00. Foreword
01. Keys
02. Search
03. Downward
04. The Undercity
06. Brain Surgery
07. Matter of Payment
08. Reboot
09. Biohazard
10. Cyberpuppets
11. Links
12. Encryption
13. Queries
14. Debugging
15. Disconnect
16. Downtime
17. Fletch
18. Learning
19. Predator
20. Decompression
21. Kinetic
22. Memory Leak
23. Chronology
24. Lockdown
25. Mind of the Monster
26. Empathy
27. Trojan
28. Reformat

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Deck took his rig and slapped it onto the Velcro strips on the right leg of the bodysleeve. He tossed the old suit and briefcase into the trash and pocketed the UIU before heading through the door into the main offices.

He passed though a maze of featureless, faceless cubicles. The sterile work area was almost completely devoid of personality or color. In contrast to the marble decadence of the lobby, the walls were cheap, featureless white drywall. There were no paintings, motivational posters, or any type of signs on the walls - not even the corporate logo. There were no personal items on the desks or walls to indicate what sort of people might work there. The place was so pristine it could be mistaken for unoccupied. There wasn't even a coffee machine or water cooler.

What it did have was surveillance cameras, lots of them. Spread evenly throughout the area where small video cameras, leaving no corner outside the ever-present blanket of scrutiny. It was safe to assume the other departments would be similarly monitored. These cameras were probably not really watched by actual humans, since the staff needed to process this much data would be too large. It would take a few dozen people just staring at video screens all day just to make use of this input, and then there was always the question of who would watch them.

The cameras were probably there for archival and psychological value. It was almost certain they would be watching this video after they realized he had been here.

What sort of people worked in a place like this? Deck tried to imagine himself working in one of these featureless boxes under relentless surveillance and it pissed him off. It made him feel better about what he was doing.

As he passed through the cubicles he moved swiftly and silently. If there had been a human observer watching from one of the cameras, deprived of the view of Deck's feet by the low walls, they might have wondered briefly if he was skating. His body moved with a fluid and practiced grace, sliding from one end of the soulless corporate tomb to the other. He kept his head slightly low and his legs bent, so that his body was a coil of potential energy, ready to propel him forward if he sensed danger.

He reached the rear of the office space and found the executive elevator. It had no buttons, just a simple slot. Deck tried the keys on the the guard's keyring until he found a match.

The executive elevator was a mildly ornate box that hauled Deck up through the seemingly endless levels of the corporate spire without him needing to touch a button. The surveillance camera was conspicuous in its absence.

Deck stepped off of the elevator into the executive nirvana that was the sixty-fourth floor. The walls were done in genuine wood paneling, and the carpet was a thick shag that seemed to Deck to be a needless static hazard. There were no cameras here. Each door looked to be a featureless slab of wood, but was probably reinforced steel simply encased in wood. Beside each door was a flat black scanner, ringed in brass, inset tastefully into the wall. Small brass light fixtures were set into the wall, casting small, tight pools of light over various plaques and flattering paintings of old executives long gone.

He moved carefully now, pausing and checking around corners as he darted from one corridor to the next. As he approached his target his left hand slid into his breast pocket and retrieved a small homemade card the size of a TriOp employee ID. Deck had encoded the magnetic strip across the bottom with data he believed would identify him as one of the high-level executives. He slapped the plastic card onto the featureless black scanner beside the door and it was accepted. The doors slid open to reveal a darkened office.

He paused for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dark. There was mild light coming in the huge window that comprised an entire wall of the office. The light came mostly from below, as part of the ambient noise of the city.

The large flat screen on the desk blinked to life as Deck dropped his rig in front of it. A few seconds later it found what he was looking for - a network node. It negotiated with the node and connected him to the TriOp corporate network. The node would give him access to the massive communications hardware on the roof, which was the whole point of tonight's exercise.

He checked the time... 11:05pm. He was slightly behind schedule, but he had allowed for delays. He went to work.

He set up a simple program he had written called SECWATCH. It would run in the background, monitoring local network traffic, and would alert him if any of the building's security alarms were tripped. If the program detected something, he would have to escape quickly.

The goal was to connect to Citadel Station - the largest, longest running orbital structure ever created. It was designed, funded, constructed, and operated solely by TriOptimum Corporation. Citadel was the only such station to exist without the aid of any government-run space program, and it was also the only station to ever turn a profit.

Beyond the reach of international law, the orbital station was free to pursue any type of research the company saw fit. It attracted the most progressive scientific minds in the world, eager to free themselves of bureaucracy and ethics review boards. As long as their goals were beneficial to TriOp, they could draw all the funding they needed from the bottomless pockets of TriOptimum. There were no taboos, and no rules except one: make something profitable. Most of the money came from the sale of new medicines, weapons, and computer hardware. The various scientific and political bodies officially denounced the ethics-free research that went on at Citadel, but were happy enough to benefit from the results once the work was complete.

