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Chapter 1


The day started as an itch deep in his subconscious, and spread until his whole head tingled. As consciousness settled in, he could feel his arms and legs tangled in the bed sheets, one icy foot poking out from the warm refuge of the blankets. Opening one eye cautiously in the pitch black, he could see the glowing hands of the ancient bedside clock ambiguously indicating the time. Two o’clock. He decided it was time to face another day of creating The World.
     Waking wasn’t always this graceful for Saul. Some mornings struck with the grace and tact of a cinder block. But this morning was different. As a matter of fact, this whole week had been different. He could almost begin to relate to those who thrive on being up before dawn, far too chipper for the grumpier, non-morning people. But, Saul justified, those people didn’t fall asleep at their computer in the wee hours, waking suddenly to a thump when their forehead collided with the video panel; crawl into bed; and hope, with their last sentient thought, that they had remembered to hit the save button sometime before their programming became pure gibberish.
     Saul began his morning with a large hyper-caffeinated chai that the machine frothed and dribbled slowly into his cup. The hot drink would wash down the strawberry Pop-Tart that he clumsily opened with still sleepy fingers and dropped untoasted onto a saucer. The air was crisp, but, warmed by burning sips of Indian tea and his well-worn terrycloth robe, Saul turned from the stark white kitchen and headed down the hall to his office, breakfast in hand.
     His office was a large, mostly empty room that could have easily fit an army of standard-sized office cubicles. The smooth walls were bright white, like the kitchen, rising up into darkness to join the black ceiling several stories above. High efficiency lighting panels dangled from the ceiling, flooding the space with a warm, even glow.
     Saul headed towards the desk, the centerpiece of the gigantic workroom. It was made of three huge slabs of seamless, black, non-destructible composite, the kind found in high school chemistry labs. Its sections were arranged to form three sides of a trapezoid facing the front wall. There was room for three people to sit at each section, however, there was only a plush, black leather easy chair facing the front surface, and a rolling office chair facing one of the sides.
     The front desk section held a pile of tablets, esheets, and a set of colorful, plastic, chemistry-class models of molecules. The sides of the work counter held several display panels, gesture pads, an electronic paint and canvas system, and a selection of modeling hardware for sampling, digitizing, and other assorted tasks. The room resembled a small version of a NASA command center.
He sat down in the leather chair, setting his plate on top of yesterday’s and pushing the old cup aside with the new.
     He faced the Wall across the black monolithic desk. The Wall was a twelve-by-twenty-four-foot projected computer screen. Saul gestured, dismissing the pattern of dots chasing each other across the screen. As the dots disappeared, the Wall morphed into a smooth, sky-blue expanse with only few sparse icons breaking up the scene. He only really used one of them, a globe in the center of the screen.
     When clicked, the icon launched a battalion of windows neatly tiled across the Wall. A chime sounded eight times, quietly counting the number of new messages in his mail box. Another audible indicator, a crisp female voice, vaguely British, quickly listed the names of chat channels as the startup routine joined each of his favorites. Several Web windows were open to pages of different types of news, world news, programming community updates, Internet security warnings, and other technical sites dedicated to providing news at his level of geek. Finally, a simple black square popped up in the center of the screen with the prompt: clay ~>. Next to it, a cursor blinked patiently.
     Saul’s morning ritual started by skimming a half-dozen top news pages while enjoying his thick, spiced tea. He leaned back in the black leather chair, registering its super-villain-sized proportions with vague satisfaction. He scanned the headlines for anything interesting. News was simply a stream of bullet points and a click if anything seemed to be the least bit interesting. Saul rarely got past the first paragraph of any story before losing interest.
     Tax bill proposal, Middle East bombing, test-plane crash, L.A. drug ring exposed, president visits Mexico, Italian bank defrauded.
     Saul dismissed the page and rubbed the last dregs of sleep from his eyes. A wide stretch and yawn gave his cardiovascular system its morning workout. His feet found his slippers, and the warmth they were looking for, under the desk where he had left them in his exhaustion.
Another sip. Saul ran his hands through his unkempt mop of sandy blond hair pushing it out of his blue eyes as he scanned the news.
     New virus alert, memory leak in popular mail server, latest release of GCC, demo game is Trojan horse…
     Saul was brought up short by the next headline.

Young Computer Hacker Found Dead.

     It had happened again. Without even reading the article, Saul knew what it would say. A troubled teenage boy in Sweden, the Philippines, or some other far corner of the world murdered, discovered by his friends or foster or step parent when he should have been at trade school or carrying out the community service sentence levied on him for some minor computer crime.

