Hardly had the last shards of glass from the shattered skylights settled and the echoes of Nathan Gerrard’s announcement died away than Blade and Radome were shouting for medical assistance, while Compton and Spazz did what they could for Houston. Red, meanwhile, was keeping a wary eye on the Arasakas, the muzzle of her rifle pointed up and away, but ready to drop it down and open fire again if provoked. Her expression was a mix of watchfulness and anger, as if she were almost wishing for one of the reisen to try something treacherous. Within a minute, a quartet of paramedics carrying a gurney rushed down the main stairway, shoving their way through at least two score of kneeling Arasakas.
The Japanese operatives were surprisingly docile, perhaps from the surprise of how quickly the tables had turned against them, perhaps in the knowledge that theirs was a precarious situation that could only be made worse by a meaningless show of resistance. These men and women knew that, under the draconian federal laws passed in the wake of Black Christmas seventeen years earlier, they were technically terrorists, and as such could face the death penalty. Dying a glorious but pointless death for one’s overlord – feudal or corporate – was long since a thing of the past for the enforcers of Japan’s keiretsu.
A smaller VSTOL craft – to Blade it sounded like a Boeing Whirlwind – landed and a moment later a familiar figure began descending the stairs into Underground Atlanta, US Marshal Nathan Gerrard. Impeccably dressed in what looked to be a tailor-made three-piece suit, good-looking in a battered sort of way, Gerrard had a complexion best described as leathery, with deep creases around his mouth, a slightly prominent nose, and a pair Basset hound-like eyes that women found irresistible. At the moment, his expression was grim as he walked over to Blade, who held out his hand in greeting, Gerrard reluctantly taking it.
“Hello, Nathan. Splendid entrance ye made there – I had no idea that ye had such a flair for the dramatic. Not that I’m no’ glad to see ye, but ye did cut that a bit fine, didn’t ye?”
“Don’t complain, if it hadn’t been your friend Raven, I might not have shown up at all.”
“Yeah. We were keeping an overwatch on the mall here, in case the Arasaka crew got out of hand or broke the APD containment. When we lost the a/v feed from inside here, all we could see was a mass of these reisen rushing in. We didn’t have any idea why, though. It was Raven who called me and told me what was actually going down in here. Just in time, apparently.”
“Damn, I suppose I owe her a weekend at Claridge’s now. There’ll be no living with her after this.”
Gerrard seemed something less than amused. “Dammit, David, what the hell have you gotten your sorry Scotch ass into this time?” Like Houston’s, Gerrard’s voice was pure distilled Texan.
“Nathan, ye ignorant cowboy, how many times do I have to tell ye, it’s not ‘Scotch’ it’s ‘Scottish’!”
“No, it’s ‘Scotch,’ because whenever you show up, by the time you leave, I need a bottle of it!” Taking a quick glance around, Gerrard pulled Blade to one side. “Now just what the hell is going on here, David?”
“‘What’s going one here?’ To be honest with ye, Nathan, I’m not all that sure myself.”
“Goddammit, Mycroft, get those feeds back up! I have to know what’s going on in there! Who has the crystals?”
“Calvin, the video and audio pickups are hardwired – they have no wireless capability, and as I told you a few moments ago, the connections have been physically broken.” Mycroft’s tone of voice was that of an adult patiently explaining something to an angry child. “There is literally nothing I can do about it.”
“Then tap into that NSA drone, see what they’re pulling down! Getting my information from the Peasant News Network isn’t going to cut it! I want to know what’s happened to those crystals!”
“There is no signal from the US Marshals, Calvin, so there’s nothing to tap into from the drone. The NSA is as blind as I am.”
“Then think of something else! That’s what I built you for! I’ve got to know who has those crystals!” Calvin’s voice grew louder and louder as he went on, so that the last four words were shouted at Mycroft.
“Calvin, ranting about it isn’t going to help you or anyone else restore Kim’s consciousness – ”
“I don’t care about Kim right now! I want those crystals back!”
“Calvin – ”
“Mycroft, my reputation, my life’s work, my life are invested in those crystals, and you damned well know it. You also know what’s on them. If DisCom or Arasaka – or, God help me, the Feds – get their hands on them, it will ruin me – destroy me! So find out what has happened to them! NOW!”
“At the moment, this is what we know: in Atlanta, Georgia, at approximately 3:00 AM this morning, what can best be described as a firefight broke out in the subterranean shopping complex Underground Atlanta.” The plasticine-pretty, perfectly coifed, impossibly perky blonde on the television screen, “Courtney Crawford,” if the caption at the bottom was to be believed, read from her teleprompter with a well-feigned breathless urgency. “At the time, the Atlanta Police Department stated that the incident was ‘gang related,’ and in keeping with their standard operating procedure, put the complex into lockdown, with the intention of letting the situation resolve itself before Atlanta Police officers moved in.
“However, INN has since learned that the incident is not gang-related, but instead is a confrontation between this man, Major David MacLaren, an international vigilante popularly known as ‘Blade,’” – a photo of the Scot, obviously a stock image, appeared onscreen – “an undetermined number of his associates, and what are alleged to be mercenaries in the employ of the Arasaka Corporation. The confrontation came to a climax a short while ago as US Marshals moved to intervene, and INN was there to record the action.”
The image on the television screen switched to some rather jittery, slightly blurred footage, taken by the INN ground crew, obviously, at the moment of the US Marshals’ intervention. For a few seconds, Blade could be clearly seen, as could Spazz and Compton; Red and Radome were completely out of the frame. There was some equally hectic video of Houston being treated by a cluster of paramedics that abruptly ended when a deputy marshal stepped into the picture and rather forcibly shooed the cameraman away.
“Early reports indicate that there may be as many as fifty dead inside Underground Atlanta. How many of those victims were unarmed civilians trapped in the crossfire is unknown, but the number is likely to be high. Meanwhile, speculation is rife as to the cause of this incident, as well as why ‘Blade,’ a notoriously violent foreign national, has once again been allowed into the United States.
“Again, for those of you just joining us, we have this breaking story from Atlanta, Georgia….” The newsreader droned on, beginning the first of what would be many repetitions, with only the slightest variations, of the same information. Given how much she evidently enjoyed the sound of her own voice, it would be hours before she stopped.
Meanwhile, Umori having composed his expression into one of studied neutrality, very carefully avoided making eye contact with Nakajima, who was pacing about the room like a caged tiger, his face red with suffused rage. The Bumon rīdā was not mercurial, but he was unpredictable: it was not unknown for him to resort to an act of physical violence when his temper was stretched to the breaking point, but he almost always made an inanimate object the target of his wrath – almost. The few known incidents where the he turned upon a human being had all been fatal, however, so Umori was not prepared to run the risk of being the next victim.
Having ordered the CCTV system in Underground Atlanta cut off, Nakajima and Umori had continued to monitor the melee in the subterranean mall via direct feeds from the reisen, Nagumo in particular. Nakajima had also turned on the hotel suite’s flat-screen television, as INN had two news crews on the scene, one on the ground, the other in a VTOL aircraft circling overhead, trying to make head or tails of the chaos. He had been taken aback by the sudden – and unanticipated – arrival of the US Marshals, and the speed with which they had intervened. Within minutes, all contact with any of the Arasakas inside the mall was lost. Now, as INN was replaying the few seconds of video the ground crew had managed to record, the faces of Blade, Spazz, and Compton were all clearly visible. As he watched them over and over again, something finally snapped inside Nakajima.
“Enough!” he bellowed in red-faced rage. “Is it not sufficent that this man should have been dead ten years ago, but now he thwarts me again? And who is that woman? Where did she come from? I will deal with Blade myself, but as for the rest, I want them dead! Do you hear me? Dead! I want their homes burned to the ground so that I can visit them at midnight and defecate on the ashes! All of them! I want them DEAD!” At that last word, Nakajima spun on his heel back to face the television monitor, and with a lightning-fast blow drove his right fist completely into the face through the flat screen and out the back panel.
In that instant, the rage dissipated and Nakajima reasserted control over himself. Withdrawing his hand from the shattered monitor, he examined it dispassionately, almost fascinated. There was surprisingly little blood, Umori noted, but where the flesh had been lacerated and peeled away, light glinted off exposed metal. After a moment, Nakajima looked at Umori and said simply, “I supposed I’d best have a repair tech take a look at this….”
