Dark Siren: Part 2

Dark Siren Cover

Below is the next part of the serialisation of Dark Siren (you can see Part 1 here )

If you like what you read, you can buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card. As we said last week, we’re not getting any kickbacks, just the warm glow of helping an Aussie virtual worlds fiction author 😉

Chapter 3

Australian High Tech Crime Centre, Barton, Canberra.

23 January 2008 : 3.15pm EDT

Deborah Lauder was the Manager of the Computer Forensic Department. Thirty-something with dark copper shoulder-length hair, she was wearing a tight-fitting navy blue suit with an emerald green blouse that showed off her wasplike waist to great effect. She got up from the keyboard she was using and smiled broadly as Simon came through the door.

“Simon! A pleasure as always! How did you go last night with the heavy mob?”

“Do you want the bad news or the bad news?”

She frowned sympathetically. “Why? What happened?”

“One of the Tactical Unit’s men got shot. He died this morning.”

“That’s terrible! Did you know him?”

“No. But that’s not the point. I feel somehow responsible. I want to catch them, Deborah.”

“OK. You’ve got a computer you want us to look at.”

Simon took the laptop out of his briefcase and laid it on Deborah’s desk.

“It was a credit card racket. There was a stuff-up and the head honcho got away, but he left this laptop. A lot of it is routine credit card encoding software, Photoshop, lists of numbers, that sort of thing. But what intrigues me is the Avataria viewer.”

“The virtual reality game?”

“Yeah. He could just have been playing around, but I don’t think so. Both of the crims we caught said that he used to play it a lot, especially after 3 o’clock in the afternoons, which is when the Yanks are online.”

“And have you tried to log in?”

“I can’t… you need both a user name and a password. There’s a box to tick if you want your computer to remember the password, but there ain’t one there. Just the name – Ariana McDowell.”

“Sounds like a long shot. He might just be a cross-dresser!”

“You’ve obviously never played Avataria.”

Deborah smiled. “My first life’s complicated enough, thank you.”

“It is a long shot, but I’ve got a hunch it might lead somewhere.”

“So you want us to hack the password?”

“Yes, please.”

She returned to her chair and swivelled to face him.

“Anything else I can do for you?”

Simon was sure she had raised her left eyebrow, not to mention an unnecessary emphasis on the word ‘else’. He found himself almost blushing as he ran through a short list of things on the laptop he wanted her to have a look at.

“How much time will you need for this?”

She looked at him with a hint of amusement. “How long can you give me?”

“24 hours?”

“You are sooo demanding!”

Simon grinned. “I’m sure you’ll find a way.”

The next afternoon Simon was back again, this time with Wayne Chapman. They sat in the Forensics conference room, the sound of traffic on Northborne Avenue coming through the open windows.

“We found a few things that might interest you,” said Deborah, handing out copies of a list of the software and relevant files that had been found on the laptop.

“There was a package called Steganos, which without getting too technical, allows files to be hidden in other files. Even images. And it looks like Simon may be right about Avataria. We analysed the viewer’s inventory. Your man Kyrylo’s been experimenting with encrypting text, hiding it in snapshots taken in-world, and passing them to other avatars. I can’t tell you whether it worked though. Avataria is notoriously buggy.”

Simon leaned forward, fascinated.

“So he could be using Avataria to pass messages to and from his Druzhba gang in Russia or Ukraine, wherever they are?”

“Absolutely. But on the face of it, Avataria is an unlikely candidate. It’s tightly controlled, all text chat is logged by management and kept for a few weeks at least, and I would imagine the NSA can retrieve the image streams. But there are a few loopholes. Avatars can talk to each other – and although theoretically the conversations can be intercepted, in practice it would be very time-consuming to analyse them – there’s just too much data. But the main thing is the exchange of files in-world. That’s what he’s doing.”

“The lists of credit card numbers. The names. Security codes.”

“Exactly.”

“Is he using encryption?”

“If he is, it’s a simple code. The only encryption software on the laptop is a program linked to Steganos. Maybe his accomplices aren’t as computer savvy as he is.”

Simon exchanged glances with Chapman. “And what did you find out about his friends?”

“Another interesting thing. He only seems to have four.”

Simon laughed. “I’m not surprised, judging from the smell in that place we raided last night.”

