Geek FictionGeek Fiction

by Matt Stephens
 

Episode 3: StrangeSpace

Improbably implanted into her clamshell Zaurus, Analie – or rather, the digitally enhanced and unnaturally curvaceous avatar of Analie – took in her solder-etched surroundings, still not quite believing that the Context Transmogrification dongle had actually worked. With a strained sucking noise, KarmaWhore2.0 pinged into the room, very nearly telefragging her.

He appraised his colleague's avatar, admiring the bump-mapping. “As the device is your possession," he failed-Haiku'd urgently, "Then to the TCP/IP stack you should lead. But watch, for major peril could maybe possibly lurk in wait, maybe.” His voice trailed tinnily away. It was a bad one, even for him.

"Treading carefully, lest they trip a parity bit and wink out of existence..."

They padded silently down a spartan white corridor like something out of Logan's Run or The Island (the first half, before it bafflingly morphed into an extended highway chase scene from a bad episode of CHiPs), except with multicoloured disco lights pulsating around the walls, floor and ceiling. Then they navigated into an unprotected section of volatile RAM, picking their way carefully lest they trip a parity bit and wink out of existence.

Presently they joined a thoroughfare with packets of data flying back and forth. TCP packets marched like regimented penguins, while unruly UDP packets zinged around anarchically, bouncing off the walls and occasionally just disappearing for no good reason. High above them all, an SSL transport layer carried intense-looking data packets safely on their way, the elevated packets glancing snootily at the uncertified riff-raff scurrying around beneath them.

Several times the pair had to duck and cover, as delinquent UDP packets threatened to decapitate or digitally disembowel them.

"A particularly loud and disrespectful UDP packet lunged at them."

“We have to find a safer route!” KarmaWhore2.0 shouted, pushing them both to one side as a particularly loud and disrespectful data packet lunged at them. They fell in a heap and did their best to extricate their tangled limbs from each other.

DigitizedLying on her back, Analie reached behind her, unhooked a conveniently located emergency access hatch, and crawled through. Her colleague followed, eyes professionally averted from her shiny jump-suited butt. In the silence of the corridor that they’d just entered, they picked themselves up and stared at the rows of closed doors stretching into the distance.

“One of these doors is Port 80,” she explained. “We could use HTTP to tunnel through to the Hash Kids’ combat laptop. But HTTP is strictly a request/response protocol, so we’ll need to lie in wait for them to make the request. Then we just grab hold of it, and ride the response straight back to their client.”

“Couldn’t we just upload ourselves straightaway using a POST or a PUT request?”

She shook her head. “Assuming they even have an HTTP daemon running, which is highly unlikely, they’re sure to be blocking POSTs and PUTs. So if we ride a request, only our heads would get through. We’d leave our bodies behind right here in this corridor. I don’t even like to think about that! No, we just have to wait and hope that they probe Port 80 sometime soon.”

“But first we have to find the right door, of course. And set up the honey-pot.”

“Shush!” she hissed, cupping her hand over his mouth. His eyes rolled, a silent attempt to ask: “What is it?”

“It can only be one thing.” Curious expression on face. “Just listen!”

At first he heard nothing. But then a subdued clanking noise, as of an unimaginably expensive well-oiled machine, grew steadily louder. A sense of recognition lit up both their faces as a busy little robot, with a large blue letter G on its breastplate and carrying a clipboard, rolled into the corridor.

“It makes sense,” she whispered joyfully. “I nearly forgot that where there’s TCP/IP, wireless or otherwise, there’s Internet traffic. And where the web goes, that thing surely goes!”

"Some rare insight into the Google design mythos."

The GoogleBot – for that’s what had rolled cheerfully into Analie’s palmtop – hardly glanced at them, as if they were the very first entries on the nearby hallowed robots.txt scroll. But they stared at it with a hushed reverence; the near-mythical god of the Internet that passed over many websites yet was rarely if ever observed, except “after the event” on weblogs by easily excited webmasters. An oversized plastic Groucho moustache had been glued to its front, just above the big letter G. It glided on two large wheels like a Segway, making them suspect that virtual gyroscopes were involved in its design: a rare piece of insight into the Google design mythos.

Making busy little mumbling noises, it stopped at several doors in the corridor and extended a probe into the keyhole, R2-D2 style. After a faint whirring, it retracted the probe and bustled on down the narrow corridor.

“Do you feel like we just saw Santa Claus?” she whispered, watching the ultra-buffed mechanoid glide efficiently away. “I’d started to disbelieve, like how can it possibly cover so many addresses in such a short space of time?”

But KarmaWhore2.0 just stared silently at the retreating demigod, jaw agape as if he’d chanced upon the Dalai Lama and engaged him in an entertaining game of Existentialist Hopscotch for a heavenly few minutes. He’d sensed the good in the GoogleBot, the almost extremist contradistinction from evil. An emulation of pure calmness infused his avatar. Then the moment passed, and they moved on.

platform

“This way!” she called urgently, finding an unlocked door with the legend 50H inscribed on it. She wedged the door open with her heel, then yanked another object from out of her backpack: literally, a honeypot. She placed the little jar on the floor, and then... what else could they do but wait?

“Hey, I’ve got a better idea,” said KarmaWhore2.0 suddenly. “What else do you have in that backpack of yours?”

"A strange-loop to make Douglas Hofstadter proud."

