Christian Schweitzer, Wake Forest University School of Law J.D. Candidate ’23
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
“Alright, time’s up. Put your name on your exam and bring it to the front of the room please. Remember to read pages 288-304 for class on Monday. Have a great weekend everyone.”
Hansen walked out of the classroom to join the sea of students cascading toward the school’s main exit. He brushed past obstacles, human and inanimate alike, with the grace of someone used to being among large crowds but never belonging to the group.
Upon reaching the end of the hall, he took an abrupt right turn away from the exits and ventured into the silent corridor which contained the school’s computer lab. As he stepped into the lab in the direction of his usual seat, he gave a slight smile and a nod to the lab’s sole occupant, Mr. Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins was the high school’s computer science teacher. A kind, heavy-set man with a thin voice, Mr. Jenkins had become well acquainted with Hansen during the boy’s two-and-a-half years at the school. Hansen’s previous weekly visits to the lab informed Mr. Jenkins that Hansen would spend this Friday afternoon hard at work in front of the computer until their silent camaraderie was brought to a close by Jenkins’s familiar pronouncement,
“C’mon kid, I think we both better get home.”
Never one for confrontation, Hansen, as he had done every Friday since he enrolled at the school, politely acquiesced and thanked Mr. Jenkins for letting him stay and work. Hansen saved his work, brushed his dark hair from his eyes, and stood to walk with Mr. Jenkins on their usual route out of the school. Mr. Jenkins jovially shared his weekend plans to spend time with his own adult children. Hansen affirmed the excitement that was plain in Mr. Jenkins’s face, but as per usual, shared no plans of his own besides getting some sleep and working on his coding project.
Mr. Jenkins maintained a soft spot for Hansen. Despite his years, Mr. Jenkins still remembered vividly what it was like to be a young boy whose passion for technology was ahead of his time. He understood the isolation that accompanied the pursuit of a goal unshared by one’s peers. After a brief but successful stint as a software engineer, he began his career in education, always ready to support kids who had no one else to believe in their brilliance. He offered Hansen career mentorship, design input for his coding projects, and companionship.
As the two parted ways in the parking lot, Hansen increased the pace of his stride. While not muscular, he had a large frame and long legs to match, a feature which served him well on his thirty-minute walks through the hilly streets to and from school. The walk did not trouble him. He never considered himself to be a particularly solitary person. To the contrary, he enjoyed company. But more than anything else, he enjoyed time to think, regardless of his surroundings. For Hansen, many of the most interesting things in the world were happening between his ears at any given moment, and he relished the opportunity to explore them.
For now, his consciousness was wound up in his work for a software coding tournament set to take to place in two weeks. Hosted by a local tech start-up, the competition sought entrants of any age to examine the security protocols of a hypothetical company and write a virus capable of breaching the protocols. The winner would receive $10,000, community recognition, and a student internship position with the start-up’s software development team. Hansen saw the competition as his avenue to earning success and credibility, and he badly wanted to win.
While climbing the two flights of stairs to his family’s apartment, Hansen set his thoughts aside and grounded himself once again in reality. His family’s apartment at the Palisades was far from the poverty he knew some students at his school faced, and yet he found the home particularly wanting. The interior space was modern and well finished with light-colored surfaces and angular décor. From granite and stainless steel in the kitchen to the marble-topped double vanity in the bathroom, visitors always seemed impressed. The unit resembled the staging work of a professional. It was clean, minimalistic, and devoid of the clutter, colorful accents, and personal photos that make a house feel like someone’s home. To Hansen, the Palisades apartment seemed closer to a newly renovated dentist’s office and represented neither luxury nor familiarity.
Inside, Hansen’s father, Victor, was sitting quietly in the kitchen waiting for him. Victor was a large man, well over six feet tall, with a level of strength that made him the subject of much discussion by football coaches while growing up. Even from early childhood, Victor had a particularly strong moral compass. Raised in a devout Catholic family, he believed strongly in honor, fate, and purpose. As a young man, his search for purpose compelled him to enlist in the United States military following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. He wanted to be at the forefront of the charge to protect vulnerable American lives against future harm. Unfortunately, he found the battlefield to be more morally ambiguous than expected.
