Trouble and Her Friendsby Melissa Scott
India Carless, alias Trouble, got out just ahead of the
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Less than a hundred years from now, the forces of law and order crack down on the world of the computer nets. The hip, noir adventurers who get by on wit, bravado, and drugs, and haunt the virtual worlds of the Shadows of cyberspace, are up against the encroachments of civilization. It's time to adapt or die.
India Carless, alias Trouble, got out just ahead of the feds and settled down to run a small network for an artist's co-op.
Now someone has taken her name and begun to use it for criminal hacking. So Trouble returns. Once the fastest fun on the electronic frontier, she has tried to retire--but has been called out for one last fight. And it's a killer.
"A gritty, real-feeling book about sexy women from the punk side of the tracks, empowered by the nets but managing not to be corrupted by power: and a wry and interesting look at what happens when the law moves in on the wild cyberspace frontier." -Gwyneth Jones, author of White Queen
- Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
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- First Edition
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- 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)
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Trouble and Her Friends
By Scott, Melissa
Tor Science FictionCopyright © 1995 Scott, Melissa
All right reserved.
Trouble was gone. Cerise had known it from the moment she entered the strangely neat apartment, the inevitable clutter--disks, books and papers, here a sweater, there a pair of shoes--all missing along with Trouble. She went through the two rooms in the greyed light of the winter afternoon, checked the single closet and the battered trunks that held the rest of their clothes, not looking at the computers until the last, already sure of what she would find. Half the system was gone, Trouble's half, the portable holo-multex drive and the brainbox and the braid of cables and biojacks that carried signals to the implanted processors in their brains. There was no paper note.
A light was flashing on the media console, and she touched the code keys to retrieve the single message. The voice that broke from the speaker was familiar, but not Trouble--Carlie, babbling on about something she couldn't be bothered to hear right now--and she killed the message, not bothering to save it for later. She turned away from the wall of blank screens and cubbies filled with data decks and players, the ugly oyster-grey carpet squeaking underfoot, and looked around the little room as though she was seeing it for the first time. Outside the single window, the sun was setting beyond the buildings on the far side of the little park, throwing a last cold light across the grey stone and concrete. A reflectionlike a spark flared from the highest side windows of the Lomaro Building half a mile away--three-quarters of a kilometer, she corrected automatically--and faded as she stared. The sun dropped into a bank of dirty cloud, and the light went out as though someone had flicked a switch. On the horizon, beyond the five- and six-story buildings of the local neighborhood, neon flickered to life, running like lightning along the edges of the buildings.
She shivered, and reached overhead into the web of invisible control beams that crisscrossed the apartment, waved her hand twice to bring on the main light. A yellow light flashed on the display by the door instead, warning her that she hadn't replaced the main battery. She swore under her breath--that had been Trouble's chore--and went to the panel herself, switched light and heat to full and touched the button that brought the opaque screen down over the window. It was sheer indulgence, this system, costing at least two months' rent to install, but once the security--black security, black-market and blackest-night effective, run off an illegal direct-line power tap--had been in place, it had seemed a shame not to install the convenience systems as well. She remembered Trouble balancing on an uneven chair beside the door, drill-driver in hand, bolting the last of the extra control boxes into place. That had been their indulgence for a job well done, right before the hearings began, three months before David Terrel was actually convicted of armed robbery because of a particularly brutal icebreaker he carried in his toolkit. The last good times, she thought, feeling at the moment only the cold, and turned back to the dismantled machines.
Seeing the system broken, the empty spaces where Trouble's machines had been, made her shiver again, something like fear or rage or sorrow threatening to break through the numbness, but she shoved the feeling down again, and went back into the bedroom for the things she needed to repair the gaps. She had spares of everything that Trouble had taken, machines she had used before she'd met Trouble, and she hauled their case out from under the bed, brushing dust from the lids. The wind moaned through the rungs of the fire escape that slanted down past the bedroom window; she glanced at it, hearing loose bolts rattle on the landing one story above, and went back into the outer room.
It didn't take long to rebuild the system. Trouble had worked with her usual precision, taking nothing that wasn't hers, leaving the backup disks stacked prominently in front of the dusty keyboard. There was a hollyblock there, too, holographic storage, and Cerise moved it impatiently aside to plug her own holodrive into the multiple sockets. She replaced Trouble's dedicated brainbox with her own--an older model, but still serviceable, still fast enough to let her run the nets without danger--and found a length of cable to reconnect the various components. She looked at the hollyblock, but did not pick it up, turned instead to the rarely used keyboard and began methodically to recreate her machine.
The screen lit and windowed as she worked, giving her a schematic view of the reconstructed system; she touched keys, reestablishing virtual links that had been broken when the physical links were removed, and watched the schematic shift, rotating in the uppermost window to show her the new links outlined in red. A string of text asked for confirmation. She gave it the code it wanted, and watched as the red lines slowly turned to yellow and then to green, blending in with the rest of the design. When she was sure it was complete, she dismissed that image, and sorted through the directories until she found her private mailbox. It took two keys to open it, one a name--she made a mental note to change that--the other a meaningless string of letters, but she found nothing new in the lists of files. That was as she'd expected, and she closed the program, reaching instead for the hollyblock. If Trouble had left her anything, any explanation, it would be there.
She fitted the box carefully into the replacement multex drive, and touched the keys that initiated the test sequence. Everything came back green, and she pressed a second set of keys to access the drive. A dozen files, each indicated by an individual symbol, an icon, bloomed on her screen. She frowned then--she had expected more, some message, some more useful labels, something--but touched the first icon. The file blossomed in front of her, filling the screen with a peculiar half-squashed half-stretched image that she recognized at once as the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional network file--of their network map, she realized suddenly, of the map she and Trouble had painstakingly built over the four years of their partnership. It was one of their more useful tools: there were no commercial maps available--not covering all the nets--and the ones that did exist were deliberately flawed, deliberately distorted to hide the control areas from people who had no business having access. And there were plenty of corporate spaces, privately owned systems that nonetheless also existed in the unreal "space" of the myriad networked computers that was the nets; all of those preferred to be invisible, at least to an outside eye.
