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. Any movement, action, or series of such made to carry out Illegal or quasi-legal operations. -World Wide WordWatch, 2058 edition

Like a silver shadow, the gossamer-winged sprite skated through the glowing neon towers of the Boston Matrix. The gleaming chrome surface of her icon reflected the virtual light of the gridlines and other icons around her in sharp, twisted reflections, a testament to her programming skills. Here was a decker to be reckoned with. Other denizens of the Matrix would know the sprite’s markings and recognize her as a fellow predator, someone not to be fragged with. Those who did not have the wisdom to see her for what she was weren’t likely to see her at all. She was a shadow, a ghost in the machine. As Ariel sped through the telecommunications grid of the metroplex toward the Mandala Technologies system, she hoped the price her team had paid Milo for the local telecom number she was using was worth it. Her scanner programs were online and sending out invisible feelers along her path, prepared to warn her of any hidden dangers or software traps she might encounter. Ariel found her pulse rate increasing, the pre-run adrenaline surge starting to hit her. This was what most deckers lived for: the rush of preparing to break into a protected system, to test their skill against the skill of the programmers who’d built the system’s defenses and to lay their lives on the line that their skill and their hottest programs could beat the defenders’ skills and their coldest ice. A game with the highest stakes around. With a blur of movement through the datastreams, Ariel arrived at her destination. In the real world, her cyberdeck connected with the LTG number she had entered, and her passcode programs went to work to provide the key to open the door Ariel needed to get through. There was a tense moment where she was uncertain if the programs would work, or if the system would recognize her as an intruder and send out an alert. Bits and alphanumeric characters flashed before her eyes in the virtual world of cyberspace as the two systems negotiated and haggled back and forth before Ariel was able to step into the back door of the target system. She breathed a sigh of relief and started looking around. It had been a gamble, but it paid off. Ariel’s first scouting of the Mandala host system had made it abundantly clear that it was possible to get in. Ariel was proud of her skills as a decker, but she knew her limits. She was one of the best ice-breakers in the biz, but there was no way she was getting inside a system that looked to be protected by some of the best Fuchi had to offer. Fuchi was the corporation when it came to Matrix technology, and their ice was some of the best in the business. Ariel told her boss that she’d never get in via the front door of the system without being detected. The only ice Ariel had ever seen that was worse was the kind Renraku Computer Systems had protecting some of their important hosts. Renraku had always been known for its cutting-edge ice, but lately their systems had been getting even smarter, a lot smarter. Adaptive architectures, cascading party ice, the worst. Word on the street said Renraku’s best systems couldn’t be broken, and even legendary deckers like Fast-jack and Black Isis had tried and failed against them. Fortunately, Ariel didn’t have to worry about Renraku ice on this run. “Trouble, this is Hammer,” came a voice out of nowhere. “We’re en route, ETA eight minutes. Report.” Ariel took a quick look around the room her icon appeared in. It looked like a fairly standard host-system, no fancy sculpting of the virtual architecture, very little code wasted on fancy images or psychological warfare. That probably meant the system was keyed for some serious main-line defense without any frills. Ariel had to be ready for blasters, tar pits, corroding programs, and possibly worse. “Trouble here,” she replied, the cybernetic link of her cyberdeck translating her thoughts into transmissions on the team’s tacticom radio band. “I’m in. Beginning search through the system for access to security and internal surveillance. Stand by.” “Roger that,” the deep voice replied. “Keep me apprised.” Ariel activated a scanner program to check and see what kind of access the host had to the building’s systems: The access she’d used to penetrate was a secondary system, a back door put in by a programmer eager to earn nuyen selling access to people willing to pay, and the Hammermen had paid handsomely. It wasn’t nearly as good as access to the main system, but it would have to do. Ariel’s scanning program appeared in a glittering cloud of dust, becoming a tall mirror set in a gilt oval frame. The surface flowed and shimmered like quicksilver as the program linked with the host’s diagnostic and status subroutines and fed the information into Ariel’s cyberdeck. The system specs started to appear on the surface of the mirror in glowing characters, and Ariel scrolled through them quickly, stopping to check a few items on the long list for anything she could use in her mission. Good, the system was primarily concerned with environmental control within the building, but there were some connections between the environmental systems and the main building controller; feedback loops and other access points to allow the building’s systems to work harmoniously together. It would have to be enough. The connections between the systems contained command pathways that system administrators and maintenance personnel could use to cross-link systems and perform upgrades and repair work simultaneously without having to leave their cushy offices. With the right command codes, Ariel could set up a similar link to allow her access to the important parts of the main host-the security systems and internal sensors-without having to go through the glacial layer of ice protecting the systems from intrusion from the outside. The trick was setting up the right dummy codes without putting the system on alert to her presence. With a wave of her icon’s slim, silvery hand, a long, tapering wand appeared. Ariel tweaked the programming on the code-breaker she’d designed, checking some of the system specs to make sure everything matched up correctly. Then she sent the command. Open sesame! she thought as she waved the silver wand, trailing a sparkling cloud of fairy dust behind it. The sparkling motes of code infused themselves into the blank gray walls of the room where her icon stood, and her cyberdeck began to execute a flurry of algorithms and program instructions at incredible speed, too fast for the human mind to even begin to follow. In the space of a few seconds, the two systems wrestled over the access codes to the command pathways, and the battle was decided. Before Ariel’s eyes, the glowing motes of fairy dust resolved themselves into a rectangular shape in the gray wall, which then broke away from the wall and swung open into the room, a doorway into the rest of the system. Smiling to herself and keeping a tight rein on her impulse to leap directly through the access pathway, Ariel keyed her transmitter. “Hammer, this is Trouble, I’ve got access. Proceeding with Beta.” “Copy, Trouble. We are about seven minutes out.” Ariel carefully checked the passage open before her. All of her systems had probed and scanned the path, and found it safe for her to travel. It was possible the pathway was some kind of trap, triggered by tampering with the command codes, but if it was, then it was too sophisticated for Ariel’s deck or her sharpened Matrix instincts to pick it up. She would be almost proud to be taken down by such a sophisticated defense mechanism. Law of the electron jungle, she thought as she stepped through the doorway.

