"Sixteen minutes and fifty four seconds," she said, looking down at her watch, "Isn't that a little long to sit in one place hacking a corporate machine? I thought you only had nanoseconds to get in before you started setting off alarms and such."
"That's true, actually no, you have significantly less than nanoseconds for modern self monitoring systems. They are constantly reviewing their own status and will notice almost instantly when there is a major disruption.
"However, that's only true if you are trying to smash your way in. We took a more intelligent approach. There are no systems on the net that don't allow entrance to somebody, or something. There is just no point to even being on the net if you are going to close yourself off from it completely, right? With the right technique, there are ways of fooling the system into trusting you. From that point on, you basically have the run of the place."
She looked at him incredulously for a few seconds and then looked closely at the various messages printed out on the unrolled wall screen. They looked authentic enough, but were fairly meaningless to her; definitely not what she imagined.
He caught the disbelieving look on her face and explained, "Look, when you go out and buy a new block, what's the first thing that they do?"
"Build an OS for it."
"Exactly. You know there was a day not too long ago when OSes were not built at all, they are prefabricated as a kind of `one size fits all' chunk of software. It wasn't until hardware became so reduced and complex that things like atomic positioning and specific locational gravity actually affected performance that we began to have to build the OS specific to the machine."
"Ok, so what does this have to do with breaking security?"
"I'm getting there. Ok, so right now even our simplest pocket block contains code that is too complex for any human to read and understand. It is literally impossible to search a trillion paragraphs of code to look for errors. And that is just a cheap block that you can get out of a vending machine. State of the art systems could contain more paragraphs of code than there are stars in the sky. That is far too much to ever hope to inspect manually.
"So the solution to this is to build intelligent monitoring systems, systems that can examine larger systems and look for bugs. These systems are also quite complex, so these systems will also require a subsystem to monitor them for errors. And, of course, THOSE systems are also quite complex... are you get the picture?"
"What's you're saying is that there are infinite levels of monitoring systems?"
"Well, theoretically, there should be to be perfectly secure, but in reality, this isn't really possible. For the most part, there are not more and one or two of these monitoring systems in place. At iPal there were four, but really that was two real and two backups. See, these particular subsystems are much less secure than the systems they are monitoring. Instead of trying to find a hole in the main iPal site, I found a hole in one of iPal's monitoring systems. That system then happily told me all the recent holes it had patched and the holes it planned to patch in the next few minutes. All I had to do was ask it politely not to patch a particular hole it had found, or more precisely, I told it that it had already been patched, so it could safely ignore it from that point on, and I was home free."
"Ah, very interesting, so then you used that hole to break in?"
"Oh, no, that would have been a bad idea. Even with it open, a different monitoring system would have found it and possibly found me using it. From that point I used the hole for just a fraction of a second to get a list of communications iPal was expecting to receive from the outside world in the next few minutes. Once I found one that looked like it would last a while and was fairly easy to impersonate, I set this machine up as a gateway between the two. In this case, Cisco Bank thinks I am iPal and iPal thinks I am the bank, so neither side is complaining. As long as I continue to pass through Cisco's transactions no one will ever know. Now, from this point we have about an hour to do whatever we want until Cisco's transaction is complete and they hang up. Every minute after they close the connection we become more and more noticable."
She looked thoughtful for a moment, trying to put what he said together in her head, "Ah, so we have about an hour do do whatever digging we want to starting from right now?"
"You got it, sugar."
"What are you waiting for, then, lets do it!"
"You're the boss," he gave a mock salute and grimaced at the still clumsy weight in his upper arms, "Just as soon as I'm done wiping ourselves from the logs. We won't be noticed today, but there always a chance someone will come along in a few months and put our movements back together. In the meantime, what shall we search for?"
Mari sat down on the bed across from him thinking, "Well, for sure we should probably grab financial data of any kind, there should be some kind of money trail somewhere in here. Travel records too. Any R&D info that you can find on whatever it is that Kisatsu was working on would also be good."
"Ok, good to go so far. I can't really see anything in the R&D department that looks suspicious, but we can grab it all and sift through it later, same with the rest. Ah, look what we have here, how about Kisatsu's personal data store?"
"What did you find?"
"Well, it's not actually owned by him, but watch this, if I parse through the system logs, I can follow him through the system every day for the last three years. Now, he's usually all over the place, but since two years ago, he has always visited this particular node at least once a day."
"So what's in there?"
"Well, it looks like mostly journals, personal files, some encrypted... ah, wait, what was that?"
"I think I can see a ghost," He carefully began rereading the various messages scrolled across his screen, "Yeah, it definitely looks like someone else is here watching us, but nobody is actually logged in. Whoa, in fact, I can see it's presence vanishing right in front of me, that's very strange."
"Is it one of those monitoring systems you were talking about?"
"Could be... but I doubt it. I think we should just grab what we can from here and look more closely at it later. The more time in here the less comfortable I am. Ok, financial records, that probably should include payroll too, travel, R&D, the Kisatsu data store, probably grab whatever security logs are available, too. Anything else before we go?"
"That's all I can think of, at least we can comb through that and see if there is anything we might want to come back for later, right?"
"Well, I'd rather not have to come back again, but we've got a whole lot of data as it is, so we may be alright with just this. Wow, 15 seconds to download everything, I didn't think we grabbed that much. I guess Kisatsu had more data in that store than it looked like."
The overhead lights suddenly shifted to red for a few seconds and then returned to their natural pale glow.
"Mari, what the heck was that?"
"Proximity warning, I turned on the security system when we went down here. It means someone is approaching the building, probably Jimmy the alarm didn't sound."
Illegal most places; burn. Definitely in the states. In Japan, well, they didn't know what to do. It was almost as common as nicotine, as caffeine, as booze. Maybe more so, 'cause major companies had their own labs to make the stuff. Originally invented as some diet drug, until they found out what it really could do. Used right, it can make an average nobody into a fucking genius. Everything inside just moves so fast, everything makes sense, things just seemed so clear. Rumors said NASA uses it on all of their space flights. But take too much and your brain just goes. He'd seen it before, not any of his clients of course, he never pushed the envelope, never tried for the big hit. He saw others, though. Mainly grad students, people who needed to burn something new. To really get the juices flowing. They get all twitchy, and finally, they just kind of erupt into spasms. Some recover, but they never really are the same.
What happened last night was kinda like burn. One big experience. He could focus on one thing, and would come in real clear, the way you can when you burn, and see all of the details up close. The things they showed him. Showed him how far away he was. From them. It was walking into a bank with a toy handgun sweating your palms to find someone already driven a flying invisible tank through the back door.
To think, all his days learning the tricks, the gimmicks, to break in, to conceal and all that time, he was walking over the trapdoor and never knew it. It almost seemed unreal. Maybe it was just too good. Could it be some sort of hoax? Only one way to know.
On with the set, on goes the box, and in we go. The void was still running. He hadn't shut it off since last night. There was only one way to know for sure if he had really had what he thought he did. Hack in and see what happens. He set his machine pointing to It'sAllReal, Internet porn site, but he knew the admin. If something went wrong, he could talk his way out of trouble.
The familiar IAR logo faded into his vision. Bright, garish and ugly as sin; like always. Back in his first and only year of professional schooling, he has been unfortunate enough to take a full semester of Marketing Theory. Unfortunate because he got to see for a brief horrible semester just how easily the human mind is manipulated, and just how evil advertising can be. One of the tenets of this class was that advertising existed for only two markets. You had your long haul buyers, the ones that went in for boats and houses and could be counted on to make informed decisions, comparison shop, and generally force your product to compete on it's merits, you know, quality and price and all that economics 101 junk. And then you had your impulse buyers; Shoppers who bought like an addict looking for a hit. They were the pot of gold. Bigger, louder, flashier advertising negated shoddy quality and high prices for the impulse crowd, annihilated it. IAR was pure impulse.
Girls were gyrating on all sides of him, smiling, naked, perfectly arranged into small groups clustered around access points. IAR wasn't a huge operation, but since they were open promoters, taking lines from anyone with a studio and an open feed, they always had an incredible selection. If he had a taste for Chinese nurses, black lounge singers, blue-eyed midgets, whatever, anything from the naughty girl next door to the tranny grannies, all he had to do was glance in the right direction. The displays beckoning to him weren't real of course; you had to pay for that, but still more than enough to whet your appetite enough to plunk down some pocket change.
Not today, though; he had work to do. It wasn't difficult at all. In fact, you could say it was far too simple. Set the agents up; have them run the way he was taught, and then key them to go and... whap, a door. Right there, and he was in. The clouds just parted and every facet of the system was laid bare; too easy by far. Accounting records, names, addresses (both from clients and girls), things that should be locked down tighter than a choir boy's ass were laid bare for him to see. Impossibly, inconceivably, he had been given the holy grail.
He whipped off the headset. No way. It must have been a fluke, maybe just a lucky shot. It would never work on a real site, it could not. IAR must be lazy, must pay student techs to keep up the site in exchange for a few hours here and there with the ladies. It must be something like that. He had to try it on a real server. A big one, the biggest. If that worked, of course it would not work, but if it did, well, then he didn't know what to think.
