Rev 0.91

by Steve Ford
illustrated by Duffy Toler
Copyright 1999

(Some readers might like a short introduction.)

To duffy.

A proper stalk is an art form. Anybody can flip to infrared and lock on target. A true stalker depends on sound, smell, sometimes even taste. A likely spot, a tell-tale footprint, the distant clearing of a throat - these are the clues that speak to intuition.

Above all, patience. Sometimes, a frontal attack is called for; today, wait for the prey to come. Melt into the shadows, creep silently along the wall. A scent drifts by. Muscles tense. Bare feet suddenly turn the corner. SPRING!


A streak of black; Master Stalker beats a hasty retreat under the sofa to clean his weapons. Another good kill.

Meg rolled into the room. "What's the problem now?"

Zhou was glaring at the sofa as she hobbled to the first aid kit. "Ping hates me."

Meg followed and watched Zhou apply unnecessary bandaids to her scratched ankles. "Ping loves you. He's just playing. If he hated you, he would avoid you. And piss on your pillow."

"Are you SURE we can't have him declawed?"

Meg's eyes widened in horror. "You butcher! I declaw my cats the day you cut your too-sharp tongue out of your mouth!"

Zhou stood up and held her arms out. "Joke, Meg. J-O-K-E. He took me by surprise is all. Kiss it and make it better?"

Meg spun around. "*I've* got work to do. So do you."

Zhou sighed as Meg rolled her wheel-chair back into the lab. How had they stayed together for 8 years? Zhou's hot temper and impulsiveness were diametrically opposed to Meg's cool demeanor and careful planning. Then again, maybe that was WHY they stayed together - they moderated each other. Meg kept Zhou anchored to the here and now, and Zhou showed Meg tomorrow's possibilities.

And their company, SecureData, would never have made it without Meg's business sense. Meg managed everything except for the actual customer contact. Zhou had the people skills to close a sale and perform a cable walk. Two women and three animals led the industry in securing computer systems.

Zhou stood at the door to the lab and gazed at Meg as she worked on a radio transceiver under a magnifying glass. In spite of having tiny degenerate legs from birth, and burn scars on her face from a lab accident, Zhou thought Meg was the most beautiful woman in the world. And when Meg was annoyed with her, it broke Zhou's heart.

Ping came out from under the sofa and rubbed against Zhou's leg. Zhou murmured, "you little jerk," but kneeled down and scratched the cat. Behind his ears, at the base of his tail (Ping standing on tip-toes), his cheeks, his chin. Ping purred and sent Zhou an image of a sun-lit patch of carpet - one of Ping's favorite things in the world.

Ping was no ordinary cat.

He was wired. The visual processing centers of his brain were tapped with an advanced microprocessor, which was linked by radio to a similar brain tap hidden inside Zhou's head. Each could choose to look through the other's eyes. And they could send mental images to each other, allowing them to "talk" after a fashion. Ping's DNA was engineered for high intelligence, and he could handle a certain level of abstraction in his thought, but his mind was still very picture-oriented and very literal. The sun-lit carpet was his way of offering Zhou something nice.

"Thanks, bud, but Meg's right. I do have a proposal to work on. We'll nap a little later."

Zhou stood and went to her office (forgetting to hobble), and Ping decided to see if anything interesting had magically appeared in his food dish.

A proper stalk is a science. It's a process of counting and tracking and logging. Checklists to be stepped through, leads tracked down to their inevitable dead ends.

Squeak was following one of those leads.

The grey mouse sniffed and licked the cable he was following. Each wire had a unique signature of smell, taste, texture, and color. Unfortunately, in the cable trough below the floor there wasn't any light, and several of the cables in this bundle were from the same spool and had very similar properties. It was easy to lose track of which was which.

Squeak stopped and nosed among the cables, looking for the right one. Unseen behind him, a dark shape froze. Infrared sensors painted an eerie scene, showing the mouse as a bright blob in a sea of grey. Very slowly, the shape crouched, it's tail quivering.

Squeak found the right cable and sat up, sniffing the air to see that all was well. A strong smell of cat assaulted his nose.


