Cyn led the way as the trio left the Ithildin building, passing from the elevators through the soaring foyer. Bad corporate office art reared above them, aggressive, primary colored mediocrity on a grand scale. Security systems scanned them as they departed into the cool night air. The lack of street lighting made it easier to see the stars, and Ivan was struck by the beauty of the Milky Way soaring above him. He looked up and down the empty streets, but there was no one in view on the sidewalk, they were practically deserted. A single vehicle approached, a blunt teardrop shaped thing of indiscernible make. The city was like a ghost town at this hour, as Cyn’s car silently glided up to the curb and came to a halt, its falcon wing doors raising to admit them to the compact seating area with a small round table at the center.
“Wow, nice ride,” said Ivan. He glanced around the austere interior, looking for a logo or some mark of the manufacturer, but he could find none.
“But why bother owning one?” he said.
“Oh, this is very custom ride,” said Cyn. Her face lit up with excitement. Ivan could tell that she was very proud of her car and loved to talk about it. He braced himself for a long list of specs, and he wasn’t disappointed. “Redundant satellite uplinks with subscriptions to both of the private space based providers. Four long range wireless arrays, two medium range and two short range.”
“Why the short range?” said Batou, obviously more interested than Ivan.
“I use the IoT peer network a lot,” said Cyn. “That’s a tricky network to trace. It takes special chops to pry an access log out of an HVAC unit that has been forwarding packets for me.” She gave them a wicked grin and pushed her blue bangs out of her eyes. “It’s armored for special jobs. I’d be happy to tell you how many petaflops it’s running or what active countermeasures are onboard if you two want to sign an non-disclosure agreement. I might need to check your security clearance too.”
“Security clearance? With which government?” Ivan asked with a smile. He had worked with Batou before, never with Cyn. But she was starting to grow on him. He liked girls who were into heavy equipment. But he wondered why Rasmussen, who had put this team together, had thought they would need someone with a tactical background.
“I’ll pretend you didn’t ask that, comrade,” teased Cyn, her hands weaving before her as she worked on a private interface.
“Can you find me an anti-Tor node on that IoT net, Cyn?” asked Batou, throwing a handful of terminal windows into the shared workspace.
Ivan tried to focus on the operation at hand, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his girlfriend out with those two strange guys. He pulled up ChatTime, but she hadn’t posted any updates lately. She had left her location unhidden though, and was in fact at some bar in San Francisco.
“Certainly, my good man,” said Cyn. She was gazing into the ether and Ivan sighed and looked out the windows as the car executed some seemingly random turns around the empty downtown area, its algorithms scouting out an improperly secured building control mesh network. They slowed to a crawl along the curb by a big, nondescript building without windows, near an old decommissioned BART station. “Ah, here we go,” said Cyn. “Lots of open devices here. Sloppy admins.”
“What’s this place?” asked Ivan. Then he answered his own question by looking up the address. “Seems to be some sort of bio lab.”
“Yeah, lots of lab equipment, doesn’t really matter what we’ve got with a mesh like this, I’ll just send a worm through to dig up an internet connection,” said Cyn. She paused for a second. “Well, that didn’t take long. And here’s an anti-Tor node for you, Batou.”
Batou brought up an ultraSploit package he had been preparing. “Can I run this locally? See how much horsepower you have. Or should I dig up a botnet?”
“No, you can run it here, this is a rolling datacenter,” said Cyn. She could not hide her smug self-assurance as she passed Batou a container for him to drop his code into.
“Wow, that is impressive,” said Batou, with a grunt as the package rapidly cycled through its loading. “That’s a pretty deep net it’s building.”
“I see that,” said Cyn, sharing a resource monitor as they watched the bars get pegged.
Batou got his program initialized and then unleashed a machine learning attack algorithm on the server in China that he had located earlier. Ivan couldn’t make sense of the interface that Batou was showing them.
“What are we seeing here?” he asked.
“Uh, I think they locked this server down pretty tight,” said Batou. “Every time we find an exploit, it’s getting patched instantly and the connection resets. Fucking machine learning defense systems. Used to be that command and control servers were pushovers. In the old days, hackers were all teeth and no shell. But with automated patching, it’s tough to break a properly secured server.”
“Good thing so few admins properly secure their shit, or we would all be out of work,” laughed Cyn.
Just then Ivan’s glasses chimed in his ear and his girlfriend’s ChatTime status updated with a picture of her and two guys dancing together in a bar. It was a pretty suggestive dance, one guy behind her and the other in front, in some sort of lewd crotch to rear conga line. He gritted his teeth in anger as he blew up the picture and examined it in detail. As he looked closely, though, he wondered if these guys, Jayson and Franklin, were queer. They definitely had a queer look about them and he relaxed somewhat. Maybe this was a harmless night out with the “girls” for Bryce after all.
“Ivan, what the hell are you doing? Are you on ChatTime for Christ’s sake?” asked Batou, clearly annoyed. “Are you going to help us or not? I’m not getting anywhere with this goddamn server, even after throwing a ton of iron at it. I’m stuck.”
Ivan snapped his ChatTime window closed with a flourish. “Alright, alright, I’m here, I’m here,” he snapped.
“What’s she doing? Is she fooling around with one of those guys?” asked Cyn. She was clearly delighted and wanted him to fill her in on the dirt.
“Maybe not, they look sort of gay,” said Ivan.
“Don’t be so sure, looking metrosexual is back in, you know,” said Cyn, suppressing a grin.
“Cut the shit,” sighed Batou. “Focus, people. Focus.”
“Right, Batou, right,” said Ivan. “Okay then, let’s recap. Somebody hits Ithildin, and a big chunk of change goes missing. We dig up at least one of their pivot points, a derelict HP printer from the turn of the century, and trace it back to a Chinese datacenter, but the bastards had the nerve to properly lock down their server and your finest algos can’t break in, even with the heavy computing power of Cyn’s rolling datacenter.”
“Yes, we know all this, detective,” laughed Cyn.
“Okay, well, when in doubt, we go for the weakest link,” said Ivan. “Who’s the hosting provider?” He searched around a bit and found the name of the company responsible for that IP address. “Ah, look at this, they have a Hong Kong number for tech support. I’ll bet they speak English.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Even the Chinese outsource call center work to India, of course they will speak English,” said Cyn.
“All the better,” agreed Ivan. “Batou, set up a server with a URL with that hosting provider’s name in it somewhere.”
“Oh, you are going the social engineering route?” asked Cyn. “Impressive. Let’s see what you can do.”
Ivan grabbed a proxy address in Hong Kong to route his call from, and loaded one of his default business avatars as he dialed the hosting technical support line.
He was greeted by a low resolution AI and groaned as it started spouting Mandarin at him, which was quickly translated by Cyn’s workspace manager. “Welcome to Double Six hosting support, can I have your customer number?”
“Oh, I know this system, I know this system,” whispered Cyn. “There is a code to bypass the AI and get a human agent.” She sent a series of tones to the session and the support AI froze and was replaced by an animated scene resembling a classic Song Period Chinese painting of a river flowing through a valley and mountains rising into the mist beyond.
“Hello, hello, this is Double Six hosting, can I help you?” asked a tentative sounding human with a thick south Indian accent.
“Oh, hello, yes, this is Chadwick Xu from the main office,” said Ivan, using a voice filter that emulated a Chinese speaker with an English accent. “We are just doing a review of your training, this will only take few minutes.”
Cyn rolled her eyes at Ivan’s choice of names.
“So sorry, this is a customer line, so who are you with again?” asked the voice while the Song Dynasty inspired painting placidly looped.
“I’m calling from the main office, there must have been some mix up with the call routing, you should be seeing this as an internal number. No matter, I will take a note of that and open a ticket with our internal help desk. This call is just an audit so that we can make sure everyone is up to date on their training. We just go through a quick checklist. It will only take a few moments. First question, have you had any security training?”
“Err, yes, we do security training every year. I just completed that two months ago. Don’t you have a record of that?” said the voice.
“I wouldn’t have access to that, I’m just a contractor hired to help with the audit,” explained Ivan. “Now how long have you been with the company?”
“Uh, two years now. This is really irregular, I must say. We’ve never had any sort of call like this before,” said the voice, sounding nervous.
“Oh well, I’ve been doing these for a few months now, maybe they haven’t called your department yet. Next question, what shift do you work normally?”
“Well it’s first shift obviously. Look, I’m not sure I should be answering these questions. What’s your employee number?” asked the voice.
“Oh, I’m not an employee, I’m a contractor. But I have a contractor number,” said Ivan. He provided a random string of numbers and digits. “Can you tell me what model visor you are using there? Is it the Samsung or the Huawei?”
“We have glasses here, not visors, but it’s a Huawei I think. This contractor number doesn’t seem to have the right number of digits,” the voice was sounding strained and Cyn cast Ivan a nervous glance.
“Call center like that would still be using version 7 or 8 at the latest, let me load something up for that,” mumbled Batou.
“Oh well, that’s the number they gave me when I started,” said Ivan, trying to sound contrite. “If you have some concerns, please open this URL and you can fill out our customer satisfaction survey, there is a feedback form at the bottom.” Ivan passed the URL that Batou had constructed over to the skeptical technician.
Suspicious though he was, the poor tech support worker opened the link and fell right into Ivan’s trap.
“I’m seeing a resource not found error, this really doesn’t seem legitimate I must say. I might need to talk to my manager about this,” said the voice. “Hello? Hello?”
Ivan left the session open for a moment as Batou typed away rapidly, taking ownership of the hapless technician’s workstation via an exploit in his Huawei glasses.
“Oh well, I certainly understand. But please try reloading that page and do leave me a positive rating. You know how important ratings are,” said Ivan, before cutting off the connection.
“Wow, impressive, I thought you were going to lose him,” said Cyn.
“I’m better with Americans,” admitted Ivan. “But it looks like we got in anyway. Batou, what sort of access does our Indian friend have?”
“Very good access. I was able to find the IP address of our Chinese command and control server in their hosting control panel. I’m creating a temporary user with sudo rights as we speak.”
“We’re getting a lot of incoming traffic here, Batou,” said Cyn. She hunched forward and splayed a cluster of windows across the shared workspace. The recessed interior lights dimmed suddenly, making Cyn gasp in shock. “Holy shit, we are getting pounded here. What are you doing?”
“I don’t see any problems on my side. I’m about to get root on this Chinese server. I don’t see how they could have traced us,” said Batou, fingers flicking frantically before him.
Ivan tried to pick through all the displays, but was confused by the conflicting messages. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a car rapidly approaching down the street. Cyn’s car chimed and the interior lights turned red.
“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said a calm female voice.
“Are you shitting me?” asked Cyn, but Ivan didn’t know who she was talking to. “This can’t be happening.”
“What’s going on?” asked Ivan, feeling his heart rate increasing and his palms growing sweaty. He was never one of these tactical guys. He was more comfortable in a nice, safe office somewhere.
“Enabling countermeasures, you may need to grab onto something,” said Cyn.
Ivan looked out the back window and realized that the approaching car was driving insanely fast and headed directly toward them. Cyn’s car started rocking very rapidly back and forth, as though testing its footing, but it didn’t move.
“Uh, Cyn, that car,” said Ivan.
“I see it,” she said, her face completely obscured by windows.
“We’d better get moving,” said Batou, craning his neck around.
“Systems are coming online,” said Cyn. Her voice was strained.
Ivan fought the urge to fling the door open and leap from Cyn’s car as the other vehicle barrelled toward them. He didn’t know how they could possibly escape a collision at this point and he braced himself. He could clearly read the approaching car’s Tesla-Uber logo and could see its frantic passengers pounding on the console as it swerved toward them, when Cyn’s car suddenly lept onto the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding the Tesla-Uber, which couldn’t correct its course and slammed into the side of the bio lab building. Its interior filled with compression foam as it gouged an ugly gash into the stone face.
“Shit’s getting crazy,” muttered Cyn. Her car sped away on the sidewalk and deftly flicked over the curb to get back onto the road surface.
“The cab is trying to back up,” noted Ivan. His blood was running cold from the near collision. He watched as the Tesla-Uber backed away from the building, but it’s suspension was damaged and it it crashed backward into a lamp post.
“I’ve got root on this server, by the way. I’m trying to download the logs now,” said Batou.
“Fuck that shit, Batou!” said Cyn. “Someone just hacked a fucking cab and flung it at us at 90 miles per hour. Maybe you should leave their fucking server alone!”
“I’m with Cyn on this one,” Ivan said.
“Incoming,” blurted Cyn suddenly, as their car swerved so sharply that it went up on two wheels. A massive window cleaner’s scaffold came crashing down where the car had just been moments before. “Batou, seriously, we are getting pummeled. Get your head out of your ass. Look around you. All my links are getting DDOSed. I need you on deck, stat. Someone’s gone fully Wile E. Coyote on us here. I’m launching my drone swarm. I need eyes in sky and I need you to help me right now!”
“Fuck!” shouted Batou in frustration. “So goddamn close.”
Just then, Rasmussen appeared in the shared workspace, looking mildly annoyed, but superbly attired, in a dark suit and a white shirt without a tie. Batou shoved his image aside and lit up the workspace with a broader and broader 3D map of their surroundings, as Cyn’s drones spread out and started gathering reconnaissance.
“What are you people doing?” asked Rasmussen. “Will you stop poking at that command server? The accountants have found something here.”
“We are kind of busy right now, Rasmussen,” said Ivan. He was practically useless when it came to this tactical stuff, but it looked like a lot of blinking red dots were converging rapidly on their position.
“Who are these fucking people?” asked Cyn. “Is that a fucking cement truck? Have these maniacs hacked every goddamn piece of equipment with an internet connection in a one mile radius?”
“Affirmative on the cement truck,” confirmed Batou. “Radius looks more like one kilometer, but why split hairs?”
“They found a dummy vendor that was used to funnel the funds into,” continued Rasmussen, his image running a hand through his feathery blonde hair. “I need you three to disengage from this ridiculous, totally unauthorized operation and go check it out.”
“Ras, we are in a tough spot right now,” said Ivan, as Cyn’s car dodged a dumpster that had flung itself out onto the roadway.
“We appear to be headed toward that cement truck, not away from it, by the way,” said Batou.
“I know that,” said Cyn. “I’m taking it back from them.”
Ivan watched in horror as the massive truck approached on the map. But Cyn just calmly dropped a drone down onto it.
“Take out the antenna, and I can get right in there and do what I like,” said Cyn. “It’s a cement truck, not a goddamn tank, its radio gear isn’t hardened or anything.”
Ivan’s horror morphed into amazement as he watched the video feed of Cyn’s drone, while it launched four tiny missiles that precisely blasted each of the truck’s antennae. Some sort of onboard safety process finally kicked in and the truck pulled over to the side of the road. A moment later, they were close enough for Ivan to see it through the window with his own eyes, a deafened killing machine, now sitting harmlessly on the side of the road. Unable to automatically deliver cement or crush a car full of wayward hackers.
“Stop that, Cyn!” scolded Rasmussen. “The Feds are on top of this and they are reestablishing control of the compromised systems and vehicles. That construction company is probably going to send us a bill for those antennae and I will have it forwarded directly to you. It’s not coming out of your expense account either. You can’t just launch micro missiles in downtown Oakland, what are you thinking?” Rasmussen paused for a moment. “Well, you can’t launch missiles in the absence of civil unrest, but you know what I mean.”
“Jesus, it’s so easy to say that when you are sitting there safe and sound in your office. We had window cleaner’s scaffolds trying to kill us out here,” said Batou.
Rasmussen smiled and shook his head. “It wasn’t my idea for you to go rogue and try to illegally attack a server of interest in a foreign country, Batou. Luckily, I like you and I understand that I need to allow operators of your caliber some leeway. But the Feds are involved now and I will not even attempt to call in any favors to protect you from them. So don’t do anything stupid. I mean stupid-ER. Because I need you for THIS project. I’m sending over the files on the dummy vendor. Save some missiles, Cyn, that location might get hot. It’s in Arkansas. Have fun, kids.” Rasmussen signed off.
Ivan’s phone buzzed in his pocket and a text window opened before his face. “I won’t be home tonight, I got too drunk and I’m staying over at Jayson’s,” texted Bryce. “On the couch, of course. Love you. Call me tomorrow when you get up.”
“This gig sucks so far, you know that?” said Ivan, as Cyn glumly looked up the price of replacement antennae for Mitsubishi automated cement trucks.