How smart am I to be checking into a seedy, rundown motel on the edge of Dallas with a woman I barely knew and who had me seeing red flags everywhere? It doesn’t matter, I was doing it.
We were in Dallas. Jenny and me. I was on the run. Jenny was having fun, fangirling this whole cyber weapon story. The thing was, something about her was bugging me.
I put it on the backburner, though, because she’d just saved me from the sharks circling the blood in the water. FBI were the sharks. I was the blood.
Jenny had run into some FBI agents at the bus terminal in Dallas. Instead of leading them to me, and herself to the half-million dollar reward for my arrest, she came got me, and we fled.
I don’t understand how those guys tracked me. What had I done wrong?
According to Jenny: nothing. I had done nothing wrong. She thought it was just pure numbers. Cable news had said it was the biggest manhunt in forty seven years. She pointed out that someone was probably watching every airport and bus depot in the South.
Now, we were opening the door to our motel room. Was it a good idea to get a motel room with this woman I barely knew? No, not at all. It was a terrible idea. And yet, here I was, doing it.
Jenny had said she was going to visit an ex-boyfriend in Denver, to get back the car that he took when he left her. Since she and I had met, both of us had been wearing COVID face coverings, hers a nice lacy pink mask, mine a blue disposable I bought a couple of days ago and should have replaced by now.
Was it a good idea to get a motel room with her? No. But, with the manhunt, what choice did I have? I decided to trust her for now. She’d had a chance to turn me in, but hadn’t. There was a half-million dollar reward for information leading to my arrest. There was a million dollar reward for the return of the cyber weapon I had stolen. It could have all been hers. But she didn’t take it.
Jenny warily pushed open the door to the room we’d gotten, took two glances and said, “Whoa, this is seriously sketchy.”
Since we were on the run, we picked a shady motel a ways from the downtown Greyhound station and took a cab. An actual cab, not Uber, so I could pay cash.
The room had two beds but Jenny pointed to the far one and said, “Do not go near that one. I can tell from here, it’s nasty. We’ll have to share this bed.” She pointed to the near bed. She was all matter-of-fact, like, “hey, we’ve just met, don’t know each other at all, have no idea what you actually look like due to the masks we’ve worn the whole time, so let’s share a bed.”
Eh, just like college.
Honestly, I didn’t care. I hadn’t slept much for several days. I was so tired even all my anxieties couldn’t keep me awake. Any bed with any body would work. That, and a shower. A long shower. And time to formulate a plan. I needed to get back to Seattle, ASAP. My sister Teresa was sick, and I had the information that could help her. But, due to the manhunt, I couldn’t just fly there. At this point, I couldn’t even take the bus there.
My phone rang. BossMan95, again. I let it ring until Jenny said, “you going to answer that?”
I wanted to talk, but not with Jenny around. So I said, “not right now” and sent it to voicemail. Then I said, “I’m going to grab a shower.”
Jenny grabbed the TV remote, “Hold on. Let’s see what’s the latest.” She clicked on the TV and found CNN. They were talking to some politician about the CIA. The ticker across the bottom scrolled the latest about Styx, and now about how my apparent spotting at a Greyhound bus station was a false alarm.
On the screen, my ever-present picture. Also, my fake name, Allen Parsons, and some of the fake background I’d made up. University of Miami, majored in music, father of three, security guard. So far, I hadn’t been doxxed. But how long would my fake identity hold up?
Then, the news hit the top of the hour, it was time for the headlines. The anchor said, “Our top story this evening: The Cyber Weapon. For more, here’s John Marley in Dallas.”
John came on, standing in front of the bus station we were at an hour ago. John reported that
- The FBI found several people on a Greyhound bus who said I fit the description
- When they entered the bus, they found me missing, pointing to the fact that it was me
- The Cyber Weapon had come online temporarily earlier in the day, and the countdown had started. But, only one hour elapsed before it disappeared and the countdown stopped.
- Wikileaks found leaked memos in their archives. According to what they found, the weapon is a Cyber Kill Switch created by the CIA. After a three day countdown, it detonates; Once it detonates, it will take down key Internet points and infect millions of IoT devices.
- Sources inside the CIA paint a picture of panic because Styx is in the wild. Since Styx checks in with command and control via Tor, no one knows where it is. Cyber Command is trying to trace the route, but haven’t succeeded.
- If the Kill Switch is reset within seventy-two hours, then the Countdown starts over.
Jenny said, “Holy shit” then changed it to Fox News. Same breakdown. MSNBC, same. A graphic in the lower right of the screen showed a countdown timer. It wasn’t moving. It just said, “72:00:00”.