He started following the cable again, and the cat behind him raised up and padded along behind, always staying about two feet away. Echo, the cat, and Squeak, the mouse, were wired the same way Ping was. The miniature radio transceiver on Squeak's back only had a range of about 90 feet. Echo, had a radio relay which boosted Squeak's signal and sent it on to the base station, in a van outside the building. From there, the signal was re-transmitted back into the building to Zhou, who watched the cable walk through Squeak and Echo's eyes.

Squeak's whiskers suddenly found an obstruction - small, maybe slightly larger than Squeak himself. Zhou "saw" the obstruction as a dim picture in Squeak's mind, and she sent an illumination command back. But the transmitter in Zhou's head was identical to Squeak's and didn't have much range. Fortunately, Ping (the master stalker) was sitting nearby, receiving Zhou's transmissions and boosting them to the base station, which re-transmitted them to Squeak and Echo. A light mounted on top of Echo's head came to life, and the scene lit up. The mouse, both cats, and Zhou clearly saw a cable tap.

"Found another. Looks Sri Lankin."

The network admin sitting across the conference table from Zhou frowned and leaned over the building blueprint. "Where is it?"

Zhou appeared to come out of a trance as she rejoined her own eyes. "Right here, give or take 5 feet. Have a look."

Zhou's NAP lit up with a still frame from Echo's eyes showing a small box clamped to a cable. A short antenna extended up from the top of the box. Squeak, the mouse, was right in front of the box, frozen mid-sniff.

The admin peered at the image. "Can it be disabled in place, or will we have to tear up the floor?"

Zhou switched back to Squeak's eyes, and sent a picture of a dab of peanut butter hidden underneath the cable tap. Squeak immediately started crawling around, over, and under the tap, exploring it in great detail.

"The antenna looks like plastic, probably with a thin wire inside. Squeak could probably gnaw through it, but I still think its a bad idea. More important is to find the relay box. It probably uploads a day's worth of data to a rented spy satellite at night. We'll set up our snoopers on the roof and get its position when it sends out its next burst. But if we disable all the taps, the relay might not transmit."

The admin frowned. He HATED the idea of one more day's worth of his internal network traffic being sent out to God knows who. But Zhou was right. "OK, lets mark the position and keep going."

The onion from accounting was speaking.

"Ms. Kim, my IS group tells me that your DataWrap proposal is very intrusive. We would have to reconfigure many of our systems, most of which are proprietary and not well documented. It seems to me that your quoted price doesn't even begin to cover the real costs."

Zhou smiled inwardly at Ping's characterization. The MBA from accounting was definitely an asshole, and Ping's picture of an onion was pretty much on-target. Ping couldn't understand human speech, but he was very adept at reading human emotions. Although Ping sat placidly on the conference table during the meeting, he and Zhou kept a lively exchange going. By paying attention to Ping's visualizations, Zhou was able to judge the impact of what she was saying and fine-tune her presentation.

No wonder she closed so many sales.

Before Zhou could reply to the costs issue, the dandelion from engineering spoke up. "Oh, they've taken that into account. The breakout includes an estimate for our effort, and at first glance it looks reasonable."

Onion was not satisfied. "Estimates that come out of engineering have about as much connection to reality as Star Wars! I need some kind of assurance that this won't end up being another Y2K!"

Dandelion started to flair, but Zhou quickly stepped in. "Mr. Sanderson, would please take a look at the deployment plan? It is designed to give you the greatest benefit up-front, with a minimum of re-work. There are 7 separate milestones; at each point, we can evaluate how the plan has gone so far. Payment is staggered, and if we exceed our estimates by more than 2%, you have the option of pulling the plug without penalty. The plan is designed to build confidence at the same time that we deliver improved security for your operation."

Onion looked at the plan some more and grunted. Then he looked at Dandelion. "Frank, you were the one who didn't want to give this to an outside firm. Said Engineering could do a better job for less. What gives?"

Dandelion reddened slightly. "Zhou showed me some of their technology. And some of the threats that are out there. I had no idea how far things have come in the past five years. We need their expertise. Engineering will still be heavily involved, working with SecureData, so we can still make sure they're meeting our needs."

