Amber’s phone chimed. Jumping, she glanced at the screen, then relaxed. It was just the logging app. She punched in a quick entry, just the location and time. 2am, comp sci building. She then put her phone on silent. I really need to implement Clair’s suggestions. This thing is hassle enough without worrying about it giving me away.
The roads were thankfully empty. Not surprising, since there wasn’t much reason for someone to be driving around the academic section of campus at this time of night. She quickened her pace, her thoughts returning to Clair’s last words to her. It tells you what you can’t do. She still wasn’t sure what that meant. There were several obvious answers, but if she relied too hard on some of them, it could ruin her plans, or worse. And she didn’t have time to pick the words apart. If she tried, she’d be pacing outside until dawn. All she could do was hope that she’d figure it out as she went along. She pushed those thoughts aside, moving towards the double doors she passed through every day of class. The ones that apparently hid the secrets of people using her mind like a toy.
The entrance was locked, but that was one of the few problems with this plan Amber had been prepared to solve. Her old comp-sci professor—the same cooky old man who’d taught her mindfulness, Professor Mercer—had given it to her so she could help out in her spare time with last year’s computer security class final test. The two of them, together, had carefully broken the security measures of a handful of servers prepared for that exact purpose, which they then stored the test grades on. Amber smiled slightly as she remembered her own mix of horror and confusion when she’d arrived at her final exam just to be told she’d failed. She’d spent the rest of the day angrily hacking in to change her grade before she realized that had been the point.
Well, let’s see if Intro to Cybersecurity can pay off again.
The doors creaked loudly, and Amber winced. Even when she’d been here at midnight, the silence hadn’t felt so... loud. No lights were on except the mandatory dim ones lining the walls to avoid a lawsuit. No sounds but the creaking of old wood underneath Amber’s feet, and rarely the hum of fans spinning. It smelled like chlorine and floor polish. The cleaners need to use less... acrid stuff, she frowned, covering her nose. She started coming up with convincing excuses, just to be safe. She pointedly ignored the fact that none of those excuses would matter if any of the people she ran into were part of this thing.
The further in she went, the more her neuroses screamed at her. Every creak in the floorboards made her want to scurry to the nearest corner. She was almost lightheaded from holding her breath for too long. Finally, she heard the voice she’d been dreading.
I need to leave. I’m not supposed to be here.
It almost worked. Amber was well aware of her own state of distress, and leaving would mean safety. But what Clair meant was clear to her now. If the voice wanted her not to do something... she had to do it.
You won’t stop me, Amber growled silently as she looked around, trying to find what the voice had reacted to. A closed door was nearby, and the voice grew more insistent as she approached and opened it. I need to leave. I’m not supposed to be here.
I’ll do whatever the helI I please, asshole. Although... would she? It had been a long time since she’d had the opportunity for leisure activities. Sure, there were the movie nights, and hanging out with friends... but that was it. First it had been school, then exercise, and now getting involved in a fight for her literal mind. Would things ever return to normal? Would she and her friends ever get the chance to even enjoy a movie night the same way?
It’s very important that I finish all my school work as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Stop telling me what to do! she growled, holding back the urge to slap herself. She still needed to keep quiet. She was sure she had always been studious, even if she might have left things to the last minute, so at least not everything about her was a lie. It was a small comfort.
The room ended up not being very interesting. It was just another classroom. Maybe it was more sinister when people were there. She sighed silently, and continued down the halls, waiting for the voice to tell her what not to do.
She had been wandering the halls for what felt like an hour, and eventually had just taken a seat in her comp-sci lecture hall. She groaned, looking at the podium she saw four days a week.
What the hell am I even doing here? I mean, it’s not like there’s going to be a giant banner saying ‘mind control prostitution ring.’ I don’t even know where to begin to look. She covered her head with her hands, leaning down on her desk. She remembered her first day in this hall. She could still remember the utter fear the first time Professor Mercer had requested that she stay after class, and the elation she had when it turned out he had just wanted to compliment her on her programming skills and ask her if she wanted to assist with assignments for his other classes—for extra credit, of course. It had been simple, but being singled out among an entire sea of students made her feel special. She had been programming ever since she’d stumbled on a book in her high school library, but until then, she wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for her to do. But that cinched it. She took things apart, and engineered solutions to them. This was what she was meant to do.
