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Roberts Space Industries ®






February 12th 2020

The Meltdown

The Meltdown

Writer’s Note: The Meltdown was published originally as a Subscriber Exclusive on February 14, 2018.

“To Marid! Welcome to the team,” declared Tami, raising her glass high. The rest of the crowded table followed suit, “Marid!”

Marid froze for a moment, uncomfortable as the full attention of all his new coworkers homed in on him. Thankfully, the social lubricant he had been plying all night was working its magic and he was able to force out a smile. “To me!”

With a loud cheer, everyone drank to the toast. Tami, taking her role as team leader seriously, drained her cocktail completely. With a flourish, she slammed the empty glass on the table and proudly stuck out her glowing, neon tongue — a side effect from the bar’s drink special, the Wallbanger. The more you drank, the brighter your tongue. Tami had light practically shooting out of her ears by this point.

Looking down at his own dwindling drink, Marid wondered the status of his tongue. They were already four rounds deep and he was well on his way from pleasantly tipsy to full-on pissed. It was hard to believe the bacchanalian revel that surrounded him was the same group who had been hotly debating how to tackle a system’s hierarchy issue at that morning’s stand-up meeting. He had only been in New Babbage less than 48 hours, but it seemed that the warnings he had heard about the place were one hundred percent well deserved. This city liked to party.

On face value alone, he probably should have taken one of the other job offers he’d received. Saga Datasystems had offered him way more money and a ridiculous starting package loaded with perks. The use of the company’s 300i had almost swayed him. And while Fiskers wasn’t going to pay him as much as Saga, if he had taken their offer he would‘ve been basically running his own team. They were kicking off a major new project and had been looking for someone with his specific background to spearhead storage infrastructure.

But then there was what microTech had offered — the chance to work on the single largest information tangle ever created. With an adoption rate of close to 56% of the Human population, more data sailed through the mobiGlas networks in a single day than all transfers of the previous century combined. Basically, his dream job. And so here he was, a brand new microTech data engineer getting drunk for the third time in his life.

The woman sitting next to Marid slapped his shoulder and asked what he wanted to drink next. That afternoon, she had walked him through the custom developer’s GUI that he’d be using to code and shown off the Rory Nova figurine collection that crowded her desk. He couldn’t remember her name. Connie? Katherine? His head was swimming and he suddenly felt too warm. He needed some air. “You know what, next round’s on me,” said Marid, standing up from the table. There were protests, but he silenced them with, “Hey, you said I was part of the team, right?” With that sorted, they quickly shouted their orders at him which he tried his best to memorize.

Before heading to the bar, he walked away from the crowds towards the window that looked out at the frozen wasteland of microTech, the planet. Touching his hand against the cool surface, he felt better almost immediately. Outside, bright lights shone from the city into the snowstorm, creating a dazzling effect against the black night sky. It was a unique experience to have a dense, sweating mass of Humanity on one side of him and the pure isolation of the tundra on the other. It reminded him of working on a project; his mind completely focused on the numbers and code, but part of him still aware of the chaos swirling around him. Apparently, I get poetical when I get drunk, he thought, and laughed. He took a deep breath and staggered back into the crowd.

The bartender greeted Marid with a thousand-credit smile, “You’re new to Wally’s Bar, aren’t you? I’d remember a face as lovely as yours.” Marid flushed, caught off guard by the compliment. Before he could respond, the bartender continued, “I’m buying you a drink to celebrate. What should I make you? I see you tried the Wallbanger already,” he said pointing to Marid’s mouth. “Actually, you know what? I’ve been working on a real special drink.” He leaned across the bar. “If you’re interested, I can hook you up …”

“Easy, Eddie. This one isn’t for you,” directed a voice close by. Marid looked over to see a shock of bright purple hair paired with equally purple eyes as a newcomer took the spot next to him at the bar. The bartender’s demeanor instantly changed. He straightened up and shrugged, “Of course. No worries. I was just messing around.” He walked quickly away to help another customer.