On the net itself, of course, things were different. Once you plugged yourself into the system--either via the implanted dollie--box and dollie-slot, the direct-on-line-image processor system, which gave a text-speech-and-symbol interface, or through the full-sense brainworm, with its molecular wires running directly into the brain that let you experience virtuality as though it were real--it was easy enough to find your way around the nets. There were signposts, vivid neon images, and the swirling rivers and lines of light that were the virtual reflection of the data itself, which anyone who'd been on the nets for any length of time could read like a tracker read spoor. But the map was useful for planning a job, when you had to enter the nets from the safest point, so that the security programs, watchdogs and trackers and callback systems, and all the panoply of IC(E)--Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic)--would either lose your trail in the confusion of conflicting data or never have the chance to track you down. Remotely, Cerise was surprised that Trouble had taken the copy with her, though she supposed it was possible that Trouble had made two copies out of the network files, their own secure space. But then, Trouble had said it was time to give up cracking.
It was very quiet in the apartment, too quiet, just the distant sound of wind and the occasional rattle of the fire escape in the other room. Cerise winced, and reached for the main remote, jabbed at buttons until the media center lit. Trouble had left the main screen turned to the news channel, and the blare of the announcer's voice filled the room.
"--top story, the Senate today voted to override the presidential veto of the Evans-Tindale Bill, joining the House in handing the president a resounding defeat. Marjorie Albuez in Washington has more on the story."
"Thank you, Jim. By accepting the compromise bill sponsored by Charles Evans and Alexander Tindale, Congress today seems to have ensured that the United States will remain the only industrial nation that is not a signatory to the Amsterdam Network Conventions."
The voice droned on, but Cerise was no longer listening. She swung back to face the linked computers, the remaining files forgotten, and reached for the dollie-cord snugged into its housing at the base of the dedicated brainbox. She tilted her head to fit the cord into the dollie-slot behind her right ear, but did not launch herself directly onto the nets. This was why Trouble had left. She had been talking for months about what would happen if the U.S. rejected the Amsterdam Conventions, about how even the supposedly benign Evans-Tindale Bill would destroy the cracker community, bring them all finally under an alien, ill-conceived, ill-fitting law. For a moment, Cerise almost believed those prophecies of doom. No one had believed that Congress would buy Evans-Tindale, it bore no relation to virtuality....
"--completes what the so-called Nunberg Act--the Industrial Espionage Act, as it is more properly known--attempted to provide two years ago." That was a new voice, but Cerise didn't turn to identify the speaker. "The Evans-Tindale Bill codifies the various provisions of the Nunberg Act, and creates a new entity within the Treasury Department that will have enforcement responsibility on the nets, replacing the patchwork system currently in place. In a nutshell, Evans-Tindale, like the Nunberg Act before it, redefines so-called cyberspace as a particular legal jurisdiction, and establishes a code of law governing these electronic transactions."
Which means, Cerise thought, that we're all screwed. She sat for a long moment, staring at her screen, at the distorted image displayed in its central window. That map no longer mattered, because now there was no reason to keep those secrets, at least not in the legal world of the bright lights: there was a new law out there, and one that could be enforced in the real world. And for the shadows--the illegal world of crackers and grey- and black-market dealers, the world where she had lived ever since she'd run away from her home, her true name, and the secretarial school that had been her second home--it meant the end of an era. It would no longer be possible to dodge the law in one jurisdiction by claiming that you, or your machines, or your target, were located elsewhere; it would no longer be possible to argue that there was no theft where there was no real property. All that had been decided, and by fiat, not the nets' own powerful consensus. And Evans-Tindale also meant that there was no longer any possibility of legalizing the brainworm. The old-style crackers and the legal netwalkers had proclaimed their innocence by blaming everything on the brainworm and its users, and no one in authority seemed to know enough to know that they were lying.
She reached for the safety, cupped it in her left hand, hesitated, and would the cord twice around her wrist, just in case. If she pressed that button, or its virtual analogue, the system would shut down instantly and automatically, dumping her back in the safety of her own home system, her own body. She took a deep breath, fighting back despair, and used her right hand to touch the sequence that opened a net gateway. The brainworm responded perfectly, its impulses overriding the merely physical input of the apartment, and she flung herself out into the glittering perpetual night that was the net.
Alice in Wonderland, Alice down the rabbit hole, Alice out in cyberspace, flung along the lines of data, flying across fields of light, the night cities that live only behind her eyes. Power rides her fingers, she moves from datashell to datashell, walking the nets like the ghost of a shadow, her trail vanishing behind her as she goes. She carries power in the dark behind her eyes.
And she needs it, tonight, in the chaos that whirls between the islands of the corporate spaces, their boundaries marked by heaps and new whorls of glittering IC(E). The bulletin boards, the great sink of the BBS where all the lines of data eventually meet and merge and pool into a sink of slow transfer, limited nodes, and low-budget users, are in upheaval. The familiar icons and signpost-symbols that guide the unwary are gone completely, erased by their owners or remade in new and somehow threatening form. Icons whirl past her, some representing people she knows, has worked with. She smells fear sharp as sweat, hears the constant rustling murmur of the transactions that surround her as the brainworm translates what is truly only electrons, data transferred from computer to computer, to sensation in her brain. She glimpses a familiar shape, a hint of flowing robes that move against the current of the datastream that enfolds them, and tries to follow. But the crowding icons--balled advertising, jostling users, once a virtual pickpocket, groping for useful programs in other people's toolkits--block her way and she loses the robed icon at the main exchange node, where the data flows down from the outer nets like a waterfall of lights.
She turns back toward the center of the maze that is the BBS, following the shape of the underlying structural spiral rather than the illusion of shops and storefronts and tented stalls--unfamiliar shop-icons, old names and symbols blanked or greyed or simply missing--heading for a node where someone will surely know where Trouble has gone. Trouble will have left a message there, if she left anything at all. This is free space, unprotected, and the air stinks of it, the salt sea-smell the brainworm gives to undefended bits of data. At any other time, she would stop to taste, to savor, to see what news is drifting in the wind--and maybe especially tonight she should stop, listen to the whispers and shouts and read the posts that fill the message walls, but Trouble is gone, and that matters more than any law. She can hear voices, snatches of conversations, names repeated, not her own, but familiar nonetheless; the netgods have spoken, the oldsters who built and managed the first nets, and they've thrown their weight behind Evans-Tindale. Cerise sneers at that, and doesn't care that the brainworm broadcasts that emotion. The old netwalkers are out of touch with the new conditions, with the better, faster, and wider-band dollie-slots and especially with the brainworm; of course they'd support this law as a way to keep their own power supreme.
