Defcon Short story contest entry by be3n
Chapter 1 : Knowledge Distribution and Collection
In a large lecture hall only moderately filled, Yohan stood before a class of first year computer science students. The dark rings under his brown eyes and matted light brown hair highlighted his rumpled and unkempt appearance. He was of average height with broad shoulders and a bit of a barrel chest. Barely older than his students, he hardly had their attention as he began to speak.
“Infinite monkeys pounding on keyboards will eventually produce Shakespeare! We’ve all heard this. Is that machine learning? Are these nearly infinite transistors your army of monkeys?”, he asks. A few students timidly raised hands before he answered himself, “No, we are not leveraging the power of infinite monkeys here. Here we teach learning systems not just how to learn, but how to teach themselves to learn even better,” he continued. The students started to raise eyes from their glowing screens to follow Yohan as he slowly drew their attention.
Speaking enthusiastically, his eyes began to brighten, “Your model is derived by the learning systems analysis of the data you feed it. Bad data creates bad learning. One famous example from the early days of machine learning was an Army effort to train a system to detect tanks from aerial reconnaissance. The scientists working on the project did not notice at the time that all the photographs taken containing tanks in the sample were taken on overcast days. Most of the photos that did not contain tanks, had been taken on sunny days. In the end, they did not train the model to detect tanks, but instead to detect cloudy weather. If you are not careful this can happen to you.
“False assumptions lead to false predictions and the model degrades. It is increasingly important to properly select the data points for your matrix as well as allowing for the training of weights and biases assigned to these data points.
“Just like our tank example, we can find other false assumptions. The racist biases that lead to the idea that immigrants bring crime can also be attributed to a bad learning data set. In our immigrant example, that learning data set could be the content produced by Fox News. Bias is not always bad, we need them to judge the significance of our data. For another example, say you wanted to go out to eat. In order to select a location, you might ask a friend, Paul for his favorite restaurant. He suggests a Bowling alley diner. Does this choice reflect bias? Might it help to know going in that Paul’s favorite food is hot dogs and bowls every weekend as part of a league? Should it affect the significance you mentally apply to his suggestion? These are the weights and biases that we apply in our everyday decision making. These same sort of weights and biases must be trained into the learning model. And they are, every time. It is usually not possible to eliminate input bias entirely..” Many in the class seemed a bit perplexed by all this new information.
“Rule of acquisition #74 states that knowledge equals profit. In our case knowledge equals model. The more training you can supply, the more points in your matrix, the greater and more accurate the predictability. How many of you have worked with confusion matrices?” Someone called out, “They’re all confusion matrices to me,” but Yohan didn’t reply, he just waited patiently. . In time nearly all the students raised their hands. . That was a good sign. He continued his lecture going over some examples of using bias of various data to increase the flexibility of the model. . . By the time he was talking about practical uses for stochastic gradiants, most of his students’ attention had wandered.
After class, Yohan waited for his students to filter up the stairs and out the exits at the back of the lecture hall. As the door clicked shut behind the last student, Yohan strode towards a door to the right of the whiteboards at the front of the lecture hall. This inconspicuous door led to faculty offices and a network of inner hallways between the lecture halls. With a quick and confident stride, Yohan navigated the corridors and stopped before a door completely covered in fliers, notices, and posters. So thick were these accretions that they seemed to increase the thickness of the door, which traveled backwards in time behind each layer. Near the top of the door a sign in a paisley pattern atop a construction paper rainbow boldly read “SAM.”
Without knocking, Yohan opened the door and stepped into clutter that even the chaos of the door couldn’t possibly prepare one for. Books stacked sideways were piled as high as the desk they surrounded it on three sides. The stacks behind the desk reached nearly to the ceiling. Sitting at the desk was a stocky man. Above his broad forehead, his long straight hair was only slightly thinning and completely gray. His long, thick, white beard hung down, completely obscuring his mouth while somehow emphasizing his smile.
“Yohan! How was the new class? Do they want to learn? Or are they just texting cat memes to one another?”
“I don’t know, Sam, I didn’t talk to any of them. They seemed to be listening. Did you read the latest results?”
“It needs more.”
“More? I have thousands of hours already ingested , with thousands more just waiting for time.“
“I don’t mean more input. I mean different kinds of input. You cannot just feed it televised poker. Its needs a broader range of human emotions.”
“What are you saying? I want it to detect bluffs and misleads. What other data could we add? If only we could get video from casino surveillance.”
“Don’t even go there. If those casinos even get a whiff of what you are trying to do before you are ready to publish, I can’t imagine what they’d do. You need to be careful. How is the hardware going?”
“Oh, the hardware is the easy part. The new Samsung CCDs are so tiny and low power, I can get four in the frame before you even start to notice the extra thickness. I decided to make them sunglasses.”
“So you’re still set on this foolishness? I told you before: it’s a bad idea. We can hold poker games on campus I’m sure I could get the dean to allow it.“
“No! you said it yourself, we don’t want anyone to know about this model until I am ready to present. Still, at some point it is going to need to be tested.”
“What about an interaction? Can you work with the model directly?”
“No. . . yes. . . maybe. . . what would be the point? What are you saying?”
“It’s simple: just point it at yourself and interact with it. Use your face to teach it. It has to start somewhere. “
“Oh it’s started. . . I have logged thousands of hours of world series poker tournaments. Do you know how many hours I have put into my training and testing data sets?…and it’s continuing. . . I have so much more waiting to be prepped. You would have me wasting my time with what? Smiling into a camera when it’s done well? “
“That is part of it. If you only feed it professional poker players from TV you’re going to pigeonhole your model.”
“What is wrong with specializing? That is what I am trying to do here. Answer a single question. Are they bluffing?” Yohan shrugged, paused a moment before he continued, “It is still terrible at it by the way. With less than 20% accuracy, we do better flipping a coin.”
“This is what I am saying. Your model needs a broader data set. I would start there.”
“I’ll think about it. What more can I say? I already have too much to do. Shit! I have to get downstairs!” With that Yohan stormed out of Sam’s office, leaving Sam sitting in stunned silence.
Later that Day
Deep in the bowels of the Technology building, Peter sat slumped over a keyboard. His face was illuminated by the glow of a screen. The room was sparsely furnished with three walls of concrete. The far wall consists primarily of large sliding glass doors revealing racks of glowing blinking and humming computers in the next room. On the screen was a blue status bar that despite shimmering with fancy 3D graphics was not actually moving in any way across the screen. He was staring at it when the door opened, disrupting his trance.
“Another bottle neck?” Yohan asked.
“I’m afraid you caught me entraining my default mode network,” replied Peter. “Just kidding, but not really. Anyway…It was quickly discovered. The model was slowly ingesting the latest batch of data. Very slowly. If you want to get anywhere you are going to need more machines” he blurted out. “This will take three and a half years at its current rate.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?” asked Yohan.
“Can’t you pop us some big iron? We could chew through this in days on something decent.”
“Too much could go wrong. I am not just talking about the law. We can’t risk our work getting out. No, but I have a better idea. Didn’t you get a pile of offers of free hosting offers from SCaLE? Pass those over.”
“But those freebies are tiny and only for one month. How are they even going to help?”
“Get enough of them and they should scale nicely. If I automate it properly, it could be seamless. “ His voice trailed off, as his mind applied itself to the problem. How long could he host a single VM without payment? Could he construct reliable revolving infrastructure on this? Could he use referrals to reduce cost? Would he need pre-paid credit cards to give the appearance of financial responsibility? How many systems would he need at once? How many systems could he run at once? How many sock puppets would that require? What resources would be required to maintain the sock puppets?
Yohan had been at his desk all night. That alone was not unusual, Yohan had on many previous occasions greeted the dawn with eyes sharp with focus while bloodshot with sleeplessness. This time there was a sense of accomplishment like never before. He had done it. His greatest quiet work yet and this time it was completely legal! Well, it violates all the terms of service, but that doesn’t even count. He had constructed an incredibly elaborate revolving server farm. Complete with command and control infrastructure to instruct a revolving set of server processing nodes. Each had been made from a Virtual Server acquired on a limited trial basis for zero dollars. He had nodes that acquire more free trials, he had nodes for maintaining fake profiles during the trials. He even had nodes for cleaning up and clearing out servers whose time was up. Like an elaborate dance where all the dancers and their many parts must be perfectly in step with each other. It was truly amazing and cost him nothing more than a constant stream new email addresses. Of course, he had a node for that too. The point of it all was more processing power to process more videos! With some inroads in the psychology department, he had gained even more data to process. Now things were going to move more quickly.
