Critical Update

For my friends.

That’s the beauty and asymmetry of hacking: With 100 hours of work, one person can undo years of work by a multi-million-dollar company. Hacking gives the underdog a chance to fight and win. –Phineas Fisher

PART 1

Brian woke with a start. He was sweaty. It was too hot for April, and his apartment had no air conditioning. He reached out and turned the clock on his nightstand toward his face. Blue neon digits displayed the time: 07:56:02. Four minutes before his alarm was supposed to go off. He was good at that — always waking up right before his alarm. On the other side of his bedroom door, he could hear the soft whirring sound of cooling fans mounted along the side of a small stack of shiny chrome boxes. Inside the metallic rectangles were ASIC Digicoin miners. Brian had a job that paid decently, but that money was only good for government-traceable purchases. Digicoin, on the other hand, wasn’t technically money, as it wasn’t backed by any government or corporation. Brian wasn’t really the unlawful type — his life was far too comfortable for him to risk it on petty crime — but in this day and age there were things one might want that were hard to get, and having a bit of Digicoin just made it easier.

“Fucking hell, man,” Brian grumbled quietly. He knew he had to go to the office today. It was the bi-weekly team meeting, and his boss strongly preferred to see everyone attending in person. And when his boss strongly preferred something to happen, it was wise to avoid not having it happen. Other than these Tuesdays, though, remoting in from home was Brian’s preferred method for getting work done. He could multitask better that way. And Brian definitely was a multitasker.

Getting up from bed and stretching his arms, Brian made his way to the shower with his eyes half closed. After getting out of the shower, he checked his phone’s notifications out of habit. As usual, there was nothing important.

Brian sighed as he dumped out the last few capsules from the opened bottle of Soylent-X sitting on the kitchen counter. Walking out his apartment’s front door, he almost forgot his green Betatek employee badge. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to get past the checkpoint on 32nd street. Betatek had become pretty tight about their physical security since “the incident.” Some moronic team called Hax0rSekz thought they could social engineer themselves into the Betatek primary west-coast datacenter. Rumor had it they tried to plant credential theft malware on physical VM hosts. Well, those nimrods got into the building pretty easily, but trying to pull off a heist with a private security firm hunting them down while nitrogen gas filled the building proved to be just a tad difficult. It wasn’t the first time hackers had targeted Betatek, and it surely wouldn’t be the last time, but Brian didn’t understand why anyone would try to physically infiltrate one of the few remaining manned datacenters.

The drive to work was uneventful. An automatic car was waiting for him on the curb outside the apartment complex, having arrived less than a minute prior to his exit. He didn’t even have to tell it where to go — it knew from his phone’s synced calendar. The checkpoint at 32nd street was backed up. He had to wait four whole minutes in the queue. Eventually, Brian made his way to the front of the checkpoint. He held his badge up to the car’s window and the armed attendant at the gate scanned the RFID chip through the glass without even looking at him. “So much for security,” he muttered to himself. But he knew that there were at least three AI-backed turret cameras trained on his car, making sure his biometric signature matched the one in the Betatek employee database. The rent-a-cop was there entirely for show.

Building Z was one of the oldest buildings on campus, in terms of time since the last renovation. It still had some of the original decor from when it was built in the mid-1990s. That was nearly twenty years ago. It was now 9:33 A.M. The meeting had started at 9:30, but pretty much everyone showed up five minutes late anyway. Even his annoying boss who liked to draw on the whiteboard too much.

Brian arrived at conference room 409, the only conference room in the entire damn building that had no windows. What a shitty room, probably used to be a closet, Brian thought to himself. He always thought that — every other Tuesday for the past seven and a half years. Somehow, despite all the annual company reorganizations, he managed to remain in the same office, in the same building, with the same boss. For Betatek, this was almost completely unheard of. There was a running joke inside the company: Don’t like your manager? Just wait a year, you’ll probably have a new one by then. It’s not that Lex was a bad manager per se, it’s just that what Lex managed was terribly boring. Being the lead developer on software that had been finished six years ago meant that most of one’s time is spent making busywork. Lex knew this, but didn’t seem to particularly care, likely because the pay was good, nobody was complaining, and staying out of the limelight is not an unreasonable career strategy at Betatek.