In a blank mirror that was once the center of a pair of swinging doors, she sees herself reflected, her icon blond-girl-in-blue-dress-and-pinnie, the child she never should have been, and then the mirror empties, and she puts her hand through it just like Alice and walks, her feet barely touching the illusion of a floor, into a temporary space.
Inside the mirror is a cave of ice, not the warm wood saloon she had expected, lined in IC(E) to keep out the intruders; the cowboys and the piano player are all missing, vanished into chill white silence, and a personal icon stands in the center where the bar had been, a woman-shape dressed like a dance-hall girl in snow-white velvet and silver fringe and silver-spangled stockings, the cloth drawn back into a bustle, cut down at the bodice to reveal breasts like hills of snow. Cerise feels the chill of the IC(E) on her skin, tingling down her spine like danger; she smells a tracker program, sharp as burned cloves, can almost taste the candy-sweet data that lies like shards of glass below the illusory floor. Miss Kitty deals in that data, stolen, borrowed, invented, even imagined, and in the commerce of messages passed unread.
*I'm looking for Trouble,* Cerise says, and waits.
She gets no answer, Miss Kitty's icon stands still and silent, and Cerise frowns and takes a step forward. And then she smells it, the scent of rotten meat, the corpse-smell the brainworm uses to signal absolute disaster. Even as she turns to run, the walls fold inward, IC(E) spiking downward. She feels its cold driving at her, lifts a hand to ward off the nearest spine, and its jagged tip scores a deep line along her arm. The brainworm reflects its touch as searing pain and the thin trace of blood ghostly along her icon-arm. There's no reason for this attack, she's no danger to Miss Kitty, never has been, has been in fact a good supplier, but there's no time to form a protest. Not time even to reach for an icebreaker, or any of the other programs she carries in her toolkit; this is serious IC(E), deadly serious, and she closes her hand convulsively, triggering the safety. The world dissolves around her, the spikes of the IC(E) fading to static as they touch her skin
and she leaned back in her chair, untangling her fingers from the cord of the safety. The screen in front of her flashed a bright-red icon, and a text message below it: SESSION ABORT. She glared at that--it was an admission of defeat to trigger to the safety, to run away from danger--and then, belatedly, became aware of the faint scent of hot metal rising from the linked machines. She frowned then, and touched the brainbox. The casing was warm, warmer than it should have been. Her frown deepened, and she set the safety aside, touched keys to call up a diagnostic program. The session-abort icon vanished, replaced by a spinning clock-face; a moment later, it, too, disappeared, and the program presented her with a list of the various components and their conditions. Two of the five fuses had tripped in the brainbox, and one had gone in he biotranslator as well. Cerise shivered, even though she'd expected it, and reached for her box of spares. Miss Kitty's IC(E) had been set to kill--and what the hell the woman thought she was doing, Cerise added silently, transmuting fear to anger, I don't know. The whole nets have gone crazy--they must have, if anybody's actually supporting Evans-Tindale. And if Miss Kitty tried to kill me. Though that probably wasn't personal. She closed her eyes for an instant, remembering the frozen icon and the sudden smell of death. No, probably not personal at all, she decided. If I were abandoning a grey-market space--and I think she must've done just that--that's the way I'd play it. A striking icon to catch people's attention, and then hair-trigger IC(E) to go after whoever tried to follow me. Or, like Miss Kitty did, whoever showed up first.
She rubbed her arm where the IC(E) had touched her--there were no marks on her skin, just the tingling reminder of a near miss in her nerves--and then began methodically to shut down the system. She couldn't replace the fuses with the machines running, and she couldn't go back out onto the nets until the fuses were replaced: no choice, she thought, and swung away from the system. The media wall was still talking at her, the screen now showing a panel of suits discussing the implications of the change. She scowled at them, worked the remote to mute the sound, and only then recognized one of the suited figures as George Aferiat, who had written software for the first dollie-slots and their associated implants, and who had also run a shadow space in the BBS before he'd gotten law. There was nothing more zealous than a convert. She lifted her middle finger to the screen, and turned back to the message board.
It didn't take a lot of work to retrieve Carlie's messages from the trash--even cheap machines had the option these days, and her system was far from cheap. She glanced at the linked machines--everything was shut down and saved; all she had to do was wait for the chips to cool and trigger the playback. Carlie Held's voice poured from the little speaker, as perfect as though he himself stood beside her.
"Cerise, Trouble, if either of you's there, pick up, we're in deep shit." There was a pause, and Cerise pictured him standing in the tiny office that served his storefront surgery, the privacy handset swamped in his huge hand. "Ok, you're not there. OK. If you haven't heard, Evans-Tindale passed--goddamn Congress overrode the veto--which means the worm stays illegal, and Treasury gets to make the law on the nets. I need to talk to you--we all need to talk. Call me as soon as you can."
Cerise heard the click of the connection breaking, and a red light flashed on the tiny status screen: end of message. She swore under her breath, and reached for her own handset, touched the codes that would connect her with Carlie's surgery. She heard the beeps as the system routed her call--a local, twelve sharp musical tones, seven for location, three for payment, two for privacy--and then waited as the ring pulsed in her ear. She counted six, and knew Carlie wasn't answering--wasn't there--but let it ring a dozen more times, staring at the posturing suits in the media screen, before she finally hung up. Carlie was gone, too.
And that was ridiculous, she told herself. She jabbed buttons again, punching in another number--Arabesque, Rachelle Sirvain in the real world: another local call, just in the next war, five minutes away by the subway. The phone rang, rang again; she counted ten before she hung up, fighting sudden panic. It was almost as if she was the last one of them left, the last survivor--She shoved that thought away, and punched a third number. This time, the answering machine picked up on the third ring.
"Hi, you've reached five-five--"
Cerise broke the connection--Dewildah was gone, too--and punched a final set of codes. In the media screen, the talking suits had disappeared, to be replaced by a head, a serious-looking woman who wore secretarial goggles. The phone rang, rang again, and then a sharply accented voice said, "Hello?"
Cerise let our breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Butch. Thank God you're home."
"Cerise? Are you all right?"
