Chapter 7Mature

The vibrant glow of a metre-wide concave hyperLED monitor bathed the sleek IT workshop in a characteristic blend of RGB. It rested atop a chrome-tinted desk, perforated with ports for innumerable cables, wires and cords. Beside the massive screen stood a mighty supercomputer that any geek would sell their soul for - layered with a RAID6 configuration of cloud-mirrored storage drives, it hummed as coolant flowed through glimmering pipes. A vast array of multi-core processors calculated immense sums of data, with a deluge of information being processed and sorted effortlessly.

Moderately loud technoir played from a high-tech surround sound system, aimed precisely for the young hacker seated in the centre of the room. Akira hammered away on the glimmering microscreen keyboard's DVORAK layout. Not once looking down as he typed at over 120 words per minute, he filled his screen with code and commands and comments. The HEDSET perched on his right ear silently kept record of the data streaming into his field of vision, augmenting it with a translucent heads-up display over his right eye.

A mosaic of windows dotted toward the sides of the oversized monitor displayed a honeycomb of news feeds, social networks, messengers, and assorted data, statistics and information. Piled on top of a hefty and highly technical workload, one could be forgiven for expecting the young man to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of notifications and tasks. Instead, he was in the zone - a fish in water, attired in his version of quasi-respectable geek-chic businesswear.

Akira's lightning fingers punched the enter key conclusively. He interlaced his fingers, reclining in his black executive chair exultingly. It felt good to be back in the game, especially after the previous night's events. A prompt blinked into existence at the top of the screen. Akira smiled knowingly as he read the dialogue contained within. He was in.

The server farm he had infiltrated contained the business transactions, files, accounts, and every piece of data that the target company relied upon to run their business. And now it belonged to him. Swinging around to his auxiliary computer, a high-end laptop with a translucent screen, he ran a simulation of a customer accessing their accounts through the target servers.

His eyes flickered between the monitors as he checked that the systems had worked as planned. As the decoy attempted to transmit data to the compromised servers, it instead flowed through Akira's network, where he was at liberty to intercept, doctor or redirect it. Furthermore, so long as he was careful, Akira would not leave any clue that the communications were being hijacked - a flawless man in the middle attack.

"I've got you right where I want you", Akira remarked to his technological tools of the trade. With the target compromised, none of the information or secrets transported through the network were secure. If he wanted to, Akira could have used his new-found position at the helm of this network to steal every kind of confidential information that was foolishly left in the cracked system. If he wanted to.

Instead, Akira spun back around to his main console with a flair. Summoning vi, his text editor of choice, he began to write a damning report on the state of the company's IT system security. Pointing out the need for additional encryption measures and security redundancies, while also advising on added education for the users of the network at both ends of the system.

Akira recommended the implementation of asymmetric cryptography, where separate public and private data keys are utilized to encrypt and authenticate data. Surely if Akira could manage to teach himself the majority of his own IT abilities, a few hapless customers and admins could manage to learn cybersecurity 101.

A dull bleeping sound served as the fanfare for a notice blinking beneath Akira's security feed. Tucked to the bottom-left of his screen, the CCTV display collated a network of security cameras and sensors, outputting a reassuring visual feed of activity outside the discrete upstairs office and surrounding area. Akira figured that if The Establishment was going to try and watch him, he may as well watch back. "Proximity alert: lifeform detected" he joked to the audience of himself, swivelling slightly in his chair to take a closer look.

Akiranet was located in a discrete, standalone two-story office, constructed of cheap concrete and cold steel. Tall stripes of one-way glass provided a modernist façade, which greeted anyone approaching with a dozen reflections of themselves, bathed in green neon lighting from above. As a small but otherwise unremarkable central city building, the physical address of Akiranet was easily overlooked - a perfect lair for an operation that worked mostly online. The entranceway alcove beneath Akira's upstairs office was down a short alley - tucked behind a for-lease shop front; largely away from casual passers-by. The few customers that shunned teleconferencing and showed up in person usually had more than simple business to discuss.

