Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Best Laid Plan Thursday, January 2, 2014

"I don't think this is gonna do it," Walker grumbled. He was right, of course, but I wasn't about to admit it. I wasn't interested in failure at this point.

"We've planned this for months. It's a little late for second thoughts," I grumbled back. My nasal baritone was no match for his gravelly basso, and it didn't help that I wasn't really providing any insight. I was on my twelfth cappuccino, the inside of my eyelids had the texture of a frozen beach, and blinking profusely at my laptop monitor was only making this blurrier.

"Not my point. We're past second thoughts. This is third thoughts territory, boss," he said. I didn't look up, but I could tell he was looking up at me over his horn-rimmed spectacles. His crow's feet were probably knitted into a pattern of patient insistence. I sighed, probably longer than I needed to.

"If not fourth. Dammit. We're going to lose our window," I said. I knew that, again, it wasn't terribly helpful or informative to point this out, but damned if I didn't say it anyway. Stealing corporate secrets was nothing new to me, but I'd never been the man at the terminal. For years, I'd made my fortune selling scripts, tools, bots, and all manner of illicit software to hacktivists, thieves, and saboteurs alike. Walker, nearing his fifties, had been a phreak, a cracker, and spent time in jail before I was even out of short pants. He didn't have a problem reminding me of it, either.

Not just because I was a good twenty years younger than him, but I'd never been so much as mentioned in a court document. Bitcoins had made it a lot easier to sell my wares, and even back when I had to use physical media to transfer my code, I was always able to find someone willing to give me a pre-paid visa card or cash. Walker had changed identities three times before he was my age. No one even knew what his actual name was, the kids just called him Walker, because he was old. He was from Texas, so he pretended they were calling him a ranger. Sadly, most of the kids who called him that had never seen a Chuck Norris movie.

"Well, every plan's gotta have a flaw," he said. He slowly closed the lid to his laptop and leaned back in his seat, taking a long pull on his tea before continuing. "Hell, I've never been on a run that didn't go sideways at least for a bit. Don't trust it if things go too smooth." I had to admit I knew exactly what he was talking about. Half my best-selling tools were for causing a ton of distractions so you could sort out the inevitable kinks in your attack plan. The other half were the tools you used to cover your tracks, which was usually a little messier than stealthy. You'd think the best plan was just to make sure no one was tracing you, but in the age of cloud storage, you can assume everything is traced, always. The trick is either making such a mess of requests that they can't sort them out or finding a way to actually take down the servers so hard they suffer hardware failures, and that only worked if they weren't copying everything to another data center halfway across the country. The better technology gets, the harder it gets for everyone to play.

I stared at my reflection in the coffee shop window. I was pretty scrawny, even for a nerd. I used to run pretty regularly, and played soccer in high school, but the last ten years of being a career criminal behind a monitor weren't doing any favors for my physique. My blonde hair was getting a little darker from lack of sun, and my blue eyes were gray and sunken. I scratched my five-day stubble, which with the blonde hair was damn near invisible.

"So what," I asked, my voice a little more shrill than I intended. "We just call it? Pull the plug after two months of planning? Just because they got upgrades?" I knew the answer before he said it.

"Upgrades? This isn't even in the same gawdam ballpark you got intel on last month. Hell, they might as well have switched to a whole damn different dimension. Freakin' servers might as well be runnin' on maple syrup." Walker didn't really like Canadians. I pretended that most of my clients and about a quarter of my family weren't from there. Data centers are cheap to run up there: it's cold. Not that it's terribly hot in Seattle, but it's not consistently cold enough you can just vent your servers straight from the great outdoors like you can there. Plus, the local politics are a lot less messy than here. People take their socialized medicine and drink their beer, watch their hockey games, and don't get too worked up about a multi-million dollar operation running out of their back yard, happily paying local regulators to look the other way while they tap every communication line running through the province. It was only logical that PlasTech moved their servers north. The illogical thing was their drastic reconfiguration of the entire system at the same time, and doing it in a timeframe that made startups look slow.

