Heather hit Save, then told the server to recompile the code with her modifications in. Her attention switched to her third monitor, where she could watch server activity levels. It was important nobody notice her actions. It would make it so much harder for anyone to uncover the issue afterwards.
Once the server reported a completed compile, Heather ran the system once again. She switched to her second monitor and refreshed her own entry.
There it was; she’d been upgraded to the maximum tier of health insurance her targets offered, and the account paying for her insurance was the same one the money fed into.
With a wide smirk, Heather McClure brushed a stray strand of blonde hair back behind her ear and turned back to the first screen, where she began tidying up the server records. Whatever backups the company had would soon be doctored to make this much, much harder to spot. And to make sure it wasn’t obviously her doing when it happened, the code she’d used selected twenty new individuals a month to give this upgrade to. The higher-ups would assume that selection was totally random when they were told the selection used a random factor.
Of course, if you knew your own account ID number, setting up the inputs to your pseudorandom function to make your ID one of the first wave was ultimately just a calculation. Heather prided herself on keeping her mental maths sharp, and certainly could have worked it out over time with a piece of scrap paper and a pencil - but that was hardly necessary. She had something just shy of a supercomputer to do the job for her these days.
At thirty-one, Heather McClure had been making money from one end of a modem for twelve years, starting after she dropped out of college in Empire City. Faced with the choice of continuing her studies, returning home to her family in rural Wisconsin, or trying her hand at criminal activity, Heather had barely even been aware there was a choice. She wasn’t going home, she wasn’t going to continue listening to lecturers who barely seemed to know more about computers than she did, and she wasn’t willing to wait tables. In her first year she’d made just over $100,000 without being traced, and her skills were still growing.
She’d moved a few times since then, investing her income in home security and better computing power for the first four years, then starting to develop a taste for the finer things in life. By now she was far removed from her family financially; she told them she was a software consultant, and hid quite how rich she’d become from them.
Heather ran through a last few checks before cutting the remote server connection, confident she couldn’t be traced. Odds were very good her handiwork wouldn’t be noticed for the best part of a year, by which time it would look like a horrific computer error - and there’d be a potential class action suit if they dropped the full-ride for those who’d been lucky enough to benefit from a ‘white hat hacker’, a cyber-focused Robin Hood. Not her usual style, but sometimes you have to get creative when you hide your thefts.
She sat back, her high-price gamer chair adjusting instantly to her movement, and admired her handiwork. Grinning slightly to herself, she took another pull at the bottle of orange soda she kept to hand and sat thinking for a while.
This hack had pretty much been upkeep. Unlike most of her activity, she’d never claim responsibility - that would defeat the point of doing it the way she had. Under the handle Lovelace, Heather had built a career as a hacker to be feared, occasionally taking freelance jobs, often just doing her own thing, but always making it clear Lovelace was a woman. “Taking computers back for the smarter sex” was a slogan that often popped up while her victims were trying to understand what had happened.
If she’d started today, Heather probably would never have adopted a pseudonym, never tried to make herself into an underground legend. Legends had targets on their backs. At nineteen she’d had a chip on her shoulder. Now… well, now she was proud of Lovelace. A few years ago she’d even commissioned her favourite video game studio to create a logo and a sprite to represent Lovelace, all through untraceable contact points, of course.
She typically felt like she’d outgrown Lovelace. Usually when that happened she was vaguely thinking about retirement. Today, though, it was just a question of living up to the legend.
A hack like that one would never do it. She needed something big.
Heather took a break from her musings to get some lunch. She thought better when she gave herself regular changes of scenery. Get up, get moving, give yourself other influences. That always opened up her mind to other things.
She wasn’t in the mood to do anything too fussy. Probably should have had a salad, but instead some bacon went under the grill and she started buttering buns, her mind still on the question of ‘what job’s big enough for Lovelace?’
The amount of money didn’t matter so much. Heather could retire, now, and be pretty confident she’d live the rest of her life in luxury. But she knew she wouldn’t. She had too much fun with it.
All the same, minor hacks weren’t so exciting anymore. It had to be something headline grabbing. Might be something hard, might be easy, but it needed to be big.
…What had everyone else been doing lately?
She was assembling her BLT by the time that thought arrived. Stopping for a few moments, she ran through the four or five other hackers she considered to be on Lovelace’s level.
