The CyberNet

Happy Monday, everyone! The weekend is over, and I’ve dived right back into editing! I hope to have the first revision done by the end of the week. To brighten up everyone’s Monday, I’ve decided to post another excerpt from my upcoming novel. This one explores the CyberNet from the novel. I hope you enjoy it! 😀 Keep yourself up to date with the Midweek Muse newsletter here.

Maya grinned in undisguised glee as she watched the local CyberNet nodes unfold below her like magical origami. She realized anew that this was her world, this was where she belonged. She contained her excitement and focused on the task at hand. Each node on the map was unique. Some resembled normal buildings with landscaping and everything. Others were mind-bending shapes that constantly twisted in upon themselves. Yet others were simple points of light; the owners not caring enough to construct a visible presence.

“I thought we’d start over in that sector,” She ‘mitted to Miranda, gesturing toward the edge of the node map where a complex of ordinary looking office buildings squatted amongst manicured lawns, trimmed bushes, and intimidating hedges. “I know it’s away from the shipyards, but there are a lot of land-shipping groups here, and someone’s been moving this stuff overland.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Miranda responded. “I can’t see inside those nodes from here. Seems like they have some pretty hefty security. Any ideas from outside the box?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the most original plan of all time, but we’ll case each node and see if there are any sort of back doors or loopholes. The TransCon node seems a likely spot. I can see in their public information that they ship all over what used to be the United States. If our secret benefactor is on this continent, there’s a good chance there is some record there.”

“Agreed. Lead on.” Miranda responded.

“Thanks,” Maya muttered as she focused in on the node in question. A quick flyby didn’t reveal any obvious weak points. All data traffic in and out were properly routed through secure entrance and exit portals. So, Maya did what she always did, and looked for the road less travelled. She moved around to the other end of the node and started looking at the border very closely. It took a while, and she was about to resort to some other method of infiltration when she did a double-take. The barrier here was represented by a dense hedge, with a reddish light running through it to indicate the alarm boundary. Nothing unusual about that. Anything that crossed that boundary would immediately set off blaring alarms that would bring local node security like a shot. No, what caught her attention was a flash of blue that had appeared for the briefest instant. She knelt down and looked closely at the hedge. One, small, inconsequential patch of the hedge looked very similar to that around it, except that instead of the red alarm glow, a soft blue light leaked out from inside the node.

“Aha, see that!?” Maya cried, pointing. “That, my friend is a programmer’s back door! We just need to adjust our virtual size appropriately and we can sneak through the patch of the hedge that is isolated from the alarm barrier. Oh, we’ll still have to handle any security we come across inside, but at least we won’t have to worry about a mass attack … unless we scrap up, of course.”

“Very clever,” Miranda agreed, inspecting the entrance for herself. “Looks clear inside, let’s get going.”

“Wait!” Maya put out a restraining hand. “This is too easy, there’s gotta be a catch. Even a disgruntled programmer wouldn’t want to leave something like this wide open. Let me look at that more closely.” Putting actions to words, she moved right up next to the hedge and sat down, lotus-style. She lay her hands on her knees and closed her eyes. She reached into her arsenal and selected several more subtle apps designed to explore boundaries like this one. Icons appeared and disappeared around her head and around the opening in the alarm beam as the apps did their delicate work. Miranda kept a wary watch around them, hefting her lance and shield meaningfully as she searched for trouble. Finally Maya opened her eyes and smiled. “As I suspected, the little bugger has an ident check. If your internal ident doesn’t match what it’s looking for, it’ll be the same has hitting the alarm barrier. We’re gonna have to spoof it.”

“Hmmm, seems difficult. Wouldn’t it be easier to construct some plausible story and try going in the front door?”

“I don’t think so. The checker here is not nearly as comprehensive as the ones on the normal ports. All I have to do is hack the algorithms and we’ll be in. And since we won’t come through one of the security stations, we won’t be stuck with a tracking app, and it will be more difficult for internal security to notice and track us.”

“Too true. How difficult are those algorithms?”

“Not too bad, I think. Just one minute.” Maya closed her eyes again, and again the dance of inscrutable icons. Some zoomed toward the opening in the hedge, jumping back at the very last second, others shot beams of light around the edges of the breach, and still others did even more incomprehensible things. Miranda, was always surprised at how individual each hacker’s methods were. She was absolutely certain that Maya knew exactly what each of those icons meant, what it was doing, and how things were progressing. But anyone looking on – if they could even see what was happening – would be absolutely confounded. Miranda shook her head in amazement once again at the ingenuity of the natural psyche.

