I was just trying to boxtroll that asshole into quitting, like I’d gotten the two guys before him to do. I swear I wasn’t trying to get him all dead and shit. It wasn’t my box that did it. But I guess all drone-related crimes fall under federal jurisdiction, and when a civvie octocopter box put a bullet in Jonathan Sandelson’s front left tire and sent him careening into the ocean and the afterlife, the feds assumed it was me. Well, they assumed it was my handle, Jeje Cameron. They probably hadn’t made the connection between Jeje and real-world me, Jae Diana Diaz. Not yet.
I watched the whole thing happen on a live feed. At 4:30 a.m. on September 8th, 2024, Mr. Sandelson pulled out of his garage in his vintage beamer. He drove a dumbdumb car probably because he was afraid I’d hack anything else. Which was true. I’d hacked his neighbor’s security cameras.
Two years earlier, an Amazon delivery bot had been out of cell service during an automated firmware update. It drifted too close to one of the nodes in my boxnet and my AI owned it. Then it just went about its job, a sleeper agent, patiently waiting for its chance to troll my enemies.
My Amazon was in the area and it got the call from my AI at 4:31 a.m. By 4:32 it was tailing Mr. Sandelson. I don’t go for manual control, that’s a noob’s game. Too slow, and lacks art. I trust my code to make its own decisions about how to ruin people’s lives. Hacking billboards on his route. Party boxes outside his windows at night. Armies of toy dolls following him through the mall announcing his various crimes. That kind of thing.
I set hard limits. Not just the standard no-injury-or-anything-that-might-cause-injury stuff, I also told my AI not to harass civvies. No targeting relatives, no targeting low- or medium-level employees of Herculean Solutions Group. Only Sandelson and the board of directors. Oh, and Sandelson’s therapists. That might not be fair, but it was fun to watch those fuckers quit so fast.
That morning, September 8th, the protocol was set to hover right outside of personal-EMP reach. Just to remind him that I was there, that I was watching.
That morning, I even was. A couple thousand miles away, I was up early and still tipsy enough that my hangover hadn’t kicked in yet. The Texas sun wasn’t going to be up for an hour or so yet, and McGonagall was curled up next to me in a fuzzy ball of cat on my sleeping bag on the couch. Two of my housemates had just gone to sleep after a long night of work driving around the city for whatever the latest Uber-but-for-drugs app was. My third roommate, the one I actually liked, had just run off in his ill-fitting polo shirt to sit at an IT desk. Poor Marcel.
I think the reason we don’t call our boxes “drones” much anymore is because it would be a shame to compare something as cool as semi-autonomous robots to human drones at office jobs.
I turned on the TV, set it to watch my mark. Idle curiosity. I usually checked in a couple times a week, when I couldn’t sleep.
I saw my mark’s BMW hit the coastal roads, and maybe he was driving extra fast because he saw that Amazon box on his tail. Maybe that part is my fault. Maybe you don’t get to harass a man for a year and feel innocent in his death. I don’t know.
The civvie octo came out of a live oak on the hillside. No running lights. I wouldn’t have seen it if it weren’t for my Amazon scouring the thing’s defenses. My AI was pretty sure we could own this one in a matter of seconds, indicated by a blue rectangle overlay on the feed that started to turn green. That blue rectangle streaked out from the branches, fired one shot, then kept going out over the ocean. The box self-destructed before I gained full control, but not before I had an IP address.
The whole thing happened so fast I had to rewind and watch in slow motion. Bullet to the tire, timed to drive him over the cliff. The civvie was a custom job. Someone had hand-built that fucking thing just to kill Jonathan Sandelson.
My AI was smart enough not to drop my box down over the cliff and look for signs of life. Instead, it went into crisis mode, self-destructed the Amazon over the ocean, and locked down the whole boxnet to keep me from getting popped.
For all the good it did.
My hands shook, made tapping out commands on my tablet all the harder. The IP address led to a VPN, a shitty one with known vulnerabilities and a tendency to take at least a day to wipe their logs no matter what they claim in their ads. That gave me another IP address. That gave me a name.
I set my searchAI to dox the man while I looked for recent attacks by custom octocopters. I’m not the best at finding people and what they’ve done, I’ve got nothing on Marcel, but even still it didn’t take long. Three weeks ago, someone boxkilled a judge in San Diego. There was video. I clicked.
I wish I hadn’t.
Boxkillers are the enemy. Boxtrolling, at least leftist boxtrolling, is a proud political tradition that goes back years. Okay, like maybe three or four years. Still, we don’t kill people.
