Part I

A Fistful of Crystals

Chapter 1

“Blade, I need your help. I just killed my wife.”

That got his attention. Really got it.

He hadn’t wanted to take the call when Sandy, his major domo, announced that it had come through. At that moment, he was lying on his back, replacing the right rear trunnion of a 1972 Triumph Spitfire, one of the quartet of venerable British sportscars he owned. It was just on seven o’clock in the evening and he wanted to finish the job tonight so he could take the little two-seater out for a jaunt along the roads and lanes of the Highlands in the morning. Dawn comes very early to Scotland in mid-August, and he wanted to be on the road by sunrise. But when Sandy informed him that the call came from a “Mr. Hobbes,” Blade thought the better of telling him to call back. Pushing his way out from underneath the rear of the Spitfire, he got to his feet, quickly wiped the worst of the grime from his hands, and took the receiver from Sandy, who stood patiently by, holding the cradle – the telephones in Mont Creag House were all antiques.

“What?”

“Blade, I need your help. I just killed my wife.”

Blade was momentarily non-plussed: for of all the reasons Hobbes might have to contact him, this was the one he never expected to hear.

“I think ye better explain that to me,” he said slowly, “in a wee bit more detail, Hobbes.”

“I didn’t murder Kim, if that’s what you’re thinking. She’s technically not dead, at least her body isn’t, but her mind is gone – she’s in an incredibly deep coma. And I think it’s because of a mistake I made.” Blade quietly noted the air of desperation in Hobbes’ voice in that last sentence. He sat silent for a moment or two, perplexed, wondering just Hobbes though he could do about the situation.

“You still there, Blade?”

“I am, though I confess I have no idea how ye expect me to be able to help ye.”

“I want you to get her mind back for me.”

At this Blade took the receiver away from his ear and looked at it in disbelief, certain that either he had badly misunderstood what Hobbes had said, or else the other man, perhaps unhinged with grief, had done his nut. It would be best for Hobbes, he decided, if he were let down gently.

“Hobbes, I really don’t think I’ve got the skills or the qualifications for that. Do ye think ye might –”

“Blade – David – you are precisely the person I need. I’m sending you a data packet right now that will explain everything to you. It’s both a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than you think it is, but believe me, there’s nobody else who can do what I need done – I mean it. You’ll see why when you read through the packet. Help me, Blade, you’re my only hope.”

—————***—————

“– you’re my only hope.” With that, Calvin Coleridge, whom Blade had somewhat cryptically nicknamed “Hobbes” when they first met years before, broke the connection and sat back in his chair with a sigh. That was well done, he mused, I dangled the bait, and once Blade reads what’s in the data packet, the hook will be set. Now, if he just doesn’t get too curious….

Everything Calvin told Blade was true, but there was a rather large difference between telling the truth and telling the whole truth. Yes, Calvin’s wife Kim was clinically brain dead, and yes, it was due to a mistake Calvin had made, and yes, Blade was probably the only person in the world who could help him out at this moment in his efforts to recover from that mistake. And the entire content of the data packet was true – as far as it went. But…there were things Blade didn’t need to know and, if Calvin had anything say in the matter, would never learn. The Scot had a highly-developed – sometimes over-developed, Calvin thought – sense of ethics and morality, and he could get rather prickly when he found himself in circumstances where either were engaged. There was no doubt in Calvin’s mind that Blade would be considerably less than enthusiastic of about the work Calvin and Kim had been doing, should he learn of it, and Calvin had once witnessed the consequences of Blade’s…disapproval.

Calvin liked to think of himself as more…flexible in his thinking, embracing the idea that rules were put in place to be strictly followed so that when the time came to break them, one could recognize the moment. It was a concept that had a certain efficiency to commend it, save for the fact that as time passed he became increasingly convinced that he alone possessed the required intelligence and insight to know when such a moment had arrived, and so imposed a rigid system of protocols and procedures in his company’s research facilities. It was an attitude which Kim, who was easily his intellectual equal, found increasingly restrictive and chafing; still, her rebellions were always relatively minor, though pointed, and usually verbal, and it amused Calvin to imagine that he was exercising his “flexibility” when he allowed Kim the occasional small victory against his otherwise inflexible guidelines. Then Calvin broke two of his own rules – by omission rather than commission – and suddenly his “flexible” thinking didn’t appear to be so attractive after all.

Dammit all! Dammit to hell! Why didn’t I make that copy of the baseline scan when I had the chance? he chided himself bitterly for perhaps the thousandth time in the past ten days. Why didn’t I lock out the scanner in the first place, so Kim couldn’t use it by herself? Shit….

