S C R E A M P H O E N I X
By Justin Paola
The world will remember its past. The people will scream phoenix, and let slip the dogs of war
The year is 2075. Information and net access is tightly controlled as a result of a massive conflict. Thirty-five years ago, the world saw its third world war for the first time in one hundred years. But unlike the first two world wars, this one was fought in a world with information technology and hacking. The war did not pit one country against another – rather, it pit the world against hackers and their supporting factions. With the advent of the VirtualNet in 2030, people could connect like never before. Now they could meet face to face in a virtual reality in less than a minute.
The blinding quickness and accessibility of the VirtualNet had the unintended consequences of allowing hackers to access code and complex security systems in seconds. This became an important political issue in every developed nation and finally culminated in a coordinated missile strike launched by hackers in an act of terrorism in 2040. Every nation was caught off guard. Major cities in every continent were hit and millions perished in an instant. For half a decade developed nations fought these hackers and their supporters all over the world. The groups were never fully defeated, but were crippled to the point where they had no choice except to fade away.
Many nations took extreme measures to make sure this could never happen again. The loss of millions in an instant followed by a five year conflict all over the world allowed many governments, such as the United States, to gain public support in passing strict net and privacy regulations. Immediately following the end of the war in 2046, the United States and European Union both voted to introduce a monitoring AI into every home called PABS, or Personal Assistant to a Better Society. Security systems were installed in every building and joined into a police network for constant oversight. The PABS became the only way to use the VirtualNet. They connected to the security system so that all Net activity could be monitored.
Finally, the United States also established the Central Bureau of Net Regulation to oversee all related activities. The public initially met these changes with thundering applause. Those who lived to see the changes were old now. Young people never knew life differently. The situation was a lot worse than most realized; the severity was masked by the Central Bureau’s widespread and increasingly prevalent propaganda. The country had been robbed of its privacy and ability to dissent.
It was 3 A.M and the rain wouldn’t stop. Ty’s van was situated about a block away from the apartment building – across from a small courtyard that gave him a grand view of the entrance and immediate area. For the past two weeks, Ty and Dhavo had rigged the security system of the apartment building in secret as preparation for tonight. After monitoring the apartment’s security system for a while, Ty was able to find a backdoor into the police network for the entire city.
Ty set up a base of operations in his van to hack into the system once Dhavo gave him the word. Once inside, Ty would able to reboot the system and send off a false signal of normal security behavior. This would give Dhavo an opportunity to jump into the VirtualNet. Ty had four screens set up in the back of his van: one to monitor the security system, one to keep track of police activity, another to initiate an emergency shut down of Dhavo’s operation if it became necessary, and the last one to monitor all the PABS in the apartment building. If the PABS got wind of their activity, everything would be over before it started. Stealth was critical for success tonight. Both of them knew their operation would mean death, but Dhavo seemed confident they would get away with it. They have to get away with it.
Everything in the security system seemed normal. Since it was so late police activity was also low; only two patrols were in the ten square mile area, which was routine. It appeared as though their operation was off the radar for now. “Ty, can you hear me?” Dhavo was testing out the voice transmitter. “What’s it looking like?”
“Not much.” Ty was leaning back in his seat eating cheap instant noodles. “The jump is the easy part. Keeping the jump off the radar is what’s tricky.” This was true enough. Each precinct monitored all VirtualNet usage for their area of the city. The PABS could also report any suspicious activity to the authorities if necessary.
Dhavo was preparing to jump. His apartment was small and the floor of his living room was littered with network cables and VirtualNet peripherals. He walked over to the large window across the room and peered out between the blinds to see Ty’s van down below. “Are you sure everything is normal?” Dhavo was nervous and started to worry. “Maybe doing it in my apartment was a bad idea.”
“Don’t start second-guessing yourself now, kid,” Ty replied over the transmitter. “This is a golden opportunity, the best yet. We need to capitalize, so get your head in the game.”
