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Authors: Holly McCaghren

Mind Trace

BOOK: Mind Trace
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Holly McCaghren

Copyright © 2012 Holly McCaghren

All rights reserved.










I would
like to thank my family and friends, for their invaluable support and feedback,
and for being my most loyal readers before I had ever written a word.


Mostly, I am thankful for being blessed by
God with the ability to put into words what I previously only saw in my dreams.













Chapter 1

"Final stamp on your coffee card—you get your free cup
of coffee today!" The barista handed Alice her daily dose of caffeine.

Mmm. Perfect way to start the day.

She settled into her favorite booth in the back corner of
the coffee shop and took out her laptop.

She sipped her warm coffee, distracted by the swirls of
steam fogging up her glasses, as the laptop whirred to life. The screen blinked
on, waiting for her to initialize the facial recognition so that she could log
in. Entering the appropriate information, she watched the laptop camera display
her reflection as it scanned her facial features.

Staring back at her was a nineteen-year-old brunette with petite,
dark-rimmed glasses that veiled her rich brown eyes. Alice had always considered
herself to be "nondescript and average" but she discredited herself.
To the outsider, she was a shy, attractive, young woman with a great deal of
intelligence behind dark and mysterious eyes. Her shoulder-length hair fell in
waves around her face, but was usually pulled back into a ponytail.

Once her computer logged in, she
her usual startup routine. She frowned when she saw that her inbox was full of
unread messages.

How do so many people know my address?

The first message was from a potential client who wanted custom
software designed for their accounting department. She glanced over it with
mild interest and filed it away for later review.

There were a few more emails with similar context, but one
of them stood out, drawing her attention. The subject was titled "Potential
Client Opportunity."


is looking for talented software engineers who can expose security
vulnerabilities in our latest security software, SteelSafe 2.0. For a limited time,
EngineerCorp will be test driving SteelSafe 2.0 on a dummy internet server so
that all of you "hackers" can take your best shot! SteelSafe is
revolutionary software that will change security as we know it. We need your
help to make sure it succeeds.


The website
for the server is


If you are
successful, respond to this email with your findings. There is a cash reward
for legitimate results!


Alice questioned the authenticity of the email. The "reply-to"
address was "[email protected]" but it was easy enough to mask
the address. EngineerCorp was the largest company of its kind in the world and
was responsible for most of the technical breakthroughs in the past decade. It
did not seem likely that they needed strangers to help them, given their
success. Still, the thought intrigued her. Even if it was a fraud, it wouldn’t
hurt to check it out. Her computer had top-of-the-line protection and she was
not worried about exposing it to threats.

Alice sipped her coffee and pointed her web browser to the
address in the email. She found herself staring at a login portal for some kind
of server. She assumed that it was the "dummy" server that the email
referenced.  Alice ran an analysis on its basic security information, including
querying the SSL and certificate. The summary revealed a sophisticated system,
meaning that her task was not going to be easy.

Perfect. It's so boring when it's not a challenge.

She readjusted her glasses and began doing what she loved

After some time, she grew frustrated, having no luck at
cracking the server. Alice sighed and gazed absently around the coffee shop,
nearly choking when her eyes fell on the clock next to her.

I've been sitting here for four hours! I have to go.

She packed up her things, tossed her coffee cup, and headed
out the door. Unhitching her bike from the rusty bike stand outside the shop,
she rode the seven blocks to her office.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in Asheville. A light breeze
rustled the white ash trees lining the street. This part of town was the one of
the older areas. Most of the buildings were an Art Deco style dating back to
the 1930s. The result left most people with a quaint, cozy feeling.

The area that Alice frequented was one of the lesser
developed sections. The structures there were mostly empty, waiting to be
leased by new businesses. Many of them needed almost full restorations to be
brought up to city code, which is why they remained empty.

Breathing the cool air deeply, Alice sighed. She had made
hardly any progress hacking the web portal and she had exhausted quite a few of
her normal methods.

What I need to do is just forget all about it, including
the email that started it. If only it were that easy…

At any rate, she had to forget it for the moment so she
could do "real" work. She approached the small, antiquated building
that housed Computer Techs & More. On either side were empty structures,
their vacant windows looking cold and unwelcome. She heard the sharp clink as
she snapped the lock on her bike, then entered the building.

The front door chimed as she stepped inside. Alice waved to
the part-time receptionist who was absently filing her nails at the desk. On
the way to her office, she spotted the owner of the company, who was also her
boss. She stopped by to chat with the cheery man she had grown quite fond of
working with.

"Hey, Alice! Late morning, huh?" Bill teased. "Thanks
to all the hours you put in last week, we finished the last of our major
projects a week early! The client will be pleased. We shouldn't be getting any
new projects until the first of next month. That gives you a few days of rest."

"Lucky me!" Alice smiled. "Does that mean I
get a raise?"

Bill laughed. "God knows you deserve it, Alice. I'm
sure we can arrange something favorable in your next review. Thanks to you, we
have a steady customer base, and will be looking to hire several more engineers
by next quarter." Bill leaned back in his chair, looking pleased.

"Take it easy for the next few days, Alice. I'd say
you earned it."

Alice nodded and continued down the hall to her office. Pausing
in the doorway, she affectionately looked around. Computer parts and
paraphernalia were strewn about the office, covering most surfaces. Her desk
was in the center of the office and was one of the few neat areas. It contained
her office supplies, tools, and organized stacks of paperwork. Several
workbenches and bookcases covered the remaining space. The walls were
interspersed with movie posters, her college degree, and a picture of her a few
years back at her parents’ lake house.

She took a deep breath and settled in to her desk to begin
working. As promised, Bill had left her with little urgent work.  Two hours
later, all of it was done.

She tilted her chair back, tapping a pencil against the

Should I take another chance at that web portal?

