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Magic Man

Chapter Twelve


The Nakagaki Corporation's mainframe was connected to the datanet so the public could access ads, media relations, tech support, publicly available financial records, and other things that consumers were interested in. Getting from there to more sensitive areas, open only to internal corporate eyes, required a person to bypass security. The office drones all linked from inside the system, so the "front door" was tightly sealed. Just finding the data channel had been difficult enough, but the two gridriders managed it, backtracking the flow of commands that updated one of the public sites.

The data channel was blocked by a shimmering grid of crackling red electricity, a fairly standard form of security barrier. The gridriders paused for a moment, and then Angel Red snapped her wings forward, releasing a shower of golden feathers. They floated into the grid, most of them sparking and vanishing as they struck it, but one did not. The grid opened up, the bars bending outward to form a hole in the center. Angel had snowed the system into accepting a false passcode.

They dove into the tunnel of gleaming light and followed it through the twisting channels of the data connections. Nima did a quick system interrogation and teased a location map out of it. On the way, they passed through several more security grids, generally at nexus points between different areas of the system. Most likely they were there to keep the wageslaves from playing in each other's areas--the finance people could do all they wanted in their area of the system but couldn't get over into, say, marketing without a passcode...or a hacker.

Eventually, they arrived in Human Resources. Security on the personnel files wasn't quite so passive, Nima soon realized as they entered what looked like a giant pyramidal room.

"We're in look-but-don't-touch terrain, now," Angel Red said. "We can access the files and review them, but any attempt to download or change will trigger the next level of security."

"Can we fight it off?"

"Oh, certainly, but the activation of auxiliary security will trigger a system-response alert, which will make things all the harder when we try for the big prize."

"Yeah, that would be bad."

The blue dragon opened its jaws and belched out a swirl of green-tipped crimson flames. The fireball, actually a search program, spun around Nima once and then started to skitter across the walls of the pyramid, which appeared to be made of obsidian blocks, each of which was a datafile. After a few seconds, the fireball burst in a flare, highlighting a file.

Even though the program was Nima's, and so had transmitted the search results to her, Angel Red was actually ahead of her, soaring up to the datafile and touching the block with one liquid crystal hand. Her sheer speed within the system amazed the Motavian; a VR interface made a computer user fast by narrowing the gap between the brain's commands and the time in which those commands were received by the machine, a gap which could be quite large in the case of a keyboard user, but it was almost like the neon angel didn't have any lag at all, her actions coming at the speed of thought.

Does she have some hot new interface, or is it just sheer skill? Nima wondered, and then stopped wondering and got back to the business at hand. Text and images displayed themselves in the block just as they would have been on her computer screen had she been sitting at a terminal. She adjusted her vision to zoom in and started to read. She couldn't copy the file without risking a fight with security, but there was nothing to keep her from making a memo file of the information--the digital equivalent of sitting at her desk, writing down what she read in the file with a pencil and notepad. Security wouldn't get triggered, because she wasn't doing anything to the actual datafile; the "notes" were all internal. The downside was that this method took time (during which she could be discovered, say by someone else checking up on Bright's file) and was vulnerable to user error.

Martin Bright, at least according to Nakagaki, was twenty-seven years old. He'd been born in a suburb of Eppi, excelled in school in mathematics, science, and creative writing, and had accepted a corporate scholarship to university. He'd interned during his summers before dutifully joining the Nakagaki fold after graduation. He'd worked in the main office in Eppi as a junior researcher, then was bumped up a grade and transferred to Camineet. Bright's intelligence factor was high, not quite genius level, and he also ranked highly in creativity and imagination, which was a good combination for someone in R&D. The most critical thing she could find was that he was something of a dreamer and it was recommended he be paired with a detail-oriented assistant to make certain that his methodology was not corrupted. His current work assignment was listed as Project R01073, at the Sarranas Development Enterprises research facility in Venadar.

"I wish we could tell what that project number means," Nima remarked, "but you can't access it from personnel files. We would have to crack the research section to get the data."

"It is an R&D number, however," Angel Red verified. "Bright isn't assigned to security or any other section, and his file is here, unsealed, in the personnel database."

"It could be a cover for his real activities."

