They finished lunch with mostly sullen stares. Myth's accusatory, and obviously hurt. Taylor's confused, at Winston. For his part Winston looked abashed one brief moment, shrugged and nibbled an energy bar. When she was done pushing food around her tray, Myth got up and said goodbye rather angrily. She headed for her Forensic Chemistry class. Taylor and Winston left together, neither boy talked at first.
They walked past Crypto, saw Tate and Alexander, dangerously close to one another, a beatific smile on Tate's face as if he had just leaned out of a spectacular kiss. Winston growled under his breath and started towards the room. Taylor put a hand on Winston's arm, restraining him.
“I can't believe him!“ Winston said. Taylor thought Winston knew, that he understood there was something between Tate and Alexander, but if the other boy had understood that he didn't now. I guess I forgot to tell him that. Winston breathed hard as he shook off Taylor's arm. They walked away from Crypto. Winston occasionally turned his head around and cast angry glances backward towards Tate's classroom.
“Tate is... He was... you know... and she...“ Winston blushed, which Taylor found odd, unsettling. Winston was not shy, not about anything, especially women, yet he couldn't seem to articulate. Taylor had little experience with girls himself, they never looked at him as they did the boys who were as handsome as Winston. He had had one sort of girlfriend back at his middle school in Channelview. The way Winston acted was eerily similar to how Taylor himself had acted when he had gone to school seen Tasha holding hands with one of those jocks.
“Sorry, Win. I mean. Um. Have you... have you ever had a girlfriend?“ Taylor asked. He was unsure how to ask the question, how to frame it. He wasn't really nervous around girls himself, not anymore, though Izzy made him feel he might become so again. Yet for all his debonair charm, big city worldliness, and carefree good looks, Winston acted as though he might never have done more than just look at a girl. It was a strange realization for Taylor. He's rich and handsome and smart and funny – why would he be nervous around girls...unless...
Winston stopped and turned to Taylor, his eyes narrowed. “I'm not gay, T.“
“Whoa! I didn't mean... I know.“ Taylor said, tried to avoid looking guilty having been caught in just such a thought.”I just, well, you seem really worked up over Alexander. And I wondered if maybe... if she was your first crush or something.“
Winston bristled. Had he been a bird his feathers would be ruffled. “It's not a crush.“ He nearly snarled it at Taylor.
“Totally.“ Taylor responded, tried to sound like his father. “But whatever it is, you can't force it on her right? I mean she has to do what she wants, and you have to be prepared to realize maybe Tate is what she wants.“
If Winston had been ruffled before he was enraged now. His face went red and his eyebrows looked like they would fly off his forehead. “Tate? TATE? He's old and fat and gross, T! That's insanity. He's p...“
Taylor blinked at Winston, and wondered if his friend was about to say He's poor!
The rage seeped out of Winston, his shoulders slumped. “Whatever.“ was all he said.
The boys walked on in silence, they shared the next class together. “I'm not giving up on her T.“ Winston eventually said, firmly. “After all, nothing lasts forever, I will win her over.“
Taylor almost laughed. “Well. That will be a cake-walk, no doubt.“
He meant it as a joke, but Winston sucked in his cheeks and nodded. Even more firmly. Taylor now really wanted to bring up what he had overheard standing outside Tate's office, but then he'd have to admit he hadn't brought it up before. Tate and Alexander have a history, they had been in the NSA together, and Taylor seriously suspected that was just the tip of the iceberg. This would likely send Winston close to, if not over, the edge. Worse, Winston had been mentioned by name, by Alexander, as a prime suspect.
Taylor's face looked worried. After they sat down in English class, Winston leaned over and said. “Quit worrying, T. I didn't tell her anything, I mean not really. So what if she thinks I'm behind the attacks, I'm not, so she can't possibly find proof that I am.“
Taylor fought hard to hold his secrets back, it was very uncomfortable, not to mention the fact Winston seemed able to read those thoughts just by watching Taylor's face. “Seriously, old man. You worry too much.“ Winston said, again probably responding to Taylor's face.
