“She didn’t kill herself.” Aurora’s mother glared fiercely at the air in front of her. Her shoulder twitched when her husband reached for it.

“My dear…”

“I’m telling you, I know my daughter. She would not do this.” Pritha Bello shook off his consoling hand angrily. “She had plans. That job in Germany, that was promising. Even if it didn’t come through, she had research she wanted  to do. Writing projects. Lots of ideas. The last time we spoke, she said she was almost done packing up her apartment, she would bring her things down as soon as she gave the keys to the landlord.” She turned to me, bereft. “She was going to stay here with us while she decided what to do next. I made up her bed with fresh sheets just a few days ago.”

“The coroner ruled it an accident,” her husband murmured to me.

“How?” his wife demanded. “How could she have made such as mistake? After all these years, an overdose by mistake?”

He sighed. “Who knows? She had her moods, Pritha, you know that. Losing her position was hard on her.”

“I spoke to her that very morning. She was fine.”

“I’m sorry.” Winston Bello gave me a strained and joyless smile. “We are finding this situation very difficult.”

“Difficult,” Pritha muttered under her breath like a curse.

It was the afternoon of the funeral, a sad celebration of a life abruptly cut short. Some of her MIT connections attended, along with a few Eventive people—the man I called Jeeves, who had left his tablet behind for once and a couple of young engineers, associates of Robbie who I didn’t know well. Our small number was dwarfed by dozens of relatives and friends of Aurora’s parents, who adjourned from the service to the small house where Aurora had grown up, swirling around the bereaved parents, offering condolences and food. I had gotten a ride from a cousin and stayed behind as the guests began to drift away, sharing hugs and tears as they departed. I was the last one there. It was becoming awkward. Why doesn’t this girl go and leave us alone with our sorrow? But then Pritha began to speak from the heart and her anger had boiled over.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” Winston said in the uncomfortable silence, and he headed for the kitchen, where every surface was crowded with containers of food.

“I agree with you,” I told Pritha. “I don’t think she killed herself.”

“So, you go for the accidental overdose theory?” She scrubbed an eye with the heel of her hand. “I don’t know, it’s all impossible. How did she seem to you?”

“I only saw her once after … it was almost two months ago. I wanted to get together, but she said she didn’t want to get me in trouble. With work.”

She gave me a watery smile. “She liked you very much.”

“She was the best. Really. I learned so much from her.”

“I just don’t understand why she was let go like that. She worked so hard for that company.”

“She was the smartest person there, too.” Not long ago I wouldn’t have said that without feeling a twinge of disloyalty to Robbie. No more. It had become obvious that her absence left a gaping hole in the company’s expertise, and a number of innovative projects, including Robbie’s, were stalling out.

“So what happened?”

I chose my words carefully. “She had concerns about some things the company was doing. Did she talk to you about it?”

“No. Just that she and Adam could no longer work together. A matter of principle. Do you know what those concerns were?”

“I don’t know all the details. But I’ll find out what I can, I promise you that. She was a good friend. A good person.”

“And she didn’t kill herself,” Pritha whispered, her eyes fixed on mine, shadowed with trouble. I could see the question she wasn’t asking in the crease of her brow, in the gaunt lines around her mouth. “There’s all this ugliness online. People saying cruel things, sharing photos that aren’t real. Ridiculous rumors. Everything they are saying about her is a lie.”

“I know.”

“I don’t understand why there is so much hate in the world. Why people would attack her like that. What could have set it all off?”

“It was orchestrated, and she knew it.”

“Oh my god. My poor girl.” She gazed at a collection of framed photos arranged on the wall. A baby Aurora, swaddled in a banket. A toddler Aurora. A dozen Auroras, marking the years, up to the latest one, a family picture with Aurora in the middle, wearing her PhD regalia, holding her dissertation and a bottle of champaign. Pritha began to tell me stories about each picture, each moment in her daughter’s life, until Winston brought out mugs of tea. We sat and he added his own fond reminiscences of a child who was brilliant and funny and now, suddenly absent.

“She was very concerned about events in my home country, Nigeria,” he said abruptly. “A cousin of hers was injured by some hooligans brawling about a political issue. He was just a bystander, but he was beaten badly.”

“She told me. How is he doing?”

“He’s recovering, though he permanently lost the sight in one eye. She was deeply upset about it. There’s such a lot of misinformation being shared there on social media. She blamed her industry for profiting from lies, but it wasn’t her fault. I mean, does the company even operate in Nigeria?”

“Eventive doesn’t have an office there so far as I know.”

