Chapter 5

Darknet, the program I’d created with the Mouse, worked primarily through redundant levels of encryption, its multiple layers of defense creating an impenetrable wall that would keep any prying eyes from reading our conversations. In terms of resource consumption, it was an absolute monster of a program and woefully unnecessary ninety-nine percent of the time.

I would have opened Darknet anyway and used it to connect with the Community, but I’d been steadily losing powerful equipment as we’d hopped from one country to the next. As soon as possible, I intended to restock all of my hardware and to upgrade where possible. One undeniable benefit of my time in the Lady’s employ was a limitless, virtually untraceable source of funds. I’d always had top of the line hardware; now, I was able to get my hands on bleeding edge technology.

But that would take time and time, unfortunately, was currently in short supply. All I had with me were two tablets and a laptop in my messenger bag, along with my encrypted smart phone.

So, after hijacking the local wireless signal, I opened up a much more lightweight program. Modeled after the best messaging apps – some publicly available, others…less so – SvS was the preferred method of communication with the Community. I hadn’t had needed to contact anyone in a while, but that hadn’t stopped me from updating SvS at every opportunity. People like the Mouse would refuse to communicate with anyone using outdated protocols; others, possibly people who hadn’t quite honed their paranoia to an atom’s width, frowned on the use of obsolete programs.

When SvS opened, I entered my customary user name and passwords. My laptop established the connection with only a few seconds of delay and began negotiating access into the Community’s private server.

The Community had always been a hectic place, even at the best of times. Some rooms would be reserved for specific hackers working on a project, while others served as meeting places for old online friends. Job requests and reports took up another block of rooms, typically accompanied by special flash rooms that disappeared as soon as payment for one job or another was confirmed.

People bounced between the rooms at will, often handling multiple conversations at the same time. There weren’t any rules in the Community that prohibited that sort of meandering…or, more accurately, there weren’t any rules that needed to be specifically enforced. Each room had its own password and those passwords changed every thirty minutes. If an individual offended the wrong party, they would simply be kicked from the room without fanfare. We policed ourselves. It was a perfect example of paranoia taken to its logical extreme: protection through diverse means and enforced with exacting precision.

That was how the Community normally looked and functioned, at least. When the message board opened on my screen, however, I saw no movement, no activity, no signs of life at all. As far as I could see, I was the only person online.

That never happened.

In the years since the Mouse had sponsored me for membership, I had never once logged into SvS and found fewer than fifteen different specialists hopping channels. At peak capacity, there could be as many as forty or forty-five people feverishly working to tackle their own difficulties and seeking assistance from other people online. The sight of an abandoned board, a completely blank sidebar where names would normally be listed was unnerving..

On the one hand, that gave me a definite answer on the question of ‘is something going on in the Community?’

Answer: Obviously.

On the other hand, it didn’t tell me exactly what was going on. If law enforcement was cracking down on cyber crime, that was one thing. It would make my life more difficult in the foreseeable future, but I’d worked through greater handicaps. With Devlin and the rest of the team, I was confident that any potential obstacles could be overcome.

But if he was back? The monster from 2006, the hacker who we’d called Caelum? That would be an entirely different class of problem.

Dissatisfied with how little I’d learned, but lacking any way of acquiring anything resembling information, I moved the cursor to the ‘x’ in the top right corner. Just before I could click and close the program, a chat request popped up in the center of the screen.

MaxHeadroom would like to chat with you. Click ‘yes’ to accept.

Max had been a fixture in the Community for at least a decade, probably longer. From what I’d been able to glean over the years, ‘Max’ was actually short for ‘Maxine,’ although neither was her real name. She specialized in wiretapping and phone-related hacks, which led me to believe that Max was an old school hacker. Our paths had never crossed professionally, though, and we’d generally given each other a wide, respectful berth for the past several years.

I accepted the chat request and joined a room so private that it hadn’t shown up on the list of possible choices.

Max wasn’t alone, according to the chat room’s sidebar and visitor log. Frizzle and Gate – shortened forms for MissFrizzle and TANGate – were also in the room. They didn’t seem to notice that I’d joined the conversation.

While the three hackers continued their conversation, I mentally reviewed what little I knew about the other two individuals in the chat room. It wasn’t much. Gate was one of the newer members of the Community, albeit one with a considerable amount of talent. She’d freely admitted her gender upon admittance, so we tended to refer to her with the female pronoun, but that could easily be a double fake. It wasn’t uncommon. Male or female, Gate possessed a frightening amount of skill with higher level cryptography and mathematical theory. Suitably motivated and provided physical access to almost any system, she’d be able to get her digital hands on any password, anytime or anywhere.

The ability to break into virtually any network had, perhaps fittingly, led her to be insanely paranoid, above and beyond even the Mouse. She never logged into the Community from the same computer twice, never stayed in the same chat room for more than thirty minutes before forming a new one with different encryption protocols. In the rare moments when I’d been able to have a personal conversation with her, Gate had revealed a predilection for insane conspiracy theories.

Of course, I was currently involved in a shadow war with a trio of criminals ripped straight from the most insane conspiracy theories imaginable, so perhaps she deserved a little more credit than that.

Frizzle was a much more stable presence. Just like her namesake, she specialized in teaching the more complex levels of network security: building it up and, by necessity, tearing it down when necessary. On a whim, I’d attempted to trace her IP once. It had taken me hours to disentangle my computer from the retaliatory logic bomb she managed to get into my own system.

Surprisingly, though, she’d shown no dismay or shock when next I’d seen her. In fact, she’d pulled me into a private chat room and patiently walked me through the process of installing a similar trap into my own network, complete with graphs and a digitally voiced instruction manual. I guessed that she must be a teacher in the real world.

