I only allowed myself a few seconds to despair at the wealth of data, the fact that the information I wanted could be stored on any one or any combination of the servers contained within the room, and the gradually descending guillotine represented by our fifteen minute deadline. When those seconds passed, I gave my brain a figurative kick in the rear and started to think.
There were too many servers to check manually. That hadn’t been a reasonable option to begin with, but I could safely rule that out now. Fully cataloging the contacts of just one server could take fifteen to twenty minutes all by itself. Then I’d have to deal with the transfer speed, which could easily add just as much time to the sum total. If I had to repeat that process a dozen times, it would be easier to walk downstairs and admit my double identity on live television. I’d be caught by the Magi in short order, but at least I wouldn’t have to die mentally exhausted.
It was okay, though. There were other options. With access to the building’s wireless internet – which was, in a rare stroke of luck, absurdly fast – I could take advantage of some of my cloud resources. Where my tablet would fail to work quickly enough, the cloud would be able to pick up the slack. Not all of the slack, unfortunately, but some was better than none.
“Where do we start?” Devlin asked.
I suppressed the urge to shoot him a dirty look. It wasn’t his fault that he’d asked the exact question I’d be on the verge of asking myself. There were at least twelve servers that I could see from my position and I wasn’t willing to discount the possibility of smaller, more specialized racks just out of sight. I checked the building’s floor plan and cross-referenced it with the public list of buildings that rented out space in the Sovereign.
That didn’t help. Any twenty-first century business could use servers I couldn’t rule any one business out and, even if I could have, that didn’t actually provide me with that much assistance in the moment. There was no rule forbidding a given business from using two or three different servers to keep their confidential data isolated. And still nothing said that the object of our search hadn’t deleted itself or changed its metadata or otherwise made inaccessible.
I shook my head. Negative thinking like that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I needed a plan.
“Sarah?” Devlin asked. He didn’t sound unsure, necessarily, but there was a beat of nervousness in his voice. “How can I help?”
The irritation flared back up again. This was Devlin’s specialty, but he was practically useless when it came to technology. I couldn’t teach him about data storage on this scale in the time we had available, any more than he could upload his preternatural ability to navigate spontaneous chaos. If I could, that would have made things –
I cut myself off, mid-internal monologue, as an insane idea occurred to me. I spun around to face Devlin before I could talk myself out of it. “Take the left side of the room. I want you to daisy chain the servers together.”
He blinked wide, uncomprehending eyes back at me.
“You’re going to look for a USB cord. Looks exactly like this one, okay?” I fished out the USB cord and held it up in front of me. “There’s usually a few laying around. We might even find them already plugged into the servers. Leave one end attached to each server and run the other one over to connect with the next server in line. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Devlin clearly didn’t understood the specifics of what I was saying, but he knew the words. He nodded and immediately hurried over to the left side of the room, searching for a USB cord that wasn’t connected on both ends to the server.
While he did that, I put down my bag and removed my tablet. I thought about just closing the bleaching program but decided, after a horrific mental image of misclicking, to turn the tablet entirely off and restart it from scratch. If the bleaching program decided to activate itself, either through my accidental motions or some unforeseen interaction between programs, all of the data on the server would be deleted beyond recovery.
That would piss off the Texan, sure, but it wouldn’t matter to me. The Community would go to war with the Magi, and they would lose. My friends would be captured, through their connection with me, and we’d all die fiery, painful deaths.
By that measure, it would have been irresponsible to do anything less than a full restart. It wasn’t like the damn thing took that long to boot up.
“Sarah? This one looks different. Is there a functional difference between the two or should I keep looking?”
I angled my head so that I could glance over at Devlin. He held a thin black cord in his hand, with a silvery attachment at one end. I had to narrow my eyes to make out the details. It was still a USB cord, but the attachment was unfamiliar. It could have been a proprietary substitute, but I doubted that any business with the funds to take up space in the Sovereign would spend money on an untested program. Unless the previous floor’s open floor design actually did belong to some tech firm who was field testing some new development, but that would open me to up all sorts of bugs and crashes until I managed to get a grip on the technology, at which point –
Devlin snapped his fingers in the air. He was far enough away that I didn’t react to the sudden movement, so much as the sharp sound. “Stay with me, Sarah. Is this a good thing or not?”
