LieCover 2Yeah, this part of backstory is gonna be longer than I anticipated, since I’m looking at at least another 6-8k to finish Jesse’s part.  So it goes!  Fine, I’ll get those three star reviews, TOO MUCH BACKSTORY BORING WHERE IS THE ROMANCE WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER ON EVERY PAGE FIGHTING THEIR ATTRACTION.  And I’ll live with it!  This isn’t just character development, it’s plot development, so it all comes together, trust me :)  On the bright side, this will probably be my longest novel ever, given, yes, how much more story there is still to tell after the backstory.

This is not all of Jesse’s backstory, because, well, to give you all of it would ruin the surprises.  But I’m feeling this need to share it, maybe just to get some validation and approval and encouragement (yeah, definitely for that).  So, here you go :)

 

The knock on Jesse’s dorm room door was correct – three short knocks, three long, and three more short ones.  S.O.S., in Morse Code.  But the time was wrong.  Office hours had ended five minutes ago, and he had already cracked his Particle Physics textbook.  Also, even office hours required an appointment, so whoever was there was violating two rules.

The knocks became more insistent, random, violations of The Code.  Jesse stormed to the door and flung it open.

Outside was a gangly group of his fellow MIT freshmen, easily startled by his dramatic gesture.  It was obvious what they’d come for.

“Who sent you?”

“T…Tom Manke…”

“I’m not doing tutoring any more.”

The dorkiest one spoke up.  “We’re not here for tutoring, we’re…um…”

“If he told you I could help you, with anything, he’s wrong.”

Jesse slammed the door.  Tom Mankiewicz was now on his shit list.  Jesse’s rules were clear.  He was never to be seen directly by the customer.  His product was to be routed to them, and the money from them, via a trusted source.  Tom had just lost that status, and the commissions that went with it.

Fucking overprivileged little fucks, Jesse thought, sitting back down at his desk.  Every rule can be broken, for them.

He did have a twinge of regret – there were four of the little bastards, and at $250 a pop, that would have been a thousand bucks in his pocket.  But if Ma Winchester had taught her son anything, it was discretion.

Two seconds looking at the freshmen and Jesse knew the type, all too well.  Yes, Jesse Winchester’s fake IDs would stand up to most any scrutiny, short of being run by the cops.  But if…if something went wrong and those kids got busted, they would sob and immediately finger The Bad Man who made it all possible.  If there was at least one degree of separation, Jesse would have time to erase his tracks.

He wasn’t broke, by any means, but he could have used the money.  Life at MIT wasn’t cheap, even with the package of bank loans and grants he and Ma had put together.  Well, he smiled, it was cheap in that the loans were taken out under the credit histories of families who didn’t exist, or had died.  Someday of course it would all come crashing down, after Jesse had graduated, but that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t as if he was going to go to work somewhere on the books, where the IRS or anyone else could track him down for repayment.

“Jesse honey,” Ma had said to him when he got the acceptance letter to MIT.  “We could do this legit, you know.  Somehow.  Then you could, you know…”

He already had that trademark raised eyebrow.  “What, get a degree and go to work in an office somewhere?  Write code for…banking software?”

She laughed.  He had his mother’s eyes, smart and sparkly with mischief.  “Sure.  You go in under deep cover, baby, then we can bring down the house.  Abscond to Andorra with millions.”

Andorra was their private joke, a postage-stamp-sized European country with no extradition treaty in place with the U.S.

She sobered.  Her face was smooth that day, her makeup high-end and professional, her Anne Taylor suit fitted just so.  She had her blond hair blown out just enough to be sexy without being tarty.  Carlene Winchester, aka…well, too many other names to list, was in her late thirties, and today she was Mary Dolan, real estate agent, and she was showing a large house.

She was good.  Really good.  Just from a series of casual questions to the prospective buyers, she’d be able to gather enough financial data from them to give Jesse a good start on stealing their identities.  You had to be subtle with rich people –you couldn’t just open a shitload of credit cards on their SSNs.  No, the best scam was to get their info in January, quickly file a tax return in their name, and be long gone with their “refund” by the time their tax guy got the real return filed in April.

“I don’t want you to have to live like this forever, baby.  It’s a lot of stress.  A lot of danger.  I want…” She bit her lip, reached out and caressed his cheek.  “You’re so smart, baby.  So fucking brilliant.  You could be a billionaire.  Legit.”

Jesse smiled, pulled his Ma in and hugged her.  They were a great team; they always had been.  They’d been doing this since Jesse was ten – ever since Jesse’s dad had taken off with his secretary, and Ma had lost her job as a fraud control specialist.

The irony, right?  But once they were living in their car, it had taken little prompting for Mrs. Winchester to decide to take her skills to the Dark Side, if it put a roof over their heads again. That was when she become “Ma,” their little joke, as if she was now Ma Barker or some other notorious gangster.  She of all people, with her background on the “right” side of the law, knew how to do these things, in the ways that would escape detection, that would make the most money.

“I know, Ma.  Thanks.  I’m gonna grow up to be a white hat hacker, I promise.”

She laughed, and straightened her suit.  “You better.”

 

Jesse thought of that now, as his flip phone rang.  Tom.  At least he still had the sense to call and not text, and leave a paper trail.

“You’re fired,” he said.

“Dude, I did not send them, I swear to fucking God.”

Jesse had spent his entire life on the grift.  While other bright young men applied their new found computer skills to earning ribbons in school science projects, Jesse’s first proud accomplishment had been learning how to clone debit cards.  He had been around dishonest people all his life, and knew the accent, the vocabulary, the grammar, all the finer nuances of the universal language of Bullshit.  People who swore to fucking God were fluent speakers.

“And how did they get to my door, then?”

“I don’t know man, but you know, maybe you gotta rep now…”

Jesse froze.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s common knowledge that there’s a guy on campus who can make a perfect ID.  Nobody knows it’s you, but…”

“Not anymore,” Jesse said, hanging up.

He drove his beat-up little pickup to his storage locker, where he passed the night manager a healthy amount of money not to notice how much time Jesse spent inside it, or what lights and sounds might creep out under the rolling door.  Drugs weren’t involved, nothing would blow up, so whatever Jesse did was all good with the poor underpaid bastard.

He loaded all the equipment in the back and drove it to an industrial site under renovation, where he had (unauthorized) access to an industrial shredder.  It all went in to its grinding maw:  the holographic paper, the PVC blanks, the Fargo printer, the mag strip encoder, the laptop with the templates… It had all been “free,” bartered in exchange for other services long ago, but it still killed Jesse to see it go.  He could have resold some of it, traded it out, but…no.

Like a burner phone or a Saturday Night Special, “scorched earth” was the way that Ma had taught him to avoid capture.  As long as his name was out there, even vaguely associated with “the fake ID guy,” there was a chance that any minute, they could come down on him and link him to this stuff.  The amount of time it would take him to reach out to old connections and get it all sold…no.  Not worth the risk.  The fake ID business was over.

He came back to his dorm room and fell on the bed, exhausted.  Through a hack that even MIT’s veteran hackers and pranksters would admire, he’d managed to get a two bed dorm room to himself by tricking the residential software system.  Of course like any good hack, there was the social engineering component that had to be done as well: he’d decorated the other half of the room with random posters, half made bedding, and an assortment of student tchotchkes and textbooks that implied to the casual observer that there was, of course, a second person living there.  Since he was a loner with his door shut all the time, a very respectable type at MIT, nobody else in the dorm was aware that there wasn’t a second resident.

Jesse was three months into his first semester at MIT, and he had discovered that he was one of Them, the Chosen Ones.  The kids everyone else hated, had always hated throughout history – he was the type who flipped through a textbook, passed on invitations to join study groups, went out drinking till the bars closed, and then sauntered into class and not only aced the test, but finished it first and then left class to play Frisbee in the park.

Only Jesse wasn’t one of “Them,” exactly.  He would burn through the test, sure, but then he’d sit there, pretending to still be working on it, as he waited for someone else to turn their test in first, to be the object of attention, envy, anger.  To be second was to be invisible, to keep a low profile, to fly under the radar.  Nobody envied the second guy to finish.

“Reputations are for convicts,” Ma always said.  Before he got to MIT, Jesse had grown his hair out into an unruly poof, built up a scraggly bushy beard, and picked up a pair of clear-lens 70s silver aviator glasses to go with his Dockers, his Hush Puppies and his assortment of pocket t-shirts.

Ma sighed when she saw him on his last day at home, his new identity complete.  “You were so beautiful, baby.  And now you look like shit.”  They laughed, of course, but by then it was second nature to both to do whatever it took to blend in, to “pass.”

He was pissed now.  He’d been careless!  He should never have used other students as routers to still other students.  If he’d wanted to make money on fake IDs, he could have tapped into Boston’s underground economy, could have done work for the Irish Mafia or…

But that had been the point, to get away from all that.  From Ma’s world, from the world of straight grift and cons and the obligations that connecting to the underworld put you into…

He’d fooled himself, he realized.  He couldn’t keep feet in both worlds.  This world, MIT, that he’d somehow managed to get into, not through a hack or a scam, but through legitimate applications and testing and screening (setting aside the financial components), was the apotheosis of “legit.”  People came out of here ready to run the planet.

Flying under the radar had meant that Ma never blew conspicuous wads of cash, no matter how big the score.  So he didn’t need the money from the IDs.  It had been something he’d done because he could, easy cash from something he’d done so long he could punch them out in his sleep.  That was the nature of the grift though – the lure of easy money, even when you had enough.

“What now?” he asked the ceiling.  Was there something else here for him, was there something…more, maybe, than just finding another way to game the system?

If not, then fuck it.  There was no point in staying here.  He would just be sucking up a space in the MIT student body that some little striver out there was dying to take from him.

I’ll give it the rest of the semester, he said.  Then I’ll…move on.

To what that might be, he had no idea.

 

He had more time to think now that he’d wound up his criminal enterprise.  For the first time, he looked at all the extracurricular activities that MIT had to offer, all the clubs and organizations and even social opportunities, albeit the kind of social opportunities custom-engineered for the antisocial.

Chess club, hmm.  He’d been a really good chess player when he was young, but…to be too good was to attract too much attention.  If he’d joined a school club, if he’d gone to tournaments and won?  That would invite those into his life who took an interest in smart talented young men.  And then what?  His picture in the paper, let’s get your mom in the shot.  No, no, no, that would not do at all.

Besides, they needed to keep moving from one place to the next; motion was the essence of grift.  Bodies at rest are more clearly visible than bodies in motion.  And what could he do, play for one school and then another and then there would be the passive-aggressive statement-questions, you sure do move around a lot.

But wasn’t now if ever the time for things like than, now that he was finally at rest and not in motion?

Yeah, he thought with a smile.  But I didn’t get to this point just so I could play fucking chess.  I need something…exciting.  Maybe even dangerous. 

He sighed.  He was his mother’s son, after all – he needed action, adventure.  But what could there be, that was exciting, and dangerous, that wasn’t just another petty scam, another grift?

 

The problem of what to do next was solved for him a few days later.  He came home to his dorm room and froze just inside the doorway.  The shell identity with which he’d covered the unoccupied side of the room was gone.  No more Ferrari poster, no more Shins poster, no more MIT banner declaring to the weak-minded that someone must surely live there with him.

Instead, a young man was reclining on the bed, reading.  Jesse’s eyes traveled first to the title of the book before they took in anything else.  He recognized Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture,” a book about copyright and intellectual property.  Then he took in the rest of his visitor.

He was handsome, Jesse supposed, in that blond, floppy-haired, preppy way.  He looked fit, but there was a softness to his skin, a hint of slack in his face, signs of a body that had been put through a thoroughbred’s paces, but had never been tried by real physical hardship or deprivation.

“Ah,” the young man said, turning his sharp blue eyes on Jesse.  “You must be Jesse.”

“I am.  And this is my room.”

He nodded.  “Mine, too.”

“I’m afraid there’s been some mistake,” Jesse said, recovering his wits and instinctively scanning his desk for anything that shouldn’t be in public view.

The young man got up, stretched lazily, and Jesse had to admire the mass of his arms as they forced up the caps of his Polo shirt.  He had a smile that Jesse didn’t like, the look that people got when they thought they had something on you.

