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

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  • eris
    The Meet

    It was always cool and foggy in the city lowlands this early in the morning. Case shuffled from foot to foot nervously, checking his clock reflexively yet again. Would she show? Would it all go smooth? He'd never bought this much at once before but sometimes you just had to keep moving forward to meet all your commitments.

    Then, headlights from a few blocks down. A sleek sedan, pale yellow headlamps barely cutting through the foggy gloom. The car pulled closer, a lone occupant as Case expected.

    The car slid to a slow stop. Older girl...youngish woman...she unfolded herself from the drivers seat, stood, and turned to face him at the front of the car. Something too pale about her, slight smudges of eyeliner smeared from being left on too long. Silvery piercings glittered under the sodium phosphor glare of street lights, her voice low with a bit of rasp to it, "You Case?" she wanted to know.

    "Yeah, that's me," he replied. She shut her door and moved towards the trunk of the car. Case moved around to the trunk too, trying to keep his eyes on her at the same time. The trunk popped and opened revealing a small matte black ruggedized box. A chain sporting a long, oddly shaped tubular key came from around her neck, key going into the box in tight, sharp moves. Now the box lid being lifted to reveal them. Rows of sleek gleaming chrome chips, encased in hard plastic.

    "That's all of them?" he questioned, though he could tell by the way they were stacked that it was. A gleam in her eyes just before they narrowed, she considered him for a long moment. "Yeah." was finally her response. Case held one hand out, palm towards her, fingers splayed. With his other he slowly reached, then pinced his portable from a top pocket with two fingers. A quick biometric scan, brief furitive entering of some information, then Case paused and looked up at her. A sharp chirp from the shoulder holster she kept her portable in. She woke the device up, flipped through a few screens, and then smiled wide. "I do believe we've got a deal." She tossed him the chain and key, turned on her heel and headed down a side alley without another word.

    "My kinda gal," he thought, climbing behind the wheel and heading out.
    Last edited by eris; June 1, 2015, 12:18.

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  • eris
    The Big Denial of Service
    by Tess S

    It was a tempestuous night in the desert. I needed a drink. I needed a
    vacation. I needed a cool dame on a hot tropical island. What I had was
    a hangover, a shabby cliché fedora, and a hacker convention in town. Oh
    yeah, and a dead body.

    For twenty-three years, I’ve been a cop in the City of Sin and some of
    that sin is bound to rub off on you, but it’s a nice enough neighborhood
    to have bad habits in. I stood in hotel room 2323 and it smelled of
    musty exhausted carpet soaked with copper and the drab anonymity of all
    those who had flounced, fornicated and fell through the cracks of
    society here. The kind of pungent tang you could still taste on the back
    of your tongue long after you’d tried to absolve it with a few shots of
    cut-rate detective’s salary scotch.

    The who was Bobby Watts. The where was the Paris Hotel and Casino. The
    how was a number two Phillips screwdriver through his now bloody black
    “I’M HERE BECAUSE YOU BROKE SOMETHING” t-shirt and into his left kidney.
    The why was my job to smoke out.

    I was fairly sure I was dealing with a crime of opportunity. These
    hackers seemed to be of the sort that spelled trouble with ones and
    zeros and if you tried to correct them, they’d steal your bank account
    password and fiddle with your life so’s you’d wake up in Singapore one
    humid morning surrounded by a chopper squad. The big Denial of Service
    usually comes as the result of introducing a massive shock to the system
    or by shutting down the breathing and not turning it back on again. A
    stab to the kidney might not be as visually dramatic as getting pumped
    full of lead but the screwdriver damage would have been quick, deep and
    critical. Shock would come like a thief in the night and would have
    slipped out of the dark room with his life by the lonely light of a
    luminous desolate blue screen.

    Watts was a blank man. He had no face. No meaning. No personality. He
    was like a two week old crumpled Frys flyer at the bottom of a hotel
    wastebasket. I was pretty sure he hadn’t been much more vibrant when he
    had been alive based on the several dozen interviews already conducted
    with his alleged friends. I’d been here for a few hours quizzing the
    panoply of geeks and I felt I had a fairly good idea what had led up to
    his demise.

    I sent the denizens of this temporary realm off to return to their
    digital debauchery but held back my prime suspect. These hackers might
    have been a clever bunch when it came to jinking into grandma’s computer
    and stealing her blue rinsed identity so they could go load up on video
    games, pop tarts, and blow up dolls. Nimble fingers could get you far on
    a battered keyboard or up a dishy dame’s skirt but not very far when
    they are still shaking and corrupt with the sanguine evidence of
    entanglement with the corpus delicti.

    I looked down at my perp and wondered if someone had a mortgage on his
    soul or if he owned it free and clear. His ID fingered him as one Mr.
    Jeffrey Cosine. Nickname, “Stygian”. He was twenty-three, five feet five
    inches, brown and brown although apparently that bizarrely cheerful
    young lady I had questioned earlier with ink like a career sailor and
    who had brandished a pair of keen gleaming hair cutting shears in each
    hand like a demented kung fu barber had gotten to him because what was
    supposed to be brown was now green. He must have escaped her clutches
    before she began an assault on the last shaggy stripe that ran from his
    forehead to the back of his pasty white profusely sweating neck.
    Sitting on the once unblemished ivory hotel bed cover, he looked about
    as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a cucumber sandwich at a church tea.

    I had heard stories like his a thousand times over. He claimed to be a
    harmless innocent. A patsy of circumstance and coincidence but he was
    behind the eight-ball and he knew it. He asserted that he was
    participating in a black bag contest and currently working on one of the
    tasks that involved locating a specific room within said hotel so he
    could pull a box job and capture a flag. The Chinese angle on his yarn
    had been that as he was coming down the corridor, he’d encountered a
    sultry skirt loitering in the 23rd floor hallway.

    She’d had more curves than elliptical cryptography. The kind of woman
    who you knew was social engineering you but you didn’t mind because you
    had no dope of value and the only thing that would be compromised in the
    end was her flesh. And you could live with that. And so could she. Or
    she had better find another line of work. He hadn’t had anything worth
    knowing and figured he was ahead enough in the game to pause for a
    dalliance with her as long as it was a comp on the house.

    The bunco, if you believed him, sparked when her lips met his and as
    their kisses grew heated she’d reached behind her to open the door she’d
    been leaning on with what he’d assumed was her key card and pulled him
    into the dark room beyond. They’d done that jagged stumbling tango two
    folks do as they tried to find the bed in pale gloom without
    disconnecting the patch panel of locked lips, thrusting tongues, and
    hungry hands. The rumpus commenced when she suddenly spun him right
    round like a record and then shoved him off balance and away from her.
    He’d gone down blind, his hands landing in the wet River Styx leaking
    from the dormant body on the floor he’d felt a moment later as he
    reached out in the dark shadows to get his bearings. Then, quick as you
    please, or maybe you don’t, the hotel room door had opened again, the
    lights had come on and there he was kneeling like a whore in church with
    bloody mitts and a startled expression as the beat cop who’d been called
    to respond to a disturbance drew down on him and ordered him to put his
    hands in the air.

    He had insisted that it must have been the blonde who’d iced the guy. It
    had to have been the blonde and he’d gotten caught in a grift. She’d
    been as blonde as Hell and dressed in black. He’d been struck by the
    dangling golden spider earrings she’d been wearing because they’d made
    him think about crawling the world wide web. And then he’d thought about
    doing some crawling of his own up the fishnet meshwork she’d sheathed
    her pins in. By his description, she’d been the kind of dish that would
    have made the Pope kick a hole in the stained glass window in St.
    Peter’s Basilica. But we all know women like that don’t really exist
    except in dreams and bad movies that consist of endless nights filled
    with dark, dismal rain that falls like dead bullets backlit through
    window blinds by a blinking neon sign that usually spells out something

    But the other shoe finally dropped because it always does. Turned out
    Mr. Watts was a topflight hacker who had discovered a serious zero day
    vulnerability in a computer program being used by a number of financial
    type institutions. A computer program that had been written by a bright
    young virtuoso who’d made a whole bunch of loot from its sale and the
    revelation of a serious flaw in its ability to secure personal
    information could mean curtains not just for the software but for the
    virtuoso’s reputation as well. And now, conveniently, Mr. Watts had been
    fitted for a Chicago overcoat and I had the virtuoso sitting slouched on
    the bed before me peddling his sob story about some dame who’d conned
    him to take the fall.

    He had the means, motive and opportunity. I had more hard evidence than
    ticks on a hound dog. This was better then a deck with six aces and it
    doesn’t get much better than that. I informed Mr. Cosine that he’d
    performed his final pen test and had passed with dying colors as I
    cuffed his scrawny wrists behind his back and sent him down to be loaded
    in the paddy wagon.

    As the busted flush was whisked away into the dark night to begin his
    cruise up the river, I pulled out my pack of smokes and set one to
    dangle in the corner of my mouth as I patted my pockets for a light.
    Then a small flame appeared, shimmering and dancing as the looker
    wielding it said in a sultry voice, “Need a light, Shamus?”

    I paused to give her the once over. She certainly wasn’t a joy girl or
    streetwalker although there was no doubt about it, she had to be
    somebody’s twist. I kept my eye on her as I gently touched her wrist and
    I obliged myself, then straightened up to exhale slowly.

    “Thanks, Doll,” I said.

    “My pleasure,” she replied in a voice that dripped with thick honey and
    was as cool and slick as a Teflon cat.

    She wore a loose dark trench coat that probably covered up a body that
    would have won first prize in a beauty contest for hourglasses that held
    a few extra minutes. She looked like a wasp that had a nice sting. The
    one you didn’t feel going in but it burned like cheap whiskey for hours
    later after she was gone.

    At that moment, a huge black metal cased livery car glided to a stop at
    the curb. It had been silent as it floated out of the darkness and into
    the bright lights of the casino porte-cochère like a grotesque gondola
    on the Lethe. It was impossible to determine who was driving this
    construct that called to mind an immense predatory animal laying in wait
    to pounce on its prey.

    The dame watched it pull to a halt then looked back at me. She spoke two
    simple words, “My car…”

    And then she strode to it like a shade intent on making its way back
    into the anonymity of the local graveyard. She opened the rear door and
    a gust of desert sirocco caught her coat as she turned to slip into the
    car. I saw the flash of fishnets on legs that might have gone on for
    eternity and made a man feel dirty and nasty while wanting more. As she
    began to lower herself into the beast, another gust wafted her golden
    tresses and I saw them. Two auspicious arachnids descending from her
    ears and swaying with her body as if they were enchanted treasures of
    gold from a fairy tale king’s cache.

    The mechanical leviathan slowly drifted away as my chin started to drop
    and the smoldering pill dropped from my mouth, turning end over end in
    slow motion, hitting the ground like a miniature meteor. I tried to
    grab the plate but the darkness had already absconded with that data,
    leaving me high, dry, and questioning if I’d hung the pinch on the right

    You can’t always win but there are ways to lose more slowly. In this
    world of shit options, bad decisions, and dire consequences, it was now
    clear I needed to cherchez la femme and finger the stinger that had just
    stung me.

    THE END….?

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  • eris
    "Take It Back" by Caleb K and Amber K

    Setting: The New Confederate States (NCS) rose from the ashes like Cerberus from the underworld, enacting a government to control the flow of information by passing the Cyber Prohibition Act of 2028, which prohibits the use of the Internet and electronics by civilians. Perimeter walls around the few remaining major cities impede free travel. The NCS uses cameras installed on corner lampposts and storefronts to supplement satellites equipped with heat-sensing heart rate technology that identify people by the precise picosecond of their heartbeat. Civilians are tracked like livestock and live in a society where the technology movement, once so advanced, has returned to rudimentary electronics of the likes of the early 1990s.

    Las Vegas, once a city of flashy lights is now nothing but a dreary greyscale. Much of the northern part of the city was demolished during the civil war, leaving only an eerily untouched section of the Las Vegas Strip crowded with dingy casinos, each having lost its luster a long time ago.

    My name is Parker Dukljan. I was born in a Washington, D.C. suburb in June of 2003. I fled here to Las Vegas during the New Confederate Uprising of 2023 at the behest of my father, Jeffrey Dukljan, a once prominent official and the Secretary of Defense for the now extinct United States. The Uprising began as calculated and strategic riots in major cities around the East Coast. A riot grew in Washington, D.C. and eventually overtook the Capitol and the White House. Fleeing for safety, my father was flying with the President on Air Force One, when a small explosion left a 20-inch hole in the cargo hold, igniting the fuselage and sending the plane down to a fiery demise. The New Confederate Party killed all remaining members of the Cabinet in fateful explosions or public assassinations. Vice-President John Antenor and Secretary of Homeland Security David Cassius, however, were spared this fate.

    To the dismay of the public, upon succeeding the President, Vice-President Antenor sided with the New Confederate Party, vilifying the United States and showcasing the New Confederate Party's ultra surveillance state. The cause, they claimed, was "saving the world from itself." They argued that such freedom nurtured rampant poverty, crime and drug use; all of which ultimately led to the enormous debt that the United States owed other nations. The state governments were divided; some joined the New Confederate Party while others vehemently opposed its ideals. The result was a bloody and devastating civil war that killed much of the population and was unsuccessful in overthrowing the NCS. When the debris and nuclear fallout finally subsided, only about 5% of the country was left habitable: California, Nevada and Arizona. I'll never know how he knew to send me where he did, but my father saved my life...

    Liberty is a memory from the past for those of us that survived. The NCS even assigns every civilian a work trade, which is about where this story begins. I was one of the "lucky" ones selected for debris clean up outside of the walls of the Las Vegas strip. A glorified trash collector, yes, but this does at least grant me time outside of the walls. The perimeter walls are about thirty feet in height made of thick solid steel. Along the top runs a 10,000-volt electric fence with flashing blue lights, indicating constant surveillance. The single passage through the wall is a gate with inch thick steel bars guarded by uniformed NCS soldiers, accompanied by a series of barricades and a surface mounted, spring loaded spike system. Here, as with all civilian trade assignments, we work under strict surveillance throughout our shift. Our GPS coordinates and heart rate are monitored concurrently via a special watchband that is soldered onto our wrist at the beginning of each 12-hour shift. One particularly hot August morning circa 2033, while working along a stretch of mangled debris near the Tuscany Casino directly outside the wall by the old Flamingo Road, I threw a sun bleached Blackjack table into my compactor and squinted as something on its underside, wrapped in a foil of sorts, reflected against the sun and caught me in the eye. Curious, I snatched the item and unwrapped it quickly. Revealed to me was a small metal stick no larger than a key wrapped within a thin scroll of paper.

    Calmly, so as not to trigger a spike in my heart rate and elicit any unwarranted attention from the NCS soldier monitoring my shift, I tossed the find into a cutout I had carefully made in the lining of my worn leather jacket for just such occasions. The NCS forbids us to remove items from outside the walls; we are searched at the end of every shift for contraband. However, I have grown quite fond of collecting items from the old world.

    At the end of the day I returned to my apartment, what used to be a small hotel room at the Bellagio. My apartment is on the 6th floor and opens to a drab white walled room with faded blue and gray carpet worn through to the concrete in the commonly treaded areas. The windows face the hotel's empty pools, which at one time were filled with cool water for guests to combat the Nevada heat waves, but now are pocked with only rust stains and graffiti. The sparse furniture is made of a rather elegant dark mahogany though one leg of the coffee table is replaced with a lighter wood. My room is accented throughout with gaudy blue and purple lamps. I removed my jacket and from it, the object I found during my shift. The metal stick looked to be an old flash drive and the scroll contained a typed note which read in small, worn text:
    [M, I, T]; [234, 9, 4]; [120, 27, 2]; [28, 31, 7].

    Immediately I smirked. I studied cryptography a bit during college and have enjoyed puzzles since childhood. Assuming the note was a code utilizing the most frequently used words in the English language, "A" and "THE" I discovered with relative ease that if QEB decrypted to "THE" and X to "A" the following cipher results: a letter is substituted with another letter exactly 23 letters subsequent to it in the alphabet. After a bit of decrypting, the decoded message read:
    and the second part of the message became [P, L, W]. Based off of the decoded message, I knew the second part likely meant [Page, Line, Word]...if only I could find the book.

    Libraries and bookstores are illegal now in Las Vegas though I knew a place on the strip where such limited contraband could be found. The next day, after my shift, I walked over to the old Forum Shops in Caesars Palace. On the third floor, I walked into the Sushi Roku restaurant, past the tables, into the kitchen and through a hallway that opened into a giant conference area, which had been turned into makeshift vendor stalls. I had arrived at the Las Vegas Black Market. The Black Market is a maze filled with a musty smell and the voices of customers haggling at the 40 individual 7x18 foot booths of various vendors fencing contraband, pirated or stolen merchandise. Finding a stall piled with tall, leaning stacks of yellowing and disheveled books, I inquired about Neuromancer. A middle aged man with a long unkempt beard to accompany his slight beer belly, puffed continuously from his vape pipe, scratched his head and replied "Necromancer?" I corrected the title and added, "Maybe from the early 2000s?" The man walked silently through a maze of piled books to a sign with a scribbled "N" and started fingering through the spines. He rested on a book with a weathered backing and a torn dust jacket. "Whoa vintage, 1980' you go, kid," he laughed and tossed me the book. At the register, I paid the $14.65 with what little US currency I had remaining. The NCS regulates all civilian expenditures through our embedded chip; it monitors all money in and out through our personal NCS currency accounts. The chip is an integrated circuit encased in silicate glass about the size of a large grain of rice and placed under the skin on our right hand. It uses passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology for identification and a contactless payment system.

    When I got back to my apartment, I flipped through the 276 pages of the worn book, unsure of what the hidden message might be. The phrase
    came to life on the pages before my eyes and I knew exactly where to go next.

    Def Con is a bar operating out of the old Bally's Hotel and Casino that is frequented by Cyber Punks, a neo culture that embraces what little technology is left of this world and frequents the Black Market. I raced down to the strip to the ornate metal door branded with a smiling skull and crossbones backlit by a red glow. I stepped into the dimly lit smoke filled room and sat at the brass-framed bar. I set the dusty book on the polished bartop and ordered a Whiskey Noir. Before I could taste my drink, a strong hand darted out from the darkness and pulled me through a door to the left of the bar.

    I regained my composure and opened my eyes to three Cyber Punks amidst a room of glowing screens attached to whirring devices haphazardly stacked on top of each other. I stared briefly at two similar looking men sporting colorfully died Mohawks until my gaze shifted to a stunning woman of about 5'4" with wavy brown hair, her light brown eyes looking inquisitively back at me. She wore a plunging black sleeveless top with fitted blue jeans and what appeared to be well-conditioned combat boots. The woman moved beside me silently while one of the two men said, "I'm Lightman, my brother McKittrick over there doesn't talk and Ally is the one who grabbed you from the bar," he nodded in the woman's direction. As I introduced myself, I noticed a look of recognition in their faces. "So, you're part of the resistance?" Ally implied. "Me? Well, no you see..." I started. Ally interrupted, "Then what are you doing here? Aren't you a Dukljan? The NCS killed your father!" Red-faced, I grimaced, reached in my pocket and roughly handed Ally the flash drive and note I had found.

    She handed it off to McKittrick who silently plugged the device into his machine. The screen came alive with scrolling characters. His eyes widened. "It's the encryption code!" Lightman exclaimed. He explained to me that the drive contained the encryption code programmed to hack into the NCS network. It would allow the resistance to shut down the government firewalls and disable all of the monitoring devices throughout the remaining nation. Lightman and McKittrick began to type furiously on the keys at their respective machines. Meanwhile, Ally disclosed to me that they were leading a resistance movement and had already hacked partially into the network. They were able to download some classified NCS documents before being locked out. One of the downloads included a memo outlining the plot by now President Antenor to assassinate the former Cabinet members and rise to power of the New Confederate States. I blinked in disbelief.

    "We're in! Shutting down their firewall now," Lightman updated us. The status bar on his computer flashed "79% COMPLETE" as I glanced over his direction. Then, in a moment where time seemed to stand still, the door from the bar flew open and the deafening sound of ricocheting bullets bouncing off metal paralyzed me. The brothers were gunned down in their chairs; blood splattered the shattered, once glowing screens. Ally yanked me down and then pointed the long 12-inch barrel of her Colt Buntline revolver at the doorway, pulling the trigger twice. Two thuds and the metal doorframe shined with blood. Ally jumped up, grabbed the flash drive sticking out of McKittrick's machine then shoved me into a dark opening and I began to fall.

    I landed hard in a pile of waste outside of Bally's and Ally landed atop me a moment later, sinking me deeper into the refuse. Without so much as a glance my direction, she jumped to her feet and began to run down the street. I took the urgent cue and trailed close behind. When we reached the alleyway, Ally handed me a small square of rice paper with a drop of blue liquid in the center. "Squid," she called it. "Evidently, you haven't heard of it. It stabilizes our heart rates, to keep the NCS soldiers off our scent during hot situations," she said as she placed one of the squares behind her tongue. She grabbed my sleeve and we took off running once again.

    Ally led me to the abandoned Miracle Mile shopping mall and stood in front an old Alex and Ani store. She punched a code into the keypad and the gate and doors opened with a whirl of gears. Inside, Ally led me to a tidy, converted studio. At first glance, the room was modest, furnished with life's most limited essentials. The shades were drawn on the once storefront windows and little natural light seeped in. She quickly slid over a seemingly heavy oak bookshelf to reveal an access panel. At quick glance, I noticed a copy of Neuromancer on the top shelf. She flipped open the panel and slid out a thin, silver laptop connected to a makeshift fiber media converter connecting a copper twisted pair wire to a fiber optic cable snaked through a hole in the wall.

    Ally slammed the flash drive into an open USB port and began to type. The computer screen went black and then flashed, "92% COMPLETE." "What happens when it reaches 100%?" I rather anxiously asked. "We break through the firewall then notify the other waiting parties of the resistance. We have strongholds in California and Arizona waiting for us to signal this very moment," she answered. "Let's just hope it takes the NCS less time to track the signal to us" she added solemnly. I could hear the distant sirens and faint yelling across loud speakers.

    Ally's computer let out a series of beeps, hisses and cracklings until the screen finally flashed "100% COMPELTE." Her fingers flew through the keys on her keyboard and in one continuous motion as her thumb hit the ENTER key she reached over and ripped off the fiber connection. "The resistance now has the encryption codes and maps of the NCS headquarters and I was able to shut down their surveillance equipment, for now. It will stall them but it will only be a matter of time before the hole is closed and my encryption on the surveillance monitoring devices is broken. The resistance should able to deliver us air support." "Should?" I thought.

    Suddenly, I heard a loud explosion and peered out of the window to see a modified NCS Humvee equipped with a bolt-on MAK armor kit and an M2HB-QCB machine gun mounted on top. The Humvee rolled over the debris from the fallen west wall of the shopping mall and was closely trailed by a squad of NCS soldiers in powered exoskeletons.

    As the end suddenly seemed inevitable, I looked to Ally, and asked, "What do we do now?" She smiled and calmly reached into the access panel. She tossed me an MRF body vest and began putting one on herself. Outside, I heard a series of explosions, closer now, and the sound of rapid gunfire. I glanced through the blinds again and noticed a thick fog of smoke and dust rising from the south. "They're here, my message must have gone through before the NCS could regain control," Ally remarked as she moved beside me to look out the window, placing her hand on my shoulder. "Ally, what now?" I asked again as she stepped back towards the access panel. Ally handed me a Glock 21 .45 caliber pistol and secured herself a M249 light machine gun after reloading her revolver and holstering it on her waist.

    "Now," she replied, "we take it back."

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  • eris
    Title: - Lost in the wires.
    Author: - kshithij
    ìPeople say that what I did was wrong and I should be ashamed of what I did but after what have been through, I have no regrets of what I have done.î
    2002, Gujarat a state in India was burning like hell; people were slaughtered in the name of religion. These riots which lasted 3 days had turned half of the cities to ashes. In the middle of this a networking consultant who just took a huge defense contract couldnít complete the work on time and the payment for this contract was stuck in the system for ever. The firm went bankrupt and the poor network engineer had to go and work for low wage jobs.

    2007, a boy was crying in one corner of the classroom bullied by a few hardheads. All of this happened as he had the guts to complain to the teacher about the bullies and as expected they gave him a tough time. The system couldnít help the innocent boy.

    2010, a boy is caught with a 1 gig drive in a computer science laboratory; he was trying to infect the systems with a recycler virus and the teacher saw. Teacher scolded ìwhat the hell are you trying to do?î the boy stood there without any shame teacher further added ìDo you have any idea what you are doing?î The boy was punished. The teacher thought that he taught the student a good lesson but he didnít knew that he had made the mistake of his life.
    Lets come back to 2015, I was sitting at Chennai domestic airport trying to hack into their wireless network the wifiphisher script which I needed two wireless cards and I was trying to do it with one, I had failed this was not the first for me. But this was not the stupidest thing I had done. 2 years prior I had developed a bash script known as ìCerebroî which was a file handing algorithm which I had sent to Bill Gatesí mail id to get some advice and for that I got a 2 page long mail by his opportunity manger explaining me software patents. Sometimes I do feel that either I or Mr. Gates was out of their mind on this.
    I had started hacking from the 10th grade and it was now my 5th year as a gray hat hacker. I had come a long way from infecting PCs with stupid .bat viruses to hacking websites. I wonít lie but at first I was a little hesitant when it comes to websites because of all the stuff which my computer sir used to tell us ìwhen it comes to hacking websites you have a higher probability of getting caught.î At that time it was the one thing that freaked me out but it couldnít really hold me from doing it. One day when I was sitting with my friend ray in my college computer science lab when ray asked me if I could hack a website. I thought of giving it a try I opened a new tab in Google chrome, I used the Google dork ìinurl:admin.php î and I got a few results the first one was some admin login page of some university I tried the username ìadminî and the password ì1ë or í1ë = í1 ì which was one of the most common SQL injection query. After a few seconds ray was shocked too death and was like ìwhat?î I was inside the admin panel of the site. This was the first time I had hacked in front of someone. It was like drinking for the first time.
    At home my family wouldnít even believe that I could hack sites and I was always the weak root of a massive tree. My family was a just a person short of filling up a small jet. When you have so many people who are best in their field you often get comments like ìlook at himî, ìwhat did you achieve till now?î and other comments, which might give you pain that is a little less than getting shot. Till now I was used to this, I had no real luck with girls as well. My life was a boring one and I had adjusted to that.

    But it all changed in the summer of 2015Ö..

    April 30, 2015, it was 1:45 am. I was up as the insomnia had killed me from the inside; it was at its peak. The network was down and I couldnít connect to the internet. And the insomnia was so heavy on my mind that I decide to borrow my neighborís connection. So I tuned on Kali Linux virtual machine. And fired up wifite after some 10 minutes it showed me the value of a variable know as key. I had done this a million times but I always used to skip the last step which was connecting and using the network but this time it was different. This time I decide to use this free internet to download Skrillexís live set from ultra music festival 2015. This time I had changed my hat. This was a fair deal for me as my download was complete by 3:00 am which would take me 4 hours even when my internet connection was in its best possible state. The rest of the night was boring as there was no good movie to watch.

    May 1, 2015, I was looking for the date when my results would be announced on my collegeís website. There was no notice on the site but just before I closed the tab I decided to see the robots.txt file of my collegeís site. So I added ì/robots.txtî at the end of the URL and as usual I got the list of disallow. After staring at my laptopís screen for a while like it was showing some 18+ content, I jumped ìletís try directory traversal attack!î So I saw the robots.txt file to find out files that might have some good content for my entertainment and I noted down a couple of file names. I opened a few tabs and copy pasted the URL into each of them and then I typed in ì////îand the filenames with their respective extensions. After a few seconds all these tabs showed me a positive result. I had successfully retrieved files like CHANGELOG.txt, UPGRADE.txt, MAINTAINERS.txt, LICENSE.txt, etc which was the complete maintenance records of the site. These records dated back to 15/1/2001. It was nothing much but it completely overthrew my belief that my collegeís network couldnít be hacked. I had overridden the method called fear() in my program. I forgot that what I did could spoil my entire life. Fear is the force that limits the capability of all.

    May 4, 2015, this was my 10th day without a proper sleep I had lost my mind completely. I had a grudge against a fashion designing chick as she had humiliated me in front of my friends and this used to pinch me for the last 3 years. So I decided to play a revenge stunt on her. At 11:45 pm she had posted on her Facebook timeline that her design was up on the institute site. And by 12:00 am site was down. The XSS attack did work properly. And she will be the first person to cry tomorrow morning. I never understood that why donít girls like nerds we are also humans. And I can do much more than breaking a piece of plywood with one hand. If we count the cost of plywood to the price of a corporate website my calculation says that corporate sites are a little more costly then the plywood. So I should get the attention of the girl instead of the dumbbell boy which I never got. My English teacher always said ìnever judge a book by the coverî but as I remember she always bunked his class. Unknowingly I had entered into the world of hacktivism.

    May 10, 2015, I was bored to death. I had ordered a SDR dongle that was delayed as my package was stuck at Mumbai customs. Mean while I was looking on different tools installed in Kali Linux. I was causally looking on the different tools I just came across a tool known as wpsan. At first it looked like any other tool in the distribution. As usual I just tired ìwpscan --helpî. It said wordpress scanner. I started scanning a known site which I wanted to hack for a long time. After running the tool twice and it gave me the password. At first I thought ìNo, it is too easy!î then I thought that I should try logging in with the username and password. So I attempted the lamest act ever I plugged in my flash drive and booted tails then logged into the sites admin panel. I was shocked I never knew that the Indian defense had such a lame password and they used a vulnerable wordpress plug-in.

    May 16, 2015, someone rang the bell, it was the postman he had brought the SDR parcel. As soon as I got it, I opened the package in a hurry and plugged in the dongle and ran the SDR# at first it was not working then ìping!î I forgot to install the driver. After doing the entire installation procedure which took me 45 minutes then I started the ADSB# from the SDR# package and then ran ADSB Scope which is an interface application. After some 5 minutes I was able to see a few planes on the map. I continued looking on them for the next 2 hours. It was like seeing the stars at night; you could go on looking at them for hours and hours.

    May 22, 2015, it was just a usual day my parents were out of state for a family function. As the clock struck 12 oíclock someone rang the bell. I attended the door it was a cop. He said that ìyou are called in for questioning by the cyber cell.î I first thought of jumping off the building to the adjacent roof top and get away but I remembered that a bullet from the revolver is little fast when compared. I said ìokî he replied ìwe will need your personal computer as wellî, I grabbed my laptop bag. After we reached the headquarters I was asked for submit the laptop to their tech guy. I was then escorted to the questioning room. It was a dark room which had a mirror on one side and one light in the middle with a table and two chares placed on either side. I sat there was 10 minutes before a middle aged man entered the room. He started ìI am Virat Singh head of the cyber cell Vadodaraî to which I replied. He said ìI was called by the Indian Air force to investigate a breachî and further added ìwe have found that the signal was sent from your area.î I said ìso you think it is me?î he replied ìwe checked our records and we found out that Amazon delivered a SDR at your address.î I replied ìAs per your logic you are the suspect for the murder that happened last month because you have a gun.î He said ìOkay! If you had to hack the WFM network of the armed forces how would you do it?î I replied ìwhy will I need to hack it?î he replied ìLetís assume you had to?î I had to do my thing. After I finished he said ìThe hacker who did it and released the records on the web did it the same way you have described it.î I replied ìcoincidence!î after thinking he opened a file placed on the table he read it out loud ìspecialization in ethical hacking and cyber security.î It was my college records. He said ìI am talking to you nicely that doesnít mean that I am a fool.î I replied ìlikewise. ì Someone knocked at the door I was the tech guy, he walked in and whispered in agent Singhís ears and then showed a tablet which he brought. Agent Singh ìSo where were we?î I replied ìFool.î He closed my file and said ìIt has come to my knowledge that you have erased everything from your system.î I replied ìvirus attack!î He frowned ìIn the last 24 hours?î I replied ìyes.î He said ìAs I recall you are the son of the once famous networking consultant, arenít you?î I replied ìyes, I amî he further added ìyou know a fact that 3 of 6 networks in the city are designed by your dad.î I said ìThatís allî he advised ìLet me give you a free advice son. You are not supposed to tap into defense networks.î I said ìI think it would be harmful to hack into the defense network and deface corrupt officers who were trying to sell a guns, isnít it?î he laughed ìI am sorry for what happened to your dad but this is not a solution to that, there are a lot of people like him.î I was shocked. He said ìOur government doesnít have enough money had corrupt officers make it even harder. I will try my best to get this problem to the right guys who can solve it.î I replied sarcastically ìyou will.î He said ìDonít just throw your life, our government is slow but we also donít intend to harm the citizens.î I said ìKrama, this nation deserves it.î His eyes became moist. He said ìyou may go.î I asked him ìOne last question.î He said ìwhat?î I asked ìHow did you find out it was me?î he replied ìwe sent a broadcast frame which detected your device.î I came back home by 5 oíclock. I turned on my laptop. I opened my chrome and searched for ìhacking tutorialsî the first link was Defcon23 I checked the site then I thought of hacking a bankís website to get money to attend the conference. While I was planning my attack, the door bell rang. It was my parents who were back that very second I decided to hit ctrl+alt+delete to my stupid plan.
    It was not a decision out of fear but it was a decision for the happiness of the people who I cared about. I am still a hacker but not a black or gray anymore. After all I could wait another 4 or 5 years to attend my first Defcon.

    Leave a comment:

  • eris
    A DC23 short story by triple-h

    Jessie Campbell was flying her new drone. The quadcopter took off and began transmitting video. It flew to four waypoints, and then returned. You should not be able to do this in Washington, D.C., and especially not near the airport!

    Jessie had flashed a patched version of the quadcopter's firmware that bypasses the "Flight Restricted Zone" restrictions. She willfully broke Title 49, Section 46307 of the U.S. Code, which carries the penalty of a year in prison and huge fines.


    Three weeks earlier, Jessie (better known online as Jeep) was up most of the night working on some stupid Crackme. She is thirty-something, twice almost-married, and works as "cybersecurity consultant" with some big banks in New York. That basically means that she is paid to break into systems and reveal their flaws to an IT team that will hopefully, some day, patch them. She also does some malware reversing and incident response. She is professional, usually serious, and very good at what she does.

    On a personal note, Jessie is a blonde with pink highlighted streaks of hair. She cleverly leverages the female nontechnical stereotype to her advantage. In a sexy, well put together feminine appearance, she dresses to blend in, not to stand out. She wouldn't be caught dead in the latest fashion, but she also wouldn't show up on "What Not to Wear." She dates occasionally, but is not often presented with anyone who really understands what she does or is sufficiently intellectually stimulating. That's why she hangs out in IRC channels, and she tweets ... A LOT. She was only slightly concerned when she read about an OkCupid survey that revealed twitterati tend to have much shorter relationships.

    Jessie's head ached as she finally crawled into bed around 5 a.m., fingering through the tiny text on her smartphone before she drifted off to sleep. The Twittersphere was blowing up. Something new had appeared, and it looked a little different. No one had given it the moniker of a Greek god or "One Piece" character yet.

    As near as Jessie could tell, in the spectrum between abject skepticism and outright FUD, there was evidence of a Ken Thompson Hack in several flavors of Debian Linux--which meant that any of its more than 300 derivatives could also be affected. Her tweeps had no doubt that this was another Equation Group hack, or possibly the minions of some other TLA. But what was their endgame? Unable to cogitate on this any further, she fell into the arms of Morpheus.


    In his 1983 Turing Award acceptance speech, Ken Thompson, the author of UNIX and one of the original uberhackers, described how he could modify the C compiler (gcc) to plant a Trojan horse into the UNIX login authentication program so that he could login as root with no password. It could also propagate into the binaries of any debugger and disassembler ever compiled by gcc and thus evade any attempts to detect it.

    Unless your binary predated the trojanized gcc, or else you wrote a custom compiler on a custom operating system from scratch, you could never shake this issue. In fact, as Thompson pointed out: "As the level of program gets lower, these bugs will be harder and harder to detect. A well-installed microcode bug will be almost impossible to detect."

    As Jessie moved into REM sleep, her subconscious mind started to piece things together. Her Kali distro, loaded with all sorts of hacking tools, was based on Debian. If there were millions of Kali users, and all of their systems were backdoored, then any penetration testing data ever collected from those systems could also be exfiltrated to a command & control mother ship.

    Some months earlier, Jessie had been trying to find the extent of damage to her banking clients from a malware called Regin, which was incredibly flexible and had the ability to deploy highly tailored plugins that could perform specific functions. According to Kaspersky Labs, though, the Equation Group's main platform, dubbed "EquationDrug", was even more dangerous. While Kaspersky didn't directly link Regin to EquationDrug, it noted the latter was a platform designed to load various plugins. While investigating it, they found a code artifact called "BackSnarf", which was also the name of a project linked to a TLA's covert activities. Kaspersky didn't know what it was, exactly. There were still dozens of modules in the EquationDrug framework that had yet to be discovered. Of course, Jessie always took these reports with a grain of salt, since Kaspersky is likely linked with the FSB.

    These thoughts percolated and swirled around in Jessie's brain. Then, suddenly, she jerked awake. BackSnarf sounded a lot like BackTrack, the predecessor to Kali. Since the EquationDrug platform has been around awhile, it would stand to reason that it used the old name for this module. It would also mean that the TLAs probably had a treasure trove of nearly everyone's vulnerabilities!