“What do you mean, you’re not sure? You just turned Underground Atlanta into a shooting gallery, and you don’t know why? David, I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night!”
“I mean it, Nathan. The people I’m working for aren’t telling me everything. For that matter, they’re not actually telling me a whole hell of a lot at all.”
“Hey, don’t try to play one of your ‘I’m just the hired help’ games with me, because we both know – ”
“That’s just it, I’m not – playing that game, I mean. I really haven’t got this all figured out yet.” Blade passed a hand across his eyes, drew a deep breath, held it for few seconds, then let it out noisily. “Ye wouldn’t happen to have a bottle of water handy, would ye?”
“You actually admit to drinking plain water?”
“All right, all right, keep your sporran on.” Gerrard turned and gestured to a passing deputy. “Hey, Polaneczky, can we get a couple of bottles of water over here?”
“Sure thing, sir!”
Turning back to Blade, Gerrard said, “You were talking about not knowing a whole hell of a lot?”
“Aye, that’s just it, Nathan. I really don’t. What I do know doesn’t make me particularly happy, though.” He went into a concise but detailed summary of everything he knew or suspected, from the moment he took Hobbes’ first call. “I can’t get away from what Raven saw when she reviewed the data Hobbes sent me. ‘There are wheels within wheels within wheels here,’ she said. I don’t know what it was that she saw that made her say that – she never got around to telling me – but when she talks like that, I listen.”
“Yeah, well, you should. And it just so happens that I agree with you – and Raven.”
“Ye do? There’s one for the record books.” Deputy Polaneczky returned with a liter bottle of water apiece for Blade and Gerrard. The Scot nodded at him. “Thanks, lad, I’m completely parched!” He then drank deeply as Gerrard continued.
“ I truly don’t know what’s going down with this affair, but I can promise ye this about it: when I do learn what it is, ye’ll be the second to know.”
“And who’s gonna be the first?”
Blade smirked. “Me.”
Gerrard rolled his eyes heavenward as if begging for patience, but when his gaze came back to Blade, his eyes were hard. “Look, David, when I said just what the hell is going on here, I wasn’t asking what the hell just happened. I already know all of that. The problem is that apparently while Arasaka was leaning real hard on APD to keep their distance, somebody else – somebody with a lot more juice that Arasaka, mind you – was leaning hard on Washington to keep us from getting involved as well.”
“So what tipped the balance?”
“Rumor in Crystal City has it that your friend, Raven, made a phone call at 2:00 AM to Director Smith. Now, I don’t know what she said to him, but the story making the rounds is that five minutes into the conversation Chris was willing to give her anything she asked for.” Blade smirked but said nothing. “Anyway, by 3:00 he had me and two complete Tac Teams airborne and on the way down here, violating just about every FAA speed regulation ever written. Not to mention stomping all over a bunch of pissant ‘jurisdiction’ issues that he’s going to get into a lot of hot water over later.” Gerrard paused, looked around at several clusters of deputies taking into custody the remaining reisen still standing, while here and there paramedics and first-responders worked on those wounded who, in their professional judgment, could still be saved. “Even then we were only on stand-by. It was when Raven commed me personally and told me the shit had completely hit the fan that I decided to give the ‘GO’ order on my own authority.”
“Don’t think I don’t appreciate that, Nathan – truly I do. But I suspect that ye have a larger point to make?”
“More than one, you thick-headed Scotsman, but the most important to you is this: we’ve been keeping an eye on this situation almost from the minute that Coleridge’s little ‘extraction team’ – don’t look so surprised, we knew all about it! – holed up inside Bits.”
“And you’re damned lucky Raven called Director Smith. We normally don’t get involved in situations that really aren’t more than glorified industrial espionage, you know that, but we do like to keep an eye on things when there’s foreign nationals involved, especially when they invoke the special provisions of the Pac-Rim Trade Treaty.”
“Well, in this case, somebody not only invoked Pac-Rim, they tried to twist its provisions into a legal pretzel to keep us out of the action.”
“Right. Now ye’re just being cryptic.”
“David, somebody on the other side was very careful to make sure that nothing they did would automatically trigger a Federal response. First, there’s the question of whether or not the forcible entry into DisCom’s R and D center was actually a crime or an attempt to recover stolen property: the goddamned lawyers could – and would – spend years arguing that one out. So any justification for my department to get involved that way would have been real shaky at best. Second, the DisCom goons following Calvin’s people up I-75 broke off the pursuit before they crossed the Georgia state line, leaving my people with absolutely no legal grounds to intervene. Then, there was no way to prove that any of the DisCom people who were waiting here for Calvin’s little group to show up had been involved in that clusterfuck in Florida, again leaving me and my department in the same predicament.”
“I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here.”
“You’re damn right you do! Then Arasaka shows up. You’d think that would be enough to bring down the Feds on this little comedy of errors, right? Wrong. Arasaka was busy whispering sweet nothings into the ears of APD, and APD promptly notified us that as far as they were concerned, no Federal laws had been broken, there was no proof that ‘foreign nationals employed by the Arasaka Industrial Group had entered the country with criminal intent,’ and they weren’t going to do anything about the situation but let it play itself out.” Gerrard’s heavy sigh was a mixture of anger, frustration, and resignation. “This isn’t like the old days, when we Feds could just come waltzing in and tell everyone to fuck off. Now most of the time we need permission – permission! – from local and state authorities to come into their jurisdictions and enforce Federal laws. Those assholes in DC may have thought they were untouchable twenty years ago, but the times, they’ve been a-changin’.” Gerrard shook his head ruefully. “It’s a sorry goddamned world when foreign nationals show up on American soil, carrying out what meets every legal definition of a terrorist act, and the Federal government can’t act to stop them.”
MacLaren nodded in sympathy. “Nathan, ye’re one of the good guys, ye always have been, so in yer case, I feel some of yer pain. But given what the Justice Department was doing twenty years ago, the people in DC were lucky they didn’t have a full-on armed revolt on their hands instead of what actually happened. It’s their own damned fault nobody trusts them anymore.”
“Yeah, I know. That doesn’t make it any easier today, though. What’s making me really twitch about all this is how well it was put together. It seems like somebody went to a lot of trouble to make sure all the pieces got into the right places at the right time. And that makes me wonder if those crystals were really what they wanted after all, or if whoever was pulling the strings had some other target in mind. But there’s something else, David.”
“And that would be…?”
“On the flight in, before we got the green light, I personally watched a recording of the CCTV feed from down here while you were making your little ‘incursion’ into the club. Raven gave it to me. And frankly, what I saw made me wonder what the hell is wrong with you, goddammit!”
“What are ye talking about, Nathan?”
“I’m talking about how hard you went in! There were at least five times when you had Arasaka people down, crippled, incapacitated – and you still took them out with head shots! You didn’t just take them down, you executed them! If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m mightily pissed off at illegal Japanese nationals in this country carrying out acts of violence on my turf, diplomatic immunity or not I’d have you up on Murder One charges so fast that even your artificial eye would spin! Why the hell were you doing it, Blade?”
MacLaren’s head came up sharply at Gerrard’s use of his call sign, the US Marshal’s way of accusing him of being unprofessional. “The heat of the moment…tactically it seemed like the best thing to do…I don’t know. Why is it so important to ye?”
“Because that’s not you! You’re more controlled than that – normally. But this wasn’t normal, was it? I know you’ve got a grudge against Arasaka – shit, damn near everybody in this business does! But I understand why yours is more personal. Still, tking out bit players and spear-carriers isn’t going to get you any closer to who you really want to take down, and we both know it. And frankly, I don’t want to be the one to come after you because you’ve gone of the deep end and been declared a public menace. So I’m wondering if maybe you shouldn’t be rethinking this contract and give it up, go find something less personal.”
“This contract will be completed as soon as I get those crystals back into Hobbes’ hands, which I will do sometime this morning. There may be repercussions and consequences – hell, we both know there will be, because Arasaka’s involved. But I’ll deal with those when the time comes. As for Raven’s ‘wheels within wheels within wheels,’ even she couldna’ put her finger on exactly what it was. Something kicked her intuition into high gear, and I have a very healthy respect for that woman’s hunches, but without something more to work with than some vague suspicion, there’s nothing I can do.” Blade took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly and quietly. “As for how I treat the Arasaka reisen…that’s between them and me. Leave it at that, Nathan.”
Gerrard knew better than to argue. He’d once looked up the definition of “stubborn” in the Oxford Dictionary, and found Blade’s photo there. But that didn’t mean he had to like what Blade just told him, and he didn’t, not one bit.
“All right, David, have it your way. But I gotta tell you one more thing: what went down here in the past fifteen hours was by any definition one hellacious act of terrorism. And like it or not, you were a part of it. Now I know that you came into the country using that diplomatic passport C gave you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be PNG’ed in a heartbeat. There’s a lotta people in DC trying to reclaim the authority the Fed lost back in 2020, and the way that APD screwed the pooch here is only gonna help them. There’s already backchannel talk about police corruption and illegal ties between APD, the City of Atlanta, and Arasaka.”
“I shouldn’t wonder. There were a lot of cops busily looking the other way when I got here tonight. But what does that have to do with me?”
“Like it or not, David, you’re going to be the lightning rod. You’re a high-profile figure – and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself for that, remember! There’s people in Congress, hell, there’s Cabinet members, who’ll blame you for this whole affair, never mind that it all got started twelve hours before you even arrived in Atlanta. In a couple of hours the screamsheets are going to have four-inch high headers shouting ‘International vigilante triggers massive shootout in Atlanta!’ And those people in Washington I mentioned are going to be shouting just as loud that between police corruption and having international mercenaries like you running amok it’s time to turn the clock back to 2016. You’ve become the poster boy for everything they say is wrong with the status quo. The way they see it, you’re violent, you’re unpredictable, you flaunt international borders and jurisdictions whenever and however you feel like it, and the only people you really answer to are yourself and whoever you’re working for at the moment.”
Blade held out his hands, palms up. “Just what is it you’re trying to tell me, then, Nathan?”
“I’m telling you to watch your back. There’s a serious turf war going on over you between APD, the GBI, and about half the departments of the Federal government – FBI, State, DOJ, INS, my bureau, hell, just about everybody but the goddamn EPA. And I have no idea who is going to win. APD wants to lock you up and throw the key away because you embarrassed them so badly on the national ‘nets, but I can sit on them for now. The GBI is on the fence – they don’t have any egg on their face, at least none that you threw. That bitch Secretary of State wants to fry your ass – mainly because she’s one of the power grabbers – but she can’t because you’ve got diplomatic immunity. She’s gonna do her damnedest, though, to get it revoked, mark my words. All the enemies you made the last time you were in the country are lining up and sharpening their knives, Blade.”
The Scot gave Gerrard a speculative look. “I don’t plan on giving them the chance. Right now, Nathan, I’m hoping that I can hand over those crystals to Hobbes, get paid, go home, and be done with it. But ye said yerself that ye agree with Raven that there are more layers to this affair than anyone would think at first glance. And if this isn’t over, if this is just the curtain raiser, if it turns out that somebody isn’t willing to let me go home…well, if ye’re expecting me to just walk away from it, ye’re going to be sorely disappointed. So the question is, what do ye intend to do?”
Gerrard gave a heavy sigh, then shrugged. “My jurisdiction technically – technically, mind you! – covers the entire United States of America. Right now, though, in practical terms, my authority in this case ends at the municipal limits of Atlanta. Director Smith’s orders. Once you’re outside the Perimeter, you’re on your own.” Blade nodded his understanding of the complications Gerrard outlined. The powers of the US Marshals, like any agency of the Department of Justice, were far more restricted than they had once been, one of the unexpected consequences of a political farce that went into the history books as “The Gun Grab of 2016.”
Durung the summer of that year, in the wake of a shooting spree carried out by a Muslim terrorist, what had been intended as nothing more than a piece of political theater backfired on its protagonists in ways that would have broad and far-reaching consequences. The then-president, a lifelong advocate of banning ownership of firearms by private citizens, had attempted to go beyond the usual cosmetic changes into the criminal background checks that were mandatory for the purchase of any kind of gun. Instead he began making noises about issuing executive orders that would have had the net effect of nullifying the 2nd Amendment of the United States’ Constitution. As expected, the gun-ownership advocates promptly went into near-hysterics, claiming that his actions would result in the mass confiscations of legally-owned firearms from private gun owners. It was a far cry from the seemingly-harmless melodrama that had been played out several times in the preceding six years – there was a distinct sense on both sides that battlelines were being drawn, figuratively at the moment, but with the distinct possibility that they could become all too real as summer faded into autumn.
This time, however, events took a turn no one had anticipated. A one state governor signed into law an act of nullification which effectively voided Federal firearms laws and regulations within his state; he was followed within a few months several of his colleagues. When legal challenges were mounted in the courts, decisions rendered against those states were either ignored, or were subject to nullification in turn: what had originally been a single act of protest quickly became a groundswell political movement. The never-ending feud between Washington DC and the various states became increasingly bitter, as Federal agencies and departments, even Congress and the White House, fought back against the steady erosion of their power, and in the summer of 2020, the issue came to a head.
Five million disgruntled Americans, spanning most of the political spectrum, all of whom had their own reasons to resent what they saw as an ever more-intrusive Federal government, descended on the nation’s capital, where they literally occupied the offices of government, all save the White House. Very loosely organized at best, all they shared was a common antipathy toward Washington politicians and Federal bureaucrats; it was enough. The defining moment had been when the District of Columbia National Guard, the only such unit directly under Presidential command, refused orders from the White House to use lethal force to eject the protesters. Within weeks, a conference was called to order at the Watergate Office Building, where the fifty state governors, the President, and the leadership of the House and Senate thrashed out a new power-sharing relationship between the several states and Washington DC.
The results turned out to be a mixed blessing, as there were, inevitably, unexpected consequences. In particular, the new limits on the authority and jurisdiction of Federal law enforcement, while certainly curtailing the sort of abuses that had become all but standard operating procedure for the various branches of the Justice Department, also hindered those same agencies when they were called upon to do their legitimate jobs. Hence the warning to Blade about the limitations under which, fifteen years later, Gerrard was still compelled to operate.
“I get it, Nathan, yer hands are tied. It could be worse. At least now I know whose side ye’re on – if ye can’t help, I know it isn’t because ye’re about to stab me in the back.”
Gerrard nodded. “I won’t come after you, I won’t arrest you, whatever you do. But I also can’t protect you. Best remember that. Now, you’ve got one hour to get your goddamn Scotch ass outta here.”
“As soon as I get a drink, I’m gone.”
The voice coming over her comlink was unfamiliar, and the young electro-tech frowned as she replied. “Yes?”
“This is Raven, Blade’s friend. Alistair gave me your combination.”
“Ah, OK.” Her expression brightened considerably. “What can I do for you?”
“How are you doing right now?”
“I take it the question isn’t just cursory?”
“No, it isn’t.”
Radome took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I’m not wounded or injured, if that’s what you mean. But what just happened was intense – really intense. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to getting killed. And I just watched the paramedics take my friend Houston – they think he’s going to make it. So I won’t tell you I’m OK. ‘Fine’ is probably closer to the truth. You know, ‘Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic – ’”
“‘– and Excitable.’” Raven finished for her. Both women laughed. “Been there, done that, didn’t like the T-shirt so I left it behind. What I’m thinking is that a little work therapy might help you decompress. Do you happen to have your deck handy?”
Radome snorted in amusement. “Do bears bear? Do bees bee? Is the Pope Kenyan?”
“Right, got me. Silly question. But the reason I asked is that David told me that you were carrying the crystals and I’m hoping that you might have a set of UCPs with you. If you do, you might be able to jack into them and then link me so I can get a look at what’s inside them.”
“I’ve got the UCPs, and they’ll mate with the connectors on the cystals, but I’m not sure if I should be doing that. After all, our job was just to recover them – nobody said anything about looking inside them.”
“Alistair, a little help here?”
“Aye, Miss Raven.” The Highland burr popped into Radome’s comlink again, and in spite of herself, she smiled at hearing it.
