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Ready Player Two

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And he'd thought a mere half day of radio silence was bad. It’s been a week and he keeps compulsively opening and closing his contact list, staring down the names of various federal agents he’s run across. None of them have jurisdiction in Morocco.

He wants to just call. Instead, he keeps playing back their conversation, trying to work out as much as he can from the background noise. (Look, sure it's a breach of privacy in some places to record without permission, but if he goes missing, he'd like to leave his parents some hint as to why, if they can manage to crack the encryption on his harddrive.) His friend in Lisbon gives him a crash course in signal analysis, then the contact for her friend, an audio engineer. Even with their help, all he can work out is that Black Sheep’s last call was before a helicopter drop, and she was somewhere enclosed. Did she stow away on another class’s field trip? Was she running away from school?

In the back of his mind is the quiet, insistent thought that she might be in danger, but he’s quick to shut that down. He may spend his time committing benevolent crimes in multiple countries, but that’s no reason to be paranoid. He’s got no evidence to suggest Black Sheep attends anything but a normal, albeit very wealthy, boarding school. She’s probably fine. There are plenty of reasons for her not to have called. Maybe she’s grounded. Maybe she just hasn’t been able to get away. Maybe her phone got confiscated.

It still nags at him, though. He feels like he’s only half living on this plane of existence, one foot firmly dissolved into cyberspace — well, more so than usual. He can convert to and from zulu time in his sleep, but he spends the last week of school thinking entirely in Morocco time, and as a result he manages to pick up a detention in the last week of the school year for repeated tardiness.

He gives in on the second day of the summer holidays.

It rings for a long time. A long time. Player might be part of the hyperstimulated digital generation or whatever, but even his dad would agree with him on this one. He’s just about to hang up when the tone ends, and he thinks it’s rung out, but he can hear a breath on the other line and —

“Hello? Who is this?”

He hangs up immediately, heart pounding, and then berates himself for it. What, like he can’t handle one unknown adult now? He’s definitely crossed paths with scarier people than the soft-spoken woman with a South Asian accent. Besides, all he wants to know is if Black Sheep’s okay. Whoever picked the phone up was probably faculty; he could have just asked.

He takes a deep breath and calls again. The response is quicker this time.

“Hello? Who is this?” It’s said in almost the exact same tone of voice, too: polite confusion.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could speak to Bl—” Player catches himself. “Uh, to the owner of this phone?” After all, it’s not like his parents know his usernames.

“This device has no owner,” the woman replies.

“May I speak to the...former owner then?” Player hedges.

“Do you know the former owner of this device? We have yet to track them down.”

Player has no idea what to do with that. It hadn’t occurred to him that Black Sheep might have just lost the phone.

“Uh, I probably can’t help you then?” he says. “Sorry. I was just...hoping to find out if my friend was alright.”

“Statistically speaking, probably not,” replies the woman matter-of-factly before hanging up.

She was probably just joking. Or being sarcastic. Or maybe just being very literal in a way that involved specifics he didn’t know about. That’s not enough to assuage his paranoia, so he opens the back door into the bizarre OS of Black Sheep’s phone.

He’s still digging through its weird, weird file system, deleting all chat and call logs from the past ten months when he’s confronted with an incoming call from Black Sheep. He stares at the vibrating blue icon for a moment, warring with himself, but his paranoia wins out again. He checks which proxy he’s currently using and picks up.

“Chào buổi sáng, Hanoi River Tours,” he says cheerfully as he opens a new horribly named subfolder. He has no idea if it is morning in Vietnam.

“Hanoi?” asks the voice from earlier. With the part of his mind not focused on wiping his presence from Black Sheep’s phone, he hears her say to away from the receiver, “I can’t imagine why Black Sheep would be in contact with a tour company.”

Another woman — British, maybe? — responds, “A tour company? It must be a ruse. I’ve taught her better than that, at least.” At last, Black Sheep’s weird ideas about tourism, explained. The phone must be handed off, because her next words are spoken into the receiver. “Listen to me, you pathetic little man. If you don’t tell me exactly how long you have been in contact with that brat Black Sheep, we will bring the full might of our organisation against you and scrub your very existence from not just this life but the next, do you understand?”