    Jeep joined one of her favorite reverse engineering IRC channels and PM'ed a friend about her theory.

    "I think I have a connection between BackSnarf and BackTrack," Jeep said.

    "OK, let's play," Grandmoff shot back.

    Trevor James, aka "Grandmoff," was a federal contractor she'd met years ago at Defcon. They were standing outside Paul Craig's talk on hacking kiosks and admiring what was evidently a demo the speaker had prepared on the Riviera's hotel kiosk. As several people gawked and chuckled at the Goatse'd display, hotel security showed up, and some of the crowd got nervous and made a run for it. As the rent-a-cops appeared to be chasing and detaining people with impunity, Jeep and Grandmoff found themselves hustling into the elevator. But the fuzz were also on the 12th floor when they arrived, and our intrepid hackers found themselves in a holding room for three hours together.

    Jeep learned a little more about this guy who had been stopped numerous times in false-positive "Spot the Fed" incidents. He was clean-shaven and had a "high and tight" haircut. Definitely ex-military. He was also a sharp dresser. Not the black t-shirt and jeans type. He usually wore a crisp pressed, almost over-starched shirt and khakis. Some dry cleaner was making a good living off this guy. She learned that he was indeed a signal corps officer during the Iraq War, and had since gotten out and was doing pentesting and reverse engineering for the DoD.

    While he wasn't exactly an EFF member or Snowden sympathizer, Grandmoff was at least a privacy advocate and worked inside the Beltway. He knew some people. The two would hook up each year at Defcon and play on a Hacker Jeopardy! team together, usually getting humiliated with lots of shaving cream and Sharpies. Last year, they drank of bunch of tequila shots one night, and there might have been some late night thoughts of romance and a trial kiss or two. But it was largely forgotten, and the relationship remained decidedly platonic.


    Grandmoff contacted a couple of spooks he knew inside the Agency, but this time, their complete lack of knowledge about anything he was saying led him to believe Jeep might be onto something. He talked to some others in his DC301 group, and they started working to make the BackSnarf-BackTrack connection.

    It's interesting, Grandmoff thought, that the Ken Thompson Hack has actually gotten easier over time, because compilers have gotten increasingly complex, giving attackers more places to hide their code. Could a TLA have infected the code base of Debian years ago, anticipating the vast number of offshoots, and knowing they would also "pwn" these as well? BackSnarf was probably just the tip of the iceberg, but even that tip was enough to sink the Titanic.

    You can identify a Ken Thompson Hack using Wheeler's double-diverse compilation method. You have two compilers: one you trust, and one you suspect is backdoored. You take the source code for the suspect compiler and compile it with both compilers. You now have two different binary versions of the suspect compiler that are functionally equivalent. Now, you compile your suspect compiler's source code again with the two new compilers you generated in the first step. If the new compilers were functionally equivalent, they should produce identical executables. If the two new executables are not bit-wise equivalent, then you know the suspect compiler was indeed trojanized.

    Grandmoff got in touch with Kali developers Muts and Dookie, and with their aide, obtained some trusted source code to perform the double-diverse compilation. To their dismay, they found the backdoor. Evidently, some earlier commits by contributors who were no longer part of the project had lodged the Trojan into the system and allowed it to conflate the exfiltrated pentest data with normal looking Web traffic. It also backdoored several of the tools in the Kali distro, such as Wireshark, Libpcap, Tcpdump, Airodump-ng, and Aircrack-ng, so that no one would ever see any network connections coming out of the infected box.


    Grandmoff was just about to relay his results to Jeep when there was a knock at his door. He wanted to ignore it, but his car was in the driveway, and his lights were on inside his townhome. He hadn't used very good OPSEC to conceal his presence within. The knocking got more vigorous, and he saw two young, nicely dressed gentlemen outside the door.

    "Federal agents," the first man said. "We just need to ask you a few questions."

    Grandmoff was cool, but this was probably not the best timing for his John Cleese-inspired falsetto cockney accent: "Are you an encyclopedia salesman?"

    "What? No, uh, we're federal agents."

    "Just want to come in, and ransack the flat, honestly," Grandmoff muttered under his breath. He grinned wryly thinking of the rest of the classic Monty Python bit and reluctantly opened the door. Immediately, the goons were upon him.

    "We need to bring you in for questioning about a recent incident in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978."

    "What the ...?" Before Grandmoff could react, he was cuffed, escorted into a van, and driven to a warehouse complex near Reagan National Airport.


    Grandmoff and Jeep had fun at times keeping tabs on each other through a tracking app.

    "Hey, what are you doing at that strip club, you slut?" Grandmoff would text her.

    "What? No, I'm ..." Jeep would start to reply, then change it: "I'm with your mom. We're trolling for beefcake."

    After not hearing back from Grandmoff for 24 hours despite repeated PMs, IMs, SMSs, and everything short of carrier pigeon, Jeep checked her tracking app. Evidently, the greenhorn agents who grabbed him did not know to turn off his phone, because he was clearly in this odd location for a long time.


    Jessie had gotten a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter a few weeks ago and had been playing with it sparingly. She was trying to hack up the control link. She wrote a custom app using the DJI Software Development Kit. Because it used a regular 802.11 wireless connection, she could easily DEAUTH the user and take over control of the copter with her app.

    But now, she had a new mission. She needed to get surveillance on this location and figure out what was going on. She loaded her gear into her 2010 Toyota and drove four hours down to Washington.

    She did an initial drive-by of the facility and found that it was a nondescript industrial building with a plainclothes guard walking around out front. She slowed down ever so slightly to see if there were any markings whatsoever on the facility. She noticed a small sign that said: "SCRIV."

    Parking at Gravelly Point along the Potomac, she pulled in and googled on "SCRIV." According to the Kingkiller Chronicle wiki, it's a "student who works under Master Lorren, specifically in The University's Archives."

    "That's probably not it," she thought.

    The Urban Dictionary said: "It's one cool m-f'er with immaculate taste in women, clothes, and humor." She laughed ironically. That could be a great definition for Grandmoff, but probably unrelated in this case, she decided.


    Jessie set up the drone with the waypoints to fly above the building and get footage from every angle. She held her breath, and then launched the quadcopter. She watched as it streamed video back to her ground station. Did the guard spot it? She couldn't tell. Ten minutes later, it returned to her. She figured that she ought to bug out quickly in case anyone saw the drone and followed it back to its origin. She placed it in her trunk and took off, not knowing what she would do next.

    After finding a hotel in nearby Crystal City, she got to her room, uploaded the video from the SD card, and started looking it over. The front appeared to have an armored steel telescoping security door with a digital keypad. But the side door had a CLIQ lock. Jessie remembered a Defcon 17 talk from Marc Weber Tobias, Toby Bluzmanis and Matt Fiddler, where they showed that electro-mechanical high-security locks could be defeated in essentially the same way as a bump key works – by inserting a mechanical key cut to the same keyway, and then getting it to vibrate for a few seconds until the mechanical motor in the cylinder turns and lifts the locking element to release the lock.

    Jessie decided to call a friend from DC301. John, aka Falcone, was another Defcon and Shmoocon buddy. She only saw him a couple times a year, but they chatted often. He was a decent hacker but an awesome lock-picker.

    "John, this is Jessie. You're not going to believe this, but–" she began.

    "They got Grandmoff," John interrupted.

    "How did you...?"

    "Well, some of the guys were trying to help him track down the BackSnarf thing, and they noticed that their systems had been infected. Not your run-of-the-mill rootkit, either. This is some sophisticated sh--. It looks like the Equation Group is after us! When we couldn't get a hold of Grandmoff, we figured something might have happened."

    "I think they have him at a black site."

    "No way! Really? Like that Homan Square in Chicago?"

    "I'm afraid so."

    "How are we gonna spring him? They don't acknowledge you in any booking database. You get no lawyer. You could rot in one of those places."

    "I have video footage of the building and a name on the sign: ‘SCRIV.' Maybe on an uninfected system, you guys could help me do some research. And maybe we could get the media involved."

    "I don't know if the media thing would work. As soon as the bad guys caught wind of it, they could just move him out and clean up the place to leave no trace. Let me figure something out. I'll call you back."

    After she hung up, Jessie looked at her locator app again. This time, it was unable to find Grandmoff's location. This could mean that his phone died, or that they turned it off. But it could also mean they moved him. One last possibility, she realized, was that they discovered he had a locator app, and were now coming for her! She quickly turned off her GPS, but then got even more paranoid and took the battery and SIM card out of her phone.

    "I'm gonna end up like Lisa Bonet in 'Enemy of the State,'" she thought.


    Jessie made it through the night without anyone knocking down her door but also without much sleep. Around 7 a.m., she decided to try to reach Falcone through IM on her computer, but it was taking longer than usual to wake up. Every keystroke seemed to take forever. She popped opened the process list and didn't see anything out of the ordinary, yet her CPU and RAM usage seemed higher than usual. She did a "netstat –ano" and saw no unusual connections. Then, she decided to fire up her other PC. On the first machine, she turned off all services that connected out to the Internet. And on the second, she ran a packet sniffer and started watching the IP address of the first. To her horror, the first PC appeared to be transmitting HTTPS packets out to a site. She was pwned! She quickly shut down her PC, threw all of her stuff in a bag, and headed for the door.

    When she opened it, there was an enormous man standing there. Weighing in at more than 280 pounds, he was probably 6-feet-6 with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and thinning black hair. Jessie immediately threw her arms around him.

    "Am I glad to see you! But ... how did you find me?"

    "Vee have our vays," John said in a ridiculous German accent. "Actually, Skeezicks here was able to do it."

    Trailing behind him was a shy, skinny dude wearing thick, horned-rim glasses.

    "This is Skeezicks," John said. "We are doing handles, right?" He nodded toward Skeezicks.

    Skeezicks shrugged.

    "Okay, well, I'm, uh, Jeep," Jessie said. "I got pwned too. Some sort of rootkit. Pretty stealth. I think we'd better get out of here."

    Jessie got in her car and followed the two to a restaurant at the corner of 14th and U called Lost Society. A Washington Post food critic once described this place as "a young meat market with as many twists as a French braid." Designed to evoke an underground, Victorian atmosphere, the upstairs lounge was often home to hackerspace meetups during the restaurant's off-hours. The rooftop deck was pretty nice, too, but no one could really see his LCD screen in that direct sunlight. So, the dark booths inside with their padded, pale blue leather and little chandeliers overhead were strewn with a melange of characters all looking at their laptops and occasionally uttering semi-audible noises about "SMT Solvers" and "ROP Gadgets."

    As John conspicuously cleared his throat, some looked up from their monitors.

    "Guys, as you know, they grabbed Grandmoff," he began. "This serious. "We don't have much to go on; but we do have the drone video we uploaded to the share site, and we have the name on the building: ‘SCRIV.'"

    Jessie was no body language expert, but she could sense some involuntary movement, an almost imperceptible twitch, on the part of a couple of the dudes, when he mentioned this word.

    "Look, we can't go in full urban assault," John said. "But we need to find a way to get into that building, or to get them to come out. And we need to find out what SCRIV means."


    Grandmoff was in a room on the second floor of the SCRIV building. It was a strikingly plain space except for a small, gray metal table and chair. It had a square window of laminated glass – the kind that has two hardened panes on either side of polyvinyl butyral. Even if you managed to break it, it would just cause a spider web but not completely crack.

    The two nicely suited guys came in. Grandmoff could feel another marathon session of futility coming on. He attempted a preemptive strike.

    "Look, I don't know anything about EquationDrug that everyone on the Internet doesn't already know from the Kaspersky report," he said. "I told you I was working with the Kali guys because we thought the distro was backdoored. That's all I know. This is the most ridiculous thing ever."

    "Well, you may feel that way, but it is, in fact, an issue of national security," the taller of the two men said. "Did you realize that if you go online and read classified data for which you did not have a need-to-know, you are in violation of your security clearance? Think of this as cleanup after a spillage. You've been here for a couple of days now. You realize we can hold you for as long as we need to. We just need those names and connections. We need to know what you know and who else knows it."


    Back at Lost Society, Jessie was working on the SCRIV plan, but she still had an unsettled feeling. John was the only guy she really knew, and the rest of them seemed so squirrely.

    "So, really, how did you guys find me?" Jessie asked the twitchy little Skeezicks.

    "We had your, uh, IP address, and we, uh, did a reverse Whois on it, and we were able to geo-locate to this area, and then, umm, we drove around looking for your car."

    Jessie mulled this over in her mind, but it was not adding up. After all, she was using Tor. She should have been safe, but...

    Jessie knew that there were a couple of ways attackers try to gain visibility into Tor traffic – either they pwn enough Tor relays, or else they manipulate the underlying network to ensure they're on the forwarding path of Tor traffic. Then, they can observe traffic in both directions (i.e., between the server and the Tor network, and between the Tor network and the client). Recent research has shown that by leveraging a knowledge of network dynamics and analyzing packet sizes and timings, one can actually deanonymize Tor clients.

    She also knew that the ISPs can eavesdrop on links and observe any unencrypted data, along with packet headers, timings, and sizes. And some of the Snowden documents showed that ISPs are in cahoots with the TLAs. So, this left really only two options – either Skeezicks was working with the ISP (or had owned their network), or he was working with a TLA.


    "We've got a possible hit on SCRIV," John said. You're not going to believe this, but SKRIV is Croatian for ‘hidden' or ‘secret.'"

    Jessie's mind immediately raced back to an incident in 2013. One of her clients was working with a big Austrian bank in Croatia, when she got called in to help out with something called #OpCroBlackout. She learned that the Croatian Revolution Hackers (CRH) had launched a massive DDoS attack protesting the usual things—the bad economy, government corruption, lack of cable TV choices, etc.

    Since 1991, as Eastern European dictatorships have turned into democracies, their centrally planned economies have turned into market-based ones. And along with this, people's expectations have risen slightly that their government officials could possibly be honest and accountable to the electorate.

    Croatia was especially still tender after a war of independence from Yugoslavia cost 250,000 lives and untold billions in property damage during the 1990s. People were pretty disillusioned when Prime Minister Ivo Sanader got convicted in 2010 of accepting bribes from none other than that same big Austrian bank, dating back to the late nineties – not to mention another 10 million euros from the CEO of the Hungarian oil company MOL to secure a dominant position in the Croatian oil company INA.

    So, led by hackers DiZi, SkOmI, Hunt3r, and Meho1337, the CRH shut down 1000 government and banking sites for more than week. But the timing of the attack was also on the eve of the country joining the European Union. This caused a lot of consternation for the newly elected Social Democrats and threatened to delay or scuttle the EU deal.


    "OK, here's the plan in a nutshell," John began. "We're going to create a diversion, gain entry to the building, find Grandmoff, and then get out – hopefully all before any guns come out."

    The big man smiled a big, broad smile while the rest of the group looked around sheepishly at each other.

    "Maybe I should clarify a little," Jessie offered. "I think we can get a generic mechanical CLIQ key for the door. But for the diversion, we're going to need some UAVs. Does anyone else have one?"

    Pretty much every hand went up.

    "Okay, we're going to need you to get those and meet us at Gravelly Point near Reagan. I assume you know if you have to bypass the flight zone restrictions. Probably not an issue if you don't have a GPS. Falcone will work on the door."


    Within 90 minutes, a gaggle of hackers had gathered in the park with their toys. Many of the UAVs did not have the capability to set waypoints, which meant their operators would have to be within line of sight of the target. Like a school of snapper minnows evading a lionfish, the group found safety in numbers. Despite the danger – or perhaps to alleviate the gravity of it – there was plenty of predictable humorous banter as the geeks made their way toward the SCRIV facility ... "Hey, I only have to be faster than Falcone. Muhahaha!" ... "I hope I don't have to go to jail because I haven't memorized a phone number since 2001."

    As they neared the building, they saw the plainclothes guy smoking out front. For this plan to work, they needed to flush him away from the door and hopefully get him to summon forth the other denizens of the building. Jessie instructed everyone to fly their drones up over the back of the building and dive-bomb the guard.

    Now, you may have seen a murder of crows or a parliament of owls, but there are no words to describe the terror of 24 drones coming down on you! The startled fellow dropped the cigarette from his mouth and tried to run to the front door; however, six or seven menacing looking quadcopters blocked his way. He jumped around frantically, getting clipped by a couple of them. "Ow! Ow!"

    Then, he took off running down the street. He whipped out his phone. "Help! There's drones! Lots of them!"

    "Okay, we've got him out of the way," Jessie said. "Now, I need a couple of guys to keep him out there, and everyone else needs to take your drones up to altitude."

    A few minutes later, the two nicely dressed agents appeared outside. They looked around. "I don't see any...oh, wait. Look way up there."

    As the two came out into the parking lot, Jessie gave the command: "Okay, now!"

    Immediately, the drones descended upon them and drove them toward the street. There, they saw the gang of people holding RC controllers. "Hey! What are you guys doing?"

    The drones continued ducking and diving at the agents, even as they ran toward the group that was now scattering for safety. Meanwhile, Jessie and John stealthily made their way around the side of the building.

    John got out a small, black key and inserted it into the lock. He rapped it with the end of a screwdriver about 10 times. Deep inside the lock, he had created a small brunt force that jumped the motor in the cylinder and popped open the lock.

    "Oh man, I can't believe that worked," he said. "They sell these locks for about $900."

    They slipped inside.

    "We don't know if anyone else is still in here," Jessie cautioned. "But we need to move fast. You go into that old manufacturing and storage area on the first floor. I'll go upstairs."

    Once on the second floor, Jessie came upon a locked door with an electronic keypad. A 10-digit keypad with a four-digit entry code could have more than 10,000 possible combinations, but if you knew which four numbers were in the code, then you could narrow it down to a couple dozen combinations – but there wasn't even time for this.

    So, Jessie whipped out a Zac Franken style Gecko – a small, programmable PIC chip with a wire connector on either side. Once connected to the wires behind the card reader, she could use a blank "replay" card to read the code and get through the door.

    Beep ... the door swung open.

    Grandmoff looked up, then blinked in disbelief. "Aren't you a little short for a storm trooper?" he asked.

    "Maybe you'd like it back in your cell, your highness," she replied.

    They hugged briefly. It felt really, really good; but clearly a rain check was in order.

    "Let's grab Falcone and get out the side door," Jessie said, as she quickly texted the others: "Got him!"

    "Wait, do you have a thumb drive?" Grandmoff said. "I heard them talking. I really think we need to grab stuff off their system before we go."

    Weighing the wisdom of this delay for only an instant, Jessie replied, "I have something better."

    Grandmoff led her to the adjacent room, where there was a little cell of routers, switches, PCs, and printers. Jessie got out her Rubber Ducky Deluxe, inserted it into a USB slot, dropped a mimikatz payload, and within a minute had IPs, passwords, logs, and a few other interesting-looking files.

    A text appeared on her phone: "Get out. They're coming back."