Don’t risk killing people with autonomous or semi-autonomous drones—that’s the golden rule of boxtrolling. The other two rules, don’t snitch on your fellow boxtrollers and don’t boxtroll people who aren’t in the process of wrecking the world, those are important too but ain’t got nothing on the golden rule.
We have a reputation to maintain.
I signed in to work at Taco Dick’s at 7:59 a.m, jittery from caffeine and tension. I get marked late if I’m not at least a minute early, and that pisses me off enough that I always sign in one minute early to the millisecond whether or not I’m actually there. I’m usually am, though. I’m too poor to risk getting fired.
Working at an automated fast-food joint is lonely. Just me and the food robots and the customers. I prefer the food robots. I’d rather help a guac box that’s accidentally tracked itself into a corner than some hungover asshole who is upset because there are potatoes in his potato-and-rice burrito.
Mostly, people and boxes can figure that shit out themselves and I’m extraneous. So at least half my day, I sit around and listen to podcasts. That’s what I was doing, that morning at 9 a.m. Just listening to the history of Magonistas in the Mexican Revolution, just trying to get through my day without thinking about the death of my mark, when that voice-of-the-state robot cut in on my headphones.
“While authorities have yet to issue an arrest warrant, they are asking for the public’s help in identifying the hacker known as ‘Jeje Cameron.’” They pronounced Jeje wrong, like JJ instead of hehe.
Simple as that, sudden as that, I was a wanted girl.
When I first got into the whole hacktivist thing three years back, I’d started off small. Stealing $400,000 wasn’t nearly enough to bankrupt a for-profit prison, let alone a holding company the size of Herculean Solutions Group with dozens of prisons and deportation internment camps to its name. When my friend Miguel got deported—and he’d spent all but the first two of his twenty years living in the land of the free—the people who deported him took all his cash.
“Is that legal?” I’d asked him, when he got online in Nogales and called me.
“I don’t know. They gave me a fucking bank card but it doesn’t work right and the balance isn’t half of what I had on me when they picked me up.”
“Tell me about the bank card. Like, the details.”
That’s how it had started. $400,000, which was all I could grab easily, filing a counterfeit request for middle-management bonuses. I tried to give it all to Miguel but he made me split it a hundred ways and give it to the next ninety-nine deportees he ran across.
I never heard from him again. I don’t think he got caught—Marcel was good at keeping tabs on people and helped me write an AI to maintain a search for him in any new databases of the dead or arrested—but I’m pretty sure he got spooked, went underground, and stayed underground.
It’s funny how deep you can get buried without dying, these days.
jeje: what the hell am i going to do?
maximum: go to mexico?
jeje: if i’m in mexico when the feds catch me, i don’t know. they might just fucking boxkill me
jeje: i could definitely get to iceland. they definitely still let american citizens in without a visa
maximum: i’m just trying to help my favorite forever-houseguest
jeje: i’m freaking the fuck out
maximum: use your AI?
jeje: it trolls people i tell it to troll. that’s all it does. it’s semiautonomous software, not a fucking oracle or some star trek shit
maximum: cool because i didn’t know that because i’m a total noob
maximum: you said you tracked down the person who did it?
jeje: yeah, i’m about 80% i got the guy. he’s bad at opsec, took me 20 minutes. ruthless, tho. i don’t think my life will get any better if he knows who i am
maximum: what do you mean?
jeje: here’s a video. content warning
maximum: did you know that dead men are more likely to float face down than dead women? it has to do with their center of gravity or something. they all sink at first, but later they float back up
jeje: you watch a video of a guy bleeding out in a swimming pool, shot by a drone at a sunday barbecue, and that’s what you respond with?
maximum: okay, yeah. the boxkiller guy is fucked up. he killed some dude in front of his screaming kids and shit. it’s just that i wrote a paper on dead bodies floating when i was in college and thought it was kind of cool
jeje: why are we friends?
maximum: for you, i think it’s because you need somewhere to live. for me, i’m guessing it’s because you put up with me
maximum: anyway, your boxkiller is scary af and there’s no reason why you should take the fall for what someone else did. you could snitch
maximum: why not?
jeje: because i am not a bad person
maximum: yeah, i get it, second rule of boxtroll club is no snitching. but the first rule of boxtroll club is no killing
jeje: first, if i rat this guy out, hell if i get caught snooping on him at all, you’ll be telling your roommates some new neat fact about what dead bodies do
jeje: second, i mean, i don’t know this judge, but i know my mark. i promise you that boxkiller man has less blood on his hands than that fucking dead CEO did. i’m not really sad sandelson is dead. and when i’m being thrown under a bus i don’t try to find someone else to be under the bus instead
maximum: someone’s gonna go down for this and it shouldn’t be you
jeje: that’s an idea
maximum: what is?
maximum: what’s the idea?
maximum: goddammit. i’m coming in to your work
Marcel Maximus Monroe has a way of drawing every eye in the room, every time. It’s that he doesn’t stand, he leans. Everywhere he goes, he drapes himself against walls and doorways and chairs. He’s the kind of guy who looks like he’s smoking even when he’s not. It’s not his fault, any of it. It’s just who he is.
