Chapter 3

   From the neon signs and chrome siding outside, to the black and white tiled floor, red vinyl booths and sparkling chrome trim inside, Joe's Diner was a throwback to a time when malt shoppes ruled the Earth.  Em liked his usual booth, it had a good view of the entrance and he could put his back against the wall.  He always felt better when he could devote less attention to what was behind him.  He focused instead on the butterflies and the aerial acrobatics they were doing in his stomach.  He hadn't seen Varrow in six months, not since she walked out that night.  To say he took the breakup hard would be an understatement, but he couldn't bring himself to hate her, still thinking of her as a friend.

   She had been well known in the hacker community since she entered it, not only because she was a she, or that Dix took her as an apprentice, but because she was drop-dead gorgeous.  Every deck-jockey and keyboard cowboy wanted to get into her pants, but she was looking for something they couldn't offer.  Em never knew what she was looking for, but she found it in him one night, and he didn't ask questions.

   He had dabbled in 'running three years ago, using the antiquated and nearly deprecated electrode halo interface, unwilling to commit to the surgery that would implant everything in his skull.  Those opinions changed six months later with the comprehensive new line of ocular implants from OpTechs.  Varrow and Em had been 'running under Dix, the widely recognized, aging master hacker.  He had to pull a few strings to get Dix to take him as a student, but she earned her apprenticeship on talent alone.  They were Dix's only students, and before long it seemed like all of the lessons focused on Varrow.  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the focus of the lessons, Em found he was much more interested in the hardware side of the netruns, something about the meatspace he preferred over the electronic hallucination.  He hung around, monitoring the medical equipment that sustained Dix and Varrow on the deep runs, and just watching Varrow on the less intense excursions into cyberspace.  He fell in love first, and she followed soon after, thanks in no small part to Em's devotion and kindness.

   Back in the diner, Em knew he had to shake himself out of reminiscing, no matter how pleasant it was at that moment, it always ended the same way.  He had already scanned the building for surveillance bugs, and knew Joe did the same on a regular basis.  Em focused instead on idly watching everyone in the building.  His left eye first switched to infrared, tracking the scans of the motion detectors above the doors and the laser fence around the cash register.  A blink and the eye was tuned for X-Ray, confirming his theory that most of the patrons and wait staff were armed, mostly with standard pistols.  A few had some of the new plastic polymer models that barely registered on a scan.  One girl seemed to be ready to open a cutlery shop with the array of knives concealed on her body, more than half looked to be balanced well for throwing.  Em made a special note of something he hadn't expected: a grav rifle mounted under the front counter.  When did Joe put that in?  Em considered for a moment, And what's my tab up to ...

   “Here's the second cup of coffee, sweetie,” Wendy said, breaking Em's train of thought and setting an empty cup on the table.  He blinked again and his left eye reverted back to the visible spectrum.

   “Thanks, Wendy,” he said as the waitress filled the cup.  “Could you give this to Joe for me?” he asked, handing her 100 credits.  Wendy took the credits and scuttled immediately across the tiled floor to Joe at the counter.  A red flash in the upper right of his field of vision alerted Em to a new patron walking in. He turned off the watchdog program and turned toward the door.  “Oh. My. God. She's more beautiful that I remembered” he thought to himself as Varrow walked into the dining room.  Em fumbled for his sunglasses, desperate to put them on before she noticed he was leering at her.  With a thought, every camera on him recorded her graceful entrance, capturing it in video and still images.

   She wore tight black leather pants that hugged her calves, tapering to her ankles.  Her black patent leather heels clicked on the linoleum as she walked.  Em forced himself to look up as she approached, noting her bared midriff and navy corset.  Her black leather jacket hung open.  Her hair was a mousy brown frame for her face, draping over her shoulders.  Em always had a difficult time figuring her race ... the shape of her face and her button nose were distinctly Asian, but she had full, pouty lips and the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

   “You haven't changed one bit, have you.  I know you're leering.  You can't hide behind your sunglesses,” Varrow admonished, taking her seat opposite Em.  The vinyl of the booth's seat covers groaned its appreciation for her lithe form sliding across its surface.

   “Guilty, as charged,” he responded.  “But can you really blame me?  You are a goddess, and like a fine wine you've only gotten better with time.”

   “Knock it off you old charmer.”  She brushed a lock of hair behind her left ear before raising the coffee cup to her lips.

   “I don't suppose these are doing much good,” Em said, removing the sunglasses, his eyes tracking the cup's path, tracing the curve of her lower lip.

   She blanched at the coffee.  “So what's this thing you need my help with?” Varrow asked, adding cream and sugar to the cup.  Em took the mission brief out of his satchel and slid it across the table.  “Literally your eyes only?  That's kinda weird ...”

   “You're tellin me.  Looks like I'm going to do this whether I want to or not. The only question is, will you help?  And before you ask, yes I know it seems like a trap, but there's also a very plausible reason they want me in particular.”

   Varrow shot Em a skeptical look before she opened the packet and thumbed through the contents.  “You sure we should be doing this here?”

   “Safest place we could be doing it.  Trust me.”  Em glanced at the other patrons.

   Wendy walked up to the table carrying two plates.  “Two eggs over easy, hash browns and a short stack of pancakes.  You need anything else?” she asked Em.

   “Oh!  Juice!” he exclaimed.  “Two glasses of orange juice, please.  Thanks doll.”

