Sean had had it with, in this order: the Voice, anything to do with an atomic lathe, his boss Geri, the Voice again, the Atomal programming language, the Port of Longbeach, life, hotel showers, and southern California in general.
It had not been a good week. Sean had been called away from his normal job in DC working the Potomac Lathe, had been flown all the way to California to help save a malfunctioning lathe in Longbeach. He had worked many hours, including thirty-six straight, and every minute of it with the same six people. The same six people with six individually frustrating personalities. He was sick of them. All of them.
And through it all, through his earbuds, the Voice was having a blast making snide comments. Sean nearly always wore his earbuds. They were either in his ears or stored wrapped around his neck. He’d be jamming out one of his playlists when the Voice would break through and ruin the moment.
Like, once, the entire team had been awake for over a day and everyone was grumpy and getting on each other’s nerves, Avanta had taken to smoking inside the server room, the Lathe had over 1% wobble, the entire region was an hour of being fried, just fried, and the Voice chimed in and cracked, “Have you ever seen War Games? Now, that was intense.”
The Voice had evolved from a demon authoritarian who popped in now and then to issue an edict all the way to the funny guy in a sitcom, and the sitcom was about an evil hacker who could afford to kill time joking around.
All the Voice needed was a laugh track.
Now Sean was trudging across a hotel lobby, trailing several of the people he loathed the most. They were going to a strip club.
And Sean’s hope dwindled that he would ever be free of the Voice, and that blackmail. The blackmail where the Voice would dox Sean’s hacker side Distinctive if Sean and his team of hackers didn’t help him — well, that was a sore point. The Voice hadn’t even said what he wanted help with. He was feeding Distinctive info on a need-to-know basis, and apparently Distinctive needed to know exactly bupkis.
Sean-slash-Distinctive didn’t want to spend Friday night at a strip club blowing off steam with these idiots working the Longbeach Lathe this week. They were insistent. Even his female boss Geraldine was going. Avanta was the only person on the team who wasn’t invited.
Sean walked across the hotel lobby like someone shopping with his family in a crowded mall at Christmas. He shuffled along, barely watching where he was going, which is why he was surprised when he ran straight into Lita.
No, not Lita. My bad. I mean.. Wait. Yeah, Lita. No, sorry. It just looked like Lita. Was it Lita?!? Hahaha, no, Lita wasn’t from SoCal. She had no reason to be here. Lita didn’t know where Distinctive was. No one in #TheCollective did. Right?
This past Tuesday morning Distinctive had revealed to his hacker friends in #TheCollective that he couldn’t make payroll, and left for work, thinking he could deal with the fall-out that evening. But after arriving at work, he got called away to California and hadn’t been in contact since. Under their safety protocols, Distinctive ghosting #TheCollective like this would mean they would all shut down and lay low. Add in that payroll embarrassment and they may have disbanded.
Distinctive missed the gang so much, and was so stressed out, that he was now randomly seeing them pop up for no reason. But… wait. Hold on. This was real. It really was Lita. Lita had walked smack-dab into him.
Distinctive was shocked. What was she doing? She hissed, “look where you’re going!” And the man with her snarled, “Hey, watch it! That’s my fiance!”
Stoney? Wait, what? Fiance? What was going on? Why were Lita and Stoney here?
Lita told Distinctive to watch where he was going. Distinctive hadn’t been, not really, he had not been watching where he was going. But, he knew he wasn’t so blind or oblivious that he would just walk into someone. And, Lita of all people?
It was lucky Distinctive was so stunned, otherwise he probably would have said, “Lita! Stoney!” But, he didn’t. So, all his coworkers thought Lita and Stoney were just random jerks instead of two of his best friends. Best friends who didn’t know what Distinctive did for work. And, Distinctive hoped he could keep it that way.
So, Distinctive-slash-Sean apologized. He said he was sorry. Stoney got up into his grill, like a real maniac, and said, “You watch it, man, or I’ll meet you behind this hotel in an hour.” The threat was only the fourth time Sean had ever heard Stoney speak and he legit looked and acted like a maniac. It was like the good-natured Stoney had pulled on a Halloween costume.
Then Stoney and Lita turned right around and walked away, like it had never happened. They went right up to the registration desk, as carefree as ever. Sean’s co-workers laughed at him, commented about skipping the club and instead seeing Sean in a fight. In Sean’s ear, the Voice said, “What’s this about you being in a fight?”
Sean’s group piled into their two Ubers. Sean shared an Uber with his boss Geri, and Karl from the Lake Michigan Lathe. Sean sat in the front seat while, from the back seat, Geri grilled the Uber driver with a barrage of questions about the Uber culture of sexism. They’d hardly left the parking lot before driver looked on the verge of tears. Geri was enjoying herself.
