Make your own free website on Tripod.com

ZODIAC

Part II:

Castles in the Sky

                      By Lex Morrison

 

  Black and White Version

 

         

          A single beam of sunlight snuck through the blinds and rather rudely struck me between the eyes. Aches and pain ran through my entire body and despite having slept for hours I still felt tired. None the less, I dragged myself out of bed into and into a long hot shower.  After taking a few minutes to change into a grey shirt and pants I sat down to enjoy the breakfast of champions, or leftover curry as some might call it.  About halfway through I glanced over at the wall mounted clock and was shocked to discover that it was already two in the afternoon, it was unsettling at first to discover I had lost my entire morning.  However I shrugged it off as over zealousness for my new acquisition.

 

          I moved into the living room to finish off my cup of tea and go over the list of things I was supposed to do today. Peabody had asked me stop by, and take a look at some cars he had recently acquired and the refrigerator was also looking a little barren.  However it was difficult to concentre on other things and my eyes kept drifting over to the Latus System sitting on the desk. It was almost glinting in the sunlight, calling to me. My resistance did not last long and I decided to go for a quick spin just to see if there where any easy jobs available. I would still have plenty of time afterwards to get around to the days errands. So once again I attach the Latus chip to my neck and entered the UnderNet.

 

>Checking Connection....... Ok
>Checking UnderNet OS........ Ok
>Checking Memory Systems........ Ok
>Checking Secondary Memory Systems........ Ok

>
>
>Connecting to UnderNet.
>Originally Established by the Uplink Corporation.
>
>Welcome Back Agent Jackal.

 

          The real world dissolved around me and the digital world took its place. A place filled with a multitude of pulses of yellow data that traveled along vast azure roads extending out into the emptiness of the UnderNet. The mail box stood empty and alone beside the old wooden door. So I called up the globe, and then closing my eyes I made the jump to Bin Town.

         

          A cold chill ran through my body and a sense of emptiness filled me for the brief instance it took to travel across the digital landscape and then there I was; surrounded by old brick buildings and lone avatars passing to and fro as they went about their daily business.   Mounds of junk data sat in all direction some large and some small, evidence of the constant struggle the utility programs waged to keep down the ever increasing amount of garbage generated in the UnderNet. I began walking towards the Blue Parrot and as I passed by a pile junk data a fragment of an old email caught my eye.

 

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

         Board @9 Directors has decided to shutd%wn the *!)~[^Q branch.

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

 

And I realized that these piles of so called useless information where in fact reservoirs of opportunity. They contained many of the secrets of the UnderNet, and all it would take was a person able to recognize what they had found and know how to use it, to unravel those secrets.  The time I had spent as a fixer had taught me one important lesson and that was how to take advantage of a resource when I saw one. One day I would have to learn more about junk data, but that would have to wait until I had progressed beyond the basic skills of this brave new world.

         

The interior of the Blue Parrot was quieter then my previous visit, with only a few unassuming avatars browsing through the jobs postings. That was except for two in particular which caught my eye. The first was a thin man with pale white skin and a bald head. He was clad in a long black trench coat with an upturned collar and wearing a matching pair of small round goggles. The other stood much taller and wider then the first and was dressed in a simple black suit. He was standing just behind his companion and seemed to be keeping a constant eye on the surroundings.  They appeared to have just concluded a discussion with the owner of the Blue Parrot, and where on their way out, when the bald man stopped and turned to me.

 

“My, my, what an interesting avatar you have there.” he said in a low raspy voice.

 

“Thank you, I guess you could say it just came to me.” I replied jokingly.

 

“What a curious choice of words.   But then where are my manors I have yet to introduce myself. I am Mr. White and this is my associate Mr. Grim. You will have to pardon him not introducing himself but he subscribes to the notion that it is better to remain silent then to say nothing at all, and you are?”

 

“Call me Jackal, I’m a little puzzled though, isn’t saying nothing at all the same as remaining silent?”

