MAKING A POINT
The two men sat at the quiet table at the back of the restaurant. They'd been coming there for ten years, now, ever since they'd discovered the place in their Academy days in 3048. Then the times had been carefree, when they'd scrounged up the money to celebrate at the elegant but unpretentious Mirotti's. These days they didn't come any more often even though they had the money to eat there whenever they liked. They were far less carefree, too. The process of making that money had seen to that.
One of them set down his drink, then pushed a dataplate across the table to the other.
"The latest figures on Weinstine Corporation's market share growth."
The second man glanced at the plate, using the touchscreen to look through the data.
"I don't like this," he said succinctly.
The other man shook his head.
"No; I don't either."
The second man tapped the screen.
"This is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue, especially with the Vel Mana government about to award its contract in less than two weeks."
"I'd say that an object lesson needs to be taught."
"It would be risky."
The first man shook his head.
"Not as much as if we let the current state of affairs go on."
* * * * *
A warm summer breeze blew in off the sea and brushed the clifftop, carrying with it the scents of salt and spray. Down below, people frolicked in the surf or stretched out on the beach in a variety of brightly-colored swimwear. Snow Woman thought they looked like targets in a shooting gallery. Just eight years ago, this beach had been stormed by invading Tor Malisite forces, OLTs disgorging ground troops while air support lit up the night with micromissiles, sweeping the cliff so that the troops could land safely. Now, though, Vel Mana was at peace, Tor Malis was a tentative ally within the Ten-Nation Alliance, and people flocked to the beaches for fun in the sun.
How soon they forget.
Snow Woman had been on the other side of that invasion, but she felt no qualms settling in a Vel Manan city. It was nothing personal, after all; she was a hunter, a mercenary, lending her Ranger's skills to whomever paid her contract. She'd worked for three major nations and a dozen of the lesser ones, and there hadn't been much difference between them, or between their enemies of the moment. People were pretty much alike that way.
She took a deep breath, enjoying the breeze. It was a nice change, this, from the usual meetings in nightclubs and back alleys. She had to give Chellis that. Snow Woman wondered if he knew the place's military history, if he cared that on the very spot where the fixer was buying a neomeat roll from a vendor's cart, three men had died in flames when an Inferno rocket had detonated.
Probably not, she decided as he ambled over. After all, she'd been in that battle and it didn't raise much feeling in her.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Winters," he said as he neared. Formal as always, she thought. Pretty much everyone who knew her called her Yukionna, Snow Woman--a fairly obvious epithet based on her last name, her ethnic mix, her ghost-pale complexion, and above all her cold, dispassionate mien--but Chellis was different. With him it was always "Ms. Winters" or "Midori Winters."
"Chellis," she greeted him with a nod.
He took a bite of his neomeat roll. The "bread" and "meat" in it were pretty much the same stuff, artificially synthesized nutrient mix, just prepared to differing consistencies and with different color and flavor gels blended in. That's what happened when for a century or more, dozens of different wars were breaking out between a variety of nations. Each country had an interval of peace, but somewhere on Coral someone was always at war with someone. No one could afford to expend the kind of arable land on food production--or to shackle their food supply to vast acreages that could be (and had been) bombed, blasted, chem-dusted, and irradiated. Genuine animal products, grains, fruits, and vegetables were luxury items, the province of the very wealthy.
Keeping herself eating them was her main reason to keep taking these hunter jobs, particularly the kind Chellis was known to offer.
"So, what do you have for me?" she asked.
He held up one finger on the hand holding the meat roll, then fished in his pocket. He took out a small unit the size of a PDL and clicked a button. A wave of dizziness swept over her, then passed.
"White noise field," he explained, "just in case someone happens to be pointing a directional mike our way. Maybe a little overkill, but..."
But you couldn't be too careful when contracting an assassination.
"I understand. Time's wasting."
"In two days' time Damon Weinstine is giving a speech at Vel Mana Academy's commencement. It's an outdoor, open-air site. He and his wife will be exposed on the podium. Both are targets."
Chellis took another bite of the neomeat roll, holding it in his mouth for a moment while he got out a dataplate and handed it to Snow Woman.
"That's a copy of the security plan and the layout of the commencement area, together with blueprints of the adjoining buildings. Since getting a weapon past security will be difficult at best, the client will provide one at the indicated location. A false ID that will let you into the area is stored on the plate as well; you'll have to write the data to a card but I figure you have the resources to handle that.
Snow Woman nodded,
"What's the price?"
"Twenty thousand meseta. Five up front and the balance upon completion. There's a catch; any collateral damage and you forfeit the tail end."
That explained why Chellis was coming to her when most anyone could handle a short-to-midrange shot like this one, especially given the level of client support. Someone didn't want innocent bystanders gunned down while the Weinstines were eliminated. It was probably the same reason they didn't just wire a bomb to the podium.
"I'll send the payment to your usual drop account."
"Did the client cover how I get out, or do I have to get creative?"