Nearly losing Kim forever was bad enough, but when he thought he had the situation in hand, accident had piled on mistake which in turn combined with misfortune to produce a near-disaster. Calvin stood on the brink of a catastrophe, not merely a business calamity, but a personal cataclysm as well. Kim was more than just his wife and colleague: she had been his perfect opposite, the odd to his even, the yin to his yang. For Calvin she had brought a balance to a brilliant but seriously unbalanced life, one that was for the first time in a decade threatening to again spin out of control. Blade truly was his only hope: of all the people he knew, only that extraordinarily dangerous Scotsman possessed the skills, the ruthlessness and the discretion Calvin needed to recover from the consequences of his own folly. If Blade succeeded – and he had to succeed! – Calvin would owe him a huge debt. And that created its own set of problems, because he hated being indebted to anyone for any reason.

—————***—————

Once Hobbes broke the connection, Blade thrust the receiver at Sandy, then began idly pacing, cleaning the remaining grime and grease from his hands with a shop cloth, lost in thought for several moments. Finally he stopped, tossed the cloth into a dustbin, and said simply, “I’ll be in my study.”

That study was a fairly expansive room, lined on three walls by tall bookshelves, mostly filled with the thousands of books Blade had collected – and, more importantly, read – over the years, though a handful of shelves held the model ships and armor that he loved to build, lavishing on them untold amounts of time, effort, and attention to detail. Settling himself in at the large, oversized flat-topped desk that sat in the center of the room, he quickly accessed his email server and found the communication from Hobbes. The decryption was swift and Blade was soon poring over the information sent by his friend in America, idly stroking the fur of his cat, Wellington, who was comfortably sprawled across the desktop. The email was, Blade thought, fascinating reading, as much for what it didn’t say as what it did.

Blade spent an equal amount of time reading between the lines as he did assimilating the information itself in the data packet. As Hobbes recounted it, Kim had somehow been reduced to a vegetative state – clinically brain dead – although he was noticeably sparing of the details of exactly what had happened and how. According to Hobbes, there were prototype AR and VI programs he’d written that, theoretically at least, had the potential to revive Kim. The problem was that the only existing copies of those programs had been stored on a set of memory crystals – which were stolen just days after Kim’s accident.

According to Hobbes, he was certain as to who was responsible for the theft, as well as where the crystals were taken, and had sent what he fondly termed an “extraction team” to recover them. That particular stunt had, however, gone rather spectacularly south and now the extraction team itself needed to be extracted from a rapidly-deteriorating situation. Blade blew a gust of air past his lips as he pondered the details that Hobbes had provided – as well as those he hadn’t.

DisCom…. All right, I can see that their involvement makes sense. But Arasaka as well? Blade sighed quietly. The more thought he gave it, the more unsettling he found Arasaka’s presence in the mix. There’s a deeper game here than just a brain-dead wife and some missing property…. Hobbes damned well knows what buttons to push, doesn’t he?

It so happened that Blade knew things, as well: for example, he knew that the financial resources of Hobbes’ company, Cogito Orbis, were being stretched to their limits by Hobbes’ near-obsessive adherence to protocols and procedures. His relentless pursuit of perfection was the reason why Orbis hadn’t released new software or hardware in over three years – Hobbes still hadn’t truly learned that perfect is the enemy of good. It also happened that Blade knew Kim well enough to understand that in her professional relationship with Hobbes, she was by far the more dynamic partner, and that she openly chafed under her husband’s devotion to what she once described as “endlessly crossing imaginary t’s and dotting non-existent i’s.” The short form was that Hobbes preferred to think, while Kim preferred to do. Blade was fairly confident that what had happened to her – whatever it was that Hobbes very carefully didn’t explain – was the consequence of her doing something impulsive. That was ominous, for in Blade’s world, “impulsive” meant “careless,” “careless” meant “stupid,” and “stupid” meant “dead.”

“Blade,” more correctly known as Major Sir David Ian Andrew MacLaren, CMG, DSO, MC (Bar), Retired, formerly of the re-established Royal Highland Regiment (Black Watch), strongly disapproved of anything which resulted in someone becoming needlessly dead. He was particularly put out by people whom he deemed “amateurs” – possibly the most devastating pejorative in his vocabulary – those who were unable to discern the difference between a “rash act” and a “calculated risk.” In that sense, Kim had sometimes been numbered among the rankest of amateurs – most recently, to all appearances, in this latest incident.

What caught and held Blade’s attention was finding Arasaka to be a player in this particular fracas. On the face of it, there was nothing there to draw Arasaka’s attention: the giant Japanese manufacturer was producer for light, medium, and heavy industry, and also had a highly profitable branch that made small arms used by law enforcement and private security agencies around the world. The company also ran its own security service, which was just short of a private army, and that was what perturbed Blade the most: if the tactical situation was in fact as Hobbes described it, then time was running out for the handful of men and women inside the safe rooms at Bits.

