In a shaking voice, Chess told Razor what his college major had been. Razor nodded approval and then leaned toward Chess confidentially. “A lot of my guys went, too, but most of them, you can’t tell -- except for Tez, of course. The rest of ‘em, well, I have to watch them or else they’re drinking and fighting all the time. Savages. There’s hardly anyone out here that you can really talk to…”
Chess nodded absently, his thoughts still on the violent scene that he had just witnessed. He was certain that Razor had broken bones in that guy’s face. He could still hear the sound…
“So, your major was Information Systems… something.” Razor frowned. “Is that computers?”
Chess nodded again.
“Well: a smart goldfish who can fix computers!” Razor exclaimed with a sudden broad grin. “What do you know? Man, could we use your help right now!” Abruptly, he turned and stomped off down the hallway. “Come with me!” he shouted back to Chess.
Within minutes, they were back in the building where they had started, standing in a sparsely-furnished room with just a few long tables set against the far wall. Chess blinked in amazement: the tables were crowded with computers and monitors of many sizes and types… and years.
All other thoughts left Chess’s brain as he moved toward the tables. “I’ve seen this old style of computer in a museum!” he gasped, and then turned to Razor. “What is all this?”
“This,” Razor announced, with a grand sweep of his arm, “is our base of communications. All our records are here, for our entire network: our customers, and our suppliers. We advertise, set up events… and when Ileana’s phone battery dies, she comes in here to contact would-be dissidents who are interested in what we’re doing out here. It’s very important, this room. And…,” he added, leaning forward confidentially, “it’s not working.” His shoulders sagged as he said, more quietly, “Something’s wrong. We can’t even get online anymore.”
“Huh,” Chess breathed, still transfixed by the agglomeration of computers. “I guess maybe I could take a look…”
“Please!” Razor insisted, dramatically pulling out a folding chair and gesturing to Chess.
Hesitantly, Chess perched on the edge of the chair and scanned the tables for the most modern-looking computer in the group. Finally, he decided on a likely candidate and pulled it toward him.
At the edge of his vision, Chess could see Razor standing impatiently, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, a manifestation of barely-contained energy.
Trying to ignore him, Chess leaned over the computer to gaze at the coils of dust-covered wires, which spider-webbed everywhere on and under the table. “Crazy,” he breathed, settling back in his seat.
Touching the screen elicited no response from the computer. Chess sat thinking for a moment, and then he grabbed what he recognized as a keyboard, which was sitting nearby. After inserting the wire from the keyboard into a port on the computer, he began to type.
“Well?” Razor asked emphatically.
Chess spent a few more moments in silent on-screen maneuvering. “You know... I think it’s a virus,” he concluded, astonished. “Wow, I didn’t think those things even existed anymore.”
“Can you fix it?” Razor demanded.
Engrossed in the computer screen, Chess murmured, “I think so.”
“Think so?” Razor shouted, making Chess jump. “You think so?” He moved close to Chess, towering over him. “Fix it!” he roared. “Or what good are you to me?”
Chess’s heart pounded in sudden terror. He stared at the computer screen, not daring to look up. Visions of the beating he had just witnessed flashed into his mind. This guy was crazy, Chess realized. There was no law here. What if he actually couldn’t fix it, he wondered fearfully. What then?
He swallowed hard and tried to think what he should do… but his mind was a blank now: all white noise and panic.
Continued next page...
Dogbert’s Tech Support: This is Dogbert. How may I abuse you?
Dilbert’s Boss: I need to move my cursor to the right but my mouse is at the edge of the mouse pad.
Dogbert: Have you tried rebooting without saving your files?
-Dilbert Comic Strip by Scott Adams, published 29 Dec 1996
Even in the United States, there are places where most elements of government and even law enforcement seem not to exist. Often this type of situation happens in the low-income housing areas that we tend to refer to as the “inner cities,” where there is no formal economy and even banks are scarce. It might be my own prejudice, but I decided that this inner-city type of area might best mirror (sort of ironically!) my idea of the lawless expanses outside of the cities of “civ” in my story.
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist who did his grad school project on one particular area of Chicago where gangs seem to be more powerful than any formal authority. I first learned about his research from a section of the wildly-popular 2005 book Freakonomics, and I decided that his book Gangleader for a Day might be a good source for my research.
Believe it or not, this is an entertaining book, and the members of the gang come across as fairly sympathetic characters with understandable motivations. The gang, as Venkatesh described it, had an almost business-like structure and hierarchy. They tended to police the neighborhood, and also planned events like basketball games, and they worked with the residents because they knew it was in their best interest to have them as allies. They did all these things while, at the same time, carrying on a reprehensible drug trade that was permeated with violence.
J.T. may have been a lawbreaker, but he was very much a lawmaker as well. He acted as if his organization truly did rule the neighborhood, and sometimes the takeover was complete. The Black Kings policed the buildings more aggressively than the Chicago police did.
-Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
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