Twenty One

No writing on 11/21.
My first day of no writing at all.
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Twenty

“Ok, so look, up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right and blink twice. Then a port will open in your left eye and I’ll use this,” Hernan held up a sticklike object “to interface and dump the software update.

“Once the update is complete, the eyes will reboot and we’ll do another diagnostic. Then, I’ll answer any questions you’ve got.”

The reboot was a familiar process and the diagnostic was just as painful as before. The jack experience was very odd. My left eye stayed active, but I only saw half of my normal expanse of vision.

After the update was complete, I could tell that the eye was definitely more responsive and fluid. The zoom was a bit smoother and the image was sharper at higher zoom levels.

Hernan reviewed the diagnostic results and seemed pleased, “Yep, focus and track are a bit faster. ” Then he looked back at me, “Ok, so what do you want to know? Keep in mind that there are some things I probably won’t be able to answer.”

I sat back and though for a few minutes. On the whole, I was happy with the eyes. They worked well, and I understood what they did. Then, “Ok, so the grey forms. What’s up with that?”

“At a high-level, our chameleoskin technology is really advanced. We’ve started having problem with people on the same team wearing the stuff and not being able to see each other. We don’t want to use an active emitter because that can be tracked and triangulated and would defeat the whole point of being ‘invisible’. The solution was an on-demand active emitter. We put a simple IFF in the chameleoskin but it’s only activated on interrogation. The cybereyes have an interrogator built into them so when your eye sweeps past a chamleoskin suit, it triggers the IFF and the eye registers the rough shape and represents it as a gray form. This happens in a burst so the likelihood of it getting picked up by other sensors is really low.” His explanation was very matter of fact and seemed totally obvious – but I was sure it was one of those, “once you know it it’s obvious” things.

I thanked Hernan for the explanation and shelved the concept for later thought.

Hernan’s eyes went out of focus like he was receiving a call on a headphone. Then he focused back on Steven and me and said, “Ok, I guess it’s time for you to visit medical about your leg. I’ll lead you there.”

###

Hernan lead us through the building to what looked like a miniature hospital. Once there, he handed us off to a cyberdoc named Linda.

Linda led us to an office and sat down at a desk across from us.

“I’ve been instructed by Mr. Price to go over some options with you for your cyberleg. Based on cursory examination,” she had glanced at my leg on the walk to the office, “I’d say we’re looking at a full replace. It’s possible that if you’d gotten it seen to earlier, you might have gotten away with a partial.” She gave Steven a pointed look since he’d been introduced as my doctor.

Before Steven could bristle at that I spoke up, “It’s my fault. He said it needed to be dealt with. I told him I didn’t have time and it would have to wait.”

Linda shrugged and pulled out a tablet. She poked at it to bring up a schematic of a cyberleg. “Ok, here’s your basic leg – for someone in your line of work, we usually recommend a bit of an upgrade for strength and speed.” She tapped at the tablet and the schematic changed slightly.

“Now, as I said, there are a few options to discuss. We can add a spur, basically a stalactite that shoots out of your foot and can be used as an anchor. Or, we can do a compartment that you can open and close. Or there are weapons.” With each option, the schematic changed slightly to indicate how the leg would be affected.

“Weapons?” I asked, “What sort of weapons.”

“Well, we can embed a combat shotgun – it would fire through your heel.” Tap tap, “Or a retractable combat spur, like a rooster,” tap tap.

I considered. The shotgun was interesting but I wasn’t sure I wanted a projectile weapon a permanent part of me. The combat spur was also interesting, but I’d never been much of one for hand-to-hand fighting so I wasn’t sure how useful it would be.

“I think I’ll pass on the weapons. But I’m intrigued by the compartment. Can it be setup to act as a holster for a weapon?”

Linda considered that and said, “Yes, it could. You might have to get some fancy tailoring to support it, but it could definitely be done.”

Steven looked at me with surprise, “But, you’re right handed.”

“That’s why it’s such a great idea, no one will expect it. Ok, then let’s just go with the basic leg with recommended upgrades and the integral holster.”

I looked at Steven while she made some notes, “Ok, with you, Doc?”

He shrugged “Would you listen to me if I said it wasn’t?”

“Sure, Steven,” I replied with a grin, “I always listen to you, I just don’t always do what you recommend.”

He scoffed at me and turned to Linda, “What sort of timeline are you looking at?”

“Oh, we’ll do the surgery tomorrow. Figure a few days for recovery and a few weeks for rehab and learning to use the limb.”

He nodded, “Ok. I’d like to observe the surgery.”

“Of course. It’s tomorrow at 6AM.”

I looked down at my leg. It was my leg, a part of me. But it was dying. I needed to get it cut off and having a cybernetic replacement installed seemed like the best way forward. I had other cyber in me, but this seemed different. It was bigger, more obvious. I was sure I’d get used to it over time, like I had the eyes – but I was also sure it would change me. I just wasn’t sure how.

##########

Nineteen

The colors were dazzling. I tried to shut my eyes but the covers wouldn’t react. I saw my vision zoom out, then back in. Images of eyeballs appeared and disappeared. Then everything went dark.

I was blind again. Had the eyes crashed?

“Uh, guys?”

Then I heard Steven’s voice, “It’s ok, man. We’re here.”

“I can’t see. It’s all dark.”

“Oh, that’s part of the diagnostic. I should have warned you. Sorry about that.” Hernan’s voice carried the vague absenteeism of an academic involved in his work.

“So, how long will this last?”

“Huh? Oh, it’ll be over in a couple minutes. Man, this data is incredible. The interfacing with your brain, the performance of the optics, it’s way past what even I expected.”

“Gee, I’m glad that I could make your science project a success.”

“Absolutely, man, absolutely.” He didn’t appear to catch the sarcasm.

Then the darkness changed. I could see light leaking in around the goggles,  and Hernan was pulling them off my head.

I expected some kind of ache but didn’t feel anything.

“So, you get what you needed?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, this is fantastic!”

Steven spoke up, “You said something about a software upgrade?”

“Yeah, let me prep that.”

“How do you deliver the software?”

“Oh, there’s a jack build into the eye.” Hernan tossed over his shoulder while he dug around in his desk.

“Built into the eye!?!” I asked.

He must have heard the concern in my voice because he looked back over his shoulder at me.

“Yeah, into the eye. There’s a code to open it, kind of like a secret knock.”

“Umm, okay…” I looked at Steven and he shrugged back at me.

“I’ve heard about this sort of thing, but never seen it. And let me remind you-”

“Yeah, I’m the one who wanted the eyes installed.”

Eighteen

After I agreed to Philip’s requests, everything started happening fast.

First Leonard called me to let me know that they were letting him go. He apologized for getting picked up like he had but I told him not to worry about it. In some ways it made everything easier, but I asked him what had happened.

“They had picked up the tracer in the box when it was still in my lab. I guess they’d staked out the lab for a while in the hope that you’d come back here and they could grab you. When you never came back here, they decided to grab me instead and use me as leverage.”

“Yeah, that scans. I’m sorry for getting you pulled in like this.”

“S’ok. I survived and I’m glad it’s working out OK for you.”

“Well, it looks that way but I’m not totally sure yet. We’ll see…”

After talking with Leonard, I called Steven.

“Hey, Doc, I need a big favor from you.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“I need you to meet me at Lima’s research center.”

“Meet you where?”

“At Lima’s research center.”

“Isn’t that where you got the eyes from? The people who want you dead?”

“Yeah, but I’ve got a deal worked out with them. Part of the deal is that they get data from the eyes based on usage. Plus, they’re going to help me out with my leg.”

“If they’re going to do all that, what do you need me for?”

“Because I need someone there that I trust. Someone to watch out for my interests.”

“Ok, I’ll buy that. I’m surprised you’re even going along with them.” he paused thoughtfully, “Hang on, won’t I be seeing a bunch of private research and data? Stuff that no one outside the company should see?”

I grimaced, “Yeah, you will. That’s why it’s a big favor. You’ve got to sign a bunch of paperwork that you won’t share what you see and if you break the confidentiality, they get unhappy.”

“How unhappy?”

“Terminally unhappy.”

“This is a hell of a favor you’re asking for.”

“I know man, and I’ll understand if you can’t do it.”

“Oh, I’ll be there. I may not learn anything I can share, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be interesting and I may learn stuff I can use.”

###

I explained the situation to Kazumi and Giles and told them that I’d be back in a month or so and that I’d be ready to work with them on another run.

“You sure you want to do this, mate?” Giles asked while Kazumi nodded her own concern.

“I’m as sure as I can be. It seems like the best choice in a bad situation. Waters gets secure, we get paid and I get Lima off my back.”

“Yeah, off your back and around your neck,” Giles muttered.

“For a short time, yeah. It’s not permanent. I’m not signing any kind of an employment contract – I’m still a lone, free runner. I’ll just owe them a bid and I’ll need to do a job for them.”

Kazumi seemed to accept and shrugged, “Relax, Giles, sometimes a short-term corp sponsor can be good.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Giles turned on his heel and left.

Kazumi turned to me, “What’s up with him? His ‘tude seems a little excessive.”

“He’s had some bad experiences with corps.”

“It seems a bit more than just bad experiences.”

“Yeah, it is.” When she raised an eyebrow at me I continued, “It’s his story, his place to tell. You want to know, you need to ask him.”

Kazumi nodded acceptance and handed me a plain white card. When I turned it over there was a hand-written phone number – nothing else.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That is your insurance policy. Anything happens to you, call that number and leave a message. I’ll get the message within 24 hours and I’ll do what I can to help.”

I was surprised by the gesture, “Ah, thanks, Kazumi. I’m sure I’ll be fine, but I appreciate the offer.”

“Trust loosely. monitor heavily and always have an out.” She replied. “Words to live by when dealing with corps.”

“Too right.” I held up a fist and she bumped it, “I’ll call you when I’m out and ready for what’s next.”

“Or sooner if necessary.”

“Yeah, or sooner.”

 

###

I rode to the research center in an armored SUV with Philip. It wasn’t a long drive but I was still bone tired and I must have fallen asleep. I jerked awake and raised my arms defensively when Philip shook me.

“Wakey, wakey” he said and chuckled at my response.

“Asshole.” I muttered, and followed him out of the vehicle.

Philip waved a badge negligently and an armored door opened up for us. Entering, I could see a hallway decorated in the same corporate industrial that I’d seen before. Hell, I’d probably been down this hallway before.

“Follow me,” Philip instructed.

I scowled but followed.

He lead me through several turns and we came out in a lobby. Steven was sitting in a chair there and he rose as we entered. I’d given Steven’s particulars to Philip back at Leonard’s lab and Philip had ok’d his presence and had a visitor badge made up for him.

Philip spoke with the woman at the reception desk while I limped over to see Steven.

Steven gave my leg and my limp a critical view. “It’s getting worse faster than I expected.”

“Yeah, I figure you were right about the bio-encoding. Starting to hurt like a mother too. I’m not sure how much longer I could have been going on it.”

He nodded, “Yes. It’s a good thing that you’re getting it taken care of.”

Philip joined us, “Hello, Dr. Fowler. I’m glad you could join us. I’m Philip Price.”

Steven looked at Price sharply. “It’s just Doc or Steven now. I’m sure your research indicated that.”

“Yes, it did, but I have a policy on niceties.”

“I don’t consider being called Dr. Fowler a nicety.”

“Oh? I’m terribly sorry. I’ll be sure and have a note made in your file.” Philip’s apology was obviously fake, but Steven didn’t appear to want to make an issue of it. He merely gave me a significant look.

I grimaced and turned to Price, “Look, asshole. We’re here. I’m doing my part. It wouldn’t kill you to show come courtesy.”

Philip shrugged, “No, it wouldn’t kill me. But it would probably hurt a lot.”

I bristled at that and he continued, “In the interests of keeping our relationship working, I’m going to hand you off to some other folks now. Please be advised that you will be tracked with your badge where ever you go in the facility. Also, you must have your badge with you at all times.

“We have a very eager and dedicated security staff. They can be a bit…harsh…with people in the facility without a badge.

“Ah, Lisa, thank you for coming up.”

Lisa was a severe looking woman with black hair pulled back into a tight bun and heavy black glasses. She wore a white lab coat and had several data jacks each side of her head. She also wore a bad attitude which seemed aimed at me.

“Lisa heads **Project Daedalus**.” Oh, that would explain the animosity. “Your actions have set her team back some time.”

I gave her a bland look but didn’t say anything.

Philip continued, “Now, Lisa, these folks are in our care. Differences have been equitably resolved. You and your team can collect the data you need and continue your research. As you explained to me before, the eyes cannot be removed and re-implanted. It’s time to simply make the best of our current situation and move on.”

Lisa glanced at Philip and nodded.

“All right then, now I’m going to return to other matters. If you need anything, Lisa or someone on her team will be able to facilitate it.” With that, Philip turned and walked away from us.

Both Steven and I turned and looked expectantly at Lisa.

She sighed and muttered, “Follow me.”

As we walked she glanced at me and asked, “So what hack job installed the eyes for you.”

I glanced at Steven and he said, “I did.”

She at least seemed a little embarrassed about that and mumbled, “Oh, well, nice job.”

Steven just glared at her and we continued in a cold silence.

After about a five minute walk, she badged us through to a lab that I definitely recognized.

A short hispanic guy was crouched over a keyboard and looked up when we entered. A big grin spread across his face and he said, “Hey! The guy with the eyes! How they working out for you man? The optics smooth? I hear you found the chameleofriend functionality. You figure out the retina copier?”

Lisa grimaced and said, “Hernan! Do you want to give everything away?”

He looked at her and shrugged, “I thought we were going to talk about everything – make sure it was all working. There’s no way we can really collect and evaluate the data without talking about everything.” I could tell that there was no love lost in this relationship.

