The exclamation forced its way past the man’s lips almost against his will. A big man, tall for a Japanese – he topped out right at six feet in height – he was powerfully built but moved with surprising grace. At this moment, his looming posture perfectly communicated the frustration he was feeling at having to wait to take action. He hadn’t wanted this mission, considered it hasty and ill-conceived, and the likelihood of failure was, in his considered opinion, unacceptably high. But he was Hideki Nakajima, Bumon rīdā of Arasaka Corporation’s Keisatsu tai, so the task had fallen to him and him alone, as would the consequences.
The outburst started his assistant, whose head popped up over the holo display of his computer deck. “Is there something wrong, Nakajima-sama?”
“No, Umori-rin, nothing is wrong – or at least, there’s nothing else wrong that hasn’t already been wrong for the past day and a half.”
Saburo Umori, Nakajima’s executive assistant, peered owlishly at his superior, his big dark eyes looking out through large, round, black-framed spectacles. Appropriately enough, as the shock of unruly black hair sitting above the spectacles and a tightly-pursed mouth perched below them created an uncanny image of a pensive owl, so much so that Nakajima had nicknamed Umori “Fukurō” within days of the man coming to work for him.
“You still haven’t reconciled yourself to this mission, have you?”
“No, and I doubt I will, even after it’s over. I despise having to work within the United States, I despise having to cooperate with their law enforcement departments, and I despise Americans in general. They give ordinary, decent gaijin a bad name.”
“You rail against the wind and waves, Nakajima-sama, and we both know it.”
“That may be so, Fukurō, but the railing at least lets me vent my frustration.” Grateful for the distraction, he turned away from the panoramic window that made up one entire wall of his top-floor suite in the Centennial Plaza hotel; he had found the view only mildly interesting, accustomed as he was to the garish vistas of Tokyo’s nightscapes. “You know that I don’t like operating outside of Asia. I don’t like governments that won’t get out of the way and let businesses do business. I can work in Europe: the Germans give us pretty much a free hand, since the PanEuroEcon is a German puppet, and everyone there but the British kowtows to Berlin. The whole world recognizes that where a Japanese goes, he is protected by the laws of Yamato – posture all they want, other nations know that their laws have no real authority over a Japanese national.”
“All except the Americans.”
“All except the Americans! They don’t even realize that they’re gaijin! They imagine that they are our equals, and demand that we act as such! They expect – they demand – that we honor their laws! They actually believe that corporate horseshit about the Jukukō no kikan being created by us twenty years ago to ‘minimize violence in an increasingly turbulent business world.’ They have the sheer, unmitigated gall to expect us to abide by our own policies! We wrote them, we can un-write them whenever and however we see fit, and no one should be able to gainsay us when we do! Instead, we’re forced to stand idly by while the Americans self-righteously trumpet their platitudes of ‘fair play’ and ‘due process.’ What we should have done – what we should have been allowed to do – was move hard against Coleridge’s people inside that nightclub as soon as we had them isolated there, and say the hell with the body count.”
“You know as well as I do, Nakajima-sama, that if we did so, the Americans would retaliate. Not against you, but against Arasaka. The loss of face would be terrible, but even worse would be the practical consequences. The Americans are looking for any excuse to nationalize Arasaka’s legitimate operations the same way they did with the Japanese and German automakers a decade ago – this is not news to you, I know.”
“True, it isn’t, and you’re right, they are.” Nakajima grimaced in agreement. While his habitual expression was one of bland indifference, his was not the stereotypical “inscrutable Oriental” visage: his face could be as animated as any Westerner’s when he so chose. It was not, however, a remarkable face in any way. His regular, if slightly blunt, features, close-cropped black hair and bushy eyebrows rendered him indistinguishable from millions of other Japanese executives and industrial functionaries, a situation which Nakajima found perfectly suitable for his position and responsibilities. Flamboyance was for the gaijin, and Westerners’ desire to be “noticed” was, in his opinion, far more of a liability than an asset.
“It’s a pity that so much manufacturing moved back to the United States after the PRC broke apart,” he went on. “They don’t need us the way they used to.”
“True, but then, neither do we really need them they way we used to,” Umori reminded his master. “And if – when – this mission succeeds, it will only be a matter of time before they will need us more than they ever did before.” He took a quick glance at the small chrono-window on his holo display. “In two hours this will all be over. Patience, Nakajima-sama, patience.”
Hideki Nakajima was usually an incredibly patient man – usually. Raised in a culture that demanded self-discipline to a degree most Westerners found nigh incomprehensible, his self-possession was extraordinarily even by Japanese standards. His sixteen-year tenure as the Division Chief of Arasaka’s Security Bureau had been marked by a succession of meticulously planned and methodically executed security operations, all of them hallmarked by seamless contingency planning and multi-layered strategies. Nakajima took great pride in watching his missions unfold like an origami puzzle, with an efficiently low profile and a minimum of violence, the results of his patient preparations.
