[Starfall/REPOST] Metal Fire #7, False Maria 01

Wil Alambre wilalambre at gmail.com
Mon Sep 4 21:07:29 PDT 2006

Starfall Comics presents...


"False Maria 01" by Wil Alambre

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 A solitary figure sat in a darkened room, Oakenfold music blaring from
a set of strategically placed surround sound speakers. Cleverly scented
candles in jars were everywhere, on tables, chairs, and the floor itself,
littered about. Their flames dancing shadows on the walls and their subtle
scents drowning the air. Behind her, an expensive large screen television
swirled with patterns and colors in beat to the techno beat. It all mixed
together in the black to give her surroundings a mosaic of sight, sound,
and smell.

 The figure couldn't help but be taken in by everything, by the experience.
Her eyes closed, her body swaying to the careful tones and repetitions
of the music, she momentarily forgot the scrolling text on the half
dozen computer monitors before her. Information moving at a varied pace.
Web articles, stock numbers, corporate databases, file downloads, internet
searches, user forum posts, and telnet connections, all together forming
their own accompaniment to the bass and treble.

 She forgot her task, and stood, forgetting the terminals and her work
momentarily. She danced to the music, like she used to with friends, at
parties and clubs, sneaking in with fake ids and careful fashion choices
and a sly wink. Her hips remembered and her feet remembered and even
the night remembered.

 In seconds the figure was entranced with the sensations, and it didn't
matter who or what she was. For these few moments, it didn't matter.
She was fifteen and she was happy.

- - -

 Eddy looked up from his meal to see a friendly face waving at him from
the other side of the restaurant. He was a bit surprised to see anyone he
recognized at this time of night. The food here was only mediocre, but
it had the advantage of being open twenty four seven. Considering his
sloppy work hours, it had become one of the few places guaranteed to be
serving food when he was hungry.

 Valentine Sims came on over to his table, a heavy load of engineer books
under one arm and a day or two's worth of missed sleep under her eyes. It
must be exam week at the university again, that would explain her being
up at this time. He checked his watch as she sat down and realized he'd
forgotten to wind it again. Probably for days.

 "Hey Eddy, I figured I might find you here," she greeted him in an
amazingly cheerful voice. She was one of those wunderkind school-aholics
that actually enjoyed the studying and research that came with post
secondary school life. Of course, she'd probably enjoy it more when her
grades started reflecting the amount of effort she was putting into her

 Eddy managed a smile and a murmured reply around a mouthful of gravy and
meatloaf. She gave him a jokingly disgusted face, and put her books on the
seat beside her.

 "Sorry," he added, after swallowing. "I asked how you were doing."

 "Great. I did my Math this afternoon, and I think I aced it. I was just
zimming through the questions." Eddy could only describe her as giddy.
"And get this! I talked to Prof Metts and he said if I managed a 3.0 this
year, he'd give me access to the labs!"

 "You know, after all this, you're probably going to end up designing arms
and other assembly line machines for a car factory somewhere."

 "Party pooper. Leave a girl her dreams." She grabbed a book from her
pile, and slid in between his large orange drink and his paper napkins.
"This is what I want to get into. This is the fun stuff."

 He put down her fork, and chuckled. "I don't even know what that says."

 "Then maybe you shouldn't have dropped out," she teased him. "It says
'Nanotechnology'. Its a theory of using cell-sized robots to do pretty much

 "I thought you wanted to make a moon rover or something."

 "Mars. I wanted to make a Mars rover. But that was last month." She slid
her book back, and flipped through a couple pages. "This... This is new
stuff. This is virgin territory, Eddy. No ones cracked this. I could be
the one." She paused a bit, a dreamy smile on her face. "In a couple years
time, I might be writing my thesis on this stuff."

 Eddy mostly tuned her out. He'd known Val since he still went to
university, and she was one of the few he still kept in touch with. He
wished her the best of luck with her studies, he really did, but he knew he
had a better chance of being voted president then she had of getting her
doctorate. She was a bit... flighty. He noted her study books included the
new David Weber sci-fi hardcover.

 He picked at his food a bit more, yawning quietly. "So what you out for
tonight? My charming company, I hope."

