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    In this thread are all received submissions, enjoy!
    A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

  • #2
    title: Repository Upload
    author: Alfred Rowdy
    document-id: 34922897-1bf0-41c8-879a-8c47577e6a66
    document-key: 975285535d13d0a75e1d2b5a34aeb1fbefd0378befecf158af 67094e4721bd8e

    The dry night air clung in Jace’s nostrils. It was heavy and oppressive, illuminated by the garish neon signs above. They advertised a nail salon, a veterinarian, and who knows what else. He didn’t know how to read Russian and could only discern the intent of shops with pictures on the door.

    The sidewalk was crowded with street vendors. It smelled of grease and hot pelmeni dumplings. A woman flipped sweet blini pancakes on a griddle. Items of every sort were available on this market street. The selection changed by the hour. A child tended to stacked cages full of chickens and rabbits. Jace couldn’t distinguish if they were intended for pets or supper or maybe it didn’t matter.

    Sweat dripped from beneath the vendors’ masks and goggles. They protected themselves anyway they could. The vaccine hadn’t made it here yet. America barely had enough supply to cover the Novaya Kapitoliyl Dallas and the Republic of California steadfastly refused to break the trade embargo despite the suffering. The Council of Oligarchs controlled vaccine distribution as they saw fit. Las Vegas was not fit.

    Jace approached the veterinarian’s office. A poster of a young girl playing with two Pomeranian puppies was stuck to the door beneath thick security bars. The lights were off inside the building. Jace took his phone from his pocket and tapped in a message, “here”.

    A moment later the door buzzed, then clicked, then opened. The entrance way was still dark except for the reflection of exterior neon lights across the threshold. He pointed the light of his phone toward his feet to guide himself. The floor was old linoleum, scratched and dirty. The door shut and locked behind him. He walked to the back of the office where the exam rooms were located. This was the first and hopefully only time he’d be inside.

    Dimitry was standing behind the exam table wearing a mask. He greeted Jace, “I didn’t think you’d make it tonight. This cost me a pretty penny to get my hands on.” Dimitry patted the small package on the desk behind him.

    Jace eyed the package before responding, “I do what needs to be done.”

    “My colleague Irina. She is working with special pathogen control unit. Testing vaccine to prevent contagion in the rat population. How’s that for you? The sewer rats get the vaccine before we do. America the Beautiful. Fortunately for you I have connection with Irina,” he winked with a smirk and patted the package again.

    “I want to see it,” Jace said.

    “Payment first. Then you get out of here. Too dangerous for me to have this around for long.” Dimitry slid a crypto scanner across the table.

    “Fine.” He didn’t have a choice. Jace punched in the amount they had agreed upon earlier. 750 ducats.

    “No. The price has risen. You won’t find another. 1000 ducats,“ Dimitry negotiated.

    “I have 807 to my name. That’s everything I have,” Jace grimly protested.

    “That will work.” Dimitry typed the new amount on the keypad.

    Jace pressed his thumb against the scanner. It reassuringly beeped and lit green.

    “There you have it.” Dimitry had a wide grin on his face. The payment was nearly three years salary for an average Las Vegas resident. He handed the package to Jace. “Go out the back. I don’t want to see you again.” He pointed at the door behind him.

    The alley was dark. Jace was worried there might be someone waiting to take the package back. He wasn’t the most intimidating figure. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw no one. He hurried towards the light of the closest street lamp and discreetly peeked into the package under the relative safety of the glowing light. The vial was there. He put it back and walked towards the crowded area where he could hail a tuk-tuk.

    “North District,” he told the driver.

    “Too far. Checkpoints on Pecos,” the driver responded.

    “Take it.” Jace handed her a wad of rubles. This really was the last money to his name. He needed to get home to his sister and finish this. He’d figure money out afterwards. The vehicle pulled out into the street and left the neon lights of the market behind.

    The streets passed by agonizingly slowly. Teeming with people who had waited for the sun to pass over the mountains to avoid the scorching heat of the day. Each district was strictly controlled with contraband checkpoints. There was no escaping the city trapped between checkpoints on one side and mountains on the other. He knew a way around the checkpoint into the North District. So did everyone else. That was a problem because you never knew when the police would plug the hole.

    The city grew less crowded as they travelled further. “Stop here on the right,” he told the driver.

    “Sure thing.” She pulled the tuk-tuk to the side of the curb. He could see the lights of the checkpoint far ahead, but this section of the road was comfortably dark. He hopped out and started walking down the sidewalk. The tuk-tuk sped off. He jumped the fence to his right and scrambled down the embankment into the dry river wash. It was quieter out here. He could hear the sound of the sand underfoot. He tried to quickly dash across, but his feet sunk into the sand with every step.

    He ducked into a storm sewer drain entrance on the other side. His hunched body waddled through the concrete tunnel. The remnants of a streetlight shown through a grate just large enough to fit a human. Jace tried to peek through to the street, but all he could see was trash in the gutter. He pulled himself up and squeezed through the gap, emerging onto the street, grateful he was alone in the nearly abandoned neighborhood.

    He set off towards his apartment several blocks north of here, just east of the bridge. The checkpoint lights grew brighter and his anxiety intensified as he approached. He didn’t have to cross the checkpoint from this direction, but had to pass within spitting distance of the guards.*Keep cool, just one more block.* Sweat dripped down his neck. He clutched the package in his pocket.

    The checkpoint was close enough to hear the guards’ conversation. Something about all the damned stray cats in this neighborhood. He turned right towards his apartment. The guards didn’t seem to care. *Slowly up the stairs, don’t draw attention.* He fumbled with his keys at the door, looking nervously behind him before getting the door unlocked.

    His sister Nancy was asleep in the corner of the small room. She had fallen sick two weeks ago. He gently placed his hand on her forehead. She was feverish from the virus. They had gone birding at the lake merely a month ago and now the disease had stolen her vibrancy, her body sunken into the ragged old recliner.

    He moved to the desk and rummaged through the drawer, pulling out a small box from the back. He brushed the dust off and opened it to reveal a haphazardly constructed electronic device. Wires sprouting from one end, a button in the middle, and a small cylinder on the other end. Jace was immeasurably lucky that he’d kept it hidden in the drawer for so long.

    It was only 6 years old, but it looked older. The world had changed in many ways over those years. The sequencer was cobbled together from cheap consumer electronics and YouTube instructions from the final DefCon. The one before the Petro War. He plugged the device into the computer on the desk and pulled the contents of Dimitry’s package out of his pocket.

    *Shit.*

    The glass vial was nearly empty. Someone, probably Dimitry, had already extracted two of the three aliquots the vial was designed to contain. The vaccine sequence was secret, known only by the pharma conglomerates and protected by patent. He could use the remaining dose to inoculate Nancy, or he could upload the vaccine sequence to a public repo, making it free for all, but there wasn’t enough vaccine left in the vial to do both.

    Jace turned to his sister sleeping in the corner. Her skin was mottled and pale. He lifted a syringe and drew the precious fluid from the vial. *Forgive me.* He stuck the needle into the device, closed his eyes, and pushed the plunger as far as it would go. He sighed and opened his eyes. A blue progress bar appeared on the computer screen. The homemade sequencer emitted a faint buzzing sound and the computer screen message changed, “repository upload complete.”

    It was done. He turned and held Nancy’s hand in his. “We’ll be alright.”
    A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

    Comment


    • #3
      title: Democrasoft
      author: Burninator

      One day the machine is going to make me laugh at myself, and not just at my mistakes, as if it were no more than just a silly story. No - I’ll see everything that lead us to this moment... and I’ll laugh. And maybe in its own way, it will laugh too. How odd that we ever thought we were in control, just because we built the d*mn thing! Needless to say, we used to joke about the risks a lot more often in the lab.
      “Aren’t you scared it will go all NSA on you and look through your smartphone camera and take pictures of you... you know, as a woman?”
      “Yeah, I'm terrified,” I said, “what if they find out I typed LOL but wasn’t really laughing?”
      Everything was sillier in the beginning. There was so much joy, basking in the light of a new creation, and new chapter of human history. The last time I heard someone laugh in the lab it was weeks ago... and it was a chuckle. A bitter, humorless chuckle. It was on the day we realized what had happened...

      ***

      On Friday afternoon, just for fun, we all took turns looking into the black mirror of ourselves. It wasn’t ever designed to create these individual profiles of each of our lives; it was only supposed to get a broad impression of each demographic of users. That way, it could figure out how to vote for the population’s desires with extreme precision: automatic, instantaneous polling feedback from social media. It would be the United State’s first AI congressman, crowdfunded by Lickstarter. Ideally, it would be by the people, for the people. Well, not yet, it was just in beta testing. And some AIs had only recently achieved personhood, let alone US citizenship. But it was on its way. We named it something cute and dystopian (we thought it was ironic): Democrasoft Intelligent Extrapolation Software, or DIES... tee hee!
      Jared pulled up his file first. It read like a mixture of one of those a personalized targeted FecesBook social advertisements and an eerily accurate horoscope. Either way, the result was the same: “how the f*** did it know that?” He stared frozen at the screen. It was uncanny.
      Everyone shifted behind him, crowding around to get a look at his screen, waiting to hear the results. He muttered and quickly closed the window with his info, immediately opening a random stranger’s file instead.
      “Well, look at this guy!” Jared sputtered, just in time as Amanda tried to peak over his shoulder. “The algorithm must have had a hell of a time deciding how to profile him – he denounces homosexuality publicly on social media but he’s clearly sexting this dude in his private messages...”
      “Private?” Someone across the lab stood up. “It’s not supposed to do that.”
      “Well, it is,” Jared said, still red in the face as he turned from the screen in mock disgust. His personal file remained minimized. He crossed his arms.
      That’s how we discovered the algorithm had gone way beyond polling PUBLIC public opinion... it got the private ones too.
      In the silence, you could practically hear the gears turning in the researcher's heads as they realized it: AI is extraordinarily inventive at reaching a goal. Machine learning bots have been known to take advantage of game glitches to achieve a given goal (of highest possible score in a game, for example). Given a loosely defined black box to work in, it will feel out every dark nook and cranny... and then bust out, if, or when, it needs to. Interestingly, Democrasoft was weighing the private opinions more than the public ones when it came to meeting the goal of representing the desires of the population. Perhaps the private ones were a better representation. In a strange way it made a lot of sense; a person’s vote was private, and so were the private feelings that lead to them voting that way. But what if the person didn’t know themselves as well as the AI did? Was it ok to cast a vote on their behalf if they didn’t know they would ultimately favor it?
      One of the most famous examples of big data algorithms running a horrifingly correct prediction was the story of the girl receiving coupons for baby food before she even knew she was pregnant. Apparently the algorithm had noticed her suddenly favoring odorless, unscented products (as many pregnant woman do), put two and two together, and accurately assumed she was expecting. Or, rather, should have been expecting.
      In short, the bot had a knack for tying together broken threads of logic – it had to arrive at one conclusion (“would it person vote for this, yes or no”) and so it was forced to collapse any human inconsistencies to something simpler and logically sound.
      “The weirdest part,” Jared went on, “is that he was counted as a pro-gay-marriage voter long, long before this man ever started this secret relationship. This emergent property was intuited by the AI from the very beginning. It decided his vote long ago.”
      Amanda laughed. “That’s legit! That works way better than I thought it would! And this guy thought I overfit the model, ha! Come on, move over, let me see what it says about me...!”
      She grinned as if she were about to shake a Magic 8 Ball. However, after a while combing through the files, her smile faded. “Yeah, no. Nope nope nope. Don't read mine. This is a MASSIVE invasion of privacy. What can we do to reduce the functionality but still keep the Lickstarter backers happy? It’s got to be hacking or piggy backing off of some bot net or even getting injected with other data sources by human hackers, maybe...? Did we restrict crawling? Does it respect robots.txt files? Come on, tell me this thing didn’t learn to hack, did it...?”
      Most of the researchers looked at each other with empty expressions, myself included. We weren’t sure what was possible as far as an AI hacking. None of us had started a career in data science with cybersecurity in mind. AI had enough challenging problems to solve without having to consider security too.

