In Sean’s sleepy mind, the train ride to work on this Monday morning should have been normal. Chill. But, he was being followed. He was nearly sure of it.
There was the guy at the very end of the car, reading a book. Sean was about seventy-five percent sure that guy was following him. Sean was ninety-nine percent sure the woman he was standing next to on the train was tailing him as well.
Sean was trying to turn the tables against her.
Sean was sleepy because he’d gotten home from Dallas late the night before. Distinctive had left North Texas about five in the evening but connected home to Baltimore through Cincinnati and lost an hour to a time zone and another to a layover. Sean had taken a cab to the nearest Red line station, changed to Green, then Orange and de-trained at his station just ten minutes before the Metro halted at midnight.
And that last train? The only three people on it, besides Sean, were a man in a cheap suit who had clearly been drinking, a lady with a ridiculous assortment of handbags, and this woman Sean was standing beside seven hours later.
He stood close beside her. Close because he was hacking her phone. Or, he was trying to hack her phone. It wasn’t going well.
Just then, she turned to him and, out of the blue, asked, ‘What are you listening to?’ Sean always wore earbuds, it just made life easier. But, he wasn’t listening to anything. He was waiting for the Voice to contact him.
He looked at her, surprised, and stammered out “m-m-music” then turned away. His heart pounded. That was too close. He hadn’t expected her to be so bold. Still, he needed her name. If she was linked to the Voice, she could be his first lead.
Just the week before, Sean’s phone had been hacked by the Voice. Sean spent the plane ride to Dallas and back studying up on phone hacking. He hadn’t really bothered before. When hacking, Sean went by the handle Distinctive. When hacking, Distinctive usually targeted government computers in third world countries, not smartphones on the Metro. When hacking, Distinctive was at his best.
Distinctive was amazed – Amazed – at how easy hacking a phone was. You could do quite a bit right from your own phone, which made it convenient to hack on a train or plane. Since he had jailbroken his iPhone, Sean loaded Cydia, grabbed a bunch of apps and practiced on his Dallas flights. It had worked great… yesterday.
This morning, not-so-much.
All he wanted was the name of the woman’s phone. Most people just left the default, something like “Jane Doe’s iPhone”. Distinctive’s mentor, Johnny Free, always told him, ‘get a name, combine it with a physical description and you can find everything else through hacking.’
If Lita were here, she would tell him it was all a coincidence and this woman wasn’t watching him. She’d say he was paranoid and crack some joke about Distinctive being self-centered. And, yeah, maybe he was paranoid, but he had good reasons, after all. And, yeah, Maybe the woman lived just around the corner and happened to be out late on a Sunday, and then up early on a Monday, just like Sean. Yeah, maybe. But Sean never planted a flag on ‘maybe’.
The man at the end of the train car had been behind him since he left his flat this morning, that was certain. Coincidence? Sean doubted it. He knew by sight most of the people around him. This man, and this woman, were not familiar faces.
Sean looked to his phone, checking its progress and wondering when the Voice would contact him again.
He had expected to hear from the Voice by now. It was nerve-wracking, waiting to hear that Voice come through his earbuds. The phone would not ring. The Voice would just… materialize… like a poltergeist. It was frustrating, but Sean was determined to figure out how it was happening so he could stop it. Prevent it from happening to him, and learn how to do it to others.
Even if Sean prevented it from happening again, the Voice already knew both of him. He knew Sean the software engineer with a government security clearance and the Voice knew Distinctive, the hacker. Sean didn’t know how he would put that genie back in the bottle.
Sean didn’t know who this woman was, either.
The train came to a stop and the woman moved. She didn’t make for the door, but moved to let people out and others in. Now she was twenty feet away. The train started moving and Sean pushed through the crowd of morning commuters as it swayed around a curve. He got some dirty looks. The hack he was doing should have worked from across the train but it wasn’t. So, he moved closer. Why wasn’t it working? It should be working. Either she had the most secure phone on the train, or Sean was doing something wrong.
He seen her use an iPhone, and had tried bluetooth, wifi, Airdrop. There were dozens of hacks for each, and he had loaded customized apps to help. All for nothing. He was losing his touch. First his phone gets hacked, now he can’t hack this woman’s phone? He was starting to feel like a script-kiddie.
There was a lot that was making him feel like an amateur lately. Being hacked, being nervous in Dallas, being broke. More broke than he had in a decade.
The woman he was trying to hack moved away again. Sean waited a moment, then moved with her.