Alice hesitated, and checking one last time to make sure
she had no excuse not to, she began to analyze the server again.

Soon, the light coming in through the window in her office
grew dim and Bill popped his head in her doorway. "Hey, I was just about
to lock up. Are you staying or leaving?"

Alice stretched and pushed back her chair. Where had the
time gone? Her stomach was now rumbling unpleasantly.

"Yeah, I'm heading out too. Let me shut this down, and
I'll be right out."

She put her laptop and other things in her satchel and went
out the door after Bill. Unhitching her bike, she rode down to the corner
market to pick up dinner before going home.

Home was a quaint, cozy cottage she rented from an elderly
couple just outside of town. They lived further back on the same property in
the main house.

Alice lived on her own; she had no family left to speak of.
Her parents passed away just one year earlier in a tragic car accident, leaving
her without any closure. Moments of grief still hit her without warning and
left her feeling empty and alone.

Alice turned the key in the faded bronze lock, opened the
front door and dropped her things on the side table. The cottage was sparsely
decorated, with brightly colored knick-knacks and comfy-looking furniture.

Home, sweet home.

Taking her salad to the small dining nook, she looked over
her mail as she ate. She found herself distracted, mind wandering again to the
strange email.  

I don't know why I bother.  I won't be able to rest
until I crack this.

Alice sighed and headed to her office where she turned on the
waiting computer. Her eyes wandered around the room while it booted up. The
room was laid out like her work office. Functional, but it still reflected her
eclectic personality.  

Alice had a wide variety of equipment, including several
rack servers, a soldering station, scopes and other analysis hardware, in
addition to the normal office paraphernalia.

On her desk, there was an impressive desktop computer with
several LCD monitors attached. As she impatiently waited for the computer to
start, she noticed a POE (Power over Ethernet) cord on the edge of the desk had
become frayed, and now had several wires exposed.

There was enough voltage in the cables she was using to
provide a nasty shock. Alice gave it a considerable berth and vowed to fix it
when she was done working for the night. 

The thought left her mind as the computer finally started.
She expertly navigated to the website and continued her onslaught of its

Time passed by unnoticed as she struggled to find a way through
the server's defenses. Alice briefly noticed her eyelids becoming heavy and was
surprised to see that it was close to midnight. Rubbing her eyes, she took a moment
to rest.

Is any of this worth it? It's probably impossible to
crack anyway, and I'm just wasting my time.

Just when she was about to give up on the whole endeavor, Alice
remembered something she learned while working on a client's computer a few
days before. She leaned forward with renewed interest and began to type

Having been regularly exposed to the aggressive strategies
of computer viruses, Alice had a unique perspective on the matter. The most
recent virus she tackled gave her just the inspiration she needed. Expertly modifying
the algorithm that it used, she set it loose on the server.

Alice waited for several minutes as nothing happened. She
sighed and leaned back in her chair.

Well, it was worth a shot.

Then, to her amazement, a small dialog boxed popped up on
her central monitor with the words "ACCESS GRANTED." She had no time
to rejoice in her success, however, because it was instantly replaced by
another box that said, "FULL SERVER DOWNLOAD COMMENCING…"

She panicked. It seemed like all of it was happening in
slow motion. Alice had only wanted to gain access to the server to prove that
she could; she had no idea that it would somehow automatically initialize a
full database dump to her hard drive! Her screens started to flicker and the
lights in the room grew dim.

Without thinking, she sprung forward to sever the
connection and her hand fell on the exposed wiring.  She felt lightning hot pain
in her hand and up her arm. Just as her right side began to grow numb, her vision



 Chapter 2

She woke up to the rhythmic hum of computers. Looking around,
Alice took inventory of her situation; she was lying on the ground in her
office with a terrible headache and could not remember how she got there. There
was a nasty burn on the palm of her right hand. Lying next to her were the
melted remains of an Ethernet cable that had burnt in two. The combination of
those things was enough to jerk her back into reality.

Alice sat up abruptly, causing her head to sear with pain.
Glancing over at the nearest clock, she was shocked to see that it was three
o'clock in the morning.

Have I been lying here the whole time?

My head is killing me, and I can't think. I'll deal with
this in the morning. 

Stumbling upstairs to her bedroom trying to not pass out
again, she stopped in the bathroom to get a bandage for her hand. She fumbled
with it for a few moments until it finally cooperated.

When Alice collapsed on her bed moments later, she was
asleep before her head hit the pillow.

It seemed like only a moment had passed when bright light
was rudely shining through her eyelids. Opening her eyes, she saw the sun
streaming through her bedroom window. She rolled over and looked at the clock.

12:27pm? I slept over twelve hours. I haven't done that
since I was in college.

The pounding in her head was less severe than before, but
her hand still burned fiercely.

Maybe a shower will clear my head.

Alice eased out of her bed and gingerly made her way down
the hall. She moved robotically into the shower, her muscles stiff and
uncooperative. Turning the heat up until steam filled the room, she let the
water cascade down her back. Finally, she felt like a person again. She took
her time, taking care to keep her hand out of the heat.

After she toweled off and dressed, Alice surveyed her
reflection in the mirror.

I look exhausted. I suppose that is a side effect of

Oh! The download. What happened?

The thought made her tense up, causing her head to pound
again. Alice forced herself to calm down so she could function.

On the way into the office, she grabbed a glass of orange
juice and sat down at her computer.

Hmm. Ethernet cable melted in two, no internet connection…
I'll deal with that later. I have extras. Let's see what kind of damage the
computer suffered first.

It appeared that all her drives were in working order and
had not lost any data. However, strangely enough, they had not gained any
additional data. The information that was "downloaded" was nowhere on
her computer or any of her servers.

BOOK: Mind Trace
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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