Upgrades

Sy wiped the sweat off her brow while her code compiled and grinned. When she got into the programming zone, it was a wonderful feeling. It felt like her entire body became warm and tingling, starting at her core and spreading into all her extremities while she relentlessly parsed algorithms that formed in her head into working code, her fingers racing and her heartbeat rising. When her skills perfectly matched the challenges the grid would throw at her, that's where she thrived, both physically and mentally glowing with energy that pulsed through her along every ragged breath, her eyes closed and functions flowing from her fingers into her vision and that inner heat filling her entirely. No wonder she preferred to work unclothed.
Sirius’ outburst had shocked her, but perhaps not exactly why he thought it had. He seemed to think Heimdall worked unshielded, pulling data with open visor and a neon sign. That was an underestimation on his part, but it had shocked Sy because she realized her existing defenses had not been enough. Not for a direct attack on a megacorp anyway. But this… this would be.

The update compiled without errors on the third try. Her eyes gleamed. Before, her security was a mere combination of signal bounces between random shifting nodes with firewall encryptions, but any entity powerful enough to snapshot the data streams would be able to follow it back to her. What she needed was to hide in the masses.
She fired up Heimdall and begun plucking at some of her local test data, just to dip her toes. Her cloaking protocol immediately wrapped the signal and distributed it. Across the city, close to a million coffee machines of a popular brand began running a subroutine that was almost impossible to notice if you were not looking for it. The data that was to be pulled was shattered into hundreds of thousands of shards according to an algorithm of Sy’s own devising, each shard pulled by a different coffee machine, exchanged, compiled and passed to thousands of people. A few of these people received an ad of the coffee brand, one they had seen thousands of times before and barely registered. Most of them were filtered out by a PaWare, deleted as ever so much spam. But Heimdall received the data, removed the wrapper, decrypted the data and showed her the cat picture she had pulled. All this happened in the space of a few dozen milliseconds, the delay noticeable but unintrusive. She squealed in delight and dismissed the image, feeling like the secrets flowing through the grid were now open to her. Ripe for the picking.

Sy checked the setting she had created for the protocol. Adjustable from faster to safer, and currently moved all the way to the ‘safe’ side of the scale. She checked the beams coming from above again, the ones she had seen at Sirius’ place that morning, and pulled the data. Apparently there was a ship functioning as a black market in Spikes orbiting the planet, communicating to a central point in the city. The shifting and morphing connections in the grid were merely an encryption method similar to her old bouncing node sequences. “How quaint,” she said in a mock accent. She trained Heimdall on the Sevo building, but of course, with the private network physically disconnected from the grid, there was nothing she could access from the outside.

Instead, she took a virtual flight to the Spire. It was a peculiar sight. Whereas normal people merely showed up as a node with a Grid ID, Neos were so entwined with the grid they looked like walking nerve systems. She could only see a few of them, the ones walking outside the shielded sections, most walking side by side with a node she assumed to be their Alphas. Now and then threads appeared between two of the Neos, connecting them brain to brain. Spurred on by the success of her endeavour so far and overwhelming curiosity, Sy touched a thread the moment it sprang to life. It was a conversation between two women.

“What does that even mean, why would it even say that, save us from what?” one of them asked.
“His head was badly wounded, right? Maybe it was just nonsense.” The response sounded patronizing. Sy leaned in, though the physical movement made no difference at all.
“Pretty detailed nonsense. Then it said it’d free me from my jailer, and the fucker went after Romeo.”
“You’re picking up words from the Alphas again, Piper? I thought we were supposed to help curb that from them, not vice versa.”
“Seriously? That’s your take away Dove? He went after my Alpha.”
She sounded angrier now. The figure’s many crawling lines pulsed with energy.
“And your Alpha put him down,” the other cajoled. ”Look, you’re letting what some glitched Neo said get under your skin, that’s my take away. He was glitched, end of story. He’s neutralized. Come on, Piper, put it out of your head. They have flavor ice in the commissary, we’ll pick a couple up.”
“I’ll pass, all they have is vanilla, and that’s like a base to which other flavors should be added. For some weird reason, though, I really feel like having coffee.”

Sy recoiled at the last word. Was she picking up at her prodding army of coffee machines? The signals that picked off the data were tiny, some just a handful of bytes. Could they detect even something that subtle?
“Stop it," she told herself, disabling the display. “Girl jus’ felt like coffee.” But she was lost in thought for a while longer. It sounded like they had just killed someone. A glitched Neo, the patronizing one had called it. A face swam in the back of her memory, a mask with red eyes. Was that from a dream?... Had it been a dream?

Finally, she turned off Heimdall, feeling troubled but resolute. It was getting late and she should have contacted Sirius already. She snatched the burner phone off her nightstand and dialed his number. “Hey, I’m done. Yeah, secure 'nough fo’ the corps. I’ll explain the deets later, aight? Aight. So meet where? Uhuh? Uhuh. Aight. I can be there at 8:30 tomorrow mornin'. Aight, take care.” She hung up the phone and sniffed herself. The sweat hadn't had time to sour yet, but there was a tangy smell coming off her all the same. At least she didn't need to undress for the shower.

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