Matha had been home less than an hour when the building's intercom beeped. She answered, and was surprised to see the image of a boy no more than a year or two older than she was. He had a shock of red hair that was spiked on top and tugged into a ragged ponytail in back. His sleeveless black T-shirt bore the glittery gold starburst logo of Firechild, Pioneer 2's hottest techno band, and his pants were olive green, baggy, and covered with pockets.
"I'm Kendric. Cheff sent me. You like to tell that to building security, maybe?"
"All right. Come on up." She keyed him in.
"Man," Kendric said when he walked in. "You've got one heck of a pad, here. This all yours?"
"You got any idea when they'll be back? Be kinda harsh if they walked in on me."
Matha clenched her fists tightly, fighting for control.
"They...they were on Pioneer 1."
To his credit, Kendric's face was instantly filled with shock and remorse.
"Oh," he said softly. "I'm sorry. Always been better talking to machines than people."
"It's all right," Matha told him, touched by the fact that he cared. "You didn't know."
"Yeah, well..." He ran his hand through his unruly hair. "So, where's the computer I'm supposed to crack?"
She showed him into the next room and his eyes lit up.
"Hey, a 6000DGA! That's a first-class unit, about as high-end as a personal system gets."
"Will that be a problem?"
Kendric dropped into the operator's chair, sighed blissfully as its contours automatically molded to fit him.
"Nah. You can install some decent security on it, but nothing that I can't deal with." He said it smoothly but confidently--there was a hint of bragging involved, yes, but mostly it was the smooth assurance of someone with talent. It reminded Matha of Blant, of the butler's ability to calmly confront and deal with problems, and reassured her because of it.
She called up the subdirectory for Kendric.
"Everything here is sealed," she told him, "requiring a passcode and a retinal scan."
"Presumably my father's."
"Okay, let's rock."
He opened a couple of his pockets and took out two disks that shimmered in the room's light. He slipped them into the machine and his fingers flew to the keyboard and touch pad.
"How are you going to do this?" Matha asked, interested.
"There's two basic ways to get by a security program. One, you trick it into thinking you're supposed to have access by finessing the passcodes or whatever the requirements are. Two, you attack the security program and shut it down. Security's just lines of code in the computer like any other program."
"Which one are you trying?"
"Never been all that sneaky. I say, go at it and take it out. Pinpoint viruses. Eat it away from the inside while putting a block on it so it can't give orders to the rest of the system. You know, stuff like 'delete the files if someone messes with the security.' Sec-net programmers love nasty tricks like that. Not that I'm not up to the challenge."
Matha watched as windows opened and closed on the computer's fixed display and two holoscreens, displaying streams of code and schematics that she couldn't make head or tail of. Whatever Kendric was doing, it looked to be equal parts video game and math test.
"Oho," he murmured. "Not bad. Cheff must have liked you; he should have charged another couple of hundred."
"Is something wrong?"
"Nah, just a little trickier than I'd have thought. Ones who did this weren't half bad, but this kind of security's meant to stop casual users, not neon angels like me. I mean, a home unit like this can't be accessed remotely unless you power up and link to the net, so a data thief would either have to lurk on overwatch for that to happen or bust into this place--and those security androids I saw downstairs weren't to pretty, so far as that last choice goes!"
He addressed himself to business for the next few minutes, and Matha stopped asking questions and just watched him at work. Kendric was definitely not a stoic; he laughed more than once, growled angrily when one of the holoscreens flashed red and finally thrust his fists in the air.
"Yes!" he shouted. "We are in!"
Text, formulae, and graphs began to scroll across the left-hand holoscreen. It made little sense to Matha, but she could tell that it definitely detailed a genetics experiment from snatches of text.
Tested sample DA607 today. It appears to have certain properties similar to that of a virus, namely that it appears to attack host cells and replace their genetic information with new elements. The sample is clearly not a virus, however, and indeed does not appear to be an independent living organism in any sense that we understand.
The next several screens' worth of information provided the experimental results to illustrate and support her father's conclusions. Matha skimmed through the hard science until another entry caught her eye.
Further analysis of the effect of gene therapy using DA607 and DA608 leads to the hypothesis that the genetic alterations focus on the brain. Specifically targeted would appear to be the centers which neurological research had revealed as having a direct relationship to the potential and actual strength to use techniques.
Genetic experiments which might increase a person's technique potential? Was that what it was about? No, Matha thought, there had to be more to it than that. By itself, genetic research was nothing new. In fact, the slim, long-eared race of Newmen had been created through such experimentation, even to the extent of, yes, increasing their ability to use techniques above the human norm. So no, that couldn't be it.
Matha glanced onward through the data. There were further references to the DA6 series of samples being used throughout, and she wondered what they were.
One thing was clear to her. In order to discover exactly what her parents had been doing, Matha was going to have to read through their files very closely, probably having to use the computer's online scientific databases as she went in order to understand even half of what was set forth in them. It was the only way she'd likely get a clear enough picture of the fear that Blant had felt and the secrets that lurked beneath the facade of the Pioneer Project.
Matha's thoughts were cut off sharply by a loud curse from the net-dancer.
"Kendric, what is it?"
"This security. Do you know who set it up?"
"The government laboratory, I believe."
"I've been breaking it down, and it turns out that there's a nasty little trace code imbedded in it."
She looked at him, bewildered but picking up clearly on the idea that it was something bad.
"What does that mean?"
"If you try to access this data and don't give the correct code or retinal scan, it shoots a message off to somebody that someone's looking where they're not wanted."
"Do you mean someone knows we're looking at these files right now?"
Kendric shook his head.
"Nah. Took it down when I cracked the whole security package, so it's out of commission. You tried accessing this before, though, right? That's how you knew the files were sealed."
He took his disks out of the computer and put them back away in his pockets.
"That's right," Matha told him. "I tried to look at them before I went downtown."
"Well, ever since then, you've had some eye in the sky aware that you wanted to get in."
Matha blinked, trying to process the new information.
"But they don't know what you're doing now, so it's all right, isn't it?"
Kendric shook his head.
"New to this game, aren't you? If someone took the trouble to lace a tracer into the sec-seal, you can bet they did it for a reason. Odds are good they'll follow up. Could be that eye's been zoomed in on you, checking you out. Crosseyes isn't a fave hangout of yours, I guess?"
Matha was able to follow the redhead's logic by herself this time.
"So, if someone was watching me because they knew I had tried to access my parents' sealed files, and they saw me go into a club that's a known hangout for hackers, they might figure out that I was hiring a net-dancer to break down the security."
"Way I'd see it."
Matha trembled slightly. Her parents were missing, along with everyone else on Pioneer 1. Blant was dead. She was alone, and now it seemed as if whatever forces had destroyed them were reaching out for her.
I did it to myself, she thought. If I hadn't tried to pry into my parents' secrets...What made me think I could handle something they couldn't?
"Hey, Matha. Yo, Pioneer 2 to Matha, come in Matha." Kendric waved a hand in front of her eyes. "You're in trouble here, girl. Don't go zoning out on me now."
His blunt speaking shook her back to reality.
"I--I don't know what to do, Kendric."
"This is your problem, but it looks like I'm stuck in the middle of it."
"But--but I don't..."
Then, there wasn't any more time to think. From the next room, they heard the noise of the front door sliding open and shut.
"Uh oh," Kendric murmured. "Looks like your problem officially just became our problem."
"You should listen to your little friend, Miss Grave." The voice was smooth and cultured, coming from the man standing at the door to the study. "Because, you can be very sure that the two of you do have quite a problem."