Chapter 5: Hacker vs Hacker
(Alternating POVs, Sam and Willow)
I am growing increasingly frustrated here, though I have to say that --as bad as things are-- they could easily have turned out to be much worse. Yes, tracking one Buffy Summers down has turned out to be far more difficult than I could possibly have anticipated but at least I know she's alive... and, considering what happened to Sunnydale less than two months ago, that is definitely good news.
The problem is that right now I have too many things vying for attention --too many factors I'm trying to keep track of-- and I really don't know what's relevant and what should be dismissed as background noise here. What is undeniable is that the information I have been able to find concerning Sunnydale is more than a little disturbing and it is not something that can be easily explained.
Yes, my top priority is tracking Buffy down but she is a former resident of Sunnydale and that means I can't ignore what happened to that town... especially because I don't really know what happened to that town. What I do know is that the idea that a whole town could be mysteriously swallowed by a giant sinkhole makes no sense at all... and that's just one thing that doesn't make any sense at all in a long list of things that don't make any sense at all.
Even before Sunnydale was destroyed --if the data I've been able to find concerning the town is anything to go by-- the evidence would seem to suggest that there was something very strange going on there. In other words, there are just too many 'coincidences' around Buffy Summers for comfort, so many that I'm beginning to suspect they are not coincidences at all, so many that I'm beginning to suspect that they are in fact pieces of a much larger puzzle... now if only I knew how to put those pieces together then maybe some of this would start to make some sort of sense.
The fact is that --even though going by all outward appearances Sunnydale would seem to have been an idyllic, quaint, little town-- a closer look reveals a rather disturbing dark side: the number of death certificates that were issued on an average week seems to be consistent with what one would have expected to find in a city more than ten times its size. I haven't been able to find anything to explain that death rate and--to make matters worse-- a very high percentage of those deaths would seem to have been unexplained violent deaths that were routinely blamed on the most ridiculous explanations, explanations that apparently were never really challenged.
The numbers are staggering and yet there was no public outcry or national attention drawn to the problem... in fact --for all the violent deaths that were routinely reported-- the number of arrests that seem to have been made on an average week was way below average for a town that size and almost none of those arrested seem to have ever been charged with a violent crime. That is disturbing and is one of the many things I've been unable to explain in a satisfactory --or even unsatisfactory-- fashion.
At first I considered the possibility that the town's death rate could somehow be related to whatever it was that the NID was up to --a fact that could have explained a possible cover-up-- but it didn't take me long to rule out that hypothesis.
The fact is that the town's death rate predated the NID's arrival by at least a couple of years and it remained virtually unchanged after its departure so I think it's safe to say that the NID wasn't the cause... besides, the NID usually does a much better job of covering its tracks.
That means that I have to find a different explanation and that's something that's been hard to come by, though I have to say that if there was something strange going on in that town in the first place then maybe that could serve to explain why Sunnydale was chosen by the NID to begin with. After all, without such an explanation Sunnydale would have seemed to be a very strange base of operations for the NID. Let's face it, a quaint, suburban town in southern California is not a place they would have been likely to set up shop in unless they had a very good reason to do so. As far as locations go, such a place would just be too vulnerable, too visible, too difficult to contain and control and they must have known that.
That brings me back to the question of what really happened there. That's one of the things that have been nagging me, that and is there a connection between the town's fate and one of the town's former residents who just happens to have the Ancient's gene?
I know it sounds crazy but I can't stop thinking about it because, after all, what are the chances that a girl who just happens to have a genetic sequence that is to be found in one out of twenty to thirty million people would just happen to live in a town with such an unusual history? What are the chances that she would just happen to live in the town that was chosen by the NID as a base of operations, a town that was unexplainably destroyed? And, if there were no connection between one Buffy Summers and Sunnydale's demise, why would someone go to such great lengths to ensure that finding her is not an easy task?
I know that at first glance the idea that there could have been a connection makes no sense at all --I know that the idea that a twenty-two year-old girl could somehow have been responsible for a town's demise seems utterly absurd-- but the odds against her presence in that town being a mere coincidence are just too staggering to contemplate.
I guess the funny thing is that, if it weren't for the difficulties I've encountered in trying to track her down, I probably never would have realized just how unusual Sunnydale really was. If nothing had interfered with my attempts to track her down I would probably have found an address within a matter of minutes, instead it's taken me almost a week to come up with even a general location, though at last I've managed to do just that.