As he did, Sean’s stomach started bothering him. What was it? He knew when his stomach did that, something was wrong. Well, duh, he had two people following him, and his hacking skills suddenly had abandoned him. Wasn’t that enough to go wrong?
But, he knew it wasn’t that. His subconscious had picked up on something. This happened all the time when he was hacking, and it was one of reasons he was so good at it. What had it noticed this time?
Sean looked at her closely. She didn’t look imposing, but in a physical fight Sean didn’t think he’d fare well against her. She was maybe twenty-five years old, average size, athletic; but Sean felt like if her job was tailing people, she probably could handle herself. And, as Sean tapped the Rubian app icon for one last hack attempt, he saw the woman glance at him and move her hand to her bag. She was reaching for something.
Sean stood, waiting; waiting to see what she would pull out of her bag, waiting to see if Rubian would get anywhere. Then he realized what had given him an upset stomach.
Sean’s subconscious was always seeing things his conscious mind didn’t. His subconscious had noticed something different about the woman. Something different about what she was wearing. It was subtle.
The woman was turned away, looking at the phone she had just pulled from her bag. She was wearing a thin, blue blazer. Sean saw that, underneath her blazer, she wore some sort of protective vest. It made a noticeable but subtle outline.
Sean backed off. If this was some sort of armour vest, she had to be a Fed. Some sort of agent.
Just like that, Sean’s instinct said to run, to abandon this worthless hack and get out of there. But, he couldn’t run. He was on a moving train, thirty feet underground. He looked around. He had nowhere to go.
Sean edged away from the woman but kept an eye on her. He wanted to put people between him and her and he wanted to get to a door and he wanted to get clear of this train. The train slowed. It was not yet his station but Sean planned to get off.
Just as the train came to a stop, in the pause between when it halted and when the doors opened, the woman turned toward him. She turned her head. She looked right at him. They made eye contact.
Her eyes were beautiful and full of… helplessness… or hopelessness? Sean couldn’t tell. He should have been getting off the train, but instead he stared back at her. He stood there for, how long? However long it took the train’s doors to open and some people to get off and others to get on. The doors were about to close again when she looked away. Sean snapped out of it and he slipped of the train as the doors slid shut.
It wasn’t his stop but Sean had stepped off the Metro anyway. He stepped off and he hurried away. He did not look back. He did not know if that woman, or the man at the end of the car, somehow followed him. He did not know if they were going to try to intercept him before he managed to get into work. Sean decided to take a cab home after work.
Sean took the stairs from the subway’s lower level to ground level three at a time, outpacing even the commuters hiking up the escalators. He was in a suit and it was already a warm and humid morning. By the time Sean arrived at his work more than twenty minutes later, having trotted the last leg of the trip he usually took entirely by train, he was sweating heavily and breathing ragged breaths.
He glanced around as walked into his office building. He looked for the man and the woman. They could have beat him here. He didn’t see them.
Sean nodded at Brenda and Frederick as he passed their security desk. Fred gave him an odd look as Sean joined a dozen others on a crowded elevator. Sean stole a glance at the reflective elevator walls. He looked for the face of the man or the woman. All he saw was how he looked. He had bags under his eyes, he was drenched with sweat, wet hair matted to his forehead.
On the 17th floor, he zig-zagged and swiped in through the three different security checkpoints, a requirement for entrance to his office. Then he walked through two different detectors sweeping him for verboten electronics, then dropped his bag on his office chair. He took off his suit jacket and went to the men’s room and splashed cold water on his face until he had cooled down.
After Sean had cooled down in the men’s room, he led two morning meetings, including the weekly network architecture meeting. Then it was time for his weekly stand-up with his boss.
His boss asked him if he was okay. Sean said ‘sure, of course’. His boss said she’d noticed how ruffled he’d looked this morning. She told Sean since he had two dozen people under him, looking up to him, he needed to make sure he had it together. Sean told her he understood. It wouldn’t happen again. His boss’ name was Geri, and she asked about the previous week, when the Voice had contacted Sean in the company cafeteria. Sean said it was just a malfunctioning phone. Then Sean pulled out his iPhone and said, ‘See? I got a new one.’
Geri walked Sean back to his office and Sean settled back to work but then he got a call on his cell phone. He was waiting for the Voice but since it rang, he knew it wasn’t him. He wasn’t supposed to talk at work but it was him Mom, so he did.
