Monday, April 15, 2013
S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. Case Files: Daedalus & Icarus
Case # 03-302149875-01-23
Lead Investigator: Agent Saffron
Supervisor: Agent Lemon (01-45)
Abstract: A hacker going by the net alias of Icarus took control of various S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M.-controlled programs (transportation, food and medical ration delivery, sewage treatment, etc) resulting in a significant threat to the citizens of Haven. Icarus used modified programs of the infamous hacker known as Daedalus in order to infiltrate the system.
So this is what it looks like to play by the rules.
Agent Saffron's ID badge swung from a lanyard around his neck as he pushed a cart full of interdepartmental mail around the Yellow floor of S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. headquarters. The room was a maze of cubicles and criss-crossing conduit. The cart bumped and rattled every time he ran up and over a bundle of power cords, usually followed by a warning shout from the nearest over-caffeinated agent threatening to bust him down to Brown if he caused them to lose days worth of work due to a premature unplugging. He kept track of the agents who were civil and those who treated him like scum. A few keystrokes from Saffron and the latter group might just find a few credits missing from their account or a parking violation fine that was inexplicably overdue.
"Mail for you, Agent Amber."
Saffron handed a few envelopes to a pretty blonde agent at the end of the central row of desks. She thumbed across the signature pad he was holding and flipped her hair once before winking at him as he rolled away.
Maybe this place isn't all bad.
Saffron looked at his next delivery and laughed.
Agent Lemon. If ever a S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. name fit a personality, it'd be that old sourpuss.
Saffron had scoffed at the name he'd been given once he took the plea deal to join the "good guys" and opt out of jail time. What was in a name anyway? He'd discarded his birth name as soon as he was old enough to sign on to the Net and create a brand new identity for himself. "Saffron" was just another name, just another cover. Part of him liked it; it gave him an exotic quality that the ladies found irresistible.
He accessed the S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. agent database through a backdoor access he'd created his first day on the job. In addition to giving him plenty of dirt on his fellow co-workers, it let him have some fun with agents like Lemony Stick-in-the-Mud over there.
"Mail for Agent Sunshine. Agent Sunshine? Does anyone know where I can find Agent Sunshine?" Saffron asked as he moved up and down the rows. Before long, his supervisor ran him down to see what all the commotion was about.
"Just what are you blathering about now, kid?" Agent Lemon barked, grabbing the list of today's mail recipients out of his hands. "Some screw up at central processing," Lemon mumbled. "I'll never understand why every other department can't just send us files over the Net like civilized people."
"It's almost as if they don't trust us," added Saffron, barely able to contain his laughter behind a mischievous smile. It wasn't long before Lemon discovered that the numbered designations for the mail meant for Agent Sunshine matched the physical numbers stamped on the documents meant for Agent Lemon himself. He connected the dots and gave Saffron a withering look.
"Okay, smartass. You think you're funny? Just remember that it's me who says whether or not you move up in these ranks or end up down in the Brown pits choking on the Grit," Lemon growled. Saffron gave him a mock salute.
"Whatever you say, Sunshine."
Lemon didn't appear to hear him or he might very well have made good on his threat. Instead, his eyes were drawn to a document in his hand, one that started with the designation number 00. He tore it open immediately; Black department agents did not like to be kept waiting.
"Saffron, back to your desk. If I need you for something, I'll be sure to..."
Lemon never finished his thought, deciding to finish reading the letter instead. An odd smile played across his face; there was frustration there, but also the sort of relief that comes with knowing a decision has been taken out of your hands.
"On second thought, come with me. It looks like you'll be helping out on a case sooner than any of us, most of all me, thought possible." This piqued Saffron's interest.
Finally, a case! No more pushing paper carts and logging maintenance checks.
Saffron started after Lemon, forgetting the mail cart in his excitement. Another clerk, distracted by reading a holoscroll of the latest headlines, walked straight into it and sent the both of them crashing to the floor.
"What is it? Investment fraud? Political libel? Illegal wire-tapping?"
Lemon stopped and turned to face the young agent.
