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UNFRIENDED COMPETITION FINALIST
I lost my laptop for a few days, and after a thorough search of my apartment, I retraced my steps to an internet café called Trista’s that I occasionally visit. I could have sworn I remembered having it after leaving Trista’s, and I knew it was a long shot, but I checked there anyway. I asked the manager if they had a lost and found, and within three seconds I had it back in my possession. He said some older guy had returned it – said he found it under a chair in the corner where I usually sit.
Without thinking much beyond joy that I’d found my laptop, I took it and returned to my apartment two blocks away. I booted it up to make sure that nothing had happened to any of my files, and was horrified to discover that every last icon on my desktop had been wiped clear – all except on in the center of the screen. I clicked on it and it opened a series of pages – websites I’d seen but had never myself visited. It was called TOR, and it took me to a website, which for obvious reasons I will not share, and I found myself in a chatroom. TOR is a web browser that allows you access into a back end version of the internet ominously named the “dark web” where you can acquire everything from illegal substances to actual people, and even hire hitmen. It was something I’d heard about through the grapevine but something that scared the hell out of me so I’d never dared to dive too far into it.
I went to close the screen and delete the browser when I saw a message appear in the chatroom. It said: 49524953 wants to chat.
Obviously it was a bot or something. I went back up to close the window when I saw another message.
It used my name and I felt chills crawl up my spine. Sophisticated bot, and a little eerie, but nothing I wanted a part of. I again hovered the mouse over the X in the corner of the window, and another message came through, but this time it wasn’t plain text.
Something about this struck me. This wasn’t just something a machine put together – this was something different. I’d seen this before, or something like this. I copied the text and opened a new window. After a little searching I realized why it seemed so familiar. It was encoded in something called base64, and as soon as I figured that out, I was able to decipher the message. This is what it said:
Have you ever wanted to be a part of something bigger than yourself? This is your chance.
Welcome to the Integrated Radical Initiatory System (IRIS). We are pleased to announce that you have been selected to participate in an introductory activity which will ensure you membership into IRIS and secure the safety of yourself and your loved ones.
If you are reading this, you have passed your first test of admittance and have already secured safety for yourself and your family for the time being.
This first correspondence is simply to begin the process of your inclusion. Please follow the below instructions carefully:
In the near future, you will be approached by a man in a red baseball hat. He will ask you if you enjoy watching the Baltimore Orioles. You must tell him that you do, and you prefer listening to them on GUVF Radio.
If you do not engage in conversation with that man or answer exactly as specified, that man has instructions to kill you.
If you contact the police, you and your family will all perish in a fatal accident.
Again, congratulations and welcome to IRIS.
This had to be some joke, right?
I closed out of the window and went to delete the browser from the desktop, but something in the back of my head screamed at me to wait, just in case. There was something wrong here, much more wrong than just a simple bot.
What had I just stumbled upon?
The next day I was a paranoid mess, the day after that I’d begun to convince myself I was being silly, and the day after that I had begun to believe it.
Until I met the man in the baseball hat.
I was at the store buying milk when I saw someone in the corner of my eye. He approached me and stood there as if he were trying to get milk as well. I grabbed the milk and went to be on my way when I noticed the baseball cap. It was bright red and the man beneath is was older, but not quite elderly – maybe in his late fifties or early sixties.
He looked at me through wild, hazel eyes and wore a grim expression on his face. When he spoke it was nearly a whisper and I couldn’t quite hear him, although I already knew what he was going to say.
“What?” I asked.
He swallowed. “Do you…. Like the Baltimore Orioles?”
I stared back at him incredulously. Was this real? The backs of my hands tingled and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I had the sudden impulse to look around to see if anyone was watching me, but I held my eye contact with the man.
“Um…” I said, trying to remember the exact words I needed to say. “Yeah… I prefer listening to them on GUVF Radio.”
He suddenly relaxed, pulling his hands from the pockets of the windbreaker he wore. As he did this, I saw a glimmer of black metal in his pocket. He had a gun.
“What’s going on?” I asked, trying not to let the panic rise in my throat.
“I can’t tell you,” he said quietly. “4973546865.”
“4973546865.” He said, then stood up nervously and left.
I quickly pulled my phone out and punched the numbers into a blank text message. When I looked up, he was gone.
