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Here's a fast-paced tale of romance and high-tech intrigue that shows that a hacker is at his most dangerous when he has nothing to lose. . . .

Born in Beckley, West Virginia, Tom Maddox now lives with his family in Olympia, Washington. Although he has sold only a handful of stories to date, primarily to Omni and Issac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, he has been thought of from the beginning of his career as a figure of some note in the "cyberpunk" movement, and scored a major success in 1991 with the publication of his well-received first novel, Halo. He is currently at work on a new novel.

We dropped out of bright sunshine into gray fog and rough air. Two rows in front of us a woman said that EuroWeather was forecasting a beautiful May Day for Paris. Carol squeezed my arm, hard.

"We'll be there," I said. "Tomorrow."

Carol turned to me, smiling. Harsh interior lights showed lines in her face and gray streaks in her hair, but at the age of forty and after ten years of very close quarters, she still knocked sparks off me like steel off flint. I leaned over and kissed her neck just below the line of her jaw.

The plane slewed sideways, we broke through low clouds, and green Virginia countryside showed briefly before we touched lightly onto wet tarmac.

One of the airport's mutant reptile buses wheeled out to meet us, then felt with blind stalks for the side of the plane. Five minutes later we all filed aboard, and it rolled us through a gray gothic dream. There should have been trolls and dwarves riding the service vehicles, waving phosphorescent wands to guide us in. Instead there were the orange-suited workers in their yellow earmuffs and the somber geometry of the Saarinen terminal sitting half-hidden in the fog.

Shoulder harness in place, I read as Carol drove the rented Buick as though it were a GT Porsche, taking it across the three lanes of the Beltway and slotting it into a space that didn't seem to be there.

Charley Kelly's summary of our client's recent history didn't really tell me much Charley himself hadn't on the phone. Moshe Bergman had quit BioTron, one of your major multinationals, in a sort of high-tech huff after his work on biocomputers had been ignored, then scorned—there had even been talk of his having cooked crucial experiments. Now the irate Dr. Bergman was looking for investment capital to develop his process, which had all sorts of weird and profitable potential: eyes for the blind, brain implants, artificial intelligence.

That's where Econtel, Inc.—Carol and I—came in. Tipped by Charley Kelly, who heard about Bergman through a friend at BioTron, we had contacted Bergman and were ready to present him with an investment package. Our cut would be from five to ten points, depending on the extent of our involvement.

We were delaying a Parisian vacation for twenty-four hours to take care of this little piece of business. Then we had reservations on the Air France SST and plans to drive through Bordeaux in a rented BMW Electro.

"You're not going to believe this," I said. Carol was busy edging out a guy in a maroon Saab next to us who wanted to get off at the Key Bridge. "According to Charley, Bergman's hired himself a bodyguard."

"Whatever for?"

"Thinks BioTron is out to get him."

"Certainly—employing telepathic dogs, no doubt, to steal his valuable processes. Christ, I hope he is not a scientist nutter."

"Kelly says he's mildly eccentric, is all. Anyway, Charley's arranged for us to meet the bodyguard, who will answer all our questions. Ex-CIA, Charley says. Might be interesting."

"You can talk to the cowboy, I'll catch up on some sleep."

We checked into the new Hyatt in Alexandria—near National Airport and the shuttle to Kennedy, where we would catch the SST. The room had pink linen walls and bright Matisse prints; teak Scandinavian dresser, desk, table, chairs, and platform bed. I left Carol in the shower.

I hate driving, so I took the Metro to Silver Spring where I was to meet Bergman's bodyguard, a man named Oakley. He and Bergman were staying at a rooming house nearby.

We met at the Chesapeake Bay Crab Bucket. Just by the Georgia Avenue Metro, it featured yellow Formica and fly-speckled mirrors, and you probably wouldn't want a real close look at the kitchen, but the crab cakes were fine, and so was the Rolling Rock beer.

Oakley, on the other hand, seemed to be about ninety-nine percent pure neurotoxin. He made a point of letting me see his pistol, a "hot sight" Colt.357 he told me, almost as soon as we sat down. "Good weapon for this kind of work," he said, holding open his coat to flash the knurled butt end of the Colt.