Miranda was entirely correct. Maya smiled internally as her smartest apps went around their business. Probes attempted mock entries: zooming into the entrance, triggering the recognition algorithms, but pulling back before any alarms had a chance to actually sound. Sensor apps kept scanning the edges of the portal, reading the activities of the recognition algorithms. Slowly but surely, as she tweaked the parameters of the probes using the alteration apps that floated around her head, she began to build up a picture of what the recognition algorithms were actually looking for. Each failed entry gave her another piece of the puzzle and allowed her to alter the test idents to be just a little bit closer to what was actually needed. Finally, she had it; one of her latest test probes actually managed to enter the portal all the way, without any warning signs from the sensor array. “Eureka!” She cried. “Gotcha, you little scrapper! Acceptable ident codes are here, Miranda.” She held out her hand and sent the codes to Miranda, who incorporated them into her own identity structure.

“That’s good,” Miranda responded. “I noticed the same three security routines pass by that intersection while we’ve been here. They even sent some preliminary scans our way. I managed to deflect them, but I believe they will be back. Let’s get going.”

“Couldn’t agree with you more, honey.” Maya applied the new code to her own self and crawled through the hole. Miranda followed closely behind.

Inside, they found themselves in a blank hallway painted in the most neutral shade of gray imaginable. “Bleh,” Maya opined. “Why do corporate drones always have to be so boring? Truly infinite possibilities, and they choose this drek! Well, one must work with what one is given. Would you mind watching our rear, Miranda? I’m sure we’re going to hit some security ICE at some point, and we need to take them out as quickly as possible before they have a chance to sound the alarms. That means full long-distance sensor arrays, both fore and aft, scanning every passing packet of data. Sound good?”

“Sounds good.” Miranda replied, and a cloud of rainbow fairies popped out of her hair and zipped away down the hallway behind them. “Sensors deployed, all data within range free of security presence for the moment.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Maya said, her own sensor apps – resembling small, many-pointed stars – detaching from her central core and finding their own place ahead of them. She waited a moment for the first readings to come back, and when they showed an all-clear, she moved down the hallway. “So, what we ultimately need is records of the shipments that go in and out of this place. If any match up with what we already know – destined for Japan, and physically shipped by the Bazaratti Gang – we should be able to trace it back to the originating node. From there, we can figure out who sent the original order, and from where. Incoming!” Maya’s musings were rudely interrupted by a chiming alarm from one of her patrolling sensors. “Security ICE inbound down that data route around the corner. Looks to be a KillBot Mark IV model security app on regular patrol. Shouldn’t be too difficult to take out before it notices anything. Places!” Maya moved up to the corner, crouching down in the blind spot. She pulled back her sensor apps, and tossed a few different icons across the floor of the corridor where the incoming security program would soon be walking. Although she much preferred flashy weapons – the flashier the better – the job of these little buggers was to blend in as perfectly as possible with their surroundings, so when they detonated, the target wouldn’t know what hit them. So, as soon as they hit the floor, they took on its characteristics as thoroughly as possible. On the visual level, they became as bland and gray as the simulated carpet. On a deeper level, they sussed out the responses of the boundaries for this particular data line and mimicked them. Maya shook her head, realizing she was getting lost in the details again. The important thing was that when the security drone passed by, it would get a big surprise which would hopefully distract it from the attack coming down the side corridor.

Miranda had no such distractions, much to her chagrin. She simply crouched down a little farther back and on the other side of the hall, raised her shield, leveled her lance at the intersection, and waited to act. She didn’t have to wait long; soon they could both hear heavy metallic footsteps drawing closer. Of course, the style of any app, and the way it projected itself into the virtual world was an arbitrary decision by the programmer, but since those projections always accurately reflected the app’s current status, the sounds of footsteps did actually give away its position. Maya and Miranda both held their virtual breath as the first foot clunked into view.

There was an immediate explosion of light and sound as Maya’s mines sent a host of conflicting data straight into the receptors of the security drone. Maya brought her data rifle to her shoulder, sighted at the small piece of code that connected the security app’s communication functions from the rest of its program, and fired. Miranda took aim with her power lance. It took a moment to charge up, building up a solid burst of data so potent and full of redundancies that the security bot’s defenses could not divert it before it deconstructed the bot’s head entirely. The rest of the body sank ponderously to the ground before dissolving completely.

