Different Paths

In the Courtyard, the group of friends sat quietly while listening to Rhin play a sonnet without words on her lute. Michael and Azami sat on one of the benches; Michael with his eyes closed, Azami leaning against him. 23 and Tam were at another bench, with Jacine sprawled on the ground next to them. Rhin sat upright and alone on a curb around an oak tree, as lost in her own music as were the others.

The gentle lay came to an end and no one spoke. Rhin moved her fingers over the lute, as if picking out notes in her mind, but didnít break the silence.

A shadow moved out from between the trees and spoke, "Nice song."

The group looked up as one, calmness mostly forgotten. Before them was a young kid, perhaps 17, with restless eyes and short red hair. His voice, though sincere, contained a sneer that could not be hidden. His gaze traveled over the group, ignoring only Jacine in his evaluation.

23 sat up straighter, his relaxation now completely forgotten. Azami and Rhin looked sharply at him, noting the instant reaction.

"Weird company you keep, Jak." The strangerís lips were twisted in an ironic grin.

Still relaxed and comfortable, the only one of the group who was, Jacine lazily replied, "What works, works. What brings you this way, Red?"

Michael suddenly grunted with recognition and relaxed. Azami moved her head around to look at him. His eyes were hooded with the expression that he used when he didnít want any expression to show, but he didnít seem worried. 23, on the other hand, was distinctly frowning now, though he spoke not. Each of the Trio kept silent, waiting while the tension bounced around.

Red grinned again, satisfaction crossing his face as he noted the disruption in the group he had caused. "We have that meeting today -- donít you have to set up?"

Jacine stretched, her motions fluid but contained, vividly resembling a puma. "Donít worry. Iíll be there." She also grinned, matching his for an instant before hers disappeared. It disconcerted Azami and Rhin, who could see it; and even Tam, who couldnít see it, shifted uneasily on the bench as she caught the wild predatory feeling contained in the expression.

"Just wanted to make sure. Itís a bitch to set up a new one."

"Yeah, yeah." Jacine, now sitting up, flicked her hands in a shooing gesture. "Go on, get out of here. You have your own preps to make."

With one last look around the small glen, at the occupants there, Red slipped out between the trees, again becoming a shadow, though not as thoroughly as when he appeared.

There was again silence, albeit of a quite different type than before. Azami cleared her throat as she thought about asking what had just happened, but she decided against it and instead waited. All eyes were on Jacine, whose own were now a deep green and shaded without expression. A faint afterimage of the feral grin remained on her face.

Twisting suddenly, Jacine looked directly at 23, "Go on."

23ís eyes met hers, but he didnít say anything.

"You want to say it, so go ahead." Jacineís voice was mocking and distant, disturbing her friends who had not seen her like this before.

Michael stirred on his seat and spoke her name briefly, "Jas."

Jacine didnít turn her head. "Wrong name. No, Michael, stay out of this. I want to hear from Craig-23, formerly of the SoftSafe." Her brother reluctantly subsided, and the Trio stayed still as they watched the drama play itself out.

23 looked into Jacineís eyes and finally spoke, "Whatís there to say?" He sounded old and tired, with the weight of years and sorrow in his voice.

Apparently unaffected, Jacine cocked her head to study him for a moment, then shook her head, "You know what I am. Admit it for once."

With obvious reluctance, 23 broke eye contact and looked across the Courtyard. "We follow different paths, you and I; but I still love you."

Jacineís eyes widened, but no one there could tell if in surprise or disbelief. She smiled, and it was more the relaxed smile of old that the group knew, but her words were at odds with the smile, "One day it will make a difference, and I will not answer for what happens then."

She stood up, grabbing a low tree branch to lever herself up. As she did so, a light on her compuset started blinking. Jacine turned it off. "Red wasnít off on his timing. Iíve got to go." Looking one last time at 23, neither her eyes nor body language revealed ought of what she felt. Jacine walked down the path without looking back.

Tam moved a little away from 23, "I think she has a point." She paused to let that sink in, then spoke directly to her old friend, "One doesnít toy with the Cracker Jak. The results can be nasty."

Rhin silently mouthed, "the cracker Jack?" with puzzlement. Azami did the same, a little less silently.

23ís expression was one of shock. "Tam!" he cried, "You know?"

Tamlynn shook her head, "Of course I know. Jacine and I cross on more than one path." She started to say something else, then changed her mind. Instead she switched topics, "Jacineís really quite open if you just ask." Tam studied her friend, "You should talk about it, at least. Better now than later."

23 dropped his gaze abruptly. "I accept her as she is."

"Oh really?" Tamlynnís voice was soft, with only a faint hint of sarcasm. She sighed and settled back on the bench, leaving that particular subject alone for the time being.

Azami and Rhin exchanged glances. Rhin finally asked the question that was on both their minds, "Whatís going on?"

Azami clarified slightly, "Red? Cracker Jack?"