Lisa looked frustrated. “We are – I just wanted to do it in stages.”

Hernan glanced at us and then back at Lisa. “I think we’re better served by being completely open from the start. I’d be happy to take it from here with them. I’ll record everything and you can review it later if you need to.”

Lisa looked like she was going to object and Hernan continued, “Oh, Ocher was looking for you. He said something about a budget review.”

Lisa closed her eyes and I could see that the was working to keep her composure. When she opened them, they were clear and she had succeeded. “All right. You talk about it with them. I want a full report when you’re done.” And she turned and left the lab.

Hernan watched her go and sighed. “Typical administrative bitch. Always trying to control the flow of information.”

I think I’m going to like this guy.

Hernan turned back to Steven and myself with a grin. “So? You figure it all out?”

I replied, “Yeah, I think so. Steven clued me into the retina copier and I noticed the chameleofriend  bit when I met Philip Price.”

Hernan looked at Steven in surprise. “You clued him in? Who are you?”

Steven held out his hand “Steven Fowler. Street doc. I installed the eyes for him.”

“Street doc, huh? And how’d you figure out the retina copier?”

“I knew about your chameleoskin research and saw some weird hardware in the eyes. It only seemed logical.”

“Logical, huh? And how’d you figure out how to activate it?”

“Once I was pretty sure what it was, I just thought about how I’d make it work.”

At that Hernan laughed outloud. “How you’d make it work huh? That’s good. The people here originally wanted it to take some kind of retina file upload via a datajack. I had to actually build a prototype scanner and skinner to convince them that my way was better.”

“Anyway, I guess we should get some actual work done.” He walked over to a desk and picked up what looked like a pair of goggles with a data cable hanging off.

He handed me the googles and said, “I need you to put these on and I’ll jack the cable into the computer here. The googles will show you a bunch of images and your eyes will go into diagnostic mode. It’s likely to be kindah weird for you. You won’t be able to control them, they’ll just go through a bunch of tests to evaluate performance. It would have been nice to have done this right after they were installed to get a baseline, but this’ll have to do.”

“How long does it take?” I asked.

“Oh, about 5 minutes.”

“What happens if the diagnostic software locks up?” Steven asked.

At this, I shot him a concerned look then looked back at Hernan to see what he’d say.

Hernan looked thoughtful. “Yeah, that’s possible but it’s highly unlikely. Worst case, we can just dump the software and reload it. We’ll probably do that anyway soon because there’s an updated release. Also, we’d like to have you walk around with the basic diagnostic level turned on for a few days. That will collect additional date during normal use. We’ll use it to update the software and make hardware changes for the next prototype.”

“Man, I feel like a guinea pig,” I commented.

Hernan looked surprised and Steven looked satisfied. “But, essentially, you are. You’ve got prototype cyberware in your head – we’re pretty sure we got all the bugs worked out but it’s nowhere near ready for production and sale.”

Steven chuckled, “Yeah, I tried to tell him that before I installed them. He wouldn’t listen.”

Hernan laughed back, “Well, who dares wins. You’ve got to admit, you’ve got an awesome set of ware in your head. And it was a bargain basement price!”

I looked at him curiously, “You don’t see too put off by the fact that I stole them.”

“Hell no!” he replied, “Lisa and her higher ups wanted another month of testing before they did a human trial. I thought it was ready, but I needed their approval. With you walking around with them in your head working, that short circuits that whole process! And, I’m vindicated!” He did a little dance.

“Anyway,” he continued, “put the goggles on and lets do some diagnostics!”

I looked at Steven to get his input and he shrugged at me, “I only offer advice to those who take it. Or at least consider it.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked.

He grinned, “Moral support. And to help avoid any egregious medical errors.”

Crap. I donned the goggles, heard Hernan plug them in, and then my world exploded with color.

Seventeen

Fish on Sixth was a landmark. It was a big brick building and they’d been selling and serving fish for as long as anyone could remember. Whenever I went, I had the chowder in a bread bowl and I got there at 11:30 so I’d have time to enjoy it before the meet. Plus, I didn’t want the guy I was meeting to see the condition of my leg.

I had a seat in the back where I could watch the door. It was a cool, blustery day and they were doing a modest early lunch traffic.

When I saw the white suit with a red handkerchief, I raised a hand at him. As the man walked over towards me I took him in.

He was about my height and carried himself with quiet assurance. Neatly trimmed brown hair framed a handsome face, unmarred by any obvious scars. There was a sort of merry-ness around the eyes and a small smile played across his lips. He didn’t look like your average suit. Especially your average suit that meets with runners.

I gestured towards a chair when he reached the table. He pulled it out and sat smoothly. There was something familiar about his actions.

As he was settling himself, I looked around the restaurant.

He noticed me looking, smiled, and said, “I didn’t bring any backup. This is a friendly meeting and there is no need. I thought that the presence of such might put us on the wrong foot.”

He was totally comfortable. I had the sense that we could be meeting in a bombed out ruin with fires raging around us and he would still be totally comfortable. It made me nervous.

I nodded carefully at him and he continued. “My name is Arthur Archer.”

I tried to keep the surprise off my face, but I must have done a bad job of it as he continued, “Yes, Archer. My brother Philip runs the company and I’m head of security.”

Now I was shaken. I reached for my water to take a drink to cover my unease. As I was setting it back down I shifted my feet under the table and a sharp lance of pain shot up my leg when I bumped my foot against the table leg. The water slipped from my grasp and would have cascaded across the table – except Arthur caught it.

He went from sitting with his hands in his lap to catching my falling water in an eye blink. I’d never seen anyone move that fast and I realized that there’d been a secondary meaning behind ‘not needing’ backup.

Arthur studied me with concern in his eyes. “Are you all right?”

I nodded cautiously, then realized something – he really was concerned about me.

He must have been seen the realization on my face (I’d never met anyone who could read me as well as this either) and nodded, “Really, you have nothing to fear from me. Neither I nor my company bear you any bad will.”

All of a sudden I really believed him; and it changed my whole presence. I relaxed. I felt comfortable. I felt at ease. I felt like I was just sitting down to lunch with a friend. My God, if this guy ever went into politics he’d have every election sown up tight.

A waiter approached and Arthur ordered his own bowl of chowder, giving me a chance to get settled in my new equilibrium. I found myself liking him and that carried its own twinge of concern. This guy was a suit. He worked for a corp. He wasn’t my friend – he just did a damn good job of pretending he was.

By the time Arthur’s food had arrived, I’d settled into a poise of friendly wariness. I felt comfortable enough in the meeting but not so relaxed that he’d bowl me over with charisma (any more).

He nodded again as if approving my mental position. “All, right, now that you’re settled, let’s talk business, Mr. …”

I looked around at the decor, cracked a smile and said “Call me Ishmael.”

That got an outright laugh out of him. “I’m impressed, Ishmael. I’d thought that the classics were dying.”

“Dying, maybe. But not dead yet.”

“And they’re actually starting to feel a bit better?” his eyes twinkled.

I grinned, “Something like that.”