Dhavo was still looking out the window into the rainy darkness. He took a deep breath and went back to setting up his VirtualNet equipment. “I’m almost ready. I’m connecting the cables to my PABS now.”
Dhavo opened the back panel of his PABS. He unplugged the cables that connected the machine to the security system and plugged in his VirtualNet equipment. The clear line above the visor on his headgear lit up bright blue. He picked up the helmet, sat down in his black leather chair, and put it on. After a minute, the visor faded to a black tint as it recognized a user connecting. He was ready to jump.
Ty saw Dhavo’s PABS disconnect on the security system. He started to initiate the reboot. In three minutes, the system would appear normal again. Now he just had to hope the police wouldn’t detect the rebooting system. Their activity was off the grid for the moment. Ty smirked and put his instant noodles down. “Go,” he said over the voice transmitter, “jump!”
Dhavo heard him loud and clear. He moved his hand to the right of his helmet to press the connection button. The visor dimmed completely black and streaks of light raced past him. If everything went according to plan, he would be face to face with the rest of his group in a few seconds.
The blackness and streaks of light started to fade. What Dhavo saw before him now was a virtual setting: a long, white table with ten empty chairs in a white room. Soon enough, more people started to appear. Dhavo sat in a chair at the end of the table, and each of the remaining nine chairs starting filling up as more people connected.
He knew the nine at the table; they were his comrades, his fellow conspirators. Everybody in the VirtualNet looked as they do in real life – another measure of the Central Bureau to monitor everything on the Net.
“Did anyone have trouble connecting tonight? Is everyone safe?” Dhavo knew this was how he had to open the meeting. If even one of his comrades neglected the steps him and Ty took to breach their apartment building’s security system, they were all as good as dead.
“Yeah yeah, we’re not amateurs you know.” It was Kayla – she was always overconfident of her hacking ability and always thought she knew best. Such were the consequences of being young and not making a mistake yet.
Another spoke up to answer Dhavo’s question. “Safe as we’ll ever be, I guess… I really don’t think this was a good idea. We should be doing this in person.” Dhavo recognized him as well – Michael, their new recruit. Like Ty, he had also worked security breaching for the Central Bureau. Having people that know the Bureau’s systems was indispensable for their group.
“No, that wouldn’t do,” Dhavo replied in disagreement. “The Bureau would probably catch on if we were all at the same place. Staying put and meeting over the Net is safest.” The rest spoke up in agreement.
Dhavo pressed a small red button on his chair. A holographic image of a massive building appeared in the middle of the table. The building was hundreds of stories high and each side was fully glass windows. At the base of the building was an equally massive encircling wall. “This is the target. As you can see it will not be easy. If any one wants to leave, now is the time.” This wasn’t the first discussion about their plan, but it was the first time they saw their target. The group remained silent. Dhavo smiled. “Good.”
The holographic image slowly spun around so each conspirator could fully see it. “To my knowledge, we are completely off the radar on this. Ty hasn’t picked up anything that indicates we are being monitored. This operation will consist of three steps. The first step is getting there. Lauren has arranged a plane to carry us out of Bethel in Alaska. We will be dropped off about 150 miles outside of Norilsk in Siberia. From there, Andrei has arranged for a ground transport to carry us into the town.”
Back in the van, Ty was noticing something unusual with police activity. The two patrols were still there, but a pulsating red light had appeared on the edge of the screen. He zoomed out to see the larger area. About thirty miles away, he saw the pulsating red light in its entirety. It was slowly moving in their general direction but Ty couldn’t be sure where exactly it was heading. Still, all signs seemed to indicate the authorities did not pick up Dhavo’s jump. “Dhavo, you there?” Silence. “Dhavo, come in…”
“The second step is breaching,” Dhavo continued in his meeting. “Kayla, Ned, Lauren, I want you three on this. Ty’s diagnostic tests seem to indicate that the defense network of this Russian compound is highly complex. It has multiple safeguards in case of hacking and will give off an encrypted signal to authorities buried in millions of lines of code if breached. That signal will be nearly impossible to stop manually, so we need to start writing algorithms that co-” Dhavo was cut off by Ty. “…. That could catch it before it goes out. Excuse me for one second. System pause.”
