Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Unauthorized Access

Prison 17 had been built long enough ago that it got next to no natural light—before all the studies that said that light was good for prison behavior and morale. And of course the rest of its district had been remodded in the past ten years, so the view from outside was a phalanx of solar panels over heat-reflecting paint, making a headache-inducing pattern of black and white. Prisons and hydroponics. That was about all that called this district home.

Which didn’t stop three dozen gawkers from gathering outside the prison gate.

Aedo had expected it, but it still caught her up short. She froze on the sidewalk and saw the flashes of ocular implants and handheld cameras; that was probably going to be the picture on the newsfeeds, above the fold.

She drew a hand back through her hair, impulsively.

A quick-and-dirty breakdown of the crowd by age and dress suggested that probably a quarter of them were for legitimate news streams. She didn’t recognize most of the ones in ratty shirts with the logo of the counterculture of the month. She met their eyes first, though: allies. Then she cleared her throat and made herself walk forward, holding up a hand like she was holding court.

“Thanks for being here,” she said. She’d practiced her statement in prison, with the sympathetic ears she’d just worked her way around to thinking of as friends, and fell back on that without thinking about how completely nil it’d sound as a soundbyte. “I have stuff to say on Government data, but right now I want dinner, a shower, and a nap. I’ll post a blog in the next few days, and if you want an interview, message me.”

Because everyone knew her message address. And of course the statement didn’t prevent the barrage of questions, but it let her deploy the strategy that got her through most of her childhood: she ducked her head, focused on a problem in the back of her mind, and pretended that no one was talking to her.

She’d had the foresight to call ahead and have an autocab waiting, and she ran the gauntlet and slipped in. Paid the extra for exclusive access so no one could slip into the seat beside her. She didn’t have much credit, but she’d planned her exodus to keep herself from getting overwhelmed.

She directed the taxi toward one of the hotels along the edge of Patterway District, which she’d vetted before being sentenced in the first place. Unless things had changed in the last eighteen months, it had a decent data line, and her limited credit should let her camp there for at least a week. If things had changed, well, she’d deal with that problem when it came for her.

For now, though, she just put her head back and listened to the autocab rolling along the road.

• • • •

The hotel room wasn’t much, but compared to a prison bunk, it was a wealth of space, privacy, time. Time to be alone with her thoughts.

And time to be alone with her hunger. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning; lunch had been overridden by exit paperwork. She’d just become used to her meals happening without any consideration on her part.

These were things she’d have to un-get-used-to.

She tossed her stuff on the bed, and headed down to the hotel convenience shop.

Sometime when she hadn’t been paying attention, an unofficial passage to the undercity had opened up in Patterway District—which meant that the hotel was seeing a mixed clientele, which meant an odd array of convenience food in the shop. Instant noodles and dehydrated locust curry, tinned soups and mushroom vitamin bars. She was staring at the selection—decision fatigue already, and she’d barely been out of prison for an hour—when her datapad buzzed in her pocket.

Eighteen months without the thing, and it was still thoughtless, instinctive, to pull it out of her pocket and glance at the screen. She’d set it only to buzz for certain contact groups, and she blinked twice when she saw who was actually messaging her.

LogicalOR: waiting on that blog post o martyr for the cause

LogicalOR: haha seriously welcome back to civilization i just bought you a beer

And then a hand landed on her shoulder.

Aedo ducked, flipping her body around and backing into the shelf of locust curries. Her datapad came up like a taser, and the woman behind her held up both hands. She was late-middle-aged, in a business suit too good for this district but just about serviceable in the central business ones. And she held herself stiffly. Aedo wasn’t great at reading people, but she could recognize discomfort when she saw it; Patterway District must have meant slumming, for this woman.

“Sorry,” the woman said. “I suppose I should have known better.”

Aedo’s heart was lurching, and her shoulders had gone tense. For a moment she considered telling the woman that even if she hadn’t been in prison, she wouldn’t have appreciated that—wasn’t good with people, didn’t like contact with people, could still feel the ghost impression of the woman’s hand on her shoulder and it was making her skin crawl—but the words weren’t coming to her tongue, and it didn’t seem like the thing to say, anyway. “What?” was what came out.

“I should introduce myself,” the woman said, and extended a hand. Aedo tucked both of her hands under her arms, the datapad pressed against her ribs. After a moment, the woman let her hand drop. “I’m Valencia Cadares; I work in the Energy Division. I’d like to take you out to dinner.”

Oh, crap, Aedo thought.

Then she looked at the woman. Cadares wasn’t a name she recognized, and inviting a young hacker out to dinner seemed like an odd move for someone whose department had been screwed over by said hacker’s actions. Inside ally, maybe. Could be a bureaucrat trying to line up another leak, in which case Aedo would rather just point her at an anonymous server and call it good. “Why?”

Cadares hesitated. “Call it professional curiosity?”

“I’m not giving interviews,” Aedo said.

Cadares looked pained. “Please,” she said, then looked past Aedo, and glanced along the shelf of food. Gestured to the pemmican. “Unless vegetable shortening and protein powder is more appealing?”

Dammit. Aedo would have killed for a decent meal.

Or, if not killed, then rubbed elbows with someone from the Energy Division for a while. She eyed the woman, gauging the relative levels of danger and social awkwardness.

“You buying?”

• • • •

The place Cadares picked out was, unsurprisingly, in toward the central districts, where the buildings rose tall enough to segment the sky into a frustrated grid. Business-drone restaurant. In her T-shirt and jacket and pants with all their carpenter loops on it—loops which would never see use, because heck if she knew what she’d do with a hammer—Aedo was as obvious as a blinking light.

To her credit, Cadares seemed to notice the incongruity as soon as they walked in the door. But she set her shoulders, opened up the seat menu, and found them a booth near the back. Aedo kept her head down and followed Carades there.

Cadares sat first. Aedo slid into the booth opposite her and positioned herself to hide from as much of the restaurant as possible, her fingers making abortive little motions toward the datapad in her pocket. Eighteen months without the thing, and setting it aside for dinner seemed viscerally wrong, like she’d just gotten a sense back and had to numb it again. Of course, now she was sitting across from a woman whose generation still thought that bringing data to the dinner table was a breech of the social contract, or something.