That night as I lay in bed, contemplating the possibility that I was schizophrenic and that perhaps this wasn’t really happening, I heard the PING of a notification on my computer. I got up and went over to it, knowing what it was beforehand, but not wanting to think about it beyond that.
I had a new message from the same series of numbers. This time it was a different encryption:
In a moment of fear and adrenaline, I responded to the message.
I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I’m not interested in becoming a part of whatever it is you are. You’re a terrorist group or something and I’ll get the police or the military or whoever I need to in order to stop you from hurting anyone else. I don’t want anything to do with you. Please stop contacting me.
Fuck you guys.
Not thirty seconds later, I received a response.
I stared at the numbers for a moment, trying to see if I could pick up a pattern or something – anything -when someone knocked on the door and I jumped so badly I nearly fell off the chair. I stood up and went downstairs to see who it was.
When I opened the door, cautiously at first, I saw that it was to a police officer who stood on the other side. He was a burly man with a thick graying beard. Behind him, parked on the curb was a patrol car. “Hello, someone called and asked for a wellness check at this address.”
“What?” I asked.
“A wellness check – one of your friends or neighbors called in and said someone here was in a negative state of mind and was worried that they might decide to make a permanent solution for a temporary problem, if you know what I mean. They wanted to make sure you were okay and weren’t about to do anything stupid.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m fine. I’m not gonna do anything. Who called you?”
He looked down at the notepad he held in his hand. “We don’t typically share that information, but she actually requested that we do. It was a woman named Iris – didn’t give a last name. She said she was a friend of the family and that you’d know who she was.”
I felt the blood drain from my face.
“You all right, son?” the officer asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just had a long day.”
“All right,” he said. “Call us if you need anything.”
I nodded, then shut the door and walked back up to my bedroom, closing the door and locking it behind me.
I spent the next few hours working to decipher the message and finally decoded it at about three in the morning.
The first message read:
Ben, if you are reading this message, well done. As we move forward, you will undoubtedly notice that the level of difficulty in decrypting our correspondence will increase. The timeframe you are given to not only decipher the message but complete the request will also shorten as our requests continue, so we advise expedience.
We are please to inform you that because of your actions today, Mr. Red was not put in a position in which he would have to terminate you and was fortunate enough to be returned to his family this evening. You have done him a great service.
That being said, we appreciate your participation today and look forward to seeing you complete your next task.
We hope that now perhaps you understand the capabilities held by those in IRIS and we hope that you will keep that in mind as we move forward with your initiation. You are now being assigned your next required task. If you do not or are unable to complete this request, regardless of circumstance, you and your family will be terminated.
You have forty-eight hours to burn down a church building.
Again, congratulations on your initiation into IRIS.
And the second message responding to my callous and careless remark:
I don’t think you understand. You don’t have a choice.
It was then, in the middle of the night, that two things became absolutely crystal clear to me. First, IRIS definitely knew who I was and where I lived – this wasn’t a game. And second, I had 48 hours to burn down a church before something terrible happened.
I don’t want to burn a church down, but I don’t think I have much of a choice at this juncture. I’ve done some research and picked out a few possible targets, just in case I can’t think of something else to do in the next 24 hours.
I feel like I’m being watched, especially after the incident with the police officer last night, I don’t even feel safe in my own home, so I bought a gun.
It’s a small black .308 Ruger pistol, easily concealable. When the man took my information for the background check, a thought occurred to me which I found unsettling. I have a clear background, but what if IRIS had somehow altered it – what if they wouldn’t let me buy a gun? What if I suddenly had a warrant out for my arrest?
These questions were quickly answered by the store clerk who looked up from his computer with a smile on his face and slid the gun box over the counter.
It’s been years since I went target shooting, so I took it out to the range as well. My spread was all over the target, but I at least hit the target 10 out of 12 times at ten meters, which I think it more than enough to bring a person down if that’s what it came to.
I take the gun everywhere I go now, just in case.
Before I do anything drastic, I wanted to find out everything there was to know about these IRIS people. Unsurprisingly, Google was of no help. I did some searching on TOR as well to see if maybe the dark web had something on them, but that was no help either. For all intents and purposes, IRIS doesn’t exist.
Except it does.
When I got home that night, I went through the mail and discovered a blank white envelope. I opened it up, not quite sure what to think, and pulled out a square piece of cardstock with two words written on it: TICK-TOCK.