Da Nang, Vietnam, July 18, 2044 8:34 ICT
Young Computer Hacker Found Dead

This morning, a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy was found dead in his bedroom, apparently the fourth victim of an international serial killer. The victim, Quan Dang, was known in online communities he frequented as “Balls,” or B411z. The boy’s uncle discovered his body after he failed to show up for a court appearance. The suspected killer, known to authorities as “The Hacker,” has crossed international borders for a third time. Quan’s body was found at his computer, killed in the signature M.O. of The Hacker. U.S., Philippine, Swedish, and Vietnamese officials are all cooperating in this international manhunt. No description of the killer can be given at this time. However, authorities say that The Hacker seems to be targeting young Internet criminals in their homes. Each of The Hacker’s four victims has been widely known in anti-computer crime communities for their questionable online activities, and each was facing prosecution for their illicit online activities.
     FBI agent Janet Slaite, head of the U.S. team tracking the killer, commented, “This is a very dangerous and highly educated criminal who we have reason to believe has returned to U.S. soil, and we are following a number of very positive leads.”

Saul took a deep breath and began to feel odd; the kind of odd feeling that came from having chatted with the murder victim less than fourteen hours ago. The feeling began to resolve into a hard lump in his stomach.
     He wasn’t emotionally attached to B411z. As a matter of fact, he didn’t agree with much the kid had stood for. B411z was just another script kiddie—a common form of malicious hacker. They typically knew just enough to download scripts written by the ├╝berhackers and use them to break into other people’s systems. B411z was one of the worst kinds of script kiddie, an arrogant brat who bragged loudly on the chat channels, collected large companies’ systems like baseball cards, and trashed those systems that didn’t meet his standards. He was constantly bragging in the chat channel #hack about the Internet Fortune 100 companies’ systems he had cracked. Yep, Saul reflected, B411z was the kind of hacker that gave the rest a very bad name.
     Saul hung out in #hack to learn from the real masters. He considered himself a pretty advanced power system admin, however, on more than one occasion he had become the victim of some nameless script kiddie. The adage “know thine enemy” was just as true in the security industry as in the rest of the world, which was why Saul hung out in #hack. There were also a number of very entertaining personalities there as well. Sometimes it was Saul’s version of a soap opera. Unfortunately, today the drama just got very real.
Glancing up at the chat windows on his display, Saul located the one that had auto-joined #hack. In contrast to the other chat windows, which had many lines of conversation that had scrolled by while Saul read the news, #hack was dead; only a single line had been typed since his computer had joined the channel:

Haque: The US feds are here.

