Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint about rewiring things and punching people, I'm on a weekly gaming podcast called The Crate & Crowbar, I wrote these two short stories in the Machine of Death collections, and I used to write articles like these for PC Gamer. I'm now prototyping two new games, Heat Signature and one about grappling hooks.
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I had to visit the US Embassy in London today, to renew the Visa I need to go on press trips. They won’t let you take any electronics in there, and they won’t hold them for you either – not without ‘severe delays’ and a chance they’ll cancel your appointment, which costs $121.
So when I was heading out before dawn this morning, I put down my phone, picked up my MP3 player and left. Then I realised I was forgetting my phone and grabbed my phone, then I realised I couldn’t take my MP3 player and put back my MP3 player, then I realised I couldn’t take my phone and put back my phone, then my phone rang and I picked up my phone, put it down, picked it up, hung up, put it down and left.
I shut the door, locked the door, then armed my alarm with the electronic remote control that looks like nothing so much as a detonator.
I disarmed the alarm, unlocked the door, opened the door, armed the alarm, threw the remote indoors, shut the door, locked the door and left.
This was to be the beginning.
At the station, rummaging through my bag to make sure I had the nine bits of paper I’d need, I found the USB stick I keep in there. It’s a decent-sized one, and probably contains some personal stuff, so I wasn’t immediately sure what do to with it. I had ten minutes, and the office is five minutes from the station, so I decided I’d drop it off at work.
Five minutes later, I found the office wasn’t open yet.
I wasn’t ready to throw this thing away, but it wasn’t life-changingly vital. I thought for a second, then put it in the flowerbed outside the Future offices. Then, realising it looked like rain, grabbed a nearby paper cup to give it some shelter.
It was great. It was like a dead drop, but for myself, of incriminating evidence, only not incriminating or evidence, and with a paper cup hat. Real Spycatcher stuff.
I made my train, sat down and relaxed: electronics-free and above suspicion. It was around then that I started to look at the non-electronic items I had with me through US Embassy eyes. Amongst them:
These were for a game review, a Supreme Commander blog post, navigation and from a Richard Herring gig last week, but I worried this might not be obvious. Still, I couldn’t really ditch them: I wanted everything except the satellite image, and there were no bins anywhere near the station or embassy for security reasons.
When I finally got in, this was my interview:
“Who do you work for?”
“Any particular magazine?”
“And how long have you worked there?”
“Just over five years.”
“Your application has been approved.”
Edit: Oh yeah, Epilogue! When I got back to the office that afternoon, I thought I’d just discreetly scoop up the USB stick on my way in. But I happened to arrive back at the start of lunch, so the lobby was swarming and there was a guy actually sitting on the flowerbed wall directly in front of where I’d stashed it.
For a moment I entertained the notion that he might have just stolen it, and was now scoping out the area to look for spies who might have been after this obviously sensitive dead drop. But either way, I couldn’t think of any sane way to explain why I needed to reach past him and overturn the paper cup in the mud behind. I just walked past, played a bit of StarCraft 2, then slipped out later to recover it.
It was safe and dry. Fine work, agent paper cup hat!
bbot: I started this post expected some good American-bashing, and instead it was all about how you're super paranoid.
Bret: So, you failed to use your Deus Ex training to get the visa from a random hobo at a basketball court and or pepper spray everyone?
Jason L: He knows the commander because he's his pal.
Dan: Please admit that the stick-on Hitler moustache was for your personal use.
Also this reminds me of a musing I heard once: "I think a really good gift to give the president would be a milk chocolate pistol, but he'd probably be really busy if you saw him, so it would be best to run up and give it to him quickly."
Out Reach: The question we all want answered. Was the USB stick still there when you got back?
Tom Francis: Oh yeah, Epilogue! When I got back to the office that afternoon, I thought I'd just discreetly scoop up the USB stick on my way in. But I happened to arrive back at the start of lunch, so the lobby was swarming and there was a guy actually sitting on the flowerbed wall directly in front of where I'd stashed it.
