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Fall Of A Corporate Man

Part IV


The dragon had a long, sinuous body, with powerful, taloned legs and forearms and arching, leathery wings. Its scales were emerald green, while the talons, eyes, the ridge of spikes along its back, and the spiraling, pointed horns above its brows gleamed like pure gold--Luveno's corporate colors.

Melora's breath caught with a gasp, but neither she nor Tyler asked Mika what was happening. The "dragon" was either some powerful security program or another gridrider; either way it was extremely dangerous and Mika didn't need any real-world distractions keeping her from dealing with it.

She was already in action, moving her hands quickly, and the shifts in perspective on the screen seemed to indicate that she was dodging the monster as it lunged at her, cutting with claws and teeth and snapping its jaws in the air. Tyler didn't want to know what would happen if those fangs sank into the virtual Mika.

[CONSTRUCT IS HIGHLY AGGRESSIVE VIRUS CODE--UNKNOWN TYPE AND DESIGNATION]

Mika counterattacked, slashing out with her hand as if wielding claws, and glistening silver spikes clashed along the dragon's flank.

[NEGLIGIBLE DAMAGE INFLICTED]

The dragon opened its mouth and spewed a gout of emerald-green flame that missed Mika by a hair. Its talons ripped down and were stopped by a gleaming shield that formed in mid-"air."

[SHIELD EFFICIENCY NOW 43%]

One hit from the dragon had cut Mika's defenses by more than half. Tyler's heart lurched; although Mika's limited VR interface would keep her from being harmed by lethal biofeedback it wouldn't stop her from being found out as having tried to hack Newcomb's files, which ultimately could be as fatal.

"Blast it!" Mika spat through clenched teeth. "I didn't want to try this, but..." She clenched her fists together, and on the screen a long, shining white blade appeared.

[STORMLANCE ENGAGED; DEGRADATION 9.8%]

Mika raised her hands over her head.

[DEGRADATION 17.3%]

She swept her hands down like a warrior swinging a sword in a scything cut. On-screen, the glowing blade slashed through the dragon, which dissolved into a cloud of glittering green mist. Mika separated her hands at once.

[STORMLANCE DISENGAGED; DEGRADATION 74.1%; VIRUS DISRUPTED]

Mika sighed heavily.

"What was that?" Tyler couldn't resist asking.

"A nasty little surprise, probably some experimental Dougan cooked up. It was a trap, a full-on attack program triggered by opening the gate."

"I thought you hacked the passcode?"

"I did. The dragon was set to attack anyone. A legitimate user would have a second passcode for it, something along the lines of 'Sit! Stay! Good boy!' A hacker, who's thinking slow, careful, cautions suddenly finds herself plunged into cybercombat without any warning. I'd have been dead meat without the stormlance."

"I've never heard of that program," Melora said.

"I'm not surprised. It's an IMVE experimental. I snagged an alpha-test version on a run against them a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's self-degrading, too unstable even to take apart and analyze, but it's a truly awesome attack program, as you can see. I think the military commissioned it to use in defending Motanet."

"I'm just glad you had it," Tyler said with feeling.

"Me, too. This favor of yours is starting to really rack up the intensity."

The corridor opened up into a cubic room filled with spinning geometrical solids.

"After all that," Mika said, "I really hope that we can find a match for that composite."

[COMPARING IMAGE TO FILES]

"At least there's no way Martinez's security would be up to this, if we have to go do him next."

[MATCH FOUND]

"No need. Come to Mama!" Mika snatched a pyramid-shaped object, and the screen opened up to a datafile with text and visual images. "Perfect! Here's your hunter."

Tyler and Melora both looked at the screen.

"Britt Castle," Melora observed. "Ex-military, ties to the Three Crystals crime syndicate, and on Newcomb's payroll for the last three years. Good with guns, prefers lasers, but also likes knife-work. Sounds like you, Tyler. Ms. Castle's done some interesting things for the Bloody Rose, including wetwork on a couple of instances. She's probably not the one who worked over Rafe, though. She'd be surgical. More the guy's style, I'd say."

