I wrote this story a few years ago, inspired by a nonfiction book my mother was reading about hacking and web security. I subsequently published it in the Spring 2016 issue of Stylus, my university’s annual fiction magazine. While I don’t strictly classify it as science-fiction, I think it does have a near-future cyberpunk feel to it, in philosophy if not in technology.
Whenever I used to fantasize about killing someone – which, in my defense, wasn’t often – it was always way more dramatic than this. I mean, people can go on for as long as they want about who shot JFK, but I think we can all agree they sure as hell didn’t pull the trigger from the comfort of a swivel chair. Not that I’d rather be holding a gun; this keyboard is quiet, distant, instinctive.
I’m slumped horizontal on a black leather couch in a hotel room that’s infinitely classier than I’ll ever be. My laptop is propped up against my legs as I halfheartedly click through piles of unread emails, one eye on the clock and the other on the door. On the other side of the room, the muted TV is turned to C-SPAN. I could watch this shit live for free if I walked a few blocks, assuming that I wanted to. And that I wouldn’t get arrested as soon as they figured out who I was.
I glance at the clock again. It’s almost seven. Hannah should have come back by now.
The door suddenly swings open, as though she was waiting for me to wonder where she was. She saunters in whistling, a Pepsi in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. “Yo, Stacey!” Her shouting is nearly drowned out by the slamming of the door as she kicks it shut.
Looking up from my laptop screen, I give her my best evil eye. “You said ten minutes.”
Either she doesn’t hear me or she doesn’t give a shit. Could be either one. “You ready for this?” she chirps, tossing me the soda and popping the lid on her own drink.
“I’ve been ready.” Sitting up, I cross my legs and flip the top of my hoodie over my head – if I’m going to hack tonight, there’s no harm in looking the part.
I guess you could say I ruined my life back in my first year of college, when I was nothing more than a meek little art major who wrote bits of code for fun. Hannah was my roommate then, looking into a cybersecurity degree. When I told her about my hobby, she asked to see what I could do. I showed her a few of my programs, little games I’d whipped up.
She smiled. “Not bad for a beginner, Danvers.”
“You really think so?” No one had paid much attention to them before.
“Hell yeah. I can show you some more advanced stuff if you want.”
“That would be great!” I could feel something like pride swelling up inside me. I didn’t realize that I’d been made a pet project.
For the next few weeks, my evenings were a two-part deal. I’d finish my homework, and then watch Hannah as she worked on hers. When an assignment came in, she would have me work on part of it or even the whole thing. First they would come back with a C. Then a B minus, and then a B plus. When I got my first A, Hannah whipped up two fake IDs and took me out for drinks.
“There’s one thing I don’t get, Danvers,” she said late into the evening, her words almost too slurred to make out. “You can read the code like it’s a book, you’re the fastest typer I’ve ever seen, damn near everything you write works like a charm, and you’re going for a fucking art degree? What gives?”
“It’s a family thing,” I admitted. “My parents have their own studio. They think me joining them will help me be more expressive or some bullshit.”
“Program a robot to take a flamethrower to the place. That’s plenty expressive.”
“I’m serious!” She put down her bottle of beer like a too-heavy weight and stared right at me. “You’ve got something you’re good at, Stacey. Something you’re really good at. Don’t ignore it.”
That was the first time she’d called me by my name.
After that night, other students would start coming up to me as I was walking across the campus. Every time, they’d say the same thing: “You’re supposed to be pretty good with computers, right? I mean, that’s just what I heard. I was wondering if you could help me out with my classes, if you’ve got time…”
“Have you been telling people about me?” I demanded as soon as I stepped into the dorm room.
Hannah didn’t look up from her laptop. “Afternoon to you, too.”
“Well? Have you?”
“I told them you’ll do tutoring on the weekends for ten bucks an hour,” she answered. “If you want to.”
“I don’t need the money.”
“But you need the practice and they need the help.” She finally glanced up, and a smug grin was plastered across her face. “Don’t act like you don’t want to.”
