Cyberwars: U.S. Lawmakers Credit NSA for Uncovering Al-Qaeda Threat

bahrain-embassy-04818864In a statement made this past Sunday, the US State Department indicated that it will be extending its embassy and consulate closures until the end of the week. Offices were reopened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria just yesterday, but another 19 will remain closed until Aug. 10 – including locations in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

These closures were made in response to an unspecified Al-Qaeda threat that indicated that an attack might be coming sometime in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the State Department, the decision to keep the embassies and consulates closed was “not an indication of a new threat,” but simply out of concern for the lives and safety of staff.

embassy-closure-mapAnd according to another State Department source, the credit for uncovering this supposed threat goes to the NSA and the PRISM program – i.e. the extensive new data mining operation that has garnered a great deal of controversy of late. Specifically, it was the agency’s ability to monitor communications on cellphones and emails that was is credited with making the difference.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, he top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed in an interview that “There is an awful lot of chatter out there”. This “chatter” apparently took the form of communications among terrorism suspects about the planning of a possible attack, which he claimed was “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”

US embassy in Tel AvivNo indication was given as to the nature of the threat or whether or not an actual attack might take place. But Chambliss was very quick to draw the connection between the NSA’s ability to gather information and the warnings his department received.

[Those programs] allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter. If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys. This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.

This information-gathering program was one of many aspects of the NSA’s broad surveillance identified by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden in his testimony to major media outlets. So it comes as no surprise that the State Department would be coming to its defense at a time like this.

US-embassy-closures_010And Chambliss and the State Department are hardly the only ones singing the NSA’s praises right now. This past Sunday, several prominent Republicans and Democrats expressed their support for the NSA surveillance program. One such individual was Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who told ABC’s This Week:

The good news is that we picked up intelligence. And that’s what we do. That’s what NSA does. We’ve received information that high-level people from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack.

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, another Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, characterized the security threat as being based on specific intelligence rather than generalized anti-U.S. threats. While on CNN’s State of the Union program, he said:

This is not the usual type of chatter. It had to be corroborated or come from very reliable sources to take this kind of action.

Mideast Bahrain US Embassy ClosingsNaturally, there are those critics who would claim that the unspecified nature of the threat and the lack of oversight where PRISM is involved means that there is no way to tell if the “chatter” story is in fact real. Citing such examples as the “Orange Alert” controversy of 2004 – when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was pressured to raise the alert status leading up to the election – such critics would remind people that the US government has a history of issuing alerts based on factors other than hard data.

At the same time, it is important to note that the threat information also came ahead of the Eid celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will be occurring later this week and just over a month before the anniversary of Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on a US ambassador and the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. In this sense, the alert may have been motivated by legitimate concern, even if hard data was lacking,

us_embassy_closings_yemenAnd the US is hardly the only nation responding to the warning seriously. The threat also has prompted some European countries to close their embassies in Yemen, where one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates is based. Interpol, the France-based international police agency, also issued a global security alert advising member states to increase vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.

The advisory prompted Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department to release its own warning this past Saturday for travelers and diplomats in the Middle East and North Africa region. In addition, the Canadian high commission office in Bangladesh was closed on Sunday, since Pakistan was one of several nations outside of the Middle East and North Africa to be named in the advisory.

A few things are certain at this point though: neither the threat of terrorism nor all that’s done in response to it are even close to being resolved. In addition, the controversy surrounding the response and whether or not it constitutes an overreaction or a calculated curtailment of people’s civil rights and liberties, is not over either. Not by a long shot.

Sources: cbc.ca, (2), washingtonpost.com, theguardian.com

 

Hacker Wars: Hacker Breaches U.S. Army Database

Hackers-With-An-AgendaIt appears that the ongoing campaign of cyber warfare has claimed yet another victim, once again a government institution. In the latest in a long series of institutions and organizations plagued by cyber crime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that back in January, a hacker compromised a U.S. Army database that holds sensitive information about vulnerabilities in U.S. dams.