"True, though this file doesn't have any links or flags indicating a connection to something else, and I looked carefully. It feels like Bright is exactly what he purports to be. You're right, though; we can't know for certain without checking their shadow files."

"Yeah..." Nima murmured nervously. "Let's do it."

It was one of the incongruities of life in the corporate world that records would be kept of illegal activities, records that private parties could use for blackmail, other corps could use in a media blitz to cripple their opponents' stock price or at least force them to spend valuable meseta on a publicity spin, and the cops could use as evidence in court. Black ops datafiles had been the final spike in the coffin for Eppi Products, Inc. in 1266; what had then been the planet's number-three corp had seen many of its executives jailed and its subsidiaries snapped up by rivals at rock-bottom prices before its creditors moved in and finished the job.

The problem for the corps was that such records were necessary. A megaconglomerate like Nakagaki had more assets than a nation did before the advent of the unified system government. Records had to be kept so that the results of industrial espionage could be integrated into the rest of corporate operations, so whatever was gained by the illegal acts could be used productively. Even the shadow world of hunters and gridriders had to bow to the needs of the almighty meseta.

Since these files had to exist, and had to be accessible by various authorized parties, they were available via the datanet except in the most extreme cases. This made them prize targets for hunters seeking a juicy payoff, so the corps piled on their deadliest security, which usually worked. Nima's fears were not without good reason. At this point, though, she didn't have much of a choice.

Nakagaki's security people were smart enough to let the system architecture do their work for them, requiring anyone who wanted to access black information to pass through several layers of barriers and access gates to get to the right area. More than one of these were fairly tricky, and Nima could all but feel the heavy code ready to lash out at the gridriders if they made one false step. Finally, the last gate opened, and they were admitted into the data archive of the Security Division Confidential Research and Development Section. In other words, corporate espionage.

It was a good thing, Nima reflected, that an extraction was business as usual, a corp-sanctioned op. One type of illegal work that often didn't make it into the files was the private, unsanctioned project, one exec trying to get a leg up on a rival.

Apparently Nakagaki liked the pyramid imagery for its file archives; this one looked almost exactly like the one from the personnel records. There were two substantial differences, though: most of the blocks were covered with pulsing electric grids, and beams of light, cold illumination like a stage spotlight, swept through the room, likely security beacons. Nima started to move forward, but one of her companion's wings snapped up, blocking her path. In a moment, she realized why; the slight burst of motion she'd made before being stopped had caused the spotlights to deviate from their pattern towards her.

"Spot-checks," Angel Red said. "They scan activity in the archive to verify that users are authorized to be here. We'll have to take into account both their regular movement and their reaction to our activities. I presume we're looking for any reference to Bright in the archive?"

"Uh-huh, and also the names Ashlyn Dumont or the 'paratechnology project.'"

"That's going to be fun; it'll require limited penetration of all files, and you can bet that most of them are encrypted. Can your search routines do that?"

Nima shook her head.

"Not with any kind of speed."

"Then you'll have to be the decoy. Get those beams to chase you so I can work. Put up your best cloak in case they brush you."

"All right. Um... Angel?"

"Yes?"

"Wish me luck, okay?"

"Good luck."

I'm going to need it, Nima thought.

Her first step, as advised, was to call up a cloaking program to shield herself. The outlines of the dragon grew hazy and indistinct, and she knew that should she be hit by one of the searches the program would be doing its best to convince the computer that she was nothing more than a piece of innocuous data. It was a good piece of software, one she'd coded herself, but she wasn't sure that it would stand up to a corporate alpha-level scan.

Nima didn't start moving immediately. Instead she accessed another utility, and a different defensive program conjured up three more dragons. These were ghosts, electronic decoys which made a fair amount of "noise" as they crashed through the system, but had no reality. They couldn't take any action other than movement, and they fell apart at once, leaving no trace, if challenged by a security program.

She took a deep breath and moved ahead.

Nima used the first ghost to learn, advancing it slowly at first so that she could see how the beams reacted. Faster movements drew a faster reaction, and when she moved the ghost horizontally and vertically at the same time it somehow had more of an effect than straight vertical or straight horizontal motion.

When the ghost neared the wall--the datafiles--the spotlights swarmed it, catching it almost at once. It vanished into nothingness.

That's just about what would happen to me, she thought.