I don't know how much time passed, but apparently it was long enough for Walker to give me the narrow-eyed glare. I shook the sleep from my head for a bit and then nodded. "Alright. Plan B. What... what's plan B?" Why did they make me the leader of this op? Must have been because I offered to fly Walker up from Austin. Also put him up in a hotel. I hoped it wasn't obvious how much I needed him to make this work. I'm fairly sure I failed. The other kids were low-level hacktivists, all of them had some kind of ridiculous online persona with all kinds of pop culture imagery and references. Half the guys on the op had gone dark before the thing started: most likely got caught by the NSA from tweeting in the middle of an op. Christ, these kids. They were only ten years younger than me but it was like we spoke a different language.

"Plan B: we get the fuck out, burn all the evidence, and don't talk again." It was simple. It was elegant. But it ultimately cost me thousands of dollars of unused prep time and supplies. My glare caused him to chuckle and keep talking. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Plan C: we go physical." Shit.

I knew we had talked about this, it was always a possibility, and I'd invested a few thousand already in cover identities, transport, and equipment to get us up there. Most Canadian data centers are in little one-horse towns further north, not so far that it's hard to get there but far enough north that it's plenty cold, and far enough south you don't have to worry about the place getting buried in snow. But this was my first op as anything other than support. I have the social graces of your typical twenty-something geek: that is to say none. Social engineering was well outside my bailiwick. I used words like bailiwick: how normal could I appear?

"Be straight with me, Walker. How many times have you tried physical?" I killed the last of my cappuccino with a hiss. Lot of grounds at the bottom. Fuck it, I need them right now.

"Me personally? Probably about five times. But supporting an operator? That's where I made most of my cash in the 90s." I sighed. The hint wasn't very subtle. He wasn't coming. Of course he wasn't, he was living under an assumed identity, he'd probably never leave the country again. I still had a clean ID, and I'd never had to burn a cell phone, let alone a house or a car.

"How do you like my chances?" I asked. He grinned from temple to grey-flecked temple.

"Can I keep your motorcycle when you go to jail?"

"That good?"

It was five days until we finally got enough sorted out to start. A lot of it was waiting to hear back from Canadian contacts, so we both caught up on sleep. I'm fairly certain I hit over 20 hours consecutively at some point there. But then I had to assemble three IDs, four rental cars, and a plane on zero notice, so by the time I left the country I was probably in worse shape then when I started.

"So, five times?" I asked, nervously zipping up my hoodie. Walker idly patted me on the back with his baseball cap before unceremoniously popping it onto his head.

"Be over before you know it," he said. I wasn't sure if that meant I was about to come back with enough incriminating evidence I could retire, or I was about to spend the rest of my life in a secret corporate-backed prison somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. I believed him either way.

The next few hours were a blur. I'd been to Canada multiple times that year, so using a fake ID to get across the border seemed too risky. I drove to Vancouver, made sure I was spotted at several coffee shops and gas stations on both sides of the border. I parked my rental car at a hotel right on Capilano river and gave a wad of blue bills to a kid I sold a few scripts to last year. He checked in under my name and took the room with the promise not raid the mini-bar, and to keep his girlfriend from getting naked in the lobby. I have no way of knowing if he kept either promise.

I got a cab to take me to a rental car place and claimed a reservation for a Monsieur Bonheur. Hours later I dropped that car off in Hope and got another for Dr. Hargraves. This pattern continued for the better part of a day until I was several names, outfits, and cities away, in a sleepy former mining community with two bars, a lot of warehouses, and an inconspicuous gray building surrounded by razor wire. Walker told me I was being paranoid, but then didn't blame me since it was my first time. I only told him the name of one of the IDs. He laughed. "Mister Boner? How old are you?"

"You tell me. Bonheur means good luck in French, you phillistine." He shook his head. He didn't care for Canadians, and even less for French Canadians.

