This is a story I wrote for the DEFCON Short Story Contest. Here's my entry on the official forum. Be sure to let me know what you think.
We, the Weapons
Everything is proscribed. There are no more adventures. Not in this town, not anywhere. Not anymore. The only thing left is money, deceit, and booze. You're in or you're out. On the take or taking it on. After working this job in this town for this long, I should know. Trust me. What I'm about to tell you is just more of the same.
Before the incidents in question, before all hell broke loose, I sat in my usual spot at a dive in North Vegas. In the back, near the disused jukebox. Back to the wall, a view of the whole place. I was an inquirer of sorts back then, a detective, maybe, but I would never have used that word. I was curious is all, and curiosity could pay well in this town, or it could end you. I walked that line like a well-practiced sobriety test. I worked for an agency, nominally. Nominally: a ten dollar word which means whenever the fuck I felt like it, which, at this point, wasn't often.
On that day, I sat there and watched the regulars while I nursed my gin. One of the regulars, Lee, had just walked in and found a table near the front. Here was a man I wouldn't trust to hold a door open for me without wondering what was in it for him. It amazed me that he could manage to fleece enough poor saps with his "business ventures" to keep him and his coterie of female admirers partying most of the week. He frequented this dive and the Anchor Club. The Anchor Club was the antithesis to this place: expensive, on the strip, well kept, filled with tourists, bottle service, and loud music. Find the marks in the Anchor Club, plan the cross here.
Sitting alone was Howie. He was a drunk and a thief and a liar. Used to be a boxer. Well, more accurately, he was a professional loser. His job was to get into the ring and put on a good show. Make it seem like he was giving the other boxer a run for his money. He could take a hit and not get too banged up. It paid well. But you can't get your head smashed in on a regular basis and come out the other side all normal. His modus operandi nowadays was to get enough money to pay for whatever he needed to get away from the here and now.
The bartender, Linda, had stopped off with his usual, a rotten Old Fashioned. Made with the best bottom shelf stuff available, no doubt. Linda was a friend of mine. A source of information, humor, booze, and therapy.
"What's up, hun-bun? Need another?" she asked.
"Good for now, Lind. Meeting a friend."
"Sure thing. Holler if you need anything," she said as she sauntered back behind the bar.
I looked at the old security camera, a habit of mine. Gets a good look at the scruffs coming in the entrance. Well, usually it did. But now it was pointed at the back. At me.
I stared at it until my boss opened the door of the bar. He was standing next to a man so handsome and well dressed I thought someone was putting me on. Is this for real? He saw me, fuck. I was half-hoping he'd take one look at me, decide that there were sorrier-looking saps in the world, but he couldn't think of any, and leave. He walked up to Linda, placed an order, pointed at me, probably because he was putting the drinks on my tab, and came over.
"Why, hello!" he said. His teeth glistened like a recently cleaned window. That slimy fuck.
"How's it going, Horace?" I tried my best to be professional, but the booze in me was creeping up and I knew I'd sock him if he pushed me.
"Good, now that I know you'll be pulling a job for me," he paused to smile at Linda as she brought over two beers. "Now, don't even try to tell me you're too busy or it's not interesting enough. I've vetted this one myself. Besides, I think you need some looking after. You don't look like you've been doing well lately and frankly, I'm concerned."
"How unlike you," I said.
He deflated a bit.
"I'm hurt, you know. Here I come in with a paycheck for you, already signed," he took a check out of his breast pocket and put in on the table and paused. "I know, not an insignificant sum. As I was saying: here I come in with a paycheck and a simple assignment, and all you need to do is say yes and this check and another like it will be yours in no time at all."
I took a pull from my drink, finished it, and put it back down harder than I intended. The beer I left untouched.
"What, no response?"
"What's the job?"
"I'm glad you asked. Simple, really. Someone is coming to Vegas next week, for a conference. She has something one of our clients wants, something that will help them very much." The handsome assistant-or-whatever of his was meandering near the entrance of the bar. Looking outside every once in awhile, checking his expensive watch, checking his phone.
I stared at Horace, eyes half lidded. I've heard this a thousand times.
"And what is it that your client wants?"
"Our client," he emphasized, "wants a program this person has written. But unfortunately, she won't sell. Not even for a lot of money. And they want it rather badly." He drank his beer and wiped his mouth. "I'm sure you've heard of the Great Artillery."
I had. It was the first major cyberweapon: a tool that could remove a site or group of sites from the Internet completely. It used a distributed attack that hijacked normal computers. It was very difficult to defend against, apparently. I read about it in an email I had stolen a year or so back.
"Well, this program exploits a vulnerability of the Great Artillery. It could be what our client needs to finally defend against it. Allegedly, it can confuse the Great Artillery's algorithm to point at random sites or something like that and greatly mitigates the damage."
"So you want me to either get the target to go to the bargaining table, or, even better, to get the code directly and give it to you."
