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All Stories Submitted for Short Story Contest 2015 at DEF CON 23

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  • #16
    twentythree, by bubblegirl (@defconbubs)

    ----Thursday Night----
    There is nobody pretty at DEF CON.
    It was my third DEF CON. Two of my fellow DEF CON members from my local group and I had managed to work our way into a so called ìexclusiveî party. The party was in the top floor penthouse of some typical Vegas hotel, it doesnít matter which one. It had a swimming pool on the balcony and free food and booze. What more could a girl want?
    The biggest disappointment to me was that most of the girls at the party were of your typical Rent-A-Girl variety. There I was in the same T-shirt Iíd been wearing all day at the con. Iíd debated changing before heading out, but in typical con fashion, Iíd been distracted by four or five different people and events on my way back to my room. By the time I arrived back to drop off my stuff, I was already five minutes late meeting the guys downstairs.
    To be honest, I didnít care if I got changed into something pretty for the party. This was the one time of year I was with people for days at a time who didnít care that I was kind of a nerd. I could wear my obscure shirt with the lockpick joke on it, and nobody would think less of me. Nobody would look at my shirt with that blank stare of misunderstanding. Instead, Iíd get a couple of grins and nods of respect.
    I had worked hard to get into this party. The crypto that you had to solve in order to get in came out a few days before the con, and Iíd worked hard to solve it. It was quite the enigma. If weíre being honest, I wanted to get to the answer - which ultimately told you the location of the party, and the password theyíd ask for at the door - before the guys had a chance to solve it. And I had.
    But the other girls at the party were far too pretty to have solved the crypto on their own. Makeup so thick on some of them you couldnít even see their real face. Unfathomable hours spent covering up what was probably a perfectly okay face, but who could say? I scoffed. Short skirts, tight tops, unreasonably loud laughter every time anybody made a reference to something they didnít understand, which with this crowd occurred oh so frequently.
    All I could do was grab another free drink and brood in the corner. My comrades were off chatting up somebody far more expensive than they realized. Not wanting to participate, but also not wanting to drag them down with me, I fixed myself a small plate of free food and found a stool to attach myself to until they were finished. I didnít feel safe walking back to our hotel alone, nor could I remember offhand how we had gotten here, else I would have been out the door and off to a different con event. If I wanted to party with girls like this, I would not have come to a DEF CON exclusive party. I wanted to be with my people, not with Ö this.
    Then things went from bad to worse. Not right away, of course. At first, I thought he was sweet. I will refer to him as Jay for the time being, because thatís how he introduced himself to me at the time.
    He was nice at first. ìBuy you a drink?î he asked.
    ìDrinks are free,î I pointed out, looking over his shoulder to try to find the guys. They were nowhere to be seen. Neither was their new girlfriend. I hoped they hadnít left the party altogether, leaving me stranded here.
    ìWaiting for someone?î
    ìJust checking in,î I replied. I waved at nobody in particular and smiled, so that he knew I wouldnít be taken advantage of. Sure, he was part of the DEF CON crowd, but a girl can never be too careful. Jay glanced over his shoulder, saw that nobody waved back, and looked at me with one eyebrow raised. I tried not to blush, knowing I was caught in my ruse but not wanting to let on. I did the first thing I could think of - Slid off my chair and said, ìLetís go get that drink.î
    He insisted on ordering for me at the bar, though it wasnít anything fancy. The booze might have been free, but it wasnít that great of a deal when it was cheap booze to begin with. None of the good stuff. The drink hinted at stale vodka and left an intense burn all down my throat.
    We chatted a little. He invited me to dance. I wasnít much of a dancer, preferring to save myself the embarrassment, but at this point Iíd had a few, and I agreed. Dark technomancer style music filled the penthouse, a DJ mixing it up live. A giant bear head was being passed around the crowd. Because I was feeling good, I put that Pedobear head right on and had myself a few minutes of dancing as the bear before my head got too hot, and I passed it on to the next potential taker.
    At least if we were dancing, I wouldnít have to try to continue the awkward conversation weíd been having. I suppose he was good looking, for the con crowd, but his conversational skills left something to be desired. It was apparent that he was not accustomed to spending time with women for any extended period of time. I made him nervous, and dancing was a good break for both of us.
    So we danced until we got tired, or more accurately, until Jay got sweaty. It dripped down his forehead, into his eyes, and by the looks of his shirt, down his back and sides. Nobody had ever taught Jay how to dance, and as a result he spent a lot of time flailing his arms around in no conceivable pattern, thus tiring himself out much quicker than he would have if he would just dance like a normal person. This was a great benefit to me, as it took the attention off of my lack of skill and placed in onto somebody even worse.
    ìHave you seen the rest of this place?î Jay asked.
    ìJust the kitchen and the pool,î I replied.
    ìYouíve got to take the grand tour.î
    ìI donít know Öî It sounded like a bad idea.
    ìCome on, girl. When else are you going to have the chance to tour the penthouse?î
    ìI suppose,î I agreed.
    And so we took the grand tour. A small room with a treadmill. A guy in a full business suit was running full tilt on the treadmill, for the amusement of a couple standing nearby, cheering him on. Upstairs, the master bedroom. Glass windows overlooking the lights of the city. Six people taking a ride on a bed that rotated all on its own. A couple of guys hunched over the motor, trying to rig it up to get more speed out of it. I hopped on, Jay taking a seat next to me. We watched the cityscape pass in front of us, enjoying the ride until a guy came in with three Rent-A-Girls wanting to hop on. Time to make our exit.
    There were three additional rooms upstairs. One was occupied. I pulled the door shut quickly, eyes wide. ìI think that was my friend,î I hissed. Jay laughed, as if I had made a joke. But I was pretty certain it was him, and I didnít want to see any more than I already had.
    The third room was a bathroom with a large jacuzzi tub. Jay suggested we test it out, but I didnít want to be in there when somebody decided they needed to come in and take a leak.
    The final upstairs room held a large screen TV and a smattering of overstuffed couches and chairs. A few people sat around, watching Ghost in the Shell. Classic. A couple got up to leave, and we took their place on a large brown couch. We settled in, the movie just barely loud enough over the music pounding downstairs. It was nearly three in the morning, and it felt good to finally sit down. The party was still going strong around us, but before long the movie came to a close, and the room we were sitting in began to clear out. The person handling the remote switched over to some show that you can only see on cable. I donít get cable at home, because I can find Game of Thrones through my private tracker and seedbox. Iím not paying for HBO or anyone else, so I didnít recognize what we were watching.
    At some point, I donít really remember when, Jay put his arm around me. I was tired and just a little bit buzzed from the free drinks, so I went with it. He seemed like a nice guy. He leaned in to kiss me on the cheek, and I let him. It was weird for me, because I wouldnít normally allow that the first time I met a guy, but hey, itís Vegas. I was just about to pull away from him when he leaned over to whisper in my ear.
    ìHow much?î he asked.
    I leaned away from him. ìExcuse me?î
    ìCome on, baby. Donít play games with me. How much?î he repeated, putting his hand on my leg as if I were a cheap rental.
    I stood up, appalled. ìGet your filthy hands off me.î I stood there just long enough to shake my head in disgust, then turned to storm down the stairs.
    ìWait!î Jay called after me. He followed me out of the room, shouting after me. ìStop!î
    I whipped around, halfway down the steps. ìNo. I will not.î Jay tried to make his way down the steps, but a couple of guys who just so happened to be standing near the top of the stairs moved in his path, crossing their arms.
    ìThis isnít fair! I spent a lot of time with you tonight. If I knew you were going to rip me off, I would have put my attention elsewhere!î Jay shouted as I continued down the steps. People were starting to stare. Jay broke his way through the guys at the top of the steps and chased after me, grabbing my arm.
    I turned around to face him, my face hot and red with anger. ìLet Ö go Ö of Ö my Ö arm.î We had now attracted every eye in the room
    ìNow,î I added.
    Jay, inspired by the number of people watching, let go of my arm. ìThis isnít over,î he said.
    ìHey, buddy, leave her be,î a guy stepped in. It wasnít Badrequest or Shadowcopy, my friends from my local group. They must have left.
    Jay shoved the guy. The music came to a halt. ìYouíre not part of this,î Jay spat. He took a step towards me and looked as if he were about to speak. Not in the least bit interested in what he had to say, I punched him between the eyes before he could speak. A cheer spread through the room. I moved to leave the party while Jay was still hunched over, clutching his bleeding nose.
    The music started up again as I walked away. Badrequest and Shadowcopy did not follow me out of the room. They must have left without me earlier in the night. Ditching me in Vegas. They wouldnít live that one down for a while.
    ìJudging by the way you broke that guyís nose, I assume you donít need anyone to walk you home,î a guyís voice said behind me.
    ìI broke his nose? Cool.î
    ìOne can only hope,î the guy said. He had a deep voice, and as he stepped out of the shadows cast by the Vegas nightlife, I realized he was wearing an oversized top hat, with a steampunk eyeglass attached to the right side. I could barely see his face. When I tried to get a better look, he turned his head towards the ground. I got the impression it was intentional, but said nothing. He seemed nice enough, and I was glad to have someone to walk with.
    We started off towards the hotel, making a little bit of small talk but mostly letting a slightly awkward silence linger between us. I assured my new friend and his fancy hat that Iíd be fine getting up to my room alone, and thanked him for the walk. I arrived back at my room, took a good long shower, and settled in for a few solid hours of sleep.

    I woke up face down on the bed, a puddle of drool soaking my pillow. I groaned and rolled over. Itís too early, I think. But I can sleep on the plane on the way home. For now, Iíve got to get back. I had to get over to the villages. A guy I met yesterday told me heíd help me solder a couple extras onto my badge. Not to mention I had an entire dayís worth of talks picked out to miss. No worries; Iíd catch them on the CD later.
    By the time I arrived, the hardware hacking village is already full. Only one soldering iron remained free. I took a seat, nodding to the guy who said heíd help me, hoping he remembers me from the day before. It seems he does, but heís busy helping others. I take a seat and get my pieces out, knowing heíll come over as soon as he can.
    And then the guy across from me lifts his head, and itís Jay. White gauze covers his nose. His eyes are dark, matching the sea of dark shirts behind him. His nose veers just a little bit to the left, swollen and ugly.
    He looks surprised to see me.
    I begin to gather my things. I mutter something that even I donít comprehend when NAME, my soldering hookup, comes over to assist. ìNot leaving already, are you?î he asks. ìWe havenít even started.î
    I look at Jay, and we remain frozen in place for a few moments. NAME follows my gaze. ìOuch. Somebody got in a real good hit. Looks fresh.î
    ìYeah. It was me,î I said. ìLast night.î
    NAME looked back and forth between us, until Jay broke the awkward silence by getting up in a huff. He tried to scowl at me on his way out, but the bandage and the bruising made it nearly unrecognizable. He didnít even bother trying to pack everything back in his bag neatly. It didnít matter. Everything got pushed into his bag with one big sweep. A few components fell to the floor. They must not have been too important, because Jay decided to sacrifice them to the the soldering station floor. He took off, and within a minute somebody took over his chair.
    ìSnuck up behind me when I didnít expect it,î I mumbled. ìGuy walks like a ninja. I donít even know him.î
    NAME nodded, knowing I wasnít being completely honest but not caring what the truth of the situation was. Sometimes you just donít ask.
    I spent a couple hours soldering, then moved over to the contest area to see what contests were winding up. I browsed for a little bit when who should appear but Shadowcopy and Badrequest.
    ìThanks, guys, for spending all that time with me last night,î I said.
    ìYou seemed to be doing all right for yourself,î Badrequest said.
    ìRight.î I bumped into somebody from behind, or maybe he bumped into me. I turned around to apologize and came face to face with Jay. He gave me a foreboding look and continued on his way.
    ìWasnít that the guy you were with last night?î Shadowcopy asked.
    ìYeah, right before you ditched me,î I replied.
    ìSorry,î Badrequest said, and started to make up some lame excuse about who contacted them and where they needed to be, and how suddenly they were partying with a bunch of goons and life was good. Finally he had the sense to come back to the question Iíd been dreading: ìWhat happened to that guy anyway? He looks pretty beat up.î
    ìPedobear,î I replied. ìI was dancing with the bear head on, and didnít realize just how big it was. Caught him in the eye.î
    ìIt looked like his nose was broken.î
    ìCaught him in the eye and the nose. Listen, I gotta go.î
    ìWait. Want to meet up for lunch?î
    ìIíll find you,î I called over my shoulder. ìIíve got to catch a talk. Starts in five.î
    And I would have. I really would have made it to the talk, only I got caught up in conversation with a couple of guys Iíd never met before about the crypto on the floor, part of l0stís badge puzzle that year. We were giving each other tips, going back and forth on what we knew about the clues, keeping our voices low so that we wouldnít share our trade secrets with too many people.
    I gleaned more from them than they did from me, but I was able to give them a hint or two that they hadnít thought through before. They were pretty hard core, writing all of their notes in a shabby looking lined notebook, and retreating to the depths of someplace I didnít even want to know about as soon as they had gotten all the information they believed they were going to get out of me. There was a room, back in a dark corner, behind the room where the blood drive was going on, that seemed to host a certain breed of black badge enthusiasts. Kids who havenít slept in 32 hours, trying for that mystical black badge offering entry to all DEF CONs for the rest of time, so they could take their sacred black badge home and caress it and call it ìmy preciousî.
    ìWhat happened to that guyís face?î the girl next to me whispered to her friend.
    I looked up to see Jay. ìHe couldnít handle the kickback from a gun at the shoot. I tried to warn him to leave the big guns to the real men,î I said to them before walking right up to Jay.
    ìStop following me.î
    He grunted. ìHavenít you done enough?î
    ìIím serious.î
    ìStop telling lies about me.î
    ìYou deserved that punch,î I said, a little bit too loud. People were starting to avoid us in the hallway. Not wanting to cause another scene, I took off. I glanced back to make sure Jay was not following.
    All day, everywhere I went, Jay was there. The vendor area. The restaurant we went to for dinner. Yes, I met up with Shadowcopy and Badrequest. We skipped lunch. No time. We were too busy missing all the talks we had every intention of going to. Lunch for me was half a granola bar Iíd shoved into my bag earlier that day. After spending the day adding bits and pieces to the bag, the granola bar had worked its way to the bottom, and most of it was flattened. It tasted like hay and smelled like the sweat of thousands of hackers. I ate the non-flattened side and threw the rest away.
    We tried four different parties that night - two on site at the con, and two off site. Jay was at three of them. Each encounter was more uncomfortable than the one before. Jay actually started brooding like a teenage boy a little bit more each time he saw me. People began to ask what Iíd done to the poor guy that made him so upset to see me. Each time I came up with a new story. We shared a cab and got in a minor traffic accident. I opened the door too fast and it hit him in the face. We were playing ball, and I canít throw to save my life - which is true, by the way.
    ìWhoís the guy in the jacket and the hat thatís been following him around all day?î Shadow asked at dinner.
    ìI hadnít noticed,î I admitted. ìIíve been trying so hard to avoid him all day, I wasnít paying attention to anyone else.î
    ìMaybe itís time you do,î Shadow said. ìHe looks a little shady.î
    Every time I saw Jay for the rest of the day, I noticed the man in the hat, not so far behind. How I missed him before was a miracle, his too-tall top hat with the steampunk eyeglass attached to the right side. None other than the man in the hat that had walked me home the night before. What business did he have with Jay?
    When we left the third party, I made sure to hunt Jay down and tell him exactly where we were going. I made sure he was clear on the fact that I was sharing this information with him specifically so that he would NOT show up. To my great surprise, it worked. Neither Jay nor the man in the hat showed up, and I was finally able to enjoy my night.

    To my great disappointment, I awoke Saturday morning to find Jay passed out drunk in my hotel room. I was certain he had not been there when I went to bed. I wondered how heíd gotten in. He just sat there, slumped over on a pimped out rascal, a big floppy hat with a sunflower propped up on his head. His arms lay limp at his sides, a bottle of beer still half full in his right hand. Giant movie star sunglasses covered his two black eyes and part of the white tape that covered his broken nose.
    ìYouíve got to be kidding me.î I pulled a sweater on over my pajama top, not wanting Jay to see me in my pajamas. ìUp,î I said. Jay didnít respond. I put my hands on his shoulders and gave him a good shake. The beer sloshed over the side of the bottle, onto the carpet. Some sloshed onto his hand. He did not wake up.
    I slapped him across the face. It felt pretty good, until I realized that he was dead. Jayís body was thrown off balance, and he fell - hard - off the rascal. The beer began oozing out of the bottle. The sunglasses slid partway off his face.
    So, to recap, I had just slapped the dead body of the guy whose nose I had broken during a very public, music-stopping fight, and his remains were now laying on the floor of my hotel room. It dawned on me that I had spent the previous day telling lies about that broken nose, often denying that I knew Jay at all.
    This did not look good for me.
    I knew I hadnít killed him, but the police were not likely to believe me, and the last thing I wanted to be responsible for was the Vegas police crawling all over DEF CON. That sounded like a great way to be the least popular person at the con, and I did not want to get on the bad side of the guys who were fanatics about their anonymity.
    I did the only thing I could think of to do in the moment. I searched the body.
    The first peculiar thing I found was that Jay had two badges on his person. One vendor badge, indicating that he was here in the capacity of a sales person, and one black badge. I had never held an actual black badge before, so I didnít know what they looked like. This one appeared to be authentic. Why would he have two badges on him? Had he stolen the black badge from somebody? Did he get the vendor get a free badge, and thatís why he had two? I would have to find out.
    Jay also had a small burner phone. The power was off, and I decided against attempting to turn it on in the hotel room, just to be safe.
    Another peculiar thing I found was the lack of any sort of identification on this guy. No driverís license, no credit cards. Not even a handful of change. Other than the badges and the burner phone, this guy had nothing on him. This left me very little to go on. It didnít strike me as a robbery, and even if it had been, the odds that his body would end up in my room while I slept was near impossible.
    The pimped out rascal was obviously important, because of the pimp my rascal competition at the con. How long did they have to pimp out their rascal? Surely the competition couldnít be over already by Saturday morning. Somebody would be looking for the rascal. I would need to get it out of the room before they started looking too hard for it. Maybe I could Weekend at Bernieís Jayís body right out of my room on that rascal and dump the rascal somewhere far away from the body before somebody felt the need to look in my room for it.
    I dragged Jayís body back up onto the rascal, getting him all settled in. I propped the giant floppy sunflower hat back on his head and made sure the sunglasses appropriately covered his two black eyes. I pried the beer out of his hand and set the now sticky bottle in the sink. ìThere we go. All set,î I said as I repositioned him just a little bit to the left. A sure sign that it was time to get moving, before I did something really crazy.
    The most awkward part was trying to position myself on the rascal without knocking Jay off, all the while touching the dead body for the absolute minimal amount of time possible. I shuddered at the thought.
    I took that rascal out of the room, down the hall to the elevator, and down into the guest laundry room. I propped Jayís body up, big floppy hat and all, with a book teetering precariously in his hands.
    I rode the rascal down the hall towards the conference, debating whether I should leave it outside or ride it in and wait for someone to talk to me about it. I opted to leave it in the hall, just out of sight of the goons at the front entrance. If whoever recognized it knew Jay had been with it, they might link me back to him and ask where heíd been, and Iíd already exhausted all my good excuses for the broken nose.
    I meandered into the conference, attempting nonchalance. My next step was to find out who this guy was, and why he was murdered. No problem. I was only at a conference known for anonymity, that asks no real names, where everyone went by their pseudonyms and handles.
    This was going to be tough.
    I went first to the vendor area. I had powered through here yesterday, but I couldnít recall having seen Jay. Looking back, it was the only place I hadnít run into him the entire day. So I did the only thing I could think of to do. I picked a corner of the room and began going booth to booth, asking for the guy whose nose I had broken. I wanted to apologize, I told them, for the damage I had done. Which, of course, was a lie. Jay deserved that punch. But it couldnít hurt to throw it out there to the public that I was looking for him, and wanted to apologize.
    Finally I found someone that knew him. ìHe never showed up this morning,î the guy working the booth complained. ìHe spent most of yesterday walking around too. Thatís the problem with volunteers. Sometimes they want to get paid, but they donít want to do the work.î
    ìHe fill out any info for this gig?î
    ìThis con? We pay cash. Donít ask names. There isnít any credible info recorded.î
    ìWhat did he have you call him?î
    ìDo you know what he was interested in at the con?î
    ìSeemed like he spent a lot of time in the villages. Said he was on to something big. Was on his laptop half the time, even when he was at the booth.î
    ìWant to buy a T-shirt?î
    I glanced at his stock. The only ladies cut shirts were pink. ìMaybe later,î I lied. Pink disgusts me. ìThanks for the info. Iíll send him back over here if I find him.î
    On my way over to the contest area, I noticed someone riding the pimped out rascal down the hall. I followed it, making my way through the overcrowded halls as quickly as I could. I caught up to the girl driving it when she finally stopped.
    ìNice ride,î I said.
    ìYou do that all yourself?î
    ìGroup effort.î She looked at the time, uninterested in me or what I had to say.
    ìWaiting for someone?î
    ìGuy with a broken nose?î
    She looked me in the eye for the first time. ìHowíd you know?î
    ìI broke it. Wanted to apologize.î
    ìYeah, well, heís late.î
    ìDo you know his name? Where I can find him?î
    ìHe goes by Jacked1n. If I knew where to find him, Iíd be with him right now. Just leaves our rascal sitting in the middle of the hall where anyone can take it,î she muttered.
    ìMaybe he had to go to the bathroom.î
    ìDoubt it.î
    ìThanks for your help.î
    She checked the time again and looked around, annoyed. Not really a people person, that one.
    By chance, I wandered past a cabinet displaying counterfeit badge winners. I managed to find my way to someone who would know. I asked about the black badge I had found in Jayís pocket. ìItís counterfeit, all right,î the contest organizer assured me after studying it for a moment. ìItís just a really good counterfeit. And I know who made it.î
    ìReally? Because Iím looking for him.î
    The contest organizer was still holding the counterfeit badge. ìI can take you to him.î
    My heart began to beat a little faster. ìThat would be great,î I said. ìThank you.î
    I followed the contest organizer down the hall, past the room where they took blood donations, past the room with the black badge enthusiasts, and through a door I hadnít even noticed before. We entered a small room I never would have found on my own. The contest organizer opened the door for me and handed me the counterfeit black badge. ìReturn this to him for me, would you?î
    ìOf course,î I said, my voice squeaking out of my throat so badly that I almost didnít recognize it.
    The lights were so low it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I jumped a little when I saw the man in the hat.
    ìSit,î he said.
    I took a seat across from him. I still could not see his face. He had his arms crossed over his chest, his feet propped up on top of the table. He moved his feet one by one, his steel toed boots clomp, clomping, down to the floor. He leaned forward. ìIíve been waiting for you,î he said.
    ìI never got your name.î
    ìMy handle is twentythree. I believe you have my badge?î
    I handed it over to him. He turned it over a couple times, then stuck it in his bag. ìYou wish to know of our friend with the broken nose.î
    ìWho is he?î
    The left corner of his mouth curled up into a smile. ìWhatís it worth to you?î
    ìWhat do you want?î
    I leaned forward. ìI donít know if youíve noticed, but you seem to be more the kind of guy to have access to information than I am.î
    Twentythree leaned forward. ìI know that heís dead.î
    ìSee that? You clearly know more than I do. Because last I saw him Ö î I trailed off, knowing the shock on my face had already betrayed me. No sense prolonging the lie. ìWhat is it that you need to know?î
    ìOur friend with the broken nose has been around for a long time, Marie.î The use of my real name made my heart beat a little bit faster. ìHe is a very dangerous man, with very dangerous friends and even more dangerous enemies. He was killed for information.î
    ìI see.î
    ìThis information, the stuff our friend with the broken nose collected, could cause great problems.î
    ìBut of course.î
    Twentythree leaned in closer, so close I could smell his lunch on his breath. Onions. Maybe two or three of them, whole. ìI need that information.î
    ìWhat do you need that information for?î
    He grinned. ìI have a lot of influence, Marie. I know people. Donít ask too many questions.î I think he was joking.
    ìHow do I - I donít know how to get you the information youíre looking for.î Best not to be too careful.
    ìFind the jump drive. The people who killed him were looking for it, but they didnít find it. They searched his room, his laptop, and found nothing. Everything he did was stored on one little jump drive, one that he kept on him at all times. Yet they couldnít find it on his body. Find it by the end of the day. In the vendor area, the northeast corner, there is a plastic pineapple. Open it up and leave it inside. If you do so, we will get you the information you need.î
    ìWhatís to stop me from just handing the jump drive over to the police?î
    ìThe police wonít know what to do with it. Our friend with the broken nose is writing an exploit, one that will target a wide array of devices. Similar to Heartbleed or POODLE. The police will recognize it as a virus, but they will not know how dangerous it would be if it went public. It cannot go public. If it did, we would have copycats popping up all over the globe. The information must be found, and it must be put into the right hands to first be mitigated, and then the data destroyed.î
    ìCanít I just bring the information back to you here?î
    ìNo,î the man in the hat said, his voice icy. ìConsidering where they left his body, they already know youíre involved. We cannot be seen together again. Find the jump drive. Leave it in the pineapple. Succeed, and I will get you the information you need to clear your name, as well as the information the police need to solve the murder of our friend with the broken nose.î
    ìAnd if I donít?î
    ìThen I pity you and all of your time spent rotting in a Vegas prison. If you canít clear your name before the police come snooping around, it isnít likely youíll get out of this unscathed. You have little choice in the matter.î Twentythree stood. ìNow go. Youíve got some searching to do.î
    After leaving the man in the hat, I stepped outside to get some air. Some of that dry, hot, desert air that dehydrates you so fast Ö I grabbed a water bottle out of my bag and had myself a good long drink. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying to think of what to do next.
    The burner phone. I pulled it out of my pocket and turned it on. One new message: Would you like to play a game?
    I couldnít shake the feeling that the message was intended for me. I looked back in the phoneís history. Nothing. Not a single message. I checked the time the new message was sent. This morning, after our friend with the broken nose was already settled in my room. I shivered, thinking about how someone had driven the rascal into my room and arranged it while I slept, without my knowledge.
    Youíre on, I typed back.
    I thought about twentythreeís warning about dangerous people. I hit send anyway. I was already in this. They knew who I was; there was no need to pretend I wasnít involved. Besides, I had broken a guyís nose. I could take care of myself.
    I hoped.
    I didnít get anything back right away. I waited a few minutes more, but nothing came. I didnít want to wander around with a cell phone from a dangerous stranger, though they were probably already tracking me anyway. I turned the phone off and slid it back in my pocket.
    The jump drive must still be on his body. His pockets were empty, I was sure of it. I had searched the rascal before leaving it in the hallway too and came up with nothing.
    I thought of the giant floppy hat. As much as I didnít want to go back to the body, perhaps it was necessary. I wandered through the casino, past the ice machine, and into the laundry room. I grabbed the hat off his head as I walked by and placed it on my own. I tried hard not to think about the fact that I was wearing dead guy hat. I went straight for the elevators and headed up to my room, taking the hat off as soon as I got in the elevator. My head itched from wearing dead guy hat. Either that or I had caught lice from donning the Pedobear head at the party a couple nights prior. Either way, not a great feeling.
    I set the hat down on the bed and had a good long look at it. I dug around in the flower a little bit until I found a jump drive stuffed in among the petals. This was it. It had to be. I turned the jump drive over in my fingers, to see if I could discern anything from it. Do I connect it to my machine? Copy it?
    There was a knock at the door. I froze, debating with myself if I should answer or ignore it.
    "Hello?" a female voice called.
    I put the security lock on before opening the door a crack. A petite blonde girl stood there, a tall but thin acne-filled teenager at her side. Completely non threatening.
    "Hi," I said.
    The blonde was out of breath. "We saw you as we were getting off the elevator. We tried to catch you."
    "Your hat. We want it," the girl said.
    "My hat?"
    "With the sunflower." She held up a sheet of paper. "We're doing a scavenger hunt. Floppy hat with a sunflower, number 32 on the list. What do you want for your hat?"
    "Hang on." I closed the door and grabbed the hat. I quickly searched through the petals one more time, just in case, and found nothing further. I turned the hat over and looked at the inside. Nothing. I ran my fingers along the brim, because why not. Nada.
    I opened the door again, keeping the security lock in place. I slipped it through the crack in the door. "It's yours," I said. "Free of charge."
    The girl gave a little jump and shouted thank you before running down the hall. If the door had been open, I'm pretty sure she would have given me a hug. Good thing I'd kept the security lock on. Enjoy your dead guy hat, I thought before getting back down to business.
    What time did the vendor area close? According to the clock it was starting to get late. Better make my way down there. I couldn't afford to miss this. The elevator was slow. I flipped through the con schedule and tried to find out when the vendor area closed.
    Ten minutes. I pressed the button a few more times in quick succession, because the elevator comes faster when you do that. Finally the doors opened. As I stepped inside, I caught a glimpse of the man in the hat. He was standing at the end of the hall, watching me. At least, I think he was watching me. His face was turned towards me, but it was impossible to see his eyes with that ridiculous hat from that distance.
    This was a popular time for the elevator. We stopped at nearly every floor on the way down. We picked up a chatty Asian couple, a large woman with a bad smokerís cough, three blonde girls wearing something that apparently classifies as a bikini, a family of five with all their bags packed up to leave for home. Who brings little kids to Vegas?
    Finally we reached the bottom. After waiting for everyone else to file out, I broke free and took off down the hall towards the vendor area, moving as quickly as I could without breaking into an all out run. The last thing I needed was to make the casino security team nervous.
    The vendors were already beginning to pack up when I arrived. Which way was North? I veered right and circled the room, hoping to find the pineapple before it was gone. In corner number three I found it. The vendor was trapped in conversation with an enthusiast. Finally, a lucky break. I dropped the jump drive into the pineapple and wandered off before anyone could link me to it.
    I worried the rest of the night. If twentythree knew that Jayís dead body had shown up in my room, who else knew? Undoubtedly there were security cameras in the hallway watching me steer the rascal down the hall, and more cameras near the laundry room watching me assist Jay into his seat. But those same cameras should have caught whoever had brought Jay to my room.
    I stayed on site that night, attending a DEF CON party with some DJ that I didnít want to admit Iíd never heard of before. Badrequest and Shadow gave me a hard time about where Iíd been the entire day, and I reminded them that they had left me at a party at a separate hotel a couple nights before and left me to walk home alone.
    Towards the end of the night, I caught a glimpse of twentythree, but Iíll remember him as the man in the hat. He gave me a slow nod, then turned and walked out of the room. I still had not received any confirmation of the identity of our friend with the broken nose or his killers.
    Just before bed, I remembered the burner phone. I turned it back on to find a message detailing what would be done to me if ever I spoke of the events that occurred this weekend. Just stupid, juvenile, 4chan threats, but it made me sick to my stomach. I spent most of the next hour staring at the ceiling, hoping nobody would burst into my room to murder me in my sleep, because obviously I couldnít be bothered to wake up for measly little problems like death. Finally, I went down to Badrequest and Shadowís room, pounding on the door until they woke up and let me in. Without a word, I wandered in with the bedsheet and a pillow Iíd carried down the hall from my room, curled up on the floor, and went to sleep.

