"Mornin' Sam." Ralph always greeted me with "Morning," no matter what time it was. I had taken to responding with random words and phrases.
"Toaster," I said, waving as I walked past the lobby security desk. Ralph laughed and buzzed me in, opening the electronic lock on the gate to the elevators. I checked my watch against the time on the giant wall clock on the opposite wall. The wall read 3:45PM, ten minutes faster than my watch. I muttered under my breath, cursing, as I set my watch back.
Ralph went back to watching the security monitors and I walked through to the stairwell. Normally I'd summon and elevator and ride up like everyone else, but it's not like I was late, and I needed the exercise anyway.
My desk was five floors up, inside Tetrachus corporate headquarters. I worked in the NOC, the Network Operations Center. I'm one of three guys working the swing shift, watching for intrusions and making sure things run smoothly in general. Ever since Duaiwe, our corporate hacker, set up the counter measures on the network, intrusions have been rare enough that we mostly just watch the traffic patterns and diagnose bottlenecks.
When it was slow, we'd trade stories about previous jobs, hacks we'd done before "going corp," and hackers we'd met and fought; war stories of the tech generation. Like any good war story, these were 90% bullshit, and everyone knew it.
"Seriously, man!" Hank said as I walked in, somewhere in the middle of telling a war story to Mike. Hank used to call himself DocPibb, after his favorite homemade soda. Mike got his start in another generation, and called himself OperaPhreak. He refused to explain the meaning to us, saying we wouldn't get it 'cause we're still just kids. "Sam, check it out. I was running this righteous hack, yeah? Found this sweet box just sitting there, protected with just a Twilight1500 firewall. So I'm in, right, just poking around. Doesn't look like much. But then BAM! Who's standing in front of me but NightHawkTheSane! I couldn't believe it!"
"Hank, shut up. We're at work," I chastised him as I walked to my desk. He followed, leaving Mike's desk.
"Nah, the wireheads can't hear us, and besides, this was NightHawkTheSane! One of the best hackers of our generation!" I rolled my eyes and he kept talking. "He hadn't seen me yet. I had the drop on him; if I could take him out I'd become famous on the Darknet! So I let him have it with The Thumper!" Hank paused expectantly.
I sighed softly and asked, "The Thumper?" feigning interest.
"Yeah! I wrote it specifically for him! I had to stay up until noon every day for a month, studying his known hacks, reading everything he ever wrote on any message board. Lightnet, Darknet, I read 'em all."
"Knock it off, Pibb," Duaiwe said without looking up from his station at the back of the room. He was at his desk so often, and usually kept quiet, that I often forgot he was in the room. It was rare that he went home before 6 in the evening, and he was usually back before my shift ended at 1AM. I'm sure he wasn't working every minute he was at his desk, but while he was there he almost never looked up from the bank of monitors, and his hands rarely left the keyboards.
He and Mike were the only hackers I knew who used a monitor and keyboard interface. The rest of us used either the Halo, a circlet of eletrodes that read brain activity and stimulated sensory input nodes, or the Wire, a direct neural interface. That was the Wire's official name: Direct Neural Interface, or DNI, but everyone called it the Wire because it was just that, a literal wire. You'd plug one end into your brain, after extensive surgery, and the other end in to a Network Node, usually a wall jack. At the office, we'd connect through a computer terminal to add an extra layer of protection from back hacks and to avoid dump shock.
Dump Shock is what anyone using the Wire experiences when the connection they're hacking is suddenly dropped. With no signal, they're tossed back into the Real like a deep sea diver rocketing to the surface, and it takes the mind a while to sort things out properly, years in some extreme cases. Proxying the Wire through a local computer means you only get dumped out if your net-connection into the box at your feet is dropped. Any other disconnects and you're still connected there, so you can decompress and log off cleanly.
