Defcon 21 Short Story Contest First Place @Lizzz_818

Title: Defcon XLII, the Meaning Of Life, The Universe, and Everything Author: Lizz
06-01-2013, 08:31 AM
Vanity had waited in line for more than two hours for her Defcon badge,
and was surprised to see that it was a simple gray anodized aluminum plate
the size of a credit card. She’d been expecting something electronic that did
something fantastic with just a little bit of hacking at the Hardware Hacking
Village. But the Defcon XXI badge looked like a dud.

She was hoping for at least a Raspberry Pi, or a networked game with a
persistent graphic display. Last year’s badge contained a small camera that
grabbed a photo of each passing face, and matched it to social networking
profile pictures. It wrote the passer-by’s name and other personal
information to a small screen, and if you pushed a little button on the back
of the badge, a friend request would be sent.

Until now, the badges had been getting better every year.

Her disappointment must have been apparent, because the woman behind the
polished marble counter told her that if she wanted something really special,
she could buy a bright red version of the badge which included a donation of
500 dollars to the EFF, an organization Vanity had strongly supported in the
past. She cringed a little at the price, but withdrew 500 dollars from the
cDc-branded ATM at the counter, giving the woman her cash without counting
it. Vanity’s friends Jax and Mariel who were behind her in line looked pretty
jealous, so she offered to pay for half of their donation for a red badge if
they came up with the other half. But although the two had plenty of cash,
both opted for the plainer version.

The three then headed to the chill out room where they decided to wait
for a talk called Booter Shell Booty given by Random Asset. The room had
been decorated most awesomely, with a band of anime hacker characters
marching in a line around the four walls. Mariel, a decent graphic artist by
trade, couldn’t figure out how it was done. Not projected — maybe be some
kind of flexible fabric screen that isn’t on the market yet, she thought.
Jax brought three drinks to a table, and they grabbed chairs — fortuitous
timing, because the hall where the newbie track was held had just emptied.
Two minutes later, there were no chairs to be had. With an hour’s break
before the next sessions were due to start, the crowded room was really
buzzing.

Quite suddenly, the buzz gave way to a strange, nearly hysterical hum
that grew quickly in volume. People around the room began to look at each
other, and then at their badges, and a nervous tension began to pervade the
space. Jax, Mariel, and Vanity looked at their badges. They were amazed to
see beautiful silvery letters forming on the the two gray metal plates.

The badges were awesome! The hysterical hum gave way to raucous
cheering as shiny letters written in a font right out of Harry Potter began
scrolling across the gray surface. But the mood tensed rapidly as the
hackers read the sinister message.

“Welcome to the The New Model Hacker Army Flash Mob. If remove your badge,
you will die. Your badge is listening to you. Your badge is watching you.”

Jax laughed out loud when he read the message. Without a word, he
immediately pulled his badge off over his head. In the blink of an eye,
there was nothing but a wisp of smoke where he had been standing. And he
wasn’t the only one to disappear; dozens of attendees were erased as if
they had never existed.

Mariel began screaming and ran toward the casino exit. Vanity raced
after her, weaving in and out of the patrons headed to try their luck with
the one-armed bandits. At that precise moment, a small woman, who later
turned out to be Shrdlu, shouted “Jackpot!” and leapt off her chair, backing
into Vanity, who went sprawling across the carpet into a quart-sized bucket
of quarters. Vanity’s head collided with a metal post. Welcome to the
machine, she laughed to herself. The room faded to black.

When Vanity awoke, her first thought was that she’d had way too much to
drink, and had passed out. But when she looked around for Mariel, felt her
throbbing head, and saw Jax’ swag bag on the floor, everything came rushing
back. She staggered out of the casino, but there was no sign of her best
friend.

Once back in the casino, she saw her horror reflected in the faces of
dozens of mostly young, mostly male attendees wearing black tee shirts. They
were clustering into frenzied groups to discuss their fate while trying to
make sense of what they had just seen. Each wore a metal badge with its shiny
message still visible. Each had seen a “wisp” or more of their own, and each
was prepared to act in accordance with any instruction that showed up on the
badge. Vanity looked down at her red badge. It now read, “Welcome to
Defcon. Thank you for donating to the EFF.”

When she looked up, she saw Gmark and Phenfen sitting down at a newly
emptied table, each with a Sam Adams Summer Ale in hand. Gmark had a red
badge, while Phenfen sported the metallic albatross. She told them what had
happened with Jax and Mariel. They told her they’d been out by the
adults-only pool when they saw Dogten, Dotzero, and Da Kahuna puff out.
They’d left Irritant sleeping in a lounge chair wearing nothing but her bunny
ears.