 

“My word no, most people can talk for hours on end and generate nothing but noise. While others choose not to involve themselves in the dance of words and veiled meanings, instead they simply say what they mean and mean what they say. It is a shame however that such people are often branded as slow, would you not agree?”

 

“I don’t know, I think that most people need a lot of words since it allows them to convey their message in a more subtle manor.”

 

“Too true, after all you can learn many things about a person from not just what they say but how they say it.”

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but you two strike me as rather out of place around here, what brings you to the Blue Parrot?” I inquired.

 

“Why, the same reason anyone comes here, and how about you, why are you here?”

 “I’m here for looking for work, nothing more nothing less.”

 

“Work you say, but there are many places a man can work that pay far better then this one and yet, here you are.”

 

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

 

“How true, and just how long have you been at this business?”

 

“I only started yesterday, so you will have to forgive me, if I am still a little new to how things work.”

 

“Of course, I imagine you still find a great many things about you situation confusing. Although I imagine you must have some talent, after all it is rare to see someone who has an iron band on only their second day.” For the first time I noticed the iron band that Ice Miner given me when I had visited him the other day. With a quick glance around the room I realized that all the avatars seemed to be wearing similar arm bands most made of green glass, but some where of iron. All except for the two men standing in front of me, who each wore two obsidian bands around their left arm.

 

 “Tell me do you enjoy riddles?” Mr. White asked in the same low voice.

 

“Sometimes, why do you ask?” I cautiously answered.

 

“Curious that is all. I wonder what you would make of this one. ‘There was man who wore a hat of green.  That one day traveled down a road which he had never seen.  He walked until he reached a fork and a stone.  But instead of continuing he simply went home.’ So what does it mean to you?” Perplexed I pondered for a moment and then replied.

 

“He was a blind man on his way home.”

 

“That is certainly a response, and while all answers are responses not all response are answers.  This has been a most informative meeting, but alas, I have pressing business elsewhere, so I must bid you adieu.” 

 

“Wait a minute, why did you ask me that riddle?”

 

“It depends, which one where you referring to?” With that the two mysterious avatars walked out of the Blue Parrot without saying another other word. Even after they had gone, I could still feel a cold chill running down my spine.  I walked over to the long wooden counter, where the grizzled owner of the employment brokerage stood watching events unfold in his establishment.

 

“I’m look for work, anything good available?”  I asked confidently.

 

“100 Yen you pay first.” The owner replied with a hint of annoyance in his voice.

 

“Alright, here you go” I replied inserting my digital smartcard into the reader. It scanned the card for a second and then let out a perky beep signifying the completion of the transaction. With a practiced move of his hand the owner caused a near by screen to come to life. I browsed through the jobs posted on the screen however it was a short list with less than a dozen jobs posted and none of them interesting or valuable enough to bother undertaking.  Then a thought occurred to me things in the UnderNet worked more or less the same way as they do in the real world and so I walked back to the man at the counter.

 

“I was wonder, how much it would cost to see the premium list?” I inquired in a shrewd tone.

 

“What you see is what you get” he responded impassively.

 

“Come on, we’re both business men here, and I am sure a man such as yourself holds back the better jobs for those special customers.  What will it take for me to become a special customer?”

 

“We make deal, you pay extra 200 Yen, I maybe find you good job” I slid my smartcard into the reader and watched the yen roll off until he nodded in approval. 

 

“Okay, you go to booth 9 and wait for client.” the owner stated firmly and so I   took my place in booth nine to await the client, for what I assumed would be both a challenging and profitable mission.  The minutes ticked by and I began to wonder how long it would take for the client to arrive. Eventually though a black form materialized on the other side of the booth.

 

“Okay, let’s keep this brief. Your target is Agin Corp Manufacturing. The fee is ¥3,400 and you have seven hours to complete the operation.  The task is simple, locate the R&D sub-system, once you have gained access to  that system find the control core for project XL-5 and insert a new function into the initialization routine.” the shape informed me.

 

“Alright, what can I expect in terms of security?”  I respond.

 

“The main system is ranked J class in terms of security, so you should anticipate static defences as well as a couple of reactive countermeasures.”