The database in question was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams, a source that contains information about 79,000 dams throughout the US and tracks such information as the number of estimated deaths that could occur if a specific dam failed. It’s accessible to government employees who have accounts, and non-government users can query the database, but are not permitted to download data from it.

hacker_damThe breach was first reported by Free Beacon, a non-profit online publication, and has since been confirmed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Pete Pierce, a spokesman for the ACE, released a statement, saying that:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is aware that access to the National Inventory of Dams (NID), to include sensitive fields of information not generally available to the public, was given to an unauthorized individual in January 2013 who was subsequently determined to not to have proper level of access for the information. [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] immediately revoked this user’s access to the database upon learning that the individual was not, in fact, authorized full access to the NID.

The Corps of Engineers further indicated on their website that account usernames and passwords had since changed “to be compliant with recent security policy changes.”

Unnamed U.S. officials told the Free Beacon that the breach was traced to “the Chinese government or military cyber warriors,” but offered no information to support the claim. It is well known by intrusion specialists that hackers can use proxy servers or hijacked computers to conduct a breach and make it look as if the source was a specific country or individual.

hackers_securityMichelle Van Cleave, a former senior adviser to the Executive Agent for Homeland Security and Department of Defense and a former consultant to the CIA, went on record as saying that the breach appeared to be part of an effort to collect “vulnerability and targeting data” for future cyber or military attacks, though she didn’t say how she came to this conclusion.

If the intrusion was the work of the Chinese military, then it’s possible this was nothing more than a fact-finding mission on their part, designed to gather information on America’s infrastructure and hydroelectric facilities. The far worse possibility was that this was the result of private hackers, who sought to obtain information about US dams are part of a planned attack, looking to see which dam would cause the most harm if it were disabled by a physical or cyber-attack.

Whether it was the result of government-sponsored hackers, private hackers, or potential terrorists, it is clear that in the wake of the recent intrusions into US government databases, and the recent bombing in Boston, that security forces in the US will be on the lookout for similar breaches. In an age of electronic warfare, the best defense is not a good offense, but the ability to identity enemies and deploy countermeasures.

Source: Wired.com

Zombie Apocalypse Training Underway!

Back in June, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that, in spite of the rash of cannibalistic attacks, there was no zombie apocalypse on the way. This was a slight change-up from their periodic “zombie warnings”, which were really just a bunch of disaster preparedness stunts. But given the recent upsurge in biting and flesh eating, it seems that some people are beginning to treat this as a serious problem.

One such organization is the HALO corp, a security firm which is based in San Diego, California. The first round of training will involve a disaster-crisis scenario at the company’s annual Counter-Terrorism Summit in San Diego. The five-day event will provide hands-on training, demonstrations, lectures and classes geared to more than 1,000 military personnel, law enforcement officials, medical experts, and state and federal government workers.

Granted, the entire scenario is cheesy as hell, but it’s actually considered a pretty good basis for conducting worldwide pandemic scenarios. That’s always been the CDC’s excuse, and even Homeland Security announced earlier this month “The zombies are coming!” Here too, the announcement was part of a public health campaign to encourage better preparation for genuine disasters and emergencies. As the theory goes, if you’re prepared for a zombie attack, the same preparations will help during a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.

So… what is to be made of all this? Is this a clever way to teach citizens and government personnel how to be prepared? Or it is a sign that a far greater apocalypse is upon us, one where people take fictional apocalypses more seriously than actual disasters? Hard to say, but if its possible to actually channel weird hype and paranoia into something productive, what the hell, right? And honestly, sounds like it could be fun!

External Links: Military Times, Huffington Post

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.

Data Miners – Chapter 3

Warning! Explicit and suggestive language follows (Like that ever scared anyone away!)…

It’s Friday night and Prad feels like doing something while he’s out of the house.  He couldn’t rope Angie into coming with them, but Sa’id and Achebe took him up on the offer.  They needed a chance to discuss strategy before returning to their daily lives.  Already Sa’id has a few people in mind that he would like to see associated with Dangle.  He plans to email the list to Angie as soon as he gets home.  He even thinks a few photo shop pics for the file would be nice.  It seems a little overkill, but who the hell cares?  All they need to do is create the illusion of something illicit, nothing that’ll survive investigation.  All that’s really necessary is for the press to pick up on the scent of a possible scandal, a little something to make the Congressman’s life more interesting before the next election.