The three methods all did the same thing, but with different levels of speed, precision and surgery. With the "Old Guard" style, the keyboard-and-monitor combo, you don't need any surgery, but can only act in cyberspace as fast as you can type and read. One benefit is that you're not senseless to the Real world while you're hacking, so it's not as easy for someone to sneak up on you. The Halo is a compromise. You can hack as fast as you can think, or as fast as the model you're using can read your thoughts. It takes a while to learn how to use it effectively, and it's not 100% accurate yet either. The typos you'd make on a keyboard are lessened to some extent, but in other ways it was worse. You might think "Shutdown target A" but the Halo might interpret "Shout at Alarm B." The Halo would also deaden your senses, replacing them to some extent with its input. Anything less than a horse decked out in jingling bells and trotting across a tile floor could sneak up on someone using a Halo. The Wire was considered the optimal solution by those that could afford the surgery. Before you could use it, you'd have to have a carver open up your head and put in the DNI chip, then leave a hole for the wire jack, usually just behind the ear on the hacker's dominant side. I'm right-handed, so I've got my wire jack behind my right ear. When you're jacked in with the Wire, you're completely insensible to the Real. A guy could come up behind you and cut your ear off, and you wouldn't feel it until you disconnected. The trade off is a 100% accurate, zero relay connection, or as near to zero as it's possible to get. They say your consciousness actually goes out on the Wire, leaving your body, and that's what Dump Shock really is: you, your mind, waking up and realizing it's still in a meat body, with meat limitations.
Duaiwe, though, used both the Wire and the "Old Guard" interface. None of us knew how he could use both at once, existing both in the Real and the Virtual worlds. My theory was that he could remain cognizant of the Real because his DNI was modified, cutting the input stream just enough that it didn't blind him. If anyone asked, he usually just said "I'm that good," or "That's what they pay me for." None of us knows if 'Duaiwe' is his real name, or a handle. The few times I've tried looking up his Tetrachus personnel files to find out, my terminal crashed. When I'd stumble from my desk to make a cup of tea to help ease the dump shock, Duaiwe would give me a wink and a smug grin before going back to his work.
"How'd he know my handle?" Hank whispered to me.
"Duh. He's Duaiwe. He probably led the Tetrachus recruiters to you." Why they wanted him I don't know. Bryce always seemed to be more of a script kiddie than a real hacker; he always used someone else's tools and widgets to do what he wanted, never even modifying them, let alone writing his own utilities.
The four o'clock bell chimed and Bryce and I plugged in our wires. Mike closed the solitaire game he had been playing and logged on tot he corporate tools. We found ourselves in a digital representation of the NOC, but without desks. Our avatars stood around a large pillar of light with several floating screens hovering around it. We each had a smaller, customizable display on podiums arranged in a ring around the pillar. The pillar represented Tetrachus's connection to the 'net, and the data flowing in and out of the building. Bryce and the other wire heads looked as real to me here as they did offline. Mike, though, looked slightly transparent, like a ghost. Duaiwe flickered between ethereal and solid looking while he brought us up to speed.
"It's been dead all morning. There were five unresolved issues after the graveyard crew left, but nothing has come in since 10." He paused to let that sink in as he walked around the pillar to face us, watching us and gaging our reaction to the news. He seemed to glare at Bryce as the young wirehead spoke up.
"Isn't that a good thing? No trouble tickets means we get to kick back and relax, right?"
"No, it's not." Duaiwe stood in front of Bryce's podium, staring through the young man. Having no user issues, while highly unusual, is not in and of itself a bad thing. "And it's not just trouble tickets. Network activity has been well below suspicious levels, random packet sniffing hasn't found anything malicious, we haven't even had any users surfing porn. Something fucking weird is going on, and I have a feeling it's going on out there." He pointed to the information pillar behind him. "Now that you three are here, " he turned his back on Bryce, sweeping gaze past me and Mike and back to the pillar, "there's enough eyes watching the system that I can go investigate." Before he finished speaking, he took a few running steps toward the pillar, jumping in just after his speech. He vanished in to the datastream flowing down through the floor.
"Show off," Mike said, tilting his head back down to his podium.
"Hey Tom?" I asked one of the console jockeys from the day shift. He was something of a writer, old style sci-fi novels. He said they were due for a come back. Not having had any sales yet didn't seem to dishearten him though. I think he was on his fourth book in a series. "Was he serious about how dead it's been? Or is Duiawe just being overly dramatic?"
"Naw, it's been really dead. I've had plenty of time to write today."
"Yeah, Shakespeare over there's been typing away all damn day." I leaned to my left to see around the pillar to Tom's podium and noticed the type writer sitting on top. I chuckled as Luke went on. "There's been barely any email come through at all today." I figured his "barely any" was probably a few thousand messages. A typical day would see hundreds of thousands of messages. "The damndest thing is, not one piece of email was spam. Either the new perimeter is 100% effective and accurate, or there's just nothing going on in there," Luke's voice trailed off as he started in to the heart of the pillar.
