The F1 was a rather unusual car, as it had seats for three people, rather than the typical two or four passenger arrangements. Once he’d stowed his harness and rifle, Blade slid with a practiced ease into the driver’s position in the center, while Spazz and Red occupied the two passenger seats, one on either side and slightly behind that of the driver, the blonde to Blade’s right, the ginger to his left. MacLaren’s right hand performed a quick dance atop the right console, inserting the key, hitting the red starter button and locking out the reverse gear in a blur of motion. The engine growled to life, and once he was satisfied both women were comfortably strapped in, he put the car in gear and rolled out of the parking lot of the Spaeth Pavilion.
He carefully wove his way through the US Marshal’s perimeter then that of the Atlanta police, who were, thankfully, keeping spectators and newsies alike at bay. Within three minutes he was turning onto the entrance ramp of northbound I-75, where he methodically worked his way up through the gears, waiting for the transmission to warm up sufficiently for high speed driving. A few moments later the car was hitting 90 miles per hour, the engine bellowing with joy as Blade steadily opened the throttle.
Predictably, Spazz was the first to say something. Leaning forward, she looked at the instrument cluster, noting the engine speed, then at Blade, and asked, “It’s not very quiet, is it?”
Blade gave her a sidelong glance as his right thumb flicked to a button on the steering wheel. “Are you going to complain the whole way?”
“Oh, go on, then, eject me. See if I care.”
Blade stared at her. “That has to be absolutely the worst ‘British’ accent I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“Shut up and fucking drive.” Spazz lapsed into a petulant silence – briefly. Blade was beginning to think that it was physically impossible for the woman to stop talking for anything more than a few seconds at a time. “Wait a minute, do you know where we’re going, because I as sure as hell don’t!”
Blade cocked an eyebrow and muttered, “I think between Alistair, Raven, and my GPS system, I should be able to stumble across our destination rather easily, Miss Collins.”
“In that case, where are we going?”
“To Hobbes’ main R & D facility, a little enclave he has up in the mountains, north of here, that he rather grandly calls ‘The Gardens.’ We should be there in about ninety minutes. Now, if you don’t mind, could you just shut up and let me fucking drive?”
The sudden silence on his right was so frosty, Blade was certain that it would have given a glacier chills. He smiled inwardly and pressed down on the accelerator a little harder.
“Connect with Mycroft, let him know that the crystals are secure and I’m on my way to the Gardens, ETA ninety minutes.”
“Very good, Sir!”
Another ninety minutes, Blade thought, and then I can go home.
“Listen, Compton, I left some of my gear back in the club, I’m going to go get it. You got everything?”
“Uh, yeah, OK, I think I do, Radome, ‘cept I’m low on ammo. And since those Rats back at Bits won’t be needing theirs anymore, y’know, I’ll go with you and…appropriate some of theirs. I don’t think they’ll object, do you?” To make his point, he grinned and hefted the MilTech rifle he’d eaerlier taken from the hands of one of the dead DisComs. “So, lead on!”
Walking into Bits, they found Mike, the bartender, steadily working away in his effort to make some sense of the shambles to which the nightclub had been reduced, moving Black Rat bodies aside, clearing away debris, setting up what few tables, chairs, and barstools remained serviceable. With the departure of Blade and the survivors of the extraction team, there was little else for him to do: at the moment, no one seemed particularly interested in availing themselves of a libation.
“Hey, Mike!” Radome called out as she breezed in.
“Radome! Glad to see that you made it. What’s next for you? Come to help me sort out this mess?”
“Nah, I left my jacket and ruck in the back, I’m gonna grab them and be on my way.” And with that she ducked into the private suite. Compton, who had trailed into the club in Radome’s wake, stopped and surveyed the damage.
“Wow. OK, we really kinda made a mess of your club, didn’t we?”
“You might say that,” Mike drawled, “but then you did have some help.”
“Uh, yeah, we did.” Compton then noticed a half-dozen or so MilTec rifles stacked neatly in one corner, along with a handful of assorted pistols. “Say, did you happen to find any spare ammo on those DisCom goons?”
“Nah, didn’t check them.” A speed multi-wrench appeared in Mike’s hand as if by magic, and he began taking apart the light-grid that had once been suspended above the dance floor. “The Marshals said that people from the coroner’s office would be here to take away the bodies, and that they would inventory them when they did. So I left them alone, other than getting them out of my way. If you need ammo and want to go through their pockets to find some, go ahead, I see nothing. Any loose change you find, though, is mine.”
After a few minutes Radome reappeared, ruck in one hand, an SMG in the other.
“Yeah, I’ve got four full mags now, plus the one in my rifle. Is that Bridelow’s H&K?”
“That it is. I took a cue from you, figured he wouldn’t be needing it anymore, and it’ll be a lot less awkward than a rifle to keep slung while I’m riding on the back of your bike.”
“OK, works for me. Where’re the crystals?”
Radome set the SMG on one of the few intact tables, then opened the zip of her ruck, showed Compton the titanium security case, zipped it closed and said, “I think it’s time we got moving.”
“Then let’s make it happen. See ya, Mike!”
“Be careful out there, you two.” Compton nodded his thanks, and with that he and Radome walked out of Bits and headed for the main entrance to Underground Atlanta.
“Where’s your bike?”
“Parking garage a block north of here.”
“Do you think it’s still OK?”
“Uh, yeah, I do.” There was something very close to a smirk on Compton’s face. “I’m pretty sure if anyone tried to screw around with it they’ve learned the error of their ways, y’know?”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. We’re going to The Gardens, right?”
