Pink, blue and green. Rebecca’s mother rolled out all three dresses on her bed. These were the finalists, all she had to do was choose the dress for the party.
“Mom, why don’t you pick one? That is one decision less for me.” Rebecca turned on her pleading glare hoping it would work on her mother.
“Sweetie, I always make decisions for you. You really need to start on your own now. I have shortlisted three, why don’t you pick one?”
Rebecca sighed and looked hopelessly at her mother. She hated making decisions that didn’t concern her online hacking group, books, or career choices. Fashion had never been her priority.
Her mother crossed her arms and gave her a stern look. It was the end of the discussion.
“I wish I could hack into your brain and see which one to pick.” Rebecca sighed, but her mother refused to budge.
She finally picked up the blue one thus ending her plight. She didn’t give any thought to the shoes or jewellery to go with it. She had exhausted her decision-making capacity for the day on this one decision.
“Great, that’s my girl. Blue will blend very well with the colour of your eyes! Now let me pick the shoes for you. I have a bracelet that would be the perfect match. I’ll fetch it for you, baby.”
Her mother left the room and Rebecca stood there staring at the blue dress.
‘Colour of my eyes? Rather the colour of my mood.’ she muttered to herself.
Rebecca hated stepping out. Her preferred world was right within the confines of her room. Being the only child, she had befriended books at the age of three and then her laptop at the age of eight. She never got along with other kids her age.
She found friendship in her online hacking group. She had encountered the gang two years after her mother got her a laptop for her eighth birthday and had grown popular soon enough.
Though she didn’t realise when hacking became a part of her. She knew more about Leo Tolstoy and hacking than any other kid her age. It was an odd combination, but it made her happy.
“What are you going to do about your hair, Reb?” her mother was back with a shining turquoise bracelet and a light pink lip gloss.
“Is it necessary? I was planning on doing….really nothing about them.”
Her mother smiled and put the bracelet on her bed. She ruffled her daughter’s hair and left the room. She knew any more fuss about dressing up will just make Rebecca more nervous.
Without much ado, Rebecca put on the dress and the bracelet. She brushed her auburn mid-length hair and let them fall loose. Then she turned to her plain white flats. She glanced at herself once in the mirror and decided that she didn’t look hideous.
She turned around and was about to leave the room when a shiny thing on the bed caught her glance.
It was the lip gloss, reminding her that she had conveniently forgotten to apply it.
She wasn’t too adept at applying it so decided to give it a miss. She planned to slip out before her mother caught her without painted lips.
The moment she crossed the bed, her mother appeared at the doorway. Seeing her daughter heading to a party sans makeup, she cocked her head sideways and sighed.
“I knew you would try to skip it. Here, let me help you.”
She applied the gloss on her daughter and held her by her shoulders.
“Now, was that so difficult? Reb, this is the only party you have been invited to in over a year. Why not be a little excited about it? Mingling with other humans won’t harm you, I promise.”
Rebecca gave her a weak smile and headed out. She started her second-hand Corolla and drove. The venue was a fifteen-minute drive away.
On the way, she found herself wondering who all would be there. She wasn’t hoping to find any familiar face but was just curious if it would be as awkward as all other times she had been in a group of people.
The thought of Adrien being there comforted her. He was the first person who acknowledged her presence warmly.
Adrien had met Rebecca digitally three months ago in a hackathon. They happened to be finalists until Rebecca beat him, easily. They remained in touch ever since but never met. He had become an acquaintance who recognised and respected her talents.
Four days ago, Adrien had invited Rebecca to his birthday party. It was the first time she felt at a loss for words. It had become pretty easy for her to reject invitations to parties until they had stopped coming altogether.
But, this time, she couldn’t say no.
She didn’t know how to dress up or what to take for a birthday celebration of a person who was not a friend yet, but not a stranger either. He didn’t ignore her completely, which would have made her life and decisions easier.
Although a tiny, ignored, part of her liked the little attention she got after all these years.
She reached the venue right on time and got a parking spot two blocks away from Adrien’s house. For Rebecca, it was just about marking her attendance at the party and leaving at the earliest. She was sure no one would realise her presence or absence for that matter.
‘Maybe Adrien would...’ the thought surprised her. She discarded it and headed to the door.
She rang the bell and a guy she didn’t know opened the door. There were about fifteen people inside and few in the backyard. She was looking around for a familiar face when someone touched her shoulder.
“Hey hack-mate, wassup?” Adrien smiled at her gleefully. Rebecca immediately recognised his sea-green eyes from his picture.
She relaxed and felt her anxiety easing.
“I am glad you could make it. Come, let me introduce you to everyone.”
Adrien clapped his hands and shouted across the room.
“Hey, guys, this is my friend Rebecca from the hackathon.”