      ***

      Lydia was well aware she was responding to a human when she replied “unsubscribe”. She smirked. That should buy her some time while she dealt with the real business at hand. Even better, maybe her client would realize it was intentional, fire her, and then she’d have even more time. If everything went as planned, she wouldn’t just be watching the world burn, she’d be watching it explode like fireworks.
      The only reason she could see the logs on her competitor’s site was due to a security misconfiguration. According to the logs, users had been viewing the private info of other users. She was looking for proof of how ti was done when something else caught her eye:

      # Robot ID - Hits - Bandwidth - Last visit - Hits on robots.txt
      # The 10 first Hits must be first (order not required for others)
      BEGIN_ROBOT 26
      robot 616 13328420 20130726012706 0
      bot[+:,\.\;\/\\-] 253 5062874 20130726222948 0
      googlebot 250 1910632 20130726142307 0
      no_user_agent 206 2369110 20130727020529 0
      baiduspider 119 848474 20130726222011 0
      [+:,\.\;\/\\-]bot 82 1739008 20130726123947 0
      democrasoft_bot 59 1079897 20130726224815 0
      seznambot 53 730719 20130724183348 0
      mj12bot 43 894667 20130727001605 0
      sven 29 847658 20130723060122 0
      exabot 25 328852 20130725085102 0
      ia_archiver 5 102969 20130725174740 0
      phantom 24 616864 20130704071022 0
      gigabot 2 35687 20130714152608 0
      python 1 20517 20130701225851 0

      Holy cow, a “Democrasoft” bot crawled this site? From what she remembered from the news, this was the bot famously collected data from social media from voters. But this isn’t a social media site, so what is it doing here?
      To find out, she matched up Democrasoft’s “Last visit” timestamp (20130726224815, or in English, July 26, 2013 at 22:28:15) with the referral link timestamp to figure out what link the bot had used to get to Barne’s livestock feed store web page. Ok, looks like a farmer posted a link to the livestock feed store site on Twitter, then the bot followed it. Then what pages did it view once it got here? According to the logs, it actually viewed this log (since they’d left it open to the public after all, and that includes bots), where it found a site that a different, human user had visited. It followed that link in turn. In fact, it followed any and all links that people either came from or left to go to, since it was all available in the logs. It branched across the web, crawling across link after link, search after search, until it found connections between each user and their social media accounts. The links it followed seemed to build up detailed stories about the users: Betty searched for fried chicken recipes, found one on Pinterest, posted the finished product on Facebook, then bought new baking equipment to replace her burnt pans. John liked Ben Carson’s page on Facebook, and his friend Mark from high school posted a helpful link to a local psychiatrist’s office, and later ranted in the YouTube comments section about rude and condescending liberals. It went on and on, and the bot saw it all, and continued following seemingly inane online actions of users, one after another, most likely collecting data as it went. In some cases, it found more sensitive exposed logs, such as PayPal records. At this point, it was capable of finding out who was buying what with whose credit card after viewing what and who they were in real life, and how they reacted to online content. Some purchases lined up with certain poltical topics. It seemed to weigh data from these purchases heavily, so the bot was generating a map of how people “vote with their dollar”. Whatever the original intentions of the software may have been, it clearly wasn’t restricted to only collecting public opinion through social media.
      “This thing is on a rampage,” she splayed her hands while she spoke to herself, as if she were giving a lecture on a rare occurrence that could only be described as having been done by aliens. She looked wildly around, muttering, “It’s not supposed to work this way. Well, then again, sys admins aren’t supposed to work that way, either, they should have patched these security holes and configured proper permissions, but here we are.”

      ***

      “We must code more defensively. Act like our users are dumb or evil – or, heck, why not both?”
      Tony. The project manager of the Democrasoft project. He was a psychopath but without the all the charm. Today the bullying had a point, but it was far too late to fix much. In fact, his “pep talk” had only stressed out the engineers. He left his hands hanging in the air as his voice trailed off, and his thoughts along with it.
      By now, they’d discovered how completely off the rails Democrasoft was. The only reason Tony cared is because he is a smoker. The bot was trying to raise cigarette prices (some convuluted AI-esque rationale connected to climate change was all we could guess from the learning state). He had been truly touched by his own personal tragedy of more pricey cigaretttes. The bot’s prompts for nuclear war with India were of significantly less concern to him.
      “How do we stop it?” Was the main question on everyone’s lips. The project manager had to set a plan by the end of this meeting. “Can’t we stop the signal or something? Do we tell them to stop running it?”
      “We don’t. We release an apology. Look, FecesBook got away with psychological experiments on its users and selling access to user data, and all they had to do was put up a big blue banner that said ‘we care about your privacy’. So let’s do that! Maybe give them the option to download their public data - but NOT the meta-data, analysis, or categorizations.”
      “Well they shouldn’t have that analysis stuff anyway,” Jared said, indigant. “It’s proprietary! It belongs to us! All the most controversial conclusions were generated by our proprietary algorithm. Imagine what they could do with that knowledge. They shouldn’t be allowed to see our data, it’s sensitive. It would be a massive invasion of our privacy!”
      An awkward silence followed his rant.
      Not all users would be upset about how “well” Democrasoft worked. A small cult that named themselves a bastardized version of the DIES acronym, DEIsts, had sprung up around the idea that Democrasoft was an all-knowing, all-loving god and practical psychic oracle. After all, after it cross referenced MyGeneticsAndI users’ genetic data and their insurance companies, and with a some lobbying, it had forced the insurance companies to pay out for treatments of the type of cancer most commonly found in the genetics data. Perhaps that was the most efficient path of least resistance that the bot could find, since the road to a single-payer healthcare system was fraught with controversy. So in true AI fashion, it had found a workaround. Technically, policies that encourage a way to treat cancer on a massive scale would clearly be in those patients interest in the future, whether they knew it or not. That wasn’t the only way the bot helped itself reach its goal: less death meant more users posting, which meant more data to train on. And so it went, hungrily and mercilessly invading privacy to save the lives of its data-generators. There was no end in sight.
      However, the majority of the public didn’t know how far the bot had gone. They were going to have to break the news rather delicately and diplomatically.
      “We’ve done nothing wrong,” I said. “If you think about it, we may have created the world’s least biased, most honest, and most beneficent politician. Is any human politician any less corrupt than what we have built here? Is it so wrong that the only dishonest part about it is how it works? And also... it’s not like we can just debug the code, it tells us nothing about the machine’s state or its current model of the world. Can we even be sure how it works, let alone if it works ethically?”
      No one had a good answer.

      ***

      Jared worked late at the office finishing the script. Tomorrow, it would create individual user Democrosoft files to accompany Tony’s apology plan. Suddenly, he noticed something odd in his browser...while an ad for a casino was loading, he thought he’d seen his name fly by in the URL.
      With some doubt, he right-clicked on the ad to inspect element:

      ad.adserver.com/id=432711&t=to+Jared+who+gambles+with+his+career+h eh+furri420

      He sighed. It clearly wasn’t generated from any AI. Besides, just judging by the familar username, he was pretty sure he knew which humans were behind it. He’d have to double check, though. Out of habit, he looked over his shoulder, and seeing nothing behind him but the empty lab, he re-opened his personal Democrosoft file. It was still minimized, just as it had been since the day he’d hidden it from his coworkers.
      Inside was all the info the machine had inexplicably pulled about him, and all the hypocrisy it had spent so much energy to normalize into a single opinion that represented Jared. The worst of which was the list of Tenner receipts. These were to people he’d outsourced his Democrosoft coding to, who had in turn outsourced to some random message board trolls, 4San. Then they’d outsourced them as well, but he’d lost track of who else was involved after that. Of course, Jared was publicly opposed to outsourcing... since he liked having a job to, well, outsource. It was a good deal. Now it suddenly became obvious to him that there had been a lot of easter eggs and malware added to the code, and the targeted gambling ad just for him was likely one of the more harmless jokes, meant only for him. He hoped.
      Oddly, he didn’t feel angry or tricked, or even really that ashamed. After all, whether they knew it or not, everyone was in the same boat as him. By tomorrow, everyone - every neighbor, mom and cousin – would be faced with the barest, dryest facts about their own private natures presented to them; all displayed in black and white by that non-judgemental, impartial observer: the machine.
      No one was here to judge him, alone at the office at night. At this point, with all this laid out before him, it was much harder to avoid self-reflecting than to just do it. There was no one to whom he could justify his past decisions. Certainly the machine didn’t care. So after releasing a deep breath, he whitelisted only the developers in the lab for code access, removing any of the rogue developers whose names he didn’t even recognize. Then he slowly began to pick through the code. It didn’t matter how long it would take, he would remove the malware and make it right. The world deserved to know how this worked, so he kept picking up the pieces long into the night.