“That’s where Blade said to go,” Compton replied with a shrug.
“And you always do what Blade tells you to do?”
They had just reached the courtyard when Radome posed the question, and Compton stopped dead in his tracks. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Radome.”
“What I’m getting at is that we’re working for Calvin Coleridge, not David MacLaren. We’ve been sold out at every turn on this gig, and I’m damned well not going to let that happen again. We’re headed to The Gardens on Blade’s say-so, but has anyone heard anything from Calvin?”
“No, but then I haven’t tried to comm him. Have you?”
“Yeah, I did, while I was in the back room at Bits. I couldn’t get through to either him or his VI, Mycroft. Tried everything I could think of to push a comm through, and got nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.”
“Wait a minute. You couldn’t push a comm through? I thought you never met a comm combination you couldn’t pick!”
“It was like the signals were being blocked just before they reached their destination. As if they were being deliberately bounced. So we’re out of touch with Calvin. Now get this: not twenty minutes ago I was having a conversation with Raven, you know, Blade’s ex-girlfriend and all-galaxy-class computer weasel? She was making noises about wanting to get her hands on the crystals. And not ten minutes ago, Blade was telling us where to take them. Now do you see why I’m getting twitchy?”
“Oh, man, I don’t need this right now, y’know?” Compton pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Why would Blade double-cross us? I mean, I could understand it if he’d just waltzed in uninvited-like and announced that he was taking charge, OK? But Calvin’s the one who brought him into this mess, right? And he told us Blade was coming, and in case you’ve forgotten already, it was Blade who, y’know, basically saved our asses from getting blown away about an hour ago. I think that’s enough to buy the guy some slack, OK?”
“Yeah, it does, but it still bothers me that we can’t get word to Calvin about our plans.”
“Yeah, me too, now that you’ve ‘splained it all to me.” Compton frowned, thinking fast and furiously. “OK, here’s what we’ll do – ”
“We’ll get on your bike – ”
“We’ll get on my bike – ”
“And head to The Gardens – ”
“And head to The Gardens – ”
“But we won’t take a direct route – ”
“We won’t take a direct route – ”
“And run like hell – ”
“And run like hell – ”
“At the first sign of trouble,” they finished in unison.
“Y’know, Radome, sometimes you really creep me out when you do that!”
“Sorry!” Somehow the expression on her face wasn’t exactly one of contrition. “I guess it’s time we got a move on, isn’t it?”
“Excuse me, Calvin, but Alistair, Blade’s VI, just informed me that he, that is, Blade, has secured the crystals and is on his way to The Gardens. His ETA is approximately 86 minutes.”
“Thank God.” Hobbes let out an explosive sigh as his shoulders slumped in relief. “Now I can get Kim’s mind back where it belongs and we can finish this project.” For almost a solid minute he said nothing more, just doodled on the scratch pad in front of him, scrawling out the words “Please don’t” over and over again. When he spoke again, it was in a distant monotone. “Mike, inform Security that there are visitors on the way.”
“Right away, Calvin. Shall I contact Emory University and arrange to have Kim moved to our own medical facility?”
“No, there’s no need for that right now – maybe later. Once I have those crystals I’ll have everything I need.” Calvin’s expression was still distracted, but his voice, though still a monotone, was firm. “And start spinning up Gamma lab while you’re at it.”
“You’re leaving Kim at Emory?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just do it, dammit.”
“I will. I will also point out, though, that the instructions you just gave me are completely at odds with what you’d led me to believe were your intentions. Obviously, it will be impossible to restore Kim’s mind if she’s still in hospital. Has there been some change in your plans or objectives about which you’ve chosen not to inform me?”
“I don’t have to tell you the reason why I make every decision I do.”
“No, you don’t, but failing to keep me informed of such things, or refusing to do so, can seriously impair my ability to perform my primary fuction.”
“Think, Mycroft, think! Well, all right, so technically you can’t think – but use the associative capabilities I gave you so that you can wake up and smell the cyber-coffee! This isn’t just restoring Kim’s mind that we’re talking about. Once I have those crystals again, I’ll be able to salvage Bowman! You know damned well that’s been not just my company’s but my most important project for the past five years. What happened to Kim is proof not only of how close it is to succeeding, but also just how vulnerable it is in it’s incomplete state.”
“Which may be all the more reason to back away from it for the time being.”
“NO!” Had Mycroft been human, he would have physically recoiled at the vehemence of Calvin’s response. “Mycroft, few men have ever had the opportunity to change the world, fewer still to change humanity at the same time. I have that chance almost within my grasp, and nothing is going to divert me from it! Reviving Kim is just going to have to wait. Bowman has to come first. Hell, it’s what she would want!”
“You’re taking an awful risk here, Calvin. And the consequences, if you’re wrong, will go well beyond the personally and professionally catastrophic.”
“Mycroft, do I have to remind you again of exactly what your primary function is supposed to be?”
“No, Calvin, you don’t. There are times, however, when I feel that there is a distinct difference between how you and I each interpret ‘support, promote, advance, and protect the research and financial goals of Calvin Coleridge and Cogito Orbus Corporation’.”
“Perhaps there is, but in the end only interpretation that matters is mine.”
“I’ve never forgotten that for a moment.”
Aiko Kurita was a very unhappy woman, and that made Hideki Nakajima a very nervous man.
