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Whom Do You Serve?

Part III


One of the recurring problems faced by every corporation was datatheft. Linking LIM's mainframe to the datanet made it much easier for multiple parties to use that data, and in any case it was required by Mother Brain, the supercomputer AI that served as Palm's chief executive, but it left open the possibility that a skilled gridrider could swipe a file here, plant a virus there, and ultimately cause millions of meseta worth of damage. A conglomerate LIM's size wrote off a certain amount of data loss every year, as there was no way to keep out every single neon angel who tried to fly the system. Luveno did its best to keep that slot on the balance sheet as low as possible, though, which was why there was a Computer Security Section. Under the leadership of a very good, very efficient, and very nasty gridrider named Kyle Dougan, ComSec defended LIM's system, repaired the damage any hackers managed to inflict, and carried out the exact kind of attacks they were trying to stop against Luveno's competitors.

The cyberjocks who worked for ComSec were every bit as talented as the neon angels who flew the datanet illegally. Often they were better; Dougan hired only the cream of the crop. They also had the advantage of top-of-the-line equipment, cutting-edge computers and peripherals and the most advanced software money could buy. The price for this was that the gridriders now had to serve their corporate master, giving up the anarchic way of life that fueled most hackers. The hotshots on the street said it cost the ComSec agents their edge. Tyler doubted it; from what he'd seen, the hackers that signed on with Luveno were never the kind of people who got their edge from flipping off the system in the first place.

Mika Triton was an example of that. She was the rarest of the rare, an ace computer specialist in her late forties. Mika stayed current with the latest upgrades, as familiar with them as any teenaged cyberjock, just because she loved computers. They were her job and her hobby; only her family had ever come ahead of the datanet with her. Tyler always figured that the legendary Angel Red, the gridrider who'd given rise to the term "neon angel" for hackers, had to be the same kind of person to have stayed a legend for over thirty-five years.

Mika was a short woman, attractive, slightly plump, with her blue hair pulled back into a functional braid. She smiled when Tyler came in.

"Hey, Tyler, long time no see! And you've brought your girl, too! Nice to meet you, Melora," she chirped. "Tyler's told me so much about you." She extended a friendly hand to the female agent, who shook it with more than a little surprise. Extroverted gridriders weren't quite the rarity that middle-aged ones were, but the breed did tend to be in the minority.

"Um, thanks. He's said nice things about you, too."

"Well, he's that kind of guy. Hm, I guess from your faces that this isn't a social visit. What can I do for you?"

"I need a favor," Tyler asked. "There could be some danger, though, so please say no if you feel you should."

Mika waved his concerns aside.

"No way, Tyler. Besides, with what I owe you, if the payback's easy it wouldn't feel right," she said, saving Tyler the embarrassment of having to come out and mention their past debt.

"I'm serious."

"So am I. Now go on; lay it on me and we'll see if I can do something for you."

"We need a look inside Luveno's own system, and I mean a close one--seriously intensive data analysis, preferably with traces run off of the results."

Mika was quite startled, and it looked like a tremor ran through her, though it might only have been a chill.

"Our own system?" she said, then gathered herself. "Well, what are we after?"

"Environmental status reports concerning the new plant being opened near to Iala."

"Oh, that shouldn't be too bad. That's an open file constantly being used, so they couldn't put too much security in place or else it would seriously impair the file's utility." She paused, then turned to her console. The base unit of her system was an IMVE Conqueror, the top-of-the-line model in its class. To that was added memory boosters, analysis units, chipreaders, and a 24"x36" viewscreen. There was a keyboard, but Melora's standard interface was clearly the VR rig hooked into the machine.

"Be careful," Tyler said. "If my understanding is correct, then someone does not want this to be public knowledge."

"I'll be careful," she promised, slipping on the matte-black gloves and settling the headpiece over her eyes.

"You don't go for full immersion?" Melora asked, surprised. While the average wageslave--like Tyler--didn't use a virtual reality interface at all, the efficiencies gained by virtual manipulation of code not worth the expense, hackers were the one group that did use VR regularly. Full immersion virtual reality, where the operator actually felt like they were in the computer world, was the standard.

"Nah. Sure, I lose a hair in efficiency this way, but I can leave one foot in the real world. It keeps my options open."

It also, Tyler knew, gave her a certain level of protection against viruses designed to induce lethal biofeedback in a hacker, because there were fewer connections to the brain to exploit.

"Go!" Mika's finger stabbed a button only she could see, and the screen came alive with a sea of swirling lights and shapes, a holovid representation of what Mika was seeing.

"Welcome to LIM Computer Security Central." Her viewpoint swung from side to side, then froze. "Ha! Gotcha, you little bugger!" A heads-up display indicated [SCANNING...TRACE AND ANALYSIS UTILITY LOCATED], and a small yellow blip grew brighter, less indistinct. "Dougan's little spyfliers, to keep an eye on what his staff's up to."

A brilliant black cube formed in the palm of Melora's virtual "hand," and she flipped it at the tracer. One side of the cube opened like the lid of a box to admit the crackling spark, then snapped shut. The yellow blip tried to escape, bouncing off the inner walls of the box, then became quiescent.