He nodded. “All right then, Ishmael. I understand you have some material for me?”

I passed over a tablet and he paged through the material.

“Hmm…this is very interesting. I can see that you’re everything that Mr. Thomas assured me you were.”

“Yes, we’ve got Waters and his research.”

“And now you’re looking for a place to unload him?” Arthur asked pointedly.

I bristled at that, “No. Not just ‘unload’. I’m working with him to find a new home that he’s happy with.”

“Indeed. That is interesting. You’re a runner with a sense of duty – not just a mercenary in search of money.”

“If I was just looking for money, Waters would already be off my hands.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Well to be honest I do have a small agenda.” His smile turned rueful, “And I apologize for that.”

I tensed and he went on, “Oh, it’s nothing you need be alarmed about. I’m just afraid that we’re not in a position to take Waters into our organization at the moment.”

“Then why did you agree to meet with me?” I felt coldness spreading out through me.

Arthur sat back and blotted his lips with his napkin. “Two reasons. One, even though we can’t take Waters, we’re very interested in his research and would like to buy it from you.”

“And two?” I said carefully when he paused.

Now he leaned forward and studied me. “Two, I wanted to meet the man who pulled off a successful extraction against Kasei. In my position, I’m occasionally in need of contractors for specific jobs. I like to have people I know and can call on when I need. People I can trust to do a good job.”

I sneered at that, “I’m no corporate lap dog.”

“That much I’ve observed in this conversation and I meant no disrespect. I’m not speaking of a ‘beck and call’ relationship. Merely an outside contractor who can take jobs as needed and perform them well.”

Now I sat back and studied him. I was still fighting an innate sense of trust – but it’s always good to keep ones options open. “What kinds of jobs?”

“Oh, it will vary but certainly the kinds of things that you could execute commensurate with your skills and experience.”

“I’m somewhat particular about jobs – there are certain kinds of jobs that I won’t do.”

Arthur nodded, “Completely understandable and to be expected. I’m not looking for brute force. I’m looking for finesse – with the understanding that when finesse fails, as it will from time to time, there is a brute core to fall back on.”

This gave me something to think about. It seemed promising. But it was something for the future. I still had to find a place for Waters.

“Ok, what you’ve said makes sense. I’ll include my contact info with Waters’ research when you buy it.”

He chuckled at that. “I can offer you 120k for the data.”

I replied without thinking, “I’d need at least 150 to cover costs.”

Now Arthur turned cold. “Ishmael, we’re in agreement that you’re not a mercenary. I’m offering a fair price for data you already have – it represents no additional cost for you to achieve. Additionally, I’m not asking for exclusivity. If we are to have future dealings, you need to understand that I will always play straight and fair.”

I scoffed at that, “Yeah, a suit. Straight and fair.”

A pained expression crossed Arthur’s face as he continued to lean towards me. “I understand your feelings and I’m sure that others in my profession have done much to validate it. However, I am different. Archer is different. It is important for you to understand that if we are to have a future together.”

His deep sincerity affected me and I nodded cautiously. “Ok. I’ll keep it in mind. You’re right, 120k is a fair price.”

Arthur sat back and smiled, the incident apparently immediately put from his mind and asked, “When would you like to meet for the trade?”

I thought for a moment. “Tonight, 7pm. At the Five and Dime.”

Arthur nodded, “All right, I’ll see you there.”

He left a couple cred sticks on the table and stood, turning to go. Then he turned back as if a thought had just struck him. “By the way, might I suggest a possible home for Mr. Waters?”

I nodded cautiously at him and he continued. “It is my understanding that Lima Industries is working on their own battle-mesh. They have significant research resources and Mr. Waters may be happy there.”

The mention of Lima Industries gave me a sinking feeling. The thought of trying to deal with them filled me with dread. But I nodded in thanks and he was courteous enough to ignore the look on my face.

“All right then, Ishmael. Until this evening.” And Arthur Archer strode briskly from the restaurant, taking a bit of my confidence with him.

I continued to sit at the table after Arthur left. The waiter came around again and I ordered a cup of coffee.

I was tired, and stressed, and in pain. A bad place to plan from but you make the best of what you’ve got.

I’d been counting on Archer taking in Waters. We had to be out of Coburn’s place by tomorrow afternoon and I was running short on safe places. I knew Leonard had a place he kept and it looked like I was going to have to tap him for it.

I rang him and left a message when he didn’t pick up – not a lot of details, just asking him to call me to talk about something.

Ok, that’s one problem solved, I knew Leonard would come through for me. Now, how do I get in touch with Lima Industries? And what do we do about Kasei Technologies?

I thought for a few minutes with my coffee cradled in my hands, then called Reggie.

“Hoy, Reggie.”

“Hey, man, how’d it go with Archer?”

I paused, considering how to answer. “It was…interesting.”

Reggie waited for me to go on. “They’re not interested in Waters but they want to buy a copy of his research.”

“Ok…so what are you going to do with Waters?”

“That’s where it gets more interesting. The Archer guy I met with,” I wasn’t ready to share who it was, “he suggested that Lima Industries might be interested.”

I heard a choking sound, then Reggie said “He said what?!? Does he know about you and Lima?”

“I couldn’t tell. He might have.”

“Wow….so, how you want to play it?”

“Do you have any contacts at Lima Industries?”

“I know people who know people, probably it’ll take some time to set something up.” He paused, “you sure you want to do this?”

I sighed, “No, I’m not sure, but I’ve got to get Waters landed and off my hands.”

I could tell Reggie was nodding. “Ok, man, I’ll make some calls and get back to you.”

“Thanks, Reggie. I owe you.”

He chuckled, “Yeah, you owe me major over all this stuff. But I know you’ll pay.”

“Yeah, I will. Talk to you.”

We hung up and I called Giles for a ride.

Back at the safe house I sat down with Waters.

“Listen, Frank. I met with Archer.”

“And?” he looked hopeful.

“And, while they’re big fans of yours, they’re not ready to take you on.”

“Oh” I could see him crumbling, “So….what do we do now?”

“Are you familiar with Lima Industries?”

“Yes…” the affirmation was slow.

“I’ve been told that they may be interested – it may be a place for you to go.”

I could see his excitement growing as he considered the situation, “Yes, that might work out very well. They’re a big company. Like Kasei – I was always concerned that Archer might be a bit small. And, they’ll have loads of resources. This could work out very well.” Now his face was practically shining.

“Hang on there – it’s only a very tenuous lead. Don’t get ahead of us. I just wanted to see if it was an option for you. There are some complications that could make a handoff difficult, but I’m sure they can be worked through.”

I heard Giles snort from across the room.

Waters looked at him then back at me in confusion. “Complications? What kind of complications?”

“Oh, I’ve got some history with Lima Industries and it’s a little unpleasant. But don’t worry, first step is to see if they’re even interested.”

###

The handoff  with Archer went smoothly. I had Kazumi with me and we’d left Giles to keep an eye on Waters.