But this newest operation, this Yankī Jigyō, or “Yankee Project,” to secure the memory crystals so coveted by his corporate masters sitting on Arasaka’s board of directors, allowed no opportunity for the sort of finesse and subtlety he favored. It was, in fact, an operational nightmare, one thrown together, as it were, in less than thirty-six hours, with what Nakajima considered woefully inadequate intelligence, and using whatever personnel were available in the United States – including mercenaries – or could be brought into the country on very short notice. There was no time for the careful selection of operatives whose talents and skills neatly dovetailed with the mission’s requirements – he had to make do with whatever skills the available personnel had to hand. In short, this was a brute-force operation.
The urgency of the moment imparted to Nakajima by various members of the board forced him into making these compromises and taking such shortcuts, both of which he abhorred doing. But the window of opportunity was very narrow, the crystals would only be out in the open, so to speak, for a few hours, so the risks had to be taken. Once those crystals were back in Calvin Coleridge’s hands, taking them away again would become very costly in lives, money, and resources. As a rule, Arasaka was rarely over-concerned with the former, but was famously reluctant to condone the needless expenditure of the latter two. The fact that Arasaka designated its security personnel who were active in the field as reisen – “zeroes” – was an open acknowledgment that they were seen as empty ciphers and nothing more.
Compounding Nakajima’s problems was his masters’ refusal to tell him exactly why those crystals were so vital to them. Had he known their reasons, he might have had the opportunity to work angles or exploit personal weaknesses among Calvin Coleridge’s people. Instead what he knew was little enough: nine memory crystals had been stolen from Cogit Orbis’ main research facility by someone very senior in the company who had been suborned by DisCom. That person had disappeared less than twenty-four hours after the theft was discovered, and the crystals themselves had been spirited out of Atlanta, only to reappear in central Florida, in DisCom’s Advanced Cybernetic Animation center.
It was there, the corporation’s senior executives decided, that Arasaka would make its move to secure the crystals, and ordered Nakajima to put together a shinden (“lightning”) strike team – long on firepower and short on finesse – to raid DisCom and take the crystals. Nakajima gave the appropriate instructions, and soon his gaggle of mercenaries and reisen began descending on Orlando. At almost the last moment he learned that Coleridge’s “extraction team” had gotten there first and were now in possession of the crystals; the same source that told him this also informed him that Coleridge’s people were on their way to Atlanta, where they would meet Calvin at the nightclub, Bits.
There was barely enough time for Nakajima to recall his underlings and divert them north to the heart of Georgia; some of them were still in transit. A relative handful had arrived in time to be able to confront the extraction team when it arrived in Underground Atlanta: these were the Arasaka operatives who had opened fire during the melee with the DisCom Rats. Nakajima, complying with the terms of a private agreement between Arasaka and the United States government, had then informed the Department of Justice that he was invoking the Jukukō no kikan, the “Time of Contemplation,” a sort of truce giving Coleridge’s people twenty-four hours to decide whether or not they were prepared to surrender peaceably. The agreement had been an attempt by the Americans to reduce the increasing amount of corporate violence within the United States, much of which had for years been passed off to the American public as domestic terrorism or the actions of the South American drug cartels. It mattered little to Nakajima that the Americans had been quite scrupulous in observing the terms of the agreement when they were invoked. All he recognized was the fury he felt at the sheer scale and finality of the American response whenever Arasaka broke the terms of such a truce.
His corporate masters had been explicit in their instructions that there be no such mistakes in this operation: though they refused to explain what the stakes were, they made it crystal clear that those stakes were too high to be put at risk because someone had gotten over-zealous. At the same time, in the classically Japanese manner of exquisite subtlety and indirection, they gave him to understand that consequences of anything short of complete success would go far beyond the mere loss of face. He would be expected to atone for his failure with his life, almost certainly in the traditional Japanese manner of seppuku, currently much in fashion with the senior executives who ran Japan’s keiretsu and imagined themselves the latter-day heirs of the samurai. Should it become necessary, Nakajima was prepared to accept this, as he fancied himself cast in the ancient bushidō mold.
But he was even more determined that such a fate not be necessary, so now he smiled at his assistant and said, “You’re quite right, Umori-rin. I will be patient. As you say, there are only two hours to go.”
Blade collected his F-1 at Customs, and carefully motored the low-slung sapphire-blue coupe out of Hartsfield Airport then onto I-75, headed north into downtown Atlanta. Following Alistair’s instructions, he exited at Edgewood Avenue and turned left, heading west until he reached Courtland, where he took another left. Just past where that street changed its name to Washington sat a three-story pavilion that had once housed a museum dedicated to, of all things, a soft drink. The building was now the centerpiece and stage of a small amphitheater – Spaeth Plaza it was called. Because of its proximity to Underground Atlanta, the local police routinely swept it clean of vagrants and hop-heads, so Blade was counting on it being deserted. On the drive in from Hartsfield Airport, he and Alistair had carried on a lively discussion about the lay of the land around the underground shopping complex, and decided that the amphitheater offered two advantages no other building in the immediate area could provide. First, it was outside the perimeter the Atlanta Police Department had set up; second, it offered an unobstructed view of the three atrium skylights as well as all of the entrances to the subterranean mall.