Sean sat back in his seat and thought about what had just happened.
Lita and Stoney were in Longbeach. They ran into him like they were upset, but they didn’t let on that they knew him. They sent him a message, it had to be. The message was that they wanted to meet him behind the hotel in an hour. But, why?
Sean had to find a way to get out of this strip club trip and get back to the hotel.
When they arrived, Sean was decisive. He’d been moping this whole trip. Stoney and Lita were in town. He needed to go find them.
Their Uber was the first to arrive, and Sean got out as soon as they pulled up. He got out, and quickly went right into the club. He paid his forty dollar cover, walked into the club, right by the stage and out the emergency exit. He didn’t even care if an alarm sounded, but none did. At least, nothing he could hear over the blare of music. He knew if he went in fast enough, he could get in, and through, before Geri and Karl, and certainly Benjamin and Larry, knew what happened. They’d look for him, and wonder where he was. But, they’d quickly be drunk and forget all about him.
The emergency door opened to an alley. Sean walked around the block opposite the club and looked for a cab but found none. Sean was too careful with his privacy to use Uber even with an alias, so that was out. He could hotwire a car or motorcycle, but it had been years. Instead, he just took off his jacket, and started a brisk walk back to the hotel.
The Voice seemed to always be listening in, and seemed to enjoy it making comments about Sean’s day. The Voice got mad if Sean didn’t take his phone everywhere so Sean complied. He even made a point of having it in the bathroom, a subtle middle finger to the Voice. Besides, Sean figured maybe the Voice would let his guard down and say something Sean could use to reverse-hack him. But so far, nothing. It was just ovr a week since he’d first heard the Voice and he’d never been so sick of something.
As Sean walked down the street, listening to his “Jogging” playlist he created once as a joke, the Voice said, “skipping the skin show?” When Sean didn’t reply, he said, “Ocean Boulevard is so pretty this time of day, right?” Sean almost said something to that. When he bought his second-hand iPhone, he’d opened it and physically disabled the GPS. No way the Voice knew he was walking down Ocean Boulevard, even if he had hacked Sean’s phone. I mean, right? Sean didn’t know. He hated not knowing.
It was nearly 8:30, and nearly dark, when Sean arrived back at the hotel. He was about twenty minutes overdue in the hour Stoney had given him. He walked around outside in the falling light. The sun had set, and it would be dark soon.
He walked out back, where the hotel bar had a patio that overlooked a fountain and a square. The last time Sean had been on a date, she insisted on seeing some romantic comedy set in a place like this.
Distinctive scanned the sparse crowd for Stoney and Lita. Distinctive was overdue, but they would wait, right? Where would they be? Distinctive wanted to see them before they saw him, to judge their mood.
He scanned the faces of the people, looking for them. He looked hard because he had only seen them in person once. He wasn’t sure he’d immediately recognize them.
He did, though, immediately recognize Avanta. She was one hundred feet away, walking in loose circles and smoking a cigarette.
Avanta had been left out of the trip to the strip club. She wouldn’t have wanted to go, Sean knew, but Larry and Benjamin, who were jerks to everyone, took special effort to make sure Avanta knew she wasn’t welcome. Sean didn’t want to talk to her now. He didn’t want her to see him meet with Stoney and Lita.
Sean watched her for a minute. She looked sad. She was good in Atomal; she had reprogrammed the faulty lathe and saved the day. And, Benjamin and Larry were merciless anyway. No way either of them could have done what Avanta had done in that crazy day and a half. Sean wasn’t sure even he could have done what she had done. And, it turned out Avanta had been running the github repo where AtomalOS, the open-sourced subset they had decided to reveal, lived. She told Sean they had over twenty contributors, fixed eighty issues with over two hundred pull-requests and had eleven forks.
Sean was watching Avanta walk into the fading gray light when he saw Fishburne. FBI Special Agent Sam Fishburne. Well, no actually, he’s just a contractor. Not actually an FBI agent. Just a contractor, which scared Sean more than an agent would. Fishburne the FBI contactor was walking the other direction, but Avanta caught his eye and he turned and watched her walk away. And, what was Sam Fishburne doing here? Sean was supposed to be meeting Fishburne tonight at some pub back in DC. Was Sean losing his mind?
Sean must have said something out-loud because the Voice said, “Oh, Sam’s there?”
Sean was processing the surprise of seeing Sam Fishburne compounded with the surprise of The Voice asking about Fishburne compounded with seeing Sam walk right up to Lita and Stoney and start talking.
