Someone was stalking Nate Black.
What do you do now? Nate thought while he stared at the flickering screen. The apartment was dark, his roommate asleep. The only sounds were the soft whir of the trio of fans on Nate’s over-clocked Athalon PC, the sound of Chuck snoring to himself deep in the bowels of the apartment, and a soft purr of Tux curled up in Nate’s lap.
It was three-thirty in the morning, and the windows were all dark, except the one window facing the street. From that window came the sterile mercury glow of a streetlight.
Nate read the e-mail the tenth or fifteenth time.
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2002 00:00:00 -0400 (EDT)
To: Nate Black
they know azrael, take the road that is offered.
A single one-line message.
Nate’s hands shook, and he rubbed his temples. It’s six years over. . .
Tux stretched and let out a feline yawn before snuggling deeper into Nate’s lap.
“Mind-games, it’s only fucking mind-games.”
Nate carefully looked at the header of the message, to assure himself that, like the last two, it had no header information at all. Nothing.
@ was good at covering his tracks. Not only did he delete everything but the cryptic “@” sign from his return address— no grand achievement, any idiot could spoof the From: line in an e-mail— but he also methodically erased allthe header information. That was scary. It also shouldn’t have been possible. The only way Nate could imagine someone eliminating allthe routing information from an e-mail would be to hack the mail-server at Case and write the message directly in Nate’s inbox.
That meant that either @ was a good hacker in his own right, which did not reassure Nate. Or @ was on the Case Western IS staff, which would probably be worse.
Nate was very careful to delete the message from his machine. Then he telneted to the mail server, and checked to make sure that it had been erased from there as well. Just having the name, Azrael, on his hard-drive— anyone’shard-drive— made Nate nervous.
Azrael had done stupid, dangerous things, and hadn’t been caught. Even though Azrael had ceased to exist six years ago, getting caught was the thing that Nate was most afraid of.
He shut down the computer. Firewall or not, he wasn’t leaving his box up on a live DSL connection unsupervised, not with @ out there.
“Mind-games.” Nate whispered to Tux.
Chuck was still snoring in the back somewhere.
He shooed Tux off his lap and walked over to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and stared inside. On his shelf was a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, rye bread, cold cuts, and a box of Velveeta. On Chuck’s shelf was a 12-pack of Budweiser, a bottle of Heineken, a six-pack of Zima, and a paper bag from Taco-Bell.
Nate grabbed the Heineken. He didn’t drink, but for once he felt he needed one. Anyway, Chuck still owed him a five-spot for the gas bill.
Since the bulb was out in the kitchen, Nate held the fridge open with his foot so he had light to hunt down a bottle opener.
He walked out into the living-room and sat down on the couch, under the glare of the streetlight. He popped the top off the beer and it bounced off his knee to rattle on the hardwood floor. Tux shot by him, chasing after the bottle-cap as if it was suddenly the most urgent thing in his life.
Nate took a long pull from the bottle, then he held it up against his forehead.
“What do you do?” he asked no one. “What do you do when someone is after you and you can’t call the cops?”
“I’m fine Mom,” Nate lied. He shouldered the phone to his ear as he pulled on a pair of black jeans.
“I just haven’t heard from you all week.”
“I’m in the middle of mid-terms, you know that.”
Nate rummaged in the pile of clothes next to his bed and pulled out a red T-shirt that looked the least grungy. It advertised a local band called “The Electric Flaming Jesus Baby.” The initials E.F.J.B. hovered over a Derek Hess rendering of a burning nativity scene.
“You’re still planning on coming home for Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah.” He wanted to get off the phone, but he didn’t want to let on that he had anything on his mind other than mid-terms.
Mom, you know all those years you were worried that I spent too much time in my room? Well, you see, I was committing a whole host of felonies, some of which might carry a twenty-to-life sentence since they rewrote the rules after 9/11. . .
“How’s sis?” Nate said, desperately changing the subject.
“Oh, Natalie just got acceptance letters back from Antioch and Oberlin. She’s so excited. . .”
Nate nodded and made appropriate monosyllabic noises as he listened to his sister’s academic progress. There was a surreal element to it. The six-year gulf between them had seemed vast all his life, and now it struck him that some of the girls he’d dated recently were only a year older than Natalie, at most.
That realization actually made him feel further away from home.
“She’ll be there, right?”
“Of course? Why wouldn’t she be there?”
“She’s eighteen now, she might have made other plans.”
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“Sure I am, Mom. I got to get to class, though. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Are—”
Nate hung up half-convinced that his mother knew all about Azrael.
Azrael was dead, six years dead.
Nate kept telling himself that.
He had methodically erased all his own records of Azrael, down to formatting and overwriting all his hard drives— twice— as well as shredding and burning the hardcopy associated with his alter-ego. Nate even hacked on to the ISP’s where Azrael kept accounts, deleting all record of the handle. He had delved into archives, trying to erase any messages that had him as a sender or recipient.
Nate had killed Azrael three months before his eighteenth birthday, when it had finally sunk in exactly how much prison time he could face if he was ever charged with the shit Azrael had done.
No one had ever known that Azrael was Nathaniel Black.
Even when Nate was young and reckless, he had more sense than to allow Azrael to divulge his real name to anyone, however trustworthy. No one in the small hacker community knew Azrael was a sixteen year old kid named Nate who was going to Shaker Heights High at the time.
All anyone knew was that Azrael had a roadmap to get root access to systems owned by folks from AT&T to the Federal Government. Azrael had modified the websites of half a dozen foreign governments. Azrael had coded a virus that had made it on the national news. He had once even hacked Microsoft’s own web server and replaced the link to customer service with the e-mail to the attorney general of the United States. You name it, Azrael had the bragging rights.
But Azrael was six years dead! No one should give a shit anymore.
Apparently @ did.
Nate was sitting on the arm of an over-stuffed chair in the corner of the student lounge. He hunched over his PDA, prodding it with a matte-black brushed-metal stylus. He brushed unruly strands of hair away from his eyes as he stared at the little glowing screen.
What do I think I’m doing?
The little device in his hand was internet-enabled, and he had just downloaded his e-mail. That had been a mistake.
The new message from “@” had the subject “Last Warning.”
Don’t open it. Mind-games. He’s fucking with your head.
“Hey man? You all right?”
The voice jarred Nate. He looked up from his PDA to see someone he barely recognized from his networking class. Nate looked at the guy’s buzz-cut and thick glasses and couldn’t remember his name. For a long paranoid moment, Nate felt the pulse hammering in his neck and wondered is this guy @?
After a moment he shook his head. “No. I’m fine.” He said it a little too sharply, driving home the fact he wanted to be alone.
“Sorry, you just looked a little—” The guy backed off when he saw Nate’s expression. “Right, none of my business. See you in class.”
Sam, his name’s Sam.As he turned to go, Nate called after him. “Hey, Sam?”
“What?” He turned around. He looked more clean-cut than Nate had ever attempted. Button-down shirt, slacks, loafers. . .
“You ever commit a felony?”
“You know, a felony. Something so serious that if you got caught we’re talking ten-twenty years.”
“Come on,” Nate said. “Never sold drugs, boosted a car, broke into a house—”
“You’re kidding right?”
“What about hacking? Ever been in a mainframe you shouldn’t’ve been in? Fiddle with a virus?”
“Look, I’ll see you in class, Nate. Please don’t get weird around me.” Sam turned and left Nate alone in the lounge.
It was less than a minute to class, and Nate hadn’t opened the e-mail yet. He clicked on the header and watched the message window open. Just two sentences in @’s pithy style.
“They’re coming for Azrael. Take the road when it is offered.”
“What the fuck do you want?”Nate cursed at the screen.
The first message from @, six days ago, had said, “They shall know Azrael’s name.”
That one sentence put Nate in a panic. He almost hopped a Greyhound right there. But he had a life, a family, and an education that had him ten-grand in debt. He couldn’t just disappear, no matter how scared he was.
So he walked through the next day, verging on panic. But there hadn’t been any knocks on the door, no dark limos had slowed down to drag him inside—
But the messages kept coming.
He almost thought @ was taking out some sort of revenge. Nate told himself that he was falling into @’s trap by letting the mind-game get to him. If the Feds actually had anything on him, they would have nabbed him long before now. There was a difference between suspecting that Nate Black was the late Azrael, and provingit. Nate knew for a fact that there was no physical evidence connecting him to Azrael.
That line of thought did as much good for his piece of mind as it had the last five messages. In other words, no good at all.
There were other possibilities.
Blackmail for one. Nate had precious little assets, but he still had a wealth of information buried in his head, things Azrael knew that Nate Black shouldn’t. . .
But there was another, more frightening, possibility.
What if these were legitimate warnings from a fellow hacker?
The nightmare scenario had the FBI, Secret Service, CIA or someone, arresting some schmuck from six years ago who hadn’t learned Azrael’s lesson and had gone on with the “black hat” hacking past the time where his luck runs out. A schmuck who had known Azrael back in the day. A schmuck who’d known enough to connect Azrael to Nate.
It would take time; the schmuck and the Feds negotiating their deals; the Feds checking the schmuck’s background details to assure themselves that if they plead this fish it’ll hook them a bigger one.
Nate stood up and shakily put his PDA in his pocket. “I’m freaking myselfout.” He looked up at the clock on the wall of the lounge and saw it was ten after one. “And late for class.”
Nate shouldered his backpack, left the lounge, and started walking down the corridor toward his networking class.
It wasn’t fair. He’s been a “white hat” for six years. He shouldn’t have to spend every waking moment worrying about ancient history.
The halls felt eerily empty to him. The squeak of his boots on linoleum too loud and echoy. His breath tasted of copper, and he felt his pulse in his neck.