 "Actually, I'm supposed to meet Jenny and Amanda here. We were going to
burn the oil studying for our engineering final tomorrow," she smiled
evilly. "You were just happenstance."

 "Shucks, I'm hurt," he mocked. "Come on, at least have a bite with me.
Gravy's actually pretty good tonight."

 "Can't. Unlike you, I've got loans to pay off eventually."

 "My treat," he egged her, tapping the plain manilla envelope on the table
beside him, unlabelled but for his name neatly written on the front.

 She looked at the envelope confused a moment, then she frowned. Eddy
swallowed his food, and prepared himself for a lecture. He knew the look
that she had. It was the same look his mother used to get just before she
scolded him for drawing chalk outlines on the driveway or something.

 "You did it again," she said. "I can't believe you. You did it again.
You promised."

 "Actually, I said I'd think about it."

 "I thought you were going to stop."

 "It's kinda my job. No one pays me for doing dick all."

 She leaned in forward, an honest concern in her eyes. "It's illegal.
Someone's gonna catch you, and you'll go to jail." She pleaded to him.
She pleaded to him before, but somewhere she knew it wasn't going to do
any good this time around either.

 "It's not like I'm hurting anyone. This kind of thing happens all the
time, all over the place. Don't worry about it."

 She frowned, it was obvious she was going to worry about it. He got
lucky this time around, however, as two other girls with armfuls of
textbooks and papers entered the restaurant, looking around the tables.
Her study mates.

 "This conversation isn't over," she warned him as she gathered up her
books and stood up. She paused a moment, and sighed, rubbing her eyes with
her free hand.

 "Look, I don't want to sound like a complete wart, but could you at
least be careful?"

 "Always," he flashed her his best winning smile, and saluted her with
a piece of baked potato stuck at the end of his fork.

- - -

 From this view, you could see everything.

 He had acquired this office nearly four years ago. The landlord had a
substantial debt he had agreed to let pass on agreement of a negligible
lease of a few floors of one of downtown's more prestigious buildings. Of
course, on paper it looked like he was paying twice what the square footage
was worth. Tax reasons.

 This particular office, however, was his own special place. There were
board rooms for the meetings and offices to meet fellow partners and even
a few soundproof rooms for the more extracurricular activities, but he
had put this corner room aside the moment he saw it. With a view like
that, it was a shame to dirty it with business.

 Two of the four walls were floor to ceiling glass, slightly tinted to
bring out the contrast of the skyline. The other two walls were painted
a tasteful blue that complimented the expensive carpeting. The only piece
of furniture in the spacious office was a black leather couch, carefully
chosen to match the trim of the windows and the color of the door.

 He didn't do this all himself, heavens no. Money had bought the
services of top talent interior designers, men and women who spent years
of their life learning the intricacies of feng shui and interior decoration.
They'd taking his light suggestions, and transformed the office into a
single place he could sit down, look out upon a city, and relax.

 He sat with his legs crossed, his hands casually on one knee. Watching
the sun rise gracefully on the horizon, the reds and oranges bleeding
into the black of night. He carefully woke up and dressed smartly every
morning, and sat in this room, and watched the dawn. Every morning.
He refused to let the moment pass him by, lest he take it for granted.
One day he knew he might not be able to enjoy this little pleasure. Or
at the very least, not in such comfort.

 He blinked slowly a moment, then reached into his Armani's inner pocket,
and opened his cell phone. Rapid dial, he called his secretary and asked her
to send Poe in. Eventually, he'd go to his office, and look over numerous
account books and past reports. Debts and obligations, dirty little
secrets, flowing money and product. Hundreds of people to keep happy.
Hundreds more to keep in line. But right now his mind wasn't on his 'day
job', but on the handsomely bound report that sat on the couch at his side.
He only read these special reports here, in this room.

 Like the dawn. Something not to take for granted.

 There was a polite knock, and a well tailored man quietly entered the room.
He didn't come too far in, mind you, he knew better. But he stood quietly,
his hands behind his back.

 "What do you think of religion, Poe?" he asked his guest more suddenly
then he probably should have.

