by Fred Warren
“Ninja outfits, Carson? Seriously?” Melanie wrestled with the black mask shrouding her head and face. The eye slit had somehow gotten turned around the wrong way and she couldn’t see anything. Virtual reality could be amazing, but she still didn’t see the point of the sort of realism that simulated clothes going askew.
“You said we have to be stealthy. And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Rhino?”
She gave the mask a final yank and glared at her brother. “This isn’t a game, Car…Rhino. We’re not going to sneak up on the firewall and stab it with a knife. I mean, look at it.”
The firewall manifested in the simulation as a towering range of obsidian mountains spanning the visible horizon--enormous, black, jagged teeth poised to devour the twilit sky. Melanie, Carson, and Hamsa crouched behind their rally point, a low hillock that felt profoundly inadequate to screen them from any observers watching from the heights.
“All right, fine! It makes me feel less…visible, okay?” Carson shoved the dagger he’d been fiddling with into the belt of his shozoku and turned away.
Hamsa chuckled. “You’re on point, Mouse. What now?” Even in ninja garb, his avatar looked more like a sumo wrestler than an assassin.
“Where’s Jumbo’s Folly?”
“It should be right in front of us,” said Carson. “Look for a glow at the base of the mountain. There should be a crack where Jumbo broke in.”
“There!” Hamsa pointed to an indentation in the obsidian wall, about 200 meters away and slightly to the right of their position.
Melanie squinted in that direction. “I don’t see…wait. You’re right. There it is...that hazy green patch. Good eye, Orca.”
“How are we going to get over there without anybody seeing us?”
“I don’t think there is anybody. From what you told me, Jumbo didn’t encounter any resistance until he started his hack. The defenses don’t kick in until they sense an intrusion.” Melanie stood up. “Follow me.”
Carson didn’t move. “Uh, Sis...how about Orca and I wait a few paces to make sure they don’t have some kind of death ray aimed at you?”
Hamsa grabbed Carson by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “C’mon, Rhino. Mouse is in charge. We have to follow her orders.”
They trotted in a loose column toward the green glow. She’d die before giving Carson the satisfaction of betraying her own fear, but Melanie found herself checking the mountainside every few seconds from the corner of her eye. There were no signs of life, yet she could feel a kind of pressure from it, a massive power, coiled and waiting.
But nothing happened. Nothing moved on the silent monolith of ebony glass. No alarms sounded; no death rays flashed out to meet them.
As they drew nearer, the glow coalesced into a zigzagging crack that traveled 10 meters diagonally upward from the mountain’s foot. There was a pile of rusty scrap metal with bits scattered across the ground, and something that looked like a huge, twisted drill bit wedged into the obsidian where the crack began.
The remains of Jumbo McLaren’s security hack, left behind by its incinerated creator.
Hamsa shook his head. “It’s too narrow. We’ll never fit into that.”
“We don’t have to.” Melanie fished around in a pocket of her shozoku and pulled out a short length of fabric, a few centimeters wide.
“Not what. Who. Gentlemen, meet Flat Audrey.”
“It looks like a piece of tape.” Hamsa bent down to take a closer look.
“Audrey is a sophisticated micro-AI, optimized for information collection. A flatworm. She was my tech school graduation project. Say hello, Audrey.”
The fabric curled up into an S shape and warbled, *HELLO, AUDREY.*
“Oh, yes,” Carson sneered, “Very sophisticated. Does it tell jokes, or does it just sit there, being a joke?”
*I GATHER INFORMATION. I DO NOT TELL JOKES.*
Melanie swatted Carson’s head. “Pay attention. Audrey will go into the crack, follow the data leak, merge with the network inside the firewall, and camouflage herself as a diagnostic subroutine. She’ll collect information for a couple of days, then return to us. She’s got 20 teras of storage. I’ve instructed her to pinpoint weaknesses in the security protocols, analyze their encryption scheme, and collect access keys. With that information, we can find our own way in.”
“You’re an impressive little bug, Audrey,” said Hamsa, nudging Audrey with a finger.
*I AM NOT A BUG. I AM A FLATWORM, BUT I AM IMPRESSIVE. THANK YOU.*
Melanie smiled inside her ninja mask. “Audrey also enjoys compliments.”
She drew a katana from the sheath strapped to her back and gently placed Audrey on its tip. “All right…if we get any reaction at all from this, everybody logs out immediately. Understood?”
“Understood.” Hamsa took a step back.
Carson hesitated a moment. “Be careful, Mel.”
Melanie extended her arms, slowly pushing the katana’s blade toward the crack in the mountain. She inhaled sharply as it entered the aurora of green mist surrounding the crevice, but there was no change in the glow, or any other sign of trouble. She positioned the blade’s point as close to the opening as she could without touching the obsidian. “Audrey, deploy. Recovery in 48 hours.”
*DEPLOYING.* The flatworm extended itself and slid into the gap like a tiny snake, its skin instantly matching the color and texture of the volcanic glass, and vanished.
Melanie pulled back and returned her katana to its sheath with a sigh. “She’s in. Now, we wait.”