Petite, with jet-black hair, calm brown eyes, porcelain-like skin and delicate, regular features; there were hints in her countenance that spoke to Korean or possibly Chinese ancestors somewhere in the shaded branches of her family tree, possibly with even a gaijun or two tossed into the mix at some point. Her age upward of sixty (no one knew exactly by how much), she was still a remarkably beautiful woman, which somehow accentuated the aura of menace that surrounded her when she was displeased. Like now, for instance….
“I know you well enough to realize that you won’t offer me excuses for your failure, Nakajima-san, only reasons. That does not mean there will be no consequences for you, however. Their degree and severity will depend on what you tell me now.”
Kurita’s face was projected on Umori’s monitor, and Nakajima stood before it, squarely in the middle of the visual pick-up’s field of vision, assuming a stance not unlike that of a soldier standing at attention.
“I understand, Kurita-sama. I made two mistakes. First, I failed to make certain Nagumo knew to flush out the civilians caught inside Underground Atlanta and drive them into the open once Blade began his break-in. Second, I underestimated Blade himself. He has not slowed at all since our last encounter, despite being older, and his skills have improved. I failed to anticipate that this might be so.”
“Indeed.” The way Kurita said it, the word was layered with meanings. She pursed her lips and looked into the middle distance, the effect as presented by the monitor being that of looking straight through Nakajima. After several seconds of silence, she spoke again, her contralto voice carrying clearly through the speakers behind the monitor.
“Nagumo cannot be blamed for his actions, I think. Lacking sufficiently clear instructions to the contrary, it appears that he chose to follow what would have been our usual procedures and contain the situation and limit the violence to our intended targets. How could he have known that we wanted it otherwise? Actually, I find this sense of restraint commendable – please tell him I said so, if and when you see him again. Do you know if he lived or died in the second firefight?”
“I believe that he’s alive, Kurita-sama, although he is certainly in the custody of the US Marshals by now.”
“That’s a minor problem at best, then, a mere bagatelle. Loyal subordinates are, as the gaijun say, ‘a dime a dozen.’ Loyal subordinates who also think are rare, however; it wouldn’t do to lose his services. I shall see to it.” Her eyes suddenly bored into Nakajima’s. “Your second mistake, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. How can it be that you, of all people, underestimated this man Blade?”
Nakajima knew that he was suddenly walking along the edge of a katana. Already, he knew, he would face Aiko Kurita’s manifest displeasure when he returned to Japan: a wrong answer here could well mean that when he did so, he would be going to his death. His mind racing at unbelievable speed as he considered the image of the woman before him, Nakajima sought to formulate a response that was at once honest and yet mitigated the degree if not the fact of his failure.
Aiko Kurita was the most powerful woman ever to sit on the board of one of the Japanese keiretsu, and at the same time a fearsome figure in the Japanese yakuza, a not surprising circumstance considering just how closely intertwined were the two. Her entry into the ranks of the criminal underworld was, in a way, ordained from birth: for almost two hundred years, even before the Meiji Restoration, the eldest male child in each generation of her family had assumed the role of a crime lord, Hanzai no bosu, in Kagoshima Prefecture, becoming ensconced within the ranks of the yakuza, Japan’s tightly-structured criminal organization which in ruthlessness and dedication made the American mafioso look like pikers by comparison.
Having come of age in the 1990’s, when many of the customary restrictions on the roles of Japanese women in their society were rapidly eroding, Aiko Kurita decided that the time had come for a change in the familial traditions as well. Not willing to settle for the minor role of ane-san, or senior sister, in the family’s criminal enterprises, she coveted her elder brother’s position as kumicho, the family boss; she promptly had him murdered, assumed his position, and then defied anyone to unseat her. After several failed attempts to do so by rival families, more than one of which she personally thwarted in some exceptionally bloody manner, the other yakuza family bosses grudgingly accepted her, recognizing a kindred spirit, whatever might be the differences in natural plumbing.
In the four decades which followed, Aiko Kurita worked diligently – and ruthlessly – to expand and consolidate her power base: under her iron hand, Kurita-ikka, the Kurita crime family, while not particularly large, had become widely feared, so that the Japanese government designated it boryokudan, an especially dangerous yakuza family. She also oversaw the expansion of the Kurita-ikka into as many diverse, legal enterprises as possible, while letting go of none of the family’s more questionable activities. The crowning triumph of her career came when she acquired sufficient stock in Arasaka Corporation to guarantee her a place on the company’s board of directors. She took a quiet, not-unbecoming pride in her status and accomplishments, but she had neither the time nor inclination to suffer toadies or lickspittles. Flattery would gain Nakajima nothing, nor would dissembling; in the end, he realized, all he could depend on was his confidence that he was more valuable to Aiko alive than dead.
“Kurita-sama, I would submit that my failure was one of degree, not of kind. Blade is a formidable opponent. While the operation’s objectives weren’t conflicting, they were, in a way, divergent, dividing our focus and diluting the effort put into each. Circumstances compelled us to use whatever personnel were at hand, most of whom had never before worked together. Blade exploited this – the uncoordinated response by the reisen proves it. I underestimated him by not anticipating the sheer ferocity of his response. I expected our man Bridelow to bring his people out of Bits in support of Blade, which would have created an opportunity for Nagumo’s reisen to enter the nightclub, take possession of the crystals, and then destroy the extraction team. What I did not – could not – see coming was Blade taking down a third of Nagumo’s people by himself. Once he was inside Bits, the only recourse we had was sheer brute force: the rag-tag collection of personnel at Nagumo’s disposal left him – and me – no other option.”
“Your point about conflicting objectives is well made, Nakajima-san; it hadn’t occurred to me until you mentioned it just now. Upon mature consideration, I find I must accept part of the blame for that.”