"Well! While the boss is away, the mice will play, right? We've got nothing but time to kill guys!" Mike had again forgotten to think before speaking. His avatar flickered and blinked out of existence, then back in a moment later as his connection dropped and he reconnected.
"I'm still here, Pibb. Just not in front of you." Duaiwe's voice came from his podium which projected an image of Duaiwe's head floating above it.
Josh, the third of the three day shift wire heads, spoke up. "There was some spam early this morning, but it dropped off around 8. All the outbound traffic has been standard marketing and promotional stuff, nothing confidential, and nothing encrypted. It's like everybody on the net decided to play nice today. It's... spooky."
"Let's hope it stays that way. I got up on the wrong side of the bed and could use an easy day for once," I said.
"Don't you sleep on the couch at your brother's apartment?" Mike added with a wry grin.
Two hours later, Duaiwe still hadn't returned. The early shift stayed a little long, but stopped waiting for him a half hour after their shift ended. As he logged out, Luke asked me to let him know what Duiawe said when he finally came back. Even the boss's podium hadn't said anything for the last hour. Mike and I passed the time catching up on incident reports and perusing documentation while recompiling some of our tools.
Bryce followed suit until the others left, then he went back to telling his story. The short version was that he fought NightHawkTheSane and came out ahead, knocking the elder hacker offline with The Thumper. That was the story, anyway. Like I said, most war stories are embellishments piled on a nugget of truth. In Bryce's case, the truth was generally more of a grain than a nugget, and the exaggeration was piled on thicker or just made up from scratch. My guess was the truth behind this story was that he had indeed fought NightHawkTheSane, but that Hawk had hacked Bryce's home box and kicked his ass up and down the file system.
A word of advice for any young, would-be hackers hearing this: recognize when you're out classed and either run like hell, or lay down arms and surrender. Even among thieves, there is honor of a sort. Any undefended host computer is fair game. An unarmed hacker is not, except when disarmed through fair combat; then you're fair game again, but your opponent will usually stop short of the kill. Usually. There are, of course, exceptions to this: rogues, scoundrels, cut throats, etc.
Stories by themselves usually aren't dangerous, but the darknet can be protective, and vengeful. I decided to call Bryce on his bullshit this time. "If you took down NightHawkTheSane, how come the Dark isn't buzzing with the news? A major defeat like that would have hit the net in seconds." I turned to look Bryce in the eye. In my periphery, I saw Mike grin as he glanced toward us, then back to his display.
"Obviously he doesn't want it known. I tried to post about it but my connection kept dropping."
"And it was Hawk killing your connection?"
"Hey guys?" Mike interrupted. "I found something about that fight on the Darknet." Normally we couldn't access the Darknet from work, and I expected Duaiwe to pipe up and chastise Mike for the transgression, but he remained quiet. "It hit about ten minutes ago. Looks like Hawk caught some punk trying to make a name for himself."
Bryce became suddenly, uncharacteristically, quiet.
"It goes on to say NightHawkTheSane himself was offline at the time, and the attacker was thwarted by automated defense scripts and Hawk only found out when he was looking through the logs..."
I grinned wider, not knowing if Mike was making it up or not.
"That's not how it happened! Let me see that page!" Bryce cried, running over to Mike's screen.
"Sorry, Kid, it's on the physical monitor. I can't send it in here without bending the rules past their breaking point. I'm barely avoiding Duaiwe's gaze as it is."
I paused to consider that. The only way Mike could be avoiding Duaiwe was if his old guard interface was busy elsewhere while his Halo persona was gone as well. So either Duaiwe was in real deep some place, and that's why we hadn't heard from him, or he was helping Mike set Bryce up, opening Mike's terminal to the Darknet, or even making it up wholesale.
"Alright, fine, I'll post it to the Darknet after work. Then you'll see--"
Bryce was cut short when I shushed him. "Quiet!" I kept my ears open, straining to hear in the real as my gaze focused on the display at my fingertips. I was listening to hear something to confirm what my screen was telling me.
"What? I don't hear --"
"Bi zui" I snapped, slipping in to Mandarin for a moment, as Bryce spoke again. I sent my display to the big screen with the added text "Intruders?"
The display showed our external net access had been cut off and replaced with a dummy stream, cycling the same almost-garbage characters through our I/O feeds. The information pillar in the center of the simulation pulsed the same as it always had. I took a closer look and reached my hand in: Garbage, useless nonsense strings of random characters, packaged in standard packet headers.