“It should be good,” I said, making a snap decision. If I was wrong, we’d deal with it later.
“I’m connecting them, then. What are you doing?”
I walked over to the right side of the room and searched for the same cord that Devlin had found. I located one, connected to a clicking, humming server without too much effort. It was just long enough to reach the nearest server with a little bit of extra tugging.
We worked quietly for five minutes, accompanied only by the steady hum of fans. When we’d each linked up our sides of the room, I accessed a few of my more powerful cloud servers via the tablet. Encrypting the connection would take too long, so I was forced to use a less secure method of connection to get it done. Unless someone decided to remotely access the logs at that exact moment, however, any later examination would only show an unusual request. There wouldn’t be a solid trail to follow.
Of course, I could easily believe that someone would pick this random moment to perform a routine security sweep. That concern went into the growing pile of worrisome thoughts I was trying very hard not to pay attention to.
“See, I can’t go through all of these servers one at a time,” I said out loud. Mostly, I spoke my thoughts for Devlin’s benefit, but it also helped me to stay focused on the task at hand. “But I don’t really need to do that.”
“What other options do you have?”
“I already have the metadata from Tangiers,” I said. “From that, I can make a reasonable assumption about when the server was accessed and from where. All I’ve got to do is narrow the search parameters, so that I can filter out anything that isn’t relevant to the search.”
“You can guess, you mean,” Devlin said. I looked up from my tablet and narrowed my eyes at him; he shrugged back in response. “It sounds a hell of a lot better than my idea of throwing each of these servers out of the window and collecting them later. I’m just saying.
“Yes, Devlin, I can guess. But it’s an educated guess, with a very high probability of success.”
He shrugged a second time. “And the Texan? How are we going to get what he’s after?”
For a few moments, I’d actually forgotten that the Texan had his own goals in mind. “If I’m already pulling files, I’ll just add emails to the parameters. They’re generally small files, so it shouldn’t add too much time to the general task.”
“And if the intelligence he’s looking for can’t be found in the emails?”
Devlin was being unusually pessimistic, but I couldn’t spare the brainpower to try and figure out why. “Then I’m screwed,” I said. “So I’m going to hope that it is in the emails and move on from there.”
“Fair enough. I’ll just stand here quietly and marvel at how talented you are.”
“Yes. Do that exact thing. But get out of my light.”
He stepped to the side and the azure blue light of the servers was no longer blocked by his body. Utilizing my cloud services wasn’t a complicated task, but it did take some time. When I was connected, I’d effectively be able to offload any memory-heavy task to the remote servers; until then, I was limited to the comparatively miniscule resources of a tablet small enough to fit into my purse.
God, I needed to get my hands on some newer technology. I couldn’t keep putting that off, if this debacle was going to continue escalating with every new development.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I noticed a standalone monitor protruding from one end of the closest rack. I’d missed it while connecting cords but, from my new position, I was just barely able to spot the edge.
“Jackpot,” I muttered to myself and made my way over. If my guess was right, someone had decided that this particular server room merited its own persistent access point. Instead of relying on portable laptops or tablets to troubleshoot errors, it was always possible to simply install a computer directly in the server room. That way, whatever problems occurred, it would never be too difficult for a trained professional to unpack the issue and cobble together a solution.
Of course, my current problem – namely that I didn’t feel like using an outdated tablet to tackle a problem of this magnitude, with my limited amount of time rapidly dwindling away – could hardly be what the server’s designer’s had in mind.
Ah well. Their mistake. My windfall.
Sure enough, I quickly located a sliding shelf, complete with keyboard and mouse when I drew closer to the monitor. I moved the mouse, fully expecting to be confronted by yet another password screen. Instead, the monitor went from completely black to mostly black, with thin white lettering at the very top of the visible area.
A command line interface was even more good luck than I’d dared to hope for. From here, it wouldn’t take me long at all to gain complete administrator privileges. Maybe this particular assignment wouldn’t turn out to be the absolute dumpster fire I’d expected it to be.