 "I try not to think of it at all, sir," Poe replied after a few seconds
of consideration. The man smiled, to himself, slowly rising off the couch,
picking up the report. He had hired Poe for many of his talents, mostly his
more clandestine ones. But he had hired Poe because he was careful and he
took time to think. It was amazingly difficult to find men who would take
the bother to think nowadays. Too many were prone to just react.

 He breathed deeply and then strolled to Poe, handing him the report.

 "Tell Gregory to step up the schedules. He's being far more than cautious
these past few days," he took a second to straighten his tie. Appearances
demand respect. He demanded respect. "I want to see more substantial
results by the weekend."

 "Of course, Mr. Hamilton," replied Poe.

- - -

 The next evening found Eddy sprawled on his couch, tapping away at the
arrow keys of his laptop playing a downloaded version of Ms PacMan. He
did his best to manoeuvre the yellow hockey puck graphic around the maze,
collecting the dots while avoiding the colorful ghosts, but at this high a
level, his power ups didn't help much, and those bugger ghosts just moved
way too fast. In moments, the yellow character was caught, spun in it's
death animation, and spit the bolded words 'Game Over' at his screen.

 He frowned, disappointed. He could have made it; he should have went left,
into the tunnel off-screen. Instead, he got greedy, and went for the
bouncing fruit, hoping for enough points to earn a free man. Caught
going for the
cherry again.

 He sighed, typing in his name for the high score. Best to get to work
anyways. Despite his earlier generosity to Val, he wasn't as well off as he
made out. The money in the envelope would only cover food and rent for a
month, maybe a month and a half. It was his own fault for being picky.

 He opened the envelope, and pulled out the list of requests from his
go-between. Same old same old, another list of websites, databases,
computers, mainframes, and B.B.S.'s that someone or other wanted hacked

And, as was getting more and more usual, most he ended up scratching out
with a fat bold red marker.

 At first, it had been a pretty sweet deal. Someone wanted a bit of info
from a protected machine and had been willing to pay for it. A company
directory here, a product schedule there, nothing really spectacular,
nothing that would really hurt anyone. Way he figured it, they could have
just as easily bribed some half depressed cubicle worker at their rival
company to sneak out the information just as easily. If they wanted to
pay his prices to do it instead, so be it.

 But lately, it seemed the type of jobs he was getting were more and more
on the shady side. One was to change tax records. Another was to erase a
bank loan. Someone wanted all their parking tickets to disappear. And there
had been that one last month that turned out to be an attempt to get him
involved in a multi million dollar real estate scam. Sure, what he called
a day job most people called white collar crime, but even he had a line he
refused to cross. Let some other greedy bastard take the job, ruin the lives
of a dozen people and spend the next eight-to-ten behind bars for it.

 After ten minutes, he had narrowed the list of twenty-seven to two. And
neither of them paid more then two hundred apiece. Course, they weren't
worth more then two hundred apiece, either.

 Logging onto his laptop, he opened a telnet window, and connected to a
provided telephone number. Running programs to scan ports and test computer
security, he snuck into the system and quickly found what he was looking
for. Some slob believed his boss was back stabbing him in company reports
and wanted proof. A copy and print-out of saved memos, evaluations, and a
few department employee files later, the guy would have everything he

Eddy covered his tracks, erasing all record of his access from the
appropriate files, and logging off.

 All in all, almost a half hour's work.

 The second one looked to be just as menial. Somebody wanted the usernames
and passwords for a local underground BBS, the kind that only gets listed
in quarterly fanzines the government keeps trying to squelch. Eddy couldn't
help but smile, the job had all the earmarks of a fed case. It happened
once in a while, an FBI or NSA agent would stray from the book and enlist
help. He figured that was one of the reasons he hadn't been hauled in
on anything yet. As long as he kept mostly clean and lent the occasional
helping hand, he was ignored in most sweep ops.

 It took him an hour just to find the number for the BBS. It was one of
the low key ones, no doubt about that. Probably one of those anarchy
conspiracy survivalist's network, plotting on overthrowing the illuminati
by assassinating the president or something. He always got a kick out of
those. Once he connected, he was almost immediately punted out by the

 He connected again, and tried to skirt around it, probing as carefully as
possible. Again, the security programs discovered him, and disconnected
him. This time he discovered the security program had gone so far as to
partially delete his operating system, making his computer crash. What the

 Eddy sat up straight, and grabbed a couple disks. It took him only twenty
minutes to get his system working right again, but by the end of it, he was
grinning like a teenager with his first Playboy. This was no ordinary
security, this was something custom made, and made very well at that. Well,
never let it be said he backed down from a challenge.