Michael stirred, but stayed silent. It was 23 who eventually replied, "Red is a hacker. Wanted by Soft Safe for several years now, but thereís not enough real evidence to do anything. Weíre pretty sure, though, that he was one of the members that hacked into the Pentagon Network and rifled the Black Project listing. And heís been involved with other raids. Heís dangerous. High IQ, low morals, the lot." 23 stopped there.

Tamlynn glanced at him, then took up the other half, "The Cracker Jak is a hacker name for another Security Ghost. Well known for producing anti-security products like scanner detects and scan-blocks. Not exactly Ďwantedí by Soft Safe in the same way as someone like Red, but decidedly on their list."

23 sighed, "Well, she is wanted by the Republic of Swizlanda States, or whatís left of their rebel forces. And by the Intelligence in Boraku..." He grimaced and looked out to the trees.

Azami blinked with surprise, "Jacine?"

"Jacine." Tam agreed, looking at 23 a bit worriedly, but still fairly calm. She grinned suddenly, an echo of Jacineís. "Sheís a very handy person to know, depending on your situation."

Rhin plucked a chord, "I imagine." She looked over at Azami, raising her eyebrows, "Remember our discussion with the girls last year?"

Azami agreed, remembering their conclusion: ĎI guess she is dangerousí. "Itís just hard to think of her like that." She remembered the other part of their conversation, "And this is the person that gentle, sweet, 23 is in love with?" She looked at 23ís face, full of anguish and division. He wasnít looking at them, and Azamiís heart went out to him. Rhinís eyes were sad as she watched the man she used to love as a lover, and still loved dearly as a friend. The Twins looked at each other, then silently agreed to leave -- it wasnít really their business, and Michael seemed as if he wanted a word with 23 in private. They got up and left with a Ďsee you at work tomorrowí.

Tamlynn also got up. "If you want to talk with me, 23, come over to my place tonight." She left, shaking her head. Well, this wasnít the worst way for it to come out in the open. I wonder if I should talk to Rhin and Azami? No, theyíll work it out on their own. Tam was really quite unconcerned about the whole thing. Sheíd known Jacine for years and classified her as a Scottish Wildcat -- looked like a normal housecat, but was very much a wild creature. Normal rules didnít quite apply to her. There was something in Tamlynn that responded to that -- the thought of living free. But Tam was grounded in society, and cared for people too much to let her actions be totally free. She sighed and turned down a path to another part of the Courtyard. The otters were usually out on the lake at this time of day. They had been conditioned and released in their new home three months ago, and were the new sweethearts of the RCF. Wild things, never pets, but quite use to humans and seemed to enjoy showing off.

Jacine walked down the corridors, her leg dragging as she moved too fast for her servos that normally corrected the balance to keep up. Oh 23. A flash of pain that was very real and almost physical centered in her chest. I suppose I could try to change. But another type of sadness and anger consumed her as old memories floated up and presented themselves. Stop!! Jacine screamed at the memories and derailed the thoughts. Iíll think about it later. She recognized the delaying tactic, but really didnít have the time to spend on personal problems.

In Tamlynnís house, she set up her scans and detects to check for surveillance. There was none registering, but for good measure, Jacine set up her latest buffer. She never let out her latest tech, just the one several grades below. Which was still usually good enough to fool most surveillance cameras and other detection equipment. Gathering bits and pieces of equipment from hidden areas in Tamís house, Jacine finally had all she needed and turned off the scans and buffer. Gates could be tracked, though they also could be fooled. The safest way to avoid detection, though, was to walk. Jacineís destination was only a few blocks by crowís flight, but over a mile of walking with the twists and turns. She set out at a fast pace, ignoring the pain in her leg, but promising herself a long bath later.

Jacine had rented the room nearly a month ago in preparation for the meeting today. Moving most of the equipment in early, but leaving out all the important connections -- the ones that could reveal what the equipment was for. Setting up the scans and the buffer again, Jacine rapidly put together the last of the connections. She double-checked all her preset programs, especially the one that would control her new form -- a matter of pride on that; then settled back on the couch. Activating one of the controls, a multi-dimensional screen projected as a 7x7x2 (heightxwidthxdepth) box in front of her. The images would have a ghostly effect, and not the clarity of VR, but it had the definite advantage that Jacine could also see everything that happened around her in the real world, and was able to react to that. Also, scanners had a very hard time registering a hologramatic image.

"Systems check." Jacine spoke outloud to herself as she ran quickly though the sequences of commands and began preliminary logins. This meeting, she was the system coordinator, so she had to have it all set up before anybody else attempted to get in. The main problem with these meetings was the elaborate security they had to go though. Being the supreme security hackers they were, no one in the group felt inclined to compromise their own security. One of the more mundane features was that if any one person could not make the meeting, or didnít show up at their assigned time, the whole meeting got canceled and had to be rescheduled. And rescheduling, as Red had said, was a bitch. But he didnít have to show up there at that time. Jacine shrugged, then concentrated again on the sequence. She knew perfectly well why he had. Red liked to throw wrenches into machinery and see what came out. Normally, Jacine was amused as she watched the aftermath. This time she was more annoyed, because heíd done it to her. Jas thought for a moment about Rhin and Azami, and how they handled friendships. Nobody in the hacker group were "friends", but for a long time they were all Jacine had except for Michael. I should go back to the Watering Hole some day. See how the kids nowadays are getting on.