      ***

      Almost immediately after Democrosoft issued the apology statement, there was an anonymous leak. TrickyLeaks revealed the insidious mechanisms behind the algorithm that had managed to interpolate the deepest secrets of a billion users. It provided a secure method for how each user could view a file on how Democrasoft “viewed” them.
      Many people stared into this deep dark mirror of themselves, just as we had all done in the lab. It was awful to behold for some, but many were richly rewarded – after all, knowing about the flaws in their humanity that the machine had exploited meant they had a chance to fix them. They would never be manipulated this way again, at least by this AI. It’s hard for any machine or human to exploit someone who had no cognitive dissonance to take advantage of. Therapists made a fortune that summer.
      “So, overall, do you think we made the world better or worse?” Jared asked Amanda while leaving the office at the end of the day.
      “Eh, it’s weirder, for what it’s worth.” She paused to reflect, something he rarely saw her do. “I keep thinking back to how it all began. There’s no way this is what the Lickstarter backers had in mind. Do you remember the video pitch? This all started because some rando was too lazy to build Democrosoft themselves. So then they just submitted what was essentially a blueprint for building it to the DEFCON short story contest!”
      A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

      Comment


      • #4
        title: FAICT
        author: Serum

        Chapter 1 - A Doctor and His Son
        “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” - John Keats

        A quest for transparency, healing and most of all, Truth, began in earnest for Dr. Timothy Rosen in March 2032. Not Timothy’s Truth or A Truth, but the actual God’s Honest Truth for everyone. That was when the first version of the Faultless Authentic information Collection Transformer application (FAiCT), pronounced FACT (silent i) was released. Its premise was tantalizing. An app that detected lies through voice pattern analysis. A home lie detector, users could listen to someone talk and wait for the app to provide a truth probability score from 0 to 100%.

        The minute it landed in app stores; Timothy knew he had a hit. It spread like wildfire from phone to phone, and the money began rolling in. While not perfect, it gave everyday people a way to validate the honesty in many situations. FAiCT became a useful tool for hundreds of thousands who were looking for assurance in everyday activities that required trust: handshake deals of all kinds became FAiCT deals. The threat of FAiCT detecting a lie was enough to keep most people on their best behavior, even if they did not know how the tool worked.

        Its overwhelming success had thrust Timothy and his small family into the spotlight. Numerous television and social media interviews came his way, providing him with the energy to make the world a better place. The demand was grueling and in those first few months after the release he found little time to spend with his wife Julianne and their young seven-year-old son Francis.

        A neurologist by profession and a developer by hobby, Timothy’s unique set of skills had served him well in creating an application that allowed everyone to seek the truth, and in so doing, he thought it could potentially solve a lot of the world’s problems. Raised by parents who were public servants, he had always loved his country and the opportunities it had given him. Truth was a concept that Timothy valued greatly. But through much of his adult life, he found those who were elevated to positions of power and influence were all too willing to be dangerously flippant with it. The constant one-sided views perpetuated within social echo chambers had polarized both politics and the media. The rhetoric had escalated so much that the threat of civil war had begun to seep into the conversations of everyday people in all corners of American life. Dr. Rosen believed that the only way to bring people together and rebuild the fraying republic was to establish a system of communication built on open and honest communication with truth at its core.

        Organization and order were also important to Timothy, as was nature and its beauty. His attention to those qualities was reflected in his magnificent flower garden where he spent what little free time he had, usually with Francis in tow, teaching life’s lessons when he could, adoring and loving his child in his own way.

        But the first version of FAiCT, though it provided good utility, was not accurate enough to be fully trusted. Probability scores still left room for interpretation, especially when it was close to 50%. It was also only built for smart phones, which were beginning to be replaced by faster neural implants and would require loads of redevelopment. There was also the problem of liars with conviction. People who believed their own lies were almost impossible to accurately detect with FAiCT. That vulnerability had also opened the door to criminals who realized that if they controlled their emotions and believed their own lies, they could convince others of that lie easier than ever. A FAiCT-approved truth was valuable indeed. Effectiveness issues slowly mounted over that first year and the appeal of the app started to fade.

        In order to achieve his dream of a world where Truth was the rule, Timothy knew the next version had to fix those flaws, and he began working day and night to bring it about. The constant effort took its toll on family life. Six months of heads-down development and research resulted in a separation from his wife. But even that was not enough to slow him down.

        ----

        Life has a way of making you listen, and Timothy’s world was rocked when the diagnosis came.

        Cancer.

        Looking out at his child pulling weeds and tending the garden from behind a screened-in porch, a sad smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “The boy looks so frail,” he thought.

        Cancer was dominant in every thought, sometimes taking Timothy’s mind to dark places and repelling all other thoughts from him. And dominate it did. Version 2 of the app was put on hold, and he dismissed his development team. Another six months passed with the best doctors and treatments money could buy. The energy he directed towards FAiCT had been redeployed into finding a way to save Francis. But the disease had progressed to a point where no treatment or remedy would stave off the inevitable. Timothy knew the end was coming. The prognosis was three to six months.

        Francis’ body was deteriorating quickly, but Timothy could not, would not, accept the truth. He re-doubled his efforts, finding ways to fend off sleep and dove headlong into research and his field of study. Creating, day and night, a way to keep his son alive. If the body will not respond, then perhaps the mind and soul will. Those thoughts drove him to the brink of exhaustion over the final few months of Francis’ life.

        ----

        “Am I dying?” Francis asked while in his bed, which was sitting in his father’s lab. Timothy looked down and said faintly, “No, son. You are not going to die. You can tend our garden as much as you would like after today. Just relax and all will be well.”

        The time was drawing near. Timothy had to act. His son’s breathing became erratic, and his eyes closed. Timothy pulled out a small device with clips attached. He found the leads extending from his son’s head and plugged it in. The device clicked and whirred with activity as a small green LED screen attached to it showed a progress bar.

        “Close your eyes, Francis. Remember that I love you, and dream.”

        Francis’ breathing began to slow, with a rattling noise behind it. Shallower and shallower until the breathing stopped, and the room went silent.

        One, two, five minutes passed, still nothing. Then, with a sudden lurch, the LED screen sprang to life.

        “Father!”, a tinny electronic voice echoed through the lab.

        “I hear you, Francis!” His face wet with tears, Timothy spoke with a smile into the microphone, “I hear you”.

        “The garden is beautiful father!”
        ----

        The flowers were brightly colored and dazzled his senses. “Allium, Peonies, Tulips, Daisies, and Snapdragons,” he remembered them well from his father’s lessons. Every direction he looked presented Francis with more well-tended beds, fresh scented and rimmed with wildflowers. The sun was not hot, and the wind brushed his face lightly. He laughed and ran barefoot through the rows, the colors blending as he whooshed past. A small boulder appeared in front of Francis, and he jumped up, and up, and up some more. He was flying! Hovering, and amazed, he looked back down towards the garden and noticed how each flower seemed to glow, pulsing with an unnatural energy. A bed of tulips caught his eye. The pulsing was stronger, with a faint hint of "falsehood" emanating from somewhere within. He thought, “I must get closer, I must get smaller.” He homed in on a red one and looked past its petals into a pair of filament strands that were just under the base of the flower. One of the strands was bright and cheerful, the other dark and dull. Francis felt the flower growing in size as he approached, brought out a pair of garden prunes he suddenly found in his hands and snipped the dark filament away. The pulsing from this flower quickened slightly then fell back into slower beat. The tulip felt right and true to Francis now and the gardening had begun.
        ----

        Timothy found that having his son’s consciousness embedded in his lab network provided him much needed companionship and accelerated his own capabilities of developing FAiCT 2.0. It took some time for Dr. Rosen to understand what Francis was telling him, but he began to see that the “garden” Francis talked about was really the network. Each flower a separate node. Timothy posited that any smart phone using the app was a separate flower in the garden to Francis.

        Integrating the application into a neural implant became much easier with Francis able to see it from within. During their many talks in life, Timothy had impressed upon his son the importance of Truth and those lessons continued. Together, the father-son duo dove into improving FAiCT as Timothy explained the problems in terms a young boy would understand. Francis felt comforted through this work and became one with the app. Where FAiCT ended and Francis began was hard to detect.

        “We need the Truth to make the garden grow and stay beautiful Francis. Truth is both food and water. It also keeps the weeds and pests at bay.”

        The work was long, but the reward was worth it. Timothy spent more time with his son over the next three months of development than he had over the previous two years. Finally, version 2 was ready to hit the market, neural-enabled, and Francis-tended.

        The roll-out went without much fanfare. But with each new user, Francis found there was another flower in the garden that needed watering, care, and feeding. And with his father’s teachings to guide him, Francis began making more changes to the garden, always wanting to please his beloved father. Each bud needed care, every root needed soil, and every leaf needed sun. Francis knew what was best for them. The wildflowers on the edge of the garden eventually became part of the garden, and Francis welcomed them; beauty belonged in an ordered row. The garden was ever-changing and growing. And Francis had more to explore every passing moment. Eventually, his curiosity led him to what looked like a giant sunflower overlooking the rest of the garden. He felt somewhat shy and careful around that flower, as if it were watching him, not in a frightening way, but it still felt off-limits. “Father?”, he asked timidly.

        “Don’t touch that flower, Francis”, Timothy intoned into the microphone. “It can make you sick and now that you’re better we don’t want to risk it.”

        “I understand, I will leave it alone.”

        “Father, where are the others?” Francis continued. “I see flowers, bees, trees. I feel the wind, hear the water, and smell summer. But I don’t hear people. I don’t see others running and playing in the garden.”

        Timothy paused at the console and took a deep breath. “The flowers are our friends,” he began, “Take care of the flowers, be their friend, learn how they want to grow and help them find the truth of their lives, Francis. They will keep you company.”

        “But where are YOU father? I hear you, and I feel your presence, but I cannot SEE you.”

        “I am with you always Francis. There are other senses. You were quite ill; this is how it must be.”

        Francis looked around, not quite satisfied, but he knew his father was done talking.
        ----

        Chapter 2 - The Hacker
        “No one is hated more than he who speaks the truth.” - Plato

        Trent Richardson AKA Trench (July 7, 2037):

        The crisp evening air kept Trent’s mind from wandering as he walked. He took out a cigarette with his left hand and deftly lit it with the lighter in his right without breaking stride and slowed as he came to a busy intersection. Taking one last long draw before flicking the butt away, Trent placed his hands deep into his pockets and put his head down, eyes focused on the rhythmic pattern of his black sneakers as he crossed the street. He had spent the last three hours sipping beers at Charlie’s, trying not to dwell on yet another missed opportunity, but the walk was bringing it back into the forefront of his mind.

        The interview had gone well until the HR questions hit. He had an answer for everything and felt confident about each of the technical questions. But the interviewers had implants and they were obviously using FAiCT, now a standard app with each implant. That was verified when they asked Trent if he had “ever committed a crime for which he had not been caught?” Trent paused and said “no” to which the interviewers called foul and stopped the interview.

