Data Miners Published!

Dataminers_3It’s finally happened. After three years of writing, editing and constant picking, I finally got around to pushing Data Miners through publication! As you can see, I decided to go with the black and green cover, which I feel highlights the lines of code best. And I also made sure there’d be print on the side. I feel there should be demarcation between the front and back covers, hope you agree.

And here is the precis I decided to go with on the back of the dust jacket. Hope it encapsulates the story without giving too much away:

“Prad is a member of the DeMarchy, an elite society of data miners dedicated to finding the patterns in chaos and exposing the lies that permeate our society. Or so he thinks. In reality, he’s a second-rate programmer working for a faceless company and obsessed with a woman he can’t possibly have. Until one day when a mysterious package arrives that plunges him into a mystery ten years in the making.  If he can crack the code, he just might be able to save his friends and himself.  If not, they’ll lose everything: their jobs, their freedom, and even their lives. Like everything else in Prad’s wireless world, the answer is out there, just waiting to be mined!

But to give my loyal followers are more in-depth survey, the book was inspired largely by the works of William Gibson and his exploration of technology and its effects on society. But for my own purposes, I wanted some serious espionage and spy thriller stuff, the kind of things people would expect from a techno-thriller. After all, one of the cornerstones of the digital age has been fears about the loss of privacy, the dangers of government surveillance, and the threat posed by insidious people with the wrong kinds of talents!

Add to that the concept of Democratic Anarchy, a west-coast libertarian perspective, and some real history – which I shamelessly exploited for the sake of fiction – and you’ve got Data Miners. In time, I will be producing the sequel, Data Pirates, which focuses on the darker side of hacking and libertarianism, and a finale, entitled Data Moguls. But those will have to wait for my current workload to cool down a little…

In the meantime, look for Data Miners on Amazon-Kindle! It will be appearing on my author page for the ebook price of 4.99, or for free if you’ve got a Kindle Select membership. My first full length novel is out, Yaaaaaay! Follow the links below if you want a copy:

Amazon Author Page

Data Miners – Chapter 12

“Jesus-Aged-ClusterFUCCCCK!”

Nina winces and imagines just how far down the hall people could hear that one. Griswold has been on the phone with Cyber Division for a few minutes now, and from the sounds of it, things are not going too well. She waits until the thumping and muffled shouts are finished before breathing easy again. She also steps closer to the door and puts her hand on the knob, anticipating what’s to come when the phone is slammed down on its cradle.

“Righetti! Get the fuck in here!”

Griswold is surprised when the door pops open less than half a second later. He makes a noise in the back of his throat then motions at her to sit.

“I just got off the phone with Walters over at CCRS, he’s given me a heads-up on what they’ve learned, and it’s not much. They say they’ve found the entry point the hacker used. They used some kind of ‘breaker’ to get past our firewalls and some kind of program to cover their ISP address, whatever the hell that means! No doubt about it, we have got a serious clusterfuck on our hands here!”

Nina nods without smiling. The familiarity of the words on his tongue is patently evident. He doesn’t even bother to hide it. And the direness of the news would be a lot more convincing for her if he weren’t being so loud and profane about it. By now, she’s come to understand that the good ole CF is very popular in their line of work. Everyone in the intelligence services appears to use it; it’s kind of like their version of SNAFU or FUBAR. Funny how people in the military and intelligence community need standardized terms for fucked-up situations, she thinks. One would think they dealt with them all the time.

“I’m sending you over to DC, care of Cyber Division. You’re to pack up and head over immediately, call me direct to let me know if you need anything. Otherwise, you’ll be reporting to DD Domovitch, head of Cyber. Understood?”

“You want me there, sir?” Nina asks.

“Yes,” Griswold replies with a fair degree of annoyance, “I want your eyes and ears there, and I also want you to make sure we remind those dickheads exactly whose shit pile this is! Now who did you say brought this to your attention?”

“Johnson, sir. He was the one who got the call from the Post and gave me the file numbers on all those pics.”

“Fine, take him with you! Just get yer ass over to the capitol and make sure those fuck ups don’t screw this up any more than they already have!”

“Are we to drive ourselves, sir?” she asks semi-sarcastically.

Griswold sighs. “We still have a budget, sweetheart. I got a helicopter waiting for you outside. Now move unless you want to lose your job!”

Nina nods and turns to leave in great haste. There’s only so much of Griswold’s profanity she can stand, then she feels dirty somehow. Someday, if she were the litigious type, she might consider folding all of his curse words and offhand sexual references into one big harassment lawsuit. But right now, she’s got more important things to think about. For one, this whole hack job. It’s all a little confusing to her, naturally. She’s pretty sure Cyber crimes is not her business and that her involvement in this case ended when she handed her boss the photographic evidence of the hack. But Griswold’s paranoia is understandable. Their business has been violated and he wants someone from their department to oversee the attempts at redress.

One thing is for sure: they need to find out who did this and how. Then, they need to bring them in for some serious “questioning”. And Nina knows what will happen next, as per the Bureau’s policy. If they don’t kill them first, they’ll probably offer them a job. That’s how the whole industry works, really. If you can’t beat em, hire em!

Getting back to her desk, he picks up her phone and dials Mark’s extension. He is there, surprisingly. No voice mail and no call backs within fifteen seconds, which is his usual ritual. His voice is plain and professional too.

“Johnson.”

She is straight to the point. “Mark? Nina. You remember where my desk is?”

There is a moment of hesitation. “Yes, of course. What’s the problem?”

“No problem,” she says unequivocally. “We’ve just been reassigned to DC. Get your kit together and meet me downstairs. We’re to leave immediately, by chopper.”

She hangs up and begins dialling her next number before he can answer enthusiastically. A chopper ride is a rare privilege and she knows Mark is far more excited than she is to be getting out from behind their desks for a change. Her next call is to old unfaithful, just to let him know that she’ll be gone. That and his car privileges have been extended, among other things. She gets the answering machine at their shared apartment and leaves a message.

“Garret, this is Nina. I’ll be away for a few days. Car is yours and you’ve got the run of the place. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone and if anything’s broken when I get back – anything of mine, that is, you can start looking for a new best friend. Bye!”

Her tone is playful but Garret knows her well enough to know she’s serious. She omitted Garret’s title of “dumb shit”, and “with benefits” from her description of their relationship, for obvious reasons. She’s at work, after all. Some modicum of decorum must be maintained, especially since their boss has the market on smut talk cornered. Who wants to hear about a visiting friend she obviously doesn’t trust fully, who also happens to share her bed? Righetti is a saintly name, and she’s determined to keep it that way.

Reaching into her desk drawer, she grabs her FBI ID and her sidearm, putting both in her carrying bag and heading for the elevator to meet Mark below.

Dataminers – Chapter 8

Prad’s steering wheel looked to be a tad bit dented as he pulled into the employee parking lot that morning. It might have had something to do with the fact that he was beating it with his fist for the entire drive. Caught between ecstasy and anxiety, he expressed himself by repetitively thrusting his fist against it. It was a happy beating, but it left his fist sore nonetheless. He checked the time just as he pulled in.

