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.
“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.