Agnosis

Agnosis
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LexiWills,United Kingdom,Professional
Published Date:31-07-2017
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Agnosis Darren R. Hawkins Wincing at Light Books www.wincingatlight.com 1. The spider was fat. As all hoary predators, it was alternately brazen and sly, cagey and belligerent, compensating with guile what it had lost in to age and the ravages of time. Into a meticulously rendered universe of milky matrices and opalescent geometry, Dorian fluttered after it, tickling skeins, tugging at anchors, freefalling through the immeasurable vastness of a cerulean space. His palms were damp, his fingers trembled. The spider might have been bloated and limping along on legs so old and cockeye hacked that the compilers couldn’t even decipher its business anymore, but it was wise, and if it suspected for even a moment that he was stringing it along, it would scurry away into one of its endless black warrens of binary detritus where he might never see it again. Dorian was savvy to all the latest tricks, but the spider was the master of this environment. It had likely been feeding on the network a dozen years before he had assembled his first Vorman-perl script. That was what he believed, at least, that the spider was ancient, an unearthed artifact, splendid in its antiquity. And crafty. Ever so crafty to have survived undetected for so long. So he had come after it with guile of his own. He’d been laying his traps for almost two weeks, off and on, salting packets of bait along the back alleys of the data structure, each bundle of code a lexicon of chaos text that was more noise than signal, but noise pregnant with its own nefarious structure. Tasty bits 5 like the pixellated approximation of a skittering housefly. He taught himself what the spider liked, what it ignored, what it processed and what it left behind once the gorging was done. Then he built his own database of its tastes, and refined his applications to suit the particular interests of his target. He watched and waited, measured the spider’s strikes in picoseconds and studied the web vibrations as it dragged its soft and pale underbelly along the dynamic datascape. And all the time, he scuttled along surreptitiously behind the beast and plugged the holes it had chewed in the fabric of the network. He learned many of its favorite paths and its trapdoor escape routes. He buried his sensors and dug his holes, lined the walls of data-dense caverns with pungi sticks of Escher algorithms and Moebius logic. He bided his time. And waited. Made guesses. Made himself miserable, in fact. He'd only gotten a good look at it once. No, that wasn’t true. It hadn’t even been a proper look, just the poor facsimile of a faded image. The spider was a thing of nightmares, line after line of the most scabrous and key-jacked code he’d ever seen. Old perl, some original pre-Protocol Vickers Standard, a sublime injection of Gancet and R-ASP synthesis logic. He’d somehow snapshotted the tail end of it, a lucky cache dump in the fraction of a second before the temp logs evaporated, and what he had extracted from even that bare snippet had kept him busy for days untying logical knots and parsing impossible strings. So much work just to deconstruct a thing that should never have been. It was like excavating some antediluvian monstrosity. The jack who had written it was a pure genius. But Dorian had it now. Almost. He’d tracked it here, to a confluence of nodes where the spider peered out from an undocumented port with a dead ping address. The port was left over from some decade forgotten upgrade most likely, and had been elegantly concealed by code-magery Dorian still didn’t properly understand. He watched as slowly, stealthily, the hidden gate to its lair swung open. A blast of camouflaging nonsense digits spewed 6 along the system backbone, and the spider peered out into the electric night, sniffing for the scent of prey, then shuffled along its favorite subnet, wicked and wary and full of malice. Dorian heaved his orientation from render to the static universe, where he could study the beast from a careful distance and read his passive diagnostics the way a careful angler might gauge the wind or decipher the ripples in a rustic pool. He couldn’t help but be nervous. Likely as not, he only had one shot at quelling this threat. This was what he knew: the spider liked neuraloptics. It liked metempsychosis. It really liked mysticism and Trismegistus and eschatechnology. But most of all, it liked zap and entropy and Ravillean physics. Those were the things it couldn’t resist. So Dorian had built his snare: a partial treatise on neural cognition seasoned throughout with a randomized Pythagorean diatribe in poorly translated Greek. A zap depot technical manualunstrung into 32-bit discretes, then strung out again, only backwards. Odds and ends mostly, the product of all his maddening statistical analysis. But the spider tasted none of this, not