“She was so troubled about it.”

“There’s plenty of reason to be troubled,” I said. “In the industry, I mean.”

“I never knew exactly what her work was about,” Pritha said, studying me.

“She was finding new ways to teach computers to solve problems. The last time we talked about it, she was troubleshooting a recurrent neural network. I didn’t really understand it. My job is just tech support for the businesses that use our platform. Her work was innovative, and way over my head. But whatever she did, she cared about doing the right thing. That’s why she got into it with Adam Barton.”

“She told us she had given a presentation that made him angry.”

“Maybe. I mean, they already had disagreements.”

“He used it as an excuse,” Winston suggested, and I nodded. “It was so humiliating for her, being told to clean out her desk, escorted out of the building like a criminal in front of everyone. She was always top of her class, the one who went to state with her science fair projects. She told us she had chosen badly when she took that job. He had funded her research, you see. It made her feel beholden.”

“That man,” Pritha growled. “I’ll never forgive him.”

“Did you see what Pritha did with the flower arrangement?” Winston asked me. She ducked her head, embarrassed but obviously pleased by the proud tone of his voice. “Adam Barton had an arrangement sent to the funeral home, very showy, terribly expensive I’m sure. His assistant was there when she read the card. Expecting us to forgive and forget, I suppose.”

“That smarmy little man.” She shuddered.

Winston beamed at his wife. “She called the funeral director over and asked where the waste bins were. In front of everyone she picked up that huge bunch of flowers—almost bigger than her!—and took it out to the dumpster in the back, heaved it in. Came back inside…” He dusted his hands off theatrically and chuckled.

“Good for you,” I said.

“I couldn’t bear to look at it. After what he did? No.” She grasped her husband’s outstretched hand as they looked at one another, for a moment sharing a triumph.

“She cared about you,” I said. “A lot. It bothered her she didn’t get to seem much of you. The schedule at work is insane. I mean, she couldn’t get away, and I know it made her sad. You know something? I envied her. She told me about you, about the aunties and uncles and cousins and I don’t have any of that, and I could tell it meant the world to her, knowing you always had her back.”

“You’re very kind,” Winston said as his wife flicked tears from her eyes.

“We understood the pressures of work,” she said. “She was so diligent. Even after she was let go, she wanted to tie up loose ends, staying up there in Boston until her lease was up. She didn’t have to, but she wanted to make sure everything was tidied up. Shipshape. She was going to be here by the end of the week. I was so looking forward to…” She took a deep breath, shook her emotion away, then said in a brisk tone “Will you stay for supper? We have so much food. We would love to have you.” In reality, she looked exhausted, holding it together by sheer will.

“No. I have to get to the airport.” I glanced at my phone. “In fact, my ride will be here in just a couple of minutes. I should go wait on the sidewalk. I just wanted you to know … those concerns she had, I won’t let them drop. And also, I’m just really sorry about everything.”

We all stood and I reached for my coat and bag. “I’ll wait with you,” Winston said. “Let me get my jacket.”

Pritha gave me a firm hug, practically bruising my ribs. “Take care,” she whispered, her eyes full of warning as her husband returned.

We stood on the stoop together looking down the street. It was a chilly autumn evening and the sun had already set. “She would never say it,” Winston told me, “but it’s actually my fault.”

“What? How?”

“Aurora’s illness. It runs in my family.”

“But she was managing it.”

“Yes, but being let go like that, discovering it would be hard to pick up the pieces, then all that ugliness online. It was too much. Her intelligence, that all came from Pritha. My side of the family only brought trouble. Her illness. I was spared, but it’s in my genes. I passed it down.” He said it with grim certainty, as if making a confession to a crime.

“Bullshit. Everything she got from both of you was positive,” I said. “I saw her in all of her moods. She understood them, like weather patterns. The last time we talked, she was fine, she was determined. She wanted to make things right. I don’t think she took her life. And none of this is your fault.”

“It’s kind of you to say.” He wasn’t convinced, I could see, but he put a good face on it. “This must be your driver.”

Another hug, just as warm though gentler than Pritha’s, then he picked up my bag as I climbed in. “Thank you for coming.” He passed it to me.

“Of course.”

“Do stay in touch.” As we drove away I looked back at him, standing on the sidewalk, his shoulders slumped, his expression vacant, looking like a man who had paused while on a long journey, suddenly realizing he was lost.


I didn’t get Robbie’s text until I had landed and turned on my phone.