It took a second for Marid’s slowed thoughts to catch up. “Wait! I need to get drinks for my friends.” But the bartender was already out of earshot.

“Looks to me like they’re taken care of.” The stranger pointed over Marid’s shoulder where his coworkers eagerly poured each other shots from a bottle of Soles.

“Huh, guess someone else must’ve ordered.”

“Yeah, part of the magic of Wally’s. Alcohol just sort of happens. I’m Mac, by the way.”


“Let me guess, if you’re hanging with that crowd, you must work for microTech.”

“Yeah, today was my first day, actually.”

A big smile spread across the stranger’s face. “What! Congrats! That’s so exciting.”

Marid found himself smiling back. He had been so nervous about impressing his coworkers and making a good first impression that it hadn’t really sunk in until Mac had pointed it out, it was really exciting.

“Marid, I would love to get you a drink to celebrate your new job. Of course, if you say yes there’s no obligation to stay and chat with me.” Mac smiled again. “Though, I’d be pretty happy if you did.”

Marid glanced back at his coworkers. Tami was standing at the head of the table with a sim-helmet on, doing what looked like a front stroke as the rest of the group cheered. Just the thought of wading back into the party was exhausting. Really, he should just go to his flat and get some rest before work tomorrow. Another customer pushed to the bar next to him, causing Marid to slide closer to Mac. A warmth spread through him from where their arms touched. Or he could stay and have one more drink.

“Yeah, I’d love a drink.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Quicker than he thought possible, two drinks appeared in front of them. Mac raised a glass. “To your new job.”

Marid never knew he could hate anything as much as he hated the sound of birds chirpings at that very moment. He slowly peeled his eyes open, squinting in the sunlight. As the room came into focus, a whole flock of birds flitted above his bed, singing happily. “Alarm, snooze.”

“Unable to comply. Snooze limit reached,” the hab controls responded cheerfully.

Crap. Marid rolled out of his bed, and stumbled to the alarm off button. As soon as he pressed it, the bird projection mercifully switched off and the lighting dropped to a normal level. Even with the noise gone, his head still ached. In fact, his whole body was aching. Plus, his mouth tasted like a cotton ball soaked in sewer water. Right, this is why I don’t drink. He glanced at the clock and grimaced. So much for making a good impression on his second day at work.

After a long internal debate about whether to get back into bed or not, followed by a quick shower, Marid dug out his sunglasses from an unpacked moving crate and headed to the cafe a few blocks from his hab.

It seemed he wasn’t the only one having a rough morning. The place was packed with bleary eyed people. While he waited in the long line to get an extra large stim-laced coffee, he popped open his mobi. He couldn’t remember coming home last night and was curious to see what his stats were.

For the last couple years, he had gotten in the habit of tracking a bunch of different personal metrics. Some of them the mobi OS tracked by default, like distance traveled and heart rate, but others he had coded himself: pupil dilation, ambient noise levels, how many times he checked his mobi, etc. He scrolled through the night, seeing the numbers fluctuate as his body reacted to various stimuli. That’s odd. According to the data, for an hour last night he had done the exact same thing he had done the previous hour. No discernable change whatsoever.

That shouldn’t be possible.

Even standing still produced quantifiable changes in the data. Something must have gone wrong. He accessed the dev controls and started looking for what could have caused the error. After ensuring that the sensors were all functioning normally, he started to acknowledge the worst of all possibilities.

“Sir? Your order?”

Marid realized that he had been blocking the front of the line. “Sorry.” He stepped out of the way without getting a coffee. The fog from earlier that morning had been cleared by the sinking realization that he had been hacked.

