NaNoWriMo Preview #4:
Be careful what you wish for
By Dennis L Hitzeman
Vladimir paced before the huge picture window that looked down on the tree covered expanse of the mountainside below them. He was nervous and he really wished he had a cigarette. Or some vodka.
He had somehow managed to conceal their new mission for the entire move to the dacha. But now, the rest of the crew was getting antsy, Alexi was getting impatient, and Vladimir wondered if this whole gig ended up with him dead in some frozen river.
He turned and looked at them. “Our employers want us to find the one responsible for attacking us.”
The rest of the team gave each other confused glances.
“It wasn’t the Americans?” Anatoly said.
Vladimir shook his head and studiously avoided Alexi’s gaze.
“Will we get paid more?”
Alexi interrupted before he could answer. “If it was not the Americans, then who was it, Vladimir?”
Now everyone was looking at him again.
“You already know?” Anatoly asked.
He turned back to the window. “Yes, yes I do know, and I fear he may be impossible to find.”
Ryan was surprised when he felt the tickle of a private channel from outside his enclave. He maintained several relays for a small group of people from the rest of the net who might want to communicate with him from time to time, but this was clearly not one of them.
He was even more surprised when he IDed who it was.
“Vladimir, I told you never to call me at this number,” he said.
“Ryan, you are just as much of an ass now as the last time I spoke with you,” Vladimir said. “And, it seems that you have been a very, very bad boy toward my employers as of late.”
Ryan laughed. “If you only knew, Vladimir, you would probably be a lot more desperate than you already are calling me direct.”
“We can do this easy, or we can do this hard, Ryan,” Vladimir said.
“Really, Vlad. You have no idea what you are in the middle of.” Ryan said.
“We will find you, Ryan. And when we do, my employers will not extend to you the kind offer I am willing to make.”
“I doubt you will find me unless I let you, Vladimir, though I suspect you will find your employers less than understanding about that fact. Do svidaniya and good luck with all that,” Ryan said.
Then, he cut the channels and keyed his self-destruct codes for his outside nodes. And just like that, any trace of Ryan Alten or any of his aliases vanished from the net. Next, he keyed up several bots and coded them to start cleaning any traces Kevin might have left behind. One could never be too safe.
Finally he unleashed a spider to gather whatever information could be found on one Vladimir Pentrenko. He smiled at that last one. Vlad was a worthy adversary, and that made the game far, far more exciting.
Vladimir swore and pounded the table while Alexi glowered menacingly. She had not taken the news that Ryan Alten was their quarry well, and that had added to the turmoil the rest of the group felt over their latest assignment.
“He’s gone,” Anatoly said.
“Yes, I know that,” Vladimir said.
“No, Vladimir, he’s gone,” Anatoly repeated. “As in, as far as the net is concerned, neither Ryan Alten nor any of his aliases ever existed.”
Vladimir went back to his feeds. Then he swore again. How had the man managed to do that? Then he realized he felt the same green fire he had heard from Natalia at the club.
“I told you he was the most amazing hacker alive,” Alexi said from her perch in the corner. “We will never catch him in this kind of game because he is the one who invented it.”
Vladimir refused to meet her gaze, mostly because he knew she was right. Then another thought, a horrifying thought, leapt into his head.
“Alexi, this was all a feint,” he said, burying his head in his hands.
She shoot her head. “What?”
“Never mind. I have to talk to Alexander.”
Dean and Larry sat at Larry’s kitchen table, the dossiers of the twenty eight engineers and technicians who had defected from Bione some twenty years before spread out before them. Dean had to hand it to Larry, the man hadn’t lost his touch.
At the time the defections had occurred, Bione was one of the biggest defense contractors on the planet, focused mostly on bioengineering and human biotechnological interfaces. They had presented the Department of Defense with one of the most advanced and intriguing methods for enhancing humans that any of them had ever seen, but just as the ink dried on the contract, the entire team responsible for developing the technology walked out.
What followed was a dark time in American defense history. Not only did the team walk, but they dumped the entire contents of their research onto the public net. Overnight, anyone with a few thousand bucks and some patience could gen up an at least primitive version of the technology the DoD had just promised to pay more than a trillion dollars for.
It also meant that, overnight as well, millions of people around the planet could suddenly connect to the net as if it were a part of themselves. Native connection, as it was technically called, meant that people, but most especially hackers, could use the net like they breathed. The resulting chaos was terrifying and ushered the world to the brink of war.
Dean had lead the team tasked with counter attacking the fury unleashed by those defections, and they had succeeded for the most part. They had taken down the people they thought had caused the defection to begin with, defeated the hackers who were suddenly able to run amok on anyone’s system they liked, and established protocols for preventing all but the most sophisticated and sinister attacks from being able to compromise US interests on the net. He thought they had solved the problem twenty two years ago.
Now he looked down at the dossier of Ryan Alten, a junior biohacker on the Bione team at the time, and realized that even he hadn’t known the whole story at the time. He had thought the men responsible for those events dead for two decades, but if Larry was right, they had killed figureheads and the real leader had a legitimate ax to grind.
Alexander was not amused, but Vladimir did not expect him to be after the long and delayed train ride from Moscow.
The tea house was a cozy and out of the way affair, and in the depths of winter deserted. Vladimir could not think of a better place to discuss what he needed to say. A quick payoff had sent the waitress and the cook looking for someplace to wait out their meeting. Now he was left with Alexander.
“Well?” Alexander said.
Vladimir steeled himself. “I am afraid your network has been compromised, Alexander.”
Alexander threw his head back and laughed, then grabbed Vladimir by the collar. “You made me spend twelve hours on a stinking supply train to tell me something that cannot be possible? I should kill you now except that Natalia tells me you are still useful to me.”
Vladimir slumped back into his chair as Alexander let go. He might as well get on with it. “Who paid you to attack the Americans, Alexander?”
The man’s glare was an inferno. “You are walking on very, very thin ice, my friend.”
“I know that I am,” Vladimir said, “yet you must ask yourself why a criminal like me would put myself at risk right now with someone as powerful and deadly as you, Alexander.”
Alexander watched him for a long time. When he finally looked away, he said, “There are powerful interests who wish to know what the Americans know about the Bione technology. Our attack was designed to lay malware inside their network to seek that information out.”
“But who were they, Alexander?” Vladimir said. “Do you know who they are?”
Alexander slammed his fist on the table. “Why does that matter, Vladimir? I do not pay you to question my motives.”
“It matters because the one who attacked you is Ryan Alten,” Vladimir said, “and I can assure you that where our attack failed, I am certain his succeeded.”
A stream of curses sputtered from Alexander’s face as his face alternated white and read. Finally, he said, “Are you certain.”
“I would not risk dying by your hand if I was not, Alexander,” Vladimir said.
“Then you are certain our network has been compromised?” Alexander said.
“There can be no other reason he would have attacked you that I can imagine,” Vladimir said, “except to discover who is paying you or where they are or what they plan to do with what they might have learned.”
Alexander gave him a smoldering stare. “Natalia is right, you are still useful to me.”
Dean loved Lebanese food, a fact that was apparently common enough knowledge that Ryan agreed to meet him at Al Ameer in Dearborn, Michigan. He was surprised that the man agreed to meet him in person given the likelihood that the government had tracked his every move since his meeting with Cantril, but Ryan had insisted on both the face to face meeting and the place.
Dean was surprised at the man who took his seat in the booth across from him. He looked far younger than Dean expected and yet seemed far more mature than he had come to expect hackers of any sort to be. Ryan also seemed impossibly self-confident, a trait Dean found both repulsing and endearing at the same time.
“I’ll have the shawarma and coffee,” Ryan told the waitress like he ate there everyday, “and please make sure I get the check.”
“Don’t think I’m going to cut you any slack because you bought me dinner,” Dean said. “I’m not a cheap date.”
Ryan shrugged. “You know they brought you in because they thought it would intimidate me, right?”
“It had occurred to me,” Dean said, “but I doubted from the very beginning you were the type to be dissuaded by such things.”
“I suspect that, given what I’ve learned about what you’ve been doing for the past twenty two years, that you and I share a lot more in common than either of us might want to admit,” Ryan said. “We’re just coming at it from different directions.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” Dean said. “Please explain.”
“What happened after we walked from Bione left a mark on you. You saw a system corrupted by its dependence on technology everywhere you looked, and you realized unless somebody did something, it was going to eat itself,” Ryan said. “So, you started straight farming because what can be more connected to reality than making sure people can still eat?”
“Fair enough,” Dean said, “but what does that have to do with you and I sharing commonality?”
“I happen to know that the snake is still eating its own tail,” Ryan said. “I walked away. You walked away. But the thing that corrupted the system kept on going. You’re trying to save things by making sure there’s something left after it’s all said and done. I’m trying to make sure there’s anyone left to care.”
“Larry told me what you told him,” Dean said, “but I have two questions: why did you tell him and why should anyone believe you?”
“First, Larry Winters is one of the most gifted archivists the world has ever known. I wanted to make sure that, if anything happens to me before I finish what I am trying to do, someone knew my side of the story. Second, if you really think I’m lying, then why are you here?”
“I could have just lead the government to you, you know,” Dean said, half wondering if that might not be true.”
Ryan laughed. “The government has caught itself in its own trap. The reason they can’t find me, Bione can’t find me, and their backers can’t find me is because they just assume everyone is on the net. They depend on being able to track everyone there, so the number of people who they assign to do actual physical surveillance anymore is almost non-existent.”
“So you’re telling me that there’s no one looking for either of us right now?”
Ryan shook his head. “No, I’m telling you that they were convinced that you drove to Saint Louis this morning and that they have a special response team raiding a night club there as we speak. It will take them days to figure out what happened, and by that time, we will have long concluded our business together.”
Dean looked at Ryan intently. “So let’s say I believe you. What next?”