Part Three

Toxik smiled. Or at least she would have, but she’d disabled emotive expression on her icon, her avatar. While she was in the Inverd, she preferred to remain as passive as possible. Her icon, a young girl with pigtails and dirty blonde hair who looked like she’d just left school, showed no change of expression. She’d chosen this icon because even if only for one second, sometimes it would throw people off. Plus her stature meant that people did not notice her in crowded places. Toxik used her icon to conceal her identity like so many others did, though most had a real username and System Identification Number, at least. She looked again at the cyber-graffiti scrawled across the virtual Linarvan skyscraper. In gigantic pink letters, it read: “Your security sucks! -Data.L0Z”
She’d been at it again. Data.L0Z, or Loz, as Toxik had come to know her, was an infamous decker who’d hack into a corp just to prove she could. She’d had a few near-misses where she’d almost been on the receiving end of a lethal Black-ICE program, but for the most part she got off without any major consequences. That could have to do with the fact that she almost never goes after anything that would actually cripple the corps, thought Toxik. While they do try to stop her, unless she’s after something valuable, she’s normally little more than a nuisance to them. Loz made her money doing small jobs generally, only attacking the easy marks that she knew wouldn’t cause her any problem. For all of her gusto, when it came to making Ess, she didn’t take a lot of risks. Just for fun. I guess in its own way, it was exhilarating. Thousands of datastreams flying past your consciousness, code surrounding your icon like a storm, the power to make some poor bastard at the head of security worry that they would lose their job with a mere thought. Of course, it didn’t come without risks. While getting ejected from the Inverd would only put the body in a temporary state of shock, the security Lacra sent out to the place they traced you to would not. And bio-feedback could kill. One moment you’d be sitting there thinking you were getting paid well this week and the next, your brain was fried, your PICU emitting streams of smoke. Toxik didn’t want to take those sorts of risks without a good payday, but Loz would make those runs on principle. She wanted to remind the corps that they didn’t control everything. She risked a hot-sim run almost every week or so. Most of them didn’t turn out this successful, and she would have to jack out and change location.
Toxik watched as a virtual scrubber did their best to erase the layers of encrypted code that kept the message up there. Loz was her best friend and she’d tried talking her out of this insane risk-taking before. But she wouldn’t listen. Some days Toxik could swear that her friend was an anarchist in all but name.

Today was one of those days. Loz had contacted her via an encrypted message, telling Toxik to come and look at her handiwork. Toxik had made her way on the public grid to Linarvan’s public servers and seen it. The public server wasn’t where the message was hosted, just where it was broadcast to. Toxik thought of it like city blocks. You could always see across the street, but their ‘building’ was on a separate block to the public one. Of course, Loz left security in her wake. GoLEMs had been set up on every sector of the Linarvan Grid. While Guardians of Linked Entry Modules normally patrolled the Inverd searching for any sign of illicit activity, such a large gathering was rare, except in such circumstances. The Linarvan Technology Group was the corp that dealt most with cyber-cerebral interfacing. While Xitrada did create Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics and dealt in most forms of information security, Lintech knew the most about Personal Inverd Connection Units. They knew the best ways to fry your PICU and your brain at the same time. Breaking into Lintech was a feat, but the PR disaster that would follow would affect every megacorp at once. Xitrada would be questioned about the quality of their cyber-security by Lintech, though that would mostly take place in private meetings with angry suits. Nilianos would be publicly plagued with questions about trying to track down Data.L0Z. Lintech would have to get a handle on the situation quickly before Xitranews exploited their moment of weakness and brought their stock price down. The tensions between the corps always existed, but they would be running higher right now. Must be why Loz contacted me about a job so soon after her run against Lintech, thought Toxik. She moved further through the public grid, her icon skipping down the street, finding her way to a small grid named Playhouse_hub0. She moved her icon to enter the virtual door and it opened to reveal a virtual smoking lounge. The place was tinted with dark red velvet and reminded Toxik of a sex club she’d been to a few years ago. There were various different icons scattered around the place. A shirtless young man with tattoos laid limply on his side, wired into a virtual phoric. She shuddered as she thought of the inferior sensations of legal phorics. Whoever it was had left their icon behind, their mind now connected to the phoric program. It used cold-sim; the simulated feelings still felt real to those who had never tried anything else, but they were dulled. Hot-sim conversely meant that the safety precautions had been removed and a person’s mind directly interacted with the program. No filter meant better speed and more realistic sensation, but of course, there was a risk. If the program could hurt you, cold-sim would stop it. But with hot-sim, all bets were off. And it was illegal. Most of the people who lived in the Inner City worked for the corps in one way or another and as such, they were assets. Corps weren’t about to let their assets waste valuable corporation time on fantasies, so cold-sim phorics were programmed with timers. In your free time you could be anything: a valiant warrior fighting mythical scaled beasts, or a star athlete, or the most popular, attractive person to ever exist, at least in the simulation. Then, you were back on the clock, working for a living.