"Part of me doesn't want to tell you because I think you'll enjoy it too much," he said with a sigh. "A hacker calling himself 'Icarus' has managed to worm his way into S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M.'s programs and is wreaking havoc with all sorts of regulated operations. He's just showing off for now, nothing but childish antics, but our records show he's dipped into some of the higher-priority services to our citizens. Silver won't have that."
"Ah, I see," said Saffron. "You've finally come around to the fact that I'm the best programmer you've got."
"Not exactly," said Lemon with a sour smile. "This 'Icarus' appears to be using the same tricks as the infamous hacker, Daedalus, only with a few modifications." Lemon paused to let Saffron process that tidbit of information. "Seeing as how you were the one who developed those tricks in the first place, we thought it best for you to take him down."
A few pots of coffee and one missed lunch break later, Saffron was neck deep in the Net. He'd hooked up his own laptop to S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M.'s mainframe in order to take advantage of his sophisticated user interface - one of his own design, of course.
A virtual tour of the entirety of Sector One's systems blitzed by on the holoscreen. Saffron's P.O.V. floated over a network of tunnels that branched off of each other in a seemingly infinite number of smaller and smaller clusters. A large bit of piping labeled simply "Electricity" tapered into slightly thinner regional tubes that were each labeled with grid coordinates that matched up to real-world locations within the Sector. If Saffron followed the maze long enough, he could track a path right to someone's virtual doorstep. Useful if you wanted to add a few fractions of a credit to a few thousand utility bills in order to score some free power, but plucking one name out of a database of tens of millions would either overload the central computer or take a few days for the Sector's linked nodules to crunch the data and spit out a list of culprits. Saffron didn't have days.
"I don't recall giving you clearance to access Sector utility controls, Agent Saffron."
Agent Lemon had returned with a cup of coffee in each hand, one of which he placed on the desk in front of his subordinate. Saffron didn't take his eyes off the multi-screen display in front of him and wouldn't have even considered letting his fingertips stray from the keyballs that allowed him to scour the system at a furious pace.
"You're right, you didn't," answered Saffron. "But you didn't give Daedalus permission either and he still managed to do it with much more rudimentary equipment."
Lemon laughed and snorted up some of his coffee.
"You talk about him as if you aren't one and the same."
"Daedalus is behind me," Saffron confirmed for what felt like the millionth time. "That was part of the deal when I signed on with S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. New name, new alliance, same old tricks. You've just given me access to better toys."
Saffron sped through different system maps on multiple screens. He was looking for a common thread, not just a matching IP address or access code since those could be faked, scrubbed through an infinite number of dummy accounts and uplinks. No, he was looking for traces of the same methods he used to employ: temporary virtual doors into the system that disappeared as soon as he exited, hints of a self-terminating and self-cannibalizing program string that were only recognizable while an illegal hotlink was live and the tell-tale signs of an elite hacker leaving his calling card. These were all things that Saffron - no, Daedalus - had pioneered, things that made him famous in the underground and infamous in the Yellow department of S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M.
"Why Daedalus?" asked Agent Lemon in between sips of coffee. He'd taken up a seat on top of the desk beside Saffron and was watching with a renewed interest, more out of curiosity than supervisory diligence.
"Not a fan of Greek mythology, Agent Lemon?" Saffron asked between keystrokes.
"Daedalus was always a favorite of mine, more myth than man but an inspiration just the same. His name means 'clever worker' and I found that to be an apt description if I do say so myself. You probably remember him best for his construction of the Labyrinth."
Agent Lemon shook his head.
"Big maze? Had a man with a bull head at the center of it? Doesn't matter. I used the idea of the Labyrinth as a conceptualization for concealing my tracks as I played around in the network. If anyone wanted to track me, they'd spend a helluva lot of time turning up in dead ends and chasing their own tails. By the time they figured out where I might have been, I was already long gone."
Saffron appeared to hone in on a potential lead as he focused his attention more on one screen and keyball while the other lay motionless for a few moments. He tagged a particular string of code before going back to work on both screens.
"So how'd we eventually figure you out, smartypants?" asked Agent Lemon. A quick glance in the reflective screen showed Saffron that the older agent was smiling. He was enjoying this tale.