The room erupted in “Cheers, Rebecca!” “Hey girl!” and “Woohoo!”.
Rebecca felt her lips curve upwards and blood rush to her cheeks. A wave of unidentified confidence filled her up.
That was all she could manage. She felt at a loss of words to express her elation so she just stood there, unable to move.
Adrien looked at her comfortingly. He picked up a cup of some beverage and handed it to Rebecca. The chill of the cup felt too cold against her hands that had just turned warm.
“Don’t worry, your drink is not hacked.” he grinned, “You make yourself comfortable, Reb. I’ll be back.”
Adrien was the only person who called her Reb, besides her parents. The only acquaintance she had. She felt the hotness in her face linger a bit longer this time.
Being the host, Adrien moved on to attend to other guests, leaving her alone. Rebecca suddenly felt like a fly on the wall in a marketplace buzzing with humans. The rush in her cheeks had been replaced by the usual awkwardness. She hoped she would turn invisible so she wouldn’t have to bother trying to fit in.
These feelings were not alien to her.
She picked a corner and leaned against the wall, drifting her gaze from her cup to different people.
‘Not more than four seconds per person, Reb, that’s the normal limit. You can do this!’ her mother’s old advice resurfaced to help her in the time of need. She kept shifting her glance frequently to appear occupied.
Suddenly, she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Someone was watching her. She turned to see who, or what it was and found a girl, about her age, gawking at her with a smile and a glint in her eyes.
She gestured at Rebecca to come over and sit next to her on the couch. Rebecca acquiesced. There were four people on the couch already and Rebecca somehow managed to fit in, her slender frame coming to aid at the right moment.
“Hi Rebecca, I am Betty, this is Veronica, Samaya and Arjay.”
Everyone greeted Rebecca heartily, but then, as if sensing her timidness, went back to chatting among themselves. Rebecca returned to being a recluse, shifting her gaze from her cup to the four people sitting next to her. Pretending to listen attentively to them, she slipped a casual smile every now and then. Most of the times, it hit the mark.
“Hey, guys. Attention please!” a tall guy with dark brown hair stood on a chair in the corner of the room and shouted to everyone.
“For Addy’s birthday, we have a little surprise planned for him. Jackie, screen on, please!”
Another guy, who must have been Jackie, turned on the projector attached to a laptop and targeted it at a blank wall. He turned the screen on and did some fast typing while Adrien and the others gathered around.
Soon the wall was filled with multiple small windows of people waving ecstatically, all shouting “Happy Birthday, Addy!” almost at the same time.
It was his family from different parts of the world. His parents were somewhere close to a beach, which was visible in their background. A girl in her late twenties was sitting on her bed with lights turned on. Looked like she was in a different time zone. Two young boys in their early twenties waved in a synchronised manner at him.
Adrien’s joy knew no bounds. He squealed with delight at the sight of them.
“Oh shut up, you two.” The lady who was clearly Adrien’s mother scolded the two boys on the left screen. “Let me wish my boy first! Happy birthday, baby! Wish you a hundred more to come. Wish you a long and healthy life, Addy!”
“Thanks, mom. I wish you were here. Wassup dad?”
It was his father’s turn to speak and the father-son duo made a screeching sound while shaking their hands towards each other frantically. His mother and the others standing close to Adrien covered their ears.
One of the guys shoved Adrien in the back making him stagger.
“Happy birthday, baybeee..” his father mockingly copied his mother, receiving a nudge from her in return. They were laughing heartily.
“Hahaha…happy birthday, son! How many have you had so far?.....Errrr…I am talking about beers surely!” Adrien’s mother eyed his father and everyone doubled up in deafening laughter.
“Twelve and counting, Mr Peterson!” someone shouted from the back adding to the roar in the room.
Suddenly, all the screens started distorting and their voices cracking. Soon, different files from his laptop started opening and closing at a random pace.
The guy who had made the first announcement turned to the wires to check if they were alright. He then checked the laptop and the crease between his brows deepened.
Something didn’t feel right. Rebecca had a nagging feeling that grew stronger with every passing second. She knew what was happening. She saw it every day.
She looked at Adrien. His face was blank, apparently, from the same realisation. He met her eyes briefly, asking if his conclusion was correct.
Rebecca couldn’t pick an appropriate response for this moment. She didn’t know what to say, so she simply gave a slight nod.
Just then, the screen on the wall convoluted to give way to another video. A masked man was sitting in front of a black background. He was wearing a red shirt and his hair was neatly combed at the back.
He addressed Adrien directly in a coarse voice.
“Happy birthday, AddyPete201. Hope you like your gift. I am giving you a clean slate on your special day. Now you can start just the way you started your first birthday. With nothing.”