I checked some of the programs on the tablet for the proper lines of code, then entered them into the server’s built-in computer. The command line interface disappeared and was replaced, after a few ticks, by a graphical interface that shared some noticeable similarities with the homebrew system I customarily used.
“Sarah?” Devlin’s voice sounded marginally more worried than it had before. The fact that I was capable of identifying his emotions without looking up meant that he hadn’t slipped into Fully Professional Devlin mode yet. I wondered what triggered the change in him. Was it unconscious? Or did he have to deliberately decide to submerge his emotions in liquid nitrogen?
“Shush,” I said, feverishly entering commands into the computer in front of me, “I’m working.”
Dutifully, he shushed. Accompanied by the sound of the servers, I used the built-in computer to narrow my search even further. If there was only one access point in the server room, it was safe to assume that, for whatever reason, the building’s occupants had consented to allow a single administrator to protect their data. Or, more likely, the administrator only saw to the uptime and accessibility of each business’ individual server. They probably used their own specialists who could actually log into and view confidential data.
That made sense. It was silly, from a network security perspective, but it seemed like exactly like the sort of thing a corner-cutting operation would pull.
The reason why intelligent businesses used their own security personnel – in fact, the reason why they typically went out of their way to keep their data physically separate from that of their competitors – was that a talented administrator could conceivably find a way out of whatever virtual sandbox they were supposed to play in. I wasn’t an administrator, but I definitely fit the ‘talented’ requirement.
It took me two minutes to gain root access to each of the networked servers and another minute to bash together an indexing program from the remains of two variants I’d been meaning to do something with. Somewhere between fifteen and thirty seconds passed while I input the specific parameters I’d decided to limit myself to, and ten seconds for the newly birthed index to start searching for, isolating, and transferring files to an overseas server I used for particularly dangerous information.
“How much longer?” I asked, standing up and feeling my knees pop as I did so. My knees were popping now? Had the events of the last six months aged me prematurely or…well, no, the alternative wasn’t even worth considering.
Devlin checked his phone. “Running off of our previous estimates? Five minutes. Seven, at the absolute outside.”
I cursed. Seven minutes left upstairs wouldn’t give us enough time to finish transferring all of the available data. Even at the local wireless’ speed, it would take at least ten minutes to transfer nearly a terabyte of spreadsheets, emails, and otherwise mundane text files. Businesses collected a lot of meaningless correspondence and I hadn’t come up with the most specific terms.
My fingers drummed against my purse and, by extension, the tablet nestled within. An idea occurred to me. It wasn’t as though I needed to be physically present for the files to transfer. Really, I only needed the files to transfer in such a way that no one else bothered checking for other digital fingerprints. I could accomplish that work from anywhere in the building, now that I’d already bypassed the servers’ collective security.
“We don’t have to be here,” I said, for Devlin’s benefit. “I’ll adjust something on the way back downstairs and just erase any evidence of my presence while we’re back at the fundraiser.”
Devlin raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure about that? You don’t need to be here to make sure nothing…you know, goes wrong?”
I shook my head. “It’s a data transfer. There’s literally nothing more routine. Honestly, even if it runs into an issue, I’ll still have remote access. I can start it back up whenever.”
“That sounds…suspiciously like good news.” Devlin paused. “How is this going to go wrong for us?”
I gave the question serious thought. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, but we’d either dealt with or avoided those traps. Someone else had seen us…but that person had been a cat burglar, busy robbing the building for his own purposes. We didn’t have enough time to accomplish our goals…but I’d remembered a way to get what we wanted without risking further exposure.
After a minute of intense thought, I was fairly sure that I’d considered everything. “Barring nuclear war,” I said slowly, “the only thing that could actually mess up the transfer would be if -”
The power went out. It happened in an instant. A metallic wrenching sound barely reached my ears, followed by a much louder crack, and then nothing except darkness and the sounds of the city, twenty floors below us. The blue lights on the servers went dead, all at once, leaving Devlin and I standing alone in a pitch black room, on a pitch black floor of a pitch black building.
After a few heartbeats, Devlin cleared his throat. “You were saying?”
I waited a few heartbeats of my own before I answered him. “Oh shut up.”