 He spent the rest of the evening either attempting to connect to the BBS
or repairing the damage inflicted on his system. At some point he managed
to order some pizza during a lull, but he never ended up touching it. He
didn't have the time, he was too busy coding a program to get around one
defense only to find when he used it, he just got hit by another. It was
incredible, how adaptive the whole thing was, he found himself jotting
down notes with ideas and clues, scribbles about improving his own security.
He'd never seen any computer system so responsive.

 Finally, just before dawn, he managed to get into a directory with the
most recently logged users recorded. Not the list he was looking for, but
with a proper name and password, he could attempt logging in normally. Even
then, as he tried, the system still recognized the connections as his
system, and refused to log him in.

 At the end, he was reduced to hooking up his old desktop model. He left
his laptop to randomly try to connect with a handful of the passwords he
collected, occupying the BBS's security while he used a different username
and password to 'sneak in'.

 *> kimroberts
 *> metalfire

 "About fucking time," Eddy muttered to himself.

- - -

 In a room elsewhere, the techno music had been replaced by the new U2
song being played on the television screens. The figure ignored the half
melted candles, threatening to topple over with the weight of their
deformed wax. She was intent on the screens before her, analyzing the text
and organizing it into directories and folders. Most of it was deleted,
a dead end or a wild goose chase or just plain wrong. The worst part of
conducting research on a subject you don't really understand is that most
of the time you just don't know what to look for.

 The computer monitors flickered suddenly, and she glared at them, willing
them right. She looked at a black and white screen on the floor at her feet
and saw the varied attempts at illegal access. She couldn't help but be
amused at the unknown intruder's persistence, no matter how much she
booted him out, he kept trying. However, she was quickly getting tired of

 With a few keystrokes, she let the user through her firewall long enough
only to send a particularly nasty virus at his system. Within seconds, the
connection hung, and the computer at the other end crashed. So much for
the cowboy. With any luck, she still had time to read the online web
comics before moving on to the data incoming from Western Europe.

 However, as she checked over her connections, she discovered one too many.
One person was on that she couldn't account for. She figured it for a
glitch, a zombie process that failed to deactivate properly, but when
she checked
it, it reported a direct phone connection to another computer. When she
checked the log files, there was no trace of the connection ever being

 She got worried. And the more she looked, the more panicked she got. No
record of time of connection. No restrictions assigned to limit the
use of root commands. This wasn't right. She cancelled every connection
across the board, knowing she'd have some explaining to do the next day. It
didn't help, the phantom user refused to disconnect.

 No. No. No. This wasn't happening. She booted up another system, connected
to the phone company, traced the call. Everything went quiet as the
program chugged, even MTV in the background all but forgotten. Someone had
gotten in. Someone had managed to hack in.

 When the trace came back, she snarl instinctively. Looking at the monitor
below, the computer she had sent a virus at, she realized they were from
the same person. Decoy. The bastard had tricked her.

 Suddenly all the monitors blinked, text replaced with graphics and icons,
a representation of a deeper operating system. She stared at it for a
second or two, uncomprehending. The pictures on the screens seemed terribly
familiar, like they mirrored her own thoughts. Then with a fury, she
screamed, yanking cords out of the walls. Cables, links, power cords,
torn out by hand violently, every one, causing the monitors to flicker
then fade. One by one, the little blinking lights went out.

 She stood quickly, knocking the chair under her back and away as she ran
to the window. She could feel her cheeks, slick and wet with tears she
didn't know she still had. The window was the full length kind, the sort
that slid away, opening out to a small balcony beyond. She reached the
railing, the street a dozen floors away, the early morning traffic dots
sliding on the paved lanes below.

 She looked out across the horizon, as if she would gaze into the heart
of the sky itself, climbed up onto the rail, and leapt off.

- - -

 * PACKET ERROR 204.16&@#/1a^%...

