Chapter 1 – Encrypt Thyself (Part I)

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Elaine glanced up from the diffuse glow of code to see Zane at the window. For the third time in the past hour a streak of light from a break in the window blinds crossed his pale features, a pigmentation trait common to their family. It manifested genetically alongside what appeared to be a tendency to paranoia. She’d been tracking her own bogeyman across thousands of miles of fiber optic cable and Internet; but he managed to find one of his own closer to home, parked right across the street. Noticing her eyes on him, he released the blinds and returned her gaze with a challenging stare.

“It’s been sitting there for the past three days,” Zane said. “Frog, tell Elaine that’s at least a little strange. It’s a black van, for crying out loud. And I can’t see in the windows!”

Frog sat on the couch slurping at the dregs of her smoothie. She was tall, with a thick mane of green hair bundled by a scrunchie; beautiful by anyone’s standards. Her trimmed body combined the best features of a chemical engineer version of Aphrodite with the intellectual drive of a cheerleader version of Buckminster Fuller. Elaine’s fast friend, intellectual muscle, and social brawn all neatly packaged in a nonchalant, green-haired ex-cheerleader. They’d been through thick and thin, strange and mundane—although today certainly ranked to be amid the mundane. Even if Zane suspected otherwise.

“Maybe it belongs to the neighbor’s across the street,” she said.

“I checked,” Zane said. “Nobody knows where it came from.”

“Or where it’s going?” Frog added, egging Zane.

Elaine tapped a key on her laptop that locked the screen with ever changing geometric shapes that caused nausea after watching them for too long. “It’s a 2001 Volkswagen EuroVan, standard everything, black, windows aren’t tinted—they’re blocked by mattresses—and, I’ll let you stew on this one: Florida license plate FISHN LUV. You let me know if there’s any covert government agent who would get caught dead in that.”

“They had an old, brown van with a leaky transmission and a bad paint job on The Invisible Man,” Frog said.

“If I find Darien Fawkes in the basement, I want an autograph,” Elaine said.

“You’re not taking me seriously,” Zane said. “It could be surveillance from one of the other teams, for all I know.”

Zane referred to the game he’d been playing for the past week with a small group of friends from Arizona State University. DarkNet Metropolis, an Alternate Reality Game set up by a company out of San Francisco played at the same time across multiple campuses by small bands of students who pretended to be spies. It involved a lot of subterfuge, sneaking around, dead drops, covert meetings, overt meetings, and all manner of serious but playful interactions. The game required player groups to check in with a handler at a dead drop to receive instructions on each phase of the game. Every time it exposed them to the other teams—Zane explained there were five groups on ASU campus; only two of whom he considered a threat—and gave them new missions and instructions. At the end of each phase the compliance to the instructions and mission completeness would be tallied and when the game ended the winners would receive a cash prize.

Of course, opposing teams could better their chances of winning by sabotaging the others. That could take many forms, but the easiest would be to intercept their dead drop instructions or turn one of their members. Everything short of direct personal violence and reckless endangerment seemed to be encouraged by the game masters.

“If it will make you feel better,” Elaine said. “I’ll run the make and plate through the DMV database to see who it does belong to. Okay?”

“Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

“Meantime, let me tell you about my current paranoid illusions,” Elaine said. “I’ve been getting the feeling that someone has been cyberstalking me. I can’t be entirely certain yet, but I believe that a pattern is emerging. I keep seeing similar handles appearing over particular times on forums that I frequent. He’s been posting just enough to stay under the radar as a lurker, but he’s not very good at concealing himself.

“Phreaker forums, Black Hat conference, network security, even Reddit. He seems to be coming from a set of IP addresses blocked out forRussia, but he’s not on any Russian work schedule I’m aware of. I’m pretty good about using different aliases across these websites, so the fact that he’s found me on most of them means he’s good enough to track me, just a noob at avoiding getting made. I nicknamed him Tango, after the first alias I noticed him using.”

“Have you asked Hadaly to look into this?” Frog said and set her smoothie aside.

Elaine waved her hand dismissively. “She’s got better things to do with her life,” she said. “Plus, I think it’ll be a fun exercise to flush this guy out on my own.”

“What if it’s a member of one of the other teams?” Zane said. “They may have gotten wind of what you’re doing here. I am a high priority target, after all.” He peeked through the blinds again. “Frack. Still there.”

Frog rolled her eyes. “A watched van never surveys?”

“We’re brother and sister,” Elaine said. “There’s nothing inherently suspicious about me coming over to visit you. The pack is EM shielded,” she patted the backpack at her feet. Inside, a dozen pre-paid cell phones, stripped from their packaging and modified to her desires, rattled against one another. “It’s not like anyone is going to guess precisely what we’re up to. Your secret is safe.”

“Better be,” Zane said. “You two are my secret weapon in DarkNet.”

His phone bleeped from the able and he picked it up.

“You can bring your team in, Red Leader,” he said. “I suggest you hit the exhaust port, the front gates have a spotlight.” He hung up the phone without ceremony and nodded to Frog and Elaine.

Elaine grabbed her pack and followed her brother out of the living room and further into the house. The computer room in back had been cleared out to give it an open space along with a long table in the center for presentations. Eight chairs of varying model sketched an uneven row on the other side of the table and a whiteboard had been placed along the front wall. As a precaution against espionage, its white surface had been cleaned immediately after every use session. She’d used this room to give lectures for Zane’s group on two occasions now, marking this one the third. She poured the cell phones out onto the table—she’d purchased a lot of seventy-two for a school project so she could spare a dozen or so for her brother.

The twelve she gave out would form a random control group for the testing of wear and tear on her newest security software—and the DarkNet Metropolis experiment seemed a perfect field test. Plus, it would probably make her thesis paper more attractive to an editor if she could include data on the subject of real-world cryptographic use. Even if anyone who studied her thesis data closely would discover that her testing was done via a social game and not actual espionage.

They came in a variety of colors and patterns: black, white, jungle camo, unicorns and rainbows, mummy bandages, stars and UFOs, and one pink one with a peevish girl wearing a crown that glittered with sequins. When she spoke on the phone with the service rep she only specified that she needed 3G coverage and 3 megapixel cameras with programmable interfaces. He didn’t ask any questions, just cited a price, and she finished up the transaction with her P.O. Box and her research grant AmEx. The phones fit the bill, even if they looked like they’d go well with children’s toothbrushes.

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