The sudden silence was jarring. His ears were still ringing, but Yegor wasn’t certain that it was over yet. His ammo counter read 0/20, and a flashing amber text box in his HUD urgently declared “AMMUNITION DEPLETED”. Yegor wasn’t carrying any spare magazines. If they had any backup, he was in trouble.
Injun Joe moved more quickly now that all of the thugs were dead, racing to the fallen man and dragging him towards where Yegor stood. He noticed Lokk herding the man’s panicked wife and children that way as well, and – holy shit, was that Smith?
It sure was. Smith darted out of the intersection and moved to help Injun Joe drag the wounded man away from the carnage. He noticed Yegor as they moved, and mouthed a word in his direction. Sniper.
Shit. That was probably who dropped the Evo guy in the first place. <Aria, is communication back up?>
Aria appeared again on the edges of his vision. <No, Yegor.> She looked worried, and appeared as though she wanted to say more, but she did not.
Yegor acknowledged the VI with a grunt, and she vanished. He turned back to the motley group staggering in his direction. They had all moved as quickly as they could into the street a dozen or so meters north of the intersection, right near where he was standing. He realized that it had been sheer luck that had kept him out of the sniper’s field of fire – he must be down the street to the east, unable to see into the north or south side streets intersecting the main road.
Injun Joe went to work on the wounded man. The scientist was now lying face down in the street, blood pouring freely from the exit wound in his back. Joe ripped away the clothing surrounding the wound. The shot had gone straight through his left lung and blown a large, bloody hole out through his back. The guy sounded like he was drowning in his own blood. Yegor shook his head. He’s fucked.
Joe didn’t seem to think so. He rubbed his hands together calmly and began chanting again. It sounded almost like a tribal song this time. A faint golden glow surrounded his hands, and without hesitation, he placed them both over the gory wound in the man’s back. He made small movements with his hands as he chanted, as if he was folding invisible origami. Yegor couldn’t see any change in the man’s condition. He shook his head again.
The man’s wife was still sobbing hysterically, struggling to get to her husband. Lokk had one massive arm wrapped around the woman’s ribs like a boa constrictor, keeping her from interfering with the Amerindian. He was bleeding all over her, but if his wound caused him any pain, he didn’t show it. That wasn’t a pistol wound, either – the sniper must have hit him as well. Yegor couldn’t believe that he was still on his feet, much less restraining a one hundred-fifty pound woman with one arm.
Yegor turned his attention to Smith, and allowed himself a grim grin. “That was you, wasn’t it?” he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the van. He still didn’t know what happened to the guy in the back, and he didn’t really want to know.
Smith just nodded.
Aria appeared again in the corner of his vision. <Yegor, local communication has come back online.>
Yegor nodded brusquely. He still did that sometimes, responding physically or audibly to her, but she always seemed to be able to hear or see him when he did, so it was a habit that he was in no rush to break. He looked back over at Joe, still working on the critically injured man. He didn’t hear any sirens approaching, so the communication blackout had obviously worked. It looked like he had a minute.
He clambered back into his Mini Cooper, leaving the door open. “Do me a favor?” he said to Smith. “I’m gonna go in and see if I can find out who was jamming this spot. We get any heat, gimme a poke?”
Smith nodded, and turned back towards the carnage in the intersection. Moving with the grace of a panther, he darted from the buildings back to the shot-up van. Looked like he was planning on doing some cleanup, maybe a little looting. No shots rang out – hopefully the sniper had bailed.
Yegor took a deep breath. He hadn’t ever performed a real hack before, and the circumstances sucked, but fuck, he wanted to start shadowrunning, right? Looks like a shadowrun found me. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let himself descend directly into hot-sim VR.
* * * * *
The world lurched around him. His consciousness spiraled through static and sensory code fragments for a hundred years, or maybe a micro-second. Time was funny like that in the Matrix.
When his consciousness seated itself, he was Monolith. He looked around at the confines of his Fairlight Caliban from within for the first time. He hadn’t spent any time worrying about the sculpting of the node before he bought the device, and for a moment, he was stunned by at how incredible it looked.
The sculpting of the Caliban was that of a modern penthouse, overlooking the local Matrix from an elevated height. The walls were completely transparent virtual glass. He recognized the thickness of the reinforced glass as part of the upgraded firewall that he had installed, providing an effective layer of additional security to his node. Plush virtual couches, an extensive wet bar, and a crackling virtual fireplace presented the feel of a Manhattan mega-corp exec’s bachelor pad. Gentle elven violin music played quietly, not originating from any particular place, ever-present and soothing.
“Welcome, Yegor,” a sensual voice said behind him.
Monolith whirled, and Yegor was nearly blinded. He would have closed his eyes, but his eye-less icon interpreted the gesture by raising a hand to shield the golem’s face from the brilliant light now before him. With effort, Yegor slowly lowered Monolith’s massive obsidian hand and tried to make sense of what he was seeing before him.
A swirl of jagged, erratic shapes surrounded a brilliant white light, forming a discordant cloud of chaos. The light at the cloud’s core was so bright that Yegor could hardly keep his virtual vision trained in that direction. Pulses of raw emotion burst outward from the cloud, impacting upon Monolith, washing over him, assailing his psyche, tugging his own emotions in ways he could never have conceived.
Apprehension. Affection. Excitement. Fear. Shyness. Lust. Confusion. Attraction. Tension. Tenderness. Insecurity. Possessiveness. Passion. Concern. Devotion.
Yegor grunted from the assault on his emotions. As if in response, the cloud suddenly coalesced, the light within dimming significantly. The assault on his psyche was similarly muted. The protrusions and spikes flattened and curved, twirling around the spectral illumination in the vague form of a humanoid.
As if watching the resolution of a picture improve one layer at a time, the shape began to take on clearer definition, developing feminine curves, flowing hair, and elegantly swept back ears. With another layer of resolution, a dark evening gown painted itself upon the figure, followed by a sparkling set of jewelry. Another pass, and her beautiful facial features were defined.
The turbulent cloud of data became Aria. But her definition and resolution continued to improve. More scans passed over her form, and her appearance became beautiful beyond a degree that could ever be achieved in the real world. Yegor could now see her with an impossibly perfect level of clarity. He had never seen anyone, anything so beautiful in his life. She smiled at him, and Yegor felt as though his blood was going to catch fire.
“Whoa,” he said eloquently. Brilliant. Shakespearean effort there, jackplug.
Evidently, it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. He felt rather than saw a surge of energy within Aria, and she lowered her gaze bashfully. Apprehension was heavy in her voice as she spoke again. “I have been spending idle processing cycles sculpting this node in a manner that I had reasoned you might find appealing. If there are improvements that you wish, please, inform me of them at your convenience.”
Yegor was dumbfounded. He had assumed that the current sculpting of the node had been the default setting of the Caliban. But this penthouse had nothing in common with his garage, and was nothing like anything that he and Aria had ever discussed. And he definitely loved how it looked. How did she…?
Monolith shook his head heavily, as if clearing the cobwebs. Eye on the ball, you idiot. “It, uh, looks great. I, uh, can’t really think of anything that I would change right now. And you look even more amazing, you know, in person.” Monolith’s robotic baritone voice resonated through the node, his speech mirroring his uncertainty.
Another surge of energy and emotions from Aria washed over him, even stronger than the first.
Joy! Validation! Panic! Passion! Love! Nervousness! Anticipation! Elation!
This was insane. He had been in full VR in the Matrix a thousand times before, and not once had he ever experienced anything like this. Did all virtual intelligences project like this? A virtual intelligence was not a fully realized, sapient artificial intelligence. A VI was just a well coded simulacrum. But this…
With a sudden burst of clarity, he realized this had to have something to do with being connected into the Matrix via hot-sim. He had only ever done that twice before, and both of those times he had been locked into the perspective of his combat drones. Hot-sim! Addicting as fuck, remember? Fucking gunfight, jackass! Cops any minute! Stop fucking around with your sexy VI!
Monolith shook his head again, and then a third time. Yegor rarely had difficulty focusing, but at this moment, it was nearly impossible. With a thought, Monolith crossed the room and looked out through one of the windows, viewing the local Matrix.