>wtf you were at the funeral


He must have been furious, typing those words. Jeeves must have clued him in, or the engineers he worked with. Those two had stuck their necks out, showing up. At first I had been bummed seeing them there, knowing word would get back and it would cause conflict, but I was glad to see Aurora had some friends in the upper echelons. I typed a reply.


>Had some downtime in NYC before my next flight, squeezed it in. Drunk guy in the seat next to me fell asleep and his head kept flopping over onto my shoulder, plus he slobbered, ugh. Just landed in Austin. It’s HOT here!!

>why do you travel all the time? You should have your staff do these prezos.

>This one’s too important. Big $$$, cant risk having my minions screw it up. Gonna rest up for tomorrow. Make sure you eat something. xoxo


I checked into my hotel, ordered some food, went over my presentation and went to bed. The next day I did a bang-up job convincing some scuzzy PR outfit that we could revolutionize their workflow with tools that would obliterate the competition. When it became clear they were hoping to get in on some of the millions of dollars sloshing around political campaigns I organized a virtual meet-and-greet with one of the engineers who handled sensitive clients for a higher fee.

Then I headed off to California to touch base with one of our most profitable clients who had opted for several upgrades and wanted some hands-on assistance. I had built some extra time into the schedule to schmooze at a tech conference at Stanford—and made sure I had downtime in between to take a look at that thumb drive I’d been carrying with me ever since I left Boston.

After landing at the airport I rented a car and drove into San Francisco, where I stopped by a computer store and bought a new laptop. I went to a low-key café, ordered a beverage, then went to work. First I deleted all the bloatware that might try to call the mothership, edited the settings to disable all the virtual ports that could conceivably communicate with the outside world, and made sure the wifi and Bluetooth were disabled. Then, double-checking that nobody could see my screen and there were no cameras within view, I plugged in the USB labeled “Brazil” and started to read.

There was a readme.txt file that outlined the contents. Aurora had somehow collected hundreds of documents: memos, emails, conversations screen-capped from our internal version of Slack, slide decks and proposals given to big-ticket clients, all organized by topic. Foreign campaigns. Domestic political. Domestic other. Projects in development. I chose the files dealing with the Nigerian operation first. Then I scrolled through random files until my eyes were gritty and my vision was starting to blur.

No wonder she had been so careful when she gave this information to me. It was a vast encyclopedia of highly sophisticated dirty tricks. And while I had been unsure before, I now was convinced that having these documents in her possession, or simply knowing what was in them, had gotten her killed.

I removed the USB drive, checked to make sure there wasn’t any trace of the documents cached anywhere, then checked again, before I restored the settings and returned it to the store, telling them I’d changed my mind. Robbie might notice it on my credit card statement—he monitored them haphazardly—but I wouldn’t have any trouble making up an excuse. Thought I could use it at home, but decided against it.

One more stop: a legendary community makerspace in the Mission. I paid for a membership, settled at a desktop running a Linux OS, made sure there was no spyware running in the background, downloaded the Tor browser, started up a VPN, and connected to a server in Switzerland that I had learned about years ago from the IRC channel where cypherpunks preached privacy. It was still running, and still provided free end-to-end encrypted storage for those in the know. I created an account, ran some checks to make sure it was maintaining the latest security protocols, and uploaded a copy of all of Aurora’s files. I took advantage of the makerspace’s coffee machine while the files transferred and chatted with some pre-teens who were making a video game about zombies.

It wasn’t until I tried to sleep that night that I questioned whether I should be doing this at all. If knowing what Eventive was up to had led to Aurora’s murder, they might want me deleted, too. But as I thought about what she must have gone through to get those documents, and what her final weeks must have been like, alone and aware of what she was up against, I decided I had to do whatever I could to bring that cache of damning information to light.


“Metamorph!” Brian Friedman opened his arms in welcome as he saw me across the lobby. I waved back and went over to the coffee bar where he was waiting for a drink. “How are you doing?”

“Great. Here to network, as usual. You?” I shook his hand and made sure he got the scrap of paper I had passed over to him.

“Hoping to pick up a story idea.” He glanced around, unfolded the note and squinted down at it.

“How are the kids?”

“Fantastic.” He didn’t skip a beat. “Jake has discovered jokes. He wants to be a stand-up comedian but his gags are terrible.” He looked up at me, squinting in puzzlement, but nodded.

