Sean was sitting in the company cafeteria
He was eating a sandwich
His “Lunch – Thursday” playlist was pumping through his earbuds
He was reading the latest on Slash Dot Org and Reddit.
Suddenly a voice said to him, “Sean, listen to me.”
Sean jumped when he heard the voice. Only a couple people noticed, even though the lunch room was crowded. He looked around at the people nearby. Did one of them say something? No, this came through his earbuds. He looked at his phone. It looked normal. What on earth?
After a moment, the voice in the earbuds said, “Are you there, Sean?”
Then it dawned on him, he must have accidentally called someone, so he replied, “Yes, I’m here. Sorry, I didn’t mean to call you.”
When he spoke, a few people glanced at him and the voice said, “you did not call anyone. I hacked your phone. Listen to me –”
Sean yanked the earbuds out of his ears. He was hacked! He looked around at the suits and security badges on the coworkers around him. If anyone here found out, he would lose his security clearance; without security clearance, he’d lose this job.
“Should I call you Sean, or Distinctive,” asked the voice. Sean looked at his phone. The earbuds were still plugged in, but the voice now came through the speaker-phone. More people looked at him.
Sean grabbed his phone and held down a combination of buttons to do a hard reboot. The voice said, “That won’t work, Sean. I disabled all the buttons.”
Sean got up to leave, and as he walked across the cafeteria, the voice said again, louder, “do you want me to call you Sean, or should I call you Distinctive?” Every head nearby turned.
He squeezed the phone in his armpit, trying to muffle the speaker. He was dizzy.
(dizzy, disorienting sound)
Not even his best friends knew both his real name, Sean, and his online hacker handle, Distinctive.
(tension, tension, tension with each line, add more tension; more instruments, something. )
Then he felt the phone vibrating madly
Apparently the hacker could trigger anything on the phone.
A klaxon alarm started blaring loudly.
The whole cafeteria looked at him.
(ratchet up some action! Crescendo and burst into this)
Sean hurried out
He ripped the back off the phone
Tore out the battery
Yanked the SIM card
And pulled SD card
He went into the men’s room
Bashed the phone against the sink (rhythm: Bashed! The phone! Against the sink!)
until it was mangled
Then dropped it into a toilet then flushed
(flush, the beat plays; or flush to the beat)
Then, he walked along the hallway
He dropped the battery into the break room trash can
Then, he walked right up to Avanta
She always smelled like cigarette smoke after she took a break
He asked Avanta if he could borrow her cigarette lighter for a moment
She hesitated, then grabbed her purse
Sean snatched a piece of paper from her desk
He ripped it in half and
In it, rolled the SIM and SD cards, like a cigarette.
Then he took her lighter and
He lit the paper on fire. (music slows, ethereal, crackles like fire burning)
Immediately Avanta stood up, shocked. She told him the smoke could set off the sprinklers. Sean knew the SIM and SD cards would be ruined by just a little heat, so he blew on the paper and waved his hands to clear the smoke, then dropped it all in Avanta’s trash.
He looked at Avanta told her he was sorry, but it had to be done. He tossed Avanta her lighter and walked to his office. He knew the rest of the day would drag without his “Afternoon – Coding” playlist.
The train ride back to his flat was interminable without his “Train – Evening” playlist. His earbuds dangled from his ears uselessly, terminating in his empty pocket. Sean spent the ride instead thinking about who hacked him. Must have been the FBI or NSA. Part of him wished he’d had listened to the hacker, and found out what he wanted. He was surprised he’d panicked like that. He reminded himself that he’d never been hacked before. It was bound to happen, but it came as a shock.
Once home, Distinctive fired up the Debian laptop he Frankenstein-ed himself, from parts he paid cash for, second-hand. He cloned a VM from his stock snapshot and got on Craig’s List. Two hours later he was back in his place and setting up an iPhone, purchased off Craig’s List and in good condition. He’d paid cash, and took no chances. Before bed, the phone was jailbroken and the GPS and Apple ID disabled. Distinctive didn’t like having to break his carefully managed budget, but he needed a phone, and wasn’t about to buy another Android.
The last thing he did was set up his playlists; he had to re-configure an Apache Cordova music app he had created himself. Distinctive wanted his music for the next morning’s commute. For the first time in months, Distinctive went to bed without even logging on to his IRC channel. He usually spent the entire evening there.
