Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Run, Part 1

This short story takes place in September, 2026, almost two years before the events depicted in Under the Amoral Bridge, almost a year before the Los Angeles Riots of 2027. Below is the first of two parts. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010.

September 26th, 2026
10:35 p.m.

The street terminal was being stubborn. 

Kris banged on the screen for good measure but the goddamn term wouldn’t let him access sysop privileges. He could access the normal options menu, a neon blue court jester mocking him with the promise of a payoff. The words “Banking” and “Taxi” and “News” glowed uselessly in a plain white sans serifed font. “Come on you fuckin’ piece of square trash, give me the goods!” he half-whispered at it. Kroger diverted his attention from scanning the streets for cops long enough to give Kris a concerned glance. 

“Take it easy, Ov3rdIv3. Last thing we need is some zero getting suspicious.” Kroger was the older one, all of 18. Getting caught with would mean real jail for him, unless the quasi-legal corporate cops got to him first. Then he’d probably just get his ass kicked. Kris was 15… No, wait, he was 16. In a flash of regretful clarity, he remembered that today was his sixteenth birthday.

Kroger and Kris had been living on the streets of Los Angeles for almost six months now, though Kris couldn’t be sure how long exactly. The Warehouse District was an ugly place for the hardest of criminals, but somehow he and Kroger had managed to survive. Every three or four days, they’d have to hit a street term to replenish their cash card. If they got really lucky, they could crack a database or two, download some juicy information they could sell to Kroger’s information broker. They’d lived like kings the week they’d lifted that memo from Cendar Ventures detailing the purchase of the company by megacorp Chronosoft. Share price had gone through the roof short-term, and Angela always paid top-dollar for short-term stock tips. She’d given them enough cash for a week’s worth of mescatripizine. 

The drug mescatripizine, more commonly known on the street as Trip had become a third entity in the pair’s friendship. It was the driving need of their lives, more important than the vague hunger and the revolving fleabag coffin hotels. They needed the Trip like oxygen. Netruns were almost pedestrian without it, a dull, droning, sluggish hell that only served to remind them how awesome the GlobalNet could be with the heavenly mana of the Trip. Their reflexes were faster. Their NetBodies were stronger. With Trip, no databank was impenetrable. They were data-fueled supermen. Without it, they were merely good hackers with shaky hands.

Kris’s hands were shaking now, though he couldn’t tell if it was from the lack of food, nervous excitement or the day and a half he’d been without a hit. He couldn’t think clearly. This was a street terminal. Grandmothers could crack this thing. He deserved an easy score. It was his birthday, after all. It’s not like he was going to get cake and all that shit. Dad had probably sent him an email, dogging him for not taking that stupid intern position with Chronosoft. Fucking shill. Cake and candles and some weak-ass punch and everybody looking at him, wondering what he was going to do with his life. Screw that.

“Give me that card, I’m gonna fuck this thing up!” Kroger looked down at him. He was a good four inches taller then Kris, and even more gaunt. His dark mane of hair, shaved on the right side up to the crown of his head, looked matted and dirty. Kris thought they might have showered yesterday, but it might well have been the day before. Kroger reached in his blue Crenelli jacket, some designer label he’d bought after the Cendar score, with a greasy smudge of something on the right elbow, from when they’d been dumpster hopping for old cash cards and laid the flat slab of plastic in Kris’s hand. 

The terminal accepted credit and cash cards, as well as some forms of data storage cards. Most had GlobalNet upload abilities, but with severe content restrictions. But they could be fooled. The card Kris had contained a short-term virus, meant to “jiggle the locks” on the terminal. It would fry the security system long enough for Kris to gain root access. From there, he could open the maintenance port on the back of the machine that would allow him to jack directly into the GlobalNet with the interface port surgically implanted at the base of his skull. He’d have ten minutes at best to pull off whatever job he could manage. By then, the term’s owners would be alerted to the presence of the virus and commence lockdown. Shortly after that, a flesh team would show up to check the exterior of the box while a live team would access it from the GlobalNet. The pair needed to be blocks away when that happened. 

Kris jammed the card in the reader slot with a “Suck on this, bitch!” A new menu appeared on screen, with the additional options of “Email” and “Upload.”  He chose upload and activated the virus. The screen flashed for a moment, went black, then a new menu opened up. “Root! This bitch is ours!”