    They met Falcone downstairs and raced for the side door. They peered out, and the coast looked clear. They hustled back toward Gravelly Point and Jessie's car. Everyone else had scattered, but there were a few smashed drones here and there – a small price to pay for such a dramatic rescue.


    "Now, what?" Grandmoff asked.

    "I think we need to get out of town," Falcone said.

    "We probably can't go back to my place in New York," Jessie said. "And they will be looking for us at airports. This is so nuts. We haven't done anything. I'm sorry I dragged you guys into this."

    "Don't be," Falcone said. "Sorry Grandmoff, but this is personally the most awesome thing I've ever done in my life."

    "Umm, I have a slightly different viewpoint," Grandmoff said. "But you guys are amazing. I think we really need to look at that data from their system if we're going to get out of this mess. From what I could gather, these guys are working with some other guys who infiltrate foreign hacker groups. I have no idea what agency they're with, but they have been up to some sketchy stuff."

    Jessie drove north of Baltimore and stopped at a chill coffee shop near Towson. Grandmoff voraciously gobbled a sandwich while Jessie inserted the Rubber Ducky into her uninfected laptop.

    After a few minutes, her eyes got squinty, and her nose wrinkled. Grandmoff had seen that face before. She was figuring something out. Her right brain was kicking in.

    "I think we have them," she said.


    There is this conspiracy that the CIA is trying to undermine the success of the EU and the euro to keep the dollar strong and protect US banks' interests. Slowing or derailing the former Eastern Bloc countries from entering the EU has been part of that strategy. The ultimate end game would be to keep Russia from uniting with the rest of Europe and creating a single, powerful economy. Imagine being able to drive from Lisbon to Kamchatka and using the same currency in Nice or Novosibirsk. Fortunately, with Putin being a douche, that's not much of an issue now; but ultimately, if that scenario came to fruition, Russia would essentially annex the rest of Europe and form an economic powerhouse that would spell serious trouble for the US economy.

    Jessie explained that she had found some forensic evidence of connections to sites in Croatia and activity by accounts supposedly belonging to CRH members.

    "Remember the Croatian Revolution Hackers? Well, I'm pretty sure DiZi, SkOmI, Hunt3r, and Meho1337 are all acting on behalf of the federal agency that grabbed Grandmoff," Jessie said. "These guys probably aren't Croats at all. They're Equation Group guys that were DDoS'ing the whole country and trying to block Croatia's entry to the EU."


    A few hours later, as one of the well-dressed gentlemen was furiously typing an incident report, an instant message window popped up on his screen: "Unless you want us to release the Croatian Revolution Hacker data to all news outlets, you need to leave Trevor James and the rest of us alone. Do we have an accord?"

    After what seemed to be an eternity on the other end, as Jessie and her companions started to wonder if their thrice-proxied connection could be traced back, they saw a reply: "DEAL."

    They all exhaled simultaneously. Was it really over?


    August 6, 2015. Jessie and Trevor are enjoying a libation at Gustav's Casino Bar in the Paris Hotel. They are holding hands and whispering things to each other, snickering surreptitiously about an interesting guy with a new Mohawk haircut. Suddenly, the taller of the two well-dressed guys appears. But this time, he is wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. Skeezicks is with him.

    Trevor and Jessie turn ashen.

    "Just, umm, relax," Skeezicks says. "We...uh, just want to talk."

    "You – were you with them all along?" Jessie asks. Skeezicks nods.

    "But, why didn't you give us away when we rescued Trevor?"

    "It was an, umm, audition," Skeezicks says. "We had to know if you were the right one for the job. Now we know. We, uhh, have a proposition for you..."


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  • eris
    “Good morning, good morning.”

    Kenneth G


    Is this the month of October?


    Is your name Smith, George?


    Do you intend to answer the following questions truthfully?


    Are you a loyal citizen of the Free States of Europe and America?


    Other than during the course of authorized operations … have you given any FSEA state secrets to Eurasia?


    Do you intend to betray FSEA in the future?


    Within the past 12 months – since your last polygraph — have you played any unauthorized games?


    Within authorized games, have you made any unauthorized modifications?


    Are you aware of the existence of ‘wormholes’ between games?


    Have you employed wormhole technology to travel between games?


    Have you used wormholes to evade FSEA security monitoring?


    Do you voluntarily agree to the counterintelligence examination of all computer code and data storage in, on, and around your body?

    George hesitated. Was his career over? At this point, did it even matter what he said?


    Two Special Agents entered the room, and escorted Smith to a waiting car. In all his years in government, George had never seen anyone move so quickly, so efficiently. He was stunned. The Special Agents must have been watching him for some time.

    In silence, they drove for at least two hours, finally arriving at a green-glass building in a small forest, somewhere north of Cambridge. There was no sign, no visible indication of the building’s purpose.

    In the lobby, George was handed a white gown. The Special Agents showed him to a large, white, plastic-lined changing room, in which he suddenly felt very small. A voice came over a loudspeaker: “Smith, please remove your clothes, and all non-core electronics.” George’s hands began to shake, but he nonetheless managed to redress with enough time left over to examine his aging face in a mirror.

    Two new Special Agents opened the door, one of which placed a not-so-comforting hand on Smith’s shoulder. Next, they walked him down several flights of stairs, along a white corridor, through a white door, and into a white chair. Immediately, George could feel sweat on the back of his legs, dampening the gown, and surely sticking to the plastic beneath him.

    A technical assistant – whose hands were cold – widened an opening in the back of Smith’s gown, and slid a red cable into his core drive. The Special Agents began to copy files. George, now starting to lose his composure, suddenly discovered that he still had access to his personal entertainment files. Therefore, he made a quick and easy decision: for the next ten minutes, George lost himself in classic Van Halen.

    In FSEA, there were few explicit laws, but everyone knew certain red lines. These included any unauthorized communication with Eurasia. Although technically not illegal, it was understood that this “crime” was met with severe penalties. And the fact that correspondence with Eurasia was nearly impossible to accomplish only served to make the government’s paranoia – and its fearsome investigations – worse.

    In a separate room, another group of Special Agents began the analysis. First, they verified that all 84 games George had played in the past 365 days were authorized. This was a routine exercise, as any violation should have been discovered by a security bot within seconds.

    Over the past half-decade, FSEA had refined its ability to “code around” bad behavior, at least from a public point of view. However, the Special Agents were always surprised by human creativity – especially in the games.

    Special Agent Alabama sorted Smith’s games in descending order based on their counterintelligence “score,” a rounded whole number between 0-100 based on four factors: author, code size, complexity, and autonomy. George’s list ran from the mass-market Cat People versus Dog People (96) to the obscure Joseph Conrad (36). In general, it was understood that government personnel should not play games with a score below 50.

    The Special Agents sent Smith’s operating system and data files to an open source software analysis framework called “Demure.” In seconds, all of George’s actions and conversations for the past 365 days – both in real life and in the games – appeared in a holographic matrix. Shades of green symbolized FSEA. Red was Eurasia. Yellow lines were potential communication paths between the two warring states. Any pulsating node was a potential state secret.

    In real life, George had spoken just under 1 million words. In the games, he had spoken well over 4 million. Chip – the Special Agent in Charge – made only one observation: “His cyber girlfriends know more about him than his wife.”

    After nearly five minutes of analysis, Demure remained quiet, and the Special Agents began to fear they had made a mistake. Alabama ceremoniously opened a box of donuts as a consolation prize.

    Then Demure awoke, printing four words to a telescreen: “Good morning, good morning.”

    Alabama sat up in his chair. Chip grabbed the telephone.

    Demure continued: “Smith used this phrase twice in the past year. Both times after a wormhole. Both times in front of a closed door. Both times the door was opened from the inside, with different time delays and different code. I suspect human intelligence behind the doors.”

    The Special Agents multiplied like rabbits: within ten minutes, their number grew from two to eight.

    At Triple C – the Cyber Counterintelligence Centre – wormhole technology was still under evaluation. It was a new coding phenomenon, and few Special Agents had any experience with it. Such gray areas were vexing to most Special Agents, but the more aggressive and technically inclined cops tended to believe that new articulations of cyberspace were in fact the best places to catch a spy.

    The new Special Agents vied for a better view of the telescreen, while their technical assistants searched all of FSEA for a similar combination of game/door/phrase – at “any time” in history, which currently meant almost thirteen years – without success.

    “OK, let’s feed his files to Snake,” announced Chip, referring to Triple C’s classified counterintelligence framework. Like Demure, Snake mapped communication paths between FSEA and Eurasia, but in far greater detail. Further, Snake had the authority to hack through security barriers along the way – until it feared getting caught.

    On Chip’s command, a technical assistant turned a small silver key, and Snake went to work. Within seconds, “Good morning, good morning” appeared on the telescreen. Smith had first spoken these words at the door to Adolf Hitler’s grammar school in Das Dritte Reich, having traveled via wormhole from Eastwood Forever as a revival preacher’s wife. The second time, Smith played the role of Vice President Harold “Chick” Blarney from Hard Target, as he stood in front of a castle in Blood Worship. The two incidents took place nearly ten months apart, but on both occasions, it was precisely 1533 in the afternoon. Chip pointed to the government clock – it was 1411.

    Excitement filled the room as the Special Agent in Charge massaged his beard and devised a plan of attack. After nearly a minute of quietly calculating risk versus reward, Chip exhaled completely, and said, “Let’s do it.”

    The Special Agents and technical assistants were pleased, with the exception of Alabama, who decided that someone had to play devil’s advocate. “Chief, are we on solid legal ground here?” Then, pointing to the unfamiliar game titles, “And what about the tradecraft? What’s the plan?”

    Chip pointed to the government clock. “Look … this guy’s career is over. At this point, this is the most important thing that, uh – Smith – can do for his country.”

    The Special Agent in Charge understood that his leadership was on the line, so he shooed Alabama from his seat in front of the telescreen. “I’ll drive.” Chip glanced at a technical assistant: “Load the second game … the most recent one. And send in Mr. Smith with his core code. That guy doesn’t know shit anyway.”

    By 1522, the tech had walked a smartly-dressed Vice President Blarney in a dark tangent through wind, rain, and mud, up a lonely, forested path to the portcullis of a great, dismal castle somewhere in Transylvania. At 1533 sharp, Chip raised the Vice President’s arm, banged on the iron gate, and said in a loud voice, “Good morning, good morning.”

    In the Triple C conference room, no one breathed for nearly ten seconds – until the door began to open with a slow, metallic rattle. The weather was so foul it was hard to see, but as soon as there was enough room, Chip pushed the Vice President into the courtyard.

    Now on unfamiliar terrain, Chip wandered about, squinting in every direction, pausing occasionally to pick up a rock or a bit of trash. At last, Chip’s next move was clear. In a far corner of the courtyard, under a burning lamp, and in front of a closed door, there stood an aged but beautiful woman, dressed all in black. She had a hand on one hip, the other covering her mouth, as she carefully examined her unexpected guest. The Special Agent in Charge, however, did not hesitate, and marched decisively in her direction.

    Everyone – including Alabama – sat spellbound in this moment of truth. No one knew what might happen next. Surely, it seemed, the woman would challenge Chip with a signal or a code word – anything that would bring their reckless operation to a premature end. Instead, she simply smiled at her guest, then opened the door, releasing a bright light of indecipherable numbers and letters. In the Triple C conference room, Snake flashed a warning message to the telescreen: WORMHOLE.

    The Special Agents strained to see what was happening on the telescreen. Then the wicked beauty came back into focus. Leaning toward the open door, she offered the Vice President an open hand.

    All eyes turned to the Special Agent in Charge, whose hands hovered just above the keyboard. Chip gazed into the dazzling stream of computer code. Slowly, his right index finger descended to the up arrow key, and both characters vanished into the wormhole.

    The telescreen went dark for nearly 20 seconds – apart from a faint glow signaling that some type of computer code was still running.

    When the picture came back into focus, the cream of the FSEA cyber counterintelligence corps sat in awe and disbelief. A new, real woman had appeared on the telescreen, in a live video feed. Known in FSEA only as the “Cyclops,” it was the one-eyed Chief of Eurasian Central Intelligence, smiling playfully at the Special Agents, and savoring the moment.

    Within three seconds, Snake discovered the hot link with Eurasia, and shut down not only the Triple C network but also its electricity. That was, however, three seconds too late. When the emergency power came on, Alabama kept his eyes shut. He could have done more. And whatever it was that Chip had said, Alabama knew it was his job to call the chaplain, coders, and coroner.

    Last edited by eris; June 1, 2015, 00:45.

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  • eris
    deleted and moved to end of thread
    Last edited by eris; June 1, 2015, 01:04.