Taylor needed to tell his friend about the conversation, it was important to what they were trying to figure out: who is attacking Willow Society resources? But it was actually more important than that, and Taylor knew it. Alexander and Tate had talked about the CCOM panel, it strained credulity to think whomever was responsible for stealing it was somehow not responsible or at least involved in what was happening to Willow Society resources. Both incidents lead back to Willow Prep. Taylor needed Winston's help to figure it all out, to determine the next move, to decide when and how to tell the others.
He was not sure he could make himself keep secrets from them much longer, despite the fact telling them one thing might forcibly lead to having to tell them other things Taylor wanted to keep to himself.
Taylor spent the rest of the day drifting through classes, continuously turning over in his mind what he had heard Tate and Alexander say. He had hacked military systems - indirectly at least - before, but never the NSA. Taylor had never be so foolhardy to steal development-level software from an intelligence agency. That was tantamount to walking up to a judge and asking for a prison sentence, and a long one. Unless you were constantly on the run, or super-rich and working for a foreign government, under their protection. Only a real idiot would steal something like that Stateside and leave a trail to be followed. Which begged the question for Taylor: had this person or persons actually left a trail? Or clever smoke and mirrors?
From his experience with Tate in Crypto, Taylor was sure Tate still kept his ear to the ground about such things. Tate was still connected to underground circles, likely friendly with hackers, and maybe even did some recreational hacking himself. Sitting still is recursive! was a favorite saying of Tate's in class. Alexander clearly didn't suspect Tate, and she would probably know. Maybe their past blinds her. Their past. Yuck. Tate was a such a large, grizzled, and unkempt man – imagining a beautiful, if very hard, woman like Alexander with him seemed likely romance gone apeshit.
After school, Taylor made his way across the street to Chatham House and inside to the HQ, where he found Winston busy at a terminal. Vague tinkling sounds from the hallway opposite the door to the foyer indicated Myth was in her recently created lab, busying herself with something. Lou was stuffing things into a backpack, Taylor couldn't see what, but it looked like padded gloves and a helmet.
“I'm off to practice,“ Lou said. Izzy was nowhere to be seen, nor Isabel and Sue-Ann. Mrs. Jones however puttered around the HQ, randomly straightening things which didn't look as if they ever needed straightening.
“Be good, dear.“ Helen murmured to Lou as she left.
Helen looked at the boys and said, “You dolls need anything? Some juice or tea or something?“
Taylor's stomach turned knots over all the secrets he was keeping. He shook his head no. Winston did the same. Helen smiled, straightened one more lamp and walked out as Lou did. Winston leaned-in towards the monitor he was seated at, grumbled something under his breath. Taylor realized he had to tell the other boy his secret. And now.
“Winston?“ Taylor said, softly.
Winston's head leaned back from his monitor but didn't turn towards Taylor. “Um?“ Winston said distractedly. “Yeah, T?”
“I need to tell you something.” Taylor said. “I...um. I... overheard a conversation between Tate and Alexander...“ At the mention of the female agent's name Winston's head whipped over and his whole face became engaged, lit up.
“Yeah?“ he said excited.
Taylor sighed, and stopped. Is this really the right thing to do? Too late now. He told about the whole conversation, from Tate and Alexander's time together at the NSA, to the inferences they had been a couple but could no longer be - because she was still at the NSA and he wasn't, to the revelation Tate had been something called an “encryption czar.“ They worked out what they thought that meant, but Winston murmured that Lou would probably know more, she was the political junkie, strange as it was, among the Society kids. Winston even offered up the fact Lou and Sue-Ann argued constantly over political issues. Lou was a die-hard liberal, Sue-Ann an arch-libertarian. When Taylor mentioned the CCOM panel, Winston looked confused. He searched Google. Taylor stopped talking, leaned over Winston's shoulder to examine his search results – what he did not do was tell Winston about what he had found on Philomena's computer.
Winston laughed suddenly.
“Don't you get it, T? It's good news, she said they can't be together! That means she's free, and without Tate in the way, I 'm sure I can land her!“ Winston beamed.
“Whoa. Look at this!“ Winston said.
