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Magic Man

Chapter Twenty-Two


Eugenia Mallory leaned back in her posh recliner, smiling at the handsome face of her latest conquest on the visiphone screen.

"Yes, of course, my darling, and I--"

There was a piercing screech and the image was replaced with the grainy, jumpy picture of a pirate journalist's broadcast. Eugi didn't waste her time watching it; she merely killed the power and reached for her portable unit to contact the management.

*     *     *      *     *

Troy Gorman, senior associate in the advocacy firm of Lawton and Thayer, waited long enough to ascertain that the "program" was an "expose" of an Alliance Oil construction project as being substandard, resulting in a worker's death, before deciding he didn't care and wanted the crap off his screen.

*     *     *      *     *

"That's the sixth report so far," the desk clerk told the building manager. "Pirate broadcasts coming in over the visiphone lines."

The manager's face, which had taken only the slightest bit of biosculpting work to move from attractive to beauty, now pressed its lips together in a thin line.

"Such intrusions are an intolerable affront to our owners' privacy. The Association is paying for alpha-grade visiphone service and we expect no less than that!"

*     *     *      *     *

"It sounds like you've got a hardware problem," Nima said, and the image of a Palm Communications service clerk her computer had cooked up passed on her words.

"A hardware problem?" the Fairlane's manager said, confused.

"We've seen this sort of thing before. A connection degrades and the next thing you know there are random signal hops. Could be something as simple as vermin nibbling on the line. You might want to have a talk with your exterminator, after the problem is fixed."

"And how long will that take?"

"You have an alpha-level service contract, ma'am. I will dispatch a maintenance team immediately."

"Thank you."

Nima redirected her attention to the phone network and made a call to Redflare's phone. Hacking into the visiphone subnet was one of the basic perks of being a gridrider; she'd been the one to set things up so the phone the magician carried got full wireless access without bothersome phone bills or even the inconvenience of having his name associated with the phone in Palm Communication's network.

Cutting the pirate transmission in with an override code had been trickier, requiring a fair amount of skill to get through the network security that accompanies an alpha-grade service contract, but she had that skill. She'd used the broadcast because it was not only guaranteed to get attention, but because the junior-grade hacker who'd tried to throw it online in the first place had managed to splice in some pretty caustic code that with a little creative redirecting had done a nice bit of her work for her. Plus, if the real Palm Communications people ever got a chance to trace the broadcast back, they'd find the original pirate as a nice, big, flashing neon-red decoy to distract them from the Motavian. All in all, Nima was rather proud of that piece of gridriding.

"Catching" the phone call to the company and rerouting it to the artificial datanet construct she'd established was fairly tricky as well. Merely spying on the call would have been child's play, but the last thing they wanted was a real service team showing up--or some office drone telling the condo that no on-site team was necessary. With the local security already stirred up by the pirate's intrusion, Nima doubted she'd have been able to keep the call shunt up more than thirty seconds longer than she had, but the manager had called within her window and once she'd managed to capture and reroute the call they could have talked all day.

Redflare answered his visiphone.

"Yes?"

"You're good to go. They're expecting you immediately if not sooner."

"I'll let them cool their heels for a while. People get suspicious if you give them good service."

Nima twitched her ears happily.

"Too true. Good luck, both of you!"

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

Nima signed off the call. Her part was done; for now, all she could do was wait and hope.

*     *     *      *     *

"We're from Palm Communications," Redflare told the lobby clerk, noting the presence of security robots in gold and green adding a less-than-furtive touch to the lobby. "You called about some trouble with the lines?"

The clerk peered closely at them. Both wore caps and coveralls bearing the phone company's corporate logo as well as laminated ID badges. Redflare's kit was soft-sided, while Isis carried a more typical electronics kit in a black plastic box.

"We called fifteen minutes ago."

"Traffic was light. If you want, we can go grab a coffee and come back in thirty." Redflare had never met a workman yet who kowtowed to petty arrogance, and he had no intention of stepping out of character--which, luckily, suited his own inclinations perfectly.

"Please show us to the line junctions," Isis stepped in and requested. "We would like to get started as soon as possible."

"All right. It's in the basement. I just don't see how it could be trouble with the lines, though. It sounds like the pirate broadcast was just hacked in."

"Pirate broadcast? Over the phone?" Redflare looked confused. "Those guys go for the holovid subnets, don't they? Or sometimes the regular on-line sites? Besides, only a handful of people got hit, right? I'd figure a pirate would hit everyone in sight."

The clerk thought that over as he led them to the service stairs.

"You may have a point."

"The company ran a network diagnostic while we were in transit," Isis added the weight of jargon to the argument. "It detected no signs of tampering. More than likely there is something wrong with the hardline that is resulting in the unintentional redirection of data. The problem is not entirely unlike an archaic equivalent, 'crossed wires.'"

"I see." Sensibly, he refrained from sticking his nose into their professional business, and let them go.

The Fairlane's service staircase was like any back stairs anywhere, bare of ornamentation. It was a high-class building, so someone had gone to the trouble of painting the walls in an incomparably bland shade of off-white. It was the most empty color Redflare knew, utterly devoid of meaning or character. He'd have honestly preferred naked plaster or concrete.