There really was only one choice, and he knew it. IPal, from the morning news. There can't be any site in the universe locked down tighter than IPal today. Yak, cops, multinational g-men, they all had to be watching that place like vultures right now. If it didn't work, he would know it in a fraction of a second, which was exactly the kind of feedback he needed, but meant being ready to bolt in a hurry. Just the way he liked it. He lit up another Lucky Strike and banged out the door, time to see if he was as good as his ego.
Planning and preparing for a first class raid was nowhere near as glamorous as the TV dramas made out. It was slow, meticulous work, but it had to be done and done well. The procedure was simple, but slow. Find a public booth, clobber the black boxes within range, splice a generic unidirectional repeater into the booth feed, rinse, repeat. The most time consuming part came from the box clobbering. It wasn't difficult, just a few off the shelf broad spectrum strobes would do it, but you had clobber them in line in the direction you were traveling, or else they can backtrack the distorted logs until they found a box that you had missed. You also had to vary the strobes enough that it appears to be natural interference. A flock of geese, a downed power line, a smoky backyard cookout a little out of control, things that wouldn't alert the central authority that something suspicious was going down. Luckily, out in the boonies there weren't enough boxes to cover the entire land area, so you didn't have to start miles away. And the typhoon last night would have dislodged a few boxes from the network, and left a few more on the verge of cutting out too, all of which would let him clobber a small number point blank without raising warning flags.
Still, it took him most of the morning to cover a few hundred square meters, repeating about thirty booths in the process. The best a search team could do if he were detected would be to follow each repeater individually, which would give him a huge head start. Most amateurs would try to build complex chains and loops in their repeater arrays, but he knew better. The only thing that slowed down the pursuit was physical distance. They could calculate the distance and direction from a reflected signal in nanoseconds, but the still had to physically move over to the next booth to continue following the signal.
By the time he had reached his final destination, the Prefecture's central library, the sun was already turning its way down into the west. Another amateur mistake was heading to the love hotel district to pull heavy jobs when you needed privacy. No matter how private a hotel was, there were always hundreds of PI drones buzzing around nearby just waiting to snap a scandalous picture or two. The reputation that they had gained over the years as hotbeds for criminal deals also meant they were being watched netside round the clock. The library, on the hand, was implicitly trusted, and the security was minimal at best. Two minutes in the public terminal and he was invisible, ready for the run.
IPal was locked down tight, and the number of relays and pass through filters was incredible, making port scanning very risky. The second he started testing for open connections he would be traced, giving him five or ten minutes at most before they found the library. There really was only one choice for him, and that was by walking right through the front door into the main site like any other customer. It was not the ideal place to start a run, but maybe lace was right. The more people around to generate traffic, the harder it would be to spot an anomaly.
He stepped through the portal into the unusually crowded white plastic of the main IPal lobby. There was a hastily installed notice board detailing the events that had happened this morning, but it was much too small for the entire crowd, so small IPal agents, software replicas of their popular line of robot toys, were flitting around the crowd handing out leaflets to anyone who couldn't see. Grim took a few long strides into the center of the room. Here it comes, the real test.
He lifted the goggles off his eyes for a second, just making sure that there was still a straight line from the terminal to the side door that lead in the direction of the station. The last thing he needed was a group of school kids to walk in and block the door right when he needed to run. The coast was clear, back to the plastic room. With tense fingertips, he keyed in the sequence, just like before. One eye out of the gogs, watching the dial on his wrist for the wideband pulse that would indicate a repeater breach. Then he flipped the switch and watched his agents their impossible ballet and once again, impossibly, the gates opened for him.
His heat thumped loudly in his ears while he watched the alarm strapped to his wrist. If he had been detected, a call would go out to the Prefecture police in seconds, and they would be descending on the first repeater in a few minutes. He cautiously took a step inside the system, sending agents to hunt for any trace of his entry into the network. The seconds stretched by, slowly transforming into minutes, but there was no response. Suddenly he realized that his strange behavior may be drawing suspicion from those around him. As casually as he could muster, he glanced around the spacious terminal farm. No one was even looking in his direction. A full ten minutes passed before he finally relaxed, allowing his whitening knuckles to disengage from the desk edge he was unwittingly gripping. It had worked, unbelievably, inconceivably, it had worked. He flipped the left gog cup down over his eye and donned his persona once again. The Grim Reaper glided into the depths of IPal.
He surveyed his new realm with lavish pleasure. The data stores of one of the world's largest multinational were at his command. But he didn't spend too long gloating. Despite his inexplicable entry, he didn't completely trust the Cygnet technique. It was too Hollywood to be real, and too complex. He was taught the technique, but not why nor how it worked, and that unnerved him. The agents he was given to run were vast monstrosities, far too intricate and interwoven to comprehend. The dance they performed took place in the blink of an eye, and it too was convoluted and incomprehensible. Whatever it was, it was pretty clear that it wasn't created by kids in their basements. Cygnet had to have access either to some brilliant AI or an extraordinary amount of raw computational power to have created them, and either way meant that they were a very powerful group. Not the kind of group that always plays fair.
He started running his own check against the system, making certain that there was no trace of him present. The more he delved into the security system, the more he began to realize the gravity of his situation. By all rights, he should have been caught a very long time ago. The system had already flagged him as possibly suspicious ten seconds after he entered the site. They had picked up on his odd demeanor, registered his unique stance outside the crowd, made note of how he didn't seem to be interested in the billboard, everything pointing him out as a good candidate to take special notice of. But the agents did their magic, completely refocused that attention in a different direction. Just to be safe, though, he started deleting every reference to himself since his arrival. That's when he noticed the ghost.
He didn't notice it consciously at first, just some kind of movement in the corner of his eye. The file he was editing, filled with literally millions of entries from the last few minutes, seemed to shift imperceptibly. It wasn't something he would have even bothered to look closer at, but a creeping paranoia started to tickle the back of his neck. He checked, double checked. Yep, he was right, it had changed. Someone else was doing exactly what he was, deleting themselves from the records. It wasn't someone from Cygnet, he could tell that. This ghosts' method was odd, somehow seeming to become various parts of the system, not invisible, just masking itself from the security safeguards. Even from Grim's vantage it was hard to follow him as he glided through the system. He couldn't let this new intriguing development slip his grasp, though. He had to goose him, catch a ride. It might give his secrecy away to the ghost, but he'd lay even odds that anyone illegally deleting himself from the logs probably wouldn't be the type to sound the alarm. He might get a glimpse of just what caused the terrorist attack, and maybe get his hands on some seriously hot, highly valuable, bits of info.
"The process will only take a few minutes, but try not to move too much. You'll have a kind of metallic taste in your mouth for a couple of days, but that's normal. Ready?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Go."
"Ok, don't move, and try to remember what I said about what to do if you feel sick."
The contraption he was balanced on was obviously meant for some heavy-duty dentistry, probably interrogation work, actually. But for now, the straps just dangled unused over the edge. He sat quietly trying not to imagine what the previous occupants of the chair must have had to deal with while the metal block in front of him began to purr slightly. The room was very dark. No windows, only that greenish-gray paint you see in hospitals and prisons. He sat and waited, bathed in the dim fluorescent light filtering through the door. He was waiting, for what? He didn't know what he was expecting. Bright lights, lasers maybe, something. Nothing, just the purring machine. But he waited. Then, all of a sudden, it hit him.
Lead, it almost made him choke. The taste. Like he was sucking on an old paint can. He could feel it all over his body. As though the taste could somehow flow through his veins, his whole body ached, his neck was killing him. The lead was creeping down his nerves, numbing everything with fiery pinpricks. He slumped involuntarily against the table, his arms dropping like heavy weights beside him. His head banged just short of the padded headrest and flickering black spots began to fill his field of vision. The blackness grew and a heavy dark sheet fell over his consciousness.
When he finally opened his eyes, she was pouring him a steaming cup of some kind of dark, gray tea. He couldn't smell it, he couldn't smell anything.
"It's mushroom tea. Matutakeshiro if you were wondering. It actually tastes good, good for you too. But I don't know how you'll take it, what with just coming off the rack. You may need to rest. I have a bunk in the back you can move to in about twenty minutes. Don't try to move yet."
"You didn't tell me about the fatigue," he somehow expected his voice to croak raspily, but he sounded normal, which was even more odd, "I'll be lucky if I can lift that cup."
"It's nothing to worry about. It will be mostly gone in an hour or so, but the taste will stick around for a few days."
"So if do you go through this every week or something? How do you survive it?"
"It's not that bad, really. I only have to do this to myself once or twice a year. It's easy to avoid becoming active if you're careful. Just don't eat at public kitchens and you'll probably be clear for months. And the first time is always the worst."
"You didn't warn me enough." He tilted his head to look at her, grunting softly at the strange effort it took. "So what was this room before? It looks like a burn ward."
She smiled, "You're right, actually. It still can be too; it's got a level 4 med rating. And I'm rated for nanotech and non-surgical."
"Ah, you're a doctor? Interesting."
"Well, I'm a TD, not an MD."
"Still, it's very impressive. A doctor turned surveillance expert, how did that happen? You know, you flinched when I asked you about this stuff back at the coffee shop; you must have a good story to tell."