“At first I thought it was The Rapture,” said Phenfen, “but then I
realized their clothing was gone, too.”

“Then I saw the letters forming on his badge,” said Gmark, pointing to
Phenfen.

The three began to speculate on how the badge worked, with Vanity
suggesting, “Maybe it’s got a gyro, so it can tell if it goes over your
head.”

A young girl wearing a UAT tee-shirt asked, “You mean gyro like a Greek
sandwich?”

“Geek sandwich is more like it,” said another girl who appeared to be an
identical twin. “You can ignore her. We came here with our Dad. He’s gone.”

Gmark, ignoring the girls, said he doubted the badge really had a camera
or microphone, and the sooner they could take a closer look and do some
experimentation, the better. He glanced at Phenfen’s chest and said, “But
where can we get a badge?”

Phenfen shuddered, “You wouldn’t say that if you were wearing this
message on your overpriced red tax receipt!”

“Overpriced red *what* did you call me?”

The three looked up to see Fizzgig standing at their table. “Pull uppa
chair,” Phenfen spoke solemnly.

Fizzgig wasted no time telling Phenfen how sorry he was that he hadn’t
been able to pick up a badge before everything had gone south. And of course,
now they weren’t selling the badges anymore. But then he told Vanity and
Gmark that he’d heard from a pretty reliable source that the red badges had
immunity. “Lizzz took hers off as soon as she read the gray ones. Word is
nothing happened. But you know she’s a special case, even the devil is
is afraid of her.”

Everyone at the little table laughed, and they realized that it was the
first humor that had been shared in what seemed like several grim hours. As
if to chastise them, Phenfen’s metal badge began to emit a high frequency
wail. Then, as quickly as it started, the piercing sound was gone. He looked
at his badge and quivered as a new message formed:

“FINAL WARNING! Do not attempt to remove your badge.”

“I need a badge to work on,” Fizzgig said solemnly, looking at Phenfen.

“No!” said Phenfen, without hesitation, grabbing his badge as if it were
the family jewels and he were naked in a shark tank. To his horror, the badge
snapped off its lanyard, and before he could scream, he was gone. Vanished.
Dust in the wind. But his gray badge bounced twice and remained behind.

One of the twins whispered, “That’s what happened to our dad.”

“Let’s have a moment of silence,” Vanity whispered. She and Phenfen been
good friends for a long time, but at least now Fizzgig had a badge to work
on, and if anyone could solve their problem, he was the man to do it. So it
was a good thing. She picked up Phenfen’s beer, took a swallow and said,
“You’d better take his badge to the Hardware Hacking Village.”

– – –

Phenfen opened his eyes and rubbed them. His nostrils were filled with
the odor of rancid ketchup and Earl Grey Tea with Bergamot. He saw eyes
staring into his.

“Roamer?”

“You’ll be dizzy for a minute or two, Phen.”

“Where is this?” He looked around and it was still the Rio, but it
looked very different. The windows were changing their view. It was the
right view, but the colors were changing, then there was rain, and then a
woodchuck popped up right in the front corner of the window. He laughed,
“Is this Heaven?”

“Nope. Apparently it’s Defcon 42, and we are about to learn the Meaning
of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That’s an android,” Roamer said,
pointing to a man in a black uniform.

“Take a seat, gentlemen and ladies,” ordered the android, who looked a
lot like an older version of Lo57 with unusually smooth skin. He pointed to
some chairs, which were being setup by… themselves. “The green ones are
ready,” he smiled. “They are self-organizing. That little bee-fi is their
controller. Watch, it flies to each group. We order chairs, and they just
show up.”

“Whoa! Bee-fi! Holy salami!”, said Digi, “Those are awesome.” He pulled
out a SkyKord to make notes.

“No recording,” said the Lo57droid. “We will provide everything you are
allowed to take back.”

An audible sigh of relief spilled from those within earshot. This was
the first mention of “back.”

A small silver-haired woman walked to a podium which had wheeled itself
to the front of the chairs. As the hackers began to find seats, she tested
her microphone. Her invisible microphone.

“Test…eee…sss…k-k…up…good.”

She turned toward the audience and smiled. “Please allow our androids
to help you find seats.”

She looked over the crowd and began. “Some of you may remember me. My
name is Vanity, and I am a couple of decades older than I was in your “this
morning”. Welcome to 2034, and believe it or not, we haven’t been nuked yet.
I was selected to make this presentation because I am the least likely person
to believe you when you return and tell me I was speaking. So please. Don’t
tell me.”

