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Title: DCXL Author: Alep Lupp

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  • Title: DCXL Author: Alep Lupp

    Jóna was staring intently at the jumble of letters and numbers on her laptop’s screen for what felt like the millionth time. They didn’t make much more sense now than two months ago, when she first saw them, or two hours ago, when she boarded this plane and turned on her computer in the hopes that exhaustion would somehow bring clarity to the problem. Not more than a screenful of cyphertext had been her life in the last two months, yet everything she threw at it—polysub bruteforce, frequency analysis, pen and paper—led nowhere. She’d been a lot more successful peeling the ‘wrapper challenges’ before it, and now she was stumped. All she had was a number triplet that looked like the GPS coordinates of some place in Las Vegas and its (negative) altitude, followed by all this jumble.


    She’s startled as her next-seat neighbour on the flight, an overweight Japanese man, almost punches the screen of her laptop. He missed, barely, though he managed to flip the laptop around, facing him. A hot wave flushes over her, the renewed realisation that possessing this (or any) cyphertext is illegal and could lead to a lot of trouble if anyone called attention to it. She looks sheepishly to the man to see his reaction, preparing herself for the inevitable call to the air marshall and the likely arrest to follow. She wonders what she’s willing to go through now, so she doesn’t have to go through later. She holds her breath and, mechanically and without thought, unlatches her seatbelt, turning towards him.


    He’s fast asleep. In the quiet of her now-still heart she realises he’s snoring, not loudly enough to warrant a flight attendant’s attention, but enough for Jóna to know he isn’t faking it. She spent a few nights looking and listening to her older brother, Jens, before he died; she could tell when someone was faking a snore, perhaps because they wanted relatives to go home and sleep, rather than keep vigil. But this large man was not faking it, and probably hit her laptop as he jerked in his sleep, nothing much.

    A flight attendant arrives just as Jóna’s buckling back up, asking if all’s right. A light above her head went bright as soon as she released the seatbelt, and since she hadn’t left her seat, it was unusual. Jóna, laptop now closed and faking tiredness, lies she’d probably clicked it open in her sleep. The attendant leaves without a word, miffed at being waken up herself by the vibration of her wrist bracelet’s alert pattern. And Jóna turns lie to truth by stowing the computer away, and trying to snooze for a little while. Her neighbour’s arrhythmic snoring, strangely enough, now lulls her to sleep.

    ***

    Going through customs is hell. Going through customs knowing you’re in possession of illegal material—even if ‘only’ cyphertext of unknown substance or provenance—is a crawl through the bottom circles of hell. Jóna pulls a peanut-looking capsule from her otherwise inconspicuous peanut bag and cracks it between her teeth. First time doing drugs, and it’s when she can get busted anyhow. Might as well go all in (this is Vegas, after all). She reflects at how “unlike herself” she’d been since Jens died, and seems to be content with that fact. Or maybe it’s the Lullaby, making its way through her nervous system, forcing her body to relax.

    A stern border officer looks her up and down, scanning her and her belongings: the duffel bag she stole from her brother years ago, and which is now packed with all the nice blouses, skirts, and dresses she owns. As she walks towards the booth, the officer’s eyepiece renders a naked image of her body, her bag, and pulls up some statistics regarding her vitals, just to make sure she’s not particularly stressed, say, in regards to the other passengers on her own flight, and the others waiting in line, etc.

    “Purpose in Vegas?”, the office almost growls at her.

    “Gambling.” She thinks her lack of enthusiasm will betray her, but the officer doesn’t flinch.

    “Heard we dropped it to 18 and you couldn’t wait to come and piss your daddy’s money away? Any electronics?”

    Jóna pushes forward her laptop and her phone. The officer plugs both into a black box for a couple of seconds, then returns them. “Duplicated and off for secondary analysis, but nothing came up in the preliminary scan.” Jóna thinks, suppressing her pride: she’d written up the steganographic code for hiding that cyphertext in the computer’s operating system files herself, and it seemed to pass its most important test so far. Gambling in Vegas, hell of a time to test it.