Taylor leaned in, saw it was an article about the submarine which exploded in the South China Seas, months before. The journalist writing the article cited an unidentified source as saying the whole thing was caused by a glitch in a new “classified” software being developed by the military intelligence community. One, according to the source, which would allow unprecedented control of assets by upper level brass. The source implied and the reporter tacitly agreed, it would be difficult to keep closed to abuse or misuse.
“They're talking about the CCOM panel you mentioned!“ Winston said.
Is now the time to mention what I learned about Tate while hacking into Philomena's computer at the school? Yes. He told it all to Winston. Half-way through, Winston stopped looking at the monitor and fixed Taylor with a steady gaze. His eyes got wider and wider in disbelief. He gasped in shock learning Philomena had gathered all this stuff.
“So wait? Tate is trying to steal the CCOM panel?“ Winston asked.
Taylor shrugged, “I think he tried...“
“But... Philomena knows all this?“ Winston asked.
“Yeah, she has to, though she may not know what it means.“ Taylor said. “But I wouldn't bet on it. She's up to something.”
“This is getting heavy, old man. Maybe we should tell the others...
“Not yet, Winston. We need to be sure. We need to understand everything.“ Taylor said.
“T. You don't know these broads like I do. They won't be annoyed we held stuff back, they will be murderous. They won't kick us out. We're the only thing keeping the attacks at bay, but trust me – you shouldn't cross people this powerful“ Since Taylor joined, the Willow Society had rebuffed all attacks. Whomever was behind them had not been able to best Taylor once. But Winston's admonition struck a nerve. Winston understood wealthy people and their power far more than Taylor did.
I challenge governments and agencies. Bureaucrats. Billionaires are different. They can act.
“Fine. What's our next move?“ Taylor asked.
“You have the files from Philomena's machine? Keylogs and stuff?“ Winston asked. Taylor nodded. “Let me look through them.“ Winston said. Taylor pulled his thumbdrive and loaded the files onto Winston's machine.
While Winston read, Taylor took up the search on the dark web. Which eventually led him to one of his favorite haunts: Undermine.net. There was an old thread, at least three months old, which had returned results for the text string, "CCOM.“ Taylor read through the posts on the thread, there were not many. Most of them were by the same poster, a guy named Stat3Y3Cracker. Judging by what little substance in the posts Taylor knew this was one of the boasting, bragging kind of barely-able hackers who equated bumbling into success on a hack with amazing skills. Whomever he was, Stat3y3Cracker was an imbecile, if a lucky one. Funnily though, the other two posts in the thread, other than the twelve by Stat3Y3, were people flaming him, calling him a n00b and a m0r0n.
But it was what Stat3y3 claimed to have which intrigued Taylor as much as it inspired dismissiveness in the two flamers. Clearly they hadn't believed any CCOM panel existed in the first place. This was before the submarine accident. Before anyone not in the know could have known about the panel without having classified access, or having hacked someone with it. Taylor wouldn't have believed it either, had he not seen the things he had. One of Stat3y3's posts read:
“YO! all the L33tz out thURRR! Gotz mah k3yz
all up in some 53R10U5 stuff! 'Spond if ya
The next post was a flame, one of three by the same person. Taylor read past it and on to the next one by Stat3y3.
“53R10U5!! I gotz the SEEKOM panel YO! AND 5AT51G digitz yo! willing to share if ur L33T!!“
Most of the other posts by Stat3y3 were similar. The flamers mocked him, Stat3y3 got angry and kept on foolishly asserting what he had found. It didn't surprise Taylor no one believed him. His posts made him sound like a wannabe candy-kid raver-hacker from 1996.
Taylor laughed in spite of himself and Winston said, “What?“
“Maybe you should come read this.“ Taylor said as he executed a few parallel searches with Stat3y3's username and various data points. A post made his eyes bulge. It simply couldn't be real, Taylor thought at first. Slowly the pieces fell together and Taylor realized he had stumbled on to something. Others had undoubtedly stumbled onto it before, it was too easy to find, but they had likely dismissed it. Probably as someone claiming after the fact to have been involved, it happened on the Web often, especially in places like Undermine.net. It was another post in a separate thread, this one about hacking military vehicles. It was also from Stat3y3Cracker.
