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Business As Usual

Part II

We ditched the skimmer as soon as it was convenient and fled back to the depths of the Nightside slums. Here the leftovers stayed, crumbling tenements next to fields of shacks thrown together out of scraps and refuse. The pollution was densest here, at the heart of Nightside; the streets were filled with the hard-eyed and the desperate. The only law was the law of the gangs and the syndicates, and the most ancient law of all, the law of predator and prey.

The flip side to that was, in these shadows, the corps could let their trained predators run free to prey on us without having to maintain the facade of law and decency they did in the light of everyday society. We could hide, but going to ground wouldn't keep us safe.

We'd holed up in a "safe house" we sometimes used as a retreat, an abandoned Sea-Link train car some ambitious skag had dragged out of a junk heap and turned into a building. A guy named Reese had run a thriving black market shop out of one end until he skimmed a little too much off his payments to the local syndicate and Jolo Ambiri had him gutted for it. We'd taken over the squat and kept it ours through being meaner than anyone else who wanted it. The Scalpel Sisters, a local girl-gang, crashed there sometimes when we weren't around, but they vacate it when we come back. Roxy used to run with them when she was a kid.

I shoveled a heap of empty First Food Shop burger wrappers into a trash bag--housekeeping ain't the Sisters' gig--and crashed down onto a couch. Sid got his computer out of its carrying case and I gave him the ID cards. Sid's comp started out as an IMVE Pulse, barely one step above those palmcomps business types use to run their schedules, make phone calls, and access the stock markets. He'd heavily reworked it, though, grafting in every hardware and software upgrade he could beg, borrow, or steal, so that the machine was about as much like a Pulse as a racing-model landskimmer resembles the sedan we'd made our getaway in.

Sid unrolled the comp's flatscreen and inserted the identity card in the access port. The nice thing about cards like this is that they're supposed to be read, so their data isn't hidden away behind walls of security.

"Citizen's ID calls our man Ashton Hastings, age fifty-two, city of residence Drasgow." The picture that appeared on the screen, a rotating holo-image of Hastings' head, matched our contact's. Funny, he looked a good ten years older than his age. "Driver's license, fishing license, weapons license--personal defense only. Travel logs show a few flights, but nothing in the past couple of months. You care about those, VX?"

"Nah. We can have a look at them later if we need to. Any signs of tampering?"

Fingers scurried over the keyboard, menu windows opening and closing on-screen. After a couple of minutes, Sid looked back over his shoulder at me.

"Looks clean to me, VX. If it's a fake, it's a good one."

"Okay, so we've got a name. How about the corp ID?"

The gridrider ran his hand over his spiky platinum-blond hair.

"You're on. Let's see...this one also identifies him as Ashton Hastings, age fifty-two. Employer is Scion-Colesburg/Drasgow."

"So he's a local man, not attached to the main office in Scion," mused Riel, who was leaning against a wall. Probably it was the only spot in the place that wouldn't leave stains on his fibercoat.

"Yep. He's identified as a resource consultant attached to the Industrial Division, whatever that means."

"Black ops," Riel and I said at the same time. He gave me a bemused smile and let me finish the explanation. "He's a company fixer, runs shadow projects for them. A middleman between the execs who want things done and the street talent. No different than WildChild, really."

"Well, okay, that jives. Hey, this is screwed; there's secured data on this card, gamma level encryption."

"Corp passcodes, silly," Roxy said. She was lying crosswise in an armchair, shoulders against one arm, knees hooked over the other. "That card's a key for him to get into his office, elevators, probably the executive bathroom, too. There'll be voiceprints, retinal scans, fingerprints, genetic coding, that kinda stuff too for the real important doors, but that's his key."

"Oh, no wonder the data looked whacked. Guess it's encrypted to keep skags like me from copying it and making fake IDs to let us in the building, right?"

"You got it, Slick One."

"Could you crack it?" I asked him.

"Oh, sure; take a couple of hours at most. Not sure how good the copy quality would be, though. This isn't the best equipment and Scion-Colesburg ain't known for cutting corners on their security budget."

I nodded. There might be something to that we would use later, but not yet. I got the case with the datachips out of my pocket and handed it to Sid.

"What about these?"

"You mean, the data we were supposed to drop off?"

"If I'm going to get killed for something, I'd like to know what it is. Besides which, that may be the key to getting us out of this mess."

"All right, you're the boss."

Sid opened the case. Funny how innocuous something worth such a cost in lives could be. Just three tiny spikes of amber, no more than an inch and a half long. The gridrider slotted one into his computer.

"Encrypted, of course," he sighed, and began to type. Suddenly, his screen flared up red, as if on fire.

"What the hell was that?" Roxy exclaimed.

"Brainburner," Sid said. "Nasty little security program that'll short out the brain cells of any of those hotshot neon angels who fly with a VR interface. Somebody doesn't want anyone reading these things."

"Can you crack it?" I asked.

"I don't know. I'll tell you one thing, though; it'll be a risk. They may not be able to get to my head, but there's plenty of other nastiness, firetraps and viruses, that could eat my comp alive if I put a foot wrong."

I looked him over. Sid's computer was his baby and the thought of damaging it trying to take on security that was too tough for it made his guts twist. I felt bad about it, but the fact was that none of us could afford to be sentimental, or to play it safe.

"Sorry, Sid, but you're just going to have to be up to fighting whatever's in there. The truth is, if any one of us can't give our best, then we're all going down. The only way out is to find who gravestoned Hastings and prove we're innocent." Or, in other words, it didn't matter if his computer stayed pristine if someone gunned him down.

"Yeah, I know. Lemme get to work on it."

He started typing, and I leaned back in my seat, trying to think of other options.