Citadel was the home of humankind's first viral cure - a cure for a narrow set of nasty STD's that had been passing themselves around the great biomass of the human race for over half a century. The cure was impossibly expensive, and thus only available to people of developed nations and even then only with great effort. To the inhabitants of underdeveloped and third world countries - where indiscretion and lack of education spread the disease the fastest - the cure was unattainable. Thus the third world served as a giant petri dish for the virii, keeping them alive and available to occasionally spill over into the wealthy nations of the world who would have no choice but to again surrender huge sums of money in exchange for more of the cure.

But Deck wasn't after any viral cure - particularly not for a sexually transmitted one. His lifestyle as a hacker made him an unlikely candidate for such a thing. He was after hardware. A very expensive, exotic, and rare piece of hardware. It was something of a legend among the hacker community, and it had taken him a month just to prove the thing even existed. Acquiring this thing had consumed most of his time and money over the past three months. He had passed up a lot of jobs - some of them would have been really good money - because they would have interfered with his current project.

His goal was to access the inventory system and find out where these things went once they got planetside. Who bought them? For how much? From whom? If things went really well, he might try to fake an entry in the inventory system and have one simply delivered to an address where he could pick it up, but he certainly wasn't counting on having that much luck. More than likely, he would simply gather enough data to be able to punch a hole in the security wall and gain access the system from the outside. If he could gain outside access, then he wouldn't need physical access to a TriOp node the next time he made a run.

He hooked into the system and was instantly hit with his first layer of ICE. ICE was the protective layer of programs that guarded a system. It was designed to detect people who weren't supposed to be there and make them go away. ICE had many ways of dealing with trespassers. Some would try to cut the hacker off from the system. Some would sound security alarms or notify authorities. Others would try to flood or overload the hackers connection with an avalanche of digital garbage, choking off their connection to their target. Other types of ICE were more devious. Some would make it appear as though access had been gained, when really the hacker was still blocked off from the system.

It took him ten minutes to get past the first layers of ICE so that he could function as a legitimate user in the system. The first program that surfaced was a pushover. He created a situation that caused it to crash, and then bypassed it before the system automatically restarted it. The next one was more formidable and began sealing him off from other parts of the network, limiting his access. The problem with this type of ICE was that it didn't seal itself off from him. Deck managed to confuse the program into attacking some of the other security layers, and it managed to punch a hole in the network for him before other ICE defenses shut it down.

Each layer was unique. Each one required a different trick or exploit to circumvent. He had spent years building up his repertoire of tricks and his software library, and he would need to use both to their fullest extent to punch through the defenses he would be dealing with tonight.

It took another fifteen minutes to create a new employee ID and give it all the access he needed. His new employee number was 2-4601, and his new password was a 256-bit string derived from background noise coming from the analog transmission to the local node. That was as secure as he could make it.

Time was always against a hacker. The longer you stayed in a system - even if you weren't doing anything obviously wrong - the better the chances you would be detected. Ideally, you wanted a job to be no more than half an hour for a system with standard security. For a higher security system, you needed to finish faster. Someone, sooner or later, was bound to notice the unusual amount of disabled, crashed, or confused software in the system and then it was time to start running.

After another five minutes he was finally logged in under the new I.D. He then accessed the inventory system and started searching. Every product ever produced by TriOptimum was in here somewhere, recorded in great detail. A moment ago he was locked out of the system, unable to access any information. Now he had the opposite problem: Too much information. Component lists, production costs, schematics, sales guidelines & brochures, sales history, production schedules, inventory figures, market research, license and support plans offered, patents used, legal notes, shipping guidelines, storage specifications, profit projections, gross margins, demand figures sorted by region (actual and projected), documentation (in dozens of languages), certifications required, cross-reference info for related products or services, ongoing research data...

Deck sat back for a second and rubbed his eyes. He was drowning in information. Somewhere in this ocean of data was one single item that interested him. He needed a way to cull the list and find only what he needed. The interface software was designed around the (usually safe) assumption that the user knew what the hell they were looking for and how it might be classified. It was attractive, user-friendly, intuitive, and completely useless to him.

After a few more minutes he found a way to circumvent the overly-helpful interface and access the database directly. The product images vanished and the screen dropped into a simple green-text console. He smiled.

He had no idea what this thing would be called, much less what part number it might be assigned. He had no direct way to even search for it. He did know that:

  1. It must be very rare. Less than a thousand in existence would be a safe guess.
  2. It would be insanely expensive. A million would be a conservative estimate.
  3. Rumor suggested that it entered circulation in the last year or so. Therefore, it had probably entered production less than eighteen months ago.
  4. He had no idea how it might be classified. Prosthetics? Consumer electronics? Cybernetic equipment? Medical technology? There was no way for him to know all the possible categories, much less which one he ought to use. However, he did know what this thing wasn't. It wasn't any sort of software. It wasn't a service. It wasn't medicine. It wasn't robotics. It wasn't any sort of storage media. He blocked out the items that fell into any of these categories.

He began filtering the inventory database though these criteria and came up with a list of fifteen hundred parts. He winced. That was still far too large a list to sort through. He jabbed the "clear screen" button to wipe the data from the display. The effect was more for his benefit than for the computer's. He needed to try something different, and this was Deck's way of clearing his mind and mentally starting over.

Just as the key clicked beneath his index finger a word on the screen caught his attention. The text vanished, leaving a glowing emerald afterimage in his eyes:


This was what he was looking for, although it hadn't occurred to him that it might be listed so explicitly. He ran a new search, this time looking for new, rare, expensive implants. The search came back with twenty-two entries.

Five were still in the early pre-alpha stage. Six more had been abandoned before they reached the production stage. Despite being relativly new, one was already marked as obsolete or discontinued. Three were not marked as "classified". Two more were obviously prosthetics of some sort. Another was tagged as being regulated by certain firearm laws and was therefore a weapon. None of these were what he was looking for.

Now he was down to a list of four parts that were all new, rare, expensive, classified implants. He checked the time. 11:45pm. He was running long. He had been in the building for over an hour. He should have left ages ago, but he felt he was getting close. He gave himself until midnight.

Out of the remaining list of four, two were listed as weighing over a pound, and were therefore unlikely to be what he wanted. He looked at the two remaining part numbers:



The 'I' designated it as an implant. The 'cit' was the facility in charge of production (Citadel). He didn't know where the rest of the number was derived from. Then he realized that the part numbers were nearly identical. They were most likely the same thing. The 'v2' probably just designated the second one as a newer model. This was almost certainly what he wanted.

He cracked open the customer database to see who had been buying these things.

Suddenly the office was bathed in white light. Deck's heart jumped as he and the room around him were brought from almost complete darkness into the searing brilliance of a floodlight. An instant later Deck realized the light was coming from window. The piercing light moved across the room, making the shadows slide across the walls and floor.

Just as quickly, the light moved on. He realized that it had just been a helicopter sweeping past the office window. He took a deep breath and returned to his work. He was moving quickly now, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he sifted though terrabytes of data. Another ten minutes passed.

More ICE blocked his way that needed to be either circumvented or cut. He eventually located the customers he was looking for, only to find they were generic, nondescript aliases that gave no indication of who they really were. None of them had addresses or contact info. None of them seemed to be linked to any other part of the system. More time passed.

He eventually gave up on the customers and simply explored what orders had taken place. The prices varied widely from one customer to another, but were always in the seven to eight figure range. The delivery location was always listed simply as "D'Arcy".

Deck ran some more searches to try and find out what sort of place D'Arcy was. A city? A warehouse? A department? A code name for something else? More time passed. He checked the clock. 12:30am.


He needed to be gone over an hour and a half ago. This was suicide. He was so close. Five more minutes.

Suddenly a message appeared on his screen:


Deck blinked. He had no idea who would be sending him a message like this. He traced it and found that it appeared to be coming from Citadel itself. This made even less sense. He checked SECWATCH anyway. All clear.

He ran some more searches for D'Arcy - there was simply no location called D'Arcy anywhere in the system.

Run. Now.

Deck shook his head. He didn't normally take advice from computer systems he was hacking, but he knew he had pushed his luck too far already. He needed to go, SECWATCH alert or not. Before he closed his rig, he decided to run a check on the local police to see if they had any alerts going.

There were several, but only one was important to him:

REPORTED: 08/20/42 - 12:15am

TYPE: Intrusion

LOCATION: TriOptimum Square

ACTION TAKEN: Multiple Units, Ambulance dispatched.

SUSPECT: Adult male, black clothing, armed + dangerous

LOCATION: TriOptimum Bldg. 64th floor

The building's security guards had simply called the police instead of tripping their local alarm. Deck wished he had set up a program to monitor elevator activity, because then he would know which way to start running. Too late for that now.

Even worse, he was dealing with cops instead of security personnel. Cops were much less predictable in their use of force and far more likely to use deadly force.

Deck shut his rig and took a small metal lipstick-sized cylinder out of his pocket.

Just then the door slid open. Before Deck could react, two cops swept into the room. By the time he saw them their weapons were trained on him. One advanced directly to the desk while the other flanked him from the left.

They were wearing hard-core cop gear. Their bodies were encased in lightweight armor, and they were wearing bulletproof helmets that provided high-grade night vision.

Deck looked down to see a laser-site dot pointed at the center of his chest. He could guess where the other one was aimed.

7Keys = Downward 8