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Freedom's Price

Part IV


"Exactly what are you saying, Ham?" Tyler asked.

"Just what it sounds like. Someone's got that chip locked down so tight you'd need Mother Brain to crack it open, or at least someone a hell of a lot better than me. Whoever did this up was a damned artist."

"How so?" Risa asked. She didn't know much about the world of computers; Tyler suspected her closest encounters with high tech had been with DLE robots and building security systems.

"Well, most people who set up security, at least high-level stuff, put in nasty traps. Firetraps, for example, utilities that tell your equipment to slag itself down, not just crash the system or crud up your software, but actually melt down the wires and chips and stuff inside the box. This doesn't have those. It's just a wall, a big, smooth, seamless wall. It's also a mirror--completely reflective. If you try to crash or degrade it, whatever you put out comes right back at you."

Tyler nodded, impressed.

"Would you call it alpha-level?" he asked.

Ham pursed his lips in thought, then shook his head.

"Nah, I don't think so. Beta, though, definitely. You can't really put alpha-level encryption on a storage chip; the hardware isn't there. Can't fly with the angels if you ain't got wings, you know?"

Whatever else Tyler knew, he was sure that it hadn't been Melora who had put that security in place; she just didn't have the skill. She had been given a passcode by her client, though, so it was likely she had subcontracted with a gridrider to snoop inside Luveno's system. That same person was probably the one who had encrypted the data on the chip--why let a second hacker look if it wasn't necessary? The data almost certainly hadn't been encrypted that way by LIM; Luveno's CompSec preferred more aggressive security measures.

"We need to find the person who created this," he stated. "Not only will he or she definitely be able to get past the security, but also there's a good chance they know something more about what's going on than just what's on this chip." He explained his reasoning, filling in the gaps for Ham and Risa.

"Hey," Ham said, holding up his hands, "slow up a bit, Tyler. You're telling me more than I really need to know here."

"Not really. You see, there's more I need from you, and you can't be totally blind for it."

For a moment, Hamdak looked nonplused. It was after midnight, he was tired, and he didn't want to get in too deep. He thrived by knowing his business and sticking to it. His curiosity got the better of him, though.

"Lay it on me, Tyler, and we'll see what we can do."

"I need everything you can dig up on a guy named Eric Stephens. He's a section manager for LIM."

Ham goggled at the ex-agent.

"Tyler, are you asking me to hack Luveno? Let's grab some reality here."

"Not the system core. At worst, you just need to have a look at his personnel jacket. Plus the usual general trace--news reports, hospital admissions, arrest records, city directory, you know the drill."

Ham wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.

"You had me going there for a minute. It still won't be easy."

Risa snorted derisively.

"Maybe someone who isn't scared of their own shadow could do a better job."

"What the hell do you know about it?" Ham rounded on her angrily. "Just because gridriding sounds like it's some kind of game doesn't mean it is, get me? A VR interface hooks your brain up to the computer, and the people who build security systems know that. You put a foot wrong and you get feedback that can do everything from singe a few brain cells to make your heart stop. If you get away from that, then there's other security code that can trace where you're accessing from, sometimes even identify you. Then the corps send out people like him"--he pointed at Tyler--"to deal with you. Or to put it in your terms, would you try to take on a DLE troop with a couple of Eyesores backing them up?"

"Chill out, Ham; I think she got the point," Tyler said. Despite the rage and the reddening color of the man's face, Tyler had a feeling that Rhys Hamdak was suffering from a solid case of doth-protest-too-much. Gridriders as a group fell by and large somewhere between foolhardy and suicidal on the bravery scale. Those who were cautious or who evaluated their risks with cold professionalism were relatively few and far between. Odds were that even though Ham wasn't a coward he sometimes felt like one next to his fellow hackers.

Risa, meanwhile, looked like she was caught midway between hey-I-didn't-know-that and I'm-gonna-ram-that-lecture-down-your-throat. Tyler gave her a look that said "calm down; we need this man's help." She knew that helping Melora had to be their first priority, so she didn't push the argument. It must have been tough for her, as Risa clearly didn't enjoy backing down from anything. Displaying weakness wasn't a good idea on the streets; it marked a person as a potential victim. That, Tyler had always assumed, was the reason most gangers put such a high priority on saving face. Their lives were a constant show of strength.

Only the best, the ones like Melora, shook that off. They replaced the image of strength with the real thing.