“Yes, there was a mistake, in the residential system.  I fixed it.  I’m now the roomie you hacked yourself out of.”

Now that the secret was out, the stranger’s smile wasn’t so dangerous.  After all, if Jesse had tweaked the system to get himself a room alone, this guy had also broken school rules to hack in and get himself placed here.  So they each had something on the other, which was a good thing.

“Why?” Jesse asked, cutting to the chase.  How dare you, I don’t know what you’re talking about, blah blah, he could already tell that was a waste of time with this one.  This guy was good.

He stood up, extended his hand.  “I’m Chip.  Because you’re the guy, Jesse Winchester.  And I need the guy.  And trust me.  What I have to propose?  You’ve been waiting for this all your life.”

 

Chip suggested they go to the Muddy Charles Pub, the legendary MIT campus bar.  Its very obviousness appealed to Jesse – what better place for two students to hunch close together, earnestly whispering secret plans for world domination?  They would be no different than any other pair in there.  And of course Chip had a fake ID as good as Jesse’s.

Chip did not look the part of a MIT student, Jesse thought, watching him knock back a good third of his pint at once.  Too…Abercrombie.  Too Polo Ralph Lauren.  Too Finance Guy.  But then, he thought, in its own way, wasn’t that the best cover for a hacker?  To look like a dreary boring finance dude, someone who could walk in and out of any business without attracting attention?

Jesse picked apart Chip’s looks, trying to decide what his appeal was.  Because he definitely had an appeal.  Jesse was no virgin, but sex had been a small part of his life up till now – relationships were of course not going to happen when you moved around a lot, running scams and faking personas.  Sex was an outlet, a release, but so far he hadn’t found it to be any more satisfying than wanking off.

He cataloged the fundamentals, the leading indicators of a normal middle to upper-middle class childhood.  Yeah, the straight teeth, the height and mass that came from never having gone hungry, the clear skin, the glossy, corn-silky blond hair.  And of course the eyes, clear and clean.

And the body.  Yeah, the body.  Chip was fit and he knew it.  He had the most amazing ass, Jesse thought, having watched it in his khakis as he leaned over the bar to order his drink.  Jesse had felt the first stirrings in his groin then, the line between Chip’s ass cheeks like a compass needle pointing true North.  The direction that Jesse’s dick was pointing now, too.

The appeal, though, the real appeal, was in his eyes.  They should have been smug, complacent, to fit the rest of him, but they weren’t.  They were hard, glittering…angry.  There was a rage in him that Jesse could see, and he wanted to know more, wanted to know what fueled it and why.

“So,” Jesse said.  “You found me.  You chose me for your mysterious Project X.  How?  Why?”

Chip nodded.  Time for him to prove his own bona fides.  “It started with the rumors, of course, the guy who knows a guy who can create a fake ID you could use to do anything short of getting on a plane.  No offense, but there’s nothing that remarkable about someone from MIT who can make money on the sly.”

Jesse nodded.  Like everyone at MIT, he was familiar with the legends, the blackjack players and lightning traders who’d taken their mathematical and analytical facilities and used them to make money in semi-legitimate ways.

“But,” Chip said.  “I found out it was you, and I looked you up.  I saw your picture.  And, you know, come on,” Chip grinned.

Jesse had to laugh.  He knew what Chip meant, but he waited for him to say it.  “Come on, what?”

“The unkempt hair.  The bushy beard.  The death-pale skin.  The fucking aviator glasses.  Yeah, it makes you fit in here so well, like some Mole Man who never leaves the basement computer lab.  But Mole Men don’t create fake IDs like that.  Mole Men live on ramen and Red Bull and don’t give a shit about money, not small time money, anyway.  No, I knew it was a front.  Your IDs were too good, they were the product of too much experience.  So, I looked into you some more.”

Jesse should have felt a twinge of fear.  It was what his Ma had trained him to feel when anyone got too close to the truth.  When people learned shit like this, started to get suspicious, it was time to leave town.  But instead he was fascinated, listening to Chip unpack him.

“I found your school records, how you moved from town to town.  It’s interesting that you were always registered under the same name, your real name.  All along it was your plan to do something else, wasn’t it?  To do this, to be legit.  I assume your family are gypsies or Irish travelers or something, running scams and moving on, and thus all the moves.”

“My mother was a realtor,” Jesse said, “and we moved from place to place depending on the market.”

“Right.  Nice.  Of course, your grades stumbled each time you moved.  For a while.”

Jesse blinked.  And regretted it.  He knew that the best poker players wore sunglasses for one reason – even the best poker face couldn’t hide the dilation of the pupils when you were surprised by a great hand (or a terrible one).  Blinking had been Jesse’s tell, had let Chip know he’d hit home.

Chip nodded.  “But that’s to be expected, right?  You’re a kid, moving is hard, new kids are mean, they all have their little cliques, don’t they?  Which they reinforce by picking on the new kid.”

Jesse kept his face still, but this time it had been his turn to learn something about Chip.  A bit of his own experience talking there.

“Anyway.  Somehow, you managed to overcome all that.  To check off the boxes and pass the right tests and now, here you are at MIT.  Congratulations,” Chip said, hoisting his nearly-empty pint.

Jesse lifted his barely touched glass as well, waiting for the punch line.

“So,” Chip continued.  “I’m thinking, why?  Why did you come here?  If you wanted to keep running…whatever games you’ve been running all this time, what do you need MIT for?”

Chip leaned in, his eyes bright, hypnotic.  Jesse knew what he was going to say, and wanted to hear it, wanted it to be true with all his heart.

“Because it’s not enough for you.  You want something more.  You need excitement, but if you just wanted to be a criminal, you wouldn’t have come here.  You want more, but you don’t know what.  You want to be part of something big, hard, complex, fascinating…but also dangerous.  Not for you the life of a research scientist toiling away on the same commute to the same lab for ever and ever and ever.”

It was true, all of it.  Chip had read into Jesse deeper than Jesse had ever read into himself.  He had somehow fixated on coming to MIT, and he had got in, well, because he could.  But why, and what now?  He had spent every day here so far going through the motions, keeping his cover intact, and only now did he realize that he’d been waiting for something.

“What are you proposing?” Jesse asked.

Chip smiled.  “Bringing down two of the richest men in America, and all their minions in the United States Senate.”

 

Chip was smart.  Very smart, Jesse thought.  Not just intellectually but…criminally.  He didn’t write a thing down, not even on a napkin.  He had it all in his head, and expected Jesse to see it, understand it, and keep it in his head too.

Jesse had never paid attention to politics.  All politicians were liars; the most able of them were the greatest cons.  They promised a new era of good feelings, don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow, hope and change, and on the most fundamental levels, nothing really changed at all.  He knew about the Kroms, vaguely, in the way that any undergraduate would, surrounded all the time by more politically aware and vocally upset students.  But then, students were always upset by something political, he thought – it was kind of a hobby for them.

When Chip laid out the story, though, Jesse found himself following it eagerly – as a challenge, a puzzle, if nothing else.

The Krom Brothers, like most billionaires, always wanted more.  One more nickel, one more penny, and if they had to burn the world, to destroy the environment, abolish the minimum wage, destroy the social safety net, well then, fine, good.  All their billions would never be enough, because it was never what they had that counted…all that would ever matter was what they didn’t have yet.

And yet, like most men that rich, though they would still kill a man for a penny, the “hit” that money gave them had lost its zest.  One more penny, hell, one more billion was no longer enough to satisfy the dark vacuum in their souls.  Now the only hit, the only thrill still to be had, was power.  The power to alter the laws, the lives, of all the people in the nation, the world.  To bend history itself to their will.  It was done in the name of one more penny, but really it was the power itself that was the thrill now, the most addictive substance Man had ever found, one on which no man had ever believed he could overdose.

There was no surprise in what Chip laid out at first, the “dark money” that the Kroms channeled through various tax exempt organizations to pay for electioneering by “their” candidates – men who would help them get that extra penny.  But there was more.

“One of the ways the NSA spies on foreign companies and governments?  And us, for that matter?”  Chip looked around before he whispered again.  “All the Internet backbones, the routers and hardware, everything, don’t go from Cisco or whoever to the customer.  It goes to the NSA first.  And they unwrap it, unbox it, and insert backdoor software that lets them see everything that goes over that part of the Internet.  Then they repackage it factory fresh and then it goes out to the unwitting customer.”

“So the NSA knows everything, I’m not surprised,” Jesse shrugged.  This was a few years before the Edward Snowden revelations, but for most tech savvy people, those were more “confirmations” than revelations.

“So here’s the deal.  If the NSA has a tap on all that data…then the tap exists.  Someone else can access that tap.  Without hacking into the NSA or alerting the authorities.  Just…listening in on what they’re hearing.”

“So what does that have to do with the Kroms?”

Chip smiled.  “What if I were to tell you that the Kroms were enabling intellectual property theft by, and selling key national security information to, the People’s Liberation Army?”

“The Chinese government.”

“Yes.  Part of it.  One of the most powerful parts.”

“Why would they do that?  Why would they risk that?”

“Because there’s more money to be made.  Because it gives them power and influence in China, it gives them opportunities for expansion there that no other company would have.  And because it gives them access to secrets they can use here at home, against their enemies, against any politician who stands in their way.  Because,” Chip said, “there are United States Senators who are traitors to our country, who are complicit in the whole thing.  Who are letting the Kroms piggyback on the NSA feeds, capturing that information for their own benefit, and who are being rewarded by the Chinese for their complicity.”

“And you can prove all this?”

“With your help, yes.”

“And then what?  Go to the media?”

“Yeah.  But not the New York Times or some establishment organ that’ll ask the government if it’s okay if they reveal it.  No, we go to Wikileaks, or make our own Wikileaks.  We bring them down.  The Kroms, the politicians, even the NSA.”

Jesse thought about it.  Ma had always taught him to weigh the risks before any grift.  To err on the side of caution, to skip any opportunity that presented more risk than reward.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Chip said.  “You’re a criminal, they’re criminals, so what.  It all goes on forever anyway, only the names change, right?”

Jesse laughed.  “Pretty much.”

“Think about it.  Who do the Kroms support, politically?”

“Right wing nutjobs.  Anti gay, anti science, anti women, morons who say the ‘science is still out’ on whether or not the earth is only six thousand years old.”

“What if you could undo all they’ve done?  What if you could unthrone the biggest nutjobs in the country?  What if you could do to the Republican party and its religious kooks what Watergate did?  Totally destroy it for a decade or more.”

Seeing that wasn’t enough, Chip pressed on.  “You would be like Alan Turing.  You’d be the one who created the Enigma machine, who cracked the code these men are using.  You’d be the one to expose the Red Chinese Fucking Army’s influence at the highest levels of the United States Government, the ways that NSA tech is secretly altered to allow the PLA to steal American IP, government secrets.  You’d be the greatest hacker in the history of everything ever.  Hell, they’d have to give you a medal.”

Chip reached across the table and took Jesse’s hand.  The shock of the contact shattered Jesse’s complacency.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched another human being.  He and Ma hugged, of course, there there, pat pat, nothing deep, stay cool.  The feel of Chip’s soft warm skin was an intrusion into his system, and he felt his firewall crumbling, just like that.  It was soothing all his doubts, misgivings, silencing all the alarms.

Chip looked into his eyes, not letting go.  “What do you want to do with your life?  With your amazing gifts?  How much money do you have now?”

Jesse had to think about it.  Money had never been the object of the game, he realized now.  The money was easy.  It was doing something clever, something you’d get away with, something only a smart person could do.  The grift itself had been the goal, the game – the rewards were just proof that you did it, you won.

It was a lot, he knew.  All in cash, or bearer bonds, or gold, anything that holds value and is portable.  Upwards of a million bucks, he thought, stunned, really counting it up in his head for the first time.

“Do you want to keep grifting till you get caught?  What you’re doing now, you know it’s a matter of time.  You’re good at it, you’re not gonna get in trouble, but then… Some day someone is going to run a stop light, literally or figuratively, and crash into you, and you’re gonna have fake IDs on you or something, and then it’ll all unravel.”