Pulling up to the building at 3am in a hybrid subcompact, I realized how insanely conspicuous I was and drove on, but not before tossing a few small items of trash into the snow. A paper Tim Horton's cup, a candy wrapper, a few other things that would have probably not been conspicuous to most people, even as they picked them up and threw them away. The water sloshing in the cup wouldn't have warned them a small wi-fi enabled microcomputer was sealed safely beneath it, the antenna just out of sight in a crinkle. The candy wrapper had half a bar of chocolate still inside, filled with more microchips than nougat. Then I found a place to return the happy meal car I was driving.

Four hours later, I sat in a cheap motel with a laptop hooked up to a mobile satellite array I hid next to the dumpster. Satellite is incredibly laggy and spotty at the best of times, but it was better than DSL or whatever the hell this entire motel was sharing.

"What now?" I typed to Walker. The encryption took awhile, but after a few more sips of my Canadian energy drink, I heard a telltale ding.

"looks like they went AES. a few of your little bots made a dent. two more hours or so, should have a key." Finally, a lucky break. Aside from his lack of proper capitalization, Walker was a lot easier to talk to online than all these kids with their newspeak jargon. Half the time I had to keep an extra tab open to see what the hell they were saying.

"Good deal. That gives me some time to sleep." I slammed the enter key for my own benefit, knowing fully well Walker wouldn't catch it.

The baseball cap was probably a good choice, otherwise my sweat-matted hair would have been blatantly obvious. Even though it was well below freezing, my body wouldn't stop shooting out sweat from every pore. My hands shook, and my stomach felt like it was made out of gelatin. Call me soft, but years of building stuff for other people doesn't really prepare you for using the same tools yourself. The fact I'd burned two favors to get in here meant that if I screwed up, it was over, I was out of tricks. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the truck. It ended up being easier just to buy the old rust bucket instead of trying to rent a new one. Blended in up here better anyway. Parking outside the gate where the consultants and contractors had reserved spots also seemed like a good way to go. I lightly tapped the side of my bluetooth headphones, and let out a shaky "you there?" I was met with a guffaw.

"Sound like you're getting your balls ripped out, kid. Take a breath," Walker said. I could hear his grin. I smiled and shook my head.

"Pussies who don't come on the op don't get to criticize anyone's testicles," I mumbled. I was greeted by silence, but I was pretty sure I heard a slight chuckle. I tossed the courier-style backpack over my shoulder and closed the car door as I headed to work. This was going to be a long one. I straightened the FarSys badge on my pocket as I headed in. The thick horn-rimmed glasses weren't prescription, but a small camera fed into the micro-computer in my pocket, sending a stream back to Walker. A small hidden camera on the back of my hat gave me eyes in the back of my head, and I was about as prepared as I could possibly be. Right?

FarSys was a real company, and getting the badge was Favor #1. They wouldn't suffer any blowback, since the guy who made it for me quit a year ago, so if anything, they'd be able to claim they were a victim of fraud. Which they were. The guard at the gate held up his hand in the bored way security guards always do. I could almost hear him mutter "stop, or whatever."

I held up my badge, and he pointed towards a small black card reader. I said a Hail Mary in my head in Latin (I am part French, after all), and tapped it to the brick. A yellow light blinked three times... then a green light blinked with a satisfying chirp. I tried not to sigh visibly. The guard nodded and went back to his cell phone. The peal of jeering birds could be heard.

"Why does everyone play that damn game?" Walker muttered. I shook my head, still in earshot of the guard. A few steps outside the main entrance, started to go down the checklist in whispers.

"Visual?" I asked.

"Check," Walker responded.

"Rear visual?" Harsh whisper.

"Check." Gruff statement.

I tried not to scream when a charge arced from my hand to the metal door handle.

"Static. Check," Walker chuckled. Asshole. I shook it off and smiled at the receptionist.

"Hey there," I said, trying really hard not to imitate a Canadian accent. I knew I'd do a terrible job.

"Good morning!" she chirped back, rising to her feet. I reached over the short desk to shake her hand, which she shook very enthusiastically. I tried not to laugh when I spotted four empty coffee cups on her desk. I took stock of the very formal name plate on her wide table that was coated in sticky notes on the back.

