Little R/W Hood


Nothing sparkles in this part of Los Angeles, Arpan Khan thought to himself. He sat propped up against the bedframe of a one-star, king-sized bed. Nothing sparkles and especially not at night. The tinsel was more like a dull moss creeping over a dark and dangerous forest of old sodium-lamp streetlights and urban decay.

This was the disappointing reality of industrial espionage.

The decrepit hotel did not remind him of the spy films he’d watched with his family when he was a boy. There was no high-stakes casino; there was an empty pool in the parking lot. There was no blonde double-agent lingering in the shadows; there was an angry dog tied to the guard rail running alongside the second-floor balcony outside his room. There was no complimentary room service offering poisoned champagne; there was free Internet access, but that was more dangerous than any poisoned champagne.

There was Arpan Khan, a thirty-year-old man with dark, muted features painted broadly on his round face. His luggage was piled neatly in one corner of the grime-peppered room. He sat there mashing rubber buttons on an old, infrared remote control, trying to find something to watch on YouTube Direct. Each button press made him feel dirtier.

This was an age of technical marvels— an age of cold, sterile fingers on capacitive glass touch-screens— and the flimsy rubber nubs became warmer and wetter with his nervous, sweaty palms wrapped around the hard plastic remote.

The dog let out a few loud angry barks.

There was silence. A click.

The door to Arpan’s room swung open to reveal a thin, pale man. His dark hair spilled out from a white bandage wrapped around his head. The yellow-hued lights outside reflected from the man’s glistening, wide smile and lit up the room like a disco ball. The door slammed behind him.

“Who are you?”

Is this the courier? Arpan asked himself. Perhaps he was a drug addict who’d stumbled into the wrong room. It was certainly that sort of hotel.

“Where is it?” the figure barked as he staggered toward the bed. His hands were drawn forward, like a monster from some childhood nightmare.

“Wait!” Arpan cried as he lost his balance and toppled back over the edge of the mattress.

The Stranger loomed over Arpan.

“The case! It’s in the case!”

“What case?” the Stranger yelled before doubling over in pain. He fell onto the bed, gripped his stomach and let out an anguished cry.

Arpan pulled himself toward the pile of luggage a few feet away. He grabbed the case and looked back toward the pale, sickly-looking Stranger as he writhed on the dusty bed. Beads of red-tinged sweat dripped out from under the bandage and blended into the flattened hues of the comforter.

The Stranger found his focus through the pain and looked up at Arpan with animal-like ferocity. His wide-toothed smile had transformed into a trap-tight scowl. Arpan dashed toward the door with the case in hand.

Everything slowed down.

Skinny, dark legs pushed against the ground, one after the other.

The case swung clockwork like a pendulum in Arpan’s hand. His other hand stretched forward toward the door.

Arpan felt a light spark of static electricity as his fingertips glanced the metal door handle.

Then, he felt his legs moving in a different direction. The Stranger tackled Arpan at the hip, sending the two men barreling into the heavy, reinforced door. Arpan’s face accepted the force of the collision with a light spray of blood and a smattering of flesh.

The dog outside barked loudly as muffled screams escaped from the dingy hotel room.

“Take it! Take the case! Please don’t hurt me!” a blunted voice pleaded between wet coughs. The Stranger placed his hands around Arpan’s neck and began to throttle him, smashing his head into the dirty, matted carpet. Arpan could feel unnatural protrusions and mechanical bits under the sickly skin gripping his throat.

Arpan’s desperate, flailing hand smacked into the Stranger’s temple, eliciting a howl that tightened the Stranger’s grip. Arpan’s windpipe collapsed. A weak reverberation of broken cartilage through sticky flesh snapped the Stranger’s damaged mind into focus. He released Arpan and left him gasping on the floor with his eyes fixed wide open.

Arpan watched from his debilitated vantage point as the Stranger sat down on the edge of the bed, placed the briefcase in his lap and calmly moved his right hand in a circle over it. He was patient for a moment, then impatient and ferocious again. The bag’s zipper gave way as the Stranger’s eager hand pushed his way inside and moved from compartment to compartment.

The hand withdrew a foil-wrapped box no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. It was the data drive Arpan had been instructed to bring to the dingy hotel room.

The bloodied man on the floor let out a painful, pitiful groan as the Stranger ripped into the foil wrapper like a child on Christmas morning. The Stranger moved his right hand over the device, as if casting a spell upon it. As the anger and rage faded from the Stranger’s face, he looked down at Arpan and sighed.

“Are you still alive?” the Stranger asked, unsure and disarmed.

The question was met with a series of weak gasps from the damaged man on the floor.

“I don’t know what to say to you,” the Stranger lamented, still hovering over the data drive.

Arpan faded to darkness.

After a few moments, the Stranger looked up from the device in his hand. He saw the body on the floor and the evidence of violence painted with broad strokes across the room. There was barking outside. Drying blood and bits of tinfoil were matted onto his hands.

The Stranger knew he only had a few moments before the cycle of insatiable hunger would begin again. He slumped over the edge of the bed and let out a few pitiful sobs, enjoying a few moments of clarity as a real human being.


Mr. Smith pushed through the front door into his house as he had so many times before, with his coat draped casually over his briefcase, to find his daughter waiting excitedly on the other side. She was wearing her favorite hoodie: A thick cotton garment with STANFORD emblazoned across the chest. The loose, red cloth bounced on her skinny frame as she pushed a hand-sized tablet into his face.

“Daddy, daddy!” the young girl exclaimed. “Thank you!”

“Whoa, there,” he calmly replied as he steered his lips around the tablet to plant a kiss on her forehead. “What’s got you all riled up?”

“I got the ticket! Thank you, daddy!”

The strong, bespectacled man gently lifted the tablet from her hand and adjusted his glasses to get a better look. There was an e-mail message displayed on the screen, painted in the annoying palette of pinks and purples that his mother thought was cute.


I’ve come across two tickets to go see Peter and the Wolf this weekend at the Guggenheim. Lucky me, right? I know how you love a good show, so I bought you a plane ticket so you can come see the show with me!

The eTicket is attached to this message. Don’t worry about your parents— I’ve already cleared it with them ;-)

See you tomorrow afternoon!



Mr. Smith looked up with an uncharacteristically concerned expression painted on his face to see his wife emerging from the kitchen. She was wearing the same expression.

His daughter was still standing there, bouncing with unabashed excitement in her red hoodie. He looked back down at her.

“Uh, yeah. It’s all taken care of, honey,” he replied, trying to feign a modicum of happiness. “You deserve a trip after acing those finals yesterday!”

“I have the best parents ever!”

Mrs. Smith came to join her husband and daughter in a big group hug. As the three embraced, Mr. Smith caught the look of terror reflected back in his wife’s teary eyes.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith communicated with glances and nods for the rest of the night. Their daughter’s excitement was met with cold warnings about the dangers of traveling alone. This didn’t dampen Allie’s energetic spirit, nor did it shift the heavy burden weighing upon the couple.

While her husband kept Allie occupied downstairs, Mrs. Smith slipped into her daughter’s bathroom and replaced her daily allergy medicine with a bottle of powerful barbiturates. The small, white tablets looked identical to the pills Allie took like clockwork every night before bed. It was the first step in a plan that Mr. and Mrs. Smith hadn’t talked about in ten years.

The second step in the plan came after Allie was deep, deep asleep. At 11:30 that evening, Mr. and Mrs. Smith creeped into her bedroom and flipped on the overhead light. Their daughter— usually a light sleeper— did not twitch or make a noise. Her face was still.

“Goddammit,” Mrs. Smith muttered with defeated vitriol as she helped her husband flip the girl onto her stomach.

Mr. Smith said nothing. The two took seats on the bed next to their sleeping daughter, staring off past one another as Mrs. Smith continued.

“For thirteen years I’ve been convincing myself we’d never see that stupid winky face.”

“And yet, there it was. Just like Chen said thirteen years ago,” Mr. Smith replied with a fatal and dejected tone.

Hearing the name Chen brought the repressed memory of their PhD advisor forward in Mrs. Smith’s mind. She remembered the man’s round face and cluttered office. She remembered the sinister deal he’d offered the couple so many years ago.

“I thought we were going to make it. I thought they’d never call for us.” She paused. “For her.”

“You really thought that?” Mr. Smith looked at his wife and waited for her eyes to meet his. “The world’s only gotten darker in thirteen years, mein schatzi.”