She could hear the concern in Butch van Liesvelt's voice, and managed a shaky smile. "Yeah--well, no, Trouble's gone and there's all this with Evans-Tindale--"
"Yeah." There was a little pause, and Cerise could hear in the background the indistinct sounds of someone talking--television, probably, she thought. In the screen, the image changed again, became a pair of lists showing the differences between the Amsterdam Conventions and Evans-Tindale. In one corner of the screen, a much smaller talking head--male this time--babbled away, mouth moving without sound.
"Look," van Liesvelt said abruptly, "I'm heading over to Marco Polo's. Carlie called from there, he said he and Max were there already, and that Arabesque was on her way. I was just going to call you and Trouble, I talked to Dewildah already--"
"Trouble's gone," Cerise said again.
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean she's gone. She packed up her stuff and left, I don't know where she is." Cerise took another deep breath, fought back the baffled anger. "Or why, exactly, but I think I can guess. I'll meet you at Marco Polo's. We can talk there."
"You sure?" van Liesvelt asked, and Cerise felt her eyes fill up with tears. Of all their oddball group--a half-dozen or so crackers who had dared both the brainworm and the risks of real-world contact--it was van Liesvelt, shambling, physically graceless Butch, who'd done the most to take care of all of them.
"Yeah, I'm sure, I'll see you at Marco Polo's."
She cut the connection before van Liesvelt could ask anything more. She set the handset back on its hook, taking ridiculous care with the placement, waiting until the tears were gone again before she turned her mind to business. She worked the remote again, shutting down the media wall, and grabbed her leather coat off the hook by the door before she could change her mind.
The wind had risen since the afternoon, curled in as she opened the door, bringing the smell of the wet streets and driving a handful of tattered leaves around her ankles. Cerise shivered, tucking her chin down into the coat's high collar, then had to reach back to pull the door shut behind her. She jammed her hands into her pockets, wishing she'd remembered gloves, and tore the lining again where she'd cut the pocket for a borrowed gun. This wasn't a particularly bad part of town, no more than most, and better than some, but there had been times when she needed a gun's threat to balance the odds. Or to get them out of whatever Trouble had talked them into. It hadn't happened often--Trouble was generally reasonable, cautious--but every now and then she'd accept a challenge, even one that hadn't been meant, and they would all have to live with the consequences. Like now.
Cerise shook the thought away, the memory of Trouble furious and confident, facing down a pair of local boys with knives. She had downplayed it later, always pointed out that the kids had been maybe thirteen, fourteen years old and obviously trying their first mugging. But Cerise had never forgotten the crazy grin, the sheer, black-hearted determination, and had been, herself, more than a little afraid. She had caught the look again four months ago, when Evans-Tindale passed the first time, and had done her best not to see it. Trouble had said then that she was quitting, that they couldn't go on if the bill passed, and she had obviously meant it.
It was almost dark out now, and all the streetlights were on, swaying gently in the cold wind. Cerise shrugged herself deeper into her heavy coat, stepping more quickly across the moving shadows, heading for the nearest subway station at the corner of Elm and Cass. Not that it was all that far to Marco Polo's, less than a dozen blocks, but it was cold, and dark already, and the secretary gangs, the dollie-girls, tended to lurk on the fringes of New Century Square. As she came out into the brighter light of the intersection, however, she saw the lines waiting beyond the ticket booths, men and women huddled into drab, windproof coats, here and there the brighter cloth of a student uniform, and she muttered a curse under her breath. The system was backed up again--it had never been built to handle the current loads--and she could easily walk to the Square before she even made it down onto the platform. She lengthened her step, heading up Cass into the teeth of the wind.
Once she had passed the intersection, with its bright lights and the low-standing brick station, foot traffic thinned out. This was mostly small shops and offices, all of which closed promptly at five to let their people get out of the city-center before full dark, and the doors and ground-floor windows were barred, steel shutters or heavy grills drawn tight over their vulnerabilities. Security lights showed like blue pinpoints in the corners of a few windows, and there were metal mesh sleeves across the swaying streetlights, casting webbed shadows over the pooled light. A few of the lights were broken anyway, leaving patched of greater dark, and she crossed them warily, wondering if she'd been stupid after all. But she was already past the bus lines at Stadium Road--not that they were running, it wasn't a game night--and it would take longer to walk back to the station than it would to keep going. She could see the lights of the Square in the distance, the haze of gold neon bright at the end of the street, the gold-and-red bars of the Camberwell Beer sign just visible between a pair of buildings: only another four or five blocks to go, and she'd be in the relative safety of the crowded Square. She kept walking, not hurrying, glad of her soft-soled shoes and the dark coat that helped her pass unobserved, and reached the end of Cass without encountering another pedestrain.
New Century Square was as busy as ever, lights glaring from the subway kiosk at the center of the circle, more light, red and gold and green neon, flashing from the signs and display boards that ringed the Square, and from the signs that glowed and flickered over the myriad doorways. The gaudy lights helped to disguise buildings that hadn't been new eighty years ago, when the century turned and the Square had been rechristened in hopes of attracting a new clientele for the new years. Maybe half a dozen suits were standing outside the station, staring up at the news board and its display--currently a pretty dark-skinned actress showing teeth and tits and a new shampoo. There were more suits inside the ticket booths, men and women alike looking tired and irritable, and Cerise guessed that the system still wasn't running properly. A handful of dollie-girls were hanging out under the awning outside the discount store, watching the suits. The youngest looked twelve or so, the oldest maybe sixteen, and each of them wore a parody of a corporate suit--the skirts too short, slit thigh-high, the jackets too tight and sexy, their faces layered with clown-bright makeup. Their shoes, bright neon-satin pumps, had three-and four-inch heels sheathed in steel, and there would be flip-knives and maybe a gun or two in the sequinned handbags. They belonged to the secretarial so-called college over on Market Street, Cerise knew, kids who had indentured themselves to the school and its placement service to get the implants, dollie-box and dollie-slot, that could eventually win them a decent job with a corporation. They had found out too late, they always found out too late, that they didn't automatically get the training or the bioware that would let them walk the nets, or even use the systems to their full capacity. It was no wonder they took to the streets to get a little of their own back. She had been one of them, eight years ago, before she'd figured out how to get into the BBS and found the grey-market dealers there, and she gave them a wide berth, knowing what they, what she, were capable of doing. She was aware of their stares as she passed, the anger buried under the troweled-on color, and ignored it, knowing better than to meet someone's eyes and trigger a confrontation. Trouble would have laughed--if she was in one of her difficult moods, she would have said something, anything, earned her name yet again. But then, Trouble had somehow never learned to lose. How she'd managed that, Cerise didn't know, even after four years together working the nets, and three years as lovers: she wasn't corporate, and besides, the corporations taught you early to lose to them. But she sure wasn't city-trash, either.