For over a decade the policy of Arasaka security was, when faced with a standoff situation where the opposition was trapped and outnumbered, to give its opponents twelve hours in which to decide whether to honorably surrender, which usually led to their execution, or honorably commit suicide. Once the deadline had passed, Arasaka would go in fast and hard, and there were never any survivors; it had become customary for local law enforcement to cooperate with them, the better to keep such incidents contained and avoid widening the potential for violence. It was a tradition with Arasaka, Blade never learned where or how it had come about, but the results were always the same. In the case of Hobbes’ “extraction team,” the countdown had begun

“Right then, Hobbes,” Blade murmurred to himself, “let’s run through this one more time and see if there’s anything else ye can tell me that ye didn’t mean to.” Raising his voice slightly, he called out, “Alistair?”

“Yes, Sir?” a disembodied voice with a strong Glasgow accent answered.

“Run the contents of this packet from Hobbes through the Bombe and Colossus, will ye? See if there is anything buried inside it – anything – that I should know about, any additional data, that is, along with anything that shouldnae be there.”

“Right, Sir. Will nae take me but a jiffy.” Hardly a second passed before Alistair spoke again. “The wee bugger’s clean, sir. There’s nae onything embedded in it onywhere, and no parasites. It’s been shunted all over the bloody world aboot three hundred times, mind ye, as if yer Mister Hobbes did nae want onyone tae know where it was goin’ or frae where it came. He used that one-time comm address cypher ye gave him a while back – the one Miss Raven cobbled up for ye – so it’s as clean as a whistle and as safe as hooses.”

Blade smiled to himself. It was sometimes difficult to remember that Alistair wasn’t human, he was a VI, a Virtual Intelligence. While computer science’s breakthrough to non-organic intelligence still eluded humanity, for weal or woe, the number of constructs like Alistair was constantly increasing. What made VI’s possible was their incredibly complex logic- and decision- trees – and Alistair’s core program was the most sophisticated such system yet created. Oddly enough – or perhaps not oddly at all – Sandy and Alistair got along like a house afire. Sandy Young, as Blade’s major domo, was responsible for supervising the staff of Mont Creag as well as maintaining the security of the house and grounds of the estate; he was also Blade’s personal armourer. Alistair was, as Blade liked to think of him, the concierge of Mont Creag. Sandy, the crusty retired RSM of the Coldstream Guards, and Alistair, the disembodied voice created by a collection of electrons in some computer core, had slipped effortlessly into harness together almost from the beginning of their mutual tenure. Blade shook his head in wonder. We live in a very strange world indeed.

“Thank you, Alistair.”

“Ye’re welcome, Sir.”

Blade stood, went to a sideboard where a quartet of glasses and a half-empty bottle of Clyburn single malt stood waiting, poured himself two fingers of the light amber whisky, and took a healthy swallow before returning to his desk. So the five survivors of the extraction team Hobbes dispatched to recover the data crystals are now trapped in, of all places, a nightclub in Atlanta Underground – a nightclub Hobbes owns. Because of who are the players in this little comedy of errors, the clock is ticking; in fact, just over six hours have already been run off. I wonder why Hobbes took so long to comm? This is going to be tight: if I’m to arrive to help them before time runs out and everybody in there who isn’t an Arasaka goon gets killed , I’d best start moving now.

“Sandy?”

“Sir!”

“Call the airfield, have them start preflighting the Bombardier. Tell Hamish to file a flight plan for Atlanta-Hartsfield. And get the F-1 stowed aboard. I want to be wheels-up in thirty minutes. I’ve got a job to do.”

—————***—————

“So, do you think he’s on his way yet, Mike?”

“Let me see, Calvin.” There was briefest of pauses, more of an affectation Calvin’s AP had unexpectedly adopted once upon a time than a necessity. “Yes, yes he is. According to Scotland’s Air Traffic Control net, his Bombardier left British airspace twelve minutes ago, on a heading of 232 at an altitude of 8,000 meters – that would be 26,000 feet to you – and climbing. Airspeed was 517 knots.”

“What’s his ETA, then?”

“Assuming the weather forecasts are correct, he should be touching down at Hartsfield at approximately 11:06 PM.”

“By the time he clears Customs, that’ll give him less than two hours before the deadline expires.”

“That is correct, Calvin.”

“I don’t like the idea of cutting it that close.”

“I seem to recall that it was your idea to put off contacting him until it was almost too late.”

“Meaning just what exactly?”

“Meaning that had the decision been mine to make, I would not have allowed personal fears and prejudices to inhibit me in making what is such an important, clear-cut, and, under the circumstances, ultimately inevitable decision.”

“Sometimes, Mike, you talk too damn much like a machine!”

“And sometimes you think too much like a human.”

Hobbes never really wanted to have Blade involved in the first place – in fact he had studiously avoided the idea. When Bridelow commed him to report on how the op went down, and told him that the five survivors were trapped at Bits with zero chances of escape or evasion, Calvin knew immediately that he needed the services of a top-flight solo. The list of those men or women who Calvin believed were capable rescuing his extraction team – at this point it was useless to pretend that the situation called for anything other than an out-and-out rescue – was short, and those who Calvin was able to contact were reluctant to the point of outright refusal to get involved. With on virtual eye on the virtual clock, Mycroft decided there was no more time for Calvin’s dithering.

“You might as well stop beating around the bush, Calvin – we both know who it is that you really need.”

“Who? Him?”

“Yes, him.”

“God help us, because if I do, it’s gonna get messy – and expensive.”

“True, but with Arasaka now in the equation, the situation is very close to getting completely out of hand anyway. I know that you usually use Bridelow for this sort of thing, but since he’s one of the five people trapped inside Bits, using him is… problematic, shall we say. And we both know that Bridelow isn’t a quarter the operative that Blade is.”

“Mycroft, you know as well as I do that bringing in that damn Scottish solo will add complications we really don’t need. The man has too damn many connections, he’s too damn smart, and he’s too damn good at asking awkward questions. And if he somehow finds out about Bowman….”

“I was under the impression that he was also your friend – part of an ever-dwindling species, as I recall.”

“He is, that’s the problem. There are friends and then there are friends, and some of them get to know you too well. I know damn well that Blade can pull off this stunt, even if no one else in the world could. The reason I don’t want him involved – why I’ve contacted damn near ever other top-shelf solo in the world but him – is because I can’t be certain that if he starts asking the wrong questions, he’ll back off if I tell him to. And if he doesn’t back off, and gets that damn ‘moral integrity’ of his involved, I’m going to have even bigger problems.”

“Calvin, have you forgotten that the clock is still ticking? Clearly no one else is interested in helping you with this little problem, and if you don’t get Blade aboard now, he won’t be able to get here in time to help you.” Mycroft took a moment to allow the implications to sink in. “Should that happen, I don’t believe your problems will be big at all – they’ll be gigantic.” Another pause. “So, what will it be?”
“All right, you win. Set up the call.” Less than a minute later, Calvin was saying, “Blade, I need your help. I just killed my wife.”

—————***—————

The Bombardier G7000 was just west of Ireland when Blade turned to his copilot, Hamish MacCollough, and said, “You have the aircraft.”

Hamish immediately put both hands on the control yoke, gave it a quick, firm shake, and replied, “I have the aircraft.”

Blade nodded his thanks, unbuckled his harness, and stepped out of the cockpit and into the forward cabin. Immediately to his left – that is, on the right side of the cabin – was a small computer suite that doubled as a wireless communications link. Settling in front of it, he entered a comm number from memory and sat back to wait for a response.

It was not long in coming. On the monitor there appeared a heart-shaped face with a pair of huge, luminous, dark-brown eyes, framed by hair that fell about it in a mass of even darker, almost black, soft waves. A dimpled smile appeared below a straight, pert nose as the woman recognized her caller. There was the usual sharp but mercifully brief pang of regret he always felt upon seeing that face, and for perhaps the millionth time in his life, Blade was again reminded of the uncanny resemblance his friend Ligeia Parrish had to the actress Viven Leigh.

“Hello, David! I see you’re still keeping peculiar business hours.”

“Ye would know as well as anyone, Ligeia, that my line of work doesn’t allow for regular office hours.”

”So you’re working right now.” This was a statement rather than a question.

“That I am. At the moment I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, assuming, of course, that Hamish hasn’t gotten us hopelessly lost – “

“I heard that, Sir!” Hamish called back from the cockpit.

“– and I could use a bit of yer expertise, if ye have the time.” Blade continued as if the interruption had never occurred, but Raven saw his momentary grin. “Our old friend Hobbes called me today asking for my help in a rather sticky situation he’s in, and I was hopin’ ye might be able to tease out a bit more detail than I have from the data packet he sent me.”

Ligeia Parrish’s username was “Raven,” her screen-name, “Sphinx.” A generation earlier, she would have been, had she allowed such a thing to happen, recognized as one of the premier computer hackers in the world. Now of days, every would-be geek who cracked a security code or deciphered a password imagined himself to be a “hacker,” so that the true meaning of the word hacker, with all of its subtexts and implications, not mention perverse prestige, had become hopelessly diluted. In short, hacker had become hackneyed.

Instead, Raven was pre-eminent among what were known as cyberghosts, materializing and dematerializing effortlessly, gracefully, silently, but above all invisibly into, through, around and about computer systems in ways that would have seemed impossible to the casual observer. Five years previously, she and Blade had been involved in passionate romance, one that all of their friends were convinced would eventually lead to a marriage. But the romance faltered then died under the weight of a melancholia that Blade had never quite been able to master; today, they were the best of friends, and, as they still made a formidable team, frequently worked together.

“I’m assuming that you’ve already had Alistair go over the packet with a fine-tooth comb?”

“Indeed I have. Electronically, he found nothing that shouldn’t be there.”

“So what you want from me is more deep background and any dirt I can find clinging to this little incident?”

“Got it in one go, ye did.”

“Then I’d best get started.”

Blade sat back and watched Raven’s fingers fly across her keyboards, at times swiftly shifting to her mouse or raising a wand to another screen he couldn’t see. In less than thirty seconds, Raven announced, “Eureka!” and sat back with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Ye have something, I take it?”

“Yes…yes…here it is. It’s in bits and pieces all over the place, though. Everybody is, for some reason, keeping this whole story very close to the chest. It hasn’t made the national screamsheets, the state and local newsies are completely mum on the subject, and there’s damned little about it on the Grid – even the government networks. FBI, Secret Service, US Marshals Office….” She made a face as if having just bitten into something sour. “Are their security programs this bad because they want us to see what’s inside them, or are they just so stupid they don’t know any better? Anyway, it looks as if somebody decided to suppress any news about it.”

“‘It’ being exactly what?”

“At approximately 2:00 AM local time, there was an armed break-in at the DisCom Data Center – their primary cybernetic R & D facility, despite its name. There was an exchange of gunfire, there were fatalities, the perps – Calvin’s ‘extraction team,’ obviously – were able to compromise DisCom security systems long enough to escape DisCom property…. Let’s see…. An incident an hour later at a local airport…a civilian AV destroyed on the ground there, a vehicle identified as the one used by the team was spotted leaving the scene. An extended high-speed chase up the turnpike and I-75. Then the trail goes cold for a few hours, until a firefight breaks out inside Underground Atlanta at around 10:30 AM local time. Facial recognition software in the CCTV system identifies the extraction team. It takes a couple of hours to get everything settled down and sorted out, but by 1:30 PM the situation was this: the team was holed up in safe rooms inside Bits, a handful of DisCom security types had occupied the rest of the night club, and a small horde of Arasaka goons effectively took over the rest of the mall.

“Here’s where it starts to get really interesting, though. At 1:30 PM local, Underground Atlanta was officially locked down tighter than a drum, on the orders of Atlanta PD. Anyone who was anywhere inside the mall is essentially trapped there. It has not been declared a hostage situation, however. Arasaka has set up its own security perimeter around the mall, with APD establishing a cordon of its own outside of that. Arasaka – and no one, apparently, is supposed to know about this – informed Atlanta Police at exactly the same time APD announced the lockdown that it was issuing a twelve-hour deadline to Calvin’s team inside Bits, effective as of 1:30 PM local. Apparently they plan to go with their SOP once the dealine expires.” She looked briefly offscreen. “That means you’ll have about two hours’ grace when you arrive at Hartsfield International.”

Blade grimaced. “I don’t like cutting things that close. Makes it dramatic as all hell, mind ye, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. That idjit Hobbes waited too long to call me in.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Right then, what else have ye found? Can ye tell me anything about what happened to Kim? And have ye got anything on the extraction team?”

“Way ahead of you, David. According to hospital records – some of which are harder to crack into than most government databases – Kimberly Lynn Coleridge was very quietly checked into Emory University Hospital six days ago, her condition critical, diagnosis incipient brain death from unknown causes, prognosis poor. That much at least of what Calvin told you is true.” For some reason, Raven never called Calvin “Hobbes,” while Blade rarely called him anything but. “Calvin tried to keep it a secret, but a hospital still has to have records, and their security is rather pathetic. They ought to hire Calvin to write a new security suite for them – they can’t afford me.”

Raven scanned her information displays. “Toxicology was negative, there were no visible injuries of any kind, not even small contusions, apart from some minor hemorrhaging clearly associated with whatever mental trauma she experienced, so foul play has been ruled out by the Atlanta DA’s office. Aside from her current vegetative state, all of her vital signs and organ functions are currently nominal.” Raven fell silent for a moment, then murmured, “That’s odd.”

