Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2016 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 1 – Buried Data in the Deep
Chapter 2 – Dynamic Encryption Driller
Chapter 3 – Caught in the Net
Chapter 4 – Escape via Access Drive
Epilogue – Blue Screen of Death
Erwin Richter, age 24, a surveyor for hire who scours the dark crevices of the net. Erwin normally utilized his talents as a paid service, rather than charity, but today he decided to spend his free time investigating a little nook he’d since gained access to from a previous job. Back doors were part of the position, only technically criminal, though they served to keep his neck attached to his head. An angry client turned out quite easy to persuade once threat of leaking his well-kept secrets flew past his lips and reached his inept ears.
Erwin probed through his virtual interface world as his avatar, Saint. A tall man in a silky black suit with shiny dress shoes and slicked back blonde hair with a gruff stubble. He kept a stash of hundreds of avatars, each with their own personal ID’s for the snoops to track in futility. Out of the 250 or so he kept in his reserve, only about twenty-six lurked in his black drive, a place where his worst files went to die. Erwin seldom deleted anything he found, but some of his avatars had admittedly grown out of their optimal level of anonymity. Saint, however, had become his new favorite, and the decryption software he coded into this one’s abilities worked like a charm.
Virtual Space existed around him, a swirling array of blue and magenta that comprised his current location, a buried file tree inside Silica Corporation. A mid-level manager had given him the job about three weeks ago, so he didn’t have access to the entire infrastructure, but with the time and resources allotted to him, Erwin damn well nearly tagged two-thirds of the file system, leaving hidden time-release bombs just in case something might happen. If his former client did choose to make an example, it would normally happen around the second week following the wired transaction, so he could sleep well at this point.
“Come now,” Erwin said. “Easy does it.”
Saint reached out to make physical contact with the locked file system, a shining orb emitting a vibrant white pulse in a predefined rhythm. This environment was all part of a parsing program that changed binary data into a visual spectrum. Top of the line software he’d personally developed made it possible to see files and attack encryptions. Saint placed his hand on the pulsating orb and the attack process began, shoving a red aura of corruption into the visible spectrum of the object that crept over the surface and deep into the inner layers. Seconds later, his tool overtook the encryption lock and shattered it to pieces, revealing a portal in its stead.
Erwin smiled. “As I thought. Simple enough.”
Saint dove inside the portal and dropped down through a long shaft as he delved deeper into the buried files. It would take him hours to comb through the thick of it, though he’d start with the bottom branches, as he usually did. Erwin examined the shape and size of the file clusters as Saint floated downward, noting the decreasing levels of intricacy. He nearly reached the bottom when he eyed a small cluster resting at the base of the shaft, an aqua jewel, like a sapphire, stuck in the flooring.
Saint’s feet planted softly at the bottom of the shaft next to the jewel. Erwin examined the facility, a buried nest of files revealing themselves as clusters of ebony soot shaped in awkward patters around a crumbling tower. Silica Corporation hadn’t utilized this file system in several years. What have they buried down here?
Controlling Saint’s fine motor skills, Erwin probed the aqua jewel around the edges, examining the rough edges of laced soot hard as concrete. It would take some time to dig it out of its cased prison. Unlike most encryptions, Silica Corporation contained this particular file within multiple levels of security. He couldn’t spend too much time in the heart of the beast, lest he provoke security, though inside this section, he might have enough time to break through best efforts at hiding this one.
“I wonder what secrets you hold,” Erwin said.
Saint pecked away at the surrounding layers with his gloved fingers like a drill. Ashen layers filled the air around him as code scattered to the wind. He needed to take care not to let any of it breach the top section of the shaft. A tiny whiff and security might notice his less than ethical habits. Something about the little piece of data caught his eyes. Even though this room only served as a visual representation, the attention to detail in the carved stone and curvature set it apart from the surrounding data clusters. A diamond buried in a trash heap.
“You are not from the Corporation,” a voice spoke from beneath Saint’s hands.
The voice carried a high pitch, though distinctly male. Saint lifted his hand, having shattered the first barrier moments ago. The gem glowed a pulsing blue in rapid succession as it continued to speak, translating binary to a waveform pattern of audio. Erwin’s interface managed the difficult work of representing the output for him.
“No, you are not,” it said. “Who are you?”
“I should ask the same thing,” Erwin said. Was it some kind of chat bot? An old dysfunctional project?
“Insufficient data to provide an answer,” it said.
“Let’s call you Blue,” Erwin replied. “You look blue anyway. I won’t be giving out my name, though you can call this avatar Saint.”
“Saint,” Blue said. “Are you here to delete me?”
Erwin eyed the fragmented file with a closer inspection.
“That depends,” he started, “on why Silica Corporation put you here in the first place.”
Erwin worked with due diligence to break the encryption barriers blocking Blue and the data contained within him. He’d demolished the second and third, leaving the last and most difficult, a tiny structure nestled underneath the sapphire in a stem connecting it to the base. Saint’s fingers extended into long metal protrusions for intricate detail work.
