// 1: CALLING CARD

“We’ve got a problem.”

Carter sat up in his bed and checked the clock. 4 a.m. This must be bad. He mumbled into the phone, “Damien, this better be urgent.”

Damien’s voice was hyperactive and the words came tumbling out. Carter took a moment to let each one process, “I’ve discovered a network breach.”

“Sounds bad, but why is it 4 a.m. wake up call bad?”

“It’s a TLA network.”

Carter sat up. Their Three Letter Acronym clients expected 24 hour support and that’s what they paid for. He needed to know how much trouble they were in, “Any signs of a data breach?”

“No signs of malicious intent. That’s what makes it worse. We don’t know what he was trying to achieve.”

At least there was some good news. Carter thought for a moment, “Is there any chance this is the 1337 messing around?”

“Not splashy enough. If the 1337 did this it would be all over the dark net. This was done quietly and discreetly. Basically the opposite of their M.O. This intruder left zero trace on any of the logs or security measures.”

“If there’s no trace, how do you know the network has been breached?” said Carter.

“Hacker left a calling card. I don’t want to say too much on the phone. How would you like me to proceed?”

Carter rolled out of bed in one swift motion, “Standard security sweep of all the networks we monitor. This may not be the only breach. The hacker could be using a day zero exploit that works across multiple networks. Call the rest of the team, don’t tell them why, just tell them to get to the office asap. I’m on my way in.”

“Understood.” The line clicked dead. One thing Carter liked about Damien, he wasn’t one for social niceties. He was focused on the task at hand.

Carter threw on the light and grabbed the first suit he could reach. It was a slate grey Armani, hand tailored to his physique. He took pride in the fact he could still wear suits from ten years ago, although every year that was getting harder to do so. He’d turned fifty five last year and it felt like an uphill battle to stay in shape. At least his hair had stuck around, even if it had developed a dusting of grey to match his eyes. He’d considered colouring it, but the ladies seemed to like his more distinguished look. At least, that’s what he told himself. The fancy suits and expensive cars had nothing to do with it.

He glanced at the mirror. He had faint bags under his eyes and he needed a shave, but under the circumstances it would have to do.

Carter grabbed a banana on the way to the garage and was halfway through it before he’d decided which car to use. The Tesla was mid-charge and it was still warm enough for something sporty so he hopped into the Audi R8. He roared the engine as he accelerated up the long driveway. A faint smile crept onto his face as he skidded onto the main road. Traffic was non-existent at this hour, allowing him to take full advantage of the V10. No cops would bother him, they knew all his cars and had learned not to waste their time trying to give him a ticket.

As he reached the city he turned away from the skyscrapers and bright lights and headed towards old town. He passed several trendy bars and coffee shops before reaching the Tempest head office. It was indistinct, no sign, no phone book listing, nothing to distinguish it from the other offices in the area. Low key, exactly the way he liked it. Inside though it was anything but normal.

The parking garage sensed him approaching and opened the reinforced metal door. He was barely through it when the gears reversed and it came down with an audible thud. The Audi screeched to a halt, leaving the aroma of warm rubber in the air. Twenty minutes door to door, that must be a new personal best. As Carter climbed out he carefully brushed down his suit before striding into the waiting elevator. He ran his hand over his face on the way up and found himself wishing he’d taken the extra time to shave. With a security breach like this there was no telling how long it would be until he saw his bed again.

As the elevator doors opened Carter was greeted by a bustle of people, mostly young and bright eyed, even at this ungodly hour. They hurried between the clean white desks and large bright monitors, dodging around bean bags and yoga balls. It looked like a silicon valley startup, with the difference being that Tempest actually made a profit. Everything was carefully positioned to impress, even though it was rare that they let clients in the building.

He spied Damien Bright standing in the corner wearing his usual all black getup. Today it was skinny jeans, a tight black v-neck and a knitted scarf. Only a twenty year old could think that outfit was a good idea. He was muttering to himself in the manner he always did when he was chewing on a particularly gristly problem. He looked like he needed a decent meal or two, his gangly limbs showed no signs of tone or exposure to sunlight. His light brown hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Damien had a nasty habit of sleeping at the office, at one point Carter had made him prove he still had an apartment in the city.

In one hand Damien clutched an extra large coffee cup, in the other he held a tablet. As soon as he saw Carter he rushed over like an eager puppy who’s master had returned, “I’ve found his calling card in several other TLA networks. The scary part is they weren’t there yesterday.”

Carter gently guided him into a side office, “Calm down, we don’t want to incite a panic. Have you found anything in the server logs, any clues at all?”

Damien handed over the tablet. Carter scanned the contents with a mixture of fear and awe. Everything was clean, no signs of intrusion or tampering. This was far more serious than he’d thought.