I turned the piece of cardstock over and saw that the words had actually be written on the back of a polaroid picture. My stomach twisted, and I felt dizzy when I saw what the picture was of – my girlfriend and I standing in the parking lot of the Red Robin where I’d met her for lunch not even twelve hours before.
My pulse was racing when I dialed her number into my phone. It rang once… twice… three times. I was almost about to give up and call the police when she picked up the phone.
“Hey, what’s up?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was genuinely speechless.
I didn’t say anything. I stayed silent. I wanted to tell her what was going on, but my instinct told me that if I did, she was as good as dead.
“Sounds like your butt dialed me again! Have a good night!”
She hung up the phone and I stood there in stunned silence, racking my brain for ideas on what to do next.
I did some research the next morning and found a ghost town couple counties over. I didn’t want to do anything too close to home, so about an hour drive away seemed perfect.
With a couple of gallons of gasoline, I drove out to this abandoned town. It was dark, and I could hear coyotes in the distance, adding all too much to the creepy ambiance.
I drove around looking for a church, realizing as I did so that I hadn’t even verified if there even was one in the town, but hoping more than anything to get this done and out of the way as quickly as possible.
When I finally found the church, sitting at the end of a dirt road like a lone gravestone in a barren cemetery, I was filled with both relief and nervous anticipation. I was about to burn a church down. True, this had been abandoned for a long time now, but this was still a very prosecutable crime.
I stepped out of my car and went to the trunk, where I’d stored two full cannisters of gasoline.
The gas cans felt as if they were filled with lead as I carried them to the door of the church, which hung ajar on one hinge and had a pentagram painted across it with black paint.
I stepped inside and set one of the gas cans down, so I could pull out the pen light from my pocket.
The church was covered in graffiti and the corners were filled with beer cans, liquor bottles, needles and condoms. The smell of human excrement, rat feces, marijuana and other things which I couldn’t identify filled my nose and mouth, making me gag and gave me a new appreciation for the tolerable scent of gasoline which filled the cab of my car as I drove over here.
I was dizzy as I walked down the center aisle to the pulpit and opened my first gas can. I poured it over the top and down the front, thankful for the spicy scent of gasoline and hoping that the wood would catch instead of the flames just burning out after the gas was gone. It was cracked and broken in parts, so I thought it would.
I emptied the gas can on the first few pews, then went for the second one.
I poured the gasoline on the remaining pews, then dumped the rest in a giant puddle in the center aisle. My shoes slopped around in the liquid as I did this, and I knew that the smell would follow me like a ghost for at least the next few days.
I went back to my car and got the pieces of rope I’d cut before leaving my house.
I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of rednecks messing with gasoline to try to light it like they do in the movies. I wanted to keep my eyebrows where they were and preferred not having to go to a hospital to explain exactly why I smelled like gas and was covered in third-degree burns.
I had two pieces of rope. One was tied to the pulpit, hanging down well away from the gas, and the other was left on the ground with one end in the large puddle of gas and the other end close to the exit.
When I was satisfied with my makeshift wicks, I lit the tips of the rope on fire with a lighter, then bolted out of the church.
I backed my car away and waited.
I don’t know what exactly I was expecting – maybe some Mission Impossible-type explosion where the windows shatter and the doors are blown off their hinges as I dove for safety, but nothing of the sort happened. I almost thought that I’d messed up somehow with the makeshift wicks, when I finally saw the light of fire flickering within the church and I knew that I’d finished what I came to do.
I shifted my car into drive and went to push the gas when I noticed a small business card sitting on the passenger seat.
I picked it up. It was white and completely blank except for a series of six numbers: 576179.
I looked around in the back seat, stepped out of my car and examined the night. That card wasn’t there when I pulled up to the church, which meant someone had put it there only minutes ago. But as I shone the light of my flashlight out into the dark night, I saw nothing but the shadows of trees dancing like devils in light of the growing conflagration.
The next couple days were quiet. I got no emails, received no phone calls, nor was I contacted by anymore strangers. I was honestly beginning to let myself think it was over – or maybe even part of some sick joke that had gone too far.
I was wrong.
I awoke to the sound of a notification on my computer, which I’d grown to fear and hate.
The message read:
This one was a little more elegant, but I was able to eventually crack it too after figuring out that it was a 256 bit AES encryption and getting lucky with the passcode: 49524953. This was the username of the person contacting me, and as I soon figured out, also spelled IRIS in hexadecimal code. The message read:
Congratulations on your completion of the latest requested task. We commend you on your ability to carry out what would otherwise be a devastating attack with as little fallout as possible.