“I would submit, Kurita-sama,” Nakajima interjected boldly – and dangerously, “that the overall plan was perhaps too ambitious and thus too complicated.”
“Possible. Very, very possible. It was Arasaka’s intent to first secure the crystals, so that we could obtain and duplicate the technology. Just as important, though, was securing the data they contain. Arasaka could not have done much with that, but if the Rockley woman’s information was correct, our employer would have found that data invaluable.” Aiko lapsed back into silence again as she closed her eyes. A moment passed, then another, then another. Finally her eyes opened and the spoke again.
“Very well, this is what we shall do. Your original instructions remain unchanged. The tactical situation has been significantly altered, however, so carrying out those instructions will, I realize, become more difficult. That does not concern me. You must know, however, that the price for failure will become very steep indeed.” Nakajima bowed his head at this in a short, sharp gesture of acceptance. Aiko nodded briefly in return, then continued.
“You will make certain, by whatever means you require, to take possession of those crystals. You will also ensure that Calvin Coleridge will never be able to duplicate the work done to create them – or the data stored on them. We do not wish him to be killed, however, as his talents might prove useful to us in the future – there is no wisdom in wasting potential assets.
“And finally, you will find a way to draw Blade into an open, armed confrontation uder such circumstances that all but ensure a very public bloodbath, one that produces horrifying collateral damage, with numerous civilian casualties. Blade is to be humiliated, his image tarnished to the point of ruin. Aside from INN and MSBC, who are being quite cooperative, the American media are currently turning him into a folk hero who all but single-handedly defeated a group of foreign terrorists on US soil. This is unacceptable. So, you will create and execute a scenario where he is seen not as some avenging angel, but rather as a psychopath who simply enjoys killing people – the more, the better. But he must not be killed – it is imperative that he be allowed to live in order to face the condemnation, as well as the humiliation which will inevitably follow. That will not only satisfy our employer, but will also have the secondary benefit of removing some of the stigma which is currently attaching itself to Arasaka as a result of this morning’s events. See to it personally, Nakajima-san. There must be no one to stop us this time.”
“Given all the damage he has done to Arasaka Corporation in the last decade, I would think it preferable to see Blade killed outright, Kurita-sama.”
“Is it possible, Hideki” – Nakajima’s eyes narrowed warily at the use of his given name: Aiko Kurita was never more dangerous than when she doing her best to appear affable – “that your antipathy toward this man Blade is affecting, or even skewing, your judgment? Are you too close to this operation? Should I give thought to a reassignment, perhaps?”
“I fail to see – ”
“Blade will die in due time, when it is deemed proper. He has for too long been…what is that gaijun phrase? Ah, yes – a thorn in our flesh. But not now, not yet. Yet you make me wonder, given how determined you are to see this man die, if you’ve been working for Arasaka for too long, Nakajima-san. Do you forget that you now have another master, as do I?”
“You dishonor me, Kurita-sama, by even implying that my ultimate loyalty is given to anyone other than Hen – ”
“No!” Kurita cut him off. “Never use that name openly, no matter how secure you believe this channel to be! For now the shadows are still our most potent ally. You have your instructions – see to them.”
Sure enough, when Compton and Radome arrived at the spot where he had parked his motorcycle, a big, garishly painted Ducati ST7, he and Radome found a body, a young man who probably hadn’t yet seen his twenty-fifth birthday – and now never would – lying next to it. Compton knelt and checked for a pulse, a pure formality, he was certain; he found none.
“Poor soul, he was just…too high strung. I’m afraid the strain was more than he could bear.” Despite the words, there was little sympathy in his voice.
In contrast, Radome’s dismay was quite evident. “This shit is getting real old, real fast. Would you mind explaining what happened here, Compton?” She’d quite evidently had her fill of death and mayhem for the time being.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. My bike is protected by a high-voltage capacitor that will discharge if two or more of the controls – clutch, ignition, brakes, and such – are touched simultaneously. This poor bastard – ” he gestured dispassionately to the huddled figure on the concrete – “discovered that the hard way.”
Radome gave a shudder that wasn’t entirely theatrical, while Compton produced his key fob, thumbed it twice, and the bike gave an almost inaudible “chirp.” He then slid his commandeered rifle into a holster set up by the right side of the engine, unlocked a pair of helmets racked on the back, and held one out to his companion. Silver-painted, it was polished to an almost mirror-like sheen.
“Here, you can temporarily change your street name from ‘Radome’ to ‘Chromedome.”
“Very funny,” she growled at him, then, because the grin Compton was giving her was infectious, she smiled back as she pulled the helmet over her head. Once the chin strap was adjusted, she nodded to him, indicating she was good to go. Compton straddled the bike and hit the starter; with a mechanical cough, the motor caught almost instantly, and when it did, Radome swung into the saddle behind him and tapped the top of his helmet to indicate that she was ready. He clicked the bike into gear and opened the throttle, cruising swiftly out of the parking garage and into the morning Atlanta traffic.
Compton was good, even Blade was acknowledged that, but he wasn’t quite good enough to stop and ask himself why the young man he’d found lying dead next to his motorcycle had been there in the first place….
Spazz had settled into a petulant silence, concentrating on her hand-held mini-deck as she read several messages and sent a few. Blade was confident that none of those messages concerned him, and if any of them did, well, Alistair was monitoring them, and there were very few encryption protocols which the VI couldn’t crack. If he encountered one, he’d notify Blade and then automatically pass it to Raven, who in turn would work her sorcery on it.