It’s all he can do not to laugh. Finally, some familiar ground. It’s certainly the most interesting threat he’s received in the last two months. This conversation has given him a wealth of new information about Black Sheep that he hasn't even begun to process yet, but that's never stopped him running his mouth before.

“I’m very sorry, but I don’t believe I know any Black Sheep,” he says innocently. “Maybe you have the wrong number?”

“The wrong — you called us, you insignificant toerag!”

“Oh, you’re returning a call?” Player says. “I haven’t made any outgoing calls today, but I can check with my coworkers, if you’d like?”

“Cease this pointlessness and tell me how long have you known Black Sheep?” demands the Countess.

Distantly, Player hears the first woman say, “The signal is coming from Hanoi, Countess. Perhaps it was a misdial?” and the call ends abruptly.

Countess. Black Sheep calls one of her instructors that. So Black Sheep’s phone is in faculty hands, unless she knows a lot of nobility — which admittedly she might, if her school’s as wealthy as he thinks it is. His best guess is that Black Sheep dropped her phone and it was picked up by the staff who recognise the pseudonym but don’t know who it connects to. She is a notorious prankster. Maybe she signs her work.

He leans back in his seat as his last search through Black Sheep’s phone for his own identifiers turns up nothing except the last two calls. They use a well-secured VOIP line, so he leaves them and exits out, unwilling to leave himself open to a trace.

He rests his chin on his hand, thinking. The frustrating thing is that if he’s right, there’s really nothing he can do to contact her. Even if he can find the school’s number — which he doubts — he doesn’t know her real name. And if he uses Black Sheep’s phone and describes her and the staff can work out who she is, then he’s just gotten her in trouble for breaking the no-phone rule and whatever other trouble she’s caused.

Of course, he could be wrong. In which case surely he should gather a bit more information, right? Besides, he’s on vacation. The whole point is to have fun.



He'd thought that the more he learned about Black Sheep's teachers, the more her school would make sense. He was wrong.

"When does she sleep?" he mutters to himself, staring down the plot of various staff members' presence on his calls. The Countess isn't anywhere to be seen before 10am, and 5am seems to be the domain of Coach and a very terse Japanese man, but the good Doctor Last-Name-Unknown has been around at some point every hour. Does she sleep in forty minute blocks like a mouse? Does she have a twin who is also a doctor? Does she do rotating shifts like a hospital? Is Black Sheep's school so dangerous that it needs a fully qualified live-in surgeon?

He cleaned down the cheap whiteboard living on his wardrobe door for the first time in at least two years to keep track of his more pressing questions for when he gets in contact with Black Sheep again. Less than a week later, he had to buy another whiteboard. He likes a good digital list but sometimes you just need the catharsis of writing half a dozen big question marks. In his case, about twice a week.

He still has a copy on his phone for the realisations that hit when his parents drag him out of the house. He's beginning to think he'll be the first person to ever find the word limit of his memo app.



 "Moshi moshi, Osaka House of Okonomiyaki."

"Do not foul my language with your terrible accent."




For all the oddities he hears, there's nothing about Black Sheep herself, but maybe she's toeing the line after her latest misadventure. He's still searching for the best way to ask "who crashed that field trip in June?", since that seems like the best avenue to her identity. When he's not working on his other philanthropic ventures, he scours the web for details on a private vocational school on west African islands in the hopes he might find an administration number — or even the number for the campus security Black Sheep was always dodging — so he can make those very inquiries.

Sometime in August, he gives up on both his search and a tidy chunk of his morals and tries his hand at social engineering. He's at something of a disadvantage — he can only disguise his voice so much -- but he's got a plan and a half decent voice modulator. He knows people who specialise in white hat social engineering, but it just doesn't sit well with him. Sure, people are bigger security vulnerabilities than mathematics, but they're just trying to do their jobs; he doesn't like the idea of getting low-level employees in trouble for being insufficiently trained. If he goes directly for the king, the only messenger getting shot will be him.

But he does know social engineers, and he's picked up some tricks, if only by osmosis.

It takes him a while to come up with an attack. He starts out investing in a 6-pack of coloured dry erase markers and cleaning up his new whiteboard so he can collate every exploitable weakness he's picked up about the faculty, as well as every social engineering attack he's confident he could pull off. He has to cross off more than three quarters immediately: he has neither a door into the school's network, nor a way to be physically present, unless he can teach himself to convert his body to and from EM waves over the summer.

He comes up with a collection of facts and the frustrating feeling that he could solve this if he could just hold everything in his brain at once. Fortunately, his subconscious seems to have this exact superpower because he jolts awake at 2:13 am with the sketch of an attack addling his brain.

He scrabbles for a whiteboard marker and then a light switch. He'd formulated the scheme within the dream, as he'd dispassionately watched a faceless Black Sheep die alone in a hospital bed, her body shattered by a long fall. It took him a long moment to convince himself it wasn't a memory.

"She wouldn't just jump out of a helicopter without a parachute," he tells himself aloud, voice raspy from sleep. "She's just… boarding school grounded."

Still. He's a little reluctant to sleep, so he uncaps his marker and gets to work.



The next night, he puts his plan into motion. To prepare, he writes a little piece of code that makes his skin crawl a little, then switches to a different VOIP line, this one routed permanently through a proxy server in England. He sets an alarm for 3am, and proceeds to barely sleep.

He gets up from his tumultuous nap about five minutes before his alarm is due to sound, dons his hat, takes a deep breath, and calls.

"Good morning," he says in his best Received Pronunciation. He spent two hours the previous day listening to Attenborough documentaries while finally committing code to all the open source repositories he helps with. It should have been a ten minute job, honestly, but there were… a lot of conflicts to resolve. He's usually better about that type of thing, but between school and the Black Sheep case and the other hacks he finished recently…

He'd been aiming to avoid the Countess, who'd see through his fake accent in a second. "Who is this?" demands Coach. He breathes a sigh of relief while she rails. "Who the damn hell are you and how the damn hell do you know Black Sheep?"

It's possible he's been overdoing the prank calling.

"What in the world is Black Sheep?" he asks. "No, never mind. May I please speak to Mr Johnson?"

"Mr who?"

"Mr Johnson. Is this not his phone number?"

"There's no Johnson here," Coach snarls down the line.

"Oh, I must have a wrong number then, sorry. Thank you for your help," Player says, before hanging up.

He waits about twenty seconds, then redials.

"Good morning," he repeats. "Is this Mr Johnson?"

"No, it's damn well not, you poncy piece of —" Coach begins, which is not encouraging, but Player plays on anyway.

"Oh no, did someone take down the wrong details? This is your own phone, right?"

"Why d'you need this Johnson fella so badly anyhow?" Coach asks rhetorically. Well, Player will take any in he can get at this point. All the faculty have been pretty nasty to him, but he thought that was just in response to the prank calling. Black Sheep's never complained about them being mean before.

"I'm supposed to tell him that his wife's been hospitalised. He's listed here as her emergency contact, and this is the only number I've got for him. I guess he changed his number or lost his phone?" He feels his fauxent sliding and perhaps overcorrects as he adds, "Oh, this is dreadful, just dreadful, I don't know what I'm going to do if I can't reach him…"

"Well, I'm afraid you're shit outta luck," Coach says, not sounding sorry in the slightest. "None of our students have phones —"

"Oh, you're a school?" Player interrupts a little desperately, sensing the situation slipping from him. "Could Mr Johnson be a parent or guardian, or  — is there an administrator I could speak to who could help me track him down, or —"

"What do you think this is, a charity?"

"Of course you're busy, but I'm sure Mr Johnson would want to reward you for returning his phone, or, uhh, I could pay you! Please, his wife is in critical condition —"

Coach scoffs, which stuns him into silence. "That's what you get for your namby pamby socialised healthcare," she crows. "Long wait times, bad administors, serves y'all right. It's money that makes the world go round, not inefficient government schemes --"

Player barely listens. After about ten seconds, he does the unfathomable and hangs up on her. He tugs his headphones off and takes a moment to just gape at the whiteboard propped up on top of his PC tower, at the words "helpfulness" and "reciprocity" written in green down one side, the common human pressure points he'd been planning to leverage.

