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Fall Of A Corporate Man

Part II


"My name is Amie Wrayburn," the dark-haired woman told Tyler and Melora, "but I suppose you know that, being Rafe's friends."

"Actually, no," Tyler corrected her. "Rafe tended to keep his private life private." He had, however, noticed a number of holopics in the apartment showing Amie, some with Rafe in them as well, so he was fairly certain that Amie wasn't a plant to mislead them.

"Oh," she said, a bit wryly, as if disappointed that her lover hadn't been telling his friends about her. "Well, that makes sense. He never tells me about his work."

"Unlike these goons, we'll believe you," Melora told her.

Amie rubbed her wrists where the cord had bitten into them.

"What's all this about? Who are these people?"

"Rafe's been hurt," Tyler told her. "We think that it's connected to his security work. Those two were after the information Rafe's collected in an ongoing investigation."

"Rafe's hurt?" the woman exclaimed. "Is it bad?"

Tyler nodded.

"It is. He may not pull through."

A three-year-old could have spotted the anxiety in her eyes.

"I want to go be with him. Where is he?"

Melora shook her head.

"I'm sorry," she told Amie sympathetically, "but I can't tell you that."

"Why?"

"It's too much of a risk," Melora explained. "If those two find you again, they might force you to tell where Rafe's being treated. If you don't know, you can't say."

Amie opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. Her recent experience made her more appreciative of Melora's point than she might otherwise have been.

"All right," she said softly. "But...if there's any change...would you please let me know?"

"We will," Tyler promised. "You should go someplace safe, though, where you won't be tracked down by those two again."

"All right. I'll give you my portable visiphone number."

"I don't suppose," Melora asked, "that Rafe told you anything at all about this investigation?"

Amie shook her head sadly.

"No, I--" she began, then stopped and raised her head to look at Melora. "Wait; there was...no, it's nothing."

"Anything could be important," Tyler urged.

"It's...well, I just remembered that Rafe owned a little IMVE palmcomp. He almost never used it around the house, so I assumed that it must be for work."

The little surge of hope that had risen in Tyler flickered out.

"That's been checked already, but thanks."

"I'm sorry. I wish I could be of more use."

Melora laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"That's all right. No one expects you to be able to tell us things that aren't part of your life."

"I know, but...if I knew something, then maybe I could help you stop those awful thugs!"

"Don't worry," Tyler said grimly. "We'll see to that."

They checked through the floor before taking the elevator back down.

"You know, Tyler," Melora said, "I'm glad you're my partner."

"Me too. We work well together, and it's nice to have someone to trust."

The red-haired agent sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Men."

"What?"

"That's not what I meant at all."

Tyler had a feeling he'd just hit a bump in the road, romantically speaking. He did sometimes. Thinking with his head, not his heart was the right way to act as an agent, but in a relationship it wasn't always the best move.

"What did you mean?"

"That fact that we get to work together, share things. We actually have to talk about our day, because if we don't it screws up our work. I don't want to live like Rafe, where I love someone, but a big part of my life is cut off from them. I can't be that...partitioned."

Tyler nodded.

"We're lucky that way. Rafe can't be any different, though. That's the problem with a job that involves confidential information. He'd be a lousy agent if he came home and shot off his mouth to his girlfriend."

She squeezed his arm.

"Well then, Tyler, I'm really glad I have you, then."

"Yeah. Me, too."

The doors whisked open. Tyler and Melora checked the lobby before leaving the building, then the area outside. They didn't want to let the two goons go, then let them slip back in once the agents had gone. There was no sign of them, though. They'd taken the hint and cleared out.

Tyler wondered if they had any more idea as to their next goal than he did.

"Hey, Tyler, are you and Mika still on speaking terms?" Melora asked. Apparently she had an idea.

"Yeah; we talk now and again. Why?"

"I think I remember seeing the woman around LIM before."

"The hunter, you mean, not Amie," he verified.

"Right. Since Mika works for ComSec, I thought she could check through secured files to see if we could put a name and profile to the face. I mean, when you get down to it, we don't need to find Rafe's data on Martinez. That's their job. We just need to find them."

She had, Tyler admitted, a good point.

* * * * *

"We were supposed to be even on favors now, Tyler," Mika Triton said over the skimmer phone.

"We are. If you can help, I'll owe you one."

"It's after hours. This is supposed to be my home shift. Lila's expecting her first, you know."

Mika was a rarity among rarities, an aging gridrider. She was in her forties and, apparently, about to become a grandmother. She kept as current on the latest computer technology as any cyberjockey or neon angel, for the simple reason that she loved her work.

