My phone buzzes, and I reach for it, figuring it's my husband texting to check in. He's on a flight back from somewhere—Denver? St. Louis?—trying to find another angel investor as kindly and generous as the first anonymous individual who'd poured tons of money into his business years ago. I suspect he'll be successful, eventually; his business is great and innovative, and rich people sometimes just need a little cajoling.
Except the text isn't from my husband. Instead, it's from an unlisted number. When I open it, it says, simply, Get ready.
I can just make out my ghostlike reflection in the phone's screen. I wait for a follow-up text of explanation. Nothing comes.
I look out the window. The sky is flat and gray. The air seems oddly still. The message gives me a chill. It feels like a warning. An explosion. A mass killing. A plague of locusts. I tap the phone icon on my phone, tempted to call my kids' school to check if everything's okay.
Then, as if in answer, my monitor goes dark. My head snaps up in surprise and then annoyance, because I can hear that winding-down sound of the hard drive shutting off. What the hell? Outside my office, I hear my assistant, Betsy, make a similarly startled sound. I stand just as she's rolling back her chair and peering under her desk to look at the power strip on the floor. Her monitor is dark, too.
I wander into the hallway. Everyone is staring in bewilderment at their monitors.
"A power outage?" Jeremy, one of our grant writers, says.
"But our lights are still on," Amanda, Kit's assistant, says, pointing upward.
Betsy's screen snaps to neon yellow, and she lets out a little yelp. I hurry back into my office. My screen is also yellow, and no matter how many keys I press, I cannot restore it to factory settings. Even turning the computer on and off does nothing—it's as though someone has taken over our power grid. I glance out the window, down onto the Aldrich quad. Terrorists? Aliens? All I see are students walking sleepily to class.
The flashing on the screen stops, and a message pops up. You can't hide, hypocrites, it reads in old-school eight-bit font, the type that used to blare across arcade screens. Below this is a freakish, pixelated drawing of a screaming face with hollowed-out eyes.
The hair on the back of my neck prickles.
Murmurs from the hall: "Who's doing this?" And then: "It's a hack. Holy shit, we're being hacked!" And then: "There's probably malware on our computers. Our systems are probably dead!"
Hacked? Why would someone hack the Aldrich Charitable Giving Department? To expose our donors? Most of that stuff is public record. Perhaps someone is looking for donors' bank information, or their SSNs? I reach for the phone to call security—but then, what is Glen, the sixty-five-year-old guard, going to do?
I put the receiver to my ear before I realize the office phone is dead, too. I grab my cell. That weird text message is still up. Get ready. Why would the hacker text me? I want to send a reply text, but I'm afraid.
Replying could be as bad as clicking on those pop-up windows that unleash a virus on your hard drive. My phone contains more crucial information about work than my computer does.
On the monitor, the cryptic message dissolves, and a URL appears.
I hover the mouse over it in anticipation. If my computer's already dead, what's the worst thing that can happen if I click on it? But when I try, the link isn't active. I'm not directed to a browser.
I click the mouse over it again—still nothing. Frowning, I grab a pen and copy down the web address. Moments later, my screen goes dark. No new messages pop up. I flip the switch of my computer, but when the computer reboots, a small question mark blinks in the middle of the screen. I'm no IT expert, but even I know that means the operating system has been wiped.
Outside my office, everyone is exchanging numb glances. "Is this bad?" Betsy sounds frightened.
"Do you think they got our social security numbers?" That's Bill, who deals with international donors.
"Did anyone write down that website that was on the screen?" asks Oscar, the youngest and techiest of the group.
"I did." I step forward to show him the slip of paper on which I'd copied the link. "What do you think it is?"
Oscar squints at what I've written. "It looks like a file that's hosted on Planett." He types the file-sharing juggernaut's address into his cell phone browser.
"Wait!" I cry. "What if your phone blows up?"
"Then I'll blame you," Oscar says. When he notices me scrambling to take the paper back, he quickly adds, "Jesus. I won't. I'm curious, too."
A crowd has formed. Oscar finishes typing the website into his phone and hits GO. I hold my breath, half expecting his phone to explode or the building to go up in flames. The screen shifts and, indeed, a Planett page appears. There is a list of folders, each of which seems clickable. Aaron, Boyd. Aaron, Corrine. Aaron, Desmond. Whose names are these?
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the paperback edition.
Monday, December 14th we begin the book Payback by Lorenzo Carcaterra.