Network Down: Part One

codes on a screen
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Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

Phisherman: Part One

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Hey there, you can call me Jake. That’s what I tell people my name is.

Speaking of people, have you ever noticed that they all like to have collections? Poor people collect stamps and coins, rich ones collect houses and cars. Lots of people collect problems. I knew one lady who had a new terminal disease to complain about every week.

Thing is I think everyone collects something or other. We want to find that something where we can say “This. This is what defines me. I could never have too much of this. The more I accumulate of this the more complete I will be.” That makes it so easy, to be made right just by hoarding things.

As for me, I collect people. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Well not as creepy as you’re thinking, anyway. I don’t harvest organs or have a stack of bodies in my cellar or anything like that. I take people’s digital lives. I hack them and uncover all of their public secrets. No, that wasn’t a typo.

Frankly I am amazed at how easy it still is to take the deepest, darkest secrets of people. Even with all the cautionary tales and available resources in cyber-security, people insist on surrendering their lives to their devices. They use those devices to track their calories, to schedule their day, to make their investments, to socialize and communicate. And then they go and connect that device to public networks with virtually no security measures whatsoever. Our digital age is the thief and I’m just the enterprising soul that reaps the field.

Take someone’s name for example. They think its their own, and they think no one knows it unless they tell it to you. But here’s something to try: go somewhere with free WiFi, like a coffee shop or a library. Malls like I’m at now are great, too. Really it’s just a question of what demographic you want to sift through. Now open up your laptop, go to the network settings, and you can see a list of all the devices that you are sharing your connection with. And what are the names on those devices? Invariably you’re going to find a lot of titles like these:

Zekes_Laptopxx
BriansBigDell420
I Am Sam
TiaCuteIPhone

Alright, excellent. Now look at the people around you. It’ really not hard to start matching device names to users. They’ve already told you their personality, what type of brand they’re using, and age (leet speech is younger).

There. See that big meathead doing hunt-and-peck on his laptop keyboard? That, my friends, would be Brian. And that millenial girl with blue hair and an iPhone case encrusted with fake diamonds. Tia.

“Hey Tia, how’s it going?”

She looks up, her smile curious, wondering what old friend is calling to her. It quickly shifts to confusion, she’s running through her high school yearbook in her head, trying to place my face. Nothing comes up and she starts to look upset, offended even. “Um…do I even know you?”

I took something that she thinks she never gave to me. Her name. And it shocks her, she feels violated. I like seeing people with that angry, stupid, self-righteous look. In this moment I have owned her better than she has owned herself. I know her name, I know what she’s thinking, I know what she’s going to do after this: Google “What to do if someone’s stalking me?” and then she’ll change all the locks on her doors.

All I said was five innocent words.

She doesn’t need to worry, though, I’m already done with her. She’s useful for a cathartic moment of shock and awe, but I have no interest in diving deeper into her not-so-private digital life. I’ve already seen enough duck-face-selfies to last me a lifetime. I smile then walk away, continuing to mill around for a more interesting subject.

Tia is shouting “Hey! Hey you! Get back here.” She won’t follow, though, her overconfident voice only betrays how scared she actually is. I stroll past the phone vendors and the tech store. I pause briefly at the maternity clothing shops but decide I don’t feel like fishing for an expectant mother today. Though that can be interesting…

The food court. Talk about your buffets! One contained place and you get a conglomerate of all the types. Jocks and nerds, pretty girls and not-so pretty girls, grandparents and teenagers. Just take your pick. I’m about to go find a table when my head snaps to the side, my eyes glint, and a broad smile splits my face. That, my friends, is a forty-pound bass if I ever saw one.

Or maybe I should say a two-hundred-and-eighty pound bass. He’s extremely overweight and throwing his empty KFC bag in the trash. Dangling from his left hand are the shopping bags he accumulated before this particular pit stop: Under Armour and Garmin. He’s a walking contradiction.

On the one hand he knows his life is pathetic. He’s miserable at who he is and realizing he’s slipping down a hole he won’t ever be able to climb out of. But then on the other hand he’s been deluded by tacky slogans and mass media telling him that “there isn’t anything he can’t do” and he “just has to believe in himself.” They remind him how special he truly is and then promise him happiness if he just buys their brand.