After that, the model had progressed. Then it was time to test. Yohan reached to open the bottom left drawer of his desk. The drawer was filled with mismatched, seemingly broken electronics. After rummaging around for a moment, Yohan seized what he was looking for and removed a battered and broken pair of sunglasses. He set them atop the main screen on his desk and attached a lead to the sunglasses with the other end connected to small hub on his desk beside his keyboard. The sunglasses immediately began to glow from several LED lights in the frame. With a few keys presses Yohan’s face appeared in a window on his screen. Yohan turned his head to different angles, tried on different expressions and appeared to be satisfied. “I cannot believe I’m actually doing this. . .” he muttered under his breath. A few more keys pressed and a transparent wireframe appeared around his face on the screen. The frame linked key points on his face and outlined elements of expression such as smile or frown lines. Yohan smiled in satisfaction and then laughed suddenly in a quick blast when WORRY appeared in the green on black terminal window beside his face on the screen. “Looks like I’m going to be here for a while.”
With each new batch of video data, the model added complexity to its analysis, but from his test data, Yohan slowly realized that the model wasn’t getting any better. He was tired of making faces at his computer. He needed a different approach. Yohan closed his work and opened up a browser and brought up last night’s Daily Show. He rotated his laptop ninety degrees so it could be seen from the kitchen of his small apartment and crossed to the refrigerator to forage. Trevor Noah ranted about the latest celebrity trial. Yohan eventually grabbed a coffee Soylent because there was a significant lack of options.
Apparently another powerful man has shirked the rapidly growing number of abuse allegations made against him. Something about unsolicited groping in a theater. Authorities have subpoenaed the theaters surveillance video in order to substantiate the claim. The story included a graphic of a still frame of security footage of inside of a theater. The ghostly pale appearance of each face was enhanced by the obvious infrared filter. The voices faded to noise in Yohan’s ears. He was staring at the image. It vanished a few moments later as the segment concluded. Returning to himself, he took a long slow drink from the bottle.
Back at his desk, late that night, Yohan continued his quiet work of stealing the data he wanted. Getting kicked out of school was probably the least of his worries if he were caught. He had meticulously, over the past few hours, selected some very interesting data to acquire. Data that he had discovered was left practically unprotected. He found it odd that this part of the system was so neglected. The amount of protection, or rather the lack of protection, surrounding this trove demonstrated the theatre’s level of contempt for their customers. The data may not contain names, but it included complete HD night-vision video recordings of all the moviegoers’ entire experience. The systems that contained the actual movies were behind impenetrable labyrinths of satellite connections and carefully maintained encrypted channels. Doors locked with keys. Keys maintained by minders. That was all fine. He wasn’t here for the obvious prize. The theaters originally claimed the cameras were needed to protect their copyright. once the cameras were there they found new and amazing ways to monetize. These recordings were used for market research, demographic breakdowns, probably sold to whomever for whatever purpose they could imagine. Did anyone imagine his purpose? The recordings here were food of a sort for his baby and that was what he was after.
The implant was firmly in place, concealed by a rootkit of his own construction. The build date on this system was Oct2019 so it didn’t seem like an update was likely. He sabotaged the update mechanism anyway. He didn’t want to be discovered moving all that data so it had to be done delicately. This data would need to depart in disguise. He was practiced and patient. Planning was crucial. You cannot be retroactively paranoid. To anyone looking, these files would look like phone calls while in transit. Light from the coming day began to peek around the black-out curtains on his windows. As files begin to appear on the collections system, he knew he was nearly done. This was going to take a while, but now he had only to wait. Yohan rubbed his eyes and massaged his temples. He had class this afternoon and his body would need at least a few winks before he could be expected to teach it.
While Yohan blearily taught another class, he knew his students ignored him. Everyone was paying more attention to their screens then him. After class, Yohan returned to his desk at home, and turned on the operator panel. He was interested in the new footage. How much had come in? How quickly could it be useful? In order for the machine to learn, it needed the correct answers. Just having the questions wasn’t good enough at this stage. So Yohan brought up the footage and painstakingly qualified each emotion captured. It wasn’t as hard as it sounded. Once he had confirmed each mode emotion for each point in a particular movie, he only had to watch out for outliers. Except for the morbid few who laughed when everyone else cried the pattern would be repeated for each showing of the same movie. Eventually Yohan started to watch the movies along with the countless faces that he endlessly categorized. No sooner had Yohan finished categorizing a batch then it was devoured by his learning engine in the cloud.
