Chapter 1 – Encrypt Thyself (Part II)

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The first members of Zane’s team arrived through the back door as she was lining the phones up.

Frog firmly closed the entrance door, kicking some foam soundproofing against the jamb at Zane’s instruction. After she’d finished her task, she grabbed a stool, propped herself up against the door, and crossed her arms. The small crowd in the room quieted up as she glowered at them—the group, mostly boys with a single token girl, tended to alternate between staring at her and watching Zane. They had learned during the first meeting that Frog wasn’t to be toyed with; anyone who disrupted Elaine’s lecture would find the green-haired enforcer could get across the room and into their face at the speed of snark.

“Now that everybody is here,” Zane said. “Please take your seats and we’ll begin. This session we’ll unveil the secret weapon we’re going to use to win this game. Pay attention.”

Seats scraped against the floor and groaned under the weight of the gathered team. Elaine made one pace of the entire table, like a drill sergeant inspecting her troops; she made eye contact with each member of the team and finally settled in the middle of the table. Six students in all, from different academic backgrounds and even grade levels, but with one thing in common: an interest in the DarkNet MetropolisARG. Russell “Red Leader” Murphy, Culinary Arts student, tall, dark, and blonde; Benjamin “Blue Leader” Miller, Computer Science and Engineering, flannel and jeans, too much cologne; Susan Pilgrim, Social Science, small, mousy, shrewd; David Dalton, Criminology and Law, suit and tie, blonde hair, overachiever; and finally Adam Roach, Business Administration, Bluetooth-headset, lidded eyes, and forever ringing cell. Elaine had done up a dossier and psych profile on each of them in case Zane would need to deal with a turncoat during his operation.

Her hands spread in a grand gesture, she motioned to the phones.

“I am going to teach you all about how to communicate in the open,” she said. “We will enable this sort of communication through encryption. Each of you is going to receive a pre-paid cell phone. I want you all to pick yours, turn it on, and input a pass phrase via the keypad. The phone will then ask you to speak a pass phrase aloud. The numbers will lock your phone, and your voice will provide the entropy for your cipher key. Please do take your phone now, but do not activate it yet.”

A line formed as the college students walked up to the table and started to snap up phones. As they did so, she continued her lecture:

“This is not to be confused with communication in the clear, which involves communication while enemy agents may be listening in. I have already covered methods for communication in the clear using vocabulary ciphers and predetermined phrases. What we’re learning today is how to communicate privately but not genuinely secretly. Eavesdroppers will know you’re attempting private communications. The guarantee here is that they will have a painful time attempting to find out what you’re saying.”

“Burner phones, nice call, Lois,” said a tall, pimpled boy who jostled his way to the front of the group. Ben Miller, possibly the best contender of team clown, had managed to put himself on Elaine’s bad side during her first lecture when he refused to pay attention to speech on dead drop etiquette and instead insisted on making paper football launchers—and then proceeded to launch them at the whiteboard. He changed his tune that day after Frog pinned his ears to the sides of his face with his own rubber bands. He also started calling Elaine by a weak Superman reference nickname, “Lois Elaine”, and that put everyone else’s backs up.

“Ben, my name is Elaine,” she said, plucked the phone he’d chosen from him and handed over the pink, sequined-princess handset instead. “And, I want you to have this phone.”

“Gee, I—” Upon seeing the pink glare from the phone he immediately attempted to hand set it down and grab a different one but Elaine heard Frog’s stool creak and Ben froze, eyes widening. “—thank you, it’s very lovely. A perfect fit.” He scuttled away, frowning and holding the phone with two fingers as if he might a dirty diaper.

After the gathered group found their seats again and sat fiddling with their new cell phones, Elaine bid them to activate their phones and set their pass phrases. A gentle din of start up chimes, button presses, and finally low voices followed as they listened to the voice instructions from the phones and set their spoken pass phrases. Once completed, each handset lit and displayed a spinning hourglass.

“Like Mission Impossible,” Elaine said. “Your phones are programmed to self-destruct if you fail to enter your access code properly twice in a row. Don’t forget your codes. If you happen to trigger the self-destruct, you can abort it by using your voice pass phrase.”

“Do they—explode?” Ben asked, eyeing his garishly girlish handset contemplatively.

“No,” Elaine said. “It fries the SIM card and just goes dead. The same thing happens if anyone attempts to tamper with the phone orSIMcard. These phones cannot be cloned.”

“And if you burn yours on purpose,” Frog said. “I’ll find you the only leather-bondage prepaid phone on the planet. Don’t tempt me.”

“I surrender,” Ben said.

“Yes, Mr. Roach?” Elaine called on Adam Roach after he raised an arm sporting an expensive silver Rolex.

“Do our spy phones have any other functions?” he asked.

“I am getting to those,” Elaine said. “First, these phones can only contact one another. Communication between these phones can be intercepted like any other cellular conversation; but to any ordinary eavesdropper it will sound like cats fighting in an industrial dryer. They are also programmed to recognize the proximity of one another. Each one has a tracer beacon that can be activated or deactivated by the owner.

“The final function is somewhat situational but you can use it for asynchronous communication via drop notes.”

Elaine went to the whiteboard with a marker in hand and began to write, but a loud knocking at the front door interrupted her.

Bam, bam, bam!

“I’ll get that,” Zane and Frog said in unison.

They stared at each other blankly for a moment. Frog moved aside. “After you,” she said.

Bam, bam!

“Insistent, aren’t they?” Zane said as he opened the computer room door—

—and the lights went out.

Two pencil-thin beams of laser light angled through the air and painted red dots on the far wall, they skated around the room, weaving over people as they went. Zane withdrew and slammed the door, casting the room into sudden darkness.

“What the fuck?” Someone said, although she momentarily couldn’t see anything, from the squeak in the voice, she suspected that was Ben.

“Everybody stay calm,” Zane said. “This room is secure.”

“Those were laser sights,” Susan said. As her eyes adjusted, Elaine could see her face—eyes large with surprise—lit by the light of her cell phone. All around the room, the tiny screens from the phones provided a dim, but ambient light.

Somebody rattled at the back door’s knob from the outside, but the lock didn’t budge.

“What is this?” asked Dalton. “An FBI raid?”

“I told you,” Zane said. He had his back to the reinforced door. “I knew there was something about that van!”

Elaine prized open her laptop, flooding half the room with light and shadow.

“Spooks don’t knock,” she said.

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