It was cleverly done. No denying that. Even a casual user might notice if there was time missing or erased, but by looping the data from the previous hour the loss blended in almost perfectly. If it wasn’t for Marid’s obsession with data he might not have noticed himself. He dove deeper into his system and opened up an image of the mobi’s memory substrate. Luckily, his guess had been right. Whatever malicious program had been used, it worked by actively overwriting data, not by changing the underlying data itself. He was able to see what memory units had been accessed during the missing hour. Marid knew instantly what the hacker had been after.

His employee key code.

It was a unique identifier that gave him access to the microTech offices and more specifically to his dev processor. Worried about corporate espionage (and apparently rightly so) microTech had set up its development environments in isolated cells. Employees could only access their own sectors unless given active approval by security. So, if someone wanted to access the data engineering teams files, they would need one of those specific key codes.

Not only that, but key codes were hard encoded into the specific person’s mobi. Yesterday, he had sat in the security office having it physically transferred to his unit through a connector cable. For someone to steal one, they had to physically access the mobi.

The drinks. The flirting. The casual enquiries into Madrid’s new job. Mac’s interest in him suddenly made a lot more sense.

His first instinct had been to run back to Wally’s Bar and try to track down Mac, but the logical part of his brain that was still functioning beneath his panic and anger pointed out that the bar wouldn’t be open for another five hours. Hell, Mac probably didn’t even have purple hair and eyes any more. The hacker had most likely chosen the loud coloring as a distraction more than a fashion choice.

No, the right thing to do would be to go report the breach to microTech security.

He corrected his route and headed towards the gleaming headquarters building, the sweeping lines of its unique design rising to meet the curved dome overhead in an impressive display of modern architecture. Hard to believe that when he had woken up his biggest worry was being being late for work. Instead, he was about to cop to being responsible for a major security breach. He would go straight to Tami and let her know everything and then they could initiate a quarantine to close down any vulnerabilities. With the amount of access Marid had on his system, it would be a massive operation. Plus, they would most likely have to go public since direct consumer data was involved. Even with the encryption protocols in place, the raw information stored on microTech’s servers contained billions of transactions and comms that could be used for nefarious credit-making purposes. People used their mobiGlas for almost everything. It would be a publicity nightmare.

“Hello and welcome to microTech, where we work to make each day better,” the perky holographic microTech representative chirped as he entered.

Not Marid. Not after he tells what happened.

Marid had reached the sprawling high tech showroom just outside the main offices. Here, microTech had their latest and greatest offerings on display; from high end mobiGlas models to massive top-of-the-line full immersion simpods.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” As he walked along, the representative floated alongside, ready to assist if he needed anything. Only cutting-edge sales technology for microTech.

It was painful to think about leaving all of this behind. Forget about the fact that getting fired a week into his new job would probably tarnish his reputation enough that other companies wouldn’t want to touch him, it hurt more to know that he would never get to start on all the grand projects he had been planning.

“We have a new line of holo-projectors that you just have to see to believe.”

Marid was about to dismiss the annoyingly chipper representative when a thought occurred to him — he didn’t have any concrete evidence that microTech had been breached yet. All he would do by saying something now was cause a panic. He quickly convinced himself that the prudent thing to do would be to check the system first and see if there was an actual cause for alarm. No point in calling out “fire” if there weren’t any flames, right?

After hours of searching he finally found a discrepancy, but only because he knew there was something to look for. Just like the intrusion on his mobi, this was extremely well done. Mac was turning out to be quite the hacker. There was some satisfaction in knowing that at least he had been conned by someone with considerable skill.

His system had been infected with a classic lawn mower virus, just trimming a little off the top at a time. All together, the data it skimmed looked like nonsense, but there would be a companion program on the other end that could recompile everything into its original form. This version was particularly well done because rather than running in a straight, more traceable line, it jumped around randomly through the data structure. Impressive. And helpful to Marid.

This adjustment meant the virus worked at a much slower rate than typical. Plus, it was hiding its data transmissions by burying miniscule packets inside the normal traffic so that no one would notice the slight bandwidth change. This was a virus designed to work for months, if not years, gathering up everything it could. If he cut it off now, barely any data at all would have been collected from microTech’s servers. Marid began to program a fence that he could use to quarantine the virus.

