A Game Called Murder Chapter 1: The Call

Incoming call from Matt Jones

The phone’s shrill ring on my end table jolts me awake. My eyelids creak open. “I should not have stayed up last night watching the Webwar North American Championships, but it was only the biggest event of the summer so far! Come on, even though I’m twenty-seven this year, I can still enjoy things, right? Besides, T-TE was incredible in the quarters, had to see how they would stack up against the Best of the Northwest!” he mutters to nobody in particular.

The phone continues to ring. “Oh, I should probably answer that…” He picks it up. “Hello? Matt? Yes, it’s Mikhail. It’s 4:30 AM, what’s going on?” “How fast can you get to the big airport?” “If I leave now… probably an hour to Intercontinental; traffic should not be too bad now.” “Good. Pack a bag and get yourself there. You’re needed in Seattle. Details and charge code will be in your email, secured. Flight leaves at 6:21. Do not miss it.” Click.

The man grumbles, stumbling out of bed three hours early. A tap on his smartphone causes the lights in his apartment to flicker on. A dark grey cat leaps off of the end table and darts under the bed in shock at the sudden realization his position had been discovered. The man steadies the lamp that had been threatening to clatter to the floor from the cat’s movement. With another tap, he can hear the coffee maker in the kitchen start brewing a pod of the strongest drink he had. It would be perfect and ready for him to drink once he was out of the shower and dressed.

Thirty minutes later, he is dragging a tall black suitcase across the courtyard to his parking space. On his back is a rather large backpack containing his company-issued laptop, various cables and adaptors, and anything else he thinks he might need on his trip. It was not the first time he had to travel on business, and it would not be the last; it was, by far, the most sudden such dispatch, and his mind was wracked with worry that he was forgetting something. His silver Porsche 911 starts with a satisfying roar as he pulls out of his apartment complex. Despite the fact that self-driving cars were becoming more and more affordable, and more common on the roads, he specifically swore that he would be the last to switch on the autopilot features his car had come installed with. Being able to control his own fate was important, and he knew all too well the dangers of trusting his car to the network, even if it meant he could not use the express lanes on Houston’s highways and he paid a bit more in his car insurance premium every month. Besides, he could always enable it if he so chose. It was a luxury to the driver, even if the government had mandated that all cars have such a feature to cut down on DUI accidents.

His eyes drift to the console, and a loud gasp can be heard, followed by the mashing of the autopilot button. By this time, it was 5:15 A.M. And he was not quite as far as he wanted to be. The Porsche roars to life, signaling to the surrounding vehicles that it was now operating on autopilot and bound for the airport. That particular set of metadata would announce to all who particularly cared that the car itself was driving, but not subject to the Network Traffic Management system now commonly in use. This so-called “Assistive Driving” mode, or Level One Autonomous Operation as it was formally known, allowed the car to go faster than the manual driving speed limits, letting the vehicle cruise up to one hundred miles per hour on the Bill White Expressway. If the driver were to engage Network Driving mode, or Level Two Autonomous Operation, there would effectively be no limit at all other than what the vehicle’s engine could physically manage in the name of ultimate efficiency. However, that was an impossibility for this particular car, as its owner had physically disconnected the components that would have allowed the network to fully take control of his car. Level One was fine enough.

Soon enough, the car and its occupant arrive at a parking lot near the airport. The limited networking capability the car retained allowed it to pick an optimal parking lot based on demand and the speed with which its occupant could get to his terminal. At 6:05, the driver arrives at the security checkpoint with a boarding pass in hand permitting one O’Neil, Mikhail, of Pearland, Texas to board a flight to Seattle, Washington. Furthermore, it appeared that some strings had been pulled to where he was allowed to use the TSA’s Clear Lane, enabling Mikhail to skip most of the more onerous parts of boarding an airplane. That was nice of them, he thought to himself. Adjusting the price of that service to accommodate for demand at any given moment was a neat little scheme, but one he often did not indulge in. By 6:15 he was comfortably settled into a business class seat aboard a United 767 bound for Seattle.