"I'm here with FarSys, Angie. I need to check server room twelve," I said in my best IT guy voice. "I think we spoke on the phone?"

"Sloppy, don't start with a lie," Walker tsked in my ear. I almost jumped, but fortunately Angie started talking before I could move.

"Oh, that's right! We had a problem when all these new thingies got put in last month. Power kept going off, all sorts of craziness!" she said. She shook her head, unable to believe or understand these crazy technology things.

"Lucky," Walker grumbled.

"Right this way, Andy!" she said. Without looking down I flipped my name tag around so she couldn't see I was impersonating someone named Rick. I figured things were finally going my way, why risk it?

She handed me off to a friendly IT manager who gave me a quick tour and explained the difficulty. Server room twelve was my target, but Greg (who is a huge fan of the Canucks, but absolutely hates the Senators) really needed all my expertise in server room three. Once I got in there it was pretty obvious that someone had just screwed up a cabling job, and I was able to get their router up and running in no time. Greg was satisfied enough to leave me alone while I "made sure everything else was okay," and wandered around. Server room twelve wasn't a room at all. It was a massive data warehouse at the very back of the building. It wasn't anywhere in the blueprints or network maps I had created.

And it required three biometric scans to get in.

Fortunately for me, Favor #2 was a set of false fingerprints I'd applied with a little glue and nail polish a few hours earlier, a voice recording, and a picture of someone's face. Facial recognition and voice recognition are great if someone's watching you. It's a little suspicious when you hold up a piece of paper to a camera or a small tablet computer to a microphone. Luckily for me, no actual security person was anywhere near this room, and the fingerprint scanner only took two tries.

"You're in, kid." Walker had played it quiet the last couple of hours, so it made my heart jump up in my throat again.

"Clear?" I asked. The sound of a keyboard furiously typing, followed by a few gulps on what I assume was tea, and finally an answer.

"Yup. Plant the readers. Get out."

I tried as hard as I could not to obviously run from rack to rack as I planted devices. I made sure to use the hand with the false prints. I wasn't going to be able to retrieve these readers. They were tiny microcomputers with not much more than a network card and a very basic operating system. Their job was just to grab as much data as they could and shovel it to the army of microcomputers I left outside in the snow and hidden throughout trees and places in the parking lot. From there they were bounced to a variety of computers all over the world in encrypted pieces and then put back together on a home server I had hidden in a basement somewhere under a bar in the Ballard neighborhood back in Seattle. While the transmission continued, I pulled out one of my many data phones to see if I could make sense of any of the data. My intel told me the valuable stuff was a lot of little pieces that didn't make sense separately, but together were very valuable. I saw a few maps, some pictures of buildings. Not much, but in my line of work you quickly get an idea of what looks like it's trying to hide. This stuff might as well have been at the bottom of a flooded quarry. Someone really didn't want this to come out. But here I was, stealing it all.

Easy. Too easy. Shit.

Before I could complete the thought, I heard the loud thud of the double doors to the warehouse slamming the wall. "Andy!" I heard Greg yell. His voice was frantic. "We, uh... we need to talk!" he said.

I stayed quiet, weighing my options. There was really only one way in and out of the room, and Greg was standing on it. It might be nothing, but it might be that he had everything. "Walker," I whispered. Nothing. Dammit. I pulled out another phone and checked my signal. Dead, Walker was cut off. Just then, I felt a buzz and pulled a third phone from my pocket.

"Go to the server marked B-3. Pull up the raised floor plate." Unknown number. Capitalized sentences. No time to think, I jogged to the server in a hunched position. I knew from my earlier reader-planting exactly which one it was. I could hear faint and erratic whispers back and forth, along with the beeping of the biometric scanners. Not much time.

