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Business As Usual

Part I

There aren't a lot of parks in Nightside. When the city of Drasgow outgrew the artificial island it was built on, the corps that did business there simply stacked a new city on top of the old one. That's how Nightside got its name, because it was cut off from the light of the sun. Since plants wouldn't grow, most of the parks were dug up and replaced with industrial buildings. The big Alliance Oil derricks pumping fossil fuels up from the sea bed are apparently located where swingsets and merry-go-rounds, trees and flower boxes used to be.

Mathieson Park was one of the rare exceptions. It was in the middle of Sapphire Glen, once a nice subdivision for corp office workers that was now still fairly nice for Nightside, home to factory laborers not rich enough to move to the upper city but with a steady income that kept them out of Nightside's real slums. Sure, their lawns were made of RealGrass turf, but it didn't need mowing and it beat a scrap-metal shack on a concrete patch all to hell.

The park was quiet, open, and peaceful, which made it a good place for a meet. There's not much cover for lurking ambushers or eavesdroppers. We followed a winding cobbled path between artificial lawns where sculptures had replaced trees. A gracefully arched wooden bridge spanned a gurgling stream of seawater pumped up from the ocean beneath. The effect was disconcerting, but like I said, it beat hell out of the alternatives. Such as growing up in the slums and scratching and clawing your way out as a hunter because you're too poor, too little-connected, and too ill-educated to do it legit.

I'm not usually so maudlin when on a job; it's bad for business and a good way to get killed. I probably shouldn't have taken this one because of all the baggage involved, but our rep was on the line and if you get a rep as a screw-up, you're never going to live it down. In this biz, second chances are few and far between.

The problem was this: my mates and I had been hired to do a simple snatch-and-grab of some datachips, which we'd pulled off flawlessly. The only trouble was that before we'd gotten there, someone else had switched chips on us and sold the real ones to our fixer. Annoying enough, but when you add in that it was my fault for running my mouth at the wrong time, it was a major scrag-up. The kind that I had to fix, and fix now.

So, when WildChild, the fixer, offered us the courier job, taking the chips to the guy who'd hired him, we took it because we damn well had to. WildChild knew it, too, curse him. I could see it in the smirk, on the arrogant grin on his biosculpted twelve-year-old's face...and in the way he offered rock-bottom payment, at least to three of us.

On the other hand, he'd given us the job, which he wouldn't have in the ordinary course of business. The fixer didn't put the hunters in direct contact with the employer, because next time they might decide to do without a fixer. This was a chance at redemption, nothing more, nothing less, that we were being given.

Part of me wondered whether it was out of a sense of respect, if WildChild genuinely thought we were worth the second chance. It was possible. Just like it was possible I'd be Executive Director of LIM someday.

The rational part of my brain figured it was the power thing. When you got down to it, any idiot could destroy something. Creation, though, took real power. I figured the kingmaker types got the ultimate power-trip rush, and if WildChild could rescue someone like me from my own mistakes, well, that was a measure of how much he really could control. Fine, let him have his kicks, I figured. We'll take it.

Our contact was right where he was supposed to be, in an open circle that had once been surrounded by hedges. He was elderly, his face lined, his green hair streaked with gray. He was flanked by two corporate soldiers, a woman with short blue hair and a shaven-headed man in dark glasses. Paired slashers, boomerang-like throwing weapons, hung at the woman's waist, while the man's hand rested on the hilt of a vulcan in a hip holster. They weren't worried about concealment; it was a show of force, a reminder not to get cute. A sleek black landskimmer was parked nearby, another guard standing next to it.

Funny, I thought, how similar their group was to ours. On my right was Roxy, our electronics whiz, while on my left was Riel.

I'd said that three of us were getting low-end wages for this job. Riel was the fourth. No one with a brain would stiff Riel. He clearly wasn't from the slums like the rest of us; his exec-styled carbonsuit and long black fibercoat made him look like he ought to be on the other side of the deal. Nor were his neatly cut hair, handsome face, and steel-rimmed spectacles street wear. Unlike a lot of pros and wannabes who want to look intimidating, Riel's lenses weren't dark. Frankly, he didn't need that look to impress. He had presence, the kind that makes you want to hide when he gets angry with you. He was ice, sleek and silent, and I had no idea why the hell he wasted his time with the rest of us.

"Who sent you?" the elderly man asked.


He nodded. There were no codes or passwords, no kid stuff.

"Do you have the package?"

My turn to nod.

"The payment?"

He took out a plastic card from his suit pocket, navy blue with a steel-gray logo on the front. The same colors on the automated teller outside Kinjar's, which belonged to the Daisho Palm-Mota Bank. Bank access cards aren't common in my part of Nightside; deals on the street tended towards cash only. This one was probably blank credit, transferred electronically from account to account so tracking the original source was functionally impossible. I wondered how much it was, probably a lot since WildChild had hired us for the original job at a price of five-K meseta.