9:13 am. He would be fifteen minutes late by the time he got inside and to his desk. The sweat was already collecting on his brow the second he got to the front door. The weather was nice and warm, the sun shining. The welcoming concrete of the front entrance was already baking and radiating some heat up at him. Not a good combination at the moment. He forgot to apply his Speed Stick and his grimy extremities are also getting warm.

A quick run up the stairs to the second floor, where the air conditioning is running, the colours are muted greys, and the lights are fluorescent. He knows his pits will be cooling in this and will surely begin to reek in just a few minutes. But what can he do? He needs to get to his desk and act like he’s been working this whole time. Lunch will be the first opportunity he gets to take care of the smell problem. Flex hours are a thing of the past, abandoned in favour of the easier-to-monitor and regulate eight hour day. Under that ancient regimen, the hours of nine to twelve and one to five are spoken for. If he’s absent for any amount of time within those two blocks, he’ll be penalized. And he can forget about staying late, that’s overtime.

Prad takes a moment to curse the one group of assholes in management and the other in labour who created this ridiculous system between them. He hopes there’s a particular stinky corner especially reserved for them in hell (the smell that’s wafting through his shirt at that moment is what makes him think of this).

He wonders what the words in his native tongues would be for the condition. He wonders mainly because the English word is just so damned appropriate, and yet so abrupt. Like many such words, missing entirely are the long flowery descriptions that just don’t translate well.

Grime.

One can practically hear the old English usage, the Germanic roots that feel so folksy and earthy. So much meaning wrapped up in a tiny poetic statement consisting of only a few phonemes. He has learned the Thai and Filipino equivalents, but somehow, they just don’t seem to do it justice.

Magdumi… S̄kprk… Just not the same.

The endorphin rush from the mad dash he made getting to his desk seems to have triggered another episode of temporary lucidity. But right now, its swimming upstream against the Purple Haze. He hits the power button on the monitor and calls up his last task. His fingers begin to navigate code, one keystroke at a time.

“Hey,” Rohit says from behind him. “Didn’t hear you sneak in.”

“Are we married now?”

“There’s a list up on the break room wall. You should take a look.”

“What is it?” Prad asks, turning around.

“Schedule for interviews.”

“Interviews? For what?”

Rohit raises his hand from behind the cubicle, revealing a cup of coffee he had stashed there. He sips from it slowly and shakes his head, his lips formed in a tight grimace.

“You got a short memory, don’t you? I told you the other day.”

Prad looks at him cockeyed. Rohit leans in closer and whispers it to him.

“When you were bragging to me about that ‘thing’ you did?” he uses his fingers to make quotation marks. Prad’s memory kicks in. The parts that make it through the haze come back to him. Rohit was muttering something about HR and how they all have to explain why they need to keep their jobs. He remembers Rohit being pretty bitter about it, or maybe that was him. And wasn’t there something about bosses, unions and the industrialization of work time? No, that was definitely him, and that was only a few minutes ago! Damn, Prad thinks. He needs to stop getting messed up on weeknights. In any case, he considers the partial recall sufficient and nods.

“Anyway, it’s on the wall in the break room. People need to sign up and most of the good spots are taken.”

“When’s left?”

“Mainly late night, Tuesday and Friday.”

Prad jumps to his feet and runs to the break room. Sure enough, a sign up sheet is on the bulletin board with a permanent marker hanging by a string next to it. Someone is in the process of signing it. Prad joins them to get a better look, also because he feels like he has to stop them. Sure enough, and Rohit really wasn’t kidding there, just about every time slot and every day of the week have been spoken for. Tuesday, morning and afternoon, are gone, much the same is true about Friday. Some late comers have taken the later afternoon slots, lengthening their stay to after five o’clock. But as of now, Prad has to decide between an interview that will waste a Friday evening or one that will compromise his next meeting with the Society.

He turns around and sees Rohit standing there in the doorway, coffee cup in hand.

“When did this go up? This morning?”

“Yep.” Rohit puts his cup to his mouth with an air of smug self-satisfaction. Prad sees why a second later. Rohit’s John Hancock is in the prime location, Monday morning of next week, second timeslot (which is scheduled for ten o’clock). This ensures that he can get his out of the way early but he doesn’t have to go first. It also means he can take his time getting ready for it in the morning. As time slots go, it’s almost ideal. Prad, on the other hand, is screwed no matter what slot he takes. All the remaining interviews will be held late, but not late enough that he can go home and come back. Either night, he’ll have to stay several extra hours and then have to go through the demeaning interview process. Angrily, Prad takes the marker and sacrifices a few hours out of his Friday night rather than mess with Tuesday meeting of the Society.

Yamal Pradchaphet, he writes, in the 7:00 pm slot.

He recaps the pen and flicks it away in a motion that leaves no doubt as to how little he cares for this arrangement.

“You fucker!”

“Early bird gets the worm. Besides, the time slot isn’t exactly what you should be worrying about. If I were you, I’d be working on what I’m going to tell the panel.”

“Panel? There’s a panel?”

“Yes,” Rohit says, slamming his cup down and fetching another dose of coffee. “As I’m sure I explained already.”

“Nope,” Prad says, searching his memory, which for the first time that day seems pretty clear. “Nothing about a panel. So who’s on it?”

“Your HR rep, your supervisor, some of the execs. Basically, you got five people all looking to nail you and you need to be able to tell them why they shouldn’t.”

“They can suck my ball sack. They need me!”

“Sure they do.”

“If they knew half of what I could do, they’d be begging me to stay.”

“Really?” Rohit says disbelievingly, taking another sip as nonchalantly as he can manage. Prad is now following him back to his cubicle, like a little runt dog barking after the bigger one that doesn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows a brush-off when he sees it, and it’s pissing him off.

“I’m serious man!” he says persistently. “People like me need to stay hired by companies like this, otherwise we’d be shoving viruses up their asses.”

“Right.”

They are almost to Rohit’s cubicle now. Prad is not about to follow him all the way there and bark at him while he gets back to work. It would just look so undignified. He has one final salvo to throw at Rohit, something to turn the tables on him a little, even though it’s a little used.

“You don’t believe me, huh?” he says with a forceful whisper, loud enough to get through but not to so loud the other employees can him over the din of work. “Maybe you should ask Congressman Dangle what he thinks of my skills.”

“Jeez, that again!” Rohit says with obvious annoyance. “You know, you keep bringing up that name, but we both know you’re not about to explain that one, so why not just let it go?”

“Fine,” Prad says angrily. He lowers his voice again to a forced whisper. “Then check in with the FBI. I’m sure they’ve got something on their website.”

Prad turns around before Rohit can answer. He’s sure he can feel his eyes boring into his own back. Maybe he hasn’t heard the news yet, but it’ll hit him in a few. At worst, he’s probably going back to his desk where he can Google it from. Then he’ll see!

Ah, but fuck it all. Now he’s really breached protocol with that little act of self-gratification. Protocol about the Society is, you do not talk about the Society, or what it does. You mention them as friends should they come in conversation, maybe; but never what you do with them. Only the DeePs are such dishonourable scourges as to brag openly. One may have bragging rights, but one does not use them around third parties. It’s just common sense. And in mentioning the FBI, he’s really been way too open. Why didn’t he just write Felon on his head with a big, black permanent marker? It’s a lucky coincidence for him that no one else from the Society works there. Otherwise, he’d have a lot to answer for.