 

“Is there anything else I should know?”

 

“Not that I can think of.”

 

“Fine, I’ll take the job.”

 

“Do not try and contact me again, if the mission is successful the fee will be deposited into your account within the next 24 hours.” The figure replied before abruptly vanishing, leaving only a small gold disk behind.  I deftly slipped the small disk into my pocket before stepping out of the booth and leaving the Blue Parrot.

 

   Shimmering connection lines illuminated the dark streets of Bin Town, reminding me of the starry night skies of my youth before the ever expanding cities and pollution obscured the night sky from all but the most remote areas.  I began wondering to myself how the Latus system worked. Whether it provided the interpretation of the stimulus I was receiving or whether my own mind and memories where filling in the gaps.  As I Walked down the narrow streets I closed my eyes and listened. I was surprised by the level of realism, even the echo of footsteps against the wall was the same and I could almost believe that I was back in the real world passing through the alleyway near my apartment.

 

  The flickering neon sign of the Happy Gator Clamp, greeted me warmly as I entered the small tool shop.

 

“Welcome back mon, what can I get you today?”  The smiling alligator asked in a friendly tone.

 

“I need some new tools, to tackle my next job. The only problem is I don’t know what kind of security to expect.”  I replied.

 

“That’s a tough one then, but da basic tools that everyone should have are Hour Glass, Fish Hook, and Cyclic Cipher.  I even make you a special deal. You buy all three and I only charge ¥3,000.”  When I heard him say the names of the tools it brought back seemingly half forgotten memories. I knew not only what those programs where but how to use them.

 

Hour Glass was a simple analytical and estimation program. It monitored a connection and was able to determine the approximate time before an active trace reached the users home system.  Fish Hook was an infiltration program used to defeat oscillating current barriers by catching the algorithm used to control the current.  The Cyclic Cipher was basically a blunt force tool it worked by trying every possible cipher on a password or piece of data encoded using the cyclic encryption scheme. 

  It was going to set my funds back a bit but I knew I was going to need at least a few tools In order to complete this job and any other jobs I hoped to undertake. So I handed over my smartcard to the waiting alligator.

 

“Alright that sounds like a fair price.”

 

“It’s a pleasure doing business with you mon.” he replied as he handed me a small grey box. As I touched it the box melted into my hand and a small icon appeared in the corner of my vision, informing me that new software has been successfully installed.  A slight tingle of anticipation gripped me, like a kid on Christmas morning anxiously waiting to unwrap their presents. Thoughts of the upcoming mission and the chance it would present to try out my software where almost more then I could bear. However a slight pang of concern gnawed at my stomach. The knowledge I had received from the ed-tech had mentioned nothing of security classifications, so I really had know idea if I had the skills or software necessary to handle a J class security system.  But either way I was going ahead with the mission, after all for the price I was being paid the challenge could not be too great.

 

With a now practiced movement I brought the globe into view, a small blinking yellow triangle identified the R&D subsystem. Fortunately it appeared that the Agin Corp Manufacturing system was connected to France’s primary public commerce node, which meant I would be able to access it directly.   My hands began to dance around the globe tracing a crisscrossing route through the UnderNet, bouncing from Bin Town through a gaming forum then off a variety of other nodes as I connected Bin Town to the target system.; while at the same time attempting to make it as difficult as possible to track the connection back to my home system.  With the path complete I commenced the connection, there was the sensation of my body compressing into a small ball of data followed by the feeling of racing down a long road and zigzagging around corners and bends. The experience lasted only a few seconds but still the effects where disorienting and disconcerting. 

 

What I saw before me was nothing like my previous assignment this was clearly a system that had devoted time, money, and personal to impressing visitors and eliminating intruders.  Twin ivory towers extend up into a crystal blue sky. A long marble wall connected them together and an exquisitely decorated flags billowed in the nonexistent wind.   Never before had I even dreamed of such an magnificent castle the entire structure seemed to be constructed of the purest shades of white and possessed an almost fairy tale quality too it. Right down to the murk green waters of the moat that encircled the castle walls.  A sturdy looking guard house stood across the moat and held a heavy wooden drawbridge tightly in place.  I stepped towards the front gate and began to look for a way to lower the bridge from this side.  While I stood there a face materialized out of the clouds and spoke in a booming voice.