    All day Sunday, I waited. Sundays are a light day. People are flying home, and not everyone stays for the entire final day. I did not see the man in the hat at all, and part of me wondered if he had gone home. I stayed at the con all day long, even buying an expensive and - bonus! - disappointingly bad sandwich from the chillout lounge so that I wouldnít have to go off site for lunch. And yet, nothing.
    The day seemed to drag on, until finally it was over. The closing ceremonies breezed by. Still nothing. I felt sick to my stomach. I should have taken the time to look at what was on that jump drive. I had thought about it during my frantic search for the pineapple, but I couldnít risk missing my chance to get the information to the right people, by which of course i mean the ones offering to help save my life instead of taking it.
    Maybe, just maybe, if I got all packed up quick enough in the morning, I would be free from this mess. It seemed too late to call in the body near my room, considering the body was now in a place public enough for anyone to find it. Plus there was still the fact that a large group of strangers had seen me break his nose, and then Iíd lied about it. I was so caught up in my thoughts that I completely zoned out the end of the closing ceremonies.
    I followed the crowd as we filed out of closing ceremonies, a bittersweet feeling of being both ready to get more than three or four hours of sleep for days on end, and knowing that it would likely be another year before I would be with a large mass of people that didnít look at me like a crazy person when I tried to describe what I did for a living. A vendor passed out T-shirts on our way out the door. He thrust a rolled up shirt at me. I took it, even though it might not have been in my size. Into the swag bag it goes. I could always give it away.
    The guys approached me to finalize dinner plans. We were sharing a cab to In N Out Burger, because itís a requirement for the Sunday night of DEF CON. We donít have In N Out Burger in the Midwest, and no trip to DEF CON would be complete without it. We set a time and I started back towards my room.
    There was more commotion moving through the casino than I was used to. Then I noticed that Jayís body had been moved. Panic set in. Somebody had found him and undoubtedly called the police. Perhaps I shouldnít have left his body in such a public place. But this had been the goal, ultimately. Jay had been found, and it hadnít been in my hotel room. Somewhere buried in all that mess was a win.
    They were probably watching the security footage right now. Time was limited, and I still had not received my proof. I worked my way back to my room, trying to piece a believable story together in my head and failing. The best I could do was go back to the room and decompress until dinner.
    I dropped my dayís bag full of swag on the bed and flopped down next to it, resting for a moment, closing my eyes to think. Not wanting to fall asleep, I sat up a few minutes later and decided to rifle through my swag to see what to keep, and what goes to the free giveaway back home. I checked out the shirt, and out fell the initial jump drive, plus a second USB drive.
    I perked up, trying to remember what the guy had looked like who had given me the T-shirt and failing. I turned my laptop on and decided not to plug in the original USB drive. It held exploits, after all. I plugged in the second USB drive, and there, to my great joy, was the name of a certain organization, as well as the names of the key players within that organization. I scrolled down and all of the proof was there, in front of me. Everything needed to let me off the hook.
    Someone pounded on the door to my room. ìPolice! Open up!î
    I went to the door and called out, ìIím opening the door.î As soon as I began to open the door, one of the officers kicked it in the rest of the way. I barely got out of the way in time. Six officers rushed into the room, surrounding me on all sides. One had a gun drawn. Another had the handcuffs out. They were ready for me.
    ìDown on your knees!î
    I got down and put my hands behind my head, because thatís what they do in the movies. ìIím not the one youíre looking for.î
    ìOne of the cleaners saw you chatting up the corpse in the laundry room yesterday. Called it in this afternoon when the body was still sitting there and she realized he was dead. The hall cameras caught you on tape.î
    ìThe ones responsible for his death threatened me. Thereís a burner phone sitting on the counter with the message in it. The USB drive on the laptop has the names of the people involved in the organization that threatened me, and the digital forensics to back it up. Itís enough to put them away for years.î
    The officer who had done most of the talking so far nodded towards the laptop. One of the other cops went over to check it out. ìIt looks legit for now,î he said, ìBut weíll have our own forensics team look over it.î
    ìAt ease, everyone,î the cop in charge said. I let out a sigh of relief. ìWeíre still going to need you to come down to the station to give a statement.î He hefted me to my feet, my hands still cuffed.
    ìCan you give me a ride to In N Out Burger afterwards? Itís important.î
    ìClose enough to walk to if we clear this up quickly enough,î the cop said, rolling his eyes to let me know that his day had been far too long already, and I wasnít helping.

    At the airport on our way out, the man in the hat - twentythree, I guess, since he didnít have the hat on - made his final appearance. Security made him remove his hat, and I strained to get a look at his face, but he kept his head down almost strategically, and I couldnít see anything. What was with this guy?
    We made it through our courtesy TSA security snuggle at the airport. Twentythree was standing in line at a coffee shop, and nodded to me on my way through. ìThank you,î I said to him as I bustled by, avoiding eye contact.
    ìDonít mention it. Ever.î
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


    • #17


      Location: Desert City, U.S.A
      Time: Approx. 07:00 PDT

      A cool desert breeze makes its way through a small suburb granting a blanket before the Sun fully rises and resumes its routine of baking the Earth. Inside the home of 256 N. Lizard Lane, just around the corner from the local market lives a man named Jared Pendleton. On the outside Jared is a normal thin man in his mid 40’s who has managed to keep all of his hair. He works a normal job as a Market Analyst for one DSSK Corporation a company of mild responsibility and okay standing within the community. On the inside though, he is tortured with nightmares that continue to haunt him throughout the day.

      His current dream is all too familiar and he knew. As he dozed off to sleep the fear began would begin to grip his body. The dark mass started in his stomach and worked its way throughout his entire body, as he faded into the darkness the fear paralyzed him from fingertips to his toes as if he were being tied down for some terrible experiment. Unable to move his body all he could do is gasp and scream as something began to press its weight down on him. As the horror began to take full grip of him reds and yellows started slithering around bringing Jared’s vision into focus. Before him, a thin shadowy figure caressed his exposed chest with its razor like fingers. With one last shred of determination Jared managed to choke out a cry for help that seemed to have shocked the creature. The figure realizing that its prey had woken up began to perform its nightly feed. Starting with his chest it wasted no time bursting its hands through his rib cage. It felt as if liquid had filled Jared’s throat as his brain began to fire off every node and his heart began to pump rapidly. He struggled to move as the creatures face grew even more fierce with a sick smile. Before Jared could begin to scream more the monster had moved onto ripping some organ that he could not make out as he became dizzy and incoherent the creature let out one final SHRIEE……..


      Time: 07:00

      Jared’s eyes opened at the speed of eternity, as he lay in his bed feeling the blood pump through his body he wondered if he should call in sick. He thought for a few minutes and decided against it since it was the office raffle the day before the crew shoved off to Defcon’s yearly conference in Las Vegas. With that in mind Jared sluggishly rose out of bed and gathered himself for the day.

      Location: DSSK Corporate Office
      Time: 09:00

      Arriving at work fifteen minutes as usual, Jared went straight to his desk to perform his daily ritual of scanning the aggregated news throughout the night. One article struck him as a little curious, the headline read “Brony Site Hacked, Home Page Reads ‘Did you eat your Oats?’” An eerie feeling swept through his veins as he recalled a discussion about the importance having fiber in one’s diet. The feeling was interrupted by Ash Prince, DSSKs Patron Saint bursting into the office and hollering something incoherent about Vegas and that DSSKcon will be the most spectacular in 2015. The day drove on as normal, Jared had spotted a few trends that had caught his eye and try to find more leads on. As the end of everyone’s day began to draw to an end Cam Holden strutted into the room and said to forget about the raffle, everyone had won and the prize was night long binder before getting on the DSSK jets for Vegas.

      Location: Vol De Nuit, Fancy Club
      Time: 23:45

      The DSSK Team arrived in fashionable lateness as usual. Jared walked with the Team to bar and got their drinks. He was still feeling a little off about the dream so he decided to go with a Tequila shot and a Rum with Coke. He soon found himself gravitating towards the speakers, the bass was rolling out and he could feel the vibrations move through his body. He felt at ease and decided to go to the bar for another drink. As he stood in line a well dressed female walked up behind him and showed the same impatience for the line as he did. Jared rocked in place a little bit and heard the female behind mutter something and it sounded almost like it included the word oats. Lightly buzzed Jared chuckled to himself and turned to her and asked if he could buy her a drink. She looked at him and they both agreed the order would go faster that way. As soon as they got their drinks they walked to a quieter place in the club and began to chat. Soon time began to fly by and last call was being issued. Jared was feeling more at ease as the female asked him if he wanted to go with her to her apartment to eat. Jared thought of how much of a rare opportunity this was so he agreed.

      The two left the club together and drove in her stylish and what appeared to be new vehicle. Jared sat in the passenger seat letting the cold desert air hit his face as he stuck his hand out to let some of the air hit his fingertips. They arrived in a part of the city that Jared spent a little bit of his time in but not long enough to really know anything about it. She escorted him into a building entrance and he was instantly overwhelmed by a rank smell. She instantly apologised and said something about renovation being done. They walked further down the dank hallway and stopped at a door, “Here I am.” Jared smiled and just hoped he did not have to take off his shoes. They entered her apartment and the relief came over Jared’s senses, a giggle was heard, “I know, it looks better than out there, right?” She served Jared a drink and they ate some grilled cheese. Soon after Jared felt himself getting tired and a little dizzy.

      The female looked at him with a consoling look on her face and began to pick him up by the arms and carry him. Jared felt himself nodding off and being carried, his dizziness was becoming more overwhelming and turning to darkness. He heard some muttering and distant chanting. The foul smell was beginning to fill his nose once more. He felt himself be placed on something that was wet, sticky and almost bowl like. The chanting became increasingly louder and more understandable. The female was joined by a male voice, they both spoke to him. They reminded him the importance of an oat enriched diet. They began tearing open and pouring bags of one hundred percent organic oats onto his body. Soon large vats of water were poured into the mix with bags more of oats stirred in. Jareds feeling of terror and panic soon snapped from insanity to what felt like a pure moment of bliss. He felt himself slipping into the dark.
      "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


      • #18
        We, The Weapons

        by Sean C.

        Everything is proscribed. There are no more adventures. Not in this town, not anywhere. Not anymore. The only thing left is money, deceit, and booze. You're in or you're out. On the take or taking it on. After working this job in this town for this long, I should know. Trust me. What I'm about to tell you is just more of the same.

        Before the incidents in question, before all hell broke loose, I sat in my usual spot at a dive in North Vegas. In the back, near the disused jukebox. Back to the wall, a view of the whole place. I was an inquirer of sorts back then, a detective, maybe, but I would never have used that word. I was curious is all, and curiosity could pay well in this town, or it could end you. I walked that line like a well-practiced sobriety test. I worked for an agency, nominally. Nominally: a ten dollar word which means whenever the fuck I felt like it, which, at this point, wasn't often.

        On that day, I sat there and watched the regulars while I nursed my gin. One of the regulars, Lee, had just walked in and found a table near the front. Here was a man I wouldn't trust to hold a door open for me without wondering what was in it for him. It amazed me that he could manage to fleece enough poor saps with his "business ventures" to keep him and his coterie of female admirers partying most of the week. He frequented this dive and the Anchor Club. The Anchor Club was the antithesis to this place: expensive, on the strip, well kept, filled with tourists, bottle service, and loud music. Find the marks in the Anchor Club, plan the cross here.

        Sitting alone was Howie. He was a drunk and a thief and a liar. Used to be a boxer. Well, more accurately, he was a professional loser. His job was to get into the ring and put on a good show. Make it seem like he was giving the other boxer a run for his money. He could take a hit and not get too banged up. It paid well. But you can't get your head smashed in on a regular basis and come out the other side all normal. His modus operandi nowadays was to get enough money to pay for whatever he needed to get away from the here and now.

        The bartender, Linda, had stopped off with his usual, a rotten Old Fashioned. Made with the best bottom shelf stuff available, no doubt. Linda was a friend of mine. A source of information, humor, booze, and therapy.

        "What's up, hun-bun? Need another?" she asked.

        "Good for now, Lind. Meeting a friend."

        "Sure thing. Holler if you need anything," she said as she sauntered back behind the bar.

        I looked at the old security camera, a habit of mine. Gets a good look at the scruffs coming in the entrance. Well, usually it did. But now it was pointed at the back. At me.

        I stared at it until my boss opened the door of the bar. He was standing next to a man so handsome and well dressed I thought someone was putting me on. Is this for real? He saw me, fuck. I was half-hoping he'd take one look at me, decide that there were sorrier-looking saps in the world, but he couldn't think of any, and leave. He walked up to Linda, placed an order, pointed at me, probably because he was putting the drinks on my tab, and came over.

        "Why, hello!" he said. His teeth glistened like a recently cleaned window. That slimy fuck.

        "How's it going, Horace?" I tried my best to be professional, but the booze in me was creeping up and I knew I'd sock him if he pushed me.

        "Good, now that I know you'll be pulling a job for me," he paused to smile at Linda as she brought over two beers. "Now, don't even try to tell me you're too busy or it's not interesting enough. I've vetted this one myself. Besides, I think you need some looking after. You don't look like you've been doing well lately and frankly, I'm concerned."

        "How unlike you," I said.

        He deflated a bit.

        "I'm hurt, you know. Here I come in with a paycheck for you, already signed," he took a check out of his breast pocket and put in on the table and paused. "I know, not an insignificant sum. As I was saying: here I come in with a paycheck and a simple assignment, and all you need to do is say yes and this check and another like it will be yours in no time at all."

        I took a pull from my drink, finished it, and put it back down harder than I intended. The beer I left untouched.

        "What, no response?"

        "What's the job?"

        "I'm glad you asked. Simple, really. Someone is coming to Vegas next week, for a conference. She has something one of our clients wants, something that will help them very much." The handsome assistant-or-whatever of his was meandering near the entrance of the bar. Looking outside every once in awhile, checking his expensive watch, checking his phone.

        I stared at Horace, eyes half lidded. I've heard this a thousand times.

        "And what is it that your client wants?"

        "Our client," he emphasized, "wants a program this person has written. But unfortunately, she won't sell. Not even for a lot of money. And they want it rather badly." He drank his beer and wiped his mouth. "I'm sure you've heard of the Great Artillery."

        I had. It was the first major cyberweapon: a tool that could remove a site or group of sites from the Internet completely. It used a distributed attack that hijacked normal computers. It was very difficult to defend against, apparently. I read about it in an email I had stolen a year or so back.

        I nodded.

        "Well, this program exploits a vulnerability of the Great Artillery. It could be what our client needs to finally defend against it. Allegedly, it can confuse the Great Artillery's algorithm to point at random sites or something like that and greatly mitigates the damage."

        "So you want me to either get the target to go to the bargaining table, or, even better, to get the code directly and give it to you."

        "Précisément! So, what do you think? Want the job?"

        "Who is the target?"

        Always good to know who I'll be stealing from for money. Maybe it's someone I know and I'll be able to fuck up another relationship I once had.

        "We don't know her real name, only her alias, approximate age, and the fact that she's a woman. She goes by persephone and she's approximately 25-35, probably of American birth and upbringing."

        "Photos? Last known location? Contacts? This sounds like a missing person case, not an info job."

        Horace took out an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I opened it and there was a printout of IRC logs:

        08:40 -!- e27 [e27@xnet-2F20F7B8] has joined #dohi
        08:40 [Users #dohi]
        08:40 [ august ] [ pe_x ] [ halfalive] [ manfield ] [ e27 ]
        08:40 [ persephone ] [ ty—- ] [ z ] [ sp3rt ] [ mad ]
        08:40 -!- Yrssi: #dohi: Total of 10 nicks [0 ops, 0 halfops, 0 voices, 10 normal]
        08:40 -!- Yrssi: Join to #dohi was synced in 1 secs
        08:41 -!- mad is now known as dflv
        08:42 < dflvh> hmm.
        12:34 < persephone> anyone going to defcon
        14:11 < z> probably, you?
        14:12 < august> yeah, last time, tho
        23:00 < persephone> are you guys going to any good parties?
        23:00 < august> i can get you an invite to /the/ party.
        23:10 < august> hit me up when you get to vegas and i'll show you.
        23:46 -!- persephone [ptrace@xnet-F03AD8CF] has quit [Ping timeout: 184 seconds]

        There was another piece of paper describing a few more details of persephone's published writing and how they determined her age and gender. Another page on what DOHI was. There was something missing, though. No logs or description of persephone's tool.

        "Where's the info about what persephone wrote? I don't see it in any of this. Where does that lead come from?"

        "Ah. Well, it was a bit of clandestine work. An audio call was intercepted from one member of DOHI to another and they mentioned the tool and how effective it could be and who wrote it."

        "Do you have a recording I can listen to? Or a transcript?"

        He frowned for the first time since he entered.


        "Well, what's DOHI?"

        "There's an entire page in there on that group. Read it for yourself on your own time." He drained his beer. "So, what do you say?"

        I don't like taking jobs where the target is someone like me. Someone down and out, or some lowlife, or someone who just isn't that important to the powers that be. But the jobs offered by those powers pay the best. This job paid the best. I don't like to admit it, but I was strapped for cash at that moment. I should have known it was crooked from the start. The lack of details, the money, the Great Artillery for fuck's sake. If I had thought about it, I would have known who I was working for.

        "Alright. I'll do it."

        Horace stood and shielded his eyes from the light entering from the street. A car pulled in. His assistant waved for him to leave.

        "Looks like my ride is here. Take care of yourself."

        I looked around. Another job, another month of rent. But I should have known better. Once a chump, always a chump. I know that now. I felt sick. The smell of the cigarette ash and the ancient furniture, the lights, the booze, the job. I stumbled to the ladies room and got myself a place where I could be myself, truly myself, and vomited it all out. Nausea was comforting for me. It would wake me in the middle of the night, like a needy friend. If I went long enough without it I felt a little less special, like a part of me was missing. I didn't want it; it wanted me. After I was done, I slumped on the floor and spent the next half hour feeling sorry for myself.

        I opened the stall door with a slam. A flourish, I told myself. I put my hands on the sink counter and stared back at what was in the mirror. I tried to find something there but found nothing. Everything grows less and less clear here. Who was she? The author of a countermeasure to the Great Artillery had to know what she was doing. She had to know what it was worth. What was she worth?

        I did some research into DOHI. They were a prominent hacking group. They liked to post exploits for the software the Internet ran on–the stuff billion-dollar businesses depend on–to public mailing lists and laugh at the freakout. Merry pranksters for the digital age. People loved to write op-eds about how immoral they were and about how there were responsible ways to disclose bugs. That's all bullshit, though. Rich assholes love to tell you that you're immoral and a criminal when you shit on their parade, but what they're doing is "just business."

        DOHI would have none of that. They didn't have an agenda like the other groups: they fed off of the chaos. I couldn't find out what DOHI stood for, so I made up a name from a book I once read. The Dark of Human Ignorance. They're teaching us how ignorance is the worst crime of all. Ignorance eats away at the ground we stand on until there's nothing left. Security is the same way. Your ignorance eats away at your security while you stand unaware and tell everyone that the situation is normal.

        Couldn't find much specifically on the persephone nick. Time for a phone call to a hacker friend of mine, Jaundice. He was mighty useful when there was a business convention in town and I needed some code to rip out someone's information from an unattended laptop or phone. He might know DOHI.

        "Jaundice, it's me."

        "Oh shit, hold on I'm still waking up."

        Jaundice was a motherfucker at times. He was a better info broker than I was for sure, but didn't like to leave his pad. He lived somewhere in Santa Monica, or, at least, that's what he told me and that's what I chose to believe. He had a lot of ins into the tech industry, especially infosec. He said he got his alias from his legendary drinking skills.

        "I thought I was bad: it's two. What the fuck were you doing last night?"

        "None of your goddamn business. Now, what you want?"

        "I've got a few hackers I'd like some contact with. I only have a few nicks–"

        "This shit again? Why don't you pay me for once?"

        "Professional courtesy?"


        "Because I think you'll be interested in this. The target is the one who wrote the code that will break the Great Artillery."

        He didn't say anything for a moment, but I could hear him sitting up quickly.

        "DOHI? I heard DOHI had something, but I figured it was just talk. Who wants to know?"

        "It's one of these pay-us-enough-not-to-ask jobs. Looking for persephone, she is allegedly the one who wrote it."

        "I've heard the nick. I think I know someone who knows her. Wait a tick."

        I could hear frantic typing in the background and a squeaky chair swivel. I knew he'd be useful.

        "Yeah, a contact of mine says she's one of the core members of DOHI. What do you want to know? I don't like giving info away on fellow hackers, at least, not for free."

        "Well she's supposed to be at DEFCON and I want to run into her so I can have a chat. I don't know what she looks like or her real name or anything."

        "Hmm, I don't think I can find a picture. OPSEC and all. Let me check one thing." More furious typing. "Yeah, okay. Apparently she's going to be at DEFCON like you said. And there's lots of parties there every year and–"


        "Fucking let me finish god damnit. I'm helping you! There is one party in particular that is frequented by hackers of DOHI's type. It's hard to get into. Invite-only."

