The Earthseed Chronicles Free to read science fiction blogfic

22Aug/110

1-3: The Cypher

The night brought more questions and scores of ifs. She needed more information to work on, so she decided to go to work early. No stroll through the dew-heavy park, this time she took a shuttle straight to the office. Retrieving the information she sought would not be too easy, as they were only allowed access to files pertaining to their registered cases. Her colleagues did not know about her youth as a hacker though, so she had a whole other set of tools to get what she needed.

Careful not to trigger any of the monitoring bots that would register log entries if she tried to access information she was not privy to, she dived into the archives and opened a link to the customs office in Lyon. It had only been connected to the global European government intranet net a few years ago, but it supported all the modern protocols. She ran a search of the public records and found the missing shipment. As Frank had told her, it was registered as dispatched on the ground, but it had never gotten to the New Paris terminal. A flag marked it as missing, but as long as no one claimed it, no investigation was going to be launched.

To double-check the information, she hacked into the humanitarian aid organization's server and used it as a gateway into their mainframe. She sifted through the shipping manifests which might just as well have been public, as they were not even protected by a low-level cypher. Then again, humanitarian aid should not have to hide anything to begin with so that was fine by her books. It certainly made her work a bit easier and most of all faster. Her search bot found the shipment, and after cross-checking with Lyon's customs data everything checked out just fine. The shipment was more valuable than she had expected; it was mostly high-tech water extraction gear destined for moon installations. She could understand why they needed it back - and a shipment this valuable getting lost would definitely be very bad publicity.

Still, it felt wrong somehow that a humanitarian organization would resort to hiring a professional thief. Even more worrying was the fact that someone in the organization had connections to that world. If word of this got out, it could potentially do more damage than a lost shipment. She realized that she was rambling, and terminated all her open connections. Colleagues were starting to come in, so she opened her current project files and took a few minutes to think. What should she do? The operation seemed legit, even if the way it was being handled made her bullshit detector run wild. Chasing after Thorvalds Technologies was a long-term project, in this action and adventure were right around the corner. It tickled her hacker personality in all the right places, so she decided to go ahead and do it. It was just breaking a cypher after all.

She sent Frank a text message, saying "Okay to go ahead with the project. Meet when and where?"

Frank's message came about an hour later, saying "Your place tonight at 19:00". She shuddered. The prospect of him hovering over her while she worked her magic was not an enjoyable one. Her mind kept wandering that evening, so she did not get anything productive done. Not that it mattered much, there was no one to really keep her accountable for work done. She knew that she was the most productive in her team, and that her project manager valued her work. He would not comment on it, he very seldom did with her lazier colleagues. Still, to keep her conscience clear she took the time to launch a few automated search bots on one of the new projects she had been assigned and then headed home early.

She gulped down a sandwich she had hastily whipped together, and started setting up her workplace. She would need all the available system cores, so she fired them up and ran a quick diagnostic. If one of the cores should prove faulty during the cracking process, she would lose precious time. She also fired up the inactive memory banks and linked them into the mainframe. Tonight her energy bill would take a massive hit, but Frank's payment would cover all her expenses. For her everyday use of her computer system, she usually deactivated everything she did not need, as the power requirements were quite heavy. To crack a cypher though, she needed every last bit of power her system could muster. Most tasks were done in the cloud these days, but for this it was important to be able to run autonomously offline. Cloud computing was typically more efficient, but cracking a cypher in the cloud would be like calling the police yourself to tell them what you are doing and where you are. There were ways to stay anonymous online, but why take more chances than necessary?

All cores and memory were in the green, so she dug out all the programs and bots she would use from her hidden software well. Custom hardware tied into her system made it possible to access these programs as well as sensitive data which were located on a  special drive. She could destroy this drive in several ways, from voice control to a manual kill switch on the casing. That way she could make sure it would not fall into the wrong hands or be used against her. As the last step in her preparations she disconnected all the internet access wiring. Probably unnecessary, but again a potential source of problems that was easy to take out of the equation. No need to disconnect any wireless networks, she never used them. Most people she knew called her paranoid because of this, even though they all had come to her at some point to fix their computers because their wireless networks had been breached.

She heard a polite knock on her door.

"Come in, it's open"

She watched him enter warily, look back into the corridor behind him and softly close the door. His clothing caught most of her attention; she had trouble following his movements. Her eyes constantly seemed to glide off him, and she imagined that he would be almost unnoticeable in a crowd.

"Nice outfit, how does it work?"

"I couldn't say."

"Couldn't or wouldn't?"

"I can't give out my secrets that easily."

"I've got some really nice home-made polvorones, what about a trade?"

"Are you trying to trade cookies for thief secrets?"

"You haven't tasted them, they are mind-blowing."

He laughed. "If you add a cold beer to the mix I'll consider your offer."

"Beer, huh? And I thought you had taste."

"Sorry, I'm german - and I have yet to find a spanish beverage that could match a good cool beer."

"I think your tastebuds need recalibrating then."

He laughed again. "That may be so, but those are my terms."

"Fine," she said and fetched a tray with some cookies. She did not drink beer, but as chance would have it there were some leftovers from a recent party. She put the can on the tray, and quite deliberately did not take a glass - she had no incentive to be a good host. She went back into the living room, and put the tray down on the low table. He was standing by her computer, apparently inspecting her installation.

"Don't touch anything."

