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ZODIAC

                      By Lex Morrison

 

Prologue:


      It began in the year is 2025, 10 years after the outbreak of the revelation virus that nearly brought the information age to a close.  Since that time many hackers have left the world of illegal computer access and found lucrative and successful jobs rebuilding computer networks and creating advanced security systems to prevent such disasters from ever occurring again.  However a strong underground hacker following still persists and the once powerful Uplink Corporation has found its monopoly waning as other rival agency have begun appearing through out the digital world.

       It was at this time that Cappella Optical Technologies unveiled the Latus Chip, an advanced two way relay system that operated through neural impulses. The Latus Chip was attached to the back of a user’s neck and then connected to a specially designed terminal through an optical transfer cable. Once activated it allowed the user to see and interact with the digital world as easily as if it was the real world and perform tasks at the speed of thought.

       It has been two years since then, and now the Latus Chip is the industry standard for the computer elite, and the new breed of hacker nicked named patch heads because of the tell tale mark on their neck.

       However all is not right in the information world several well know hackers have gone missing in the last few weeks, vanishing without a trace, and deep with in the hacker inner circles there are whispers of strange things happing out in the wilds of the information world.

Our Story begins:

 

     Rain drops fell in a steady stream outside and cast a dull grey light through the large window.  A single blue bulb in a standing lamp illuminated the modest room, paintings and photos adorned the wall each of crystal waters and sun swept beaches.  Leaning against one wall was wooden bookcase filled with the works Nietzsche, Kafka, and Shakespeare.  An old couch and table sit facing a television that looks more like a museum piece then an everyday appliance. You are small time fixer, a business that has few risks and modest rewards, you deal in the purchase and sale of illegal goods and services, specializing more in the lower end of the spectrum providing those things that people want but normally could not have or helping them get rid of some prematurely inherited goods. That is, until one day when a petty thief named Jarred arrives at your door with an offer you could not refuse.  
     He has acquired a portable Latus System and one that’s small enough that it fit in an oversized briefcase, although he won't say how or where he came by it, but it is clear that this is a custom model, which he is very eager to unload. You’ve dealt with Jarred many times before and he’s not the kind of person who normally comes in to the possession of hi-end hardware, after all he’s was little more then a scavenger with fast legs, stealing from the dead to pay for his next fix of baby blue. But wherever he obtained the Latus System one thing is sure a dead body would not have been far away, and yet still your eyes light up at the possibilities of what this will provide, its almost like you’ve been handed a silver ticket and all that remains is to enter the candy factory. Knowing that this is likely the only chance you will ever have to gain access to the UnderNet, you wipe out all but five thousand Yen of your savings to purchase the case.

     After he eagerly departs you take your time to clear enough room on the desk to place the heavy case containing your little piece personal power. Then using the limited knowledge of computers you’ve picked up over the year you hook up the system, and then attaching the Latus Chip to the back of your neck and flip the on switch.


>Checking Connection....... Ok
>Checking UnderNet OS........ Ok
>Checking Memory Systems..............Error
>Warning Primary Memory Core Fault.
>System must be reset.  
>This will result in Complete Data loss and Restoration of the Original >template.
>
>Reset commencing
>..................................
>
>System Restarting.
>
>Checking Connection....... Ok
>Checking UnderNet OS........ Ok
>Checking Memory Systems........ Ok
>Checking Secondary Memory Systems........ Unknown module detected.
>Auto Recovery initiated....
>Recovery complete.
>Zodiac Files restored.
>
>
>Connecting to UnderNet
>Originally Established by the Uplink Corporation
>
>Welcome Back Agent Jackal
>
>It has been 3 weeks, 5 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes
>since your last access.
>According to the UnderNet Terms of use policy, your extend absence

>has resulted in forfeiture of all ranks, stocks, and system accounts.
>
>           Have a nice day.

 

It takes a few minutes to adjust to the sudden rush of sensation and you imagine that what your feeling now is the same thing that someone falling out of airplane experiences and it only take a second for you to decided not ponder what the effect would be if you didn’t have the digital equivalent of a parachute.  The world around you is a wash in glowing blues and black, azure lines crisscross all around and bright yellow spheres race along them, giving you the feeling that you are standing in middle of vast three dimensional spider web. Around the edges of your field of vision are small translucent icons and symbols, from the articles you’ve read on Latus System you assume that what you are seeing is the Oracle interface which acts as medium for controlling the software and hardware on the Latus System as well as providing detailed information beyond the pseudo-sensory information that your brain is currently processing. The other part of the interface is known as an Avatar it acts as a digital body, customized to the users design, allowing a person in the UnderNet look however they wish. It also servers to ground people helping them accept what they see and hear as real.

 

 A white wooden door stand directly behind you acting as the graphical representation of the gateway to the Latus system, and beside it sits a brass mail box with five new messages flashing in it.  Reaching out to touch the mail box causes a gentle shock and immediately, in the bottom left of your vision a much smaller version appears with the same waiting messages. Still unsure of what to do and how to interact with the world around you, you decide to focus on opening a letter and like an extension of your will one the letters flies out of the box and proceeds to unfold in front of you.


To: Jackal

From: Sakura

Subject: Does RustyRazor have a new Alias?

Date:  April 25, 2027 - 14:08

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          Hey, Jackal I’ve been trying to get a hold of RustyRazor for a couple of days now but he’s not answering his email and he hasn’t been seen at his usual haunts, have you been in contact with him at all?   Someone said he might be using a new alias I figured if anyone knew it would be you. If you hear from him at all, get him to contact me.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

As quickly as it unfolded it closes again and the next message unfolds before you.

To: Jackal

From: WoeHammer

Subject:  RE: Corrupted Data

Date:  April 30, 2027 - 7:17

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          Sorry man, I took a stab at recovering that corrupt data packet you sent me but it was total trashed.   I did mange to recover a partial destination IP, it was being sent somewhere in the Emerald City.  Hope this helps and if you need anymore assistance with your project give me a shout; I’ll be back from my vacation in two weeks, peace out man.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

To: Jackal

From: accounts@uplink.com

Subject: Monthly Fee

Date: May 01, 2027 – 00:01

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          The ¥3,000 monthly fee has been deducted from your account.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

To: Jackal

From: Sakura

Subject: Hello????

Date May 8, 2027 – 22:45

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          Hey Jackal are you there???  I’m starting to panic now; I still haven’t heard been able to find RustyRazor and now Iggy is missing. The last time I talked to him was at the LL, he was all excited about a high paying contract he just found and that was the last time anyone has seen him. I’m going to try and dive into the Uplink message archive and see if I can find the details of his last job, hopefully that will give me some clues as to what has happened to him.

 

Please contact me ASAP; I just hope something hasn’t happened to you as well….

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

To: Jackal

From: Ice Miner

Subject: Expired Account

Date May 15, 2027, - 18:02

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          I was doing the regular maintenance of the uplink server and noticed your account had expired, I guess you must be out having to much fun, so what was it this time a blonde or a redhead?  Never mind, just stop by the uplink node and I’ll set you up with a new account no need to bother with usual formalities for an old friend after all. Alright see when you get here.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

          With that the last message vanishes from view and once again the spider web of pulsing lines comes into focus.  Deciding its probably a good idea to get a better feel of the oracle interface and controlling your avatar, before venturing out into the wilds of the UnderNet, you concentrate on a small grey map icon in the bottom of your field of vision, which causes it spring forth into your centre of vision and transform into a rotating three dimensional globe.  Several small white circles appear on the globe and branching lines connect smaller white squares to them. All except for one of the squares over Canada which has a flickering green appearance. Pausing for a moment to consider its meaning you begin to laugh, after realizing that it is the digital equivalent of a “you are here” sign.  Then concentrating on a icon of a notepad brings up two lists on either side of the globe one of contacts, the names on the list matching the names on the emails, the other list contains the names and addresses of various nodes, including: Unified Government Public Access node, Uplink node, as well as several others that appear to be online comminutes with names such as Bin Town.

 

          After a few minutes of experimenting and toying with different features you decide its time to venture out into the UnderNet, still unsure of what to do you decide to follow the advice in the last email and travel to the Uplink node and have a new account set up, from their earning some quick cash with a few jobs should be easy. Touching the name of the Uplink node in the list cause the globe to stop spinning and a dotted green connects the white circle representing the node to the green square of your gateway, a small blinking box with jump written in it appears above the globe. With single thought you close your eyes and say jump, and with that your avatar begins to disassemble.

 

 

          When you open your eyes your surroundings have completely changed, no longer are you standing in an empty space in front of a door, now you find yourself in bustling plaza.  Avatars of all shapes and designs pass by around you, and the place is filled with sounds of people laughing and talking, as well as few intrepid entrepreneurs attempt to persuade people to visit their shops or make a help full purchase right then and there.  The plaza is surrounded by high walls of black steel fringed with blue neon lights; the ground is made of the same black steel except it forms concentric rings and tiny pulses of data zigzag through it on their way to various destinations.   Small pathways branch off of the plaza in all directions and in the center stands a large monolith of glass. People cluster all around it apparently looking up and reading the latest news and information.  Approaching the monolith you find an empty slot on one side, touching it causes a screen to pop up in front of you.  Several different categories appear on the screen, listing the different functions providing access to a node map, ranking list, news server and help.  Since help seems to be what you need you select that option and it brings up a new list containing references to terms and subjects that you don’t have the first clue about all except the last one marked with gold seal with an e in the middle and simply labeled “uplink 101”. Curious you touch that option which causes a small cylindrical crystal to emerge from the monolith, with “uplink 101” written along the side.   Perplexed you begin to turn it this way and that trying to figure out its purpose when all of a sudden you feel someone tap you on the shoulder.  Turning to investigate you are greeted with the image of a tall blonde woman with hair down to her ankles, she is wearing a red cocktail dress and three silver bands adorn her upper left arm.  She smiles pleasantly and speaks in a playful tone.

 

“First time in the UnderNet, I take it”

 

“Ya, Is it that obvious?” you reply sheepishly

 

“Yes, you look very green especially since you’ve been fiddling with that ed-soft for the last five minutes and still look clueless, that and  you don’t have a visible handle”

 

“Ed-soft?”

 

“Ed-softs are a medium for storing information and techniques as well as a functioning as a method to imprint that information on a user. In this case the one your holding contains the basic rules and regulations of Uplink, along with a few hacking tutorial and a guide to life in the UnderNet.”

 

“So it is like an electronic textbook, I don’t suppose you could tell me how to use it?

 

“Well for greener like yourself, you’d load it into memory and run it like any other program or you could always print it and read the book offline, which ever you prefer.”

 

“Isn’t there any easier way?”

 

“Well there is… Huh, now this is unusual you’ve got a MIIARC installed on your Latus, that a pricey piece of hardware never seen a greener with one before.”

 

“What is a MIIARC?”

 

“Memory Ingram Imprinter and Reflex Conditioner, it’s an advance high-tech tool that allows you to actually download an ed-soft directly into your brain.  Within several minutes or hours depending on the person, they posses the skills and knowledge contained on the ed-soft. It’s mainly used by the pros, do to fact that it costs a bundle and that its difficult to obtain high level     ed-softs, but its defiantly invaluable if you want to be come a serious hacker.”

“I can see the advantage with that a person could learn in few hours what it take most to learn in a year. So how do I use it?”

 

“That’s easy; simply insert the ed-soft into the port on your left temple. Then wait, after its installed it may take a while for the new information to synchronize with your existing memories but things will began to make sense as it happen so you’ll be able to recognize the meaning and function of what’s around you.”

 

“Thanks a lot, I appreciate the help.”

 

“Don’t mention it, beside we were all green at one point, you should also head over to the registration office and get set up with an Uplink account you’ll need it, if you’re planning on doing anything other then browse. It’s the connection path over there at three o’clock.”

 

“That’s acutely why I’m here;   I just wasn’t expecting all of this.” You say stretching out your hands.

 

“(laughing) You’ve still got a lot of surprises ahead, if you’re impressed with the Uplink node. Well I’ve got to go, the name’s Julia by the way.  After you’ve gotten your feet water you should stop by DownLink it’s a net bar off of this node. See you net cowboy!”

 

“I’ll do that, be seeing you”

 

With that she vanishes into crowd of people, taking a moment to stare at the crystal you decide that it is better to take advantage of the upgrades on your Latus System then to learn about the UnderNet the old fashioned way. Placing the ed-soft into the port you feel a sudden burst of adrenaline and a flood of images invades your senses every muscle begins to twitch and as quickly as it began you feel it being sucked from you body leaving you doubled over and panting. Only a few minutes have passed but you feel as if you’ve just spent a few hours in the gym.  Nothing else seems to happen and you begin to wonder if she was telling you truth but either way you decide to head to the Uplink registration system and wait and see if anything happens with the ed-tech.

 

You walk along the pathway Julia pointed out and even as you draw near you know that it is the correct path to take and when you reach it a translucent box appears telling you that the connection leads to the Uplink Registration sub system as well as that it uses the basic connection protocols and is designated for public access. Entering the connection is much like passing through a door except for the fact that inside does not need to conform to the same dimensions as the outside.   You now find yourself in a medium sized white room with a receptionist counter and a line of grey and green chairs complete with a few scattered magazines sitting on tables.  The receptionist appears to smiling silver tadpole wearing a policeman’s hat and the several other avatars are in the room, sitting in the chairs filling out forms including one person who decided it would be a good idea to look like an orange number seven.  Not wanting to waste your time doing paper work you make a gamble and walk up to the receptionist.

 

“Hello there, I’m Jackal I believe Ice Miner is expecting me” you say to her in a confident tone.

 

“Oh yes, that’s right he said to send you in when you arrived, right this way please.” it replies in a gracious tone and then escorts you to a glass door.

 

Opening the door you find yourself in a rather small wood paneled room, a set of golf clubs leans against one wall and an old fashioned miner’s pick hangs against the far wall behind a mahogany desk. A tall man dressed like a doctor sit there and greets you warmly as you enter.

 

“Jackal I was wonder when you where going to get around to stopping by.”

 

“I’ve been busy you could say.”

 

“I bet, what happened it look like your Latus has been completely wiped never thought I would see the day when the great Jackal would get flash fried.”

 

“It’s a long story, but I will fill you in another time, what I really need now is a new user account.”

 

“Sure, this will only take a second.”  He enter a few commands on panel showing a image of your avatar and then turns back to you and hands you a simple iron band. Almost without thinking you take the band and clasp it onto your left arm.

 

“Thanks, I appreciate this Ice Miner” you say hurriedly.

 

“Don’t mention it, you okay? You don’t seem like your usual self today” Ice Miner asks suspiciously.

 

“I am just off my game still a little shaken that’s all.”

 

“Hmm, it seems like more then that. Maybe you had a few brain cells fried during you last dive. I hear the new defenses the corporations employ are far more dangerous then the last generation.  Maybe you should head down to Bin Town until you’ve got yourself back together. I know that place is a dump full of ragtag hackers, and junk shops but at least you won’t run into anyone who recognize you there.”

 

“That sounds like a good idea.  I’ll do that well I’ll be seeing you.”  You quickly depart after that not wanting to arouse his suspicion further but it seems clear that you sent off a few warning bells with him.  Clearly you will have to be careful from now on around the UnderNet, since its seems whoever Jackal was he defiantly has friends and in the Elites and you can not even imagine what they would do to you if they found out you were using there dead friend’s Latus System.

 

Once again you bring the globe into view and this time after a moment of searching you find Bin Town it seems to be a small node over eastern Australia with only a couple of data lines leading to other nodes clearly it is not high traffic area or one of much importance for that matter.  You twinge slight as you jump and your avatar disassembles and reassembles, you wonder to yourself if you will ever get used to that sensation. 

 

Your new surrounds are as different from the Uplink node as night and day; in fact if you had to use one word to describe your new surrounds it would be seedy.  Brown seems to be the predominate color and there are brick buildings all around as well as piles of broken and damaged shapes.  You quickly begin to realize that those piles are discarded data fragments, bits and pieces of junk code that gathers in some of the UnderNet maintenance nodes. It appears that for whatever reason a community has developed around this one, the people here are on the fringe of society they are the desperate and despondent, some of  whom had dreams but end up in a vicious cycle of debt, and now they are merely trying to hold on to what they have left in real world, others who got hard dumped, one to many times from their dives and are now quite a few brain cells shorter then when they started and many who have decided that digital world is far more real then the offline one. 

 

There are a number of places in particular that catch your eye, one being a run down looking net bar called Korobeiniki, and a well maintained looking building called the Blue Parrot. Seeing as how it is the lease dilapidated building around you figure it is probably the local work brokerage and head towards it.

 

The inside is pretty much the same as outside although it looks more like a bar then and employment centre.  Wooden tables and shady booths fill the interior and a long counter seems act as focus of attention, there numerous screens on the walls, listing the current job postings and there are also couple rather odd looking avatar conversing with black shapes sitting at the tables. You walk towards one of the screens however instead of seeing a listing of jobs as you had imagined the screen is simply blank, looking around you can not seem to find any way to turn it on.

 

“Hey you, dog headed boy.” a rather grizzled and unkempt man behind the counter yells turning to face him you reply.

 

“Are you talking to me?”

 

“Who else, you want job! You pay me first, 100 Yen to read the board. You don’t like you leave.”

 

“(sigh) Alright.” you respond defeated, after all you’ve dealt with people like him before who treat there shops like small kingdoms with them as God and King.  You place your digital smartcard into the reader on the counter and he nods when the payment confirmation appears, then flicks a switch under the counter which cause the screen you where looking at to light up.

 

          Looking at the you begin to understand why Ice Miner said you would not run into anyone Jackal new here, as well as why the people outside looks so poor.  Most of the jobs on the board are only for a few hundred Yen, hardly worth the effort needed to undertake them. All except for the last one on the list which if offering a fee of ¥1,500, you quickly select it and after a small light scan your arm band the text on the screen changes to the words “booth six”.  Looking around for a second you find the booth and then sit down and wait for you client to arrive.  After waiting for several minutes the client arrives, although all you can see of them is a black non distinct humanoid shape.

 

“Th-Thank you for answering the job posting” the shape says nervously”

 

“Don’t worry your safe, now what are the details of the job?” you respond in a soothing voice.

 

“Well you see the thing is, I’m not a bad person I just made a small mistake the office where I work they don’t treat me very well and I decided that a little bonus was due. So I transferred some money from the payroll system to my personal account, just a little I figured no one would notice”

 

“But they did?”

 

“Yes, I thought I was so careful now they are going through all written records and accounting data. What I need you to do hack into the accounts and resequence the parole account to make it look like the bosses son was just taking out a larger then normal personal allowance.”

 

“Hmm, shouldn’t be too hard, what kind of security can I except?”

 

“Well the admin, is on vacation, that’s why thought I’d get away with it but other then that there should only be the three-dimensional encrypted access port between you and the files.”

 

“I can handle that, alright then I’ll take the job.” you say handing him a small digital chit containing your account information.  Thanking you profusely he hands you a chit of his own containing the IP address for the office along with the employee ID numbers you will need.

 

Although you agreed to do the job and figured it would be a simple matter, a quick scan of your primary memory reveals that your Latus system contains only the basic connection and file control protocols.  You realize you are going to need some programs if you want to able work and so you turn to the man at the counter and ask.

 

“Is there tool store around here?”

 

“Outside third building on your left” he responds without glancing up from the magazine that he is reading. It does not take you long after leaving the Blue Parrot to find the place he was talking about a large yellow neon sign informs you that the place is called The Happy Gator Clamp.  The inside reminds you of a small 24 hour convince store right down to the halogen lamps flicking on the ceiling.   The owners’ avatar is that of smiling alligator where a pair of black sunglasses, and the shelves are packed with assorted colored boxes many bearing the Uplink seal of approval others seemingly named after there creators.

 

“What you need Mon?” the gator inquires with a friendly voice and a thick Jamaican accent.

 

“A Data resequencer” you answer in equally friendly manor.

 

“No problem, I got what ya needing.  Now, you looking for speed, size or concealment?”

 

“Concealment I think I don’t want to leave even a footprint.”

 

“I hear that, you don’t want no one know what you been doing. Then I recommend Fido’s repack version .7. It should do the job for you and it only set ya back ¥650”

 

“Alright, here you go, thanks for the help.”

 

“Don’t mention, come back anytime.”

 

With that you depart the small store and once again enter the sprawl of brick building that make up Bin Town.  Almost without realizing it you have begun to notice that you are adjusting to the UnderNet, the terms and slang have started to make sense and it seems that the ed-soft is working after all; you begin to wonder what other ed-soft you might be able to acquire, once you have the cash.  But first you decided to finish this job and earn your first pay check as a hacker.  You bring the globe into view and then your fingers began to dance around it as you tap nodes and

sub-systems, tracing a path from Bin Town to the target computer and with the path complete you hit connect.

 

It feels although you are being pushed through a wind tunnel as your data bounce across the UnderNet to your destination.  You arrive at an unadorned system; clearly the designers did not have the need or desire to customize architecture and instead left as the basic template.  A blue walkway leads off of the UnderNet to a large metallic pyramid constructed of roughly two dozen different shaped blocks.  You immediately recognize this as a three-dimensional encrypted access port. The basic idea behind the system was spatial recognition, in order to pass through the connection the port first had to be decoded by shifting and turning the blocks to transform the initial shape into a new shape that would allow access, the more advanced generations usually included trap connections by employing designs that could reach the final form through different block combination however only one combination actual lead to the system the others usual lead to dummy system or even a labyrinth lock to trap the unfortunate hacker.   But seeing as how this was a rather basic system there would be no such safeguards or dangers, a quick scan of the connection protocol revealed that a cube was the desired final form.

 

Stretching out your hands you quickly begin to manipulate the pyramid blocks, shifting, turning and separating them from the main shape.  All of a sudden a quiet buzzing can be heard and a small warning light begins to flash in your oracle display.  Apparently the system was not as weak as you had been lead to believe, do to the fact that your oracle has detected an active trace in progress.  Working quicker then before you continue moving pieces and the pyramid begins to look more and more like a cube, pieces continue to slide out and new ones click in as you work on transforming it from all sides, when all of a sudden the whole thing transforms back into a pyramid.

 

“Damn it!” you curse to yourself. It seems that this three-dimensional encrypted access port is equipped with an auto reset, so unless the shape is completed within a finite time the port returns to its initial state. This is defiantly going to make your work harder, and the trace currently backtracking your to locate is not helping matters.  Once again your hands began to dance about the pyramid almost if they have a mind of their own, since now you no longer have the luxury of planning out the solution to puzzle you simply have to act and focus on the final image.  Much quicker then before the cube began to take shape as you rotate it in all directions plugging in blocks.  A second warning light appears in your oracle interface singling that active trace has reach the halfway point, and at its sight you redouble your efforts and at that the last final block clicks into place and the cube is complete.  It flashes for an instance and becomes a new pathway leading into the heart of the system, which you quickly race along. The interior is the same simple design as the exterior made up of predominately blues and black with a few other colors add to signify pieces of data and system functions.  Placing your hand atop a short oblong pillar cause a system schematic to appear hovering in the air in front of you, examining it for a moment you locate your target and then run down a passage way to a large warehouse shaped room, that represents the data storage module. The room is filled with small cubes of data some rapped in a green wire representing encrypted information.  You began to look through the cubes until you come across the parole archive.  Once you confirm that it is the right file, you active the data resequencer which sends a steam of red 1 and 0 into the cube.  Slowly the stream changes from red to yellow and then to green before stopping completely.  With that you active the recall command and sever your connection to the target system.

 

You breathe a sigh of relief as the familiar all be it depressing sites of Bin Town once again become visible.  Turning you reenter the Blue Parrot and send a message to your client informing them of your successful completion of the mission. Then pausing only moment to break the trail of bounces connecting Bin Town to the target system, you log out and the bright lights of the UnderNet are replaced by the dimly lit view of your apartment.

 

 A smile crosses your lips as you realize that now you are an official hacker and the rush of adrenaline still fills your body as the memories from the job are still fresh in your mind. Although despite that your neck is stiff and your eyes are sore.  Looking around you notice for the first time that the sun has long since set and night is in full swing, you begin to wonder how long you where online for, but then exhaustion sets in. Collapsing into bed you muse on how successful your day was a new Latus system and even a few Yen, all in all things are going well you think to yourself before sleep sets in.