Wizard of the Net
The Golden Mile was the most secure arcology in Babylon.
X-ray machines and armed guards protected the main entrances. Just out of sight, lurking in the security command center on the fifth floor, a quick reaction force of twenty VC operatives, armed to the teeth and empowered by the Treaty of Babylon, stood ready to respond to security incidents. Cameras watched every square inch of the public spaces, augmented with biometric recognition software and controlled by an ever-vigilant artificial intelligence. RFID-tagged implants controlled access everywhere within the tower. Armed drones roamed the higher floors, waiting to cut down intruders and traitors. This wasn’t just an arcology; it was a fortress.
Which was why they were going in through the front door.
Well, two of them, anyway. Tan and Yamamoto.
If this job went right, only two men were needed. If not, the rest of the team was on standby, ready for a crash extract.
Tan had dressed for the occasion. Leaf green jacket, blue shirt, matching jeans, and a backpack stuffed with gear. Stepping out of the robotaxi, he slipped into his cover persona. He was an IT professional, on the way home from a long day at the office. He’d heard there was a sale in the cyber emporium on the tenth floor of the Golden Mile, and he needed to pick up some new hardware, so here he was now.
Yamamoto had a similar getup. Neutral earth colors, dull and faded, so bland the eye would slide over him. His one unusual fashion choice was a necklace, hidden under his shirt. But that was mission-essential.
The robotaxi took the skies, disappearing into the light-tainted night. The Golden Mile towered over Tan, soaring so far into the heavens he couldn’t see the top. From way down here all he saw was a solid pillar of light blazing from thousands of windows.
And past that was a sense of… mass. A huge bulk pressing itself up against reality. Like a ghost caressing his skin.
Tan wasn’t a psi, his talents lay with computers and technology, but even he could sense it. Whatever it was.
“You okay?” Yamamoto whispered.
“You feel that? That… whatever it is?”
“This place is the gateway to the Void. Whatever dwells there lies in wait, just behind the veil of ordinary reality. If you’re truly committed, steel your heart.”
Tan sucked down a chilly breath.
Four guards stood watch just past the front door. They weren’t cops or rent-a-cops; they were VC security, trained to the same standards as law enforcement, arguably higher. Wearing white shirts, black ties and trousers, nylon gun belts with holstered pistols and batons and utility pouches, dark epaulets with golden stripes, they all looked almost alike. They even had the same blank faces, the same wide-eyed thousand-yard stare.
As the duo approached, their shift leader, a man who wore three stripes on his epaulets, held up his hand.
“Yeah? What do you want?” Tan said brusquely, falling into his cover.
“You’ve been selected for a random inspection. Please come with us.”
“Oh come on! I don’t have all night!”
The leader rested his other hand on the butt of his gun.
“Cooperate, and we will take no longer than necessary. Fail to do so and we will bar you from the premises.”
Tan sighed exaggeratedly. “Let’s get this over and done with.”
The guards led him to an X-ray machine and a full-body scanner. He dumped his backpack on the conveyor, deposited his wallet, keys, flashlight, phone and other metal objects in a plastic box, then walked through the scanner.
The machines stayed quiet.
As he gathered his things, Tan saw Yamamoto waltz right through the scanner. Once again, the scanner stayed silent.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” the guard leader said. “Please enjoy your stay here.”
Yamamoto trailing behind him, Tan walked away without looking back.
He knew the guards were watching him.
In the central forum, the Golden Mile lay itself bare. Escalators zig-zagged their way up twenty floors of shopping space. A mini-lobby held a pair of elevator shafts that serviced the public space. Long rows of shops on each level sold tailored clothing, jewelry, bags, computers, beauty products, more. Passages and hallways and signs pointed to more shops, more eateries, more of everything.
Uniformed guards patrolled the floor, supplemented by squads of spider drones. Quadrotor drones zipped through the air, most of them bearing the black-and-white livery of VC security. Despite the darkening sky outside, shoppers thronged the complex, unwilling to leave just yet.
The tower was split into two wings, east and west. They headed to the west wing. Two armed guards stood watch by the elevators, supplemented by a pair of spider bots, staring silently and nakedly at everyone who approached.
Tan ignored their gaze and summoned the express elevator.
When the doors opened, he smoothly stepped into the car, rotated in place, and knuckled the button for the 37th floor.