Setting aside for a moment the grim reminder that healthcare was a controversial topic in some places, it was disturbing, the fact Black Sheep's mom -- or the closest thing to it -- was the kind of woman to relish the prospect of someone dying alone in a hospital while their spouse was none the wiser. It was cartoonishly evil.

Player stares at the whiteboard a moment longer, at the brief notes he'd made under each faculty members' name, then wipes it clean with his hand. He's even more worried about Black Sheep than ever, but he's done with spear vishing -- he's clearly not cut out for it, given how badly he got Coach's motivations wrong --  and he's out of options, so he tabs open all the forums he's been neglecting to keep up with and resolves himself not to dwell on it. She'll contact him if she can. Until then, there's nothing he can do except keep himself busy.



He doesn't forget about her. Honestly, he couldn't if he wanted to, what with someone calling from her number about once a fortnight -- his upcomance for pranking them all summer, probably. He picks up every time, screening out of habit, but by mid-November, he's pretty much lost hope, and he's got school to worry about. When another call comes at the start of December, he contemplates for half a second just giving up, but he just...can't. Not yet.

"Guten tag, Strudelhaus of Düsseldorf. Can I help you?" he says tiredly, not looking away from his compiler, which is throwing up an alarming number of bugs at him. It takes a moment of her stuttering for him to even recognise her voice. "It's me, I'm screening!" he assures her, if only to stop her sounding so anxious. Black Sheep never sounds anxious.

"Player," she breathes, and while he appreciates the sentiment, he has many, many pressing questions for her.

"Where have you been?" is the first one, followed by a very understated, "Strange people have been answering your phone!"

"It's...not my phone. I stole it."

"So you're a shoplifter," Player guesses, narrowing his eyes at the waveform of her voice in a small window in the top left corner of his screen. "And you haven't called me all summer long because you've been in jail." He's trying to make her laugh — there's too much weirdness around her for it to be something that simple — but instead she just sighs heavily.

"Player, remember when you told me you used your wicked skills for good?"

"The white hat hacker's code."

"What would you say if I told you… I had wicked skills too?" Black Sheep asks tentatively. He gets the sense she means something beyond her pranks, and sure enough, she adds, "...from being raised in a school for thieves?"

There's a beat between them while Player's brain tries to comprehend the answer to about 75% of the questions on his megalist of Black Sheep Mysteries. "I'd say...that would a lot," he manages around that.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Black Sheep whispers, which, like. It’s midday on a Saturday. What’s he going to do, abandon his friend who’s been absent for five months to go grocery shopping with his dad?

Almost as he thinks this, he hears a knock on his door. He hastily mutes his mic and hangs his headphones around his neck. “Come in!” he calls.

It is, in fact, his dad. “Hey, kiddo, your mom and I were thinking of seeing a movie this afternoon. We could see that Spiderman one you were excited about?”

...Surely Black Sheep would understand him abandoning her for — no, who’s he trying to kid, Black Sheep has never actually seen a movie because she was raised in a school for thieves.

“Player,” he hears through his headphones, and he holds up a finger to his dad as he lifts one side of the headphones to his ears. His dad, well accustomed to this behaviour, holds his hands up in surrender and steps backwards through the door.

Player eyes the still-open door as he unmutes his mic and listens to Black Sheep. “I’m staring at a hard drive containing data that could fuel a criminal empire for a year,” she says, and now she definitely has his attention. “This may be my only shot to secure it.”

“Then use those wicked skills already,” he tells her, before muting his mic again and tossing his headphones onto the keyboard.

He nearly butts heads with his dad in his haste to get through the door.

“Sorry,” he says, and he really, really means it. “Raincheck. I’m helping with an open source thing and the deadline’s tonight. Have fun at the movie!”

He shuts the door before his dad can respond, and throws himself back into his seat. He’s barely in time to hear the garbled voice of an unknown woman and Black Sheep herself hiss, “Gah, missed it!”