I could tell that she was affected by Archer like I had been and I shook my head at it. Was it just natural charisma? Or had he been modded somehow to make him more likable and trustworthy? That was a scary idea.

After we were done, I tried Leonard again. He hadn’t gotten back to me and I really needed to get Waters moved.

“Huh, Leonard isn’t picking up.”

Kazumi looked at me questioningly.

“I’m trying to reach him about another safe house. He’s probably locked into a deep thought exercise and doesn’t even realize the phone is ringing. I’m gonna head over there and see him.”

“You want me to come along?” she asked.

“Nah, I’ll be fine.” I said, then stumbled as pain shot through my leg getting up.

I’d have fallen if Kazumi hadn’t caught me and she raised an eyebrow at me. “Well, I guess if you’ve got time, it might be nice to have the company…” I mumbled sheepishly.

“Mmmmhmmmm…” was all she said and we went out to catch a taxi.

###

I had the taxi drop us off a couple blocks from the lab and we walked. After the first block and a half, my leg ached so badly that I was questioning my action. Sure it’s good trade craft to approach on foot – you can see the lay of the land, keep going if something is off – but it was hell on my body.

We were almost to Leonard’s lab when I saw a dark shape standing motionless in an ally across the street.

Sensing danger, I rang Kazumi on her head phone. “Kazumi, look left, across the street into that alley. What do you think that guy is doing?”

Kazumi casually tossed her hair and looked into the alley, “What guy?”

“The guy that’s standing there, near the entrance. He’s all in grey, doesn’t blend into the darkness at all.”

She insisted “I don’t see a guy.”

Huh, this doesn’t make sense. “Ok, keep walking. Past the lab.”

We continued on and I glanced towards the lab as we passed. There was another gray form crouched down near the doorway.

“What about him?” I asked her. “By the door.”

She glanced at the lab then at me. “Are you running a fever?”

“You don’t see him?”

“No, there’s no one there.”

What the hell is going on. We kept walking, past the entrance to the lab, and a gray form stepped out of an alleyway in front of us. He stepped into the light of a street lamp, but remained a faceless gray form.

The guy was obviously blocking our way and I slowed to a stop. Kazumi stopped as well and looked at me questioningly. There was no point being subtle so I gestured at him. “What about him? You can’t see him? All in gray, standing under the light, plain as day.”

She looked where I pointed, then looked at me. I could see her evaluating, considering the effects of my wound. She reached up to touch my forehead and I batted her hand away – now I was getting annoyed.

We heard a throat clear behind us and both turned.

A man stood there in a coal black suit. His pose was relaxed, but ready, with his feet spread and his arms clasped behind his back. Then he spoke, “In point of fact, she cannot see them. Nor can I. The only one of us who can see them is you. But I assure you, they are very much there and very much armed and very, very much deadly.”

“And who the hell are you?” I asked.

“Please, let us continue this discussion inside.” He gestured towards Leonard’s lab. “The street is such a public place.”

“And, what if we don’t want to talk with you in there?” I asked belligerently.

“Why then we’ll just shoot you where you stand and take a loss.” His voice was matter of fact, emotionless.

Kazumi spoke up. “Who will shoot us? You? I don’t see anyone else.”

“I know you don’t see them. That’s the point. As I said, they are there and if you make any hostile move – or attempt to leave – they will shoot you.”

Kazumi scoffed, “This guy’s a nut case. Let’s go.”

“No, wait,” I said. Then spoke to the man, “Why in there?”

“Why? Because it’s convenient and vacant.”

I felt my face harden at that. “What do you mean by vacant?”

He put on an air of false confusion, “Why, what does confusion usually mean? There isn’t anyone home right now.”

“I meant, where is the person who is usually there?”

“Oh, Leonard is quite safe – for now. How long he remains so is up to you.” With that, he turned and walked back into Leonard’s lab.

I turned to Kazumi, “He knows about Leonard. There are armed people here. We’d already by dead if that was what they wanted.”

She gave me an amazed look, “You can’t be serious. You’re going in there?”

“Leonard is a friend. I need to talk to this guy if only to find out what’s going on and how to get him home safely.” I turned away from her and started walking towards the lab.

Behind me I heard Kazumi make a wordless sound of exasperation and follow me.

When we entered, the man was sitting in a chair at one of Leonard’s lab benches and another gray form was standing behind him.

“Please, close the door,” the man asked.

I looked at Kazumi and she rolled her eyes and did so.

“Now, in the interests of expediting this conversation, let me reveal some things. First of all, there is a man in combat armor standing behind me.”

I could see him clearly but Kazumi said, “Oh? Well he must be a small guy. Maybe hiding behind your chair?”

The man smiled thinly and said, “Jeff, please reveal yourself.”

Instantly, the grey form in my vision became an armed and armored man. I heard Kazumi gasp and go for a gun. A voice cracked with the air of authority. “Stop!”

In spite of herself, Kazumi stopped.

“We are here to talk,” he said. “If you insist on fighting, you will die.”

I glanced at Kazumi and said “I told you they were there.”

She glared at me and said “No one likes a know-it-all.”

I turned back to the man, “Now, who are you?”

“My name is, Philip Price. I am the head of corporate security for Lima Industries.”

Oh, crap.

He saw my face and smiled, “Yes. And you are the individual who broke in and stole a very important prototype.”

“If you let such an important prototype get stolen, how come you’re still head of security?” Kazumi asked.

“Ah, I should clarify. I’m the new head of corporate security. My first task was recovery of the prototype.”

I decided to bluff, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What important prototype?”

He sighed, “The important prototype that let you see my cloaked associate here. The cybereyes in your head that are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I’d been hoping to find them still in their box and not installed. This makes taking them back considerably more complicated.”

I tensed – ready to run. There was only one way I knew to take back installed cybereyes unwillingly and I wasn’t interested.

He saw my reaction and chuckled – not a nice chuckle either – “Oh, you don’t need to worry. The research staff told me that if they were already implanted it wouldn’t do any good to retrieve them. You see, among their many technical features, they are also neutrally bio-encoded. This means that they have a neutral gene code and will quickly adopt the gene code of whomever they are implanted into. Once they’ve adopted the gene code, they are useless to anyone else.

“This helps them integrate with the host better and eliminates any incentive to remove them from a host.”

“Ok, so if you can’t get them back, why are you here.”

“I’m here because even if we can’t get the eyes back, we still very much need data about their usage and effectiveness. The prototype you took was supposed to be the first model installed in a human test subject. Apparently the technical staff was pretty sure it would work, but you never really know for sure with new technology.”

I gulped, glad that they’d done their work so well.

Philip nodded at me, “Yes, it appears that they were right. Now, we need the data you’ve been collecting and we need to run some tests to evaluate their performance.”

“And, what if I decide I don’t want to be part of any tests?”

Phillip shrugged. “Then we shoot you both, take the eyes for their data, shoot Leonard, and are set back a few Philip in our research. It’s merely an inconvenience, nothing insurmountable.”

His coldness was frightening – it was quite a contrast to my earlier meeting with Arthur Archer.