I reached into my jacket and took out a slim silver case, inside of which were three datachips. What was on the chips, I didn't know. Corp info, most likely, stuff I couldn't figure out even if I'd tried to read it. Which I hadn't. I wasn't a saint, but I liked to think that I had some honor. A courier job meant transport the package, not open it and look inside. The contact had to trust that, just like I had to trust that the access card really did contain funds.

I took two steps forward, extending the chip case, and then all hell broke loose. The searing blue-white beam of a laser cannon illuminated Nightside's eternal twilight, blowing apart the green-haired man's skull. It was a beautiful shot; the firer, I realized, wasn't even in the park but leaning out the window of an overlooking building. The corp soldiers reacted at once. They went after us.

"What the--" I exclaimed as the male guard drew a shortsword from his belt and charged, the titanium blade nearly cutting me. Nearly, because you don't survive in this business by standing around stupefied when things go wrong. I was lunging back almost at once and pulling my own weapon, a ceramic knife with a nine-inch blade. That baby had run me some heavy meseta, and I hoped it would be worth it.

Riel hadn't come to my aid, even though the attacker was on his side of me. He had other business to attend to. He made what looked like an OK sign, pointing the last three fingers in the direction the sniper's shot had come from and commanded, "NAFOI!"

A searing bolt of flame flashed like a spear from Riel's hand, and--I kid you not--a pillar of fire exploded in that far-off window, definitely baking whomever had been manning the cannon. That gave the soldiers something to think about. Since most guys don't fight too well while they're thinking, I took the opportunity to slam my fist into my opponent's nose, feeling the bone break even through my studded leather glove, and rammed my knife into his gut, stabbing up under the armor plates protecting his chest.

Roxy's hand was bleeding where a slasher throw had knocked the sonic gun from her grip, but by now Riel had his Inverness CV-3 out. Coolly, he provided the female soldier with a lesson on the value of headgear. She didn't learn much, but the shotgun's burst of microflechettes provided an excellent example for the rest of us.

The last guard was in the skimmer, driving away with a squeal of tires. Probably he was already on the visiphone, calling the incident in. If he was part of the hit team, that meant he was probably blaming it on us. If innocent, who knew? Plus, I was sure the cops were already on the way; Sapphire Glen was one of the parts of Nightside the Division of Law Enforcement actually bothered to cover. Laser cannons, fire techniques, and gunshots tended to inspire phone calls, and the race was on between the cops and the corp agents. If I was a betting man I might some side action going on whether there'd be a coverup and if so, how much of one.

The problem now was getting out of there. Before we left I snagged the access card we'd been offered by the now-dead contact. It strengthened the case against us, but heck, if we were being framed it would just get "lost" anyway.

We had our own vehicle nearby, a landskimmer that Roxy had effected a temporary exchange of ownership interest on (yeah, she slipped the lock, wired the ignition code, and stole the thing). The fourth member of our team was waiting behind the wheel. Slick Sid was our gridrider, our hacker, but he was also our top driver. He popped the doors of the nondescript little sedan and we were barely inside before he peeled out and we were gone.

On our way back to the darker parts of Nightside, I tried to sort through just how badly we were being set up. It looked like a classic case of "frame the hunters for trying to stick up the contact." The cover story would be that the sniper was one of us and the guards had taken us down. We'd screwed that up by escaping, but now it looked like we'd killed everyone and then cut and run with the money and the data in a standard doublecross, the kind dumb and greedy hunters sometimes pulled.

That assumption meant that whomever had pulled the trigger on the contact was a part of the contact's corp. He or she almost had to be in order to suborn the sec-agents and learn where to plant the sniper.

Wait a minute, I thought. I could be jumping to conclusions without a net there. The two guards didn't necessarily have to be a part of the hit. They might have gone after us in good faith, assuming we were in on the ambush. Sure, they could have asked questions, but most people don't talk too well in a fire zone and with their boss dead their number-one priority would have been saving their own backsides.

That possibility kicked the paranoia wide open again. A gridrider could have hacked the contact's system, phone messages, or whatever, and hiring a sniper in Drasgow was as easy as coming up with the money. It could have been anyone from a coworker to a business enemy to an ex-wife. Hell, it could have been some nut who'd ODed on his last metachem of choice and too many Crack Shot! VR games.

Then I had to consider motive. I'd ruled us out as being that motive; we were too unimportant for the amount of money and complexity being put in motion here. A little twinge at the back part of my mind indicated that Riel might be the focus of all this and would be worth the trouble but I kicked it aside. We were strictly peripheral here; the action wasn't focused on us.

I'd been assuming the attack's purpose had been to kill the contact and provide a handy scapegoat. That is, it could have been done at any time, but it happened to be convenient for it to go down how it did. There was another option, though: the data. Whatever was on those three chips was important enough to send us to steal it in the first place, so why not a second attempt, by the original owners or someone else entirely? If so, we'd definitely be in for more action.