“Hurry up, OD, we ain’t got much time,” Kroger said. “Pop the port.” 

A tiny port about belt high on the left side of the box opened at Kris’s command. This maintenance port was used to interface with the live team on the GlobalNet or the software innards of the term’s programs. Inside was a tiny bundle of fiber-optic cables and a net interface plug. “You sure you want me to do this, Kroger? That Trip is long gone.” 

Kroger held up his hand. It shook even worse than Kris’s. “You got more than me, bro. Get in there and grab some good shit. I ain’t sleeping on a park bench tonight, a’ight?”

“Goin’ in hot, then. Don’t let nobody buttfuck my slab while I’m in there.” Kris reached to the back of his neck, feeling the cold round circle of metal and plastic. The skin around it was rough and scarred. The surgery had not been neat or cheap. He’d grown his hair to his shoulders in the months before getting the surgery, hoping to hide the plug from his parents. It was illegal even having a port if you were under age 16, but there was no shortage of sawbones who’d plug anyone up for the right price. He fumbled with the plug before finding the slot and jamming the plug home. Felt the tinge of pent-up static electricity as the plug touched the metal base. His ears popped as the connection initialized.

The sensation of speed was incredible. If his NetBody had eyes or fluids, he knew that he’d tear up just from the rush of air preceding his entry into the GlobalNet. He felt weightless, without body, substance or form for nanoseconds before a phantom sensation of physicality returned. The terminal was slow. He’d once been able to cruise the Net in a crèche that a friend of his had back in the Burbs. Riding a term was like riding a bike. A crèche was a luxury sports car with rocket fuel. But only rich kids and corporate runners could afford a crèche. Kroger and he always dreamed about that one big score and the sweet crèche’s they’d buy with it. But for now, he was stuck riding dinky street terms to nickel and dime databanks. 

He acclimated himself, looking over his NetBody. Silver, like liquid mercury, the NetBody responded to his thoughts, shifting shape at his whim. He was surrounded by the transparent internal menus of the street term, and sparse pockets of data stored locally on the term. The term’s internal dimensions were cozy like a coffin, but there were multiple ports leading out into the wider GlobalNet. He ran one diagnostic on his NetBody; cohesion was good. He had packed a few programs into his cheap storage unit, enough to crack some smaller databanks. A sword attack program. A stealth program, for disguising himself as part of in-going or outgoing data streams. A decoy virus that he could send to strike at remote parts of a databank away from the point of his own attack. That would send security assets scrambling to contain the virus while Kris went about his business in the databank. The fourth was a communicator, so that he could hear Kroger talking to his body. The fifth was his datagrab program, made to extract data, truncate it into a few hundred pieces and scatter those pieces in multiple places over the GlobalNet, storing what it could locally. Once any heat was off, he could reconstitute the data into one aggregate and do with it what he needed. 

He wasn’t going to be very effective against live opponents, but if he did this right, he wouldn’t be facing any. Kris activated the comm. While in the Net, the body’s senses were effectively cut off from the NetBody’s consciousness. He could take a beating out in the real world and never know it until he jacked out. The comm would simulate the auditory stimulation of the real world, allowing Kroger to tell him when it was time to scatter. It usually had a time delay of a few seconds, as the processor in his head just wasn’t fast enough to perform the function in real-time. 

He dialed up the term’s GlobalNet mapping program, inputting a search algorithm that would give him a few addresses. He was looking for something with money behind it. The kind of sift and sort run he was on tonight would hopefully net him either bank accounts he could skim or some kind of corporate insider information he could sell. The former was usually more instantly lucrative, but the latter was easier to find. Even after decades of hacker culture and the ubiquity of the GlobalNet, there were plenty of brain dead middle managers that didn’t know how to secure their email. 

The search came back quickly with sixteen potential targets. He immediately nixed six of them as being too well protected or too likely to contain only chump change. Another four were from targets that were way too high profile. Trying to crack Chronosoft and Network 7 databanks would only get the heat on him faster than he could react. The last six looked promising. Two small-time banks, a home entertainment equipment company, and three independent movie studios. He flipped a coin in his head and landed on one of the banks. Maybe he could even get the term to spit out some cash with a fake trace on it. 