Deborah looked at him with a withering smile. “Settle down. What I meant was that there were only four friends listed for Ariana: Carmen Verne, Alan Menuti, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley. He could have 20 avatars for all we know. One for each cell of Druzhba. One for each scam maybe. It’s a classic compartment structure. The possibilities are endless.”

“But have we no way of knowing who these other avatars are in reality?”

“There’s no easy way. Avataria doesn’t ask for street addresses, so unless residents use a trackable email, you’d have to check IP addresses…”

“…which are notoriously unreliable and could be hidden using anonymising software.”

“Exactly.”

“Doesn’t the Avataria viewer give the option of recording all text conversations on the hard drive?”

“Funny you should ask that. In theory, yes, but it looks as though Kyrylo switched it off – potentially incriminating – but there was one transcript of a conversation between his friend Ginger Stallion and an avatar called Joss Guest.

“I don’t understand,” said Simon. “If a conversation was recorded, Kyrylo must have been there, even if he didn’t say anything.”

“That’s right. But this wasn’t the sort of conversation anyone was privy to. It was an IM – an Instant Message – which is personal, not heard by anyone else – and in any case the content strongly suggests it was a dialogue. Read it!”

Simon and Chapman dutifully read the short transcript dated 16 January that Deborah had given them.

“It’s all about setting up a trick.” said Chapman. “This Guest bloke is offering AV$2500 each for one hour’s sex if Stallion can supply a friend. Holy Moly! Seems a lot of money to pay for a root… how much is a Avataria dollar worth?”

“About AV$265 to US$1,” said Simon helpfully. “AV$2500 is about $14 Australian. Quite a lot for an hour’s work in Avataria.”

“So what does this suggest to you?” asked Deborah triumphantly.

“On the surface of it,” said Simon, “Kyrylo could’ve logged in under another avatar’s name. As Joss Guest for example. But there is another possibility…”

Chapman snorted. “Seems straightforward to me. It’s a gay meeting place. The bloke’s a shirt-lifter.”

“Maybe… maybe not,” said Simon, ignoring Chapman’s questionable take on the subject. “It’s true that one of the guys they caught hinted at that, but I’m not so sure.”

Deborah looked crestfallen. “What do you mean, Simon?”

“The IM system is not just restricted to dialogue. I mean in the sense of there only being two partners to a conversation. There’s a facility for setting up group discussions, like phone conference calls.”

“So there could have been three people privy to that conversation, except the third one was silent.” Deborah leaned forward: “Forgive me for stating the obvious, but there’s no way we can determine whether that’s true. If that’s a crucial detail, the quickest option is to contact Avataria.”

Clifford 28-8-09Simon pondered for a minute or two before replying.

“I have thought about it, Deborah, but they’re based in California. We’d have to go through the Bureau,” he said at last.

“The ball’s in your court,” said Deborah, starting to pack up her things. “Oh, I almost forgot. We recovered this from Kyrylo’s Recycle Bin.”

She handed over printouts of a clipping cut from an Internet e-zine.

“It’s an article from an online U.S. political gossip magazine called Salon.com dated 14 January 2003… a report of a speech that a U.S. Senator called Jack Gallagher made attacking gay marriage.”

“The same Gallagher who’s running for the Democratic nomination?”

“Looks like it.” She snapped her folder shut.

“What makes you think this is relevant?” asked Chapman.

“It may not be, but given the two rent boys in Kyrylo’s friends list, there may be a connection. Not only that,” she raised one eyebrow in Simon’s direction, “if you read between the lines, the journo seems to be implying there’s a whiff of hypocrisy about Jack Gallagher and his high moral pronouncements about family values. Which, by the way, he’s still making today on the campaign trail.“

Deborah zipped up her briefcase with a flourish.

“Have fun, guys.”

She sashayed away towards the double doors at the back of the room, which closed after her with a faint hiss. A whiff of expensive French perfume hung in the air.

“So what do you make of all this, Simon?” said Chapman, pulling out a stick of chewing gum and unwrapping it. “What’s the connection between an ex-commando, some bodgy credit cards, two rent boys, and a closet gay Senator?”

Simon didn’t reply immediately. He was gazing out of the window, the only indication of his thoughts the repeated twitch of his left eyebrow.

“Looks like I’d better log on to Avataria.”