It sat there. Like a lioness in the tall grass, ready to pounce.
I shivered. What would people do if that clock started ticking again?
It felt eerie how this was all because of me. The world was watching with anticipation. “Would Styx come back online? Where was it? Who had it?”
In the whole world, I was probably the only person who knew. My theory was that the weapon was still inserted in DeKeisha’s computer’s SD card slot, but she didn’t realize it. Every time DeKeisha turned on her computer and then off again, it reset the timer.
Jenny sat down next to me. She turned to me and said, “I don’t understand why the CIA would even make a kill switch.”
I said, “From what I’ve read, once it goes off – the CIA says ‘detonates’ – Styx propagates up until it reaches an Internet Exchange point - a node on kind of the backbone of the Internet.”
“Like where a rib bone connects to the backbone?”
I said, “Right, similar to that.”
She said, “So Styx is designed to fry the Internet inside the country or region in which it’s set off?”
I said, “Precisely.”
She said, “So, if we were at war with, say, Iran, the CIA could set up Styx over there and take out their communications? And it’s called a Kill Switch because it’s like those master power buttons at a nuclear plant? It’s a switch that just turns everything off. In this case, it does it by infecting millions of devices that make up the most important skeleton of the Internet?”
I nodded my head. Jenny caught on quick. Too quick. Red Flag.
“I see why they say it’s a weapon. We should report it. It could take out the Internet here!”
I said, “No, not yet. This distraction helps me.”
“You’re being selfish, this could end the Internet.”
I said, “I’m not doing this for myself, remember? The Internet would come back. My sister won’t.”
I went into the bathroom and started the shower. I started undressing but only got to my mask and shirt before I thought I should take my backpack in. Who knows if Jenny would steal it. And, it’s not like I could tell the cops what she looked like. And, it’s not like I could call the cops at all.
I went back out and Jenny said, “Hey, oh wow, you look different than your picture.”
“Yeah, I shaved my beard.”
“Before you shower, what about those SD cards? You said you had an idea about how to dox the anonymous owners?”
Oh come on. Was I ever going to get to shower?
I said, “Yeah, give me two minutes.” I got out my phone, transcribed the IDs from the three SD cards with the illegal porn into a Dark World Forum post. I wrote: “These are IDs from Gateway Underground, stolen at the same time as Styx. They are full of child and torture porn. Help me dox these assholes. I’ll transfer a thousand Dark World reputation points for each ID doxxed.”
I added the transcribed IDs and added a couple of fake ID numbers as well. I sent the message and Jenny’s phone dinged again, reminding me she was tracking me on Dark World. Now that she knew who I was, would she be the one to dox me?
I stood up to go shower. Jenny said, “We should get some peroxide for those cuts on your neck and shoulder.”
I said, “It’s fine. My hip was bothering me, but it feels better now, too.” Jenny still wore her mask, and I suddenly felt naked without mine.
Jenny said, “Wait, let me get a closer look at this.” She grabbed her phone and turned on the flashlight and examined the middle of my back. I felt her fingers lightly on my skin. I shivered.
I said, “Everything okay?”
She turned off her flashlight and said, “Yeah, I thought I saw something, but it’s fine. What’s this tattoo?”
I said, “When mom died, Teresa and I got the same tattoo. It’s an eagle, Mom’s favorite.”
“What’s it carrying?”
I said, “That’s Bilbo. Mom also loved Tolkien.”
“That’s really cool.”
Then I said, “I’m going to shower.”
I took my backpack into the bathroom, locked the door and got in the shower. In a few minutes, the room was rolling in fog. I let my mind go blank, let the water just run down my back. It felt so good to just … relax…
Then I heard a knock.
Jenny called out, “Hey - I need to pee!”
“Can you wait?”
“You’ve been in there for an hour!”
An hour, damn! I said, “Alright, give me five minutes to dry off!”
She said, “I really need to go.” I heard the door open, and Jenny came in.
But wait, I locked that door.
So… come on… I was naked, my most important possessions were sitting on the bathroom counter in that backpack, and a stranger had just entered the bathroom. Those SD cards, burner phones, my wallet and iPhone. Jenny could grab it all, be out the door, down the steps and into an Uber before I was dressed.
And, that’s if she didn’t take my clothes, too.
I peeked out. Oh, damn. Jenny was sitting on the toilet, her skirt was bunched up, and underwear were around her ankles. She really was … okay…
I pulled back the shower curtain enough to peer at my backpack. I could barely see myself in the fogged up bathroom mirror. She wouldn’t try to grab the bag and run, would she? Well, she could have turned me in so easily, but she didn’t.
