Chapter 12
Webcrawler

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 01 May 121
Time: UST 0809

The bridge of the Ticonderoga consisted of two levels. All the critical stations were up top. Below, in the 'orchestra pit' as it was known, were all the terminals devoted to the subordinate units in the battle group, down to the squadron level for aviation and the company level for the Army and Marine detachments. There was redundancy, of course, should the enemy land a successful hit on the bridge, other locations distributed throughout the ship, ready to stand up when needed. After all, the government rarely approved anything without at least two levels of backup. Some complained about the inefficiency and the cost of implementing this policy, but no one thought of the money and lives saved by eliminating single points of failure.
The mandatory redundancy policy had other benefits as well. A particular individual in the orchestra pit knew this all too well. Lieutenant Jefferson Wallace, the communications officer for the 421st Fighter Squadron, was an expert on manipulating the auxiliary systems to his advantage.
A computer whiz, commo wasn't his true calling, but the government wasn't about to entrust him with something as critical as network security. Indeed, they were intent on restricting his computer use as much as possible, regardless of how much it wasted his talents.
Jeff was a rather notorious cybercriminal. A few years back, he let himself get carried away. He dug too deeply, too greedily, and didn't practice nearly enough caution in doing so. Admittedly, even at his sloppiest, it took a whole team of the Union's best hunters to track him down.
In a way, it was fortunate that the war had made times so desperate. Short-handed in the war effort, the government offered him two choices: join the service or spend the rest of his natural life in jail. Jeff didn't see much difference between the two, but at least there was a paycheck that came with the former. Because of his education, he was even able to get a commission and avoid the livestock lot of the enlisted man. It wasn't the best possible outcome, but there were many worse fates out there. In truth, they were only able to connect him to a small fraction of his activities when they caught him. If they knew the true breadth and scope of what he had done, they probably would have shot him on the spot.
No doubt the government had a mind to put his true potential to use when the situation called for it, but for now, they kept him in a supposedly safe position where he could be easily monitored. So they thought. All he needed was a network connection. Even indirect access was enough. Playing the auxiliary systems against each other, he had a free hand to wander beyond the confines of the ship without fear of detection.
All signals can be traced back to their source, naturally, but his capture had prompted Jeff to craft increasingly elaborate defenses. Between the electronic economy and the vast automation of society, a person with Jeff's skills had little want for resources. In nearly a hundred locations throughout the Union, he had requisitioned little apartments with nothing but a computer plugged into the network. The various landlords and utility companies always received their payments promptly, so no one paid much thought to their ascetic tenants.
These dummy terminals formed a virtually impenetrable web. If there was ever a serious threat of pursuit, he could always cut off access at one of the terminals, leading them to believe that was his location. The terminals were programmed to format and overwrite their hard drives if the connection is ever severed, so there would be little chance of them finding out its true purpose. They would be stuck with nothing but the fake application given to the landlord and the fake account at the bank paying the bills, the latter of which would already be flushed and closed out.
Law enforcement and businesses were constantly working to make their countermeasures more and more perfect. Reformed cybercriminals regularly turned their skills to work against their old trade. Still, there were always limits, always loopholes and weak links. Jeff made a point to exploit those limits in every way possible.
So, while the government had caught him once, he vowed that it would never happen again. The material he had approached back then was too hot, which was the main reason the hammer was dropped on him. He had to stay away from that particular thing for a while longer. Once his defenses were built up further, he could take another stab at it, but not now, not yet.
Technically, he was supposed to be overseeing the chatter among the 421st ships out on Ready Eagle, but that task required only a very small part of his brain. With that fraction of his attention, he was able to attend to his duties on the same level as a normal person while the rest of his brainpower was fixed on other things.
He wasn't feeling particularly ambitious at the moment, just coasting along in the vastness of the Interverse. He had made a pet project of following a covert operation launched from the Tico. Observing how the spooks operate made for good study. He picked up on it shortly after he came aboard. He was actually looking for any special instructions given to his superiors about himself. After all, he would have to be all the more cautious if they were prompted to keep an especially close eye on him. Apparently the powers that be thought that the information on file was enough, but Jeff wound up finding something else of interest, a secure letter to General Pfeiffer telling her to cooperate with a Commander Joachim. It took a little work, but Jeff soon found out about the whole plot to ensnare the pirate group known as the Seven Deadly Sins.
It was a real piece of work, assembling a crew from various commands, crafting official cover stories and two layers of fake histories for each and every one of them. The only truly suspicious point was having three squadron leaders go off on TDY right before a big exercise, but Commander Joachim had strongly insisted on requisitioning a Commander Han from the VF-313 and Major Harold from Jeff's own squadron for the operation.
Admittedly, as the weeks went on, Jeff's interest began to fade a bit, but then they hit paydirt. He learned about the arranged meeting with the Seven Deadlies at Villareyes almost as soon as Commander Joachim received word from his contact, a local go-between called Gofer. Once the Kanai came in contact with the Seven Deadlies' ships, he was able to follow their transmissions back home.