He lay in bed with his “Bedtime” playlist tinkling quietly in his ear. He was glad to have his music back, but he knew sleep would come hard. He was used to being the hunter, not the hunted.
Sean awoke to his morning alarm, Neil Diamond’s “America”. It starts slowly and builds, which allowed Sean to wake up slowly and then get pumped up enough to get out of bed.
But this morning, his wake up song was interrupted by the voice.
It asked, “Distinctive?”
Sean grabbed his phone and flung it across the room. It hit a chair and landed on the carpeted floor. He was grateful he didn’t break his phone. But he was not happy that he was hacked again.
The voice was distorted, like the day before, and it came over the speaker again.
“Distinctive. I need your help.”
He was alone at home. He asked the Voice, out loud, who he was.
Distinctive knew that when he hacked people, they felt violated, like a thief had invaded their home. He knew that, but until now he’d never felt it.
Distinctive asked the Voice who he was, and the Voice told Distinctive he was not God. Nor was he Satan.
Distinctive knew that, and said so. He said to the Voice that he knew the Voice was just a hacker, like him.
Then he asked him how he was doing this. How he was hacking the phone.
The Voice told Distinctive he would not divulge secrets.
And… the Voice kept calling him that, “Distinctive,” so Distinctive asked him why. What is this Distinctive? Why do you call me that? Distinctive knew why, but he hoped to sow doubt.
The Voice told him that he knew he was Sean in real life, and Distinctive online. It was his hacker handle.
Then it hit him. It wasn’t the NSA. It wasn’t the FBI. It was TheCollective. His friends. His hacker friends. Oh, how ripe! He couldn’t believe he’d fallen for such a prank.
Sean went to his computer and switched to his IRC client. He was the op on a private server with one IRC channel, the channel he called poundsign-TheCollective. As a group, they called themselves “The Collective”.
When he was in, he asked them who had hacked his phone. He thought it would be either Q, most likely, or maybe… Stoney… maybe.
Within ten seconds, his buddy Q replied, saying he knew nothing about it. Q said he was shocked that Distinctive was hacked.
Distinctive responded that yes, it was true. He was hacked. It was a good run, he had gone all (like a bong behind it) these years without anyone hacking him. Then Distinctive asked Q if it was he who had hacked him.
Q said no. He said, he wished. It would be a feather in his cap to hack someone like Distinctive.
Since it was IRC, the whole channel saw the exchange, and LOL-Lita broke in, telling Distinctive it wasn’t her boyfriend Stoney. Stoney was sick, and hadn’t been out of bed since last weekend.
Then she asked him what happened.
Distinctive told them about the voice at lunch the day before, getting a new phone, and being hacked again.
Distinctive then brought up the hacker code, which said that you had to come clean to fellow hackers if busted.
No one confessed. Crickets.
There were twenty nine members in The Collective. Some were skilled researchers, some had special skills, but most were hackers of various ability. They were very good, but Distinctive didn’t think any of them were good enough to get him. Even Q and Stoney were long-shots. The only time people had claimed they’d hacked Distinctive, they either failed to provide evidence, or the evidence was fake. In both cases, Distinctive ruthlessly reverse-hacked them into oblivion, or as in hacker vernacular, “into Bolivia.” The Collective often joked about the time, following a defeat, when boxer Iron Mike Tyson said he would “fade into Bolivian”.
They concluded that anyone who is badly hacked should just abandon the grid, convert to gold, park a fifth wheel at the end of a muddy mountain road in some God-forsaken part of Bolivia and grow old, and do it yesterday. That’s the only thing to do if you get hacked, hard.
Distinctive didn’t want to have to fade into Bolivian. But no one was coming clean.
Distinctive warned them, if they didn’t fess up, or it wasn’t them at all, then his only option was a complete house-cleaning. Full emergency sweep. He said to them, is that what you want, people!?!
No one in the #TheCollective wanted that. No one wanted Distinctive out of the game for days while he cleaned house, tracked down new gear and then carefully set it all up. No. Way. LOL-Lita pointed out that it would kill their pipeline, the hacks they were carrying out. They had three blue-chip hacks planned for that weekend. In fact, they were already in deep prep and their botnets had been sent instructions.
