Aiden thanked the driver, grabbed his bags, and climbed out from the backseat. He looked down at his handheld and gave the guy five stars. He got him here alive, and his car didn’t stink – good enough.
He was late for team training this morning but only barely. He hoped, since it was the first day back, Coach Johnson might be a little more lenient.
“Aiden you’re five minutes late! Up-downs until I tell you to stop.” Yelled Coach Johnson as soon as he walked through the gym door.
“But coach I need to put my bags in the locker room,” Aiden complained.
“Up-downs now. If you wanted to dilly dally in the locker room before workouts, you should have gotten here early. Up-downs now!”
Aiden dropped his bags and started jogging in place, then dropping to the ground, and jumping back to his feet where he stood in the doorway of the gym.
Coach Johnson is pure intensity in a tiny package. She is at least six inches shorter than Aiden and maybe 120 pounds soaking wet. But she could stand toe to toe with the biggest hotheads on campus, and every one of them would back down. Rumor has it, she was once some sort of badass in the military. Now she’s the school’s wrestling coach and the strength and conditioning coach.
This morning Aiden and a few of the other seniors on the lacrosse team were joining the football team for conditioning to get a head start for their upcoming season.
After doing up-downs in the doorway for what seemed like hours, Aiden started to get the feeling that Coach Johnson had forgotten he was there.
“Coach, can I join the rotation?” Aiden yelled trying to be heard over the loud weight room.
“Go! Jump in!” She yelled back.
Aiden got up from the floor and ran to get into the rotation. He set himself up next to his neighbor and best friend Mat, who had managed to get himself here on time.
“I tried waiting for you in the car before I left.” Mat said as Aiden joined him.
“It’s whatever,” Aiden said. “First day back, it took me a minute to get going. And to be honest I kinda hoped that being captain this year would get me a break.”
“You're an idiot. Coach Johnson gives no one a break. Especially not the captain. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get a ‘lead by example’ speech afterward.” Mat said.
“I’m sure I’ll get chewed out for it eventually.”
“Rotate!” Coach Johnson yelled after blowing her whistle.
Aiden and Mat moved to the next workout.
“You ready for First Friday?” Mat asked.
“I hope it’s not like last year. That was a shit show. I don’t know if I can handle that again.”
“Ha! But this is our last one! It’ll be pretty insane,” Mat said. “Do you think Sophie’s gonna come?”
“Dude, I don’t know, probably. What’s the deal with you and her anyway?” Aiden asked.
“How do you not know? She’s your sister. And what do you mean, what’s the deal? She’s one of my best friends. Just wondering if she’s coming to the party.” Mat said.
“We didn’t have an in-depth conversation this morning as I was running around late, and she was sleeping. Are you going to try to make your move?”
“Make my move? Come on. She’s one of my best friends, and plus you’d try to kick my ass if I messed with her.” Mat said.
“Rotate!” Coach Johnson yelled again. “Mat! Aiden! Quit jib-jabbing, or I’ll find something more exciting for the two of you to do.”
Mat and Aiden finished the workout in relative silence.
After the workout Coach Johnson gave her typical ‘job well done’ and ‘today’s discomfort will lead to tomorrow’s success’ speech. She’d used the same lines so many times that many of the people in the gym could quote them word for word. One of her favorites is:
“Upon the fields of friendly strife
are sown the seeds
that, upon other fields, on other days
will bear the fruits of victory.”
Then dismissed everyone to the locker rooms.
After getting ready for the day and chugging down a protein shake, Aiden hung around with his teammates in the locker room killing time until their first Mod started.
From the doorway of the locker room Coach Johnson yelled at them, “Aiden! In my office now!”
“There’s your ‘I expect more out of the captain’ talk,” one of Aiden’s teammates said as he gathered his bags and headed out. He had intentionally taken his time in the locker room hoping Coach Johnson couldn’t lecture him for too long and would dismiss him to his first Mod.
When Aiden arrived at Coach Johnson’s office, her door was closed – weird because Aiden had never seen her office door closed.
This is going to be brutal he thought to himself.
He knocked on her door and instead of hearing her screaming-stressed voice, Aiden heard a gruff older man’s voice.
“Come in,” he said.
Who the hell is in Coach Johnson’s office? There are no men on this campus that sound like that. Aiden was confident about that. There were only three men in the entire school that weren’t students, and none of them would be in the Coach’s office, and none of them sounded like this.
Aiden slowly opened the door, and standing in front of him was the oldest man Aiden have ever seen. Lean and fit looking with salt and pepper hair, he might have been 45 or 50 years old. But Aiden had never seen a man this old, so he wasn’t sure how to determine his age.
He stood with his back straight and his arms behind him. Aiden was so distracted by the man’s age it took him a minute to see he was in a SpOC uniform. When he realized this he froze halfway through the doorway, nervous to continue in.
“Shut the door behind you,” the soldier said.
Aiden continued in a step and closed the door.
He immediately saw two other soldiers in SpOC uniforms, both much younger standing in the corner. Aiden froze next to the door.
“Please have a seat,” the older one said.
Aiden moved to the seat in front of Coach Johnson’s desk. The older soldier relaxed a bit and leaned against the desk and looked down at Aiden.
“My name is Commander Graves of the Special Operations Command. I have a few questions for you and hope to get you off to your first Mod of the day as quickly as possible,” he said.
Aiden stared up at him. The man’s presence was intimidating. Aiden could not look him in the face, so he stared at the center of his chest.
“You’ve been working for the OPF,” Commander Graves said.
“I what?” Aiden said, interrupting the Commander. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the face. He thought he might be sick in the middle of the Coach Johnson’s office.