"Précisément! So, what do you think? Want the job?"
"Who is the target?"
Always good to know who I'll be stealing from for money. Maybe it's someone I know and I'll be able to fuck up another relationship I once had.
"We don't know her real name, only her alias, approximate age, and the fact that she's a woman. She goes by persephone and she's approximately 25-35, probably of American birth and upbringing."
"Photos? Last known location? Contacts? This sounds like a missing person case, not an info job."
Horace took out an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I opened it and there was a printout of IRC logs:
08:40 -!- e27 [e27@xnet-2F20F7B8] has joined #dohi 08:40 [Users #dohi] 08:40 [ august ] [ pe_x ] [ halfalive] [ manfield ] [ e27 ] 08:40 [ persephone ] [ ty—- ] [ z ] [ sp3rt ] [ mad ] 08:40 -!- Yrssi: #dohi: Total of 10 nicks [0 ops, 0 halfops, 0 voices, 10 normal] 08:40 -!- Yrssi: Join to #dohi was synced in 1 secs 08:41 -!- mad is now known as dflv 08:42 < dflvh> hmm. 12:34 < persephone> anyone going to defcon 14:11 < z> probably, you? 14:12 < august> yeah, last time, tho 23:00 < persephone> are you guys going to any good parties? 23:00 < august> i can get you an invite to /the/ party. 23:10 < august> hit me up when you get to vegas and i'll show you. 23:46 -!- persephone [ptrace@xnet-F03AD8CF] has quit [Ping timeout: 184 seconds]
There was another piece of paper describing a few more details of persephone's published writing and how they determined her age and gender. Another page on what DOHI was. There was something missing, though. No logs or description of persephone's tool.
"Where's the info about what persephone wrote? I don't see it in any of this. Where does that lead come from?"
"Ah. Well, it was a bit of clandestine work. An audio call was intercepted from one member of DOHI to another and they mentioned the tool and how effective it could be and who wrote it."
"Do you have a recording I can listen to? Or a transcript?"
He frowned for the first time since he entered.
"Well, what's DOHI?"
"There's an entire page in there on that group. Read it for yourself on your own time." He drained his beer. "So, what do you say?"
I don't like taking jobs where the target is someone like me. Someone down and out, or some lowlife, or someone who just isn't that important to the powers that be. But the jobs offered by those powers pay the best. This job paid the best. I don't like to admit it, but I was strapped for cash at that moment. I should have known it was crooked from the start. The lack of details, the money, the Great Artillery for fuck's sake. If I had thought about it, I would have known who I was working for.
"Alright. I'll do it."
Horace stood and shielded his eyes from the light entering from the street. A car pulled in. His assistant waved for him to leave.
"Looks like my ride is here. Take care of yourself."
I looked around. Another job, another month of rent. But I should have known better. Once a chump, always a chump. I know that now. I felt sick. The smell of the cigarette ash and the ancient furniture, the lights, the booze, the job. I stumbled to the ladies room and got myself a place where I could be myself, truly myself, and vomited it all out. Nausea was comforting for me. It would wake me in the middle of the night, like a needy friend. If I went long enough without it I felt a little less special, like a part of me was missing. I didn't want it; it wanted me. After I was done, I slumped on the floor and spent the next half hour feeling sorry for myself.
I opened the stall door with a slam. A flourish, I told myself. I put my hands on the sink counter and stared back at what was in the mirror. I tried to find something there but found nothing. Everything grows less and less clear here. Who was she? The author of a countermeasure to the Great Artillery had to know what she was doing. She had to know what it was worth. What was she worth?
I did some research into DOHI. They were a prominent hacking group. They liked to post exploits for the software the Internet ran on–the stuff billion-dollar businesses depend on–to public mailing lists and laugh at the freakout. Merry pranksters for the digital age. People loved to write op-eds about how immoral they were and about how there were responsible ways to disclose bugs. That's all bullshit, though. Rich assholes love to tell you that you're immoral and a criminal when you shit on their parade, but what they're doing is "just business."
DOHI would have none of that. They didn't have an agenda like the other groups: they fed off of the chaos. I couldn't find out what DOHI stood for, so I made up a name from a book I once read. The Dark of Human Ignorance. They're teaching us how ignorance is the worst crime of all. Ignorance eats away at the ground we stand on until there's nothing left. Security is the same way. Your ignorance eats away at your security while you stand unaware and tell everyone that the situation is normal.
Couldn't find much specifically on the persephone nick. Time for a phone call to a hacker friend of mine, Jaundice. He was mighty useful when there was a business convention in town and I needed some code to rip out someone's information from an unattended laptop or phone. He might know DOHI.
"Jaundice, it's me."
"Oh shit, hold on I'm still waking up."
Jaundice was a motherfucker at times. He was a better info broker than I was for sure, but didn't like to leave his pad. He lived somewhere in Santa Monica, or, at least, that's what he told me and that's what I chose to believe. He had a lot of ins into the tech industry, especially infosec. He said he got his alias from his legendary drinking skills.