He also won’t let me call him 3M, which is fucked up. He should let me call him 3M.
“So what’s your plan?” he asked, as he propped himself up on the end of the counter in Taco Dick’s.
“My plan is to not talk about it here,” I said. There weren’t any customers, but that sure as shit didn’t mean no one was listening.
“Then can I get a french fry burrito?” he asked.
“No,” I answered, but I put in the order anyway.
He went to a booth to eat, and I ran my tablet through a couple VPNs. I had the Taco Dick’s network pretty well owned, but you can never be too careful.
It didn’t take too long to set up Jonas James Abrams as if he was a real person and probably the one responsible for all my various boxnet crime. A couple of forum hacks to insert backdated posts on aboveground boxer sites, a few purchase records for drone equipment, and an IT profile on Jobbr. Everyone assumes that every hacker who has ever lived has an aboveground career in IT. Some of us just sell burritos, because some of us are women who even though we’re more or less white have latinx last names and federal records for computer crime going back to middle school.
I used one of my custom sock puppet tools to develop Abrams’ personality and internet history. He was disgruntled. He wasn’t an activist. He was an IT guy at the end of his proverbial rope who’d applied to Herculean Solutions Group and had been turned down and maybe had taken it personally, and the activist angle of the trolling was just a cover.
It only took me an hour. Would have been less, but halfway through, the food mover box dropped a sack of potatoes and I had to get down on all fours to rescue a couple dozen spuds that rolled underneath the fryer.
The best part was, Jonas Abrams was a fall guy who didn’t exist. He was already underground. They’d never catch him. Eventually, they might figure out he wasn’t real, but he should buy me some time and plausible deniability.
After I finished setting up the puppet, I ordered myself rice and beans and went to go join Marcel in his booth. He took out his phone; I did the same. Encryption is safer than voice.
maximum: it work out, whatever you did?
noobgirl01: i think so, yeah
maximum: nice handle
maximum: you never let me or anyone help anymore
noobgirl01: the fuck would you want in now for? it’s over and also remember how i almost just got caught?
maximum: just saying. you’re never on the channels or nothing anymore
I glared at him for a minute, but he didn’t do me the kindness of looking up from his phone to catch it.
maximum: i miss helping, that’s all. doing whitehat is murder-boring. and besides, i’m good at making people get underground or stay underground. you have boxtrolling. i have doxxing and counterdoxxing. i can help.
noobgirl01: working with other people is how you get caught
maximum: no, working with the *wrong* people is how you get caught
Just a couple of roommates sitting across from one another, texting instead of talking. A common enough scene. Still probably didn’t look good to the two feds in suits who walked in. They stared at Marcel like it was weird for a black man to be in the place, which it wasn’t. It was weird for white people in suits to be there.
They were caricatures of feds, one man, one woman. Dressed like gender was a thing that mattered. They walked right up to the counter. I thought about just putting my head down, pretending I didn’t work there, and leaving. Then I remembered I had a Taco Dick’s visor on, and also that more information is always better than less information.
I locked my phone and my tablet and went to stand behind the counter.
“Can I help you navigate the ordering system?” I asked, on script.
“Jae Diaz?” the woman asked. She was going to be good cop, you could hear it in her voice.
I scoured the proverbial hard drive of my mind for everything I’d read about interacting with federal agents.
“Can I help you navigate the ordering system?” I asked. That’s not lying, and it’s not admission.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions, Ms. Diaz.” That was the man. Bad cop, his voice full of rocks and threat.
“If you provide me with your information,” I said, not doing a particularly good job of making eye contact, “I’ll have my lawyer contact you.” That’s also off a script, a different script. I was scared. I wanted to just play along, play dumb, start denying things. But everything I’d read, both anecdotes and data, said STFU is always the safer bet for the innocent and guilty alike.
“We’re investigating the drone-related death of Jonathan Sandelson,” bad cop said. “Do you know anything about that?”
“If you provide me with your information, I’ll have my lawyer contact you.”
“The thing is, we’re trying to track down a hacker with the handle of Jeje Cameron. We think he made use of this network to construct another alias.”
I don’t have a good poker face, and I don’t play cards. I don’t play liars when I play RPGs, because I suck at it. But I kept myself from gasping, and for that I deserve an Oscar.
“It’s possible that this location’s network was just a stop along the way, but analysis indicates it likely originated here. If you have any information that might be of use to us, I recommend you tell us sooner than later, Ms. Diaz.”
He slid a business card across the counter. Dale Carter. FBI.
With that, they left.
“When Feds have a case,” Marcel said, “they don’t show up in uniform and shit.” I was off shift and we sat in the park down by the South Congress bridge. The bats would be out in a couple hours, but it wasn’t peak bat season, so the place wasn’t mobbed with bat tourists. “They don’t even do it to get information out of people. They do it to stir people up, to scare people into coming forward or making some dumb move. They don’t need to scare confessions out of anyone they’ve got a solid case against.”
He was nervous, I realized. Scared, even. Yeah, he was still leaning—even while sitting down, he was somehow leaning—but there was a tremor in his voice.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I mean, he was right. I’d read about this shit. “They’re good at it, scaring people.”
“Hey, we’re friends, right?”
“Sure,” I said. It was hard to concentrate on anything but fear, to be honest.
“You’d never do anything to hurt me, right?” Marcel asked.
“Of course not.”
“Then …” Marcel took a deep breath in. “Then maybe it’d be better if you found somewhere else to stay.”
“What?” I’d been staying with Marcel and his roommates for a couple months, and it was generally agreed that as soon as a room opened up, I could move in. I paid my share of utilities, even. “Earlier you wanted to help, now you’re fucking kicking me out?”
“My boyfriend’s a coke dealer, for christ’s sake. We can’t risk a police raid; he’ll go to prison. And … that boxkiller. I don’t know. I was making light of it but I can’t get that image out of my head.”
“Whatever happened to them not having a case?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice level, because frankly this was not a good conversation for us to be having in public. “Them not having enough information?”
“That’s why they’d raid,” he said.
Fuck having emotions. Fuck having friends. Fuck everything. “I’ll leave,” I said, “but it’s too late. You know that right? You need to get everything sketchy out of the house.”
I stood up, grabbed my backpack.
“Hey, Jae,” Marcel said. He grabbed my leg. “If you need anything? I don’t know, money or something?”
“Fuck you.” I pulled my leg free and started out of the park. “Eat a bag of rocks, you fucking coward.”
Did you know that you can get fired by text? It turns out you can get fired by text. There was no proof of my misuse of the network, but hey, no union.
I hear there are plenty of jobs in jail.
There must have been a snitchnet on top of the network at work. It’s not standard Taco Dick’s protocol, and I’d double- and triple-checked when I first started working there, but the regional manager must have installed it after I’d convinced the guac box to leave work and go join the May Day parade downtown and dispense free guacamole and chips for demonstrators. I can’t believe I hadn’t checked again before making the alias. That’s amateur shit.
That’s how they must have found me. Sure, there was some plausible deniability—it could have been a customer—but I’d bet what little I owned that they were onto me. The whole “he made use of the network” thing was probably a feint, designed to draw out a response. Maybe to trick me into giving a little self-assured smile.
Killing a dude with a box is a life-in-prison thing. No parole, and probably a communications management unit. To be honest, even just my boxtrolling campaign was a life-in-prison thing. I’d driven one CEO into early retirement and another to move to the other side of the globe, and Herculean Solutions Group had roughly a third the gross value it did three years ago. By my projections, they would have gone under if I’d gotten Mr. Sandelson to walk away. Destroying a major company through a campaign of harassment is definitely a life-in-prison thing.
It’s just … politically motivated, premeditated murder, that’s a for-real terrorism thing. That’s a whole different class of bad. That’s a no-matter-how-deep-you-go-underground-they’ll-follow-you-to-the-ends-of-the-earth thing.
If they wanted to find me though, well, I guess that would be easy. I pushed the dumpster up against the shitty cement facade, hopped up, and pulled myself onto the roof of Taco Dick’s. I’d slept there before I met Marcel and the rest of his chickenshit friends, I’d sleep there again.
Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw Sandelson drive off that cliff. I saw the blood in the pool and the screaming family. I saw it from drone-operator’s point of view.
I’d be willing to bet my dreams would be worse, if I’d had time to sleep and to dream.
Plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead, floating face up in the water.
A handful of boxes buzzed overhead. Some of them had TSA running lights, which likely meant they were registered work boxes. Some of them didn’t—some of them had the amateur lights you’re only allowed to use under 50ft altitude and in line of sight with the user. One of them ran dark. When it went over, I got chills. I’d always assumed that was a metaphor, but I shook down my spine.