 

“Es que tu parla vous française?”

 

>Translation matrix loading…….

>Process complete.

 

          Unsure of what had just happened I waited to see if the face would make another attempt too contact me.  After several seconds it spoke again in the same booming voice.

 

“Welcome, to Agin Corp Manufacturing the following system is restricted access. If you are not an authorized user then disconnect immediately. Otherwise please enter your user name and password.”  A large grey rectangle appeared in the air in before me, with two blank spaces on its surface awaiting input.  I pressed my hand against the rectangle and sent a surge of energy though it, causing the rectangle to shatter into dozens of 1’s and 0’s. The bits of floating data then reformed into a large spinning circle. At the same instant the trace light flashed on. I opened the palm of my hand face up and a large hourglass appeared, its sands rapidly descending and a small display at its base counting down from 180.   I placed the palms of my hands together and then separated them, causing a rainbow to cascade outwards and into the circle. 

 

The circle began to spin rapidly as the 1’ and 0’s started to glow a shimmering array of colors. When all the bits turned the same color it would signal the completion of the cyclic cipher. The ring continued to shift and swirl with in ever diminishing rainbow. While the sands slipped rapidly from the hourglass.  Like a brilliant flame a golden hue arose across the circle and rapidly took hold. Until it became a sold ring of gold and vanished. A quick glance at the hourglass revealed that thirty seconds had already elapsed and so with renewed vigour I dashed across the bridge and into the ivory castle. 

 

The interior possessed the same elegance as the exterior with a long marble hallway extending out before me. The floor consisted of a chess board pattern of black and white marble tiles, while the walls where covered with tapestries and plaques depicting the companies’ achievements. So far the security had been almost none existent certainly nothing as tight or challenging as my first mission and I could not help but become deeply concerned by this fact.  However time was growing short and the knowledge that I still had to find the objective urged me to dash down the hallway.

 

  I was halfway across the hall when all of a sudden a loud trumpet blared and I was struck by a solid blast of sound so intense that I vomited and then keeled over with pain.  The sound continued unending causing me writher in agony upon the floor, I grabbed at my ears trying to block out the noise, to no avail. The disorientation had completely taken over and I could no longer tell if I was standing still or falling, let alone see straight.  Twitching on the floor I felt a spark as a hand touch my shoulder and then the sound begins to dissipate and my senses cleared.

 

“I was wondering who was ruining my perfect ghost drive. You know you’re lucky I was here, otherwise you would have been in serious trouble.” said a familiar sweet voice. Turning I was greeted with an almost angelic vision of a woman with long blonde hair and a red cocktail dress.

 

“Julia… Thanks… for the help” I replied uneasily.

 

“Careful, you’re still disoriented from the sonic pitfall.”

 

“…Sonic pitfall?”

 

“It’s a reactive countermeasure, it remains hidden until triggered, then releases a high frequency sonic waves that causes nausea and loss of equilibrium in the unfortunate intruder.  But this isn’t really the place to discuss this. Where are you working out of?”

 

“Uh, I’m working in Bin Town.”

 

“Okay, I know the place. There’s a bar there called Korobeiniki I’ll meet you there after you’ve had a chance to logout and clean up. I’ll answer all of your questions then. Okay?”

 

“Alright, but what do you mean by clean up?”

 

“You’ll see when you logout.  Now we really have to be going.” With that she quickly vanished from view leaving me alone in the empty hallway.  Slowly and uneasily I rose too my feet. There where only a few sands remaining in the hourglass, so with a sluggish motion I disconnect from the system. Causing my body to be snap back to Bin Town as if it where attached to the end of an elastic band.  From there I jumped to the game forum and deleted the connections records to prevent the authorities from back tracking through the logs to find me.   I Logged out and watched the digital world dissolve into the walls of my modest apartment.  

