Beat the Game, Save the World.
One Stuxnet type worm,
One Greek-themed MMO,
One real world scavenger hunt,
Three teenagers on the run
And a ten-day countdown to total nuclear annihilation .
Pandora’s Box isn’t just a myth anymore …
When seventeen-year-old Pandora Walker opens an email attachment, she uploads the most frightening worm ever invented—and in doing so, brings about total technological Armageddon. Everything from the internet to communications to utilities collapses and suddenly Pandora finds herself on the run from Homeland Security, the FBI and every police department in the country, all of whom blame her for the technological wasteland sweeping across the U.S.. With the help of stepbrothers Eli and Theo, her neighbors and the two hottest guys in school-- plus codes encrypted in a world famous MMO-- she sets out on a real life scavenger hunt that only she can solve. A scavenger hunt that pits her against one of the most brilliant men in the world—the maker of the Pandora worm. Her father. Only by unraveling the clues left by him in the MMO, and in real-world places around the U.S., can they hope to beat the clock ticking the days off until the entire planet is Doomed.
“That’s not the really puzzling part,” Agent Lessing finally continues. “Especially if you insist on your innocence in this matter, how is it that starting at seven-fifteen this morning, someone from this IP address opened the twelve different sections of code that make up this worm and uploaded them onto the internet, one by one?”
Emily gasps and I want to protest. I want to tell the FBI agent that she’s crazy. That I have no idea what she’s talking about. But the truth of the matter is that suddenly I do. I know exactly what I was doing at seven-fifteen this morning.
The tentative fairy tale I’ve been building in my head all day—the one I wasn’t even aware of until right now—collapses. I swear, I feel it shatter and my stomach, though close to empty, chooses that moment to revolt.
I spring up from my chair.
“Hey, you can’t go anywhere. Sit back down!” Lessing tells me firmly, reaching into her jacket and pulling out her gun.
I don’t stop; I can’t. Even so, I barely make it to the trash can in time. I don’t know how long I sit there, puking my guts up, but by the time I finish, Lessing has put away her gun. Emily is looking at me in dismay, while Mackaray and Lundstrom—who rushed in at Lessing’s alarmed shout—are wearing identical expressions of smug triumph. Even Lessing seems satisfied, and I know it’s because I’ve blown it big time.
It’s pretty hard to protest your innocence when you get so upset by what they’re telling you that you hurl.
I don’t get up right away. Instead, I stay on the floor, my head resting against the cool wood of a cabinet. I think about my laptop, stuffed in my backpack, with all the incriminating evidence on it. I think about what else is in the bag—namely the pictures from my father that I’d shoved in there at the last minute. All twelve of them.
I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out why me, and the answer has been there all along. The psychopath who did this, the one who chose me as this harbinger of destruction, is my father.
He did this to me. Used my curiosity against me—and the world—and turned me into a modern-day Pandora. Like my namesake before me, I’ve brought a new kind of evil into the world and there’s no going back. Maybe Emily’s dad and the others can fix it. Maybe they can’t. But either way, I have a feeling that deep, dark hole they want to throw me in just got a lot deeper and darker.
Every writing campaign I’ve ever partaken in for Amnesty International flashes through my head. Letter after letter about Guantanamo Bay. Sierra Leon. Somalia. Story after story of Americans taken to foreign countries and tortured because they’re suspected of terrorism.
Even as I tell myself I’m being silly, I hear the president saying the United States doesn’t tolerate terrorists. That’s what I am, what my father has turned me into with a few strokes of my keyboard, a few picture downloads that I thought were to celebrate my seventeenth birthday.
A cyber terrorist.
I reach for the trash can again as dry heaves shake my entire body.
What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What. Am. I. Going. To. Do?
Behind me, I hear movement and brace myself to be yanked to my feet. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Emily settles on the ground next to me and hands me a bottle of water. I rinse my mouth out, drink a few sips. Then she’s hugging me, stroking my hair. “It’s going to be okay, Pandora,” she whispers to me. “I promise. It’s going to be okay.”
I open my mouth, plan on telling them everything and begging for mercy. Instead, only four words come out. Four words I never thought I’d say. “I want a lawyer.”
“A lawyer?” Mackaray’s eyes gleam with triumph as he crouches down next to me. “Pandora, where you’re going, lawyers rank right up there with fairies and unicorns as mythical creatures.”
“You can’t do that!” Emily protests. “She didn’t do anything wrong! My father—“
“Your father is one of an elite few who could pull off something of this magnitude, Ms. Wood.” Lundstrom speaks up for the first time in a long while. “So I suggest you close your mouth unless you want to bring a lot of trouble down on him as well.”
Emily shuts up then, her eyes wide and frightened as she presses her back against the cabinet, almost like she wants to shrink inside. The arms wrapped around me start to tremble, but I barely notice since I’m shaking just as hard.
“She didn’t do anything,” I tell them, wondering if I should just tell them everything?
If I should send them next door to retrieve my laptop from Eli and Theo and get them involved in this?
Do I admit that my father is behind this and let them arrest him, lock him up and throw away the key like they’re threatening to do to me? But if I admit I had an unwitting part in this, are they going to believe me? The looks on their faces say no, that they’ve already made up their minds about my guilt. My best bet, then, is to wait for Mr. Wood. He’s one of the best computer security guys in the country. He’ll know what to do.