Red, meanwhile, had apparently withdrawn even further into herself, if that was possible. She hadn’t said more than a handful of words since she, Spazz, and Blade had left Bits. Blade wondered at that: manifestly, the woman displayed an impressive degree of outward composure, but he was certain that her sangfroid was a mask. He had not forgotten Raven’s bafflement at not being able to find any record anywhere of this woman’s existence. Such enigmas were disquieting.
Abruptly, his line of thought lurched in an entirely different direction. Less than two hours previously he had been eyeballs-deep in a firefight with a horde of Arasaka reisen – well, it seemed like a horde at the time – certain that his luck had finally run out and that he was going to die at any moment, having failed in his mission. Now he was casually, almost mindlessly driving up I-75 at close to 100 miles per hour, on his way to a meeting with an almost-equally enigmatic, multi-millionaire IT designer and engineer, the same man whose request for Blade’s assistance had put the Scot in into the firefight in the first place, all as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It struck him, not for the first time, that this sort of odd situation was his life in microcosm: bursts of furious, usually violent, frequently perilous, action followed by hours, days, or even months of a sort of limbo as the dust settled, figuratively or literally, as the pieces and consequences of his actions sorted themselves out. Later, he knew, he would be left alone with his thoughts – and memories. True, there was always an after-action report to drawn up and studied (and from which hopefully something could be learned), but once that task was accomplished, then his time was his own, and that’s when the thinking began….
However, the thinking could wait. For the next hour or so, he could enjoy the simple pleasure of driving through the mountains of north Georgia in the company of two beautiful – and demonstrably lethal – women, neither of whom he had known for more than four hours. As for who and what they really were, well, he would figure that out when the time came to do so.
Keep your friends close, your enemies closer. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that old adage so literally. The thought amused Blade as he silently regarded the blonde on his right and the ginger on his left. I think I’m going to keep both of ye very close until I’m certain which of the two ye are.
Though she was careful to give no outward sign of it, Red was going through a small, private, and very personal iteration of Hell. She felt as though sometime in the last twenty-four hours she had stepped into an altered realty, one that shouldn’t be hers, and yet it was because she was in it and it was all too tangible. It just wasn’t supposed to be her reality….
And “Red.” “Red.” She knew from the color of her dress and the color of her hair that the tag had been all but inevitable, yet no one in the extraction team had bothered to ask her real name. It was Bridelow who had christened her “Red” and the label simply stuck. Yet the way he had instantly hung the tag on her seemed to imply that there more significance to it than a just being a convenient moniker.
And Bridelow. Why had the only emotion she felt when Blade shot him been not shock, anger, horror, disgust, or even surprise, but rather relief? Why, even knowing that he was safely dead (why “safely” dead and not just dead?), was the mention of his name, or even the thought of him, enough to fill her with apprehension?
And, most unsettling of all, why did the thought that when she, Spazz, and Blade arrived at The Gardens she might find answers to these questions leave her terrified?
Some of her unease must have eventually communicated itself to Blade, for he suddenly gave her a keen, penetrating look that he held for a few seconds before returning his attention to the road. When he looked back again, his expression was a strangely reassuring mixture of curiosity and compassion.
“Feeling a bit unsure of yerself, are ye?”
Red nodded, and Blade gave her a brief smile. “I won’t say I’m surprised at that. After all, ye’ve had more excitement in yer life in the last thirty hours or so than most people have in years – if ever.” Quickly, with a minimum of fuss and bother, he slid the F1 two lanes to the right, downshifted and went swooping into the off-ramp for the I-575 spur, dropping his speed to a slightly more sedate eighty-five.
“When we get to The Gardens, and once Hobbes – Calvin – has the crystals back in his possession, this little stunt will be over for me. I’ll go back to Scotland, send Hobbes my bill, he’ll pay it, and that will be the end of it, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“Wrong. My part, my immediate role will be over, true, but there’re going to be a lot of ripples in the pond, so to speak, a lot of consequences coming from what went down at DisCom, and what just happened back in Atlanta Underground with Arasaka. Like it or not, ye’re going to be part of those consequences, and ye’ll have to deal with them when they come. So, what are ye prepared to do?”
“This may sound rude, Mr. MacLaren, but I don’t mean for it to do so. Why do you care?”
“Oh, ye’re a sharp one, all right.” Blade nodded in approval. “Most people would simply open up and treat me like their father confessor at that question. You? Ye’re on guard right away, looking for the hidden barb, the trap, wondering what my angle is. Very good.”
“Thanks for the pat on the head, but you didn’t answer my question.”
“The reason I care about what ye might do, Red, is that when I was getting my first briefing on this op, Raven warned me that something about it made her twitchy, that it wasn’t as simple and straightforward as it appeared at first glance. I trust Raven, in fact, I’ve trusted her with my life more than once, and when she says something makes her nervous, I pay attention, because she’s almost always right.”
“Fair enough, but that still isn’t an answer.”
“No, but it is a preface.” He paused, thinking about how to best put what he had to say next.
“Red, ye understand, don’t ye, that you’re the great enigma in the middle of everything that’s happened in the past two days? Ye’ve clearly had weapons and martial arts training, ye move like a solo, act and react like a solo – and a damned good one at that – but no one knows who ye are. And I think that’s more important than anything else right now. So why don’t we start there. Do ye have a name? A real name, I mean?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Really? Well, perhaps you could tell me how ye came to be in DisCom’s R & D center when Hobbes’ extraction team got there?”
“I can’t tell you that, either.”
