‘Dr. Pathik Soin:
‘This is a quick note regarding your patient, Samantha Mayer.
‘I pay you very well to assure that our acquisitions aren’t found. Ms. Mayer has been discovered and is surrounded by supers as we speak. I am disappointed.
‘You are going to personally deal with this. Provided that the girl does not leave the building alive, I’ll consider the matter settled. Otherwise, consider yourself a matter to settle instead.
‘Deepika looks recovered from her pregnancy, and little Javaneh is beautiful. Send them my love.
‘Unless I see them before you do.’
When I accessed Doctor Soin’s mailbox and found the anonymous email that had convinced him to shoot Whisper, I was excited at cracking the challenge. The email had a spoofed header and had been sent across RR, a volunteer network of servers designed to route traffic to conceal its origin.
Popular wisdom says that an email routed through a proper anonymizing network is impossible to track, unless you have some data about the end user that you can correlate to the message (which is how the NSA typically does it). The latter possibility was feasible for me. Every year over the past eight years, I had released a different worm into the internet ecosystem for the purpose of providing low-bandwidth data on request. Only three of the eight had been identified as malware by internet security firms. More importantly, none of the eight had been traced to me by the NSA or CIA according to their case records.
Much like biological diseases, malware seldom gets noticed and defended against until it causes noticeable problems. If it sits dormant, doing nothing other than collecting a small table of data and occasionally pinging an IP address for instructions, it can potentially do so for several years. High contagiousness and low morbidity is ideal for maximum spread in a population.
I decided to leave my five worms to spread unmolested for the moment, though, and focused on a safer way to trace the message – simulation. Essentially, I could float my own messages along the network, each acting exactly as though they had originated from various locations in and near New York City. Observing the paths taken by the messages over their network (including a non-negligible number that I had direct access to) allowed the system to progressively narrow where the message could have originated.
I say “essentially” because it’s not actually anywhere near this simple. The encryption isn’t trivial. The network shifts as clients are added and removed, plus the sheer amount of routes make an exhaustive search impossible. Each of these problems is easily addressed with the right algorithms, but applying each solution on top of the others adds at least one order of magnitude to the processing time.
Despite the risks, I decided to segment the procedure and tie each module to a separate optimization algorithm. This multiplied the possibility that something could get hung up, but the intra-blade protocols were flexible enough that they should be able to jump past hang-up cases and work around them when needed. If the anonymous email originated from an address in the NYC area, I estimated a 60% chance that I’d have it within 10 hours.
With the outdoor temperature near freezing, I was reminded of one of the few advantages of working in a city so far north. Even with my open cabinets and water cooling, the temperature in the room would start climbing as the search occupied between 80% and 95% of system resources. In the summer this would be sweltering; in the winter it kept the house cozy.
I heard Paris come in as I finished my shower. I opened the door between the bathroom and my bedroom with my towel around my hips, so she and I could chat while I worked on my hair.
“How was patrol?” I asked. Usually Paris went out on second or third shift, but most of homicide was still out on Black Friday and she had found a day shift to cover.
“Crazy. People treat the one day sale like it’s a matter of life and death.” She laid out my Wolverines jacket and started placing different ties up against it. “You’d think nobody’s heard of online shopping.”
“Plenty of people have. The crowds are less than they were five years ago.” I worked a little bit of product into my hair to control the frizziness.
“That’s something at least. I think just the black frames.”
“I trust you. Which shoes?” As I came out of the bathroom, she handed me a pair of boxers.
“Not sure, I’ll go check.”
My sister closed the bedroom door on her way to the hall closet where I kept my “weekend” shoes. I couldn’t get over the ridiculousness of it – spending two or three hundred dollars for a pair of running or street shoes that were, quite frankly, not very well made.
The price by itself didn’t bother me; my work shoes (steel toed boots for most jobs, rubber-soled hightops for when I’d be climbing a service pole) cost nearly as much. But these ‘kicks’ (Paris had said that term was played out now and not to use it) were pure prestige items, like peacock feathers. They wore out quickly and provided almost no arch support – but the name and the style were recognized, and wearing them sent the right message.
The lightweight University of Michigan windbreaker would do nothing in this weather, but that wasn’t the point. I put it on over a short-sleeved button-down shirt and thin tie, and zipped it up to make a V like a sport coat. My slacks fit well.
I was relieved when Paris brought back one of the more subdued pairs of shoes, in red and dark blue. With them securely laced, I added my glasses with the black frames. My sister crowded behind me as I stood in front of my full-length mirror.
“Hot,” was what she said with a smile.