The voice in her head brought her out of those comforting memories. I need to leave. I’m not supposed to be here.
“Fuck you!” Amber screamed, then gasped. Softer, she continued, voice dripping with venom. “I won’t let you control me.”
She stood up, shaking her head. The voice gave her renewed determination. I’m not gonna let you beat me. You will never get to tell me what to do again.
It tells me what I can’t do. She’d figured it out, she thought. And she had. But wasn’t there more to it? It’s... like a dowsing machine, telling me what I’m not supposed to know. I... I can use that! Amber grinned.
I need to leave. I’m not supposed to be here.
So I’m not leaving this building, she retorted.
A plan forming, she left the lecture hall, keeping her eyes peeled for anything suspicious. Her main focus was internal, though. That voice, the one which was supposed to keep her in line, was the one betraying itself. Each corner she rounded, the response was the same. Until, finally, it wasn’t.
I won’t notice this room. I’m going to keep walking and forget this room is here.
She stopped, grinning. Fucking finally. She approached the door, and the voice only got more insistent. I won’t notice this room. I’m going to keep walking and forget this room is here.
Amber recognized the room. She’d been here before. She wouldn’t have thought twice about it, not without the voice guiding her. It was the faculty office. Nothing much happened in this room but boring clerical tasks and the occasional scheduling change.
The room was empty, just as she remembered it. There was just a desk with a monitor on it, which was for the secretary. The building hadn’t been designed for this to be an office. Smiling, she went over to behind the desk, and hit the spacebar. It turned on, showing a password prompt. Huh. Well, at least it’s not dinosaur technology, she thought with some surprise. I guess they chose their secretary well... and, thankfully, I know how to mess with Linux a whole lot more than the alternatives.
Ok, let’s try the easy ones first. She cracked her knuckles, running down a mental list of easy passwords—‘password,’ ‘admin,’ and the like. She cursed. This was definitely it. The voice had confirmed that. But was she going to be defeated by just the secretary’s diligence? She opened all the drawers, but found no post-it with a passcode or hint. She tried rebooting it in recovery mode, but that had been locked out. Her opponent was apparently annoyingly thorough.
Amber stood up, and began pacing. She certainly wasn’t about leave without a clue, but how could she get one if she couldn’t get in? The screen dimmed, and instinctively she shook the mouse, keeping it awake. The same ominous text box stared at her.
She groaned. It was more than just the late hour that was making her tired. The situation was daunting already, and each step towards answers presented new problems, each more difficult than the last.
Ignorance really might just be bliss, she grimaced. At least she was given the mercy of not remembering her acts while her mind was on loan. If it weren’t for the strange cognizance she had gained the past few weeks, she’d be no different than any of her friends. Just a happy student, enjoying her life, who happened to lose an evening once every few weeks. Was... was that so bad?
Friends. She shook her head. This is for them... for Clair. That’s why I can’t give up.
The text box continued to blink.
“What’s the password?” she whispered softly. She started to think. What would the secretary...
Do not try ‘cr3x8pk2HGg2’ as a password. Amber blinked, then had to suppress a laugh.
No way. They didn’t program us with the password we weren’t supposed to use. It can’t be that simple. Clearly this ‘mastermind’ never took one of Professor Mercer’s classes.
Her fingers danced along the keyboard, and she hit enter with a satisfying amount of force. The password box faded, revealing a fairly uncluttered desktop in its place.
Amber sank into the desk chair. Well, fuck, she thought with a grin.
Don’t look through the files, the not-her-voice insisted.
Amber looked at her reflection in the window, then gave it the middle finger.
That felt good. She was making progress. Maybe soon, she could bid that voice farewell, and be herself in truth again. Although she still didn’t know where to look. Investigating the entire hard drive would take hours. Luckily, those cybersecurity classes had an answer to that, too. As she opened a terminal, she began humming, a trick she used to organize her thoughts when focusing on a large task.
Although I probably shouldn’t do that while I’m behind enemy lines, she thought ruefully, cutting herself off. The humming continued in her head, but that had never really been as effective as out loud.
So, let’s cut out the main bulk of stuff. There’s no way they’d put it anywhere that’s obvious. I’m probably safe to eliminate anything that’s not several folders deep. She nodded to herself, writing out a find command, but the list it returned was still too overwhelming.