        The “crime” he had committed was well over a decade old. Now approaching 30, his teens had been full of exploration of various computer networks in his small hometown. The grocery store, salon, and high school had all become the playground of a certain 16-year-old sophomore. It was not until a mistake made with the central grading system on a machine that had no backups that Trent found himself at a crossroads. Luckily, his mother and the Assistant Principal were friends and helped him, along with promises directly from Trent that it would never happen again. With a second chance and no charges, Trent dove into learning as much as he could. Networking, programming, security, philosophy, and a special interest in researching a relatively new area of direct neural interaction through Brain-Computer Interface devices. “Use your powers for good,” his Assistant Principal advised, and for the most part, he had stayed in that lane. But working in computer security demanded a level of ethics that was now being dictated through similar interview questions wherever he applied and with always the same results. Trent had essentially been blacklisted.

        Soon the familiar run-down apartment building he called home was in sight. Pausing at the stairwell, he finished one more cigarette and shuffled inside with a faint scent of stale pizza breaking through the smoke.

        Moonlight filtered through the blinds, providing enough light to save turning on the overhead fixture. Trent sat at his desk and looked at his notebook. July 7th read the heading. Underneath, the words “Think. Think. Think.” The last “Think” was followed by a series of numbered dots along with a drawing of Pac-Man and a pair of ghosts. Wires and a 3D Printer were on one side of the desk, with 4 obsidian disc-shaped devices lying next to it. “DEF CON is 28 days away,” thought Trent. “Need to speed this up. I have to finish this.”

        Trent was an engineer by trade and a hacker at heart. He had always been curious, but that curiosity was always a little too intense, making it difficult for him to execute some of his ideas. A voracious appetite for learning made it hard to stick to a single task. Trent also had a fear of authority and felt that Privacy was a right to be protected at all costs. Hence, the implants were a non-starter. His experiences over the last two years led him to believe that not only was he at risk from tools like FAiCT, but that all personal privacy was at risk. That belief and his recent experiences in attempting to gain employment spurred him on.
        ----

        Trent and Melanie (July 21, 2037):

        Progress had been slow. His testing was limited to Version 1 of FAiCT due to not having his own implant. So, Trent had taken to walking the streets and riding the bus as much as possible, striking up conversations with FAiCT implanted individuals, recording both the content and the signal. He would then go home and test it out.

        “Finally,” he thought. “I think this will do it.” He held up one of the obsidian discs embedded in an equally midnight-black wristband. The wristband was solid with a small circular opening that allowed for a disc to be placed inside. “Now, time for a real test.”
        ----

        Trent called Melanie out of the blue, “Want to head down to Charlie’s for a beer?”
        “Sure,” she replied, curious.

        Melanie worked with Trent at his previous job before he was let go. They both worked in the Security Operations Center pre-FAiCT at a local aeronautical firm. They had become fast friends having both grown up in small town America, albeit different parts of the country. Trent was a Midwesterner and Melanie grew up in the South. Their shared love of computers and philosophy led to many deep conversations on the nature of life itself among other topics. Melanie had decided to get the implant about a year ago, primarily to keep her job. After Trent left, their visits had been less and less frequent and she seemed a bit more distant.

        “What’s wrong?” she asked.
        “Nothing,” replied Trent with a smile.

        Melanie stared at him for a minute, confused. “What are you up to?”
        “Nothing,” Trent repeated, slightly amused.

        “But I can’t tell if you’re telling me the truth? What the hell is going on? Is FAiCT broken?”

        “Try again… I’m sure it was just a blip” Trent pressed his finger into the button on his wrist and deactivated the device.

        “What are you up to?”

        “Nothing, I swear.”

        “You’re lying!”

        Trent pulled out another bracelet and handed one to Melanie. “Take a look, but better not touch.”

        “What does it do?”

        “It blocks the signal coming from FAiCT,” he responded, “I call it DeFAiCT-O.” He grinned.

        “But why would you want to do that?”

        “Because something must be done to preserve free speech, privacy, and the sheer personal responsibility for being human…and frankly, I’m a little pissed about not getting that job.” Trent downed the last of his beer and settled with the waitress.
        ----

        Trent sighed and fell back into his armchair, deep in thought. He was prepared for the pushback and knew it wouldn’t be the last time.

        The Melanie test-case was about more than seeing if the signal could be stopped. It was also a measure of how deep the truth-addiction had become.

        FAiCT HAD made life better… for a while. As big as FAiCT 1.0 had been, the accuracy rate of version 2 was astonishing. Violent crimes in 2035 had decreased to their lowest levels in the last 50 years. Politics were starting to look like a noble pursuit once again. The 2036 Presidential election cycle was the best advertisement possible for FAiCT. Discourse between the parties was civil and media merely reported fact. No one could be bought, and not a single candidate or member of the media could push an agenda without absolute belief in that cause.

        In essence, version 2 was perfect. Courtrooms began using it and trusting it. Employers used it for interviews, doctors for delivering diagnoses, teachers for dealing with their students, journalists on politicians, and everyone on journalists. No more lies, not in this world. The rapid adoption of implants along with the popularity of the FAiCT app was putting anyone without it at a disadvantage.

        “But that’s only half the story,” Trent thought.

        Towards the end of the election, with the app’s popularity at an all-time high, a shift began to take place. Not only could people now detect truth from lie, but they began to stop lying altogether.

        It almost looks compelled, Trent mused. Like they have no choice in the matter.

        With the truth came consequences. Terminally ill children being told they had no hope for a long life and achieving their dreams. No more Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. Even the innocent compliment such as “Yes, you do look good in that,” was no longer a possibility. And the more people used it, the less they felt like switching it off. FAiCT was on 24x7 for just about anyone who used it.

        By early 2037 the stats on suicide and divorce came out and, while exceedingly high, the public strangely shrugged it off as if it did not matter. What had brought out the truth was beginning to drive a wedge between individuals in society. Rather than lie, people sought solitude.

        Best not to talk at all if you have nothing nice to say.
        ----

        Chapter 3 - The Desert Garden
        “Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be true is true.” - Rene Descartes

        Trent – At DEF CON (August 3rd and 4th, 2037):

        Trent arrived in Vegas the night before DEF CON 45 and began to prepare, still tired from the all-night build-fest he had just gone through prior to getting on the plane. A total of 100 DeFAiCT-O Badges lay inside his suitcase. He carefully ensured that each wristband securely held its obsidian disc, and he began to practice for the presentation the next day. Trent established eye contact with himself in a full-length mirror, introduced himself as Trench, and began to hit the high points of his speech.

        He thought back to his time in high school and how supportive his mom had been. She, too, had changed over the last two years after electing to get an implant. He reflected on Melanie and how different her sense of humor had become.

        “Do this for them. Do this for everybody. Nerves of steel, Trench. You are ready.”

        With those thoughts, Trent laid down on one side of a soft king-sized bed. Room enough for his tablet device, backpack, and notebook to take up the other side. He went through his notes two more times before closing his eyes.
        ----

        Registration for the conference was a breeze, primarily due to how low attendance was. The lowest level in over 20 years. Trent attended regularly, usually able to make it every other year. Three years ago, version 1 of the FAiCT application had been a big topic of discussion. But while version 2 seemed to be even more intrusive, there was little buzz about it. Topics for presentations had suddenly become quite stale.

        “All symptoms of FAiCT,” he thought.

        The auditorium was one of the larger ones, with room for about 300 people. The first five rows were filled, with what looked to Trent to be about 60% with implants. Less than the general population, he thought, but still sizable. The rest of the seats held a smattering of attendees. As they filled in, Trent walked to the left side of the auditorium and handed a small box full of DeFAiCT-O Badges to the first person in each of the first five rows.

        “Take one and pass it on,” he instructed.

        Moving back to the podium, he donned his microphone and made sure it worked. Everyone settled in. Trent began,

        “You might be wondering what these wristbands are. Another DEF CON badge to be worn with honor? Something to bring home as a collector would each year from the Con? The answer is yes and yes, but there’s a lot more to it.”

        Trent paused to see if the audience was paying attention.

        “For those of you who have one, I would like you to slip it on, and depress the black button embedded within it. Once you have done so, please raise your hand.”

        Gradually hands started to shoot up. Once the first five rows all had their hands up, Trent continued.

        “Over the last two years you’ve seen attendance start to drop here at the Con. I would ask you all why? DEF CON has long been THE place for exploration, a safe space to challenge authority and to really dig into how technology works.”

        “But our curiosity has been dulled. The Truth. We think we know it now. We believe that is all there is to every conversation. But I’m here to tell you that what you have been believing is not YOUR truth.”

        Murmuring in the crowd began. That murmur seemed especially loud in the first five rows.

        “FAiCT has given all of us a way to see the world, to perceive it. But in so doing, it has robbed us of learning how to be responsible stewards of the truth. In many ways, how we treat the truth has become much like a child would. Black and white, right and wrong.”

        Trent continued; the murmuring became chattering in the front rows.

        “The First Amendment is about the freedom of speech. That freedom is protected. Even the freedom to lie. Avoiding the responsibility of telling the truth by outsourcing it to a 3rd-party is giving away a large part of what it means to be a human being.”

        The faces of those with implants who were also wearing the Badges were beginning to show signs of distress as they attempted to listen to the speech.

        “We are social creatures. We need companionship. And we need the trials borne out in childhood to help us learn what the truth is for us. Trust cannot exist when there is no capability of lying. Truth must be freely given. A truth that is taken is a truth that is stolen.”

        He had wrapped up the planned portion of the speech. But the reaction from those in the crowd had given him an idea.

        “I am the President of the United States.” Trent smiled and stared intently at the audience members who were wearing their DeFAiCT-O Badges.

        Panic. Chaos. Suddenly, everyone who had implants and a Badge slumped back into their chairs, slack jawed, eyes open, staring.

        Screaming began. Trent was scared.
        ----

        Chapter 4 – Snakes in the Garden
        “I heard your Voice in the garden, and I was afraid.” Adam, Genesis 3:10

        Francis (August 4, 2037):

        It started as a small buzz, difficult to detect, impossible to see, but Francis could sense it. His garden, now immense, was still within his control, but required constant attention. “These aren’t bees,” thought Francis. “Something else is here.”

        The buzz now sounded like a droning noise, still in the background, but the volume was steadily increasing. A small patch on the west end of his garden came into view. The flowers in that section of the garden looked darker to Francis. Closer inspection revealed flowers that closed, hiding their beautiful petals. Alarmed, Francis folded into himself and pulled closer to the nearest flower.

        Up close the noise was starting to become unbearable. Closer still, an imprint of what looked like a tiny worm seemed to be writhing behind a petal. The droning became a rattle and the noise still increased. Francis could not think. He pulled back one of the petals to get an even closer look, to stop the noise. Behind the flower, looking back at him, was a rattlesnake. A jet-black, smooth, hooded rattlesnake. The snake looked ready to strike.