“Miss Radome, ye ken that this entire kerfuffle is a wee bit more complicated than what ye were first told aboot. Am I richt?”
“I think that’s a bit of an understatement, really.”
“Well, Sir David is – ”
“Aye, Miss. It’s a long story and I doubt the Major will be takin’ the time tae tell ye aboot it, but ye can ask ‘im. Onyway, Sir David has been wonderin’ just what it is aboot those crystals that has both Discom and Arasaka so interested in ‘em tae the point that people are dyin’ because of ‘em.”
Raven picked up the conversation at this point. “Normally, David doesn’t even get involved in this sort of situation – you know his reputation is for ‘fixing’ other kinds of problems. But he’s doing this for a friend – Calvin Coleridge, the man who hired you – and once he found that Arasaka was involved, there was no keeping him out of it. What I’d like to do is see if I can figure out just what it is about those crystals that some people think they’re worth killing for. In case they decide to try again.”
“Yeah.” Radome drew the word out for almost two seconds. “I have to admit that I’ve had some thoughts along those same lines. It struck me as odd right from the start that the extraction team seemed really heavy on muscle and firepower – lots more than you would think anyone would need for a simple industrial espionage op, even one where Discom was involved.”
“And Ah think Ah speak frae the Major when I say that he’ll look kindly on anything ye might find that will help him protect his hairless pink bahookie.”
“That’s it, Alistair! I’m telling David what you just said!”
“Aw, dinna say that, Miss Raven – if ye do, well, there goes the raise Ah was promised.”
“Alistair, you’re a VI. You don’t get raises – you don’t even get a salary!”
“Aye, Miss, but ‘tis the thought that counts, ye ken.”
Both women giggled, then Radome said, “We might as well get started. Give me a second to get everything booted and jacked in. Mind if I watch once you get to work, Raven?”
“Not at all. In fact, having another set of eyes on this is probably a good idea. Alistair, you might as well join us, but stand by in case Blade needs you.”
“Aye, that Ah wull, Miss.”
The drink that MacLaren had assured Nathan Girrard he would be seeking out was one that the Scot needed…well, “desperately” was perhaps too strong a word, but certainly “urgently” fit the bill. Since the days of the Greek hoplites – and probably earlier – almost the very first act of men who had just survived combat was to seek out and find something alcoholic to drink, whether it be, depending on time and place, rough country wine, cheap rum, the finest Highland malt, or an extraordinary vintage of champagne. It was almost a reflexive ritual that, through its very mundaneness, affirmed, and in its own way celebrated, that they had survived – if they had time to drink from a bottle, a clay jar, a canteen, or a wineskin, they were out of danger, at least for the moment. True, combat turned the throat of even the most courageous bricky dry, but that reassurance to the fighter that he or she still lived was every bit as important as slaking his thirst.
It wasn’t the effects of the alcohol, then, that Blade craved, nor was it actual thirst that drove him to seek it out. It was the affirmation which taking that drink provided, proof, as it were, that he still lived. Less than fifteen minutes earlier he’d been arse-deep in a firefight from which he almost certainly would not have emerged alive, save for the timely – or, more accurately, last minute – arrival of the cavalry in the form of the US Marshals Service. But survived he had, he and all of his little band, and that, without a doubt, was something worth a token celebration at least. And he knew just where he could find a bottle of the Macallan….
As he made his way back to the nightclub, Blade noted the carnage left in the wake of the extraction team’s passage. It seemed like there were still-slowly-spreading red puddles covering half the floor of Underground Atlanta. In the middle of each crimson pool was a body, some sprawled awkwardly, others seemingly huddled in on themselves, some lying face-up, others face-down, a few lying on their sides. Blade shook his head, contemplating the slaughter he’d left in his wake. It hadn’t been fair, he mused, although he knew full well that “fair” was a concept that only had any validity in board games and amateur athletics.
But in a way, it really hadn’t been “fair”: those poor dead Arasaka bastards – and the DisCom goons – had been hopelessly overmatched. They had been little better than street fighters, swaggering, posturing toughs more accustomed to intimidating the weak and pliable than confronting men and women who could – and would – fight back. With little real training, minimal fire discipline, and no tactical coordination, most of them had been as good as dead the moment they set foot inside Atlanta Underground. That angered MacLaren, for though his was a profession which all too often relied on violence and death for him to accomplish his mission, this sort of wanton throwing away of human lives flew in the face of every professional precept he embraced. Being that this had been an Arasaka operation, Blade had a very good idea who was behind it, and who bore the ultimate responsibility for the slaughter. That knowledge clouded his mood even further.
Still, there was a bit of a silver lining. Thank God, he mused, there weren’t any civilians around when I broke in and then we broke out. This is bad enough without there being a few soccer moms or a couple of teen-age kids lying among them. If this truly is your work, Hideki, and I’m certain it is, then you’ve just compounded the interest you owe on your butcher’s bill. Blade sighed in resignation. I really do need that drink now.
Bits was, as to be expected, a wreck. Half the glass in the windows opening on the mall was missing, the mirror behind the bar had been shivered into thousands of pieces, the lighting framework that had been above the dance floor was now lying on the dance floor, and almost every other fixture had taken some sort of damage. There were, Blade noted, a few tables and chairs, along with a handful of barstools, left more or less intact, the latter now standing upright before the sadly battered bar. Not all of the barstools were empty: evidently he wasn’t the only person for whom an after-action libation was part of the decompression process.
Red was sitting at the far end of the bar when Blade walked in; amazingly, given what she had been doing just minutes earlier and the fact that her crimson dress was considerably worse for the wear, the woman looked as if she had just stepped off the set of a fashion-magazine shoot. One look at her told Blade that he wasn’t ready to tackle that particular enigma – not yet at least. Meanwhile, Spazz had parked herself at the near end, almost as if she had been waiting for him. Her once-white blouse was torn and stained in a couple of places, there was a gunpowder smear on her right cheek, her hair hung around her shoulders in absolute disarray, and if she’d been wearing make-up, it had long since vanished in the action that just concluded. In short, she looked stunning.
Scylla and Charybdis, he thought wryly. Odysseus, my lad, I’m beginning to feel some sympathy for ye….
He walked by Spazz, passed up the barstool beside her, and took the next one down. As he sat down, he the thought crossed his mind – not for the first time – that his life was much like a Durrenmatt play. Not twenty minutes earlier I was fighting for my life; now I’m in what’s left of a shot-up bar, about to order a well-deserved whisky, flanked by two drop-dead gorgeous and thoroughly enigmatic females. Whoever said life was strange had a real gift for understatement.
He nodded to the bartender, whose nametag identified him as simply “Mike”, and took note of a rifle and a pistol – a Militec Model 28 and a Sturmer Avenger, respectively – sitting on the counter behind the bar.
“Looks as though ye came to work prepared today,” he said conversationally.
“Actually, I never left.” Mike half-smirked. He was good-looking, slender, wiry, with a mustache that looked as if he trimmed it with a razor in one hand and a micrometer in the other. And he was annoyingly cheerful, almost perky.
“I was working yesterday when Calvin’s people showed up – along with their uninvited guests. There were too many bullets flying around for my taste, so I ducked into my little hidey-hole under the floor of the bar here. Mama Williamsom didn’t raise no fool for a son, and besides, Calvin doesn’t pay me enough to get involved in a firefight with the likes of DisCom and Arasaka. I stayed there until the marshals gave the all-clear.” He laid a proprietary hand on the weapons. “Still, it never hurts to be prepared. Anyway, what can I get you?”
Before Blade could answer, Spazz had slid over to the stool beside him, carefully laying her pistol – a Korth PRS II, he noted – on the bar in front of her. There was a dark liquid in her glass, in which small golden flakes were drifting about.
“What the hell are ye drinking?” he asked her.
“A ‘Dead Nazi’.”
“It’s fifty-fifty Jägermeister and Goldschlager. Want to try one?”
Blade made a face and shook his head. “No, thank ye.”
Spazz shrugged. “Or you could settle for just a ‘Dead German’ – equal parts well-brand herbal and cinnamon schnapps.”
Blade shuddered and gestured to Mike. “Did any of The Balvenie survive?”