Underground Atlanta had begun life in the wake of the American Civil War as the city’s downtown railroad depot, with hotels, banks, law offices, and saloons being built around the train station. By the turn of the century, bridges and roadways had been built above the depot, turning it into a vast underground complex that was gradually abandoned and all but forgotten as rail travel declined and railroads were rerouted out of downtown Atlanta. In the late 1960s, the original buildings were rediscovered, and their still-pristine marble facades, decorative masonry, granite archways, and gas street lamps were adapted to what was hoped would become the city’s epicenter of shopping, entertaiment, and nightlife, christened “Underground Atlanta.”
In the sixty years that followed, the subterranean complex had gone through several cycles of boom-and-bust. All but abandoned by the end of 2020, it was currently on the rise again, as the surrounding neighborhood was experiencing yet another cycle of “gentrification.” Consequently, both levels the underground mall, styled Upper and Lower Alabama and Pryor Streets, were a melange of boutiques, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and clubs. Hobbes, who had always fancied himself an impressario as well as an entrepreneur, had acquired a nightclub he named “Bits”; it was Hobbes’ favorite hangout whenever he was in Atlanta itself and deigned to venture beyond the bounds of his downtown penthouse. It was also, Blade knew, more than just a bar: it was in many ways the unofficial but very real headquarters for Calvin’s occasional venture into “business opportunities” of the sort which might wander into moral, ethical, or legal gray areas.
The plethora of small businesses that filled Underground Atlanta meant that when the complex went into lockdown just after lunchtime the previous day, there was a significant number of civilians who were trapped inside. A handful had been able to find avenues of escape, but most were still there inside those shops. This was the biggest tactical complication for Blade: he was not entirely adverse to accepting collateral damage if it was absolutely necessary to accomplish a mission, but that didn’t mean he ever liked having to make that call. He would do his level best to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, even if it meant running personal risks he wouldn’t ordinarily take. What gave him cause to worry was the near-certainty that when the balloon went up neither the DisCom goons or the Arasaka reisen would be so scrupulous and discerning….
As quietly as possible, Blade drove into the pavilion’s parking lot, shut down the F-1. “Alistair, do ye have anything new for me about what I can expect inside?”
“Nae, Sir. Ah’m still getting the video feed from inside the mall, and as near as Ah can tell, nothing had changed there. There’s six o’ them DisCom Rats in the front o’ Bits, and forty-eight o’ the Arasaka reisen on the upper level o’ the mall. It doesnae appear that any of ‘em are on the lower level. And that’s all Ah can tell ye.”
“It is what it is. Time?”
“Ye have fifty-three minutes before the Arasaka deadline expires, Sir.”
“Then I believe it’s time for me to gear up and have a look around.”
Before leaving the airport he had changed into a form-fitting skinsuit made of antiballistic nanotube fiber, which covered his entire torso, his arms from shoulder to elbow, his legs from hip to knee. Over this he donned black, flocked battledress – made of fabric designed to actually absorb light – and combat boots. Now he opened up the luggage compartment on the left side of the F-1 and swiftly but methodically collected and readied his weapons and equipment. First came his “holdout,” a small, slim HSc .32 automatic. Slipped into a spring-loaded leather holster, this went inside his waistband at the snall of his back. Next came the black webbed utility belt and shoulder harness. Clipped to the belt, sitting on his left hip, was a small black ruck; in it he stowed two full-size flash grenades and a pair of fragmentation grenades, along with a stripper clip holding ten assorted rounds for what he whimsically termed his “blowgun,” a couple of small, flat, rectangular electronic gadgets, and an odd-looking, metallic, vaguely boxlike device. On his right hip, a ten-inch long suppressor – “silencer’ in popular, if erroneous, parlance – sat nestled in its own custom-made black leather holster; next to it was a brown canvas bayonet frog, which held a black leather-clad steel sheath, the home of a Wilkinson-made eighteen-inch sword bayonet. That worthy was well over a century old, having first seen action at the Somme on 1 July 1916; it had been issued to Blade’s great-grandfather, BSM William MacBride MacLaren.
Next, he shrugged his way into a shoulder holster that settled comfortably under his right arm, and into which he slid a .40 caliber Sig-Sauer P226 DAK, after first loading a full 15-round magazine and then working the action. He carried no suppressor for the pistol – as far as he was concerned, by the time things were so hot that he was close enough for pistol work, stealth was no longer necessary. Two custom-made ammunition pouches were clipped to the front of the utility belt, the one on the right holding six ten-round rifle magazines, the one on the left carrying four full magazines for the Sig-Sauer. He attached a small transceiver unit to the left shoulder strap of his harness and pushed the earbug into his right ear.
One last piece of equipment remained and then he would be ready. Reaching behind the left seat of the F-1, he drew out a Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, .303 calibre, a Number I Mark III, serial 7905, manufactured at the Royal Arsenal in 1912 and issued, like Blade’s bayonet, to his great-grandfather. It was, by any standard, an archaic weapon: certainly it had no appeal to the modern generation of what Blade unkindly termed “gear queers,” who were obsessed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons and besotted with the latest gadgets and gizmos which could be attached to their fragile, overpriced, unreliable hardware, and which they fondly, if mistakenly, imagined made them better shooters. Blade was far from a 21st Century Luddite when it came to arms and munitions – indeed, he’d had the barrel of this rifle bored out and fitted with a chrome-molybdenum liner to improve its accuracy and reduce wear, then had the chamber chrome-plated to all but eliminate fouling. But aside from working the locking lugs and guides with a whetstone and gun oil to the point where he could work it with almost blinding speed, he had left the action itself untouched. The Lee-Enfield had, over the course of seven decades and on a thousand battlefields, earned a reputation for reliability that no other rifle ever made, before or since, could equal, let alone surpass. Which was why, when asked once why such an antique was his preferred weapon of choice, he had replied, “What I demand from any firearm is that it goes ‘BANG!’ when I need it to go ‘BANG!’ If it can’t do that, however tarted-up it may be, nothing else matters.”