He’d expected as much. But he had to try. He touched the button for the twentieth floor, and this time the button lit up.
The ride was smooth and silent. Yamamoto stood next to the door, still as a statue, hands folded neatly in front of him. Tan studied the control panel, trying to divine its secrets.
Mounted at waist level, below the floor buttons, was a plain flat box with a blank screen. An RFID reader.
The STS had researched the Golden Mile, just in case they had to breach it. The VC didn’t issue keycards or digital tokens like other organizations. The VC used implants. As part of the initiation process, every VC member was issued three sets of personalized implants, a mesh of ultra-fine wires and microscopic chips, one for each hand, plus another for the brain. The more senior the member, the more elaborate the chipset. The implants granted access to all VC-exclusive territory, among their many other functions.
The question was, which one?
The doors slid open to reveal a lush aerial garden. Light poles flooded the area in warm amber. But for a narrow air-conditioned glass corridor that fed to the service core at the other side of the structure, the lobby was open to the air. Green walls, walls covered with plants and leaves, served as decoration and guardrails. A fine net, almost invisible to the eye, kept out mosquitoes and prevented people from jumping off.
Children squealed and laughed by the playground under the watchful eye of their parents. Couples strolled among the hedges and the bushes, or stood by the green walls and took in the view of Babylon by night. Others secluded themselves at benches and tables.
Spider drones patrolled the garden, following the walking trail. Wolf spider drones, manufactured by Diamond Defense, which, not coincidentally, was founded by the VC.
These Wolves weren’t visibly armed, but they weren’t civilian models either. Their bulbous heads, resting atop elongated frame, were twice as large as the models on the open market. The sensor head was too large to house sensors and alarms alone, and as he passed a Wolf, Tan saw faint seams at the rear of the head, betraying the presence of a large panel. Large enough for a compact weapon.
There were human guards too. Four of them at both lobbies, standing watch by the elevator doors, staring blankly at each other across the glass corridor or mechanically scanning from side to side.
The guards unsettled Tan. They looked human, they probably were human, but they talked and acted like bots. Was this what VC initiation did to people? He knew that Void Collective emphasized ego-destruction, that its doctrine aimed to achieve enlightenment by casting out the self and achieving insight into the nature of the Void. But the guards didn’t look enlightened to him. If anything, they looked like puppets.
For that matter, many of the civilians around Tan had the same blank look. They walked amongst the flowers and the trees, or stood by the guard rail and gazed upon Babylon, but they showed no sign of presence. They didn’t talk, they didn’t interact, they simply… were. It was as if they were NPCs from a computer game. Tan had a tingling sense that these were VC too.
Tan and Yamamoto found a bench in a deserted corner of the garden. Tan set down his pack, dug out his laptop and placed it on his lap, then booted it up and opened his word processor. One last glance around to check for suspicious eyes, then he set his fingers to the keys.
The elevator uses an RFID reader to control access to the upper floors. Judging by the scanner’s location in relation to the control panel, I think the VC use their hand implants for access. I need you to walk around the garden and harvest signals from VC implants. I’ll stay here and explore their security systems.
“Got it,” Yamamoto replied.
Soundlessly, he rose to his feet and walked away. The man was like a ghost crossed with a ballet dancer. He moved with effortless grace, every step completely silent, every motion both economical and efficient. It had been years since they were assigned to the Black Watch, and Tan still didn’t know how Yamamoto did it.
Tan cracked his neck and fingers, and got to work.
He closed the word processor and opened his utilities. Packer sniffer, to intercept data packets flowing across the local network; network scanner, to discover hosts and services on the network; machine fingerprinting tool, to identify machines sending and receiving network traffic; vulnerability scanner, to determine modes of attack; a suite of password cracking software, trojan horses, rootkits, viruses, to be deployed as necessary.
Yamamoto might be a reincarnation of a samurai, but Tan was a wizard of the Net.
With his sniffer and scanner, he probed the local networks. The arcology had two wireless networks. One open to the public, another restricted only to VC members. He focused his attention on the latter. There were 362 devices in range currently on the VC net. All of them had nonsense names, randomized jumbles of alphanumeric characters. He’d expected that from corporate-issued computers, but not from ordinary civilians.
He studied the network traffic, identifying patterns of use. A steady stream of data flowed into and out of every device. No breaks, no sudden stops, just a never-ending rush of data. The machines were in constant use.