A flaming angelic figure stood among a group of blue, green and yellow humanoid shapes. They chatted about Lydia Greens, a popstar who had recently become big when she released a new simstim to the public. Live a day in the life of a celebrity, went the advert. Simstim was a chip that allowed a person to legally hot-sim into a preset program. Another form of entertainment for the masses. They were controversial at first, because using hot-sim meant that lethal biofeedback would be able to kill the user if somehow the simstim was tampered with. But all that blew over in a few weeks with Lintech’s assurances to the public that there were emergency security protocols on every chip.
Toxik walked through the smoky room and past a set of velvet curtains to a darker, small circular room with a wooden table and a few green lounge chairs. Upon one of the chairs sat a white cat, idly licking its paws.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you using the white cat, Loz.” Said Toxik.
The cat stopped licking its paws and arched its back before settling into a snug resting position at the back of the lounge.
“Did you see it?” Came an unspoken female voice.
“I saw that Lintech have beefed up security on their grid. Nobody’s getting in there now.”
“Someone will be. Me.” The voice replied.
“Are you insane?” cried Toxik.
“I’ve got a backdoor into their system. You think I would break in just to graffiti their virtual tower?” The cat purred gently, as though punctuating her confidence.
“Actually, that is normally your M.O. What got you doing a job like this?” Asked Toxik.
The cat stopped purring for a moment, then the reply came. “It was Lisa. She was doing a run a few days ago and we argued. I told her that I liked my lifestyle. She wanted to move up in the world.” She paused. Toxik remembered Loz’s partner, Lisa. She went by the handle R48817 or “rabbit” when she was running and her icon always matched.
“Lisa told me that she wanted us to live a better life. We argued about it. I told her that I was happy in the Outer Verd, running for a living. We didn’t need much. But she was never happy. She was worried. All the time. She told me that every single run I took might be the last one. You know why I always took the cheap paydays and the easy jobs? She wanted us to run together, she wanted safety, security. But she found out about the secret runs I went on, the graffiti. Humiliating the corps. She didn’t like the risks I was taking. I tried to explain that I only feel alive when I’m taking risks and that I’m good at this. Something changed in her. So she decided we’d go on one last run. The big hit. Then we could start a new life in the Inner Verd.” The voice cracked with emotion.
“Don’t worry, Loz, I can talk to her. She’ll understand eventually why you prefer living here.”
“She’d dead, Tox!” Toxik felt tears try to well in her eyes, but the icon continued its stoicism.
“She took on a job she wasn’t ready for. She asked me to come along, to help her. And I…I argued with her. I asked her why it was alright now for us to take a risk if she was always so worried. Why we couldn’t just do this normally. I was so damn stubborn. So she went alone. She was never as good as me at this, so I eventually went after her. I found her icon just as it was de-rezzing. She’d been fried by Linarvan black ICE.” The room fell silent.
Toxik finally asked, “Why are we breaking into Lintech, Loz?”
After a few seconds she said, “Lintech is going to pay. I don’t care what happens to me. I’m going to bring down as many of their systems as I can!”
“You can’t do that! They’ll kill you!” cried Toxik. “Security is already high around their grid, you’re not going to be able to get in!”
“I told you, Tox. I have a backdoor. I made one when I broke in just before. They wouldn’t have discovered it just yet. It will only take me a few minutes to get in with the access I’ve got,” replied Loz.
“You can’t be serious! This is suicide! Why throw your life away?!”
“I don’t want to live without Lisa. But at least I can go out the way I want to.”
“Loz, I can’t let you do this! I know you’re feeling horrible now. I know what it’s like to lose someone-”
“Do you?! Do you really? Because I don’t think you do. I think you would understand if you did!”
“Please, just listen to me, Lauren! We can hit Lintech later, we’ll even bring down their central servers. Just wait until you’re not feeling like this any more!”
“I’m finished talking about this. I wanted to say goodbye to you, Tox. Goodbye, my friend.”
Data.L0Z jacked out of the Inverd and her icon derezzed until Toxik was standing alone in the room.
Damn it, Loz! she thought. I have to get to her before she gets to Lintech! Toxik jacked out, and suddenly she was no longer in the Inverd, but her hiding spot in an alley of Res One district. She briefly looked around, making sure she was still alone and safe. She couldn’t see any sign of anyone nor had she been discovered. She used her PICU and jacked back into the Inverd public grid. She rushed over to where she could see the Lintech grid and noticed that even more GoLEMs had been stationed there and checked everyone’s System Identification Number as they entered. It was clearly impossible to get in using normal methods. Loz had said that she had a backdoor into their system. What exactly could she have been talking about? Toxik looked around to see if anything nearby looked different on the public grid. Still the endless stream of advertisements, the digital glow of datastreams flowing from place to place. Still the virtual cybernetics shop where customers could browse and test out items with their icon first. Still the constant thumping noises and neon lights coming from Club Eterna. Where would Loz be accessing Lintech from?