Chip squeezed Jesse’s hand and Jesse squeezed back.  “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?  The same old fucking thing, or something wonderful?”

This was wrong, he knew.  Wrong to let something as stupid as hormones direct any part of his decision making process.

He pulled his hand away.  “I need time.  And to be honest, I need to dig into you too.  You’re so fucking sterling, so…  You’re like the old WASPs they used to recruit straight into the CIA when ‘good breeding’ was the only qualification.  You look like a fucking 1950s CIA agent, all over.”

Chip laughed.  “Yeah, I know.  Why ever should you think I’m not exactly what I seem?  Go on, hack me.  Find out.  Hell, I’ll give you the keys.”

There was something about the look in Chip’s face, the challenge, that suddenly gave Jesse an erection.  This young man was taunting him, daring him.  There was something Chip wasn’t telling him, every grifter bone in his body told him so.  Jesse wanted to win this challenge.  He wanted to defeat Chip.  To push him down and torture his secrets out of him.

“Come and get me, huh?” Jesse whispers, and Chip’s eyes dilate.

“Yeah.  Catch me if you can.”

They didn’t need any more words.  They were silent on the way back to the dorm room.  Jesse’s blood was pounding in his head and he didn’t trust his voice not to crack if he said a word.

He locked the door behind them and faced Chip, defiant, smirking….mocking him!  As if daring him to do something about it.

He put his hands on Chip’s shoulders, to push him to his knees.  Chip’s hands flew out, and grabbed Jesse’s wrists.  Chip was heavier, stronger, and he slammed Jesse up against the door.  Jesse’s eyes widened with shock.  He had been so sure that Chip would be fumbling at Jesse’s zipper by now.

“You’re not strong enough,” Chip said, a challenge on every level.  Not strong enough to fuck me, not strong enough to take on this challenge.

Jesse didn’t say anything.  Self defense had been part of his childhood, Ma had seen to that.  Krav Maga, Israeli Army self defense – no respect for the enemy, no dancing, no honor among warriors.  Stop your attacker, permanently, the end.  You couldn’t be a grifter and not be prepared for what might happen when shit went south.

Jesse didn’t push back against Chip’s grip.  Instead he stuck a foot between Chip’s and pivoted sharply, his hips throwing his body weight against Chip’s, pushing him off balance.  Jesse was slim but the speed at which he threw that weight was what mattered.  Chip was off his feet and on his back in a moment.

Jesse was on top of him, the tables turned, straddling Chip’s chest.  Chip’s hands flailed and Jesse knew, he wasn’t a fighter, not really.  He was the muscle boy who’d throw a haymaker in a bar and maybe connect with some part of another man’s body, once.  Jesse had him pinned now like an insect on a board.  He grabbed Chip’s wrists and slammed his arms down to the ground, hard, his grip as crushing as he could make it.

And Chip knew it.  Jesse felt it, felt the fight go out of Chip, but he didn’t let go, not yet.  Faking surrender was the last refuge of the inexperienced.  It wasn’t until the eyes changed that you knew for sure.

But Chip’s eyes weren’t that of a dying animal now.  No.  More like an animal in heat.  “You win,” Chip whispered.

“Not yet,” Jesse growled.  He shifted himself up Chip’s torso until his crotch was in Chip’s face.  The ultimate sign of dominance.

If Chip flinched, made a face, Jesse would have stopped.  But every skin cell on his body told him Chip wouldn’t.  That Chip would do exactly what he did now – that his eyes would flutter and his lips would part as his own body invited Jesse’s cock to mark its new territory.

He changed his grip so that only one hand kept Chip’s hands pinned to the floor, and used the other to undo his belt, his button, his zipper.  Two hands against one, Chip could have broken free…if he wanted to.  Jesse shifted himself to free his cock, and grinned when it popped loose.

This was his favorite part of sex, so far, anyway.  Watching their eyes when IT came out.  Long and hard and thick, thicker at the base, straight and perfect and plump and ripe…  All out of proportion to his body, really, in any classical definition.

“It’s always the skinny ones,” Chip said.  “Who have the monster cocks.”

Jesse laughed.  “Oh yeah?”’

Chip nodded, parting his lips, waiting, asking….

“What?” Jesse demanded.

“I want it.  Please.”

Jesse inched closer to Chip’s mouth, teasing him with the head.  Chip’s tongue reached out and Jesse pulled back.  “No.”

The frustration on Chip’s face, the anger, the longing, the…need did something to Jesse.  He felt his dick leaking, the surge of some strange energy in his body squeezing his prostate, tensing his balls.  To be in command, in control, to withhold, to punish, to torment…

He thought Chip would cry when he saw the clear drop form at the slit in Jesse’s head.  Like a dying man in the desert, he wanted it like water.

Jesse let go of Chip’s hands – no need for that now; his cock alone would keep Chip in place.  He took his dick in one hand and put the other behind Chip’s head.  He lifted Chip’s skull forward, watched with a pleasure he’d thought impossible as Chip’s eyes closed and he received the tip of Jesse’s cock like a sacrament.

He watched with fascination, as the taste of Jesse, his skin, his salt, registered on Chip’s face the way the taste of a prize truffle would play across that of a gourmand.  Jesse had never imagined in all his young life that he had so much power…

He wanted more.  He grabbed Chip’s ears roughly, like a pair of jug handles, and shifted himself up so he could plunge his cock down into Chip’s throat.  Chip gasped, but it wasn’t a gasp Jesse had ever heard before from a hurt man.  Something was wired differently in Chip, something about the pain made his hips arch, as if he’d been electroshocked, a firestorm in his brain.

And instinctively, Jesse knew he could go farther.  He pushed his cock, hard, down Chip’s throat.  Chip choked, instinctively, but Jesse felt his head pop past the barrier and down into Chip’s insanely tight wet warm throat.

When Chip choked the first time, he pulled out.  Then Jesse heard his breathing, still steady, and realized it was just a reflex.  He shoved himself down in there again deeper this time, ignoring the gags, ten seconds of exquisite thrusting in that vise grip, before he pulled out so Chip could gasp for air, once, twice, and then back in again.  Chip’s hands flew up to Jesse’s body, but not to fight him…his hands ran over Jesse’s torso, his back, down to his ass, to encourage Jesse, more, harder…

It became a game.  How long could Chip go, how long could he take it without gasping for air?  Finally he choked, really choked for air, and Jesse rolled off him.  He watched Chip’s red face, his glassy eyes, and saw the delirium there – the sheer ecstasy of having walked along some dangerous cliff and survived.  Jesse was a stranger, about whom he knew nothing, really – he could have skullfucked Chip until he turned blue and died.

They both knew it.  It was about power, Jesse could see, but also about trust.  “How far will you go?” was the question the dominant partner asked.  “How far can you take me?” was the challenge in reply.

Jesse put on some music.  He was going to pound the shit out of Chip’s ass, and he wanted to cover up any noises Chip was about to make.  Kings of Leon was already cued up on his stereo, and “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” were just about the most perfect soundtrack to what he had planned that he could imagine.

Chip had already stripped while Jesse chose the music, and thrown himself onto his bed, on his back, legs spread.  Jesse looked at him and laughed, darkly.  “Turn over.”

Chip grinned and nearly somersaulted onto his stomach.  Jesse let Chip hear it, even over the music – the sound of his black leather belt, flap flapping out of the loops of his pants.  He watched Chip’s hands grip the pillow tight, watched him squeeze his eyes shut, and raise his ass in the air like a white flag.

He wanted that ass.  He wanted to lick it and stick it, he wanted to tongue it and pound it, but first, first he wanted to submit it.  To make sure Chip knew from the outset that it was Jesse’s.  He wanted to leave a mark on it.  A mark Chip would see for days and remember who put it there.  He doubled the belt over, snapping it a few time so that Chip would know what he was doing, what was coming.

He shocked them both with the power of the first lash.  Had Chip expected a tentative, exploratory smack?  Yeah, he had, Jesse could see.  But almost immediately he could also see that the shock turned to pleasure, that just as quickly as Chip had instinctively driven his hips into the bed to avoid the next lash, he raised his ass again for the next.

“You fucking love it,” Jesse hissed.  “You need your ass beat.”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes…sir.”

Jesse saw red, the blood rushed so hard to his face.  “Sir.”  He loved it.  A single syllable that condensed the dynamic, an absolute submission to a chain of command.

He craved it.  Beautiful Chip, with his perfect fucking teeth and his happy little middle class childhood, living in his little house and never moving from town to town… Jesse wanted to beat him, for all he’d had that Jesse hadn’t.  And Chip wanted him to – wanted to be punished for having it.  Both of them were angry, and both of them wanted this outlet.

Jesse could only beat his ass a few more times before it was too much.  He yanked open his bedside table and grabbed the condoms and lube he’d installed there when he’d moved in, as an emergency kit more than anything.  Who knew, he thought darkly, where that ass has been.  Who knew how many dark alleys he’d loitered in, dropping his pants….

FUCK.  He rolled the condom on, and jammed lubed fingers into Chip’s asshole, hurting him, watching him flinch, but always, always arching that ass back up for more…

“Do it,” Chip hissed.  “Fucking pound me.”

Later, other days, once he had more sophistication and patience and care for the psychological pleasures of the game, Jesse would have stopped there, outraged that this pathetic little sub had dared to command him.  But not today.

He fell on top of Chip, and put a hand over his mouth.  Then he rammed his cock into Chip’s ass, forcing all of himself into Chip’s ass.  Chip screamed blue murder, but didn’t struggle.  Jesse held it there for a moment, then took his hand off Chip’s mouth.

“O fuck that hurts,” Chip groaned.

“I can pull out.  But you’ll never get it back in there again.”

“No.  Fuck no.  Oh shit.  Just give me a minute to…”

Jesse didn’t.  He started to fuck Chip, measuring his resistance.  If Chip had struggled like a wild animal, flailing for his life, Jesse would have stopped.  But he didn’t.  His resistance was that of an animal to its mate, not to a predator.

It felt good, so good, to fuck.  To really fuck a man, to cut loose and let go of all the caution of a lifetime.  All the days and years of treading lightly, of watching for signs of danger, of never connecting, never stopping to connect.

“Fucking pound you,” Jesse whispered in his ear.

“Fucking pound me,” Chip confirmed.

He wrapped his arms around Chip’s torso, the animal passion giving way to something else…the human kind, the need to touch, to hold, to be held, and Chip’s hands grabbed his and held him tight, wanting it too, the thundering desire for love beneath all that lust and hurt and rage.  Their upper bodies held tight and still and close even as Jesse’s lower body ravaged Chip’s insides.

It had never hit him before, the damage this life had done to him.  He’d gone along, a survivor like Ma, from one thing to the next, intimacy and trust the most dangerous game of all.  He wanted to stop moving.  He wanted to find a place, a person, a goal.  He wanted to stand still for once in his life.

Everything, all of it, was something he could fuck out of his body, right now, hard, harder, and Chip would take it.  Chip would let Jesse pour it all into him, surrender, acceptance….love.

Jesse came with a shout.  He came and came and his insides hurt, he was coming so long and hard, that he whimpered at the end, the storm inside him was so unbearably unstoppably strong.

They lay there, both gasping.  Then Chip took Jesse’s hand and guided it down to his own dick, and the soaked sheets where Jesse had fucked the cum out of him.

“You did that,” Chip whispered.

“Yeah, I did,” Jesse said, kissing Chip on the neck.  “You know, though, that wasn’t a yes.”

He saw Chip’s face in profile, watched the raised eyebrow and the lazy smile.  “Not to my other plan anyway.”

“But I fell for one of your plans already, then, didn’t I?”

“So far so good.”

“That was pretty kinky,” Jesse said, and he was astonished when Chip laughed at him.

“You think that was kinky?  That was the fucking pre-algebra version, dude.”  His hand reached around and lazily stroked Jesse’s ass cheeks, sending the blood back to Jesse’s cock again.

“Stick with me.  I’ll show you kinky.”