He was thin and wiry, high-strung at the best of times. More than one past girlfriend had compared his body— not his face thank god— to Iggy Pop. Right now his body was tense and as trembling as if someone had taken pure caffeine and had injected it directly into his hypothalamus.
When he passed a classroom he had the urge to thrust the door open and yell at them, “Yes, I was Azrael damn it! I did things that would make you never trust your social security number again!”
It was almost a relief when he turned the corner and saw a guy in a cheap suit standing outside the door to his classroom. He didn’t even pause walking at first. All he could think of was how mundane the guy looked. Just a rumpled brown suit. Not even a pair of shades, or an earphone. . .
The guy turned to look at Nate, and for a moment Nate thought that he might be wrong. This guy could be here for something completely different. He might not be a Fed, or even a cop.
A blare of incomprehensible static echoed through the hallway and the guy raised a walkie-talkie to his mouth, taking a step toward Nate.
That was more than enough to get Nate to turn tail and run away as fast as he could.
All the adrenaline that had accumulated since @’s last warning let loose in a single spastic jerk. He spun around so fast that his boots nearly slid out from under him. He slammed into the corner and started running back the way he had come.
He tried to tell himself that this was insane. The guy couldn’t be a cop waiting there for him. Not now.
But Nate was close enough to hear the words the guy was shouting into the walkie-talkie, “—pursuit of Caucasian suspect, five eight, one forty, brown hair, brown leather jacket, black denim jeans, red T-shirt—”
Where the hell was he running? It was over now. Even if he got away. They would have his apartment now. He couldn’t use an ATM or a credit card without letting them know where he was. He couldn’t go home to his parents. He should give up now, take what was coming. It would be what? Ten years a prisoner against a life as a fugitive. . .
And what would his life be like after that?
He kept running.
Nate slammed his way into a stairway and looked behind him. Brown suit was right on his heels, less than ten feet away. Nate swung his backpack behind him, at the guy’s feet. The suit tried to jump it, but he got a foot tangled in a shoulder strap. Nate turned his head away when he saw the guy falling. He heard him plow face-first into the linoleum as the stairway door hissed shut behind him.
Nate headed up, because that wouldn’t be the way they’d expect him to run.
Only because it’s idiotic not to head for an exit right now.
Nate couldn’t fool himself. The cops probably had the exits pretty covered right now. Paranoia gripped him. He knewthey’d have a helicopter watching the escape routes. The feds would be here. Any moment now they’d start lobbing tear-gas at him.
Two floors up, he slammed though the door.
“It was just one guy.” Nate said, panting. “He’s spitting teeth out on the second floor. You’re away. . .”
If there weren’t dozens of cops here now, there would be in three minutes. And if anyone knew anything about what they were doing, every guy on campus security was converging on this building.
And on top of everything else, they had him on assault of a police officer. They weren’t going to be gentle when they caught up with him.
His thoughts were running as wild and spastic as he was. He turned corners on the corridors, heading toward the opposite end of the building, and the exits furthest from the guy in the brown suit.
His feet pounded along the corridor. His breath burned as he sucked in lungful after lungful of air. His head and his side throbbed in time to his machinegun pulse.
Uncontrolled and frantic, he couldn’t quite stop when the world went black.
Onemoment he was running down the hall, the stairway and the glowing red exit sign tantalizingly within reach— then it all was gone. Classrooms, exit sign, fluorescent lights, linoleum. Everything was replaced by a flat unbroken blackness as if he was suddenly struck completely blind.
The shock made him lock his legs, but momentum carried him forward to fall. . .
Eventually he stopped falling. At least it seemed as if he stopped falling. There was no impact. No groundas far as he could tell.
Oh my god, something’s just gone seriously wrong in my brain.
He could picture it all to well, a vein balloon swelling between pieces of thinking meat, waiting for the stress of the moment to blow like a hand-grenade buried in a cow’s dead carcass. Tearing away vision, touch, even the sense that there was a world around him. . .
For a few moments he kept hyperventilating and his pulse raced even faster. By increments he clamed down, his gasping breath slowing, pulse calming.
There was absolutely no sense of motion, no breeze, no sense of where up or down might be. He could move his arms and legs freely, they met no resistance, no ground or wall. It was almost as if he floated in water, but his breathing was unaffected. He touched his body with his hands and everything seemed intact, including his sense of touch. He sat up, though in this strange void he couldn’t tell if it was his head and shoulders, or his legs that actually moved.
“What the hell’s happening to me?” He whispered into the darkness. The words were flat and perfectly audible.
He reached down and pressed the light on his digital watch.
He could see the milky green glow of the watch’s face. It read one-fifteen. Beyond where the glow touched his hands and wrist, the world was darkness.
From out of the void came a voice. Deep and wet, the tone was ugly and disturbing, unclean in a way that Nate couldn’t name.
“Azrael. It is time.”