“Going to get some fresh air before it starts. See you around.” I headed for the door, crossed the street and stood under a tree that had a canopy of gnarly arms stretching out overhead. Some kind of bird that doesn’t live in Boston made strange wind-up toy noises from its branches. It wasn’t as hot here as Austin had been, but it felt like a completely different season than the damp, chilly city I had left three days previously. Semi-tropical and balmy, with an acrid hint of smoke in the air. I vaguely remembered hearing about wildfires from the news channel running in the airport. The campus was beautiful and had that otherworldly vibe of being an island reserved for deep thoughts, but the air smelled like danger.

As Brian crossed the street and looked around for me, I found the Faraday pouch in my purse and pulled it out to show him. I’d purchased it at the store where I’d returned the laptop, paying cash. I dropped my phones in and he followed my example, bemused. “What’s up?”

“I have some documents for you. But I need everything I tell you to be off the record. Is that what I mean? I can’t have anyone trace this to me.”

“Technically, ‘off the record’ ties my hands—I can’t do anything with what you tell me. Can I use what you tell me for background? Or maybe quote you without identifying who you are?”

“No. No quotes. I just need to get this information out, and you’re the only reporter I know.”

“Okay. No quotes, and I will be careful not to write anything that could identify you, does that work? Tell me about these documents. What are they? How’d you get them?”

“You know Aurora Bello?”

His eyes glanced away, then back. Shit, he had heard the rumors. “I’ve read some of her papers. She worked with you at Eventive, right?” His tone was studiously neutral.

“Whatever you’ve been hearing about her, it’s all lies. She got canned for objecting to things the company is doing and then they set out to smear her reputation. Made sure nobody would believe anything she said. That she would never work in the industry again.”

“’They’ being—”

“Eventive. Well, Adam Barton’s various enterprises, he has a number of them. It’s his business model. Manipulate the public for a price.”

“You still work there?”

“For now. Brian, what they’re doing is awful. I haven’t read through all the documents, but … it’s bad. They have enormous amounts of data about every adult in the country and code that lets clients get inside their heads.”

“Sounds like Facebook’s ad program. Extreme market segmentation and a lot of A/B testing.”

“It’s way more powerful than what Facebook offers, and it’s not just ads. The commercial version is what I’ve been pitching to businesses all these years. How to persuade people to buy your shit. But it goes much deeper than that. They have active political influence campaigns that back up media operations with actual violence. That’s mostly done through Barton’s other companies.”

“What are these other companies?”

“He has a whole tangle of businesses that do essentially the same thing as Eventive but operate independently so they can offshore risk and keep sensitive information compartmentalized. One company specializes in political operations in foreign countries. During a Nigerian election they hired and directed mercenaries to literally attack members of an opposition party—like, beating people up with tire irons—to supplement a tech team that flooded social media with propaganda and incitements to mob violence. They did something similar in Turkey. Another case: this hacker in Romania, he worked for a shady outfit that did jobs for Barton’s sleaziest clients and was paid in Bitcoin. He ran CNAs like DDoS attacks—”

“Hang on, I know what a DDoS attack is, you flood servers to take websites down, but CNA…”

“Computer network attacks. A whole menu of mischief on offer: phishing emails that insert malware, exfiltrating sensitive data, finding vulnerabilities to exploit. Basically fucking with your enemies for a fee. One of his coworkers got burned over a foreign operation and went to prison. Barton denied any responsibility, of course. That pissed the hacker off. He found Aurora and told her about all the shit they did. He was in the states to attend a hacker convention out west, but first he did some sightseeing in the mountains, where he had a fatal car accident. She got a copy of the police report. There was no reason for his car to run off the road. The weather was fine, there wasn’t any oncoming traffic. No skid marks. Nothing wrong with the vehicle. He just drove right off a cliff.”

“You think it wasn’t an accident.”

“The vehicle he was driving was one of the models that can be remotely hacked through its onboard wifi system. The car maker sent out a patch, but a lot of people didn’t install it. Somebody could have remotely jacked up the braking system or accelerator, or even the steering.”

“And happened to do it right when he got to a handy cliff?”

“GPS. It’s not that hard to track exactly where people are. Not if you know what you’re doing, and Adam Barton knows.”

Brian got that carefully neutral look on his face again. “Okay, but it could have just been an accident. The guy got distracted for a minute. It happens.”

“Maybe. But once you read through those files you may think differently. Barton started out in military cyber ops, then went to the NSA. Now he does contract work for them. We’re talking serious capabilities. He’s hired a lot of talent, he’s personally well informed about the latest in signals intelligence, he has a South African named Connie Uys running a crew of mercenaries, and he has no principles. Look, it’s bad enough what Eventive is doing. They manipulate people at scale and they don’t care who gets hurt. But it goes deeper, and darker. Aurora tried to change the company culture, but it wasn’t possible. They kicked her out and did everything they could to destroy her. And now she’s dead.”