"My own hubris, actually, much like my namesake. I had a habit of leaving a GIF of a ball of string at the end of my trail of digital breadcrumbs. If a hacker-tracker found it, a message would pop up saying, 'Use this to find your way out!' and they'd know I was already in the wind. The problem was, like Daedalus himself, the Labyrinth was eventually defeated using a simple ball of string. In this case, a team of what I can only guess was your best agents laid in wait for me, tagging my forays into the network every time they popped up and tying those incidences together with a bit of digital string. One day, having grown too confident in my abilities, they showed up my door. The rest is history."
That wasn't entirely true. There was the part where his father, the Chief of Police in their shitty section of Foundation City, disowned him and turned his back on his only son. If Agent Lemon didn't already know that, there was really no need to bring it up now.
"So what's this 'Icarus' guy about? I remember enough about the Classics to know that he and Daedalus were tied together somehow."
"Icarus was one of Daedalus' sons. They donned a pair of artificial wings together, but Icarus didn't heed his father's warnings and flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted and he crashed to his death."
Agent Lemon pondered this bit of mythology over the last dregs of his coffee.
"Some sort of hero worship then? He's using your own tricks after all."
Saffron thought that was the case, too; at first anyway. That turned out to be only part of the story.
"He's using my tricks, that's for sure. But while his sorties into the Net are cleaner and harder to track, he's sloppy and arrogant." Saffron smiled back at Lemon. "Just like I was."
Saffron zoomed in on a list of codes he'd compiled on the side of the screen. To Lemon, they looked like nothing more than a string of numbers that appeared to be unrelated to each other.
"I had the computer scan the areas of the net that Icarus hacked into and then relayed the strings of code both before and after the incursion. After running a search for differences in those two segments of code, the computer generated these sequences of numbers. Do you see it yet?"
Agent Lemon shook his head, but scooted in closer to the screen in the off chance that might have helped.
"I'm not surprised. It's from Arachne, a basic graphics program I spent a lot of time on back in the day, one that used strings of code like this to generate a pixelated image."
"Arachne, huh? The Greek mythology connection just a coincidence or something more sinister?" asked Lemon.
"Probably coincidence. A lot of programmers use it to train basic concepts early on. Really primitive stuff, but..."
Saffron fired up the outdated graphics program and entered each line of digits into it one at a time. The program crafted a new image for each code. They were blocky and crude, but clearly identifiable.
"A feather," said Agent Lemon.
"A calling card," corrected Saffron. "Something he left behind for us to find each time he breached the network. And if my hunch is right, it'll be his undoing. I've had the computer scanning comment sections and blogs from all over the Net to look for matching images. It should be...just about..."
Saffron trailed off as a list of accounts associated with feather imagery popped up. Agent Lemon said something but Saffron had gone into full tunnel-vision mode. He swiped the list of accounts aside and brought up a timeline of Icarus' known break-ins. He asked the city-wide computer brain to crunch the time of each account login cross-referenced with the times of the incursions. Saffron could almost feel the heat generated by the quantum computer grinding through its zettaFLOPS, the synthetic coolant pumping vigorously through the system to keep the central brain and its numerous nodes from going critical. In less time than it took Saffron to have his little daydream, the computer spit out a list of two likely candidates.
"Well, a 50/50 shot is better than nothing," said Agent Lemon, clearly impressed by Saffron's quick work. Unbeknownst to the young agent, it was Lemon's own team who had put months into tracking the gifted hacker...not that he'd ever reveal that particular detail.
"I can do you one better," said Saffron. He entered the information into the central database and pulled up the two addresses. They were identical except for one coordinate: one was in Haven, the other in Foundation City. One was certainly a dummy account set up to confuse investigators, to gum up the works and set up some innocent sap as the fall guy. But which one?
If Icarus lived in Foundation City, maybe he knew that Daedalus started from his own humble beginnings there. But what were the chances that another gifted hacker climbed their way out of the slums and into the relatively well-protected servers of S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. itself? Saffron, at least, had access to law enforcement log-ins; they weren't much, but they were the start he needed. And why would someone in Foundation City set up a dummy account in Haven but leave his own address on record?