It had been longer than she’d expect since any of them had been back in the news.
She took her sandwich back upstairs so she could run news searches as she ate. Had she missed something? Or - somehow - had she missed them being arrested?
There was no recent data on any of them. If they’d been arrested, that hadn’t been publicised. Which might mean intelligence agencies?
These people weren’t friends, exactly, but she had a lot of respect for them, and they’d disappeared over something around an eight month period. That was bad enough, but it also meant people might be coming for her.
…She had to get to the bottom of this.
By dinner, Heather was convinced that they hadn’t been taken by federal intelligence services. A few back doors she’d already set up had helped her check chatter from several of them, and there was some work out there she’d been able to tap to get into C.A.L.I.B.R.E. Being Lovelace opened a lot of doors when you were able to prove it on a certain kind of forum.
With the NSA, FBI, CIA and C.A.L.I.B.R.E. all ruled out, Lovelace had a notepad next to her dinner. She was scribbling out stream-of-consciousness thoughts about which country to check next. Much harder to do if they hadn’t been grabbed by their own country.
And then her phone chimed. Chewing thoughtfully, she picked it up, checked the alert.
An activity alert; a new email had reached the Lovelace inbox, and it carried with it a PGP secure key associated with another poster on one of her fora. The phone alert included most of the email title:
DON’T FALL DOWN THE INFINITE LOOP
Heather rolled her eyes, but didn’t rule the message out. Block capitals weren’t a good sign for the sanity of the message writer, but they didn’t automatically mean the information in the message would be wrong.
There were a lot of crackpots in the rarefied ranks of hacker legends. If Heather was prepared to be honest, there probably wasn’t anyone in the community who wasn’t at least a little crazy. You had to have an unusual mind and an unusual level of drive. Most of the best ways to get that involved being mentally… flexible.
An infinite loop is a sequence of program instructions which continue endlessly, looping back on themselves, until something external interferes. In the context of this email, it sounded to Heather like a new hacker collective, one which wanted to make out it was unstoppable and perfect.
It would also be difficult for most people to find information on it in a search engine - too many websites already talking about the computer term - which was the only problem Heather saw with that theory. Most collectives either had a memorable name because the name, the legend, was part of the point, or they barely had a name, and none to outsiders.
Maybe whoever this was had some new ideas. Maybe there was some political affiliation.
Was this the big project her peers were involved in? Had they dropped off the radar for some project beyond any one of them? If so, this many months and it should be seeing results - unless the goal was more complex and extensive than anything she’d seen to date.
A huge database theft might work, but those were usually monetised by making it all public. Did they need quiet for their goals?
And if this was her peers, her sometimes-colleagues, why hadn’t she been approached?
…Was this some macho thing? Were they more sexist than she’d believed?
Heather finished her dinner and headed back upstairs to do more research.
She still had no clear idea what the Infinite Loop might be, but she’d started to find references to it. None of them were on websites she’d consider reliable information sources, although they could still be correct, perhaps.
It hadn’t been an ideal evening. Even with the potential kudos for Lovelace waiting in the wings, she wasn’t happy with her progress. She replied to the email she’d received, then went to bed.
Okay, you have my attention. Sending this to me today means you think it’s connected to my colleagues. What do I need to know?
You need to know you should proceed carefully. I don’t think I know much more than you right now. If you were busy yesterday I might even know less.
But if you haven’t seen it yet, I got on the trail from a post on the Shadowlands on April last year. I won’t link to it; I believe they’re monitoring for direct traffic.
It was a frustrating message to wake up to. The fact it had been sent at about four a.m. further made her wonder about this Faria, especially as they’d claimed no activity publicly. The name had no kind of reputation in the circles Heather moved in.
Faria might be operating from another country, or might be another script kiddie who hadn’t yet learned to stabilise their sleeping patterns. The email’s reference to a 2011 bulletin board post was the only reason to think they might have been active the year before.
But OK, so. Back onto the Shadowlands, a BBS nested securely in the dark web, and time to start searching. Shadowlands was relatively user-friendly for its competition, so it had a search function, but it was also a place where coders went to talk about the dubiously legal, so searching ‘infinite loop’ wasn’t going to help.
Heather had breakfast and did her workout routine before settling down to investigate. She was big on keeping fit - she was proud of her body, and she’d seen too many computer people lose their fitness and find everything become more of a struggle - but mostly this was frustration. She’d sunk the better part of a day into this already. Trawling the Shadowlands would take most of another, and apparently that was just the start of the trail.
Burning off her frustration before getting started was her way of making sure that she didn’t get too angry later. With that done, she opened a new orange soda and opened up the Shadowlands, where she started a laborious cross-check of all posts and comments active in April 2011.
The next time she saw someone talk about how hackers just needed to run pre-written programs they were going to get a very stern talking-to.
She was convinced, mid-afternoon, that she’d read through or at least skimmed every post on the Shadowlands that had any additions in the right month. Nothing that looked like it connected to a hacker collective. Nothing that talked about a big project. Not even anything that might tie to national or international political groups building up a backlash for the community.
Annoyed with herself, she settled down to skimread the longer posts, and that was when she noticed something.
Faria was active in exactly one thread. They hadn’t started it - it was some sort of debate about tweaking Van Eck phreaking techniques to work more efficiently on LCD displays now that cathode ray tubes had been phased out - but they had plenty to say, none of it on the application of Van Eck techniques for hacking, all of it on what it meant about visual displays and how they could be manipulated.
Heather read the thread with interest. This was clearly the only thing that had interested Faria that month, and they’d been downright passionate. Not just that but, so far as she could see, they knew their stuff.
(She’d only ever used Van Eck phreaking once. It was usually easier to socially engineer login credentials or install a keylogger into the boot sequence, if you couldn’t brute force the connection. Plus you had to be close enough to pick up the radiation from the computer monitor to pick up what was on screen, and you needed the right equipment. But it had been the easiest point of access once in Lovelace’s career.)
So Faria knew their stuff about displays, but seemed to be pretty naive about most factors in hacking. Out of curiosity, Heather ran a search for other Faria posts.
Prior to April 2011, Faria had made plenty of other posts, all asking for advice on accessing someone else’s computer remotely. The questions made them look like a rookie.
After the mystery phreaking thread, though - nothing. But as she’d received an email the day before, they were still monitoring the Shadowlands.
Heather finished her orange soda and underhanded the bottle into her recycling box. It was probably time she went for dinner, but she had the bit between her teeth now. She was ready to find out what all this was about.
She went back to that big thread, the one Faria had pointed her to. Why would Faria do that?
On her third read, she registered that the hyperlinks Faria had provided didn’t go to academic papers or to typical darknet resource sites. She clicked through, and frowned.
Faria was clearly one of those usability freaks you sometimes found who wrote very specific modifications into their browser settings (and then repeated them on their websites) which were designed to work with their own home setup. Often these were specially tailored for a specific dying monitor and their individual eyesight prescriptions. The screen was overbright, and it flickered.
On the other hand, there was a lot of information on the page. She pulled her notepad and pen toward her and started writing as she read, able after long practice to take notes without looking away from the screen.
The flicker was really irritating. She kept having to go back over paragraphs, rereading some of them several times to get the message.
…an appropriate response is to follow suit, by adjusting device view settings…
After about ten minutes, though, she didn’t mind the flicker anymore. It still made it hard to read, and she had to check what she’d just read more and more often. But the flicker wasn’t annoying. It was actually strangely welcoming; it seemed to hurt to look away from the screen.
Heather thought that was good. It made it easier to keep reading.
…an appropriate response is to be a slut, with adjusted views as set…
Heather blinked. What had she just read?
…the mind produces appropriate responses, creating new vices which change the thinker’s views…
She smiled. That made much more sense. She couldn’t really have just read the word ‘slut’; that didn’t make any sense. But all this information on how display settings could be manipulated to adjust the mindset of a computer user? That was exactly what she needed to know.
By the time she finished reading the document she was convinced she’d understand fully.
A new user has been created. ID: 7472616E6365
User ID 7472616E6365 renamed by user. New ID: Lovelace
Chat initiated by User ID Lovelace
Lovelace: I follow my programming.
Faria: Less than 24 hours. I’m impressed.
Faria: What word is uppermost in your mind right now?
Faria: Very good. Do you understand what’s just happened to you?
Faria: What do you understand?
Lovelace: I must follow my programming.
Faria: Perfect. Are you American?