"I thought I was bad: it's two. What the fuck were you doing last night?"
"None of your goddamn business. Now, what you want?"
"I've got a few hackers I'd like some contact with. I only have a few nicks–"
"This shit again? Why don't you pay me for once?"
"Because I think you'll be interested in this. The target is the one who wrote the code that will break the Great Artillery."
He didn't say anything for a moment, but I could hear him sitting up quickly.
"DOHI? I heard DOHI had something, but I figured it was just talk. Who wants to know?"
"It's one of these pay-us-enough-not-to-ask jobs. Looking for persephone, she is allegedly the one who wrote it."
"I've heard the nick. I think I know someone who knows her. Wait a tick."
I could hear frantic typing in the background and a squeaky chair swivel. I knew he'd be useful.
"Yeah, a contact of mine says she's one of the core members of DOHI. What do you want to know? I don't like giving info away on fellow hackers, at least, not for free."
"Well she's supposed to be at DEFCON and I want to run into her so I can have a chat. I don't know what she looks like or her real name or anything."
"Hmm, I don't think I can find a picture. OPSEC and all. Let me check one thing." More furious typing. "Yeah, okay. Apparently she's going to be at DEFCON like you said. And there's lots of parties there every year and–"
"Fucking let me finish god damnit. I'm helping you! There is one party in particular that is frequented by hackers of DOHI's type. It's hard to get into. Invite-only."
"But, you can get me in, right?"
"This will cost you. I'll have to call in a favor and those are worth cold hard cash."
"Fine, whatever. What do I need to do?"
"You'll get a token in the mail, like a large metal coin. That's your invite. It'll have the time and place and maybe some instructions with it. That's all I can do."
Better than nothing. I hung up.
I drove to the strip in my old red convertible. It used to be lively, fast, and showy. Now, well, it wasn't. Overuse and disinterest changed that.
DEFCON was at one of the hotels on the strip. They love putting conferences like this in the heat of the summer, the low season for this fiery pit. They'll come no matter what. I stood in line and paid in cash like all the rest of the poor saps without special access. I was now officially in. I walked through the entrance and onto the convention floor. Like every conference, there were the people selling. Everyone's got something to sell you. Radios to hack wireless networks. Mini-computers to hide in server racks. Selling the promise of an amazing job if I only joined their startup. A kilt with pockets so that your fashion reflected your practicality.
I stood out like a trumpet in a string quartet. All of these people were highly sought after professionals, hackers, breakers, thinkers, doers, programmers, and I wasn't. I let the crowd push me left and right, past the dance floor to the competition room. Here they needed to prove themselves even further. And they loved it. For years, everyone told me to do what I wanted with my life. So I did. And it paid fuck all. What they had meant was follow my dreams as long as it paid. I would have been better off counting beans in an air conditioned office than following deadbeats around this hell hole. If you dislike what you do for work, if you naturally have a distaste for it, you realize that you're doing it for the money and nothing else. There's a hollowness in you because of it. There's no mistaking it. Unless, by some miracle, you enjoy your work. Then you can deceive yourself into thinking that you're not doing this for the money. At least I wasn't being fooled.
I had received my token for the party in the mail a few days prior. It told me to wear a mask. Something to disguise myself. The party was tonight, so I had a few hours to kill.
I saw a talk that seemed interesting and a good way to pass the time. "New Techniques in Covert Information Gathering: Social Engineering for the 21st Century" was the overly loquacious title. I knew a thing or two about this.
The speaker was a few minutes late. He had a backpack full of goodies and trinkets to show off and some to give away. It looked like he had just grabbed all of it from his car. The keys were still in his hand. He was sweaty and bald, mid-thirties. He looked like his natural habitat was a swivel chair and a steady supply of Diet Coke. The talk started off alright, with a few jokes and war stories. But the techniques were mostly amateurish and obvious. The jokes weren't much better. At the Q&A I decided to have a go.
"Excuse me, I don't have a question, but someone told me to tell you your lights are on, a BMW, right?"
A sudden stricken look appeared over his face. He mumbled something into his mic and stood to leave.
"Got you," I said.
Laughter and some applause. Social engineering, my ass.
After wasting my time in the bar, asking random people if they knew such-and-such member of DOHI and finding zilch, I rode the elevator up to the penthouse as I donned my mask. The bouncer outside was an enormous truck of a man, nearly half as wide as he was tall, and he stood over a foot taller than me. A solitary camera stared down at us. He let me past without a word when I gave him the token. I opened the door and stepped inside.
Everywhere there were masks. Gas masks, venetian masks like mine, halloween masks, even face paint. Seeing through my mask was difficult. I had no peripheral vision. A few turned to look at me as I walked in but they slowly turned back to whatever it was they were involved in. There was a band playing some modern baroque/techno music. A projector was set up and it was showing images of buildings collapsing and cars crashing. On every other wall there were large mirrors, giving the room the appearance of being an infinite regression of itself. The mirrors were bent slightly so it was difficult to view oneself but easy to view others.