I've managed to track Buffy down to the Cleveland area and that is something, though I am yet to come up with an address --either permanent or temporary-- and that in itself is more than a little disturbing. The information I'm looking for should be readily available through at least half a dozen government databases, most of them easily accessible, and yet I can't find anything. That is unusual, especially because as far as I know the government has no real reason to make it this difficult for me to find her... not to mention that making someone virtually untraceable is not the government's MO.
Simply put, if the ones covering for her were government related, then setting her up with a new identity would have been a more traditional course of action --not to mention that it would have been a whole lot easier-- but that's clearly not what we have here.
What we have here would seem to suggest that someone else --someone not connected with the government-- went out of his or her way to make sure that Buffy Summers remained in the system but at the same time set things up in such a way that made it all but impossible for me to use that same system to find her.
Of course, I also know that it may well be that I'm reading a little too much into this situation. Yes, there's something strange going on here --that much is obvious-- but maybe there is a more ordinary explanation for the difficulties I'm currently encountering, after all --given what happened to Sunnydale-- maybe it is only natural that finding one of its residents should be this difficult.
The fact that Buffy Summers is a former resident of Sunnydale means that she has recently relocated out of necessity and as a result she may not even have a permanent address for the time being. It is true that, in spite of that fact, I should have been able to trace her even to a hotel but if she's staying with someone else her name may simply not be included in any of the databases that are available to me. That would seem to be a fairly logical explanation --easy and rational-- but in spite of that I can't help but feel that it is an explanation that doesn't really add up, not with the difficulties I've encountered when trying to access her past record.
No matter how I look at it, the fact remains that there's something about the obstacles I've been facing that would seem to point to something deeper, something that seems to defy all easy and rational explanations... now if only I could figure out what that something is.
Okay, this is not getting better... it's just getting weirder. I don't know who's been snooping into Buffy's records but I'm pretty sure that whoever it is, it is not someone connected to the Initiative and --oddly enough-- that is not of the good. Simply put, the way in which they are going about this whole thing makes absolutely no sense from the Initiative's perspective, or from the perspective of someone who has access to the Initiative's files for that matter.
I mean, the one thing that has become clear out of their search pattern is that --whoever it is-- it seems to be someone who is starting almost from scratch, someone who is looking for answers someone connected to the Initiative would already have.
If the ones looking into Buffy's background were connected to the Initiative they would already know that she dropped out of college and --more importantly-- their search for Buffy probably wouldn't be as focused on Buffy as it's been up until now. That is pretty telling because so far every single file that has been accessed has been hers. They have been pretty thorough in that regard but at the same time they haven't tried to access a single file concerning anyone but Buffy and that is what's really interesting here.
Even though they seem to have gone through every single Buffy-related file they could get their hands on, they haven't even come close to any of my files, or Xander's, or Giles, or even Dawn's, in spite of the fact that Buffy is her legal guardian. That neglect of everyone else's files is what first led me to suspect that we were dealing with someone who is not related to the Initiative.
The way I see it, anyone connected to them would know to look into those files, they would know of our connection to Buffy and they would know that looking for the rest of the gang would be a good way to try to track her down, and I have no doubt that they are trying to track her down. Of course, the fact that I know that they are trying to track her down doesn't mean I have any intention of allowing them to succeed, not unless I can get myself some answers first, and getting myself those answers has just become my top priority.
I may not know much about the person looking into Buffy but I know that we have picked up a naughty military snoop somewhere along the line and that that snoop is more likely to be attached to the Air Force than to the Army. I also know that that snoop is aware of who Buffy is but seems to be totally oblivious to the rest of us and finally I know that it's a good snoop --at least in terms of knowing what he or she is doing-- though the fact that I know it's a good snoop doesn't mean I can't vouch for their intentions. In other words, I have to be very careful here because I'm dealing with someone with whom getting sloppy could get me caught and getting caught is not something I'm looking forward to.
What can I say? After the whole Initiative fiasco, military attention is something we are all more than a little wary of.
Of course, whether we want it or not, we seem to have it already and that is bugging me more than a little.
