Thieves and skulkers like Devlin can always slip back into the shadows when things get rough, vanishing without leaving even the vaguest hint of their identities, goals, or whereabouts. Wheel men and drivers, like Michel, can just speed away from a crime scene and lose any pursuers in a burst of brutal acceleration, tight turns, and long straightaways. And with Emilia…well, I’d seen how much damage she could take without losing the ability to shatter bones and crack skulls. If someone tried to box her in, that individual would be taking a terrible gamble on their continued good health.
Or their life, for that matter.
Hackers, unfortunately, don’t possess similar means of evasion or self-defense. Working at range provides us with a certain amount of protection, sure, but that same security is often outmatched by the limitations of our craft. Every angle of attack I use on a network, for instance, opens me up for attack along that same avenue by anyone with more skill or creativity. Any malware I write could easily find its way back to my own system, buried and laying in wait like a land mine. And the very instant that my network falls to invasion or assault, I’m essentially powerless.
Sufficed to say, these facts make me, and any other hackers at my level, incredibly cautious about the tool we use to communicate with each other. Circumspect. Paranoid, even.
So, as soon as I realized that the Mouse had reached out through an insecure Gmail account, my nerves went on high alert.
We’d used burner accounts like this before. It wasn’t uncommon to open lines of communication in less-than-secure ways, before switching over to programs with better encryption after verifying our identities. But this was the first time that the Mouse had ever used the same address twice. Normally, he picked some variant on the general theme of the Musketeers and sent a message to a dummy account, which routed through a web of servers across the globe, before eventually coming to my attention.
A direct email was…not quite unheard of, but certainly unusual, and my current job had done nothing if not hone my paranoia to a razor’s edge.
Our employer had made a point to demonstrate, on several occasions, that she possessed an eerie capability to locate us wherever we happened to be in the world. I’d taken it upon myself to stop those surprise visits, namely by cobbling together a program to anonymize my web traffic and to lay false trails whenever possible, which I’d named “Jane Doe.” It wasn’t as good as using a specialized program, admittedly, but it should have worked just fine with our nomadic lifestyle as of late.
Thus far, it hadn’t stopped her from popping in on us in the slightest. Still, the program was theoretically sound. I switched it on while I waited for the chat session to connect, just in case.
From email@example.com: Irene? Is that you?
From firstname.lastname@example.org: That depends on who’s asking.
From email@example.com: It’s me, dammit. Is this you?
From firstname.lastname@example.org: That’s exactly what anybody pretending to be you would say. Prove it or I’m logging off.
It took almost thirty seconds before the Mouse entered a response. I spent those seconds equally confused and curious. As hackers went, I was more paranoid than most, but I had also been involved in a lot of physical thefts over the years. My work didn’t have any particular signature, but a suitably invested party would probably have been able to discern a pattern of high stakes art thefts paired with uncommon technological savvy. It had always been in my best interest to treat anonymity as a watchword and not merely a strong suggestion.
The Mouse, however, took my own paranoia to its illogical extreme. It had taken me years to get close enough for him to begin working on a collaborative messaging service that we’d named Darknet. Even the redundancies in the Darknet program had redundancies and I was virtually positive that no one on the planet, not even the Mouse himself, would be able to eavesdrop or trace conversations that took place while using it.
A sudden departure from protocol was exactly the sort of thing that I’d grown wary of.
From email@example.com: Fine. Brainy is the new sexy. Good enough?
I frowned. He’d used the proper pass phrase, a reference to my particular online nickname, but something still felt off. I checked to make sure that the Jane Doe program was still working properly and felt a sudden, deep appreciation for the fact that I was on a train and would therefore be incredibly difficult to pin down.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: It’s me. You’re the one who reached out. What do you want?
From email@example.com: Things are happening. Something’s not right. Have you tried reaching out to any of your contacts lately?
From firstname.lastname@example.org: I’ve been taking on some solo contracts. Haven’t had the time or desire. What do you mean, something’s not right?
That was technically correct. I’d used our employer’s seed money to contract a few specialized hackers, both of the white and black hat varieties, but I’d taken great care to craft plausible cover stories. We’d been told before leaving London not to tell anyone we wouldn’t trust with our lives with our true goals, and that was advice I was intent on following. People had already died because of this secret. More people probably would die, before everything was finished. I didn’t plan to be one of them.
From email@example.com: People are going dark. Logging off, not coming back. Haven’t seen anything like this since 2006.
He didn’t have to say anything more specific. The year alone was enough to bring back the memories. 2006 had been the year of Caelum.
If he’d – no one even know if Caelum had been a male or a female, but it was generally agreed upon to use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake – only been after money, that wouldn’t have been so bad. There were more than enough jobs to go around, after all.