Which, Tyler admitted, was why he figured she'd go for it, off-time or not. She wouldn't be able to pass up the chance to dance into the system and pull off a hotshot covert op.

"We need someone we can trust," he told her. "We're looking at a mass of twisted office politics, with our old buddy Javi Martinez at the core of it."

"Martinez? Couldn't you get him to take the fall for that Iala project he messed up?"

"That's more or less what this about. There's been some fallout, and a friend of ours got hurt. Garrett wants us to find out who's responsible, be it Martinez or not."

"Garrett directly assigned you?" As a Computer Security Section agent, Mika ultimately reported to Division Chief Garrett, though her immediate superior was Kyle Dougan, the section manager for ComSec in the same way that Tyler and Melora reported to Laila Newcomb.

"With Martinez involved, we're trying to run this low-profile, but yeah, it's official."

She paused for thought, then said, "Okay, Tyler, you can count me in, but for doing it on my down time, you're going to owe me two."

"Deal. You're a saint, Mika."

"Nah, I just need the practice in spoiling people, since I'm going to be a grandmother soon."

"We'll meet you at the office."

"Okay. It'll be about thirty minutes. Bye, Tyler."

"Goodbye."

They actually beat her there by two minutes. Mika apologized for making them wait (she was like that), and hurried right to her IMVE Conqueror workstation. The computer was one of the best available as its base, and ComSec kept it well-stocked with cutting-edge hardware and software upgrades. In addition, like all the ComSec agents, Mika had also contributed a few tweaks of her own to personalize the comp and match her gridriding style.

"So what do you two need?" she asked as she slipped into her cushioned operator's chair.

"I need to match a face to a name," Melora told her.

"We think it might be an LIM employee," Tyler explained further, "someone who's on the payroll but strictly unofficial. The file would probably be secured."

"Sounds like it. Do you have the face?"

"Mika pulled on a pair of matte-black interface gloves and a virtual reality headset. Unlike most gridriders, while she did use a VR interface, she didn't go for full immersion, maintaining a definite sense of the world around her instead of having her senses directly overridden by the virtual world. This slowed her reactions somewhat but also insulated her from viruses like brainburners that were designed to induce lethal biofeedback through the VR interface. Computer security in AW 1272 could be as deadly as an armed guard.

"Only up here." Melora tapped her head.

"All right, then we'll begin by generating a composite."

On the Conqueror's screen, which Mika used when she accessed by way of her keyboard, a featureless Palman head appeared.

"Let's start with the eyes. What color were they?"

"Dark green," Melora said. "Like a Dezolian pine tree."

Mika manipulated a virtual icon only she could see, and two dark green eyes appeared on the head.

"The color's right," Melora told her, "but a bit narrower. And the lashes weren't as long."

Mika made adjustments. Once the eyes were right, she proceeded to enter the rest of the face at Melora's prompting--hair, nose, mouth, ears, chin, cheekbones, the shape of the skull.

"That's her," Melora congratulated the gridrider after the last adjustment had been made. "You have anything to add, Tyler?"

"Nope. That's the woman I saw, too."

"Good," Mika said, smiling. "Now we come to the fun part."

The computer could compare the digital image they had generated to any similar holovid picture in a datafile. The question was, what files were they going to compare it to?

Tyler and Melora knew a number of gridriders, illegal hackers who slipped through the datanet to steal or manipulate information for a profit. In a world where data was money, the ability to access and use that data was a great power. It was why Luveno had ComSec and people like Mika, to keep those hackers out and prevent them from costing the corporation the billions of meseta that the efficiency of datanet access gained for it.

This was also why the agents had come to Mika rather than one of their other contacts. Being inside the corporate system to begin with, Mika was able to bypass much of the security that kept out unwanted intruders.

"So where do you want me to look?"

"I think the lady is someone's sleeper, kept undercover."

There were three groups of people who carried out black operations, industrial espionage between Palm's corporations in the race to secure every last consumer meseta. First were security agents like Tyler. He, Melora, and Rafe were all full-fledged corporate employees, with the rights and privileges thereof. The downside was that they existed in corporate and government databases and would be more easily traced back to LIM if caught. The second group were the hunters, independent mercenaries who worked the shadows from job to job, switching masters with each assignment. The third group tried to balance anonymity with control. Essentially, they were hunters kept on "permanent retainer" by one corp or another. Their existence in corporate records was minimal, usually confined to a few well-protected files and their names known only to those who gave them their assignments.