The meeting was starting. And seventeen minutes later, the meeting was over. Having fulfilled his singular duty for the day, Brian was getting ready to go back home when he was unexpectedly stopped by Lex in the hallway. “Brian, do you have time for a quick chat?” Brian wasn’t sure if his manager was being facetious — there was no such thing as a quick chat at Betatek and they both knew it. “Yeah, sure. What’s up?” The reply came out naturally.

“Come to my office, we’ll talk there.” Brian didn’t have an office of his own. None of the engineers did in the damned open floorplan. That’s why over half of them never bothered to show up in person. Lex’s office was decently sized due to seniority. Brian saw that Lex had somehow obtained a mini-fridge, which was underneath a raised table but did not appear to be plugged in. He closed the door and stood in front of Lex’s oddly tidy desk.

“Please, sit down.” Lex gestured toward the visitor chair placed against the wall on the other side of the room. Brian sat in the stolen conference room chair, and realized it was smaller than he thought. His phone was poking him in the thigh, so he took it out of his pocket and laid it on the chair’s right armrest. “What’s going on? Is something wrong with the update service?”

“Nope, service is running fine. At least that’s what the telemetry says. Haven’t seen any problems except for that certificate expiration that was coming up, but you said you took care of that last night.”

“Eh, technically it was this morning.” Brian said with a half-smile on his face. “So why am I really in your office? Is our little team finally getting dissolved?”

“Ha! You’re funny.” A low chuckle, then a change in tone: “No. It’s actually because I wanted to talk to you about something … slightly … non-work related.”

Lex got up and swiftly unplugged his high-end workstation from the Ethernet jack and power strip mounted on the wall. Brian noticed a small amount of sweat glistening at the top of Lex’s large forehead. Something was definitely up. Without saying a word, Lex grabbed Brian’s phone from the chair’s armrest, removed the back cover, and popped the battery out with a long pinky fingernail.

Before Brian could get a word of protest out, Lex made the lip-zip gesture for silence. “Tell me, Brian. What do you know about Digicoin?”

~

That evening, Brian was back in his apartment sitting at his brown-cherry wood desk. Soft electronica was playing from overpriced speakers to mask the street noises from below. It was night out and the apartment was dark aside from the dim reddish glow of his computer monitor. Brian was thinking about what Lex had told him back at his house’s soundproof “music rehearsal room.” (During the entire time Brian knew Lex, not once did he mention playing a musical instrument.) They had gone there after work, because Lex had decided mid-conversation that his office might be bugged.

Basically, Lex claimed that a tiny group of extremely talented hackers had compromised the Betatek update infrastructure and intend to use it to deploy CryptoLocker malware to every computer on (and orbiting around) the planet. The fallout would be immense. It’s not that Brian didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, but he didn’t quite understand why they couldn’t just bring this problem to the InfoSec Overwatch Team and let them deal with it. He had already decided that Lex was clearly acting way stranger than usual, but there was no obvious answer as to why.

“It’s not like Lex’s argument of exposing our team’s laziness is untrue,” Brian mused to himself. “But I really don’t think that Betatek would have us all killed and then upload our neuroscans into the cloud AI to have it continue our jobs. Psh… It’s not like we live in some kind of futuristic cyberpunk dystopia where skilled human workers are no longer necessary!” Brian caught himself staring off into space for a few minutes, pondering the essence and purpose of humanity. Right! He was in the middle of doing something. Snapping back to reality, Brian alt-tabbed through the open terminal windows on his computer, stopping at the one logged in as Administrator. Pushing his roller-chair away from his desk with both feet, he grabbed a USB flash drive that was lying on top of the table on the opposite side of the room. He slotted the drive into the back of his desktop computer and mounted the encrypted volume. Opening the wallet file within, Brian found he had nearly twenty-six Digicoins, worth between sixteen and twenty thousand New US Dollars depending on the shadiness of the exchange being used to do the conversion.

“Goddamnit Lex, you better not be about to fuck up my life,” Brian whispered aloud as he booted an illegal disposable Linux virtual machine, established a cloaked VPN session to an anonymous relay in the Principality of New Sealand, and launched the Tor Browser Bundle. Lex’s plan was not without its risks — every computer that runs Betatek OS is also a seeing eye into the distributed anti-thoughtcrime enforcement system, jointly developed by Betatek, the NSA, and the FBI. If Lex and Brian were to solve this problem without alerting Betatek upper management (or the government — but sometimes that line was blurry), then they needed to avoid both Betatek products as well as accessing any unencrypted service on the public internet.