The virtual passage led Ariel from the secondary host of the building to the central computer system. From here she could access all of the main systems of the target with only a minimal lag from the limited bandwidth of the back-door connection. While the limited pipeline to “squeeze” programs and commands was a problem, it was nothing compared to the difficulties of cutting through the ice protecting the main system from the outside. Ariel began a scan-assessment of the system just as she had from the access node. The silvery mirror reappeared and shimmered in the air as the system’s specs scrolled across it. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the best decker in the sprawl? Ariel thought to herself with a grin. Her eyes widened at the sight of the security specifications on the system. Holy ghost, it would have taken a blow torch to cut through that much ice. The rest of the specs were equally impressive. Apparently the Mr. Johnson had known what he was talking about when he said the target site had some very sophisticated systems running on it. The facility’s computing power was way out of spec for what Ariel knew of Mandala Technologies. They were an up and coming software corp, but their ice was some of Fuchi’s best. Mandala must be working on something requiring a lot of computer horsepower, which meant cutting-edge tech, which translated to nuyen for Ariel. She was sorely tempted to scan through the databanks for files that might contain valuable pay data she could sell on the underground market-Milo and some other fixers were always willing to fence good hot data-but Ariel was a professional and paydata wasn’t what she’d been hired to find. She had a team depending on her. She hadn’t let them down yet and she wasn’t going to start now. The remainder of the security specs were online, and Ariel breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of them. The security in the facility was top of the line, but it was still controlled by the central computer and the security subroutines. Many corporations, understanding the potential vulnerability of their systems to invasions like the one Ariel was carrying out, had moved away from trusting their computer systems to safeguard their important installations. Advances in human-machine interface allowed human operators to take the role of central controller for a security system, plugging into the security grid and in effect “becoming” the building. They “felt” all of the input of the security sensors through a closed-circuit simsense feed, and they could “move” any of the building’s security systems as easily as raising an arm to swat a fly. Best of all, such systems were virtually impregnable to decker subversion because the human operator could recognize nuances no computer could match, and the two operating systems were largely incompatible. Fortunately for deckers everywhere, such systems were extremely costly to implement and maintain. Human operators still got tired, sick, or bored and had to be relieved at regular intervals, paid, fed, and given vacation time and raises. Computers didn’t care about any of those things, nor could they be bribed, bought, or blackmailed. Computers also didn’t have opinions about what they saw or heard from day to day and didn’t abscond with important company secrets. Brain-rigged security systems were still reserved for very specific facilities that needed a “human touch” but where the corporate controllers were willing to entrust a single person as the all-seeing eyes and ears of their facility. Since the building’s computer was in control of all of the security systems, Ariel could access and control them through her link to the computer system. The security subroutines were of course protected by access barriers and more ice, but Ariel had cut through enough ice in her time to know what to do. A wave of her wand and a pinch of fairy dust produced a ring of old-fashioned skeleton keys that jingled pleasantly (an added sensory touch Ariel was quite proud of). A complex matching algorithm ran, and one key presented itself at the top of the ring in the silver fairy’s hand. Ariel stepped over to the chrome-and-circuit-covered wall of the host system and inserted the key into the slot that appeared there.