She heard the click of heels behind her, steel on stone, and then a second set of footsteps, the same sharp almost musical clink not quite in synch with the first, and did not turn. The wall of a store rose to her right, solid brick banded with neon: no place to run, except into the street and the traffic, and that would mean losing anyway. The skin between her shoulder blades tingled, an electric touch at the center of her spine. She had played the game before, knew exactly what was happening, and then she heard the voices, rising shrill to be certain she, and all the others, heard.
"Pull it out, girl."
Cerise turned then, the fury rising in her, caught the dollie-girl by the lapel of her too-tight jacket, swung her sideways into the brick of the wall. The girl staggered, losing her balance on the high heels, and Cerise hauled her up bodily, using both lapels this time, and slammed her back against the bricks, narrowing missing a light tube. She caught a glimpse of the second girl, mouth open in shock, falling back a step or two at the sheer craziness, and looked down at the girl in her hands. She hung dazed, one button torn loose, her eyes unfocused and filled with reflex tears. Cerise shook her, not caring that her head bounced off the bricks, felt her scrabble without result for safer footing.
"You touch me," Cerise said, "and I'll fucking kill you."
She hadn't spoken loudly, sounded calmer than she felt, but the girl heard, eyes widening so that a tear ran down her painted face, drawing a long line of scarlet from her mascara. Cerise lifted her, barely feeling the effort, and let go again, saw her slide gracelessly to the bottom of the wall and sit for an instant, long legs sprawling, before the other girl moved to help her up. Cerise turned her back on them, not caring, daring them, even, to follow her. There was nothing, not even a catcall, last defiance, and she felt the sharp string of regret before the reaction set in.
She was still shaking a little, adrenaline-anger and fear mixed, when she turned down the narrow street that led to Marco Polo's and pushed open the door badged with a neon cactus and pagodas, wincing as the twanging steel-string music hit her like a blow. The downstairs room was filled with a mix of suits and lower-level tech-types and a fair number of secretaries and temps of both sexes on the hustle. Most of them were standing four-deep at the bar, bellowing indistinguishable orders at the sweating bartenders, or crowded in groups of six or seven around the tiny tables. A few, maybe a dozen or so, were already on the little dance floor, arms linked across each others' shoulders, feet moving in approximate coordination. Twin television monitors hung at the ends of the bar, and the news anchor beamed down like a benevolent deity. His words were inaudible through the music and the shouted conversations, but the logo beside his head was the familiar computer-chip-and-gavel that had come to stand for Evans-Tindale. Cerise made a face, seeing that, and began to work her way through the crowd toward the stairs that led to the upper bar.
It was a jovial crowd, this early, everybody loose but not yet drunk enough to think of trouble, and it wasn't difficult to get through the mob, no need to resort to elbows or stepping on toes. She smiled mechanically at suits, and they edged smiling away, letting her worm through the spaces. She fetched up at the foot of the stairs in a sudden pocket of silence as the song ended, and stood there for a moment catching her breath, looking back toward the monitors. The Evans-Tindale logo was still in lace, though the image behind it had changed: the screen was filled with protesters, all waving placards that called for the U.S. to sign the Amsterdam Conventions. The camera focused on one sign, carried by a black woman who looked young and serious enough to be a student at a real college; it read, in bright red letters, a: u.s. and liberia. q: who hasn't signed? That wasn't quite true, Cerise thought--she vaguely remembered that there were a couple of Asian nations that hadn't yet agreed to the Conventions--but it was close enough. At her side, a tallish suit, good-looking, broad bones and a not-too-neat mustache, shook his head.
"I don't get it," he said, to no one in particular. "What's the problem?"
Cerise looked at him in disbelief, wanting to say something but not knowing where to begin. Evans-Tindale was going to change everything, was going to destroy the nets as they were, and offered nothing to replace them--A suited woman edged up to the man, handed him one of the two beers she carried, holding them well away from her body.
"Technies," she said. "If they can't have their toys--"
The music started again, with a wail of synthetic brass, drowning out her words. Cerise shook herself--there was nothing you could say to some people, nothing that would make any difference--and started up the stairs.
The upstairs room--it had never had another name, wasn't even officially reserved for a netwalker clientele, though the occasional suit or temp who wandered in from downstairs usually left quickly enough--was much quieter, and she let the heavy door thump shut again behind her with a sigh of relief. There was no music here, just the occasional murmur of voices and the overlapping noise of five or six television monitors, each turned to a different channel. Most of the little tables scattered across the dimly lit room were occupied by netwalkers who sat alone or in twos and threes, muttering together or with their eyes fixed on the monitors mounted from the ceiling. She recognized some of the faces--Johnny Winchester, for one, scrawny and greying, who had been on the nets since the invention of the dollie slot, and was syscop, the on-line legal authority, for one of the official public spaces. He'd been to D.C. four time to testify, supporting the Amsterdam Conventions, had argued at the last that Evans-Tindale was better than nothing. I hope you're satisfied, Cerise thought, and headed for the bar, giving his table a wide berth.
The bar itself was mechanical, which meant a limited selection of drinks, but Marco didn't have to pay a fifth bartender. Cerise fed a couple of slips of citiscrip into the machine, and it whirred to itself for a moment before filling a plastic cup with wine. In the dim light it looked more like water, and she sniffed it to be sure before she turned away. There were a few other faces she knew, not many: netwalkers didn't as a rule congregate in the real world. It took something like this to bring them together, and even then most of them weren't talking to each other, just sitting and listening to the monitors. She recognized a pair of women from the Arts Round Table, sitting together with a man she didn't know. All three looked grim, and they had their heads close together; as she made her way past the table, she saw that they had a portable machine set up, and were staring avidly at its screen. Neither of the women were on-line, and the man didn't even seem to have a dollie-slot; what good they thought they could do, she didn't know. There was another familiar shape at a table at the back of the room, a rangy man, bearded and scowling, a flashing pin in the shape of his red-hand icon fastened to the lapel of his neat suit-jacket, and Cerise looked hastily away. Bran-Boru, or whatever his real name was, had a reputation for being chancy, and she had no desire to attract his attention.