“We have clear evidence showing several programming projects you’ve completed for the OPF over the last several months.”
There is it again. No one ever says the name out loud, and no way do you accuse someone of working with them.
On this last mention, Aiden felt his protein shake rising up and ran to the trash can next to the door. One of the soldiers accompanying Commander Graves stepped in front of the door to prevent Aiden from leaving, but it didn’t matter. Aiden’s post-workout breakfast was already spraying all over the soldiers pants and boots, and only a small portion actually made it to the trash can he was aiming for.
Aiden had just left a proper mess all over the office floor and the intimidating SpOC soldier. This soldier could kill Aiden in so many ways before either of them realized they were covered in puke. SpOC soldiers are known for being the best of the best – the top 1% of 1% in the world.
“Are you done?” The Commander said to Aiden’s back. He never even flinched when Aiden ran towards the door. “Please come back and have a seat; we’re not finished.”
Aiden looked up into the soldier's eyes he had just puked all over and saw nothing. No anger, no concern, just straight indifference.
Aiden sat in the chair in front of Commander Graves again too embarrassed and terrified to look at him. The Commander’s age was just as intimidating as his poise and fitness. Prior to today, the oldest man he could remember meeting was the 28-year-old IT guy for his high school, and he was no example of health and fitness. The soldier that he lost his breakfast on was only a few years older.
“Are you done? Do we need to bring the can over to you?” He asked.
“No. I’m done, that's everything I had in me.”
“Accusations of working with the OPF do not come – “
Aiden leaped for the trashcan again. This time the soldier stepped clear of him, and he emptied the contents of his stomach into the can, again. After what he hoped was his final heave, he stood up and carried the can back to the chair just in case and sat in front of the Commander again.
“Standard protocol when we have evidence like this is to throw you in a cell and lose the keys. You’d be lucky to even attend your own trial.”
Aiden looked down into the trash can, but this time tears began to well up, not bile. He stared down at his own puke, smelling his stomach bile while the Commander continued.
“If you’re thinking that because you’re only 17 you will get special consideration, you can forget it. Association with the OPF does not allow for special cases.”
The tears began to flow now. He tried to comprehend how over his life was, he couldn’t. All he could do was imagine being carried from his high school with snot and puke running down his face by two of the soldiers and never seeing his sister and friends again.
“If it were up to me I’d shoot you here and now, and we’d be done with it. But lucky for you, it’s not up to me, and you get to continue breathing fresh free air.”
Aiden looked up with tears, snot, and puke on his face. The Commander looked down with a face as unchanging and chiseled as a marble statue.
“People above me have decided you might not be a terrorist and maybe you can help bring down a local cell. I don’t like to deal in maybes. You are getting a very short leash to prove me wrong.”
Aiden didn’t know what to do or say. He just stared blankly up at the Commander, then down at the Commander’s boots, not able to maintain eye contact.
“Who… who have I been working for that… you know, the…“ he couldn’t bring himself to say the name. Just thinking about the group made him feel sick again.
“You’ve been working on several freelance programming projects in your spare time over your summer break. Industrious. One of these projects is a learning algorithm to draw voting district lines and eliminate gerrymandering. Civic-minded of you to choose this project. That is not the final intended purpose of this program. The OPF has been piecemealing code from around the world to sort and distinguish different groups of people.”
Aiden stared at the ground, knowing the project. It started off as an open source idea he thought would be a good way to teach himself about deep learning. He added a few little snippets of code, and the founder of the project offered to pay him for additional, more complicated work. Soon after, the project was no longer open source.
“The OPF cannot succeed at creating another way of isolating and identifying groups. We need you to work a snippet of our code into the project. A sort of backdoor for us. I’ve seen your records, Aiden. You’re a smart kid; it doesn’t look like you want to live on basic for the rest of your life. You’re trying to go somewhere. Athletics, engineering, computer science, physics. Not great at the social sciences, but my guess is this is not what you want to do in life. You have dreams for yourself. That’s good. Don’t ruin that. If you fail at this, the consequences are real. In a pre-virus world, this would have never been put on a 17-year-old kid. If you don’t get this code into the program, you go to maximum security prison for the rest of your life. If you get caught, the OPF could come after you. We would do our best to stop them, but there are no guarantees.”
Aiden felt the gravity of the situation settle in.
The Commander signaled to one of the soldiers in the room, and he pulled out a handheld. “We are sending the file to your handheld. There is no need to make any edits. You just need to copy and paste this where you see fit. I know I don’t need to say this, but it would be most beneficial to hide it as best as you can.”
“I’m not sure I have the skill set to…” Aiden said. Realizing his skill sets didn’t matter. He had to figure this out. The Commander could give two shits about what he could and couldn’t do.
Aiden’s handheld vibrated in his pocket confirming that he received the file. He didn't react or check it. He just sat there staring at the floor.
“Is everything understood? Any questions?” Commander Graves asked.
“Yeah… Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Good. Get through this, and there might be a future for you yet.”
Aiden wasn’t sure if he should leave or wait for the soldiers first. He sat staring into the trashcan with tears running down his face.
“You’re dismissed. We’ll be checking in on you periodically to see the progress you’re making. I would strongly suggest you complete this task sooner than later. And I believe it goes without saying, but you should keep this to yourself. I wouldn’t be showing off to any of your friends about this conversation.”
Aiden got up, headed for the door, and dropped the trashcan next to it. He saw the mess he’d made on Coach Johnson’s floor. She’s going to make him pay for that eventually.
He opened the door noticing the soldier’s puked cover boots. “Sorry about that,” Aiden said without looking up.