Opening Note & Explanation: At the request/suggestion/order of several of my reviewers on Academy Blues, after many attempts on my part to avoid it, and a couple flashes of inspiration, I have decided to post a new pseudo-series, Academy Blues: Side Stories. This series, which will probably consist mostly of one-shot chapters of the titular work, will mostly cover those students who get the least screen-time in Academy Blues itself, though I reserve the right to include the primary characters at need/whim. The different chapters will be different lengths, covering different times in the primary time-line, and varying lengths of time, so apologies beforehand for the disconnected feel. I will do my best to keep this integrated with the main story, but at the same time I won't be keeping the main story in line with this one – Academy Blues may reference something that happens here, but only in passing. Because this is a side project, I won't be updating it at all regularly, but only as I get ideas and take the time to write them out, so please don't ask for/demand updates, just trust me that I will get around to them.

As I forgot to mention in Academy Blues ('cause it's bloody obvious), I don't own any of the characters from Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. I do, however, claim ownership of the kids' characters.

And now that my rear is sufficiently covered, on with the show...

h4x0rz

An Academy Blues Side Story

By Daishi Prime

September, First Week

"Excuse me, Allina Maricopa?"

Allina glanced up briefly from the PDA in front of her, noting a slightly taller girl with dark skin and darker eyes. "Hey, you're Niranjana, right?"

"Yes. May I speak with you?"

Allina shrugged, "Sure. What's up?" Despite her agreement, most of her attention remained focused on the PDA. She was just getting time to conduct serious explorations of the school's network, and it was already proving to be an interestingly complicated morass of systems. It felt like it had been built by three separate designers working in different languages at cross-purposes, but functioned far too smoothly to be that poorly designed.

"Maricopa-san?"

"What?"

"Are you listening, please?"

Allina did not bother looking up, just waved, "Yeah, I'm listening. It's called multi-tasking. You talk, I'll listen, and I promise to actually hear everything you say."

Niranjana was quiet for a few minutes, but then asked, "You are skilled with computers, yes? I heard you asking if you could bring personal machines."

"I'm okay. No world-class black-hat, not yet, but I'm okay. Lemme guess, you already broke your PDA and you're too embarrassed to go to the teachers?"

"No, my PDA is adequate," Niranjana answered, "I merely hoped to find someone who shared my interests."

That got Allina's full attention right quick. She looked up, to find the Indian girl staring right back at her. "You're a hacker? For real, or are you just a puffed up script-kiddie? I don't like script-kiddies, they annoy me."

"I am not a hacker," Niranjana replied in a primly insulted tone, "but I am interested in computer programming and architecture, and you are the only person here who has evinced any similar interest."

Allina grinned, "Okay, so you're a suit-in-training. Close enough, if you're any good. You just wanna talk shop, or you up for some goofing off?"

"Goofing off?" Niranjana frowned at her for a moment, obviously trying to determine what Allina meant, then shrugged slightly, "so long as it is not illegal or against the Academy's rules, I would be amenable."

"Amenable. Gah, you're worse than Noriko-san." Allina dropped her PDA on the table, and stuck out a hand, "Name's Allina. Nice to meet you, Niranjana my hacker-in-training."

Niranjana took the hand slowly, uncertainly, and shook it, "Nice to meet you, Allina. But I am not a hacker."

Allina smiled back, "you will be."

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September, Fourth Week

Niranjana was, by now, quite familiar with where Allina's room was in the Girls' Wing. First floor, third door forward from the common room on the left. Her own room was two doors further down and across the hall. As she knocked at Allina's door, however, she was a little surprised to realize that she had not yet actually seen the inside of her friend's room. Which was a bit of a surprise, because so far Allina was probably the only real friend she had among the students here. That was not to say she did not like the others, but she had not managed to make the sort of instant connection she had with Allina, thanks to their common interest. Niranjana was familiar enough with herself to know she would eventually count most of her fellow students as friends, but it would take a long time before she was entirely comfortable with them.

Allina opened her door after a few seconds, and Niranjana quirked an eyebrow in silent reproof. It was almost noon, and Saturday or not, Allina really should have been dressed, as Niranjana herself was. Instead, the other girl was standing there in shorts and a tank top, long hair loose and wild, a pocky stick hanging out of her mouth. "'Mornin', 'Jana," Allina mumbled foggily around the pocky, "'Sup?"

"You do realize what time it is?"

"Huh?"

Niranjana sighed, connecting the dress, the somewhat spaced-out look, and the semi-coherent speech to realize that, "You stayed up all night again, didn't you?"

Allina blinked at her for a moment, then reached up and snapped off the pocky. Turning back into her room to look for a clock, she asked, "Um, what time is it?"

"Noon," Niranjana replied, following Allina into the room, "or nearly so. Why do you do this every Friday night?" Allina's room proved to match her current appearance. There were clothes scattered everywhere, the bed wasn't made, the books on her shelves were in no particular order but heavily decorate with post-it bookmarks, and her desk was festooned with computer accessories attached to the desktop beneath, amongst which her school-issue PDA was almost lost. The trashcan next to her desk was overflowing with empty pocky containers.

"'S wha' 'm used to," Allina muttered back. Then she found her clock, hauling it off the floor to glare at the display. "Gah! Noon minus ten. No wonder I'm out of pocky, I've been up all night. I need breakfast."

"Lunch, actually," Niranjana reminded her, amused at Allina's disheveled state but trying not to show it. "You need a shower first, then you need to get dressed. You wanted to show me something 'glorious' you found on the school network, but I think you need to wake up, first."

Allina nodded, "'K. See y' in caf?"

"Yes, I'll wait for you in the cafeteria," Niranjana agreed, then slipped out.

It took Allina barely half an hour before she came strolling into the cafeteria, still looking a little bedraggled, but at least alert, clean, and in clean clothes, though her one concession to modesty was changing out the shorts for sweat pants. Predictably, all her attention, even as she piled food on a plate, was on the PDA cradled in her off hand. She looked up long enough to find Niranjana, then strolled over still studying that small screen.

"Feeling more awake?"

"Yeah, mostly," Allina answered, settling down in a neighboring chair. "I probably would've crashed in a bit anyhow, most've what I was working on's done."

"What is so important that you refuse to sleep Friday nights?"

"And Saturday nights," Allina told her, grinning slightly. "I'm a night owl, I prefer working when the sun's down. Less screen glare and fewer interruptions."

"If you say so, but you still need some sleep."

Allina shrugged, "I cat nap most weekends."

"What was last night? Cracking open a bank, accessing hidden military files, changing your grades?"

Allina's grin twisted into a frown, "Nah, nothing so fun." In between bits her meal, she explained, "'Ve got a real mess of systems at home. One of the hard disks failed last night..." a circling gesture with a fork, "... last night Buenos Aires time. Mãe swapped in a new one for me. The RAID's kinda slapdash, so I had to baby it rebuilding from the mirror. Then I was working on covering my tracks from yesterday. Gave a couple docs to Laura that I really shouldn't've."

"Are you sure that was safe?" Niranjana liked Laura well enough. The girl was hyperactive, yes, but she was also friendly, nice, and eager to get along with almost everyone. But she was also quite obviously a danger to everyone around her, and Allina's attitude suggested the documents in question would rather enhance that.

"Mebbe," Allina allowed, "but I kinda made the mistake of telling her I found them, and she would've got caught trying to get them, then the teacher's would've wondered how she found out they were there, and even if she didn't tell them, they'd've traced it back to me."

"They still could."

"Not as likely, if she's not blundering about in the Secure Archives all by her lonesome. She's okay with computers, but she doesn't really know what she's doing. Not like we do."

"So what did you find that was so interesting. You sounded like you were on cloud nine last evening, and I thought that was what you spent the entire night and morning working on."

"Wanted to," Allina allowed, "but haven't had time. That RAID had all my personal software on it, everything I use, so I needed it back up ASAP."