 

Hacking Chip’s personal history was a piece of cake.  After all, Chip had given him all the information that he needed – DOB, SSN, schools attended, addresses lived at.  It was the kind of info that Jesse was used to finding other ways, of course.  Recycling programs had become God’s (or the devil’s) gift to grifters.  Those lovely blue cans meant that all the discarded, unshredded power bills, charge card statements and check stubs were no longer mixed in with the rotten eggs and leftovers.

And, the dumbasses, they put their cans out at night, to boot, instead of first thing in the morning. People, it seemed, were practically inviting folks like the Winchesters to come along at 3 am and steal their identity.

The picture of Chip that emerged was slightly different than the one Jesse expected.  Jesse had become familiar with a certain type in his various high schools – the “striver,” a child of the lower middle class who had the intelligence to vault himself out of it, if only he Always Followed The Instructions and Colored Within the Lines.  As someone who’d played The System all his life, Jesse knew who The System rewarded and how.

Chip had done what he was supposed to do, for the most part.  All his extracurricular activities displayed both Ingenuity and Compassion For Others, as well as Diversity Of Experience.  His science fair projects were dedicated to cleaner water and solar power for “the developing world,” as his can-do poster boards would optimistically call the more godforsaken parts of the planet.

But there were bumps in the road.  Bumps that, Jesse found, were smoothed over if you only looked at the public record.  Jesse had a word for those who never deviated from the path set out for them – Transcriptarians, which sounded like a religion because it was.  These were kids who’d never smoke pot in a dorm room for fear that one of the other kids would rat them out when they ran for President, the kids who’d never take a difficult subject with a difficult teacher if they didn’t have to, if there was any risk whatsoever that they would get an A minus in the class and ruin their GPA.

But Chip had blasphemed against The Transcript.  Sealed juvenile records weren’t easy to get into, but Jesse could triangulate certain events, using arrest notices in local media referring to “a juvenile” who had been caught doing things few people could do – like hack school records, or teachers’ Facebook profiles.  Enough to send most Transcriptarians straight to the eternal Hell of state college and middle management, but not Chip…

Chip had a good lawyer, it appeared.  All of it had been smothered.  There wasn’t even any mention of it in his high school records (an effortless hack for Jesse, as local government salaries were never enough to pay for anyone who was any good at cybersecurity).

Chip had been raised by a single mother, a secretary who had suddenly become a stay-at-home mom around the time Chip went to high school.  Their house in Lawrence, Kansas had been valued at about $200k – not a palace nor a slum, so it wasn’t like she’d won the lottery.  Perversely enough, that was when Chip had started hacking, pranking, acting out…

Suddenly his mom didn’t have to work, and suddenly Chip was a rebel.  Something didn’t parse there, Jesse frowned.  There’d never been a father in the picture, as far as Jesse could tell – not legally, anyway.  So where did the money come from?  He was reluctant to hack Chip’s mom’s bank account info.  At least, for now.  Chip had invited him to invade his own privacy, but not his family’s, and Jesse decided that he’d hold off on that.

But his greatest worry was assuaged, that Chip had been one of those kids he called COAs – Cry On Arrest.  They were all rebels and thrillseekers and dope takers and small time criminals until they got arrested.  Then they’d burst into tears, revert to helpless children…and point the finger at The Bad Man who’d Made It All Possible, knowing that Daddy’s wealth would send their dealer/fence/whatever to prison and they’d waltz, having Learned An Important Lesson.

But overall Chip seemed to be a solidly middle class kid, who’d developed a righteous anger against injustice.  Which, Jesse has to admit, was very attractive…  He thought of that look on Chip’s face, the fury, the intensity, and it made his cock swell.

When he was done profiling Chip, he took a long walk.  He trusted his internal processes, the decisions that his instincts made.  And as he walked the old streets, the memorials and monuments to all the Sons of Liberty who had died for a free country, an open government, he wasn’t unaware of how much things had changed in America since then…

His intellect was already turning over what Chip had told him.  How could you unravel the trail, the strings of payments and contracts and third party vendors, paid to insert NSA’s shit into hardware, but who also add a little something extra for the People’s Liberation Army…and the Kroms.

And how could you reveal who had the power to do that, to cover for the ones doing it, to pull all the threads, to get the proof, indisputable proof…it would be like Enigma.  For anyone to get away with it, it would have to be the most discrete, subtle, complex trail of favors and debts and blackmail and payments… If Chip was right, it was the greatest grift the world had ever seen.

Jesse realized he was in.  If only for the pure intellectual challenge.  He could give a shit about the politics.  What, anymore, what was the difference between a PLA General and a Senator from Georgia?  At least the PLA were atheists, he thought, and didn’t blame the gays for everything, but other than that, what was the difference?  Both were evil, corrupt, power mad, willing to say and do anything for more power and money, to send others to fight and die in wars, to subvert their own stated philosophies, to engage in rampant nepotism and favoritism…

But.  There was Chip.  Chip who he wanted to fuck again.  And again.  To learn more about what Chip knew sexually.  What he could teach Jesse.  And could he really avoid being part of Chip’s campaign, and still pound the shit out of him every night?

Of course not.  It was yes to all of it, or none of it.  And if he said no, then what lay ahead?  The rest of school, and then what?  A dreary job in some cubicle, writing one tiny slice of code for a gaming engine?  Joining a startup whose idea of a “disruptive” app was one that made more people buy more useless shit?

He bought a burner phone and called his Ma.

“Hey honey,” she said, answering her own “one-time pad,” a burner she’d get rid of right after this call.

“Hey Ma.  No worries,” he said, their code that everything was fine, he wasn’t under duress.

“Good, good.  How’s school?”

“It’s good.  A little boring.”

She laughed, her low smoker’s rumble.  “Yeah, I bet.  You staying out of trouble, then, eh?”

“Afraid so.  For the most part.  I just finished an extracurricular project.”  I just ran a grift.

“Did you get an A?” Did you shut it down completely, no trail?

“Yeah, I did.”

“That’s my boy.”

“I met someone.”

“Really?  You’re dating?”

“Yeah.  It’s like he always knew me.”

“Hmm.  Be careful.  Do you need some textbook money, honey?”  Do you want me to look into him?

“No, I got it handled, Ma, it’s okay.”

“Hmm.  Well, if he breaks my boy’s heart, you know I’ll kill him for you.”

“Yeah, Ma, I know.  How’s things with you?”

“Quiet.  I’m still enjoying some ‘me time.’” I still have enough money, I don’t need to run any grifts.

“Okay.  Well, I just wanted to check in with you.  I love you.”

“I love you too, baby.  You let me know if you need anything.”

“I will, Ma.”

They both hung up, and Jesse waited until a bus was rolling down the street behind him.  With a flick of his hand, he threw the phone into the gutter, and the wheels of the bus did their job on it.

He’d needed to know that, he realized.  That Ma was okay, more than okay, before he did…what he was obviously about to do.  To take this risk.  To go on an adventure with Chip.

An adventure in more ways than one, he thought with a grin, his cock stiffening at the very thought of it.

LieCover 2Yeah, so um, I was swearing I would keep the backstory down.  And I am!  But there’s lots to see and do in Jesse’s past.  I’ve kept the focus narrowed, though, to a shortish time frame.  So while there will be more like 15k or so of backstory for him, it’s different than it’s been in previous novels.

In said previous books, I’ve been really interested in my character’s childhoods, and how that directs who they are now.  Especially when you’re gay, let’s face it, your childhood is NOT normal, your place in the world is already NOT ordinary.  And besides, interesting people don’t have boring childhoods.  Boring children grow up to become boring adults, which hey, more power to you if you never have a day of angst, but that makes you a really shitty character for a novel.

So.  This time, no childhoods, by design.  Partly to razor off the kind of wordage that imbalanced “Faith” and left little time for current events (and, he said commercially, got me bad reviews and cost me $$$).  But what else is shaping up differently here is how specifically the backstory elements are driving the contemporary narrative.  So these particular events that shape Marc and Jesse are key plot drivers, not just character fleshing.  So I’m happy with the configuration; I don’t feel I’ve “compromised” anything.

Progress has been slow since the Allerpocalypse, and of course I’m the laziest most shiftless person in the world if I don’t write a novel a day.  But, I’ve got my villain fleshed out this morning, and a believable politico-technological scenario, and the Dramatic Twist.  So I’m happy.

LieCover 2Man I was dead for a week from allergies.  Last year I endured a bunch of bullshit from doctor and insurance about “Oh well we want to try you on Flonase then Nasacort and only then give you a Kenalog shot,” so that by the time all that other shit had failed, and I could have maybe gotten an appointment for a few weeks later to get a shot, allergy season was over.  I DID NOT FUCK AROUND this year.  Two days into my severe sneezures I went into Urgent Care and got the Kenalog.

Money is power.  I don’t have to fall to my knees and beg my insurance company or anyone else for what I want, or need, medically.   Urgent Care says, oh we don’t take Anthem anymore, so if you want to be covered you’ll have to drag your sick and sorry ass to another UC that does. I DON’T CARE I’LL PAY FOR IT GIVE ME A SHOT.  Thanks to all of you who’ve bought my books and given me HCFU (Health Care Fuck You) money!

So yeah, not very productive this last week while the shot gets to work and my brain defogs.  But this morning I did a whole bunch of outline on “Would I Lie to You” that solved a lot of Problems In The Novel.  This one will just FLOW now, so mid May is (barring any more disasters like severe allergies) very likely as a release date for this one.  Minimized backstory :) and lots of action post backstory!

I really should slow down the pub process on this one, just a little.  Try and get ARCs out and do the “prerelease orders” thing, so that on pub day, it’s not just sitting there with no sales and no reviews…   We’ll see.  I get so impatient – when the book is done, I’m done, let’s publish!

Which I just have to repost, since it’s the perfect justification for using it:

“For me personally, backstory is the difference between reading a book and remembering the plot but forgetting the characters …. and remembering the characters and wondering what is happening in their lives right now.”

Hat tip to CrabbyPatty!  XO Brad

LieCover 2It’s an interesting experiment, forcing myself to write a novel with LESS backstory than usual, but retain the integrity of my process.  I’m never going to be a Pringles writer, who makes sure that when you open the can, you get the exact same potato chip every time.  My chips are irregular, some are more burnt than others, but they’re not predictable.

I read my reviews on Amazon, every one of them.  Some of them make me laugh, and go, “whatever.”  But yes, I’m sick of the 2 and 3 star reviews that say BORING ALL FLASHBACK.  Not because I’m personally butthurt by them, but because they hurt my sales.  A lot.

I’ve learned a surprising thing about myself as I rise in popularity.  And that’s that in some ways, I’m a competitive person.  I never thought I would be; the world is so full of assholes who excuse their behavior by saying “I’m just very competitive,” that I’ve always equated the two.  (Maybe I’m the asshole now.)

That competitiveness has grown as I’ve gotten close, ever so close, to being #1 across all the gayrom lists…but fallen just short, with “Faith.”  I’m a commercial artist, and I want to win, dammit – I want Fornication Domination!

But.  By the same token, I’m not going to write Pringles to get there.  I’m not going to adhere to that tedious, tiresome formula where the two MCs meet hot on page 1 and spend 300 pages doing nothing but fighting their attraction, and the only backstory consists of the secrets that keep them apart, spilled out by clever writers as revelations under duress, and by crappy writers as clumpy exposition. (Page one, paragraph one:  “Suki the sexy Homeland Security agent peered intently at her computer.  She had fought her way to this position against all the men above her, and now she had something to prove.”)

For me, backstory is ESSENTIAL.  Without it, your characters have no depth in the literal, 3D meaning.  Instead, they’re 2D screens on which readers can project however much or little personality they want.  Paper dollies.  You know how I feel about paper dollies.

So the challenging challenge in “Lie” has been to create characters for whom I can take a slice of time in their personal development and focus on how that makes them who they are now. To write characters for whom NOT having massive childhood development scenes (practically my trademark), would not impair their three-dimensionality.

Well, here’s half the result – 10,000 words for Marc’s backstory.  I’m going to limit Jesse’s to 10,000 as well, so that I hit around 40k at the very end of backstory and then there’s another (at least) 30-40k of “now” stuff.

I know a lot of people won’t read any of this, because they want to read the entire novel, in sequence, at once.  But, for those of you who are interested in “how the sausage is made,” well, here you go!

