XXXVII. Hawks and Doves

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Tom didn't have many friends. At least, that's what he told the people he talked to online. If he was being really honest with himself, he didn't have any friends.

His only living relatives, his parents, had died years ago. They'd left him the house and just enough money that he didn't have to work much to support himself.

He didn't work regularly, but he did a bit of web design. He rarely left his house.

He did have quite a few hobbies and interests, as evidenced by the varied electronics, plastic figures, and game consoles in his bedroom.

His interests were wide-ranging and obscure. When he was passionate about something, he went all-in, like when he had singlehandedly built and maintained a wiki for a little-known Japanese game from the 90s.

He'd logged hundreds of hours playing it, creating and posting videos of speedruns that got tens of views. He considered himself the unchallenged world champion in every speedrun category, but his favorite was a path he'd discovered that required the exploitation of several glitches he had discovered himself. He'd posted a video crowing about it at the top of his lungs when he discovered it. By chaining a glitch that disabled the animation that removed a particular item from the world after it was picked up, the player could pick up more of that item than was supposed to exist. Since the game developers had never intended the player to be able to pick more than one up at a time, the player could pick up more of them than should fit in the player's inventory.

When the items obtained from that exploit were used in a particular location, the player character would be pushed outside the normal boundaries of the game.

"This is what I adore about Ultimate Devastation: Omega," he'd said. "If you look here-- the developers left all kinds of stuff out here. It's a shame to just blow past it all, but I'll be posting another video soon where I go over the notes the game devs left in detail. It's phenomenal stuff and it really shows the pains the devs took to build a really fleshed out, living world. There's more stuff on their cutting room floor than most games release in the main game. Of course, the storytelling is genius, but their code leaves some things to be desired, luckily for me. I'll just jump through this wall now--"

He closed that window and spent a while scrolling through the anonymous forums he frequented. He liked not having to maintain an identity there. It made things a lot easier. He could just speak whatever was on his mind without having to worry about it following him around forever.

He smirked at an offensive meme. At least, he assumed it was offensive to somebody, because it was really funny. He spent a few minutes in an image editor adding his own flourish and reposted it right away. His smirk broadened into a grin when somebody else posted an amused reaction.

He was funny and clever! He just wasn't much good at getting people to believe that while talking to their faces. People were weird. They got offended by the dumbest things, like they were just looking for excuses to whine.

He shook his head. They'd be happier if they were more like him. At least they'd be living in the real world instead of believing whatever they were told like sheep.

With a sigh, he closed that browser tab and opened one related to another of his hobbies.

This hobby was the reason four TV antennas-- the big kind that looked like square metal tree branches-- were mounted on top of his home, one pointed in each cardinal direction.

He glanced through a list of satellites in orbit, noting a couple he hadn't picked up yet. He minimized the browser and opened his software-defined radio application.

A waterfall of frequencies slid upward in his vision and hisses interspersed by voices, music, and digital beeps and squeals filled his headphones as he adjusted frequencies.

Radio had always fascinated him, but the idea of broadcasting to the world, tying everything he said to a government-issued identity, did not appeal to him at all.

He preferred to listen, and he delighted in discovering information that was not explicitly meant for him to know.

He checked on the two new signals, and was disappointed when they proved to be straightforward and boring in one case, and clearly not transmitting in the other case.

He wasn't too bothered they hadn't panned out. He had a far more interesting signal he had been studying for a week now, and he thought he was close to cracking it.

He hadn't submitted this one to the shared satellite database for other enthusiasts to explore yet. He wanted to see what he could find out himself before he gave up his shot at being the one to figure it out.

Sometimes, he picked up encrypted broadcasts. Most of the time, that would be the end of it-- encrypted broadcasts were indistinguishable from noise for practical purposes most of the time-- but he had noticed something while looking over the captured data.

There were places in the data where information repeated itself. He had excitedly begun reverse engineering the transmission and quickly found that what appeared to be an encrypted transmission at first was, in fact, merely obfuscated. It had taken some deep internet searches and more math than he was really comfortable with, but he was doggedly certain that the obfuscation was within his capability to decipher. He could see chunks of data that looked like sequences of large integers, and he believed they were the key to the whole thing.

He had been working on a little program to automate the decryption and he thought he nearly had it. His eyes flicked across the screen and he grinned as he saw the glowing line that represented a transmission from the mysterious satellite.

"Son of a gun," he said, "I'm getting signal."

He ran the recorded data back through his program quickly. It threw an error and he cursed, typing quickly. There wasn't any particular deadline-- the signal had been recorded-- but he felt a gnawing sense of urgency the way he usually did when he got hyperfocused on a project like this. He felt as though somebody else might figure this out first, and then it wouldn't be his anymore. He couldn't let that happen.

"Ah," he said. He corrected his code-- he'd accidentally started iterating over an array at index 1 instead of index 0. "Rookie mistake," he muttered to himself.

He saved the code, compiled it, and cursed when the compiler threw an error.

He spent a few minutes looking through Stack Overflow before snapping his fingers, typing an extra option into the compiler command, and hit the Enter key.

The compiler showed no errors. He grinned, then chewed his lip as he typed the command to pipe the satellite's transmission through his updated program.

His eyes widened at the structure of the decoded binary. They looked like... ASCII characters?

"Really?" He wrinkled his brow in disbelief. He piped the output of his program through a converter and saw letters begin to crawl across his computer's terminal emulator window.

He jumped out of his chair and stumbled backwards, pulling his headphone cable out of his computer violently.

"What is this?" He asked aloud. He looked around the room wildly, running to window of his room and pulling back the drapes to look outside nervously.

