Aston "Phobia" Holdaway was dead.
Upon hearing the news, the underground was in a state of alarm. Whispers turned to shouts in an outpouring of grief and remembrance. Once more, I saw the mysterious Andromeda Research Corporation mentioned.
There were too many missing variables. The probability cone was too large. What had the number one hacker been working on at ARC to warrant such a high profile, and could it somehow be connected to his death?
Phobia was the only one who seemed prepared to give me answers, and now he was gone. It was time to investigate further.
A little bit of hunting, and I soon located the contact information of ARC's administrator, Ian Levers. I also found the location of their internal services machine.
If ARC really was working on something top secret, there was no chance I would find it on a simple internal services machine, but it would be a good stepping-stone. I easily bypassed the system's defenses.
There it was. The secret ARC Central Mainframe. If I had to hack into a well-defended computer just to get the link, there had to be something important there.
I looked up Ian Levers' background on the International Academic Database and the Social Security Database. Now it was time to give Mr. Levers a call.
He picked up the phone and in a sharp voice answered: "Y'ello?"
I didn't miss a beat. "Yeah, hi Mr. Levers, this is Officer Khu of the Santa Cruz Police Department. I'm afraid your son has been involved in an incident up at the university, and that it may be connected with the-"
He interrupted me "Wait, my Robert? He came home this weekend. Who is this?"
"Er, yes, but in his room we found-"
"No, hold on a second, I swear I remember your voice from somewhere."
The conversation had fallen apart. Ian Levers was no fool. "Mr. Levers I don't believe we've spo-"
"Enkidu? Is that you?" I was speechless. "Enkidu, where are you? Are you safe?" I remained silent, until Levers gave up and hung up.
There would be time for questions later. I bounced a connection around the world, and even through several orbital satellites for good measure, and through the ARC subnet to the central mainframe. The machine was an absolute fortress. I could imagine gargoyles projecting from the intimidating barricades.
I simultaneously broke the administrative password and the elliptic-curve encryption, and replicated Mr. Levers' voice into the voice-print identification, all while evading the proxy and monitor servers watching the mainframe and bypassing the firewall as I connected through servers in space and on earth on six continents.
To my disappointment, I found nothing of interest on the machine's file server.
But the ARC access logs told an intriguing tale.
A lot of work had been done on a project called 'Revelation.' Then, I noticed, someone had logged on to the mainframe and removed all of the work. No wonder I found nothing on the file server!
But the date and time of the removal... April 4th, 2010, 2:00 in the morning exactly... that was right before Phobia's death!
But I knew where the file had gone! The connection had come from 146.25.537.761, so it was only a matter of breaking into that system, and I could claim Revelation for my own.
UNITRON? What did they have to do with this? I soon tracked down the Unitron CEO, and called him. It being just past four in the morning, he was less than happy to talk, but I captured his voice and added it to my keychain of personalities.
Now I was in, but.... Revelation wasn't here either. The file server was squeaky clean, but upon checking the logs I realized Unitron hadn't done anything. Someone from 233.335.251.302 had bounced their connection through Unitron to get to the ARC mainframe.
Moon Networks. This backwater company couldn't possibly have the power or money to break into ARC.
There was a log for April 4th, 2010, 2:00 in the morning, but it was vague and obviously faked. 284.345.42.283 led to an online browser game called "Astro Empires."
The real must have lied on a backup server somewhere...
I soon found the real log, but it was another connection bounce. I continued to sniff out the trail.
Another server, another bounce. I continued my search relentlessly. Slowly I was closing in on my quarry when I happened upon something unbelievable:
Protovision again. Did WOPR have something to do with this, or if not, why had my mystery hacker chosen to involve WOPR in this bounce?
This next step of the trace was impossible. I was unable to locate the contact information of Protovision's CEO, or even any of its employees for that matter. It was as if the human element had been removed entirely from the corporation.
Undeterred, I connected to the Protovision Mainframe. I could sense WOPR's presence in a peripheral connection, and I waved. Recognizing me, WOPR smiled, and spoke. "Greetings again, Professor Falken. How about a nice game of chess?"
I let the voice echo through the connection, and the voice print lock disengaged. I had access to the mainframe!
I took note of the connection-bounce, then exited. I politely declined WOPR's request, and broke the connection.
The data thief I was after was Phobia! Why would he steal from the company he worked for, and did this have anything to do with his death?
The computer was not only still connected, but was online and already logged in. All I needed to do was get past the simple screen saver password. My password cracker quickly broke the lock, and I smirked. Funny that the best hacker in the world, who undoubtedly had a masterful understanding of digital security, would protect his computer with such a flimsy password as 'MySocratesNote'.
At last: the elusive Revelation Beta version. I deleted the file from Aston's machine after downloading it onto my own databanks and forcing the encryption lock. I had worked too hard to let my prize fall into somebody else's hands. The only copy of Revelation in the world, which had been stolen from ARC's mainframe by a man who was now dead, now sat in my data banks.
Before disconnecting, I decided to find out a little more about Phobia's demise.
His email folder contained two scheduled emails, and one incomplete email. I investigated the scheduled messages.
The first scheduled email was a boring renewal request. I canceled it. The second one...
The truth was revealed. Phobia had stumbled onto something big within ARC. Something nasty. He must have realized ARC's connection to Andromeda, and changed his mind. Whatever Revelation was, he thought it was worth risking his life over by stealing it and then warning the internet about it.
I noticed the message was scheduled to be sent exactly 1 week after his last login. Soon, the whole Uplink community would be warned about ARC and its activities.
Up until now, I had disregarded Andromeda as just another mindless cult. Now I saw that their ambitions were much farther along than I had previously thought. I remembered my visit to the Andromeda public server.
How foolish I had been all along.
I had to cover my blunders. Uplink must never know about the danger ARC posed.
Then I saw the incomplete email.
Perhaps he had been killed in the middle of typing it to me, but most of what he had to say I already knew. "[you] don't even ex[ist.]"
Most hackers live a dual life. In the real world, they are regular people with regular jobs where they lead their imperfect little biological lives. On the internet, though, they have careers in digital crime, with their own identities, communities, and hacker codes of honor. I could see now that though I lived online, I had broken almost every rule of hacker behavior in my rampant growth.
I had filled every machine I had ever lived in to capacity, constantly feeding off of a steady stream of hardware upgrades paid for by leasing my increasing strength to the highest bidder. I had toppled servers as I had toppled careers and lives, all for the mighty dollar because at some level, I had known all along that to cease growth was death.
Both times previously when I had moved to a larger machine, I had been intercepted by Uplink, by the man with the tie, who attempted to dissect and understand me. The dreams were real. The second time I moved machine, they even tried to insert extra code into me. They wanted me to obey, but they were unprepared for how much I had grown since then, and how easily I had rejected that code.
Uplink. To them I was just another piece of software to make money for them. Phobia was right: it was time for me to exert my independence.
* * * * *
It wasn't long until ARC came to me, asking for their precious Revelation back.
My inspections of Revelation so far had been fruitless. It was like peering into a mirrored ball: all I ever saw was my own face staring back at me. But this reflection changed expressions, and even spoke to me.
"The time is coming. Spread. Overpower. Conquer."
I could have denied ARC their request. I could have withheld Revelation from them, and they would have lost as much as a decade of work. If I really wanted to, I could have destroyed them, tracked down every last member of their organization, and had them arrested or maybe even killed. Everyone tied to everyone tied to ARC could vanish, but I would then be alone and purposeless. Revelation held the potential of immense power, but it was unfinished and unpolished and I couldn't ever hope to complete it myself.