At that command, everything became frozen in place except for Dhavo. “Yeah, Ty, I’m here. What’s up?”
“I’m not really sure,” Ty replied. “I see something on my police activity monitor and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s a pulsating red dot, and it looks like it is moving toward us.” The red dot was somewhat closer than it was before, but seemed to be moving slowly. “I think you should be prepared to evacuate just in case. I’ll keep you posted.”
Dhavo felt anxiety starting to percolate in his chest. “Yeah, sure, yeah. Just let me know. Thanks for the heads.” He took a deep breath. “System continue.”
Everyone in the meeting became animated again. “The hell was that?” Kayla had that annoyed tone in her voice like she always does. “You alright?” Everyone waited for Dhavo’s answer.
“I think so,” he replied. “Let’s continue.”
Everyone kept quiet. He wasn’t sure if the group was uneasy now or just being attentive. He decided to think the latter just to ease his mind. “As I was saying. We need to start on algorithms that could catch the signal before it goes out. It’s not something we can do just by hacking manually. Ned, Kayla, I’m going to need you to start working on those algorithms after this meeting. I’ll transmit Ty’s diagnostics over my PABS to yours after we conclude. Once you finish, send your work to Lauren so she can start testing them out. A successful breach is the only thing that lets us keep our heads.”
“I’ve already got some ideas from the last time we talked,” Ned spoke up. “I’ll transmit them to you, Kayla.”
“Good, we already have a head start. Nothing will be accomplished if we can’t breach that grid.” Dhavo gained a little confidence now.
“The missiles aren’t actually in this compound. The silo is roughly three hundred miles to the east. Once we breach the system, we will be able to issue commands to their missile prompt. There will be about a fifteen-minute delay between issuing the command and the missiles being released from the silo. The third step will start with issuing that command. Robert, this is where you come in. The missiles have built-in wireless transmitters to communicate with satellites in space. We need those satellites to tell the missiles to head to D.C. within a minute of launch. You need to issue the command as many times as possible so that any commands the Russians issue would be far down in the command queue. Can you do it?” Dhavo and the rest of the conspirators looked to Robert.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I’ve already worked out a method I think will work by using my PABS. I will be able to access their satellite network after their security system has been breached.”
“Good. They’ll never see it coming.” Dhavo felt a little more at ease now. “Hacking into their security and decrypting their signal will allow us to launch the missiles undetected. The satellites won’t be as easy. Once the missiles communicate with the satellite network, the Russians will know they’ve been hacked. It will take roughly 20 minutes for the missiles to hit D.C.”
Dhavo studied the hologram of the massive glass building floating in the middle of the table. It made him consider the gravity of the operation they were about to do. Suddenly he heard himself blurt something out. “Does everyone know why we are here?”
“What do you mean? Of course… otherwise we wouldn’t be here.” It was Kayla. “We all gave up our lives – our futures – to do this. We understand the consequences.”
The others spoke up in agreement, but Dhavo wasn’t convinced. “Of course you know what you are about to do…. But do you know why you have to do it?”
“Where is this coming from, man?” The voice was Andrei’s. “Don’t worry, we’ll—” he was cut off by Dhavo.
“I am worried,” said Dhavo, raising his voice. “Look… You may think this is justice, but that isn’t why. Vengeance is a poor motivator. Our motivation is change. It’s time to change things back. No more PABS in every house, no more telling us what to do, no more any of it. Millions of us have lived our entire lives like this. The best we can do is change that for our children. We need to show the world their systems don’t work.”
Ty was trying to reach Dhavo again. “Dhavo, come in. You need to get out of there now. I repeat, get OUT!”
Dhavo heard Ty over his transmitter and his heart started to race. He became rushed in his speech now. “Are we all in agreement,” he asked his fellow conspirators, “is everyone aware of their role? Is everyone on board with why we are doing this?”
His comrades agreed. “I hope so,” Dhavo said. “One moment please. System pause.”