“I’m not really excited to be a part of your research project,” I said.

He shrugged again, “Your excitement doesn’t matter. You chose to involve yourself when you stole the eyes and you cast yourself deeper when you had them installed. You are involved.”

“What assurance can you give me that I’ll be safe throughout?”

Kazumi gave me a sharp look, “You can’t be considering this!”

Philip smiled coldly, “I could give you my word, but I don’t think that would do much for you.”

“Ha.”

“Well, we’re a mega corp, we know the value of money, right?” I nodded at him to go on. “As I said before, our research would be knocked back several months with the loss of the eyes. Several months and several million dollars. If we can avoid that cost,” he shrugged, “we will.

“Also, you could have your own medical presence there if you want. As long as he understood the, ummm…gravity… of the situation and the need to keep details to himself.

“In addition, if you were working with us, there would be no need for us to continue to hound you. There would be no need for us to seek additional remuneration for what you have taken. To my mind, it is a win-win situation.” He finished with another smile.

I considered him for a moment. “Ok. Let’s say that I agree to what you’re proposing. I’ve got a proposal for you.”

Philip cocked his head and waited for me to go on. “I’ve acquired an asset from another corp and I believe that Lima Industries may be interested in making this asset a part of your organization.”

“From where was said asset acquired? And, does this asset have a name?”

I grinned, “Kasei Technologies. Frank Waters.”

Philip’s look of cool, in control slipped as he gaped at me in astonishment, “You? You did that?”

I have to admit, it felt good to be able to surprise him – even if the surprise was driven by an underestimation. “Well, I had help, it wasn’t a solo run. But, yeah we have him and we have his research.”

Philip looked at me consideringly, obviously re-evaluating his initial impressions. “Hmm…perhaps we have even more to talk about than either of us surmised. Let me make some calls about Waters. Would you care to wait?”

“Do we have a choice?” I asked.

“No, not really. But I try to honor niceties when they’re convenient.”

Philip spent ten minutes on his phone then returned to us.

“All right, we’re prepared to accept Waters and his research into the fold.”

I responded “350k”.

“Excuse me?”

“That’s the price. We undertook considerable difficulty to extract him and there’s a cost. If you’re not interested, I’m sure we can find someone else. He’s a smart guy with great prospects – I’m not worried.” I really hoped my real feelings didn’t show through. If this thing with Lima Industries fell apart, I had no idea what we’d do next.

“350k. I think we can handle that, but we’ll need something more from you.”

I narrowed my eyes, “Something more?”

“Yes, you’ve made one successful run against Kasei Technologies. We need you to make another.”

“I don’t do runs for free.”

“Naturally, we’ll figure out some compensation. And if the run goes well, there may be opportunities for more in the future. You’ve shown yourself as a capable individual and I’m always interested in working with capable individuals.”

“Well, let’s say I agree to everything. I can’t do it right away. I need to get this leg seen to.”

Philip sniffed at that, “Yes, I’d noticed it. In fact I’m impressed you’re still walking around on it. You know, we have a medical facility that could see to it…” he trailed off suggestively.

“Right, so then I’d be deeper into Lima Industries.” I scoffed.

“Or that we’d be deeper into you. Making an investment as it were, with the hope of future payoffs.” He riposted.

“I’ll consider it. First thing is to get Waters settled. Then you get your data and let Leonard go. Then we see about the leg and whatever else you’ve got planned.”

“Excellent. I’m glad you’re so reasonable. And you, miss,” he turned to Kazumi, “What is your role in this?”

“I’m just hired muscle. He’s in charge.” She jerked her thumb at me.

###

I called Giles and he cleaned up the safehouse and brought Waters to Leonard’s lab. Philip wasn’t interested in going anywhere else and this seemed like a reasonable place to do the handoff.

Philip brought in some technoweenies from his organization to review Waters data and talk to him to make sure he was who everyone claimed he was. They immediately broke into technical jargon that left me far behind.

Philip took the opportunity to pull me aside for a private conversation. “Well, that seems to be going well, let’s talk about the other job I mentioned.”

I gave him a level look, “I’m listening.”

“Lima Industries is engaged in a lot of research, but we also seek practical uses for the research. Frequently these practical uses are the result of contracts with other corps or governments. Kasei Technologies has been very difficult lately, seeming to snatch contracts from our grasp.

“It has come to our attention that Kasei is in a fairly delicate financial position. They’re committed to the government for a large contract and Waters research is necessary for that contract. If they default on that contract, they will be perilously close to going out of business.”

“And if Kasei were out of the picture, it would be easier for Lima to make money.”

“Precisely. What we would need from you is another run on Kasei. Something to push them over the precipice as it were.”

“And what would that run entail?”

“I’ve consulted with my lieutenants and we have some ideas, but not definite goal yet. It’s the sort of thing that we can discuss while you’re recuperating from your leg operation.”

I grimaced. “This is seeming more and more a done deal – as if all options were intertwined.”

Philip smiled, “Yes it is seeming like that.”

“All right. I want my doctor present but I’ll go along with it all. Cybereye data, Kasei run, cyberleg and all.”

“Excellent, I knew that you’d see reason. It really is the best way forward for you.”

“Yeah, right. But, here this, Price. If you or Lima Industries screw me or mine over in any way, you will regret it if it is the last thing I do.”

“Have no worries on that score. It would be the last thing you do.”

Sixteen

30 minutes later, Giles and I were in his van, pulling up to the clinic where Miranda was. Kazumi had stayed back to keep an eye on Waters.

The clinic occupied two floors of a large commercial building in what used to be a pretty bad part of town. The city had been on a gentrification kick and was offering tax breaks to corps to come in and clean up an area. The building looked fairly new but you could see signs of the previous neighborhood in the hanger’s on and street people nearby.

After passing through a plexiglass gauntlet, we found ourselves in a spartan lobby. There was no human attendant, just a smart system who’s gentle chime pulled us towards it.

A real high-end place would have had a voice interface and possibly even a holo presentation of a person. This wasn’t that nice of a place so we made do with a simple touch interface.

The med clinic was on floors 15 and 16 and, after a brief verbal skirmish with a receptionist up there, an elevator in the corner dinged and we entered it.

On the way up, I noticed Giles fidgeting and looking around nervously. “You ok?”

“Yeah…” he sighed, “I just don’t like small spaces like this.”

“You don’t like small spaces?” I asked incredulously. “You used to be a combat pilot. Those cockpits aren’t exactly spacious.”

“Ok, I should say, I don’t like small spaces that I don’t control.”

I chuckled, “Ah, so it’s less of a space thing and more of a control freak thing.”

Giles gave me a dirty look and proceeded to ignore me. I parried with a snigger. Then the doors dinged.

After another discussion with the receptionist, we were admitted back to Miranda’s room.

Miranda was in one of those fancy hospital beds that can fold you into thirds if you’re not careful and it looked like it was in the process of swallowing her. She looked horrible. Her hair was stringy, she’d lost weight, her pallor was waxy and she had bruising around her eyes like a prize fighter.

