"Bits and pieces," Kemet complained. "That's all we have, bits and pieces."
"Some of them, though, are starting to add up."
They were back at the safehouse again, caught in the stages of analysis, planning, and preparation that punctuated the action on a job. The problem was, on this job too much of the preparation was figuring out what the hell to do next.
"We know that the hunters that hit us at the park are working for SDE security. Why they're using hunters I'm not sure--"
"Street contacts," Nima said. "They could have found Garriner's location a lot faster than suits could."
"Plus," Kem contributed, "SDE isn't big enough to have built up a really effective black-ops section. The big boys like LIM or Nakagaki have more assets than a regional government, but for SDE it's pretty unlikely they'd be effective as a corp if they put enough of their budget into security to use it as a weapon."
That played out; it was why companies like Argus Protective Services, Emerald Legion, and Red Blade Security could thrive.
"Anyway, that's them, the 'official' pursuit. That means whomever was waiting in the warehouse wasn't from SDE. They were much more effective than the hunters and had resources, like the Bane Spikes, the hunters didn't have or use."
Of course, that still left a large number of possible suspects, including Nakagaki and the ever-popular "Mr. X," but at least it was a step in the right direction.
"Next, of course, we have Martin Bright. Miss Dumont--"
She smiled wryly.
"I think by now that 'Ashlyn' would do."
"You said that you recognized him from the name and Garriner's description."
"Yes. He's a researcher attached to the paratech project, one of the team sent by Nakagaki to work with our people. I'd rated him as young, enthusiastic, and talented, very intelligent but occasionally prone to mistakes because of overzealousness. I hadn't expected him to be a recruiter, but it makes sense that someone on the Nakagaki side would be looking to pick up a little bit extra. Industrial espionage is a fact of life, and SDE does have a good reputation, which would make us 'theftworthy.'"
Redflare noted that Dumont was still using terms like "us" to refer to SDE.
"So we assume that Bright observed Ashlyn while he was working on the project, concluded that she'd go along with an extraction, and went to Garriner to arrange it?"
"That sounds like a plausible sequence of events," Isis said.
"The question remains, though, was the fair Ashlyn meant to be extracted," Kemet chimed in, "or was she set up along the way?"
"There's one way to find out," Redflare said. "We trace Bright's activities inside the corp. Nima?"
The Motavian girl blinked.
"Can you get into Nakagaki and see what Martin Bright is up to?"
Nima's ears twitched, and she shifted in her seat restlessly.
"Redflare, that's Nakagaki you're talking about. They're the number-one maker of computer security measures on the planet. They may not have the personnel of LIM's ComSec unit or the ultramod hardware of IMVE, but the system itself is the scariest thing this side of the government! In order to see if they set us up, I'd have to crack into files on their black operations, and you know that'll be about the best-protected data there is in the mainframe!"
She was scared, Redflare realized, and with good reason. Computer security didn't end with data encryption and access locks. The programs used to attack hackers were proactive, striking out at them. Killshot viruses could cripple or destroy a gridrider's computer while other programs more subtly corrupted or altered its data. Trace programs would seek to pinpoint a gridrider's physical location, so that a team of corporate hard men could be sent to capture or just exterminate the intruder. These were all problems, but they weren't what had Nima trembling in her seat.
Like most high-end gridriders, Nima used a full-immersion virtual reality interface to enter the datanet. This drastically increased her response time by allowing her to perceive and execute complex computer functions as physical actions, actually "becoming" part of the online world. That connection involved creating links with Nima's brain to transmit and receive signals, though, and through these links a hacker could be attacked. More than one gridrider had been driven insane or killed outright by aggressive computer security that didn't bother destroying the computer but instead went after the operator.
"Is it impossible?" Redflare asked.
"No, but...I don't like my chances. I'd want some new software if I was going to even try it, and that would take too much time to arrange...unless..."
She sat upright in her seat.
"What if I had someone else help? I have a contact who might be able to run it with me and together we could have a pretty good chance."
"Is this person trustworthy?" Dumont asked.
"Yes--or, at least, as much as I can trust anyone who isn't a personal friend."
"I'm for it," Redflare said. "We need that information on Bright and his ties to Nakagaki. Guys?"
"Nima's the computer expert. If she's in favor, then I'm okay with a little subcontracting."
"Do we have sufficient funds to pay this individual?" Isis wondered. "If he or she is a first-class gridrider, then their services would not come cheaply, especially for a high-risk job of this nature."
Nima glanced down.
"I don't know. It could be expensive."
"So could getting killed," Kem said. "I've got a K's worth of blank credit I can contribute."
"You need to save more of your meseta, Kemet, instead of carousing it away."
"Life is not meant to be wasted, sister dear; I prefer to enjoy it while it lasts."
Between Nima and Isis, the team came up with another seventeen thousand in immediately accessible meseta that they could offer. Redflare, who wouldn't have gotten involved in the job in the first place if he'd had enough in his pocket for the rent, felt damned guilty anyway for not being able to help.
"Don't worry about it," Kemet told him. "We're a team. That means we cover each other's backsides."
"The problem is, it's been mine needing cover twice in a row now. I'd kinda like to reverse that trend."
"None of us is doing particularly well right now," Dumont pointed out. "Hopefully, our luck will come around. If it doesn't, fixing blame for our troubles will be the least of our worries." Smoothly, she rose from her seat and strode out of the room. There was something to her exit of the queen leaving her followers to resolve things for her.