Nima wasn't quite ready to make her move, but the archive made her choice for her as the sweep of a scanning beam moved towards their location. There was no one spot, after all, which was left uncovered by the system; that was why she had to act as a decoy, get the security code to chase its tail following her so it didn't see Angel Red playing havoc with the data. Both gridriders moved, Nima quickly while the gold-winged angel just drifted aside.

As expected, the swift motion drew the attention of every security beam in the area. Nima sent the ghosts off at once, splitting them out in different directions. This drew the beams off, pulling them away from her as she slowed her own movement, presenting a less tempting target. It was almost like an online game, moving her two icons while trying not to be chased down, only the stakes were a lot higher.

Keeping track of her own position and movements while simultaneously controlling the two ghosts and tracking the patterns of the security beams wasn't an easy task, and Nima lost one of the ghosts quickly. That actually made her job simpler, and she was able to use the last ghost as a lure to keep the spot-scans occupied, adding a quick bob-and-weave herself when needed to relieve the pressure or open up a window for her decoy to escape through.

The problem with this was that well-designed systems contained failsafes. While the scans hadn't actually caught anyone, they had been moving around for some time outside of their usual patterns. There wasn't supposed to be so much system activity in the archive, and that triggered the next stage of the security. A glittering black needle, like a slim missile, arrowed down from the top of the spire.

Virus, Nima realized. Unlike the lights, the security program could, like Nima herself, scan the entire archive at once. She felt it probe her cloak, but nothing more. Apparently the defensive code had worked. Unfortunately, her concentration had been jolted by the virus's appearance, and she lost the last ghost.

Now, Nima's only decoy was to use herself, and she had to keep it up so that Angel Red could run the search. For a moment she tried to imagine what it would have been like to run this alone, doing everything she was already doing and trying to skate past alpha-level security to search the files at the same time. Her mind reeled, and Nima quickly snapped back to the business at hand. She ducked and dodged for what seemed like forever but which was probably no more than a minute of real time, until she finally made a mistake.

It wasn't a big mistake; the light only brushed against her, a graze that her cloak should have and did shrug off. The problem was that the cloaking program was already fighting the scan from the virus, and it wasn't quite good enough to do both at once, not to the level of security that was present in the archive.

The archive didn't bother with warnings or minor upgrades; it went into full-on alert mode instantly upon detecting an intruder. The "air" was suffused with a pulsing red haze as the needle launched itself at Nima. It moved faster than she'd ever seen a sec-virus move; it was on her in almost an instant. There was no time to dodge; Nima just threw up her best shield and winced as she took the hit. The needle had been a killshot, sent to attack her system, and the direct hit degraded the shimmering barrier around her by over nineteen percent.

More needles were filling the archive now, together with glittering sparks that glowed a poisonous green. The worst news, though, was what was forming in the center of the area. It looked like a jet-black version of Nakagaki's contribution to the robotic defense industry, the Van, a flying tank bristling with firepower.

That was no virus, Nima knew. It was a security gridrider.

She managed to twist away from one needle and destroy it with a blast of dragonfire, actually degrading it with a countervirus designed to break down security code. Another hit her, though, followed by two of the sparks--toxic code designed to eat away at her defenses rather than attack directly. Her shields went down entirely, and Nima barely flamed another killshot before it started ripping up her hardware.

That gave the gridrider time to act, though. He locked on to her and fired off an attack. The Nakagaki security hacker didn't bother with anything minor; the Van's main gun crackled with energy and an explosive blast of scarlet energy spewed at her. Nima tried to dodge, but the sizzling bolt tracked her. Without defensive shields, her only hope was offense, so she attempted to destroy the blast as she had the killshots, but the enemy gridrider was ready for her. The Van's auxiliary cannons rattled out their message of destruction, snuffing out the dragonfire with their own counterviruses.

Nima couldn't be sure if the corp gridrider was actually better than she was in a fair fight, but this fight wasn't fair. She was an intruder on his home ground; she had to force the mainframe to let her act while the system helped her opponent. On top of that, he was equipped with all the hardware and cutting-edge programming that the world's fourth-largest conglomerate believed their most sensitive data was worth using to protect.

She didn't have a chance.

