Keys



The long steel finger of the subway stabbed into the station. Having just come from the Undercity, its belly was full of lower-class people who were privileged enough to work in the high-class grid of glittering corporate office buildings known as Uppernet. The train brought itself to an abrupt and precise halt and then regurgitated its contents onto the empty platform. The swarm of ex-passengers flowed up the steps and dispersed into the evening glow of New Atlanta.

All except one.

Deck hung back from the crowd and watched the city drones head for whatever miserable night jobs their lives had sentenced them to. They would all be going to work for the evening. So was he.

Once the crowd cleared he headed up the street past the opulent kingdom of office space, and into the heart of Uppernet. Uppernet was a speck on the map of the great urban blanket, but its size was disproportionate to its importance. It was home to a host of powerful corporations, the seat from which they projected power throughout the technical and financial worlds. It was the nexus of money and data, the fuel and will of the business world.

The buildings were a series of near structural clones, varying mostly in their height and what corporate logo had been slapped on the front. They formed a strict grid of narrow rectangles of varying heights that looked like an immense 3d bar graph of some random input data. The strip of buildings served as a monument to a world where money was in excess and imagination was in short supply.

Deck suffered from the reverse.

He caught his reflection in the darkened windows of some nameless corporate monolith, and paused for one final glance to make sure he looked the part. He was dressed like a young executive that had just finished another marathon day behind his desk. Luckily, the look of someone who had just worked 12 hours straight was pretty much the same look as someone who had just slept all day and was still shaking off the cobwebs. His clothes were a bit wrinkled and his tie was loosened. His rig, which was usually strapped to his leg, was inside the briefcase he was carrying. He had purchased the briefcase yesterday, and then spent some time sandpapering the corners and banging it off the floor to give it a used appearance. He had let his dark hair grow in for this job. He needed to be able to pass himself off as a corporate drone, who were not allowed to have shaved heads.

He was slender and pale in a way that was to be expected from a hacker, but he wasn't soft. He had been tempered by the tough years on the streets of the Undercity. Hidden beneath the unflattering beige suit, his muscles were tight and wiry, hardened by his early pre-hacker years of too much labor and not enough food. His face was thin and bony, and looked unfamiliar to him without the narrow beard he usually maintained.

He covered the three blocks to his target as quickly as possible. He had been running a bit late before the meeting with Nescio, and that meeting had run long. His cover story was going to sound too implausible if he didn't start soon.

The TriOptimum building was not a clone like the others. It was a pillar of carved glass and steel. Covered in smooth round corners and gentle slopes, the building was like some immense sculpture cut from polished ebony stone. Up on the roof, far above Deck's view, was a complex nest of interconnected communications towers. Radio antennae, satellite dishes, pulse towers, and microwave transmitters formed an intricate web of steel and fiber optic cable.

In front, TriOptimum displayed its wealth by allotting an area fifty meters wide and five meters deep as a kind of open courtyard, complete with trees nobody cared to admire and benches nobody had time to sit on. It was a vulgar excess in a world where real estate was often measured in millions of dollars per square meter.

Deck crossed the courtyard and climbed the wide marble stairs to the broad glass doors of the lobby, which were (as he expected) locked.

The building was a fortress at night, and there was no other way in that didn't require some sort of tunneling or demolition equipment. That sort of business would be noisy, expensive, and out of his particular area of expertise. As usual, the weakest point of the building's defenses was the part that was regulated by a human. In this case, a lone security guard.

Most people imagine that hacking is a non-social activity. The picture of someone typing away at some console for hours on end creates the impression that hackers have no social skills and lack the ability to detect interpersonal subtlety. The idea is erroneous, since the greatest hackers are both con-artists and counter-security experts. The stereotype usually worked in Deck's favor so he didn't really mind.

In the world of modern cryptography, even consumer-level encryption was strong enough to require months to penetrate by pure brute force. A hacker could spend weeks probing a security network for loopholes and weaknesses, and using brute force tactics to break open its encrypted data. Many days of long, patient data surveillance and cryptological analysis would be required to gain access to even the most casually guarded network. In contrast, a ten minute phone call to a frustrated tech support jockey, intern, or clueless secretary could yield a password granting the same level of access. Hacking - true professional grade hacking, the kind you can get paid for - requires a blend of computer skills and B.S.

