by William M. Brandon III
I decided to explain to Mom the millions of reasons she was wrong in long form rather than text message—wrong about politics, wrong about America, and wrong about our outlandish President. Maybe a little subtle chipping at the more ridiculous aspects of her newfound cult would bring her around. Mom had always been an obey first, ask questions later sort of American, but this felt like something different.
The letter I wrote asked if she’d considered the hardships of the people she demonized. I didn’t go any further, I imagined her tearfully reading my response, forever stuck in that bed, and I became weak. I went on to talk about my new job and it’s intriguing secrecy. I knew she’d be impressed that her son was finally doing something productive—religiously positive—and to my discredit, I was desperate for any way to make her days less bleak.
I dropped the letter into the only post box I could find and headed up to the office. Greg called as soon as I crossed the threshold.
“Greg man, that’s kind of creepy.”
“We have a problem. This is not a phone conversation.”
“Ok, I know how to reach you.”
I spun up a VPN and began an encrypted conversation with Greg.
—A security breach was just detected. Per our team, a lethal injection attack placed executable code into the database. The next person that purchases a subscription will trigger a worm and replicate it throughout all connected devices.
Greg was relying on the information provided to him, otherwise he’d know it’s called a SQL injection attack. —Sounds like they got in through the app, I know what to do on my end.
I set to work determining whether my system had been compromised. Everything was coming up clean and passing inspection. Three small clusters of commands flashed by in the log for database credentialing. I scrolled back and found what I was looking for.
—The system was not compromised, Greg. I’m happy to report that the foreign code was isolated, triggered reporting in the appropriate logs, and never engaged with the server processes or had an opportunity to replicate.
—That is a relief. Good job Declan. Send your report through this encryption key and then wipe it from your hard drive.
—It’s only really clean when it’s been burned to ash.
—That won’t be necessary Declan, you passed the test.
They were already testing me.
The strange man was sitting at the end of the bar in the dark. I decided to take the seat next to him. His hands looked fragile: spindly and wrapped ‘round his pint glass, still not quite empty. Pathos had hired another bartender. Their turnover made gaining local status impossible.
I motioned to the current bartender and waited as she helped everyone else. I could feel my shadow waiting to speak. “What do you want from me?”
Want. That’s very interesting, I haven’t considered our situation from that perspective.
“Our situation is the prelude to a restraining order…”
You’re not convinced I’m real, Declan. Let’s not be coy.
“Fine. At least tell me your name…”
The man turned his head and did not answer. He had wasted away since our last encounter. His face was gaunt, hollow, and his skin had greyed to the pallor of necrotic disease. Before thinking, I asked, “Are you ill?”
Sickness pervades and penetrates our every waking moment Declan. You can feel the rampant, naked aggression as it foments ancient rifts. Those that cling to the past, stand headlong against the world to come.
“Everything seems to be changing. I’ll give you that, but I’ve been alive too long to fall for the this is the end spiel.”
Of course, and to what end should we concern ourselves with the end, anyway? There will be more bloodshed Declan, of that, we can all be assured. The time to dam the floods has passed, now is the time to choose a shore.
That was funny.
My phone buzzed, but it didn’t matter. “What are you afraid is coming?” The thin man was gone. I checked my phone, Mom again. I dialed as I walked out onto Hollywood Boulevard.
“What’s up old lady?”
“Old lady? If I weren’t in a wheelchair…”
Mom laughed. It always felt a little better when she laughed.
“So how’s the weather in Vegas?”
“Hot, very hot. But we have good AC. God has truly blessed us.”
“No, Robert’s military benefits have truly blessed you.”
“True, but the Lord God is working harder every day, you can see it happening.”
“Right, in the rosy cheeks of a child, and the morning dew on a velvety clover…”
“No,” she laughed, “it’s even better. Abortion will be illegal soon.”
Her glee disturbed me. “Not without overturning federal law…”
“You should watch the news.“ Her speech came slowly. “The Supreme Court voted.”
“Wait, Mom, that’s not a good thing. Roe vs. Wade isn’t about a medical procedure.”
“But killing babies is a sin, and we’ve angered God enough. Our President finally put someone on the court that understands that.”
“I thought that guy turned out to be some sort of frat boy date-rapist.”
“No, that was a conspiracy by the Left, trying to destroy a good god-fearing conservative man.”
It was my turn to laugh. “I didn’t pay much attention, but I can guarantee that if your President nominated him, he’s neither good nor god-fearing.”
“It is part of a plan by the Left to…”
“Mom, do you know what The Left is?”