However, just before he could implement it, there was a knock on his workpod. Marid looked up to see Tami standing at the entrance, sipping from a thermos that read ‘Data Engineers Have The Same Amount of Fun, More Efficiently.’ Smiling he said “Morning, Tami,” as his fingers surreptitiously pressed the hotkeys to minimize the files on his screen.

“Hey, Marid. Just wanted to say that I saw this morning’s logs.”

Marid’s entire body tensed. He would have blurted out everything right then and there if he hadn’t been momentarily paralyzed by fear.

“Can’t believe you came into the office that early this morning. Especially not after the night we had. Happy to know you can hold your own next time we hit the town.”

Marid breathed a sigh of relief. If he didn’t get fired today, he appreciated the irony that Mac using his key code to access the building early this morning might actually win him a few points with his boss. Though, it was strange knowing the hacker had been sitting in this seat just a few hour earlier. “You know what they say, work hard, play hard.”

Tami nodded. “That is pretty much the unofficial motto of microTech. If you have a free minute, I was hoping to walk you through the restructuring effort that I was hoping you’d tackle this week.”

Her doing anything at his workstation was about the last thing he wanted right now. He scrambled for an excuse. “Any way we could do that tomorrow? I would love one more day to really settle in before diving full on into a project.”

“All right, but I fully expect you to be ready to jump into the deep end tomorrow. Also, I really want to go swimming now. Have you been to the Club Olympus? They have an outdoor deck with hot tubs. The cold mixing with the hot. So great. You have to try it.”

“Sounds incredible. For sure, let me know next time you’re going,” said Marid with as much ‘get out of my workpod’ in his voice as he could politely muster.

With Tami gone, he quickly reopened the quarantine protocol and rechecked his work one last time before implementing. Everything looked good. As soon as he enabled it, the virus would be completely cut off and then … And then what?

Would he then tell security what had happened? He would be in more trouble if they found out he waited. Plus, Mac would know that something had happened once the flow of data was interrupted. Who knew what the hacker’s next move would be after that. Marid could send falsified data packets out, but that would only prolong the inevitable. The way he saw it, he had three viable choices.

One, he could go back to his original plan and tell microTech what was happening.

Two, he could find where the data was being sent and attempt to eradicate the security breach at the source.

Three, he could just pretend like he never knew and let the lawn mower keep running.

There was a very strong chance that the first option would result in him being terminated. The second option was considerably more dangerous since there was no telling who or what he might run into, but the chances of him keeping his job were much higher. He would almost certainly keep his job if he went for the third option, at least for a while longer, but now that the Pandora’s box was open, he wasn’t the type of person that could just let the data he was entrusted with continue to be stolen.

Closing the quarantine, Marid opened up a new window to begin tracing where the data packets were being sent.

When his transport shuttle had flown across the tundra two days prior, it had not prepared Marid in any way for how cold it would actually be, standing outside New Babbage’s protective dome. Even though his suit was rated for extreme temperatures, as he stepped from the protective interior of the small ice skiff he had rented the biting cold cut straight to his core. The wind made it even worse. If it wasn’t for the tiny pitons along the sole of his boots gripping the packed snow, he would have been blown away.

It had taken him all afternoon to find the source. Mac had covered the data’s tracks well, bouncing the packets between dozens of spec-hubs. He had almost lost the path when the data was routed through a sim-arcade, but he was able to pick up the trail as the data was piped through a private comm relay transmitting away from the dome. For the last leg of the journey, Marid had to use a narrow-field scanner to physically follow the signal. Making it even more difficult was the fact that the broadcast bursts were few and far between. He would pick up the signal only for a few milliseconds before it would disappear again. In the end, the signal had brought him to this remote stretch of icy nothing.

