For her descent into Downtown, Matha dressed the part. She didn't try to blend in; instead, she dressed in her formal robes as a Force. Matha couldn't help being young, but in the ornate dress she at least looked like someone serious, worthy of respect. Though new to her training, she had mastered several of the mystic techniques that were a Force's staple. She carried no weapon, but the ability to conjure a ball of fire from thin air with her Foie technique was a more than adequate defense.
None of this kept the butterflies out of her stomach as she gave the aerocab driver the address of Crosseyes.
"That's in the middle of Downtown!" the driver exclaimed. "What's a little girl like you want with that place?"
"Just take me there, please," she said, keeping her voice calm with some effort.
"You're the customer," the driver said. "I can't say as I like it, though."
Matha was silent throughout the ride. The cab descended to the street in front of the ground-level club. Its name was written in glowing light over the drro, and brilliant red lettering in the window strobed Crosseyes' main attraction: "Live! All Nude!"
"You sure you don't want me to wait around?" offered the cabdriver.
"I'll be fine," Matha said, not sure she believed it herself. She got out of the cab, wincing as the pungent odors of the street his her nose. A couple of honeygirls prowled the nearest corner, while a beggar lounged semiconscious in an alley. The spotlight from a police patrol swept the area as the squad car did a fly-by forty stories up. Pioneer 2's journey to Ragol had only taken two years, but that had been more than enough for its pristine city to develop this canker within.
As Matha entered the club, she felt the same mix of fear and excitement she'd felt while fighting monsters in the caves of Ragol. Here she was, about to hire a neon angel to crack sealed government files, just like Kestrel on the vid-disks. Despite the seriousness of the matter, she couldn't help part of her mind seeing it as a big adventure.
The first thing that struck Matha was the music, a hard-driving medley of industrial-thrash that hit her senses like an ocean wave. Three stages provided an arena for dancers of both sexes in various states of undress to show off their talent; the music's strong beat made it easy for them to grind to. Less than ten feet from her, a male dancer bid farewell to his G-string and Matha felt her cheeks grow hot as she blushed. She quickly looked away, studying the crowd instead. More than one set of eyes was on her, she realized.
A huge, dark-skinned man with short blue hair and beard approached her. A solid-looking steel baton hung at his belt, and Matha realized that he must be the bouncer.
"Aren't you just a little young to be in here?" he asked dryly.
"I'm not here to drink," she told him, "or for the...view. I'm meeting someone."
"I'll let you know when I find out." She crossed her arms across her chest. "It's business."
"You buying or selling."
The bouncer nodded.
"Cover charge is two hundred meseta."
The posted charge was twenty-five, and Matha almost yelped at him before she realized the extra wasn't a con job but a bribe to let her in. Once she understood that, she handed it over.
"Nice. Grab a table, girlie, and I'll set you up."
She took one of the booths along the side wall and sat so that it took the least amount of trouble to avoid looking at the dancers. Why would people like a place like this? she thought. It's embarrassing!
Ruefully, Matha realized that she had no idea what to do next. Any of the customers might be a hacker, but how could she tell? And what would she do, just walk up and ask if they wanted to earn some meseta by doing a bit of illegal computer work? Not likely! On the holovid, the heroes always knew who to approach, even had regular contacts that could help. This was real life, though, and Matha didn't have the benefit of a tightly-crafted script the way they did in the broadcasts.
If only I could just ask some of Mother and Father's friends, she thought. But of course she couldn't, not to pry into government files that she had no business accessing.
"Hey, little Force. Leon tells me that you're looking to make a deal." She looked up, and saw a tall, soft-faced man wearing studded leather and a green headscarf leaning against the back of the other seat.
Leon? Who--oh, the bouncer! So this is what he meant by "set you up."
In her best Mistral Cyberhawk voice, Matha said, "Maybe. What have you got to offer?"
He slid into the booth, tapped a button that raised a screen which absorbed light and sound.
"Hope you don't mind if we talk in private."
"I'd prefer it."
"Good answer. My name's Cheff, and I handle the best talent on the 'net. You want security cracked, data lifted, systems scouted, I'm your man."
"I need to access sealed files," Matha said.
"Not a problem." He slid his hand through the air, palm down, indicating her request would be an easy glide. "Where are these files located?"
"My home unit."
Cheff's eyes went wide.
"You want to hack your own system?"
Matha shook her head.
"No; I have access to the computer. I just need someone to break the security so I can get into specific files. I can't do that myself."
The contact still seemed to be having trouble absorbing what was wanted from him.
"So why are you hiring a neon angel?" he asked. "A good commercial datatech would do that job for you. If coming here is some kinda lark for you, little Force, you ought to think twice. You could get hurt bad this end of town."
Matha tried to hold on to her temper, but she was under too much emotional stress and it snapped under the strain. The cabdriver had been bad enough and the bouncer, well, at least it was his job, but the fact that a cut-out for net-dancers was patronizing her, a crook warning her that something wasn't safe, that was too much for her to take.