Onion stared at the plan some more. "Well, Frank, you know Engineering's butt is on the line. We've got the budget for this, but don't come asking for more later on."

Ping sent another image to Zhou - a bowl of cat food. Zhou had to work hard not to laugh. Yeah Ping, we ate this guy for lunch all right.

Zhou held the door of the apartment open, letting Ping and Echo saunter in. Squeak rode on Echo's back.

"Honey! I'm home!"

A voice came from the lab. "Dear, could you speak to the Beaver? He put out a contract on Wally again. Did you get Tai food like you promised?"

Zhou set a sack of carry out on the kitchen table and went hunting for a vase for the flowers she brought. "Yeah, I got you your precious tofu. And chicken for me."

Meg came into the kitchen. "Chicken? No raw red meat? OOOHHH! Pretty flowers. What's the occasion?"

"Closed the Sasser Industries deal. Full wrap. Let's eat off real plates tonight."

"FULL WRAP? I figured them to be cheap bastards."

Zhou chuckled. "Yeah, I thought so too. The finance guy hates spending money. But we wow'ed their Engineering dude with some of our proxy translation software, and of course Ping melted a few hearts too. Where are the felines, anyway? I got an order of chicken livers for them."

"They're tired. Last I saw, all three of 'em were on their re-charging nests. They'll be looking for a meal in a half hour or so."

"Well, be sure to give Squeak a dab of peanut butter. I needed a good look at a tap, and I tempted him with it. Oh, and by the way, this is for you." Zhou held out a small white box.

Meg eyed it suspiciously before taking it. "Hmm, not ticking ... OH MY, GOD! They're so CUTE!" She held up a pair of earrings - black crescent moons with cats sitting on them, their tails j-curved below.

Zhou came around the table. "Look close - one is just sitting, the other is washing his face with his paw. I couldn't find one with its claws sunk into somebody's ankle, so this will have to do. Forgive me for being such an bitch?"

Meg beamed. "You're not an bitch. A oaf sometimes, but not an bitch." She stroked Zhou's cheek, but Zhou winced inwardly. She would rather be a bitch than an oaf. And she winced again when Meg casually tossed the earrings on the counter.

Ping stalked into the kitchen, and Zhou's face suddenly took on a far-away look. "Uh oh. We've got company, and he's thinking of a food dish. One order chicken livers, no sauce, coming up...

"Oh, and by the way, I've got lunch with Dandelion tomorrow."

Meg was scooping extra-hot tofu with peanut sauce onto her plate. "Dandelion?"

Zhou laughed. "That's the picture Ping gave him. Frank Coleman, the techie who pushed the deal past Cheap Bastard. Or Onion, as Ping thinks of him. Anyway, he wants to plan the proxies right away so they can start looking at their software."

"Sounds reasonable. Where you going? Big Bob's Beef Bonanza?"

Zhou grinned. "Look, just because you would rather eat grass and bark doesn't mean that me and Ping can't enjoy some big game from time to time. I'm imagining a half-pound of rare ground beef, dripping with..." Zhou ducked to avoid being beaned with a cube of curd.

Ping galloped to the projectile and gave it a sniff. Then looked at the women like they were crazy. People will eat ANYTHING.

A proper stalk is done with the proper equipment.

Six broadband receivers were set in a hexagon shape on the building's roof. At 1:45 AM, a radio transmitter hidden in the ceiling above a men's room sent a pencil-thin beam of microwaves shooting toward the sky. As the beam passed through the roof, it was partly absorbed, partly scattered, but mostly passed through on its way to a satellite.

It was the scattered radiation that was of interest.

The six receivers on the roof picked up the signal, each at a different power level. By analyzing the signals strengths, the peirce-point in the roof was calculated to within a few fractions of an inch.

As the beam continued upward, it passed through a mylar sheet stretched over the roof about 10 feet up. Carbon fibers in the mylar were energized, and re-radiated an engery pulse at a longer wavelength. The six receivers caught that signal too and calculated its position.