Gently, gently, she thought as she manipulated the code to match the system access. The wall shifted and flatscreen images appeared on it. Images of the darkened and empty parking area outside the building and of the lobby, the corridors, and the underground parking garage and the vehicles in it. Another screen filled with information on the current status of the security systems in place throughout the building. Success! Looking over the displays, Ariel could see that her intrusion had not triggered any alarms so far. She was dimly aware of the breathing and pulse rate of her physical body, hidden away in a safe-house kilometers from the target site. Her senses were focused totally on the virtual world and what was happening there. A few commands to her cyber-deck sent out a looped playback of the quiet scene outside the building and among the corridors into the central security processor. The loop would continue to display that image for as long as Ariel wanted to, blind and deaf to the events about to happen. The loop would eventually trigger an internal alert in the system’s self-diagnostic, but if the Hammermen were around long enough to worry about that, something far worse than a simple internal alert would happen first. Now, a check through the internal sensors. Ariel checked the internal readings of the security system, and was surprised by what she found. Hmm, internal systems and cameras in the lower level are mostly offline. Only the systems in one lab space are working, and they’re feeding into an isolated datastore. Ariel shifted her attention to the recording systems for the basement-level lab, which were sending data into a protected archive in the computer system. They’re putting out a lot of data, she thought, examining the datastore. Must be a couple hundred megapulses at least. Probing carefully with all of her sensor programs, Ariel approached the datastore, looking for a way to access the datastream flowing into it without giving away her presence in the computer system. The data could provide some valuable information on the location of the target her team was seeking as well as on the status of the facility. There didn’t seem to be many people in the upper levels of the facility, so Ariel had to assume that whoever was home was in the lab where the datastream originated. She keyed her transmitter. “Hammer,” the deep voice replied to her signal. “I’m into the security system, external and internal cameras and detects are neutralized and I figure they’ll stay that way for a good twenty minutes. I’ve got an active data feed from a basement-level lab. Suspect that is the location of our target. I’m attempting to access the data.” “Good work, Trouble. Proceed with caution. We’re just a couple minutes out.” “Roger that.” Time to open this baby up, she thought. Ariel waved her magic wand, and the Matrix responded to her commands. She carefully peeled away layer after layer of access to the datastore, using her route through the command system to justify her actions to the computer’s security. Time slowed to a crawl as she focused solely on the task before her. In a matter of moments that seemed like hours, Ariel accessed the datastore and examined the data-stream. It was a huge volume of data focused on a single individual. It contained physiological and neurological data of every imaginable kind: vital signs, galvanic response, brainwaves, blood chemistry, neurochemistry, pupil dilation, capillary flow, respiration, all carefully measured and digitized responses to stimulus flowing from the computer system to the test subject and back again. This has got to be our boy, Ariel thought as she looked in amazement at all of the data. She could hardly imagine why anyone would want such detailed information on anyone, but it wasn’t hers to ask. Whoever their target really was, he was important enough to two corporations to want to hold on to him and to be willing to pay the Hammermen’s fees to get their hands on him. Suddenly, the datastream from the lab fluctuated strangely. What the hell…? Ariel thought just before the whole system went crazy. A surge of data from the input stream struck the datastore like a thunderbolt. The entire collection of files

vanished in a cloud of digital static, dumped from the system entirely. The sudden and unexpected force of the backlash sent Ariel skittering away from the doomed datastore as the computer system suddenly came to life around her. The lighting of the system shifted from silvery gray to deep and pulsating red as the entire system went on alert. From the static and snow of the datastore’s demise stepped a black-armored figure like a robot designed to look like an ancient Japanese samurai. The figure seemed to absorb light into its black surface except for the edge of its long, curved sword, which gleamed wickedly, a touch of programming flair Ariel had to admire even as the helmeted head of the samurai slowly turned and scanned the system. It locked a gaze on Ariel made up of two burning red points of light deep within the slit of its helmet, and she knew it was too late for her to activate any of her masking programs to get away. The ice had spotted her. As the silent black form of the samurai stepped closer, Ariel readied herself for a fight. The ice was in the depths of the system, protecting some of the highest-security files, which could only mean it was black ice, a force known and feared by deckers everywhere in the shadows as the only ice that did more than damage software and hardware. Black ice targeted the wetware, the brain of the user, with a lethal jolt of energy. One wrong move and you were dead.

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