So what does he do? He swipes his card and pays his dues, and the pain is soothed enough that he can hurt himself some more. He’ll go home, eat a tub of ice cream, and say “it’s okay, I bought a new pedometer today so I’m still making progress.” Pathetic, and all so emblematic of all society.

I follow him as he saunters around, watching his watching. He seems to take particular note of the guitar store, no doubt reminiscing on a childhood dream that never came true. He sighs and shuffles away, checks his watch, pauses to think, and finally glides over to a bench in between the main walkways. He sits down and fumbles in his backpack, pulling out a laptop. He’s got some time to kill.

Perfect.

I can’t go sit down next to him right away, that would just look weird. I’ve been careful to hang back enough that he hasn’t seen me yet, and I peel off to the side as I plan my approach. There’s another bench right next to his own. Maybe a little too close. People aren’t usually in the habit of sitting down right next to a stranger, I don’t want this to come off as weird.

I’ve had the thought, of course, that I probably overthink all these details but that’s just part of the fun. It’s all a facet of the performance, you see.

Now where was I? Oh right.

I whip out my phone and begin my approach. I walk in his direction, along the path right in front of him so that he’ll be able to see my act. I’m staring intently at the phone screen, pretending to be reading an engrossing text. I furrow my brow, as if I’ve just read something upsetting right when I become parallel with him. The concern still on my face I stop walking and instead shuffle over to the nearest seat, which not-so-coincidentally happens to be the one right next to my target.

I reach for my own sleek notebook, powering it on to complete the story. I got a text, it upset me, and I have to go online to address whatever it was about. I allow myself a sideway glance at the man. He hasn’t taken notice of me at all. Oh well, the performance was wonderful anyhow.

So long as I’m eyeing him I start taking in more details, looking for some topic of conversation. His shirt says Good Charlotte. I’ve heard the name, but none of their songs come readily to mind. I sit there next to him, reading up about the group and preparing to initiate our conversation.

He sits there next to me entirely oblivious.

A surreptitious reach into my bag, a flick of the switch on to turn on the signal jammer there, a few seconds wait. In no time at all he’s trying to reset his WiFi connections, sighing in exasperation when that doesn’t work. He’s pulled out of his reverie and starting to glance around him. I do the same, making eye contact and mirroring his expression of frustration.

“Hey, are you having trouble connecting here?” I ask before he can.

“Yeah, it’s not finding the WiFi at all.”

I shake my head. “Sucks, man…” I make as though I’m just noticing his shirt for the first time. “Hey, nice!” I gesture to it.

He glances down to see what I mean and breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! You like ’em?”

“Just started listening to them actually,” I say quickly, the last thing I need is for him to start an in-depth discussion about them. “But I sure like what I heard. Anthem, I Just Wanna Live…” I repeat the first song names that Google brought up for the band and he starts nodding.

“Sure, sure. Those are definitely good ones, but you’re just scratching the surface.”

There it is. The connection. I do a lot to make myself look friendly. Approachable. Nice. Trustworthy.

“Well at least I get to try out my new toy I guess,” I grin, pulling a black box and cable out of my bag. I can tell he wasn’t ready to stop talking about his favorite band, and that’s good. Keep him wanting more.

“What’s that?” he asks curiously as I plug the device into the side of my laptop.

“One of those LTE mobile hotspots. It’s supposed to get me my own internet line anywhere. Once I get it fired up you’re welcome to hop on if you want…”

The hook is dangling and he pauses.

“Naw, it’s cool. I can just use my phone’s data.”

I nod. “Yeah, sure. Let me know if you change your mind.”

With that there’s nothing left but to wait. The jammer will keep his phone from connecting, too. Maybe he’ll come back around, maybe he won’t. This is only going to work if he makes the next approach himself. That’s a secret it took me too long to figure out. People have to be the one’s to initiate their own hacking.