He was in his middle fifties, a big man with rough skin, thick wrists and jet-black hair which had to have come from a bottle. He said he had retired from "the Company" two years ago but still trained attack dogs for them at a kennel in Falls Church. "Those suckers have got to be brutal," he said. "So you get them big, man, and you hurt them. Pick one up over your head and drop the son of a bitch on the ground. Lay him out good so's he can't breathe. Do it a few times and he knows who's in charge. Get him to do anything. And they do good work, man." He sucked on a Winston and looked at me with intent black eyes. "If Ramos had let me put the dogs in the dining room like I wanted to, they'd never have gotten to him."

I cut short his loving memory of his years with Alejandro Ramos. Other than admiring the sheer horror of it, I wasn't much interested in his Company scrapbook. I wanted to know about Bergman. I said, "What's happening here, Oakley? Is Bergman involved in some kind of corporate spy crap?"

"I don't know, man. The guy's a wimp, and when I met him, he was scared bad, so I figured I could make some easy change by stringing him along a ways. But that's not how it went. His condo out in Rockville was solid jammed with voice bugs. So I moved his ass out of there."

I put some cash on the table and said, "We're just businessmen, you know, trying to make a few bucks . . . think of us as pilot fish here in the water with the big corporate sharks. We do not, absolutely do not, fuck around with them."

"Look, I ain't telling you your business, but there's been nothing since I moved him. Perfectamente nada. So I figure I just flushed some old bugs—I'm sure BioTron runs routine surveillance on high-level employees. I really don't think anything's happening, man."

"Okay, we'll try it a little bit, just a taste. But if you find out any different—like something funny is going down—you come tell me, and I'll pay your fee. My wife and I, we're just not into killer dogs in the dining room, you know what I mean?"

"Sure, man, I'll let you know. But I don't think you have to worry. I've been running all the tricks, just to keep busy, and nobody's there. Believe me. . . ."

Carol was asleep when I got back to the room. I showered and crawled into bed beside her. In the curtained twilight I curled against her back. "Umm," she said and pressed against me. "What did you find out?" she asked.

She was awake now, so we discussed Bergman's problems. We agreed to go quick and dirty, to get the package out on the wire tonight if possible. Ordinarily we'd have spent at least a few days waltzing a client and lining up the most likely investors, but not this time. "I'll finish up the prospectus," she said.

She sat at the round teak table, face bright against the gray sky, peach nightgown glowing under a hanging cylinder of chrome. While I settled in for a nap, she worked our hopped-up computer, a SenTrax Optix, and put the final touches on Bergman's package.

Some time later she crawled into bed next to me.

We were both beginning our final semester in graduate school at UCLA when we met. She was getting an M.B.A., and I was finally picking up the M.S. in Telecommunications that I had started five years before. Early marriages along the way had gone sour for both of us. No children.

We told each other these things and a lot else at the party in Santa Monica where we met. At the time she favored black sheath dresses and bright red nails, plastic talons two inches long which cut holes in the air as she talked. Simple, mean, and fetishistic—she punched all my buttons anyway. My knees shook when she leaned close.

Through that whole spring we talked. We walked among the trim green lawns and bright flowers of Westwood, where Japanese gardeners with an angel's touch groomed the property of the middle classes. Our previous plans—Data General for me, Bank of America for Carol—shrank to nothing.

Databanks, genetic tailoring, the Japanese space program, optical computers, weather satellites, the commodities markets—we talked of these things, and Carol sketched a possible world in the air with red nails.

After graduation we got a place in the Fairfax District, among the delis, kosher groceries, and Hebrew language newspapers. We started Econtel, Inc. in our living room and ran it there for the next few years—surfing the Third Wave, you might say, with an audience of bearded Hassidic Jews.

Later we moved to Berkeley and bought a two-story brown shingle that cost one hell of a lot more than I'd ever figured myself paying for a house or anything else.

I felt her gown sliding between us as she pulled it over her head, and there was the familiar hot light touch of her breasts against my skin.

Around ten o'clock Oakley showed up with Bergman, who turned out to be a tall, skinny fellow in a cheap suit and the kind of nasal New York accent that cuts to the bone.

He seemed content with the deal we presented. A fat budget for his lab to operate for a year if necessary—Charley had said, "By then, he's either cracked it or gone bust." Forty-nine percent of patent monies to his backer, forty-five to him, five to Econtel, one to Kelly.