The snow whipped around him, clogging his mask and making it difficult to see farther than a meter or two. He had briefly made the mistake of using a flashlight, but the snow reflected the light, blinding him. Sweeping the scanner back and forth, Marid homed in on the signal. Standing out here, he understood why the skiff rental company had issued so many warnings and made him sign several releases before leaving the dome. Part of their caution probably had to do with most of their rentals being to weekend warriors looking to do some extreme iceboarding, but there was no denying that microTech was a very inhospitable environment. From where he stood, the near featureless horizon looked the same on all sides. If the skiff lost power for any reason, he would be hopelessly stuck out here.

Suddenly, the scanner jumped from his grip and his hand throbbed from an unseen impact. Groping about, he realized that there was a white comm dish directly in front of him that had blended almost seamlessly with the tundra. Even now, knowing where it was, it was still hard to make out. He bent and found the base of the dish. There, buried under the snow, a thick bundle of cables led away. He followed it best he could, but scraping the snow away with his gloved hands quickly proved painful as the cold ate through his protective layers.

He was almost forced to give up when his hands started to go numb, but he thankfully found where the trunkline terminated just as the feeling totally left his fingers. Hidden by a thin layer of fresh snowfall laid a metal hatch. Marid swept the area clean but couldn’t find an access terminal anywhere. Was it some sort of remote wireless lock? He adjusted the scanner to try to detect a local small wave transmission but found nothing. Desperate, he tried pulling on the hatch. It opened easily, sending Marid flying backwards into the snow. Embarrassed even though there was no one to witness his folly, he brushed himself off and proceeded to climb down the ladder.

Below was a small bunker densely packed with a server array. The heat coming off the racks was intense, but a piping system that ran throughout the bunker used the frigid external temperature as a heatsink for the units. This natural cooling was part of the reason microTech had chosen to purchase this world in the first place. They saved billions in credits every year thanks to the planet’s freezing climate.

Marid headed to the access terminal. Sure enough, he found the compiler program that was the mate to the virus on his system. The data arrived here and was slowly put together. Though there was a massive amount of information in storage here, most of it was still fragmented. The small amount that became viable was transferred off the main server onto a portable drive for collection and analysis. Looking through the records, Marid realized that he was not the first of Mac’s victims. The server was collecting data from most of New Babbage’s biggest tech firms, including at least three separate sources inside microTech itself.

There were schematics from a company developing an improved EVA stabilizer that used a third of the normal fuel. There was internal documentation from Pi-Plum Software discussing their new proprietary compression algorithm. There were even vids showing early levels from an unannounced Star Marine 3. And that was only what had been compiled so far. Who knew what else was lurking in the fragments? He had stumbled onto a treasure trove of stolen information.

Methodically, he went around the bunker and deactivated the cooling system’s emergency redundancies. With each one he turned off, the temperature in the room rose higher. Alarms began to sound, but when the automatic systems tried to prevent disaster by flooding the room with ice water, it was already too late. Marid’s suit sounded a warning of its own; the temperature was reaching a dangerous level. Taking the portable drive with him, he climbed the ladder and closed the hatch once more, finishing the transformation of the bunker into an oven.

Over the next half hour, Marid watched from the skiff as the ice cracked and hot steam vented from below the surface. By now, any piece of tech that had been inside the server room had been turned to slag. The data from microTech was safe.

Of course, once his sabotage was discovered, Mac was going to be angry and desperate. But Marid was counting on that. With microTech’s key codes changed over every month, the hacker only had a limited time to re-access his system and direct the virus to a new output relay before being completely locked out. All Marid had to do was ensure that his trap was ready before then. A simple trace file. He didn’t expect it to take very long to program at all.

He started up the skiff and piloted across the ice back towards New Babbage. He was planning on getting a good night’s sleep before his meeting with Tami in the morning. But then again, he thought, glancing at the drive sitting on the seat next to him, maybe just a little light reading before bed.


End Transmission



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