He’s back at his desk for less than ten minutes before the grime becomes intolerable. He needs more coffee too now that he thinks about it. But his bladder needs to be emptied before he fills it up again. Getting to his feet, he makes his way to the floor’s bathroom for a quick pee break and a touch up. Voiding his bladder, he takes his time at the sink to spruce up his facial situation. His eyes are bloodshot and his hair speaks of poor maintenance. Several handfuls of cool water feel good on his unshaven, unwashed cheeks. The quick burst of adrenaline from the sudden shock of cold is also nice, the dribbling water washing the oily, stale feeling away temporarily. He runs a few spare handfuls over his head too, just to get at the main source of discomfort. No matter how many times he washes his whiskers, grime from the top of his head seems to seep down and dirty them again. He knows this from experience. Always need to get the hair too.

Washed up, he grabs a handful of towels and runs them through his hair to partially dry it. The remaining droplets need to air dry, thus dissolving the grime and taking it away with them. It’s a practiced ritual, he’s found, the daily fight against the grime. One imagines if it can ever be truly won, or if it’s like trying to hold back a flood with a broom. How strangely enlightened a thought this seems right about now. How many lucid moments does that make for him today?

His taste of enlightenment is abruptly ended when he spots O’Malley walking into a stall behind him. Pausing to notice Prad standing there, looking into the mirror, he fires off a quick salvo.

“Forget to wash up this morning, Prad? Or did they shut off your water?” he says with a derisive laugh.

“Must have, Brad,” he replies with a fake smile. “Why else would I be washing out of a sink?”

He tries his best to say O’Malley’s name in a way that makes it sound offensive. Brad. Braaaad. Well, it sounds bad to him. Hoping to justify the hate with which Prad views him, O’Malley goes on.

“Must not be used to bathing every day where you’re from, huh?”

“That’s funny O’Malley. You fuck your mother with that mouth?”

“Asshole,” O’Malley scoffs, shoving the door shut.

“Dickhead,” Prad fires at the stall door and O’Malley’s shoes. At least he didn’t make a toilet paper joke. Then Prad would be forced to bring up O’Malley’s questionable hick ancestry. He doesn’t like that, he knows. O’Malley insists he’s from New York, umpteenth generation Irish stock. But he knows he’s a racist prick, so the inbred hillbilly references are all good.

Prad tosses the wet bundle of towels into the wastebasket and makes his way to the break room. Freshly washed cups are hard to come by in the cupboard. The sign on the front urging people to wash their own dishes apparently has not made a dent. Here too, the war on grime is being lost, the kind that invades chinaware and glass. Taking the least shmutzy one, he gives it a quick rinse, ignoring the brown line at the bottom, then fills it with coffee from the dispenser. He’s surprised that Rohit is not at his desk when he returns. He is sure that by now he’s had a looky loo on the web and found the story: the one about one asshole Senator and some photos that surfaced about him from the FBI’s own surveillance database. Lo and behold, he’s still at his desk. His back is busy typing away on his machine and he appears to be working.

Oh well, Prad thinks. Just as well, let him find out about it in time. Alternately, maybe he’ll forget Prad said anything and his little breach of protocol will never be revealed. One can always hope, but damn he wants to see the look on Rohit’s face when he realizes he’s been in the presence of a veritable cybergod for months.

Data Miners – Chapter 7

Prad pulled himself out of bed at 8:15 am. One look in the mirror confirms his worst suspicion. He looks as baked as he feels. Crunk hangover, happens when you mix weed and alcohol. Never advisable, but damn if that beer doesn’t feel so much better going down when you’re high. He has just forty-five minutes to get ready and get to work. It’s the latter part of that equation that is the greatest source of worry.

Prad has timed his morning ritual down to fifteen minutes, that’s exactly how long he needs to throw something suitable on, grab a snack bar and get to his car. He has a tube of Speed Stick in the glove compartment and his hair styles itself. He can go days without showering under this regimen. It’s just the grimy feeling that bothers him. His fine black hair requires semi-daily maintenance to avoid becoming greasy. The crotch rot is a repetitive issue as well. He can’t imagine a woman will want to come near it if even he is frightened away by the smell of his own crotch BO. In any case, he can always shower when he gets home and the office provides all the coffee he needs to amp himself up.

His Miata is waiting for him. The cover is up, so when he gets in he’s hit by the smell of contained atmosphere. The interior has lost that new car smell and now smells like fried meat and gandja smoke. But it’s cleaner, due to Tuesday nights little tantrum – if it could be described that way. Really, all he did was clean off the seats of errant wrappers and remove the CD cases that had burn marks. He was somehow unimpressed with himself that they were all still there. And he has to admit, it’s nice to get into a clean car. His Smart phone is plugged into the outlet, and he’s off from the garage by 8:32. He’ll be pulling into work at roughly 9:02, barring any serious traffic delays or tire mishaps.

This estimate is thrown into disarray when he notices the fuel gauge. He has less than an eighth of a tank left, and that might not be enough to get to the office. He could risk it, but if he runs out on the highway, he’s right fucked and will have to wait for an AAA truck. And he’s not sure if he’s paid up on his dues. Can they leave him at the side of the road if he’s behind on his payments? Surely not. Better not take the risk.

Prior to getting onto the highway that borders the Empire State’s property line, he pulls into one of the two gas stations that flank it. A quick consult of the sign lets him know that the current gas woes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. He can remember when he was a teenager and how people feared the price would be up to four bucks a gallon in the near future. Four bucks a gallon! How trivial that sounds now!

Prepay takes a few painful seconds, then the task of pumping begins. The digital readout and the beating rhythm of the pump remind Prad that time’s against him and he’s rapidly losing this race. He’s already flirted with the idea of filling the tank only half-way and has abandoned it. Might as well expend the extra half-minute and have a full tank of gas. At this rate, he’s going to be late as it is, and thirty seconds is not going to prevent him from getting laid off.

The radio is running as he lets the tank fill. Relaxed rock and morning news, the right kind of thing to start his day off. He’s tried hip/hop and hard rock and they just don’t seem to set the mood for a day of boredom and forced professionalism.

The pump is still going, like a thirsty fucker, the car is still drinking. And all the while, the counter is still rising.

Blub, blub, blub, blub! Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!

The sound of petrol dollars burning up in a Faustian process known as internal combustion fragment. His mind is inventing some rather interesting imagery this morning, which is probably because of the purple haze he’s got clouding his mind. He doesn’t even notice right away when the glugging stops because the little motor that powers the pump is still humming. It’s soothing vibrations reminds Prad of his bed, where he wishes he still was.

He tells the machine not to bother printing the receipt. Paper is for knuckleheads who can’t remember the passwords to their online records. Now finished, he retracts the hose, seals the cap, hops back into the front seat. His key is in standby, keeping the radio running. He turns it over just as a new story comes after a musical break.

“Congressman Dangle today was the subject of some controversy when a number of photographs surfaced showing him receiving financial contributions from white supremacists…”

“Oh, fuck me!” Prad turns up the volume and forgets about work for a moment. His every bit of attention is devoted to the radio and the report spewing from it.