"Did I?" She looked at hard for a second with her piercing blue eyes, "You are full of surprises, aren't you? I thought I had learned to hide that."
"Well," he said with a sheepish expression, well practiced for telling this particular story, "I guess I kind of was in some trouble as a kid, so I've picked up watching people really closely. When you are on the lam from juvy you learn to watch people in case they start acting suspicious. So tell me the story; why did you cringe when I said that?"
"Oh, it's nothing, really; just one of those things that happens, I guess. It's a long story, but you should probably just rest for now."
"Ha ha, no. You aren't getting away that easily. As long as I have to sit through the torture you inflicted on me, you are going to have to keep me entertained. Start talking!"
She looked down at him for a second, debating whether she wanted to tell him the truth. He looked so helpless lying there, and there was some adorable quality about that. Oh, what's the harm, "Well, I guess you have figured out by now I'm not Japanese.
Well, my mother was, but my father was from California, which is where I grew up as a child."
"Ah, that explains where you had the iris coloration done."
She looked shocked for a moment, "No! My eyes are natural. Some twist of fate gave my father's eyes but the rest of me is Made in Japan. And let me tell you, I would have darkened them if I had had the chance when I was younger. You have no idea how hard it is to grow up as a blue eyed Asian."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I had no idea that was even possible" He tried to give his winning puppy-dog apology face, but his uncooperative muscles turned it into strange flopping shrug.
She couldn't stop herself from laughing at the result. "Don't try to move, silly," she said giggling, "You could break your arm and never feel it."
"Sorry again. They really are very beautiful, you know," this time he just smiled, which seemed to work normally, "It's a good thing you never changed them."
"Thank you," she smiled back, "I would have changed them if I grew up here, for certain. I guess growing up in Cali made me feel a little less different. Or maybe that being different was ok, since everyone else was just as different."
"So where did medical school come in?"
"Well, when I was 15, I moved to Japan to live with my mother (My parents had finally broken up completely by that time). My mother's family had a fish pool business and we kept live, ocean-fed fish. Any ocean-dwelling animal takes a lot of processing to be safe to eat, so we had to handle nanotech on a daily basis. I grew up in with it, so becoming a TD just seemed like second nature to me."
"Ok, but that sounds pretty normal. What happened to the juicy part?"
"Ah, that part. It isn't really the "good part" at all. It is actually kind of sad. I was working in Kobe with a foreign biotech firm, and I had gotten involved with someone there, a security guard. He was a Korean national, and felt the same discrimination that I felt being only half Japanese. I guess that's what made feel so comfortable around him... At the time, he really seemed like the perfect guy for me. Tall, strong, intelligent, and he seemed perfect in other ways too. We had the same taste in food, the same philosophies about life, everything. I guess I should have known it was too good to be true."
"How so? What happened?"
"Well, it turned out, he was using me all along. He was working for the Unified Korean government, and using me to help steal technology to be shipped back home. I never even knew it.
"About that time there was a huge rise in catastrophic nanotech malfunctions, and there were deaths. High profile deaths. They traced the malfunctioning nanotech down the line of distributors and eventually showed up in my office one day. I was devastated at the time, because I thought it was completely my fault, and they didn't let me think otherwise either. I lost my two highest med certifications and was fully expecting a public humiliation. However, for some reason they did not fire me from my job, nor report it to the papers. That is what freaked me out most, since it just felt so wrong of them. I felt like I deserved to punishment. I even tried to quit, but they wouldn't let me."
"They wouldn't let you quit? How could they enforce that?"
"Well, it's Japan, you know. They just gave me the usual spiel of how we have to keep the reputation of the company high and not cause a scandal. I bought it for a little while, but I didn't want to see any more deaths. If it really was my fault, then I could live with that. But if there were others in the company making the same mistakes, and covering it up just like me, then I would have to do something about it. I started digging."
"And you found more cover-ups?"
"No, not at all. In fact, I found out that I wasn't even at fault. See, at the time, the Unified Koreans were developing a nanotech warfare program, and they were testing it on their political adversaries in the Japanese bureaucracy. And I was being used as a pawn by both sides. The Koreans were using me to steal their nanotech and the Japanese, once they discovered the true source, were using me to spy on their spies; to spy on my own boyfriend without even knowing it."
"So they infected you with nanocameras and mikes or something?"
"That's what I thought at first, but working in nanotech plant means getting degaussed every day. Kind of like the procedure you just went through, but not so powerful. No, they just used old fashioned surveillance; tapping our phones, following us around, stuff like that. After I found out, I confronted them about it."
"Probably not a smart move."
"No, but it worked. They let me in on the whole story and started teaching me real cloak and dagger techniques. But it wasn't easy. You have no idea how hard it is to live with someone you know is a spy; and a murderer. I was a very naive girl back in those days, but spending almost a year of my life living a lie helped me grow up a lot. After it was all over, I just couldn't go back to my old life anymore. I tried to open up a private hospital," she gestured to the room around her, "and do some work to pay back some of the guilt I still felt, but it didn't work out. The police started asking me more and more frequently to help them out with cases similar to mine, and as a good citizen, I helped out. They especially wanted me to help them collect evidence in investigations where their hands were tied legally. It wasn't long until they started to rely on me for a lot of shady stuff. I was almost killed once, and that's where I met Jimmy and decided that I should open up my own practice."
"And you had this building available and just converted it. That explains the paint, at least."
"Yep. I can't paint it if I want to keep it regulation. This still is registered as an officially emergency ward, this room at least. Not that we will ever have a burn epidemic or anything, but I get tax breaks. Ok, I think it's been long enough, try and sit up now."
"Ugh, I can't."
"No, you feel like you can't, but you can. Just try."
Despite the throbbing in his muscles, it took surprisingly little effort to sit up. It took a lot of mental effort to start moving, but once that hurdle was crossed, his body reacted naturally. She put her arm around him and helped him stand up and steady his legs. Together they walked down the hall and found their way to a dark spacious closet with a comfortable medical cot.
"Ok, just rest in here for now, and I'll come back and check on you in a couple of hours."
"But I'm not tired, really. Just sore."
"I could get you a sedative, if that would help."
"No, actually what would help me most is if you could get that little case from my jacket pocket. My computer is in there. As long as I'm immobilized here, I might as well try and be useful."
"That doesn't count as resting," She said disapprovingly.
"It will be much less restful if you force me to go and get the case myself out of boredom," he said, smiling mischievously.
"Oh jeez. Ok, I'll get it," she rolled her eyes and stamped off down the hall to find the case. Inside were two black shiny rolls of plastic. The first he unrolled across his lap and gave the second one to Mari.
"Put this on the wall over there."
"Is this a terminal? It's so old. It's manual!"
"Don't worry Mari, there's a method to my madness. Manual terminals are the only way to really be sure you are in complete control. It's just too easy to fool a headset into believing it's somewhere it's not. Of course, you can fool anything, really, but it's easier for me to detect this way. Besides," he looked up at her mischievously, "it has an added benefit, too."
"Oh really? What's that?" But as soon as she asked it, she knew what he meant. He was looking at her and smiling goofily from ear to ear. Looking directly at her blouse, which somehow had lost a button and partially opened itself up while she was struggling to help him cross the hall.
"Without goggles you get to enjoy the view," he replied gleefully.
"Ugh!" she spun on her heels and marched off in a huff up to her room to change; change into the frumpiest black turtleneck she could find.
The Cygnet. Outlaws, in and out of the news every day. Of course, no one knew any real names, only Cygnet, the calling card. Common wisdom said Cygnet was a myth. A convenient way to disguise otherwise unrenowned crimes. An easy way to throw the scent off your trail. Everyone net side has used that calling card before in one-way or another, even Grim, in his younger days. Cygnet all over the world, causing mischief and miracles with equal veracity.
But, he believed. He believed that somewhere inside of that mass of swirling hallucinatory snakes, the real thing was slithering along with them. And so, he started looking. Sometimes it was obvious, especially who it wasn't, when there was some telltale evidence left behind by an amateur. He knew if they existed, they wouldn't make mistakes.
Eventually he found them, well, no, at least they found him. Maybe they knew he was searching, who knows what they could see, and it was that he had reached some sort of plateau. Watching enough computer crime gives you a distinct edge. You know exactly where the traps lay and what people tend to leave behind. But you don't get famous unless you are caught, and caught with something big. The better you are, the less you'll be known. As a rule, only the stupid ones ever get their names in the paper, and the really stupid ones get sidebars. Fame is a strange thing in a world without faces. That's where the personas come in. Sometimes talk gets you farther than action in a world where actions can be watched. You can't just bring a goose along for the ride while you cake somebody, not unless you want the cops dumping that fool's memory banks into an arrest warrant and finding yourself six years behind glass. So instead you just drop hints, you wink, nudge and smile wryly when people wonder about what you've been up to. And somehow, if you do it right, and you are just interesting enough to poke out of the hissing noise of posers, geese and wannabes, somehow they will notice you. And then you find yourself in the middle of NSN wondering what made you ever think you were ready.
Netside Shopping Network, Seattle.
