THE   DECEDENT   RECONCILIATION

__________________________________________

 By: Christopher T. Shields


15426 Words

 

 

"For no man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life ..." - Joshua, 1:5

 

The rented flat was dark.

I stare out across the desolate expanse of the old proper. I could see the sprawling maze of towering skyscrapers, the alleys, the neon lit streets, and the ever present tenements and conapts that were stacked on top of each other tier by tier.

The city was loud, factories and assembly lines that never rested.

The hum of power and the roar of automated production.

I could see the ancient Keiyo Industrial Area and Complex from the window, see the glow of industry there. Chiba had a long established industrial zone that ran along the coast region, facing Tokyo bay. The factories and the core complexes there were running night and day, covering the bay with a thick chemical haze.

No one fished in the bay anymore.

Memories of Minamata.

Rain dripped off the sill, running off the etched features of the gargoyles perched outside the window. Gothic architecture in a decadent world that had long since moved beyond the primal need to use simple stone carvings for protection from evil. The new brought an ever familiar regression to the old.

The oily rain fell in sheets, beading up and running off the charged electrostatic filmed surface of the other side of the huge plastic window.

It had rained for a long time now.

I watched as the wind blew the yellowish drops away, out into the night air where the drops fell gently back toward the crowded streets, a hundred and fifty stories below. Who was to know if the rain came from a gutter, or from a cloud? Rain pounding against the window, running down the electrostatic charged barrier, forming into little rivulets, into bigger blobs, and then blown away by the wind.

The window couldn't stop the rain, only pause it in its flow.

It had rained on the inside as well. I reached up to the side of my face and wiped a drop of water from my cheek. Must be the condensation, sharp lines etched in illumination by the glow of the holographic image in front of me. A four sector digital image of a model tank from an Italian garden, of a variety that had been bred for its particular color and scent, though the latter was lost in the translation capability of this particular media. The image appeared in front of me there on the tabletop, a holograph of a red rose with a petal torn off, the petal lying next to the base of the stem. The edges of the rose and the petal are getting fuzzy, indistinct. Probably weak batteries in the projector unit. I haven't bothered to charge the batteries since I assembled the projector unit.

That was over three months ago, maybe a few days more.

Back before Misty Sheryll had stormed out. I can't be sure. I feel empty without Misty, incomplete. It's not a familiar feeling. I've never needed anyone before in my life, so why would one woman make such a difference?

I pushed her too far. It my idea for her to take time off from the circuit, cancel a few shows on the tour, and slow down.

She needed the time.

She was under a great deal of stress, she started to lose the ability to cope with everyday situations. Misty was starting to get reckless, fool hardy. She was starting to take chances that made the wrong people take notice. Misty was trying to drive her competition into the ground. A fact that her competition wasn't taking too lightly.

She was getting careless, both on and off the circuit. Time spent relaxing, slowing down from her hectic pace would do her good.

Do us both good.

I had New Rio D picked out, reservations confirmed, but she wanted to complete the tour. I didn't think that was such a good idea. She could rest and then use some of the locations in New Rio D to fill in the background for her latest script.

She didn't agree.

She told me where I could go.

I didn't know that she was wired that night, though I should have guessed. She nearly went over the edge. Must have been a slow acting psychoactive, one of the designer brands that she had been using heavily. I can tell stress is tearing her down, she's losing the edge and that can be dangerous. She needs time to build her reserves up, to get coordinated.

I told her that.

She told me it was over, told me that she didn't need me. I told her that she was wrong, she needed me. I asked her who she thought was going to protect her.

She said that she had her security team ...

Bunch of amateurs, I told her. I reminded her how I had taught them everything they knew, but not everything that I knew. All the fancy tech and hardware in the world won't make you effective or keep you alive if someone is smarter or better than you.

Simple fact.

Common sense.

After that we had bounced each other verbally off all the other things that mattered to us, neither of us smart enough to know when to quit. Instead, we each concentrated on trying to hurt the other, remembering old wounds and wedging verbal blades into chinks in the emotional armor whenever we saw an opening. I didn't mean the things that I said, it's just that Misty can get to me that way sometimes. I know she probably didn't mean a lot of what she said, but she said enough, and the psychoaactive didn't help matters either.

Neither did my pride.

Yeah, pride. I guess that was the name that I was calling my ego that night.

She had packed, fuming and swearing, her speech slurred by her anger and the effects of the psychoactive coursing through her system. I watched her movements, haphazard and sluggish as she left. She never looked back.

Not once.

And then it was just the plex and I.

And some things that she had left behind in her blind rage; some thin plastic lingerie that still had her smell, a little white and black Sony REM state inducer, a half bottle of designer vitamins ...

The holographic rose.

And me.

She didn't need me ...

Alone again, drowning in memories of Misty Sheryll.

Memories coming back in flashes, jabs, sharp points.

I close my eyes and sneer to fight away the physical reaction induced by a neurochemical response. I fight it down on the inside. I force the memories back to the back of my mind, back where they have to work long and hard to reach the front. I succeed.

Almost.

Misty Sheryll.

Tall, slender, literally built like a work of art. Cosmetic artists have put her together piece by piece, solid state, all precision work down to the nanosurgery and micrograph. Body sculpted on a surgical slab more times than I think she can remember. No scars, the Corporation pays for all the cosmetics. The work was done by a hand picked team of surgical artists and cosmetic specialists at the Jujin Hospital in Tokyo. Signature series mods, scripted on the cell level so that others would know who had designed and created the art work, a surgical designer label. Misty's success went so far as to even have the Corporation take out a copyright on her appearance.

In a time where cosmetic appearances could be altered quickly and cheaply, and ugliness was a life style choice instead of a childhood burden, Misty was unique. Misty was a pro by , had a rep and a list of referenced credits long enough to take up six mils of memory plastic. Her total performance time was something over two years running time, and that was total if you sat down and did everyone of her stims, straight in a row, and didn't take a break. Not many others in the industry came close to that.

Misty lead the upper caste ...

Misty does 'stims, the really good ones, and her 'stims have been in the top ten ranking for the past two quarters. 'Stims, by way of direct neural manipulation and nerve stimulation, allow the interfaced user to experience the life, reactions, and emotions, including the various sensory inputs of the star of the production, like Misty, who is wired with biofeedback and neurocorder hardware. The hardware in turn picks up and records this input into a readily accessible, reusable impressionable base that can be mass produced cheaply and sold as private media. The average person can go into a local 'stim parlor and pay for 'stim time. In return for their credit, they sit in a contoured couch or a climate controlled cubicle and get to live someone else's life, feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, doing everything that the stim artists did.

The Corporation appropriated her an unlimited expense account and she never stood still. Her expense vouchers are shunted to accounts and places predetermined by Misty herself with no questions asked. She's made the Corporation too much profit from her stims for them to worry about her reckless spending. She probably couldn't spend a quarter of what she's earned the Corporation with her works, not in several lifetimes.

Misty lived hard and fast, like her predecessors and her protégés, always on the edge, teetering where her work made the public envious. She was always looking for the next high, the next act that would surpass the previous one. Her life is one big up and down of exotic, sometimes dangerous emotional and physical highs and lows. She made her life and her lifestyle into a form of art in itself. A sweeping mosaic of the human experience, turbulent, passionate, hard edged and screaming to a breathtaking climax. Everyone wanted to live like Misty, and they could, if only for a little while.

It was a way to forget just how bad things were.

It was her profession.

Everyone knew Misty. Everyone had done Misty, in one way or another, in every way, at least in their mind or on their stim inducers.

Me? I preferred the real thing and with it came a feeling of having a hold on something that everyone else wanted, a feeling of having a monopoly on something that you shouldn't ever put a price on. Others plugged in and used Misty as they saw fit, used her as a replacement for someone they had lost, as an enhancement to the act that they were currently engaged in, to escape boredom or loneliness, to vent sadness or frustration, or to fulfill a need known only to the individual. Misty had done that for all her fans.

I needed Misty for another reason.

She was my meal ticket.

I remember the first time that I saw her ...

I was pulling a multi-conditional contract for this entry level executive who wanted to impress his clients by being seen with Misty, by flaunting a well known stimmer around the locals. The dive he chose wasn't pretty, but it was popular, and catered to an upper class of corporate caste. The place was filled with socialites, posers, dressers, and half and halfs. People with x's and y's that weren't sure which way they were leaning.

Some were birth defects, others were medical jobs. The naturals were considered the fortunate ones ...

There were a few debs mixed into the crowd, it was hard to tell who had been what and when or who was what now. There was a hermaphrodite couple on the elevated stage, taking turns with each other, in every way possible, moving to some pair of skin jobs hooked into a 'facesynth setup. Holos and neon, strobes and halogens lanced through the smoke and residue of chemical inhalers.

A pair of 'stim tables were in the corner with a line at each, as well as zero-G dance tubes and elaborate lighting. Projectors emitted a variety of psychoactives and halucinics into the club, and you could get anything you could name at the bar. Holos floated through the almost solid air, and the noise was almost deafening.

Not my kind of crowd, but it was business.

I kept filter plugs in my nostrils just the same.

The suit and I cut a deal. As soon as I knew his credit was good and in my account, I escorted them at a discreet distance. I made the connections and kept things quiet that evening.

Misty.

I remember her; lily white skin concealed only teasingly under a very expensive mesh suit of synthetic leather that left most of her legs, arms, stomach, breasts, and buttocks exposed. She wore a mesh leather miniskirt, Aldena heels, black leather and lace gloves, and a sleeveless black leather vest that was really just another designer's jacket with the sleeves ripped out by a fashion guru from Spain for this season. Different label and fasteners to avoid legal entanglements.

The video cell laminates embedded into the front pockets and the back of the jacket kept showing this old black and white film, from the days of recording tape media. I remember one scene clearly, the image of a pair of youths racing two ancient steel and internal combustion jobs toward a sea cliff. Some type of bravado test. One of the youths bailed out of the petroleum burner as it reached the cliff edge. The other guy got his jacket sleeve caught on the door handle and while desperately trying to free himself from his impending doom, he followed his ride over the cliff. An exaggerated expression of fear contorted his face all the way down. Both tubs hit the bottom of the cliff and exploded with a whimper and lots of white smoke. Someone made a casual comment about her jacket, about how in real life the actor that had jumped out of the speeding job in the flick had really died in a wreck a few years later and about how life was based solely upon irony.

Cheap effects.

She wore the jacket that night only.

Later, someone in wardrobe told me that she had thrown the jacket away.

Disposable fashion.

Her hair was the envy of every blonde, stark platinum with gold highlights. Every other strand, half and half gold and platinum, in alternating mirror arrangement. I remember her smile, calculated precision, medical art in injection molded ceramic.

Her eyes.

Dark metallic blue Sanui models, full liquid ocular jobs with the little designer logo reading across the iris in gold leaf letters, with little gold metal flakes in the blue that sparkled when the high intensities and neons lit them.