"Why did you not bring it with you?" Allina froze, then turned to stare at her with an absolutely shocked expression. "What? You brought your desktop, why not bring the data server as well?"

Allina's shocked expression melted away, and she dissolved into giggles. "Bring the server? Bring it? Here? Holy Mary Mother of God, that would be ridiculous! 'Jana, I'm a parts-hound and have been for, like, four years now! I turned my parent's basement into an ISP, practically. Mãe got me my own personal web domain for my thirteenth birthday! The RAID that failed's only four discs, but the computer they're part of has another ten in two more arrays. Sure, they're all little ten-gig junkers, but that's a big honkin' machine. Do you really think Hayate-sensei'd let me set up that monster in my dorm room? Or the Beowulf? Good God, no! Funny to think about, but... no!"

Niranjana was a programmer at heart, and no where near as familiar with the hardware side of computer terminology, so she needed a bit to figure out what Allina was saying, and she almost managed it. "Okay, so bringing it here would be a problem. But, what's a 'Beowulf'?" That got her a disbelieving look, then a long-suffering sigh. "Please, Allina. I am no 'parts-hound'. I use what I have and make it work better by improving the software. I am not familiar with hardware terms."

"Beowulf's both," Allina countered. "Some cheap-skate professor at a US college – Berkley, I think – wanted a supercomputer, but couldn't afford a real one. So he and his students came up with a way to take a whole slew of off-the-shelf processors – you know, Pentiums and AMDs and the like – and string them all together. A bit of hardware, some heavy programming, and they all function in unison, like one super-processor, instead of a whole bunch of little ones. I helped Dad make a sort of mini-Beowulf for a school project last year. Just old Pentium twos, eight of 'em, but it's still a Beowulf."

"How many did the professor at Berkely use?"

"Couple thousand. Yeah, I know, mine's tiny. It's bragging rights, okay? My cousin was on my case 'cause his parents bought him a hyped up new gaming computer, and I wanted to show him up. " Allina giggled again, "Worked, to. Little bastard went home screaming about how he had to have one. And now I get to say with a straight face that I have a supercomputer!"

"Even if it isn't one."

"That depends on your definitions," Alline replied loftily.

Niranjana sighed in turn, but let it slide. Allina could be remarkably stubborn about putting her accomplishments in the best possible light, and it usually was not worth the trouble of arguing with her. "So, what was this thing you found?"

A shrug, "Dunno."

"Then why are you so interested in it?"

"'Cause it shouldn't exist, and it doesn't recognize a network administrator account's access rights. It ignored mine like I was a guest user off the Web."

It took Allina half an hour, and a move to the library, to explain and demonstrate what she had found. The only interruption was when Laura passed them on the quad, muttering something about Allina owing her a box of Pixie Sticks, which comment Allina refused to explain. What she did explain, however, was worrisome enough.

"I think," Niranjana said slowly, once Allina was finished, "that we have a problem. What you have told me is very impressive, very interesting, and adds a sinister twist to something I discovered a couple of days ago. I wanted to talk it over with you, make sure I was not seeing signs of your work, before I took it to Aria-sensei."

Allina shook her head, "I doubt it's me. I haven't really done much yet, just poked around a little."

"Which, if you are correct, does not make me feel better," Niranjana replied, while bringing up a document on her own PDA. "Take a look at this," she said, sending the document to the terminal Allina was at.

Allina scanned the collection of notes quickly, then started muttering to herself in her native Portugese, flipping through screens rapidly. Niranjana recognized most of them, and knew that her friend was just confirming the information she had provided, so she waited patiently, until Allina sat back. "Okay, that's not me. Not one of my admin IDs, first of all. Mine's a lot better hidden, see this name'll stick out like a sore thumb. And look at all these flags on it, no one gives a single admin this many permissions, not on one ID at least. And these other changes you found? Not mine. Again, too obvious."

Niranjana felt, at the same time, relieved and depressed. She was relieved, in that she had not discovered Allina making such a blatant mistake. The depression came from the fact that someone had hacked the school network already. "All right. So, we need to take this to Aria-sensei, so she can take steps to kick them out."