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  • eris
    By John McNabb

    Max squinted as he looked at the streetlight shining bright yellow light through the pelting rain into the grimy window of his second floor office on Prince Street in the North End. Got to get window shades, sometime, he thought. He had just wrapped up a big case in Kingsport putting some reanimated corpses back into their graves and was in need of a rest. He never found out how they had gotten their hands on Herbert West’s formulae, but since it unfortunately got burned up in the fire he was never able to turn it over to the Feds, who badly wanted it. Too bad.
    “Now let me get this straight,” he said, taking a drag from his Lucky and turning back to face the woman sitting in the chair on the other side of his large cluttered wooden desk. His snub nose .38 was in the shoulder holster. His suit coat, brown top coat, and fedora were on the iron coat rack in the corner.
    “Yes Mr. Stone, its really very simple,” she said, not letting him finish. “All I want you to do is to take this package and hold it for a period of time until I come back for it. No questions asked. I trust in your discretion. For this very simple task I will pay you $40 a day, $200 in advance, which I believe is your usual fee as a private investigator.” She was about 5 feet 5 inches, 115 pounds, trim, pretty, brunette, green eyes, about 30, wore all black but didn’t look like she was in mourning. She gave him a kiss, on the cheek, to say goodbye.
    Well, business is a little slow, so why not. He didn’t even know her name. Why ask any questions? What could go wrong? His secretary Lara let the woman out. He stuck the package, which was about the size and shape of a hardcover book, covered in brown wrapping paper, in a hidden compartment in the wall further hidden by writing the symbols on the side of the wall which effectively created a concealment ‘spell’ to protect it from thaumaturgic searches.
    The next day Max found that the office had been ransacked – chairs tipped over, drawers left opened, papers strewn about. Obviously someone was searching for something, probably the mysterious package. He checked but it was still there. He saw a small story on the front page of the July 8, 1947 Boston Post, just below the fold. “Woman killed by hit and run driver.” Yes it was the same woman. No identification found. There was no description of the car but there was the usual line that the police expected to corral a suspect at any minute.
    There was a single knock on the still open office door, and a well dressed man with wire rimmed glasses and a bowler hat came in.
    “Mr. Stone, I have a proposition for you,” he said in a strong German accent.
    “Do you now?” said Max. “Please continue.”
    “Your visitor yesterday left you a package, we know that as a fact. The package can have no monetary value to you or anyone else, it is only of historical significance to those who can truly understand its meaning. Nevertheless, we will pay you handsomely for its safe return, unopened.”
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Max. “Get out!”
    The man advanced toward Max, pointing his finger at him. Max, who at 6 feet 2 inches towered over his opponent, grabbed his arm, deftly flipped it behind the mans back and put pressure on it until he heard him groan.
    “What’s this all about? Who are you?” Max asked, further twisting the arm until it almost broke.
    “Stuff it,” the man said, gritting his teeth in pain. “You might as well let me go, you will get nothing from me.” Max let his arm go and the man left.
    Then the siege began. First Lt. Carmine Poole of the State Police, who asked what she hired him to do. He denied that she hired him for anything, but could tell that Poole didn’t believe him. Then came two polite FBI agents who asked him a lot of questions that he didn’t answer. Next was an agent from the new Central Intelligence Group, formerly the OSS, who asked if she left a package, which he denied. Clearly they had all have to have been tailing her and very certainly something very big was up. Next time one of them comes they might have a search warrant, though.
    But he got her name. That’s a start. “Lara, also please see what you can find about our visitor yesterday. Her name was Betsy Costello.”
    Time to open the package. Max locked the door to the his inner office, retrieved it from its hideaway, and unwrapped it. He found a collection of papers, some official looking Nazi documents in German, and papers in Russian, and the rest which were a hodgepodge of unfamiliar script, hieroglyphics, and poetry or chants in different languages. A few words caught his eye – Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Shaking, he quickly bound it back up in the wrapping paper and handed it to Lara.
    Those words mean ““In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” R’lyeh was known to be located under the sea in the South Pacific at 47’ 9” South, 126’ 43” West. Cthulhu is one of the Great Old Ones who came to this planet aeons ago, millions of years before man, before dinosaurs. Cthulhu is said to be dead but dreaming. The infamous Necronomicon says “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.” Cthulhu has been described as “a mountain which walked or stumbled” with a cuttlefish like head – pulpy and tentacled, and scaly wings.
    Cthulhu telepathically communicates with humans, and his brief emergence from the sea in 1925 resulted in thousands of people having horrific dreams across the world. There are thousands of Cthulhu cultists across the planet from China to Louisiana who worship him and commit sacrifices in his name. The return of Cthulhu is said to lead the way for the return of all the Old Ones, and to cause worldwide madness, violence, and insanity as the Old Ones destroy humanity and reclaim the planet.
    “Lara, please call Dr. Frost and tell her I have something for her to look at.”
    “OK, Max.” She dialed the number for Miskatonic University. “Send it the usual way?”
    “Yes.” Certainly his building was now being watched. This has happened before. There was a maze of tunnels under the North End. The tunnel of the privateer Gruchy, dug during Colonial times, which extended from the crypt at the Old North Church, to the Copps Hill Burying Ground, then up Salem Street, under Charter Street, and then to Gruchy’s Wharf on Boston Harbor, was the best known. But there were others. Lara would bring the package to a tunnel under the basement of their building, where a courier protected by the horrific creatures that prowled that underworld would then go through the tunnels and then overland to Miskatonic. No one would be following him. Max headed to the City Morgue.
    He entered the Morgue, nicknamed the Southern Mortuary, through its ornate Massachusetts Ave. entrance and walked under the hourglass engraved over the door and then between the two golden sphinxes which guard the stairs he took down to the examination room. The fetid smell of formaldehyde was in the air.
    “Hey Max, here to look for a stiff?” said Clarence, the pathologist on duty.
    “Yeah. Auto accident. Female. Would have come in yesterday.” Clarence checked his clipboard and led Max over to one of the banks of sliding storage drawers and pulled one out. Max peeled off a five, handed it to Clarence and shooed him out of the room.
    Max lifted up the shroud and verified, yes, it was her. With a piece of blue chalk, he wrote some mathematical symbols on each side of her head. He quickly set up two candles, one on each side of her head, lit them, and in a low rumbling voice chanted the required verses into her right ear. The candles were made from the fat of a “Hand of Glory” which, along with the right application of mathematical principles, had established thaumaturgic properties such as the temporary revival of the dead. Max used magic, but sparingly, because there was always a cost. He was pleased to think that the evil he rubbed up against daily hadn’t corrupted him.
    The corpse jolted as if hit by an electric bolt. Her mouth opened, trying to speak. Max knew he had less than 5 minutes for this temporary revival. He leaned into her right ear and carefully whispered.
    “Betsy, who killed you?” Max then put his right ear over her mouth so he could hear her labored, faint, speech. He listened for about a minute, asked another question, then listened to her tell her story until she finally fell totally silent, this time for good.
    Clarence ran back into the room, huffing and puffing.
    “Max, I know you’re busy, but I thought you’d like to avoid the cops. They are on their way in here about another case. You’d better go out the back way.”
    Max rubbed out the equations, blew out the candles and put them back in his pocket. He gave Clarence another five, then headed out the back way through the dank rat infested tunnel toward Boston City Hospital. He could hear the rats in the walls. He walked back onto the street and took a cab back to his office.
    He opened the door to his office and saw Detective O’Rourke waiting for him.
    “Jimmy, what took you so long?” First Max asked Lara to fill him in on what she had learned. Then Max and Jimmy had a long talk. Max offered him a slug of Jim Beam, but Jimmy demurred, because he was on duty. Max had a shot, though. He told Jimmy to look for a black 1945 Bentley, like the ones uses by the Soviet Consulate in New York. He said there was a witness, a blond woman just coming out of a florist shop in sight of the accident. The driver was a short stocky balding man in a black coat sporting a black chauffer’s cap. The source of his information? “Just an anonymous tip,” Max told him. Let’s see if the cops can get him. He didn’t have time now, he had other fish to fry right now. Hopefully she got her money’s worth.
    The next day he checked the front page of the Post and thank God nobody whom he had just met had died. But there was an urgent phone call from Dr. Frost who said she needed to see him immediately. She was soon on her way to the office, via the underground route to avoid surveillance, protected by the courier.
    “Hi Babs,” said Lara as Dr. Barbara Frost arrived. They chatted for a few minutes.
    “Barbara, nice to see you,” said Max. “How big a problem is this?” Dr. Frost, a professor of physics at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass., has two PhD’s from Princeton, one in ethnology – languages and cultural history – and a double PhD in physics and astronomy. Or is that three PhD’s? She was his go-to guy, as it were, for the really tough cases like this one.
    “The biggest,” she said. “Your little package was put together by the Waffen SS during the war. It’s the result of their world wide search for the mathematical formulae, in the form of chants and incantations of course, necessary to release Cthulhu from R’lyeh. The documents explain that after the war, the Soviets got their hands on the Waffen research and are preparing to release Cthulhu. Since the US is the only country that has the atomic bomb, they must be desperate.”
    “What, are they nuts? Wouldn’t that mean the end of the world as we know it? How could they expect to gain anything from that?”
    “They also have what they think is a binding spell, to bind Cthulhu to their will. Then the Soviet Union could rule the world, bringing to fruition their goal of a worldwide communist dictatorship. Or a universal proletariat utopia of freedom and prosperity, if you believe their propaganda. Stalin insists that it will work, so it looks like they are going to do it. However, Stalin is wrong - that will never work. Cthulhu is too powerful.”
    “So we must have just a copy, that Betsy Costello somehow obtained from the Soviets before they killed her?” Dr. Frost nodded. “So they still have the original, so this insane plan is probably still going forward, right?”
    “Right Max, as far as we know. Now that they have the formulae there is little else they need in materials or manpower to carry this out. Unfortunately we don’t know when but we must assume its imminent.”
    “Can you reverse engineer the chants and incantations in those documents to recreate the formulae that keeps Cthulhu in R’lyeh?” asked Max.
    “Sorry it can’t be done,” she said. “Many have been looking across the globe for decades to find them, but no one has found that formulae yet, that we know of. They weren’t created by man, but by the beings known as the Elder Gods, according to folklore. And its not simply the inverse of the chants used to release Cthulhu - the math involved is too involved for that.”
    “I thought Cthulhu couldn’t be released until ‘the stars are right’ which I understood to mean that the Solar System had passed into a certain region of the cosmos,” asked Max.
    “Correct, but those conditions can apparently be recreated using the appropriate vocal intonations to approximate the harmonic vibrations that would be encountered when the ‘stars are right’,” she said. “While these chants have been passed down by oral tradition by dozens of societies for thousands of years – which the Waffen SS had succeeded in eventually compiling – there hasn’t been any chants or methods passed down to keep Cthulhu in or to put him back that we are aware of, I am afraid.”
    “Scientifically,” she continued, “Cthulhu is contained in a localized bubble of space-time curvature, according to a mathematical interpretation of the personal account of the sailor Gustaf Johanson, who witnessed the brief release of Cthulhu in 1928 in the South Pacific when R’lyeh was forced to the surface by an earthquake. The mathematics necessary to fully describe this curvature of space-time, and how to further contain it, challenges the present state of the art. Simply put, we don’t have the math and physics capability at this time to do it.”
    “Barbara,” asked Max. “So its impossible. What’s the plan?” She never gave him a problem without a potential solution.
    “You’re not going to like it.”
    “Compared to what, the end of the world? Obviously we can’t just call the President, or put this in the newspapers. They’d have us in the funny farm in no time. Can’t we just turn this over to those bastards at the NTA and have them handle it?” The NTA always like to have Max do their dirty work. He didn’t mind doing so, once in a while, as long as he could choose which dirty work he would do.
    The National Thaumaturgic Agency regulates, or attempts to regulate, the use of ‘magic’ which is merely an application of advanced mathematics on not commonly known aspects of physical reality, and to conceal the existence of real ‘magic’ as much as possible from the general public. Can’t have just anyone wielding magic; letting that knowledge loose in the world would be like giving everyone their own atomic bomb.
    “Well, yes and no. Don’t be mad at me Max, You understand I had to call them myself when I realized what we had here. I told Agent Carson I would be coming here. He should be here momentarily.”
    Like on cue, there was a knock at the door and Agent Carson entered. He carried a medium-size case that he put down on the floor.
    “Max and Barbara,” he said. “So nice to see you together again.” They had been a couple, but she had broken it off and that was a long time ago.
    “Can we cut the small talk,” said Max. “Get to the point.”
    “We had anticipated this eventuality,” he said. “Our ‘seers’ predicted that these formulas would be found and that some madman would plan on using them. They further predict that Stalin is preparing to set Cthulhu loose in the next few days, from a secure location in the Kremlin. We had sent agents to infiltrate them, but our agents were discovered and liquidated, and then they have placed wards around their team that prevents us from attacking them magically.”
    “Brilliant play on your part, as always,” said Max. “So is the end inevitable?”
    “No, we have a new plan. Using the information that Dr. Frost got from you, our ‘seers’ have projected that while we don’t have the mathematical ability today to keep Cthulhu in his bubble of space-time curvature, that capability will be developed in the future, in exactly 70 years, to be precise.”
    “But what good would it be to travel to the future, assuming that is what you are talking about, to get the equations we need, if the Soviets release Cthulhu now end the world ends now so there is no future? Or wouldn’t it create a paradox if there was a future only because we got the equations in 2017 and brought them back here in time to stop Cthulhu?”
    “Yes, Max, you are correct,” said Carson. “We are not complete idiots. Our plan is a little different. Using the correct equations and a lot of electrical energy, we can create a portal between different dimensions, to a different time-space. It’s a rudimentary form of the type of transformation we need to keep Cthulhu in the bubble. We can’t do it often because it does take a lot of energy, an enormous amount of energy in fact, and its very dangerous as it can create discontinuities that can bend or break the existing space time continuum. We would not go into the future of this universe, we would instead send our agent or agents to the same future in a parallel universe, so we will avoid time travel paradoxes. And we need you, both of you, to go.”
    “Why us,” asked Max, feeling uneasy. “You have plenty of agents of your own – why not send some of them instead?”
    “Max, Max,” chided Carson. “We have you right where want you. We are very upset with you for letting the West formulae burn up in the fire. You were sloppy on that last job, very sloppy, and we know literally where the bodies are buried. That’s multiple murder, you know, and the ‘but they were zombies’ defense won’t cut it you know. We know what really happened and why but a court of law in the mundane world won’t.”
    Max didn’t have to go far to realize who the only person was who could have ratted him out to the NTA. He made sure he didn’t change his expression or look at Dr. Frost, who must have been the culprit. Probably not for the first time, he realized, since she had always been a little too chummy with those bastards.
    “Looks like you have me over a barrel. Sure, I’d be very happy to volunteer to go. How do you know exactly where and when to send us?” Max asked.
    “Our seers have pinned down the exact time and place. Unfortunately they can’t see clearly enough to get the data themselves, but there is enough to be certain we are sending you to the right space-time. There might be other time and places but this is the only one we know for sure. We will be sending you to a conference at a hotel in Las Vegas on July 28, 2017 when a speaker will be presenting a paper on how he used the powerful calculating machines of that time to precisely calculate the incantations needed to keep Cthulhu imprisoned in the bubble of space-time curvature. We want you to get the calculations, which Dr. Frost can get from listening to his talk, and hopefully from a from a written version of his paper. We also want you to get a recording of the incantations.”
    “So we bring a wire recorder with us?” Max asked.
    “We have something better.” Carson pulled up the case he had brought. “The Germans have an advanced audio recording and playback system using magnetic tape, called a Magnetophone. It uses a thin coating, which can be magnetized to replicate the analog waves of an audio emission, on a plastic tape. This is another of their secret technologies we have just learned about. The Army recovered a few of them and we had the Signal Corps build this portable version for us. It’s superior to wire recordings, so we have a better chance of getting a truly effective recoding of the incantations to paly back when you return. It also has a battery and a magnetic tape that can record for up to 2 hours. This way you will be able to get you the calculations and the exact incantations for us, on a silver platter.”
    Before they made the trip, Max made some incantations to call for help in the other universe, and prepared the medicine bags for him and Babs to protect them from extra-dimensional threats.
    They arrived through the portal in a wall in a deserted corridor in the Bally Hotel at 1:00 pm on July 28, 2017. Max carried the 40 pound Magnetophone case in his right hand. They were dressed in their regular 1947 street clothes, which Carson had said wouldn’t really stand out too much in this type of conference.
    The portal took a lot of energy. The NTA blacked out the entire New England - Eastern Canadian grid interconnect for 6 hours gathering the needed electricity for the brief burst of megawatts needed to punch a hole through to the parallel universe. They were scheduled to go back in 8-12 hours, which was the minimum time needed by the grid to get back to full strength before being blacked out again for another 6 hours before they could return.
    Max thought he sensed something else come through with them and asked Babs about it. She arched an eyebrow, nodded, and said simply “Yes that’s always a risk.” Max had protection from mundane physical threats from his .38 he carried in his shoulder holster, and the both had protection from extra-dimensional threats from the medicine bags sewn into their clothing.
    This couldn’t be good news, Babs thought. Well, they can’t go back so nothing else to do but to move forward and deal with it if it manifested any hostile action.
    “I wonder what kind of conference this is,” said Max, looking around bewildered as they walked into the busy hallway filled with people wearing all manner of clothes – mostly black t-shirts and slacks. Some men wore coats & ties. Many had weird tattoos. There were also many wearing various hats, vests, and watches. Most were busy listening to a small metal box they held close to their ear, or reading and punching their fingers onto the top flat surface.
    “Maybe those are phones – what do you think?” asked Max.
    “Hard to say,” said Babs. “They could be just highly miniaturized recording/playback devices for audio & video, and also text. I’d love to get a look at one.”
    “Ahhh, but remember what our friends from the NTA said – don’t bring back any knowledge of future technology, or it cold foul up out timeline.”
    “We really don’t have to worry, you know,” said Babs. “The forgetting spell they gave us will erase all memory of this future technology within 60 minutes of our return.”
    Following the information that the NTA seers had given them, their first step was to find the registration area and pay their admission, in cash, to get their badges, and the conference program. They had brought plenty of cash, and could only hope that it was consistent with what was used here.
    “Wow, look at this 1944 Silver Certificate,” said the staff person at the registration table who held the stack of bills Max had handed them. Their money did stand out, but at least they were acceptable and paid their way into the conference. They didn’t know what was so special about a silver certificate and didn’t ask.
    The program for DEF CON clearly indicated this was a conference of “hackers.” They weren’t sure what that meant, but inferred from the talks and the other events that the attendees liked to “break stuff” and see if they could make devices do more than they were designed for. Just the kind of people who could figure out how to ‘hack’ the math of Cthulhu, Max thought.
    They read through the program and of course couldn’t find anything about Cthulhu or cracking the math of a localized bubble of space-time. But they did find the hidden codes in the program which the seers had said would tell them where the “inner conference,” the “secret conference” within the conference, the DEF COV, could be found.
    Babs traced her finger over the program in a certain pattern, which revealed the program for the secret conference on the same pages. There, among talks such as “Detecting and Preventing Extra-Dimensional Malware,” “Producing the Medusa Effect in Common Household Devices – Don’t Try This At Home!,” and “Can Any Cloud Be Made Truly Possession-Proof?” they found the talk they were looking for – “Supercomputer Calculations of the Optimum Incantations to Permanently Bind An Ancient Entity Into An Existing Localized Bubble of Space Time” by Professor Karen Marsh of Miskatonic University.
    The talk wasn’t scheduled to start until about four hours, so they decided to take the next three hours to look around the conference but to be at the talk an hour before it started so they could be sure to get a seat. It was hard to make headway among the thick crowds of the thousands of people who filled the corridors. They tried to not appear too wide-eyed and incredulous at all they saw, especially at the CTF and the Contest area. In the Vendor area they saw a few radio-type hardware with vacuum tubes that looked a little familiar, but the rest of the technology there, and in the rest of the con, was something called solid state electronics which was at least three decades beyond them.
    Max bought a portable video recorder to get a backup recording of the talk – they could even see the replay on the small screen on the recorder! Babs was intrigued by all the hardware she could see and was frustrated she couldn’t buy them all, and settled for a small handheld minicomputer. They were sure that the NTA would just confiscate them when they got back to 1947, but they couldn’t resist. They separated for a while to look around some more by themselves but then met back at the entrance to DEF COV.
    Babs got the magnetophone recording started just before Dr. Marsh started her talk. Max started the video recorder while sitting in the front row with Babs but then moved further back to get a better video picture. Babs was also taking notes as fast as she could.
    “I must first introduce myself as, as many of you might have guessed, as one of the Innsmouth Marsh’s,” she began. “However I will not make the full transformation to a sea creature to join my brothers and sisters under the sea. Those genes are substantially watered down and the only vestige I have are my slightly webbed hands and feet, like you can see in this picture.” She also explained she has a PhD from MIT in Mathematics and a PhD from Miskatonic in Thaumaturgic Theory & Practice.
    “We have a scant amount of documentation on the island that rose from the sea between March 22 and April 12, 1925 which resulted in the temporary release of the extra-dimensional creature known of Cthulhu to this world. The best account is from the Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johanson, which contains a fantastic description of the island and its structures which seemed to defy the strictures of Euclidean Geometry,” she continued.
    “The most logical conclusion, first set forth in a paper by Professor Benjamin K. Tippett, which I paraphrase here, is that these descriptions of weird geometry can best be explained the three dimensional space around the island is curved hyperbolically – and that the island is contained in a bubble of localized spacetime curvature.” She then explicated many complicated mathematical formulas that describe the nature of this bubble, which could not be made of ‘normal’ matter but of some exotic matter from another dimension.
    “This bubble is what keeps Cthulhu contained, neither dead not alive, waiting for the time “when the stars are right” to escape again, perhaps for good, to wreak havoc on the world. There are many Cthulhu cults around the world which are striving mightily to release Cthulhu. They believe that once they find the correct set of incantations they will be successful. While they think of it as ‘magic’ we know it as science – that such audio utterings can have an effect on the harmonic vibrations of this universe and of other dimensions, having a physical effect.”
    “Those incantations, to be successful, need to be precise, which is why, thankfully, they have not been successful – yet. To head off any such attempt, myself and my team at Miskatonic, assisted by computer scientists around the world, have been using prodigious amounts of supercomputer resources to concoct the opposite set of incantations – one that will permanently bind Cthulhu into that bubble. I am pleased to report that we have been successful.”
    There was a stir in the room and a round of applause.
    “I am going to play a recording of the resultant incantation, which is only 30 minutes in length. Be assured we already have performed the incantations and have confirmed that the space time bubble in the South Pacific is secure and all our readings show that Cthulhu is secure in that bubble. We are confident that this will defeat the attempt of any Cthulhu cult to resurrect that creature.”
    Before she could turn on the recording there was a stirring in the back of the room. A tall shadowy figure, horribly misshapen and about 14 feet tall, started to manifest itself then move swiftly toward the speaker. Babs jumped up and ran to Marsh to try to give her the protection of her medicine bag, but when the entity ran into Babs she died and crumpled to the floor. The entity then disappeared at the moment Max reached Marsh’s side.
    “Doc I have to get you out here. There might be another one coming for you” Max held Marsh around her shoulders. “Bring the recording.” He led her to the portal, which they got to just in time, and brought her through back to 1947.
    “Did you get it? Where’s Babs? Who is this?” said Agent Carson, noticing her webbed hands.
    “We got it. Babs is dead. This is Dr. Karen Marsh – she has the incantation.”
    Carson explained the situation to Marsh.
    “We’re almost out of time. Can you do the incantation right now?”
    Marsh nodded. She played the recording. Carson made a phone call. After a number of “uhmms” and “OK’s” he hung up.
    “Looks like it worked. The readings we are getting from our ships in the South Pacific show that the bubble is stable and that its integrity has been increased significantly. We’ll have to wait for Stalin to try his incantation to know for sure, but things look good.”
    “That’s great,” said Marsh. “When can you send me back?”
    “Unfortunately, not for at least a year,” said Carson. “We have to use the portals sparingly, to avoid making the boundaries between universes porous.”
    “Dr. Marsh was a professor at Miskatonic University in 2017,” said Max. “Perhaps she can get a position there until we can send her back. I’ll take care of it.”
    “Good,” said Carson. “Maybe she can help you with cases like Babs did. I’ve got to go now to follow-up on the incantation. I’ll be in touch later to process Professor Marsh. Professor, you are cautioned to never tell anyone where you are from or to reveal anything about the future. The consequences to do otherwise could be highly unfavorable” She nodded. He left them, taking the Magnetophone and video recorder.
    “Don’t think I didn’t see what you did,” said Marsh. “That entity wasn’t after me.”
    “Nonsense,” said Max, trying to hide his surprise. “Obviously it was trying to prevent you from revealing the incantation.”
    “It had your fingerprints all over it. I don’t know why you wanted her killed, but we don’t need to speak more about it now. Magic, especially black magic, has a cost and I predict you will be paying that price for quite a long time.”
    “The important thing now,” sad Max, trying to shrug it off, “is to get you situated at Miskatonic.” He knew she would have no way of proving her allegations, even to the NTA, but why take chances?
    “Let me show you our secret tunnels below this building. Surely you have heard of Pickman?”
    Last edited by eris; June 2, 2015, 00:40.