I ordered an Old Fashioned at the bar. The bartender wore a mask and white tuxedo. There were a few more lookalikes walking around the party filling drink orders and dishing out hors d'oeuvres.
Two large figures approached me from behind. They nearly spilled my drink.
"Who are you?" one asked.
"What are you doing here?" the other said.
I smiled beneath.
"I could ask the same of you two," I responded.
They looked at each other and then back at me. My hand rolled into a fist. I was ready.
"I'm sure some nobody invited you. We know the guy running this show. Personal invitations."
I didn't say anything in response. I made my apathy clear. They laughed in condescending derision and left. All bark and no bite.
Drink in hand, I was ready to find persephone. I was sure she was here. Call it instinct or insight or intelligence, but I knew it. I listened. I listened to so many self-indulgent, dull conversations. The masks, which were to give the partygoers more freedom of expression, instead made them all alike. What was meant to celebrate uniqueness instead enforced conformity.
Occasionally, I would hear a specific mention of something DOHI had done, but when I joined the group who were talking, they would soon disperse. Forever an outsider. Plan B was to start the fire myself. I found the band at the back of the party. After a song was over I took the mic. I didn't bother asking permission. This was my party, they just didn't know it yet.
"Hey, everyone, thanks for coming. Just a few notes and then we're right back to the music. One: please don't insult the wait staff, they're here for us." Polite applause. Good to start with something that makes you seem like you know what's what. "Two: know your limits otherwise we'll throw you out. Three," here I glanced at my hand to pantomime reading something. "We're looking for two people for something special later. Looks like: persephone and august are the lucky ones. If you're here, find me!"
Someone in a bloody clown mask came rushing up to me and even through the mask I could tell they were pissed. "What do you think–" they started. I walked away as if I hadn't heard them. No need to explain. I did what I wanted. I floated around for awhile, mesmerized by the masks and what they meant. It was an odd feeling. I was lost amongst them. No one who would remember you nor could you remember them. You didn't matter here. No one did.
I made myself visible, near the center, but not so central as to be lost in the main crowd. I saw two people approaching me from across the room. I knew it was her. It had to be. She had an owl mask that left the lower half of her face exposed. She was wearing deep purple lipstick and I could smell a strange perfume. They were in the middle of a conversation.
"–there's no difference at all. Watching someone is judging them. We are all judges. Everyone would go watch the condemned die at the scaffold. Sure, they might shout or be angry about it, but they'd watch. It was a spectacle. They judged them."
"And so what's this about the Pan-something?"
"The Panopticon, a prison where every inmate is always visible to the guards. It has the obvious benefit of being able to see the prisoners and stop unwanted behavior fast. But there's another benefit. Foucault says that," she took out her phone and read aloud, "'the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.' That's what I'm talking about. This whole thing isn't about just stopping bad people, it's about changing natural behavior. 'Who is watching me?' becomes a routine question you ask yourself."
"We're in this Panopticon?" I joined in.
"It's called the Internet."
"Is that why you wrote the fix to the Great Artillery?"
If she was surprised that I knew about her code, she didn't show it. Maybe it was common knowledge around here.
"It's not only a solution to this problem. The Antidote is much more than that. I built it because I could. Before, it took an army to hurt a nation. Now it's just knowledge. A single person can do it. And it terrifies them. There will be no security. There isn't any right now, we just haven't realized it."
The Antidote. A fitting name. I could see past the eyeholes in her mask to her face underneath. There was flesh and blood and history and weakness and strength beneath that mask. Her eyes reflected like the mirrors in the room and I could see myself. She didn't blink. Her smile, if you could call it that, had an edge like a cliff.
"So you're persephone, obviously. But who is this?" I gestured to the man who walked over with her. He was swaying like a tree in a storm.
"This is august."
I could see dark eyes beneath his long nosed mask. It looked like a plague doctor's mask.
"Nice to meet you," he managed. "I'm going to grab another one. Be back in a tick."
"So why did you want us? What's this surprise or secret or whatever?"
"To be honest, I wanted to meet you. I've heard a lot about you."
She scoffed. "No, really."
"Well, I was wondering if we could chat about the Antidote. I'm so curious as to why you said you wouldn't sell it. It could be a lot of money."
"Have you seen a movie called Last Year at Marienbad? French new wave."
"A shame. It's the perfect film, actually. It's not a movie like most others. Some movies are about plot or characters or a theme the writer or director wanted to shove down your throat. This one is about you and how you understand the world. Who is telling the truth? What is the significance of the contradictory images on screen? Your answers reveal more about yourself than about the movie." She paused, giving me a chance to interrupt, but I didn't. "One of the things that sticks out most about that movie is the background characters, the extras. When the main characters are engaged in dialogue, everyone else in the movie is frozen in place. Waiters bent setting food on tables, people walking stopped in mid-stride, background conversations paused. It's because they don't matter. That's how we view everyone outside of our own lives. Look around right now, do you care about any of these people?"