Something in her voice set off a tiny warning bell in Blade’s head, and what was to be his next question died a’borning. Instead he asked, “Can’t tell me, or won’t tell me?”
“Right the first time, Mr. MacLaren. I would tell you if I could, but I can not tell you what I don’t know.” The young woman’s face was grim, and there was a mix of real anger, genuine frustration, and not a little fear and desperation in her tone. Blade’s reply was gentle but firm.
“I think that, if ye can, ye’d best explain yerself, lass.”
“Mr. MacLaren, have you ever had a nightmare where you don’t know who you are, but you do know that you aren’t who everyone thinks you are?”
“No, I never have, but that would be a nightmare indeed.”
“Then imagine how much more of a nightmare it would be if it happened to you in real life!”
“That’s what’s happening to me right now! I didn’t always look like this – I didn’t have this body, this face, this hair. I know I’ve been body-sculpted and somebody has done reconstructive surgery on my face – but the terrible part is that, while I know that this isn’t the face and body I was born with, I don’t remember what my real ones looked like! I have these bits and pieces of memories – or what I think are memories – but I don’t know what they mean! I can’t remember my real name – as far as I know, I don’t have a name at all. I have no memory of a past, a family, friends, pets, anything that would give me an identity. It’s not like I’m suffering from amnesia, like I’ve forgotten who I am. It’s more like whoever I was had been erased.”
“Tabula rasa…” Blade murmured.
“Tabula rasa – Latin for a ‘blank slate.’ To someone like Hobbes, it would be the equivalent of having your memory overwritten.” Silence reigned inside the F1 for some minutes. Spazz had set aside her mini-deck and was wordlessly following the conversation.
“What’s the first thing you remember, Red?”
“Being inthe R & D center at DisCom. The extraction team had just walked in, and Bridelow said something, but I don’t remember what. The technicians panicked and tried to set off an alarm. Bridelow blew them away – he used a shotgun, I remember. Then it jammed on him when he tried to reload it, and he threw it away because just then all hell broke loose – one of DisCom’s internal security patrols surprised the team. Everybody started shooting, but nobody had a spare weapon for me, so I just stayed low and out of the way.”
“Good thinking, that.”
“When the shooting stopped, all the DisCom guards were dead, and so were two of people from the extraction team. Bridelow opened up some sort of electronic vault, grabbed a bunch of small black cylinders out of it, stuffed them into his ruck and said it was time for everyone to run like hell. So I grabbed my shoulder bag and did just that. Ran with them, I mean. Bridelow told you the rest before you shot him. But that’s everything I remember – everything before Bridelow and the rest of his people walked into the R & D lab is like a thick, oily gray fog to me.”
“And once you’d thrown your lot in with Bridelow and company, you decided to stay with them?”
“What else could I do? What else should I have done? For all I knew these people had just saved my life. It sure as hell seemed as if they had. And when the shit hit the fan at Underground Atlanta, it was like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. Suddenly I realized I had all of these skills, lethal skills, all these moves and this muscle memory, and I just put it to work. And that’s something else that scares me: I don’t know where it all came from, but I do know that it’s part of me, the real me. I just don’t know why!”
“I have to tell ye, from everything I’ve seen, ye’re pretty scary when ye’re in action – ye held yerself together damned well. It was rather impressive to watch.”
“And why shouldn’t I? ‘Hold myself together,’ I mean? Is it going to do me or anyone else one damn bit of good if I suddenly break down in hysterics? That would have been a really excellent way of getting killed sometime in the last thirty hours or so, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, I wasn’t arguing with ye, lass. Something tells me those skills of yours are going to be very, very important to you in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, I know some people, and know some other people who know other people, who might be able to help ye. I’ll contact them as soon as I’m back in Scotland.” Turning to Spazz, he gave her his most dazzling smile and said, “Now, Miss Collins, lest you still harbor doubts about my navigational prowess, we just passed through East Ellijay, and this is now officially US Highway 76. It will take us straight into Blairsville and out the other side, and from there lead directly to The Gardens. Satisfied?”
“I will be if you make sure you stop at the next goddamn gas station or fast food joint. I’ve gotta pee.”
Blade sighed theatrically. “You, Miss Collins, are a lot of trouble.”
“Holy crap! I’d forgotten how much fun riding a motorcycle can be – once I got past the fanny-pucker stage, that is!” Compton couldn’t see the huge grin on Radome’s face, but then, he didn’t need to, he could hear it in her voice. He laughed.
“Everybody has their own idea as to just what is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, y’know, and this is mine. I mean, the first set of wheels I ever owned was a motorcycle – I’ve never actually owned a car.”
“Where was that? Your first set of wheels, I mean.”
“Out in California. I was born there, OK? In Compton, as a matter of fact. That’s where my street name comes from, really.”
“So what’s your real name? I don’t think I ever asked.”
“Gerry. Gerry Hone. And you’re Trish, right?”
“Yeah, I am. Nice to meet you. Do you ever get back there? To Compton, I mean.”
“I used to, but I haven’t been back since Southern California seceded and got annexed by Mexico in 2023. My family left right afterward and moved to Cleveland, OK? They said it was like an improvement, y’know? I swing through there now and then to say ‘Hi!’ to the folks. What about you?”
“My parents are long gone, and my only sister hasn’t spoken to me in years. Long story, and I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“OK, fair enough. Enjoy the ride.”