"Do I look stupid to you?" she exploded. "Did it ever occur to you that I might have a good reason for being here? Did you think that if I could have gotten a computer tech on the visiphone to solve my problem without the hassle of coming here or the cost of underground talent I would?" If she'd had a drink she'd have thrown it in his face; she was actually trembling with rage.
"Hey, hey, take it easy," Cheff sputtered, holding up his hands. "I was just being helpful, right? No reason we can't still do some business."
Matha took a deep breath, then another. She needed this man; without Cheff she had no way to find a hacker. Matha forced herself to calm down before she spoke.
"Yes, we can. The files are from the government labs, and require a passcode and retinal print to access."
"Lab data. Could be tricky; been getting a lot of that lately and there's been military-grade security on most of it."
Inexperienced as she was, Matha recognized Cheff's statement as a negotiation ploy. By making the job sound especially difficult, he could ask for a higher fee.
"If it was easy, I could get into the data by myself," she told him. "Tricky is part of the definition of your business."
"Military security is something different."
"You're saving time and effort because I already have the data. Your angel doesn't have to fly a hostile system to retrieve it, only get past the security and encryption."
The man folded his hands, looking at her with new respect.
"One thousand meseta."
"I could hire a hunter to go down to Ragol for that much money. How about two hundred?"
"You don't need a hunter or to go to Ragol. You need a net-dancer, and their price is completely different. Eight hundred meseta."
"Done," Matha said. "Your commission comes out of that figure, though."
Cheff sighed theatrically. "You're breaking me, little Force." He flashed her a grin to let her know it was all right. "I've got just the guy for the job. Do you want him to access from a remote location, or can he go directly to the machine? Direct is easier, but if you've got someone you don't want to know about this he can hack in from outside."
"No," Matha said softly, feeling the sting of her loss rise to the top. "No, there's no one." She gave Cheff her address. "How soon can your man be there?"
"Two hours, at most."
"Then I'll be expecting him."
She moved to get up, but he held up a hand to stop her.
"Hold on a sec. Half of that six hundred is front-end money."
"You haven't done anything yet."
"Neither," he pointed out, "have you. The split gives you some investment in this biz--and it gives me the assurance that I'll get my commission," he added with a smirk. Matha realized that he had a point.
"I don't have three hundred meseta in cash with me. Will a credit transfer do?"
"Heh. If an agent for computer jocks can't keep a credit swap under the eye of the milipol, who can?"
They made the exchange of funds quickly.
"Pleasure doing business with you. Now, all I need is your home address and we're golden."
Matha told him, and Cheff repeated his assertion that his man would be there in two hours or less. He clicked off the screen and slid from the booth.
She'd done it, Matha told herself. She'd actually hired a neon angel to hack into her parents' files.
She wondered if she'd find the answers she sought, or only more questions.
* * * * *
The office was cool, crisp, and clean. Professional, even military in its spartan efficiency. The visitor approved. A cluttered, disorderly environment led to a cluttered mind, he'd found, and to erratic thinking. He distrusted the chaotic leaps of brilliance that characterized genius; inherently unpredictable, it was difficult to plan around, to coordinate the activities of others in accord with the fits and starts, the intuitive flashes that could arrive at any time.
Here in the heart of Pioneer 2's scientific establishment, such genius was almost common. The visitor was glad that, unlike the man seated behind the desk, he did not have to deal with it on a regular basis.
"You said that we have a problem?" he began without preamble.
"We do. Do you remember Grave?"
It took the visitor a moment to place the name.
"A scientist, wasn't he? On Pioneer 1?"
His host nodded.
"That's right. Biologist. He did a fair amount of the groundwork for us in the initial stages of the project. His wife was key in developing the astrophysics for the Pioneers, but it's his work that concerns us."
"His daughter is on board Pioneer 2. Her computer contains copies of Grave's files."
"Why?" the visitor exclaimed.
"Ostensibly they were for his use when the family was reunited."
The visitor's eyes narrowed.
"Ostensibly? I don't like the sound of that."
"There's no practical reason for it. It makes me wonder if we have opposition on the Council. The files are sealed, of course; we at least made sure of that. We also imbedded in the security a trace code that would inform us if an attempt was made to access the sealed files. Matha Grave--at least, we presume it was her--made such an attempt at 15:20 today."
"That wouldn't be unexpected. Her parents are missing. She'd be curious."
"Too curious," the host said, steepling his fingers. "I had a tracker put on her after the access attempt. The tracker shadowed Matha to the downtown area, where she went into a club called Crosseyes. I didn't know what that meant, but some of our underworld friends did. Crosseyes is a hangout for net-dancers, illegal computer specialists."
The conclusion was obvious.
"She's going to try to break the security on those files. We can't allow that."
"As I said, Leo, we have a problem."
"The solution seems clear enough. Remove the girl and the data."
His host frowned doubtfully.
"I don't like that. Violence on board Pioneer 2 generates questions."
"Not so many as leaving her alive would."
The seated man thought that over, then nodded.
"All right, Leo, we'll try it your way, for now. Just be sure the problem is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I don't want any more surprises."