“Rule 1: Don’t tell Vanity.”

“I’m sure that you are all wondering where you are, how you got here,
and why. Sadly, the world has taken a turn for the worse, and while there are
a lot of good people with great technology, there are also bad people with
even greater technology. In short, we need you. We need people who are
willing to break rules. Each one of you took off your badge immediately
after being told it would kill you. I like that.”

From the front row, a smaller than average boy with dreadlocks yelled,
“Are we dead?” This was his first Defcon, and despite thinking he was dead,
he wanted to be sure he’d be able attend another one.

Vanity laughed, “Of course not, Willy! But please hold the rest of
your questions. I’ll probably cover them.”

“Twenty years ago, most science fiction that dealt with time travel
concerned itself with the M.Y. paradox. So I just want to clear something
up right now. Although the past can change the future, Meeting Yourself is
nothing to fear. However, in order to avoid complications, we’ve sent the
current you on an all-expense paid vacation to Rainbow Sands. So you have
that to look forward to the next time you visit 2034.”

“Next, we have embedded a mild hallucinogenic and tranquilizer in the
lanyard you received with your badge, so those who didn’t travel will be
unsure of what happened when you disappeared. It will be chalked up to
problems in the Rio’s ventilation system. At the same time, it will help
those of you who traveled here to remember your instructions on a deeply
subconscious level.”

“Rule 2: There was a problem with the ventilation system at the Rio.”

Vanity continued to speak for about twenty minutes, explaining how each
of the small changes the hackers would make in their lives upon return to
Defcon 21 would butterfly. “Yes, butterfly is a verb these days; it means to
change the future. We also say brain-google, or broogle for short. It means
think. We say LOLOLOL still, too. But I’m hoping we can broogle up a plan
to butterfly that away with one of your patches. A patch is a little fix for
your broogler, LOLOL. JK. But I digress.”

Vanity then told them a little about the future and how things had
changed in the past two decades. “We have very little privacy and no right
to encryption. There are cameras everywhere, maybe fifty in this room alone.
They are as hard to spot as my microphone, even if you know where to look.
And they don’t just take pictures, they analyze them. And act on what they
think they see.”

At that, Flea looked to the left and winked. Then he looked to the right
and winked again, just in case. A Lo57droid walked over to him and said,
“Come with me, sir.”

Flea, not used to being called “sir”, replied, “Ouch!” But he followed
out of curiosity, hoping that he hadn’t winked at the wrong camera.

As he was escorted from the room with several others, Vanity made her
closing remarks, “All of you will receive specific instructions in a
one-on-one session following refreshments. This is the last time I will see
you until you return to 2013. So Godspeed in your backward journey, and
remember rule #1. This means you, Ryan.”

The remaining forty or so time-travelers were at last led to a banquet
room where food that can only be described as “interesting” was being served.
Octalpussy helped herself to something that looked like like sun-dried
squidfruit, while Grifter chose a roll of sushi that he hoped was a curried
California roll. Noid took a piece of sliced green “meat” rolled around
cream cheese and scallions, commenting that it should really have a
toothpick, but didn’t. It took four Meaning of Life Goons to explain why
protein magnets worked especially well on Soylent slices.

High Wiz took a small iced cake which looked like a petit four. It
tasted disgusting, so he glanced around, dropped it, and kicked it under the
skirted table. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flat green disk roll by
and proceed under the table. In bright orange letters, it said: SoylentVAXX.
He thought to himself that the SoylentVAXX company might be just the thing
to invest in, and he scratched the name into the palm of his hand with a
broken fingernail.

Lockheed, who just happened to have a scanner in his pocket, inquired
about using the restroom. He surreptitiously clicked the scanner on as he
followed the Lo57droid down a dark hallway. Once inside a stall, (thanking
his lucky stars there were still bathrooms) he glanced at the scanner. He’d
recorded a huge amount of traffic, but most of it was highlighted in pink,
which meant “protocol unknown.” He sighed, then looked up and saw that the
stall door was in fact a large display screen advertising things that he
could do during his stay in “Moss Vegas.”

“Holy shit!”

His comments were duly noted by the stall’s video recorder, then quickly
transmitted to hotel security in three different languages.

The first person to be escorted from the refreshment room was Siviak,
still munching on a grapple. His Lo57droid led him down a sterile hallway
past windows showing the Las Vegas skyline. It was very different than the
view of the Strip from his room at the Rio. Most buildings were the same,
but the strip’s skyline was deeper as he looked to the east. The city must
have at least tripled in size. Then the Lo57droid turned to him and pointed
to a door. Bowing deeply, it said, “Thank you for your service to us.”