“And you know, some part of me thought that would save us.”

“Ah. You thought maybe everything would just fall apart?” Mr. Smith asked critically. “That these colossal empires of money and information would just cave into themselves? That they’d lose sight of us under the fat rolls?”

Mrs. Smith sighed.

“What could we possibly hand them that they haven’t already got?”

“I don’t know. But this is how they get it. Virtually everything is different from having everything. And the difference between ninety-nine percent and one hundred percent is—”

“—is her.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have been such great parents. You know, not gotten attached. Maybe that would make this easier.”

“I love her. I just... why can’t we just say no?”

“Because this is how it ends.”

Mrs. Smith sighed and pulled her daughter’s shirt up, exposing her back and a quarter-sized scar. She saw the irregular, dark notch and closed her eyes to push out a few tears.

“Linda, it’s going to be okay. Come Monday, Allie will be back in San Francisco, telling us stories about the big city and everything. And we’ll be the happiest parents in the world.”

“How?” his wife asked, red-faced and livid. “How will I ever look at her again? My daughter...” She let out more cries of frustration and sadness. Mr. Smith edged closer and put his arm around his wife.

“The guilt is what you’ve been living with. The guilt is what you see when you look at her now. It’s what I see. But after this is over, we’ll be able to see her.”

Mrs. Smith pulled back a sniffle.

Mr. Smith then pulled out his smartphone— his other smartphone— and began tapping the corners in a set sequence. After a few moments, the screen displayed one, single button labeled TRANSFER. He held the phone against the scar on her back and pressed the button.

The two parents watched the screen as that status changed.

Connecting to Embedded Media.

Transferring 170 PB.

Transfer complete. Now wiping.

Wiping complete. Please microwave device for 30 seconds and dispose.

Mrs. Smith pulled her daughter’s shirt back down and flipped her back onto her side. The parents both lovingly pulled the comforter over their daughter, kissed her lightly and turned out the light as they left the room.


Jack Woodsman stirred his decaf coffee, staring into the swirl as it held his attention. It was 2 AM on a Friday morning and the sounds and movements and characters that filled the grimy diner were all too familiar to him.

From the corner booth on the opposite end of the diner, Jack could hear a symphony of taps and clicks as three twentysomethings hammered out code on their laptops. Occasionally one of them would blurt out a few words like “bootstrap” and “VC” and “second-round.” They were another trio of founders trying to get a foothold in the Bay-area startup scene. They’d been sitting there when Jack had arrived an hour earlier, and would probably be there when he left.

Jack felt compelled to tell them they were wasting their time. In Silicon Valley, startups burned and faded like a thousand fireflies moving over a moonless midwestern prairie. He’d watched groups like this one band and disband and re-configure and re-assemble and interbreed and fail again in a cycle that played out night after night after night. It’d been like that when Jack started working in the Valley, and would probably be that way when he moved on.

The American Dream was dead and that fact hung heavy on the older man’s conscience. Jack wanted nothing more than to smack sense into every last person intoxicated by the smell of its rotting corpse.

Jack wondered how many nights he’d been awake. He glanced away from the coffee and down at his tablet and saw the date: Monday, December 12.

Four nights.

He wasn’t tired, of course. The cocktail of modafinil and amphetamines and assorted nootropics provided by the company doctor kept details sharp and fatigue to a dull hum in the back of his mind. In four more nights he’d be off-duty and have a week to tend to his own interests: His farm back in Kansas, his thoroughbred stud, and his drinking buddies. And real, natural sleep.

“Can I get ya anything else, sugar?” Jack looked up to see his kind-faced, round waitress looming with a pot of coffee in-hand. He didn’t recognize the young girl.

“No, ma’am,” he replied with a nod. “Unless you got any fresh pies.”

“Oh, they’re not fresh. But they’re tasty. We got apple and peach.”

“From scratch?”

“You should know better than that,” she said with a smile.

“I remember about twenty years ago when artisan pies were a thing around these parts,” Jack lamented with a deep, Ozark drawl. “You couldn’t walk into a greasy spoon like this without some hipster touting the locally-sourced, all-natural ingredients.”

“Times change.”

“They do. Fresh doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”

“I guess,” the waitress said with a shrug. “Just let me know if you need anything. And if you’re gonna hang around much longer, you gotta order something besides coffee.”

“Gonna kick me out, huh? Expecting a rush?” Jack asked sarcastically, moving his eyes over the empty booths.

The waitress rolled her eyes and walked away.

Jack sat in silence for a while longer, occasionally glancing around to note patrons shuffling in and out of the diner. He used to read Al-Jazeera in the early morning hours to stay up-to-date on international news. To stay fresh.

These days, the headlines made him more cynical and less trusting. These days, he preferred to get the news straight from his employer.

Finally, around 2:30, Jack felt a buzz in his pocket. He immediately nudged his tablet awake and checked his messages.

New Assignment. Proceed to SAFE A for briefing.

He withdrew his company charge card and swiped it at the table’s interface next to the fake sugar and the ketchup. Then, he punched a few numbers into the old, touch-phone style keypad to specify a generous tip for the waitress. When the light hanging above his table turned green, he placed his wide-brimmed cowboy hat atop his head, gathered his belongings into his satchel and headed out the door.

The three boys in the corner all looked up from their laptops to watch the older man trudge into the chilly, windy night.


SAFE A was a secure terminal located in a strip mall, not far from San Francisco International. As he turned into the parking lot, Jack noted a Scavenger lurking by the street, talking into a handheld radio to some unknown enemy, or friend, or government agency.

Jack parked in front and a large figure immediately emerged from the nondescript office with the blackened windows. The figure aimed a compact machine gun toward the driver’s side window— as he had dozens of times before— and Jack responded in kind by drawing a sequence of gestures onto his tablet’s touch screen.

His tablet sent a signal to the buzzer in the large man’s pocket. Almost immediately, the figure lowered his weapon, walked to Jack’s car, and opened the driver’s side door. Jack held his hat tightly to his head as the wind pushed around him. The two hurried into the office.

“How’s it, my man?” the large man asked Jack as they walked together down the dimly-lit corridor toward the back of the office.

“Same as it ever was, Marcel. Same as it ever was. Who’s the Scav outside?”

“Piddly shit. We ran a body language pattern analysis a few hours ago. Matched to a dex-head from the Haight.”

“Hm. What’d HQ say?”

“Based on known contacts and social standing, probably working for the ‘Book.”

The two men chuckled and shook their heads.

“A dex-head? Shit, they really will hire anyone these days, huh?”

“Facebook is cheap. People used to hand their data over by the fistful. They’re not used to paying today’s prices.”

“I guess not,” Jack admitted.

“Anyways, you’ll need to draw us a new secure pattern before you leave. Chances are that Scav picked it up when you drew it earlier.”

“Man, I liked that pattern. It was very Picasso.”

“Go for something Pollock next time,” Marcel joked. “Let’s put you in Room 2.”

Jack set his coat, hat, and other belongings inside a metal foot locker in the hallway before proceeding into Room 2. Marcel shut the door behind Jack and locked it from the outside.

The room was bare except for a touch-table glowing with white light. Jack instinctively placed both of his hands on the table, moving them in a circular gesture of turns and swipes. The white light faded to black and the room fell into darkness.

After a few moments, a dossier exploded onto the table’s screen, displaying brilliantly detailed color photos and crisp virtual stacks of pre-generated reports. Jack opened the Gist.

The Gist was short— a few dozen words— but served as a springboard into his employer’s deep pool of information. Jack could run his fingers over any combination of words and phrases on the table to dynamically generate a new custom report. Custom reports begat more custom reports. When it came to investigating data loss, there was no digital substitute for experience and human intuition. The touch-table system implemented by Jack’s employer allowed each data loss prevention agent to drive their research according to their own habits.

The Gist: At the bequest of Western Data Systems, prevent Allie Smith, the daughter of Robert and Linda Smith, from delivering an unknown data payload to an unknown contact in New York City. Secondary: Gather court-admissible evidence of fraudulent intent by the Smiths. Secondary: Identify unknown contact and any corporate affiliations. Courier will be standing by to recover data in New York. Damages are insured up to $7,500,000.

Robert and Linda Smith. Jack ran his fingers across the couple’s name, then selected the name of their employer. “Western Data Systems.” Within moments, a new report was displayed on the table.

Supplemental material arranged itself around the new report. An image of the couple at some recent corporate event. A tall, muscular man with a rigid jaw-line and squared shoulders had his arm around a blonde woman with soft features. Jack stared into the picture looking for sincerity and compassion. It was there.

Jack turned his attention to the report. Robert and Linda Smith were diligent, hard-working employees at Western Data Systems. They’d been diligent, hard-working employees for the past thirteen years. Both held doctorate degrees in machine learning from Stanford. And every day for the past thirteen years, they’d mined exabytes upon zettabytes of Western Data Systems’ most sensitive data for trends and correlations that would give their employer an edge in the hyper-competitive world of raw analytics.

The details faded into the page. There was no motive here, Jack thought. He returned to the Gist and ran his fingers over the next phrase of interest.

Unknown contact in New York City.

A new report. Jack read the words.

Thursday afternoon, WDS’ electronic monitors had noted a high-risk pattern deviation in a correspondence from Robert Smith’s mother, Eva, to his daughter, Allie. The deviation was a single character pattern that didn’t match the elder woman’s usual diction: A bold winky-face emoticon;-) in the e-mail.

Jack smiled. He hadn’t seen that stupid face in years. No wonder the monitoring programs had picked it up.

According to the report, the deviation was elevated to human security experts and verified suspicious. Given that the message included tickets to New York City— home to several of WDS’ east-coast competitors— it was probable that the Smiths were using their daughter to bypass WDS’ stringent monitoring and smuggle highly confidential data out of San Francisco.

Jack opened the Gist once again and highlighted a single word. The resulting report was brief, but included several supplemental images.

The girl, Allie. She posed for her most recent school portrait in a red Stanford hoodie. Her smile was bright and her hair was gathered into a single, sunkissed brown ponytail. She was barely thirteen years old.

My youngest mark ever, Jack thought to himself.


Allie thought her parents had been acting weird all morning.

When Allie was ten, her father had told her that “statistically speaking, airports are the safest place in the country.” She knew that had to do with numbers and if there was one thing she trusted her dad with, it was numbers.

But something was different. Allie’s mom and dad appeared nervous through their smiles, though Allie had flown alone twice before. They’d made a point to tell her multiple times to “be safe” and “don’t talk to strangers.” They’d told her not to take off her red hoodie so that Grandma could find her at the airport in New York.

Even Grandma knew how to use the Locate Friend function on her tablet.

Allie thought she saw her mom start to cry as the young girl walked out of the ticketing area and into security queue. Their behavior had Allie on edge. She wanted to turn back and look, but Allie had to keep facing forward into the line— it was the first rule of airport security queues.

“Hi there, miss,” a blue-uniformed security agent said, snapping Allie out of contemplation and into the moment. “Are you traveling by yourself?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Allie replied. “Going to see my grandma in New York.”

“Hm. What for?”

“We’re going to the Guggenheim to see Peter and the Wolf!”

“That’s nice,” the security officer said, feigning interest. “Are you traveling with any hazardous materials, weapons, high-powered transmitters, or electronic storage mediums in excess of one petabyte?”

“Nope,” Allie replied.

The security agent looked down at her terminal’s screen. A voice-stress analyzer embedded in the podium detected nothing but naive, youthful truth from the girl. Allie Smith was indeed scheduled to board a flight to New York in one hour.

“Great. Go ahead and place your purse on this conveyer and step over here.” The officer directed Allie into another line for a terahertz-wave body scan. “Next.”


“Traveling by yourself, Mr. Woodsman?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the man replied, tipping his cowboy hat in her direction.

The security terminal illuminated with red warnings adorned with corporate logos. Mr. Woodsman was a data loss prevention agent with every legal, corporate-sponsored exemption from normal TSA regulations.

“Huh. Okay, Mr. Woodsman. Have a nice and uh, safe flight, please,” she said, waving him into a different line.


Allie quickly found her way to her designated gate and sat by the windows, watching the lumbering planes outside nimbly navigate around one another. The rising sun hadn’t quite burned away the morning fog. The young girl wondered if it was safe for planes to be taking off and landing with the clouds hanging so low over the airport.

“Excuse me, miss,” a voice behind her beckoned. She turned to see a thin, young man with dark hair and pale skin. A square-shaped adhesive bandage on the stranger’s temple hardly concealed a large bruise underneath.


“Did you say my name earlier? In the security line?”

“I don’t think so,” Allie replied dismissively.

“Oh, well, I heard ‘wolf’ and thought you may have been talking to me. My name’s Greg Wolfe, with an ‘e’ at the end.” He extended his hand to shake hers, but she turned away.

“No, I was talking about Peter and the Wolf. I was telling the security lady where I am going.”

The skinny, pale man smiled and shook his head.

“Sorry about the mix-up. Nevermind. Have a safe flight.”

Allie turned away and watched the planes rise and fall out of the fog.


Jack Woodsman leaned against a column situated on the edge of the waiting area, watching Allie interact with this stranger. He withdrew his tablet and reviewed the video feed he’d been recording from the tiny camera embedded in the brim of his hat.

He paused at a frame containing the stranger’s entire face, then quickly drew a circle around the face to query for more information. A few moments passed. Jack looked back up to see that the stranger had taken a seat and was fixated upon in his own tablet.

“Gregory Slidel,” a not-quite-human voice stated through Jack’s earpiece.

A dossier appeared on Jack’s tablet. Gregory Slidel was field agent last known to be working for the National Security Agency.

A fed? Jack wondered to himself. Of course, it didn’t matter who was after the information Allie was carrying. Data loss prevention agents did not discriminate by color, race, or creed. Their job was simple: Stop anyone from touching their employer’s data. His large, leathery hands flipped through page after page of Slidel’s known assignments and limited personal history— everything that his employer had gathered.

The NSA agent apparently specialized in “pocketing.”

Jack had known a few pocketers. Pocketers were massively expensive to train and outfit. Jack wasn’t sure whether it was a result of their job or a requisite for employment, but the ones he’d met had all been egotistical, flamboyant creeps.

Many years ago, some genius had developed the means to read massive data drives passively by holding a special wand over the drive. Jack remembered that it involved quantum mechanics and something called a SQUID. The process could take anywhere from a few moments to a few hours depending on the drive and the amount of data it held. But once the process was complete, the pocketer had your data.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before these wands were being surgically implanted into the hands of crafty individuals built for the task. They were 21st-century pickpockets. And they were versed in the arts of manipulation, coercion, and deception.

Fear suddenly washed over the older agent. Jack wondered if the pocketer had already stolen whatever it was that Allie was hiding. He pulled up the video feed on his tablet and reviewed it again. His eyes widened.

There was Greg Slidel, talking to this girl and holding her attention as he quickly but naturally moved his hands over her bag and over her head. To the other passengers waiting at the terminal, Slidel appeared to be a lanky and awkward man trying to get a girl’s attention. But as he watched the video, Jack saw the timing and purpose in Slidel’s movements.

Jack calmly looked back over at the younger agent. Slidel was still fixed on his own tablet and showed a slight hint of frustration on his face.

Maybe it didn’t work, Jack thought. Maybe he didn’t hold on the drive long enough.

Then Jack had another thought that put a dry smile on his face.

Maybe that girl and her family didn’t actually do anything wrong, and the both of us are being lead down a wild goose chase by an overzealous corporate security system with a wicked sense of humor. It wouldn’t be the first time.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith both pivoted their heads from side to side, scanning the street for danger as their self-driving SUV naively cruised closer and closer to the couple’s house. The electric motor pulling them forward was blissfully ignorant to fear and danger. It did not know the strategies that corporations employed to protect their digital assets.

WDS tracked the couple’s location, of course. It was company policy. It was company policy to truthfully answer questions about coital frequency as part of a regular behavior inventory. It was company policy to accept that every correspondence, no matter how personal, would be picked apart by a huge bank of computers looking for behavioral irregularities.

So if WDS was onto them, they figured, then they honestly had nowhere to hide. But this didn’t stop Mr. and Mrs. Smith from combing through every detail of their San Francisco neighborhood for immediate danger. Aversion to danger is an entirely human policy.

The SUV parked itself in the driveway, leaving the couple in silence. They turned to each other and kissed passionately, like they had every day back in college. Then, without words, the pair left the vehicle and walked toward the front door of their picturesque, teal-colored home.

Mr. Smith opened the door with a resigned, brave motion, with his eyes winced shut. He heard his wife gasp.