During his time overseas, Victor killed a Taliban soldier in close quarters combat to protect the members of his unit. Though his swift action was exactly what the military trained him to do, he felt as if he had betrayed the very moral compass which had led him to enlist. He knew that violence was inevitable in war, but he was horrified at the notion that he could be capable of such brutality as a matter of instinct. As the last light of life flickered from the eyes of the young Taliban soldier, so too did the light leave Victor’s eyes. Those jewels that once blazed bright blue with purpose quickly became shrouded in a fog of guilt. Though he returned home from his deployment in one piece, Victor could not cleanse his mind of the young Taliban soldier and the ugly moment where their souls became cosmically intertwined.
The weight of his guilt made readjusting to civilian life unbearable. A range of psychiatrists and group counseling experiences facilitated by the Department of Veteran Affairs revealed that Victor suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His physicians warned that as a perpetrator of traumatic violence, his symptoms could include development of obsessive compulsions and suicidal ideation. Finding himself unfit to be before God, Victor refused any form of relief or salvation through confession or repentance. His singular focus shifted from seeking to contribute to the world to withdrawing from the world as a symptom of his own self-loathing. He was a dangerous killer and a beast; the most he could do for others was to cage himself for their protection. He retreated into himself and became obsessed with creating order and tranquility in his surroundings to minimize the chances that he would ever act on his violent impulses again.
Victor’s self-punishment took a heavy toll on his relationships. Before being deployed, he was seeing Julia, the woman who would become Hansen’s mother. He and Julia were high school sweethearts, friends since childhood who believed they were simply meant to be together. The two found out about the baby shortly before Victor’s deployment and despite their youth and the peril of being new parents in the face of Victor’s impending military service, they were joyful. With Victor’s work ethic and Julia’s kindness, they could figure out any situation. But while Julia was a loving person, she also needed to be loved. The distance Victor imposed when he returned was too much for Julia to bear. She left, leaving Hansen as the last vestige of their time together.
Victor adored Hansen. He was awestruck that the same God that created something as ugly and dangerous as himself could create something as gentle and kind as his boy. He beamed with pride for his boy, his lamb, and vowed that Hansen would never want for anything. To provide for his son, he went back to school and then found the most orderly job he could think of, serving as an accountant for the area hospital, County General. However, as the boy grew older, the consequences of Victor’s self-loathing permeated his relationship with Hansen. His immense love was often outmatched by his fear that Hansen would inherit whatever corrupt and beastly instinct Victor had worked so hard to suppress in himself, making it impossible to form a relationship with any depth. To Hansen, Victor was a caregiver and provider, but not a father.
Hansen opened the door, which stirred Victor from his concentration in his reading. He looked up and acknowledged his son with his ever-even tone.
“Hey, how was school today?”
“Meh, not too bad. I had a Spanish test today and I have no idea if I failed or did a great job,” Hansen replied.
Already finding himself without much to say, Victor noted blankly, “I’m sure you did fine. Oh, there’s pizza from work in the fridge if you get hungry.”
“I’m pretty pizza-ed out from Monday and Tuesday night.”
After a moment of mutual fidgeting and several failed attempts to make eye contact, Hansen gestured towards his room with a wave.
“Uhhh…I’m just going to head to bed early and if I get hungry, I’ll make a sandwich or something later. Night.”
“Suit yourself.” Victor tilted his head back towards his reading.
Hansen walked into his bedroom, shut the door, and jumped onto the bed with the enthusiasm of someone with no desire to go to sleep anytime soon and instead let his mind race with thoughts of the coding tournament. He had always been intrigued by puzzles, but the tournament offered another reward with which he had less experience: recognition. He envisioned himself as the winner and fantasized about the social clout that would be bestowed on him and he felt hopeful. Everyone will have to notice me then, once they see how smart I am.