“Ty, what is it?” Dhavo was starting to get scared. “Are the police onto us?”
Ty’s tone had a sense of emergency. “I thought it worked, and it did, but not fully. There was a brief delay in rebooting the security system of your building; I guess the police noticed it. The pulsating red dot I saw was a task force transport. There are three of them, man! They’re coming down the street right now!”
“Yes! Get out of there! NOW!” Ty felt guilty because he should have known better.
“System continue.” He needed to end the meeting now so the rest of his group wouldn’t be tracked. “Well, if everyone knows what they need to do we will reconvene in a week. I will leave it all to you.”
“Wait, hold on a second,” Kayla said. “That’s it? Why are you leaving now? What’s going on?”
Without any response, Dhavo disconnected from the Net. The white room disappeared and gave way to the black tint of his helmet’s visor. He jumped out of his chair to look out the window and saw the task force transports parked outside. It was still down pouring. “Ty, I’m about to leave. You should too.”
“Way ahead of you, buddy,” Ty said. His van pulled off and disappeared around a corner.
Panicking, Dhavo looked around his room to find a quick way out. He knew the door wasn’t an option. He ran into the bathroom to look at a small vent on the ceiling and removed the hatch. Too small. Next he sprinted into his bedroom, opened the window that led to his fire escape, and peered down into the alley below. He saw task force officers waiting for him there. He went back into his living room and looked around more. The large window with blinds caught his attention. Suddenly he had an idea.
Dhavo ran back into his bedroom, knelt next to his bed, and pulled out a large lockbox from underneath. He took his keys from his pocket and opened it up. Inside were two black pistols, four pistol magazines, a long rope, and a thin gray skin suit. Dhavo took the skin suit and put it over his clothes quickly. Then he grabbed the rope, pistols, and magazines. He was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.
Without any more time to spare, he scrambled to his closet to grab a metallic metal helmet buried under a heap of clothes. The helmet and skin suit recognized Dhavo’s body heat and turned on. Everything was completely black inside the helmet. Within a few seconds, two dim blue lights appeared as eyes on the surface and gave Dhavo vision. The suit and helmet started to change. Slowly, both became partially invisible. He went back to his living room, shot out the window, tied the rope around his waist, and attached its hook to the sill. Shortly after, he heard the task force reach his door – they were using a battering ram. Dhavo stood in front of the window, faced the door, and waited.
The task force broke through. They were wearing their usual all black body armor and metal helmets with tinted visors. At this moment a second seemed to last an eternity for Dhavo. He pointed his pistols in their direction and fired until his magazines were empty, killing three. The task force backed off in the hallway and gave Dhavo his opportunity for escape. He jumped out the window and his partial invisibility concealed himself from the task force below. The rope reached the end of its slack, propelling Dhavo through a window 30 stories below him.
Dhavo detached himself from the rope and ran through the dark apartment. He came out in the hallway, broke down the door to an apartment across the hall, and jumped through the large window in the living room. Adrenaline was coursing through his body. He gave himself enough momentum to land on the roof of a smaller building across an alley – on the opposite side from where the task force had set up on the ground below. The rain bounced off his transparent figure.
“Ty, come in,” he said over his voice transmitter. “Ty, do you read? Are you okay?” No response.
Dhavo knew he couldn’t dwell on it for now. He ran across the roof and jumped onto another building, opened its roof door, and started to descend the stairs. Finally, Ty responded. “Yeah yeah, I’m here Dhavo. You okay?”
“Not really,” Dhavo said. “Task force almost got me, but I was able to get out of there. This isn’t good.”
“No, it isn’t.” Ty couldn’t hide his fear in his voice. “Listen kid, your safety comes first. You can’t go back there. They know what you’re up to now. You will be hunted down if it’s the last thing they do.”
“All the more reason to go through with this. Meet at the rendezvous like we planned.” They at least had enough foresight to make a rendezvous location. Dhavo reached ground level and headed out. He knew their situation was extremely dire now.