Choosing an abandoned church was a stroke of genius – the kind we pride our members of IRIS with. You have proven yourself worthy of the next task and secured your safety and that of your family for the time being.
As stated in our previous correspondence, your next task will be more difficult than the last, and will require far more skill and cunning as well.
You have 24 hours to procure a human finger and put it in the P.O. Box which you have already been provided with.
We understand that you may be averse to completing this task, as it does go against the grain of human nature, so as an incentive we have also provided you with a photograph which can be found inside your pillowcase.
Again, congratulations. IRIS looks forward to working with you again soon.
My stomach turned when I read it. The second to last sentence echoed in my brain long before I was able to completely process what it meant.
I needed to check my pillow case.
With palsied hands, I picked up my pillow and felt around the case. It was on the other side of the pillow, so I hadn’t noticed it when I’d been asleep. I wanted to believe it was there before I’d gone to bed and it was only by chance that I hadn’t discovered it, instead of the other obvious scenario where someone had put it beneath my pillow as I slept.
This was another picture of my girlfriend, except this was far worse.
It was a picture of her asleep in her bed, but it was taken to the left of her bed, not the right where the window was, and on the top corner I could see the blinds of her closet door. Someone had been in her bedroom to take that picture – someone had been in her closet.
I immediately called her, but she didn’t answer. I went down to her apartment, but her roommate said she’d left early that day and had left her phone.
I can’t tell if they have her or not, but I get the message loud and clear – I have to play their game.
It’s amazing how easily the human mind can cope with otherwise outlandish things while under duress. It’s hard to imagine hacking off your own arm, yet Aaron Ralston did just that when he was trapped in the side of a mountain. He was able to wrap his mind so fully around the idea, that he actually carried out the deed by himself without any sort of pain medication.
When faced with life and death, our instinct chooses life every time.
I have to get a human finger.
Armed with a pair of bolt cutters and a sour stomach, I went to the only place I knew I could get a finger without torturing someone – the morgue.
As hard as it was to admit it, getting the finger would actually be the easy part. The hard part would be getting TO the finger – or to the body, moreover. Usually places like city morgues have layers of security to prevent people like me from getting in – badges and locked door in the very least. I considered a funeral home instead, but I couldn’t imagine getting in without being outed – hospitals have hundreds of staff members, funeral homes may have a dozen or so. An unfamiliar face would be easily spotted.
I bought a set of mint green scrubs from the medical supply store. I’ve had to go to the hospital several times in my life, and I know that the majority of the staff wears that particular color.
As I entered the hospital, I was dizzy with anxiety. I swallowed hard and reminded myself that confidence will get most people in anywhere – I needed to act like I belonged there and not like I was only there to cut off some poor guy’s finger.
I saw the directory posted on the wall behind the main desk and found the morgue. It was downstairs – of course.
I pulled out a pair of fake glasses from my pocket and put them on, feeling a little silly but knowing that people subconsciously attribute glasses to intelligence, and I needed all the help I could get for what I was about to do.
I walked over to the elevator and pressed the down button. As I stood there, a few nurses came and waited next to me, I hoped one of them was going down as well.
The “up” button was pressed then, and my heart sank. This was going to be more difficult than I hoped.
When the elevator dinged, and the doors opened, I stepped in with a few others. One of the nurses scanned his badge and pressed the B1 level – to the morgue.
I put my hands in my pockets, hoping to look nonchalant as I tried to conceal the copious amount of sweat which was building up in my palms.
The elevator doors opened, and I followed the man out.
The walls were all white, except for a series of colored lines which showed the way to go. The red line labeled EXAMINATION traced the path down the hall and to the right. I followed it. The man I’d ridden the elevator with went the other way.
I came to a glass door then and was unsurprised to find it locked. A black box on the door frame told me I needed a badge to get in, or I needed someone else to open the door.
On the other side of the door, a woman sat at a desk on the far side of the room. She was transcribing something from paper to her computer and looked very intent on doing so. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
She looked up, and I waved awkwardly.
With a friendly, albeit somewhat annoyed smile, she stood from her chair, crossed the room, and opened the door.
“Forgot my badge,” I said, then thanked her for letting me in.
“Who are you?” she asked.
My pulse quickened. I planned on this question and delivered the lie as best I could.