I mean, I guess the idea that the military would want to keep tabs on us is not entirely unexpected --especially not in the aftermath of Sunnydale turning into a giant crater-- but the mysterious source is a bit of a problem. I would have known what to expect out of someone connected to the Initiative --I would have known that what I could expect would have been nothing good-- but right now I get the funny feeling that we are in uncharted territory and that's even less fun.
I don't know what we are dealing with here but what I do know is that, seeing how they are both good and persistent, I'm going to have no choice but to take the initiative here --no pun intended-- and do some table turning. I need to figure out who's looking into Buffy and why. I need to know what we are up against and if they represent a threat... and that means that the gloves are going to have to come off. The way things stand I have no choice but to go after them with everything I've got, the problem is that that is going to be kind of risky because it may leave me more than a little exposed.
Sure, I'm not completely in the dark here, but that doesn't mean I have a clear picture either. I know where the search is coming from because almost as soon as I noticed that someone was trying to do some snooping on Buffy I managed to track that someone down to Colorado Springs, but the thing is that once I reached that level I was reluctant to take it any further than that because it would have been too dangerous.
Unfortunately it's beginning to look like playing it safe is no longer an option. The problem is that their system is way too secure for me to break into it without using magic and I'm afraid that using magic will lead to too many questions if we ever have to come face to face with whoever happens to be doing the snooping on us. That's why I had originally decided to track them through their access to our own files rather than to try to break into their network but, the way things are shaping up right now, that's obviously not going to be enough. They are too persistent, they are too good and they are closing in on us so I'm going to have no choice but to take some risks here and close in on them instead.
I mean, seeing how they seem to be determined to be annoyingly persistent I guess I'm going to have to get persistent on them. I can do it, that's not the problem, but I can pretty much guarantee that they are not going to like it and the military is seriously lacking a sense of humor.
I'm staring at the screen in front of me, not quite believing what I'm seeing. Someone's managed to breach our systems and I know for a fact that that simply shouldn't have been possible. The encryption we are using here at the mountain is way above cutting edge. I should know, I helped create the encryption algorithm myself and --knowing the kind of secrets we keep here-- I made sure it was several times more secure than what most secure networks here on earth use. At the time I thought it was kind of overkill but I wasn't willing to take any chances when it came to unpleasant surprises so I made sure no one could ever get in without the necessary authorization... or so I thought. The problem is that someone has apparently proven me wrong and to make matters worse I have no clue as to who that someone could possibly be, nor do I know how am I supposed to explain this one to General Hammond.
This is just the last thing I needed after the week I've been having as I try to track down one Buffy Summers... unless, of course, this latest breach in security is somehow connected to her.
I know it's a long shot but it is also the best explanation I can come up with, at least for the time being. After all, I have one girl I can't track down because someone --a very good someone-- seems to be protecting her and now I also have an intruder who has managed to do the impossible and break into our system. The thing is that the skills required to protect Buffy would be similar to the ones necessary to break into our computers so I'm not really willing to believe that those two situations came about almost simultaneously as a result of some sort of coincidence. The problem is that now, instead of having to track down just one girl, I'm having to track down one girl and one mystery hacker about whom I know even less and that is likely to turn into a distraction I can't really afford here.
No matter how I look at it, what had originally seemed like a rather simple task --tracking someone down-- has turned into a maze where I no longer know what I'm dealing with and the truth is that that is more than a little frustrating.
When I first set out to look for someone with the Ancient's gene I assumed that identifying that someone was bound to be an almost impossible task and I was incredibly relieved when it turned out that that wasn't the case. The problem is that even at the time I failed to consider what that early success could possibly entail.
Yes, identifying Buffy Summers turned out to be remarkably easy but at the time I got more than a little carried away and I failed to heed the obvious warning signs. Sure, I was aware that she might be wary of the military after her encounter with the NID but I didn't recognize the other half of the problem: how she came to the attention of the NID in the first place.
All along we had been working under the assumption that the Ancient's gene would be an invisible trait here on earth, one that served no real purpose in our world but the truth is that as soon as I discover the NID's file on Buffy Summers I should have realized that that wasn't the case.
Buffy Summers came to the attention of Maggie Walsh because of her strength --a strength that was described as being well beyond anything that could possibly be explained by normal means-- and the fact is that the Ancient's gene would seem to be the most logical explanation for that strength... even if I can't figure out how on earth does A lead to B here. That is, however, one question that can wait until after I have found her, as is the question of how, if the gene is not invisible, did it go unnoticed for this long.