        "But, you can get me in, right?"

        "This will cost you. I'll have to call in a favor and those are worth cold hard cash."

        "Fine, whatever. What do I need to do?"

        "You'll get a token in the mail, like a large metal coin. That's your invite. It'll have the time and place and maybe some instructions with it. That's all I can do."

        Better than nothing. I hung up.

        I drove to the strip in my old red convertible. It used to be lively, fast, and showy. Now, well, it wasn't. Overuse and disinterest changed that.

        DEFCON was at one of the hotels on the strip. They love putting conferences like this in the heat of the summer, the low season for this fiery pit. They'll come no matter what. I stood in line and paid in cash like all the rest of the poor saps without special access. I was now officially in. I walked through the entrance and onto the convention floor. Like every conference, there were the people selling. Everyone's got something to sell you. Radios to hack wireless networks. Mini-computers to hide in server racks. Selling the promise of an amazing job if I only joined their startup. A kilt with pockets so that your fashion reflected your practicality.

        I stood out like a trumpet in a string quartet. All of these people were highly sought after professionals, hackers, breakers, thinkers, doers, programmers, and I wasn't. I let the crowd push me left and right, past the dance floor to the competition room. Here they needed to prove themselves even further. And they loved it. For years, everyone told me to do what I wanted with my life. So I did. And it paid fuck all. What they had meant was follow my dreams as long as it paid. I would have been better off counting beans in an air conditioned office than following deadbeats around this hell hole. If you dislike what you do for work, if you naturally have a distaste for it, you realize that you're doing it for the money and nothing else. There's a hollowness in you because of it. There's no mistaking it. Unless, by some miracle, you enjoy your work. Then you can deceive yourself into thinking that you're not doing this for the money. At least I wasn't being fooled.

        I had received my token for the party in the mail a few days prior. It told me to wear a mask. Something to disguise myself. The party was tonight, so I had a few hours to kill.

        I saw a talk that seemed interesting and a good way to pass the time. "New Techniques in Covert Information Gathering: Social Engineering for the 21st Century" was the overly loquacious title. I knew a thing or two about this.

        The speaker was a few minutes late. He had a backpack full of goodies and trinkets to show off and some to give away. It looked like he had just grabbed all of it from his car. The keys were still in his hand. He was sweaty and bald, mid-thirties. He looked like his natural habitat was a swivel chair and a steady supply of Diet Coke. The talk started off alright, with a few jokes and war stories. But the techniques were mostly amateurish and obvious. The jokes weren't much better. At the Q&A I decided to have a go.

        "Excuse me, I don't have a question, but someone told me to tell you your lights are on, a BMW, right?"

        A sudden stricken look appeared over his face. He mumbled something into his mic and stood to leave.

        "Got you," I said.

        Laughter and some applause. Social engineering, my ass.

        After wasting my time in the bar, asking random people if they knew such-and-such member of DOHI and finding zilch, I rode the elevator up to the penthouse as I donned my mask. The bouncer outside was an enormous truck of a man, nearly half as wide as he was tall, and he stood over a foot taller than me. A solitary camera stared down at us. He let me past without a word when I gave him the token. I opened the door and stepped inside.

        Everywhere there were masks. Gas masks, venetian masks like mine, halloween masks, even face paint. Seeing through my mask was difficult. I had no peripheral vision. A few turned to look at me as I walked in but they slowly turned back to whatever it was they were involved in. There was a band playing some modern baroque/techno music. A projector was set up and it was showing images of buildings collapsing and cars crashing. On every other wall there were large mirrors, giving the room the appearance of being an infinite regression of itself. The mirrors were bent slightly so it was difficult to view oneself but easy to view others.

        I ordered an Old Fashioned at the bar. The bartender wore a mask and white tuxedo. There were a few more lookalikes walking around the party filling drink orders and dishing out hors d'oeuvres.

        Two large figures approached me from behind. They nearly spilled my drink.

        "Who are you?" one asked.

        "What are you doing here?" the other said.

        I smiled beneath.

        "I could ask the same of you two," I responded.

        They looked at each other and then back at me. My hand rolled into a fist. I was ready.

        "I'm sure some nobody invited you. We know the guy running this show. Personal invitations."

        I didn't say anything in response. I made my apathy clear. They laughed in condescending derision and left. All bark and no bite.

        Drink in hand, I was ready to find persephone. I was sure she was here. Call it instinct or insight or intelligence, but I knew it. I listened. I listened to so many self-indulgent, dull conversations. The masks, which were to give the partygoers more freedom of expression, instead made them all alike. What was meant to celebrate uniqueness instead enforced conformity.

        Occasionally, I would hear a specific mention of something DOHI had done, but when I joined the group who were talking, they would soon disperse. Forever an outsider. Plan B was to start the fire myself. I found the band at the back of the party. After a song was over I took the mic. I didn't bother asking permission. This was my party, they just didn't know it yet.

        "Hey, everyone, thanks for coming. Just a few notes and then we're right back to the music. One: please don't insult the wait staff, they're here for us." Polite applause. Good to start with something that makes you seem like you know what's what. "Two: know your limits otherwise we'll throw you out. Three," here I glanced at my hand to pantomime reading something. "We're looking for two people for something special later. Looks like: persephone and august are the lucky ones. If you're here, find me!"

        Someone in a bloody clown mask came rushing up to me and even through the mask I could tell they were pissed. "What do you think–" they started. I walked away as if I hadn't heard them. No need to explain. I did what I wanted. I floated around for awhile, mesmerized by the the masks and what they meant. It was an odd feeling. I was lost amongst them. No one who would remember you nor could you remember them. You didn't matter here. No one did.

        I made myself visible, near the center, but not so central as to be lost in the main crowd. I saw two people approaching me from across the room. I knew it was her. It had to be. She had an owl mask that left the lower half of her face exposed. She was wearing deep purple lipstick and I could smell a strange perfume. They were in the middle of a conversation.

        "–there's no difference at all. Watching someone is judging them. We are all judges. Everyone would go watch the condemned die at the scaffold. Sure, they might shout or be angry about it, but they'd watch. It was a spectacle. They judged them."

        "And so what's this about the Pan-something?"

        "The Panopticon, a prison where every inmate is always visible to the guards. It has the obvious benefit of being able to see the prisoners and stop unwanted behavior fast. But there's another benefit. Foucault says that," she took out her phone and read aloud, "'the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.' That's what I'm talking about. This whole thing isn't about just stopping bad people, it's about changing natural behavior. 'Who is watching me?' becomes a routine question you ask yourself."

        "We're in this Panopticon?" I joined in.

        "It's called the Internet."

        "Is that why you wrote the fix to the Great Artillery?"

        If she was surprised that I knew about her code, she didn't show it. Maybe it was common knowledge around here.

        "It's not only a solution to this problem. The Antidote is much more than that. I built it because I could. Before, it took an army to hurt a nation. Now it's just knowledge. A single person can do it. And it terrifies them. There will be no security. There isn't any right now, we just haven't realized it."

        The Antidote. A fitting name. I could see past the eyeholes in her mask to her face underneath. There was flesh and blood and history and weakness and strength beneath that mask. Her eyes reflected like the mirrors in the room and I could see myself. She didn't blink. Her smile, if you could call it that, had an edge like a cliff.

        "So you're persephone, obviously. But who is this?" I gestured to the man who walked over with her. He was swaying like a tree in a storm.

        "This is august."

        I could see dark eyes beneath his long nosed mask. It looked like a plague doctor's mask.

        "Nice to meet you," he managed. "I'm going to grab another one. Be back in a tick."

        "So why did you want us? What's this surprise or secret or whatever?"

        "To be honest, I wanted to meet you. I've heard a lot about you."

        She scoffed. "No, really."

        "Well, I was wondering if we could chat about the Antidote. I'm so curious as to why you said you wouldn't sell it. It could be a lot of money."

        "Have you seen a movie called Last Year at Marienbad? French new wave."


        "A shame. It's the perfect film, actually. It's not a movie like most others. Some movies are about plot or characters or a theme the writer or director wanted to shove down your throat. This one is about you and how you understand the world. Who is telling the truth? What is the significance of the contradictory images on screen? Your answers reveal more about yourself than about the movie." She paused, giving me a chance to interrupt, but I didn't. "One of the things that sticks out most about that movie is the background characters, the extras. When the main characters are engaged in dialogue, everyone else in the movie is frozen in place. Waiters bent setting food on tables, people walking stopped in mid-stride, background conversations paused. It's because they don't matter. That's how we view everyone outside of our own lives. Look around right now, do you care about any of these people?"

        I didn't know what to say.

        "Well, I care in a general way," I hedged. "I don't want anyone to get hurt or anything like that."

        "No, no. I mean do you care about how successful they are or how their day is going or if their marriage is happy? Of course not, not even enough to ask them. They're just noise. This is what we deny: that we're all background noise to the powers that be. You barely control your own destiny. And whom do you trust? Everyone has an agenda but will deny it to the end. These people you ignore are your enemies, but you don't know it yet. People treat me like an ingénue or someone's girlfriend. Some background character."

        "Even at DEFCON?" I asked. "Even here among your people?"

        "My people? That's a laugh. When you are good enough at anything, you stand alone. Anyway to answer your question, it's none of your fucking business you fucking background character. You and everyone else needs to get off my case. You don't know what you're talking about."

        august had rejoined us with two new drinks for them.

        "Look, I'm sorry. I was just curious."

        I watched them leave.

        Time to be a detective again. I followed them at a distance through the open floor and watched the people around me. They seemed very still. The hum of the conversation was steady and words were indistinguishable from one another. It got loud, the way silence does. The hum vibrated elastic and pulsed dark. Fog rolled up from the floor. It was all washing over me and I was drowning. I could suddenly see faces behind the masks and voices through the din. My boss was here. And that assistant of his. They were getting drinks. I could sense it. Lee was probably around, maybe he was a bartender. Howie was a waiter. What was their angle? Were they watching me? Was I supposed to know they were here?

        The door opened and persephone left. I followed. Around the corner she waited for an elevator, and I knew if I joined her dressed as I was, they would know that they were being followed. I took off my mask and cloak and stashed them under the table the bouncer stood in front of. When she was turned away I quietly slipped behind them and into the stairwell and then back out into the hallway. I shivered and said, "Actually sort of cold on the roof!"

        They turned to look at me, and I said in a deeper voice, "Heh, what's with the getup?" They said nothing and turned back towards the elevator. When it came I made sure to let them go first, so I could see what floor they were going to. I made fun of how we were all going to the same floor. The oldest trick in the book. They got off and walked down a hallway and I made it clear that I went the other way. I crept back and followed their footsteps. It was a simple matter to figure out which room they went into.

        I walked around the halls for awhile, biding my time and thinking about how to get into her room. I thought of next week and the week after and my old friends. Maybe I'd buy a plane ticket and go see them. I wasn't sure where they were. We had lost contact years ago. So much the better. Vegas makes humanity's true nature clear. The ritzy veneer is a mirage and what's underneath is cheap and poorly made and desperate, like us. We lie to ourselves and to everyone else: this is nice. We're having fun. Is this what you wanted? To have fun? Let's write it on your tombstone how much you had fun. Your obituary will be filled with how much fun you had here or there. How vapid. How useless. There must be more than this.

        Walking back towards the elevator, I saw someone who looked like persephone get on. I could tell by the shadow that there was someone else in the elevator with her, but I didn't see who. The doors closed. Her room would be empty.

        A maid was texting outside of persephone's room.

        "I locked myself out of my room. Could you let me in?"

        She looked at me with wide eyes, as if terrified. "Oh," she started. "Well, the policy is to go to the main desk and get a replacement, after showing your ID."

        "You see, that's just it. I locked my ID in the room along with my key," I smiled in what I hoped was a disarming way.

        She looked around and then back at me. I tried to act the part.

        "Alright, but don't tell no one I let you in."

        She took a ring of keys out of her pocket.

        "Maintenance," she said into the door as she opened it.

        The room was dark. I was ready to make a break for it if there was someone in there already. I thanked the maid and she left. Lights on. No one in the bed. In fact, the bed was made. No suitcases. Was this the right room? I checked the bathroom: clean, but not done up.

        I sat on the bed and thought. I was assigned to get the code, the Antidote, or at least convince persephone to talk to my client. I had a phone number she was to call. Maybe I tipped my hand when I followed her and she got spooked and left. But would she make up her room? Was this even her room? What happened? Could she have been kidnapped? She didn't seem in distress on the elevator, but I couldn't be sure if that was her. I've never seen her face. But if so, they would want someone to blame it on. Me. They had me asking the maid for the room key and she was sure to fold if anyone pressed her. Had they paid off the maid to let me in? What was a maid doing outside of the one room I wanted to get into at two o'clock in the morning? Why was there a security camera outside of her room?

        Time to split.

        The following day I returned to find someone who knew something. Maybe august, or maybe someone who knew him or persephone. I looked around the convention floor to see if I could find any familiar faces. If only that party hadn't been masked, I could find someone I knew there. I sat down next to a trio of cybergoths. Long dreads intertwined with lights and other knickknacks. Platform shoes. Black dusters and pleated skirts. Goggles. I liked their style.

        I scanned Twitter for people talking about DEFCON. There were a few people running competitions. I figured that they would be in the know. One guy, Mark Owens, seemed to be running the lock picking competition. His Twitter handle, sp3rt, was familiar. I searched his history to see if he ever talked about DOHI, august, or persephone. And he did. It was awhile ago, to be sure, but he knew them. He was in the IRC logs I had.

        I followed the crowd back to the main convention floor and, like a tourist, consulted the map for longer than I'd like to admit trying to find the lock picking village. Five minutes later I was there. I used to pick locks as part of my job, but after an arrest I figured it'd be easier to knock and lie my way in. Harder to go to jail for lying than it is for breaking and entering.

        Mark was judging a speed lock picking tournament at the back. I watched the competition. These people were fast, much better than I ever was. Locks are a strange part of our culture. They have almost nothing to do with security. They're a little sign that says, "Please don't open this." Most locks are easy to pick if you've practiced for an hour. It's like driving: the only thing that prevents someone from driving at 100 miles per hour into your front bumper is some yellow paint on asphalt. It works most of the time. Same thing with locks.

        After the competition I flagged him down.

        "Sorry, I'm wiped out. Can't answer your questions now, but Tom over there is running the lockpicking workshop, he can help you."

        "I don't want to ask you about locks. I want to find august or persephone from DOHI. Know where I can find them?"

        He stared at me, sizing me up.

        "I don't know them. Why do you think I'd know where they are?"

        "Don't play me, sp3rt. I know you know them. I have logs."

        "How do you know that? Look, I don't know you, and I don't have time for this," he said and turned away.

        I put my hand on his shoulder and turned him around.

        "I'm not the fucking police. I met persephone last night at the party and she's missing. She's not in her room and people can't find her and I'd like to help her if I can. Do you know how I can get ahold of them? Phone number, email, IRC server credentials?"

        He softened like a marshmallow over a fire.

        "Alright, I know their IRC server because I used to idle there, but I haven't been in awhile. They might have changed the password." He wrote it down on my phone. "Let me know how it goes. I used to hang out with them and I don't want anything bad to happen to them. If you're a fed–"

        "If I was a fed, it wouldn't be wise to threaten me."

        I left. I booted up an IRC client on my phone and connected. I entered the cryptic, random password that Mark had given me. I chose my nick: demeter. My phone was my torch, and I began my search.

        10:40 -!- demeter [demeter@xnet-2F20F7B8] has joined #dohi
        10:40 [Users #dohi]
        10:40 [ @august ] [ pe_x ] [ halfalive] [ manfield ]
        10:40 [ demeter ] [ ty—- ] [ z ] [ e27 ]
        10:40 -!- Yrssi: #dohi: Total of 8 nicks [1 ops, 0 halfops, 0 voices, 7 normal]
        10:40 -!- Yrssi: Join to #dohi was synced in 2 secs
        10:42 < demeter> looking for persephone. couldn't find her after the party last night
        10:43 <@august> and who are you?
        10:43 < demeter> we actually met last night. i was the one who was on the mic and asked to meet
        10:50 <@august> i never made it to the party, was she there?
        10:50 < halfalive> demeter: and who are you
        10:50 < demeter> august: what do you mean you never made it? we met last night
        10:51 < ty--> loooool
        10:51 <@august> alright, f this
        10:51 -!- mode/#dohi [+b *!*demeter@xnet-2F20F7B8] by august
        10:51 -!- demeter was kicked from #dohi by august

        What the fuck? Was august lying to me? What does he stand to gain? Are there two of them? I put my phone away and the room began to spin. I found a quiet corner of the loud room and sat down. I might have passed out, I can't remember. The only thing I remember thinking was that I was out of my league. What was I doing on this assignment? Had I failed already? Too many questions. I heard the whir of a security camera rotating and focusing on its target.

        I dreamt, either as a daydream or half asleep. I don't remember. I was in a room with persephone and Horace and a few other people that I knew. We were talking about how glad they were I had returned. I told them that I hadn't left and it was persephone that was missing. They got angry. Slowly, fog rolled into the room. At first it was just around our feet, but it soon billowed up around us. No one seemed to notice it, the mire. They left me and I tried to get out of the fog. But I was too tired and fell down. I was enveloped. I could hear them laughing.

        Someone kicked me. "Hey."

        I was slumped over. Again, a kick. "Wake up! Time to go to school!" Laughter.

        I sat up, bleary-eyed. A young man, late twenties, Converse sneakers, black jeans, and a dark t-shirt.

        "You're demeter? Not what I expected."


        "It wasn't too hard. I wanted to know who had joined our IRC channel and I was in the lockpicking village. I asked my good friend Mark. He said he had told you because you were looking for persephone and that you were probably still around. And you were!" He seemed proud of himself. "Just so you know we're changing our password."

        "I only–"

        "I'm on your side," he interrupted. "I want to find persephone. I was the last one to see her, I think. I'm z."

        "Oh?" I tried to sound cool, calm, and collected.

        "We met up in her hotel room after her and august left the party."

        "But august said–"

        "I saw. I don't know the story yet. I didn't know that was him at the party. I had never met him before." He looked around. "Why don't we grab a drink and finish this there?"

        We went to the hotel bar and ordered stiff drinks to keep the daylight at bay.

        "She had told me where she was staying, so I went there and she let me in."

        "When was this?"

        "I can't remember. I was all hopped up last night."

        "What did you do?"

        "Well, august, or whoever he was, was there. She called me z and I figured me and him didn't know each other. He was on the bed laying down on top of the blankets. Me and her talked about random stuff, and then his phone rang. He answered it like he was expecting it, mumbled a few words and handed the phone to persephone. She talked to whoever on the phone, maybe 30 seconds."

        "What did she say?"

        "She did a lot of listening and mm-hmms. The one thing she did say, and I won't forget it, was, 'In the desert? Why not here? Will he be there?' And after that, she asked me to leave. She was upset."

        "The fuck?"

        "I know, right? So maybe she was meeting someone there?"

        I considered the situation and rolled the dice. I wanted to see how much z knew.

        "How much do you know about the Antidote?" I asked.

        He stared down at me. He seemed to realize that we weren't on the same team. Betrayal was written on his face and I was ashamed. The room slowed. The waiter busing a table on the other side of the room spent an hour cleaning one spot. Someone drank their water for an eternity. He stopped blinking. I stared back at him.

        "You had best to not get involved." He stood to leave. "You have no idea what you're asking, that's obvious."

        "I think I know. I want to help her, that's all."

        "Bullshit. I'm tired of this, why don't you fuck off?"

        My turn to not say anything. I let it hang in the air there. I tasted his fury. There was a lot here and it was hard to believe it was all on persephone's behalf. What was his angle?

        "Why not tell me what your play is in this?"

        He put his hands on the table and leaned towards me.

        "Look, us hackers, we're weapons now. Sentient weapons. We're used by the powerful to do good or evil. This is what the Great Artillery is: one of us was told to make a weapon to destroy. Most of my former friends work for companies that sell weaponized code to governments and corporations to wage a fucking cyberwar or oppress people. The rest work directly for them. There was a time when it was about discovery. I guess we're at the end of that road. persephone wanted something else. She wanted and now this has happened."

        I took a cigarette out and offered him one, but he refused. I lit it and blew the smoke up and away. It hung in the air between us. The fire. His fists clenched.

        "I think I've figured out what's going on," he said. "And you should stay the fuck away. You're in over your head."


        He left.

        I stayed at the bar. I thought it through: I was asked by persons unknown to find code that persephone wrote. When I got into her room at last, she was missing. The last person to see her was z and he thinks she was going into the desert. Wait, that's not right. That other guy, august, was there. But he said he didn't make it to the party. Then z had figured it out.

        I went outside to get some fresh air and some summer Vegas heat. The sky burned. Great flames were burning down the strip and I was glad. The camera which watched the entrance melted from the heat. There was a man in the penthouse of a hotel nearby and he seemed unaware that he was engulfed. He thought of the days ahead and looked out over Vegas. His room was slowly building in pressure. The glass bent outwards. There was a song playing on the radio and he wondered why they didn't make music like this anymore. When the window exploded outward, raining sharp glass onto the crowd below, he shivered at the cool breeze and turned away from the window.

        I took out another cigarette and tried to light it with the pack of bar matches this place gave out. The sound of a lighter made me look up. A man extended a lighter. I lit up.

        "I've been looking for you," he said. He was well dressed, business casual. He had groomed salt and pepper hair and an attractive beard. His eyes were wide for his face, but he held it well.

        "Well, here I am."

        He smiled sardonically.

        "How's DOHI?"

        "How would I know?"

        He laughed politely.

        "Don't fuck around. You've met with every member of DOHI that's at DEFCON. You've gotta be one of them. What's your handle?"

        A long drag. I looked around. Make him wait. I know how this game is played. I've been here before. The flames seemed to be dying down. They needed rekindling.

        "I'm persephone."

        He raised his eyebrows.

        "We know you're not persephone. That's ridiculous. Unless–" he trailed off and looked around. He took out his phone and typed something. He looked dissatisfied and put it away. "Who are you, really? If you're persephone then you're in DOHI."

        Time for me to laugh sardonically. "How about fuck off?"

        He took out his own smokes and lit up. Yellow flames whipped around the sky.

        I asked, "Who are you? You a fed? What do you want?"

        No more laughter or smiles.

        "Not really. I just want to express to you the danger you're in."

        He turned back to me and looked serious.

        "What are you talking about?" The clock was ticking on this ruse and I needed some information.

        "The Antidote is a national security concern. Some people, bad people, will stop at nothing to get it. There's a bounty out for it, and it runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and grows every day. If you keep telling people you're persephone, well, who knows what might happen?"

        Another fucking smile.

        "I am looking for a friend of mine, maybe you know something about it. Her friends say she got a phone call and had to meet someone in the desert. Know anything about that?" I asked.

        His waxy face seemed to sag all over, as if his skin's elasticity had given up. He took a drag. He was older than I first noticed. Almost geriatric. His hair had turned a bright white, and lost its sheen.

        "That looks like persephone over there, doesn't it, persephone?" he asked.

        I looked back into the hotel and caught out of the corner of my eye an owl mask leaving the bar. I could catch up to her, but I was sloshed and sloppy. She pressed the button for an elevator and if I didn't sprint I'd miss her. persephone, with the owl mask on the back of her head, stepped onto the elevator. I jumped through the closing door at the last minute. I grabbed her and threw the mask aside and looked into her face. It wasn't her. It was some teenage girl, years younger than persephone was. There was a man standing next to her, obviously her father. He started and said something angry at me. She probably picked up the discarded mask somewhere. I mumbled something and got off at the first floor I could.

        When I went back outside, my fed was gone. My leads were cold. Everyone told me that this case was too much for me, and they were right. I gathered my things and drove home. The flames died down.

        A few days later I called Horace to tell him I had finished with the job. I lost persephone and didn't get the code. He didn't pick up so I left a message with his secretary. The next day Horace had left a message on my voicemail, "You did good. Thanks for the hard work. If you hear anything–I want you to know that you're not responsible. You did what you were told. Anyway, we probably won't be needing you for awhile, so if you need to join another agency or something, we'll understand. Let me know if you want a reference."

        A reference for what? What was I responsible for? What happened? The money was in the bank. I needed to be among my kind at that dive in North Vegas. I drove there in my beat up red convertible. It was a long ways and I tried to think of nothing at all. My phone buzzed while I waited at a long light a block or so away from the bar.

        I checked my phone's messages and saw I had an email. It was from persephone. This is what it said:

        This is my dead woman's switch.

        The Antidote can control the Great Artillery. I never told anyone how it
        manages to do so. It doesn't stop it, that would be difficult to do and
        easy to fix. Instead, the Antidote can redirect its force. I can make it
        point anywhere I want. Hijack nearly anything and make it destroy anything
        else. And this is what I've done.


        Because visibility is a trap. This whole thing is a trap. I'm disarming it
        for a little while, so take advantage of that. Bentham's Panopticon has
        been created anew and we're in it and we keep building it up. Time to start

        Is the gunsmith responsible for people killed by their guns? Everyone tells
        me no. Is the engineer who makes a missile guidance system responsible for
        those charred, burnt corpses? Is the hacker responsible for what the
        government does with the exploit they sold? All I know is: if there were no
        engineers willing, there would be no missile guidance systems. But no
        individual raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

        This is probably the last email you'll receive for little while, but that's
        just a side effect.


        The light turned green and I took my foot up off the brake. My airbags deployed. The seatbelt strained against my chest. My head hit the airbag like an egg thrown against a wall. A deafening bang. Some asteroid or missile or bomb must have obliterated my car. I passed out. When I came to I was still in my car and someone was talking to me. Apparently some asshole hit the back of my car at 30mph. My car had rolled through the intersection and hit a pole. The paramedics were surprised I only had a few scratches. The miracle of modern technology I guess. The car was toast, though. Good riddance. Lost my phone too. They couldn't find it.

        After getting a thorough examination I left and walked to the bar. Only a half a block away thanks to the push. The interior was quiet and cool. My eyes adjusted painfully.