The smell of gunsmoke drifted into Mr. Smith’s nose, prompting him to throw open his eyes and take a step back. Their home was in shambles.

A man in a black coat was waiting on the other side of the door. He was fit and in his mid-40’s, balding and unassuming with an unremarkable complexion. A go-getter, upper management type transplanted out of a stock photo and into their home.

“Robert and Linda Smith?” the man asked.

“That’s us,” Mrs. Smith answered. They stood in the doorway, eyes shifting over and around the unassuming man as they surveyed the bullet holes and overturned furniture inside their home.

“I’m Agent Allan.”

“Well, Agent Allan, I’d invite you in but, uh...” Mr. Smith trailed off.

“Please come inside and shut the door,” the agent said flatly.

Everything changed. Their fear of the unknown became a fear of violence. The fear was painted with broad strokes on their faces as the agent corralled them into the dining room.

Allie’s parents hadn’t worried about their daughter’s safety until now. They’d both made the generally sound assumption that the data embedded in her back would keep her protected from any sort of danger. She was valuable. But the smell of gunsmoke and drywall mist lingering in the air tore through their rationalizations.

“Please, go ahead and have a seat,” Agent Allan offered as he moved to the head of the dining table. The couple held hands tightly and sat facing the agent.

“Are you with WDS?” Mrs. Smith finally managed to ask.

“No, ma’am. I’m with the NSA.”

The couple looked at each other, puzzled and frightened, and then turned back toward the agent.


Agent Allan sighed humorlessly out his nose. He reached into his black sport jacket and withdrew a leather clamshell wallet. Inside was a badge identifying the agent’s employer as well as a visual link to his secure credentials.

“Do you mind if I scan this?” Mr. Smith asked. He lifted his hand toward his earpiece and prepared to scan the badge.

“Uh,” the agent replied, confused by the request. “No. That’s not how this works.”

“What do you mean this?”

This whole mess you’re in. This is protective custody.”

“What happened here?”

“I’m protecting you.”

“Protect us from what?” Mrs. Smith begged for an answer with her eyebrows cocked backwards.

“Just please be quiet and hand me your tablets and buzzers and anything else with an antenna. I’ll give you some answers shortly.”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith looked back at one another. Without any options and without information, they pushed their digital devices across the table in a pile toward the agent. He sighed and slowly blinked.

“Thank you.”

There was a crash from inside the kitchen that jolted the Smiths. Something was slumping around on the floor.

“Oh, right. Hold on, I was in the middle of something when you all showed up. Please stay here.”

The agent stood from his dining chair, withdrew a large handgun-shaped piece of kit from within his jacket, and marched toward the sound in the kitchen.

The Smiths heard a few words. An unfamiliar voice laughed and returned a few more words. Then, bzzip bzzip. The noise reminded Mr. Smith of an electric drill, but much faster and higher pitched. Then they heard the agent’s footsteps leading him back into the dining room.

“Sorry about that, folks,” Agent Allan said as he took his seat. “One of your friends from WDS had wiggled out of his ziptie.”

“What was that noise?”

“Oh, this?” Agent Allan replied, pulling the device halfway out his jacket before returning it to its holster.

“This is Standard Issue. Shoots high-energy flechettes that release microwave energy on impact. Supposedly it’s less-than-lethal and designed to disable any bugs, transmitters, whatever a bad guy might be using to relay information back to headquarters. It works really well for that. But—” He paused to smile. “—they’re still trying to work out the less-than-lethal part.”

“So, what? There was a man in our kitchen and now he’s dead?”

“Yes ma’am. WDS doesn’t take too kindly to moles. And at the moment, I don’t take kindly to WDS.” The agent tilted his head with a slight hint of condescension. “Does that make you feel safer, knowing he was WDS and that I’m not?”

Oddly enough, it did.


A chime pierced through the waiting area. Then came the familiar pre-recorded message.

“Thank you for your patience. We will now begin boarding first-class and elite status members on Flight 32 with nonstop sonic service to New York JFK International. Please pay attention to your tablet, earpiece or pocket buzzer as we will be calling passengers to board in the order they are seated.”

Jack watched as the small girl in the red hoodie bounced up from her seat, slung her bag onto her shoulder, and walked to the end of the line forming around the gate. Slidel did not flinch.

Slidel wouldn’t flinch, Jack knew. He was NSA.

There was a time before the NSA, Jack remembered. They were simpler times. Relatively simpler, at least.

He remembered when things changed.


Jack liked Houston because, unlike San Francisco, the town didn’t wrap its ambition in brightly-colored tissue paper and silvery bows. Houston was a place where driven individuals wore their greed on their sleeves and eschewed higher purposes. It was a town of straight shooters, as it had been since before the days of Enron.

He was meeting with one of Chevron-Exxon’s own data loss prevention agents over drinks in a dimly lit penthouse bar. Everything was adorned with glossy, dark mahogany and golden metal knobs. Jack looked out at the flat expanse of bright lights that stretched across city below them in every direction. It was late, and his host— Connor, a man in his early 30s— was drunk.

“I’m tellin’ ya, get off the ciproxifan and get on modafinil. You can drink all night on this shit, and then some.”

“Nah,” Jack replied. “That’s not how I drink.”

Conner scoffed.

“You know where I was last week?” Connor followed up with a slur.

“No tellin’.”

“Virginia, up around DC.”

“Tailin’ a lobbyist?”

Lobbyists were notorious for dabbling in information brokering and, from time to time, big data theft. The whole lot fancied themselves as expert salesmen, but their savvy in dealing one-sided truths hardly translated to expertise in selling mountains of hard truth. They were also notorious cowards. In Jack’s experience, it only took one raised fist to make them fork over whatever data they’d stolen and one verbal threat to send them crying back to DC with their scaly tails jammed between their legs.

“Well, that’s what I thought. That’s what all my intel said.” The younger man took another pull of neat bourbon. “Turns out, no, the guy was an NSA embed.”

“That’s no good.”

“Fuckin’ right that’s no good. Thought I had the guy by the balls. Dead of night, comin’ up behind him as he unlocks his front door and then wham!” Connor pushed a hand forward in an open-palm punch, nearly knocking over Jack’s drink. “Swear to god I was silent as a ninja, but turns out this guy has tactile proximity implants. Probably felt me coming from a mile away.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever had to play rough with the NSA,” Jack admitted.

“Yeah, well, consider yourself lucky. Next thing I know, I’m on the floor of his apartment, his knee pressing into my back. He’s got a gun to my head with one hand, and in the other he’s holding my wallet.”

“I guess that turned out alright. You’re still here.”

“He gets his boss on the ‘piece and says he has a Chev-Ex agent and asks what he should do. Then he gets up, throws the wallet down next to me, hands over the 20 petabyte drive I was looking for and tells me to take it back to Houston.”

“What was on it?”

“Courier schedules,” Connor answered, shaking his head and staring down at his drink. “All of Chev-Ex’s international data imports and exports for the next three months.”

“Well, that’s our tax dollars at work, I guess.”

“Of course, everyone’s havin’ a laugh by the time I’m back in the office on Monday. I come to find out that just about every other agent at Chev-Ex has had a run-in with the NSA at some point in the past two years. It’s a rite of passage for us energy ‘gents.”

“Seems to me they’re just doing what they’ve always done: Keeping track of data as it moves around. It just moves a lot differently these days.”

“It makes me miss the Internet,” Connor lamented. “Back when you could send GIS tables across continents without some kid in Belarus plucking ‘em outta the air and selling ‘em to Russian oil barons for pennies on the megabyte.”

Connor’s words settled like an inch of powdery snow over the conversation. The men fell silent and melancholy as they stirred their drinks in their hands, looking out over the city. Every revolution of the past century— political, economic, and social— had been built on the shoulders of a worldwide communication network that eventually betrayed anyone foolish enough to trust it.

“It’s better this way,” Jack finally spoke. “We were raised thinking the answer was making the world smaller. Bringing people together. But that’s no good. People need space, and corporations are their islands.”


“Then again, those old warrantless wiretaps won’t hold a gun to your head, either.”

Connor smiled back at the old man. He was more of a cowboy than Connor, the Texan, could ever hope to be.


Minute after awkward minute passed quietly around the Smiths’ dining table. The couple sat with their backs facing the kitchen, looking out the window toward the street. Their thoughts were trained upon their daughter and willfully devoid of any questions about the NSA agent sitting in Mr. Smith’s usual seat.