That same night, when Victor went to bed, he glanced at a picture of himself and Hansen standing hand in hand at the state fair when Hansen was still very young. He remembered how immensely precious his son’s small palms felt in his, and he thoughtfully recited the pledge he made his son that day as they walked amongst the large crowds,
“Don’t worry, Daddy has you and he’ll never let anyone hurt you.”
Victor then prayed aloud, begging God to give him the strength to be more than a killer and help him make sure Hansen will never turn out anything like him. He then read the inscription on the back of the photograph.
…For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb…
Monday morning at school, Hansen’s confidence was buttressed by his weekend of fantasizing about winning the coding tournament and he felt emboldened to socialize, which was not normally a strongpoint of his. Crossing through the atrium on his way to class, he saw Rebecca and smiled at her, fumbling in his suddenly empty mind for anything intelligible to say to her. C’mon, just say something normal…anything. Maybe I should just act like I didn’t see her. Rebecca noticed him staring and affably broke the tension.
“Hey Hansen, what’s up?”
She was a fixture in Hansen’s academic experience. As vice president of the student government and frequent flier in the honors courses Hansen took, he saw her regularly. She was blonde and beautiful, with verdant eyes and a purposeful way about her that suggested she was always in the right place at the right time. Despite her superior status on the school social ladder, Hansen had always found her to be a gregarious desk neighbor and hoped to himself that one day she might be interested in him outside of the classroom.
She smiled enthusiastically and said, “I like your shirt. It looks nice.”
“Oh thanks, it’s actually a pretty old one, I don’t even wear it that much. I like your shirt too!” he added while making a stilted hand gesture to her student government uniform shirt that she was required to wear every Monday before the class assembly.
Dude you are blowing this, you need to be confident. He blushed nervously, before continuing in the most suave way he could manage, “So, what kind of spectacular things were you up to this weekend?”
“Okay well believe it or not I actually took a night off studying on Friday and had some people over.” She nodded in the direction of some classmates Hansen recognized but had never really talked to.
Hansen feigned a smile but ceased listening as Rebecca gave further details on her party.
No, don’t give up, get out of your head. Just ask her to hang out.
“Well would you want my number for like if you’re doing any other fun stuff soon?” he asked.
“Oh… yeah, well I think I already have it so I can definitely let you know but I think I’m going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks with school and all. I better get going to the assembly, it was good to see you though,” she replied.
Hansen watched her walk away, certain that he had never given Rebecca his phone number. The discomfort that had crossed her face when he offered it to her was obvious, and it pained him. He felt excluded and berated himself for his silly belief that she could ever be interested in spending time with him. He felt hollow the rest of the day and looked forward to the long walk home more than usual.
At home, Hansen turned on his gaming computer and loaded up Fortress Raider 2, his favorite video game. He received a party chat invitation from “XxCollateralDamagexX” and “ToySolider88”, who he knew as Adrian and Mark.
“Whoa look who’s here at 4:00 pm, don’t either of you have jobs or something better you should be doing?” asked Hansen, launching into friendly banter right away.
“Shut up Hansen, we can’t all be workaholic nerds,” countered Mark.
For the next three hours, they were engrossed in their virtual conquest. Laughing, joking, and sharing the news of the weekend amidst their battles, the young men gleefully passed the time without a second thought. Though Adrian and Mark both lived in different states, they had been playing games together online for four years, and Hansen considered them to be real friends. Their fun came to a pause only when they reached a level too difficult for them pass.
“I’ve got work in the morning so I’m going to hop off for the night. Hansen, any chance you could use your big computer science brain to figure this one out before we play next time?” Adrian asked.
“Yeah, yeah I’ll see what I can dig up. See you losers later,” Hansen answered.