"If he's running black ops for Scion-Colesburg," I said, puzzling it out, "then he's got to have records somewhere. Those records may explain not only what he was after but why."

"Scion-Colesburg will move quickly to sanitize those records," Riel noted. "If the one who arranged for the crime is inside the company they'll have to, in order to cover their tracks. If not, then the corp will still want to get those files in the hands of whomever gets the job next and out of a subsystem accessible by a dead man's passcode. They'll also be looking for clues to finding us in those same files."

"We need to get to those files first," I said.

"Um, VX," Sid said, stopping his frantic keyboard work and turning around, "you're talking about data in the S-C/Drasgow mainframe, and not just any data either. This is black ops data, records of sensitive and usually illegal projects. I'm good, but I'm just a street hacker from Nightside, not the second coming of Angel Red."

"What if you had a passcode?" Riel asked. "Could you do it then, especially if you were accessing the system from a datanet location authorized for access?"

Sid blinked.

"Yeah, sure, piece of cake, then. Hell, with that kind of edge you wouldn't need me at all, be just like the guy sitting down to work at his desk. Problem is, we don't have a passcode or a site like that."

Riel smiled thinly, a look of almost arrogant self-assurance.

"More than likely, that passcode will be on Hastings' corp card."

We all looked at him in surprise.

"As for an access site, what about his home computer? We have his address."

"Wait a second. He's dead," I pointed out. "Scion-Colesburg isn't going to just let his passcode sit there for anyone to use, especially once their security teams notice that his wallet is gone."

"True. It isn't that simple, though. Those operations take time. Decisions must be made, authorized, and carried out. Scion-Colesburg is huge and powerful, but slow. Any urgency directed towards this matter will be focused on finding us. Winding up Hastings' affairs will be done through normal channels, with a one to two-day lag time."

I snapped my fingers as an idea hit me.

"Right, and besides that, they think we're doublecrossers. From their point of view, we don't have a reason to have anything to do with the man's background. We're supposed to be hiding and running, not deliberately seeking links to Hastings' life."

I turned to Sid.

"To use that and to access his computer, all I need to do is insert it in the machine?"

"Basically, if Riel is right."

"Okay, then. Roxy and I will go up to the upper level and get into that address. We'll need transit passes and ID. While we're there, you work on hacking those datachips. Riel, you're security. If anything goes wrong, get Sid and the data out of here in one piece."

He nodded.

"All right, then; let's get going. Time ain't our friend here."

*     *     *      *     *

A loud hiss and the cooling flow of escaping gases swirling over his chest and limbs greeted Rance Jaeger as his senses returned to him. He opened his eyes; the green-tinted white light from the overhead lamps stabbed into his pupils. Translucent panels swung up and down out of his way, and he stumbled forward into the lab. A Whistle robot, small and conical, extended clothing to him with its manipulator arm, and he realized he was naked. Quickly he pulled on the plain white trunks and tank top.

It was all unfamiliar to him. Jaeger ran a hand over his shaven pate and tried to think. The last thing he remembered was...yeah, a park, a park in Nightside. Getting distracted when a hunter had used a NA-grade technique. FOI, sure, even GIFOI, but what business did a gutterpunk muscleboy on a courier run have knowing NAFOI? Jaeger'd been surprised and paid the price. First the cold pulse of the blade entering his gut, then the hot, burning pain...

"Ah, bloody hell. I'm a sworm-kissing clone, aren't I?" He took a better look at the lab. It was the clone labs, all right, the corp's private one on Subbasement Level Four. He'd just stepped out of a clone chamber. Jaeger had a head full of memories that were his, but had actually happened to some other guy, a guy whom he was just a copy of. A guy, moreover, who'd scragged up and gotten his backside gravestoned.

The thought was so pathetic it made him want to puke.

"Okay, so I'm a clone," he said angrily. "His numbwit move got him killed and let me live. He got what I deserved and I got a life I'm not going to be dumb enough to waste."

"Good thinking."

"What?" Jaeger looked up. Brianna Jade was walking out of the anteroom towards him.

"I've seen clones screw around before, whining about how they're not really a person or how they're doomed to failure because they're replacing a dead man or that kind of crap."

Jaeger snorted.

"I'm alive now and I make my own decisions from this moment forward. The past belongs to the skag who got himself wasted. The future is mine."

"Good. Let's start that future by talking about the past."

Jaeger grinned sourly.

"Yeah, didn't figure you brought me back just for the fun of it."

"Today, early AM, the park."

He nodded.

"Yeah. It starts all right. They're there, we're there. The leader shows the stuff, Hastings shows the money." He glanced around. "Hey, you mind if we take this somewhere I can sit down, get some clothes?"

"Later," Jade said. Jaeger shrugged.

"You're the boss. Anyway, just as I figure the exchange is going down, a laser takes out Hastings. Head shot, one hit. They're expecting it, so they're a half-second ahead of us, going for weapons." Bitterly, he added, "I get, no, he gets stupid. They're street trash, right, so he goes for the blade. Problem is, their leader is good, stabs him. He went down on his face and didn't see anything, but he did hear a shotgun go off before it all went blank. Can't miss that sound."

"Head shot there, too. Cava's dead, for good."

Jaeger sighed.

"Too bad; I liked working with her. He did," he corrected himself. Tough, having the memories of a dead man.

"We'll need you to work up some composite images of the hunters."

"I didn't see the sniper."

"Three out of four will do."

He supposed so. There might be criminal records, or S-C/Drasgow might have information about the hunters in their database if they'd ever handled biz for the corp before. Jaeger wanted the hunters dead, wanted it badly. It meant closing the book on the past, on the him-that-was, burying the original Rance Jaeger's failures.

His secrets.

"I've got clothes and a corporate ID smartcard prepared for you," Jade said.

"Then let's get to work."

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