Aaron Roberts was on his way home from work when he discovered the QR code.
Someone had printed the pattern onto a sticker and placed it underneath a park bench. Aaron saw the sticker by accident when he dropped a quarter out of his pocket. He saw it roll under the bench and when he bent down to pick it up- there was the sticker.
That’s an odd place to put that. Aaron thought.
QR codes are generally used for marketing. Restaurants put them on their windows to link to a web pdf of their menu, catalogs use them to give customers easy access to various websites. It is counter-intuitive to hide a QR code sticker. It was like putting a billboard directly behind a bunch of trees.
Unless, maybe, it wasn’t meant to be seen.
His curiosity piqued, Aaron picked up his quarter and took his cellphone out of his pocket. He didn’t use the QR reader on his phone very often, so it took some searching to find the app. Once he did, he activated it and pointed the phone’s camera at the sticker. After a split-second, the phone beeped. Then the phone’s web browser popped open.
On the screen were two buttons. The words, “Are you cool?” sat nestled just above them. The buttons offered a simple binary choice: yes or no.
“Probably depends on who you ask.” Aaron mumbled, thinking about Jean- his ex-girlfriend.
He clicked YES.
Then his phone flashed and the screen went completely blank.
“What the shit?” He asked, pushing the button on the side to turn the phone back on.
Aaron stared at the phone- willing it to come back into life. After about ten seconds, it did, but only for a few seconds. The screen suddenly flashed red and then green. Then the black returned, only now, there was a short message superimposed on the void of the empty screen.
It read: Thank you. We will be in touch.
After five seconds the phone went dead again and stayed that way.
When Aaron read the message, he knew it wasn’t a coincidence that his phone’s death coincided with hitting the button.
Clearly he’d just voluntarily allowed someone to hack into his phone.
Aaron’s first thought was to go to the police.
His second thought was that it would be stupid to go to the police.
Aaron worked in IT. He knew how hard it was to get non-technical people to understand technology and the thought of sitting at a desk and explaining to a cop what a QR code was- and then- making the even more difficult leap of explaining why Aaron wasn’t a total nutcase for taking out his phone and scanning the code- it would just be helpless. Chicago cops aren’t generally known for their appreciation of the intellectual. Aaron might get lucky and get somebody who understood what he was talking about- but it wasn’t very likely.
He stood there in the warm late-afternoon sun and ran his fingers through his too rapidly thinning hair, trying to decide what to do. In the end, Aaron just went home. He figured the first thing he should do is contact his cell phone company and get his account shut down.
As soon as he walked into his apartment, Aaron rushed over to his laptop and tapped the mouse pad to turn it on. By habit he clicked on his email at the same time he opened the browser to get to the cell phone company. Aaron didn’t have a house phone- he only had his cell- so the best he could do was set up a chat with customer service.
Please re-enter your password. Demanded the email program.
That was odd- Aaron hadn’t needed to type in his password on his home computer in forever. Shrugging, he entered the code ‘Upchunker05’ as requested.
Upchunker was Aaron’s fraternity nickname in college back in 2005.
Password does not match this email account.
Please re-enter your password.
He typed it again, and got the same message.
Oh shit. What had he done?
Two days later, they came to collect him.
They came in the night (don’t they always).
Aaron was asleep.
The extraction team consisted of four men dressed in black. One carried a hypodermic needle. They entered the house with almost complete silence. The guy with the hypo sank the needle into Aaron’s calf. The pain woke Aaron up for a split second before the rush of sedative took hold and dragged him down into the darkness.
The team was in and out in less than three minutes.
Aaron did his best to keep himself together.
He sat at a table in a Spartan room. The walls were blank and there was one door. A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask stood next to a woman wearing a masquerade ball bird mask of the type seen in movies about the middle ages. The long beak of the thing came across as quite grotesque and sinister. Beneath these they wore identical loose fitting black clothing with a symbol emblazoned in the middle Aaron had never seen before.
Guy Fawkes spoke first,“I must apologize for our tactics. Although you are unaware of it, you have been identified as a potential recruit.”
“A recruit for what?”
“For our army.”
“Because we’re looking for people like you- we search constantly.”
“People like me? Who are people like me?”
“Who are people like you? Aaron, you’re the type of guy who points his phone at a QR code sticker he sees underneath a park bench. We’ve done studies. Less than one person in 500,000 will see the sticker and then go to all of the trouble of getting out their phone and actually scanning the code. Of those, less than half will click the ‘yes’ button for fear of what might happen. I mean- it’s pretty shady. You must’ve realized that.”
“But you did it anyway. According to our analytics- it took you less than five seconds.”
“That’s why we want you. The QR code is just a honeypot. Do you remember the movie The Last Starfighter– where the videogame is essentially a test to find pilots to fight in an intergalactic war? Well, the QR code is our version of that.”
“Only with less starfighters.”
“So who are you- what do you want me to join?” Aaron asked.
“Are you sure you want to know? If we tell you, there is no going back. Once we’ve told you the truth- trying to back out will mean your death. I am not kidding, nor am I speaking with hyperbole. If you hear what we have to say- you will be with us. If you are not- we will kill you.”
The woman with the beaky mask wasn’t kidding.
In the two days prior to his abduction, Aaron watched his entire life disappear. They took over his laptop less than ten minutes after he discovered his email password was changed. Aaron had a number of different social media sites he used and to his horror- all of them were inaccessible. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to log into his fifth website when the mouse suddenly stopped doing what he told it to do. All Aaron could do was watch as the cursor opened up a browser window, pasted in a URL and hit send.
Two seconds later, his screen went black. As with the cell phone- there was no getting it back once it was dead. Aaron believed beaky mask woman. If he said yes and tried to back out- they would kill him.
“Well? Are you in or are you out? If you’re out- then you have this one chance to walk away. We’ll drug you, you’ll wake up in your apartment and none of this will have ever happened. But if you’re in- there’s not going back. If you’re in- you’re in.”
You can stop reading here.
Indeed, you probably should.
You’ve been warned, if you’re in, you’re in.
(QR is click/touchable)