“YO YO 53R10U51y! itz RAD! EYE just turned
a 5UB around! L0L”
Winston's face paled, aghast at first on to incredulity and mockery.
“Is this real, T?“ Winston began, “Does this moron really have this CCOM panel? And whatever these SatSig digits are?“
But Taylor was thinking of something else. Not bothering to answer Winston, Taylor executed another Google search on the dark web. This time he found what he was looking for much more quickly. “Win, chill, look at this.“ Taylor said, trying to get Winston to calm down and look.
Taylor had pulled up an article whose headline read: “Submarine drifts in North Korean waters, explodes. No survivors.“ Winston scanned the headline and scrolled through the text for a moment and looked at Taylor questioningly before he said, “I've read this already. What does this have to do with....“ His voice trailed off and he swore.
“They can't be connected. They can't be, T, this kid, whoever he is, he's a moron, a poser. He's bluffing, he's not behind this stuff, I mean, you know how advanced this is, how difficult this is, I wouldn't even know where to begin,T. I doubt even you could pull this off and I mean, he's....“ Winston's voice trailed off, clearly at a loss for words.
“Something more is going on Winston. I know it. I read Undermine all the time and I remember seeing this thread, reading it, months ago when I first got to NYC and when I heard about the sub, I looked for the thread, but it was gone. Like it had never been there at all, even the Stat3y3's username was gone. But I didn't make anything of it, I assumed I had remembered something wrong. I let go, but Winston. This is real. It fits. Whoever this Stat3y3 really is, he's behind the stolen CCOM panel, he's probably using Willow Prep IPs to hack behind. Which means he's connected to Willow Prep! He could be connected to the attacks on the Willow Society! I think maybe that's why Tate had that stuff, Tate was trying to catch him.“ Taylor said.
Winston looked doubtful, he still clearly was not convinced Stat3y3Cracker could be involved. “If that's true, old man. Then this kid has killed people. There were hundreds of sailors on that sub. The NSA, the Navy, they don't play around with that, they would have found him. Even Tate wouldn't let that slide. I mean it was so easy for us...“
Taylor was not about to be deterred though. “Not really, we knew what to look for. I know they have white-hats working on it, but they are probably looking for someone too smart, not someone too stupid. And Tate? We have no way of knowing, he's accessing things he shouldn't – who's say he's not doing worse? And remember that thread was gone for a while, maybe Tate found some way to erase it...
“I dunno, T. Maybe? It is odd, threads don't just disappear and reappear on Undermine. We're missing something!“ Winston said.
“What we need is to talk to this guy.“ Taylor said suddenly.
Winston turned to look directly at Taylor, appraised him. “You know. I think that's exactly what we should do.“ Winston said with a wide smile.
“Should we tell the others?“ Taylor asked after they had messaged Stat3Y3Cracker on Facebook and gotten him to invite them over. It had been surprisingly easy, he was so excited at the thought of hackers who actually believed him they did not have to work very hard before Stat3y3Cracker did exactly what they wanted and invited them over.
Winston didn't hesitate. “No. Definitely not.“
“Why?“ Taylor asked.
“Because, T. They won't let us go. Not without explaining everything, not without planning for hours, maybe days, not without telling Sue-Ann and Isabel and maybe not even then. They tolerate what I do, they don't like it, but they tolerate it, mainly because I don't steal anything important, I just you know, get in and out.“ he smiled playfully. “But they weren't happy at all about you breaking into Willow Prep. If they hadn't needed you so badly, they never would have invited you in, we make them nervous. Boys.“
Taylor was shocked. Not at hearing the others had been apprehensive about him, or they only tolerated Winston's night-time forays, but Winston had not told him this before. It seemed the kind of information you shared with your closest friend. Taylor didn't want to make a big deal of it and Winston seemed oblivious. Secrets obviously don't bother him.
“OK. What if the guy's a whack job and tries to kill us?“ Taylor said, arguing against his own idea. Winston laughed and brandished a small, baton like black cylinder.
“Then I'll Taze the shit out of him.“ Winston said, laughing.
“Besides, old boy, we don't have to tell them everything we do. And we're not doing anything illegal. Yet. It's just Staten Island. Distasteful maybe, but not illegal.“ Winston said.