"My name is Lace, I guess I'm the welcome party." A simply blue fractal fire pattern. Nothing too special, but not terrible. The flames were timed with his voice, causing them to ripple as he spoke.
"Hello Lace," wearily, maybe it is some kind of trick, "So, I thought I was supposed to meet QL here. The message was from him."
"Oh, he'll be here. He just wanted me to give you a once over. Meeting new people can be a dangerous thing, after all." His face gave a semblance of a smile as his gaze drifted off into the crowd of people flitting to and fro among the thousands of brightly lit stalls, "Busy day, huh?"
"Probably always busy here, so why did QL pick this place? Seems a little bit, um, unsafe..."
"Oh? You mean a site visited by fifteen million people a day, all of them very wary about keeping their pocketbooks protected, all of them recording every second of their virtual time here, just on the off-chance that someone comes along and grabs an account number or two...This seems like an unsafe place to you?" The hint of a smile was back. Despite the foggy fractal wisps of blue fire flicking beneath his translucent skin, his expressions landed like a hammer. So smug.
"I would damn well say so! Everything we say here is subject to being searched. We don't know who these people are, or anything. Is this a kind of joke, or test or something?"
"Ah, no test, no joke, nothing like that. This place is actually quite safe. Perhaps the second busiest site on the net since Geode collapsed on itself last year. There is simply too much information here to sort through. Every piece of our conversation is split a million different times a second. All the kings' horses and all the kings' men, and all that.
"But we are not here to discuss anything that would warrant even the slightest caution. I assure you. Actually, you wouldn't even be here if it were not for the rumors that you generated by visiting places such as this. I mean your persona. QL sent me to see if it was as impressive as all the talk."
Feeling slightly embarrassed, but also quite proud of himself, he sent a few shivers of lightning through his hood. "So, how do you like it?"
Lace smiled a strange, knowing smile, making every effort to show how he was looking up and down over the grim tattered mantle. When he looked up, his eyes were white-hot coals. Piercing, somehow, even through the digital rendering.
"I am impressed," when he spoke, the entire concourse seemed to shiver. The voice was not the nasally tenor of Lace, but a chorus. The mumbled voices of the concourse all shouting in unison.
The dim fractal flame beneath Lace's skin began to brighten, and the walls of the Netside Shopping Network began to burn. Laced with bright lines of pale blue fire. The people began to evaporate, their forms sliding into whip-like tendrils of violet and green, vanishing with a pop. The bright walls and facades of the concourse faded away, paling and finally evaporating into a thick heavy fog. And they were alone. The vast hollow bowl of NSN stretching in every direction and up into the sky. The sky, no longer black, filled a torrent of blue and violet fire, thundering and cracking with terrible violence.
On the train back he used his block to find the trajectory of the laser mike. Whoever set it up knew exactly what they were doing. A line ran perfectly across the city, grazing the tops of seven buildings, the closest no less than a kilometer away. Any one of them could have been the rooftop where the anonymous listeners were stationed, and that is assuming there were no reflector points along the way. It wasn't an accident that the beam was so perfectly positioned; this was a very professional job. He would go and check them out, of course, but somebody who had gone through this much planning knew enough to clean up after themselves.
The train was unusually empty by the time he arrive at his stop, five stations from Shinjuku; a long walk. By now, news of the bombing would have reached everyone inside of the city. Three of the local news centers were reporting it as a terrorist attack, but one was toying with the idea that it was a jihad response from a religious cult. Despite the national holiday, very few Japanese were willing to brave terrorists and cult attacks.
Shinjuku station itself was closed, of course, as were the streets, but foot traffic could still enter through police checkpoints. Instead of heading straight to the station, he turned away, heading towards the closest of the buildings along the laser mikes trajectory. It was only about half a kilometer away, and Jimmy could see that it was the new KDD headquarters. A phone company might not be a bad place to base a surveillance operation, he thought to himself. It was a long shot, but if he found something up there, even something insignificant, that would help his case.
He decided to make a large circle around the building while he was still a few hundred meters away to get a feel for the neighborhood. Japanese cities had never really understood the concept of zoning. It had become commonplace to see a daycare next to a chemicals factory, or a fine art museum surrounded by gas stations and strip bars. It was always a good idea to pay close attention to your surroundings; they could change radically just by walking a block down the street. This area was primarily homeless parks and motorcycle shops; it probably had a large selection assortment of even seedier types as well. The kind who could be used as cheap muscle for the Yak or Zaibatsu.
This place had promise, that was for sure. It would make the perfect location to hide a gang of terrorists. That was what made it feel so wrong. Jimmy was thinking back to the antique phone on Kisatsu's desk. The bomb. Everything in that office (and ten floors below it as well) were catalogued and scanned by Jimmy personally. The phone was purchased by Kisatsu himself in London seven years ago. It had come out clean. That gave him very little comfort when he started looking at his options.
There were really only three possibilities. The first is that someone had been planning this bomb attack for a decade. They found Kisatsu's luggage and replaced the phone with an exact working replica, completely crafted out of weapons-grade explosives. Then they sat and waited seven years to set it off. Absurd at best.
But equally impossible is the idea that someone had snuck into office without being seen. While Kisatsu didn't like the idea of installing thermal sensors, he opted for the very best when he was forced to buy them. Even a fully hardened chameleon suit, the kind that won't radiate an infrared signature, couldn't get into the room. The heat differential coming in from cutting out a window or opening the elevator doors would be enough to alert the thermals.
That left only one other possibility, nanofactories. Placing the molecular sized machines inside or even just near the phone. They were small enough to pass any non-destructive scan when not active, and could be hidden anywhere; Pocket lint, eye drops, fountain pen ink, really any number of mediums could transfer billions of them and yet remain completely unnoticed. It would only take a few days or weeks for them to manufacture explosives. Xenon and oxygen combined to make the detonator while the N120 spheres were slowly being crushed into diamond-like existence.
But none of those options was the work of amateurs. Not by a group that would set themselves up right in the line of sight, not by a group made up of street toughs and homeless disgraced executives. But, he kept walking. It was insane, but not out of the question, he reminded himself; even professionals make mistakes.
He was two blocks from the KDD building when the small security block on his belt chirped. He frowned and looked down at its unidirectional display. He had been deep scanned three times in the last 15 minutes by the same police box. All sorts of alarm bells suddenly flared to life inside Jimmy head. Police protocol only allowed for so many deep scans when tracking a suspect without felony convictions or a trace warrant. He quickly ducked inside a doorway and pulled the block off his belt. If he was a suspect and they already got a warrant signed, then things had already gotten far out of control. His mind began to spin with the possibilities as he tried to connect to black box and pull up its search profiler. Japanese police could be corrupted, but not with money. It took political pressure to turn them, lots of pressure.
He couldn't get the profiler to come up. At first, he thought he was locked out. He only had access because of a personal favor to the Mayor a few years ago. He had hoped that they had long since forgotten about his private access. Of course, if they were going to block his profiler rights, why not just revoke his accounts completely? He looked deeper and noticed that many of the box's systems seemed to be down. In fact, it wasn't even connected to the police net, only short-rad wireless. He cursed himself for jumping to conclusions so fast. The box must be acting as a lookout, and not for the police. He didn't know whether to feel relieved or more distressed. The boxes weren't too hard to confuse or knock off line, but nearly impossible to remotely take over. It required very specialized knowledge and a very expensive encryption block.
He headed off to make a single pass around the building before heading to the station. At least now, even if the building was clean, he definitely had enough to bargain with.
Mari was absentmindedly stirring her nearly untouched cup, but her mind was wandering. He had already swiped his Minna-san for the receipt before she even had taken her first sip.
Minna-san was something so Japanese that it simply could not exist anywhere else. It was one large bank account shared by several hundred people. No one was allowed to draw completely from the account. No one knew exactly how much of the account was his or her own. People only took what they needed. When they needed more, they took a little more, but most the time they ended up taking out less. The key to maintaining the system was that money could be deposited, and could not be traced. The underworld needed anonymity and normal people needed a safety net. In Japan, the criminal element wasn't a parasite, but a symbiant. The Yakuza could be counted on to keep the balance afloat, and the people could be counted on never to draw too much at one time. For the Yakuza, a little bit lost to the random person buying a house or a family car was a small price to pay for instant and cheap money laundering. And for the people, helping the Yakuza was a small price to pay for permanent freedom from debt. It was like clockwork.
"You know what bothers me most about this situation most?" she suddenly asked across the small table.
"It feels too big. I mean this isn't the way that either the Yakuza or the Zaibatsu do it. Especially not in Japan. And very especially not in downtown Tokyo."
"So who, then? Does Kisatsu have other enemies?"
"Yes, a business as large as iPal doesn't tread lightly in the market. Still, I can't believe this was business related. It was too loud. If Kisatsu was a politico, then maybe."
"If Jimmy can get the black box recordings for this morning, we may know more."
"He's good. He'll get them. In the meantime I think it would be a good idea to get cleared if you are active."
"Active? What are you talking about?"
She looked at him in confusion for a second, and then smiled to herself. "I keep forgetting you are American. I mean active for nanotech."