It took just under an hour of darknet searching to find a vigilante hacker willing to take on the job, and at nearly half the rate Brian was willing to budget for this idiotic plan. The hacker, who went by the alias morris, explained that they would first back-hack the evil hackers with social engineering in order to penetrate their hacking clan, and then finish the job by using a specially crafted cyber pathogen to infect their mainframe’s digital cortex (or something like that). Morris wanted half payment up front, and half after delivering t3h r00t sh3llz. Brian accepted, and sent this Morris character a whopping six point seven Digicoins.

PART 2

A small woman with short dirty blonde hair was standing in front a tall black metal gate bolted across the front of a breezeway. Two run-down three story apartment buildings stood on each side of her. A shared staircase was located behind the gate. To her right, a long weatherproofed Cat-6 cable ran out from a crack in a metal access panel near the side of the stairs before disappearing into a small hole in the wall. “Goddamnit Andrew, let me in.” Seconds later, a small relay inside the gate’s control box clicked on, and the electromagnet inside the gate’s handle assembly buzzed as it disengaged the lock. The woman opened the gate just enough to slide herself in, and then darted up the stairs to the third floor.

Apartment 314 was located on the far side of the building — and as the woman approached the front door, it opened. In the doorway stood Andrew. He was tall, with short dark hair, a cleanly shaven face, and wearing the same dark gray t-shirt he always wore. “Would it kill you to stop changing the gate code every other day?” asked Chelsea in an indignant tone. “It’s called opsec, Chelsea…” replied Andrew in a semi-playful voice. “Whatever,” responded Chelsea sarcastically as she stepped into the dimly lit apartment, “it’s not like anyone actually lives in these buildings since the flooding started.” Andrew and Chelsea walked to the back room of the two-bedroom apartment, where a teenaged girl was sitting in front of a triple-headed computer, typing quickly on a loud mechanical keyboard. “I’m back,” announced Chelsea to the room. “Huh?” replied the girl in the chair as she stopped typing and slowly swiveled around to meet Chelsea’s eyes. “Oh, great! Welcome back,” she added. “Thanks Heather,” answered Chelsea.

Chelsea was the team’s Logistical Agent. Essentially a ninja, Chelsea was small, strong, and capable. She had been performing meatspace reconnaissance on the pieces of Betatek’s physical infrastructure that were relevant to their mission. In this case, it was a hangar on the outskirts of the dilapidated city of Cape Canaveral, where Betatek launched yearly resupply rockets up to their unmanned orbiting datacenters. The facility was important due to its bridge to Betatek’s secure satellite network.

So, what’d you find?” inquired Andrew in a still-playful tone as he sat down on the edge of a twin-sized bed. Crumpled white sheets and a single large pillow laid pitifully on top of the unframed mattress. There was no point in making the safehouse too lavish, since they were planning to burn it as soon as the mission was completed. Chelsea began to give her report: “It’s pretty much what we’d expected. Security is tight, but it’s one-hundred percent automated computer systems. Probably linked back to the AI at their headquarters in New Seattle, if I had to guess. Cameras are mounted on fixtures built into the building’s poured cement walls, and the ones on the interior have turret guns attached to them. I got some hi-rez photos with the zoom lens. Nice work on the camera mount for the drone, by the way.” She paused and nodded in a rare show of respect.

Chelsea continued, “There’s three fiber optic lines coming into the facility. Each one is in a different conduit, so it’s pretty much impossible to cut them all at the same time. We already know about the sat link up to orbit. The SDR sniffer picked up what looked like typical 802.11 wireless, but on a non-standard frequency and of course with plenty of crypto. Heather, I have a couple minutes of pcap if you want it. Physical intrusion prevention appears to be quite minimal, just a couple of ten-foot chain-link fences with some barb on top. There’s no actual entrance so to speak, either. I suppose that given the nature of this facility, the intended way to get in and out is by air. But overall, it appears Betatek is more concerned with finding out who might end up inside there than with actually keeping people out.”

“Do you think you can handle it?” asked Heather.

“Of course. It’ll take some planning, but I think it’s doable,” answered Chelsea. “How’re the virtual side of things going?”

“Excellent,” Heather replied with a proud smile.