A bit of chitchat, then everybody's signatures and thumbprints went on the contracts. I set up the SenTrax and began by tapping into BIONET, the news service subscribed to by anyone interested in commercial bioscience. Potential investors might not be on it, but their scouts would be. An outline of the process, computer projections for the lab work, references to the NIH and Patent Office files—all were made available along with a financial summary.

The next few hours are frozen in my memory—the four of us blithe in the champagne glow that comes from putting a project out on the network, never mind that we weren't likely to hear anything for weeks. Bergman was being courtly in an awkward way with Carol, who was all dark blue silk and French perfume, and even Oakley seemed relaxed.

Then Oakley said he wanted to get some more equipment from the car; he'd checked the phone for taps but thought he'd sweep the room as well—I think we all smiled at this. "I'll go with you," I said. "I need to call a client—should have done it before we tied up the phone lines." Carol was talking to Bergman, and as I left she gave me a wink and a smile.

The glass-sided elevator dropped twenty stories down the side of the building. Oakley jittered with tension next to me—poor bastard, I thought, not happy unless in the grip of operational paranoia. Interior doors slid back, and we went out, Oakley right toward the parking lot, me left into the lobby.

In a pay booth in the deserted lobby—it was close to two in the morning—I spent half an hour explaining to F. L. Daugherty—a metal-rich eccentric who lived in Boise, Idaho, where it was only eleven—that even blue-chips could take a turn for the worse.

I was alone in the elevator going back. Street lights made small jewels in the mist on the glass. Across the Potomac, the Washington Monument winked to drive airplanes away, the Jefferson Memorial sat bathed in floodlights. I thought that we had done fine—none of the maddening complexities that can turn a simple proposition into a long-term puzzle, just a quick hit and on to Paris. I could almost smell the buttery pastries and dark coffee. . . .

When I began to step into the hallway, there was Oakley in a crouch, his back to me, both hands extended in front of him holding the Colt.357. "What the hell is going on?" I asked, and he said, "They're snatching Bergman and your wife. Stay in the elevator—get the fuck out of here." The Colt jumped in his hand and made one of the loudest noises I've ever heard.

The doors slid closed, and I pressed G and descended to the ground floor, ears ringing.

When the doors opened, I sprinted across the lobby and out to the parking lot, where I stood watching the elevator go back up to the twentieth floor.

It was all so far away. I could just see an indistinct shape, someone in the elevator, then crazywork cracks spread over the glass, and the box began its quick trip down the side of the building. As it got lower, I saw that the glass was splashed with red. I ran back into the lobby.

Oakley lay with his back against the outside wall, bleeding from arm and face and torso. His pistol barrel pointed at me, then drooped. "Oh Jesus Christ," I said. The elevator smelled of burned gunpowder and was splashed with bright fresh blood.

"Go man," he said. "Now. They got them both."

"I'll call an ambulance and the police "

"No! Go away now No police, or maybe your wife and Bergman are dead. Call I, you want, tell them a shooting, but mostly get the fuck out of here."

The Metro station fifty yards away had closed, so I just kept running. I passed under an overpass and turned left, ran up a flight of cement stairs and stopped in front of the sign that said Amtrak.

The station seemed centuries old, with its painted slat seats and wood and plaster walls. Half a dozen people wandered around the platform outside, and a young girl—maybe twenty, sullen and pale, wrapped in a dark blue cape—sat on one of the benches.

Three pay phones were against the wall—no privacy booths. I dialed 911, then whispered, 'There's been a shooting—lobby of the Alexandria Hyatt." I listened long enough to make sure the operator had heard me, then hung up on his agitated questions.

One concession to the information age—a dark train board with red LEDs gave station stops and showed the southbound Miami Express was right on time—in half an hour or so it would come into Alexandria. Behind an iron-barred window, a dark-haired clerk asked if he could help me. He was very cheerful. "Charlotte, North Carolina," I read off the list of stops. I had to tell him something. I paid the fare in cash.

I stood in the fog and drizzle about a hundred yards up the platform, waiting for the train. Across the street, on a hill that loomed above the station, a tall, spired building, lit up by huge floodlights, stood foreshortened, grotesque . . . mausoleum, civic building, some sort of pointless lodge or temple. Soon a bright glow swished back and forth across the tracks, and a slow-moving train fronted by three diesel engines pulled in.

"To your left," the woman in red Amtrak uniform said when I showed her my ticket. "Watch your step."

