The navy blue blouse, navy blue blazer, and soft black shoes all came to about 173 dollars. If she had payed for them, she might have been reluctant to wear them into the crowded coffee shop, but this was the business district, where the sharks lived, and she had to look her best if she wanted to go fishing. When her coffee arrived, she took a gentle sip, savoring the strong bitterness for a moment before it escaped down her throat and into her veins.
“Are we in?” she murmured, barely moving her lips.
“Two minutes”, a voice replied, one only she could hear. She did pay for the baby blue, translucent sunglasses on her face a lifetime ago. A notification appeared in the top right corner of her vision: “$45.00 TRANSFERRED TO ACCOUNT bunnymoney”.
Best investment she’d ever made.
There were 117 “cells”, or layers, of the Central Authority system. She only needed to get to Cell 90. Scoffing mentally at the word “only”, she reminded herself that she was only on 29. Cell 15 was Tax Records. Fortunately for her, the owner of this particular cafe was running a modest, but successful, tax evasion racket. He’d have to answer for those 45 dollars, on top of the thirty grand he’d stolen from the government. The night before, she'd found the entryway she needed to crack Cell 30, Housing Records. Finally, she'd be able to live somewhere decent, instead of the alleyway she slept in now. Onward and upward.
“Bunny, I think you need to see this”, the voice said. A red triangle flashed in over her right eye. Someone else was on the server.
And they had just tripped the alarm.
Casually, she downed the rest of her coffee, slid a plastic card into a slot on the table, and sauntered out through the front entrance. Three tall men in black suits were converging on the crosswalk on the other side of the street. She turned right, slipped through the alley, and dumped the hundred-dollar blazer into a trash receptacle. She emerged from the alley at a brisk pace, not stopping for six more blocks. Another alley. This one was so thin that she had to turn sideways to move through it.
In the very middle, there was a refrigerator blocking her path. She braced her shoulder against it and pushed. It made a rumbling noise as it scraped against the asphalt. Soon, she had just enough room to expose the crawlspace that lead to her home, for lack of a better word.
Routine took over. Shower. Change. Charge Mask.
She looked in the broken mirror opposite her cot. The windbreaker with the rolled-up sleeves, the cargo shorts, running shoes and fingerless gloves wouldn’t let her blend in with the populace of the business district, but she looked her age at least. She could easily pass as a student of she stayed around campus. Still, the Central Authorities Investigation Unit would be looking for a woman with pink hair tied up in two cinnamon buns. So she took the scissors, undid her buns and spent the next fifteen minutes very carefully cutting her shoulder-length hair down to a pixie cut. Then, she loaded a teal dye cartridge into her curler and after thirty minutes, she was unrecognizable.
She sighed, stretched, and pulled her tablet out from beneath her cot. She collapsed into a corner and put Mask back on.
“What’ve you got for me?”, she asked.
“Well, it’s intriguing. That wasn’t a Central Authority user, it was another hacker. He or she tripped the alarm, started tracing your signal, then cut off, cleaned up, and disappeared.”
“So, they wanted the CA to find me?”
“Perhaps. Or, perhaps they were trying to contact you and they tripped the alarm by mistake.”
She eyed the readout. “No, they cleaned up perfectly. Central Authority didn’t even register two users. This was a setup by a third party.”
“So the question is…”
“Why me?”, she finished. “Did we get enough data to trace them?”.
“Only to the first proxy. And...we’re gonna have to go on location to find it.”
Brilliant, she thought. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Mask had narrowed the probable location of the first point of contact to a six-block radius just east of campus. “Get me a list of every viable computer system in the target zone.”
“I’m returning fifteen thousand plus results.”
She sat down on a bench and leaned back, looking up at the blue sky. An airliner tore through the sky, miles above the city, leaving perfect white contrails in its wake. Fifteen. Fucking. Thousand.
“Mask, run Meditation Playlist.”
“Uh-oh,” he said.
“Play track ‘Tranquility’”, she growled.
It was her own voice that greeted her. “Place your hands on your knees.” She did. Her voice, the one playing back to her, was quiet, but firm. “Focus on your breathing. Follow it as in travels in through your nose...down your throat...into your lungs...and back out through your nose.”
She imagined a small island, about one meter in diameter, just enough space for her to sit cross-legged comfortably. In every direction, all she could see was the ocean. It was still, so much so that it became difficult to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. She breathed in, and as she did so, the shoreline receded. When she breathed out, the shoreline pulled back, and the island grew. She breathed in again, and the water leapt forward, submerging the island, submerging her, until it stopped, its surface perfectly smooth and glassy, millimeters from her nose. She breathed out, and the water receded again to reveal the bench, the park, the entire city. She opened her eyes.
“Open the CA’s Electronics Registration network and match every system you found to its registration number.” Mask brought up the list, and like clockwork, they went through each 100-entry long chunk. There were no discrepancies until
“Fifteen hundred, Fifteen-oh-two, Fifteen-”
“Wait,” she interrupted.
“You skipped 1501”
“There’s no such number as 1501...wait-”
“Relax. I think we found our first lead. One of these apartments is unregistered. Whoever owns the apartment fooled the system into skipping over it without registering an error. That’s where we go next.”