Of course, that would be inevitable. The contact's corp would be after us to even the score for the apparent doublecross. The killer would probably be after us, either to get the datachips or to eliminate witnesses who were supposed to be gravestoned or both. The cops might be after us, depending on what kind of coverup might go down. If we somehow hid out from all that, any rep we had left would be dead. We had to figure this thing out and make it right or we were finished in one way or another.

"Here," Riel said, flipping something into my lap, "this ought to give you some clues."

The object was a wallet, slender and real leather, not synthetic like Roxy's bright red jacket.

"Where's this come from?"

"I took it from the dead contact while you were getting the access card."

I opened the wallet. Apparently the corporate man hadn't been worried about preserving anonymity in the event he was killed or kidnapped; this appeared to be his normal, day-to-day wallet.

Good for us.

Inside I found five hundred meseta in cash, two holopics of a pretty girl with long blue hair (daughter, trophy wife, or mistress, I didn't know which), a Colesburg Bank access card for his personal finances, and two ID smartcards. One was a personal one issued by the government, and the other was corporate. I looked at the corp card with its teal triskelion logo on black and murmured, "Scion-Colesburg."

Scion-Colesburg Technologies was Palm's second-biggest megaconglomerate and the major rival of LIM, the corp we'd swiped the chips from. That fit the datasteal into a known pattern: Scion-Colesburg hires WildChild to hire us to steal key information from Luveno. Business as usual. What's not usual is the hit at the meet.

"Okay, let's ditch this car and get somewhere safe," I said. "Sid, you've got some work to do."

*     *     *      *     *

The corporate headquarters of Scion-Colesburg/Drasgow, a majority-owned subsidiary of Scion-Colesburg Technologies, was not located in Nightside but in the heart of the upper city's business sector. It was a lethal-looking spire, a four-sided pyramid with a base that occupied one of Drasgow's cramped city blocks and a peak two thousand feet above the street. The blue triskelion shone out huge and bold from the black glass walls, and from above it gleamed something VX had seen very few times in real life: the stars in Palm's night sky.

The man who controlled it all, not just the building but the vast resources it symbolized, was Nolan Scott, Executive Director of Scion-Colesburg/Drasgow. Scott was a veteran corporate warrior; in his early fifties, his iron-gray hair and smooth-skinned good looks made a good impression on the holovid and in the boardroom alike. His manner was imposing and stern, that of a father who although loving knows what is best for his children and takes care to guide them along that path.

"Your preliminary report is not encouraging," he stated, his gaze holding Security Chief Brianna Jade fixed in place. "Mr. Hastings was a valued employee. I don't like seeing him killed, especially by some Nightside guttertrash hunters."

"I don't like it any better than you," Jade snapped back. She was a tall woman with close-cropped hair of a shade matching her name and an angular face that she augumented rather than deemphasized with cosmetics. "The hunters went through two of my people to get to Hastings."

"Give me the details."

"It's a pretty straightforward affair. Hastings meets with the hunters, who were the couriers for some datachips in an op he was running. They show the chips; Hastings shows the blank credit. Then someone punched open Hastings' head with a laser cannon and the hunters took out the sec-agents assigned to cover him. The driver called for backup and got out, for which I don't blame him given the circumstances."

"Is there DLE involvement?"

Jade shook her head.

"No. Some of the locals called the cops, but after a few discussions with them the DLE agents accepted that this is an internal corporate matter not involving the citizens of Sapphire Glen, so they don't intent to interfere. More than likely the hunters are Nightside scum which the cops won't waste their time on one way or the other."

Scott folded his hands.

"Good; then we can proceed freely." He pursed his lips in thought. "What would you consider our chances of locating these individuals?"

"Fairly good. They'll have to sell the data; that should keep them from disappearing into some stew pit in the slums. If you give me authorization to access Hastings' files, there'll probably be a lead on his fixer there somewhere. We'll put pressure on him or her and they'll squeal. Hell, we might not even have to get rough. Odds are the hunters didn't take the meseta from Hastings just to pay their fixer, so they've doublecrossed him, too. Then, there's Jaeger."


"One of the guards," Jade said. "The hunters didn't go for the head on him. We'll be able to generate an active-memory clone, one who was an up-close-and-personal eyewitness."

"Excellent," Scott said. "The deaths of any company personnel are tragic, but at least this is one less to mourn."

"Wrong," Jade corrected her superior. "It's one less Palman asset lost to the balance sheets. The original Jaeger is still just as dead. That's something I won't let these hunters write off their bill." Her jaw clenched as she fought down the desire to tell Scott off more thoroughly. "Do I have your permission to access Hastings' files?"

"I think not, at least not just yet."

"What?" Jade exploded.

"Hastings had many projects which he handled for us. Until his files have been fully checked, I can't risk compromising other need-to-know operations for the sake of this one. For now, proceed as best you can. Catch these hunters for me, Jade. We cannot allow people to get the idea that Scion-Colesburg can be crossed without someone paying the price."

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