“It did. We don’t leave the good stuff out where the peasants can get at it.”
“Then The Balvenie, if you would – ten year-old.” He paused briefly, then said, “Best make it a double.”
Spazz looked at him carefully, then smiled and purred, “Not going to try to impress me by ordering a vodka martini, shaken not stirred?”
Blade shook his head again. “No way. James drank those. Still does, for that matter, even after his liver transplant.”
“He’s still around?”
“New face, new identity, goes by the name of Shaw these days, lives in Jamaica with his wife, Heidi. I run into him now and then, when I get down to the Caribbean.”
“Amazing, the people you ‘run into’ in this line of work.” The way she said it was layered with meanings.
“Apparently so. Tell me, Miss Spazz, what were ye – what is yer real name, by the way?”
“Maureen Collins.” She held out her hand. Blade was pleased to find her grip firm, warm, and dry, nothing like the dead fish too many women still offered up in a handshake.
“A few generations back, yes.”
“Just so ye know, on the whole I have somewhat mixed feelings about the Irish.”
“Hey, I tried to be born a Swede, but apparently my request got misfiled, so here I am.”
“Well, in any case, I can’t say I’m not pleased to meet ye – ye handled yourself very well out there.” He stopped, frowned, then went on. “That sounded a bit more stilted than I meant it to be. What I meant was, ye did a damned fine job of covering my arse, and I’m grateful to ye for it.”
“Come to think of it, though, just what were ye doing down in Underground Atlanta at two in the morning? And what in God’s name made ye decide to jump into the middle of the firefight when we broke out?”
“I got lucky.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
“I watched the whole fucking thing from start to finish when you broke into Bits!” Blade would quickly learn that Spazz’s rather liberal use of less-than-elegant expletives came quite as naturally to her as breathing. “I got caught in the coffee shop across the walkway when the whole mall when into lockdown – APD wasn’t letting anybody in or out, even civilians. Ugh!” Her face momentarily screwed up into an expression of disgust. “I suppose it could have been worse – I could have been in a goddamn shoe store when it happened. At least we had food and drinks and a bathroom, but I’ve had enough turkey-and-swiss sandwiches and double cappuccinos to last me for a year!” Almost in spite of himself Blade laughed aloud.
“But I knew who you were the minute I saw you coming down the mall! I mean, I recognized you right away. You have no idea what an experience it was to be able to watch you in action. And when the five of you busted out of the nightclub, I told myself there was no fucking way I was staying inside that damned coffee shop, not when I could be in a firefight alongside you, though! It was like a dream come true!”
“What the hell are ye talking about?” Blade stared at her as if she were mad.
“For the last five years, I’ve been following you on the news and the ‘Net and the boards and the holos, trying to learn everything about you I could. I’ve watched every fucking second of every bit of imagery there is of you available, studying your moves, trying to learn how you make your tactical decisions, understand why sometimes you zig instead of zag. There are a lot of people who think you’re the best goddamn solo in the world, and I’m one of them. I’m probably you’re biggest fan!”
Blade stared at her. This woman was adding entirely new dimensions to the concept “shatterbrained.”
“Fan? Fan? In case ye hadn’t noticed, Miss Collins, my line of work isn’t exactly a sporting event.”
“Maybe not, but you do have fans. Hell, there’s a fucking booster gang in Philadelphia that call themselves ‘The Blades,’ dress like you, carry old-fashioned rifles like you do, some of ‘em even have those old Scottish swords. And boy, when they clean up a neighborhood, it fucking stays cleaned up!”
“I don’t believe this. What mental ward did ye say ye escaped from?”
“I’m not a mental case, dammit! I’m a solo-for-hire, just like you.” She paused, frowned, then went on. “Well, not just like you – who is? But you know what I mean.”
Blade decided to humor her. “Definitely not yer ordinary career path, is it?”
“What’s a nice girl like me doing in a profession like this, you mean?”
“Well, if ye want to put it that way, yes.”
Maureen let out a short cackle, the sound disturbingly devoid of mirth. “Did you know I have a master’s degree in international finance?”
“No, but then, considering that I just me ye, there’s a helluva lot about ye I don’t know. Obviously.”
“True, there is. Anyway, I do have that degree, and I actually started out in international corporate banking. Probably would have been damned good at it, too.”
“So what changed yer mind?”
“Bankers and the megacorps. I learned to despise the whole fucking lot of them. Not the industries themselves so much as the weasels who work in them. It was a fucking game to too many of them, always trying to one-up each other someway or another, and they kept score with other people’s money, the bastards.” She had a look on her face of someone who had just bitten into a piece of rotten fruit. “I was pretty fucking good at it myself, and I got myself noticed for it. Part of the problem was that it wasn’t always for my work. With this face and this body, I attracted quite a bit of extracurricular attention.”
“It would have been odd if ye hadn’t.”
“Yeah.” She grimaced. “There were a lot of them who were cheerfully prepared to ‘further my career’ – provided that I bent over their desks when and how they asked. And it wasn’t just the men, either.”
“I take it the brain won out over the beauty.”
“That it did. They were spending all their time trying to screw me literally while they screwed each other figuratively, and I decided that I would rather be the screwer than the screwee, and have a choice in who I fucked up in the process. Turning solo simplified the process while providing the opportunities.”
“The latest champion of the downtrodden and oppressed, eh? And ye’ve been at it how long?”
“And still in one piece. Impressive. No enhancements?”
“Blade, really?” She cast a quick glance downward at her bustline. “I know I’ve only got a set of A-cups – a pretty nice set of A-cups, I think – but is that really the sort of question a gentleman asks?”
Slightly flustered, Blade stammered, “I – I – that’s not what – ”
“I know it isn’t.” Spazz laid a reassuring hand on his forearm. “I just had to yank on your chain a bit. Yeah, I’ve got a few enhancements – your basic adrenal boost, with a duration limiter. I don’t want to shave twenty goddamn years off my life because I burned out my heart and circulatory system from fucking overboosting. I had restructuring done on my right hand and forearm – optimized them for shooting, really – and I had the micro-rez procedure done on my eyes. And that’s it.”
“I’m glad ye kept yer eyes natural – they’re nice eyes.”
As it was, Blade approved of everything Spazz had done. A solo needed every edge he or she could get, both to stay alive and accomplish any given mission, objectives which usually went hand- in-hand. Limited boosting was always a good call, and having the tiny, fractional adjustments to bone and musculature made that improved accuracy and speed was equally prudent. “Micro-rez” was verbal shorthand for “micrometric resolution,” an optical process that removed imperfections from the lenses and retinas of a solo’s eyes. That Spazz hadn’t opted for more radical enhancements spoke well to the fact that she had given long and serious thought about her chosen profession before committing to it: the work she had done was essentially surgical procedures, none of which carried an attending risk of the psychological problems that went with more radical modifications.
Electronic and cybernetic augmentation – “enhancements,” in the current parlance – were hardly new: in their crudest form they had begun with the hearing aids of the mid-20th Century. By the beginning of the 21st , prosthetic limbs and organs that effectively mimicked the originals in appearance and function were being developed, and not long after that, some prostheses were beginning to exceed the capabilities of the body parts they were replacing. Dr. Joseph Buckley’s breakthrough in applied nanotechnology in 2020 allowed for the creation of true neural interfacing between the human nervous system and prosthetic appliances: a human body could now manipulate its environment with electronic speed and electromechanical strength. Faster reflexes, greater strength and endurance, ultra-refined senses, were all available to anyone able to afford them.
But such “benefits” came with a commensurate cost, it was all too quickly learned, usually first by those who, having more money than functional brain cells, went out in pursuit of achieving some sort of “superman” ( or “-woman”) status and acquired every enhancement available – new limbs, new eyes, new ears, new circulatory and respiratory systems. What had not been realized as the new prosthetic systems were developed was that in combination they induced a growing sense of detachment on the part of the modified individual from the rest of the human race. In becoming “superhuman,” they diminished their empathy for those they now dismissed as “normals” or “mundanes,” regarding them as mere objects, tools, or toys, depending on the inclination. In every instance of advanced augmentation and enhancement, the person in question would eventually succumb, always within months, sometimes in weeks, in a few instances within days, to what became known as cyber-psychosis. A full-blown cyber-pyschotic episode was never a pretty thing, as it usually involved multiple homicides of the variety that left hardened coroners retching and shaken.
