalphorum. And he’s still weak, overdrawn on soul mojo. That’s when I point and execute the Box pendant.

Pwned. Now here is where things get tricky. The Box spell is good, but it won’t keep a demon like Baalphorum trapped for long. After I catch my breath, I hack out a little old-fashioned web code and insert it into the Box sprog.

I didn’t actually see this next part, but I imagine this is how things went:

Baalphorum stalks the small space of the Box spell, roaring with fury. He hammers on the walls and they crack ever so slightly. He could break free with time, but he wants to take what is his now.

A pair of buttons appear in the air before him, along with text:

“Do you wish to escape, my master? YES/NO”

Ahh, the mortal (me) has seen the error of its ways. He will escape and slaughter Earth more quickly now.

An endless, sprawling legal agreement appears, tiny text, miles of it. A checkbox labeled “Check here to continue.” On the surface, it seems simple enough, and each moment he spends outside his prison without the souls, he grows weaker.

Even Elder Ones can’t stand reading the damned things. Baalphorum checks the box and readies himself for a rampage. Instead, he is promptly hurled back into his prison across a thousand astral planes. I hope it hurts like hell.

And that’s lesson number six: software user agreements will fuck you every time.