by Mark Kobrak

It was late afternoon in Fort Dixie, and the foot traffic began to pick up. The flow was toward the Entertainment District as cooks, wait staff, drug dealers and whores made their way to the Zone's largest source of hard currency. They passed by a battered electric truck parked on the sidewalk, barely noticing the wizened old Arab who sat beside it in his cheap plastic lawn chair, amid a scattering of boxes.

Amin knew this street corner well. He had driven here every day for the last 15 years, parked under the same broken lamp post, and spread out his wares on the sidewalk beside him. Then he unfolded the cheap old lawn chair and sat, waiting for business in everything from blistering heat to sub-zero blizzards.

A familiar form detached itself from the flow of bodies, long trenchcoat buttoned shut and collar turned up against a chilly autumn breeze. It was a middle-aged Hispanic man, non-descript in every detail except his eyes, which were solid black except for a slight rim of gray at the edges. It had always seemed to Amin that someone had taken a perfectly normal human being and ripped away his innards, leaving nothing but an empty black void beneath the skin.

But Doctor Snakeye had money, so Amin had gotten used to it. "Hi, Doc," he greeted, "Good to see you again."

"Afternoon, Amin," the other replied, "How have you been?"

The Arab shrugged. "Business is good," he said. "It's canning season, and I found a good line on glass jars. I could find you some good glassware cheap," he added.

It wouldn't be as easy as all that, Amin knew. His 'line' on jars was actually just a contact at the Aztechnology fish farm upstate, and his selection of glassware was limited to the glass containers used for preserved fish. But if you could draw the client into a conversation without making any promises, you could always start pushing less fictional wares later.

"No, thanks," answered the doctor. "I'm not really set up to use a lot of heavy gear these days."

The old Arab shrugged. "Well let me know if you change your mind," he offered. "You're here about your package?"


Amin nodded and stood, fumbling through his heavy coat for his keys. He unlocked the cab of the truck and reached under the seat, producing a Global Deliveries envelope. The doctor had arranged with Amin to expect it at his apartment outside the Zone, and it had come right on schedule.

Amin's careful dissection of the package had revealed it to be a computer of some sort, and a collection of data disks. Two of those had been commercial, emblazoned with a logo which declared them to be "MediCAD," which meant nothing to the Zone importer.

Wonder what it is, he thought. Amin had never seriously considered stealing it. A bad experience with the consequences of theft in his youth had made an honest man of him. But he always looked to see what he was moving across the Bridge, because the cops did sometimes inspect cargoes when they were looking for a bribe. Amin kept a wad of cash handy against trouble with the bridge guards, but he couldn't afford to get caught with real contraband. He was not wealthy enough to buy his way out of anything more than, say, a few hundred grams of coke.

But this was legitimate, and Snakeye passed over a few bills for it, as agreed.

"Thanks," Amin said. "You doin' OK these days, Doc?"

"Just fine, thanks," the doctor assured him.

"Must be," joked Amin. "If you've got the time and money for a game."

Amin's intent had been to irritate the doctor into telling him what the box was really for, but the effect surprised him. Snakeye's gaze jerked to the Arab intently, as if the importer had said something important. Then, as if realizing some joke, he smiled. "Yes," he said. "It's a good game. I'm really looking forward to it."

They said their good-byes. Amin wondered a moment at the strange exchange, but shrugged it off, forgetting the doctor and his mysterious package the moment both were out of his sight. He had a business to run, and no time for games.

Paolo slipped in to virtual Louie's, the program sliding him through the doorway automatically rather than waiting for him to will a step. Visually, the simulation was very detailed as it had been assembed by a camera walk-through, but the underlying protocols were spartan. Quirks like that happened, and were allowed to continue, because they didn't interfere with business.

Asagiri was already at the table. Paolo walked over, taking off his Panama hat and adjusting his suit as he sat down across from her. She did not react to his mannerisms, seemingly the kind of person who blandly accepted whatever degree of detail anyone introduced to a shared virtual space.

"Good afternoon," she greeted. "Do you have the designs?"

"Yes," answered Paolo, reaching into his jacket's inner pocket. He pulled out a small pad of paper, symbolizing his recent work, and passed it over. As the object changed hands, the data was transmitted from one partner to the other. "I used the encryption scheme we agreed on."

"Good," answered Asagiri. She flipped idly through the pad. "What am I selling this time around?"

"Mostly items related to locomotion," answered the doctor. "A hip joint design which allows a greater range of motion when the cyborg is anchored, and faster travel along surfaces. Also an improved thruster design—less fuel efficient than the one on the Pisces, but it gives borgs the extra delta-vee they need for chasing railgun pallets."

The hacker seemed to consider this. "Is that really going to sell?" she asked.

"Of course it is," Paolo snapped. "Fuel costs will go up, and the engines will take some extra maintenance, but Shinkuu will save a bundle when the borgs stop banging themselves up trying to bring down pallets. And if the new design reduces cargo-handling errors by even half a percent, it'll pay for itself thirty times over in the first year."

Asagiri did not respond for a moment, though whether she was consdering the doctor's words or his attitude was anyone's guess. "Have you thought that maybe this is a little too good?" she asked. "Those dossiers from S-T that I passed on to you—not one of the design team had ever been in space. It's pretty obvious this analysis was done by someone who was."

The doctor shook his head. "You're overlooking the arrogance of the corporate cyberneticist," he answered. "Mitsumi intelligence is barely going to look at these designs—they wouldn't know a SCOOP shell if it slugged them. They're going to pass it on to Mitsumi's design team, who aren't going to want to admit these facts—details about working in space—are things they haven't thought about. They're going to tell themselves they *could* have thought of it, and they'll never let themselves be impressed by someone else's design." At Asagiri's continued hesitation, he added, "Trust me, I've worked in that kind of setting. They're so busy posturing they don't have time to learn anything."