Yet the approaching lifeform who had been detected was not a client Akira recognised. Respectably dressed in a navy blazer over a pale blue shirt and black dress pants, the man approached the entranceway gingerly - even Akira could tell his confidence could fail at any moment. Akira was used to social ineptitude amongst his clientele, however this tall, copper-haired stranger projected an air of tension that only served to betray his trepidation.

With his curiousity stoked, Akira ensnared the approaching man's image within his security feed, storing the data gathered away for later reference. "What could this guy want? Is he truly alone or acting on behalf of some group? And why does he seem so nervous?" Akira muttered under his breath as he typed up a couple quick notes regarding this newcomer. It never hurt to do a little research about your clients, especially if your work potentially strays into murky territory.

Identity recognition systems were a handy tool that big brother and the megacorps had utilized for years, ostensibly in the name of protecting the public and providing better services. However, the potential for such systems to be used to suppress dissent and invade privacy left many targets and even users uneasy. It's not the tech that matters - it's the user and the use. Akira reminded himself as he set up the software to cross-reference the results with social networks, news reports and criminal records.

"This Akiranet?" came a gruff question from the man downstairs, transmitted through the intercom provided outside the locked front door. The lack of rising intonation to indicate that this was a question (albeit a rhetorical one) made the statement seem almost accusatory, but such was this man's southern burr dialect.

Akira, leaving his computer system to undertake the identity recognition process, tapped his HEDSET to activate his intercom mic. "Unless my sign's learned how to troll," he replied light-heartedly, then asked "What can I do for ya?" waiting to see what this well-dressed young man wanted from him and his one-man IT business.

"They reckon you're one o' the best," continued the bloke, who had taken to leaning his back against the wall within the alcove the door was nestled in. He seemed oblivious to the fact that one of the best had been watching him for the past minute, and was in the process of compiling a dossier of online information about him.

One of the best? He's half right. Akira mused swaggeringly, tapping his fingers idly upon his desk. Not only was he a self-taught computer prodigy with a promising career in cybersecurity, his exploits as a hacker were renowned - or rather they would be if he had ever been definitively caught or traced. But which of his personae was in question here?

"I need someone to give me a hand with... something." The ambiguity in the man's rugged words implied he was looking for the legally grey side of Akira's skills: the hobby, not the profession. "Name's Keith. Can I come in?"

Akira considered the name for a moment. Were any of his clients named Keith? Any of the guys who lived online behind aliases and nicknames? This was the first he'd heard of it. "Alrighty, I'll be street-level in a nano." Akira conceeded, spun lightly atop his swivelling executive chair and bounded onto his metallic-trimmed leather boots. He strode from his workshop - humming with electricity and cooling fans and illuminated by bytes of LEDs - closing a secure door behind him. It locked automatically, waiting for the input of both a keycode and a near-field-communication with Akira's cyPhone before it could reopen. It paid to be security-conscious in this profession, especially with a mostly-unknown client at the door.

Unlocking the entrance downstairs, Akira pushed open the front door just wide enough to get a good look at the man outside. He was young - a few years out of high school - and somewhat pasty, as if his deep red hair had leached the colour from his skin. Akira noted he was slim and trim, apparently possessing the fitness level for a particularly active job - unlike his own. Keith was also rather tall - but so were most people when seen from Akira's modest height. "The name's Akira - but you probably figured that out. Come on in"

Akira led Keith away from the entrance, past the stairs, and into a cosy conference room, replete with water cooler, comfy seats and a sleek white metallic office table. Seating himself at the head of the table, Akira swiped a rhombic triacontahedron puzzle from the tabletop and began working at it intently. As his charge took a seat opposite, Akira looked up and mooted that "Now's as good a time as any. What's this something you mentioned?"

Keith looked around in apparent discomfort before taking in breath. With a pause of reluctance, he carefully explained "I'm lookin' for justice. You familiar with any of the rumours of police corruption?"

Akira stopped mid-turn of his puzzle, his eyebrow raised behind his HEDSET - corruption was certainly something that piqued his interest and grabbed his attention. "Sure - I'm not living in a cave. Sometimes cops will confiscate drugs and turn around and use or sell them themselves. Other times they might turn a blind eye to the gangs and let them fight each other - an enemy of my enemy is my frenemy. Some might blackmail people into doing them favours - sexual, violent, financial, whatever. Management might take bribes or misappropriate funds, or lobby on behalf of vested interests who offer them kickbacks. That the kind of thing you're talking about?"