Adrien’s eyes widened at the threat. His speechlessness said a lot. The man wasn’t unknown to him. This wasn’t some random hacking, rather a planned coup to settle some old score.
Adrien rushed to his laptop and pushed the guy aside. He started typing frantically, trying to avert the danger. Clearly, there was more at stake than met the eye.
Rebecca’s feet moved on their own and found their place next to Adrien. He had three windows open and was trying to quash the hacking attempt and save his data. Every alternate minute, one of his two windows would auto-shut thus rendering all his attempts useless.
Rebecca saw him wipe off the sweat with the end of his sleeve and return to his laptop every now and then. He was struggling.
Meanwhile, the man with the video was back again,
“There is no point trying, Adrien. It is payback time. Today, you pay for what you did to me.”
…and then he was gone.
“Who is he, Addy?” the guy handling the laptop earlier enquired.
Everyone around waited for his response. Adrien struggled with his growing anxiety to tell them the truth. Finally, he found the right words.
“The guy is called El Machino. He sponsors the most famous hacking group in the world and runs it from Pisa, Italy. No one knows his real name.”
But that was half the response needed to quash the fear in the air. As if sensing the zillion questions running in everyone’s heads, Adrien pressed on,
“He had offered me a job a few months back. He put money on me and organised a hackathon especially for me....hackers from across the globe gathered for the event to try and beat me. The night before…”
Adrien was almost gasping for air now. Arjay standing next to him put his hand on his shoulder to comfort him. Then he continued,
“…the night before the event, I hacked into his servers and landed on a file with random messages. It took me a while to realise that those were the account numbers from different banks and the details of people they belonged to... He…he had been using the hacking group to hack into people’s bank accounts for swindling billions....people who failed to remain in his good books... I vanished from his radar that night. Or at least tried to…. I…I knew no argument will make him let me go easily. That is when I shifted here…. hoping to stay invisible.”
It was clear what was happening here. A guy like El Machino seemed unstoppable. If he had an army of hackers by his side for swindling, Adrien alone would not be able to stop him.
Abruptly, another window opened on his laptop screen showing his father’s bank account details with the account balance displayed widely across the screen. And depleting fast. The group had cracked and intercepted all authorised credentials of Adrien and his father.
“No, no, no! Not my dad!” Adrien screamed at the screen. His desperate attempts to stop the transaction and the hacking seemed futile.
Rebecca’s hands took over this time. She snatched the laptop away from Adrien and closed all windows.
She first checked the state of all his firewalls and intrusion detection systems. They were rendered useless early on to facilitate the hacking attempt.
Adrien’s father’s account was losing money swiftly. Other accounts, Joshua Peterson, Adam Peterson, and Kim Peterson, Adrien’s family, were flashing next in the queue. Rebecca needed peace of mind to do this. This was her domain.
She took in a deep breath and let her fingers take over. She didn’t have to guide them anymore on a laptop, let alone to work among hackers.
She sprung to action and realised her fingers were moving faster than her eyes, and probably her brain. Windows were opening and closing on the screen as if Rebecca was shooting each one down the moment it opened up.
She had declared war. She was the one asserting control now.
Twenty minutes later, the money vanishing from Mr Peterson’s account halted. Rebecca managed to cut the link between El Machino’s group and Adrien’s family’s accounts.
Her job was not yet done. She had yet to sever all existing ties between Adrien and El Machino.
First, she changed the IP addresses of Adrien’s devices to ensure he could not be tracked to the same place again. She hacked into his family’s devices and changed their IP addresses too. Then she linked them back to Pisa, which would be El Machino’s last guess.
She further managed to mask the Petersons’ IP addresses, which would make it difficult for anyone to find them.
This was the defence. Then she went for the attack.
She opened new links to hack into El Machino’s account to withdraw money stolen from Adrien’s father’s account. She managed to steal it back within four minutes and twenty seconds flat.
When her fingers stopped moving, she felt all eyes on her and only Adrien’s gaze on the laptop, mouth gaping. She shut the laptop and put it aside. She looked at her phone to check the time. She had done it in twenty-seven minutes flat, her personal best.
She wondered what drove her.
She looked at Adrien reassuringly, “He won’t trouble you again. If he does, let me know.”
The crowd exploded in “Woohoo”, “Hallelujah!”, and “Go, Becky, go!”. Arjan and another blond guy picked up Rebecca on their shoulders and carried her around. Rebecca held on strongly to their arms.
She felt her face explode into an ear-to-ear grin, elation pouring from her skin into the air around her.
Adrien managed to catch up and pulled her down, straight into an embrace.
“You saved my life, Reb. I owe you with mine now! Thanks, girl!”
As always, Rebecca didn’t know what to say. A strange feeling in the middle of her chest surprised her. She felt no need for words anymore. She was the star of the evening. She had fit in anyway.