However, data input far outweighed output. Every machine received at least ten times, more like a hundred times, the data it transmitted, if not more. They were sending kilobytes and megabytes, and received gigabytes in return.
This was the kind of use pattern he saw with life sign monitors. Devices designed to monitor a person’s heartbeat, respiration, and other signs of life, and transmit the data elsewhere. A quick check confirmed his suspicions: most of the data was sent in a file format specific to life sign monitors.
But he had no idea what the machines were receiving. He was familiar with damn near every file extension out there, but he had never heard of VOID before. A quick consult with his software database confirmed that it wasn’t openly listed. VOID must be proprietary software, used only by the Void Collective.
However, VOID wasn’t the only file format out there.
128 machines were livestreaming video and audio on the VC net. Twelve devices in his vicinity received information from those machines.
And there were four guards and eight bots on this floor.
Tan consulted the machine fingerprinter. The 128 livestreaming machines were Eyepol 800s. Light poles with integrated cameras, thermographic vision, and audio pick-ups.
A cold flash ran through Tan. Moving slowly and smoothly, he looked around.
There were no light poles around him. Just innocent-looking amber lights on a nearby pillar.
He breathed out, slowly, softly, letting his tension melt away. He took another calming breath, and went back to work.
Eight of the twelve receivers were drones.
The other four receivers were simply listed as ‘human biocompatible implants’.
In other words: the guards.
Tan selected an Eyepol. It could be accessed remotely with the right username and password. He turned on his password sniffer and waited. Thirty seconds later, the app returned the results.
Top marks for originality. But he supposed here, in the heart of the VC’s power, it was too much to hope for the old standby of ‘admin’ and ‘password123’.
Now with control over the Eyepol, it was a cinch to insert a Trojan horse into the data stream. The malware propagated itself across the net, masquerading as a data packet. It slipped into the guards’ cyberware, and stealthily disabled their firewalls and defenses.
He smiled, and accessed a guard’s implants.
An error message. His computer had no idea how to interpret what it was looking at. He tried various software bridges and patches, but they all failed. Nothing he had could read the VOID file extension, whatever the hell it was.
He wasn’t even sure if this was possible. Not on his machine, built from the ground-up for cyberwarfare, with input from the finest minds in the military, intelligence, law enforcement and black hat communities.
He rooted through the implants, searching for something he could use. Everywhere he looked, he saw VOID, VOID, and more VOID. Many of the programs and files carried recognizable names—Documents, Video, Photos—but so many more were labeled with chaotic compilations of symbols and letters. He could hardly begin to guess what they were for.
But not everything was VOID.
The security programs used commercial software. That his laptop could interpret. The guards used GuardNet, a software platform to facilitate facilitation, coordination and supervision of large teams of security guards. It was efficient at what it did, but it had a fatal flaw.
It assumed that traffic from within the net came from a legitimate user.
Tan surfed the GuardNet traffic, mapping out the network topology, identifying users and linked machines. The guards, Eyepols, drones, security cameras, they were all linked on GuardNet. He identified the system administrators on the Net, and with his password sniffer and malware suite, sliced through their firewalls and seized control. Without setting off the intrusion detection system.
He grinned. He still had it.
“Did something good happen?”
Tan snapped to attention, twisting to his left.
Yamamoto. Seated on the bench, looking calmly at him.
“God damn,” Tan muttered. “When did you get here?”
“About ten minutes ago.”
Tan blinked. “You didn’t tell me?”
“You looked busy.” Yamamoto frowned. “You know, you have to look up sometimes. Save yourself a heart attack or two.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I was just in the zone. That’s all.”
“Did you find anything?”
Tan grinned again. “I’m inside the security system. If it’s linked on GuardNet, I can take control of it.”
“Did you get anything?”
Yamamoto held up his phone. “Yeah. I fired up the RFID interrogator, strolled around the garden, and asked the guards for directions. I think it captured their codes.”
“Let’s see what you got.”
Yamamoto synced his phone to Tan’s laptop. A fresh window popped up on Tan’s screen. He navigated the interrogator’s dashboard, calling up all the codes it had stolen. There were thirty-eight in all. But four of them were exactly the same.
“Those were the guards,” Yamamoto said.
“They use the same frequencies and codes,” Tan mused. “It’s got to be the master key.”