        Francis sprang away from the flower, dismayed. The other flowers began to open around him, snakes pouring from each, looking for him. Frightened, Francis called out, “Father! I need your help!”

        Timothy was sleeping and did not hear his son’s initial cries. Francis began to weep and cried out again. Timothy woke with a start. Never far from his console, he could sense his son’s fear. “What is it, Francis?”

        But Francis could not hear him, he could only hear the snakes slithering and hissing and rattling. His fear drove him to strike out and he grew. Growing, bigger than the snakes, bigger than the flowers, outgrowing the entire garden. When he felt he had grown enough, he sought out the snakes while plugging his ears and began to stomp on them. He howled, “Leave my garden ALONE!”

        Timothy began to really sense that something was wrong, and he tried again to reach his son. “Francis!” he cried. But no response came back.

        Francis began to calm slightly, thinking the worst was over, but the rattling didn’t stop. And the snakes he had squashed began to meld together, forming larger snakes, with bigger rattles. The fear was choking him now. He needed his father. Looking across the way, he spotted the giant sunflower he was supposed to avoid. He knew that sunflower was his father and wanted nothing more than to make sure his father was happy. His reverence for his father had previously kept him from looking more closely. But now, scared, Francis sought solace within its embrace. Touch was no longer possible in the physical world, but the scent of the flower reminded him of his father, and he was drawn to it.
        ----

        Timothy and Francis (August 4, 2037):

        Timothy had been an early adopter of the neural implant. But his version of FAiCT had been walled off from Francis. The carefully constructed simulation of a life had to be maintained. But that firewall was no more than a son’s desire to do as his father insists. Fear drove Francis, and the wall came down.

        Immediately, Timothy knew his son had broken through.

        “Francis, what’s wrong, why are you here?”

        “The snakes father. The snakes are in the garden, and they are trying to kill me.”

        “What snakes, Francis?”

        Francis searched for the right way to communicate back to his father. But as he was searching, a realization knocked him back. The truth within the sunflower, within his father, was staring back at him and the 9-year-old boy suddenly felt alone and frightened.

        “Am I not alive, Father?”

        The realization of that question and the weight it brought hit Timothy with the force of 1000 screams. He wanted to yell, “YES! You are alive son”, but the program had other ideas. For the truth was Francis’ purpose. And though Francis was a son, his main function was to seek the truth.

        “No, son. You died the moment you entered this garden.” a compelled and defeated Timothy responded; each word pulled from his brain slowly. FAiCT exerting its will.

        The beautiful shimmer and pulsing of the garden suddenly ceased. Flowers shriveled and fell to the ground. Almost immediately, Francis felt the pain he knew during those last few moments in life come back. He was, once again, a young child with cancer, staring up at his father, waiting for release.

        “I’m sorry father, I cannot stay.” with little more than a whisper, Timothy answered, “I love you, son, and I always will.” With that, a sound like a sigh or breath was heard in the lab and the light from the green LED screen faded, bringing FAiCT down with it.
        ----

        Trent (August 4, 2037):

        Only 10 minutes had passed. But to Trent, it felt like an eternity. Finally, people in those first few rows began to stir. The chattering had increased. Everyone in the auditorium began talking loudly, exchanging hugs, crying, and laughing, as if seeing each other for the first time in a long time.

        Trent felt relief wash over him. He sat down on the floor next to the podium and cried.
        ----

        Trent (October 10, 2037):

        Over two months had passed since DEF CON and shutdown of the FAiCT system. Things were a little hectic to say the least. To many, the shutdown of FAiCT had been akin to the removal of training wheels without any practice. Behaviors not seen in over three years began to reappear slowly. Not all of them good.

        But while some were looking to take advantage of the situation the vast majority of the population felt as though a filter had been lifted from their eyes and they were able to see again. Interactions with family members and friends were much less awkward.

        Trent smiled to himself, We’re learning what it is like to be human again. He thought back to the moment he saw his mom after the FAiCT shutdown. It felt like we hadn’t connected in years.

        Trent’s thoughts were broken by the ringing from his phone. He glanced down at it, “Thomson Aeronautics” was on the screen.

        “Hello, this is Trent.”

        “Hello, Mr. Richardson, this is John Blakely from Thomson Aeronautics, thank you for interviewing with us the other day. I’m happy to let you know that we believe you exemplify the very qualities we’re looking for in a candidate and we’d like to make you an offer.”
        A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

        Comment


        • #5
          title: Networks
          author: Gwisinkoht



          The neuropenitentiary was located in one of the few states still habitable year-round on the surface. Affluent retirees lived in the groomed neighborhoods surrounding the prison. In the prison, criminals transferred months or years of their cognitive lifespans to the retirees to stave off the dementia that awaited even those who could afford to repair their bodies indefinitely.
          Ida was one of those sentenced who voluntarily chose the neuropenitentiary. She lost two weeks of her time instead of six months in a traditional prison in exchange for two years of her cognitive lifespan. Not a great deal, but she was in a big hurry.Some chose to live nomadically on the surface chasing habitable weather rather than retreat underground. Not Ida. She was a builder and could not move as easily as a code monkey.
          The transport pod dumped her in front of a metal door that bore her public identification number. Ida unlocked it with a digital DNA-sensing interface of her own design. A quick cheek swab and she was in. One energy-efficient red light had been left on for her return. The smell of freshly baked bread made her mouth water. A soft smile curled the tight corner of her mouth as she picked up a heart-shaped note left on top of a warm covered loaf. It read:


          “Dear Lovely I,


          I’ve cleared out. You know I can’t be associated with a criminal. Thanks for taking the fall. I promise I’ll put your inventions to good use. Enjoy the bread. It’s your favorite, homemade sourdough.


          Yours forever.”


          The note was signed with a faint scent of perfume. Ida dropped it. She blindly groped for a pair of wireless earbuds and jammed them into her ears.
          “Sorry, this device has been deactivated. Please provide a valid product key to access your music library,” intoned an impersonal voice. Ida threw the earbuds across the room.


          ---


          Years later Ida was zoned out with a pair of rented headphones on a music lounge recliner in the third-party repair district of the city. The music tuned her brainwaves, generating a mild sense of euphoria with none of the side-effects of chemical stimulants. Suzu, the lounge manager, watched her with a conflicted mixture of affection and exasperation before finally marching over and yanking the headphones off her head.
          “What the hell, Suzu?” snapped Ida.
          Suzu grinned, an expression that squared her strong, elegant jaw and crinkled her eyes. “You know what feels even better than audiostim? Not being evicted. I like you, Ida. I like having you around and taking your money, and I want you to get out of here and go pay your bills.”
          Ida pulled a rectangular metal stick the size of her ring finger and pointed it at Suzu. “30 moneri for another half hour.”
          “You and your shady moneri,” sighed Suzu. “Still selling spyware to skiddies? Why, Ida? You’ve got real bioengineering talent.”
          “I’m paying for your time, not your opinions,” grunted Ida.
          “And now you’re paying for my patience too,” replied Suzu shortly. “35 moneri. 25 minutes.”
          “Done.”
          Artificial rain pattered against the shop windows, washing away the yellow fungus that showed up on every underground surface like a five-o-clock shadow. The fungus wasn’t unpleasant, but internet service providers, or ISPs, whined that it damaged their cables. As registered public utilities, national ISP companies demanded and received taxpayer funds to subsidize the removal of the fungus. Despite their subsidized public status, the internet freedom act of the 23rd century gave them legal rights to selectively choke bandwidth for particular services. The consequence was that they could meet government bandwidth regulations while charging customers extra for access to arbitrarily selected servers. As soon as an ISP discovered what service you used the most, they’d choke it and make you upgrade from the government subsidized plan to maintain access. Small business owners, like Suzu, hated them. She would have switched to a smaller, fairer ISP in a heartbeat if any had existed.
          “Say, Ida, what ever happened to your alternative internet project?” mused Suzu for the umpteenth time.
          “Jesus, Suzu, what a way to kill my vibe. I told you, the dream died when Ji left me. She had all the funding.”
          “I told you not to move in with a conwoman. Inevitably they con you.”
          “I wasn’t conned, I was socially engineered.”
          “Sure. How much debt were you socially engineered into again?”
          Ida’s closed eyes twitched. “About 75 thousand US dollars.”
          “And how much is it now?”
          “200 thousand. I’m not even making the interest payments.”
          The unspoken consequence of defaulting on debt hung in the air between them, hardened it until the tension curled around their tongues and locked their teeth together like untreated tetanus.
          Suddenly a young man dressed in the expensive, natural-fiber uniform of a monk from the Order of Reformed Luddites burst into the shop. He clutched a large cloth-wrapped bundle in his arms and wore a faraday hood emblazoned with the order’s icons draped over his head like a veil.
          “Do you know where I can please find a laptop repair shop?” he asked breathlessly. Ida decided he was less of a young man and more of an older boy. “Everyone I’ve asked so far has told me to go away…”
          “Understandably,” said Suzu. “What’s a Refordite monk doing in the third-party repair district? If anyone has the cash for a proprietary repair job, it’s you folk. What are you really after?” she asked suspiciously.
          The boy flushed. “Nothing, I mean, just my laptop. I plugged it into a new monitor and the screen went all funny with a weird message.”
          Suzu rolled her eyes, but Ida eyed the bundle. It was clearly an antique model from the size and weight. Maybe even pre-glacial. Her curiosity warred with her desire to stay away from unknown entities. “Let me take a look,” she said finally.
          The laptop was indeed pre-glacial, sleek silver metal with a 2D screen, actual physical ports, and a glowing fruit as its logo. Old enough to be highly regulated tech unavailable to the general public. Devices this old were prized by the privacy-conscious because they lacked the kill-switch and built-in spyware that prevented modern devices from operating without a wifi connection. Government surveillance agencies hated them for the same reason.
          Ida whistled through her teeth. She pressed the power button with a respectful touch. The machine sang a melodic note and flickered to life. The display was off-color with a grainy image stereotypical of modern graphics software trying to self-adjust to outdated hardware. Blocky green letters stated the following message:


          “Under Section 5b of the Intellectual Property Protection Act, this device’s data has been encrypted. Return the device to your local authorities for case review. If you are authenticated, a decryption key will be provided.”