 

My chest felt cold and wet from the results of the bout nausea I had suffered when the intruder countermeasure had hit me.  The pungent odour acted as a strong reminder that what happened online had real world consequence. 

 

I tossed my shirt and pants into a half full sink of water and then proceed to take a long refreshing shower.  Beads of water cascaded down my body as I stood there resting my head against the wall, as my senses slowly returned to normal.  After drying off and getting changed I placed the old cloths in the washing machine then sat down a the desk and let the Latus chip take over, shifting me back into the artificial world of the UnderNet.

 

>Checking Connection....... Ok
>Checking UnderNet OS........ Ok
>Checking Memory Systems........ Ok
>Checking Secondary Memory Systems........ Ok

>
>
>Connecting to UnderNet.
>Originally Established by the Uplink Corporation.
>
>Welcome Back Agent Jackal.

 

          Not bothering to enjoy the scenery I jumped directly to Bin Town and my body materialized in a crowded street.  The building on my left was the unassuming net bar simply called Korobeiniki.  From the outside it appeared to have the same run down and neglected feel as the rest of the town.  However once I stepped inside I was greeted with an all together different atmosphere. 

 

Jazz music played in the background of the clean retro looking bar. The seats and tables where made from blocks and dotted the room.  A red and blue color scheme ran through the bar that at some points merged seamless and at other appeared points the colors seemed to be locked in a struggle for dominance. Numerous patrons where sitting at tables and booths, quietly chatting with their companions. Behind the bar stood a rather large smiley face wearing a top hot and on a small stage to one side of the room was a large saxophone gently playing itself.  And there seated on a stool at the end of the bar near the musician was Julia quietly sipping a drink and lost in the music and some distant memory.  I took a seat beside her and smiled.

 

“You look right at home here.”

 

“Hey. Ya I used to come here a lot in the old days, being here and seeing the place unchanged brings me back to those times.” She replied while still lingering on the distant memories.

 

“Have you been at his business a long time?”

 

“I’m not sure, the years all tend to blend together after a while, my avatar my never age by I certainly do.”

 

“Sounds like you almost regret it all.”

 

“No, not really it’s the life I chose and the one I live, nothing more.”

 

“This whole world is still new to me I guess that is why I find it exciting and invigorating.”

 

“Give it time, the UnderNet has a way of aging people, maybe it’s the fast reaction time or the increased stimulus but it has an effect on you.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It hard to explain, its more something you feel then anything tangible. For instance the veterans who have been doing this along time, when they get back the real world some of them feel as if everything is moving in slow motion.  But I’m not the one to ask about those kinds of things. If you really want to know about it, I can put you in touch with someone who will happily talk your ear off for hours. But, for now I’m sure you have more pressing concerns.”

 

“Right, I guess my first question is what happened to me when you found me?”

 

“That was reactive countermeasure known as a sonic pitfall. What happens is, when the system detects an unauthorized access the pitfall actives, bombarding the intruder with high frequency sound waves disabling them.”

 

“It was defiantly effective that’s for sure. How do I go about avoiding them?”

 

“Well, there are a number of ways. One way is to trick the system into thinking that you are a valid user, there are other ways but it will be better for you to figure them out on your own.”

 

“You are probably right. Now you said trick the system. But I do not have the faintest idea of how to go about that”

 

“Its okay, you’re still new so you wouldn’t have heard about body shops yet.  They are similar to tool shops but instead of selling programs they sell avatar modifications sometimes called accessories.”

 

“Avatar modifications?”

 

“Ya, there are different kinds but they generally fall into two categories. You have lenses which are vision modifications that provide images for the many different pieces of information that the oracle interface normally ignores or can’t process. An example is being able to see if a piece of data has been altered just by looking at it.  Then you have jackets, they are basically disguises that send out false singles to mask your avatar from other users or a computer system. For example you can get a jacket that attempts to fool the computer into thinking you are a bank audit.”

 

“Those sound incredibly useful, I imagine with the right accessories you could slip in and out of a system without leaving a trace.”