She asked how he was. Then she asked how his friends were. Ugh, of course she brought up his friends. Sean had avoided thinking about them as much as possible all day because after he’d returned from Dallas, he had looked over his financials and realized he couldn’t make payroll. And, he would have to tell them tomorrow because it was payday.
His mom asked him why he hadn’t answered this weekend and Sean told her he was out of town. Business?, mom asked. No, just a fun weekend, replied Sean.
As soon as he said it, he knew it was a mistake. Because his mom said, “ooo, a fun weekend? Do you finally have a girlfriend?” Distinctive knew he’d stepped in it and it took him ten minutes of truthful denials before he could end the call and get back to work.
Then, it happened. He heard the Voice. The Voice said, “I like your mom.”
Sean just sat there, dumbfounded. The Voice had been listening to him talk to his mom about girlfriends. He cringed. Then the Voice said, in a whisper, ‘Is this a good time?’
There was something different about the Voice. Instead of bombastically breaking in and proclaiming Sean was hacked, as the Voice had done the previous week, the voice seemed sad.
Sean got up and closed his office door. He usually left it open, it was policy to keep them open unless coding, which he never did until the afternoon. He hoped Geri wouldn’t be on the prowl and notice.
The Voice asked Sean what he’d found in Dallas and Sean asked the Voice if he’d ever heard of Exclusivor. The Voice said immediately that of course he knew Exclusivor.
Sean told him they found documentation that the FBI believes Exclusivor killed not only Claire, but also some guy in California named Sergei Gordova. They say Exclusivor hacked his Jeep.
Sean heard the Voice say, “Killed Sergei? Claire? These guys are nuts.”
Sean got up and started pacing. He asked the Voice if he knew Sergei. The Voice didn’t answer. Eventually Sean continued, and told the Voice he guessed that Exclusivor had hacked the FBI and NSA at the top of the Bank of America tower, BASE-jumped off the top, and nearly wiped out Claire trying to land. He talked about the FBI field office being at the DPD instead of in the probably-hacked Bank of America tower and then Sean told the voice that was all he knew.
Sean didn’t mention Lita and Stoney. He wanted to leave them out of it. The fewer people the Voice knew about, the better.
The Voice then told Sean that Lita and Stoney had done a good job and all three of them should be commended.
The Voice then said, “They suspect Exclusivor killed Sergei. Okay. We can work with that. You need to go to the FBI.”
Sean had not expected this. The FBI? What? Why? Sean was hoping he could extract himself from this situation with the Voice asap, but he was getting in deeper.
The Voice told Sean to go to the FBI, and tell them Exclusivor is Zoe Gates. The Voice said, tell them Exclusivor is Sergei’s sister.
Sean didn’t really like coffee, but he got it every morning because he wanted to blend in, and normal people drank coffee. Sean stirred sugar and creamer into his third coffee and thought again about what the Voice had said.
The Voice had again gone quiet again as soon as he instructed Sean to dox Exclusivor to the FBI. This had to be why he was being used by the Voice. He wasn’t even sure if it was true, that Exclusivor was really named Zoe Gates, but if Sean doxed Exclusivor, he would become a target. The FBI would want to know how he got that information, and, well, no one liked a snitch. Especially hackers. The Voice would keep his distance from the fallout. It was a smart play, really.
Sean was deep in thought and didn’t notice Avanta right away. She came up to him and stood right in front of him. It took her waving her hand in front of his face to get his attention. When Sean snapped out of his haze he noticed her, quickly looked at his watch and said he had to get back to his office.
Sean told himself to wait until he got home to call the FBI, but he wanted to get it over with and he thought calling the FBI during lunch was his best chance to reach them and talk to a real person, without being overheard.
Sean had more than once felt like his office was bugged. His office phone definitely was, it was company policy. Even the lunchroom was probably bugged, but hopefully too noisy for them to pick up on Sean’s call to the FBI.
Sean wanted to use a burner phone for the call, so the Voice couldn’t hear. But, security would have confiscated any phone other than his personal device.
While he ate, Sean navigated a back-channel FBI voice jail system using a number he knew hackers used to talk to the FBI about selling zero-days. Sean kept a low profile. People hardly ever made calls from work. It was frowned upon and he himself had questioned employees about calls they had made, even from their own phone.
It took about ten minutes, but Sean finally reached his contact. And, just then, Avanta sat down next to him. She pulled out a chair, sat down, and put her hand on top of his hand. He started to pull it away, but she stopped him.