He and Isis had been chosen for practical reasons. As the only one of the hunters who was expert in electronics, Isis had to be the first choice. Maintenance crews always worked in pairs or if necessary larger teams, so she needed a partner. It couldn't be Kemet because the twins' physical similarities would immediately raise questions, and it couldn't be Dumont for a good half-dozen obvious reasons. That left the magician to do the job. Besides, when it came to off-the-cuff improv, he was the best of the group, and they'd have to fast-talk their way out of any trouble because fast shooting would just get them dead.

The two of them stayed in character as they descended into the basement. There were too many vulnerable areas down here--power, temperature, water, sewer, and data connections--for it to be ignored by a sensible security provider. Cameras were inevitable, and there might also be audio scans. The Fairlane, while obvious in the reassuring presence of protective guards both human and mechanical, favored subtlety in its other security measures. No doubt it was because people became uncomfortable with the idea of surveillance in their own home.

Unobtrusive didn't mean ineffective, though. The two sets of plastiglass doors at the entrance, for example, had been armored and autolocking. They'd had to walk into an entry foyer, barely seven feet by five feet, where they had to either slot an ID card or contact someone inside by intercom to be admitted. The smooth-polished sandstone-hue wall panels had no doubt hidden weapon detectors; had the hunters carried their usual equipment they'd have been trapped inside the tiny space, and while the transparent doors looked flimsy it would have taken a plasma cannon or dynamite to get through them.

In the past, a high-class building might have had a service entrance to keep common workers out from under the exalted gaze of the residents, but in 1275 the prevailing attitude was more egalitarian, and more security-conscious.

"Stuffed shirt," Redflare commented, keeping up the part.

"It was entirely logical for him to ask. After all, to the layman, this would not appear to be a problem with the hardline."

"I just hope there's a good reason it went bad," he replied, enjoying the chance to perform. In a weird kind of way, he almost hoped there was someone listening; he'd hate to waste the effort on the empty air. "You know how Lukas gets when someone files a report that suggests it's our hardware at fault."

"Very true, as it is then that the customers are inclined to request refunds or other concessions."

"Yeah, but what does he care? It doesn't come out of his pocket."

Isis chuckled.

"Undoubtedly his supervisor has much the same words for him as Lukas has for us, and so on up the chain, perhaps to the XD herself if the case is serious enough."

"You know, just imagining that makes me feel better somehow."

Once they'd reached the tangled mass of pipes and columns that was the basement, lit by dim yellow safety lights, it was Isis's turn to work her own brand of magic. She quickly located the dataline junction box where they needed to work.

"Why is it that the lighting in the most common area for maintenance is always inadequate to do the necessary work?" she added her own complaint, one that was not entirely play-acting. "Set up the light for me, please."

Redflare set down his bag, opened it, and took out a mini-lamp with a suction mount. He switched its strong beam on, then held it up at several angles. When Isis was satisfied, he pressed the lamp's back against a water pipe and flipped the tab that activated the seal.

"That's much better," she told him. "Let's get to work."

She set her case on the floor, opened it, and took out a tool which she used to open up the wall box. Redflare soon found himself pressed into the role of gofer, handing up tools and putting them back at Isis's request. Using several gauges, she ran a number of tests, ostensibly to determine the problem with the line but actually making sure that she wired into the correct cable. Although visiphone, holovid, and datanet signals were all transmitted via the same network, things could still get interesting cable-wise, especially when dealing with private subnets like the Emerald Legion system. Redflare watched as Isis performed the confusing and intricate dance.

"All right, I think I have isolated the problem. Let me have a fresh cross-connector."

Redflare dug into his bag, pretending to rummage for the part she'd requested. Of course, what he actually gave her was the wireless uplink which would allow Nima to connect directly to the security computers without having to hack through the firewalls and virus traps guarding Emerald Legion's private network. Hopefully, it looked enough like a "cross-connector" to fool any watchers who might have more knowledge of electronics than he did.

"Thank you." She installed the device quickly and efficiently. "All right; the job is complete. You should call it in."

Redflare popped out his visiphone and dialed a number. It wasn't the one that matched up with Room Eight at the casino; in case some security agent was feeling suspicious and managed to trace it, Nima had set up a temporary "shell" number in the system.

"Welcome to Palm Communications' Field Report System," an automated voice replied. "Please enter your employee number."

Redflare punched in a string of garbage; it didn't matter.

"Hey. We think we've got everything cleared up over at the Fairlane Building. Can you run a diagnostic sweep?"

"Can do," answered Nima. "The "diagnostic," of course, actually meant "try to connect to the uplink and see if it works." Redflare and Isis waited nearly five minutes before the phone rang with Nima's callback.

"Everything looks fine from here; looks like you two took care of the problem."

Jackpot.

"Good. We'll be heading in, then. We've got break time owed us."

They walked back upstairs. Redflare had assumed at first that he and Isis would simply stay in the building until the team made its move, but then had realized that wouldn't work. The desk clerk knew they were there and probably several security personnel as well, and no matter how well Nima hid them from cameras, weapon-dets, and other electronics, people would know that the two Palm Communications workers hadn't left. It was a bad magic trick that raised questions in the mind of the audience, and the same applied to hunters. Instead, they went right to the desk, reported that the job was complete, and walked quite openly through the door. They'd made their escape--for the sole purpose of being able to come back a few hours later.

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