"Mike! Keep your eyes open. This was done from inside. And find out what's going on with Duaiwe. See if you can wake him up. Bryce, countermeasures to full. Be ready for anything." I barked out the orders without thinking. Nominally Mike was in charge, as he had the most seniority among the three of us, but no one seemed to mind.
"Yes boss!" they said in unison. Mike's avatar flickered as he stepped away from his keyboard. Cockpit consoles and chairs materialized around Bryce and me as we sat down. The cockpits were custom interfaces for Tetrachus, designed by Duaiwe, that increased the wire's interface efficiency by a factor of 10. It was useful for defense, allowing us to react almost before an attacker started her attack, but it was incredibly taxing. After three months of training, we couldn't maintain the increased data rate for more than an hour, but we would need a full day of rest before we could connect to a wire again.
We were now monitoring every aspect of the network in real time, as well as the security camera feeds from all over the building. There was nearly twenty gigabytes of raw data dumping through our brains every second. Mike hadn't checked in since he left his keyboard. His avatar stood off to the side, staring dumbly at his display. I focused my attention for a moment on the security cameras in the N.O.C.
Three figures dressed in black stood around the room, one each behind Bryce and me, the third holding a gun to Mike's head. I zoomed in on Duaiwe, the severed end of the wire hanging out of his neck.
"Shit! Bryce, punch out now!" I was well on my way to logging out when I said it. One of the other drawbacks of using these cockpits was the increased disconnect time. If they were cutting the wires from our heads, having the desktop at our feet wasn't going to matter; a severed connection is a severed connection, and it means you're gonna feel severe dump shock: the kind that usually left wireheads brain-dead at best. I made a mental note to talk to management about replacing the rent-a-cops on physical security, if I lived through this.
Logging out had never been so nervewrackingly slow. Never had I seen a more important progress bar move glacially slow. The cockpit faded around me. I was nearly out, back to the real and ready to punch the jackass behind me when everything went dark.
I can't know how long I was out: minutes, hours, maybe days, but that seemed unlikely. I woke up with a headache that could kill a horse, and the world was still dark. I knew I was awake because I could hear the thugs walking around. Most of them. One was at a keyboard, his fingers click-clacking away on the keys. They keystrokes wouldn't have registered if each sound hadn't made my pounding head pulse with pain. That was another sign I was awake; I don't remember ever having a headache in a dream, or even a nightmare for that matter.
I strained my ears, pushing the pounding headache down, to try to hear what they were saying, but all I caught was the rustling of fabric, more than could be reasonably explained by bodies walking around the room. "Probably hand signals," I thought. "Tricky."
I kept my head hanging down like I was still knocked out, and opened my eyes slowly. The light exploded through the headache, resonating with it to amplify the waves of pain to new levels. I winced involuntarily and shut my eyes tight again.
"Look who's awake!" It was too much to hope they hadn't noticed the wince. "Bet you've got a helluva lot of pain rattling around that noggin' o' yours" the voice said, stepping closer, not bothering to lower his voice. Every word was a dagger, each inflection a twist of the knife. He gripped my head in a meaty paw and thumped on my temple like he was checking the ripeness of a melon. This time when I winced, I couldn't move.
One of them stepped closer and tiled my head up and pried my eyelids open. I blinked several times as my pupils contracted to limit the incoming light. I was sitting at the back of the room, still in the NOC, in the middle of the aisle next to Duaiwe's station. My arms were bound to the arms of the chair. My chair, I realized, as I saw my desk two stations up on the left, chairless. Bryce lay slumped over his desk, four stations up on the right. Mike was nowhere to be seen.
"Your friend there shocked pretty hard. Harder than I expected. Zero neural activity." He emphasized each word with dramatic movements and flourishes of his hands. "You seem to have fared better. How fortunate."
"What do you want?" I managed to croak. "You left me alive for something."
"Oh, a clever one! This should prove interesting."
I turned my head to the right and saw Mike, laying back on a chair in what should have been an empty cubicle. His head was tilted back over the back of the chair. While I was thinking about how uncomfortable that must be, my eyes trailed down to the pool of blood under the chair. "Get to the point and let's get this overwith," I spat.
"And a death wish! Very well then, we shall make this quick. You have the access codes to the Naxarin Store."