It was probably just kids. How many boxes had I run dark in middle school? How many boxes did I still run dark? It would be fine. I’d be fine.
Living in fear is garbage. I got my tablet out and set down to work. Didn’t use the Taco Dick’s wifi; I tethered to one of the burner cards I kept around for my phone. Someone did this to me, and it was time he and I talked.
noobgirl01: damn you fucked me up something real
Regeneración: i don’t know what you’re talking about
noobgirl01: nicolas sanchez, 44 years old. san diego resident of nineteen years. law-abiding, tax-paying, productive, undocumented member of society. low-level office job. volunteers at a community center called Nuestro Lugar, teaching english as a second language. also piloted a handmade—not printed—octocopter with an H&K G36c mounted to the bottom.
noobgirl01: that enough, or do you want me to send you a screencap of your driver’s license?
Regeneración: how did you find me
noobgirl01: don’t use VPNs with known vulnerabilities
Regeneración: what do you want?
noobgirl01: fuck, that’s a hard question. the feds are up in my shit, they think i did it and there’s not an easy way to prove i didn’t
Regeneración: besides ratting me out
noobgirl01: i’m not fucking ratting anyone out. i just … i just need help. your help
Regeneración: so you’re blackmailing me?
noobgirl01: goddammit i’m not ratting you out, i’m not blackmailing you, i’m not even fucking mad at you. i’m glad sandelson is dead, which i thought i’d feel complicated about but i don’t. he was a monster and now he’s dead and that’s good and i’m not sad. i’m just fucking scared. i’m scared of the feds and frankly i’m kind of scared of you
Regeneración: you were the one tracking him, right?
noobgirl01: yeah. it’s called boxtrolling
Regeneración: does it work?
noobgirl01: honestly it works better than killing people, because you kill someone you make a martyr. break them down and everyone just pities them or some shit and everything they believe in loses credibility and power. i dunno. that’s the theory anyway
Regeneración: i had to kill him
Regeneración: he deported my son. got a judge in his pocket who sends people his way for minor infractions, and any conviction at all was enough to get my kid deported. i told sandelson—i left the message with a secretary—that if my kid died on his way back home to the states that i would murder him. border militia shot my son down in the desert, claimed he’d been working for the narcos, and they got away with it
noobgirl01: fuck. the guy in the pool, that was the judge i bet? why the sunday barbecue?
Regeneración: dead is dead. his family will mourn him either way
noobgirl01: this is why you don’t fucking kill people, you break them, or drive them into hiding. render them ineffective. it’s not just an ethics thing, it’s an efficacy thing. that dude’s kids are gonna fucking go to the end of the earth to hunt you—well, me, maybe—and/or dedicate their lives to making other immigrants’ lives miserable. cycle continues
Regeneraciónl: i cannot control his kids, nor their reactions. i control only me. i knew sandelson wouldn’t believe me, if my threat even reached his ears, but i said what i said and i am a man of my word
Regeneración: the border militia camp was harder. you can’t get enough explosive onto a quadcopter. i had to rig one of their own trucks to blow, had to do the work in person. sandelson was the hardest, though. couldn’t get near him with a drone. i guess thanks to you
noobgirl01: why are you telling me this? weren’t you worried i would blackmail you?
Regeneración: at this point, it might be more important to be understood than to live
noobgirl01: what was his name?
noobgirl01: your kid. what was his name?
noobgirl01: that’s fucking rough
Regeneración: feds are after you?
noobgirl01: yeah. they think i did it
Regeneración: i’ll turn myself in
noobgirl01: what? no. why? i’ll be real, i was sort of hoping you’d say that before i talked to you. but now, hey, don’t do that
Regeneración: it’s fine if i go down. no one expects to survive a killing spree
noobgirl01: see, now that’s a better idea
Regeneración: it’s better if i die?
noobgirl01: no, no. just that people think you’re dead. as long as we can do it without killing anyone else
Regeneración: you know how to do that?
noobgirl01: no but i know someone who does
Flashing lights lit up my old street, and about a dozen cruisers spilled out over the curb onto our lawn and that of both our neighbors. Cops in SWAT gear carried out box after box, and, conspicuously, all the houseplants.
They always raid at like 4 a.m., when everyone is home and asleep and all primed to get PTSD. Marcel still somehow managed to look cool even though he was handcuffed to the front porch in his underwear. One leg was cocked out in front of him, the other knee was bent. He looked up at the sky like he was stargazing, like there were stars in the city. Even with all his nonchalance, though, I could see him shaking a little.