Luveno's biggest rival, Scion-Colesburg Technologies, made extensive use of the third group. LIM did not, preferring the tighter loyalties of an in-house Security Division section to take care of shadow operations. That's what Special Operations was for. A corp hunter like the green-haired woman would most likely be attached to some private project that an exec needed done off the record. An exec like Javi Martinez.

Except, Tyler realized, that Melora had remembered seeing the woman in Luveno headquarters in the security offices. That didn't sound like she was working for Martinez, at least not directly.

The finger of suspicion landed squarely on Laila Newcomb. The Special Operations section manager had assisted Martinez in a black op in the past; maybe she was doing so again. Tyler wondered what the kickback would be, what kind of payoff would make Newcomb help an exec who was leaving LIM. Probably something immediate; the Bloody Rose wasn't anyone's fool, and would hardly risk her career for someone who couldn't compensate her for her services.

"Start with Newcomb," Melora added, coming to the same conclusion at the same time as Tyler.

"Hm. That'll be a challenge." Mika grinned broadly. "Good. If I'm going to put in time off-shift, it should at least be entertaining."

"Dougan still keeping tabs on his staff?" Tyler asked.

"Uh-huh. It shouldn't be a problem, though."

The screen depicted the Luveno network from a VR perspective, showing a spherical room made up of featureless gridlike walls. A heads-up display popped up.

[SCANNING FOR TRACE PROGRAMS]

"I tinkered with the scanner a couple of days ago. It should be more than enough to pick up any little surprises."

Tyler wondered if Dougan's habit of running surveillance on his own people wasn't so much a tool to keep them honest as it was a test to make sure they were efficient enough to evade the traces.

[TRACE DETECTED]

"I think I'll give it something to play with."

Mika cupped her hand as if holding a ball, then gave an underhanded flip. On the screen, a whirling, glittering star bounced away from her. A tiny yellow spark pulsed into sight and zipped after it.

[DECOY UTILITY ENGAGED; TRACE REDIRECTED]

"Well, we're off to a good start. Let's go!"

She navigated through the system, using her hands to guide her passage, occasionally requesting information from her display. On the screen, it seemed as if she was passing through glittering tunnels of circuitry, passing and being passed by streams of data and other users. Since they were already in the security subsystem, it didn't take long to reach Newcomb's private files.

"That's funny; I don't see...on, cute! Nice try, Leila, but it won't work." The view zeroed in on a tiny spot in the corridor wall, and Mika thrust her hands out and pulled them apart. The spot, as if being stretched wide, opened up into another corridor. This one was very short and blocked by what looked like interlocking security doors. Bright red letters flashed, "Authorized Personnel Only."

"Let's just take a look before we blunder in."

[SCANNING...TRACE AND KILLSHOT VIRUSES LINKED TO ACCESS GATE]

This part even Tyler understood. If there was an attempt to breach the file, a trace program would try to uncover the hacker's physical location while a killshot--a virus that attempted to destroy or irretrievably corrupt the core matrix of a computer--was sent to attack the intruder's hardware and software. Mika would have to work hard to bypass the passcode protection without triggering the virus trap.

"Okay," she murmured, "let's take it slow and easy." She extended her hand, palm up, and filaments of blue light snaked to the gate, touching it. Most dissolved instantly at the contact, but a few adhered. Slowly, tiny threads of light flowed outward from the contact points like tree roots spreading through the "doors."

"I'm infiltrating the access program," Mika told them. "My own utility should be able to convince the gate to give me the correct passcode, which I can then turn around and give back to it to get in."

Tyler glanced at Melora nervously. It wasn't easy for the two of them, action-oriented people used to solving their own problems, to sit back and leave something in another person's hands, but they were professionals, and fought back the restless energy and jittery stomachs.

After about four minutes--an eternity in computer terms--the security doors appeared to be all but completely covered by the blue filaments that were growing on them like creeping vines.

"Not bad; the passcode is not quite beta-level, which fits with Newcomb's rank," Mika explained. "I have it now, though, so let's try it." Her free hand tapped out the code on a virtual keypad. The glowing red letters on the door faded to black, and the doors hissed open. "We're in."

"Nice going," Tyler congratulated her.

"Thanks. Now let's see what--"

She was interrupted by a loud roar, a brutal sound that spoke of rending talons and the snapping of bone under powerful jaws. Then, in the next instant, what looked like a giant green dragon hurtled through the open doors directly at Mika.

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