Tyler nodded, thinking.

"Does the file show how Newcomb gets in touch with her?"

"Yes," Mika said, quickly locating the relevant data. "Here it is. They link through a message drop; apparently it's an automated machine that's located someplace in Lordan. It was supposed to be anonymous, I'd bet, but Newcomb sniffed out the location to give her an added edge."

"Good. I'd like to set up a meet. First, though, there's something else I'd like to check on."

* * * * *

Ideally, Tyler would have arranged the meeting with Britt Castle and her associate in a way that she would walk into a carefully prepared trap. The problem with that was that Castle was not stupid; if she sniffed a trap she'd bail--and anyone who dealt with the Bloody Rose for three years was definitely awake to possible treachery. So, he settled for someplace where he'd have an edge: Rendak.

Rendak was the worst slum in the archopolis, with the possible exception of Ossale Court. Tyler figured Rendak was worse; in Ossale Court crime and violence were the products of grinding poverty and desperation, while in Rendak it seemed more like even the victims had an angle and were just unlucky enough to be the smallest shark in the feeding frenzy.

There were two good reasons to hold the meet in Rendak, though. One was that the cops had pretty much written off the district. Their strategy was one of containment; with the exception of a few strategic areas, the Division of Law Enforcement only entered the boundaries of Rendak at the specific behest of political or corporate interests. Needless to say, that didn't happen often and when it did the fur really flew. So, the possibility of official interference was negligible.

The other thing in their favor was that Melora had once run with one of Rendak's nastier, more successful gangs. To the rank and file of the Steel Wind, she was proof that there might be something better for them in the future. To the leadership, she was a potential contact, a friend in high(er) places who might be able to deal on their behalf.

Castle apparently didn't know that, or else she'd never have agreed to meet on Wind turf. Though, admittedly, she also didn't know who it was she'd be meeting with.

The buildings that lined the street were scarred by age, by filth, and by the occasional gun battle, but very little of that was noticeable in the night. The street lights were out, long ago shattered by people who would rather do business in the dark and never replaced by a city government that saw no point in doing so. Abandoned buildings inhabited by squatters and tenement projects funded by the welfare dole sat side by side. Here and there, light came from the signs of cheap bars and sex shops designed to suck away the last few meseta from people who needed them. The street thrills and metachem dealers stayed away from Tyler and Melora, animal instinct telling them that these were people not to bother.

Castle and her companion got the same reaction. The hunter didn't even bother to hide her weapon, preferring to keep it out and ready. She stopped at a phone booth, its plastiglass shell scratched and scarred, marked by Steel Wind graffiti.

The broad-shouldered thug came up next to Castle. He didn't have a gun out, but did openly carry a steel mace, a two-foot metal club with one end wrapped in a grip of faux leather and the other end studded as a striking surface.

A weapon like that, Tyler thought, could easily have been what was used to put Rafe in the Ankaiah.

"So where is she, Castle?" the big man asked.

"That's what I'd like to know." She raised her voice. "Well, Newcomb? Where are you?"

The phone rang. Castle stepped into the booth and answered it. The face on the screen, though, wasn't that of Laila Newcomb. It was a silver-haired ganger with green diamonds tattooed over both eyes.

"You're not who I expected," the hunter said through gritted teeth.

"Life's like that. You should pay more attention."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," Tyler told her, "you should."

When Castle had answered the visiphone, Tyler and Melora had stepped out from the shadows of two doorways, guns drawn. Closing quickly, they'd gotten the drop on the two. Not a perfect trap, but it had worked as well as they could hope.

"You set this up, didn't you?" Castle asked. "You couldn't kill us back at the apartment, so you lured us here, where you can gravestone us and nobody will care."

"If I wanted you dead I'd have pulled the trigger already. What I want are answers."

"I'm not going to give them to you. I'm hardly some amateur who spills her guts when someone waves a gun in my face."

