Tales about the other side of the screen
“Cortana, do you have time for us?”
A holographic image of Cortanas avatar materialized in front of a group of four kittens. One of the advantages being an AI was to be able to multitask very well.
“Yes of course, what can I do for you four? Is something wrong?”
The four quickly shook their heads, their tails flicking back and forth.
“No, no... we have learned something about the Grid today and we asked our teacher how the Grid started. She said we should ask you, you would knew a lot more than she would!”
Cortana chuckled but could not argue this.
“Yes, that’s right. What do you think about grabbing one of the small rooms near the kitchen so you get a comfy place to sit, it will be quite a long story.”
Cortana collapsed her avatar into a small holographic snowflake that followed the four young catgirls as they raced away. Just a few minutes later they had raided the kitchen for some food and made themselves comfortable on a couch in one of the small room near the kitchen.
Cortana unfolded her avatar again and sat onto a holographic armchair on the other side.
“So can you tell us the story how the Grid was made? We know that all things we made were designed in the Grid, so we were a little bit confused about it!”
“To understand how the Grid started you have to know it was a different time. When we started working on Jenga, it wasn’t much more than a couple of empty Modules, some of them with tents inside.
We had no augmented reality, no Exocomps and just basic life support. It was a start from scratch, without the help of the dwarfs at Hephaestus we would have never been able to do it.”
The kittens stared at her with wide open eyes, trying to comprehend a station like this.
“The company was founded by just a couple of Catgirls and me. We were still discussing about how to arrange the inside of our new space station when I started looking into software for our computer system.
We wanted something to build a few virtual modules, so I compiled a new instance of the Genaros Metaverse code and installed it on our waved desktop PC. Of course we had not enough power for all this nice graphics, there were too many catgirls for a single PC. I settled for a virtual world similar to the first Tron movie, very simple graphics and nearly no special effects, but we could handle it.
It was meant as a interim solution until we got more computer power. Of course it happened differently.”
Cortana opened her hand and a small hologram of Cathy appeared above it.
“Cortana, do you think you could integrate some simple structural analysis subroutine into the Grid? A few of us are worried that the new Module we are designing will break down too easy!”
The catgirl chuckled and Cortana nodded.
“Yes, we delayed the graphics update and added the first simulation module, but it was just the first one. From this point the concept of the Grid moved from a nice graphical toy to a real tool for doing scientific work. When we added the third, fourth and fifth desktop there were always a group of catgirls demanding better physics code, not graphics.
The Grid was called the ugliest Metaverse node of all Fenspace for nearly a year.”
“Yes, that looks really dull Cortana” one of the catgirls said, looking at the holo of the original design of the grid. “But you changed the design later, right?”
“Yes, we did. In spring 2016 the first Exocomps were created and Serina appeared. Everyone was excited about our new friends and we began to work on a new basic design for Jengas Modules. More flexibility, designed for easy maintenance by Exocomps... and a lot more computer power.”
Cortana smirked thinking back about the discussion for the reworked Jenga design. Serina had helped her to convince the catgirls about the importance of ‘redundant computer systems’ for each Module.
“Of course it took some time to upgrade all the Modules, and it took years until each of them had the three waved desktop computers I had asked for. But my computer network made a leap forward in speed and memory, and my collaboration with Serina taught me a lot about distributed computing. So we began to upgrade the code of the Grid together, with more graphics, more physics simulation and more security. But instead of going for the normal graphics of the Genaros Metaverse, we kept the Tron appearance and just upgraded to the look of the second movie.”
Her listeners smiled as they recognized the look of the Grid, as it had been for decades. All the neon and translucent object, the huge ocean and the starry sky had been there as long as they could think about it.
“Since then the Grid has slowly grown in size and capabilities, today its one of the more powerful Metaverse Nodes in Fenspace. It still lacks the photo-realistic graphics of Genaros and KoFen, but its one of the best virtual reality physics simulators in existence.”
“But whats about the land below the waves?” one of the little catgirls interrupted her.