“The photos surfaced from a number of anonymous sources who claimed that they retrieved the photographs from the FBI’s website. The FBI could not be reached for comment, but already there are a number of online groups calling for a full-fledged investigation into the Congressman’s alleged activities. These include financial ties to the Aryan Union and possible affiliations with the Reverend Fred Johnson, a man notorious with the families of soldiers who died in Iraq. But most damning of all, according to some sources, is the photograph of the Congressman frequenting an adult entertainment shop. No one has come forward to claim responsibility, but a number of people are wondering where these photographs came from, and whether or not the FBI was really in possession of them…”

“FUCKING FINALLY, MAN!”

A loud honk from behind him. Prad sees a big red shiny pick-up making a fuss. That’s when he realizes he’s blocking the pump and is even later for work. He waves apologetically and puts his Miata in gear and heads for the highway. A quick check of the clock causes him to curse his distractibility and makes his foot all the more heavy. His rush to work is hasty but the cloud of elation he’s floating on keeps him light and lively. No need for coffee anymore, he’s got the morning news to get him wired. He just hopes Rohit and, wherever they are right now, the Society are listening in. Contrary to what he feared, he’s looking forward to their next meeting now.

Data Miners – Chapter 6

Six

Nina was about nine minutes late getting to her desk that morning. Gareth had borrowed the car again last night and casually forgotten to fill the tank up when he dropped it off. Typical Gareth behaviour, but she was forced to take some of the credit. Had she not let him sleep over, he wouldn’t have been around to disrupt her morning routine. She could have superseded him simply by setting her clock, but such behavior is for grunts. Let the new kids greet the day, she decided long ago. Now that she’s got some clout around her office, she refuses to be a slave to an alarm clock.

The drive was pleasant, if a bit rushed. It was a pristine West Virginian morning, the air nice and dewy and mildly warm. It’s the kind of morning that’s pleasant for the first few hours, before the noon sun turns it all into sweltering heat. By then the residents of the sleepy town of Clarksburg were all too happy to retire to a working environment that boasted some kind of air-conditioning. Those that did not enjoy this luxury would just have to suffer or find some other way to stay cool.

Nina had broken a bit of a sweat getting to work and was pleased with herself for making sure her desk was outfitted with a box of Kleenex that was waiting for her on arrival. Grabbing a handful of the tissues, she dabbed at her face and around her neck, letting the AC do its job and cool her down until her pores closed. She looked at her keyboard and noticed there was a note sitting there with a prescriptive message scrawled across it.

Check our surveillance files, following j-pegs:

*TBK.192.jpg

*AU.298,jpg

*ACLU.0098.jpg

Possible forgeries detected! Need to know basis.

Mark J.

Nina was about to get herself a cup of coffee and ease her way into her work, but someone obviously intended to light a fire under her. The note also seems to suggest he got here a lot earlier than her today. What could have been so important as to warrant a really early start? She hops right onto her computer and calls up their surveillance database. Entering the names of each file, she waits as the machine does a search and pulls up each one. She sends each to her desktop for eventual printing and picks up her phone. Punching in Mark’s extension, a quick call ensues. Explanations are necessary, and they better be good! No one starts their morning with something like this without a damned good reason!

Nina looks around to make sure she’s alone. One after the other, the damning photos are rolled off and set down in the printer’s tray, their fresh, glossy surfaces reflecting the room’s fluorescent lighting back at her.

The photos are on the nearest side table a second later and Nina grabs a black and a white marker. She circles the pictures in white, underlines the name at the bottom in black. Grabbing a manila envelope from the shelf, she slides the three photos in and leaves the copy room in great haste. She is at the dark mahogany door with two plaques not a moment later. One reads Dave Griswold, Deputy Director, and the other, Law Enforcement Services Branch. Without announcing herself, she walks right in and slams the envelope down on his desk. He is in the process of finishing a call and looks up at her just in time to hear her speak.

“Sir, I think we’ve been hacked. I was alerted to these forgeries this morning.”

Griswold takes the folder and opens it carefully. Years of dealing with sensitive materials has conditioned the habit in him to treat every file folder as if it were containing anthrax powder or a copy of the constitution. He lays the photos out, and immediately forgets this habit. The three photos spread out around the desk so he can see all three circles that Nina has drawn.

“What the hell are these?”

“Fakes, sir. Found in the surveillance files. Not too convincing ones either.”

“Just what are you saying here, Righetti?”

“I’m saying that Johnson reported that someone hacked into the CJIS and planted these is our files.”

“Johnson came to you with this when?”

“This morning. He says he got a call from some press agent over at the Washington Post, something about these photos being sent to him from an anonymous source within our department. They wanted confirmation that they were real.”

“Confirmation…” Griswold said with a laugh. Trust the good ol’ boys at the WP to actually check first. Unlike most of their liberal counterparts, they knew how to take national security seriously. “So what have we told them?”

“Well, nothing yet sir. First thing I did was pull the photos and send them down to Criminal Investigations, asked if they knew anything about them. They said they had no idea what I was talking about, so I asked them to examine them for us. They all came back as a fake.”

“Jesus clusterfuck!”

Nina clears her throat. There’s something about a boss swearing so openly that makes her want to laugh, which she cannot allow right now. Combining religious obscenity with a compound word that strongly denotes group sex makes that especially hard. Why the hell is that word so popular with government people?

“They do look real enough, don’t they?”

“People can do some amazing things these days with Photoshop, sir.”

Griswold looks up at her. He is the first to admit that he’s not the most technologically literate person in the world. That’s why the Bureau is in the habit of hiring these young ‘uns. They do the leg work while the old workhorses do the thinking.

“Okay, so what else?

“Well, sir, I asked Johnson to start a more thorough search of our surveillance files, just to see if there’re any more fakes. In the meantime, I think we should consider giving the Post a statement.”

“Forget the Post,” Griswold replies. “A hundred papers must have their hands on these by now. There’s no way this isn’t going to be big news. We can expect to get reamed real good, real soon.”

“Yes, sir.” Nina’s stance tightens up some more. She knows this is serious. He’s using a butt metaphor. He looks down at the photos again and takes a deep breath. Reaching for the phone, he fetches it from its cradle and hits the button to connect him to the Criminal Investigations Branch. As it rings, he issues some new orders for Nina.

“I need to send these up the line. You get over to Johnson and ask him exactly who the hell contacted him at the Post. See if you can’t suck any more information out of them, like who sent them these.” A pause as the phone beeps a few times, waiting for the CIB to pick up. “I need to talk to the Cyber Division on this. Find out how in the hell those bastards let someone get into our files.”

She is about to leave when Griswold stops her for one last reminder.

“And for God sakes, keep this under your hat!”

Nina nods and is waved away as the answering service at the other end picks up his call. She can hear his bawling into the receiver just as she leaves the office.

“Andrei! I’m sending you something my grunts just brought to my attention. We’ve got a fucking leaky ship and I’m putting the blame squarely at the feet of your Cyber Division! PATCH YER FUCKING HOLES!”

The door shuts and all she can hear now are the muffled thuds of the DD’s explosive tirade. The noise follows her down the hall until she is finally back in the vicinity of her office space. Just about everyone she has passed is looking in the direction of the DD’s door.