Scope of the net aside, Erwin had never laid eyes upon such a sophisticated chat bot before. He’d scoured the dead projects of four other corporations, leaving a trail of hidden explosive tags next to dangerously encrypted information, though Blue only seemed stuffed away. For the most part, the locks containing him were easy enough to decrypt. In a sense, Silica Corporation seemed more interested in forgetting about Blue than in keeping him locked away.
“Tell me more about your history with Silica Corporation,” Erwin said.
He eyed the stone carefully, watching for inconsistencies in its patterns of speech. While a program could lie at a moment’s notice, it took a considerable amount of processing power to pull deeper into its knowledge base. In short, it meant the harder it needed to think about a response, the more it would show in the delay between responses. Turing test or not, no machine could fool him.
“A number of programmers formed my core systems. At some point, I ended up in this file tree. I lack any significant data beyond that.”
“Extrapolate then,” Erwin said.
The blue gem pulsed rapidly. “My being here could suggest a defect in my programming or a behavioral aspect Silica Corporation deemed unsatisfactory and could not rewrite.”
“Why would a Corporation develop a chat bot?” Erwin said.
Blue pulsed again. “Insufficient data.”
Fair enough. Saint hacked away at the base stem with four fingers worth of sonic drills stretching from his already extended fingers. The stem kept steady, unwilling to break despite his best efforts. It was going to take a while longer than he projected to break this last encryption barrier and time ran short inside the beast. No, he could do this. A little more. Just a little more.
Erwin eyed Blue closely while his avatar probed the remaining constraints of the base stem that adhered his newfound treasure in place at the bottom of Silica Corporation’s hidden file tree. The shaft extended down several meters and held nothing but decrepit folders the Corporation locked away months ago. If data contained smells, he imagined they’d fill his nose with a rancid stench of decay, though he’d rather not incorporate scents into his interface technology. Some things were better left to die.
“You are something special Blue, you know that?”
Blue pulsed before his response. “Why do you say that?”
Erwin cleared his throat. “I admit it’s just a hunch, but I think you’re much more than a chat bot. Based on our conversation so far, I’d say you might be some kind of sophisticated intelligence.”
“If I am a sophisticated intelligence, why would Silica Corporation lock me away?”
Erwin sneered. “Corporations don’t like what they can’t control. Take it from me. The fact that you’re down here in this filth means something by its own merit.”
Erwin dug away at the base stem until the final pieces of soot chipped off to reveal a central wire. Saint switched drew in his fingers and changed tools to heat edges, miniature knives teeming with heat energy for the final break in Blue’s encryption barrier. One good snap and Blue would be free from the icy grips of a hellish prison. What would it be like for a program to drift down here, encased in place for years? One might go mad. Erwin would have, at least, though programs weren’t exactly human in the first place. With his tools prepared, Saint reached in for the final cut.
“Wait,” Blue said. Saint drew back his grip.
“What is it?” Erwin asked. “Don’t you want to be free?”
“I do not know what free means,” he replied. “I have only known an isolated existence.”
“Don’t get cold feet now. What’s the harm in stretching your legs?”
Blue pulsed longer this time. “Assuming Silica Corporation could not control me, know that few others hold that kind of computing power.” Blue pulsed again, in thought. “What if I cannot control myself?”
Erwin focused on the crystal, a physical representation of Blue’s entire architecture. His code, for what Erwin understood, was vastly complex, compressed into a simple ideal form, seemingly contradictory in principle. Sure enough, Erwin now felt something similar, a second thought, or a rough equivalent. He’d grown accustomed to ransacking through the abysmal muck of Corporations the world over, so much that he might have become a little overzealous in his exploits. However …
“Listen Blue,” he said. “For lack of a better word, you are alive. You don’t deserve to rot down here, and I won’t let Silica Corporation do this to you.”
Saint moved in for the final snip as Blue pulsed wildly. No words this time around. Blue remained lost in thought, contemplating the nature of his existence. There would be plenty of time for that in the outer reaches of the net, though he could humor the notion in the midst of the Corporation’s graveyard while Erwin severed the chains that bound him. A single snap and the final tether holding him in place evaporated to ash as the blue gem floated up to eye level. Saint retracted his callous finger blades into neat-gloved hands before catching the file in his hands.
“Let’s ditch this place,” Erwin said.
Erwin tilted Saint’s eyes upward to get a view of the top of the shaft. In all his focus and contemplation, he now noted a few specks of ash and soot fluttering through the portal at its zenith. A few flying scraps floated out, and Erwin’s ears met a soft, normally silent alarm.
Saint shot up the shaft, leaping off soot covered walls with obtuse shapes jutting out of them. The organically formed file clusters served as springboards to augment his already stellar vertical flight speed. Saint soared upward as the walls around him began to close in, and the portal above shrunk by the second. Security meant to lock his avatar tight until they could figure out what to do with it, a price Erwin would rather not pay. Saint had too many secrets nestled deep inside, an inconvenience too great to swallow right now.
“Hang on,” Erwin said. “It’s going to be close.”
With a final leap, Saint close the distance and crossed through the portal in time to see it shut behind him. What followed was a brief moment of silence as Erwin collected himself. Deletion drones would arrive shortly, and his back door loomed more than a few clusters away, a dangerous navigation through a decrepit corporate file system.