At the moment Deck needed some B.S. He hammered on the window.

Inside, the lone security guard looked up from the screen at the front desk and glared at Deck.

"Closed. Come back tomorrow during business hours.", he yelled from his desk. His voice was muffled and distant from the other side of the bullet-proof glass.

In the movies, security guards were always fumbling, senile old men just waiting to be karate-chopped in the back of the neck by the protagonist. Deck had yet to encounter such a guard in real life. This guard in particular looked young and sharp. Like a lot of the younger types, he obviously spent plenty of time in the gym. The white shirt of his uniform did little to hide the bulky physique underneath. He looked serious, bored, and not eager to deal with some idiot banging on the front door of a major corporation at 10 o'clock at night.

"Hey!", Deck yelled though the door, "I left my car keys on my desk. Can I get them?"

"Can't let anyone in. Come back tomorrow." The guard was completely unmoved. He didn't even bother to call him 'sir'.

Crap.

Deck tried again. "Look, my name is Richard Holgate... I work on the second floor in tech support.", he said pointing upstairs. "I need my car keys. I work here." He held out his arms to demonstrate how passive and harmless he was.

Reluctantly, the guard slid his chair out and walked over to the door as he fixed "Richard" with a disapproving glare.

Deck tried not to smile. Getting the guard to engage him in conversation was the hardest part. It is always more difficult to refuse to help someone when you have to look them in the eye. This was where the misconceptions about hackers came into play. This guard would expect a hacker to be nervous, shifty-eyed, and menacing. He might suspect "Richard" of being many things: a shallow irritating loser, an irresponsible ass, or an overpaid bootlick. It would never occur to him that he was looking at a ruthless data pirate. Not until it was too late.

The guard brought his scowling face to the glass opposite Richard, "You can't come in, call a cab. Go home."

His face was hard and square, a frame of unhappy distrust. His brown hair was a tight crew-cut popular among the paramilitary types. His blue eyes were set deep in his head, peering out at Deck with suspicion.

Deck sighed in defeat and pleaded, "Look man, I was here all day. I just got back from the worst meeting ever. All I wanna do is go home, have some dinner, bang the wife, and get some sleep... give a guy a break?"

The guard drew in a deep breath and seemed to waver. A long moment passed as he sized up the man on the other side of the door. Deck didn't look like a nut or a terrorist. There was no obvious reason not to let him in for just a moment, except that it was against the rules, and both of them knew it.

Deck held up a set of keys. "Look, this key opens up the door over there.", he indicated a black, featureless door at the rear of the lobby, "Just take this key and just go up to the second floor and grab my car keys for me. They're on my desk."

Deck stood at the door, looking pathetic and helpless. He held the keys by the plastic keychain and offered them to the guard. There was another long, silent pause while the guard deliberated some more.

Deck maintained his pleading look and jingled the keys a bit in front of his face. Inside, he wanted to scream. This entire operation depended on getting this guard to open the door and take these keys.

To Deck's surprise, the door swung all the way open, and the guard motioned him inside.

"Thanks, I really appreciate this", he said, grinning like an idiot. The guard waved his hand, dismissing the thanks. All he wanted was for this office puke to shut up, get his keys, and get out of his building. The two of them walked to the back of the lobby together, while Deck, staying in character, rambled on.

"I can't believe I left my keys here. I feel so stupid. I mean, I didn't think we would be coming back this late."

"Uh - huh."

"We were just going out to grab some dinner and the whole meeting went really bad and the next thing we knew it was nine o'clock. Man! So, we had to hurry back here and Allan dropped me off, but by that time it was like nine forty-five and it was wicked late. I didn't even realize my keys were still in my office until after he pulled out. SO embarrassing!"

"Hmm-hmm"

The lobby showed the same excess as the exterior of the building. There were huge black leather couches that were probably never used, next to marble tables with decorative trade magazines nobody ever read. There were live plants, not in simple pots but in marble planters built into the floor. The art on the walls was modern stuff, huge prints of concept paintings for space stations and orbital platforms. Another print seemed to be a montage depicting the cure of cancer. There were several massive cylinder lights - large enough to contain a man - that were suspended from the high ceiling from lines so thin they could only be seen when the light caught them just right. They flooded the lobby with potent white light, obliterating the possibility of shadows.

Deck continued lamenting his day that never happened. The guard bobbed his head, trying to acknowledge that he heard, without the risk of possibly encouraging further conversation.

Deck sized up his opponent as the two of them walked together. He was carrying a real sidearm and not a stunner, which was rare. Guns were pretty much illegal for everyone but the police, and for TriOp to gain firearm permits for all of its security forces must have cost a great deal. The guard walked carefully, not letting Deck fall behind him. His right hand never strayed far from his weapon, but never got so close that it might cause alarm.

The two of them reached the back door and the guard turned to Deck, waiting for him to open the door.

The problem here for Deck was, he really didn't have any way of opening this door yet.

"Oh! Keys!", he said, still grinning, as if he had forgotten what they were doing. He began to search through his pockets and came up with the same keychain he had offered the guard before. He frowned at them, realizing they were not the "right" keys.

"Here... hold these a second?", he said, offering the keys dangling from the plastic keychain in his hand as he continued to go though his pockets with his other hand.

The guard hesitated, not knowing why he would need to hold this stupid set of keys, but then reached out and took them. As his hand touched the metallic surface, their eyes met for a brief second. Deck jabbed a button on the keychain that delivered a micro-pulse of electrical energy similar to the impulses used by the human nervous system. The result was a spastic convulsion from the guard as he toppled over.

Deck glanced out through the windows to the street, to see if anyone had taken obvious notice. The street looked pretty clear. He hated the brightly lit lobby, elevated in front of the street for any passerby to see. It was like being on stage, and the last thing he wanted right now was an audience.

The guard had conveniently fallen beside a couch so that his body could not be seen from the street.

Deck sized up the door that led to the main offices. It was featureless, save for the smooth black panel (probably a palm scanner) with a small keypad and keyhole underneath. The keypad was alphanumeric, so the correct password could be any combination of letters or numbers of any length. The keyhole was a flat slot - obviously for electronic keys and not something that could be picked. Deck was guessing it unlocked the keypad. So to get in, you needed to have either the correct hand, or the right key and the proper password. Using the palm reader was out of the question. Deck wasn't about to lug the guard's body over to the door and try to get his hand onto the reader. Some passerby outside would almost certainly notice. Besides, it was doubtful someone of the guard's low position would be allowed the luxury of using the hand scanner - a privilege usually reserved for executives.

Deck checked the guard's keychain and found a number of electronic keys. Each was a flat, transparent piece of plastic with a tiny strand of metallic ribbon running though its surface in a specific pattern. Deck tried each one until the keypad lit up. Now all he needed was the password.

The reception desk was a massive wood and marble edifice that dominated the rear of the lobby. The back wall of its sunken desktop contained seven display screens. The three on each side were cycling through various external surveillance views, while the larger center screen simply showed the triangular TriOptimum Logo. He assumed it was a slave screen for portables.

He took his rig and a slender backpack out of the briefcase and tossed the briefcase aside.

He retrieved a roll of duct tape from his backpack. As he rolled the guard over onto his stomach he was met with an overpowering stench. The guard's bowels and bladder had let go after being hit with the pulse stunner - a common side effect. Deck took the tape and quickly wrapped the hands, feet, and the guard's mouth. Once the guard was secure, Deck relieved him of his sidearm.

Deck didn't really know how to use a gun very well. He didn't usually carry one because it was just extra bulk, and they were really expensive. The whole point of doing his job was to get what he wanted without ever needing a gun. He wouldn't be able to move around the city with it, so he decided to hang onto it until he got out of the building. Traveling though the streets with it would be suicide anyway.

