Dark Spiral Publishing
- look beneath the surface of an ideal future at what can go terribly wrong

Arcology.com | Cybermaze | Null Session
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Future Tense

/ a novel by John Johnson /

10 - Jacked In

Aaron’s avatar was tall, dark and handsome. A sophisticated, suave spy, with black hair, swept back, and a bemused look on his face. A locked door stood between him and the rooftop. It was a backdoor exit from the complex, where he had just stolen codes to the mainframe in Sector Five.

He decided to use a brute force attack and kicked at the door. The heel of his foot impacted with the door, bending it before it flew off the hinges. The avatar ran forcefully onto the rooftop and searched for a way down. From the edge of the roof the city spread out before him. Lights on buildings blinked in all the primary colors and drivers sped by leaving trails of red light behind them. The city looked like a large circuit board from atop the hundred-story tower and solid geometric shapes hovered in layers above the city, with drivers zipping in and out of them. Ninjas in black pajamas came running from the stairwell. The avatar looked back at them and then dove into empty space.

As he fell, the wind swept past him and he reached behind him and felt a small piece of cloth. He pulled hard and threw the cloth, which expanded and tugged sharply, pulling free his chute. It unfurled and filled with air. He felt a jerk and the decent turned into a floating and gliding as he spiraled down to the street level, leaving the stunned ninjas far above him.

He set down on the pavement with a tap, cutting the chute and assessing his surroundings. Aaron’s avatar represented him in this space, and had been on the run for hours. He came in with the goal of breaking into the mainframe and he had fought his way through the first two levels – interrogating one NPC after another and breaking codes, solving puzzles and avoiding intrusion countermeasures, or ICE. In order to beat the competition and break into the mainframe before the time ran out, he had to find his way quickly to the central complex. The central complex was a huge yellow pyramid, surrounded by guards, hardened by ICE and filled with complex twists and turns. Even if he could make his way past the Samurai guards, and crack the ICE, he still needed to find the right path to the mainframe room – avoiding traps and dead ends.

Aaron’s avatar was known as Bob. He usually played the role of a spy; a sort of high-tech James Bond. He started the game with a silver suitcase full of high-tech spy gadgets that could be used to combat the ICE and solve puzzles and deceive the enemy. Over time, his toolkit improved and there was little he couldn’t overcome. He was quick and smart and knew the rules of the game. In a pinch, Aaron could turn the rules in his favor.

Aaron studied this game for many hours before actually meeting up on the net with the usual cyber combatants for a long online adventure. This game took on a cyberspace theme, as the player characters took on the role of cyber-hackers. In this sort of a game, the net was represented by buildings and roads and scenery. In sort of a ‘Tron’ surrealistic way. You could see data flow through routers and network infrastructure in the form of streaking vehicles. When the data reached its destination, it would present a pass to a guard at one of the buildings and enter. People, mostly non-player characters, also populated the game world. They walked, drove and ran from place to place. They also carried passes and were queried along the way by police, and at the buildings by various guards. Some buildings didn’t have guards, and others had armies. Some of the buildings were small huts and others towering edifices reaching into the dark data-filled sky. Sometimes the buildings gave an indication as to the data they held, but other times they projected an image that was illusory and totally unrepresentative of the treasures stored inside. The other illusion in the cyber-realm was distance. Space folded upon itself when it was convenient and small buildings could house a stadium full of data containers.

Bob glanced at his digital watch long enough to see that the game clock was ticking down. He had to make it to the checkpoint before his time ran out so he could recharge, or the game would be over. He started running fast along the street, his hands pumping up and down, synchronized with his feet. There was a cop up ahead, if he had to stop and present his fake ID, he wouldn’t make it to the checkpoint. He glanced back over his shoulder and jumped as a gold colored car drove by. He held onto the spoiler and pulled himself onto the trunk where he lay coiled until the car approached a large blue sphere. He rolled off to avoid entering the sphere – a routing device that would have detected his code appended, behind the graphics, to the data packet.

Bob tucked, rolled and came to a stop in a convenience store parking lot. He stood up and brushed the dirt from his jacket. It returned to a black glossy finish. He adjusted his tie and sunglasses. His watch showed that he now had bonus time - 20 minutes to make it to the next checkpoint.