It wasn’t worth asking questions, they thought. Questions beget lies. And no other organization in America’s history was more adept at lying than the NSA. It was in the Smiths’ nature to ask questions and sift through the information. It was their job. And the agent’s job was to provide disinformation or— at the very least— no information.

And so they all sat in silence as the agent drummed his fingers against the wooden tabletop. After nearly twenty minutes of introspection and casual drumming, Agent Allan finally broke the silence.

“Help me understand something.”

The Smiths emerged from their dejected, blank stares and focused on the agent.

“I’ve read dossiers and had countless briefings on Chen and his moles. All of them were single, lonely men promised huge sums of money in return for weapons testing data. But you all are different.”

“How so?” Mr. Smith asked.

“Besides not being single, lonely men?” the agent replied with a chuckle. “You all were the only ones who didn’t volunteer.”

“He blackmailed us,” Mrs. Smith replied.

“Oh, we know. It’s more common than you’d think— academics blackmailing their students. I understand that. Years and years of hard work and he threatened to flush it all down the drain unless you all cooperated. That makes sense to everyone.”

The agent’s words were blithe and struck a painful chord. The Smiths had never considered their situation to be so common.

“So what, then?”

“This country may not be a sane country. Or a selfless country. But, shit, if America is a anything, we’re a vindictive country with the means to protect people in your situation.”

He paused to lean in toward the couple, shifting his weight onto his crossed forearms resting on the table.

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

The Smiths both inhaled deeply and looked into the distance, their eyes glassy with regret. After watching the couple for a few moments, the agent continued.

“Maybe it’s because I know what we do to protect people. Information. The shit we do to prevent exactly what’s happening right now with your daughter. I just don’t get it.”

“Fuck off,” Mrs. Smith blurted out uncharacteristically. “It wasn’t just about the research or our degrees. He said they would kill our families! Our friends!”

“Everyone we knew,” Mr. Smith added.

“We didn’t choose this. We didn’t choose to turn our daughter into an information mule. Chen chose it for us.”

Agent Allan leaned back in his seat and let a deep breath out of his nose.

“Fear can make you do stupid things,” the agent admitted. “Fear and love, I guess.”

“You couldn’t understand,” Mrs. Smith said, her words still dripping with spite. “Do you know what it’s like to subject your daughter to dangerous, experimental surgery?”

“Wait, what?”

“The data drive in her back. Chen forced us to have it implanted right before he went back to Hong Kong. Allie was only three years old!”

Agent Allan hadn’t shown any feeling when he calmly walked into the kitchen to kill the floundering WDS agent. He hadn’t shown the Smiths anything but confident condescension for the past half-hour. But with Mrs. Smith’s words, the agent’s face was suddenly curled into a frantic, immediate sense of danger.

Agent Allan cupped his fingertips over his earpiece and began speaking to some faraway, unknown authority.

“Did you hear that?” he asked. “Please advise.”

There was a pause. The Smiths looked at one another, puzzled and gravely concerned. The agent at the head of the table pushed himself out of his seat and drew out his weapon. He aimed it down toward the couple.

“Tell me about the disk! Everything you know! Now!” Agent Allan demanded. The long barrel of the weapon reached across the table and rested, unwavering, mere inches from Mrs. Smith’s forehead. The agent turned to Mr. Smith and repeated himself.


Allie found her assigned first-class window seat, flung herself down and immediately buckled her safety belt. The armrests were spaced awkwardly far apart for a girl her size. She closed her eyes and smiled and imagined herself sitting on some regal throne from ages past as she sank into the fake-leather cushions.

The jet was small, Allie noted. Much smaller than she’d imagined it. There were only four seats to each row with a single aisle cutting through the middle. Outside, she saw men in orange raincoats standing by idly as automated cars and carts and lifters buzzed around the plane. The engine affixed to the wing was stamped with a familiar logo that signified the same manufacturer of her family’s refrigerator and clothes machine.

Allie loved flying.

She reached into the front pocket of her red hoodie and removed her tablet. She drew out a quick message to her parents to let them know she was on the plane, then another to her grandma.

A large, squat woman plopped down into the seat beside her. Allie smiled at the stranger, who smiled back down at her before situating herself.

Other passengers slowly shuffled through first class and into their seats toward the back of the plane. Allie noticed the tall, pale man who’d talked to her earlier. He smiled curtly with big, white teeth and waved as he passed by. There were businessmen, young families, older families, babies, toddlers, college students wearing Stanford hoodies like Allie’s, and one man who looked like he’d been plucked out of a forgotten era.

He was an older man with tanned, leathery skin beneath a pearl-snap plaid shirt and starched blue jeans. He wore a white mustache on his craggy face and cowboy hat atop his head. The man looked at Allie but said nothing and continued trudging toward the back of the jet.

Allie wondered if maybe her dad would like a cowboy hat for Christmas. The mental image of her dad wearing a cowboy hat made her laugh.


Mrs. Smith heard a buzz from inside her purse. A car drove by outside. A “Standard Issue” NSA weapon that made high-pitched drill noises lingered inches from her head.

“Whoa! Stop!” Mr. Smith pleaded with his hands raised. “I’ll tell you everything I know about it, just put the gun down!”

“Why didn’t you mention this earlier?,” an angry Agent Allan growled as he drew the weapon a few inches back.

“You never asked!”

“I’m asking now!”

“Please put the gun away,” Mrs. Smith pleaded with disjointed pauses between each word. A single tear rolled down her calm, unwavering cheek. “We’ll cooperate.”

The agent, still seething with frustration, re-holstered his weapon and took a large breath in through his nose. After pausing for a few moments to collect himself, he sat down and resumed his position at the head of the table.

“What didn’t you know about the disk?” Mr. Smith asked nervously.

“No, I asked you a question. It’s not important what we thought.”

“It is, obviously,” Mrs. Smith corrected.

“I will shoot you both and go find out for myself!” Agent Allan shouted back at the couple.

“Okay, okay,” Mr. Smith began. “When Allie was three years old, Chen contacted us and told us that he was leaving the country to assume a new job in Hong Kong. He sent us to a special pediatric surgeon to have our daughter implanted with a new, experimental data drive.”

“Do you remember what it was called?”

“Mark something.”

“Mark Four,” Mrs. Smith corrected.


Agent Allan paused and listened to his superiors speaking to him through his earpiece.

Mr. Smith sat back, scouring his brain for any details about the Mark Four that Chen had offhandedly mentioned so many years ago. The word “countermeasures” and “assurance” flickered like two broken lamps in an otherwise unlit warehouse of repressed memories. Counter-what? Assurance of... delivery?

Meanwhile, Mrs. Smith was exploring a much more vivid labyrinth of memories in her own head. She recalled that the Mark Four was a cutting-edge, highly secure, high-density data drive. It wasn’t designed to be reused. And it definitely wasn’t designed to be tampered with. What else?

“Understood.” The agent spoke solemnly, jarring the Smiths out of their memories.

“I know he told us more about the drive,” Mrs. Smith admitted. “I just can’t remember what.”

“Could you tell us what you want to know, exactly?”

It was Agent Allan’s turn to toil in deep thought as he plotted his next move. His superiors had instructed him to stall and continue gathering information from the Smiths while technicians and engineers at the Utah Division calculated a risk assessment around the Mark Four. His superiors had also authorized him to tell the Smiths about the Gregory Slidel, if doing so would lead to more information about the Mark Four in Allie’s back.

It wasn’t in Agent Allan’s nature to divulge information unless absolutely necessary. It was a point of pride and, in his mind, hiding the hand he was dealt made him a good agent. And yet, there was a compulsion to tell them everything that transcended his superiors’ orders.

“Do you know what a pocketer is?”


Gregory Slidel was hungry. He stretched his head out into the aisle and stared aimlessly toward the first-class cabin. A curtain was drawn to separate the coach passengers from the more luxurious aft of the aircraft. Slidel’s arm moved up and down, hoping to catch an errant beacon of data with the SQUID device embedded in his hand.

Slidel could imagine his next meal squirming innocently in her large, comfortable seat. The device had caught a weak and meager sampling of data an hour ago, when he’d moved it over the girl’s body and around her bag. The taste of bits was still fresh in his mouth.

Or at least, it felt like it was.

“Sir, did you need something?” a friendly voice offered from behind Slidel. He turned his gaze toward the flight attendant staring down at him.

“Could you please bring me a bottle of water?” He showed her a toothy smile.