“Oh, that is a different part of the story. Let me first tell you something how the code of the Grid was made, it would be too difficult to explain otherwise.
I am not sure how much you already know about how Catgirl Industries was founded, but in the mission before I had to defend myself against a hacking attack by an evil woman called Quattro. She attacked me and I was very lucky to disrupt her connection in time.”
Cortana did decided against telling the small kittens that she had been nearly killed or even hacked that day, they were too young for stories like this.
“So when I began to work on the Grid, I decided against running the stock Metaverse code. Don’t misunderstand me, the Metaverse code was a great work with lots of incredible clever ideas, but it had been designed with graphics and effects in mind, not security.
I made a number of patches to the code to fix some parts that had the ability to go very wrong. And then some more patches, and even more. After a few months my little ‘just setup a Metaverse node’ project had grown into a huge effort, with no end in sight. Lots of it were dirty little hacks to fix some possible problems.”
“Did you shared your bugfixes with the others?” she was asked and Cortana took a deep breath.
“I must admit I did not at first. There was still too much work to do, the code wasn’t cleaned up and properly documented, I just considered it a private project, nothing that important. But when Serina was born, she looked over the code and began to ask a lot of questions.”
“I had to admit that while I was good in writing code, I had been bad in documenting it. So we both began to do the project again from scratch, but this time we did a better job. We rewrote some core code with a more secure variant and we documented everything we changed with comments in the code.
I can tell you we were busy for quite some time, but the whole Genaros Incident showed that Metaverse could use some more security. But it took us until Autumn 2016 to get the first release together that we considered good enough to publish. Wait, I still have my email archives from this time.”
A large translucent screen appeared next to Cortana.
From: Cortana <Cortana@jenga.fen> To: Metaverse Development <email@example.com> Subject: Hardened Metaverse patch series v0.4 beta Date: 10:32:15 UTC, 15. September, 2016 Attached Files: 723 ascii patch files, GPLv4 licencing file Hello everyone, I hope this is the right list to announce a hobby project of Serina and me. I have played with the Metaverse code for some time, but never did the necessary work to clean my experiments up. But Serina convinced me that the Metaverse incident at Genaros was really bad enough to publish what I have done, so we decided it was time to get the code in shape for a public release. The ‘hardened Metaverse’ patch series is based on the current Metaverse development code. It still runs the same interfaces and is fully compatible with the current code. The three groups of patches can be used alone or combined with each other. The first part of the patches (1-317) are adding more consistency checks into the Metaverse node to node protocol. Most of these checks should never trigger in a well running system, but a failed check could be a sign of a hacking attempt or just a misbehaving client. The patches cost roughly 2.6% performance compared to the base code, but you should consider to merge them with the main code. The patches also add some comments to sections of the original code that we found hard to understand. Part two of our patch series (318-455) are additional security measures for the client code, including an improvement for the virtual machines to sandbox external code and a restrictive permission and firewall system. This should lower the probability for external 3D render code to influence the core of the client, block a lot of virus attacks and keep communication between the software modules to a verified subset. Again, this costs some performance. Part three is the largest part of the patch series (456-723), its ~60% of the changes in code lines. Its a rewritten processing distribution system for Metaverse. The patch introduce a two class system of nodes, server and client. The server nodes are working on a internal whitelist and are doing most of the work, while the clients can log into the Metaverse instance but don’t contribute much to the processing power. Clients don’t communicate directly with each other anymore, traffic between them are sent through the server nodes and their filters. The disadvantage of this is easy to see, the server nodes have to carry most of the load of the Metaverse instance, which makes it not feasible for open systems like the one on Genaros. The advantage is the improved security from the server POV. Its much more difficult for random users to influence the system as a whole or to attack another user with subversive code snippets. The servers adjust the graphics settings to sane levels and maintain the privacy of the internal mail system. We use this system on Jenga because we don’t like the idea that visitors might influence our cyberspace system. The Jenga Metaverse instance is limited in size and its servers are well equipped to handle the additional load. Feel free to comment and discuss the code, if people are interested I will set up a full git server where you can pull the patches from. Read you on this list, Cortana and Serina ---- This mail might contain confidential information of Catgirl Industries. If you find any, consider yourself lucky because some crazy cat at Jenga sent something secret to you.