Now the line of the beam was exactly known. A check on a database of satellite positions pin-pointed an Indian bird. Following the beam the other direction showed where the transmitter could be found.

All this data was quickly encrypted and sent via a different satellite to SecureData's HQ. A nice treat to wake up to.

"You're kidding? I guess I'm flattered. I mean, that's good, right?"

Zhou laughed as the waiter took their plates away. "Yeah. Dandelions are one of Ping's good things. Mostly he likes to play with them. With his claws."

Frank winced. "Yow. I think I'll stay human for the time being. What does Ping think of Sanderson?"

"I shouldn't tell you this. He's an onion."

Frank hooted. "Maybe a cactus! The big prick. I'm really sorry about the way he acted during the meeting."

Zhou waved the thought away. "Hey, it's part of his job. You should see my partner when I suggest spending some money. Hoo boy! So, Frank, do you see how the proxy translator works? It chooses a new port for each packet. Your application doesn't need to even know it is there; the two sides keep in sync. If either system restarts, they negotiate a new sequence from our central server. You just give us a list of the ports and addresses that your applications use, and we'll configure the proxies."

Frank glanced at the paper. "Yeah, that's cool."

Zhou nodded. "How many applications do you think will need converting?"

Frank looked at Zhou. "Oh, I don't know. We'll count them later this week. But tell me, what else does Ping say to you?"

Zhou rolled her eyes. "God, what DOESN'T he say? He complains a lot, especially when he wants something and can't have it. A favorite trick is to picture a giant paw wapping me across the head."

"HA! That's great. Does he ever wake you up at night?"

Zhou shifted impatiently in her chair. "No, at least not with pictures. When he sends something, I see something like a little pin-point of light in my peripheral vision, and I have to call it up. When I'm sleeping, I don't notice the light." She looked back down at the planning form. "So, you'll come up with a first cut of address/port bindings ... lets call it the beginning of next week. How about servers? I understand you have four major ones. Which sub-nets are they on?"

Frank thought for a moment. "I'll have to get back to you on that. Sorry! I guess I didn't come very prepared."

Zhou smiled, thinking how she could have been spending this time planning her next cable walk. They only had about 20% of Sasser's network traced, and the next week or two were pretty intense.

The waiter came and Frank quickly grabbed the check. "Tell you what. I'll get this one since we didn't get much work done. Lets plan an in-depth session tomorrow evening over dinner. I know of a great Italian place on the near North side..."

Alarm bells ringing, red flags bursting info flames. But Zhou's smile didn't falter for a moment. "I'm sorry, Frank, but I can't meet with clients after business hours. Maybe an early-morning meeting at the plant? I'll bring bagels."

Frank deflated a little. "Oh, sure. Yeah. Probably better for me too, now that I think of it. Early, huh? How about 10:00 on Thursday?"

Zhou stood up. "Sounds great. I'll run the preliminary network data through our simulator and have the skeletal model ready. We can fill it in then."

They walked out the door together towards Zhou's van, Frank tossing his keys in the air and catching them. "Hate to go back to the office on such a nice day. Maybe I'll play hookie and go to Lincoln Park Zoo. I *love* watching the animals, although it is sad that they have to be caged up."

Zhou got in her van and closed the door. "Hey, sounds fun. And thanks for lunch!"

"No sweat ... oops." Frank's keys landed on the pavement, next to the van. He bent, picked them up, and started for his own car. "See ya Thursday!"

Zhou started up the van. "I can hardly wait," she muttered as she drove off.

A proper stalk is done at a distance.

On a high-res map panel, a small blip appeared, moving down Congress toward I-94.

Frank waited a few minutes and then pulled out of the parking lot.

Meg smelled something rotten first thing in the morning, and it wasn't coming from the the cats' food dishes. Four of her autonomous user agents on the Net had reported back to her during the night that a dig-bot had been downloading information about SecureData, herself, and Zhou. Her user agents weren't programmed to trace such inquiries - people fetched information about them all the time, but something about this download just didn't feel right. Not enough financial data was accessed; too much personal data.

