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The Secret World of Puzzles

by James Hatton about a year ago in science fiction
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What do you do when your greatest answer leads to one horrible question...

Part of me wants to believe that if I had given the challenge just a little bit of extra thought, I’d have accepted that I was certainly doing something beyond illegal, that even if I didn’t know that I was living somewhere in the realm of treason, I’d have turned back. The real truth of the matter is, there is just as much of a chance that I wouldn’t have even given it a second thought, which somehow puts me on the other side of the universe and living somewhere in the realm of patriotism. It’s strange how things can turn so quickly….

Before we get into my supposed treason and/or heroism, I need you to understand a bit about where I’m coming from. In the 1980s, there was no Attention Deficit and there was no Asperger’s. There was no Autism. There were the kids that spent their time figuring out how to kick a ball and the kids that figured out why the blender worked the way it did and how to get it to spin so fast it would eat your Transformers. Of course I realize I’m minimalizing here, but I just wanted to make it clear that I knew jack shit about football and was making games on my Commodore 64 games by the year of 1988. I’d ask my father what I should do and he would say ‘What about something that plays music?’ and by the next day he could follow the bouncing ball to the chorus of ‘Got My Mind Set On You’. When I got older, he would show me his shop’s bank ledgers and ask for me to make a program that kept track of his inventory and estimated how much he would make, and I’d do it. Answering questions and solving puzzles was, is, and always will be love to me.

The other thing you need to understand for my story is the term Broken Arrow. Did you know that through accidents, unreported attacks, and general government buffoonery, there have been over two dozen mistaken nuclear accidents? Some were where submarines crashed into each other and a weapon was deployed. There are others where somewhere between point A and point B, a nuclear weapon just disappeared. Both are types of Broken Arrow and that should legitimately scare the living shit out of you. Somewhere out there in the world are at least 4 nuclear weapons that we built and misplaced, and I assure you, someone knows where they are. If you don’t believe that, I would like to buy two tickets to your personal fantasyland.

How do these two things: my penchant for puzzles and the idiocy of our government machine collapse down to a finite point landing on myself? The answer, unelaborated upon, will do nothing to clear up your confusion.

Ready?

Bitcoin.

I told you it wouldn’t help.

Before there were news articles about the Dark Web and Silk Road, the seedy sexy underbelly of the internet, there was simply TOR. It was a place where people who knew how to get there, got there. Yes, some of us realized the horrendous ways it was being used, but people use phones for drug deals all the time, yet everyone still has one. I don’t hold you accountable for those horrible phone-using drug dealers, so I see no reason to feel personally responsible for a bunch of monsters on TOR. What we did in our corner wasn’t always legal, but it was certainly a different grade of crime: hacking, cracking, phishing and phreaking. We would break in and out of systems where we didn’t belong, sometimes for pay, sometimes for fun, but by and large it was all pretty harmless stuff.

My favorite place, where I met the only people I have ever known well enough to call my peers, was a forum called the ThinkTank. The system went like this: Someone, referred to as a Challenger, would throw out an interesting request. If the challenge was interesting enough, or we were bored enough, we would flock to it like sharks to chum. Most of it was typical cracking a MySpace password or finding the location of a pristine copy of a book out in the non-virtual world. It was nerds using the growing world of technology to go on a non-stop series of scavenger hunts.

So when this message came through:

“I need to hide something, but I need everyone to have it.”

-- it was the sort of sphynx-like riddle of a request that wasn’t going to appeal to everyone, but the people (like myself) that did bite on it, were going to bite hard and not let go until it was figured out. The Challenger wouldn’t tell us what it was that they wanted hidden and we weren’t the type to ask why, lest we get subpoenaed later. He did explain that he wanted a system that could be fed small bits of information, have it replicated to any computer that wanted it, but not have anyone know what it was they were looking at.

The first round of answers were all given very curt and non-directive, ‘No’s’ from the Challenger. I won’t lie, his lack of any further explanation to help us steer away from what he said no to was the reason a few of us kept going. The more he said no, the more of that sweet serotonin would drop the minute one of us nailed a yes.

For the better part of a year, a small group of us would throw out ideas on how to combat the challenge. The Challenger started giving us more directed feedback, but still would shoot down almost everything. The idea of encoding it on a website was too simplistic. Placing it in a video game felt like it would have a shelf life where it wouldn’t continue to be shared. We went through simple, but technically difficult ideas like hiding the information in streaming video, to impossibly difficult ideas made for a heist film, like creating a piece of art out of the data and paying to have it hang in a small town museum. Each one was shot down until, after a lightbulb moment of my own, I asked, “What if we hid it inside money?”

The Challenger’s response was, for the first time, “Continue down this line.”

It was orgasmic.

Have you ever met anyone I remind you of? The type of person that gets the idea to make a movie and won’t stop until they know every single thing about the production of a film, has cost breakdowns of the equipment, and has started shopping around for their first script? Well, the Challenger had said yes to money, so the team of us that remained on this challenge started to learn everything we could about the structures of finance to find a place where we could hide data.

The problem with anything related to banking and money is that it is hidden beneath a non-stop series of layers of obfuscation. Stocks owned by businesses owned by LLC’s owned by conglomerates owned by banks owned by people in locations you’ve never heard of where their supposed headquarters is in a three-floor business space that houses 500 other businesses. We needed banking to be a public record, and we needed the transactions of that bank to be visible to every person that had a cent invested. One person would ask, “How do we verify the funds?” and another would say “We make it part of the transaction.” Someone else would ask, “How many verifications before it is assured?” and eventually someone would have the idea that each transaction would be built on the last one.

A challenge turned into a project and as we had finally figured out that we had built the technology you’ve read about called Blockchain, it had become an obsession. The programmers were writing source code, the bug testers were trying to break it, and the hardware geeks were maintaining the systems that controlled it. Finally, we brought what we had created to the Challenger and our own personal Pavlov rang his bell, “Yes.”

There are only the core few of us that know the Challenger’s hash, his unique transaction identifier, in the BitCoin system. After we had been live for six months, we noticed him send out a tiny fraction of a coin. A day later, another. A day later, another. Every day, another string of numbers that we all were well aware represented some other piece of information. Every day, a new sequence of numbers that he had to know we were collecting along the way. Then again, maybe he didn’t… the fact that I don’t know is why you have never seen anything more than nicknames, code names, and project names when connected to who started BitCoin.

That brings us to now. The Challenger closed his account yesterday, with one last transfer that contained the sum remainder of his coins. The data that he wanted to give to the world is now out there in full, and it wasn’t until I got the last few pieces that we were able to piece together what it was.

Ever curious about the puzzle that started our journey into being the secret Masters of Crypto, which sounds a whole lot better than ‘the nerds who figured out how to make money nerdier’, I kept a script running that collected the Challenger’s transactions. After every exchange, it would mark it down and run it against a thousand different file formats until it got a hit. Seconds after the second to last transaction, it dinged.

The file is called BrokenArrow.zip, and it is a text file that contains a series of coordinates.

I don’t know if his intention was to put it out there for us to find it, for us to give it to the proper authorities, to put it somewhere in case something happens to him, or to know it is out there to sell to the highest bidder… but it is out there now, and it may be the first puzzle I am scared as hell to solve.

science fiction

About the author

James Hatton

Writer, podcaster, webcomic creator, burlesque host, pro-wrestling commentator - instead of doing one thing really well, I've apparently decided to do a lot of things well enough.

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