The convenience store was of cinderblock construction, and sported a tall sign offering fuel and refreshment. Bob entered the establishment, and looked around. He had enough time now to look at the nondescript parts of the game, where important clues often appeared.

“Nice weather,” the convenience store clerk said, giving Bob a once over.

“Yes. I’m thirsty,” said Bob, “where can I get something cold?”

“At the end of the next isle,” the man replied. “That was quite a trick.”

Bob looked long and hard at the man. “What do you mean?”

“You grabbed a ride on that car. Saw the whole thing.”

That was plenty observant for an NPC. This character was a higher quality. His facial features were rich, and his hair wasn’t just a solid mop on his head.

“I am trying to get downtown, and I was running late.” Bob thought he would let the character go on, perhaps offering information on the game.

“I don’t get many customers in this part of town. I have a car out back you can borrow if you promise not to scratch it.”

Bob was amazed at the offer. Too good to be true? He still had a long way to go to get to the central complex, perhaps it was worth the chance.

“I’ll accept your offer. What do you want in return?”

“Nothing. Just tell the MCP that Alpha will be coming to see him one of these days. And give him this,” the man said, setting a nondescript box in front of Bob.

“Thanks. I’ll do that.” Bob brushed off the possible allusion to Tron and took the keys and the box from the man.

“You still want that drink?”

“No. Thanks, but I’m not thirsty anymore.”

Bob walked out and behind the store to find a vintage Shelby Charger, with a full tank. He hopped in and turned the key, opened the throttle and listened to the roar of the real V-8 engine. He set his silver suitcase on the passenger seat and opened it. With a car of his own, he could use the pass he found on level 1 and make it into Sector Five.

Bob gunned the Charger and let the tires squeal as he hopped into the data stream with his newly acquired ride. He passed the router and shot on a golden thread toward Sector Five.

It was hard to make anything out from within the data stream, and soon the exit for Sector Five appeared and Bob took an off-ramp. He was interrogated for his sector pass at a tollbooth, and he passed without a second glance. The great yellow pyramid of the central complex loomed overhead. Bob found a desolate area, parked the car and made his way close to the complex.

He would not be able to easily enter the complex. Certainly not as himself. He would have to attempt to spoof the guards with a disguise.

Military? No. A messenger? Perhaps; but what would he deliver and to whom?

Bob didn’t have enough info to pass as a corporate exec, so if he could social engineer, he might learn enough to pass as a courier. He would have to hijack a data packet and try to enter the complex as a courier, delivering data for processing.

Bob realized his time was again running short. He needed to get into the complex quickly. He watched as couriers arrived, entered and subsequently left the complex. He noted that the green couriers were mostly ignored. They had unimportant data and were often left hanging in the queue before entering the complex for processing. He saw a courier park and slipped behind him and pressed a stun gun to his neck. Behind the graphics, he decoded the packet and grabbed the payload. Re-encapsulated, he carried the payload to the entrance and presented the credentials stolen off the courier. He was waived in and motioned towards the green waiting room.

Green couriers sat waiting and counting time. Bob stood out in that he was obviously impatient and he carried a silver suitcase. He took a number and sat down, glancing frequently at his watch and angry that he couldn’t come up with a better plan.

A large Samurai guard walked up behind him – his face a frozen mask. He gestured at Bob to follow him. Bob realized that he’d been discovered. He prepared to make a drastic move and reviewed his limited options. He could make a run for it and try to blend in with the crowd of green couriers, or he could make a run for the data entry room and try to wind his way around the hallways until he found the mainframe. His odds weren’t good.

“Shut up and follow me.” The Samurai led Bob to an alcove and touched him with the tip of his katana and he turned from green to red. “I am Drago. We need each other to get past the ICE and into the complex. If you are a green courier, you won’t get past this room. The red couriers are taken into the complex, so play the part and I’ll escort you inside. If they think it was just a protocol screw up, then we might make it through.”

“And if they catch us, we have no chance of escape.” Bob nodded. He wasn’t much of a follower, but he had to agree with Drago. They would play together for the time being and follow their own interests when they were through the portal and in the heart of the complex.

