After the Door Shuts and the Footsteps Die

After the door shut and the footsteps died, Lilianna McDougal slid the adapter into the plug at the base of her skull. But she didn’t activate it yet. Instead she held her breath, counting the seconds, ears straining for any sign of movement outside.

The shadow-shrouded room could have belonged to any typical teenager. The walls were some dull blue, meant to be soothing. The sheets were plain, the comforter unpatterned. The shelves held a spattering of carefully chosen books. But she hadn’t picked any of it, and the subjects on which she was allowed to read were carefully controlled.

The room was a prison, gilded though it may have been. She could rise to use the private bathroom attached to it. She could complain and receive food, so long as it was easily acquired. But she could not leave, couldn’t walk down the hallway to another room in the complex, and wasn’t supposed to do anything not asked of her.

She didn’t like to follow other people’s rules.

She didn’t think anyone would hurt her, even if they discovered her nightly excursions. Argus was tapped into their network, of course, and they could monitor every moment of activity, should they desire. Then again, she wouldn’t be much of a hacker if she couldn’t mask her online activity. How many security guards were sitting three rooms over searching for their nightly fix of porn?

Fear made her wait until she couldn’t hear anything beyond her door, not even a whispered breath. She felt safer if they thought she was asleep. She had long since learned they only entered her room for three reasons; to make certain she was still alive, to demand she perform a task, and because she had broken the rules.

Which meant that she could do whatever she liked; as long as they never found out about it.

With the laptop closed, only three blinking lights indicated it hadn’t been shut down. They were easily concealed with her blankets. And since she didn’t intend to sleep, she wasn’t worried about rolling onto it. Not that Argus could be damaged by her slight weight. He might look like a cobbled together piece of crap, ready to fall apart in a stiff breeze, but he was sturdy. She’d seen to that.

She initiated her nightly excursion with a thought. Beneath her eyelids, her consciousness traveled down the wires attached to the port in her skull in a riot of vivid colors. Data entered her brain not as a cascade of ones and zeroes, but as vivid sensory information she could easily interpret. Visual and audio were the strongest. Smell didn’t translate well in the digital world, nor did touch.

Yet she had arms and legs in this vast, data-constructed world. She could move, just as car moved up or down the highway. She could follow the flow of information to its source, and tamper with it, if she wanted to.

On the network, she could read about anything she pleased. Her jailors may have believed they had her thoughts under control; only cold, clinical hacking and family-friendly nonsense. They thought she was compliant, pliable and oblivious. The few times she managed to leak news of their illicit activities and have the authorities follow up on them, they never suspected she had anything to do with it. Bad luck, bad information, or ill-trained agents. Never their little hacker.

If they hadn’t stolen her out of her bed as in infant and tampered with her body, if they hadn’t slapped a CPU and a mage-to-technology converter into her brain, she might have been able to wiled magic. She couldn’t even sense the energy fields now, but she didn’t need to. She was a wizard of a different kind. And her magic was a complex and impressive as that woven by any mage.

But if she had access to regular spells, she wouldn’t be trapped in this endless parade of dull rooms, doing the dirty work of her handlers. They told her she should be grateful they kept her alive. But she knew why they kept her alive; she had been expensive. And no one else could do quite what she could.

These nightly outings weren’t just for the sake of her sanity. She wouldn’t risk so much just to read on a forbidden topic or hone her skills with small practice, though both were refreshing. She wanted out, and she had long since learned she couldn’t rely on anyone other than herself. Herself and Argus, that was, the AI that inhabited her battered laptop.

The point of these ventures was to send messages in proverbial bottles. To sew helping-hands that might one day lift her from her prison. She had to play a long game, leave her little pieces of code embedded in programs where others might notice when they became active. She couldn’t be too obvious. She might have a harder time accessing the network if anyone caught her in action. Worse, they might cut her off completely.

It had taken years of painstaking effort. A trojan here, a backdoor there. Embedded scripts and symbiotic code. But one day soon, she was going to find the right person in the right place at precisely the right time, and things were going to change.

writing prompt, flash fiction, Phage, hacker, sci-fi

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