Jacineís reflections were interrupted as the first scheduled person started login sequencing. Blue eyes turned green as Jacine cursed her wandering thoughts and spent a precious moment to visualize shoving all personal concerns into a contained airlock and closing the door tight. The final login sequence showed on her screen. <Plato. Barata. Nectar.> Jacine grinned and typed back, <I said it -- really I did. Youíre in, Hal.>

The hologramatic image that Jacine had previously set up was of a large room, with the walls done in a white-metallic motif, circles in raised vertical parallel patterns. In the middle of the room was a hexagonal "control" panel, with a shallower round base underneath, and a glass-like column in the center. The column had been still when Jacine was just doing the checks, but now that a hacker was coming in, the column rose and fell in a rhythmic beat while lights inside it flashed. When it stopped, Halís program was integrated completely into the setup. For this meeting, Hal had chosen to pull an image out of his library that worked well with his chosen hacker name. A metallic robot appeared, mostly box edges, with a head that seemed almost incomplete. Jacine snorted, and activated her microphone, subvocalizing so not to be picked up by scanners, but transferred into the system program as sounds the hackers in their Net could hear. "Iím so depressed. Do you know what itís like to have a brain the size of a planet?"

The robot chuckled in a flat tone, "Spot on, Jak. Iím the first?"

"Yep." The system coordinatorís image always came in last, but the first hacker in, by random selection, was the meeting facilitator. It was a job that most hated, but all accepted.

Hal was looking around the "room". "I thought you said you hadnít seen this program." There was a pause, "Sorry for the pun. This show."

"I hadnít when I last saw you, but I have some friends who are into the old shows and Iíve been hanging out with them too much. They arenít into this one, but when I saw it, I latched on. I think I might even take up the recorder."

The android covered itís ears, "Jacine -- you canít play a xylophone!"

"Hal!" Jacineís fingers poised over the control keys, ready to toss him out of the program.

"Sorry. Not paranoid enough. A major flaw in my characterization." The Paranoid Android walked to the door on the far side of the room and though it, dissolving into component program lines that showed on Jacineís screen. She watched as Hal made several alterations to the program, including an automatic screening program to delete any use of proper names while within the meeting.

Another hacker initiated login procedures. No fancy quotes this time, but a math set thatís main function was to analyze the manner in which the hacker attacked the problem. The column moved up and down again, and a factual wash of colors in a three-dimensional form of an impossible shape appeared. It hurt Jacineís eyes, though she was sure it was derived from a very complicated advanced mathematical concept.

"Iím the first?"

Jacine activated the microphone again. "Not. Thereís a reverification of programs going on. Please stand by." She couldnít stand the man. He was super-intelligent, with an ego to match, and he thought he was well-liked. Personified odious.

More hackers started coming though and Jacine was busy as she integrated the different programs and security functions into one smooth routine. She paused to review and approve Halís updated program. He had done a thorough job, but Jacine added a couple more improvements. She was worried about his slip. All hackers in the group knew what sort of risks they were taking meeting together, and most just went by their code names. There were a couple of hackers, Jacine being one, whose real names were widely known, but in the group the hackers didnít acknowledge it. Or werenít suppose to. Halís added program would insure that he made no further slips, but it would be restrictive on his interaction with the other hackers -- not a totally bad thing for the meeting facilitator. At the least, itíll be amusing.

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen... Thatís it. Theyíre all in, on time. Jacine finished up the integration routine and started wrapping the global security programs. She knitted the loops tightly and sealed the outside, leaving only a single door for herself to get in and out. Not even the other hackers could get out now without the extreme of turning off their computers, but at the slightest hint of trouble or outside interference, the entire system could disperse in a nanosecond.

Jacine activated her program and joined the group as an active participant. "Greetings, fellow programs."

"Hi Jak. You made it." Redís generic swirling blob of color ranged the spectrum from deep maroon to bright red to almost a pink.

"Of course." Jacine refused to rise to the bait.

"Nice program," another hacker complimented her. Jas wasnít sure if it was referring to the security job or to her "physical" form -- a fantastical hydra with detail down to the toenails. She replied with a generic "thank you" that covered any contingency.

"Is there a copyright on that image?" A protoplasmic blob enlarged a million times from its originator asked her.

"Hey, confusion to the ranks." Jak grinned ferally. The Hydra preferred the image of the true creature as its form, but most people in Soft Safe thought of it as the form Jacine was wearing at the moment. "You have the name -- Iíll take the image. Next time Iíll see about shades of Brown."

"Confusion to the ranks." It became a general cheer. One of the programmers wavered briefly into a shady image of a candy box with caramel popcorn, before fading back to its original.