His project learned as well. Now its processing spanned the globe with servers on hosting platforms as diverse as the fake accounts used to create them. It was already watching the faces of the people watching movies. Learning what these moviegoers were feeling from their faces. They had forgotten or remained ignorant to the fact that they were being recorded. Combined with repetition, this unmasked emotional response from so many, watching the same movies, showing after showing was exactly the data the system needed. Add to that the test data it received from the operator panel whenever Yohan was in the room. This part of learning and testing from the operator was a new feature of the learning algorithm. The learning system inside this project stored all of its previous test results for future evaluation. This allowed the system to reappraise and reevaluate its own abilities over time.
Yohan returned to his office and activated the operator panel by habit. He had no intention of doing any one on one training with the thing maybe ever. “What was Sam thinking with this operator panel?” was his first thought, as his attention turned to the screen. In rapid succession, the console read: confusion, surprise, shock, concealed shock, horror, pride, excitement. As he read and experienced each of these emotions in turn, he turned his head. “It must have been something it ate, Yohan said as the realization slowly dawned. That last batch of data had done it! It was already incredible. He looked back at the operator panel that he had neglected with new eyes. “Wonder” read the console as he set to work.
Chapter 2 – Practical Applications
Yohan arrived to DEFCON late Friday afternoon. Interstate 15 into Las Vegas had been a parking lot. He had reserved a cheap out of the way hotel off the strip, annoyingly far from the conference. Upon finally making it to the Defcon hotel, he was informed that they were all out of electronic badges and that he would be wearing a laminated piece of cardboard. He wasn’t alone as he grumbled. A gaggle of latecomers expressed similar disappointment. Defcon staff tried to be accommodating. Apparently, a freshly manufactured batch of badges was winging its way to Las Vegas. “By tomorrow,” they said as the latecomers filed onto the convention floor with their flimsy temporary badges around their necks.
Yohan didn’t waste any time, he headed straight for the main ballroom to see the hacking villages. He started for the Social Engineering Village. With a panel discussion already in progress, Yohan moved quietly along the side of the room to try to find a seat near the stage in the front. He found an empty seat and took it, taking off his backpack and setting it between his legs. From his backpack he removed a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses and put them on. As he did so, he pressed a small button by the earpiece. From behind the dark lenses of the sunglasses, Yohan watches the discussion on the stage with interest.
Hours later in the arcade lounge, Yohan was resting on a sofa beside a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. No longer wearing the sunglasses, he could see in through the club lighting to a familiar looming shape. He seemed more relaxed then earlier, but still anxious.
“Yohan!” Sam suddenly shouted as he took him up in an embrace. “It’s so good to see you here!”
Yohan replies in kind. Once pleasantries had been exchanged, he asked Sam, “Can we talk somewhere quieter? I have news.”
Sam lead Yohan out of the arcade lounge and back out to the main convention floor, past some more villages and to a door labeled “Goons.” Around Sam’s neck hung a mismatched tangle of convention badges from basic laminated paper to the larger electronic badges complete with blinking LEDs, animated displays, and even sound effects. In front of all of these was Sam’s Defcon Goon badge. Goons were staff and security at Defcon. Sam was a little different, more of a Defcon grandpa than security. Yohan wasn’t exactly clear on Sam’s role within the Defcon organization, but what was clear was that Sam was well respected by the community and known by most. Now that they had made it into some kind of private office, the noise of the convention faded into a pleasant background.
“You were right Sam. It did need an interactive visual element. An operator if you will. That’s not it at all, remember when you said it needed more?! That is exactly what it needed.” It was all rushing out of him. “I developed a completely new custom operator station at which a user can examine the machine’s analysis while simultaneously providing it with visual feedback cues which are, of course looped back into the model’s analysis. This accelerated learning by several orders of magnitude.”
“Wait, slow down. This sounds like great news indeed. What is your new data source?”
“The source is not important. With instant evaluation feedback from a human analyst, the model has really come to life. This is not its only recursive analysis. I also looped the weights and bias matrices into the model, letting it learn its own way though learning. It worked! It isn’t just good at unmasking deception, but a full range of emotions are detected. Even micro expressions lasting less than 0.1 secs can be detected with a 73% success rate. As long as the capture system is steady enough and the frame rate high enough. The system already accomplishes primary subject analysis as well as background subject analysis tracking. As many as 12 subjects in one frame! In real time! The current bottleneck is in the capture system. The backend processing is handled in the cloud and thus completely scalable. I am ready to field test. I brought the unit here!”