“Well, partly. Democrats are The Left too.”
“They are worse than communists, they are American communists.” Mom wasn’t really able to raise her voice anymore, but she would have, right then.
“Democrats are definitely worse than communists, but for the same reasons Republicans are worse than communists.”
“I don’t like any of them. They’re all crooked.” —it was the most forward-thinking thing I had heard her say in years— “But I thank God and the Republican party for giving us our President. He will make sure that in the end, God’s will is done.”
“What did you say?”
“I don’t like any of them. They all lie …”
“No, just now, it felt familiar.”
“Hold on son.”—My stepfather asked Mom about taking his fishing boat out for the weekend—“Sorry, Robert needed to ask me something.”
“I heard. Fishin’ eh? Are you going along?”
“No, the chair is too heavy for the boat. Besides, why would I want to go fishing?” She laughed again.
“Touché, but you’ll be alone for a long time.”
“Oh it’s ok, I’m used to it,” more laughter, but to my ears bitter. “Robert takes very good care of me. He even took extra shifts the past two weeks.”
“Are you guys cool?”
“Well, we’re having a little trouble this month.”
“How much do you need?”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll transfer the money as soon as we get off the phone.” It felt strange to be able to conjure up that kind of money.
“Thank you son, Robert and I appreciate it.”
“It’s no problem. How did you guys get messed up for nine hundred bucks?”
“Oh, it was just a mistake. I have a subscription and there was an error. They charged my account twice.”
“Are they going to fix it?”
“Yes. I have already called them. Our next month will be free.” Mom giggled, proud of the accommodation.
“Well, it’s not really free since you have already paid for it. And to make you wait instead of refunding the money, sounds shady to me.”
“It’s ok, I have a successful son who can help me.”
“If you didn’t, you’d be in trouble.”
“That’s true. I love you.”
“I love you too Momma. I need to jump off the phone…”
“Ok, thanks for calling me back. God bless…”
You are a good son.
The whispering man returned.
We sat in silence until Pathos closed its doors.
Sleep was impossible. I wandered the office, fixed coffee, and smoked on the fire escape as the sun rose over south Vine Street. I tried to imagine the coming day as a reminder of Mom’s benevolent god, as if the nourishment of the planet was ultimately god’s will.
That was what I had heard, god’s will. Mom said it, Greg said it, and above all, their Dear Leader said it. I rushed to my computer and scanned the offending code from the prior night’s test. Hackers are humans and they can’t fight their natural tendency toward failure. To find that failure, you just have to be able to see everything at once.
The attacker knew all about my system, so I decided to start with the entry point. I needed to see what, if anything, looked like untoward processes. I was able to isolate seven functions that failed to execute. Buried within a long string, I found the seven-digit serial number for the seventh encryption code on the list from Greg.
The attack was recycled: either copied from a better coder, or previously deployed, but the work was sloppy: my overseer had forgotten to remove his bridge back into the main system. Since he never really left the home network, the escape door lay dormant and unused.
Being underestimated by my employer’s spies gave me the advantage, and the developing web of ominous intentions made it impossible for me to stay out. I wouldn’t last long once I got inside, but if I could sneak a peek of what they were hiding, I’d get a better picture of who I was working for.
My guess about the encryption code proved correct. I was in with no hassle, and as far as I could tell, I wasn’t setting off any alarms, so to speak. As I combed through directory listings I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was a little too easy. Sure, I had a key to the door, but the only person authorized to use that key was verifiably in Texas. It was like something more important was sucking up all the attention.
The directories were a series of individual databases, each containing descriptions in a company lexicon, and what appeared to be digital coordinates for groups of data. The Greenest Pasture only existed on my side of the fence, which meant that we were feeding data into whatever was behind these databases. Encryption codes six and three, used in combination, opened the pathway from my little World into the larger Universe.
She was in there, my Mom. I was in there as well, listed as the damned. The gift she had beamed about was her raptured message to me:
My poor lost son, I am sad about what is happening,
but I am at peace because I know that in the end,
God’s will is being done.
I wasn’t shocked, but my eyes filled with tears regardless.
William began his lifelong roadtrip in the deprecated sands of Las Vegas, Nevada. As a result of a military patriarch, and unabated restlessness, has changed addresses fifty-six times in forty-two years. He is a father, a husband, and his work has been published by The Rumpus, in a special anthology supporting Mines Advisory Group, in the not-for-profit fiction anthology The Cost of Paper, and novella SILENCE was published by Black Hill Press.