Data Miners – Chapter 5

Alone in his cubicle again.  The clock is moving so slowly it’s almost running backwards.  The memory of some weird dream has been taunting him all day.  It was one of those cut offs, when you wake up suddenly and your mind is able to hang on to the tail end of it for a few minutes, but every waking minute makes it that much duller.  He received a shock of déjà vu when he came to his desk at 9:08 (late again, but no one really noticed).  The dream had to do with work.  He was at his desk, people were crowded around.  The woman who works in the cubicle a few blocks down was sitting on top of his desk.  Her short skirt was hiked up and she was clearing Prad for a landing.  He was just about to get into that skirt when she clocked him.  Remembering that part wasn’t too nice.  Prad had been just settling into his chair, hoping he might be recalling a nice sex dream when that embarrassing detail emerged.  Then he remembered the rest, how everyone else in the office was pointing and laughing at him, and how his teeth started to fall out.  One by one, the molars, the incisors, the front two.  They all just seemed to painlessly come loose and he began pulling them out.  Tiny shards of the rest followed.  He looked in a mirror at the remainders and saw that they were chipped beyond repair.  Not a nice dream.  He was happy to have forgotten it and tries to do so again.

Coffee’s better today, and Prad makes sure he sneaks a few cups while the current batch is still hot and fresh.  Artificial stimulation is necessary given the mood he’s in.  He’s somewhere in the hump of the week, it feels like Thursday but its damn near impossible to tell. The anticipation that comes with the late afternoon, so close to Friday, which in turn is so close to the weekend, has not yet hit him.  Still feels like a Wednesday.  But at least he has the six o’clock report to look forward to.  It might be early, hard to tell.  Any day now they are expecting their little “story” to break.  Every night since Tuesday, Prad and the others have been waiting on the press conference.  They figured it would take until Friday, just in time for the weekend edition on every network in the country.

The anticipation is making him uneasy.  He can barely acknowledge the stripper who’s filling the Youtube screen with her massive rack.  His other task, the matter of sorting through lines and lines of code, is moving at a rate of about one key a minute.  Were it not for the anonymity of the modern office space, he would have been fired several times over by now.  Once he’s done with a scheduled task, he pulls up the template form for a task report and fills in the idiot boxes.  He then attaches it to an email for the people down at filing.

That reminds him.  He hasn’t dropped in on Rohit lately.  MSN is forbidden during work hours, so he can’t send him a message to join him in the rec room.  But a quick pass by his cubicle is always permissible.  He finds Rohit with his back to the room, filling in some forms that look like they should mean something to him.

“Hey, Roti!  How are your caffeine levels?”

Rohit turns around in his seat and checks his pulse.  “I could stand a top up.”

“Great, come on.  I got something to tell you –  Oh shit!”

Prad remembers that he left the stripper running on his machine.  He jets back to his cubicle and shuts down the internet, runs a quick clean to erase the web directory’s memory and all temporary internet files.  He does this every day, his way of staying ahead of the corporate snoops.  Now is as good a time as any, and he jets back to the break room to find Rohit already waiting for him.

“Hey, sorry.  Okay, so what’s up?”

“What do you mean?  You called me in here.”

“Oh yeah,” Prad needs a second to remember what he wants to talk about.  Then he remembers Angie’s orders.  No bragging.  He needs something else to talk about, quick!

“So how’s the layoff talk?”

Well done, he tells himself.  It’s the perfect diversion, and something he probably should care about.

“There’s supposed to be a big meeting this Friday with HR.  The execs are going to be reviewing people’s files.”

“Uh-oh.  What are they looking for specifically?”

“Complaints.  Indications of bad work ethics, unprofessional attitudes.”

The way he says it leaves little doubt who he is talking about.  Prad sneers at him for the self-righteous attitude.

“It’s so hypocritical.  Why do they even file those things anyway.  No one ever reads them, not until it’s time to fire people.”

“Same with all the work logs.  Which, by the way, they’re going to be sorting through the day before.”

Prad nods.  So between a bad attitude and poor work performance, the brass will have their one-two layoff punch ready.

“Well, I know I’m up to date on my task reports.  HR might be a problem.”

“Now you take me seriously?” Rohit asks.

“Guess I’ll have to hack into their files and wipe my record clean.”

Rohit chokes on his coffee and looks at the door again.  He can’t tell Prad to shut up in words right now, so puts his hands on his shoulders and gives them a hard squeeze.  Taking a few breaths, he clears his wind pipe and is able to speak again.

“Are you fucking kidding me?  Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Don’t even talk like that.”

“C’mon, Roti!” Prad says, shaking loose from Rohit’s grip.  “No one ever reads those things anyway.  Who’s gonna’ know?  I could fix your file too.”

“Last thing I need is another excuse for them to fire me.”

“No one will know, Roti.  I got the skills to make it happen.  All you need to do is give me the green light.”

“You know, you keep saying that, but I’ve never seen you do anything that proves you have any skills whatsoever.”

Angie’s orders are ringing in Prad’s ears.  His mouth desperately wants to open but his lips are clamped shut and refuse to budge.  Her wrath would be terrible, should she ever find out.

“I mean, you work here, man.  What’s that say about you?”

Prad needs to talk.  The words are bulging in his throat like a log jam and threatening to break it open.  Rohit’s taunts are deeply distressing to him and it’s overriding his orders.

“Top of the line white hats make software companies, man.  They design computers in their garage and take the world by storm with new innovations.  They’re not second rate programmers working in a cubicle.”

“Second rate!” Prad’s voice has broken free.  “Hey, I don’t need this job.  This is a pathetic waste of my abilities.”

“Then why are you still here?”

“You’re here.  What’s that say about you?”

“And I’m your superior,” Rohit reminds him.

“Oh, sorry, sir.”  Prad does a mock salute.  “You know, maybe my days here are numbered but I’ll have opportunities afterward.”

“Oh yeah?” Rohit’s grinning at him now.  More acid-tongued words are coming, Prad can sense it.  What the hell?  He’ll never meet Angie.

“Yeah,” Prad replies.  “Just ask Congressman Dangle.  He’ll tell you just how fucking good I am.  Oh, actually he can’t, because he has no fucking idea it was me!”

Rohit’s looking down at him with unbelievable incredulity.  He has no idea what he’s talking about, and can’t fathom how he’s come up with such a tale.  They’ve been joined too by Donna, cream lady, who is not to be talked loudly around.  This complicates matters further.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he whispers to Prad.

“Wait and see, I’m sure it’ll be in the news real soon.”

Prad leaves Rohit standing at the counter with his fresh cup of coffee.  He tries to follow him but his coffee spills from the sudden forward momentum, forcing him to go to the sink and wash his burnt fingers.  When he finally manages to clean up the mess he’s made and place his cup safely on the counter, he storms after Prad.  They end up in the men’s room, which at the moment is slightly more private.

“What are you talking about, Prad?  Did you do something illegal?”

The words are whispered and one of his ears is kept open for sounds of flushes or people coming in behind them.  Prad meanwhile has both eyes on the road and both hands on his wheel, smiling like he just got it waxed by some hottie in the supply closet.  He says nothing as he goes to wash his hands and Rohit is still hanging on him.