“Alex Bailey,” I told her, supplying a fake name amalgamized from my friends in high school. “I’m a new intern.”
She frowned. “I wasn’t told about any interns coming in today. The doc’s not here.”
“One sec,” she said, then left the room from the door she’d just opened.
It was now or never.
I waited until I could no longer hear the click of her heels against the tile floor, then bolted for the door behind the desk.
I was immediately taken aback by the chill in the air. It was as if I could actually FEEL the death which I was now surrounded by.
Just like they show in the movies and the cop-drama television shows, the room glistened with stainless steel and the motors off the refrigeration units in the walls hummed quietly.
A table was set up in the center of the room with a black vinyl body bag set up on top. I hurried over to the bag and unzipped it.
Immediately I smelled iron and feces and my stomach rolled, threatening to betray me.
I swallowed my bile and looked around the room until I found a box of gloves on the counter. I put on a pair, then turned to the task at hand.
The man inside the bag was pale and his face was bruised. I closed my eyes, not wanting to think about who he was, or what had happened to him – only what was about to happen.
I reached inside and found his hand. It had blood smeared across it, but it was in-tact.
I pulled it out, then from the back of my scrubs, extracted the pair of bolt cutters. The man’s forearm was stiff and it took some effort to pull it out of the bag to see what I was doing.
I saw a number written in black sharpie scrawled on his forearm. It looked like some sort of barcode almost and struck something within me. I committed the numbers to memory, wondering if somehow, they had to do with IRIS, like the rest of the strings of numbers I’d encountered so far.
I read somewhere that the human finger is as easy to bite into as a baby carrot. The only thing stopping you from actually trying this, is your brain telling you “No, this is a finger, not a carrot.”
Although I did not use my teeth, I’m inclined to disagree with this idea.
When I placed the bolt cutters around the man’s index finger as close to the knuckle as I could, I imagined that the bone and muscle and everything else I was cutting through would be closer to an actual bolt than a carrot. I counted to three, then clamped down hard on the handles of the bolt cutters. I felt the jaws bite against the bone for just a brief second, then heard the stomach-wrenching crunch, not unlike the sound that’s made when you do bite into a carrot.
The finger plopped to the floor.
Stomach bile came up my throat and I choked it back down. I stuffed the man’s hand back in the bag and zipped it up, then picked the finger up off the ground. With it clutched in my fist, I took my glove off so that the finger now rested inside the latex examination glove, then stuffed it in my pocket.
I threw the other glove away and had just tucked the bolt cutters back down the seat of my pants when I heard the door open and saw the woman enter.
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she chided. “The examiner said you’re not supposed to be here unsupervised and that he doesn’t have any interns coming until tomorrow.”
“Sorry,” I said, my eyes shooting to the ground in what I hoped was an expression of solemnity. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“You better, and you better make sure not to mention to anyone that you were back here. It’s my ass too if they find out.”
I nodded, then hurried out the door.
The relief that exploded from my body when I was back in my car and driving home was pure and total euphoria. I’d done it.
This morning, I found a small brown box in my apartment from the days when I’d moved it and put it inside. I taped it up, wearing gloves as I did this to avoid any possible link back to me, then carried it to the post office.
Across the street from the post office slept a homeless man at a bus stop. I woke him up and told him I’d give him 20 dollars now to go drop this box in the only PO box I could think of: 576179.
When he came back, I’d give him another 20.
He repeated back to me the number, and I handed him the box.
I watched intently as he entered the post office, and through the sliding glass doors I watched as he handed the man at the desk the package.
When he came back, I again asked him the number of the PO box. He gave me the six digits, then asked for his cash. Digging in my pocket for the other twenty, I asked him if the postman said anything. He said he just wrote down the number, then popped it in the mail slot.
I paid him the twenty bucks then left.
Just like before, I had to wait to get my next response. It just barely came in.