I've forgotten what the guy looked like.

Low key customer, anyway.

He meshed with the crowd, and even accepted an invitation to join the duo on stage. I turned my head and looked the crowd over again as praise was heaped upon the exec by those interested. He was basking in his own pride.

I watched her from the shadows. Unobtrusive. She knew that I was there, watching her, and she enjoyed it. She would look my way now and then, or go and mingle in the crowd, losing herself from my sight just long enough to get a better look at me. It wasn't hard to tell that she was bored with the suit and interested in me. We played a cat and mouse game all night, where she tried to get away from me just long enough for me to come looking for her. She was getting what she wanted most; attention.

I was an unknown, something that she didn't have access to and I think that bothered her. She could have ten execs in the palm of her hand any hour, but she didn't have anything like me.

I was completely different from anything that she was used to, and that interested her. She liked a challenge. Her world was just holo images and pressed suits, sales charts and deadlines, forced smiles and handshakes, etiquette and contract, fan grams and profit ratings. My world was filled with whispers and choked cries, final words and last breaths. My world stank of exhaust and garbage, of sweat, alcohol, spent propellant, and rain drenched hair.

That was the beginning of my contract with her.

 

She paid me to look out for her, to coordinate her security team on the location programming sessions. Paid me more than I was worth, or so the Corporation and I thought. She didn't think so. She used to tell me that I was underpaid, that no amount of credit was worth the crap that she put me through. She thought enough of me to renew my contract each time it came up for evaluation.

The way she cycles her credit, I'd say that she started out poor somewhere.

Just like me.

Like I still am.

If it hadn't been for that one time, I'd still be walking the streets with the rest of the losers. As it is now, there's not much difference. I'm back where I started.

The scars.

Misty Sheryll never minded the scars. Standing behind me, her arms over my shoulders, fingers moving down my chest, parting the hair there, moving around my breast, gentle pressure as her lips touched my neck. Her hand moved lower, her delicate finger tracing the scar as it ran down my stomach ...

I shake my head to clear it.

It seems to work.

Did average work on me, yeah, I'm pretty average now.

I do a little free lancing myself, for you see, I'm a gunslinger. I hire out to who I can when I can. It's all I've ever been good at. It's what I do best. There's more memories waiting to trickle up to haunt me. It's tiring to force them back, some leak through. It's impossible not to remember.

I'm neck deep in memories, slowly drowning ...

 

I have her last stim, loaded into a Sanui portable player. If I wanted to, I could just plug it in and lose myself in electronic bliss, imagining that I had her back, even if it was just pretend feelings, artificial, unreal, railroaded into my brain on a electronic digital bus. A way to lose myself forever in memories of her. My mind would be forced to lie to me, create sensory images that weren't real, nerve pulses that didn't exist but which the brain couldn't distinguish from the real thing. My mind would lie to my body, all because a little black box was whispering that everything my body knew was false was really true.

I blink and fight down a muscle spasm in my eyelid, I must have dozed off for a few seconds. Fatigue and nerves are getting to me. I turn the chair around, sit in it backwards, my arms propped on the back of the chair and my head resting in my arms. I feel several day's growth of beard against the bare skin of my arm.

I stare at the holographic rose, lost in memory and thoughts.

Next to the holographic rose is a shoulder holster, dropped there onto the table top. Lying on top of the black nylon rig is a alloy finished Apali automatic. Full floating magnetic bolt, select fire, vented rib twenty-three centimeter barrel with the end sight filed down for speed work. Custom polymer grips. Ten mike mike caliber, magnum porting with carbon composite frame and internal gryostabilization. A tri-phase solid state hardened laser designator is slung under the barrel; it can go visual, infra-red, or act as a designator for laser guided rounds.

A pair of seventeen round double stacked polymer cassettes lie next to the handgun on the table. Five more cassettes are stored in nylon pockets along the side of the rig.

I've been thinking of the rose and the Apali a long time. If one doesn't get me, the other one will.

I look down at a couple of loose caseless rounds, a half full cassette, and a cassette speed loading tool all lying next to the Apali. Soft tips and sabots. The sabots are factory loads, high density orbital synthetics cemented with a tungsten epoxy paste onto a hyper velocity pre-boost burn ignition charge.

The hollowpoints are full scratch build jobs. I make them myself. Each is a four hundred mil ignition charge, full plastic jacketed hollow point with a muzzle velocity of over four hundred meters per second, the casing for the round being reduced entirely to spent gas as the round exits the barrel, adding to the velocity of the round. The round uses a plastic nose in the tip, and a explosive primer cap. The nose keeps the hollowpoint from spreading too early and then the explosive force of the charge traveling through the pre-drilled tip blows the lighter plastic nose clear of the hollowpoint. The round hits with enough force to detonate the primer and guarantee a full expansion of the soft tip.

I make the round from a alloy that doesn't break apart upon impact like lead. The round retains all its weight on impact, mushrooming and delivering over two hundred and sixty kilograms of force to an area just over three centimeters in diameter.

One of them has my name on it.

Made it myself a few days ago.

She's not coming back this time.

I can feel it, I know it.

She finally got into something that was more than her security team could handle.

Amateurs.

 

I stare at the Apali and at the rose.

The holographic rose, well, I made that for Misty for our second year together. I'm not the most romantic guy in the world, but I remember how she cried over the rose.

That was when I gave her the ring.

Misty was so taken back when I showed her the ring that she dropped the holographic projector. A few minutes later, the projector had malfed up, developed a glitch in the laser sequencing program. The projector started to display a single petal of the rose near the base of the stem of the flower, like it had broken off and gently fallen there.

Memories.

"I want her ... " I start, feeling the edge waver.

[WHO?] Asks the plex computer using a female voice tailored to the sex of the user and designed to inspire trust.

It does nothing for me.

Waver and dull, fading, as I choke up. Too many memories at once. I fight it down, hold myself together, wrap my arms around myself, clench my fists, and rock back and forth gently in the chair.

"I want her ... back." I mumble softly.

[INADEQUATE QUERY. PLEASE SPECIFY PARTY.]

I ignore it.

I'm bad off, getting worse.

I haven't gone out in days now, maybe that long, maybe longer. I reach up and feel my unshaven face. I'm getting as decadent as the architecture here. Misty Sheryll's weighing heavily on me. I'm losing my edge. I may be losing my mind. I need a shower.

Memories.

I'm neck deep in memories, slowly drowning ...

 

I made some contacts and pulled in markers that others owed me.

The backtalk came in little pieces that I had to put together. I made my move when everything was spread out in front of me and clear. The red and black Mitsubi sliced through the rain on the streets, shearing sheets of gray water out away from the bonded glass fiber fenders, liquid halogens illuminating the spray. The dull blue, green, yellow, and red glow of the dash illuminated what little there was left of me in profile. The holographic nav system blinked and dimmed to match the ambient light coming through the tinted windows.

"Full tint." I muttered.

The windows went dark and the visuals brightened slightly. The joystick felt cold, even in my gloved hands. I edged the old Mitsubi over to the broken yellow 'crete curb, four wheel steering responding, hydraulics feeding the servos that configured the wheels for precise maneuvering. I pulled the parking brakes as the whine of the overcharger enhanced multiple fuel cells faded to a dull throb that was felt through the climate controlled interior. I worked the clutch, shifted into neutral, listening to the flywheels disengage and spool down as the fore and aft powerplants settled into idle mode.

I picked up the cellphone from the center console and dialed a number that I acquired. I waited as the connection was made, the other end beeped for attention. Outside, images of people glided past on the slidewalk, reflected in the finish of the Mitsubi and the tint of the windows. Old fashioned stalk umbrellas, static charged fields, and electrostatically charged coats clenched tight to avoid the rain, dismal faces in the grey downpour. Tiny rivers ran down the side window of the Mitsubi, branching off into tributaries and streams, repelled by the static charged surface of the window.

The other end of the up-link connected.

No answer, muted breathing.

"I'm waiting." I said flatly.

A few seconds of silence followed, the sounds of hushed conversation filtered through the up-link, though I couldn't tell what was being said. Too much noise in the line, but no one was listening in. The readout on the unit's display screen and my own gear that I had brought along told me that the up-link was secure.

Still ...

"Were you followed?" a voice asked.

"You would know if I was." I replied. "Your people have been on me for the past five hours."

The up-link was abruptly terminated from the other end.

I managed a frown and hung up on a dead line. I knew that I had a tail, but seeing as how the meeting was still going down, I knew that my tail was only a security net, keeping everyone else out. Time to gear up. The heavy weight of the Apali was comforting, but too conspicuous in so public a place. I was going to need something smaller, faster, but with not as much punch. I unbuckled the five point crash harness and reached over, keying open the glove compartment. Inside was a small slap holster holding a three mike mike Honda RCB-11A snub stapler, barely larger than my hand.

I popped the release, removed the little Honda and ejected the magazine. One hundred staggered rounds of three millimeter explosive ringed flechettes, each driven by a high intensity short duration gauss field which accelerated each individual flechette to a fully adjustable velocity of up to a thousand meters per second. A thousand meters a second was enough to penetrate any hard body armor, and the explosive ring provided real stopping power against soft targets when used on lower velocities. The multi-function tell-tale readout flashed 100 in digital dark green, full magazine. I keyed the readout to show available power and a green line spread from one end of the readout to the other. As the little Honda spent its load, the green line would shrink, eventually turning yellow, then red, then flashing red before the last flechette had left the barrel. A separate dedicated power supply slid in to its housing just under the barrel and forward of the polymer grips, giving me three magazines worth of firing time. The magazine in the Honda was accompanied by two more in pouches built into the side of the holster. I slid the Honda back into the holster and slapped it under my left arm, cross arm draw style. Not as comforting as the Apali, but a lot easier to use and conceal.

I climbed out of the Mitsubi, quickly running to the small awning of the slidewalk bar and what little protection it offered from the downpour, pulling my bomber jacket up over my head as I ran.

Smelled like sulfur and ash when it rained. People came and went, moving effortlessly along the slidewalk. Some just stood there and were carried on by, others walked briskly or hustled and jostled their way to somewhere or away from someone else. The slidewalk hummed on by like an assembly line in a factory that made people.

No two alike, but all the same.

The Mitsubi beeped once, its security system was nearly self aware and self arming, coming online five seconds after I had shut the door. The windows faded to black, full tint photostatic sensitive polarizing plastic to prevent prying eyes.

A police spinner glided by overhead, fifteen meters off the deck. The roar of the aerodyne mixing with the rest of the vehicles in flight and traffic patterns. Cars and trucks roared by, spraying the slidewalks and those that stood upon them with gray sheets of dirty water. Steam from hot powerplants and brakes hissed at the surrounding facade of buildings and the echo of the traffic passing played along the alleys and down the street. The wind tossed traffic signals around on their mounts and lines. Shops advertised their wares with neon and holos. The slidewalks were cold, damp, gray, miserable. It smelled of a wet kind of dirtiness.