"I've got something better than a gun to wave. You're in a phone booth; call up the Ankaiah Medical Facility and ask them to page Nash Garrett."

Castle wasn't stupid; she recognized the name.

"The Security Division Chief."

"The same."

Castle used the online directory to find the visiphone number and dialed. A receptionist answered, and the hunter asked for Garrett.

"Who are you and how did you know to reach me here?" were the security chief's first words. He obviously was not a happy man.

"I told her," Tyler called over Castle's shoulder.

"Jorran? Is that you?"

"It is. This lady is one of Newcomb's stringers. She's been poking into this, asking questions, trying to find out what Rafe had on Martinez, but she won't tell me about it. I figured that since she works for Newcomb and Newcomb works for you, we might be able to settle this without gunfire, threats, or interrogation."

"I presume this is a secure line?"

"Anonymous. It's a phone booth in Rendak."

Garrett nodded.

"All right, you. You're an employee of LIM, aren't you?" he asked Castle. "On the Security Division payroll?"

"Yes," Castle admitted.

"Good. Then as Security Division Chief, I'm ordering you to tell Captain Jorran, there, everything you know about your current assignment." Garrett hung up without any further words.

Castle slowly holstered her gun, a small-frame laser shot that must have been her holdout piece.

"Captain?" she asked. "You two are company sec-agents?"

"Right." Tyler stepped back to let her leave the phone booth. "You've managed to get involved on the wrong side of private biz."

Castle cursed.

"That witch. She passed it off as an internal investigation of that Rafe Frederichs. I didn't buy that as holy truth but I didn't figure she was crossing up her boss on it."

"Hey!" her associate said. "How much longer do we have to put up with this crap?" Melora had him on his knees, her claws pressed against the back of his neck.

"Shut up, Arno; this is a blown deal." She turned to Tyler, who had lowered his gun but not put it away. "So what do you want to know?"

"Start with when you were contacted and go from there. Be precise." The rain skittered off the sidewalk, drumming off Tyler's coat. It streaked down Melora's cheeks, reminding Tyler of tears.

"I was paged by my link at eight-twelve," Castle stated. "Pursuant to instructions I called Newcomb back. She told me that a sec-agent named Rafe Frederichs had been investigating a Luveno exec named Javi Martinez, apparently for blackmail purposes. Data had been falsified and threats made. Newcomb told me that she wanted it checked out off the record. I figured that maybe she didn't want to mark up Frederichs' service record if he was clean and maybe she wanted to keep what he'd dug up to use herself. None of which, I may add, is my business."

"So she asked you to retrieve Rafe's datafiles?"

"Right. Her story was that Frederichs had been put in the hospital, something else I didn't ask about. We started with his home. Getting in the building was easy enough, so we captured the girl and searched the apartment. Then you showed up."

"How'd you get in?"

Castle grinned wryly.

"I'm supposed to be a hunter, aren't I? I've got a corp passcode for when Newcomb wants to meet in person, and I had it tweaked into a more multi-purpose code. My clearance is probably better than yours, Captain."

"What about him?" He pointed at Arno.

"Muscle," the hunter said with a snort. "This Frederichs was supposed to have friends. Arno's job was to get my back"--she shot him a scathing look--"when I'm making phone calls or otherwise distracted."

"What were you going to do next?"

"Go to Neroton. Newcomb said that Frederichs had been found there; I figured that I'd poke around and figure out why. It might have something to do with Martinez, like he's got a gridrider or something. That's where I was when I got your page. It turns out that Frederichs had been seen going into Argus Storage."

A lockbox. Argus Storage was run by Argus Protective Services, Palm's top security firm. It rented storage units of varying sizes and security levels, from room-sized bays to safety-deposit boxes. All in all, it wasn't a half-bad place to stash data, if someone was cautious about it. A false name to keep a routine datatrace from turning it up, payment with cash or blank credit, and care that one wasn't shadowed to the front door, and whatever you wanted to leave was basically anonymous. Castle had been able to track it, though, by finding witnesses.

There was a lesson in that. In modern Camineet, there was never really such a thing as being unobserved.