I fumbled with the suction cup device to grab ahold of the floor plate. Most of these server rooms ran their cables through a complex network beneath the ground, and just dropped everything immediately down. There was usually a few feet for the cables and air flow, and most places ran the cables in big bundles to avoid a huge spiderweb of cables. As the floor plate came up, I tried not to shout. Below the server room was not a few feet of empty air and a concrete base. It was a good twenty feet drop into a huge chamber that was poorly lit by old lighting. It looked just like when you look down into vents from the street level in a major city, but the chamber below was covered in old cobblestone and masonry. At a loss for what to do, I tried to keep track of how close the whispers were. Before I could catch them again, I heard an angry shout "it's locked out! Break the damn thing down!"

I dropped the floor plate next to me and reached into my pocket for the phone. New unknown number, new message. "Drop straight down. Don't jump. Just drop. Try to lean back."

"No fucking way," I whispered. The sound of someone kicking a heavy steel door convinced me I had no choice. I threw all of my devices into my courier backpack, and tossed my baseball cap in there for good measure. I took a deep breath, and jumped into the gaping hole, trying to drop straight down into the dark beneath. Right as my head passed the floor, I heard the sound of bolts and hinges giving way, and dozens of booted feet running into the room.

Adrenaline slowed time. It felt like I was falling for minutes. Pale lights flashed by as I tried in vain to flail my arms in an attempt to feel for anything that would kill me. My instinct told me to keep my feet down, but I suddenly remembered reading about how stuntmen lay back into a fall when they land on a fall pad. My heels hit first, but my ass followed immediately, and I was surrounded in billowing white fabric as the air rushed out of the pad. My instincts paid off, this time.

As the pad deflated, I tried to roll off of it, first to my right. I was rewarded by slamming hard into a solid rock formation. My shoulder still tingling, I rolled the other direction, and made it off the mat in time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Far above me, light shone through the tiles of the raised floor and I could see at least one head peering through the hole I'd fallen through. Shaking my head, I looked around. My phone buzzed again.

"Straight forward. Long ramp, don't stop." Shaking my head one last time, I took off at the fastest sprint I could manage with my spindly legs and the utter dark of the cavern.

As I ran I realized the lights were not old lamps, they were torches mantled to the wall in sconces. I shook off mental images of a medieval-themed restaurant and kept running. The path winded up through a variety of darkened corridors. I finally made it to the top of the ramp, where I could see daylight pouring in through a huge square opening. Taking a deep breath and trying not to laugh in relief, I bolted for it with my remaining strength. It was then that I was tackled by at least a hundred eighty pounds of muscle. In seconds, my glasses were ripped from my head and smashed on the ground, and my pack was taken from me. I was sandwiched up against the wall of the corridor next to what looked like an emergency access door. I tried to yell but a gloved hand clamped over my mouth. Finally, I heard an eerily even-toned whisper in my ear. "Good run, kid, but I need you to hold still a second."

I resolved myself to my fate. I guess it was going to be a prison in the Rockies. Maybe they'd let me see the mountains, I always thought they were pretty. I slumped into a pile and the dark shape let me be as it rummaged through my pack. I was a little foggy from the run and the tackle, but I could barely make out a figure. He was clearly male, wearing a ski mask and a thick commando-style sweater. He had on dark pants covered in pockets and buckles and devices. My breath caught in my throat when I spotted a pistol at his hip. I don't know guns that well, but it looked like a very large caliber, and for some reason it reminded me of an action movie.

The shape finally found what he was looking for, and snatched it from my bag. It was the tablet I'd used to coordinate my readers. He deftly pulled the battery compartment door off, and pulled out a small device. He held it up to me. I wasn't sure, but I felt like he was smirking under his mask. "You know what this is?"

It was dark in the chamber, but I knew almost instantly. It was a GPS tracking chip with a distinctive blue and silver circuit board. I knew it because I sold them all the time to clients. "Dammit," I whispered. The one in that particular device was more than just a tracker, it had a component that allowed it to give a variety of other information, including anything transmitted over wi-fi.

"I dunno who your friend on the outside is, but I think he sold you out," the voice said. I tried not to scream.