He dropped his rig onto the reception desk and powered it up. The keyboard was a smooth, flat surface with a series of tightly arranged squares bearing letters and symbols according to the standard Dvorak layout. As it started up, each square bubbled outward. The surface of the keyboard felt like bubble-wrap beneath the fingers, yet each key gave with a satisfying click.

Most users preferred keyboards that offered some sort of tactile feedback. It increased typing speed and reduced mistakes if the user could feel the boundaries of each key with their fingers. On the other hand, keys that protruded from the surface of the unit were usually a liability for hackers because of the increased volume and physical breaking hazard.

The bubble keys were a nice compromise, although they cost quite a bit. Deck had been a member of the flat keyboard way of thinking for a long time, which valued compact and durable over a few keystrokes per minute of typing speed. However, he saw a chance to have the best of both worlds when he set out to build the ultimate rig. Compared to the tremendous amount of money spent on the internal components, the small fortune spent on the keyboard was trivial.

The rig was unnaturally heavy. Most portables were the size of a compact keyboard, which meant they were mostly empty space. Usually they had to be weighted down a bit so that they didn't seem flimsy, and would remain still while the user was typing. Deck's machine was an exception. He'd filled its volume with banks of storage and processing units. He had spent months buying components and putting them together to build this thing. It was almost a hundred times more powerful than the average rig, and he was going to need all of that power to get the job done.

The machine represented several months' worth of income, most of which he still owed to a number of ruthless and increasingly impatient lenders. Even worse, he had wasted a great deal of money in the construction of the thing. It was far too powerful to be legal, and so there was no real guide on how to build a machine like this. Many processors had been burned out or overloaded in the process. In the end, he had thrown away almost as much as he had successfully put into use. He tried not to think about the money when he used the unit, since it would only serve as a terrifying distraction.

The center screen on the desk lit up as it detected the nearby portable. The two devices negotiated for a second or two and then the screen became the display for his machine.

Attached to his rig Deck had a Universal Interface Unit - an almost completely mis-named device, since it would only interface with a small set of compatible devices. When the UIU was first released a number of years earlier, it was boasted as the last interface device anyone would ever need. It would connect any two network-enabled devices and allow them to operate together, assuming you had the right software. They could exchange information, share displays, and even share memory and storage. Again: assuming you had the right software. It had great marketing, but not so great technology. There was a lot of network-enabled stuff manufacturers didn't want everyone connecting to and possibly hacking. ATM's, payphones, and utility meters suddenly needed special shielding and encryption to protect them from a UIU. The software for connecting to legitimate commercial products never really surfaced. Pretty soon the only people who really used them were hackers. It didn't take long for UIU's to get banned, but not before a black market of the things emerged to supply the technology hungry counter-security culture.

Keypads were smart enough to know that if someone was entering passwords at a rate faster than humans could type, or if the user was entering a lot of bogus codes, then it was probably being hacked. It would then lock itself down and trip the local alarm. Deck had written some software for his UIU to enable it to analyze keypads by searching their memory for valid codes or passwords without actually trying all of the codes. The only drawback was that it took a long time. The keypad's memory would almost certainly be encrypted, and would need to be deciphered before the code could be extracted. This internal encryption would have to be fairly light or else it would slow the device down too much for it to function properly. In theory, his overpowered machine should be able to break it in under half an hour.

Deck took the UIU from his rig and taped it over the surface of the keypad with the duct tape. The surface of the UIU was battered and covered with old tape residue and grime from all of the other devices it had been attached to during its long and useful career.

Deck sat down at his rig, which acted as the interface for the UIU. He fired up KEYPDBRUTE, a program he designed for just this sort of job. However, he didn't want to have to wait for this to finish. The UIU was just insurance, in case he couldn't get the password by other means.

He checked the front desk for a button that would "buzz" employees in. It was an unlikely long shot - since it would negate all the security on the door - but he still had to check. On the underside of the desk he found a small red button, which he assumed was a security alarm. A "buzzer" would most likely be more obvious, and not colored red. Either way, he wasn't about to press it and find out.