Even people like Blade, whose non-organic, non-surgical modifications were limited – the left arm, left eye, and both ears in his case – were not entirely immune from some degree of psychosis, which accounted for the apprehension with which the extraction team had first greeted him. While psychotic episodes in someone like Blade were exceedingly rare, they weren’t unknown. Blade had been given little choice in his case: his arm and eye were lost to an exploding bomb, which also damaged his hearing beyond conventional repair. He also had a well-established reputation for keeping himself tightly controlled: he had never been known to exhibit the slightest psychotic symptom. On the other hand, the chance, however small, that he could crack accounted for Nathan Gerrard’s unease over Blade’s actions in breaking into Bits….
But in Spazz’s case, she had eschewed all of the cyberware and concentrated on the procedures which enhanced her natural physical abilities without compromising the integrity of her body, which Blade took to be a good sign. Depending on how she came by the user-name “Spazz,” she might be perfectly capable of throwing hissy fits or having the odd awkward, graceless moment, but at least she wasn’t a potential homicidal maniac waiting to be set off by her own delusions of grandeur. On the other hand, whether it was serendipity at work, or something else entirely, Blade had a sense that the tall, lithe blonde sitting to his right had attached herself to him for reasons that involved more than hero-worship and fan-girl fantasies, and was not about to be easily fobbed off or left behind.
“So why didn’t ye decide to ‘screw the screwers,’ to use yer own idiom, from inside the banking community? I should have thought ye were ideally placed to do just that.”
Spazz shook her head, almost violently. “No, I wanted to get out – I had to get out. I couldn’t play the game any more. I can’t say the idea of fucking them over from the inside didn’t appeal to me, but I just didn’t have it in me to put on the mask and pretend to be one of them while I was doing it. Just being around them made me feel polluted. So I started looking around for some other way to stick it to them.”
“And solo work was it?”
“It was easier than you think, Blade. My Daddy and Granddaddy both made sure I knew how to shoot even before I could ride a bicycle. I’ve always had good reflexes and exceptional eyesight, and when the other girls in my junior high classes were taking ballet, I was taking aikido classes.”
“Yeah, I grew up on the Mainline, so that was pretty much expected of pre-adolescent girls from those sort of families. I quit after my third one, threw a tantrum and my parents decided I needed ‘a different sort of outlet for my energy,’ as it were. So, aikido. A few years after that, I switched to jeet kun do.”
“Remind me never to piss ye off, lass.” He gestured to Mike, who nodded and quickly brought another double Balvenie.
“So ye gave up banking and, suitably outfitted as the Fist of Goodness, you took your crusade to the streets to combat evildoers, right?”
Spazz gave him a withering look much like the one she would direct at some unwanted insect on the wall. “Hardly. At first I was attracted to the solo lifestyle: lots of flash, lots of cash, the good life when I wasn’t working, adventure when I was. I imagined it would be one really long, really intense adrenaline rush. I figured I could play it the same way some women run an escort business, except that my stock in trade would be lethality, not sex.”
“How did that work out for you?”
“Not bad, for a while. But then it changed, and what really started turning me on was the challenge, planning better, maneuvering better, and ultimately shooting better than the opposition, doing everything about the job better than anyone else, and doing it for life or death stakes – the thrill of pulling off the job and surviving. It turned into more than an adrenaline rush – it was almost like a dopamine addiction, knowing that I’d not only out-fought but out-thought somebody who wanted me or my principle dead.”
“Yeah, ‘but.’ After a while I realized that there are a lot of really shitty people out there in general who do really shitty things to other people who don’t deserve it. And that pissed me off even more than the goddamn bankers, because for the bankers it was never really personal, but for the really shitty types, it almost always was. So I decided that whenever I could I would do some shitty things to the shitters whenever and wherever I found them.”
“Something tells me there’s more to the story than just that.”
“There is, but that’s the Reader’s Digest version, and it’ll do for now. I’m here to fuck over powerful people who get their kicks out of fucking over the little guys who can’t fight back themselves.”
“An altruistic solo? What is this world coming to?”
“Don’t hand me that crap, Blade, because I know better. You’re probably the most altruistic solo out there, and it was you who made me decide to rethink my own motives.”
“Me? Altruistic? Hardly.” Blade’s eyes and voice were equally bleak. “There’s a difference between ye and me, Spazz, and that difference means that ye’ll never quite be as good a solo as I am – and, ye know, in the end that’s actually not a bad thing. Ye chose this life, because deep down ye believe ye can make a difference. For ye, no matter how ‘shitty’ things get, ye’ll always be trying to hold on to some scrap of yer humanity – and ye’ll always find a way to succeed at it. Me? This is all I know how to do. Take it away from me, and I’d be shoveling shite in Auchterarder.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I am. I’m hardly role model material, Miss Collins. At best, I’m a hired gun with style. At worst, I’m just a hired gun.”
“Don’t patronize me, Blade! I am not a goddamned amateur!” There was a momentary fury in her eyes and voice, then she quickly composed both. “Look, this isn’t some case of hero-worship. I’m a pretty damned good solo myself – my contracts bear that out, plus I think I’ve already proved that I know my shit this morning. But you’re the best in the business, at least by most accounts, so I want to learn from you. I may never be as good as you, but I want to be the only other solo people think to call when you’re not available – because if I am, I will make a difference, somewhere, someday. So here I am.”
Blade looked the woman out of countenance, utterly bemused. After a moment, he collected himself, shrugged, and said, “Well, then, my dear, I submit that it’s time for ye to toddle off, now that you’ve had yer lesson and yer thrill here, and carry on yer crusade elsewhere.”
“No way.” Spazz’s tone matched the set of her eyes: granite hard, implacable.
“And just what makes ye think – ”
“Look, Blade, we both know that this – ” she made a sweeping gesture with her left arm that took in everything inside and outside of Bits – “whatever the hell ‘this’ is – isn’t over.” The gushing, slightly shatterbrained blonde of just moments earlier had vanished entirely: now Maureen was speaking in deadly earnest. The shift was so complete that it held Blade’s attention almost against his will. “This thing you’re involved in is big, that’s fucking obvious, otherwise there wouldn’t be a bunch of dead DisCom Rats lying around inside Bits. But I think it’s even bigger than DisCom suspects – it may even be bigger than the Big Black Rat can handle – because there’s even more dead Arasakas lying around outside. Which means that Arasaka wants it, too. Whatever ‘it’ is….” There was a clear if unspoken invitation in the way her voice drifted off for Blade to explain to her exactly what was the situation here….
Instead he deflected it by asking, “What makes you think this ‘thing’ is that ‘big’?”
Maureen shrugged. “Arasaka didn’t just get involved, they jumped in with both feet, Blade.” Her tone was that of a patient teacher explaining something to a rather slow child. “Look at the fucking risks they ran – are still running for that matter: they just carried out what amounts to an act of terrorism on American soil, they brought foreign nationals into the country for illegal purposes – don’t tell me you think all those dead Japanese out there were just camera-toting tourists who happened to get caught in the crossfire – and they fired on Federal officers. It was just this sort of shit that got Arasaka run out of the UK eight years ago – you know that better than anyone.” She took a sip of her rather unusual drink; he took another look at it, shuddered, and renewed his acquaintance with his Scotch.
“The fact that you and your people are still alive is proof that Arasaka didn’t get what it wanted – this time,” she went on, her tone almost conversational. “We both know that whenever Arasaka wants something, they keep coming until either one of two things happen. One, they get what they want, or two, they get hit hard enough with a big enough fucking cluestick to make them back off. You’re a damned big cluestick, and they’ve backed off – for the time being. But whatever it is they’re after, I don’t think even you are big enough to get them to give it up completely. They’ll be back.”
Blade nodded. “Now that they know I’m involved, ye can go to the bank with that one.”
“Which is where I come in. Like it or not, I’m part of this now: Arasaka and anybody else who’s involved is going to think I’m working with you, whether I actually am or not. And you are going to need someone to watch your goddamned back. Compton over there is good, really good, but he’s got enough problems of his own without having to worry about covering your six. I can do that.”