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6e 70 58 52 58 4e 34 56 6b 67 34 54 32 35 33 51 58 4e 71 65 45 4a 30 65 6a 64 44 4f 46 70 51 62 6a 55 34 55 55 30 78 53 6c 4a 6c 64 6b 78 78 51 69 74 59 63 57 39 68 63 31 6c 4e 51 6e 52 56 55 47 31 4b 63 6e 52 53 55 30 31 78 57 47 6c 59 5a 48 68 43 51 57 34 33 4c 32 64 4c 65 6d 35 73 51 32 30 34 52 30 52 4a 54 47 6c 53 64 6d 4a 34 53 31 6c 6c 51 30 35 46 54 6a 56 77 61 30 31 4b 54 44 68 4d 55 58 42 52 65 6d 78 6f 63 45 5a 57 62 57 52 74 55 54 56 52 63 46 64 73 63 55 4a 32 56 48 64 70 56 32 78 31 64 6c 6c 4a 59 32 34 77 51 54 52 32 52 7a 56 31 61 31 70 36 54 6e 46 4c 53 54 42 61 61 33 4e 75 63 6b 39 35 61 45 35 74 52 32 35 79 4e 6b 56 75 56 46 56 4b 4d 32 35 4f 5a 46 64 4f 4f 56 64 6d 65 57 56 54 4d 30 4e 76 65 55 52 6c 64 46 46 54 65 54 4e 78 53 56 6b 78 53 57 64 43 62 47 46 6e 61 6d 6c 35 5a 31 5a 32 63 6a 4a 55 62 33 42 71 4d 30 6c 6c 4d 53 38 35 5a 54 56 72 62 55 67 78 52 32 4e 71 64 32 4a 48 52 30 46 53 4e 48 56 49 57 55 68 69 57 46 52 31 5a 45 39 49 57 6b 74 6d 52 55 39 69 56 55 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59 63 32 56 4f 52 46 68 58 53 47 39 6d 53 48 6f 77 51 7a 4e 7a 4e 31 45 31 4b 32 6c 7a 4f 57 6c 49 56 44 56 35 56 48 6c 70 51 6b 77 7a 54 48 42 4d 55 33 64 79 52 55 4a 35 5a 6b 5a 4a 63 47 5a 4c 51 6a 67 76 55 30 4a 4e 62 69 39 52 53 56 4e 79 53 54 46 47 62 53 39 42 52 47 78 34 61 57 5a 51 59 6d 4e 74 54 58 56 4b 4e 6b 34 7a 52 57 74 68 5a 57 6c 6f 56 69 39 79 5a 6c 42 57 5a 6e 4a 4f 59 6a 56 30 51 56 52 78 54 48 70 79 59 7a 42 46 4e 55 56 6b 4e 56 46 36 61 6b 39 55 5a 6e 5a 71 52 57 55 78 4f 45 52 59 64 45 45 35 54 48 42 74 62 55 68 4a 53 32 77 31 61 45 46 56 57 45 52 71 55 6c 5a 55 59 32 70 6b 61 47 78 46 52 45 52 48 56 32 68 68 59 6b 4e 78 4f 58 56 44 61 58 52 56 64 55 56 48 4d 33 4a 7a 63 32 74 6b 63 45 56 59 52 32 78 32 64 6d 64 53 51 31 6f 31 65 6c 42 6b 64 31 42 43 62 45 6c 46 4d 30 68 31 4e 55 4e 49 52 45 4e 6a 62 33 4a 32 4e 56 42 79 61 57 5a 4a 62 55 4e 49 4d 6d 4a 43 65 6a 4a 6e 52 30 4e 48 64 55 5a 5a 51 32 6b 77 53 6c 4a 6d 51 57 46 61 5a 32 70 58 4f 46 6f 77 51 6b 70 75 65 6d 70 6a 63 44 56 49 64 53 74 68 4f 45 31 6e 61 6b 67 72 57 58 68 45 4e 6c 4e 4e 64 32 51 35 55 57 67 76 62 32 39 49 5a 45 77 7a 52 55 49 32 53 6e 68 6d 5a 32 46 33 4e 33 5a 4a 63 46 56 53 5a 6b 46 7a 56 32 39 7a 52 58 5a 43 55 54 46 4e 4d 47 74 6c 63 7a 64 44 56 48 4e 76 53 57 74 43 4f 47 64 31 55 7a 46 71 53 79 74 6e 4d 30 35 4e 4f 47 6c 35 4d 6c 55 76 51 6c 46 77 55 30 74 57 53 30 4a 73 64 44 4a 61 52 7a 68 72 59 30 67 78 56 6d 46 71 54 31 6c 52 55 58 56 6d 63 44 67 35 55 6b 63 33 4e 6e 46 6d 61 47 68 54 59 54 52 53 56 56 46 30 53 46 68 50 52 7a 4e 4a 4b 31 6c 53 56 6d 5a 57 54 56 64 53 64 31 4e 4f 52 6a 67 32 4d 6c 4e 69 5a 44 4a 6a 52 6b 78 31 59 55 5a 69 5a 56 42 4c 53 30 39 6d 57 57 78 68 55 47 6c 49 52 47 6c 71 61 55 73 31 5a 6b 5a 33 54 6b 35 57 55 6d 78 6f 4c 33 56 78 52 7a 42 78 65 55 45 35 5a 32 56 74 52 45 56 74 61 57 46 30 64 6d 6f 34 55 6e 64 36 4e 6b 6b 76 54 55 52 78 5a 57 4e 35 5a 6d 39 50 59 6b 70 6b 4d 46 56 4e 54 31 46 79 4d 57 46 6d 54 32 35 35 61 33 56 4f 5a 58 4a 70 65 55 46 35 4e 6c 46 75 65 56 4a 74 5a 6a 4e 55 62 31 52 55 55 31 63 78 62 6b 56 79 63 48 70 6f 56 6e 46 78 56 32 68 59 64 48 63 78 65 55 74 4b 4e 6e 68 74 5a 53 73 30 5a 47 52 7a 63 6a 67 31 54 48 6c 35 63 44 42 50 54 58 52 35 61 48 41 7a 52 45 6b 30 62 44 4a 4b 63 46 5a 47 56 6c 6c 48 53 56 46 59 56 45 55 33 57 6e 68 71 51 55 74 59 4e 48 46 6d 52 54 42 46 52 56 6c 70 62 56 68 59 63 7a 42 30 4e 6d 6c 68 5a 57 63 76 61 47 4e 75 57 46 67 77 4e 45 70 49 55 46 64 73 62 32 74 31 4d 57 31 6c 65 55 74 34 59 30 56 48 52 6b 6c 6a 62 6b 5a 46 61 6a 46 56 63 58 5a 75 4d 55 45 32 61 6e 52 45 53 6c 6c 61 57 47 49 30 64 7a 52 6e 53 51 3d 3d