But, wait. Maybe she was holding out for the SD card at DeKeisha’s house. If it was really the cyber weapon, that would be another million dollars. Once she got that card, she could turn me and the card in for a cool one point five mil…
The toilet flushed. I tensed. If Jenny tried to grab my backpack on her way out, I’d stick my hand out, hold the door, and prevent her from leaving. I hoped.
Please Jenny, just walk by. Walk by and do not even glance at the backpack, then I’d know I could trust you. Please, don’t even glan –
“Whatcha doin’?” Jenny had pulled back the other end of the shower curtain and had poked her head in. I was so surprised I almost slipped.
“Good God, don’t do that.”
“I just thought… I could use a shower. And, I’m kind of an environmentalist, so I thought we should conserve water.”
My heart sounded like this:
Jenny was already undressed. She wasn’t wearing anything, not even her mask. She stepped into the shower, stepped into the stream of hot water, stepped up onto her tippy toes and kissed me.
Jenny was breathing hard. She said, “That was terrible. You are awful at this.” She flipped over and suddenly started tickling me, which turned into kissing me, which turned into…
“That was incredible, Allen. For real.” I nodded in agreement.
She’d loudly called “Allen” several times for several reasons, not knowing my real name was Sean and let me tell you, it was weird. Normally that’d piss you off, right? Your partner saying someone else’s name in bed. Except, I was the someone else.
I said, “I can’t believe we broke the headboard.” Jenny giggled. She said, “That happens to me a lot for some reason.”
I smiled. I knew the reason.
We lay in a tangle. I kissed Jenny on the nose. She was gorgeous. I hadn’t seen her without a mask until I had seen her without all of her clothes. What a weird world. Dating and sex in the era of pandemics and masks was weird.
Our bed was soaking. The shower was still running and the entire hotel room was humid. We had started in the shower, finished on the bed and didn’t stop in between.
Jenny moved one of the chunks of the headboard that we had broken, brushed the splinters off the pillow, scooted up to lay her head on my shoulder. She put an arm over my chest. Her leg over my legs.
She kissed my neck and said, “Mmm, Sean, that was nice.”
Damn right that was nice. It’d been months since I’d been with a woman. Lately life had been focused on helping Teresa. Teresa. Shit! What was I doing?!? I hadn’t thought of my sister for hours. Her condition was worsening by the hour, I was on the run, I needed to just get up and get moving. To at least just get up and turn off the shower, to just – just. Just (yawn) a few more minutes.
My eyes snapped open. Where was I? I sat up in a panic.
I was shivering. The bed was wet. I was naked. What happened? Oh, my God, what’d I do? What’d I do?
I looked around. The shower was off. The AC by the window was cranking out gusts of arctic air. Half my body was goosebumps, the other half had shrunk like a frightened turtle.
Jenny was gone.
No! What have I done? What did I do?
I jumped out of bed. My backpack was gone.
No, no, no.
My clothes were gone!
My phone, my wallet.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no!
I buried my head in a pillow, and screamed. Why am I so stupid? Why, WHY??? I should have just taken a five minute cold shower and focused on helping Teresa. This is why I should NEVER TRUST ANYONE!
The TV was still on, blaring the news. It said, “several hours ago the Styx countdown had reappeared, reset to 72 hours and started counting down again. Before it got to 71 hours, it reset to 72 hours and disappeared.”
One confused and bemused “expert” – air quotes – pontificated that the thief was taunting the world. I knew that DeKeisha’s ancient computer had probably just blue-screened again. But at this point, who cares? I got royally fucked, fell asleep, got royally screwed, and now, I’m really royally fucked.
Jenny had cleaned me out. How was I going to get out of here. I was going to have to wear bed sheets like a toga. Who would give me a ride? Where would I even go?
“Allen, are you okay?”
My head was buried in a pillow. I hadn’t heard the door.
I thought, “holy shit, Jenny’s back.”
I said, “Holy shit, Jenny, you’re back. What the hell?! Where did you go?”
Jenny set a grocery bag down on the bed, took off her mask and explained she was doing laundry for me, getting a couple of groceries. She said, “I left a note.” She bent over and picked up a piece of paper off the floor. She held it up.
“I needed your backpack to carry your dirty clothes – I laid the note on your chest. Maybe the AC blew it off?” She went over to the AC and pushed a button. It purred to an end. The room became quiet. She said, “Sorry, it was really warm in here when I left. Oh (frowny), you have goosebumps everywhere.” She came over, pushed me down on the bed and said, “let’s warm you up.”
Written, Produced and Narrated by Hans Anderson
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