"How much?" Tyler asked, trying to get past the moment.

"Two K," Ham told him. "Five hundred now, plus the two-fifty for reading your chip."

Tyler had the feeling that the price had gone up about five hundred meseta from what it might have been because of the incident with Risa. He started to reach for his bank access card, then stopped as he realized how foolish that was. Paying with an open credit transfer would leave an electronic trail, "footprints" in the datanet that could be traced.

It was a rookie mistake, something so obvious it shouldn't have come up at all, but it had. Time couldn't do that much damage to Tyler's professional instincts, not alone at least. He couldn't stop to think about the psychological whys and wherefores, either, not when Melora's life was at stake. He needed to get his edge back and get it back fast.

He didn't have any untraceable credit, but he at least had had the foresight to bring cash. Electronic transfers of meseta that existed only in the computer files of some bank were not the only way of doing business. Sometimes, a few hundred-meseta notes was still best.

Ham stuck the cash into one of his brightly decorated pockets. Tyler often had wondered what the symbols done up in beadwork and woven thread meant, but he had always held back. He realized that his only contacts with the long-haired hacker had been in the course of business, and the thought brought an unpleasant taste to his mouth. Now that he thought about it, Tyler saw that the life he had walked away from hadn't been much of a life at all, little more than an extension of his job. Maybe that was part of why Melora kept at it, because she was better at separating out the work.

"So," Ham said with a grin, his burst of temper apparently forgotten, "are we gonna ride or what?"

They went back into the office, where Ham swiftly changed the connections on some of his equipment. He took off his glasses, slipped them into a pocket, and pulled on a pair of close-fitting gloves, their matte-black finish contrasted by the steel-bright filaments that flowed through them, the metal framework designed to follow the movement of his hands. Cords ran from them to a pyramid-shaped module, the main interface unit that translated hand movements and electric signals into computer commands. A cord also ran to a light framework that resembled a crown, as women's combat helmets were called. Hamdak put this on, too, fitting it so that electrodes pressed against his temples and the back of his neck. He then proceeded to strap himself into his chair, which Tyler saw was made of solid steel, though cushioned, and was bolted to the floor. An X-shaped belt across his chest, plus ankle and wrist cuffs, held him securely in place.

"What's that for?" Risa asked, curious in spite of herself.

"While I'm riding," Ham explained, "the computer sends back signals to tell my body not to move even while it translates my brain's commands into computer code. Problem is, if someone or something breaks through the defenses on my interface, or sometimes even if too much is happening at once in my area of the datanet, that signal can shut down, and I'll be flinging myself around the room. Knew a guy who killed himself that way once; he tried to hack the IMVE mainframe and tossed himself out a fifth-story window while dodging pulsars or some such crap."

"Fun with full-immersion," Tyler said dryly.

"Hell, I heard rumors of another gridrider that actually got his brain hacked and shot himself. That one sounds like pure spew, though."

He nodded at the computer screen.

"If you want, you can watch there what's going down. Don't get too worried if it blanks out, though; I've got the system rigged so maintaining the display is the first thing that shuts down when I need extra memory or processing power." Ham grinned up at them. "Well, time to fly with the angels."

He clenched his fists, pressing both thumbs hard against the first knuckle of the corresponding middle finger. Tiny probes extended from the crown, shining light directly into his eyes, overriding the view of the room with the images they projected. The computer came alive, the swirl of lights and colors on the screen showing Tyler and Risa what Ham saw.

"How can he make sense of that?" Risa said, confused. She had heard her gridrider wannabe friends talk, but never gotten a chance to see one in action.

"Well, the way it was explained to me," said Tyler, "the interface translates computer code into sensations of sight, touch, and sound. If Ham, say, reaches out and grabs something, he's really telling the computer to access whatever the item represents. Every action he takes is reduced to a fraction of a second's time."

The swirling colors resolved themselves into a kind of tunnel of bright, glowing green circuitry. A heads-up display appeared on the screen.

[LOCATION: RFC-A6 #4]

"He's entering the datanet now, logging on through the visiphone network."

The image spun, as if Ham was turning to see where he had come from. A chrome hand raised into view, made a gesture, and a curtain of video static blocked the tunnel.

"What's that?"

"I think it means that Ham's activated an anti-trace program, to keep any hostiles from following him home to this real-world location."

"Will it work?"