Even that was a dazzling sight. Every commlink, every television, every router, every device with an active Matrix connection appeared as a point of energy that he could reach out and connect with. There were hundreds, thousands, even more if he sought them out. A dizzying quantity of sites, but he was looking for one in particular.
The local Meta-Comm radio tower was sculpted with remarkable similarity to its real-world counterpart, with one major exception. The tower’s firewall made it look like an imposing black obelisk. Something looked a bit off about it, but he would need to go to the node and run Analyze on it to really tell what.
“Sorry, Aria, I have to get to work,” he said, more brusquely than he had intended. With another thought, he had vanished from the penthouse and appeared at the base of the tower. Time to load up.
* * * * *
>RUN BIO-FILTER3.BIN –MONO –GREEN –YEGOR1
>RUN STEALTH3.BIN –MONO –SHROUD –YEGOR1
>RUN ARMOR3.BIN –MONO –CRIMSON –YEGOR1
>RUN ATTACK3.BIN –MONO –CRIMSON –YEGOR1
>TAG –SEEK –IC –HOSTILE
>RUN ANALYZE4.BIN –MONO –AMBER –METACOMM.22.214.171.124
>TAG –SEEK –EXPLOIT
* * * * *
Monolith was as ready as he could be. The black shroud of his Stealth program obfuscated his icon, keeping it nearly invisible. Beneath the shroud, he could clearly see the glowing crimson plate mail of his Armor app covering his body, and the crimson war-hammer representing his Attack app. If it hits the fan, at least my pants aren’t down.
His digital vision swept over the firewall of the node. Something had seemed off about it before, and now that his Analyze app was running, he could see it clearly.
The sculpting appeared in his vision as bunny footprints, visible along the side of the tower. A calling card? They jumped erratically up the side of the tower, and abruptly ended around eighty feet up. Yegor chuckled, and Monolith made a quiet sound like the grinding of gravel. There was an exploit opening where the footprints ended – he was sure of it.
Monolith stuck his massive maul to his back. It adhered as though it had been super-glued there. With the ease and grace of an Olympian, the obsidian golem climbed the smooth surface of the tower to the point where the footprints had vanished. It didn’t matter that there were no handholds – a function of his Exploit app allowed him to stick to the tower easily. Holding onto the tower effortlessly with one hand, he manifested the glowing blue drill of his Exploit app in the other and pressed it to the tower. The app latched onto the firewall and began drilling.
There was definitely a flaw in the code – the glowing blue drill punched through the firewall in seconds, creating an admin account for his icon. It vanished from the Matrix as Yegor unloaded it, and after a moment of hesitation, Monolith climbed through, logging onto the node as an administrator.
Red lights. Klaxons ringing. Fucking shit.
* * * * *
There were really only four things that a compromised node with an active alarm could do to repel an intruder. The first was reboot, which would of course punt the intruder from the node. Of course, that has the unfortunate side effect of disconnecting anyone else connected to the node as well. This was a public communication node with thousands of active connections, so that wasn’t likely to happen.
Some systems were configured to automatically attempt to sever the intruder’s connection once the new account logs in for the first time. Yegor hadn’t detected any such attempt, and it would have happened the moment he crossed the threshold of the node, so that was out too.
The other two possibilities were the ones you really didn’t want to deal with if you were a hacker. The system would either contact a security rigger to counter-hack the intruder, or launch IC to fight the intruder directly.
This particular node was equipped with the latter.
* * * * *
The world lurched around Monolith as the node’s sculpting appeared before him. It was a huge, boring room. Bare walls, digital filing cabinets, large doors to other parts of the network… it looked like a typical wage-slave hellhole, with one exception. Above him, thousands of ephemeral glowing cords blinked in and out of existence, each with a terminus at the top of the tower, each reaching out in a different direction. It made Yegor think of a three-dimensional asterisk made up of a hundred thousand glowing lines. Each one represented a user of the Pittsburgh Matrix, as they were routed through the tower to the next link in the chain connecting them to their eventual destination.