Distinctive watched them for a moment. He was dumbfounded. Sam, Lita and Stoney? Together?
It was official. Nothing made sense anymore.
Distinctive noticed, as well, that they didn’t shake hands. They must have already met. Less than a week ago, before meeting in Dallas, Distinctive had never laid eyes on Stoney or Lita. And, the day after he arrived home, Sean spotted Fishburne tailing him on the morning train to work. The next day, Fishburne approached him on the train and said he was an FBI contractor. Later that same morning, Sean had been sent to California, without a word to anyone in #TheCollective, or to Sam. Had the Voice talked to them? It was the only way. Sean didn’t want to ask. He was sick of the Voice keeping him in the dark.
Sean was thinking all these things and staring at Sam, Stoney and Lita and didn’t notice Avanta walk up from his three-o’clock. As she was prone to do, she just came right up and stood next to him. She stood there a moment and seeing what Sean was looking at, asked, “Are they friends of yours?”
Sean yelped and jumped sideways a foot. Crap! She was a ghost. Hadn’t Sean seen Avanta just minutes before, a football field away, walking the other direction? The Voice asked him what happened.
It was this kind of thing, Sean thought, this is why people avoided Avanta. This is why she was an outsider. She existed in a different vibe. Her wavelength didn’t match up with anyone else’s.
Avanta asked him what happened at the strip club. Sean told her he hated places like that and finally found a way to get out of it. Then he said he was going to bed. He started to leave and Avanta stopped him. She said, ‘No. No need to lie, Sean. I’m going to bed, you go hang out with your friends. Goodnight.’
Avanta gave Sean a sad look and walked away.
Distinctive looked over at Sam, Lita and Stoney. Avanta had called them, ‘his friends.’ He wasn’t sure if they still were, but they apparently had spotted him and were walking over.
They came close, but didn’t stop. As a group, they walked right by Distinctive. Lita stared straight ahead, and told Distinctive, not looking at him, to follow them. She told him there was no time to talk. Cameras were watching.
They walked by and Sean fell in behind them. Part of him kind of wanted to be around cameras, and lights, and people, but they were walking to a dark parking lot. Distinctive stopped. Distinctive asked where they were going. Fishburne said they were going to Santa Monica. They were going to check out the pier where Exclusivor hacked Sergei’s Jeep and killed all those people.
They got into a rented Ford Explorer and pulled out of the parking lot.
It took almost an hour to drive to Santa Monica Pier and during the drive, Fishburne and Lita explained that the Voice had contacted each of them with personalized blackmail and told them to fly to LAX and get to Longbeach and find Distinctive.
Fishburne was grumpy about the blackmail, but smiled every time he spoke to Lita, which made Distinctive a little jealous. Distinctive looked over at Lita’s boyfriend Stoney, sitting next to him in the back seat. He didn’t seem to notice or care. He just looked out the window at the darkness.
Lita, like Sam, seemed to be enjoying herself. From the front passenger seat, she said she loved long nights of research and reading but this getting out and getting her hands dirty stuff was awesome, too. LOL-Lita was supposed to be into younger guys but the way she looked at Fishburne when she said that stirred something in Distinctive. Distinctive felt like Fishburne was probably his age.
Distinctive didn’t know Sam Fishburne at all, but he already didn’t like him.
The Voice didn’t hear anything they said because as soon as they had gotten in the car, Fishburne held out a double faraday bag and made everyone drop their phone into it. Distinctive was willing, but the way Fishburne ordered him to do it bothered him. Fishburne even forced Stoney to put his watch in the bag. It was smart – take no chances – but even that bothered Distinctive more than it bothered Stoney.
The first thing Lita told Distinctive when their phones were secure was: the Voice was a woman. Even though it was distorted and pitched down, Lita said something about how the Voice talked made her sure of it. Distinctive wasn’t convinced, but of course Fishburne took Lita’s side right away.
It was full on dark, and weirdly foggy, by the time they arrived at the pier, where Exclusivor had steered Sergei Gordova’s hacked jeep and had run over dozens of people, killing twelve and dying himself. On the way, they tried to decipher why on earth the Voice had led them to the pier, but when they arrived, it became clear.
As an experienced investigator, Fishburne led the way. He drove around as much of the pier as he could. Pacific Park was beautifully lit. It was chilly for July. They got out several times and walked along the pier, along Colorado Avenue and in Tongva Park where Gordova’s Jeep had jumped the curb. Distinctive saw no point in retracing the steps but he was out-voted.
After an hour, even Stoney seemed ready to go, but Lita said she wanted to see inside the hotel.
