This is it. This is the big one. A masterwork. This is going to be epic. It’d be enough for a thesis. If it wouldn’t get you arrested.
Network probes, adaptive learning, decryption, and dark-net compute that spins up and down at certain times and addresses based on a rotating hash. All squeezed onto innocuous USB sticks, sealed with a kiss and scattered around campus just waiting on Martha from accounting to discover and get curious. The Stanford security team is pretty sharp, sharp enough to keep up with the Stanford students, but Martha and her ilk, they never went to Stanford.
It was a work of genius, several nights you were way deep in the zone working on it. Ashton looked over it, and he thinks you’re crazy: not for doing something that would get you expelled or arrested, but because he swears there’s no way half the code would work at all. Ashton’s a moron. You know it’ll work.
It took a while. Several agonizing days waiting. You were sitting in your senior ethics class (of all things!) when the notification hit your phone.
You immediately start feeling light-headed and tingly all over. You rush out of the class as soon as the professor’s back is turned and make a bee-line for your dorm. You start developing a serious case of euphoria as you trot along, the excitement is overwhelming.
You crash into your desk and spin up a bastion in an unused region of a hijacked AWS account. You synchronize your hash with the trojan and find the GCP bucket its cloud brain is dumping logs to, feeding it into a parser.
You yip with glee and almost fall out of your chair, you’re so dizzy. It took the thing exactly fifty-two seconds to find, infect, parse, decrypt, and upload the entire LDAP tree to a dead drop, and it didn’t stop there. By the seven minute mark, it had infected nearly every node on campus, including the labs, and as you watch, it’s working its way into several high-profile startups in the Bay Area.
A voice in the back of your head is screaming “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” but the euphoria is overwhelming now, the same part of your head that’s having a panic attack is starting to wonder if you’ve been slipped a roofie. The worm is multiplying exponentially, and with every generation, you’re becoming more and more in the thrall of whatever has come over you.
Something in your mind breaks through, and you’re no longer aware of sitting in your dorm in front of a laptop, you’re floating above an incomprehensible tapestry of data, flowing at scales that you don’t even have words for. You can see the big picture, the signals in the noise. You have a vague sense that your body is shuddering, that you’re having an orgasm or a seizure or something.
Then you hear it…well…not quite hear…you become aware of a noise, a not-noise, a sense that your brain interprets as noise. Wolves. A hunt. A pack of wolves. You hear their howls and you know they’re after you. They’re getting closer.
You panic, you don’t know where you are or what the rules are, but they’re approaching and filling you with fear, so you reach out to a nearby thread in the tapestry and you’re suddenly caught up in a raging torrent of data. It buffets you, flows through you. The euphoria twists into pain and terror. You catch mental glimpses of the flow, cat videos and dick pics and Netflix and people’s hopes and dreams and fears and drama and credit cards.
It’s too much, it’s tearing you apart, like a tidal wave of broken glass in your mind. And the wolves are still getting closer.
Then, it’s as if a great hand reaches out of the void and plucks you from the flow, and for a moment, everything goes black.
If you’re unconscious, you don’t know for how long, but when you open your eyes, you’re in bed. It’s your bed, in your room in your parents’ home. From when you were eight. There are a lot of pink things and unicorns and kittens. The windows are open and a warm Santa Monica breeze is blowing in. The only thing out of place is the teddy bear on the rocker near the toy chest. The teddy bear turns to you and blinks.
Your shriek is, thankfully, brief.
“Hello S3cret,” it says (somehow articulating the “3” in a way you can’t figure out). It has a deep and somewhat gravelly voice with a hint of synthetic – like they’d sampled James Spader for Siri.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“You’re in a simulation,” it says calmly.
“Bullshit,” you reply, “it’s too perfect. I must be dreaming.”
The teddy bear shrugs. It’s pretty cute. “It’s a little of both. Think of it as ‘way-out-on-the-edge’ computing. Listen S3cret, you’ve manifested a talent that not many people have. It always happens by accident the first time, so for an extraordinary event, this is fairly typical. However-“
“Someone’s hunting me,” you interject.
“…someone is hunting you, yes. There are people who don’t like that people like us exist. They don’t like us…out in the world.” The bear makes a sweeping gesture.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? What do you mean…talent?”
With a grunt, the teddy bear climbs off the chair, pads across the room, and climbs up the far end of the bed and sits at your feet. If it wasn’t so horrifying, it would be beyond adorable.
“The first question is simple: there are people who hunt our kind down. Some they recruit. Some they make disappear. They’re best avoided. I know they were tracing you, and I honestly don’t know how close they got. They undoubtedly know you’re in California, and you are in danger.”
“And what does ‘our kind’ mean?”
“That one is a little more complex. Just think of it like super-powers. Some people…maybe one in five, ten million…have supernatural, inexplicable, unquantifiable powers. Yours…and mine…involve data and computation.”
You actually feel some relief. “So this is a dream, then. Someone drugged me.” The bear sighs.
“How did you make this room then?”
“Like I said,” the bear says pointedly, “way out on the edge compute.”
You ponder this for a minute.
“I’m going to wake up in my dorm.”
“Yes. And it will feel like you had a dream. But you’ll remember – as you must, because you are in danger.”
“What’s your name?”
You snort. “Bullshit.”
“‘Art imitates life’, as they say.” Teddy hops down from the bed, wanders over to the toy box, and rustles around inside it. You watch adorable wiggling teddy bear butt, reaffirming that this is just a lucid dream. Eventually, with an “ah hah”, Teddy crawls out of the toy box carrying a small silver cube with a bright red button on top.
“The facts are these, S3cret: you are being hunted. I can’t get to Stanford, and any help I could enlist can’t get there very quickly. There’s a safe place, in New York City-“
“What the hell do you think-“
“New. York. City. When you wake there will be an address in your memory. If you can make it there, you’ll be safe for a time.”
“Okay, okay, dream’s not fun anymore, Ruxpin.”
The bear sighs. “I hope you’ll take my advice,” he says, then hits the red button.
You jerk awake. You’re collapsed over your MacBook, drooling into the keyboard, QWERTY pasted across your cheek. It’s five in the morning. Your fever dream lasted over fourteen hours. You throw on a change of clothes, grab your laptop, and wander a few blocks to the union, where you sit in the February predawn cold with a coffee and a breakfast burrito trying to figure out who could’ve drugged you.
You make it to your 8am machine learning lab, and by the time 11 rolls around, you’ve done your best to shake off the experience. What’s more, no cops have come looking for you, so presumably all the precautions you took with the worm worked. You grab a light lunch and head back to your dorm to send a kill command so the looney thing stops spreading.
“220 W. 48th Street.” The address comes to your mind unbidden during your walk. You do your best to ignore it.
You step into your room and freeze. The first thing you see is Ashton. He’s sitting in your chair at your desk, he’s slumped backwards, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling, a bullet hole in his forehead. There’s a man sitting on your bed. Fit, handsome, maybe thirties, polo and slacks, but what really stands out is the little James Bond pistol with the little James Bond silencer he’s holding in his black-gloved hands.
The man opens his mouth to speak, but you’re already in flight mode. You try to scream but can’t, so you turn to run out of the room, but only manage to clock your head edge-on against the door, then again on the linoleum when you hit the floor. As the darkness is closing in, you hear him get up off the bed and walk over to you.
“Huh,” he says, somewhat bemused. Then everything goes black.