Keith appeared to agree, with a hint of embarrassment - or perhaps disappointment. "Indeed." He shifted slightly in the ergonomic chair he'd claimed earlier, before continuing "But this goes further than that." He leant towards the tech expert to hit his point home, implying the confidentiality of what he was about to say. "I have reason to believe that the police have covered up a murder"

A drop of water dripped from the water cooler in the corner. Inanimate fake houseplants stood sentry in silence. The seriousness of this allegation filled the room like a crushing haze, as the intense green eyes of Keith were finally met by Akira's usually facetious brown ones. "That's a hell of a thing to believe, Keith. I don't trust cops - or any authority for that matter - as far as I can throw them, but this... " His surprise was writ large across his face, in spite of his earlier familiarity with police corruption.

"Yep. It's a big deal alright, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't have reason to believe it." Keith sat back upright, placing his hands upon the table. "I'll give you the details. Nearly a year ago, Stuart Stenmoore died in a car accident." He sighed. "The police reckon he'd been drinking, was speeding, and missed a corner on a cliff-top road. The crash killed him instantly." He gritted his teeth, otherwise keeping his features a mask of stoicism.

"I reckon they got that wrong. Stuart never touched alcohol. He'd never gotten a speeding ticket. At the site of the crash..." He reached inside a shirt pocket and withdrew a set of hard-copy images, depicting tyre marks on concrete. "These tyre tracks from the scene," He indicated the first photograph "look more like they came from a car being shunted aside than from one that just missed a corner."

The HEDSET Akira wore 14 hours a day recognised the photographs and automatically duplicated them to memory, while Akira pondered the situation he found himself in. He knew his strengths, and private investigation wasn't usually one of them. It began to dawn on him why this young man had presented himself and his case here of all places - even before Keith began to cryptically explain.

"I need someone to look into the investigation - see what they can find out. Try and figure out what's going on." His job description was becoming ever more vague - as if he didn't want to come out and say precisely what he wanted. Akira figured he must be crafting plausible deniability in case this whole thing backfired. He wouldn't be the first client to do so.

"Don't ask, don't tell, but get it done?" Akira picked up his half-solved puzzle and looked at the client questioningly.

"Yeah, nah - ya know?" Keith shrugged with the same ambiguous ambivalence he'd spoken with. He stopped short of winking and giving Akira a nudge, but the unwritten words were nonetheless clear as 500-point Helvetica: Keith needed someone with computer security skills to crack into the police network and expose anything incriminating related to the case of Stuart Stenmoore.

Akira spun another side of his 30-faced puzzle as he considered his options. He knew he couldn't allow himself to be traced, nor could he allow himself to be linked to Keith, nor should he allow Keith to be implicated in any legally grey matters - this man was likely already risking a lot just by being here and making these allegations, let alone insinuating that Akira should try and hack the police database - of all things. The safest thing for Akira to do would have been nothing, but a nagging feeling crept over his psyche - that he had been given another opportunity to expose something disturbing to the blinding light it deserved. His better judgement roared in protest, but the bait was irresistible.

"This aint going to be easy. If this has been covered up like you say, chances are that people want it to stay that way. Once you go down that rabbit hole, who knows where you'll end up." Akira warned, twisting and spinning his puzzle again and again.

"Indeed. It'll be a challenge, but I know it'll be worth it." Keith swore fervently, gathering his photos and then rising to his feet. "We have an understanding here?"

Akira considered the man across the table one last time, as he slid the final coloured tiles into their rightful place. Strait-laced and tidily groomed, Keith wore an antiquated analog pocketwatch upon his belt - a redundant and outdated piece of technology if ever Akira saw one. An analog man who needs a digital favour, Akira concluded. Carefully placing the finished puzzle on the table, Akira leaned forwards in his shiny faux-leather chair. "Well... I do love a challenge."

The End

0 comments about this story Feed