I joined the crowd of curious neighbors. They weren’t monsters, so they didn’t bother pointing out to any cops that hey, this girl lives there too. I’d missed the worst of the raid, and half an hour later, a plainclothes cop uncuffed Marcel, tried and failed to shake his hand, and tried and failed to hand him a receipt. The officer dropped it as his feet and left. Cop lights receded into the distance, the crowd faded, and I walked up to my old house.
“Fucking pigs,” Marcel said. He paced the walkway to the street and back.
“You alright?” I asked.
“Do they not know what plants drugs fucking come from? We had jade plant, spider plant, pitcher plant … all the damn plants we had in our house are so generic they literally have the word ‘plant’ in their name, and those assholes still confiscate them.”
“They find anything?”
“Hell no they didn’t find anything. There’s nothing in our house to find.” He looked up and a sudden, wicked smile cut across his face. Maybe he winked, maybe his eye twitched.
“Anyone else home?” I asked.
“Nah. For some reason no one else came home tonight.” Another eye twitch.
“Are you mad?”
“Fuck no, Jae. The hierarchy of my anger is that I’m most mad at me, next I’m mad at the cops, next I’m mad at, I dunno, capitalism, after that I’m mad at people who don’t use their turn signals, then like the bottom of the Marcel anger hierarchy is probably people who pronounce espresso correctly but put the emphasis on the ‘es’ to make a big deal about how cultured they are. You’re not even on the list.”
“Can I make you some coffee?” I asked.
“They took the coffeemaker.”
“What, did they decide it was drug paraphernalia?” I asked.
“I mean, I guess in that case it’s technically true.”
“Why are you mad at yourself?”
“Because I got scared and ten times out of ten the decisions I make when I’m scared aren’t the right decisions. You do good work. I believe in the work you do. Besides, it was too late to pull out anyway. In for a penny and all that.”
“Good,” I said, “because I need your help.” I typed something out on my phone, too paranoid to say it aloud.
He looked at my phone, looked at me, and started laughing.
“Goddamn, we are so fucked.”
We spent the next thirty minutes scouring the neighborhood for the cat. McGonagall had gotten out during the raid.
We found her under a broken-down RV three blocks away. When Marcel got her into his arms, his veneer of cool collapsed completely, and he just smiled and cried.
jae: this conversation is secure?
jae: you’re allowed to lie to me though, but it’s illegal for me to lie to you?
DaleCarter: It is illegal for you to lie to me, yes.
I sat on my sleeping couch in the ransacked living room, with Marcel sitting next to me, looking over my shoulder as I texted with the fed who’d harassed me. We were certain the room was bugged, so we were quiet.
jae: i’m just concerned what’ll happen to me, you know, if this gets out. that i talked to you
DaleCarter: Your cooperation can be confidential, and it’s possible that, depending on the quality of the information you provide, we can get you into protective custody.
jae: i know who boxkilled jonathan sandelson
DaleCarter: We already have a substantial case built. Your testimony would be remarkably useful if the case goes to trial.
jae: i need immunity either way, but i’d much rather provide information than testify. for safety’s sake
DaleCarter: Are you that afraid of Marcel?
Next to me, Marcel put his hand over his mouth, stifling laughter. All this time, I’d assumed the he the feds had talked about was a ruse to get me to let down my guard. Turns out, they really were that stupid.
jae: marcel is innocent
DaleCarter: That is unlikely.
jae: give me immunity from prosecution for anything related to sandelson and i can give you screencaps and dox, everything you’d need to prosecute the boxkiller. i’m scared, i just want to leave all of this behind me
Marcel and I met eyes. Neither of us believed the agent. I wasn’t even sure he had the power to grant me immunity; I was pretty sure that was a judge’s job. It didn’t matter.
jae: your man is nicolas sanchez. see the attached file. he’s also responsible for fourteen other deaths. i hacked him after the attack. these are the contents of his phone, laptop, and three different cloud accounts
DaleCarter: I will review these documents and get back to you. And Jae?
DaleCarter: It’s complicated to say thank you, in a case like this. Thank you. It’s probably for the best if you stay inside until we have someone in custody. It’s probably for the best if you avoid Marcel. It’s also probably for the best that you stay somewhere we can reach you.
That was a threat. He knew it, I knew it, he knew that I knew it. Whatever. My dox, courtesy of Nicolas, should clear Marcel no problem. I wasn’t holding my breath for immunity from a boxtrolling prosecution but still, I was in a lot better of a situation. Assuming we didn’t get caught for what we were planning next.