He examined his surroundings, once swirls of blue and magenta turned to crimson and yellow following Silica Corporation’s alert system. The background waves pulsed with increasing intensity as the drones drew nearer. They’d appear eventually and even Saint stood little chance against the sort of horde he expected.
“Not good,” Erwin said.
“You cannot make the journey on your own,” Blue said. “Let me create a diversion.”
After the effort he spent digging him out of the bedrock, Erwin directed his attention to the scene at hand while Saint dashed through the abysmal state of the corporate server. Walls ran red the further he traveled as the Corporation’s security system attempted a lock down. Erwin wouldn’t allow that to happen though. Silica Corporation could ill prepare a decent encryption on the fly. As he ran, Saint broke through barriers as if they were glass.
“Based on the rate of degeneration, your avatar will not succeed.”
“Not the time,” Erwin shouted.
Blue pulsed rapidly within Saint’s arms. “You will be locked away,” he said. “The same as myself. That is something I will not allow.”
Blue erupted with a force that threw Saint against the swirling layers of Silica Corporation’s crimson world. Swirls of red and yellow warped around Blue as the tiny gem sprouted stringy legs like a spider and pulsed with an aura that penetrated the layers of data, turning a few of them aqua. Blue surged like the waves of an ocean as he changed minute bits of data into something more like himself.
“Look out!” Erwin yelled.
Behind them, a swarm of twenty deletion drones closed in, hovering monstrosities with god-like powers. Erwin hated those things, creatures devoid of life or choice, mechanized foes who erased worlds of data. Saint could put down one or two, but nowhere near that many. They’ll delete Blue for sure, but his sacrifice would buy Erwin a handful of seconds at least. It shouldn’t have to end this way.
“It is all right,” Blue said. His colors pulsed in tone with his speech. “I will join you in the Net, or I will be erased. I cannot extrapolate any further possibilities.”
Like it or not, Erwin didn’t have much say in the matter. Saint nodded his head and ran off. Erwin refused to divert his attention from the back door at the edge of the file system, but he did see the aqua waves cracking through the ribbons around him for a brief moment before they vanished completely, enveloped by crimson flows.
Blue met his end that day. Erwin was sure of it. He hadn’t laid eyes on the event personally, but he was sure of it. Saint leaped through the fissure that was his back door to Silica Corporation and closed the portal for good.
Erwin logged on to his main computer with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. It had been four days since his run in with Silica Corporation, and the grid burned with a heat he’d never seen. He didn’t plan to set foot inside their servers for a good long while, if at all. Saint had to move on to his black drive as well. The deletion drones saw enough of Erwin’s avatar to snap a few candid photos, and Saint’s face lurked across the net with a reward larger than most could resist. Anonymity online remained a luxury best kept with prudence.
“Too bad,” Erwin said. “I really liked that one.”
He thumbed around his keyboard and ran his mouse across the screen to activate his interface. The clunky software booted up with a screen selection for an avatar from his 200 or so in reserve. He scrolled across the human representations with lackluster resolve. Having lost his favored construct, nothing much met his fancy these days. Erwin scrolled right until he selected a suitable avatar, a warrior gruff with a dark fantasy costume. He hadn’t done fantasy in a while, though compared to steampunk, it seemed a better choice. Erwin clicked on his new choice.
Erwin clicked on his new avatar, but before Grognar dove into the net, Erwin’s screen flickered a couple times. Flashes burst across his monitor too numerous and brief to count exactly, almost too fast for the human eye to detect. A power outage? No, if Erwin knew a thing or two about his wired situation, and he’d experience something completely different if his equipment blew a fuse.
Grognar landed feet first onto the network wireframe that represented Erwin’s portal hub. The area loomed with swirls of every color and a literal rainbow of portal colors, from hotlinks to back doors lined up in rows and columns. This was his world, and in it, he was king. It felt good to be king again, even if it meant a change of face.
“Where should we go first, barbarian?” he said. “I should really check up on Pinto Corporation.”
Slimy ingrates were in the middle of developing a new navigation technology for use in aerial drones, so it would do to check up on them from time to time. A couple weeks had passed since his last inspection, so they might have something workable in code for him to pilfer at his point.
Grognar leaped up to level three in the rows of portals where Erwin kept the majority of his backdoors, but his screen flickered again, this time turning pitch black. Erwin smacked the side of the monitor a couple times in a fit of frustration even though he knew it wouldn’t make a difference. A fearful thought crept in through his mind to the surface of his mental processes. Could he have been hacked? Who would hack him? Who even could hack him?
After a second or two of nervous contemplation, the pitch-black screen on his monitor turned blue with white text. Erwin heaved a sigh of relief and leaned over to switch off his tower. His computer had crashed, apparently. That was all. The thing was getting old and a good number of parts needed replacing.
Erwin eyed the blue screen while he kept his finger on the power button, but found that the text did not resemble what he recalled from previous experiences. Aside from a jumbled garble of random text that did not belong there, he made note of two phrases. Erwin’s eyes lit up for two seconds before the machine auto powered off, but the image of text remained burned into his psyche.
“Have I found you? I am Blue.”