Hansen went online and started researching cheats for Fortress Raider 2 to find a solution to the level, and quickly realized that most reputable fan sites blocked users from discussing cheats at the request of the game developers. Venturing into blacklisted discussion boards, he signed in under the same name he used for video games, “PR0_GRAM3D”. He began to chat with a few users about possible cheats, but also noticed a separate thread of users analyzing a ransomware virus. After taking an overview of the code, Hansen realized its mechanics closely resembled the virus he had written for the coding tournament. He contemplated the similarity until his concentration was broken by a direct message from a user named “RiotStrter”.
RiotStrter: Hey I saw you on the other thread, did you figure out the FR2 cheats?
PR0_GRAM3D: Lol yeah, got some. Not sure if they’ll work tho.
RiotStrter: If you’re stuck on the hollow-points level, I have some codes that will you get through it.
PR0_GRAM3D: Wow yeah, I am actually. How’d you know?
RiotStrter: Haha thought so. It took my friends and I weeks to get through it.
Hansen continued to chat with “RiotStrter”, whose real name was Danny. In addition to their love of gaming, the boys bonded over their shared experience as sons of former soldiers.
Danny’s father served in the Russian Armed Forces. He seemed to understand the difficulty Hansen faced his whole life in trying to connect with his dad, and it was refreshing for Hansen to bond so effortlessly with someone for once. Danny comforted Hansen with his story of reviving his relationship with his father and eventually creating a father-son business, giving Hansen hope that he could one day do something similar. The boys agreed to stay in touch and continued to chat periodically over the coming week.
The next morning at County General Hospital, Victor grappled on the phone with his supervisors.
“You know for a fact that to meet these margins you’re asking for, I’ll have to recommend layoffs to the administration. We’re short staffed as is and any layoffs will directly impact our ability to provide any modicum of patient care.”
“Look Victor, if County General was any good at managing its own funds, we wouldn’t have been able to buy it out so cheap. The reality is that modern healthcare is a business, and American National knows what it takes to be profitable in this space. If you can’t get your head around that, we’ll find an accountant who can,” said the executive.
“Don’t you dare speak about people’s livelihoods like they’re disposable, you disgusting piece of trash,” Victor roared in return as he slammed his fist on the desk.
“You’re way out of line here. If you want anyone to keep their jobs, you’ll do what’s necessary to keep this company afloat by keeping profits steady and shareholder confidence up. You can talk about helping people all you want but you don’t have the spine to do what’s necessary when it really matters…”
The line went dead and as Victor slowed his breathing, he realized he would certainly be hearing from corporate again soon with disciplinary actions. He chided himself the remainder of the day for his outburst. Victor found his anger to be the most fearful component of his limited emotional range, and any time he exercised it his mind returned to the battlefield and the young Taliban soldier. He chose to work for County General to keep himself away from situations that brought out his anger, but he hated being a bystander to injustice even more than he hated himself for being angry.
Victor’s self-loathing intensified as he returned home. Skipping a meal or any interaction with Hansen, he retreated into his room to meditate and shut the door. He leaned on poetry as a substitute for human interaction. It allowed him the space to be vulnerable and close to fellow human experience without the danger of being near enough to hurt someone. Like feeling the warmth of a distant lover while only viewing their picture, poetry brought Victor a glimpse of the intimacy he had sorely missed since Julia’s departure. He felt understood by the author who ensconced their shared feelings in a medium only he could fully appreciate. Repeating the lines of the poem, Victor wondered how a perfect, loving God could create a brute with such a macabre spirit as his own. He visualized his anger, his guilt, and his killer instincts amalgamated together in the form of a tiger, crying out to God to help return him to a righteous path.
Through the wall of his bedroom, Hansen overheard Victor muttering the poem and whimpering, “Tyger, Tyger…what is wrong with me that I ended up like this?” He understood his father was hard on himself but listening to his father weep like that broke Hansen. Hansen recalled what Danny said about his success in helping his father heal and logged back into the chatroom.