Shrugging, she began to pull items out of her bag. A small pack of travel toothbrushes, a GP2X, even a virtual copy of the Zaurus that they were currently inside: a perfect strange-loop, merrily thumbing its nose at physics and the disorderly fabric of our universe: enough to make Douglas Hofstadter (the original "Hofmeister") proud. She fleetingly considered using the tiny, virtual Matter Transmogrification Device to dive into the Zaurus-inside-a-Zaurus, and then into the one inside that, and wondered how many times she’d be able to do this before the universe keeled over with the cosmic equivalent of a stack overflow error.

“No explosives?” he asked disdainfully, snapping her back to their current mission. “Hang on, I’ve got this.” He pulled a grenade out of his jacket pocket. The grenade had an explosive variant of Puppy Linux embedded on a USB stick, luckily with Bluetooth. Carefully, he balanced the complex explosive atop the honeypot, the USB stick’s delicate little aerial dipping into the sweet comestible.

Then they waited.

"Like a cybernoid alligator bursting out of the digital swamp."

“I hope Clingdog is keeping his head down outside,” she said, worried. Moments later, there was a rushing sound like an approaching underground train. Like a cybernoid alligator bursting out of the swamp and snatching its digital prey, a blurry-edged thing, triangular shark’s teeth glinting in the artificial light, arrived at the door and clamped down on the honeypot. Bulbous eyes swivelled up to glare at them. Not wanting to let go of its prize, the thing said muffledly through clenched jaws: “GET file? Dot dot slash dot dot slash root dot exe deltree!” A lame attempt but worth a try against an unknown web server that just might happen to be infected with the Code Red or Nimda worms. Then, as if it was tethered to a bungee cord, the malicious GET request disappeared back out the door, taking the Bluetooth grenade with it.

The pair looked down at the open honey jar, and just glimpsed a small object sinking into the honey.

“Shit, it dislodged the aerial,” said Analie.

But KarmaWhore2.0 laughed. “That was actually the pin. The grenade has a dual-activation mode, where it can be set off either remotely or via an old-fashioned pin extraction mechanism. Just give it a few seconds...”

With one accord, they closed their eyes and focused on the outside world. Less than a moment later they popped back into Meatspace, just in time to hear a distant laptop explode like an unrecalled Dell.

“Got them!” said KarmaWhore2.0, fisting the air suggestively.

“Aww,” said Clingdog, “you missed an opp there. You coulda said ‘Must’ve been a Sony laptop!’ That would’ve been, like, totally awesome.”

They waited in silence for further signs of aggression.

“Do you think we’re safe?” Analie whispered. As if in answer, an ear-bursting whine filled the air – a jamming signal – and the DAYLIGHT(TM) gave way to darkness. The same jamming signal also disrupted the WiFi on her palmtop, the shock effectively bricking it.

“The GoogleBot’s still in there!” she screamed, horrified. The jamming signal ceased, but her faithful device just hung heavy and lifeless in her hand.

“You can let it out later when we’ve escaped,” said Clingdog, his hand resting on her quivering shoulder. “Zauruses can be unbricked pretty easily, you know.”

KarmaWhore2.0 exclaimed: “I still got that grenade. It’s in my pocket waiting, with my handkerchief and car keys. Could be used to help us maybe.”

"The grenade bounced and stopped at Clingdog's feet."

Analie raised her hand in protest, remembering his inability to even throw a bag of pretzels across the room. But he’d already retrieved the grenade (the corporeal version of the virtual device that he’d just used to kill off an unknown number of Hash Kids), pulled out the pin and stood up, his arm pitched back awkwardly, ready to lob the explosive device along the least efficient trajectory imaginable. A scatter of bullets rained into KarmaWhore2.0’s torso, sending him pirouetting, dead before he even hit the ground. The grenade bounced and stopped at Clingdog’s feet. “Hang on, I’ll kick it away!” he said helpfully.

“No!” she cried, recalling his inability to hoof the giant bag of pretzels her way. Desperate ideas flickering at warp speed past her lateral-thinking cortex, she remembered with the faintest glimmer of hope that KarmaWhore2.0’s grenade was blessed with mighty Bluetooth.

“I need a wireless device!” she snapped, grabbing Clingdog’s Tungsten before it was even halfway out of his pocket.

Stabbing furiously at the screen with the little stylus, she searched for the device in her locality. Clingdog was kicking furiously at the wireless grenade and, for the most part, either missing or scuffing the side of his shoe against it, making the little fireball roll menacingly in a tiny loop like a Mako circling its already-doomed prey.

"Software project deadlines paled into nothing compared with this kind of pressure"

“I think I’ve found it,” she called, creating pock-marks in the screen. “Dammit, Karma slapped it with a password. Gotta crack it, should just be a second...” The Tungsten beeped at her, indicating that it was under attack from some unknown wireless source. “Shit!” she cried, really beginning to stress out. Software project deadlines paled into nothing compared with this kind of pressure.

“Wait a minute,” shouted Clingdog, staring helplessly at the device at his feet, “I’ve got an idea.” He grabbed at the device, preparing to throw it. Tracer bullets zinged through the air all around him, disappearing in little flare-ups of Magnesium Phosphate. He raised his arm, forcing himself to focus on throwing the grenade.

The grenade exploded.

 

IN THE NEXT EPISODE: Chester infiltrates the team on a sun-kissed island with a Thunderbirds-style caldera and some hairy hobbit servants.

Copyright 2006/2007 Matt Stephens, All Rights Reserved.

 

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