After confirming that there were indeed ten rounds in the Enfield’s magazine, Blade slung the rifle over his right shoulder and buttoned up the F-1. “Alistair, set the security protocols on the car, please, and if ye have the time, keep an eye on it.”
“Right, Sir. Protocols set. Anyone lays a hand on her is in for a great big bleedin’ surprise.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear.” He gave a final shrug to settle his gear in place, then murmured, “Time to be among them.”
Blade quickly moved to a service access door on the southeast side of the pavilion. The lock on the door, although long out of date, was still powered, and, more importantly, locked. He raised an eyebrow in surprise, then reached into his ruck and extracted one of the small flat electronic devices. Laying it up against the lock, he pressed a key on the face of the device and a split-second later was rewarded with a very satisfying click as the indicator light on the lock changed from red to green and the bolt inside slid open.
As he’d expected, the door he entered gave access to a stairwell that went all the way to the top of the building. Three minutes after he made his entry, Blade was shouldering open an access hatch and clambering onto the roof. He listening intently for a moment for any change in the ambient noises around him that might indicate that he’d been spotted – at night, hearing often provided more tactical information than eyesight – then moved across the rooftop to the service ladder that gave access to the skylight which stood above a long-dormant decorative fountain. Stepping carefully over to the northwest corner, he took a knee. He was grateful that there were no newsies about: the last thing he needed was one of their roving AV’s getting curious as to “Who is that man atop the pavilion in Spaeth Plaza and what is he doing?” and putting his image live and in color onto the netfeeds. The absence of newsies was hardly surprising, though: the local media, under pressure from Atlanta PD and the mayor’s office, had dismissed with a few brief reports the previous night’s short firefight outside Bits as one of the infrequent-but-far-from-unknown incidents of gang-related violence that still occurred in or near Underground Atlanta. It was something that had become so commonplace in America’s urban landscape as to no longer garner much attention or coverage in the scream sheets or netfeeds. Which was fine with Blade: he’d had enough dealings with idiot “reporters” in the past few years to last him the rest of his life….
Staring out at the collage of buildings before him, he activated his artificial eye’s small but effective magnification function and carefully scanned the area, focusing his senses and attention on the task at hand. APD had set up a typical perimeter, what some police procedural manual somewhere probably laid out as “Perimeter, police, standard, Type 1” or some such. Its attention was directed outward, he noted, more intent on preventing anyone from entering Underground Atlanta than exiting the complex; that was hardly surprising, since everyone knew that the Arasakas weren’t going anywhere until they got what they wanted from the people inside Bits, and as long as the Arasakas were in position, the people inside Bits weren’t going anywhere at all. APD was on-site less to prevent the situation within Underground Atlanta from getting out of hand, more to keep out people who had no reason to be there from getting inside the complex and possibly causing things there to get out of hand.
But Blade did have reason to get inside the Underground, and quickly – that his avowed purpose was to ensure that things there got out of hand – for Arasaka – was a given. The question was how to get inside without giving the Arasakas any warning he was coming – and at the same time keep the chances of civilian casualties to a minimum. APD had put the underground into lockdown when the firefight broke out the previous afternoon, which meant only those civilians caught in one of the handful of shops, bars, and boutiques that fronted onto the sunken open-air courtyard on the north side of the complex had any chance of escaping. For all of the businesses, which was most of them, anyone trapped inside when the police sealed off the complex were still there. For Arasaka, such people would be an inconvenience; for Blade they were a responsibility. That meant he couldn’t force an entrance through one of the courtyard shops, lest he be seen approaching, or use the service entrances of any of the others, unless he was willing to put civilians in harm’s way. He wasn’t willing.
A glance at his watch showed that there were forty minutes left before the Arasaka deadline expired. In a matter of minutes, then, it would all begin. Right, then, time to send up the balloon.
“What do ye have for me on the perimeter, Alistair?”
Although Blade liked to describe Alistair as his “concierge,” the VI was much, much more than a glorified electronic minder. Constructed specifically for him by Raven, Alistair had begun “life” as a development of “Dennis,” or DNIS, the Direct Neuro-Intelligence System, the original Artificial Persona program that had been created by, ironically, Hobbes’ own Cogito Orbis Corporation. But Raven had turned the program into something special, transforming him from a PDA with delusions of grandeur into a valuable tactical asset, almost an ally, for Blade.
“Quite a bit, Sir! The Atlanta PD’s SWAT perimeter is nothin’ tae be writin’ hame aboot – ye might want tae note that they seem tae have left their NBC gear at hame – but there are six o’ those Arasaka reisen wi’ what look tae be sniper rifles in positions overlookin’ the whole Undergroond complex. There’re also twa o’ them on some sort o’ rovin’ patrol on the roof o’ the mall, but no one else above ground.”
“Sounds as though they’re being a wee bit careless there.”
“Aye, Sir, they are at that.”
“Can ye mark the positions of the Swatties for me?”
“Aye, Sir! Will nae be twa jiffies!”
When she was building Alistair, Raven had given him the capability to serve as a highly competent tactical reconnaissance system that linked and processed data from satellite, aerial, and ground level surveillance systems. This gave him to ability to provide Blade with real-time tactical intelligence; it allowed him to cover Blade’s “six” as well. She had also thoughtfully provided him with a very comprehensive – and very advanced – package of programs designed to evade or disable all but the most bleeding-edge security software. Thus, tapping into the City of Atlanta’s video surveillance system was child’s play for him, which was why he was able to provide Blade with such detailed information about the numbers and positions of the opposition.
“Ready when you are, Sir!”
“Right then, Alistair, light ‘em up.”
At that, a series of small glowing blue markers appeared in Blade’s field of vision, projected into his cybernetic left eye, that marked the positions of the Atlanta SWAT teams forming the protective cordon around the entrances to Underground Atlanta. Selecting one of those positions to be his point of entry, he reached into the ruck attached to his web belt and produced strange boxlike device he’d stowed there moments earlier. At the touch of a button it quickly unfolded into a shoulder-fired, pump-action pneumatic projector – a shotgun-like compressed-gas-operated small-bore mortar that he called his “blowgun.” Working by feel alone, he loaded three rounds into the blowgun and brought it up to his shoulder. A quick mental command changed the projection in his left eye, so that now it showed a ranged target reticule that put up red hashtag markers on the spots Alistair calculated –
Pffft – thup! Pffft – thup! Pffft – thup!
Three times Blade worked the action on the projector, launching three plastic cartridges that landed with quiet plops! within inches of their aiming points, fracturing on impact and releasing an extremely fast-acting nerve agent that introduced both temporary paralysis and deep sleep. The three pairs of SWATs who had been the targets slumped to the ground in a dreamless, nerveless sleep.
“‘SWAT – Special Weapons and Tactics.’” Blade gave a snort of derision. “All that means is they’ve got bigger guns than the street cops. Doesn’t mean they know what they’re doin’. Bloody amateurs.”
“I ken they’ll have some creative explainin’ tae do when they awaken, Sir.”
“That they will, Alistair. What I need now is for ye to mark the Arasaka snipers, and while you’re at it, tag the two rovers with yellow.”
“Way ahead o’ ye, Sir! Here ye go!” Instantly eight target icons – six green and two yellow, the snipers and the rovers – appeared in Blade’s field of vision. Moving quickly, he reloaded the projector with two fresh rounds, took aim at what he decided was more-or-less the center of the reisen’s irregular perimeter, fired the first projectile, waited for one second, fired the other, then closed his eyes tightly.
The two small flash grenades went off one second apart, just as Blade had intended, the first catching and drawing the attention of the Arasaka snipers, the second going off and dazzling them before they had the time to figure out what had happened, why, and take measures to prevent being effectively blinded. Blade opened his eyes, swiftly folded up the blowgun and returned it to his ruck, then snatched up the Enfield, chambering a round as he did, and did a swift tactical scan, prioritizing his targets.
One of the rovers was the first to go down. Less than sixty yards away, he was close enough to be an immediate threat. The Enfield coughed and the man dropped in a sprawl, the old-fashioned .303 caliber Glaser bullet tearing into his forehead and making a puree of his brain. For the next twenty seconds, Blade’s right hand was a blur as he worked the Enfield’s bolt in between shots. Moving the rifle from target to target, his cybernetic left arm was steady as a rock while lining up the next shot, while the bioprocessor in the optic chiasm in his brain coordinated the vision between his organic and artificial eyes and compensated for parallax when laying the aiming point on the targets. In frighteningly quick succession first three snipers, then the remaining rover, then the last three snipers all fell victim to violent .303 head trauma.
“Did APD notice anything, Alistair?”
“Nae, Sir. They heard the flash-bangs go off but since it was inside their perimeter, they ignored then. Almost studiously ignored them, ye might say. Worth makin’ a note of that, Ah ken. As for yer shooting, they probably thought someone was havin’ a wee coughin’ fit. Except for those reisen, that is.”
“Aye, Sir. For them it was more of a wee coffin fit.”
“Alistair, you are one cold-hearted bastart.”
“With respect, Sir, ye’re wrong on both counts. I dinna have a heart, and ‘tis nae my fault ye and Miss Raven are nae married.”
Blade spun the suppressor off the muzzle of the rifle, stowed it in its fitted pouch on his utility belt, changed out the magazine for a fresh one, then slung the Lee-Enfield muzzle-down over his right shoulder. Dashing across the roof, then down the stairs to ground level, he stopped outside of the pavilion and went back into his combat crouch. With his left hand he drew the SIG-Sauer, while with his right he slid the Enfield bayonet from its sheath on his right hip. Once he was comfortable with his grips on both, he nodded to himself.
“Right then, Alistair, take down the lights and start the clock. Time to be among them.”
Less than a second later, electric power to every street light with in a six-block radius of Blade’s position was shut down: Alistair was equally adept at infiltrating the controls of a power grid as he was at tapping into security video feeds. Backup lighting came on in many places, but far dimmer and more dispersed than the illumination they replaced. Knowing that he had just minutes before the SWATs’ night vision adjusted, he gave the command for his artificial eye to shift to infrared, and swiftly advanced across Spaeth Plaza, keeping to the shadows as best he could, making for the gap in the APD perimeter where his nerve agent had laid low the six SWATs. As he passed by, he noted wryly that two of them were snoring.
“Which entrance, Alistair?”
“Tak’ the alley just tae yer left. At the bottom o’ the slope there’s a service entrance.”
“Got it. I’m there.” The door was locked, as Blade expected, being the default mode in a power loss. A quick pass with the electronic pick solved that problem and he was inside Underground Atlanta.
Hardly had he stepped through the door than he encountered his first Arasaka. Clad in the dark gray trousers and tunic which was the mark of an Arasaka field operative, the man had his back to the door and was smoking a cigarette, a lapse in discipline a regular reisen would never commit, meaning that this one was a mercenary. It mattered little to Blade or the Arasaka, however, as the bayonet plunged into and through the man’s throat, severing windpipe and carotid arteries in a single thrust.
Coming through the service door Blade had stepped onto a catwalk that appeared to traverse a fairly large storage area; the room was almost totally dark, with only one small emergency lighting unit. At the far end of the catwalk stood another Arasaka: whether it was some sound Blade made while taking out the first reisen, or simply the unexpected movement which caught his attention, this one turned toward Blade and began to bring up his weapon, some sort of large-bore pistol. Blade, though, had already leveled the Sig-Sauer, and he fired two quick shots, both of which took the other man in the forehead.
“Game on,” the Scot muttered: there was no way to have concealed the sound of those gunshots, so the rest of the Araskas certainly he was here now.
“What? What was that? What is going on down there?”
The burst of agitated chatter on the comm channel Nakajima used to monitor the reisen in Underground Atlanta jolted him out of the near-meditative torpor into which he had forced himself over the past hour. Pressing the “transmit” button on his comm unit, he spoke urgently.
“Nagumo, what is it? Is there a problem?”
“We have a perimeter breach, Nakajima-sama! I don’t know who it is, or how many of them there are, but at least two shots were fired in a storeroom where I had one man posted to cover a service entrance. He is not responding to my comms, nor is another one of my reisen. I have men reconnoitering now.”
“Do whatever you feel necessary to contain the situation, Nagumo. Keep me informed as best you can – I will continue to monitor this channel.”
“As you wish, Sir!”
Nakajima turned to briefly look at Umori, but shook his head wordlessly. He was a wise commander, who knew that tactical micro-management was almost always a prescription for disaster. The man on the scene didn’t need a superior looming over his shoulder, second-guessing every decision. Nagumo was very experienced field operative; had he not been, he would not have been placed in charge of the shinden operation at Bits. All Nakajima could do at this point was get in the way. He nodded to himself, satisfied he was making the right decision. Yes, best let Nagumo handle it.
Blade opened the storeroom door that led to the main mall of the underground complex, only to find two more gray-clad reisen waiting on the other side, about to open the door themselves. Startled, slow to react when the door abruptly swung open, the man never had a chance to defend himself, as Blade gave a wide sweep with his right arm, cutting open his opponent’s throat. Stepping past the falling body, he now faced the dying man’s partner, who raised a handgun and got off one round – it went wide – before Blade slashed down hard with the barrel of the Sig-Sauer. He heard the satisfying crunch of breaking bones in the woman’s forearm, followed by her hollow gasp as he drove the bayonet under her breastbone and up into her lungs. Pulling the blade free, he didn’t even bother to watch her collapse, gaping like a landed fish.
A reisen jumped from a doorway, lashing out with what appeared to be a wakizashi, but Blade parried the move with his bayonet, and the Japanese crashed into him. The two men went down, ending with Blade sprawled atop his assailant, his right arm across the Arasaka’s throat. Catching movement in the corner of his eye, Blade looked left to see a fourth reisen approaching, gun drawn, firing wildly as he ran forward.
“Would ye mind just soddin’ off?” Blade bellowed as he fired two rounds into the gunman’s chest. “And ye can bleedin’ sod off, too, while yer at it!” he shouted at the reisen beneath him as he put a bullet into the man’s right eye. Rolling off the body, he scrambled to his feet and began running toward Bits.
Another Arasaka lunged out of a doorway, but Blade spun quickly enough to avoid grappling with him, plunging the bayonet into the man’s shoulder while ripping off three shots in quick succession at yet another charging Japanese. The first shot missed, the second and third took the man in the abdomen, and he went down screaming. Turning back to the man writhing with the bayonet in his shoulder, Blade put the muzzle of the Sig-Sauer on his sternum and squeezed the trigger twice. The man went limp.
Something went “ping” to Blade’s left and he suddenly felt as if his arm had been whacked with an axe handle. Looking up he saw yet one more reisen, this one ten yards away, taking aim in a half-crouching shooting stance. Using his right hand to steady his left, Blade walked three shots up the man’s torso, hitting gut, breastbone, and throat. Scooping up his bayonet in his right hand, feeling his left arm reset itself, he continued his weaving run toward the nightclub. Halfway down the mall an Arasaka tried to take up a shooting stance, only to be rewarded by catching a pair of .40 caliber slugs, one through each lung.
“Sir, the situation is not yet out of hand, but we are taking serious casualties here.”
Nagumo made his report with a professionalism that Nakajima had to admire, and yet the anxiety in the subordinate’s voice was unmistakeable. “How many of them are there, Nagumo, and how heavily armed are they?”
“It’s one man, Sir, and he appears to be – ”
“Wait, ‘one man’ did you say?”
“Yes, sir, one man. I know it must sound absurd, but he has taken down at least nine of my people – and I have no contact with the snipers I placed in the roofline perimeter!”
“One man!” Spinning to face Umori, Nakajima said tightly, “Get me a video feed right now – I have to see what is going on down there!” Returning his attention to the comm, he spoke quickly. “Nagumo, I’ll have reinforcements to you as quickly as I can. But whatever you do, do not let that man get into that nightclub! Do whatever it takes to prevent that!”
“Yes, Sir. Nagumo clear.”
“I have that video feed you asked for, Nakajima-sama,” Umori announced.
“Put it on the large monitor.”
The image was grainy and the focus a bit blurred at times, but Nakajima saw all that he needed to see in a matter of seconds as he watched the lone attacker working his way through the ranks of the Arasakas in Underground Atlanta. I recognize those moves, those stances, those weapons, he thought. How the hell did he get here? Turning back to Umori, he said simply, “The game has changed yet again, Umori-rin. I know that man. That’s Blade.”
The Sig-Sauer was empty. In a well-practiced move, Blade slid the bayonet back into its sheath with his right hand, while with his left he raised the muzzle of the pistol and thumbed the release catch on the empty magazine. His right hand dove into the left-side ammo pouch, extracted a full magazine and slid it into the butt of the pistol before the spent magazine had hit the floor. Blade thumbed the slide release and he was back in business. The bayonet came back out of the sheath with a flourish, and not a moment too soon.
A pair of Arasakas were converging on him, one to his left, one to his right, both wielding katanas in a manner that left no doubt about their ability to use them to good (or bad, in his case) effect. He allowed them to approach, the man on the right arriving a half-moment before the woman on the left. That split second difference in the timing of their attack was their undoing. As the man raised his sword high for a slashing attack, Blade’s right hand was a blur as he shifted his grip on the bayonet, swept it forward in a slashing attack that laid opened the man’s bowels, then once more reversing his grip Blade shoved the bayonet through the man’s throat. The woman attacking from the left was almost upon him, her sword held at the high quarter, when he thrust forward with the Sig-Sauer, her momentum carrying her right into its muzzle. Two rapid squeezes of the trigger caused two rapidly-spreading red spots to appear on her chest as she tumbled to the floor.
Though his Japanese opponents didn’t know it, Blade was using their own culture as a weapon against them. To a Japanese, it was dishonorable to attack from a distance an enemy who was already engaged by other, closer opponent. At the same time there was much face to be gained by killing an enemy in personal combat, whether it was with blades or firearms; hence the repeated attempts to rush him, as well as the attacks that were made with either long- or short-swords rather than pistols or rifles. It all worked in Blade’s favor, so if the Arasakas insisted on continuing to play that way, he would happily oblige them.
There were three of them working together this time, rushing forward. He was able to drop the first with three shots, two to the chest, one to the head – he couldn’t afford to not make certain of the kill, but then the second attacker was on him, his katana at the high guard, the third rushing in on the right. Blade was able to interpose his bayonet at almost the last possible instant, stopping the edge of the Japanese sword just inches from his face, gaining enough time to fire twice at the other reisen, hitting him once in the leg and once in the groin. The Arasaka with the sword was bringing all of his strength to bear to shove aside Blade’s block, but before he could the Scot brought the Sig-Sauer around and pressed it against his assailant’s stomach. Boiling over with a sudden, unexpected anger, Blade jerked the trigger three times, the muzzle blast alone tearing open great gaping wounds, the bullets passing through the Arasaka’s body. Stepping back he then fired one clean shot into the man’s head, then turned to the wounded attacker and dispatched him the same way.
Alistair was not alone in his ability to tap into the Atlanta CCTV system: Mycroft was equally adept at such details, and now Calvin, ensconced in the comfort of his private office, was watching Blade tear his bloody swath through the Arasaka henchmen.
“How does he fucking do that?”
“I take it, Calvin, that your question is rhetorical? Or would you like a blow-by-blow, shot-by-shot analysis?”
“Just shut the hell up, Mike.”
“As you wish.”
Calvin watched in silence for a few moments longer. He’s going to make it, he thought. Part of me was worried that a friend might be walking into a death trap, and part of me was concerned that he wasn’t. God help me if he ever finds out about that.
“He’s got thirty yards to go. Best let our people know he’s almost there, Mike – tell them to get ready for a visitor.”
“Of course, Calvin.”