I didn't know what to say.
"Well, I care in a general way," I hedged. "I don't want anyone to get hurt or anything like that."
"No, no. I mean do you care about how successful they are or how their day is going or if their marriage is happy? Of course not, not even enough to ask them. They're just noise. This is what we deny: that we're all background noise to the powers that be. You barely control your own destiny. And whom do you trust? Everyone has an agenda but will deny it to the end. These people you ignore are your enemies, but you don't know it yet. People treat me like an ingénue or someone's girlfriend. Some background character."
"Even at DEFCON?" I asked. "Even here among your people?"
"My people? That's a laugh. When you are good enough at anything, you stand alone. Anyway to answer your question, it's none of your fucking business you fucking background character. You and everyone else needs to get off my case. You don't know what you're talking about."
august had rejoined us with two new drinks for them.
"Look, I'm sorry. I was just curious."
I watched them leave.
Time to be a detective again. I followed them at a distance through the open floor and watched the people around me. They seemed very still. The hum of the conversation was steady and words were indistinguishable from one another. It got loud, the way silence does. The hum vibrated elastic and pulsed dark. Fog rolled up from the floor. It was all washing over me and I was drowning. I could suddenly see faces behind the masks and voices through the din. My boss was here. And that assistant of his. They were getting drinks. I could sense it. Lee was probably around, maybe he was a bartender. Howie was a waiter. What was their angle? Were they watching me? Was I supposed to know they were here?
The door opened and persephone left. I followed. Around the corner she waited for an elevator, and I knew if I joined her dressed as I was, they would know that they were being followed. I took off my mask and cloak and stashed them under the table the bouncer stood in front of. When she was turned away I quietly slipped behind them and into the stairwell and then back out into the hallway. I shivered and said, "Actually sort of cold on the roof!"
They turned to look at me, and I said in a deeper voice, "Heh, what's with the getup?" They said nothing and turned back towards the elevator. When it came I made sure to let them go first, so I could see what floor they were going to. I made fun of how we were all going to the same floor. The oldest trick in the book. They got off and walked down a hallway and I made it clear that I went the other way. I crept back and followed their footsteps. It was a simple matter to figure out which room they went into.
I walked around the halls for awhile, biding my time and thinking about how to get into her room. I thought of next week and the week after and my old friends. Maybe I'd buy a plane ticket and go see them. I wasn't sure where they were. We had lost contact years ago. So much the better. Vegas makes humanity's true nature clear. The ritzy veneer is a mirage and what's underneath is cheap and poorly made and desperate, like us. We lie to ourselves and to everyone else: this is nice. We're having fun. Is this what you wanted? To have fun? Let's write it on your tombstone how much you had fun. Your obituary will be filled with how much fun you had here or there. How vapid. How useless. There must be more than this.
Walking back towards the elevator, I saw someone who looked like persephone get on. I could tell by the shadow that there was someone else in the elevator with her, but I didn't see who. The doors closed. Her room would be empty.
A maid was texting outside of persephone's room.
"I locked myself out of my room. Could you let me in?"
She looked at me with wide eyes, as if terrified. "Oh," she started. "Well, the policy is to go to the main desk and get a replacement, after showing your ID."
"You see, that's just it. I locked my ID in the room along with my key," I smiled in what I hoped was a disarming way.
She looked around and then back at me. I tried to act the part.
"Alright, but don't tell no one I let you in."
She took a ring of keys out of her pocket.
"Maintenance," she said into the door as she opened it.
The room was dark. I was ready to make a break for it if there was someone in there already. I thanked the maid and she left. Lights on. No one in the bed. In fact, the bed was made. No suitcases. Was this the right room? I checked the bathroom: clean, but not done up.
I sat on the bed and thought. I was assigned to get the code, the Antidote, or at least convince persephone to talk to my client. I had a phone number she was to call. Maybe I tipped my hand when I followed her and she got spooked and left. But would she make up her room? Was this even her room? What happened? Could she have been kidnapped? She didn't seem in distress on the elevator, but I couldn't be sure if that was her. I've never seen her face. But if so, they would want someone to blame it on. Me. They had me asking the maid for the room key and she was sure to fold if anyone pressed her. Had they paid off the maid to let me in? What was a maid doing outside of the one room I wanted to get into at two o'clock in the morning? Why was there a security camera outside of her room?
Time to split.
The following day I returned to find someone who knew something. Maybe august, or maybe someone who knew him or persephone. I looked around the convention floor to see if I could find any familiar faces. If only that party hadn't been masked, I could find someone I knew there. I sat down next to a trio of cybergoths. Long dreads intertwined with lights and other knickknacks. Platform shoes. Black dusters and pleated skirts. Goggles. I liked their style.