Things became all the more interesting when the pirates' base ran a DNA check on Commander Han, comparing it to an MIA called Janet Reid. It turned out they were blood kin. They crosschecked again, first comparing it to Reid's biological father. No-go. Then her biological mother. Bingo. Commander Leia Han, KIA 114. They then connected the late Commander Han to the current one, but there was a catch to it. Before she left the Ticonderoga, Lydia Han was erased from existence. Everywhere her name showed up was scrubbed. According to the new records, Leia Han was an only child. And yet the file came up anyway.
Jeff did some digging. Whoever was doing the bulk of the Seven Deadlies' computer work was good, but not good enough to unearth the original files. Someone had put the younger Commander Han's file within the pirates' reach, deliberately sabotaging the mission. For all his skill, even Jeff couldn't track the person or persons responsible.
He began to follow the operation with greater interest. Powerful forces were conspiring against them and Jeff wanted to find out who it was. Perhaps it was a sign of a deficiency in his humanity, but he didn't care so much about the undercover team or what might happen to them. He had found a uniquely elusive quarry and it looked like he would have the occasion to exercise a fuller measure of his ability.
Yesterday was the big day the team hijacked the Sharmra arms shipment. Jeff needed the cover of his official duties when he went out and about, so he had to leave them while they were en route to their rendezvous with the Seven Deadlies. As the systems on Villareyes were in miserable condition and their recordkeeping similarly pathetic, it was difficult to keep track of how it went down. Whatever monitoring capacity the starport had was blacked out during the heist. Jeff still managed to get a bead on the freighter and was mildly surprised to find it synched up with the Kanai's signal. So they took the whole thing. That was one way to do it.
It took a while to make up for lost time. He managed to track the Kanai to Yufang, but it was long since gone, heading out beyond the borders of the planetary sphere. While they were in transit, there wouldn't likely be much going on, so Jeff opted to retrace their steps back at Yufang. The Kanai, the freighter and the pirates that came with them all docked in separate bays with only a token time lapse among them.
They would just be transferring the cargo to different ships to make them harder to bust. The freighter would probably get sent to a chop shop or be added to the pirates' fleet after some major reworking. None of this was terribly interesting and Jeff was about to relegate the project to the back burner when noticed a priority signal from starport security to the Federal Police Department on Titan. There was a disturbance resulting in multiple casualties, among them a dead security officer. At first, Jeff was going to ignore it, but something told him to look into it further.
Two of the suspects were detained while two others, including the shooter responsible for the casualties, escaped. The suspects currently in custody: Anna Cheong, alias Fa Ling, and Martin Ramus, alias George Sanders. Jeff didn't need to see the mug shots to know that Commander Han and Major Harold had been captured. He pulled up the security vids. The report to the Feds was complete enough that he didn't need to go hunting to find exactly what he was after.
Commander Han and Major Harold were traveling together when they were confronted by two people. It was hard to make out the details, though. The security cams were among the cheapest on the market with inexcusably poor video quality and no audio. Jeff could work some magic on it later, but for now, he watched the scene play out. It was none too pretty to say the least.
The way it all happened, Commander Han flying off the handle like she did, had a funny feel to it, so Jeff brought up her biometrics. It took a little more work than usual because her data was kept off the official nets. Now, Jeff was no doctor and had no deep knowledge of medicine, but he knew those numbers didn't look right. He played around with general statistical data to get an idea of just how off it was. He then compiled Commander Han's historical data into a graph. It wasn't the only such peak in her record. There were plenty more, but none before 114. Same year as her sister's death. Coincidence?
He had stumbled on a new and interesting puzzle. He would enjoy solving it, but first there was something he needed to do. It was true that he didn't really care what happened to Commander Han or Major Harold, but there was little to be gained by having them rot in jail. Who knew when or if their handlers would see fit to extract them? If nothing else, he might be able to use it as leverage against them one day. He didn't tend to bother with other people, but perhaps that was part of the reason he got caught before. He would do well to make use of the people around him, especially Major Harold, as Jeff was attached to his squadron. If he could have the Major covering for him, he would have less to worry about from the higher-ups. Surely it would be worth the effort.
Jeff was tempted to issue the order himself, but that was too risky when there were other options available to him. With a little work, he IDed a military plant in the Titan FPD and saw that the report made it to his console. Although the plant dutifully erased all messages to and from his handlers at the Ministry of Defense, he made the critical error of failing to clean the file cache. The network admins didn't regularly flush the systems, so Jeff easily browsed the plant's message history and found the notice to alert them immediately if certain names showed up. Those certain names were the aliases of Commander Joachim's crew. The emphasis in the message made it a safe bet he would respond promptly.
The plant arrived at work just then and sure enough, he forwarded the message as soon as he read it. Excellent. That took care of that. The rest was up to the handlers. If they dawdled too long, he might tweak the situation a bit more, but for now, he would let other actors do the playing.
Satisfied with his work, Jeff leaned back in his chair to relax a bit. It had been a busy ten minutes.