Maybe I should look for binaries? Whether they have some device or program to control people, or they just encrypted the data... they wouldn’t want anyone to be able to find it easily. She ran a modified find command, and was rewarded with a suitably suspicious name, ‘disqsap.bin’.
That’s way too... unusual to not be what I’m looking for, she grinned, opening the folder indicated by the terminal output.
It would take time to look through its contents, but she had brought a flash drive for a reason. She slid it in, continuing to look through the file while the contents transferred. Something interesting and ostensibly human-readable caught her eye, ‘toy.tsv’. She opened it up and found garbled hexadecimal. Grumbling, she turned off word wrap, and found something a lot more legible. Unencrypted names ran down the first column. Names of people she knew, or at least had seen. It didn’t seem to be in any particular order. After that, it listed basic information—their personal information, any standout skills, and their sexual orientation. And that hex looks like it’s an encoded image. I hope this isn’t what I think it is. She grimaced as she found Sasha’s name on the list. So it was what she’d feared. A list of victims. The list showed her nothing she didn’t already know. It said Sasha was 21, a history major, was interested in baking, and was gay. Well, I didn’t actually know that last part, but I had my suspicions. She continued scrolling, eyeing the copy in the corner. The file she’d first found was small, but the rest of it amounted to nearly the entire capacity of the little 1GB flash drive. She eventually came across Clair’s name, right above her own. Her heart sank. She’d expected this, but it still hurt.
She reviewed Clair’s information. She was 21, and a psych major, of course. It said she was interested in anime, which was a surprise to precisely nobody. Under the skills, it said she knew hypnosis. Which explained why the girls had chosen her in particular, at least. And the last bit of information was certainly new to Amber. Bisexual? she raised an eyebrow. It would certainly explain why her phone’s photos had hundreds of images of half-naked anime girls.
Cosplay references, she had said. Apparently not.
Amber was hesitant to look at her own information. Not just because it was redundant. She already knew it all, obviously. But doing so would be a painful reminder of just how real the danger was. Her morbid curiosity eventually overcame her apprehension, though.
21, comp-sci major, enjoys anime, interest in old movies, bisexual.
She blinked. Huh? She looked, to make sure she’d read it right, but there it was. They must have made a mistake. Odd, though... These people have complete access to our minds. They can figure out anything about us at any time. But it has to be a clerical error, no? If I really was bi, why would they make me think I’m straight? What would even be the point of that? She sank back into the chair, contemplating it. If they could modify this much about people, she supposed that sexuality would be trivial. Well, at least, limiting it would be. It was simpler to deny an option than to create a new one. But it still wouldn’t explain why that would have happened. She frowned, thinking over it.
Her musing was broken by the doorknob turning.
It’s three in the morning! Who the hell would be in the building? Except me, I guess... She looked over at the download bar. Three minutes left.
In a panic, she stood up, hitting the power switch and holding her breath. Any hope of the disturbance being her imagination was dashed by the woman’s frame, outlined in a bright glare, which filled the doorway. She was thin and lanky, barely more than bones, with dark skin and jet black hair. She looked like your average computer science student, and Amber thought she might have seen her in an intro-level class. Honestly, she reminded Amber of herself before she started working out. The woman had a great frame, and would probably look really good in a crop top. She had something that set her apart from past Amber, though. Composure. Her demeanor gave off the impression that she owned the room and everyone in it. Whoever this woman was, she felt comfortable in this office. She met Amber’s eyes.
She had a choice to make. What should she do? Was this person her enemy? If so, how was she going to get away? She began mapping the flow chart of possibilities in her mind, holding in her hums. She could try to run, but that would make it obvious that she had something to hide. And, as Matt had so helpfully proven, she couldn’t run faster than someone could speak. She could try to act aloof, pretend to be like Clair or Sasha, unaware of how she got here or what she was doing. But if this woman was an enemy, she would probably still trigger her for answers.
“Who’s there?” the woman called, reaching for the light switch. Thankfully, she had come from the bright hallway. Amber had precious seconds before the intruder could see clearly.
She had to make a move. In all the scenarios she could see, she would be questioned. And she only saw one option that let her answer questions without being activated. She made her decision as the lights turned on. If she was going to be activated anyway... she was going to pretend she already was.