Tyler shrugged.

"It depends on how good a program this is and what kind of power the trace software has, plus the skill of the user at the other end if it's not automated."

Ham's flight down the tunnel continued. He burst out of the end and his perspective changed. He stood on a gigantic plain, a grid of glowing wire in a dozen different colors. The tunnel had become a hole in the plain's floor, and other holes opened in the circuitry, or out of the "air." Lights and shapes moved in and out of these holes, filling the sky with traffic.

"This must be why they call it 'gridriding,'" Risa decided. "Is that the datanet?"

"A visual representation. Everything moving is data, programs, even people."

A dodecahedron tumbled by Ham's virtual face, its facets strobing red and blue. Ham raised his chromed hand again, and an eight-sided solid like two pyramids stacked base to base shimmered into being. It spun in place for a split second, then shot off into the datanet. Ham followed it, flying through the neon terrain at incredible speeds.

"Search program," Tyler explained, "tracing the location of LIM in the datanet. You can't see it, but Ham is routing his 'travel' through several computers, following the route to one linked to Luveno.

A shining tower of golden and emerald light seemed to appear before Ham. He flew towards it, slowing as he drew near. He extended his hand again and sent tiny pulses of light towards the tower. Two winked out as they neared it; one did not. He veered away from that one; apparently it was some kind of warning beacon. Setting up more warnings as he went, Ham moved towards a point where shimmering streams of data flowed in and out of the tower.

[LOCATION: LUVENO INDUSTRIAL MECHANISMS]

Ham gestured, and a blue mist seemed to envelop him, obscuring his vision.

[FOG ACTIVATED]

He then stepped into the datastream and flowed inside.

Risa shook her head in confusion.

"I can't tell what the hell is going on, Tyler. What's fog, and why is it making us so hard for us to see--and you can spare me the puns, by the way."

I don't know for certain, but I think that he used some kind of program that makes LIM's security think that he has the right to log on to the Luveno network. It restricts his activities, though, including the scanning programs that let him 'see' what's around him." Beams of light strobed across Ham's form, but were obscured by the mist.

[SECURITY CHECK PASSED--ACCESS GRANTED]

Tyler guessed that had the security been stronger, the light would have shone straight through the fog, revealing Ham's true self.

Now that he was inside, Ham began to navigate the mazework of narrow corridors that made up LIM's system. Small chambers and twisted passages made up the corporation's systems, many of which were sculpted to specific imagery rather than the generic shapes seen thus far. Some of the areas pulsed with an angry red light; Ham deliberately stayed well away from those.

"Why is this even possible?" Risa suddenly wondered. "I mean, why does a big corporation like LIM put all their files where anyone with enough skill can just wander in and take them? Why not just have it all on a private system that you can only access from inside the building?"

The screen's frame of reference rotated ninety degrees, so that the gridrider was now moving in a direction that had been "up." Mirrorlike cubes covered with a confused welter of letters and numbers tumbled past him.

"Efficiency."

"Huh?"

"LIM's got thousands of employees worldwide who need to access and share data, as well as accessing the public datanet. Oh, there are some isolated systems--security mostly, and a few scientific research systems, and datafiles may have to be physically carried from one location to another rather than being sent over the public datanet on occasion, but largely the meseta they gain from easy access to information outweighs what they lose from 'leakage.'"

Risa shook her head, basically amazed that there were people who actually went through the calculations that determined which option cost less. She paused to watch Ham whip down the left-hand passage of a Y-intersection. The misty veil was still intact around him, but it was thinning.

Hamdak came to a blockage in the datastream that looked like a chain-link fence woven out of bright white light. He looked at it, a series of code scrolling across the heads-up display. Ham raised both of his chromed hands and violet flames erupted from each palm. Slowly approaching the fence, he pressed his palms against the barrier and the fire steadily ate a hole in the gleaming fence until it was big enough to pass through. This act, though, had worn the fog around him down until it was little more than wisps.

Beyond the barrier, the data channel widened into a spherical "room" whose walls were made up of black hexagonal panels. Electronic worker bees, system search programs sent out by LIM employees, flew to various panels, touched them with their front legs, and flew out through the opening. Ham slowed to examine this room, sending out more pulses of light to strike at the walls. One panel glowed when a pulse struck it; Ham swiftly flew over and touched the panel, downloading the file.