“Hey,” yelled Chelsea after walking into the main room of the apartment, “do we have anything to eat? I’m starving and I’m sick of Soylent.” Andrew walked out of the bedroom, leaving Heather in the monochrome glow of numerous xterms. “I picked up some sandwiches from that mini-mart near the highway, they’re in the fridge.” Andrew gestured toward the mini-fridge in the kitchen. All the real appliances had been stripped from the abandoned apartment complex. “I couldn’t get any more free soda though,” he added, “they started sticking RFID chips to the bottom of the cups to prevent people from getting unlimited refills.” As Chelsea unwrapped a so-called “chicken” sandwich she mentioned in reply, “Heather is working on a new RFID exploit framework that needs a field test — see if you can bring it with you next time you go over there.”

Before Andrew joined the group, he was a freelance systems administrator. From his various jobs, he knew his way around the networks of the two largest corporations in the Reunited States — Betatek being one of them. A few years ago, he had a 24-month contract where he designed and implemented a new network topology between fourteen branch campuses of Betatek. (It was what year and they were finally getting around to doing a proper IPv6 deployment!?) Andrew had a wealth of knowledge and experience with the interconnected systems of Betatek, and it helped immensely during the planning of the virtual side of their mission. He also provided a bit of assistance to Chelsea as she planned the physical aspects of their mission, and was a generally knowledgeable person.

Suddenly, Heather came running down the hall, nearly tripping on a bundle of cables running between the two rooms of the apartment. She yelled as she ran: “Holy shit you guys! I think someone from Betatek is trying to hire me!”

“What the hell, you mean as an employee?” asked Andrew.

“No, not at all like that… I think this is off the books.” Heather explained excitedly, “Some rando Beta-lifer is asking me to crack these skiddies that are giving him work trouble, and apparently it needs to be on the D.L.”

“This could be a trap,” Chelsea said incredulously.

“Yeah, that was my first thought too — but I think this dude is legit. C’mere and look at this, they sent me remote login credentials for their fucking dev box!” Heather motioned for Chelsea and Andrew to walk over to her desk.

“O.M.G.” exclaimed Andrew, spelling the acronym out in letters. “That is a major security violation!”

“Yeah, tell me about it. Whoever this is, they’re either incredibly desperate or incredibly dumb. Maybe both?”

Heather was the team’s Payload Specialist. Originally a hacker-for-hire, on the net she went by the alias morris, a reference to the first internet worm. Now she designed the hacks that the group depended on to carry out their mission. Heather’s malware was always custom made and she rarely relied on other people’s code. She was light years ahead of those metasploit skids, often utilizing vulns that were still known only to the NSA and various intelligence agencies around the world. If there was one thing that made her stand out, it was her ability to do this consistently. She fancied herself the title The Zero-Day Queen, but kept it to herself since revealing one’s gender on the internet would violate opsec.

Reversing Heather’s malware would take a skilled team weeks, maybe months. She wrote a custom polymorphic transformation engine that used obscure CPU and OS design quirks to unpack and decrypt her payloads. In order to avoid setting off intrusion detection and anti-malware systems, she frequently compromised those appliances first before going after the real target machine. It wasn’t uncommon for commercial networking gear to have government backdoors, and she was smart enough to know when to let someone else do the hard work for her. It had a bonus effect of the government not wanting to patch up the holes they themselves were using. Heather also went through great lengths to prevent her attacks from becoming discovered by passive network observers. Multi-path distributed exfiltration of encrypted, steganographically hidden data trickled out over long periods of time meant finding her true location required the digital equivalent of finding a needle in a universe-sized hay stack. She was particularly fond of mobile C&C systems. One could rent infected smartphones in blocks of 1,000 for days at a time with only a small amount of Digicoin, and their ever-changing location coupled with near constant connectivity meant they made excellent proxies. In short, Heather was a black-hat badass.

Back at her workstation, the minutes passed quickly as Heather tapped away on her clicky mechanical keys, lines of rainbow-highlighted code spewing forth from an editor window. After nearly an hour, she turned toward Andrew and Chelsea, who were still standing behind her waiting for a promised explanation.

Finally, Heather spoke: “I think we can really use this to our advantage. I- I may not have to hack into Betatek after all…” She almost sounded disappointed.

“Seriously?” Chelsea asked in a serious tone.

“You don’t mean…” Andrew’s voice trailed off as he came to the same realization.