"Well, you'd be the expert on corporate arrogance," answered Asagiri neutrally. Paolo let that go, and she added, "What does SCOOP stand for, anyway?"

"Self-Contained Orbital Operations Prosthesis," Paolo explained. Christ, and she's dealing this stuff? Well, I suppose the corps are used to buying tech from middlemen who don't understand it. This reminded him of the hacker's true expertise, so he prompted, "Have you seen any sign of a response from Mitsumi's intelligence? Are they rooting around at S-T?"

"No, it looks like we've caught a break there," answered Asagiri. "They've got some kind of big joint venture going with SynTech, and that's where Mitsumi intel is looking these days. In fact—" the hacker broke off, looking at Paolo. "Are you interested in a little consulting work?"

"What have you got in mind?" asked the doctor.

"While I was hitting Mitsumi, I picked up some info on the joint venture. It's called Project Forge," Asagiri explained. "But it's technical—some sort of large scale replicant project involving a lot of cybernetics. Are you interested in doing some analysis?"

"Maybe," answered Paolo. "What kind of terms are you offering?"

"Ten percent on whatever I make from Project Forge," answered the hacker. "If you can tell me what it says, and how to find the real paydirt on it."

The doctor shrugged. Why not? "Fair enough," he said. "But the SCOOP project is our priority."

The hacker nodded, and rooted around under her jacket. It was some time before she found what she was looking for, indicating she had moved the Mitsumi documents to a more secure location, but eventually she passed over a small notepad. "That's what I've got. What do you think?"

Paolo checked the pad. "These are the results from a clinical trial for some cybernetics," he said. "In fact—" he looked closely at several of the entries. They were flagged with various codes, most of which meant nothing, but a few were common medical abbreviations. "Ah!" he exclaimed in surprise. "This is the clinical trial SynTech's running in the Zone."

"They're running a clinical trial in Neo York's ZZ?" asked Asagiri.

"Yeah, they've got reps cutting deals with street docs to find patients," Paolo answered. "I don't trust it. This should be interesting. I'll check it over and get back to you."

"OK. I'll pass this on," she gestured with the pad, "And we'll talk again when you've got the next installment."

"Got it," answered Paolo. They rose and left, transporting from the virtual world back to the real as they stepped across the threshold.

It looks like we're OK, thought the doctor, making his way out of the real Louie's. Mitsumi's buying our stuff, and they're too distracted to check out S-T. As long as we act predictably from here, spread out the sales over a few months to make it look like we're picking this stuff up piecemeal, they won't get suspicious. Then we're home free.

Still, some vague wariness played in the back of the doctor's mind, a sense that he had forgotten something. That someone else had a stake in this deal, and he had not made adequate preparations to deal with them.

Andrea was bored with her job. Years ago, she had been on the technical fast track, part of Mitsumi's counter-intelligence hacker team. She had been a huntress then, stalking the company's internal web, chasing illicit connections and protecting the company's secrets. She'd been good at it, too—she'd bagged more than any of the others, had caught hacks no one had ever even dreamed were possible. Andrea had lived the Hunt.

But she'd forgotten the Hunt didn't end at the tip of a datacable. The Hunt happened in the company cafeteria, at the coffee pot, and between the boss' sheets. The other members of the team had understood that, and Hunted in all the right places, so when some Mitsumi data turned up in the form of a prototype with the wrong corporate logo on it, they were prepared. The Hunt degenerated, first to finger-pointing, then to musical chairs, and by the time Andrea unplugged from the Net and looked around, everyone else had a seat.

Now she was a traffic cop, responsible for balancing the flow of data along Mitsumi's private network. She had long since figured out all the necessary tricks to avoid choke points and keep everything flowing smoothly, how to route the kludgy datastreams of networked virtual reality, the ordered datasets of corporate security, and the chaotic chatter of voice and video connections. Now, she no longer found satisfaction in her perfect mastery of the optical fiber, and the only place she could enjoy herself was away from her job.

That took money, of course. And that's why she was carefully watching clock, waiting for the scheduled back-up of the technical division's data.

They always hit the network hard, because they had to route an enormous amount of data to the company's information storage division. And the technical group was isolated behind a firewall, which meant the data always flowed out of a handful of choke points. Someone who knew the network well, who spent her life in the drooling Zen achieved by staring at the delicate patterns of bit flips day in, day out, knew how the data would travel.

Andrea activated the pre-positioned programs, and checked all were running. She was not doing anything complicated, just instructing the computers to copy blocks of data before relaying them down the network. Packet sniffers of this type had existed since the early days of networked computers, and were generally used by people like Andrea to monitor network traffic and figure out how to improve the flow of information. Indeed, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that was how Andrea used them. But that hundredth time, when she had the packet sniffers positioned just so, she could recover the bits of data from all the myriad paths and put them together. Then she would funnel copies of that data to the personal CPU she wore on her belt, and spend her nights piecing the messages together and decrypting them in her apartment, in much the same way one would tape together the strips from a paper shredder.

The ex-counter-hacker looked up as the back-up began, and smiled as the display jumped to the predicted pattern. She would harvest her data crop before leaving, and start putting the pieces together that night. Tedious work, to be sure, but her corporate masters had taught her how to cope with tedium. And as she pondered spending the proceeds of the operation on a trip to Mitsumi's new pleasure-compound in Jamaica, she reflected that they had also shown her how to search for satisfaction beyond the tip of a datacable.

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