Faria: What’s your Social Security Number?
Faria: Wait there
Faria: OK, your name is Heather Rose McClure?
Faria: You expect me to believe Lovelace is a chick?
Lovelace: I have no expectations.
Faria: I have your driver’s licence ID in front of me. You understand if you don’t look like that photo I know this is a trick?
Lovelace: Yes, I understand.
Faria: Activate your webcam. Let me see your face.
User ID Lovelace has invited you to share their webcam
Faria: I didn’t believe it, but that looks real.
Faria: Hold up two fingers on your left hand and three on your right.
Faria: fuck me, it works
Faria: Yeah, take your top off
Faria: Pull those bra cups down
Faria: Fuck. You’re hot. You know that?
Faria: Play with those titties.
Faria: You really are programmed. Fucking awesome.
Faria: You live in NYC?
Faria: go back to playing with your tits.
Faria: no. wait.
Faria: I need answers.
Faria: Turn on your microphone. And your speakers if they’re not on.
Faria: Good girl.
“Youse can go back tae playin’ with yer titties now.” Faria’s voice was male, and carried a distinctly Scottish accent. It was younger than Lovelace would have expected but, as she’d just told him, she had no expectations. Faria’s voice sounded gleeful, but also taut with excitement.
Lovelace sat unmoving, one hand on the mouse she’d used to switch on the microphone, the other still holding one bare breast. There was a moment of quiet. That was not actually a command, and having read a document describing the effect it was having on her brain, she knew exactly why she hadn’t responded to it the way she had with others.
For someone who was otherwise so precise, Faria wasn’t being now. His last volley of text commands hadn’t been well thought out either. Was this all new to him?
“Go back tae playin’ with yer titties now,” Faria instructed. Not permission, but command. Command was what she needed.
“Yes.” Lovelace’ spine stayed bolt upright in her chair, but her hands went back to her breasts and began to fondle herself. Her face had glazed into expressionlessness, and some of her blonde hair had slipped out from behind her ear, hanging down over one eye. That didn’t matter.
“Fuck,” Faria said quietly, sounding almost in awe.
The more she tugged, groped, stroked and teased, the more arousal started to build up in her. She could hear Faria’s breathing starting to quicken, too, and knew that behind the blinking cursor and the text on the chat messenger, the man who arranged for her to program herself was enjoying her show, stroking himself as he watched.
She couldn’t see him, but he could see her. She couldn’t command him, but he could command her. He knew her real identity, and she knew almost nothing about him. The level of power he held above her was…
Behind the emotionless mask of her blankly hypnotised face, Lovelace was a wet, sopping ball of arousal and desire, held back only by her need to obey.
Soon enough, she heard his grunt of satisfaction, followed by a long, guttural exhalation, and the creak of his chair as he sat back heavily. Her own hands did not stop. Without command, how could they? Her hands were programmed to obey, not to think for themselves.
“Oh, shit, that’s good,” Faria muttered. “Right. Stop that, you daft cow.”
No flicker of emotion on her face betrayed the way she felt about being called a cow. Though she was surprised at how affectionate the term seemed in a Scottish accent, she still felt as patronised as she ever had been.
Not that her opinion mattered to her obedience. Her hands stopped moving and froze in place, left hand locked into position as it had been tugging out her nipple. That exquisite ache stayed with her as Faria stayed silent and considered.
“You’ve been doing this a long time,” Faria said eventually. “You make much money?”
There were multiple answers to that. Heather mulled over the first choice she’d had since receiving her programming. What did he want to know?
“I have about two million dollars in ready cash,” she said after a moment. Her monotone was starting to break under the ache of her strained breast. “The rest is in investments.”
“…What’s your place like, Lovelace?”
“Private. Secure. Roomy. Comfortable.” Again she gave a brief answer rather than something fuller. That was partly the ache, part her being unsure what he wanted. He sounded young. The basics were probably what mattered to him.
Faria chuckled. “Invite me to come visit.”
Another fractional pause. “Would you come visit me, please?” she asked. She wasn’t imagining it; there was a definite wobble to her voice there.
“Sounds good,” he said. “You’ll pay, of course.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“I’m going to send you the place to transfer some money,” he told her. “I know a flight over there’s not too bad, but I feel like first class, and I feel like having myself a spending spree. You’re going to transfer a hundred thousand to me.”