She sat for a moment, worried that she was just being paranoid, and then decided that dammit, she was being PAID to be paranoid. She launched another user agent, this time with full trace. She also encrypted its return path and routed it through an anonymous IP repeater.

Thank God for hacker sites. They kept her in business in more ways than one.

Squeak and Echo were negotiating a tough spot. The cables went vertical through a large pipe, and although Squeak had no trouble climbing, Echo couldn't make it. And he couldn't stay under the floor while Squeak went up because there was too much metal in the floor; Squeak's signal was too weak. The blueprint showed a hollow space behind one wall near a support, but they were having trouble locating it.

Zhou got a signal that Ping was trying to send her a picture, so she switched. It was a mental picture of a dandelion and a cat showing it's ass. Odd ... how could something be both a dandelion and an ass hole at the same time? No matter. She gave Ping a squirt with a mental squirt gun to keep him quiet and went back to Echo. After another few minutes of searching, she concluded that the support on the blueprint just plain wasn't there. Maybe it was originally planned but was never...

Zhou felt something brush her cheek. She went to bat it away, assuming that Ping was being a pest, but whatever it was didn't have fur.

She jumped, switching back to her eyes. The room wheeled for a moment from the sudden switch, and there was Frank. He was standing close to her and was quickly withdrawing his hand.

"Oh, sorry! I didn't think you could feel..." He trailed off, turning red.

"Frank! What ... uh ... what's going on?"

"I just came by to see how things were going. You make the strangest faces when you do that." He smiled.

Zhou was still a little dizzy. "Oh ... yeah, so I've been told. Hey look, I'm in a bit of a tight spot right now. Can it wait for maybe 20 minutes?" She was already switching back to Echo, who was obviously getting frustrated.

"Sure, sure. Sorry I interrupted. Carry on."

Another picture came in from Ping. A combination of a paw wapping her across the head, a dandelion, and a cat's ass. But Zhou was in no position to figure out what Ping was trying to say. They had to find another way to the ceiling.

Zhou collapsed into the bean-bag chair with a huge sigh.

"Hey, watch it! That thing's an antique." Meg came rolling out of the kitchen.

Zhou rubbed her eyes. "Oh, Meg, I think *I'm* the antique today. I am completely shot."

Meg came up to Zhou and smoothed her hair. "Rough walk?"

Zhou tipped her head back with her eyes closed. "You tell them a million times to get blueprints that match the building. Make all necessary corrections. They swear on a stack of bibles that the plans are 100% accurate. Shit."

"My poor baby. How did the guys do?" Meg stroked Zhou's cheek and smoothed back her hair.

"Mmmmm. Echo got pretty frustrated. Oh, and Ping did something pretty weird. I don't remember exactly what was going on - I was trying to find a path from the floor to the ceiling - and Frank, the engineer came in. Ping sees him as a dandelion, but this time he combined it with an ass hole. Any idea what he was trying to say?"

Meg stoped stroking Zhou's face and thought. "Ass hole? Doesn't seem like an obvious concept for a cat. Let me play it back from the base station."

Zhou reached out. "HEY! Come back and keep doing that!" But Meg had already rolled into the lab. Shoot.

A moment later, a hoot of laughter came out of the lab. "Oh, Zhou! You dip! Look again!"

Zhou switched to the image that Meg sent to her from the base station. Dandelion and cat's ass. "So?"

"Look at the cat's stance! Look at the tail! That's not an ass hole, that's a female cat in heat! Ping thought your little Dandelion was horny!"

Zhou suddenly remembered the brush against her cheek, the sudden withdraw of Frank's hand, his comment that he didn't think she could feel...

And just as suddenly, Zhou felt like she needed a shower.

Meg's laughter rang out from the lab over the noise of the water. Oafed again.

A proper stalk requires creativity.

On a standard NAP computer, a millionth of a second is a thought. A thousandth of a second is a day's work. A second is is growing old.

Meg's trace bot had accumulated twenty minutes of CPU time, distributed across five thousand NAPs. (A process that took three quarters of a second real-time due to overhead.)