“So ye’ve decided, without so much as a ‘by yer leave,’ to attach yerself, limpet-like, to me and my op?”
“I did and I have.” Suddenly she reached forward, her hand stopping just short of Blade’s forearm, her gaze and her tone a curious mixture of mischief and earnestness. “Live with it.”
Blade looked down at the hand on his forearm, then up into her eyes. Damn, they really are aquamarine! “Ye’re determined to be difficult about this, aren’t ye?”
Blade frowned, looked at her from under thunderously lowered eyebrows, then gave a sigh of resignation. “You, Miss Collins, are going to be a lot of trouble!” He tossed back the remainder of his second Balvenie, then slid off the barstool and turned toward the door. “For now, enjoy your Dead Nazi.” He gestured toward his ear bud. “Nathan just commed, apparently he needs to see me about some sort of urgent business.”
“Have to meet a man at Marwar Junction?”
Blade turned back to her and, for the first time, smiled at Spazz. “Och, ye’re good! Ye’re really good!”
“You have no idea,” she purred in return.
“So, let’s see what we have here, Raven,” Radome murmured as she jacked in the first of the seven crystals. Her deck quickly constructed a detailed schematic of the memory device, creating an abstraction of its design and capacity. Upon seeing it, Radome did a double-take.
“Holy crap! This is optical storage, not solid-state like I was expecting! Wow….”
The same information had appeared on Raven’s monitor, and she studied it intently. “It’s certainly an impressive piece of engineering, I’ll say that for it. I don’t recall ever seeing data stored this densely before. This is literally pushing the boundaries of applied physics.” She giggled suddenly. “I even see some of my work in here.”
“Yep. I don’t always publish my papers under my own name, and apparently Calvin has been reading them, and didn’t know they were mine. What’s catching my eye is how these matrices are stacked – the distances between layers are exactly what’s outlined in a patent I was awarded about four years ago – they’re optimized to prevent covalent instability caused by overlapping interference patterns.”
“And the synchronization of the outer shells? Is that your work, too?”
“It sure looks like it. I wonder if Calvin realizes I could burn his ass for patent violation?”
“I want to be there when you tell him.”
The seven “crystals” that Raven, Radome, and Alistair were examining were not, in fact, crystals in the sense that came to mind for most people when they heard the word. That is, they weren’t solid oblongs of ultra-dense, matrixed carbon, quartz, corundum or a silicate-based compound. Rather, they were called “crystals” because inside their smooth, non-reflective carbon-composite housings, were an even dozen of wafer-thin discs of ultra-pure quartz, each 25 mm in diameter and two millmeters thick, stacked vertically along a central spindle, the spindle also acting as the guide for the reader heads. While the fundamental design had been around for decades, this iteration brought a degree of refinement to the concept Raven had never before seen outside of prototypes, which these crystals clearly were not. Manifestly, Calvin had been pushing the envelope – and pushing it hard – where storage capacity was concerned: for more than two decades it had been an article of faith that 360 terabytes of storage per disc was the theoretical maximum, but somehow Calvin and his engineers had managed to double that number. Reverse-engineering and then replicating that technology alone would be worth a not-inconsiderable fortune in the short term to anyone who managed to accomplish the feat, but it didn’t require someone of Raven’s intellect to quickly realize that the most valuable real prize was, of course, what was stored in those crystals.
Raven let out a sigh of frustration. “Damn, I really want to make copies, but we don’t have a couple of hours to do it. Oh, well, at least I should be able to construct an index.”
After a few moments, Raven sighed again. “I think that’s all I’m going to get, for now, at least until I get my hands on the crystals themselves and get them up and running together.”
“I don’t think that’s very likely, considering we were hired to bring these back to Calvin.”
“Still, if I can – ”
“Pardon me, Miss Radome, Miss Raven,” Alistair broke in unexpectedly, “but Ah’m nae so sure that would be…a really good idea.”
“Why not?” Radome and Raven spoke in unison, and there was a matching mixture of suspicion and apprehension in their voices.
“Because, ladies, each o’ these crystals has a storage capacity of just o’er eight and a half petabytes – a wee bit more than sixty petabytes total. Almost all o’ that is in use.”
“Meaning…?” This was Radome.
“Meaning that, according to the index I just constructed, the program itself – whatever it is – takes up just under nine petabytes.” This was from Raven. “Seventy-eight percent of the remaining storage is taken up by data files, and they’re all time-stamped within milliseconds of each other on the same date – the day that Kim had her ‘accident.’”
“Do ye ken that all o’ the headings and subheadings seem tae be labeled fer some specific cerebral, neural, or psycho-neural function?”
Raven began flitting through the index at random, saying nothing. The silence drew out for a full minute, then another; when she finally spoke, her voice was subdued, with an audible quaver in it. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it….”
“Believed what, Raven?”
Raven went silent again for a few seconds, then when she spoke, her voice was louder, stronger, but still with an edge of apprehension in it
“Radome, Calvin told Blade that he was certain Kim’s mind had gone into some sort of neurological ‘safe room’ or ‘panic room’ when she was attacked in her lab That was why it getting these crystals back was so important – they’re supposed to contain the only copy of a program that Calvin believes will coax Kim out of it and out of her brain-dead state. But there’s no ‘panic room’ because that’s not where Kim went.”
Radome’s eyes went wide. “Oh, my God. You don’t mean to say that she – that’s not possible!”
“All right, Nathan, what is it that’s so bloody urgent that it had to drag me away from my whisky?” Blade had found the US Marshal sitting on the countertops of the information kiosk where the Scot and his little band had earlier made their “last stand.” Settling beside him, Blade pulled a small bottle of bore cleaner and packet of patches from his ruck, and tipped a cleaning rod set out of the butt of his SMLE, having decided that he could clean his rifle while he listened to Gerrard.
The lawman’s frown was, if anything, deeper than it had been earlier. “First of all, I thought you’d want to know that your man Houston was just airlifted out. He’s gonna make it. He won’t be doin’ any line dancing for a while, but he’ll recover.”
“That’s good news. I should have asked about him earlier, just damned selfish of me not to.”
“You’ve got a lot on your mind. There’s something else, though, that I think you should know. We just got a report from the Milledgeville office of the GBI. Two days ago, some guy who was bass fishing in Lake Oconee snagged a body and dragged it up. GBI Forensics finally made an ID. Her name was Judith Rockley, and she was Calvin Coleridge’s senior project manager. She’s also the person GBI is certain stole those crystals that are causing everybody so much goddamn trouble.”
Blade frowned, perplexed. “I don’t see why ye’re telling me this. About finding the body, I mean.”
“Because from the state of the body, GBI Forensics is pretty certain this Rockley woman had been in the lake for three days before she was found. Which means that she was probably killed the same day that she stole the crystals. Oh, and the body was wrapped in chicken-wire and weighted just enough to sink it. According to Forensics, she was alive when they dumped her in the lake.”
“Yeah, damn. This little escapade of yours just took a whole different turn, didn’t it?”
Blade nodded wordlessly, pulling the cleaning rod through the barrel of his rifle, replacing the patch, and swabbing the bore again. The implications of Gerrard’s revelation were clear. Chicken wire was a good way of insuring that a body dropped into a lake stayed submerged once decomposition began: the gasses that normally buoyed a body up were released when the swelling tissue was lacerated by the wire mesh. Wrapping Judith Rockley in chicken wire and a few weights and then tossing her into Lake Oconee while she was still living, though, was pure sadism: she was meant to know that she was dying. Murder among those who carried out industrial espionage, which technically was what the theft of Hobbes’ crystals had been, was rare, but far from unknown. Out-and-out brutality, however, was all but unheard of – it was simply bad for business. People who were prepared to run life-or-death risks in exchange for a potentially huge payoff were rarely willing to chance being placed at the mercy of some sadist who would find their incremental destruction a source of amusement. There were layered messages in the death of Judith Rockley, the most obvious being Turn away – you want no part of this.