The red and orange neon sign outside the slidewalk bar depicted an oriental dragon with a flickering tongue chasing it's tail eternally, a play on the yin and yang. The place was a quality dive, despite the outward appearance. The words below the dragon read simply Gakujindo's, though it was owned by a little oriental guy named Tashi, an ex-ped cabby turned bartender. Don't ask me how Tashi got the name of the place, because I never asked him.

Didn't really care to know.

I liked Tashi, he had a nice smile; perfect teeth, the color of alabaster, all vacuum formed industrial plastic bonded to his jaw bone on a molecular level.

Quality work.

And he didn't ask questions, just listened. He was always there with a drink and an extended tab if he thought that you were good for it or needed it. Tashi had connections and dealt in far more than simple pharmaceuticals and intoxicants. He dealt in information. If you needed to know, Tashi could find out for you through a series of operators and his own hand picked soft thieves. His price was high, but his sources were reliable and competent. There was more being served at Gakujindo's than stimulants and intoxicants. It was a clearing house for the underground information brokers.

Yeah, I knew the place well. I had done work for Tashi before. We had a professional relationship. I felt comfortable here; knew the layout. Tashi took care of his own.

I shook the greasy rain off my jacket under the little awning and then pushed the dark smoked plastiglass doors open. The bar was equally somber. Darkly lit, faded neon beer signs, designer pharmaceutical signs and low lighting competed with the variety of smells produced as a byproduct from the consumption of narcoticigarettes, commercial drugs, aerosols, and some materials that I couldn't place. The new stuff burned my nose and made my eyes water.

Smoke and colored chemical fog wafted through the establishment, illuminated in the neon lights and strobes, like a living strata existing only to be drawn into the various ducting and ventilation grills that would lead to the antique French climate control system. Spanish filters, should have gone with the Dutch ones.

People everywhere, it was hard to push through but I had a booth waiting. I'm on a first name basis around here, a regular, so it wasn't too hard to arrange this the way I wanted it.

The deck was stacked in my favor.

Or so I thought.

 

I moved toward the back, motioning Tashi to prep my usual, a Rose Saki Sour with a twist of ginger tossed on the rocks. I found the corner booth, and set up shop. A personal scrambler under the table to generate white noise, drowns out any electronic eavesdropping. A few other tricks that I used to stay alive came next. I was finished setting up shop by the time that my drink was brought to me.

I tried to relax.

It was a hard thing to do.

Fifteen minutes passed.

I sat in a corner booth, my leg propped up on the opposite side of the booth. I tried to finish a mixed drink that had long since had the black ice melt in it, and warmed to room temperature which made for a very bad mixed drink, considering all.

I glanced at my Taidai and saw that it was ten minutes past late. I was just starting to leave when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped myself and remained seated, turning my original movement from a rise from the seat into a simple stretch. I turned my attention back to my drink.

They knew where to find me.

A man with a long pony tail, full beard and mustache entered the dive. He wore a heavy overcoat now slick with rain, cheap imitation of famous name brand sunglasses, old Singin cross training sport shoes, and a polished alloy earring. He kept his head low, moving through the crowd like he was just another patron. The way he moved, no one seemed to notice him but me. He slowly worked his way back through the dive and stood next to the bar.

Silent, cloaked in wispy haze and dimly illuminated.

Oshyia. Pusher.

His stance belied some form of training. The man stood next to the bar, leg propped up on the little brass railing that ran under the wood grain finished plastic. He never looked directly back at me. The tiny muscles rippled around his face as he periphed the place. He was a perfect fit there at the bar, ignored and forgotten, the very picture of a regular, but he was taking in everyone there, taking in everything at once and processing it. Assigning risk variables based on nuisance and danger, casing the place out. I could trace the outline of a shoulder holster by memory, even if the slight bulge under his coat told me that he wasn't travelling unarmed.

Something small, compact, but powerful. Maybe a stapler, maybe a HyVeloc grooved bore snub. Public places were no place for large hardware or showy artillery.

My hand was on the Honda that lay on the seat, hidden in the darkness of the booth. I had keyed down the gauss field generator for high volume, close range combat. I didn't need distance or armor piercing, I needed accuracy, I needed speed, and I needed effect. It would be close, but if it came down to drawing down on him, I could stitch him from waist to neck.

I'm still that good.

Trust me.

He probably knew where my hand was as well, if he was as good as I gave him credit for.

The mannequin at the bar never turned his back to me, but he never really turned to face me either. Competent. He wasn't my contact, he was just oshyia. A hired muscle who, when his employer got shoved, the pusher would step in and push back.

The oshyia was just in here to eye of the place, see the situation out and provide a cushion if the business fell hard. I saw him lean his head to one side and finally motion for Tashi to serve him. It was organized, a plan executed to perfection and no one was the more wise to him.

A wonderful actor as well. The man at the bar was a prop, designed to flush out any trouble. The other oshiya had been in the bar for an hour or more before I showed up, blending into the scene, absorbing all and remaining anonymous, just another face in the crowd.

There might even be a third.

The first pusher had pegged me from the moment that I entered.

That made me feel better.

I like to deal with competent people.

Saves me the trouble of going back and having to correct someone else's mistakes.

Tashi brought the mannequin his drink just about the same time that another man walked into Gakujindo's.

My contact.

I had arranged to meet him. Simple setup. I needed answers and he was willing to take questions. I watched him approach through the crowd, easily passing and mingling, taking his time to work his way over to the booth. He was indistinguishable from any other patron. I raised my glass and drained it as I looked him over, not bothering to turn my head. I let my eyes do the work instead.

Smaller in build than myself and not as good looking, if I had anything to say about it. Dressed well, a combination of street fashion and practicality, but he was no Suit. Nice and easy, casual. He looked middle age, horn rimmed eyeglasses with plastiglass lenses and flip-up shades, deep set eyes, acne scars, and he was going bald young. Lots of stress lines. You could tell that he earned his credit the hard way. He straightened his wrinkled and dripping tanned trench coat and stood next to the empty seat across the booth, the one Misty Sheryll used to always sit in when we came here.

I didn't look up at him.

Didn't have to, I already knew his kind.

He was like me.

The man nodded to me and remained standing.

That was one second before everything came apart.

"So, there you are, Mr. DiArdo ..." he said in a low voice.

My stomach knotted and bile rose in my throat.

 

That was when I knew that things were going wrong. Everything came to a screaming halt and I sized the situation up. I didn't allow any shock to show through, though it hit me pretty hard. I tried to cover myself, getting ready to move and move fast if I had to. I saw the next ten seconds of my life in perfect clarity.

The first to go would be the man standing in front of me. The table would go up next as a shield to stop the oshyia at the bar. That would give me a second or two for him to draw his piece and try to nail me. If it was a stapler, the table would be enough. If his piece was something with more punch, I'd have even less time, but the result would be the same. I figured that within the next five seconds, there would be two short bursts and two bodies on the floor. The only problem that I had was the first oshyia, which could be anyone. I'd just have to take my chances and make for the rear exit, keeping as many people between me as I could and turning my back on none of them. I could hear my pulse pounding. Ten seconds and counting. I started my play.

"Sorry, friend. You've got the wrong person."

"Drop it, DiArdo. You are Quinn DiArdo. You are the man who single handedly brought down SuRuy Biological's artifint using a unique, if somewhat crude program of as yet undetermined nature. Issac Paris, a friend of yours, died in Chiba, as well as a high level exec for SuRuy Biological and a industrial designer the likes of which the loss can not be calculated. The cost of that whole operation was quite high for all involved, I assure you. I make it a habit to know who I'm dealing with."

Five seconds and still no movement from the oshyia at the bar or anyone else in the crowd. Where was the first oshyia? I started to get up, my hand going for the Apalli, the cool feel of the polymer grip in the palm of my hand, the safety already flicked off and a pill sitting hot in the chamber. The man noticed this, as did his oshyia.

Four seconds, start to draw the Honda up, a quick burst from under the table, the flechettes passing through the thin material of the table cloth wouldn't lose any appreciable velocity. Any where near the upper chest and it wouldn't matter, not with the kind of damage that a burst of ten three millimeter high velocity explosive tipped flechettes would do. The second burst would be over the table just as the man's body was falling backwards and the table was coming over. The second burst would hit the oshyia at the bar in the upper right of the back, just as he was turning and drawing. It would be I would be already falling behind the table and rolling. There might be a loose burst from his stapler or his piece which would probably go wild into the crowd.

People were going to get hurt one way or the other. Either by stray fire or the panic that was going to follow. Some might die. That was life. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Karma. Not my problem.

Three seconds and my hand was on the table, gripping it ready to shove forward. I was moving when the man did something that I hadn't counted on or planned for. He waved his oshyia down with a slight shake of his head and the oshyia went back to his drink, turning his back to me. The man just stood there. It would be impossible not to perforate him from groin to forehead.

And impossible to miss meant too easy in my book.

I paused for one second to take that in and process it. What the hell? My hand still gripped the table corner and the other hand held the little Honda frozen halfway through a swing up from the seat.

Two seconds and holding. I fought down fear, replaced it with uncertainty, which in some circles is viewed as being just as bad. I didn't know and that meant that I was vulnerable.

The man continued to speak in a low voice.

"Quinn. The only reason that you are alive today is the fact that Saba Nagusuki controls most of the operating stock in SuRuy Biological. That is not public knowledge and the work is done through double blinds and fronts. They have watched your every move. You were deemed to be a very unique individual, and killing you would have been an obvious waste of talent. Talent is profit. Profit is business. We don't waste profit and we don't throw away business."

I stopped.

"So they let me ..." I began.

"They let you think that you eluded them. Yes. It seemed the best way of keeping your skills honed and you on your toes, so to speak. They occasionally threw some muscle your way, just to keep you sharp. There were tests also, higher level jobs that you managed to take care of. You became something of an enigma. I must congratulate you. You are the talk of certain dark corporate circles who take pleasure in completing jobs of which you are quite qualified."

"And the ronin I ran into? What about them?"

"Loose ends. They failed to join the new order and decided to vent their frustrations. They were instructed not to approach you. They disobeyed. You merely took care of them before we did. Business."

"They almost trophied me." I said flatly.

"But they didn't. If you could not stop them from killing you, then you were of no asset to us. It was a another in a long series of tests. We needed to see just how good you really were, and also we needed the loose ends of the fiasco in Chiba tied off. You surpassed our expectations, DiArdo. You stayed alive against great odds and you cleaned up your mess."

"You are quite skilled, and a very interesting asset. Many possibilities." he said. "Many possibilities."

"I'm no one's asset..." I muttered.

"You became an asset the moment you flatlined the artifint." he said. "You sold your soul to Sabu Nagusuki that instant. The only reason that you are alive today is because you are an asset."