"Dammit!" I almost yelled. He clamped a gloved hand over my mouth again and looked behind him. I tried to apologize but I couldn't with a mouth full of what I think was a relatively expensive leather driving glove. Walker. I had known of him for almost five years, and worked with him for two. That may not seem like much, but in my line of work it was an eternity. I'd never trusted anyone long enough to get screwed... until now.

"Look, you being here is a total coincidence," the voice said, deftly standing and pulling my pack over his shoulder. "But I need your info. And you need to survive the day." I admitted he had me at a complete disadvantage. This could be someone who worked for the company, it could be an undercover cop. It could be Walker's long lost son for all I knew. But the sound of approaching sirens gave me few choices. When it came to this stuff I was a complete newb. But when it came to business, especially illicit business negotiated with a gun to your head, I was an old hand.

"Terms, go," I said. I definitely saw the eyes twinkle with that.

"I get you out of here in one piece. Hopefully not full of bullet holes. You give me all your information and you help me decode it. Then, you can leave. Go back to Seattle. No questions asked, I never darken your doorstep again." I tried not to balk at his knowledge that I was from Seattle, but I probably failed. I didn't even know if I had the information. This entire plan was based on sending it offsite to my computers at home. If Walker screwed me here he might have gotten that info. But then again, he was never great with cloud storage, and he'd insisted on me doing a physical attack. I had to wager that they'd just paid him off to give them my head, and he didn't care about the info.

"You get me out of here, and I'll give you everything. I don't even know what it is yet, but considering the price I was given to shop it out, and the fact you showed up to nab me, I bet it's worth more than my life." The eyes stopped twinkling. "I'll give you everything, figure out what it is, and put it together in a neat little package for you. You keep me alive long enough to do it..." I trailed off. I hated saying it, but I knew I had to. "And you help me track that fucker who backstabbed me down, and you got a deal."

The twinkle returned, and he reached out a hand to help me up. "Deal. Now let's get the hell out of here."

With that, he hauled me to my feet, and without a break in movement sent a deft kick to the service door next to me. It squealed and popped off its hinges, landing flat on the floor inside. The man ran through, and I had no choice but to follow. It was complete darkness, but it was a narrow passage and I could hear the footsteps immediately ahead of me.

Another solid thud and the passage was awash in bright light as the second door flew from its hinges. As we ran by I realized that the door had been unscrewed from both sides, and only a small wooden pin had held it in place. How long had this guy been planning this?

I shook it off and kept running, hoping this guy was as good with a gun as he was at destroying helpless doors. We had broken into an open part of the parking lot, and only a dumpster and a few cars were visible before the razor wire fence. A loud rat-tat-tat sounded from somewhere far to my right. The man slid to a stop, landing on his side facing me. "Down!" he yelled as slid. In a motion I still don't fully understand, he managed to unholster his gun while coming to a standing position, and in a sideways stance, fired three rounds. The third was met with a loud explosion from somewhere on the other side of the campus. By this time I was laying prone behind the dumpster, praying that I wasn't going to be on the news.

The gunfire stopped, and I lifted my head to see huge puffs of dark smoke billowing from a barrel somewhere far away.

"Don't worry, not too likely anyone got hurt. Just makes a ton of noise and smoke. I stuck barrels of that shit all over this place." Seriously, how long was this guy planning this?

He hauled me to my feet and slapped the courier bag over my shoulder. "We don't have much time," he said. "This is just their private security. Cops are on the way." I cursed under my breath. He didn't stop to explain as he held onto a latch on the side of the dumpster.

"So, how the hell do we--" before I could finish my question, he pulled up a false wall on the side of the dumpster, revealing a two-seater snowmobile. The front of the dumpster, which was flush with the fence, slid up with the false side, revealing a huge hole in the fence. This guy thought of everything!

Without a word he hopped into the front seat and cranked the engine. After a little bit of whining, it kicked into gear, and I leapt onto the seat behind him. My leg brushed some kind of customized panel, and he tapped it with his hand.

"You know how to shoot?" he asked. I shook my head violently. I'm an American, but I've lived in Seattle almost my entire life. I didn't really need a gun. "Then this is gonna be a long ride." Without further notice, he pulled a black military-looking rifle from it and thrust it towards me butt-first.