 Eddy stared at the screen, unbelieving. Something had happened. He had
been deep in the system, more careful then he had ever been. Wiping up
after himself, erasing electronic footprints, and placing safeguards
against being discovered and kicked off. Then he went looking for the
root, the heart of the system.

 He was boggled by what he found.

 It was some sort of graphical operating system, amazingly complex,
unlike anything he had ever seen before. He was transfixed by it, the
ever-changing connections and organization represented by icons and
images bleeding into and out of text. He couldn't help but compare it to a
Hollywood special effect and a fevered dream, all rolled into one.

 Then it was gone.

 He looked at the clock to discover the time, but saw the first rays of
the sun filtering through his curtains instead. The sight instantly
enticed a yawn. Maybe it had been a dream, the product of cold pizza and
a day and a half of no sleep. He probably had just gotten tired, maybe
even half fallen asleep at the keyboard, and been discovered by the BBS
operator. He hoped he had covered his ass enough in his dreariness. From
the looks of his laptop off to the side, he might have to scrap the
hard drive completely.

 The phone suddenly rang, startling him out of another close attempt at
sleep. Ouch, this was getting to be too much. He needed some rest. He'd
give it a night or two, and try to log in again, using some of the
passwords. Before he was kicked off, he had managed to leave a back
door for himself, a hole in the security so that he could get in easier.
To his surprise, one already existed, he just had to adjust it to his use.
At least he wouldn't have to risk any more firewalls or viruses.

 He got up, considering just crashing out on the couch. He doubted he
could make it all the way to his bed in his tired state. As he sat down
on the couch, he realized the phone was still ringing. Ah, his adoring
public. One last question, then beddy-bye.

 "Edward Babbage speaking," he said. He hoped his voice sounded a little
less slurred and sleepy to the caller then it did to him.

 "You bastard," said a girl's voice on the other end. "You fucking
bastard. I found you, you can't run away."

 Eddy didn't say anything. Never mind being dead tired, but now he was
being randomly insulted. Telemarketing has no taste.

 There was a dull thud somewhere in the distance, then another. It took him
a long drawn out moment to realize it wasn't some far away thing, but
something against the wall of his apartment. Something was outside. Which,
of course, was impossible, he was on the fourth floor.

 Another thud. Loud pigeons?

 Then the world puked on him, everything blurring. He dully noted the
sound of the explosion, his wall bursting into the room in an almost
cartoon fashion. Brick and mortar littered everywhere, smashing the laptop
and computer. Bookcase toppled, coffee table flipped up into the air and
thrown clear through the drywall into the bathroom.

 Eddy was tossed into the hallway, the phone dragged with him and beaned
him on the head when he landed ass first against a closet door. Dirt
and debris scattered and landed around him, he felt a warm stickiness
at his forehead letting his fading senses guess he was bleeding. Probably
from a couple places.

 One eye wouldn't open, no matter what he tried, and he was quickly
losing any inclination to keep the other one open either. Pain and one
doozy of a headache blurred together with lack of sleep to slip him quickly
toward blissful unconsciousness.

 Just as he went, he wondered if he was dying. The morning sun blinded him
from the impressively sized hole were his wall used to be, and a silhouette
walked toward him with a silvery grace.

 It was a girl, as bright as silver and she made a musical whir when she
moved. An angel. Game over.

 "Bastard," she said, almost sobbing. "You can't hide."

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 This issue, and the sotryline it begins, was originally posted in July 2001.
A lot of things have happened since then. I'm still in the web development
industry, but under a different employer. I had a girlfriend for four years, and
we broke up last August. Friends have moved away to other parts of the
country. I moved to a new apartment. Etc, etc.

 Anyway, somewhere along the line, I replaunched the latest version of
my website, and reposted the content. While doing so, I found the beginnings
of this storyline, and I wondered "Why didn't I finish this, it's not too bad
considering it's me writing it". So I finally got around to doing it, and I
thought "Oh yeah, I remember, I stopped cause I'm lazy" :)

 Nonetheless, I've managed to (finally) finish this storyline. False Maria is
four issues long. I'll repost the first two parts this week, then post the
last two parts next week. That'll give me enough time for my friend to read
it over and fix my horrible spelling and grammar :)

 Wil Alambre

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