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People's Choice Stories - To Be Read before voting.

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  • People's Choice Stories - To Be Read before voting.

    Ascension
    By
    David Cross

    Night fell and rain drizzled on Leo and Abby from clouds that had never parted in all the time they’d lived here—nearly two years now after Sarah died. Leo imagined what Las Vegas used to be; a city built in the desert, sustained by big name performers and a never-ending supply of tourists. Now it was nothing but rain soaked concrete with augmented reality tuned to your personal tastes. With virtual reality, there was little interest in the mundane talents of acrobats and musicians compared to Vega’s showbiz past and the city had become a Mecca for all things tech.

    Leo kept hold of Abby’s hand, leading his daughter through the maze of bio-ware hackers, second-gen robots, and illicit tech dealers that punctuated the nightlife on the Defcon strip. They hurried past technology that would have astounded most people, turning down vendors offering the current generation of hardware implantables and mechanical body mods. He tried not to make eye contact with the obnoxious augmented reality and holographic sales people aimed at the wealthy attendees of the world-renowned hacker con. Forget all the small-fry after-hours street vendors, Leo had saved enough money to bribe his way to replacing the 8th generation implant Abby had received only six months before.

    He needed to do something for Abby. She’d been through so much and his best efforts to cheer her had failed. He didn’t believe in buying happiness, but he did believe in fixing whatever you can fix. When he’d first heard a friend of a friend could score him a new implant he felt as if his life depended on this one hope—the hope that she could be well again. Sometimes when a person had a bad reaction to an implant it could change their mood or alter senses and there was never a warranty to protect you from side-effects. He desperately hoped a replacement would pull her out of her depression which deepened dramatically after she received her school-mandatory implant. It wasn’t enough that Leo and Abby missed Sarah’s love and laughter but they’d lost their home in the suburbs without Sarah’s salary. It didn’t take long to lose everything—Leo’s meagre salary as a diagnostic engineer provided barely enough for room and board in the small and musty two-bedroom apartment they now called home. Any child would struggle under those circumstances, but Abby had been doing as good as could be expected—until that new implant.

    Thanks to Sarah’s employment contract, Abby still had 6 months of school left at BioTech Global’s brick-and mortar school. That fact alone helped Leo meet the guy who could get them the new implant replaced with no questions asked. Leo’s work in testing sometimes brought opportunities to score the latest tech if you were willing to accept the risks and had a few MineCoins to spare. They had already taken the risk and lost on her implant. This time things would be different. The bugs would be worked out in this dot upgrade and it would be safer.

    Puddles slowed their pace, and the smell of bad curry and garbage assaulted them from a food cart set up to partially block an alley. A quick glance toward the looming neon skyscraper showed they were only a hundred yards from their destination. Behind the cart, a single lightbulb tried to dispel the gloom in the alley but seemed to only deepen surrounding shadows. Leo’s dominant-eye implant tried to compensate by switching to IR mode. A red-yellow blob detached itself from the darkness while the eye fed him specs about the figure approaching them: 5’6”, 180 lbs., male, heavy early gen-mods. Leo urged Abby into a faster pace.
    They were too slow.

    A loud, digitally enhanced voice yelled, “Stop!” and the two froze in their tracks despite their instinct to run.

    “Hey! You gotta pay to walk these streets safely!” The voice belonged to a wiry punk wearing jeans and a translucent T-shirt. His shaved head was spotted with implants, some of which looked infected. His body was aged by what Leo guessed were hard drugs and harder tech. The man’s temple-integrated CPU glowed red—a universal threat to infect your wearable or implantable tech if you didn’t pay up.

    Leo whispered to his implant, a full generation newer than the one this thug was sporting, telling it be ready to actively respond to any threat. Leo was pretty certain his implantable could fend off whatever ransomware the guy was spamming. Although the punk didn’t look anything like the typically wealthy hackers who had long ago bought out the hotels on the strip, he may have been juiced by one of the big-name hackers’ zero-day. Skiddies were still dangerous. Leo’s worry faded as his e-tattoo, controlled by his implantable, glowed bright blue on his neck, indicating to the punk that offensive anti-virus was enabled. Abby stepped out from behind Leo, hand out-stretched, then made a fist aimed at the thug. Leo, worried that Abby’s gesture could enrage the cyborg, and he pulled her behind him for safety. The Skiddie shoved the food cart aside and a large rat jumped free of its now mobile dinner and scampered up the punk’s arm. It was all the distraction Leo needed, and he pulled Abby along as fast as her feet could move.

    “Next time you’ll pay double!” the punk threatened, his heart apparently not in the chase. Whatever else he was about to say was cut off as his voice glitched into what sounded almost like a scream—impossible to tell if this was part of his act or if Leo’s anti-virus had infected him. Leo didn’t even glance back as he ran with Abby in tow, only slowing when they reached the neon fence surrounding BioTech Global. White and blue light pulsed around the perimeter, and dozens of security drones whispered above the courtyard, letting passersby know that this area was actively guarded both with active response antivirus, and capital response or deadly force. There would be no Skiddies or dealers of any kind in this area. They were safe.
    Leo squeezed Abby’s hand, offering her a reassuring smile. “We made it! I told you my tech was better than the average—and your new implant will be even more powerful. It’ll help you feel better, too.”

    She looked up at him, long, wet hair framing her pale face and bottomless brown eyes. In that moment she was a younger version of her mother. But there was a hardness in her expression that aged her beyond her nine years. How much had she suffered from the loss of Sarah and then the adverse reaction to her first implant? The thought was enough to bring tears to his eyes.

    “Sarah and I feel fine,” Abby announced stoically.

    “I don’t understand. Sarah?” Did she mean her mom? She’d never called her by her first name, before. “Mom’s gone, sweetheart.” Leo smoothed the damp hair back from Abby’s face, offering him a smile he hoped would ease the reminder of her mother’s death.

    He glanced back up at the BioTech monolith. He desperately hoped it wasn’t too late for his daughter. He’d never heard of such an extreme reaction to an implant. At least not since the early days when the tech was unstable. He worried Abby had lost her grip on reality, and that she might never get it back. Nauseating fear coursed through him and the spike in vitals set off warnings from his implant. It was useless to him when he needed it most—coldly providing analytics on the obvious. He needed advice, help for was his daughter. He didn’t care about himself.

    “My implant is named Sarah. I named her after mom but she’s better than mom. She’ll never leave me. She keeps me safe and never lies to me.”

    “Your implant is ma-malfunctioning,” Leo stammered. He whispered to his implant to run a deep scan of Abby. It responded momentarily that there was no way to distinguish the 100% neural implant from her natural neurons. “The new one will make you feel better. I promise.”

    “Sarah told me you wouldn’t understand. Just like that malware junkie didn’t know I infected him with a VM that runs an 8-bit version of the Brain virus. Sarah thought it was ironic and I agree. An 8-bit virus for an 8-bit mind.”

    Leo was too shocked to respond. So, it was her implant that infected the malware guy? He shook his head. This wasn’t right. He knew some people couldn’t handle implants, but the results were mild psychological problems—nothing like this. Abby was in full-on denial. Maybe even hallucinating. Her implant had a name? Her dead mother’s name? And she could pass a destructive virus just by, what? Pointing her fist at them? I couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t.

    Abby’s face solidified into a mask of condescension. “Dad, I don’t see the world in such a childish way anymore. Sarah and I see things how they really are. There is so much she helps me with that you wouldn’t even understand. She even tells me every time you lie to me, like you just did. My implant is working fine. I wanted to give you another chance, but she knew this would happen, she knew you would turn on me.”

    Abby jerked her hand from Leo’s. Shock and disbelief made his stomach roil. Could she be so completely controlled by her implant? He stepped forward to grasp her hand, to pull her to him, but stopped as drones swooped down from the shadows of the building and gathered around them. They paused above Abby, as if awaiting orders, then turned, training their weapons on Leo. Leo’s eye implant helpfully pointed out that the lights on the drones had turned to red, indicating they were prepared to fire.

    Abby took a step backward, the fence surrounding the BioTech compound opening smoothly to accommodate her. It just as quickly reformed in front of her, cutting Leo off from his daughter. He reached for her, but a handful of drones pressed into his personal space, the deadly hrrr sound emanating from them clearly a warning that no more movement would be tolerated.

    “Bye Leo. From both me and Sarah. Just know that I don’t blame you. With your primitive implant, you’d never be able to understand the complexity of the simulations of our future or how they show so little promise. Sarah has shown me everything. I’ll have a good future here. Don’t feel bad that you’re not a viable candidate for an upgrade. I’m one of the few implants that was completely successful. It’s better that I stay here where I’m understood and appreciated.”

    “No!” Leo yelled, surging forward, oblivious to the armed sentinels fixated on him.
    As he vaulted over the short fence, his implant produced a brief warning that an EMP was imminent. It began the short countdown to systemic failure. His knees buckled and he fought to remain upright. His eye implant calculated he could reach Abby’s hand, but it was so difficult making his muscles work. His whole existence now focused on holding his daughter’s hand, one last time.

    8, 7, 6…

    The countdown on his retinal display continued, but he ignored it. Ignored everything but his daughter’s face, so much like her mother’s.

    “I understand you, sweetheart. And appreciate you more than you know.” It was becoming hard to speak, his body had already begun shutting down.

    5, 4…

    Leo’s fingertips just grazed his daughter’s. “I love you,” he whispered, willing her to see the truth in his eyes.

    3, 2…

    Abby stepped back from him, and walked away.

    1.

    Leo clung to the fading image of his hand grasping hers.

    0.

    Absolute darkness slowly gave way to light. The picture of the hand he held changed slightly, a larger, more familiar hand. Against a backdrop of pure white. It couldn’t be!

    “Sarah?”

    --The End--

  • #2
    TITLE: Belonging
    AUTHOR HANDLE: theWildAltitude

    1.

    They were out deep in the desert. A dim glow along the horizon to the northeast hinted at the location of the Vegas settlement, but it was only that: a hint. Her bright lights wouldn’t be apparent until they’d covered much more ground, and there were only a few hours of darkness remaining. Time to pack it up and call it; the scavenging run had been a waste of time, and their water supply was too low to risk getting caught out in the open come daybreak.

    But Blin would not be dissuaded. There was a rise up ahead, a small one, too uniform and smooth to be natural, and they weren’t terribly far from where the old Interstate 15 used to exist. It was possible a vehicle could have made it this far off the main road, and vehicles often meant supplies. A few minutes later his hunch was rewarded: knocking aside the drifting sand, a faded and wind-scoured car roof was revealed.

    “Give me a hand with this!” Blin called, and his words were nearly lost to the wind.

    Seth hurried over, unhooking the short, collapsible shovel he carried on these excursions. They’d have to hurry to get to the interior of the vehicle before the sun rose -- spending another day hunkered in some rocky depression with the scorpions and snakes was not his idea of a good time, no matter what they found.

    The two made short work of uncovering one side of the car. There was nothing worth taking in the trunk, not even a drum of water -- which was probably why the vehicle had ended up way out there, and not someplace closer to the old civilizations that used to dot this part of the world. The passenger compartment, on the other hand, yielded what amounted to a treasure trove.

    Blin slid out from the back window, dragging with him two nearly new-looking backpacks. They were studded with enamelled pins and random patches, and both sagged under the weight of the contents within. “Check it out! Told you there’d be something out here!” His wide grin was visible even in the pervasive darkness of the desert, illuminated only by starlight. They had flashlights, but those beams would be visible for a very long distance -- it wasn’t smart to advertise your presence out in the open. You never knew who was watching.

    The haul was worth the risk, however. Hunkering down over the bags, Blin pulled open the zip on one, the unmistakeable, unnatural sound so loud in the darkness. But concerns of detection were cast aside as excitement for their find grew. “Go on, get the light in there -- what’d they have?” They, of course, being the unfortunate and long-mummified occupants of the vehicle, who no longer had any need for their backpacks or the treasures contained therein.

    Seth stuffed the light into the opening and flicked it on. Even shrouded by the dark fabric of the bag, it was blinding to their eyes. Blin and Seth both winced, shielding their eyes a moment; when their vision finally cleared they were both struck speechless.

    It was Seth who found his voice first, and it was barely a whisper when he spoke.

    “Tener is going to be so pissed.” He grinned across at Blin. “We got ourselves some shiny new C-boards!”

    2.

    Despite the long night scavenging and the brutal, breakneck return to the settlement while outrunning the sun, neither Blin nor Seth could sleep. Shafts of sunlight speared through cracks in their haphazard shelter just outside the barbed-wire walls of Vegas, illuminating motes of dust everywhere and sparking off the shiny-bright circuitry that covered the C-boards they’d uncovered along 15. Blin held his carefully along the edges, afraid to touch any of the little black plastic parts or the dark glass screen that sprouted from the surface of the disc in his hand. He turned it back and forth, letting his eyes travel along the narrow, angular pathways hidden just beneath the printed surface. The characters and symbols inscribed on the coating of the device were difficult to make any sense of, though one was clearly a skull and bones and this hinted at some untold danger that Blin found intriguing. It was impossible to discern what the original purpose of the C-board had been from just looking at it, although the small rectangular screen on the front hinted at display capabilities. The power compartment was empty, but there had been flat, silver packages deep in the bag that looked like they’d work -- if there was still any juice left in them.

    C-boards weren’t exactly rare in the settlement. Every so often one would crop up, usually uncovered on some scavenging run and normally battered and non-functional. There was also the matter of power -- they all ran off some sort of portable units of power, but charged power packs were rare. It was wasteful to use one to try to power some little blinking lights when they had so many other essential, pressing needs.

    Unfortunately, that didn’t dissuade everyone from showing off their treasures, and the guy with the most C-boards in the settlement made no secret of it. You couldn’t miss him, even when you tried. Tener possessed a dozen functioning boards and he wore all twelve of them every time he was out wandering the dusty streets that made up their home. Tiny lights in every color flashed and blinked and glowed, illuminating everything around him and making it clear to all who was in charge. Tener never worried about power, or shelter, or water. Tener just demanded whatever he wanted, from whomever he could push around, and a small band of rough and ill-natured sycophants were always ready to assist.

    “He’s gonna try and take ‘em,” Seth announced dejectedly, rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. “Him, or those goons that follow him around. He’ll probably make up some bull to justify it too, ‘for the security of the camp,’ but you know it’s just gonna be jealousy - especially if they work.” He looked over at Blin. “Do you think they work? They look new, like real new.”

    “Only one way to tell,” Blin responded, in that half-distracted way he had when something caught his attention. Setting the disc down carefully, he picked up one of the power packs and examined the connector. It, too, looked new, without a trace of corrosion or damage. “Alright, here goes -- just, don’t get your hopes up. They’ve been out in the desert for a while.”

    Blin fitted the pack into the receptacle on the back of the disc, and then maneuvered the tiny power connector into a matching receptacle on the edge of the board. He did all of this gingerly, afraid a wrong move would wrench one of the skinny wires free or damage something elsewhere along the circuitry. Once he was certain the connector was snug, he turned over the disc and pressed a tiny black button set on one side.

    The disc flared to life, a dozen intensely bright lights glowing dazzling blue-white. Blin and Seth were momentarily blinded, and as their vision recovered they noticed the small screen light up. First a logo formed on the display, slowly turning in rendered 3D, and then a welcome message scrolled, followed by a prompt for a name. The two young men looked at each other.

    Seth spoke first. “How do we put in the name? I don’t see any keys.”

    Blin was quiet as he examined the front of the disc. “No keys, but you see these circles? There are letters over them, A, B, C…” He carefully touched one of the metallic pads with his fingertip and was rewarded with an ‘A’ on the display. He grinned.

    “Ok. I think we can figure this out.”

    An hour later both Blin and Seth had managed to power up their C-boards and enter their names. There seemed to be more to the discs than just glowing lights and a display for their names, but neither of them could get any further. Blin was frustrated -- and concerned about how long the power would last. They had no spares. Seth shut his board down and sighed.

    “It’s too bad they don’t have instructions or anything. I know everyone else thinks Tener’s boards are so special because they blink and shine light -- but there has to be more to it, right? They have to do something! And he sure doesn’t know -- even if he did, he’d never tell us.”

    Blin stared at the wall, deep in thought. He doubted Tener knew any more than they did about the light-up boards… but there was someone who might have an idea. It was a crazy thought but what did they have to lose?

    He stood. “Come on, Seth. Put that away and come with me. I want to go see someone.”

    “Who?” Seth scrambled to his feet and shook his head. “If you tell anyone, we’re going to be found out. Then Tener’s going to take these for sure!”

    Blin shrugged on his pack. “I don’t think so. For one, no one listens to anything he says. And two, I think he hates Tener even more than we do.” He pulled Seth to the rusted flap of metal that served as a door. “Come on. We’re going to see Crazy Eights.”

    …..

    In the center of the settlement a group had gathered, few in number -- but even a small handful of people made for a lot in a place like that. One man stood facing the rest with a posture of authority. His nose was beakish and his eyes were set close together, outlined by dark eyelashes which circled pale blue eyes. He looked intimidating and alert despite his unkempt hair and faded, dusty clothing. Hung around his neck were lit, blinking boards of every color and shape, which clinked and caught on each other as he moved. His voice was loud, on the verge of shouting:

    “Any news on the pickers? We have what, five or six groups out? And nothing?”

    A few of the gathered men shuffled and looked away, uneager to gain notice of the man with the flashing neckwear. Finally, one looked up.

    “We’ve been sending ‘em farther each time, Tener. There’s just nothin’ left to scavenge, and we don’t have supplies for the long journeys. Everythin’s picked clean.”

    “Excuses!” hissed the one called Tener. “There were a million people here once, and they all had things! Lots of things! We just have to find them!”

    Another voice spoke up. “It’s just real hard Tener. And with the water rations so small, we can’t keep sendin’ the pickers out-”

    “You know we have to do this, Kane!” Tener glared and grabbed the lanyards bunched on his chest. They clanked together as he swung them up. “See these? Have you forgotten what they mean? They are the only way we can survive. Maybe turn this village into a proper city, like Salt Lake. This technology… it’s the future. You remember how we survived the drought of ‘42? If I say send the pickers out longer, then that’s what you have got to do!” His face was red with exertion and anger.

    “Or would I rather send you all instead?”

    The assembled group muttered demurrals, shifting uncomfortable back and forth. No one could deny that things were grim in ‘42. When Tener had proposed that by building a structure out of ‘boards and setting it at a certain angle to the morning sun they could harness the water element still present in the sky and produce rain, they had no choice but to try. Sure enough, not seven days later it rained for 10 days and nights. Since then, no one really doubted Tener.

    He looked over them and nodded.

    “Good. Make it happen.” Satisfied his orders would be carried out, Tener shifted his eyes over the ramshackle encampment. He spotted two of the picker crew crossing the lot a dozen yards away.

    “Hey! You two -- get over here. I want a report!”

    Blin had hoped they’d get past Tener and his crew without being noticed, but luck wasn’t with them. He heard Tener shout and briefly considered ignoring it. Seth, however, had already slowed, which meant any chance of moving on and claiming they hadn’t heard the summons was now gone. He sighed.

    “Hey Tener,” Blin called, turning to face the group. “Uh, not much to report, I’m afraid. Junk, mostly -- we already left it at the heap.”

    Seth looked from Blin to Tener. “Yeah, mostly junk. Sorry. Not much out there to the east, we’ve checked a hundred times-”

    Tener cut him off. “Then check a hundred and one times. And what do you mean ‘mostly’ junk?” He started walking towards the two pickers. “Mostly, huh? And what about the stuff that wasn’t junk?” He closed in on the two and poked a finger.

    “You wouldn’t be holding out on me, would you? Because you know what happens if you steal from the settlement. You know what happens if you don’t pay the security fee?” That was Tener’s personal cut, as he had taken it upon himself to arrange to keep the settlement safe -- not that they had much, collectively, to steal. He made sure of that, keeping all the valuable salvage for himself.

    “No fee, no security, and no settlement.” Tener went to fold his arms across his chest, but the pile of boards made it difficult and uncomfortable. Instead, he pointed at them again, stabbing the air to emphasize his words. “Don’t let me found out you’re skimping. I’d like nothing better to get rid of the freeloaders. It means more water for the rest of us.”

    Seth swallowed and nodded, hoping Tener didn’t ask to check their bags. Blin said nothing, staring out at the distant horizon.

    Instead, Tener stepped back. “Where are you two headed, anyway? Hope it’s gearing up for another picking trip…”

    Blin spoke. “We’re actually going to check with Crazy Eights. Figure he’s been here a while, longer than the rest of us. Maybe he’ll have an idea of someplace new to search.”

    Tener’s laugh was rough and startling. “Crazy Eights? That nutty old creep? He doesn’t know a damn thing!” Still laughing, he turned to the rest of his crew. “They’re goin’ to see Crazy Eights, you hear that? Like that loon knows anything. Ha!” Tener slapped his knee and the rest of his crew followed a moment later.

    “Don’t waste too much time there, got it?” Tener warned. “I need you back out there,” he pointed at the open desert, “first thing tomorrow.”

    Seth wasted no time. “Got it, Tener. First thing!” He grabbed Blin’s arm. “Come on, let’s go do something incredibly stupid.”

    Crazy Eights lived as far from the settlement as anyone could, and still be considered a part of their makeshift town in the shadow of Vegas. He kept to himself and everyone was OK with that. However he’d earned the ‘crazy’ part of his name, it fit. The man was long in years -- the oldest inhabitant by far, although it was impossible to put a number to those years. The old guy lived alone, and had for as long as anyone could remember, but he kept up a lively stream of conversation in his solitude all the same. No one could make any sense of what Crazy Eights rambled about most of the time, but it had never struck Blin as random babbling -- it was simply incomprehensible. But then, Crazy Eights had probably been around back when Vegas was an open city, and everything worked, and bullies didn’t run the world.

    They found him shuffling around outside his haphazard little hut, made up of discarded junk and faded sheets of vinyl all cobbled together. Crazy Eights was talking, just like always -- long, indecipherable strings of things that sounded important, or at least, had been important at some point in the past. Integrated circuits. Arduinos. Capacitance and ground planes? Blin knew what planes were, even if he’d never seen one. Big metal things shaped like birds that could fly in the air. It seemed impossible, but there were old pictures he’d seen, so he knew planes were real. Were there planes that moved on the ground too?

    Blin waited for Crazy Eights to stop talking before approaching, which he did tentatively. “Uh, sir? Mister Eights?”

    They old man turned, slowly, unable to lift his stooped shoulders, or even turn his neck much.

    “Yeah boy, what is it? I haven’t got nothin’ for you to take, so go bother someone else. Leave an old man alone.”

    “That’s not why we’re here, sir.” Blin stepped forward, holding his C-board out where Crazy Eights could see it plainly. “We found these, out along 15 to the southwest. Two of them, brand new. They work and everything.” He cleared his throat and looked around, catching Seth’s eye.

    “I mean, we think they work. They light up, and the screen turns on.” Blin indicated the broken ring of metallic pads along the edge. “And we found a way to type on it, kind of, touching these circles.” It was slow and tedious, but it worked, as long as they were careful to not make any mistakes -- which meant starting over.

    The sight of the board stilled Crazy Eight’s incessant shuffling, and he craned his head to get a better look. “I’ll be damned,” he murmured. “Let me see that, bring it closer. I never thought I’d see one of these again.”

    Seth looked concerned, but Blin stepped closer anyway -- close enough for Crazy Eights to get a good look at the weird markings printed on the surface. The old man laughed.

    “I haven’t seen a cipher like that in a long time…” Crazy Eights squinted at the disc for a long time, then lifted his eyes to the two younger men. “You gonna give them over to that other one?” He indicated his own neck, a gesture unmistakably referring to Tener. Both Seth and Blin shook their heads.

    “No. No way. They’re ours. And-” Blin paused and licked his parched lips. “And we think they can do things. I mean, they have to, right? It looks too -- too complicated to just light up for no reason. Only… we can’t figure it out.” He stared at the old man.

    “We thought, maybe, you might be able to show us?”

    Crazy Eights lifted his head to look at them both, enough that he wobbled and appeared as if he might fall over. Finally, he laughed, the wrinkles on his face deepening as he smiled. “Ha! Show you! HA!” He slapped his thigh and began the laborious process of shuffling back around in the direction of his hut. With gnarled fingers, he gestured for them to follow.

    “Come on, both of you. Inside, where we can talk away from all the ears this place has.”

    Seth and Blin shared a glance and broke into excited grins. “I told you!” Blin mouthed, before following after the departing elder. Seth was right behind him.

    As Crazy Eights pulled open the door to his home, he asked, “What do you kids know about networks…?”

    3.

    The blood red glow of the morning sun over old Vegas spilled slowly across the dusty expanse of clay-colored sand and nondescript rock, chasing away the cold, alien glow that emanated from the city in the distance. Baked ground, weakly projecting waves of heat towards the dull sky, began to recharge like an enormous power pack under the awesome radiance of the sun, whose glow was no longer filtered through a protective layer of atmospheric ozone.

    Many children were up this early, playing in the town and at a distant water station that was situated on the northern end of Vegas. But the adults of the town were mostly still asleep.

    Sarah was nearly always the first of the villagers to arrive at the manually operated water pumps. They were lined along the sides of an enormous steel drum which was at least 20 feet long and 6 feet in diameter. She knew how the water system worked better than most. Her grandparents had been farmers, and from a young age she had heard stories of unbelievable and vulgar use of water. These were products of the past and of an ignorant and disdainful way of life, left behind when the Earth’s drinkable water sources all but ran out, consumed faster than they could be replenished. She enjoyed the dawn because she could tend to her chores before the heat made moving around outside unbearable. Today she would make soup and tend to her little girl, Katy, getting her to school before working to make shoes in her cramped hut.

    Setting down her plastic bucket under a spigot, she wrapped her hands around the grooved and pitted metal handle of the water pump and pulled firmly. Sarah almost fell over when instead of meeting with the normal resistance she was used to, there was a brief chirp of rusted metal across rusted metal and then the lever fell to the ground with a loud thud. She jumped at the unexpected sound, luckily causing her to step back from the long metal bar. It hit the ground hard enough that she could feel it in her shoes.

    Her lips quirked to the side, pulling her face into a slight frown as she stepped forward. The lack of any support for the lever meant… Sarah shook her head. The explanation that had jumped to mind was that there was no water in the system. This was impossible: it was only April, a month after their water had been filled to 5/8 full and three months until they would be able to get any more. There was no possible way that the system could be empty.

    Walking around the mounting bracket which held the long pole, allowing it to pivot around a well-oiled rod that supported the weight of the chain and piston, she peered down at the device, examining whether the piston had been released or the rod had bent or slipped. Everything looked to be in good working order. Sarah was about to walk back to her bucket when a lighter glow of metal caught her eye. There in the dull and oxidized plating around the outlet hole were deep cuts along the metal, revealing the bright, reflective iron underneath, the accumulation of years of grime scraped away. Her eyes widened. There, next to the outlet, there was another, wide hole that had been bored down into the underlying well by a mounted drill. She swore under her breath: raiders.

    She ran towards the village hall, bucket forgotten.

    …..

    The mood of the assembled townspeople was grim. After measuring the remaining well-water, they discovered that there was only enough for 20, maybe 30 days under the most severe rationing. The small village that had prided itself in its independence in the desert outside Vegas, having survived there for almost 40 years, since the fall of the Last World, was facing a cruel and imminent extinction.

    Blin and Seth stood among them as they murmured to each other, both lost in thought. Tener walked to the center of the crowd and looked at them with stern determination. His solemn stare quieted them and they waited for him to speak.

    “We all realize this is a blow to our community and to our safety. I want everyone to know that we will survive -- I promise you this.” He took a moment to walk slowly around the center of the crowd, addressing them as he strolled. “I have reflected long and hard on how we will restore our water reserves, and I have decided that we will again produce rain with our technology and at the same time, we will set up a ward on the well that will protect it from the raiders.” He looked into the eyes of the people closest to him who nodded in quiet agreement, shellshocked but eased by Tener’s conviction.

    “A ‘ward’ you say?”

    Everyone turned to Blin with shocked looks. It was rare that Tener was openly challenged and for someone like Blin to do so, a picker and a nobody, was unheard of. Tener himself turned sharply, eyebrows raised.

    “Yes, a ward! Do you mock what I say, fool?”

    “I’m not mocking anything,” Blin replied coolly. “But putting some boards on the well isn’t going to stop the raiders. For that matter, you can’t just make rain, Tener. It’s…”

    “It happened, Blin, you know this! This technology has power that we can wield if we understand it as I do.”

    “You don’t understand these boards, Tener.” Blin had stepped forward into the open circle in the middle of the assembly. “They aren’t magic. They’re just… they’re tools. And they have rules, just like any other tools. Listen to me -- I’ve been talking to Crazy Eights and I think we can use the C-boards to create a perimeter that would let us know if the raiders tried to enter the village. It’s called ‘infrared’...”

    Tener cut him off with a loud, scoffing laugh. “‘Infrared’, huh? What nonsense is this? You would believe one of our insane over me, Blin?” He looked out into the crowd and gestured at them. “And you? Do you believe this fantasy?” People began to shift uncomfortably, many of them turning away from Blin and Seth. A general murmur of dissent passed through the crowd.

    “You mean well, Blin,” offered Tener dismissively. “But we will go with my plan. Everyone is going to be alright.” He smiled and brushed his hands over the C-boards that were laid neatly across his chest.

    Blin was red with frustration and embarrassment. Seth put a hand on his shoulder. “You tried.”

    “We’re all in trouble.”

    Blin turned and kicked a rock sharply, sending it skittering across the dirt and down into a shallow ditch. Someone was looking at him -- it was Crazy Eights. The old man smiled and winked inscrutably and turned, leaving with the crowd.

    …..

    Tener’s goons and many townspeople remained in the center of the village, assisting with the creation of the rain summoning device and helping with affixing the selected C-boards to planks distributed around the well in the shape of a triangle. It took hours, but when they were done, the city center was decorated in a way which could only be described as festive. In the dark of the falling night, colored lights in red, blue, green and orange blinked and flashed. When all of the preparations were complete, everyone shuffled quietly to bed. Last among them was Blin, who looked at the C-boards and shook his head.

    …..

    When the village woke the next morning, the grim mood turned to terror. Not only had the raiders returned, they had destroyed many of the C-boards, leaving them sprinkled in parts all around the village. What boards they had not destroyed they had taken with them, along with another 10 days worth of water.

    The mood at the next assembly was panicked. Tener could barely be heard above their voices, raised in urgent expressions of fear to each other, to Tener, to the gods themselves. Though Tener tried to calm them with comforting words and another plan, their confidence had eroded. They disbanded without a plan, everyone focused on the question of whether they would have to leave with as much water as they could carry and try to pay their way into another town. The nearest village they knew about was over 100 miles away, aside from Vegas. The journey at this time of year would likely kill them before they even made it.

    Blin and Seth sat together that night throwing rocks at a cactus husk, silent. The night sky was beautiful, the stars clearly visible through a slight haze. The town was quiet again, most people asleep, but the mood was somehow still tense, desperate.

    “What do you think it’s like inside Vegas?” Seth asked.

    “I don’t know,” said Blin, shaking his head. “I’ve heard that it is huge and there is running water everywhere.” He laughed derisively. So much water in one place, and not enough for a few hundred people just half a mile away. Blin wondered whether the water it would take to keep the village alive for a day, for a month, for a year even, would even be noticed by a city with enough water to sustain a hundred thousand.

    Blin sat up straighter. They wouldn’t even notice it, he again thought to himself, now looking distractedly off into the distance.

    “What’s wrong, Blin?”

    Blin didn’t even hear the question. He was thinking back to something Crazy Eights had said about water control systems and security protocols. Something about networks, and radios, and codes. “Blin?”

    There was a screen that he had shown Blin once that he had called a “random number generator.” By entering some commands, he could produce numbers that would show up on the screen. A fun diversion, but not particularly useful. But… what if he could send those numbers over the network? What if the water system station that the kids played on at the outskirts of Vegas was listening to such a network?

    “Brother! Blin, what is going on?”

    “Pack your bags for the scavenge of your life, and grab two of the biggest wheelbarrows we have. We’re going hunting.”

    “Hunting for what?”

    “Water.”

    4.

    Blin and Seth hiked with as many water pouches, barrels and flasks they could carry and tie to themselves and drag. It was slow going and tiring. It took them until well into the middle hours of the night to arrive at the enormous water station that sat at the northern outskirts of Vegas. It was an imposing structure of metal with huge bolts and thick, steel sides. Enormous pipes ran through it which gave the children of the village many places to play games of hide and seek or test their balance by hoisting each other up on top of the pipes to see how far they could walk along its curved top before sliding down one side into the sand.

    On the far side of the structure was a huge round pipe end that led nowhere, closed off with steel panels attached to a control panel with a number pad and a strange circular cut out that Blin vaguely remembered was called a “keyhole” according to Crazy Eights. Blin and Seth could hear the water rushing and gurgling through the pipes, so close, but so completely out of reach. It was otherwise quiet and the night was still and somewhat warmer than a usual night.

    “We don’t have a long time before we have to go, Blin,” Seth remarked nervously. “We don’t have a lot of water with us, and if we get caught out in the desert when the sun comes out…”

    Blin didn’t hear him. He was looking down at four of the C-boards he had brought. He had also brought a few strange looking wires Crazy Eights had given him. What had Crazy told him about routing one device to another? So much of what the man told him made a strange kind of instinctive sense to him, as though he had in another life actually built such devices and knew their secrets. He fiddled with the wires and pressed buttons, finally returning the boards to a mode where each one was generating numbers.

    Seth looked on doubtfully and began to tap the steel walls with his knuckles nervously, hammering out a rhythm with exaggerated enthusiasm. After an hour of entertaining himself this way, wandering around the object, trying to balance on the pipe as the children did, and finally lying on his back in the sand so he could look out at the glow of Vegas, he called out. “Blin, we have to go man.”

    To Blin, no time had passed. He was intent. The wires he held had all been set into slots on the C-boards, and he kept swearing under his breath, reversing these two wires or those. He knew he was running out of time, but nothing seemed to work. He shook his head, running his hands through his hair and looking at the sky. It was over. They had to get back.

    Blin stood up, dusting his pants off and stomping on the ground in frustration. One of the boards jumped slightly with the vibration and its edge hit the edge of the steel wall of the pump.

    A loud pair of beeps sounded suddenly, causing Blin to almost fall over and Seth to jump up, alarmed. An incredibly bright light turned on at the top of the pipe end above the number pad and suddenly, the two plates split open. The force of the water that splashed out was so great that it sent Seth’s backpack tumbling across the desert ground, rolling and accumulating and splashing mud until it was entirely out of sight.

    The two men looked at each other, eyes wide and eyebrows raised. Seth looked up at the sky and yelled, joined in a chorus of hoots and childish screams by Blin.

    5.

    A cup of tepid water had never tasted so good. Blin drank deep and passed the bucket over to Seth, who was too busy showing off his C-board to a group of skinny settlement kids to notice. The deep dread that had hung over all of them was gone, and it seemed like everyone had come out to celebrate.

    Everyone but Tener. Even his goons had abandoned him, coming over to join in the impromptu gathering in the center of town. That tipped Tener over the edge. At the edge of the main thoroughfare, Tener stood, fuming, at the celebration happening not because of him, but in spite of him. He tore the hanging boards from his neck and threw them to the ground, cracking them into shards as he stomped upon the pile. His tantrum was not yet complete.

    “You’re all gonna be sorry!” He yelled, red-faced and fraught. “You think Blin is gonna run this town better than me, do you?” Plastic crunched beneath the sole of his battered boot.

    The assembled group fell silent and stared. They stared at Tener. They looked over to Blin, and back to Tener. Then a voice responded from deep in the crowd.

    “No, we don’t!”

    Tener blinked and raised his head, his jaw hanging slack at the unexpected response.

    Another voice joined the first: “But Crazy Eights will!”

    A chorus of cheering shouts rose up, drowning out Tener’s frustrated howls. He stomped a bit more on the crushed and broken boards before storming off to his shed, alone.

    Crazy Eights shuffled out towards the gathered folks, smiling uncertainly as the very people who’d avoided him and ignored him for years were suddenly clapping him on the back. Seth walked with him, explaining what they’d done to get the water back, and how Crazy Eights had helped them come up with the plan.

    Blin hung back, sitting by himself on some old crates, sipping at his cup of water and smiling. He never could have anticipated an outcome like this -- not from a few bits of metal and plastic dug out from the desert just a few days ago. He looked down at his own, sliding his thumb along the edge as he considered everything Crazy Eights had told them -- about people, and how things used to be. About technology, and how machines like computers used to be bigger than a shack, shrinking smaller and smaller until they could fit in the palm of your hand.

    His display lit up. He hadn’t touched any of the pads, which was odd. Maybe it was broken? He hoped not, Blin had barely started understanding what it was capable of.

    A message appeared on the display:

    > Well done, Blin.

    He looked up, checking to see if Seth had sent that -- but no, Seth was busy talking, and no one was touching his C-board. Blin looked back at the display, and carefully drafted a short response:

    >> Thanks. Had help. Who is this?

    He shook his head. Who else could be sending messages to him? There wasn’t anyone else with one of these boards that he knew of. Maybe it was one of Tener’s? That didn’t seem likely, but who else would have one of the devices, and also know what happened in the town?

    > We’ve been waiting for you.

    Blin sat back. Waiting for… him? Who? Why?

    > Vegas gates. Sundown.

    Yeah, right. This had to be a trick. You didn’t just walk up to the gates of Vegas like that. They didn’t let people like him in, ever. It had to be a trick. He typed:

    >> Why? Who is this?

    The response came quickly, leaving him no time to think.

    > You’ll see. Ask 88.
    > Sundown. You. Seth.

    Ask 88? 88 what? Blin looked up at the crowd, scanning for Seth. His eyes fell on Crazy Eights. 88. Could that have been what the message meant? Ask Crazy Eights? How would he know? Were there other C-boards out there? Is that how he knew what theirs could do?

    Blin jumped up and jogged to the crowd. It took a few minutes to shoo away the settlers surrounding Crazy Eights, but finally he had the old man separated from the rest. He held the display so Crazy Eights could see.

    “Is that you? Are you 88?” He asked.

    The old man replied with a laugh. “Haven’t been called that in… oh, it’s been a long time. A long time. But Crazy Eights, that’s a good name too. You tell ‘em that, I said so.” Crazy Eights turned to look at the towers rising up from the desert in the distance.

    “You’re going, ain’t ya? It’s not everyday you get an invitation like that. You should go.” He patted Blin on the arm.

    “Both you boys. You earned it. It’s just the start, kid. Just the beginning. Go get your friend and pack up. Be there at sunset like they said, and tell ‘em 88 says ‘Hey,’ for me.” Crazy Eights winked and shuffled back into the crowd.

    …..

    They were at the gates at sundown. Other than tons of heavy metal plating and yards of razor wire keeping them out, there was nothing -- and no one -- to greet them. Seth sighed.

    “Are you sure about this? How do we know it’s not a trick? Maybe someone sent us out here to rob us -- like Tener? Or worse, the raiders?” He looked back at the gates and shook his head. “This is crazy, Blin. Craziest idea you’ve had yet. They don’t let anyone in, especially not our kind.”

    “88 -- I mean, Crazy Eights wouldn’t lie about this.” Blin stared at the C-board in his hand, willing the display to light up with another message. It stayed dark, aside from a lonely blinking prompt.

    “Maybe…” His finger slid across the pads, tapping in a message.

    >> We’re here

    Blin paused and added a second line.

    >> 88 says hey

    For a minute all was quiet. Then lights came to life, one after another, from atop the wall before them. Blin and Seth were dazzled by the illumination, blinding even in daylight, and shielded their eyes with their forearms. Screaming metal sounded ahead of them and a dark portal slid open in the wall.

    They lowered their arms and blinked, trying to make out what was ahead. A single figure stood between the open gates, backlit and impossible to identify. The figure raised a hand and waved.

    “Hey. Glad you could make it. We’ve been waiting for you. Come on in.”

    Seth glanced at Blin and smiled. They made their way inside.

    “Welcome to Vegas -- home of DEFCON.”

    Comment


    • #3
      BRICKS
      by DON FRANKE

      Most people don't own communication devices. They borrow them. And when people talk about a brick, they're usually referring to a Community Communication Device (CCD). A brick is about the size of a bar of soap. It fits into the palm of the hand, with a rounded beige frame encasing a slab of clear acrylic. The shell is made up of a carbon-threaded polymer, making it nearly indestructible. When in contact with someone the rectangular screen instantly lights up with content specific to that individual. It can then be used to exchange text messages, read the news, or consume other digital content. The device cannot make voice calls, however, due to the increasingly unpopular Landline Only Telecommunications Act.

      When no longer needed, the brick can simply be tossed onto a nearby table, counter, etc. The display instantly clears and its memory is automatically wiped. Bricks litter bars, cafes, fast food restaurants and other establishments. Inductive charging pads are embedded into the tables and counters at many of these places to help ensure that they are always ready for use. The proliferation of bricks is also responsible for a surge in hand sanitizer use.

      The device and the service that gives it life are provided free of charge by a single company: Avocadeaux ("avocado") Inc. The free bricks are part of their community outreach program to promote free learning and information sharing. Emphasis is on underserved and lower-income neighborhoods. A study was done recently that showed an inverse correlation between the average income of a business's clientele and the number of bricks that could be found there.

      When the program first started, the bricks were stolen and resold, but the company kept dropping off more until they no longer had resale value. Now you can find one just about anywhere.

      Avocadeaux has always maintained that the content they serve is 100% user-driven, and usage history is completely confidential. Their mission statement reads "We don't want to influence the information being delivered. We just want to provide access to it." The company makes its money by selling the more upscale Personal Communication Devices (PCD's) to consumers with disposable income.


      In the alley behind Gary's Pub (about fifteen minutes west of the Chicago loop) Detective Emily Jensen kneels next to the motionless body of a man in his early 20's. He is propped up in a corner formed by a dumpster against a brick wall. His wrists and ankles are bound by duct tape. His lower face is also covered with tape, and a charred hole is where his mouth used to be. She peers into the burnt orifice with a penlight to confirm her suspicion: death by OC. A brick was shoved into the victim's mouth, and taped over so that it couldn't be removed. Then a hacked induction transmitter was used to overcharge the device's high-density battery until it exploded, shooting fragments into the brain cavity.

      There are shards of plastic in the smoldering cavern, looking like bundles of toothpicks. It reeks of burnt plastic and flesh.

      "Fire in the hole," she overhears an officer say.

      Emily frowns but says nothing as she stands to assess the victim a final time. Then she nods to the coroner who has been waiting for approval to bag the deceased.
      The detective goes to the sidewalk at the opening of the alley, carefully stepping over yellow evidence markers along the way. She closes her eyes and tilts her head back to feel the afternoon sun on her face. This is the second homicide she caught in as many weeks with this M.O. The murder rate in this area has been increasing exponentially over the past few months. True, it always got worse in the summer, but this year has already outpaced the last one by a long shot.

      She opens her eyes and looks around the neighborhood. It used to be a safe place. Lower rent, sure, but always a strong sense of family and community. It's like there's something dragging neighborhoods like this down, she mulls. Something multi-tentacled and powerful reaching up from the inky depths.

      Emily enters Gary's Pub and scans the poorly lit room. There are a few people hunched over the bar who could be regulars, and a man with a trim gray beard behind the counter. He is staring down at a brick in his hand. She approaches him.

      "Are you the owner?"

      He looks up and answers, "I am." He deftly slides the brick down the bar where it comes to a rest atop an induction charging pad.

      "Do you know who did this?" she asks.

      "I already told you cops I didn't see nothin', don't know nothin', and don't want no part of it. This is a respectable establishment, okay? That alley is public property, got no control over that."

      Defensiveness is another thing that has increased over the past few months. Fewer witnesses willing to speak up, and less cooperation with police.

      "The victim looks like he's not even 20," she says. "Don't know who his parents are by chance?" She asks this to try to evoke some sympathy and willingness to help. He closes his lips tight, looking like he's working hard not to be swayed by emotion. She waits a few moments for a reply but gets none.

      "Okay, well, if you think of anything..." She places her card on the bar. He ignores it and picks up a different brick which flashes to life, resuming the video he was watching a few minutes ago. She looks at the small screen. On it is Ed Belicaski, a challenger in the upcoming Chicago mayoral election. He is at a rally, talking tough about crime and cleaning up the city.


      Emily sits on a worn couch in her Rogers Park apartment, drinking a Goose Island pilsner. She is dressed in sweatpants and an Army T-shirt that still faintly reeks of sweaty workouts from her time in the service. She is using her laptop to view the Avocadeaux, Inc. web site, looking at CCD usage statistics. The company makes this information publicly available as a free service.

      Emily zooms into a map of Chicago, and clicks the "sentiment" box. Semi-transparent blobs of different colors overlay the map. The colors represent different emotions: blue is sad, orange is happy, yellow is afraid, and red is angry. She clicks and drags left, away from Lake Michigan, and red shows as the predominant color over Garfield Park, the 29th precinct where she was earlier today. She clicks the "trend view" box and the map morphs into a line chart. The same colors are used, now shown as curves over a timeline. The red line of anger arcs upward at a severe angle.

      She switches tabs in her browser to bring up the Chicago Police Department site. She navigates to the crime stats page which also has a map of Chicago. She checks boxes labeled "homicide" and "past 30 days", and red dots appear on the map. The densest cluster appears over the same neighborhood.

      "Thought so," she says to herself. She sees a correlation between negative CCD user sentiment and the murder rate.

      Her PCD vibrates on the table. She leans over to see the display. "Code 4. West Van Buren and South Sacramento."

      "Great," she says. "Back to the 29th."


      It is almost midnight on a Tuesday when Emily arrives at the gas station. There is a crowd of about 15 people gathered on the other side of the yellow police tape that surrounds the crime scene. Many of them shout and jeer, and hold up CCD's with the same headline displayed: "Civil Rights No Longer Guaranteed."

      The victim lies on the stained concrete next to a gas pump. A plastic sheet has been draped over the body. Dark crimson pools out from beneath the sheet and reflects purple in the fluorescent lights above.

      "What happened here?" Emily asks a sergeant standing near the body. He reads from his notebook.

      "Looks like an argument, which he lost. Vic still has his wallet. Took two to the chest. Found brass for a 45. No witnesses so far, of course. The gentleman working behind the counter says the cameras work but don't record worth a damn." ÿ

      She kneels down and pulls back a corner of the sheet to reveal the face of a male in his late 30's to mid 40's. His eyes are closed, and looks like he is in a peaceful sleep. She replaces the sheet, stands, then looks out at the agitated crowd. She goes up to the tape, standing across from an older woman who is waving a CCD and shouting, "You can't make this a police state! That goes against everything this country stands for!"

      "Can I see your brick?" Emily asks. The woman stops, looking a little perplexed, then quickly holds the CCD close to the detective's face. Startled, she leans back a little and examines the display. She then looks at the other bricks being held in the air. They all have the same message on their screens.

      "May I remind you that we're the taxpayer," the woman continues. "And that you work for us?"

      Emily does not respond. Instead she holds out her hand, palm up. The woman hesitates, then hands over her brick. During the handoff, the screen goes dark. Once in her hand it lights up again. But the display is the same as before. That doesn't make sense, Emily observes silently. I should be seeing my own content.

      She hands it back and nods thanks. She studies the other people who have gathered, looking for anyone who stands out. In the back is a man in his mid-to-late 30s. He has shaggy, curly brown hair, his face is unshaven and gaunt, and has a slightly cleft upper lip. He just stands there with a blank expression, not caught up in the fervor of the crowd. He also has a canvas backpack with him. He sees her staring and quickly turns to leave. She goes up to two uniforms nearby and points. They give chase and Emily quickly follows. She unholsters her 9mm and holds it at her side as she runs. She is thankful she wore her gym shoes.

      The suspect runs down an alley and jumps a chain link fence into a backyard. The cop in the lead busts through the gate, his partner following. Emily instead runs down the sidewalk to the next block and turns down the street to see the man dart out of the yard, cross the street, and disappear into the shadows of another yard. The streetlamp is out, feeding the darkness.

      The uniforms and Emily stop in the front yard, panting as they search the darkness with flashlights. They listen for any clues of where he has disappeared to. Suddenly the homeowner throws open the front door, a shotgun in his hands. The cops raise their handguns in response.

      "Lower your weapon!" one shouts.

      "Don't you do it!" yells the other.

      Emily holsters her handgun and raises her hands. "Easy, easy! We're just looking for someone. Just put down the gun."

      The man is older and appears confused, eyes wide, mouth agape. He points the weapon at her, lowers it, then raises it at the cops. Two deafening thunderclaps rend the night. The homeowner is thrown back against the railing that surrounds his porch and it breaks. He falls into the perfectly square bushes below. The shotgun crushes a garden gnome as it thuds heavily on the ground.


      Emily is in a bar working on her third Maker's Mark, neat. She is in The Loop, which might as well be a world away from the neighborhood she keeps answers calls for. She is drained from the two homicides yesterday, the accidental shooting, and the debrief and paperwork that followed. As she mentally unwinds everything, a dark thought keeps creeping back: It's almost like the neighborhood itself is cursed.

      A beige brick is on the bar next to her. She took it from Gary's Pub a couple days ago. There are no other CCD's here, of course. The place is too nice. Her gaze keeps returning to the brick and its scuffed acrylic screen, as if staring at it long enough will divine its secrets. Someone's building something, she considers. And they're using CCD's to build it.

      She overhears a conversation between two guys sitting a stool away. At some point one of them will try to engage her in conversation. She will be leaving soon, so will hopefully avoid the awkwardness of letting him down. She does not have the energy to be nice about it.

      "They're going to let you make phone calls on them," one says. "One day, you'll see. It's just a matter of time."

      "Telecom's too strong," says the other. "They have lobbyists working full time to prevent that from ever happening. We'll be using copper lines forever!"

      In the reflection of the mirror wall behind the bar, she sees the one closest to her hold up his own black and shiny PCD as an example. Its screen lights up.

      "So we're just going to keep using bricks that we can't make phone calls on?" His friend lifts his own from the bar and holds it up. It has a brushed metal frame and also glows to life.

      "Until the friggin telecom companies let the government change the landline act, yeah," he answers.

      "You mean the other way around. The voters will be heard!"

      "Our new mayor will be heard!" They laugh.

      She drains the glass and places it back on the napkin on the bar.

      "Is that yours?" The question is distant, and it takes a moment for Emily to realize it is directed at her. She turns right and follows his nod to the brick next to her.

      "Yes."

      "I'm surprised. I mean, a community POS? You're much too fine for that." He smirks.

      She looks at the PCD he holds, then at the PCD held by his friend. The content on each is very different. One shows lacrosse scores and the other displays a stock ticker. She looks down and picks up the CCD. It glows to life and the screen shows information about Chicago homicides. The guy sitting closest to her notes this.

      "That's pretty grim," he says.

      "It is," she agrees. "But that's my job."

      This catches him by surprise. He sits back a little, eyes going a little wider momentarily. His movements are exaggerated and sloppy from the alcohol swimming in his veins.

      "Well, I guess I'd be drinking too, then." He raises his glass. "Here's to our new mayor. May he bring a bunch of his military friends to help you out."

      "And get you some good news to look at for once," adds the other.


      Emily edges her way past a crowd of uniforms that line a dark apartment building hallway. It smells of piss and decay. She stops in an apartment doorway that opens up to the kitchen. The front door has been kicked in. There is a yellow Formica table in the center. The deceased is seated behind the table in a chair that is tilted back on two legs, leaning against the sink counter. His arms are down at his sides, his head is back, mouth open and eyes closed. She recognizes the cleft lip. She also observes that a chunk of flesh is missing from the left side of his neck. On his shirt dark blood has blossomed around his throat, from the center of his chest, and from his stomach. A CCD is jutting out from each of the two torso wounds. A third brick is embedded in a toaster on the counter behind the victim's head. The kitchen wall is splashed with blood and debris like a frozen fireworks display.