Saba Nagusuki was the corporation that, through a series of double blind operating channels, controlled various stim companies, the top rated company of which Misty was employed. The fact that Saba Nagusuki was into the stim industry heavily wasn't a common fact, seeing as how their main product was military grade virtual matrix high density systems. The kind of systems that were the staple of the national air defense technology industry.

"Call me Quinn." I said flatly, slowly understanding. "No one calls me DiArdo."

I laid the Honda back on the seat and rested my hands on the table. If anything, the next few minutes were going to be interesting.

Strange, but interesting.

"I'm Harvester. Let's put formalities and pleasantries aside, shall we?"

Small talk wasn't in my vocabulary, but I think I managed a nod. He pulled out a small dented aluminum case of narcoticigarettes and offered me one. I declined and he evidently took my refusal to mean that I wouldn't appreciate any more smoke in the area. He slowly slid the tarnished case back into his inside coat pocket and leaned forward.

"Don't think that the network that you've set up would save you either. Most of those that you think you know are paid in one way or another by Saba Nagusuki. Oh, the credit may come from a quick deal on the street, for a job that was performed, but the source of the credit is the same. It's a very small world, Quinn. I don't think you realize just how small it truly is. You are alone. Saba Nagusuki is the god that rules your world. It created you, and it lets you continue living. No more, no less."

I found that I couldn't say anything. I suddenly had a lot to absorb and understand. Harvester seemed to know. He sighed and collected himself after giving me a few minutes to recover.

"Reality is often a hard mistress to bed. It's a lot to absorb." He said.

I nodded slowly. Everything that I had come to believe, to depend on, to expect. All a staged series of events.

"You're going to have certain questions ..." he began, his voice low. "I will try to answer them."

"You work for Saba Nagusuki?" I asked.

Harvester didn't flinch. That much information I had obtained from my own sources. Sources that were most likely giving me just the information that Saba Nagusuki wanted me to have.

It all began to make sense.

So, I was samurai when I thought that I was ronin. I was a ronin that didn't know that I was a samurai. My master was invisible, but always there.

"Your information is good, but not wholly correct. The key to making information into a commodity is interpretation. As you know, information is a raw resource. It must be refined and filtered before it has any value. You know that from your days in orbit."

I took a long breath.

"To answer your question, no. I don't work for Saba Nagusuki, not legally. I'm a liaison. Saba Nagusuki doesn't deal directly with hired ... labor. They use an established third man like myself. This meeting never did occur, not as far as Saba Nagusuki is concerned. Legally and financially, of course. Saba Nagusuki is a entity, it is the closest thing to a god that you will ever know in this life. It is a group consciousness, a collective. You can hack at it all that you want, it will just regenerate. Cut off an arm, it will grow a new one. It is unstoppable, and you and I, we are merely cells in its body. We live or we die, but we are easily replaced."

I nodded, enlightened. Saba Nagusuki, zaibatsu.

Harvester was just another number, another record taking up memory in someone's database. He was just an abstract account in a database, probably filed deep under double blind miscellaneous expenses for this fiscal quarter. If you wanted to directly track him back to Saba Nagusuki, you'd have to work for months just to find a hint of a connection.

"I understand that you knew Melizabeth Sheryll Walters." He said.

I didn't nod this time. I let Harvester have the stage. It was his show so far but I was fast becoming a bored audience.

"Get to the point." I said.

He paused, collected and arranged his thoughts, and presented them in a different format.

"Sheryll Walters is dead, I'm afraid."

I read between the lines as he talked, filtering out the crap.

Misty Sheryll was trying to do a job but someone got to her. She had become lax, let her edge down, or ignored her bodyguards and their judgment. Maybe she had become too popular for the other 'stim networks to ignore any longer, maybe a private firm had just erased her for good measure. I knew something about the business, you see. It was to my advantage to know the ways of the competition and the movements of the market I worked in.

"This information has not been made public, of course. And great strides have been taken to keep such information from being obtained from more covert sources."

I nodded.

Saba Nagusuki would rapidly take care of any loose ends or loose tongues. You didn't want the industry to capitalize on the fact that a major stim star isn't in the market any longer.

"What about her security team?"

Harvester said nothing, merely looked sideways to the bar and back to the table again, lowering his head.

What I thought.

Amateurs.

The hit team had gone right through them. The team members didn't live to learn from their mistakes. A moment passed as we both sat there, trying to arrange our thoughts into the best way to present them. I broke the silence, looking up.

"How did ... she ... die?" I asked, fighting down the memories of two pasts.

My head was treading memories, threatening to sink. It was risky, he may not have known and if he did, he didn't have to tell me.

"Ever hear of a pro named Joshua?" He asked, leaning forward and whispering.

I didn't say anything which he must have taken as my answer.

"Yes, well, Joshua's a factory custom. Milpath had him grown in a vat in a little known weapons research lab near Anchorage. Actually a first of sorts, used a batch of tissue from a select group of personnel. Tried to create a superhuman from the cream of their corps. Nazis tried the same stuff back in the early third of the last century, but they failed."

He paused. I didn't like the sound of silence.

Harvester leaned closer across the table, whispering.

"The Nazis failed. Milpath didn't. MediCAD units and their own personal artifint worked out the logical problems. There is a lot that you can do when you have a artifint to do the problem solving. However there were ... complications."

"Complications?" I asked.

"Somewhere, something went wrong and the artificial was damaged during growth. Not badly, but enough that the tissue became unstable, couldn't be cloned again. Replication Distribution Syndrome, I believe. Milpath believes it was corporate sabotage. They may be correct."

"Saba Nagusuki?" I asked.

"I'm not privy to that information." Harvester said flatly. "However, you know Japan's chief export is air defense technology. My own personal opinion is that Saba Nagusuki would have no interest in technology pertaining to grunts, be that as they may. If Milpath had grown a super pilot, then I would venture that Milpath would find the definition of hostile takeover all too clearly illustrated to them."

He paused again.

"Where were we? Oh, yes. Joshua. Joshua went solo. Disappeared from his staging area. Embarrassing for Milpath, which lost track of him completely despite their security nets and contacts. No one knew where he was until recently, didn't even know if he was alive or had somehow self-expired. They have gone to great lengths to find him, but every time that their operatives get close, they lose contact with the retrieval teams. Milpath has found four of the retrieval teams that they sent after Joshua. Most of them. The fifth and sixth teams are still missing. Reliable sources now say that the French have Joshua, a firm by the name of Adiretechna Bathos, Inc."

"I'm not familiar with them ..." I said.

"Not surprising." Harvester said. "They're a major corporate firm that's still new to the 'stim market but with a history of savage methods of achieving favorable ratings and profit earnings with violent and subversive, one might say clandestine, entries into new areas in search of more than their fair market share. A bunch of little boys running around trying to play men."

"And Joshua?"

"Joshua does special favors."

I didn't say anything.

"As I mentioned, there were complications. Joshua has no second chances. He's an albino ..."

"He's a what?" I asked.

"An albino. I'm sure you know what one is. It's a kind of birth defect that didn't show up until late in the growth process ... His cells are in such an unbalance that he can't be cloned again. Ever. The corporate sabotage went as far as spoiling the viable gene base, Joshua was their only chance to make a copy, but the provocateurs happened to plan on that as well. Despite these ... drawbacks, he's still very good at what he was originally designed for."

"And that is?" I asked.

"Killing. Pure and simple, Mr. DiArdo. And he does it quite well, I can assure you."

Harvester gathered his notes mentally and continued, motioning with his hands and fingers in gestures he thought would help me to understand.

"You see, his brain has been rewired, nanomicroneurosurgery to reconstruct the pathways and crossover neuro ducts. The primal centers were augmented and given more control over the physical body. Milpath coded and overhauled his brain to produce an increased amount of neuro transmitters. They even went as far as to cross his stimulus input centers up here ..." Harvester said as he tapped his forehead lightly with his index finger.

"They amped the input centers up pretty high, plugged the pleasure center of his brain directly into that part of the brain that responds to anger and primal motivations. That way, every time he does something violent, he derives pleasure directly from the experience itself. Whenever Joshua kills, it triggers a psychosexual response very much akin to an orgasm ... The hunt, the stalking of his prey, all amounts to foreplay. The kill is pure sexual release, a nirvana that only man's tampering of the brain can produce. Quite extraordinary."

He paused to draw a breath.

"When Joshua hires out, he kills for pleasure, in a very real sense of the meaning."

It was too much.

Misty. A memory floats to the surface.

"I asked you ... how did she die?" My voice came out flat.

Harvester leaned back in his seat.

"We don't really know how, yet, but Sheryll Walters walked into it pretty thick. As far as we can tell, they used shotguns. Two of them. The first one cut her in half, the second one made her a crowd ... It looks like they emptied the magazines during the process. She didn't suffer ... much ... long." He said as he searched for the right word.

Misty Sheryll.

The petal broken off the holographic rose.

"Joshua tried to cover his tracks. Didn't leave much to identify ..."

"Are you sure it was Misty?" I asked.

"We're sure." Harvester said and reached back inside his coat pocket.

I'd seen the kind of work done before on the street.

Someone had erased Misty Sheryll forever, made her an example.

"She employed me for ... a while." I offered, whispering.

"Twenty-four renewals to your contract. I'd call that more than a while." He said matter of factly.

I looked up, stared him down.

"Look, what has this got to do with me? You obviously have more on me than I ever suspected. What's your deal."

There was silence in the booth that seemed almost deafening.

The sounds of the bar were suddenly very loud around us though my outburst had been nothing more than a heated whisper, it echoed in my mind and ears like a clap of thunder. I relaxed, eased back down, and regained control of myself.

Harvester sighed and made his presentation.

"My sources tell me that you served time on Luna, more time at an El-One colony on the Frontier. You came down the beanstalk, been walking gravity for the past forty-seven fiscal periods."

I listened.

That much was on my files, public data.

"If you're looking for someone responsible, look for Joshua." Harvester said. "Saba Nagusuki would like to find him. I felt that you might have a personal stake in this matter and so they left it up to me to contact you. Misty Sheryll was a valuable asset to Saba Nagusuki. Saba Nagusuki has lost much face in this matter."

He paused.

"They would like to gain back some of their composure, to save face. Adriretechna must be taught that Saba Nagusuki will not tolerate a second rate firm interfering in their business sphere. Adiretechna was using Joshua as a deniable person."

"And you? You're a deniable person also, aren't you?" I asked him.

Harvester nodded, extending his finger toward me.

"As are you." He said flatly. "The Board is very much in decision of the use of a show of force. An eye for an eye, as the old saying goes."

He used the word "Board" almost reverently. I didn't say anything for awhile. He cleared his throat quietly for attention. I continued to ignore him and he resigned himself to indifference.

He laid a small envelope on the table.

"There was another before you, and the Board agreed on my original choice. You were not our first choice, nor were you our best choice." He said.

I looked up.

"So what happened? This other guy, he say no?"

He sighed, pushing his glasses up on the ridge of his nose and rubbing his nose with two fingers where the little feet had made indentions in the sides of his nose.