Siviak saw his name etched on the door in large gold letters. Beneath
his name, he read “Chief of Artificial Personnel Design and Security.” He
entered cautiously.

Gideon was the last to be escorted to a briefing session. She hadn’t
eaten anything, and was worried that her mom would be panicking because she
had disappeared. Even though she was sixteen now, and this was her eighth
Defcon, she wasn’t allowed out of her mother’s sight. She hoped it wouldn’t
be too long before they were returned.

Once inside the room, Gideon saw a much older version of Priest sitting
behind a desk. In a chair to his right, was Nikita, who hadn’t aged a bit.
In a corner of the room, she spied a giant pair of autographed blow-up Easter
eggs in a walnut and glass display box. Gideon did a double-take and laughed.

Priest looked at her and said, “I forget how little you are.”

Gideon replied, “And I forget how big you are!”

Nikita said, “All the better to greet you with! … Seriously, can we
get down to business?”

The two explained to Gideon that she would sleep in a comfortable chair
for about ten minutes while a recorded message played. That was it. Then she
would be returned with the others to the Rio. About 25 minutes would have
elapsed, although it would seem longer.

– – –

Back in the Rio 2013, the mood was pretty grim. Fizzgig, Joe Grand,
and Captain Crunch were huddled together in the back of the Hardware Hacking
Village. The room smelled like Long Island Ice Tea and burning capacitors.

Fizzgig soldered the last component to the board, and slid Phenfen’s
gray badge inside a slot he’d made. Next, Joe downloaded the quick and dirty
microcode he’d written. The two looked at Cap’n and he looked back. He took
a tiny plastic whistle from his pocket and blew his 2600 Hertz signature.
They waited, then they waited a little longer, and still nothing happened.
Cap’n crossed his fingers, blew once more, and after a short pause, the
three were rewarded with a click.

– – –

In 2034, Phenfen’s cell phone rang. Without checking who the caller
was, he reached in his pocket and hit ignore.

– – –

The three time-phreaks hadn’t expected much, and when that’s what they
got, they went back to the chill room where Vanity was sitting with Whitfield
Diffie. The two had ordered a bottle of End of the World as We Know It
Scotch, and were rapidly depleting it. Whit was wiping Vanity’s tears with a
cocktail napkin, saying, “This is all my fault.”

Crunch did that squiggly thing he does with his eyebrows, wiped a loose
resister from his beard and said, “We tried.”

– – –

In 2034, Banasidhe sat at a large console. She pushed buttons, turned
dials, slid sliders, then put her hand into something that looked like a VCR.
“Back to the past, little ones, and remember to do the right thing,” she
whispered gently. “Don’t forget we love you all.” Her console lights flashed
yellow, then red, then green. She smiled. She looked at the small group
standing around the console. Each one was wearing a black badge.

– – –

In the chill out room at the Rio 2013, lights flickered and dimmed. The
sound of silence grew and then diminished as the missing hackers began to
materialize. The first thing Vanity saw was a watery glow like heat on the
highway — a desert mirage. Next came dots, colored dots, colored clumping
dots like a DanKam tee, and then there were shapes. Shapes finally became
people. All around the room missing hackers were appearing, and being
recognized by friends and loved ones who had thought them lost forever.
Vanity ran to Jax, and hugged him, until she saw Gideon materialize and
shrieked, “I thought you were sleeping in the room all this time! I didn’t
even know you had your badge! Your mother is gonna kill you! And me!”

Over in the DJ corner, Jackalope, who had been spinning only her saddest
tunes quickly started playing Gangnam Style, the first upbeat track that
popped into her mind. She flipped on some disco lights and to her surprise
hundreds of hackers stood up, pushed tables and chairs out of the way and
started dancing in lines.

Russ turned to Zak and said, “Somebody put something in my drink.”

Meanwhile, in a little room hidden behind the official swag sales tables
in the Rio’s Convention Center lobby, a select group of people looked at each
other. Bansidhe slowly twisted a dial to the left until it locked. Then she
stood up and adjusted her strappy black leather warrior outfit, ran her
fingers through her sagging blue Mohawk, and turned to Jeff Moss and Jennifer
Granick with a smile.

“This will be our biggest donation yet,” she said, picking up a riding
crop that had been a gift from the future. Stamped in the black leather
were the words “EFF 2034 Give ‘til it Hurts Campaign.”

“Next stop, BloodKode Challenge.”
 
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