 

“That’s the idea. We call it a ghost dive. Now, what you did is what is colourfully called a bull hack. It’s loud, noisy, and messy and leaves no doubt that someone broke into the system.  Sometimes an employer will hire a newbie to perform a bull hack in order to cover another more subtle job.”

 

“Are you saying that was what I was for?”

 

“Not necessarily, but it’s always possible. You shouldn’t get worked up about it. We all get used by corporations here.”

 

“I suppose, but I do not like the idea of someone using me like that.”

 

“(Sigh) you even sound like him sometimes.”

 

“Sound like whom?”

 

“Huh? Oh sorry, I was talking to myself. It’s just that sometimes you remind me of someone I used to know.”

 

“An old lover perhaps?” I tactfully inquire.

 

“Something like that. A memory from long ago. But, I’m sure you have more question about the UnderNet.”

 

“Okay. Do you think you can explain the arm bands to me?”

 

“Sure, I surprised that wasn’t covered in the tutorial, but oh well.  The arm bands represent rank and an overall estimate of your skill based on mission performance. The kind of material it’s made of shows people what your rank is. The ranks are green glass, iron, copper, bronze, silver, gold, platinum and obsidian. First time users start at green glass, while more experienced people who have had their accounts closed for whatever reason restart at iron.”

 

“Okay, that makes sense.  I’ve noticed some people with multiple bands, you have three for instance, why is that?.”

 

“There are other kinds of work done in the UnderNet then just hacking, the additional bands represent involvement in that work, for instance this bottom one is for hacking, and the top represents training and recruitment.”

 

“And the middle one?” I replied slyly.

 

“You don’t except me to tell you all my secrets now do you? Let’s just say that most people will never have more then one band and leave it at that.”

 

“Curious and Curiouser”

 

“Feel free to try and find out what they mean on your own, but just remember what happened to the cat.”  Julia said with a wink.

 

          “I’ll try and remember that.” I responded with a grin. I was about to continue when  we where interpreted by a large man at the bar causing a commotion,

 

          “Hey, Happy give me a beer!” The man yelled. He was a bizarre looking avatar dressed from head to foot in leather, and covered with flashing lights. Even his hair went to a point at the ends making it look like lighting bolts where growing out of either side of his head.  Although his appearance was no doubt supposed to be impressive he looked more comical then anything else.

 

          “That’s Mr. Happy to you.” the smiley face shaped bartender curtly replied.

 

          “Whatever, you’re as bad as the owner of the Blue Parrot. Do you have any idea of who I am?”

 

          “Can’t say that I do.”

 

          “I’m The Amazing Captain Lighting!”

 

          “Never heard of you.”

 

          “What! Have you been living under a rock? I’m one of the greatest hackers the UnderNet has ever seen!”

 

          “Sure you are, and I’m the digital Messiah.”

 

“You don’t believe me! Did you hear about the ghost dive of The Emerald City last month? That was me.”

 

          “Way I hear it, that was just a rumour. No one has ever successfully dived into The Emerald City.”

                                            

          “That’s how good I am, there isn’t any proof that it happened, let alone that I did it!”

 

          “Then, why are you shooting your mouth off about it in a bar?” I said a little louder then I should have.

 

          “What was that?” he asked even more agitated then before.

 

          “I am just saying, that if you are as good as you claim, you would not be here bragging about it.”

 

          “That’s it! I’m The Amazing Captain Lighting and I don’t know who you think are, but I have had enough. You see this copper band that means I’m a hell of a lot better then you are.”

 

          “I’m still new at this game so I will take your word on that.”

 

          “Oh, I get it you think your better then me.  Well then let’s see what you’ve got.”

         

          “What do you have mind?”

 

          “Man, you are green. I mean Color Ball of course. That will show us who’s got what it takes and who is merely playing at being a hacker, and to make things interesting how about ¥250 a ball?”

 

          “Alright, you’re on.” Then turning to Julia I quietly asked.

         

          “So what is Color Ball?”