She looked over at us when we entered the room and a weak smile flickered across her face.

“Hey, sorry I let you down.”

I waved it off, “I’m just glad you’re ok.”

Then she caught site of my leg, “What happened?”

I glanced down, “Ah, I took a few rounds from an assault rifle. I’ll have it taken care of in a few days.”

She gave me a severe look, “A wound like that, maybe you don’t have a few days.”

“I’ll manage.”

She slumped back into the bed as if the remonstration had exhausted her. I glanced at Giles and we shared a look – Miranda was in bad shape.

I looked back at Miranda and it looked like she was drifting off. I reached out and touched her shoulder and spoke gently, “Hey, Miranda. You wanted to see me?”

She focused on me but it looked like a big effort. “Yeah, sorry, everything’s a little fuzzy…”

“No worries, take your time.”

“So, on the Kasei run…I was trawling the data files, looking for info on Waters. You know, anything that might help or give us some additional info.”

I nodded at her to continue.

“Well, I found a mail exchange between a couple of execs. They were talking about the company positioning. They were sorta vague, but they inferred that the company’s financials were a little rocky and that Waters was their key to getting solid again. I guess Waters research has been taking longer and cost more than expected and the CEO is betting the company on it.”

I frowned – this didn’t sound very good.

“These guys didn’t agree with the direction, but they were going to toe the line. Anyway, Waters is key to the company’s future. Kasei is going to try really hard to get him back.”

“Ok, thanks for the info, Miranda.”

“Yer, welcome. I think…I’m gonna rest now.” Her eyes slowly closed.

“Before you do, I need to ask you a favor.” Man, I felt like a shit doing this.

“Oh?” her voice was soft and her eyes drifted open.

“Yeah, with you in the clinic like this, we need a high caliber decker. Can you recommend anyone?”

Miranda smiled and closed her eyes again. I was afraid that she hadn’t heard me or didn’t have the strength to answer. Then she said, “Ratface. See Ratface. Tell him Mary Joy sent you.”

I could see that she’d really dropped off this time so Giles and I quietly left the room.

Back in the elevator I asked him “Ratface? You ever heard of a decker named Ratface?”

Giles shook his head. “Nope, but we’re not exactly ‘in the know’. I’ll check with Frodo and see if he knows anything.”

“Ok, thanks.” I stepped out of the elevator in the lobby and winced. “Crap, this leg is really starting to hurt. I think it’s time for a checkup with my doctor.”

###

When I walked into his office, Steven just shook his head and sighed.

I muttered, “Yeah, I know, you said to stay off the leg. I wish I could – I’ve just got stuff that needs doing.”

Steven came over and took a closer look at the leg, frowning, “It’s getting worse a lot faster than I expected.” He looked off into the distance and thought for a few minutes. “I wonder if one of the bullets had bio-encoding on it.”

“Bio-encoding?” I’d never heard of anything like it.

“Yes, a small bit of biological agent on the bullets. Like spearing a stick with shit and poking someone with it. Whatever is on the stick gets into the wound and is likely to cause an infection.”

This did not sound good. “So, what can you do?”

He shrugged, “I can take the leg off and give you a cyber one.”

We’d been down this road, I knew that if he did that, I’d be layed up for at least a month. “Ah, I was hoping for something a little more near term.”

“Well, I can update the nerve block and pump you full of antibiotics in an effort to control whatever nasty thing is in there doing its work. But you should know – right now we’re only talking about the lower leg. If it goes on and continues to worsen, you’re likely to lose the whole leg.”

I looked at my leg, then at Steven and sighed. “I really wish we could to this now. I just can’t. I’ve got things I need to see through and people I need to take care of. Maybe in a week or so, I’ll have everything wrapped up” Yeah, or maybe Kasei or Lima would have caught up with me and the leg would be the least of my concerns…

Steven gave me a hard look, “Just so you know, you’re in a bad position right now. And it’s only going to get worse. It’s best to attach the cyberlimb right after we take the flesh one off, but it’s not essential. You may need to get the leg off sooner and see about the cyberleg later.”

I nodded, wincing. “Ok, thanks, Doc. I’ll keep it in mind.”

Knowing that he’d said all he could, Steven went to work, refreshing the nerve block and injecting more antibiotics into me.

“Ok, you’re as good as you’re going to get in your condition. Really, try to stay off of the leg – and we need to do something about it soon.”

I waved at him and limped out of his office.

###

I was following the doctor’s orders and resting a few hours later when my head phone rang.

“Yeah, what.” I’m not known for politeness when woken up.

“I woke you again, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, Reggie, you did. What’s up?”

“I’ve got a line on Archer like you asked about. They’re interested and want to meet.”

Now I was fully awake and sitting up.

“That’s great! When and where?”

“Tomorrow, noon, at Fish on 6th.”

“Ok, thanks. Who’s the contact?”

“The guy will be wearing a white suit with a red handkerchief – but there’s something else.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, they want proof that you have Waters.”

“Proof, what kind of proof?”

“A photo of him, cryptographically signed. With a paper over his left shoulder with some letters on it.”

“What letters?”

“A-A-F-C-P-S?”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“No idea, many. This is just what they asked for. The photo and a sample of his research papers.”

“Ok. How serious are they?”

“I couldn’t really tell, they seemed interested, but not excited if you know what I mean.”

“Ok, thanks for setting it up, Reggie.”

“No problem, man. You watch yourself. I’ll catch you later.”

“Oh, hey, Reggie. Before you go.”

“Yeah?”

“Your contact, from The Arena.”

“Randolph? What about him?”

Randolph. It was nice to put a name to him.

“You heard any more about him sniffing around? Trying to find Waters?”

“No, but I’m sure he’s out there and looking. Like I said, you watch yourself.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that – coming and going.”

Reggie chuckled and signed off.

I tried vainly to re-settle myself, then gave it up as a bad job and went in search of some food.

Fifteen

I paid the autocab and we got out in front of a posh apartment complex. It was a nice place in a nice part of town – and it was way out of my budget – but I figured it was safe. I’ve got a theory about corpsec and so far it’s played out pretty well. They see what they want to see – you just have to reinforce the image sometimes.

A dirty runner living in el cheapo housing? If they found me there once they’ll be knocking around in every low rent area of the city trying to find me again. My solution? Go uptown.

Kazumi and I went around to the back and I badged us in, then we grabbed an elevator for the ride to the 30th floor.

“So, how did you come by this place again?” Kazumi was looking around at the highly polished and decorated mirrors, at the deep carpet on the floor.

“I, er, have got a buddy who lets me use it. He travels a lot. I can use it when he’s not here.”

She raised an eyebrow and looked at me.

“What?”

“A rich buddy, who lets you borrow his place.”

“What? You don’t know rich people?”

“Oh, I know rich people. I even visit their fancy places. But I can’t think of a single one of them who’d be happy to have me and an asset hiding out from one, much less two, megacorps.”

“He’s, ah, very trusting.”