I adjusted the glasses, feigning confidence. I always felt a twinge of guilt putting them on. I don’t need them to see – my eyesight is exceptional. But they had a very important filtering effect that was worth the minor inconvenience. I had found that the sort of girls that I could have a decent conversation with were more likely to give me a second look if I wore the glasses, and the sort of girls that I prefer to avoid were less likely to express interest.
The glasses had been Paris’s idea to begin with. I took them off briefly, looking them over and trying to make a decision.
“Not this again,” she quipped. “Wear the glasses, Hector.”
“It doesn’t seem honest,” I told her, as I had many time before.
She snorted. “You’re using your look to say, ‘I’m as smart as I am hot. Let’s talk about, like, computers or whatever,'” she giggled. “It’s not dishonest because you are smart, and you do want to talk about your nerd stuff before you get into her pants.”
“Or instead of,” I insisted.
“Yeah, bro, I know. Fresh social interaction, let off steam, enthusiastic consent, blah blah blah.” She had a smile on her face while she rolled her eyes. “You need to get laid.”
I rolled my own eyes at that, but Paris was poking me in a spot where I couldn’t, in good conscience, poke her back. We never spoke of it directly, but we both knew that a big reason for these outings was for me to do on Paris’s behalf what she can’t do for herself.
Like all humans, Paris craves touch. She desires intimacy as much as your average twenty-something. She wants someone to hold, to kiss, to make love to and then cuddle with.
But her power makes all of that impossible. Even if she didn’t have to studiously avoid places where humans are crushed together to avoid outing herself, she would more than likely injure someone with something as simple as a deep kiss. Her flesh does not yield, at all, period.
I had encouraged her to at least join online communities – to find friends, and maybe even a long-distance boyfriend. She had yet to do this, to my knowledge. Paris had always been a hands-on person; I don’t think online interactions felt real to her.
In any event, I wore the glasses. I took some condoms, some cash, my black card, my ID, my phone, some breath mints, a pocket multi-tool, a small stack of business cards, and a pen. I double-checked my overnight bag and stashed it in the trunk. Paris gave me a kiss on the cheek and headed home.
Before leaving, I briefly checked on the progress of the trace. It was moving more slowly than I had expected. I still estimated a 60% chance of success, but it would take upwards of 18 hours. I set the system to upload a status readout on a private server every fifteen minutes, which I could check from my smart phone. As a rule, I don’t provide myself with any direct control of my system from a remote device; no matter how secure you think this is, there are always holes.
Despite being half the distance that it was to go across town to my parents’ house, the drive into midtown Detroit was longer. Efforts to revitalize this part of the city had borne some fruit – there were shops still open after dark; the streetlights worked. Historical sites of the auto and music industries from decades past sprinkled the area, interspersed with poorly maintained buildings and newer ones.
More importantly for my purposes, midtown was the location of one of the largest universities in the country, Wayne State, and the night life of its students. These were the places I would go, usually alone, to diffuse stress and escape responsibility in an environment designed to disrupt focus, to force interaction and movement on instinct.
I was out early; it was barely dusk. No surprise, then, to find the front of the Tin Roof clear, the stanchions not yet defining a line of supplicants. I drove two blocks away and pulled up in front of a three-star hotel.
“Mister Donnell. How was your week, sir?” As the black man helped me up out of my seat, I was eye level with his bowtie. He traded me a valet ticket for a $20 bill.
“Very good, Mack. How was your Thanksgiving?” I made it a habit to always come to this valet station, and inevitably Mack was here every Friday night. He was a junior at WSU studying economics, and working nights and weekends to supplement his scholarship.
Mack shrugged, a slight frown on his face. “I stuck around to get some studying done and make my shifts,” he said. “Wasn’t worth the four hour drive home. Mama said it was okay as long as I was home for Christmas.”
“Oh, man. Sorry to hear that.” A holiday wasn’t something everyone could afford to take.
“It was tough, but you know. Gotta stay on the ball. Delayed gratification, and all that.” He gave a shallow smile.
It made me cringe, though – didn’t like the idea of anyone being alone on Thanksgiving. I pulled a card out of my pocket. “Hey, here’s my cell number. If you find yourself alone in Detroit on a holiday again – New Years, Fourth of July, whatever, give me a call. The Donnells would be happy to have you.”
Mack politely accepted, but I could tell he was put off by the idea. “Thank you, sir. That’s very kind.” He carefully climbed into my car and drove away with a friendly wave.
Over my short walk to the club, I ended up following behind a group of five – two guys and three girls – headed to the same place. We joined a short line in front of the entrance that hadn’t been there when I had driven by just a few minutes before.