PR0_GRAM3D: Hey, you have any more details about you and your dad getting back on track after his time in the service?
RiotStrter: Yeah, 100%. Everything okay?
PR0_GRAM3D: Honestly today was one of the worst days we’ve had in a while. I could just use some insight from someone who gets what I’m dealing with.
Danny explained that the difference maker for his father was finding a new purpose.
RiotStrter: Soldiers are a whole different breed. They need something to be proud of and something to fight for, otherwise they fall apart.
He explained that he and his father now serve as “hacktivists”, using their skills to fight for global justice by extracting money from corrupt corporations.
RiotStrter: What were you doing looking at that REvil code the other day?? That’s some serious stuff.
Feeling safe behind the anonymity of the web chat, Hansen told Danny about the tournament and the creation of his virus. He even admitted that he noticed similarities between it and the REvil virus.
RiotStrter: You built something that incredible and you’re seriously just going to give it away to some company? If you want to make your old man proud, do something useful with your talent and let me have the virus. I can use it to teach companies a lesson and change some things.
PR0_GRAM3D: Wouldn’t people get hurt?
RiotStrter: Only if you follow through with your competition and give the virus to a business. All we do is impact profit margins enough to make them accountable. There’s no lives on the line. If you want your dad to feel like himself again, start by showing him what it means to do something people care about instead of some stupid contest where the prize is working for the kind of entity that is killing society.
PR0_GRAM3D: Idk man. I’ll think about it, but I don’t like this…
Over the next few days, Hansen couldn’t shake Danny’s revelation from his mind. He started listening to a news podcast called Truth Storm, dedicated to exposing injustice perpetrated by corporations. He heard think pieces about corporate cover ups of price gouging, environmental disasters, and sexual assault allegations and mulled the patent unfairness of the world he had grown up in. His father, who had lived by principle and served his country, was rewarded only with trauma and loneliness. Simultaneously, corporate leaders who profited off the suffering of others now lived in luxury, glorified as high achievers. Maybe Danny wasn’t crazy, and something had to be done.
The night before Hansen’s submission to the coding tournament was due, he logged back into the chat.
RiotStrter: Thought you’d be back. Did you have change of heart by chance?
PR0_GRAM3D: Let’s cut to the chase. What will you pay for the code?
RiotStrter: $30K. But that’s not really what you care about, is it? I’ll make this simple for you. Bottom line, companies need to profit. They’ll submit to the demand because that’s what gets their business running again. These are the wealthiest companies in the world, and we ask them for small money to teach them a lesson. Besides that, insurance usually reimburses their losses. It’s harmless in the scheme of things, but it reminds them that businesses answer to the public and that they are not above us.
Hansen paused to reflect on the gravity of the decision he was about to make, but his train of thought was interrupted by another message.
RiotStrter: You think our dads weren’t scared when they went into war? That was real. This is just a keystroke. How do you expect your father be proud of you if you keep living like a coward? For once, take an action that has some consequences to it.
Though Danny was clearly trying to bully Hansen into making the sale, Hansen saw truth in Danny’s words.
How badly do you want to matter? No one can see you differently unless you do something different. Rebecca will never want you. Dad will never take an interest in your life. Your own mother didn’t even want a relationship with you. No one will ever care about your life unless you give them a reason to.
In a hurricane of anger, he pressed send and delivered the code. Almost instantly, a CoinWallet notification alerted him to a deposit of 0.53 Bitcoins into his digital wallet, valued at $30,000.
RiotStrter: Pleasure doing business with you. (:
Hansen felt uneasy as he logged out of the chat and into his account for the coding tournament to formally withdraw. Closing his computer, he vowed to himself to close the chapter of his life marked by inaction and invisibility. Picturing an idyllic scene of he and his father bonding over his heroic actions, he settled into bed and went to sleep.