Cadares was already turning her attention to the interactive tabletop. She selected a menu, swiped a few dishes on or off the offerings—accounting for cost, or ideological stance, or whatever—and sent the menu over to Aedo’s seat, where Aedo stared at it. The sheer overabundance of choice aside, this was the kind of food she didn’t normally eat. After a moment, she just poked the listing with the most ingredients she recognized.

“So,” Aedo said, and let the sound hang there.

Cadares made her decision, selecting a dish and a drink with two sharp jabs. “They always have such interesting selections here,” she said. “Apparently one of their menu consultants spent part of his life around the cooking stalls in the Undermarket.”

That was . . . interesting, in a useless way. “Um,” Aedo said. “Why am I here?”

Cadares paused. It was very un-politician of her. “I suppose I wanted to get to know you,” she said, and Aedo thought oh, shit, should I be thinking about stalkers? Her semi-fame had gotten her name out there, and to read some of the boards, that was all it took for people to decide that your life was theirs, for their entertainment and one-sided emotional attachment. But Cadares just went on, “you know, get to know the mind behind the infamy. Maybe ask why you distributed those files.”

“I’ve given this interview,” Aedo said. “Like, a hundred times.”

“Humor me?” Cadares said.

Aedo sighed. She’d released her statements, she’d explained herself again and again, but everyone seemed to think hearing it direct from her voicebox would be so much more real than hearing it from a news clip. She didn’t think so. They’d still get a canned answer, because making up a new one for everyone who asked was a colossal waste of time.

“Because there’s no reason not to know,” Aedo said. “Energy reports—this is how we light our homes, right? This is what runs the computers and phones we use. That’s how we talk to each other, and work, and how we traverse large buildings and take autocabs across the city. This is stuff we need to live our lives, so why shouldn’t we know about it? What’s the point of it being secret?”

“Is that really it, though?” Cadares asked. “You didn’t need a reason to do it, you needed a reason not to?”

Aedo didn’t answer that. If people wanted to paint her as some kid with poor impulse control and an antisocial streak, they’d do it no matter how she protested.

“I believed we were being lied to,” Aedo said. Back to the security of a canned answer. “And then I looked at the data and it looked a lot like we were being lied to, and I didn’t—I don’t understand how people don’t get angry when they see that.”

“Ennui and apathy,” Cadares offered.

Aedo shook her head.

Cadares fixed Aedo with a stare. “No?”

“That’s what they always say,” Aedo said. Thing was, she didn’t know anyone who didn’t care. A few people claimed not to care, but look hard enough, and you could find something that kicked them off like a virus. Most of them just didn’t think there was anything they could do about it.

Well, she’d found something she could do. And they’d unloaded both barrels at her. Done the worst a topheavy bureaucracy could do. That was enough to deter plenty of people, but hey, she’d survived, and it’s not like her job prospects were much worse now than they had been before.

But before she was forced to articulate it, their food arrived, courtesy a post-education kid who still hadn’t grown out of his lanky phase and looked like the branded restaurant suit he was wearing was what he’d be wearing for the rest of his life.

Whatever Aedo had ordered, it looked like soup when he set it in front of her. Big chunks of vegetable and some kind of starch product and some kind of meat, with the kind of striation that suggested it had actually come from the muscle of an animal.

Aedo sawed a chunk into a smaller chunk with the edge of her spoon, and tasted it. It had some kind of identifiable and not-unpleasant flavor, which put it head and shoulders above what she’d been eating lately.

“I think you could do some good work,” Cadares said. “You’re skilled and civic-minded. I’d like to offer you patronage.”

Part of Aedo’s soup went down her windpipe, and she slammed down on her breathing to keep herself from choking out and making a scene. Cadares looked alarmed.

“Are you all right?”

Aedo made a series of gestures to her throat and the soup, and tried to wave Cadares off, and hoped that it read as Don’t worry! Just fine! and not I am having spasms and need immediate help! She focused on breathing through her nose, made a few small coughs until the instinct to hack up a lung subsided, and squeaked out “Is that still a thing?”

“I,” Cadares said, but after a moment her expression changed. Less taken-aback and more amused, maybe. “I have an extra room. You could do with some help getting back on your feet, couldn’t you?”

Aedo nodded, then caught herself and shook her head, then realized that was technically a lie and swallowed and said “Wait, you want me to move in with you?”

“Would that be all right?” Cadares asked. “I mean, you could certainly move in and see how you felt about it, and if you wanted to move out later you could.”

After navigating a whole world of socially awkward shit, Aedo expected. But really, was moving in with a strange woman from the Energy Division any more of a bad idea than moving in with a strange woman from the net? She’d done that before.

“Uh,” she said. “Okay.”

She also made a mental note to tell some of her friends in Virtual Liberation, just in case. It would be her luck to get out of prison and end up with a stalker.

• • • •

Cadares seemed content to hail a cab and check her own messages while Aedo pulled out her data pad, keyed up the screen, and sank into the comforting rhythms of checking the newsfeeds, slinging a bit of code, playing a round of Commerce, and letting the outside world take care of its own business without input from her. She was expecting the trip to take a good bit of time.

Instead, it wasn’t long before the cab slid to a halt and announced their destination, and she turned to blink out of the window.

Oh.

Cadares worked on the Energy Division, so something in Aedo’s brain had slotted her in with the energy farms outlying the city. But no, she was administrative, which meant that she was in one of the suburbs of the government sector, in one of those building where every flat took up a floor.

Cadares had the seventeenth, which meant that she signed them into the elevator lobby and they rode up, the city dropping away or rising with them as they ascended. It might not have been the top of the tower, but the view—inside and out—was extraordinary.

Cadares tossed her bag into the corner of the entryway and logged Aedo in as a guest, having her press her hand to the biometric panel at the door and keying in a set of permissions for everything from the main door to the refrigerator and showers. Then she led her across a livingroom space larger than Aedo’s old flat, and to a bedroom which nearly matched her old flat in size. The bed was better quality, though. So was the desk. And the data port looked top of the line, and already had a wireless hub glowing cheerfully from it.

“Make yourself at home,” Cadares said. “The only thing I’ll ask is that you don’t have friends visit here. I understand you have a source of income, if you want to meet them out?”

“Uh,” Aedo said. “A bit, yeah.” Which mostly meant bug bounties in distributed software and some shared income from distributed development, but Cadares seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t think that was real work. Just a bunch of socially-awkward kids typing at each other over the net.