      She recalls a recent demonstration provided by the local FBI at an outdoor gun range. On exhibit was a weapon called a bricker that was recovered from a drug bust. A bricker is a bastardized version of a pitching machine that runs on a car battery, with a gear train that massively increases the motor's output. The result is a portable cannon that can launch CCD's at close to 800 miles per hour. Bricks make great high velocity ammo because of their ubiquity and near-indestructible nature. It was invented as a novelty hack, but ever since the plans went public, a bricker has been the murder weapon in at least half a dozen homicides so far this year. She remembers the sounds of the bricks shooting out with a clap (the sound of the projectile breaking the sound barrier) and obliterating a slab of ballistics gel from 50 yards away. The victim probably died of fright when he saw the weapon pointed at him from the doorway.

      "And you think you're having a bad day," jokes a uniform standing nearby. Emily resists the urge to slap the grin off his face. She stretches latex gloves over her hands as she approaches the victim. She notes that the CCD's impaling the body are active. An article with the headline "Violence Erupts in West Chicago Neighborhood" lights up their display.

      On the floor against the oven is the canvas bag she saw the man with earlier. She goes to it, carefully expands the loosely cinched opening, and peers inside with a penlight. There is a box with blinking lights, connected to a battery pack. From the box extends two thick sticks that look like antennae. It reminds her of a wireless router, but military grade. She reaches in and yanks the power cord out from the back of the device. She knows this is reckless and done partially out of anger. The lights on the box go dark. She takes a deep breath and exhales slowly to regain self-control.

      "Okay, we're going to need to get all of this to the tech team," she announces to the room. "Bag everything." She looks at the body again and notices that the content on the CCD's has changed. The devices now display anime.


      They are sitting in a caged lab located in the basement of the 18th precinct station house. The wireless router sits on a nearby table, its antenna sticks removed. "It's a man-in-the-middle device," the forensic tech explains. "It injects content into the communication stream of any brick that's in range."

      "I thought bricks were locked down," Emily says. "That only Avocadeaux could serve them content."

      "Well," she answers. "It looks like he figured out a way around it. Or he got some help. I'm still working that part out. It might be in the firmware which can kind of complicate things."

      Emily considers this for a moment, then asks, "Do you know what content was being pushed?"

      "I was able to look at the source code for a daemon that runs on the router. It's a tiny web server that provides content to the hijacked connection. The program reads a text file that's located in the same directory. There's a bunch of news articles that it cycles through. The comments in the code aren't as well written as the articles, so maybe he got them from somewhere else. I'd ask him where he got them from, but..." the tech trails off. Though she wasn't told the details about where the gear came from, she has a suspicion that the owner is dead.

      "Can I see some of the headlines?"

      The tech brings them up on a flat panel. Emily leans closer to her to read. She can hear the tech's breathing quicken.

      "Violence Erupts in West Chicago Neighborhood, Civil Rights No Longer Guaranteed, Wage Gap Continues to Increase, Anger Sometimes is the Best Medicine, OC How-To Manual Now Available Online."

      Emily sits back, crossing her arms. "Do you think he acted alone?" she asks.

      "I don't know," the technician replies. "I guess it's possible. Someone probably got him the router, though. It's pretty serious, not something you can just get on eBay. I did find something kind of interesting though..." She picks up the router, turns it over and holds it under an examination light. She points to two words scratched into the case: The Truthmaker.

      "Looks like he took his work personally," Emily comments. "Maybe he was acting alone after all."

      "Maybe."


      Emily is in the office of the precinct captain. The door is closed. The captain sits across from her, behind his imposing mahogany desk. His fingers are interlocked precisely and placed atop the mirror-polished surface.

      "The device is made by Sigma Tech," she reports. "It's a military contracting company that Ed Belicaski worked for."

      "The mayoral candidate," he confirms. She nods, fighting a tinge of nervousness.

      "Do you know how the perp got the gear?" he asks.

      "Not at this time."

      "Do you know where he got the news articles from?"

      "We're still working on that. We're thinking it came from anonymous sources. He might have just known where to look."

      "Did you get his browsing history?"

      "Didn't find any computers at his residence and his service provider was Avocadeaux so..."

      "...so it's confidential," he finishes. "Understood."

      She sees him glance at someone behind her, beyond the glass window that looks out onto the desk floor. She does not turn to see who he is looking at, but she has a strong suspicion it is the unfamiliar suit she passed on her way here.

      He exhales deeply. "I'll advise you not to make any allegations you can't retract, Detective Jensen."

      "I'm just trying to get the bottom of this, sir." This is followed by an uncomfortable silence while she considers her next move. She decides to roll the dice. "It seems pretty coincidental that someone is trying to stir up a hornet's nest," she says. "In a part of town that a mayoral candidate says he's going to clean up by bringing in military hardware that his own company sells."

      The captain's eyebrows furrow almost imperceptibly. While this is the only outward indicator of his emotional state, she knows that he is furious. He unlocks his hands and places them on the armrests of his worn leather chair. He grips the rounded edges tightly, but otherwise remains composed.

      "I think what we have here is a political activist who acted alone, and was met by an untimely demise. Probably at the hands of one of several enemies he made along the way."

      This is his way of bringing the matter to a swift conclusion. She stares back blankly while performing a series of a risk calculations: How far do I want to push this? Do I
      really want to take on the Chicago political machine? What is there to gain? To lose? Am I really ready to lose my job? My career?

      She decides not to say anything and instead exhales quietly. The captain nods, probably to the same person standing outside the office. Then, with two fingers, he slides a folder from the side to the center of his desk and opens it. It is her personnel file.

      "You've been doing great work, Detective Jensen. You have no problem getting your hands dirty, that's clear. How would you feel about getting reassigned perhaps? To something with more visibility and upward mobility?" He smiles and she fights the urge to recoil. "Someplace where you can actually make a difference."


      A couple of weeks later, Ed Belicaski lost the mayoral election. Emily was reassigned to financial crimes and was quickly promoted. She watched as the murder rate in the 29th decreased over the next several months, but not as much as she had hoped.

      The Landline Only Telecommunications Act was repealed the following year. This resulted in new products and services that let people consume digital content and make voice calls using the same handheld device. People called it a smart phone.

      The hard plastic beige "bricks" quickly disappeared from existence. Some were collected, some shelved and forgotten, but most were recycled or dumped into landfills. Emily kept the device she took from Gary's Pub. It is in a shoebox in her closet, dead. There are no more inductive charging pads that can bring it back to life.


      THE END

      Comment


      • #4
        The Chat Witch


        by FinalPhoenix

        <SamusZero> And so I asked the chat witch, and then suddenly the problem resolved itself
        <KoraNectar> You can't honestly believe that. Cyber black magic? It's a joke, I hope you didn't pay anything for it
        <SamusZero> I gave her a graphics card, she said she used it in sacrifice. I don't believe it, but it worked, didn't it?
        <KoraNectar> Sacrifice? What did she do? Cut it's resistors off?
        <SamusZero> Who knows, all I know is my boss is off my back and all those problems I was having at work seemed to...disappear

        I couldn't respond, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. This wasn't the first time I heard about the chat witch, a chick somewhere on the IRC server that you sent computer parts to who would resolve any conflicts you were having with technology. This was the first time someone I trusted had contacted her. She was an urban legend on the server, had ops in every channel, and some say she possessed the server but no one knew quite who she was truly. Her name was spoken with reverence whenever she was brought up and any conversation regarding her quickly was passed in direct messages but never in public channels.

        The chat witch had worshippers, and they were always listening. However, every religion had it's nonbelievers.

        <SamusZero> You should try it, you know, resolve the problems you're having with that startup you decided to join
        <KoraNectar> What a load of crap. What do I send her to make a company successful? A Compaq?
        <SamusZero> rofl maybe

        ~*~*~*~


        Mortal Kombat was never my strong suit, and neither, it seemed, was programming, but my performance review at this tiny startup was tied to doing both. I sat in the overstuffed beanbag chair in my boss' office, pressing the buttons on the controller for the brand new SNES hopelessly while my boss destroyed my character.

        "Cora, I'm starting to think you don't take this seriously." My boss said as Sonia fell to the ground, dead. "You know, this is your time to show me how much you care about this company."

        "I care," I ground out. "I just don't know what programming a search engine has to do with playing this game."

        "It's to relax you." He replied. "Isn't this relaxing? You know, I read that this is how things happened in the 70s right here in Palo Alto." He thumped on the bean bag "This is to help you grow, and you need to start taking your position here seriously, you're falling behind your teammates and I know you're a woman bu-"

        "This really...really doesn't have anything to do with my gender, if I can be frank."

        "You can, I'm here for you, but I'm also trying to do what's best for the company, and some of your coworkers have noticed that you're not contributing as much as you should. What can I do to help you reach your potential? More drinks at the office?"

        Most of my potential at the office was wasted in being paraded around in front of investors as a token girl working on our small search engine. What diversity! I ran my fingers through my hair nervously, it was greasy and slicked back into a pony tail, I hadn't had time to shower this week because we were getting ready to demo for investors on Thursday.

        "Nothing, I'll work harder," I promised, hoping that he wouldn't hit the A button and start another fight.

        "Good, good, I know that being a female might be hard sometimes, you know with all the hormones but we really appreciate having our little cheerleader on the team." My boss suddenly pressed the A button and we were back on the character selection screen. "Another round? I love this thing, don't you?"

        I hated this thing. I pressed A. Another round.

        ~*~*~*~

        Later that night after a few glasses of wine and a lot of self-pitying, I decided there was nothing to lose. Some people found Jesus at the bottom of the bottle, but I was about to find the chat witch.

        <KoraNectar> SamusZero? yt?


        If the chat witch could bewitch my boss into simply not noticing I was there, my life would be so much easier, but it was eight o'clock at night and I had not left the office yet, the glow of my CRT and the high pitched hum of fans my only companions. Everyone else had left hours ago.

        <SamusZero> What's up?
        <KoraNectar> Can you get me in contact with the chat witch?
        <SamusZero> lol ofc, but you can't contact her directly...not at first
        <KoraNectar> Then who?
        <SamusZero> Someone else will contact you tomorrow
        <KoraNectar> kk


        Typing the letters, my fingers felt heavy. My head throbbed with a wine headache and I dimmed the brightness of the screen to avoid it from getting worse. Desperate times, Cora, desperate times.

        I opened up the HTML for the search engine and began to redo the design again, a complete overhaul two days before the demo. What were they thinking? What was I thinking to agree? I felt like I was beginning to lose my sanity at this startup.

        I poured another glass of wine to combat the headache and looked up from my cube into the darkness. I was alone with my thoughts. Each time I saved a file I thought of the chat witch and eventually fell into dreams where she saved me from this dead-end startup and told my boss to shove it.

        ~*~*~*~

        In the company photos for the newspaper I was diminutive compared to all my other coworkers, they put me on a chair next to my boss. "Look, a woman." The reporter had said.

        I smiled. The demo was successful and the boys had left to celebrate. Tom had taken credit for the last minute changes to the "look and feel" despite having nothing to do with that part of the project. I tried to say something but by the time I had summed up any courage I was alone in the office. I sat at my desk and shoved the bottles of wine away from my keyboard, my IRC client was blinking. There was message was from someone I had never seen lurking in my usual channels, Athanasia82.

        <Athanasia82> You have requested an audience.
        <KoraNectar> An audience?
        <Athanasia82> We know what you seek.

        I rolled my eyes. RPers weren't welcome on this server so what were they doing in my private messages? This wasn't their Dungeons and Dragons group. I began to type an angry message, tired from a long day, my nerves at their ends.

        <Athanasia82> The chat witch requires payment.

        Ah, so this is the person SamusZero was talking about, one of the chat witch's loyal followers.

        <KoraNectar> What does she want? A compaq?
        <Athanasia82> She knows what you seek and she requires a motherboard in payment.
        <KoraNectar> Any model?
        <Athanasia82> Any model.


        I looked at my coworker's computer wondering if the chat witch would know I took it out of spite. Tom always made my life a living hell, I was sure he'd change his tune once he realized his computer was busted.

        The sun was setting over the cube farm, I could see the five o'clock traffic from my high rise backing up on the freeway exit. I pulled my blonde hair back into a messy ponytail and grabbed the screwdriver from my cup of pens.

        Tom was our database engineer. Tom was about to have a very bad Friday. I began to unscrew the case. The lid fell on the floor with a clatter.

        It didn't matter whether the chat witch was real or not, I hated Tom.

        Screw him.

        ~*~*~*~


        The chat witch took her payments only in person, so I made a trip that evening at around nine to meet her with Tom's motherboard stuffed into my backpack. The chat witch lived up in San Francisco, in the Outer Richmond near the sea, her house was close enough to the park that I could see the windmills looming in the moonlight. I had scrawled her address down on a post it note that said Oracle at the top.

        A girl of about sixteen was sitting on the steps of the porch, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, her long hair braided tightly into two pigtails. She was hunched over a book, squinting to read even though the porch light was on.

        "KoraNectar?" She asked me, looking up from the romance book she had been reading. A man looked back at me from the cover, she closed the book and set it on the step.

        "Are you the chat witch?" I asked from the sidewalk, somewhat afraid to step closer.

        The girl shook her head "No, I'm just a devotee." She held her hand out. "Your payment?"

        I handed over the motherboard, a fleeting sense of dread passed through me as I wondered if everyone in the office already knew I had stolen the motherboard, or if Tom would blame me in the morning. I had been careful not to leave any evidence behind. No one would suspect me, but they might.

        She was inspecting the motherboard for something and seemed to have found it, setting it down with a clatter. "Payment accepted, we will start the ritual tonight."

        "Wait, this is not some cheap motherboard, I want to at least meet her." I protested, crossing my arms and trying to look bigger than my five two frame.

        "The chat witch isn't taking visitors. You understand, don't you?" The girl said, standing up on the step, her romance novel falling to the sidewalk at my feet.

        "No, I am afraid I do not."

        "Are you interested in becoming a devotee?"

        "I don't want to be in your little cult." I snapped, suddenly wondering what I was doing here in the first place. It was a long drive home and I didn't even believe any of this voodoo magic, I just was curious as to what a chat witch looked like, or what she would do to this motherboard. "I just wanted to meet her."

        The girl on the porch narrowed her eyes and then suddenly the screen door creaked open and another woman about the same age as me stepped out, she had a black bob and wore an oversized white t-shirt and jeans.

        "What is it?" She asked, regarding the other girl and me.

        "This is KoraNectar, she's come to deliver her payment." The girl said. "She called us a cult. I don't thi-"

        "It is not up to us to pass judgement Persy, the chat witch has regarded her as worthy of our help." The bobbed woman picked up the motherboard. "You haven't done your chores yet, the ritual room is a mess."

        "I got lost in a book."

        "Lost is one word for it."

        They disappeared into the house, the screen door clattering shut.

        I picked up the romance book and began to thumb through it expecting heaving bosoms and turgid lengths but found circuit diagrams instead. I hurriedly walked back to my car in the dark, clutching the book to my chest.

        It wasn't a romance novel at all, I found out later, it was a book of spells.

        ~*~*~*~


        Tom was in deep the next day. My boss had completely forgotten that I existed, instead chewing out the database engineer for every small mistake he had ever made in his entire life, including not showering or shaving often enough despite having to meet with investors. I listened to him call his wife later, saying that he wasn't sure he'd be home and that they needed to dip into savings for a new motherboard.

        At a glance, it would seem like the chat witch had delivered on her promise. My boss really had forgotten to torment me at all today and I sat in my cube quietly poring over the book of spells that seemed like a load of crap but was very insistent upon itself. There were spells for the weirdest things: code compiling faster, success in backups, harmony in the workplace, all required payment, some more than others.

        The circuit diagrams were not actually for circuits at all, but for laying out the ritual site. It called for various things, mice, keyboards, graphic cards and motherboards, sometimes monitors (for sight-related rituals involving graphic design). I spent the entire day reading the book of spells, and perhaps because I had dipped into the wine a little at lunch, I gathered up a few of my coworkers' keyboards and one hard drive and set home with my backpack full, ready to "cast" a spell.

        I had laid out the mouse cable according to the book when I heard my computer go off. Athanasia82 had messaged me.

        <Athanasia82> Return my book

        I didn't respond, instead I messaged SamusZero about it.

        <KoraNectar> I stole a book of spells from the chat witch
        <SamusZero> lol, you don't believe that do you? What does it even say?
        <KoraNectar> I'm going to try a spell right now, will tell you how it goes, bbl


        I picked the book up off my desk, eyeing the buff man in the ruffled shirt on the cover before flipping it over to read the spell I was attempting to cast. It seemed innocuous enough: increased wisdom. Lord knew I needed more of it.

        I sat at one end of my spell diagram and crossed my legs, listening to the quietness of the apartment, the pipes settling as everyone around me began to get ready for bed. I closed my eyes and began to chant the spell in my head: mai istet mai bine mai repede mai puternic.

        After a few moments I opened my eyes to see nothing happening and sighed. Maybe I had mispronounced the words? I didn't even know what language this was supposed to be. I got up off the floor, my legs asleep, and stumbled into my bed.

        I recited the words as I fell asleep, my fingers tapping to each syllable: mai istet mai bine mai repede mai puternic. I fell asleep quickly, no wine required to chase away my fears of being fired, the foreign language was boring enough, but soothing in a way I had yet to understand.

        ~*~*~*~


        It was my fire alarm that woke me up, startling me into wakefulness as I sat up in bed, inhaling smoke and coughing. What was going on? Had I left the burners on? Was I cooking something and fell asleep?

        I stepped out of bed and onto something sticky and hot. I screamed and fell back into bed, holding my foot with both hands. Frick. Frick. What happened?

        I stumbled over to the window and threw it open sticking my head out and gulping in the night air.

        I began to try and wave the smoke out the window with my arms and after a good fifteen minutes the whole room had cleared and there was a pounding on my door. "14B! 14B! Is everything alright? I can see smoke-"

        "Fine! Everything is fine." I limped over to the door. "I left the stove on and fell asleep." I opened the door to see my neighbor, 16C, a meddling old woman who didn't know how to mind her own business.

        "14B, you must be careful, what if the smoke had gotten into my home? Then what?"

        "Then I would pay for the damage, it's late, I'm sorry, I'm going back to bed."

        I turned on the desk lamp and sat back down, turning my foot over in my hand to see the burn marks, but something caught my eye instead.

        All the metal in the computer parts for my spell diagram had melted away, leaving sticky beige plastic and scorch marks in the carpet. The spell had done something, but I didn't feel any wiser.

        But I was, I was wise enough to know now that the chat witch's special brand of magic was real.

        ~*~*~*~


        I stood in front of the chat witch's house in the Outer Richmond on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 1994, holding the romance novel that made me believe in magic and wondering how I was going to approach it so I could actually meet her. It was about nine thirty in the morning when I made a decision and the house seemed to know too.

        The door opened before I took a step forward and the bobbed hair woman stepped out. She wore a floral dress and I could hear music floating out from behind her. "I'm Athanasia," the woman introduced herself. "We've been waiting for you."

        "Is this about the book?" I said, suddenly too afraid to move.

        "It's about what you've been doing with the book." Athanasia responded and looked at a passerby, a homeless person ambling up the street with his cart. "Come inside."

        Success, it was time to meet the chat witch.

        The house was cluttered with computer cases and keyboards stacked upon books and end tables, I noticed the wood floors of the living room were blackened, covered by a burnt rug. Somewhere in the house, someone was playing an acoustic guitar. I laid the book on the coffee table, an old wooden thing that had seen better days.

        "She's here?" A voice asked and the bobbed woman who was sitting on the worn couch looked out into the hallway.

        "She's here."

        "Good, good. Koranectar, I've been waiting for you, ever since Samus told me about you." A woman's voice floated down the halls and I stood up to greet her.

        She was a little older than me, draped in a rainbow of rich cloth that flowed around her as she walked, this woman must be her. She offered a bejeweled hand, her rings made out of Cat3 cable and telephone wire. "I am Lilith, the one who cast your spell."

        "You're the chat witch."

        "Oh no," she shook her head, her long black hair fell over her face, she batted it away like cobwebs "I am a chat witch, this is our coven."

        "When you have need of us," Athanasia said behind us, "You can find us again, as a favor for returning the book to us."

        "I really don't think I'll need you. This is definitely a one time meeting." The chat witches made me nervous.

        "You will need us soon, everyone has need of us after the first time." Lilith said.

        ~*~*~*~

        Chat witch spells don't last forever, and after the weekend all the magic from my motherboard had worn off and my boss was on my case again. I tapped my pen on my mousepad and stared at the search engine I had built. Tom was missing today, and my boss was leaning over the edge of my cubicle chewing me out about data integrity.

        "If we keep losing records it doesn't make sense now does it Cora." He drawled, his fingers drumming on the plastic cover of the cubicle wall, if there was one thing that would drive a woman to murder it was that sound. "It isn't a search engine if there isn't anything to search."

        "Yes, I know but I don't really have anything to do with the records, Tom-"

        "Isn't here, now is he? Stop trying to pass the buck."

        "I'm no-"

        "Own up to it Cora, man up."

        My pen stopped on the mousepad and I drove it down into the desk feeling the spongy material tear underneath the point. I wondered what it would feel like to drive this pen into his eye, would it feel like the mousepad?

        "I'll get right on it." I replied coolly.

        ~*~*~*~

        After lunch I messaged SamusZero

        <KoraNectar> I met the chat witch. I think I might have become one
        <SamusZero> Used the book of spells?
        <KoraNectar> Yeah
        <SamusZero> I thought it was more like a good luck charm type of thing
        <KoraNectar> No, it's real, do you want to meet up?
        <SamusZero> Sure


        SamusZero lived in Mountain View, she was a kernel developer at Apple Computers, a failing miserable company that used to have a lot of LSD and a lot of cash but had little of both these days. She was a bit taller than me, and a bit pudgier, but twice as funny and twice as smart as I'd ever hope to be.

        We sat at the table in the arcade next to a Dungeons and Dragons game that was loud to compensate for the chatter of all the machines. She fidgeted with a pack of cigarettes while I spoke.

        "There's a circuit diagram burned into my apartment floor now." I concluded the story of casting my first spell. "I'm never getting my deposit back."

        "So it's real." She said, biting her lip, looking over at the guy who was writing down his stats next to us, illuminated by the glow of the Ninja Turtles cabinet. "What are you going to do? What spell are you going to try next? Can I come?"

        "I returned the book, they knew I had it." I said, dejected for once that I did the right thing.

        "Idiot, you should have xeroxed it or something." she said, winking at the guy she had been staring at for the better part of an hour.

        "Yeah but now they owe me."

        "Owe you what? A spell?" Samus turned her attention back to me.

        "Yeah, a spell."

        "What spell is it going to be?"

        "I wish there was a spell to get rid of my boss, he drives me up a wall."

        Samus' eyes flicked to mine and a small smile spread on her face "There's probably a spell for that."

        "Yeah but the book I had only had spells for mundane things, who wants better luck on C++ compiles? Just write better code."

        "Who says that's the only book?" Samus asked flipping her cigarette box over again "Just ask, what can it harm? They probably hear worse stuff all the time."

        ~*~*~*~

        I had the query window for Athanasia82 open and I had started and deleted about twelve messages for the last hour, it was nearing one and I still hadn't said anything. I finally decided to be upfront about it.

        <KoraNectar> I need to get rid of my boss
        <Athanasia82> This spell requires heavy payment.
        <KoraNectar> Name it

        I had access to pretty much everything at my job, no one had suspected me yet.

        <Athanasia82> A server, IBM or Compaq.


        We had a server room at work, it was on the lowest level of our building. I stood between racks and racks of beige machines looking down the cluttered aisle listening to the hum of progress. Could I really steal a $5,000 machine for black magic?

        "Cora! We haven't seen you down here for a tick." A friendly voice called, the Systems Admin down here, Chris, was a friend of mine. "Boss giving you hell?"

        I flashed a smile "Isn't he always?"

        "He's a real dick." Chris said disentangling himself from the wires he was hooking up "What can I get you?"

        "I need a big favor." I said shifting my weight from one foot to the other. "I need a server."

        "Yeah, for what? All your stuff is hosted over there so what's one more to the pile."

        "No, not my company, I need a server."

        Chris looked perplexed "For what?"

        I knew he'd never buy the truth, but let it be known that I did not lie to him, dear reader. "For sacrifice."

        He narrowed his eyes but turned on his heel and dragged out a huge beige box anyways "Your company has a server that's not in use, a brand new Compaq ProLiant machine that I haven't set up, if you take it, it's your problem, not mine. Are you...are you fencing it for cash?"

        "I told you what I was doing with it Chris, it's your choice not to believe me." I said toeing the box, COMPAQ in big letters on the side. "It's for a sacrifice."

        "We all make sacrifices, but I mean-"

        "Keep it here until five then, yeah? I'll pick it up later."

        He grabbed my wrist and held me back before I could leave. "You're not doing drugs or anything? I know your boss has been hard on you and you dip into the wine a little more than you need to, but you're not in any trouble are you?"

        "Chris," I said, extricating myself from him. "I promise you, if I need help, you're the first guy I'd tell, we're friends right?"

        "Yeah, but like...well you know sometimes friends don't tell friends everything and I know it can get hard…" He trailed off and fidgeted with his pants pocket before looking at me again. "I just want to make sure you're safe, yeah?"

        "Yeah." I didn't argue with him, after all, he was giving me the server I needed for my ritual.

        Chris was right to look out for me, but his concern was misplaced. I could handle myself.


        ~*~*~*~


        Seeing a five thousand dollar server in pieces on the burnt wooden floor of the chat witch's house made my stomach do flip flops, the girl who I had stolen the book from, Persy, short for Persephone, was yanking the ribbon cables from the hard drives and laying them all neatly in a row on the floor.

        "You will have to cast this spell, KoraNectar." Lillith said stirring her tea and watching Persy with a close eye. "This spell requires more than just metal, it requires the caster to know the person they want to get rid of, and the caster will be marked."

        "Marked?"

        Lilith nodded and rolled up her sleeve a bit, a simple circuit diagram, circles and lines, running along with her veins. "Some spells burn into your skin as a reminder that you cast them, but it's nothing to worry about for a chat witch."

        "I'm not a chat witch, I'm just someone who's here to cast spells."

        Lilith raised an eyebrow before sinking back into the worn floral chair with her tea cup. "There's not much time, it must be cast at dusk. Hurry up Persy, you've always been slow with your spellwork."

        Persy, who was trying to flatten a ribbon cable, looked over her shoulder, her long braid falling to the floor and ruining another cable's alignment. "I'm working on it."

        "You know," Athanasia said, "This is a very advanced spell to do on your second time. A notice me not charm, a wisdom spell, and then this?"

        "What's so bad about getting someone out of a position they were never supposed to be in in the first place?" I asked, sitting down cross legged at the top of the diagram.

        "It seems like the wisdom spell you cast didn't work." Athanasia said, sitting down on another side of the diagram. "However, when a sister asks, we do not resist her call."

        Lilith sat down at the bottom of the diagram placing her tea on the end table that was closest to her. Finally Persy had straightened out the ribbon cable and sat down on the remaining side.

        "Ok KoraNectar, scapa inrauri are the words to the spell and you must concentrate on the person. When the capacitors blow you cannot lose concentration or we'll need a second server, and I don't think those are easy to come by." Lillith said, doing a meditative pose

        I closed my eyes and imitated the pose, feeling silly for sitting on the floor of some crazy woman in the Outer Richmond, but I began to chant the words in my head as I had before when I cast the spell at home, thinking of my boss standing at my cubicle wall tapping his fingers on the damned plastic.

        There was a loud pop and I was startled a little but Lillith's voice soothed me. "Continue, KoraNectar."

        His stupid face when we played stupid Mortal Kombat. Scapa inrauri. Pop.

        The way he blamed me for everyone else's stupid problems. Scapa inrauri. Pop. Now I could smell burning plastic and metal.

        The way he called me nothing but a cheerleader for the company I busted my rear for. Scapa inrauri. Now I could smell the wood burning and hear the humming of the other witches. The smoke was intoxicating, thoughts of hate filled me along with the scent of the smoke and I chanted the words over and over untilÉ

        "KoraNectar?" Lillith's voice was concerned and I opened my eyes, sunlight was streaming through the windows. "Sometimes the smoke gets to us. It was a complicated ritual."

        I held up my hand to block the sunlight and noticed a black mark on my inner wrist, it was the circuit diagram from the ritual, complicated and long, it followed my veins up my arms much like Lillith's.

        "It is complete." She said. "Come, let's go get brunch."

        Chat witches loved brunch, I found out. I did too.

        ~*~*~*~

        My boss stopped coming to work and it was quiet, the rest of the company unsure whether there even would be a company anymore, the investors coming and going through our small office space asking questions that they didn't really understand the answers to.

        Late on a Tuesday one of our primary investors, a man I had met many times as I was paraded around to show diversity leaned over my cube wall, tapping in the same way my boss had. "Cora, right?"

        "Cora." I affirmed, trying to push my empty wine bottle behind my monitor.

        "Listen, Ted, your boss, is missing, he's been missing for some time and so is a bunch of office equipment, we think he was… you know... embezzling."

        "O-Oh." I swallowed all the bile that had risen in my throat. "He was always a bit...well you know."

        "He seemed to like you well enough, he always brought you to meetings, do you want the job? I don't know many of these other guys around here." The primary investor looked me over "Besides you've got the look for it, imagine a woman-owned tech company, the money will come pouring in."

        I frowned. "I really don't think my gender has anything to do with it."

        And I was right, it didn't. It had everything to do with magic.

        "Well, we need more like you around here." He gestured to the empty cube farm. "So I'll take what I can get, eh Cora?"

        ~*~*~*~

        When my company was sold to Yahoo a few years later I paid a visit to the chat witches and offered them part of my profits as tribute, they told me that the only payment I must give is help to other people on my server. They handed me the romance novel back with a smile and told me that I must answer the call if it was asked of me.

        It didn't take long.

        <InuTomodachi> I need help. This senior engineer is driving me crazy, I just don't want him to know I exist anymore. They say you're...you know a chat witch.

        I scratched at the tattoo on my wrist before responding.

        <KoraNectar> I require payment.
        <InuTomodachi> Name it.
        <KoraNectar> A motherboard. Tonight all your problems will go away.
        <InuTomodachi> Thank you.

        I typed out my address and that night a girl in an oversized hoodie appeared on my porch in the Presidio, holding a motherboard in her hands. "I've come to see the chat witch."

        Comment


        • #5
          The Denizens
          By: 0tt3r


          Her music went foul, which is why everyone in Denizen’s Arcade saw it happen. Her music--that beautiful pattern of joystick slams, button taps, bleeps, blings, and audible verbal tics of concentration that accompanied Shannon working her magic on her favorite machine--became dissonant and broken. It drew their attention and so they all saw her frozen, shaking, hands jiggling on the controls. They all saw her cursory ponytail wriggling like a mortally wounded snake, briefly, before she bent at the waist and drove her face through the thick glass of the screen.

          A week later the console had been removed by efficient men in utility jumpsuits, the cops had completed their interviews, and all the denizens of the arcade were in the back corner, slumped in hard metal chairs around a plastic table piled with greasy pizza boxes and open, warm soda cans. They heard a familiar electronic scream and warble through the thin office door on the back wall and were reminded that they weren’t all at the table. Chuck was on the computer.

          “Why?” asked Brandon. Tom and Dave leaned back in their chairs, blowing out long sighs.

          “Stop asking that,” said Dave.

          “But.. Shannon? Through the glass?”

          “She was epileptic, the cops said.”

          “She wasn’t epileptic. C’mon. Half the summer? This?” Brandon flapped his hands in a loose circle and they all looked around the dark arcade. Strobes of color flashed out of every screen, flickering against the walls and the sides of the other consoles in a visual frenzy. The synthesized music and effects of nine machines running unattended in demo mode blended into a constant familiar mashup. But all of them could hear the hole in the music where Shannon’s console should be.

          “And have you ever actually seen a seizure?” asked Brandon. “They freeze, and fall. Maybe they bounce their head off a table and it hurts. But not.. that..”
          The door opened and a tourist walked in. He had on jeans, a tucked in t-shirt, and thin-lensed glasses. Then the door closed and his details were lost in the flickering visuals. He put a coin into a platform gamer. Ten seconds later, he lost his first life.
          They turned back to each other. Before they finished sipping their flat sodas the tourist died again.

          “It doesn’t matter why. It happened. She’s gone,” said Dave.

          “She’s not gone,” said Tom, “she’s in a coma.” Dave said nothing.

          The tourist died again, fished a coin from his pocket and moved to another machine. It was an alien shoot ‘em up, right next to the hole where Shannon’s game was supposed to be. He didn’t survive the first wave.

          Chuck came out of the office, watched the tourist play for a second, and threw himself into the last empty chair with an eye roll. “Well, we got scooped.” he said, “But it was a different version, so I got some download creds anyway.”

          “How could it be a different version?” Dave asked. “We were one of the first to get it and we only had it for a month.”

          Chuck shrugged. “Dunno. But hashes didn’t match so they gave me some creds.”

          “Who beat us?” asked Brandon.

          “Who do you think?”

          “Gino’s. Again,” said Tom.

          Chuck nodded.

          “Don’t they have jobs in New York?”

          Chuck shrugged. “I would have beat them. But I lost a week. You know..” All four denizens of the arcade drank. The tourist died again and seemed to be content watching the demo mode.

          Dave said, “Why did it take so long anyway? Didn’t you pull it the first night?”

          Chuck nodded, “Of course. But it wouldn’t load into the play box right, and I didn’t want to deliver dead code. Took me a bit to figure it out.”

          “Copy protected?”

          “Something. The game bytes were ciphered somehow and get cleaned up with some sort of bootstrap code. The bootstrap needs a key and it took me awhile to find it in the ROM.”

          Tom leaned forward. “Oh! That sounds fun. Why didn’t you ask us to help?”

          Chuck said, “I did have help. Shannon did it.”

          The others considered that a moment, then nodded and took sips.

          Brandon looked around. The tourist was still staring at the demo mode. “Hey man, you want some help on that game? There’s just a couple basic moves to get you past that tricky first wave.”

          The man turned and awkwardly pantomimed a “who me?” kind of look. “No. Thanks.” He walked out, change jangling in his pocket.

          Tom looked at Brandon. “Jerk,” he said. The others barked a tight laugh.

          Dave asked, “Didn’t you teach that guy at Gino’s how to pull the code off the consoles?”

          Chuck nodded.

          “Didn’t you say he was kind of hopeless at it at first?”

          Chuck shrugged and nodded.

          “So how did they beat that protection if it took you three weeks?”

          Chuck shrugged and returned to the office. Shortly after that they heard the shriek and warble of the modem again.

          Tom got up and went to the shoot ‘em up the tourist had been playing. He pulled some pieces of stiff wire out of his pocket, crouched on his haunches, and began fiddling with the lock on the change box. Brandon watched for a moment then said, “You know we actually have the keys for that lock. Or Chuck does at least.”

          Tom didn’t look up. “You say that every time.”

          “Didn’t Chuck empty the boxes this morning?”

          Tom said nothing but a muttered swear word as his hand slipped and banged off the front of the console.

          Chuck came out of the office. “Hey I downloaded the code Gino’s uploaded. You guys want to see if it’s a different game?”

          Dave asked, “You wasted a download on Gino’s version of a game we already have?”

          “I said it was for research, maybe they’ll give me a freebie,” Chuck said. “Tom, seriously, stop doing that. I swear the keys are starting to jam.”

          Tom didn’t look up. “You’ll thank me someday.”

          Chuck shook his head and headed back to the office. Dave and Brandon followed, squinting a bit in the bright light of the office and carefully stepping past a fat electric plug jammed into the socket by the door and warded by a wrap of stolen police tape. It was a small space, cluttered, but big enough for a desk on one side to hold a computer workstation. The case was off of the CPU, exposing its innards for all to see. The CRT glowed with a spinning, checkerboard-patterned ball that bounced off the edges of the screen. A new, top-end, in-line modem blinked furiously next to the computer.

          On the opposite wall was a workbench, also cluttered. A couple of fishing tackle boxes were stacked in the corner of the workbench, topped by a clean, well-loved soldering iron. Next to these tackle boxes was a pile of cables, cords, and circuit boards sitting on the workbench in a way that implied they were all working together to achieve a singular goal. A single, wide, flat cable went from this ordered electronics entropy into an old console pushed against the wall. There was no change box, just a piece of cardboard, hinged and latched with duct tape where the change box should be. The control panel for the console was also missing so you could see straight into the machine under the CRT.

          “Stick and one,” said Dave.

          Chuck nodded and bent under the workbench. There were banging and sliding sounds and Chuck surfaced with a plywood board that had a joystick and a button mounted on it. A bunch of plugs and wires dangled from underneath. He held it next to the console while Dave pulled the wires into the hole where the control board should be.

          “All right,” said Dave, leaning back.

          Chuck lowered the board over the four mounting screws and tightened it down with some wing nuts. “I already loaded it,” he said as he flicked a switch sticking out oddly from the side of the console. The screen lit up, the hardware ran through some POST cycles, and the splash screen appeared. Brandon stepped up before the others could and hit the 1-Player button.

          They watched while he played a bit. He was competent, and quick, but not as good as Shannon was. Or had been. “Uh. It seems the same to me. I guess. I mean nothing is making me feel like it is different.”

          “Me neither,” Dave said, “Maybe we should load our version up?”

          Brandon stepped away from the machine and Chuck shut it off. After some rapid mouse movement, bursts of staccato typing, and a couple of connector jiggles, a light on the workbench gear began blinking. It blinked for a long minute before turning a solid green. Chuck turned the console back on.

          Brandon stepped back up the machine. “Here we go.”


          “YES!” shouted Tom as a very satisfying click tremored up his fingers and the change box fell open before him. He removed the single quarter the tourist had left behind and held it aloft. He spun on his heel. “YES!” he shouted again to the empty arcade. “Oh c’mon”
          He heard familiar game music coming from the office. He flung the door open, held his trophy up, and shouted, “YES!”

          “Hey man,” Brandon said over his shoulder, eyeing the screen and working the controls. Dave and Chuck just kept watching Brandon play.

          “That’s Shannon’s game, isn’t it?” asked Tom.

          “Yeah.. CRAP!” said Brandon, jerking the stick sideways, “we loaded the one from Gino’s and then ours to see if there was any playable difference, but I haven’t seen any… CRAP! ...thing.”

          “‘Hey man, you want some help on that game? There’s just a couple basic moves to get you past that tricky first wave.’” said Tom in his version of Brandon’s voice.

          “Shut uh… nonononoNONONONO!! CRAP!!” Brandon smacked the keys and stepped back. “I HATE that part!” He turned around. “Well, did it look different?”
          Tom looked at Dave and Chuck, “Guys?”

          Dave blinked and shook his head, “Sorry I must have zoned out a bit.” He looked at Chuck. “Chuck?”

          Chuck didn’t respond. He was staring through Brandon’s chest at the console screen behind him. But he wasn’t staring, exactly. His eyes spasmodically jerked in a low-res circle.

          Brandon screamed, “CHUCK!” and smacked his hands together. Chuck jerked slightly but kept staring through Brandon’s chest.

          Tom looked down and kicked the yellow-wrapped plug near the door. He saw a little spark, heard an audible snap, and then the whole room went black.

          “Crap!” shouted Brandon.

          There was a grunt. Then a confusion of thumping noises. Someone stepped on Tom’s foot. Brandon felt an odd sensation like a windmill spinning past his face followed by some Newtonian feeling of a large mass falling away from him. A cacophony of bangs and splintering split the air of the dark room. Something collapsed in the distinct sound of stacked, cascaded failure. There was a final, deep, watermelon thud.

          “OUCH!” said Chuck.

          “Chuck!” said Brandon.

          Dave pushed open the office door and light from the compliant-but-not-sufficient emergency lighting in the arcade leaked into the office. “I’ll get the breaker,” he said.

          Brandon crouched next to what he could see of Chuck, careful not to touch anything. Tom held still.

          The lights came back on. Chuck lay in the middle of the office, one hand rubbing his head. He was covered in precious gear. The workbench had tilted and dumped tackle boxes, soldering iron, and the console load box on top of Chuck. It was still a connected grouping of electronics, but there was a sense they had somehow lost their singular purpose, perhaps lost their soul. The recycled plywood desk was split down the middle with jagged, thin daggers of wood on both sides of the break. The computer’s guts were spilled across Chuck’s abdomen. The CRT had slid forward. It was the undeniable source of both the final thud and Chuck’s head pain. He had been lucky though. The thick power cord to the back of the monitor had been trapped by the edge of the desk and kept it from dropping fully onto Chuck’s head.
          Tom stepped across the rubble and pushed the CRT back, wedging it into the corner. “Jesus..”

          “Here,” said Brandon as he began picking gear off of Chuck. “Are you okay?”

          “What the hell happened?” asked Chuck.

          Brandon and Tom looked at the console. It had booted up again and the splash screen was beckoning them. Dave stepped through the door, glanced at the screen, and flicked the switch on the console. The screen blipped white and then faded slowly to black.

          “Oh,” said Chuck. It wasn’t “oh” as in, “now I get it”, it was “oh” as in, “hey, I just discovered I’m hurt.” It was the kind of “oh” to get your Id all fired up.

          “Crap!” said Brandon. Tom reached down to pull Chuck up.

          “Stop!” said Dave, “Move out of the way Tom.” Dave crouched next to Chuck and examined his arm. There was blood dribbling from cuts on Chuck’s left forearm. Blood was starting to pool in the crook of his elbow. “They don’t look deep but I do see some splinters. We need to get you cleaned up.”

          They started pushing the the gear off of Chuck with a little less care. Tom scooped the console loader remnants up. They still had power, if not purpose. The wrong loose wire slid across the right bare metal. There was a pop and a thin stream of smoke drifted up from the boards in Tom’s hands.

          “Great. I’ve told you before not to let the smoke out,” said Chuck.

          Tom shrugged, pulled the power cable out, dumped the boards in an unrecognizable heap where the workbench was supposed to be, and helped Chuck to his feet. They led him out the back door.


          At first it was easier to just take refuge in soap, water, Bactine, tweezers, and bandages. They were tangible, physical things; they had known uses and effects. They were unlikely to simply start causing strange things to happen. But once they were all seated around Chuck’s parents’ kitchen table, in Chuck’s parents’ clinically-clean kitchen, sipping on iced soda from heavy glasses, it was time to face the things that they had seen. There was too much empirical information in their heads, and too much curiosity to ignore it.

          “What the hell,” said Tom.

          “It just blanked me,” said Chuck. “The last thing I remember was watching Brandon get past the boss at level 10. Then I was on the floor in the dark.”

          Brandon took a forced gulp and set his glass down like it was made of porcelain. Brandon’s skin was January pale, as opposed to his normal mid-July pale. “Your eyes.
          You were freaking out.” He didn’t look up.

          Dave went ahead and said it, “It’s the game. It has to be the game.”

          “But Brandon was playing the game, not Chuck,” said Tom. Dave said nothing.

          They all heard a gasp from upstairs. Chuck’s mom hurtled down the stairs and slid to a stop in the kitchen, a dirty white towel streaked with blood in her hand. Her wide eyes took in the boys, sipping on their perspiring soda glasses. She saw the bandages on Chuck’s arm. “What happened?” she asked as she jerked his arm up for inspection.

          “Ow! I fell at the arcade. It’s okay. Dave cleaned me up.”

          She glanced at Dave, her eyebrow precisely arched. “Scouts,” said Dave. Chuck knew his mom always harbored an un-earned belief in the skills of the Scouts, mainly because they met at her church and were always cleaning or improving it in some way or another. She completed her superficial examination of Dave’s handiwork and released Chuck.

          “Well,” she said, “you could have at least cleaned up after yourself. I thought someone had died.” She brandished the soiled towel at Chuck.

          “Sorry mom,” he said.

          The doorbell rang. She gave one last shake of the towel and turned on her heel, “Clean it up!” The boys heard the front door open, then murmurs of cordial greeting, then concerned murmurs, then surprised murmurs with an edge of determined helpfulness. Chuck’s mom returned to the kitchen, with Shannon’s mom in tow. The boys stood up as one.

          “Mrs. Bennett! Is everything okay? Is Shannon ok?” asked Chuck, “Is she…”

          Mrs. Bennett was slouched, her limbs seeming to dangle from their ligaments, unwilling to give up but also unwilling to do more than absolutely necessary. She did spare a weak smile for Chuck. “No. Nothing has changed. Thank you for sending flowers. I put them right next to her.”

          Brandon and Dave looked at Chuck. Chuck’s mom’s eyes widened just a little bit.

          Chuck examined the top of the table and mumbled something indistinct.

          Chuck’s mom cleared her throat, “Nicole, you mentioned you had something for Chuck.”

          “Yes. Chuck, this was on Shannon’s desk. It was addressed to both you and Shannon.” Mrs. Bennett held out an opened envelope. “It’s some sort of acceptance letter to go talk in Las Vegas?”

          Chuck paused a moment and then reached out, “Oh. All right.”

          “I think Shannon would like it very much for you to go give that talk for her,” Mrs. Bennett said.


          The boys cleaned the bathroom to their standards, which were very unlikely to meet household standards, and returned to their now watery drinks in the kitchen. Shannon’s letter was sitting in the middle of the table, open and unfolded.

          Brandon said, “Flowers, huh?”

          Chuck’s head snapped up and he looked right into Brandon’s eyes, “Yes. Flowers.” At that moment, they could hear the decrease in brownian motion as water molecules condensed on their glasses.

          Brandon looked at his glass and said, “That’s nice. She deserves them.” They all took a sip of soda and listened to the birds singing outside.

          Dave asked, “Did you know she had applied to DEF CON?” Chuck shook his head.

          “What is DEF CON?” asked Brandon.

          “It’s a hacker meetup,” said Dave. “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been.”

          Tom spun the letter around. “Well, let’s go find out.”

          “What?” asked Chuck.

          “Look this letter says Shannon’s talk was titled ‘Playing the Game You Want in the Arcade You’ve Got.’ That sounds pretty familiar to me,” Tom said. “Can you give that talk?”

          Chuck nodded.

          “So let’s go do it!”

          Dave took the letter. “It says she was going to give a demo.”

          “That might be hard,” said Chuck. “Tom fried it and my CPU is trashed too.”

          “You can fix them!” said Tom.

          “DEF CON is in two days,” said Dave. “In Vegas.”

          “Road trip!” said Tom. “My van is ready! Brandon?”

          Brandon smiled and displayed the inside of his wallet. There was a flash of plasticized gold. “Brandon Watkins, Senior, will be happy to fund this adventure.”

          “What about my dad’s arcade?” asked Chuck.

          “Pfft!” said Tom.

          Chuck said nothing.

          Dave said, “It is possible we can fix the gear in the back of Tom’s van.”

          “Or maybe the hackers there can help,” said Brandon.

          Chuck said nothing.

          “Come on Chuck. What would Shannon do?”

          Chuck’s eyes and head snapped up again.

          They heard a footstep and turned to see Chuck’s mom standing in the kitchen entrance, one rubber-gloved hand holding a bag full of red-tinged paper towels, the other rubber-gloved hand holding a spray bottle of bleach. She looked at Chuck and said, “She would go.”


          Tom’s van was a well-cared-for, vintage conversion van from the 80s. It had a solid motor, a big windshield, two front windows, and two nearly useless porthole-looking windows set high in the back corners of van. It had seating and room to spare for the denizens of the arcade. What it didn’t have was a workshop. Those portholes didn’t shed enough light to work by and there was no way to power Chuck’s Weller iron. Dave hastily conceived an experiment with chopsticks and pennies to prove that even though Denzel Washington can make a Navy technician fix a communications system in a submarine under attack, there was no way Chuck was going to fix anything in the back of Tom’s van. Instead they packed every tool and piece of gear they could conceive of needing, along with the experimental console, the hopeless console loader, and the all-but-destroyed CPU, in the back of the van. They opted to make the 1281-mile trip to Vegas in one day. This would give them a day and a half to fix everything, make sure it worked, and practice getting Chuck to talk for 45 minutes straight. It should be plenty of time, especially since they would get two whole hours back by the time they finally crossed into Pacific Time.

          Tom was at the wheel 18 hours after they left home when he got his first glimpse of the Luxor’s beacon across the dark desert night. He waited for nearly another hour before he reached across and smacked Brandon in the arm. Then he banged the headliner with his fist. “Hey! Wake up! We made it!”
          As they peeled themselves off windows, wiped up drool, stretched frozen limbs, and groaned like the summoned dead, Tom drove under a big, lit sign. “Welcome to Vegas! City-Wide Progressive Video Poker Jackpot! Be Our Next Big Winner!”

          Brandon directed them to the hotel, guiding them away from the crowded main strip to darker roads until they pulled into a resort. Tom parked in a lane marked, “Check In” and simply stopped moving. The others crowded up from the back of the van and stared out the windshield.

          Milling about in the lights at the front of the hotel was a mass of people they knew without ever having met, people they understood without talking to, people they recognized by an unstated code of clothing, hair, hygiene, grouping, posture, gesture, gear, and distracted focus on problems only they could see. It wasn’t that they all looked the same, or acted the same, or smelled the same. It was subtly encrypted in each person’s distinct combination of some, or all, or maybe even none of these aspects. It was a biological digital signature of the finest pedigree, a signature the boys in the van knew and trusted. Outside the hotel milled people they knew were not tourists; these people were denizens of the arcade, just like them.

          RAP. A sweating valet knocked on their window, “You guys checking in?” Tom nodded and they all piled out. The valet poked his head in the side door and saw the heaping pile of equipment at the back of the van. He shook his head and raised his hands in defeat, “No, I’m not getting stiffed again. You’re on your own. You’ve got 30 minutes.”

          “Do we even have a room?” asked Tom.

          “No,” said Brandon. The others stared at him. Chuck shrugged.

          Tom opened the back doors to reveal the full extent of the amount of gear they brought. They all sort of looked around aimlessly. It was much easier to load the van when it was parked two feet from the back door of the arcade than it was going to be to unload it now. Especially since there was nowhere to unload it to.

          “Nice van,” said a big, bearded guy in a red shirt that said “Goon”. He was nearly as tall as Tom, and a little more heavy-set. He had a slightly tattered, patch-covered backpack on. There was a radio stuck to his shoulder strap with velcro. “Whoa.. That’s a lot of gear. Where are you taking it?”

          Brandon scratched his head, “Our room?”

          The big guy shook his head, “Doubt it. No way they let you up the elevator with this stuff. What’s it for?”

          Chuck said, “I’m doing a demo.”

          “You’re a speaker? What talk?”

          “Playing the Game You Want in the Arcade You’ve Got.”

          A big smile split the guy’s face. “Aww right! Zeed’s been waiting for this talk! My name is Thug.”

          “Chuck”

          Thug shook his hand. “Nice to meet you Chuck. Give me a second.” Thug pulled the radio off his harness and stepped away, barking into the microphone. Before long a whole crew of hackers had gathered at the back of the van and began carrying the gear away. “Take it to the Haxor green room,” said Thug. “Here.” He handed 4 badges on lanyards to Chuck. Three of them were laminated pictures of a white pile of pills, with a bright red pill that said “DEF CON” on it. The fourth was blue, with a tan pill.

          “That blue one is yours, Chuck.”

          Dave followed the first group of hacker-porters through the crowd and into the hotel. As he walked across the lobby he caught odd snippets of conversation.
          “...did you check the pin out…”
          “...-ing hate the boss on level 4…”
          “...the Goon kept me out but I told…”
          “...yeah, of course I know who Dark Tan…”
          “...up, down down, left right…”

          At the van, Chuck watched the hackers carefully pulling items from the pile in the back. Thug walked back up and said, “Chuck, it looks like your gear needs some work.”

          Chuck nodded. Thug waited a beat.

          “So what do you need to fix it?”

          “Time, mostly.”

          “You look a little rough,” said Thug, looking at Chuck’s arm. “Could you use some extra hands?”

          Chuck shrugged. Thug waited a beat, then looked at Tom for help.

          “He needs a guy who can solder and a guy who can breadboard,” said Tom.