"You're kidding, right? America hasn't used unlicensed nanotech for twenty years. And medical issue nanotech has been banned outright. I don't even know if you can find it on the black market these days."
"Really? I didn't expect that. I knew there was a slowdown of some kind, but you know how tight the media regulation coming out of the U.S. is. Everyone in Japan is given the full medical cocktail at birth or on arrival at the borders. That means you too. The nanofactories were probably mixed into the on-flight meal, or injected into the cabin's air supply. It wouldn't be the designer type, of course, just generic medical stuff."
"You're kidding me! I'm carrying nanotech right now? But I feel fine..."
"Ha ha, of course you feel fine! That's the whole point. How long have you been here? You haven't been sick a day, not even the sniffles, right? Hold on a second," She said as she began rummaging through her bag. She pulled out a short cylinder of clear plastic and smiled, "Here give me your hand."
With a suspicious look at her amused expression, he offered her the palm of his hand. She pressed the rod into his hand and curled his slender fingers into a fist. "Hold this tight, count to thirty. Don't worry, it isn't dangerous, just an empty power cell for my block."
After waiting, he opened his hand, the rod looked gray. He looked closer. It was actually striped and crisscrossed by thin black lines.
"Those lines are caused when they EM fields given off by the medical drones come in contact with the jelly in the cell. Those fields are for communication, mostly. It lets the factories know when to start up and shut down so that you never run out of drones. If you loose a few million of somehow, like by getting an electric jolt or walking under too many magnetic doors, they start building themselves again. If you keep them, you'd never get sick or poisoned for the rest of your life. Neat, huh?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," he was still wary. The U.S. long ago banned any sort of nanotech that was used in the human body. Trial runs using it to cure methadone addiction were a phenomenal success, that was true. But the risk of having a bad strain, introduced by a Joliet-style terrorists, something scary like a mind control bot, or a diamond-hard super virus, was just too dangerous for the Congressional hard-liners.
"So, if these things are so great, why are you telling me to clear them out?"
"I'm not going to lie to you, they can made into a weapon. All they are designed to do it tear apart toxins and microbes, a molecule at a time. Imagine what happens when you reprogram them to think the human cells are invaders. They aren't easy to reprogram; they are hardened against commercial power EM and are protected with military-grade encryption. But it can be done. You don't want that to happen."
"You seem to know a lot about these things," he spoke casually, but she seemed to involuntarily flinch when he said that. He looked at her closely.
"I used to work in the medical field when I was younger. Look, we know the group we are looking into has access to military explosives. They may have access to other things. I don't want to chance it."
"So you think we'll be in danger? I don't intend to go around knocking on the assassin's door and letting them know I'm looking for them."
"No. I don't either. I was just a little spooked when I saw the laser mike. Jimmy and I have had many meetings in Kisatsu's office. We don't know how long they were listening in on him, which means they may know that we will be looking into his death. Let's just say I want all my bases covered, ok?"
"Ok, I agree. So how do I go about getting them `cleared'? I don't suppose a shower will work?" He grinned.
"Unfortunately, it isn't that pleasant. Let's go, I'll show you my lab."
Tokyo was not so bad as other places. The news reported the Kyoto area immobile for tens of kilometers, blocked by sheer human presence. Tokyo, a little less superstitious, a little more mobile. Not much, but a little was enough.
When they arrived, he could see that the entire restaurant was going to be little bigger than his apartment, and probably without the strategically placed mirrors. The largest part about the place was the line. For fifteen blocks in either direction, it stretched crowded, full of black-haired heads.
"Don't worry," Jimmy said, noting the shocked look on his friends face, "We have a reserved spot, if we stood in this line it may take days."
"If you're lucky. It's not usually this bad, but during Obun there is a kind of cult need to come here." For the first time he noticed the line was not just a random jostling of people, some had tickets, place holders for the rich who could afford to, others with sleeping bags, and some already passed out in the street. And of course, vendors of all shapes and sizes weaving through the crowd.
"This place can't be this popular. This line is completely crazy."
"Ah, well you won't see anything like this anywhere in the world. It has become a status symbol. Simply having eaten here score points for some people. It may not be worth a few days wait, but the longer the line gets, the more important it is to these people that take part. In another two weeks, it will be completely forgotten, and everyone knows it. You should see the line dissolve as Obun ends, as the fireworks start. Of course, then you can't tell the crowd of people leaving the line from the crowd of people fighting their way towards the fireworks."
They made it through the thick line of people up towards the front. Two large men in dark suits and sunglasses were keeping people ten feet back from the door. Seeing the large Jim Akenobo lunging through the crowd, they both snapped up something on their wrists and rushed towards him. When he finally popped through the crowd, they visibly relaxed and smiled. The taller of the two bowed and began speaking in very thick Kansai-ban slang. Jimmy pointed to his friend, and they were both escorted through the doors. Then the men turned once again to fend off the crowd.
The inside of the restaurant was thick with greasy smoke and loud talking. The room's few tables and chairs were set up around a central open grill that sizzled loudly, even over the din of eating and talking. The kitchen staff consisted entirely of two young girls who looked almost too young for high school. They were flipping burgers with a passion.
"Welcome to the world's best hamburger stop. You couldn't get a better burger if you were in Austin, Texas." Jim seemed very proud of the place. Beaming.
"You have to be kidding, right? The line outside, for burgers?"
Jimmy offered him a wry grin, looking around and spotting a nearly empty table. Most of the tables were spilling over with people. Kids sitting in their parents lap. Couples sharing seats. And yet, strangely, there was a single young Japanese woman sitting completely alone, her nose buried deep in a Korean newspaper. She looked barley out of her teens, but women's looks in Japan were deceiving, very deceiving. He decided she would be in her late twenties, possibly even as high as 30.
When they reached the table, she looked up with deep blue eyes. He stared involuntarily. The sight of her bright blue eyes caught him off guard. Iris coloration had been popular in America, but it was one of the few fads that had never caught on in Japan. They were done very well; almost looked natural.
Jim caught her eye and bowed. "Mari-chan, a pleasure to see you again, as always."
"Jimmy, what can I say? Nature has not been kind to you over the last few months. Maybe you need a vacation?" She said with a bright, joking American accent, "So this is the über I have heard so much about, eh?" Turning to look at the young man next to the towering Akinobo.
"I've heard a lot of great things about you from Akinobo. Heard you are a regular Joliet when it comes to systems infrastructure, huh?"
Flinching a little at hearing that name so casually tossed around, he took the hand she proffered and sat back uneasily in the booth, did she know something? He hadn't told anyone, not even Jimmy. "Well, I wouldn't want to... um ... to go that far, per se..."
She cocked her head coquettishly to one side as he started to stammer, "You Americans are all alike. That crazy obsession with Joliet and the entire Freedomist movement," and then more gently when she saw the shocked look on his face, "I'm sorry; I know in your culture, I must have just called you Hitler. I'm sorry, really."
"No, I'm ok. I was just a little taken aback. I haven't heard that name spoken casually in public in, well, ever. Actually, I actually admire what she did, how she changed the world. Very few people could have done what she did."
"Ha! Well, you are an interesting one after all, aren't you? I guess you pass the first test; I have never heard a westerner say that before! Now, let's eat before they kick us out." The restaurant buzzed around them as a group stood up to his left and one of the two girls zipped over and swiped their table clean with one smooth stroke of her tattered "Hello Kitty" dishrag. The next group was ushered in by the black-suited guards at the door before the first group had finished paying, already glued to their seats.
"Ok, so when do we order?"
"We don't. The same menu for everybody, but don't worry, you'll like it." Gesturing to the girls at the grill, "Those two, Miki and Hiromi, they own the place. It started out as a kind of a school project. Somehow, they raised the money, got legal separation from their parents, and now they own and run the place. It's rumored they have become famously rich off the place but the Yakuza don't even touch them. Something, I swear, about them being too cute. Personally, I love this place. Well, except for Obun."
"You are a liar, and you know it," Mari chimed, "You are sitting here, during Obon no less, just because you want the world to know that you are so damn important that you can get a table here, a reserved table mind you, something that never happens, while the Minister of Finance is outside standing in line for three hours."
"Well, maybe I do want to show off a little. It's good publicity at least."
Jimmy smiled at the thought. One of the girls came to their table with three big baskets of food.
As far as cute goes, there nothing in the world that compares to young Japanese girls, and Miki was even a head and shoulders above a good proportion of the them. She gave Jimmy a big hug and called to her twin sister. It was certainly remarkable to see the strange mix of emotional strength and childlike innocence that they both possessed. On one hand, they ran a business, and while it had a kind of novelty success, it ran well and the food smelled delicious, and yet, they giggled and blushed like twelve year olds.
When the girls had left, he asked Jimmy what he had done to receive such a special place here. Jimmy looked over at the two girls with a strangely emotional face, "Well, let's just say their life was not always quite like this. They may not show their scars on the outside, but they have them, and they run deep. If I hadn't have shown up when and where I did, well, there are worse things than death in this world, and they were living it."
