My name is Alex Paynes. Last night I hacked the pentagon and saw some things I wasn’t supposed to. My only defense is I was bored.
Now I’m wanted.
Outside the room, I can hear them talking. The voices are muffled, nearly inaudible, but paranoia makes every sensation chillingly prominent, and I can recognize the voice of my computer science teacher as he converses no, argues, with one I can’t place. My cursor blinks impatiently in the empty command prompt. After what I did, I struggle to find the usual comfort in the pixels. It only seems to stop when the door opens.
“Pause what you’re doing, everyone.” Mr. Kaminski’s wavering voice sends a chill down my spine. My fingers tighten around the mouse. “The officers would like to check your computers.”
I’d mistakenly thought I’d be safe from any reverse trace if I used a public IP address. It would lead them to the highschool, but not me specifically. In a class of over two thousand students I should’ve blended in. Unless they checked the computers, and saw the penetration programs I downloaded in system files. It’s a short jump from the file, to the user that downloaded it, to my student ID. I can be anyone in the code, but if they access my stuff from the source… I bury my head in my hands, sensing as the rest of the class around me obeys and lets the police team onto their desktops, the only one who hesitates is Big Greg. A delinquent infamous for being, well, big, he’s an important part of the school’s food chain– and someone I’m uncomfortably familiar with.
“What’s going on?” He asks, but his usually threatening tone is gone in the mens’ presence.
The response is a flat, statement of fact: “A recent cyber attack appears to have been launched from a school computer. We’re searching for the perpetrator.” He looks over the class, “Has anyone here heard of the name [idk insert cool hacker name here]?”
I’ve never felt the want to strangle someone before, but as another student opens their mouth I find myself with my hands around the neck of the monitor in front of me, imagining them. “Kind of, I overheard some kids talking about their bad grades and one of them mentioned that name. I was in the bathroom, so I couldn’t really hear them well, but I guess it’s some dude you can pay to hack the gradebooks to keep you from failing.”
$15 dollars for a C, $20 for a B, and $25 for an A. I thought the prices were fair for the inherent risk that comes with hacking, maybe a little high as Big Greg would say multiple times in messages to “me” on my fake PayPal, but in the end everyone sends the money, even him. It’s not enough to pay for bail, though.
Someone taps my shoulder, and I feel my stomach drop. “Off the computer.” The man motions for me to move, but all I can do is stare at him, as if he’ll eventually disappear like a figment in a bad dream. Nothing happens. Why did I expect it to? I push myself up, legs shaking under me as the stranger pulls the desk chair out. Every click of the keyboard–my keyboard–is like another finger around my throat; squeezing hard, choking me. I feel light headed. When he opens the file directory, I force my shaking hand into the air.
“I have to use the bathroom.”
Mr. Kaminski looks to the stern officer from earlier, obviously their leader, with a wary gaze. “Can’t it wait, Alex?”
In the silence, he lets out a short sigh, knowing it’s not his call to make. This isn’t his classroom anymore.
Finally, I get an answer. “Quickly.” The flat voice answers, and I force a “thank you” out between my trembling lips. It’s barely a whisper, carried on the warm air of the computer fans. Their soft hum fills the silence I leave behind.
The hallways is empty, but I know it won’t be for long. All the proof they need is on that computer. A sudden eruption of conversation from the other side of the closing door sends me into a sprint. I should’ve put more safeguards in place. I had that thought when I first started my adventures into the depths of code, but I put it off as needless anxiety. I expected that only Mr. Kaminski and I would ever have access to it, at least until I graduated, but I never expected… whatever this situation is.
I make a sharp turn into the boy’s bathroom, running towards the far wall, but on shaking legs the propulsion is worthless, and my fingers just barely reach the window sill. I drop back down. At eight feet off the ground it’s too high for me to get to, let alone escape through it. It was made for ventilation, not evading the police. A soft giggling from the handicap stall makes my blood run cold.
“What’s with the rush?” As if on queue, the door opens into a group of smoking teens. I hadn’t noticed the smell, but now I can’t ignore it: marijuana.
“Why are you in the men’s room?” I ask the source of the voice, trying to avoid breathing in the smoke but unable to keep myself from panting. It’s dizzying, just the way they like it.
“Diversity.” The girl laughs, “It’s just the best way to hide. No one’s gonna be looking for a girl in here.” Hearing the footfalls, she pauses. “Someone’s definitely looking for you, though.”
A boy next to her blows out a cloud of smoke. “What’d you do, lil man?”
“I-” Do I tell them the truth? Will anyone believe a bunch of stoners when questions are asked? The sound comes again, closer this time. My heart is racing, but I’m trapped in the tile-lined confines of the bathroom. The police will get here soon, and when they do… “I have a bunch of weed at my house, but someone snitched to the cops about it.” What am I doing? “Help me get out of here and I’ll let you have it. Everything.” First it was hacking, now it’s drugs… is this what they call a downward spiral? “Please, help me.”
The stoners are quiet, considering my offer, and completely unaware it's all a lie. That’s one of the perks of being a nobody– no one knows who you really are; no one cares enough to ask.
“What type is it?” The girl asks.
There are different types? “It’s good stuff.” How far will I have to go with this lie?
She nods, as if that means something that I don’t know about. It just makes the panic worse. “Zack, Adam, help him up.” At her command, two boys, both obviously seniors, approach me. One takes my right leg, the other my left, and as they push me up I can feel the lingering warmth in their tight grasps from the embers that had burned too close. I have to be careful not to move too much when I push out the screen, or when I stick my head outside and look down. It’s a big drop.
“You better not be lying about the weed.” I hear the girl shout from behind me, followed by the squeak of old hinges as the bathroom door is tossed open violently. Before I get the chance to respond, the seniors push the rest of me through the window, throwing me to the ground below. The grass does nothing to pad my fall.
My chest feels as if it’s collapsed in on itself, and I struggle to breathe as the cold dirt presses against my back. I look back at where I’d exited, black spots dancing in my vision. Had I landed wrong, I’d probably be dead. After everything maybe that would’ve been preferable. The sound of toilets as the stoners flush their stash fades in and out, and shouts waver like in a far off dream. My elbows dig into the ground as I push myself up. One step, then another, moving me forwards slowly, away from the school and the boredom that had lead to all this. There don’t seem to be any officers out here. I escaped.
My name is Alex Paynes,
And for now, I’m safe.