I shut down then, refuse to say anything else. They keep asking me questions, but I ignore them. Even when Mackaray grabs onto my arms and lifts me into a standing position, I don’t protest. I’ll wait for Mr. Wood, I tell myself. He’ll be able to fix this.
As we wait, the house grows quiet around me. The front door opens and closes numerous times and I hear the slam of car doors outside. The rev of engines that mark the end of the search. Everyone else has done their jobs and now I’m left alone with these three.
Mr. Wood finally arrives, with a police escort. He’s all outrage and concern as he wraps his arms around us, but it becomes clear very quickly that he won’t be able to help me. He’s not my parent or guardian and no matter how much he argues with the agents—he knows two of them personally—they aren’t budging. But at least Emily seems safe, and that’s something.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say, after Mr. Wood’s been here about an hour. They’ve told him both he and Emily are free to go, but he hasn’t budged. I know it’s because he doesn’t want to leave me alone with them.
“Tough,” Lundstrom tells me. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Jesus, Mike, she’s just a kid!” Mr. Wood exclaims.
“She unleashed cyber Armageddon—computer genius trumps kid every day of the week.”
“Please,” I say. “I really need to use the restroom.” Even though I don’t. I just want a couple of minutes alone to think, a couple of minutes where they aren’t staring at me like a bug under a microscope.
“I’ll take her,” Mackaray finally says, and I almost change my mind. I don’t want to be alone with him, even for as long as it takes to walk to my bathroom. But it’s not like I have a choice now, not after I made such a big deal of having to go.
We leave the kitchen together and when I try to head upstairs to my bathroom, he grabs my elbow and directs me to the half-bath down the hall. The one without any windows. I shake my head in disbelief. They already think I’m some kind of genius hacker-- now they think I can mastermind an escape from federal custody as well? Who the hell do these people think I am?
“Leave the door open,” Mackaray tells me when we get there.
“What?” I stare at him incredulously.
“You heard me.” The face staring back at me is implacable.
“Where am I going to go? There’s no other way out of the bathroom!”
“Take it or leave it.” Something moves in his eyes and I know he’s waiting for me to leave it. But I won’t give him the satisfaction.
“Does your wife know you get your kicks by listening to teenage girls pee?”
The hand on my elbow gets tighter, his fingers digging into my flesh until I start to see stars. He pulls me towards him and whispers, “You don’t want to play games with me, little girl. I win every time.”
I’m straining so hard in the other direction that when he finally lets me go, I stumble, crack my funny bone hard against the door frame. He laughs, at me and at the helpless tears of pain that spring to my eyes.
I go into the bathroom, leaving the door partially ajar. I turn on the faucet, splash water on my face, blink back the tears.
“Hurry up!” he says after a minute. “We don’t have all night.”
Before I can respond, the lights blink once, twice, then go out completely. My entire house is plunged into an inky blackness.
“What the hell!” Mackaray says, slamming the bathroom door open all the way. “Either get it done or not, kid. You’ve got one minute and then I’m taking you back to the kitchen.”
I barely hear him over the pounding of my own heart and the panic clawing through me, trumping everything else. Even my fear of going to jail. I hate the dark, hate it, hate it, hate it. Ever since I was five and ended up getting trapped in my uncle’s storage shed, under a pile of heavy boxes that fell when I was looking for my Christmas presents. There’d been no lights, or windows, and I’d laid there in the dark for hours, crying, convinced that no one was ever going to find me.
Curiosity had been my downfall then as well.
“Tom?” Lessing’s voice drifts through the hall.
“Just checking. It looks like the whole grid just went down.”
“I can see that.” Lessing must catch the sarcasm in his voice because she shuts up quickly.
“Pandora—“ In his voice is a warning and I know my time is up. But he stops abruptly and there’s a muffled thump, followed by a slithering sound that has me imagining a bunch of snakes sliding down my hallway. I press myself back against the wall and try not to scream.
Something large moves in front of the doorway. “Pandora?”
“Theo?” I whisper incredulously.
He leans forward, until his face is only centimeters from mine. “Let’s go.” His voice is pitched so low that I have to strain to hear it even this close.
“Out of here. Come on, we’ve only got a couple of minutes before they come looking for you.”
“Looking for—you want me to break out of federal custody?”
“Would you rather I leave you here?”
“I don’t know. I—“ My head is spinning. Of all the ways I envisioned tonight ending, this wasn’t even in the top thousand. “Where’s Mackaray?”
“I hit him. He’s out, but I don’t know for how long. Now are you coming or not?”
Am I? I look back at the kitchen, where Emily and her father wait with the other agents. I can’t leave her—
It’s like Theo can read my thoughts, because he says, “Emily will be fine. She’s not the one in trouble here.”
He’s right; I know he is. But still. Can I do this? Bad enough to be a federal suspect—but to be a fugitive? How is it even possible? They’ll find us in minutes.
Except, the electricity just went out. Communications are gone. No cameras to catch us running by. No way to get out word of a widespread manhunt (or in this case womanhunt). No way for them to track me when they’re basically blind, deaf and dumb. It could work.
But still, do I really want to do this? Do I really want to go down this road?
Hell, yes, I do.
I slip my hand into Theo’s, not bothering to ask how he knew I was in trouble, and we glide as silently as possible through the hallway into the living room. He seems to know exactly where he’s going and I wonder how long he’s been here, prowling around the house, without anyone knowing.
He slides open the glass door that leads to the deck just enough that we can slip out. As he silently closes the door behind us, I realize this is it.
I really have reached the point of no return.