"The other man I chose is stabilized. The doctors promise me that he will live as long as he isn't unplugged, though the quality of his existence can certainly be brought to question. The board is now deciding if he should be maintained at his current status or returned to parts."

I looked back down at the table.

"Joshua." I whispered, turning the name over in my mind.

So, Joshua knew that someone was on to him. That would make the job harder, if not impossible.

Harvester waited for my answer.

I didn't have to think long about it.

"There is a strike team forming. The best that we have. There is a position available on the team for a person of your skills ...."

"Find another."

Harvester started to say something, stopped, shrugged and then got up to leave. I slowly took the envelope in two fingers, picking it up and letting it dangle there in front of me, swinging like some scale trying to decide for me. Something inside slid to the low end of the envelope. I looked up.

Harvester and his oshyia were gone.

I left a roll of the local denomination to cover my tab, and to pay for some of what I still owed. Tashi slid it into his pocket and nodded goodbye without ever breaking stride in serving his other customers.

He knew that I had made up my mind.

 

The sun set, a majestic bronze disc burning across the black clouds, casting long sharp shadows into the dark flat. Long shadows from the automatic blinds made the place look like one huge prison cell. I looked up, stared at the sun till my eyes hurt and watered, then I closed them and ordered the internal to filter the light. Instantly, the huge window began to grow dark as the photocell tint activated.

The flat grew dark. The window had tinted so much that I could actually stare at the sun, which was no more luminescent now than the moon on a clear night. I don't know how long I sat there after that, lost in myself, staring at the falling sun until it disappeared over the horizon. Minutes, hours maybe. I looked at my Taidai. It was late, and it had started to rain again. I looked out the huge window. Gothic images of dark age demons cast in ferrocrete loomed at me, seeming to come alive and move with each flash of luminescent lightning. The rain came down in sheets again, dripping steadily from the maw of the two gargoyles like gray saliva.

I opened the envelope and let the ring fall onto the table. Red flecks speckled around the corset, in the depressions and the detail. They hadn't even cleaned it. Her blood ...

Her blood. Dried. Another physical reminder of just what I had lost.

I shut my eyes.

There it was, everything was laid out in front of me. The rose, the ring, a plastic card from Harvester with a number where he could be reached, and the Apali.

Made a subject for a macabre still life.

"Harvester." I said.

[WHO?] Asked the Internal, the voice coming from a speaker set into the ceiling.

[SPECIC QUERY REQUIRED. PLEASE SPECIFY PARTY.]

I ignored it.

Nothing more. I had to save all my strength to talk.

 

The Mitsubi was parked at the curb.

I went over to the public booth. I took a trembler from my pocket and attached the twin leads to the surface of the booth, switching the unit on. The unit set up a microscopic vibration in the material, disabling any beam mikes that might be listening in on me, scrambling the surface vibration patterns into a indecipherable jumble of noise. A smaller scrambler that hung from my shoulder rig was making white noise across the spectrum in a one meter radius. The little green LED on the trembler told me all I needed to know.

Nobody was going to listen in on me unless I wanted them too.

I inserted my forged calling card in the first slot, and Harvester's business card into the slot below that. The unit took the forged card with no hassles, scanned the magnetic strip on the business card and dialed the encoded number. The C-phone beeped five times on the other end before Harvester answered.

I saw the visual on the little CRT. He was under a black sheet in a half made bed, wiping his eyes clear of sleep as he answered the phone. A bust of Alexander and a bust of Caesar sat on black Roman pedestals on each side of the bed. Each was illuminated by filtered light, giving a museum appearance to the hollow ceramic images. I kept my end on mute video.

"Harvester?" I said.

"Uh, DiArdo? God, man. It's ... " he looked at a crystal display clock near his bed.

"It's half past two in the morning ..."

"Oh two thirty-eight hours. I know."

Harvester sat up straighter in bed, coming awake now, wiping his face with both of his hands, pressing them against his face and then forcing his hands up over his forehead, spreading and running his fingers over and through what little hair he had left.

"Is this uplink secure?" he asked.

"It is from my end. That side is your problem."

He nodded and blinked, finding his glasses on a nightstand and putting them on.

"Visual's blank." he said.

"I know." I replied.

He took that for what it was.

"Now tell me something. Why did you ask me?"

"You have a personal stake in this. That might give you an edge."

"Who told you that line?" I asked. "Emotion has no place in this. You go after someone like Joshua with some nobler than thou sentimental motive like revenge and you'll be dead before you know it. A pro would see that coming a long way away. I know."

"It's your call on this one." Harvester said, shrugging his shoulders.

"I've got other reasons for going after Joshua."

Harvester processed this thought with a visible grinding of mental gears.

"Then ... you've changed your mind?" Harvester asked flatly a few seconds later.

"Tell whoever needs to know that I'm in."

"Are you sure?" Harvester asked.

I nodded but he couldn't see it.

"Yes. But I go alone. Call off your strike team. Joshua would see that coming from the other side of the world. You don't assemble a team with skills like that for any low level operation. He's a prime player now, he'd know what target the team was after."

"The team is merely a diversion, Quinn. You are the sword. You always were. If we move the team, then Joshua may not see you coming until you can get close. We're not stupid, Quinn. We're methodical. Do you still want the position?"

"More than any other time in my life. I'm in solo too. Anyone else tries to play the game when I'm on the board is going to lose. Hard. I want no backups. No amateurs. I'm solo."

"I don't ..."

"All you have to do right now is to listen. This ... Joshua ... Understand one thing. He's mine." I said. "We play the game by my rules, my way. No way else. I'm going to need a few things that only you can get a hold of."

"Understandable. I'll extend to you a line of credit for any need you might require and upon completion I'll have your account credited for ..."

"No." I said flatly, almost whispering the word as I shook my head. I leaned forward until my forehead touched the cool plastiglass of the public booth.

"What ... ?" He asked, somewhat startled, unsure of the change in procedure.

"This is personal this time, this isn't ... business. I get paid for business. I don't want your credit ..." I replied.

Harvest was silent, sucking on his lower lip. He reached over to a small pedestal beside the bed and fumbled with a cheap caffeine mister, palming the little bottle. He took a quick drag off the contents of the pressurized container, shaking his head, contorting his face and coming more awake as the caffeine hit his system.

"Okay." He relented, sighed, and laid the little mister on top of the sheets. "But you said that emotion didn't play a part ..."

"Damnit! I'm not in this for emotion. This is business. This is ethics... Joshua's a loose end that I've got to clean up."

"Okay. If that's the way you stand."

"Yeah." I replied. "Call it ... satisfaction."

He said nothing.

I felt the hate surge up in me, fueled by the memories. I felt the edge go taut, felt it constrict so tight that it almost snapped. The edge didn't snap, didn't break. It twanged, oscillated, wavered and steadied. I felt razor sharp inside.

I killed the up-link, jacking both cards out as a symbol for a multi-nat communications conglomerate appeared on the screen, showing the charge that would be billed to the forged account and thanking me for using their system. I killed the visual as well, the image collapsed into a horizontal line and fell into a small luminescent circle in the middle of the screen that slowly faded away.

I removed the trembler and shut down the scrambler. I shoved my hands into my coat pockets and walked back to the Mitsubi.

Misty may have told me to go to hell, she may have told me that she didn't need me, and she may have turned her back on me and walked out, refusing my work, but she had never terminated my contract. I checked that out for myself.

Not legally.

When she died, the contract had still been in effect. Her death was a break of operations, a breach of ethics, and bad business all around. It was simply a matter of being professional. Someone had walked in and flatlined my charge and that made it personal.

Saba Nagusuki wasn't the only one who needed to save face ...

I packed light. I had to be able to grab everything that I needed and move at a whim. On the table, the holographic rose shimmered, the image turned to so much pale static and then faded away.

The battery, like Misty Sheryll, was dead.

 

Joshua wasn't easy. The first botched attempt would make my try that much more difficult.

If it had been me, if I had been Joshua, I would have laid low for a long time. I would have had the French freeze me in crybernation and hide me until things blew over, maybe stash me away in orbit where it was easy to hide.

I think Joshua underestimated Saba Nagusuki, LTD., their grasp and their determination. I think that Joshua felt that Saba Nagusuki, LTD's first attempt was the best try for retribution. False security.

Joshua felt that the French could protect him adequately.

Now it was up to me to prove that he was dead wrong.

 

I stood near the huge ferrocrete column, the overhead luminescent chemo-glow strips giving off a soft greenish tint. An old yellow and black, rusting and faded sign on the column proclaimed the underground garage as a fallout shelter.

I was invisible there in the shadows. Just like back in 'Caragua. Sneaking around and checking places out before I erased someone from the pages of history.

I planned on erasing Joshua tonight. Closing out his contract.

No trouble infiltrating. Security was relatively light compared to what I'm used to. I was a professional. I cut the down-link to the security cameras in certain areas that I had staked out. Some I used a playback loop on. Security wouldn't know a thing.

Ten minutes had passed.

All the passwords and clearances were right, supplied by Harvester. Money could buy many things through the right channels, but the most powerful element in civilization was information.

Saba Nagusuki, LTD. obviously had power.

I walked past a few Mercedes, two Audis, an IBMW, and several others. Tenants that shared the conapts and timeshares. I could feel the metal of the Apali in its shoulder rig, cold and comforting.

The other metal felt good too. A black FNAN-12 under my overcoat and against my side.

The FNAN has been with me a long time, an old friend. It's scratched up pretty bad, but I'm not one for aesthetics. If it works, use it. FNAN-12, Frabrique Nationale design, coated in dull non-reflective black, with isotope coated sights for night work, folding injection molded industrial plastic skeleton stock, variable twist choke, dual action with a selector to go pump or automatic, and a black nylon sling with plastic clip rings. It's designed for close-in fighting and house clearing operations. The variable choke will put out a group of double ought buck no wider than five inches at fifteen yards and a slug the same distance at sixty yards.

I remembering caressing the weapon gently, feeling the cool polymer and alloy finish. It had been a long time since I had last used the FNAN.

A long time.

The metal of the FNAN was cold, soothing. It helped. My boosted senses were there, feeling everything. The garage existed like a huge tank of fluid medium for me. Anything or anyone moving in the garage would set up vibrations in the air, in the molecules that my hardware would sense, ripples of movement that were as easily detected by me as if they were tsunamis. I walked calmly, reaching the point that I had chosen during my first eyeball of the garage and then I waited.

I reviewed my slipup list, going over where, if anywhere, I might have gone wrong. I couldn't think of anything, so I relaxed, letting my confidence build.

I waited a little over ten minutes more before the black Mercedes Rolls pulled into the underground garage. The Mercedes Rolls pulled to a stop and they got out as I opened my overcoat, bringing the FNAN out, working the slide and chambering a round with a cha-chak of metal on metal.

I could feel the cold of the alloy through my gloves as easily as I could sense it. All 'slingers could. Sensory boost, black market hardware on the street. I turned as I heard the echo of the engine fading through the underground garage.

I thought of Misty Sheryll briefly and stepped up to the Mercedes Rolls as the two men turned to lock the car. I stood three meters away from Joshua, near the hood of the Mercedes Rolls.

We stood there for what seemed an eternity, staring at each other. Reflex boosting, nerve hardwiring, and bacteria augmentation can do that to you, make time slow to a crawl.

Speed you up.

There was a noise from around the corner of the Mercedes Rolls, behind me.

Fast movement.

Good, I thought.

Enlighten me.

I knew that this scenario wasn't going to be easy. I heard footsteps, fast running, behind me and I waited. I could feel the man move behind me with my senses on overload. I could feel his weight upon the floor, feel his body heat like a furnace, hear his breathing like thunder, feel his body actually occupying space in the garage, displacing air and volume. I could see him like I had eyes in the back of my head, feel his presence crushing against my skin like a pressure wave. I knew right where he was, at each step and each foot fall.

A man, shorter than I was, but better built. Heavier.

The driver.

A bodyguard?

A chauffeur?

Possibly a lover ...

I moved, lightning quick, under the pseudonoradrenalin boost with the bacteria racing through my system. The reflex booster kicked in, my nerves came to a screaming standstill. The edge twanged, oscillated, wavered and steadied. I felt sharp as monowire inside as I reached back and smashed the man in the face with a quick back jab of my arm and elbow, driven with all my strength. The blow shattered the cartilage in his nose and he stopped cold in his tracks, teetering.

He moaned and grabbed his face with his hands, dropping his already drawn weapon; a Fabrique Luchis seven millimeter automatic smoothbore. I smashed the stock of the FNAN against the man's head with an audible crunch. Then, before he could fall and just as he was tripping forward, I grabbed the man by the neck in an elbow lock, grunted, and flipped him forward over my shoulder. I heard a loud crack as the man cleared my back on his way over my shoulder and the man hit the floor next to Joshua, bent into an impossible shape.

The body jerked twice and lay still.

I straightened, stepped forward and kicked the automatic. Metal scraping on ferrocrete, the sound echoing through the vastness of the garage, the automatic finally stopping somewhere in the shadows under a parked car.

It goes without saying that the man on the ground didn't move anymore.

A broken neck will do that.

The Mercedes Rolls' engine pinged as it cooled. Gray water dripped off the automobile onto the pavement in patters. I could hear each distinctly, like a muted bass drum. Joshua hadn't moved at all. He slowly looked up from the corpse on the pavement.

A Caucasian albino, honest to God white skin and close cropped platinum hair. I held the FNAN aimed squarely at his chest. He looked at me and formed a slow twisted smile. I had him, everything that Harvester could hardcopy.

It wasn't enough.

He liked the French. They treated him well, paid him better. They were the ones that paid him the most and used him most frequently to 'adjust' their assets and accounts in the European Common Market toward that of a more positive position. They even had him flown in specially to do Misty Sheryll. An operation that was but one of the many extensions that the ECM was conducting into the Western Markets.

An operation that had netted some amount of profit for those concerned in the EuroComMark.

I knew all this now, I had memorized it.

Information was power. Information gave you more of the edge.

Edge made the world go round.

"I do not believe that you have any idea of the depth of the situation you have just placed yourself in." Joshua said.

I answered with silence.

I held the FNAN on him, steady. Ready to erase him like a bad structure command in a first generation wetlanguage program. Joshua stared down at the corpse on the ferrocrete again and then looked back to me. He removed his modular Chartes, colorless eyes stared back at me. I saw him rub his eyes, rub the bridge of his nose with two fingers before placing the Chartes in a leather hard case he held in his hand.

He started to put the hard case inside his inner coat pocket. I motioned with the FNAN, indicating that I didn't think that would be a good idea. He slowly reached over and set the hardcase on top of the Mercedes Rolls, keeping his hands far away from whatever it was that he wanted to pull out of his coat so badly.

I wasn't born yesterday.

Or grown in a vat.

"What is your name?" He asked, quite simply.

He cut right to the basics, no small talk. I liked that.

All calm, like staring down the barrel of a twelve gauge shotgun was an everyday occurrence.

"Call me Quinn." I replied.

"Why?" He asked, no hesitation.

"Taking care of business." I replied. "Call it ... satisfaction."

I saw him tense and I tightened my finger on the trigger. He spoke.

"Who is paying you? I can make you a better deal."

"Forgiveness?" I asked.

"A counter offer. No more." He said.

"No deal this time. I can't tell you who's paying me, that would be a breach of ethics in my business. Might be bad for my rep too. I'll give you a name though. A good friend that you did some work on."

He listened.

I talked.

"Misty Sheryll Walters."

I think he was holding his breath and I actually saw him pale.

"Yes, Ms. Walters. I did so enjoy our ... meeting." He said.

My knuckles went white on the trigger and foregrip.

"Did you know ..." he began softly.

"Did you know that I myself was wired that night? I have come to envy these stim stars, as you Americans call them. The quality of the product can at times be so very sharp, so clear, so real ..."

He breathed in again, holding his hands clutched together in front of him, in a stance that reminded me more of a professor lost in memories of younger days and spent youth than the stance of a vat grown professional killer. His eyes swept across the ceiling, but I didn't follow them. Stupid diversion. Wasted effort on his part, I wasn't falling for something as simple as that. I stared straight at him. After a few seconds those colorless eyes returned to stare me eye to eye.

"I had a 'stim unit that night, wired and amped. A marvelous little Hitachi-Sony with five processors and an excellent Spanish filter chip. Very low distortion, compact, I almost didn't notice that I was even wearing it. Years ahead of what the Americans have now. Yes. I remember now that I recorded our time together, Ms. Walters and I. Your Ms. Walters, she was quite an accomplished actor that night. Begging and pleading and screaming ... I didn't kill her right away. No. She and I enjoyed an entire evening together, though I'm afraid that I enjoyed her company more than she enjoyed mine. The stim is quite sharp and crisp. I can give you a copy if you would like."

I flexed, my finger pulled the trigger and the FNAN roared in my hands, bucking up wildly with the discharge. A large chunk of the concrete column next to Joshua's head disintegrated into powder, and it would have been his head if he hadn't flinched at the last second. A ducking movement that seemed nothing more than a simple flinch, or a shrug of the shoulders given in hopeless amazement or lost interest.

Fragments of 'crete pelted the side of his face, opening small scratches. I jacked the slide back angrily, forcefully, ejecting the spent smoking plastic casing, and chambering a fresh round, slamming the foregrip forward with a solid sound of metal on metal striking home.

My finger tightened again around the trigger. Steady pressure. Pull steady, squeeze, don't jerk.

Joshua raised a hand to the side of his face, felt several times, then rubbed gingerly. He withdrew his hand, looking at the blood. The corner of his mouth curled up in just the slightest hint of movement.

"I am going to kill you now." He said flatly.

I gripped the FNAN tighter, more memories came rushing back.

"I was dead once before." I said softly. "I didn't like it ..."

Motionless.

Silence.

An eternity.

"You and me ..." I whispered.

He had been trying to provoke me, catch me off guard, and it had almost worked. I could still see images of flashes of stim in my mind. Misty ...

Misty.

My finger on the trigger, I started to pull, remembering how Harvester had told me Misty had died. The words he used played themselves in my mind, echoing.

"Misty Sheryll walked into it pretty thick. As far as we can tell, they used shotguns. Two of them. The first one cut her in half, the second one made her a crowd ..."

Misty ...

The edge.

Razor sharp and oscillating inside.

"You and me." I said, louder, more confident as I was taking up the pressure on the trigger.

"And like they say, two's company ..."

He tensed, readying himself.

"And three's a crowd." I said softly, sarcastically.

I fully intended to cut him in half with the shotgun. He went for something hidden in his coat as his body uncoiled like a metal spring.

His body was a close tolerance killing machine gone wrong in a vat.

I didn't let him get anywhere near me or give him time to draw whatever it was he was trying to draw.

I wasn't that stupid.

My hand tightened on the pistol grip of the FNAN as my finger fell back, taking up the slack. Squeeze the trigger, don't jerk it.

I really ruined his coat.

The FNAN threw hot lead and fire in one direction and smoking plastic in the other. The roar echoed around the garage for a long time it seemed. I heard the spent plastic shell from my first shot rolling around on the ferrocrete, coming slowly to a stop.

Still smoking.

'Cha-chak' went the FNAN as it chambered the second round from the magazine.

Joshua came to a halt, bending forwards, almost in half as the impact of the double ought twelve gauge shot slammed into his chest and torso. The shot from the FNAN picked him up and threw him backwards into the side of the Mercedes Rolls, his impact slamming the passenger door of the car shut.

I saw him stare down at the holes in his chest as he slid to the ground.

The first round should have put him down for good. I'm really sorry to say that it didn't. He took the double ought, smiled, and started to slowly pick himself up beside the Mercedes Rolls.

No way in hell ...

Maybe he was psyched out and up.

I didn't know.

All I did know was that this was one tough customer. Had boosters and hardwiring like I did, maybe even better, maybe more cutting edge hardware.

I hope not.

Saba Nagusuki had said nothing about hardware, but that didn't make me feel any better. I had learned a long time ago not to trust anything labeled intelligence, and that meant whether it came from a military database or from a corporate one.

I didn't hesitate in showing Joshua the rest of what the FNAN had in the magazine. I fired again. He took the shot in stride and it knocked him backwards again almost two meters, throwing him hard against the side of the Mercedes Rolls. He spun a half turn, smiling still, flailing his arms out wildly, trying to grab onto something, trying to keep his balance. He failed and fell to the ground once more. I stared at him over the smoking barrel of the FNAN. He took longer to rise the second time, almost stayed down, but I saw something in his expression change.

His face contorted into a grin, and a look like that of a cornered animal that had nothing to lose. Images of a kennel, rabid animals and animals that were about to be destroyed out of necessity or pleasure. I saw the red mist spray against the Mercedes Rolls' side and then he was grabbing onto the side mirror, slowly pulling himself up and staring at me. Staring me down with a grin on his face that made my blood run cold.

I must have blinked because he wasn't on the ground, he was moving in on me fast, keeping low, gaining momentum like I hadn't shot him at all. Blood dripping from him like he was a sieve. Patters on the concrete hitting like a bass drum, amplified by the 'ware.

He was eyeing me like I was prey.

His endorphin count must be over the count, hyper accelerated to combat pain and body tissue damage, not to mention hydrostatic shock like he was soaking up. He craned his head to one side, looked up at me as he ran, leering at me. He was all shot up, I could see the holes in him, the torn tissue, the flow of blood. His suit was a mess. He growled, a animal sound that rose in pitch the closer he got. Slower than normal, but still way too fast for someone who has just taken twelve gauge double ought magnum load at point blank range.

