Authors: Mr Mike Berry
All was well and, having completed their assigned task, the avatars returned. They withdrew carefully, covering their tracks as they went, melting down sub-verters that they had installed in the bank and re-priming the defence bots as they passed. No trace remained when they returned to Debian’s main system, where they swirled within the data-storage unit like sharks in a tank.
Debian made himself take a break at this point. The avatars patrolled and paced behind his firewalls – patient, primed. His system was as safe as any system ever was, and if anything did happen he would be informed at once by wireless. He would refill his coffee and then start. Debian tore his eyes from the screens and stood. He yanked the DNI cable from his skull and the severing of the data-stream was like a disorientating blow to the head. For a second or two he simply stood, breathing slowly. Once he felt fully composed, he went to the machine and refilled his drink.
He stood by the machine and sipped the scalding coffee, hardly noticing the heat. His mind, even unplugged and disconnected from the net, was awhirl with code. His main system continued to chatter to him on a peripheral wireless channel, relaying a steady stream of stats. He scratched the back of his head with one slim finger. There was a small black plastic plate installed flush with the skin there. There was still a certain degree of redness around this plate and it itched maddeningly. The device was a recent addition, his adaptive control chip. It would be the key to Debian’s success. The chip hosted a very clever suite of firmware of Debian’s own devising. It allowed a much more precise control of his avatars than that enjoyed by the average user. Instead of operating on their own initiative in the regular fire-and-forget manner, basing decisions on their incorporated neural simulations and prior programming, Debian’s avatars were constantly updated from his DNI, shuffling data to and fro in quantum-encrypted packets through this new chip. This enabled him to fine-tune their activities and priorities by the microsecond while still maintaining a safe barrier between his DNI and the wider net. Debian mentally activated the chip.
He stood, breathing deeply, taking nips of the hot coffee like medicine as the chip ran self-diags, sending data blurring across his mind. His eyes crept to the curtained window where spyflies batted and buzzed against the glass outside. He returned to the desk with his drink, which he placed carefully on a corner where its upset would not prove disastrous to any electronic equipment. He sat again, plugged in again, felt electrons coursing through his mind like a drug again: Back to it.
His avatars were conversing rapidly with the chip now, updating their neural simulations. They were straining at their leashes, intrusive tendrils itching to reach out, invade the crevices of the net and lay all secrets bare.
, he told them. They shared, of course, his own love for the work. They had his own hunger for mastery of the data stream. They had some, but not all, of his own skills and judgement. Not all, because a neural simulation imprinted on an AI program remained constrained by the actual architecture on which it existed – it was a map of a brain on a computer program, and not an actual brain. Debian’s avatars, modified versions of the black market’s best, were still pale imitations of Debian himself.
, he told them and they bounded off through the router and away into the tunnels of the net, sniffing for their target like bloodhounds.
Quickly, the avatars homed in on the Cyberlife Research and Development servers. They felt around the edges of the public access points for ways in. They set up a false account, implanting a sub-verter, which would act as a secret door.
Debian flowed into the public server, aware of his body only as a diffuse cloud of electrons. Input from his avatars was experienced almost like physical sensory data, creating the impression of total immersion. His consciousness passed through the router, to a sat-sender, bounced off a satellite with sickening g-force, hit the sat-receiver, and passed unnoticed through the sub-verter into the public server of Cyberlife Research and Development. Security protocols sniffed at his data-trail as his avatars entered the system and apparently disappeared. One of them created a cover by beginning what seemed like a routine public enquiry into lab-time prices, justifying the original connection. The security bot was still suspicious at the disparity in bandwidth required for what otherwise looked like a regular, innocent query. The avatar, taking no risks, simply took the bot over, re-writing its records. The access log of the server would show a blip when next queried if Debian couldn’t find a way to change it once truly inside, but he would deal with that later.
Debian spun within the system, probes shooting out like rockets, logging and copying everything and sending it back to his own data storage units, which isolated themselves from the net once full. Debian spawned another avatar, increasing the processor load on his computer by a few percentage points. It swirled around his body protectively. Information crackled around his head like a nimbus. He sucked it up, stealing it all, but it was still poor fare this side of the main defence layer. None of this was worth three hundred grand. Not yet.
Debian sent the avatar into a server update program. It started to cross the bridge, which Debian hoped would take it from the public server into a machine which was at least linked to the company’s main computer system. If not, there were still other ways. Suddenly, the avatar was swarmed by interrogatory defence routines. It secreted away a part of the inter-server bandwidth and sent out bursts of data like carpet bombs, tying up all bandwidth available to the defence bots, rendering them unable to query the public server to determine the cause of the blockage. The avatar was inside the server on the far side before any of their pings were even returned. It sent back a confirmation that this was the right place and Debian’s main swarm joined it.
Something big was drawing in, attracted by the frustration of the defence programs. Debian felt its approach like the vibration of an oncoming train through the rails. It was an avatar, employed illegally by Cyberlife. So Hex was right. Its suspicions were immediately confirmed as it examined the pipe from the public server. Angrily, it tore the blockage away and rushed back along it to the public side, away from Debian. On the public server, the overt avatar was dropping suspicious little hints as to its true identity now. Drawn by this, the enemy avatar rapidly began interrogating the public server bots. Debian’s avatar refused its pings and extended viral tendrils threateningly. The enemy avatar, apparently directed by the neural simulation of a particularly gung-ho Cyberlife employee, started to bombard its opponent with viral attacks. It attempted to close the pipe behind Debian’s taunting avatar, sealing it in the Cyberlife server, where it could be overrun, stripped down and interrogated. They could possibly even reverse engineer the neural simulation running the avatar and attempt to identify the intruder from that.