“I’m serious, man!  If you did anything that’s going to threaten your job here, or mine, I’ll fucking squeal on you.  I’m not going down as an accessory for anything.”

“Calm down,” Prad says as he shakes his hands off and grabs a paper towel from the dispenser.  “I told you, no one knows I had anything to do with it.  I shouldn’t even have said anything to you, you’ll probably squeal on me anyway.  God knows you can’t keep anything a secret.”

“Hey, we’re not talking about the usual crap you pull around here that I’m always covering for.  If you’re doing something on the side that could wind you in jail, I’m not going to protect you.”

“Like you could!”

Prad leaves and has Rohit following him back to his cubicle now.  He is extremely self-conscious about all the people who might hear them, but refuses to let the topic go.  Already Prad is feeling stupid for bringing it up.  Not for fear of his job or the law, but because of the trust he might have betrayed.  No one needs to know that the Society did something it wouldn’t ordinarily do.  That’s the whole point of a one time thing.  You do it once, and forget about it.  Those who wouldn’t understand are kept in the dark for just that reason.

“Prad, just tell me what you’ve done and maybe I can help get you out of it.”

“Nothing serious,” he says finally.  Taking his seat, he swivels in it a bit to make sure the gears are still sliding just right.  “Just had a little fun with some government resources.  That’s all.  And no one is going to know about it, provided everyone who now knows keeps their fricking mouth shut!”

“Who else knows about this?”

“Only a couple people, but they helped.  So it’s just us, and you.”  Prad admits with a shrug.  “And I wasn’t exactly supposed to share it with anyone, so consider yourself part of my inner circle,” he finishes uncomfortably.

Rohit shakes his head mournfully.  “Breaking your conspirators trust should be the least of your worries, man.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t.  So, can I count on you not to say anything?”

“I don’t know,” Rohit confesses.  “You sure this can’t be traced back to you?”

“Positive, Roti.  You and I both know the system’s ins and outs, which is why it’s an insult for the both of us to be working here.  Speaking of which, were you done telling me about layoffs?”

Rohit looks relieved to be talking about that again.  Only comparatively is the thought of being laid off not a source of stress for him anymore.  “Well, next week they’re thinking of starting up interviews.”

“Interviews?  What, for like new people?”

Rohit chuckles sardonically.  “No, I mean that’s when they drag all of us in, one by one, and ask us to explain how we’re productive and useful around here.  They start with the senior people and then work their way down, section by section.  You’re asked to explain, in your own words, what you bring to the company.”

“Lazy shits!  They want us to do their work for them!”

“Yeah, basically.  It’s easier than taking an interest in what your employees actually do on company time.”

“And they’ve got our HR files and our work reports to compare it against?”

“It’s so they catch you in lie.  If you say you work hard, they pull up your reports and demand to know why it took so long to do this, why you haven’t finished that, etc.  And then they ask about your fellow employees, and if you say you get along, they point out how people have complained.”

“Fucking inquisition.”

Rohit leans in and looks all self-conscious again.  “Keep your voice down.  And don’t say I didn’t warn you.  You’re going to have some serious explaining to do come next week.”

Rohit is about to leave, but Prad stops him with a little reminder.  “Dude, just remember, I can have a look at the files HR’s got on you and me.”  He illustrates with his fingers, playing air keyboard.  “Few strokes, all complaints are gone!”

Rohit leans into his cubicle again.  “Just do me one favour, Prad.  If you have to start looking for a new job, don’t list me as a reference.”

Data Miners – Chapter 4

Tuesday night, t-minus five and a half minutes.

Puget campus is virtually deserted, at least in the vicinity of the main student residence.  Prad and the rest have dressed accordingly for an evening of felony hacking; dressy casual, all dark tones.  No hoods or black toques, those would bring campus security running faster than a plea of rape or assault.  Their best approach is to walk right in, playing it cool, set down to do their work then walk out like they just had a nice evening of gaming.  That’s still the cover story, and Achebe has the Warlords disks to back it up.  Prad, meantime, has the ICE breaker on his decorative flash drive, the one he’s been working on all week.  Sa’id and Angie have been in regular contact with him, plus a few black hats he knows, letting him know everything they can about the FBI d-base.  If they were wrong, they’ll know soon when the FBI boots them and does a trace to find where they’re working from.

But if things go well, Achebe’s lovely little creations will be circulating in the FBI’s files.  That way, when the press gets a hold of them, a gift from an “anonymous source”, they’ll be able to confirm that the evidence is real.  Angie’s anonymizer site, whichever she’s selected for this op, will come into play then.

All the bases are covered, all they need is for Angie’s “friend” to show up.

Their synchronized watches indicate that it is now midnight.  Feet are getting itchy and nerves are on edge.  Prad waits a few seconds before saying what he’s sure everyone must be thinking at this point.

“Where the hell is this guy?”

“He’ll be here, just wait!”

Prad grumbles, then realizes he has inadvertently confirmed that Angie’s friend is in fact a dude.  He is further disappointed when the dude proves punctual and darkens the front foyer of the building they intend to enter.  He does a little circular scan of the foyer and walkway leading up the front door, then pushes it open.  He leans back against the door to hold it open, trying to appear calm for all the cams that are able to see him now that he’s outside.

“So who is this guy anyway?  Some kind of grad student or something?”

“Yeah, looks a little old for living in residence, Ange.”

Angie looks at Achebe and Sa’id with daggers.  She further corrects them on that a few facts.  “He’s a doctoral student and I never said he lives here, he just has an ID.”

“You two dating?”

No sooner are the words out of his mouth than Prad wishes he could shove them back in.  But like a wet vapour in a very cold room, it’s out there and frozen solid.  Nothing in the world could erase it now.  “We’re friends,” she says defensively.

“I’m not hearing nooooo,” Sa’id interjects.

“It’s time, you dickheads.  Okay now, nice and cool,” Angie commands, and they walk nonchalantly towards the door.  The cameras only scan the front and until now they’ve been beneath the shade of a tree.  Prad thinks that such blind spots must be the subject of a lot of complaints.  There’s enough room in the area they’ve been standing in for the last few minutes for several assaults or rapes to occur.  For most people, this would be considered a strange observation.  To Prad, its just plain fact, much like how the cameras are hopelessly out of date.  No one is fooled by those tinted glass domes that cover them.  Everyone knows they only point one direction.

Another observation:  Scott is actually kind of handsome, in a starving artist, student-for-life kind of way.  Sa’id’s description was bang on.  The beard, button down plaid shirt and blue jeans, not to mention the glasses, all scream mature student.

“Everyone, this is Scott. Scott, this is everyone,” Angie says by way of introduction.

“Hi,” he says coolly as he closes the door behind them and takes the lead in their little procession.  The lounge is just a few corridor lengths ahead, on the ground floor underneath layers of student residences.  They round a corner and enter a gleaming white computer lounge and Prad feels like he stepped into a hospital.  The colour, cleanliness, and availability of technology are all consistent with an operating room, a communal one at that.  As predicted, there are only a few students there, the keeners or poor kids who are busy working or too poor to afford a laptop so they can check their MSN at home.