The FBI report said that the hackers who killed Gordova used one of four possible rooms in a nearby hotel. The working theory was that the hacker was Exclusivor, who they also said was Sergei’s half-sister and that she was in the Pacific Ocean Hotel, viewing Sergei’s Jeep as Exclusivor controlled it, careening around the park and pier, mowing people down. But, how did she know her brother would be driving it there? And, why did she want to kill him?
Fishburne said they could all go into the hotel, but it was better if it was just he and Lita. Stoney and Distinctive were to wait by the car.
As Distinctive leaned against the car and watched Fishburne and Lita cross the parking lot to the hotel entrance, he asked Stoney a question. He knew Stoney didn’t like to talk but Distinctive asked him how in the world he could stand Fishburne.
Stoney just shrugged. Distinctive said, “doesn’t their flirting bug you?” Stoney thought for a minute and then explained this to him.
First, Stoney said, Lita is her own person. She didn’t need Stoney’s permission for anything. Second, Lita’s love language was attention, and Stoney said if Lita felt loved, the world was a better place. Third, Stoney said he had proposed, Lita said yes, and that was good enough.
Distinctive had seen the ring, but hadn’t even congratulated them for the engagement. He felt guilty about missing payday, knowing that Stoney had planned to use his check to buy the ring. Distinctive stood up straight and reached out his hand to Stoney and said, “Congratulations. You’re a good guy, Stoney. She’s lucky. You both are lucky.” Stoney shook his hand.
Distinctive then asked him about how he paid for the ring. He knew it was impolite, but he’d hacked Stoney before and knew he was broke. Stoney told him that Lita paid for it.
Distinctive steeled himself for the answer to the next question. He didn’t want to ask it. He feared the answer. He took a deep breath and asked Stoney how #TheCollective had handled the payroll situation. Stoney said they were a bit upset and seemed like he would say more, but at that point, Lita and Fishburne came jogging back, laughing and smiling. Fishburne’s hair and clothes were wet. Lita told Distinctive and Stoney about Fishburne’s pretext for getting in the hotel. They had walked around the back, came to the front entrance from an angle where camera’s couldn’t see them. Sam gave Lita his wallet and jumped in a fountain in front of the hotel. Soaking wet, he walked through the lobby, causing quite a stir. Normally Distinctive tried to sneak by a front desk, but Sam had walked right up, dripping all over the expensive carpet and said he had just been mugged and pushed in the fountain. He loudly complained about hotel security and demanded his key, to the corner room, 4th floor. It was the room the FBI claimed Exclusivor had used in the hack.
And, it worked. The hotel gave him the key instantly. Anything to get the dripping wet, angry man away from the rest of their customers Now, twenty minutes later, Lita and Fishburne had accomplished their goal. Fishburne was good, Distinctive could tell. He was good, but Distinctive didn’t like him.
Distinctive drove back to Longbeach while Fishburne sat in the back wrapped in a stolen hotel towel, and nothing else. Distinctive asked them how they thought Exclusivor had pulled off the hack. It was, after all, an older model Cherokee, without a sophisticated computer at all. Lita answered. She said, the hack wasn’t on the Cherokee, but on the after-market auto-driving kit Gordova had engineered, installed and was testing. Lita said there was a flaw in the programming language that had been thought to be secure. Everyone was using this new programming language for cars because it had a reputation as unhackable. Lita said, it was called AtomalOS.
Distinctive nodded his head and said, “oh yeah?” Inside he was a mess. Lita didn’t know – none of his hacker friends knew – that Distinctive’s IRL Sean had created Atomal. His Atomal caused this? How had he not heard about it? He needed to talk to Avanta. Sean had created Atomal, but Avanta was the expert.
Just before they arrived back at the hotel, Lita said their next step was to break into Sergei Gordova’s company’s building and look around. Gordova was an engineer at “Drive-Bye,” the auto-driving car company that was retrofitting auto-driving kits into existing cars, and trying to beat everyone to market – Otto, Tesla, Google, Apple, Ford, GM — all the major players. There was a fortune to be had. Lita thought maybe they could find something about Exclusivor there.
They all agreed it would be a worth-while trip, but it was in San Jose, and it would be a lot easier to get in and look around during office hours, when there were other employees to tailgate on. They agreed to drive up the next day, Saturday, do recon, because Sean was off work. But due to Sean’s schedule, they wouldn’t be able to get in until Wednesday.