Which, you know, it was a bunch of socially-awkward kids typing at each other over the net. But also socially-awkward adults, and unexpected media dynamos, and charismatic project managers, and people who thought far too deeply about software until they came up with a change in one block of code that cut processing time from three hours to thirty seconds. People like Cadares probably didn’t know how much they owed to the socially-awkward-kids group.

“Good,” Cadares said. “We need to talk later. I can’t right now—I have a meeting I can’t miss. But really, please do help yourself to anything unlocked.”

Anything unlocked. Like she needed to say it. Like Aedo was going to hack the wine fridge, or something. She nodded, and Cadares turned to go. It took a moment for Aedo to get her throat to make a sound.

“Hey,” Aedo said.

Cadares turned back.

“Um.” Aedo shifted, and fished for words. “Look, I have this daemon on one of the VL community servers, it’s been checking my newsworthiness—I mean, that dipped during the sentence, but it’s up again, and—I mean, I probably already have a bunch of bullshit requests for interviews, and they’re going to ask about how I’m getting back on my feet after my prison sentence, you know, human interest stuff, and—”

She trailed off. Typing her thoughts was so much easier; she had a chance to get all the information in the right order instead of just blurting it out and hoping the recipient could extract the meaning from all the noise. This had always been a problem. If she sat down and thought through the sentences, she wasn’t talking fast enough; if she talked fast enough, her words were a mess. She was so much more comfortable in text, where latency was fine.

At least Cadares seemed to know what she was getting at. Her expression cooled.

“For the next week or so,” she said, “I’d prefer if you kept my name out of it. You can refer to me as ‘a patron,’ but please don’t disseminate any identifying data. After the week, I’d say you can share whatever you want.”

“Okay,” Aedo said. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected—Cadares taking in a young activist for the social capital? Capital with whom?—but the answer didn’t inspire confidence.

“If you need anything, my message address is coded in the flat,” Cadares said. Professional warmth was back in her tone. “I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah,” Aedo said, and Cadares left.

Aedo stood exactly where she was as the lift doors closed, and she listened to the noise-damped shufffs as it carried Cadares downward. Then she let out a breath and made a cursory effort at familiarizing herself with the flat. The windows were equipped with dimmers, the lights had adjustable spectrums, the couch wasn’t a smart couch, but it would be large enough for a very satisfying dogpile if she was allowed to have friends over. The food in the fridge was mostly heatable boxed meals from restaurants, the only doors that wouldn’t open were a glass door to an office space and an opaque door to what was probably Cadares’ bedroom. Aedo retreated to her own bedroom, and checked the newsworthiness daemon. She was up two points, probably as the larger sites and aggregators caught onto the blog noise.

Aside from the daemon, the next interesting thing on the pad was 15,289 new messages—a number that blipped up to 15,292 while she watched it. She turned the message center off. She’d need another daemon to classify those: hate mail, automated advertisements, VL list nonsense, requests for interview, support mail, messages from friends, total crackpot mail. Probably 2% of it would be something she actually wanted to read, and that was a daunting number all its own.

She sighed, opened up her script environment, and got to work.

A minute in, and something popped up on the corner of her screen. Network connected, it read. This network has the following local public subscriptions: • Energy News Digest. • Energy Division Public Releases. • Energy Division Public Information Request Release Aggregate. Would you like to add these to your subscription manager?

She blinked, then selected yes on the first and third. The second was already in her manager, the first was one of the zines whose subscription had lapsed while she was doing time, and the third—

Well, tucked under a title that could only have come out of a bureaucracy, that was the aggregated text of every file the Energy Division had to release in accordance with a Information Request from the public. The sort of thing someone working in energy would have access to, but a member of the public would have to request piecemeal. And 99% of it was probably people asking if they could upgrade their flats or businesses to draw additional power from the grid, but there was probably 1% that was gold.

Which was, at the moment, just more noise, when she needed to polish her life down to some signal. She turned back to the script.

• • • •

Four hours later she pulled her head out of the script and blinked at the clock on the corner of her screen. Her hand found the bottle of water she’d fetched; now empty, again. She got up, stretched, grabbed the bottle, and headed out toward the kitchen.

And there—who know how long she’d been there—was Cadares sitting on the couch, some white drink on the table in front of her, pouring over her data pad.

Aedo considered just slinking past her, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough for the kind of easy cohabitation she could manage with roommates. She cleared her throat.

Cadares didn’t look up. Just waved a hand at one of the empty spots on the couch, so Aedo slunk there instead.

The room still had its strange, preternaturally put-together grandeur in the dark, though the window glass had dimmed to black so their indoor light wouldn’t attract gazes. It felt more than a little like being in a submerged building, or one up in orbit. Or like Aedo imagined those places would feel.

“How was your evening?” Cadares asked, eyes still locked on the screen.

The lack of eye contact was the most comfortable thing about the situation. Aedo wished she’d brought her own pad out, let it distract her from the smalltalk. “Okay.”

“Any interesting reading?” Cadares said.

Aedo tucked her arms in around herself, and neglected to mention that she hadn’t actually gotten around to reading any. “I noticed you made some feeds local-public. I mean, I expect since you live alone, and they default to restricted access . . .”

She trailed off, and Cadares finally sighed, and set her pad to sleep. “I expected you’d be interested in them, so I changed the access settings,” she said.

Aedo nodded, two, three times. Then cleared her throat.

“So, why am I here?”

Cadares arched an eyebrow.

“I mean, I leaked energy data,” she said. “And now you’re giving me a feed full of request-only info? And the thing about ‘a patron,’ I mean, historically—”

Cadares held up a hand. Aedo’s jaw snapped shut.

“I do want you to do something,” Cadares said. “I thought it would appeal to your sensibilities.”

The muscles across Aedo’s shoulders went stiff.

“I need to see energy distribution records for One East,” she said. “I can request them, but I have reason to think they’re being doctored. I need the originals.”

“Um,” Aedo said.

“You do have a history,” Cadares said, and finally put her data pad aside.

Aedo might have counted down from ten, might have done some kind of calming exercise, except that her brain felt like a kernel of panic.

After a moment, she asked, “Do you actually know what hackers do?”

Now Cadares looked like she’d been handed an input error.