If you don’t remember how Marc is now, what a good boss he is now, and how well he works with people, you might want to start here with the first excerpt from the draft.  And then come back here for the *complete* story of how he got there :)

 

“Marc…Marc!”

Marc looked up as Jason’s words penetrated his noise-cancelling headphones.  He watched Jason’s lips move for a moment, his mind still half on the work he was doing.  He took off the headphones and waited for Jason to repeat himself.

“Did you hear me?”

Marc just looked at him, and waved the headphones in the air.  Was it not totally obvious that he hadn’t?  Working in an “open plan” office, Marc wasn’t the only one with a pair of Bose cans clamped on his head.

“I asked you if you’d seen my addition to the source library.  The one that calls up the list of in-app purchase options.  I checked it in, it’s there, and you were notified.”

Marc thought about it.  “Yeah.”

“Well, I noticed in today’s build that you didn’t use it.”

“No.”

“Well…why not?”

“It wasn’t very good.”  Marc turned back to his computer, the color-coded text on the screen re-engaging his attention.

“I… You could have told me that, you know.”

“Why?  You found out when the build was released.  It was faster for me to write a new one than to walk you through what was wrong with yours.”

At that, Marc put the headphones back on.  Jason probably stood there a moment more, but Marc didn’t know or care.  It would take him a minute or more to get back into the state of “flow” he’d been in before the interruption, which royally pissed him off.

Fucking people, Marc thought to himself.  Jason was a lazy programmer, as far as Marc was concerned.  He’d instantly identified the majority of Jason’s “new” code as something he’d cadged from a well-known open source code library.  Which was not only lazy, it was dangerous – any hacker could pick that shit apart at his leisure and identify the flaws, or even insert one.  Then, when some idiot like Jason copy/pasted it into his program, well, hey, there was a free backdoor for some criminal.

Oh, but I’m supposed to be a team player and be all delicate about his “feelings,” Marc thought scornfully.  If he was anyone else at Octohook Inc., he’d be called into the HR office for a lecture.  But he wasn’t anyone else.

He was co-owner of the company with Walt, but even that might not have shielded him from some HR bullshit.  What did shield him was the fact that he was the fucking star here.  He didn’t have to walk on eggshells.  Jason’s competence, and his feelings, were someone else’s problem.  Walt, as CEO of Octohook, would make sure that any complaints from Jason never interfered with Marc’s work.

Writing great software code was effortless for Marc.  It just…flowed out of his fingers, the rules and procedures and best practices as ingrained in him as perfect grammar and spelling are ingrained in a journalist.  And the elegant solutions he came up with, the ones that nobody else could ever duplicate, were to code what a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist’s words were to prose.

He watched the rest of the programmers file out to a meeting, as he remained right where he was.  Walt protected him from…all that.  The petty humdrum day to day bullshit of corporate life, the meetings where everyone’s “input was valued.”

In other words, an endless circle jerk in which everyone made sure to say something, however useless.  It was like college, or so he’d heard – he hadn’t bothered to go.  In college, you had to “participate” in class to get full credit, so you had to ask a stupid pointless question that wasted everyone else’s time, just to make sure you got counted.  And that, obviously, had poisoned their minds, because they were all still doing it now, raising their fucking hands to say nothing so that they still got counted.

Sometimes he wondered if all these people only worked here to impress the venture capitalists with how “big” the company was getting.  It wasn’t like most of them were any use at all.  Wendy, the security expert, she was okay.  Not a total waste of organic matter anyway.  And Trent, their design guy.  He was inexperienced, but not hopeless.  At least you only had to explain to him once what he’d done wrong, and he never did it again.  And, Marc had to admit, some of his visual solutions were clever.  But the rest of them?  Dead weight.

Walt came through, on his way to run the meeting.  Marc felt Walt’s big warm hand on his shoulder.  He yanked off the headphones and turned to smile at him.

Any of his co-workers who’d seen that smile would have had a heart attack.  They probably didn’t think it was possible for Marc to make his face do that.  But Walt, Walt could do that to him every time.

“Hey buddy,” Walt said in that intimate whisper that made Marc’s insides turn upside down.  “You making progress?”

Walt was so handsome, in that “straight frat boy” way that made Marc weak.  He was tall, and built, with Paul Newman-blue eyes, and the smile particular to a class of young men who’ve grown up entitled to everything.  He had teeth as white as his eyes were blue, and healthy clear skin that was tan in February from wild weekends in Mexico.

The only thing that was out of place in the “frat boy” department were the full sleeve tattoos he sported.  But then, he worked in high tech, where that sort of “edgy” thing was an expected part of one’s look.  As expected as a ridiculously expensive haircut (and tattoo-free skin) would be in the banking and finance sectors, where his less clever frat brothers had ended up, working for mere salaries and bonuses instead of the potential billions that Walt was aiming for.

“Yeah,” Marc said, turning to the screen.  “I’ve got an algo that will alert users when their friends unlock achievements.”  He was working on an iPhone game that had already tested off the charts in terms of its addictive potential.  Of course, Walt was careful never to use the word “addiction.”  The preferred term in Silicon Valley for games and apps that sucked you into the phone was their “high level of user engagement.”  More bullshit, of course.

“Great, great.  But you know, we gotta be careful there.  Remember the science.  What makes a great trigger?”

“It stimulates an action, it motivates the user to do something to get their reward.”

“Right.  So we’re looking to make people feel what?”

“Good.  To feel good.  To keep playing, to buy weapons and tools in the game.”

“And how do we feel when our friends do better than we do?  If they’re beating our pants off in the game?”

“Ummm…jealous?  Depressed?”

“Yep.  We want to ration out those notifications.  We want to make sure we’re keeping the user feeling competitive, not beaten.  So you gotta make sure they’re also getting notifications about people who are sucking more than they are.”

Marc laughed.  “Okay.  Like, newbies or something?”

“Or something,” Walt winked.  “Now you’re talking.”

Marc was so thrilled to please Walt.  To see him wink, to feel his approval.  And to hope for…something more.

Walt could read it on his face, he knew, because there was something on Walt’s in return that should have made Marc sad, or upset, he supposed.  It was a recognition, a smirk of acknowledgement, a bit contemptuous.  He knew what Marc wanted, what his hoped-for reward would be.

Walt looked around, saw the coast was clear, and leaned in towards Marc.  “I tell you what.  You make me something that tests off the charts in next week’s UX run, you can blow me.”

Marc nodded weakly.  It was more than he could have hoped for.  All this time, he’d had to do crazy things, insanely hard things, just to get Walt to let him sit on the floor in Walt’s bedroom, watching him jerk off to straight porn.  It was that important, then, the whole “achievement sharing” piece of the game.

“O…okay.”

Walt laughed.  “Okay, huh?  That it, just okay?”

“N…no!  No, that’s great.  Thank you.”

Walt walked away.  “Don’t thank me yet.  Get back to work.”

Marc could feel his erection pressing against his shorts.  Walt was so hot, and there was something so exciting in being…treated like shit.  Like a piece of meat, just a ridiculous queer who would do anything to suck a straight man’s cock.  Why?  Why did it turn him on so to be treated that way by Walt?

They should be equals, right?  He and Walt had founded the company on the basis of their synergy – Marc the genius programmer and Walt the genius marketer.  And no doubt they were equal on the company’s founding documents…but not in this world, the physical world.  Walt was master there, Marc his willing subordinate.

There was no time to think about that, he decided.  He got up just long enough to pee, and make a giant cocktail in his 24 ounce cup from the free beverages in the kitchen – two parts Red Bull, one part Monster, with a shot of 5 Hour Energy.

Then it was back to the screen, back under his headphones and into the trippy techno music, no distracting vocals allowed.  Marc thought about people, how stupid they were, what sheep they were.

He’d been told by employees whose feelings he’d injured that he must have Asperger’s, but he didn’t believe it.  A lot of people in tech pretended to have Asperger’s Syndrome, to justify their real disease, Assholer’s Syndrome.   Marc didn’t think you needed either diagnosis to feel disdain for idiots.

Idiots like the ones he and Walt and the rest of Octohook were planning on sucking into their little 3.5 inch screens, sucking in all their time, and all their money, too, buying stupid add-ons to make them “more powerful” in the game.

These were the morons who practically squealed with delight when the Weather Channel app told them they’d “unlocked an achievement” just by checking the fucking weather.  If you were that stupid and had money to burn?  Well, you had it coming.  Marc pretty much felt the same way about that as he did about money in politics.  All that money buys are commercials, airtime, and production values, and If you voted based on what you see in a TV commercial, you’re an idiot and you get what you deserve.

Marc smiled as his excitement and the energy drinks peaked in his mind, and ideas began to cascade, almost faster than he could track them, the code coming faster than he could type it.  He could feel it, his spine tingling, the music soaring, himself soaring, above it all, a state of divine grace.

Sometimes he got lost in the ecstasy, and a fantastic new idea would strike him out of the blue and he would chase it down the rabbit hole, diverting from his original plan, impulsively buying a $200 textbook on AI that he’d never get to, or a $2,000 gaming PC that he’d never have the patience to set up with all his preferred software.

But not today.  Walt knew him, knew his ways, his tendency to get diverted, to get bored and go off task.  Walt knew how to handle him.  Marc laughed out loud, not caring if anyone heard him or not.  His achievement was waiting for him in Walt’s pants, waiting to be unlocked.  And like the idiots who played the games he created, his focus became complete, his motivation unwavering.  Nothing could distract him now.

 

Marc wouldn’t be diagnosed as bipolar for some time to come.  But sometimes, when he looked back with open eyes at this period, in the days just before “The Fall,” he would feel a twinge of regret.  Regret that he’d left behind the divine madness of these manic surges, the way his condition would transform him into something beyond anything ordinary human beings were capable of.  He thought about the “Dune” novels, with their “mentats,” human supercomputers who’d taken the place of the intelligent machines that had proved so dangerous.

The revelations he had, the breakthroughs he made in those days, would transform the industry.  He knew it with absolute certainty.  He could see the new future unfolding, the way he would be remembered as a pioneer, a legend.  That was the other side of the “dark gift,” the way it drew him away from the present, the task at hand, and into a certain future, as if by imagining it the way he wanted it, that future had no choice but to be the future he commanded.  He would win accolades, he would be on the cover of magazines, he would be interviewed on 60 Minutes.  It was all so inevitable, so obvious.

The damn thing was, he was probably right.  Eventually, he would have been recognized for what he’d done.  In a decade or two.  But magazines and news outlets now, simply didn’t, couldn’t understand the magnitude of what he was doing.  In his code, he was performing the intuitive leaps that a brilliant mathematician would make when creating a new theorem.

It would make him famous among those who had “eyes to see,” but thinking that he would be famous in popular media, just for creating insanely clever code?  Software types got famous in mainstream media for only one reason – they made a billion dollars.  Thinking that he would reach that level of fame just for his technical accomplishment, that was the mania talking, the “delusion of affect” that brooked no obstacles.

But there was one grail that wasn’t beyond his reach.  Walt.  Walt whom he’d desired since he’d met him, Walt who had seduced him with the promise of…well, riches, sure, but also the promise of his body, his beauty, his masculine power.

All Marc had to do now was revolutionize the software industry, and he could finally suck Walt’s dick.

 

The UX was tested with fake data.  The players were given the scores of other players in the room, but also that of bigger “winners” and worse “losers” who were the product of the software’s imagination.  The amount of time for which the players were being compensated came to an end.  They were notified that they were done, that they were free to go.  They didn’t go, for hours, until they were forced to leave.  The game was that addictive…oops, “engaging.”

Walt looked at Marc.  Marc looked at Walt.  Waited.

Walt winked.  Marc smiled.  He’d done it.  Finally he’d get what he wanted…

 

The scene started the way it always did.  Walt was on his bed, in an old t-shirt and his y-front briefs.  The lights were out, the only illumination coming from the TV.  Marc hated the sound of straight porn, the women squeaking and squealing as they got fucked.  And yet, somehow the hated sound was what made it all hotter…the fact that the sounds made Walt so visibly hard.