“Of course, sir. Give me just one sec.” The flight attendant ambled toward the front of the plane, drawing the curtain open as she passed into coach. Slidel looked but couldn’t see the girl behind her towering first-class seat-back.

Slidel closed his eyes and pushed his head back into the hard cloth seat.

He had only received enough data to whet his appetite— enough to know there was a data drive somewhere on Allie Smith’s person. Sewn into her hoodie, he guessed. Perhaps it was thoroughly shielded, like it had been when he’d called his last meal out from hiding a few days ago.

Slidel remembered the satisfaction of his last feast. It had been waiting for him in a hotel room outside of Los Angeles. He’d had barged into the room to find a young Indian man, disarmed and confused. The look of terror on the man’s face had excited Slidel in a now-familiar way.

Slidel winced, trying to ignore the hunger pangs radiating through his body at that very moment. He felt famished. The adaptive computer interface in his brain was supposed to sense his distress and dial down the Total Mission Awareness signal. At least, that’s what the surgeons had told him. The adaptive computer in his brain was supposed to do a lot of things they’d told him, and it did a lot of things they hadn’t.


He flinched. There was a bottle of water, and a flight attendant standing over him.

“Thank you, miss.”

As she walked away, a thought entered Slidel’s frenzied mind. Surely the NSA had discerned that Allie was Slidel’s last target by now— his last supper. Would they try and warn her? he wondered. Had they already warned her?

How important was this tween to the suits in Utah, or their bosses in Washington?

Slidel reached into his seat-back pocket and withdrew his tablet. He’d hacked into her personal tablet hours ago in the airport terminal, looking for any hints as to where she might be hiding his dinner. His tablet had an unobstructed view into hers.

Nothing. No messages.

Still, Slidel was worried. The NSA was after him, he knew, and they would manipulate her however they could to draw him out. They would send her messages, knowing that he was watching. They would pepper the tablet with disinformation.

Slidel made a few purposeful swipes at his tablet.

On the other side of the curtain, Allie’s face scrunched in anger when the tablet in her hands suddenly turned dark. She jammed at its power button. The tablet was dead.

Slidel placed his tablet back in the seat-back pocket. The pale man with the dark hair and white-toothed smile stared indifferently at the bottle of water on his tray as the jet’s twin engines rocketed him closer to New York.


“This information is highly— how should I put this?” The agent paused for a moment of contemplation. “A lot of people outside the government know about it, but it’s all just rumors and bits and pieces. Like a fairy tale.”

“Open secrets aren’t a new thing,” Mr. Smith said.

“Ah, but Gregory Slidel is a very new thing. He was the field agent sent to Hong Kong to recover Chen and the data he was passing along to his Chinese counterparts.”

“The NSA has international agents?” Mrs. Smith asked.

“Yeah, wait,” Mr. Smith added, “I thought that was the CIA’s job.”

“The CIA is too busy tracking down bomb-makers in Mogadishu to focus on these sorts of threats to our country,” Agent Allan replied. “And besides, our agents are much better suited for data recovery operations.”

“How so?”

“Pocketers. Or rather, our Advanced Agent Augmentation Project volunteers.”

“Augmentation?” Mr. Smith asked. “Like, human augmentation?”

Mr. Smith leaned back in his chairs and scowled with disbelief. Human augmentation, like the Internet, had once symbolized the promise of better living through technology. And like the Internet, human augmentation had broken that promise.

Mass rejection of surgically-implanted artificial limbs. Ocular implants hacked by Anonymous thirteen-year-olds to display nightmarish, grotesque images of death and despair. The Smiths remembered the headlines and the panic that ensued. Freak accidents and security weaknesses quickly turned humanity away from a future that melded them with machines. The entire industry of consumer augmentation had crumbled as fast as it’d emerged.

It was now relegated to a few niche applications related to sexual enhancement and surgically-embedded computer interfaces.

“The Advanced Agent Augmentation Project emerged out of a desperate need. Ten years ago, America was losing almost every bit of information we sent overseas. The NSA needed a way to track and contain information like we did in the days of the Internet.”

“You mean with wiretaps?” Mrs. Smith asked sarcastically. “I knew the NSA loved to tell stories, but—”

“Exactly like that. And every solution pointed to augmenting our field agents.” Agent Allan paused and raised a pointed hand toward the couple. “Let me tell you, amazing things happen when you put a bunch of electrical engineers in an operating room with surgeons and a few nutty spooks from DARPA.”

“Like what?”

“The first generation of A3 volunteers got implants in their hands that allowed them to sense priority data drives, snatch the contents out of the ether and then wipe the drive using powerful, directed electromagnets.”

“What do you mean ‘priority?’ How would they know the difference between a terabyte of state secrets and a terabyte of pictures from my vacation?”

“That was the beauty of it,” Agent Allan said reverently. “A3’s embedded computer control systems could not only sense the presence of big data, but also crunch its contents on-the-fly and give the agents tactile feedback. Like, a buzzing in the tips of their fingers if the data matched a suspicious pattern.”

“Hm. I guess that’s plausible,” the skeptical Mr. Smith thought as he imagined the algorithms and raw power that would go into such a portable device. “But I thought the world learned its lesson about embedding systems like that. What about wiredrivers?”

“A3’s control systems aren’t wireless. Agents literally have to plug in at NSA HQ to receive new missions and patterns and upload recovered data. No one has remote control: Not us, not the Chinese, and not the Anon kiddies who wiredrive for fun.”

“So I’m guessing it worked, then,” Mrs. Smith conjectured.

“Oh, did it,” the agent replied proudly. “The program was so successful, the NSA poured even more talent and money into the project. And like most government projects, it ballooned into something else.”


“Brain-computer interfaces. Imagine if agents could see the data on a drive. Imagine if they had Total Mission Awareness at all times. That was the vision. And it worked.”

“So then what?”

“Well, there were some kinks. The weird part was how the mission awareness pieces was interpreted differently by the volunteers. Agents reported tasting flavors of data. They felt sad when their missions weren’t complete.”

The couple leaned in closer to the agent, overcome with a combination of technical intrigue and bodily discomfort. Mr. Smith felt nauseous.

“So then, was Slidel one of these second generation agents?”

“He was the first to take it into the field. On the mission to pick up Chen, actually.”

The agent sitting at the head of the dining table told the Smiths about Slidel’s first assignment: Locate KK Chen in Hong Kong, recover a set of space weapon testing data that had been passed along to Chen from a mole inside a major defense contractor, then interrogate Chen to find out if there were more moles inside the United States.

Then, Agent Allan became quiet. He stared off into the distance. The Smiths were unsure whether he was listening to his superiors through his earpiece or legitimately stalling.

“What is it?” Mr. Smith finally spoke up.

“Well, we know that Slidel got in a fight outside of Chen’s apartment with some unknown assailant. A bodyguard or something. Our best guess is that he sustained some sort of concussion— that’s what the guys in Utah are guessing, at least.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Mrs. Smith asked, routing the conversation toward the question on both parents’ minds.

“Because I have a daughter. And if she was being tracked down by the NSA’s rogue abominations, I would want to know, too.”


There was a buzz. Jack Woodsman felt it in his pocket, and immediately checked the tablet resting on the seat-back tray in front of him.

An update from his employer.

The cowboy turned to see his travel companion— either an entrepreneur or a student, he couldn’t tell— resting against the window in a deep sleep. There was a risk in opening the update on his tablet for the world around him to see, but there was a greater risk in beaming it a few feet to his earpiece.

Wiredrivers loved the forced proximity of airplanes. The national network of upward-turned cell towers that dotted the American countryside were naturally secure. They blasted one-way radio messages like shotguns aimed at jets criss-crossing the nation, allowing the world’s always-on denizens to receive corporate-spun news headlines and rigged football game play-by-plays. Wiredrivers ignored them: There was no use in trying to find a golden needle in a haystack of identical-looking encrypted messages.

But any passenger with a radio receiver and a $500 piece of kit could listen for near-field transmissions, like those from a tablet to an earpiece, and easily snatch it from the stale cabin air. In Jack’s case, said wiredriver would immediately know a data loss prevention was onboard and have access to the confidential update waiting on his tablet.

The NSA agent seated a few rows behind Jack probably had a much fancier piece of kit, the cowboy reckoned. And the tablet’s limited field-of-view gave Jack a limited sense of security. He tapped the device’s screen to open the update. It was short.