But that was all right, because more words were already tumbling up at Aedo’s teeth. “You want data espionage,” she said. “I mean, there are people who go and find security and try to crack it for fun, but that’s not the def—I mean, I hack, but I don’t crack. I got the energy data ’cause—I mean, did you actually read any of the reports on my trial?”

“I didn’t understand all of them,” Cadares admitted.

Aedo slumped back into the couch.

It was a very nice couch. Some kind of synthetic upholstery that yielded but didn’t let her sink down, smooth to the touch but not slick or squeaky. She’d spent two and a half days camped out on a couch like this, once, in a marathon coding session to put together a repository for people to secure politically-sensitive data. But that couch had been third- or fourth-hand, stuffed into a room full of third- or fourth-hand furniture, and the company had been people who knew what they were doing.

“Okay,” Aedo said, and wondered if Cadares would get on her data pad for this. She could write out an explanation—hell, she could link one. But the last time she’d tried that, the response had been an irritated Just explain it to me; I don’t want to read all this stuff, and anyway not a lot of people really got how much more comfortable she was communicating through writing than through voice.

There was a reason most of her friends were in VL.

“Okay,” she said again, and pressed her fingers into her temples. At least she did have some experience explaining these things to the non-net-savvy. “Let’s pretend computer security is like a door lock, okay? It’s not, but it’s complicated, and you don’t need to know all the stuff about it anyway. When people who aren’t hackers talk about hackers, they think about people who can pick locks or break down doors, yeah? But when hackers talk about hackers, they mean people who . . . do stuff around the building.”

She winced. If that had communicated any useful information, she’d honestly be surprised.

“When all the news sites were saying I was a hacker, people kinda thought I broke down a door and found a filing cabinet inside and broke into it and ran off with the documents. But a lot of us can’t do that sort of thing; we’re all about making better filing cabinets or windows, or—okay.” Deep breaths. She could wrestle this all into a coherent metaphor. Maybe. “Basically, what happened was, someone invited me into a building. But the building shared a basement with a public building that Energy was renting to store their files. I was poking around in the basement ’cause, you know . . . I don’t know. Reasons.”

The fun of poking around somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, a snickering curiosity about how bad these servers were, a blog post or a VL list message she was composing in her head about wow, guys, never run a site with these people, they don’t know how to separate user accounts.

When the Energy Division had dug into how this had happened, they’d found that the people who were in charge of server procurement were the same people in charge of wastebin liner procurement and data pad procurement, not the people in charge of server management and data security. The guys in charge had just gone with the company that was known for highest uptime and largest traffic and hadn’t known to look at the demographics of the people using them: non-technical sorts who wanted to throw something onto the net and weren’t high-enough profile to attract the attention that would make them regret the horrible security.

Well, the ED had been high-enough profile. And they’d regretted it.

“While I was hanging around the basement, I noticed all these elevators, and they all had different people’s names on them. Different building’s names, I guess. And, I mean, most of it was like ‘cooltricks74’ and ‘Gotta Watch Vids’, but then there was this ‘Energy Division Data Backup 034-00A’ one, and I had to check it out. So I used this security exploit that everyone knew about and I got into that building and I started looking at the file cabinets, because none of them were locked, and I found stuff that I thought people should know about. Like, what I did was basically someone found out that a bunch of pre-fab buildings all used the same key code, and they put up fliers around the city so that people could change theirs, and I saw a flier and remembered it, and the basement elevator used the same code. If the ED had used servers with that vulnerability patched, or even ones where I couldn’t access the root directory, I would never have found the documents. I wouldn’t have even tried.” She looked at Cadares. “You get that?”

Cadares was watching her, a slight frown on her face, and a directness of eye contact that made Aedo squirm. Then, though, she sighed and said, “Internal incompetence?”

“Yeah,” Aedo said.

“They needed a villain for the media.”

“ . . . yeah,” Aedo said. Mentally, she started gathering up her stuff. Hadn’t unpacked yet, that was good; she could probably get another room at the old hotel, and maybe Cadares would drop her off there. Even if she was useless for Cadares’ grand ambitions. It probably wouldn’t be too much to ask of her, would it? To save the ride fare?

But Cadares said, “You know people who can break down doors?”

Aedo thought of LogicalOR.

She was tempted to answer, no. This little exploit aside, she did her level best to stay away from that sort of thing. Plenty of crackers had the sort of ideology that roused rabble in Aedo’s defense when she got arrested, but her relationship with those people wasn’t one she wanted to invest time into improving.

No, she thought. She’d played this game once, and she’d lost, and until two minutes ago she thought she’d do it again with a smile, but she’d kinda wanted to have some time to decompress first. Hang out with her friends and program a swords-and-zombies game or something. Maybe go back to blogging about government responsibility and let that stand as her contribution to activism for a few months-slash-years. She could be a firebrand without being an idiot about it, right?

But the question rolled around in her until it hit the same little core of principle that got her into trouble the first time.

“You think they’re being doctored?” she said.

Cadares nodded. “I’m almost certain of it.”

Fuck.

“I can ask around,” Aedo said. “But I—you know—you do know this is illegal, right?”

The instant she said it, she regretted saying it. Cadares stood, gave her a dark look, and exited the room without a word.

Fuck, Aedo thought again, and looked around the room. She’d had ambitions about sleeping, someday. Now it’d be another four hours looking up tutorials on how to check a room for bugs.

• • • •

Virtual Liberation resisted any attempts to define itself or limit membership, which meant that it had a bunch of data accessibility theorists, hackers, hacktivists, crackers, schoolkids with an affinity for programming and an omnidirectional resentment of authority, subaltern game developers, program-library contributors, hobbyists, and random people who showed up because they had net access and were curious about these things and who disappeared after a week because none of it made any sense to them at all. It was chaos; a complete mess. But a beautiful kind of mess like a primordial sludge pool, from which complex life could develop.

Or something like that. Aedo was a hacker, not an evolutionary biologist.

After a few hours of sleep, a shower, and a nuked box meal, Aedo logged onto the main boards and set up a private chat, pinging a subgroup of people she trusted to join. Hey guys, want to talk to you all in confidence, she typed. The people she trusted were people who’d know that in confidence, coming from her, directed to them, through this medium, wasn’t a game. Any of you ever come up with a plan of action for whistleblowers?