I did, but what I wanted to do wasn’t what the other students had in mind. When I wasn’t looking over someone’s homework for mistakes and finding plenty, I was helping put the finishing touches on some project that was already doomed.
“Don’t you want actual lessons or something?” I would ask.
“No thanks,” they would always say. “You’re doing fine. Say, could you look at this, too?”
That was when I learned that people don’t pay to learn how to do something themselves, even if they’re desperate. That just means they’re willing to pay you more to break the rules.
Meanwhile, Hannah was breaking into the school records at least once a week. Change a grade here, erase an absence or two there. Nothing too serious, as she put it. “Hell, it’s even something you could do,” she said one evening. “You wanna practice?”
“I already told you no.”
She shrugged and went back to working on her computer, still wearing her smirk.
The next night, I threw my phone against the wall as soon as I stalked into our room. Hannah just dodged it. “Parents wanting to cut you off again?”
“Shut up.” I threw aside my backpack and sank down in front of my desk, only to find a small envelope sitting on my laptop. “What’s this?”
“A job. They asked for me, but I’m too busy right now and I thought you could take care of it.”
“You know how I feel about – “
“Please? It shouldn’t take long. If you get it done, I’ll split the pay with you.”
She smirked again. “Look inside.”
I opened the envelope and dumped its contents out onto my desk. At first it just looked like a folded note: I picked it up, and then froze as several slips of green tumbled out.
I need you to get the English 203 final cancelled, the note read. I’ll pay you. Here’s half up front.
I checked the money. Seventy-five bucks altogether. More than I’d ever held in my life.
“When do you need this done?”
“By Thursday evening.”
“Tell your friend not to worry.”
By the time the sun came up, I was handing Hannah a flash drive. “It’s a virus,” I said. “Tell them to stick it in an attachment and e-mail it to the teacher. If it works right, it’ll freeze up the whole system and let it go after two days. That should be enough time, right?”
The next afternoon, someone knocked on our door and had gone by the time we opened it. All we found was an envelope sitting on the floor. Hannah scooped it up, glanced inside and then tossed it to me. “Your cut.”
I looked. “The whole thing?”
“You did all the work on it, didn’t you?”
It was pretty clear how things were going to go for us after that. People would slip us notes during the day, and each night we’d answer their prayers as best as we could. Find my boyfriend’s texts. Get these nudes off my ex’s laptop. Hook me up to this hot chick’s webcam. That kind of stuff was the usual, but the school stuff was what really paid well. One time a girl had me look up some old high school assignments she could reuse. Another time I spent a whole week getting slides and lecture notes from a teacher’s computer. And every time, Hannah kept pushing me to go bigger with the next job.
I was a junior when it happened, a few weeks away from wrapping up the fall semester. I’d taken to walking around the student union in the afternoons listening in on conversations that might turn into jobs. The freshmen in geometry class had found a table in the corner to study at – you could almost breathe in the desperation. I grinned and began to stroll towards them, already running through my sales pitch in my head.
“Still trying to cram, huh?” I said, throwing my backpack down in the middle of the kids’ table. They jumped, giving me freaked-out looks as I pulled up a chair and sat down with them. “That never works, you know. Just a heads up.”
“What else are we supposed to do?” one of them asked.
“You’d be surprised, actually,” I answered. “It’d be way easier if you had the test in your hands, for example.”
I’d taken a bunch of files from their teacher before – Hannah and I got a math job at least three times a week. “Now this is a little more risky than what I do most of the time,” I told the freshmen, “so I’ll have to bump up my rates a bit. Three hundred dollars for each copy I print. If you tell a friend, you get twenty off.”
Getting the final went off without a hitch, and I was up all night sending it out. A knock on my door, a yellow folder slid underneath from my side and an envelope slid over from theirs. I made over a thousand bucks that night, and another six hundred the next day. Hannah and I didn’t go to our classes that morning. We just lay on the bed and laughed, and drank, and…
…and then campus security showed up.