Debian’s avatar was too good at its job to be caught like that. It fielded off the viral attacks easily and retreated from the system, passing through multiple proxies, melting down the connection utilities of the Cyberlife server as it went, leaving only Debian’s own sub-verter open. The enemy avatar, incensed as the intruder slipped from its grasp, began to work on the sub, whittling away at the layers of password protection with alarming rapidity. When it was almost through, the sub spawned multiple copies of itself, sending the passwords back through the router to Debian’s computer. The enemy avatar, truly frustrated now, shot back through the pipe to the company’s inner servers to sound a general alert. To anyone who answered the call the situation would most likely appear as if some minor hacker had been sniffing around the servers with an avatar and when confronted had fled the system, jamming the pipe as they went. Already, bots were cloning the blocked pipe and Debian’s sub-verter copied itself over accordingly. This time, the defenders missed it entirely in the confusion.
On the inner company server, Debian was ransacking the databanks. The update computer was linked to an automated system that monitored lab usage and client software updates. This in turn was linked to the innermost circle of sensitive databanks. The avatars that had stayed with Debian were rearranging forgotten data as they moved through the system so that disk sizes would appear not to change, delicately rigging and deceiving real-time access loggers. For the moment, the enemy was satisfied that nothing had made it all the way into the company-side system.
Debian batted away curious defence bots like troublesome flies. His avatars helped to bamboozle and redirect them. The flaying of data from the disks of Cyberlife continued and the traffic through the random subs sped up.
Debian was getting good information, now: research schedules, client details, company finance records, technical papers. He didn’t have time to actually examine the data, he just grabbed handfuls like a child let loose in a sweet shop. His avatars were busy all around him.
Busy little bees
, he thought on a distant level of his mind.
Buzz, buzz, buzz
The best, the very best data would be kept in net-isolation. The retrieval of these, using EM-inference techniques, was what justified the three hundred grand. Debian sensed the electromagnetic noise of the isolated computers and began to deduce their contents from this remotely – an inexact science and a very specialised one. The avatars helped to sort the data, sieving the noise out of the torrent and sending packets back down what was now a whole chain of sub-verters.
Suddenly, Debian was under attack from all sides. His Cyberlife-side avatars were overwhelmed instantly and scrubbed into EM white noise, expelling him from the system. One of his subs was compromised – he hadn’t even seen the attack coming, hadn’t had chance to melt it down! Something in the isolated computer was hacking the defences of his home system, inducing code in the Cyberlife server and transmitting it back through Debian’s own sub with amazing accuracy. Nobody
but Debian himself and possibly a handful of other hackers in the world could do that! He wanted to scream
Hey – that’s
Whatever was assaulting him
was writing attack bots out of nothing. Like a zombie horde, they fell on Debian’s router and he found himself fighting on all fronts. He attempted to rally his remaining avatars but they were falling apart under the onslaught, being scrubbed faster than he could spawn replacements. Cyberlife wouldn’t dare send avatars over the net because they were illegal and hard to hide if they emanated from a monitored company’s server, but the mindless programs were numerous and insanely complex. Their code seemed to change as they copied themselves. His own avatars copied up with equal fervour until the two sides filled the entire router. As the bots chewed viral arms away from the overwhelmed avatars, they cloned themselves into the space vacated. The enemy was actually winning on Debian’s own router!
Debian found himself overwhelmed, totally embattled, his defensive position incrementally worsening. The enemy was attempting to piggyback through his defences on his avatars, which still communicated rapidly through the encrypted channel into his firewall-protected DNI and ultimately his organic brain.
He caught brief glimpses of the enemy and was terrified by what he saw. It was clearly an artificial intelligence of some sort, but it was equally clear that it was not an avatar from the efficiency with which it spawned, changed and directed its viruses. Whether it was actually a legal program had become entirely irrelevant. It was blitzing his router’s firewalls with insanely complex, predictive scripts. Its intrusive tendrils were visible where they entered Debian’s system – blinding white threads that blurred with motion faster than his senses could follow. Soon it would get through into his actual DNI.
Debian was unaware that his body, sitting on a chair in what might have been another universe, had gone into spasm. His entire being was a dizzying swirl of binary electrical pulses as he struggled with the AI that attacked him from the supposedly isolated terminal. The avatars in the router were scrubbed in an explosion of shredded data and the AI blazed up the pipe and into Debian’s own home computer, bots bounding ahead of it like attack dogs. There were no discernible gaps in their armour.
Debian tried to tell his body to pull the plug from its head but the enemy was inside his brain. The world was fading. His smart firewall had failed. He felt totally shocked, poised in that timeless moment of disaster. Then his brain was flooded with ice so cold that it burned with bright agony.
His body awoke with a huge convulsion. An incoherent sound escaped his throat. Real light flooded, blinding, into his eyes like purifying fire. Something was in his head. Panicking for the first time that he could ever remember, Debian pulled the plug. He was only aware that he had been screaming, when, presently, he stopped. He stood, drenched in sweat with the cable in one hand like a hangman’s noose.
! Apparently perceiving the requirement somehow, the machine had made coffee.
Tec drove the battle-scarred van through the security checkpoint and into the subterranean depths of the HGR tower. The armed guards, recognising them, nodded as they passed. The vehicle stopped outside a wide door marked
. They were expected and the door opened to admit the van. It eased inside, clouds of dust caught in its suspensor field. Tec stopped the van within the blue-lit sterilisation chamber and killed the power. White-suited receivers were ready for them with a metal trolley.