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  • eris
    The Death of the Hackers by GalaxyNinja

    It had started out like dial-up back in the 1980ís, as the most devious changes do. In the
    backstreets of the alleys where justice had all but been forgotten; corruption was ever present.
    Too bad it didnít stay there.

    The Patriot Act had been abused for years, and then the new president had signed the anti-
    hacker act. It was only for foreigners, he said. Those hacking from other countries, like what
    happened in Sony with Playstation so such a tragedy wouldnít happen again. Or so he said.
    As the weeks and months went by, the bill was changed with a word inserted here, and another
    word recoded there.
    The armed forces that had sworn to uphold the constitution and protect our country had become
    a force of evil, with those who refused to attack their brother hackers being labeled as deserters
    and wiped clean. The stench of death and decay lingered like a bad coding job; the bodies were
    left lying in the streets to rot and swell, and fewer and fewer chose to venture outside of the
    scant comfort of their houses.
    At first, the military was allowed to move in like an anti-virus and ìprotectî whole towns because
    of the bomb threats. Boston, Massachusetts was the first one to gratefully welcome the
    protection from a few vagrant teenagers. Like an old war movie from the WWII era, tanks lined
    the streets daring anyone to oppose them.
    Then, in mid-April of 2015 when the riots began and were not quelled, the Boston Mayor had
    issued another state of emergency. The army of anti-virus' marched in, quickly bringing order
    again where the cops had been struggling.
    A few weeks after that, the hacks had begun. First it was just the main Boston newspapers.
    Then it was the main News on Boston TV. The Guy Fawkes Mask was displayed everywhere
    with the words ìExpect Us.î All eyes were turned to Boston and accusations and hatred towards
    hackers, Anon in particular, spread via Twitter and Facebook, from phone to phone.
    ìItís our freedom of speech that is being attacked!î the people cried.
    Blame was as convenient as a WPS button, and they never considered how quickly and
    methodically everything had been ìhacked.î
    They never noticed that the voices behind the mask that normally cried for ìFreedom!î had no
    message they spread other than ìExpect Us.î
    They refused to listen to those who protested that this was an inside job; all the sheep wanted
    was swift action to ìprotect their rights.î ìKeep our televisions, our internet, our phones safe
    from hackers!î they bleated.
    Much like the crowds almost 2,000 years ago that cried for Jesusí crucifixion, the people from
    the 21st century cried for the hackerís punishment.
    Anyone with a Guy Fawkes Mask was arrested and thrown into Windows 3.1; their houses were
    searched, all electronics seized and their families torn apart.
    Hackers were arrested for no reason, other then the fact they were on the wrong website at the
    wrong time.
    Last year, Defcon was a massive hacking convention filled with fun and pranks and laughter.
    This year it was a much smaller community. But they still came. The government had made its
    point and had control of the people so left Defcon alone. Most of the hackers that were well
    known had been arrested and reformatted into bones, and in honor of the memories of The
    Dark Tangent, Nikita and others, they met to drink and smoke and to try to forget the horrors
    they had seen. It seemed more like a funeral reception than a hacking convention. Or at least
    that is what it looked like to the n00bs on the outside.

    Exabyte shook the rain off his trenchcoat, pushed his fedora up on his head, and
    surveyed the Vegas motel. Although originally Defcon was to be held in both the Paris Hotel and
    Bally's Hotel, it was now being held in just the Ballyís Hotel.
    Finding what he was looking for, Exabyte strolled over to the young man looking at a poster on
    the wall. They both looked at the poster in silence for a moment, and then Exabyte reached into
    his trenchcoat pocket, turned to the young man and said, ìThe trouble with e-cigs is that they
    are not much of an ice breaker.î He took a drag, exhaled the vapor and continued, ìNow back in
    the old days, I could ask if you had a light, or if you wanted a cig. Now? Unless you have one
    too, it is solidary, and not social.î
    The young man looked startled and said, ìI donít smoke.î
    Exabyte raised an eyebrow, took another drag and said, ìwhatís your handle boy?î
    ìHandleís J4CKx. And Iím no boy.î he said.
    "Nice to meet you, Jackie-boy. Iím Exabyte; friends call me Byte. You have a field of specialty?î
    Like an overclocked computer with no cooling system, J4CKx said: ìItís J4CKx! Iím an Elite.
    Jack of All Trades in the computer world. Give me any computer or any challenge, and I will
    solve it.î And he glared at Byte.
    Unimpressed, Byte asked: ìAnd whatíca think of this poster?î
    Still looking at Byte like he was malware, J4CKx replied, ìDo you think itís wise to discuss the
    poster in the open? Eyes and ears are still everywhere.î
    In one deft move, Byte tore the poster from the wall and crumpled it up!
    J4CKx threw a punch at him, but Byte ducked and his fist hit the wall instead.
    Byte grinned, the e-cig still in his mouth, and held out his hand for a shake. ìNice meeting you
    J4CKx. Maybe we will see each other another time. And rememberÖ Itís not always what you
    see, but what you donít see that matters.î
    Byte touched the tip of his hat in a gesture of goodbye, and putting the e-cig back in his
    trenchcoat, strode away whistling the 1812 Overture, like he didnít have a care in the world.
    J4CKx nursed his hand and went over to the tables to play some Blacjack to shut down for a

    Later, back in his room, J4CKx discovered a business card in his pocket.
    It was blank on one side. On the other side, there were what appeared to be random numbers.
    Intrigued, J4CKx grabbed a bottle of scotch and a glass with ice, sat down at the desk he had
    his computer getup on, and propped his feet up on the desk. Taking a sip of the scotch, he
    studied the card. As he looked at the card, he noticed that there were three different types of
    numbers; single digits, double digits and triple digits. Idly stirring the scotch on rocks, J4CKx
    muttered to no one in particular, ìthere is something off about this cardÖî Holding it at arms
    length, he studied it from a few different angles. ìI got it!î he yelled slamming his glass down
    on the desk. Grabbing a notebook and pen from the desk drawer, he wrote down the number
    Then holding the card at an angle, he proceeded to write down the numbers 19, 19, 01, 02, 16,
    25, 12, 07, and 12 that had followed the pattern of the number 23.
    A quick glance at the numbers on the pad had him realizing that it was as easy as cracking
    WEP. It was a simple alpha-numeric substitution cipher where A=1 and B=2 and so on and so forth.
    ìSSABPYLGL,î he muttered. ìBass pglly, balls gapyÖ Ballys! Ballys GPS!î
    Quickly going through a GPS map he had downloaded before the crisis had begun, he searched
    for the latitude and longitude of the Hotel. The text outputted on the terminal "latitude: 36.1138,
    longitude: -115.1708".
    J4CKx glanced at the clock. The military style clock glared back at him with 2300 hrs. ìAn hour
    until midnight,î he mused. ìBut this is no time for sleep. There is a challenge to solve!î Putting
    on a pot of java, he stifled a yawn, emptied the glass with the now watered down scotch into the
    sink, put the bottle on top of the mini fridge and went to take a piss.
    With the aroma of morning at Starbucks filling the apartment, J4CKx sat down again at his desk
    and stared at numbers on the terminal. After a few calculations, he figured that the most logical
    solution would be the IP address on port 1708.
    When he typed the address into the Nona browser, he found a picture of a skull surrounded by
    the words ìThe computer is only as strong as the user.î
    J4CKx downed his first cup of coffee as he downloaded the jpeg file called Top-Hat-Sec for
    further study. Once it was downloaded, he navigated via the terminal to the directory the file was in and
    entered: ìsteghide info Top-Hat-Sec.jpegî
    It outputted the format and size of the jpeg and then asked if he wanted to try to get more
    information about the embedded date. J4CKx hit the y for yes, and it asked him for a
    passphrase. Knowing this was the default question for steghide, J4CKx hit the enter button
    without entering anything.
    The terminal displayed: Embedded file ìenigma.7zî: size: 15.0 ByteÖ
    J4CKx stopped reading and entered ìextract -sf Top-Hat-Sec.jpegî
    When he tried to open enigma.7z, it asked for a password. J4CKx softly chuckled, ìthis is
    getting good.î
    ìEnigmaÖ There has to be a connection between this and the card Byte gave me,î he thought.
    He picked up the business card and studied it again. There were 23 number 23ís. ìWhat the hell
    is up with this number!î J4CKx exclaimed.
    ìWaitÖ I bet thatís itÖî He grabbed another cup of coffee, and started to create a script to
    run all possible variations of the written number Twenty-Three.
    When he was done scripting, he glanced at the clock and discovered it was 0230 hrs.
    J4CKx decided to let the script run against the password and get some shut eye.
    Something told him it would be a busy day tomorrow. Some would argue that tomorrow was
    already here, it being 2:30 in the morning, but J4CKx knew better. It was a well known saying
    around certain circles that ìtomorrow is when you wake up.î

    When he arrived at his hotel room on the 23rdfloor, the first thing Byte did was pull out
    his phone and check the room for bugs.
    His hotel room was nothing fancyÖ old outdated drapes, a bed that had clearly seen its best
    days, and a stale smoke smell that seemed to permeate every corner. A single laptop lay on his
    bed, and he opened it up and proceeded to power it up.
    Bringing up his terminal, he entered a quick command to retrieve the auto keyboard dumps he
    had set up on his own laptop. Sure enough, someone had been in his room earlier messing with
    his laptop. It appeared that they had installed a keylogger on top of His keylogger.
    Byte smiled wryly. ìThe fools! Theyíre as vulnerable as an XP computer.î Typing in a few
    commands, he started his custom script that mimicked a person on the computer. That would
    keep the nosy people out of his hair for a bit. ìYou may have taken away our guns, but we still
    have our keyboards!î
    Going over to where the coffee pot would be plugged in, if the hotel had actually supplied it, he
    stuck his thumb on the bottom outlet.
    With an almost silent ìwhoosh,î a door opened in the wall behind his bed. Byte climbed onto his
    bed and stepping through the doorway, pushed the button on the other side to seamlessly close
    the opening.
    Byte breathed a visible sigh of contentment and relieve. Here was his home!!! The hum of
    electronics, the whirr of fans, the sounds of fingers rapidly typing on keyboards, the sight of cpu
    after cpu and terminal after terminal lining the walls.
    He lifted his hat in a gesture of hello to the vigilantes hard at work and strode over to the door
    that led into his office.
    Once in, he powered up his computer, verified nothing had been tampered with (one could
    never be too careful; power corrupts faster than download speeds of 120mb/sec), and bringing
    up N0N-chat, dialed up his boss, V.
    While he waited for V to answer, Byte laughed bitterly. ìFunny how They arrest people for
    visiting the wrong website, but they canít figure out our video chat,î he thought.
    But this was no Sky-pee Chat. N0N-chat was cleverly disguised to piggyback along with other communications.
    Specifically government conversations.
    To someone who didnít know Exactly what to look for, it just seemed like random
    static. And even if they Did discover the freeloader, they would still have to break the 5 layer
    encryption that was put in place by V.
    ìV, I may have found the greenhorn we have been looking for.î Heís a card shark and he was
    studying the poster pretty intently. I slipped him our business card, so it will be interesting to see
    if he makes it here.î
    The distorted voice behind the Guy Fawkes mask said ìI assume you have done the usual
    checks on him?î
    Byte raised an eyebrow. ìYou know it boss. He uses the Red-Team-Labs Edition of Linux,
    specializes in cryptography, sql injection, cross-site scripting, you name it, he has dabbled in it. I
    think we have a real winner here. Only thing is that he seems a bitÖ uptight. But I think between
    the two of us we can break him out of his shell shock.î
    V laughed low and throaty, ìhahahaha. I see you still have your sense of humor Byte!î
    ìWell V, in a world where the virus is the anti-virus, we need all the humor we can get. Do you
    have another assignment for me at this time?î
    ìYes, but someone seems to have noticed our conversation. Iíll get in contact with you the usual
    way.î And with that, V closed out the video chat.
    Byte glanced at the clock and yawned. ì2300 hrs, time to go for a shutdown. Good luck J4CKxî

    At 0600 hrs. J4CKx woke up. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he stumbled to the
    coffee pot and poured himself a cup of cold bitter brew. Taking a sip, he spit it back into the cup
    and proceeded to make a fresh batch.
    Glancing longingly at the bottle of scotch, J4CKx sat down at the desk that hosted his computer.
    Turning off the screensaver and logging back into his session, he was greeted with a blinking
    curser stating: ìPassword Found: Tw3n7y-Thr3eî
    The 7zip contained a text file with a new IP address and port number. Navigating to the
    address: he found an ascii image displayed that was a copy of the poster
    Byte had torn down. It sported a black and white US style Keyboard, and over the keyboard
    were two miniature Guy Fawkes Masks on the left hand side. They were arranged so only the
    letter V was visible between the two masks. The numbers 1470 stared through the cut out
    ì1470Ö too obvious,î said J4CKx out loud to no-one in particular. ìWhat was it that Byte
    saidÖ? Itís not what you see, but what you donít see. What am I not seeing? What is the text
    behind the picture?î
    ì23, 56 and 89. HmmÖî He lifted his fedora off his head and wiped the sweat that was starting
    to bead on his forehead.
    ìByte better not be messing with my air conditioning,î J4CKx muttered.
    ìI wonderÖî Pulling up Ballyís page, he checked to see how many floors it had.
    The only number that would fit with the level of floor was 23. ìOf course it's 23,î J4CKx
    remarked glaring at his computer. "And according to this article, it was damaged by fire when it
    was the MGM Grand back in 1980."
    Deciding that it was too hot to stay in his room any longer, J4CKx grabbed his laptop and
    trenchcoat and headed out to investigate floor 23.

    J4CKx knocked on the door with the number 89, but no-one answered. So he tried the door.
    Sure enough, it was an open port.
    Stepping inside quickly, he closed the door behind him. The room smelled like stale smoke and
    Byte stepped from the corner he was hanging out in, ìwelcome Jackie-boy, I knew you could
    figure it out. You have any cryptos for me?î
    ìYeah, whatís with the number 23?î J4CKx asked
    ìCongress.î Byte replied. ìWeíve traced the source of the downfall of America to the 23 House
    committees in the Red-Fed.î The sub-committees are just pawns. They have been told exactly
    what bills to pass and what to stop. From there, bending the will of the people is easy. Itís like
    the Vendetta movie, but here in the USA. They blame all hackers; white, grey and black, when
    it is really them who are the virusí and worms.î
    ìHere you need to smoke these.î he said and handed J4CKx a pack of e-cigs.
    ìIím not so sure about thatî J4CKx replied. ìThe only thing smoking should be the Red-Fedís
    cpuís after Iím done with them.î
    ìKid, zip it and just take a puff.î
    J4CKx took a drag and yanked the e-cig out of his mouth. ìWHAT THE HELL????î ìThis thing
    shocked me. And more than once.î
    ìIt ainít gonna hurt you kid,î Byte said.
    ìThatís how V sends us orders. There is a computer chip near the battery. Itís modified to send
    Morse Code through the e-cig when you activate it. Pretty sweet eh?î
    J4CKx nodded and said, ìContinue.î
    ìV and I and our posse have been getting deeper and deeper into this whole situation and we
    now have solid proof as to who called the shots. We are getting close to being ready to
    broadcast this to every television in the nation. But we need your skills. Are you in?î
    ìOh Iím in.î J4CKx said.
    Over the course of the next several days they hacked into all of the different networks
    that supplied entertainment and planted the worm that would cause the shows to display a special message at 6pm each time zone.
    They also hacked into Zmazon and using the government account to pay, they shipped a Guy Fawkes
    mask to every American person in the Zmazon database. Then they went back downstairs to
    play some more cards and enjoy the show.
    At exactly 6pm in each time zone, a classy lady with long blond hair and bright red lips appeared on the television.
    She was the kind of lady that would fry your electronics just by looking at her. ìHello Darlings!î she
    said. ìMy name is Kitty, and I am here to tell you that you have been lied to and your families
    have been torn apart because of these lies.î Images flashed across every TV screen in
    America. They showed the lies that had been told and how the hackers that had been
    slaughtered had been innocent. Well innocent of what they were accused of at least! The show
    concluded with the location of the guilty parties homes, an urge to wear the masks that many would be receiving
    and Kitty blowing a kiss towards the audience.

    ìByte, J4CKx, I would like to meet with you,î V said. ìYou men did good. The fight is not over as
    you know. This is just the first step in our fight back to freedom; going from Windows to Linux.î
    ìI have not personally met V, it will be as exciting as my first SQL breach to finally meet with
    him.î Byte told J4CKx
    Arriving at the designated meeting place, they saw V. He was wearing a long black trenchcoat
    that covered him from his neck down to his boots with a black fedora pulled low over his eyes,
    that shaded his face in obscurity.
    He stood up from his chair and said ìWell done my friend, I knew I could count on you.
    Shall we celebrate?î He asked. ìSure, why not down a few rounds?î both Byte and J4CKx
    replied. Though in reality, all either of them wanted was a hot shower and a long recharging
    As V stepped up to join them, the weariness that both men had felt disappeared. The features
    on Vís face were visibleÖ and it was a distinctly female face. ìThings have just gotten a lot
    more interestingî Byte said, punching J4CKx in the shoulder. ìYou can say that again!î J4CKx
    whispered back. And off they strolled to the sound of Jazz music with their fedoras and
    trenchcoats disappearing into the night until Justice and Freedom needed to be fought for again.

    Leave a comment:

  • eris
    Covert Channels
    Jack W.

    I'd been a hacker for the Man for 23 years. They recruited me the day I walked out of college. They called me a prodigy, graduating at the age of 16.

    I worked 17 hours a day, 6 days a week, most of the time out of a covert site, deep underground. It was loud from the hum of workstations and servers, smoky thanks to my chain smoking coworkers, and often riddled with the familiar smell of sweat. Even the best ventilation system in the world was useless in combating all that smoke and B.O. I didnít mind. In fact, most days I didnít even notice it. I was doing what I loved and getting paid more money than I thought Iíd ever make in my life. In a couple more years Iíll have the pleasure of taking an early retirement, perhaps moving to some secluded and placid island somewhere, and maybe even meeting someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. My only worry will be figuring out where I want to sit on the beach while sipping tequila and watching the incandescent red and orange hues that make up the sunset.

    But up until now, work was my life and cracking code was how I got my high. I was extremely focused on decrypting some hypothetically unbreakable code when she walked into my life; young, beautiful and smart. My boss walked her right over to my cubicle. At first, I didnít even notice, I was so lost in my work.

    Um, Cas, you busy?î I look up, initially pissed, because any idiot could see I was in the zone. Then I saw her. I swear I had never been so obviously and embarrassingly affected by the appearance of another. She was tall and slender. She wore her raven hair in a tight ponytail, no makeup and these black, cat-like glasses. Despite her best efforts, she couldnít hide how beautiful she was. ìCas, this is Mai. Sheís starting today over in Crypto, but Iím taking her around to meet the crew before she gets settled in.î

    I sat there, silent, taking in her beauty, trying to think of something smart to say. Finally, she broke the awkward silence. She reached out her hand and said in this rich, almost smoky voice, ìItís a pleasure to meet you. Wallace says youíre the best cracker on his team.î I tried to wipe the sweat inconspicuously from my palm and took her hand. She shook firmly, like someone who was strong and confident.

    No, no, no,î Wallace argued. ìI didnít say he was the best, though I may have said he was a wizard of sorts.î

    With the awkward silence broken, I think I finally remembered to breathe. ìThanks pal. Iíll remember that the next time you need something yesterday.î

    ìSo you are his ëgo toí guy, so to speak?î Did I detect a slight accent?

    ìOnly when itís an emergency and he wants the job done right. Like the time when a roamer got into the Defence network...î

    ìOkay Cas, need to know, remember?î Wallace interrupted. ìCome on Mai, let me introduce you to the rest of the crew before this guy gives up all the Stateís secrets.î

    I stared at her as they walked away. She turned to me and just smiled. My heart jumped and I was hooked.


    Iíd been sitting there for hours, staring at my screen. I couldnít get the sight of her smiling back at me out of my head. This unbreakable code was going to remain unbreakable unless I got my focus back. I took a gulp of cold, stale coffee, shut my eyes and took a deep breath. I put my fingers on the keyboard and slowly opened my eyes. I stared at the code and my fingers started to move. The magic was slowly coming back.

    ìWhy are you still here?î I jumped from the sound of her voice. She was right behind me. ìDo you always work this late?î

    ìAhem, yeah,î I finally choked out. ìI like my work.î

    I swiveled my chair around and looked up at her. Unbelievably, she looked even more beautiful than before. Sheíd let her hair down, and added some lip gloss. Her glasses were on top of her head now, holding her long dark hair out of her face. She looked at me with the darkest eyes Iíd ever seen. In a word, she was perfect.

    ìI like my work too, but a girlís gotta have a life. Want to go grab a beer or something? Iíd love to pick your brain and get the dirt on this place.î

    I gulped and hoped it wasnít too obvious. Last time I had a drink with a girl...well, itís been a while.
    ìUm, okay. Give me ten minutes to wrap up a couple things and Iíll swing by Crypto to pick you up.î

    ìThatís okay, Iíll be back in ten and pick YOU up.î She smiled and whirled away.

    I turned back to my screen. Who was I kidding? I wasnít going to get anything else accomplished in the next ten minutes. I answered a couple long overdue emails and waited anxiously for her to return.


    The bar we walked to was a couple blocks away. She was mostly silent as we walked through the misty rain that had started to fall. I tried not to be too obvious when Iíd glance in her direction as we walked through the drizzle.

    ìSo, where are we going?î she finally asked.

    ìThis place I like to go to sometimes to unwind before going home for the night. Itís quiet, but they have good food and soothing music.î

    ìThat sounds good, I hate having to shout over loud music and people.î

    ìThen youíll love this place.î

    We walk into Lockheedís Bar and Grill and thereís maybe a dozen people scattered around, mostly couples. I realize this is the first time Iíve come here with someone. I usually sit at the bar, but this time I look for the perfect table. Then Iím almost startled when she grabs my hand and takes me over to a small table by the window. It was perfect.

    A waiter comes over and takes our order. She asks for vodka on the rocks and I get my usual tequila.

    ìSo tell me everything about yourself Cas,î she says.

    ìWell, the short version is Iíve been working at the agency for about 23 years, mostly doing what I do now.î

    ìCome on, Cas, there has to be more to your story than that. How many hearts have you broken?î She looks at me with the wry smile, almost like she knows what Iím about to say.

    ìNone. I work, I sleep and, occasionally, I have too much to drink. Tell me about you.î

    She looks away and pauses. At that moment the waiter brings us our drinks. She looks at me and smiles. ìThereís not much to say either. I graduated from the University 7 years ago, I travelled for 2 years, and went to work for a bank for 3 years after that. An agency recruiter contacted me and asked me if Iíd be interested in becoming an analyst. It sounded intriguing, so I accepted.î

    ìSo howíd you end up in our group?î

    ìIíve always been good with numbers and puzzles, so I took some classes in cryptography. I was a natural at it. When I got my masterís someone at the agency noticed and the offered me the job in Crypto.î

    There was definitely a faint accent, but I couldnít place it. I took a sip of my drink and asked another question. ìTravelled for two years after school? I guess you didnít have any student loans to pay off.î

    She looked awkwardly down at her drink and ran her finger around the glass. She looked back up at me and smiled again. ìI met someone in college. Frankly, he came from a lot of money and asked me to come with him. It seemed like a good idea at the time.î

    ìWhat happened?î

    She took a long sip from her glass. ìI came back to our room one day and caught him in bed with two women. I cried and screamed at him, but he only laughed. I packed my things and went home.î

    ìOh, sorry.î

    She reached across the table and took my hand. ìIt was a long time ago.î

    We continued to drink and talk. She got me to open up more and more as the night went on to the early morning hours. She was so easy to talk to.

    I looked up at the clock on the wall and it was nearly 2 AM. I realized we were the only two customers left in the place. I also realized I was pretty drunk.

    ìWell, I think I better head home. I have to be back in the office in a few hours.î

    ìWhere do you live?î she asked.

    ìNot far, just a few blocks from here. Iíd usually walk, but I think Iíll probably take a cab tonight.î

    She stretched her arms above her head and I couldnít help but stare at her. I cleared my throat. ìSo, um, where are you heading?î

    She looked at her watch. ìUnfortunately, I donít live a close as you do. Iím afraid I have a long way home.î

    ìWell, you can crash at my place.î Did I just say that? ìI, um, have a really comfortable couch.î

    ìThatís really sweet, Cas. Would you mind?î

    ìI insist.î My heart was almost pounding out of my chest. I actually was afraid sheíd be able to hear it.


    We walk into my apartment and I point to my couch. ìUm, there it is. Iíll get you some pillows and sheets.î

    I feel her hand on my cheek and she turns my face toward hers. We lock eyes and she gives me the warmest, most passionate kiss I can remember.

    She asks me, ìwhereís your bedroom.î

    All I can do is point. She takes me by the hand and leads me to my room.


    I wake up to the smell of coffee and see how bright it is outside. Iím usually up before dawn. I look at the clock and itís past 10:00. Mai walks in my room wearing one of my hacker con t-shirts with two mugs of coffee.

    I shoot up out of bed, ìShit, Iím late! Theyíre going to be calling me.î

    ìThey already did,î Mai said as she sat down on my bed. She reached out with one of the mugs to hand it to me. ìI told them I was your sister and you werenít feeling well so you wouldnít be in today.î

    ìAnd they bought that?î

    She nodded, ìUm hum,î took a sip of her coffee and sat it down on the nightstand. She slid down to rest her head on the pillow and looked at me with wanting eyes and said, ìNow come back to bed.î


    Hours later we sat at my kitchen table. Iíd made us some breakfast, even though it was now afternoon. We chatted about our hopes and dreams, I filled her in on some of the office gossip.

    Then she asks me, ìSo what are you working on?î

    ìWell, I really canít talk about it, especially here.î

    ìWhy? Do you really think someone is listening?î

    ìNo, itís just that I canít. Iím sorry but itís need to knowÖî

    ìAnd I donít need to know. I get it.î She wipes her mouth and gets up from the table, noticeably angry.

    I watch her walk away and canít help but admire how beautiful she looks in my old t-shirt. I pause a moment and get up and follow her out of the kitchen into my bedroom. Sheís already changed into her clothes and is sitting on the bed putting her boots on. ìMai, donít be like that. You know how it is.î

    ìYes, I know how it is,î she says in a huff.

    ìMai, I could lose my job, my clearance.î I sit next to her on the bed.

    She turns to me and says, ìWho am I going to tell? I canít believe you donít trust me after all weíve shared.î

    ìI do! Itís just thatÖî I swallow hard, ìOkay, fine. The other side has a new zero day that Iíve been trying to reverse engineer. Itís the most sophisticated software Iíve ever seen, but Iím close, really close to cracking it.î

    She looks at me and seems genuinely interested. ìTell me about it.î

    And I do. I tell her everything Iíve uncovered to break the code. She seems to be soaking it all in, nodding and smiling. She actually gets what Iím talking about which just excites me, so I just keep talking and talking telling her all Iíve done. When Iím done, I realize Iíve been talking for over two hours and at no point did she look bored and lost.

    ìThatís amazing, Cas. When do you think youíll have it cracked?î

    ìI thought Iíd be done today, but Iíve been otherwise occupied.î

    Mai grinned and looked down. ìYeah, sorry about that.î She looked at her watch and her eyes widened, ìDamn, Iím supposed to meet a realtor about getting a new place closer to work in like 20 minutes.î

    ìGo ahead. Iíll be right here.î

    ìIím sorry, I hate to run out, but she told me she may have found the perfect place for me.î

    ìDonít worry about it Mai, goî

    She kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hand. ìThank you, Cas. Youíre a really nice guy.î She lept up and nearly sprinted from my apartment.

    ìYouíre welcome?î I whisper to myself as the door slams behind her.


    Iím in the shower when I hear a noise from the other room. I turn off the show and call out, ìMai? That you?î

    My bathroom door crashes in and men in full tactical gear are pointing guns at me and screaming to get on the floor.

    ìSo thatís it. Thatís everything,î I tell the two guys in suits sitting across from me at the table Iím cuffed to.

    One says, ìSo, this ëMai,í you donít know where she is now.î

    ìNo, she was going to meet her realtor. Thatís all she told me.î

    They look at each other and the other guy says, ìSheís long gone. Probably half way around the world by now.î

    ìWhat are you talking about? Sheís with the agency. Sheís been with us for years.î

    ìSheís been with us for less than a year and you spilled your guts to her about everything youíve been working on. Sheís a mole Cas and she got you chirping like a bird after a night in the sack.î

    ìNo way, thatís not right.î

    ìItís right all right. Weíve been watching her for a month.î

    ìWait, how can this be? How could she have gotten into my group?î

    ìShe hacked her way in, forged her orders. We didnít even know sheíd done it until we heard you two love birds chatting last night.î

    ìHeard us? Howíd you hear us?î

    Both the suits laughed, ìWeíve got all you guys bugged. You canít take a crap without us hearing it. But donít worry Cas, youíll probably only get 10 years, maybe less with good behavior.î

    ìTen years! But Iíve been a model employee for 23 years! All I did was talk to a girl I thought liked me.î

    ìYeah, well you talked too much. State secrets Cas. The only reason youíre not going to be charged with treason is because you HAVE been a good employee. Youíre getting off easy, trust me.î

    I feel sick. I really thought there was something there. I thought Iíd met that person I wanted to sit on the beach with for the rest of my life.

    Leave a comment:

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

    KAIA M L.
    6th April 2015

    PART I

    ASIO slowly pulled her laced fingers apart, revealing her glowing monitor. It was just an Orinco cam-server hack - if you could even call it that. She couldn't feel guilty about it if she tried.
    But even as she read the lines of code on the screen, the pain started behind her eyes, building in her front temple into what she knew would quickly become a whopping sledgehammer of a headache.
    How the hell did the damn beta reader know what she was doing?
    She clicked the browser window closed and stared balefully at the bracelet on her left wrist as the pain started to subside. She was convinced it was a fraud. They were probably monitoring her with a dozen other technologies - hidden cameras, bugs, keystroke loggers... but if they were, she couldn't find any evidence of it.
    Since the day little Stephanie Kelston first grew passionate about technology, she was sure they'd been watching her. And as she grew up to be an anonymous voice on IRC, then a contributor to the ComSec community and finally, found her identity as ASIO (named after the audio protocol, not the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation), those hidden eyes had kept trained to her, watching her learn, watching her explore and discover. And of course, finally those hidden eyes had become visible eyes, attached to angry faces attached to angry people in dark suits who didn't seem to have any sense of humour at all.
    And so now, here she was, in her own house, in her own bedroom, 23 and chemically castrated by a wrist band that somehow knew when she was thinking about performing even the slightest illegal (read: fun) act.
    She sighed and looked at her computer. She supposed she should be more terrified than she actually felt. How long had it been now? Three weeks? Four? Two months? Her time inside was blurry and she was pretty sure that was intentional too.
    As it was explained to her, the band read her brain waves, recognised the ones that corresponded with her 'illicit activity' and released a counter wave of high frequency sound that disrupted her brain waves and caused the shitty headaches.
    But she was sure they were making half of that up. They'd never tell her how it really worked - otherwise she'd have countered it by now.
    She'd tried creating nodes - blind spots where audio waves cancelled each other out - using different frequencies across as much of the spectrum as she had the patience to try - nothing. And that should have worked if it really did work on infrasound. She tried making a tinfoil hat - seriously, actually tried that. Didn't make any difference. It was possible the band released some kind of drug into her bloodstream - it was tight and often ached, so it could be connected to her skin, she supposed. The whole thing was sealed in rubber like those awful fitness bands everyone had these days, so you couldn't get in and explore. And yes, even thinking about getting into it caused those pain-behind-the-eyes headaches.
    She let out a noise of frustration and swung her chair away from the computer, rising in a fluid motion that led her into a handstand. She tended to think better upside down. She looked up at her computer, her dark fringe dropping across her face. She tilted her head. How did she get out of this jam? How did she work around it? She could always work around a problem. That's what problems were for.
    Her computer sat on her desk, quietly glowing blue, then purple, then blue again, giving her nothing.
    She hand-walked over to her bed and threw herself on to it, landing with her head on the pillow. So frustrating. She steepled her fingers in front of her face and looked at the black wrist band with hatred.
    "I'm going to destroy you."
    She thought she felt a certain smug vibe coming off it as if it were thinking in return, go ahead - you enjoy pain?
    Her phone rang five times before she couldn't stand it any longer. She rolled on to her side, the phone under her ear.
    "ASIO." The voice on the other end was robotic. Masked?
    "Yes," she said cautiously.
    "Come to the Coop. I can help you." The phone went dead. The Coop was what the locals called the town's most popular internet cafe. The neon sign over the entrance read Co-Op but The Coop better summed up the battery-hen phalanx of gamers who went there for the cheap hourly rates and the high-spec machines.
    ASIO was curious. She'd already been caught, already been tagged and released. It was unlikely it was a trap. She might as well go see who the robot was.