The thing is that as soon as I realized that there was a visible trait that was likely to be associated with the Ancient's gene I should have reevaluated my expectations and my course of action but I didn't. I kept treating this as I would have any search for an average civilian and the end result is that I seem to have attracted the attention of someone who is good enough to have pulled off the impossible and breached our computers.
That means that chances are right now Buffy Summers knows more about us than we know about her and I have yet another riddle in my hands, this one concerning who could possibly have done that and how... and oddly enough that may well have to take precedence over my search for Buffy Summers because if someone managed to do it, we can't rule out the possibility of someone else pulling it off. If it was done once it can be done again, it is as simple as that, and we really can't afford to take that chance. If there's a hole we have to patch it... though I still can't quite figure out how that hole came to be there --and be exploitable-- in the first place.
Breaching one of the world's most powerful supercomputers --one with security that has been reinforced with some alien tech-- shouldn't have been possible for some kid here on earth no matter how good they happen to be.
The enhancements are nothing obvious, of course --in fact the technology is completely invisible to authorized users-- but the bottom line is that there shouldn't be anything in this world capable of breaching it... and I do mean literally.
Okay, I'm in... and it took quite a bit of magic to get to this point, more than I ever expected. The problem is that getting into their system was just the first step, now I have to make sense out of that system and the amount of information I have to go through right now is more than a little daunting. I don't know what I'm looking for and the only thing I can hope for right now is that I'll recognize it when I see it because this system is unlike any I have ever seen and it's not like I can google my way through this maze.
Okay, so let's do it by the book. The first thing I have to do is to try to figure out what I'm dealing with here. Is this the Initiative Take Two or is it something else entirely?
After snooping for a couple of hours I think I can say that --even though I'm still not sure what these people are up to-- my original assumption that they are unrelated to the Initiative seems to have been confirmed, even if they did originally get Buffy's name from some of the Initiative's files. That's the good news, the bad news is that even though I'm not entirely sure just what it is that I've stumbled upon, I think that the military has bitten more than it can chew --again-- and the whole world is on the brink of choking as a result... again.
Okay, so we have one in the good news column and one in the bad news column... on the other hand, on the undecided column we have a name, an identity for our would-be-snooper: her name is Samantha Carter, an astrophysicist and an Air Force Major. That was the easy part, though why an astrophysicist would be looking for a slayer in a project with this kind of security, I have no idea. I also have a specific location for her. She is stationed in Cheyenne Mountain and officially she works for NORAD but as far as I'm concerned that screams 'flimsy cover story' and there's no way I'm buying it, not with the security I've encountered in this place. I mean, with a cover story like that they might as well put out a flashing neon sign saying 'secret military project here'. A little more digging leads to a different name, to something called the SGC... the Stargate Command.
That's a lot more like it though the question now becomes, what the heck is a stargate?
Well, I'm in and somehow I don't think it's going to be too hard to figure out just what it is that the military has managed to get itself into this time. Honestly, you'd think that after the Initiative fiasco they would have learned their lesson but I think it's going to take more than a pile of dead soldiers and almost ending the world to get it through their heads that there are some things they really shouldn't mess with... though, going by some of the dates I've been able to find, it would seem that the SGC actually predates the Initiative.
Well, I guess that the fact that so far they haven't managed to destroy the world is something else that should be added to the good news column, though it seems like they have come pretty close a couple of times and that is definitely bad.
I'm still thinking about that, just strolling around some highly classified files, minding my own business, when I run into one tiny little word that makes my blood run cold. It is a pretty obvious answer to my question of just what the heck is a stargate but I double-check it anyway, praying that I've misread it, even though I know I haven't because if the word that's spelled out right in front of me is what I think it is then we are in trouble here, deep trouble. I glare at the screen, just on the general principle, but the word is being stubborn and refuses to change no matter how many times I read it so --not knowing what else to do-- I yell for Giles.
When I broke into the SGC's system I had no clue as to what I was going to find, now I know but I kind of wish I didn't. I mean, this is bad, very, very, very bad... and I do mean apocalyptic kind of bad. I may not have known what it was that I'd stumbled upon but one thing is for sure: I never expected to run into the Chappa'ai.