They discuss the anonymizer Angie’s planning on implementing.  For a man like Dangle, who approved email surveillance for government employees, it seems like a fitting irony.  The only question is which site she’ll use.  Prad knows she’s partial to the Norwegians, though Russia has become good at producing such sites due to all the domestic spying they had to endure under Putin and Medvedev.  Then again, there are plenty of Puget Sound services who offer similar services, thanks in no small part to eight years of Tom Ridge and Homeland Security spying on people’s emails.  After their first pitcher, they get into specifics of their own work.

“You and me can come up with some Icebreakers for the FBI, no problem, Prad,” Sa’id says over his sudsy glass.  “I got plenty of friends who would be more than willing to help.  It’s a dream come true, you know.  I gotta thank Angie for giving me this chance.”

“Assuming we don’t get of course,” Achebe says.

“It’s just a one time thing right?  And even if we fail, they won’t know it was us.”

“They could always find out the old fashioned way.”  Achebe looks over his shoulder at the other patrons.  “Maybe we should be doing this from home… separately?”

“Naw, we need all our brains to do this.  Angie did say our collaboration was key.”

Prad is saying this.  He has surprised his fellow members on more than one occasion by demonstrating his willingness to take orders from a girl.  It surprises him too sometimes, but none of them seem to think of Angie as a girl.  Achebe’s concern seems more directed towards her methods though.

“All of us can do this from home and still stay connected, it’s called a conference call.”

“You trust your phone?” Sa’id scoffs.

“Then how about some MSN or Skype, Mr. Arab fucking nationalist?”

“Yeah, that’s smart.  The feds are a hell of a lot likelier to tap your computer than your phone, dude!  Public places are way safer.”

“Just wait til they start putting up cameras.  This country will create its own version of the London Eye any day now.”

Prad slaps the counter.  “This is all fine and good, but it was Angie’s call and we all said we were down, right?  If you’ve got problems, Achebe, why did you agree to this?”

Achebe swills a little beer and his mouth and appears to be giving the questions some thought.  “I don’t know.  Maybe I just don’t like the idea of sitting things out while the boss lady is busy doing something dangerous.”

“And because you like a challenge.”  Prad raises his glass and taps it against Achebe’s.  Sa’id joins them from the other side.  At the very least, they agree that they can pull this off.  No federal tracker is as good as any one of them.  How could they possibly fare against three of them combined?

It all sounds too simple.  With a little lubricant and enough testosterone, just about anything does.  Sa’id and Kingdome turn down Prad’s recommendation for a third pitcher and decide to call it a night.  They have families and lives to get back to, which invariably forces Prad to go pick up his where he left off.  He hops the el-train back to the Empire State towers and decides some television and a fat puff will be his entertainment for the remainder of the evening.  Perhaps he’ll even call up mom and dad for his weekly update.

Need to make some more friends, Prad reminds himself.  Life has become incredibly monotonous since moving to Puget Sound.  The Society has not filled the void just yet, nor has lusting after Angie taken care of the vacuum that is his love life.  As he passes through the revolving doors to his building, he realizes he scarcely needs to speak to his parents at all.  He’s already telling himself everything they are going to. At least his mother at any rate, who will be concentrating on his love life.  All he needs to do before getting to his apartment is lecture himself on finding a secure job and he’ll have both parents covered.  Such is the breakdown of his parents’ advice; his mother covers love and companionship, his father career and finances.

“Mr. Pradchaphet?”

It is the doorman calling to him.  Prad is surprised, mainly because the guy finally said it right.  He looks over at the old man in the monkey suit with a look that says “what the hell do you want?”

“A package came for you sir.  I was going to bring it to your apartment, but seeing as how you’re here…”

“It’s okay, I guess. What is it?”