Then, at the last moment, salvation came. Angel Red darted between Nima and the attack code, using her own "body" as a shield. The charge hit the neon angel squarely and burst into a consuming inferno that enveloped her form completely in a holocaust of electric fire. Nima identified the attack; it was an alpha-level brainburner, and it had gone off without being blocked by any shielding. The best a hacker could hope for under those circumstances was a quick death instead of being reduced to a vegetative coma.

Except, when the fire died, the angel was still there. While the corporate gridrider was trying to figure out what had just happened, Angel Red spread her wings, a shining point of golden light at the tip of each one, and ten beams of energy impaled the Van, blasting it to nothingness.

"W-what are you?" Nima babbled, stunned.

"Come on; we have to get out of here!"

A hacker couldn't just "unplug" in the midst of a hostile system because it left a brightly-blazed trail even the most amateurly-programmed trace code could follow. Nima had shielded her access point to help prevent that, but Nakagaki's traces were hardly amateur.

"Grab on and hold on to your stomach!" the angel cried, extending a hand. Nima grasped it with one forepaw, and a barrier of golden light that she couldn't see through at all sprang up around them. There was the sensation of dizzying, gut-wrenching motion, of direction changes at impossible speeds, and then all of a sudden the barrier was gone and the two hackers were floating free in the open space of the grid.

"Nice eject code," Nima said, glad to be back on familiar ground. She had a program like it herself, which threw up the toughest shield the machine could handle and yanked her out of the system by autopilot, for last-resort escapes.

"Thanks! I upgraded it a bit from IMVE's Freefall. It looks like we picked up a trace, though. Let me take care of that." She made a gesture, and a sphere of pale blue light phased into being. Inside it, a dancing yellow spark appeared, becoming visible. "Too many people get burned by not sweeping their backtrail after bailing out. That's why I never eject directly out of the system." The liquid crystal face was too stylized to have discernible lips, but Nima could almost see the smile anyway as Angel Red actually giggled and added, "That was your Official Older Gridrider Being A Pompous Twit Lesson of the Day, by the way."

With a flick of her hand she sent the trace spark flying off into the datanet.

"Where did you redirect it to?" Nima wondered.

"Oh, the Pure Palm Society. I thought they'd appreciate a visit from Nakagaki sec-agents if the tracers don't catch on." Since the Society was a racist group dedicated to removing all Motavians and Dezolians from the planet, she didn't mind at all, though it did make her wonder if Angel Red knew Nima was a Motavian.

"Yes, I think their offices could use some creative redecorating." She paused, thinking, then decided to pull the conversation towards serious matters, regardless of the potential cost.

"Angel," she asked, "how did you survive that brainburner? You took that full-on, unshielded, but...it didn't even touch you!"

"Oh, that." She giggled again. "I admit, I was showing off a little, there. That Nakagaki sec-hacker will have a good story to tell at the water cooler, though."

"But how did you do it?"

"Hardware, Nima. The brainburner can't affect me. I don't use a full-immersion VR interface."

Nima boggled at that. The idea that Angel Red could be that good while only using a headset and data gloves was astonishing, but it was the obvious explanation. Brainburners and mindtraps couldn't hurt someone who wasn't hooked up to hardware capable of biofeedback.

"Did you find out anything about Bright?"

"Nothing."

Nima sighed heavily.

"I'm sorry. I guess I couldn't hold off the security for long enough."

"No, no!" Angel Red quickly assured her. "You did fine! I was able to convince the archive to run the search for me. I meant that those names never came up in the files."

"But...but that's impossible!" If Bright was the contact man for a Nakagaki extraction of Dumont, whether or not they intended to make good on the offer, there would have to be some kind of record.

"I'm sorry, but it's true. I checked carefully. None of those names appeared at all."

Bewildered, Nima tried to figure out what had happened. The best she could think of was that Bright had been a spy for some third party, probably another corp, inserted into the project to learn as much as possible, then destroy the data.

"Was Bright's personnel file tampered with?" she asked. "Could it have been inserted by a gridrider?"

"I don't know. I didn't see any signs of tampering, but I wasn't looking for that, either. Once the system alert dies down, I could go back and run a more intensive search just to be sure."

"I'd appreciate it if you could. Bright's the right man, but if he's not working this job for Nakagaki then I need to know whose pocket he's really in."

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