On his rig he had stored everything he knew about TriOp, including the employee roster for this office. He brought it up and scanned though the list. He needed someone high enough on the company food chain to have the keypad code, but low enough to be easily intimidated. Anyone in middle management would be a good target. He scanned the list and found the person with the most distant address. He looked up their phone number and dialed using the phone on the reception desk.

"Hello?", came a wary voice. This guy obviously wasn't used to getting phone calls at 10:30pm.

Deck adopted his best arrogant prick voice for this one, "Is this Neil Paulson?"

"Yeah, who is-"

"I'm Richard Holgate, personal assistant to Lawrence Diego", Deck paused for a second to let the name of TriOptimim's CEO to sink in. "I'm trying to collect the copyright documents needed for Mr. Diego's Tokyo trip. That information was supposed to be overnighted to him yesterday. So I'm here at your office looking for it and I notice everyone is gone for the day." He seethed with indignant anger.

"Well I don't -"

"I can get it myself, but you need come in and open the lobby door for me."

"Come in to the office right now?", his voice was nervous and shaken. He didn't want to piss "Richard" off, but he also didn't want to drive an hour just to open a door.

"Richard" sighed to show how patient he was trying to be, "YES. You. Come in. Right Now. How else would you suggest I get in?", Deck hoped he wasn't over-playing it. If he did, the guy might actually come in, and then he would have a whole new set of problems to deal with.

"Look", Neil said, trying to gain some sort of composure, "How do I know you're really -"

Deck cut him off again, "Oh Yes", he began in a sarcastic voice, "I broke into our branch office so I could sit at the front desk and talk to YOU" Deck knew that Neil could look down at his display and see that the call was indeed coming from the office.

After a brief pause Neil relented, "I'm sorry, I... I'm on my way - I can be there in an hour."

Crap. This was not what Deck wanted.

"What? I need in NOW. I don't want to be waiting around here all night for you to show up.", he snapped. "Look... isn't there.. isn't there just a password or something?" Deck knew he was pushing it now. His target might catch on if he was too explicit.

"Well, you can use my password, but you need a key and I - "

Deck cut him off again, "I have my key, I just need a stupid password. Look, can you help me or do I have to call...", Deck glanced down at his screen to find Neil's boss, "Mr. Price and get him up as well?"

Neil crumbled, "No, no - I have it right... right here." Deck heard the shuffling of papers on the other end. After a few seconds, "It's Z-9-0-P-D-4-0-4-4-L".

Deck typed this into his rig before replying, "You didn't just read that off of a piece of paper did you? Why do we spend all of this money on a secure lock when you idiots just write your passwords down where anyone can read them?"

"I'm... I'm sorry I thought -", he blurted out.

Deck hung up on him.

He moved over to the door and stabbed the guard's key into the lock. Again the keypad lit up and Deck moved the UIU out of the way to enter the password.

There was a long, annoying pause before the screen displayed:

INVALID PASSWORD

Deck winced. He guessed that the keys and passwords went together. So, he either needed the guard's password or Neil's key.

It occurred to him that perhaps the guard was just as careless with his password as Neil had been. After replacing the UIU he retrieved the guard's wallet and emptied it out on the reception desk. He looked at every card in the wallet, but didn't find anything that looked like a password. He pocketed the $50 or so the guard had been carrying and returned the wallet to his reeking pants.

He felt a vague stab of guilt at lifting the cash. Last year, it would have been beneath him. He used to pride himself that he only stole from corporations, not people. Being broke and desperate over the past few weeks had shaken his standards.

Deck checked his rig to see how the decryption was going. There were a number of common fast-encryption schemes used by various password devices. His program had managed to determine which one was in use, and was currently offering an estimate of 174.3 minutes.