"Yeah. God, she's gonna ask how we discovered it, isn't she?"

"Probably," Niranjana agreed, "but better that we get caught revealing an intruder, than we let the intruder have free rein. And before you ask, no, I am not willing to try and get rid of her ourselves. We might be able to, but we would get caught, and we're more likely to damage something."

"Oh, I wasn't going to ask," Allina said, slumping back in her chair, "I know my limits, and getting rid of this joker's going to take some serious work. Maybe a system wipe, depending on how deep he's penetrated."

"He?"

"Yeah, feels like a guy's work. No girl'd be that sloppy."

Niranjana smiled slightly, "Your prejudices are showing. Come on, Aria-sensei should be in her suite."

Aria was, indeed, in her suite, answering Niranjana's knock almost immediately. She invited them in, and they settled at a table under the window in her front room. Explaining why they were there was a simple enough matter, and Aria listened quite attentively to the entire thing. The hard part was trying to make it sound less like they were trying to commandeer the school's network, and more like simple exploration. Neither she nor Allina wanted to get in trouble for hacking the school's network, which was, from a certain perspective, precisely what they had been doing.

When they finished, Aria did not immediately speak. Instead, she looked out the window with a thoughtful expression, obviously thinking the matter over, nodding her head occasionally. Finally, she gave a sharp nod, "Sounds good. All right, girls," she turned her attention back to Niranjana and Allina, "thank you for bringing this up. We knew there had been an attack on the network from outside, but did not realize it had left so many traces. So, you two now have a special project, all your own."

Allina went from looking nervous to slightly afraid at that, "We do?" Niranjana could only agree with the resigned tone.

Aria's smile, unlike that of her twin, was gentle and reassuring. "Yes, you do. I want you to track down this hacker, see where he or she came from, find out how they got in, and most importantly, who they are. The only real limit is, you can only work from the campus. We can protect you from legal consequences so long as you are working from here. Other than that, find him or her, and let me know who it is."

Allina nodded, and Niranjana could see the light in her eyes as she contemplated the challenge. Niranjana had more practical concerns, however, "Is there a due date?"

"No," Aria told them, "but feel free to keep me apprised of your progress. Maybe I can offer advice."

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October, Fourth Week

Contrary to popular fiction, computer hacking is far from glamorous. There are no 'hacker duels', no rip-roaring cybernetic speed contests, and the only adrenaline rushes come when police show up with their lights flashing. Violating a computer network in spite of its security requires far more in the way of bookkeeping, research, programming and tedious searches through long strings of numbers and code. The entire process was, in fact, routinely boring enough that Allina frequently found herself wondering why she bothered.

But there were those moments when it all paid off, when everything came together and she achieved that incredible feeling of sheer omnipotence. That was why she bothered, why she slogged through reams of data and rivers of code, for those wonderful moments when she felt like the entire world was sitting in her hands, her own personal plaything. There was nothing quite like finding yourself inside the security you had spent months analyzing and subverting, knowing that everything that security protected was now yours, to do with as you pleased.

At the moment, she was feeling rather more the former than the latter. She and Niranjana had spent a couple of hours a day, almost every day, for a month, and were making only slow progress. She had even given over two all-nighters to the project, when she thought she had some hot leads. They had, indeed, been hot, but the connections led only to more connections, more systems the two girls had to try and access, more security that they had to puzzle out. It was getting intensely frustrating, but that merely convinced Allina that the sense of victory at the end would be all the stronger.

"I do not understand," Niranjana commented one Saturday, after they found the high-security network their trace led to was just another relay point, and were back to slogging through the network's communications records, "Why are we having such difficulty? I know the movies are not accurate, but I understand police take this long to catch hackers, and if we are fortunate, we are, I am guessing, halfway to her."