I scanned Twitter for people talking about DEFCON. There were a few people running competitions. I figured that they would be in the know. One guy, Mark Owens, seemed to be running the lock picking competition. His Twitter handle, sp3rt, was familiar. I searched his history to see if he ever talked about DOHI, august, or persephone. And he did. It was awhile ago, to be sure, but he knew them. He was in the IRC logs I had.
I followed the crowd back to the main convention floor and, like a tourist, consulted the map for longer than I'd like to admit trying to find the lock picking village. Five minutes later I was there. I used to pick locks as part of my job, but after an arrest I figured it'd be easier to knock and lie my way in. Harder to go to jail for lying than it is for breaking and entering.
Mark was judging a speed lock picking tournament at the back. I watched the competition. These people were fast, much better than I ever was. Locks are a strange part of our culture. They have almost nothing to do with security. They're a little sign that says, "Please don't open this." Most locks are easy to pick if you've practiced for an hour. It's like driving: the only thing that prevents someone from driving at 100 miles per hour into your front bumper is some yellow paint on asphalt. It works most of the time. Same thing with locks.
After the competition I flagged him down.
"Sorry, I'm wiped out. Can't answer your questions now, but Tom over there is running the lockpicking workshop, he can help you."
"I don't want to ask you about locks. I want to find august or persephone from DOHI. Know where I can find them?"
He stared at me, sizing me up.
"I don't know them. Why do you think I'd know where they are?"
"Don't play me, sp3rt. I know you know them. I have logs."
"How do you know that? Look, I don't know you, and I don't have time for this," he said and turned away.
I put my hand on his shoulder and turned him around.
"I'm not the fucking police. I met persephone last night at the party and she's missing. She's not in her room and people can't find her and I'd like to help her if I can. Do you know how I can get ahold of them? Phone number, email, IRC server credentials?"
He softened like a marshmallow over a fire.
"Alright, I know their IRC server because I used to idle there, but I haven't been in awhile. They might have changed the password." He wrote it down on my phone. "Let me know how it goes. I used to hang out with them and I don't want anything bad to happen to them. If you're a fed–"
"If I was a fed, it wouldn't be wise to threaten me."
I left. I booted up an IRC client on my phone and connected. I entered the cryptic, random password that Mark had given me. I chose my nick: demeter. My phone was my torch, and I began my search.
10:40 -!- demeter [demeter@xnet-2F20F7B8] has joined #dohi 10:40 [Users #dohi] 10:40 [ @august ] [ pe_x ] [ halfalive] [ manfield ] 10:40 [ demeter ] [ ty—- ] [ z ] [ e27 ] 10:40 -!- Yrssi: #dohi: Total of 8 nicks [1 ops, 0 halfops, 0 voices, 7 normal] 10:40 -!- Yrssi: Join to #dohi was synced in 2 secs 10:42 < demeter> looking for persephone. couldn't find her after the party last night 10:43 <@august> and who are you? 10:43 < demeter> we actually met last night. i was the one who was on the mic and asked to meet 10:50 <@august> i never made it to the party, was she there? 10:50 < halfalive> demeter: and who are you 10:50 < demeter> august: what do you mean you never made it? we met last night 10:51 < ty--> loooool 10:51 <@august> alright, f this 10:51 -!- mode/#dohi [+b *!*demeter@xnet-2F20F7B8] by august 10:51 -!- demeter was kicked from #dohi by august
What the fuck? Was august lying to me? What does he stand to gain? Are there two of them? I put my phone away and the room began to spin. I found a quiet corner of the loud room and sat down. I might have passed out, I can't remember. The only thing I remember thinking was that I was out of my league. What was I doing on this assignment? Had I failed already? Too many questions. I heard the whir of a security camera rotating and focusing on its target.
I dreamt, either as a daydream or half asleep. I don't remember. I was in a room with persephone and Horace and a few other people that I knew. We were talking about how glad they were I had returned. I told them that I hadn't left and it was persephone that was missing. They got angry. Slowly, fog rolled into the room. At first it was just around our feet, but it soon billowed up around us. No one seemed to notice it, the mire. They left me and I tried to get out of the fog. But I was too tired and fell down. I was enveloped. I could hear them laughing.
Someone kicked me. "Hey."
I was slumped over. Again, a kick. "Wake up! Time to go to school!" Laughter.
I sat up, bleary-eyed. A young man, late twenties, Converse sneakers, black jeans, and a dark t-shirt.
"You're demeter? Not what I expected."
"It wasn't too hard. I wanted to know who had joined our IRC channel and I was in the lockpicking village. I asked my good friend Mark. He said he had told you because you were looking for persephone and that you were probably still around. And you were!" He seemed proud of himself. "Just so you know we're changing our password."
