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Trouble and Her Friends

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Trouble and Her Friends

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Author: Melissa Scott
Publisher: Orb Books, 2011
Tor, 1994

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Cyberpunk
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(26 reads / 15 ratings)


India Carless, alias Trouble, managed to stay one step ahead of the feds until she retired from life as a hacker and settled down to run a small network for an artist's co-op.

Now someone has stolen her pseudonym and begun to use it for criminal hacking. So Trouble returns. Once the fastest gun on the electronic frontier, she has been called out of retirement for one last fight. And it's a killer.

Less than a hundred years from now, the forces of law and order crack down on the world of the internet. It is the closing of the frontier. The hip, noir adventurers who got by on wit, bravado, and drugs, who haunt the virtual worlds of the shadows of cyberspace are up against the edges of civilization. It's time to adapt or die.



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 reflection like 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-Tindal...

Copyright © 1994 by Melissa Scott


Trouble and Her Friends

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Trouble and Her Friends

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