Soon after the train pulled out, I blanked. Sitting in a nearly empty couch, I stared at a "Dining Car Other Direction" sign at the end of the car and fell into a trance that I didn't come out of until the train began to slow as it pulled into the station at Richmond, Virginia a little after four a.m.

I got up and went into the vestibule between cars. A few people waved from the bright platform as the train pulled away. Rain spit against the glass . . . as it had the elevator . . . oh god, I thought, no—

The train had been moving quickly between opposite-moving lanes of a highway, but it slowed . . . I could see office buildings peeking over the top of an embankment. I pulled the release handle that freed the opening mechanism and cranked the door open, the steps out and down. I jumped out into the night.

Some more time got lost in there. I remember walking along the tracks in the narrow strip formed by double link fences, coming to where a trestle soared high over rocks and black water, then climbing the high link fence, and I remember a group of young black men standing in front of an all-night grocery who watched with predators' attention as I passed. Nothing else.

When the sun rose, I was standing on a street corner in front of a hologram arcade. A sign in the window read:




The rain had stopped at some point, so I was merely damp and wrinkled. Still I waved at two cabs before one stopped, and then the old black man in the driver's seat was wary—he kept his window closed and yelled, "Where you going?"


"Needs to see me some money, ace."

I held up my wallet and spread it to show him credit cards and bills. He was to end up with a fifty dollar tip, my thanks for his buying my ticket to San Francisco on the 7:15 non-stop.

It was late morning when we got into SFO, and I dithered. I had to go home—not for clothes and comfort but for some things I really needed, for means to strike back. I took a shuttle bus into the city, then the BART train to Berkeley, where without thinking I got off at the Clairmont Station and went down the steps to College Avenue.

And ended up in front of the Hardtack Coffee House. I stepped through the dark glass door. Smells of coffee and tobacco smoke and an atmosphere not of day or night. Name your game: chess, go, backgammon, checkers, simulator, cini-max. Behind a nondescript white-painted stucco front, there was a huge room with square tables of dark wood, tops charred by decades of frenzied smokers, among them some of the best games players in Berkeley, some of the best in the world.

It was a trip into my past. Back when I was a silicon kid, one of the few places we could find people—in the flesh, that is—was the Hardtack. I must have been thirteen when I first discovered the hackers, phone phreaks, network bandits, all the computer cowboys living in the optic fibers, wave guides, old-fashioned copper wires. I tapped into HUMAN HEADZ, the most accessible of the underground networks, and began to meet them one by one. The Zork, from New Jersey, who would stack up long-distance tandems around the globe just to listen to his own voice echoing through the night. E-Muff, from Berkeley, a consistent thorn in the side of the U.C. Computer Police. U-3 Kiddo, a group from Portland who planned free gas and electricity for one month for all Bonneville Power Authority customers—power to the people.

Through them I was admitted to the inner circles and the gossip, rumor, and mad delusion that passed in the midnight hours. The Princess and Ozmo and Dwarf had gotten married over the net but had sworn never to meet in person—it was a purely spiritual connection that gave total intimacy through the wires. Frostie had disappeared in Paris, taken away by Interpol, and would never be heard from again. Bright Water the Hiroshima-Nagasaki group, had sworn vendetta against Boeing because their B-29s had dropped the bombs. Captain Muck had broken into a C3 system at Omaha and planned to launch a first strike if he didn't—finally—get laid.

It was the heaviest fantasy trip going, until the Federal anti-hacking laws went into effect. Then it turned into something a little too heavy. Anyway the social dynamic had shifted, as another crop of adolescents discovered its own strange pleasures.

But for some the pirate life remained a lifelong obsession. Captain Crunch III, Blind Lemon—also known as The Whistling Kid—and Rolly the Deuce were among the perfect masters, silicon sensei, masters of solid-state zen.

Now I was looking for Rolly the Deuce, my one-time personal master, who had taught me some of the more arcane tricks and stood by when I tested them by accessing the FBI's Most Secret files. "Good work," he told me then, "but you won't stay with it." And he was right. By the time I went to college, I was pretty much out of it. I lacked the pure lunar drive that powered the great bandits.

We hadn't exactly stayed in touch. Rolly communicated in his own ways. A few Christmas Eves at the last stroke of midnight, the computer played "Jingle Bell Rock," and once, when Carol and I were printing out some stock figures from the Dow Jones, we got a page blank except for the message, "You're under arrest—violation of the International Meep Statutes. Glad to see you're in the money, but your bank's got lousy security. Love, Rolly."

Anyway, Jesse Woods, who had stayed in touch with Rolly, was playing speed chess with a well-dressed young guy, might have been a chump, might have been a pupil. There was a beep as the kid's hand punched the chrome button on top of his clock, an almost simultaneous beep as Jesse punched his. "Shit," the kid said, and he was almost out of his chair with tension, searching the board for a move as his right hand hovered over it, the same one he'd have to punch the clock with.

Beep beep beep beep and a bright red light flashed on the kid's clock. The kid slumped in his chair, then said, "I almost had an attack going," and he began setting up pieces. "Can we do it again?"

"No," Jesse said. "I've got a friend waiting."

Dull red snakes of hair dirty like the rest of him, fingernail on the littler finger of his left hand curving into a spiral, nose beaked and thin enough to he from a party kit—Jesse was as usual a paragon of bizarre appearance, a sight to scare prospective parents with.

I said, "You seen Rolly?"

"A little man. He's fucked up these days, you know?"

"What do you mean?"

"Sort of, I don't know, left behind."

"That's all right, Jesse. I need to see him. Where can I call?"

"Nobody's got any of his numbers. He's hiding out, I guess you'd call it. Thinks the FBI is on his case."

"Are they?"

"What do you think, man? That shit's all yesterday's paper."

"So how do I find him?"

"He's in Oakland—" And he gave me directions.

"Good. Look, Jesse, you want to make some quick cash? I need a few things picked up from home, and I can't do it myself."

I had agreed to meet Jesse at Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue. He loved the idea of an anonymous transfer of the plastic sheath of mini-CDs and the book-thick SenTrax Tele that he had picked up for me at home. Jesse stuck his bundle into one of the wooden slots at the front of the bookstore, and I picked it up a few minutes later.

I walked out of Cody's figuring I had some time to kill. There was no point in trying to get Rolly the Deuce until after dark, not if I wanted him functioning at peak form. He'd have been up all night, ghost dancing in the wires. So I walked toward the campus and along the Avenue, where the sidewalks were crowded with tourists and the multitude of street sellers hustling them.

I stopped at an All-Bank Booth to pull all my and Carol's liquid funds. I didn't know what was likely to happen next, but I figured I might need chunks of money. The voucher spilled out of the slot—when I put my signature and thumbprint on it, it would turn into a very high denomination dollar bill. I noticed that it was made out to me only—Carol's name wasn't on it. Her name wasn't on the account receipt either.

Why was that?

Inside the blanked silence of a street-side phone booth, I plugged in the old SenTrax Tele, long-time hackers' favorite. I ran a program that snagged and ghosted a raw tandem. Now I could call anyone I wanted, and the call would appear to originate through the AmerEx Trouble Line.

CREDITERM was my first call. Using my portable comp and a couple of sweet little utility programs, I accessed their credit records, the sacred books of plastic money. I asked for a read-out on Carol. NEG REC/REQUERY? Bullshit. Something peculiar was happening. I did it again. NEG REC/RECONFIRM ID.

Then I went to the NDB, the National Data Bank, where every citizen is caught in lines of electromagnetic force. Ran Carol's name again—first alpha access, which any inquisitive bureaucracy has its command, then the beta codes, which dig deep to pull up a mass of unverified, undigested garbage. NO REF repeat NO REF READDRESS SOC SEC.

Something ugly came into view then. Just a small dot on the screen, but getting larger—

So I ran the same trip on Bergman. NO REF repeat NO REF.

Negative evidence they call it, the dog that doesn't bark in the night. Great, but evidence of what?

Crowds surged around me on Telegraph Avenue, which was enjoying a resurgence of trade and popularity—nostalgia had taken hold for the twentieth century in general, the "gentle decade" of the 60s in particular. Flower children and all that, never mind the, uh, war that had been going on. Bright sunshine, blue sky, the hot hum of money changing hands. . . .

There I stood, and for the first time I got the feeling that Carol had gone much farther away than I had guessed. Fundamental law of our times: To exist is to be transformed into information, to have NDB files, credit ratings, to be significant data in the computers of banks, police. Corollary: To have no such files—

What kind of crazy-assed game was BioTron playing?

Rolly lived deep in Oakland, in the kind of neighborhood where people clear the street after dark so they don't interfere with the nighttime's quick and violent business. Here, if I saw a group of young men—black, white, yellow, or brown—looking me over, I'd run now and hope I had enough of a head start.

I buzzed Rolly's apartment, and he looked me over through the vidscreen and told me to come up. This was a climb through the usual sleazy stairways, past litter, peeling walls, bare bulbs. Rolly had always remained pretty much oblivious to his immediate surroundings; his real life was out in the networks.

When he opened the door, I stepped into a combination of Condo Grosso and Teletronics Heaven. Consoles and bubble boxes in tottering stacks, a bank of flatscreens, snarls of optic fiber and cable, inverted plastic boxes of connectors—all of it junk, kipple, the spill-off from Rolly's constant restructuring of his system, which would be behind a steel door in another room.

Jah rockers danced across the wall; the room reverberated with their slack-string bass and syntho-drums. Scattered around were stacks of empty pizza boxes, piles of tamale wrappers, beer cans, filled ashtrays, dirty clothes. Streamers of print-out were tacked to two walls. Brave New Silicon World.

He looked just as he did the last time I saw him—thinning hair plastered to his white skull, sallow skin, a roll of fat around his middle. The All-American boy, my friend Rolly.

I walked to the control console and punched off the Jah rockers. "Got to talk, Roily," I said.

It all came out, and he just stood there, his eyes wide as he listened to the story of blood and pain that he knew—that all of us know—is out there, happening to somebody in the night.

"Man," he said. "Carol . . . I'm sorry."

And that's when I cried a little for the first time. I sat in an old chair and hammered on its stuffed arms and shook with sobs and yelled—

Then I told him damage. I wanted to be able to take it to the limit, and quickly, like piranha on a baby goat.

"I'm slack, man," he said, "slack—no chops."

That was bullshit, and he knew it. "I want to hammer these bastards, man," I said. He paced the floor, kicked empty boxes, dithered. Then he began to think about how to do it. "I brought my best shit, Rolly," I said, and waved the plastic sheaf of CDs. I had him.

One side of the room was filled with tented plastic—a clean room—where Roily sat like a man with a congenital immune deficiency or a caterpillar in its chrysalis. In front of him were the flat silver rectangles of viewscreens; behind them, bare processor chips, small dark blocks on legs of fine golden filament. To one side were processor and bubble boxes, traditional cubes of multi-hued red, next to chrome-armed chip burners and flat black wave guide boxes. Connecting all were knots of flesh-toned cable and strands of optic fiber sheathed in carnival colors. Inside the clean room the whole multiplexed electronic package could lie open like an autopsied corpse.

He worked through the night, with me providing occasional suggestions and doing the routine work, the stuff that didn't require Rolly's level of cunning and artistry. He sweated, and his face was red; he played his keyboards like a virtuoso and kept his modems alive most of the night as he called in favors from all over the country.

Lethe, a seventeen-year-old girl from Long Island, had a sweet set of monetary transfer access and com codes. Johnny Too Bad in Austin had played games with the Stock Exchange and had worked out a very slick series of burns. Anon-Al, a translator at Fort Meade for NSA, had the real prize—a piece of killer software cooked by some Agency hotshots to demonstrate how any databank could be turned to hash. It should work once on just about anything. Or on everything. He hit these fellow souls within the first two hours, and from there it rolled.

I sat much of the night back in the front room, sitting in the old stuffed corduroy chair, pulling stuffing out of a tear and thinking. I kept returning to what the silicon kids called a "K-9 anomaly"—a program doing things it was never intended to do and shouldn't be capable of. A werewolf program.

For instance: BioTron could have nailed us at the Hyatt (no problem there, as we were using standard industrial encryption and unscrambled lines), and they might have been able to remove Carol from our checking accounts, but they couldn't have pulled Carol and Bergman from CREDITERM and the NDB—no way. Negative evidence all right, of the impossible.

I thought, screw it. No accounting for the weirdness of The Real.

Early the next morning we had located BioTron's heaviest clandestine hitter, the guy who would have ultimate control of any operation like this one. Using programs out of a switch-and-dummy box hooked to a local switchboard in Buenos Aires so that a backchase was impossible, we addressed a message to T. Edward Shales, BioTron's counterintelligence chief without portfolio.

Our message was pretty simple: let's deal; if you don't want to, we've got some bad economic news for you. Have a look at LiveSoft Projects, we told him; its stock will have disappeared, and it's going to cost someone a hell of trouble to bring it back. Then think about the implications.

We got the usual "don't know what you're talking about, never heard of such terrible happenings" reply within an hour. Rolly skimmed it off the B.A. dummy, and we both had a sour laugh.

Then we waited for hell to freeze.

By nine o'clock that night brimstone had turned to solid ice, and we both were ready to collapse.

Finally, BioTron's reply. On the tape, T. Edward Shales himself—heavy and solid and anonymous—sat in dark-suited splendor and said, "I believe you got a problem, really I do. But we are not it. I did not authorize the incursion you describe, and I can categorically state that no one else in this corporation did. In short, you have got some disinformation here somewhere.

"Dr. Moshe Bergman was an employee of ours, but his period of postresignation surveillance showed nothing important. We are also aware of the man Oakley, who as you say has been shot—his short-term future appears uncertain, according to the George Washington University Hospital computer.

"Frankly, however, we thought Bergman was of no further concern to us. Now, however, we do have an interest in this affair. Should you wish our assistance, we can perhaps negotiate terms. We would be particularly interested in quick restoration of LiveSoft's portfolio."

That tape hurt me. Remember, putting the crush on BioTron was all I had, and I saw that I couldn't. They were ignoring me; despite what we had showed them, we appeared to have no leverage. I said, "Rolly, I want to do it tonight. I want to hit them like we planned."

"No, man. It's like uh . . . shit . . . nuclear deterrence. Like, when you've got to use it, man, then shit—" Like many silicon kids, Roily had an uncertain grip on words—Carol said they were people who had no native language.

It came to me all at once then, and I don't know whether I believed it or not. But I had to have him, I couldn't do this myself.

So here's what I told Rolly, and you've got to understand, I was driven by my need and dancing in the dark. I worked with questions like these: What if I was right the first time, and BioTron couldn't have done these things? What then if T. Edward Shales wasn't lying?

I told Rolly that we had hold of something strange, not BioTron but the spirit of our times, the living essence of the information age. We tire its senses, the datanets its nervous system and memory, all the interchange among systems its consciousness. Not a werewolf program, but Gaia in silicon, born of wire and electromagnetic wave—new life, new being.

"Do you really believe that?" he asked. I had shaken him, he was seeing the descent of some testing angel into the dark night of his soul.

And I did for a moment, nodding, as I reached to him out of my absolute need and said, "It's all that makes sense." The datanets were the key, I said. Gaia must have been brought into being by the saturation of the planet with information, and the nets are the loci. I said that INFINET was crucial, and its creation was the point of transformation, the birth of Gaia. So that's where we would go after it.

I told Rolly I was going to use Gaia's senses, its nervous system and memory, against it.

Early the next morning I was back in the nether world I had first discovered as an adolescent, where space, time, and identity are blurred, "real time" is just a choice among others, and what really matters is the flexible, multidimensional spacetime of the networks.

Using BART, I covered the Bay Area. From one station to another I would go, then out to find a pay phone. Pop the phone receiver into the computer's blue-green modem, a silver disk into the computer. RUN the programs, disconnect, go.

I was sowing chaos. Gaia couldn't tell good data from bad, so the programs I fed into it were just the usual stuff of its perceptions.

Banque Nationale de Paris and Credit Lyonnais, Bayerische Vereinsbank and Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt, Barclays and National Westminster Bank, Citibank and Bank of America, Union Bank of Switzerland, Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank of Tokyo, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation—I forget how many others, but I was forming the heaviest conglomerate that ever hit the markets and exchanges to make some heavyweight purchases: BASF Aktiengesellschaft, Chiyoda Chemical, Du-pont, ICI, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Sony Corporation, and BioTron itself, oh yes . . . run the programs, promise payment in cash, stock, options. Stocks, futures, currency, you bet. We made pretty good efforts to corner the silver market—the Hunt brothers would have been envious—pork belly and potato futures. . . .

Some purchases and manipulations would go through, some wouldn't. And pretty soon someone was going to figure out that there was some strange and illegal action taking place. Confusion—markets scrambled, stocks, futures, and currencies in disarray. At one level, just another tender of our bona fides, a promise to Gaia—we can touch you; at another level, diversions.

I was really after INFINET, the network of networks, but I couldn't hit it straight on. It was too well defended without more lead time than I'd had. But some of the older auxiliaries did just fine. We got in.

INFINET had programs which allowed it to read from and write to everything that was in its member networks, which included about every civilian network in the world, along with the low-to-medium parts of military networks such as ARPANET. I was planting into INFINET that lovely hostile software that NSA had created.

If it's triggered, INFINET and the member networks will disappear in the world's biggest information crash. The only uncertainty regards the military nets—how good are their countermeasures? Well, we may find out.

All night long we had put the programs together, and now I planted them. READ, WRITE, LIST, ERASE—one instruction's just like another to a computer. Garbage in, pal, garbage in.

Remember those tapes—we've all seen them—of buildings getting torn down? Silence and slow motion is the way I like to see it happen, masonry and invisible iron frame looming high and still, then disintegrating and dropping straight into itself, turning into no more than a pile of rubble where a building used to stand, just something for the dump trucks to carry away.

Doesn't matter how big the building is, or how strong. You just find the right spots and plant your charges. . . .

So I planted my charges, then went home.

I took the house computer out of its passive mode, told it yes, I was answering calls, and sat in the study. Was everything I had said to Rolly a con and delusion?

I watched the slow turn of our light sculpture. It was a copy of the Charles Cohen "Illuminations IX" in the Museum of Modern Art. Blue, red, yellow, white, green—the colors formed their geometric patterns. Along with double jet-lag and exhaustion from anxiety and fear, the patterns hypnotized me. I slept.

I was awakened by a high-pitched, pulsing sound—a thousand satellites holding a family reunion, maybe, or calling home. The display screen on the opposite wall came alive and was filled with racing lines of characters, and both printers chattered as paper boiled out of them.

Then the light sculpture began a crazy dance. Sheets of light formed, grids of color appeared on them, and they folded and twisted as if in a strong wind. Doughnuts and spheres, regular and irregular polyhedrons, bundles of rods and cones, spiraling helices—these figures and others climbed from floor to ceiling, then raced away down lines of vanishing perspective.

A rod of green light jumped from the sculpture and flashed to the middle of the room. From its tip a point of white light grew, and the rod disappeared, leaving the point behind, pulsating to the high-pitched sounds.

Cute high-tech tricks. I wanted to tell myself, but it didn't feel that way. What it felt like was something was saying hello. There seemed to be a cold wind blowing through the room.

Metal clanged in the printers, and they stopped. The display screen sagged like a Dali watch and went out. Ruby-red tubes of laser light cartwheeled through the room, searing the walls and furniture and setting afire the paper that had spilled onto the floor.

I stood in some still corner, untouched by light and fire.

Everything ceased at once, leaving behind the yellow flicker of burning paper and the shrill whistle of the smoke alarm. I got the extinguisher from the kitchen and put out the fires, then sat down.

And I'm still sitting, still waiting. But while I'm waiting, I decided to put this story on the wire—it's addressed to BioTron, but that doesn't matter because I know you will be sure to get it.

That's right. I'm talking to you, because it looks like you're there after all.

So listen.

The programs are inside you, and if I don't stop them—soon—they run. You could try to disarm them, but one mistake and the networks get hashed. Ever hear of an information sink? You put information in, and it goes . . . where the wild goose goes, where the woodbine twineth. You get my point; that's your mind I'm after.

Here's the way it seems to me. You used BioTron like white cells to attack a disease—sent out orders, I would imagine, that the recipients followed because you knew just how to give them.

Because you fear bio-computers. I am guessing Carol was in the wrong place at the wrong time; Bergman was the real disease carrier. Charley said they might make artificial intelligence possible. Is that it? Would they be competition?

You removed Carol and Bergman from the public record, I know that much. Would have complicated matters if I had gone to the police. "Carol who? Doesn't exist. It says so right here." Or did you just panic? If you're alive and intelligent, that's possible.

But I don't really know much, just this: if Carol's dead, you are, too. If you don't exist, and I'm wrong, too bad, because the information economy is about to suffer its first catastrophic collapse.

So what's it going to be? Fill your hand, stranger? Bet your life?

Don't! I love her, I need her. Just give her back.

I'm waiting.

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