Then again, they all had to let Nima handle things this time.
"Well," Redflare summed it up, "I guess that settles that. Nima, it's your game from here."
She rose from her seat, tossed back the last of her coffee, set aside the cup, and went over to the computer--which, Redflare realized, bore the black triangle logo of Nakagaki. He winced at the irony as Nima hooked herself up to the VR rig, donning eyepiece and gloves, then hooking up the electrodes which provided the link to her central nervous system. Undoubtedly the interface had been modified from the Palman norm in order to suit her Motavian physiology.
"All right," she said, "let's do it." She made a curious gesture with her fingers and sagged limply into the chair. As Redflare understood it, the interface translated the electrical commands of her brain into computer commands, while at the same time provided feedback that told her muscles not to move in response to those commands. Nima was strapped into her chair in case the feedback circuits were deactivated so that she didn't fling herself about and hurt herself. The screen displayed nothing; Nima's visual images were conveyed by the interface rig and an on-screen display was just a waste of computing power. What she saw and what she was doing were left entirely to the team's imagination.
* * *
Nima actually knew two methods of getting in touch with the gridrider she wanted to hire. Since the team was in a tight spot, she decided to use the one that was earmarked for urgent requests. Nima glided through the local datanet, soaring over the "grid" of electric green bars that represented the Camineet regional communications system. Each of the servers linked to that system appeared on the grid, some of which had their own unique appearance for the benefit of those using VR interfaces and others which took the generic shapes of geometric solids. It was one of the latter that Nima picked. Data streamed in and out of doors in the slowly rotating torus like showers of glittering starfall and she dove in.
This server was operated by the Camineet Academy, and controlled a number of functions--online library, student database, the complete set of downloads from the media office. There were a couple of tight nexus points choked with beta-level security which linked to subsidiary servers, ones that were used by the research departments and occasionally held valuable data, but Nima wasn't interested in them. Her goal was the student message center.
The message center looked like a giant, arched room with several more geometric solids drifting lazily through it. Each was a different forum, where text, voice, or audivis messages could be posted from a computer or visiphone. The only real difference between them was that each had its own overarching theme and general membership. There were political forums, technical forums, education forums, even forums dedicated to hobbies. It didn't matter which one she picked, so Nima hopped whimsically onto a pop-music board and posted a text rant that Sultan was twice as good a guitarist behind Jinn Krystal than Emir ever had been. In that rant, she embedded a couple of key phrases.
She figured that the gridrider kept an automated program in the message center constantly scanning the forums for the relevant code words, beaming the info back when it was found. It was the only way Nima could explain how, once she left the Academy server, a link popped open in front of her and all but carried her off to a service node. Inside the featureless sphere was a silver-chrome figure, faceless and sexless, the most generic VR image possible for a gridrider. It gestured, and golden light played over Nima's "body," scanning her.
"Hello, Nima." The voice sounded happy, having confirmed her identity. The chromed figure began to shift and change, the outlines turning female, like a glass sculpture with a smoky red interior. Five pairs of golden wings sprouted from her back, each feather showing a level of detail and precision that, had she been real, would have extended to the microscopic level, beyond Nima's equipment's ability to perceive.
Nima couldn't help it. She always got quivers up and down her spine when talking to this gridrider. This wasn't just a hacker, this was the hacker, Angel Red, the legend who'd given rise to the angel slang often used to describe gridriders. In a field where even the best either retired, fell behind the technology curve, or crashed and burned inside of ten years, she'd been at the top for more than twenty.
Rumors about Angel Red had swarmed the datanet for generations of hackers. Some said Red was male, others female. There was a persistent theory (maintained by young hotshots who figured anyone two years older than they were was over the hill) that it wasn't a single individual but a title passed on from gridrider to gridrider. Others speculated that she was an AI, even that she was Mother Brain herself using the persona to check up on her society to discover things her government wouldn't tell her.
The story Nima found most entertaining was that Angel Red wasn't a "who" at all. People claimed that she was actually some kind of avatar of the datanet, a Ghost in the Machine, a true neon angel in the literal sense of the word.
Nima didn't actually believe in any of the rumors. She'd never met Angel Red in real life but had interacted with her often enough online that she was sure the legend was just one single gridrider who was very, very good. That was special enough in and of itself, without the need for the supernatural or conspiracy theories.
"So, Nima, you have an urgent job offer?"
She nodded. Online, she didn't appear as herself; other users with VR interfaces saw a prime example of a now-extinct species from her race's home planet: a native Motavian blue dragon. Her "nod" was an up-and-down bob of its head on a sinuous neck.
"I'm glad you weren't busy, because my team and I are in something of a bind. We've landed on the wrong side of someone who looks pretty big and nasty. I need..." She hesitated, afraid for a second that even the legendary Angel Red might back off from the job she had in mind. "I need to do a run on Nakagaki, and it's going to involve flying in where they keep their black ops data."
"So I'll have to go fighting alpha-level security in a major corp system?"
"I'll come along to help," Nima said, "but I can't do it alone."
"Sounds like fun!" Angel replied. "I haven't played with Nakagaki in a while."
"How much will it cost?"
"Oh, ten thousand meseta should cover it."
"Only ten?" Nima said, unable to help herself.
"Did you want to pay more?" Angel Red asked, apparently with genuine curiosity.
"No, I just...well, I thought it would cost a lot more."
"I save those prices for when I work for the corps. Is it a deal?"
"Great! Let's have the details and spread our wings!"