"So what? Just about everyone working here has those codes." This was an exaggeration. In reality, only the shift leaders had the codes. Duaiwe, of course, Dan, Paul the graveyard shift leader, and me. The other guys working here didn't even know about the Nexarin Data Store. It lived on a separate network inside Tetrachus; it was kinda like our own private DarkNet. In the store lived all the data no one wanted seen, but still wanted access to: records of corporate espionage, employment histories and psych profiles of former gun-toting mercenaries hired as "private security." Why they didn't have a couple of those goons on the doors I'll never know. The high mucky-mucks at Tetrachus would sometimes ask us for an "NDX" report and cite a number. Usually the shift leader would then log in to Nexarin and pull up the requested index, print a hard copy and log out. More often we were handed a stack of paper and told to enter it, then message the mucky-muck with the NDX number before destroying the printouts.
My interrogator leaned down to be eye to eye with me, so close I could smell his aftershave and count the hairs just starting to form his five o'clock shadow. "Yes, but you're the only one that fits my current qualifications for useful:" he stepped back and stood upright again, ticking off the qualifications on his fingers, "you have what I want to know, you're present in this room, and most important of all, you're alive." He gestured around the room, turning my chair when it was clear I couldn't turn my head far enough. "As you can see, you are also outnumbered three to one, just in case you were thinking about trying to escape. The sooner you tell me what I want to know, the sooner we can all go home." He leaned in close again.
"Go to hell," I spat in his face and was rewarded with a fist in my stomach courtesy of my friend on the left. The man in front of me stood again, wiping his face with a handkerchief. With a glance that shot daggers, my assailant was reprimanded and resumed his parade rest at my side.
"I'm willing to overlook that outburst, given the state you're in. I'll spare your life if you tell us what we need to know."
"Yeah. You'll just leave me to be hunted by Tetrachus's corporate security goons instead. No thanks."
"What if I could guarantee your safety from Tetrachus for the rest of your life?" He crouched in front of me again. "What do you care what happens to Tetrachus? Job security? Why? To them, you're expendable. Look how easily we were able to gain physical access to the building, to this room, to your wire." With that last phrase he reached up and touched the dangling cable, still hanging from my neck.
At that point, I figured I had two options. Maybe three. I could help them and spend the rest of my life running from Tetrachus, stall by listening to his offer and hope the TGS, Tetrachus's elite guards, came to rescue me, or be uncooperative and continue to be tortured and/or killed. Option C was clearly not preferable. The other two looked similar from the outside. "I'm listening."
"We've done our research, Mr. Matthews. Or would you prefer we call you 'Veet Voojagig?' That is your preferred net handle for, shall we say, clandestine activities, is it not?
I focused intently on him, comprehension dawning.
"You call me Vann Harl if you like. It's not one of the aliases I usually use in these sorts of situations, but it is so much more personal than Mr Johnson, isn't it?" He stood and turned his back to me, walking a few paces from my chair.
"Alright. What do I get if I join you?" This guy seemed to be seriously inside my head. I didn't think anyone aside from Duaiwe knew about Veet, let alone enough to understand the reference well enough to choose another character from the same series for his own handle. This guy was good. Probably good enough to at least have a plan for dealing with the TGS. Maybe good enough to have eliminated them already.
He turned toward me again, clasping his hands together in excitement. "You'll have corporate level resources, a better salary than you have here, and a nice long leash. Almost free reign, really. With the caveat that if anything illegal you do without authorization leads back to us, you'll be labeled an independent hacker and executed." He delivered the caveat with a grin on his face that stretched from ear to ear. "But I'm sure you'll be more careful than that."
I nodded slowly. "Untie me and I'll get you in to Nexarin."
"Good man!" He covered the distance between us in a flash and clapped me on the back. "I'll be going with you, of course. You're not on the payroll just yet." With a wink to me, he motioned for his goons to untie me.
It's been six months since I led Vann Harl to the Nexarin datastore. While he was getting whatever he was after, I took the opportunity to read Duaiwe's personnel files. I wouldn't have figured his real name was John Hawkins.
Life has been pretty good on Arclan's payroll. Of course, the first thing I did was get a new apartment and burn my old place. Vann Harl's goons helped me put Bryce's body in first so a cursory investigation would assume I had died in the blaze. That was good enough for the local cops and soon my death was all over the LightNet: Sam Matthews, 26, dead in tragic fire.
It really was a lovely funeral. I don't think Duaiwe bought it though. Vann Harl said he's still in a coma and has no neural activity. I know he's till out there though, lurking in the shadows of the DarkNet. Watching, waiting for me.
Until I see him again, I'll keep hacking. Always checking over my shoulder.