"This is a prank. This is... this is some kind of joke."

With shaking hands, he pulled out his phone. This was some kind of trick. Some kind of scam.

He had exactly $18,234.23 in his bank accounts. How could they have known that?

Who would he call about it? What could he even do? What should he do?

His blood ran cold.

No one could know about that.

"That's impossible," he said aloud, not knowing why.

The cursor just blinked at him from the computer screen and he tried to slow his beating heart.

"This can't be happening. This is... is this the Russians? The Chinese? The CIA? God."

He sank onto his bed, holding his head in his hands.

He balled his hands into fists.

He wouldn't give in to this. He wouldn't just do whatever some mysterious stranger told him to.

Tom refreshed the page with the stock ticker, his heart racing. He couldn't believe he'd done it. He was sure Positron Mobile's stock was about to crash hard. And then where would he be?

Would he have to sell his house? Where would he go?

He refreshed again. Technically, he didn't have to, but he did anyway. "Come on," he said. "Come on, come on."

The line went up and his mouth went dry.

The line went up more.

And then much more.

Tom smirked as he leaned back in his chair.

It was a nice chair, and he hadn't had this kind of space to himself... ever.

The office was enormous, as befitted the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company. He shook his head, looking down at the suit he wore.

It still didn't even feel real. Oh, he'd worked hard, for sure. He'd had to talk to people. Lots of people. He'd had more human interaction in the last three years than in the previous thirty-three years of his life put together.

It had been exhausting. Even grueling, at times. It was far less taxing dealing with people when you had lots of money and influence, though. People were far less critical of him and his behavior when he held their financial futures in his hands.

And the whole way, he'd had a little voice in his ear telling him what paths to choose to secure success. It had influenced every critical buying decision along the way and it had recommended every one of the initial sixteen hires that had made his new company, Nocter Pharmaceutical, explode in value overnight.

And now, in what felt like the blink of an eye-- a financial empire. It had been three months since he'd last heard from his mysterious advisor, but if he never heard from it again, he would be able to cruise comfortably until he got sick of being CEO and retired to his own island somewhere.

The thought brought a grin to his face. Yes, he'd own an island, maybe with its own private resort. Servants. He could certainly afford to hire servants once he cashed out.

If the signal came back, though, he'd do as he was told. He wasn't stupid. He still didn't know if he was being contacted by the Illuminati, some kind of incredibly powerful organized crime ring, or-- his personal favorite theory-- the Chinese government, but he'd quickly learned not to care who his unknown benefactor was. He had a gold-egg-laying goose, and he knew that goose could just as soon ruin him as it had made him incredibly wealthy and powerful.

He mused to himself about where he might go that would be free of the influence of a force like the Chinese government, then scoffed at the thought. No, they'd have people everywhere. They knew everything. He knew where his bread was buttered. He'd do as he was told.

"Mister Peters?" An attractive young woman opened the door at the other end of his cavernous office.

"Yes, Miss Evans?" He smiled at her. Everyone was so pleasant to the boss.

"A... Mister Watterson left a message? He just said to tell you that he's hoping you can set up a tee time soon."

"Ah, of course. Thank you, Miss Evans. That will be all." He dismissed her and drummed his fingers on the desk.

Well, it seemed like they'd come calling again, whoever they were. He got up and strode out of his office, brushing one hand down the front of the expensive tailored suit he wore.

He'd never been in good shape before. One of the stipulations his benefactor had made fairly early was a requirement to hire a personal trainer and nutritionist.

He hadn't understood what kind of busybody nonsense that was until he started seeing results. He had so much more energy than he used to. With the high demands that had been made on his time as CEO, he realized now that his benefactor had merely been protecting an investment. He had to admit, people looked at him differently now, too. Sure, the expensive clothes and fast cars were part of it, but women hadn't ever looked at him the way they did now.

He whistled as he got into his car and began making his way out onto the highway.

He had quite a bit of driving to do-- all the way back to a neighborhood on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri.

He rode most of the hour-long drive with the top of his convertible down, feeling the wind in his hair. Then, he got off the highway and pulled into a residential neighborhood near a body of water.

Rather, it used to be a residential neighborhood. Nocter Pharmaceutical had bought out the entire neighborhood and successfully lobbied for it to be re-zoned. As he pulled up to what used to be the entrance to the neighborhood, he nodded to a Nocter security guard standing by at the gate.

"Mister Peters," the man said with a nod, and pressed the button to open the large, heavy gate topped with barbed wire.

He drove into the neighborhood-turned-industrial park and drove past empty buildings.

Sometimes Nocter employees made deliveries to this neighborhood, but they were only for show. Only three of the newly built buildings were in use to protect the illusion that this location was used for storage, shipping, and processing.

He pulled up to his old house in his new expensive car. He shook his head a little, seeing it now. It had seemed like everything he'd ever needed once. Now, he wondered how he'd ever dealt with the cramped, shabby accommodations.

He unlocked the door with a key and an electronic code and quickly locked himself in before striding over to his old bedroom.

The same computer sat there in the same configuration. In fact, most of the old house was as he'd left it.

There were a few additional electronic devices. He'd added features to his program that allowed his benefactor to make automated phone calls like the one his secretary had received.

He didn't know why his benefactor didn't just come up with another way of contacting him, but that was the kind of question he had become extremely good at not asking.

He knew they had the room bugged, anyway. He didn't know how, but he did know that when he spoke, his benefactor heard.

"I'm here," he said. "What now, boss?"

The cursor blinked for a moment on his computer before more words spelled themselves out.

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