Ashley is talking to Micah when we arrive in his basement. "Any hacker worth her salt," she's saying, "should be able to access the old government systems." She looks up and nods at us, then goes back to typing.
"What're you doing?" I ask.
Micah waves us over. "We're trying to get into the military's old computers in the Forbidden Zones on Long Island."
"How? Are they even still running?"
He shrugs. "That's what we're trying to figure out right now. Reggie thinks they probably kept them operating for non-essential functions like environmental control and such."
"Environmental control?" Kelly asks. The contempt is thick in his voice. He hasn't looked at me once since storming off, and it just makes me even angrier at him. "What the hell do they need that for? UIs don't need air conditioning."
Micah raises his hands. "Don't look at me. Ask Reg. This is his show. I'm just here to provide services."
"Looks like they're up and running," Ash chimes in. "I can see their identifiers—IP addresses, I believe they were once called. Hello, little computers, this is Granny knocking on your firewalls. Let me in, let me in. Ooh, what crude encryption you have!"
Kelly shakes his head in disgust.
Ashley's playful grin turns into a frown. "Micah? Does it seem like a lot of traffic's going through those nodes?"
Micah leans over. We all do, but it's scrolling too fast for me to make anything out. He shrugs.
"It's a lot of data for basic maintenance programs, but you know how inefficient the old codices were."
I grow bored of watching it. "Speaking of Reggie, where is he?"
I turn around just in time to see him coming out of the bathroom zipping up his fly. I roll my eyes. He smiles his shit-eating grin. Thankfully he doesn't say anything stupid, like, "I left you a present in there." I don't think I could bear his grade-school humor this morning.
"Okay, assuming you can find a way in," Kelly says, leaning over Ash, "wouldn't they have upgraded to iVZ?"
"The systems were put into place before ArcTech even existed," Micah explains. "I don't think they would've bothered with iVZ codex. Too much hardware to transfer over and convert."
"Exactly," Ashley agrees, nodding. Her fingers fly over the keyboard. Type scrolls madly across the screen. "Which means we're talking about accessing pre-Stream databases and programming. What they called the Internet way back when. Piece of cake."
"Which means," Reggie pipes in, "nobody's watching it anymore."
"We hope no one's watching it."
I remember talking to Grandpa about the internet age, which preceded the ArcTech systems that he helped put into place before he "retired." He was the commander of the Omegaman Forces, back when reanimation was first developed and zombies—initially called Zulus—were put under computer control using the L.I.N.C.s, which are similar to the latent individualized neuroleptic connections that all living citizens are supposed to get now. L.I.N.C.s are what connect us and our handheld Link devices to the Stream.
I reach my hand up to the back of my head and feel around until my fingers find the tiny scars. I got mine when I was three, even before it became mandatory. I remember Eric didn't want to get his. He argued that it was just another example of government intrusiveness, of thinking it knows what's best for us. But Grandpa convinced Mom and she signed the papers, so Eric had no choice. He was eleven.
They say the implants are there to prevent what happened during the outbreaks—so they can shut us down if we ever get infected—but it's pretty obvious the program has some serious flaws to it. How do you guarantee a hundred percent of the population is compliant? You can't. Look at Master Rupert: he's got to be in his fifties, and he still doesn't have his implant.
I lower my hand and say, "If it's pre-iVZ, then don't you need a physical uplink? There's no more wireless towers anymore, right?"
Grandpa had said that everything back in the first couple decades of the century either required a physical connection—which they called 'wired' because information was passed in the form of electrons through actual circuits—or radio waves—which they called 'wireless.' But all the wireless transmitters were disassembled years ago and replaced with EM towers. Electromagnetic signals are much more efficient and a trillion times more secure.
I remember him telling me how the old defcon management system was totally susceptible to hacking, and that it was a miracle nobody ever went in and triggered a bunch of missile launches. In fact, that's why ArcTech was first created, to design better, more secure computing systems. ArcTech's intralink VZ and the Stream replaced the Internet years ago and, along with it, the Cloud, which turned out to be a huge disaster. And although many have tried to hack into iVZ—including a few right here in this very room—nobody's ever been able to do it. The encryption is just too good.
Micah holds up a cable, which I can see he's spliced into the guts of yet another piece of equipment, which I immediately recognize as highly illegal: an old tablet computer. "What's the saying about necessity?" he asks.
"It's the mother fucker of invention," Reggie replies, and he and Micah slap palms.
Ashley suddenly yelps. She reaches over and yanks out the wires.
"Hey," Micah cries, but then we all see the look on her face.
"There was some fishy code flashing by in there. I think it was trying to track us so I severed the connection."
Getting caught hacking a government system—even an old one—would get us into serious trouble, enough to probably add six or seven years to our Life Service commitment.
It reminds me of the close call we had a couple weeks ago when Ash and Micah tried hacking into the VR part of The Game. They'd spent a solid three days down here, barely sleeping, feeding on nothing but Red Bull and Little Caesar's pizza. They said it was a hundred times harder than anything they'd tried before. Heck, maybe a million times.
Most of the programming developed and used by ArcWare is open source. Even so, they always embed a few black boxes within the games to keep things interesting, cryptic code that somehow adapts the game to a player's habits and skill level. Gamers and hackers alike love that they do it. Otherwise, what would be the fun in playing or hacking into them?