While he vainly waves his phone in the air to find a signal I open up some fake webpages on my screen. They’re just imitation websites running locally from my machine since I’m not actually connected to the internet either.

He’s putting his phone away and we’ve come to the moment of truth. It would be easy for him to just get up and walk away…unless he wants to stay here. Because he wants a moment of feeling like I’m his friend.

“Hey, uh…” he begins bashfully. “Was your hotspot able to connect?”

“Yeah, it’s working great!”

“Sweet. Uh, is it still cool if I hop on?”

“‘Course, man!” I grin broadly. “It’s ‘WiFist of Fury.’ That’s w-i-f-i-s-t. Password is ’roundhouse kick to the head,’ all lowercase and one word.” This is another of my secrets. I give them my password, I don’t ask them for theirs.

“Nice,” he smiles back, then opens his laptop back up. As he does so I slide my hand back into the bag, and switch the jammer off. A moment later a notification in the corner of my screen lights up.

New Device Connected.

Got you I think.

The device name is PetesDragonComputer. Well pleased to meet you, Pete. He starts browsing the web, happy as can be while I reach back through our tether and start browsing his own computer.

First things first, I install a key-logger so I can start tracking everything he types. If he happens to log into his email while we’re connected I’ll get his credentials and then I can have a field day with his data. Even if he doesn’t, there’s plenty I can do now.

I open up his file structure and start browsing. The “Documents” directories are obvious, I set those copying over to my machine immediately. But then I start checking for anything else that looks out-of-the-ordinary. A “P90X Workout Program” folder? Yes, please.

As the files copy over I see a few of them are pictures. Glancing sideways to ensure Pete isn’t watching I open a couple of them.

Day_1.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, his beer-keg-gut hanging loose for all to see.

I scroll down to the last entry and open it.

Day_60.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, the exact same beer-keg-gut hanging out. Literally all that’s changed is the color of his shorts.

I snigger, and quickly Alt-Tab away in case Pete looks over towards my screen.

Nothing else obvious stands out, so I start searching his directories for some favorite keywords. In order I look for:

passwords
pete
secret
love
family
ideas
dreams
hitlist

I didn’t always search for that last one, but after stumbling across such a file on one computer I’ve always hoped to find another. Any matches get copied over to my hard drive. After any matches from those get copied over to my hard-drive I’ll get started on more photos and videos. Those can be juicy, but they also take time to transfer and you never know how long you have before your fish decides to swim away.

And so I sit there, literally downloading the life of this man who is sitting right next to me. I’ll just keep taking so long as he keeps giving. I don’t delve into his secrets just yet, as soon as he leaves I’ll head back to my apartment, order a pizza, connect my laptop to the tv, turn off all the lights, and start getting to know Pete. If the keylogger managed to lift any passwords I’ll get to know him even better. I’ll come to know him better than most of his closest families and friends. I will consume him, and he will become just another part of my collection.

So no, I’m not some sort of “ethical hacker,” and I’m not the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is wrong or not. It is. But be that as it may, try and tell me you aren’t a little intrigued yourself…

*

So there we have it, as promised on Monday this story is in a very different style than my usual fare. It has a different setting and the voice from what I usually write, but more dramatic a shift is just the experience I am trying to evoke in the reader. Whereas most of my stories are meant to provoke introspection and pondering, this one had far less lofty goals. To put it bluntly I expect the reader to feel fairly slimy, tainted just by being associated with someone as unnerving as Jake.

Writing this definitely stretched me, both in form and function. On the one hand I had to adjust to writing shorter sentences, chattier dialogue, and snappier pacing. Even further, though, I had to access some different corners of the mind. Where titles like Glimmer feature characters that are so earnest and sincere, this one required tapping into being cynical and manipulative. I certainly have those shadows in me, but I usually don’t write from them.

That’s not to suggest that our main character is one-dimensional, though. While right now he’s only shown you a single slice of him, as an author it is important for me to keep in mind all the details that make him a more real person and be true to them. That’s a concept I’ll be exploring more in my next post, come back on Monday to read about that. Then, on Thursday, we’ll get some new developments in Jake’s story with the second section of Phisherman. I’ll see you there.