The Lazarus Contract

 
            Jack Parker mused over the encrypted capsule post in his Email pocket.  He turned it around, looking at it.  Small, compact, totally devoid of esthetics like some of the flashier mail that he usually received.  No, this piece of mail's totally utilitarian nature was what had drawn him to download it first.  He brought up his virus filters, and readied his hunter killer programs in case the capsule was other than what it appeared to be.  Carefully, he brought the file down, through the filters and traps, analyzing, probing, enveloping ...  Nothing.  No residuals, no maskers, and no infiltrators.

            The file was clean.

            The capsule was huge, taking a full three seconds to download, and, as he suspected when he had first seen the capsule, it was encoded to VRSec standards.  Probably had a built in fail safe recognition fragmenter subroutine that would scramble the message into a billion unreadable digital fragments if the proper code was not input.  Utilitarian and utterly beautiful in a Spartan way.  It was also simple to the point of being foolproof.  Typical new age military thinking and design.  A vast change over the philosophy of last century's armies.

            It was the title of the posting that intrigued him the most.

            Lazarus.

            Parker hadn't seen a piece of secured mail like that in five years, not since he had voluntarily ended his service contract and gone solo for the corporates.  Interesting.  His curiosity began to stir.  Who did he know that had access to a VRSec encoder?

            He scanned through his utilities, found the old VRSec code inducer, and saw by the date stamp that the last time that he had accessed the utility was a little over four years ago.  There were newer utilities in use, sure.  He even used a few of them, but no one had yet broken a VRSec encoded message, and that was why the military still used the routine for classified postings and contacts.  The military, mercenaries, corporations, and some independents who had access to the technology and one of the expensive encoder subroutines.  Parker loaded the VRSec decoder subroutine, and opened the message.  What he read only made him more interested.  The military encoded message wasn't downloaded from a military mainframe or subframe, nor did it involve anything military or corporate.

            It was a job offer.

            The pay was generous but the deadline was short.  He continued to scan the job offer, growing more interested the more he read.

            Lazarus...

            Parker read the background reports and correlated the data.  Someone had fucked up.  Bad.  It shouldn't have happened, but it did and now people were paying the price.  People had died,  good people, professionals, solos, others had been hurt.  Some would heal, others would require mechanical assistance to keep on living or comprehensive surgical and genetic reconstruction.  Careers had ended and new ones begun, but most important was the fact that there was still an operative missing.

            A very important one.

            Unaccounted for.  Presumed dead, but no amount of evidence could confirm and confirmation was required.  Parker merged several databases, scanned for pertinent information, and correlated it.  All the information was relatively new, dated to within hours of the receipt of the capsulette.  He frowned.  This contract was fresh, so fresh it was still hot.  He scanned further.

            Corporate espionage, the theft of a new technology and the corruption of on-site and on-line databases that would set the target back months of development time while giving the aggressor a superior market lead.  It should have worked, but there were complications.  Last minute substitutions to a already well established and synchronized team, delays, shortages on support personnel and equipment, the list read like a 'what-not-to-do' manual in anyone's book.  Yet, the team had been ordered to proceed, against all the bad luck and planning, the corporation decided to tip its hand and dedicate the strike team to the mission.  Timetables were reset, information was hard to come by, facts given to the team about the strengths and defenses of their target were actually based on guesses instead of hard info.  Bad guesses.

            It was a double Dutch fuck after that, all downhill and ugly.

            Parker sighed and rubbed his eyes, keying his projected visuals back to low res and background format.  Damn.  He cringed a little at the thought of just how bad things had gone.  Good people, professionals, shouldn't have to walk into situations like that, but that was what happened when you got someone high up with no experience or a ego bigger than the corporate budget to call the shots.  That's what happened when someone high up over extended themselves, promising deadlines that couldn't be met, products that wouldn't make production, and a host of similar other bad management plays.  When a bad executive got over extended, they usually called in the solos and the gunslingers.  Bad move for everyone involved, but then, it happened all the time.  Poor decision making process, poor planning and the glimmer of hope that a sudden brute force approach would provide the one miracle that carefully thought out plans and schedules could not.  It was a bone stupid move, and a lot of people paid dearly for it.

            Parker felt the revulsion and the anger rising inside of him.

            Stupid.

            What kind of corp exec threw away assets like the ones that he was currently studying?  Professionals, a deep skill base, highly proficient, these were the kind of people that a corporation recruited, not the kind that they trained in-house.  Five thousand lines of text later, he found a name, an executive.  Recently deceased.  That didn't surprise him.  Suicide at her desk.  Figures, take the easy way out when the world comes down, go out with a bang instead of disgrace.  She had put a smoothbore into her mouth and redecorated the office wall behind her desk, but not before tendering her resignation and voiding all of her right of survivorship clauses and benefits.  Sounded like a cover-up.  No one who was sane went out and cancelled their life insurance and medical reconstruction contract before they blew their brains out with a military issue pre-fragmented HiVeloc.  The corps usually cleaned house after major screw ups, kind of a thinning of the herd to remove the suddenly dead wood.

            So, the Lazarus contract was for the extraction of a missing solo, a woman named Eve Tabitha Gwen.  He studied her dossier, most of the data in the download dealt with her so she must be both important and valuable, an asset that any corporation would want recovered despite tremendous costs.  Someone wanted her back, bad, but no mention was made of the corporate contact.  No corporate symbol affixed the mysterious capsulette, no mention of a corporate contact.