If he’d been an agent of law enforcement, that would have been worse, but still nowhere near as bad as it ended up being. Hackers would simply have innovated, restricted their activities to legal pursuits, and waited until someone came up with a counter for Caelum’s techniques.
But Caelum had been neither of those things. He’d been a force, hellbent on the pursuit and outing of every high level hacker he could get his digital hands on. The top one percent of the Community had their names and addresses revealed via YouTube on the first night. I had still been relatively new and not yet talented enough to rank that high in 2006, thankfully. But Caelum had kept on working, destroying without compunction and with no discernible goal, and it wouldn’t have taken long for him to work his way through the ranks.
At first, the Community had tried to wait out the storm. When it became clear that Caelum wouldn’t stop until they’d all been outed, however, they banded together. Collaborations on unheard-of scales took place in chat rooms that only existed for an hour at a time; staunch enemies shared the secrets of their code, in hopes that someone would be able to figure out a technique to at least slow the rate of devastation.
And then, six months after he’d begun his work, Caelum had simply…disappeared. There was no trace of where he’d been and the code he’d written remained, to this day, as incomprehensible as it had been at the beginning of his spree. Hackers joining the Community used his name like a swear word or a myth, now, if they used it at all. For the most part, we all liked to pretend that 2006 simply hadn’t happened.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: It can’t be that bad.
From email@example.com: Might be worse. I’ve been asking, but the people who might have answers are all gone.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Gone?
I waited for sixty seconds and the Mouse didn’t respond. It took a full two minutes before he finally sent a response. The words didn’t fill me with any more comfort than the silence had.
From email@example.com: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
There wasn’t an easy reply to that. If Caelum was back…but no, that was impossible. It had to be impossible. Something must have happened to him in the real world to take him out of play. No matter how talented he was as a hacker, the regular vulnerabilities would still have applied. Whatever his endgame, the Community had managed to beat him back before. Surely, he couldn’t have come back to finish what he’d started.
A tiny voice in the back of my head spoke up, reminding me of my current job, the ephemeral woman who’d employed us, and the shadowy enemies we sought in darkened corners and otherwise empty allies. Nothing was impossible anymore.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: I’ll keep that in mind.
From email@example.com: Are you safe?
From firstname.lastname@example.org: …I’m out of reach, let’s just say that. Are you?
Another minute of silence stretched out into an eternity while I waited for the Mouse’s response.
From email@example.com: No. Not anymore.
That sent a wave of chills traveling from the base of my skull straight down to my feet.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: What do you mean? What’s wrong?
From email@example.com: I think they’re onto me. Someone’s been following my trail online.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Who? How?
From email@example.com: I don’t know, Irene. But whoever it is, they’re good. I can only get away for a day or two before they’re back.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: You keep saying ‘they.’ Who’s they?
Even as I typed that question, a sinking feeling in my gut told me the answer. Of course, there was only party who could possibly be involved in this pursuit.
From email@example.com: BMC, Inc. I think…I think I tipped them off last year.
If the Magi had caught the Mouse’s scent, part of that was my fault. Most of that was my fault, in fact. I’d been the one who’d reached out to him, involved him in this whole mess before I’d fully understood the scale. Without our employer’s seemingly limitless resources, it could easily have been me under siege from a force I couldn’t see, fight, or evade. The Mouse had tried to remove himself from the battlefield at the earliest possible point, but that point obviously hadn’t been early enough.
Another thought hit me while I was still dealing with the first one. I’d never directly looked into the Magi’s shell corporations; at least, I hadn’t done it with the sort of exacting care that Mouse would have used. If they’d realized that someone from the Community was attempting to unearth information on their business, it wouldn’t be a huge leap for the Magi to connect that initial foray with the chaos we’d been causing in their supply chain over the past six months.
They weren’t looking for the Mouse. They were looking for me.
I couldn’t let him take the heat for me. That much was obvious. Guilt welled up inside of me and, before I could think better of the idea, I typed out my response.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Where are you?
From email@example.com: …I can’t tell you over this connection. Not secure enough.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: I know someone who might be able to help. She’s got connections, so that you can disappear.
From email@example.com: In person?
It took me a second to connect the two thoughts. He wasn’t asking to meet, he was simply wondering if my contact would be able to obscure his true identity, as well as his online one.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Of course.
From email@example.com: You’re sure you want to help me?
I wasn’t. He hadn’t helped me, after all, when I’d asked him to look into BMC at the beginning of this whole thing, although he had tried. Before I could say that, an email came through the usual channels, properly encrypted and kept at a safe distance from my local system. Automated programs leaped into action, decrypting the email so that I could assess its contents. Whatever the Mouse had sent, the file was large enough that it would take a few minutes before I had it in a readable format.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Irene? I know how crazy this whole thing is. I won’t forget that. Thanks.
The Mouse exited the chat before I could respond and, seconds later, logged off entirely.
With his departure, I was left alone with my thoughts and the dilemma facing me. On the one hand, I couldn’t allow the Mouse to take the brunt of the Magi’s attention, when it rightfully belonged to me. At the same time, I didn’t want that attention, either. The Mouse was surviving precisely because he wasn’t actually doing anything that ran counter to the Magi’s goals. If he’d been directly or even indirectly involved in any of the plots we’d pulled off since London, I didn’t doubt for an instant that they could have found, drawn, and quartered him within hours.
I considered the few options I had, trying my best to separate my rational mind from my emotions. It wasn’t a successful effort, for the most part, but I did manage to get myself into a slightly better head space. The Mouse needed help. I had every intention of giving it to him. How could I accomplish that goal without opening myself and the team up to greater risk?
Eliminating the Magi entirely was technically an option, even if it was a ridiculous one. We’d been trying for six months to find information that might eventually lead us to their names – even just one name would have been enough – and it was beginning to feel like we’d been steadfastly and resolutely chasing our own tails. Presumably, our employer had been working at the same goal for even longer, and she’d had no greater success on her own.
The Mouse could disconnect entirely from the internet. That might work. If they were pursuing him through digital trails, a complete departure from the Community and all of its assorted satellite pages could be enough to provide him with a measure of safety. It was a tried-and-true tactic whenever any hacker found themselves hunted. But the Mouse had evoked 2006 in our brief conversation, and the memories of that year reminded me that a suitably motivated opponent could and would find a way to destroy lives. Goading the Mouse into disconnecting from the Community could easily be the Magi’s goal, forcing him to distance himself from the very people who might be able to help.
There was a third option, though. The Mouse was a hacker of considerable skill and he’d been a part of the Community for years before we’d even come into contact with each other. I’d responded to the message request in the first place because he would have been an invaluable asset in the hunt for the Magi’s true identities. That didn’t necessarily clash with the goal of keeping him safe.
If our employer could keep four thieves safe from the ever-present eye of the Magi, why not five?
The email finally decoded and, contained within, I found a single image: a photograph of a little boy at Disney World, judging from the man in the background, sporting a Goofy costume. A pair of oversized bunny ears rested atop the child’s head. Judging from the quality of the picture, I guessed that it had been taken fifteen or twenty years ago. An older man held the little boy’s hand, but the man’s head was out of frame. There was no woman in the image, although I could make out a wedding band on the man’s left ring finger. There were telltale discoloration marks here and there throughout the image, like almost invisible splotches, as if the photo had been submerged at some point or left out in the sun.
The Mouse wouldn’t have sent me a piece of nostalgia, though. He’d probably pulled this picture from a stock photo catalog. The important bit of information had little to do with the photograph itself. It had everything to do with the file. Specifically, those discolored spots.
Steganography was one of the Mouse’s favorite tricks. He’d developed several different techniques for embedding data in otherwise innocuous images, music files, and videos over the years and I’d figured out most of them without any help. Without any clue which technique he’d opted for, I took a shot in the dark and used the first one I’d cracked.
Luck was apparently with me. Embedded within the digital file, each pixel had a specific color code. The splotchy areas of the image had all been slightly altered so that someone who wasn’t specifically looking would hardly notice anything wrong with the photo. I took the hexadecimal color code of the discolorations and, through the use of a different program, ended up with a series of jumbled letters and numbers. Buried within the code, hidden behind a false image, and sent via encrypted email, I didn’t think the Mouse would have crafted anything impossible for me to break, given time. I’d have to wait until I was stationary to really dig into it, though.
I leaned back into my seat and pursed my lips in thought. Even hinting at the possibility of an in-person meeting was foolish. It would have been dangerous even before the London debacle, when I’d nominally been a law abiding citizen. Now, though? Now, it was borderline insane.
I looked across from me, at the seat where Devlin had sat. Devlin, who had flown across the country with an almost literal target on his back, so that he could warn me about his psychotic ex-best friend. Devlin, who had turned a neophyte getaway man into a decent grifter and a stone-faced bodyguard into something like a buddy, through sheer force of will. Devlin, who had worked with a rookie crew – myself excluded – to take down a drug kingpin and save two people he barely knew simply because it was the right thing to do.
I nodded, steeling myself. The Mouse was in danger and it was my fault. If throwing him any help at all, even while I was being targeted by the same organization imperiling his life, could possibly save him, then I’d do it.
Insanity, it seemed, was quickly becoming my new normal.