“Hey, do I know you?” came a high-pitched voice.
The three girls from the group of five were clustered together in line, shivering noticably in the chill. Two of them, like their two male escorts, were white, but the third girl was the one who called to me.
I stepped forward and made eye contact. She wore a thick hooded WSU pullover, but the hood was down displaying a mountain of untamed hair. A lot of American blacks are medium brown like Mom, but this girl’s skin was a much darker shade, close to my own. Her face showed an easy smile, and I warmed to it at once.
“I don’t think so,” I returned, and kept eye contact, “but we can fix that. I’m Hector.” I kept enough distance that my outstretched hand didn’t invade her space.
She took my hand with an enthusiastic grip. “Kimberly.” She let her hand linger in mine. “Not a Wayne student, then?”
I shook my head as I reluctantly let go, pointing to my jacket. “Michigan.”
“Oh yeah? Home for the holiday weekend?”
I shook my head but kept my back smile. “I graduated and moved back. This is home, though.”
She eyed me again, a little warily. “You must be older than you look.”
“I didn’t think it was polite to ask a man’s age.”
As the line slowly moved, Kimberly’s two girlfriends had drifted up to join the guys, giving us the illusion of space for one-on-one chat.
“You’ll have to give it up soon enough,” she pointed out. “They’re checking ID tonight.”
“So I see.”
“Besides, that’s women over thirty.”
“Not asking age. It’s a rule to protect women whose age might be considered a liability.”
“Why would age be considered a liability?”
She cocked her head slightly, not certain if I was joking. “Would you be talking to me if I were thirty-five instead of twenty-five?”
I was enjoying the somewhat more serious turn to the discussion despite myself. “No, but only because of the age mismatch. If I were also ten years older, I certainly would.”
She smiled a little and looked me up and down. “And yet, I’d guess you’d just about split the difference between me and older-me. Am I right?”
At twenty-nine, I had to nod.
“Supports my point. Nearly forty year old Hector might still chat up twenty-five year old Kimberly, but younger Hector considers older Kim outside his range.” She gave a nod and a shrug.
I nodded back. “You’re right, the rule makes sense in that context.” Letting myself dwell on the issues for a minute, I stepped forward with her again; their group was next in line. “So, why the gender mismatch? Why do older men seem to have more flexibility?”
“There are quite a few people trying to unravel that,” Kim said, “but the simple answer is wealth creation.”
“Already?” exclaimed one of her friends, a short blonde who had turned around to scold. “Don’t break out the feminist talk when you’ve just met the guy!”
Both girls had wicked smiles on their faces, and the other one took her shot: “Good girls don’t give up their ideology until the third date. You’re such an academic slut.” She drew out the last word and giggled.
Kimberly just rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t talking feminism, just culture.” I nodded for her to continue. “It’s not controversial that we live under a set of defined gender roles, where men and women have different expectations and approved behaviors. That’s not feminism. Feminism is the stance that these roles harm women and need to be changed somehow.”
“That makes sense,” I allowed. “You were saying that wealth creation gives men more age flexibility?”
Kimberly shrugged. “Nothing controversial. Men are valued by their ability to create wealth, women by their attractiveness and ability to create a family.”
“So women’s… ‘value’… declines with age while men’s doesn’t?” I followed her logic this far at least.
“Because older women are less attractive while older men have more money,” she summarized. “Especially when talking about cultural conventions, which are more interested in generalities than realities.” She nodded toward her friends, adding, “The university environment largely destroys that dynamic, though.”
“You think so?” her blonde friend challenged. “I’d say there are still a lot of, like, vestiges of it. Men still pay, and women are still the ones with beauty regimens.”
“Yes, but a community of students without jobs lacks wealth signifiers as social status,” Kimberly said.
“Not entirely,” said the guy standing next to the blonde woman. He was about a head taller than me, and wore a button-down shirt with a soft collar. His stance and eyes advertised barely restrained violence, but his smile was kind. “Men still try to advertise wealth with cars and clothes. And Greek status is wrapped up a lot in family money.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Kimberly admitted, “but you’re right. Our culture creeps in wherever it can.”
“We’re presuming this is a bad thing?” I asked.
Kimberly shrugged. “That’s feminism again. Culture is constraining; progressive activism pushes against those constraints.”
We reached the head of the line and the six of us were processed as a group. Kimberly pointedly looked over my shoulder when I showed my ID. I returned the favor; she was twenty-five, as she said.
A lie from either of us would have been forgivable on such a minor issue, but we had both been honest with each other. It was an auspicious beginning to the evening.