I don’t know what caused it. Maybe word got around a little too much, or maybe one of the freshmen was a snitch. All I know is that somehow, one of those tests I printed out ended up right on the dean’s desk.
Neither of us made it to the end of the semester – there was plenty of evidence, and plenty of jealous types all too happy to testify against us. We packed our things and left, not sure where we were even headed. My parents wouldn’t even let me in the house when I got back. They’d heard the news before I could tell them, and they’d gotten a head start on throwing my stuff and every picture of me in a front yard bonfire.
Hannah’s solution to the whole thing was her usual one: money and that goddamn smirk. She was able to scrape enough together to rent a shabby apartment for a few months and told me I was going to join her.
“Why should I ever talk to you again?” I snapped. “You got me into this!”
“You could have said no when I asked you for help with the jobs,” she answered, only glancing up from her phone for a second. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to be stuck back there with a dumbass art degree, would you?”
“At least I had a future back then.”
“And you think you don’t now? Did you even look at all the money you made selling that final? That shit was awesome!”
I paused, still not used to hearing that word being used to refer to me. “You think so?”
“Hell yeah! You’ve got a gift, babe. More importantly, you’ve got a service. People will blow their life savings on a good service. Work with it.”
She knew she had me after that. Once we were set up in the apartment, she bought me the best computer we could find and set me up on the deep web forum she spent all her time on. “Don’t sweat it,” she told me when I looked at her with the old reluctance. “You just pick out a username and make a post about what you do.”
“And then what?”
“Then you’ve just got to wait. These guys’ll have work for you soon enough.”
That was four years, several security breaches and a couple hundred felonies ago. Tonight’s supposed to be the biggest night of our lives, the most dangerous. When I think about it, though, it’s not that different from the first time. The world still has its eyes on what it believes is worth watching, and no one has even a moment’s glance for little old us. Their loss.
Hannah throws herself into a couch near the TV and turns the volume back on. I guess there’s supposed to be some kind of hearing going on. All I know is that there’s a bunch of old white guys in suits pretending to interrogate each other in the House chamber. Or is it the Senate? I really don’t care. The camera’s focused on a woman right now. Stick thin with big cheekbones and stringy black hair, right on the edge of middle age. She’s sitting near the front of the room with a fancy laptop in front of her. Her face is even shiftier than it was in the photographs.
“Nicole Kowski,” Hannah says, rapping the TV screen. “Forty-one years old. Environmentalist. Head nutjob in that line of work. Right now she’s about to…”
“About to testify before Congress against BP and ExxonMobil with ‘incriminating evidence of financial and moral corruption,’” I finish. “I know. I read our client’s file on her three weeks ago.”
“Good, so tell me how we’re gonna get in.”
“You don’t know?”
She glares at me. “I’ve had a lot to do, Stace!”
I just sigh and try not to roll my eyes – I’m used to this by now. “Okay, so Kowski has type 1 diabetes. She wears an insulin dispenser on her wrist all the time. Lifeline brand, 3X Plus model with communication enhancements. That just means it’s got an Internet connection.” I pull up a picture of the gadget on my screen so Hannah can see what I’m talking about. “You go in her computer and take the documents; I go in the dispenser and dump the insulin. Easy. We just need the IP addresses.”
“Which should be coming from our mystery man in three, two, one…”
Hannah’s phone goes off with a message from the Burner app. Two texts just came in from a blocked number. THE DISPENSER IS 188.8.131.52, the first one says. THE COMPUTER IS 184.108.40.206. Then a third one pops up. YOU TWO BETTER DELIVER ON THIS. I’M WATCHING THE HEARING RIGHT NOW.
Hannah laughs and starts to type. CALM YOUR TITS. THIS WON’T TAKE LONG.
DON’T BLAME ME FOR DOUBTING YOUR ASSURANCE. WE HAVE A LOT DEPENDING ON THE OUTCOME OF THIS OPERATION. WHAT PROGRAM ARE YOU USING FOR ENTRY AND EXTRACTION?