“You found something?”

“According to the hospital’s monitoring systems, her EEG has completely flatlined, and yet her autonomic functions are still working. By every measure, Kim’s not just brain dead, she should be clinically dead – but she’s not…. What happened to this woman?” That last bit came out in a still, small voice, as if Raven was talking to herself.

“I’ll have to come back to that later. Something tells me that it’s important, but what and why eludes me at the moment. What you need to know about Kim right now is that her condition has begun to deteriorate: her autonomous systems – respiration, heartbeat, renal function – have begun slowing down. In a few days, she’ll reach a point of no return. Even if they hook her up to a cardio-pulmonary bypass and dialysis, the damage already done to her systems will not only be irreversible, but they’ll cause an eventual systemic collapse, and she’ll physically die, whatever has happened to her brain. So while I can’t understand why Calvin thinks you can help him, this makes his urgency a lot more understandable. I’m wondering if he’s beginning to panic a little bit….”

“Turning our attention for now to the ‘extraction team’ Calvin sent down to Florida, they’re what you might call much of a muchness. This Compton fellow is an interesting chap – I’ll send you his file, it makes for entertaining reading. Short version is that he’s ex-Air Force Special Operations, has a lot of street experience, he’s a pretty good solo, he’s as honest as the day is long, and he keeps some really…remarkable company.”

“‘Remarkable’ how?”

“He seems to have some sort of ‘in’ with every major urban gang east of the Mississippi River – he’s got connections to almost all of them. But get this: he doesn’t have a police record! Anywhere, under any name. It looks as though he manages to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, as it were. He’s been wired up with some rather serious cyberware, so he’s probably an incipient head case. Keep an eye on him, in case he goes cyber-psycho. If he ever starts singing ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ or some such, you’ll know he’s finally cracked.”

“I’ll make a note of it. Do ye have anything on the rest of them?”

“It would appear that Chamblee and Chastain were little more than hired muscle. They had worked with Bridelow before, Chastain five times, Chamblee three. That’s interesting….” Raven’s voice trailed off and Blade could hear the sound of more keystrokes. “There are at least three instances, all in the last eight years, where Chamblee and Chastain went completely off the grid – I mean there is no record of them anywhere at any time – for long periods. I’m talking ten to fifteen months. And they did it simultaneously. There’s no way of knowing if they were together when they did, although I wouldn’t bet against it. I’ll have to dig deeper there.”

“Is that it?”

“Oh, no, I’m just getting warmed up. Esposito was a born wrench – if something broke he could fix it. Ha! Get this – he was actually a Scotsman, James Carlisle, but he used the streetname ‘Esposito’ as some sort of cover. Oh, I see why…he spent a few years as His Majesty’s guest at Barlinnie. He tried to combine his mechanical skills with a set of sticky fingers and got caught. Anyway, it’s not hard to see why he was part of Calvin’s extraction team – a good handyman can be quite useful to have around.”

“Well, if a Scot canna fix it, it’s nae broke, lass….”

“Stifle yourself. Hadley – real name Paul Jacoby – is more hired muscle. Well, well, well, surprise, surprise – not! He was off the grid at the same times as Chamblee and Chastain.”

“At my age, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy – or coincidences like that.”

“David, I’m five years younger than you, remember, and I don’t believe in any of them either. More homework for me.”

“What about Radome, Houston, and Red?”

“Radome – I know her by the way, although she doesn’t know I do – is one of those birds who can build a death ray out of a pack of cigarettes, some chewing gum wrappers, a length of wire and a ‘C’ cell battery. She’s the team’s electronics and communications specialist. Her real name is Trish Crabtree. I think she’s clean, at least she looks to be, but I’ll make certain of it before I certify her as 100% fresh.” There was a somewhat lengthy pause as Raven’s eyes flicked back and forth between multiple screens.

“Houston – real name Elliot Ross – is something of the joker in the deck. He’s a fairly accomplished solo in his own right, mainly works the southwest United States, the son of a Texas Ranger. Reading between the lines of the files I’ve been able to bring up on short notice, it appears that he tends to be more cooperative with American law enforcement than your typical solo.” She lapsed into silence and Blade watched as she rhythmically tapped the nail of one forefinger against her front teeth – her “tell” that she was concentrating intensely. “I’m going to have to dig deeper into this, because it doesn’t make sense for him to be there – everything that the ‘extraction team’ was doing was soooooo illegal that it’s almost out of character for him to be part of it. Curiouser and curiouser….”

“Agreed. And Red?”

Raven frowned. “On Red, I’ve got nothing. And I mean nothing. Nada. Zero, zip, zilch. I can’t match her to anybody in any database I can access anywhere. It’s like she doesn’t exist.”