They returned to the hotel in Longbeach well after midnight and Sean awoke to a knock on the door about 3am. Careful not to make a noise, he got up and looked through the peep hole. It was his boss Geraldine. It was difficult to see how she looked in the weird fish-eye peep-hole lense, but she was swaying drunkenly. She rapped on the door again, sharply, and whispered loudly. She said, “hey, Sean, you in there? You ran off. Why did you run off?” Sean didn’t answer. He’d been out with Geri before and knew he’d be better off making up a story in the morning.
Eventually Geraldine turned and fumbled to open her own door, straight across the hall from Sean’s, and went in. It took him an hour, but Sean fell asleep, and awoke late on Saturday morning. The night before, they had waited to retrieve their phones and turn them on after they made their plans, and since then, no one had heard from the Voice. She was probably upset because they weren’t supposed to do that. It rankled their nerves. Fishburne most of all. Maybe she had already doxed them all and fled. By 9am, still no one had heard from the Voice. Sean put in his earbuds and went down to breakfast.
At the hotel restaurant, Sean ran into his hungover co-workers, digging into black coffee and scrambled eggs and nursing headaches. He avoided them but ran into Avanta. Since they planned to work Monday and Tuesday before heading back to DC, the whole team had two days to kill. Sean’s crew was heading to San Jose, but Sean first wanted to talk to Avanta about the Atomal bugs.
Sean and Avanta talked for an hour, and it turned out, just after work the evening before Geri had informed Avanta that the Longbeach Lathe job was hers, if she wanted it. She had been offered the Lead Engineer role. From what Sean had seen all week, Avanta would be great. The engineer in charge of the lathe had disappeared, it turned out, the weekend before. No sign of her anywhere. Car at home. Dog at home. Just, no person.
Sean asked Avanta if she had been wandering around the night before, looking for someone to celebrate with. She just looked down at the table. He felt bad, but, what was he supposed to do? He vowed to himself he would take her out and celebrate. Soon. Soon.
Sean and Avanta also spoke about the Atomal, which many companies were using for their auto-driving cars. Atomal apparently had a bug that Exclusivor had exploited to kill her brother. Sean didn’t mention any of that, but he had gone through the github repo the night before, when he returned, and he found the bug and the pull request. It was obscure. Issue #32, PR #113. An event listener corruption. If you simultaneously sent conflicting instructions, such as brake and accelerate, Atomal detected an error and threw an exception. The exception was caught during garbage collection, masking the exception to end-users. Drive-Bye’s engineers had included a switch statement with no default, and Exclusivor apparently breezed on by that, and into a mediator object that allowed her access to the entire computerized drive-train. And with it, full control.
Avanta didn’t ask about his interest in all of that, but she spoke breezily, in contrast to Sean’s tightening stomach and throat. He had always felt like something like this would happen.
Despite what might be becoming an ulcer from all of this, Sean actually felt a little bummed about having to leave Avanta, which was new. But he was meeting Sam, Lita and Stoney to drive up to San Jose and wouldn’t be back until late.
Sean was saying goodbye to Avanta, feeling good about her, when she asked him a question. She asked, if the Defense Department offered Sean to head up the new Cyber Warfare department, would he take the job?
Sean said he hadn’t ever thought about it. He told her he didn’t know much about Cyber Warfare, which was completely untrue. Then he left, feeling like Avanta had vaulted herself right back onto that weird other wavelength where she spent most of her time.
Distinctive then met up with Stoney, Lita and Fishburne. They drove in Fishburne’s Explorer up the San Jose, scouted “Drive-Bye’s” location, which was more of a warehouse than a corporate office. It was already getting dark by the time they left San Jose, and they again returned to the hotel late. This time, Sean was in the hallway and had to hide behind a big fake plant when Geri knocked on his door at 2am.
Sunday night was the last night for the gang to get together until Wednesday, when Distinctive would take his only available vacation day, hit “Drive Bye’s” offices that afternoon and then fly back to DC. Geri, Avanta and rest of his coworkers from DC were due out of LAX at 5pm Tuesday.
Sean, Fishburne, Lita and Stoney planned to get together Sunday night to talk about why Lita thought the Voice was a woman, to plan their trip to San Jose, OSINT, pretexts, get it all organized, and all that, and also to just hang out and have some laughs. They all planned to act like they were going to bed early, leave their phones in their rooms and meet at the hotel bar and decide what to do from there.
That evening, Distinctive walked into the hotel bar, and spotted Fishburne already there. Distinctive saw no sign of Lita or Stoney. Fishburne was holding a beer, and he was talking to Avanta.
He was leaning in close, smiling broadly. Sean saw that Avanta had her hand resting on Fishburne’s arm, looking as happy as Sean had ever seen her.