"Then," the hunter finished, "I got paged. Looks like my link isn't quite as secure as it could be. I'll have to do something about that. Presuming that you don't plan to gun me down now." The hard look in her eyes suggested that she wasn't going to make that option an easy one.

"Why should I? We're all corporate, here. There's nothing to be gained from a shootout."

"There's always revenge."

"The only one I want revenge on is the one who put Rafe in the hospital. That isn't you. The rest is all business."

Castle nodded.

"On the other hand," Melora pointed out, "I'd suggest a change of address for you. Newcomb tends to take these things a bit personally--especially since you've told us all about her little scheme."

"Unprofessional," Tyler said, meaning the Bloody Rose.

"But human."

"Don't worry," Castle told them. "It's definitely not going to be worth her while to come fetch me by the time I'm through. Covering my backside is what's kept me alive this long."

Melora let Arno up.

"Get lost," she told him. "If I ever see your face again, sworm-kisser, I'm going to assume you're looking for payback and gravestone you on sight."

"What makes you--"

"Because it's the way cheap, half-baked losers like you think. It's written all over your ugly face. We made you look bad twice, you want to get us back so bad it makes your teeth ache. Well, you aren't going to pull it off, now or ever. Get it?"

Arno snarled, but said nothing.

"No, I don't think you do." Melora hooked her toe under the thug's mace, sent it skittering over the wet pavement to his feet.

"Pick it up."

"Wha--?"

"We go now. You and me," she told him.

If Arno had half a brain, he'd have walked away. Unfortunately for him, half was about all he'd been allotted. He grabbed up the mace and bull-rushed Melora.

Tyler glanced at Castle just in case she got any ideas about throwing in. The hunter didn't show any signs of it, though. She just had a disgusted look on her face, the look of a woman who'd realized that she'd hired a head-fried moron with more balls than brains.

Melora sidestepped to her right, away from the mace, and snapped a low kick into the side of Arno's knee, knocking him off-balance. He turned, roaring, swinging the mace in a crushing arc that had plenty of power but zero control. It was easy for the lithe agent to dodge.

Which didn't prevent Tyler's gut from clenching as he saw it whip by her head. Love meant worry, and having seen Rafe in the hospital, suffering from injuries inflicted by the same kind of weapon didn't help. He had confidence in Melora's skill, but in combat, there was always luck.

Melora danced aside, then came in low. Arno's injured knee inhibited his ability to turn quickly, and she used that, getting behind him in the open street and driving the sole of her boot into the back of his other knee. His leg buckled and he staggered forward, off-balance. She drove a sidekick into his backside, mostly just to make him mad. He cursed, spun back towards her, and called her a few things that were at least fairly creative.

"Now, why can't you sweet-talk me like that, Tyler?" she said, grinning.

"Stop hopping around, skag, and fight like you've got some guts!" Arno bellowed.

"Arno, dear, people who know how to fight don't let themselves be hit. You've spent too much time roughing up kids and old ladies."

He rushed her again. This time she didn't sidestep, but slipped the big overhand swing by moving into Arno's body, grabbed his arm, and flipped him over her shoulder with his own momentum. He hit the pavement hard, leaving him stunned. Groaning, he tried to roll over, push himself back to his feet, but Melora scythed the edge of her hand down on the back of his neck and he dropped, face-down, and lay still on the pavement. If he was lucky, the denizens of the slum would only strip him of weapons, money, and armor but leave him alive.

"Some people only live through experience," Melora said wryly.

Castle wasn't one of them. She left without another word. She was a pro, and while the job hadn't gone well, she could walk away from it, and that was sometimes the best you could do.

It made Tyler think of Rafe.

* * * * *

Amie Wrayburn was on the intra-city subway when her porta-visiphone rang.

"Hello?"

It was the handsome face of the man who'd rescued her, but it looked tight and worried.

"What's wrong?" she asked softly, before he could say a word.

"It's Rafe," he told her. "He...he didn't make it, Amie."

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