This particular trace bot was the result of ten years of refinement and research. The current version had been tested against forty thousand dig agents and had been successful against all but a hand-full of military digs. It could detect and break routing loops nested 64K deep. It knew back doors to all the anonymous IP repeaters on the Net. It could crack moderate header encryption (only the military was allowed to use strong encryption). It used fractal signature analysis and masgarading (patent pending) to follow store-and-forward re-encryption.

But this trace was a toughie.

A dig bot had invaded Zhou's medical records. It was definitely military, but it was mis-configured. Whoever launched it must not have known that strong reliability was inconsistent with strong security. As a result, the data packets from the dig bot were strong encrypted and untraceable, but the return hand-shakes were not.

Meg's bot wasn't designed to do a reverse trace. But its neural nets had been exposed to trillions of transactions over the past ten years, and it was sensitive to subtle patterns. The return hand-shakes correlated to the encrypted packets, and Meg's bot spread itself across the Net, catching glimpses of the fleeting footprints. AI's are notorious for brute-force problem solving, and Meg's bot was merciless. The milliseconds crawled by.

It quickly settled on a strategy of fencing in the handshakes. The Net used dynamic routing, which meant that packets took different paths at different times, but there again the neural nets found patterns. A packet *might* come from anywhere, but in practice it would only come from a small set of sources. Concentrate on those, ignore the extraneous, and a brute force trace could almost keep up.

Almost. The trace bot was slowly falling behind.

But Meg's bot had one last trick up its INODE. It could corrupt packets. It was designed to slow down reliable transfers by damaging a data packet from time to time, randomly. Reliable transfers have no trouble recovering from damaged packets - they simply re-transmit. No muss, no fuss. Zhou's medical data was being successfully dug by the bot in spite of Meg's trace. Except that it slowed down the transfer.

Just enough.

If an autonomous agent could experience pride, Meg's would have felt ten feet tall. As it was, it simply e-mailed the trace results to Meg's drop box.

Frank sat in his office with VR goggles on, running some very advanced image processing software. It used medical data and webcam pictures to model a human being. It could accurately estimate a soldier's strength, agility, speed, and reaction time. And, it could accurately render a 3-D simulation of a soldier's naked body.

In the goggles, virtual man - who looked very little like Frank - was demonstrating some interesting sexual positions to a virtual woman - who looked *very* much like Zhou).

Zhou was soaring, high above the mountains, thermals lifting her, and the wind carrying her to God knew where. No need to hunt, no responsibilities. Just the sky giving her life and the wind ruffling her feathers.


The two of them made an unlikely pair. An eagle and a dove. But *anything* was possible, and they flew wing tip to wing tip in perfect synchronization; banking, diving, not knowing where the wind was carrying them, not caring.

"Zhou, wake up."

The world lurched sickeningly. Zhou struggled to keep aloft, to keep soaring. Blackness crashed down, only to be replaced by blinding light.

"AAAAA!!!" Zhou threw her arm over her eyes to block the glare of the overhead lamp.

Meg pulled the blanket off Zhou. "I want you to come out here and see something."

Zhou reached out to grab Meg, to pull her to bed, to fly again. But Meg was already in the hallway, calling back over her shoulder. "A mil-grade digger was in your medical records. I've got a trace on it."

Zhou squinted at the bedside NAP - 3:30 am. Not all that unusual a time for Meg to be up - she was a cat napper - but still hours before Zhou's normal rise time. As the last sliver of flight faded from her mind, Zhou pulled on her ratty blue robe and trudged toward the lab.

"You recognize this net address?"

Zhou looked. "Yeah, it's out of Sasser. It's cat-ass boy, from engineering. You said it was a mil-bot, how did you trace it?"

Meg snorted. "For calling himself an engineer, he sure is an idiot. He configured it wrong. What is Sasser Industries into? They do mil contracts?"

Zhou shook her head. "Cosmetics, Meg. Lots of secret formulas to hide, but no mil connection. Think he picked it up surplus?"

"No way. It's not cutting edge, but it's not yesterday's fish either. It's damn good software. I don't like this, Zhou."

Zhou's eyes widened. "YOU don't like it? *I'M* the one he's got his undies twisted for. I don't even want to go back there tomorrow. Uh, today."

Meg waved the thought away. "I don't mean that. He's an idiot; you'll be fine. But I don't like the fact that an incompetent techie at a cosmetics company has mil-grade software. It could mean big trouble for our business. I want inside his NAP today. I think Squeak is going to have a little extra payload of his own."

A proper stalk is hard work.

Squeak wobbled as he climbed up a vertical run. The network tap attached to his transmitter was small, but Squeak still had to stop several times.

Once at the top of the run, Squeak found a mass of cables. It was more hard work going to each one, sniffing, licking, trying to find the right one. Today, his hard work was rewarded; he found the cable leading to Frank's NAP.

Squeak turned his back to the cable and reared up on his hind feet. Two small levers extended from the tap and caught the cable, pulling it tight. Two needles pierced the insulation and found the inner conductor. Signal poured into Squeak's radio, was relayed to Echo who re-transmitted it to the base station in the van outside. Immediately, a new signal was sent from the base to Echo, and then to Squeak. The signal flooded into the cable, conflicting with the signals already present. The tap then extended a blade between the two needles and cut the cable. Now the signals flowed *through* the tap, and the tap was able to inject it's own traffic, without collision.

A dig-bot raced in from the base station. Moments later, a flood of results returned to base. After 10 seconds, the bot was done, and it quietly self-destructed. The tap released from Squeak's radio and went passive, becoming just a bump on a cable.

Squeak felt light as a feather as he scampered back down the riser and leaped onto Echo's back.

Zhou was just getting ready to crate the cats when Ping sent her a picture of a daisy.


Frank came into the computer room and shut the door.

And locked it. A double key dead bolt.

Zhou sent a quick image of a squirt bottle and a rolled up magazine to Ping and Echo, and they ran for cover. She sent a quick inquiry to the base station for the blue print of the computer room. Two doors, both with dead bolts. (Against fire codes, by the way, but Zhou hadn't planned on telling them. Now she wished she had.)

"Uh, hey, Frank. What's up? I was just getting ready to..."

Frank pulled a small cylinder out of his pocket. A military laser. Enough power in that sucker to slice her in half.

Frank was visibly shaking. "What the fuck are you doing here?" His voice seemed about an octave above normal.

"Uh, just finishing up a cable wa..."

"SHUT UP!!! You dug my NAP. What did you find???"

Yikes. Meg's digger was good, but Frank must have had mil ECM too. Although once again, given the fact that the digger returned results, he obviously had the ECM misconfigured. But maybe he didn't know that.

"Hey, take it easy. Standard procedure; we dig all NAPs looking for viruses. But something must be wrong with your NAP. No results came out at all. Let's go to your office and see what the..."

"LIAR!!! I saw the traffic burst! Where is that data? Tell me or I'll fry you ..." He looked around the room. "... but I'll fry your cats first!"

Frank saw a shadow behind a cabinet and squeezed the cylinder. No beam could be seen - it was probably infra-red - but a hissing came from the corner and a puff of smoke blew out. At the same time, the radio stuck on Zhou's back went berserk, filling Zhou's head with static. It was as if a huge pulse of radio energy was also emitted along with the laser beam.

Zhou did a quick check on all three animals; all were safe. There were lots of places to hide in a crowded computer room.

Frank turned the laser back to Zhou. "Now, where the fuck is the DATA???"

Where was the data? It was back at her apartment, being analyzed by Meg. Zhou sent frantic SOS's back, but really what could Meg do?

"Frank, take it easy. Every thing's OK. Like I said, the digger didn't return any useful data. Just garbage. It's in the van out front - lets go there and I'll prove it to you."

Frank was sweating. He glanced nervously from side to side. He knew that Zhou was just trying to get out of the locked room, but he also desperately wanted to believe that the data was in the van. The laser was small enough that he could hide it in his fist; he could kill her anywhere.

He strode to the door and unlocked it. Then stepped back and motioned her to lead. "Move it. Fast, but not too fast."