This one was similar to the last one, using a series of encryptions on top of each other until I got to another 256 AES encryption. This time, the passcode was the number written on the man’s arm.
It is with great pleasure that we congratulate you on your completion of the previous task and announce that you have only one final task to complete in order to be completely inducted within the ranks of IRIS.
As before, we understand that you will have your own moral aversions to our request, so as an incentive, we have provided you another photograph which can be found in the bottom of your bedroom closet.
Your next task is to terminate an individual. So that we can be assured that there is no confusion, and because we know that your inclination is to find an alternative solution to our request, we want to be as clear as possible.
You must take the life of one human person in the next 24 hours.
The target and the means by which you carry out this task are yours to decide. You must not be caught doing so, for if you are, you and your family will be terminated before you make it to police custody.
Again, congratulations on your forthcoming induction into IRIS. We anticipate success and look forward to seeing your work.
The photograph at the bottom of my closet was taken in my mother’s kitchen as she washed dishes. I don’t think she knew that the photographer was there when the picture was taken, but I have no doubt in my mind she knows now. It was a picture of the back of my mother’s head while the photographer held a gun up into the shot.
The message was clear.
I had 24 hours to take the life of one human person.
I immediately began to question how to pick a target. Who am I to decide who gets to live or die? How can I judge others with such permanence? The answer was simple – I don’t have that right. But it’s either one person’s life or the lives of my family, and I knew what side I was on.
I began then to think about how to get away with it. A retirement home or a hospital was the easy answer of how to choose a victim, but not without getting caught. Cameras, security guards, staff, and I was supposed to slip in, pull the plug on someone, and slip out undetected? No, that wouldn’t work.
It would have to be somewhere without cameras, and it would have to look like an accident.
Cutting someone’s brakes would do it, but there’s no guarantee that someone would die – or that just one person would die. Starting another fire was the same problem – no guarantees.
I began thinking then of all the accidental deaths that happen, and it was down that road where I came up with a plan.
Every city has a part where you don’t go after dark – where the streets are littered with junkies and drugs. This is where I needed to go.
I reached out to a few of my old high school friends to get the info I needed. I’ve never done drugs myself, so if I wanted to get anything at all, I needed someone to be my contact.
I eventually found a friend whose cousin sells hard shit. I told him I needed it for a party, and he didn’t ask any questions. He gave me his cousin’s number and I called it.