Despite Jimmy's dark reaction, the burgers were exceptionally good, and everyone's mood picked up dramatically. They were welcome to stay as long as the pleased, but the unbelievably patient line outside spurred them on, and in half an hour, the three were out on the street hunting for a place to sit and talk. A coffee shop named "Keeping Secrets", lodged ironically between a municipal courthouse and a law office, seemed like the perfect place.
"So, a little test," Mari asked as they all sat down, "What does the name Kisatsu mean to you?"
"Hmmm, I don't know."
"Come on, Kisatsu. Keio Plaza? You haven't been watching the news? They closed off the entire Shinjuku area. No one can get in or out, on Obun no less."
Jim interrupted with a dark face, "Stop right there, you don't mean they actually got him?"
"Yes, right under our noses. We even caught the tail end of the call this morning, but it was too late. I'm talking two stories shaved right off the top of Keio and seventeen more flattened. It took four hours to evacuate the building. I tried to reach you but you were still in the lab."
Jimmy's face just seemed to fall apart after that remark. "No, no, no. I don't miss things like that, how could this happen? This whole thing is for nothing now; we can't protect a dead man. Are you sure that he was there at the time? He must have gotten out!"
"Positive," she said, "but that doesn't mean our job is done. Kisatsu Corporation is still funding us, or at least my part. Only now, we have a new goal, it's in the contract. Find out who is responsible and protect the IP."
"I can't believe I could have missed something like that! And I was even out in public eating burgers. Burgers for God's sakes! This can ruin my reputation," He suddenly glared at her, "How long have you known? Why didn't you warn me?"
Reaching across the table and taking hold on his massive hand, "Jimmy, you were in a level 12 clean lab, doing your job. The sun could have exploded and you wouldn't have known. There was no way for me to tell you, and even if I had you would have gone charging into the rubble waving your business card around and the you really would have hurt your reputation. Don't forget, this job is supposed to be secret. I don't think more than a dozen people even know we were even thinking about taking this job. Don't worry about what happened in the past, be proactive now," she looked over at their new friend, "Maybe we should clue our friend in as to what is going on."
"I just wish I had done something. I guess you are right, what could I have done? I hate this part of the business," Jimmy turned with a dour face, "Well, I can't promise you the job I called about now, things have changed. But maybe it's doable. Mari is right, though, I have made mistakes in the past, and survived, I'll survive this.
"Anyway, the story is a few months ago I was contacted by this guy Kisatsu. Half-Japanese, half-Korean CEO type. Very rich. But he got that way by playing both the Yakuza and the various zaibatsu against each other, all while pretending to be friends. He was raking in loads of money. Well, a short time ago, he got an order from the Yakuza to do something he couldn't do. Not without cutting ties with his zaibatsu friends. I knew I was in over my head. I could do my best to stop a physical attack," he gave Mari a sidelong glance, "But that was all I was good at, so I needed someone who could do wide band surveillance and also dig around and see if I could figure out what exactly Kisatsu was up to. From what we have pieced together over the last few months some new technology is coming out on the market. Something that will make people very, very rich. So rich that you cannot imagine how rich. Only, the catch is, to be so rich, you have to make sure that you are the first one to offer it and you have to flood the market before the clones start eating your market share.
"If you haven't learned by now, patents in Japan don't mean a thing. Once these things are out on the market, it's a free for all on reverse engineering. To make this new technology work, you need a box of spare parts and one very special piece of software, and that software is what iPal made. The Yakuza, who have been anticipating the arrival of this new technology have been stockpiling on parts."
"So they need Kisatsu to give them the software?" He looked up just as a young Japanese girl had come by to take their order. She was wearing a stylish z-back uniform two sizes too large. He couldn't tell if it was just the latest fashion or if the coffee shop expected the girls to grow into their clothes. Her lipstick was just a shade too red and her hair just a little too perfect. His dip into the black biz had long since taught him to recognize the okanimbo, the moneyed poor. She touched the table-plate with the shiny side of her order block and read in the orders they had made when they sat down.
"No, they don't want the software at all, actually," Jimmy answered as she walked away, his eyes lingering for a second on her pale legs. "Stealing the software from a finished product already out on the market is easy and legal. Instead, they needed Kisatsu to keep licensing low just long enough for the Yakuza clones to start finding their way onto the shelves. Kisatsu's zaibatsu friends on the other hand want to flood the market as quickly as possible. Honestly, I don't know what the man was thinking.
"So, the end result is Mr. Kisatsu stuck in the middle of two very unhappy partners. Initially, I was hired to protect him from kidnapping, just in case he was disappeared and the final decision defaulted to the iPal board," Jimmy made a grim face, "Not that I did that well..."
"Jimmy, you can't blame yourself. He wasn't kidnapped anyway."
"Still, I should have been more careful... Anyway, after a few weeks wiring his office and transportation, I figured it would be a good idea to call Mari in to watch the net, partially to sniff for news of an attack, partially to see if she could figure out what Kisatsu's real plan was. He wasn't a stupid man; he had to have had something up his sleeve. Well, that was where I was yesterday, today however, things have changed."
The okanimbo woman returned with three small cups on a slate gray board. They sat in silence, sipping expensive coffee. Finally, he spoke up. "So what is this technology that is going to change the world? Do I get let in on the secret?"
"Ha, well, unfortunately no. But join the club; we don't have a clue either. We were told about it in the exact same words I used to tell you. I didn't ask questions, you learn not to ask if you want more jobs."
"That's not quite true, " Mari chimed in, "We did ask questions, just not up front. Net side there is a lot of talk. Rumors, mostly, but lots of talk about something new. Nobody knows particulars, for all they know it is just a big hoax. Many secret meetings, but maybe too secret. We have been keeping a low profile so far, but considering the circumstances, things will start scaling up."
Jimmy turned, "See, originally I figured that you could test the security for us, maybe help watch for sniffers, keep things from leaking to either the Yak or the Zaibatsu. But now, it looks like that isn't an issue. Somebody already knows what's going on. Now I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't something more to this than we were given."
"This is part of what we need you for," Mari said, pouring sugar into her coffee, "I know that Kisatsu Corp. is still paying, and I expect since it's head is gone it will pay blindly, until it reaches whatever pay cap we have. I know Jimmy wants you on board, and frankly, I do to. That means all you have to say is yes and it's a done deal. It isn't going to be easy, what we want you to do, I know because I've tried myself. I couldn't do it, but if you are half of what Jimmy says you are, then you probably can. All I know is that something very big and nasty has come through our hands, something big enough to cause people to slice two stories off the top of Keio Plaza, but I don't have a clue what it is. I want to know, we both do, and I want you to be the one that finds out. We need you to do your magic, to do our hunting."
"You can do that, right? Find out what the hell Mari and I have gotten ourselves in to?" Jimmy's sincere face was looking expectantly into his. It was amazing how that big face could look so uncomfortably vulnerable.
"Of course," he said, "You don't have to convince me of anything. I have been itching for this kind of thing since I arrived. Just tell me where to start."
"That's not such and easy thing to decide. I have already burnt through the usual suspects, but nothing." She pulled out a block from her hip and flipped it's tiny screen on. "I'll give you everything I have so far, for what it's worth."
She slid a silvery disk out of the block and handed it to him. "Take that apart tonight and tell me what you find."
"Will do," he said, gingerly sliding the disk into his shirt pocket, "Until then, we should probably look into the attack. What did you mean when you said you `caught the call'? Was there a bomb threat or something beforehand?"
"No, the call we caught was the activation sequence. Here, I'll show you. Look at this," she tipped the display across the table towards the two men, "Luckily the police haven't decided to block access to iPal's security archive. I guess when you're as big multi-national you can skirt the law a little. Anyway, what you are looking at is the thermals and electromagnetic sensors in the conference room just before the blast."
"Only thermals? What about real cameras?"
"No camera, no mikes," Jimmy said, "Kisatsu was a paranoid guy. The thermals are there because of the fire-code, but he didn't like them. The electromagnetic sensors I installed. I convinced him that he should at least be scanning for recording devices from his guests."
"It's a good thing you did too. Watch." The surveillance loop started to play. Six shapes were huddled white around an orange square. "That must be the conference table. That lone figure by the window would be Kisatsu."
Slowly the drama began to unfold on the little screen. A couple minutes into the loop, six bright blue rings opened up nearly simultaneously.
"Whoa, what just happened?"
"It looks like all of the guests decided to start recording. I hope at least one of those recorders survived the blast. I would love to see what they all suddenly got excited about," Jimmy said. Mari took the block back and tapped on it for a few seconds.
"Doesn't look good so far. Nothing much survived. The police will be going over the wreckage for another three days at least, but it looks like so far they have turned up a high concentration of xenon. I guess that's leftover from a XO3 trigger of some kind. He must have had a hundred kilos of ONC embedded in his desk or something to make a blast like that. I have no idea how they could have snuck that in past us."
"Hmmm," Jimmy's eyes had suddenly unfocused.
"What is it?" she asked, knowing that look all too well. He shook his head and looked up again.
"Nothing. Just a strange thought, maybe nothing. Let me see the rest of the loop." She unpaused the screen and they all watched as Kisatsu walked over to his desk and sat down. For a few long minutes, they could see his white ghost deep in thought. Then in a flash a green net address lit up in the corner.