“Good work, team,” Maya said, sending her sensors back down the hallway – reassuring herself that nothing else nasty was in their immediate vicinity. “I don’t think it got off a single coherent transmission. Hopefully, it will look like a malfunction back at the security center. But, they’ll probably send another patrol, just to make sure, and we don’t want to be here when that arrives. As I mentioned, before I was so rudely interrupted, we need to find those shipping records, but to do that, we need to figure out where in this virtual hole they’ve hidden them. That means a system directory. I’m pretty sure there’s one where this data line meets up with the main thoroughfare. This way.” Maya pointed as she moved around the corner, weapon still at the ready. At the end of the corridor, they could just barely make out the blurs of color that were packets of data and programs zipping along the highway. At the entrance, just as Maya had predicted, there was an access point designed to appear as an old style computer terminal, beige keyboard and all.

“Oh those poor, babies, that’s the oldest trick in the book!” Maya chuckled as she moved confidently toward the terminal. “They think, mostly rightly of course, that any hacker being presented with something so … ancient as an actual computer monitor and keyboard would be completely stumped. Most of us these days are so used to the intuitive ease of the virtual interfaces that we don’t even know how to use such things anymore. Unfortunately for them, I found a way to bypass that particular little barrier. Not only have I taught myself the old style interface types, but this particular model does actually have a direct access option, if you know how to activate it. Which, I do.” She said smugly, cracking her virtual knuckles and running her virtual fingers lightly up and down the sides of the terminal monitor.

“Um, shouldn’t we check it out first? What if it has an extra layer of security? No need to jump in half-cocked.” Miranda said, bringing Maya down to reality with a bump.

“You’re right, of course, Miranda. Sometimes I get ahead of myself. It’s gotten me into trouble before, and I’m glad I have someone here to help keep me centered. Thx.”

“It’s what I do. Now, my sensors don’t see anything amiss, how about yours?”

Maya set her sensors up around the edge of the monitor and let them do their thing. They probed just a little, here and there, never anything enough to set off an alarm if there was one, but enough to gauge the terminal’s response. “looks all clear to me, let’s do this thing!” Eagerly, she placed her hand on the glass of the screen and concentrated. The micro-apps she had written especially for this purpose oozed out of her palm and sank into the greenish-black depths of the monitor. She felt them find the input/output lines for that access point. Those lines led directly to the keyboard, normally restricting all input and output through that limited interface. But, her apps latched directly onto the lines and then extended tendrils that led back to Maya’s hand, putting raw input and output access, quite literally, at her fingertips.

Maya closed her eyes and dove deep into the very heart of the system. Outside of the normal virtual limitations, Maya could see the entire bright constellation of data streaming around from point to point. Unfiltered like this, it was much more difficult to tell the nature and purpose of that data, but Maya had honed her instincts over the years, and she could tell that the records she wanted were most likely on the lowest level of the virtual complex. She quickly downloaded a map of the system into her own memory, and pulled out of the directory.

“Success?” Miranda asked a little nervously. She was on a sharp lookout for trouble, and they had been in the same place way too long for her liking.

“Success indeed, partner. I’m pretty sure I know where we’ll find those records, and now that I have an actual location in the system, we can link right there. Off we go!” Maya grabbed Miranda’s hand and made the connection. Instantaneously, they were in another part of the complex, but the walls were the same dead beige color, and the floor was the same boring gray. “Ah, the laziness of corporate programmers,” Maya mused. “Sometimes it’s nice to know some things never change.”

“I suppose so,” Miranda murmured, more intent on dispersing her sensors in this new, dangerous space than on the vagaries of programmers. “Alert! Three sentries are inbound from the north. I calculate we have only a 5.3% chance of erasing them before they have a chance to alert security central.”

“Roger that,” Maya responded crisply. “Our destination is right here.” She gestured at an unassuming door set into the wall in front of them. “If I can wrangle this lock, we’ll be out of their influence before they’re onto us. Give me five seconds.”

“They’ll be here in three. Let me see if I can fish up some sort of distraction.” Miranda concentrated for a bit, and a cute little bunny rabbit hopped out of her hair, normal in every way except for its bright pink fur. It scampered off down the hallway, took a hard right, and raced right by the sentries. Faint cries of “Stop!” and “Security!” floated back down the hallway as they took off after the strange creature. “That will certainly raise the suspicion level in this area, but it will be undirected if we can get out before anyone gets down here for a closer look.”

