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Business As Usual

Part V


Jackson Coles declined the offer of a drink. He was an expediter, and he found that more often than not the social niceties interfered with getting the job done.

Nolan Scott knew what Coles did, despite the man's official lack of a job title. He was the right hand of Scion-Colesburg's founder and Executive Director, Adam Conover. Wherever Coles went, it meant trouble for someone. Scott just hoped it wasn't him.

"Let me tell you a story," Coles said, speaking with a very precise tone, his rich, deep voice carefully enunciating each word, "a story of intrigue and deception in the corporate world. A story about a man named Javi Martinez. Ah," he added with a smile that showed perfect white teeth, "I see you know the name. That makes it better."

He lowered himself into a chair and laced his fingers together.

"Mr. Martinez rose to a position of power at Luveno Industrial Mechanisms, but he wore out his welcome there. He made poor business decisions, and he found himself in imminent danger of being...retired. He therefore employed the services of a career management professional, a headhunter if you will, to find a new employer."

Coles waved his finger at the head of S-C/Drasgow.

"Now, I know what you're thinking. You're asking yourself, who would want to hire a failure? The corporate world focuses on success, and second chances are rare. Mr. Martinez, though, was able to pad his resume with something that made him stand out from the common herd."

"A pipeline into LIM data."

"Exactly. Mr. Martinez offered to collect and bring with him vast quantities of information, including computer protocols that would give his new employers a window of opportunity to gather even more information and plant damaging material. All in all, they are not the kind of credentials to be taken lightly.

"But you ask: how do we know this isn't a cunning trap by Luveno to spread false data and plant a spy inside a rival company. Mr. Martinez, when pressed on this very point, agreed to provide a sampling of information, critical and valuable data. Since he has not yet left his position at Luveno, it was easy to give this data to an underling on the pretext of it being something perfectly innocuous. Then hunters, that ubiquitous part of every story of corporate intrigue, are hired to remove the data from its ostensible courier and bring it to its real recipient."

Scott toyed with a pen.

"Hastings," he said. "You're here about what happened to Hastings."

"Yes. You see, Mr. Martinez's price was both a large 'signing bonus' and a job comparable to the one he was abandoning. His new employers decided to offer him a position at the head of a struggling division so that if he continued to perform poorly in that role, the cost to them would be minimized. Only, the man he was going to replace found out what was afoot. He had his underlings interfere with the transfer of data, hoping, no doubt, to delay the deal with Mr. Martinez and therefore his own termination. More than likely he also intended to use the stolen data to his own benefit and shore up his vulnerable position."

The smile disappeared.

"The problem, Mr. Scott, is that much like your management strategy for the past nine quarters, your plan failed."

Scott had known all along that Coles was after him, yet the friendly, third-person references had almost given him hope that it wasn't so. His mind had seized that hope, clung to it like a drowning man clings to a life preserver.

Now there was no hope.

"If you'd succeeded, we might have overlooked your methods. Ruthlessness and ingenuity are valuable traits in an executive, though we'd prefer that you direct them at the competition rather than our own employees. You did not succeed, though. You badly underestimated the skills of the hunters you tried to frame. Your cover-up attempts were clumsy and mismanaged.

"You were enough of a liability before this episode that we planned to replace you in your current position. Now, in floundering to save yourself, you've cost us a vital asset with many years' experience and put internal company affairs at risk of exposure. You are becoming positively expensive."

Coles raised his hand and snapped his fingers sharply. The office door slid open, and Jade walked into the room with two fully-equipped sec-agents at her heels.

"Ms. Jade," the expediter said, rising from his chair, "as anticipated, Scion-Colesburg Technologies has agreed to accept Mr. Scott's resignation. See to it that this decision is processed with all possible efficiency."

"It'll be a pleasure."

*     *     *      *     *

Time for a history lesson. Back when Drasgow only had one city, and you could see the sun from Nightside, the Macrodome used to be a big deal. Ball games were played there, concerts held featuring the biggest names in show biz, political rallies took place. I'd never seen any of that, because by the time I was born, Nightside had a roof and its innermost section, the Core, would virtually be an urban combat zone if the gangs and syndicates hadn't managed to establish a kind of unwritten code of conduct (mostly boiling down to, "Thou shalt not do anything to get the corps or the army motivated to come down here and spanketh our backsides") that kept the place in line. Needless to say, Jinn Krystal wasn't going to play the Macrodome anytime soon.

The crumbling pile of steel and concrete had been systematically looted over the years. Nightside's resourceful residents had taken out anything even slightly worthwhile, from the seats in the stands to the heating elements in the concession kitchens. Now it was a ruin, gutted and stripped, crumbling in places where time and lack of care had caused walls or ceilings to fall in. The place reminded me of an ancient dungeon, the kind of place where dragons were supposed to lair.

Squatters had built their nests in the nooks and crannies of the Macrodome, but not as many as might be expected. Drasgow's weather was mild, and obviously rain was not a concern in Nightside, so the homeless were more likely to grab what privacy they could by forting up in a shack of their own making than hide out in a building that offered little more than a second roof.

We got there early, and took care to scout the dome before heading down to the playing field. I felt open and exposed, no surprise since the stadium had been designed to put those at its center at the heart of the audience's attention.

"I'm getting a bad feeling," Sid murmured, looking up. A steadily flashing yellow light from the underside of the upper city shone through a gaping hole in the dome's roof. "We're like ducks in a shooting gallery for snipers."

"No; too exposed," Riel commented. "A sniper couldn't set up for a clean shot from anywhere in the dome except there"--he pointed to the press box high above--"without being obvious to those of us down here, the potential targets."

"Which is why we checked out the press box before coming out onto the field." I paused as a thought hit me. "Riel, why don't you go up there now and cover us?"

"My shotgun is useless at that range," he pointed out.

"I was thinking more along the lines of the GITHU tech. It's better than any model of laser cannon. If something does go bad, I want us to have them covered for a change."

Riel nodded and slipped off in the direction of the stairs leading upwards to the press box. When he got there, he stepped up to a window and waved to let me know he'd arrived, then stepped back, out of sight.

We didn't have much longer to wait.

Scion-Colesburg didn't show up with a pack of guards. In fact, only two people strode out across the once-green turf towards us. One was Jade, the woman I'd talked to on the phone. As tall as me, she moved like a coiled spring, full of tension and stored energy, a violent explosion waiting to happen. There was a laser shot in her right hand, more dangerous and lethal than even the best sonic gun. Her military-style carbonsuit and ceramic-mesh cape only emphasized her fierce appearance.

Her companion, on the other hand, was a corporate warrior rather than the battlefield type, wearing a two-piece charcoal carbonsuit, gold shirt, and teal-slashed black tie under a black leather trenchcoat that I'd have wagered carried as much armor as Jade wore but didn't show. The outfit probably cost him over twenty thousand meseta for the armored designer originals. I didn't see a weapon, but a suit like that would be tailored to conceal one anyway. He moved easily and gracefully, clearly powerful physically and in other ways, but with a sense of total control. Unlike Jade, he didn't need to keep a tight rein on himself. He reminded me of Riel, which was about the scariest damn thing I could imagine in someone on the other side.

"You're punctual; I'll give you that," Jade said.

"This is either our salvation or our execution. I figure we'll at least be on time."

The bearded man chuckled at that.

"So, I understand that you want to complete your original courier job?"

Sid took out the chip case. Jade held out her hand. The gridrider glanced at me and I nodded. He stepped forward and handed it over. Jade put it away.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you," the man said.

"Aren't you forgetting something? Namely, the identity of the person who had Ashton Hastings gravestoned and kept you from getting those chips in the first place?"

"That matter has been dealt with," Jade said. "It's no longer a concern."

"Dealt with?" Roxy exclaimed. "Your own XD, and you say it's been dealt with?"

"Mr. Scott," the dark man answered, "has been shown the consequences of his actions."

"You're from Scion, aren't you?" I deduced, meaning the corporate HQ. "Someone sent to clean house."

"Very perceptive," he said with no trace of sarcasm. "I still wasn't sure whether or not to have you killed when we came here, but this is confirming my impression." Nice how he didn't mention which impression.

"Killed!" Sid yelped. "But we played it straight with you, gave your chips back. You know we didn't kill your guy in the park."

"That ain't it, Sid," I said grimly. "The problem is, a bunch of second-rate hunters from Nightside, one step up from gutterpunk muscleboys, know just enough about the nastiness S-C/Drasgow's been up to be a security risk. We might have made copies of that data, for example, and whatever happens to Scott, we'll know why. That's dangerous information. What we don't have is proof, the kind of proof it would take to blackmail them into leaving us alone--a life insurance policy, street style."

"They aren't going to try anything," Roxy said. She wasn't great with a gun, but the coiled steel-link whip at her belt was a nasty weapon she could more than hold her own with. The Scion-Colesburg executives were close enough for her to use it.

"No, not here," I agreed, "but later. They know who we are now, and there's plenty of people in Nightside willing to take Scion-Colesburg meseta. A gang hit, a scuffle between rival hunters, a syndicate putting on the muscle. It'll come, sooner or later." None of us had the resources for a change of identity thorough enough to hide us from the corporation. This was what I'd been afraid of all along, that the corp would weigh the potential damage to them and decide to snuff us out. That was how they operated; murder, blackmail, and espionage were all part of the game. People's lives were just marks on a balance sheet. Our lives had gotten turned upside down, four people had died--hell, Rance Jaeger had died, been cloned, and died again--and it was just business as usual for Scion-Colesburg Technologies.

I wondered idly if what my mates and I had done would make for a fluctuation in the corp's stock price.

"There is," the man from Scion said, "another alternative. We're always interested in talented hunters, freelancers whom we form an unofficial relationship with."

I must have looked like a poleaxed steer at that moment; all of us must have.

"Company men," I said, shaking my head in surprise. "You threaten to kill us in one breath, and in the next you're offering us a job?" Unlike LIM, who ran most of its black ops out of its security division, Scion-Colesburg preferred to use freelancers, assets that were more easily deniable though perhaps less trustworthy.

"Let's just say that I like to have my cards on the table while negotiating."

"Why?"

"In my report, it will say that the potential reaction from recruiting competent young talent outweighs the possible risk of betrayal." He smiled broadly, like a wolf showing its teeth. "Unlike some of my more conservative colleagues, I don't believe it's good policy to backstab those who have done us a favor. When you were set up as double-crossers, you could have taken the invitation and put the data up for auction. Instead, you kept faith with your employer." The smile vanished. "I don't like returning an open hand with a knife," he snapped.

Funny, if someone had asked me a week ago if I'd be willing to be a Scion-Colesburg company man, I'd have jumped at the chance. It meant regular pay, access to weapons, armor, and equipment better than anything we could afford now, and steady work. It was the chance to get out of the slums we'd all hoped for. Yeah, I'd have taken it in five seconds flat.

Now? Now I was tempted to tell him to shove his offer where the sun didn't shine. I'd turned down the chance to link up with one of the local syndicates because I wasn't willing to step that far away from the lines I'd laid out for myself, but what was the difference? The corps' products might be legal, but their business methods were all the same.

Yet, when you got right down to it, what were we? "Hunter" was a nice name, but what it meant was, "thief, spy, and legbreaker for hire." Roxy darted through sec-systems to steal valuable property from its owners. Sid did the exact same thing on the datanet, ferreting out the hidden truths and planting lies according to who paid us. I would knock out, paralyze, work over, and kidnap people if I had to, even kill if things got out of hand. Riel...sometimes I doubted if he saw people as anything but objects that moved around on their own.

Welcome to Nightside. This was who we were; this was what it had made of us. It didn't matter whether we were complete freelancers or on Scion-Colesburg's string. We had a master already, and its name was Drasgow.

Sid and Roxy were looking at me, waiting for their cue.

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, we'll take the job."

I couldn't help but glance up at the press box. I could see Riel there, looking down. He nodded once, then stepped back, and faded into the shadows. Or maybe the shadow was ours, and he was stepping out of it.

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