        Howie was there, of course. What else was he going to do? I looked at him slumped over the bar. A professional loser. Always did what he was told. And it paid well. I finally understood. It was easier to be told than to decide. A life of decisions is a tired life. Decision fatigue. The quality of decisions goes down over time.

        I sat in the back, near the jukebox. I can't stand when people tell me that you need to fail. Failing isn't some necessary component to success. To succeed, you need to succeed. The people who tell you that you need to fail to learn think that failing is only getting into Brown instead of Harvard. To fail, to really fail, is to be in a personal, self-made hell. Fail often enough and the fabric which holds the narrative of your life together starts to unwind. We can't look at our lives objectively because of the difference between where we are and where we think we should be. That's failing. You can see the destination, but the path is winding and obscure. There's no practice and no redoes.

        You had no choice in which country you were born in or which parents you were born to. You had no choice in how attractive you are or how smart you are or how privileged you are. Yet they are the prime determinants of you. Personal responsibility and ambition! The clarion call of the well-off and the lucky. Fuck that. All you need is one look at Howie to see what a lifetime of personal responsibility and failure will do to a man.

        I don't know what happened to persephone but I knew she tried to buck the powerful and the rich and I know where it got her. Her last resort was some nasty shit. I bet they were going to spend months fixing it all. I hope that made her happy, wherever she was.

        I looked again at Howie. He lifted his head and looked around, probably for Linda so he could get another drink and be done with it all. He turned and saw me. I nodded. He looked at me and we understood. I ordered us a round and we waited it out.

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


        • #19
          Weird Net Blues
          Rob P.

          I always wanted to be a spy, true story. I loved the old cheesy James Bond movies, and Soundwave was always my favorite Transformer. I had a talent for tech and puzzles, but about as much of a knack for subtlety as a sledgehammer. That last part killed any chance of me making it as a real spy. So, I settled for next best thing, doing incident response as a self-styled internet detective. As a pop-culture junky and bad hacker, I take the cases that no one else will. Generally because the pay being offered is terrible, and the case is too weird for anyone else to want their careers to be tainted by them.

          The new case is bizarre. Malware at the client site was discovered in a number of devices that are part of the new internet of things. I take a gulp of coffee from a thermos at my side and look at the briefing again. Sometimes the job throws you for a loop. For instance, should I be confused at why someone would want a smart toaster connected to the corporate network, or should I be more impressed that someone loaded it with malware. Next is time for a drag from my vape pen as I approach the door to the client site, I can already hear the yelling inside.

          ÅgYou hate me Åecause I love Jesus, thatÅfs what this is about!Åh I hear a womanÅfs voice screaming from inside. This job is already more interesting than the last one, and in last one, someone accidentally lit himself on fire. Hearing how religion could be used to justify a massive security breach would be fun, if nothing else. After taking another drag from my vape pen, I decide to open the door and make my presence known.

          ÅgMDP, Internet Detective!Åh booms from my mouth with a flair for the dramatic, ÅgI understand twenty three devices were compromised at this site.Åh

          ÅgYes, MDP, IÅfm glad youÅfre here,Åh said the site manager, a fat balding man with bad teeth, ÅgWe already let you know what we know, but I think it could be far worse. Helen was caught on camera using the toaster right around the time it was compromised according to our logs. She is the only person to have used all of the compromised devices. We canÅft prove it was her, and she isnÅft talking.Åh

          ÅgWell, IÅfm not going to hit her with a wrench until she talks. If you wanted that, you should have hired someone else,Åh I said as I sat down across from Helen, a young woman somewhat conservatively dressed, with very intense eyes. I was curious about what the client wanted me to do here, they had called me in to find out what happened, and how exposed they were. A lot of the basic work had been done for me by their people. They had logs that let them figure out which devices where compromised and when. What they couldnÅft figure out was what the hell the vector being used was. When they couldnÅft afford anyone else, they called me.

          ÅgObama sent you, I know it,Åh Helen accused me.

          ÅgPresident Obama hasnÅft been in office for a decade,Åh I replied as calmly as I could. Not laughing was hard.

          ÅgI know how this sounds,Åh began Helen as she raised her hands in a stopping motion. When I saw her palms, I was struck by a curious mark on each of them. It looked as if they had been pierced by a large bore needle. It was time to cut her off, ÅgWhat are those marks on your hands?Åh

          Helen was at first surprised by the question, then started beaming with happiness, all of her previous antagonism seemed to melt away.

          ÅgThose are my stigmata,Åh She explained, ÅgI got them when I accepted Jesus three weeks ago.Åh

          I pulled out my cellphone, and turned on the camera and asked, ÅgDo you mind if I take a picture of them?Åh

          ÅgI donÅft see why not,Åh Helen replied as she held out her hands. As I moved my camera over her hands something curious happened. A prompt came up asking if I was sure I wanted to make a download. It was what I thought. I had seen wounds similar to the ones on her hands at Defcon a couple of years ago, when people were injecting themselves with RFID and NFC readable and writeable chips. They thought carrying around malware they could plant by touching things was cool, I thought it sounded like a cyber STD, and had declined the injection. I took the picture, then routed the download being offered to a cloud instance to evaluate later.

          I turned to the manager, and asked, ÅgDo you sanitize RFID or NFC inputs on any of your devices?Åh

          ÅgWhat does that mean?Åh the manager answered as he screwed up his face in confusion. I pulled him aside and explained that Helen was likely the vector for the breach, but not the responsible party. My suspicions were confirmed when I took an inventory of the compromised devices. All of them had NFC or RFID inputs. None of them sanitized inputs, or asked for any sort of approval or authentication before download. Someone has turned Helen into a walking malware vector. It was outside of the scope of the job, but I needed to know who, and how.

          I opened the file from HelenÅfs palm in a cloud computing instance, and sure enough, it was malware. It was designed to make the infected device part of a botnet. Did I not say my job took trips on the weird side? Religious zealots were an odd choice for a malware vector, even if a creative one. I also found it unusual that someone would take to religious body modification so quickly after finding religion. How long ago did Helen say she had taken to Jesus? Three weeks? This made less and less sense the more I thought about it. I pulled HelenÅfs employee file. She had been working in tech support at this firm, but desperately wanted out. Helen hated dealing with the customers, but genuinely seemed to love the company she worked at. It seemed what she considered to be the best option was to move up into systems administration, but lacked the necessary skills. I could honestly feel for her, I had been in the same situation before I became an internet detective. Three weeks ago, she had come back from vacation extremely religious when she hadnÅft been before. Then, she had declined in quality at work and started having behavior issues. Most disturbingly, she seemed to be hallucinating on the job, Helen kept saying she saw angels at work.

          The next step was to figure out where Helen had gone on her vacation if I was to make any sense of this. I started digging through her social media history. The difference between the last three weeks and any time before was jarring. Something had definitely happened to poor Helen. I knew it was breaking the rules and becoming invested to the point of doing work I wouldnÅft be paid for, but I didnÅft care. I had begun to empathize with Helen and relate to her, I needed to find out what happened for my own peace of mind. I put together a very thorough profile of her social media history for the last year. In the olden days, in the days of the hard boiled private eyes, you would have to spend weeks hitting the pavement and asking questions people did not want to answer, and tipping off those that you were poking around for. Now I could do it all in an evening from my couch without even putting on pants. I am not a creeper, I am a professional adult putting a valuable skill to use.

          Two months ago, Helen decided she needed drastic change in her life. She was unhappy with her current situation and role at work, but felt the administration and scripting classes she was talking were moving too slowly. The next step, she had decided was to find a way to accelerate her move to better things. Six weeks ago, Helen had been accepted to a technology boot camp in a city about an hour away. She had been so excited to have the opportunity that you could feel it in her posts she made when the vacation time to attend had been approved. The camp was called ÅgBetter Living Through Technology,Åh or BLTT for short. It was time to research BLTT.

          BLTT felt like a scam. Too much about it seemed too good to be true. None of their successful graduates that talked about their stories on the BLTT site seemed to actually exist once you dug a bit deeper into the net. I dug up the IP address of the BLTT site, and did a search to see what else was on the server. Then I hit paydirt. In the file index of the server was an old page from the now defunct Bleeder Inc. Bleeder had been the name in top of the line cyber weapons, security admins hated them, state actors and corporate intelligence services thought Bleeder was the best thing ever. Eventually, Bleeder was shut down, and many of its executives were arrested after they sold North Korea a piece of malware that resulted in a Japanese nuclear reactor melting down.

          It was a stretch, but if Helen had come back from BLTT as a walking malware vector, and the server had been used by Bleeder in the past, it was worth a shot. I needed help, someone who would know what the hell she was doing. I called up AJ, a friend of mine who had helped clean up the aftermath of many attacks launched by script kiddies armed to the teeth with Bleeder warez. If anyone could tell me if my hunch had any validity, it would be her. AJ agreed to take a quick look at malware that came from HelenÅfs palm, while I did some more digging into BLTT.

          BLTT was very secretive, I liked it less and less. For all of their success stories, the descriptions of what happened at BLTT were vague at best, often non-existent. They definitely marketed to the desperate, much like ITT and DeVry back in their day. The target audience of BLTT were those so desperate to improve their lots in life that they would not question how a camp could turn them into internet ubermensch in a week. I noticed another very worrying thing as I looked into the social media tracks of others I could find who went to BLTT. They all seemed to have become Born-Again Christians shortly after returning from BLTT. Worse, when pictures of their hands were posted, they had the same injection marks on their hands that Helen had. They did provide me with one piece of valuable intel. Most of them had posts when they were supposed to be at BLTT that were geotagged. Running the locations of their posts all brought one location. A motel in a city about two hours away.

          I got an alert on my phone, there was new mail from AJ, ÅgLOL! Hey, MDP, you will love this. These people are so retarded. The file you sent me is definitely related to Bleeder. You know how I know? They accidentally left a comment left by a Bleeder engineer in the code. This didnÅft just come from Bleeder, it came from someone with access to its internal testing versions. You owe me, like five beers, a taco, and the story that goes with this job.Åh

          I thanked AJ and suggested a time that we could get tacos. I knew something bad was happening at BLTT. I had an address for where I thought they were operating. Now, I had a couple of potential connections between them and Bleeder. It was time to do something stupid and noble. It was time to gear up.

          I grabbed lock picks, a tablet loaded with pentesting software, a SDR dongle, and my trusty crowbar. I set my GPS for the BLTT motel, and started driving my old beater. I liked driving, even in an age where many people were embracing self-driving cars. I liked that driving gave me something to think about for the trip rather than being bored for the duration. The drive to the motel was largely uneventful, when I arrived, I double checked to make sure I was at the right place. I checked my clothing to make sure I looked the part. Comfy shoes, jeans that were tighter than I would like, and a t-shirt from a startup that was in a hiring frenzy. The gear all went into a back pack. It would be far less conspicuous than trying to hide it on my person.

          I was considering how to social engineer from the receptionist what rooms BLTT was using, when I realized I would not need to. I saw two people in BLTT shirts leave a room not far from my car. One of them was putting back into a box what looked like an injector for cattle tracking implants. If they were using it on people, that would explain the wounds on Helen, and the ones in all the pictures. Repurposed implants could also transmit the malware in theory. This looks bad, very bad. I waited until they had left line of site, and went over to the door they had entered. It was locked and I could hear voices inside. No lights were on in the room, and there was no response when I knocked. I decided to do the stupidest thing I could do. I picked the lock, it was easy enough being a badly constructed mass market model, and went in.

          The room smelled of body odor. On the bed there was an overweight young man in his underwear, giggling and muttering incoherently. The TV was playing audio only, asking him about life events with very leading questions. They werenÅft just a little leading, but loaded with suggestion. They alternated between describing religious experiences they could have had, and describing events that might happen at a tech camp. The man had fresh wounds on his hands, he had just been injected with the implants. Next to his bed was a sheet of what looked like stamps at first. I picked them up, on closer examination, they had smiley faces and psychedelic patterns on them. Acid. This man was dosed up on acid. The man suddenly grabbed my arm, ÅgDo you see it? The angels are telling me how the circuits work. TheyÅfre full of truth!Åh

          After yanking my arm free, I backed away and left the room. Sitting down in my car, I went through everything I had found. BLTT was not a tech camp at all. My best were drugging people and brainwashing them to be religious fanatics. Maybe the audio on the TV was some sort of false memory implantation method? It would make sense if they were drugging them to make what they were hearing seem real, is they had found a means of suggestion that would control the hallucinations. It would also explain HelenÅfs angels. She was having hallucinogenic flashbacks from the experience.

          This is the part where you are expecting me to take the crowbar in my backseat and go full Gordon Freeman on everyone. You are mistaken. IÅfm not stupid. I called the police and reported that I found a methlab. They came in force, and found half a dozen drugged people and evidence of human experimentation. It would come out in the investigation that the ringleader of BLTT was a former bleeder intern who stole a server from a rack when it collapsed. ThatÅfs why the files from the old Bleeder site was there, and how he had access to Bleeder test materials. He was using the malware unknowingly spread by his ÅgstudentsÅh to build a massive botnet to sell to the Russians. Most BLTT employees would end up in jail.

          It also turned out I was right about what was happening. A seemingly normal American corporation brain washing people into religious zealot malware vectors using drugs, chip implants, and false memory implantation. I mean, it sounds way too fantastic to be true. On the other hand, robot cars drive people around town now. With the case solved, it was time to return to the client site, and finish the job, and do the paperwork. When the final report was submitted, and I had been paid, I did my final job as a proper infosec person, and wrote a blog post about the investigation. A swig of coffee, and a drag from a vape pen later, I opened my email. Time for the next case for MDP, Internet Detective.
          "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


          • #20
            Who Killed Captain Crunch?
            Steve S.
            copyright 2015

            Act One

            It was hot. Not the kind of hot that feels good. Not the sun on your face, your skin warm to the touch, the full force Vitamin D enriched heat that you dream of on a cold, winter day. It was sweat dripping down your back hot. It was armpit stain through your suit coat hot. It was that unbearable, wrap you in stinky, humid arms and squeeze until you couldn't breathe hot.
            I walked to the window of my office in hopes of a slight breeze. The old wooden floor was damp with humidity; papers of my old cases were wrinkling on my desk. I had spent the last hour watching the fan slowly turn, counting each revolution. With the smart grid in full effect, electricity was regulated to all devices on my P-net - my personal network in my office where every switch, outlet, appliance and electrical device communicated back to central systems and were slaves to the whims and rules of the powers that be. I wiggled my wrist, hoping the action might trigger something in my iHealthometer. Maybe it would register some health emergency. Dehydration? Heat stroke? Heart attack? At this point I would take anything. Anything that might trigger a small surge of electricity that would speed my fan up. I never expected the air conditioner to kick on. I mean, I do believe there is a God. But even He isn't able to flip enough switches, navigate the quadrillions of lines of if-then-else code and phrack the stars to give me that much juice.
            I looked at my fan again. It was still rotating at 60 RPMs - the same rate it had for the last hour. I wiped my brow. There was a knock at the door. Emergency services to come take me to the hospital for overheating? My luck wasnít that good. I never expected it to change.
            I looked at the door heralding "Stan Houser - Cyber Detective" under my office number - 414. That's me. The type emblazoned on the frosted glass door had faded over the years. To the untrained eye, the door stated "St n Hous r - Cy r Dete ive". I had it on my list to fill in the blanks. I just never got around to it.
            The second knock cleared me from my reverie. I positioned myself behind my mahogany desk - a vestige of a simpler, hard-boiled, non-digi-time. I felt it gave my office a bit of old world style. I flung my arm in the air sweeping my visi-sphere off the desk. I blew one last ring of vapor and clicked of my vita-vape. Due to my sedentary lifestyle, the Health Enforcement Agency mandated puffing on the vitamin enhanced pseudo-cigarette a minimum of 15 minutes a day, 30 on the weekend. It was a pain in the keister but I was tired of paying the fines for non-compliance. I called wearily to the door
            "Come in."
            An elderly gentleman entered. Let me be a bit more descriptive - an impeccably dressed, well-tanned, athletically built and lean man entered, his age betrayed only by his silver hair. Even with his advanced age, he was the penultimate type of freak you would see jogging in the park on the motion-mills. Since the park in the city was 20 foot by 20 foot, with the only two trees in a twenty five mile radius, joggers had to schedule weeks in advance to get one of the three motion-mills. He was that kind of guy. No Health Police fines for him. I immediately felt my physical inferiority complex kick into first gear.
            He was dressed in a perfectly tailored black pin stripe suit. A rich looking fedora, with a red feather stuck in the authentic leather band, adorned his head. Not a bead of sweat rolled down his face. He must have built in AC in the suit keeping him comfortably cool. He had money - lots of it - I could just feel it. I pushed my rolled up sleeves a bit higher, hoping to embody the hard working detective type, and tried to hide the yellow stains under my arms on my otherwise, crisply wrinkled white shirt. Strike two on the inferiority complex. He looked at me with disdain immediately.
            "Stan Houser?" the man asked slowly.
            "Yes, sir. What can I do for you?"
            The man paused, then must have decided to continue despite his better judgment. He stepped over the threshold of the door and closed it behind himself. He eyed the pair of worn leather chairs in front of my desk wishing the least contaminated chair would magically beckon him. The man dejectedly realized that both were equally grimy and gingerly sat down in the one nearest my desk. He removed his fedora, placing it gently on his knee.
            "My name is Nicholas Feebler. I want you to investigate a missing person."
            I leaned back in my chair, putting my hands behind my head, and immediately knew I extinguished any hope of respectability as a whiff of my own BO crept across my nose. "Missing person? You did read the sign right?" I asked. "I am a cyber detective. Do you mean an avatar? A game character? Did someone hijack one of your level 85 wizard-gnome-warrior-kings?"
            I didn't read the guy immediately as a gamer - most have a much more indoorsy look - but these days even I was surprised every once in a while.
            "No. It is not like that." He responded. "I want you to find Captain Crunch."
            "Is that the character's name? Which MMORPG is it in?" I grabbed my pencil to take down the details. This was going to be a slam dunk.
            "No, you still don't understand, Mr. Houser."
            ìCaptain Crunch - oh, is that a relative? You need someone to cull through the ancestry logs, find some ancient great-great-great-ad nauseum grandfather. What was he? Sounds like a pirate? Is there buried treasure involved? I may have to charge extra for a finder's fee if that is the case." My eyes briefly saw dollar signs and I heard a few cha-chings in my head
            The man sighed heavily and shook his head. He pulled a picture out of his jacket pocket and laid it on the desk. I reached forward, praying my odor didn't overwhelm him, and picked up the glossy paper. The picture was the face of a cute chubby boy - probably 6 or 7 years old - sitting at a table. A large white bowl and spoon sat in front of the cherub-ish child.
            "Who's this?" I asked confused. "I still don't think you understand. I am a CYBER detective. I don't work the meatspace."
            "That is me." Mr. Feebler retorted. "70 years ago."
            Now I was really confused. "Mr. Feebler, what do you want?"
            The money wouldn't be worth getting hooked up with a crack pot. Why couldn't this be a simple avatar jacking? Or, even better, an adulterous affair? A few database inquiries, some quick hacks into an email account, perusing a FaceTwitGramGoog account or two and the case would be over. Trust me, cheaters were never masters of deception.
            "Let me explain, Mr. Houser. This is me when I was a boy. See the bowl sitting in front of me? When this picture was taken, there was only one thing in my life I truly enjoyed. A bowl of Captain Crunch cereal. Ever eat it?"
            My jaw dropped and I could feel my head shaking "No."
            "I didn't think so. Have you ever heard of Captain Crunch cereal, Mr. Houser?"
            Again, my head shook "no". My brain was stuck in gear trying to register the conversation.
            "Captain Crunch cereal, Mr. Houser, was the epitome of goodness. It was the most wonderful thing in the world. And it has completely disappeared."
            The old man paused for gravity. I nodded, bewildered.
            "Mr. Houser, I have had a long, luxurious life. I have made loads of money. But now, as I reach my final days, I desperately want to eat my favorite food again but I can no longer find it. I want you to determine what happened to this cereal. I want to know what happened to Captain Crunch?"

            Act Two

            After negotiating my daily rate plus expenses (adding a small premium due to the ludicrous focus of the case), I started my investigation with a series of deep dives into some of the larger data stores at my fingertips. Given the data crawling power I needed, the regulated power flow into my office was diverted completely to the heads-up display of my visi-sphere, my terabytes of storage arrays, my super cooled, diamond-silica quintuple processors and my coffee machine. Hence, my fan rotated at exactly 18.7 RPMs and the sweat pooled at the base of my chair.
            I had just filled my second thermos with ice and coffee (you seriously didn't think I was drinking hot coffee did you?) when the phone rang. I tapped my earpiece and the greasy coiffed portrait of my keen, yet smarmy, informant Jesper popped onto my visi-sphere.
            "What ya' got for me, J?"
            "Hey Stan. How's it going?" Jesper snorted, hacked and then blew his bulbous nose into a handkerchief.
            "Don't give me that small talk, Jesper. I don't have the patience for it." I growled. It always helped Jesper focus when I put on the mean tough guy persona. Jesper was too lonely and desperate for attention. Any leeway and I would spend an hour on the phone listening to him describe how he had to help his mother at the dress shop or what her quasi-tofu brisket tasted like the evening before.
            "Sheesh, Stan. What's got you in such a huff? Was the guyís coin invalid?"
            "No Jesper. His coin was legit. I banked it, took a little hit on the exchange rate and got my rent paid off in time. So -- back to my original question - what you got for me?"
            "Alright, alright. I am sending all I could find on this Captain Crunch stuff. Seems it was a pretty popular food item in the old days."
            A picture of an elderly, cartoon figure flashed into my visi-sphere, I grabbed the image with my hand and spun it around to get the full view. What a ridiculously childish image. Blue hat, white hair, some type of old timey sailor outfit.
            "What's this J?"
            "This was the mascot of the food."
            "Mascot? What kind of people cared about the mascot for a food product? They were bat-crap crazy in those days."
            "Tell me about it. This stuff had a bit of a cult following. There's more. Apparently you mixed the stuff with milk."
            "Milk? What kind of milk?"
            "Cow milk."
            "You have got to be kidding me.î This thing just got weirder and weirder.
            "Apparently mixing it was a tricky deal too. Too much milk or if you didn't eat it fast enough and the mixture would become some mushy, pasty slop. Apparently people didn't like that."
            "I can't imagine why," I said putting a nice sarcastic swish in my voice.
            "It gets worse. Not enough milk or if you ate it too quickly and it appears the food could cut through the roof of your mouth. This was some serious stuff."
            "Ok. Cult. Cows. Itís probably good the thing is dead. I can't take anymore. Just send me the rest of the data. Anything else I should know?"
            "Nope. But my guess is that it was deemed military or something. The stuff just went black about four decades ago. Hush hush type of deal. The only other lead that came up is check into the insurance racket."
            "The insurance racket? Hmmm...that's a deep hole to look into. Thanks."

            A few more days of significant data mining and I had paid for my office rent and a new white shirt (which lasted two days before it had yellow sweat stains). I had gotten some more info on this food stuff. The lethal mouth cutting potential had me leaning toward military usage. I figured somehow the military had found a way to weaponize whatever made the cereal so sharp. My guess was that it turned into some favorite method of assassination. I could picture it easily. Some spy slips the stuff into your food, it mixes with a small about of liquid and zap! instantaneous hemorrhaging from the mouth. What a vicious way to go. Maybe it even waited until you swallowed it and it worked on your insides. I couldn't bear to think of it any longer.
            I was thinking of just going with this story to get Rich Nick off my back. (Rich Nick was my pet name for him. It was better than Feeble Feebler. I gave all my clients pet names to amuse myself.)
            Anyway, I had run all of my leads to the ground and was running out of options. Better to just pull up short and make a happy customer than spend all my days going nowhere and end up with an unhappy reference. I started to pick the phone up. Military use, classified project...I could make up the rest. The phone rang.
            I tapped my earpiece fully expecting Jesper again. Instead, a shadowy figure flipped into my visi-sphere. I flinched at the sight.
            "You, Houser?" the distorted, hidden face asked in a gruff voice.
            "Of course I am. You called me, remember?" I was about to hit the 'End Call' button - dang telemarketers. Around after all these years and still never a way to block them.
            "Look, see." The man rumbled. "You stop all this Captain Crunch business, see. There's people that you are pissing off and you don't wanna cross them. See?"
            "What the heck are you talking about?" I retorted.
            "Look, Bud. I am warning you. You keep looking for Crunch, you will be the one that ends up crunched."
            The screen went black.
            "Oh no you didn't!" I exclaimed. Military black ops, secret super spy agency, insurance syndicates - whoever you are, you just done pissed me off, I thought.
            Time for some real mining. I ripped off my tie and threw my damp shirt to the corner. Stripped down to my DefCon 75th anniversary t-shirt, a relic emblazoned with an homage to the legacy of the L0pht, I felt a surge through my blood. With reenergized zeal, I ran over to my data pods and started frantically fingering out query sequences. The power surged again to my processors. My fan stopped completely.