The banks closest branch was in Inglewood, but he didn’t want to take that avenue. Too close physically. He pulled up the location that was farthest away, some place in New Mexico. Forty-two seconds had elapsed since he’d jacked in. He didn’t have much time, so he began to bounce his location off of only five or six false trails. Maybe one day he’d have time enough to disguise his trail with enough false hits to be completely untraceable, but tonight was not that night. He’d need his own crèche for that.

He liked hitting the smaller banks. People never used cash anymore. It was just as traceable as credit and corporate accounts, even more so because of how few people used it. As a result, the only people who ever tried to knock over banks physically were idiots with hand cannons and “Born to Die” tattooed across their chests. But hackers, hackers hit them all the time. A hacker who knew what he was doing could make off with thousands in almost untraceable credit on a good night. On a bad night, he might find information on loans or money shifts that rumor brokers sought. That part of the scores was tough, because it was all about the connections. Nothing was ever worth it at face value, unless you made the connections. 

He could use information like a CEO applying for a loan, which he could leverage into a takeover. Middle managers shifting stock options from one company to another in anticipation of a stock dive. Dummy companies being incorporated to funnel funds from one place to another. There was always something you could fence to the rumor brokers, if you got it quick enough. Information had a shelf life that could sometimes be measured in seconds. But if he was really lucky, he could get cash.

He rode the datastream, his life span measured in nanoseconds. From Los Angeles to a college in South Dakota, from the tourist data bank for the St. Louis Arch to a candy maker’s discussion room in Denver, from a street term in some town in Utah he couldn’t pronounce and finally to the branch in New Mexico. It was all pulses, blips on the IP map of the world. He missed the Trip. Trip made being digital so sharp and focused, the pulse of data in your veins almost hurt. GlobalNet data was beautiful sober, but on Trip, he was coursing through the bloodstream of God. 

He had no time to examine the gigantic puzzle box of cubes that was the branch’s databank. They looked like obsidian blocks, light reflecting off of them in glimmers and twinkles. He stayed hooked to the datastream he’d rode in on, activating his stealth program. It made his appearance mimic the data surrounding him. It worked against most non-sentient port scanners. A live operator would probably spot him instantly. That was another reason he liked hitting small banks. They couldn’t afford enough operators, and their databanks were huge. One or two operators could not be everywhere at once. 

The incoming port looked like an iris, constantly opening and closing. It shimmered with a constant pulse of light, scanning every bit of data that entered. Bits that were rejected were sent skimming along the cube’s surface, to be returned to sender and logged. Kris checked his time. 77 seconds. His virtual skin tickled as the port’s light scan hit him. It was over almost before he registered it. He was in. 

Kris grappled himself to the inside wall of the databank, accessing an internal system map. Locating accounts, he entered a new datastream, still under cover of the stealth program. Another port scanned him in vain. This bank was a cherry. It seemed all too accepting of duplicate data. As he entered the account databank, he began pinging accounts, trying to find an open corporate account with liquid assets. He didn’t mind ripping off some little old lady from Santa Fe’s pension, but it wouldn’t be much of a score. In the nanoseconds that he waited for the search routine to return, he noticed a cloud of odd bits floating past him. 

Most data within the GlobalNet or databanks held a coherent pattern. To the observer, it took on a consistent yet amorphous shape. Occasionally, data would become corrupted and lose its coherency. However, it rarely hung around, as internal “trash collection” would clean it up, defrag the storage medium where it had resided and virtual life would go on much as before. And then there were the remains. 

Hackers had often spoken about the remains of another hacker’s NetBody. When a hacker ran across another hacker, there was usually a fight. These fights rarely lasted more than a few seconds real-time. Using their custom programs, and good old-fashioned ingenuity, hackers would duel like two gladiators, swinging weapons that grew from their NetBodies. Thrust and counter thrust would end with the victor enjoying the spoils, while the loser got knocked offline. In some cases, the loser had physical injuries to go along with his bruised pride and failed run. Death, though rare, did happen. 

But the winner always described the remains of his opponent’s NetBody as floating bits of data, without coherence. These bits of what had been someone floated by Kris. His NetBody shivered with excitement and anticipation. An intruder had smoked either the bank’s operator, or had been smacked down by a pretty good operator. Kris was probably going to have to fight. 80 seconds. 