Distinctive told them he didn’t know what else to do and then he signed off IRC, banging on his keyboard as he typed the command ‘slash-quit’ and hit enter so hard his keyboard bounced. More frustrated than he had been in months, Distinctive pushed back from his computer and looked for something to throw. Distinctive knew he had to do a full sweep, destroy all important computer components. But, he also knew he didn’t have the money to do it, to replace his gear. He was over-extended as it was, and hadn’t used credit for almost a decade.
And, he thought, really, it was just his phone, right? There was no indication that his computer was hacked, just his phone. But, if they’d gotten to his phone… Ugh. He had never been hacked. He didn’t know what to do.
He set down the coffee mug he was about to throw across the room and just stood there for a minute. He was nearly late for work already, but as Senior Developer and Security Team Lead, he got a little extra slack. He wished he could telecommute like a normal hacker but he programmed an atomic lathe. His whole department had been air-gapped since Stuxnet got into the wild. If Stuxnet boomeranged back and took out his atomic lathe… Well, no one wanted that. Not him, not his bosses, not the American public who had never even heard of an atomic lathe. And, he was probably the best of the US government’s handful of remaining atomic lathe programmers. His Sean persona had developed a programming language just for an atomic lathe, call Atomal. The government had recently open-sourced a subset of Atomal for people designing self-driving cars. Sean’s language would soon manage transportation for fleets of self-driving cars, and the thought made his stomach hurt. All those people, all those heartbeats, driving around protected in part with software he had written. Atomal was the most secure programming language ever written, according to numerous government studies. It was so-far believed to be unhackable, though Sean knew the real test was open-source and widespread adoption.
If only his iPhone ran Atomal.
Programming his atomic lathe was a good job, and paid well. Every time he tried to quit, they just increased his salary. It was an enviable position, but it was boring. Hacking was funner.
And way less pressure.
Sean had been very careful to keep his Distinctive side away from his Sean side. And vice versa.
Still thinking, Distinctive popped a frozen breakfast burrito in the microwave and slipped into the shower. As he showered, dressed and ate, he thought some more.
Then, he went over to his phone, still lying on the floor where he’d thrown it. He bent over and called to it. He said, “Hello?”
The voice responded. It told Distinctive, he — it — the Voice — was losing his patience. Distinctive didn’t know if the Voice was a male or female because it was distorted. It was deep and crackling and menacing and it reminded Distinctive of his father. So, he had assigned it a ‘he’.
Distinctive asked the Voice what he wanted. To Distinctive, it felt weird to be bent over, talking to a phone lying on the floor. But, he listened to the Voice tell him what he wanted, and what he’d do to Distinctive if he didn’t help and then Distinctive went back to IRC.
Q saw his sign-on and replied immediately. In IRC, most people just typed ‘D’ instead of Distinctive, and Q told D there was no way he did a complete house-cleaning in less than ten minutes.
Any good hacker knows that after being hacked, the only route to recovery is complete destruction of all important components. Put the chips and discs in the microwave and fry them; crush, mangle, destroy. You can’t leave anything to chance. You can’t leave anything that can be recovered by law enforcement or other hackers.
Distinctive wrote, that, no, he wasn’t cleaning house. He had a new plan.
Q did not like that. He wrote back, he said he was cutting ties until D destroyed everything. He would return once he had evidence of a full sweep.
Distinctive typed hard on his keyboard, more punching than typing, as if it were possible to type angrily in the toneless environment of IRC.
He told them what the Voice had said. He was being blackmailed. And, it was solid blackmail. Distinctive was in a bind, big time.
Lita asked, how big-time?
Distinctive told her it was about his job, his reputation. He also said it involved national security, maybe World War III. He wasn’t exactly kidding, but he knew when he typed it, that it sounded melodramatic.
Lita seemed unphased. She was like, really, your job? Distinctive was the only person in #TheCollective that even had a job, at least, one outside the work they did together. And, he was the one who paid this group of hackers to work for him. Distinctive knew how important his job was, and that if #TheCollective got a even whiff that he had a security clearance and a relationship with the US Government, they would cut ties with him as soon as possible. And, he knew he needed their help. And he needed them to not find out what job he did.
He typed a message. He told them, they had to trust him.