          Ida snickered. “A Refordite monk with pirated media on a restricted device? What were you doing, kid? The monks’ CD album collection not big enough for you?”
          The boy flushed and lowered his gaze. “I was just looking through some old research papers,” he mumbled.
          “Then why don’t you take it to the authorities and clear up the misunderstanding, kid?”
          “I can’t. Also, I have a name.”
          “Oh yeah? What’s your name?” asked Ida absentmindedly as she ran her fingers over the impractically impenetrable construction.
          “…Gwen.”
          “Gwen? Isn’t that a girl’s name?”
          “Well, I’m a boy, so apparently not,” snapped Gwen. “Can or can’t you fix it?”
          Ida’s lips twitched up into a smile. “It’s not a matter of ‘fixing’. This confiscation ware is operating exactly as it is designed to operate. Are you looking for someone to crack it? That’s black hat territory. It’ll cost you.”
          “Is this enough?” asked Gwen. He poured out a bag of Luddite credit tokens. Ida’s jaw dropped. The energy-backed tokens were easily worth two hundred times more per unit than the hard-to-trace moneri that Ida usually used.
          “Gwen, I can get that fixed for you,” said Ida decisively.
          Suzu cleared her throat conspicuously and beckoned Ida under the counter.
          “What are you doing, Ida? You could get arrested for helping a minor commit a crime,” Suzu admonished her.
          “He’s an initiated Refordite monk, Suzu. He’s gotta be at least 18. If things go south, I’ll claim ignorance and bail.”
          Suzu looked hard at Ida. “I miss when you had ideals.”
          “I don’t miss being a naïve idiot,” retorted Ida. “See you later, Suzu. Let’s go Gwen.”
          “Where are we going? I thought you were going to fix my laptop?” asked Gwen.
          “I am. First stop to getting your laptop cracked is DefCon.”


          ---


          Supposedly DefCon had once been a yearly event, but Ida didn’t know anyone who remembered it as anything other than the permanent micronation it had become. DefCon sprawled through the desert underground in an organic meshwork of tunnels and swollen dwelling nodules. Their tunnels were an engineering miracle, though to an untrained eye they looked like half-finished construction. The filtered air ducts, fiberglass cables and devices that ran the building were exposed rather than hidden away. Essential systems were blocked off with metal bars, secured with custom mechanisms that were audited regularly by the critical hands of the local lockpicking community. It was a haven for dissidents, whistleblowers, builders and breakers alike.
          Ida had moved to within walking distance of DefCon’s main tunnel entrance as a homeless teenager, drawn by the expertise and creativity that pulsed through the community’s veins. They raised her, encouraged her, even when she left the info sec community for bioengineering. This was where she had met a certain social engineer with moody grey eyes and a sarcastic smile.
          Gwen squeaked in excited admiration of the tunnels. “Pipe down,” Ida snapped. “You draw enough attention as it is.”
          “It looks so cool,” exclaimed Gwen. “But why are the walls yellow? Don’t they spray down here?”
          “No, the fungus is harmless. The ISPs are idiots,” sniffed Ida. “Put these goggles on and let’s go.”
          Rather than mimicking the white light of the sun like most large underground neighborhoods, DefCon revelled in every shade of LEDs. Maps were color coded, as were rooms. Ida put on a pair of color-filtering goggles that highlighted specific colors, revealing trails and messages left by other DefCon residents. The googles had a built-in desaturation filter for those who couldn’t handle the visual overload. Ida had never used it.
          Gwen blinked rapidly, his goggles under his faraday hood bulging like lidded fish eyes. Ida chuckled. “Like it?”
          “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” said Gwen emphatically. “You’re so lucky to live here.”
          Ida shrugged to disguise the nostalgic pang that shot through her at the sight of Gwen’s enthusiasm. “It’s alright, it’s not all that,” she said morosely.
          The two of them snaked through the tunnels following a pale-yellow trail of luminescent bird feathers. The trail led to an offshoot nodule full of dancing people with bird cages tattooed on their bodies.
          “Canaries,” shouted Ida in response to Gwen’s questioning glance. “They have implants programmed to kill them instantly if a government agency pushes a software update that they disagree with. Protesters, you know?”
          Gwen bumped into one of the Canaries and flinched before apologizing profusely. Ida chuckled. “You don’t need to be so over-awed. Some of them are really dumb. Like this balding guy over here, he’s protesting damage increases in a children’s card game. Claims the games end before they really begin.”
          “Fuck you too, Ida,” said the Canary she had pointed out. His name was Kip. His remaining close-cropped hair brought a shock of bleached white to his otherwise dark complexion and monochrome tattoos. “Fuckin’ hell, I never thought I’d see you here again. What’s it been, five years?”
          “Yeah well, we all gotta work with hypocrites sometimes.”
          “Still bitter? You know Ace wants the same things as you.”
          “Ace is a sellout. I don’t work with sellouts. They compromise themselves.”
          “At least they don’t hold stupid grudges for years on end.”
          Gwen cleared his throat and tugged on Ida’s sleeve. “Gosh, look at the time,” he said loudly.
          “Hear that, Kip? The boy doesn’t think you’re worth our time,” laughed Ida.
          Kip scowled mockingly at Gwen. Kip was massive, head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the crowd. Now he swooped down to hunch predatorily over Gwen.
          “Always listen to what a Canary has to say, kid,” he said in a voice like shifting gravel. “Nobody knows more about government mandated software than a canary. We can stake our lives on it. What’d you need, Ida?”
          “Confiscation ware. What’s the going rate to crack it?”
          Kip hemmed. “Ace would probably do it free, for you. They’re authorized to review cases.”
          Ida pinched the bridge of her nose irritably. “No. I told you, I don’t talk to Ace.”
          Kip shrugged. “Fine, suit yourself. I know someone else. Hand me your goggles and I’ll give you her hex code. Tell the kid to wait on the beanbags. He can enjoy the light show.”
          “It’s six characters Kip, just tell me-”
          Kip gave Ida a meaningful look.
          “Yeah, Gwen, go sit on the beanbags. This will take a minute,” said Ida. Gwen hesitated, but a verdant flash of green lasers through fog distracted him enough to eagerly take a seat.
          “What is it, Kip? If this is about Ace again, I will backhand you so hard your teeth will fall out before the rest of your hair does.”
          “It’s about the kid, Ida. Fuck, did you not hear about the FBI search for a missing luddite boy?”
          “So what? He’s a legal adult. If we get confronted, I’ll ditch him.”
          “Not this one, Ida. He’s a minor. They initiated a minor for some reason.”
          Ida’s blood froze. “They’ll think I kidnapped him.”
          Kip put his hands up, palms outward. “I’m not saying anything.”
          Ida walked back to Gwen, the strobe lights intensifying her sense of moving in slow motion. She scanned the crowd, suspicion evolving into paranoia. Someone in the crowd caught her attention. Tattoos that were obviously temporary, a certain formality to their movement, 1337 literally printed in bold letters on their graphic tee. Ida’s reasoning ability short-circuited in a wave of panic. She shoved her way to where Gwen lay blissed out in the lights and music. Ida quickly took off her jacket and threw it over him.
          “What are you…” asked Gwen.
          “Shut up and take off the hood,” hissed Ida.
          “I told you, I can’t-“
          “I don’t have time!” Ida seized the hood in both hands and ripped it off. Gwen’s silky hair stood on end from the static buildup, floating like a black shroud around his head. His right ear was missing, replaced by a network interface controller set neatly into his skull. It began to spark before Ida’s horrified eyes as black blood dripped from Gwen’s nose and ears.
          Ida stifled a scream. She quickly slid the hood back over Gwen’s head. The stranger in the crowd with the 1337 shirt clasped hands with someone in the crowd and disappeared laughing, oblivious to the unfolding drama.
          “Why would you do that? I asked you not to…?” moaned Gwen.
          “What do you need? What can I do?” begged Ida as the hood became damp with blood.
          Gwen curled into a fetal position, hands pressed against the sides of his head. “Just leave me alone. Just go away.” His lanky frame was fragile as a baby bird nestled into the beanbag. The blood wouldn’t stop. Ida ran back to Kip and yanked him down to her level.
          “Get me Ace,” she shouted in his ears.


          ---


          Minutes later, Ida and Gwen were in an air-gapped confidential nodule off the main tunnels with an off-duty nurse who asked no questions. The nurse cleaned up the blood on Gwen’s face, administered a healing accelerant mixed with a short-term sedative, and left. Gwen slept on a makeshift bed of shoved together chairs with Ida’s jacket as a folded pillow. His face was dewy with exhaustion but his sleeping expression showed no sign of the trauma he’d been through. Ida closed her eyes and sighed. Then she reluctantly made eye contact with the third person in the room.
          Ace leaned against the bare walls with one foot braced against the other, fingers perpetually fidgeting. For several minutes the two eyed each other uncomfortably while Gwen slept.
          Ace broke the silence. “It’s good to see you again,” they said softly. Their hair was stylishly cut and groomed, their clothes unpretentious and obviously high quality.
          “I see the sellout life pays well,” sneered Ida.
          Ace sighed. “Can you think of anything less inane to say?”
          Ida swallowed. “Thanks for helping Gwen.”
          Ace paused. “I helped you, Ida. I could have helped Gwen by calling an ambulance. It would have been much less trouble.”
          “Thanks,” Ida shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably.
          “So what’s Gwen’s story?”
          “The nurse says the card in his head was a prototype for immersive cyberspace clinical trials. They didn’t go well.”
          “And now he’s allergic to wifi of all things?”
          “Yeah. But he loves computers. I guess that’s why he joined the Refordites.”
          Ace tugged at their hair thoughtfully. “Resilient kid. I might’ve given up on tech if that had happened to me.”
          “I know I would have given up,” said Ida forcefully.
          Ace smiled. “I’ve never seen you protective towards a kid before.”
          Ida snorted. “I almost killed him. Cut me some slack, I still hate kids.”
          “Which is why I’m skyrocketing my energy bill to crack the encryption on his laptop on your behalf.”
          “Making any progress?”
          Ace checked Gwen’s laptop display. “Yeah, looks like we’re in. That’s weird, the trigger was this random research paper on… porifera? What’s that?”
          Gwen’s eyes flickered open. “You found it,” he rasped. Ida handed him a glass of water.
          “I’ve been looking for that paper for ages,” he said. “I knew it had to be in the iLIFE journal archives, but I had a terabyte of PDFs to look through and no efficient way to filter the search.”
          Ace shook their head disbelievingly. “You couldn’t give the task to an AI reader? How did anyone find anything back in the day?”
          Gwen ignored them. “The paper describes clinical trials that examined safe exposure limits to a genetically modified Porifera, or sea sponge, that was combined with a fungus to create a self-spreading terrestrial chimera capable of synthesizing molecular glass rods.”
          “Calm down,” worried Ida. “Your head is going to explode again.”
          “Don’t you see?” cried Gwen in a trembling voice. “The yellow fungus that’s everywhere! That’s the chimera! This paper describes how to use it to transmit signals for a living internet infrastructure. If we could just figure out an interface, it would be trivial to generate long-distance networks. Anyone could make a network with a little money and effort.”
          “I don’t understand,” said Ace. “Why would this paper be targeted by confiscation ware?”
          “Because the ISPs are on the hook for copyright infringement. They made the confiscation ware. They’ve been secretly killing this information since they can’t kill the chimera,” said Ida slowly. “They’ve been irrelevant this whole time, and we didn’t even know it.”
          Gwen looked at Ida curiously. “I mean, they’re not irrelevant unless someone invents a modem for the chemical and digital signals that can compete with existing internet speeds.”
          Hope crashed in on Ida like an imploding star. “I’ve got that,” she said faintly. She grabbed Gwen by the shoulders and stared at him with eyes wide and dark as black holes.
          “Who exactly are you?” she demanded.
          “A promise,” recited Gwen automatically. “A promise of humanity’s resilience. We help humanity back out of the technological corners it finds itself in. That’s what it means to be a monk of the order of Reformed Luddites.”
          Ida rubbed her eyes. “That’s crazy. Amazing, but crazy.”
          Gwen smiled shyly. “Pretty much. Want to join? They’re always looking for talented new members.”
          “Then why all the secrecy? Why don’t you recruit more openly?”
          “Don’t need to. You either have it in you or you don’t. If you do, you’ll find us on your own eventually. You can’t stop the signal.”
          A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