"I wasn't going to, trust me. Computers don't like me very much, and the feeling is mutual. Still, I can recognize an impressive setup when I see one. Antonio was right, you may be the right person for the job after all."

She took a cookie for herself. "After all?"

"Let's just say my first impression was less than positive, no offense."

She wanted to hit him. Preferably with something heavy and pointy. His first impression, huh? Bloody bastard. "Alright, let's cut the niceties and get down to business."

He seemed to notice the change in her tone, and turned around. "I'm sorry I ambushed you in your home, but it is better if we are never seen together."

"Ok, so let's talk payment before we start."

"By all means, let's."

"Let me have a look at the cypher so I can check what it'll take to crack it, then I'll be able to give you a price."

He handed her a small storage stick, and she plugged it in. She set up a virtual sandbox environment to access it to keep her system safe should the drive contain a virus of some sort, and had a look at the files he wanted her to crack.

"It's those three files, there," he said and pointed at the top three files in the list.

She nodded, and had her file sniffer scan them. She whistled when she saw the results.

"A level 7 cypher? Isn't that a bit heavy for regular shipping manifests?"

"As far as I know moon customs upgraded their cyphers after the terrorist attacks last year."

"Bullshit. Level 4 would have been more than enough for their needs. No, this is something else and I don't like it."

He grunted and rolled his eyes slightly. "Fine, I get it - it'll cost more."

"I'm not trying to drive up a price I haven't even given you yet! I'm saying a level 7 cypher on shipping manifests is beyond suspicious. I doubt these are even shipping manifests," she said. The moment she said it, a cold fear settled on her. It was quite possible he had staged the whole thing just to get her to crack that cypher, and that he would get rid of her right after. She cursed herself silently.

"So you won't help me?"

"You're not defending the fact that these are simple shipping manifests."

He smiled. "You're way too clever for your own good." He paused. "You're right, they are not shipping manifests. Those I managed to crack myself, they only had a level 1 cypher on them."

"What are these then?"

"Personnel files from the customs office. The shipping manifests only had employee identification numbers in them, no names - so I need the personnel files to track down the people who handled the shipment."

A level 7 cypher on personnel files made sense, there probably was quite a bit of sensitive information in there. "You make it hard to trust you. Why should I believe anything you're telling me?"

"You shouldn't. I'm a thief, remember?"

"Oh come on, you stole that line out of some crappy low-budget movie. You will have to do better."

He sighed, and let himself slump into her sofa, picked up a cookie and took a bite.

"You were right, these are really very good."

She looked at him pointedly.

"Look, you know more than enough already. I don't want to involve you any further. Just tell me how much you want to crack this cypher and let's leave it at that."

"I'll do it for 50.000 euro."

He raised one eyebrow first, then nodded. "Fine." He took off the rucksack he was carrying, opened a zipper and made a neat pile of 500 euro bills on the table. Part of her was ecstatic at the sight, but the other was terrified. Cracking this cypher was worth at most 10.000 euro, the fact that he was willing to put that much on the table meant this was definitely more than it seemed. She should call the whole thing off right now, but she knew she was going to do it anyway. For the thrill? For the money? She was unsure of the reason, but she grabbed the pile of bills and put them in a small bag that she would put in her safe.

"I expected you to argue on the price at least a little."

"Nah, you are way too fond of arguing. Besides, you deserve it and I wanted to make it up to you for scaring you."

"Thanks, I guess."

"How long will it take you?"

"For all three files, about six hours I think. Do you want to come back in the morning?"

"If you don't mind, I'll sleep on the couch."

She did mind, but she knew there was no point in arguing over this. "Okay, I'll start."

"Thanks," he said. It sounded sincere.

She made copies of each file and started a separate process on each to crack them. On a hunch, she hooked a hidden command into the processes that would put a copy of the cracked files into her secure drive. She did not know how much he really knew about computers, but he would need to be really good to find these commands.

"Make sure you don't keep any of those files on your system," he said. She nearly jumped out of her seat, but managed to control herself.

"I'm not that stupid, Frank. I'm working directly on your drive, and I have set up a dedicated sandbox," she lied - hopefully convincingly.

"Can't hurt to make sure."

"What about my feelings then?"

"Feelings heal."

"You are obnoxious, has anyone told you that?"

"It's one of my strong points."

She had to laugh at that. "No kidding."

She made sure everything was running smoothly, and tried to extrapolate how long the cracking process would take. Her program gave an estimate of around two hours for each file, but as the cypher's protection layers were increasing in difficulty that early estimate was almost always wrong. Especially on a cypher this strong, so it would probably take much longer. Her initial estimate of six hours was probably optimistic. It was 21:00 by now, so she set her alarm clock to 03:00 in the morning to check on the process. She also added a silent alarm to be sent to her phone if anyone tampered with her computer.

"I'm going to get some sleep, around three in the morning I'll check on the progress."

"Okay, see you then."

"Don't touch anything."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to go near your system. I don't want to jeopardize the operation now."

"Good. Can't hurt to make sure," she said with a smirk. "There are some blankets in the cabinet over there, help yourself to one if needed."

"Thanks."

She closed the bedroom door, and put the small bag with the money into her safe. It felt weird to have a stranger sleep on her couch next door. She knew she would probably not sleep much, and for some reason she was reluctant to undress. She hopped into her bed with all clothes on, and put her phone under the pillow.

She struggled against sleep for a while, then drifted off into a light slumber.

 

 

 

 

 

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