The Null Circle
By Ryan Matejka
Based on the writing prompt: Write a story called "The Null Circle" that ends with "and it all meant nothing."
Somewhere in the United States, during the earliest, darkest hours of the morning, a large bearded man ordered a pizza. Sitting alone in his bedroom, alit by nothing but the glow of his three computer monitors, he selected his favorite toppings and then wrote in the additional comments section:
“DO NOT RING THE DOORBELL OR MAKE ANY NOISE WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT THE DUPLEX. CALL THE INCLUDED PHONE NUMBER INSTEAD!”
When prompted for his payment information, the bearded man turned to the leftmost monitor, on which displayed a long list of names, addresses, credit card and PIN numbers, and copied the payment information belonging to Mr. Eric Cornwall.
Unlike the other names on the list, Eric Cornwall wasn’t a stranger to the bearded man. During the day Eric Cornwall was his idiotic, unreasonable, and completely offensive superior with a penchant for making crude advances to whichever poor young woman happened to be the office secretary that month, but at night Eric was just another plaything for the bearded hacker known online only as Nix.
In a certain way, Nix knew Eric Cornwall better than Eric’s own wife. For example, Nix knew that Eric was a cheater, and he knew that Eric had a second bank account and set of credit cards that he kept hidden from his wife. It was with these cards that Nix would fund his late-night appetites and minor internet purchases, all of which went unnoticed by a man either too well-paid, too rushed, or too stupid to look at his transaction history.
The crime was insignificant and petty, to be sure, but it nonetheless gave Nix pleasure to know that he was taking advantage of someone who took advantage of so many others. Besides, this little transgression fell well under the rules laid down for and agreed upon by the members of The Null Circle.
Just as Nix submitted his order, a private chat window popped up on his rightmost monitor from the encrypted chat program. It was from the man he knew only as Yurei, and it contained a single word.
Nix began unconsciously stroking his unkempt beard. The greeting didn’t immediately alarm him, but it seemed odd. Yurei, like most members of The Null Circle, didn’t typically bother with pleasantries. Most conversations Nix had with any of the four other members started off with an immediate question, or more often, a request. Furthermore, Yurei was about 14 hours ahead of Nix, and thus should have been offline and stuck at whatever day job paid for his internet.
Leaning back in his seat, Nix stared at the chat window waiting for some further information. After none appeared, he leaned back in, stroked his beard one more time, then replied with a simple question.
< What do you need?
While waiting for a response, Nix minimized the pizza delivery window on his center monitor, revealing Eric’s desktop screen which displayed a stretched and skewed wallpaper photo of his daughter’s soccer team, and continued to rummage through Eric’s various personal files thanks to the program Nix had just recently managed to properly set up.
The program, called Hemorrhage, was developed by Scarab, the leader of The Null Circle, and was thus far beyond the complexity of anything Nix was yet capable of producing. Hemorrhage allowed Nix to view and interact with Eric Cornwall’s desktop computer remotely via a synchronized exact copy stored on a remote server, all without risk of leaving a single unintended trace of his presence. A momentary glance at the code behind the program had left even Nix struck with a strong sense of awe. It was nothing short of brilliant.
His hope in this case was that he could use Hemorrhage to learn something truly damning about Eric Cornwall. His infidelity would be justification enough to act upon with Scarab’s full approval, but Nix, fueled by his personal distaste for the man, hoped to find evidence of something worse that would make Eric worthy of the full force of The Null Circle’s abilities. Sadly, so far he had turned up nothing of significance, and Nix was slowly starting to realize that he may have to settle for simply ruining Eric’s marriage.
A response message appeared on screen. Instinctively, Nix’s fingers floated to the keyboard, then froze when he read the message presented.
> I need you to send me a copy of Hemorrhage.
This statement further bothered Nix. Because Hemorrhage was such a powerful and potentially dangerous tool, its spread was not to be taken lightly. Nix had no authority to share such a program that he himself did not create. Furthermore, a quick glance at the encrypted chat system showed that Scarab was still online and accessible. Nix thought on it for a moment, again unconsciously stroking his beard as he did, but could come up with no sensible reason for Yurei to come to him with this request rather than to go directly to Scarab.
He finally freed his fingers from their stasis, rested them on the keys, and typed out his reply.
< Does Scarab know you’re asking?