And there was that blinking red light and blaring alarm. Shit.
A large black tank materialized in the center of the node. Shit, shit, shit, fucking shit. The color of the tank was not lost on Yegor. It was a polite warning to intruders that this Intrusion Countermeasure didn’t intend to attack your icon, it intended to attack your psyche.
Most Black IC attacked the hacker by assaulting the part of the brain that controlled consciousness. Commonly called Blackout, that sort of IC wasn’t the worst. You’d be unconscious for a few hours, and wake up with the worst hangover you ever had. Most corps considered that fair punishment for sticking your nose in where it didn’t belong.
Rarer and far, far nastier was Black Hammer IC. This deadly form of Black IC would unleash raw, unfiltered bio-feedback to the user, burning out the user’s motor function, cognitive reasoning, and subconscious functions. That sort of IC wasn’t trying to knock you out – it was trying to kill you.
Yegor didn’t know what type of Black IC this tank was armed with, and part of him didn’t really want to. For the span of a heartbeat, he weighed his options. There were really only two. He could log out and return to his body, none the worse for wear, but the access log of the node would log his presence there, the fake admin account that he had created, and his access ID. He hadn’t had time to spoof it, which meant there would be a perfect, incriminating trail leading directly to his brand-new commlink.
Monolith sprang into motion. In an instant, his icon was adjacent to the tank, and he brought his glowing crimson hammer of his Attack app crashing down onto the side of the turret. He had no idea what to expect.
The hammer impacted with a sound like a ringing gong. A pulse of code bleed flashed through his vision. He might have done some superficial damage to it, but it would take more than that to crash the tank.
With swiftness that would have been impossible in the real world, the turret swung to bear on Monolith and fired. A glowing red shell hit him solidly in the chest. His real-world grounded brain felt an instant of sheer terror in which he was certain he was blown to pieces, but the rules of the Matrix were different. His crimson Armor app flashed brightly at the moment of impact, interlaced with a green overlay from his Bio-Feedback Filter. It felt like a hard punch in the ribs, but that was all.
He darted to the side and swung again, and again. Each strike of his Attack program caused more data fragmentation and memory loss. Visually the black tank was beginning to develop a lattice of visual damage, like a spider web overlaid on top of the tank’s typical texture.
The tank’s turret followed him relentlessly, firing one shell after another at him. A corner of Yegor’s mind was amused. The idea of a tank shooting a person at point blank range and not budging him an inch was the sort of thing that you might see in a cartoon. But he knew that just like in the street, it would only take one lucky shot and it would be all over.
Better make sure I’m the one that lands it, then. Yegor deliberately stood his ground through the next cannon blast. The metaphor of the cannon shell left a heavy ringing sound in his head, but his Armor and Bio-Feedback Filter absorbed the blast. With all the concentration he could muster, he raised his crimson hammer over his head. It grew in size as he focused harder on it, and with all his mental strength, he brought it smashing down on top of the tank as hard as he could.
With a sound like shattering glass, the IC crashed. The tank collapsed into a million tiny black cubes, scattering erratically outward across the floor of the node. The cubes lingered for a small moment, and then vanished as if they were never there.
Yegor barked a laugh, causing Monolith to growl triumphantly. He looked down at his icon. Not a mark on it. I’m gonna have to hit BitByte up again after all. Fucking blade-ear knows his warez.
Okay, back to business. He was in the node with a fresh new admin account. The alarm was still going off, but now that the IC was down, that was no big deal. Using his new credentials, he disabled the alarm with a thought, and moved instantly over to the filing cabinets. Since the node had been configured to launch IC rather than call a rigger, Yegor figured it would probably be some time before an admin came to check out the node.
He launched his Browse app. An amber magnifying glass swept rapidly over the filing cabinet icons until it settled on the one he was looking for – the access logs. All right you son of a bitch, time to find out who you are. He set his Analyze app to show all users that had directly connected with this node as the terminus in the past ten minutes.
His Analyze window appeared before his vision with two access IDs. One of them was his own. The second simply read:
Yegor grinned. Monolith uttered a gravelly chuckle.
* * * * *