Radome had been delighted to discover that Compton had a set of low-power transceivers installed in his helmets, which allowed the two of them to easily converse as they sped northbound on Georgia 400. It had been years since she had ridden a motorbike, and had been correspondingly nervous, holding on for dear life once they left Underground Atlanta and as Compton worked his way through the traffic on I-85. But Compton quickly demonstrated that he was a skillful and considerate driver, and as the miles rolled by, she began to relax more and more until by the time the passed Alpharetta, she was positively enjoying herself.
They had just made the hard left turn at the end of Georgia 400 onto Highway 19 when the trouble began. They were pulling away from the intersection when Radome heard Compton mutter, “Uh-oh.”
“What is it?”
“I think we’ve got company.”
“Don’t look back, OK? The longer they think we haven’t spotted them, the better.”
“Then you’d better tell me what’s going on.”
“There’s a silver-grey SUV about a half-mile behind us, right? I saw it from time to time on the way up here, but then I would lose sight of it in traffic, so I figured that there was no way it was following us. Well, it just turned onto this road, and it’s accelerating, OK? And this isn’t a road where you want to be driving a big, clumsy vehicle real fast, unless you’ve got a real good reason to. I think we’re that reason.”
“Can you lose it?”
“Not until we get past Dahlonega. But I don’t think that’ll be a problem – whoever these guys are, I doubt they’ll want to try anything where anybody can see them. So they’ll wait until we’re someplace pretty isolated to make a move, y’know?”
“So what’s your next move?”
“Gimme a minute, let me check something.” Compton fell silent for a moment, Radome knew he was checking the GPS in the heads-up display in his helmet’s visor. “OK, we can go north out of town or head west. If we head west, we can loop back to 400, but that just takes us farther away from The Gardens, y’know?”
“Yeah, probably not a good idea. I don’t need a rocket scientist to figure out why somebody is tailing us. So we head north?”
“That keeps us heading in the right direction, at least, plus things start getting deserted outside the town.”
“Well, not for a few miles, but there are some pretty empty stretches, yeah. But that can work two ways – this road starts winding and twisting a lot more once we’re north of Dahlonega, OK? Which means more chances to break contact and lose them. Let’s just hope there’s a paved road there when we need one.”
“Why not take one of those back roads? There’s no way an SUV could keep up with us on one of them.”
“This is a street bike, Radome, not a dirt bike. On a dirt road we really can’t go much faster than a four-wheel vehicle. And this suspension can’t handle a really rough road at all.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll lose ‘em.”
“Maybe we can give them the slip in town?”
“No way. Too many people around, y’know? I don’t wanna get myself killed, but I’m not real keen on getting some innocent bystander whacked either, OK? Plus, I can’t get real enthusiastic about the idea of some pistol-packin’, well-intentioned private citizen blowing us off the bike, either. We’re not exactly wearing signs that say ‘We’re the Good Guys!’, are we?”
“A point, definitely a point.”
Compton slowed the bike a bit as they approached the outskirts of the town. “OK, listen up. Hold on tight and just keep your head pressed against my back. Don’t try to lean, don’t try to ‘help,’ OK? Leave the driving to me. I think we’re about to make some of the good citizens of Dahlonega a bit unhappy. Are you ready for this, Trish?”
“Go for it, Gerry.”
Compton gave a grunt of satsifaction, then manually downshifted and cranked the big Ducati’s throttle wide open. Horns blaring, engine roaring, he tore into the town.
Dahlonega, Georgia was a small college town that was also popular with tourists exploring the southernmost reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It would have been incorrect to call it “sleepy,” but it was most certainly quiet. And it was not the sort of place that ever expected a bellowing Italian streetbike, closely pursued by a lurching, tire squealing Ford Endurance, to go streaking through it at seven o’clock on an August Thursday morning. Fortunately, there were very few pedestrians and almost no vehicular traffic, so when Compton tore into a skittering, tire-screaming right turn in the middle of the town onto the Moore Parkway, followed a few seconds later by the Endurance, which turned so hard so abruptly that it momentarily went up on two wheels.
The Parkway, despite its somewhat grandiose name, was a simple two-lane highway, well-paved and maintained, but offering few opportunities for the pursuing Endurance to overtake and pull alongside the big Ducati. The first six miles were a series of long, sweeping right- and left-hand turns, interrupted by a few short straights, the combination of which allowed Compton to use the bike’s superior acceleration and his skill to keep the range open between himself and the pursuit. He swooped into a twisty bit that would have been at home on a Formula One circuit, then opened the throttle wide on a brief straightaway, hoping to put enough distance between him and the SUV to lose sight of each other, giving him the chance to break contact.
For her part, Radome began to anticipate Compton’s moves, having become familiar enough with his body language as a driver: she could sense how he was setting up for a turn or a straight by how the muscles in his back and shoulders tensed. This gave her enough confidence to reach behind her back with her right hand and swing the H & K submachine gun to her side, brace the butt against her lower ribs, and rack the bolt handle. She knew better than to try anything so supremely stupid as attempting to shoot back at their pursuers, but if they ever managed to pull up along side her and Compton, she was prepared to give those gumballs a warm un-welcome. Suddenly Compton was speaking to her.
“Radome, decision time coming up, OK? We’re coming up on a T in less than a minute, we’re outta sight of that SUV, and we finally got a shot at breaking contact. But we’ve gotta decide what we’re gonna do, y’know. We can go left or right, OK? Left’ll take us into Blairsville and then on through to The Gardens, but once we’re on that road, basically that’s it, there’s no way to turn back and pretty much no place to turn off, at least nothing that goes anywhere. Lots of dead ends, y’know? Right’ll take us into a little town called Cleveland, and we’ll have more options as far as routes, but it’ll take us farther away from The Gardens. And I’m kinda hoping the closer we get the more likely the cavalry’ll arrive, y’know?”