Sean looked around at his colleagues in the cafeteria. For security reasons, everyone in the company was required to stay for lunch at the cafeteria, if they ate at all. It was actually a policy Sean had recommended himself. The fewer times people passed security, the better. But, it appeared that Avanta’s hand was holding his. It appeared that she was asking him out.
Avanta spoke at the same time as the FBI contact in Sean’s earbuds spoke. Avanta squeezed Sean’s hand. She started to talk, and Sean had to decide what to do. He didn’t want her to hear. Should he hang up? Sean listened to the FBI contact. It was a recording. An outgoing message.
Avanta asked Sean if he liked sports, but Sean was still listening to his earbuds.
The FBI contact’s outgoing message was long and detailed, with caveats and legal clauses, and Sean was glad. He needed to buy time. Avant told Sean she had tickets along the first baseline for a Washington Nationals game. The FBI guy was almost done with his message. Avanta asked Sean if he would like to go with her. The FBI guy said to leave a name and number.
Sean didn’t want to go to the game. No way. But, the FBI guy was done. The message was over and it was about to beep and it was about time for Sean to talk. He wanted to get this call over with. He didn’t want to have to call again. So, he told Avanta. Yes, definitely. Let’s do it. Baseball. Absolutely. He told her they’d firm up plans later. Avanta looked very pleased, stood up and practically skipped away. The outgoing message beeped. Sean whispered a quick but detailed message, hung up and went to hide from Avanta in the men’s room. In the stall, the Voice said in his earbuds, “I think she likes you.”
It bugged him all afternoon, having to say yes to Avanta. He had no idea why she kept asking him out. Hadn’t he be clear enough? He also knew that #TheCollective would not like him calling the FBI. Add to it all that he had to tell them he couldn’t make payday tomorrow, either. Add it all together, and Sean’s mood on the train was ruined to the point where he didn’t even listen to his “Train – Evening” playlist, or try to hack any phones around him. He just sat there.
He was thoroughly grumpy by the time he reached home, put his dinner in the microwave and logged onto IRC.
Distinctive was prepared to be miserable all night when, by sheer luck and the fortune of being friends to hackers like Q, he got fantastic news.
Distinctive signed in to IRC, and right away Q messaged Distinctive privately. Q wrote that he thought he had figured out how the Voice had hacked Distinctive’s phone. The next time the Voice called, Q said he could trace him. It wasn’t a total win, but it was a start. It was enough for Distinctive to forget for a little while about Avanta, about the FBI, about Claire, Exclusivor, all of it. All of the things that had him rattled.
The next time he heard from the Voice, Distinctive would start taking back his life.
After his private chat with Q, Distinctive sent some messages in the main channel. He had been away for most of the last week; recovering from a hack, travelling, working. He had been away from IRC, and he missed it sorely. He missed the mechanical keyboard he had built himself, he missed his bank of wireless monitors covering most of two walls. Most of all, he missed his friends, and hearing how their weekend had gone. He dreaded what he had to do in the morning. Especially after what Q had done for him.
And then Lita PMed to say that she thought Stoney was going to buy a ring with his next paycheck, and propose to her. She didn’t know how she’d answer. Distinctive sunk lower and lower, but even with his guilt, it was a good evening. He enjoyed catching up. He had fun telling everyone about Dallas, and hearing about their successful weekend hacks in Africa and Brazil. He enjoyed catching up, but he hated having to lie like he was.
Periodically during the night, Distinctive contacted various members through PMs. He kept notes on what lie he told to who. Otherwise, he’d forget what he’d said to who and who he said to what, and knowing what lie he was telling to whom as the whole reason for lying in the first place. It was the other reason Distinctive looked forward to talking to the Voice.
What lie would the Voice repeat, outing their mole?
Distinctive never told #TheCollective how he paid them. It was better for them, and for him. The truth was, though, he had, almost ten years ago, hacked four financial advisory groups who helped rich people stash money in the Caymans, tax free. Distinctive imposed his own personal tax and siphoned money from nearly twenty thousand accounts into several Swiss Bank accounts, after washing it all through dozens of businesses on four continents. It was complicated and untraceable, and it had all unravelled two months before. Someone in the complex chain had made a change that had severed his pipeline, and it had been so long since he’d created it, it couldn’t figure out how to recover it. He had gone from the penthouse to outhouse in two months.
There were other ways to steal money, but Distinctive had long ago sworn off blackhatting.