"Cops have more resources," Allina muttered, slumping back from her computer to hang her head off the back of her chair. "They've got manpower, money, fair to middling computers, but mostly they've got judges. Go to a judge, tell him 'this network has information on a crime, I need access to it, these are the owners', and the judge writes up a subpoena. Deliver subpoena to network owner, network owner sets their own people to helping the cops, which gives the cops more manpower, more computers, and so on and so forth. We're doing everything solo. We have to break into the networks first to find out what our friend was doing there, and cover our own tracks while we do it. I know what's going on here, how this joker got in and gets around, but that doesn't help speed up tracking him back."

"What did she do?" Their difference of opinion on their opponent's gender had become something of an inside joke between the two of them. Neither was willing to admit the other might have guessed right.

"He's left fingerprints everywhere. We keep finding that same netadmin account, right? The one you twigged to on the school's network?" Niranjana nodded slowly, so Allina continued, rocking her chair side to side slightly, "he sets those up. May not even want anything in the network he sets it up on, but that network becomes a way-station, a sort of zombie. He can tunnel in to that network, then use the ID on that network to create a new, separate tunnel to another network, and so on and so forth. So he's got these zombies scattered all over the world, buried in networks, not doing anything but wait for him to call. If he's a good enough programmer, he could automate the process of creating tunnels – keep a list of compromised networks, then just plug in a random number of tunnels, and wait for the program to tell him it's ready. Do all the hacking from the far end of the tunnel series, and any traces will lead there, and the tunnels will terminate any trace attempts. Then the tracer will have to start digging like we are, one network at a time. If he's smart, he'll go around once in a while and just remove the network ID, after eliminating any traces that he's been there, to cut the trail clean."

"So, it will take months to track him down through all these connections? And we might still loose him?"

"Yeah, probably."

"What if she tried to remove all the IDs at once? Could she do it?"

"Pretty easily," Allina replied, wondering what was up with the question-and-answer routine. It was like pulling teeth, but she had figured out recently that it was how Niranjana thought out loud. "The ID set up allows him un-logged remote access whenever he wants it, so he can go in, clean up any traces, then leave a time-delayed command to delete the ID and log out. Slicker 'n snot. That's how I do it, usually."

Niranjana seemed to ignore most of what she said, specifying, "That would include the ID here on the school's network, wouldn't it?"

"If it was still there, yeah," Allina allowed, frowning slightly as the questions clicked together in her head. "You're thinking of trying to live-trace him while he's accessing the school network, aren't you? Good idea, but he won't go for it, and there's no telling when he'll try to access the school network again."

Niranjana shook her head, "Actually, what I as really thinking was... what would you do, if someone started posting on-line that the ID you planted was responsible for damage to their network, started asking if anyone else had that distinctive ID on their network, and any information on where it may have come from? We do that to her, she will almost have to try to remove the evidence."

Allina stared at her for a minute, eyes widening in comprehension. A shiver of atavistic fear ran down her spine, that sort of community call for information was one of her pet nightmares, one of the reasons she was so fanatically careful to cover her own tracks. Then the full impact of Niranjana's plan hit, and she smiled widely, "Damn, girl I love the way you think. Corporate types would give us info in a heartbeat, if they thought he was dangerous... especially if we promise to keep their identities and companies secret. Then we go on the hacker boards, float it about as a 'friendly warning' that suit's are looking for our guy."

Niranjana returned her smile, also nodding, "Hai. She will attempt to access the school's network again to clean up the traces of her presence, and we can live-trace her back to her source. Or at least, a lot closer than we are now. Even if we do not manage that, we will develop a larger database of networks she has compromised, and we may be able to find a pattern in that."

Allina let the initial flush of excitement fade, and started seriously thinking it over. It was a gamble, she could tell that. If their hacker reacted the way they were expecting, if they did not catch him in the act, he would be gone. He would be clearing out the evidence of his presence, and doing a thorough job of it. But it gave them a halfway decent chance of catching him before they graduated, and it was doing something, as opposed what they had been working on. The only problem she could see was the school network. "Beautiful idea, 'Jana, but it won't work. The school networks beautifully built for defense, and the processing power available's ridiculous, but everything's structured to keep intruders out. It's not set up to track people beyond the proxy server. We could do it, but that would involve tacking on some programs, activating some features in the proxy server itself... Aria-sensei could probably do it, but it would leave the school vulnerable."