From his spot in the corner of the room, on his knees, forbidden from touching himself, he watched Walt start to massage his crotch, his eyes fully in “male gaze” mode, raptly fixed on the screen.  Marc had been here before, knew what always came next.

Walt arched his hips and yanked his underwear down, working his legs and feet to kick them off.  He reached for the lube by the side of the bed, and squeezed it on his long fat erection.  As he stroked it, ever so slowly, it glistened in the light from the TV.  This was new…this slow, self-teasing pace.

Not self-teasing, Marc realized.  Walt was teasing him.  Marc wanted to bolt towards the bed, to jump on and engulf Walt’s dick in his mouth.  No.  It wasn’t time, it wasn’t allowed…it was so awful to have to wait, it was painful, exquisitely painful…

Walt didn’t look at him.  But after a few minutes, minutes that felt to Marc like aeons, Walt raised his left hand, his free hand, and made the smallest gesture, a flick of his fingers in a “get over here” signal.

Marc got up and Walt finally spoke.  “No.  Get back on your knees and fucking crawl over here.”

Marc could feel his hardon aching as he crawled on all fours towards Walt.  He reached the edge of the bed, Walt’s golden legs and iron cock so close, so close…

Walt didn’t look at him.  Made him wait.  Marc couldn’t help it.  Finally a half-sigh, half-whimper came out of him.

“Please, sir.  Please let me suck it.”

He could see Walt’s eye dilate.  His eyes still on the screen, he spread his legs.  It was Marc’s command.  He crawled to the bottom of the bed, then up onto it, Walt above him like a statue of a god in a temple.  He reached for the object of his desire.

Walt slapped his hand away, hard.  “No.  Don’t fucking touch me.  Use your mouth.”

Marc put his face against Walt’s crotch, his soft shaved balls, his thick hot shaft.  Walt’s hand didn’t stop stroking, his knuckles grazing Marc’s face as Marc serviced Walt’s balls, the base of his shaft, taking the little knocks from Walt’s hand again and again.

Finally Walt angled his dick down, towards Marc’s mouth.  He engulfed it greedily, hating the thick slimy taste of lube, loving it.  Walt let go of his dick and put his hands on Marc’s head.  His big arms, his strong body, began fucking Marc’s face, his hips thrusting and his hands holding Marc in place.

Marc choked as Walt thrust hard, not giving Marc the opportunity to stretch out, to prepare to take the monster inside him.  A terrible thrust and Walt was down Marc’s throat, embedded to the root.  Marc flinched and his teeth grazed the base of Walt’s cock.

Walt threw him off and slapped him, hard, finally looking him in the eye.  “No fucking teeth!  I’ll fucking hit you again if you bite me.”

It was worth it, worth the sting, the threat, to finally have Walt see him, look him in the eyes.

“Yes, sir, sorry sir.”

“Lick my balls,” Walt commanded, starting to jack himself off again, his eyes back on the screen, his hand pistoning fast now, hitting Marc on the chin, the nose, the forehead with his strokes.  Marc loved it, extending his tongue as far as he could, using it to stroke Walt’s balls.  He sucked them in to his mouth, one, then the other, then both.

He could feel it, the imminent orgasm, in the tension of Walt’s thighs, his hips, his balls.  He broke away from his ministrations, looked at Walt’s face, his mouth as wide open as he could make it, the invitation clear:  Use me like a rag, dump your cum in my mouth.

Finally Walt responded to him, looking at him in amazement, his eyes narrowing.  The thought of Marc willingly taking his load, every drop of it, licking him clean…. Then his eyes closed and he pointed his dick at Marc’s mouth and…

BAM the first shot of cum struck the roof of Marc’s mouth, dripped onto his tongue.  “Fuck, fuck!” Walt groaned, his load starting to fly everywhere, onto Marc’s face, in to his hair.  Marc put his lips over the head, getting hit in the face again and again by Walt’s furious strokes, but it was worth it, to make sure not a drop was wasted.  Walt’s seed, the Elixir of Life, the Fountain of Youth…Marc knew there was nothing as magically rejuvenating as the seminal discharge of a strapping young man.

Walt twitched, groaned, pounded out the last drops, let go of his dick.  Marc engulfed Walt’s sagging cock, sucking every drop of cum and lube off it, intent on leaving it so clean that Walt wouldn’t even need to wipe off.

“Oh shit…” Walt groaned, in the half ecstasy, half agony a man feels when he’s had his orgasm and his cock is still being touched.  Marc knew it well enough, and knew there was only so much Walt could stand.  His expert tongue circled down and around, till it reached the base, his job done, Walt as clean as a whistle.

Marc leaned back, wiped his mouth, found the missing spatters on his face and used his fingers to wipe them up, then licked them clean.

Walt shoved him off by getting up, his leg pushing Marc out of the way.  “Get out,” he said, getting up and padding into the bathroom.

Marc lay there for a moment, reveling in what he’d done.  At last, at last, he’d drank from his grail.  But only for a moment.  Walt had commanded him to leave, so that was what he must do.  He knew he had to be gone before Walt was done pissing.

That was easy enough – Marc hadn’t even undressed, hadn’t even taken off his shoes.  He stood up and snuck one last glance at Walt, such a dude in his t-shirt and nothing else, standing spread-legged in front of the toilet, taking a leak.

A sudden sick wave of desire overtook him.  Next time, he thought.  Next time it’ll be me down there… I’ll be your toilet…

He let himself out quietly.  When he’d shut Walt’s door behind him, he leaned against it, eyes closed, a smile on his face, the taste of Walt’s cum salty and slick on his tongue, the clean sperm of a healthy athlete.  It had all been worth it – every crazy sleepless night, writing and writing, more and more code, burning his manic candle at both ends and in the middle too.

He knew that Walt was like the software industry itself – you were only as good as your last accomplishment.  He had to sleep, had to rest, a wave of fatigue finally overtaking him.  But then he’d have to get up again, go back to work, make the great breakthrough that would bring him back here once more…

 

The next day, Marc went to work on the “next new thing” that he needed to create to impress Walt.  He’d never felt as good as he did this morning – it wasn’t just the exuberance of a manic high, it was a special kind of exhilaration…a sense that he’d been freed of something.  A sense of satisfaction, of acknowledgement that who he’d been last night, worshipping Walt, was who he was.  He couldn’t describe it any more accurately than that, but he knew that he’d turned a key in a lock, he’d discovered that what he’d always thought he’d wanted, was exactly what he did want:  to abase himself before a man, to service him, with no thought of reciprocation or gratitude or affection.

He didn’t even mind the interruption to his furious burst of concentration, because it was Trent, who wouldn’t bother him unless it was important.

“What’s up.”

“Marc, have you heard from Walt?”

“Uh, no.  Maybe he’s running late.”

“It’s noon,” Trent said.  “He had two meetings scheduled this morning.  He’s not answering his cell,” Trent added, saving Marc the trouble of asking the obvious question.

Marc had lost track of time, he’d been so involved in his work.  “Let me try his other cell.”  He pulled out his phone and dialed Walt’s private number.

BEE BOO BOOOO the phone screeched, the harsh tones used to punish you for calling a number that was out of service.

Marc and Trent’s eyes met.  “That’s strange,” Marc said.  His bipolar intuition might have been jumping the gun, but the three facts together, the blown off meetings, the unanswered business cell, and the disconnected personal line, made alarms ring in his head.

He got up and headed for Accounting.  Sheila was startled to see him, since he’d never made an appearance in her office before, despite being the company’s co-owner.

“Hi, Marc…”

“Can you check the bank accounts, please.  I need to know the current balance on the operating account.”

“Sure.”  Her fingers raced over the keys as Marc looked out through her window at the small groups forming around the office, groups that coalesced as people tried to find out what everyone else knew that they didn’t.

“That’s strange,” she said, and he knew.  He just knew.

“It’s empty,” he said.

She looked up at him.  “I’m sure it’s a bank error.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” he said.  He walked out, too many things rattling around his brain.  Shock, of course, but worse than that…pain.  Hurt.  Betrayal.

When he came out, they all turned to him, thirty people with fear in their faces.  It was funny, but he’d never seen most of them, not really.  Well, he’d seen them physically, but that was it.  They were just cogs, people that Walt handled, people who were to Marc only useful or useless when he saw their work.

He wasn’t good at this stuff, the people stuff.  He didn’t know what to say other than the raw truth.  “Walt’s disappeared, and the bank account is empty.  Looks like he took a powder with all the money that the venture capitalists just invested in the firm.”

There were gasps, and even startled cries.  “What about our paychecks?” someone said.

“What about our health insurance?”

“What about our…”

Marc held up a hand.  “Wait, wait.  I’ll make…”

He stopped.  He was going to promise to make payroll out of his own pocket, before he remembered that his own pockets held only his ownership percentage in the company.  His apartment?  A corporate apartment.  His car?  Leased by the company.  And if Walt had drained the company coffers, the company was worth shit.  Less than shit.

They were looking at him, fearful, expectant.  “I…” he choked off.  It hit him then, the punch in the feels, the knowledge that Walt had done this to him.  His partner, his ally, his…whatever else they may have been in time.

Walt had let Marc blow him last night because he knew it was goodbye.  At least he gave me that, he thought crazily.

Wendy put a hand on his arm.  “Marc, I’m so sorry.  We know that…” She blushed, looked away.

Marc looked around.  His eyes widened.  They all knew.  They all knew about me and Walt. Or at least knew what he wanted from Walt.

He flushed with shame.  This was all his fault.  He’d trusted Walt not because he was trustworthy, but because he’d been infatuated with him.  Because he’d seen what he wanted to see, refused to see what he didn’t want to see.  It all came to him now, the way his former partner had cut corners in the business, but never on his expense account.  The way Marc had smiled indulgently in Walt’s “American Psycho” themed parties, never thinking that Walt really was the psycho, the Wolf of Wall Street.

“Okay,” he said, getting hold of himself.  “We are still here.  We have a product.  I need…”  I need your help, he thought.  He needed other people to do this.  This was the first time in his life he’d ever had to say that.

“I need the people who are running the teams to report to me on progress.  Wendy, you’re my point person.  You’re VP of Operations now, congratulations.”  He saw that Sheila had come out of her office, too.  “Sheila, I need an inventory.  What do we own and what do we owe.  And who owes us anything.  Probably nobody, right?”

She nodded, confirming Marc’s fears.  A startup was a one way street when it came to money.

“Okay.  You’re VP of finance now.  I need you to figure out how we can get the investors to give us some time.”

He could see them relaxing, as something shifted in him, in the room, in the company.  He was startled, to hear himself taking command, making decisions.  But that was one of the gifts that being bipolar had given him – the ability to turn on a dime, to seize the moment, to unhesitatingly accept that everything was suddenly different and had to be handled in a whole new way.

The idea of making people VPs of a sinking company had come to him as he thought of the movie “Kingdom of Heaven,” when Orlando Bloom knights every fighting man within the walls of a besieged Jerusalem.  There was a huge vacancy where Walt had stood, where he had managed everything.

He could see it was the right decision, these promotions, the recognition of the most competent among them.  Under any other circumstances, he thought, I probably wouldn’t have done that.

His judgment wasn’t that great, after all, was it?  He’d extended full faith and credit to Walt…and look how well that had turned out.

But there was no time, no other option.  He knew jack shit about accounting, or about project management.  Someone else would have to be in charge of it.

He would have to learn, he decided.  Learn everything about how the business worked, so that he could see for himself who was good at their jobs and who wasn’t.  So that he didn’t have to trust his flawed instincts.  So that he could be sure next time.

He only hoped that quick action would be enough to hold back the savage hordes who would soon be banging at the gates.

 

In the days that followed, he learned just how Walt had “managed everything.”  His former partner had been the kind of boss Marc had sworn he’d never work for.  The kind who’d make rounds at 4:55 pm to see who was still at their desks, “workin’ hard.”  Who would run reports on Internet usage and call people on the carpet for spending too much time on social media…even the ones whose parts of the project were in an idle phase, or who were compiling code or waiting for tests to run, and had nothing else to do but surf the Net.