Bob followed Drago. He was careful to walk with a purpose and follow the other red couriers in the primary portal. Drago had obviously been far ahead of the other players, because he followed the error correction protocol for misplaced data perfectly. They were admitted into the complex and Drago guided Bob to the stream of other couriers.

“We break for it when we turn the next corner. We should be out of view from the portal guards.” Drago directed Bob down a side corridor marked Waste Processing.

“Drago, I owe you,” said Bob. “If this is where the system recycles files and reclaims storage space, I’m thinking we could somehow pass as system accountants.”

“And when a file gets restored, we get system clearance to take the file back where it came from. We just need to copy the accountant protocol and wait for the right color data file. How do you suggest we do that?”

They had to act quickly. While this corridor wasn’t busy, they wouldn’t be alone long. Bob opened his silver suitcase and pulled out what looked like a camera. He cracked the door to the recycle area and aimed it at the accountants who stiffly hustled on and off of long silver escalators that rose up and into the heart of the complex.

The camera was actually a protocol analyzer. He snapped a picture and with the flip of a switch, he aimed it at Drago and his Samurai disguise morphed into a pinstripe suit. Drago blended in nicely as a large Samurai, but as a six foot six black man in a tight pinstripe suit and wingtips, he stood out like a sore thumb. The protocol analyzer could wrap you in code that would let you pass yourself off as another system process, but it couldn’t fully disguise your real personality.

“Here,” Bob handed the camera to Drago.

Drago pointed the camera at Bob and he morphed into someone who looked fit the description of an accountant much better than Drago.

“Maybe you’re some kind of special accountant that lifts really heavy files,” Bob smiled. He placed the camera back in the suitcase and stood up. “Let’s get the plan straight.”

“It looks like the accountants file off the escalator and congregate over in that anteroom. Someone’s coming down the hallway, let’s do this.” Drago opened the door and slid along the wall, as discretely as he could.

Bob followed and closed the door quickly. They waited behind a file cabinet and as a group passed, they joined in and emulated the brisk but stiff gait of the suits in front of them.

They didn’t have to stand long, there was a constant stream of data pouring into the recycling bins from the large pipes which entered the room from all angles. A fraction of that was pulled out and placed on a conveyor belt. A man at a counter handed the multi-colored packages to accountants who returned them based on their color. The packages that were dull in color were returned through doorways up one or two levels. The brightest packages were taken up the long escalator which disappeared many floors above them.

“This is where we split up,” said Drago. “You take the first one, just in case they don’t buy my protocol. Then I’ll take the next bright one. It’s doubtful they’ll both be from the same data store. Other players should be in the complex by now, if any of them set off security, we’ll all have a harder time getting to the mainframe.”

The line was short and some bright packages were coming down the conveyor. Bob stepped up and took a bright green package. He took it and moved calmly toward the escalator. Drago was handed a bright yellow package and followed after Bob.

They both stood unblinking as they ascended, floor after floor the numbers dropped. They started on level 200. The MCP was located on Level 1, at the top of the pyramid, and the mainframe control room should be on Level 2. Bob had a package marked L3NW. Drago had one marked L2N. By taking the express elevators, they bypassed a large portion of the complex, and should be very close to their objective.

They had been on the escalator for several minutes; levels zipped by every few seconds, which made exiting the escalator a challenge. It should slow down as they approached the upper levels. Their heads both turned when bright red lights on the walls began to flash. Something had set off security. More likely someone. Now every protocol would be double-checked and their thinly veiled ruse would be exposed when they stepped off the escalator.

“SYSTEM BREACH… CODE ONE SECURITY PROTOCOLS ARE NOW IN EFFECT,” the system alarm stated in a cool, British, female voice.

Bob looked back at Drago, and over at the next level. Level 10 was one of the levels that they would pass by shortly. The escalator was slowing. Drago nodded and they dove off the escalator and grabbed at the railing of Level 10. Both of them swung up and onto the balcony as accountant drones watched. Their mouths gaped open and the most hideous high-pitched sound came out; a warning to the system that security protocols had been breached.