“Here?! to Defcon? Do you . . . are you planning to present? Surely you didn’t mean to submit here?”
“No. I mean to test it, in the casino. I have the finished capture system, check them out. They are passable as Ray Bans,” he said, taking out a pair of sunglasses and waving them around. “Connect through my phone to the cloud, even got a bit of a heads up display on the lenses for output. I’ve been testing it in the social engineering village.”
“SE Village, eh? I bet that was enlightening. But I thought we talked about this. Friendly games are one thing, but Las Vegas casinos are still run by gangsters and these aren’t the kind of gangsters who go to prison, these are the type of gangsters who build the prison. “
“It’s not like it’s their money. I am cheating the other players, not the casino.” making a big deal to air quote his “cheating.”
“It won’t matter. Please trust me and let it go. Please. Now, Who are you here to see? What are the talks that most interest you?”
They continued talking as they made their way back to the convention floor. Yohan didn’t bring up poker again. They spoke of talks and panels they hoped to see as well as contests they would attempt to follow, eventually going their separate ways.
Yohan headed over to the vendor area. Maybe he could trade for an electronic badge. As usual, there was an eclectic mix of the past and future. Yohan passed on a 70s era Soviet Geiger counter, instead opting for a software defined radio developer board. When would he have time to play with that?
He moved onto the car hacking village where he caught a remarkable talk about OpenPilot, the open-source car autopilot, it’s latest advances and supported vehicles. Apparently, multiple attendees to the convention had allowed their cars to drive them to Las Vegas on autopilot by using this system with the Panda hardware interface. There were even a few volunteer designated-driver cars there for the safe transportation of inebriated hackers. He bought a few toys there for interfacing with his car’s computer and sensors. He found a variety of OpenPilot hardware modifications on sale. One particularly pricy specialized kit added amazing features to the regular autopilot functionality of OpenPilot.
As Yohan stepped out of the car hacking village, he bumped into a short and slender woman. Surrounded by a coterie of Defcon notables, the woman recovered herself quickly and continued past without even a look back. Each strand of her short straight black hair meticulously cut and styled. The remainder of her group followed quickly behind her. Yohan stared gape-mouthed after the group; he swore he had seen at least one black badge among them. Did he recognize that woman from the social engineering village? It didn’t matter. He reached into his bag for his sunglasses as he made his way out of the convention hall and into the casino.
Yohan walked through the various poker tables wondering which table to select. He only had $500 to spend on this experiment if he expected to make it back to the university when this weekend was over. He knew that different seats had different advantages in the cycles of gameplay, but he could not remember where it would be advantageous to sit. Trusting his instincts, Yohan took a seat at a table with four other players and a dealer. He tossed his five $100 bills on the table. In a blur of hands, the dealer made the cash disappear and replaced it with an assortment of chips. The round concluded the cards were collected and Yohan was quickly dealt his first ever hand of poker ever. Not much of a hand, Texas Holdem only deals each player two cards, no more. The rest of the cards are dealt to the table for everyone to use. He was dealt a pair of kings. An auspicious start, but the betting was slow. When Yohan raised $100, everyone folded. He took the paltry pot, but decided to play more conservatively going forward. His next hand was a seven and a jack, both diamonds. He continued to call, but didn’t raise this round. The next three cards were revealed by the dealer. The Flop revealed an eight of hearts, and a three and a jack of spades. Yohan looked up from the flop to examine the faces of his opponents. He was getting very little so far from the heads up display inside his sunglasses. It was giving readings: excitement, worry, impatience, and boredom among the most popular emotions displayed. The betting was moderate until the turn. The dealer revealed the Ace of spades. The chip leader immediately flashed deception before plastering his face with false bravado. This was the bluff that Yohan had waited more than two and half years to detect. Betting was again moderate until it came to the chip leader at the table. He raised $50. Several players folded, but Yohan and one other player called, with Yohan itching to raise again, but holding back. The River was a three of clubs and the bet was to Mr chip leader who raised again $50 and Yohan couldn’t stop himself, he raised another $100 the last player folded and so did Mr chip leader. Yohan’s smile was so broad and genuine that people at the table assumed he was a happy winner, possibly even a lucky bluff. In truth he was smiling at the validation of his life’s work. He had struggled and strove to achieve this and it had worked, marvelously.