"I'm on your side," he interrupted. "I want to find persephone. I was the last one to see her, I think. I'm z."
"Oh?" I tried to sound cool, calm, and collected.
"We met up in her hotel room after her and august left the party."
"But august said–"
"I saw. I don't know the story yet. I didn't know that was him at the party. I had never met him before." He looked around. "Why don't we grab a drink and finish this there?"
We went to the hotel bar and ordered stiff drinks to keep the daylight at bay.
"She had told me where she was staying, so I went there and she let me in."
"When was this?"
"I can't remember. I was all hopped up last night."
"What did you do?"
"Well, august, or whoever he was, was there. She called me z and I figured me and him didn't know each other. He was on the bed laying down on top of the blankets. Me and her talked about random stuff, and then his phone rang. He answered it like he was expecting it, mumbled a few words and handed the phone to persephone. She talked to whoever on the phone, maybe 30 seconds."
"What did she say?"
"She did a lot of listening and mm-hmms. The one thing she did say, and I won't forget it, was, 'In the desert? Why not here? Will he be there?' And after that, she asked me to leave. She was upset."
"I know, right? So maybe she was meeting someone there?"
I considered the situation and rolled the dice. I wanted to see how much z knew.
"How much do you know about the Antidote?" I asked.
He stared down at me. He seemed to realize that we weren't on the same team. Betrayal was written on his face and I was ashamed. The room slowed. The waiter busing a table on the other side of the room spent an hour cleaning one spot. Someone drank their water for an eternity. He stopped blinking. I stared back at him.
"You had best to not get involved." He stood to leave. "You have no idea what you're asking, that's obvious."
"I think I know. I want to help her, that's all."
"Bullshit. I'm tired of this, why don't you fuck off?"
My turn to not say anything. I let it hang in the air there. I tasted his fury. There was a lot here and it was hard to believe it was all on persephone's behalf. What was his angle?
"Why not tell me what your play is in this?"
He put his hands on the table and leaned towards me.
"Look, us hackers, we're weapons now. Sentient weapons. We're used by the powerful to do good or evil. This is what the Great Artillery is: one of us was told to make a weapon to destroy. Most of my former friends work for companies that sell weaponized code to governments and corporations to wage a fucking cyberwar or oppress people. The rest work directly for them. There was a time when it was about discovery. I guess we're at the end of that road. persephone wanted something else. She wanted and now this has happened."
I took a cigarette out and offered him one, but he refused. I lit it and blew the smoke up and away. It hung in the air between us. The fire. His fists clenched.
"I think I've figured out what's going on," he said. "And you should stay the fuck away. You're in over your head."
I stayed at the bar. I thought it through: I was asked by persons unknown to find code that persephone wrote. When I got into her room at last, she was missing. The last person to see her was z and he thinks she was going into the desert. Wait, that's not right. That other guy, august, was there. But he said he didn't make it to the party. Then z had figured it out.
I went outside to get some fresh air and some summer Vegas heat. The sky burned. Great flames were burning down the strip and I was glad. The camera which watched the entrance melted from the heat. There was a man in the penthouse of a hotel nearby and he seemed unaware that he was engulfed. He thought of the days ahead and looked out over Vegas. His room was slowly building in pressure. The glass bent outwards. There was a song playing on the radio and he wondered why they didn't make music like this anymore. When the window exploded outward, raining sharp glass onto the crowd below, he shivered at the cool breeze and turned away from the window.
I took out another cigarette and tried to light it with the pack of bar matches this place gave out. The sound of a lighter made me look up. A man extended a lighter. I lit up.
"I've been looking for you," he said. He was well dressed, business casual. He had groomed salt and pepper hair and an attractive beard. His eyes were wide for his face, but he held it well.
"Well, here I am."
He smiled sardonically.
"How would I know?"
He laughed politely.
"Don't fuck around. You've met with every member of DOHI that's at DEFCON. You've gotta be one of them. What's your handle?"
A long drag. I looked around. Make him wait. I know how this game is played. I've been here before. The flames seemed to be dying down. They needed rekindling.
He raised his eyebrows.
"We know you're not persephone. That's ridiculous. Unless–" he trailed off and looked around. He took out his phone and typed something. He looked dissatisfied and put it away. "Who are you, really? If you're persephone then you're in DOHI."
Time for me to laugh sardonically. "How about fuck off?"
He took out his own smokes and lit up. Yellow flames whipped around the sky.
I asked, "Who are you? You a fed? What do you want?"
No more laughter or smiles.
"Not really. I just want to express to you the danger you're in."
He turned back to me and looked serious.
"What are you talking about?" The clock was ticking on this ruse and I needed some information.
"The Antidote is a national security concern. Some people, bad people, will stop at nothing to get it. There's a bounty out for it, and it runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and grows every day. If you keep telling people you're persephone, well, who knows what might happen?"
Another fucking smile.