There were a few moments of virtual silence, then waving ellipses showed up next to three or four nicks.

You could always count on someone to be online.

RHellion: Whats up?

Aedo let out her breath. The chat would archive from the beginning, so she could discuss things and not worry too much about having to catch people up later. The conversation would still be in the air.

Another reason virtual life was more convenient than the face-to-face kind.

Ayeball: Made contact with an energy activist at the ED, Aedo wrote. Wants help getting docs out of One East. Fraud stuff. Thinks data is being manipulated before release from inside the division.

A moment passed, and then the elipses started dancing again.

Asterhoidal: WOW ayeball take a vacation! you JUST got out!

GGXL: I was working on that plan of action with Petey but it stalled out at around

GGXL: okay n/m I think you need more than a plan of action there, buddy.

RHellion: Guessing she tried getting an audit kicked off?

Aedo tabbed over to her daemon and had it search the Energy Division Public Releases; an audit had to be reported publicly, and yeah, there it was. Nothing wrong, at least to the public eye. She copied the release into the chatroom, and LogicalOR popped up in the program’s online nicks list.

Aedo winced. Whoever the mind was behind the username, they seemed to like excoriating her in all VL’s discussions—when they weren’t buying her a beer in honor of a prison stay, anyway. To be fair, they excoriated everyone who didn’t take a militant approach to data democracy; they seemed to think the only strategy worth anything was getting into the government servers and causing as much mayhem as possible. Anyone else was clearly Not Serious Enough.

They might have dumped beer money into one of Aedo’s public tipjars, but Aedo fully expected to be dropped from their good graces as soon as the novelty of her prison stay wore off. She was kinda expecting them to hack her data pad just to show that they could.

That was the one annoying thing about LogicalOR: when it came to working the net, they did know their stuff. They even had skills which might be useful if, say, someone needed to crack the security on a government database.

Virtual Liberation might be a complete primordial sludgepool, but it was really good at finding strange bedfellows when you needed them.

A message popped up in the corner of her screen.

LogicalOR: so

LogicalOR: notice that your friend got sniped

. . . that probably wasn’t a good sign. She tabbed over and started to type.

Ayeball: What?

LogicalOR: you totally moved in with valencia cadares

LogicalOR: chasing some businesslady tail or some new leaks yeah (i approve)

LogicalOR: well

LogicalOR: she is in with the cops my friend and not in a buddy buddy way

The next message was a link to a news release.

Aedo clicked on it, and let the secure group chat chatter on without her. The new window bloomed up and covered all their words anyway, replacing them with:

TROUBLED ENERGY DIVISION LAUNCHES INTERNAL INVESTIGATION

Amid renewed scrutiny, ED detains seven employees with suspected ties to data terrorist groups

Aedo skipped the newsese; scrolled down, scanning until she found the words Valencia Cadares right there in paragraph three. A quick flurry of eye movement to find if there was anything about why they’d found her—material on her work computer, thank god, nothing there about surveillance in her home, just inadvisable net searches and a few illicit access attempts to parts of the network she didn’t have permissions for—and for the first time Aedo wished someone had approached her first with a stupid idea.

She tabbed back to the messenger, and got as far as hitting the W key when two more messages popped up.

LogicalOR: they are gunning for your kind my friend

LogicalOR: better watch out ;)

LogicalOR signed off.

Aedo sat there for a moment, staring at the signoff message in her chat. Let the words spike her adrenal glands; remind her that yeah, humans had been a prey species once, and wouldn’t it be a shame to let those old instincts sit unused.

You could freeze, you could flee, or you could fight.

The conversation in the other window had rambled to a pause—waiting on some point of clarification that she wasn’t going to focus on just now. She took a deep breath and returned her hands to the keys.

Ayeball: Uh, guys . . .

Ayeball: How would you feel about helping me do something fast? Like, maybe now?

Ayeball: And then maybe visiting me in prison again?

• • • •

The thing was, arresting Cadares wasn’t even subtle. They could wave all the trumped-up charges at her that they wanted, but as someone who actually worked for the Energy Division, and as someone who’d done the reasonable, official thing and sparked off an audit, there was an entire legal conversation that was supposed to be happening right now. Terms like reasonable suspicion should have been all over the news release; words like whistleblower protections.

Terms which got conveniently forgotten any time something like this came to a head.

Aedo didn’t understand why people didn’t get angry about that, either.

Cadares’ home office was locked with a passcode and biometrics, and maybe with a dedicated week and a lot of reading done on the blacklisted parts of the net, Aedo could have figured out how to bypass it. She could try guessing the password, too, but someone like Cadares would have a random password required at work, and probably would have just used the same thing at home. So Aedo went for the most effective option.

She went out to the livingroom, grabbed the coffee table, and slammed it against the latch until it gave way.

Cadares didn’t live off her datapad. She was one of those people who could leave it behind without feeling like she was forgetting a limb. It was there, sitting on her desk, plugged into the lectric outlet, and a quick swipe of Aedo’s thumb—and a quick polishing off of her thumbprint, after—showed the dashboard, open and unsecured.

Aedo grabbed it. Then she ran back to her bedroom and grabbed her bag, and stuffed Cadares’ datapad down into it.

Time to make an exit.

Walk, don’t run, she thought. If there had been a silent alarm on the door, she wasn’t going to flee the place looking like she’d just triggered an alarm. She paused to hold the door open for someone, then went out onto the street. Slipped onto the first autocab she saw, sat down, and tried to pretend she had a destination other than “away”.

Then she pulled out her own datapad—not Cadares’, not yet—and put a set of parameters into venue search. Beauty salon, keyword: whole image, demographics: some crossover between new professionals and late-grade students, price range: . . . she hesitated. If this all blew up in her face, and she couldn’t see how it wouldn’t, she’d be out of a place to stay and in desperate need of resources.

Then again, if this all blew up in her face, she’d probably have a warrant out for her arrest. And prison was free rent. She typed in as much money as she had, and ran the search.

First things first: she needed a makeover.

• • • •

One of the benefits of finding a place that catered to students in the late grades was that they all knew their academic stipends were going to run out, and there was a kind of universal financial panic that accompanied that. Low cost, middling quality, and high demand kept places like FASHION: Real World Incoming! open, and they didn’t blink too much at any misguided request Aedo could come up with.