   “Coming up” Wendy said with a wink and a smile, padding back to the kitchen.

   Varrow took another sip of the coffee, finding it more to her liking this time.  “Seems like a run of the mill data grab.  Quick in and out job.  This guy sure knew what he was doing though, almost no trace except for ... Wait.  Is that one of --” Varrow gasped.

   Em grinned.  “Security found that spliced in behind the mainframe console after the data was found missing.  It let the thief bypass the security by opening the door for the hacker on the outside.  A hardware trojan horse.”

   “But ... that's a ...” Em grinned, watching the spark of recognition behind Varrow's beautiful blue eyes.  “That's one of the DataFlex switches, like the ones you used to mess around with.”

   “Not 'like,'” Em corrected, “Is.  That is one of the five I sold, with our lite ice breaker built in.  Remember that little script we wrote?  It could barely break in to an unprotected system.”

   “Unless it was already on the inside!” Varrow nearly shouted.  She reigned in her voice and whispered, “Dammit, I told you that was a bad idea.  How could I have been so stupid?  Why didn't I stop you from selling it?”

   Em stared into his half-empty cup of coffee.  “Because you loved me and we needed the cash?” he offered.  Varrow glared at him in response, crossing her arms on her chest.  “Look, what's done is done, let's just move on.  The client has already done a lot of the legwork on this.  They traced the switch to a guy named Sahdur.  I remember him, sort of a squirrelly little Indian guy, had the air of a wannabe techie.  He asked how traceable signals sent through it would be.  I lied and told him it was 100% untraceable, that trace programs would hit it and either die, or redirect somewhere else, anything to make the sale.  But you know me, paranoid data packrat.  Part of the switch's algorithm is a logging function. Everything he did is probably logged on Vurdalak.  I hardly bother to check it, mostly because the sheer volume of data makes browsing it unworkable, but now that we know what we're looking for ...”

   Varrow had relaxed a little and started in on her breakfast.

   “You're the best runner I've seen.  Hell, by the end of that first year you were running circles around ol' Dix.  It'd be damn near impossible for any other runner to track Sadhur's partner, but for us it'll be a snap.  Can I count on your help on this one?”

   Varrow suppressed a grin.  “I told you to knock off the smooth talking. Besides, you knew I'd be interested in this challenge before you even asked.  Who's the client?  And what are they paying?”

   “Haven't worked that out yet.  From what Beni said, it sounds like Teledyne really wants their data back.  How's 20K each sound?”

   Varrow nodded her approval.  “Teledyne?  That's weird ... Bobby ran into some black ice around there this morning ... tossed him into isolation.”

   “Jesus.  Really?  How'd you know?”

   “He's learned from one of the best, right?  He found a way to get a signal out to me.  I've got a hack working to get him out now, but it won't finish for another forty six hours or so.  Figured he could stand to learn how to get out on his own,” she added with a grin.

   “Same old Varrow ...” Em sighed, his eyes drifting from hers, down the gentle contours of the soft skin of her neck and shoulder, following the outline of her jacket down her arm over her slender fingers.  “You still hang around Dix's place?” he asked, desperate to get his mind on any other subject.

   “You haven't heard?  Dix passed on about four months ago ...”

   “God, I hadn't realized ... ”

   “Yeah,” she paused for a short moment of silence for her mentor.  “He hit some of the blackest ice I'd ever seen.  Shit, I was damn lucky to get out, probably wouldn't have if Dix hadn't been hit first.  His heart couldn't take the strain.  Neither could his mind.  Doc wasn't really sure which gave up first.”

   “You were with him?”

   “Yeah ... one last run for old time's sake, you know?” she replied slowly, poking idly at her pancakes before resting the fork on the plate.  “You know, I'm not really that hungry after all ...” Varrow pushed the plate away and folded her hands in her lap.

   “I –- I'm sorry.  I didn't mean -”

   “It's alright.” She looked down at her hands.  “It's just hard sometimes; remembering that day.  I hadn't seen him so happy in a long time.”

   Em cleared his throat softly, looking around and asking “Where's my juice?” of no one in particular.

   As if she had been summoned by the phrase, Wendy appeared at the table with two glasses of orange juice.

   “Thanks doll,” Em smiled at her.

   “Let me know if you need anything else,” the waitress said before disappearing once again.

   The rest of the meal was spent in idle chit chat, Varrow nibbling at what was left of the pancakes and eggs.  Em was content to watch her and sip his juice, gathering the information packet back together and tucking it in his jacket.  They talked about almost everything, catching each other up on the last six months of their lives, tiptoeing around the issue of why they hadn't spoken for six months.  Several times Em started to reach for Varrow's hand resting on the table, but each time thought better of it and clumsily masked the action by runnin his hand through his hair, or reaching for the salt shaker.  Varrow pretended not to notice.

   Eventually, the check was brought and Em paid fifty credits without looking. “Ready to go?” he asked.

   “You're not even going to look at the total?”

   “Nah, I owe a bit to Joe anyway.”

   “But ... what about the tip?” Varrow protested as she slid out of the booth. The vinyl again groaned its appreciation to her.

   Em managed to turn his own groan into a shrug.  “Either it'll pay down my debt to Joe, or it'll make Wendy's day and I'll pay Joe after the job.”

   “If you say so,” Varrow said, walking to the door.  Em followed a step behind, keeping his eyes straight ahead while the camera on his right shoulder watched her ass.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina