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Business As Usual

Part IV


I ran down the street with the corp sec-agent hot on my heels. He was the only one chasing me; the S-C/Drasgow troopers were either following Roxy or had given up pursuit. We attracted attention in a hurry; it was early evening and a bunch of corporate types were running their after-work errands at the strip of shops set up for the convenience of the residential complexes. Some were hardened corporate warriors, while others were lower-ranking wageslaves who spent their days in front of a comp, but none were prepared for a gun battle interrupting their shopping.

Even though shots hadn't been fired in the open yet, the sight of two men armed with guns racing through the crowd would prompt someone to holler cop sooner or later. I tried to guess how long it would take DLE agents and robots to arrive, then gave up. I had bigger problems, such as the guy I'd thought I'd killed and the vulcan he was carrying.

Maybe it was the adrenaline that got my mind going, but even as I dodged through shoppers things were falling into place. Hastings' job had skipped over local Scion-Colesburg management and someone had decided to cut themselves back in. They'd planned to kill Hastings and blame it, and the loss of the data, on us. Then they could use the data however they wanted, or insure that it became permanently "lost," whichever best suited their purposes.

I was also certain, now, that the two guards had been in on the plan because they hadn't reacted to the laser shot. They'd been surprised as hell when Riel toasted the sniper, but hadn't so much as blinked when their boss was killed. They'd just grabbed their weapons and gone after me and my mates.

We ran past the ubiquitous MultiMart and First Food franchises, both of which were common even in Nightside, and reached a department store that was just closing up. I made a sharp turn just as the store manager was closing the transparent door. Before he could get it shut and locked, I rammed my shoulder into it, sending him sprawling. He came up sputtering, but I pointed the Executech at the bridge of his nose and he decided to withhold comment. I ran past him into the store, darting into the racks of merchandise.

The corp goon chasing me figured out what I was up to almost immediately. The store was deserted; there were no crowds, and he didn't have his troop of sec-agents backing him up. The odds were as good as they were going to get for me. What it also meant, though, was that there weren't any innocent bystanders to interfere with the fight. A rack of men's suits all but exploded as a stream of slugs from the skag's vulcan tore into them. I fired back as I crossed an aisle from one rack to another. My shot went wild, gouging a chunk out of an ornamental pillar but coming nowhere near him, but it got him to stop firing and look for cover of his own.

The game of cat and mouse had begun.

*     *     *      *     *

"They made it off of company property and into populated areas," Lieutenant Delgado reported to Jade. "Jaeger continued after them but ordered us to break off pursuit."

"As he should have," Jade snapped. "Your team screwed up, Delgado. You screwed up big-time. Now get back here and make sure you get every last bit of camera footage of those two. Try to get that right, at least."

The security chief pressed her hands to her temples and rubbed. This was turning into just one headache after another. First Hastings gets killed, and then in one of those too-convenient-to-be-coincidence coincidences, a bigwig from the main office in Scion was going to be visiting. That piece of information was supposed to be confidential, but Jade had her sources and one of them had tipped her off. No wonder Scott hadn't let her into Hastings' files if this job went all the way back up past him on the corporate food chain.

Meanwhile, Hastings was still dead and those doublecrossing hunters had the data. Jade only hoped that Jaeger could do better this time in bringing them down.

*     *     *      *     *

My lungs tore at me, begging for oxygen. Sprinting through the store had left me winded and now, standing silently didn't give me a chance to get my breath back. I wanted to open my mouth and suck in great gasps of air, but I forced myself to stand still in the grouping of mannequins, inhaling and exhaling only through my nose. In the dim light of the closed store, one silhouette looked much like another, unless you looked closely.

"Your little friend's probably dead by now, punk," the corp man called out. "I sent my troops after her 'cause I wanted the chance to take you down personally."

My hand tightened around the gun, but I reined in my temper. That's all he was doing, taunting me so I'd come out into the open, make a stupid move out of anger. Odds were, Roxy'd gotten clean away.

"Bet you were pretty surprised to see me, huh? You figured Rance Jaeger was dead and gone with a knife in his gut."

The corporate soldier prowled the aisles, eyes scanning for any flicker of movement, the powerful vulcan cradled in both hands.

"Guess what, guttertrash. Active-memory clone is what they call it. A brand new me, with all the memories of the old, grown in the space of hours. Memories are just electrochemical patterns in the brain and can be copied, after all. Gotta learn to go for the head, skag."

There had been rumors on the street about it, that the corp eggheads had figured a way to kick the cloning process up to the next level, but nothing definite, all buzz and no facts.

Not any more, it seemed.

Jaeger half-turned away from me, looking into a maze of carousels and fitting terminals. I raised the sonic gun to fire, but in that moment he pivoted, snapping back around.

Damn!

Shells exploded from the mouth of the vulcan as I hurled myself to one side. Mannequins were punctured, artificial skulls and torsos pierced, plastic corpses hitting the floor all around me. A shell ripped through my leather jacket, grazing my side but doing no real damage. I fired back, saw the shimmer in the air travel from my gun to impact on Jaeger's chest plate. The armor buckled slightly, but no more.

"Nice try, kid."

A short burst sent me diving away again, but there was a bank of escalators nearby and I put them between myself and Jaeger. Behind me I heard the sharp, metallic sound of a clip being ejected, a fresh one slotted into place. I tried to ignore the dull throb from my cut leg as I ran towards the home repair department. Ducking between aisles of saws, paint sprayers, and wallpaper, I came to the tool section. I took a heavy pipe wrench off a rack and stuck it through my belt, then grabbed a much smaller one. When I stepped out into the open aisle, I hurled the small wrench; it spun through the air and crashed into a cookware display. Pots and pans clattered to the floor, making even more noise than I'd hoped.

The roar of vulcan fire brutalized the silence my diversion had wounded; I slipped down the aisle as quietly as I could, then ducked into one of the side paths between racks.

"That's it," he cried out, "keep playing with me. I like the challenge. It can only end one way, you know. My orders are to bring you in dead or alive. After all, dead, they can just clone you, over and over again if need be. Makes me wonder...how many times can you die before your will cracks?"

He chuckled nastily, but he was making a mistake. He was only one aisle over, and the walls the racks of tools were hung on were strictly temporary, segmented pieces about ten feet wide. A few more steps...

"Of course, we won't get a chance to find out, because no one is going to be able to clone you. Accidents happen in combat, like a stray vulcan round to the head. I like having my version be the only story--"

I threw my weight against the section and it tipped over onto Jaeger, cutting him off in mid-taunt. I could feel the impact as it struck his body, heard the crashing of whatever was on the other side falling into him and the floor. I'd miscalculated, though; the shelf was tall enough that it spanned the aisle and hit the next one over. I'd hurt Jaeger, but hadn't been able to pin him under the weight of the shelving.

He fired up through the shelf, but I'd already rolled off and was running back towards the center of the store. The escalators crisscrossed ahead of me, and in between them was the elevator bank. I sprinted there at top speed and took a hard left under the escalators towards the elevator door just ahead of a spray of fire as Jaeger got loose from the shelves. Instead of continuing through, I slapped the elevator call button and jumped back into a nook opposite the doors formed by one of the moving staircases' underside. I pulled the wrench from my belt and waited.

Sure enough, Jaeger was hot on my heels, plunging into the short corridor just in time for the chime announcing the elevator's arrival. He spun towards the sound, watching the doors open to reveal the empty chamber.

This time, I didn't wait around. I was already moving the instant Jaeger turned away. The heavy wrench slammed down hard on the company man's wrist. I heard the snap of bone and the vulcan clattered onto the floor as my body crashed into his back, knocking him flat. Not giving him a chance to try anything, I screwed the barrel of the Executech into his left ear.

"You seem to be the man with the answers tonight, Jaeger," I said. "If you don't want your second life to be over before it has a chance to begin, you'd better give me some, and fast."

*     *     *      *     *

I made the call from the tube station in Nightside. They'd be able to trace it to the public visiphone, but there was no way they could have a response team there to find me. After one ring the face of a woman with short-cropped green hair appeared on the screen.

"Brianna Jade?"

"You must be Vincent Xavier, street name 'VX,'" she replied, reminding me of the extent of Scion-Colesburg's information-gathering assets. "Did you find what you were looking for at Hastings' home?"

"No," I said, trying to keep my voice level, trying to forget that S-C/Drasgow probably had more sec-agents and underworld connections that any other corp and this woman controlled most of them. "Mr. Jaeger was able to fill in the rest, though."

"So now you've set a price on what you stole and are inviting me to bid?"

Interesting interpretation of what we'd been doing, but it actually made sense coming from her point of view.

"Wrong. I'm prepared to give you the package, plus the one responsible for Ashton Hastings getting gravestoned."

"I already know who was responsible."

"Do you? What happened to the sniper who actually pulled the trigger on Hastings?"

"He or she got clean away, just like the rest of you." Her opinion of doublecrossing skags was obvious in her voice. Ironically, it was an opinion we shared.

"Wrong again." I wanted to trade quips with her, do something to show that I wasn't quaking in my boots, but it was all I could do to keep my voice level. "One of my team took out the sniper with a technique. I'm betting Jaeger didn't mention that, since he didn't want your company sec-teams to identify him or her. No better way to deal with inconvenient facts than to ignore them, after all."

Jade's eyes narrowed, and I became very glad that I wasn't lying.

"Do you have proof to back up these outlandish claims?"

"Call the cops. I presume you bought them off or otherwise persuaded them to keep out of corp business, but you didn't know to warn them off the sniper's death. They'll be investigating a burned corpse in a building overlooking the west side of the park. Check it out for yourself."

"If--and this is a big 'if,' skag--there's any truth to what you're saying, how do I reach you?"

"You don't." If I gave her a phone number she'd find the matching physical location almost at once and have people waiting for me. "I call you. Same number, in three hours."

I killed the connection, keeping up the fiction that I was in any kind of control. As it was, I couldn't even be sure Jade wasn't in on the scheme. Jaeger might have been lying, gun to his head or not, and I couldn't ask him again, since he'd been stupid enough to try and catch me off-guard by reaching for his sword. S-C/Drasgow probably couldn't either, since it had been a head shot that killed him.

There was no time to worry, though. I got the hell out of the terminal on the off chance that Jade would send agents after me and got back to the safe house. Worry and relief stood out on Sid and Roxy's faces.

"VX! You made it back!" Roxy exclaimed.

"Hey, I told you he would," Sid said. "No corp skag's gonna take him down." Sid's like that sometimes. I figure he saves his own macho posturing for the datanet and uses me for a proxy when it comes to combat. Not, I thought, too different from how a kid'll fall back on "My daddy can beat up your daddy!"

"Yeah, but we thought that guy was dead the first time. How do you get away from something you can't kill?"

"I did kill him the first time."

"Clone?" Riel asked. Figures he'd know.

"Uh-huh," I told him. Ignoring the perplexed stares of the other two, I pushed on to the problems at hand. "Sid, did you get into those datachips?"

The gridrider's face lit up.

"Oh, yeah. They were good, but I cracked those babies cold."

I grinned at him.

"You're the man, Sid. Show me what you've got."

"I'm not really sure. Take a look." He sat down at the computer and began calling up directories and files. "It's all a mishmash of information. Each file is complete, but there's no connection between them."

I saw what he meant. There were financial reports, test results, schematics for an industrial robot, personnel files. About the only thing common to it all was that it looked like it had been culled from databases associated with LIM's Industrial Division.

"This can't be coincidence," I said. "Some spy inside Luveno must have put this together and planted it on Dahlstrom. By taking it by force we made it look like a straight-up datatheft, while in reality the job was just a pickup."

"Think Dahlstrom was in on it?" Roxy asked.

"Hell if I know. I doubt it, though. Sounds like an easy way to get killed."

"So where does that leave us?"

I told the others about how I'd captured Jaeger and what he'd had to say. Unfortunately, while he'd confirmed my ideas about the killing, that it was a deliberate assassination and we were supposed to be framed for the job, he hadn't told us why. The one he named hadn't bothered with reasons, which was worth a few points for brains but was damned annoying.

"We have the data to offer S-C/Drasgow, and the name of the one responsible," I concluded. "That's enough to negotiate with, at least."

"They may," Riel pointed out, "simply decide to eliminate us because we know too much. We don't have enough to protect ourselves."

"I know," I admitted. "It's our only chance, though, to cut a deal with the corp and let them handle their bad apple."

I only hoped it wasn't our own throats I was cutting.

*     *     *      *     *

Jade had to give VX one thing; he was prompt. His call came exactly three hours and twenty-seven seconds after the first one had ended.

"Did you check?"

She had. The dead sniper's DNA had been on file, identifying him as Marc Loguire, a hunter with a good rep for sniping skills but little else to recommend him. A disposable gun, nothing more, probably contracted by Jaeger rather than the one at the top.

"Yes."

"And?"

The hunter was too eager; she could sense his fear. VX was in a trap and he knew it, though he put up a good front.

"You were right about the details," she admitted. Of course, Loguire might be their man and not part of a conspiracy, but if that were true, why had neither the driver nor Jaeger mentioned his death in their reports? The DLE logs showed that they'd been called to the building at the same time as the fight in the park had been taking place, which ruled out the possibility that Loguire had been killed later as a red herring.

She also ruled out the idea that the DLE logs had been tampered with. If the hunters could pull that off, they didn't need to play games with courier runs to make a score.

"I was right about a lot more." He flashed the chip case at her. "I'm offering to put this in your hands. What's more, I've got the name of the S-C/Drasgow exec who's been subverting your sec-agents and having corp employees assassinated. That's my high bid."

"With, I presume, an equally high price."

"We want to keep the payment for the original job so we can deliver it to our fixer as per that contract. We'd also appreciate it if your corp goon squads would stop trying to take us out."

"Is that all?" Jade sneered, not quite able to accept that mercenaries weren't looking for the big payoff even if they'd been pulled innocently into the biz.

"Well, no."

"I didn't think so."

"There's also revenge, but I figure you'll handle that one for us," VX said with a wolfish smile.

"Oh, yes," Jade said, finding herself smiling back, "That you can count on."

"Then we have a deal?" the hunter asked, a bit too eagerly.

"Yes. Meet me at--"

"Uh-uh," he cut her off, shaking his head. "My meet, we do it on my turf. Nightside, the Core, in the Macrodome, at seven A.M. Be there, and don't get any fancy ideas about saturating the place with sec-agents or we won't show up." He disconnected before she had the chance to contradict him or point out that he was hardly in a position to be dictating terms.

"Courageous."

Jade nearly jumped out of her chair. People did not sneak up on her; no one had been able to for years. The man was tall, perhaps forty, with skin the color of dark coffee, shaved head, mustache and beard, and eyes that were a piercing amber shade. His name was Jackson Coles; he was the VIP who had chosen to arrive even earlier than expected.

"If he's offering us the truth, then it's worth making a deal."

"It's unnecessary," Coles said in a deep, smooth voice. "I already know who the responsible party is."

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