Crop the hair short so it lay against her skull, pluck her eyebrows down to bored lines, shade the cheeks so the cheekbones appeared higher, emphasize the line of the upper lip and de-emphasize the lower, make her eyes appear larger, and the effect was that she looked like an intern who wasn’t quite sure what notes to hit to get “professional” instead of “young counterculture,” but was making a go at it.

And as an added bonus, if you changed the lines of contrast on your face, you could throw most facial-recognition programs for a loop. The high cheekbones, the dark upper lip—they made her computationally unrecognizable.

For more money than she’d wanted to spend, the folk at the salon had set her up with a set of interview clothes, all bland and neatly squared away. They made her skin itch with a sensation that was purely psychosomatic, but they were good camouflage. For her price, she couldn’t ask for better.

The energy building was out on the far outskirts of the business district, where the land and infrastructure both dropped away and let you see that the place had terrain, underneath the stacked buildings and elevated roadways and the lectric lines, the data lines, the lines allocated to whatever the hell security did with them. Stepping out of the next autocab into its shadow, it was like walking back up to a prison: one massive edifice gleaming in the midday light, and blotting out half the sky. All these governmental buildings looked the same to Aedo; a sequence of brainchildren from architects who tried for wild invention and ended up fitting neatly in an acceptable range of lines.

The psychosomatic skin-crawl came back in full force, but Aedo squared her shoulders, tried for an expression of bored indifference, and pressed Cadares’ data pad against the door. And got ready to run.

But there was no request for additional verification. No ever-so-convenient error that locked her out while a silent alarm sounded. Instead the door just slid open—because the data pad had the right accesses, so what did the system care about the person holding it?

Agencies like this, they talked security, but it was a perfunctory kind of talking. Politics had only just caught up to the idea that things like energy could be embarrassing to the state, and bureaucracy could take a long time to catch up to political exhortation. So that was one obstacle down.

Internal incompetence to the rescue, again.

Of course, now she was inside, and that was a whole new problem.

Cadares’ datapad should have all the permissions it needed to get Cadares herself into anything she needed to use. Aedo, though, didn’t know where that infrastructure was, and unauthorized access attempts were logged by default on most systems. No need for someone to know what they were doing to catch her at it. Asking a human person for directions wasn’t going to end well; rumors spread in places like these, and an intern no one had ever seen before asking about someone who’d just been arrested was even less subtle than Aedo was being now.

She kept her head down. Tried not to look like she was rubbernecking as she rubbernecked around until she spotted an information kiosk, and strolled up to it. Its screens showed various intra-organization tidbits: an upcoming company hike on the pedestrian paths around the solar farms, costs down three and a half percent due to switching to responsive lighting, the employee being recognized for his or her contributions to the Energy Division was someone decidedly not Cadares . . ..

A directory. Finally. Aedo hit the organize by name button with her knuckle, and there was Cadares, in the second column and the fifth floor.

Deeper into the belly of the beast. She just prayed there wasn’t a security checkpoint between the lobby and there.

. . . which of course there wasn’t. Just a lift with a camera, and she kept her head down, because of course everyone put their cameras in the ceiling even when you could buy ones small enough to hide behind a screwhole anywhere. Same reason people still worked at places like Abacus Lunch Delivery even when everyone searched for food by reputation instead of flipping through an alphabetized paper directory: culture was absolute shit at keeping up with technology. But she could complain about that on a day when it wasn’t working to her advantage. She got out on the fifth floor.

Cadares’ office responded to Cadares’ datapad, and so did her computer, and Aedo sat down and tried to look bored and put-upon like she was there to clean up the harddrive after one too many unwise downloads. She wasn’t actually sure that was something interns did at places like this; most of her exposure to office culture came through comedy vids and Virtual Liberation memes. But the screens lit up, and she was in, and then there was a lot more to pay attention to than whether or not she played the social role well.

Like a blinking icon in the corner of the screen.

One urgent message came up when she clicked on it. Half a page of official business header, and then the message began In light of recent security threats, all Energy Division employees are advised to take the following security measures:

• Generate a new password

• Use Secure Logoff on all accounts and devices when you leave your desk

• Restrict all work to approved Division computers and devices—never log into your Energy Division accounts on a personal or shared device

. . . and on like that. Aedo was about to close the window when her eyes skimmed down the notice on instinct, and caught something.

—expected to endure more security threats, both frivolous and serious, while data terrorist Aedo Liang’s release from prison is in the news cycle. Historically, short-term incarceration has not been an effective deterrent to hacker and terrorist groups. Therefore, it’s the position of this committee that all data espionage from or against a Government office be regarded as treason, and tried as such to the fullest extent prosecutable. We also recommend seeking special dispensation from Justice to try as many infractions as possible retroactively.

Aedo’s heartbeat spiked. She froze. Still sitting at the desk in Cadares’ office, still staring at the screen, still (hopefully, hopefully) camouflaged as well as she could be, but.

Treason.

Her name. Right there in the internal memo. Sure, they’d buried the lede, but—

Without thinking, she found a messenger program and hopped into the config. Aimed it toward one of the anonymizing proxies. Hoped the Energy Building used a net address blacklist and not a whitelist; hoped the connection wouldn’t be flagged. Then she forwarded the memo direct to LogicalOR.

They are gunning for your kind, my friend.

Deep breaths. Aedo risked a glance up, out into the hall where people went about their business without much thought for whether or not they had infiltrators in their midst. She had to wonder how many of them thought their jobs should be taken this seriously.

Treason.

Of course, that made this a whole new game. All the goals she’d had—get in, learn what you can, get out, get the word out—took a hard right into something much more active, because if they had zero tolerance on offer, it didn’t much matter if she’d broken in to take gloating selfies or if she planned on taking the whole network down with her. She might not be a computer cracker, but she had her own damn datapad with its own connection to the net and she had the best collection of computer resources in the world at her fingertips. Long live the Liberation.

If she was going to do one thing here, she was going to find out what the hell Cadares was after and what Energy District One East wanted so badly to hide. If she could do two, she was going to blast the whole thing wide, wide open.

And if she was very, very lucky, and got to do three? She would get out of here before they arrested her.

Again.

• • • •

She had to move quickly. Not just because if she waited too long, the adrenaline would catch up to her and make her a quivering mess.

