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141 readings


Bzz. Bzz. Bzz. Half-awake, Dr. Araña Guerrero hears the drone of an insect. “Minh,” she groans, swatting across the bed, “one of your bugs is loose.”
But rather than Minh’s warmth, she finds only her phone. She fumbles the device until a connection crackles, slurring, “Hello.”
“Dr. G?” Liza stammers.
“The lab better be on fire.” Realizing Minh’s absence, Araña recalled her departure for a field survey, and though Araña missed Minh when she worked, there were some upsides - sleeping in, claiming the other half of the pot of coffee, standing under the shower until the hot water ran out, eating waffle a la mode for breakfast - all without the guilt induced by Minh’s regimen of green smoothies and masterful multi-tasking.
“Something like that,” Liza replies.
“What do you mean?”
“Uhh... we’re at DC 30.”
Araña pushes up from the bed, ejecting her phone onto the floor. Shouting along its trajectory, she confirms, “DC THIRTY?” Her research team adopted the difficulty challenge rating system from tabletop games as an analogy for the threat potential of their latest project, a classified cyber weapon prototype.
DC 30 meant DEFCON 2.
Liza’s voice is muffled by the carpet, but Araña can tell she’s scared. “DC 30, uhh, the train has left the station and... it’s lost.”
The prototype escaped the lab server.
“I’LL BE THERE IN FIVE MINUTES!” Araña barks, tugging on last night’s jeans and grabbing her keys.
Araña bursts into the computer science building, fliers fluttering in her wake. “Good morning, Dr. Guerrero, we don’t usually see you here this early!” The department chair, Dr. Kim, leans in his office doorway, steam rising from his mug.
“Ha, yes, ‘morning,” Araña huffs as she speeds by, smoothing her hair behind her ears. To go to work in jeans was unusual; without makeup, unprecedented. She frets that her appearance will arouse suspicion, and quickens to a trot.
“Are you feeling ok? You know, people don’t need to come to campus when they’re sick. That’s how bugs spread!”
A deranged chuckle erupts from Araña’s clenched teeth. Reaching her lab, she stabs her ID through the reader to enter. Waving to Dr. Kim, she slams the door closed and spins to confront Liza.
“What happened?”
“We’re not really sure. One minute Sudeep’s scanning the model for new variants, and the next, it’s gone.”
Liza nods. “Then CYBERCOM called.”
Araña lowers herself into a chair. “CYBERCOM? Not DARPA?”
“CYBERCOM. They said they’re read-in on the project, and if we can find it before they do, we might not be court-martialed.”
“Where’s Sudeep?”
Araña and Liza both jump when the office door opens to reveal their co-conspirator with a tray of coffee and pastries. “I’ve been thinking, based on the updates to the model, I have some ideas about where it might try to-”
“You two work on that,” Araña interjects, snatching a coffee. “I’m calling Minh.”
Thigh-deep in swamp, serenaded by birdsong, Dr. Minh Le is in her happy place. Feet sunk into muck, she pivots at the waist, careful to avoid disturbing the surface tension of the water with her waders. Her hands are cupped behind her ears, gathering stereosonic pools. In mere moments, she’ll hear the thrum of the dawn migration of insects, a link that forges the entire food chain. Soon after, she’ll scan the lower canopy for clumps of bugs revealing the stealthy webs of Araneidae, the orb-weaver spider. She’ll snap geotagged photos, capture the specimen, and collect its web to analyze the biodiversity of-
Birds stampede to the sky in a fit of alarm as Minh’s phone rings under three layers of clothes. She digs between garments to excavate the disruptive device, and recognizes Araña’s office line. Minh’s heart lurches: “What’s wrong?”
“I need you home.”
She’s ok. “Araña, this is literally the worst possible time. This collection site is... practically contaminated now! I’ll need to let it rest until-”
“Minh. Please.”
Minh pauses to gather her thoughts, pinching the bridge of her nose against encroaching annoyance. She slams her fist into the swamp, creating a mushroom plume of water that attacks the bank with choppy atomic waves. “The lab better be on fire, Guerrero.”