Marcel started tapping on his phone, so I looked down at mine.
maximus: if they’re on my tick, we’re gonna have to be twice as careful. you have boxes we can use?
noobgirl01: there’s no facepalm emoji big enough to answer that
The feds would be on the lookout for any box that flew, anything loud, anything that drew attention to itself in any way. Which was fine.
Only twenty-four hours before, I’d been on this couch, watching through the camera of a box on a nice widescreen TV. Now, same couch, but I hadn’t slept a wink, I’d barely eaten, the feds had stolen the TV, and I was inside a network of smart mailboxes in La Jolla. Mailboxes don’t have cameras—federal regulation in response to that widespread hack in 2021. They just have sensors. Fucktons of sensors. Humidity sensors, weight sensors, radar, GPS, even a damn accelerometer so it can modulate its padding on the off chance that some teenager with a baseball bat decides to take a swing at it while you’ve got something valuable inside. A million sensors, but terrible security still.
My part of the job was simple. I had to buy time. Marcel’s part was more complicated. Nicolas’s part, well, that was the part that was actually dangerous.
Cops on AI-assist drive predictably en route to a crime. One patrol car goes fast in the front, blasting the override that gets all the self-driving cars out of its way. It doesn’t usually go straight to the crime, because us criminals can read that signal clear as day and gtfo as needed. So the cop car only clears the way in broad strokes. Cops on silent come in behind and jostle through traffic. They speed like fuck through straightaways but they cut their speed faster when there’s other traffic around than a regular speedfreak would. A decent AI can track their destination no problem.
So yeah, tap into the mailboxes, and you know where the cops are going.
I set my phone on alert and leaned back against Marcel and waited. And fell asleep.
In my dreams, I was Sandelson, and I was running from myself, terrified of every box and car and machine. I ran for the country, but even the trees were boxes, and they were watching.
“Go to work. Go to work. Go to work.”
My phone was saying that shit, over and over again. It’s a terrible alarm. That day at least, it wasn’t true. But I sure wasn’t going to program my phone to say “time to crime, time to crime, time to crime.”
A lot of people were going to live free because Sandelson was dead. My dream hadn’t been my moral compass trying to exert itself, it had been my brain processing anxieties. Helping Nicolas meant helping myself, meant helping Marcel, meant helping thousands of people I’d never even meet.
I needed to believe that, and not just so I could sleep at night. I needed to believe I was doing the right thing because I was. I promise. I hope.
A thousand miles away, Nicolas must have started his car because my tablet and Marcel’s came alive with his dashcam view. We both put on headphones and turned on black metal—the closest music to white noise, let’s be honest—real loud in the house to cover anything we might hear through our headphones.
“Rock and roll,” Nicolas said. His voice had a whistle in it.
There was that shivering again, running down my spine. If this went right … if this went wrong ….
“You know, Jae,” Nicolas said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said, about killing. You’ve got a point. But pacifism means standing in the safe shade cast by the violent. ”
I couldn’t respond, of course, not without being overheard. I don’t know what I would have said if I could.
I tapped into a public traffic feed nearby, got myself a bird’s-eye view, then pressed go on the program I’d written before my nap. A few mailboxes in upperclass neighborhoods started reporting theft or tampering.
That was good, but not enough. All the cops who were about to be heading for Nicolas, they wouldn’t get an override for something like mail theft.
Marcel had Nicolas’s car in manual override, because it was almost impossible to program enough imperfection into a driving program to fool an AI. We wanted anyone watching to assume Nicolas himself was driving; a car driven by its occupant is a lot easier to trap into a corner. It’s always better to be underestimated.
I set off the mailboxes. All the mailboxes. I was inside 70% of the residential mailboxes in San Diego, and they were all screaming malfunction. To the human eye, they all went off at once. To a computer, though, there was a pattern. A route. The USPS repair boxes would head out and follow that route.
On Marcel’s screen, Nicolas saw the first repair box—the size of a UPS truck, capable of collecting hundreds of mailboxes and running moderately advanced repair on its own—and Marcel swerved around it.
At the next intersection, two more trucks flanked him. I couldn’t own the repair boxes, not without more work anyway, but I could control the information that controlled the AI that controlled them.
Nicolas had an open lane out to the cliffs and the sea. There was a boat waiting for him, one I’d owned a few hours earlier. He’d never reach it. It was just there to make it look like he was trying to escape.
It didn’t take long for the police AI, or maybe even a human, to see what was happening and divert resources to block his route to the ocean. Perfect.
A cop car got in front of him, way too soon. It must have been under full manual control. That wasn’t good.