Cadares had requested the energy distribution records for One East, and it was a simple matter to find the message in her email and open the attached data. Of course, Aedo could open it, and read it, but she didn’t know what she was looking for or how to make sense of it. As for whether or not it was being doctored, well, she didn’t know how Cadares had known—or suspected—and she definitely didn’t know what kind of tests you ran on energy reports to determine data sanity.

There was one good thing: the entire report looked machine-generated, not human-compiled and forwarded. Which meant that she could delve into the mail routing information and get the server it originated from, which meant a server that had access—in theory, at least—to the data she needed.

She was just copying that information into a new bot template when her own datapad warbled.

She cursed, then cursed herself silently for cursing out loud, and snatched it up to silence it. At least that still worked; it had been set to buzz or silent already, but whoever was trying to get her attention obviously didn’t care.

New messages from LogicalOR. Of course.

LogicalOR: remote gov gps backdoor

LogicalOR: in ALL the new opsys upgrades

LogicalOR: you IDIOT

She almost dropped the pad. She might have, if her response to panic these days hadn’t been to clutch her datapad tighter.

Maybe too little, too late, but she opened up the network config with a hotkey, hunted down and killed the GPS process, shuffled the encryptions, disconnected and reconnected and opened a log to see if there were any sniffers, any ping attempts, any data transfers that weren’t coming in over the approved chat lines. And yes: there. Could be nothing, could be automatic data monitoring on the government network, could be security, and she wasn’t interested in taking the risk.

She swiped the log aside and hit the voice call button in LogicalOR’s chat.

Fast as her typing was, it wasn’t as fast as voice. It was the one drawback.

She’d half-expected the call to go ignored—hell, she ignored her own calls unless the call was negotiated first—but LogicalOR must have been expecting this one, and picked up on the first ring. “Ja?

Aedo startled at the voice. Sounded like a woman her age or a younger boy—or anyone, using a really good speech synthesizer. One without the rockiness and tonal skips of the commercial ones.

She didn’t have time to wonder. “What do I—”

Grab the Keyhole worm,” LogicalOR said. “Leave it there. I’ll get the thing.”

“One East network,” Aedo said, and returned her attention to the computer to get its data address and read that off, too. The VL servers would have a Keyhole download—one with a new compression, a checksum that might not be blacklisted yet. And maybe in a minute or three she could get around to the shrieking in the back of her head—the one pointing out that she was installing a backdoor on a government computer and giving the code to an anarchist.

She was rapidly getting the feeling that she was burning every bridge in sight.

Not that it mattered; they’d been lit the moment she stepped outside the prison.

You freaked?” LogicalOR asked. “Breathing hard there, kiddy.”

Aedo bit off a sharp retort. LogicalOR could mock. LogicalOR probably sat at a desk somewhere where nobody in the real world knew their virtual name and no one on the net knew who they were, and could go outside and walk past the neighbors and the security cameras and buy the latest and greatest computer components and take them home and not have their accounts monitored or the media picking at the story of their life. LogicalOR could damn well excuse Aedo for breathing hard.

“Need to get out,” she said.

LogicalOR huffed. Sounded amused. “Go Undercity,” they said, and Aedo’s heart skipped a beat.

“Never been.” She didn’t add that the thought of it terrified her.

Panic much? It’s not that scary. I live there.”

That brought her up short, as her brain threw an input error. She hadn’t thought you could get data in the Undercity good enough to support the kinds of activities LogicalOR enjoyed. Then again, she’d never actually checked. And she definitely didn’t have time right now to grill LogicalOR on the data infrastructure of the Undercity.

“Patterway Dist entrance?” she asked.

For you? NorEast Crossing. Meet you there.”

“Please don’t DC,” Aedo said. Ordinarily, she’d avoid having an audio line demanding her attention while she worked. But right now, if LogicalOR disconnected, she’d be back to being on her own, in the middle of a government building, facing down all her bad decisions. There were more of them than there were of her.

Still here,” LogicalOR said. “Trauma counseling available upon request.” LogicalOR laughed.

Sure, it was an annoying kind of comfort, but there they were.

The Keyhole finished its download and began decompressing, and Aedo slid her chair back and killed her connections to the network.

“Need credit for an autocab,” Aedo said. She didn’t add, I blew it all on the makeover to get in here. She could call attention to her terrible planning-ahead skills, another time.

I’ll transfer,” LogicalOR said. “Get yourself a pretty one.”

Aedo gathered up her datapad and Cadares’, and stood. “Okay,” she said. “Gotta go.”

DCing now?

Aedo closed her eyes for a moment. She didn’t want to kill this audio lifeline, but she knew better than to walk out with it open. Even if LogicalOR didn’t say something and draw attention to her, when they were reviewing the security footage after her great escape, they could still follow the transmission location. She wasn’t bouncing it at all.

“Yeah,” she said, and winced. “NorEast Crossing?”

Be there with bells on,” LogicalOR said, and the line went dead.

Deep breaths.

She put her pad into lockdown; put everything on Cadares’ pad into lockdown except the local wireless it might need to open doors or sign her out. Then she went: down, back by the same path she’d come in on, every breath focused on looking like the same bored intern who had walked in here, every heartbeat shivering.

She made it down to the lobby with out a problem, but there, Crap, crap, crap, one of the bored uniforms was looking her way, pinched brow and drawn-out frown like he’d be a lot happier if nothing was going on, if no one was going to make his eight-to-five any more interesting than any other day of undifferentiated tedium. People didn’t go into bureaucrat-building security for the excitement, after all.

Too bad, Aedo had to think. She hadn’t gone into hacking for the excitement either. It had just come around and found her.

She turned away, not quite fast enough that she couldn’t see him getting up from his desk in the corner of her eye. “Excuse me, miss–”

Not excused. Not excused. She picked up her pace, then realized a second too late that that was the opposite of acting like she hadn’t heard him, then broke into a run.

“Miss!”

Too late. She shoved Cadares’ datapad into the sensor by the door, which checked her out and opened the door automatically. Then she was darting onto the sidewalk, running up along the street until she could find and tag an autocab to come get her.