They went round and round for awhile, arguing about transparency and trust and Distinctive held his ground, telling them he’d never given them a reason to distrust him, even if he was somewhat secretive. They were hackers, after all.
Finally Q and Lita, the two most influential members of #TheCollective, said they’d trust him.
LOL-Lita asked what the blackmail was.
Distinctive told them what the Voice had told him. The Voice wanted them to hack the Dallas Police Department’s evidence server. They were to check out all the evidence from March and April. The Voice had told him, it would be easy. The Voice had already been in. Distinctive said the Voice said to look for evidence on a woman named Claire. That was all he knew.
Q then asked, that, if the Voice had already been in, why did the Voice need them to go in.
It was a good question. Distinctive told them he had already asked the Voice the same question. The Voice had said, it was enough information for them to get started, and they should follow the lead where it went. Then, the Voice stopped replying to questions.
The Collective did not like the mystery of it. Blind hacking for someone whose motivation they could not discern did not excite them. It’s a good way to inadvertently help a terrorist or some nasty government. It meant trouble, yet when Distinctive plaintively asked them for help fighting this blackmail, they all agreed. Each and every one of them.
At this, Distinctive’s stomach churned a little. He didn’t know if he should be proud or worried. It was great having their support, but it seemed a little odd that they agreed so readily. He would pay for their help, sure, but it was common for members to bow out of certain hacks. That’s one reason there were so many members in #TheCollective. Backup hackers. Bench players.
Backups, because, few were willing to hack targets in their home country. It was too risky. Too easy to be arrested, if caught.
And yet, he had 100% buy in for this hack, and he suspected about a third of #TheCollective lived in the US, just like him.
He was late for work, so he set aside his worry and gave his team instructions. While he was at work, Q was to hit the Dallas Police Department network to see what he could find.
Before Distinctive could continue giving instructions, Q replied that he was already in. He had hacked the DPD’s network in less than a minute. He confirmed the Voice’s assessment. It was stupid-easy.
Distinctive’s stomach turned over again. His stomach did that whenever something wasn’t quite right. Why was the hack so easy?
Q told them:
He had looked up the DPD web server IP address.
He directed his massive botnet to start scanning down all the IPs in the web server’s Class B network.
First pass, he checked port 1492,
the default for Unity System’s ‘Brick Wall’ firewall hardware router configuration login.
Unity practically gave away their routers for about a decade, trying to corner the market.
Q knew that small, local governments ate them up, because while the military buys hammers for five hundred dollars, a county or city can’t even afford a good router. Then Unity went belly up, having been roundly exploited by hackers and mocked by Wall Street. Their devices were a joke, but in a government network, they sufficed as the “firewall” line item the CISO-type could put checkmark next to.
Q posted the IP for the router he broke in through, and told them the router was still set to the default password, but Q reset it to password pattern 2-Q-16.
Distinctive looked up his notes on their password patterns, then logged in and did some basic recon. Then he finished mapping out his plan.
While Distinctive was at work, Q was to hit the evidence server at 10.41.69.17, then mirror it to one of #TheCollective’s hacked servers in Lithuania. Q was then to drop Apache Solr on their mirror and index everything. Distinctive told them since it was a government agency, they should expect to find ancient codecs for the audio and video, and instructed Stoney to set up a Youtube account and write a script to upload all the interrogation and body-cam footage to Youtube as unlisted videos. They all knew Youtube was great for this. It was their business to show videos, so Youtube could interpret any codec ever made, easily. The videos were unlisted, and therefore would not show up in searches, even though #TheCollective could watch them. Once indexed, and uploaded, Lita was to go through and find this Claire woman and see what that was all about.
Distinctive then locked his computer and left for work. He had already missed an important morning meeting.
Sean didn’t access home from work and Distinctive didn’t access work from home. It felt like the Stone Ages, but it was necessary to keep him, and his job, secure.
Distinctive thought about his Collective of hackers. He winced at being found out by this Voice, who seemed to know way more about him than any person ever had. Even the resources of the US government, with the FBI, even the NSA and CIA via FiveEyes, had not discovered his online dealings. He had high-level security clearance as proof. It was a security clearance he would never have, if only they knew. The Voice was threatening to tell them.