“Amber? What are you doing here?” the skinny woman hesitated, tilting her head.
She knows me? Amber fought back the urge to stammer. The resulting silence was tense, and Amber could feel every pulse of her heart like a drum. What the hell do I say? How the hell does she know me? Ok, calm down. What would Clair do? she tried her best to hide the fear in her eyes. The mystery woman opened her mouth again. Knowing anything the woman would say could be a trigger, Amber had to think fast. “Greetings, Mistress. how may I serve you?”
More silence. Amber adopted a blank smile, trying to soften her features.
The other woman sighed. Her shoulders visibly dropped, tension gone. Amber could only hope that meant her deception had been successful. The dark skinned girl walked towards her, a dark smile forming.
She put a hand to Amber’s face, and her eyes softened. It took every ounce of willpower she had not to recoil. She felt her eye twitch slightly as she remembered how this all started, when she saw Sasha half naked in the boy’s dorm. Amber mimicked that expression, staring straight ahead, as if she wasn’t even aware anyone else was there.
“Can’t believe I’d ever be in this room again with you again,” the woman mused, tracing a finger down Amber’s neck and chest. What? So, she’s used me here? But why here? The finger stopped just above the graphic on Amber’s shirt, and began tracing a finger around her nipple. She barely managed to stay still. Thankfully, the other woman was distracted by the emptiness in Amber’s eyes, and how much Amber’s state was clearly getting her off.
“I missed this, Amber,” she went on, continuing her circling. “I really did.” She reached up with her other hand to gently grab Amber’s chin between her index finger and thumb. She was taller, and she titled Amber’s face towards her own. Their lips drew closer, and Amber braced for the kiss.
Shit! What do I do? Do I kiss her back? Do I stay blank?
The other woman stopped just an inch from her face and smirked. “No, it’s not real. I know better than that.” She tapped Amber twice on the cheek. I really hope she isn’t expecting me to respond to that.
“Alright, time to actually get some answers. Amber, what are you doing here?”
Amber froze. She felt no compulsion to answer, but if she took too long or gave the woman an answer she didn’t like, Amber might not remember the rest of the evening. Or anything. Ever again.
“I was activated this morning, Mistress.” It wasn’t technically a lie.
No matter what I say here, she’s going to follow up. The other woman tilted her head and furrowed her brow. She noticed the hesitation.
“Mistress Gina and Mistress Lois,” Amber said, keeping her voice even with great effort. Fuck, I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.
“Alright... and how did you end up here?” The impatience in her voice felt dangerous.
“I was ordered to, Mistress.”
“What? Why?” she asked, tapping her fingers against the desk.
Good fucking question. Why would someone order me to come here? Amber reviewed her options. Her interrogator was losing her patience, and there was still the matter of grabbing the flash drive without her noticing. With the effort it took to keep herself blankly smiling, eyes ahead, she didn’t have much mental energy to think of a response. She was painfully aware of how much time had passed before the mystery woman spoke up again.
“Fucking hell, I forgot how bloody difficult it is to question the toys when they’re like this,” the woman sighed, starting to pace the small office. When her back was turned, Amber glanced over at the computer. The little flash drive had stopped flashing. I need to make a move. Now!
The dark-skinned woman snapped her fingers, staring at Amber with grim satisfaction. “I really need to stop forgetting how you were programmed,” she laughed. “Administrator override, serum protocol.”
Amber felt something slide into place inside of her. As if a muscle inside her brain that she’d never felt before had flexed. She stiffened, coming to attention. It was only a small change from how she had previously been standing, but to Amber it felt like her entire body was on display.
“Please provide identification,” she heard herself say. Her voice was smooth and calm. Oh god, I sound just like Clair.
“Administrator Ikora Amar.”
Amber felt that muscle tighten.
Administrator? She’s important, then. And I can guess what serum protocol is...
“Identification confirmed. Welcome, Administrator Ikora.”
Amber tried to hold her breath, but the words had just come out anyway. She tried wiggling her toes inside her shoes, and they bumped against the roof of her sneakers. But I can’t tell if that’s normal or not.
“Amber, access memory logs of the past twenty-four hours,” the woman—Ikora—said, interrupting Amber’s train of thought.
Instantly, the events of the previous day sprang into her mind with vivid clarity. Shit, it’s working. ‘Serum’ means truth, obviously. I guess I just have to hope she doesn’t ask the right questions.