He studied me. “You think that’s suspicious, too. That explains all the cloak-and-dagger.”

Fuck. He wasn’t buying it. “Forget it. I’ll find someone else to work with.”

He grabbed my elbow. “No, hold on. I’m definitely interested, and if it pans out it’s a big story. It’s just … you know, it’s a lot to take in.”

“Wait till you go through the documents. There’s a lot there. I don’t know how she got them all without getting caught, but if anyone could do it, Aurora could. She was really good. Smarter than anyone there.”

“You seriously think she might have been murdered?”

“I don’t know, but I talked to her parents a few days ago. Her mother is convinced it wasn’t suicide or an accidental overdose, no matter what the official story is. And given everything I know about Aurora, I think her mom’s right. She had a mental illness, that part of the gossip is true, but it was diagnosed when she was a teenager and she kept up with meds and therapy. She couldn’t have accomplished everything she did if it wasn’t well under control.”

“But getting fired is tough. Getting brigaded online is emotionally exhausting. She had a lot going on.”

“She was in regular touch with her parents. I’m sure her mother would have picked up on it if things were going sideways. She talked with Aurora the morning of her death and didn’t get that vibe at all. Besides, Aurora wanted to do something about Eventive. She had a reason to live.”

“What was she planning?”

“She wouldn’t tell me. Said it would be dangerous for me to know. But she knew I had a journalist friend and gave me a copy of her documentation in case something happened to her. Which is why I’m doing this.”

“Okay.” He took a breath. “These documents. How do I get—”

Feeling exposed and vulnerable I passed him the thumb drive as casually as I could, just a friendly gesture, clasping his hand. It was hot from my hand, as if still carrying Aurora’s warmth, or maybe a dose of radioactivity. He managed to slip it into his pocket unobtrusively. “You’ll need to be careful,” I told him. “I used an air-gapped computer, and you should, too. If you don’t use tight security, they’ll catch on and they’ll kill the story. Maybe more than the story.”

He laughed, even though it wasn’t a joke. “Don’t worry, I’ve handled sensitive info before, I know what to do. Can I reach out to you, though? Not for comment, just for context. I’m going to have questions. Unless you can give me the name of someone else there who I could—”

“No. There’s nobody I would trust.” I had hoped I could leave it all in his lap and go back to pretending I was a good little employee, but even with Aurora’s readme file there would be technical things he wouldn’t understand. “Do you use Signal? We can communicate that way.” I had a sudden vision of Robbie seeing a notification from Brian. He had a habit of picking up my phones and browsing my messages. He’ll kill me, I thought, feeling sick to my stomach. Not literally, but he would be furious, and he’d run to Adam to tell him about it.

“Don’t use my work or personal number,” I added. “I’ll get a burner. Give me a couple of weeks before I contact you. I need to organize some things. Figure out what to do.”

“Got it.”

“I’m scared, Brian. I don’t know how I’m going to keep working there, knowing what I know, but if I leave now it’ll just look suspicious. They know I was friends with Aurora. They won’t let me go without protecting themselves, and they know how to do it. You’ll see from those documents. They destroy people as a service.” That smoky air was getting darker, suddenly. My chest felt tight, so tight I felt like I was suffocating.

“Deep breath. It’s okay.” I felt his hand on my arm, steadying me. “Just breathe.” He gave me a moment to get it together. “We can do this,” he said, sounding committed for the first time. “I’ll take every precaution to keep these records safe and secret. You don’t need to take any more risks. Don’t even contact me if it doesn’t feel safe.”

“Okay.” The wave of dizziness began to ebb. I got my breathing under control. “I’m all right.”

“Just so you know, this is going to take time,” he went on. “A story like this is complex, and it needs to be solid. Since I’m a freelancer, I’ll need to pitch it to the right outlet and gain their support. Companies like Eventive have a lot of lawyers, and that makes editors cautious. Speaking of which, you might want to consult with an attorney, yourself. It would be best if you found someone with experience representing whistleblowers.”

“Oh, man. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“You’re being very brave.”

“No, Aurora was brave. I’m doing this because of her.”

“Leave it with me. Now, I’m going to go back in there and pretend I’m not in possession of a blockbuster story. Maybe you should take a break, go back to your hotel, or—”

“No. I need to act like normal. Even if normal means working for Evil Corp.”

He gave my arm a squeeze. “Let’s see what we can do to hold them accountable. Meanwhile, be safe.”

I was. For a while.




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