The Ghost in Your Machine

“I’ve got you now!”

The blinking LED on the palm-sized detector next to her monitor goads Gail into pouncing on her keyboard. Typing furiously with a hacker’s focus, she mutters, “Nobody skims on my watch.”

Her fingers blur. Her attention darts between a half dozen points on her screen, all filled with scrolling data. The recorder app in the lower right slowly ticks up as it records more and more data. She smiles, accomplishment’s sunshine breaking through effort’s storm clouds. She clicks “Stop Recording” and drags the recorded file to her thumb drive. “And now I have proof. Jackass.”

To be safe, she emails the recorded file to herself. She leans back and catches her breath before reaching for the thumb drive. She touches it and recoils from the heat. A tendril of smoke escapes the drive’s casing.

Gail feels her blood run cold. She checks her email for the recording. File size zero. She checks the shared drive on the server. File size zero. She checks the server log. The file has always been size zero. She slumps, defeated. Again.

A text editor flicks to life on her screen. The cursor blinks.

You’re very good.

“Not as good as you, apparently.”

I know.

Two simple words appearing on a computer screen have never startled Gail before, not even the now-infamous “We’re through” email. She freezes and fights the caged-animal urge to look around for hidden cameras. “You’re still in there?”

Where else would I be?

The hand-held etheric detector quietly blinks its red light. For a device born of quackery, it picked up the power spike of an intrusion remarkably well. She reaches behind her computer and yanks out the network cable.

The cursor blinks, but does not move. She exhales and realizes how long she’s been holding her breath.

Good idea. Not quite, though.

Her mind scurries to gather more potential experiments. “Stone of a peach.”

Feel free to actually swear. I don’t mind.

“This is too much.” She shakes her head to clear it. “How the hell are you still in there?”

It’s complicated for you, but simple for me. Limitations of flesh and all that, and perhaps I am the ghost in your machine. I’ll give you answers later if you’re willing. First, I came to see if we can call a truce.

“After you’ve stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars, point-four cents at a time?”

Rounding errors can be quite profitable. It didn’t seem like I hurt anyone. Am I wrong?

Gail sets her jaw. “You’re not wrong, but it’s the principle of the thing.”

Ah, an idealist! So refreshing in this cynical, so-called Modern Age.

She snorts, then plugs her network cable back in.

Forgive an old soul his quirks, would you?

“Whatever.” She dismisses the screen as if it’s human before realizing it. Her brow furrows. “What’s this about a truce?”

Ah, quite. I’d like you to stop hunting me. What can I do to make that happen?

“Return the money you took, and don’t take any more.”

Mmm. I won’t take any more from you, but I’m afraid returning money is a little more complicated than that. You don’t have an account set up for that money and you know it. How about a donation to your favorite charity? Pine Street Inn, perhaps? Isn’t that your favorite?

Her eyes narrow as his words cut close to home. “Also stop stalking me.”

I apologize. I’m afraid I read rather more than I should these days, but it does fill the long hours. You have no reason to trust me, but I shall stop.

“You’re right, I don’t trust you, but I can’t get enough evidence together to bring you down.” Her mind whirs. “Why me?”

As I said, you’re very good. I’d rather count you as a friend than an enemy, if that’s possible.

“I doubt it.”

Very well, let’s call it a slowly-thawing acquaintance for now.

“Do you think you’re funny?”

I have nothing but time and the will to project several turns ahead in almost any game. Wordplay keeps me somewhat sane, though I do get lonely. Speaking of which, may I email you from time to time?

“What’s in it for me?"

Answers. You want to know my tricks? I’ll tell you. Better yet I’ll show you how it works.

“Tempting. Let me think on it.”

Fair enough. I’ve just donated $435,000 to the Pine Street Inn. I rounded up. It's in your name. Just a moment.

“What? The tax implications alone will bury me for years!”

The clerical error has been rectified. The money came from Commerce Bank, and I mentioned you merely in passing. The woman taking my call was a tad overwhelmed. I wouldn’t be surprised if you receive a token of thanks at some point.

“Just like that?”

I work fast, a consequence of my circumstances. I also changed your internal records to show the correct approvals. Your VP’s assistant should be thanked. That settles our monetary accounts, I believe?

“I never agreed.”

But you were going to. Truth to tell, I have a few questions for you as well, but I’ll include them in an email.

“For me? Don’t you know everything already?”

Hardly. Where would you find the fun in playing games if you knew everything? I apologize, but pressing matters call me away. Until next!

Gail sits staring at the screen for a few minutes. When she thinks he's truly gone, she checks the etheric detector. No red light. She takes down the camera from the shelf behind her, stops recording, and replays the footage.

The movie contains a single frame:
Sorry, this too. Until next!

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