"But it could work," Niranjana insisted, "and it has to be a better approach than this. If we had the manpower, or the legal access to the networks she's compromised, what we're doing would make sense. But..."

Allina waved one hand calmingly, "hold on, hold on. I wasn't saying no, 'Jana, just... not with the school's network." An idea was forming rapidly in her mind, and she focused on that.

"Can you use one of the other networks she's compromised?"

Allina shook her head, "No, not one of those. We'll use my Beowulf. Its programming's tricked out to a fair-thee-well, it can simulate a network easily enough, and one little address-spoof convinces the whole world that it's the school's proxy server. Only thing is, we'll have to get Aria-sensei's permission to slip it in between the proxy and the Internet, or there'll be serious connectivity issues. Oh, this is going to be good. I can simulate most of the school's network, so it'll look exactly the same to him, right down to his God-awful ID, and while he's 'cleaning up the traces', my Beowulf can track him right back through the live tunnels." Allina thought it over for a few more moments, solidifying the plan in her mind, beginning to list the steps she would have to take. "Come on, let's go talk to Aria-sensei, see if she'll agree to let me swap my Beowulf for her proxy server."

Tracking down Aria-sensei proved to be no problem. She and Lotte were strolling down the dorm hall when the two girls popped out of Allina's room. Allina only needed one look to realize the twins were there for her, and sighed, "God, what do they think I've done now?"

"Allina-chan!" Lotte's sing-song was so sweet and friendly it was scary, "we've been looking all over for you! It's not nice to hide from your sensei, Allina-chan."

All of the students had learned early on, primarily from Toushiro's selfless example, that defending themselves from Lotte's more outrageous accusations was sort of like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull. The cat-like sensei was completely unable to let such a challenge pass. Similarly, and unlike her classmates, Allina was constitutionally incapable of letting that sort of thing slide. "I wasn't hiding, I was in my room, with 'Jana!" Lotte just smiled wider, showing off her fangs slightly.

"I'll see you at dinner, Allina," Niranjana muttered, then bowed to the twins, turned tail, and vacated the area.

Allina glared at her retreating back, before muttering, "coward."

"We wanted to talk to you about one of your projects, Allina," Aria told her, putting a restraining arm on Lotte's shoulder, "can we use your room, please?"

Allina nodded, but gave her teacher a confused look as she opened the door, "Projects? I've only got the one, and Niranjana's..."

"Your project with Laura and Noriko," Aria clarified.

"The one you don't know about yet," Lotte added gleefully, "the one you started Laura on a few weeks ago. The one that would to get all of you in so much trouble, if Hayate-sama didn't already know about it."

Allina stared at them for a moment, afraid that they had found out about the documents she had given Laura, and that they were about to bring the entire world down on her head. Then Lotte's words sorted themselves out in her head, and she gave a slight smile back, "a chance to prank Laura? Where do I sign?"

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October, Fifth Week

Setting up their trap turned out to be rather more complicated than tripping it. Aria gave her permission for their subterfuge, and even went so far as to offer the use of something she called 'the foundation server' to attempt the live-track if their intruder really did come back, though they collectively decided to have that attempt a separate simultaneous trace, as a backup. That was the easy part, and the second-to-last step in their plan.

All in all, Niranjana was quite impressed with that plan. The first part was pure programming, and while Allina was reluctant to give Niranjana access to her Beowulf, she did in the end. While Allina constructed the simulated network, Niranjana took some of Allina's programs, and a few of her own, and assembled a carrier-trace package, one that would link back through the intruder's path and maintain that path long enough to trace it, no matter how many switches, zombies, or tunnels it passed through.