After a moment, Blade pursed his lips and blew out a long gust of air. “This is hardly the sort of thing anyone says ‘thank you’ for, but it’s useful information, and for that much, at least, I’m grateful. I suspect, though, since we’ve recovered the crystals, whatever messages the murder of Ms. Rockley were meant to send are meaningless now.” He held up the rifle and peered down the barrel, then went back to work with a fresh patch. “I’m going to hand them over to Calvin this morning, and with any luck, be on my way back to Scotland before noon. Despite what young Miss Collins in there – she’s the tall blonde – might think otherwise, this is going to be over and done with today.”
“Nothing will make me happier if that turns out to be the case, if only because it’ll mean I’ve been spared all the usual complications that arise whenever you show up. You know – the diplomatic incidents, the large-scale destruction of private property, the pissed-off megacorps, irate politicians hot to fire my ass for something you did….”
“Nice to know I’m loved and that ye miss me when I’m gone.”
“Don’t kid yourself. You still managed to leave stacks of dead Arasakas for me to deal with.”
“Right then, anything else to tell me?”
“Just have a good flight.”
“I’ll do my best.” Blade held out his hand, Gerrard took it. “See ye ‘round, Nathan.”
“Not if I see you first.”
Seeing Compton finish up what had clearly been a long conversation with one of the deputy marshals, Blade waved him over to the kiosk, where he was finishing up his rifle-cleaning chore. The younger man approached with a quizzical look on his face, and Blade came right to the point.
“Compton, telling ye that ye did well out there is something akin to gilding the lily, I suspect, but I’ll say it anyway.” The young black man looked vaguely pleased at Blade’s words. “Still there’s something I need to know: just how heavily are ye geared up? Truly.”
“Why, do I make you nervous?” Compton’s matter-of-fact tone robbed his words of any potential insolence.
“I would be lying if I said you didn’t.”
“Yeah, I can understand why. And somehow having the question come from you doesn’t offend me. I mean, you of all people know what it’s like.”
“Aye, that I do.” Blade paused. “I know ye were Air Force Special Operations, but yer people never go in for the sort of radical rebuild I know ye’ve had done….” His voice trailed off in an invitation for Compton to elaborate.
“Yeah, OK, OK, you’re right. You deserve to know if we’re gonna be working together. So here’s the rundown. Like you said, I was Special Operations, not Special Forces. We didn’t hunt gomers in the boonies for months on end, our gigs were finesse and dirty tricks, y’know?” Compton cocked his head at Blade. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you, would you?”
“No, no gaspers – not my poison of choice.” Blade reached inside his tunic and produced one of the Romeo y Julietas. “Will this do? I cadged a couple of extras from Calvin’s private stock.”
“Better’n nothing.” Blade waited while Compton unwrapped the cigar, trying not to wince as the younger man bit off the end, then unwrapped one for himself, punched a hole in the end, then produced a battered trench lighter and struck it. Once they had both lit up, they puffed away in a companionable silence for a moment, then Compton then took up again with his tale.
“Anyway, us and the RAF and the French turned most of the Camel Lot into an FAE test range, right? Everybody wanted a piece of that action, y’know? Not that I really blame them – shit, the only people in the world who weren’t looking for payback after Black Christmas were the ones chanting ‘Ballyhoo Snackbar!’ five times a day. Well, them and maybe the Chinese.” He drew on the cigar a few more times, then went on.
“OK, so anyway, there were still some hardcore, hardline holdouts dug in deep in the Camel Lot, y’know. We didn’t know if any of ‘em had any more Big Booms squirreled away and we had to find them,‘cuz nobody wanted another Black Christmas. So our job was to spoof the holdouts into the open so our fast movers could drop on them. Otherwise the crunchies had to go in and dig ‘em out of their holes.” Blade grimaced and nodded at that. “Blowing ‘em up was easier – a few tons of fuel-air explosives and you had a whole new recipe for shish kebab, y’know?
“So, our CO was this light colonel, a born A-1 first-class REMF, who had to get his ticket punched in a combat unit so someday he’d be eligible for command of a desk at Fort Fumble.”
“I know the type – we called them PONTIs.”
“Yeah, I guess nobody’s got a monopoly on assholes, right?” Blade grunted an agreement.
“Blade’s Law Number 17: ‘REMFs are everywhere.’”
“Ain’t that the truth? So anyway, this colonel – Cartman, Crapman, I can’t remember his name anymore – not only decided that he wanted to go along with the spoofer team, which was me and my people, on one of our dirty-tricks missions, but when the time came, he wanted to call in the strike. I mean, the dumbass didn’t know how to read a map, OK? And he calls down a shit-ton of ordnance on our position. They told me later that I was barely breathing when they medevac-ed us. Arms and legs were write-offs, and I had some spinal damage to go along with a bunch of internal injuries.”
“How long did it take to rebuild you?”
“Eleven months. I was one of the lucky ones, y’know. At least there was enough of me to rebuild, OK? There wasn’t much left of Colonel Clusterfuck – I mean, they dumped a buncha body parts they thought might have been him into a body bag and tagged it. Served the chickenshit bastard right.” Another pause, another long draw on the cigar.
“OK, so I woke up with new arms, new legs, a titanium spine, some vat-grown internal plumbing, and a rewired nervous system, y’know? I also woke up with a deathly fear of going cyber-psycho. I saw what happens with that even before I got rebuilt, OK? I don’t ever wanna go there. It’s one thing to get blown apart and rebuilt – it’s a whole different ball game knowing you’re gonna get blown apart so that no one can rebuild you. So I get my meds and I do my de-stressing routines every day, ‘cuz nothing is worth that. So, satisfied now?”
“I am. I didn’t like doing it, but I had to ask.”
Compton gave a dismissive shrug. “So now what? You take the crystals and hand them over to Coleridge and we’re done, right?”
“Wrong. It so happens that my arrangement with Coleridge is to make certain that someone from the extraction team is able to get those crystals back into his hands. In other words, I’m not here to do yer job for ye, just help ye get it done.”
“Right. OK. Meaning…?”
“Meaning that it would be a damned shame if we got this close to the finish line and then buggered it up because we got careless. Tell me, Compton, where’s yer motorcycle?”
“My motor – how do you know about my motorcycle?”
“Because it’s yer trademark – along with those cheap Armani suits ye wear.”
“Hey, they’re not cheap, OK?”
“Well, they certainly aren’t Saville Row.”
“Whatever. So what do you need by bike for?”
“My friend, I have a little job for ye….”
A few minutes later, Blade strolled into Bits, carrying a metal security case in his right hand. Red was still sitting where he left her, at the far end of the bar. Spazz had moved closer to the other woman, and was cleaning her Korth semi-automatic. Almost in spite of himself, Blade was impressed by the weapon – it had to have cost at least five figures, as it had the look of having been custom made to fit Spazz’s long, slender hands. Mike was trying to bring some semblance of order to the bar – which from the look of things was a fifty-fifty proposition at best. All three were engaged in a fairly animated discussion of some sort, which quickly trailed off when they saw him approaching. He held out the case to Red.
“Here. You get to carry this now. I want ye to hold on to it as if yer life depends on it – because it does.”
The confusion in Red’s voice matched that on her face. “I thought that Radome –”
“Change in plan. I’ve already spoken with her about it. We’re going to deliver that directly to Calvin. Are ye ready to go?”
Red picked up the pistol and shoulder rig she’d appropriated from an Arasaka who would no longer be needing it, slipped her arms through the straps and adjusted them. She then took the security case from him, and smiled. “I am now.”
The Scot turned to Spazz. “And you?”
The blonde put her cleaning kit away, settled the Korth into her handbag in a way that suggested that it was a custom fit, and then nodded with a smile of her own. “So am I.”
“Then I suggest we get moving.” Nodding to Mike, he said, “Thanks for the hospitality. Tell Calvin I think yer due for a raise.”
“I’ll do that – not that he’s likely to listen, the cheap bastard.” Blade grinned and turned back to the two women.
“Ladies, my car is outside.”
“Can I assume it’s not an Aston-Martin?”
“No, Spazz, it isn’t – and it’s not a Mini, either.”
“Dear God, that thing must be forty years old!” Spazz blurted out when she saw the F1. “Don’t you own anything new?”
“Get in. Both of you.”
Preview #4 <—> Preview #6 Coming soon.