Chapter 4

The Avataria viewer took a long time to launch. Simon punched in the name of the avatar he’d used a few months previously during the Al-Qaeda investigation, and a few keystrokes later he was searching the public details of the avatars on Deborah’s list. Each had a Profile, with its name, date of first entry to Avataria, Interests and Groups. One of the names was very familiar to him: Carmen Verne – Editor of the AvPost, an in-world gossip sheet published on the Internet. After an hour’s work he sat back and studied the FBI case files and the list he had made.

According to the Bureau, Kyrylo had left the US in late December for Australia, although no one could be sure as he was travelling on false or stolen passports. He was originally a member of a Spetsnaz unit in the Ukrainian National Guard and he had specialised in codes and computers. These skills had recommended him for training in the United States through the Partnership for Peace program. He had been accepted for a modelling and simulation course run by the USJNTC at its combat centre in California. At the end of the course he disappeared, presumably figuring that his newly improved computer skills were far more valuable in the US than back in Ukraine.

Then things began to get ugly. He surfaced in Los Angeles and set up a thriving business scamming credit cards – coming to the attention of the FBI when it became clear that he wasn’t just a local spiv, but a mover and shaker in Druzhba, the Ukrainian-based criminal network. So the FBI put him under surveillance and due to the international connection the NSA started to monitor his phones. According to the report from the ASAIC San Francisco FBI, they were just about to arrest him when he disappeared under rather suspicious circumstances. That he had flown to Australia was only discovered when he made the mistake of phoning one of his old associates in LA and fell foul of a NSA intercept.

The profile of avatar Ariana McDowell was intriguing – ‘born’ on the 8th October 2007, her Groups were strikingly similar to those of Carmen Verne. In Simon’s experience this might indicate she been stalking her, but maybe not in the usual sense of the word. Carmen was the AvPost Editor. She’d been in Avataria since 2005 and it would make sense for a newbie with a criminal bent to try and befriend her. She was very well connected.

On impulse he Googled the AvPost on the Internet and got five or six entries, the third of which revealed the names of the senior staff: Carmen Verne – Managing Editor; Alan Menuti – Advertising Manager; Roxy Ryder – Features Editor.

He flipped back to the Avataria database. Menuti’s profile revealed that he and Roxy and Ariana belonged to a BDSM group called Hellfire Inc. Simon searched again and found the group, but there was no further information.

The last two on Simon’s list, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley, hardly needed researching. Gay escorts, and quite young at that judging by their taste in music. A penchant for bondage too, by the look of it. But why were they on Kyrylo’s list of contacts? Maybe Chapman was right and Kyrylo was gay, but somehow he didn’t believe it.

He opened a word-processing program and cut and pasted all the information he could find into one file.

Simon’s avatar was called Mel Nightfire. Although Avataria was not strictly speaking a game, there were combat regions where the normal rules were suspended. Avatars could be… well, not actually killed, but ejected from the sim or be subject to various other forms of banishment or avatar damage. Not a violent or aggressive man by nature, he found these zones heavy going, although the experience stood him in good stead when he’d fronted up to the AvPost and offered to write for them.

When there had been talk of Al-Qaeda making mischief in Avataria, Chapman had received a vague, slightly panicky directive from his political masters to investigate. Evidence was scant, and based on anecdote and hearsay. Simon thought that this was just about as ridiculous as saying, “There’s a nondescript terrorist loose in Belgium. Find him!” Both entities had roughly the same population, and in Avataria there weren’t even the usual signposts that could be followed to ethnic communities, political hotspots, or suburban ghettoes. Not only that, in Avataria almost everybody was living some sort of lie – wasn’t that what it was really about, the ultimate masked ball? So many residents employed elaborate disguises and covert techniques to cover their tracks from prying spouses or the over-curious they met online, you could almost call it the norm.

Avataria would certainly work for terrorists, he’d thought at the time. The most beautiful female avatar could be a Bin Laden or Abu Zubayida, and who would know? The only possible indications would be a poor command of English and an eccentric interest in flying but not landing commercial airliners.

So he persevered with the combat sims, and amused Carmen with his tales of malfunctioning helicopters, exploding skyboxes, and the humourless armchair warriors who populated them. Hell – he even got two articles published in the AvPost!

Reaching for his keyboard, he logged into Avataria, woke Mel Nightfire up, changed him into his virtual work gear of fatigues and combat boots, then teleported to the AvPost.

Comments

  1. Really entertaining – Dark Siren would make a fabulous Machinima

  2. Really entertaining – Dark Siren would make a fabulous Machinima

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