That’s certainly what the one redhead in the corner is doing.  She types, pauses to read, laughs, types again.  The Asian dude in the other corner only takes his eyes off the screen long enough to blink.  Not a casual computer lounger.

They get to work occupying four computers side by side.  Prad takes a moment to familiarize himself with his machine, which is clearly the same as all the others.  Dell PC, 54.0 Mbps wireless connection, 2.0 GHz, Windows Vista operating system; not up to the latest of Mr. Pradchaphet’s standards, but enough to do tonight’s deed.  Meanwhile Scott walks down the row to distribute pieces of paper with names and logins for them to enter.  Prad looks at his with some scepticism.

Arlene Tomkins.  Atomkins098.

“Come up with that on your own?” he asks the character Scott.  Scott smiles from beneath his red beard and moves on to give Angie hers.  She smiles at him when she takes it, sending more bristles up Prad’s back.  With their fake student logins entered, Achebe passes around the copies of Warlords Online. Waiting for the computers to install it proves to be a test of patience.  Bloody college computers.  It takes a few minutes, then Prad calls up the FBI database and downloads his icebreaker.

Ten minutes have elapsed, putting them past midnight.  The lounger is done doing her thing and gets up to leave.  The icebreaker is still being downloaded into Prad’s machine, a small window showing the progress while the gleaming red, white and blue of the FBI homepage sits in the background.  With only one person left in the room, and being far away and consumed by work, Sa’id thinks it’s safe to talk.

“Now we’ll know for sure whether or not all those years staying one step ahead of the NSA was worth it,” Sa’id says.

“Don’t toot your own horn too soon,” Angie reminds him.  “Get into the game everyone except Prad, and lets look like we’re doing something non-threatening.”

Prad continues to wait.  Finally, he is told that the piece of program he helped craft has finished downloading.  He calls up the file and orders the computer to execute the executable file.  That takes a little more time.  While the others are busy designing custom characters for Warlords, he is waiting for his program to get to work and looking over his shoulder at the Asian dude.  The Warlords program is minimized in his tray just in case he needs to call it up in a hurry to fill the screen.  On the screen next to him, a dwarf in leather armour brings his battleaxe down to split the head of an adventurer, and his screen changes as the FBI site opens up to him.  The CJIS, Criminal Justice Information System, for which his ICE was specifically designed to crack.

“I’m in,” he whispers.  His fingers get to work typing while the others get to work on clearing the room.  For the next minute or so, the boys make a lot of noise while Angie yells at them to shut up.  When they finally notice that they’ve caught they eye of the young man in the corner, they add to the annoyance level.

“Are we bothering you, fellow?” Achebe yells in a loud, done up West African accent.

The Asian fellow is mortified to look up and see people talking to him so directly, being rude and forcing him to point it out.  “No, its okay,” he says politely.

“Cuz if so, we can move,” Sa’id says, adding a little slur to sound just a little drunk.  A loud crazy laugh follows and he turns back to his keyboard to notice he’s being killed by a level 10 Elf archer.  “Fuck me!  You pointy eared cocksucker!”

“Shut up, dude’s trying to work!” Prad yells.

By now the dutiful student has gotten the message and packs up to leave.  Prad minimizes the FBI screen and looks like he’s playing with his buds.  As the guy walks by, he offers a few more polite dismissals as Achebe calls after him with feigned apologies.  But he’s gone at last.  They nod at Angie.  Prad’s console becomes the focal point of all attention and seats slide over on their wheels to join him.  He flips back to the FBI site and begins navigating the CJIS’s database. Achebe produces the third and final flash drive from his pocket and slips it to Prad who shoves it in the only USB slot the computer has left.  He pops open the file on the drive marked Photos (next to the one marked rejects) and begins opening them up onto the computers desktop, arranged in order.

“Okay, let’s start with the honourable Reverend Fred P. Johnston and his whacked out ministry,” he says and types in the name.

He gets a series of files the FBI has been keeping on him since the 50s.  As predicted, the files are grouped based on the FBI’s surveillance of the outspoken preacher from Topeka, Kansas.  Ironically, they begin with his involvement in the civil rights movement.  There’s a few years of relative inactivity, then they move onto his more recent work assailing gay marriage and denouncing Muslims and illegal immigrants.  Prad decides to insert Achebe’s first creation into the former area of pictures – a mock-up of the Congressman attending a service in the Westboro Baptist church.  The topic of the day, in all likelihood, is why God hates fags and revels in the death of soldiers.  The picture they used to duplicate the Congressman’s image is a few years out of date compared to the picture of the congregation, but they’re pretty satisfied with their work overall.  No one is likely to notice it’s a fake until they take the time to examine it more closely.  An annotation at the bottom is provided, making sure his name is provided in full along with other noteworthy members of the congregation.

“That ought to confuse the hell out of people who think he supports the troops,” Sa’id says.

“Yep.  Now how about the Aryan union?” Achebe asks.

“Okay, one sec.” Prad begins a new search in the database for anything they might have on these fellows.  The file is voluminous, and from the looks of it, updated on an almost weekly basis.  Finding a single file of photo surveillance proves to be difficult.  They are seen outside of Southern Baptist churches, funerals, federal and gubernatorial buildings, marching in protests, and having cook outs, any form of organization that would place them within the bounds of the law.  Prad searches for a while before he finds a series of photos that look like they might be innocuous enough to support their own contribution.  Then, Achebe’s second creation is inserted, a photo of Dangle shaking hands with Butler in a parking lot in his home riding.  A black leather bag is in Butler’s other hand.  No bills are leaking out the side, but the implication is clear.  An illegal, off-the-books financial contribution is taking place, and they got it all on film.

“Done!  Next.”

“Last we got the good Congressman visiting a porn boutique.  Arguably, my best work,” says Achebe.

“It’s just him darkening the doorway,” Prad smirks.

“Still good work.”

Prad finds a random place for this one.  It really doesn’t fall under security issues.  It’ll just look good, and ironic, come the six o’clock news.

“Alright, crumbs are placed.  Now let’s just pray the techies can find ‘em all.”

“And do the right thing by reporting it,” Angie adds.

Prad leaves the site, erases the photos from the desktop, clears the web browsers history, and raises both hands.  Low fives and a few laughs follow.  Now it’s Angie’s turn.  Passing Achebe’s flash drive to her, she moves the photos onto her desktop and calls up Firefox to make some emails.  Getting onto the anonymizer’s web page, she opens three windows in Yahoo and types in the email addresses for the press desk at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Seattle Times.  A simple cut and paste email, stressing how the source of these photos is anonymous and no explanation of how she came across them.  Then a nice little line about how they want “the truth to come out.”  She attaches Achebe’s files from the desktop to each one, and then hits send.  She wipes the desktop clean, erases the anonymizer, and ejects the flash drives.

“And-we-are-finished!” she declares and raises her hands above her head to receive some high-fives.

And then… a weird silence.  No one is sure what they should be feeling exactly, but everyone agrees it’s a bit anticlimactic. They just hacked the FBI and incriminated a terrible, though for all intents and purposes, innocent old man.  They ought to be feeling something.  And yet, there’s really nothing to it.  No fireworks or overwhelming sense of relief, just the quiet drone of computers and the room’s air conditioning.