Ikora continued, “Amber, state all members who have activated you in that timeframe.”
Fuck, not good. Amber tried forcing her mouth shut, but to no avail. “I was activated by now defunct member Matt before that period, and awoke in his bed. Members Gina and Lois activated me and toy Clair at ten-twenty one in the morning,” she droned. She wiggled her toes as she spoke. Ok, so I have control, except where I don’t. And I can’t lie. I don’t know what she’s about to say, but I can’t let her ask anything else. I’ve given away too much already.
“Amber, why ar—” Ikora cut off mid-sentence as Amber’s lips met hers. They locked eyes, Amber feigning blankness, Ikora’s twisted in a silent question. Amber hoped the other woman couldn’t see her trepidation. Miraculously, blessedly, Ikora’s eyes closed, and she wrapped her arms around Amber, returning the kiss. Amber took the opportunity to reach for the flash drive, getting her finger through the keyring it was attached to. Just too late to notice the movement, Ikora grabbed her hair, pulling them apart with heavy breaths.
“Well. I don’t know why the fuck you’re here, but right now, I don’t really care,” Ikora grinned. Amber was painfully aware of where her arm was behind Ikora’s, and she could feel the drive caught on the tips of her fingers. She stretched, flicking the stick into her palm.
“Administrator override, puppet protocol.”
Fuck. Nothing seemed to happen, though. She could still move her toes. So... what did ‘puppet’ mean?
Ikora pointed towards the floor. “On your knees, slut.”
Oh. She crumpled to the floor. Looking back up at Ikora, she saw the same finger point towards her aggressor’s skirt.
Amber’s body lurched forward, planting her lips on fabric. Ikora grabbed her by the hair, pulling her back.
“No, you dumb bimbo.”
Amber could feel her heart pounding. It was shock, yes, but also fear, confusion, and a strange, perverse thrill. She had stopped trying to wiggle her toes. She ran through possible scenarios, trying to predict what Ikora would have her do next. Amber had previously been absent during her sexual encounters. Being fully aware and unable to resist was a new and entirely unwelcome sensation.
“Take off my panties, and lick,” Ikora barked.
Amber’s body obeyed before she could process the request herself. She slid the silky material down Ikora’s legs slowly, carefully. As soon as the garment met Ikora’s ankle, the grip around Amber’s scalp tightened, and Amber’s face was driven between her legs.
Amber’s mouth obeyed the earlier order, licking calmly. She risked a glance upwards, and saw the scorn on her controller’s lips. The grip on her hair became painful.
“Harder, bitch! Fuck me like you mean it!”
Amber’s body responded immediately, grabbing Ikora’s legs and pushing her tongue deeper. Ikora’s legs tightened around her face.
“Fuck, I forgot how good at this you are,” Ikora moaned.
Even in that state of shock, Ikora’s words pierced through. That makes one of us. I don’t remember doing any of this!
Her thoughts were interrupted by Ikora’s screams. “Yes! Yes! Eat me out, you fucking bitch!”
Amber’s body redoubled its efforts, but she barely felt it anymore. It was as if she was a passenger in her own body, watching from a distance. How do I get out of here? She tried moving her arms and legs, but they wouldn’t respond. Her toes cooperated easily enough, though, and so did her eyes. I still have control over everything she doesn’t. She couldn’t see the drive in her current position, but she could feel the metal pressing into her palm, barely hidden from Ikora’s sight. But how do I get off my knees to hide it in a pocket?
An answer did not take long to arrive. “Fuck me! Yes! Yes! I don’t care how you do it, just fuck me until I cum!” Ikora screamed.
Amber returned to awareness, as if dunked in cold water. She had a chance. She had to move, now. Control returned to her limbs, but she wasn’t free. She needed to fuck Ikora until she came. But that was just vague enough for her to use. She picked Ikora up, keeping her mouth buried between the other woman’s legs. The thin girl yelped in pleasure as Amber slammed her against the desk, trying to buy time to think. But... Amber couldn’t do anything that wasn’t towards the goal of fucking her. So how...
It was obvious. She grinned, knowing Ikora would just interpret it as enthusiasm.