Additional agents have been dispatched to assist at the gate.

Jack frowned and leaned back into his seat. He hated help. And worse, he hated what help meant this late into an assignment.

Help meant that the situation had changed. There was important information out there, and Jack Woodsman wasn’t privy to it.

“Sir,” a voice chimed at him from behind. “Can you bring your seat up, please? We’ll be landing in a few moments.”


“Why haven’t you caught him yet?” Mrs. Smith angrily barked at the NSA agent as he sat in dejected silence. She paced around the table, switching manically between fear and concern.

Mr. Smith had fallen into a near-catatonic state, staring blankly out the window as his glassy eyes welled up with shame.

“Because we trained him not to get caught,” Agent Allan said flatly.

“Well, you know he’s on the plane! You knew he was at the gate in San Francisco! Why is he on the plane? How could you let him near our daughter?”

“It’s complicated.”

Mrs. Smith’s anger turned to shock, followed by a silent scowl.

“What aren’t you telling us?” Mr. Smith asked in a sad, hopeless voice.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss anything else with you at this time. But you’re both smart. You should be able to... discern the NSA’s motivation.”

It clicked.

“You need that data,” Mr. Smith said in the same hopeless voice, as if he were ashamed to realize the truth behind it all. “You need whatever he recovered from Chen in Hong Kong. And whatever the moles were carrying.”

“We do.”


“The Mark Four. Exactly. If Slidel starts to read that drive, the Mark Four is going to deploy its countermeasures.”

“What does that mean? Countermeasures?” Mrs. Smith snapped back.

Agent Allan let out a frustrated sigh.

“Do you not remember me holding the Standard Issue to your head and asking you the same question? We don’t know. The Mark Four is only a detection system. It has to be paired with a countermeasure that responds in the event of attempted data theft.”

Mrs. Smith looked over toward her despondent husband. His face was stone-cold and defeated.

“What is it, Mr. Smith?” the NSA agent asked.

“It’s— It’s an explosively-pumped flux compression generator.”


The jet slid elegantly onto the runway in New York.

It was a smooth landing by all accounts, but Allie felt the dead tablet bouncing up and down inside her hoodie’s front pocket, reminding her how hard it would be to find Grandma in the busy airport.


“Alright. Understood.”

Agent Allan took his hand off his ear and watched with a tinge of heartbreak as Mr. and Mrs. Smith stood holding each other, sobbing loudly. Mr. Smith had barely made it halfway into his overly-technical explanation of what an explosively-pumped flux compression generator does before completely losing his composure.

“We have agents standing by at the gate in New York to apprehend Slidel and take your daughter to a safe location.”

The agent stood and adjusted his jacket.

“A transport will be landing in ninety seconds to take us all out of here. You’ll be reunited with your daughter soon enough. Come on, now.”

The Smiths broke their embrace and looked at the agent.

“Where are we going?” Mr. Smith asked through a few deep breaths.

“Utah. And listen: We’re already assembling a team of our best surgeons to get that EMP bomb out of your daughter’s back. Everything’s going to be okay.”

A faint buzzing in the distance was growing louder with each passing moment. Agent Allan motioned for the couple to head toward the front door as he cautiously peered out the window.

“Okay. The bird will be coming down in the street right outside the house. As soon as it deploys the loading door, I want Mr. Smith to start running in that direction. Mrs. Smith, you follow him when I give you the signal. I’ll be right behind you.”

The faint buzzing outside was now a roar that shook the walls. After a few moments, a black military aircraft eased down onto the street. Dust and pebbles pelted the side of the Smiths’ suburban home.

“Get ready!” the agent barked.

“Promise me something,” Mrs. Smith shouted back.


“Promise me those surgeons aren’t the same ones that operated on your monster.”

The cargo door on the back of the VTOL transport gingerly pushed open and Mr. Smith set running toward it.


Jack stepped out of the jetway and was greeted by a blast of dry, Kansas summer.

A gaggle of squawking passengers was huddled around the desk outside, demanding that the gate agent do something about the temperature in the terminal. Other passengers were shouting thick New York profanity at the air conditioning ducts overhead. Everyone had their winter coats and sweaters draped over their luggage.

The cowboy pulled his hat from his head and wiped away the beads of sweat that were already accumulating on his forehead. Some Anon was having a bit of fun with the climate control system, he reckoned. The girl was nowhere to be seen.

A tall, pale figure pushed past Jack at a hurried pace.

Slidel started in the direction of the baggage claim and passenger pick-up area. The cowboy followed after him, trying to close the growing distance between the two. His worn, ostrich-skinned boots clamored against the tile. The older man tried to keep pace, but soon Jack could only see the man’s dark head bobbing up and down through the sea of passengers.

“We apologize for the current climate control issue in Terminal Four,” a voice boomed over the intercom. “Our technicians are currently working to fix it. Thank you for your patience.”

Slidel was out of patience. He was now running frantically toward the AirTrain stop, darting his head from side to side as he searched in vain for the girl in the red hoodie.

A hand suddenly grabbed him by the arm and pulled him backward.

“That’s far enough, Greg,” a familiar voice warned. It was one of the first-generation pocketers that Slidel had met before volunteering for his own operation. “I’ve got him. Move to my location.”

Slidel’s mind was drowning in adrenaline and cortisol, as the Total Mission Awareness signal beat a marching drum to the pace of his racing heart. Instinctively, Slidel yanked his arm free and spun around to face the stranger. The two exchanged a few blocked punches and jabs before Slidel kicked the inside of the pocketer’s leg. As the agent fell back onto the ground, Slidel took off running again.


Allie stood near the AirTrain stop located at the end of the concourse. She bobbed up and down on the balls of her feet, trying to catch a glance of the approaching action.

“Excuse me,” a calm businessman asked from beside her. “Allie Smith?”

“Huh?” she replied, looking up at him.

“Hey, your grandma sent me to come find you. She’s worried sick.” His hand came down and gripped her shoulder firmly. “You need to come with me, now.”

“Hey, let go!” She felt the stranger’s hand go limp right before a spray of red blood dusted her face. Allie and the other nearby passengers screamed in terror.

A few meters away, an NSA agent lowered his Standard Issue.

“WDS agent neutralized,” Allie could hear him shouting into his earpiece. “She’s at the AirTrain stop at the end of Concourse D. Moving in to secure her now.” His head shifted from side to side as he hurried in Allie’s direction.

The usual murmur of the concourse was now a panicked chorus of crying children, horrified gasps and shoes squeaking against the hard tile floor. The frightened masses all began to move toward the brightly-lit emergency exits that lined the long hallway. Allie stood frozen in place as the NSA agent locked eyes with her.

It was too late for Allie to say or do anything by the time she saw Slidel approaching the agent at full speed. She watched as Slidel wrapped his arm around the agent’s head and, in one swift and fluid motion, pulled it around in a circle. The agent’s body swung violently to one side before toppling to the ground.

Slidel heaved as he slowed to a stop in front of the girl. She looked up at him.

“You’re...” she began.


The strange man in the sweat-stained white shirt took Allie by the hand and led her into the crowds lining the concourse.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith sat opposite to Agent Allan on the transport plane, surrounded by a few other NSA agents. They watched his expressions change from ambivalent to concerned to transfixed in the span of a minute.

“What is it?” Mrs. Smith finally asked into the headset that one of the other agents onboard had handed to her.

“Things aren’t going as planned at the terminal,” she heard Agent Allan reply.

“What do you mean?”

“WDS hired some third-party goons to find your daughter first. It’s chaos at the airport right now.”

“Where’s Allie?” Mr. Smith barked.

“I’ll let you know in a few minutes. Stay calm. She’s safe.”


As the concourse emptied and passengers flooded through the emergency exits onto the tarmac outside, Jack Woodsman calmly continued his search. His eyes darted from one side of the long, advertisement-lined hallway to the other. One man limped on a broken leg past Jack, cursing into his earpiece.

“ sign of Slidel or the girl, we’re doubling back...” the cowboy overheard.

Of course they’re looking for the girl, he thought to himself, but what about Slidel? Why would they be looking for him?

Jack stopped and peered into the thinning crowd at the end of the terminal. This was the end of the hunt— the exciting part that Jack always enjoyed. It was time to track the beast to his final resting place.

The cowboy ducked into the nearest restroom and casually pushed his head inside. A dozen or so sets of nervous legs shook inside locked bathroom stalls. Discouraged, Jack decided to withdraw his tablet and review the video recorded from the brim of his hat.