Prad is escorted over to the front desk and eyes a square box wrapped in brown paper and tied shut with binder twine.  His address is written in large black letters in what appears to be permanent marker.  There is no return address.

“Who sent it?”

“I do not know, sir.  It was left at the desk while I was on my break and no one remembers seeing who dropped it off.  It was just here.”

“Don’t suppose you gave it a shake?  Checked it to see it was vibrating?”

“Vibrating, sir?”

Prad shakes his head at him and places his ear to the package.  It’s not vibrating, or ticking, or emitting a funny scent.  Could still be anthrax or some other crazy biological weapon.  Or maybe it’s a pipe bomb, courtesy of the local Minutemen who think he’s a terrorist.  Prad has always wondered why the heat Sa’id complains so bitterly about has never been directed at him.  He’s dark enough that some dumb hick might get it into their head to call the NSA or FBI on him.  For years he’s been waiting for a knock on the door or a kindly meet and greet with some cloaked figure in a dark alley.  It’s like waiting for a shoe to drop.  But alas, he is beginning to sense that maybe they’ve caught on to the fact that neither of his heritages are particularly suspect.  He eyes the package and tries to decide whether he’s going to open it here or upstairs.

“I’ll take it with me.  If it’s anything weird, I’ll phone down.”

“Are you expecting it to be something weird?” the old man asks.

“Uh…no.  Never mind.”

Prad leaves the front lobby and wonders where the doorman has been for the last decade. Blissfully unaware that paranoia has become a national canon.  The package clunks a bit as he hoists it under his arm and boards the elevator.  Whatever it is is not secured too well inside, and is clearly a few sizes too small for the box itself.  His nerves are on high alert as he expects the contents to blow up or start leaking from the little thump.  He pushes the button for the fourteenth floor (thirteen in reality) and the doors close.

The elevator hums to life and rolls upwards.  He can hear the motors purring gently and feels his heart beating pleasantly fast.  When the elevator stops on the seventh, it skips a beat and he’s made all the more nervous when an older man steps on with him.

“Going up?” the man asks needlessly.  Prad nods and tries not to look nervous, and fails.  The man eyes him ever so suspiciously and steps in.

Hot date?  Prad looks him over and thinks he’s going upstairs to see some nice widow.  He’s decked out in a dapper black suit with a white shirt that looks to be faux-silk, possibly real.  He has a dapper jacket on too, so he’s probably picking someone up in addition to taking them out.  Or maybe he’s just stopping in for a booty call.  Do men his age still do that?  He smiles as he speculates as to the content of his wallet.  Condoms, in addition to his platinum and senior citizen’s discount card?

Prad checks the numbers again.  They’ve reached floor ten.  That’s when it hits him.  The doors are polished brass and highly reflective.  The man has been watching him in the reflection the entire time.  He could not have failed to notice how Prad was looking him up and down.  And what’s this under his arm?  A big brown package with no return address?  Well now Prad is feeling the sting of paranoid eyes on him.  Or maybe he thinks Prad is one of the buildings many nubile queers, the up and coming boys who are moving into the valley and taking over prime real estate from old fag bashers like him.  He feels strangely empowered.

The doors open on twelve and the man politely gets out.  Prad is let down.  Unless he’s making a call to the authorities, Prad’s been imaging the whole thing.  Ah whatever, it was fun while it lasted.  And guiltily, he realizes he forgot that by even being in the same tight, confining space with the man, he might have been risking his life.  If the package is indeed some leaking biotoxin, then he just killed the poor fellow, or possibly made him and his date very sick.  At least he won’t be alone in the emergency room tonight.

The elevator passes the phantom thirteenth floor, reaches fourteen and dings.  It takes less than a minute for Prad to make it to his apartment, get inside and fetch the pair of industrial scissors that came with his knife set. Taking a deep breath, he cuts through the twine and starts making a seam along the paper.  Once he’s cut the box from one end to the other, he gently tears it off and peaks underneath.  It’s a shoebox, Merrell’s from REI, which is indicative of something, he thinks.  But it’s still just a shoebox, and he hasn’t even risked a peek at the true contents yet.  He feels strangely let down and relieved again. No one would ever pack a bomb or a bio-agent into a shoe box.  If the Anarchist cookbook doesn’t contain a section on that, well then it damn well should!