 

          “(Laughing to herself) you’re going to get yourself hurt with this leap before you look attitude you have.  Color Ball was originally a training exercise that became a kind of pseudo-sport a few years back.  There are five white balls hovering over a board and players on either side of the board. Each player has a set of five panels in front of them corresponding to each of the five balls.  The object is to change the color of the balls to your color without dropping them. Once a balls color has been completely changed the ball is locked and can no longer be changed, the winner is the player with the most balls at the end of the game.”

 

          “Um, so how do I change the balls color?”

 

          “That’s what the panels are for; they contain the code for the balls. Now the balls use such a very simplistic code that programming knowledge is not a factor in this game. It’s a test of cunning, subterfuge and your ability to keep track of multiple objects at the same time. Do you get it now?”

 

“I think so; it all sounds pretty straight forward. Alright let’s go.”

 

“Good luck, try not to lose all your money.”

 

“Are you ready yet?”  The Amazing Captain Lightning complains.

 

“Whenever you are.” I graciously replied

 

“Right this way Mr nobody, they have a table set up in the corner. You got a name, chump?”

 

“Jackal.”

 

“What a dull name, it’s got no flash.”

 

“You know what they say about guys with a lot of flash.” Julia cunningly remarked.  He turned angrily towards her, then noticing the three silver bands on her arm, grumblingly replied.

 

“We’ll see.” He lead me to a long table with a smooth glass surface and raised walls about half a foot high on either end, concealing five panels from view. I took up a seat at the red end and the Amazing Captain lighting sat at the green end of the table.  A small open slot was on my left and I slide my smartcard into it, which caused the panels to light up.  A small screen appeared awaiting confirmation of the ¥250 per ball wager.  I accepted and five white spheres materialized in the air above the center of the table, arranged in a pentagon formation.   A count down appeared and I flexed my fingers in anticipation. The buzzer sounded and I was off., quickly attacking the code of the center ball. I could see my opponent typing away like a madman and the ball began to change color one side was now green the other red.  I continued working away trying to turn more and more of ball to red. It was a constant struggle as parts of the sphere shifted back and forth between red and green. I could see beads of sweat dripping down The Amazing Captain Lightning’s forehead, his face a mask of tension. The tide was turning in my favour and I could feel myself gaining the upper hand. Then with a flash of inspiration I tried a little a trick and the ball turned almost completely red. Smiling I kept up the pace and managed to vanquish the last of the green on the center ball.

 

“Looks like I’m better then you thought.” I smugly called out but before I can even finish speaking. I stopped and stared in disbelieve as an emerald cascade washed over the four remaining spheres.

 

“You’re such a greener, I can’t believe how easy you where to beat. You where so busy focusing on that one ball. You didn’t notice me set up a cascade in the remaining four. Oh and thanks for the money I can always use an extra 750 yen.” The Amazing Captain Lightning called out tauntingly.  Dejected I withdrew my smartcard and walk out in to the street. What a terrible day I thought to myself. If I was back in the real world it would almost certainly be raining now.  Julia followed me out of Korobeiniki and smiled encouragingly.

 

“Don’t feel bad, it was your first time after all.”

 

“Thanks, I guess he was more then just talk.”

 

“Not really, he gambled on you being a rookie and used a cheap trick if you had had more experience that trick would have cost him the game.”

 

“This lifestyle is far more complicated then I thought it would be.”

 

“Hey, if you hang around long enough you’ll pick it up, Got any money left?”

 

“Sadly, I have very little left.”

 

“That’s too bad. Tell you what; you seem like a nice guy. So I’ll help you out. I’ve got an old Data Jacket that I was just going to get rid of it, but you can have it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Ya, here you go. It should get you through most of the Agin Corp Manufacturing electronic security, although I should warn you it will be useless if you run into a real person.”  She reached into her purse and pulled out a long white feather boa, and handed it to me.

 

“Umm, thanks” I replied as I wrapped it around my neck.

 

“It looks good on you. Although you might want to take it body shop to get it formatted to your avatar, once you’re finished the job.” Julia said while trying to contain her laughter.

