"The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause accidents."
|Some time around 2778.255 AS
Wilson begins to be dubious - did Sook bring him in order to have him help move? She reassures him. They head to the old offices. There's a hovertruck, with a driver Sook doesn't recognize. She's beeping the horn and complaining that she isn't paid to drive the truck. As Sook approaches the entry, a young man (someone else Sook doesn't know) with a large stack of boxes staggers out towards the van. Happily, inside the building are a few more familiar faces.
Dr. Gallagher is happy to see Sook - they're moving to new offices, because Haigan has given them a new grant. This one is a development grant, not the initial exploratory grant, so they hired some new people. Scooter (the young man) gets introduced. He's curious whether she's here for the big experiment, or the move? The truck driver, outside, beeps impatiently again. Dr. Gallagher explains that she's Grady Hollimon, the pilot, on loan from Haigan too.
What's the big experiment? Phaeton jumps in - they're going to dangle them on strings! Dr. Gallagher explains. So, the existence of high energy, by several physics theories, suggests the existence of low energy. Second, in addition to being faster, high energy jumps are much noisier. So low energy must (maybe?) be lower noise. Now, they haven't figured out how to get into low energy yet, but if they can do that, then they can set up repeaters going really slowly and broadcast to each other and to ships outside... well, it's all still theory. But it could work. Anyhow, this particular experiment is to quantify the noise in normal energy jumps. They've got this ship, with pods attached on tethers. They'll be locked down for entering the jump, then during the twelve hours the pods will be detached and reeled out on the tethers, at which point Almeta Aites (another new person, a signal engineer) in the mothership will beam all sorts of signals to the pods, which will do their best to make sense of them. Then the pods will be reeled back in, and if all goes well, they'll be able to exit the jump.
Phaeton still hasn't packed his rig up. He seems to be hoping that it will transport to the new office by sheer force of will, but it isn't happening yet. Phaeton also seems to have picked up a new idiosyncrasy, that of referring to himself in the third person. "Dr. Scooter, get me a donut" is his new command phrase, though Scooter seems mildly defiant. (Scooter is a college senior and intern - he made the mistake of calling Phaeton "Dr. Phaeton" upon first meeting him, and hasn't been permitted to live it down).
Dr. Klein is also happy to see Sook - he thinks the experiment will be very exciting. He also seems to be clinging to the belief that Miriam Blumberg isn't actually a spy. They've been corresponding. Sook doesn't believe him.
Off to the new offices! They're nice. And they have a very wide net connection. Dr. Gallagher gives everyone the prep talk for noise/signal analysis in the pods. He mentions that Phaeton has been working on pattern matching software for a couple of weeks - Sook can probably borrow his. Phaeton is later heard to comment that he had better get to work writing his pattern matcher. Sook stays up for half the night working on hers, while Wilson acquires hotel rooms. Then, it's off to space in the morning! Wilson comes - he'll have to stay on the mother ship, but he says there's no way he's staying on planet to have to explain to the crew that he lost Sook in the jump gate. If something goes horribly awry, the whole ship will no doubt be lost. Grady seems much nicer in space.
Sook bugs Phaeton's pod, just in case he's going to say anything incriminating or shriek in horror. Then, the two programmers get strapped into the pods, and the pods are sent off on tethers. Much signal analysis later, Phaeton has identified five patterns and Sook six, so they just make the magic number of eleven.
On the way back to the planet, Scooter starts to explain his Mad Theory. Well, no, first he gives Sook a bunch of data and asks her to see if she sees any patterns. In fact, after looking at it for a while, it does look like there's some patterns. It's three columns of numbers - the first is clearly a date, and the second column is some other number, and the third column is yet some other number. There's many lines per each date, but every two days, there's one entry where the third number is the checksum of the date and the middle number, which is going up one each time. Sook says she sees that. Scooter is exuberant. Phaeton, on the other hand, is dismissive: "Dr. Scooter thinks there's an underground conspiracy in charge of jaywalking."
Scooter explains. He has this hobby of criminal law, originally because he was interested in loopholes for hacking. This is the full Tinara police blotter. The first entry is the date, the second entry is the criminal code number, and the third entry is the zip code that the crime took place in. Someone is systematically going through and committing one crime every two days, one criminal code number at a time. And, to boot, they're all being committed by computer!
Sadly, when he went to the police and tried to explain how the jaywalking problem in one city was related to the vandalism in another city, they told him to go home. However, it's a falsifiable theory! There will have been a grand larceny, committed by computer, in a particular city, by the time they get back to the planet. And, in fact, there has been. A bank has been robbed electronically, with the funds transferred offplanet to the Well. Next scheduled is arson, for tomorrow, in the warehouse district outside the capital. And after that, murder!
As the next step in the OmniNet research mechanic involves Dr. Aites and Dr. Klein making their number-crunching rolls for a while, Dr. Gallagher gives everyone else three days off to recover from the space trip.
Phaeton (who is not completely convinced of the jaywalking conspiracy, but willing to play along), Scooter, Sook, and Wilson plot together. A brief surveillance on the net indicates that there are a lot of warehouses in that area with computer controlled climate, or other computer systems that might possibly be able to start a fire. So, how will they stop him? Or spot him? They mine the net in that area with little telltales and tracers to alert them when something is up. And they can listen to the police / fire band on the radio. And get somewhere high, to look for flames. Phaeton suggests the concert hall just uptown of the warehouses. He has a beta portable satellite uplink hookup. (Sook points out all the interesting bits to Wilson, who begins to look daydreamy...) And there will be a Living Thrash concert that night, which Phaeton considers a bonus.
Once they get there, however, Phaeton does not have a clever plan for getting on the roof. (Wilson goes off and buys tickets, just in case they're caught). The little group manages to sneak up the fire escape to the third floor, where Wilson can get the door open, but there's a fire exit alarm on the inside. Phaeton disables that remotely, and the party proceeds across a catwalk to the ladder to the roof. Phaeton has to be towed along, as he's become distracted by the Living Thrash down on the stage.
Eventually, a fire is spotted and a fire alarm goes off. Sook and Phaeton swoop in, Phaeton to try and get the automatic fire suppression systems back on line, while Sook chases the electronic trace. It appears to be a daemon, rather than another hacker; Sook manages to chase it down and catch it. The daemon yields a home ISP, and a signature: RAX0R. Phaeton finally admits maybe Scooter's theory has something to it.
The home ISP has a whole lot of traffic; Sook puts some sniffers and mines, but it won't catch anything in real time; the data will have to be collected and then sifted. So that's what the next morning is spent doing; by noon, Rax0r has visited three places: a stockbroker's, an exotic dance hall, and a high-end exercise gym. Both the stockbroker and the gym are in the zip code of death.
Sook breaks in to look at the the sites in question. At the gym, Rax0r seems to principally have downloaded a lot of footage from the women's locker room. The dance hall runs a web site with porn on it; the site has an encrypted area. And at the stockbroker's, he just seems to have skulked about, not actually touching anything financial. Upon breaking into the web site, the whole crime spree seems to be documented, including, for each, a jpeg photo as if from a digital camera. He must have been there in person, and all the crimes are done by daemons!
Well, there are two places. Who are the likely victims? Sook is struck by a realization: "If we stop him, we gotta be careful not to kill him while we're catching him. I saw that movie!" Phaeton is going to go and check out the dance hall and get the evidence to show the police. Uh huh, right, that's the only reason he's going.
Sook, Scooter, and Wilson, head to the exercise place. Between the rock climbing wall with artificial gravity safety zones, the computer-feedback workout machines and the like, it appears to be a great big computer-controlled deathtrap. A quick hack into their databases to try and get a clientele list turns up a few bankers, but none of them with a work number at the stockbroker's place.
Then, it's off to the stock place. It appears to be a one-man show, run by Richard Livingston. His secretary describes him in glowing terms as a visionary. They arrange to talk to him at the end of the business day, after the markets have closed; he talks to them about how he stays on top of the trends of the market with a computer implant. Sook decides he's probably Rax0r. What sort of implant exactly? It's a very custom job, that ties his brainstem directly into the network. No, okay, he's not the bad guy, he's crazy. That's really quite dangerous. Maybe Rax0r is going to hack him to commit the murder. That would be really cool! But is it possible?
Anyhow, regardless of the theoretical coolness of the murder, it should probably be stopped. He'll be there in person, but the daemon will be what's doing the killing. Phaeton will be assigned to computer defense, while Wilson is assigned to jump on the guy with the camera. Sook will go in on the computer side or the jumping side as needed, and Scooter will get the police. There's some worry that the party is all computer nerds, who are not really qualified to jump on people; Wilson points out that the culprit is probably also a computer nerd, who is likely not really qualified to be jumped on.
Phaeton and Scooter start the next day before dawn (very early for Phaeton!) staking out Livingston house. Wilson and Sook start in a car near the office, trying to look like lost tourists, with a map. They're also incognito in sunglasses. Phaeton and Scooter follow Livingston to the office, and then do a circuit of the block, looking for suspicious people. The theory is that Rax0r won't do anything to him while he's in the office, because that won't get him a good picture. He'll probably go for lunchtime, when he leaves.
Nothing happens for a long while, then shortly before noon, a suspicious looking guy in a trenchcoat and sunglasses skulks towards the bus stop with his hands in his pockets. Wilson and Sook realize how suspicious sunglasses look, and take theirs off, before skulking towards the guy. Sook grabs for his pocket to try and see if he has a camera (he has something small and rectangular), and then tackles him, actually knocking him over! More jumping commences, but the mysterious guy in the trenchcoat is not destroyed before 12:01, at which point Livingston comes out of the office for lunch and Rax0r says "Execute!" to his implant.
Sook shouts "Mr. Livingston! Turn off your implant!" and starts to battle the incoming daemon, while Wilson starts shooting Rax0r. Sook defeats the daemon, but Rax0r is nothing if not versatile, and tries to attack Livingston with his own hacking ability. He bounces off a Phaeton-built cyberwall. Phaeton and Sook keep putting up walls, which Rax0r keeps knocking down, while Wilson doggedly keeps shooting Rax0r (and finishes, in dramatic fashion, by punching him out) and Sook takes down the stockbroker's office network. Livingston is very confused about what's going on; three people standing around glazed, while a fourth shoots at one of them.
Scooter's police are on the scene shortly; their initial instinct is to arrest Wilson, but Phaeton gets to save the day - when Rax0r was knocked out, his web site auto-deleted, but Phaeton has a hard copy of all the evidence! Eventually, it's sorted out, and Rax0r is arrested and Wilson cleared.
On the evening news that night, the four are pictured: "Computer analysts from OmniNet thwart hacker." The reporter asks Scooter what would have been next, after murder? Well, it depended on whether Rax0r was following the old criminal code, or the new modernized one. One way, it would be mismanagement of industrial waste - the other way, genocide.
The next morning, Dr. Gallagher tells everyone that they've had a nice vacation, and it's time to get back to work after slacking off. Happily, at that point, the Hippocrates arrives again to pick up Sook and Wilson.