Nix eagerly awaited a response, wanting feverishly to understand the situation at hand. The silence of the dark room made the wait all the more unbearable, and a part of him yearned for the days when he had the freedom to put on a set of headphones and blast some electronic music into his ears while he worked. Now, if he wanted to listen to any music while he worked, his only option was to play it through his speakers at such a low volume so as to hear any slight murmur in the apartment, but even then he didn’t feel comfortable. He needed absolute silence. He needed to be able to hear the smallest peep.
Another message from Yurei appeared on the screen.
> I didn’t want to bother him with this.
Nix’s eyes went wide and his breath came to a complete stop. Acting as quickly as he could, he pulled up a window to message Scarab directly.
< Yurei has been compromised.
Within seconds, Scarab responded.
< He asked for me to send him a copy of Hemorrhage.
> Odd, but not itself proof.
< And then he called you “him.”
By design, none of the five hackers that made up The Null Circle knew much about each other. Scarab had hand picked each of them based on their skillsets, code of ethics, and timezones to ensure a well-rounded group that could effectively support each other, united against a common goal, around the clock. For example, Scarab was the most adept at conceiving of and coding new programs, despised liars, opportunists, and men who abused women, and resided somewhere within Central European Time. Aside from these essential facts, Scarab revealed only one personal detail to The Null Circle upon the outset of its creation, and did so with absolute clarity and authority.
Scarab was a woman.
> Contact Pixel. Find out if he’s been compromised. Stall Faux-Yurei.
< What are you going to do?
It took only seconds for Nix to realize that he wasn’t going to get a response. Whatever Scarab was going to do, she didn’t want to waste time telling him about it.
He opened up a chat window for Pixel, taking a moment to consider his words carefully before he typed them out. He couldn’t let on that he knew Yurei was compromised, and if Pixel was as well, Nix had to pretend he was playing along with Faux-Yurei’s request. After going through a dozen scenarios in his head, Nix decided to try something simple.
< Could you send me a copy of Scarab’s Hemorrhage program?
Nix nervously stroked his beard, worried that his novice attempt at counter intelligence would out himself and ruin whatever plans Scarab had.
At that moment, the sound of Nix’s doorbell loudly rang throughout his apartment. Filled with immediate rage and annoyance, he jumped out of his seat, bumping his stomach into his keyboard and knocking it crooked with a loud skid, and scurried over to the front door as quietly as possible.
The late-night pizza delivery boy held a cardboard box that steamed with heat into the cold winter night.
“Mr. Cornwall?” the zit-faced, red-eyed teenager asked, his voice cracking an octave which he unsuccessfully tried to cover up by clearing his throat.
“I told you idiots to be quiet!” Nix growled, snatching the box out of the kid’s weak grip and immediately shutting the door in his face. Before proceeding back to his room, Nix waited and listened to make sure the rest of the apartment was silent. Content, he quietly scuffled back to his computer, dropping the steaming pizza box on the desk next to him and sitting down to fix the position of the keyboard without indulging in a hot slice.
He had several new messages, mostly from an impatient Faux-Yurei who wanted an immediate answer as to whether or not Nix was going to send him the program. Nix quickly responded, fearful that he had no time to coordinate with Scarab to ensure his response didn’t interfere with her plan.
< Hold on. It’s compressing.
He turned his attention to the other two messages, which were from Pixel.
> Why on earth makes you think she would give me a copy?
> I thought she already gave it to you.
While Nix was glad to verify that Pixel was indeed himself, he was disappointed to see just how carelessly Pixel had divulged this information. Oftentimes Nix wondered what it was that Scarab saw in Pixel, because as far as he could discern, Pixel had a lot in common with the idiot Pizza delivery boy. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on that, though. He quickly informed Pixel that Yurei was not to be trusted, and that he and Scarab were taking care of it.
> What about Peter the Penguin?
< I’ll have to wait until he’s online.
Peter the Penguin was on Australian Eastern Standard Time; closer to the real Yurei’s local time than anyone else. Nix wasn’t sure if that meant anything in this scenario except that, with Scarab’s day about to begin, either he or Pixel would have to wait and check on Peter the Penguin, and he’d be damned if he could trust that job to Pixel.
Another message from Faux-Yurei:
> How much longer?
Nix updated Scarab.
< Pixel is good. I’ve briefed him. Faux-Yurei becoming impatient. Please advise.
After a handful of minutes, Scarab responded. A file was attached.
> Send Faux-Yurei this file. Do not open it. Update me when it works.