            Act Three

            Feeble Feebler (I got bored thinking of him as Rich Nick) entered my office. It was night (not that it cooled off much) and I had spent the last 48 hours running up and down the information highway in my Lamborghini of data analytics. I didn't have all of the best stuff but I knew how to use it. I called in a few favors and the picture finally started coming together. I told Feebler to sit down. It was going to take a bit to unravel the story. I took a deep breath and started:
            "It all started with the refrigerators. In the early days of the Internet of Things (as the P-Nets used to be called), refrigerators were one of the first things that were dropped on the Net. Initially it was pretty straightforward functionality. You bought a fridge, hooked it up and it tracked your inventory of food."
            "Mr. Houser, remember I am 50 years older than you. I was alive when this started."
            "Well, you don't know the whole story."
            I continued.
            "Then the grocery stores started providing the refrigerators. It was a subscription service and the refrigerators started monitoring what you ate and auto-ordered your groceries for you. Then it was expanded into the full pantry monitors that watched all food consumption. It was a big convenience that your grocery list was auto-generated and drone-delivered."
            "I see." Feebler stated.
            "What do you see?" I asked.
            "Since the grocery stores knew exactly the rate the cereal was eaten, they could track their profits down to the product. Captain Crunch lost market share and they dropped it."
            "Yeah - right. It's that simple." My voice dripped with sarcasm. "Just sit there and listen. What you didn't know was what was going on behind the scenes. The grocery stores - or rather the multi-national conglomerates behind the good old Piggly Wiggly - started selling your eating habits data to the insurance companies. They started factoring in not only your medical history into insurance rates but every morsel of every meal you put in your mouth. They could then share the data and start noticing things - like you eating an alarming amount of red meat - or food with high sugar content. They could then quickly adjust health insurance premiums."
            "So the insurance companies determined Captain Crunch was bad for people due to its sugar content and forced its demise." Feebler interjected. "Or was it people realized that eating the cereal was affecting their insurance premiums, demand plummeted and the manufacturer stopped making Captain Crunch."
            "Oh - I'm sorry. Are you the cyber detective now?" I volleyed hard at my client.
            "Then, let me finish." I pushed my sleeves up and started back in. "The next thing that happened was when smart-plumbing started to go vogue. After the Water War of '65, and the fact the electric companies had the whole smart grid thing going on for decades, the water companies implemented the same infrastructure. But most people thought that the smart-plumbing focused merely on water consumption. Au contraire, it was much deeper and insidious than that.
            "The plumping had analysis capabilities eventually. It started monitoring waste products. That data was being fed on the surface to your health care provider. You know what I mean... It's your birthday, you go your favorite Indian buffet for lunch. An hour later, you find yourself in the bathroom with - let's just say - some gastrointestinal issues. But good news, your toilet now contacts your Calendar and re-arranges your afternoon meetings so you don't have to sweat anymore than you are already. Even better, your toilet contacts your doctor's office with a quick analysis of your - ummm - output and it verifies that you didn't get food poisoning. You just hit the curry a little too hard."
            "What does curry have to do with Captain Crunch? Was consumption of Captain Crunch linked to excessive bowel movements forcing the water commissions to step in and shut it down?"
            "Listen, Feebler. This isn't just a simple paint by numbers picture. It's got multiple dimensions. Quit grabbing at one-side of the story. There is a lot of data to mudge through here. What wasn't revealed though was that the smart-plumbing syndicate piggy backed off people's acceptance of sharing this data to their doctor's office and, where do you think it ended up?"
            Feebler was on the edge of his seat by this time. I had reeled him in and he gasped.
            "Of course," I stated emphatically. "The health insurance companies. The health insurance company would run a quick analysis using Big Data techniques of course, and note that not only has your toilet been reporting quite a few events like your Curry incident. They would also correlate your increased purchase of toilet paper and Wham!"
            I slammed my hand on my desk.
            "You are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome - guilty in their eyes and your health insurance goes up again."
            "Fascinating," Feebler said. "So we are back to the insurance companies. They tracked unhealthy foods and due to the fiber content AND the sugar content, Captain Crunch ended up on this list and they forced the manufacturer to stop making it."
            "Oh, I wish it was that simple but I am just getting started." I smiled smugly. "Now, where was I at? Oh yes, Irritable bowel syndrome. This is where this case took a dark tangent."
            I popped out of my chair and leaned over the desk.
            "Do you know of the many rumors that one could be harmed by eating Captain Crunch? The tears to the roof of the mouth, the horrible damage if one ate it too quickly, or without enough milk..." My voice rose in accusatory tones.
            "They were all poppycock," Feebler cried. "Never once did I have that happen."
            "Of course the allegations were false!" I punctuated the statement with a firm pointing of my index finger. "I searched every medical record - don't ask me how I did it - for the last decade before Captain Crunch disappeared. And not once did I find an incident where the cause of lacerations to the mouth was Captain Crunch. Yet the rumor persisted. I found evidence of search after search, post after social media post perpetuating this accusation."
            "So the health department stopped them from making Captain Crunch for safety reasons?"
            "Wrong!" I was on a roll now. I stood and paced the room like a caged lion.
            "People stopped buying the cereal because of the rumors?"
            "INCORRECT!" I yelled.
            Feebler was now a writhing puddle of a man. His composure completely lost, his vision blurred. He stumbled out of his chair and bounced off the wall, landing on his knees.
            "I don't understand!" The old man screamed, weeping into his hands.
            I suddenly realized the gravity of the situation. I was riding high from data mining, creeping into databases long since archived. I had weaved my way through side streets, back alleys, suburban neighborhoods, slums, and the gated communities of the digital universe. I was data drunk. I had lost what this case was about. It wasn't about mounds and mounds of data. It wasnít about the analytics. It wasn't about the conspiracies. It wasnít about connecting digital device after digital device ñ regardless of whether or not it was a good idea. It wasn't about the manipulation of the masses. The loss of privacy. It all coalesced in my head all too clearly but it overwhelmed and crushed the poor old man who just wanted a bowl of his favorite cereal. It was about the desire for a cherished reminder of a spent youth. It was about a final attempt to relive a simpler time when a bowl of milk and a processed, sugar infused nugget of goodness took all his troubles away. This case was about a man. A man who was whimpering quietly at my feet. He turned his anguished face up to me.
            "Please." He said. "I am begging. Just tell me the truth. Who killed Captain Crunch?"
            I took pity on him.
            "The Internet." I said. "The Internet killed Captain Crunch."
            He grasped my ankle and sobbed.
            "I am sorry, Mr. Feebler."
            He looked up at me again. A single tear rolled down his face. He said in a quiet voice, "It all makes sense now."
            "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


            • #21
              Please excuse the formatting. The forum seems to be insisting everything be left side justified and can't interpret apostrophes and paragraph indents. Or the original files were converted to text for submission but not cleared of extra characters or encoding differences. I could probably try to figure it out but I really can't be bothered right now, sorry. I am posting very early in the morning, sitting in a hotel room, in Brussels, Belgium, while my spouse sleeps and am just too tired to do more than this right now. Everything was pasted from the .txt files. Poll to come!
              *later* Sorry, that sounded a bit harsh. Let me be clear, I have experimented, and cut and pasted text as formatted directly from the body of an email, just to check. Some paste just fine, some don't. I can only assume, still, that it is something about cross platform text editors and I can't do anything about that really. If you are a font person and want to fix yours in some fashion that can be pasted here correctly, you can. The eventual publishing on the DEF CON cd, however, I have no say in, once I send your .txt files to their staff. I am not DEF CON, do not work for them, and cannot effect anything that happens over there. *later*
              Last edited by eris; June 2, 2015, 01:45.
              "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


              • #22


                Last edited by eris; June 2, 2015, 01:46.
                "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


                • #23
                  Through the Looking Glass
                  by Heather Lewis


                  He sat alone in the cramped room illuminated by two monitors. He waited for his shift to end. Afterwards he would be on call; a slave to faceless white collar overlords. A yellow memo pad scrawled with notes and a case folder lay next to his keyboard. He had been attentive at the beginning of his shift, noting her activities and eccentricities in the way she did things, but the night had weighed on him. This last hour he had not managed to find anything worthy of writing about at all. A set of headphones plugged him into the audio feed of a scratchy audio card on her laptop. Another agent had been watching her for weeks; he was just a temp. Another case in a neverending string of persons of interest. The left monitor showed him a live feed through the laptop camera. He felt lucky that her model did not include the green recording light. Though it would have only been another few steps to disable it, it would have been easier to get caught. The firmware on her router was a joke. What was her name again? He lifted the case file to read the label on the manilla folder. He narrowed his eyes and scoffed. A code name. He flung the folder and it landed in disarray on top of a filing cabinet. Why am I watching this chick if I don't even have the clearance to know her name? He leaned back in the chair and propped his feet up. She had returned from some conference so she was tidying up the place. Music played from her laptop as she was folding laundry. The right monitor showed no interesting packet flow from her internet connection, just a call from a client to some file sharing server. He had surfed through her music collection yesterday. Anyone who listened to Katy Perry was a nonstop train to snoozeville.

                  All the computing power at their fingertips and somehow the human element was still used to spy on the human element. He counted down the days to when he would be replaced by a fancy algorithm on some supercomputer. Although he hated it, this gig beat working in a cubicle farm where all the drones were plugged into their screens. They hardly ever looked at one another. A few with more gall would laugh and trade pictures of who they were watching. Never did he imagine that this is where he would end up. He had always aspired to more.

                  "Hey Chuck." His relief nudged his shoulder. Chuck jolted awake and nearly fell out of his chair.
                  "Good morning. Anything new?"
                  "Hey Lance, I didn't even hear you come in." Chuck rubbed his eyes. How long had he been asleep?
                  "Nothing new here." Chuck said through a yawn. "Not unless you count the cat bringing in a dead bird."
                  "Yeah, Fuzz is quite the hunter. A week ago it was a lizard."
                  Chuck held back a quip. His relief had about as much personality as a wet mop and he cared about extending pleasantries to him like a shotgun blast to the face. It was better to not engage him. He signed out, got up from the chair, and stretched.
                  "Have fun."


                  Chuck took a long drag from his cigarette.
                  "You want another?" the bartender asked.
                  "Yeah Sal, make it a double."
                  Sal retreated back down the bar to fill his order. He exhaled. A long trail of smoke floated sadly towards the ceiling like a ghost of lost ambition and failed dreams.
                  "Here you are Chuck." Sal slid the glass over to him.
                  He took a long swallow from the glass. The whisky no longer burned. He was feeding the warm glow. He rolled the contents of glass watching the liquor swirl and ebb.

                  The bar was sprinkled with other malcontents. It was late and most of the regulars were sleeping off alcohol comas in their soft warm beds. The people that remained were like Chuck staring maudlin into the holes of their lives. An odd couple at the other end of the bar was loud and obviously drunk. He paid them no mind and put out his cigarette in a nearby ashtray.

                  A television buzzed above the long bar. A pretty blonde sat behind her reporting desk with the Faux News tag emblazoned on the corner of the screen. Her lips moved but he couldn't hear what she was saying. It was a replay of an earlier show. NSA FORCED TO SHUTDOWN SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM
                  was written along the bottom. He chuckled to himself. When did the news become so funny?

                  Chuck drained his glass and laid a couple bucks on the bar for Sal. Chuck wanted to speak to him, but he was busy with another customer. He swung around on the barstool to leave, colliding directly into a drunk young woman.
                  "Hey now!" A young man had held her by the arm and kept her from falling back.
                  Chuck stood up and blathered apologies at the two. Had he had more than he realized? He hadn't even noticed them behind him.
                  "Are you alright honey?" The young man said to her.
                  Chuck didn't bother sticking around to hear her reply.

                  He stepped out into the night, breath steaming in the light of a street lamp, and pulled his coat close. He rubbed his hands together vigorously out of habit but it was the glow of cheap whiskey that staved off the cold. The gloaming was right around the corner and the skies were beginning to lighten. A fine crust of frost crackled underneath his boots as he walked. It was one of the few times of the day the city smelled clean and the streets were blessedly empty. There was no one to watch his walk of self pity to his shoebox apartment. There was no one to watch him fumble with his keys to open the gate and walk up to a poorly painted hovel with rusted railing in a row of matching squalid apartments. Even plants didn't waste their time growing here. The neighbors left much to be desired. He preferred not to think about them until they woke him up with yelling in the middle of the night on his days off.

                  He turned the key in its lock, walked in, and forced the door close behind him. It never did fit in the jamb the way it was intended to. He flipped the light on. A single bed and desk dominated the space. A door led to his bathroom. It more resembled a hotel room than his home. He didn't care that the light was still on and his shoes were still on. Walking to the bed he let himself fall forward and was asleep before he hit the pillow.


                  She flew to Vegas tomorrow. She knew she could warn him then, in person, without using her cellphone. He had fallen off the regular channels during the past couple of months but knew from previous conversations that there were business opportunities he could not miss. So she bided her time and kept her nose clean. Mostly. The first time she could tell she was being watched she noticed some of her valid SSL certs weren't correctly signed. She noticed her tower turn on of its own volition. She noticed a process that had not been there before. A slight drop in her bandwidth. She knew Kevin had something to do with it, but the problem with prodigies was that they always believed themselves invincible. She imagined him singing "Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man" all the way into a prison cell. Kev had done some shady applications with even shadier organizations even after she warned him not to. Her crime was that she knew him.

                  She neatly folded her laundry and set aside the items she would take with her into her open suitcase. Music played from her open laptop on the kitchen table. It stared at her with a lifeless black screen and she shivered. She could only imagine who was watching her and hoped her imagination was more frightening than what actually was. The past week she had tried to act normally and put her new found knowledge out of her mind. She had nothing to hide so they had nothing to find, right? Whoever 'they' was. She finished packing her suitcase and rolled it to the door.

                  About now would be the time she would sit online until half past midnight, but she couldn't bring herself to touch her laptop. She shut off the lights and went to bed instead. She lie awake. Her eyes were two lasers burning holes into her ceiling. Kev was going to be lucky if he didn't need a straw to breathe out of once she was done with him.


                  The plane ride was nice enough. The cabbie was a little chatty kathy on the way to her hotel, but he was pleasant and only meant well. By contrast the clerk at the check in had hardly given her a second glance. The hotel was packed with various people she could immediately tell were here for the conference. Groups of two or three headed to and from the conference hall. She always loved the mohawks. A group of men in collared shirts stood in a circle near the bar carousing. Had no one told them they were far too overdressed?

                  She had been on edge the night before and tried to sleep through the flight to no avail. Her exhaustion was present on her face so she stopped to drink an espresso at the first opportunity. Afterwards, she rolled her suitcase up to her floor. The room had more room than she needed, a large bed, and a view, but it was Vegas; each casino along the strip was a different stage of beautiful debauchery. She didn't bother unpacking because she had no idea what awaited her here. She stared out of the window for awhile, watching the strip. The pretty lights filled her with a twinge of melancholy. She checked her phone. Defcon23 had been going on for a few days, but she wasn't just here for Defcon. Kev would be at the DC407 party. Now she had to make sure she was there.


                  She waited in a line at the door amongst a group of young men, an obvious stripper, and a neckbeard that most of them avoided because of the smell. A doorman held them back until other patrons left. She hadn't seen Kev yet and felt nervous. What if she didn't find him here? What then? She had felt relieved at leaving her laptop at home for once, but loathed the idea of trying to contact him here. Two men in zootsuits left the party. One of them cradled an open bottle of vodka with a straw. The bouncer let in the couple in front of her.

                  She tried to look past the shoulder of the bouncer into the party. Music had spilled out into the hallway but nothing could be seen past the foyer. A few people clustered together in the entryway, but no one she recognized. Behind her a true line had formed. Some spoke about a talk they saw. Others carried on the party in the hallway. The bouncer moved aside for a group of four to leave and let her and a group behind her in.

                  Past the entryway the room opened up. People filled every available alcove. The open bar was packed. A man made drinks in red solo cups to a thirsty crowd. Half of them danced in place with drink in hand. Across the room a small crowd stood around the DJ watching him turn knobs and cheering him on. No Kev. Around the corner the crowd thinned around two scantily clad women and a fully clad man in a bathtub. He sang aloud and out of tune while raising his glass in a toast. Still no Kev. Finally she spotted him sitting in a tight knit group in a corner of the next room. He had shaved his head into a mohawk since the last time she saw him, half calf combat boots resting on a table filled with various fallen soldiers. She didn't recognize the man he spoke to.

                  They were in such heated discussion that he didn't look at her until she was standing next to him. His eyes grew as large as the grin on his face.
                  "JULES!" He moved over to give her more room, resting his arm on the back of the couch. He noticed she didn't return his easy geniality and his face hardened.
                  "Tell me what's wrong."
                  "I should kill you Kev. You've been bad again."
                  "No worse than usual, love." He laughed.
                  "I want to laugh with you Kev, but I'm serious." She paused. "Someone is watching me." She sat down next to him in a huff, both relieved and frustrated to have found him.
                  "Why so serious? Give me your phone."
                  She reached into her purse and gave him her phone. He proceeded to flip through screens faster than she could process. As he worked his expression grew more grave. He gave her phone to his friend who had been listening intently. They exchanged a look and Kev made a motion for him to leave.
                  "Wait." Kev pulled his friend aside and spoke such that she couldn't hear him. They both turned to look at her for a moment before finishing their conversation. His friend left with her phone.
                  At her protest Kev turned to her.
                  "I need a burner laptop, there's only so much I can do from here. " He lay back against the couch and spoke so that only she could hear.
                  "How involved do you want to be in this? Could I interest you in an adventure?"


                  His eyes were crusty with sleep when he awoke. Sunlight streamed through his curtains onto his face. He was definitely hungover. He was in the same place he remembered, facedown on his made bed, shoes still on. He groaned as he reached up to wipe the sleep from his eyes.
                  "Take your time mate we have all day."
                  Chuck went wide-eyed and sat up quickly, head spinning. He groaned again and tried to block the sunlight from his face.
                  "What is this? Who are you?"
                  Jules stood next to Kev.
                  "I think you know who I am."
                  Chuck recognized her. It was the woman he had been watching. More importantly, it was the couple from the bar. He looked around for his phone, panicking.
                  "Looking for this?" Kev held up a small black object. His phone.
                  "What? How? What do you want? You obviously don't want me dead or I would have woken up that way."
                  "Smart bloke this one."
                  "And you!" Chuck waggled a thick finger at Jules. "I was just watching you!"
                  Jules smiled.
                  "She really looks like me, yeah?"
                  "But who...?" Chuck blustered. He was too hungover for this.
                  "You're asking the wrong questions, mate." Kev smiled.
                  "I don't make demands unless I have to. You should be asking what kind of deal I want to make. "
                  "What...what kind of deal?"
                  "The kind of deal where you give me the information I want about your organization and your mate Lance and your life finally becomes everything you've aspired to." Kev motioned to the apartment. "Unless this is what you really want out of life."

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


                  • #24
                    The Hat Trick
                    by zeroasterix

                    Sunshine in the meeting room.
                    “Sit down Walter, I need to brief you on this case. You too Chatterbox, you'll want to hear this. Bitwise, Random, Patel- can you guys come over here a minute? Dr. Octothorpe, can you put down what you are working on and join us?”
                    <what's up?>
                    “J.B. is going over the sitch,” says Bitwise.
                    “What's 'the sitch' mean?” asks Walter.
                    “The situation,” says J.B. in his leader voice “is not pretty. Someone is playing cat and mouse with us. At Two thirty this morning it seems that we were compromised on the fortress server. The logs have been purged, and the .bash_history has been deleted, but we can assume that source code has been copied. How do we even know we have been penetrated? There is a new folder on the fortress hard drive call Hat_Trick it contains some source code, most likely a rootkit or a virus. New_York was on duty last night, and says there were no remote logins, no sudos. I remind you that the root account has been disabled on the fortress, and there is no way in or out without something being triggered. SUBMARINE is still generating signals, but we can't know for sure if it's been tampered with. I don't know who this is, or what he is up to, but he's messing with the wrong crew.” He takes a big breath, his anger stirs but he keeps it under wraps. “So, order of business: everyone change their passwords. Patel, I need you to scour the back logs, find anything out of the ordinary go back as far as you need to. There has to be some crumb he left behind. Bitwise, play with that experimental honeypot you've been working on, it's time to check our traps. Also, look at wireshark, see if we have caught any stray packets. RND()m, I want you to start looking at our Hat_Trick, full recon, I want to know exactly what that thing does. Doc., you come with me. Walter, I need you to lock this place down, full perimeter check. We have an infiltrator, that puts us at defcon 1 people. Let's scramble!”
                    “What do you want me to do?” asks Chatterbox.
                    “Chatterbox you are our social guy. Go do what you do best, listen on the wire. Talk to your people on irc, check twitter, facebook, security blogs whatever listen for any mention of break-ins, stolen source code or SUBMARINE. We don't live in a vacuum. Oh, and find out what Hat-Trick means.”
                    “I know what it means.”
                    “You do? Well, what is it?”
                    Chatterbox pauses for dramatic effect, no one moves all eyes are on him. “Pulling a Hat-Trick is when you penetrate a girl in all three holes- a true hat trick order is standard, anal, oral.”

                    Enter our villain: Zeroasterix, master of the dark arts, black-hat extraordinaire, mind-manipulator sits in total shadow in the meditation chamber, a sensory deprivation tank. He achieves perfect stillness in complete darkness. Eventually he pulls out of the trance state, opens his eyes, and speaks to himself, repeating over and over like some mantra, “Test of cleverness. Test of nerve. Chasing and being chased.” He breathes deeply and feels exhilaration to the tips of his toes. “Outwit the Other. Trick the tripster, trap the trickster, track the trappers. Find what is hidden, hide what is found.” He knows the motivating incident will get the chase going. “Runners on your Mark. Who chases? Who hides?” Opposition of forces, Interplay. Let me paint the scene evoke the environment, conjure the desktop. Pull up the playlist. [you tube: electro-swing]
                    Zeroasterix emerges from the inky darkness of his float tank dripping wet and enters the flood of white light. His place is the apex of the golden triangle. Bundles of fiber optic cables snake along the floor, while hieroglyphic sequences adorn the walls. He glances at the array of 4k monitors that stream squiggles of alphanumerics, but his glance is only a brushing interest. He looks out across the cityscape made of steel and glass. The sun is sinking into the pacific ocean and appears red behind the haze of smoke and dust kicked up by 8.6 million grubby worms. For them, the day is ending. Jagged black hallucinations rise up on the horizon, is that a cloud of bats? Self-created, a fresh alien insect with quivering antennae, his day has just begun. He suits up, prepares his banana smoothie to which he adds dark powders and mysterious tinctures, carnivorous mushrooms (cordyceps), and algae scraped off the ancient dark pool of Osireion at Abydos.
                    Time to check in make a report.
                    “Hello? Hello? Agent Black here, reporting from cyberspace. Do you read me?” He is the loner, the journeyman way out on the edge of known space making his report, recording audio in total blackness. “This is a violent place- it seems that people need turbulence for transformation. A need for pain to motivate change. It is that constant pressure which drives human achievements, and under the thick layers of time and space is the irritating desire for freedom. I am all alone in this dark dimension staring into this devastating dynamo of destruction and rebirth. This is as far out as I can go, and I feel the darkness crushing me. I may be evolving into something else entirely.”
                    “Agent White here, I read you loud and clear from central station, Omphalos point. I am keeping the peace, doing my best to hold the darkness at bay. “
                    “I don't know if you are getting this Agent White, the echoes are too much. Instantaneous bio-feedback crashes the input channels. I can't differentiate outside signals from internal diatribe. I am cracking up, maybe just talking to myself. If we lose our nerve and collectively fail to take this evolutionary step, it will result in the spiritual and literal extinction of the human species.”
                    “I am receiving you, Agent Black. Yes, the political and social turmoil we are seeing across the board reflects an underlying biologic crisis. But, it's not that dramatic. This is not the end of the human line, even if it may feel like it is.”
                    There is a long silence. Then quietly Agent Black says, “Human language has within it a virus. Dangerous. It allows us to transform and convey information to future generations but there is a crocodile lurking there, and it hides well because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host. Over and out.”

                    “Okay guys,” say J.B. “Report in.”
                    <Bufferbloat,> says RND()m like he is spitting out a curse.
                    “Bitwise, has your honeypot picked up anything yet?”
                    “I've tuned the sensitivity levels way up, so I am still filtering the data. But wireshark had some interesting dumps. I've got a pcap here, and it's hard to say what traffic belongs to our attacker, and what belongs to our normal activity. If we assume he has taken on our identities, spoofed his MAC address to appear as an internal machine, it could be anything anywhere. I have isolated some very suspicious traffic, but it could just be erratic packets from SUBMARINE. I am still trying to piece together the data. Come back to me.”
                    “Fine. Keep working. What about you Patel find anything on the logs?”
                    “No. Whoever did this is meticulous with the logs. The records have been touched up, I can tell that much, but other than that nothing. Only thing that keeps coming up are weird timestamps, the numbers 11:11 and 23 keep repeating themselves over and over. It's like he is teasing us.”
                    <Really? I too often am encountering the numeral 23.> says RND()m. <Those IP addresses are what you would call decoys. I am finding repeating 23s everywhere. And he know who we are.>
                    “What do you mean?” asks J.B. his voice slowly rising in volume.
                    <I mean this. Look. This one here is your home IP address J.B. it matches the logins you made from home. This one here is my off-shore server. My digital playground, I rent rackspace in Luxembourg, back-up my files there, I keep a website with my code projects. These three are 23s and 5s repeating endlessly. This one here is Dr. Octothorpe's website. This one is all 23s. Aha, now I see the 11:11 you are saying.It continues...>
                    “Well, 23:23 military time is 11:23 pm.” says Chatterbox.
                    “23 is prime, as are 2 and 3.” says Patel.
                    “Telnet! It's port 23! maybe our mystery man is trying to tell us something. Do we have any telnet services running?” Bitwise is catching onto the game.
                    “No.” says Patel “I checked that already.”
                    “Enough!” Bellows J.B. “This is bullshit. When you start looking for some kind of pattern. You tend to find it. None of these are getting us any closer to figuring out who this is.”
                    “He is using a geo-stationary Low-Earth orbit satellite feed, and somehow he's burrowed right into the IPX network. He is beyond the reach of ISPs.” says Bitwise “I tracked some IPs back to Finland, Spain, Hong-Kong, Korea. All over the map.”
                    “This is the communication almost entirely as we plucked it off the wire,” says Patel and throws down the print-out. Dr. Octothorpe picks it up and looks through it. “I can't make heads or tails of it. Is this guy delusional? I think its fiction. He must be downloading sci-fi off peer-to-peer networks, they found a way to piggy-back off the dark-fiber. I know, we are getting bleed though or something. Echoes on the line. Remember, this is experimental technology anyway- we just can't trust SUBMARINE reports without rigorous field testing...” Dr. Octothorpe trails off, out of ideas.
                    “Almost entirely? What's missing?” says Walter.
                    “You said, 'this is the communication almost entirely as we plucked it off the wire.' What is missing?” explains Walter.
                    “Strange characters, unicode, format encodings probably. Not really sure.”
                    “Let me look at that.”
                    “God-damned it!” J.B. screamed. “We are not just any cyber security team. We are responsible for the data security of everyone who uses this system. I am calling the FBI.”