“Something like that,” Araña responds. “As soon as possible, Minh, it’s urgent.”
“What’s going on?”
“I can’t say more on an open line. Just please get to the lab as soon as you can.”
Sitting in resigned silence, Araña, Liza, and Sudeep nibble at their pastries and take long draughts of coffee. Liza chokes when someone pounds on the office door. “Araña?”
Araña unbolts the door and Minh tumbles in, waders leaving a slime trail. “What is going on?”
“You know that project I’ve been working on. The one I can’t say much about.”
Minh nods.
“It... got free. We need to find it. Or we could be in really, really deep trouble.”
“What can you tell me about it?”
Araña thinks for a moment. “We applied a biological model to the design. Solitary predator with low risk tolerance and strong survival instinct. It invades new territory, holes up somewhere secure and sets a trap.” Araña’s eyes go wide: “It reproduces; clones itself.”
Minh holds her chin, thinking. “Ok, it’s passive. Opportunistic. It will use its prey’s habits to its advantage. But... it won’t hunt first. It just escaped. It’ll take evasive maneuvers; it’ll hide. And maybe propagate. What kind of environment did you train it in?”
“Mostly institutional network environments, browsing directories. We were just introducing web architecture, hyperlinks, indexing, and search.”
“Give me some general traits of these environments.”
“Institutional networks are actively monitored, guarded by identity management and authentication mechanisms, often have file restrictions. The indexed surface web is more self-organizing, but spiders are actively crawling all of those documents and directories, making note of what is there and the similarities and relationships between files. Difficult environments to hide in, by nature.”
“What else is out there?”
Sudeep interjects: “Peer-to-peer networks, encrypted cloud storage, the deep web. The dark web.”
“What does it hunt?”
Araña thinks. “Users. Downloads.”
“Ok, where are they?
Liza grins to Sudeep: “If you build it, I will code.”
Sudeep starts indexing the most trafficked file sharing sites, while Liza incorporates the array of into her custom web crawler. It scrapes the indexes, sniffing for recently created files with a propensity for replicating. As the script gathers potential matches, Araña analyzes them for signatures from their lab, transferring packs of digital destruction back to a secured virtual machine and deleting network cache. They iterate the script repeatedly, looping through files and directories until they receive no further hits.
The phone rings. Araña picks up the receiver:
“CYBERCOM to DARPA contract DAAB0701. Resume readiness condition DEFCON 4. Dr. Guerrero?”
“That’s an interesting development you’ve got there. Nice work.”
Araña rests her head on Minh’s shoulder, cradling a mug of coffee against her chest. Minh waves a sheaf of papers in her face: “‘Biological Models for Intrusion and Survival of Cyber Offense Weapons’ - our first joint paper!” Her voice softens. “Hey, I... I have a proposal.”
Araña’s heart flails in her chest like a caged bird. She sits up. “Yeah?”
“I think we should... go into the field together. You should analyze the behaviors of the Araneidae spider, use it to refine your model.”
Araña slumps away from Minh. “Oh, sure. Next break.”
“C’mon, Guerrero, we could go as co-authors!”
“Yeah, get another publication out of it.”
“Araña, we could go as wives.”
Araña melts back into Minh’s embrace. “That’s why I love you, Minh. I never know where I’ll find myself, but as long as we’re together, it doesn’t matter.”
Nick’s fingertips strike the keyboard in time with the metalcore bleeding from his earbuds. He punches game titles into the torrent metasearch, copying and pasting magnet links to his encrypted downloading service.
A bell tone dinging above the din signals a completed batch download. He extracts the directories into a quarantine folder and browses through them, looking for suspicious files. A random subdirectory contains a single executable file: auto.exe. The lone executable buried deep in the batch of folders feels off to him.
Nick wipes his fingers clean of snack mix dust before right-clicking on the file to view its properties. The metadata is encrypted. Selecting the folder, Nick shrugs his shoulders and hits Download.


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