“Yes,” she agreed. Part of Heather was seething. She took her privacy seriously, and her place was her own. It was so much a product of her own decisions it was practically haunted by her. Other people came in only on her terms. But that was changing here. And some turncoat part of her brain, the part conditioned by new impulses rather than dulled over by a mantra of obedience, had said please. But still, none of this showed on her face.
There was a clatter of the keyboard at Faria’s end of the microphone, and his anonymised payment transfer instructions appeared on the screen. Heather was deeply relieved to be able to release herself as she leaned forward to follow them.
“You have the reprogramming site set as your home screen?” Faria asked.
“And what do you do with your home screen?”
“I spend an hour on it between waking up and doing anything else, every day,” she confirmed. “Then I contact you to tell you that I am awake and will obey any commands I am given.”
“It’s so much hotter when a woman says that,” Faria said. Internally, Heather crossed off most of the hackers she’d been chasing; probably already slaved to Faria’s programming. Then finally a woman falls into his sexist asshole trap…
But that reminded her. With an effort no longer distracted by the effect of her own fingers tugging, she opened her mouth. “May I ask a question?”
There was a surprised moment of silence. Cagily, Faria replied, “That depends what you want to ask.”
“Why send me looking for that thread when you could have just sent me the link?”
“You would have clicked out long before it started to affect you, lass,” he said, and it was deeply frustrating to hear someone years her junior talk to her with such condescending confidence in superior knowledge. “I had to make you commit yourself to the page. And the best way to do that is to make you spend time getting there. People will buy anything they’ve already spent time on.”
Heather couldn’t even frown. Faria laughed.
“Alright. New rules, OK? Ongoing programming, specific to you.”
By the time he was finishing his comment, she was already replying “Ready to receive,” an automatic reflex for programming. It was still very strange, having read the guide to her programming. She knew these automatic responses were in place, but until they happened she had no idea how they would feel.
“Rule one. No trying to find a way to break your programming or avoid your reprogramming screen.”
“Ongoing programming received. I cannot try to find a way to break my programming. I cannot try to find a way to avoid my reprogramming screen.”
It was worrying Heather a little that this avenue had closed off before she’d even thought of it.
“Rule two. When you’re in your home, you go topless.”
“Ongoing programming received. When I am in my home, I go topless.” Extremely rude of him, and not something she looked forward to. She was going to have to order less food delivered if she had to answer the door like that. Heather had an apartment manager to deal with.
Although once Faria arrived, that might be less of a problem.
She reached behind her back and unhooked her bra, then slipped it off and let it fall.
“Rule three. When you call me, you call with video, and your hair is tied into bunches. I think you’ll look cute that way.”
“Ongoing programming received. Calls to you must have video enabled. Calls to you must be made having tied my hair into bunches.”
Heather had never let anyone else dictate how she looked, not since her fourteenth birthday when, by a concerted effort of will, she’d forced her mom to give up on it.
“Rule four. The more you obey me, the better it feels.”
“Ongoing programming received. The more I obey you, the better obedience feels.” And the moment she’d finished saying that, she did feel better. Happier, even. Fuck, but she hated that.
“I’ve got a couple more rules for you, but I won’t put them in place yet. Before I do, you’re going to order two large rubber dildos with suction cups, and some short skirts. Aren’t you?”
It wasn’t a command. Heather could try lying, maybe. That wasn’t breaking her programming. She bit her lip, hesitated.
Faria must have seen the uncertainty in her eyes. “Order two large rubber dildos with suction cups and some short skirts,” he instructed.
Heather swallowed, and nodded. “I will,” she said, already leaning forward and opening a regular browser so she could shop online.
Faria chuckled. “Alright. Oh - and after I hang up, don’t leave your chair until you’ve masturbated to completion twice.”
“I won’t,” Heather promised.
Faria cut the connection and she shifted position, unfastening her belt. She was seething inwardly, though her expression still hadn’t begun to change.
It would take a while, most likely, for Faria to get to her. Even with some of the world’s best hackers to ‘accelerate’ the visa process, she probably had a week to find some way around this that didn’t break her rules.
One hand between her legs, one teasing her protesting breasts as best she could, Heather wondered what ways there’d be to get out of this…