On the dashcam, Nicolas got his entire upper half of his body out the driver’s window opened fire with a handgun. The patrol car was too smart. Ballistic probability sensors kept its tires and glass out of harm’s way by subtle shifts of steering. Micro-evasion. The kind of shit computers can do better than people.
The cop car could have killed him. Man versus machine isn’t a contest anymore. The fact that an onboard rifle didn’t end Nicolas’s life then and there was testament to how much the police wanted to bring him in alive.
“A little help here,” Nicolas said.
The cars were moving at sixty miles an hour through streets designed for half that. If I crashed the patrol car, its driver might die.
I don’t like cops. I’ve never liked cops. Not because of who they are as people, but because of the role they’ve chosen in our society. The gulf between not liking someone and being willing to get them killed is pretty massive.
The cruiser slowed down and started weaving. On the couch next to me, Marcel was sweating as he tried and failed to outmaneuver the cop.
“I’m fucked,” Nicolas said. “Fucked.”
If they caught him, he’d spend the rest of his life in prison. Marcel would be next. Then me.
Fuck that cop.
I took control of the car away from Marcel to give it to my AI for about ten seconds. Cop AI don’t have shit on mine. Our car dropped speed, like it was planning a U-turn. The cop reacted predictably. Two more feints and the cruiser showed its flank. My AI gunned the engine, ever so lightly tapped the trunk of the cop car, and sent the whole car spinning off the road into a ditch.
Cop cars were safe enough to handle a crash like that. I was sure of that. I had to be sure.
“Rock and fucking roll!” There was that whistle in his voice again.
After that, it went smooth. Nicolas went under an underpass and dove out the door with a racer’s airbag vest. Marcel drove the car on without its passenger. I blanked out a few cameras along Nicolas’s walking route.
My work was done, and I sort of checked out. My body stopped really responding, and I looked out my own eyes like I was looking out the camera of a box. Still, I watched traffic cams.
The empty car raced through the city with a literal sack of meat in the driver seat. Every time it approached a police barricade, it turned. Eventually, it was trapped. Conveniently—and by conveniently I mean by design—it rammed a barricade near the cliffs in La Jolla and plummeted. Then it exploded. Like, really fucking exploded. Like, strapped with military-grade shit exploded.
Regeneración: well, that’s the end of me.
Now that I’d heard his voice, it was easy to imagine it speaking the words that appeared on my screen. It was easy to imagine his words with that whistle in his voice, caused by the teeth he’d pulled out his mouth and left in the car.
noobgirl01: they’ll figure it out, eventually.
Regeneración: maybe? if they’ve got half a brain, they know i’m done boxkilling. looks better for them if they let me stay dead
noobgirl01: where will you go?
Regeneración: the less i tell you, the less you’ll perjure yourself
noobgirl01: it was a pleasure working with you, regeneración
Regeneración: same to you
McGonagall is kind of a shitty cat. I know I’m not supposed to say things like that, but she’s always walking across my tablet or licking my face without asking and the worst part was, I didn’t have a bedroom door to shut her out with.
The couch was shitty too. The cushions were too lumpy for good sitting and too soft for good sleeping, and cheap foam poked out from more than a few tears in the cheap fabric.
The house was still a wreck from the raid. It wasn’t the same without the plants, and half the roommates had lost their jobs over fear of subsequent police investigation.
Word of my cooperation with the feds reached boxer circles, and Jeje Cameron was persona non grata. No one would ever trust that handle again. Which was fair. I wouldn’t trust me either, not after Mr. Fed had come through with immunity on my behalf. It was only use immunity, which is garbage: basically, the feds weren’t allowed to use my own logs and footage and testimony against me. They weren’t pressing boxtrolling charges, but there wasn’t a statute of limitations either, which meant I had to keep my head down or I’d be right on my way to prison.
Marcel’s cred went through the roof, though, after the raid. He got a promotion at work—he was suddenly a high-profile hacker, and innocent to boot. He hired me to work under him.
He was a shitty boss.
Having a desk job is shitty too. I missed my guac bots. But I needed money, real money, if I was going to get myself over to Iceland.
There were only a couple hours left until dawn, and I hadn’t slept. My new AI was just learning its first words.
noobgirl01: what is your directive?
magonobot: to render ICE incapable of performing its duties; to perform this task without oversight in order to grant you plausible deniability; to perform this task without causing harm to any humans or non-human animals
Sitting on that shitty couch with that shitty cat licking my neck, a shitty workday waiting ahead of me, another dangerous venture about to begin, I was as happy as I’d ever been. I was likely as happy as I’d ever be.