Blood and gore was splattered across the front of Blade’s clothing, and when he dragged his arm across his brow to wipe away the sweat, it left a bloody smear behind. None of it, though, was his. The Sig-Sauer was almost empty again, so Blade sidestepped to his left, into a doorway, where he rapidly reloaded. Most of the reisen had gone to earth, so to speak, finding whatever cover they could, waiting for him to make a break for Bits. It had to be obvious by now to every one of them why he was here – he was clearly not some amateur thrill-seeker hoping to make a name for himself, and there was nothing else in the whole of Underground Atlanta that was worth the attention of someone such as himself apart from whatever was in the possession of those idiots trapped in the nightclub.
“Less than thirty yards to go, lad,” he muttered to himself. “Now for the last dash.”
“Uh, Sir, beggin’ yer pardon an’ all,” Alistair’s voice came piping into his ears before he could make a move. “Before ye take off on yer ‘last dash,’ ye might want to take a wee gander to yer left, just around the corner o’ the doorway, doon by the floor. I think what ye see might interest ye.”
Normally Alistair remained silent when Blade in action, the better to not distract him. But when he did speak, Blade listened. Peering around the doorway, looking down, he saw, of all things, what appeared to be about half a boot sticking out into the mall: there was an Arasaka standing in the very next doorway not five feet away, one who hadn’t realized he was nowhere near as well-concealed as he or she thought. Had Blade gone dashing out into the mall, whoever was there could have riddled him from behind before he got ten feet. As it was….
“Thank ye, Alistair, ye’re a lifesaver, literally. Remind me of that the next time we’re discussing raises.”
“Sir, ye dinna pay me a salary noo, so I dinna ken that a raise will be doin’ me ony good.”
“Alistair, don’t quibble with me when I’m feelin’ generous.”
The Enfield bayonet was never designed to be a throwing weapon, but at a range of less than five feet, it didn’t need to be. Blade hefted it in his right hand, then turned and heaved it viciously at the exposed boot. The high-pitched, clearly female scream of genuine pain told Blade that this had been no clever decoy, and he burst from his cover, spun, snatched up the bayonet and fired twice into the head of the unfortunate woman who had hoped to bushwhack him, all in one swift, ballet-like movement.
Now he was running for his life. The processor implant that coordinated his left eye and arm worked wonderfully, as another four reisen went down, two of them fatally. But there were more targets than opportunities, and Blade was out of time. Ten yards to go, he thought
“Alistair, if ye’re watching, get the door codes ready for Bits, I’ll not have time to stop!”
“Aye, Sir, just hit the door full tilt, I’ll have it open for ye!”
Bullets were flying all about him now, one hitting his left shoulder, only to be stopped by his anti-ballistic skinsuit, while another slammed into his ruck, reducing the blowgun to scrap, but aside from momentarily knocking him off stride the hit did no actual damage. A third grazed his left shin, cutting a deep furrow in the skin. Blade cried out in pain as he stumbled at last, but he was there, the double doors of Bits were in front of him, and as he hit them they swung open, then slammed shut again, the locks falling back into place with clearly audible “thunks” as he sprawled on the floor of the nightclub lobby. At first the DisCom Rats inside the club thought he was one of them, misled by his black battledress, but even as they realized their mistake Blade was taking action.
One of the Rats was standing not two feet away, holding a machine pistol – in an odd instant of detachment Blade recognized it as a Mil-Tec MP30 – and was bringing it to bear when Blade dropped him with a leg sweep, then slammed the Rat’s head on the floor while putting two shots center mass in the next closest Rat, who couldn’t swing her MP30 around in time. Shoving off from the first Rat, he put a bullet into the back of the man’s head, then rolled to his feet and made a dash toward the wall panel that concealed the door to the saferooms.
Not even trying to aim, firing only in the hope of distracting the four remaining Rats and spoiling their aim, he spaced his six remaining shots out to cover the short sprint to the wall panel. Two 9mm slugs hit him in the chest, stopped by his Weclar body armor, but causing him to stumble nonetheless. I thought these bastarts were supposed to be stormtroopers! At last he hit the panel, which instantly pivoted 180° on a central pillar then “thunked” securely closed behind him, and he was inside the saferoom suite at Bits.
Nakajima’s fist slammed against the desktop as he watched the video feed from Atlanta Underground. “Damn it! He got in!”
Calvin’s fist thumped the tabletop as he watched the video feed from Underground Atlanta. “Hot damn! He got in!”
Slightly stunned by the impact with the door, winded by the two bullets that had struck his chest, it took Blade a moment to realize that there were four people pointing a variety of firearms at him from a range of less than five feet, some of them with pistols in each hand. For a few tense seconds, no one moved or said a word, then finally a diminutive platinum blonde wearing nondescript gray coveralls said, “Oh, so it really is you. We had to make sure, you know.”
Blade nodded. “It’s me all right. Do ye think anyone else would be mad enough to try to get in here like that?” He eased himself up into a sitting position, then gave his somewhat bemused welcoming committee a lopsided grin.
“Right then, now that I’m here, there are three things I need. First, a large single malt. Second, a good cigar. And third, a talk with the stupid bastart who is supposed to be in charge of this buggered-up dog-and-pony show….”