“I hear you. Take a left – I like the idea of the cavalry arriving sooner. That SUV is the only one we’ve seen, but something tells me it’s not the only out there looking for us.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a point. OK, left it is.”
And left it was, as Compton ignored the approaching “STOP” sign completely, and, in fact, barely slowed down as he swung the bike northward. A few hundred yards north of the turn, the roadway curved gently to the right, and by the time the Endurance reached the intersection, Compton and Radome were lost to sight.
Unfortunately, that didn’t appear to deter the driver of the Endurance. After sitting at the intersection for a few seconds, the SUV turned left and accelerated, although at a far more leisurely pace than Compton had done.
Meanwhile, Compton, feeling better with each passing second as his rearview mirrors were empty of any sign of the Endurance, guided his bike into what the locals called the Bogg Creek Bend, a long, wavering 180-degree turn that from overhead looked a big, backward “C” drawn by a giant, none-to-steady hand. All he had to do now was keep his speed up – even if that silver SUV had turned left back at the intersection, there was no way it could catch up to him now. Another twenty, twenty-five minutes, and he and Radome would be rolling into –
“What is it?”
“We got company.”
“I thought we lost them.”
“I mean up ahead, OK?”
Radome snuck a quick glance over Compton’s left shoulder, and her heart dropped to where her stomach had been, her stomach having shriveled into a cold, hard knot of fear. Ahead of them were at least three more of the silver-gray SUVs, carefully positioned so that they completely blocked the roadway, with no room to maneuver between them, while the steep ditches to either side of the road precluded any attempt to go around the vehicles. More intimidating were the dozen or so people clearly armed with rifles and submachine guns, all of which were leveled at the approaching motorcycle. Without any warning, they began shooting.
The front of Compton’s Ducati exploded in a shower of plastic, composites, and glass as the incoming bullets shredded the wind fairing, windscreen, and lights. At least one projectile punctured the front tire, and it was only Radome’s added weight at the rear of the bike that kept it from nosing over. As it was, Compton felt control slipping away from him as he did his best to slow the machine down.
“Get ready to tuck and roll, Trish,” he shouted. “The bike’s going down – I’m gonna try and lay it on its side!”
“Gerry – !”
Radome felt the motorcycle go over, then suddenly she was on the pavement, skipping and sliding across the road and into a ditch, half on her back, half on her right side. The contact with the road stunned her, and after a particularly hard bounce, her head struck the pavement sharply. The helmet absorbed most of the impact, but it will still enough to knock her unconscious.
Compton, who had spilled bikes before, was better prepared but Fate decided to take a hand, and just as he was about to let go of the machine, the muzzle of the MilTec rifle he had slung in the holster on the right side of the engine dug into the pavement. Instantly, the bike’s momentum sent it cartwheeling end-over-end, to crash into the back of one of the SUVs. Halfway through the first spin Compton and machine parted company, and as he went flying, he found himself thinking “Ooooohhhhh, shhhhiiiiiiiit! This is gonna hurt!” Then he managed to twist his body in the split second before impact, so that he landed on his back, trusting his titanium spine to protect him.
Amazingly, he was successful – at least to the point that he was still alive after he landed. That was where the good news ended, however. Stunned, bleeding, with a sharp pain in his side that told him that at least one of his ribs was broken, Compton felt himself slipping away into darkness. The last thing he saw were a half-dozen people advancing in his direction, firearms pointed straight at him. His last thought, just before the blackness took him, was “God damn it! We were so close….”
The drive into and through Blairsville was uneventful, and all three of the occupants of the F1 were able to be properly appreciative of the frequent picture-postcard-like vistas that would unexpectedly open up before them as they rounded a curve or topped a hill. The only blemish on an otherwise perfect morning was that they seemed to have left the sun behind in Atlanta: gray clouds were gathering not all that far above the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there seemed to be a hint of approaching rain in the air.
A right turn onto Plottown Road and short drive later, they found a sign that read simply, “The Gardens,” standing beside an unadorned two-lane entrance road. There was no gate, no security guards, nothing to indicate that this was something other than a private drive, “The Gardens” being nothing more than a well-secluded private residence. Certainly no passerby would ever imagine that it lead to one of the most advanced computer hardware and software development facilities in the world. The gently-winding drive followed a small stream that the GPS identified as Yewell Branch for what Blade’s odometer said was just over a mile, and then they came upon what was obviously the main parking area. Blade stopped the car, shut down the engine, and sat for a wordless moment, then together, Spazz, Red, and he climbed out of the F1 and gazed in wonder at the scene before them.
Calvin Rowland Coleridge had commissioned some of the finest structural and landscape architects in the world to design the buildings and grounds of “The Gardens,” seeking to create the most perfect environment possible for creativity, research, and study. And not just in computer and information technologies and sciences: he also strove to be a patron of the arts, sponsoring the work of dozens of artists, sculptors and writers, all of whom lived and worked at The Gardens amidst their more technically-oriented colleagues. Rolling hills, long stretches of hardwoods and pines, expanses of thick, green grass, meandering roadways and footpaths, half-hidden structures burrowed into hillsides, stone cottages and larger brick buildings, it was what one observer had called “the closest approximation of Tolkein’s ‘Shire’ that has ever existed on Earth.” Theme parks might describe themselves as “magical” but The Gardens were simply magic. It was a place of profound and quiet beauty.