He’s about to hit unmute when she continues, “If anyone sees me take it, I’ll never make it off this island. I need to avoid detection at all costs — ah, crud.”

There follows the strangest, most one-sided conversation Player’s ever heard. He knows Black Sheep’s mic isn’t uni-directional — it picked up another voice minutes ago — so his best guess is that whoever caught her is using pen and paper to communicate.

“This is the most one-sided conversation I’ve ever heard,” Player says during one of the lengthy pauses.

“Shh, quiet,” Black Sheep chides. Player makes the same gesture of surrender his dad just made, even though she can’t see it, and lets her finish the conversation.

“It was just some creepy mime who hangs around campus watching everything,” she explains, and he’s just about to point out the obvious problem with that when she realises it herself. “...And everyone, because he’s a spy and a snitch!”

There’s the sound of a scuffle, and about thirty long, long seconds later, Black Sheep says, “All good. I’ve locked him in the janitor’s closet.”

“They don’t teach lockpicking at your thieves’ school?” Player asks. Rather than a response, he hears a door opening, a threat, and the door slamming shut again.

"Time to catch the bookkeeper," Black Sheep says, and then her mic picks up nothing but her laboured breathing. Player feels sort of useless, but at the same time, it's exciting to bear safe witness to what's turning into a high-stakes heist.

“Key card activated elevator,” she gasps after a moment. “If she makes it to the server room, she’ll upload the data.”

“So you can’t let her see you take the drive,” Player guesses, “but if that elevator leaves without over.”

“Gotta think fast,” Black Sheep mutters to herself. He’s not sure what she does next, but he hears the elevator ding and Black Sheep begin to address someone else. For a born-and-raised thief, she’s not a good liar.

He stays quiet this time around, determined not to distract her. He notes the hissed hydraulics of the elevator door, the way the woman with the data drive — Ms Booker? Cookie Booker? That can’t be a real name — sounds more distant, and he’s desperate to know, but finally, there’s another hiss and —

“Got it,” Black Sheep says smugly. “Bait and switch.” Player feels a small glow of pride, but pushes it aside to focus on the more pressing matter.

“Do you have an escape plan?”

“The only ways off the island are the chopper, which I can’t fly, the sub, which I can’t drive, or Cookie Booker’s boat. That’s the reason I had to wait so long to contact you. She only visits once a year.”

Player sits back in his chair. “Your plan was always to escape,” he says out loud. “The data drive —”

“A crime of opportunity,” Black Sheep confirms.

“Wait, can you drive a boat?” Player asks.

“I aced Doctor Bellum’s class. How hard could it be?” she says over the hiss of the elevator doors. It’s the last thing he hears before the line drops. His attempt to call her back doesn’t go through.

Player takes a deep breath and tips his chair back. She’ll be fine. She has wicked skills.

He takes the enforced quiet as a sign he should get up and stretch a bit — he’d been at his desk for several hours even before Black Sheep called. He’s nearly done when she calls back.

“Player, I made it,” she says when he picks up. There’s an emotion in her voice that he can’t identify. “I’m off the island. I need to know where on earth I am.”

“Triangulating your position,” Player says, although he’s got a pretty good guess. He’s proven right a moment later.

“It was an interesting place to grow up," Black Sheep muses, "but it’s time to see the rest of the world. No more bookkeepers. And no more VILE.” 

He scribbles the name onto his whiteboard for further research as he says, “You’ll need a passport. And I don’t think Black Sheep’s gonna cut it. You do have a name, don’t you?”

“It’s…” The hesitation makes him think that maybe she didn’t. “Carmen,” she decides. “Carmen Sandiego.”

As he contacts the people who can help him build her a new identity, a question niggles at the back of Player's mind. He still has school and his other projects, and he can already tell that this is going to be more involved than anything he's done before. Whatever Carmen needs, it's not something for a weekend hobby hacker. Either he has to commit to whatever this thing is going to turn into, or he needs to be honest with her and set her up with another hacker, and soon, before his parents find out.

Eventually, Carmen finds a pen and asks the inevitable. As he gives the details of a nearby parcel pick up point he uses sometimes, he wonders if it’s already too late to back out.