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TRACE - PART I

Written by Sam Miller

 

You wipe the sweat from your brow with your free hand, gaze never leaving the screen. Your other hand dances with the mouse, furtive twitches and spasms causing the corruption of thousands and thousands of bits of data.

Click. Click. Click.

The connection analyser hums softly as it informs you of the security measures you've defeated. The Mini-Map glows as it visually demonstrates the route your packets are taking around the world. The soft noise of the trace tracker echoes the dull bass throb of your own heartbeat, both quickening the longer you remain illegally connected.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Another kind of noise emerges now, the white noise screech of an oncoming headache. The pressures build and build inside and outside your body, threatening to overcome your mind and leave your body a mindless gibbering wreck.

Click. Beep. Throb. Pain.

With a defeated kind of groan, the password protection system joins the proxy and firewall systems in the 'off' list, and you gain access to Xerxes Corp. Internal Services System. The annoying beep of the trace tracker has now become a noise of triumph, as you estimate 1 and a half minutes before the trace is complete.

And a master hacker like you doesn't need a half that amount of time to steal a file and leave.

A quick check of your job-doc later, you arrive at the fileserver, and copy 'Xerx-Data-4563' to your memory banks. A few more deft clicks and all logs bar your original connection log have been removed. Another few clicks and all traces of you have been removed from Xerxes' system, their security back in place, and your computer disconnected.

A soft laugh escapes your perspiration-drenched lips. The trace hadn't even reached 80%.

Amateurs.

Of course, next to you, almost every other hacker looks amateur. Taking pride of place in Uplink Corp.'s number 1 agent spot, and also occupying the CIA's number 1 most wanted person spot, you take pride in the fact that you are quite possibly one of the most dangerous people alive.

Duty calls, as you place a quick return email to Tri-Op Inc., including the file you stole from the Xerxes mainframe.
The headache that has been threatening to make itself known for the last half-hour while you prepared for this hack now burgeons completely into your brain, unbarred and free now that you have nothing to occupy your mind.

Deciding that bed is the best thing, you grab a drink of milk and head off for a well-deserved rest. The credits will have been forwarded to your account by tomorrow.

The sweet siren song of sleep calls to you, dragging your consciousness into its inky-black depths, shrouding your mind in a black haze. You find yourself unable to keep your eyes open, but don't bother trying, enjoying the cloying warmth of your bed.

* * * * *

Your eyes find themselves jarred open, as a loud beeping noise erupts into your thoughts. Shiny blue surrounds you on all sides, an assault on your senses. The room appears to be entirely flat, a smooth blue cube. No entryway. No exit.

The beep sounds again, hammering into your skull like a demented weapon. A low hum starts to make its presence felt as well. You whip round to discover a circular hole has appeared where previously there was a smooth wall. A soft green light, growing slowly, pierces the darkness inside the circle.

As you watch the green light grow, hoping for some answers, the beep sounds again. It was louder this time, definitely louder. The smooth blue of your room has started to become washed-out, overcome by the green light ahead.

The beep again. And this time, the green light glows softly, a darker green, before returning to its original colour. And still it grows, bigger and bigger. At the next beep you decide that you have to move, somewhere, somehow.

Another opening has formed, directly behind you. The rumble has increased to a quaking in the floor, and the beeping noise, when it sounds, deafens you. The green light rolls into the chamber, revealing itself to be a ball. A ball of glowing green light. It continues on its course, making straight for you.

You turn and run for the opening behind you, desperate to escape the light. The floor shakes around you as you hurtle headlong down the thin, dark corridor. The light seems to be gaining on you, its steady beep a constant reminder of how close it is to catching you. Your heartbeat races to the tune of the light.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The increasing pace of the noise coincides with the light coming closer. It threatens to run you over, to trample you, to crush you. You lose control of your limbs and begin pinwheeling your arms, desperate to get away.

Beep-beep-beep

The light has now stretched far in front of you, and you get the feeling that you are no longer running from the light, you are running inside it. The beep has become a constant noise, and all you can feel is dread. A terrible icy fear that this light will kill you. It streaks all around you, engulfing you, crushing you.

Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep

You wake up with a start, and lean over to stop your alarm clock. What a nightmare.

* * * * *

3 hours later you return to your computer, a steaming mug of coffee in your hand and the nightmare forgotten. Logging on to your Gateway. You head for Uplink International Bank, checking your account. Yes, Tri-Op credited it with the money they promised.

Next stop is Uplink Internal Services Machine. A few new news items catch your eye, a couple of big hacks from Uplink agents, another hack on Arunmor (third this month), and a prominent executive murdered. You click for a closer look at this story, but the details aren't interesting. Peter Jackson, executive, blah blah, murdered in his home, unknown assailant, blah blah. You're a hacker, not a homicide agent, and since you didn't know the guy the story doesn't grip you.

You head off the mission list and decide to start easy today - Protovision will give you 1800 credits to steal a large file from Elite Technologies. Why not?

Checking your memory banks, you clear out space for the new file you're about to nab. As you do, you notice the file from the Xerxes mainframe. Intrigued, for no reason other than you're currently bored, you access the file and view the contents. A tiny file, the contents turn out to be nothing more than a list, 23 or 24 words. Upon closer inspection, you find that the words are arranged into names. Ten of them.

Then a name near the top catches your attention. You rub your eyes and look closer, expecting it to have been a mirage. But no.

Peter Jackson

It wasn't a mirage, but it must have been a coincidence. The other names don't look even vaguely familiar. Yes, you decide. Coincidence.