Distinctive felt nearly claustrophobic thinking about being caught in real life as Sean, or online as Distinctive. He could recover easier from being busted as Distinctive, but he’d lose his best friends. He could move on, rebuild, hack under a different handle, rebuild with a new team.
If he was caught as Sean. He may never use a computer again. No way they’d let him near one in a prison.
He’d never had to worry about any of that too much until, yesterday at lunch time. And, he was determined to reverse-hack this Voice, reverse-hack him into Bolivia and get things back on track. Sean chuckled and shook his head.
As if his life had ever really been on track.
Work went okay, as far as work can ever be okay. He had broken the ice with Avanta the day before, and she had tried to sit with him at lunch. He told her he had an important call to make and put his earbuds in and she left to sit elsewhere.
Distinctive arrived home a little after 1900, logged into his laptop and quickly switched to his IRC client, still open and logging the day’s chat.
He let them know he was back and asked them what they had found.
Distinctive knew that LOL-Lita was the boss of preparation and easily the best researcher in #TheCollective. She’d shame many teams of scientists and scholars. She always took the lead. It didn’t surprise him when she answered, as terse as ever.
She wrote just two words. “Watch this.” Then Lita posted a link; it was to one of the unlisted Youtube videos they had uploaded.
In the video there was a middle-aged woman. She was in an interrogation room with pale green walls, a Dallas Cowboy’s poster, a two-way mirror, three chairs, and a bare table. The woman clearly wasn’t under arrest, but she was talking openly to the police. She fidgeted. She got up and paced, then sat down and bobbed her leg. The two detectives in the room wrote feverishly and nodded a lot.
The woman in the video told the detectives that she had a middle-of-the-night nicotine fit, climbed a few floors to her building’s roof, and lit up. She said the moon was full and bright and beautiful. And then … she saw something. She said it was “like Batman swooping down from above.”
She said it blacked out the full moon, and that she screamed. She threw her cigarette at this “Batman.” She yelled at it. She ran back inside, back downstairs. She said it was like a bad dream.
After watching… Distinctive thought it was too tall of a tale to be believed. He posted as much, wondering why the two detectives in the room seemed so star-struck.
Q answered that it was the same reaction they had all had when they watched that particular video. They found this video right away, as it was tagged with Claire Barton, 505 South Jackson Street, downtown Dallas. It was the only Claire that popped up in the searches from March and April. Q told Distinctive that this must be their woman. The person the Voice wanted them to find.
Distinctive then asked them what else they had found.
LOL-Lita, Q and Johnny Free walked him through the evidence, with some help from Stoney, Bitslapt, MassTroll and Prairiefyre.
They sent him a link to the 911 recording. Claire had been frightened, had gone inside and called 911. Distinctive pulled up the link and listened. Then, Lita posted a link to jpeg scans of the detective notes. The notes were from the day after the 911 call, when detectives finally bothered to go talk to her.
Having listened to the 911 recording Distinctive knew the audio scratchy and difficult to make out. Lita told Distinctive they had all repeatedly listened to the recording, and together, they could decipher pieces of the difficult audio. They transcribed it for him.
Lita posted it, it read:
Claire said she had “just been attacked by a large bat.”
The 911 operator asked if she was hurt.
Claire said “No.”
Then the operator said, “You were attacked by someone with a bat. Can you describe the person?”
Claire said, “No, not a person with a bat, but a large bat. Like a five foot flying mouse.”
Distinctive thought the 911 operator sounded skeptical, just like he expected. He remarked that the operator sounded like he thought Claire’s story was BS.
Then, Johnny Free chimed in. He was the oldest member of the Collective and kind of a mentor. He told Distinctive to check out the detective notes.
Distinctive opened that link and looked through the scans of detective notes. He was surprised to find skepticism there, too. Just like the 911 operator. He looked at the names of the detectives in the notes. Detective Incognito and Detective Ferris. He asked #TheCollective if they were the same detectives as in the video. The ones who seemed so star-struck.
Q confirmed they were the same ones. #TheCollective exchanged a flood of messages about how much different the detective’s attitude was in the video, from their notes. Incognito had written “Wacko” and underlined it, and at the bottom, “future cat lady.” Clearly, they did not believe Claire when they spoke with her the day after she called 911.
In the video, they nodded and hung on her every word.
Distinctive looked at the date on the notes: March 8th. He asked #TheCollective what the date of the video was.