"It's already chambered. Just point and click. Try not to kill anyone, but these guys are all dirty as hell so don't feel too bad if you do."

With that, he pulled the throttle and we were off. He even had a ramp that he'd built on the other side of the fence in the snow, and we pulled up through it and into the open field next to the complex.

As we circled around, I saw at least a dozen black sedans and SUVs pulling into the parking lot. Some had already surrounded my truck. Fortunately, it came with lots of receipts from the previous owner and nothing of mine, so I just shrugged. I was so distracted I didn't hear the series of loud cracks as gunfire exploded from the vehicles. My shady rescuer leaned into a turn and almost bucked me from the vehicle. I caught the rifle right before dropping it, and leaned back in the back seat as I held on with my legs.

"Don't fall off, kid. Broken legs make you an easy target," he yelled over his shoulder. Time again slowed down, and I raised the gun to my shoulder and swiveled to aim immediately behind us. It was then that I noticed the rifle had a pretty powerful scope, and I could see the cars behind us were getting smaller and the shots less frequent. I looked up from the rifle so I could see ahead of us, and realized we were headed right for the open woods behind the office complex. Which was incredibly convenient, because the growl of snowmobiles exploded into my ears on both sides. "Three o'clock!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Without thinking I snapped the gun back to my shoulder and aimed to our right. Three snowmobiles crested a hill and started coming towards us. I took a deep breath and took a few shots. The gun barely kicked, but I knew I had no business shooting it from a moving vehicle. The bullets shot gouts of snow and bits of wood from trees where they struck. Fortunately, one of the three apparently wasn't willing to risk it and veered back over the hill. "I... uh, didn't think they'd actually have snowmobiles," the driver yelled back at me. So he didn't think of everything.

Growing up in the Northwest, you are pretty close to a lot of really great places to do snow sports. Whistler, probably the best skiing destination in North America was just a few hour drive from my home town. I was no stranger to snowmobiles. But I'll be the first to admit I was new to riding on the back of one while doing evasive maneuvers and shooting at other snowmobiles. "This is Canada, man," I yelled back. He chuckled and said something under his breath as he swerved around a tree.

The buzz I'd heard from the left approached rapidly, and a snowmobile leapt over an embankment to land right next to us. I recognized it as a smaller and more agile version than the one we were riding. It had a powder bar, which was a big hoop connected to the center of the handlebars for maneuvering more easily while the vehicle is almost sideways in the snow. The driver slammed into us, and I thought I heard something like a feral growl. My new shadowy friend looked over, directly into the helmet of the other driver. From my angle I couldn't see what he looked like, but something either scared or enraged the driver of our snowmobile. Without skipping a beat, he reached down, pulled out his gun, and fired two rounds into the face of the other driver, who toppled from his vehicle. Two spurts of steaming blood shot from the wounds and sprayed us as he fell towards us. I couldn't help but feel the blood was darker, hotter than blood shood have been. My rescuer veered away and leaned back. "This is worse than I thought," he growled. "Can you drive?" he asked. I nodded, and he slowed the vehicle to a still rather rapid idle as we skidded to a stop. With one motion, a little less deft than rough, he lifted himself from the seat and took the rifle from my hands. With his other hand he pulled me forward by the collar while plopping down behind me, facing backwards.

"GO!" he yelled. Without thinking, I pulled the throttle as hard as I could, and we took off. I had no idea where we were going, but we had plenty of light, so I was able to veer around the trees. I was trying to keep the vehicle steady as I heard round after round being fired behind me. The adrenaline was finally starting to wear off, and the knots in my stomach became much more obvious. How long had it been since I last ate? Last slept? Everything hurt. I just wanted to give up. This was pointless. I started letting up on the throttle.

Before I could continue the train of thought, a very loud gunshot sounded very close to my ear. I winced and instinctively pulled harder on the throttle. All I could hear in my right ear was a high-pitched whine.