The file, named hemorrhageinstall.exe, was incredibly small. Smaller than the actual hemorrhage.exe he had originally gotten from Scarab. Nix thanked the heavens that he hadn’t screwed everything up by telling Faux-Yurei he was compressing a file to send.
Without another word, Nix sent the file to Faux-Yurei, wondering what on earth it was going to do. A simple virus wouldn’t be sufficient, he guessed, as that would only potentially delay this intruder’s attempt to infiltrate The Null Circle. He would be back, and knowing that he had failed once, he would be more cautious the second time. Scarab was smarter than that. Ideally, the program would expose the intruder and allow The Null Circle to track him without him knowing it.
Nix leaned down to the floor, flipped open the box of pizza, and pulled a greasy, hot, stringy slice out to eat while he waited for something to happen.
Once he was finished, he grabbed another.
Just as he was about to grab a fifth slice, his center monitor wet dark for several seconds.
When the monitor booted back up, it no longer displayed Eric Cornwall’s desktop with the wallpaper of his daughter’s smiling soccer team. Instead, it displayed what appeared to be Nix’s desktop.
A window opened itself to display a video featuring a sharp-jawed man sitting on a computer chair in a dark room, his head and line of sight looking just below that of the camera’s location as if the source of the video were a webcam placed above his monitor.
The pointer on Nix’s monitor began to move, and in the video the strange man’s eyes seemed to be following it through his monitor.
The man appeared to be controlling Nix’s computer.
Nix’s heart sank.
He was certain he’d been tricked. Somehow, someone else, or perhaps even this same man, had taken over Scarab’s identity and tricked Nix into exposing himself and they wanted him to know it.
Had the original version of Hemorrhage even been real, or had it burrowed its way into Nix’s computer, only to be awoken for its true purpose at this very moment?
The man on screen smiled and clapped his hands together in celebration. Nix expected him to look right at him and laugh, but surprisingly, the man did nothing to acknowledge the webcam at all.
Nix took a long, deep breath. Sense and calmness came back to him. Glancing at each of his other two monitors, he noted that everything appeared normal; therefore, the desktop he saw on the center monitor couldn’t actually be his.
It was a fake.
The pieces began to fall into place.
The program that this sharp-jawed man believed allowed him to see and control Nix’s computer without his knowledge instead merely gave him access to a dummy computer. The program also apparently gave Nix a window into both what the sharp-jawed man’s webcam saw and what his own monitor displayed.
Had Scarab coded this program in mere minutes, or was it already sitting around half-finished and waiting for her to find a reason to complete it?
Nix turned his attention back to her chat window.
< It worked. I can see him and his desktop. He seems to think he’s looking at mine.
> Good. I’m sorry the program’s capabilities are so limited. It only allows you to see him but not to interact. I’ll fix that soon enough.
< What are you talking about? This is more than I bargained for, it’s a masterpiece!
> See what you can learn of Faux-Yurei and perhaps we will soon find out what happened to Yurei. Also, Can I trust you to look into Peter the Penguin for me?
< Yes, I’ll handle it and update you tomorrow night.
> I’ve got to go.
Before Nix could protest, Scarab’s username went dark and she was gone. He leaned back in his chair, watching his enemy excitedly try to open password-protected folders that likely contained password-protected files with nothing but dead-ends inside of them, then realized for the first time that night that he was stroking his beard absentmindedly.
Nix got up and very quietly made his way to the other bedroom, stepping over the pizza box that still lay on the floor as he did. Without making a sound, he crept into the bedroom, walked over to the crib that stood against the far wall, and peered down at the gentle figure of his sleeping baby daughter.
A generous smile spread across his face as he watched her little chest rise and fall with each delicate breath.
As if she sensed his presence, her body slowly wiggled out of sleep and her eyes blinked open. She reached her arms up toward her smiling, bearded father, who in turn reached down into the crib and scooped her up to cradle against him. As soon as her arms were within reach, she grabbed at his beard and ran her fingers down the fine hairs, then brought them back up to his lower lip, and ran them back through again.
This was why Nix stayed up late.
This was the reason he sought to punish the thieves and scoundrels of the world.
This was where his code of ethics came from.
He loved the feel of his baby daughter’s hands stroking at his beard. He loved her eyes, her tiny feet, and her beautiful smile.
Nix didn’t have to join The Null Circle. He could use his computer to selfishly steal and manipulate to his heart’s content — he could make a name for himself and become infamous to police and security firms the world over.
Hacking could have been his ticket to greatness. It could have been his ticket to fame and fortune.
And it all meant nothing.