Then at last she saw van Liesvelt, skinny and blonde and rumpled, even sitting down taller than the others at the corner table. He lifted his hand in greeting, beckoning her over; Cerise waved back, not trying to hide her relief, and came to john them. The others were there, too: Carlie held still in working whites under his grubby jacket, Arabesque slowly crumpling the fingers of a VR glove--the old-fashioned virtual-reality interface, not good for anything but games and blunt-instrument science anymore--into an ungainly fist, Max Helling with his partner Jannick Aledort at his back, Aledort listening, not quite part of the group, while Helling talked. Max was always talking, Cerise thought, and took the last chair, next to Dewildah Mason, who looked up at her with a wry smile and a nod of greeting.
"So where's your other half?"
"Trouble's gone," Cerise said, and to her horror heard her voice crack. She took a sip of the wine to cover it, swallowed wrong, and choked. Mason reached over to pound her on the back, brown eyes wide with concern.
"That's what you said," van Liesvelt said,
Giving me time to pull myself together, Cerise thought, and nodded her thanks, setting the wine down again.
"Yeah." Her voice was still strained, and her throat hurt, but at least she didn't sound as though she were going to cry.
"Evans-Tindale?" Helling asked. He was a think, feral-looking man, a little older than the rest of them. He'd been on the net for years, had more business connections in the shadows, knew more about buying or selling black-market programs and data than any of the others. Cerise sometimes thought he only stayed friends with them because they were all queer, and the old-style netwalkers still didn't approve of him, wouldn't approve of him no matter how good he was because of it. She suspected he'd taken the risk of the brainworm for the same reason: the old-style netwalkers wouldn't respect his work once he'd gotten it, but then, they hadn't ever respected him. The brainworm did give you an advantage on the nets, let you use the full range of your senses, not just sight and sound, to interpret the virtual world. The old-style netwalkers claimed to hold it in contempt, said that it was a crutch, something for second-raters, but Cerise suspected, had always suspected, that they were just afraid. The worm entailed risks: implantation and direct-to-brain wiring was always tricky, could leave you a mental cripple if the operation went wrong, and the oldsters had never quite been able to face that possibility. The dollie-slots and the associated implants didn't touch the brain, ran along existing nerves--less of a risk, and more of a challenge to use, or so the oldsters said.
"Trouble wouldn't just run away," Arabesque said. She set the VR glove down on the dented tabletop, curled her own hand over it, matching finger to finger. Her skin was only a little lighter than the black plastic, and both were like shadows in the indirect light.
"She said she would," Held said. He shook his head, laid his huge hands flat on the tabletop. It was hard, seeing them, to believe that he was as good a cybermedic as he actually was; harder still to believe that he was qualified to install and modify brainworms. Or at least he was qualified in the EC, where he'd trained: the worm was still illegal here, and there wasn't any chance of legalizing it now that Evans-Tindale had passed. "She said from the beginning she wasn't going to stick around if Congress overrode the veto." He shook his head, and pushed himself back from the table. "Anybody else want another drink?"
Van Liesvelt shook his head, and Mason said, "Yeah, thanks, Carlie." She held out a glittering strip of foil, and Held took it, turned away toward the bar.
"That wasn't all she was bitching about," Arabesque said, and gave Cerise a hard look. "Last time I talked to her, she said you two'd had a disagreement over a job."
Cerise made a face. This was the part she hadn't wanted to think about, the part she hadn't wanted to remember: she'd been warned, and she'd miscalculated badly. "There's a new corporate space, with new IC(E). I didn't recognize the system, but I thought we could crack it. Trouble doesn't--didn't agree. But it's interesting IC(E)." She could almost see it, taste it, in memory, a massive cylinder of glass, light spiraling slowly up its side, to drift down again in a faint haze, hiding the codes that make up the real security. She had never seen IC(E) that tight before, could hardly wait to try to crak it....
"What was the company?" That was Aledort, leaning forward a little further over the back of his own chair and Helling's shoulder.
"I don't know yet," Cerise answered. "I told you, it's a new space to me."
"Better hold off a while," Helling said. "You don't know what's going to happen under Evans-Tindale."
Van Liesvelt nodded agreement, for once unsmiling. His mustache looked more ragged than ever, as though he'd been chewing on it.
"I can't believe Trouble just left," Mason said.
"Neither can I," Arabesque said, and Cerise glared at her.
"I told you what happened. We'd been talking about the job--"
"You can't call it a job," Helling objected. "If you don't know who made the IC(E) or what's behind it, it's not a job."
Cerise ignored him. "And she said she wasn't going to do it, it was crazy with the second vote coming up. She said if Evans-Tindale passed, if they overrode the veto, she wasn't going to stay on the nets. And when I came home this afternoon, she was gone, and all her equipment with her."
"Jesus," van Liesvelt said.
"I called about three," Held said, reappearing with two glasses. He handed one to Mason, along with a couple of plastic slugs, and reseated himself next to van Liesvelt. "So I guess she was gone then. I'd just got out of surgery, heard from a guy in the waiting room." He shook his head. "Man, I couldn't believe it. They won't sign the Conventions, and then they turn around and pass this shit."
"I was on my way back from campus," Mason said unexpectedly. She had been a student at a real college, still held an extension card from the university. "I was waiting for the commuter train, there must've been twenty of us, and this guy--I hardly know him, his name's Bill something, or maybe Paul. Anyway, he comes up to me and says, 'You're on the nets, right? Did you hear they overrode the veto?' And I looked at him--I still can't believe I did this--and I said, 'You got to be kidding. That can't be right, you must've got it wrong.' And he says. 'No, they've got the monitors on in the pizza place'--there's a pizza place right next to the train station--'and they broke into the soaps to make the announcement.' So I went over there, and sure enough, the monitor's on, and the screen's showing the vote count. And I just stood there. I thought for a minute he'd gotten the story backward, that we'd won, because the numbers were so high for Evans-Tindale, but he hadn't. They'd overridden it, no question. No appeal, no nothing. I damn near didn't bother getting on the train."