Then Toxik saw it. It was like a wave. Hundreds, no thousands of icons began to stream towards Lintech’s grid. But they were all different. So she had a botnet prepared ahead of time, she thought. She had to admit, this was impressive. Loz had created a trojan that had quietly taken control of a large number of Inverd user icons, probably using a virus to spread the trojan. It had been a long time since Toxik had seen a distributed denial of service attack that was so well-timed. The icons, all shapes, sizes and appearances tried to access the Linarvan grid at once. The GoLEMs were getting overloaded with requests for SIN checks. They weren’t prepared to have thousands of Inverd users attempt to access the grid at once, at least not when they were attempting to do such heavy security checks and create a bottleneck. I suppose this is all a distraction to put a drain on their resources, thought Toxik. But where was Loz planning to access from? A backdoor around here, something related to Lintech. She took a brief scan of her surroundings and realised that just across the virtual ‘street’ was a small protected server dedicated to a Sim2u store in meatspace. Linarvan were the primary manufacturers of Simstim chips and Sim2u had a monopoly on their sales. Toxik quietly made her way across to it and reached her virtual feelers out into the server, attempting to use all of the heuristics at her disposal to discover a fast way through. By the time that the Overwatch discovered what was happening if they weren’t too distracted by the DDOS attack that is she planned to be long gone. She discovered that even though the Sim2u server was on another grid, there was a direct link between it and the Linarvan grid. Pretty clever Loz, she thought. You must have created that link, else that would be a terrible security flaw and someone should be fired. She quickly gained access, knowing that there would be patrolling ICE the moment she got close to Lintech’s servers. She prepared herself, making note of the programs at her disposal. She had been coding new versions of her signature ICEbreakers for months now and they should be usable. Following the backdoor through to the Lintech grid, she began running a few scans to see what she was up against. She entered a colourful virtual depiction of a building lobby, complete with admin desk and virtual pot plants, which were now a thing of the past in meatspace. She ventured through a nearby hallway into a larger room of cubicles and icons sitting at desks with VR displays in front of them. The blue lights in front of them varied from displays full of graphs and numbers to photographic depictions of blueprints for some kind of new model of PICU. A few of them even seemed interested in the work they were doing. Toxik noted that the average Inverd wageslave looked pretty similar to the average meatspace wageslave to her. She tried to stay inconspicuous and ran a program to try to blend in. Icons were just data after all, and the only reason they stood out was because their data read differently. Though it was illegal to do so (what did she care, she’d already broken into a corporation illegally), she hid her icon as changing streams of background data. She thought of it as active camouflage. If someone really paid attention to the data, or scanned it, they’d find out that it wasn’t quite right, but so long as she kept her distance from anybody and stayed clear of ICE, she’d be hidden. She made her way across the cubicle-filled room to another virtual hallway, this time finding something more dangerous. She prepared herself mentally as she noticed a piece of tracer ICE, appearing as a sniffer dog. It approached her and tried to perform a scan, but it was met with one of Toxik’s specialities, a noise generator that would buy her a few more seconds as the ICE tried to work its way through the flood of information. She could not use it too often however, as the system’s security measures would eventually detect a pattern in the noise generation and create formulaic heuristics to bypass it. Then she’d have to code a new one, which took time. This one was the product of a lot of hard work. It simulated a small galaxy inside the program, using the speed and positions of different orbital bodies as they moved to generate numbers. Tracer ICE was advanced though and even with something as complex as a galaxy, it wouldn’t take long before it would catch on and run the simulation itself, finding out the exact sequence of numbers to expect. While the ICE was distracted, Toxik moved again past it around the hallway, following it for half a minute. At the end of the hallway she came to a series of gates, which took her the better part of a minute to navigate with brute force hacking. She was known as one of the best deckers in the biz for a reason. It didn’t hurt that she had created several useful programs for exactly this purpose as well. Deeper in the facility, she found a massive virtual warehouse filled with a maze of servers. Down several lines of servers she could see tracer ICE patrolling, scanning icons as they passed. Along a particular line of servers she could see something de-rezzing. She reached out to scan that particular section of the warehouse and caught traces of hunter ICE code. She froze stiff. Hunter ICE was only ever used if an intruder was detected and was lethal. The hunter ICE did not seem to be coming closer, so she assumed it must have been Loz who was detected.