He discovered that Walt didn’t understand a tenth of what the programmers did.  That he ruled through fear and intimidation, that he gauged people’s productivity by seeing who was “really puttin’ in the hours.”  As if those who had to stay till seven, eight, nine o’clock were inherently more productive than the crafty clever programmer who did twice their work in half the time.  He resolved to change the culture, to make sure that people would be rewarded for labor, not time.

He’d moved into Walt’s office, after throwing all his memorabilia into the trash – photos of Walt with sports stars, politicians, big wheels in Silicon Valley.

With the door shut and only Wendy and Sheila in the room with him, he could speak freely.  “No wonder there are so many people I thought were dead weight.  Anyone worth their salt left, didn’t they?  Because of Walt and his shitty management style.”

“Yes,” Wendy said, not mincing words.

Marc set himself to make a study of business the way he’d once studied computing.  He learned about accounting methods, self-funded insurance plans, payroll, benefits, everything.  It was probably “too late,” of course, to save this company.  But he did everything he could to understand how a company was run – the right ways and the wrong ways.  When the end came, at least he could tell himself that he didn’t just…lay down and take it.  That he’d learned something.

The venture capitalists blamed him, as co-owner, for “letting” Walt get away with their millions.  They would quietly shut down the company, and at least Marc would not be sued or pursued financially – it was in their best interests that such an embarrassing failure go away quietly.

Later that morning, it wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be to deliver the news.  He could see it in all their faces, the knowledge of what had happened.  He was only here to confirm it.

“I’m sorry,” he said, surprising himself by meaning it.  “I’m sorry I let this happen.  I’m sorry I trusted him.”

There wasn’t an angry face in the group, which shocked him.  Nobody hated him, but then, he hated himself more than thirty other people together ever could.

 

He was alone in the office when the movers came.  They waited politely for him to leave, before sweeping in to repossess every Aeron chair, every big monitor, and everything else right down to the staplers.  The rest of the employees had already left with their boxes full of personal belongings.  He’d encouraged them to take as many office supplies as they wanted.

“Free staplers are not exactly the best severance package, I know,” he said, and was surprised when they laughed.

Yeah, he’d learned a lot in the last month.  Not that it would probably be any use to him ever again, he thought bitterly.  Now he’d have to go get a job, like everyone else here who’d lost theirs – a job where he’d have to sit in a cubicle, “puttin’ in the hours,” going to meetings, making sure never to offend anyone anywhere ever by speaking the truth… He didn’t know if he could face that, being a cog in a machine, a nobody, obedient and compliant.  It was funny, really – that was everything he longed for in the bedroom, and yet, outside the bedroom, it was like an intellectual death sentence.

He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to face that future.  He wanted to go down with the ship.  But that wasn’t how it worked.  The ship didn’t go down.  The ship got beached and disassembled, broken down and carted away as scrap.

His manic energy had taken him here, to the end.  And now that there was nothing left to do, the emotional crash came.  He’d been running on fumes since Walt’s disappearance.

There was only one place go to now.  Home.

 

They tried.  They really tried.  His mom and dad and even his brother Andy did what they could.  But it wasn’t something that could be talked away, this feeling.  All these feelings.  There’s a particular skill that clinically depressed people have in spades – the ability to push yourself down, down, down the spiral slide, further and faster than gravity alone would take you.  Every thought was a solid confirmation of how bad you were, how bad life was, how hopeless, useless, ridiculous it was to even try.

Hadrian Julian was a professor of Roman history – no doubt why he’d named his children after two other “good emperors,” Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius.  (Andy, who refused to answer to his full name, always said he planned to legally change his name as soon as he could, but he was 19 now and hadn’t done it yet.)

Each night, Hadrian would visit Marc in the bed he rarely left.  His old bedroom had been converted into a guest room.  He’d taken the relics of his teenage years with him when he’d left, the science fiction movie posters and USS Enterprise models.  They’d all been in the corporate apartment he’d lost with the collapse of Octohook, and now they sat in boxes stacked in his parents’ garage.  The room was cold, bare, appropriately hospital-like.

At night, Hadrian would just sit with Marc, and read a book.  Marc was nearly always curled up under the covers in the fetal position, his brilliant mind stilled by the weight of absence, the lack of whatever divine fire he’d always had, until now.  He rarely responded to questions, and only his mother Julia’s stern commands about drinking more water or finishing his soup could rouse him to any action at all.

When he thought of anything outside his bed, he always picked the thirty people who were now unemployed because of him.  Or he thought of his parents, who now had to take care of him like an invalid, who were financially responsible for him again.  Or he thought of his brother, so young and carefree, his laughter echoing down the hall and through Marc’s door.

Marc didn’t acknowledge his father’s presence, but he knew he was there, and on some level it helped stop him from pushing himself further down the slide.  Hadrian was smart enough not to say stupid things like “there, there, it’ll be all right.”  Hadrian never asked Marc how he was feeling, or told him to straighten up and snap out of it.  He was…just there.  Maybe that was the best therapy of all.  Marc would go to sleep at night to the sound of his father turning the pages of his book.

After two weeks of this, when it became clear to Julia that it was a “clinical depression” and not a “situational depression” that would go away on its own, they got him up and took him to a psychiatrist.

He took his new antidepressants as he took his soup, blindly, a matter of habit.  His father changed the evening routine, and began to read the works of ancient historians aloud to him, just as he’d done when Marc was a kid.  Marc couldn’t imagine that any other child had “The Twelve Caesars,” with its orgies and killing sprees and poisonings, as a bedtime story.

Hadrian read to him from the work of Stoic philosophers, exhortations about even-mindedness in the face of tragedy, and the need to avoid extremes of emotion.

One night, two weeks after he started the meds, his father read to him the words of his namesake, Marcus Aurelius.

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men.  All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”

Finally, the black shroud he’d been wrapped in loosened, a crack of light appearing through its seams.

“Fucking Walt,” he said, with a smile.  “Marcus Aurelius didn’t get angry with men like that, but then, he never met Walt.”

His father smiled, the relief on his face palpable.  “I’ll grant you that.  I think Walt might have ruffled his Stoicism a bit, yeah.”

They laughed.  That night, Marc had his first good sleep in a long time.

 

He got to the point where he’d get up and out of bed every day.  He shaved, ate at the table with the family, engaged in innocuous conversations.  He couldn’t go back to coding again, not yet.  That reminded him too much of what he’d lost, all the fantastic work he’d done just to please Walt…all the dull shitwork he’d have to do in some shit job soon enough.

His parents were at work all day, and Andy was a college student who technically still lived at home but was rarely seen there, other than on laundry days.  So Marc had the house to himself.

He started watching the financial news networks.  The regular news channels were a waste of time.  Allegedly serious news outlets padded their content with user tweets. (“420ForEver says, ‘this is bogus!’  Thanks for tweeting, 420!”)  Or they had a split screen with two talking heads, one of whom was some anti-science, anti-gay, anti-women moron whose insane rantings got airtime in the name of “balance.”  And of course there was that channel, the far right wing’s “Ministry of Propaganda.”

Financial networks had a lot of bullshit too, of course, people talking stocks up and down in their own self-interest.  But numbers didn’t lie, and he soon found himself getting up from the TV to go to his laptop and look up historical financials on the company being discussed.  Then he realized he should just keep his laptop with him on the couch.  Then he needed to spread out, to run two monitors and the TV, so he turned the spare bedroom into his office.

He was a sponge for information.  His learning style had always been disorderly, disorganized, at least to the outside.  He’d never learned a programming language by starting on page one of an O’Reilly book.  And forget about watching some brain-numbing video that never moved fast enough – they were all designed for people whose minds worked at the pace of an ox.  Instead, he’d race ahead “half-cocked,” looking up what he needed to start coding something, and when he hit a roadblock, or fucked it up, then he’d go to the reference manual and learn what he needed.

After about two months of this, he had a plan ready.  At dinner one night, he said to his parents, “So, I’d like to make a little investment in the market.  I think I see some opportunities and I’d like to borrow some money from you.”

His parents looked at each other.  “Well, honey,” his mother said, “you know we don’t have a lot.”  They were both academics, so Marc knew it was true.

“I know.  I just need a couple thousand to get started.”

“What exactly are you planning on doing with it, and why?” his father asked pointedly.

Marc was ready.  He launched into his analysis of opportunities in the tech industry.  It was 2011, and American Forgetfulness had already left behind the 2008 collapse and was working hard on a new bubble.  Technology companies were racing to go public, their Initial Public Offerings of stock going through the roof on opening day.

“And it’s all a pyramid scheme,” Marc concluded.  “The big investors cash out as soon as they can, and then the stock will dive.  It’s a ‘pop and flop’ scenario.  So my plan is to short some of these big offerings, cash in when the honeymoon ends and reality sets in.”

“I don’t know…” his mom said, always the worrier.  She was the one who ran the finances, allowing her husband to keep his head in the ancient past.  “I don’t like risk.  But…we can go in for five thousand.  And if you lose it, well, I’ll consider it a medical cost.  Part of your rehabilitation and therapy.”

They all laughed at that, which felt good.  It felt like…old times.  Good times.  Marc felt good!  He knew he was right about this, and he could feel the generator coming online again, the sparks flying…at long last, he felt like himself again.

 

Wendy and Trent called him on occasion.  At first, he’d let the calls go to voice mail, unreturned.  But once the pills started working, he started answering the phone.

He surprised himself by actually being interested in the fate of Octohook’s employees…his employees, instead of just feeling guilty about what had happened in the past. The economy was turning, and most of them were landing new jobs, albeit jobs that paid less than the old one.  He mentioned his plan to Wendy one night.

“The parental units put in a few grand, but I need more than that to really make this work.  I could really turn a profit if I could go bigger on this.  You don’t happen to have any savings you want to chuck in, I suppose,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, I do,” she answered immediately.  “Put me in for ten grand.”

Marc hesitated.  “But…you’re not working yet.  Don’t you need to live on that?”

“I have enough to live on.  Alice can support me for a while.  Marc, I know you.  I know how smart you are.  If you’re sure, I’m sure.”

He’d never cried when he was depressed.  He’d been too flat, too crushed for that.  But he could feel the tears welling up now.  People trusted him.  Believed in him.  No matter that he’d trusted the wrong person, believed in the wrong person, and taken them all down with him last time.

“And I can think of a few other old Octohook folks who would go in on that, too.  Hold on, let me get some phone numbers for you.”

He looked at Jason’s number for a long time, wondering if he was crazy to call someone he’d derided to his face for his incompetence, and ask him for money.  But what the hell, he thought, life is risk, and he dialed the number.

Jason listened to him patiently, right up through the point where Marc told him that the profits would be a 60/40 split, Marc taking the lesser share, but still an enormous commission.

“So let me ask you a question,” Jason said.

“Okay.”

“Would you hire me as a programmer again?”

Marc got ready to scratch Jason’s name off the list.  “Honestly?  No.”

“Because I’m not good enough?”

“That’s right.  You’re…”

Marc could feel the change in himself then.  He hadn’t been…humbled wasn’t the word.  That word was too religious, too self-abasing.  Chastened?  Nah.  Wised up, he thought.  He’d been wised up.  It was possible to be honest without being mean.

“You’re okay.  You would do fine somewhere where you worked on accounting packages or payroll apps or something…predictable.  No intuitive leaps required, not a lot of imagination.  You could do workmanlike product, to serve an ordinary need.  No offense,” he added, knowing it was.

“None taken.  Thank you for being honest.  I know that, Marc.  I know I’m not brilliant.  But I’m not stupid.  I’ve done some investing on my own, and done okay.  And I think you might be on to something.”

Jason paused. “If you’d lied to me and said, ‘oh you’re a great coder, Jason, super duper,’ I would have known you were shitting me about this investment.  But now I know you’re on the level.  You’re an asshole, Marc, but you’re also a genius.”

Marc laughed.  “True, and true.”

“Put me down for fifty thousand.  Make me rich, Marc.”

 

Between all the former employees of Octohook, their spouses and significant others, and a few of their friends, Marc soon had nearly a million dollars to work with.

It was ironic.  He’d put so much time into Octohook’s cell phone games, making them ever more addict…er, sticky…oh fuck it, addictive.  And now here he was, playing the ultimate online game, the king of all slot machines, the stock market.