“Shit,” Bob yelled. “We have nine levels to go and they’re onto us.”

Drago reset his disguise and the pinstripe suit was replaced with a long leather duster. “That’s better,” he said as he pulled out a roomsweeper that had been hanging under his jacket.

“Hold on,” Bob said. He grabbed Drago and dragged him down the corridor. “We need to be a little more discrete. Put away the gun and try this.”

Bob pulled another tool from the silver suitcase. It was shaped like a paintbrush and he waived if over Drago and then himself.

“Chameleon Tool. Good move,” said Drago. He and Bob faded and blended in with the background.

“If we stop, we should blend in. It won’t be much use when we’re running… which we should be doing now.”

They heard many heavy footsteps running in their direction. They ran in the opposite direction and found the hallways started to twist and turn. The footfalls were very close now, when they stepped back into an alcove and blended into the wall. They hoped sensors wouldn’t pick them up as they blended in with the wall. Beneath the graphics they were blending in with the spurious background noise in the system circuitry. The guards ran past and they caught their breath.

“It looks clear,” said Bob.

“I think we are near the top of the pyramid. The further inward we go, toward the center of the complex, the deeper we’ll get into the Cybermaze. We’ll get turned in circles if we don’t get a handle on the pattern. The Cybermaze is supposed to be several layers of shifting rooms, walls and traps. You know, ‘twisty little passages, all alike.’”

“I suggest we sort that out as we go.” Bob picked a direction that looked good and they moved quickly down the corridor.

The corridors all did look alike but they tried to track their movements and create a rough map. The passageways started to double back on themselves, and they gave up on following a map.

“We need some sort of reference,” said Drago. “We need to find the seams that hold this place together. With everything that changes, is there anything that stays the same?”

“Bread crumbs…” said Bob. “If there isn’t anything built-in, then we should tag the walls. Leave a trail.”

“You do that, and I’ll keep looking. We could split up, but I think this will be easier if we stick together.”

Bob began to leave marks on the walls that would hopefully go unnoticed. On the other hand, it could lead the guards they kept avoiding right to them. They tried to find the edge of the maze, and they tried to find the center, with no luck. Drago suggested they look up.

“The large rooms have ventilation grates in the ceiling. We can’t reach that high, but it might be a way to move beyond the boundaries of the maze.”

“I can get us up there. Grappling hook that inserts in the end of my gun. Standard issue,” said Bob.

It was worth a try. Either that or they follow the guards. That had potential, but was risky. As their time wound down they would have to choose more expedient, but riskier methods.

They followed a hallway to an intersection. They were across from a door. This usually led to one of the large rooms. They opened the door, with guns at the ready. It was another big empty room. They closed the door behind them and heard the sound of gears and hydraulics. They expected this meant the maze was rearranging itself. Bob stood beneath the grate and shot upward. The grappling hook caught and they climbed up, finding the ventilation crawlspace easy enough to enter. It was confining, and led them toward a dim light.

They reached the end of the shaft and it opened up on a expansive shaft. From appearances, they were between the walls and could see the inner workings that moved the rooms and hallways around. The rooms not only moved horizontally, but from one level to another. The result was, they had actually moved up a couple levels. Huge gears and pulleys filled the shaft, which extended several stories up and several stories down. They had effectively found a backdoor with which they gained access behind the scenes of the Cybermaze, and could bypass several levels in the system.

Bob grabbed a hold of the obligatory metal rung ladder, affixed to the wall of the shaft, and started climbing. As they approached the top of the shaft, they looked for an exit. The only door was above them. They grabbed at rungs above them and dangled above the shaft. The hatch had a keypad lock and a wheel to turn, like an airlock.

Bob pulled yet another tool from his silver suitcase. It attached to the lock and began a process of decoding it – one LED after another lit up as more of the combination was revealed. The combination was decoded and the lock clicked open. Bob and Drago looked at one another.

“Any idea what’s on the other side?” Bob looked at Drago as they both clung to the ladder with their bodies dangling over hundreds of feet of empty space. Walls and rooms shifted far below with the noise of gears and machinery.

“ Whatever it is, we don’t have another choice,” Drago said with assurance. “I expect some heavy duty shit though.”