Zhou frantically sent pictures to Ping, Echo, and Squeak, images of the animals fastened in their crates. To make them stay put. Then she briskly went out the door, with Frank close behind.

Neither of them heard Master Stalker's velvet paws slipping out just before the door closed.

It took almost 10 minutes to walk through the building and across the parking lot. Zhou opened the back of the van and the two of them climbed in. Frank slammed shut the door. "Show me."

Zhou was close to panic. What the hell could she show him? She sat in front of the NAP and started poking through it. Frank stood right beside her, so close that only the laser separated her temple from his chest. She carefully avoided the data cache and was looking through the radio data when she found a large file. It was the burst of radio noise that filled her head with static when Frank shot the laser.

"OK, here it is. I'll multi it. Pure garbage."

A funny mechanical-sounding buzz came from the speaker and the screen on the NAP was filled with diagonal lines dancing about.

Frank shook. "That doesn't mean anything! It isn't audio or visual data. It was a dig-bot for God's sake! Fuck this! There's only one way to be sure. Too bad you got nosey, we could have..."

Another burst of static filled Zhou's head. The smell of burning flesh assaulted her nose, and the world started fading to black.

The eagle soared high above the mountain tops. The air was thin and cold, breathing was labored, wings ached. The thrill of flight replaced with a deep weariness, homesickness, a longing for familiar ground.


The dove took the lead, descending toward a green valley. Zhou gratefully followed, tracing a wide downward spiral, glad to be going home.

"Zhou, wake up."

A drop of sun fell on Zhou; a searing lance of fire burned through her body; she plummeted, turning as she fell. Above, the dove shrunk to a white speck; below, the ground rushed up at her like a hammer.


Zhou lurched back in her chair, arms flailing. She looked wildly around - she was in her van, the NAP in front of her, the air slightly smokey, a body sprawled on the floor beside her.


Meg sighed. "Thank God. I couldn't get a visual on him since your goddam eyes were closed. I was worried he was only wounded. By the amount of blood, I would say I got his heart. But you better get out of there anyway."

Zhou stepped over Frank and opened the van. Ping leaped in, took one sniff, and leaped back out. Zhou followed, cursing Ping for following when she told him to stay. "Meg, I thought I was a goner. What happened?"

"When my dig bot invaded Frank's NAP, it found a whole bunch of heavily encrypted stuff that I can't touch. But it did find a few un-encrypted areas. One was the dig bot that invaded your medical records last night. Another was the technical docs for the laser he was packing.

"When he shot it in the computer room, the laser attempted to confirm the order to shoot with a remote command and control system, which wasn't there of course. It defaulted to shooting anyway, but it gave off a radio burst in an attempt to find one. Fortunately, Frank didn't know enough to enable secure communications, or even to shut down the link, so the laser's search came through as plain text.

"I ran the laser's docs through an AI looking for the format of the command and control protocol. You were half-way across the parking lot when I found the codes to disable the laser. Then I saw something else. The laser is dual-ended. It can shoot through either side. So, I just configured it to shoot out the reverse side. I didn't even have to pull the trigger and risk a murder rap. He attempted murder and sort-of missed."

Zhou shivered. "But what the hell was Frank doing with all that shit?"

"We won't know for sure till the Pentagon decrypts his NAP. But if I had to guess, I would say that Frank was the middle-man in a military smuggling ring.

Zhou sat on the bumper of the van, listening to the distant sound of sirens. Suddenly, Zhou's ankles were attacked by Master Stalker, who immediately retreated under the van.


Meg interrupted. "Better not! He saved your skin."

"THEN MAKE HIM STOP ... uh ... what do you mean 'saved my skin'?"

Meg sounded smug. "The laser radio link. It's frequency is very close to Ping's transmission to you. I boosted his power to full, and enough signal made it through the van for the laser to receive the commands. But only because he followed you out. You're *damn* lucky he's not too obedient."

Two cop cars squealed around a corner and headed into the parking lot. Zhou stood on the van's bumper and waved them in.

Master Stalker crouched under the van and cleaned his weapons. Another good kill.