The edges of the box are secured with duct tape, which renews his sense of worry for just a second.  If he were packing this box with something that wasn’t supposed to get out until opened, he would be using duct tape to seal it.  The scissors come into play again.  It’s an old habit that he can’t just rip the tape of something or tear into a package.  Not being subjected to Christmas while growing up can do that to a person.  They just don’t know how to devour a package.  Nevertheless, his efforts are rewarded when he finally slits down the length of the last piece of tape.  The eight pieces are easily removed and lay in a heap on his table.  Eight silver strips in six and twelve inch lengths.

He takes a deep breath and removes the top.

It’s a book… shit.

Not just any book.  A copy of Koestler’s “Ghost in the Machine” is staring up at him from inside.  There was a note attached to it, a yellow sticky with cryptic instructions scrawled in fine ink.

Read it.  Learn!

Already Prad is starting to feel annoyed.  There is something inherently unsavoury about being instructed to learn.  It takes all the fun out of it.  Learning is most enjoyable when it goes against the grain, when it’s something you’re not supposed to be doing because it threatens the establishment.  And the ultimate letdown of knowing that no one considers him important enough to kill him makes it worse.

He picks the book up and looks it over, just to make sure its not somehow rigged or booby trapped.  He sniffs the pages, musty but harmless.  The spine is intact, the cover not lined with some tactile poison.  Nothing’s wrong with it at all.  It actually looks like it’s in fine shape, like whoever sent it had the good graces to order a good copy through Amazon.com.

Who the hell sent this, he thinks as he opens it and flips through the pages.  Probably Angie, he thinks.  Something involving dating tips would probably be more appropriate given the tenor of their last conversation, but getting him to learn is something she would not pass up.  The subject matter in undeniably Society as well.

The phone rings, causing his heart to jump again.  He puts the book down and grabs the wireless from its cradle on the kitchen counter.

“Hello?”

There’s no answer, just dead air and the almost imperceptible sense of something breathing in the background.  His paranoia is starting to tingle again.

“Hello.  Who is this?”

Another long pause.  He strains to hear the presence of breathing but can’t be sure.

“Who the fuck is this?  Answer me, you sick cunt!”

“Yamal?” an overtly feminine, high-pitched voice says.

Oh double shit! he screams internally.  All the way from Bangkok, the one person he can never allow himself to say “shit” to has just heard the worst he’s got.

“Yamal?!  What are doing talking like that?!” she demands.

“Sorry, ma,” he says sheepishly.  “Thought you were someone else…”

And Friday night becomes the night from hell.  What should have been a routine conversation about his inadequacies has become a full-fledged double-barrelled denunciation.  He estimates, as his mother tears into him with fire and brimstone, exactly how many angry calls he will be getting from relatives, coupled with the amount of time it will take to live this down.  He gives it about a year, six months at best.

When at last the conversation is over, he ear feels hot and swollen.  His dignity is similarly flayed, having been subjected to every bashing his mother could manage.  Time for a smoke!  Locating his vaporizer and his baggie, he loads a nice fat piece into the chamber, grabs his torch and then heads for the balcony.  Another nice feature of the Empire Towers, the lovely terraces overlooking the emerald city at night.  It’s actually quite pretty tonight, the air cleansed by the wave of ocean air that’s finally sent it all to Tacoma and Olympia.

He settles into one of the chairs that came with the patio set, the one with the glass table that has the natural bumps and imperfections in it.  He settles his feet onto the glass, lights the torch and puts it to his vaporizer.  He sips the sweet, cloudy nectar that forms in the chamber, knowing that in a moment, he will have forgotten all about the day and its debacles.  At least for a little while…

You were warned ;)…