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He Who Laughs Last

Part IV

The force of the explosion knocked all three of us off our feet. Luckily, Adam had been between me and the blast, and just as luckily my head didn't crack into anything hard. My ears were still ringing from the dynamite charge when Griggs popped up from behind the desk (the obviously armored desk which he had used for cover) with an acidshot in hand. His first shot was aimed at Cash, the pellet launched from the small gun bursting open on contact, spilling caustic liquid that ate rapidly into the stunned fixer's armor.

I had the sudden, unpleasant realization that the only one who could save my life was me. Cash wasn't up to anything then, and as for Adam, well, that charge had been about two inches from his feet when it went off. This thought rattled around in my throbbing head for what seemed like an eternity before the idea penetrated down to my sore muscles that it might be a good plan to lift my right arm and point the Marksman in Greenbeard's general direction. This I managed to do before he turned my way, likely because he was focused on his rival instead of incidental types like me.

My vision was still blurry, but I managed to get the gun roughly centered on target before pulling the trigger. The concentrated sonic pulse hit him high in the chest, not penetrating his carbonsuit though it did jolt him back with the impact. I lifted the gun a fraction higher, praying to whatever gods or spirits there might be as I did because I knew this would be my last chance.

Apparently someone was listening, because Greenbeard's face dissolved into a red haze.

The part of my brain in charge of self-preservation (the part that appeared to still be working) noticed that my backup piece was still clenched in my left fist. For some people the phrase might have meant a holdout gun, a knife, a minigrenade, or some other weapon. me, I preferred something a little more defensive in nature: a pressure injector charged with Dimate. My fingers found the top, popped it off, pressed the tip against bare skin, and squeezed the trigger. Healing medicine poured into my bloodstream, sending my body's natural healing system into overdrive. Bruises healed, muscles stopped aching, vision cleared, ears stopped ringing, even the headache went away. Heck, I wasn't even tired anymore, though I knew that would pass. Dimate couldn't cure mental fatigue, only stave it off under the stimulant effect.

"Nice work," Cash grunted, slowly sitting up. He didn't look pretty, but his equipment had done its job, keeping him alive. Unlike Adam and Griggs, who could have been props in a horror vid. I tried hard not to look at either one of them, especially Griggs, who was all of the second "notch" on my gun. The fixer struggled to his feet, stripping off the now-useless armor as he did. He obviously had taken as much of the blast as I had, if not more, though, because he swayed unsteadily.

"Yeah," I said sarcastically. "Nice wetwork, you mean." I put away the Marksman and went over to the desk, checking it for the datachip. It was there, in the same drawer as Greenbeard had kept the acidshot. This was what it was all about, I thought. A little sliver less than two inches long, and it was worth this sort of cost in Palman lives.

Screw professional honor, I thought. I should have told Cash to stick it instead of coming along for this. I signed on to be his errand boy, not one of his hired thugs. I felt cheap and used.

I'd get over it, of course. Trenton Griggs and his men weren't exactly prize specimens of the Palman race. Given the amount of crash time I'd had lately, it probably wouldn't even cost me a night's sleep.

A night's good sleep, maybe.

"All right," Cash said. "We've got what we came for, now let's get out of here." He started going through Adam's pockets for the skimmer key. Bloody hell, he was smiling--and why not? He'd gotten the data he'd come here for, and rid himself of a rival at the same time. All it had cost him was meseta and an employee. Nothing to bother him there.

"I don't think so," I said.

"What?" His head snapped around fast--a little too fast for his condition, maybe, because he swayed a little at the end of it. Cash's eyes, though, had gone cold and hard.

Obviously, I concluded, my client had correctly interpreted my tone of voice.

"Something Greenbeard here said, about you cutting in on his business. Explains a lot, to my way of thinking."

"Marshall, let's get the hell out of here. We can discuss this later."

"I don't think so," I snapped. "This whole deal wasn't yours at all, was it? It was his. He was fencing the data for Naria or whomever the hell in Global Envirotech swiped it. The thug in the Corsairs hat was the guy who was supposed to make the pickup--Griggs' version of me. You found out what he had lined up and dealt yourself a piece of the action."

He didn't say anything, and I didn't wait around for him to think about it.

"Only Greenbeard was smart. He hacked you right back and found out what you were up to and that you'd hired me. That put him on the scene to make the pickup from me. One courier or another, he wound up with the chip, and got the last laugh on you."

"But it wasn't the last laugh, was it?" Cash said nastily. "We're here now, and Griggs is dead."