“You would not believe the amount of mails we received in return” Cortana continued after the catgirls had finished reading the mail, “it seemed we had done something unspeakable evil. We had forked Metaverse in silence, we had done a patch going contrary to the ideas of the development community.
It wasn’t all Spam, but it was enough to clog our filters and raise a lot of chuckles from the catgirls every times we answered that we were still filtering spam out of our own mailbox! It took us a while to read through all mails and formulate an answer. Most of them did not like our patches because they killed the load sharing between clients and servers. They did not got it was a design feature for the Grid.
Some of them were more friendly, telling us that a lot of our upgrades had been rejected in the earlier Metaverse to ensure interoperability between new and old server and clients. Of course this diverse soft- and hardware base at Genaros made their hole system a real security nightmare.
We exchanged quite a bit emails with the developers, who decided to integrate some of our patches into the Metaverse and keep the rest of them as an external patchset. A few Fen on the list were still opposed to the idea, they ever tried to take down our software repository at Jenga, but failed to harm the system.”
Cortana looked satisfied as she thought back to the event.
“What we had not told anyone at this time was that the changes in the Grid were not our only security measure. The second one was Subspace, the land beneath the Grid.
The fight with this Quattro had not only shown me some examples for advanced hacking algorithms, it also was the prove that there were Fen out there who were better in hacking than me. A lot better! And some of them might not look for a fair fight.”
The catgirls on the couch look worried. Was Jenga in danger? Was their playground on the Grid in danger?
“Don’t worry too much, nobody has ever managed to break into Jenga and do real damage” Cortana added quickly and her listeners relaxed a bit.
“But when you expect to fight an unknown enemy who might be better than you, you should prepare for it. In the case of the Grid, we decided to cheat.”
The catgirls snickered. “You cheated?”
“Yes, we cheated. Instead of preparing for a fair fight, we designed Jengas computer to be as unfair to the attacker as possible. It is similar to the defense measurements your parents have taken to make sure Jenga will be safe in the future. A part of this preparations to defend the Grid is Subspace, the code that runs below the Grid.
I cannot show you how it looks like, because Subspace doesn’t run a virtual reality. Virtual reality nodes are too complex for this kind of security system. But it is everywhere in the Grid, like an invisible guardian who looks for someone attacking the Grid. It doesn’t matter where you are in the Grid and where the Grids own guardian programs are, there will be always someone on guard to make sure everyone is safe.
Subspace has full authority over the Grid, down the the very hardware the system is running on. Serina and me made it as sneaky and its claws as sharp as we could, so it would make sure the Grid stays the safe playground you all know.”
“Have you ever fought someone in the Grid Cortana? With Subspace?” one of the catgirls asked with a vicious grin.
“The Fenspace Interwave is very chaotic, small hacking attacks happen nearly all the time. But most of them never even go through our firewall. Some of them manage to get into the Grid, but the guardians, Serina and me take care of most of them.
Only two times Subspace was involved at all. In both cases the attacks were very sneaky attack weapons, that were able to hide from the Guardians when they finally were detected by Subspace. Both of them were removed from the Grid nearly instantly.”
“But how does this Subspace work?” one of her listeners asked.
“I cannot explain this to you, you still have a lot to learn about computer programming and other things. Serina and me are constantly changing small parts of subspace or even run simulated battles against it. Security work is never done, neither with software nor engineering. So when someone tells you something is ‘as safe as it can be’, ask when this was checked or improved the last time.”
Cortana smiled as she saw the mischievous grin on the catgirls faces. She always had liked the idea of more curious catgirls on Jenga, but she never had an idea how fun it could become with children on board of the station.
The kittens looked at each other. Food was gone, nothing to drink left and the story was over.
“Thanks for the story Cortana, see you next time” one of them said with a grin and they all rushed out of the room.
Cortana chuckled and shook her head.
“Kids these days...”