"I was on the net," Helling said. "I--" He stopped, glancing over his shoulder at Aledort, who was scowling, and began again. "I'd just drifted back into the BBS, riding the stream, and I thought--I don't know what I thought. It felt like an earthquake, everybody trying to log on or off or to do something, all at once. I mean, the ground shook." He waved his hands in the air, miming the motion. "Literally. I couldn't keep my balance for a minute. And then everybody starting talking, shouting, and I ran for the nearest node and got the hell of the system." He shook his head. "It's still crazy out there. I got back on before I came over here. I thought maybe somebody would be talking sense out there, but it's insane. Half the old spaces are shut down, the BBS is clogged solid with traffic, there's new IC(E) in half the corporate spots I looked at. It's just crazy."
"Miss Kitty shut down the saloon," Cerise said. "And left some very nasty IC(E) behind her." She didn't need to add any more to it: they all knew Miss Kitty, did business with her, and knew Cerise as well.
"Well, she was in a really bad position," Helling said. "Under the new laws, my God, everything she traded in was felony material."
"Wonderful," van Liesvelt said. "I have to admit, Trouble's got a point. It's not exactly going to be safe, staying in the shadows."
"Only if you're not careful," Cerise said.
Arabesque nodded. "Yeah. It changes how we do business, ups the risks and the stakes. My God, you know what we can charge now?"
"Yeah, and end up like Terrel," Mason muttered. "Serving five-to-ten for a so-called armed robbery--you just better be very careful what you carry in your toolkit now."
There was a little silence, and then van Liesvelt said, "I was over on the Euronets when the news came through. I'd just told a couple of old friends there was no way the override would happen. It took me twenty minutes, realtime, to work my way back to home node. I thought I'd have to hit the safety before I found a way through the traffic."
Cerise whistled under her breath. Twenty minutes in realtime, not the subjective time of the nets, was ridiculously long. Usually one could make one's way from one side of the nets to the other--traveling twice around the world in the process--in that time.
"What in the world," Mason said, "are we going to do now?"
"Do?" Arabesque fixed her with an angry stare. "Pretty much what we've always done, that's what we're going to do. Cracking was always illegal, don't kid yourself, 'Wildah. We'll just have to be more careful--and that's all."
"I don't know," Held said. "I think it's different," He shook his head. "Very different."
Van Liesvelt nodded in morose agreement, and wiped beer out of his mustache. "I was wondering about Europe, heading there, I mean."
"The real business--most of the real targets, real data, data worth money--is still in U.S. jurisdiction," Helling said. "Or can claim it is. And they beer.
Cerise said, "I'm with Arabesque. We got to stick with it. What else can we do?"
"Go straight?" Helling murmured, with a curl of his lip.
Held laughed without humor, and Arabesque shook her head. Van Liesvelt said, "Not likely."
Cerise allowed herself a sour smile, acknowledging the pun--the one thing they all had in common, besides the brainworm, was being gay--but it faded quickly. Going straight, moving out of the shadows into the bright lights of the legal world, the legal nets, would be difficult: they, none of them, had the corporate connections to become the sort of consultant that would let them go on paying their bills, and none of the other jobs that were open to freelancers were particularly challenging, or particularly well-paid. And corporate employment...Unconsciously her mouth twisted again as she tried to imagine herself, any of them, fitting into the polite, restrained world of the corporations. If any of them had been suited to the corporate life, he or she would already be part of it. The perks of a corporate job were too good, despite the risk of layoffs, to be passed up lightly.
The noise from the monitors changed, flared briefly, and then settled to a single voice. Cerise turned in surprise to see that the three monitors in her line of sight were now tuned to the same channel--so were they all, from the way Jerry Singlar's voice coalesced out of the hubbub. Singlar was one of her least favorite anchors, and ex-cracker gone to the bright lights with a vengeance, a man who pretended to know and love the nets even as he proved he didn't understand anything about them. She made a face, but did not look away. The others were looking at the monitors, too, not just at their table but all across the room, and the talk faded quickly, leaving only Singlar's voice crackling out of the half-dozen speakers.
"--commentary. The override of the presidential veto of Evans-Tindale has brought consternation to the nets, a result not unexpected among those of us who have walked the nets for the past decade. Despite attempts at self-policing, the nets have long been a lawless place, a haven for a criminal minority as well as for the law-abiding majority. This situation has become impossible to tolerate, as the depredations of the so-called crackers, descendants of the criminal hackers of the twentieth century, have become the center of a criminal economy that rivals the Mafia in scope and enterprise."
Arabesque made a rude noise, half laughter, half spitting, and Mason waved her to silence. Helling muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "I wish," and Aledort laid a hand on his shoulder.
"This economy, which thrived only by the absence of law, has spawned a number of subcultures, all dangerous in their own right. But the most dangerous of these, the one that has caused the most talk and the one that the Evans-Tindale will do most to control, is that of the brainworm. These untested and potentially deadly implants--far more dangerous than the common dollie-slots, because the brainworm requires placing hardware in the brain itself--have contributed to the spread of the cracker culture by giving these hard-line criminals access to a new technology that is unbeatable by people equipped with only ordinary, and legal, implants."
"Oh, bullshit," Cerise said.
Held said, in the voice of a man making an old, and losing, argument, "The brainworm is legal in Europe, and there's no more cracking from the Euronets. And people don't die from installation there, either."
"It figures," Arabesque said, with suppressed fury, "it just figures they'd try to blame the worm."
"It's easier than writing intelligent laws," Helling said.
"They have laws that make sense," van Liesvelt said. "All they had to do was sign the Amsterdam Conventions...."
"Oh, shut up." That was Johnny Winchester, weaving to his feet at the center of the room. He stumbled slightly, nearly overturning his table and tipping his beer so that it slopped over the edge of the glass to form a slowly spreading puddle on the tabletop. "Jerry's right, if you people hadn't brought in the worm, gone cracking with it, none of this would've happened."
"Bullshit," Cerise said again.
Arabesque said, "Dream on. They've been looking for an excuse to crack down for a hundred years."
"Yeah, and you people gave it to them." Winchester stared accusingly at them. Behind him, the spilled beer began to drip off the edge of his table.
"Fucking wireheads," someone else said, from the darkness behind him.