After a few swipes, Jack was transported back to the beginning of the chase. Slidel’s thin, bandaged-adorned head was visible above a few smaller passengers outside of the arrival gate. The cowboy’s thick, calloused fingers pinched a circle around the pocketer’s head; a yellow-hued silhouette appeared over the area in question.

The video feed then accelerated into overdrive, with Jack’s calm, purposeful gait accelerated into a manic, rhythmic bobbing. The yellow shape on the screen became a blip in the distance as Slidel faded into the crowd. It stopped momentarily, shifted from side to side, then became even smaller as Slidel continued into the crowd. Bystanders were suddenly running toward Jack.

The yellow shape paused again when it reached the AirTrain pickup area. Jack’s eyes followed the blip as it grew, bit by bit, and stopped in front of a large blue sign far down the concourse.

Jack looked up from his tablet and toward the sign in question. It read “THE COTTAGE: An Executive Lounge.” Through the glass doors leading into the lounge, Jack could see that the lights were turned off.

Two ostrich-skin boots clomped, one after the other, over the grey tile as they carried Jack across the hallway toward his red-hooded mark and her grey-skinned predator.


The dimly-lit Cottage was adorned with kitschy modern art and plain, white walls. High-pitched screams and guttural grunts bounced around in the dark. Slidel held Allie pinned to the floor, nearly crushing her arms under the intense pressure of his thin, strong frame.

“The drive!” Slidel roared into Allie’s face.

Allie replied with louder, broken screams.

“The drive! Show me!”

“I don’t know!”

Slidel pushed his elbow onto Allie’s chest, keeping her pinned as he began groping her randomly with his pocketing hand. Tiny, powerful antennas embedded in his bony fingers sent an uninterrupted stream of noise along with tiny flecks of the data to a small, powerful computer in Slidel’s torso. The control computer picked the flecks out of the noise and pushed them to into Slidel’s brain.

He smelled steak.

“It’s here!”

As his hand moved lower, from her ribs to her hips, Slidel felt the taste of meat jump from his nose to his throat and onto his tongue.

A crash echoed into the lounge. Slidel and Allie both glanced toward the entrance.

“Gregory Slidel,” a gruff voice boomed. The bright lights of the concourse cast a growing shadow into the dark lounge as the stranger moved through the entryway and into the lounge.

Slidel rose and pulled the girl onto her feet by her hood.

Jack emerged from the entryway and saw the two figures standing at attention.

“Allie, run,” Jack said flatly as he approached. He knew he would be able to find her soon enough. “This man is dangerous.”

She pulled away from Slidel with all of her strength, but his grip was tight and unforgiving. She fell back onto her knees.

Slidel looked Jack in the eyes and let out a defiant howl. Jack’s stoic, calm gaze gave way to a look of earnest confusion .

“What are you?” the cowboy asked aloud.

A moment passed and Slidel let out an overwhelmed laugh. Allie noticed Slidel’s locked, animalistic eyes welling up. An immense sadness transcended the danger and fear in the room.

“Look at you,” Jack continued, making calm, rhythmic steps closer toward Slidel and Allie. “Practically raping this little girl. And for what? A drive? A bunch of flipped bits on a Q-drive?”

“I just... so hungry... so close,” Slidel gasped. He was a different animal now: An ashamed housepet, facing his owner in the midst of his mess.

Jack was only a couple of meters away from Slidel and the red-hooded girl.  He leaned down and withdrew an eight-inch ceramic blade from within his ostrich-skin boots. Still kneeling, he looked back up into Slidel’s eyes and nodded at the pocketer.

“I’ve had to deal with a few coyotes in my time,” Jack said as he stood.

Slidel let go of Allie’s hood and she immediately ran past Jack toward the exit.

“Coyotes are predators. It’s in their nature. You don’t blame ‘em for their nature, but you have to accept your own place in nature. It’s my nature to raise horses and protect ‘em. Protection is my nature.”

“They made me like this,” Slidel blurted out in his own defense as he shrank onto the floor with his face hidden behind his hands.

“You pocketers are all volunteers, right? What does that really say about your nature?”

“I don’t— want this!”

“This what?”

Jack was standing over Slidel, blade in hand, watching the defeated predator as he stammered and suffered through the TMA signal in his head. The scene was all too familiar to Jack: A helpless predator, caught in a trap motivated by his own nature.

“They made me crave it. They got in my head! The mission is all I know. All I can see.”

Jack stood in contemplation for a moment. This Slidel character is more than just a pocketer, he figured.

“Augments?” Jack asked.

“Here,” Slidel replied, pointing toward the computer in his torso that contained the TMA control computer.

Jack lunged down and pushed the ceramic blade into Slidel’s side. The pocketer’s hands reached up and dug into the cowboy’s plaid shirt sleeve like claws. Ignoring the tight grip around his arm and the high-pitched scream that ensued, Jack searched around with the blade until he felt a small, hard object. He felt the thin leads that fed into and away from the small computer, and violently pulled the blade out of Slidel’s side, severing the wires.

Slidel’s eyes widened. The hunger was gone. He released the cowboy and shrank onto the ground, holding the painful, gaping wound as blood spilled over his bony fingers.

The cowboy wiped the blade on Slidel’s pant leg and placed it back into his boot. He turned away and began walking toward the exit.

“What’s your name?” a weak voice asked.

“Jack. Jack Woodsman.”

“Thank you, Jack.”

The cowboy walked out of the lounge, smirking proudly to himself.


“We’ve got her,” Agent Allan shouted into the headset as he threw his hands up in victory.

The Smiths turned toward each other and embraced as tightly as their harnesses allowed. The other agents in the transport sighed with relief.

Mrs. Smith looked back up toward the agent, overcome with a new concern.

“What happens to us?” she asked over the intercom.

Agent Allan smiled as he looked at Mrs. Smith, then Mr. Smith. He shrugged.

“We’re headed to a facility in Bluffdale, Utah. Ever heard of it?”

The couple shook their heads. Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Smith noted the other agents now smirking to themselves as they listened to the conversation.

“Bluffdale,” Agent Allan explained, “was our first big domestic monitoring operation. It’s grown into something else entirely. We’ve got research facilities, barracks, you name it.”


“And a drab little detention center for home-grown spies like yourselves.”

The other agents lining the inside of the aircraft all turned to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s eyes widen.

“What? Did you think you’d get to play the victim card forever?” Agent Allan shot back over the intercom. “Remember when I told you that this was protective custody? You saw the protective. Now comes the custody.”

“What about our daughter?” Mrs. Smith pleaded.

“I don’t know.”

“She can’t know about this! About what we did!”

Agent Allan let out a sigh through his nose and folded his hands together in front of his face. Secrets were a part of his family life, too. The less senior agents in the craft looked around awkwardly, waiting for Agent Allan’s reply.

“She’s got family, right? Aunts, uncles? Something?”


“We’ve always got a contingency plan.”


Heads turned in Washington Heights, New York, as a small auto-taxi meandered through the neighborhood with a cowboy crammed in the passenger seat. He sat uncomfortably beside a bouquet of roses, trying to finish a short, personal handwritten note before reaching his destination.

In his best cursive, he signed Jack Woodsman and folded it neatly around two tickets to that night’s performance of Peter and the Wolf at the Guggenheim. The taxi stopped at a recently-renovated apartment block that towered several stories above the surrounding homes.

Jack swiped his company charge card and awkwardly pushed out of the car into the comfortable springtime breeze, carefully collecting his flowers and note. The cocktail of nootropics swimming in his skull made him keen to the lack of danger around him.

There were a few kids fiddling with an antenna on the stoop outside their home, pointing it up toward the windows of the giant apartment block. An NYPD beat cop sat parked in his car, yawning and tapping exaggerated taps into his dashboard computer.

Same as it ever was, Jack thought to himself.

He purposefully walked his ostrich-skin boots into the lobby of the apartment complex. A doorman dressed in a red sport coat— a throwback to an era before Jack’s— greeted him from behind a desk.

“Making a delivery?”

“Yes, sir,” Jack replied. “For Edna Smith. I’m a family friend.”

“Ah,” the doorman said, smiling. “Kind soul, that woman. And her granddaughter is the cutest little thing.”

“She is.”

“Ah, well, let me buzz you up.”

“Thank you kindly,” the cowboy said, tipping his hat toward the doorman as he stepped onto the elevator.