As things got strange and the world shifted, so did the Matrix. When a user entered the Chinatown area here in Seattle, for example, the buildings melted away and the nodes took the form of mah jong tiles. Deckers claimed that made it easier to pick out unprotected nodes, but I don't know about that. I've heard it said, and can believe, that no one goes near the nodes represented by dragons.

But that's the way of the world. Steer as clear as possible from dragons-words to live by and advice it'll kill you to ignore.

I've heard decker tales that if a decker got good enough he could impose his own sense of order on the Matrix. With enough skill he could make the Matrix appear the way he wanted it-free of extraneous data. Another urban legend born in the Matrix.

Valerie Valkyrie was a legendary decker.

After only two seconds, the landscape construct shifted. Gone were the clean lines of glowing, lime-green streets and shining white buildings. Suddenly I found myself standing beside the pitcher's mound in a monstrous baseball stadium. Val, outlined in a neon-blue that matched her eyes, pulled on a baseball cap that materialized from thin air and gave me a broad grin. The cap had a Raven patch on it.

'Sorry if you aren't used to this, Wolf.' The shrug of her shoulders told me she wasn't sorry at all and that my surprised reaction made her day. 'Warping the Matrix to my conception of it gives me a home-field advantage.' Within the solar yellow of the glove on her right hand, she twitched a ball around and got the grip she wanted on it. From a dugout over on the third-base side of the field a smallish man walked up toward the plate. Behind and above him a Scoreboard flashed to life and spewed out all sorts of information in hexidecimal.

I pointed up at the display. 'Can you translate?'

She looked at me as if I'd disappointed her, then nodded. Suddenly the Scoreboard flickered and the handy notation of baseball replaced the curious array of numbers and letters. Coming up to bat was Ronnie Killstar's personal file. The count was zero balls and two strikes, and the Scoreboard reported his batting average as.128. He batted right-handed.

Val licked her lips as a catcher and umpire materialized behind the plate. 'Can of corn.' A green ball appeared in her left hand and she spun it around until she grasped it between her thumb, index, and middle fingers. Rearing back, her azure outline blurred and she delivered the pitch. It arced in at the plate, then dropped a full fifteen centimeters below Ronnie's futile swing.

'Yer out!' screamed the umpire.

All sorts of data poured out onto the Scoreboard. It was a bit more nasty than one might expect to find on the average baseball card, but it still bespoke nothing more than a mediocre career. A quick comparison of his successful stolen bases versus times caught out in the attempt confirmed that he was an unsuccessful smalltime thief before La Plante took him on as a leg-breaker.

As the record of his most recent telecom calls started to flash up on the Scoreboard, I looked over at Val. 'You can cut this any time you want. He's useless and now he's dead.' I glanced over at the number of the last call he'd made. 'Hope it was to his mother.'

Val wrinkled her nose. 'I was unaware anyone had taught Petri dishes to answer the phone.' She caught the ball the catcher threw back at her. 'That was just a warm-up. I shouldn't have used a forkball on him-that was overkill.' Certain things started to click into place for me. Cracking systems required a vast array of ice-breaking programs. Most deckers used commercially developed software and, consequently, could only break into the most simple of bases.

True artists like Val modify and write their own wares. I once talked with a decker who went by the handle of Merlin who'd named all of his ice-breakers after spells. 'It helps me remember what's what. When some system's trying to flatline you, you want to be able to react quickly with a codebomb that will do the job.' Val, with her passion for baseball, had designed and named her ice-breakers for pitches.

'Let's get on to the main show, okay?'


Val concentrated and slammed a fist into her glove a couple of times. I noticed some subtle changes in the stadium as the Fujiwara system came into range for us to access it. 'Okay, we're ready to begin. Kind of like robbing Peter to pay Paul, isn't it?'

I nodded. Fujiwara Corporation was a legal shell that laundered money for a yakuza group based further down the coast in Tokyo West. Whereas La Plante was a broker who facilitated the movement of things from one party to another, Fujiwara actually brought contraband materials into Seattle from all over the world. On a scale of one all the way up to Hitler's SS, both groups ranked fairly high, but Fujiwara exercised a bit more restraint in how they dealt with rivals.

That meant they preferred a single yak hitter to a mad bomber. La Plante did too until Kid Stealth had the temerity to defect to Raven. Neither group played nicely with their enemies, and this little Matrix run was about to deposit us on Fujiwara's bad side.

The butterflies started in my stomach as a behemoth stepped from the dugout. He looked like something from a cartoon. He had tiny legs and a narrow waist that blossomed up into immensely powerful arms and shoulders. The bat he carried looked like it had been cold-hammered into shape from the hull of an aircraft carrier, but he wielded it like it weighed no more than a spoon.

The field changed abruptly when he stepped into the batter's box to hit right-handed. Runners appeared on second and third and the count stood even at 0 and 0. The batter's name appeared on the Scoreboard as Babe Fujiwara and his batting average stood at a whopping.565.

I swallowed hard. 'Why do I get the feeling this man is the All-Star team all rolled into one?'

Val wiped her brow on her sleeve. 'That's because he is.' Then she shot me a winning grin. 'But that's okay, baby, because I'm Rookie of the Year.'

'Play ball!' cried the umpire.

Val's fingers twitched as she toyed with the ball hidden in her mitt, then she reared back to throw. The fastball sizzled yellow and gold as it streaked toward the plate. Babe Fujiwara swung on the pitch and missed, but not by much. From the look on Val's face she'd expected a larger margin of victory.

Her cerulean eyes narrowed. I saw her grip the now-green ball in the same way she'd done to deal with Ronnie. The forkball shot from her hand at medium speed, then dropped precipitously. Even so, his bat whipped around and he hit the ice-breaker solidly. Suddenly it shifted color from green to red and rocketed back onto the field.

It hit me in the left ankle and fiery pain shot up my leg. The ball popped into the air as I dropped to the ground. Val sprang off the mound, gathered the ball up, and tossed it over at Babe as he lumbered up the baseline toward first. When the ball hit him in the shoulder, he exploded into blue sparks.

Gasping against the pain, I looked up at her. 'What the hell was that?'

Val's nostrils flared. 'Fujiwara has put some cascading 1C on line. The fact that you hurt means it's blacker than La Plante's heart. I managed to flip a couple of bits into that program and used it to destroy the ice layer that spawned it, but I'm not sure I can do that again.'

I got an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. 'We're in a bit deeper than we want to be, aren't we?'

She looked over at the runners on second and third. 'We got a pass on the first two layers of ice. We would have wasted time and broken them, but I thought speed was of the essence. Fujiwara gave them to us to make it difficult for us to get out of here…'

I raised an eyebrow as I massaged my ankle. 'You mean we're trapped in the Fujiwara system.'

She shrugged. 'It's a matter of perspective.'

'Well, try it from my perspective, one of pain.'

'We're trapped.' She must have seen my icon begin the fingerwork for the spell that would deaden the pain. 'Don't waste the effort, Wolf. That stuff doesn't work in this environment.' Her fingers convulsed and a blue mitt appeared on my left hand. 'Just use this to block anything they hit at you and it should protect you.'

I looked at the mitt and pounded my right hand into its pocket. 'If I get something I just put the runners out?'

She nodded. 'Don't tag them. It'll destroy the ice layer, but you don't want to be that close when it goes.'

'What happens if they score?'

Val's smile died. 'Don't ask. This is the big leagues.'

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