Over the following weeks, Hansen considered how to go about changing the status quo between himself and Victor. He pondered suggesting his father attend therapy, or maybe he should find a hobby for them to share, or maybe they should take a trip together. All he could be certain of is that he wanted a deeper relationship with Victor, and now that he was a brave worldchanger, he was sure Victor would want a relationship with him too. Heading home to the Palisades after school, Hansen was surprised to find Victor home early from work and quickly suspected something was wrong based on the unprecedented stench of liquor in the apartment.
Then he noticed the half-empty bottle of tequila sitting on the side table by his father’s elbow.
“County General was compromised by a ransomware attack. It took down every hospital in the American National system. All of ‘em. All went dark. One by one.” Victor muttered.
“The place was a madhouse: records locked out, health protocols inaccessible, ambulances rerouted, surgical equipment offline. They sent home all non-essential personnel since we can’t do our jobs anyway. I thought by working at the hospital I was getting away from all that chaos,” Victor cried. “It was like being back there all over again . . .” His voice trailed off.
Frightened by the state of his normally restrained father, Hansen ran to his room to learn about the attack for himself. A local news article popped to the forefront of his search results with the headline: “High School Teacher Confirmed as Casualty in Ransomware Attack on County General”. Rapidly skimming the article, he saw that the victim of the attack was Mr. Robert Jenkins. After suffering a minor heart attack, his ambulance was rerouted to a medical center 45 minutes away due to system outages at County General and by the time he arrived, it was too late. The article also contained a statement from officials explaining that a joint investigation with the FBI would be launched, although early evidence led them to suspect that a Russian group was involved. Hansen placed his hands on his head and forcefully tugged at his hair as if making a frivolous attempt to extricate the panic and grief rising throughout him. The timing of the attack spurred suspicion in his mind, and he immediately began to grapple with the possibility that his virus could be responsible. He logged into the chat room.
PR0_GRAM3D: What the hell? Was this you?? https://www.pamylocalnews.com
RiotStrter: Not bad, huh? Must be cool to see your work in action for the first time.
PR0_GRAM3D: This isn’t a joke! Someone I knew died! The FBI is already looking into this and I’m sending them this conversation. I can’t live with this.
RiotStrter: Feel free. FBI has no jurisdiction here in Russia. If you want to take the fall, it will be just as inconsequential as everything else in your life.
PR0_GRAM3D: What about everything you said about teaching big businesses a lesson? How are you any better than them if you let innocent people get hurt?
RiotStrter: I said what I needed to say to get you on board. Hospitals are easy money. They have tons of access points, outdated equipment, and their entire business model depends on their ability to provide treatment and secure data. It’s easy to get in, and they always pay up. If they don’t pay or sometimes even if they do, anyone on the black market would love to have that patient data. The hospitals don’t even care. The law might say they have to tell patients about the lost data, but they know there are ways around that. American federalism is such a joke. National leaders can posture about change, but without unified action, there will always be vulnerable hospitals that fall through the cracks.
Hansen sank back into his chair and sobbed, realizing that he had been played for a fool. His instincts told him that selling the virus might have been immoral. Russia seemed so far away, and any victims of his actions were supposed to be faceless corporate entities. But the victims of this attack were not far away. Mr. Jenkins was not far away. He was a small source of joy and light in Hansen’s life, but now he was gone. Hansen thought then of Mr. Jenkins’s children, and the agony they must have been feeling. He had used his rare talent in a way that brought pain, suffering, and death onto others, including to a man who had been instrumental in fostering that talent. His passivity and gentle nature always made him the least likely suspect to bring violence on anyone, and yet he had caused greater injury than most any physical threat could. He sank from his chair to the floor and covered his face in his hands. I just wanted my life to matter, but I hurt all these people. What kind of monster kills someone remotely from behind a desk in the name of holding powerful people accountable? As guilt, shame, and self-hatred consumed him, the last gleam of purpose left his eyes and two words sprang to the forefront of his mind: “Tyger, Tyger.”
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash