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Business As Usual

Part III


My mates and I have talked a lot about getting out of Nightside someday. It's a pretty common dream in the slums, for those who still have the courage to dream. The fact was, though, all you had to do to get out was go down to the tube lift station and pay five meseta for one-way, ten for round-trip, or fifty for a monthly pass and you could slide up freely to the upper city and stay there for as long as your money held out.

The problem is, the Drasgow government--which means the corporations--don't want just anyone slipping into its "paradise." Transit passes are recorded on citizen ID cards, which most people in the slums don't have. We're unregistered, outside the system, unless we happen to get arrested and assigned a place in the citizenry database. It's a blessing in some ways, putting us largely outside the eyes of the government and corps, but it locks us away from services, social programs, and for the most part, hope.

The card I sweep through the reader slot is a fake, made by Sid. Whether it will be found out depends on Sid's skill and on the sophistication of the cardreader. This one's purely nominal; I passed through without trouble, and so did Roxy.

"Time to fly," I said with a grin. Roxy grinned back; despite the trouble we're in, neither of us can resist the excitement of going up to upper Drasgow. We're not the only ones; a good half of the fifty or so people in the tube car have the same expression on their faces.

The door hissed shut, and a recorded female voice came over the loudspeaker.

"Ascension will begin in fifteen seconds. Please keep hold of all bags and packages during the ascent."

Fifteen seconds passed, and then with a slight jolt the car began to rise. I wasn't sure if it was pneumatics, magnetics, or something else that supported it, but through the transparent walls of the tube we saw the buildings of Nightside grow smaller and smaller. Blackness enveloped us as we plunged into the depths of the plate on which the upper city rested. I was surprised at how thick it was, but then I supposed it had to be, to accommodate the sewer, water, and power lines while supporting three million people and their homes, workplaces, recreation areas, vehicles--everything that made up a city. At last, the tube car emerged from the underside and slid into place in Drasgow Tube Terminal #1.

"Welcome to Drasgow. On behalf of Global Envirotech and the Drasgow Transit Authority, have a pleasant day." A chime sounded, the door slid open, and we emerged into the glistening chrome architecture of the terminal. I snagged a city directory from a stand and we went out the main doors.

"Oh, wow!" Roxy breathed, looking up at the sky. It was 4:13 PM by my chron, and the sky was a shining blue. Wispy white clouds drifted by, and the sun's glow was so bright it was painful. I didn't notice the buildings or the smell of exhaust fumes as vehicles passed the terminal, didn't see that upper Drasgow was as much an urban jungle as Nightside, though prettier and richer. All I could see was how bright it was and how good it felt to be able to see the sky for real rather than in a picture or on the holovid screen. For those first few moments, the reason why we were here and the fact that Palm's second-largest corporation wanted us dead just didn't matter.

As it had to, though, the feeling eventually passed. Sooner or later the escaped prisoner has to stop exulting in his freedom and get on with the escape, and so it was for Roxy and me.

"Okay, so we know where we're going," Roxy said, "but how do we get there?" With her fuschia-pink hair pulled back in a ponytail, red leather jacket, black leather pants, Jinn Krystal T-shirt (the one from the '69 tour, with the holo of Jinn singing while standing on Caliph and Sultan's shoulders) and knapsack, she could have passed for a student. So could I, though on me the "authentic street look" was more obviously the real thing. What we didn't have were weapons, and the knowledge that I was unarmed gave me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades. We couldn't take the chance, though; men like Ashton Hastings lived in secure neighborhoods where the DLE and private security firms provided reliable patrols. We sure as hell didn't have permits, so our weapons stayed at home.

"We take the bus," I said, nodding at an omnibus parked nearby. I checked the directory I'd picked up and found that we needed to take a Red line bus to get where we were going. The bus at the stop was a Green, but the right one came along five minutes later. Thankfully it didn't require a transit pass or payment by bank card; cash was more than adequate to get us where we wanted to go.

Hastings' house was actually a bungalow in a Scion-Colesburg-owned private residence complex, essentially a much more luxurious version of the barracks-like apartments S-C/Drasgow housed its low-end industrial workers in down in Nightside. The entire housing development was enclosed by a tall fence, and two guards from Argus Protective Services stood watch at the gate.

"Okay, the front's out," I decided. "We've got Hastings' corp card, but that won't get us in; a place like this will have checks beyond that."

"Hell, VX, the way we look the guards would run a check even if it wasn't SOP."

"So we go over the fence."

"Which certainly has alarms, though at least it doesn't look electrified or razorwired."

I glanced at her.

"That's why I brought you. No one I know better at B and E."

We went around to the side of the complex, which faced onto a similarly-designed one, and found a spot where a careless landscape designer had left obscuring trees in front of windows. Not perfect, but it would have to do.

"Lift me up," Roxy said. I took her by her slender waist and lifted her so she could get a look at the top of the fence. She snorted derisively.

"What've you got?"

"Pressure sensors. Go off if you put weight on them."

"How sensitive?"

I let her down.

"Enough. They can't have them going off for every bird or twig that lands on them, but they'll get us if we try to climb."

She opened her knapsack and took out a rectangular steel box with two probes extending from it.

"The sensors are wired, hard-line, to an alarm console somewhere. If I can find the wire, this can jam the signal. Kinda like how you can't see what's on the holovid because of static, this baby pumps so much noise into the line the computer won't be able to recognize the alarm signal when the sensors try to send it."

"So where's the wire?"

Roxy tapped her knuckles against a fence bar.

"Imbedded in one of these things. Keeps someone from splicing into it and hacking the security console through the connection." She flipped a switch on her unit and pressed the probes against the bar. She shook her head and moved it to the next one, then the next. A green light came on, and Roxy slammed her thumb down. Tiny blue sparks flowed along the probes into the bar for about two seconds.

"C'mon! It'll only last about ten seconds!" We were over the fence in six.

The next move was to approach Hastings' bungalow. I led the way, walking along the cobbled paths that ran through the complex's commons, not looking around furtively but walking with purpose. In other words, acting as if we had legitimate business being there.

The door lock featured a key card slot and a palmprint scanner. The former wouldn't be a problem, since the odds were wither the corp card was the key or it was somewhere in the company man's wallet. The latter was another story.

I didn't like our options here, but there didn't seem to be much choice; the windows would be too heavily alarmed to try. Roxy got her toolkit out and went to work, while I stood behind her and used by body to shield what she was doing from view, ostentatiously looking through Hastings' wallet as if I was a resident who'd forgotten his key. As an act, it would hold up about two seconds if anyone neighborly should walk by, but thankfully no one did.

As it turned out, I actually did find the key, which I offered to Roxy.

"Nah, don't need it." There was a soft sputter of electricity, and the door swung open. We went in, and Roxy fit the palm scanner back together so no one would know the electronics had been gutted from just looking before closing the door behind us.

"You know, I just realized," I said. "Nobody thought about what we'd do if Hastings had a wife, two kids, and a dog."

"Well, he didn't, so who cares?"

The bungalow fit with the status of its owner, a small four-room cottage plus full bath, outfitted expensively. The floor space wasn't more than that of a luxury apartment, but having a building to itself and the fact that the master bedroom was upstairs made it seem considerably bigger. Roxy looked longingly at the whirlpool bath, but got back to business quickly.

We found the computer in a downstairs room Hastings had turned into an office. I sat down, turned it on, and instructed it to access S-C/Drasgow's corporate net. When prompted for a passcode, I inserted the corp card.

[GOOD AFTERNOON, MR. HASTINGS]

I selected keyboard commands rather than voice, just in case there was a voiceprint analyzer at work, and headed at once for Hastings' personal files.

*     *     *      *     *

"Scion-Colesburg/Drasgow Security," stated the receptionist over the visiphone, her commlink headset a sleek accent to her short brown hair.

"This is Kane at the Woodfield Park Housing Complex," the Argus guard responded. "We've got a probable B&E, two individuals, on vidcam at Number Six. There's a flag on that address, so I'm calling it in."

"Show security flag on 6 Woodfield Park," the receptionist told her computer, and quickly read the results. "Thank you, Mr. Kane. A Scion-Colesburg security team will be dispatched to handle the situation. Please offer them any assistance that they may request.

"Understood."

The phone beeped once and the screen went black.

"Well, that's that," Kane told the other guard. "Looks like we do nothing for now."

"We're just supposed to let those two punks take what they want?"

"It's Scion-Colesburg's building. They want to play games with the security, it's their problem, not ours."

*     *     *      *     *

"Got it!" I said gleefully.

"Oh?"

"Hastings' files on the operation. They're pretty sketchy, though." I wished Sid were here. This job might not have required hacking, but his familiarity with computers would have sped things up and made me a lot more certain I was finding everything there was to find.

"So what's there?"

"This assignment came from the main office in Scion, not from S-C/Drasgow. The target, LIM executive Arven Dahlstrom, was carrying important data which Hastings was supposed to pick up and send back to Scion. Hastings hired WildChild to contact hunters. We weren't supposed to know who our employer was in case Luveno's security took us down, no surprise there. That's all."

"That's it? Nothing else?"

There didn't need to be. Hastings wasn't going to put more than he had to into the mainframe where his corporate rivals could get hold of it. Funny, though, that this job should skip local channels. Corps were big on routine, on chain-of-command. They didn't like it when managers started pursuing their own agenda instead of the company's; a little infighting might spur efficiency due to ambition but too much office backstabbing cut into the bottom line.

Was that what the datasteal was, a personal job for someone in the main office? Or was something else going on, something bigger?

"We need to get out of here," I said. "There's nothing more to learn from these files."

"Wait a sec; maybe we should check out the place. There might be something useful."

I shook my head.

"I've got a bad feeling, Roxy. This has all been too easy; there should be more security than we've seen for this complex. Hastings would be a prize for an extraction by a rival corp; why wasn't he better-protected?"

That was when I heard the front door crash open.

I cursed; we had to get out; at once.

"Roxy, break that window," I snapped. On a hunch I started yanking open desk drawers, and there it was in the upper right one. I closed my fist around the butt of the slimline Redfield Executech sonic gun just as Roxy smashed a chair through the window.

"In here!" someone shouted, reacting to the sound of breaking glass. Thankfully it hadn't been armored glass or we'd have been cornered. As it was, Roxy was already clambering through as the first sec-agent burst through the door.

This guy wasn't a bodyguard or "corp hunter" type. He was a full-on trooper in a black military-style carbonsuit, the blue triskelion logo on each shoulder, with titanium armor protecting his chest and back and steel headgear with a faceplate covering his head. The weapon in his hand was a high-end military model sonic gun. I fired at once, the sonic pulse from the Executech taking him high in the right shoulder, punching through his carbonsuit and the flesh beneath. He howled in pain and I turned for the window at once, throwing myself through while the trooper was struggling to transfer his gun to his left hand. Sharp points of broken glass left in the frame slashed at me and I took a nasty slice along the meaty part of my thigh, but I was out onto the lawn. We ran for the fence, more sec-agents pursuing. The scream of sonic gun fire passing close to our ears, we hit the fence, leaping over in moments. A sonic pulse slammed into a bar less than an inch from my hand, bursting open the steel and reminding me of what would happen if Roxy or I got hit.

I glanced back over my shoulder as I ran down the alley. The leader of the sec-agents was a big man with a shaved head and a mustache. It was the same guy I'd stabbed in the park, or his identical twin. He and his agents were clambering over the fence, following us. One even fired a shot through the bars which went wild, gouging a chunk out of the brick wall surrounding the next residential complex over.

Whatever this was about, it had to be pretty damned important if they were going to pursue us off of corp territory. The leader's carbonsuit was unmarked, but the others were boldly wearing the Scion-Colesburg logo, which wasn't something most corps wanted their people to do while having a running gunfight on the public streets. I squeezed off a couple of shots just to keep them honest as we emerged from the alley into a busy thoroughfare.

"Split us," I told Roxy. "Meet back in Nightside." She broke right while I went left, sprinting for all I was worth.

*     *     *      *     *

Jaeger cursed as the two hunters made it to the street. He'd been corporate long enough to know that S-C/Drasgow didn't want its sec-teams shooting up the city. Not that the corp cared about the people that might be hurt, but the PR fallout could be a nightmare costing millions of meseta in lost revenue and advertising.

"Are we pursuing?" the team's second-in-command asked.

"I am," Jaeger said. "The rest of you cover the house and report in."

He ignored the pink-haired girl when she changed direction. She wasn't important. The other one was. He was the leader. He was also the one who'd killed the first Jaeger.

It didn't matter, he thought as he chased after the hunter, that it hadn't really been him who was killed. Revenge was still going to taste sweet.

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