     Saul swallowed hard, and the lump in his stomach turned over as he realized he’d just been added to the FBI’s file on “The Hacker” simply because he had auto-joined #hack. The usual roster of a hundred or so members—people and chatbots—in #hack was now a minimal list: Haque, the regular channel bot, a couple unfamiliar names, and Murmur, Saul’s online name.
     After several minutes of trying to digest the brick of anxiety in his stomach and letting his more reason-driven mammalian brain parts override the terrified survival-driven reptilian portions, Saul was able to reassure himself that if the FBI did their homework, they would drop him from their list. But he was still uncomfortable with the idea that his name was now registering though the FBI systems in association with the investigation of a serial killer.
     He closed the chat window, imagining that somewhere across the Internet, deep in the heart of the FBI compound; a computer dutifully logged his departure.
After several moments of calming his jangled nerves and thinking the situation through carefully while picking at his Pop-Tart and sipped his tea, Saul IM’d a friend, StStigma, requesting an encrypted back channel voice chat. He stood stretching his five foot ten inch frame and paced impatiently around his chair expecting the response to take a few minutes. However, only a moment later, a window appeared on the desktop with a simple question and yes and no buttons. The crisp female voice read the text aloud: “StStigma is requesting a chat with you, answer?”
     After Saul gestured and entered a pass-phrase to initialize the encryption, StStigma’s voice boomed from an array of speakers suspended near the ceiling, above the lights, giving the voice the effect of a minor deity.
     “What’s going on, Murmur?” the voice echoed through the room.
     “Did you hear about Balls?” Saul responded, sighing deeply.
     “Yeah. Can’t say I wouldn’t have expected he’d find himself in trouble sooner or later, but dead? He was headed the wrong way fast, and not too bright about it. He was already on probation, or whatever the Vietnamese call it.”
     “Man, but still, what a way to go! Some psycho breaks into his home and murders him? No one deserves that.” Saul’s nerves got the better of him, and his voice cracked. He covered it with another sip of Chai, swallowing hard.
     “Maybe….” StStigma paused. “So, what do you need?”
     “I…joined pound Hack.” Saul left the implications unspoken.
     “That’s all?” StStigma chuckled. “Chill, man. Half the folks who hang in there auto-join. So the feds got a list as long as my arm of several hundred people joining and then quitting in a panic. Did you like my warning message?”
     “Yeah, ‘Haque’ was real subtle. I’m sure the feds appreciate that.” Saul did, in fact, appreciate the warning the Haque chatbot had issued when it saw him join.
“Yeah, I’ve been watching the channel through Haque’s logs, and you don’t look any more guilty than any of us other innocent schmucks.” StStigma ran the bot program that watched over the chat channel, making sure things stayed within bounds. Most importantly, it doled out operator status to a privileged few when they logged into the channel. Saul was sure StStigma had been watching the bot, and had his eye on whatever the feds in the channel were up to.
     “So, have the Feds said anything or done anything?” Saul was working up to his point.
     “Not a thing. About 6:30 a.m. my time, the channel got cycled by a system oper and when Haque rejoined, the feds’ channel bot had op status. So we couldn’t ban it. But since then, it just sits there and probably logs everything for evidence.”
     “Hardcore investigation, I bet,” Saul said.
     “Well, the hack chat party is hanging in #hackfu today. I’m only whitelisting the regulars. No feds allowed.” Setting up a new channel was a simple matter. With the original channel taken over by the feds, the refugees from #hack would have a different channel to hang out in.
     “Okay.” Saul relaxed a bit at the news that his activity didn’t make him stand out from the crowd. But that wasn’t his only concern. “Well, I guess I overreacted a little. But it’s just so weird. I mean, this is murder! It’s not like when the feds hung out because of the home page graffiti they suspected was a gang from #hack.”
     “It was bound to happen. A lot of these script kiddies also hang out in the channels that lend themselves to pervs, and you hear about them getting stung all the time. There’s no telling where Balls ran across this ape. Anyway, was the pep talk all you needed, or is there something else?”
     “Yeah, Sigmund Freud, actually, there is something else. Haque is the only bot that’s in #Hack full time, right?”
     “So, the feds may subpoena Haque for her logs…” Saul got to his point. “But I want a copy of them before they get their hands on them.”
     “Shit! Shit! Shit!” StStigma’s voice reverberated through the office. Saul could practically see him smacking himself in the forehead, and half-smiled. “You’re right. I should’ve pulled the bot, and let that pack of script kiddies incriminate themselves.”
     “Nah, nothing you could have done,” It was Saul’s turn to reassure StStigma. “The feds knew before any of us that the crime had been committed. They had a roster of names and addresses before they ever set up shop. They’re just putting on a show right now because the real information is not in today’s logs. Look, I’m not asking for tampering, just a copy. Can you crypt me a copy, silently?”
     “Yeah, they won’t know I sent it.” StStigma’s tone was a little dejected; he was still beating himself up for not anticipating the subpoena. “All right, I need to get to work copying stuff off of that box in case they take it. And yes, I still run it on a physical box. If it was in the cloud, the feds wouldn’t even have to ask to come and take it. This way at least they have to find it. Don’t want to make their job too easy.”
     “I don’t even want to know where you’ve squirreled that box away. So get to work—and don’t forget to wipe your prints.”
     “Thanks,” StStigma chucked. “Really, Murmur, thanks for the heads up on the legal side. I just don’t think like that. By the way, the logs should be in your in-box from some old man in Norway.”
     “No problem. Now don’t get yourself in trouble.”
     “No worries. I know how to cover my tracks. You shouldn’t worry too much either. You’re still vaulted, right?” StStigma referred to Saul’s unique working conditions as the vault.
     A quiet chime sounded; new mail.
     “Yeah, in the silo going on six months now. ACK on those logs.” Saul confirmed that he’d received the message “You’d better get busy. See you in #hackfu.”
     “Then you’re all set. Saint Stigma out.”
     “Murmur out.”
     Saul’s email window showed nine new messages, the last of which was represented by a lock icon and a black line where the subject should be. The only part of the message that wasn’t encrypted was the “from” address, which ended in .no, as promised. Until his pass-phrase was entered, the message would remain fully encrypted.
     Saul scanned the rest of the email messages for anything interesting. All work related: this deadline, that deadline, “Good job,” “It’s broken,” “30SD statistics,” etc. Then that last message from Oslo. Without decrypting it, Saul saved it to the disk as spaghetti-recipe.txt. Just in case anyone ever goes snooping. No sense hitting them over the head with something like B411Z-PREMURDER-CHATLOGS, he thought.
     In the center console window, Saul decrypted the message and sent its output to another command, ‘grep Murmur,’ which resulted in showing only the lines of the log that contained the word Murmur. After scanning through the few lines of text, he was able to put his mind at ease. A few innocuous lines of conversation: B411z bragging about another crack, Murmur telling B411z to get a life, B411z telling Murmur that he could walk all over Clay but it wasn’t worth his time, Murmur asking B411z if he even knew how to spell buffer overflow or did he just copy and paste it too. A handful of Murmur++’s from others, and that was it. Harmless. The record showed Saul simply calling B411z out as a copy-and-paste script kiddie and receiving a few pats on the back from the peanut gallery. Nothing worth the feds’ time.
     Saul sighed in relief. He couldn’t always remember what was said online in the wee hours of the morning. His concern had been that too much caffeine and too little sleep may have led to some significant textual abuse of B411z. Fortunately, there was nothing in the logs worse that a verbal nose thumbing. His mind at ease, Saul could now actually concentrate on creating The World.