The guy on the other side doesn’t answer for a minute or so. When he finally does, we can tell he’s stumped. LIKE HELL YOU ARE.
SO YOU’VE HEARD OF IT, Hannah types as she keeps snickering.
YEAH, BUT I’VE NEVER SEEN IT USED. EVERYONE I WENT TO TOLD ME IT COULDN’T EVEN BE FOUND ON THE WEB. HOW DID A COUPLE OF AMATEURS LIKE YOU FIND IT?
IT HELPS WHEN YOUR PARTNER IS THE ONE WHO WROTE THE THING.
Another long pause. BULLSHIT. HE’S SOME FILTHY RICH SWISS GUY, ISN’T HE?
THEN THE GIRL I’M SCREWING HAS A LOT OF EXPLAINING TO DO.
I snatch the phone away before Hannah can make this any worse. YOU’LL HAVE TO EXCUSE MY PARTNER. SHE DOESN’T USUALLY HANDLE THE CLIENTS.
WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
THE REAL DEAL. AND IF YOU DON’T MIND, MY GIRLFRIEND AND I STILL HAVE A JOB TO DO.
This time, the answer comes right away. MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY.
Hannah grabs her phone back and scowls at the messages left behind. “Dick…”
“The dick that’s going to give us fifty thousand dollars unless you screw this up.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She shoves me away. “Let’s just get this over with.”
We don’t talk much after that, just listen to the hum of the machines as we set up our arsenal and wait. Hannah’s job is a lot easier than mine: Kowski was dumb enough to open the infected spam we mailed her a few days ago, so our software is already on her laptop. It’s just a matter of finding the right files, stealing them and then erasing the originals. I’ve got more work to do. The signal from the Capitol is just strong enough to pick up, and the dictionary attack only takes a few minutes. There are several dozen systems on the network, and I quietly thank the asshole for giving me the IP address ahead of time. The OS is Vista – script kiddie stuff. At least I can get it done quickly.
I pull up Russian Winter and start typing the command to dump all the insulin in the reserves. I’m halfway through when I freeze, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. “Hannah.”
“Oh, what now?”
“…Are you sure about this?”
She raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“There’s no going back when it’s done. She won’t survive the insulin dump.”
“You say that like we could have before.” She turns back to her computer screen and starts typing more slowly. “Besides, you knew that when we took the job.”
“Yeah, but – “
“Just do it, Stacey!”
The men on the TV are starting to look at Kowski now. We’re running out of time. Flexing my fingers, I finish typing the command and hit ENTER. “The insulin needs a minute to get into her system.”
“Great! You wanna watch?”
“No.” I turn the TV off. “We’ll see it in the news tomorrow anyway.”
She doesn’t seem to understand, but she shrugs nonetheless. “God, I feel sober. They got any beer in this hotel?”
“I think I saw a convenience store at the end of the block. Want me to check it out?”
I grab my tote and step out into the hallway, slowly shutting the door behind me. As I walk towards the elevator, I can’t help but glance back like someone’s following me. They will be soon, I guess, once Hannah and the guys who hired us put two and two together.
I only dumped a sixth of the insulin. Enough to send Kowski into shock, but she should be fine once someone gets her to a hospital. It won’t take long for people to guess what happened and start pointing fingers, and not much longer to trace it back to Hannah. I’ll be gone by then, with fifty thousand bucks and a file full of documents that everyone’s gonna be looking for.
Reaching into my pocket, I touch the flash drive I swiped from Hannah’s computer as I left. I could sell these for God knows how much, or plant them on some would-be president. Maybe I’ll scatter them around and watch people try to put the pieces together.
Or you could go clean. Start over.
I smirk. Where’s the fun in that?
Sometime this week, I’m planning to make a post about Incredibles 2, the first in my movie review series. Keep an eye open for all future content from HH!