So, Distinctive was broke. Sean was doing fine. He had a 401k, bank accounts, real estate and was a minor partner in an angel VC firm. But Distinctive and Sean never crossed paths, so Sean’s money was off-limits to Distinctive.
Distinctive arose, showered, ate and dressed while walking around his flat, carrying his laptop, typing one-handed, composing and editing his message to the channel.
He figured it would be brutal, but less political, if everyone in #TheCollective knew at the same time. He thought it would be interesting to see how they all reacted to the bad news, too. It would tell him something more about each of them. Distinctive thought they’d all know each other a lot better after this.
Distinctive pressed enter. His message was sent.
In the message, Distinctive had told them he was out of money, and couldn’t pay them today, as scheduled. He told them he was leaving for work and he would discuss it all when he got home.
Before anyone could reply, he typed slash-quit. He figured they’d be upset and didn’t want to see what they had to say until they had cooled off.
On the train, Sean’s phone rang. This usually meant it was mom but it wasn’t her number. He answered. It was the FBI, returning his call. A curt woman said in a chipped voice the FBI could not and would not talk to him, but a contractor would be in charge. The contractor would make contact, she told him. Without another word, the line went dead.
Sean knew what a contractor meant. A contractor was someone who could do something legally that for the FBI was illegal. He knew from his work that the FBI sometimes hired contractors because they were not subject to the laws of, say, search and seizure. A private citizen searching your house might be breaking and entering, but the evidence was admissible in court.
The Voice was getting Sean in deeper and deeper. Now he was dealing with FBI contractors. Fantastic. It was going to be very difficult to keep the FBI from connecting his Sean side to his Distinctive side. And, if they did, it was going to be very difficult to stay out of prison.
After the short FBI call, Sean had returned to his “Train – Morning” playlist. The train made it’s normal stops and more people joined the crowded car, including the same man who had followed him the morning before.
Sean looked around for the woman from the yesterday, too. He couldn’t see her.
The man came over and stood next to him, one hand on the overhead bar to steady himself, the other holding a paperback book folded open.
The man stared straight at the book and not all at Sean and he spoke just loudly enough for Sean to hear him. He didn’t move his lips or look at Sean. He told Sean his name was Sam Fishburne and he would be working with Sean on the Exclusivor case. He told Sean to listen, but not look at him or respond in any way.
At his stop, Sean de-trained and left Sam reading his book. To onlookers, no doubt they looked like random strangers. But, they had arranged for to meet on Friday night, in a little dive bar Sam knew about. Sam called it his home turf.
At his office, Sean walked through security, took the elevator, zig-zagged through the checkpoints and into the cube farm near his office, unusually alive with activity. People carried open laptops and jogged into meeting rooms. People huddled in groups, hunched over terminals.
He saw Avanta and he asked her what was going on. She told him the engineer running the west coast atomic lathe in Longbeach didn’t show up for work the day before and couldn’t be found. Even worse, in the last twelve hours, the lathe had point zero five percent wobble and wouldn’t last another day at that rate. Sean swore to himself. He knew there was no time to evacuate an area as large and populated as Southern California and if the lathe went, it would be devastating.
Avanta told him Geraldine and Suzanne had already ordered a private jet and ordered Sean to be sent to the airport as soon as he arrived at work.
Sean asked why him, why not Bryan or Greg?
Avanta said she didn’t know. She was just the messenger. Sean went to his office and grabbed a pre-packed carry-on bag with two days clothes and toiletries he kept there just for this reason.
If Distinctive went missing, #TheCollective was under orders to shut down and cover their tracks. Sean could be in California for weeks without any of his personal computer gear, except his phone, with no safe way to contact them. If he ghosted the entire Collective right after telling them he couldn’t afford to pay them, they would disintegrate for sure. He couldn’t let that happen.
Sean also needed to contact the FBI contractor Sam Fishburne, whom he’d just made plans with. What would happen if he didn’t show? What would the Voice think? What would the FBI do?
He wanted to let Sam know he wouldn’t be able to meet him. He wanted to let #TheCollective know he’d be gone for awhile but was okay. He wanted to fix the Longbeach lathe and get back as soon as possible.
Sean didn’t want to get on a plane just thirty minutes after he’d arrived at work, but he did. Two minutes later, Avanta boarded, looked at all the empty seats, sat down right next to him, and smiled broadly. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever talk to a member of #TheCollective again, but it was a five hour flight. He knew he’d be talking with Avanta.