I went to the bathroom in a 7-11 and did as I was told, hiding $100.00 cash in the ceiling tile. An hour later, I returned and found five plastic bags filled with powder and a syringe.
The weight of the drugs in my pocket combined with knowing what I was about to do next felt like an elephant on my chest. I couldn’t breathe.
I reminded myself what was at stake and kept going with the plan.
I’ll admit, I had to google how to do this next part. In my car, I emptied all five bags into a large metal spoon, then mixed the powder with a little water. With a lighter, I cooked the mixture until it bubbled, then I added a ball of cotton to the top. I let the cotton soak into the solution, then inserted the syringe and sucked all the liquid I could from the cotton.
Now all I needed was a victim.
I drove around looking for the right person, hoping to maybe find someone passed out in the gutter whom I could quickly inject and be done with it, but no such luck befell me.
Plan B was going to be harder, but effective.
I drove around until I found the right woman – one dressed just a little too scantily for this weather and one with visible track marks on her legs and arms.
I pulled up and asked her how much.
Her response was one I didn’t expect. “Fuck off.”
I knew I hadn’t made a mistake – I couldn’t have made a mistake. “How much?” I asked. “I’ve got a hundred bucks.”
She rolled her eyes but walked over the curb and got inside the car.
Her face reflected a lifetime of poor decisions. Her eyes were deep set and her skin was wrinkled and her cheeks were sunken from the number of teeth she’d lost. In another life, she could have been pretty, maybe even beautiful, but this life had been cruel, and had not allowed her such luxury.
“You got a hotel?” she asked.
“Nah,” I said. “I thought we’d do it here in the car.”
She shrugged, and I put the car into drive.
She saw the needle sitting in the cup holder. “What you got there?”
I tried to act nonchalant. “Just a little fun for the evening.”
“That’s a lot just for one person,” she said. She was like a dog eyeing a steak hot off the grill. She was hungry.
I offered her some, and she smiled. Her teeth looked like the pickets of a fence that had been abused by a decade of harsh weather.
She picked up the needle and eyed it. “What is this anyway? Heroine?”
“It’s called a speedball,” I said, and her eyes lit up.
“You really wanna party?” she said, not really meaning it to sound like a question.
She pulled a ribbon from her hair and tied it around her bicep with her teeth. With practice precision, she found a vein in her arm and slid the needle into her flesh. She watched carefully as she pressed the plunger down with her thumb, careful not to give herself too much.
In a moment of blind instinct, I reached out and grabbed her hand and pressed her thumb down hard, emptying the syringe into her body.
She looked up at me with an expression of shock and horror as she realized what had just happened.
I pulled onto the side of the road, checking first to make sure I didn’t see any cameras.
“Get out,” I told her.
“What the fuck?” She asked furiously.
“Get out of the car,” I said again.
She swung at me, but I stopped her hand and slapped it down.
I pulled the gun from my holster and pointed it at her.
“Get out of the car now,” I said again.
As she got out of the car, the look on her face will forever haunt me. Her eyes were wide and dilated, like those of a fawn, and I saw a brief glimpse of the woman she was – not the hooker, not the junkie, but the person she was.
I slammed my foot against the gas pedal and sped off into the night.
I watched the news intensely for the next several days, waiting to find the story of the dead hooker, murdered by someone who didn’t have any other choice, but I never saw anything. Just as I hoped, her death was chalked up to another overdose of another junkie whose life had been too cruel for them to survive for very long.
I called my mother the next morning, and she answered the phone. She said her phone had been on the fritz and she hadn’t been able to make any calls.
My girlfriend called me back too. She said her parents’ neighbor had called and said that her mother was in the hospital, so she drove out immediately. She swore she remembered taking her phone, but when she went to call me she realized she must have left it at the apartment, and she hadn’t committed my phone number to memory.
As it turns out, her neighbor had a stroke later that day and had likely called her in the middle of an episode of delusion just before the stroke occurred. Her parents were completely fine and in good health.
Things, I thought, had started to get back to normal. That was until this morning.
While I was putting gas in my car, a man came up to me. He called me by name as he approached and handed me a flash drive and a blank business card. The business card said: 052053032054101032054052032055051.
I went home and plugged the flash drive into my computer. It had only one file on it, which I’ve uploaded here.
CREDIT: Ben Asper
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