Once the simulation, the carrier-trace, and Allina's personal security systems were ready, they re-routed the school's proxy-server through Allina's Beowulf in her parents' basement in Buenos Aires. They gave that a day to baseline, to make sure the connection functioned smoothly, and Allina arranged for her parents to test that stability remotely and verify that her simulated network was running properly. Finally, the two of them went into one of the networks they had already traced their opponent through, and carefully erased every sign of his presence. All of that took the better part of a week.

The next step was somewhat amorphous. Niranjana accessed a few corporate network-security forums and boards under false pretenses, posting a rather formal notice of their hacker's specific methodology, and a fictitious report of the damage inflicted on 'their' network, identifying it as the one they had cleaned. The crowning touch was both a warning of what signs to look for, and a request for any information on the attacker to be forwarded to a specific e-mail address she had created for the purpose. As the first day progressed, she went back on the boards at various times to answer questions, thank those offering information, and keep the topic alive. Given her own relatively shy nature and inexperience at such social manipulations, Niranjana was rather happy with how well she put it together, and how well she kept it going.

Allina's half of the 'bait' step was watching the less legitimate forums and boards, looking for signs of someone warning their opponent of the search for him. She had planned, if no one else caught on, to start sending out carefully worded warnings four hours after Niranjana first posted, figuring it would take that long at the most for word to get around. In the event, and given the rapid and voluble response to Niranjana's efforts, it took a little more than one hour to hit the hacker boards, and warnings and accusations started flying fast and furious.

After that, it was a matter of waiting. Not trusting themselves to catch the hacker in the act, Allina had set her simulated network to trigger Niranjana's carrier-trace program automatically when the ID in question was accessed, and alert her simultaneously. It was a good thing they did, as well, for their opponent did not get around to trying to clean out his traces for a solid day, and they were all on their way to Kyoto when Allina's PDA flashed the notice.

They were sitting next to each other on the bus, using the PDAs to converse silently as the others chattered excitedly, and an innocuous message appeared on Allina's screen. She considered it for a minute, then rolled her head sideways, and asked, "so, do we want to be subtle and slick about this, or do we just want to scare this guy before handing him over to Aria-sensei?"

Niranjana glanced at her sharply, then at the PDA. She frowned for a moment, thinking, then asked, "What would scaring him involve? You have something in mind?"

"Your carrier-trace is running now," Allina said, turning her attention back to the device, "and I've prepped a few programs of my own, just in case. If you want to be subtle and slick, when we get back to the campus, we can use the info your program gathers, slip into his computer, gather all the information we want, and leave without a trace. Then Aria-sensei can unleash Vita and Zafira on the poor slob, and take us some pictures. If you want to have the fun of scaring him ourselves, however, how's this grab you...?"

She held up the PDA, letting Niranjana see the program name and a synopsis. "Gatecrasher – hostile system remote access and remote imaging?" There were two buttons at the bottom, 'execute' and 'cancel'.

"Gatecrasher. Collection of programs, really. First part just brute-forces its way past the target's firewall, gains admin access. Then a second program kicks in and images the entire machine, from current system-state to the entire contents of his hard-drives. Last part's a little number I downloaded called Darik's Boot-n-Nuke, it'll wipe any hard-drive – formats it, writes every bit with a 'one', then formats it again. Doesn't always get that far, but we should at least get system state and machine ID info before he wakes up and kills the power."

Niranjana was uncertain, "What if it's not her machine? What if your program just trashes some poor home PC that he zombified?"

Allina sighed, "Sure, fine, just take all the fun out of it."

Niranjana reached out and tapped 'cancel'. "Subtle and slick, please. I'll let Aria-sensei know the attack is under way, and that we'll identify the perpetrator once we get back home."

"Nah, I can do it from here," Allina said, "It'll just take a little longer."

"No Gatecrasher," Niranjana insisted. She wanted to be sure Allina did not mistakenly destroy an innocent victim's system.

"No Gatecrasher," Allina agreed, "there won't be any traces we were ever in his system."