"Yeah, he's dead. I killed him because I thought he'd crossed us both and I wanted to even the score, wrap up my job right. That took me into something that's hunter work, not my line, and look where it ended up." I ground my teeth together angrily. "Only Griggs didn't cross us. You hired me to cross him. Your stinking two K has made me a thief and a killer tonight, Cash. I don't like that."

"You know what, Marshall? I don't particularly give a damn what you like or don't like. I hired you to do a job. You didn't ask any questions then. Hell, you knew this was probably stolen data, industrial espionage. What're you getting so holy about?"

I realized that I'd done something highly stupid. I'd picked a fight with an armed killer after putting away my own gun. This did not qualify as one of the brightest moves of the year. Cash, dazed as he was, figured this out and pointed his laser shot in the general direction of my midsection.

Now, if this was some action vid, I'd have been luring Cash into a false sense of security all this time, while secretly smug in my knowledge that I could pump a FOI or some similar technique into him before his groggy mind could make his finger pull the trigger. Unfortunately for that scenario, I don't know any techs. I had, in fact, shown up at a gunfight armed with my bare hands.

"It's a fine line," I snarled back, all the while trying to figure which way to jump. It's impossible to dodge a laser beam, as any basic physics course will teach you, but that laser is fired by a person and generated from a gun. It takes time to pull the trigger and it was barely possible to get out of the way of the barrel before the beam was fired. If it wasn't, believe me, more lasers would be in use regardless of cost. "I hire out to take property from point A to point B. Most of the time this involves secrets, stuff that can't be trusted to a datanet where there are gridriders to hack it out. Or prototype tech, unique art or jewels, that kind of thing. Sometimes it's stolen, sometimes not, and I can't afford to check because one of the jobs of a courier is to keep his nose out of his employer's biz."

"You should have kept yours there, then," Cash said. "Hand over the chip." He extended his hand towards me for the data. It trembled slightly, just like the one holding the gun.

"Except you didn't hire me as a courier. You hired me as a thief, and that isn't part of my job!"

I made the jump, then, diving to my left as my right hand went under my coat for the Marksman. The blue-white beam of the laser slashed into the desk, and I thought I might have a chance to pull this off, but I'd forgotten about Greenbeard's body. The side of my foot caught his leg, and I stumbled, then went down.

It had a funny kind of irony to it. I kill a man, and his corpse gets me killed in return. Things coming full circle and all that. Of course, if I'd gone along with the act of killing and given Cash the chip, I wouldn't have been in the fix at all, so maybe it was a lesson on being wishy-washy instead--I had no clue. I looked up as the gun, wondering if I was about to get the answers firsthand.

Then there was the squeal of sonic gun fire, and two exit wounds blossomed on Cash's now-unarmored chest. He pitched forward and hit the carpet with a dull, unpleasant thud. I got the Marksman out and looked up cautiously.

It was the guard, the one who'd been cut down at the monitor. He looked half dead, but he'd still managed to get revenge for himself and his boss. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth, and his gun fell from nerveless fingers as the Reaper caught up with his temporary oversight.

I got to my feet and was out the door in a second, pausing only to snatch the card key for the Microglide from Cash. I had to get out of the neighborhood fast, and that was the only transport readily available. I checked my chron as I crawled down the ladder. It had all taken nine and a half minutes. I'd been on the job less than half a day.

* * * * *

A couple of hours later, I leaned back in my seat on the aerojet as the massive aircraft reached its cruising altitude. The red-eye was half empty, so even in third class I'd lucked out and didn't have someone next to me gouging my ribs with an elbow.

My eyes drifted shut, and I tried to take stock of where I stood. The datachip was still in my pocket; I figured that Global Envirotech would come up with a finder's fee to get it back, besides which, it was rightfully theirs anyway. My fingerprints, genetic code, and so on were all on file, which would be bad if a forensic sweep by the Scion cops turned up anything I'd left behind, like a stray hair, but the chances of that were minimal. Two fixers offing each other in underworld violence, they'd say, and it was essentially the truth. They'd be more concerned about the behind-the-scenes action that would fall out as others stepped in to fill Griggs and Cash's shoes than in rounding up leftovers.

And what about me? had I made the right choices based on what I knew at the time I made them to keep to my ethical standards? Or had I taken a wrong turn because it was easier or more lucrative? Or was it my standards themselves that were screwed up and I needed to get my moral act together from the ground up?

Sleep swallowed me before I could come up with any responses.

Maybe my dreams would answer me.

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