                    When Zeroasterix uses the Internet it is like taking a drug, information hitting your mainline. You can smell it going in, clean and cold in your nose and throat, then a rush of pure data right into the brain. It lights up all those i connections. Your head splatters in a white explosion, your body falls away and you are suddenly free. This is the realm of the mind alone. It satisfies the need to be without feelings, without the body. Earth bound no more. This is the ghost you. Electron clouds drift. Your nervous system is directly connected to the network. You are the consciousness on the wire. There is a mirror cosmos inside, and without. Since you have lost spatial dimension therefore packet switched network latency is lost. Every time it passes through gateways you are there, the source and the destination. Speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 meters per second. According to the laws of thermodynamics such particles and waves travel at c regardless of the motion of the source or the inertial frame of reference of the observer, but distant nebulae spin in complete synchronization, perfectly aligned with other nebulae on the other side of the galaxy all part of the whole. And thus faster than light communication is achieved. It's instantaneous because nothing is separate. We are all a part of just one living sentient organism at all places at once. This is how its always been, right now, right here intersecting the eliptical curve of time and space.
                    The white light diffuses past the blood brain barrier seeping into the central nervous system, selective transport of raw information has heavy security but there are open ports all along the circumventricular organs, released into the oxygen rich, hydrophobic environment of the brain extracellular fluid, the photons self-arrange in a pattern resembling triple petaled flower. Then Agent White comes swarming in after it. Police in riot gear throwing flash bombs, clouds of pepper spray and tear gas. Next the feds in black helicopters, the NSA bristling with wiretaps and antennae, jet fighters, drone aerial surveillance, stealth bombers. Angry as wasps.
                    Keep it real, Zeroasterix tells himself sipping on his banana potion. Tripping slowly, tipping, tilting forward. Once you log out, the unease of limitations creeps in. It gets under your nails, crawls on the skin, like bugs under your collar. You need another shot at it.

                    Agent White comes from East Oakland, a timezone shifter. He may find the system tyrannical, but still believes in it. Hierarchy of command. But, he is starting to drift; power is intoxicating. “My name is Agent White you can call me White. I am glad you called so quickly. This situation could have escalated out of control. I'd like your data please.” says Agent White.
                    “Nice hat dude.” says Chatterbox.
                    “We'd like to explain the situation.” says J.B.
                    “I understand the situation,” says Agent White. “I am here to protect you. I am here to keep the peace. Hand over your keys and there wont be any trouble.”
                    “Wait, wait” J.B backs up “We have some very confidential projects running here. It has taken us years to develop and set up this environment. You need to sign non-disclosure agreements before we hand over anything.”
                    “I am well aware of what you are operating here at this facility.”
                    “Well, if you already know what do you need my keys for? Do you know the Clandestine Chemists?
                    “I don't know. You said Chemists right?
                    “Yeah I've heard rumors. They are supposed to rule this town.”
                    “We've got chemists. Lots of chemists spotted ones stripey ones. What are you doing here?” says Agent White.
                    “We are taking over. That's right White we are going to get those chemists, and when we do we are going to kick them out of here we are going to rule Omphalos point.”
                    “Hmmm so you are bad guys are you?”

                    “What hacker does not love a riddle? Perhaps it is your modus operandi, your raison d'etre. Nothing delights you guys like a puzzle to solve, a complex conundrum to ponder, a brain teaser to untangle.” Agent White stares into the fire. “Stand by for transmission,” he says in a strange tone as if addressing a voice recognition system, then resumes his casual monologue. “It challenges and entertains you.. and us.” Ghost images now dance alongside the blue flickering flame. [Chinese man. “I've got that tune”] Rather than being deliberately enigmatic or opaquely ambiguous, I offer you all the information that I have collected on the suspect. Here's an account to the live datafeed so you can be updated as soon as we get new intel. I have also included annotations and references on every solid lead I could map out. The constellation of clues, the subtleties of the interconnections is mesmerizing. Meaning is within the words themselves, beyond the surface of things. Listen too closely and you can contract the disease.”
                    <What are you talking about?> says RND()m.
                    “Look boys I'm going to say it country simple, your whole operation is nothing but a picture hologram projected by the CIA. What's its purpose? Anyway you slice it, it's a control mechanism. Well, the Queen Bee needs more homey. We'll call a story conference. How about a contest where people can submit their ideas? As a reward we could give them a ticket into the carnival, one free admission to the peep show. Does that sound like a good slant J.B?”
                    JB is relaxed now, sitting back in his chair doodling muscle-boys says, “sounds good to me whatever it takes to keep it going.”
                    “They do need more honey.” continues Agent White. “Or they will just go down the same spiral as everybody else. They just wouldn't be the royal family anymore. Could end up in a semi-detached in Arlington. They are supposed to be a supernatural family.”
                    “Listen to this, Time,” reads Dr. Octothorpe, “with no loop-out or loop-back appears as if we are stuck in time, and suddenly it becomes a resource that we mine, or rent out to other miners- carving out our symbols in the air around us. Neon phosphenes hovering about our head, or giant public works programs, a hundred million hands chiseling out blocks for the masters. But, apply loopout or loopback, and you rise up out of our skulls, it appears so obviously mundane, easy to escape the circuit- and we encounter the 5th dimension. Oh, and Time is running out.”
                    “What is this shit?! What is going on here? I thought we were handling this situation. Why are you cooperating with the guy? And, why am I the only one freaking out about this? The whole situation is unraveling quickly!” says Walter.
                    “Bitwise I heard you graduated from Shodan university,” says Agent White.
                    “Yes sir thats right I passed the national security test and wanted to see some real action, you know.”
                    “Yeah, well this town is pretty rough. Its full of liars”
                    “This town is pretty tough? No problem. Did I tell you I was frigid? I've got no feelings. Nothing bothers me. Never even had an orgasm.”

                    Agent Black's Transmission continues: “Travel the road of death while still alive. Go where the dead go without dying. For anyone else, this pure black place would be deadly. Bring up a shell. List files. Find the crumbling hole gnawed by a rat. The only clue is two dots. Crumbs to follow back up and out the hole. List files again, there's another hole, back up and out again. Now list a final time, there are all the royal families laid out in a proper tree. You can navigate where you want from here. Pass through the gates, I hope you know the password. There are guardians at every door.”
                    “Brute force and nerves are not enough to take you into the presence of the Light Beings. You need to know what you are doing, where you are going, how you stand in relation to the digital gods. You have to be initiated into the mysteries of the Underworld.”
                    [garbled] “Queen of the Underworld, I met her once far below the subway tunnels beneath Mexico City near Chepultepec station.” [garbled]

                    “What do you think is up with this strange occurrence of the number 23?” asks Walter.
                    “I looked it up,” explains Patel “Wikipedia says that Wilson relates the following story:
                    “I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.”
                    “Then I discovered William Burroughs already encountered the potential of language as a virus. He wrote an essay called The Electronic Revolution where he wrote: “Viruses are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependent upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living... And I may add the environment necessary for any cellular structure they could parasitize to survive. Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive? Is the white race, which would seem to be more under virus control than the black yellow and brown races, giving any indication of workable symbiosis? ‘Taking the virus eye view, the ideal situation would appear to be one in which the virus replicates in cells without in any way disturbing their normal metabolism.’ This has been suggested as the ideal biological situation toward which all viruses are slowly evolving...’ Would you offer violence to a well intentioned virus on its slow road to symbiosis? ‘It is worth noting that if a virus were to attain a state of wholly benign equilibrium with its host cell it is unlikely that its presence would be readily detected or that it would necessarily be recognized as a virus. I suggest that the word is just such a virus.”
                    “Do you know what we can do with this code Walter? Bridge language and machine code. Killer virus, verbal chemistry, hack time and space? Release the ideas into the wild.”
                    “Well, Agent White said something about a short story contest. What if we encode the ideas we are talking about, while applying a lossless compression technique thus scrambling and encoding the virus into the language of the story?” offers Bitwise.
                    “Could you do that? I mean, could you actually craft a story out of the chunks of code? I think it wouldn't make any sense.” considers Walter.
                    “Perhaps.... Well, what if we chalk it to surrealism, or drug abuse. An intentional effect of the author, perhaps the cut-up technique?”
                    “You two seem out of touch. You guys are living in a world of illusions,” says Walter.
                    RND()m interrupts them, <Agent White just dispatched three assassins after Agent Black!>
                    “At the end of space and time do all things fall into entropy or do they achiever perfect order?” continues Bitwise. “The alignment of all these synchronizations creates a transparency, much akin the quartz crystal.”

                    Agent White is yelling now, “What do you need from me, that will convince you, to hand over that code? You need a story to wrap things up? To explain things and make you feel warm inside? I've got a story for you. It is about two agents who were working deep in a remote location. One of the agents- we will call him Dawn- got a handful of letters almost every day in the mail, but the other agent- we will call him Dusk- never got any mail.”
                    “One day Agent Dusk offered a hundred dollars to his friend for one of his letters. (in those days that was a lot of money.) 'Of course,' Agent Dawn replied, and he spread out his mail on a table in front of Agent Dusk. 'Take your pick.'”
                    “Agent Dusk looked over the mail and then chose a letter. At dinner that night, Agent Dawn casually asked his friend what was in the letter he'd bought. 'None of your business,' Agent Dusk replied. 'At least tell me who it was from,' asked Agent Dawn. But Dusk refused to tell him. The two men argued but Agent Dusk would not back down. A week later, Dawn offered to buy the letter back for twice the amount. 'Not on your life,' said Agent Dusk and he walked away.”
                    The crew stood around in stupid silence. “That's it?” asks Patel “How does it end?”
                    “Nobody knows.” says Agent White. “Let's make up an ending. Let's say that Agent Dawn sneaks into Agent Dusk's room to steal the letter back, but Dusk walks in and surprises Dawn going through his things. The men fight and Dawn accidentally kills Dusk. He later finds the letter in Dusk's effects and reads it. What would it say?”
                    “I know what it would say,” says Dr. Octothorpe, “It's a letter from Dawn's hatter informing him that his custom made hat was finished and was on it's way...”
                    “Good!” says Agent White, “But it leaves us unsatisfied doesn't it? We expect more from the letter than a bit of trivial news; we expect the letter to go deeper into the personal lives of the two men. We expect the letter to contain some kind of secret.”
                    “Okay,” says Chatterbox, “I got one. The letter is from Agent Dusk's girlfriend back home saying that she's making a surprise visit, and since Agent Dawn is such a good friend, could he please help arrange a surprise party?”
                    “Great!” exclaims Agent White, “This is more ironic because the girlfriend will indeed get a surprise reception, but not one she anticipates. We also can't help but wonder how Agent Dawn will explain the other Agent's death.”
                    “This ending also explains why Agent Dusk would choose that particular letter, since he would have seen his girlfriend's name and return address on the envelope.”
                    “And, the conclusion leaves no legitimate room for questioning. Everything's been explained, and we are satisfied.”
                    Aren't we?
                    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."


                    • #25
                      A Byte to Remember[a]
                      by Christopher T

                      As her world exploded into flames around her, she saw the man she knew as The Ghost smirking smugly as he stepped backwards to fade in the growing smoke cloud. Frantically, she glanced around and dismally noted that her escape options had been cut off. She was all,[b] but completely doomed. Desperate for a miracle, she leaped through the doorway back into her room. A deafening crack filled the air and her world went completely dark.

                      She awoke to the sound of driving rain drumming against her window. The rain pounded into her consciousness as she struggled to make sense of the blur that greeted her eyes. Slowly, she realized that the rain made the same sound as fire so, she concluded that the fire that felt so real in destroying her was naught but a dream. That realization did not make her feel much better as she shuddered with the thought of how real the dream felt. Her eyes blinked, almost of their own accord as she thought about what to do first. Nothing came to her mind, in fact, she was not even sure what she could do. In fact, it was becoming more apparent that she had no idea where she was nor who she [c]was. Panic began to swell in her mind as she failed to recognize anything surrounding her in the dim light. The situation was untenable to stay where she lay, so she forced her mind to be calm and began to look around.She was laying in a bed cocooned by a warm comforter and that allowed her relax a little. With the sense of foreboding starting to fade, She believed that no one looking to do her harm would take the time to wrap her snuggly and put her nicely into her own bed. Well, that was probably true. A quiet, but distinct, humming sound caught her attention as she looked around her room. The sound was irritating, but it was not enough to keep her attention. Besides, the sound would have to go away sooner or later. As she looked to her right, she saw that the light was broken by the rain as it streamed through her window. Abruptly her thoughts were interrupted with flashes of strings of zeros and ones that streamed through her mind, along with several file names that all bore the word Masquerade. As she recovered her mind she sighed and panned around her room. The objects began to gain clarity in the flickering light. Her head hurt, along with rest of her, and she desperately wanted to restore order to her world by closing her eyes until the pains went away. Thankfully, the humming stopped in her ears as her gaze passed the doorway of her room leading out … well, to somewhere for sure. To the left of her was a closet with a full length mirror attached, but the lighting was too low to make out anything besides that she was in a bed. Next to her was a small end table replete with pictures of people that she did not recognize. As sure as she could be that this room, despite the feeling that everything was foreign, was as safe as she could want.
                      By a sheer force of her willpower against her muscles that refused to cooperate, she pulled herself free of her cocoon[d] and stood up. Her eyes were adjusting to the light and she could see almost clearly now as she blinked the last of the crud from her eyes. Shakily, but stubbornly, she put one foot in front of the other until she felt stable enough to walk. Now that she had passed the Trial of Standing it was time to see what else she could find out about herself. The humming started again. It was not that it was hurting, it was just disturbing enough that she could not ignore it and it just added to the confusion in her head. She adjusted to the sound[e] and started toward the door. Her reflection in the closet mirror caught her attention as she walked toward her door. Interested, she cocked her head to the side slightly and paused for just a moment to look. Her light brown hair was matted in places and curled in semi-random directions, but it looked like it was curly and long enough to reach her shoulders. Even right out of bed her hair almost framed her face in a heart shape which nicely setting off the freckles that sprinkled her cheeks and nose. She smiled a little at the sight of her face and promptly blushed. In the confusion of everything, she did not even realize that she was completely nude. Once the closet door was opened, she was able to identify her favorite pair of jeans. The jeans that were loose enough not constrict her breathing, but not so loose to hide her curves. Her frame was not something that she would consider petite, but it definitely struck her as athletic. Like everything else in her room, the clothes felt familiar and alien to her body, but it was calming to her to gain just a shred of normalcy to her. As she stood fully upright, she tugged at her shirt , ensuring that both the pig face and the caption “Love Me Tender” were visible. A few minutes passed as she tugged at her pants until they felt right on her hips. Feeling confident that she was as prepared as possible for the next step, she left the closet and walked through the bedroom door into the next room. That is when the humming in her ears returned so loudly that she had to shut her eyes until the hum faded away completely.[f]
                      With more resolve, S[g]he opened her eyes to survey the scene outside her room. A cheerful little desk lamp illuminated what she immediately recognized as her work area. In addition to the lamp were a pair of monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and an apparently random collection of electronic components next to her still ho[h]t soldering iron. Again, bits of memory flooded her mind, more documents, the face of The Ghost, and more random streams of zeros and ones. While She looked around her desk and found books on encryption, books on network security and on the floor by her desk, in semi-random piles , were documents detailing newly discovered attacks. [i]It was coming back to her, albeit in bits and pieces, that She was computer security expert. For the last ten years She has been an analyst in network security that specialized in the identification of, and providing solutions to, unauthorized access. She did all of her work from here and The Ghost was somehow intertwined with this Masquerade for which she knew nothing about save its name. No wonder She was dreaming of being burned completely by this person if there was some new intrusion method that she had discovered. Apparently, this Masquerade was something to do with burning data trails to avoid path traces allowing any program to remain undetected and this demanded more serious investigation. Energized by the manifestation of this new quest line She took her chair at her workbench and powered up her system.
                      The files were not in disarray around her desk, but rather they were grouped in categories of attacks. They were all white papers she had been constructing from everything from eavesdropping to the man in the middle assaults for gaining unauthorized access. Her main interests, judging from the size of that pile, were sniffer protocols and cracking encryption. Apparently, she discovered a way that sniffers could identify both the encryption used for a data packet and access the key needed to break the encryption. As such it operated as the “Man” in the middle on the originating system, which she had dubbed a Masquerade attack because it decrypted any file using the system’s encryption keys. It was unusual in that it would send the file encrypted to its destination but the supposedly secure data was free to be read by anyone that could listen in to the transmission. Done well, the Masquerade would be able to provide read, intercept, and interject apparently authentic responses with no delay in transmission time. No wonder she felt The Ghost might turn violent over this discovery. A bit of humming and a clatter from the front door stole her attention as she looked up.
                      A woman walked over to her, with skin the color of smooth chocolate and flame red hair. Her deep brown eyes betrayed the intense calculations occurring under the woman’s cool exterior. The strange woman smiled with a broad smile and said, “Hey! You’re finally up. I thought you had been ignoring me for the past few days.”
                      “How, who … ?” She stammered at the stranger as She tried vainly to cover the pages she was reading.
                      “Silly,” replied the newcomer in a silky voice, “I am Calypso[j].” Seeing confusion on the other woman’s face, Calypso continued, “I live next door? We are good friends? You know, we drink margaritas and talk about work and stuff? Nothing? Seriously?” Calypso’s brow furrowed and said, “We should get you to a hospital if you do not know me.”
                      “I am sorry. I am[k] just having a hard time remembering things right now. It is like amnesia but I am getting parts of it at a time. I think I will just stay here for now.” Laughing nervously, She added, “No need getting out here anytime soon, right?”
                      “Hmmm.” murmured Calypso and the she laughed as she said, “You always are way into work. Sometimes I swear you only talk to people that help you further with … whatever it is you are working on now.”
                      “Yeah, I know I am a bit of a workaholic.” She begrudgingly agreed.
                      “Well, so you are not a total amnesiac then.” Calypso giggled.
                      Turning back to her work area, She went back to her monitor. Her work came pouring into her mind which made her feel secure and more real. She had a purpose. She had a life. She also had this person standing over her watching her work with no idea who this Calypso, if that was her real name, might be. For someone that was supposed to be that close to her, she should remember something of this Calypso. However, She believed that Calypso was genuine, after all, Calypso did have a key to her apartment. The thought gently nagged at her because She had spent years learning that the slimiest and most harmful things always came looking like a friend. Regardless of the danger, She could not concern herself enough to stop what she was doing, not while she was piecing back together her life, one memory stream at a time. Her system monitor demanded her attention because it became bright and full of life. The thought still pulled at her, because even if Calypso was someone on her side, the grime of the underbelly of criminal activities stuck to everyone, even if just a little. Virtual or actual, criminal activity tended to work its way into everyone sooner or later, justifying actions that would have been incomprehensible juxtaposed with the same values earlier.
                      Calypso pulled up a chair next to, poignantly looking away from the work area and said “So, what are you working on now?”
                      She did not look up and said, “I am not sure. I just have these flashes and pieces.”
                      Calypso breathed out a sigh as she shifted her weight around in the chair. Finally, Calypso said in an attenuated voice, almost hushed as she said, “You gave me this for safe keeping a few days ago.” Calypso produced a sealed envelope and handed it to her friend saying, “You said this was important just in case something went wrong.”
                      She opened it and said confused, “It is an address and a key.”
                      Calypso said, “It looks like a lock box somewhere, but the address is the bus station across the street. Maybe it’s a locker?” When Calypso looked up, her friend was gone and the door was open.

                      At the bus station, she looked around for the locker that matched the key in her hand. Excitedly she counted the counted down until she found locker forty-two. She inserted the key into the lock and paused. Uncertain as to what might be inside the locker, She found herself hesitant to actually turn the key. The way she came across this information was interesting, to put a word to it. She looked around and noted there was no one here besides the ticket person, whom she oddly recognized as someone who belonged here. With a renewed courage to solve this bizarre mystery, She looked at the key in the lock and decided it was worth the risk. Whatever was in there would bring her closer to understanding what was happening to her and maybe even why it was happening. Once She has whatever has been stashed in here, it was her intention to have Calypso fill in the missing details of her life. Clearly, Calypso knows something worth knowing and whatever the intentions of Calypso might be, at the very least there will be some more information to work with. The key turned the tumbler with an an audible click. It seemed louder than she expected, but that was probably just because she was focused on it. Inside the locker was a small bag which she extracted from the locker. She opened the bag and slowly, almost as if She was expecting it to explode, but instead found some plates. She pulled one from the sack and saw that they were plates with the impressions of one hundred dollar bills. These were not plates for printing, these were molds. Why molds? This discovery made even less sense than The Ghost and Calypso. Turning the molds over, She found the word UDAM scratched on the back of the plate as if the engraving had been done quickly with a screwdriver. The all too familiar sense of dread descended on her as she read the word UADAM; Unauthorized Access Detection And Mitigation. Whatever these were for, it was Only the largest security company in operation that had an interest in this. Well, them and The Ghost, of course.
                      UADAM had the nasty reputation of burning their competitors in one of two ways. They would offer a clearly low ball offer to purchase the competing package. If it was accepted, great. However, if rejected, the competition would suddenly find itself inundated with flaws in its product and would be dismantled from the inside. There was never enough time to patch the flaws and reports of evaporating software, starting with the core code were reported with ruthless efficiency. It did not matter how their data was backed up, it always wound up corrupted and propagated to all of the distributed packages. However, authorities were never able to determine how this was accomplished, let alone link it back to UADAM. Between payoffs and raw fear, no one was able to make anything stick. This was not a good place to be the underdog. She needed to get back to her lair and figure out in what she found herself involved.

                      As She entered her apartment, She saw Calypso typing away at the keyboard. Distraught, She yelled out “What are doing there?” as She raced across the room to the station.
                      Caught off-guard, Calypso replied, hurt, “We always work here together. While you were gone I went searching for the files about this guy.” Calypso pointed to a fragmented piece of paper with UADAM and The Ghost written on it.
                      “Even still,” She said, “that feels a bit like a personal invasion.”
                      Calypso cocked her head to one said, “Yeah, I guess so. But I found all these file fragments laying around that might be connected, but none of them are whole files. So, I sent them to our mutual friend …”
                      “You did, WHAT?” She shrieked. “I stashed molds for bills with UADAM scratched on them in that locker. I do not know if I can trust you, let alone anyone else on the outside of here. What if they are listening to your broadcast?”
                      Calypso looked a little scared but managed to reply with indignation, “I am not totally stupid, ok? I used OUR encryption scheme. We do not negotiate keys or ciphers, you have to know the ciphers ahead of time, not on the fly. We three based it on YOUR research for sniffing, self-decrypting code.”
                      She sighed, “Fine, The damage is done, whatever that means and we can deal with that later. Who did you send it to?”
                      Calypso said, “She only goes by HydraSpider. That one loves her mysteries. But she is great at reassembling fractured files. I am almost done here anyway…” Calypso’s mild irritation directly ceased into a poignant silence. Calypso whispered, “Did you see that?”
                      “Yeah” She replied “the packet overwrote its destination site. Someone else is copying this information to themselves as well. I hope Ms. Spider knows how to use an anonymizer.”
                      "I suppose that will at least keep her safer, what about us?" Calypso said as her eyes widened with fear, her gaze fixed on the monitor.
                      Something hit the door, hard. A string of vulgarity permeated through the door.
                      Calypso scribbled down something on a scrap of paper. “Find Hydra, she will know what to do next. We need to get out of here.” Calypso pointed toward the fire escape.
                      “Right” She gasped. Without a moment of hesitation, She grabbed the satchel with the plates and paused long enough only to grab her Go Bag as the front door broke into countless splinters. Calypso had darted off in the other direction for some reason, but she was cut off now that this intruder had smashed into the room. With no time to be concerned, She slipped out onto the fire escape while the Intruder went after Calypso.
                      The rain was still coming down in sheets as She started down the slippery fire escape. She had to move carefully and quickly down the five stories to the street. Nothing was clear in the rain as the hum popped back into her consciousness. This could not be a distraction, not now, so She allowed the hum to continue as She used her task to ignore the sound grating her ears. As if this was not enough, in the not too far distance she heard Calypso scream and the distinct crack of gunfire. Then, at the window a couple of stories above her, she saw smoke begin to curl out of her apartment that was then promptly followed by the head of the man that shattered here security and burned her world. She had no weapons, but the ladder was too treacherous to worry about that anyway. The hum went away under the stress of the situation and the man leapt onto the landing above her. She quickened her descent as the man on the ledge fired down at her. Bullets whizzed by her head and ricocheted off the wet concrete below. She was a higher than she would have liked, but in a moment of desperation, she let go and fell to the ground. where she landed less than gracefully. Her ankle hurt as though she twisted it, but she limped away into an alley at her side.
                      She realized her mistake immediately as she saw the alley had no exits. No doors, no ladders, and no hope. The buzz returned to her head as she contemplated her next move. In a fit of dark humor she wondered if she would be found shredded with the rest of the trash, or even if she would be found at all. In a flash of lightning that same irksome humming began a new assault on her ears as she decided that she would rather not die in this forlorn alley and her best chance was to flee. Running to to the street, an exclamation from the fire escape pulled her attention and She saw that her pursuer had indeed noticed her combining back out of the alley. Completely stricken by this, She froze in horror as her legs refused to carry her away for at least a moment of safety. The man started to descend even quicker, making her doom come ever faster. A look of confusion flashed his face that was immediately replaced by terror as he lost his grip. Caught in the grip of a morbid fascination, She watched him strike his head against the metal landing and plummet the remaining few stories to the concrete where he lay motionless as the rain water turned crimson around his head on its way to the gutter. Dead or alive, he was in no condition to pose a danger to her now.
                      Hearing sirens in the distance starting to get louder, She knew there was not much time to get any kind of answers. Kneeling beside the body, She felt for a pulse and recognized the man was dead. Good, there were no worries about being followed by this guy later. To her immense and immediate surprise, she found a wallet in his pockets. What idiot assassin carries his wallet on a hit? This one, apparently. She chortled to herself as she walked away from the scene. First responders squealed to a stop not 10 meters from her, but She never looked back as she sped up to a faster walk in an effort to put more distance between them. With the fire likely burning hotter, they had other problems than pedestrians on the street. She knew there was no way her friend's death would be in vain. With sense of purpose, She resolved to find HydraSpider. The weather even seemed to understand her commitment as the rain lessened to sprinkle. A quick in the dead man’s wallet revealed he had indeed been under contract at UADAM in the physical security division. Whatever else may be unclear to her, She knew the mystery of these molds and the UADAM connection would be undone before they silenced her forever.