Loz, if we make it out of this…her threatening thought trailed off. She began to make her way down one of the server aisles, trying to keep hidden. She avoided one tracer by keeping away from it while it scanned someone else’s icon. As she got closer to the hunter she had scanned, she noticed that it was busy trying to attack someone. Colours fizzed as a piece of tracer ICE next to the hunter de-rezzed and Toxik got a good look at what they were attacking. A small white cat was surrounded by tracers and a hunter, each of them taking the forms of lions. The lion-cub tracers, knowing that Loz was an intruder, growl-sounded alarms and continued to attempt to locate her point of connection. Loz booted up a noise generation program that appeared as a cloud of smoke around the tracers, flooding them with useless information. It wasn’t working, they had figured out how to bypass it. She then threw an attack program at them, trying to locate a weak point in their code. The lioness hunter began to strike out at her, trying to induce lethal biofeedback along her connection, but her defensive programs kept the hunter at bay. Toxik called out to her, but her message was intercepted by barrier ICE erected around Loz’s fight. This wasn’t good, if they managed to keep her there long enough, she would be worn down and run out of tricks. Toxik had to get there and help! Toxik began booting up programs, scanning for exploits in the barrier ICE while preparing a program she called The Hammer. If she found even one useful exploit in the barrier she could smash the whole thing to pieces with The Hammer. She also tried reaching out to one of the nearby servers to connect to the security system. If she could deactivate the alarms she might be able to keep reinforcements from overwhelming her friend. Loz struggled to throw new programs and fast-coded defences at the tracers to keep from being located while doing everything she could to keep her defensive programs intact. Toxik noticed something coming when she finally accessed the security systems to disable the alarm momentarily. There was a pitch black lion silhouette moving towards Loz. Toxik tried to scream to her friend, to tell her about the deadly black ICE. The barrier remained stubborn. Black ICE was among the highest security measures that could be taken. It was an extremely difficult program to deal with even for the best of deckers. The lion passed through the barrier using the necessary permissions and Loz got a glimpse of the dark shape before her defensive program was shattered. Her mind reeled with fear and she tried to boot up another defensive program as quickly as possible, but her reflexes betrayed her and she was too slow. The lion swiped at her and a pulse of biofeedback hit her icon, then followed her connection all the way back to the source. She cried out in pain in meatspace, but she was unable to jack out. Her icon shuddered, her mind searing with agony as she tried to hold her connection together. She had to if she wanted to get out of this alive. Another pulse like that and she would be fried. She threw up another defensive program, but knew it wouldn’t last for long. Toxik finally managed to find an exploit in the barrier ICE and used her Hammer to destroy it. She reached out to her friend and said “I’m here, Loz.” The message and the reply were only virtual, but she could feel the relief behind it as she opened up the program she’d been working on for months.
“Tox, I’m…sorry. I was an idiot. We have to get out of here!” Toxik couldn’t see tears streaming down her friend’s face, but she could feel them in the sentiment.
“I’ve got a trick they haven’t seen yet. I guess this is as good a time as ever to test it out!”
The program was depicted virtually as a small box with a timer on it.
“When this thing goes off, we’re going to have to jack out the moment we have a chance. I’m going to have to leave it here,” said Toxik.
“A data bomb? But that won’t work against black ICE. Their composition changes constantly.”
“The code on this one is self-modifying and will try to keep up with the changes of the ICE.” replied Toxik. “It’s only going to be able to jam their input for a tiny fraction of a second, so when I say so, we both have to jack out. Then it will go off and the payload will creep through everything still left within a short radius.”
They both readied themselves, ensuring that their defensive measures wouldn’t be destroyed before they could leave. The black ICE launched another attack just as Toxik said “NOW!”
The input was jammed, but part of a biofeedback signal was sent as Loz jacked out. Toxik arrived back in the public grid with a shock. A few seconds later, she realised where she was and immediately jacked out of the public grid. She was back in meatspace, in the alley in Res One district. She switched her PICU to augmented reality, entering the Half-Verd. She sent a quick video chat request to Loz and was relieved to see that Loz answered. A three dimensional trideo display of a twenty year old girl in jeans and a tank top sitting in a messy room appeared on Toxik’s vision.
“How’s your head?” she asked the girl.
“It’s still pounding. I think I’m going to need it looked at as soon as I can,” she replied.
“I’m going to make my way over now, Loz, just stay there and try to rest.”
“Thank you, Tox. For everything. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been so stupid.”
“Just rest now. I’ll get us something to eat on the way over. Just promise me you won’t do that again.” Toxik shut off the trideo and got to her feet, pulling her coat around her shoulders before she left the alley.

Part Three

Cyberpunk: The Verd Dungeonmasterstack