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Prospecting wasn't what it used to be. ESCHER sweeps and volatile breeder pools, honeypots and phishing holes all colluded to make what had been a fun and diverting practice in its own right something fraught with risk and toil. Still, 'jacking was nothing if not a competitive sport, and that's why I kept at it, whenever I had time.

The collection of 'ware that supported my explorations of the fringes of civilized dataspace were not so much built as accreted; added to over the months and years as small emergencies and nagging worries and remembered wishes led to the installation of more and more canned support routines and their requisite tools. I was somewhere inside the shattered, darkened remnants of an old telecom network, poking at the various dead and darkened exits from a routing pool while the flickerjack logged the run and watched my metaphorical back.

metric::5::dst:114.56.32.119:link:DOWN
metric::2::dst:70.158.21.2:link:DOWN
metric::2::dst:72.202.81.24:link:DOWN

The router itself was nothing, crap. Maybe 32 megs of embedded RAM, a miracle it was still running. From the quadspace addressing and the crappy specs, the thing had to predate Downtime. There was nothing worthwhile in the main partition; I'd ripped through it looking for any sort of useful code routines, but there wasn't anything in it I could use. It couldn't understand the basic protocols of the Revenet, and the routing algorithms were primitive to the point of embarrassment. A few weeks before I'd come across a custom-built router somewhere along a TransPac Line that hadn't been running, but had responded to a reset code I'd dug out of archived Web postings from a couple decades back. It hadn't had any live lines into it anymore - I couldn't tell if the facility it was in was even remembered - but there was power, and it had booted at my remote electronic caress. Buried inside it had been some mad unknown genius's version of a cluster balancing algorithm experiment, and try as I might, I hadn't been able to get any of the current commercially accepted versions to get within eight percent of its efficiency.

This is why we dive.

That algorithm was running around a hundred and fifty open routing pools now. It would evolve, again, as hackers tinkered with it; it would live as it balanced traffic across several thousand hardwires in the modern Revenet. A simple life, but life, nonetheless.

It wasn't as good as having children, but there was still a warm glow there.

metric::1:dst:6.15.252.1:link:UNSTABLE
metric::3:dst:43.2.3.1:link:DOWN

...what?

I halted the recurse, hanging in a suddenly-still metaspace. A handful of crosshatched ports hung in the void, showing dead routing links. Directly in front of my eyes, one blinked the amber of an unreliable but responding linkage.

Interesting. Moving forward, into the blinking tunnel. Vertigo as the session transition stuttered with the link's flicker, motion starting and stopping as data flowed and paused through the unknown link somewhere out in the world.

Metric of one. Close. It has to be close.

It was. After a mere twenty seconds or so, enough of my probe caster had transmitted itself through the pipe for the metaspace to stabilize into a representation of the other side of the gap. I looked around, eyes hunting the few scattered icons my 'ware had placed around the floor of the metaspace. Whatever this was, it wasn't a routing pool; there were one or two links out of the space, the gray of 'untested', but they weren't full routes.

The brightly colored dross below me was mostly jagged, indication of broken systems that my probe was identifying not from their responses but from information it had gleaned from other sources. Addresses that were customarily used for routers, names conforming to patterns my 'ware had seen before - all the cracked shapes fit mostly-plausible patterns of a local network and its infrastructure. There a nameserver; there a router, there the ghostly squid shape of a switch, possibly still functioning because beyond it were the unbroken but dim shapes of unverified systems indicating that their addresses didn't drop packets but refused to respond.

Nowhere was anything functional which would tell me where I was. This wasn't unusual. I began to pick over the shapes, looking for anything that would talk to me enough to make an entry attempt worthwhile. One after the other, I fired queries into this dim lost place somewhere out on the broken network. Every fifteen or twenty seconds, the metaspace froze entirely, legacy of the pipe through which I had entered going down intermittently.

I was turning over the icon of what appeared to be a print server when a slight light washed over my view from the right, causing me to spin about in such surprise I think I actually jerked my head out in meatspace. Nothing was there. I dropped the printserver, ignoring its icon as it slowly settled to the surface, waiting.

flicker

A tiny, tiny glimmer from a nondescript oblong - indication that my probe couldn't identify the machine. Small, faint, short, the light tapped me on the retina with just enough photons to register - my 'ware representing a packet so short and meaning-free that it wasn't sure it was even meant for me. It was hard to tell if it was a packet at all; the dimness indicated that there was a measurable chance it was random line noise.

I picked up the box and scanned it. Packets flew down the line, pausing for a fifteen-second break again. I could feel my 'ware throttling my attentions down into quadspace protocols, packetstreams spraying out over the surface of the box, hitting numbered ports. Up the spectrum, down, random patterns. A blinking icon indicated that my probe had managed to hijack enough intelligence from the router on this side of the link to run the port scan locally, speeding up the process and bypassing the fifteen second interrupt. I waited impatiently through the next freeze, and when the view animated again I scrutinized the unknown box.

A single point on it glowed green. A port was open.

Focusing my eyes on the spot produced the characteristic patterning of laser light, but also caused the view to swoop and dive into the green glow, leaving me staring into a green-bordered funnel into blackness. I selected a protocol test library and fired a standard set of queries into the funnel, watching the bright green strings of data pass into the blackness.

There was no response for several seconds.

Interesting.

DNS, UUCP, SMTP, HTTPS, NTP, IPSEC, IKE, SSH, FTP, TACACS, BOOTP, FINGER, IMAP. My routine sent opening negotiation sequences for all of them and more, and nothing came back. No errors, nothing.

I waited after the standard test routine finished. Something had come out of this port.

A few seconds later, another short burst of packets soared up out of the blackness. I reached for them, grabbed them, pulled them into my 'ware, and watched as it ran them through various permutations and encodings before slamming text up onto my field of view in green block letters. The result was not one I expected, and somewhere in my loft in my comfortable chair my neck prickled against the cushion.

Too fast. Too regular. Repeated one hundred twenty-eight times, precisely.

Not human.

help me, please.

* * *

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