Heather confirmed it: “Yup. I’m like ninety-nine percent sure I can pivot through this guy’s box and get the encryption keys we need to compromise Betatek’s update service.”

“Luxurious,” Andrew stated pretentiously.

“Luxurious indeed…” Heather mumbled, still looking at her computer screen. “Chelsea, if you’re comfortable with it, I think we can move up our implementation to — umm, the day after tomorrow!”

PART 3

It was pitch black out on the ride to the facility. Andrew sat in tense silence in the back seat as Chelsea drove the van full of gear down the interstate at precisely the speed limit. Getting there on time was important, but driving too quickly might trigger highway cameras. The LCD license plate overlay that Heather built periodically changed the displayed tag to one of a couple hundred that also matched the make and model of their vehicle. On close inspection it was clear that it wasn’t a legit plate, but the traffic cams were too far away to be able to tell the difference, and unless someone was specifically looking for their vehicle it provided a good deal of anonymity against the nationwide vehicle location database. There was a risk that an anomaly such as the same plate being seen in two wildly different locations would set off alarms, but the Florida department of transportation was understaffed when it came to skilled data analysts that were willing to respond to a pager ping this close to midnight.

The night air was humid but cool, and the rhythmic chirping of the crickets mixed with the smooth drone of rubber on asphalt was strangely calming. The cab window above the van’s center console slid open and Andrew’s voice quietly proclaimed, “I’ve got the link to Heather set up now.” Chelsea didn’t take her eyes off the road or even speak a word, but instead raised a hand to give Andrew a thumbs up. “We got this,” Andrew said to reassure himself. He sat back down in the rear of the vehicle but didn’t close the cab window.

The van pulled onto an exit ramp and slowed down to street speeds. “We’re almost there,” said Chelsea in a voice that belonged more to a mother telling a car full of children that they’ve arrived at Disney World than it did to someone about to assist in a potentially deadly mission of corporate sabotage. Andrew saw her smile in the rearview mirror. Clearly someone is pumped about this, thought Andrew to himself. Switching back to her normal voice, Chelsea told Andrew, “tell Heather she can start now.” Andrew didn’t respond in words, but his typing into the computer was now audible thanks to the slower speed of the vehicle. As he hit Enter he simultaneously stated aloud: “Sent.”

Minutes later they arrived at the unmanned facility. Well, not exactly at it — they parked at the edge of a neglected gravel access road that was used by the original construction crew. Located just over a thousand feet away from the boundary fence, the hangar building looked exactly as Chelsea’s recon photos had shown it on the 4K monitor back at the safehouse. “Can’t get much closer than this without the infra scanners picking up the engine heat,” she said as she turned off the key in the ignition.

“It’s go time. You got Heather’s stick?” Andrew asked, his head poking through the space where the cab window was lowered. “Yup.” Chelsea touched the USB flash drive in her front-right pants pocket. “Is Heather good back at the apartment?” A couple of seconds passed as Andrew relayed the message. The response came quickly: “Yup. We’re locked onto her signal. And Heather is inside the Betatek network from the fiber side, ready to kill the security turrets. She says you’ll have an hour before the watchdog timer trips and reconfigures the system. Midnight.” The time on the dashboard clock read exactly 11:00 PM.

“Got it,” replied Chelsea. “I’m ready. Let’s destroy these fascists.”

Andrew and Chelsea synced new encryption keys to their radio earpieces. Chelsea exited the vehicle and walked around to the back and Andrew opened one of the rear doors to pass through her bag of goodies.

“Get back in one piece,” said Andrew in a surprisingly caring voice.

“I’ll bring you back a present,” assured Chelsea wryly.

~

Chelsea advanced quickly through the tall grass. There was little cover between the van and the concrete structure out in the distance. When she reached the fence, Chelsea took out the bolt cutter and began to snip the chain-link. Chelsea gave Heather and Andrew a quick check-in over radio. “At the fence,” she whispered into the darkness. “South perimeter cams are offline.” Heather’s soft voice came in clearly. The audio quality was good; it was like she was speaking right into their ears.