It took her a grand total of forty minutes, once they had a target, to gain access. Niranjana watched over her shoulder, and was rather shocked by that. All the painfully dull slogging through communications reports, the careful foot-printing of firewalls, the tedious effort of digging through security protocols... and Allina cracked their opponent's computer like an egg. "How did you do that so quickly?"

"Beowulf," Allina muttered back, most of her attention on her PDA. "Two processors 're running the simulation, another's running your carrier-trace program and handling the school's internet flow. The rest are all available for combined hacking, and all the testing programs are automated versions I've picked up here and there. It's also one person's security, and one person's never as good as a network staff. He made mistakes, forgot things, did not have or take the time to properly plan out or test his protections. Just like I said when we found him, an amateurish and arrogant poser." She tapped a few more commands, then leaned back in her seat. "Go ahead and tell Aria-sensei. We'll have everything she could want to know about this guy and more by the time we get back. It's all routing to a folder on the school's network that only she and we will be able to access."

Niranjana sent the message, acknowledged the reply, then leaned back as well, thinking it over. All this work, all this effort, and just like that... "This seems rather anti-climactic."

"Huh?"

"All this," Niranjana said, waving a hand generally, "everything we've spent the last couple of months doing, all the work we put into it, and... it's over, that easily."

Allina chuckled, "nah, it's not over yet. We have to make sure the data we got is good, then make sure we can still get in the guy's system again to prove it, then catch him in real life. Then it'll be over. But yeah, the hard part's done. It's usually like this. Lotsa plodding along, then bam, done. But think about it, 'Jana. We just owned this punk, hard. We can do anything we want with him, now, and all he can do is go along. I know four different places I can let this info leak, and no matter where he is in the world, he'll be screwed by the law or worse in a matter of minutes. If he's in the US, God help him, and just as soon as I can, I'm going to let him know it, too. Think about that, and realize that, everything else aside... we done good."

Niranjana did think it over, and realized that Allina was right. They had tackled a difficult problem, worked their way through it, and between them created an effective solution. The implied power did nothing for her, but as she looked back over it and realized what a challenge it had been, she found herself becoming rather pleased with herself.

"By the by," Allina's IM message broke into her thoughts, "I get to call you sister, now. You have successfully penetrated and ravaged multiple computer networks in the space of two months like an old pro. You're now a bonafide h4k0r. Welcome, to the Darkside, sister!:)"

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Glossary of Terms:

h4x0rz: 'leet speak' for 'hackers'. Usually used as a joke or insult, since 'leet speak' came out of hacking's early days, but by now has become a painful cliché.

RAID: Redundant Array of independent Discs. A method, either hardware or software, for allowing multiple hard drives to function as a single disc. Some types allow for 'hot swapping' discs, so that if one fails, it can be replaced without having to power down the computer. Allina's network uses RAID 01 ('zero one', not 'one'), which divides the discs into two groups. Each group functions as a single continuous drive (a strip set), which is a precise copy of the other group (a mirror).

ISP: Internet Service Provider, the company which provides the connections between a home or office and the rest of the internet, usually a phone or cable company that owns the physical lines which carry data.

ICANN: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This is a non-profit corporation that functions as a sort of neutral arbiter of the infamous Internet. ICANN is generally only directly involved in top-level domains .net, etc), and not in the sub-domains (such as this website's domain).

Beowulf: a method of creating a supercomputer from cheap off-the-shelf processors, instead of custom-built (and extremely expensive) machines. Beowulf clusters are groups of common processors that are physically connected, then programmed, to function as a single computer. This allows processes and calculations to be distributed and thus simultaneously worked on by different machines. Beowulf clusters are currently, if I recall correctly, in direct and close competition with Cray-style supercomputers for the title of 'fastest computer ever built'.

Proxy server: a gateway between a private network and the general Internet. Proxy servers are generally set up so that a network only needs to purchase a single public address, which leads to the proxy server, and can then use any of a number of protocols and addressing schemes on the internal network.

Darik's Boot-n-Nuke: real program, available on the web, no kidding. Does exactly what Allina describes, too.