Coincidence.

* * * * *

At the end of another long day, you pause for a brief review. You've just emailed another company, mission accomplished, as usual. The credits have gone through, and on the whole you're feeling pretty good. That shiny new gateway with all its upgrades is only just around the corner, money wise. A faint tugging pulls at the back of your head as you think of the lives you've ruined today, the men you've destroyed, the companies you've toppled.

It takes a few moments before you can place that nagging tug, but eventually you recognize it. Your conscience. Hasn't surfaced in a while, and you've done far worse things recently than the trifling hacks you've pulled off today.

Maybe it just decided to make a reappearance to annoy you. Pushing it away, you check the Uplink Internal Services System, just one last time, to make sure you're still Uplink's Number 1 Agent. Like there's any chance of the being knocked off that spot.

The tug of conscience draws you off the Rankings board, and points you in the direction of the News Server. For no reason, you decide to check it. The first item that catches your eye drains the blood from your face. Another murder. Same circumstances. Still no suspects, though the police don't believe that it's connected with last nights.

You check the name: Andrew Markson.

Fingers numb, you access the Xerxes Data List and look down it.

Peter Jackson
Andrew Markson

Now there's no mistaking it. You have a list of murder victims. Technically, you're not even supposed to have it. All Uplink Agents are obliged to delete any files they steal off their own systems. But you didn't. And the fact remains, you now know the next 8 people to be killed.

That irritating conscience is pulling at you worse than ever now. The business-side of your mind keeps telling you, in a comforting voice, 'What does it matter? Doesn't affect you. Don't worry about it.' But, hard as you try, you cannot shake that nagging bastard in the back of your head, telling you that you've landed yourself in big trouble.

The war inside your mind continues through the night, leading to a troubled sleep. You have a repeat nightmare, the same as last night. The flashing green light and steady, drilling beeping sound. You're being chased by that green light. No, scratch that, you're being tracked by that green light. Being traced.

When you awake, you immediately logon to your gateway and access the Uplink Internal Services System, checking the news. Two new murders, in the one night. The third and fourth names on your list.

That does it; your mind is made up. You start a new email, including the names of the remaining 6 people on the list.

You are in DANGER…

I cannot tell you who I am, but I work for Uplink.

I recently came into possession of a list, containing ten names. The first four belonged to people who have been killed in the last two days.

Your names are on this list too.

You are in extreme DANGER. Watch yourself.

-Anonymous

You send the email, bouncing it around 47 servers, hopefully enough to confuse any tracers.

The tug of conscience lessens immediately, to be replaced by a pang of curiosity. Why these people?

You access InterNIC, Uplink Internal Services, Government Records, Social Security, Bank Accounts and more. Your job as hacker for Uplink forgotten, you spend all day piecing together the mystery. It seems that out of the 4 killed, the 2 killed last night belonged to the same company, Retroversion. The rest belonged to other companies. But after defeating some rather heavy Bank countermeasures, you hack into the accounts and find that large sums of money have been dumped by all companies into an account on a server you've never seen before. You copy the IP, vowing to check it out.

Before you do though, you log onto the Uplink News Service again, hoping that all is okay. Alas, you discover that another murder has occurred, the fifth name on your list. Half the people are dead now.

Suddenly, your dormant Trace_Tracker comes to life. It glows a piercing green as it informs you that a trace has been initiated. You stare, slack-jawed, as a steady beep emerges. Suddenly you find yourself lost in your dream. That same green light, that same beep. It's all the same. Shaking yourself out of your reverie, you move to disconnect before the trace completes.

But the trace has already completed. Another warning light glows on now, your Gateway proximity sensor. Panicking, you access the self-destruct mechanism and trigger it without a seconds thought.

You know that somewhere, your Uplink Gateway has just exploded. You hope that it took whatever bastard is trying to get you with it.

* * * * *

You spend the rest of the day and all of the next wondering what to do now. Uplink has calmly informed you that it detected the explosion of your Gateway machine, and is willing to provide you with a new one. Considering the circumstances, you decline.

On the afternoon of the 3rd day since all this started, you decide to use your computer at home to log into the Uplink News Service. Bouncing the connection manually, it takes 45 minutes before you can obtain access. But obtain it you do, and a scary sight greets your eyes. From what you can remember, there are now only two remaining people on the list you had. The list that has now exploded, the only evidence you had.

As you sit there, dumbstruck and impotent, inspiration strikes. You've always had a head for numbers, and this serves you well as you remember the IP of that company all the money had been channelled into. You access it, bouncing your connection again. Without access to a Gateway, you had no Password_Breaker, no Decypher, no tools. But you're not the best hacker ever for nothing. Using nothing other than your operating system and your wits, you manage to defeat all security measures and gain access to the system.

As you slowly pore over all the data, the pieces fall into place. The whole mystery becomes much clearer in your mind, as you view financial records and statistics. You know now why these men were killed. You know who killed them. And you know why. Unfortunately without a gateway, you cannot immediately contact the police.

No access to a Gateway presents other problems as well. Like, for instance, you have no way of telling if anyone is tracing you. As such, you had no warning when 12 heavily armed and armoured soldiers break down your door and charge into your room, brandishing rifles and lethal-looking stun prods.

You fight, but no one could fight for long against these soldiers. They stun you and haul you off in the back of an armoured van.

Barely conscious, aching all over, bleeding profusely, you barely have the ability to think.

But you swear that somehow, someday, you'll get revenge on the bastards that did this. You know now, you know it all.

You know.

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