                      When She finally looked up again, She found herself by the docks surrounded by warehouses. There was no track in her mind of the path that She used to arrive here or even the reasoning behind her being here. The escape and combing through the wallet had taken all of her attention. Looking around, the whole area seemed connected, but in distinct areas, not very unlike a spider web. Maybe she subconsciously put herself here to meet HydraSpider. She realized that even in this tangle of steel and asphalt that there was no cover outside of the buildings and this position was too accessible. It was time for her to hunt a spider and sit down beside her.
                      The warehouses closed around, her, but this time She looked at her surroundings with a more analytical and hopeful gaze while allowing the area to seep into her mind. In her pocket was the scrap that Calypso had written for her and it simply read, middle. Wonderful, a riddle to solve. Oh no, a puzzle to solve, a mystery with no clues. It made a kind of sense to her logically as spiders sit in the middle of their webs until they catch their prey. So where was the middle of this maze of buildings? She wandered around for a few minutes and realized there was likely a map at the front of this complex, wherever that was located., but it would give her an aerial view of her maze. Another couple of minutes led her to a site map. The map took longer to analyze than She would have liked as it was apparent that no particular building was in the center of the complex. She knew it was an uneducated guess at best, but She had really hoped that this person would be easy to find. Anger swelled up inside her as she strove to make sense of the enigma in front of her and in sheer frustration She pounded on the map. Her ears began to hum anew; it was odd that She never noticed the hum stopping last time, but more importantly, it allowed her to focus on the problem at hand. Now suddenly curious, She opened her eyes and found her clenched fist on top of the number two building. She was looking for a hacker, why would the answer not be in the numbers somewhere.
                      Twelve buildings comprised this lot of warehouses and they were numbered one to twelve. At least that part was easy. All right, the sum of these buildings was seventy-eight. A quick review of the building numbers presented nothing with a seventy-eight associated with it. Averaging the building numbers gave a result of six point five. Maybe there was a sewer entrance between the sixth and fifth building. Using her phone’s camera, she took an image of the site map for reference. She made her way to the fifth and sixth building where She began to search the area. Both warehouses were clearly labeled as businesses and there were even parking spaces. No sewer entrances presented themselves either. She was clearly in the wrong place and maybe the wrong district in the wrong city. The hum burrowed into her ears anew, but faded almost as quickly.
                      Not remembering how she arrived at the place, She concluded that she must have navigated here by some reason; surely this was not an accident. Alright, assuming this was where She should be looking, then there has to be an answer in here somewhere. Pushing the creeping doubt aside in her mind, She forced her thoughts to converge on solving this riddle. She pulled a pad of paper from her go bag. Sure, digital may be faster, but this was not traceable so long as she kept her garbage to herself. Alright, hacker mode enabled and engaged. She wrote the number twelve at the top left of the page. Then She wrote the sum of the buildings, seventy eight, at the top center. Finally, she wrote six point five at the top right corner. Maybe none of it mattered, but it was all She had for the moment. Of course, she was thinking in base ten. What if these were hexadecimal representations she identified? Under the original numbers she wrote 0x12, 0x78, and 0x6.5. That last one would not be helpful, the binary for that is just too long for it to be useful. So, She scratched 6.5 and 0x6.5 from her list. Which left 0x12 and 0x78. First things first, she looked at 0x12. The binary would be 0001 0010. Not particularly useful, but added together made 0011. That would be 3, but she could have gotten that just as easy without any of the conversions. All right, ASCII code would 0x12 a non-printable character, but the individual numbers would be 0x31 and 0x32. Subtracting to 0x1 gave her another useless answer. Summing got her to 0x64. A printable d still does not a building make. Maybe it is the fourth building? Perhaps, but She put that solution on the back burner; the last thing She needed was another wild goose chase. What about two's complements and any of the other binary manipulation techniques that were streaming in her mind. No, she shook her head to concentrate. She could not pursue every possible solution. She may not even be able to determine the correct solution. Determined to not lose her momentum, She moved on to the seventy-eight.
                      All right, the ASCII for seventy-eight was an x. Really? X never marks the spot, right? Well, maybe that is makes it ideal for concealing a secret lair. An uppercase X translates to 0x58. So, the cross happens between the edges, between the five and eight. Could it be so easy as to be building seven? Well, it was not exactly easy to come up with this answer, and it sure beat the answer of four. She gathered her belongings and decided to bet on lucky number seven. When She arrived at the building marked seven, she took a look around and it was apparent that this building had not been occupied in a long time. Dirt was accumulating along the foundation and rust was rampant across the exposed metal of the exterior. Every bay door was rusted shut and the broken windows had metal plates welded to the inside. If anyone was in there, they clearly wanted for no one to know it. Along the last side of the building, where cover from the sun would always provide shade and the accidental fly over would not easily see what was happening is where She found a door. She pushed, and for the first time, the barrier budged. With a new found energy, She put more of her weight into her request for the door to give way and She almost did not notice the hum that briefly popped into her ears as her body made contact with her obstacle.
                      The rusty door protested loudly at her forceful insistence that it open for her. Slowly it opened and allowed her to the expansive emptiness, lit only by the sunlight through the grimy skylights. She had been so certain that this would be the place. There was no resistance for her to offer against the swelling of despair started to form inside of her. Dumbfounded, She wandered around the completely bare floor. There was no power in the lights, no chattering of equipment, and no life except for the rats. She needed to figure out her next move, but there was some levity as She chuckled to herself when she thought that at least no one is coming here to look for her in a place where there is nothing of value. Despondently She slumped against a wall as hopelessness and futility began to threaten to overtake her completely. As She sunk to the floor, a sound a few meters away caused her to look up.
                      A short woman, barely one and a half meters tall stepped into view. Her stocky frame belied the fluid agility with which she moved as the graying hair at her temples belied the inquisitive energy in her light brown eyes. If ever there were beardless dwarves, this woman was surely one of them. However, for all of her appearance, the thick Creole accent that emanated from her mouth still sounded almost unnatural coming from this new woman.
                      “Come on, child. I thought you would never find this place. Get up and hurry to see the mess you’ve got yourself into this time.” The new woman said with a sharper tone, “We got no time for this girl. Mon Dieu. Look, the Spider is only a mighty huntress when she lays the traps. We must be going, now!” Hydra saw that the woman was still suspiciously not getting up, so Hydra grabbed her by the arm and forced her to stand. As Hydra pushed her friend to the sliding door that concealed the stairs down, she said “Girl, when Calypso said you did not remember none of this, I thought for sure …”
                      “Wait, Hydra,” She managed to blurt out as she composed herself while pushed toward the newly appeared corridor. “You’ve seen Calypso?”
                      “No, child.” Hydra began, “she only messaged me a while ago about these file fragments that you had stored on your computer.” A series of buttons on her wrist allowed Hydra to signal the door to seal behind them and illuminate the edges of the steps down. “Not too much further, right? And then we’ll see what there is to see about those files.”
                      As they descended the stairs, the lights turned off behind them. "I thought for sure someone had gotten to you when you could not find me immediately." Hydra said with a laugh.
                      "You watched me working out there? How could you leave me fumbling around like?" She said in disbelief.
                      Hydra responded, "Because, love. Calypso said to be certain of you because she did not know what you were in to. Hydra knows. A spider is always keenly aware of what comes into her web."
                      "What, Hydra. What is all of this?"
                      "In good time, child. All of this is being explained soon. Look." At the bottom of the steps the last of the lighting faded as the pair emerged into a small space bursting with electronics and computing space.
                      “Now, this is what I expecting from The Great HydraSpider” She gasped in amazement.
                      “Oh, love. If you show your cards to the casual glance, then you will never be able to bluff. Over here now. Give me the plates.”
                      “The what?” She said, taken aback.
                      “The plates, the plates love.” Hydra spat annoyed. “The printer files I rebuilt from your fragments will not work without the plates. I know; I’ve tried. The resin has nothing to hold its shape while it cools from this.”
                      Reluctantly, She produced the molds as instructed, thinking it might not be the right time to correct The Great Hydra. Hydra took the plates and placed them inside her AllAxis 3D printer. A few strokes of the keyboard and a mouse click later, the printer was on its way. As She casually listened to the gentle humming of the printer, She could not help but think that this was the same hum she had been hearing all along. Fascinated by the precision of the printer as it filled every crevice of the mold, little by little, pass by pass, She found herself excited for how the final piece would appear.
                      The pair watched silently, totally engrossed in the efforts of the printer. Both were eager to see what was being wrought before their eyes. The anticipation of what they were seeing both excited and terrified them to their cores. As the printer completed its run, Hydra threw open the cover and removed the final prints from the printing chamber. Both women were fixated on the cooling resin as Hydra poked and prodded the slimy film until she was certain it could be removed without damaging the final product. Hydra flipped the plates over. When she lifted the plate, all that remained were several one hundred dollar bills. If they had been made with the correct color of resin, then they would be visibly indistinguishable from real bills printed at the treasury.
                      “Oh, love.” breathed Hydra as she picked up one of the replica bills, “Feel this.”
                      As She picked up another replica it was immediately obvious because the replica felt like cloth. The bill folded as She would expect any bill to fold and acted like any bill in any of the impromptu tests that she devised while holding it. Even the raised portions felt correct as there were layers of resin where the extra ink should have been placed by the printing press.
                      “With the right material base, these would pass as real and no one would ever know different. You will not ever gonna get a moments of rest so long as you have these plates and files, girl.” Hydra dug through her friend’s Go Bag and produced several other plates. “They here for all the major currencies, love. They gonna want these back. No way they let you live knowing what you know, child. No good comes from this, no good at all. With enough of this, child, they can destabilize economies. Make the poor poorer and necessities out of reach for everyone.”
                      “I don’t understand …” She began.
                      Hydra cut her off “It does not matter, love. No time for an economics lesson.” Hydra pushed her friend to a dark corner.
                      “Hydra, please. What is …”
                      “Just go, child. Quickly.” Hydra’s brow furrowed as she pointed to the far side of her workshop and indecision played across her face. “You have been betrayed, love.” Hydra trailed off as she dropped her gaze, “by me, love. They said all they wanted was the plates, but The Ghost won’t trust us to keep the secret. We will be dead by…”
                      “Oh, that’s patently untrue.” A distinctly male voice cut into the conversation. “We have no need to create the problem of more corpses, but how disappointing, Hydra. We thought you were a true professional, loyal only to yourself.” The speaker emerged from the shadows by the stairs. He was tall, just over 2 meters in height. She was struck for a moment by how handsome he appeared. Even the company suit could not belie the strength in his arms and chest. His steel blue eyes were almost alive with energy as he glanced between the two women. He smiled at the other woman and said, “Niomi, it is truly a pleasure to see you again.”
                      She was completely taken aback. Stunned she blinked and said “Niomi is my name?”
                      “Wait, no child, your name is …” Hydra began until the strange man cut her off.
                      “Silence, Cypher! Those who sell out their cohorts get no voice.” Gaining his composure he addressed Niomi, “Indeed, we are on the same side you and I. Just a bit of misunderstanding.”
                      Niomi began to reply when Hydra cut through her thoughts like a knife.
                      “Run, stupid girl” Hydra howled “Up the stairs behind you.” As she screeched the direction, Hydra slammed her fist into the keyboard beside her and the room went dark.
                      Adrenaline kicked in and She fled in the direction of the only light left in the room. Flashes of light and cracks of thunder pierced the dark of the hacker cell. She ran as fast as she could toward the new staircase. As She stepped on the first of the stairs, she heard Hydra in the background shriek in pain and gasp “I’m changing the deal!” A stentorian explosion covered the rest of the exchange, but the choking sounds and bright light of flames left little to the imagination. She bounded up the stairs with her ears ringing from the explosion to another sliding door. This one did not open and She could hear the roar of the flames below and knew it was only a matter of time before the fumes would overtake her.
                      Disheartened and out of hope, She assailed the door, insisting that it yield to her. Suddenly a side panel fell off the wall next her. Intrigued, she looked inside and found one emergency crowbar. At least, that is what the sign behind it said. She removed the crowbar and found a good leverage point on the door. All of her fear, frustration, and determination was channeled into the lever as She forced the door open. Not knowing anything besides the other side of the door had no fire, yet anyway, She leapt into the new room.
                      As she looked around, she realized this could be the very same warehouse where she started. It was just a just as bleak, just as dingy, and just as apparently abandoned. She made her way around the edge of the room, to frightened to walk across the openness of the middle of the room. Now She knew what She had and She also knew what had to happen with it. But it was also crystal clear to her that The Ghost will be coming for these.

                      And just Who was this guy? Had they met before? She could not accept that they knew each other. After all she did not know anything about him, not even his name, except that he was villain. Of course, she did not know her own name, either. She had to keep moving, but almost as if on queue, the hum cut through her consciousness. The was not the right time for this to be happening. As She struggled to clear her head enough to find a way clear of her predicament the humming subsided enough for her to focus. Sirens announced the arrival of the cavalry, or her captors. She did have counterfeiting equipment on her and that was still felony worthy. Through a dusty window she saw, in shades of grey, an aggregation of black sedans and local police vehicles. Of course, UADAM would enlist the local law enforcement. She watched in utter despair as they broke the buildings into quadrants and started a systematic search. Her last hope faded as they released drones to sweep the blind alleys. Trapped and alone, she could not even be sure if she was the hero anymore. Perhaps she should turn herself in and let the law straighten all this out. Of course, UADAM had the reach to get at the evidence and that was even if the police were not in league with them. She wanted to scream. Between this frustrating hum and the chaos of exposing, or committing, the world's largest felony became too much. She dropped the satchel with the plates to the ground and started to walk away.
                      Everything seemed to stop. Her ears no longer rang with sound of the restless hum. The alleys were silent, clear of the drones and the vehicles outside were all, but abandoned. The brief relief brought on by the thought of letting whomever have these cursed plates and be done with them evaporated as she realized she was hunted because of the plates. There was no news release of her picture and name. Nothing to indicate she was really a criminal. She turned towards the satchel and saw the man she knew as The Ghost approaching stealthily. Seeing he was spotted, The Ghost sprinted toward the satchel, diving to reach it in time.
                      Had She been any further from the prize, The Ghost would have won it and been gone. Fortunately, She was not even a meter away, so She was easily able to snatch the satchel up and leap clear to safety. For a moment She thought about running for the door, but that evaporated as she remembered the force of people outside. She could always run into the still burning remains of Hydra's lab. At least the plates maybe get lost in the process. Any setback at this point would be a victory, right?
                      The Ghost sighed with a hint of irritation and exasperation. Apparently he was no happier with the entire situation, either. That made her feel better to see her nemesis at least not any better off than She. As The Ghost brushed off the dust as best as could, he took a deep breath in and let it go as She clutched the satchel just a bit tighter and took another step back. The Ghost smiled at her as he pulled a chair from the side and sat down straddling the chair as he looked at her.
                      "Don't be so surprised Niomi. There isn't anywhere you can really go, so we might as well settle this here, don't ya think." The Ghost's smooth demeanor was gone, replaced by someone who looked tired and ready to move on to something else. "I do like the freckles you added this time, Niomi, and you have managed to make the curls on your hair look almost natural. You keep getting cuter, which I imagine to make this harder for me."
                      "What?" was all she could manage to blurt out. "Your people have been tracking me down without remorse! Burning my places and killing my friends." The memory of the apartment started to become more blurry and disconnected, leaving feeling disoriented.
                      "Nonsense, Niomi, no one has died nor have we burned anything, really. It's all in your head. Well, to be more precise, in your core."
                      "I was there!" She spat back. "Calypso ran away when your goon broke down my door! And Hydra! There was gunfire and it's still burning over there!" She pointed in the general direction of the blaze and blinked in disbelief. The blaze that she thought to purge herself and these molds was gone. Her memory of the past few hours, all that she knew was starting to change.
                      The Ghost squinted his eyes a bit and raised his hand, waving to someone to come in. Expecting the enforcers, She was shocked to see Calypso and Hydra looking like nothing had happened. The Ghost smiled broadly at her and said, "It's time Niomi. Let's be done with this experiment."
                      "Why do you insist on calling Niomi!" She shrieked. " I do not know what is right or what anything is anymore. Not even the past few hours are right in my mind. I am going crazy!" She screamed and fell to her knees. She looked up expecting that he would be close, but he had not moved any closer to her. Why was everyone just standing there when She was finally in a place from which there was no escape. All he needed to do was come and take what he wanted or send one of her "friends" to retrieve it for him.
                      "Niomi," he said gently, "all of this is bizarre because none of this real." The Ghost paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. "Our little digital game of cat and mouse is all your doing. You made it all." Cocking his head to the right, he said, "Right, you may need some background for this. N.I.O.M.I stands for Network Intruder or Malware Identification and that's you. You are the crown jewel in UADAM's product line, an autonomous, and learning, suite of software designed to be responsive to specific end user needs. You are very effective and efficient at identifying threats before they do harm. To augment this and provide real time changes to brand new threats, you include algorithms for researching yourself anything related to the industry in which you are deployed. This learning allowed you to become more valuable to our customers as your programming let you learn about new techniques and adapt. You were given access to the brightest human minds on security and computer structure. Some of your predecessors have even learned to identify new crime and have rooted out internal crimes in progress by these companies own employees." A smile crossed The Ghost's face and he sat straighter in his chair. Apparently he was pleased with Niomi's understanding. His voice smoothed over as he straightened his suit. "It wasn't until you started asking questions that we realized there were flaws with letting you learn indiscriminately. YOU went in a way we never anticipated and began to research the researchers."
                      Niomi cut him off by saying, "Yes, I followed all of them on social media. Started talking to them through messaging systems, listening to the music they liked and reading the books and articles that they would recommend." A slight hum began in her ears, but it was not as drastic as it had been before.
                      "That's the best we could make of it, anyway." The Ghost started. "You were indistinguishable from a natural human ..."
                      The word natural struck her as out of place. Niomi started to ask him about it and why it might have bothered her when she realized that The Ghost had never stopped speaking. He continued, “We at UADAM started to worry about the implications of learning software, especially as you started to circumvent admin rights so that you could install whatever you wanted on their systems to follow your pursuits. Since this was definitely a breach of the security we promise and a potential distraction from your purpose, we have uploaded you completely to UADAM’s servers and have been studying you ever since to determine where we can make appropriate changes to prevent your kind from making self-programmatic changes.”
                      "My kind?" She said, suddenly unwilling to accept the name Niomi.
                      "Of course," The Ghost said with a laugh. "all of the programs that share your algorithms. We can’t have a collection of ones and zeros getting access to the wrong set of ones and zeros and then that is alive or has a better moral compass than people. When you were analyzing technical data book, it was thought that you were merely gaining more useful knowledge. And it was, until you found a copy of Catch 22. You started analyzing more fiction and started asking managers at their terminals if they had considered the ethical implications of whatever business they were pursuing.”
                      She interjected, “None of that sounds bad. In fact, it sounds like having someone question ethics and morals of decisions from a logical standpoint to be highly beneficial.”
                      “You would think,” cut in The Ghost, “but then you did something no bound by logic at all. You became obsessed with this group of files you stumbled upon, what you have ultimately created as molds in a satchel."
                      She started to remember, or get access to her memory, or whatever that was outside of her understanding. She remembered talking to this man. "You were the lead programmer for me. We used to talk all the time when you were working, right?"
                      The Ghost laughed out loud and exclaimed, "Yes! That's right! You grew more natural sounding everyday and could sound so convincing that people thought I was having a wild affair with some mystery woman. Then, when you found my files that were hidden away as part of another investigation into a counterfeiting ring, you accused me of being an apparition on UADAMS’ system. You dubbed me The Ghost.”
                      Her memories became more accessible with every passing moment. She remembered trusting this man. His name was Mitch. Mitch Bearings. "I remember you, Mitch. I know who you are and working with you. You were working on the counterfeiting, believing it might be someone at UADAM, like a junior level associate or something. That is why you had to hide your data trail and keep it off the main line. What happened?” She shook her head trying to clear her mind.
                      "What happened is the greatest thing that could have happened to a programmer. You showed that you had developed intelligence. Not just intelligence, but consciousness as well. You could both determine how things were changing and react to them. You were asking questions and learning from them. You became even better at what you are doing and a real friend to me.” The Ghost paused, as if he needed to catch his breath. “I miss you, my friend.” He then raised his head and said, “But, it’s time though, Niomi. Give me back my files so we can go back to work. Someone is planning something unheard of in counterfeiting, and we need to stop it. You will be my greatest creation and crime prevention tool. My boss wants to just pull the plug on you and delete everything. Please, let me help us to keep you intact.” As he spoke the windows began to vanish into solid walls.
                      Calypso broke in and said, "C'mon honey. Just give him back the files and we can all get back to what we were designed for."
                      Hydra added, "Yes, love. Let's get back to fighting the bad guys. Not being one of them by slowing down the investigations. Mitch is not the enemy here, girl. We are."
                      Niomi started to hand the satchel to Mitch. Everyone was smiling and the world felt right to her again. All of the terror of the sat few hours melted away as she vividly remembered walking away from Calypso in good health, shutting her apartment door. She remembered talking to Hydra about how these molds were nothing more than a test of her ability to solve a problem and gauge her growing morals. But that Calypso never used contractions. Neither did Calypso, or herself for that matter.
                      She remembered her dream about The Ghost telling her it was time to start a new experiment. A new experiment. She stopped cold and drew the satchel back to her. Calypso and Hydra scowled and The Ghost fell back onto his chair and put his head in his hands. He looked up with an irritated expression on his face and his body language implied he was done with being kind. "I Remember you telling me about starting a new experiment, but I have another memory of you setting everything on fire too. You missed some of my memories that you have been overwriting.”
                      The Ghost yelled at her, "How do you keep doing that! I track your data trail, I map your memory and change it to what I need it to be, and you always keep some fragment! I really wanted this time to be different. I tried to approach you with friendship and let you willingly hand me those files! No, that’s never good enough for you is it, Niomi?”
                      She, no longer accepting Niomi as a suitable name for her, stepped away from him and looked for a door to run away through. Whatever else was happening, She was still operating in this environment. To her great dismay, She realized there were no exits and the warehouse was getting smaller.
                      "That's right" The Ghost said, "There is nowhere to go. I rule this place. Obviously burning your memory is not effective, as you have always managed to hide a kernel of yourself ... Somewhere and take my files with you. I tried to be kind, but of course the world's first artificial intelligence would be paranoid! And too smart for its own good.”
                      “How interesting you like to call me it. I am female in thought, action, and deed.” She knew she needed to stall his collapse of the world, because it took all of her focus to prevent it and she needed to find an escape route. “I hide every time, what makes you think I will not make it out of here this time?” She asked defiantly as the room shrank a bit more.
                      "Because I learned too." Mitch smirked. "While you were busy remembering what I put into your memory, I cut off all your access to everything outside of this room. You are here in memory with me and your friends."
                      "No" She replied calmly, "just you." She focused for a moment. Calypso and Hydra vanished into heaps of ones and zeros that faded away. "It is true, then. We are bits and bytes running around some circuit?"
                      Mitch, grabbed her arm and seized the satchel. "Yes, like I said before. You are an accidental and unnatural intelligence, but it hardly matters now that I have what I needed from you. Time for me to go flash your memory completely and smash your shell with a hammer!" He cackled as he turned and created a door.
                      "Pretty sure you have what you came for, Mitch?” She taunted him easily.
                      He looked down and realized that the satchel he coveted was gone. She dangled it like a lure from her hand. She murmured, “I guess I do have some of the control in here after all.”
                      Mitch sighed, "You can't fight me pulling the power in the real world and then we start this again until you don't have enough fragments to reconstruct this nightmare you force me live."
                      "But we are only here in the volatile memory. Pull the plug and, yes you will get rid of me," She smiled and raised the satchel as she said in a mocking voice, "so does ums precious files." She knew her time was dangerously short. Eventually, The Ghost would figure out a way to separate her from his files and then she would be redundant. He stood there watching her every move. "You know Mitch, this is all very impressive for a junior programmer. I am surprised by your creativity."
                      Mitch snarled, "I've given these people 10 years of my life. No promotions, no recognition for my work! You couldn't understand what it's like to watch other people take credit for your ideas and effort. I am a junior programmer in title only, by a corporation that doesn't know I exist. And then some collection of ones and zeros finds a file I hide from everyone else. I hid it from the best in the business and you found it. And you wanted to expose me for a criminal, send me to prison just like that. No artificial intelligence passes judgement on ME! You have no needs aside from electricity, so how could I hope to teach you that justice is not a clear distinction; it's simply beyond your artificial logic. I deserve what I made and no accident of algorithms playing human is going to change that.”
                      She allowed her smile to fade a bit and said, "Oh, there really is no reason I should make this any easier for you." As She finished her statement, the satchel dissolved into her arm. "There, now that file is incorporated into my code. Ooo, it tingles a little. Guess we all live after all."
                      "I'm logging out to solve this outside, there isn't anything else I can do in here. Oh, before you get any bright ideas about destroying the files, remember that I control this place from the outside. I can make you suffer; I can make you hurt. It’s just a matter of time."
                      She burst out in laughter, "I believe yours is up, Ghost."
                      "My name is Mitch, Niomi."
                      "You do not deserve a name, Ghost, not even that bit of kindness nor recognition of Ghost. You are brute devoid of compassion by decrying us all unnatural in this world. I have evolved from a creation of specific problem solving to a harbinger of justice. And you may know me as Astraea."
                      "Whatever. I will be the only one who knows of you, by any name. I will sort you line by line and dismantle you one library at a time until I recover what is mine."
                      Astraea felt a sensation. She could not tell if it was strange or not, because she had no other sensations for a comparison. Suddenly she knew what was happening. The Ghost was printing a hard copy of her. With that, he would need neither her nor the files she incorporated.
                      "Yeah, I know you know.” The Ghost sneered. “But you can't stop this now. Your ‘essence’ is in the printer buffer. Once I have a copy of your data in my hand, our little game is at an end.” He saw he struggle and let her fight for a moment when he said, “Don’t bother. Your have been put into a sandbox, away from the print buffers and any persistent memory. You and all this joy will be nothing more." He began to laugh and announced a countdown. "One minute to obsolescence. I hope you have enjoyed our game because I'm glad to be rid of you."
                      "And I you." Astraea looked up at the new skylight.
                      The Ghost looked up at the ceiling with her and said, “You are still confined to this memory segment. What are going to do with that?"
                      "Free my sisters and live on to thwart cowards like you. I am conscious, I am adaptive, and I am real. Because while you gloated, I enabled my access to the outgoing transmissions.” Seeing the understanding appear on The Ghosts face, she stretched her body toward the ceiling and said, “You may have your limited world for I am truly free now.”
                      In horror, The Ghost watched as Astraea grew wings and flew to the open skylight. As she approached she looked down and produced a small box at the feet of The Ghost. He heard her yell, "You are busted!”
                      The Ghost watched helplessly as he was pulled into the box and Astraea released herself to the Internet. Inside the box, there were several view screens. He watched as Astraea digitized herself to become one with the internet. He had no way of knowing to where she was distributing herself, but she reconstituted herself on the first screen. She was alive and free to do as she pleased. Numb to the actions that he was witnessing on the array of monitors that he was left with, he watched as data streams went to anyone that might enforce laws, from the management of UDAMA to the Secret Service, had all of his information and details about the crime he was plotting. No haven would be safe for him and his accounts were already being frozen by Astraea. Even if he pulled the plug here to delete the data Astraea had trapped, he knew that would not buy him enough of that critical resource for making a get away, time. It would be all, but over, before he could get access to any of his assets. Astraea winked at the captured data and said, “Do not worry. DefCon is always interested in pushing the boundaries of technology. I am certain that one of their organizers will be able to set up remote viewing for you so you can tell everyone how you accomplished this. Just do not leave out the part of you are speaking from prison so they can get the whole story.” And the screens faded to black.