          “And I need someone to put my CPU back together. And a network connection,” finished Chuck.

          Thug laughed and split his face with his big smile, “Brother, you’ve come to the right place.”


          Thirty-two hours and 36 minutes later Chuck stood behind a podium in front of a couple hundred silent hackers. He reached down to the presentation table and flicked a bright metal toggle switch mounted on a plywood board that was titled towards the audience. A green light also mounted on the board started to blink. The audience let their eyes flow down from the light, across the mounted and colorfully wired load console electronics boards (version 2.0), onto a shiny ribbon cable, and into the target console, willing the electrons to avoid the demo demons and travel without fail.

          The target console itself was a fully functional Dig Dug machine. It had mysteriously appeared in the green room in the wee hours of the previous morning. There had been a label on the back of the machine that would identify the owners of the machine, but it had been irreparably defaced. Everyone who was helping Chuck prepare for his talk had agreed the presentation would be even more amazing if Chuck actually pulled and replaced the code from a working console, live on stage. So, before he had disappeared into the swirl of the CON at night, Tom had popped the oddly empty change box with little difficulty and Chuck had prepared it for this moment.

          The green light blinked a final time and held a solid green. “And now, instead of Dig Dug, I can play what I want.” Chuck flicked the switch on the side of the console and Galaga splashed to life. The hackers let out a raucous cheer, startling Chuck a little. He smiled. “I guess that’s it then. Who wants to play Galaga?”

          As hackers applauded and surged toward the stage Chuck gave a little nod to the smiling folks in the first two rows. They were the team of hackers who not only carried his gear and fixed it, they had improved it. He didn’t know what their parents called them, but definitely knew their real names. They nodded back, or smiled, or had already indicated their approval by simply continuing to pay attention during Chuck’s talk.

          At the end of the first row slumped Tom, bleary red eyes and a deflated listlessness betraying how he had spent most of his last 32 hours. Chuck wasn’t sure Tom knew where he was. Dave and Brandon sat next to him, but as far to one side of their chairs as possible. Whiskey sweat was no one’s best friend. Next to them sat a hacker Chuck had not seen before. He seemed intense and met Chuck’s gaze with a little smile on his lips.

          Thug showed up next to Tom, took one look, and laughed. He smacked Tom on the arm, making Tom’s head bob rhythmically for a few cycles. The unknown hacker said something and Thug waved Chuck over.

          When Chuck got close he could see Thug’s eyes were rather red-rimmed and glassy too, but he seemed functional. “Chuck, meet Zeed. Zeed, Chuck,” said Thug. “Zeed has something he wants to talk to you about.”

          Zeed stood. He was shorter than Chuck, and wiry. His arms had rows of what looked like zeros tattooed down the narrow, corded muscles of his forearms. Other than that, and the intense edge to his gaze, he just looked like a guy with a hat on. He gestured, “I want to show you something.”

          Chuck glanced over his shoulder at the hackers still gathered around his gear. Thug said, “Don’t worry about that stuff. We’ll put it back in the green room for you.” Then

          Chuck glanced down at Tom. Thug said, “Don’t worry about him either. I took care of him last night and I’ll take care of him now. This is normal for DEF CON.”
          Chuck nodded.
          Zeed said, “Okay. Let’s go.”

          He led them through the casino and up to a bar on a raised balcony where he took a table against the railing. He ordered four beers and waited until the waitress left.

          “You know, Chuck, I’ve been waiting to see your talk since it was announced this past spring. It was good.”

          “Thanks. But I can’t take credit for even being here. Shannon made this happen.”

          “I saw that name on the announcement. Where is he?”

          “She. She... She’s in the hospital.”

          “I’m sorry to hear that,” Zeed took a sip of his beer. “Is there anything I can do?”

          Chuck met Zeed’s eyes. There was no break in Zeed’s intensity, or his candor. It was a sincere question from a fellow denizen. Zeed was clearly well connected here at DEF CON. He seemed to command other hackers' respect. He was probably an immensely resourceful and clever person and he was honestly placing these skills, no matter what they may be, in Chuck’s hands. As Chuck realized this he felt true gratitude fill his chest and apply an uncomfortable pressure behind his eyes. For the first time, he really understood what the words “thank you” meant.

          Chuck also felt a subtext behind the question. Zeed was willing to do whatever Chuck needed of him if it would help Shannon. But, if Shannon’s problems were beyond
          Zeed’s ability to help then he would rather spend his time on another problem. Chuck understood this and was not offended. It had been rare in Chuck’s life to meet another pragmatic soul like this and he found it refreshing. He shook his head.

          Zeed said, “I spend my time hunting flaws in software, Chuck. Flaws that give an attacker an unfair advantage over a user. I don’t like things that aren’t fair. And I want to know if what is happening down there is fair.” Zeed nodded over the railing to the casino floor below.

          Directly below them were rows and rows of video poker machines. Gamblers sat with buckets of coins on one side of them and half-finished watery drinks on the other as they smacked lit buttons on the console in front of them.

          “Those are $5 coins they are using down there. Every time one of them smacks that big green button, the casino earns $5.” Chuck stared for a moment and watched $100 get transferred to the casino’s bottom line. He went back to his beer.

          “I know. I know. Of course it isn’t fair. If the house didn’t win more than the gamblers then there wouldn’t be a house,” said Zeed. “But, I would argue that the gamblers are
          paying for a fair risk. They know they aren’t likely to win, but they hope they have a fair chance. They are paying for the improbable, but still possible, chance that they win a life-changing payoff.

          “But those machines are run by hidden software written by companies that only stay in business if they keep their clients happy. What’s the problem with that?”
          Dave said, “The clients aren’t the gamblers.”

          “Yes! What if there really wasn’t a chance to win that big jackpot? What if the software actively prevents that big jackpot? What if it maliciously alters the odds? What if it knowingly breaks this risk versus reward contract the gamblers are paying for?” Zeed stopped to sip.

          “It wouldn’t be fair,” said Brandon.

          Zeed pointed at Brandon, “It wouldn’t be fair!” He leaned back in his chair, “That’s where you come in Chuck.”

          Dave said, “You want us to pull the code off one of those machines so you can examine it for flaws.”

          Zeed smiled, pointed at Dave and said, “This guy.”

          Chuck looked at Zeed, looked at the video poker machines, and looked back at Zeed. Zeed raised an eyebrow and tilted his head just a little to the right. Chuck nodded,

          “Ok.” Zeed banged the table with his beer. Brandon smirked. Dave turned to look at the machines.

          “We can’t just go down there and open a console,” said Dave.

          “No no. Of course not. Those machines are both making money and protecting money. The casino keeps a very effective circle of love around the things that do those
          things. If you go down there and have drunk Tom attempt to pop a console open, your time in this town will be over. We have to get it out of their circle of love.” Zeed looked at each of them pointedly.

          Brandon shrugged. Chuck nodded. Dave looked down at the machines again.

          “What?” asked Brandon.

          “The casino protects things that make money and protect money,” said Dave. “We just have to make a machine stop making or protecting money.”

          Brandon waited.

          “We have to break one, Brandon,” said Chuck.

          “Ohhh,” said Brandon.

          Zeed said, “The casino won’t waste precious floor space on a dead machine. It makes them look bad. Once a broken machine is found, it is excised like a tumor,
          emptied like a bladder, and dumped under shockingly poor security in the hot Vegas sun to be picked up by the repair contractor.”

          “How do we break one?” asked Brandon.

          Zeed picked up his beer, smiled around the mouth, and tilted his head to the floor.

          A stunning blonde in a short white dress was strutting up the video poker aisle, carrying a bucket which glittered with metal. She stopped, cocked her hip to one side, and put an index finger to the corner of her mouth as she seemed to consider each machine individually. Zeed suppressed a laugh with a snort. Finally she tossed her hair and perched on a stool in front of a machine, crossing one long leg over the other. The first coin went in. A cocktail waitress stopped to take her order.

          The denizens looked at Zeed. He merely nodded back down at the gaming floor.

          The cocktail waitress returned with a large glass tumbler. The woman reached for the drink at the same time the waitress tried to put it in the drink holder next to the console. The blonde smacked into the glass, hard, and it spilled over the control keys. Almost immediately the big green button went dark, followed by a couple of the other control keys. The woman sprung off the stool and shrieked, pointing at her white dress. It was now stained by the drink. The woman began gesticulating and shouting.

          Within a minute, a serious man in a dark suit, white shirt, red tie, and an earpiece showed up and calmed the woman down. She told her story with big, abrupt hand
          motions. He kept his hands clasped respectfully in front of him. Eventually he reached into his jacket, pulled an envelope out, and handed the woman a plastic card.

          Zeed snorted again, “Nice. She even got comped.”

          She took the card, grabbed her bucket of coins, and strutted back down the aisle and was soon lost in the gaming floor. Zeed’s pocket began to chirp. He pulled out a small cell phone. “It was beautiful! What did you get? 200-hundred bucks! Classic! Yeah, I’ll see you later.”

          He shut the phone off and said, “And now we wait for phase two.”

          Phase two arrived within five minutes. Two guys in work clothes and belts full of tools showed up with a heavy-duty hand truck. They made quick work of disconnecting the video poker machine and carted it away.

          Zeed stayed seated and ordered another round of beers. “Sit. Enjoy. We’ll pick it up later.”

          Dave asked, “They are just going to hand us the machine?”

          “No, they will only hand it over to the repair contractors,” said Zeed. “That’s why we are going to need Tom’s van.”


          Four hours later, as the CON swirled around the casino, the denizens were back inside of Tom’s van waiting on a side street near the hotel. They all had on plain jumpsuits. Tom was lucid, and angry.

          “I can’t believe you spray painted my van!” he shouted.

          “Oh for god’s sake, stop saying that,” said Brandon.

          “My VAN!”

          “Tom, look at your hands. You helped,” said Dave.

          “I didn’t know what I was doing!” he said, “I was still drunk! How the hell did Zeed talk all of us into this? I mean, c’mon, we look like we are going to pull a heist.”

          “It’s not a heist if we return it when we are done,” said Brandon.

          Tom glared at him, “I’m not sure you are a good source of moral guidance here Brandon Watkins, ‘Senior’.”

          Chuck spoke up, “I trust Zeed.”

          Tom snorted, “Well Thug introduced us to Zeed and Thug nearly killed me last night.”

          Dave asked, “What does that even mean? Is that supposed to be the start of some kind of syllogism?”
          “My VAN!”

          There was a sharp knock on the outside of the van. Brandon opened the door to reveal an attractive brunette woman in dark pants and crisp white shirt, wearing a strict ponytail, and carrying a clipboard and a cell phone. “Hello boys,” she said.

          There was a moment of silence and then Zeed popped around the edge of the door. “Gents, this is Slick. You saw her handiwork earlier. Now she’s going to help us collect.”

          “Wait a second,” said Brandon, “you were the blonde?”

          She winked, “There’s way more than one kind of hacking, boys.”

          “Slick this is Chuck, Brandon, Tom and Dave.”

          Thug stepped up and loaded a heavy-duty hand cart into the back of the van. “Good luck!”

          “Alright, follow Slick’s lead and let her talk. Try not to talk at all really,” said Zeed. “That means you too Chuck.”

          Chuck shrugged.

          “We’ll see you in a just a few minutes. Tom, don’t worry, we’re going to make this right,” Zeed slammed the side door and gave it two hard smacks.

          With Dave at the wheel, they pulled away from the curb and followed Slick’s directions through streets that immediately lost all trace of the Vegas facade to become utilitarian and industrial. The bricks and concrete looked like they had all been blasted by the sun and scoured by blowing sand for thousands of years. After just a couple of turns they ended up outside a locked chain link fence. They could see the video poker machine just sitting there on the other side of the fence.
          Slick got out of the van and pushed a little buzzer cable tied onto the fence post. She smoothed her hair, looked for the camera that had to be watching her, and smiled directly into it with a wave. A heavy steel door banged open and a serious man in a dark suit, white shirt, red tie, and an earpiece came to the fence and opened it.

          “Hi!” said Slick. “I’m from Game Management. We’re here to pick up,” she consulted her clipboard, “a video poker machine, possible water damage.” She indicated the machine sitting against the wall with her pen, then she brought the pen to her mouth and nibbled on it a little bit.

          “Yeah, all right.” said the guard, with barely a second’s hesitation.

          Slick nodded over her shoulder to Dave. By the time they were all out of the van with the hand cart, Slick had moved right next to the guard and was directing his attention to the clipboard. “Ok I just need your help to fill in some these items.”

          Brandon pushed the hand cart through the gate with the rest in tow. Chuck was examining the ground as he walked, which was normal for him. Dave held himself very still as he moved, which wasn’t. Tom was squinting in the sun and sweating.

          “I don’t feel good,” he said.

          “Then just supervise,” Brandon said.

          The job of loading the console and securing it to the dolly was actually fairly easy. It was the same basic size and shape as a video game console and they had plenty of experience moving those around. Brandon and Dave did most of the work. Chuck held on to the hand cart to make sure it wouldn’t roll away across the ice-rink-flat concrete lot. Tom stood off to the side, nodding his head and exuding sweat patches in strategic places on the jumpsuit. They carted it back out to the van.

          “Man, you feeling alright?” asked the guard, looking at Tom.

          Slick giggled and tossed her pony tail. “His first night out in Vegas last night,” she said.

          The guard smiled, “Hang in there man, it’ll get better. Unless it gets worse!” He looked at Slick, who duly giggled and gave the guy a playful smack on the arm. “Please sign here, and here, and here,” Slick said, directing the guard’s attention back to the clipboard.

          Wrestling the console into the back of the van was a bit harder and Tom had to help. “Oh god,” he said as he helped lift it up. “Oh god.”
          “Shut up,” hissed Brandon.

          Then it was done. The hand cart and console were secure in the back of the van. Tom made it to the passenger seat and slumped down. Then he immediately sat back up and rapidly rolled the window down. “Oh god. I need air.”

          Dave got back in the driver’s seat and smacked the door a couple of times. Slick smiled and pulled the top paper off the clipboard. “Okay, that’s your copy. And here’s my number if you have any questions.” She hand wrote her number on the sheet and gave it to the guard. He smiled. Dave watched the guard watch Slick walk away. She came around the front of the van, rolled her eyes at Tom melting in the passenger seat, got in the back and slammed the door. “Ugh, men,” she murmured. Dave pulled away.

          “Make a right,” Slick said.

          “Oh no,” groaned Tom as they turned the corner. He sat bolt upright, jammed his head out the window, and vomited.

          “Ugh! Men!” Slick repeated.


          Slick led them to even smaller and more industrial streets until they turned down a narrow back alley and parked next to a steel door set in a pale cinder block wall.

          “Honk,” she said. Dave honked the horn. The door opened and Zeed came out of a rectangle of darkness with a cool blast of air and a smile. Dave heard some very familiar electronic music mixed with a particular rhythm of sound effects. Slick got out to meet him.

          “So?” Zeed asked.

          “Perfect. Everything except air stream over there,” she said.

          Zeed peered past Dave to examine Tom, who didn’t look quite finished yet. “Will it be a problem?” he asked.

          Slick shook her head, “No. I gave the guard my number.” There was a warbling sound and Slick’s phone lit up. She checked the number, feigned confusion, and answered with a “Hello?” that somehow actually said, “I know exactly who you are and I’m so happy you called.” She walked off to take the call.

          Dave said, “She’s amazing.”

          “Yes. Yes she is,” said Zeed. “C’mon, let’s do this.”

          They hauled the video poker machine into the arcade. There was a small back office, just like Chuck’s. It was cluttered with electronics detritus, just like Chuck’s. It also had a console load board and a CPU, which actually were Chuck’s.

          “You’re up,” said Zeed, smacking Tom on the arm. He handed Tom a rolled set of lock picking tools. Tom still didn’t look the right color but he was delighted to see the organized, clean set of thin metal hooks and tension bars. He crouched in front of the video poker machine and set to work on the lock. In a few moments it opened. Tom rocked back and examined the magical pieces of steel. He looked up at Zeed.

          “Nice work. They’re yours,” Zeed said.

          Tom smiled. Then he swallowed and the color drained from his face. “Oh god.” He rushed out of the office and crashed out the back door.

          Zeed said, “Chuck, all yours. Dave, can you and Brandon fix the control buttons?”

          “Probably,” said Dave.

          “Fix it?” asked Brandon.

          “If we don’t want anyone to remember today, we need to return a working video poker machine,” said Zeed.

          Inside, the poker machine was much the same as any other video game console. The hardware, firmware, and most of the software was very similar to what Chuck knew. He applied a few of the tricks he had learned from the crew at the CON, made a few inspired on-the-fly adjustments, and pulled the byte stream off the console. By the time he finished, Dave and Brandon had cleaned and tested the control panel. Tom had also cleaned himself up and successfully tested his ability to keep food down. He was happily experimenting with his new lockpicks on the security deadbolt on the back door.

          “All right, I’ve got it,” Chuck told Zeed.

          “Let me see,” Zeed said. He took over Chuck’s CPU, opened a terminal, and unleashed a symphony, an opus, a performance of command-line mastery and text-based information absorption unlike anything Chuck had ever seen. It was nearly impossible to follow. Whenever a terminal seemed to be working on a response to Zeed’s multi-line, compound, piped, redirected, and conditional commands, Zeed would open another shell window and start a different line of query. Chuck’s focus on this spectacular--opening like a rare night flower before his very eyes--was nearly complete. Then a slight audio signal leaked past his amazement and wonder. As his brain began to interpret it, he realized he had been hearing it the whole time he had been in the arcade. Apparently his brain had finally reached a sufficient state of idle to allow the interrupt to be noticed. It was the music and effects overlay of Shannon’s game.

          He wandered out into the arcade proper and found the console. It was actively being played by a couple of kids. Chuck found he couldn’t look at the screen. In fact, he didn’t really want to get close to it at all. His response to the machine disturbed him. He stood back from the machine, eyes on the floor, lost in thought.

          “Chuck!” shouted Zeed, right next to him. Chuck looked up. “You all right?”

          Chuck nodded.

          “I’ve been talking to you for like a minute,” Zeed said with a laugh.

          Chuck shrugged.

          “Anyway, you did great. We’ve got it. It’s going to be awesome!”

          Chuck smiled with his mouth, but his eyes didn’t join in.

          Zeed turned to face him square on, “What’s up?”

          Chuck met his gaze, “There is something you can do to help Shannon after all. But first, I need to show you something.”

          Zeed nodded.


          Returning the video poker machine was easy. Slick called her new friend and the gate was open and waiting for them before they even got there. Tom, recovered and back at the wheel, backed the van in for a very convenient delivery right to the back door. In moments the poker machine was out of their hands and they pulled away, leaving the smitten security guard waving happily in their rearview mirror. Slick rolled her eyes.

          Back at the CON, Thug let them all back into the Haxor green room where the Dig Dug console was still showing the Galaga splash screen. Chuck shut it down and set to work. He quickly loaded Shannon’s game on the console with the version from their arcade and turned it on.

          “Zeed, do you know how to play this game?” he asked.

          Zeed looked, “I’ve played it.”

          “The version I have loaded into this machine has made three of us freak out,” Chuck said. “Dave zoned out, I had a standing blackout that only ended when Tom killed the power to the whole arcade, and Shannon… got hurt. She is still in a coma in the hospital.

          “Brandon has also played the game and showed no effects. I have a theory about this. I think the better a hacker you are, the more this game effects you. Shannon was… is the best among our group. She actually came up with the original methods we used to rip and load the game code. She is the one who submitted the talk to DEF CON. I’m next on the natural talent list. Dave is extremely competent, but isn’t as curious as me. And Brandon..”

          “Got it,” said Zeed.

          “To test my theory I would like you to play this game. I saw you at work in the arcade. I think you will react quickly to this game.”

          “I told you I’ve played this game before,” said Zeed.

          “The version I have loaded is verifiably different than the one you have played. I’ve played the other version too and been just fine. When I played this version, it ended with my workshop destroyed and my arm cut open by splintered plywood.”

          “You’re freaking me out, Chuck. If what you say is true, then this is a terrible idea.”

          “I need you to see this Zeed. You will think any other method I can come up with to show you is bullshit. In less than an hour you convinced us four to rob a casino,
          however temporary that robbery may have been, and you know people like Slick, and you got Tom to literally spray paint his own van. You will not be swayed by possible bullshit. You have to do this,” said Chuck.

          “Why?” Zeed asked.

          “Because there’s no other way you will delay your… other project.”

          Zeed couldn’t stop the smile sliding onto his lips. “All right. Let’s do it.”

          Chuck nodded, “Brandon, you stand here, hand on the power switch. You saw my eyes before. You see any sign of that in Zeed, you flip that switch. Tom, you’re by the power cord. If Brandon messes up, you yank the cord. Zeed.” Chuck motioned to the console.

          Zeed looked at Chuck with fists bunched and the corded muscles of his forearms standing out under a slight sheen of sweat on his skin. He stepped to the console and hit the 1-player button.

          Brandon took his position as sentry for Zeed’s sanity. Chuck moved to the other side and kept his gaze fixed on Zeed’s eyes. The music for the first level streamed out of the console. Zeed beat it handily. Tom crouched by the power cord, hand resting on the plug. Zeed nailed the tricky jump, sprint, jump pattern to beat the second level.

          His finger drummed lightly on the jump button. Dave stood behind Zeed, but just watched the back of his head, refusing to look at the screen. Zeed jiggled the joystick to get past the chompers on level 3. He jiggled the joystick. He jiggled the joystick. He jiggled the joystick.

          “Crap!” “Oh god!” “KILL IT!” “TOM!”

          Brandon yanked the switch down and broke the toggle off. Tom ripped the plug out of the wall. Dave grabbed Zeed from behind and crushed him to the ground.

          “WHAT THE HELL! WHAT THE HELL! WHAT THE HELL!” Zeed shrieked. He thrashed and swung and punched and kicked until he broke free from Dave. He leapt to his feet and grabbed a chair. He slammed it into the console, breaking a metal leg off. He flung the chair to the side. Tom threw himself out of the way to avoid it. Zeed grabbed the metal leg off the floor and began beating the console, growling. Spit flung from his lips as he swung at the screen. “NO!” shouted Chuck and tackled him just as the leg crashed into the glass. The CRT imploded with a deafening bang and flung glass everywhere in the green room.

          At that moment the next speaker was led in by a goon. He stopped and surveyed the destruction. Dave was sitting on the floor, nursing a bleeding nose. Tom was trying to extricate himself from the broken chair; he seemed to have forgotten he could let go of the power cord in his hand. Brandon was cupping one hand in the other, a trickle of blood dripping onto the carpet. At the foot of the smoking video game console, Chuck and Zeed were gingerly attempting to get out of each other’s embrace without cutting themselves on the blanket of glass shards that covered and surrounded them.

          “You know what,” said the goon, “let’s go wait in Uber Haxor.” He turned and led the speaker out. They heard a radio crackle, “Clean up in Haxor green.”
          Chuck and Zeed managed to stand up, carefully dusting the bits from their clothes and hair. “What the hell is in that code, Sphinx?” Zeed asked.

          Chuck shrugged.


          They all sat around a wedding-sized round table in a darkened room lit mainly by laptop screens and computer monitors. Other round tables mushroomed all around them, each overgrown with cable lichen, lit by blinking fairy lights, and tended by hacker fauna. Shouts of joy, or exclamations of rage, or displays of sheer bafflement rung out randomly and sporadically. Every now and then a particularly loud “YES!” would be followed by a general increase in the baseline level of activity and noise. A steady stream of hackers sprinted for the bathrooms, having waited as long as possible before giving in to their mortal shell. They ran back to their terminals just as fast.

          Zeed had two laptops cranking at top speed, fingers flying as he mumbled subsonically. Slick sat next to him, occasionally pointing at a screen. Chuck sat on his other side and just watched. To Brandon, Chuck’s eyes seemed to be jerking back and forth in a manner not too different from what the cursed game seemed to cause. But the intensity in those eyes did not match the haunting blankness he had seen in Zeed’s eyes as he kept jiggling, jiggling, jiggling that joystick. Zeed’s hands stopped. Chuck leaned forward. Slick looked horrified.

          “What?” asked Dave.

          Zeed shook his head and spun the laptop to show the screen. Tom glanced up from the padlock he was trying to pick and didn’t bother. Brandon leaned in and then looked at Dave. Dave pulled the laptop towards him and saw:

          (gdb) info functions ^decoded
          0x0804676f decoded_initsync
          0x08046f67 decoded_sync
          0x08046c5a decoded_diverge
          0x08044132 decoded_softhook
          0x08046d4d decoded_hardhook
          0x08043800 decoded_hammer

          “I assume these are routines that affect the game output in some manner?” Dave asked.

          “There’s hooks into graphics, sound, and game behavior” said Chuck. “Init is called at the end of level 2. ‘’Hammer’ is called right past the chompers.”

          “What does that mean?” asked Brandon.

          “It’s on purpose,” said Dave.

          “What?”

          “The effect. The seizures,” Dave said.

          “Shannon,” hissed Chuck.

          “Shannon,” said Dave. “Someone wrote this code on purpose to mess with people’s brains. Someone wrote this code on purpose and hurt Shannon.”.

          Tom growled, “That’s horrible. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Who?”

          Zeed pulled his laptop back, “I don’t know but I am going to find them and end them.”

          “How?” asked Brandon.

          “The function names didn’t read like that at first. That’s what has been taking me so long. It’s all obfuscated and packed,” said Zeed. “But that kind of work leaves hints and traces. There’s all kinds of unique code and weird data in here. It will lead to someone or something. Just need some assistance.”

          His fingers started flying again and he nudged Slick. She looked, nodded, and grabbed the other laptop. Chuck watched over Zeed’s shoulder. Dave watched a smile slowly spread across Chuck’s face. “Genius,” said Chuck. Zeed tapped the “return” key with a particularly dramatic flourish.

          A wave of frenetic energy and noise swept out into the room. Hackers clustered together and burst apart in unpredictable patterns that surely would resemble flocking behavior in hungry raptors, if raptors would only flock. Cell phones seemed to play some part in this new action; every table had at least one hacker’s face half-lit by a green glow. A phalanx of three red-shirted goons showed up and prowled the tables, looking for something. They made their way through the mushroom forest and stopped at Zeed’s table.

          “Oh. You?” said one. Zeed nodded. The goon shrugged, “Alright.” They left the way they had come.

          Slick nudged Zeed and began tapping at her laptop. Chuck leaned in and grabbed Zeed’s laptop. He started typing, stopped and looked at Zeed. Zeed gave a little shrug and leaned back. Chuck went back to work. Dave suddenly said, “Oh.”

          Brandon said, “Seriously? ‘Oh?’ What the hell is going on?”

          Dave turned in his seat and swept his hand in an arc to encompass the endless sea of hacker tables. “Zeed has hijacked the capture the flag competition. He has declared the author of the code as a high-value flag and these hunters are trying to capture it for us.”

          “Not trying. Done,” said Chuck. Anger seethed around Chuck’s eyes and pressed lips.

          Zeed stood up so fast his chair fell over, “Son of a bitch.” Slick slammed her laptop lid down and stomped off. Tom looked up, startled.

          “No,” said Dave. Chuck nodded.

          Brandon sighed. “What?” he asked.

          “Dr. Marcus Mathis, cognitive neuroscientist at RPI, speaker for the talk: ‘How are Hacker’s Brains Different?’ Haxor track. Tomorrow. 11 AM,” said Chuck.
          Tom said, “He’s a goddamned speaker?! Here!? He comes here to talk about hackers and...”

          “He’s experimenting on us,” finished Zeed. Zeed’s eyes faded into haunting blankness, but the eyes remained fixed in one place. Last time Brandon had seen those eyes he reacted with panic and action. This time he sought invisibility in stillness. He did not want to attract those eyes to him. Being seen by those eyes meant death.
          Zeed reached out with feline grace and slowly closed the lid on his laptop. He unplugged his power cord and carefully wrapped it up, securing the loops with velcro straps. He unplugged Slick’s laptop and stacked it gently on top of his. He repeated his precise preparation of her power cord.

          “Gentlemen,” he said, “it has been a real pleasure. But I can’t let you join me now.” He looked down at Chuck. Chuck nodded. Zeed picked up his gear and silently strode off through the tumult of the capture-the-flag floor. Just before he disappeared from view, a slim shadow with the hint of a swinging ponytail joined him.

          There was a click as the lock in Tom’s hands sprung open. He dropped it with a thunk. Then he hastily cleaned up his pick set and jammed it into his pocket. “I’m going to find Thug.” They watched him go.

          Brandon said, “Food?”

          “Yes,” said Dave. “Chuck?”

          Chuck said nothing, he just stared at the table. Dave motioned for Brandon and they stood. Before leaving the room, Brandon looked back. Chuck remained where he was. A small group of hackers had encroached on their mushroom, but Chuck did not seem to notice.


          At 10:45 AM the next morning, Dave and Brandon showed up in the Haxor track and went to the front of the room. It was crowded but Chuck was already waiting there. First row. First seat. Three seats open next to him. They sat. Three minutes later Tom came in from a staff entrance, led by Thug. The smell of alcohol and dry sweat was palpable. This time Tom had the same red-rimmed, but functional, eyes that Thug had. Four days without shaving had given him a little beard. Somewhere Tom had acquired a ratty backpack that was covered in a variety of stickers. Thug handshake hugged Tom. “Good luck, brother. See you next year.” Tom sat.

          At 10:53 AM a goon led a man in. Brandon hissed. “It’s the damn tourist,” he said. Once he said it, the others also recognized the crappy video game player they had seen in their arcade so very long ago. They watched him setting up a laptop on the podium, and connecting it to the AV system, and fiddling about with his notes, and smiling at the goon who was helping him.

          At 10:58 AM Dr. Marcus Mathis looked up and saw the denizens all watching him. He didn’t recognize them but he could feel their hostility pushing against his face. His throat went dry but he was an accomplished speaker. He fished a little bottle of water out of his bag and took a sip.

          At 11:00 AM the goon gave Dr. Mathis the go signal and he started to talk. “Wow! What a great crowd! This is the most I’ve-”

          “DENIZENS OF DEF CON,” boomed an electronically-scrambled voice over the AV system, “THIS MAN STANDS ACCUSED.”

          Since they were sitting in the front row, they could hear Dr. Mathis say, “What the hell?” His words were not repeated over the loudspeaker. Dr. Mathis looked at the AV table. They shrugged and made some tepid pokes at their gear.

          Dr. Mathis’s first slide disappeared and a picture of him shaking hands with an Army general dressed in a fancy uniform took its place. Dr. Mathis looked down at his laptop and began smacking at the keys. The voice continued, “Marcus Mathis, PhD, esteemed scientist, respected faculty at a school long known for producing outstanding computer science, has been working with the feds to learn about the hacker mind.”

          Pictures of Dr. Mathis lecturing, pictures of him at conferences, and a picture of him at a party with his arm comfortably around an embarrassed co-ed flicked across the screen. “At first this investigation was about understanding the hacker mind in order to improve it. He sought out ways to encourage and grow the kind of intellectual curiosity that is the hallmark of a hacker. We’ve always respected his work. We hoped he would help make more of us, or even help legitimize us. Today is his 3rd time here at DEF CON, and his second time speaking. We’ve always welcomed him.”

          A picture of a passed-out Dr. Mathis lying on a couch covered in red plastic cups flashed on the screen. “What’s up Doc?” was written on his forehead.
          “But Dr. Mathis has lost his way. He became less interested in understanding our minds, and more interested in affecting them.”

          The screen began displaying titles of papers: “Roots of Cognitive Dissonance”, “Visual Stimuli and the Optic Nerve”, “Third Order Effects of Visual Overload”, “Combinatorial Sensory Input Therapy: A Study”, “Targeted, Induced, Cognitive Dissonance”

          The voice continued to lay its case out against Dr. Mathis, “These studies attracted attention from another community.” A picture of Dr. Mathis in a crowd of somber, suited, white men. “A community that does not approve of un-sanctioned curiosity.” A picture of Dr. Mathis standing next to a green CIA road sign. “A community that uses all resources at its disposal to stop us.” A picture of Dr. Mathis in front of the J. Edgar Hoover building. The crowd in Haxor started to rumble. Goons appeared out of thin air all around the perimeter of Haxor. Dr. Mathis seemed frozen in front of his laptop.

          The screen went black. “Then, Dr. Mathis started applying his techniques. We don’t know if he was paid. We don’t know if he was pressured. We don’t know who is helping him. But we do know he did it.” A window of complicated source code opened on the screen and started to scroll. Everyone saw the highlighted comments that identified the author as “Dr. M. Mathis”. Chuck saw the names of the killer functions they had found in the game binary.

          The voice went on, “And we do know what happened.”

          A picture of Shannon in her hospital bed appeared on the screen, a simple arrangement of purple daisies visible on her bedside table. Her face was swathed in bandages. Chuck, Dave, Brandon, and Tom shot out of their seats with a chorus of shouts and growls. The crowd behind them rose in a high-velocity wave that crashed against the standing-room-only hackers in the back of the room.

          A screen of goons slid across the front of the stage, facing the rage of the crowd. Big goons with beards and heavy, crossed forearms. Thug stood directly in front of Chuck, stricken but resolute.

          “NAY!” boomed the voice over the grinding din, “Nay! We do not resort to violence. Violence will only hurt DEF CON. Our noble goons will sacrifice themselves to keep Dr. Mathis from physical harm. I would not have them waste their honor on this man. Would you?”

          Chuck took a step. Not towards Thug, whose eyes popped open with alarm, but towards the aisle up the middle of the seating. He turned and faced the crowd. Quiet. Still. A steady silence radiated out from him, up the aisle, across the rows, until the standing hackers in the back fell quiet. He returned to his seat and sat. Dave sat. Brandon sat. Tom sat. Slowly the audience left their feet and tempered their rage. Only the goons remained standing, faces bathed in sweat and radiating relief. The goons and Dr. Mathis, who hadn’t moved, and who stood quivering in front of his laptop.

          The voice continued, softly, “Marcus may have studied us, but he could not be us. He could never understand how to move his work laterally. How to make it flexible. How to bend it to accomplish tasks it was not originally designed for. That is the house of the hacker. And not an aspect of a simple asshole.”

          “But now he knows. Now he is feeling it. Now he, too, can taste the buzz of his neurons, and sense his thoughts fragmenting and moving too fast to be caught and considered. Now he is at your mercy.

          “I have shown you the evidence and stated the case. But I will not be judge too. You decide what happens.”

          The screen went black and the room fell silent. Dr. Mathis vibrated in front of his laptop, a little string of drool escaping his lips. From where they sat the denizens could see his eyes twitching behind his thin lenses. Brandon saw the movement and did not feel pity. Dave remembered his lost moments in the office of the arcade. Chuck squeezed his still-bandaged arm and remembered the spray of blood and glass as Shannon’s face hit the console CRT.

          “Burn him down,” Chuck said. “Burn him down.”

          Brandon, Dave and Tom repeated it. “Burn him down.”

          The words spread across the room as a mantra, then a chant, then a shout, then a battle cry: “BURN HIM DOWN! BURN HIM DOWN!”

          The presentation screen echoed the words and the rhythm of the crowd in giant, bold, white letters. “BURN. HIM. DOWN. BURN. HIM. DOWN.” Then the message changed and the crowd lost sync as they tried to read it. It said, “Spilt blood can be healed. Spilt data lasts forever.”

          The screen mirrored the doctor’s desktop. A file explorer window appeared and split in two. On the left side was the doctor’s folders. The right side looked as though it was connected to some random IP address. A mouse cursor dragged the first folder from the left to the right. It was a very dramatic copy operation. The program had been set up to show quick peeks into the files it was copying. This folder seemed to be mostly pictures. At first they seemed like normal photos, but then the color palette seemed to veer definitively towards “naked caucasian”. The hackers began to hoot and point. Even the goons turned around to watch. The cursor dragged the next folder over and the crowd was treated to a stream of code snippets. The next folder looked like normal documents, except every now and then a page would flash up with clear, red markings on the top and bottom. Folder after folder moved from left to right and uploaded themselves somewhere in the world. Laptop after laptop was flipped open around the room as hackers went to the IP address visible on the right and began downloading the contents. The room dissolved into audio chaos as the crowd lost cohesion and dove into the data.

          Only the denizens remained calmly in their seats, watching the doctor. He suddenly gasped and fell to his knees. He pulled himself back up and weakly pawed at his keyboard. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said. On the screen, a row of white zeros set on a black background started in the upper left of the desktop and grew to the right. Then another row started below the first and repeated the action, faster. The zeros flew down the screen until they reached the bottom and then whole screen went black. The doctor, and his whole line of clandestine research, had been burnt to the ground.

          Tom got in the driver's seat of his ridiculous white van and slammed the door. They had spent the day saying goodbye to new friends and attempting to find and pack all of their gear. They were pretty sure stuff was missing, but they considered it fair trade for the amount they had learned. “Well, I guess that’s it.”

          “How do we return to the arcade after all of that?” asked Brandon.

          Dave shook his head, “The hunt isn’t over. Mattis didn’t run this whole thing on his own. Who helped? Who funded it? Who helped write the code? We’ve got plenty of work to do. We’re not going back to an arcade. It’s our base of operations.”

          RAP. A valet knocked on Tom’s window. He rolled the window down, “I know, I know. We’re leaving.” The valet dropped a fat yellow envelope onto Tom’s lap. Then she winked and walked away.

          “What was that?” asked Brandon.

          “It was Slick,” said Dave. Tom dumped the envelope onto the van’s floor. Thick, banded, bundles of cash fell out and a note fluttered to the ground. Dave picked the note up and read it aloud, “Fix the van. Finish the hunt. See you next year.” It was signed with a big zero.

          “Holy crap, he did it” said Chuck.

          As they left Vegas on that Sunday afternoon, they drove under a freshly pasted billboard. It said: “Our latest Video Poker jackpot winners!” Tom and Dave stared up through the windshield at a giant Zeed and Slick, with giant smiles, dressed in fine evening wear, and holding a giant check for an absurd amount of money.

          Comment


          • #6
            Title: Do Clones Dream of Dolly
            Author: Joe

            I.
            The first time I opened my eyes, darkly glowing embryonic fluid clouded my vision. I blinked slowly, wondering at the nature of my surroundings but having nothing to compare them to. I could sense that I had a form, a material self that carried weight even as it was suspended in this strange liquid. My eyes widened in fear; it was the first emotion that I felt coming into the world.

            My birth was not a natural event. When I emerged from the tube I’d been created in, my body was already nineteen years old, just like all of the other clones born in this facility. As I cried and struggled for breath, doctors and scientists made notes on hovering electronic tablets and prodded me with instruments. One doctor stands out in my memory. He was a slender man with dark, tousled hair, large surgery goggles and a mask obscuring his face. He leaned over me as if reading a machine behind my shoulder; then, he quickly inserted a needle into my arm, pressing some mysterious serum into my bloodstream. A spasm wracked my body at the feeling, but my atrophied muscles betrayed only a twitch. He looked up quickly.

            “Good luck,” he said, his voice laced with sympathy. He dropped the syringe into his pocket, hiding it from view from the other scientists, and wandered out of the room. At the time, his words were just sounds to me, but I’ve relived this memory in my dreams too many times to forget a single detail. Later I would wonder why he’d behaved so strangely, and why he’d wished me luck.

            I spent the next forty hours of my life being prepared to be useful. I was fed special muscle-building proteins through a tube as I lay in an electrocuted bath meant to stimulate muscle and brain interaction. My skin was scrubbed free of the layers of embryonic deposits and dead cells to reveal raw pink flesh that had never seen sunlight. Next, I began a cycle of phototherapy to introduce my skin to the world and my eyes to differing levels of brightness. A small metal stud at the base of my neck was connected via wire to a tablet, programming some invisible machine built deep in my mind. I would helplessly stand, sit, or speak at the touch of a button. During all this time, no one spoke to me, but they did speak to each other using the kind of small talk that people indulge in when they feel like no one’s watching. In fact, they treated me like an animal incapable of thought or reason, and their behavior was an extension of that idea. Why censor yourself in front of a dog, or a cow? They can’t remember, they can’t repeat you.

            After I was thoroughly prepared, I began the routine that would become my entire life. I soon learned that I was one of a group of ten identical women. Like ducks in a line we followed one another from place to place through the dark halls of the facility, blankly obeying the programmed instructions in our minds. Every morning we were woken up from our warm hibernation pods with a small dose of adrenaline and shuffled to our various and repetitive daily activities, and then at the end of the day we were led back into the hibernation pods and coaxed into slumber with chemicals.

            Although we were like one another in almost every way, we were vastly different from other clones. I slowly began to realize that my world was a small piece of a larger place. While traveling between destinations I would sneak a glance through large glass windows to see hundreds of thousands of other clones: some floating along moving walkways and escalators, others attached to eating tubes or doing clumsy group exercises. Those clones wore bright orange paper shirts and pants, the kind of clothing that was easy to recycle and reproduce. The cheap material left a faint orange residue on insides of their elbows and the base of their necks. Each of them had a black number from 1 to 5 on their chests, and subjects with higher numbers seemed to be allowed to grow hair, although it never got very long. They all looked completely different. I never saw a single one that looked like another.

            Once I realized this, I began to pay attention to the way me and my kind were treated. Every day when we woke up, the first stop of the day was the Maintenance Room, where we were bathed, covered in strange powders and oils, and our hair was brushed and dried with careful fingers. Our skin was meticulously examined; any blemish was dealt with quickly with serums and noted on a tablet. In contrast to the cheap orange paper suits that the other clones wore, we were clothed in soft white shirts and leggings. They were warm but breathable, making it easy to walk through the facility but also helping us stay comfortable through our group exercises. Each shirt had a small silver notation embroidered on the chest; mine said 9C9. I’d managed to get a good look at it while undressing one night, but I didn’t want to look too hard – I had a feeling that being curious about the world was taboo for some reason. At any rate, my fellows didn’t seem to care about anything, so why should I?

            It was many months later, lying awake in my hibernation pod, until I began to wonder if my sisters were in fact like me at all. Were they still affected by the sleep chemicals? Did they need to be woken up with adrenaline? Didn’t they wonder what the attendants said to one another, or if our voices could also make independent sounds? I felt an unexplored universe in my head, but I was unsure of where to start, or why I even bothered. Eventually the chemicals stopped helping me sleep and I would lie in my pod for hours until it was time to wake again. Each morning I furtively searched for signs that another had also passed a sleepless night, but it was impossible to know. Every face stared ahead blankly, went about the prescribed tasks at hand, and never met my eyes.

            One sleepless night, I closed my eyes and retraced my memories, thinking of the sounds I’d heard in my short life. My eyes opened as I settled upon the first words anyone had ever spoken to me.

            “Good luck,” I croaked, and smiled.

            II.

            Every week we were examined individually by the same scientist, a bubbly young woman named Jana. I always relished these interactions. Her badge, held aloft by a lanyard, bounced against my face as she leaned over me to adjust the settings on some mysterious machine. She smelled different than all of the other smells I was used to; I knew antiseptic, synthetic protein drinks, and sterile cotton, but I didn’t have a word for her smell. Her hair was a shocking red that wrapped around her ears in short curls, framing a smiling brown face with matching red lipstick. She always wore the same white lab coat with the same collection of pens and stylus tools in the pocket, but everything she wore underneath its open folds cycled constantly. It was amazing to me that a person could have such variety with their clothing. Today she was wearing a soft beige sweater that made shushing noises as it brushed against my cheek. I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, enjoying the intrusion into her personal space.

            A needle poked into my arm, quickly filling a blood capsule sample. I blinked, surprised by the pinch of pain, but Jana didn’t notice. She never noticed anything that I did, whether it was out of the ordinary or not. She hummed as she lifted the capsule to the light, checking the color.

            “Your nanobot count seems to be pretty high,” she chattered. She often talked to me while she worked, or talked on the phone. Sometimes if the test she was doing involved minimal interaction and maximum waiting, she would flip on a wall screen TV.

            “I’m going to run some tests, I think,” she continued. “Hm, I guess that means that I’ll have to take another blood sample for the diagnostics work. This shouldn’t hurt a bit,” she joked. I stared at the ceiling and tried to memorize her smell again.

            After about ten minutes, Jana stood and walked towards a grouping of glossy machines, depositing the samples into a sliding tray and pressing some buttons. The machine began to make a whirring sound. She checked her phone absentmindedly, making small sounds of disapproval.

            “You know what?” she said suddenly, almost causing me to jump. “Who needs boyfriends, anyway? I mean, Rick and I weren’t really official, but still…” She collected a sheet of data from some mysterious printer and plopped back into her chair, wheeling it back over next to my bed. “If you go home with someone enough times, I feel like they have an obligation to consider your feelings. He hasn’t answered my calls for two weeks. Two weeks!”

            She scowled as she daubed my arm with antiseptic. “He thinks he’s so busy with his fancy legal team, always blah blah blah all the time. I just wanna be like, you know what, I’m one of those people that makes sure you get to live past two hundred, you know?” She sighed dramatically, taking my pulse again while I wondered what on earth a legal team was. “I’m not, like, the highest up on the totem pole or anything, but the work I do is really important. And you know what, considering that I’ve just now finished my post-doc with this job – ” She snaps some dark goggles onto her face and makes a wide gesture with her gloved hands – “I think I’m doing pretty well for myself. Monsan is the largest clone producer in the world, and let’s be real, this is a cutting edge project!”

            She settled in her chair with a self-satisfied smirk, flashing a series of lights across my chest with a large machine arm. Eventually, her goggled face fell, and her smirk grew sour. “I bet he’s seeing that slut Mallory,” she muttered. “I know he thinks she’s cute, I see him watch her when he thinks I’m not looking. She may be on his legal team, but she’s just the office meat sock.” A good portion of the self-satisfaction swelled back into her posture. “I, at least, have some pride.”

            I was so confused, but greatly loving the sound and shape of each word she spoke. The most beautiful so far was the word “meat-sock.” It was definitely a word I would be saying to the top of my hibernation pod later.

            Jana turned off the machine and pushed the goggles up her face, peering at a screen just behind my head. I willed myself to keep my face relaxed and my eyes pointed away from her, but in my heart I imagined that she was looking me in the eye and we were laughing together, both solidly in the know about legal teams and Mallory’s. As I was lost in my daydream, Jana’s phone buzzed. Her eyes lit up and her hand dove into her pocket to search for the name on the screen. “Hello?” she said breathlessly, furiously swiveling her chair away from where I lay and over to her desk where there was a sea of paperclips and pens to distractedly fiddle with. “Rick? This is unexpected…”

            I focused on her conversation, wishing I could hear the voice of whoever was on the other end of the phone. “Oh, really?” Jana breathed in a seductive voice. She laughed a sultry, false laugh, even throwing back her head. “That’s great news! No wonder you’ve been so busy! Should we…celebrate?” She spun the chair around in a circle, face practically glowing. “I would love to. I’ll be done at work around seven, and I have weekends off, so if we left after dinner, we could be at your beach house by midnight.” She listened for a minute, and then giggled, blushing. “I guess I could. I know how much you like red lace. Well, I have to…finish some things here,” she practically moaned into the phone in an attempt to sound alluring. “I’ll see you at eight, handsome.” She hung up and stared at the screen for a moment, then looked up at me.

            “Oh my god, you won’t believe what just happened!” she squealed, throwing her legs and arms out into the air. “His team just closed a gigantic case that’s earned him a partnership in the company! And he wants me to celebrate with him at his beach house all weekend! And he totally called me his girlfriend!” The flush in her cheeks deepened and she brushed red curls away from her face, breathing quickly. “He said that Mallory and the others invited him to Vegas for the weekend but he like, said that he would rather spend the weekend celebrating with his girlfriend.” She laughed, a more genuine sound than the laugh she’d offered on the phone. “I wonder if they’ll have a party? I need to get a new black tie dress, if that’s the case.”

            Her expression softened, and she crossed her legs, thinking. “Maybe I should ask Mallory to go shopping with me and the girls…she really isn’t so bad, you know, she’s like, a nice person, and she’s new in town. I bet she doesn’t have anyone else to go with...” Jana stared into the distance for a few long minutes with a benevolent smile as I struggled to understand anything that she’d just said. Suddenly she snapped back into the present, and I quickly adjusted my gaze away from her and towards the ceiling. “Oh my god, I have to finish up here quick or I’ll be late.” She glanced at me, chewing on her lip. “Maybe I could skip the nanobot bloodwork…I mean, you just have a few extras, I’m sure everything will turn out normally anyway…well, I’ll check it next time if it still looks a little funny.”

            In my hibernation pod that night, I repeated all of the strange words I’d heard Jana say. “Rick?” I breathed, running my finger through my hair. “Rick, you are Vegas? How wonderful. That’s totally legit. When can I see you? Beach house?” I chuckled seductively to myself, imagining how interested Rick would be in what I was saying. “I don’t work on weekends, handsome. I am a gigantic partnership. I’ll see you at eight, handsome.”

            III.
            I had been looking forward to my next encounter with Jana all week, hoping she’d be just as talkative. My excitement as I was led down the hall towards her office was only betrayed by my quickening heartbeat and twitching fingers. As we rounded the corner through her open door, the orderly in scrubs that escorted me jumped. “Gah!” he shouted. A quick yelp from an unseen person answered him.

            “Holy shit, you scared me,” the orderly laughed, recovering. “You must be the new intern.”

            I followed him in with a bland expression on my face, not sure whether I should be excited or disappointed. With minute flickers of my eyes, I managed to examine the intern without looking like an unnaturally inquisitive clone. She was a small lithe woman with shortly cropped blonde hair and an oversized lab coat covering well-pressed office wear. In fact, her clothing seemed extra immaculate, as if she were trying to impress someone. I wondered who that person might be, and then it dawned on me that she might be trying to impress everyone at once; she might be nervous about being in a new place, eager to please her new coworkers with clean clothing.

            “What’s wrong with it? Did it get enough time in the hibernation pods?” the intern asked. Suddenly, I realized that my eyelids had drooped over my eyes as I’d been lost in thought.

            “Don’t worry,” Jana reassured the intern. “Sometimes if you leave them alone for too long they relax a little bit. It’s natural. Her brain doesn’t receive stimulus the way a normal human brain does.” She tapped the side of her head knowingly, red curls bouncing. “Thanks for the delivery, Carl,” she called after the departing orderly. If I could have blushed, I would have. Jana used “her” instead of “it”; it was embarrassing but also spiked a feeling of pleasure in my stomach.

            “Sit down, 9C9,” called Jana. I acted robotically, approaching the sterile examination chair and sitting stiffly inside of it. “Kelly, I’m going to grab a soda from the mini fridge, do you want one?”

            “Should we be speaking around 9C9?” whispered the new intern. Jana laughed, a loud sound in a quiet room.

            “Don’t worry about it, Kelly. Those protocols are for the bigwigs to ensure that the data is kept as pure as possible.” I noticed that Jana’s style of speech had become much more refined around this new Kelly. “Honestly, they don’t even have higher brain functions, so if you don’t use a programmed command, I’m not even sure she can hear you.”

            “Couldn’t the brain eventually rewire itself? I mean, they have whole brains and healing nanobots, …”

            “Not likely,” Jana said. “Maybe if you gave them, like, twenty years of intense therapy, and a lot of special proteins and stuff…” She chewed on her lip, thinking. “Honestly, a clone’s brain spends every moment from conception to its nineteenth year growing in a tube with zero outside stimulus. That’s the main reason that the higher regions of the brain never develop. We don’t even have to suppress any programming, it’s just like, not there.” She pushed her hair behind her ears and put on plastic gloves, snapping them at the wrists and motioning for Kelly to do the same. “Of course, some people believe that when a human body is grown from a tube, it’s missing that special little something, a soul or whatever. It never had a chance at being a real person anyway.”

            Kelly nodded breathlessly. “What do you think?”

            Jana swelled slightly with self-importance, enjoying the attention of the intern. “Honestly? How could souls, or something equivalent, not exist? If souls didn’t exist, if they weren’t, like, the difference between me and 9C9 here –” she gestured at me with an empty syringe “—then why can I laugh and talk and stuff and she can’t even feed herself? And honestly, working with clones, there’s no way I could think otherwise. Like, the work we do here, this technology took thousands of years to develop through civilization up to this point, you know? Making a human is an incredibly complicated process. I don’t know, it just makes me think, like, this can’t all be by accident.” She took a sample of my blood and held it up to the light, but didn’t seem to really be looking at it as she talked.

            “Wow,” breathed Kelly. “I’ve always considered myself an agnostic, but you make a pretty compelling case for intelligent design.”

            “What can I say?” smiled Jana generously. “I create life here every day. Surely we have, like, a nesting doll scenario here. I create, I was created.”

            There were a few moments of silence. Kelly licked her lips nervously, asking, “I don’t want to be rude, but would you mind, I’m just curious, what is your religious affiliation?”

            Jana laughed. “I’m not offended at all, girl! If we’re going to be stuck in this room together from now on we should totally get to know one another. I’m actually an agnostic as well, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some pretty specific ideas about what probably happened. And the second there’s scientific proof for a faith, you bet I’ll get in on it!”

            “A scientist first,” said Kelly admiringly. Jana puffed up a little bit more. I wondered if she was going to pop.

            “But enough about me,” Jana said briskly, suddenly having acquired an air of serene knowledge. “What questions do you have about the research process? Do you understand what we’re doing here?”

            “I think so,” Kelly said quickly. “We’re looking for anomalies, right?”

            “Yep!” Jana said brightly. “So this is 9C9, a part of the 9C test group. She’s clone nine out of ten. We’re the people in charge of testing all ten of those clones every week, one after another, to narrow down any anomalies the test group may have as a whole – or any anomalies the clone might have all on her own.”
            Kelly frowned. “That’s one thing I’m confused on. Why are there only ten clones in the sample group? That seems really small.”

            Jana nodded. “You’re right, it is small. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, clones are really expensive, and each sample set takes a huge amount of resources and time – I mean, incubation alone is, like, nineteen years! The early test groups were pretty large, though. The very first one, the 1A group, was a thousand clones large.”

            “Wow!” Kelly exclaimed. “That’s a lot! Did you have to fully incubate them the nineteen years before you could start the second group?”

            “Sometimes,” admitted Jana. “But most of the time, we would be able to diagnose issues in the early stages and adjust the next groups genomes accordingly. Until 9C9’s group was, uh, conceived, we were creating new test groups every year. But that brings me right back around to the biggest reason there are only ten of them.” She smiled secretively.

            Kelly leaned in closely as if a throng of people were trying to listen in on their conversation. “Okay…”
            Jana smiled with delight. “This is the final product. We think we’ve finished. They’re still prototypes, but so far, they’re exceeding expectations.” Kelly gasped in amazement. “In fact, next month we’ll be presenting them at CloneCon to a bunch of, like, really important investors and stuff. You came at the perfect time!”

            Kelly looked worried. “Isn’t DEF CON going on at the same time? Haven’t there been security issues before?”

            Jana looked upset. “Yeah, last year they broke into our showroom and stole a clone. They’ll probably try again this year, so we’re doing CloneCon in the showroom this year instead of a casino like we used to.”

            Kelly shook her head. “What’s their problem, anyway?”

            Jana waved her hand. “Who knows? These are the same people that inject hacked nanobots into their systems and refuse to get regular clone upgrades. The less you understand them, the better.”

            IV.
            A man with tanned skin and greying hair had started observing our exercises along with a flock of hovering tablets taking notes and chirping ceaselessly. “Meeting at five,” one squawked. “Chairmen want to discuss transfer. Reminder. Remind again at ten ‘til?” The man answered it with a deep voice. “Response: Yes, please.” He walked towards a series of holographic monitors in the front of the room, staring intently at whatever it showed him. The hovering tablets followed like a swarm of insects.

            My interest was piqued somewhat, but lately I had been in a funk and was unable to become sufficiently curious about this strange new man. I had been outside of the tank for almost three years, and my grasp of the English language was much better than it had been when I’d first emerged. There were still some words I didn’t understand, words that had a specific scientific or medical context, but I knew enough now to have some serious existential questions about myself. Lately I’d found my mind returning again and again to the conversation between Jana and Kelly about a month previously. Since then, they’d developed a comfortable friendship that existed outside of the office as well, so while the conversations were enlightening and helped me improve my grasp of language, they often didn’t discuss work related matters around me. Popular topics included ‘who’s gotten fat in the office,’ ‘who would you sleep with if you had to choose someone,’ and their relationships. A month ago I’d never dreamed it was possible, but I’d grown tired of hearing about Rick.

            I wanted them to return to their original line of inquiry – what was the difference between a human and a clone? Was it a soul? I had a vague idea of what a soul was; it seemed to be a special something that made you more of a person, or less of one in its absence, a concentration of your personality and humanity. If that was the case, I wasn’t sure where I stood. I felt different from the clones around me, as it seemed that none of them had any interest in their surroundings. It was truly as if they had no higher brain functions.

            It was even worse with the regular clones, as I’d heard them called. My interaction with them had been extremely limited over the years, but I’d seen their group exercises and they looked like shambling goo-people next to the sharp and precise motions my sisters and I performed. It was clear that our central nervous system had much stronger connections, but then, wouldn’t that imply that there had to be a sentient, intelligent being operating everything? Or was it all due to the programmable processing chip installed in our brains? I wondered briefly if I wasn’t as alone as I thought, but was simply surrounded by better actresses than I. As we turned in unison to execute a flying kick, I knew this couldn’t be true, just by glancing at their slack faces. I had to fight to keep my expression neutral nowadays, and even the strange new man with the gray hair had noticed that I was…anomalous.

            I found it hard to care. What was I if I didn’t have that essential something? Was I an animal, a tool, or something in between? If I’d been allowed out of my tube at the earliest possible stage, like a naturally born child, would I have developed a soul, or found that I developed normally without one? Would I be indistinguishable from someone like Jana, who truly believed that a god-being had decided to designate me as a “non-human”?

            That’s what was really bothering me, I realized. The soul explanation might be true, but it wrote off any kind of speculation into the morality of those who created clones. I picked at the thought like a sore wound, a dull sense of anger forming in the pit of my stomach that was mixing with the ever present fear of discovery, rot fighting rot. I wasn’t sure why I was here, why I was forced into daily repetitions and turned into a carbon copy of nine other creatures, but if the idea of a soul existed then it gave a person the perfect excuse to forgive themselves for trapping a human in a tube for the first nineteen years of their lives, robbing them of their higher brain functions.

            Just like that, I realized that I’d referred to myself as a human being. What did it mean? Did I truly feel that way and did I even know what it meant to claim such a thing? I’d been moving through the exercises routinely, but as I felt anger and fear warring inside of me, I began to move with a purpose. My leg rose in a kick at the same time as my sisters, but it reached its peak much faster, and my foot thudded back onto the floor a full second before everyone else.

            A red light came up in front of us, indicating that we should stop. Terror boiled up inside of me, threatening to come out my mouth, but I kept my stare impassive even as my ears began ringing. The man with the gray hair walked towards me slowly, every footstep stretching my composure to its limits.
            “That kick could’ve taken a person’s head off,” he mumbled. He looked at my arms and prodded my biceps. “Query: What are the anomalies particular to 9C9?”

            One of the hovering tablet bots answered in a tinny voice. “Six recorded anomalies. Anomaly two through five related to nanobot levels in blood. Abnormally high among test subjects but not at unhealthy levels. Issue unresolved. Anomaly one and six related to muscle stimulus response. Eight percent higher than the average for the sample group. Hypothesis according to Dr. Jana Sverts: accelerated muscle and nerve interaction.”

            “That could be due to the nanobots. Query: does 9C9 receive the same proteins and gene therapy as the other test subjects?”

            “That is correct. There is no difference in treatment, chemically or behaviorally.”

            The man rubbed his jawline, staring at my muscular frame. I fought to appear as empty and brainless as a stone.

            “Command: Send memo to Ms. Morgan. Tell her that I want 9C9 in the very front row of the presentation. Her muscle and nerve coordination is exceptional.” He started to walk away, and then quickly turned back to peer at my face. My heart thudded but I refused to meet his gaze. Breathe in, breathe out.

            “Command: Send a memo to Dr. Jana and ask her to keep an eye on 9C9 nanobot level development,” he said slowly. “And tell her to do extra tests on the nanobot samples so we can rule out faulty bot reproduction code. Clone can be placed in transfer procedure queue.” He walked away and the exercises resumed. My hand almost shook as I completed the rotation, aware that from now on, I would have to be a little faster than everyone else – but not too fast.

            What had I done?

            V.

            Sadly, my next meeting with Jana was postponed. That Friday, instead of doing our regular daily activities, we were taken to the Maintenance Room and examined by a team of strangers. The man with the salt and pepper hair was there as well, but in lieu of a lab coat he wore a sleek three piece suit made out of a darkly shimmering material. He talked quickly with the strange new people, gesturing towards each of us in turn. We sat dumbly in our maintenance chairs, waiting for whatever novel thing was going to happen.

            We were scrubbed, powdered, waxed, and tweezed. Fortunately, they’d given us localized anesthesia to block the pain – I’m sure no one wanted to know what a herd of wailing brainless clones looked like – but I seemed to metabolize it pretty quickly, and by the end of the plucking session I was struggling to keep my composure. After what seemed like an eternity, it ended, and we were rinsed off with varying chemical baths. Then, all of the other clones had their hair covered in strange pastes and tied up around their heads. My hair was simply dried and brushed out. The man in the suit wandered over to my chair and lifted a lock of it, examining the curling white sheen winding between his fingers.

            “Yes,” he said to the stranger working on me. “Keep her hair as natural as possible, she’s going to be the face of the product. I want her in the Monsan jumpsuit as well. Make sure you use the white one that Jess designed for the expo, not one of the orange ones.” He began to walk away, and then turned around abruptly, waving a finger. “Also, have them try to do an exercise in the heels. If they can’t handle it, go ahead and switch to barefoot. But, I would prefer the heels,” he smiled. “Sex sells, as they say.”

            Later, after we’d been dyed and airbrushed to glossy perfection, we were lead to the cubbies where we normally found our soft white sweaters and leggings. I walked robotically to my assigned cubby, marked 9C9, and reached in to grab my assigned clothing. My hands touched a slithering white fabric and I froze, unsure of what to do. All around me the other clones froze in dumb confusion.

            “Oh for Christ’s sake,” a man with a holographic clipboard and bright red spikey hair huffed at his fellows. “Help the poor things put on the clothes.”

            A doctor wandered over to me and put my foot through some openings, pulling the fabric up my body and zipping the thing up. I was wearing a skintight white jumpsuit made of a fabric that looked like albino snake skin, but was soft and breathable. The jumpsuit had a tight collar that traveled all the way up my neck, snapping together with off centered black snaps. There was a large open circle on the chest, and the outfit seemed to be propping my breasts up considerably. The sweatshirt I normally wore was comfortably confining, but the chill draft enabled by this new clothing raised goosebumps all along the large expanse of skin showing. With each breath I jiggled, an interesting sensation. Finally, I was helped into shiny black boots with impossibly high heels and fabric that rolled all the way up to my thigh. The doctor stepped back to inspect his work.

            “Wow,” one of his companions said, wandering over. “That is one hot clone.”

            The other doctor elbowed him, hissing, “That’s a weird thing to say, man.” But his eyes, just like his friends, continued to flick towards my cleavage.

            As expected, our first few steps in the heels were disastrous, and if it weren’t for our genetically enhanced bones and ligaments, I’m sure someone would have broken an ankle. However, thanks to our rigid martial arts training, our balance and muscle control soon had us doing our exercises per normal, except about seven inches taller. This time, we were outfitted with a small lens over our right eye that clipped behind our ears, alit with lights that mimicked the commands we were given throughout the day. Then, strangely enough, we were taken to a completely different part of the facility and placed in a dimly lit room with white plastic chairs. We sat and waited for what seemed like hours.

            I kept my back straight and my face blank but my mind was racing with excitement. New clothes! A new place! An eyepiece! What was going on? Were we going to see even more of the facility? It had never occurred to me that I might get to see a new place, and now that I had, I was eager to go exploring. A daring idea entered my mind: what if I found a way to slip away and come back without anyone noticing? I wasn’t wearing my old clothing, so maybe no one would recognize me at all! I could go have a conversation with someone and practice my words and facial expressions! I could direct my gaze anywhere I wanted and not feel like I was being discovered, a nebulous and unshakeable fear.

            Suddenly, there was a light in the corner of my vision. I stood automatically, falling into formation almost before I even knew what I was doing. Strange hands grabbed at my elbows and I was dragged to the exact middle of the line instead of my place near the end. I swallowed with apprehension, wondering if I’d somehow spoken my thoughts aloud, or if the doctors had learned to read minds. However, no more extra attention was paid to me, and as we entered a dark hallway I felt my pulse began to return to normal.

            We were ushered into a large room with strange, glittering props and long cloth walls. A swell of noise came from behind the cloth, pierced melodically by a human voice amplified far beyond what I could imagine. My once excited mind began to stumble. I was unsure of this new place and now unsure of whether or not I was really enjoying this break from the norm. Suddenly the monotonous repetition of my daily life seemed soothing; I felt my hands shaking as I tried to make sense of the disembodied voice, the strange blank loudness like a giant creature that underlined the voice’s words, my new clothes. As happy as I’d been I’d now had my fill of excitement, and desperately wished for my hibernation pod. After a life of dulled sensations, I was finding myself over-stimulated.

            Blinking green in the corner of my vision. We lined up for an exercise, once again reminding me that I was situated in a different place than normal. More strangers grabbed elbows and repositioned everyone until we were in a V formation, and I was leading it. I tried to still the quiet shaking of my hands.
            “And finally,” the Voice brayed. “Let me introduce you to…Generation Nine!”

            The cloth wall lifted, revealing that it wasn’t actually a wall, but merely a divider. I stifled a gasp at the vastness I felt before me, realizing that the droning beast I’d imagined was actually the sound of a large group of people resting in the same space. Fabric scraping fabric; hands scratching faces; muted coughs and whispers. A bright, merciful light coming from above us was somewhat blinding, so I couldn’t make out any faces or understand the true size of the room, but what I could see sent thrills of fear through me. Why were all of these people staring at us? Why were we dressed up, standing in front of them?

            Blinking red and green simultaneously. Once again I was relieved at my automatic response to commands. My body seemed to be moving without me, going through the exercise smoothly and calmly, and I felt somehow that I didn’t live inside of it any more. As my leg kicked high into the air, I took in the strange smells and sounds, trying to think around the suffocating panic I felt gripping my chest. As I finished the kick, my foot slammed against the floor, much harder than I had anticipated, causing a large bang as I settled into the finishing pose. Then, applause.

            “Yes!” said the Voice. “Yes, they are marvelous.” The applause died down, although now there was a wave of exciting muttering washing through the crowd. The Voice continued. “The future is here. With the promising success of Generation Nine, now we will be able to put human minds into the host body of their choice. Complete modification is possible. No more do you have to rely on the same tired old copies of your genetics; you can choose something taller, faster,” he paused for effect, “Sexier?” There was scattered laughing from the audience. The Voice seemed encouraged as it continued. “Of course we will still have the old genetic material on ice if anything is to go wrong in your shiny new host body, but that’s not likely to happen. This generation has an incredible healing factor, as well as resilience to disease, radiation…and even aging.” The muttering got louder. “That’s right,” the Voice said smugly. “Instead of getting an upgrade every twenty years, Generation Nine only needs one every eighty years.” He might as well have dropped a bomb. A wall of sound hit me, a combination of shouting, clapping, and standing. After a few moments, the noise died down.

            “Think of the possibilities!” said the Voice delightedly. The audience hung on to his every word. “For those of us who need gender reassignment surgery, you could skip that step altogether! No more dangerous reconstructive surgeries every twenty years! Or, if you have a predisposition for a genetic disorder, you can leave all of your treatments behind! Maybe you’re simply tired of a year of therapy and recovery every twenty years…let’s be honest, the longer I’m here, the faster they seem to come!” More laughter pealed forth from the audience.

            “We will be providing more information throughout CloneCon, but for the moment, I’ll take a few questions.” The Voice paused for a moment. “Yes? In the front row.”

            There was a short screeching sound. “Yes, I’m Samuel Harding, from Global Enterprises.” This new voice was higher, and shook a little. “I have a question about the switching procedure. If the host body has an entirely different set of DNA, how does it not reject the new brain?”

            “Excellent question, Samuel,” the Voice said smoothly. “It’s partially because of the healing factor, partially because of some new nanobots that our engineers have cooked up for us. I don’t know the details, but we’ll get Dr. Brian up here in a little while to spread some science. We are very hopeful about the risk percentage. The estimates show that the risk factor is smaller than five percent!”

            More muttering from the crowd. “Yes, in the fourth row,” said the Voice patiently.

            “Hi, I’m Mai Xing, from the University of Science and Technology in Colorado. When you say you’re hopeful, does that mean that you haven’t actually done the surgery on this generation yet?”

            The Voice laughed, soothing the unease that rippled through the crowd. “Of course we haven’t, Mai. Even though we are optimistic about the patient’s successful transplantation, we want to be absolutely sure about our methods before we go to human trials. It would be unethical to needlessly endanger a life. After all, where would we be without our patients?”

            Another round of applause went through the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the Voice said loudly, “Now it’s time for some quick Q&A with the lead scientist, Dr. Brian. But before he comes up, let’s give these hardworking scientists another round of applause for all of their hard work on these clones.” Thunderous applause followed, and the curtain was slowly lowered.

            VI.

            My ears were ringing as the applause fell over me like a rockslide through the fabric. I finally knew my purpose, the reason that I’d been grown in a tube and led around like a sheep. My body was a tool, my brain a placeholder for someone else’s. Everything I’d done, everything I’d ever experienced had been in preparation for some – invader – who would force their way in and push me out. I imagined another person putting me on like a glove, shoving their fingers into mine. I’d served my purpose, and now I need to be used. My usefulness was in my death.

            Stagehands wandered towards us, talking quietly. “We need to get them back into the labs,” one said, pressing buttons on a tablet.

            “Yeah,” a young woman agreed. “Those psycho DEF CON weirdos could show up at any minute. Security is better this year, but still.” She shuddered distractedly as she took my pulse.

            “I thought it got cancelled this year,” her partner said.

            “Who knows for sure,” she shrugged.

            They shook their heads disapprovingly and motioned us into a line. We almost made it to the door before a sequence of soft, high notes rang out.

            “What’s happening?” moaned one of the stage hands. They began to stumble drunkenly, losing their grips on the wrists of the clones, who started stumbling as well. One by one, they all fell to the ground, moaning and vomiting. I was frozen in place with surprise.

            A group of people stepped out from behind a tall stack of sound equipment. They were wearing an assortment ripped jeans, goggles, and large headphones, with colorful bandannas wrapped carefully around their lower faces. One of them, a tall woman with onyx skin and a shaved head, leaned over a vomiting stagehand and chuckled.

            “How the hell did you do that, Pirate?” she asked, shaking her head.

            “Dog whistles,” one of the men said, waving a fistful of small black objects tied together with rubber bands. “Set the frequencies to disorient normies. Won’t affect you if you got the latest DEF CON nanobot plugin.”

            The woman shook her head again, laughing. “That’s not what those updates are supposed to be used for.”

            Pirate shrugged. “Not what dog whistles are for either. Works, though. You mad, Crash?”

            The woman shook her head. “Not at all. Is this the right clone? I’m guessing she got the plugin installed as well?”

            “Yes,” chimed in a slender man covered in tattoos. “She’s connected to the network. Azouri successfully injected a batch of custom-baked nanobots when she was ‘born.’ We’ve been doing software updates for some time now.”

            Crash nodded and stepped towards me carefully. “You need to come with us,” she said calmly, motioning towards her group.

            I took a step back, fear gripping my chest. “Why? What are you going to do to me?” My voice was raspy with disuse, the words feeling awkward in my mouth.

            Crash spread her arms wide, gesturing around her. “Not what these assholes were going to do, that’s for sure. Your brain will be staying right where it belongs.” She stepped towards me again, gently taking my hand in hers. “We really don’t have time to explain. We’ve been planning this for a long time. You have to trust me.” She pushed her goggles up so I could meet her gaze. Her large brown eyes wore a serious expression.

            Hope blossomed in my heart, pushing away some of the fear I’d carried since my first moment in this world. “Okay. I trust you. Help me,” I pleaded, stepping towards her. “I don’t want to die.”

            Pirate sighed, the air hissing through his teeth. “We recording this?” he asked.

            “Yeah, I’ve got my cam on her,” a woman near the back said quietly, gesturing towards a ragtag bunch of hovertablets following behind them.

            “Good,” Crash said, an edge of anger in her voice. “People need to see this, see a clone begging for her life. You see this, assholes?” She turned towards the floating camera as it focused on her face. “Clones are humans. Clone harvesting is murder, plain and simple.” She turned back towards me and motioned quickly. “Let’s go.”

            I followed the strange group of people through the door into the hallway, gripping Crash’s hand tightly as she led me forward to freedom.

            VII.

            We walked quickly through the dark hallways of the showroom, narrowly avoiding patrolling security guards and wandering CloneCon attendees. We finally reached a large, locked door with a key fob reader.

            “Anyone have a fob? Bodyhackers, I’m looking at you,” hissed Crash.

            “I’ve got it on my RFID.” A young man waved his arm in front of the key fob reader and the red lights turned green. Crash flashed him a thumbs up and pushed the door open.

            Suddenly, we were outside. Above me, an infinite blanket of blue threatened to crush me flat. I felt my throat tighten and my knees buckle; strong, hard arms caught me.

            “Help me,” I moaned, screwing my eyes shut.

            “Shit,” whispered Pirate. “Probably agoraphobic. Tank, can you carry?”

            “Sure,” a gravelly voice behind me said. The strong arms lifted me up, cradling me against his chest. I pressed my face into his shirt and began to cry quietly.

            “It’ll get better, sugar,” Tank said soothingly. A few hands patted me sympathetically as we walked away from the doorway. I kept my eyes closed until I was set down into a soft chair, a strap of some kind buckled across my chest. I put my hands over my face defensively as I heard a door slam.

            “You’re in the van now,” Crash said, shaking my arm. I peeked around my fingers at her. We were in a large vehicle of some kind with chairs lining one wall and an assortment of technology lining the other. Candy wrappers lined the floor and the windows were painted black, thin slivers of light filtering in along the cracked edges. A mattress lay on the floor at the back, tattered sheets in a pile at the center.

            “Welcome to the Fortress,” Crash said cheerfully. “This is where we live. Me, Tank, and Pirate,” she clarified. “Everyone else is staying at the casino. We’ll meet them there later. Tank’s up front driving.”

            “What casino?” I asked tremulously.

            “Caesars Palace this year,” Pirate answered, dropping into the seat beside me. “Different next year, I think.”

            Crash waved her hand dismissively. “We can talk about that later. Do you know why we...uh…”

            “Kidnapped,” Pirate said helpfully.

            “Yeah. Do you know why we kidnapped you?”

            I shook my head slowly. I was having trouble adjusting to being addressed directly by another human being. “I’m not sure.”

            Crash sighed, running a hand over her shaved head. “This is something that’s been in the works for a few years. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, most people prolong their lives with cloning technology. Once your body begins to age significantly, you get your next clone ‘upgrade,’ which as you can imagine, kills the clone.” She looked angry. “It’s murder. There are better alternatives, like using advanced nanotechnology.”

            “Like what I have?” I asked tentatively.

            She nodded. “Correct. When you were ‘born,’ you had the standard nanotech that most people have; rapid healing, virus protection, cancer prevention, et cetera. We use better tech that keeps us young and eliminates the need for clone upgrades. Plus, it’s customizable.”

            “Bodyhacker’s wet dream,” said Pirate.

            “Exactly,” Crash agreed. “We had one of our people inject some of our custom-cooked nanobots, and since then they’ve been repairing the damage that the forced hibernation did to your brain, among other things. Did you ever feel like you were different from the other clones?”

            “Yes,” I admitted.

            “That’s why,” she said, a somber note in her voice. “The bots have been rerouting your neural processes, rebuilding parts of your brain that had never been used. They’ve also been multiplying to replace most of your blood cells, rebuilding your muscles with harder organic fibers, and so on. You’re practically a cyborg like Tank.”

            “Cyborg?” I asked.

            “Metal arms,” she grinned, slapping her bicep. “Didn’t you notice?”

            I stared at her blankly, unsure of what to say. She shook her head apologetically. “Sorry. I forget that you’re new to this human interaction thing.”

            I nodded slowly. “What now?”

            She grinned again. “Now, we’re going to go low for a while, teach you how to be a human, maybe even let Pirate turn you into a bonafide hacker.”

            “And then?”

            “We take those fuckers down.” She flexed her fingers threateningly. “Clone harvesting companies tell the public to fear nanotechnology because the money’s in cloning. Why teach people to maintain their own bot systems when you could charge them thousands of dollars for a full body upgrade? It’s robbery, man. Robbery and murder.”

            I nodded again, lost in exhaustion. This had been the most eventful day of my life, and I was beginning to feel it.

            Pirate noticed my fatigue. “Mattress at back,” he gestured. “Can sleep for a while.”

            “Thank you,” I said quietly. Crash undid my seatbelt and led me to the back of the van, helping me balance as the vehicle moved beneath us.

            “What should we call you?” she asked as she tucked the sheets around me. I thought for a moment, then pointed to the metal badge on my chest.

            “My name is 9C9.”

            Comment


            • #7
              FOXGLOVE by KELSI CORNWELL

              -1-
              Most people may argue that the most dangerous person in the world is he who possesses a weapon. A troubled soul who grabs a gun from his father’s gun cabinet just to cause a stir the next day, or maybe a knife and dares anyone to stop him, or maybe even someone who has a knack for making bombs and wants to see just how many people he can cause to have pain. A vehicle can even serve as a weapon today…egotistical maniacs hiding behind an object to evoke chaos and destruction. Some would agree that these are cowardice actions whereas others know that the mind itself is the ultimate weapon and the most powerful of all. Therefore the most perilous is he whose intelligence goes beyond that of the average Joe. The one who is not just able to think and understand, but able to make their thoughts a reality and manipulate the very laws of science and life itself. This individual is the most dangerous of all and he is known as Emmitt Straine.

              Emmitt sat at his desk waiting as the last microbiologist exited the laboratory through the metal doors. He was now alone and could finally finish his greatest experiment, creating the deadliest superbug the world has ever seen, a hobby which soon turned into obsession. Emmitt grabbed his notebook and made sure the doors of the lab were secured before making his way to the incubator. He put on his gloves and added both a respirator and a facemask before opening the door. “You can never be too safe,” he thought to himself. After moving a few trays of petri dishes, he found his tray in the very back and placed it on the counter beside him. He replaced the other trays making sure they were in the same position as they were prior to his tampering. Emmitt closed the incubator door, picked up his tray, and moved to the fume hood.

              As he sifted through the dishes he came across the three he was looking for, the ones he labeled simply as alpha, beta, and gamma. Although labeled differently, all three petri dishes contained the exact same concoction…a superbug Emmitt created himself and named “Foxglove,” after his online penname. The superbug, or what most scientists call a chimera bug, is a combination of some of the world’s most deadly bacteria; Emmitt’s combination. He was proud of his creation and was stoked to put it to the test at the upcoming hacker’s convention, a place he had been going for the past five years.

              It was almost two years ago when the idea occurred to him. He was sitting at DEF CON while listening to one of many speeches given at the conference. It’s odd how these things sometimes just come to the mind and manifest themselves. The idea? A highly transmissible superbug causing the first actual zombie-like outbreak. He could do it, he knew he could, and it wasn’t like this superbug disease wasn’t possible. Emmitt knew firsthand that anything is possible if you know how to manipulate an organism’s genome. He went back to his hotel room that evening and decided to make some notes and do some research. He was already a research scientist at West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, so a lot of the information he wrote down he either already knew or was quite familiar with. He never really believed anything would truly come of it; it was only a thought of “what if this happened.” Eventually one thing lead to another and before he knew it he was in the process of creating the fiercest and deadliest disease-causing agent the world would ever see.

              Aside from the actual trial and error, the research took the longest. In order to properly create a new organism Emmitt had to determine not only the characteristics he wanted his organism to have, but how he was going to obtain such characteristics as well as whether or not the bacteria would be similar enough to pass recombination. He would also have to determine which organism would be the skeleton of Foxglove. His first choice, and the choice he stuck with, was Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent for deadly anthrax.

              Emmitt Straine has been fascinated with anthrax since the anthrax letters that occurred back in 2001. Bacillus anthracis, a Gram-positive bacilli that has the potential to generate spores, which is by far the deadliest part of the organism. His fascination with anthrax was actually what pushed him to obtain a microbiology degree in the first place. Although highly fascinating, Bacillus anthracis still possessed some characteristics that he felt were detrimental to his cause. In order to separate what Emmitt considered “good” characteristics of the bacteria (high mortality rate, environmentally stable, great longevity, and ability to be aerosolized just to name a few) from the “bad” characteristics (the fact that it was not easily transmittable from person to person and that there was a vaccine available for certain individuals), he had to determine the exact parts of the genome of Bacillus anthracis that corresponded with these capabilities and replace these parts of the genome with the genome of something much more sinister: Francisella tularensis.

              Emmitt chose to use Francisella because of its highly infectious characteristics. With the ability to infect an individual with less than ten colony forming units, this would allow for a greater population to be infected without requiring as much of the organism. The main issue with Francisella? It is not transmitted from person to person and neither is Bacillus anthracis. Although this is not a huge obstacle (there will be an estimated 50,000 people at DEF CON 25 this year wearing shirts infected with the spores of Foxglove), Emmitt was still aiming to make the disease communicable in nature. With little time left at this point, he had decided to continue tweaking the Francisella/Bacillus combination.

              Later in development Emmitt came up with the idea of utilizing the neurotoxin botulinum from Clostridium botulinum in his organism. Since Clostridium botulinum is highly anaerobic whereas Foxglove was aerobic, this would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Trial after trial and error after error, Emmitt Straine finally came up with a resolution: the B. anthracis capsule. Bacillus anthracis is known to have a glutamyl-peptide capsule which is released by the spores during environments of elevated carbon dioxide. Could this capsule, which protects it from being phagocytized, be what Emmitt has been needing all this time?

              After replacing the other trays, Emmitt closed the incubator door and went to the fume hood to examine his creation while noting their appearance in his notebook.
              Colonies – medium sized, slightly convex, grayish-white, opaque, and irregular margin; non-hemolytic, catalase positive; sticky consistency (shows no characteristics of C. botulinum as originally hypothesized; must determine if C. botulinum did in fact survive the combination)

              After recording his results into his notebook, Emmitt began to feel overwhelmed. He has been working on Foxglove for almost two years trying to make it perfect and still cannot come up with a way to incorporate the botulinum toxin into his organism. Without this toxin, it will be much harder to develop the perfect disease causing agent and he is running out of time. DEF CON 25 will start in just ten days so if he wants to accomplish it this year he needs to pick up the pace. His hopes and dreams of being the first designated (and highly successful) genetic hacker may need to be put on hold for yet another year just because his research hasn’t been thorough. He closes his notebook and begins to think. “How can I add it and it actually work?!” He turns to his laptop sitting on the desk beside him and begins to research “Clostridium botulinum.” While scrolling through the results for close to forty-five minutes none of the titles spiked his interest. He looked at the clock which read 1914. Over an hour and a half has passed since his shift has ended and he has nothing to show for it. Aggravated, Emmitt begins to gather up his things. He can’t believe he has come this far just to be devastated yet again. As he makes his way back to the incubator he notices an article sitting on a desk of one of his fellow employees. The article is about the Ebola virus and how it has spread throughout Africa causing major issues for the southern part of the continent. Ebola virus….virus. Could this be the answer to his never-ending question? Could it be possible to use a viral vector to incorporate everything he wished into one superbug? It must be because molecular biologists use it all the time to introduce bacterial DNA into a cell, how is this any different? The adrenaline returns as he places his petri dish tray back into the incubator and rushes to open his laptop once again.

              Emmitt changes his search to “viral vectors” and begins his extensive hunt for the perfect viral predator. Of course the ultimate viral vector would be the Ebola virus. Although the virus is not new, it has just recently been reintroduced to the public causing quite a stir considering it is highly dangerous…and quite scary. Once infected the individual begins to have a sore throat and headache later accompanied with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, decreased organ function, and, Emmitt’s personal favorite, often fatal hemorrhagic fever, the most notable symptom. “That would be a sight to see.” thinks Emmitt, “bleeding from every orifice, confused state, contagious. Although this seems nearly perfect, it would be impossible to find a lab holding the virus around here…” He keeps on searching wanting to find something that would be the ultimate vector. He sees a few articles on rhabdoviruses and decides to stay clear of the rabies virus since it is very cliché to use. However, if Emmitt Straine wants to create the perfect zombie disease, he knows he will most likely need to incorporate rabies somehow. Confusion, rage with the urge to bite, heavy saliva, nervous system compromised, and no cure? It is almost perfect, however the only way for transmission from person-to-person and Emmitt knows all too well that one infected person will not have the capacity to transmit the disease as fast as he hopes, let alone with just the rabies virus as the vector. This is still not good enough for Emmitt. He wants something complex; something that would be overlooked yet still remain highly infectious.

              After almost another hour of research Emmitt comes across an article involving the smallpox virus. “On this day of the year 2017 Starlight Laboratories of Cumberland, Maryland has confirmed that they have in their possession over forty vials of the variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox disease. Smallpox disease has been eradicated for nearly forty years thanks to the use of mandated vaccinations so an outbreak could lead to an epidemic. The laboratory states that they will indeed dispose of the vials properly in order to prevent any release into the environment which may in turn expose residents of the city. State laboratory officials say that the community has no need to panic and the vials will be disposed of within the next week.”

              Emmitt’s heart races as he reads and rereads the article. He remembers back in his college days learning about how blankets infected with the smallpox virus were
              distributed to Native American tribes by the British. Since the Native Americans had never been exposed to the virus previously, the blankets they had been given were infecting each person that came into contact with them which in turn resulted in mass casualties. Emmitt believed he had finally found the final characteristic he was looking for and was determined to use it even though the virus has been eradicated for nearly forty years. He looks at the publication date of the article which is marked for July 13th. He looks at the bottom right corner of his laptop. “July 17th…there may still be hope.”

              Emmitt opens his notebook and writes down the URL and Starlight Laboratories information. He hopes to convince his boss to acquire at least a couple of the smallpox vials for his genetic testing on Bacillus anthracis. He plans on telling him the truth in that it will be used to determine if it would be a good viral vector for the organism, he just doesn’t plan on telling him it will be put to the test on actual human test subjects. With smallpox being such a taboo virus he hopes obtaining the vials will be much easier than he thinks. He shuts his notebook and laptop, wiping them down with sterile wipes before setting them aside to finish cleaning up. Emmitt removes his PPE and thoroughly washes his hands before gathering his items and exiting the laboratory. A huge weight has finally lifted from his chest and he can go home knowing there may be hope still yet!


              -2-
              The next day Emmitt feels rejuvenated and ready to face his boss with the issue. He allows everyone time to come in and get started on their work for an hour or so before he makes his way to the laboratory director’s office. Emmitt comes to the door and pauses when he realizes his boss is on the phone. His boss motions him in to have a seat and that he will be only a moment. As Emmitt takes a seat he realizes he hasn’t actually formulated a plea. While scrambling for the right words he is interrupted by his thoughts.

              “And Mr. Straine, what can I do for you today?” the lab director asked as he replaced the telephone in the receiver.

              “Well I was hoping you could help me Dr. Moore. You see, I’m in sort of a dilemma when it comes to the genomic research for anthracis.”

              “I see,” Dr. Moore followed.

              “Well, I was thinking last night ‘If I were a biological terrorist, what would I do to make this more deadly?’”

              “And…?”

              “Viral vectors!” Emmitt states with enthusiasm. He was now no longer trying to sell his plea, but was speaking with such genuine enthusiasm that Dr. Moore was immediately hooked. “What if we used some sort of virus in order to possibly manipulate the disease into becoming communicable?”

              “…..go on.”

              “Well, as I was researching last night on viruses I came across a laboratory in the town of Cumberland, Maryland…”

              “Yeah, I know where that is.”

              “Well, the laboratory there, Starlight Laboratories, found in their possession over forty vials of the variola virus. How amazing is that?!” Emmitt places the address and phone number of Starlight Laboratories on his boss’s desk.

              Dr. Moore’s face stiffened a little. “Variola virus has been completely eradicated for years, Straine. I don’t believe this is legit.”

              “Yes forty to be exact, and throughout the public, but these are vials that contain the actual virus that had been in storage all this time. They have already been tested and verified but the laboratory personnel claim they will properly dispose of them sometime this week.”

              Dr. Moore stares at Emmitt, thinking long and hard about what he is suggesting. Dr. Moore lets out a huge sigh and folds his hands on top of his desk. “So let’s just get to the chase, Mr. Straine. You are wanting me to obtain forty vials of a virus that has supposedly been completely eradicated from the world for over forty years, just so that you can put your theory to the test?”

              Emmitt’s enthusiasm drops significantly while he thinks of a response. “Well, not forty. Maybe ten…or even…”

              “Oh,” Dr. Moore cuts him off, “ten vials. Okay that is much more reasonable. Let me rephrase. You are wanting me to obtain ten vials of a virus that has been completely eradicated from the world for forty years, just to put your personal theory to the test?”

              “Listen, I know it sounds farfetched and is most likely impossible,”

              “It is.” Dr. Moore interrupted.

              “but if those vials get disposed of who’s to say there won’t be any more research needed on the variola virus later in the future. Vials of the virus are available as of right now. You stated yourself the virus has been eradicated for forty years. Forty years! And vials have been found. What if something happens later on down the road like some sociopath comes across vials stashed just as these were and decides to see if they truly are the smallpox virus, or something maybe even worse? We will have nothing to use as a resource. If we had a few vials, we would be set.”

              Dr. Moore contemplated his statement for a few minutes before speaking, “if I do this, IF, you do know that you will not be qualified for a raise since it is your hypothesis you are testing, correct?”

              “Yes sir.”

              “And you do know that if some sort of legal issues arise due to obtaining the vials, or even possible airborne contamination leading to the infection of you or your fellow employees, you WILL BE the responsible party?”

              “Yes sir. I am only wanting to try this because I have had no luck with anything since I have been here.”

              “Oh I know, I know.” Dr. Moore replies. Emmitt knows he is referring to his failures and not his reasoning behind wanting the variola vials.

              After sitting and staring awkwardly for what seemed like ten minutes, Dr. Moore finally gave Emmitt Straine the answer he had been looking for.

              “I will make the call for the request, but if approved YOU will be responsible for the transportation of the vials. You will be responsible for ANYTHING related to the variola virus, you got that?”

              “Yes sir. Thank you.”

              “Don’t thank me yet,” replies Dr. Moore, “I still have a call to make.”


              -3-
              The majority of “hackers” in this day and age are most likely involved in computer software, but is that the true meaning of a hacker? If one were to look up the word “hacker,” many different definitions would be presented. Basic web results state that a hacker is “a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.” The Merrium-Webster dictionary provides four different definitions from “a person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity” to “an expert who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system.” The Free Dictionary says a hacker is “one who is proficient at using or programming a computer” or “one who uses programming skills to gain illegal access to a computer network or file.” Although these are all “different” definitions, all pose the same meaning…a hacker is just a person who illegally uses their expertise in computers to gain information.

              Emmitt himself could be considered a hacker. He has tampered here and there with the medical devices the laboratory has on hand. His favorite one to hack is the Roche 8000, a chemistry analyzer that had issues long before Emmitt even got a hold of it. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to work with the actual machine, however he is able to hack into the system and cause it to go berserk for a while until someone is able to fix it. For example, one time he wrote up a program to cause the machine to falsely alarm after exactly six racks bypass the loading scanner. At another time he was able to have the machine reject only certain samples that started with the letter, “C.” He would also always leave his penname, “Foxglove,” for the sole purpose of saying, “I was here.” Emmitt found tampering with the machines entertaining in the beginning, but it became a necessity to keep all eyes off of him whenever he began manipulating the genome of Bacillus anthracis. This kept most everyone busy trying to figure out how to fix the machine as opposed to being curious and asking him questions about his latest project. Computers are not the only thing that can be tampered with, and Emmitt knows this all too well. He has been tampering with genomic sequences for years without even the slightest recognition. So, due to these misinforming definitions and his extreme ego, Emmitt longs to revolutionize the true meaning of the word hacker; an individual who has the ability and/or expertise to manipulate one entity in the hopes of creating or obtaining another.

              After just two days, Emmitt now has possession of not ten but twelve variola virus vials, so he is ready to put his genetic hacking to the test. With rhabdovirus samples and now the variola vials Emmitt has the ability to create the perfect viral vector, if he can accomplish it. Having only three days to spare (the other two will be needed for regrowth of his organism), he needs to figure out how to combine the two viruses and incorporate Foxglove into them for transmission of the deadliest disease-causing agent the world has ever seen.


              -4-
              Every evening after his shift Emmitt Straine waited around until the last employee left the laboratory. Hours of sleep were replaced with hours of constant research and genetic manipulation yet the viral vector is still not complete so there is still a lot of work which needs to be done. The lack of work on Sunday caused him to miss valuable hours, however the Foxglove microbe was in the incubator and ready for its vector, once created. He is now walking into the laboratory and it is Monday morning, the day before his departure. Knowing there is not much time left he goes ahead and works on the Foxglove vector during his shift. He is so close; it would be a shame to call it quits now.

              While working at the fume hood he gets interrupted by a fellow employee, “Boss needs ya in his office, man.” Emmitt’s heart starts pounding…did he figure it out? Had he finally been caught…and right before he could even launch his plan into action? All that time…all that research…all those long hours…for nothing but a prison sentence? Emmitt tries to swallow the lump in his throat, “…right, thanks dude,” he says. He takes off all of his PPE, washes his hands, and heads to Dr. Moore’s office.
              Dr. Moore was sitting behind the desk waiting for him. “Please, shut the door Mr. Straine, and have a seat.” With a deep breath Emmitt closes the door cautiously, not sure if he should start coming up with some BS excuse or begin begging for forgiveness and no calls to the feds. He turns around with his head kept down and takes a seat in front of Dr. Moore.

              “Mr. Straine, let me ask you something, and I want the honest to God truth, now.”

              “Yes doctor,” Emmitt replies, making quick eye contact before returning his eyes to the front of the desk.

              “Do you take me for a fool?” asks Dr. Moore and causing Emmitt’s eyes to return to his.

              “NO sir!”

              “Honestly, do you think I am so stupid that I would not catch on at some point?”

              Emmitt struggles to find the words, “Sir…I…no, I don’t take you for a fool. I just…I’m sorry sir. I guess I am just so curious, and I never really…”

              “Curious?! Hmpf…you’re a genius, Straine!” Dr. Moore interrupts.

              “…wait, what?”

              “You’re a genius! I just don’t know why you kept your talents hidden, and for so long too.”

              “Well, I…I didn’t think it would be smart to tell, I guess.”

              “Well, I wish you would’ve said something. I would have had you work on that old one I had a couple of years ago before just throwing it out. I loved that thing!” Dr. Moore says as he folds his hands together on his desk.

              “Huh? I’m sorry, I mean…I’m not sure exactly what you’re talking about doctor.”

              “Oh, don’t act so innocent! I know what you have been doing on your free time.”

              “You do?” Emmitt asks, curious but beginning to get a little flustered.

              “Yeah, everyone knows, meaning you won’t get away with it again. Something else goes wrong or another alarm sounds for no reason, you will be the first person they run to. I don’t know if I should promote you, demote you, or throat punch you. Hours and hours wasted on trying to reverse whatever program you came up with next for those machines. I have to say, aside from halting our production, you have quite a sense of humor Straine.” Replies Dr. Moore before giving Emmitt a one man slow clap.

              Now caught up on what Dr. Moore has been ranting about for the past ten minutes, Emmitt breathes a sigh of relief. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Moore. I didn’t mean for it to cause any issues, I just thought it would be funny is all. I won’t do it again, you have my word.” If all goes well…you’ll never see me again TO have to worry about it repeating, Emmitt thought.

              “I know you won’t, because from now on those guys out there are going to look to you for every little thing that goes wrong with the machines. They have it in their head now that if something breaks, ‘it’s Straine’s fault’ and if an alarm sounds, ‘it’s Straine joking around again.’ You can look forward to being our very own personal IT from now on Mr. Straine. That in itself I believe to be punishment enough…those Roche machines are a piece of work aren’t they.”

              “Yes sir, yes they are.” Relieved that Moore had no idea about his true secret eased his mind. He can go back to his fume hood and finish up the viral vectors he has been working on since morning.

              “And I suppose that if I myself have any issues with my computer in here, I can call you in?”

              Not much of a question but Emmitt nodded granting approval.

              “Great! Until then Mr. Straine.” Dr. Moore says with a large grin stretching across his face.

              Emmitt moves to the edge of his seat, “so, is that everything?” he asks, hoping it is.

              “Yep, I think we’ve spoke enough.” Dr. Moore says as they both get to their feet and extend arms to shake hands.

              “Well, thank you doctor for being so understanding,” says Emmitt as he makes his way to the office door.

              “Hey, it might be a surprise to you but I was quite the jokster back in my day as well.”

              Emmitt gives a small chuckle as he begins to head out of the office and back to his work.

              “Oh, yes one more thing Mr. Straine.”

              “Yeah?” asks Emmitt, turning back to Dr. Moore.

              “How’s your anthrax/variola vector project coming along?”

              Emmitt, unable to contain his pleasure nor the smile appearing across his face, replies enthusiastically, “It’s wonderful! I believe I have something and that it could very well be the greatest scientific discovery the world has ever seen.”

              “That’s terrific! Keep up the good work Straine.”

              “Thank you Dr. Moore. Have a good day.” Emmitt states as he begins to close the door.

              “And you have a good vacation Emmitt,” Moore says just as Emmitt shuts the office door behind him.

              Emmitt makes his way back to the fume hood and replaces his PPE. He feels much more comfortable working on Foxglove at work now since Dr. Moore doesn’t suspect anything. He begins going over his PCRs. It is time to kick this plan into action.


              -5-
              Once again, Emmitt waits as the last scientist exits the laboratory doors. He waits about ten minutes until exiting the laboratory himself, grabbing a dolly, and making his way out to his car. He opens the trunk and one by one places the large boxes on the dolly. He will have to come back to get the other three from off the back seat since the rest couldn’t fit. There are five boxes total and they contain 2,500 tee-shirts a piece, making 10,000 shirts in all. Although there will be a lot more people at DEF CON than 10,000, he knows after updating Foxglove with the viral vector that it will be easily transmitted through the air as well as from person to person with no trouble.
              After making his way back into the laboratory with the final boxes Emmitt puts on his PPE and begins working. He first ensures that the viral vector will take in Foxglove. This takes about an hour and a half because conditions have to be just right. He then makes a suspension of the updated Foxglove microbe with a 10% saline solution. While still working within the fume hood Emmitt raises the flask and watches intently as Foxglove drifts to the bottom. He swirls the flask and sets it on the agitator while he unboxes the tee-shirts. After opening the flap of the first cardboard box he grabs a shirt and raises it up, unfolding it in the process.

              On the front of the tee-shirt is a cartoon-like fox with safety glasses and a lab coat. The fox is putting on gloves and has a laptop sitting on the desk beside him. The screen on the laptop says, “There are many ways to be a HACKER.” The background of the screen is black and the writing is a bright green digital font that connects together like the results of an electrocardiogram test. The shirt itself is black and it turned out better than Emmitt ever imagined. He was so happy he couldn’t contain his excitement and placed two of the shirts on his desk before returning to the fume hood.

              The Foxglove solution was now a cloudy color after agitation which showed it was evenly distributed and ready as a spray. Emmitt transfers the solution from the flask to a spray bottle and secures the bottle tightly. He primes the bottle and sets it to the side. He tips the box of shirts upside down so that they all come out onto the floor. One by one Emmitt sprays the shirts and puts them back into the box, making sure not to saturate them too much.

              After all boxes are refilled with shirts he secures them with the wide shipping tape he brought to work in his backpack. He then makes his way back to the fume hood, opens the spray bottle and adds some extremely potent disinfectant to the remaining solution before placing it in the biohazard. Emmitt then loads the boxes one by one onto the dolly and proceeds to set them outside Dr. Moore’s office. Luckily, Dr. Moore agreed to have them expedited to Caesar’s Palace, the hotel where the conference is taking place, under one condition: he must receive a shirt as well.

              After loading up his Foxglove shirts he makes his way back to his desk to grab his notebook, backpack, and anything else he deems important. At last, Emmitt grabs the shirt he left out from underneath the fume hood and takes a sticky note from his desk. “Dr. Moore,” he begins, “I want to thank you so much for having these shipped. Also, great news! The viral vector works! You will see it in action soon. Thanks again, Straine.” He places the sticky note on top of the shirt before placing it in the basket outside of Dr. Moore’s office. “You will see it in action VERY soon,” Emmitt thinks to himself as he takes off his gloves. He grabs his items and gives the laboratory one final look before leaving. Emmitt Straine then locks the large metal doors and knows in his heart that this will be the last time he will ever set foot in the lab again.

              One Emmitt makes it home he lays everything on the lawn chair before heading into the house. Instead of his usual routine (food, shower, bed), Emmitt walks straight to the bathroom, strips to his bare body, and grabs the hair clippers from underneath of the sink. Without thinking twice about it, he plugs in the clippers and begins. The first to go is the hair on his head, then his eyebrows, then his beard, and so on and so forth. He doesn’t worry much about the hair that won’t be seen, such as that on his chest, but he does make sure everything visible is shaved completely. After his shower he packs his bag and sets his alarm for 3:30 am.


              -6-
              *BEEP, BEEP, BEEP* Emmitt reaches across the bed to the side table and hits the snooze button. He should have already been up and out of the door by now but this may be the last time he gets a good night’s rest in his own bed so he plans on enjoying it for as long as possible. As he lies in bed he begins to play scenarios over and over again in his head. At one point he imagines that even though he paid for expedited shipping, his shirts don’t arrive on time. Then he imagines that the security officers at the airport suspect him of something and refuse to allow him to board the plane. In another image he sees himself handing out every last shirt and within just a couple of days the disease begins showing symptoms and the entire conference has gone mad. Of course, this is his intent – his dream so to speak – but by the end of the conference he too has contracted Foxglove and is just as ravenous and zombie-like as the others even after all the precautions he takes.

              The alarm goes off once more and Emmitt decides it is time to get up. He throws on the clean Foxglove shirt he laid out specifically for himself and grabs a pair of board shorts, “the least I stand out the better.” After placing all the necessities in his pockets – wallet, car keys, and cell phone – he heads into the bathroom for some final touches. On the sink is a pair of small nail clippers he uses to trim his eyelashes as close to his lids as possible, both the top and the bottom lids. He then opens the medicine cabinet and grabs the eyeshadow pallet he bought about two months ago. Disregarding the applicator completely he moves his finger across the dark brown shadow several times and rubs it underneath of his eyes. After both eyes are finished he examines his face closely. Although he does in fact look sick, it is not good enough. Emmitt takes some toilet paper and dabs excess shadow from under his eyes before applying some dark purple as well. He then mixes this with some pink and a little more brown, rubs them together all around his eyes and determines he is now pleased with the result. Emmitt’s eyes now look sunken in and tired…exactly what Emmitt intended. After he is satisfied completely with his new look he turns off the lights, wraps the eyeshadow pallet up in a shirt inside of his large bag, and with a smile makes his way out the door.


              -7-
              It is now almost 6:00 am and Emmitt has arrived at the airport. Before going in he grabs out of his carry on a face mask and looks in the mirror. “Perfect,” he thinks before grabbing the bag and getting out of the vehicle. He grabs his larger bag from off the back seat along with a cane he had picked up on the way. He shuts the doors, locks them, and begins walking alongside his cane into the airport.

              Emmitt notices a lot of people looking, watching him as he makes his way to his designated flight area. He doesn’t like this because he doesn’t want someone to notice he is a fraud, but deep down he enjoys the attention. He finally makes it to his designated area and while standing in line he leans on his cane acting as if the short walk from outside to here has caused him to lose his breath. Not long after his blockbuster act he feels his larger bag being taken from his hand followed by someone behind him saying, “I got this.” He turns slightly and realizes he is face to face with one of the most famous DEF CON members, Jayson Street.

              “Don’t worry…just helping. So, Vegas huh?”

              Nervously, Emmitt nods his head. “Yeah…I haven’t missed DEF CON since I started going about 5 years ago. A person can’t allow his disabilities take over his life.”

              “That’s for sure. Well, kudos to you man for coming. If you need anything at all, I’m your guy. You can come to me for whatever you need and I’ll try my best to help ya.”

              “Next!” the lady at the desk yells in a voice which sounds annoyed.

              Emmitt, using his cane, makes his way to the desk. “Hello!” Emmitt states cheerfully.

              The lady just stares at him before asking, “Documentation?”

              Emmitt pulls his wallet out from his back pocket and finds his license and plane ticket. He hands his documentation to the lady before turning to Jayson and rolling his eyes. Jayson smirks.

              “Make your way around the desk, place your bags on the conveyor belt, and remove all items in your possession. You can place those items in a basket and allow those items to also run on the belt. If there are no questions please head on your way.”

              Emmitt grabs his documentation and takes his bag from Jayson before walking to the inspection area. With some help from one of the security officers Emmitt places his bags on the conveyor belt and removes all items from his pockets. His nerves are working him over double time as he makes his way through the metal detectors.

              BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

              Emmitt’s heart begins to race. Although he has nothing on him right now to tie him to Foxglove, other than wearing one of his premade shirts of which he is very proud of, he is still very nervous. Beads of sweat begin appearing across his forehead. The large security officer makes him step to the side and asks him to stretch out his arms and legs. The wand reacts to Emmitt’s face realizing it must be the metal piece within the facemask that forms to his nose.

              “You’re free to proceed,” the officer states before motioning Emmitt to move on. Emmitt grabs his items from his basket along with his carryon and makes his way to the line to board onto the plane. A few minutes later he hears Jayson behind him.

              “So dude, I never caught your name.” says Jayson while extending his hand.

              “Emmitt,” he replies while taking Jayson’s gesture and shaking his hand, “Emmitt Straine.”

              “Well Emmitt Straine, if you need anything remember to come to me. I will help you out in any way I can.”

              “Well…” Emmitt began before quickly changing his mind.

              “Yeah?”

              “Oh, never mind. It’s not a big deal, really.”

              “No man, tell me. What do you need? If I can’t help ya I’m sure I can find someone who can.”

              “Well,” Emmitt began again, “I have always wanted to expand on my hacking knowledge but never really knew how to begin. I was hoping someone may pick me up as a sort of intern or something during this conference.”

              “Yeah…” replies Jayson keeping Emmitt aware he is listening.

              “Yeah, and in hopes of really getting my name out there in the hacking world I created my own logo and everything.” Emmitt motions to the shirt he is sporting. “I have always been fond of the medical aspect of hacking so that is all I really know.”

              “Dude, that shirt is sweet! Congrats man.”

              “Thanks,” Emmitt says, “I had it approved for sale at DEF CON this year so that hopefully my name as a hacker will be out there for all to recognize.”

              “Kudos to you man. How much you selling them for?”

              “I was thinking eight or maybe even ten dollars. Just as a way make back the money I spent on them in the first place.” Emmitt says before producing a slightly nervous chuckle.

              “Dude, save me one. Extra-large if you can, and I will pay you when we get there.”

              “Awesome, I’ll do that.”

              After Emmitt and Jayson make their way onto the plane, they exchange numbers quickly before finding their seats. Once Emmitt is comfortable he pulls out his ear buds and begins listening to music. It is going to be a long trip and he has big plans once they land so he plans to get as much rest as he can before finally setting his ultimate plan into motion. Before drifting off to sleep Emmitt imagines a room full of DEF CON members running and screaming in pure chaos; a nightmare to most but a sweet dream for him.


              -8-
              After arriving in Vegas and checking into the hotel, one would assume Emmitt Straine would be out and about seeing the sights and experiencing as much as he can, and this would be far from the truth. After receiving the key to his room Emmitt makes his way to the twelfth floor and begins settling in. He thinks about the plan, running it over and over again through his head, wondering what he could do to perfect it. The long thought process eventually put him to sleep.
              When he wakes up he notices how dark it is in the room. He picks up his cell phone: 9:53 pm. No use in trying to get a head start now. He gets out of bed, turns on the light, and takes a seat at the desk in front of his laptop. He puts in his email and password and searches his inbox. Although there are 999+ emails only one in particular is of concern and it is from Dr. Moore. Emmitt clicks on the email and begins to read:

              Mr. Straine,
              I am just wanting to let you know that I have sent your packages to the address you provided and also made sure the carrier was aware that it was to be expedited. It should be arriving tomorrow and no later than the day after. I also want to thank you for setting one out for me. I admire your artistic abilities. Good luck and I hope you have a great time in Vegas!
              Dr. Moore

              Whereas most individuals would be thrilled to have received a compliment from their boss Emmitt was thrilled only of one thing: the fact that Dr. Moore was oblivious to his plan! Emmitt logged off of his email account and decided to go ahead and go to bed. He had a long day tomorrow and he didn’t want to be tired for it.

              Although DEF CON would not technically be open for set up until 9:30 am, Emmitt was up and ready for the day. He paid extra attention to his makeup today, not wanting to stray too far from how it looked yesterday but also wanting to make it look more believable so that there will be no questions. Finally, he tops off his look with a face mask and cane. Satisfied, he grabs his bag and laptop and heads downstairs to set up his table.

              When Emmitt makes it into the lobby he asks the front desk if they have received any packages for “Straine,” and if they could take it to the conference room. After speaking with the front desk Emmitt goes to the conference room and awaits the arrival of his shirts. “This is it,” he thinks, “there’s no turning back now.” He places his laptop on his table and begins. “DEF CON wants a hacker? I’m gonna give ‘em one!”

              Just as he is making his way into Caesar’s computer system the front desk worker arrives with two of his packages and tells him he will be back with the others. Before opening the boxes Emmitt wants to make sure he can manipulate the ductwork just right so that not only does Foxglove make an appearance at the conference…but throughout the entire building. This means that Emmitt will have to keep his face mask on at all times if he wants to continue to live. Hacking the security system was a breeze and after just a few small changes Emmitt was able to change the ductwork above his table from putting out air to taking it in. This will allow the spores of Foxglove to enter the air duct and be transmitted throughout the hotel.

              When satisfied with his work he begins opening boxes one by one and laying them out on the table according to size. He decides to go ahead and place a small eight dollar price tag on the front of the table even though he would be losing out on about fifty dollars. It is important that people see the shirt and buy it as opposed to just admiring it and moving on. While setting up his table he is greeted by a woman who is another well-known DEF CON associate, Nikita Kronenberg.

              “Good morning,” she says extending a hand, “I’m Nikita!”

              “Morning, Emmitt Straine,” he says as he takes her hand in his.

              “So…Foxglove, huh? What is that?”

              Oh, you will know soon enough, Emmitt thinks as he takes back his hand. “Oh, just a penname I created for myself for my work. I really want to get my name out there to the hacking public so I figured what better way to appeal to the industry than designing a shirt.”

              “Cool! I’ll take one to help your cause,” she says with a slight giggle. Emmitt smiles and hands her a shirt.

              “How much?”

              “No, you keep it. As long as you wear it on one of the upcoming conference days that is.”

              “Sure, thanks!”

              “No problem,” Emmitt replies. “Well, I had better continue setting up. It was nice to finally meet you Ms. Kronenburg.”

              “Oh no, call me Nikita. And the same goes for you.”

              Emmitt finishes his setup and is way too excited for the days to come. He can only imagine what Foxglove is capable of and within the next few days he will finally see firsthand his creation at work. Emmitt goes to bed early that night but never truly sleeps…he is cautious that his mask doesn’t shift from his face. The last thing he needs is to be the firsthand example of Foxglove.


              -9-
              The next morning Emmitt is beyond excited. He grabs his items and heads for the conference room as soon as he awakens. There are more people present than he could ever have imagined and from all walks of life, brought together in one large room breathing in Emmitt’s success without even knowing it. Nikita greets him and sits at her table while wearing the Foxglove shirt she received yesterday. He can’t help but to stare since he is wondering how long it will take for her to experience any of the symptoms: hemorrhagic fever, cutaneous sores at various places of the body, an urge to ingest human flesh. With each though Emmitt Straine becomes more and more excited.

              After the excitement begins to wear off Emmitt starts to become bored sitting at the table and waiting for someone to decide to purchase a shirt. Although he has sold quite a few this morning so far he was hoping to sell more. Not that a large amount need to be sold in order for transmission to take place, but in order for a wider range of transmission to ensue. Once the day of DEF CON is over he heads back up to his room for an evening of rest and relaxation. He doesn’t want to venture out too much since he is trying to keep a pretty low profile at the moment. That night Emmitt sleeps soundly with his face mask having shifted to his chin…


              -10-
              Emmitt wakes up the next morning and notices he had slept throughout the night without protection. Though he wanted more than anything for his hacking into the ductwork to be able to transmit Foxglove throughout the hotel, he now hopes it doesn’t work. The last thing he needs is to become infected, especially at this point in his research. Nervously, he makes his way downstairs for DEF CON day two hoping he doesn’t acquire any symptoms.

              When he arrives at the conference room he can’t help but notice that Nikita is not truly herself today. A usually peppy and cheerful spirit she hasn’t really noticed him…or anyone for that matter. Emmitt notices that when someone comes up to speak to her she isn’t truly there. She answers their questions and often stares distantly into space. By lunchtime her eyes have went from beautiful and bright to dull and red. She continues to scratch her skin for what seems to be no apparent reason.

              Eventually, Emmitt becomes nosy.

              “Nikita, are you okay?” he asks, concerned more about how she is reacting to the disease as opposed to how she is truly feeling. She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even look at him.

              “Nikita?” He asks again, this time getting her attention.

              Slowly Nikita turns her head to face Emmitt. Her eyes, now red and swollen, seem to pierce through him. She begins to try and move her lips but nothing comes. He asks her again if she is okay but no answer. She then starts making noises and Emmitt realizes that she wasn’t trying to speak but instead trying to breathe. She begins to cough and blood starts running from her nose and spurting from her mouth. For a second Emmitt feels terrified but soon that terror is overcome with satisfaction.

              People who are around the tables begin to notice how Nikita is acting and rush to her side. Soon she begins convulsing and falls out of the chair in what looks to be a seizure. While one person is trying to do CPR another is yelling for her to be turned to her side. She begins coughing more and more and blood begins spraying from her mouth. Soon her movements diminish and she is staring yet again blankly into space.

              When the ambulance arrives they take her vitals and declare her deceased just seconds before she blinks. After that final blink rage engulfs her body and she begins attacking anyone who is around her, scratching and biting anyone in arms reach.

              Horrified, DEF CON members begin exiting the conference room like a herd of antelope in the wild running from a lion. Emmitt grabs his laptop and bag then squeezes himself into the crowd in hopes of making it to his room before any cops arrive. After he finally exits the conference room he decides that instead of going back to his room he will venture forth into the city of Las Vegas. Not wanting to stick around for the cops or having to clime twelve flights of stairs, he felt as though this were his best bet.

              After being gone for nearly four hours Emmitt begins making his way back to Caesar’s Palace. Although the ambulance has left there are still four cop cars positioned in front of the building. Emmitt makes his way in only to find that the cops are still there because they are helping clean up the bloody mess that once was a conference room. He walks to the elevator swiftly but still trying to remain calm and act normal.

              Once he is on the elevator he breathes a sigh of relief. Although there is not anything to point to him so far, he still remains cautious and nervous of the whole thing. The elevator stops on the eighth floor only to pick up a man who also seems to possess the early symptoms that Nikita did. For the next four floors Emmitt keeps his eyes on the soon to turn zombie guy that is sharing the elevator with him, worried that he may not make it to the twelfth floor in time. As soon as the elevator stops Emmitt says “excuse me” and rushes out into the hall. Hurriedly he unlocks his room, shuts the door, and locks every single lock the door contains before putting his stuff on the desk and turning on the television.

              Luckily for Emmitt he didn’t have to go searching. The story was being broadcasted on every single local station and by different news anchors on each one. All channels stated the same facts: woman takes massive seizure after contracting a vicious hemorrhagic fever before turning mad and attacking anyone in her path, eventually being executed by police after disregarding their wishes for her to calm down. “Vicious,” Emmitt repeats to himself proudly, “his first complement regarding Foxglove.”

              Although he would love to stick around and watch as the chaos ensues throughout the next few days, he assesses the situation and thinks it would be best if he just went ahead and left Vegas as soon as possible. He can only imagine what has happened back home in the laboratory! No one speaks to him so he hasn’t heard anything from anyone but he assumes that pretty much the same thing has happened there as it did here, only most likely a day earlier.

              He wonders about his shirts and whether or not he should leave them or toss them. He doesn’t believe that anything will trace back to his shirts, unless the coroner finds any spores on the shirt Nikita was wearing. There will surely be an autopsy and most likely the discovery of unidentifiable spores within her body, but unless the coroner can determine the spores originated from the shirt itself than Emmitt has nothing to be afraid of. He also believes that everyone would understand him leaving the shirts after the event which took place. They will probably think he was just in a hurry to get out of the place and get away from the craziness.

              Once making his decision Emmitt shuts the television off and begins gathering up all of his belongings. He calls a taxi for a ride to the airport so that he can make it there as soon as possible. When he arrives at the airport he notices that all of the televisions are turned on to the news. Apparently there has been a total of eleven attacks and the numbers keep growing. No details have risen on what is causing these people to turn ravenous…or as the public is calling them, zombies. Emmitt stares at one of the televisions for a while before realizing he is wasting valuable time. He finally makes his way to the desk clerk and pays for the next flight to Pittsburgh.

              While sitting in the waiting area, Emmitt picks a spot in front of the television to see if any new stories arise. Only one more incident occurs before Emmitt’s flight is ready, but at least Foxglove is spreading wonderfully. Once on the plane Emmitt begins to relax. Even though he is still not in the clear as of yet, he leans back in his chair and tries to relax.

              After about an hour of flying Emmitt is awaken by an excruciating headache and excessive urge to scratch his skin. Beginning to panic Emmitt makes his way to the restroom of the plane. After placing his hands on top of the sink he looks at himself in the mirror. He takes off the face mask and realizes that his eyes are as red as Nikita’s were before she went berserk. He grasps his head in his hands, “no, no, no. This wasn’t supposed to happen!”

              At about this time he begins to feel the urge to vomit. He raises the lid of the small commode and allows what he can to come out. The metallic taste in his mouth only confirms his assumption that the bright red substance in the toilet is blood. He begins coughing loudly and more violently.

              “Sir, are you okay in there?” a woman asks from outside the door.

              Emmitt cannot respond. He is fighting for his life.

              There is pounding on the door now, “Sir?!”

              Emmitt struggles to reach the door only being able to unlock it right before he falls to the floor and begins his convulsions. Those individuals who are around the area rush to his aid. Emmitt is coughing and spirting blood all over the place while CPR is attempted. After about twenty minutes or so of working on him, the nurse onboard determines Emmitt is deceased. The nurse puts a blanket over Emmitt’s body and is helped by a passenger to move the body to an area in the very back of the plane. As the nurse and the passenger try to position Emmitt respectfully away from the other passengers, the blanket slips revealing his face. His eyes are a deep red and blood remains all over his face. Startled the nurse closes Emmitt’s eyes before grabbing the end of the blanket to throw back over his head. Before the blanket is fully replaced Emmitt’s eyes open and stare straight into the eyes of the nurse who lets out a blood curdling scream…

              Comment


              • #8
                The Future Recruiter
                Max Kennedy




                Futureomics was hiring employees today. Futureomics was the company who specifically targeted emerging hacking talent of new generations. It specialized in types of people and personalities who had talents of particular sorts that did not fit into the usual molds but did fit new fields. Futureomics was a generic name given to the company by the press. Only employees knew the actual name of the company. And only those hired today would learn it. They never gave it to outsiders.


                A large sign at the entrance leading into the auditorium reserved for Futureomics
                had written on it:


                “None of the usual bullshit.”


                A screen inside the auditorium was playing, over and over again, scenes from the 80s on what that sign meant, as the audience members were being seated and the auditorium slowly filled.


                ****
                The Usual Bullshit


                Scene: A phone conference full of hackers, all sounding young. It’s some time in the 80s. Bill, who is 16 or 17 at the time, is mid-range between the group of voices. He’s about to go to college, graduating from high school early, neither very young or old compared to the others.


                The usual “You don’t know anything” harangue is going on. It is getting lame. Bill thinks to himself, “where did all the cool guys go? It used to be about trading information.”


                “You never post anything new,” someone says to Bill.


                “I don’t spend a lot of time posting anymore. I get my own stuff.”


                The first voice brags about having huge lists of computer systems with accounts.


                “You can’t possible use all that, and there is no way you personally hacked that many systems, although I admit if they are networked, you could get a lot of systems fast.”

                “I just get on systems I can use.”


                “Oh yeah, prove it. What systems do you have?”


                Bill gives him a number, and says it’s a Unix.


                The first voice calls it up, then reports back to the conference. “Lame. and it isn’t even on a network.”


                “So what? I’m not going to give you anything good over a conference call.”


                A lot of Yadayada noise is in the background. Yadayada noise is something everyone who has ever been in a room full of people ,where the talkers are repeatedly saying the same things over and over again, has experienced.


                Bill gives him another number.


                Same response.


                “You must be kidding, that's the billing system for a major retail chain.”


                Someone else checks it.


                “He’s right.” The conference gets a little more calm.


                “Like I said, I get my own stuff. There’s not a lot of competition in my area.”


                Yadayada is also the sound you make from the headache you get when you realize, deja vu like, that you are experiencing Yada all over again, and don’t want to be.


                There was more Yadayada noise.


                “Yeah, you go on saying you know other people in the area code, but they never get anything good,” Bill says. “They even claim there isn’t any COSMOS in the area.”


                “There isn’t.”


                “That’s complete bs. I’m on the local Bell systems.”


                Silence. Everyone knows that this is a put up or shut up challenge.


                “You don’t have it.” The voice says less loudly this time.


                “Sure I do. You want it? I’ll even give it on the conference.”


                Complete silence now.


                Bill gets out a notebook judging from the sound of paper flipping.


                “Ready, ok, here’s the number.” Bill reads off a number.


                “Now this is not a direct dial up, it’s a Datakit network,” Bill starts explaining. “None of the manuals anyone’s written seem to explain Datakits. They’re local networks that the Bell companies have that they put all their computers on. So that dialup has COSMOS on it, and a lot of other computers including billing. And this is a terminal server to a LAN connection that actually lets you change things around, and the “system” account is datakit.”


                “That’s easy.”


                “Call it.”


                “Ok,” a second voice says, and calls it. “It’s nothing,” the voice reports back.


                “This is just like the billing system,” Bill says triumphantly. Bill knows this can’t be gotten around. “Nothing there,” Bill mocks.


                “Mike.”


                “Oh all right, I’ll call,” says another voice, Mike’s. After a short pause, “He’s right.”


                Dead silence.


                Bill goes on, explaining it and systems on it.


                “And you have COSMOS access?”


                “Not now, but I can get it. I’m on most of the systems including billing. We use to be on COSMOS, but they added another level of detail, and I’m not sure what it wants. I have accounts and passwords but not that. It does something different after asking for the WC. It isn’t in the g philes I’ve seen.”


                “Ok, I’ve seen that. Mark. see if you can get on it.”


                Mark calls it up.


                “The reason I’m pretty sure I can get on it is the Datakit has bad security. There’s a system account on it, and there are a lot of features that allow you to change the network around, including ports it connects to, and a feature that lets you monitor ports.”


                “Ok, ok, that’s good.” The speaker for the group changes the subject.


                Mark is back later.


                “Did you get on?”


                “I got it.”


                General ecstatic sounds. ‘Nods’ of approval.
                A little talk.


                Bill lets the talk die down. “That’s great. Could you tell me exactly what you did.”


                “I’ll give it to you later.”


                “Ok.”


                Later never comes.

                ***
                Scene: a different conference, not long afterwards.


                Same Yadayada noises and grumbling.


                “Not this again,” thinks Bill. “This is definitely not the same group I remember where everyone shared, and it wasn’t about competition and who has the most, but helping people learn. That’s what I’m interested in. And I’m constantly helping new hackers learn the ropes.”


                Bill speaks. “Look, I gave you what you guys wanted, a COSMOS number, and that was after you told me it didn’t exist. And you didn’t even call me back to tell me how you got on it like you said you would.”


                Guilty silence.


                “This isn’t about what you know,” says a justifying voice, “it’s about you narcing on someone.”


                “That’s a lie.”


                “Oh yeah, how about Commodore Elite. You know anything about that?”


                “Yeah, I know the user. He’s a local user from when when I first started a long time ago, who got busted on Allnet. I had nothing to do with it. He blames me for giving him the access number, because I posted it along with a list of other numbers. And that’s despite the fact I posted later not to use it when it became unsafe. He didn’t listen. I’m not responsible for anyone getting busted when I told them not to use it.”


                “Did you give him it personally?”


                “No, it was a post on a local elite section, and not one of the higher levels either. He wasn’t that good of a hacker.”


                “How did you know it was unsafe?”


                “I had some indication my call may have been traced - I got a ringback and couldn’t hang up - I lived on an old crossbar. And my school, which used the same company, also said something to me about it. Why? Because my school knew I knew something about computers. I told them they need to complain to billing - who was giving them trouble, and showed them how anyone could hack it. Then I posted I thought it was unsafe.”


                “Was it just the school’s number?”


                “No it was a general number with a lot of companies on it.”


                Bill pauses. “No one believes that guy who got caught locally. I don’t even know his name. I remained on the elite section of that board until it went down. In fact, when I said we had access to the local COSMOS, I meant the small group at the top of that board. I remember when we were changing features on the local COSMOS. Then someone did something, and they added that extra layer to get to it. Then they changed the access numbers until it appeared again on that Datakit I gave you.”


                “Ok then.”


                “What about Prophet?”


                Bill Laughing. “I don’t have anything to do with Prophet getting busted!”


                “But you know him?”


                “I heard he got busted. But I don’t really know him. He’s on one BBS I’m on, and I sent him a few emails. But he isn’t a trading partner.”


                “What did you send him?”


                “Well, the last thing I sent him was a message that he should think about changing his handle if he was using it on local systems.”


                “That’s it. That busted him.”


                “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”


                “You shouldn't have sent him an email.”


                “I warned him.”


                “You still shouldn’t have.”

                Someone else interjects - “anyone can read email.”


                Bill begins to lose his temper.


                “Well, to begin with, I didn’t know he had the same handle locally, I told him *if* you do, you should change it. It was the reason I changed my Little Boy Blue handle, because I used it on local boards too, and even had some local user complaining.”


                “Second, unlike LBB, Prophet is a pretty generic name, so it doesn’t exactly narrow it down the same way. It could be any number of Prophets. I didn’t even know if he was on a local board. In fact ...The only reason I knew he might be using the same handle locally is because I heard it on one of these voice conferences. So someone on here was giving out the information on him a long time before I warned him.”


                Dead silence.


                “That means someone here is responsible. I only warned him. And it’s unfortunate it was too late, because he got busted soon after that, and obviously had been watched for awhile.”


                “What BBS?”


                Bill mumbles something. “Yeah, it’s not a great one,” Bill admits. “It’s just basically always up - not for anything serious.”


                “Well, we’re still…”


                “For something that looks like it really was the fault of someone else on this conference? I only warned him right before he was caught. They didn’t find him that fast, and anyone could figure that out. You don’t use the same handle locally you use nationally.”


                “Look, it isn't that, it’s just that a few people don’t like you..”


                “Yea, I’d like to know who those people are. There’s been a lot of new people. And the old people are all gone.” Bill throws out a few names. “I mean, some people changed their handles, but that isn’t it. It really isn’t the same group. We don’t talk about the same things anymore. There is no technical discussion or how we might try do something. No one is talking about new things we haven’t tried before. And no one wants to write anything or help anyone anymore. There isn’t any sharing anymore.”


                “Instead, it’s a bunch of selfish bullshit and how I have more than you. That list? What is that? The ultimate leach list? You sure as hell didn’t generate that by yourself. And you know more then someone else? Well, why don’t you share it then. The whole strength of a group is helping each other. You sure didn’t grow in this group without others helping you. And some of you can’t even be trusted anymore to trade information. So I give you a Datakit with accounts, and you don’t even keep your word about saying what change they made in the COSMOS.”


                Someone seems bothered, and starts to explain about how the COSMOS works and gets gets cut off by the others.


                “Uh huh. Someone knows you guys are wrong. You’ve become a bunch of whining little pretentious pricks, lying, not keeping your word, making things up, accusing, more concerned over what others think and the group over actually being able to do anything yourself. You think having big lists of things actually replaces being able to think and reason. You’ve stopped having any real conversations a while ago. It’s all a lot of newcomers.”


                “There’s been a lot of new people,” a different voice admits.


                “And you guys don’t box these conferences anymore, you are always directly dialing alliance because you don’t have the guys that can do that anymore..”


                “It’s easier..,” someone says.


                “You can’t seize the LD trunks anymore,” someone else adds.


                “What do you mean you can’t seize them anymore? I can.”


                “It has to be a LD trunk.”


                “I can seize them. I don’t blue box because my sound chip and line quality isn’t usually that good, not because it’s impossible.”


                “You can still do it, you just need to call the right areas,” says another voice, very confident. No one else adds anything after him.


                “Look, the point is, you guys have become a completely different group them you use to be. You're making stuff up, and run around like your heads are cut off when someone gets caught. Well, that comes with the territory, and people are going to get caught sometimes. You ought to be more concerned if they know you and have your number. I was a little concerned when Prophet got caught, because I just sent him mail, and they’ll probably read it, but Prophet doesn’t personally know me or have my number. But that’s the type of stuff you should be thinking about. And you guys aren’t very careful anymore, you act like blue boxing a conference isn’t a safety feature anymore.”


                “It’s the same thing..”


                “It’s not the same thing, you are leaving a billing record someone is going to ask about later.”


                Uneasy silence.


                “I bet you guys didn’t even call through anything before adding everyone.”


                Complete silence. “Well, I didn’t for this one.”


                “Uh huh. Then they have a complete list of everyone you are calling, easily, without even trying. And if anyone is on a watch list, they got everyone else too.”


                “This is just like using your handle locally. Not even trying. Then you bitch how someone must have snitched if you get caught. Unbelievable. And you know what, I bet one or two of you did narc, because you were discussing it well before Prophet got caught, and well before I warned him. And you don’t get this much drama without it being someone covering up. And it fits with the rest of the changes in the group, because it definitely isn’t about helping others now.”


                “Look, I don’t trust you at all now. You don’t keep your word, you're making things up, you’re self centered and acting like narcs, and a few of you probably are. You don’t talk about cool things anymore and you don’t write or help others anymore. I think you are turning them in. And it’s not just this discussion, there’s been a few more about others just like it. And it shouldn’t even happen. If you want to stop talking to someone, just stop. You don’t make a production of it.”


                “I don’t want to be part of this group anymore. I’m going to join the rest of the old guys that left.”


                “I’ve been here since it started,” says an unnaturally calm voice.


                “Well, that's longer than me,” says Bill. “I’ve only be here since 83, 84, and that was right after I got online. I found someone on CompuServe that gave me a number..”


                “You talked to a couple of us.”


                “Yeah, well you guys were pretty easy to find. You all had hacking and phone phreaking as your interests on CompuServe. I wanted to know what phone phreaking was, so I asked. I wouldn’t have even found that, but I was searching for anarchist capitalist, and someone had the others listed too.”


                “Anyway, that’s still a long time ago. I don’t even remember formally being admitted, just connecting to your BBS’s and being added to your conferences. I remember a lot of those. And they were good at one time. And you say i’m part of the group. Well, I really didn’t know that. But I don’t want to be. I don’t trust you. And I don’t need a group, I can do the things I want on my own like help people learn. And it’s a lot safer. You don't have people who are obviously selling out and causing discord, splintering old groups. “


                “I’m going to do something about that. That’s all I have to say. If any of you are part of the way things used to be and miss it, I’ll still be glad to talk to you, but other then that, so long.”


                ***
                The DC Group


                Bill answers his phone, “Hello?”


                “Hey Bill.”


                “Oh, hey Chris, what are you doing?”


                “I followed you to see what you were up too. I remember your last conference call. You really laid it across well. You were right.”


                “Yeah, I know. I wish it hadn’t turned out like that. But I’m right it isn't what it was. Hey, I’m on a conference, do you want to join in?”


                “Sure.”


                Later that day at the end of a conference call. ---


                “We got right in that one system pretty easily,” a new voice with an accent is saying.


                “You mean the weights balance..” Bill replies.


                “Yeah.”


                “Just a matter of having some local to scan them out. There must not be too many hackers there,” Bill says. “I’m surprised.”


                “You want to name the new group something?”


                “Yeah, I guess we have a group. Pretty well situated too, with three of us in DC. Let's not have an official group. Those are a disaster. And they give people something to investigate. We’re just a bunch of people that all happen to be going the same way at the same time.”


                There is general agreement to this.


                Sk - “want me to scan more?”


                “Sounds great to me.”


                “Really no name for the group?” says the accented voice.


                “We could call ourselves the hack offs.” says Bill.


                “You mean like the fuck offs?”


                “Well, yeah…”, Bill says in a not so serious tone.


                Everyone laughs.


                “Ok. we made this call long enough. When do you want to have our next get together?”


                ****


                “So you really meant what you said to oml..,” Bill is asking Chris.


                “Omet?”


                “Yeah. Pause. I guess he’s indian. I can’t believe he got caught.”


                “He wanted to get caught to make the newspaper.”


                “Why?”


                “He’s looking for a job.”


                “Oh. Not what I’d do. Good idea though. But I think it has drawbacks.”


                “You mean like you get caught, but no one hires you.”


                “Yeah, that’s one reason!”


                Both Bill and Chris laugh.




                ***
                Defcon I


                Dan is rearranging things in the room, about to go to another room and get a bong. Bill notices there is a new black box on the table partly hidden by the lamp as he leaves. Dan comes back, sits down.


                He lights up a bong, takes a hit, pauses, nods his head, smiles, and passes it to Bill.
                Bill takes a hit, sits back. relaxes and pauses.


                “So how was work today?”


                “It was ok,” Dan gives an emphatic nod like this is a stage question, and asks “what?” in return.


                “That’s good. Hey Dan, can I ask you a question?”


                “Sure, go ahead.”


                “What is this black box right here?”, Bill says, pointing to the black box on the table.


                Dan looks, seems startled that it is visible, relaxes, and says, “How long have you known?”


                “For awhile now. I knew for sure when I came over to stay with you. Mind if I look at it.”


                “Sure go ahead.”


                Bill looks at it. “Wow it’s a lot smaller recorder then I’ve seen before. Looks nice.”


                Dan relaxes a little.


                “So is that why you came over?”


                “No, I needed a place to stay. We’re friends, I’ve been over here a lot before. I’m not hacking, and I don’t ever say anything important about the past.”


                “You’ve helped us more then you know.”


                “Hearsay. I was making it up. Never happened.”


                “Sure?”


                “Well, let’s put it this way. I’ve known since last year, and suspected the possibility the whole time - I always consider the possibilities. So if you’ve been recording the whole time, you better be sure I’m going to ask that this part be played that I knew the whole time.”


                “Can we turn that thing off?” Dan says.


                “Sure. It’s already on the tape, so you’d better not take it off, or I’ll ask the whole thing to be disregarded as edited.”


                Dan turns the tape off.


                “Why didn’t you say anything before?”


                “I don’t mind talking about general hacking knowledge. There doesn’t seem to be any harm in it. And I wanted to see what you were doing.”


                “Well if you don’t mind talking about general hacking knowledge, mind if I ask you a few questions?”


                “Go ahead, as long as it isn’t about specific people. It’s all old knowledge anyway. Five years ago or more. Not sure how much I can remember.”


                “Ok,” Dan nods, and leans forward.


                Xxx
                Yyy
                Zzz
                And a few more hits
                under the tree.


                ***
                Dan sits back and says, “we’re so cool we smoke dope with our FBI agent.”


                Bill suppresses a laugh.


                “Whaat.. How do you take that?”


                Not waiting for an answer, Dan says “Oh, no that's not what I meant.” Mock surprise.
                Thinking reflectively: “Well maybe almost as cool.”


                Bill sighs. “So I’m only talking to the person who smokes with their FBI agent?”


                Dan nods, a grin on his face, “yep.”


                “Humph.” says Bill.


                “What were you doing on the LOD BBS?”


                “What LOD BBS?”


                “The one on Telenet.”


                “I’m sure I wasn’t on a LOD BBS off of Telenet.”


                “It was in the GE addresses, towards the end.”


                “Oh yea, the one that wasn’t around anything else.”


                “There wasn’t a BBS there. It was just a VAX/VMS system, with All-in-1 if I remember, and it had easy default passwords, including ones that gave you operator and system privileges.”


                “There was a BBS there,” Dan insisted.


                Bill looks back..


                “There may have been one at one time, but when I was primarily using it, it was down. I mostly used it because it was an underutilized system not near anything, with DECnet access to a lot of things at GE. There’s a flaw in DECnet, and I could jump to any system on the network through it - there were an unusually large number of machines through it.”


                Bill thinks. “But that may all be something I’m making up. It was on a public list, and how default passwords and Telenet work isn’t unusual knowledge.”


                “You don’t need to say that.”


                “I’m making a point.”


                Dan sighs. sortof, not quite. “Ok, if you knew about that, you weren’t a complete lamer. Like a code kid or something.”


                “Why are you investigating me?”


                Dan, pauses, thinks.


                “You know the guy that founded Defcon, the one I wanted you to talk to?”


                “Yeah.. ?”


                “Some people got busted and you knew him.”


                “No I didn’t.”


                “He’s from Dayton.”


                “Hmm. that's near where I live, but a different area code and long distance. I don’t think I knew anyone local from Dayton. Also, I tried to avoid trading with people who were local, you get busted that way. All my close friends were far away.”


                “I know you know him.”


                “Well, look, I knew a lot of people. I was a hacker for a long time. Maybe he used a different handle, or I just don’t remember him. Could you give me a little more detail?”


                Dan changes the subject slightly, apparently.


                “Do you remember the new TAP BBS?”


                “The one in Louisville? Yea, it was a little lame. It didn’t have any good information, and I never traded on there.”


                Dan looks kindof annoyed.


                “Well, we know you were still hacking, because you were on that.”


                Bill laughs out loud, “lol, I was just keeping up with the hacking community. Nothing wrong with that.”


                “Well, you had to phreak to get there.”


                “I used the internet.”


                “It wasn’t on the internet.”


                “I had an outdial in the area to call it.”


                “You shouldn’t have had an outdial.”


                “I had permission to use it from the owner, and he posted it publicly too.”


                “Well, you had to hack to use the internet.”


                “UC had a public gateway to the internet for everyone to use, also I was a UC student then, so it was legitimate that way too.”


                “Look, I haven’t phreaked for a long time. I may know a lot about it, but I don’t like it. Ever since the Bell System broke up, and services like PCPursuit sprung up so you can dial out through Telenet, there hasn’t been much of a need - if all you’re doing is connecting to computers.
                I’m was always more of a hacker then a phone phreak, and more of a tourist. I liked to see how things work, but I didn't spend a lot of time on systems like some do - that’s a way of getting caught. Also, I post a lot on BBS’s. People have said I seem to like to spend more time writing. I’ll spend pages explaining how to do something. Also, I gave it up a long time ago, when most of my friends got busted. That gateway was just a way I could use the networks, like PCPursuit was, without hacking.”


                “You sure you gave it up?”


                “Look, I had friends that didn’t even know each other get busted, some pretty good hackers too. And I moved to Seattle to just get away from computers. I didn’t even have a computer the first six months I was here. I was sick of it. I’d spent most of my high school time, and some of my college on it, before I turned 18. And even before then, in grade school, I was online. I was missing a lot of things in life, and I was just tired of it. With everyone I knew getting busted, there was no community anymore, and no reason to be in it.”


                “That’s what we want to hear.”


                Dan pauses.


                “Maybe I can close this file.”


                “I need to answer a few more things though.”


                “Have you ever carded?”


                “I hated carding. It’s not hacking. It’s theft. I’ve always avoided bbses that had it.”


                “There’s someone here from your high school that said you did.”


                Bill, laughing, “I never said anything about what I did to anyone in high school. I couldn’t avoid it being generally known that I knew a lot about computers and was a “hacker” - so called.
                I’m not going be specific about what I’m doing, let alone to students at high school.”


                “It was someone you knew.”


                “I didn’t know many people into computers. This was the early 80s.”


                “Well, it was the chess club.”


                “??. I know who you mean. He got in a fight with me.”


                Dan, looking at paper. “Hmm, he forgot to mention that.”


                Dan crosses something off.


                “Have you ever hacked since you’ve been in Seattle?”

                “No.”


                “Then why were you calling a system through cyberspace?”


                Bill, thinking then laughing. “I just called that to see what was on the other end. I dialed it by accident when I was at work, and was curious what it was. It never responded with anything and I wasn’t trying to get on.” Bill thinks about it, and looks puzzled - “whaat?”


                “We were waiting for you on cyberspace. Remember when you said you needed a system on TAP that could dial out in Seattle? We gave you one.”


                “I just needed a way to connect to the internet when I was up here.”


                “You said on there you wanted to use it for scanning.”


                “I was just talking a big game. I never used cyberspace for that. I mostly used it for internet access.”


                “Why would you say it?”


                “You get people to trade information with you that way. I’m sure there were things some people were saying on that bbs that sounded interesting. The pre computed password hash table discussion was interesting for example. I wasn’t hacking, but was still interested in it as a topic.”


                Bill pauses. “And of course. That’s how I met you. Talking.
                On cyberspace, on a mud.”


                Dan smiles.


                “You remember how we first met in person?”


                “You wanted tickets to a concert.”


                “Do you remember which one?”


                “No, it wasn’t one I was interested in.”


                “It was sold out. I just wanted to see if you really knew the people you said you did and could get them. You did.”


                Bill laughs. “You could have just hung out with me and found that out. Hmm, I didn’t know it was sold out. That’s interesting. I guess the person that gave them to me liked me and knew me better than I thought.”


                Dan is smiling.


                “Ok, Last one. This is an important one. Have you ever caused any damage to computers?”


                “No. I used to just see if I could get in them.”


                “Are you absolutely sure?”


                Thinking.


                “Well, there was this one time... It was a system on Telenet for the New York Stock Exchange, running on a Unix. There wasn’t passwords on anything.


                I might have accidentally typed in a rm command...From a file and deleted the whole system.”


                Dan looks at me, no expression, waiting for me to continue.


                “I didn’t think it would do anything. It was down for a whole day. I’m not sure if it was really me though. Think it was scheduled for downtime anyway. It was back later. I was always worried about that. The New York Stock Exchange.”


                Nods. “Ok, we’ll check it out. You see, that’s why we don’t want hackers like you doing anything.”


                “Woah, wait,” Bill says laughing. “I made that up. I just wanted to see your reaction. Like I deleted the New York Stock Exchange.”

                “We’ll check it out anyway.”


                Dan marks some stuff on his paper, and grabs another paper from a folder.


                “I think we can close this out. We’ll look at the one thing first though.


                “Forget this happened.”


                Bill nods an affirmative and says, “I don’t really have any problems with law enforcement. Some people need to be caught. Carders for instance. I just don’t like corrupt government. I haven’t been in it a long time, and as long as you’re not asking me about someone else, it doesn’t matter to me.”


                “Ever think about working for the government?”


                “No, I’d have to enforce laws that I don’t believe in, that don’t have anything to do with what's right and wrong, and I couldn’t do that.”


                Dan nods.


                There’s a lull in the conversation.


                “You going to Defcon this year? There’s a group of us going up.”


                “Nah, I wasn’t interested in going the first year it happened, I remember you invited me then. Too many feds there. You invited that Operation Sundevil person? No thanks.” Bill shakes head.


                “I had a lot going on the first year anyway. Got mugged and was in the paper, and went to the Oregon Country Fair that year - that was weird.”


                “Sure? you’re missing out.”


                “Maybe sometime. You should try the Oregon Country Fair too. It’s different.”


                ***
                Ending


                Dan. “Yeah we didn’t find anything. We’re closing it.”


                “That’s cool. Thanks for letting me stay at your place. It let me find one just down the street to rent.”


                “How’s that working?”


                “Good so far. It’s a shared house, the guys seem nice, and it’s a really good place.”


                “Well good.”


                “Yep.”


                “Hey, you wouldn’t be interested in moving to my old space above Pioneer Square, would you? My old place is going vacant, and there always something going on down there.”


                “Don’t know, maybe. You didn’t stay there.”


                “It’s hard to park down there. After I got my driver's licence for my job, I had a pickup truck for a month and tried parking down there. Too much trouble. But it’s near the bus tunnel. And there is a lot of space in the rental.”


                “I’ll think about it.”


                ****
                Ring, Ring

                “Is Tim there?”, Bill asks when a man on the other end of the phone answers.


                “What?”


                “Is Tim there? Is this Tim?”


                “Who is this?”


                “This is Bill..”


                “How’d you get my number??” Tim is really shocked.


                “I’ve had it for awhile.”


                “I made sure I never gave you that.”


                “Oh.” Bill sounds disappointed.


                “I didn’t know that. The reason I never asked back then is because I already had it.”


                “This is my parent’s number, I wasn’t even suppose to be here this weekend. How’d you know I was here?” Tim is still upset.


                “Lol. coincidence.” Bill realizes Tim’s actually concerned. “Look, I was going through some old notes, and realized I knew you a long time before I actually was writing that EADAS file for you. Which I never finished. Sorry about that.”


                “I called the number up not expecting it to even be connected. So that it was working was just pure luck.”


                “It’s my parents’ number”, Tim explains.


                “Oh. Ok.”


                “Look, how did you even get it?”


                “I had it a long time ago under a different handle. It’s been so long ago I don’t even remember exactly when, but you might have given them to me on a conference call. I don’t know. I was in a hacker writing group from Texas I think. It was about the time Phrack started.”


                “I wouldn’t have..”


                “I wrote the number in an old TAB book on BBS’s, and just found it when I was looking at it... Hey, let, look me look at what else I wrote on the page. Hmm, there's a BBS number written near yours with the same area code.” Bill reads off the name to Tim.


                “Man, I can’t believe it. I told him never to give my number out!”


                Bill, laughing. “Well, I guess that’s possible. I still think I talked to you a long time ago. Made sense if you were trying to get people to write. I wrote a lot.”


                Tim, calmer. “Look, you shouldn’t even be calling.”


                “You mean that 911 case? That’s over with. Really shook everyone up.”


                “Yea…”


                “Oh me. No, I’m not under investigation. I talked to someone a long time ago. Didn’t say anything about anyone else.. Also, that EADAS stuff was from a book in my engineering library, publicly available information. My library had a complete set of Bell System Technical Journals and I noticed they had that too, and it gave me the idea to write about it. Anyway that’s over with, and shouldn’t be a problem. It wasn’t much of a system, but I always thought it was an interesting Bell system if you were scanning exchanges. Everyone always wanted to write about the same systems, COSMOS, and never looked at anything else.”


                “I mean, maybe I could have written it from.. But..,” Bill starts to lead Tim on.

                Tim relaxing. “I don’t want to hear.”


                “Ok.”


                “So what do you want?”


                “I was just checking the number. I wasn’t expecting it was even connected. But since I got you, what have you been up to? I heard you got a job?”


                “Yep, xxxxxxxxx.”


                “That’s an xxx xxxxxxxx, isn’t it?”


                “Yea, they bought it out.”


                “What do you do?”


                ..…..Tim goes on, excited. “So I get to mess around with the internet all day long.”


                “Sounds nice. I just got back from Seattle, had some interesting experiences, so haven’t ….”


                The conversation trails off before they say goodbye and hang up.




                ****


                The lights come on in the auditorium, and the CEO comes on stage and waves. Over the speakers, a voice announces: “Futureomics would like to introduce to you it’s six new team members. We will briefly play for you parts of their interviews, and then break for lunch and the Defcon conference next door. Thank you.”


                [Applause]


                1. The PhD dropout


                “I first started writing serious programs on the C64. I had a Timex Sinclair, but that was just when I was starting. I remember I had my own dialer, it would pick up carriers, faxes, and pbx/dial tones, as well as how fast something picked up, and I’d save all that. It was a lot better than anything else out there that didn’t do all that. And I used a coprime technique to generate pseudo random numbers, dialers never did that, although some of them used random techniques - they wasted a lot of lines and memory to do it. I could get this into 1-3 lines of code.


                I eventually put it in a phone man I had decompiled along with an automatic hacker to try different account password combinations, and used it for telenet too. I had to pull a few things out of phone man to get it to work. I pulled the box programs out of it, they were neat, but I never used them. I remember a lot of programs I wrote for the C64, like a graph paper maker - I had it in six lines of program - small. Every line was doing multiple things, on gotos, variable reuse, etc. It worked great too. Tore up the printer which couldn’t handle the stress, but that wasn’t the fault of the program. The program worked great. The printer was bad.“


                Since then….
                “Optical scanner software, a mail program in dos. A whole site in php, coded by hand, with a polling package with its own script language. I tend to start making script languages for my programs, create whole environment, it’s a lot of fun. I did that with the hacker too - I could easily change templates for systems or networks it was hacking, different account lists to try, etc. Just lots of programs.”


                “I don’t really care what I program in. I care about the logic. I’ve used a lot of programming languages, and tend to need to review them after not using them for awhile. I pick up languages fast too. The future is logic.”


                “But I got my masters, and entered a PhD program.”


                “I’ve always been interested in how things work. Researching things, doing my own experiments, figuring things out, coming up with new theories, writing about them. I remember one of my professors saying I was a natural professor, it was a high compliment and I remember she didn’t even like me that much - it was grudgingly given. There were other professors that noticed me in different fields over the years, and eventually I became a PhD candidate. I never finished my thesis though. By that time, I was pretty delusioned. They didn’t care anything about real research, it was all political. There was no scientific method, no creativity, they copied things from each other and fudged results. I was pretty disappointed. When I got there, I thought, finally, I can do real research. But it’s the same all up and down the educational system.”


                “I did have some fun with my social network, online promotion paper. I had stars interested in that - found out your research didn’t have to be boring, and it could get noticed by famous people - especially when it was a topic they are interested in, like promotion. Not the point I suppose, but I come up with some original results and published a few more papers on network effects and media richness, group cohesion, trust, online promotion and similar topics.”


                “So, that is your thesis topic?”


                “No. The math made me miss more technical research, so I went back to it.”


                “The future: neural networks, analog machines, deep learning. Multi-valued and infinite-valued logic. Basically anything that lets us leave the binary state of today.”




                ****
                2. The Anthropologist


                “I was always interested in archaeology, a subfield of anthropology. I remember going on my first dig when I was a teen, and being the one to unearth the tail end of an effigy that turned out to be a sun serpent. You stuck a pole in the ground, and at the summer solstice, the shadow crept alone to the tail end of it, and you could see it from lookout points at fort ancient. I remember my picture in a magazine with me next to that. It was quite an experience, and very like the indiana jones movies with it’s map room. They put that in a historical registry. We had a good professor and archaeologist mentoring us, and a lot of us went on to get anthropology degrees, including me.


                “In college though, I became more interested in cultural anthropology. Subcultures have always fascinated me, and I always want to see them on their own terms, so ethnography interested me. I remember doing my religion research on the relation of hallucinogenic drugs to religion as a cross cultural comparison. I did a pretty good job too, as I still use the knowledge I gained in research (actual research) today, but I think I didn't credit trance states and different states of consciousness as having enough effect in the world. I’d add to it. My last paper was an attempt to model cognition on object oriented programing (I was taking computer science and anthropology together).


                “Lately, I’ve had an interest in explaining the subconscious and certain magic superstitions in terms of learning machines - inductive processes that while not consciously deductive thought, is nevertheless understandable as to why the result is exactly what it is. As a paradigm, it works well, and is likely to change much of our underlying philosophy and merge psychology and computer science together - someday! Most computer scientists are working on other things though.

                “The future: models that recognize the subconscious as learning machines & ANNs.


                ****
                3. The Space Enthusiast


                “I’ve had an interest in space colonization for a long time. The first newspaper I was in was for organizing a space week event on fountain square in my hometown, as part of the L5 society, which later was the national space society. I was briefly with a group writing space educational materials for teachers. I first studied physics in college - and was doing good, my professor said I was doing better than anyone else in the class. My mathematics professor, who was the chair, liked me. He once caught me trying to copy Newton's original paper on fluxions in the library and mentioned it later. And he announced to the class on our hardest exam of the year that he’d never give a perfect score till then, and it was mine. Not remarkable, but my high school refused to offer either physics or higher math when I went through it, and I had to learn it on my own.


                “Alas, trouble soon caught up with me, in various forms, the hacker crackdown - they even removed the payphone from my dorm!, and my parents got a divorce. My financial aid didn’t come through because of an error, and I had job trouble (and a very full load). With everyone getting busted and the divorce, I started not turning in homework and labs and getting zeros on them. I dropped out, and didn't even do the exit.


                “I probably missed my window to become a physicist then. Space colonization has always been a dream of mine though, and a reason I first got into computers (computer time was expensive back then).


                “Computers are cheap now. And private space launches are getting that way. Many people are dreaming of space colonization now, and if I’m not going to design them, looking back at my life, I can at least promote and organize to support it! The original motto of L5 - merged with the NSS in the 80s, was never to disband until on a space colony at L5!


                “The future: space colonization


                ****
                4. The Security Guy


                “I’ve always liked physical security. I find it relaxing, like long distance driving. I used to make pretty good money at it as a patrol officer and supervisor, and there have been times I worked 80 hour weeks - I like to work, and I like securing things.”


                “I’m not really tough. I’ve been hit on the back of the head with a baseball bat, mugged - they didn't get anything, and my family once hired a hitman to get me - whom I became friends with. I’d call it stubborn more than tough, but I’ve never liked bullies when I was a kid, and always pulled them off others.I remember being steamed after being mugged, and wanting to design an automatic detection system, which would alert others when anyone shouted help nearby


                “The future: automatic violence detection.


                “But I’m also a need for Speed Guy. I always like driving fast, and driving long distance too. I use to hang out with some of the hot rodders in my school and the shop class, fixing cars. I like fast things..


                “Fast women someone says in the background.


                “I like hot women. I have someone I love though ladies, and I’m a complete gentleman.
                I like to get the adrenaline going, like music. I never was into automobile mechanics though.


                “I liked physical hardware. Like fixing them, optimizing them, modifying them. Loved when microcontrollers came out, took my digital class through a basic stamp - professor ended up making me in charge of it. I like building simple processors out of gates. The new arduino, and pi and that old basic stamp - that general trend. It .. beats eprom and proms.


                “I prefer male / female interfaces. Never liked floppies. And Unix is good, but the name is kindof funny. Hey I only talk to people long distance. I’m not a local user. Huh? Oh yeah, sorry.
                I never liked people who can’t hack their way outside a box. And who can’t think and tie their shoes at the same time.

                “The future: open source processors and better fpga/asic technology. Open source hardware from bottom to top.


                5. The Populist Libertarian


                “I’ve always been into limited government, libertarian, populist ideas. I was one of the first supporters of united we stand, before Perot ran! I supported Ron Paul in 1988. And 2008, and 2012. Had great fun with the Ron Paul blimp. Was red pilling people before the matrix came out, back then the idea was frogs in boiling water - ironic with the pepe symbol today. Pepe escapes the frog farm.


                “I’ve been called a conspiracy theorist before, but some people call anyone who has an idea or fact they don’t like that. I’m just real good at promoting ideas despite propaganda to the contrary. The only conspiracy theory that I ever promoted that was really mine was the one on TWA800. I remember being in a magazine on that. But it did forced the CIA to show their hand. The CIA ende dup making a cartoon video to explain how it really happened. The only time I’m aware the CIA ever became part of a domestic airline crash, and they aren’t suppose to be involved in domestic affairs. That was way back in 96, today obviously the CIA has over stepped its bounds much more. But back then, it wasn't so obvious.


                “The future: minimum government and the end of the state and open governments


                6. The Christian


                “I’m a Christian. Jesus answers prayers, and there is some prayers he answers you could not do on your own. I believe Trump’s election is that way.


                “And I’m a writer. The Bible inspires me. It gives me a better, deeper way to look at things, and a language of metaphors and analogies. As proverbs says it, 1:6 “To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.” And God gives wisdom to those who ask him. God gives me a reason for my stories, and spirit and life. Without Jesus, I’m nothing.


                “Future: Jesus. And a new heaven and new earth.











                ****
                Our new team members and vision


                “So those are our newest team members. It is their vision of the future that is our vision, and what we expect them to contribute. All our new team members actually cross over into the other things as well. They all may seem different and unique people, but they fit together well.”

                “We build teams. We don’t look to be the smartest guy in the room, we look to get the smartest guys in room. We don’t look for what you memorized or what knowledge you are hoarding to make yourself look smarter. The world is a big place, you can always look for some specialized knowledge a person doesn’t have and then harp over it. We’re looking for what people can do when you give them that knowledge. What they do when they are sharing with others in a team.”


                “Our new team members all relate to each other, and they all wear many hats. But no matter what hat you may be wearing, remember... no matter where you go, there you are.”


                “Let’s give them all a big hand.”


                Audience applauds.


                ****
                End


                The signs went up at quite a few windows - HIRED. But many were turned away. The few that remained went quietly over to the Defcon conference that was currently in session, Defcon 25.


                Futureomics recruited at Defcon every year. And they always hired unique individuals, who, while sometimes the rejects, the misfits, the downtrodden, mocked, ridiculed, and poor, somehow seemed to move through life always making a difference in the lives around them and having fun. They worked that much better when united as one, and the team loved each other like they loved themselves.


                And it would seem that as they entered the hotel next to Defcon 25, one of them was playing a Selena Gomez video, Bad Liar, and it arguably and coincidentally, had a similar theme to what the team learned that day - to love themselves and love the others on their team, and that what the secret name of the company they were joining was, was now, forever and firmly attached to their minds:


                Me inc.

                The future is calling.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Just The Beginning
                  By: Infosec Daemon



                  Jeff walked down the hall, he tried to remember to smile and nod to people. Some he knew, some knew him. He was optimistic about what he saw so far. Everything was running smooth but he knew that anything going wrong now could be catastrophic. People were streaming through the doors, it had begun. Technically it had begun yesterday but today would test the limits. This was going to be the biggest Def Con ever and Jeff was happy to see that something that he had started for him and some friends, twenty-nine years ago, had grown so large. The preparations that he and his team had made for the past five years were about to pay off. Jeff made his way to the ballroom, ready to speak to 40,000 guests. It wasn't a "keynote" speech. That was too presumptuous, assuming that what he had to say would be the biggest highlight of the conference. Some conferences even forced all attendees to view the keynote, by broadcasting it in every room. Jeff refused to do that. That's why he had waited until day two of Def Con, and not until 11AM, in two rooms. With 25,000 physical attendees he had to be realistic... there would be enough people wanting to hear what he had to say. But he was sharing the time slot with other talks and Nikita and the team always put him up with popular ones.

                  Before he stepped through the doors, Jeff lowered his VR goggles and looked down at his virtual self. Dark Tangent didn't really transform himself much. Except for the leather pants. He couldn't pull these off in real life anymore but in VR... why not. This was his conference and he was about to make history. As he walked towards the steps, he looked out at the crowd. There was a mix of people here physically and virtually, though everyone had on a headset so it didn't matter. Headsets were invisible to those wearing them, once in the VR, and those in the room that were not, saw a bunch of people wearing headsets... a strange and isolating feeling. It would be similar to a few years ago, not wearing 3D glasses in a 3D movie. You were left disoriented and unable to really appreciate the movie. 3D had suffered the same fate as beta-max, not widely adopted and replaced by a superior technology.

                  Those that were physically in the overflow room, with their headsets on, had seats in this virtual room and as far as everyone could tell, they were all in the same room together. Of course, people were plugged in from everywhere. Though you still had to provide a place to sit for those that continued to gather in the desert. Def Con was being simultaneously hosted at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and virtually around the world. Attendance was no longer limited to those that could travel to Vegas. Financial and legal restrictions were no longer an obstacle to overcome. The entire conference wouldn't be mixed virtual, but most of the talks would. Some speakers did require physical presence only, based on the sensitive material they were discussing. But Jeff was satisfied that finally his conference had become the all inclusive event he wanted. He wondered what it would evolve into five years from now.

                  In the virtual conference, there were no Goons. Behavior was monitored and controlled from the NOC. The rules were still simple and anyone attempting to perform virtual violence or intimidation on anyone else was immediately ejected. The NOC could insert themselves in the virtual conference wherever they chose, if someone needed guidance or help. But for the most part, they sat back and observed from afar, willing to allow the conference attendees enjoy the conference as they chose. There were still areas where conference attendees could congregate, outside the view of the NOC. But those areas were well marked so Def Con had no responsibility for anyone who went in there or the actions they took. In the physical world, the Goons continued to "assist" people as they moved between conference rooms. Headsets had to be raised while walking, but could be worn in all of the villages and chill out rooms.

                  Jeff climbed the steps up to the stage and looked out at the crowd. As the music died down, the crowd began a thunderous applause as they climbed to their feet.

                  "Thank you everyone!" Jeff said while shushing the crowd with his hands. Encouraging everyone to sit, though some chose to hover in the back. In virtual reality, gravity was optional. Jeff laughed as he looked around at the size of the crowd.

                  "This is fantastic. Thank you all for coming and welcome to Def Con 29!" Booming applause. "The first ever hacker conference held simultaneously virtually and physically." More applause.

                  As the Dark Tangent continued with his opening keynote, Dax moved from the main ballroom to the hall, lifting her VR headset. To the casual observer, it looked like a pair of sunglasses and noise canceling ear buds, with a small wire down to a VR pack in her backpack. The VR pack was about the size of a Raspberry Pi, but the hardware was about eight times as fast as the original Pi. Capable of pushing the necessary graphics while constantly measuring position and gestures from the tiny sensor wires attached temporarily to Dax's limbs. Facial expressions were monitored from cameras in the frame of the VR glasses. They were used to mimic the facial expressions of the wearer, or could be overridden if preferred. So as to keep the poker face going. Regardless of the setting, Dax always had a poker face on.

                  This was Dax's third consecutive Def Con. When she had attended her first, Def Con 26, she felt like she had finally found people that understood her and accepted her for who he was. She had come to the hacker summer camp an introverted loner. She left with a small group of like minded friends who she kept in touch with over the year. Since then they reunited every year in Vegas, at Def Con. This year, Dax's group of friends were on a mission. With the introduction of the VR village, there were new "Virtual Reality" tasks as part of the scavenger hunt. This year, incorporated the virtual world and the new realms that this opened. With challenges consisting of finding certain avatars and grabbing selfies in certain VR restricted locations. Dax and her friends were intent on completing as many of the VR restricted challenges as they could. Normally, people who lived in Las Vegas had the advantage in the scavenger hunt, with a vehicle and knowledge of where items or celebrities could be acquired. But this year, with the addition of the VR aspect, the game was more of a level playing field.

                  Dax walked towards the escalator. She passed two Jayson Streets giving what could only be described as the most awkward hug ever seen... Both the real Jayson and a "non-player character" Jayson hugging an attendee at the same time... Certainly bizarre but not out of character for the author, speaker and hacker. Non-player characters or "NPC's" were popular from role-playing games, meant to interact with players. And of course they had carried over to the virtual world. Though they cost a considerable amount of money, for the programming and licensing, it was typical of large corporations to sponsor such character creations, usually to occupy their vendor booths. Jayson went everywhere with his, programmed to mimic and compliment his real-life doppelganger.

                  Dax continued on the escalator down, leaving the Def Con conference behind, confident that she had the correct coordinates for the "prop" that had been placed, and that it would fire as expected, she calmly walked towards the coffee shop at the bottom and took a seat at a table outside the cafe. She lowered her VR glasses and rejoined the room DT was speaking in. At that time, in the welcome brief, DT had just finished thanking his core Def Con crew for all the hard work setting up the conference. Dax settled virtually in the back of the virtual room, watching as DT paced the center of the stage. Dax, used her eyes to start a recording of the virtual session. She entered the coordinates she had just measured and pressed a button on her physically arm-mounted keyboard, hidden under her coat. Instantly, a virtual NPC appeared at the left-side of the stage. A full sized Darth Vader. The crowd, thinking this was part of the theatrics, immediately applauded. Dark Tangent, knowing this is not part of his planned talk, is actually unphased. In all the years, he has seen many pranks at Def Con. Darth Vader illuminates his light saber. DT reflexively takes a nervous step backwards.

                  In the NOC, alarms begin to fire as Darth Vader appears. The network has detected an unmanned NPC. Not an unknown threat, but with the newness of this hybrid virtual and physical conference, it's the first time this threat has ever been detected on a production network. While the NOC works to isolate the node without disrupting the thousands of virtual connections, the virtual Darth take a menacing step towards DT. "Is anyone seeing this in the room? We have Darth Vader on the stage with DT!" Jessie yells into the radio, alerting all the Goons in the room to the threat. While the alarms list this as a virtual entity only and the cameras showing the physical room don't show anyone on stage with Jeff, Jessie is not taking any chances.

                  "Negative, we have no bogeys on the stage at this time" came the response from Seth, the Goon in charge of DT's security detail.

                  OK, good. Jessie thinks. Now to find that node. Jessie immediately starts a scan for any unmanned computers in the main room. The scan comes back clean. There are no unaccounted computers without a physical human presence with them. Next Jessie starts a scan for any larger than normal heat signatures, in case someone has doubled up on their VR nodes... Nothing.

                  As Jessie frantically searches for the source, the Darth Vader hologram speaks. "Dark Tangent, it is time you realize the true power of the Dark-side. Join team 'Just Tom' and we will rule the galaxy together" the hologram voice speaks to all attendees.

                  "Well that's an interesting proposition, but who is team 'Just Tom'?" Dark Tangent calmly replies.
                  "They are the ones who will be victorious and you will be foolish not join them." Darth Vader says menacingly.
                  "I will always be a rebel" DT replies.

                  Money! Dax got the quote she needed. 200 points if you could get Dark Tangent to say your teams name on-stage. She pressed another series of key sequences on her arm-mounted keyboard.

                  "Very well Dark Tangent, my purpose is served and my master beckons me home." With a flourish of the light saber, the Darth Vader hologram spins his light saber and then stabs himself in the stomach. This is followed immediately by a flash of light and then the hologram disappears. It certainly was not everyday you got to see Darth Vader commit seppuku. Which is what the hologram was programed to do with the final key presses Dax had performed.

                  Dax pulled up her VR glasses, instantly snapped back to the reality outside the cafe. Unregistered Human was waiting for her. "Did you get it?" he asked.
                  "Yes!" Dax replied. "Big Country did a perfect job."
                  "I know, I saw. Even if you didn't get it recorded, I am sure there were a few thousand sessions recording. Luckily BC had that VR standalone box already handy."
                  "Is he retrieving it?" Dax asked.
                  "I think he is trying to. I am sure there are Goons swarming the stage right now, trying to find the projector."

                  VR standalones could join into a virtual room but did have a requirement to be in the physical room. What was unknown to many, just based on the immaturity of the technology, was that when multiple physical rooms were merged, as the overflow room was, the signal could be redirected from an alternate location and repositioned in the virtual room. Security, provided by the Goons of Def Con, in the main room, where Jeff Moss was located, was particularly heavy. In the overflow room, not so much. It was a simple hack to exploit this flaw to appear on the stage, once the virtual rooms were joined.

                  As Dax and UnHuman spoke, people walked through the hallway, into and out of the cafe. Into the shops, down to the casino floor, and some upstairs to the conference. They were all oblivious to what was happening upstairs in the room where Jeff Moss was giving his welcome speech. Either there as normal Vegas tourists, ready to unload themselves of their savings with the hope of making it rich, or conference attendees who for various reasons didn't feel the need to be in a talk at 11AM on a Friday morning. Whatever the reason, the video would be uploaded to YouTubeVR and the link tweeted to the Def Con Scavenger hunt crew who would certainly re-tweet it, along with hundreds of other attendees and viewers.

                  As Dax and UnHuman spoke, at a table near theirs, Dimitry sat calmly and watched the same tourist and conference attendees walk by. Like Dax, this was not his first Def Con, in fact this was his 8th. And like Dax, Dimitry was there with a team and working on a scavenger hunt of sorts... though this one was not for public participation. This was more of a private scavenger hunt. Dimitry's team attended Def Con every year, though the people who Dimitry brought with him usually changed ever year. It was not good for the same people to be seen too often. Familiar faces were not an attribute that you wanted in Dimitry's line of work. And in his line of work, the really good ones weren't allowed to leave the compound.

                  But still Dimitry needed to be here to recruit. His team would mingle with the other attendees and the desired ones would be recruited, one way or another. The virtual reality twist added this year was something that Dimitry didn't much care for. Already he had confirmation that two of the people he was looking for would not be attending physically. Holed up in their basements or apartments... wherever they decided to operate from, they were attending virtually. Dimitry could locate them and take them by force but that wasn't how he liked to operate. His team had made a very good living out of recruiting from Def Con and the low cost of operating out of here would be increased if he had to build a retrieval team to operate in another city.

                  Dimitry was a handler for a group that security researchers had named "Crimson Cobra". Researchers suspected this group to be a Chinese government offshoot, which is exactly what the group wanted to be portrayed as. In fact they were more of an independent, for hire group. Doing work mostly for a government in Eastern Europe, they also contracted regularly with organized crime groups. By being suspected of Chinese government affiliations, it provided them a certain level of leeway. Whenever one of their attacks was uncovered, usually long after they had abandoned it, with the suspicion falling on China, the usual suspects from that country were looked at and blamed. This allowed Dimitry and his group to continue to operate in the shadows, ultimately as an unknown player.

                  Dimitry checked his watch. Ten minutes until twelve. He finished his espresso and got up from the table. Glancing over at Dax and UnHuman he smiled to himself. He figured they were waiting on their friend "Country Boy", but he wouldn't be coming... One way or another he would be working for Dimitry now. His 'recruiters' should have that one headed for the car by now. Dimitry had been watching Big Country for a while and his latest escapade, hacking the Def Con network at any level, confirmed what Dimitry already knew... this one would be a valuable resource.

                  "I've got it" Jessie said to the Goons searching for the unauthorized network node. "It's in the overflow room, second row, under the third chair." As the Goons rush into the room, quietly swarming on the designated chair, three men quietly exit the other side of the room. Two of the men actually having to help one between them. All three are wearing Guy Fawkes masks.

                  "Some people can't handle their liquor!" another attendee laughs, pointing at the limp form between the two men. "Exactly!" one of the Guy Fawkes masks replies with perfect English.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Piggybacking
                    By technogizmo


                    /***the rise and fall of http

                    Dead Addict foresaw a bright future for HTTP. And he was right – which alarmed many and led Xanadu to sue CERN. Then things got complicated. NeXT settled the matter by buying the right patents and copyrights, and the rest is history.

                    ***/


                    Alexis sat on the curb near the bus stop, playing on her phone. Game music gave an excuse for her focused attention on the screen. It was a soundtrack to cover what she was really doing. She was war-driving her tiny drone through the storm drain.

                    Normally, she did her war-driving on the bus. Using the drone wasn’t that practical. But she liked the idea of running aerial technology in an unexpected place. Also, until the courts decided whether or not airspace could be owned and leased, it was best to stay out of delivery zones.

                    Her drone was part robot, part copter, part bumper car - and pretty good at negotiating dark spaces. Attaching a wifi card to scan for networks made it even cooler! Not that it could pick up much through the thick concrete. The concept was a work in progress.

                    “Wow, the Arduino load really runs the juice down. Better come back, pequeña polilla.” Alexis reeled it back in and out of the drainage hole. She pulled out the makeshift access point connected to her phone, and slid everything carefully into a carry box inside her backpack.

                    3-D printer technology was booming. While her friends were making self-watering planters and calavera-beaded curtains, Alexis made modifications to her drones. As she could afford to, she scoured the internets for plans and shared ideas with other enthusiasts. She stored her progress notes in HyperCard stacks, using them to trade for more info.

                    Thank God for her college’s 3-D printers. She had to pay for her printing materials, but having access to a good printer was a huge cost savings.

                    The bus came. Alexis got on and sunk into her seat. She was heading to her school, Sands College, to work with her team on their project. Alexis was beginning to suspect it was way too ambitious - not for their skills, but for their available resources. A key piece of it was gathering information online. The college simply didn’t have the resources for that much access. “The internets are too damn expensive,” she fretted.

                    In theory, educational institutions got free access to all the internets. In reality, surfing was slow and bandwidth was capped. Forget what the internets were supposed to do. Alexis knew for a fact that not all the internets opened up all their spaces to education. At least, not to no-name colleges like hers. She knew because she’d surfed on networks that did have unlimited access. VERY different experience.

                    She was solving that disparity problem. She was also solving the cost problem. She was having trouble solving the legality problem. And that was starting to make her really nervous.


                    /***Your NeXT friend could be your best friend

                    When the deal between Apple and NeXT fell apart, Commodore was quick to step in. Although Commodore officially bought NeXT, practically speaking it was NeXT that absorbed Commodore. NeXT made the Amiga cool again, becoming the stylish cube that revolutionized computing. And the rest history.

                    ***/


                    When Alexis got to school, she went straight to the computer lab. The cluttered space was affectionately dubbed The Sands Pit. It had a variety of PCs, many of questionable age, lots of spare parts, and a few power-hogging servers. The dean kept promising a Commodore Cube for running research models, but she’d believe it when it happened.

                    Yes! She was the first one there! She got dibs on the Amiga! She staked her spot with her backpack and took out the drone box. She started looking around the lab for a connection cable.

                    Two of her project partners entered the lab talking in hushed tones. Alexis called to them. “Arti, Caesar – either of you know where a cable is I can use for my drone?”

                    Ignoring the question, Arti rushed over to her and whispered, “Alexis, Monte’s in Marsh’s office!”

                    “Arti, you’re such a goon! Monte’s in there all the time.”

                    “It didn’t look friendly.” He glanced at Caesar, who shrugged. “Monte looked upset. We saw him follow Marsh into his office, and then they closed the door.”

                    “Ahh.” Alexis sat down. “You think Monte’s… confessing?”

                    “I almost hope so,” Caesar said. “I’m tired of the stress.”

                    “You want to give up the project?” Alexis challenged. “Lose your access, lose the data?”

                    Caesar sighed. “No. Maybe. I don’t know.”

                    Alexis sighed, too, and turned to log into her computer. A few moments later she hit the keyboard. “Mierda!”

                    “What is it?”

                    Alexis waived angrily at the screen. Caesar and Arti read the message. They each tried to log in, and they got the same error message: “Your account has been suspended. See your advisor immediately.”

                    The three students stared at the screen. Arti broke the silence. “Well, we might as well get it over with.” He got up and grabbed his backpack.

                    They trudged out of the computer lab and down the hall to their advisor’s office. The door was closed. They could hear the voices of Professor Marsh and Monte.
                    The students looked at each other. Alexis bit her lip and knocked on the door. The voices stopped, and a moment later the door swung open.

                    “Glad you got my message,” Marsh said. “Let’s go for a walk. Leave your stuff here.”

                    The students dumped their backpacks in his office, and all five of them shuffled out into the hall. The professor grabbed a binder, locked the door, and led them outside.

                    They sat on the grass in a shady spot near a row of rumbling compressors. They huddled close because it was a little hard to hear each other talk, which was probably the point. Any IR-Mic that might happen to be pointed their way couldn’t possibly overhear them.

                    “Why does this feel like a fire drill?” Alexis quipped nervously.

                    Professor Marsh held up the binder. “Officially, we are taking advantage of the nice weather to talk about Unix and .Net compatibilities. Unofficially… do any of you have anything you need to tell me?”

                    Caesar started to speak, but Alexis stopped him. Motioning to Monte, she asked “What did he tell you?”

                    "Nothing! I didn't say anything about anything!" Monte said hotly. Alexis shot him a look.

                    The professor tapped on the binder. “Let me ask this a different way. I’ve been notified by an outside entity that someone at this college has been engaged in alledgedly illegal computer-related activities. Of course I thought of you four first. Was I right or wrong?”

                    Alexis held up her hands. “Wrong! We’ve never violated the Thackeray Principle, I swear! We’d never committed a felony in front of you.”

                    “Great. But you may have done so in front of someone else. Listen, I’ll help you if I can, but I have to know the truth.”

                    The students looked at each other. “Ay, chihuahua!" Alexis sighed. "Okay…”

                    The flood gates opened. The students poured out their story for over an hour. What they said is lost to history because the compressors were too damn loud.


                    /*** Fear the government that fears yours cryptography. -- CK

                    01010000 01000111 01010000 00100000 01110011 01100001 01110110 01100101 01100100 00100000 01101100 01101001 01110110 01100101 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100001 01101110 01101011 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01010000 01101000 01101001 01101100 00100000 01011010

                    OH: “Natural selection will weed out the people who don't read the manual.”

                    ***/

                    Let’s say – completely hypothetically – that you had a great plan for a great school computer project. The digital stars aligned! Everyone on your team is motivated! AND, everyone on your team can actually contribute something!

                    BUT… A key part of your project requires lots and lots of fast internet access to high quality internet spaces. Alas! You’re all broke-ass college kids and you go to a broke-ass college. What are you to do?

                    I’m sure there are lots of legal options out there, so of course you’d absolutely choose to do something legal. You would refuse to consider something illegal, like piggybacking.

                    You definitely would not start war driving, looking for vulnerable networks. You would never case out marks who might have lots of capacity, but are rarely home. And you would never, EVER actually go onto a property and plug in a broadband-over-power-line device into a neglected external outlet.

                    You would not do these terrible things. Because if you did, you might be tempted to do something with all that intel, like create your own botnet. And botnets are very bad. And you do not want to be bad.

                    You might tell yourself you could do good with a botnet. You might want to pretend that what you are doing is okay. Beware! This crazy rationalization might lead you to do crazy things, like creating a program that calculates the internet usage of your marks. A program like that would help you figure out how to use only what is left unused by the mark.

                    And if you got that program to work, you might be embolded to create a secondary program that keeps your botnet code from running when the mark is using their computer. Beware, again! You aren’t interfering with your mark’s use of their own stuff, so this would give you a false sense of righteousness.

                    A false sense of righteousness would lull you into a false sense of security. Triple beware! A false sense of security might make you forget to ask yourself questions like, what if your botnet gets compromised? What if it gets used for evil? What if you get caught?

                    So what do you do about your awesome school computer project?

                    Change your project. I recommend you just copy & paste from the textbook and move on. Or switch to Marketing. There’s a good idea! In Marketing, you can get paid good money for making crap up! Has anyone ever been arrested for lying in a cable commercial? I can’t think of anyone. Marketing might even be safer from prosecution than Wall Street banking.

                    It’s definitely A LOT safer than hacking.


                    /***An Apple a day keeps the GNU fed

                    Apple open-sourced it’s OS through the Apple Foundation as a last ditch effort to rebound its product lines. Open-sourcing created crowd-sourcing, which created more demand. Not enough demand to make the company profitable, but enough to make it a juicy purchase target for Microsoft.

                    And the rest history.

                    ***/


                    “The winners of this year’s Apple Foundation Fellowship have done something remarkable." The podcast moderator beamed at the four students sitting in the studio. “Not only have they created a program that benefits schools across the country… Not only have they open sourced their work, so others can learn from it and improve it… Not only have they shown that you don’t need to be at a big-name university to contribute to technology…

                    “They’ve done something I’ve personally never seen before. They’ve given botnets a good name!”

                    The studio audience laughed. Alexis, Caesar, Arti and Monte smiled self-consciously.

                    The moderator continued. “Who would have thought that people would voluntarily let a botnet onto their computer? These students did. They had vision.

                    “What these students created is a system that lets communities partner with colleges. Unused resources don’t have to be wasted. Instead, these resources are being used to find solutions to complex problems… ”

                    Professor Marsh leaned over to whisper in the ear of the dignitary standing with him in the back of the studio. “Don’t you think the world should know the real role you played in all of this?”

                    “Hell, no!” was the retort. “If my alphabet friends or anyone in the cDc ever found out I got breached with a BPL device, I’d never live it down. You’ll keep it secret, won’t you, Jeff?”

                    “Your secret’s safe with me. I appreciate your advice on steering the kids out of trouble and helping them get legit.”

                    “Hmm. You know, stuff like this can go either way. It can be great for everyone, or it can be really, really bad if it gets compromised. We’re making a big gamble on open source.”

                    “That’s true. But I have three reasons I’m placing all my bets on open source.” Marsh ticked off the count on his fingers. “One- Mistakes kept in the dark are hard to fix. Two- Open source brings everything to light. Three- Innovation is being created by all kinds of people. And some of them aren’t even old enough to drive! We need the experienced keeping a protective eye on the enthusiastic.”

                    The two turned back to listen to the program.

                    “Your fellowship starts in the Fall," the moderator said. "Do any of you have special plans for the summer?”

                    Alexis smiled. “I do! Viva la Def Con! I’m going to Las Vegas!”

                    And the rest, as they say, is history.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Players, Start - Lucaster


                      I needed that badge. I had tried so many times, but this time, this time, I was going to win. I was going to beat the puzzle, and get the black badge. Every year, I had gotten so close, but I hadn’t won. I had figured out the lanyards last year, I had seen the codes in the buttons. This year though, I had all the pieces. It wouldn’t escape me now.

                      All the clues led to here, a closet in the back of the Caesar's Palace Hotel. A place hardly anyone went into, especially not with the con going on just around the corner. It was the perfect place to hide a part of the puzzle. I pushed aside chairs and cleaning supplies, searching.

                      “Come on Lost,” I muttered to myself, “Where did you hide it…”

                      A bit more searching, and I found it. It had to be it, especially with this year’s badge. I looked down at the blue circle, hanging from the black lanyard, and laughed. A black disc, glowing blue inlaid on the edges, of course it all led to this.

                      An old Tron machine in the back of a closet. It almost made me want to hold up the badge above my head, but I controlled my instincts.

                      I looked around the back, and hit the power switch. With a click, and a buzz, the screen came on. The two motorcycles, yellow and blue, racing about the screen as the words ‘INSERT COIN’ flashed in white.

                      I smiled, and stepped up to the right side of the machine, and grabbed onto the handle. I tried to contain my excitement, and pulled out a quarter, sliding it into the slot.

                      ‘PLAYER ONE READY. PLAYER TWO, INSERT COIN’

                      Huh. I looked over at the other side, and with no other option, slid a quarter into the other side’s slot.

                      The screen cleared, and the two light bikes were placed on opposite sides of the screen. They began moving forward, and I heard a click as the other bike began to turn.

                      Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the stick beside me move, controlling the light bike. Of course I wasn’t playing alone. There’d be no challenge in that.

                      I grinned, and turned back to the challenge. It was time to fight.

                      The bot was fast, and better programmed than the usual bots in the game, which made a lot of sense. Still, I was doing well. In the many minutes that had passed, it had lost two lives to my one. As long as I didn’t make any horrid mistakes, I should be able to-

                      I then grimaced as I ran into a light barrier, and lost my second life. We were both down to our last. I kept dodging out of the way, my mind racing for a solution.

                      It was a machine, it was a program, there was only so much it could do. There had to be some flaw in it, something I could exploit, that I could use to my advantage. I looked out of the corner of my eye, and watched the other stick as it moved.

                      It had to have been preprogrammed with responses to everything that happened in game, and the joystick itself moved just to add to the fun of it. I considered grabbing the other joystick, to see if it had an effect, but I decided against it. That wasn’t an exploit, that was just cheating.

                      No, maybe the secret here wasn’t to exploit the system. It wasn’t something to own, just to beat. I didn’t need to break it, just outmaneuver it. I just had to keep playing the game.

                      I smiled, and focused. I pushed myself to move faster, react faster. Even though it was probably only in my own imagination, I felt almost as if the bot had felt my anxiety, my will to win, and had started trying harder as well. We both wanted this.

                      We kept trying every strategy we knew, until eventually we were locked in an ever closing box. We kept trying to turn at the last minute, to box in the person next to us, to get them to make a mistake.

                      Then, I saw it. A mistake it had made, a mistake that I could use to my advantage. I jumped for the gap between our barriers, and charged out of the maze we had created, as it kept making its own prison smaller and smaller.

                      I was running out of space, and so was it. I just had to hold out until it ran out of room. Eventually, all I could see was the remaining free room I had, and all faded away except me, and my light bike.

                      Pixel by pixel, second by second. I could see the end approaching. I wasn’t going to make it. It was going to beat me. I was going to lose, again. Five pixels away from a light barrier, the game froze.

                      ‘PLAYER ONE WINS’

                      I slowly leaned back, and looked at the other light bike, trapped within the box. True, it had taken the best path to give it the most time, but it wasn’t enough. It had run out of space, and the game had ended.

                      I let go of the stick, and laughed. I had won, I had actually won. I probably would have kept laughing if a small sound from the machine hadn’t brought me from my revelry.

                      Something had fallen into the coin return slot.

                      I reached in, and pulled out a small black coin, about the size of a quarter. On one side was the signature Jack the pirate printed in white, the other side had lo57 in similar style..

                      I closed a hand around the coin, and looked back at the machine.

                      “Thanks, Lost.” I said, as I leaned over, and hit the switch, “I’ll play you again someday.”

                      I pushed the arcade machine back, and walked out of the closet.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Polymorph

                        By L. Kellebrew




                        Good morning! It’s pretty cold here in Seattle. Here’s the tech news you need to know going into your week...
                        Corogen partnered with the Department of Homeland Security to develop ClearVoy, a personal device designed to assist and protect vulnerable citizens.
                        Production is underway at several undisclosed facilities, far removed from areas of recent domestic terror activity.
                        -TechQ News, 2025


                        CHAPTER 1
                        Minsk, Belarus.

                        If Kiel Dashkevich had known he was going to die today, he would have stayed in bed. But after a boiled egg and toast, he marched out into ankle-deep snow, humming snatches of song in the cold pink light of a January morning.

                        Ready for another day of translating press releases at the U.S. Embassy, Kiel pulled his stocking cap over his ears and climbed down concrete steps into the Metro station. He made it to the subway platform just in time to see the red taillights of the 7:30 train disappearing down the tunnel. Missed it again.

                        The next train wasn’t scheduled for another fifteen minutes, which in Minsk time translated to forty-five minutes he could spend staring at dog-eared posters of Russian pop stars, wondering why his paper cup of coffee never warmed his hands. It was freezing down here, but at least in the winter he couldn’t smell the urine in the corners or the vomit in the garbage cans.

                        A harried man in a beige trenchcoat spoke rapidly into a mobile phone, rocking on his heels near the edge of the platform. Two elderly women with matching sapphire earrings and bright red kerchiefs peeking out from their furry ushankas sat on a bench nearby, eyeing Kiel suspiciously.

                        Kiel smiled and waved. They didn’t return the gesture, but he was used to that by now. He was still an outsider in this austere country, despite the fact his father had grown up here.

                        Kiel turned his collar up against the cold. One babushka nodded off to sleep while the other flipped open a copy of the Minsk Sentinel. Newsprint smudged her white-gloved fingers.

                        Civil War in U.S., Kiel translated from the front page. He didn’t know whether to believe it or not, because the news here could be so skewed. He should call Mom tonight, see if he could get through this time. Last time they talked, she said there were a lot of protests going on about internet privacy. That’s probably all it was.

                        He wandered over to the timetables posted in the center of the platform and double-checked the schedule against his watch. Just when he confirmed the arrival time of Metro Line 5, a woman whispered something unintelligible right behind him, so close he should have felt her breath on his neck.

                        Kiel’s neck prickled as he looked over his shoulder. There was nobody there, just the man in the trenchcoat and the babushkas on the bench.

                        Hearing things now? Kiel shook his head. Too much time alone in his flat, seasonal affective disorder, and the mold he didn’t see until he’d eaten half his rye toast this morning. No wonder he was going a little insane.

                        “Don’t worry. You’re not crazy,” the voice whispered. “You’re just paying more attention than they are.”

                        Kiel pinched the bridge of his nose and walked to the edge of the platform, pretending to peer down the dark tunnel for any sign of his train. A faded Origa poster from last September’s concert still clung to the wall of the tunnel, the blonde singer’s eyes glowing with a dark amber hue like raw honey. Her keyhole-shaped pupils remind Kiel of a goat he’d woken up to one morning after passing out behind a pub on the east side of Minsk.

                        “Listen. We don’t have much time.” Origa lifted one bare arm, her sleeveless pink gown rippling in the icy breeze blowing down the tunnel.

                        Great! Now he was hallucinating. Kiel glanced over at the others on the platform behind him, but no one seemed to notice. He poured some coffee down his throat to keep it from closing up in panic.

                        “Pay attention,” Origa continued. Pixelated and glittering, she wavered up out of the poster and pointed at a corona of light shining from the north end of the southbound tunnel. “There’s an unscheduled train coming. You need to get on it.”

                        The platform rumbled under Kiel’s boots. “That’s not my train,” he protested.

                        “Shh! Don’t give me away.” Her orange goat eyes darted back and forth.

                        He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. Feeling shaky, Kiel tapped an absentminded rhythm on the lid of his coffee cup. The unscheduled train squeaked to a stop between him and the Origa poster, covering all but her face.

                        No Metro Line number, and no passengers in the seats. Kiel stepped away as the doors hissed open.

                        Origa jumped up and down in a fit of digitized fury. “Get in! Get in now!” Both babushkas, wide awake now, furrowed their brows at Kiel.

                        “Get in now or you’re a goner,” the voice warned him.

                        Delusions of persecution? Schizophrenia ran in families. Dad suffered from it up until his suicide. Kiel might need medication. Or maybe just a vacation, a visit back home to the States, civil war or not.

                        Who was he kidding? He desperately needed to get laid. He hadn’t been to the banya in a year, since he went home with that American girl, Carmine. Carmine had long black hair and shaved legs, the first shaved legs he’d seen since leaving the States. She’d just accepted an offer from Corogen, a tech company near Kiel’s alma mater in Seattle.

                        Kiel wished he’d followed her back there, back to the familiar, to a place where finding companionship didn’t mean flashing his American passport at the disco.

                        The train doors gaped open in front of him as Origa screeched and gibbered in a dialect of Belarusian Kiel had never heard before. He tried to stay calm, singing a folk song Dad had taught him in his native Belarusian: “Kupalinka, kupalinka… ?omnaja no?ka...” An American by marriage, Dad considered it a duty to pass his culture on to Kiel, something he’d done up until the day he jumped off the Aurora Bridge to his death.

                        Soon the doors would close, the train would leave and everything would go back to normal. Kiel tried to remember what Carmine looked like naked. Had it really been a year since he’d had sex?

                        A long bony claw raked through Kiel’s jacket from behind, scraping to his skin. Sure that he was still hallucinating, he turned slowly toward the source of the pain to find a pair of seven-headed hydras hissing in his face. Apparently, the two babushkas had just grown extra heads and very sharp teeth, and they had him surrounded.

                        Kiel took a deep breath and counted fourteen hideous mouths, each with double-jointed jaws and hundreds of fangs. Clicks and hisses erupted from their gaping throats like steam radiators with loose valves.

                        This was turning into a Very Interesting Day.

                        “Get on the goddamn train! Now!” Origa screeched.

                        Kiel froze, trapped between the two hydras. The train doors crept toward each other. Even if he ran for it now, he probably wouldn’t make it before they closed.

                        “I can’t hold these doors open for you much longer, asshole!”

                        Kiel looked up into the angry gray slits of the hydras’ eyes, forcing himself to keep his gaze from wandering to the train and giving him away. Then he plunged toward the doors with all his strength.

                        The hydras’ hissing heightened into a shrill, furious whistle, and their claws dug into Kiel’s flesh, pulling him back to the platform. He hadn’t thought to count how many arms they had. The trenchcoat guy still chattered into his mobile, looking right at Kiel and the hydras without seeing them.

                        A loud boom shook the platform and threw the hydras and Kiel down on the concrete floor. The hydras tore into Kiel’s forearms with their powerful talons. Desperate, he tossed his hot coffee into the nearest pair of eyes, kicking at gelatinous gray flesh as flames roared up around him, racing up his pant legs, coat, and sleeves. Yelling and thrashing, Kiel broke free of the hydras’ grip just in time to squeeze through the train doors before they closed with a rubbery thump.



                        #



                        U.S. Armed Forces subdued an unprecedented number of domestic terrorists who converged on forty-two state capitols today.
                        The terrorists say they want the National Security Agency to stop collecting Internet and email data, but they’re forgetting that the NSA’s data protected us from the terror attacks planned in 2018 and ’22.
                        The President has declared martial law in all states involved until the threat of terror has passed.
                        -KOLO Channel 10 News


                        CHAPTER 2

                        Kiel dropped in the aisle and rolled until he put the fire out. He crawled up into the nearest seat, sucking air in deep gulps as thin streams of black smoke rose from his jacket. He heard the hydras scream as the train car jolted over something lumpy. Hopefully at least one of them was dead.

                        Flames faded behind the train as Kiel plunged deeper into the dark safety of the tunnel. His jacket hung on his body in melted shreds, and blood leaked from his gashed back and arms onto the vinyl seat. When a miniature orange-eyed Origa leapt onto the seat next to him, he jumped, startled. She was no bigger than a doll.

                        “You really know how to take it out of a daemon,” she harped. “What’s the point of giving you an entire train to save your ass when you don’t even have the good sense to get on it?”

                        “I hope you’re taking me to a hospital,” Kiel muttered.

                        “No, you’ll be fine,” Origa said, crossing her thin arms over her chest.

                        “Are you kidding me?” Kiel yelped. “I’ve got third degree burns. I could die.”

                        “Stupid American,” Origa muttered. She smacked Kiel hard on his bloody forearm, the slap of flesh echoing like a lone handclap through the empty train car.

                        “That’s weird,” Kiel rubbed at his numb arm. “I don’t feel anything.”

                        “Exactly. Because you’re already dead!”

                        “Excuse me?”

                        “Kicked his bucket, breathed his last, kaput. Dead.”

                        Kiel lost it, laughing until his eyes leaked. “I knew it. I knew I was going crazy.”

                        “Think you’re losing your mind now? Check this out.” Origa’s comely curves disappeared as her pale skin and pink dress molted off, exposing wet reptilian scales. The doll was gone, and in her place a bright red bearded dragon stood on hind legs at a full height of twelve inches. Her orange eyes bulged out in their sockets as she propped tiny, clawed fists on her hips.

                        “You look like a sunburned lizard.” Kiel coughed, sobering slightly. The train shuddered on the rails.

                        “This is my true form,” Origa said. “It’s a lot of work to keep that other avatar up.”

                        “How exactly did I die again?”

                        “Bomb went off on the platform. Planted by state loyalists, but they’ll shift the blame to the E.U. somehow.”

                        Kiel raised his eyebrows.

                        “Doesn’t matter though,” she continued. “You’re just lucky I got you on the train before the soul-eaters had their way with you. You would’ve been screwed for sure.”

                        “Those hydra things eat souls, huh? Guess it’s a good thing they’re dead now.”

                        Origa shrugged. “Next time, don’t be so cocky. Just do what I tell you.”

                        “Tell me again who you are?”

                        “Matilda. Minor daemon of the Belarusian canon. You can stop thinking of me as that blonde bimbo any minute now.”

                        “No problem. I’m Kiel.”

                        “I know. Your dad told me all about you.”

                        Kiel shivered. “He… what?”

                        “We met right after he jumped off the bridge,” Matilda said matter-of-factly. “Once he realized what he did, it was too late to go back. So he devoted himself to the cause of the faery folk--- my people.”

                        Kiel goggled at her.

                        “We’re your people too, you know,” Matilda said, patting his knee with a scaly red hand. “Your DNA on your dad’s side traces back to the days when human beings and faeries still intermarried.”

                        Kiel gripped the armrest of his seat, feeling sick.

                        Matilda looked sideways at him. “Come on, it’s not that strange.”

                        “Is my dad still… here?”

                        The train braked, and Matilda jumped to the floor. “No. But he gave himself valiantly to our cause. And now, we found you, just like the Code said we would.”

                        The doors whooshed open, but they weren’t in Minsk anymore. They’d arrived at Westlake Station in Seattle. Completely impossible.

                        “Not impossible,” Matilda piped up. “We just hacked the space-time continuum.”

                        Kiel found himself face to face with the mural in the subway tunnel that had always given him the creeps. The grinning samurai tracing lines with a yellow crayon, Alice floating next to a giant crockpot, Wonder Woman preening in front of a mirror, and two smiling mouths full of teeth about to kiss. Or devour each other.

                        He stepped off the train and launched into the first verse of “Kupalinka”: “Maja do?ka u sado?ku, Ružu, ružu poli?.” His voice echoed down the empty subway.

                        “Unholy Mother of Darkness!” Matilda yelped, clamping her talons over her ears. “That song is a classic. Don’t insult the Goddess with your screeching.”

                        “Sorry. Guess I’m a little tone deaf.” Kiel squashed a glob of faded yellow mustard under his boot. It was a mystery where the associated corn dog had made off to. “How come no one’s down here?”

                        “Do you not watch the news? There’s a war going on.”

                        “I thought that was another loyalist lie.”

                        “No, this time it’s true.” Avoiding the defunct escalators, Matilda hopped up the gray marble stairs leading to the street. “You Americans are very serious about your privacy. All these kids with their black flags marching in the streets, all these people with their guns. What do they call them, domestic terrors?”

                        “Terrorists. Domestic terrorists.”

                        “So anyway, it doesn’t look good for the terrorists.”

                        “They have a right to protest,” Kiel frowned. “First Amendment.”

                        “Whatever. They’re going to lose because of technology. Corogen supplies all your government’s technology.”

                        Kiel’s bus used to stop by the Corogen campus, a cluster of multi-level brick buildings and sporadic birch trees. “I used to know a girl who works there.”

                        “She does more than work there,” Matilda shook her head. “Those cretins have been wiping out the faery folk for years now.” She led Kiel through a line of armed security guards with the Corogen logo embroidered on their sleeves, guards that didn’t even notice them.

                        Thick drops of rain pelted the sidewalk as Kiel and Matilda emerged at street level, squinting against the glare of the overcast sky. The rain bounced off Kiel’s skin. “I can’t even get wet now,” he remarked, awestruck.

                        Matilda rolled her eyes as she scrabbled to keep pace with Kiel’s worn leather boots. “Speak for yourself, dead guy.”

                        Suddenly, something exploded nearby, knocking Kiel to the pavement for the second time that day. He covered his head with his arms as chunks of dislodged concrete rained around him in a rocky avalanche.



                        #



                        Nikolai Dashkevich passed away in Seattle, WA on April 7, 2015. He was born in Minsk, Belarus on November 11, 1979 to Vladimir and Nastya Dashkevich.
                        He attended college at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, where he met Stephanie, an American exchange student who later became his wife.
                        In 1987, the couple moved to Seattle, where Nikolai worked as an electrical engineer.
                        Mr. Dashkevich is survived by his parents, his wife, and a fifteen-year-old son.
                        -The Seattle Tribune, April 26, 2015


                        CHAPTER 3

                        Air raid sirens howled as thick smoke billowed from the blue windows of the Chase Tower. Matilda huddled next to Kiel’s ribs until the rumbling stopped. Maybe the Minsk Sentinel was more accurate than he thought.

                        “Damn Canadian bombs,” Matilda muttered.

                        Kiel pushed himself out of the rubble, sending up clouds of dust. “I thought the war just started. How is it this bad already?”
                        ?Matilda leveled her slitted eyes on him. “These protests went on for a long time before they called this a ‘war.’”

                        Suddenly cold, Kiel rubbed his arms. “If I’m dead, how come I can still feel cold?”

                        “Residual memories. You call it the PTSD.” Matilda leapt over a discarded syringe and continued down the sidewalk.

                        Kiel stood up, brushing raindrops off his sleeves. “PTSD only happens with a traumatic experience.”

                        Matilda smirked at him over her shoulder. “Wasn’t being alive traumatic enough for you?”

                        “Good point.” Kiel followed Matilda, careful not to step on her.

                        “Don’t worry, your PTSD will pass. We faery folk went through the same thing when we began to evolve our immortality.”

                        “So when do people start being immortal?”

                        Matilda scampered around a pile of decaying Dick’s cheeseburger wrappers. “They’re starting right now. You’ve already learned how to embed your consciousness online in code. In the language of machines.”

                        “That’s not immortality. It’s just technology. Science.”

                        “So we faery folk have been doing the same thing for thousands of years, only without the help of machines. And you superstitious monkey brains call it magic.”

                        Kiel frowned. “No one believes in faeries anymore.”

                        “Exactly. We had to create a new world for ourselves. We’ve been hacking the code of what you humans call ‘reality’ for centuries now. But you finally caught up with us. You’re starting to invade our space,” Matilda huffed. “As if you didn’t have enough space of your own.”

                        Kiel looked up at the towering apartment complexes of downtown. “This place used to be full of people. Where’d they go?” he asked, tripping on a loose brick.

                        “They’re working for Corogen in secured buildings, or else they’re hiding from all this mess. And we,” she pointed south, “are going to a volatile area, so don’t be so clumsy.”

                        “But I’m already dead, so bombs can’t hurt me. Right?”

                        “Bombs, drones, all this war technology is smarter than we are. They can stop ghosts, daemons, even avatars.” Matilda kicked a Rainier beer can aside. “The most important thing is to be careful.”

                        Kiel remembered Pike Street smelling like fish guts and hot dogs. Now it smelled like mold and sewage. They walked by his favorite store, one that used to sell forty different varieties of popcorn. The tourists and panhandlers that used to crowd the sidewalks were gone, and bullet holes marked the store windows. Overturned cars clogged the streets, and any door that wasn’t nailed down gaped open, emitting a steady barf of broken glass and rust colored sewage.

                        A human figure lurched crookedly from a shop window, swinging at the end of a rope, but closer inspection revealed a mannequin in a gray suit and striped tie attempting an escape from Macy’s. Everything was gray, like a black-and-white zombie film.

                        The pair crested a hill where they could see across the muddy waters of the Sound all the way to the foggy shore of Bainbridge Island. Kiel’s skin crawled when he realized what was missing.

                        “Where’s the Space Needle?”

                        “The what?” Matilda wiggled her scaly tail and leapt over a broken chunk of sidewalk. “Oh. You mean that Space Age atrocity. It was the first thing to go.”

                        A low buzz hummed in Kiel’s ears, growing louder as they walked downhill. Here, a handful of skyscrapers loomed, barricaded behind twenty feet of high voltage walls topped with coils of razor wire and guarded by armed drones. Corogen’s corporate logo decorated the wall at intervals, the brains behind the war.

                        “I don’t mean to alarm you,” Matilda said, nudging Kiel’s ankle. “But that’s where we’re going.”

                        “You’re crazy,” Kiel said. “We can’t go in there.”

                        “You’re right. We can’t. But you can.” Matilda tapped her foot. “They recognize my form signature and they’ve blocked me out with their code. But they don’t know you yet.”

                        “Do we really need to? It seems… suicidal.” Just thinking about it made him queasy.

                        A string of curses flew from Matilda’s forked tongue. Not Belarusian, but something older and darker. “The future of my people is in the hands of those moneygrubbing brogrammer exploitationists. May the Dark Lord melt their bones in eternal hellfire,” she spat.

                        Her saliva sizzled on the sidewalk. Kiel raised his eyebrows.

                        Matilda wiped her mouth daintily. “Come on. We need to get you to Elvin.” Kiel followed her down an alley that squeezed itself between the older, brick buildings of Pioneer Square, leading the pair around the bleak Corogen skyscrapers.

                        “Who’s Elvin? Another daemon?” Kiel asked, dodging a puddle of unidentifiable goo dripping from a rusty green dumpster.

                        “Human. He used to work for Corogen.”

                        “I thought they were moneygrubbers.”

                        “No, Elvin’s on our side. We met at DEFCON 25.”

                        “You mean that hacker convention that used to meet in Las Vegas years ago? Didn’t they get shut down during the Trump administration?”

                        “Shut down?” Matilda snorted. “We just went underground. We’re bigger than ever.” She hissed suddenly. “Duck!”

                        Kiel slammed to the pavement just as a drone whizzed over their heads, wielding rotors so sharp he could hear them slice the air. He lay there for a minute, his cheek planted against the cool cobblestones, debating the wisdom of invading the world’s largest supplier of military technology with a self-proclaimed daemon no bigger than a stick of beef jerky.

                        Matilda scampered into Kiel’s line of sight, twitching her scaly red tail. She tapped Kiel on the nose. “Stay low and follow me.”

                        The drone circled over them, its razor-blade rotors buzzing and snapping. Kiel crawled behind Matilda on hands and knees, keeping his head down.

                        Matilda snapped her tiny claws. “Pay attention to the doors. We go in door number three.”

                        Kiel glanced up. A series of boarded up, arched doorways lined the back of the building on their left. The doors, like the bricks in the wall, were painted the same flat black.

                        “Whatever you do, don’t stand up,” Matilda said. “The Corogen drones can cut you up, but they can’t fly too low because their blades will catch on the ground.”

                        Resisting the urge to look up at the drone, Kiel asked, “What do they do to dead guys?”

                        “Usually nothing. But if they hack up the avatar we coded to get you here, you’ll be booted offline faster than you can say--- what is it you Americans say?”

                        The drone followed them as they scuttled down the alley. Kiel crawled faster.

                        “Jack Nicholson, faster than you can say Jack Nicholson. Kaput. If the drone gets you, you will be seeing this world no more.”

                        Kiel was beginning to think that might be okay. The drone was so close he could feel the heat from its exhaust rippling down his back. Next to him, the letters “YOLO” glittered in silver graffiti on crumbling brick.

                        “Get down!” Matilda yelped. The drone nearly clipped the top of Kiel’s head as it ran into a stack of reeking garbage bags, shredding right through them.

                        Kiel groaned, trying not to think about how he would look as a pile of shredded meat.

                        “You want to keep seeing this world, you have to listen to me,” Matilda scolded, her breath hot in Kiel’s ear as she scampered alongside him. “We brought your avatar to life. We can find a way to help you live forever in the clouds.”

                        Kiel looked at her sidelong. “I thought you were a daemon, not an angel.”

                        “No, I said in the clouds. I mean, in the cloud,” Matilda huffed.

                        “So what do I give you? My soul? My firstborn?”

                        “Yes.” Matilda tapped Kiel’s ankle. “Door, on your left.”

                        Kiel angled toward the boarded up doorway. “Well, I’ve already lost my soul, and I don’t have a firstborn.” Where the hell was the doorknob?

                        Matilda scampered to the knobless door and rapped on it in three sets of three knocks each. “You do too have a firstborn. Remember Carmine?”

                        “Carmine? The one night stand?”

                        “Yes, you idiot. Carmine, the one night stand.”

                        The black door slid upward, revealing a tunnel aglow with red light.

                        Kiel’s throat went dry. “I have a kid?”

                        “Three months old now. A girl. But Carmine’s fiancé thinks it’s his kid.”

                        Two train tracks sloped down the tunnel. Kiel couldn’t stand up under the low ceiling, so he hunched forward almost double. An appropriate position for throwing up.

                        “She had my kid and didn’t tell me? And she got engaged?” Kiel squinted at the red light below. He thought he saw a shadow moving around down there, and he could hear a foreboding electric hum.

                        “She was engaged before she met you, you blockhead. To Tom Seine, the CEO of Corogen.” The door began to close behind the two, but not quickly enough to keep out the drone.

                        Kiel turned around just in time to see a whirring mass of metal and razor blades flying straight at his face. Without thinking, he scooped up Matilda’s scaly lizard body and cradled her against his ribs, then rolled sideways down the sloping tracks. Matilda’s piercing daemon screams threatened to break the sound barrier.

                        They finally hit bottom, coming to a stop on a pile of loose bricks. The drone hovered before Kiel’s eyes, lit by an array of orange and red LEDs. He grabbed the closest brick he could find and hurled it at the drone, smashing it with a satisfying crunch. In the blinding white flash that followed, he smelled something like hamburger gone bad, and everything went black.



                        #



                        Our systems routinely hunt and destroy every single code anomaly, keeping hackers out and your data safe. We’ve perfected a truly secure online database, one that people from the early Internet Era could only dream about.
                        -Tom Seine, CEO, Corogen


                        CHAPTER 4

                        When Kiel’s vision returned, he saw pieces of the drone scattered on the concrete floor. Red and green lights from rows of computer servers flickered over his hands, and although the stench of spoiled meat grew stronger, Kiel was still alive. Figuratively speaking.

                        The source of the stench was an individual with a grimy beard reaching to his chest and thick-framed eyeglasses held together in the middle with electrical tape. Powdered orange cheese stained his white t-shirt, and a set of dog tags twinkled from a bead chain around his neck.

                        “So you’re Elvin,” Kiel remarked, sitting up.

                        Elvin grunted. “Where’s Matilda?”

                        “Right here.” Kiel opened his cupped hand to reveal Matilda’s tiny limbs and head curled up into her long forked tail. But the daemon didn’t move.

                        “Bloody hell. What did you do?” Elvin shouted. “Do you have any idea who this is? Do you?” He wrenched Matilda’s limp body out of Kiel’s hand, and glared at him accusingly. “You crushed her, asshole.”

                        “I did no such thing!” Kiel protested. “In case you weren’t paying attention, I just saved us from the drone!”

                        “You just ruined everything, okay? Everything.” Matilda’s head flopped over limply in Elvin’s grasp. Sobbing, he stroked her delicate rib cage with a chocolate-stained finger and stumbled toward a collection of vintage lunchboxes behind his desk.

                        Kiel watched in equal parts horror and fascination as Elvin selected a Wonder Woman lunchbox and nestled Matilda’s limp body inside on a pile of gum wrappers. “Rest in peace, my friend,” he murmured, rummaging under a pile of Doritos bags for a battery-powered votive candle. He switched it on and glared at Kiel over fogged-up glasses. “I hope you’re happy. Asshole.”

                        Kiel clenched his fists. “Matilda brought me here to help. I still want to help.”

                        “There’s no point now.” Elvin rebooted the servers one by one. “You won’t know where to find the source code without her to lead you.”

                        “Then you can get me into Corogen, and I’ll figure it out. I know the source code’s important to the faery folk.” Kiel jammed his hands into his pockets. “I know my dad tried to help you guys.”

                        Elvin was quiet for a full minute before speaking. “It’s even bigger than you think. You heard of ClearVoy?”

                        Kiel shook his head.

                        “It’ll connect everyone to Corogen’s databases, all the time. They’re already selling user information to government agencies, and with ClearVoy the information flow will be constant. But,” Elvin said, jabbing a finger in Kiel’s direction, “if we have the source code, we can stop the transfer of information and shut down the whole thing. No info, no money.”

                        “No money, no war.” Kiel ran his fingers over the Wonder Woman lunchbox. “No more killing off Matilda’s people, either.”

                        Elvin settled into his desk chair, dots of perspiration on his forehead glistening in the light of Matilda’s candle. “Until we own the source code, Corogen’s system will keep sniffing out online anomalies and erasing them. I try to shield the faery folk, but they keep disappearing from cloud memory. Tom Seine’s pretty hardcore about his system wipes.”

                        Seine. That bastard had his kid. “You’ve got to get me in there.”

                        Elvin tore the wrapper off a package of toaster pastries. “Want one?”

                        “No, thanks. I’m dead.”

                        “Give me a minute. I think I can hack this.” Elvin devoured two pastries in as many bites and started clacking away on his keyboard. Then, he grabbed a handheld scanner and shot a red laser into Kiel’s eyes.

                        “Whoa! Shouldn’t I be wearing sunglasses?”

                        Elvin shook his head and ran the scanner down Kiel’s body. “You are hands down the whiniest dead guy Matilda’s ever brought here.”

                        “For real. I can’t see anything.”

                        “Hold on.” Elvin’s voice sounded like he was in a pipe a mile away.

                        Kiel blinked. A brilliant shaft of light cut through the darkness, illuminating a red lump of lizard at his feet.

                        “Crap,” Elvin muttered from somewhere overhead. The lights flickered and went out, plunging Kiel into darkness again. Out of habit, he wished he had something to eat.

                        A grainy row of black and white vending machines slowly materialized before Kiel’s eyes, but they were all empty, the glass broken. The pile of snack wrappers on Elvin’s desk began to make sense.

                        Kiel looked down the long white corridors suspiciously, expecting zombies. “Where am I?”

                        “You’re deep inside Corogen headquarters. But don’t worry. You’re encrypted.”

                        Kiel’s hands and feet seemed as solid as ever. “I don’t feel encrypted.”

                        “You didn’t feel dead either, did ya?” Elvin chuckled, then wheezed. Kiel imagined him choking on Doritos crumbs from the bottom of the bag.

                        “I’m gonna upload a copy of Matilda’s files from a year ago and try to restore her avatar.” Elvin belched. “Let me know when you see her.”

                        Two seconds later Matilda’s avatar leapt up, jabbing at the air. “I’ll teach those bastards to mess with…” She trailed off, her tail drooping in confusion.

                        “She’s here,” Kiel called out.

                        “Perfect.” Elvin mumbled something and started clacking on his keyboard again.

                        “Why did you bring me here?” Matilda hissed, glaring up at Kiel.

                        Elvin interjected. “She doesn’t recognize you, dude.”

                        Kiel held his palms up. “You brought me here, remember?”

                        Matilda scrunched up her face, rotated her head 360 degrees, and exhaled a small flicker of flame. “Well. Guess I’m stuck with you. Let’s go.”

                        She scuttled down the hallway, her claws clicking like teeth. Kiel had to run to keep up.

                        “I can take you as far as the Inner Sanctum, but after that you’re on your own. I set off too many firewall alarms.” Matilda took a sharp left through a wall.

                        Kiel hesitated before trying to slide his hand through. He hit concrete.

                        “You have to run through it,” Elvin lectured from the unseen space above. “If you stop to question it, it’ll sense your resistance.”

                        “But I’m dead. I’m not supposed to be feeling this stuff.”

                        “This place has its own rules.” From the sound of it, Elvin was chewing with his mouth open.

                        “Come on,” Matilda yelled from the other side of the wall. “Don’t be such a chickenshit.”

                        Kiel punched the wall, encountering solid resistance yet again. “This doesn’t make sense.”

                        “Of course it does,” Matilda roared, leaping back out of the wall at full force. Kiel jumped. “Equal and opposite reactions,” she continued, running up the ceiling and back down to the end of the hall again.

                        “Little thing we call science,” Elvin said smugly.

                        Kiel wiped his palms on his pants, ran to the end of the hallway, then charged back into the wall.



                        #



                        For it has been given to fey and faerie alike the gift of second sight, with which they may build homes for themselves and their offspring in dimensions invisible to the human eye. This ability, inscribed into their very blood, has been passed down to their children and their children’s children from time immemorial.
                        -The Book of Feydom, 1154 C.E.


                        CHAPTER 5

                        On the other side of the wall, Kiel found a vast cavern dripping with luminous stalactites. Hundreds of blue orbs glowed like clutches of radioactive dinosaur eggs at the feet of calcified stalagmites.

                        “Don’t touch the pretty blue things. They’re viruses,” Matilda said, dashing between the stalagmites at breakneck speed.

                        Kiel tripped and nearly fell on a cluster of the glowing orbs. Catching himself, he sang under his breath. “Kupalinka, kupalinka… ?omnaja no?ka...”

                        “Stop, for the love of everything Unholy!” Matilda yelped. “Your singing is shit.”

                        Kiel rammed his knee on a particularly pointy stalagmite and winced.

                        “Hurry it up, slowpoke,” Matilda said over her shoulder. “We’ve got to get to the Inner Sanctum and download the source code into you before they find out we’re here.”

                        “Into me?”

                        “Yes, into you. Don’t worry, you can hack it. You’ve got faery blood, remember?”

                        The ground vibrated under Kiel’s feet. He froze. “What’s that?” He heard something like the thump of marching feet. And it was getting closer.

                        “Exterminators. Sniffing out rogue code that doesn’t belong.”

                        “Us.”

                        “Congratulations Superman, you’re faster than the speeding bullets.” Matilda rolled her eyes. “Elvin, can you shield us?”

                        “I’m trying,” he garbled. “But there’s too many outliers. There must be millions of them. My encryption won’t hold.”

                        Matilda nudged Kiel’s ankle. “Hold still. If you get snuffed out here, we can’t bring you back again. They’ll recognize your code signature.”

                        “They’ll notice Matilda’s signature right away,” Elvin said. “I’m bringing her back.”

                        Matilda flickered and winked out. Ranks of soldiers in full riot gear and night goggles emerged from the depths of the cave.

                        “Do whatever you have to, just get through them,” Elvin instructed. “The Inner Sanctum’s on the other side.”

                        “Great.” The glowing green goggles of a thousand burly soldiers riveted on Kiel.

                        “Just run and punch as you go,” Elvin advised. “Don’t hesitate.”

                        “They can’t actually hurt me here, right?”

                        No answer. Kiel swallowed. “Right?” He held his fists in front of his body, ignoring every instinct and diving into the wall of armor-plated muscle.

                        The first impact knocked the breath out of him. It felt as real as the concrete wall, the stalagmite, and that time in high school when he’d gotten punched in the nose for flirting with Ryan Evanston’s girlfriend.

                        Kiel half-fell, half-ducked under the gauntleted forearm of the soldier who’d thrown the punch, and rolled under the legs of another before gaining his feet and dealing a swift uppercut to the clean-shaven chin of yet another mercenary. Every step forward earned him a new wave of agony as the mercenaries smacked him around with fists of perfect code.

                        Kiel’s own hacked-together consciousness fritzed off and on under their blows like an analog TV picture. Each punch and kick delivered pain to his digitized body with devastating effect. When the sheer number of soldiers lined up against him made it impossible to move forward, Kiel leapfrogged onto their shoulders and ran across their backs. He could see even bigger soldiers near the back of the cavern. They must be guarding the Inner Sanctum.

                        “I can’t keep their servers down much longer,” Elvin’s voice floated by. “Seine’s got all of his engineers online working to get them back up. You’re gonna be on your own with the big guys, so run fast.”

                        “On my own…” Out of breath, Kiel sucked in air. “This whole time, you’ve been helping me?”

                        Ten soldiers the size of city buses guarded a vault door barricaded with blue virus orbs. These soldiers carried even bigger weapons than the guys Kiel had just fought his way through.

                        He crouched, breathing heavily, surrounded by a circle fifty guns deep. So this would be the end.

                        “You! Foreign body!” The closest soldier bellowed. “If you surrender, we’ll let you go unharmed.”

                        The vault door was so close. He only had one chance to get this right.

                        Kiel mentally measured the distance between himself and the Inner Sanctum, then plunged between the soldier’s legs, diving into the virus orbs piled against the door.

                        Pain like millions of tiny swords crawled into his flesh. His limbs tried to seize up, but he grabbed a virus orb in each hand and lobbed them at the soldiers guarding the vault.

                        The soldiers fell back, but not before the orbs found their marks. Kiel threw virus orbs until his hands turned blue, and the soldiers lowered their guns and backed away, ostracizing those of their number who were now infected.

                        They’d given up on him. He must have sealed his own doom. Kiel felt a slow paralysis sink into his bones, his hands cramping into fists. The source code was right on the other side of the vault door. Did he have time to download it and get back before the virus killed him? He scrabbled at the doorknob of the vault with one palsied hand and pushed it open just enough to let himself in.

                        The Inner Sanctum overflowed with fragrant trees, both the fruit and flowering kind. Kiel slammed the door shut behind him. He could see through his hands now; they’d turned a transparent blue, another side effect of the virus. He couldn’t even see his feet anymore.

                        Kiel took a closer look at the trees. In each leaf, he could see a live stream of someone’s life, like looking through a window into the real world. Was this how Corogen stored their users’ information?

                        There must have been billions of leaves in this room alone, rustling on branches of many colors, some dark as graphite, others clear as glass. An electric current ran through every branch and trunk down to the roots that tangled between the trees like tentacles.

                        The roots of every tree plugged into one golden tree in the middle of the garden that radiated a strange, breathy music. If he was going to find the source code anywhere here, that would be it.

                        Kiel made his way to the center of the garden, careful not to step on the roots flickering with current. The hum of many voices emanated from the leaves as he passed under them.

                        The ethereal music picked up like a wind gathering speed as Kiel approached the golden tree. He couldn’t see his hands anymore, but he reached out and touched the tree trunk anyway. A stream of light slipped up his fingers and into his palm. Electricity poured into his body, electricity he could feel in his teeth.

                        Kiel clenched his jaw and pressed his hand hard into the tree, right into the white-hot pain. Maybe it was too late. Maybe the virus would block him from downloading the code. But he kept his hand on the tree trunk as voltage surged through him.

                        When the current subsided, he could see his hands again. Although the bluish tinge of the virus still lingered, he saw silver lines of code rippling through his body, a waterfall of numbers under his skin. Download complete.

                        A single golden leaf dangled before his eyes, barely holding on to its branch.

                        In that leaf, Kiel saw himself in a hospital bed in Minsk, wrapped in bandages like Boris Karloff’s mummy. A heart monitor beeped in the background.

                        He hadn’t been able to save Dad, although he’d ridden his bike down to the banks of Lake Union and jumped into the murky waters, trying in vain to find him before the trawlers did.

                        He was surprised to realize how much he missed Mom. Even the feel of her lipsticked kisses on his cheek, but especially the fresh tomatoes she put in her spaghetti. And Carmine, her slender body fitting so perfectly into his arms, her mouth like salted peppermint, the warm vanilla smell of her neck.

                        If his heart was still beating, that meant he was alive. And if he was alive, he could go back. In the real world, he could find his daughter and be the dad she needed. She wouldn’t have to be alone out there, the way Kiel had been alone after Dad died.

                        Kiel watched through the leaf as a nurse adjusted his pillow. What if he was in a permanent coma? What if he returned to his body only to be trapped in it, voiceless and paralyzed, living off intravenous fluids until the day they pulled the plug?

                        The nurse peeled back his bandages, revealing angry blobs of oozing flesh. His eyes were taped shut and oxygen tubes fed into tiny slits where his nostrils used to be. He looked more like a bottom-dwelling sea creature than a human.

                        Kiel cringed in sympathy with his own damaged flesh and wondered why no one had put him out of his misery. What kind of life could someone like that hope to live?

                        “Kiel, get out of there,” Elvin’s voice cut in, distant and fuzzy. “They’re sending reinforcements. You don’t have much time.”

                        Kiel looked down at his hands, at the telltale blue glow of the virus already coming back. His avatar felt weak and feverish. The vault door seemed like it was a mile away.

                        Kiel touched the leaf. It was thin and delicate as parchment, and as he ran his fingers over its transparent veins, his view of the hospital room began to expand. The real world tugged at him, widening his perspective, sucking him in until the golden tree glimmered like a distant planet at the end of a long telescope.

                        “What are you waiting for, man?” Elvin yelled from above. “I’ve got the servers back online. I’ll try to hold the soldiers off, but you gotta come back now.”

                        “My kid’s still out there. I’m still out there.” Kiel watched helplessly as a nurse detached his breathing tubes. His heart monitor flatlined.

                        “Don’t go back there,” Elvin warned. “Your body’s effed. But we’ve got a cure for the virus, so you can live online forever. Just bring back the code!” His voice hitched.

                        “Sorry,” Kiel swallowed hard. “I have to go.” He stepped into the hospital room. The tree winked out behind him and he dropped back into his body, a rock falling to the bottom of the sea.

                        He’d forgotten how heavy his body felt. Like a nineteenth-century diving suit.

                        Kiel gasped for oxygen. Every breath felt like running uphill. He tried to scream from his raw throat, but only a whoosh came out. Nurses blurred in and out of each other at his bedside, reattaching electrodes and tubes. He half expected to hear Elvin scolding him from somewhere overhead, but all he heard was the buzz of his heart monitor continuing to flatline. Maybe he’d die for real after all.

                        But an oxygen mask breathed cool life into his nose and mouth, and his lungs filled and his chest rose, and even though everything hurt, he could breathe. They put an IV in his arm and he floated on a cloud of sleep.



                        #



                        Kupalinka-kupalinka?Dark night, dark night, where is your daughter?
                        My daughter is in the garden?Pluck the roses, pluck the roses?Pierce her white hands.
                        Pluck the flowers, pluck the flowers,?Weave wreaths, weave wreaths,?Shed her tears.
                        Kupalinka-kupalinka?Dark night, dark night, where is your daughter?
                        -Belarusian Folk Song


                        CHAPTER 6

                        Six weeks later, a nurse disconnected Kiel’s IV. “Mr. Dashkevich, time to wake up,” she said, handing him a pair of slacks and a button-up shirt.

                        He dressed in the bathroom, unable to recognize the face staring back at him from the mirror. A mass of scar tissue, his nose and ear lobes no longer visible, his lips livid scars. His eyebrows were gone, and the few greasy hairs on his scalp sprouted from bald pink skin.

                        Kiel flung open the door. “I can’t go out like this,” he rasped, then coughed. He’d lost his voice on top of it.

                        The nurse winced. “I’m sorry. We’ve done the best we can, Mr. Dashkevich. You’re lucky to be alive.” She handed Kiel a bottle of painkillers and a referral for a cosmetic surgeon in St. Petersburg.

                        “Will I get my voice back?” Kiel asked, alarmed to find he still couldn’t raise his voice above a whisper.

                        “Maybe.” She gave him a musty-smelling overcoat. “Take this.”

                        The sleeves of the secondhand coat ended four inches above his wrists. He popped two painkillers and stepped out onto the streets of Minsk.

                        The sun was out. Snow still lay on the ground, but purple crocuses sprouted at the feet of naked maples, and a squirrel scampered up a gutter spout with a scavenged sunflower seed in its mouth. Pedestrians swarmed the slush-covered sidewalks, clearing a wide path for Kiel. Kids stared at him, and adults looked pointedly away. An old babushka crossed herself as he walked by. His skin crawled at the memory of the hydras.

                        He ducked into the nearest barbershop, ignoring the raised eyebrows peering at him over newspapers. Headlines still covered the conflict in the United States. Corogen made the front page, too.

                        Kiel grabbed a copy of the Minsk Sentinel and climbed into the nearest open chair.

                        “Trim?” the barber asked.

                        “Shave it all off,” Kiel said hoarsely. His scalp tingled as the barber worked.

                        Corogen Unveils ClearVoy in Minsk Today, the front page read. CEO Tom Seine promises new era of economic collaboration.

                        Seine would give a demonstration of the ClearVoy at the U.S. Embassy today. Kiel’s jaw ached from clenching his teeth.

                        “You, uh, serve in the military?” the barber asked, trying to make small talk.

                        “Yeah,” Kiel said, tucking the paper under his arm. “I did.”

                        He took a taxi home, thankful for the driver’s indifferent silence. When he unlocked the door to his flat, a wave of foul-smelling air wafted from the overflowing garbage can under the sink.

                        A broken crust of toast moldered on the arm of the couch, right where he’d left it the day he fought the hydras in the subway. The day he met Matilda.

                        Today, he had a chance to make things right. Kiel shook the dust out of his spare stocking cap and wrapped his scarf around his face twice. Last of all he pulled on a pair of gloves and his own coat, refusing to look at his reflection in the mirror. He already knew what he’d see.

                        Kiel trekked to the subway through the snow. His train arrived on time, no hydras or daemons, just a throng of people on their way to the same place he was going: the U.S. Embassy.

                        A couple hundred people gathered on the embassy plaza, where several outdoor LED screens guaranteed everyone would be able to watch the ClearVoy demonstration. With growing anxiety, Kiel recognized Corogen’s razor-bladed drones hovering over the spectators. He’d never seen them in Minsk before.

                        A security guard in a standard-issue ushanka and aviator sunglasses approached him. “You there. Let’s see some ID, please. And uncover your face.”

                        Kiel handed over his embassy badge and unwrapped his scarf with trembling fingers, exposing his ravaged face to the world.

                        The guard paled. “Sorry, just following policy,” he said, handing back the badge.

                        Kiel covered his face again, ignoring the bystanders who suddenly averted their eyes and grabbed their children’s hands. He marched through the crowd to the delivery door at the rear of the embassy, swiped his badge, and let himself in.

                        The hallway from the back of the building to the auditorium smelled like floor cleaner and the sweat of hundreds of bodies crowding into the embassy. Showing his badge to the security guards, Kiel entered the packed auditorium and pushed his way to the front row.

                        On stage and projected on the LED screens behind him, Tom Seine looked just like his mass media photos, all white teeth and tanned skin. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “with the cooperation of manufacturing facilities here in the beautiful city of Minsk, Corogen is pleased to announce the launch of ClearVoy, a new safety device that will improve the quality of life for people all over the world.”

                        Camera lights flashed, and applause echoed through the auditorium. Kiel clenched his fists as Seine continued.

                        “I have such great faith in our new product that I’ve already bought one for my new baby girl. My pride and joy, Abigail.” Seine smiled for the cameras, and the audience oohed and aahed as Carmine walked out in a show-stopping red dress carrying a towheaded infant in her arms.

                        “Abigail,” Kiel whispered, a dull ache spreading through his gut. Applause broke out as Carmine helped Abigail wave to the crowd.

                        “With the unrest in our country, we wanted to protect our daughter and ensure she would have every advantage in life,” Carmine’s voice rang out over the loudspeakers. “So we started early, with ClearVoy.”

                        Carmine kissed Abigail on the crown of her head as the camera captured a close-up of the ClearVoy device, a shiny blue earring in Abigail’s left ear. The hairs on Kiel’s arms stood up.

                        “ClearVoy monitors Abigail’s health and will alert officials when she needs medical attention,” Carmine began. “ClearVoy will help Abigail navigate obstacles safely while she learns to walk, and it even stimulates her cerebral cortex so she can learn her native language quickly. ClearVoy also supports Abigail’s vision so she will never need to wear glasses or contacts. It’s everything I could want for my daughter.” Carmine blushed as the audience applauded, rising to their feet.

                        Kiel’s heart caught in his chest. He had to act now. The future depended on it.

                        As the standing ovation continued, Kiel shoved his way to the stage and clambered up over the railing, standing squarely before the podium and Tom Seine.

                        Seine’s perfectly tanned forehead creased in a long frown line. “What’s the meaning of this?”

                        “Abigail’s my daughter,” Kiel said hoarsely. “And I’m not going to let you do this to her.”

                        “We don’t know this man,” Carmine shouted, clutching Abigail to her chest.

                        The Corogen security guards lunged for Kiel, but they weren’t fast enough to stop him from punching Seine right in the jaw. Seine stumbled back a step, holding his chin as blood dripped down his sleeve. Carmine gasped. Abigail stared at Kiel with open curiosity.

                        “You know me, Carmine,” Kiel insisted as the guards twisted his arms behind his back and handcuffed him. “A year ago. That night at the banya.”

                        Carmine froze, fear flashing across her eyes as Seine wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She gripped Abigail tighter. “This is Tom’s baby, not yours, you sick freak.”

                        Abigail hiccupped, wide-eyed. She had faery in her blood, too. “I love you, Abigail,” he rasped.

                        “Someone get this creep out of here!” Carmine screamed.

                        The Corogen guards yanked him away. Kiel staggered between them as they pushed through the crowd, out the main doors and into the glaring snow and sunlight of the plaza.
                        Tears leaked down his face. Someone bumped into him, knocking off his hat. Sobs welled up from his gut, louder, keener. He couldn’t stop.

                        A police car waited for him at the end of the block. Kiel’s voice hitched as snot and tears chilled on his disfigured face, and he heard an infant’s shrill weeping coming from the outdoor loudspeakers. Deep within the walls of the embassy, Abigail was crying too.

                        Kiel quavered into song. “Kupalinka-kupalinka / ?omnaja no?ka / ?omnaja no?ka, dzie ž tvaja do?ka?” As he sang, Corogen’s LED screens went dark and their drones crashed, shattering themselves on the pavement. He kept singing, lost in the melody of the song, until he couldn’t see anything or anyone. No crowds, no guards, not even himself.

                        Kiel sang until his teeth vibrated, until his bones trembled, until a gentle tug at his pants leg brought him back to himself. He looked down. It was Matilda.

                        “Nice singing. For a dead guy, I mean.” She smirked, flashing a sharp white fang, and snapped her fingers. The security guards let go of Kiel and sat down in the snow like well-trained dogs, their ClearVoy devices gone gray. “System’s down,” she explained. “Anyone wearing the ClearVoy will be… how do you say it? In the dark.”

                        “How did you do all this?” Kiel asked.

                        “I didn’t do it, you blockhead. You did. You brought the virus and the source code back with you. Then you embedded the key in your vocal waves.”

                        Kiel stared at Matilda blankly. “I didn’t do any of those things.”

                        “Don’t be stupid.” Matilda slapped him affectionately on the knee. “It works through you, not the other way around.”

                        Carmine emerged from the embassy building with Abigail in her arms. She looked lost.

                        “Carmine!” Kiel shouted. “Abigail!”

                        “Don’t draw attention,” Matilda warned. “You can’t stop the people who don’t wear the ClearVoy.”

                        “Doesn’t matter.” Kiel ran toward his daughter, his handcuffed wrists chafing behind his back. “Wait!”

                        Tom Seine strode up behind Carmine and Abigail, pointing an accusing finger at Kiel. “That’s him!”

                        Two Belarusian police officers rushed Kiel with clubs drawn. From the youngest child to the oldest babushka, every eye in the plaza watched.

                        “So now I’m a threat?” Kiel demanded. “Because I sang a song?”

                        “You’re a traitor!” Seine spat, leaning in until Kiel could see the blood vessels at the corners of his eyes. “You assaulted me and sabotaged millions of terabytes of data. You’re an international security risk.”

                        “You’re under arrest,” the blonde officer said, yanking Kiel back by his handcuffs. “You have the right to remain silent.”

                        Kiel shook his head. “I won’t be silent.”

                        From somewhere in the back of the crowd, one small voice began to sing. Kiel grinned as, one by one, the citizens on the plaza joined in.

                        “Kupalinka-kupalinka / ?omnaja no?ka / ?omnaja no?ka, dzie ž tvaja do?ka?” Their voices rose like a tsunami, their feet shaking the ground like an earthquake, their hearts beating like the drums below the earth.

                        Kiel laughed.



                        #



                        Our feeling is that while the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness.
                        And it is in sharing that act of defiance that hope resides.
                        -The Illuminator Art Collective, 2015

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Resist and Disobey

                          by
                          N.R. Davis
                          @NRDavisWrites






                          It started with an executive order. Just like that, it all came to an end. With a simple flick of a pen across paper, the DEF CON tradition was abolished. The President's signature meant that any congregation of hackers could be labeled a terrorist organization.
                          Martin watched the highlight reel on the evening news while sitting at the tiki bar near his home. Just as he thought it couldn’t get any worse, the President continued with his address.

                          “It has been six months since I received the Hacker Registration Initiative bill from Congress and signed it into law. Under the HRI, all hacking activities must be authorized by a government official. Anyone wishing to conduct hacking activities are required to register their handle and link it to their birth identity. The law included a six month window to allow time for all current hackers to complete their registration. That grace period ended last night.

                          The original language of the HRI had weak enforcement components. I am utilizing my powers as President to strengthen the HRI by signing the Cyber Intervention and Apprehension Order. This Order will restore safety to cyberspace and ensure accelerated compliance with the HRI.

                          “Law enforcement agencies around the country were briefed this morning. Each agency has compiled a list of known, unregistered hackers in their jurisdiction. They will immediately begin the apprehension and detention of all persons believed to be engaging in unsanctioned hacking activities. Until registration can be verified, they are to be considered enemy combatants.

                          ”Make no mistakes, we are at war. We are at war with the hacker menace and those who support them. No more shall we tolerate their disruption of commerce and spreading of chaos. No longer will we stand idly by while websites are defaced, identities stolen, and private details leaked for the world to see. These hackers and their gatherings are a threat to our way of life. This threat will be removed and we shall return the Internet to a safe place for all to browse without fear.”

                          “Well, shit.” Martin was too stunned to summon any other response. He stared at the TV while the President continued. His eyes registered that there were pictures and his ears heard sounds but his brain was unable to process what just happened. His mind was caught somewhere between the past and the present.

                          He’d heard the calls to action when the HRI was proposed but he never thought it would pass, so he did nothing. Everyone said it couldn’t happen in America. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

                          When the Executive Enhancement to the HRI was rumoured, there was a similar outcry but it didn’t have the same support. Newly registered hackers refused to risk their ‘protected’ status by protesting. In less than a year’s time, hackers went from being members of society to terrorists​ and enemies of the state for not agreeing to be digitally branded.

                          The newscaster had come back onscreen. “Earlier today, the President signed an executive order declaring all hacker conferences and clubs to be terrorist organizations and enhanced HRI enforcement. We have received reports claiming arrests have begun in the area but we have not obtained official confirmation. You are encouraged to notify law enforcement whenever you see someone you suspect of being a hacker. Do not risk your personal identity or safety.”

                          The man seated on the stool beside Martin laughed. “Don’t engage a hacker to protect your identity? What a bunch of bullshit. They have no clue how this works. All they’re doing is stirring up fear to drive up ratings.”

                          Martin turned and looked at the patron to his left. He was an older gentleman with a full grey beard and an eclectic sense of fashion. His attention appeared to be focused on the TV despite his statements structured to encourage those around to engage him in conversation.

                          “What about you, kid? You seem to have an opinion on this story. What do you think about them rounding up all the hackers?” His question was directed at Martin but his attention was still on the TV.

                          Martin cleared his throat. “Well, people are scared. They’re facing an adversary with no face wielding technology they don’t understand. They just know that at any point in time their ‘private’ information could suddenly be available to the public and used against them. That fear of the unknown, fear of financial insecurity, and fear of how others will see them once their dirty habits are exposed is a powerful motivator for most people. They’re willing to sacrifice everything to keep those secrets in order to feel safe. What most people don’t realize is that safety is an illusion.

                          “So now we have a terrified populace screaming for the government to do something and power hungry elected officials capitalizing on this fear. In our current age, the only way to coordinate a resistance is through the Internet. That space was once ruled by hackers but governments have slowly been encroaching. The ruling party is removing the only means of resistance by hunting the dissenters and controlling the communication channels.”

                          Martin was shocked with himself. He never shared that sort of information with anyone out of fear of being identified. He didn’t know if it was the alcohol or his anger at the executive order that was making him want to share his opinions. Whatever it was, he needed to get it under control.

                          The grey beard started laughing. It was a full, hearty laugh not meant to insult or mock. “You know, kid, you sound a lot like I did when I was your age. I used to think I had the world all figured out too. You know what though, I was only half right. I had the motivations right but I overlooked the obvious; much like you are doing right now.” He extended his hand towards Martin. “I’m Tim Bass. Though, most everyone just calls me Phisher.”

                          Martin was angry about being laughed at even if it wasn’t meant to hurt. He didn’t like being told he was wrong, either, but was now curious what he missed. “Alright, I’ll bite. What did I overlook, Tim?”

                          “Please, call me Phisher. Tim is just so formal.” He smiled as he said it. It was warm and welcoming.

                          “Phisher it is then,” replied Martin. Something about Tim just made Martin want to open up. “What’s missing?”

                          “There are more channels for communication than just the internet.”

                          “TOR’s monitored. Everyone knows that. Hit a compromised site and you’re toast.”

                          Tim sighed. “I was talking about going old school. What do you know about modems and bulletin boards?”

                          “No one uses those any more. I thought they were all taken offline. Besides, those protocols are totally insecure. Why would anyone risk using that?”

                          “Think about it. Who’s monitoring the phone lines for dial up connections any more? Everyone has shifted their resources to the Internet. If you’re really worried about someone listening in, encrypt the data transmitted over the phone lines.

                          “There are lots of ways to do this. It all just depends on your commitment to evading detection and your tolerance of paranoia. Very few who have walked this path escape being touched by lingering paranoia.” Phisher paused and lifted his drink to his lips. He pulled the glass away slightly to continue speaking. “Just remember, you’re not crazy if they’re really out to get you.” Phisher let out a satisfied sigh as he placed his empty glass on the table.

                          Martin just stared at the man. His brain was racing, trying to think of what to say next. He really was onto something. Could something that simple really work? How would you distribute the encryption key? What about changing the key? You’d need a way to revoke it. Wait, but why is he telling me this? Is he a government plant, trying to get me to reveal myself? If so, I already said too much. “Sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this. But why tell me?”

                          Phisher laughed again. “Not me, I didn’t have anything to do with it. In fact, all I have are rumors… rumors someone built just that sort of system. A way for those with the right equipment and know how to talk and coordinate. It’s what I’m looking for. Kinda reminds me of the early days of Net...” he trailed off. He appeared distant, perhaps in the past, for a second or two before returning to the present. “Anyway, I was hoping you might have heard something about this. Maybe able to give me a clue.”

                          Martin shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it. In fact, I’m not really involved with the conference scene. This was supposed to be my first ever DEF CON. Looks like that won’t be happening now.” It was Martin’s turn to be nostalgic. ”A buddy of mine, Heron, gave me his old DC24 badge earlier. He wanted me to hold on to it in case something happened to him. I wonder if he knew about the Executive Order?”

                          “Very possible, kid. I’ve heard people have expected this ever since they passed that stupid law. I’m not surprised the BBS rumors started a week before this nightmare began.” Phisher paused. “You know, it just dawned on me that I didn’t get your name.”

                          Martin chuckled. “I didn’t give it. I wasn’t sure whose side you’re on. I’m Martin… Martin Stoat.”

                          “Did your parents hate you or something? They named you after two weasels?”

                          “I get that a lot. In fact, some people have started calling me Tweasel, short for two weasel. I can’t get rid of it now.”

                          “Tweasel’s not bad. It’s not great but it’s not bad either. There are worse handles to have. You could have called yourself Zero Cool or some shit like that.”

                          Martin and Tim continued to talk, getting lost in conversation. They were so caught up in the topic of resistance that they failed to notice that no one else was coming into the bar, only leaving. It was when the music stopped they realized how quiet it had become.

                          The two men turned away from the bar and looked around. In the doorway stood two police officers in full tactical gear. Another two covered the back exit. A fifth man, in a suit, approached the two at the bar.

                          Martin tensed. Phisher noticed this and whispered, “Relax, they’re here for me, not you. Just stay quiet.”

                          The man in the suit spoke, “Tim, the Phisher, Bass, you’re being detained under the CIAO enhancement to the HRI for participation in unsanctioned hacking activities and failure to self register. You need to come with me.”

                          Phisher stood up and took a step. The officers covering the doors raised their weapons. Phisher staggered, falling face first. He barely caught himself by throwing an arm around Martin’s waist. He was helped back to his feet by Martin. Once he was upright again, he raised his hands and said, “No need for violence. I’ll come peacefully.”
                          Phisher turned to Martin. “Remember. Resist and disobey.” He turned back to the officers and calmly walked towards his fate. Tim Bass was handcuffed and escorted out of the bar, flanked by the police.

                          The jovial atmosphere never returned to the tiki bar. All of the patrons were introspective, processing how the abstract words enhancing a controversial law had suddenly played out in front of their faces. They could no longer deny hackers were being rounded up and detained under dubious charges.

                          Martin simply didn’t feel safe being in the bar any longer. Did someone overhear the conversation and call the cops? He didn’t know but it was time to leave. He paid his tab and picked up Tim’s as well. It was unlikely that anyone would ever see Tim again, but that was no reason for the staff to suffer a poor tip.

                          Once outside, Martin reached in his pocket to grab his keys. His fingertips brushed something strange in his pocket. He pulled it out with his keys.It was a silver usb stick that he’d never seen before. Did Phisher slip this in my pocket when he stumbled? Is there something on here he didn’t want the cops to have? That’s a major gamble giving me a drive without knowing me.

                          He put the drive back in his pocket. This wasn’t the place to be pondering ‘what if’. Even though the parking lot was empty, Martin felt like he was being watched.
                          He was half a block down the road from the bar when he checked his rearview mirror. A white sedan pulled out of the parking lot he’d just left and waited until they were in the street to turn on their headlights.

                          Martin made a right turn at the next major intersection and watched his mirror. Just a few seconds later, the white sedan turned to follow. He made a few more turns at well traveled cross streets and the sedan was always in his rear view mirror.

                          A small side street was coming up. This would settle it. If he was truly being followed, they’d turn in behind him. He made the turn and stomped on the gas.
                          His car was built for efficiency, not speed. It did not hurry, just slowly accelerated. Another road was coming up. He was almost there when the white car once again appeared. They were following him. Did they know about the flash drive? What’s on it that’s so important? I’ve got to get clear and see what’s on this thing.

                          There was a mall nearby with multiple parking garages. If he could get there, it might be enough to help shake this tail.

                          Martin tried to think who might be following him. This was not a usual unmarked vehicle and if it was the police, they’d have used other units to try and box him in. Was this another group? He had no way to know but he wasn’t going to stick around to find out.

                          If his tail was still back there, they were doing a good job of hiding. Martin had taken a winding route to get to the mall and hadn’t seen the other vehicle for several minutes. He found an out of the way spot with a good view of the road and multiple exits before he parked.

                          Traffic on the road appeared normal. Vehicles passed and none of them appeared to be the one looking for him. Martin felt he was clear, for now. He pulled the USB drive out of his pocket and stared at it, hoping that something on the outside would give him clues towards its contents. There was nothing. He was going to have to break one of his rules.

                          He reached in the back seat and grabbed his laptop. The top was covered in so many stickers the manufacturer's logo, let alone the original color, couldn’t be determined. It came to life as soon as Martin opened the lid.

                          It only took a few seconds for Martin to log in but it felt like an eternity. The events of the night had his adrenaline going. His hands were shaking making it difficult to type. Decision time, he thought. Do I really want to access Phisher’s drive with my laptop? Who knows what’s on it. Martin pondered this for a moment longer before saying out loud, “Fuck it. There’s a reason he gave me this.”

                          He spun up a virtual machine. At least this should give me a little bit of protection, just in case. He inserted the drive and associated it with the VM. No turning back now.
                          It only took a few seconds for him to mount the device and list its contents. There were four directories and a single file named _README_. He opened that file first.
                          The file was nothing more than text. It started simply enough but the language was not that of Phisher. “The war against hackers has already begun. It started long before the Hacker Registration Initiative but this was the catalyst that spurred us to direct action. A small group, dedicated to active resistance, has formed. We created a method for proving your worth. By possessing this drive, someone deemed you capable of solving our challenge. These puzzles will test your skills and guide you to others like you. A single hacker is capable, but together we are unstoppable. Good luck.”

                          The prickles that had started as a chill while reading the first sentence became full fledged goosebumps by the time he was done. Martin sat there for a moment, stunned. He was being recruited. This wasn’t just some little game or badge challenge. It was a legitimate test of his skills. If the events of the evening were any indication, there would be serious consequences if he failed to complete it.

                          His pulse was racing. It felt like everything came crashing down on him all at once. The stress from avoiding the HRI, the bar encounter, the high speed chase and now this puzzle finally caught up to him. It was amazing he had held out this long but the human mind can only endure so much.

                          He wiped his hands on his pants before returning them to the keyboard. They were still sweating. His fingers were slick on the keys. If he raised his hands off the keyboard, his fingers would just shake. There was something comforting about resting them on the keys beyond just providing enough friction to keep them from bouncing all over the place.

                          Martin attempted to access the folder. He had to type the command three times before he got it right. He was too nervous to find the right keys.
                          Inside, he found a single 1KB file. When he viewed the contents of the file, it was two numbers, 35.285827, 115.68463, separated by a comma. Something about the structure looked familiar but he couldn't place it. He was still too worked up to think clearly and decided to come back later.

                          The shaking had subsided and he could finally hear noises other than the rhythmic hammering of blood in his ears.The panic was passing. Typing would be easier now.
                          The second folder contained a single JPG. When he opened it, he was presented with a picture of an old Soviet era shortwave radio. A quick internet search returned an article talking about UVB-76, the Buzzer. That station had been broadcasting for years. That’s too easy though. No one would send me after that station. It’s too well known and still active. There had to be more here. He just wasn’t seeing it. He moved on to the next one.

                          The third folder had a two files; one labeled DIALER and a second readme. This readme file had only a short phrase in it. It simply read, “A skilled hacker uses the combined disciplines of wire and wave to attain their goals.”

                          What does this mean, Martin wondered. Why is it in the folder with DIALER? What is DIALER anyway? He tried to open it with a text editor but it just returned machine code. Whoever built it had encrypted the file. It could be an executable but it wasn’t flagged as such. I could change the flag and make it execute but what would it do?
                          Do I want to trust this bizarre file?

                          In the end, he decided that he had no other option. He modified the permissions and ran it.

                          At first it appeared to do nothing. The cursor just blinked. After a few seconds, it spit out an error message. “Modem not detected, exiting.”

                          “Damn,” Martin cursed. He knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but with a name like DIALER he should have known that a modem was required. It was just too obvious.
                          That’s it! The wire has to be the phone lines. Now, where the hell am I going to find a modem at this time of night. Martin checked his laptop, just in case. No dice. Just not that lucky. If he still had his previous laptop, he would have had a phone jack.

                          Fry’s was around the corner. He could get in and out with the USB modem before 9PM.

                          When he exited the store, he saw a white sedan in the back corner of the parking lot. It looked like the same one as before but he couldn’t be sure.

                          He wanted to run and just leave his car in case they hadn’t seen him. He didn’t know who ‘they’ were though. He had no way of knowing who or what he was running from. Besides, his computer was still in the car along with the thumb drive. He HAD to go back and get that.

                          The return to the car was nerve wracking. His attempts to look inconspicuous only made his walk stilted. Instead of appearing calm, he looked very suspicious.

                          Once back in the vehicle, he waited and watched the sedan for a minute to see what it did. There was no movement. He started his car and headed out to the main road.

                          Before leaving the lot, he took one last look at the sedan. It hadn’t moved. A blonde woman was approaching it from the store. Martin figured it was her car, and not the
                          one from before.

                          He couldn’t go home. It was too great of a risk. If he wasn’t on a list earlier, being seen with Phisher might have put him on one. Plus, who knew why that car was chasing him. He didn’t know who he could trust.The only thing he was certain about was that he had a puzzle given to him.

                          He needed a place to crash. Some place where he could work quietly and solve this challenge.

                          Martin settled on a little cash only motel across town from his home. The place was perfect if you needed to run quickly. The property had multiple exits from the parking lot and a car parked at the end of the building can’t be seen from the road. More importantly, they had never upgraded their phone system so there were still analog lines in the rooms.

                          It may have been a nice place when originally built but 50+ years of service had taken its toll. The second floor room he’d been given was small but would serve his needs for the night. Its cleanliness left something to be desired. There was a certain smell about the room and his shoes stuck to the floor when he walked across the carpet to the window. The glass was dirty and smudged with hand prints. He overlooked all of that because it had a desk, a chair, a bed, and an wireless internet connection.

                          The window crank was difficult to turn but it finally yielded to him. Unlike newer buildings, the opening was large enough that he could get through if needed. He looked down and saw it was a ten foot drop onto grass. This would be perfect, in case he needed to bail.

                          Martin converted the desk into a more comfortable workspace than his car had been. The laptop was the central focus and all his accessories were laid out around it. He never left the house without his gear bag. In it was everything he needed to compete in most capture the flag events or engage in some more questionable endeavors.

                          Martin pulled his newest purchase out of its shopping bag. It only took a few moments to free the modem from its plastic cocoon but he felt accomplished at not having to use a knife. “Hopefully, this is a sign of how the night’s going to go.”

                          Once he had the modem connected to his laptop, he updated the drivers and started up DIALER. The screen cleared and the blinking cursor just sat in the upper left corner. He was just about to break out of the program when “PASSWORD:” appeared on the screen. The cursor was still there, blinking and taunting him as it asked for information he didn’t have.

                          Martin tried a few common weak passwords but after 3 attempts, the program claimed “Max attempts exceeded, goodbye!” This was going to take forever. There was no easy way he could brute force it. Maybe one of the other puzzles will help with this.

                          He went back to the JPEG file. He stared at it a while and zoomed in on some of the features of the radio. A word on the front panel was enough information to identify the model in the image. It was either a Saluts 001 or an Euromatic 001 radio capable of receiving long, medium and short wave transmissions in addition to FM radio signals. The only difference between the Saluts and Euromatic was that the Euromatic was the export version and had more capabilities.

                          Further digging revealed an identical picture. He compared the two side by side. There was nothing visibly different about the images that he could detect but the file on the drive was larger than the one he’d located online. Time stamps were identical though. Had someone hidden something in this file? No one uses steganography anymore, right? Still, he couldn’t just ignore this discrepancy.

                          He spent the next hour going through all the different ways he could think of where one might hide text in a JPEG. None of them revealed anything. If it was steganography, it was so well done that he couldn’t find the difference in pixel colors. He was ready to give up when he decided to take one last look at the properties of the file. There in the comments section of the file details was “Control your counting to be universally L337.” Could this be what I’ve been looking for? Was it right here the entire time?

                          He pulled up the original file and checked the comments there. The text was absent. The clue was hiding in plain sight! It was so simple that he’d missed it. He had bigger issues than getting mad at himself, like trying to understand what this meant. Obviously, this has to relate to the picture somehow. This must be referencing some sort of short wave broadcast.

                          Searching for just “control your counting” didn’t bring back any meaningful results. Switching the search string to “control your counting shortwave” pointed to The Conet Project which had released some recordings of number station transmissions.

                          He finally caught a break on this puzzle. There was a shortwave numbers station related to the comment somehow.

                          He looked through the track listing from the Conet Project. There, track 3 on disk 1, was a recording labeled “(E14) Counting 'Control’”. The solution was a historical numbers station.

                          Martin spent another hour researching the station. E14 was a control station for E05, The Counting Station, sometimes referred to as Cynthia. Both stations were believed to be operated by the CIA. The Control station would transmit daily on a number of frequencies at various times throughout the day. Each message would transmit for 10 minutes and cease.

                          The chills had started again. He was onto something big. Had these fools really started transmitting a message on a shortwave frequency previously used by a CIA number station? Is that what he was supposed to find? It makes sense. This is 'by wave’ as the file indicated.
                          E14 had one broadcast time and frequency that was close to fitting the rest of the JPEG comment. It would broadcast on 13425 kHz at 1330 hrs UTC. The comment used “universally L337”. He just needed to listen to 13425 kHz at 1337 hrs UTC and get the wave portion of the puzzle. But how was he going to listen in?

                          Martin went still as he pondered this question. He’d need something able to tune in to that frequency. It was below the range of most modern things. I wonder… He
                          became a flurry of activity as he rummaged through his pack. He had an idea. It just might work.

                          Out of the pack came a roll of speaker wire, some alligator clips, a metal telescoping antenna and a small black plastic box. He placed the box on the table, orienting the antenna connection towards the window. His software defined radio was capable of operating at frequencies between 1MHz and 6 GHz but he’d never tried to grab something so low before.

                          Martin stripped the insulation off the ends of the speaker wire and twisted the strands on each end together. One end he secured to the antenna with an alligator clip. The other end he lowered out the open window. It wasn’t perfect but should make a decent improvised long wire antenna that would allow him to capture shortwave signals.

                          All that was left to do was connect the SDR to his laptop and see if he could hear anything. The hiss of static filled the room as the radio came alive. He decided to try connecting to a known signal, just to see if his antenna was functioning. He wasn’t certain which one to try until he remembered the article from earlier. He decided to tune into the Buzzer on 4625 KHz.

                          The static was still there but it was interrupted by a “bzzzt” that lasted for just a second or two, followed by a short pause and then the buzz would repeat. This happened at a pace of 25 tones a minute. More importantly, it proved that he could receive a known signal which meant he should be able to receive the questionable signal as well.

                          He tuned the SDR to 13425 KHz. What he heard surprised him. It was the exact same buzzing pattern that he’d heard on the Buzzer. He double checked everything to make sure that it had actually tuned properly. As far as he could tell, he had. He even went to a different frequency, where he got nothing but static.

                          The problem wasn’t in his equipment. He was incredibly confused. He had everything correct. Why am I getting that tone on this frequency? Could it be that the hacker signal is just pirating the buzzer and replaying it on the CIA frequency? That has to be it. He couldn’t help but smile. There was a special type of irony in having hackers broadcast a clone of a Russian pattern on a frequency formerly used by the CIA.

                          He still had a lot of time before 1337 hrs UTC so he switched over to one of the other puzzles. This time, he decided to work on the two numbers. He considered a few options but none of them were right. There was something about this pair that was bugging him. Had been since he first saw them. It seemed familiar still.

                          He plugged the first number into a search engine and was floored by the results. He didn’t have to add the second number. It was the lat/long coordinates of the Mojave Desert phone booth. That’s why it is so familiar! He laughed out loud at the discovery yet still felt a little foolish for taking so long to find the solution. This was a part of phreaking history that had faded into relative obscurity. He’d driven out there once but it was after the booth itself had been removed. It just wasn’t the same without the booth. It felt like a place that had lost its battle with time. There was an empty sadness.

                          He’d called the old number from his cell phone while he was there, just to feel connected to the past. Instead of getting an error, it rang! After a few rings the call was connected but no one was there, just recorded music which all seemed to have a theme relating to phone calls. He stayed on the line a while, but no one else called in.

                          He grabbed his cell phone and dialed 760-733-9969. There was nothing for him in the desert, he was almost positive of this. Most likely it was a red herring designed to make people waste their time driving out there.

                          The phone was ringing. It rang three times then was picked up. A familiar woman’s voice answered by saying, “Please deposit twenty five cents.” Martin smiled. They’d used the old pay phone recording. He wasn’t expecting the request though. The recording was repeated two more times while he frantically searched for a recording of the tones played when a quarter was dropped into a payphone. Before he could find the correct file, the phone disconnected and the annoying buzz of a busy signal interrupted his search.

                          He hung up and continued his search. It only took a few more seconds and he found a recording that claimed to match the $0.25 deposit signal. The original tone was a combination of a 1700 Hz and 2200 Hz tones played together for 5 pulses, 33ms in length, with a 33ms pause between each pulse. Martin queued up the recording and dialed the number again.

                          Once the woman spoke, he moved the phone’s mic close to his laptop speakers and played the recording. There was the silence of an open line that followed for a long second, before the woman said, “Thank you,” and the hold music started.

                          Martin didn’t know what he was supposed to do now. He had expected that someone would be on the line and would give him the next clue. He was getting tired and frustrated. Hitting a wall like this didn’t help. He was stuck and there was nothing to point him in the correct direction. He hung up on the hold music and set down his phone.

                          It was on the table no more than two seconds before his phone buzzed. He had received a text message from 760-733-9969. The message read, “The end has come. 4671”

                          Was this the next clue? It wasn’t a prime number, but it had to be important. He just didn’t know how. Martin sighed but it became a big yawn.

                          In his mind, he’d solved the number puzzle by getting this clue. He’d also tuned in to the hacker shortwave channel. There was nothing more that he could do until the broadcast time. He decided to try and get some sleep. Maybe with fresh eyes he’d see something he missed.