That question settled it for Saffron. The real Icarus was safe in Haven, protected not only by the Foundation Plate that separated the fraternal cities but most likely by money and powerful connections. It wasn't an oversight to hide his location at the end of the maze, it was a failsafe, a surefire piece of information to hand to his lawyers who would say, "Look, there must have been some sort of mix-up. It was clearly this poor misguided individual from Foundation City who just happens to live at the same coordinates as my innocent client. Happens all the time." Saffron was sure of it.
But did he really want Lemon to get the collar on this one? Saffron had done all of the work. Hell, this Icarus guy had even stolen Saffron's own tricks in order to play around within the network. He was getting screwed on both sides. And there was no denying that the strange sort of homage between their user names was intriguing to Saffron, as disconcerting as it might be. No, Saffron would like a chance to talk to this Icarus himself without the rest of S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. interfering. He was an agent afterall.
"It's the guy in Foundation City, I'm sure of it," Saffron said. He'd never had a great poker face, preferring to hide behind the safety and security of a computer monitor. He only had to make Lemon believe for a few minutes and the agent would soon be out the door.
"You're sure?" asked Agent Lemon, standing up and reaching for his coat.
"Positive," answered Saffron. He looked away too soon. Agent Lemon stopped in his tracks.
"This Icarus guy got under your skin. I understand that. But remember, Saffron, you're not cleared for field duty yet. If you've got something like that in mind...well, I'll ask you one more time because maybe you got confused or overly excited the first time. Which set of coordinates am I going to? Where is Icarus?"
Saffron sighed and considered his options. He could stick to his story and let the agents pick up some innocent citizen in Foundation City while he snuck off to have a chat with the real Icarus or he could play dumb and tell Lemon that the real culprit was in Haven and risk him going free. The latter choice came with the added bonus of gaining a little bit of trust with his fellow agents. Saffron's decision had been made for him.
"It's the guy in Haven," he said. "For real this time."
Agent Lemon just stared at him.
"I'm sure it's hard for you, but we'll learn to trust each other in time. For this go-round, I think we'll pick the both of them up," said Lemon. "Feel free to take the rest of the day off. You did some great work, kid."
Saffron watched Lemon assemble his team and head off in search of Icarus. He was sure they'd come back with two suspects, just as he was sure that one of them was completely innocent. What he didn't know is whether justice would run its course or whether he'd just walked into a trap set by the real Icarus.
When Agent Lemon returned, Saffron was still seated in his chair. He'd tried to go home and had even made several attempts, but his guilt and his curiosity were already gnawing at him. Sure enough, Lemon and his team hauled in two suspects. One was a mangy older man with a bald crown surrounded by tufts of graying hair; he certainly looked like a Foundation City stereotype, but no hacker that Saffron had ever seen. The other was a boy who looked like he was fresh out of high school. He wore a clean white button-down and designer jeans with black shoes shined up as nice as can be. His blonde hair was parted in an immaculate split down the center of his head. Tortoise-shell glasses framed piercing blue eyes. The older man had his hands bound by plastic zip ties while the boy was escorted forward without bonds. While their appearances were as different as night and day, Saffron was thankful that at least they were both headed for the holding cells.
Lemon handed off the suspects and returned to his desk. He stopped by Saffron to check in. The older agent was sporting a fresh shiner just below his right eye.
"Jeeze, Lemon! Things get a bit rough out there?"
Lemon only smiled.
"Don't worry, I got him back," he answered, clearly talking about the roughed-up Foundation City man and not the possible minor. "He only got one good slug in before I-" Lemon made a clicking sound with his tongue and mimed a knockout blow. "Guess you good say that Icarus flew too close to Agent Sunshine."
"Why Agent Lemon, was that a joke? There's hope for you yet!"
Saffron was happy to see that the recent collar had lifted Lemon's spirits, but he wasn't so sure about the two men in custody. He'd have to see for himself.
"So who'd you bring in?" Saffron asked. The smile left Lemon's face.