“If it wasn’t for the calling card we’d have no idea that these systems had been breached,” said Damien

“You said these are recent. How do you know?”

“Offsite backups from yesterday show no such changes, it was the first thing I checked. That was actually how I caught it, one of my scripts flagged that the readme file size had changed. I checked the change logs and found no sign of a scheduled update.”

Carter’s face tightened, “Are you telling me we have an untraceable, unstoppable hacker on our hands with no clear motive or target and we only caught him by chance?”

Damien paused for a moment, “Yes boss, I think we do.”

“Ok, we need to move fast on this. The chances are this hacker doesn’t know we’re on to him. This could just be the beginning. If we’re quick we may be able to intercept him before he can do any real damage. Do you think he would go after a honeypot?”

“Yes boss, if we set it up just right. He’s prowling for secured networks to breach, now would be the right time to tempt him when he’s actively hunting.”

“Ok. Make it happen. I’ll also need to get in front of this before anyone discovers this breach themselves. It will be much easier if we bring it to their attention. Which TLA was the worst hit?” said Carter.

“The FBI. I found the calling card in the heart of their network, which means he had access to everything, their email server, VoIP server, personnel server, you name it, he could have killed it.”

“And you’re sure no data was taken?”

“I checked the bandwidth logs, both onsite and offsite. No spikes out of the ordinary, so no signs of mass downloading. I also cross checked the number of records with their most recent backup in case he was trying to delete records or alter evidence, but it was an exact match. That doesn’t mean he can’t come back though. We still don’t know how he got in.”

“Understood. Get in touch with the FBI and fill them in. Tell them we need a field agent here immediately. They will probably give you the usual crap about having nobody to spare unless it’s a proven threat, but I want them involved in this one. We don’t want to be the only ones with our pants around our ankles if and when this guy starts breaking things.”

Damien nodded, “I already spoke with them. Jim Hadley is out of town at the moment so I dealt with his minions. I was surprised someone picked up the phone, normally it’s a pain in the arse to reach them this early. They’re sending the closest field agent, Special Agent Pearce. They said she was close by, she should be here soon. They sent through all the necessary paperwork. I took the liberty of downloading her personnel file while I was checking their servers. It’s on the tablet. There’s good news and bad news I’m afraid.”

Carter swiped to find a photo of a stunning young blonde. She was perky in all the right places. He turned it to face Damien, “Is this from your private collection?”

Damien sniggered, “No boss, that’s her, that’s Special Agent Pearce.”

Carter checked again. Her blonde hair was pulled out of her face into a ponytail and she wore thick rimmed glasses. She looked like she could handle herself. He flipped to the next page and groaned, “Says here she’s 22 and fresh out of the academy. This is her first assignment. Why do I feel like Jim is punishing us?”

“Maybe he’s mad about you sleeping with his secretary at the FBI Christmas party?”

“I did no such thing.”

“The car park security camera footage suggests otherwise.”

Carter stared at Damien, “I better not find that footage in your private collection.”

“You won’t find it anywhere. That’s what you pay me for.”

Carter turned his attention back to the file, “At least tell me she has a tech background. We don’t have time to teach her the basics.”

Damien sipped his coffee loudly, “Nope, psych major. No tech experience besides the basic field training. She’s a total noob. You know how it is, we have no proof of damage or ill intent, we are lucky they sent anyone. She’s running point for all communications regarding this investigation, so she will be keeping the FBI up to speed on our progress.”

“You mentioned there was good news?”

Damien’s eyes widened, “Just look at her! She’s going to be great for team morale. She seems like your type…”

“I won’t be making the mistake of mixing business and pleasure again, it’s too damn expensive.” Carter took a final look at the picture, “So the best the mighty FBI can spare is a wet behind the ears rookie who’s biggest asset is a great pair of tits.”

Damien’s face darkened in shade and he coughed awkwardly. Carter turned to find Special Agent Pearce stepping out of the elevator, a spitting image of her photo, aside from the bulky laptop bag slung over her shoulder. She smiled and held out her hand, “You must be Mike Carter. Nice to meet you. I’m Special Agent Pearce, but please feel free to call me Alex. Sorry for the interruption, would you like a moment to finish your conversation about my breasts?”

Carter disguised his wince as a smile, “Please call me Carter, everyone else does. My apologies Special Agent Pearce I didn’t hear you arrive.”

“Clearly. I’ll need a private office to store my things, I assume that won’t be an issue.”

“Of course, whatever you need. The receptionist can get you setup. We have a team briefing about to start in the conference room if you’d care to join us.” Said Carter.