yet. What it scented was a raw copy of the unauthorized Strand pirate of Raville’s thesis defense from the late ‘70’s. Highly apocryphal. This was the lure. If it was careful, as Dorian expected it would be, the spider would dart out from its safe haven, perpetrate a smash and grab against the curious bit sectors that had attracted its attention, then retreat back to its port to devour and digest in safety. But once it ventured near enough, there would be the enticing aroma of zap, of Hermes, and other cognitive delights. Tempted, it would draw near to investigate. It would attempt to sample, to poke and prod the curious file. Eventually, it would dig itself in to suck at the sweet fountain of a carefully crafted logical matrix. And so it would trigger the trap: an endless loop of data paralysis that mainlined into an abyss of random keywords that would last as long as the power grid. The spider would gorge until it popped. It was a good plan. A sneaky plan. But there was also some risk. Dorian had a malicious 7 counterscript ready to plug its port with a cascading hexadecimal screen to confuse the spider and cut off its escape. That was well and good, standard infiltration script containment stuff, but what he couldn’t predict was how the spider would respond to such a direct frontal assault. Thus far, their game had been cat and mouse. He had made assumptions about the nature of the beast for which he had no supporting evidence. Most worrying, perhaps, was that he couldn’t be absolutely certain that there wasn’t a cache-delete routine in the spider’s grab bag of tricks. Once Dorian slammed the door on its escape, it was distinctly possible that he wouldn't be able to get that door open again, and while he fought with the lock, the port could very well be mass purging the entire trove of purloined files the spider had been hoarding. Dorian might never know what it had been mining lo these many insidious years. And to make matters worse, there was always the possibility that he might lose track of the spider itself when the digits began to fly. It would have other lairs that he hadn’t discovered or outright evacuation nodes that would bounce it off the network and back to wherever it had come from, taking all its harvested bits along with it. He just didn't know, and the not-knowing was maddening. That was why Dorian didn’t want to just kill the spider. He wanted to autopsy it. He needed to know where it came from and what it thought it was doing. Killing it outright was as good as losing, because otherwise he might never learn how his network had been breached. So he watched and he waited, a little more breathless than he would have liked to admit. He tracked the spider's progress from bait packet to bait packet, devouring the happy little breadcrumbs farther and farther away from its lair. The spider didn’t resist. It couldn’t really. It was, after all, just a rogue application, a packet of ancient and obsolete languages, whose only real defense after all this time had been stealth and its ability to shuffle bits back and forth with such meager throughput that the network efficiency routines didn’t notice it. It heaved its ponderous bulk along the logical path of a 8 backwater subnet, still deceptively quick on its fat and agile constructs, drawing farther and farther still from its safe haven. At random intervals, it sprang a tremulous flicker of diagnostics ahead, wary of data sentinels, competing scavengers, or security protocols. It sensed nothing. And gently as the drop of a curtain, the trap snapped shut. The gatekeeper script executed and sealed the port behind it. Dorian ground his teeth together and waited for the signal that a mass purge had been initiated, but none came. If the spider noticed, it gave no sign. It lumbered to the edge of the pit Dorian had dug for it, snuffled the ground for clues, then plunged headlong into the abyss. It sucked deep and it sucked long. Dorian geeked into datascape just to get a look at it. The spider rendered as a great gelatinous glob, all black eyes and reticulated limbs, and it was still very much alive and kicking. It heaved against the jaws of the trap, buried to the thorax in binary mire, back legs angled toward the blank sky, clenching and releasing in a mindless autonomic rhythm. But there was no escape. The moment the spider had executed into its extraction routines, Dorian's pit had logged the read/analysis- request and launched a standard trollware defense counteragent which immediately began opening the spider in a dozen analysis tool formats. Bit generators strafed its internal code segments with randomly generated spurious characters. The pit itself fired up quik-load bitstream accelerators that dug into the spider's buffer array like so many jagged hooks and flooded its SAM stacks at an alarming, transfixing, and ultimately inescapable rate. It was the equivalent of piercing the spider’s hide with a score of surgical needles and hyper-injecting into its heart a redundantly lethal dose of targeted neurotoxin. The spider shuddered once more, like a man shown the head of the gorgon, and turned to stone. Dorian geeked out again, ran a routine capture and quarantine on the address block, and sat back in his chair. He clasped his hands together behind his head and sighed. He'd really hoped for something more challenging, more epic after so much time and effort. An immensely unsatisfying task, all in all. 9 During the several minutes it took to set up and begin delivering a recover-and-archive ghost of the dead port, he amused himself with an anonymous node crack of a server at the regional offices of the ubiquitous one-stop megamarket chain, Hometown Mart, using an exploit he had picked up off the Strand from a well raved and reliable jack in North Delhi Enclave who called himself Ahura Mazda. Click-click-tat, and the ready-for-release quarterly profit transfer was diverted from corporate coffers to those of a bobcat silicate mining colony in Eudora that the day’s newswire had mentioned was suffering under a combination of factors ranging from general financial destitution and the collapse of the Universal Health Organization, to the skyrocketing cost of antivirals and the plain old money-grubbing of pharmaceutical conglomerates. The outbreak of encephalitis was almost incidental. He resisted the urge to tag a snarky Thanks for your generous contribution encrypted NFO file to his hack for Hometown’s IT flunkies to pore over, and finally settled for authorizing the funds transfer with his customary jackidj0n d33. By the time they parsed what had happened, it would be too late to stop the (proprietary) medical scheme zap to Eudora (an order he had courteously logged and retro-dated for immediate transmission first thing in the morning from the Hometown pharmacy orders database). They could find and read his crack hx on any of the public lists if they really wanted to know why. It wasn’t exactly anarchy, but a few dozen dying moners and their families who would otherwise have perished would get their hands on the meds they desperately needed. Screwing Hometown in the process was just a bonus. It wasn’t his fault that the promised paradise of the post- zap universe had failed so miserably. A short time later, Amara buzzed into his geek as a swashbuckling manga avatar, all limpid-pool clichés, plaid miniskirts and Lovecraftian angles. He’d completely forgotten that she was still buzzing around on the network. "You’re making mischief again," she said without 10 preamble, animated pelvis thrust forward, shoulders back, mouth an impossible pinhole. He should have pointed this dissonant pixellation out to her—he tended to be a stickler for functional anatomical accuracy in avatar design, where human-ish avatars were concernedbut didn’t feel like getting dragged in to help her fix it. "Nothing nefarious here,” he assured her. “I’m merely savoring a victory over the forces of darkness and chaos. We had an incursion." "It’s more than that, otherwise you wouldn’t have that grin." "That would be the grin that says I’m up to mischief, eh?" She did not accuse him of attempting to deceive her directly, only fluttered her eyelashes at him, the innocence of her expression undermined by the precocious flurry of pastel waterfowl which erupted from her ears. Dorian made a mental note to add “Never trust a woman who emotes in cartoon” to his list of Rules to Live By. "I don’t think you know me well enough to make that assessment," he said. "Well, did you get it at least?" "The spider? It’s in quarantine, yes. I was just about to autopsy it.” The words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. “Would you like to watch?" "Geeked or old school?" "I geeked a wrapper around the script to track it, but I’m going to decompile it in analog. You can see my nifty render if you want, though. I’ll flash you the ip." She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Ick, no thanks. I can’t stand to grub around in the text. It’s so tedious." "The whole world is text, Amara. Some people just choose not to recognize it for what it is." She spun on her tiptoes in a balletic pirouette like the tumbling of autumn leaves. For all Dorian knew, she might just transmogrify into a shower of foliage at any moment. Puffy, pastel leaves, in fact. But instead, she turned on him with her vast round eyes and rodent giggle of amusement, clapped her hands together in front of her chest and trilled, "Oh, you are so precious" "I’m being precious?” he snapped. “Hello, my job is 11 deconstructing malicious loads and figuring out how they work." She didn’t speak, but the local environment reverberated with her response: The whole world is text, Amara. It was his own voice, rolled down a mocking octave. Cute. "Look, this doesn’t strike you as remotely odd?" he asked. "You’re sitting two meters away from me, and instead just asking me what I’m doing, or God forbid, coming and looking over my shoulder, you jack into my geek and start giving me a hard time." A flock of spontaneous neon question marks sprang from her forehead. "I was already on the Strand." "It isn’t natural. That’s what I’m saying." "That’s the whole point, darling. It’s better than natural." "Better?" "If we do it your way, I have to preface a simple question—frex, ‘So what are you up to, John?’with a bunch of silly and pointless chattermongering. I ask you how your evening is going; you grunt something noncommittal because you hate being disturbed when you’re working. I ask if you have any big plans for the weekend; you respond with something that may or may not be true just to keep up your end of the conversation. Trying probably unsuccessfully, I might add, to act amiable while secretly hoping that I’ll just get to the point. When I do finally get around to dispensing with the accustomed social pleasantries and finally ask what you’re doing exactly, you experience such a profound sense of relief that you become convinced it might actually be a good idea to tell me. So you launch into a tediously detailed technical summary of your entire afternoon’s activities that led ultimately to your grin of satisfaction that attracted my interest in the first place. You unnecessarily try to explain the logic, the binary, and other sundry intricacies of the data structure in such a way that I’ll understand the full scope and magnitude of your brilliance." She flashed him an insouciant wink. "I’ve sought to avoid all that conversation porn." "Conversation porn?" he repeated dully. "Mindless and disposable verbal transactions that exist solely to preface the ultimate event, but which otherwise 12 completely fail to move the action along. By cutting out all the conversation porn, we skipped all of that annoying interaction and got right down to the important bits, to wit, that you were spiking an intruder and proud of yourself for it. My way is a more efficient mode of communication." He sighed. "It’s more efficient data transfer." "Yes, that, too." She grinned, and if she’d attached another saucy wink to it, he had no doubt that he would have been forced to infect her system plugs with a file eating viral agent, just on general principle. "But hey, it’s getting late. Do you want some coffee? It sounds like you’ve got a long evening ahead of you." "Please." The avatar waved at him. "You’re such a luddite, John. That’s what makes you so adorable." Before he could respond, she popped out of existence, leaving behind a shower of marshmallow stars that insisted on defying gravity in the most aggravating way. In a universe pregnant with quantum packets of data signal, mega-bandwidth spew and infotainment on demand for anyone who wanted to jack in any time/anywhere, personal office space had become an obsolete concept. Anything that was networked, noded, or otherwise woven into the Strand could be accessed from anywhere else, provided you had the gear, the wetwires and the accessor the skills to slip around the security barring you from access. Most of these nodes were cleverly rendered in geek as towering and byzantine edifices, pseudo-Gothic pagan temples, or anything else that could be imagined and subsequently pixellated. If he chose to, John Dorian could make the virtual walk to work from his coffin in Quiksand passing along the way a pearl studded replica of Notre Dame, the lovely and imposing Reichstag, a withering graphical ode to Old Fenway Park that interminably looped through the final, heart shattering play of the ’96 Series and the Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude, all without ever physically leaving home. In between were more modest structures cribbed from architectural drawings, historical landmarks and the pure stuff of fancy (ref. the Gilman Brothers reinterpretation of Walt 13 Disney’s reinterpretation of the fairy castle). The cheap structures were defended at the gates by cross-armed code heavies known to the industry as golemechsglorified sentinel scripts that unobtrusively read your .sec file and granted access based on the permissions they found there. Upscale constructs used outright .sec recognition portals of varying complexity, invisible to the unauthorized geeked eye, and tougher to crack (in theory) than a golemech. Geek had churches and pornariums, freeways and billboards, free speech and gangland violence. Fake cafes in which to chat. One hour motels for more sordid business. Banks and beaches, museums and casinos, everything the heart could envision, the congloms could make a buck on, and jacks could code, render, borrow or steal. And everywhere were beautiful people: rock stars, vid characters, clumsy n00b renders and horribly (orgaspcompetently) cobbled cliparts that jerked down the sidewalk like Romerotesque zombies. Half the people Dorian knew walked the real streets in geek on those rare occasions when they did venture out into the flesh and blood world because they didn’t recognize the natural landmarks without it. And for other reasons, too. Richness was one. Experience. Diversity. The fact that Sonali Real sucked. That was the world as he knew it. A dead end, anonymous cityscape teetering on the outermost limits of human commerce and exploration, plugged into a fake experience that was popularly accepted as more real, more vibrant, more everything than reality itself. So really, if you could get the whole universe on the Strand, who neededwho wantedto physically move the meat to get to work? Who needed to actually be present when the space that would have been your office could be much more usefully applied to the purpose of storing stuff that had legitimate commercial value? That was the billion rupee question, wasn’t it? Who needed the world when you had the full and immanent potentiality of the infinite metaverse at your synaptic command? All of this served to explain why Dorian’s office was a 14 grubby cubicle in the basement surrounded by blinking quantum server boxes that exhaled noxious, supercooled electronic effluvia into a cramped warren of packing boxes, metal shelves and rolls of fiberoptic cable. He'd had to fight just to get a simple thing like a desk, a box of pens, a stapler. And he was the only member of the crack technical staff who set foot inside the office more than twice a yearone of those times being the freaking corporate Christmas party. And that was why he walked to work. Dorian was a luddite. He liked the tactile pleasure of clicking keys. He liked the existential distance of digital interactions mediated by motherboards and photon guns rather than images rendered directly into his cortical mass. Most of all, he liked to live in a self-contained and consciously delineated reality that was distinct from the intrusions of the Strand. His reality was a determined and emergent sum, es, est, rather than a representational communal fantasy of eritis. He liked to grub about in the text, for God’s sake. He took a deep and illicit pleasure in it. In geek, he had a dozen tools at his disposal for dealing with the spider. He kept them locked in a virtual workshop on the network, hung on pegs, neatly arranged, frequently dusted so they didn’t look like they were mouldering from lack of use. The complex extractors that rendered as shop vacs; binary constructors that pretended to be clamps and nail guns; three flavors of decompiler that tried to pass themselves off as air hammers. Rows upon rows of sundry analysis scumware purchased for him by departmental leads with more money than sense and too much access to tech literature for their own good. (Not to mention, all those good natured, glad-handing, ethically dubious vendors who pushed the bleeding edge releases of these internally cohesive Strand phenomenals as a going-places corporation’s best defense against the constant assault and new-fangled tricksterisms of malcontents and madjackers lurking in the virtual alleys of the Strand.) Each of these products was not only capable of, but happy to, reconstruct the senseless muck of code structures and arcane language modules he was expected to encounter in the course of his duties into readily grokkable artifacts. Technology so simple and user friendly a secretary could run 15 it, they crowed, as if that was something to be proud of. Dorian hated those tools. Geek made everything falsely intimate. It filtered an alphanumeric world of simple absolutes through the deceptive cheesecloth of messy sense experience. By slabbing more code onto the original in the interest of interpretation, geek introduced imprecision, fuzzed the edges, until you couldn’t be certain if you were deconstructing the object itself or your subconscious prejudices of the object. Geek was a map, and no matter how easy it was to read, how provocative the render, the map was most certainly not the territory. The territory was characters and digits, black and white, and everyone who didn’t recognize that fact was utterly and completely lost. They just wouldn’t admit it to themselves. Because they had a map, of course. Dorian was in the business of knowing things, of really understanding the worksand through them, the mindsof thieves, exploit hacks, data miners and jacks of all trades. Code told you secrets that a render could only approximate. It whispered oracles about the creators, tricksters and techjockies who really controlled the universe. People like him, to some extent. The diversions of his nihilistic Hometown fetish aside, geek security was what he did. Or at least it was what he did for the small haven of the data pleroma that was the Sonali (Real and Imagined) Masonic Archive Infocache. His father would have called it a self- storage barn for the snooty set, and would have called Dorian a security guard, which was partially trueexcept that he got paid quite a bit better, and didn’t have to carry a gun. He rolled his chair up to his desk and refreshed his monitor screen. The monitor was connected through a wiring conduit and accelerated fiberoptic lines to the primary quantum Strand box in the next room. The machine was called Abramhelin, and it was the Archive’s network backbone. His interface was a standard keyboard he’d had assembled from an old computing schematic he’d located in one of the digital stacks. Amara appeared a short time later with coffee. He hardly glanced at her, recognized her even less. This week, she was 16 some sort of quasi-saurian thing. Crimson scales like flecks of ruby that shimmered in the buzzing, bleached purple glow of the fluorescent lights. It made her look as though she was enclosed in a penumbra of blood. Her eyes were slitted, red at the edges, black in the center. There was a startling golden mohawk down the center of her elongated skull. Completely androgynous and naked, as far as he could tell, which truthfully, was not that great a distance. The scales made it difficult to surmise without staring, and her fangs were an adequate deterrent against egregious ogling. Amara Cain had been his office mate for all of six months. She was a hard copy archivist who had been displaced from her cube upstairs when management had brought in the big MicroSun Docutizer™ to replace most of the standard dox archivists in her section. She specialized in written texts, personal journals, scribbled diariesitems that required hand scanning and individualized verification, usually for high end clients. Dorian didn’t know what she’d done or who she’d pissed off to end up consigned to the dungeons with him, but he liked having her around. She came to work every day. Which probably meant that there was something wrong with her that ran deeper than her sociopathic selection of avatars. "I like that better than the last one," he said, because some part of his animal brain told him that he was morally required to say something in return for her effort in getting the coffee. Pay her a compliment on her appearance—the verbal equivalent of chimpanzees picking nits off one another’s backsides. "Seriously, that other one was—eh—it was...what was it supposed to have been exactly?" " A Mi-go," she said. "Or an artistic reinterpretation of one. The tentacles kept getting caught in my coffin door." "Well, this one is better. Definitely. I mean that." "You don’t like it." When she frowned, he could see the jagged line of her canines with alarming clarity. "Not at all. It’s just that I sort of imagined you as more avian. Not a criticism, of course, just saying. You havehad a natural avian build, I thought." "Ugh. Avian has been done to death, and it takes weeks to mod the wings." She set the cup on his desk, out of the way of 17 his elbows. He looked away. "Well, this is interesting, at least. Very unique." Which was high praise, as he measured such things.. "It’s my own design. With summer coming on, cold- blooded seemed more natural. The rest is dramatic effect." She grinned at him, exposing the full double row of her filed, predatory teeth. "But I’m leaving my palms and soles native. So I can sweat." "You should pixellate it," he said, nodding vigorously. The universal sign for waning interest. She blinked her epicanthal folds at him as though he was being nonsensical. "That’s silly. No one would know me if I changed my avatar now. I’ve been Ryoku forwell, for months." They would recognize her in spite of any modification she made, of course. They’d just overwrite her new render with their preferred avatar of her, probably were doing it already, if they had any sense. He’d gone through a phase a couple of years ago where he jacked all the avatars in his address cache into balloon animals. It was difficult to take people so seriously that way. Downside was that it was hard to tell what a balloon animal was thinking from its expression and body language. He’d thought about experimenting with color and shading simulations of emotional triggers and had actually started working on the algorithms before it dawned on him that doing so would be like admitting he had most likely gone completely and immedicably insane. He had scrapped the whole project for the sake of his mental health. Amara patted his shoulder. "I’ve got to get back to this new bequest of dox. Are you going to purge the local net over this incursion?" "Not on purpose. It depends on how deep our friend drilled and what systems he may have compromised. I can give you a Schrödinger bubble address on one of the other boxes if you need some temporary storage as a precaution." "Don’t worry about it. If you crash my data, I’ll just eat you." For some reason, he doubted that she was completely kidding. 18 2. It was worse than he had thoughtan absolute worst case scenario by all indications. With the code shell decompiled, he was finally able to nail down the spider’s quantum log signature and make reasonable guesses about the way it had gone about its business. Its modus operandi appeared to have been a standard quick-couple and scan of incoming bits, then the rapid application of some seriously sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms, followed by a catchall keyword search-match, all perpetrated across a variety of media platforms. Most of the original source plugs and codecs were grievously outmoded .swfs, .cags, .mngsbut there was evidence that adaptive cognition strands had been engineered in the R-ASP using rudimentary logic trees that allowed for cross-platform extrapolation. The logs indicated it had stuttered a bit while making the initial evolutionary leaps, but eventually it had adapted from text and character signifiers to corneal-cochlear- neural object phenomenalism, which had been barely an infant field of study when Gancet and Vickers Standard were pushing the far boundaries of their models. The jack who had written the spider had predicted CCNP’s (seenop, the mediative language of geek) emergence as the dominant coding convention by at least a decade. Such prophetic thinking explained how the spider had navigated the network’s security protocols undetected for so long. By the time the servers had been upgraded from text based 19 applications to phenomenal object drivers, the spider had already entrenched itself into the network’s core and woven its invisible skeins. It wrote itself into the subsequent upgrades as an atypical prediagnostic superpacket tasked with outsourcing particular binary stings into the same spontaneously generated quantum foam the viral scanners used to quarantine suspicious data blocks. By the time the probability field where the quarantined data was being processed collapsed, the spider had already routed its own data into a warren of transfer bubbles preselected to collapse into patterns that matched the original binary packets. These bubbles transformed into discrete focal literals that, in effect, precisely replicated the encoding of the original file without ever touching it in its post-transfer, assembled state. It was, to be blunt, a magnificent bait-and-switch. The servers assumed that the small bit loss that occurred between transmission and viral certification were infected blocks shunted off into the metaverse. But the real brilliance of the design was that data was never actually lost in the process. Information theory’s fundamental principles of redundant signal transmission meant that the packets which went missing were always recovered. Signal accounted for the "skips" in the datastream and rebuilt itself. Which meant that no one ever went looking for documents that didn’t exist, so no one caught on. Dorian could only wish his own cracks were so elegant. A crack that took what it wanted but left it at the same time. Not a copy of the thing, but the thing itself. Not a duplicate, but two originals nonetheless. The spider had been everywhere. It had drunk deep from the input spew from the very beginning, like a great yawning cat hiding in a screen of reeds about the local watering hole. The imperfectly collapsed foam shards in the error log files flags of its early transmogrification from text eater to phenomenalist omnivorepopped up in files and quantum lockers that ranged the length and breadth of the network, not a few of which dated back thirty years or more. How long it had been extracting documents before that was anyone’s guess. He uncovered its temporary weigh stations: system files 20 corrupted to stack unrecognized shadow bits, rider envelopes in the registry, larger opportunistic packets that attached themselves to full blown user applications. Whenever and wherever an object had been created, the spider had already been there weaving a sack for the eggs it expected to lay there one day. The spider was a virus that had penetrated the system so deeply and so long ago that it had become integral to the architecture. Not a parasite that lived off its host, but a host that existed for the sole purpose of quickening its parasite. Dorian could think of maybe fifty jacks in the business who could have executed such a clever, complex and bitchingly egregious penetration as this one. Forty of them were younger than he was, younger than the script itself. The other ten had taken positions in the defense industry and wouldn’t have bothered with something as relatively low value as the Archive in the first place. Not that the Archive was immune to assaults by rogue or hxless jacks. Dorian spent his days repelling the clumsy incursions of Illuminati nutcases, Templar fetishists and right wing script kiddies who had convinced themselves that the Archive was the Vatican’s Secret Library Annex and ultimate repository of documentary proof for such blockbuster conspiratorial truths as the clandestine bloodline of Jesus, the Gates Foundation-Rothschild connection and the alien origins of Egyptian mystery cults. Most of them never got past the first CAS buffer. Every once in a while, a really clever amateur jack would take a hint from the successful crack of the Trinitarian Banking Trust and launch an old fashioned, ungeeked code line assault, but Dorian’s homegrown scripts were inevitably more than a match for their n00b ingenuity. Still, it was a reputation business, and when a kid showed talent, people like Dorian kept tabs on themusually with recursive viral agents that backtracked the break in and wedged themselves into the jack’s datacore. It helped the kid build a hx; gave him some whuffie to spend. In some circumstances, the benign tracking flags allowed more experienced hands to pull him out of the fire if he botched a big score. It worked until the emerging jack developed the tool set to roust the intruders from his system without 21 crashing it, at which point he (or she) stopped being a kid and was generally recognized as pro competition. Call it altruism, call it tough love mentoring, call it industry self-regulation; Dorian called it keeping your enemy closer. Bottom line was that Dorian knew everyone, at least by reputation, who could have written the spider. He knew their methods, their conventions, their signature tricks. This was someone else, an ancient, a Grand Alchemist with one last crimson tincture baking in the furnace. It gave him a little thrill of excitement, to be honest. Exigo a me non ut optimis par sim sed melior. The currency of the culture was contributions to the knowledge base. For most of the talent, the ascent to legend in the burgeoning community of freelance jacks came by the cunning they displayed in their successful exploits (or less often, in the style which they manifested in their colossal failures). Others made rep by stopping them, by figuring out how to foil the designs of the best. Thwarting a jack of this apparent magnitude could transform Dorian’s hx profile from that of merely an ultra- competent corporate drone to head-turning Dungeon Master. So he dug deeper. He traced the connections between the nodes and wormholes he had previously discovered and looked for screens which he might have missed, camouflaged pathways that dug deeper or ranged father along the network than he had explored before. He plugged sub-architectural chutes the spider had used to operate behind the scenes. He wrote filler scripts to augment the system’s defenses based on what he had learned from the spider’s successes. He seeded the datascape with tracers and leeches that would attach themselves to future data access requests, then ported the logs into a synthesis engine that would evaluate and tag suspicious requests for future review. Through it all, he looked for bounce pointshidden ports the spider could have used to transmit its data outside the Archive’s network. Because that was the point, really. The spider was a data scavenger. Its sole reason for being was to gather pre-defined sets of raw information and shunt them off the Archive’s net and into the jack’s remote datacore for storage, analysis or eventual sale. Except he couldn’t find a bounce, which was a bit 22 disappointing. Such a disturbing and elegant undergrowth of nodes and storage fields and hidden bit pockets, but no equally complex cross-network shuttling system presented a startling inconsistency. He spent a couple of hours scouring all around the dead port the spider had used as its base of operations, then another hour on system history documentation, trying to trace the port’s datascape ip through a progression of hardware upgrades, system patches and assorted recompilations. There was nothing. If the port had ever been active, or had ever pointed anywhere other than interarchitecturally, that fact hadn’t ever been written down. Of course, the spider was old, and inter-platform hardware compatibility was more difficult to pre-engineer than anticipating the evolution of coding conventions (as the jack had done with seenop). It could be that all the bounce points had long ago been shut down by hardware migrations. Or that the Alchemist had gathered the dox he wanted and simply sealed the ports behind him when he was done, leaving the spider an orphan. But Dorian didn’t think so. One simply didn’t construct such an elaborate and clandestine mining operation to abandon it after short term gains. Too much overhead. Somebody had thought long and hard writing that spider, and they’d meant it to last a long time. And there was also the fact that hitting up the Archive had been a prime jack. No one walked away from a score of this caliber without documenting it. If no one knew what you had done, it might as well not have happened at all. That was why all the pro coders left behind a rep cookie. It was like mailing an old jilted lover an invitation to your upcoming wedding; it was basic courtesy. Intrusion for the sake of intrusion alone was the work of an amateur. The spider was not an amateur script. It was professional, time consuming, labor intensive. The jack who owned it would have dropped a cookie if he’d been forced to abandon it. One way or another, he would have made certain that Dorian got it, and that everyone else in the community got it as well. Which meant that Dorian had missed it. (Pfft.) Or that old age or something otherwise lethal had befallen the jack himself. (More likely.) 23

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