For an ordinary person, it would have been information overload, with CNBC on TV, one PC monitor running news feeds, and another littered with charts and graphs.  But for Marc, it was like surfing – he rode the wave of information like a pro.

His strategy was ruthlessly simple – cash in on the ignorant greed of investors who wanted “in” in a tech stock, any tech stock, at any price.  His first bet was on LinkedIn, whose shares reached $93 on its first day on the market in May, 2011.

Marc took a short position when LinkedIn was at $93 on its opening day, for 10,000 shares.  This meant that he “borrowed” the stock from a brokerage that had bought it, and then Marc sold it the same day.  He now had $930,000, in the abstract…but he would have to buy his own shares of the stock at some point to return the borrowed shares.  If the price rose to $100, he’d have to buy the borrowed shares with his investor’s $1,00,000, and return them to the brokerage, thus losing $70,000.  That was why the brokerage would lend him the shares – they believed the price would go up.

It was a high wire act, far more dangerous than just buying and selling shares.  But sure enough, from May to June, LinkedIn’s stock tumbled to $65 a share.  Marc executed the short, buying the 10,000 shares he’d borrowed for $650,000 and returning them to the brokerage.  The brokerage was down $270,000 on the stock, for now – LinkedIn would rebound to stratospheric heights, but that was no concern of Marc’s.  He’d made over a quarter of a million dollars on the transaction.

He went even bigger on Pandora, which fell from its opening day high of $20 to $11 two months later.  Zillow, the online real estate application, was his biggest bet of all…and when it collapsed from $60 to $23, Marc was starting to look at some very serious profits.  Groupon, diving from $31 to $16, was another money doubler.

His mind raced, faster and faster, and he dug deeper and deeper into his research.  He didn’t sleep, and he had to be forced to stop and eat.  He lost ten pounds in five weeks, which he could ill afford to lose.  He could have moved into his own place, he could afford it now.  But there was no time for that – packing, moving, setting up his computers and getting his cable hooked up?  Why, he could lose days and days!

He started to babble at the dinner table, when his parents could get him there.  “There are so many patterns,” he enthused, not touching his food.  “All you have to do is look and see them, there’s so much money to be made.”

His parents looked at each other.  “Don’t forget you have your regular appointment tomorrow with Dr. Phillips.  Don’t worry,” his mother said hastily, “we booked it for after the markets close.”

“Okay, fine, I’ve got my phone, I can still track the Asian markets…”

His parents had lied to him.  There had been no appointment with a psychiatrist to “forget” about, until they’d made it the previous day.  The antidepressants were clearly having unexpected effects.

Dr. Phillips listened to Marc go on and on, nearly delirious with plans for world conquest.  “I think we need to discuss a new diagnosis,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“The antidepressants alone are not working for you.  You’re in a state of mania, do you know what that is?”

“No.  I’m happy, I’m productive, I’m making money, what do you mean they’re not working?”

“Looking back at your chart, I can see that you were misdiagnosed at first.  You’re bipolar, do you know what that means?”

“You’re saying I’m crazy?”

“I’m saying you have mood swings, biochemical changes in your brain that are far more extreme than other people’s.  I want to put you on a mood stabilizer.”

“Oh no.  No way.  I’ve heard about that.  People on zombie pills.  Fuck, no.”

“Those are the old school drugs, like Lithium.  I’m recommending Lamictal for you.  It’ll shave off the sharp highs and lows but it won’t make you a zombie.  I know you need to be high-functioning, so I wouldn’t put you on anything that would leave you unable to do that.  We can start you at a low dose and see how much you really need.  And we need to step down your antidepressant dosage to wean you off of that.”

“But…I need this energy.  So what if I’m crazy?  What’s wrong with that?”

“You’ve lost ten pounds.  You’re getting what we call ‘delusions of affect.’  Your confidence could turn into overconfidence very soon, Marc, and all the money you’ve made, on the good investments you’ve made, could be lost.  Right now, you’re feeling certainties about the market that are based on evidence, but soon, you’ll have certainties based on nothing but a feeling of invincibility.  Are you rabbit-holing yet?”

“What’s that?  Doesn’t sound like a medical term to me.”

She smiled.  “No, it’s not.  But I like it.  It’s sort of like ADD, where you find yourself losing focus on one thing, because something distracts you and then something distracts you from that.”

He opened his mouth to say something, and closed it.  Just the other day, looking at the price of gold, he’d seen a review of a book on the history of currency, and then he’d downloaded the book, and got twenty pages into it, when a fascinating bit on money in the ancient world sent him to Wikipedia to learn more about Roman coinage… Down and around and away he went, and almost missed his chance to execute one of his shorts at the lowest price.

“How much have you made already?”

“I don’t know.  I run reports for my investors, but I…”

“Can you look on your phone and find out?”

“Yeah.”  Marc looked at his brokerage accounts, his bank account, and his eyes widened.  “Holy shit.  I’m a millionaire.”

“Well, now that you’re financially secure, maybe it’s time to slow down and enjoy some of that money.”  She wrote a prescription and handed it to him.

He took it hesitantly.  “So this won’t make me dumb, you promise?”

“I promise.  We’ll take it slow.  If you start feeling dumb, we’ll top out at a certain level, or try another medication.  You won’t be having as many intellectual rocket launches as yor are now.  But rockets require a lot of energy to launch.  And when the energy is used up, that hard and that fast….”

Marc nodded.  “It crashes.”  He was still in shock from the knowledge that he was rich, that he’d gotten rich without even realizing it.

And it was true.  He suddenly felt it, all at once, the exhaustion from sleeplessness, the hunger from skipping too many meals, the overwhelming desire to do the one thing he hadn’t been able to do – turn away from his screens and do something, anything else.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll try it.”

 

He cashed out of everything, paid everyone off, and wound down the whole enterprise.  Maybe that was just as dramatic and impulsive a decision as staying in and doubling down would be, but at least it was the only real “can’t lose” decision.

He could see he was at twice the risk right now – the mania could have goaded him into a bad decision, but the mood stabilizers, despite Dr. Phillips’ promise, might make him slow, dumb him down, even cause him to miss some key piece of data that could cost him, and his investors, a fortune.

And best of all, when he pushed the last button on the last transaction, was the realization, the enormous gasping relief, of knowing that he wouldn’t have to be a cog in someone else’s machine ever again, no drudge job in some cubicle somewhere, sucking the life out of him.  That was behind him forever now.

“Thank you, Marc,” Jason said when Marc called him to let him know his $50k was now $500k.  “You came through for us all.”

“Not everyone,” Marc blurted.  “Only the ones who had money to invest.  The others…”

“You can’t fix everything for everyone, Marc,” Jason said gently.

But I can, Marc thought.  And he knew it wasn’t a delusion of grandeur.  He would make it right.  The money he’d made would be seed money for something new, something bigger and better.  And when it succeeded, as he knew it would, he would go back and fix it for all of them, all those who had lost everything because of him.  Who’d lost it all because he had trusted Walt.

 

The Lamictal started to work, after a period of adjustment.  It took a while for his body to stop waking him up at the crack of dawn every morning, in time to read up on the day’s news and prepare for the “opening bell.”

He discovered that he actually felt better, albeit in a different way than he’d felt in his mania.  He slept seven hours a night now and woke up refreshed, he ate food and enjoyed it, he started working out with a trainer, and started putting on muscle.  His nutrition and exercise regimen took up part of the slack his restless mind felt without the constant data stream that playing the markets had given him.

At least my mind is still capable of being restless, he thought.  I’m not dumb yet.

One day he was in the living room, forcing himself to slow down, to read a book for pleasure, to listen to music instead of the voices of financial experts.  Okay, admittedly, the Steve Jobs biography was research, too, in its own way, for the business he’d start, when he figured out what that business would be.

Andy was home, doing laundry, his textbooks splayed across the dining room table.  He heaved an enormous sign and dramatically banged his head on the table.

“Why did I ever take this class!”

“What class?” Marc said, looking up from his book.

“This military history class.  It’s got all these battles and I’m supposed to understand how they happened.  I mean, look at this.”

Marc got up and looked at one of the map pages in Andy’s textbook.  There were dotted lines and solid lines, meant according to the legend to show the battle front at any given time.  There were big sweeping arrows in different shades of black, white and gray, with dots and dates scattered along them, running forward, then backward, to reflect advance and retreat.  Little flags indicated generals or battle groups.

“It’s like everything is happening at once, and I’m supposed to decode it from…this.  And I just can’t get my head around the text, either, it talks about someone sweeping in down in a pincer movement through a hedgerow or something, and it just… I can’t see it.  It’s like trying to see a statue in 3D from a single 2D photo.  Marc, are you okay?”

Marc watched himself thinking.  This was different.  Strange but familiar.  It was a cascade of new ideas, but more like…more like the flow of water through a dam than an uncontrollable waterfall.  Like a power that could be harnessed, channeled, sent where he wanted it to go.  This is how non-crazy people get inspired, he thought.

“What if you could see it?”  Marc sat down next to his brother and began to sketch.  He drew a computer window, with a slider bar at the bottom, like the YouTube bars you’d use to move forward or backward in a video.  “It would be like a Flash video, like a video game, that holds every detail about the battle – the terrain, the troop movements, synced up chronologically, with little fact bubbles you can bring up.  You can zoom in or out of parts of the battle, overhead or ground level view, over space or over time, just see one part of the action or the big picture.  You can go back and forth from the viewpoint of one side or the other.  You can move the whole battle back and forth with this slider here.  It would be like being there.  You wouldn’t have to imagine the movement, the progress, you could see it.”

“Holy shit, that’s brilliant.  Can you do that?”

Marc nodded, thinking about the limits of Flash, how it would be much better as an app for a tablet, like the iPad.  Yeah, definitely an iPad app, where you could pinch and zoom and twist…

He started thinking of he would recruit the people this project would require.  “Yeah.  I can do it.  Would you buy it?”

“Who wouldn’t!  Hell, you could probably sell it to schools, to the Army…the possibilities are endless.”

No, Marc thought with unaccustomed sobriety.  Not limitless, not endless… But vast.  Definitely vast.

He smiled.  “Looks like I’m back in business.”

young man imagine by laying on the sofaBiggest!  Homo!  Ever!  This is fantastic news not just for me but for the M/M genre – it means that there is a big, and GROWING market for this stuff.  I see it time and again lately, in people’s Facebook comments:  “I was bored with the same old thing and a friend turned me on to M/M and now I can’t go back.”  We Are The Future!

March won’t equal what I did in February – nearly 15,000 novels/stories in sales and borrows in February, and I’m at around 5,100 so far in March.  So I could make it again in March…my understanding is that 7k or so is enough to make the top 100 – so I might have just missed top 50 status for February… Amazon doesn’t give you an exact ranking, you only know your approximate status by the size of the bonus (yes, BONUS!) you get.

My Fealty To Lord Bezos Never Endeth!  All Hail!  Maketh It Rain!

So I posted on the FB forum yesterday to ask how a fully clothed puppet got reported for “nudity,” and this was the helpful response.

“Sometimes people report photo albums or individual photos for nudity in spite because they know Facebook automatically takes photos that are reported for nudity down pending their review. If upon completing their review Facebook finds that your album does not contain any nudity, Facebook will make the photos visible again after their review is completed. Thus, you have nothing to worry about if in fact your album does not contain any photo that violates Facebook’s SRR and TOS.”

OK.  But that begs the question.  Why is Facebook SO TERRIFIED OF A NAKED PERSON that they lock your account, and make your friends think you’ve been deleted, until you log in and confirm that you haven’t posted a picture of a naked body?  Why is nudity SO HORRIFYING that any random person’s accusation is sufficient grounds to shoot first and ask questions later?  I mean, we’re not talking kiddie porn, or animal abuse, or beheadings here.  We’re talking about a cock or an ass or a tittie.  Which is clearly just as bad…or worse, who knows?

It will baffle historians years from now, this cognitive dissonance.  How is it that two big-dick-swinging billionaires will wage ruthless, merciless battle, with everything to lose, over which one of them gets a single nickel…but both of them will run screaming, like cartoon elephants at the sight of a mouse, if one crackpot in Alabama gets upset about a picture of a pee-pee?