Bob turned the wheel and pushed open the hatch. He pulled himself up quickly, and rolled to the side and drew his gun. Drago followed in similar fashion. The room was dark and empty. They had both given up on the chameleon disguise when they first entered the ventilation ducts. Rather than trying to hide, they would have to face whatever lay beyond the darkness with full force and attitude. Whatever it was, it seemed to be breathing heavily.

Drago pulled a silver orb from beneath his jacket with one hand and held the shotgun at the ready with the other. He tossed the orb and it became a hovering ball of light. The breathing sound took the form of two large obsidian guard dogs. The cyber-dogs held their place, with a mean, hungry visage. If Bob and Drago didn’t move closer, they wouldn’t attack.

Bob realized this was a strong security measure – but the guard dog process would have a simple rulebase. Bob reached into his jacket. The dogs’ attention was focused on his movement. He slowly withdrew his hand and, with as little motion as possible, threw a handful of beans to the side of the room furthest from him, Drago and the guarded door.

The beans turned into various creatures. Mice, squirrels and rabbits began to circle and hop and the dogs stopped watching Drago and Bob and leapt across the room to attack the decoy animals. Bob had dealt with guard dogs before, and he came prepared. If there was one thing that would draw a dog away from his avatar, it was a small, furry, agitated woodland creature. Despite the fact that whatever was on the other side of the door could be worse than the guard dogs; there was no turning back. They made a run for the door and broke through, jamming the door closed behind them.

They stood in a large glass office. They were in the office of the MCP – the process who ran the whole complex. The windows looked over the entire cyberscape of the city, presenting a vista of lights and activity. There were no guards or guard dogs in this room. It appeared all together empty. As soon as they thought that might be true, the high back chair behind the long black desk turned around and they were standing before the MCP himself.

“Feeling clever, aren’t you?” The MCP stood up and glared at the two intruders. “You are in my lair now. You’ve lost. Your competitors are close to the goal, but it won’t matter to you two, because I can and will terminate you here and now.”

“For the sake of argument, at least tell us how well we did?” Bob looked for a way to avoid the unavoidable.

“Others have made it this far, but they all perished. From this room, I control the entire complex and I am taking over the entire city, block by block. I control the mainframe and you and all of your competitors are going to lose. No one can beat me. I own your ass.” The MCP stood with his arms crossed and a smug look on his plastic face.

“You know,” said Drago, “if it was just me, I’d agree. But together, Bob and I make a pretty good team. I’ll bet we can surprise you.”

“I grow tired of you already. You bore me. For the sake of drama, do you have any last words?” The MCP moved in front of a panel, implying somehow that pushing a button on the panel would remove them from the game.

Bob remembered the convenience store clerk. “There is one thing. A convenience store clerk gave me this.”

“Show me, but if you make any funny moves, you’re gone.” The MCP kept his finger poised above the panel. He stared as Bob removed a nondescript, small box from his pocket and placed it on the table. A light shot out from the ceiling and scanned the box.

“It’s empty. Why do you waste my time? You’re stalling won’t help you.” The MCP picked up the box and opened it.

“You trying to scare us?” Drago asked.

“No,” said the MCP, “I’m trying to kill you.”

The MCP put down the box and prepared to push the button that would cause the two avatars to suffer some painful death. As his finger extended, his hand began to sparkle. His hand began to pixelate and disappear in a swirl of colors. This same effect spread up his arm and throughout his body.

“What is this? Where did you get this box? Who gave it to you?” The MCP screamed.

“Some guy named Alpha who works at a convenience store said he was coming for you. He wanted you to have this as a gift.” Bob now saw his meeting at the convenience store was more than chance.

The MCP was gone. Bob looked at his watch. The game wasn’t over.

“You have to infect the mainframe,” said Drago.

“We should both win. We’ve been a good team,” said Bob.

“We’ll team up again, I’m sure, but this is your victory. You do the honor.”

Bob stepped up to the MCP’s console and fed in the virus code.

Mainframe was corrupted and the game was over. Bob and Drago and the room and the whole city disappeared in a bright swirl of lights. But in a good way.

 

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