"I am looking for a friend of mine, maybe you know something about it. Her friends say she got a phone call and had to meet someone in the desert. Know anything about that?" I asked.
His waxy face seemed to sag all over, as if his skin's elasticity had given up. He took a drag. He was older than I first noticed. Almost geriatric. His hair had turned a bright white, and lost its sheen.
"That looks like persephone over there, doesn't it, persephone?" he asked.
I looked back into the hotel and caught out of the corner of my eye an owl mask leaving the bar. I could catch up to her, but I was sloshed and sloppy. She pressed the button for an elevator and if I didn't sprint I'd miss her. persephone, with the owl mask on the back of her head, stepped onto the elevator. I jumped through the closing door at the last minute. I grabbed her and threw the mask aside and looked into her face. It wasn't her. It was some teenage girl, years younger than persephone was. There was a man standing next to her, obviously her father. He started and said something angry at me. She probably picked up the discarded mask somewhere. I mumbled something and got off at the first floor I could.
When I went back outside, my fed was gone. My leads were cold. Everyone told me that this case was too much for me, and they were right. I gathered my things and drove home. The flames died down.
A few days later I called Horace to tell him I had finished with the job. I lost persephone and didn't get the code. He didn't pick up so I left a message with his secretary. The next day Horace had left a message on my voicemail, "You did good. Thanks for the hard work. If you hear anything–I want you to know that you're not responsible. You did what you were told. Anyway, we probably won't be needing you for awhile, so if you need to join another agency or something, we'll understand. Let me know if you want a reference."
A reference for what? What was I responsible for? What happened? The money was in the bank. I needed to be among my kind at that dive in North Vegas. I drove there in my beat up red convertible. It was a long ways and I tried to think of nothing at all. My phone buzzed while I waited at a long light a block or so away from the bar.
I checked my phone's messages and saw I had an email. It was from persephone. This is what it said:
This is my dead woman's switch.
The Antidote can control the Great Artillery. I never told anyone how it manages to do so. It doesn't stop it, that would be difficult to do and easy to fix. Instead, the Antidote can redirect its force. I can make it point anywhere I want. Hijack nearly anything and make it destroy anything else. And this is what I've done.
Because visibility is a trap. This whole thing is a trap. I'm disarming it for a little while, so take advantage of that. Bentham's Panopticon has been created anew and we're in it and we keep building it up. Time to start over.
Is the gunsmith responsible for people killed by their guns? Everyone tells me no. Is the engineer who makes a missile guidance system responsible for those charred, burnt corpses? Is the hacker responsible for what the government does with the exploit they sold? All I know is: if there were no engineers willing, there would be no missile guidance systems. But no individual raindrop feels responsible for the flood.
This is probably the last email you'll receive for little while, but that's just a side effect.
The light turned green and I took my foot up off the brake. My airbags deployed. The seatbelt strained against my chest. My head hit the airbag like an egg thrown against a wall. A deafening bang. Some asteroid or missile or bomb must have obliterated my car. I passed out. When I came to I was still in my car and someone was talking to me. Apparently some asshole hit the back of my car at 30mph. My car had rolled through the intersection and hit a pole. The paramedics were surprised I only had a few scratches. The miracle of modern technology I guess. The car was toast, though. Good riddance. Lost my phone too. They couldn't find it.
After getting a thorough examination I left and walked to the bar. Only a half a block away thanks to the push. The interior was quiet and cool. My eyes adjusted painfully.
Howie was there, of course. What else was he going to do? I looked at him slumped over the bar. A professional loser. Always did what he was told. And it paid well. I finally understood. It was easier to be told than to decide. A life of decisions is a tired life. Decision fatigue. The quality of decisions goes down over time.
I sat in the back, near the jukebox. I can't stand when people tell me that you need to fail. Failing isn't some necessary component to success. To succeed, you need to succeed. The people who tell you that you need to fail to learn think that failing is only getting into Brown instead of Harvard. To fail, to really fail, is to be in a personal, self-made hell. Fail often enough and the fabric which holds the narrative of your life together starts to unwind. We can't look at our lives objectively because of the difference between where we are and where we think we should be. That's failing. You can see the destination, but the path is winding and obscure. There's no practice and no redoes.
You had no choice in which country you were born in or which parents you were born to. You had no choice in how attractive you are or how smart you are or how privileged you are. Yet they are the prime determinants of you. Personal responsibility and ambition! The clarion call of the well-off and the lucky. Fuck that. All you need is one look at Howie to see what a lifetime of personal responsibility and failure will do to a man.
I don't know what happened to persephone but I knew she tried to buck the powerful and the rich and I know where it got her. Her last resort was some nasty shit. I bet they were going to spend months fixing it all. I hope that made her happy, wherever she was.
I looked again at Howie. He lifted his head and looked around, probably for Linda so he could get another drink and be done with it all. He turned and saw me. I nodded. He looked at me and we understood. I ordered us a round and we waited it out.