“Except that clearly she does.”

“Except that clearly she does.” She was back to tapping her teeth again, and a minute went by before she spoke again.

“There are one of two possibilities here. First, that she has undergone an incredible amount of bodysculpting to change everything about her that could be used as a physical identifier. Not impossible, but very, very expensive and time consuming. Second, that she – or someone, at least – has managed to erase every trace of her from every database on the planet. While I won’t say that’s completely impossible, I don’t know of anyone, person or organization, that has the skills and resources to do that. Not even governments can do that, David.”

Blade pursed his lips and let out a long, low whistle. “Whichever it turns out to be, she or someone she’s associated with or working for has expended a great deal of effort to conceal her real identity. As you say, curiouser and curiouser….”

“Which brings us to Bridelow. And he’s a real piece of work, David. He’s a solo-for-hire, just shy of being top-tier. This extraction op should have been a piece of cake for him – instead everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. It could very well be that Demon Murphy showed up in the tunnels under DisCom and threw an enormous spanner into the works, but I doubt it. You see, Bridelow has worked for DisCom in the past, something I doubt Calvin knew about, and you know that as far as they’re concerned, once a member of the Rat Pack, even by association, always a member of the Rat Pack. Plus, two of the times that Chastain, Chamblee and Esposito went off the grid, he did, too. You were just saying about Santa Clauses, Easter Bunnies, and Tooth Fairies?”

“So the person Hobbes put in charge of his little extraction operation may have been playing both sides of the fence?”

“If you truly believe it went down any other way, I understand the Americans have a bridge in Brooklyn they would like to sell to you.”

>

“Raven, it looks as though I owe ye one – again. What’ll it be this time? Dinner at Churchill’s in the West End?”

“Make it a picnic in the Lake District and you have a deal. Bring the Healey.”

“Consider it done. Can you send me copies of everything ye’ve got so far?”

“It’s on the way right now.” Raven’s tone suddenly grew very serious, as did her expression. She leaned forward and peered at the monitor earnestly. “Just one thing, David. Be careful – I mean really careful. DisCom or Arasaka alone are bad enough, but working in tandem, that’s scary – it means a lot of firepower being brought to bear, maybe even Nakajima. But that’s not what worries me. There’s something about all of this that is making me very, very twitchy, as if I’ve just had a ‘blink’ moment. There are wheels within wheels within wheels in this that I haven’t discovered yet. Calvin hasn’t told you everything, or even the majority of it, but I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t trust you. I think he’s scared – of what I don’t know, at least not yet. The stress analysis I ran on his voice nearly went off-scale in some places. And something tells me there are other players in this affair that even he doesn’t know about. I can’t tell you why I think that, call it a hunch, but you’d best watch your back. I’ve got a bad feeling about this, David.”

—————***—————

As it happened, Mycroft’s estimate of Blade’s arrival time was off by only seven minutes, the Bombardier touching down at Atlanta-Hartsfield at 11:13. Hamish carefully taxied the aircraft over to Concourse F as Blade prepared to deplane. Once the jetway was in place and the cabin door opened, Blade strode straight through the terminal to Customs, where he was waved through in fairly short order, courtesy of a diplomatic passport, one of the consequences of that meeting with C several years earlier. Hobbes was waiting, alone, just outside Customs.

Blade saw immediately that his friend wasn’t aging well. Short, rotund, he’d put on weight in the last several years, and he didn’t wear it as well as once he might have done. He was going bald, and there was a pallor to his skin, with a scattering of unhealthy-looking red blotches here and there. Deep creases ran from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth, and his beard, which had always been immaculately trimmed, was now straggly and shot through with gray. But it was Hobbes’ eyes that held Blade’s attention, at once fascinating and disturbing. Wide, the pupils so dilated that the gray irises were almost invisible, they were haunted, filled with the look of a man being pursued by demons of his own making, but that he couldn’t recognize. The physical changes Blade knew he could attribute to the passing years – Hobbes had never had a particularly robust constitution – but the fear in his eyes was something very recent. And something about it told Blade that it wasn’t all because of Kim’s accident.

“Well, Hobbes, ye look like hell – but then, ye never looked all that good to begin with.”

“I suppose you’re still wearing one of those Scottish skirts of yours and chasing sheep.”

“Nice to know that some things never change, isn’t it? Still, it’s good to see ye, ye great lump.” At that they shook hands.

“Is there someplace we can get a drink while I wait for Hamish to get my bags through Customs?”

“Not really, Blade, everything on this concourse closes at 11:00 or earlier. But never fear, I have a bottle of Clyburn waiting in the back of my limo – you can have one of your ‘wee drams’ there before you collect your car. I assume you brought the F-1?”

“I never leave home without it.”

“Good, because you’ll need it if you’re going to get to Underground Atlanta before the deadline expires.”

Blade glanced at his watch. “I’ve got just on two hours before that happens.”

“Yes, you do, but I seriously doubt you’re about to go swanning right up to Underground Atlanta in that Batmobile of yours.”

“You know damned well the F1 was a production car.”

“Yeah, they produced how many, a hundred?”

“I never said ‘high-volume production car.’”

“Whatever. Anyway, the Blade I used to know would park that beast a few blocks away and take the time to look around, get a feel for the situation before he unleashed his own personal brand of mayhem.”

Blade nodded in mock-sage agreement. “Under the circumstances, I think that would be a wise thing to do.”

“So do I. There’s too much at stake, especially for me.”

“I need a situation report, Hobbes. Knowing what happened in Florida yesterday and how yer team got caught in that nightclub doesna’ do anything to help me get them out. I need to know what the situation is right now, the best tactical information ye have. First of all, are there any new players?”

“According to Bridelow, as of five minutes ago, nothing has changed since I commed you at Mont Creag House. Everyone, my people, the DisCom Rats, the Arasaka operators, even Atlanta PD, are sitting tight.”

“And precisely who has these crystals ye want back so desperately”?

“Bridelow says that Red has them.”

Blade cocked an eyebrow at Hobbes, who nodded in confirmation.

“She has them, Bridelow says she was the one who actually took them out of their docking station at DisCom, and she hasn’t given them up. He says that after seeing her in action, he’s not too enthusiastic about trying to take them from her.”

“All right, at least we know somebody in there still has them. Now, tell me, just what are those crystals?”

“They’re standard-design lattice-network memory crystals, 16 petabytes each.”

“And they do what?”

“I think it best you don’t know, Blade.”

At that the Scot drew himself up, looked Hobbes squarely in the eye, and said, “In that case, I’ll have Hamish file a flight plan for an immediate return to Glasgow – and ye’ll get a bill for my time that ye wasted tonight.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.” There was a pause. “I came here as a favor to ye, Hobbes, but I’m not goin’ into what amounts to a free-fire zone without knowing what’s really at stake before I even reconnoiter the site. I’m not one of yer corporate flunkies ye can whistle up on a whim and say ‘Bring me this trifle, this least of things.’ Now, what’ll it be – truth, or consequences?”

Hobbes tugged at his beard, as he was wont to do when anxious or upset, and thought hard for several moments. “You win. What’s in them is a virtual world builder – a program that can interface directly with the brain and allow you to create virtual realities – whole virtual worlds – just by thinking them up.”

“‘Cogito Orbis’ indeed.”

“You never imagined that name was an accident did you?” Hobbes gave Blade a tart look. “Nothing I do is ever by accident. Anyway, it’s still in the development stage, a prototype if you will, but I think it can help me unlock Kim’s brain.”

“Unlock –”

“Despite what the doctors are saying, I don’t believe for a minute that, apart from autonomous functions, Kim is brain dead. I’m convinced – and there’s some current research to back me up on this – that somewhere inside the human brain is the neural equivalent of a saferoom, a ‘panic room,’ if you will, where the intellect and identity go when facing an overwhelming trauma, and that’s where Kim’s mind has gone. In theory, if we can create a virtual reality outside that saferoom, one that doesn’t in any way resemble whatever it was that drove her in there in the first place, then maybe she’ll come out, and we can begin reintegrating her with her actual brain before her physical condition gets any worse.”

“God knows I know next to nothing about neuroscience, but it sounds plausible. And it explains why yer so anxious to get those crystals back. Speaking of safe rooms, are yer people still in those safe rooms at yer nightclub?”

“Yeah, and DisCom’s stormtroopers are still holed up in the club itself. The Arasaka goons are still holding a perimeter around the club and the mall itself. There are still a handful of civilians who got caught down there, trapped in some of the shops and bars. APD’s cordon around the whole of Underground Atlanta is sitting tight – nobody’s getting in or out. Bridelow thinks that everybody is waiting for the deadline to expire before anyone makes a move.”

“Why did you wait so long to call me?”

“I had my reasons.”

Blade looked at Hobbes expectantly, but the other man just shook his head.
“Have it your way, Hobbes.” A pause. “Right then, I’ve got two hours to get in there before the balloon goes up. And if I don’t….”

“Then Arasaka will jump first, and it’ll get ugly. My people won’t stand a chance in hell.”

“And if you lose them, you lose the crystals.”

“And if I lose the crystals, I lose Kim.”

“Then I’d best go get them out of there.”

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