    Co-op was located in Tokyotown where the damp cobbled streets reflected the glow of paper lanterns and sizzling neon signs. ASIO ducked into the entrance and entered the fug. Even with air-con running non-stop, the atmosphere was close. Booming industrial music smashed into her as she made her way to the counter and presented her loyalty card.
    The guy on the desk was new. His name badge read 'Mudge'. He punched in her digits then looked up at her face. "ASIO?" he asked.
    She nodded.
    He pointed to the narrow staircase that ran up one side of the crowded room. He handed her back her card and she traipsed up the stairs to the upper level.
    Here there were no speakers, just the steady throb of the music under her feet. This was where the private machines were - the ones where you ran your session off your own bios. These machines were the only machines at the Coop with USB ports, CD drives and SD card readers.
    Posters on the walls advertised DEF CON 23, the premium hacker's conference held every year in Vegas. She didn't think she'd make it this year. Not wearing this thing.
    She strolled from booth to booth, looking for someone who might be looking for her. Most of them were empty - a couple of guys she knew by reputation, a girl she used to date (awkward) and then a guy she had definitely never seen before.
    He was wearing a fedora. He swivelled his chair towards her as she approached and steepled his hands in a gesture that reminded her of a Bond villain. He was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a long black coat.
    "ASIO," he said. A statement - not a question. She pulled a chair over and sat beside him.
    "You rang?"
    He grinned. "I love your accessory." He indicated her wrist band with a nod.
    "Yeah, me too. Rumour has it, you might be able to take it off."
    The guy extended a hand. "Name's Vex. And I'm certainly keen to try."
    She shook his hand, looking intently into his eyes in an attempt to gauge his agenda.
    "Shall we go somewhere more conducive to clandestine orchestrations of a Machiavellian nature?" he asked.
    She raised an eyebrow. "Sure. Cafe next door's quieter."
    "Lead the way." He slung a black laptop bag over his shoulder and followed her outside.
    The Golden Horse cafe offered a blend of Asian and European cuisine, clean and quiet and just a little too expensive to be packed out.
    Vex dropped his laptop bag on to a table in a private booth and ASIO slid on to the bench seat opposite. Moments later, a pot of steaming green tea and two china bowls were bought to their table.
    As they sipped their tea, Vex pulled a sketch pad out of his laptop bag.
    "What's that for?"
    He opened the pad and slid it towards her. The drawing was of a man, short brown hair, dark eyebrows beetled together over even darker eyes. She knew the face. Couldn't remember the name.
    "Do you know this man?" Vex asked her.
    She nodded. "He's one of the guys who put this thing on me."
    He flipped over the page. This time a woman's face, fine, arched eyebrows and pale eyes. Her expression - pure bitch.
    "Yeah, she was there too."
    Vex closed the sketch pad. "Good. I was afraid I'd imagined them." He sipped his tea and she noticed his hand was shaking.
    "What did they do to you?" she asked.
    Vex smiled darkly. "What they did to you, I suspect. Only they used their nefarious technoevil to take away my art."
    ASIO's mouth dropped open. That was evil. She glanced at his wrist where his band should be, his long coat falling away from his hand as he drank his tea. No band. Just... a red mark. Like a burn. All the way around.
    "Oh God." She put a hand to her mouth.
    He looked at her with eyes liquid with sympathy. "I don't recommend doing it the way I did it - painful is not analogous of the agony I inflicted on myself. But I think I understand how it works. And I think I can get yours off - hopefully without burning out all the nerve endings in your wrist, as I did to mine."
    ASIO took his hand and ran her thumb over the scar. The scar. Tears welled in her eyes.
    "Hey, hey, don't do that!" Gently he took his hand back and flourished an actual handkerchief for her to dab her eyes.
    She took it, and keeping her eyes fixed to his, dried her tears.
    "Keep it," he said. "It's going to be a long night."
    She bunched it in her hand and sipped her tea.
    "What do you remember?" he asked. "Start from the beginning."
    She thought back. Trying to find the beginning was like trying to find the end of a piece of thread.
    "I think," she said hesitantly, "that they were always watching. For all I know, I've been talking to them in IRC for years. There was one guy - called himself Nincada - he was putting together that DDoS on Orinco's site as payback for that little kid that got killed by one of their trucks out in Maine - and he was looking for people to distribute disguised LOIC links. He asked me - I said no, one because I think DDoSing is lame, and two, I don't think we should trick people into doing things that can get them into trouble."
    Vex nodded. "Pretty sure I came across the same guy, same plan, only on our channel he was calling himself Ninjask."
    "Well, I didn't think anything of it, only he pinged me a few days after the attack and asked me if I wanted to take part in something else. Something bigger. Something that'd have more impact.
    "I said sure - if he had a good plan, I might be interested. He suggested we do some SE and get inside Orinco proper. I have to admit, it was a daring plan and he'd thought it through. Instead of phishing their employees though, he wanted to do an actual on-premise collection - actually go in there, posing as admins and get what we needed.
    "I was... intrigued. I'd never done that before. He said he had and it was the quickest way in. He had some codes that'd get us through the card readers on the doors - then it was just a case of rocking up and collecting passwords.
    "We were going to take down the cameras first - they were using unsecured IP cams with hard-coded admin passwords - then wander in, maybe even on the premise of shoring up their security and see if we could get access to anything we could use to bring them down. It sounded exciting. A spy mission. Everyone has secrets."
    She drained the last of her tea and realised she was also shaking.
    Vex poured her another cup and she inhaled the steam for a moment before going on.
    "I drove out to their HQ in Nevada. I drove out to where he said their HQ was in Nevada."
    "I know the place," said Vex. He opened the sketch pad to another page and there it was. The gated cluster of buildings bleached beige by the desert sun, the windows dark, giving nothing away.
    She swallowed hard and whispered, "Jesus. So I drove up. Parked my car in the lot and waited for him. He showed up wearing a suit - I just went casual 'cause you know, we're in IT - why would we dress up? Anyway, he swipes us in and we head for the front door. Then we're inside and then - then-" she stopped, her mouth suddenly dry, her hands trembling.
    "They injected me with something and they took my clothes."
    She put her head in her hands and sobbed. Vex got up and slipped into the seat beside her, placing an arm wordlessly around her shoulders.
    "They did things to me, I know they did, but I don't remember - just - feeling violated."
    She looked up at Vex. "Why did they do this to us?"
    Vex took his arm back and put his hands on the table. He examined them as he spoke.
    "It was mostly a blur, wasn't it. They take your clothes to take away your power - your sense of self. Your dignity. I know they didn't let me sleep. There was noise - it's all vague now, I just remember wishing so badly it would stop and banging my head against the wall till my nose bled. And I remember those people - those faces - but I don't remember how it all fits together."
    She looked at him, numb with horror. "Why have I been okay with this?" she asked. I've been sitting in my room, playing I guess - gaming, chatting on Facebook, seeing what I can and can't do with this thing on my wrist - but I've just accepted it."
    Vex got up and went back to the other side of the table, giving her space before she realised she needed it.
    "I don't know what they want," he said. If it was a government agency, why trap you? From your own account of events, you don't seem to have been doing anything malicious until they took you out to Nevada. You say you think they were always watching you - before you were on IRC, before you learned to code - do you think they were watching you then?"
    "Yes," she whispered. "But it's just a feeling. I never got a message saying the Matrix had me."
    Vex touched the black band on her wrist. "This thing isn't what they told us it was. It doesn't emit infrasound when triggered and it seems to have been physically grafted to the skin. I don't think it's even rubber."
    She looked down at it and just the thought of ripping the thing off gave her a stabbing pain behind her eyes.
    "Try not to worry about it," said Vex. "I know how much those headaches hurt. But I will help you get it off."
    ASIO stroked it with her finger, irrationally trying to soothe it so it'd stop defending itself. "How did you take off yours?"
    Vex unconsciously touched the scar that ran around his wrist, tracing his finger over the ridge of red skin.
    "Acid. It melts when you apply hydrochloric acid, almost as if it's rubber. But there's nothing inside it. There's no tech, no metal even, nothing I could recognise. But inside that solid part there-" he shuddered and shut his eyes, "-inside there's something like flesh, but it isn't human. What I saw wasn't part of me. And when I melted it, it - it screamed inside my head."
    ASIO stared at him, mouth open. She put her head in her hand.
    "What are you saying?" she said in a low voice. "Are you saying it's alive?"
    Vex looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. He looked exhausted. "I've been trying to tell myself that it was more mind-fuckery - that they somehow planted that image there while they were brainwashing me to stop me doing what I did. I tried to convince myself that what I saw and heard was just a horrible nightmare. But I just can't lie to myself. Yes, it's alive."
    ASIO suddenly felt the need to throw up. The smell of food was too much.
    Vex threw his sketch pad into his bag.
    "Let's get out of here."
    They fled to the street, leaving a perplexed server behind them.


    They moved through the night crowds with ease. Tokyotown was a haven for the new punk movement, an ocean of Steampunk and Harajuku fashion, streaked with flashes of brightly coloured hair, body paint, glittering costumes and body mods.
    In this part of town, age, gender and sometimes it seemed - species - were fluid. Fluid and irrelevant. The community accepted everyone, and it was the one part of the city where ASIO felt at home.
    She led Vex through the streets, up an alleyway and into the mini replica Koyasan shrine at the back of a Buddhist temple. The shrine was a cataclysm of concrete arches and gravestones, tumbled together like the wreckage from an earthquake.
    It was fashioned after the original Koyasan shrine in Japan and backed on to a hill that led up to a public park. Fine mist coiled around the bottoms of the arches and snaked across the steps.
    "Nice place," Vex said with awe in his voice.
    ASIO walked up to the first set of stairs and balanced on her hands, teasing at the fog tendrils.
    "I like it here."
    "Doesn't doing that make you want to throw up again?" Vex asked, bending over to try and see her face.
    She turned and let her legs drop to the path below the steps, coming back to her feet.
    "Oddly, no."
    She brushed dirt off her hands and sat on the steps.
    "Show off." Vex sat next to her.
    "So what do you remember?" she asked him. "Do you know why they did this to us? I was just assuming it was some new high-tech way of stopping cyber crime. But you're not like me, are you?" she asked.
    Vex shook his head. "Well, I'm not a criminal, if that's what you're asking."
    ASIO looked at him curiously. "What are you then?"
    "I used to work for a government department in their ComSec division."
    "And you still got tagged? Why would they do that? Did you put in a request to go to DEF CON?"
    Vex gave a small, humourless laugh. "Yeah, that would not have gone down well."
    "We could use their help about now."
    "Except, Nevada." He had a point.
    "No, I think this was an attempt to avoid Team Edward: The Return of Snowdon."
    "Go Vex," said ASIO, admiration in her voice. "The people's champion."
    He shook his head. "I asked one question. It was more of a joke than anything. I asked 'Is this, strictly speaking, legal'. Next thing I know, I'm waking up in that bunker."
    "That's messed up. It just seems weird that a government agency would overreact like that."
    "True. Not like them at all."
    They sat in silence for a moment in the cool of the shrine, the muffled murmur of the city streets a comforting backdrop.
    "So," Vex broke the silence. "Do you want me to help you get rid of that thing?"
    ASIO got to her feet. "No. No, I want to know who did this, why they did it and I want to stop them ever doing it again."
    She put out a hand and helped Vex to his feet. He studied her carefully.
    "You do know that they likely know all about this conversation?"
    ASIO shook her head. "No, I don't think they do. This thing, sure it can affect my biology somehow, but from what you've told me, it's organic - I'm willing to bet it can't affect anything it's not attached to. More than that, I checked for all forms of surveillance at home and found nothing - so unless they have a drone following us-"
    The both looked around nervously. No drone.
    "Then I think we're safe. This is an experiment of some kind. Why else would they let you take off - or kill - your band?"
    Vex considered this. "Don't you think if they have the means to do this, they might have other means of surveillance we're not aware of?"
    ASIO shook her head again. "They always do this. They always control with fear and assumptions. They figured out how to do a clever thing - whip-de-do. But you escaped it. It can be done. At this point in my life I have very little to lose. They can't just kill off activists because they don't like us trying to change the world."
    Vex narrowed his eyes. "I did find it odd that they stymied my artistic endeavours. That seemed unusually cruel."
    "You can draw what happened to you from memory. That's probably why. Whatever. We need to know more. How many other people have these bands - do you know?"
    Vex shook his head. "I don't even know how I found you. After I took off the band, I was jobless and homeless. I got in my car and just drove. I ended up here - saw the neon Co-op sign as I walked past and went in. It's as if I was drawn here."
    "That's kinda creepy," said ASIO.
    "Do you realise that Co-op's address is 599?" Vex asked.
    ASIO shrugged. "And?"
    Vex flushed. "Probably nothing. But did you know your phone number was 022-555-1003?"
    "Yeeees. It's my phone number."
    Vex continued to look embarrassed. "It's just that all the numbers add up to 23."
    ASIO's gaze hardened. "You are kidding me?"
    "Don't you think it's a bit late in the day to be dismissing any kind of conspiracy theory?" he asked.
    "If you tell me directed energy weapons took down the twin towers and there were no planes, then no, it's not too late."
    Vex snorted. "Hardly. Although nine plus eleven does equal 23."
    ASIO glared at him. "No, it doesn't."
    "It does if you add three to it."
    ASIO folded her arms.
    "Okay, that was a joke. But do you know how I found you? I programmed an app to dial every variant of 23 across all common local cellphone prefixes and ask for ASIO."
    ASIO stared at him, disbelieving. "How long were you waiting for me?"
    "Three days, I think," he said. "But don't you see?"
    For the first time that evening, ASIO felt the chill of the breeze. She shivered and hugged herself.
    "And do you know what the date is?"
    She shook her head wearily as she figured it out. "The third of the 3rd month in 2015."
    ASIO did the maths. "23," she said tonelessly. "How did you know to ask for me?"
    "Are you sure you want to know?" Vex asked.
    She nodded. She knew he was going to tell her anyway.
    "I remembered it. From that facility out in the desert."
    "You saw me?" ASIO hugged herself closer. The idea of him seeing her naked and vulnerable horrified her.
    "ASIO - Stephanie - you may not remember, but we were friends in there, of a kind. I don't remember much, but I have images - snapshots."
    "Did you draw me?" she asked in a tiny voice.
    Vex nodded. "I wanted to remember your face, in case we ever met again."
    "Just my face?"
    He nodded. "I'm not a monster."
    She breathed out shakily and drew herself together.
    "I want to try something," she said.
    "Anything. I'll do what I can to help."
    She held up her left wrist. "I want to talk to it."


    They went back to ASIO's apartment. Vex sat on ASIO's bed while ASIO sat at her computer, the ever changing LEDs sweeping waves of colour over her face as she stared intently at the screen.
    "You said it screamed when it felt pain," she said over her shoulder to Vex. "Somehow, I need to make it understand that it needs to communicate or it'll die."
    Vex looked troubled. "I'm not sure it has that kind of intelligence."
    ASIO keyed a string of characters into a search box and pulled up the results.
    "Okay. You said hydrochloric acid ate through your band. Somehow, I need the thing to understand my intent to do the same."
    "We could get some acid," Vex suggested.
    "If I directly threaten it, it lashes out. I need to approach it logically. This might be reaching, but I think maybe if I can visualise the molecular structure of hydrochloric acid as it reacts with living tissue, I might-"
    She broke off. She could feel it. Just as she'd imagined she'd felt smugness radiating from it when she'd thought of destroying it, she now felt something she could only describe as 'caution'.
    "You understand, don't you," she breathed.
    Vex got off the bed and knelt by her chair, both of them staring at the black band.
    "Tell me you understand that I can kill you," she said to it softly.
    For a moment she had a hysterical out of body vision, floating above, looking down at the two of them watching the band intently, like parents waiting for a foetus to kick.
    A faint blue glow appeared on the face of the thicker part of the band.
    "You said there was no tech inside these things," said ASIO.
    "There wasn't," said Vex. "I think that light is organic."
    They watched as the light slowly resolved into a hollow circle.
    "I think that's 'yes'," said Vex.
    The circle slowly pulsed once.
    ASIO became aware that she was barely breathing and gulped in a lungful of air.
    "What do you want to ask it?" Vex asked. "Yes and no answers don't make for insightful conversation."
    ASIO thought for a long moment. "I wonder if it has a concept of good and bad," she mused.
    As if in response, the circle pulsed once.
    "Don't get smart with me," she said, irritated. "A wrist band can't comprehend the construction of a moral code."
    The circle faded, leaving the rubber-like face of the band dark.
    Vex looked up at ASIO. "I think it's sulking!"
    ASIO caught his excitement, then shuddered as she remembered what Vex had done to his. It seemed that a moment later the same thing dawned on him. He moved back to the bed, a look of shock on his face.
    "You didn't know," ASIO said gently.
    The band began to glow again. The circle reappeared.
    "We can't change the past," ASIO said to Vex. "But it wants to communicate. Maybe it knows why it's here."
    The circle faded and became a line.
    "Is that a 'no'?" ASIO asked it. The circle reappeared and pulsed once.
    "But you do have a purpose?" she asked it.
    A pulse.
    "To stop me breaking the law?"
    The circle pulsed.
    Vex swallowed hard and came back to kneel on the floor.
    "Are the people who made you good?"
    The circle remained solid.
    "Maybe that's too hard to answer," ASIO said. "Maybe it has no way of knowing."
    "Or maybe they didn't make it," Vex added.
    The circle pulsed.
    ASIO thought she understood. "You weren't made?" she asked
    The circle became a line.
    "It really is alive," said Vex. "A living thing from God knows where, used to enforce laws - it makes no sense."
    "An experiment," ASIO said. "This has all the hallmarks of a group of people trying something out. All we need is a bunch of Nazi scientists and the circle's complete."
    "If they didn't make this thing, then where is it from?" Vex said, more to himself than to ASIO.
    "Are you from Earth?" ASIO asked. The circle pulsed. She stared at it in frustration. If it hadn't been made, then it must be lying. It either had been made and was in denial, or it was from somewhere else.
    Vex suddenly started out of deep thought. "Are you from another Earth?" he asked.
    The circle pulsed.
    ASIO's mouth went dry. "A parallel universe, are you kidding me?"
    Vex shrugged. "For all we know, the thing's giving random answers. All we know for certain is that it doesn't want to die."
    The circle pulsed.
    ASIO had one more question. "Will you let me go?"
    The circle became a line.
    "Perhaps it's symbiotic," he suggested and a single pulse of the circle agreed.


    They questioned the band until they were both exhausted. It was only after they lay down to sleep that ASIO realised they'd reached the limit of their endurance after precisely 23 questions.

    She woke, still fully clothed, as the first grey fingers of light slipped between the curtains, and checked the time. 6.17am.
    She sighed and gathered together some clothes, heading for the bathroom while Vex slept. Under the rush of steam and hot water, she realised the band's face was showing a solid circle.
    "You're up early," she muttered, getting a pulse in reply. Although the thing could have been being literal, she got a strange sense it was laughing at her.
    They'd established the night before that it was willing to stop torturing ASIO when she tried to do things that were technically illegal. Well, once they'd explained the potential motives of the people who'd attached it to her.
    They'd also established that it would die if it were to detach, although it intimated it could do that of its own free will if it wanted to. ASIO imagined it was like a limpet clinging to a rock, somehow deriving some life-giving essence from her biology. They'd tried different words, attempting to narrow down what that something was, but 'essence' was the closest word the thing could agree on.
    And then they'd named it Brane, a reference to String theory, after Vex joked that the thing probably came from a universe that was constructed from 23 dimensions.
    The being, she thought. It's a being, not a thing. It's sentient. I don't have the right language for something like this.
    She finished her shower and dressed, emerging from the bathroom to find Vex furiously typing.
    "What are you doing?"
    He answered without looking up. "They have to be observing you somehow. An experiment isn't an experiment without observation."
    "Even old Brane here doesn't think so," she said doubtfully, although she had to agree, to not observe made no sense.
    Vex stopped typing and threw his hands in the air.
    "I don't understand. I can't find anything." He stared at the monitor in frustration, then after a thoughtful pause, pulled up her email.
    "Do you mind?" he asked. She shrugged.
    He glanced through her incoming mail, then clicked on her outbox.
    "I don't believe it. Look at this."
    She bent to look over his shoulder. Dozens of emails, all to the same address. The subject lines all contained the same text. "Stephanie Kelston (ASIO) Report"
    Vex opened one and they scanned the contents. A few words about her mood and activities. Each email had a spreadsheet attached which contained a bunch of metrics such as temperature, blood pressure and observations about sleep patterns.
    On a hunch, Vex pulled open her desk drawer. There nestled a collection of tools - including a glucose metre and a blood pressure monitor. They both stared.
    "Makes sense, I suppose," Vex muttered. "I guess that's why they brainwashed us. You don't remember sending these I take it?"
    ASIO shook her head.
    "I'm betting I was doing the same without realising it. At least we know they've been relying on self-reporting. That means it should be easy to drop off their radar."
    "All I need to do is keep sending these reports and I guess they'll leave me alone. If I get out of town and make sure I cover my tracks, I should be able to get far enough away that they can't physically come after me."
    "Become the next Bruce Banner."
    "What are you trying to say?" She grinned.
    "They wouldn't like you when you're angry."
    ASIO realised the face of the band was blinking. "You want to say something, Brane?" she asked. The circle pulsed.
    "Great. Now we have to figure out the question it wants to answer," she said.
    "That's just putting us in Jeopardy," Vex joked.
    ASIO blinked. Vex cleared his throat.
    "Brane, do they have another way of tracking ASIO?" Vex asked, addressing the band as had become habit.
    A line appeared.
    "But you want to warn us of something?" he persisted.
    The circle appeared and pulsed.
    "They will come after me?" she asked.
    The circle pulsed. ASIO thought she could feel concern emanating from the band like the soft glow of light from the face.
    Vex looked perplexed. "They didn't come after me. Brane, are they coming after me?"
    The circle pulsed.
    "I say we pack and run," said ASIO. "Whatever their motives are, they're not good. Whether it's some kind of Orwellian mind-control mod they're trying out or just an experiment in creating a human/inter-dimensional-fitbit hybrid, I don't want to meet those people ever again."
    "Agreed," said Vex. "Do you have a laptop?"
    Yes. She had one.
    ASIO looked longingly at her HAF-case tricked-out PC. "I'm gonna miss you, Orac."
    She pulled out the data SSD and snapped it into a case, then packed her laptop, tablet and some clothes into a bag. "We're good to go".
    They had no idea where they would go, they only knew they needed to run. ASIO knew that at some point, the enormity of what Brane represented was going to hit, but right at that moment, she felt renewed and alive. They were gonna cause some trouble, oh yes. Whoever did this wasn't going to get away with it while these pesky kids were still alive.
    The laws of equivalent exchange would apply. To gain their freedom, something of equal value would be lost. They would lose their roots, their homes, leave behind everything they knew and enter the unknown.
    But the future belonged to them, the mysteries of the 23 enigma yet to unfold and a new universe to discover.