I managed to pull the trigger again, jerking it back, but he had already sprinted past where the shot would pass through. He twisted around in pain as the shot slammed into him but he managed to avoid the largest spread of the pattern. The FNAN automatically chambered another round and this time I squeezed evenly on the trigger.

Nothing.

Dud.

That's what I get for using German ammunition. I didn't have time to change the operation of the action and work the slide. I brought the FNAN up like a club to defend myself. He bowled into me, hard enough to knock me off my feet, tackling me to the ground.

I tried to use the FNAN to knock him away and we struggled over the shotgun. I was pushing it up and away from me and he was pushing it down and toward me, toward my neck. We struggled until he finally managed to wrench the shotgun from my hands and hurl it away. It landed on the windshield of a red Lamborrari that was parked nearby, starring the windshield with fine white lines of broken plastiglass and scraping a good bit of paint off the hood where the barrel slid.

I ignored it, just so much more noise.

He was fast. I felt him hit me hard. My head swam, I saw flashes, my jaw went slack with my grip. My vision blurred. I blinked and tried to dodge.

He didn't miss.

I felt a rib go, splinter. Somehow, against all that, I managed to try to draw my Apali from the shoulder rig, but Joshua wasn't about to let me do that. He slapped the my hand away from the shoulder rig with a move that only barely registered as an after image. It felt like he dislocated my arm at the shoulder and wrist.

Joshua was strong, stronger than I was, but I think I was a fraction faster. I had more experience.

My experience was taught, learned.

His was programmed.

There is a difference and that was what mattered now.

I blocked as best as I could, even managed to land a few good blows myself as we fought there on the ferrocrete, rolling and struggling. I hurt him. Maybe more than a little. The Apali was out of the question. Even if I could reach it, I didn't have time to waste on it. He would never let me finish drawing the weapon, let alone use it.

I was doing my best just trying to keep him from ripping my throat out.

Joshua managed to get a grip on my throat and I felt a vice close around it. I choked, trying to tear his hands away from my windpipe as he continued to apply pressure. He was smiling now, the hot-shotting of his brain was giving him something akin to pure sexual pleasure. His lips drew back, exposing his gums as he started to breathe faster, smiling and laughing, his head swept back. He choked me and throttled me, picking my head up, slamming it back down into the ferrocrete floor.

Hard.

Repeatedly.

I almost lost it all then, feeling my skull rattle and hearing his maniacal snickering and heavy labored breathing. He was enjoying this, laughing as I struggled and gasped for breath. I had a concussion, maybe worse. Each impact was amplified by the 'ware into a explosion. A collage of pain and sharp images, bright flashes and sounds. A euphoria of sensory input where conscious and rational thought did not exist. Grunts, cries, and screams. A moan from Joshua.

Blood dripped from his mouth and nose, dripped down onto me as blood from my cut scalp and other injuries clotted in my eyes.

I desperately clawed at his arm, thick patches of skin came off under my nails, blood ran down the arms and onto my chest. His hands around my throat continued to tighten. I started to lose my vision and my blood was pounding in my ears like a drum.

I brought my knee up as hard as I could, slamming it into his groin.

It works every time.

He sucked for air and doubled over. I pushed him off and rolled away, seeing purple blotches dance before my eyes as I tasted air. I choked and gagged, rubbing my throat to get sensation to my neck and windpipe.

Joshua recovered quicker than I expected. He came in from beside me, a blur in my peripheral vision, tackling me with a force that almost snapped my spine. My legs buckled under me and we fell forward, two bodies struggling, rolling to the ferrocrete. He hit the ferrocrete beside me with his fist. Powder and jagged chips of pavement fell down on me. I spit out 'crete dust as he drew back for another punch.

Blood dripped from torn skin and exposed knuckle bone but he didn't seem to notice. The guy was laughing and grinning, like this was the greatest lay he had ever had. I ducked hard and landed a good blow to his midsection that made him bend in half, grunting, but the grunt turned into a sigh and a moan of pleasure as he recovered. I twisted my body around under him with all that I had, getting my right leg around to a better position as he managed to come around.

I went for my ace in the hole, up my sleeve.

Well, really it was tucked into an ankle holster.

It pays to be prepared.

He twisted around and shoved me hard to the ground, one hand holding me flat against the pavement, pressing my chest down and the other hand raised in a killing blow aimed at my throat. He had neglected to follow what I was doing. Bad move. You never turn away from an enemy, even if just for an eye blink.

Like I said, experience is different, depending on how you get it.

He turned and stared right down the four barrels of my Rhys Model 234c derringer that I had retrieved from my ankle holster.

Yeah, uses the very same ammo as the Apali.

Mighty convenient.

Neither of us moved.

I ignored the ringing in my ears as I nursed a busted lip, sucking on it and the salty taste of blood. I also had a loosened tooth or two. I propped myself up one handed, holding the weapon on him with the other hand, gently pushing him away with the little gun.

Aces high.

He still held his arm poised to strike me but I had him, dead bang.

Joshua stopped, beginning to slowly rise above me. His mistake. We were right in front of each other now. I aimed the little gun at his head and he was looking down the four barrels, the tip of his nose pushed into the lower right barrel. He stared cross eyed at the little weapon and I think he smiled.

His eyes straightened as he regarded me.

Wounds, bleeding all over the place, bruises, cuts, abrasions. We both caught our breath as best as we could. I think we both realized that we were a mess. I hurt like hell, my breathing came in gasps as best as I could manage. I knew that I had a rib rubbing against one of my lungs, maybe slowly tearing it. Somehow it really didn't seem important to me. I knew Joshua was hurting a hell of a lot worse than I was.

"Very ... good." He said at last, breathing hard.

I nodded as best as I could, not faltering, but catching my breath nonetheless.

"You should be flattered ..." I said softly, flatly. "I hardly ever do this kind of work free."

Boosted reflexes, synapses and nerves snapping shut in unison with an imperceptible lag.

He moved like lightning.

I was thunder.

"Bye." I said as I twisted and came about.

I reached up with the hand that I had been supporting myself with, grabbing his head with my free hand and clutching a handful of his close cropped white hair as I started to fall backwards, pulling him over with me and pulling the trigger of the little derringer twice. The weapon discharged twice, at point blank range under the nose and slanting up into his forehead. I made two ten millimeter deposits in his head.

They closed out his account.

Two neat holes appeared in the middle of his face connected by a line of red where the skin and muscle tore and the bone of the forehead split and broke open. A single huge hole appeared in the back of his head. It all happened so quickly that I thought that his head had just disintegrated. A long arc of red spewed forwards out of the holes in his face and a vast spray of material flashed out of the newly opened cavity in the back of his skull.

He was dead before the sharp reports were echoing through the underground garage.

The body spasmed, fingers clutching me let go and grabbed again only to let go once more. I winced, rolled hard to the right, and cried out, arcing my back and throwing the corpse away from me. I gasped for air. Silence and the smell of spent projectile propellant. The body lay next to me, a pool of blood was spreading out from what had once been a head. The blood edged its way toward me, almost like a living thing. I stood and then stumbled a few steps back, regaining my strength, my balance, and my breath.

I was bleeding bad, but Joshua was bleeding a whole lot more. I looked at what was left of his face and what the derringer had done. It had really made a mess of his smile.

To say it again, I was going to make certain. I slowly reloaded the derringer from loose rounds in my coat pocket, holstering the little weapon back in my ankle holster.

I keyed my 'ware down to low amp.

The sudden sound of silence in the garage was deafening.

I sighed, felt my breathing slow to near normal as I walked over and picked up the FNAN-12 off the hood of the Lamborrari. I gripped the weapon tightly, moving the selector, switching from automatic to pump action. I worked the slide to eject the dud from the action, chambering a fresh round. I pointed the FNAN-12 at Joshua's corpse.

"Satisfaction ..." I whispered.

I pulled the trigger of the FNAN until the weapon went click. The report of each round discharged accompanied by the flash from the muzzle. My ears rang and my nose burned from the smell of burnt propellant. Messed up his suit like you wouldn't believe. I made sure that there was no way that anyone was ever going to read Joshua's body.

It sure wasn't a case of dying of the measles, but it was thorough.

Kind of like trying to reassemble a cow from ground chuck. Go ahead and try it sometime. I can tell you though, it's going to be real hard trying to determine just where to start.

I looked at my Taidai. Twenty minutes since I had entered the 'plex. The casing had taken less than five minutes. I had waited ten minutes, and the job had taken another three minutes. Three long minutes.

Felt like eternity.

I had to clean up the mess I had made; I was running out of time.

I reached into my coat pocket and removed a plastic wrapped derm sheet, pulled two green colored derms off the waxy paper and slapped the little plastic self adhesive circles against my side, over my rib. Each derm was microstacked with fifteen hundred pips of transfer pseudorphin and the pain faded away within two breaths. Four breaths and I was riding a chemically induced euphoric wave. I began to retrieve the spent shells from the pavement, stuffing them in my pocket as I mentally counted off the number of rounds that I had fired, cross checking the spent rounds to the number of rounds that I had brought with me. After all the spent rounds were accounted for, I covered my tracks hurriedly, but effectively.

I finished the last few steps of my slipup list and sanitized the place behind me.

No loose ends.

Anything else would be unprofessional.

A few seconds later I left the way I had entered.

Discreetly.

I noticed that the FNAN had acquired a few more scratches in its black finish.

 

I remember the pick up point, barely.

The next thing I remembered was white halls with black detailing in an antiseptically clean environment that smelled of cleaners and surgical steel. Bio Engineering Life Labs, a subsidiary of the Higher Agency for the Research of Man, was the medical and trauma contractor for Saba Nagusuki, LTD., a multi-acre secluded center in a corporate owned lock of land.

Very private.

Very exclusive.

The plain clothes nurse in the white lab coat finished setting my rib electronically. I heard the bonder beep and she removed the apparatus from my side. With the local, it was painless and quick. I swung my arm cautiously, slowly. No friction of broken bone ends grinding together. I thanked her and the nurse nodded, starting to pack the bone knitter back into the case. I found my shirt on the counter and put it on, massaging my jaw.

They had also reset two loose teeth, bonding them to the jaw with nerve couplings and molecular adhesive. A few torn muscles held together by microsutures and derm tape.

"Technology is a marvelous tool, but it is a double edged sword, is it not?"

I looked up at the sound of the voice. Harvester was leaning against the door frame, dressed about the same as when I last saw him. His muscle wasn't anywhere to be seen.

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

He walked over. I took the narcoticigarette that he offered, lit it off his old aluminum lighter. I inhaled, letting the narcotics race through my system as he put the tarnished aluminum case back into his coat pocket.

"One for the philosophers." Harvester replied.

I shook my head. Philosophy was beyond my interest.

I told him so in not so many polite words.

The nurse left the room. Harvester sighed, running his fingers through his disappearing hair.

"You do good work." He said. "The Board of Directors was quite impressed, I must say."

I nodded.

It was my job.

I take pride in my work.

