The cell phone call was routed to the interactive dash of the car Ilion had just hijacked. Well, “hijacked” is perhaps not the best term: rather than smashing a window and hotwiring, Ilion had used an unsecured wireless network to pinch the car’s authentication key to command it to unlock and start. It was an electric, so all that was needed was to find another unsecured, or easily breakable, car before the other ran out of charge.

“Ilion? Can you hear me?” It was Cherril’s voice.

“I can year you, Cherril,” said Ilion, “I’m a little busy right now.”

“Please, Ilion…please stop this,” Cherril said. “Stealing cars, crashing servers…do you have any idea what you’re doing to people who had nothing to do with anything? How many innocent people could get hurt?”

“They’re part of a corrupt system,” Ilion replied. “I was in IT long enough to know that a compromised system can’t be fixed without some damage. I’m striking back with the tools that I have available.”

“But…do you have any idea how long it’s been? Ho much has changed? You’re lashing out at a system that isn’t the same one that killed them, at people who weren’t here and may not even have been born when it happened!”

“Are you going to tell me the system’s gotten better since then?” Ilion’s car weaved and dodged through traffic, causing horns, fender-benders, and a collision that did not look survivable in its wake. “Time is meaningless. If you leave it alone, a system doesn’t heal, it festers.”

“Illion, please…stop what you’re going and come to us. We can help! It doesn’t have to be you against the world.”

“The world is just data points and networks, Cherril, pathways to get me where I need to go and help me do what must be done. If you know anyone that you don’t want to be hurt, tell them to stay off the streets and pull out their landline.” The connection clicked dead.

“It didn’t work,” Cherril sighed. “I’m sorry.” She turned to look at officers of the cyberterrorism task force assembled around her. The cell phone connection had been their best hope of getting though to Ilion, whose attacks had been disrupting the city every six to eight months with a geometrically increasing rate of complexity and deadliness.

“Do you think…?” an officer began.

“No,” Cherril said firmly. “It’s pretty clear that Ilion has no idea. I guess, wrapped up in revenge and increasingly linked in…the transition from being an independent being to a malignant fragment of self-replicating code was so subtle that it was never noticed.

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Ray Seymour was a postmodern monster.

But if you asked he would say he was just having a little harmless fun.

“All right, let’s see what slaves are online today,” he said, cracking his knuckles in front of the massive self-built computer rig that took up a whole corner of his tiny apartment. Built with parts scavenged from his minimum-wage day job at Best Electronics, the rig was Ray’s whole world. Everything else was going out for groceries or the pennies needed to keep the lights on.

They weren’t real slaves, Ray would have been quick to point out if cornered. It was just the jargon that people in his circles used for people whose computers had been hacked with a remote access tool–a RAT, the same thing that system administrators used to take control of the poor old Susie’s computer in accounting when she couldn’t figure out how to eject a thumb drive.

“Only one? Shit. Well, at least that makes my choice easy.” Ray brought up his RAT’s interface, which gave him full remote control of a laptop two counties away. Like most of his “slaves,” the person behind the computer had downloaded a trojan file that Ray had seeded onto file-sharing sites and torrents–in this case, the copy of Sex in the City 2 they thought they’d downloaded had been a screen for giving Ray’s RAT root-level system access.

From there, he could browse and copy personal files, access the screen and volume controls (which he usually did only to spook the “slave” on the other end), and, most importantly, access the built-in webcam and disable its “on” light. “I have access to everything they have, everything they are,” Ray had written on an internet forum for RAT hackers like himself (of which there were surprisingly many). “I could steal their identity or ruin their life, but all I do is take a few pictures. It’s harmless fun.” The person in question had been outraged to find their vacation photos on the forum; Ray had made his pronouncement and then banned the user (as he was an admin) before they could respond.

“Just doing what the NSA already does,” Ray muttered to himself as he remotely activated the “slave” webcam. “But she won’t end up in Gitmo.”

He opened up the webcam in a separate window, ready to capture any screens that piqued his interest. It was never the kind of salacious things you’d see on an episode of CSI or NCIS, naturally–those were always in JPEG form on the hard drive, never from a live feed. But the voyeuristic thrill, the endorphins that came with Ray’s smugly self-satisfied outsmarting of women who–he assumed–would not give him the time of day…that was the real money shot.

The screen fuzzed into being, and Ray witnessed the same “slave” he had watched through her own webcam on and off for weeks. She was kicking madly, desperately, as an assailant in a black ski mask attempted to drag her off.

Ray Seymour was a postmodern monster.

Someone upstairs had apparently decided to lay a test before him, to see how deep and wide that monstrous streak actually ran.

Based on this news story.

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serialCabal: I’ve got a bit more information for you. Scuzzy was attempting to make a local copy of something from Datane Systems, LLC.

existentialCrisis: Datane? They’re a low-level server farm from what I can see. They rent their servers and processors to other companies at peak times when their cloud computing can’t handle the strain.

serialCabal: Not exactly a major player in the world market. Why’d Scuzzy attempt something so risky with such a dinky target? Making a local copy off some two-bit server farm…it just doesn’t add up. Unless he was trying to get something that went through Datane.

existentialCrisis: Hold on. I put in a query to Dongelle and she just sent over a list of clients that have been using Datane. Says CeeAreTee got it off an illegal drive that someone hawked–tax documents and internal stuff.

serialCabal: And? who have they been selling to?

existentialCrisis: Nobody. Datane has been in business for ten years and they’ve never sold a single bit of server space or processor time.

Nguyen was an amateur seashell collector, so each of the servers in his farm was named after a genus that produced an interesting shell: Terebra, Epitonium, Syrinx, and, of course, Nautilus.

Most incoming connections went through a variety of security measures; particularly nasty intrusions wound up quarantined on the Aplysia server (named for the largest shell-less gastropod in the world).

Accessing the most valuable information, on Terebra, would require a certain amount of finesse. Gabrielle has no intention of winding up on the giant sea slug server.

Now, elaborate pranks–or “hacks” as they’re called–have a rich history at MIT. It’s a predictable side effect of bringing together so many intelligent, technically-inclined people and placing them in an academic pressure cooker; hacks were nothing more than a release valve.

To execute a great hack was also to court a sort of immortality. Who could forget, after all, the Great Dome Police Hack of 1994? On the last day of classes, a group of hackers had moved a full-size facsimile of a campus police car to the top of MIT’s Great Dome, complete with flashing lights, a dummy in an authentic CP uniform, a valid campus parking ticket, and a box of fresh donuts. Any number of electrical engineering majors had gotten laid off of exaggerated or fabricated tales of their involvement in that one.

Andrew Germand’s hack, though, would eclipse them all. And unlike the cheerfully anonymous pranksters of 1994, everyone would know its mastermind–even as they were powerless to do anything about it.

The average user would have thought a text transfer was ridiculous, since the bandwidth required was so tiny compared to visual or audio streaming. But that was also its great advantage; the amount of data was so tiny that it was easily lost–or hidden–among the exabytes streaming to personal terminals day in and day out.

Crisis was attracted to that kind of anonymity thanks to her innate paranoia. Her personal server space was hosted in Liberia, ostensibly in an inspection-free system, but it had dozens of security precautions linked up, designed to conceal or delete the bare few megabytes of text stored there. If a shareholder in Shanghai got too frisky about what was on their servers, they’d find an empty room.

Serial was online that night–well, given his location, it was actually morning–and they resumed their correspondence via text transfer.

serialCabal: Have you heard about Scuzzy? He was arrested last night.

existentialCrisis: He never was careful enough. What’d they get him for? Trafficking in classical music again?

serialCabal: No. They caught him with a 100-exabyte drive.

existentialCrisis: Well beyond the legal limit. They don’t even make them that large, do they?

serialCabal: Homebrew. And that’s not the half of it. He was trying to make a local copy.

existentialCrisis: I knew he was stupid, but…did he actually manage to download anything?

serialCabal: Everyone I ask gets really quiet really fast. Local copies are always asking for trouble, but this…this is something else entirely.