“Good work, Miranda!” Maya enthused as she fiddled urgently with the handle of the door. “The lock doesn’t appear that complex, but it is a higher security grade than I originally estimated. Good thing that distraction worked! Oops, almost got it … there!” The lock clicked solidly and the door swung open. A block of pitch blackness met their virtual eyes. “This is a secure node, so it won’t render until we enter. Now, one last check – as per your excellent advice. And … clear.” They both stepped through the door and let it swing shut behind them just as the sounds of excitement from outside increased in volume.

“Just in time,” Maya breathed. “I tweaked the lock, so it shouldn’t register our entrance, but it’s only a matter of time before someone comes to check this out more closely. It’s not every day you see a pink bunny rabbit running around a boring place like this!” She laughed heartily, then sobered immediately as she saw Miranda’s hurt look. “Oh, come on now, it’s just a joke! It was a good distraction, but you’ve gotta admit that it will bring some extra attention in the long run.” She winked and grinned, holding her hands out in a placating gesture. Mollified, Miranda nodded and continued looking around their new environ. “Now, what do we have here?” Maya asked as she gave the room a once over. It was ridiculously enormous. Of course, nodes in the virtual world didn’t have to follow anything like the laws of nature in the physical world, and they very rarely did. However, it was always a little jarring to exit something like that normal hallway and find yourself in a room big enough to hold a city. Except this room was jam-packed with shelves reaching high into the gloom above, each loaded to overflowing with boxes of records.

“This could take a while,” opined Miranda. “I don’t see any sort of directory service available for this particular node. There’s no way we’ll be able to find anything before more security shows up.”

“Oh yea of little faith!” Maya exclaimed. “I was afraid we’d run into this situation. Records these days are kept more through force of habit than because of any intent to use them, so I went to the trouble of writing my own search agents designed to sift through huge amounts of data quickly. They have a direct link to my own conscious, so I can direct them in ways autonomous agents could never dream of – if they dreamt.” As she spoke, Maya raised her arms out horizontally with her palms facing up. Out of each rose a swarm of things that resembled tiny bloodhounds, each quivering with excitement and sniffing every which way. They zoomed off into the recesses of the warehouse, and Maya turned back. “They can handle the preliminary work on their own. In the meantime, we need to find a place to hole up for a few minutes. You’re absolutely right that security could show up at any moment, and we want to make sure that any cursory inspections won’t turn up two suspicious invaders.” She smiled bemusedly and started moving off down the rows of towering shelves, Miranda walking after her. They wandered in as aimless direction as they could think of for a bit before finding a nice, secluded corner far enough away they were both sure anyone looking around wouldn’t happen upon them by chance. Maya sank to the floor in the lotus position and closed her eyes, reaching out her senses to connect with her searching agents.

The immediate area of the warehouse faded from her senses, and she beheld the space as a vast darkness, populated by bright points of light which represented the locations of her searchers, and softly glowing volumes that represented the data they’d managed to comb so far. As she opened her mind to the agents, she felt what they felt and saw what they saw. None were close to finding what they were looking for, but some seemed to be going in the right direction, and she pushed those to follow their leads, while nudging the others in different directions. They didn’t know exactly when the shipments were going out, so she concentrated the searches on the geological angle: shipments going to Japan. This corporation moved a lot of stuff around, to places all over the globe, so that was proving to be more difficult than Maya had first estimated. However, she kept at it, coaching her agents by encouraging those that were on the right track, and redirecting those that seemed to be wandering into unproductive areas. Eventually, she hit pay dirt. “Aha, there you are! I think we’ve got what we need here, Miranda.”

“I am relieved to hear it. I sensed some security personnel enter the node a short while back. They only performed a cursory scan, and I was able to hide our presence from them. However, I am 94% positive that they will be back, when they find nothing else to explain the distraction. We should leave as soon as possible.”

“Roger that, I’ve got the files copied, and our exit address keyed in. Hold on tight!” An instant later they were both standing Miranda’s local ‘net.

“It appears that we are the first ones back.” Miranda said, noting the positions of the others’ transponders. “However, it seems that the others have completed their missions as well, one way or another. Perhaps when they arrive we will have enough information to formulate an infiltration strategy.”

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