The door of the Energy Division offices slid open again behind her and she took a corner, and then another one, and then slowed to a walk and looked for another turn to take just to be sure. At least here, once she was walking, she wasn’t drawing glances; no one really looked at each other on the sidewalks, which made her much happier, as a rule. She tagged a cab as she walked, but she didn’t stop walking: she was more worried about getting caught on the sidewalk waiting than about anything else.

NorEast Crossing.

She got in the cab that stopped by, and keyed a destination. Outside the window, the view devolved from office towers to office-worker flats to smatterings of generic commercial buildings to the bric-a-brac of neighborhoods which hadn’t yet been caught up in the big Standardization and Modernization pushes. Little bits of undercity here in the city proper. The autocab came to a stop and let her out in front of one of those doorways you could walk past and quietly edit out of your awareness—a blocked-off alleyway leading off into disrepaired territory, all but yelling out, Heya! Don’t want to get involved with this, here! And Aedo didn’t. She really, really didn’t.

Which meant that when the cab rolled away, she stood in front of the door, breathing in and out to the bottom of her lungs, just like she’d learned to in prison to keep the walls from clapping in on her or the sound of voices from drowning her. Here, it was nothing so straightforward or small as claustrophobia, demophobia. It was fear of an entire future: waking up tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, every day greeted by the question What do I do now?

Now, though, there was only one option.

She went down the narrow corridor—just a gap between buildings—to a place where the industrial ground had been breached, and an access ladder could be glimpsed through it. Then, securing her pad and Cadares’, hand over hand down into this district of the undercity, where halogen lights stood in for the sun, and where freedom—after a fashion—might await.

• • • •

The sky receded above her, blocked out by buildings and raised streets, and the shadows of the Undercity seemed to gather themselves up to sniff out the newcomer. Aedo hugged the datapads to her chest, taking in the sights.

The light of day only cut through to the ground here in patches and slices, carving vertical roads of dust motes through the air. The whole place looked makeshift—oh, there were permanent buildings, but old ones, built long before the algorithmically-perfected districts above had been built over them. And over time, they’d collected all sorts of unofficial additions, from new rooms to balconies to sheds to lectric and data links to masses of reinforcements like scar tissue as the original infrastructure failed. And the disorder was replicated on the street below: crates and boxes and dumpsters and trash, here and there, though less than Aedo had been expecting; ancient cracked pavement and walkways and alleyways at odd angles, and dark patches between buildings that might have been walkways or might not.

Not a lot of foot traffic here, she guessed. She thought she could hear people moving; could hear voices, though distant, and she didn’t see anyone until her thoughts were interrupted by a quiet snerk.

She spun around to see . . . someone, just now emerging from one of those dark patches between walls. Someone just a touch taller than her, of indeterminate age and sex, hair bleached white and frizzing despite what looked like a lot of effort to get it to hang flat, wearing a jacket and combat trousers with too many pockets bulking up their frame. They were watching her with what looked like incredulity. Then they whistled.

“You,” said LogicalOR, “look nothing like your press photos.”

Aedo was startled into a laugh. “Yeah,” she said, and then fished after something witty to say. It’d be easy to find one if she was sitting with her datapad out. “. . . um, hi.”

Her hand shifted on the datapads and LogicalOR’s gaze went straight to them, pale eyes looking even paler in the undercity dark.

“They can still track those,” LogicalOR said. “Not like there’s some magical shield that zaps a trace as soon as you get down here. Lemme root ’em for you.”

There was something viscerally wrong about handing over her datapad to someone else to muck about with. But Aedo didn’t much want to be caught and tried for treason, so she ignored the sick feeling at the pit of her stomach and handed both pads over.

LogicalOR snatched them up, then turned and walked to a nearby crate to sit down. Their eyes hadn’t left the pads, and Aedo had to blink twice—this whole environment felt like a mass of object disorder, somehow different to the disorder in any of the districts up above.

But maybe that was an illusion. Maybe it was just because she knew this was the undercity now, and all the rumors and clickbait and creepy on the net was clouding her judgment. LogicalOR’s familiarity with the place was probably no different than her easy familiarity with—

—well, with places she might or might not ever get to see again, now.

That realization settled on her stomach, and she went to sit down by LogicalOR. They’d turned over both datapads to read model and series numbers, and raised an eyebrow.

“The off-the-shelf is Cadares’,” Aedo said.

LogicalOR broke into a ferocious grin. “I like it,” they pronounced. “You go in for illegal access and come out plotting treason. Like, clearly the Upcity justice system has no effect on this one.”

“I didn’t come out plotting treason,” Aedo protested.

“Ja,” LogicalOR said, clearly unimpressed. “Like, this just kinda happens, you know.” They turned back to the datapad. “If you need a place to crash, I’ve got room. Long live the Liberation. Gotta have each others’ backs.”

Aedo closed her eyes, and counted her breaths. She did need a place to crash. The fact that this was her option was a damn sight better than not having one.

She’d just keep telling herself that.

“What do you do down here?”

LogicalOR laughed. “Maybe, you know, don’t fetishize the whole Upcity everything-at-your-fingertips thing. People do live down here.” They were quiet for a moment, and Aedo counted a few more breaths. “I do data,” they said. “Utilities. You could help.”

“Utilities?” Aedo asked.

“Yeah. You know. Data is life.” LogicalOR pulled a thin strip of datafilm out of one pocket—then fished out an adapter and plugged it into one datapad. A reboot, three keystrokes, and the screen went black—then went to a progress bar, non-system-standard and adorned with little dancing masks. “And your data is about to go poof. Wave bye-bye to your digital trail today.” Then, as if to cement it, LogicalOR actually did wave. “Bye-bye!”

It felt a bit like Aedo was vanishing, herself. “You have to explain all this,” she said.

“Ja, ja,” LogicalOR said. It was one of the principle rallying points of VL: right to data about you; right to know how your data was being stored and used. Or, in this case, systematically erased. “We will level you up. A+ celebrity cracker-hacker.”

The progress bar finished, and LogicalOR handed back the first pad. It was Aedo’s imagination—she had enough sense to know that—but it seemed lighter.

“Welcome to the underground,” LogicalOR said, and their grin promised an entire future Aedo would never have considered on her own. “We’ll take care of you here.”

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An Owomoyela

An Owomoyela

An (pronounce it “On”) Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and a handful of Year’s Bests.  An’s interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between.  Se can be found online at an.owomoyela.net, and can be funded at patreon.com/an_owomoyela.