Deck stopped the program. There was no way he could stay here for another twenty minutes without getting caught, much less three hours. He started up a different program, called KEYPDSRCH3. He took Neil's password and fed it to his program, and then set it to work on the keypad. Now that he knew one password, he could use that piece of information to help him decrypt the rest. Since he knew what one fragment of memory should look like (the password Neil gave him) he could have his program look for that specific string of values. Once this was found, the program would have enough information to decrypt the rest of the keypad's memory. It was still looking for a needle in a haystack, but now the program knew how to tell a needle from hay.

The program started up and after a few moments offered a time estimate of 17.5 minutes. These estimates were notoriously inaccurate. It was really like trying to predict how long it takes to catch a fish. However, the program could look at how fast it was interfacing with the device, how much memory it needed to scan, what type of encryption was in place, and how strong the encryption was, and come up with a very rough estimate.

17.5 minutes was still too long.

This type of program functioned better if it had more information to work with. Deck could speed things up a lot if he had just a little more data. Using the needle-in-a-haystack analogy, this would be like making the needle bigger and thus easier to find. He decided to gamble. He assumed that the plastic keys were related to employee number, and that employee numbers were tied to the passwords. Therefore, the employee number could be next to the password in memory. The risk was, if he was wrong the entire search would run all the way to the end and never find a match. If he was right, the search would be much faster.

He looked up the guard's employee number in his database and entered it into KEYPDSRCH3. After a few moments the program gave a time estimate of 6.7 minutes.

This was it. He had been sitting in the lobby, in full view of everyone on the street for almost half an hour. If KEYPDSRCH3 failed he was going to have to bail. That would mean several weeks of preparation down the tubes. Even worse, nobody was paying him for this gig. He was hacking TriOp for his own purposes, and paying for everything himself. It would be weeks before he pulled together enough money to try again. Even worse, he would probably have to try a different branch of TriOp, since it would be suicide to try here again. That would mean more money, temporary relocation expenses... He shook his head. He needed to keep his mind on the moment.

Deck stood up and looked around the lobby. The guard was still out, and should stay that way for another hour if the keychain stunner had done its job.

He stepped behind a pillar to hide himself from the eyes of the street. He stripped off the suit he was wearing to reveal the black bodysleeve underneath. It was a semi-tight 'jumpsuit' with thick knee and elbow pads built in, along with some light padding in various other key areas. It was a favorite among people who skated, or spent a lot of time running from various security and law-enforcement groups. (There was often a lot of overlap between the two groups.) The other appealing aspect about the bodysleeve was that it had pockets - lots of them.

Deck ripped the rest of the gear out of his backpack and dropped it into various pockets where he would be able to find them quickly. He slipped the handgun into the built-in holster on his left thigh. It was made for holding tools or equipment, but the elastic straps were just the right size to keep a firm hold on a handgun.

Suddenly the speaker mounted on the guard's shoulder came to life, barking out a message that was mostly unintelligible static.

Deck froze. He figured it was some sort of central security station requesting the guard to check in. He had investigated the building security for several days before making tonight's run, but he hadn't counted on guards checking in periodically. It was a clumsy oversight, and demonstrated just how sloppy he had been getting lately.

If the guard didn't answer, they would either sound an alarm or come looking for him themselves. Either way, he was screwed.

The burst of static came again, only this time more intelligible, "(garble) central. Check In. (garble) there?"

The building must have had a ton of shielding to mess up the signal that badly. Deck grabbed the vox from the guard's shoulder and brought it over to his rig. He quickly linked the data output from the UIU to the speaker and cranked the volume. The UIU was communicating using a standard radio signal, and turning it into a plain audio feed produced a sound that was a lot like modem noise. The small speakers on his rig spat out a high-pitched sound that resembled a combination of white noise, interference, and over-compression. He held the vox close to the speaker and thumbed the "talk" button.

"Checking in, all clear."

He hoped the noise was enough to cover the fact that his was the wrong voice.

He waited.

Thirty seconds later he decided they had either bought it or were on their way to pick him up. He turned off the vox and dropped it into a pocket.

There was no way to know what they were doing. If they were on their way, he needed to make a break for it right now if he wanted to have a shot at getting away.

Just then his rig lit up, and the door slid open.


7Foreword = Main Index = Search 8