"Check the ID, Ms. Winters, and I think you'll be able to take it from there." He finished the roll in another two bites, then crumpled the wrapper and stuffed it in his pocket. Chellis would arrange for a murder, kidnapping, assault, robbery, or datasnatch without a qualm, but he drew the line at littering.
* * * * *
Snow Woman leaned back in the bathtub, floating lazily among mountains of bubbles, a narrow flute of crimsonkiss on the broad marble edge. Above her, holoprojection screens displayed data relating to the job.
"Damon Weinstine," she mused. "Co-founder of Weinstine Corporation together with twin brother Maron in AUW 3049. Corporate HQ, Arivas City, Vel Mana, with multinational operations. Heavily slanted towards R&D and technology, with an aggressive stance on the new Photon energy source. So who wants you dead?"
She had a pretty good idea. Weinstine Co. was a major contributor to Vel Mana Academy--it looked good and it gave them an inside edge to pluck the best and the brightest--hence, the invitation to address commencement. Big industry, though, had a number of enemies in the idealistic ivory towers of academia, both professors and students alike. Weinstine Co.'s technology interests and military development contracts would make them especially disliked by eco-groups irate at the damage being done to Coral by the seemingly endless cycle of high-tech war. There had been any number of protests, some violent, by student radicals who wanted Weinstine meseta out of Vel Mana Academy.
"It holds together," she said, feeling the warm water softly caress her arms and legs. "Weinstine Co.'s involvement with the Academy gives them more local impact than, say, Vise Corp. or Mick Co. And if the client is an Academy prof or student group, they'd be able to obtain the level of inside data they did." Anyone who'd read as many milspec intel reports over the years as she had knew the difference between hard data gained from the inside and the results of external recon. The ability to plant a weapon inside and the choice of false ID merely clinched the point.
"And the limit on collateral damage makes sense too. After all, they wouldn't want a fellow academic taken down while exorcising the corporate devil."
It wasn't certain, but then, these things never were. The only way Snow Woman would know positively who'd hired her was if someone walked up and claimed it--which would eliminate that name from the list of possibles.
"One thing I do know," she decided, sipping her liqueur, "is that this is going to be a milk run."
* * * * *
The scanner hummed faintly as it passed over Snow Woman's badge, then gave a happy-sounding beep.
"Sorry about that, ma'am," said the guard. He wore the red-jacket, black-pants uniform of Red Eagle Security Services, just like she did. Except that she had a lieutenant's stripe on hers.
"That's the job," she responded. "Keep it up."
She passed through into the milling crowd filling the Academy's quadrangle area. Students, professors, alumni, happy families, and newsmedia were there, upwards of five thousand people in all. Security barricades and checkpoints did their best to establish some order on the outside, and ushers directing the throng to rows of folding chairs tried the same on the inside, but it was still chaos. Snow Woman's cover identity was perfect. Not only was no one watching the hired security guards, but even if someone did notice her, they'd remember the distinctive uniform first and the secondary features not at all. Any chance at a positive identification would be finished by the pale green dyespray on her hair and the light makeup adding some color to her face, both of which would wash off in minutes.
Heck, the disguise even lent her the chance to carry a sidearm and a shock baton openly, though these weapons wouldn't be useful in carrying out her job. She'd have to trust that the client would come through again for that part of it.
It was no trouble to get to the building in question, which was at least three centuries old and belonged, appropriately enough, to the History Department. In a classroom at the third floor rear she found a case. A glance out the window suggested this very building would be the best vantage point for the shot; Snow Woman had surmised that already from the schematics, but it was always something that had to be seen first-hand.
Only...maybe up two floors and north, say, ten feet?
Luckily, she found another classroom with a window almost exactly where she needed it. Though the building was deserted as far as she could tell, she locked the door anyway. Snipers who got shot in the back were an embarrassment to Rangers everywhere. That done, she opened the case.
Okay, it wasn't a Yasminkov 3000R, but it wasn't bad, either--a military-grade M&A207R Vise with semi-automatic action, important since she had multiple targets. Snow Woman swiftly checked the weapon, finding it in excellent working order, then the caseless ammunition, and loaded it. The recoil pad went against her shoulder and the stabilizing mount beneath the gun. Recoil was a key issue with a weapon like this; the new Photon guns had far less recoil than similarly powerful conventional firearms did and so required less skill to keep on line. As far as Snow Woman was concerned, all Photon snipers did was to open her job to than many more posers and undertrained recruits, resulting in screw-ups in the field and bad rep for hunters everywhere. Still, for herself, she wouldn't mind having an easier-to-handle gun in her own hands.
She didn't have long to wait. About fifteen minutes after she'd taken up position, the commencement ceremony started. The band played the national anthem and a couple of the Academy spirit songs while the guests and dignitaries ascended to their seats on the podium dais. Snow Woman picked out her targets from the pictures provided. Weinstine looked just like he did on the vid broadcasts--tall, handsome, radiating confidence, his naturally white hair cut short and simply. His wife wore an elegant backless dress; she looked classy but not beautiful. She was a vice president in the corporation, according to the data, and the attraction between them was apparently more about intellect than lust.