"This is the call that came in. We didn't originally see it because it was routed through his secretary's phone."
"Do you think she had something to do with it?"
"We'll never know, she was found de..."
"THERE! I knew it!" Jimmy shouted. Their heads spun toward his face, but he was focusing on the screen. A half second of the loop was playing very slowly. The moment right after the blast, before the sensors were vaporized.
"Watch, right here. Look at the order that the overhead sensors go out." He tapped a few times on the block, pulling up an analysis service.
"I'll correlate that to the order that the recorders are burning out." The flat overhead view took on a third dimension and laser thin lines converged on a point. They all landed right on the spot where the antique phone was sitting.
"The bomb wasn't built into the desk, it was in the phone. I knew I personally checked that desk. I don't even know how that's possible. Explosives that small and that powerful are strictly government issue."
"Well, at least that means we have some kind of a lead. You can't move weapons grade material around Japan without making some kind of a trail. We just need to sniff it out," Mari said.
"Huh? Look at this," He lifted up the screen and showed it to Mari and Jimmy. The analysis has turned up something else. A millimeter radius red circle was glowing unseen against the mirror glass, invisible to the naked eye. Thermals just caught it as a thin pink line neatly dividing the spacious room in two.
"What is this?"
Both Mari and Jimmy looked at each other for confirmation,
"It's the trail left by a laser mike," Jimmy finally spoke, "Someone was listening."
Kisatsu-san had begun his life on the streets that he now examined like a king. The entire top floor of the Keio, once reserved for dignitaries and their breed, filled with conference rooms and hallways, now had opened up; the personal office of Aomori Kisatsu, iPal. The wide room was utterly silent save the infinitely quiet hiss of the air conditioners. He was quietly dreading the encounter with the six men waiting below, but not showing it through his mask of years. He had been expecting this, dreading too, certainly, but still expecting; his time had come. He had been playing both sides of the chessboard for far too long. Black against white, and both for the profit of himself. Now his plans had finally gone awry, he would be both revealed and ruined. The odds had held out for so long, but the Japanese were never good gamblers.
The six men gathered below, were ready to discuss the death of Aomori Kisatsu, none of them realizing for a moment what they carried with them, being but simple messengers of information, albeit the executive variety. The small Japanese face that belonged to the receptionist looked up from the terminal. They were to be scanned and shown in.
The glass lift that took them through the center of the Keio plodded slowly along, intentionally extending the journey as the view grew grander. The top finally reached, thick steel doors slid open. The single room seemed to stretch into the horizon, as though one step could take you from the window to the city streets, far away. The long oak table was bare save for a small cup of clear liquid at each of the six chairs. At the head no chair sat. Kisatsu-San, as was famously known, preferred to stand.
"Welcome," he began, still facing out through the window, "sit, please." This was not the first time for them in his grand palace. Already they had stationed themselves around the large table in small groups reflecting to their employer's circles of influence. They could tell their usual half-hour long ritual of greetings would not take place; the energy buzzing around Kisatsu was too palpable. He wasn't playing games today.
"You have all arrived together. I supposed that means you have something ready for me?"
Still standing, the largest man; a dark lean Italian stepped forward and began to dig into his case. "Yes, a complete proposal, as you requested, sir."
"Sit," he said, his back still turned to them. "Please, sit. I want to speak before we go over any contracts."
The smiling faces of the executives, smelling the scent of barely controlled emotion radiating from their host, all shuffled to their seats and began unpacking their cases. Stiffly, he turned to face them, his executioners.
"You all know very well how much work has been put into this proposal. If for any reason today we could not come to an agreement, we would all lose a great deal," The all nodded in agreement, typical old man stating and restating the obvious, "Moreover, I would make powerful enemies of your employers, very powerful enemies," he trailed off.
His usually wistful voice had found a measured, precise, almost robotic quality. It was begging to sound like a confession was near, something the all were told to look out for. Everyone instantly switched on their embedded recording gear. This was going to be something huge, and they were going to capture every second of it.
"What you do not know, but now will learn, is that if I do accept your proposal, if not correctly written, I again stand much too lose, and will again make powerful enemies, save of a very different sort," A small murmur arose from the table. Many suspicions suddenly realized; The Yakuza had made a deal, it had to be. Unless it was one of them here in the room who had caved? No, it couldn't be. Eyes began shifting across the table, trying to read each other's responses to his words. "I believe that until now, you have not fully understood my reluctance to bargain with you, why I have required such care in its language and structure.
"I know that before you entered into this room, you were given orders not to give in to any of my indulgences. Do not wear such surprised expressions, for my intelligence has told me, even as you walked into the door of this building, that you were very reluctant to grant me even the smallest of my proposals. Now, perhaps, you understand the position where I have found myself. I will sign no proposal that does not meet my goals, I cannot. I will give you some time to discuss and confer, but only a few minutes. You will not be monitored unless you contact your employers, I assure you."
With another stiff turn, he walked the fifty feet to the long gray marble desk. He sat back into his chair and lit a small thin cigarette, turning towards the window, deep in thought. After watching in stunned, stony silence as he turned away, the table erupted into a volley of sharp whispers between the men.
Four of the six could simply not agree to his requirements, two of those openly accusing each other of being involved in collusion with Kisatsu the entire time. Everyone had given into many of his strange, if not absurd demands, many times before, and the current deal being made was mutually agreeable; Only a fool would refuse it. Despite what he said, they all agreed that no matter what "loss" he would take by not joining would be far exceeded by the total domination of special niche markets that they had to offer. Without him, and his extremely mobile and far reaching corporation, however, they were doomed to flounder in black market battles and eventually lose out to the Yakuza. While deep in discussion about what deals they could work out among themselves, the telephone on the marble desk began to ring softly.
Kisatsu was instantly jolted out of his thoughts by phone next to him. He was thinking to himself how exactly he had gotten himself in such a terrible mess. Timing, of course, it's always about timing. If he had two months more, maybe even just one, he could have finished the project. Neither the syndicate, gathered around the table, nor the Yakuza had any idea what he had been working on for the last five years. They just saw the potential for quick profit, to corner the market. They didn't see the big picture; they were incapable of seeing it. Even whispering amongst themselves he could hear their bickering and accusations. Such small minds, such little vision. If only he had more time.
They scarcely heard him turn around and pick up the phone. "Moshi-moshi," he said without even thinking, the typical Japanese greeting. Before he heard it, the pieces had already assembled themselves in his head. He was to receive no calls. None, not today. And his impeccable staff would not have made a mistake no matter how big the emergency. When it did come a millisecond later, it wasn't a surprise, not to Kisatsu. They had beaten him, finally. A high-pitched tone, audible clearly from all corners of the room, the receiver hissing horribly. The group at the table all spun around instinctively to face the noise. Kisatsu's face wore a strange complacent grimace as the piercing shriek continued for another half-second. A look of recognition and fear swept across the room, every pop action movie they had ever seen suddenly becoming very real. Everyone but Kisatsu tried to force themselves to move, to run, to seek shelter. But it came too fast, triggered by the tones, just like in the movies. The impact swept from the elegant phone through the spacious room, incinerating the bare floor in a flurry of light and heat. The pressure, shaped carefully by the bomb's designers, thundered down with an incredible force, crushing the floors directly below. The wave of fire rolled out through the heavy armored windows, filling the city below with a glittering rain of melted glass and twisted steel. Billowing out into the open air, up into the sky.
The sweep of the city grew daily, in population, in mass, so much so that it had grown beyond its meager means. It had been a long time since Japan truly had produced anything at all, in fact. It's food nearly all imported and carefully tailored to look and taste like the long extinct versions of the native same. Or else genetically engineered and decanted, built protein by protein from vast gene databases of formerly indigenous fish and plants. The underground arcologies being built in the mountains were slowly becoming the wave of the future. Vast networks of living areas, Joliet combines, businesses, hydroponics, corporations, hatching pools; all enclosed, all self-sufficient. The promise of a new Japan, or perhaps just the promise of independence from the rest of the world's breadbaskets, drew people by the millions.
Those left behind were willing to consume vat-grown sushi, Georgian flour, and Brazilian rice. They were willing because they were reaping the first harvests of a vast new crop. A crop whose supply was always in demand yet never short on supply. They were harvesters of information. They mined it raw from vast corporate databases, cultivated it, extrapolated it, refined it, creating new worlds of pure data to explore. But measuring and analyzing only got you so far. There was simply too much information to navigate through, and no measure of brute force could dig deep enough or hunt intelligently enough to find all of it's hidden secrets. The most successful explorers in this vast new world of information were often not the ones with most advanced calculations or thorough equations, but the ones who had the most artistic style and clever approach.
Artistic style, a trait long since bred out of the ever-increasing homogeny, was suddenly a vital commodity. Multi-PAC visas were issued on a daily basis, seeing immigration numbers that nearly doubled the combined quotas of the entire previous century. As with all great booms, the market quickly saturated with its fill of opportunistic shysters and confidence men, leaving the already xenophobic Japanese with amazingly rediscovered levels of distrust for the foreign devils, the gaijin.