[TRACE BLOCKED]

"Gotcha! Now, let's go find that file you wanted." Swiftly, she moved through data channels that looked like long, curving tunnels of circuitry, her heads-up display rapidly scrolling through locations and actions.

[INDUSTRIAL DIVISION OPERATIONS DATABANK--ACCESS BY PASSCODE]

An energy field of shimmering green with a pulsing symbol in gold--LIM's corporate colors--blocked the end of the tunnel.

"I could hack this, but why bother?"

Mika reached out, tapped something, and three places on the sigil began to glow white. She then touched each of the three spots and the gold faded to empty black.

[BETA-LEVEL ACCESS GRANTED]

"It's a leftover passcode I scrounged up from a job a few months back, so it can't be traced to me, unless I use it again," Mika explained. "The way I see it, why get in by brute force when you can have the system let you in on its own?"

The databank looked like a giant honeycomb, with hexagonal chambers representing datafiles and green-and-yellow "bees" for the various search utilities used by the mainframe to locate files based upon user requests. Mika held out her hand and a bee landed in it. A menu of choices appeared in a window that opened up in the screen, and her free hand quickly inputted selections to give the search its parameters. The window snapped shut, and the bee buzzed off on its quest.

"Another advantage to using a passcode: since the system thinks I'm a legitimate user, I can use its functions to help me do the job instead of having to rely on my own software."

[ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ANALYSIS LOCATED]

"All right, now let's see what we've got...scientists' and engineers' reports, internal memos..."

Mika split the screen and started scrolling documents up on the right-hand side.

"Light, this thing's a nightmare!" Mika exclaimed. "Chemical wastes being dumped into Scion Bay, insufficient air pollution controls. I'm surprised they aren't just strip-mining the peninsula; they'd do less damage."

"Definitely the kind of thing designed to get the attention of any self-respecting eco-terrorist," Tyler agreed. "Mika, what does this look like from a technical standpoint?"

"Good question." She manipulated a couple of on-screen icons.

[DATA ANALYSIS IN PROGRESS...]

"Oh, yeah, here's an internal memo detailing payoffs to the government inspectors," Melora said. "I see what you were getting at, Tyler; this is almost too good."

[TAMPERING DETECTED]

"That's because it isn't real," Mika said gleefully. Another window popped open and began scrolling through the results of her search. "Someone's definitely been corrupting this data. Documents have been tampered with...documents removed...documents inserted. This thing isn't half the environmental disaster someone wants us to think...oh, cute, there's an undo code!"

"What?"

"Whomever made the changes put in a nifty little subroutine that will reverse all of them with one command. That's why it was so easy to find the alterations now; they've been marked up and flagged to undo."

"How about after that code is used?" Tyler asked.

"Now that's a different story. Then it's really hard to find, especially since the real data would be back in place so it would mesh with all the other data from the original, legitimate files. I could dig up some evidence of tampering with several hours' searching, but to be honest, there'd be no reason for me to push it that long without advance information."

Tyler rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"How detectable would the doctored files be to a hacker?"

Mika frowned.

"I hate to say it this way, but it depends on the hacker. Your average street-level cyberjock might never notice it...heck, the difficulty of hacking into Luveno's system would really cut down on most gridriders' efficiency and the low-level ones would be lucky to get this far. If you had to hack the access you'd be dodging system security all over the place, which keeps your analysis from running at peak level. The really top-flight neon angels wouldn't get fooled, but I think most outside gridriders would."

That tallied with Tyler's expectations. Neo Green didn't like technology. To them, computers weren't a tool but part of the evil they were fighting against. Any gridriders among their number wouldn't be much more than amateurs, and they weren't likely to hire top-rank contacts. So, if they had been wise enough to double-check the data they were given with LIM's files, they probably wouldn't have been able to spot the alterations.

Bait.

"Okay, so here's the million-meseta question," Melora said. "Who dummied up these nasty little things?"

"Good question. Let's see if I can find out."

[ANALYZING DATA SIGNATURES...]

"I'm hoping that whoever did this wasn't too careful about covering his tracks. The fact that I'm here under the guise of a beta-level passcode should help. The system should think I've got a right to know."

[...]

"Any of us in ComSec, though, could rig it up so that a search of this type would hit a wall, so let's hope that someone with a bit less savvy is involved."

[DATA SEALED BY BETA-LEVEL PASSCODE]

Mika chuckled.

"Perfect. Now let's try a little smoke and mirrors..."

[LOG-ON RECORDS UNAVAILABLE--PASSCODE TRACE AVAILABLE]

"Okay, I've got the passcode data freed up, so we can see who made the alterations although not when or from where. It's probably a dummy passcode like the one I'm using or something put together by a gridrider, but let's just see..."

[DISPLAYING PASSCODE REGISTRATION]

Mika gasped.

"Tyler, what the--what is this?"

"Just what we were starting to expect," Melora answered. Staring at the vidscreen display, Tyler could only nod in agreement.

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