 

“I will. Well I’m going to get going; completing that job should be just the thing to cheer me up.”

 

“See you net cowboy, oh and here take my email address. If you ever need some more advice just ask.”

 

“Thanks, be seeing you.”  I waved goodbye and then brought up the globe and commenced with the finger dance of creating a long pathway of nodes leading to the Agin Corp Manufacturing main system. Closing my eyes I felt the surge of acceleration as my body was catapulted to its destination.

 

Tall Ivory towers and long marble walls greeted me as I arrived once again at the fairy tale castle that depicted the Agin Corp Manufacturing system.  The décor was unchanged from my earlier visit and leaving me feeling both relived and disappointed. I had half hoped that the place would have been made to look more formidable, after my earlier break in.  However, none the less I called up the log in screen and then separate my hands activating the cascading rainbow of the cyclic cipher.  The hovering circle quickly shattered and lowered the drawbridge to allow access to the system. 

 

I crossed the bridge and passed through the castle gates. Once inside a tingling sensation spread forth across my body at it took on a yellow hue, which I could only assume meant the jacket had activated.  A set of trumpets attached to one of the walls flickered and vanished. I smile confidently as I slipped in unnoticed and down the long marble hall, which lead into an ornate library. Tall mahogany bookshelves extend upwards into the ceiling. Wooden tables stood in the center of the octagonal room; candles and inkwells rested on top of them and in the corner sat a large brass globe.  Hopeful I reached out and touched the globe causing a map of the companies systems to appear. It took only a moment to locate the connection to the R&D computers, and pass through it towards my destination.

 

Once through the door I found myself in a room the Faust would have felt at home in.  Long and twisted glass tubes seemed to grow like vines form scattered wooden benches.  Fiery arcane symbols and scrolls of faded parchment decorated the long stone walls. A stone archway stood at the threshold obscuring a detailed view of the lab with a strange flickering blue light.  I was about the draw out the Fish Hock when I remembered Julia words about how the Jacket would be adequate enough to slip through most of Agin Corp Manufatureing’s security.  Carefully I reached out my arm and shocks of intense pain coursed through me as my arm sluggishly passed through the barrier.   I pulled back as quickly as I could and deciding not to take the risk of attempting to pass through the flicking blue arch. Instead I activated the Fish Hook program.  A golden hook appeared in my right hand and I passed it through the barrier. As the hook connected with the barrier sparks began to appear and coagulate around the hook.  Letting go, I watched as more and more sparks appeared and where drawn from the rest of the barrier. Eventually a small fissure appeared within the azure light of the archway, and slowly it grew large enough for me to pass through. Ducking thought the hole I crossed the threshold and entered the R&D sub system. 

 

          Looking around there appeared to be many benches here, each with a different devices and set of tools sitting atop them. Fortunately enough they where all labelled and I was able to locate project XL-5 without much trouble.  The bench contained what appeared to be a large complex looking laser and in another time and place I would have been rather impressed with the simplicity of the design. However now I had other goals in mind. I slid the gold disk into the base of the bench and watch as it integrated itself into the control system and vanished.  I breathed a short sigh of relieved that now the job was almost over and that finally something had gone right today.  I turned to leave only to come face to face with a rather stern looking avatar shaped like a grand and powerful wizard. It was dressed in colourful robes of shifting 1’s and 0’s and carried a tall oak staff with an amber globe entwined at its top. 

 

          “I think you picked the wrong system to break into.”  He stated cold and firmly. Panic began to grip me at the realization that I have come face to face with a system administrator. Before I cold even move he stretched out his hand and a crimson bolt of lighting lanced from his hand and skewered me in the chest.  The impact winded me but the bolt kept on going and in my minds eye and the small map in the corner of my view, I can see it race along the faint line of connections the lead from here to my home system.  It twisted and turned from node to node, rapidly approaching the gateway to my Latus system. Then the brief silence was broken by an ominous Ding-Dong ringing in my ears and the wizard smiled and said.

 

          “Got you.”