“Wow, so what do we do now?” Sa’id asks.

“Anybody actually want to do some gaming?” Prad suggests.

“Naw, lets look at those rejects, just for fun.”

Prad calls up the photos Achebe made that didn’t quite make the cut.  In truth, everyone suspects he made them just for fun seeing how over the top they are.  There’s Ahmadinejad and Dangle sitting together in a carriage sharing a laugh, Kim Jong Il and him playing polo, and international bogeyman Osama Bin Laden and him holding hands like young lovers back in the 1980s.  The backdrop is some sunny hillside in Afghanistan, the faint blur of a Russian Hind in the background pushing up smoke with its rockets.

“Class, all class,” Prad says.

“How about we send these to the media too?  I mean, you know, after the story breaks… if it breaks.”

It’s Angie suggesting this, surprising seeing as how this was her challenge.  Strange to think she’s actually unsure of success this late in the game.

“That’d just be like adding insult to injury.” Achebe replies.  “We wanna’ make sure we can string them along for a bit first before we burst their bubble.”

Sa’id agrees.  “Yeah, seriously.  The idea here was to just cause some trouble, right?  I mean, no ones going to actually believe the Congressman’s this dirty are they?”

“Right,” Angie nods.  “Silly idea.  I guess I’m just feeling squirrelly.”

“Still…” announces Achebe, arms raised.  “Kudos to our fearless leader and organizer for preparing this little smearjob.”  He points to Angie.  People begin to crowd around her and exchange high fives.  This goes on for a few minutes as Angie receives and returns different variations of them.

“Ahem!” Prad finally says, looking around at them.  “All due credit to the Captain, but who exactly was the pilot of this here frickin’ operation?”

The boys pat him on the back.  Angie screws up her face in such a way that says she knows he did well, but will be damned to admit it.  By way of diversion, she looks over at Scott who’s been standing there with his arms crossed and a placid smile on his face the whole time.

“And let’s not forget our boy Scotty.  He did get us in here, in more ways that one.”

“Yeah, how did you come up with those student logins?  You got a friend at student services or something?”

“Nope, all me,” he says blithely.  Sa’id and Achebe look at him with newfound respect.

“Well, grad student by day, hacker by night.  A black hat pretending to be a beret, huh?”

“He’s not a black hat,” Angie corrects them.  “He’s actually…”

“Hatless.”  Scott finishes the sentence.  They share a laugh, and Prad wants to puke.  The way she’s shifting from foot to foot and looking antsy just screams intimacy.  Everyone can smell the awkwardness and sexual tension.  She looks like she just wants them to leave so they can celebrate privately.  Prad would rather see Scott’s head hit by a semi and tries to stall.

“I say we celebrate!  Who’s up for hitting the pub?”

He’s hit by a wave of indecisive shrugs.  “We really should…” Angie begins. The other boys get the hint and decide to pull Prad away.

“Yeah, why don’t we save that ‘til later?  We got day jobs to think about and I’m sure Scott needs to study.”

Angie laughs again and Scott just smiles.  Sa’id and Achebe remove the Warlords program from their machines and log off.  Prad takes a little longer.  He needs to wipe the web directory clean and erase all downloaded copies of their programs, then there’s the desktop pics to trash.  He cleans out the recycle bin and logs off before saying his own goodbyes.

“Next Tuesday?” he asks her.

“I’ll let you know.  We ought to all meet to let the others know how it went.  But no talking about it online with anyone, okay?”

“Okay.  Well, goodnight,” he says to her and nods at Scott.

At the front, Sa’id and Achebe are waiting and looking pretty pleased overall.  Once they are out of the well-lit and surveillanced foyer, they begin to feel something welling up inside them.  It’s as if what they’ve done has finally hit them now that they’ve left the scene.  Hoots and hollers begin to spew forth.  More low fives and slaps on the shoulder are exchanged too before words of congratulations are passed around.

“We did it!  I mean you did it, Prad!  I mean, we helped, but you did it!”

“Ah, I can’t believe how easy that was!  God I wish I could have done something to help you out there!”

“Oh yeah, like what?” Prad asks.

“I dunno,” Sa’id replies.  “Like maybe let the fuckers know exactly what I think of them.  Maybe even crash their wiretapping software while I was at it.”

“I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” Prad says.

“Oh, they’ll figure out they’ve been had.  Then it’s just a matter of time before they figure out how…” Achebe pauses as another rush of enthusiasm hits him.  “But they aint gonna’ know who did it because we’re so fucking good!  AM I RIGHT?!”

Sa’id and Achebe bump chests and laugh some more.  Prad stands there quietly for a second before they realize he’s not joining in.  That’s when it hits them and they start to calm down and show him some sympathy.

“Hey, tough break, man.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, but you know how it is.”

“The lady was sure to have friends, sooner or later.”

“I know,” Prad says coolly.  “It’s fine.  Really, it is.”  A pause, then he renews his suggestion for beers at the pub.  The offer receives the same cool response it did back in the lab.

“We were actually serious about getting home, man,” Sa’id says diplomatically.

“Oh, yeah, that’s cool too.  I guess it is a work night after all, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, sorry.  We’ll all hook up next week though right?”

“Yeah, Angie said she’d let us know about that.  I guess she wants us all to meet in person again to let the others know how it went.”

“Yup, bragging rights.” Sa’id says, summing it up succinctly.

“Right.  Oh, and remember that we’ve got a gag order put on us in the meantime.  No bragging ‘til everyone’s around to hear about it… in private.”

“I’m always discreet,” Sa’id declares.

They have a final laugh and Prad says goodnight to them one last time before heading off to the parking lot.  His Miata is there waiting for him, its seasonal protection undeployed against the dewy evening air.  He is suddenly annoyed by this and the number of obstructions strewn across the seats as he gets in.  A half-smoked joint is sitting on top of a few cases in his disk holder, a small burn mark from where it burnt itself out a few nights ago.  He puts it to his lips before starting the car.  A quick press of the lighter to get it burning, and he’s off.  Looks like it’s partying alone for him again tonight.

It’s strange, he thinks as he comes to a stop at the intersection just outside the college property.  He should be flying.  He should be a mile high right now.  If anything, the pot should be evening him out.  But it isn’t.  The pot is kicking in and the red light seems to drag on into infinity.  He sits there looking ahead and resting his chin on his left fist, propped up against the armrest.  The warm wind blowing across the nearby grassy fields makes him think of the end of summer.  It’s that time that calls to him from his deepest memory when summer was coming to an end and the cold winds began to roll in from the north pacific, announcing the coming of winter… with its rains and monster storms.  That’s about what it feels like right now, except that the wind is from the south, and it’s the beginning of spring.

All he can think about is how alone he really is.  No warm body to keep him company in his spacious bed and his cool linens.  Not even the thought of Brianna Banks or his adult dating site seems to hold any appeal for him right now.  All he can think about is how Angie will be with someone else tonight, how she likes this man and gets all nervous around him, and how his presence seems to break her poise and cool demeanor.  Most of all, he thinks about how it’s this other man, and not him that does that to her.