“Mmmm, hmm…”

The elevator dinged and I darted out the doors. It wasn’t a big secret, I just wanted to hold onto it. Kazumi really didn’t need to know. Did she? Crap, trust ran both ways.

I signed as I badged us into the apartment, “Ok, look, the guy that owns this place does travel a lot. In fact, he’s almost never here. And, to be honest, he never knows that we’re here.”

Kazumi had stopped with her back to the closed door, arms crossed, and was just looking at me, waiting for me to finish.

“See, I needed a nice place to use as a safe house sometimes and there’s no way I could afford something like this. Miranda found out about this guy from a friend of hers. She cracked his travel itinerary and the apartment security. That gave her pass codes and let her fake up badges. I’m careful to never leave any sign I’ve been here and since she monitors his travel itinerary, I can always make sure I’m gone before he gets back.” I smiled, see, it’s foolproof.”

Kazumi nodded and walked past me, “Uh, huh. And who’s monitoring his itinerary while Miranda is out?”

Cold dread filled me. Too many details. Crap, when was the guy coming back?

I followed Kazumi into the main living area. Giles was sprawled haphazardly on the couch watching auto racing on the trideo.

It must not have been a very exciting race. When it was a close race (or he had money on it) he was always right on the edge of his seat, shouting the contestants on. I didn’t understand how he could get so into a car race (I mean, they’re just doing laps) but he did.

“Hey, Giles.”

“Yeah, boss?” his eyes didn’t move from the trideo – maybe it was more exciting than I realized.

I walked over and stood in front of the unit. “Can you please turn it off? We need to talk.”

Giles scowled and I heard the set go quiet behind me. “I’ve got 50 cred on the race…” he muttered.

I chuckled, then turned serious. “Have you been able to find anything about Miranda?”

“Yeah, I had a decker I know chase her down. She’s in a private room in a clinic. Apparently she had a bad encounter with Kasei compsec. It fried her deck and put her in a coma. She’s still out – no idea when she’ll recover.”

“Brain activity?” I asked.

“So far, it’s ok. Most likely she just took a big hit and the coma is her body’s way of healing itself – shutting off all outside input. I guess her medsupport kicked in when she had the encounter and fell into the coma. They rushed to grab her and put her in the clinic where she’s being monitored.”

“Ok, well, that’s good and bad. You said you had a decker you know chase the info down – is he any good.”

“Eh, he’s decent. No where near Miranda’s league and a bit wonky, but he can hold his own for basic stuff.”

“Wonky?”

“Yeah,” Giles shrugged a bit embarrassed. “See, he’s really into Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, you know.”

I nodded cautiously and Giles continued, “So, he calls himself Frodo.”

Kazumi spoke up, “Frodo? Not Gandalf or Elrond or Aragorn?”

“Nope, Frodo. I guess that puts him into the fairly modest category as a decker. I hadn’t considered who else he might have picked. Anyway, yeah, basic stuff. I wouldn’t have him back us on a run into corp compsec, but he can do data retrievel and low security stuff.”

I nodded, “Ok, that works. I need you to have him track down the itinerary for Arthur Coburn. Find out when he’ll be back in town.”

Giles nodded but looked confused, “Ok, but who the hell is Arthur Coburn?”

I grimaced and gave Kazumi a nod “He’s the guy who owns this place.”

“He…oh!” Giles figured it out fast. “Crap, yeah, that’s all we need. For him to turn up while we’re camped out in his flat. Right, I’ll get right on it.”

Kazumi smiled at me.

“Ok, now time to talk to Waters.”

I left Kazumi and Giles in the living room and went back to Coburn’s office where Waters had ensconced himself. The office was very tastefully decorated and almost entirely without life. There was no personal touch at all.

A big desk with a comfortable chair dominated the room and there were nature stills scattered on the walls. A bookshelf along one wall held a handful of law books and various nicknacks that his decorator must have picked up somewhere to fill the space.

Waters had taken of the desk and had his project data spread out while he wrote in a notebook.

“What, are you working, Waters?”

He must not have heard me come in because he started and his eyes snapped up at me. “Yes. It relaxes me. See, we had a problem with the holographic coupling on the third order comm line interface between the super node and an anterior node…”

I let him drone on a bit, nodding at times. I didn’t understand a word that he was saying but I could see that he really was enjoying this and it did seem to calm him down. He’d been through a lot in the last couple days and he deserved some calm.

After a bit, he flushed self-consciously as he realized that I’d been humoring him. “So, how did your meet go?”

“Eh, it went about as well as I expected. The man was a total asshole. Didn’t see any issue with selling you to whoever could pay him for it.”

Water’s stilled, then spoke, “And?”

“And what?”

“Are you going to let him ‘sell’ me?”

I shot him a hard look, “Fuck no! You’re a person, Waters. You’ve got some say in where you go and what you do.”

Waters sighed, “Ok, now what?”

I sighed, “That’s the tough part. I’m not exactly running a witsec program here. You’re going to have to find a new home, the question is where.”

Waters remained quiet and watched. I started prowling around the room, looking at the photos, thinking outloud. “You said that you thought you were going to Archer Research. I take it that you’d be OK finding a new home there?”

Waters brightened. “Yeah, that’d be great. They’re doing some really interesting things with…”

I held up a hand and gave a slight wave “I’m glad you’re so into it, but I need to get the ball rolling on a few things. I’ll see if I can arrange a meet with Archer and we can feel them out for a possible relocation.”

Waters grinned, I could see that it was already a done deal in his head.

“But,” I cautioned him, “they may not be interested. You need to start thinking about alternatives.” And I left the room to call Reggie.

“Hey, Reggie.”

“Hey, man, how’s it going. Hey, I’m sorry about the way this whole thing has played out. I had no idea what kind of an asshole that guy was.”

“I know.”

“And, you know, I had to let you be the bad guy – I need to at least stay on good terms.”

“Reggie. I know. We talked about this.” Reggie never burned bridges – always kept on good terms. Me? Not so much.

“You know, man, he didn’t like the way that meeting ended. Like I said, he’s an asshole, but he’s committed. He promised Waters to someone and he needs to deliver. You haven’t seen the last of him.”

I grunted, “I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing or a good thing.”

Reggie chuckled at that, then I went on, “Hey, so, I still need to find a new home for Waters. He thinks that Archer Research would be interested. Can you talk to someone there, feel them out, and setup a meet?”

Reggie clucked his tongue and thought, “Yeah…yeah, I think I know someone who can help. Let me make some calls and I’ll get back to you.”

“Great. Thanks, Reggie.”

“Hey, no worries, man.”

After I hung up with Reggie, Giles caught my eye.

“Hey, so I had Frodo look into Coburn. Looks like he’s in Europe, but is scheduled to get back into town next week. We’ve got a few days here but not unlimited.”

“Ok, we can work with that.”

“Also, I had him check on Miranda again. He said that she’s awake now and wants to talk to you. Her headware is pretty fried so it’s gonna have to be a meatspace meeting.”

“Ok, you got an address on the clinic?”

“Yeah, when you want to head over there. Pretty soon.”