"Hey, people," Held said, voice dropping into his best street-doc register. "This hurts all of us."
"And there are plenty of people cracking without the worm," van Liesvelt said, not quite quietly enough.
There was an ambiguous murmur from the rest of the room, not agreement, not rejection, an undirected anger that made the back of Cerise's neck prickle with sudden fear. She had heard that note before, on the streets when she was fifteen, running with the gangs, the sound of a group looking for a scapegoat; she had never thought to hear it here, among the people of the net, and never directed at herself. She looked around the room as though for the first time, seeing the majority of pale faces, male faces, sitting for the most part alone or in twos and threes: nothing like her own group, none of the easy realworld friendship. She had never before seen so many of the others together off-line.
She looked back at the others, and saw Aledort leaning back a little, eyes narrowed. He had heard the same thing she had, and Aledort usually went armed.
Helling said, "Nobody's going to wipe out cracking anyway. The multinationals pay too damn well."
He had said the right thing, Cerise realized. There was a little ripple of scornful laughter, and, underneath it, the release of tension like a sigh. She took a deep breath, reached for her wine, and took a ling drink without really tasting it. In the background, Singlar droned on, his voice alternately reproving and paternal by turns, but she determinedly ignored it, concentrating on the wine. She set the glass carefully back in its wet circle, wondering what she was going to do. Whatever else Evans-Tindale had done, it had broken the old community of the net, divided the old-style crackers, the ones who relied on the dollie-boxes, from the ones who used the brainworm--and was that the intention? she wondered suddenly. It would be more subtle than she would have expected from people who didn't know the net--and conspiracy theories are usually wrong, she told herself sternly. The only certainty is that the nets have changed irrevocably. And Trouble is gone, my life changed with that as much as with the new law. The only question is, what to do now.
She took another deep breath, still looking at the glass of wine in its wet circle. Singlar's voice rumbled on behind her, but she didn't turn to look again at the monitors.
"--establish a new enforcement agency--something like the Texas Rangers, if you will, bringing law to the virtual frontier--"
Arabesque was right about one thing, though: it was going to be a lot harder to make a living cracking without ending up in a real jail. She would need new equipment, top-of-the-line machines to replace the old systems she and Trouble had owned, maybe new bioware to bring her brainworm up to speed, and that meant a trip to Seahaven--the real one, she amended, with an inward smile, not the virtual town that went by the same name. The seacoast town was the East Coast's greatest source for black- and grey-market netware, hard and soft alike. But it was correspondingly expensive: she would have to crack that IC(E), the IC(E) Trouble had refused to face with her. Anything with that big a fence around it had to be valuable, and there would be a grace period before Treasury got itself together. She could take what she needed, sell it, and be on the road to Seahaven, the real Seahaven, before anyone knew what had happened. And it would serve Trouble right, prove she'd been wrong to leave--
"Cerise?" Van Liesvelt was leaning forward slightly, both elbows on the tilting tabletop.
"Hey, careful," Held said, and Arabesque pressed down on her side of the table, steadying it.
"You all right, Cerise?" van Liesvelt asked.
Cerise nodded. "Yeah, I'm all right," she said, and thought she meant it. She smiled, calculating the effect. "I'll be going to Seahaven. After I've done some--work."
Helling said, "That was serious IC(E), Trouble said. And you don't know what's behind it."
"If there's that much IC(E)," Cerise said, "it had to be worth something. And I want to do some shopping."
"Your credit's good with me," Held said. He had done her other implants, from the original dollie-slot and box to the brainworm. Cerise nodded her thanks.
"I appreciate it, Carlie, but I don't take charity." She looked around the table. "Anyone interested in coming in on this with me?"
Mason shook her head. "I'm--I think I'm going to lie low for a while," she said, and Cerise was suddenly certain that was not what the other woman had meant to say.
"You're quitting," Arabesque said, the words an accusation, and Mason glared at her.
"I don't know yet, but I'm damn sure it's the smart thing to do."
"Butch?" Cerise said.
Van Liesvelt looked down at his beer. "I think Dewildah's right. I'm going to lie low, see how things shape up before I take on anything else."
Cerise nodded. "Arabesque?"
The other woman hesitated, made a face. "I know the job you mean, and I'm not taking on that IC(E) with what I got right now. You wait a month, let me get my new bioware tuned in, and I'll go in with you."
"I'm not waiting," Cerise said flatly. If I wait, she thought, if I wait, Trouble may come back and try to talk me out of it again--or worse still, maybe she won't come back, and I'll be left truly on my own. She shook the thought away. "Max, you interested?"
"I've plenty of work of my own, thanks" Helling answered.
Held said again, "Cerise, I do give credit--"
"And I don't take charity." Cerise shook her head, shaking away temptation. "Thanks, Carlie, but I can't." I don't care what Trouble says, what any of them say, she thought. I'm not going to let things change.
Copyright 1994 by Melissa Scott
Excerpted from Trouble and Her Friends by Scott, Melissa Copyright © 1995 by Scott, Melissa. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Melissa Scott lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She won the John Campbell Award at the start of her career, and is twice winner of the Lambda Award for SF.
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In the future, the "brainworm" technology enables hackers to plug into databases in order to steal information to sell on the thriving gray market. Business is booming for those who plug in but the conservative old guard ``netwalkers''complain to Congress that this outlaw activity needs to be banned. Sometimes you get what you ask for as the Evans-Tindale law bans the use of the brainworm and perhaps much more. The best brainwormer is Trouble supported by her lesbian lover Cerise. The former fearing a long jail sentence stops using the technology as both women turn legit. Immediately afterward, Trouble just vanishes from heartbroken Cerise's life. Three years later, Cerise realizes someone impersonates her Trouble on the Internet; that rogue steals industrial secrets like she and Trouble used to do and also leaves behind a nasty virus. With her job at stake if her dubious past surfaces and with her beloved in trouble, Cerise needs to find her so they can team up to prove Trouble's innocence and take down the clever culprit. This reprint of an exhilarating 1994 technological thriller remains a gripping timely tale even with incredible advances in the real world since the original publication as the premise of hackers and Big Brother (and Sister) retains its validity accentuated by the recent classified leaks. Readers anticipate a virtual OK Corral showdown between retired Trouble and her intelligent imitator in Melissa Scott's engaging tale. Harriet Klausner