Data didn’t flow in random patterns; there were currents in the system, currents that could be read when tracing someone on the inside of a databank. Kris analyzed the approximate location the data bits had come from and vectored in on it. Whichever of the two had won, the hacker or the operator, they’d likely be weakened, vulnerable to surprise attack. It’d been eight days since Kris’s last net fight and he was spoiling for a good duel. Plus, if the survivor of the fight had been an intruder, he’d likely already found something worth taking. 

Remaining stealthed, Kris prepped his sword, which flowed from his arm, an extension of his thoughts as well as his NetBody. 91 seconds. He’d have to hurry. Hopefully, he’d only need a hit or two. Getting in a first sucker punch might end it quick but he was likely dead if the fight were extended. Entering the accounts cube, his target appeared on the horizon. The hacker’s NetBody hovered 236 degrees above Kris. The account datacube was huge, larger than Kris had expected. He hesitated for a moment, gathering in the size of the cube. It was twice as large as it should have been. Perhaps it was a linked databank? But linked from where? The bank’s assets weren’t large enough for it to need this much storage. He surveyed the data, gathering some diagnostic information from the system. 

Storage was at 90% capacity. Number of records was through the roof. His search had been for a bank with half the number of assets that the diagnostic was now showing him. This meant either his search was wrong or the bank was a front for something. 96 seconds. Banks fronted money for organized crime, shell corporations, governments and anyone else that needed tax dodges and anonymity. Kris considered bolting. The people likely to have money here were the kind of people that used other people’s lives like currency. Kris’s life wasn’t worth a penny to those types. 

Who better to steal from? 

The hacker was busy, each hand buried in an account, transferring information from one account to the other carefully. From a distance, it looked like a simple smash and grab. Kris followed his datastream closer to the hacker, preparing to strike. He had to be quick. As if from a distance, he could feel his heart rate quicken, a numbing hollow feeling on the edge of his consciousness. Closer now. The hacker took no notice, busily transferring bits from one hand to the other. Almost. 

The thrust was clean, completely catching the hacker off-guard. The sword thrust through the hacker’s kidney area almost severed him in half. Kris followed the move by attaching the datagrabber to the hacker’s NetBody, gathering as much information as he could about the hacker, including handle and location. Bragging rights were important, even for a sucker punch victory. He withdrew the sword from the hacker’s NetBody, spinning in a liquid pirouette. The hacker was quick to react, swinging blindly behind him. It missed by a mile. Kris’s second strike was enough to end it, a quick slash that severed his enemy’s head. The surprised hacker’s NetBody exploded into mercurial dissolution, drifting past Kris into nothingness. 103 seconds. 

Without pausing to savor his victory, Kris accessed the hacker’s last actions, trying to hook into the same accounts. The hesitation of the system as he accessed the account told him it was a big one. 105 seconds. He activated the datagrabber, preparing to siphon what he could out of the account. The data struck his vision like a lead pipe. It was big. The mother lode. 

“What was that?” he heard, through the static-filled haze of the hearing simulation. He barely registered the sound. The account had him hypnotized. Kris had never seen so many zeros, especially not in his virtual hands. He pulled up a display of the last few transactions, trying to get a sense of what the hacker had been stealing. 112 seconds. 

An extensive list of tiny transactions, no more than a few hundred dollars each, had been activated on the account. Each seemed to go nowhere and everywhere at once, cycling through a random series of other accounts. The hacker had been taking money, all right, and lots of it. The thefts were in amounts so small they would ignored by any but the most thorough of searches. He grabbed the destination account numbers; they were likely dummies. It didn’t matter. Given enough time, he could track the real account or accounts behind them. Since he had the runner’s handle as well, it’d be even easier to trace. Then something happened. 

The first transaction disappeared. Then the second. Like dominoes, they began to fall, blinking out of the list as if they’d never been there. Suddenly, money that had been there no longer was. Even worse, for anyone looking at the accounts, there was no way to know where it had gone or that it had ever existed in the first place. He watched the balance drop, as more transactions began firing off. Whatever the runner had unleashed, it was still running. He kicked off a transfer of his own. Money began funneling from the account to the street term he was hooked into, dumping down onto the smart card he’d used to hack the term. Though finding the mystery had been fun, he needed some scratch a bit more than a brainteaser. 126 seconds. 

“OH SHIT, GET OUT!” were the last words he heard from the hearing simulation, followed by a crack crack. White light flooded his perception, followed by a piercing screech as his connection was terminated. 

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