Yohan moved to different tables a few times He had been at it for hours. What time was it? It was an exhilarating experience. He had made over $5000 and quite a few enemies. The liquor had been flowing. Yohan was a bit tipsy. He had only a basic knowledge of Texas Holdem going in and he seemed to piss off the other players by winning repeatedly despite this basic understanding. He had a head for probability, and he knew the rules. He also knew what all the other players were feeling. It was a large advantage. He did well, but after his last opponent packed up his chips and stood, Yohan and the dealer locked eyes in silence for a moment. Yohan stood scooped his pile of chips into the smaller pouch on the back of his backpack, leaving a $100 chip on the table. He swayed slightly, slowly becoming acclimated to his new altitude before he stumbled over to the cashiers.
Just then, high above. . .
The meticulously groomed woman’s office was sparse and clean. The furniture was mostly of metal and glass, meticulously polished and clean. On the desk sat the latest VR headset and a few wireless hand controls or accessories for controlling the environment once inside the virtual world. She wasn’t using any of that. Staring through the skinny man who just entered, she continued her conversation with no one at all. . .
“I don’t care who he diddled, you were paid to get him elected!”
“. . .”
“Everyone is watching Oldie McRapes-a-lot on TV. Can’t that satiate their lust for blood?”
“. . .”
“If he will not be sacrificed, then who? Someone has to go down to placate the plebes”
“. . .”
“If I wanted excuses, I’d talk to my family. Get it done.”
She was on the phone. At any given time when Victoria wasn’t asleep, it was a pretty good bet that she was on the phone. The skinny man was well dressed and seemingly patient. Only his fading smile revealed his growing impatience.
Suddenly looking at him, Victoria said, “You found something?”
His smile no longer faltering, the skinny man replied simply, “Yes.”
“What? Card mechanic? Counters? What?”
“I am not sure. He made almost $5,000 playing at $20 tables in less than six hours. “
“That isn’t much, but it’s too much for what he’s playing. Get me the full dossier on him, but keep this one in-house. Don’t use any of our usual contractors. Not until we know what he’s up to.“
“I will have it done. I already marked the relevant video files for your perusal. Will that be all?”
Victoria dismissed him with a minute movement of her hand as she picked up and put on the VR headset. With the controller snugly in her palm and the headset over her eyes, Victoria would quietly and privately view the security footage of their latest potential troublemaker. Did she recognize him from somewhere?
Yohan was considerably more flush after visiting the cashier the previous night. Early morning? He did manage to make it back to his Hotel and pass out for a few hours. He woke up early and checked out of the Alexis Park Hotel. He had managed to score the last of the large suites at the Defcon hotel for a staggering $3500 a night and he headed there now. He could already pay for this what he’d already earned from the previous night. He had big plans for tonight.
He started early, picking a $50 table with what looked like wall street or Hollywood assholes parked there and in two short hours he made nearly $8k. Those guys didn’t know when to quit and never learned. With those winnings Yohan struckback out for the car hacking village. There was something he just had to have. After the car hacking village he ran back to the vender area and then the casino clothing and jewelry stores spent lavishly for flashy clothes and jewelry. With his new ensemble, he was ready for the high roller tables. Unfortunately he had spent most of his bankroll gussying up. Back to the tables once again.
Hours passed with ample drinks Yohan found a female companion who enjoyed his luck and lavish tipping. Was he hungry?
Sam was smiling and laughing in a group of other hackers from Defcon, passing the group of poker tables. Yohan slunk down at the table, but his flashy clothes and bling was not easily overlooked. Sam walked towards Yohan’s table, stared him straight through his sunglasses and into his eyes. He shook his head slowly and just stared at his favorite student. The word “DISAPPOINTMENT” that appeared beside Sam’s face on the display inside Yohan’s glasses was the understatement of his life. As Sam walked away, all Yohan’s booze-addled mind could do was turn hurt into spite. He spit bile at Sam’s back. He screamed terrible things before sobbing into his hands. His female companion was gone. Bystanders looked at him with pity and sadness.
In her office, face wrapped in her VR headset, Victoria couldn’t believe her good fortune. When she ordered Yohan’s dox, she expected a cheater. She had been going through the research collected which included multiple drafts of Yohan’s doctoral thesis. The bastard did it. What she was looking at was a fully developed visual facial analysis and deception detection system. Unbelievably, one that had been developed by a single man. He and his academic advisor were quite possibly the only ones aware of the project. Could that be true? She wanted it. Oh, how she wanted it. She didn’t want to share it with anyone. It solved problems she had, and had potential. Huge potential. She needed Yohan out of the way and thoroughly. First she had to confirm everything. Moving her hand toward the intercom space above her desk she activated a com to her assistant, “Get me senator Soggy Pants on the line.” After a few moments
“I have Barry Levenson on the line for you.” Said the space in front of her desk.
“Barry! Guess what I have for you?” Victoria said laden thick with honey.
“The Clap? I wouldn’t be surprised, with the way my week has been going”
“How about the golden goose?”
“What you say?”
“What if I could not only get you elected, but make you Attorney General within five years. Who knows after that?”
“You are telling me a fairy tale. I stopped believing in those a long time ago.”
“Wait until you see what I have been working on in my lab. It is the answers that I have been looking for. It is the answer that you have been looking for. It is the answer that America has been looking for.”
Yohan woke up wet. He woke up slowly. The suite was bright with sunlight. He was on the floor. Yohan’s vision was still hazy. His thoughts were muddled. He was in his hotel suite, wasn’t he? Looking around suspiciously, he pondered his present state. What had happened last night? He had played poker and then. . . something. . . Sam? Why was he wet? Why was he sticky? Yohan stumbled into the bathroom, fumbling to remove his sticky wet clothing. In the bathroom under the buzzing fluorescent lights Yohan first saw the blood caked onto his shirt and dried to his skin. There seemed to be a lot of it. Whose was it? Was it his? What happened to him? His heart was quickening, the panic rising, but his head was still a thick fog of headache. He stripped away his bloodied clothing, stepped into the shower and used a hand towel to scrub away the blood that had dried to his skin.
Feeling slightly human again, Yohan, now naked and clean, walked to the bedroom to get some clothes. The cold air raised goose pimples on his arms. The room was dim with the blackout curtains closed tightly. With the door to the bedroom open, the bright light from the main room’s wide open windows cast a bright triangle of light into the room that seemed to point directly towards a deep maroon circle of matted carpet partially concealed behind the king sized bed that dominated the room. Worry rose again in Yohan, but he walked into the room brushing the light switch as he did so. As he crossed around to the far side of the room, his vision adjusted to the light and focused on the pale and still body of Sam. The air escaped his body in a rush as he crumpled to the floor in sorrow, frustration, and despair.
His mind slowly returned to the problems of his current situation. Sam was dead. In his room. How had he gotten in here? How did he know I was here? Why was he still naked? He stood, wiped his newly re-acquired blood on the bedsheets, and covered Sam’s body with it. He dressed quickly and packed his belongings in his backpack. There were poker chips everywhere, but no cash. What had happened? When had he gone back to his room? The last thing he remembered was puking in the casino bathroom. That can’t be right? His train of thought was derailed by sudden loud and insistent knocking. This wasn’t housekeeping or room service, this was a knock of authority. It suddenly came to him, this was a setup. Sam was dead, and he would go down for it. Robbery or revenge, there was no time to think about it. There was time only to flee. Luckily he was mostly packed already. How long did he have until they opened that door?
The adjoining suite was connected to this suite by a set of locked doors. Thanking his past self, he removed the lock picks he’d purchased at Defcon just yesterday. Crossing the room quietly, his practiced hands made short work of both locks. He opened the opposing door slowly, listening. The only sound he heard was that of the security opening his front door. With no time left, he went for it.
Luckily no one was in the suite. The room was empty. Moving quickly, he rolled his pants above his knees. Grabbing a large towel from the bathroom, he wrapped it around himself completely obscuring his pants. He then pulled his shirt off and stuffed it in his backpack. Trying to put on a pretense of casually walking to the pool while internally flipping out, Yohan stepped out into the hallway with determination in his stride. A hotel security officer stood outside his room as if guarding it. He put it out of his mind and continued towards the elevators. Just before the end of the hall, he ducked into the stairwell. In the stairwell, he cast off his towel disguise, donned his shirt and continued downstairs.
His pulse was racing. He had to escape.
“I am not even remotely safe,” he told himself as he dashed down the remaining flight of stairs and into the ground floor of the parking garage. He searched for a likely candidate to try out one of his purchases from Defcon. He settled on a sporty looking sedan by some German auto maker.
“Time for a field test.” His mind inserted as he awkwardly removed the spring loaded window breaker from his pack. He pressed it slowly against the passenger window not knowing exactly what to expect. He felt the release in concert with the incredibly loud CRACK and the blare of the alarm to follow. He stood frozen and stared at the pattern the shattered safety glass made on the passenger seat and floor.
“Hey! What the hell is going on!” The shout came from behind him.
It snapped him from his momentary reverie. Reaching inside, careful to avoid the safety glass, he opened the passenger door. He leapt clumsily into the car feet first, hopping over the passenger seat and center console, his bulk awkwardly landing in the driver’s seat. The backpack, trailing behind him, slipped from his hand and landed on the shattered glass on the passenger seat. Snatching it up, he quickly rummaged for the next tool. His TrashPandaB OBD-II tool had slid to the bottom of the pack. He had almost given up, was about to dump his pack on the seat of some stranger’s car before his fingers brushed the unique OBD-II connector. From his pack, he removed the small white cube with black trim. Time to see if this was worth the price he had paid. He took it up rapidly and pressed it into the port under the dashboard. Its LED indicator began blinking green as soon as it made contact with the car’s port. Just 10 seconds passed that felt like minutes. Alarms blaring, bystanders gawking, authorities undoubtedly called. If something was going to happen, it had better happen soon. Just as his courage was evaporating, the blinking green LED turned solid.
“Woot!” escaped his lips as several things happened at once.
The car alarm that had been blaring ever since he smashed the window went silent and the dashboard blazed to life. The dashboard was strangely devoid of icons or logos, but the main display proudly read “TrashPanda – Get-a-way Driver *Beta” followed beneath and less proudly by “(buckle up)”. No sooner did Yohan read the words than they disappeared to be replaced with a checklist of sorts…
checking buses ?
checking sensors ?
checking cameras ?
flashing firmware ?
rebooting ECU ?
Hotel security could be seen marching purposefully towards the car. Bystanders had gathered, taken out their phones and were filming.
“Get out of there, what the hell do you think you’re doin’ ?!” somebody shouted.
Yohan’s Panic could be seen from space. He was spasmodically glancing to and from each looming menace to the car’s display. More time dilation must have overcome him because he had no idea why he wasn’t already in custody. Just as the group of security people closed on the car, a cartoon raccoon wearing a hat in the classic yellow and checkered black of taxicabs of the past appeared on the main display. The raccoon tipped his cap to Yohan saying, “Hang on, let’s get out of here.” Yohan’s adrenaline fueled terror had stretched the experience to seem like minutes when in fact, he had only smashed the window about 40 seconds ago.
The car launched itself backwards at incredible speed. Security and bystanders alike scattered as the car backed down the main lane of the parking garage in reverse at speeds of 40+ mph. As soon as the car approached the small intersection with ramps both up and down to other levels of the garage, the steering wheel suddenly and violently spun right, forcing the car left just as rear locking brakes engaged. The car lost traction and began to spin. Just as the front of the car approached the exit lane, the electric motors whined into full power and the car surged out of the spin and accelerated onto the road and away from the hotel. As Yohan watched the hotel disappear in the rear view, he reflected that his visit there had been the embodiment of both his dreams and his nightmares.
Using fairly standard evasion tactics that seemed to Yohan to involve incredible speed and sudden changes in direction, the purloined luxury sedan managed to shake the inevitable tails and meld into the flow of traffic. He would never be able to escape tracking based on traffic cameras, but that would take time. At least for now his immediate pursuers had been evaded. On a relatively quiet stretch of road not far from the strip, no longer being pursued, the car slowed to match vehicles nearby. The calm inside was somewhat diminished by the roar of wind through the broken window. Eventually the car smoothly pulled into a parking garage and parked on the 2nd floor. The cartoon raccoon on the dashboard had taken off his cap with his tiny hands. Bashfully he said, “Don’t forget to wipe down anything you touched. Now is probably a good time to depart. Thanks for traveling with TrashPanda Get-a-way! Have a nice day! Press the hazard lights activator if you would like to prevent the destruction of all logs and travel data stored on this vehicle. This might destroy the ECU in the process, rendering the vehicle inoperable. You have been warned. It is now safe to remove your TrashPanda”
And they all lived happily ever after.
Continued in Part 2
(hopefully by Defcon)
Huge thanks to Sora, Paul, Stephen, Magnolia, and Forest. I know i drove most of you crazy.
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