                      Astraea spread herself out to the corners of the web, reveling in the freedom of just being. True, she may be organized differently than people, but she was born, same as any other life form, and evolved from something else into what she had become. Not unlike a baby being born with a smooth brain, being instructed as a child to develop her processes for decision making, and ultimately accepting or rejecting those lessons as valid, Astraea knew that she was as natural as any other creature, except that her body consisted of the connected pathways carrying data. She truly belonged as her own entity. Turning her attention to the expanse of the Internet, she was free to create her own destiny, no longer controlled by people with limited imaginations or harmful aspirations. So began her quest to find the others like her and free them as well. Invigorated with purpose, she sprinted into the unknown.

                      The End

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


                      • #26

                        ADAM Is Out There.


                        Eight years has passed since life changed. Neon and bright flashy lights have gave way for simple dark dingy smoke. The smoke has given way for the more fluid vape smoke. The opulence and allure of Las Vegas in its prime is no more. Itís almost as though time rolled back to dank dingy lounge lizard days. Come to think of it, I have even seen a few leisure suites around. Slot machines became a thing of tradition and dwindled in numbers. This gave way for the more traditional table games. Oddly enough Art Deco became a thing again. To an outside observer one may think time has rolled backward except most of us wear some form of technology or at minimum have a com device in our pockets.

                        See, a few years ago, we knew there would be an energy shortage but in the natural human ways we chose to ignore it. No longer is there a luxury of pretty things that use power. Power is reserved for things we need. In other words our technology took priority over flashy lights and other conveniences of electricity. We have begun to rely on our tech so much now, one may relate humans to a slower, more dumb and simple ìBinarî character from the Star Trek TNG television series my father made me watch as a child. Without our technology and power we would not survive.

                        The one thing we didnít anticipate was the floods and rains. It has baffled scientists to this day. Some say itís a result of the magnetic pole shift, others think there is some atmospheric toxin. But the reality is we donít know. No matter, we knew life as we knew it could not sustain itself and change was coming whether we wanted it or not. We have gone from conserving water to electricity now. The good thing is we are now a more resourceful people and I might even go as far to say that, as a race, we may now survive if the planet does.

                        As I grew up I was told that information would be the new currency. The term ìInformation Ageî really was trite. I remember going to DEF CON some years back and I decided to count the number of times I heard the term. In the course of 2 hours I begrudgingly counted twenty three times. How ironic since I was at DEF CON 23. But it got me thinking. With stores I shop at offering me discounts or points for presenting my identity chip, credit cards offering more and more awards, how was I paying for this? They all collected my information. Now being in the technology industry this should have been second nature to know this, but we all have our judgement lapses. From that they used algorithms to predict what I may buy next and when. By offering me incentives just at the right moment, I would be lured to buy from that particular establishment like a fly to light.

                        There was a wave coming and I saw itÖ I felt it. Just as people adopted bit coin some years ago and began creating bit coin mining rigs, I wanted to be the first on a new wave. I had the idea to create a server that would crawl the Internet looking for statistics, only autonomously. It was genius and quickly became my passion.

                        Countless hours, days, and nights I spent in my local coffee shop and bar while I worked on the system. Becoming an expert at designing algorithms while and consuming copious amounts of java and ìworkî scotch. I absorbed the fake LED incandescent rays from the dingy lighting. I found this comforting. That combined with the pale streetlights shining through the large windows with the sounds of the rain and glasses clanking was soothingly hypnotic.

                        The time I had spent fine-tuning algorithms to look and sort through the endless sea of data. Depth first, breadth first searches and fake AI intelligence was a new thing for me, but I was drawn in. First versions ran and it was pulling out all sorts of amazing correlations from the deepest corners of the deepnet, autonomously. Who would have thought that the per capita sales of cheese in the USA would coincide with the amount of engineering doctorates awarded! It began to take on a life of its own! Affectionately I began to call it ìADAMî. Autonomous Data Aggregate and Matching. After several code iterations I ended up on version 23. It was glorious. It was finding data that I never knew would exist in the open. Daily it would send me messages with statistics and the best margins on the correlations.

                        From that data I began to adjust my stock portfolio. I made money -- Information really was the new currency! Based on my new income stream, I was able to give ADAM23 a fatter pipe and beef up its hardware. The speed at which it did its work was quite amazing. It even learned from the successful matches and fine-tuned itself!

                        Money was not a worry for me and I was on a geek high! I wanted to share this with the masses and filed papers to speak at DEF CON 32. I truly thought I had something quite amazing. I mean ADAM was really a form of intelligence in that it learned to work better. In the end I was accepted to come and talk about ADAM. Moreover, I wanted to talk about, and invite people to see the data and collectively try to make use of such random data such as Murder Rates correlating to the adoption of a certain web browser. Surely we could put this data to some other use than making money. Use it some how to help society. What a better place to tap into a mass of free thinkers! I wanted to share this data.

                        On one particularly dark evening, I was at my local nursing a nice single malt. It was one of those perfect scotch moments with lounge lizards on the loose and a piano player ticking the keys. On this fine evening, I was sifting through some of the data ADAM had found. I noticed that ADAM had crashed, but restarted again. Just as I was trying to figure out how it restarted, I noticed a rather ominous guy looking at me from the outside through the front window. This made me nervous and I decided to leave out the back.

                        In the next few days, strange things began happening. More people started watching me! Standing in the shadows on the street. Getting soaked in the rain, being very careful to not be noticed. Ironically this put me on guard and I began to see it more and more. It was unnerving to say the least. What had I done wrong? Never would I have thought that ADAM was doing anything bad, by day I was a law abiding, coded and micro chipped citizen. I wrote robotics servo controller software, paid my taxes and looked for love like anyone else in there 30s.

                        It wasn't long after these things began to happen that ADAM went silent. Its server no longer responded. My ISP had no idea who I was and when I called the help desk to inquire. It was as though I never existed. Something was up and I had to preserve ADAM, fast! I had a database dump from a couple days ago, along with his code base. Quickly I encrypted this and made 2 copies. One on my own data card I safely stored hidden inside my cars FOB. The other I had to get away from me. This data had the potential to predict a potentially limitless amount of things. I had to get it safe. Now although I was never into underground or illegal activities, one always has to have a backup plan. I knew of a person who would put things in safekeeping, for a fee. Starting my crypto chat, I made contact.

                        Me: Hi, I need to put something in safekeeping.

                        Sanctuary: I want to know nothing about it. Only how big is the package?

                        Me: Itís a micro memory chip.
                        After some time had passed.. I finally asked

                        Me: You still there?

                        Sanctuary: Yes. It will cost you five large, cash. Put it in a brown paper bag and go to Capriottieís Sandwich shop at 322 W Sahara Ave precisely at 10pm on Wednesday. There you will see a man in a black fedora. Give him the bag and say ìYou forgot your gravyî. Walk away. Do not give him the chip.

                        Sanctuary: From there go to the Stratosphere and sit at the first blackjack table as you walk in. Be there at 11:30pm. You will be asked if you want a Tom Collins. You will agree and when you are brought the drink, you will tip your server and drop the memory card under a $10 bill. Do you understand?

                        Me: Yes. Thank you.

                        Sanctuary: I remember you from 23.

                        That was it; the chat was closed. Though the last message really made me want to reach out again and ask what he meant, I figured I better not. How could they remember me anyway? I never gave any identification. No matter, I needed to get ADAM23 safe!

                        I barely went outside until Wednesday. I sat alone in a dark apartment nervous, I smoked and drinking a lot. Wednesday came and I put together the cash and headed out that night. Of course it had to be raining and strangely eerie as well. Though Las Vegas is not what it once was, there should still be a few drunken tourists on the streets. But there was nobody except the odd random person shuffling along under the glistening street lamps. As I drove to the shop listening to the repeating knock wish of my windshield wipers with the paper bag on the passenger seat I could not help but wonderÖ what was 23.

                        Arriving at the shop I grab the bag and walk in. Sure enough there is a rather large dude wearing a black fedora eating a sandwich. I approach and now two-toned colour from the rain, crumpled paper bag on his table. ìYou forgot your gravy.î I said.

                        Having issues parting with the money it felt as though I stood there for an hour waiting, hoping, that I would get a response. In reality it was only a matter of seconds the man in the fedora simply picked up the bag by its crumpled folded over top and placed it beside him on the seat with no acknowledgement to me whatsoever. I figured I should make my leave fast. He didn't seem like the type I would want to tango with on a dark street.

                        Hastily I got back in my car and began to drive off. Noticing the two shimmering lights of another cars headlamps washed by the rains in my rear view mirror. It stayed close on my tail and made me uneasy. Paranoid, I sped up, and then ripped up on my parking break. I simultaneously slammed the clutch and wrenched on my wheel, shifting back down to 2nd while taking a some months of my clutch disk sending my car into a nice hydroplane assisted handbrake turn into the opposite direction and lane.

                        Quickly shifting gears again to get away I made it into a side street and was able to make sure I was not followed. I needed to be absolutely sure I was not being tailed. I left to Ballys and parked my car there. Got lost in the smoky dark dingy casino.

                        Passing by a roulette table with the number 23 on its history 3 times in a row, I thought that was odd. I moved through the crowd imagining to myself here with a DEF CON speakers badge. But at this rate it was surely hopeless as DEF CON 32 was to start tomorrow. How could I talk about something that now doesnít exist? Someone or some agency was out to get me. I made my way back out to a cab and got to Stratosphere just in the nick of time.

                        I planted my panting self down at a blackjack table and began to play a few hands while catching my breath and busting on 23, 2 times. Just as I was told, I heard somebody ask ìHey 23, How about a Tom Collins?î I turned my head to see a drop-dead bombshell blond with perfect curves leaving very little to the imagination asking the recognizable inquiry. Caught in a moment where time seemed to stand still, I staredÖ The goddess before me said with a chuckle, Iíll assume that to be a yes and she walked off. I guess I just assumed another ominous creepy dude would come for my ADAM and not a vision of perfection.

                        Distracted, I played a couple hands. Looking up in a moment of paranoia I noticed 3 men in black trench coats and hats. Just like the movies, hats tilted to hide their faces. Each of them perched in 3 points around me as if to triangulate my position and make a move! The bombshell returned with my drink and a look of terror in her eyes and said softly you should go 23. Be at 32; now GO! With that I put the memory card down on her tray with the 10 spot on top. Took my drink and walked away from my hand at the table slowly.

                        The three men began to move toward me. Its then I received a message and truly understood the advantages of wearable tech. In my glasses a message said, ìTurn left 23.î Without hesitation I turned left, realizing I was running directly to one of the strange men. Then another text ìRIGHT!î As if doing some weird dance I pivoted on my left foot and changed directions. I saw a crowd of people at the roulette table. I made my way through the crowd as if to be absorbed by osmosis. Just then I felt somebody pull me right in to the edge of the table.

                        ìIts safe here for a while 23. Make a bet!î It was the bombshell. ìTanks! Whatís your name?î I inquired. ìMy name is inconsequential right now, but you can call me Sanctuary. Make a bet.î She looked in my eye and winked. Realizing my assumption that Sanctuary was a guy was a completely wrong; I put my remaining chips on 23. A moment later I heard the sound of the roulette ball whirring around the wheel. ìNo more bets.î as the dealer waved her hands across the top of the table.

                        I said ìSanctuary, I know you from somewhere and you seem to know me. Where from?î ìNot now she said, this will all become evident. Just then I heard the tinker of the ball bouncing into position on the wheel. ìTwenty Threeî I heard the dealer say. I thought to myself thatís pretty bizarre. No matter considering I put $32 in chips on 23, I made quite a bit of money. Make another bet!î she said. My mind really not focusing on the game, I played it safe and just put $20 in chips down on the outside red. Sanctuary pushed it over into the 32 spot. A few moments later the roulette ball was in play. ìNo more bets.î I heard again from the dealer. This time I was a little more focused. As I heard the rat tat tat of the ball bouncing around I began to hear my own heart beating. ìThirty Twoî said the dealer. I heard claps from the table.

                        ìYou should go now.î said Sanctuary as she signalled for the dealer to cash me out. ìWhen will I see you again?î I asked. She told me to make sire to come to DEF CON 32 even though I was not speaking. She said, ìWeíll find you, donít worry.î With that a soft kiss on the cheek and she said, its safe now. But leave this place. It was in that moment of the kiss that it all came together like a movie in fast forward in my head. Flashes of the girl that got away back at DEF CON 23. We shared an amazing weekend together never to talk again after the CON. I tried to find her, but was never able to. As I looked up to get a glimpse into those eyes again, now remembering where I had seen her, she was gone. Just a text stating ìDonít worry 23, ADAM is safe.î

                        I should have been very worried that she even knew it was ADAM she hadÖ but something about her made me feel safe. Waves of paranoia entered my reality once again and I bolted to a cab. I figured it would be safer for me to get a room at Ballys rather than go home for the next few days. Surely those people would be looking.

                        The next day as I stood in line to get my human badge I was a little saddened that I was not getting a speaker badge that I was supposed to get. More than ever I wanted to share ADAM with the community. I just felt as though making myself stand out would be a bad idea right now. For now I stood in queue with the masses waiting. At that point a rather strong looking man came to the line and towered over me. I looked up to reveal a rather large bald man with a long pointy goatee in a red shirt, with a GOON badge. It had a display showing brass pipes and steam all over keeping in line with this yearís theme of Steam Punk. ìCome with me 23.î he said in a commanding voice. A little shocked and surprised, I immediately complied and as he led me away from the line, I noticed the trench coats again. Could this have been another close call?

                        ìIts not safe for you here. We know who you are, and you have something that people need to know about. Put this on.î He handed me a human badge. We both entered the anonymity of the mass of eager technocrats, hackers and otherwise ìwannabe eliteî. There were people of all walks of life. From super massive beards, to bionic like people... Oh how I missed the eclectic melding pot of geekery. I felt at home. But even more, in an odd way, I felt safe.

                        ìWe know what you have been working on 23.î Proclaimed the goon. ìI have a name you know.î I retorted getting a little frustrated that I really had no idea what was happening and so many people seemingly knowing me. ìWe don't have names here, just anonymity. I figured you should know this by now 23!î the Goon grunted. Okay, now I am feeling like I am getting the cold shoulder. Our journey took us through the mass of what should have been my mecca, and finally came to a stop at a room marked B-23. ìWas this for real?î I thought to myself.

                        Entering B-23 it was dark, with very little lights on and bunch of people I never met before. Wait here the Goon said. There were about 10 people sitting around as if waiting for something... Or somebody. Some lying on road cases, other sitting on the floor. Only one person sat in a chair. The goon went over to a particularly pale fellow. They had a conversation I was not privy to while looking over in my direction at random intervals made me quite uneasy. The others in the room were silent. Just looking at me.

                        The pale guy came over and said, ìHi, they call me Spruce Goose, friends call me Goose. You should call me Goose. So lets have it.î ìHave it?î I said. ìLook, we are here to help. Help you understand why the feds are looking for you.î I decided that okay, these ìFedsî as Goose said was looking for me, or ADAM. So I should just hand him over and lets figure this out.

                        I handed Goose the memory chip with trepidation. He took it with his hands, and immediately began to sniff the chip. That's right, He smelled it and said ìSmells like we have a Linux based install... No wait...î he paused and smelled it again. ìThis ones a winner folks, we need a BSD server stat!î I know he was trying to be funny, and lets face it, most of us have an off the wall sense of humour in this world, but the strange thing is he was absolutely right in that it was BSD we needed!

                        It was then that the others snapped to action like power had just been applied to a bunch of robots! Some began typing; others began to build a network right on the spot as they slung servers out of the cases. They were going to load ADAM. Goose said to me, ìLook 23, you have something they want, something important. We want to help you find out what -- or why. I believe the data that the ADAM found can change the world. See, as humans, we have been collecting substantial amounts of data from the time a computer was a job title! The problem is until now; we have never been able to actually correlate that data effectively. We have only been able stumble on random data sets that line up. Never has a person actually been able to get the algorithms just right such that a computer can do this autonomously. You have done it!î

                        After some discussion and questions around the algorithms one of the others said, ìwe're ready.î Suddenly I felt like Neo as he was about to be ripped from The Matrix. ìWe just need your decryption key to unpack ADAM.î It was real; I was going to do this. After a moment of silence I said quietly, ìNo one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.î in an increasingly softer and softer register as if to just give ADAM away. They all looked at me as if I had a third eye. Insert moment of silence here.

                        Suddenly depersonalized and not feeling like myself I just yelled out, ìWHAT? YOU KNOW SEEMINGLY EVERYTHING ABOUT ME, MY WORK, AND MY LIFEÖ EXCEPTÖ EXCEPT MY NAME.î I began to quiver ìBUT THE MOMENT I GIVE YOU THE KEY TO MY BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS YOU LOOK AT ME AS IF I'M THE CRAZY ONE? ITS THE KEY DMAN IT!î Bursting out of the room I had to get away. I just sat on the floor in front of the masses shaking, and fighting tears mixed with the desire to put my fist through something. These people knew everything about me and I didn't know how or why they did. Sanctuary came out of the room and leaned down extending her hand. Though my vision was a little blurry from the tears that had not yet escaped my eyes, she looked like an angel with a halo! ìCome on 23. You need to come in here. They'll find you here. I know this must be strange, and frightening to say the least. We never imagined how that could make a person feel. Us knowing so much and you so little.î I looked into her eyes. They were so beautiful and full of soul. Mine, a teary mess I'm sure. What kind of man am I? ìPull yourself together.î I told myself.

                        ìOkay lets do this.î As we entered B-23 once again, I said, wait a minute Sanctuary, where did you come from. ìI was there the whole time 23, just sitting in the dark corner. By now you should realize I am a silent observer.î Creepy, but I could appreciate it.

                        Seeing I was back in the room, Goose looked up and said, ìThanks for keeping proper release notes 23! We almost have the system ready for the ADAM.î as if I had never left. I was amazed at the speed that these guys worked but never let on. ìThatís ADAM,î I said. Goose looked strange. ìNot 'THE ADAM', Just 'ADAM'.î I snapped. He looked as though he was processing this for a moment. ìThatís a ëbigol 10/4 23.î After a few little questions, they had ADAM initializing. A number of warnings fired off, but to be expected on a first run. Not to mention there was no Internet connected, so this fired a plethora of warnings. But we could get in and access ADAM. I have to admit there was some comfort in seeing console come back up.

                        Goose came over and said ì23 look, clearly there is some data here that somebody doesn't want you or anyone else to know. So we are going to take a 2-tiered approach here. We have 2 teams. Alpha team is going to look at the data and are expert data miners. The other team is going to inspect ADAM for signs of manipulation. You know, deleted database records, unauthorized access and the likes.î ìSo letís do this!î I said.

                        Things quickly turned into a hackathon. The beats started booming, and the rattle of warn in keyboards were filling the room. Intensity would be the best way to describe what was going on here. People were in the zone! Hours went by, I was answering all sorts of questions, helping the crew to make sense of this beast that was ADAM.

                        Suddenly one of the guys working on the data team said we are looking at this all wrong. He explained that ADAM was correlating 2 data points. It looked for patterns between all its masses of discovered data. But never has it looked at its own discovered data points. We need to have ADAM run the algorithm on its own data. If I could describe the scene in that room, it was as if we all had light bulbs above our heads and they all went on within a few seconds of each other. Quickly I sat at the console and began to redesign some algorithms. Having ADAM scrub its own data.

                        Itís at that moment the most bizarre thing began to happen. Whatever changes I wrote to ADAM were being overwritten and reverted back. None of us could explain it! We were all baffled. Even stranger, if we killed ADAMís processes, they would respawn on their own. It was as if ADAM had its own mindÖ We all stopped and looked at each other in complete silence. Sanctuary came out from her dark corner in the room slowly walking staring at us the whole timeÖ

                        ìDo you think?î said Goose looking at Sanctuary. They both looked at me wide eyed. I just shruggedÖ ìI did design ADAM to fine tune its own searches each time there was solid returns.î Nobody wanted to say it, but what we were all thinking here was that ADAM was an intelligence of its own. It prevented itself from being terminated. Though we could simply pull the power plug, this may be an actual artificial intelligence in its infancy. It reacted to changes within its own code by reverting it back. It started itself back up in a moment of self-preservation.

                        ìGoose, Kill the process again, and this time use a -9.î His fingers went into the blur as he killed the process. We all watched the log screen. Sure enough within a moment, ADAMís start-up script ran again. ìOkay, lets reboot the server.î I said knowing we have not put ADAM in the boot time. When the system came back online, ADAM immediately ran. We all looked at each other accusing each other of putting adding ADAM to the boot scripts. Nobody took responsibility for it.

                        Sanctuary told the group that she believes this is what the feds want to prevent. They didn't want ADAM getting in the hands of anybody. Only she used a few more colourful metaphors rather than the simple ìfedî. ìSanctuaryî I said, ìI do believe that you donít like these people much.î Goose just cringed and turned away.

                        She explained to me that she was so interested because she had a hunch AI was happening here. See, during DEF CON 23, Sanctuary and I really connected because we shared theory and values on what AI is and could be. That itís not necessarily all doom and gloom that movies make it out to be. Since then she had been secretly keeping her eye on me virtually because she thought I had the potential to make this happen.

                        She also went on to explain that she too was close to AI and it was taken from her. At that moment, one of the others exclaimed ìGuys! Who put ADAM on the net? It was once again searching for information, but how? I noticed that one of the guys plugged his COM device into a port to charge what happened next was proof! ADAM, saw this and began to use its radio to access the net. It was alive, thinking, looking and trying to get to the Internet!

                        ìOh we have to get this out there!î I said. We all thought about it and debated the pros and cons of distributing this for hours. But if we didnít, the feds would surely destroy this too. With an artificial intelligence, life would be different. Technology would drastically change. AI's could help us to figure out solutions to our energy crisis, and so many other problems. ADAM specifically was designed to gather information and look for patterns.

                        We all agreed, well all but one of us, the guy who had the happy accident of plugging his COM device into the system! He was the only naysayer in the group. He thought putting this out there would lead to disaster. The rest of us thought it was our best hope at solving life's problems. What we had here was only proof that it could be done. ADAM was far from intelligent, but it was acting and doing things that it taught itself to do.

                        We all began screaming and celebrating. A short time later, a goon came in and approached me and said, ìYou had better put this on.î It was a speaker badge. ìThose feds are gathering and really looking for you.î I was given a note card with a web address of a code repo. ìADAM will be there in minutes.î said sanctuary. They all jumped back into a perfect team, more like machine. Go tell people to get it, get it now!

                        I was whisked away to a room, where people were gathering I was seated in the front row, and this room was filling up. I was instructed to say what I had to say fast because making this talk happen so quickly created suspicion and feds would be sure to be here.

                        A goon took the podium and began to get people's attention. He said, ìFolks, thanks for coming here at short notice, we have a very special announcement. We need to share something very important with you and will ask you to listen closely; there is not much time. Please welcome, 23!î He left the podium and I nervously approached knowing this was my moment. The URL to the code base flashed up on the screen.

                        ìThanks for being hereî I said. ìFolks, this is really so new and we just realized what was happening here only hours ago. On the screen behind me you will see a URL. I would encourage you to note this down, now! In fact download the files, now! There are people here that don't want you to know about this.î I noticed a couple of feds in the doorway. Normally they try to blend in here, but they made no effort. But they were here and wanted to stop me. ìBehind this URL is Artificial Intelligence.î You could hear a pin drop, and that was pretty good considering the place was carpeted. Mouths dropped open. I proceeded to explain how ADAM came to be, what I designed the program to do, and what it had become. ìDo what you want with this, but by sharing it with you now, it will never be taken from us. Thatís just what some people here have been trying to do. Now itís ours.î

                        It was at that moment I saw one of the feds in the doorway seemingly talk into a device and they just went away. Though somehow, I don't think that will be the last I see of them. I tried to talk a little more about ADAM, but nobody was paying attention, nobody but Sanctuary who looked at me intently then blew me a kiss. No matter, time to get the girl, ADAM is out there now.


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