“No, you’re right,” the long-haired hacker-type Lyle had found said, pulling the USB cord from the smartphone and slowly coiling it up, dropping it on his desk. Cords, touchscreen tablets and phones, and stacks of notebooks were everywhere, a no-name slightly older but clearly reinforced laptop running something in two adjacent browsers on a foldout chair next to the old beat-up wooden slab.
“So it was nothing?”
“No, it was something, but subtle, a capture somewhere in the network itself. Who does your boss work for?”
Lye shrugged, biting at his thumbnail, his brain spinning. He’d reverted back to follower behavior to the nines on his way here, paranoid about being seen or tracked, the ugly no-name and completely indistinguishable jacket and hoodie, brand-new pressed jeans in a not-too-dark blue fade, gym shoes, baseball cap with a knockoff Yankees logo poorly stitched on the front. Pete’s apartment was alarmingly-easy to find once he’d gotten the address, and he’d been a bit surprised after calling the number that the computer infiltrator had been so blasé with his home address, telling Lyle to bring lunch with him for the two of them.
Still, he assumed Pete would have his own countermeasures against unwanted visitors and drop-bys, and assumed that if he knew how to ask for help in that particular way, then Pete could safely assume that Lyle was OK enough to trust, or at least work for.
Pete got up from the chair, handing Lyle his phone back. “Basically, the signal, be it a text or a phone call, bounces through a few digital waystations. The best I can figure out, it’s some kind of Internet version of a satellite phone-type system. Soemwhere at one of those waystations, within the network itself, someone plugged in, or switched a plug. The ID for one station, I can’t tell which, is different after your Columbus incident than it was before.
“’Swhy I ask who your boss is working for, because really…” Pete looked somewhat unsure and almost frightened to say anything, “this is the sort of stuff you see when there’s, you know, corporate infighting, hostile takeovers, stuff like that. Anyway,” he said as Lyle looked alarmingly at his phone, holding it in his hand like a piece of broken glass, gingerly, able at any moment to shift a millimeter and slice a finger off, “I put a patch into a few apps to hide them, it’ll blink red when a hacked text or call comes in, and blue when it’s a legit one. Anything else will be green. I also permanently killed your GPS locative service, so it can’t even be remotely or accidentally turned on. Should be safe, or as safe as a phone can get these days. You probably should have ditched it to be honest, but I’m sure you’ve got protocol or whatever you guys call it, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Lyle was half-listening at this point, the points clicking in his head, decompressing. An intercepted signal by his boss’s boss, or maybe his boss’s employees? He knew he wasn’t the only one who got the calls, who followed and found, but if he didn’t know about the waystation-things, then why would another? There had to be some way to make sure nothing was intercepted. With only a limited number of waystations that meant that it was inevitable that the tapped one would be hit, if not every time, then eventually, that is if whatever the system was didn’t use every waystation every time.
“Hey is there a way to get onto the network through another phone or computer?” Pete looked up from the pile of papers he was sorting through, conventional mail, Lyle saw. Typical but surprisingly-effective moderate security barrier, getting stuff snail-mailed to you through couriers or services, not allowing as much as possible that had your name on it travelling online.
Lyle handed Pete a bundle of newspaper and tape, five thousand in cash. “I can do another if you can figure it out for me. The hacker held the payment and looked at Lyle, curious. “If this burns me…I don’t know, man, maybe? I don’t wanna give you any promises, but the network the waystations operate on is a darknet, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to scrub and dump a ton of stuff just for looking at it through your phone. You got the phone when you started working there, right? It’s got some nice custom work, done at the factory level I think. The only people I know who can do that and have their own private Internets are spooks, guys with government pensions. Patriot Act and the NSA don’t take kindly to guys like me, ya know?”
“Look,” Lyle could feel himself starting to manifest physically, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists, his jaw working, “double? I need this, and I know this would make your name.” Pete paused, looking at the bundle in his hand again, the laptop on the chair, and nodded. “Aright. I’m going to need to clone your phone first. Also? Go get more food, we’ll be here a while doing that.”
Lyle nodded, handing the smartphone back over and going to the apartment door, hearing Pete start to hum to himself and the faint dink of USB connections being made and the whir of a cooling fan.