She decided. And with that, her body began to move. She would obey the command, yes. And she would continue to eat her out. But playing with Ikora’s breasts wouldn’t be very comfortable if she had a metal stick in her palm, would it?
She slipped the stick into her back pocket. Ikora was too far gone to notice. If Amber’s mouth had been hers, she would have grimaced as her hands reached towards Ikora’s breasts. It’s so I can escape, she reminded herself.
Ikora gasped at the new sensation, moaning, but her expression grew dissatisfied again.
“Harder!” she commanded.
Your funeral, bitch. She bit the flesh to the side of her cunt. I hope that gets infected. But Ikora just moaned harder. She enjoyed that, she realized. I’m good at this. This might actually work.
Her moment of glory was cut short by the voice of her programming.
I’ve never done this before. I don’t like girls.
Amber’s eyes widened in horror. Her body wouldn’t allow her to stop, but her mind was instantly elsewhere.
That... that’s just not possible. I don’t like girls. I’ve always been straight, she protested. The voice was silent.
It tells you what you can’t do.
Had it... not been a clerical error? Dreading the result, she quietly thought a single statement. I am bisexual. She prayed the voice would remain quiet. She had already been violated so much in these past few weeks. How deep had it gone? How much of her was her?
I don’t like girls.
It was as if her heart had stopped.
Knowing what would happen, but needing to confirm anyway, Amber thought the same statement again.
I don’t like girls.
She looked up at Ikora’s face, a contorted mess of sweat, pain, and pleasure. The face that, right now, represented everything Amber was fighting against. Even this? They had even taken this from her? You people did this to me! You ruined my life! She dug her fingernails into Ikora’s thighs, and bit down hard. The other woman screamed in agonized ecstasy, her body convulsing, then falling still. Amber’s body moved back, standing up, awaiting further orders Both women breathed heavily as Ikora’s unfocused eyes met Amber’s. “Good... girl,” she chuckled darkly.
I hope you burn in hell, bitch, she thought. Her body relaxed, taking that as dismissal. She was free. Or... relatively free. I won’t be for long unless I get the fuck out of here, though. Mimicking Clair’s uncaring walk, she left the room, barely resisting the urge to run. She paused just before leaving, although doing so took everything she had.
“Oh, hey there. I think I’m lost,” she said blankly, putting on her best smile. Ikora made vague eye contact, nodding, and Amber walked away with feigned calm.
She started sprinting as soon as she rounded the corner.
Amber had barely been back in her room for five minutes before the stress of the night caught up to her, and she was suddenly violently sick. Thankfully, she managed to make it to the trash can before she actually threw up. Groaning, she slumped against the wall, breathing heavily.
Her body was practically screaming at her, begging her to rest. She’d been pushing herself far beyond what her mind and body were built for. Weariness was one thing. She could handle that, after the strength training she’d gone through. Stress was another.
She ignored her body’s protests, instead plugging the flash drive into her laptop. I don’t know what part Ikora has to play in all of this. She’s important, clearly. So I hope to god whatever was in that computer will bring her even a fraction of the pain her friends have inflicted on me. Her fingers drummed against the laptop’s base as she waited for the contents of the drive to copy over. It was agonizing. Each passing moment was more time spent alone with her thoughts.
Although her thoughts hadn’t been alone, lately.
I don’t like girls, the voice intoned, responding to her worries. Amber didn’t need to translate anymore. She liked girls, and, based on other things she’d gotten the voice to deny, she had been intimate with other girls before.
Why would they change that? That question still haunted her. She couldn’t find an answer. Why her, and not Clair? Why wouldn’t they have written it down? What possible motive was there?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the green light of her flash drive winking out. She could finally get to work.
The folder she’d snagged contained a lot of seemingly garbage data. It wasn’t of any standard format—they were all either .sap, .zos, or lacked extensions entirely—and there weren’t any strings of legible text embedded in them, so that was a bust. The only things she could read were mostly TSV files. More lists of the victims, and probably pricing options, she noted, giving each of them a quick runthrough. The garbled hex beside the victims’ names had indeed been encoded images, a picture of the person, blank and compliant. She had only glanced at her own, and decided she didn’t need to see anything else.
The only other thing left was the file she’d found in the first place, ‘disqsap.bin’. There were a lot of things that could be, but .bin, at least, was a file extension she recognized. Binary.