Tan synced his phone to the machine too, and tapped away at the laptop. In seconds, both phones now had the master key code.
“Let’s see what’s waiting for us on the thirty-seventh floor,” Yamamoto said.
Tan pulled the GuardNet interface, scrolled through the camera listings, and found the appropriate cameras. Windows blossomed across the screen.
Hallways. A maze of empty hallways. Rows of doors with RFID scanners and electronic locks. Only this and nothing more.
Even the door to #37-89 was unguarded.
“That’s weird,” Tan said. “Without guards, how the hell are they detaining Marcie in her room?”
“Maybe she’s not inside,” Yamamoto said.
“Only one way to find out.”
Tan dialed a number from memory. One ring later, Karim picked up.
“Any luck with remote viewing?” Tan asked.
Having contracted with a minor god, Karim had access to his powers. Including the ability to project his consciousness across space-time and look into locked rooms.
“Yes,” Karim said. “There is one subject inside Apartment 37-89. Female, petite build, looks Asian. But her aura is, well… weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s… it’s like there’s a thin black shell over her aura. Many of the people in the Golden Mile, including all the guards, have the same shell. My take is, it’s the presence of their god.”
“The VC doesn’t have gods. Closest are the elders and the teachers.”
“Yeah, but the Void is listed as a New God all the same. It just looks weird. But her face matches the photo you gave us.”
“Marcie is inside?”
“Or someone resembling her.” Karim paused. “Be careful. Something doesn’t feel right about this job.”
“Understood. Any signs of ambush?”
“Negative. All her neighbors are either out or doing their chores. No signs of weapons or a strike team.”
“One more thing. The top twenty floors, they’re all warded. All I see is a black… nothing. Like a black hole sucking in everything around it. Haven’t seen anything like that before.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Feels like it. I don’t want to risk exploring the area if I don’t have to.”
Tan passed on Karim’s findings to Yamamoto. As he finished, lines creased Yamamoto’s face.
“We have to be ready for anything,” Yamamoto said.
“Yeah…” Tan muttered.
Tan accessed the camera video archive, grabbed footage of empty halls on the 37th floor, and looped it into the system. Now, anyone looking at the cameras would only see video from midnight, last week.
There were no other security machines on the 37th floor. At least, none linked into GuardNet. He turned on his augmented reality glasses and streamed his laptop to his argees and his phone. Now he could access his main machine on his secondaries. He closed the laptop, plugged in a fuel cell, and stowed it in his backpack.
“Good to go,” Tan said.
The men made their way across the garden, towards the west lobby. The guards stared at them as they approached. Tan ignored them, pretending to play with his phone and his argees. Inside the express elevator, he switched his phone to the interrogator app and placed it over the RFID reader.
The reader beeped cheerily and flashed a trio of green lights.
Tan pressed the button to the 37th floor. And this time, the elevator ascended.
Tan rotated his shoulders and stretched his neck. Yamamoto’s hands went to his waist, left over right.
The elevator doors opened, revealing an empty lobby. There were no signs of life here. No plants, no vending machines, no benches, not even signboards. Just an empty space.
And a sense of… pressure. Something pressing up against the world, slowly, gently, but firmly. Pressure radiating from somewhere high above.
Tan and Yamamoto entered a maze of corridors and apartments. Plaques above the doors held unit numbers; that was the only clue they had to navigate the floor. Ten minutes and three wrong turns later, they stood outside #37-89.
“You ready?” Yamamoto asked.
Tan pressed the doorbell.
A lifeless electronic chime echoed in the house beyond.
Heavy locks snapped. The door opened partway, held in place by a sturdy chain.
Through the gap, a woman’s face, soft and broad, peeked out. Everything about her was dark: dark hair flowing down to her shoulders, delicate dark eyebrows that arched like tents, dark augmented reality glasses, dark eyes wide and utterly blank.
“Hi Marcie,” Tan said. “I’m here.”
“Have you come to embrace the Void?”
She spoke like a robot, her pronunciation mechanical and perfect and utterly lifeless. This was not her.
“No. I came to help you.”
“You were told to stay away.”
The door slammed shut.
Tan looked at Yamamoto. Yamamoto looked back.
“What now?” Yamamoto said.
“We make entry,” Tan replied.
If action, adventure and horror are right up your alley, check out my latest novel DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 1: KAMIKAZE!
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