The flight is fairly uneventful. When he can, Mikhail logs onto the plane wifi to get the details in his email. Naturally, the first thing he does when he is able to access the broader internet is to activate his corporate VPN, or virtual private network. His job as a professional hacker led to an intense distrust of networks that he did not own or personally know the owner of, and that went double for networks that anyone could access simply by paying a fee. He had been one of the lucky ones fortunate enough to respond to the incident a few years ago when someone had managed to siphon millions of dollars from peoples accounts simply because they thought to log into their bank accounts on airport wifi before boarding their flights to wherever. It had been a clever scheme, no doubt, but for people like him it had just been another signal that one needed to be careful online.

As his email loads over the slow shared satellite connection, Mikhail’s mind is already operating at a mile a minute. His company dealt with some fairly big names, but the fact that he was being sent to Seattle was interesting; there was so much talent out there that his company, Coyote Security Solutions, was having difficulties getting a presence in the market. There was simply too much competition already; it could be a startup, sure, but Mikhail knew for a fact that his services did not come cheap. When his cloud-based email client finally loads and the email decrypts, his jaw drops. “No… way!” he whispers excitedly, upon seeing the email in his inbox.

From: Cho, Myeong-Suk To: O’Neil, Mikhail Subject: Project Summer Rain

Good morning Mikhail,

By now I trust you have made it onto your flight to Seattle. Sorry I was short with you this morning, but there was not much I could say over the phone. This has not hit the news yet, and there is a significant bonus in it for us if it stays that way. We were called this morning at 3:30 by a Mr. Scott Mitchell, the Chief Information Security Officer at Megasys. They’ve had a breach and they need our expertise. From the details I have it sounds like a fairly typical incident response job, but they’re paying top dollar to get help with it. You should know that they have one of the big guys as their Assessor of Record - I don’t know if they will have folks poking around as well, but be prepared for that. Megasys wants this handled as quietly as possible - after the breach with those baby monitors showing up on the darknet a few months back their entire industry is under scrutiny and for good reason. They don’t want to be the next Kidco. I don’t blame them. Note the project name; put everything under the general code with this mentioned somewhere and we’ll make sure it gets sorted out for you. Otherwise, you’re on your own, but we know you can handle it. They asked for our best, and that’s what they’re getting.


Myeong-Suk Cho on behalf of Matt Jones

Megasys?! Mikhail smiles. He had always dreamed of working with one of the bigger companies, taking lead on a project, and all that. That his first solo run would be with the makers of Webwar itself was a dream come true. He would remain professional of course, but part of him had to wonder if he could perhaps take some souvenirs home with him. Looking into his backpack, Mikhail could not miss his own Webwar collection that he had stuffed into his bag almost as an afterthought. Hey, he had the room, so might as well bring it. Plus, Matt had made it clear to expect that he would be spending a week in Seattle. It was not very professional to think it, but part of him held out hope that he would be able to make it to Webwar Wednesday somewhere; after all, he needed to get the Washington state competition checked into his progress for the American Traveler badge! Why miss the opportunity if it presented itself? It would be hard enough to keep his inner fanboy at bay for the length of the assignment, but he had to. Such a high profile client, if he did it right, could be the spark he needed to jump to the big time firms.

The flight only lasted about four hours, but nonetheless Mikhail had to think that it lasted an eternity. Ever since he had gotten into the Webwar scene as something more than just an occasional hobby, he had known that eventually he would want to travel to Megasys HQ. Granted, he had always dreamed it would be part of the Warriors’ Championship rather than a work assignment, but he would take it all the same. Exiting the Sea-Tac airport, Mikhail heads for the rental car place he had been told to visit. The joys of working for a company like his was that when on assignment, more or less everything could be covered if it was justifiable.

The car that he gets is a seemingly brand new yellow Tesla Model 6. On starting the vehicle, he is disappointed to find out that the rental car company had forced the car into Autonomous Mode. What’s the point of a new car if you can’t drive it? he asks himself. Unfortunately, he knew the answer - the company did not want the increased liability that would come from allowing people to drive the cars themselves. Besides, most people did not particularly care one way or the other. As the car drove out of the airport, he had to hand it to the engineers behind this particular model’s autodrive. Where many vehicles would make autopilot be as boring as it sounded like to him, this one at least appeared to take full advantage of the car’s capabilities - it was, dare he admit it, exciting to be riding in it even if there was little else he could do than lay back and drink some artisanal coffee he had bought in the airport. It would be a good fifteen or thirty minutes until he was projected to be at Megasys, after all.

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About Charles Herrera
John Doe's true identity is unknown. Maybe he is a successful blogger or writer. Nobody knows it.