"Some no-name scumbag who was living in the back of a defunct arcade in Foundation City and a kid from a well-connected family who was video-conferencing with his sick grandmother when we busted in and roused him. I don't expect him to sit and stew here long, especially when we've got a Foundie on the hook for Icarus' crimes."
Agent Lemon shot Saffron a knowing look.
"If you want to talk to your Icarus, you'd better do it now."
Saffron checked in at the guard desk before walking down the hall that ran the length of the holding cells. He stopped and looked in at the bum Lemon had dragged in from beneath the Foundation Plate. He was shivering and sweating in one corner of the plexiglass cube. If he'd been able to shake his Pixie addiction for more than a day, Saffron might have believed him to be capable of using a computer, but no...the real Icarus was just next door and he was staring right at Saffron.
"To whom do I owe the pleasure?" the boy asked. His voice was cool and confident, untouchable. It drifted through the circular holes in the plexiglass wall that separated the two young men.
"Oh, I think you know," answered Saffron, equally cool. The boy's eyes widened and his face grew taut as a broad smile crept in.
"Daedalus, in the flesh. I knew we'd meet some day, I just never imagined it would be like this. So this is what you've been up to all this time? I admit, I'm rather disappointed. We had such high hopes for you."
"Is that why you stood on my shoulders, climbed high off the work I'd done, just to play games in the Net? And now you've landed an innocent in jail...for what?"
"Innocent?" scoffed Icarus. "Look at him! He's trash! The streets will be better off without him."
"And the Net will be better off without you, though I don't expect we'll hold you very long," admitted Saffron. "You played your angle perfectly, I have to admit."
The boy smiled even brighter than before, a crazy smile, one borne on the face of a fanatic.
"You have no idea how much it means to me, to us, to hear you say that. And no, I don't expect to be here much longer, but I'm awfully glad we met. I'm so happy it was you who found me out, even if your brutes were the ones who dragged me in." He seemed to drift off into his own thoughts for a moment. "Oh just wait until the others hear. They'll never believe."
"Why 'Icarus'? I don't know you. We've never met."
"Not in person, no. But you showed me - showed us, all of us - the way! You opened the door to so many possibilities! Surely you can see - " But Icarus took in Saffron and his surroundings fully for the first time: the holding cell, the ID badge hanging from Saffron's neck, the guard at the end of the hall.
"No, you've lost the vision, the freedom! Oh, they've put you in a cage...you're in the cage now, Daedalus! You've trapped yourself in a maze of your own construction and only I know the way out!"
Saffron smiled in spite of the boy's lunatic ravings. Back at the guard's desk, two Brown agents in trench coats walked in. The potency of the stench of the Grit increased dramatically. Saffron had never smelled a more welcome aroma. He turned back to Icarus and whispered through the plexiglass.
"You may have figured your way out of here and you may already have plans for what you and your creepy friends will do as soon as you get home, but I know a thing or two about computers myself, you know. The thing about S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. is, some people just get lost in the system. Sometimes it takes days, even weeks to sort it all out."
The Brown agents stopped near Saffron.
"Here for a prisoner transfer. This the perp?"
Saffron stepped back from the cell.
"This is the one. He's all yours, boys."
One of the Browns nodded back to the desk guard who thumbed a release on the cell wall. Icarus, dwarfed by the combined mass of the Brown agents, retreated back into the corner. It was no use, of course, as the Browns hauled him out bodily while the boy kicked and screamed and fussed himself into distress. A sharp blow to the back of the head silenced him as the Browns hauled him off into the fresh Hell of their own holding cells floors below.
Saffron had only seen them once. Instead of the individually separated cubes of pristine plexiglass that Yellow law violators enjoyed, the Brown's holding area was a seething pit of Grit and grime and grease. It was as if the very bowels of Foundation City released their waste square in the center of the Brown department. It was a terrifying place for sure and no place for a teenage boy raised in the sanctuary of Haven. Saffron couldn't help but smile as he pictured the smug little Icarus corralled in the pit by worse terrors than the Minotaur of Knossos.
Maybe it wasn't the way he wanted to see justice done in an ideal world, but this was a new start for Anthony Watson, Jr., formerly known as Daedalus, now known as Agent Saffron. He'd take small victories where they came.