She started her usual humming as she worked, the white noise merging with the whir of her computer’s fans, moving between documentation and searches with practiced speed. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she looked up different encodings.
Whatever this is, it’s important. If I’m going to crack any of the files, ithasto be this one.
She could rule serialized data out fairly quickly. That didn’t fit—none of the deserialization strategies she looked up applied past the first couple of bytes. It wasn’t a zipped file, either. It didn’t have the right components to be one.
Of course, it could always be encrypted, and I could be fucked, completely unable to get anything useful out of it. Not unless the voice decides to throw me a bone... I need to try a password, she thought experimentally.
The voice remained silent.
Good, she hummed. It’s probably not encrypted.
So, she returned to the search. It wasn’t a disk image. Even if it wasn’t a tiny file, it didn’t look anything like one. So, was it a program?
Bingo. She grinned as she cross-referenced it with a page describing machine code. It was a perfect fit.
But she couldn’t read it. She’d never learned machine code. Who would? It was rarely useful unless you were actually working with hardware, and she’d never needed to. She’d asked her professors if you could decompile it to something more human-readable, and the answer had always been yes, but to never try. It was almost always more work than it was worth to get anything useful out of it.
But it was worth it here.
Minutes later, she had downloaded a decompiler, configured it, and set it to work.
Fuuuck... she groaned, glancing at the time. Seven in the morning. She’d been working on it for nearly three hours, and she’d barely gotten anywhere. She had verified that, indeed, the file was what she’d thought. It was machine code, all right.
And her professors had all been right, too. Working with the output from the decompiler felt like she was an ant trying to topple a brick wall. Hopelessly outmatched.
She’d found a couple of leads, at least, mostly centering around things which didn’t belong. From what she’d been able to determine, this code was meant to be run on a small device custom-built for the purpose. It wrote data out to an electrical connection, and read in from another. She’d been able to isolate a couple of functions that wrote to it, but she still couldn’t figure out what the device was supposed to do. The majority of the code was just math done in those functions, but she couldn’t figure out why.
Humming louder in a futile attempt to drown out her headache, she took a gulp of coffee, staring at the function she was almost completely sure was the output. It took in a set of numbers, and wrote the result of some big block of math out to the electrical connection. But what the hell was it supposed to be?
Should she ask Clair? She always helped Amber think through things—don’t think about that, don’t think about why—but even mentioning this would probably shut her friend down. So that wasn’t an option, unless she found someone else taking advantage of Clair. But she’d rather not think about that, either.
She hummed in consideration as she looked at the function again. What would Clair do?
She needed to think about this differently. She didn’t need to understand what it did in a vacuum. She could just try it out.
She copied the code over to her test environment, and ran some simple sets of numbers. All zeroes, all ones, and similar configurations. The output looked... like a sine wave?
It’s sound, she realized. It had to be. Whatever this device was, it used sound.
But... would it be dangerous to run it? Had the masterminds somehow devised a sound that merely hearing it would let them control you?
She shook her head. If that was true, they would have taken over the school. The actual device itself was important, somehow. This was probably safe.
That also told her what the pin the program was reading was, too. A microphone of some sort. So... it took in sound, and the output was another sound?
She looked at the data that was being written out again. She could play that as a sound file, right? Hesitantly, humming, she wrote a bit of code to play the output when given no inputs.
And then, shutting her eyes, humming more insistently, praying her assumption was right, that this was safe... she hit enter.
The computer hummed along with her.
Amber took deep, shaky breaths. She had hoped that was a coincidence. That it was her lack of sleep catching up to her, or the stress, or anything.
But what did that mean? It could just be a part of the programming. She had a way to check.
Hands shaking, she dialed Clair.
“Hey, Am. What’s going on?” her friend yawned. “You woke me up...”
Amber felt a flash of guilt, but shoved it down. This was more important.
“Hey, Clair. You know how I always hum when I’m focusing hard on something, right?”
Amber hummed for a couple of seconds, waiting for Clair’s response.
“What’s going on, Amber? I know that’s what it sounds like...”
Amber dropped her phone in shock. That couldn’t be possible. But... it had to be.
She’d tried hundreds of tones now. Every time, she’d been able to hum the output before the computer did.
I’m wrong, the programming whispered.
And that was it. She no longer had any doubt.
She knew exactly who’d written this code.