Lita told him it was April 20th. Her boyfriend Stoney had first noticed it, 4/20.
Distinctive noted that from the night of Claire’s 911 call, the visit from the police the next day, the video was recorded a whole six weeks later. Why did they even need to interview her again? Had she told them something new? Why would the detectives reverse position like that?
Distinctive posted these questions to IRC.
Lita then said, most likely it was because the FBI suddenly got involved.
Distinctive was like, what? The FBI?
Lita said, Yup. It was pretty sudden, like two months ago. Something involving the NSA. There is a regional NSA comm center at the top of one of the downtown skyscrapers. She told him Stoney had remembered hearing about some chatter a few months ago, too, with that comm center. She told Distinctive there had been a swell of interest, then DPD called Claire in, recorded the video, and that the FBI descended on Dallas a couple of days later.
Then Q told him that this was where it all dried up. That was all they could find. Then Lita said she thought Claire was dead. She’d seen a partial reference in another search to just the name Claire, no last name. But it fit, even if there wasn’t any other mention.
Then Lita and Q got into it, bickering about speculation and sticking to facts. Then Johnny Free told them to knock it off, and asked Distinctive to see if the Voice would confirm that they had found the right Claire, and what they were to do. Did the Voice only want to know if Claire was dead, and if she was, how it had happened?
Distinctive was reluctant. He hated talking to the Voice. But Johnny Free said that the Voice was probably listening to him typing, and insisted. Just ask him, he said. MassTroll and Prairiefyre echoed the request.
So, Distinctive pulled out his phone. He set it on the desk and spoke to it. He said, Hello. Silence. Then he said, Anybody there? Silence. He returned to IRC and told #TheCollective what happened. Johnny Free typed that he was surprised. That he had thought the Voice would be listening. Distinctively privately thought the same thing.
Distinctive then announced that he was going to go to Dallas in the morning. It was the weekend. He wanted to see what he could find, in person. If possible, he wanted this done by Monday. Satisfy the Voice, then move on.
Lita wrote that she wanted to go, too. Lita was a conspiracy theorist, and had several good ones about the JFK assassination. Lita noted that the building where Claire lived, the building where she was smoking on the roof they night she was startled, was only a couple of blocks from the JFK Memorial in Dallas.
She also said Stoney was feeling better suddenly. She said that Stoney loved Texas.
Distinctive thought that was odd. A guy like Stoney, loving Texas? He thought about how little he really knew about any of these hackers. He counted them as his best friends, though he had never even met a single one of them. That would change tomorrow in Dallas.
No one else in #TheCollective wanted to meet in Dallas. Hackers were always reluctant to meet in person. Lita and Stoney were enough manpower to help him, though, so Distinctive gave instructions.
He told Q to run the hacks they had planned this weekend. He told them he had just learned that the Brazilians that they were tracking had moved their operation, and that they’d have to hack the Chinese satellite again, and change the satellite angle to track their new location. He also confirmed that the hospitals in the Sudan and in Ethiopia should be easy to patch. Anything to help with the refugees seeking care.
Distinctive asked if there were any concerns and Q said there weren’t. Q felt Johnny Free could handle the satellite change and that MassTroll, Prairiefire and Bitslapt have already been compiling data on the Sudanese army team that took over that hospital.
Just before Distinctive signed off, Q wrote that he should worry about Dallas. They could handle the weekend’s work.
Then Lita pm-ed him, telling Distinctive that Stoney had a back door at American Airline’s reservation system. Lita said that Stoney had set them up two tickets to Dallas, and offered to give D the information to make himself a ticket, too, for free, under the TSA and Homeland Security radars. Distinctive thanked her, told her that he’d see her in Dallas, and shut down all his gear.
He swept his apartment, hiding crucial gear in the false wall in his bedroom closet, packed and got ready for bed. He had an early flight. He listened to his “Bedtime” playlist and felt excited. Above all other kinds of hacking, Distinctive loved most a physical hack. Going and breaking in.
He fell asleep at last and at 4:30a, Distinctive’s alarm started. He let “America” play for a minute but then the Voice cut in and said:
“Have fun in Dallas.”
Thanks for listening to this, the first recording of Exclusivor. I’m Hans Anderson. For more, visit exclusivor.com.