The small office that he found himself in was remarkably similar to the last ten in as many weeks. The same painted screens covering the same clinically white walls. The same nodding and smiling faces that apologize profusely that, while he was certainly qualified, there is simply no room for him. No room for a gaijin, at least that is what they meant. Ten jobs offered to him and his Japanese sounding name, only to have them turned around at the door with a look of surprise at his very foreign face. No surprises, he told himself walking home from the Ueno train station. He was to expect more of the same, at least for now. Patience; become so important that they can't ignore you, they will come around. At least his name did not carry any stigma here; he was free for the first time in his life.
In front of him, the slick, rain-swept street hazily mirrored a bright fluorescent streetlight. The train whistled a little tune; the doors slid shut with a thump. A hum, a rush of air, and the train launched itself into the smooth descending tube behind him; he was alone. The streets were dark, but never quite so dark as back home, never completely night, and never any stars over the Eternal City. He thought about what it was that drove him so hard to get here. Was it worth it to look into those blank smiling faces every week? He had no lack of money, not as long as he had his gaijin face and his Minna-san account. Black jobs, small neighborhood gigs could keep him on his feet for life. There were always people who needed something erased from their record. In Japan, nobody got a second chance. Once you messed up, it was for life. The best a person with a record could hope for was a barakumin job out in baraku-towns hauling cow feed or packaging fish. Even then, your record still haunted you. Always some kid who was caught stealing a bike at thirteen and needed a clean record to get into school. Always some mother of two who needed to keep her divorce secret to keep her job. That kind of job was always a quick means to a small change. And in the black business, a gaijin face was actually an advantage. A Japanese face in the biz meant Yakuza. Always. And Yak meant being in debt for life.
But he did come here for a reson [add]
An alley ran in the general direction he needed to go, but you never could tell with Japanese streets. It ran directly into a plastic cube, not enough room for more than a table and two chairs. It looked like it had been wedged in with a lot of effort, but very little planning. A bright red sign flicked on as he approached. Sushi. A tiny little automated restaurant. An autobaito, the name derived from some Japanese play on words that he had never quite figured out. Magnetic bolts popped as he touched the door, and the little shop's lights snapped on with a hum. It reminded him of the Seattle coffee bars, but advanced. The same card slot, same kind of selection display, and a clear acrylic window. It was different because it wasn't prepackaged. Inside the little refrigerated window he could watch the mechanical arms measure out fish, slice it. He would see the small rice cooker next to a little machine to roll nori. Another set of arms to arrange and garnish. It was worth the experience just to watch. The machine interacts in a hundred intricate ways and, presto, out slides a chilled plastic box. Like magic, he thought to himself.
He slid his Minna-san card into the slot and punched up an order and a hot sake. The arms and rollers stopped, the machine played a little tune, and his meal snapped out followed by a tapered white plastic sake bottle. He sat down at the tiny table and ate in silence with simulated wood chopsticks, staring out the shop's scuffed Plexiglas door. This place, he thought to himself, could probably be picked up and moved around at a moments notice. Plug it in and give it a net feed and it is probably up in five minutes. If business was bad, just grab it and move it down the block. By the look of the door, though, the place had sat here for quite some time. Maybe the alley saw some traffic during the day. He slid the little box and bottle in the recycle bin and headed out the opposite door that he entered. As he walked away, he heard the bolts on the doors thud into place as the sign flickered out.
His tiny rented apartment was only a few blocks away, but as usual in Japan, his shortcut through the alley just led him around in circles for blocks, and he had to double back to find his way through the maze of dark houses, shops, and apartment buildings. There seemed to be absolutely no planning taken whatsoever in the design of the streets. The dilapidated stairwell up the center of his apartment building creaked and groaned menacingly as he carefully climbed up three flights. The actual apartment was nice enough. Perhaps preserved by the good graces of some old tenant who only used it as a secret getaway.
His passed his magnetic key over the lock plate and the old-fashioned bolt lock opened with a soft snick. A sudden flare of bright incandescent lights lit up the room. The phone began winking its tiny green LED's as soon as he stepped through the door. Messages. Always a good sign. It meant people knew you existed. For the first time in his life he didn't have to worry about who knew who he was and where he lived. He could get messages in his own home on his own machine, and that was worth a million failed job interviews.
The apartment itself was not large, but strategically placed mirrors gave the illusion of space. Not a optical illusion that he particularly liked. Caused frustration; As though there were more space somewhere, but you just couldn't use it. Someday the mirrors would have to go, but it would be expensive. The floors, on the other hand, were remarkable. Wood. Not the synthetic kind that you found in hotels either. Real wood. A dark heavy grain, probably imported illegally from Africa. Probably cost a small fortune to install, too. The telltale corners where the grain was sheared a little too abruptly to meet the edge of the wall. It had definitely been laid down after the original place was built. That is what first gave him the impression that this had been some kind of special spot for the previous tenant. The expense, and the trouble, just for a tiny one-room apartment. No way would someone go through the trouble without a reason.
"Evening lights," he told the house and the bright glow dimmed and changed color slightly. Amber. It took a few weeks to find good utility software that understood English. This one was a particular favorite of his because it would analyze voiceprints and adjust the color of the light according to the speaker's mood. It was an interesting effect, because sometimes it could gauge his emotional state better than he could himself. It was hard to fool it. He could yell and curse, but could never get the brilliant red lights unless truly in a bad mood. Tiny vocal sub-harmonics unconsciously controlled by hormones. Always useful to have around when you've had a bit to drink. It reminded you emotionally what was going on.
He looked over at the phone; the lights displayed one new message, normal priority, nothing urgent. He stripped off all of his clothes and opened the door to the tiny shower. The steamy water began to fall as soon as he sealed the door. He let the tiny prickling sound waves ping off his skin for twenty minutes before finally slapping the shower panel off. Not a cheap shower, he reminded himself, but worth every yen. The quick burst of warm air-dried him off and minutes later he was slowly cooling off in a towel on his low crumpled futon.
The telephone still winked insistently at him, growing impatient. Feeling the warmth of the shower slowly ebbing away from his muscles, he finally sat up and turned towards the phone. Maybe it was another job offer, probably not. He passed his hand over the cool plastic plate, and the machine sprang to life.
"One message left by James Akinobo at 13:15," the measured Japanese voice politely told him, pausing to connect to Jimmy's profile service. "It is 52 minutes long. He is currently at home. Do you wish to listen to his message, or would you prefer to call him?"
"52 minutes, eh?," Jimmy had a habit of chatting on and on the phone while working. He didn't require a two way conversation, just a the sound of his own voice which an answering service would gladly oblige, "Just give that jerk a call if he's home.... Ugh."
Jimmy Akinobo. Half Japanese, and the other half Texan. Well, reformed Texan. They met on the JAL shuttle coming over a few months ago, just struck up a conversation in the aisle that didn't stop for the entire flight. Jimmy was a huge man, way over six feet tall and built like a buffalo. The only part of him that hinted of his half Japanese side was his large, black, almond eyes. His size was the primary reason he took his mother's name at sixteen. Already huge, he couldn't fit in anywhere, so he decided if he wasn't going to fit it, he would do it on a grand scale. He made a name for himself in the personal defense market building powerful, lightweight, inexpensive defense systems to protect wealthy Japanese executives and their families. Ironic, he would say, how the Japanese lived in, by far, the safest society in the entire world. It was impossible to walk more than a few blocks without being remotely scanned by the black police boxes attached to communication poles at most every street corner. Violent crimes, at least those inflicted among citizens, were as near to zero as possible. And yet, no Japanese man woman or child would be able to sleep at night knowing that a door had been left unlocked. Japan was by far one the most paranoid societies in the whole world. Naturally, there was a niche to be filled. People would pay almost anything to feel secure, and Akinobo security devices actually worked.
"He is available, sir. Please wait. Mr. Akinobo is online now." The tiny screen flipped itself on, the display distorted by a small crack in the lower left corner; A wound received a month ago when moving furniture around in the cramped apartment. He had since given up the western need for overstuffed chairs and coffee tables and settled for a low half-sized dining table and cushions. Colors spread in rainbows from the small crack and slowly changed the display from red to green to blue. The picture was fine, but the constantly shifting patchwork of colors made it hard to have a serious conversation. Luckily, Jimmy was never one to go in for a serious chat.
"Jimmy, how been? I got a message."
Jimmy's large face flashed his winning grin. "Excellent, everything has been excellent. I heard it though the grapevine that Naho-san slammed the door in your face. I can't believe that guy. Five years in business with us, and he still doesn't trust gaijin."
"Hey, no apologies, you told me what to expect. After all, what kind of a record do I have here yet? I'll get by until I've been here long enough to be trusted. I mean, gigs come and go you know."
"Actually, that is kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I think I may have gig for you. I have someone I want you to meet. This isn't biz either, you'll be working with me and my current partner; this is the real deal."
"Seriously? Awesome. So when do I meet him?"
"Tomorrow in Sendai. I'm putting together a clean lab in Yokohama so you won't be able to reach me until I'm out. I'll come and grab you at the train when I finish. Try to get there around 2:00. Oh, and you won't be meeting a him, she's a her." Grinning.
n i s e i (at) c h i p p e d (dot) n e t