"What the--" I started. Before I could finish, the mysterious gunman yelled up to me.

"Sorry. No time to explain, but you're fine. Keep driving!" I shook my head. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

Everything was blurry, but I was able to dodge back and forth as I heard shot after shot being fired behind me. Every now and again the sound of a snowmobile slamming into a tree or coasting to a stop would follow the shots. Finally, I felt a tap on my shoulder and the rider pointed to a tall snowbank up on our right. I nodded and pulled up to it. It wasn't until now that I noticed there were no other sounds of engines than ours. I coasted to a stop, and the shadowy figure leapt from the back of the snowmobile. He reloaded the clip on his rifle, then gave me a stern look. "Get off, quick" he said. I stumbled to my feet in the snow, and stood next to him. He fired a few rounds into the running engine, and it ground to a halt. I winced, expecting an explosion. One didn't come.

"Come on," he said, turning up the hill. He pulled his ski mask off as he slogged through the snow. The same dark green eyes I saw before were narrowed in focus, but the scowl was more obvious with his black hair and his square jaw.

Dazed, I had no choice but to follow. A screech sounded from behind us as we walked. We both turned just in time to see a man in a full-body snowsuit and a helmet leap from the snowbank. The green-eyed man, without blinking, fired two rounds into the attacker's chest. The attacker fell back slightly, but continued to come. As he did, he struck the weapon out of my friend's hand, and wrapped a hand around his throat. In a move so fast I couldn't quite see, they both ended up in a pile on the ground. The green-eyed man held the attacker with his legs, and was wrapped around him from behind. In a very slow and intentional motion, he pried the helmet from the attacker's head. Frozen in fear, I could only watch as the helmet gave way to a sneering rictus of horror. The attacker's mouth was a gaping maw rimmed by sharklike triangular teeth, and his face was covered in bright purple boils. He kept thrashing with his arms, but my rescuer just calmly held him with his legs as he slowly reached down and retrieved his pistol, slowly placed it to the man's head, and pulled the trigger. Before the click was complete, the mutated face warped into a frown, and a high-pitched squeal began. The man's head exploded in a dark black cloud of mist, and the loose skin flapped all around, like popping a huge water balloon. My rescuer's face was covered in the thick black ichor, that slowly smeared down his grimacing face. He stood and slowly holstered his weapon, then walked over to pick up his rifle. As he did, the ichor slowly evaporated, as if it had never been on his face at all. He gestured for me to follow, and I had no choice but to comply.

"Who... what was that? Why did I get dizzy? Did they drug me? Who were they?"

One side of his mouth turned up in a smirk, and he kept walking as he slung the rifle over his shoulder. I suddenly was put in mind of a World War II movie, and I wasn't sure why.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure. But they weren't human. Well, not any more."

I grunted. That made a lot of nonsense. I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.

"And ... did they drug me?" I asked. He shrugged as he slogged forward, pulling a small data phone from his pocket.

"Nah, that was probably a spell," he said. A spell? What in the actual fuck. He squinted at the phone then looked up, and seeming to realize his destination, turned slightly and gestured for me to follow.

"A spell?" I was beside myself. "Magic? What... what the hell?" I asked.

"Yup," he answered, not looking over. "You fucked up, Chuck. You're in way over your head." Chuck, like the TV show? Or ... Charles Winson, one of my aliases on this trip. Damn, how much did this guy know?

"So... what did I steal?" I asked. Again he shrugged.

"I dunno. But I've been trying to figure out what the hell they were doing there for about two weeks." Two weeks? I spent months at this gig and only recently found the damn data center. I had three plans, and not a single one worked out. But then again, I guess it was based on me trusting someone who turned out to be-- I stopped myself. Rage and betrayal were too much to deal with on top of all of the other emotions I was feeling.

"Who the hell are you?" I asked.

He finally looked at me with a smile that almost looked manic. His dark eyebrows raised together and he bowed his head slightly. "Just call me Leam," he said.

I had a feeling my life just got a lot more complicated. I was right.