For a moment I entertained the notion that he might have just stolen it, and was now scoping out the area to look for spies who might have been after this obviously sensitive dead drop. But either way, I couldn't think of any sane way to explain why I needed to reach past him and overturn the paper cup in the mud behind. I just walked past, played a bit of StarCraft 2, then slipped out later to recover it.
It was safe and dry. Fine work, agent paper cup hat!
Lack_26: Truly a master of stealth and disguise, they fell for your cover as 'Tom Francis of PCGamer' instead of realising your true identity, 'international agent extraordinaire'.
Also, the dead drop was clearly a brilliant idea, but I'm disappointed that you didn't play it safe and garrotte the man sitting on your drop, just in-case he had rumbled it and was waiting to clock the agent who shows up.
MartinJ: I made a picture specifically for this occasion. Click my nick for some Tom-Spy!
Will P: I had my visa renewed and had almost the exact same problems - though I just chucked the USB and didn't have a Hitler moustache.
Jaz: Wow, they just looked really carefully at my MP3 player and so on, I had about ten things, including a DS and an ancient phone. Fuck knows what was on my notepad.
Jaz: (Sorry for, breathless, commas)
Bret: Dan, I think that was from the book "Deeper Thoughts". Good collection of one page observations of that nature.
Dr. Disaster: The American's guide to whether that British guy is a spy:
1. Is he drinking a shaken martini?
If yes, he is a spy! (But he is on your side.)
2. Did he order red wine with fish?
If yes, he is a spy! (And not really British.)
3. Did he leave a USB stick in a dead-drop outside an anonymous office near the U.S. embassy?
If yes, quit being paranoid, he obviously works in that office and is coming back to get the USB stick later.
Dan: Oh yeah Bret, it was "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey."
Bret: Could have sworn it was Deeper Thoughts, the sequel.
They're both excellent, but for what little it's worth, Google agrees with me.
EGTF: Last time I went to the embassy I was set alight by several flamethrowers. Must be run by a bunch of noobs these days, not knowing how to spy check.
Unrelated, but I once saw someone with a usb stick hidden in the handle of their umbrella. If only I knew back then to suggest agent paper cup hat as a more pratical and cheaper way to be an espionage maestro.
Devenger: Yep, I'm surprised they didn't just set upon you with wrenches when you entered their building.
Still, that'd be the ultimate spy play: 'SPAH SAPPIN' MAH EMBASSY!', 'EMBASSY DOWN!', and the subsequent class change (suddenly London is full of Pyros setting passers-by and dark corners on fire). And all that under the guise of a games journalist.
Plasto Joe: Your next assignment is to experiment with different groups of three random items to see which will get you questioned in a back room.
cixelsyD: They're replacing the embassy. They'd prefer to have it blown up, saves them the cost of demolishing it.
Hope no one drops it.
Pod!: >Out Reach: The question we all want answered. Was the USB stick still there when you got back?
FYI Tom, this is actually what I came to ask. Please take this into account re: your demographics. I'd like to use more USB-stick based blog posts in future, please.
Dante: You know I read this the other day, and it didn't even register that it was punctuated with those amazing pictures of 40s London. Man, I wish the world still looked like that.
Ludo: Seconded, those pictures are awesome.
And the embassy story is hilarious. I had no idea they were so strict.
Dante: On a tangentially related note, I used to carry a penknife on my keyring for opening bottles, unscrewing thinks and it's myriad other uses. This came to a stop after I forgot to disconnect it after being called for Jury duty.
Dr. Disaster: @Dante — I got suspended from high school for exactly the same thing. A one and a half inch blade!
TooNu: That was a brilliant post Tom :)
Dante: @Dr Disaster Ouch, luckily I went to school before the world went crazy paranoid about that sort of thing. Unless by high school you mean you're American, in which case I guess they were always crazy over there.
H: Great post, more like that one please, including where you had to use parkour and an elastic band to get out of paying for your round in the Flying Swan.
Davie: Wow. That is truly spectacular bad luck. Do these things happen to you on a regular basis?
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