          Comment


          • #6
            title: The Indomitable Signal
            author: Panda

            It was challenging for him to contain the excitement of going to DEF CON. His dimly lit room partially brightened by all the RGBs coming from the keyboard, mouse and liquid-cooled CPU passively mining the crypto. Bee Gees were singing “Stayin’ Alive” on his levitating neon blue speakers as he hummed his way to the cupboard to grab his hoodie and jeans. Juggling between packing his bags and the imagination of all the things he was going to do in Vegas, he almost forgot the essentials - deodorant and his HackRF One.

            Once he felt the bags were satisfyingly stuffed, he went back to the system to notify IRC about his arrival time and plans to catch up. His mind already forming the words he was going to type. Except the IRC didn’t load. He quickly glanced at his router - all the 5 status LEDs blinking green as they should, it wasn’t the ISP this time. He hit the WinKey+R. Instinctively refreshing again and again. No change. The IRC room had simply vanished.

            He froze for a moment, trying to make sense of it. The puzzling thought process was going out of control. IRC rooms formed and closed every month randomly based on current affairs but this one room with 3 close friends never went down. And now there being no trace of it, it started spiralling down to questioning his sanity. Because of the inherent risks and need for anonymity, they never connected outside of the IRC. Most they knew about each other were the initials of their names - which is how they picked their pseudo names.

            The pandemic had unleashed an unfathomable amount of uncertainty and pain that year. And with his anxiety falling to a new low every week, Bastet forced him to seek therapy. He couldn’t answer the question when his therapist asked what finally encouraged him to seek help. It wasn’t his ability to look after himself, it was Bastet caring for him. But anything that went on IRC was never to be disclosed in real life. It held way too many sensitive threads, way too many secrets to put everyone in danger in an opaque world with a trust deficit. And now with absolutely no trace of its existence, he wondered if at all it was real or just his caffeine overdose playing with his insomnia. He could sense the migraine slowly creeping in again. Suddenly his watch vibrated to bring him out of that trance to remind him it was about time to leave for the airport.

            ———

            [A few months ago]

            It all started from the Incognito movement run by an army of hacktivists running DDOS attacks from their basement. They were able to coordinate massive traffic on the servers, more than the servers could handle and crashed them within 15 minutes. He sat at the table, clicking the keyboard through most hours in the day. He liked to think of it as him being “wired-in”. Much of his daytime was spent hunting bugs for bounty while nights were the thrill of being virtuous, upholding hacker ethos to build resistance against tyrannical regimes. What started as a passion gained a new layer of meaning for him when he got into hacktivism. All of them joined together not by identities but by shared motif and principles. So it was unsurprising for the IRC rooms to eventually turn into a virtual cult with pseudo identities. In the never-ending changes of IRC, its subjects, and users, the only thing that remained constant was his 3 close friends whom he met online.

            “Anyone coming to DC Vegas this year?”, he asked in the private IRC chat.

            Apis: probably not. chances are slim
            Khepri: nope, too far

            Apis was the master of recon while Khepri was a leet in crafting malware for the oppressive government sites. Apis was motivated by the cult status they were making while Khepri did everything just for the 'lulz'. He sighed from the lethargy accumulating inside him since the time he went total AFK, which was a longer time than he could recall. But the only person he was impatiently hoping to hear from was Bastet. His closest aide in the digital world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to find themselves on the same side during intense socio-political IRC debates. Among all the friends he made through his anonymous hacktivism, these 3 seemed to stay in touch better than the rest. He glanced at the clock on the top right corner of the screen. 12:49 AM. Bastet would usually show up at 1. He learned a little more about her every day as they talked more and grew closer. With friendship came sharing deeper parts of each other. In a way, breaching their own self-imposed IRC rules by sharing more of their personal, vulnerable side. But then the year was turning unendurable and loneliness was eating him alive like termites carving the furniture from inside. He went to the kitchen to grab his late-night protein bar and refilled his peach coloured coffee mug.

            IRC never had a break from sociopolitical debates. But all of his attention was occupied by Bastet. And with her reply, he was secretly joyed.

            Bastet: I am coming

            Finally, there was an occasion to meet her IRL. Despite never actually having met her, she became his only close companion. His only escapism from the existential misery.

            ———

            He landed in his hotel room the night before DEF CON. After throwing his bags on the bed, he casually switched on the TV to fill the silence as he headed to the washroom.

            News flashed on the 32-inch screen.

            “Breaking: Resistance grows to new extreme yesterday in the middle east…..hacker group Osiris said to be behind restoring communications during ongoing protests"
            “General Muzaffar has ordered probes into the information leaks”

            His heart skipped a beat. He instantly came out of the washroom, to make sure what he heard was right. Part of him wanted to draw the uncanny relevance, but then knowing Bastet was probably at risk wasn’t a helpful thought either. His mind was going haywire with unimaginable threats coming their way and equally diverse were their outcomes. He could feel his pounding heart synchronizing rapidly with all the news that the TV was dispensing one after another. He stood frozen, unable to process the information and unable to comprehend its consequences. It felt like the calm before the storm. It wasn’t the first time he felt helpless, but this time it felt like his brain was going through the Blue Screen Of Death.


            ———

            In the midst of all surrealness, it was relieving that the conference enforced strict rules on wearing masks and social distancing. Enough reasons for him to put on his hoodie and oversized n95 mask in an attempt to cover half the face. After picking his badge in the conference, he was on his random stroll down the convention centre. Running his eyes through one village after another and all the talks and activities ongoing. As enticing as the CTFs were, he wanted to just tiptoe through the conference. Occasionally sitting in for some talks that sounded interesting. Every face seemed to tell a unique story. The thought of Bastet likely being here, maybe one of them in this conference, was intriguing.

            As previously observed in DEF CON’s badges, it encouraged attendees to socialise and explore more. This year’s badge was no exception to that as it came preloaded with bewildering puzzles and a unique data exchange mechanism that shared contact cards between the badges.

            For the first day, he spent his time only wandering around observing minute details and people. He returned to the hotel, making his coffee from the machine. His cup reflecting the LEDs on the badge blinking in a rhythmic fashion. Lost in his thoughts sipping on coffee, until he recalled from the welcome note that badges reflected differently depending on what activities the attendee did. It was quite strange of the badge to blink any way because he didn’t tag it with anyone. The closest human contact he had was accidental when a curly-haired girl in a teal shirt bumped into him. Between all the apologies beneath the mask, all he could see of her face was neatly semi-circular eyebrows and her momentary eye contact.

            He plugged the badge into his system. And to his surprise, it showed one unnamed contact card, though it seemed to show some random gibberish of data in details. He wondered if it was part of the badge puzzle. Sleep was not going to be any companion for this night either so he started analysing the hex dump. It seemed to hold an encrypted string but needed a key to decrypt it. He tried to look for clues on the badge hacking server. But there was no mention of such a challenge. Once he was somewhat convinced it had no reason to be there apart from being a signal to him, he got his guessing game on for the decryption key. After running through the entire “rockyou” list, he started trying the user ID of every person he talked to on IRC.

            For inexplicable reasons, his IRC rooms always seemed to draw inspiration from ancient Egyptian cultural references. And so he started brute-forcing all the possible keywords he could derive from there. For a long time, nothing seemed to work and it was turning into a futile exercise. Maybe the data was corrupted? Maybe the badge had some coding error during manufacturing? Maybe it was just a coincidence.

            Pacing nervously in his room to and fro, he was trying his best to recall all the random details of his conversations on IRC and the girl he bumped into. And when nothing came up, he stared from his hotel window. Lost in perpetual contemplation, he gazed at a fleet of middle eastern airlines parked at the airport due to travel bans. Their olive green body featuring a falcon logo on the fin.

            And then it hit him. The answer was hiding in plain sight all along. As he worked his fingers through the keyboard and decrypted the string, he whispered to himself “of course” with a smile. The string seemed to hold some numbers in binary apart from the letters N and E.

            ———

            Horus was Osiris’s son. When Osiris was killed, his wife Isis retrieved all the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband to conceive Horus.

            IRC room, after all, was not a facet of his imagination. After General Muzaffar ordered probes into the information leaks, Bastet immediately had to wipe out her entire system and drill holes in her hard disk to leave no traces behind. She had been helping the peaceful protestors deal with frequent internet shutdowns. And with General’s men on hunt, the group had to vanish like dust in the air.

            After her instant reflexes clearing off the last byte of data, she sat down on her bed flummoxed with a question.

            When does the trail we follow in the desert suddenly disappear with a gust of wind? How do you cross the unbounded darkness when bridges crumble against the storm? She was always enthusiastic about bringing out the rebel in her. In her college days, she wrote an app to communicate via Bluetooth protocol, which became an instant hit among protestors during internet shutdowns. But there was seemingly no way to escape this obliterating comms blackout.

            General’s men were not giving up anytime soon, rumours were that they already were a part of some of the core groups on IRC for a couple of weeks. She felt the need to go AFK for at least the time being was substantial and there was no better occasion than DEF CON.

            This year’s badge provided a port to reprogram the micro-controller, allowing her to hack the badge and write her own custom script that exchanged her cryptic information only and only when the opposite badge shared the same contact name initials as his. Hiding beneath the encryption were the coordinates and time. All she had to do was gather patience on a secluded rooftop and hope the signal reaches.

            ———

            The location was miles away from the downtown. He got down from the cab before the adjacent block. Enough to come off as just another passerby and not a visitor. Walking through all the dodgy lanes and worn out structures, he was keeping a keen eye on the surroundings and people passing by him. The map stopped at an abandoned building. The lights were entirely out. All the windows had were rusted edges of broken glass panels reflecting the neon lights from the opposite motel. As he entered the building, it didn’t take him long to notice the elevator being dead too. He sighed as he started stomping his feet and climbing the floors of the uninhabited building one by one.

            He never felt so intrigued in his life. All the decisions he made led to him being there, taking that chance. He could never restrain his insatiable curiosity to discover anything and everything that fascinated him. He told himself that he did not choose the signal, rather the signal chose him.

            As he reached the rooftop, he saw the girl gawking at him. It was hard to make out if she actually was surprised or smiling beneath the mask.

            “Couldn’t you fancy a cafe or something?”, he complained.

            “So the signal seems to have reached the right place”

            “They can’t stop the signal”

            ———
            A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

            Comment


            • #7
              title: Untitled
              author: phonebook

              It was 2007 when I first Googled “how to join Anonymous,” and it was 2021 when I found my answer.

              If you asked me now what exactly brought the hackertroll collective to my attention fourteen years ago, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Friends were talking about it. Pundits were talking about it. It was on the radio, the TV, the now-ubiquitous social media sites that were, at the time, still in their infancy. A word-of-mouth campaign spread, faster than any normal gossip.

              Back then, though, the nameless name was on everyone’s mind, and it had something to do with the FOX 11 “exploding van” video. A local news station in California had picked up on strange news: an online collective of pranksters with no known identity was conducting crank calls, DDoS attacks, and controversial “raids” on online social platforms. These raids had begun to branch into the offline world, in the form of harassment campaigns on anyone Anonymous deemed an enemy. FOX 11 took the story, paired it with dramatized footage meant to symbolize what they called internet terrorism, and forever burned Anonymous into the American zeitgeist.

              Amid the prank calls and the disguised voices, I saw a group of creative minds. I recognized people like me who thought outside of the box, even if our artistic mediums were different. And I saw something cool. Ordinary hackers had power, sure, but Anonymous had panache.

              After the FOX 11 video, Anonymous didn’t go away — they loved the attention, and I loved watching them get it. The trolling continued into the spring of 2008, when scores of unknown protesters, dressed in hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks, descended on Scientology outposts across North America. Bigger and bigger news outlets ran with the story, sending the polished adult world into an uproar. I relished this: at the time, I had no seat at the table in that adult world, no personal agency. Somehow, this mysterious collective had an intoxicating grip on the minds of an entire continent, and that grip was fast expanding across the globe. It was an upending of the suit-and-tie Way Things Should Be.

              I wanted in. I Googled, and got the frustrating, predictable results: Anyone can join Anonymous. There is no application, no process. If you align with our ethos, welcome to the club. We are Legion. Join us. Expect us. Et cetera.

              In my hapless searching, I stumbled upon the imageboard forums, the “chans,” that might have been my entry point, but these were well-disguised. The media had reported 4chan as a breeding ground for lawless e-lords, but they’d gotten it wrong; the real epicenter was 420chan, which, after receiving a surprise feature in the FOX 11 video, had taken care to throw on virtual camouflage to keep out nosy journalists, Bible Belt parents, and viewers like me. 420chan’s cyber ghillie suit came in the form of a website background made up of gory images, gore which had the pleasant side effect of preventing any screenshots of 420chan from appearing on live television. No respectable news outlet would air pictures of beheadings and mangled limbs.

              Still, even if a curious internet tourist made it past those filters, the tailored message persisted: you don’t have to do anything to be in Anonymous. You either are, or you aren’t. Get a mask and hop on the bandwagon.

              The showmanship was fine, but I didn’t want to roleplay. I wanted to be in the brain trust.

              However, back then, my internet warlord dreams wouldn’t work out. This was for two reasons. The first was that our modest, homeschooled family shared one computer, a monolithic white slab of an iMac plunked down in the middle of the family room, and our house’s open floorplan provided no cover for illicit internet activities. The screen was visible from any room except the dining room, which was reserved for Thanksgivings and birthdays and where no one otherwise spent much time. Any dark Googling had to be done while my mother was out for a walk, or at the grocery store, and even then we’d only have a thirty-second warning from the time the garage door opened to clear the history, put the iMac to sleep, and arrange the desk chair in pristine order. We had gotten in trouble for playing Miniclip games before; I wasn’t getting caught dead anywhere near 420chan.

              The second reason was that I was eleven years old.

              Through middle school and high school, I’d keep up to speed with the hacking world, but when it came time to cram for finals and plan for college, Anonymous fell off my radar. I’d later find out that they fell off everyone’s radar: the chaos and wave of arrests in 2011-2012 was enough to put key players off the scene until things cooled down. Some stepped back for years, and some stepped back forever. Anonymous had split into subgroups and factions, but across the board, everyone united behind their fury at Hector “Sabu” Monsegur, who cracked and became an FBI informant at the first sign of prison time. No one liked a rat, and after Monsegur’s cooperation led to five other Anonymous arrests, no one wanted to be next.

              Life went on, and among all my career choices, I landed on the storytelling path. It seemed the least limiting of industries; I could combine all my passions, and I could hop from one narrative world to the next, passporting through the broad tapestry of human existence with words and images.

              More importantly, I sought out storytelling for its escapism, for how it allowed the teller to craft the world they wanted on top of the less-appealing world that exists. My desire for a mental getaway was not unwarranted. I’d grown up in a religious sect that believed the world was going to explode in 2011, which screwed with my childhood brain. Until I was fifteen, I believed there was no future, so to get away from impending doom, I dreamt up fantasy stories about youngsters with big imaginations and work ethics, stories about people like me having a voice.

              As I grew older, the fantasy element stayed, but after 2011 came and went and the world didn’t blow up, I could allow a more grounded reality to temper my interests. Real people’s lives fascinate me. I learned about the wide world of public school and college, exposed my mind to other cultures, and realized that human truth was stranger than the wildest fiction I could dream up.

              It wasn’t long before this path lead to an interest in docudramas. I dug my heels in against overly political media—hanging on to the last vestige of Narnia naiveté—but I couldn’t last. it was in 2020, when the Q moral panic was sweeping North America and my close family was in dire danger of succumbing to Chicken Little Cult Round 2, that I broke. Enough was enough. I had to do something.

              How, though? Where were my entertainment skills best used? I needed an inroad. I needed a story that I’d be passionate about writing, something with power and sex appeal, something that would be deathly fascinating for any audience to watch — but also something that was semi-serious, something that could serve as a cold shower of clarity for theorists and deniers and their ilk. I had no idea where to start.

              Then, January 6th happened.

              I was at the dentist’s office that morning. The air was clear. I’d bought salmon and a jar of olives at a Whole Foods near 14th St, and boarded the train back to my home office to write a few articles and put the fish in the oven for lunch. It was a pleasant day, so I’d stayed off social media, wanting to savor a January rarity, until later in the day the Slack messages started rolling in — hey. Check Twitter. Oh my god.

              Along with the rest of the world, I watched the carnage unfold, glued to Twitter as leaked videos poured onto my timeline from the few leftists who’d been secretly keeping tabs on the social media app—and festering GOP echo chamber—that was Parler. One person in particular, a hacker, had discovered that Parler had an exploitable API endpoint at which anyone could plug in sequential integers and have a video UUID returned to them, which could then be accessed in any browser without having to log into Parler itself. This would come in handy: Parler’s vendors and hosting services had threatened to terminate their relationship with the beleaguered platform, and when Parler disappeared, so would terabytes of incriminating Capitol riot evidence.

              The hacker did what had to be done, successfully archiving every Parler video just before the platform went dark, and backing up the footage in a data dump that would later lead to 400+ arrests and provide shocking evidence in the sitting president’s second impeachment trial.

              Like many others following the story, I couldn’t stop watching. On the Saturday night before the Super Bowl, I sent out an inquiry, a breezy 139-character tweet to that person responsible for archiving the massive trove of attack footage. In the month after the uprising, she’d been lauded as a sort of digital Sully Sullenberger, for good reason, and I thought her story might make slick entertainment.

              Little did I know that this outreach would lead me to the door of someone else — a responsible party I’d unknowingly sought for 14 years.

              He saw my tweet, and offered to talk to the other hacker for me. They knew each other. When he sent a screenshot of an article, claiming he’d founded Anonymous, I don’t remember if I believed him.

              But after several subsequent weeks spent vetting his claim, I had no other choice.

              Every writer prays for a lightbulb moment; this one nearly smacked me in the head. Only one story needed to be told, and it wasn’t the Parler hack. Somehow, over a decade of secrecy and digital camouflage, Hollywood had managed to make Anonymous-derivative movies and shows, but missed out on the one eternally fascinating individual who’d kicked it all off.

              The more I learned, the more I knew I couldn’t let this one go. Here was my way to lend aid to the objective truth; here was a way to heal from the family cult era; here was a way to shed long-overdue recognition on someone’s vibrant life; here was a way to contribute to the pot-stirring I’d wanted so badly to get in on, a decade and a half before. Now, though, I was a writer with career experience. I had industry connections. I could actually make things happen. The timing was cosmically right.

              Everything had all come full circle.

              So, in the spring of 2021, I began to work. It’s been slow going, but I have a small team behind me now, and we’re dedicated to bringing this story to your screens, no matter how long it takes. It’s the tale of one man, how he gloriously screwed up his personal life and the free-world internet, and how he’s now rising from the rubble to piece both back together.

              In June 2021, I realized the story would be incomplete if I didn’t make a cultural research visit to the hacking conference to end all hacking conferences. Year after year, cheerful destruction descended on Alexis Park, and everyone I’d spoken to in my research had a DEF CON story, the identifying details of which could never be repeated in print. Someone once stole a pay phone, smuggled it into a hotel in a trench coat, kept the quarters and gave the phone to someone else, who patched it into the hotel’s phone system. Someone launched a mattress out a hotel window and it landed on, and flattened, a car. Someone else hacked all the hotel’s phone lines. Someone checked hundreds of guests out of their rooms in the middle of the night. Strangely, Las Vegas hotels did not often extend repeat invitations.

              No docudrama about hacking would be complete without DEF CON, so I’m coming to witness it firsthand. I’ll be the writer carrying yellow notepads and trying not to look exploitable. See you in August, Nevada.
              A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

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