    A sudden commotion, two booths to her right, as three officers surround and stun someone. She chokes at the sight, at the twitching body of her neighbour on the plane. A customs supervisor approaches, and one of the three officers hand her the Japanese man’s electronics. His computer must’ve been poorly protected, and the prelim scan came up lights flashing. The way the guards reacted, whatever the man had must’ve been quite a find.

    “Hey, I’m taking to you here!” the guard growls again, this time intentionally. “Don’t go spending your return flight, Vegas doesn’t do welfare. You run out of money, you end up in jail. Girl like you, maybe worse. Enjoy your time.”

    Jóna mumbles a thank you of sorts as she collects her IDs and walks through the crowded Vegas airport, following signs towards the bus loop. The adrenaline turned cold now, insulation against the blistering heat not even the air conditioning can pacify. Her mind’s sharpened, agile, snappy; she’s doing her best to suppress the smile that would give her away.

    ***

    The bus drops her off near the coordinates in the cyphertext, and she makes her way to the nearest casino. She stops at a bar table and motions for a glass of water; inside the jacket of what used to be a thick book, Jóna hid her laptop. She’d say it was a novelty protective cover whenever someone asked, but it let her use the laptop without raising suspicion. A phone or a tablet might go unobserved, but a home-made, plexiglass-covered laptop with this many antennae and plug-in ports and lights might be confused for alien technology or some kind of bomb. The customs agent didn’t need to ask any questions, because he could immediately see she was registered as an electronics student back in Reykjavik, and this contraption fit the part (she wasn’t a student, really, but figured it would be generally helpful to show up as one; at least for the discounts.)

    She takes stock of the clientele to discover a strange assortment of businessmen and women, and apparent vagrants. The polarity of the mix bemuses her, but she tries to focus on her work. Not that any new ideas hit her.

    "You could walk there, or just spoof the GPS module on your laptop to pretend you are; it'll unlock the next stage."

    She jumps back two feet and slams her laptop closed; a businessman stares at her and her new 'companion' and decides to relocate. The boy holds his arms up defensively and motions an apology.

    "Hey, didn't mean to startle you! Saw you were working on the DEFCON entry challenge and thought I'd help. Information sharing and all that."

    DEFCON. Jóna hadn't heard the word in three years. Three long years, while she's been trying to forget her brother's death, during the 2031 raid at DC39. Feds surrounded the building because they suspected some dissidents were in attendance, and things went bloody. There hasn't been a convention ever since, and being a hacker anywhere in the world was a terribly risky affair.

    In some sense, she knew. Or she was pretty sure what these crypto challenges were about.

    "Oh. Thanks."

    * * *

    Jóna and Tom, her new accomplice, we're in the underground parkade of the next-door fast-food joint, plugged into a wall socket dataport. Streams of random numbers kept rolling by, and both sat in silence trying to make sense of them. Not primes, nor powers of primes, nor obvious bit shifts. All decreasing slightly, and Tom's rough estimate made it seem like they had about an hour to crack the code.

    "It's a PRNG seeded from a radioactive compound. Saw something like this in the army."

    A new friend, Ham. Jóna had heard about the great community around the conference from her brother. She could see what he meant. Almost trusted Tom and Ham without really knowing them. Almost.

    "Any way to crack it?"

    "Must be, otherwise where's the challenge? Look around, there may be clues here."

    So they did, for the better part of 30 minutes, until Jóna came across a small box. A subdermal implant, one of the new ones that doesn't require a surgeon. Just pain tolerance. She took it to the others.

    "Shit, that's the key. Must be. But any one of us puts that in, goodbye leaving Vegas. If it's radioactive, it'll light up any detector we come across. Possibly forever."

    About 5 minutes left. Silence engulfs the group. On the back of the device, a friendly smiley face almost comforts them that all will be OK.

    "On the other side of this wall may well be almost everything we want. Everything my brother wanted. I… I'll do it. Whatever it means."

    ***

    Welcome to DEFCON. How far would you go?
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."

  • #2
    Re: Title: DCXL Author: Alep Lupp

    How far would you go is a good question.

    Good Luck!
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."

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