It doesn't pay to be sloppy in my line of business. You leave too many loose ends and you became a loose end yourself. That was when someone else would be hired to step in and correct you.

"Come with me." Harvester said. "I have someone I'd like you to meet."

The half finished narcoticigarette went into the sink with a flick of my finger and wrist. I tucked my shirt in, fastening the velcro seals down my chest as I followed him down the hallway. We passed several technicians, a nurse, and a pair of doctors in the hallway. We walked deeper into the complex, through hallway after hallway, automatic door after checkpoint. Harvester was always waved on through, no one paid any attention to his presence. We walked past a nurses station and a niche in the wall where a portable magnetic resonance machine sat humming, stored there when not in use. Harvester led me past a minor surgical suite and a MRI center until we came to a section marked off that stated: [PHYSICAL THERAPY].

It was a much bigger complex than it looked on the outside, I realized, as we stopped finally in front of a door marked [MUSCLE AND NERVE THERAPY]. Harvester gestured to the small observation window set into the door as he leaned up against the wall, folding his arms.

"Go ahead, look." He said casually.

I looked, but I didn't believe.

Misty Sheryll lying in bed, a pair of nurses helping her sit up, helping her out of a mobile simstim unit that had been educating her muscles and nerves. The nurses removed electrodes and stimulator tabs from her arms, legs, and chest.

I put my fore-finger on the tip of my nose, my index finger over my lips, and my thumb under my left jaw. I stared. The glass pane fogged from my breath.

"She'll be on the muscle stimulation simulators for a few more days, a few days of corrective physical therapy, and then we'll debrief her. She, of course, had complete medical coverage."

I looked back at him.

"In my haste, I may have forgotten to mention this."

The words hung in the air. I hadn't thought too much about it, but it made sense now. I had been blinded by emotion, literally. I couldn't tear myself away from staring at her.

Saba Nagusuki both would make sure to have a clone of Misty Sheryll around someplace safe. Misty Sheryll was a corporate contractor, of course she would have full medical insurance plans and a complete continued existence contract. So they had Misty Sheryll cloned in case something like her having an accident or getting killed went and upset the flow of sales of her 'stims.

Misty would have seen to it herself. No one wanted to die. It was just that most people couldn't afford to live again.

I'd heard that they couldn't read a body which had been mangled or destroyed. Not much left to read, and you had to read the brain itself. There wasn't much left of Misty Sheryll, I'd read the medical reports. But now, at least they had rebuilt her.

Grown her in a vat of artificial chemicals and ingredients. The surgical artists at the Jujin hospital could have done micro level cosmetic redesign on a complete stranger. Height and bone structure didn't matter these days, the bones could have been lengthened surgically, muscle added where it should have been, taken from where it shouldn't. Body sculpting.

Surgical art.

Complete hair replacement down to the follicle level for eyebrows, hair, and any other character traits. They could take a complete stranger and remake them into Misty. The subject didn't even have to be a female. Complete sex change with full functioning transplanted sex organs custom grown to specification for the subject. Neural conditioning, restructuring, and nanosurgery on the cortex and whoever it was would never know what they had once been. No recollection at all of the life that they led before the operation. The selective surgery removed and reformatted the chemicals that made up the complex chains that formed memories.

I'd heard about what they can do.

They could make an exact copy down to the cellular level of Misty Sheryll, even program the new body with Misty's old memories, and no one would ever know the difference. Not the simjunkies, not the networks, not the retailers and distributors, not even the production crews.

But she would never be Misty Sheryll again.

Not the Misty Sheryll that I once knew.

I turned to face Harvester, confused, leaning my head back against the wall, clenching my fists.

"Is she alive?" I asked flatly.

Visions of a mindless clone formed in my mind. A living thing with no personality, no conscious thought, no motive or thinking power.

"Didn't you see her?" He asked. "She looked alive to me."

"I know you can't read a body that's been destroyed."

"No." Harvester said at last. "You can't."

"Then that isn't Misty in there."

"She is Misty Sheryll." Harvester said.

I stared him down.

"A jaded copy, maybe." I replied.

"No." Harvester shook his head. "That is the original, not a duplicate."

I stopped, turned my head instead to face him.

"An original clone, from the original. She is not a duplicated remake, and not a cosmetic replacement."

I turned to look in the room again.

"Tell me how they read the mangled body and transferred the memory to her clone body." I said. "You said and the reports stated that the body was unreadable due to massive external and internal trauma. They blew her head off! What was there to read?"

"But they didn't read her body or her brain." He said. "They couldn't. The Misty Sheryll you knew five weeks ago is dead."

Confusion.

I turned to look back in the window at the woman in bed.

"Then, that's not ..." I started.

"That's Misty Sheryll in there. The original body was too far gone to read from her brain into the clone brain. The only memory that Misty Sheryll had was on file here and that was last taken five weeks ago at a regular documentary There was not time before her accident to update the old storage tape so I'm afraid that she'll not be aware of what happened and what occurred after her last brain taping session. That taping session occurred weeks before she was, regrettably, admitted here for conditioning."

He paused.

"The way they explained it to me is that some particular memories will not exist for her. The last five weeks worth of memories to be exact. All she had to fall back on is what she had recorded from her brain tape. The information on that tape is five weeks old. Regrettable. Five weeks of information lost irretrievably. Five weeks of sensory input and experience gone. A sizeable loss at a sizeable cost. The accountants are still modeling the figures ..."

"No recollection of the argument we had ..." I muttered.

"The what?" Harvester asked.

"A argument. We had a bad misunderstanding ..." I said softly.

"Was it before five weeks ago?" Harvester asked.

"No." I said, recalling the bitter memories. "Doesn't matter ..."

I remembered the day, the hour, the minute that Misty Sheryll had left.

"Then she won't remember it. Now, we'll debrief you and give you the full story to tell her if she asks. Please, pretend that this never happened. It'll go smoother for the both of you and for the Company. She really doesn't need to know the truth."

"Then why the hell didn't ... Why didn't you tell me before now?"

He sighed.

"There was no need for you to know right away. It might have interfered with your judgment and your abilities. My reputation was on the line with regard to the Company. My first choice failed and you were my only alternative for this scenario. I fully expected ..."

No.

I'm pretty sure that he didn't expect what came next. I know his face didn't. He lay there for a minute, trying to compose himself before he managed to reach over and find his glasses.

"Can I see her?" More of a demand than a question.

I towered over him now, easily. I still towered over him when he regained his feet and some of his composure.

"She's been asking about you. We didn't tell her what happened or where you were ... She still thinks that it was a freak aerodyne accident in Angeles and we've gone to great lengths to produce substantial evidence to support the scenario." He said, wiping his bleeding nose and lip on a tiger stripe colored handkerchief that he took out of his coat pocket.

"I asked if I could see her ..." I said, getting close to his face now.

"By all means, of course." Harvester answered quickly, nodding and dotting his nose and lip with the handkerchief.

"I think that your ... association with Miss Walters has proven beneficial. The Board of Directors at Saba Nagusuki would very much like to see ..."

I didn't say anything as he rambled on and on. I cared for Misty Sheryll. It wasn't a matter of being profitable and it wasn't a matter of business. It was personal. Harvester trailed off into silence, still dabbing the handkerchief and deciding to just hold it against his nose when he realized that it would take constant pressure to stop the bleeding.

Maybe microsutures.

I hit him that hard.

Trust me, I did.

My hand was on the door knob, turning it.

"I really don't blame you ..." Harvester began again, holding the handkerchief against his lip.

Go to hell, I thought as I pushed the door open and entered the room. You're just a statistic. An odd number in a database. They own you and you're just a puppet. You dance when they pull your strings.

Harvester seemed to pick the train of thought up as he didn't follow me into the room. Instead he busied himself with wiping his brow with the sleeve of his coat at the same time as he judged the contents of the handkerchief to see if the bleeding had stopped.

It hadn't.

The door closed behind me with a whisper and a click.

I looked at Misty Sheryll.

She saw me and started to sob, throwing her arms up, clumsy, like a newborn babe reaching out.

We embraced then, all doubt in my mind as to if this was the real Misty Sheryll or not vanished. There are things that science just can't duplicate. Yet. I could smell her hair, feel her sobs, linger in her embrace, feel the tears against my cheek, and I could feel her breath against the side of my neck.

Things I thought were lost to me forever.

It was then that I remembered something that I had once heard.

It's true what they say ...

Old memories die hard.

 

 

A few weeks later ...

 

Misty Sheryll never remembered the fight we had because simply put, it had never happened. Comes with being programmed with old memories instead of up to date memories.

Try it sometime.

Here's how to do it. Erase your brain completely of memory from the day you were born and then reprogram it with the memories you had accumulated and saved on a tape, all the way up to two days ago.

With me so far? Good.

Now go and try to remember last night.

See what I mean.

Anyway, that's how they explained it to me. She couldn't remember what her brain had never been programmed with to remember. It's kind of hard to explain in simple terms but I get the general idea. I wish life was always that easy to erase and correct.

And speaking of erasing and correcting ...

Joshua?

He was one hundred percent mulch. What was left of him, that is. I hear they had to use a shovel to move the body. Not a bad job either, a damn thorough job to be sure.

I'm a professional.

It's my business.

Misty Sheryll?

She watches the gulls as they cry out and fly over the water. Real gulls, not the vat grown Jap or Hindian copies either. Real gulls that fly over water that's still blue though the little marker buoy states plainly that to swim in the water might be hazardous to one's health. And she listens to the waves crash against the shore on the private corporation owned beach.

Just beyond the dunes, where you can't see them from the beach, are the fences with their warnings and Misty's new security team. Professionals that I handpicked.

No more amateurs.

They keep watch but stay out of sight.

It's the price one has to pay these days, I guess, for real estate that still looks like this.

Misty sits in a lounge chair sipping catered and imported fruit drinks and she's wearing a five piece bikini that was flown in from France by corporate Lear. She's relaxing and recovering, I can see the edge getting sharper in her everyday. It'll take a while, but she's going to be better than ever.

I'm going to see to that.

And you know what?

She still cherishes and holds the holographic rose close to her heart and every now and then I can catch the glint of the sun off the ring on her finger, back where it belongs. I've got new batteries in the projector.

The rose is brighter than ever.

Me?

I'm helping to bring Misty Sheryll back. Physical therapy and more. I'm a contractor of Saba Nagusuki LTD. now, full accident, medical coverage and a continued existence contract.

Pay's not bad either. I purchased some new hardware, updated my old gear, and other things that I've been needing, including some major corrective and cosmetic surgery.

Nanosurgery, micrografting, dermweaving.

Not average work either.

And I remember something else I once heard.

I remember hearing that experience is the hardest teacher, that it gives the test first and the lesson afterward.

I've passed my test.

I've learned my lesson.

 

 

Original Title: Replay Misty For Me

Alternate title: Acetylene Tears

 

Awarded Best Novelette

Adult Category

Writing Contest

CoastCon XIV

March 16, 1991

 

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