Alex smiled and sauntered off. Carter pried his eyes away from her swaying behind and turned his gaze back to Damien, “Well that’s a fantastic first impression. I don’t have time to deal with another sexual harassment charge on top of everything else going on right now.”

Damien shrugged, “I’m sure it will be fine, she didn’t seem to mind. You did say they were great…”

“Remind me to explain women to you one of these days. My only hope is that the briefing will give her more important things to worry about. On that note, we should get to it, I don’t want to be late.”

As they entered the meeting room the team immediately fell silent. Carter waited a few seconds to let everyone settle before he launched into his speech, “Thanks for coming in on such short notice. We’ve called everyone in because we’ve discovered a security breach that has given us cause for concern regarding the safety of our clients networks.”

The door swung open and Alex strode in like a catwalk model. There were murmurs of approval from several of the younger members of the team. Carter jumped in before anyone assumed Alex was a new secretary and asked her out, “Before we go any further, I would like to introduce our FBI liaison, Special Agent Alex Pearce.” The murmurs immediately died down. Carter tried to keep things moving, “Damien, can you fill the team in on your findings?”

Damien stared around the room at all the faces staring back at him. He stammered out a few words before taking a deep breath and starting again, “I was performing backups earlier today when I discovered that someone had edited the readme file on an FBI server and inserted an ASCII calling card. I assumed it was a sysadmin playing a prank, but the logs contained no record of the change, nor did they suggest there was any kind of breach.”

Carter gave the team a moment to process this data. He could tell by their stern expressions that they appreciated the severity of the situation. Damien continued to squirm at the front, he wasn’t one for public speaking. Give him a keyboard and he could write code that was pure poetry, but give him an audience and he could barely string three words together. Carter put him out of his misery and stepped in, “Damien escalated this situation as a possible concern and I asked him to do an audit of other secure servers under our watch, just to be safe. Upon doing so he discovered this same calling card buried in the several other secure networks. Whoever is doing this is breaching the most advanced security currently available without leaving anything behind except these calling cards. These aren’t soft targets we’re talking about. We need to get a better handle of who and what we’re dealing with. A plan is underway to try to trap this hacker before he can do any real damage. In the mean time I need you all to be vigilant and check the networks of the clients you monitor. Any questions?”

Alex raised her hand. Carter waved at her to speak, “If the hacker is only posting pictures what makes you think they pose any kind of a threat?”

He bit his tongue, there wasn’t time for a lecture, “If the hacker is good enough to circumvent the various security measures in place without being detected, why do you think he would leave a calling card?”

She thought for a moment before answering, “I suppose it must be pride. If he was in it for financial gain he would keep it a secret, if he was doing it for kudos or political reasons he would leak sensitive information. If it was personal he wouldn’t attack so many different targets. The only logical explanation is that he’s doing it simply because he can, but he needs someone to know how good he is.”

Carter nodded, “Very good Special Agent Pearce, pride is precisely what makes this hacker so dangerous. He will continue to escalate until he’s either caught or he tires of pranks and moves on to something more serious. For example, power stations, air traffic control and hospitals rely on servers no more secure than those he breached today. It’s imperative we stop this guy quickly, before we find out how far he’s willing to go in the name of lulz.”

Alex immediately fired back another question, “Do we have anything else to go on? Any kind of profile?”

“I’m afraid we can’t offer more than the pure statistics at this point. The vast majority of hackers are male, malicious hackers even more so. Age is harder to determine. Teenage hackers rarely show this kind of restraint and older hackers don’t have the free time required to perfect this level of hacking, so my guess is somewhere between twenty five and thirty. That’s pure speculation though. He’s likely grown up around computers. Don’t believe the hype about awkward nerds, he’s likely skilled at social engagement and uses this to compromise systems at the human level. He could also be anywhere in the world, he could be hacking us from Melbourne or Mumbai and we’d have no way to know. That’s all we can realistically assume at this point, but the honeypot will help us narrow our focus. Are there any other questions before we start brainstorming a plan to track this guy down?”

Alex looked around the room and then coughed politely, “I’m sorry, just one more question. Was the calling card anything specific? It may help with the profile.”

Damien’s voice squeaked from behind Carter, “It’s ASCII art of a horse’s head. We think it’s his idea of a joke, he’s sneaking horses behind highly guarded walls. There’s nothing else on the card though, no quotes, no threats, no hacker handle. It’s unusual, they normally can’t wait to brag.”

Someone spoke up from the back, “If he hasn’t named himself yet, what do we call him?”

Carter hushed the growing commotion in the room, “Seeing as he apparently has a sense of humour, until we know his hacker handle, or better yet his real name, we’ll refer to him as Trojan.”

 

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