Ducking through the half-height opening in the fence, Chelsea made her way the remaining five hundred feet to the south side of the building. There were no lights to guide her except the few visible stars in the sky. It was a good thing she got those night-vision implants a few years ago. Approaching the building, a low hum resonated from the other side of the eight-inch-thick walls. She flanked her way east along the perimeter until reaching the other side of the building, stopping a few meters before the edge. “East cams,” said Chelsea under her breath. Distant typing echoed in her ear as the noisy mechanical key switches confused the voice-activation algorithm on Heather’s mic. A minute later Heather spoke: “You’re good.”

Turning the corner, Chelsea took the active RFID emulator out of her bag. A surface mount LED on the device turned green as she held it up to a small rectangular outline to the right of the door handle. “Locks,” she said. Heather didn’t bother replying, but a second later the sound of a large piston sliding down a hydraulic cylinder could be heard from the other side of the dark red metal door. The door abruptly jolted inward a few inches. Chelsea grabbed the handle in her left hand and slid the door half way along the inlaid track on the floor.

Back on the outskirts, Andrew had connected to the building’s auxiliary wireless network with a directional antenna aimed through a small hemispherical radio-transparent dome mounted on the side of their van. Heather had sent him a copy of all the router configuration files she obtained by pivoting over from the fiber link, which included the necessary encryption key. “Wireless is up, use wlan2” he typed into the chat window. This was a backup connection that she could proxy in through just in case her connection from the hard line was dropped.

Now it was Heather’s turn. Back at her desk in the safehouse she had the building’s infrastructure maps and wiring schematics open across her three monitors. According to the map, the room Chelsea was in didn’t have much in it. Just an exterior door, a couple square feet of standing room, and another door that led into the hangar area of the launch facility. However, the interesting part about this entryway was that the underground utility map showed a fiber pull running into the side wall of the room and then disappearing. Being that a “janitorial closet” with three-phase power was adjacent to the room on the north side, Heather deduced this was a network demarcation point.

Heather broadcast herself into the channel so that both Chelsea and Andrew could hear her: “Okay Chelsea, now that you’re inside the mantrap, look to your right. There should be a large gray panel mounted on the wall. Unscrew whatever’s holding it in place and pull it off. One of the fiber conduits from the outside comes up behind there.”

Chelsea identified six large stainless steel bolts holding the 2-foot by 4-foot panel in place. She pulled out her power drill and swapped the bit out for a hex-socket. It made quick work of the tight bolts, and the panel came off with relative ease.

As soon as she saw what was behind the panel, Chelsea let out an audible groan. “Shit, there’s a rack cage door with a fucking padlock on it. I don’t have time to pick this shit.” Chelsea took out the bolt cutter again and snipped the padlock clear off. It dropped to the floor with a thunk. She reached down and put it in her bag to give to Andrew later.

The rack cage door was hinged on the left, and made an obnoxious high-pitched noise as she opened it about two inches before it hit the other side of the wall. “That joint could have used some WD-40, got any in your bag?” Andrew quipped into her ear. Apparently he had heard it over the mic. Chelsea ignored his lame attempt at a joke and began to read the MAC addresses printed on the back of the equipment where the fiber terminated.

“That’s it!” Heather exclaimed. The MAC address belonged to an older model of two-in-one router and firewall — Heather’s exploit cocktail would be sure to compromise it with ease. “The management port is on the front, are you able to reach your hand around and plug the drive in there?” Chelsea looked at the back of the rack through the hole in the wall. There was no way she could get her hand around the frame (there was maybe a millimeter or two of clearance on the sides), and even if she could, her arms were not anime long. “There’s an empty 1U gap between two appliances. I might be able to squeeze through there.” Standing right up against the cold cement wall, she took the small black drive out from her pocket and slid her arm through the rack. Taking care to remember which orientation was “up” on the plug, she slowly eased it into the USB port on the front until she heard a tiny but satisfying click.

Less than a minute later Andrew exclaimed, “Heather, it worked! I have a connect-back shell on the orbiting datacenter’s network! We’re in!” Although they were successful, establishing a link to the satellite was only the first stage of this exploit. Suddenly, Heather spoke quickly into her headset: “Guys I just lost my fiber connection. I’m switching to the wifi fallback.” A couple of seconds later she nervously added, “something’s wrong. I can’t ping any of the branch router’s IPs. I think someone’s cutting us off.” Andrew instantly feared the worst. “Chelsea, get yourself out of there. We’re aborting the mission. Forget opsec, leave the drive if you have to.”