She'd do him first, Snow Woman decided. He was the primary target, so it was more important to kill him before people started moving around, disturbing her aim. There was another reason, besides that; she'd have to go for a head shot on Weinstine while his wife offered head, back, and a tiny, flirtatious diamond cutout over the center of her chest as viable targets. Government officials and corporate executives often wore clothing with armor protection woven into the fabric, and at anything beyond point-blank range that had to be a consideration. The 207R was an adequate gun and might penetrate light ballistic armor at this range, especially the woman's dress, which by its design couldn't be as heavily protected, but Snow Woman would only get one shot at each if the security guards were at all adequate, and she couldn't take chances.
The songs came to an end and the Academy principal stepped up to the podium. He said a few things, most of them trite, few of them at all relevant, and then introduced Damon Weinstine, the keynote speaker.
Snow Woman raised the gun into position and targeted the sights on Weinstine's head, adjusting for range, altitude, and windage. With a gun in working order, for a skilled Ranger, this was like shooting fish in a barrel.
She pulled the trigger. No time to wait; she shifted her aim to Mrs. Weinstine and fired again, then pulled back.
Weinstine was down, all right, but down and alive, holding the side of his head where the bullet had hit. Security guards were closing in, surrounding and covering the two of them. Others were pointing up at the window, speaking into commlinks.
Why were they alive?
There was no time to worry about that. Snow Woman dropped the rifle; it carried no identifying evidence. The fingerless elbow-length gloves that were part of her uniform were in her case worn over a pair of neoskin liners, to prevent leaving fingerprints or skin cells behind. She drew her handgun, ran to the door, unlocked it, and stepped out into the hall.
Then she waited.
When the clump of footprints on the stairs signaled the arrival of the first guards, she turned to the room she'd just vacated, "covering" it in a shooter's stance.
"This is the room. The shooter left the gun behind, but he's gone. Are the exits being covered?"
"Good; move out and search this building, room by room if necessary. We've got him bottled up here. Keep alert. He might have another weapon."
The escape, at least, proceeded according to schedule.
* * * * *
"Academy security and Red Eagle are cooperating fully with national and local police in investigating the attempted assassination of Weinstine Corporation co-founder Damon Weinstine and his wife Margrete this afternoon during Vel Mana Academy's commencement activities," announced the talking head on the net broadcast. "The Weinstines were saved only due to their Photon frames, and speculation remains rampant as to the identity and motivation of the would-be assassin."
Linkbuttons popped up on the sidebar with associated stories: forensic details of the crime itself, biologs on the Weinstines, a piece on recent campus violence, a scitech report on Photon frames, and business news on Weinstine Corporation. The screen image turned to a picture of Weinstine himself addressing the media after the fact.
"Any organization, be it business, political, or social, that dares to push the boundaries of the unknown will be made the target of aberrant elements driven by fear. When my brother and I founded Weinstine Co., we had a dream of pushing the boundaries of technology to make our world better. It is that technology which saved Margrete's life and my own today, and we will not desist in trying to develop new and better uses for Photon energy."
Chellis smiled and changed the data link to his financial access.
"Ms. Winters is not going to be a happy woman, but hopefully she'll let you live with that."
He called up his auxiliary accounts and routed payment of Snow Woman's fifteen thousand meseta through the usual secure channels. She certainly deserved the money; the job couldn't have gone better.
* * * * *
Glasses chimed in toasts and flatware clinked off plates. Mirotti's was quite busy, but the table in the back was still relatively quiet.
"Your second visit in a week," the manager said as he escorted the two men to their table. "It's quite a pleasure."
"For us as well."
As they passed between tables, more than one head turned and pair of eyes widened. Whispers of "Isn't that...?" and "Oh, my, it's...!" arose in a soft buzz. The manager flushed with embarrassment.
"Please excuse me, sirs."
"The price of fame, Vincent," Damon Weinstine said with a wry smile as he and his brother were shown to their seats. Though Maron's hair was worn long, their faces were absolutely identical except for the bruise on Damon's temple where the bullet had struck.
Maron shook his head once they had been seated and drinks brought.
"One Monomate would take care of that bruise, Damon."
"I know, but it plays well for the media. In a couple of days, once the media blitz of 'assassination survivor' stories dies down, I'll get rid of it."
Maron shook his head again.
"I still can't believe you did that. I trust our products, too, but I'll leave stepping in front of a sniper to you. And asking your wife! Margrete is crazier than you are, do you know that?"
"Yes," Damon said at once, and both Weinstines laughed. Then Damon sobered.
"So how did it work? I've been too tied up with the media and the authorities to run data."
"The stock price is down a point and a half based on fears of further 'terrorist activity,' but that will be self-correcting and we own eighty percent of the company between us so there's obviously no takeover threat. Based on all the free advertising, we're getting a sales uptick of 38% since the first reports broke yesterday. Best of all, though, we got a call from the Vel Mana Defense Minister. It seems that our little field test impressed him sufficiently that they're moving ahead with the contract--in our favor--ahead of schedule."
"It just goes to show you, Maron, that sometimes a sufficiently dramatic demonstration is needed to get your message across."