Combined with me and Max, the assembled talent within the chat room wasn’t a configuration that would have happened under normal circumstances. These were not, however, normal circumstances. I put any extraneous thoughts out of my head and focused on the conversation taking place.

Frizzle: People have tried that before, Gate. There’s a vulnerability on several of the ports and no one’s been able to figure out how to protect them yet.

Gate: You know so much about the vulnerabilities; maybe you’re the one taking advantage of them.

Frizzle: I’m going to ignore that, because we’re all under a lot of stress. Surely you aren’t hinting that I’ve got anything to do with what’s been going on.

Gate: Who’s hinting?

Max: When the two of you are finished, maybe we can pay some attention to our new guest. Irene might be able to provide a little perspective, don’t you think?

One of the great benefits of online, anonymous communications was that no one could see my face. I couldn’t actually be put on the spot and there wasn’t any risk of a minor tell giving away my secrets. Still, when Max drew attention to my presence, I couldn’t do anything to stop the warmth I felt in my very real cheeks.

Gate: Irene? What are you doing here? Where have you been?

I started to type out a response, but Gate got her message out before I could do more than put my fingers on the keyboard.

Gate: You aren’t working with him, are you?

Frizzle: Maybe give her a chance to respond before you start in on the accusations, Gate.

I gathered myself, unsure of exactly what I should say. When nothing came to mind, I decided to trust my instincts and to lead with as much honesty as I could manage.

Irene: I’ve been busy.

Gate: And you picked now to come back? That’s awfully convenient.

Irene: Anyone want to tell me what’s going on? I’d like to know what Gate’s accusing me of, if nothing else.

That wasn’t quite true, but it couldn’t hurt to demonstrate a little uncertainty, to pretend to know a little less than I really did. After years of watching Devlin use similar tactics to lure people into a false sense of security, I’d begun applying the trick to my own communications.

Irene: Seriously? No one wants to fill me in?

The chat room went silent for one minute, then two. I checked my connection, shifted uncomfortably in my chair, and considered ordering some tea from a passing waiter. Three minutes after I’d asked the question, just as I’d decided something to drink might not be the worst idea, an ellipsis appeared in the chat window. Someone was typing.

Max: If you don’t know what’s been going on, you must not be paying attention.

Irene: I haven’t been paying attention.

Max: Have you talked to the Mouse recently?

I blinked. The Mouse and I had a working relationship, true, but we didn’t collaborate often enough to warrant that sort of immediate assumption. Why would Max assume that, of all people, the Mouse would have contacted me?

Irene: What would that have to do with anything?

Max: He’s got a lot to do with everything. People didn’t start disappearing until he started sticking his nose in places where it didn’t belong.

Irene: And those places would be…?

Frizzle: Last year, something seemed to catch his attention. He never told anyone what he was working on, but we all assumed it was something big from the way he started to work the newcomers

Gate: I told you what he was after, but no one wanted to listen.

Frizzle: That’s because you weren’t making any sense. There aren’t shadowy forces working to overthrow governments, pulling strings behind the scenes.

I swallowed nervously, glad that no one in the Community could see my facial expressions.

Gate: So you’re looking at smoke, but refusing to see fire? I don’t know why I’m surprised; you’ve always been a little slow.

There was a lot more going on in the Community than I’d expected. It wasn’t just that someone or something had put the world’s best hackers on defense; they were scared. Nothing else would explain the panic, the defensiveness, in the words flashing across my screen. These were professionals and, of course, they’d established certain professional rivalries over the years. Gate and Frizzle were two of the worst offenders when it came to insults; in the years I’d known them, both of the hackers used every spare moment jockeying for position and rank in the Community. I expected friction from them, even on the best of days. But the edge in these insults…no, that was new.

Max: Boys. Girls. Whatever. Get your shit together or get out of the room.

Gate: Who put you in charge, Max?

Max: You did, when you started wasting valuable time on a personal grudge. We’re under attack, Gate, and no one’s got the time to babysit you and your fragile ego. Shut up or get out.

A handful of tense seconds passed. Behind me, someone called out to a potential customer and I almost jumped out my seat. All of my attention had been focused on the conversation in SvS and, as a result, I’d allowed my peripheral senses to fall away. Devlin would have been disappointed in me.

Taking great care to keep my ears open to my surroundings, I turned my eyes back to the chat window. I’d missed a few exchanges of dialogue but it didn’t take much for me to see that Max had emerged victorious in the power struggle against Gate. Frizzle must have fallen in line already or, more likely, decided not to fight at all.

I didn’t have the necessary information to make a play for authority. That made Max the leader of this particular chat. I focused my attention on her, her screen name, and the little blinking cursor that told me she hadn’t started to write anything yet.

Irene: I’m still waiting for an answer.

Max: Long story short? The Mouse poked a bear. The bear poked back. Except the Mouse went into hiding, so the bear is poking everyone who might have had something to do with it.

Gate: That’s an understatement.

Max: Fine; the bear is mauling everyone it can get its paws on.

Irene: So. What are we doing about it?

Max: First option is to find the Mouse, see if he can make amends with whoever he pissed off and get them to call off the dogs.

Irene: Second option?

Max was old school, I reminded myself. She’d been involved with the Community, in one fashion or another, for at least two decades and possibly more. Gate and I were relatively new and no one really knew how old Frizzle was. Still, with someone like Max leading our little conversation, I held out some small hope that she’d be able to provide a moderating, comforting voice. The Mouse had casually invoked the nightmare of 2006 and, try as I might, I couldn’t manage to quiet that voice in the back of my head so easily.

Max would have a plan. She had to have a plan that would involve something other than hiding in the shadows, waiting for our identities to be plastered on YouTube whenever Caelum got around to us.

Max: We go to war.

Well, shit. Shit.

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