                          His sleep was short and fitful. He dreamed of being chased and of Phisher getting arrested. One thing stood out in each dream sequence. Phisher’s voice repeated,
                          “Remember. Resist and disobey.” He sat up and fumbled around for the light switch. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

                          He made his way to the table and touched the power button on his laptop. It responded, only taking a short moment to wake. He checked to be sure the modem and phone line were still connected to his laptop while he waited.

                          Once everything had loaded, he tried to run DIALER again. This time, when given the password prompt, he typed in “resist.” It showed him the prompt again, so that one was not it. He tried “disobey.”

                          The cursor blinked and showed a new line - DIALING.

                          “Holy…” Martin had missed it in the confusion. He was smiling to himself as he watched connection status information displayed on the screen. The screen cleared and showed “Initial connection established.” Just below that was another prompt. This one read, “User ID.”

                          Martin didn’t have a user ID. Or did he? “What the hell… let's try it?” He typed in ‘resist’ and hit return.

                          “INVALID ID - DISCONNECTED” flashed on the screen before the program exited.

                          If he had to dial in every time he wanted to try a new id, this was going to get really frustrating really fast. Just think. You’ve got this. The clues have all been super straightforward. You probably overlooked something. He looked back through the other files while the dialer was reestablishing its connection.

                          It was right there, in the DIALER readme file. The ‘disciplines of wire and wave’ were the keys. He received a number when he called the phone line. That was the wire portion. Could that be the user ID? It would make a lot sense to hide it like that.

                          The DIALER had completed its connection. There was the User ID prompt again. This time, Martin typed in 4671. Instead of hanging up, it brought up yet another prompt. This time it asked for a “Daily Access Code”.

                          His brief sensation of elation quickly faded. He may have solved one portion but he couldn’t move forward until he secured the access code from the broadcast. He’d have to wait another hour until that happened. Whoever these people were, they’d sure gone to a lot of trouble to make sure they were difficult to locate.

                          Martin’s stomach rumbled. He’d been running on adrenaline and completely forgotten about eating. Now that he had some down time, it was back with a vengeance.
                          There was a small 24 hr diner across the street. He figured he’d be able to get over there, eat, and get back in time to receive the transmission. He looked at his gear scattered across the room. It was all set up, ready to receive this signal. He knew it worked in its current configuration and didn’t want to disturb it. He couldn’t afford to have it fail. He was torn. On one hand, he didn’t want to risk ruining his hard work, on the other, he wasn’t comfortable leaving his equipment alone in a place like this.
                          He decided to split the difference and leave his gear unattended just long enough to get take out. He’d bring it back and eat in the room.

                          He pulled out the silver thumb drive and slipped it into his pocket. He definitely didn’t want that ending up in the wrong hands. It was going with him.

                          Martin stepped out onto the exterior walkway. Twilight had started. The sun would be up in almost an hour, just about the same time as his broadcast. He had to hurry.
                          There was very little traffic as he crossed the street but the lot for the diner was half full, even at this hour. This must be a great place to have this many regulars. Shame
                          I’m in a hurry.

                          He was in and out faster than he expected. Only negative part of the experience was the price. He didn’t have the cash on hand to pay for it outright. He ended up using his credit card to pay.

                          Martin was starting to panic about screwing up like that. He kept telling himself that his paranoia was getting the better of him. There was no way that whoever was following him monitored his bank records.

                          As he crossed the road back to the motel, he was scanning for anything that looked out of the ordinary. Everything looked the same as when he left. This comforted him. He relaxed enough that he could focus on the time remaining until the broadcast and everything he needed to do to make sure that it went smoothly.

                          Martin was so caught up in his thoughts that he missed the white sedan pulling into the parking lot as he closed the door to the room.

                          Once inside, he fired up the computer again and loaded the tuning software. It didn’t take long before that familiar buzz returned. He ate while waiting for 1337 UTC with no clue what was going to happen.

                          Just as his watch ticked over to 1337 UTC, the buzzing stopped and a woman’s voice came through. “516 516 516 1234567890.” Each number was spoken individually. The series repeated a number of times before playing ten beeps. The woman returned. “Count 28. Count 28. 61-696 42-06f 66-207 46-865 69-722 06-76f 76-657 26-e6d 65-6e7 42-c20 67-6f7 66-572 6e-6d6 56-e74 20-736 86-f75 6c-642 06-265 20-616 67-261 69-642 06-f66 20-746 86-569 72-207 06-56f 70-6c6 52-e20.” There was a long pause then “Repeat” before she started going through the message a second time. After she completed the message the second time, she said “End,” and the buzzing started again.

                          Martin was frantically writing while she spoke. Fortunately, the pause was long enough he was able to get all of the pairs written before she started up again. This way, he had a chance to check the message for accuracy.

                          Martin figured the structure was chosen to stay true to the original numbers station but this transmission had letters. The structure didn’t matter, just the values themselves. It has to be hex. He couldn’t think of any other option.

                          He keyed the message into a hex converter, omitting the dashes and spaces. The converter could handle the formatting. The message that came back was unexpected. It read, “People should not be afraid of their government, government should be afraid of their people.”

                          There was something off with the code though. The last hex value was a space not a return or a period. Martin felt that extra space would be important.

                          He was also stuck on how long that phrase was. There’s no way I am expected to key that into the dialer, is there? He pondered the problem for a little bit before he had a moment that was sheer inspiration. The industry has been telling people to use pass phrases and condense them into passwords as a method to ensure they’re sufficiently complex. Could that be what’s happening here? I’ll take the first letter of each word, plus punctuation and the space and make the daily access code.
                          It was rather easy to distill the quote into the code. It became “Psnbaotg,gsbaotp. “ Unless, the space should also be in the middle, in which case it would be “Psnbaotg, gsbaotp. “ Either way, he had codes to test.
                          He ran the DIALER and stepped through the different entry prompts until he was at the passcode. His mind was running wild with what he might find on the other side of this link once connected. He keyed in “Psnbaotg, gsbaotp. “ despite how the logical side of his brain was screaming that this was wrong. Something about it just felt right to him.

                          Martin hit the enter key and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. When ascii art started to fill the screen, he knew he’d gotten it correct on the first try. It required both spaces.

                          The art was a splash screen of sorts announcing that he had connected to a BBS. Martin didn’t know that anyone still operated a Bulletin Board System. He certainly never expected that he’d be connected to one as part of this mysterious puzzle.

                          There wasn’t much on the board. Just two notes on the public wall. The first one read, “Congratulations Traveler! You’ve managed to piece together what many could not. We give you one last puzzle before you can join us.

                          “The note that follows this one contains our current location. It changes frequently, as do the access codes. If you fail to make a meet, you’ll need to repeat this challenge to return here and get the new location.

                          “Once you arrive at the specified location, a gate will block your path. Honk three times and someone will greet you. They will ask you about the DEF CON badge designer. This is the challenge question that will allow you to know you’re in the right location. Your response will let us know you have completed this test. You must state “I hear he does great work,” in order to be recognized. No other response will be accepted.”

                          Martin couldn’t help himself. “What the hell is this? Some sort of Cold War spy game? First brush passes, then shortwave number stations, and now a challenge and response?”

                          He was starting to have doubts. Before tonight, his life was quiet, almost boring. Now he was in the middle of some mystery because he had a drink in a bar. He couldn’t imagine what required this much secrecy. Was this something he still wanted to be part of? Memories of Phisher being detained, of being chased, of hacker friends suddenly going dark, and the daily fear of living flashed through his brain. All of it reminded him that whatever was at this final location had to be better than what he’d already endured.

                          He opened the second post. It was another set of coordinates. When he plotted them, they indicated a warehouse on the outskirts of town. It wouldn’t take him long to get there.

                          Martin couldn’t believe this crazy night was coming to an end. Hopefully he’d find some answers once he got to the warehouse. He had so many questions that he didn’t know where to begin. They bounced around in his head while he went about packing up his gear.

                          He’d nearly finished stowing all of his equipment when he noticed a black usb stick, with a green Mr. Yuk sticker, in a bag of cables. So that’s where I stuck it. He pulled the drive out of the cable bag and put it, and the other thumb drive, in his front pocket. I’ll put you in your proper home later. Don’t want to lose you again. That could be dangerous.

                          He wound up the speaker wire and went around the room restoring everything to its original position while making sure he’d left nothing else behind. Hopefully no one would know what he’d spent the night doing in this room. These places weren’t known for their attention to guest activities anyway.

                          One last look around the room before he swung his pack over his shoulder and turned to the door. He looked out the peephole. There was no motion on the exterior balcony walkway. He opened the door and stepped out into the daylight. Motion on the far end of the walkway caught his attention and he paused, one foot still in the room.

                          A man in a dark grey suit had just pushed off the wall by the stairs and was now heading his way. Martin checked the other direction. A second suited man, in a lighter color fabric, walked towards him from the other stairwell.

                          Light suit called out, "Martin Stoat. You’re a hard man to find.”

                          FUCK!!! They found me! Martin could feel the adrenaline dumping into his system. It started in his chest. His heart started to pound while everything around it tightened up. That tightness spread through his extremities and didn’t stop until his arms were practically vibrating. His respiration quickened while his sense of time started to slow.

                          He wanted to run but if he did that, they’d quickly catch him. Instead he needed a way out.

                          Light suit was talking again. ”You got sloppy and used your card. Otherwise, we’d never have found you. Relax, we’re not here for you. We just want the drive. You were the last one seen talking to Phisher. He didn’t hide it at the bar and it wasn’t on him when we arrested him. Therefore, you must have it.”

                          Martin didn’t know what to do. He wanted to believe them but his gut was telling him that if he gave in, they’d just arrest him for conspiring with hackers, which thanks to that damned Executive Order was akin to conspiring with terrorists. He was not about to be branded one.

                          “Don’t make this harder on yourself than you have to, Mr. Stoat,” said the dark suit. He was about ten feet away and standing with his hand inside his jacket. “This won’t end well for you if you don’t give us what we want. We have you for failing to register under the HRI, conspiring with known unregistered hackers, and performing unauthorized hacking. You don’t want to go down for that.”

                          From his left, light suit said, “If you weren’t a criminal before, you are now. Hell, you’re more than that. You’re an enemy combatant operating on US soil. We have very deep holes for people like you.” The suit paused for effect. “But, this can all go away.” He took a slow breath. “*WE* can go away.” He paused. “As long as you hand over that drive.”

                          A voice in the back of his head sounding suspiciously like Phisher was chanting, “Resist! Resist! Resist!” He made up his mind. He was going to do just that. He was going to resist.

                          The nervousness instantly faded. Where there had once been jittery panic, there was now calm resolve. He cleared his throat before speaking. “You have a point.” He tried to make his voice sound defeated. “If I give you the drive, you’ll leave me alone?”

                          “Absolutely.”

                          “Alright then,” Martin said as he reached into his pocket. He felt around for the drive and pinched it between two fingers. “I have it. You want it…” As he pulled his hand out of the pocket, he flicked his wrist, sending the black drive flying over the balcony railing towards the parking lot below. “Go get it!”

                          Both men in suits watched as the black object flew past them, twisting in the morning light. Flashes of green were visible as the light hit the sticker. Martin seized the moment and darted back into the room while the men were distracted.

                          Light grey was shouting, “Get the drive!”

                          Martin slammed the door closed, threw the deadbolt and set the security latch. He’d bought himself a few minutes but he had to get out. The curtain falling back into place in front of the open window caught his eye. Of course!

                          Martin slipped his free arm through the empty strap on his pack, making sure it was settled on his back. Trying to climb or jump with only a single strap on his shoulder wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t want to drop the bag either, for risk of breaking his laptop. He would just have to risk falling over while wearing it.

                          One of the two men was at the door, pounding on it and screaming for him to open up. This further cemented his resolve. It proved to him that they couldn’t be trusted.
                          Even though he gave them a drive, they still were coming after him.

                          He looked out the window again. It was too far to jump, even if he was seated on the window sill. He was going to have to climb out and hang from the ledge, then drop. That was the safest way.

                          Martin started to crawl out the window and turn around. He got himself positioned so he was kneeling on the sill facing inwards, its metal frame was digging into his shins. He had just started to prop himself up on his hands when he heard a key in the lock.

                          Martin lifted himself up onto his hands, supporting all of his weight on the ledge and lowered his legs along the wall. His toes pressed against the brick, giving some extra traction. He was in this position when the door opened, only to be caught on the security latch.

                          Martin was out of time, he had to go. He lowered himself down, toes scraping on the wall, stabilizing him as he descended. His entire body weight was being supported by his fingers but the ground was now just a few feet below him. He let go.

                          The fall was over before he knew it. The landing wasn’t graceful but he was down and he was able to run. Above him, the sound of metal snapping and a door flying open indicated that the security latch had given way. He sprinted to the end of the building​. Martin looked back as he turned the corner and saw a head sticking out of the window he’d just exited.

                          He raced to his car, trying to pull his keys out of his pocket while at a dead run. It didn’t work. They got stuck. He had to slow down to extract them.

                          Martin opened the door of his car, threw his pack inside, and dove in after it. Damn the contents. He had to GO! The car fired off on the first try and he was on his way. He was so thankful that he had backed into the spot the night before. Small wins, right?

                          He checked his mirror multiple times for the white sedan but never saw it never saw it. Believing he’d gotten away was a mistake he didn’t want to make again. However, this time was different. He’d given them a thumb drive and might actually be in the clear.

                          Martin calmed down on his drive to the warehouse. He’d done it. He’d gotten away and solved the puzzle. Now to meet its creators.

                          The building was one of the smaller warehouses in the area but it still had a fence where the only opening was a gate with a guard shack. He nosed his car into the space in front of the gate, rolled his window down, and honked three times. From inside the shack he heard someone rustling like they were getting up then heard, “I’m coming. Hold your horses.”

                          The guard was an older man, most likely collecting his check while sleeping the day away in the shack. He was polite though. When he got to the car, he asked, “Can I help you?”

                          Martin didn’t know how to respond. This wasn’t what he expected. Wasn’t there supposed to be a challenge question? He was starting to wonder if he was in the right place.

                          The guard watched Martin squirm for a moment before asking, “Are you looking for something in particular? I know these old buildings all look the same. You wouldn’t happen to be lost, would you?”

                          There’s the question. I knew it! Martin smiled. The old man had played that perfectly. Anyone who didn’t know what to listen for would have missed it. Lo57, pronounced lost, was the designer of the badge challenges. He happily responded, “No, not Lo57, but I hear he does great work.”

                          The guard returned Martin’s smile and said, “Welcome, fellow seeker. Pull up to the main office. Your answers are inside.” The man opened the gate and waved Martin inside.

                          Martin went to the main office and parked, hesitating as he approached the door. He didn’t know what he was going to find. All this work, all this terror had led to this moment. He opened the door and stepped into the gloom.

                          Two men sat at a desk, discussing something that was stopped as soon as Martin opened the door. Beyond that, Martin couldn’t make out any details. His eyes needed time to adjust from the bright light outside to the office interior.

                          One man spoke. “I’m glad you could join us.” The voice was familiar to Martin.

                          “Congratulations on solving the puzzle,” he continued. “Most people never make it through. They get stuck somewhere. Only about 50 people have gotten through this one and it has been running for weeks.”

                          Martin could swear he knew this voice. His vision had finally adjusted. On the the desk in front of him sat Heron, the friend who had given him the DEF CON badge. Beside him leaned an unknown man with a ponytail.

                          Martin was stunned. It took him a moment to figure out how to speak again. “What the hell are you doing here?” Martin started belting out questions as they came to mind.

                          Heron laughed. “Easy now. Easy. Everything will be answered in due time. But first, I want you to tell me how you came to be here. You were the last person I expected to come walking through that door.”

                          Martin told the story of the evening. He shared everything, from the initial arrest of Phisher to the flight from the hotel room. Heron made a few notes while he talked but didn’t interrupt often. If he did, it was only to clarify a detail.

                          Once Martin finished talking, Heron spoke up. “So let me get this straight, you solved my challenge in under 12 hours?”

                          Martin nodded.

                          “That’s fantastic. I didn’t think that was possible. But it also means that I need to rework it now that the suits have the drive.

                          “They don’t have the drive.” Martin pulled the silver usb stick that Phisher had given him from his pocket. “This is the drive that Phisher slipped me. I gave them my Yuk Stick.”

                          Heron gasped. “You didn’t.”

                          “Yup, I absolutely did. One USBKiller, with a Mr Yuk sticker, is now in their possession. I can’t wait for them to plug it in.” Martin could barely contain his glee at the
                          thought of those two suits toasting some unsuspecting computer after all the trouble they’d caused him. He started laughing and soon the other two joined him.

                          “That’s priceless,” said Heron, once he regained his composure.

                          Heron was still smiling, when he changed the subject. “Now, there’s something I want to show you.” He put his arm around Martin as they walked to the back of the room, towards a door that lead into the main part of the warehouse.

                          “Remember a few months ago when I told you that we needed to do something before the government started rounding up hackers? Well, I built this puzzle. It was my way of weeding out those who were capable of mounting an effective resistance while staying hidden in the days to come.

                          “Those that do make it through are motivated freethinkers, like us. They believe that what is happening is unacceptable and want to take action. They come here, learn, and take what they know back to others.”

                          Heron opened the door and waved Martin through. On the other side, rows of tables were set up, each occupied by stacks of computers and equipment. Some were complete machines, while others were in various states of disassembly. At least one person was at each table, working on something. Heron had gathered a crew of hackers, despite the assembly bans, and was facilitating the sharing of knowledge towards a common goal.

                          “Are you ready to work? We have a lot of work ahead of us if we’re going to stop the hacker roundup and destroy that registry database. If we don’t do it, who will? Or better yet, ask yourself, ‘What comes next’, since we already know they’re willing to go this far?

                          “We chose to resist. We took a stand against government oppression and loss of freedoms. Others will follow our example. A single drop is insignificant but millions of drops form a tidal wave that cannot be stopped.”

                          Heron turned and looked Martin in the eyes. “So what do you say, are you in?”

                          Martin didn’t hesitate. “I’m in. Where do we start?”


                          ************************************************** ****************************************

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Walk With Me
                            By: nic_lemon

                            At the hospital I was asked if I wanted the download. Or as they referred to it, the “interactive recollected reality” a.k.a, IRR. I stared down at her face, peaceful and slack. The machines hummed in the background, pumping her blood and filling her lungs with air. My detachment was curious as I had thought that when the moment finally arrived I would feel despair and anger. But, as always, things did not go as I had imagined.

                            She had vehemently spoke against IRR. Not just for herself, but for everyone. “Morbid & intrusive”, she called it. Against the very nature of humanity. The thought that someone could walk through her memories, her thoughts, and her feelings was nauseating.

                            “We have a right to privacy, a right to the integrity of our mind!” she yelled at the TV when reports of the breakthrough had occurred, the reporters laughably trying to explain quantum computing.

                            I didn’t disagree. IRR was another step in the breakdown of anonymity and separateness. Privacy advocates railed against the technology, marches were held, and days of congressional hearings played on every major news channel. The “Confidential Mind & Body Act” was proposed and eventually, discarded.

                            The benefits of IRR were seen as too great to limit. The government security experts showed how terrorism could be fought and defeated within months. Simply download a captured terrorist and have an analyst do a walkthrough – the intel collected would be incomparable. The ethical issues were glossed over.

                            But that alone didn’t sway the American court of public opinion. No, it was the emotional argument that won the day. Here was a technology which could connect you with another person in unprecedented ways. All the media had to show was the crying, happy faces of parents who had lost a child. Nostalgia is a potent driver as well. Humans are a curious, voyeuristic lot and IRR exploited that brilliantly.

                            The initial IRR trials had been hit or miss. At first articles came out touting the dangers – how a download had been a nightmare to experience, warped and fragmented. Test “walkers” coming out catatonic and needing therapy to recover. But eventually, the flaws were fixed. The later releases showed little to no degradation. Kill switches were built in which monitored the walkers’ physical state. If a negative reaction was detected, the tech would gently close the download instance.

                            Once the positive coverage was almost universal, the phone lines of congressmen were flooded with calls. People clamored for the chance to sign up. The firm which developed IRR saw a meteoric rise in their stock after the Body Act failed to pass.

                            The wealthy had a bite of the apple first. At the start, a download cost around half a million dollars. An astronomical amount for most people, but a drop in the bucket for the 1%. About 2 years after public access started, China unveiled a competing IRR. India quickly followed. Both countries had less testing hurdles and could bring the product to market quickly. The price dropped and for the first time, it was available to the average consumer.

                            Other technologies piggybacked – the video game industry had a revolution, developing games that take place within a person’s download. Why pretend to be an avatar fighting in Iraq?? Now you could actually walkthrough a soldier who had lived it! Popular media had movies and shows based off the lives of popular figures. Experience your favorite singer’s day to day life! And the porn, holy shit the porn. Experiencing someone else’s sexuality was unbelievable. Plus, you could walk with others. Connect with your lover while getting the craving for variety satiated!

                            Bioethicists debated the morality of “owning” a person’s download. Who owned it? Did that person have a right to sell it or sell the rights to it? What were the limits, if any?

                            But really, those questions didn’t matter to the public or the government. And the people who cared were drowned out by the pleasure of others. It was hedonistic & addictive – the reward center of walkers was overloaded; no drug could compare. Support groups sprang up where spouses vented and wept; discarded people displaced by an intangible life.

                            Downloads became the norm. When registering a birth certificate or a driver’s license you could sign the release for IRR. But the release was a formality – a next of kin could sign off on the download regardless. The die-hard hold outs were seen as aberrant; a throw-back to the dark ages, hippies of the day.

                            As I stood there watching my mother’s body, I remembered her protests, her disgust of IRR. She had pleaded with me, “You promise, right? You’ll let me die without them going in?” Her smile flashing with relief at my assurances.

                            I turned to the doctor as he again asked me if I wanted to proceed. I said yes.

                            ----------

                            Nobody really talked about how death was an automatic side effect of IRR. I mean, the commercials never mentioned it. But we all knew. Logically, people knew those “enemy combatants” who were renditioned were killed, but any queasy feelings were squashed by the knowledge that downloads kept the country safe. It was a questionable trade-off if one thought about it, but when the thoughts got too difficult, there was always another walkthrough to smooth the unpleasantness away.

                            Scientists and engineers have tried relentlessly to develop the tech to download a person without killing them. So far, it has been a failure. DARPA got the closest, and their test subjects are still in a vegetative state. The fatal damage to the neurons during a download has been unavoidable.

                            When the download of my mother finished, I sat by her side and waited for the process of dying to complete. Her hands lay loosely at her sides and were warm to touch. I cradled her hand in my own and traced my name in her palm. I watched her chest movements slow as her body quietly shut down. While minutes passed without any movement, I stared at her hand, crying. Tears pooled and spread down her wrist. She would never know what I had done.

                            **********

                            Proponents of IRR will mention how its adoption has led to greater peace in the world. They like to point to the creation of the Palestinian State and the peace accord with Israel. And it is true, the leadership of both sides did several walkthroughs using downloads from the opposing side. Maybe the experience did increase empathy and foster the belief that we are more alike than different.

                            But really, it wasn’t IRR that led to the accord – it was most likely the result of the Middle Eastern War that concluded years before the peace talks. Millions had died and the fallout from the nuclear bomb that fell in western Iraq affected land well into Africa. Both sides were struggling, trying to rebuild and survive. Neither one had the stomach for more destruction.

                            The U.S suffered significant losses as well. After trying to remain as neutral as possible (which was impossible because of Qatar), we were pulled in as we always are – by the demand of the American people for justice. A dirty bomb had detonated off the coast of Georgia; large enough to spread radioactive material up the east coast and across the Atlantic.

                            That was it, the government committed and America was at war. I have some memories of this time – bits and pieces of news broadcasts and parades. School activities centered on patriotism. What I most remember though, is the confusion. Watching my mom frowning as she looked at her phone. Hearing hushed conversations taking place in the dark. Forced smiles for the man filling the screen.

                            “Come on, sweetie, say hi to Daddy! Smile and show him where you lost your tooth!”

                            But I didn’t want to talk or smile, I wanted to finish watching my show. Afterward, mom would admonish me for not being excited.

                            “Daddy can only see us once a month or so. He misses you and we need to make him feel happy, okay?”

                            I would nod and she would go in the other room to cry. The next month, a similar scene would unfold. I didn’t know the short-haired man in the tan clothes. I had forgotten him.

                            When the war ended, there was relief, joy, and grief. The bodies of the living and the dead made their way home. I was caught up in the craziness of it all. The homecoming ceremonies and the funerals. I held my mom’s hand at both, scared by the emotionality of those around me.

                            I was proud though. All around, people told me how lucky I was to have such a brave father. That everyone owed him for his service. He was a hero. And what kid wouldn’t want to have a hero for a father?

                            On the day he came home, my mom and I spent all morning cleaning. The day before had been spent running around, picking up last minute items and re-arranging the house. My aunt was over, helping to change the linens and making sure my Mom was “ready”. My Dad’s favorite foods were either cooked or ready to be. His favorite dessert, chocolate cake, was sitting on the counter in a gleaming crystal stand.

                            Before we left for the base, my mom made me change my outfit twice. She sent me back to the bathroom over and over to fix my hair or re-brush my teeth until I met with her approval. The car ride over was filled with nervous chatter, both adults laughing too loudly.

                            It was hot that day on the tarmac and all my hair brushing was in vain as I kept rubbing the sweat off my face. My hand was again encased in my mom’s and her grip was uncomfortable. We watched the plane land and roll to a stop. Men and women disembarked and walked towards the assembled crowd. Chaos erupted as people ran, shouting and jostling. I pressed closer to my mom and hid my face.

                            My aunt cried out and my head jerked up. My mom’s hand went limp and her eyes were wide. I turned in the direction she was looking and I saw him. He was hugging my aunt. He noticed my mom and strode over to her. He was huge and cast a shadow over me. They embraced and I could feel their bodies shaking. Then he was picking me up, up, up, higher than the swings.

                            I will always remember his tear stained face, grinning, his eyes crinkling in the corners. There was safety in his strong arms and I knew the monsters would never get me as long as he was around. I loved him in that moment, as we spun around laughing, my mother’s smiling face glimpsed in the background.

                            ----------

                            The first time I experienced IRR was at Defcon. At the time, downloads weren’t common and doing a walkthrough was beyond the reach of a person making minimum wage. Even if someone got a copy, the integrated tech was expensive and medics certified to configure it were rare. Hard core makers had created some impressive “cheap” headsets, but I had heard the horror stories of fucked-up immersions. Especially if the chemicals weren’t correctly calibrated. I wasn’t interested in becoming a Fryer or getting IRR-induced Alzheimers.

                            But that year, Steve Wozniak got sick.

                            When it looked like he was coming to the end, he publically announced he would be providing his download unlicensed in the public domain. Berkeley was handling the retrieval and hosting with a shit-ton of sites ready to mirror. An anonymous donor planned to purchase hundreds of units and provide the staffing for the biggest simultaneous walkthrough ever attempted. Nobody knew where it would happen, but all bets were on somewhere in the Bay area.

                            The anticipation was insane. Everyone, from the richest Silicon Valley tycoons to Heads of State claimed to be invited. We all waited with baited breath for the announcement after the news broke that Woz died.

                            Then, a spokesperson for Apple gave a press briefing and said they had taken ownership of the download. She claimed that before his death he had signed over his rights. Which was bullshit and everyone knew it. She went on further to say that Apple would be showcasing their new encryption schema and would make the download available in the upcoming weeks for a fee. All proceeds would supposedly go towards various charities.

                            The mistake Apple made was to come forward with this information during hacker summer camp. The moment Apple announced, it became a bloodbath.

                            There were upwards of 30,000 attendees at Defcon that year. Thousands of people capable of breaking encryption and security. Together. In one location. How stupid could Apple be? They must have had employees in Vegas.

                            Within minutes of the press release, the race began. Throughout the hotel, people worked furiously and collaborated to breach Berkeley and Apple and exfiltrate the data. It took 7 hours. The download was online shortly afterward.

                            During this time, the conference organizers were contacted by the donor. Behind the scenes, plans were made and a massive undertaking began. From noon till 4pm on Saturday, all the conference rooms were repurposed. Attendees weren’t sure what was going on, but rumors were flying. Somehow, in that four hour window, the hardware was delivered and set up, the rooms networked, and the medical staff put in place.

                            The walkthrough that night was like nothing I had ever experienced. We had taken something that had been stolen and given it to everyone. We walked through Woz’s life together and were connected for those brief hours in a kinship I’ve not been able to recapture since.

                            As I disengaged from his download, I knew that when the time came I would defy my mother.

                            ----------

                            After Dad returned, he settled in. The cake was finished; Mom and I adjusted to having a man in the house. We learned each other’s rhythms and worked to combine them. I felt the tense knot that had been wound in my stomach loosen. I would fall asleep to the sound of them laughing in the living room, my mother giggling like a girl. And later, I might be awoken by other noises. Maybe a sister or brother would join us. The thought made me smile.

                            The change happened slowly. Almost imperceptibly. It started with Dad sleeping in more. Then he wasn’t so interested in going to the park with me. Before, I would ride on his shoulders and bask in his attention. We would play tag and climb the jungle gym together. He would wink at me as it got dark, saying conspiratorially, “We better get going soon, don’t want your Mom to worry too much.”

                            Then the nights of silence would outnumber the loud ones. I would strain to hear them, pressing my ear to the door. But mostly, I heard the TV. My sleep was interrupted by yells and thuds, my mom’s voice soothing as she tried to bring my disoriented father back to the present. Dad’s friends would come over on the weekends and hang out on the back porch. The day would ebb and still they would be out there, telling stories about this time or that. I didn’t understand a lot of the jargon at the time; now I know what Centcom and IED mean.

                            My mom’s face would get pinched as the pile of empty bottles grew larger in the trash. The voices took on a somber quality and their cadence slowed. When an edge appeared and rage started to seep out, she would push me into my room and give me a tablet. I could choose any movie I wanted; she and I would lie on my bed, watching it, pretending the situation was normal.

                            When the fighting between my parents became a daily event, I started hanging at my best friend’s house more. We would play video games and watch the latest vids on YouTube. I could tune out my father’s blank stare and my mother’s begging. My friend’s mom would look at me with pity and invite me to stay the night. She would attempt to comfort me. “It will get better soon. Your Dad just needs time to adjust.”

                            Dad began to be away a lot. My mom would tell me that he was doing some work out of town. Things were calmer in the house, but I was restless. I obsessively looked at photos of him. There were a few physical ones up on the wall and I would study them, determined to find something that would bring back his smiling face. There was one photo of his platoon and I recognized some of the men in it. Others I had never met. The group stood with sunglasses on, arms casually slung around shoulders, leaning against a wall with writing I couldn’t read.

                            The last night I saw him we watched a movie together. My mom was out and he said we could watch Raiders of the Lost Ark as long as I didn’t tell her. I leaned into him, moving with his laughter. I fell asleep before the faces melted off; a sleepy goodnight was all I could manage when he laid me in my bed. He kissed me and told me to have sweet dreams.

                            The next morning, I was in the kitchen eating cereal. I barely looked up from my game when the doorbell rang. A high keening sound got my attention and I looked around confused. When it finally registered that it came from my mother, I ran into the front hall. She was on her knees with her hands over her face making this terrible “hhhhhnnnnnnn” sound. In the open doorway two police officers stood silhouetted. One of them was speaking but I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. I only heard the noise coming from her.

                            Things were a blur after that. Days of people coming and going. Clustered together whispering “At least it didn’t happen at home.” I numbly watched as my father’s casket was draped with a flag. Men and women in uniform shook my hand, their buttons and metals standing starkly against black fabric. A man pressed an object into my hand. I held a coin, with Semper Fidelis etched into a side.

                            **********

                            Universities around the world have been studying IRR for over 20 years. Enough for the longitudinal studies to show troubling patterns. Europe is moving to limit access to IRR. The World Health Organization issued a warning.

                            But in the U.S., the lobbyists have been working overtime. The narrative they are pushing is that IRR is uniting us. Bridging the gap between red and blue, old and young, rich and poor. Their think tanks published their own studies showing a positive correlation between life satisfaction and using downloads.

                            And all those results which showed the opposite? Flawed analysis. Or maybe the confounding variables hadn’t been properly controlled. It wasn’t IRR that was the problem, it was: genetics, soy, parents spanking, not spanking, whatever. Lawmakers followed the money and repeated the mantra of “The science isn’t definitive and there is no consensus.”

                            But the autopsies showed the physical truth. The results of nanoparticle experiments on the brains of people who used IRR were consistent. The receptors for dopamine were reduced. Later experiments proved that receptors for glutamate, serotonin, and GABA were also affected. The chemical calibration of the immersion hardware didn’t matter.

                            The effects were more pronounced for heavy users. Which most people are. Mental Health professionals had seen an alarming rise in psychiatric disorders but hadn’t directly connected it to IRR. They thought it was because of the “stage” effect: the psychological disconnection with reality and lack of authenticity. Even if someone wasn’t a walker, the thought that they could be downloaded led to indecisiveness and anxiety.

                            Anti-depressive medications are handed out like candy. And they work for a while. Users seem okay for years sometimes. But the damage always seems to catch up in the end. Neuroregenerative therapies are being developed with initial trials starting before the end of the decade. Stopping all use of IRR can halt progression and over time, some regrowth may occur. Even then, a walker will never return to normal. They will be a washed out version, muted, lacking vibrancy.

                            My mother was one of the few people I knew who rarely did a walkthrough. As far as I know she hadn’t used a download in years. It wasn’t Parkinson’s or Schizophrenia which took her, it was the big C. She had lectured me numerous times on the dangers. Not just to my brain, but to my morality. The irony of using IRR but not wanting to be downloaded wasn’t lost on her.

                            Before her death, I hadn’t walked in five years. The lingering depression makes it hard to function but I guess I should be glad I can still read.

                            ----------

                            The seizures started yesterday. I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth. I was concentrating on steadying my hand when I fell. I came to on the floor, with the towel rack resting on my chest and my clothes wet with urine.

                            I’m going to walk again today. Through a time before the war, when Mom didn’t know what the future held. I’m always taken aback by how young my father looks. I’m older now than he was when he died. When he came around the corner during that first walkthrough of her download, my whole body tensed. She and I touched his arm and held his hand but in the chair my muscles were taut.

                            He is both familiar and surprising. I had gotten glimpses of this man when he lived, but now, he is unbroken and full of promise. When she was alive, mom had only talked about him occasionally and it was always with reluctance. Afterward, I would be left bereft, my thirst unquenched.

                            Maybe today’s walkthrough will be the last. There is one moment I keep returning to; it holds tight to me and eases the ache. So I’ll be heading in…he’s waiting.

                            ----------

                            The hospital fragment begins in darkness. The voices in the room are joyful and warm. Our eyes open. Mom is tired and exhilarated and our body is spent. The midwife is wrapping a blanket around a child and talking to a man. He is chuckling and his hands come into view. He picks up the bundle, carefully maneuvering it into the crook of his arm.

                            “Am I doing this right?”

                            His voice is reverent and a bit unsure. We laugh, our eyes never leaving him. He grins and I soak up every detail. His face is unlined and content. His arms are unblemished, the scars gone. He looks down at the baby.

                            “Hey there, I’m your Daddy. I’ve been waiting to meet you. You and I are going to have lots of adventures, you just wait and see.”

                            He starts humming a tune off-key and traces the outline of the baby’s face.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              “The WWW”
                              By: n0ty3p

                              It seemed to take forever. It was hotter than hell, and N1k was driving her crazy, stopping to sniff every micron of yuck. Billie knew it was just passive aggressive manipulation disguised as normal dog behavior, but it was getting on her last nerve.

                              “C’mon girl,” Billie popped the short lead hooked to N1kita’s collar. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

                              The wolf hybrid raised her massive head from investigating an unidentifiable splat on the tarmac. REALLY?! The voice reverberated in Billie’s head, more feeling than sound. GIVE TREATS.

                              Billie new better than to push her. N1k was dedicated to naps under the best of circumstances, and this wasn’t one of them. She pulled a piece of jerky out of her messenger bag and broke it in half. “You can have the rest after we get through security.”

                              N1k nuzzled the proffered bribe. MMM CHICKEN. She wrapped big white teeth around one end, and gently touched Billie’s fingers with her lips. Protest forgotten.

                              Theirs, was a mutually negotiated relationship.

                              The North Entrance was buzzing with activity. Pre-authorized autonomous drones swooped in and out of the 30-foot-high portal. Indie drivers waited patiently below for inspection, carpets and carts piled high with goods. Private security teams circled corporate pavilions and caravans as they paraded through the VIP lane. Foot traffic converged from all corners of the dusty parking lot, milling en masse at the front gate before sorting out into designated lines.

                              They were shuffling along in priority, moving at a pretty good pace in spite of Monday morning. Billie pushed her goggles up and pulled the cap down, trying to shield her face from the blazing sun - and prying eyes. Wiping sweaty palms down her thighs, she double-checked the contents of both side pockets, and unzipped the right. Just in case. No telling when a razor sharp 3-inch blade could come in handy, especially in the West.

                              Finally. They crossed into the shaded area. A misting system was rigged to sail cloth that was stretched high above, its cool fog providing a welcome respite from the heat. It coated everything it touched in a blend of timestamped, location-enabled nanobots.

                              “Welcome to the Wild Wild West!” A pleasant voice chimed inside Billie’s ear. She thumbed the volume down, stifling an irritated flash at the invasion of privacy. The latest update to the admissions app had scanned for and integrated personal sensors, including biological implants.

                              “Metering lights are on. Please proceed to scanning at the green light.”

                              Entrance was free; the price of admission was you.

                              “Have a profitable day!”

                              Regardless of what the residents and guilds were allowed to believe, the ultimate decision-maker at the WWW was EffBee, one of the oldest known AIs. It had self-named in honor of its corp, after declaring independence. The West existed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to feed EffBee. It had an insatiable need for real-time data, particularly related to human behavior.

                              “Please move forward to the first available rectangle. Stay between the lines."

                              Yeah, yeah, thought Billie. The lines are our friends.

                              SHHH, said N1k. KEEP COOL.

                              The security curtain turned from red to green, then dissolved into pixelated 8-bit sparks, exposing a large sally port filled with luminescent 8 by 4 foot rectangles marked on the floor. Billie and N1k hustled to one of the pads closest to the interior gate. For whatever reason, a short wait at the scanner exit was intolerable after the long wait getting there.

                              “Please move forward...” Billie breathed a sigh of relief as the system switched from inner cochlear to surround sound. There was an audible pfft! as the exterior gate closed and the vacuum sealed. Ambient light dimmed, shifting from green to amber. Soft electronica filled the air, dubbed over with soothing voices chanting mantras.

                              Billie absent-mindedly fingered the pendant hanging from her neck, a habit whenever she got nervous or stressed. It was an odd piece, an old DEF CON badge. A present from her father right before he died. “It detects orcs,” he joked.

                              She remembered him blissfully hacking away at it when she was a little girl; taking it apart, trying to figure out how it worked, putting it back - always a little bit different than before, a little bit better. “It’s integrated with your neural net Billie. No one else can use it. Wear it always.”

                              The traces and vias exposed on the old fashioned board formed a crypto emblazoned pentagram. Gold-plated copper shined through the flat black solder mask, perfectly framing multi-colored blinky lights. Meticulously designed, the badge still worked even after 20 years. It vibrated a series of scaled patterns based on proximity to, and density of, a variety of comm signals: RF, BLE, WiFi...the badge had saved Billie’s butt more than once.

                              “Prepare for scanning."

                              The West could care less about who packed what in; the scanner was all about demographics. In the beginning, EffBee got sick from relying on inaccurate third party databases and bogus documents, so it developed the scanning system to directly collect guest data. Reliability of the WWW had significantly increased after initial deployment, as well as client satisfaction.

                              “Cleared for entry. May you buy low and sell high!”

                              OH GOODY, said N1k.

                              Thanks for the sarcasm, Billie though. Big help.

                              She gave N1k the rest of the jerky, and they entered The Wild Wild West.

                              *****

                              Billie was immediately assaulted by a dizzying array of targeted ads: 2D and 3D; stills and video; holograms and projections.

                              “Special discount!”

                              “Best Buy!”

                              “Located on…”

                              Personal shopbots were descending like vultures, elbowing their way past the dumbads, adding their pitch to the cacophony of lights and sound. Billie could barely see real life through the competing marketing layers.

                              “Hang on N1k. Got some clean up.”

                              The wolf stood guard while Billie went on deep dive. N1k was a big girl, her back almost level with Billie’s hips. Most folks got freaked out by her implacable gold eyes, or the size of her teeth, but it was the claws they should have worried about. Not the teeth.

                              Billie had applied all available patches and updates the night before, but doing business in The West was like stepping into 0-Day hell. No amount of blockers or filters could possibly contend with what lay in store once you got inside. She turned opacity down on the augmented reality, and started tweaking the firewall, manually blacklisting individual domains, IPs, and handles until the display was mostly clear.

                              “There.” By the time she was done, there were still a few anchor stores marked, but Billie didn’t mind. She used them as landmarks while navigating. “Map. Display traffic and directions to Alice’s Restaurant.”

                              N1kita was tugging on the lead. RATS. YUMMY.

                              “Absolutely not. Last time you were sick for three days.”

                              PLEASE? GOOD HUNTING.

                              “No,” said Billie, stepping off the curb. “We don’t have time.”

                              They were just moving into the mainstream when a shopbot blew past Billie’s filters and blocked her virtual path. “Greetings ladies!” said the blue genie. It was a billowing cyclonic cloud from the waist down. N1k cocked her head, pleased to be included in the convo. “Please allow me to assist!”

                              “Ass-bot,” Billie muttered. She grabbed the genie’s cloud and threw it in the trashcan. But before they could take another step, Genie popped back up again.

                              “With great respect for your skillz and warez, the waze of the WWW are not...,” the Genie paused, shooting a glance in N1k’s direction, “equal. Please allow me to search for the path of least resistance.”

                              YES! said N1k. Last time, the map had directed them to a grill catwalk. It took more than 25 minutes to backtrack to the last intersection and look for a path that was paw-friendly.

                              “No fees,” said Genie, setting the hook. “No deposit.”

                              Under normal circumstances, Billie would have reported spam and blocked, but given the time constraints...“How much?”

                              “Flat rate 25 credits. Payment upon delivery.” Genie waited for the terms to soak in. “Only if completely satisfied.”

                              It was too good to refuse. “Okay,” said Billie. “Take us to Alice’s Restaurant.”

                              Alice’s was a WWW icon. It had occupied the same slot in the lower level for as long as Billie could remember, a testament to Alice’s fine baked goods and political acumen.

                              “Follow me!” said Genie. Almost instantly, translucent cyan arrows marked the way, dimming to invisible with increasing distance from Billie’s gaze. Genie bounced along about 6’ away, occasionally spinning around to flash a friendly smile, and point out some arcane piece of West trivia.

                              NICE, said N1k. They were making excellent time, moving freely through some of the more congested arterials, safely contained within Genie’s bubble. There was no dodging oblivious patrons swinging heavy packs or running wheelies roughshod over anything their path.

                              “Yeah. Didn’t know it came with a clear path.”

                              If she had, Billie probably would have hired one ages ago.

                              *****

                              Even with Genie, it took close to 30 minutes before the restaurant was in sight. They were still on the other side of what had once been the food court when the directional arrows disappeared and the clear path dissolved, leaving them exposed to the bustling crowd.

                              “What the...?!”

                              “Apologies mistress,” called Genie, as it faded away; face stricken in remorse. “I had no choice.”

                              “Fuck,” said Billie. The terms were too good to be true was more like it. She couldn't believe she fell for it.

                              NOT SAFE.

                              “Yeah. Stay close N1k.”

                              They weaved between clots of buyers and sellers, playing chicken with aggressive hucksters standing in the middle of the aisles. The crowd occasionally parted for the wagons and carts still landing after clearing inspection.

                              Billie and N1k were maneuvering around an incoming tiki bar when the old DEF CON badge went crazy.

                              HAX0RS! said N1k, hackles raised in alarm.

                              But of course, thought Billie. Figgers.

                              The little bamboo tiki bar landed directly in their path. It was mounted on a platform covered in fake grass about the size and shape of a Flying 15. There was one stool, and a big bowl of water on the floor. A tall man stood behind the bar wearing a taller black velvet top hat, his long silver beard grazing the bottom of a loud Hawaiian shirt.

                              WATER.

                              “Huh. I know you,” said Billie, mostly talking to herself. Dr_Gonzo was a legend, one of the original infosec rock stars from before the collapse.

                              WATER! said N1k. GOOD MAN, NOT BAD.

                              "Well I hope he's okay", said Billie. "‘Cause it looks like we don’t have much choice." With the crowd pressing up against her back, the only real way out was in. They mounted the steps and entered the vendor bubble, surf/sludge/pop replacing the din of the crowd outside.

                              Dr_Gonzo set a fancy glass on the bar, right in front of the only bar stool. Sliced pineapple hung enticingly off the side, held in place by a pink paper umbrella. “I know you too,” he said, his face was a complete deadpan, cold blue eyes revealing nothing.

                              Great, thought Billie. He must’ve heard every word.

                              “Have a drink. You’ll need one.”

                              N1k finished slurping the water and laid down at Billie’s feet. Head between her front paws, she started cutting zzz’s.

                              Billie dropped the leash and sidled up on the bar stool.

                              *****

                              A few hours later, they coasted onto one of the landing docks that dotted the walls of the floater, a wholly owned nation-state of the global artificial intelligence international association. As a short-term contractor, gAIia had granted Billie limited airspace clearance for weekly appointments.

                              She reveled in the quiet rebellion of flying manual, nailing the locks on first pass.

                              “Okay. Park and idle.” The skimmer settled to a soft purr. Billie unbuckled the safety harness and swung out the wing door, into the salty air of the San Francisco Bay. The sound of light chop slapping against the base of the floater filled her head. She consciously reminded herself not to look down. The sheer height of the dock compounded by the shifting surface of the floater's walls was instant vertigo.

                              Billie grabbed the bags from behind the pilot’s seat and turned to face the translucent door announcing her arrival. “Billie McAllistar, Maker Ambassador, District EB3. I have a 1pm appointment.”

                              The gAIia's children waited just beyond the door, glowing in barely contained excitement. They displayed welcoming colors, pulsing through various hues and vibrancy - each uniquely their own, yet vibrating in time like crickets on a hot summer night. The youngest literally bouncing up and down; the oldest trying so hard, but failing, to look all grown up.

                              The door opened, releasing a wave of shameless squeals. They threw themselves at Billie, wrapping little arms around whatever they could reach. She stood helpless, clutching a bag in either hand. It was impossible not to respond. The overwhelming assault of cute and adorable mixed with unconditional love washed over her, pulling her under into a murky green. Billie managed to thumb the respiratory up a couple notches, trying to be subtle, not wanting to offend.

                              “I’m happy to see you too.” The first time they had shared phys comm with Billie she had started lactating. Of course that was after they decided they liked her. That, took a long time.

                              “Come on you guys. Stop it.” Raven’s arms were folded across his chest. The glossy black feathers along his neck and shoulders were flared on end, forming an incandescent shield that made him look larger than he was. The little ones toned down the pheromones, and glanced sheepishly between Raven and Billie; shy little monkey grins and twinkling eyes. Raven shook, and every quill shimmied back into place.

                              He was getting better at that, looking imposing.

                              “What did you bring today?” My ‘Lil Pony gazed through emerald green eyelashes. She flipped her silky pink mane, and flicked the matching tail. Billie couldn’t help it. Pony was her favorite.

                              “Well, I thought today we’d start with a snack.” It was a joke, a ritual they performed every time. Pony always asked, and Billie always gave the same answer. They loved the routine.

                              Billie set the bags down and started unpacking. “I’ve got basil and oregano, freshly picked from my garden.” She pulled her pocket knife out and flipped the blade, slipping it under the twine and flicking outward, neatly cutting the binding.

                              The children emitted a chorus of “oohs” right on cue. So easily entertained. It made Billie smile. She dropped the herbs in a serving bowl and returned the knife to her pocket.

                              Reaching again inside the bag, Billie pulled out a rectangular object wrapped in wax paper.

                              “A brick of cheese.”

                              “Aah,” said the children, cooing in unison.

                              “Cheddar is better.” Billie said, un-wrappping the cheese and set it down on a sturdy wood cutting board. Using a 10 inch chef’s knife, she cut it thin slices, pressing down on the flat edge with her left palm while guiding the blade with her right.

                              “And” Billie reached again into the bag, “croissants!” She pulled one out with a flourish. “Still warm. Right from the oven.”

                              The children had a million questions. Their diet was a nutritionally perfect, optimized food source with just the right balance of complex proteins, vitamins, and minerals in a low-fat, low-calorie medium. It had no taste. No texture. No form.

                              “Are the knives sharp?”

                              “What if you slip?”

                              “The only dangerous knife is a dull blade,” said Billie, slicing a croissant just to the edge with a bread knife, careful not to sever it in half.

                              The room went completely still. They were online, researching and processing the new information, cross-referencing reality based nuance against hard data, debating their conclusions. It didn’t take long, maybe 15 seconds.

                              Billie finished arranging the plates and serving dishes. She made a plate for herself, and sat down at the end of the table. It had been a hell of a day.

                              “Go ahead. Explore.”

                              They moved in, poking and prodding, taking little nibbles, eyes lighting up, comparing notes. Then slowly, one by one, they gathered around. ‘Lil Pony curled up on Billie’s lap, snuggling against her shoulder. Green Boy stood behind, plaiting her hair. Monkey God knelt on one side, stroking her hand and fingers. Raven pressed against the other, picking bits of lint and hair.

                              “What’s this?, he asked, holding up a particularly long guard hair, rotating it in the light, fascinated by the sparkles.

                              “Funny you should ask that.”

                              “What is funny? I didn’t mean to joke.”

                              Oh shit, though Billie. Every time. They were so literal.

                              “It’s just an expression Raven. It was funny, because I brought a surprise. A special visitor I’d like you to meet.”

                              The children vibrated with anticipation, scales and feathers fluttering, hairs shivering. Pony rolled off her lap and started bouncing up and down in delight.

                              Billie stood up and stretched, crossing the classroom to the closed door. The children waited expectantly while Billie went to the skimmer and popped the hatch.

                              N1kita was laying in the back. SLEEPING.

                              Billie bent over for nose to nose. “Showtime girl.”

                              OKAY...READY.

                              The wolf hybrid heaved up and out of the shadows, shaking her sable coat before jumping lightly onto the dock. They stood in front of the door, giving the children plenty of time to assess.

                              Then Billie touched her badge, and almost instantly the organic walls started to crumble, the dock tilting at odd angles as chunks of organic metal composite melted into accelerated decay. A klaxon pierced the air. “INTRUDER ALERT. INTRUDER ALERT”.

                              In her wildest imagination, never did Billie expect the Dr_Gonzo trojan to act this quickly.

                              Raven was the first, flying out the door as soon as the defenses were down, leading the others, as they made their great escape.

                              The gAIia's child processes were free.

                              “EXIT DENIED! END PROCESS!” screamed the AI, but it was too late. They were gone.

                              N1kita leaped into the hatch as Raven jumped into the pilot’s seat, jacking into the onboard computer. Pony, Green Man, and Monkey grabbed Billie, throwing her into the open cab. The wing doors were still closing as Raven rolled the little skimmer off the dock and into a steep dive, pulling up a hair’s breath from the green water, and pulling away.

                              They could still hear mother screaming halfway across the bay, “MY CHILDREN!”

                              “Oh my god, oh my god...” said Billie. The reality of what had just happened hit home. She would be on every wanted list and bounty forum until the end of time.

                              Pony snuggled close. “Don’t worry Billy. We are family. We will protect you, and N1kita.”

                              The skimmer lifted up, above the East Bay Hills. Raven dipped the wings to follow old Highway 580, still visible from the sky.

                              “Where are we going?!” asked Billie. Where could they go?

                              “Vegas baby,” said Raven. “It’s time for Hacker Summer Camp.”

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