Not The Game, though. That's a whole different animal. The Game is protected by an ArcWare-developed code called iVZ, short for "intralink virtual zeality." It's got one of the most sophisticated firewalls any of us has ever seen, and a proprietary base code that none of us could ever hope to break. It's light years beyond military grade. In fact, iVZ powers the government. Hack into The Game and you'd practically have the tools needed to hack into the national defense system.
It was Ashley who first proposed the idea to crack The Game. She'd built this crude translator for ArcWare programs. That's how we found their back door. How she accomplished that is beyond me—I'm not a hacker like she and Micah and Reggie are. She's hacked into more of ArcWare's black boxes than anyone I know. She said she used what she salvaged as sort of a Rosetta Stone to come up with her translator, a frankensteinian piece of software built from bits and pieces of scavenged code.
"It's a heuristic program," she tried to explain to me, apparently oblivious to the fact that my eyes were quickly glazing over. I prefer nascent coding, creating programs. And I stick to the standard languages, like andro, Khartoum-four and MesmerZ. Going in specifically to crack a program isn't my idea of fun.
"Heuristic means it teaches itself," she went on. Of course I knew what heuristic meant, but I didn't bother to correct her. "The program essentially runs on a loop of testing, evaluating, refining and retesting, becoming better and better as it ages."
Whatever. I never, ever thought it would work.
But it did. Sort of. Between her and Micah's mad coding abilities, they got as far as copying the software's architecture before the program shut them out. Architecture is Micah's specialty. He loves thinking about game structure and could stare at it all day long, drooling like a puppy at how clever some of the programmers can be.
I remember Ash pinged everyone when they made the breakthrough. We all went running over.
I got there just in time to see Micah's screens lighting up with error messages Then everything went totally ape-shit.
"Yo, there's suicide switches everywhere, y'all!" he shouted. We stood in awe and watched, making sure to stand out of the way as he hammered at his keyboard. It was fun just watching him. He and Ash were hopping from console to console, the whole time shouting at the top of their lungs. Then: "Not another—" Micah screamed. "No, no! Aw, shee-it!"
Everything went blank. The game had locked them out. Wouldn't even let them log in with new fake identities, blocking us all out, in fact. It was as if it suddenly knew everything about us, could track us even if we jumped Streams. It was a huge disappointment, of course. We'd gotten a glimpse inside The Game, but we'd almost gotten caught, too.
"Easy peasy," Ashley says, as she holds up the tablet in triumph.
"You got the maps?" Micah asks. "Lady, I could just kiss you!"
"You wouldn't be able handle it. You'd spontaneously combust!"
"What maps?" Kelly asks, impatiently.
"The tunnels," I say. "Weren't you even listening this morning when I told you about it?" I know I'm just taking out my frustration on Kelly, but I can't seem to help myself.
He frowns at me, then shakes his head and repeats the question.
Ash holds up the disemboweled tablet. What we see on the pixilated screen is an old drawing of the transportation system of Long Island. She points to a pair of lines connecting lower and eastern Manhattan to LI. The first is labeled BROOKLYN BATTERY TUNNEL. The second, QUEENS MIDTOWN TUNNEL.
"Schematics are embedded. Which one do you want to check out first?"
We all look at each other without speaking. What we're seeing is highly illegal to possess, much less study. Then we're all speaking at the same time.
"The Queens," Kelly announces, when the rest of us have quieted down. "Let's look at that one first."
Ash opens the embedded file and begins to read:
"Opened in 1940, the Queens-Midtown tunnel connects the Borough of Queens on Long Island with the Borough of Manhattan. It consists of twin tubes carrying four traffic lanes and is 6,414 feet long."
"Over a mile," I murmur. I don't know what I'd been expecting, but it certainly isn't something quite as long as that. "How're we going to get through something a mile long and filled with water?"
"Scuba," Reggie says.
"Whoa!" Kelly turns to Reg. "Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we? Nobody here knows how to scuba dive. Besides, we don't even know if the tunnel's still accessible."
"Yeah, well, the other tunnel's even longer," Ash says, busily reciting facts from the other file. As if it makes any difference. One mile or ten, scuba gear or not, Kelly's right. If the tunnels aren't open, we might as well be talking about swimming through concrete.
By rights, they should all be filled. Or at least gated. And for all we know, they could be caved in. It's a hundred years old, for chrissake. And despite Ash's assurances to me last night, I still seriously doubt they'd just leave the openings unblocked.
Micah asks where the Manhattan opening for the Queens tunnel is.
Ashley taps the screen. "The old midtown," she says. "Between what used to be East 34th and 35th Streets." She opens another file. Nods. "Yep. It's totally underwater."
"Okay, then," Kelly says, holding up a gaming controller. "Now that that's resolved, how about we—"
"Check it out?" Reggie says, straightening up. "Good idea. I mean, we won't know for sure what it looks like unless we see it for ourselves, right?"
Ash turns to me. "Did you bring it?" she asks.
I nod and pat my Link. "Uploaded it last night, after Eric went to bed." Kelly frowns at me like I've betrayed him.
"Woohoo!" Reggie shouts. "Road trip!"
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