Instantly, more lights speared down from several directions. The gridrider flung himself out of the way of several, barely dodging the security code. Bees suddenly turned into armored soldier wasps, barbed stingers bristling, and flew towards him. Ham made a sharp gesture, and a field of red static surrounded him. Words flickered up on the heads-up display, but the screen shut off before Tyler could read them.

"What's happening?" Risa exclaimed.

"Ham must have set off some kind of alert," Tyler told her, unable to keep the tension from his own voice. "He needs everything his comp can give him, and can't afford to stop to tell us about it."

Risa looked up at him, wide-eyed.

"What can we do?"

"Wait," Tyler answered grimly.

They waited. Time seemed to flow by like molasses, the only movement in the room being the flexing of Hamdak's gloved hands and the spasmodic twitching of his head. As many as ten minutes could have passed like that, or as few as one or two. The worst of it, for Tyler, was knowing that there was nothing he could do. Forcibly disconnecting Ham by ripping the electrode crown off his head could cause nasty feedback and would leave the still-open datanet connection completely vulnerable to trace programs. During his tenure with LIM, Tyler had been sent after hostile gridriders before. "Capture for interrogation" was the usual directive, but in truth no one minded much when the target got gravestoned trying to resist.

Suddenly, a spasm ran through Ham's entire body, and he thrashed once in his seat. Then, the computer screen came to life again. The ankle and wrist cuffs popped open, letting the gridrider free to remove the crown and gloves and unstrap himself. He put his tinted glasses back on, slumping heavily into the chair with a sigh.

"I'm getting too damn old for this," he groaned.

Risa all but flung herself into his lap, wrapped her leather-clad arms around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth. Bouncing back to her feet, she said, "I take back everything I said, Ham."

Ham looked up, confused.

"Did I miss something here? Not that I'm complaining, but I still don't get it."

Tyler just grinned, amused by Risa's reaction as well as, admittedly, relieved just like her that Ham had made it back without incident.

"Did you get the file?" he asked.

"Yeah. I didn't get a chance to look at it though. That place was mined with heavy code. It looked all nicey-nicey on the way in, but the moment I touched that file it set off a load of reactive crap. Tracers, alarms, even a damn impaler. I threw up a full-on shield and ran for it. Lucky I didn't get my brain fried, or at least half my comp gear."

"That must have been a good shield."

"Oh yeah. Cost me eighteen-K meseta, but it's top of the line, the best my system can handle. Cuts off everything, even can bounce a killshot, for a while at least. Of course, I can barely see what I'm doing and it's so obvious it probably sets off system alarms in the next mainframe over, but if I need it it's not like I'm gonna stick around. Cyberdueling's fine for the hotshot neon angels, but as gridriders go, I'm a cherub."

He leaned forward and tapped a few keys.

"Funny; the file's not encrypted. If it was so important as all that, you'd think it would have been locked down hard."

"That is odd," Tyler agreed, suspicious.

Risa snapped her fingers.

"Not necessarily," she said. "I don't think the file's important for itself; I bet Luveno just wanted to see whomever came after it."

"Bait for a trap," Tyler mused. "That would explain why the security didn't go off until after you snatched the file, Ham."

"Makes sense to me," the gridrider agreed.

"So that means it's not Luveno that sent the goons after Melora."

"Not necessarily, Risa," Tyler noted with a shake of his head. "Most likely you're right, that the trouble is an in-house rivalry and the LIM brass just wants to know what's going on. It could be that they did take Melora, though, and expect her to have some outside help. Or, it might not have been the corp's CompSec that installed the traps, but Stephens' personal enemy, if he or she has the right kind of pull." Too many options, he thought. He wasn't ready to follow the twisted possibilities of corporate intrigue yet; Tyler wasn't getting any feel off what he said.

"We need more information about what Stephens was into," he said. "If we had some specifics..."

"Too bad Melora didn't put more about the job on the chip we can read."

"Well, we do have one file at least." Tyler turned to Ham. "Or do we? Is it just a garbage file?"

"Nah; they needed to have a fairly clean one. A hot enough gridrider could pick up on the file's status without tripping all the nasties. Can't lure in the fish with rotten bait."

"Let's take a look, then," Risa urged.

Hamdak obliged her, hitting a few keys which caused text to spill across the screen.

"Hey, far be it for me to tell your guys how to do this, but the thing that kinda jumps out at me here is that your boy Eric died two days ago."

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