Chelsea was screwing the last bolt back onto the wall panel when she collapsed to the floor.

PART 4

Chelsea regained consciousness strapped to a metal chair in the main chamber of the hangar. She felt fatigued and her vision was slightly blurred. A massive rocket with the Betatek corporate insignia printed on the side appeared closer than it really was. There was a man standing maybe a few yards in front of her dressed in a navy blue Betatek polo and slacks. He looked like a middle manager.

“Ah, you’re awake. I was hoping that the nitrogen asphyxiation wouldn’t put you into a coma!” The man sounded gleeful. “Now you will get to experience being shot to death by the security turrets — how wonderful!” Chelsea futilely struggled in the chair and gave him a death glare.

“Why don’t you tell me your name, sweetheart? I’m Lex.” Lex pressed his thumb to his chest. Chelsea’s death glare intensified.

“Hmm… not the talkative type, are you? Well, I am! I know it’s cliché to tell you my master plan right before you die, but I just can’t help myself. You might be the only one out there that can relate to me, judging by your presence here and your little bag of toys.” Lex pointed behind her. Chelsea couldn’t turn around, but she assumed he was pointing at her tool bag, which she did not see in front of her.

Lex began to ramble a bit. “…Don’t you see! I’ve planned the greatest insider hack since the Da Vinci virus! I plan to infect every Betatek OS computer on the planet with CryptoLocker! Even if I collect even one-hundredth of a percent of the ransom, I’ll be living like a king in the darknet underworld!”

Chelsea felt the absence of her radio earpiece, but the USB stick was safe in her pants pocket. “Fuck you,” was all she replied.

“Now there, I don’t think you and I are all that different,” said Lex mockingly. “To be quite honest, I think it’s pretty amazing I ran into another saboteur here — I mean really, talk about coincidence! And now I have the perfect scapegoat. Way better than that sucker Brian.” Lex pointed right at Chelsea’s face. “You will be dead, and you will take all the blame. Whatever friends or family you may have will be imprisoned for association with a terrorist, and I’ll get off scot-free!”

Suddenly, the muffled sound of the exterior metal door unlocking echoed through the mantrap room and into the hangar. “Ooh, an accomplice!” Lex said in a menacing voice as he began to walk past Chelsea. “I’ll be right back…”

Far off in the distance, Chelsea saw a human figure dressed in all black stalking along the northwest interior wall. Within a minute or so, the figure was just barely close enough for her to make out… Andrew!?

She heard footsteps coming from behind and then felt Lex’s right hand slide across her neck and shoulders. He stepped directly in front of her. “That’s odd, dear. I couldn’t seem to find your friend.” Lex frowned mockingly. “Do you think you could tell me where they’re hiding so I can give them a proper welc — ”

A single gunshot rang out. The noise reverberated off the high ceiling. Lex slumped to the ground in shock revealing Andrew only ten yards away, his hands still on the pistol. Chelsea breathed an instant sigh of relief at the sight of his face. That was all the thanks that Andrew needed.

“It’s ten minutes ‘till midnight. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

EPILOGUE

It was Friday morning and Brian was growing increasingly concerned. Three days had passed since Lex abruptly left on vacation. His excuse was that he hadn’t taken one in so long that his PTO was going to start expiring. Brian didn’t doubt that, but the way Lex had been acting before he left had already set off alarms in Brian’s head. If Lex didn’t return by next Tuesday, the automated HR system would terminate his employment contract and promote the direct report with the highest seniority into the empty management position. Brian had the seniority, but he didn’t want to become a manager. Especially not through the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor.

At least Brian didn’t have to worry about the CryptoLocker threat anymore. It took a few days longer than expected, but morris finally returned with proof that they had exorcised the hackers from Betatek’s update system. After receiving the previously agreed-upon final half of the payment, morris sent one final message: “Don’t forget to install your security updates.”

Brian rolled his eyes at the computer screen and thought to himself, “no shit, they’re compulsory.” Seconds later a notification popped up in the lower right corner of his screen:

[!] A new critical update is available.

“That’s odd,” thought Brian, “aren’t our global security fixes normally sent out on Mondays?” Nevertheless, Brian dismissed the notification and returned to his work, allowing the patch to download in the background — just as billions of other Betatek OS users did every month.

Brian’s computer restarted without any warning, and all the way in Florida three cyberpunks celebrated their victory.