            Nothing.

            The instructions were simple; find Eve Tabitha Gwen, perform an extraction, and then perform a rendezvous for a hand off of the merchandise to a neutral third party for debriefing and reconstruction if needed.  Provide protection and escort where necessary, provide medical help if needed or required.  Eliminate any resistance to the extraction, real or perceived.  Hardcore Spartan.  Nice and easy.  The only hard part would be in finding Eve Tabitha Gwen in the time frame given.  That presented the foremost challenge, but one that Parker thought he was capable of meeting.

            Curious, Parker looked for any kind of signature with the contract, a means of identifying his employer.  Lazarus...  Always back to that mysterious signature; Lazarus.  What was Lazarus?  Who was Lazarus?  Why was it so important that Lazarus find Eve Tabitha Gwen?  He encrypted a reply and sent his acceptance of the job.  He checked his accounts and was surprised to see that a deposit had already been applied.

            Was the contractor so convinced that he would accept the offer that they had already completed the transfer?  He checked his last transfer and deposit.  There were several deposits, all from sources so truncated that he couldn't back track them with even a small degree of success within the time that he could allocate to the search.  The credit was already in Parker's account and the deposit was more than adequate.

 

            The hotel was comfortable, but not extravagant.  One of twenty eight in a chain native only to the coastland.  He had used hard credit, multinational currency, untraceable, to pay for the room.  His biodegradable passkey had an expiration date that couldn't be hacked.

            His room was secure, from a common man's point of view.

            Woefully inadequate from even a green 'slinger's angle.

            Italian magnetic claw tumbler locks on the door in both transom and threshold, three shielded data lines of security level two integrity feeding from the room and a single multi-media input line branching in.  A multiplex router handled the traffic of all the rooms, joining the main datatrunk through a multiplexing bridging router somewhere in the basement.  A bottleneck during the busy trading season.

            Parker dropped his duffle bag on the bed and removed his jacket.  He stretched, feeling his muscles unknot and warm.  Five minutes found him limber with all the kinks and aches vanishing.

            The room smelled of antiseptic and sheets that were washed everyday in massed loads.  The bed was softer than the floor, but the sheets and blanket were thinner than what he was used to.  The pillows were too small, light and fluffy, almost airy.  The carpet was plush to the point that you left visible footprints in the material when you walked.  The climate control system hummed loudly and the vents disgorged the smell of old cold metal and the faint odor of wet rust.

            Parker checked the in-room refrigerator.  Plenty of ice, clean white ice, formed into little spheres and two thick glasses chilling in the side froster.  He withdrew a glass, watching the condensation rise from it like a fog and slowly pressed it against his forehead.  He closed his eyes and let the chill of the glass calm his nerves, let the cold seep into his forehead and flow over his brow.  He slowly turned the glass whenever the side he was using warmed.  He rubbed the glass over his neck and throat, and even smelled it.  The cool, crisp air heightened his dulled senses, and brought back forgotten memories.  He reveled in this small moment in time.  The cold glass, and his fond memories, warmed to room temperature and were gone.  He put the glass back and took the other one out, filling it with water from the Spanish filtered tap, he added three balls of ice, watching them slowly collide.  One ball of ice cracked visibly with a pop in the warmer water, the other two had bonded together.  There was a bottle of Saki on the dresser, compliments of the chain, but it wasn't a quality label and he declined the invitation to let intoxicants into his system, powerful though it was.

            He sat in a corner of the room, and arranged his hardware around him, sipping slowly from the cold glass of water.

            It was time to work.

           

            It had taken most of an hour linked to six high speed fiber-optic interfaces, two mainframes, and four subframes to download the files to his internal database; detailed high resolution morphable pictures and digital video, background, dossier, possible cosmetic changes, probable habits and locations.  Past, and current activities as well as current activities that would match the mark's profile.  Someone wanted this mark very badly, but the funny thing was that they wanted the mark alive.  Not Parker's usual method of operation, but an option that he was willing to offer as part of his service.  The extra time spent downloading was due to his stealth subroutines.  They slowed down the data from a flood to a trickle, but what he got was pure gold, and no one knew he was downloading it.  Powerful search engines correlated the data and arranged it according to a macro that Parker had constructed.  Folders began to appear, each with very unique data within.  The data began to flow like mercury, too fast for even Parker to perceive let alone assimilate.  He keyed the search engines up another notch, resetting the filters, and fine tuning the macro.

            Parker had spent the next three hours narrowing down his search pattern from a global one to a regional one, tying up two artifints and a dozen sector gateways in the process all the while masking his transactions as simple commercial data retrieval and posting routines.  He was hitting his credit hard, but the advance from the mysterious Lazarus had been more than enough to compensate for his expenses.

 

            It wasn't until he started to really get close that he noticed that he was being shadowed in the Net.  A good shadow too, Parker only felt that he was there, never a solid trace.  A wisp in the ether, but Parker knew that someone was watching him with interest.  His own detectors were just barely tripping and they were ultra-sensitive with background filters and six layer false alarm subfilters.  He upped his stealth routines and sidetracked through six routers and three gateways before coming back to the data.  The shadow disappeared.  He approached the data cautiously, masking himself.  He chose a less used, lower profile input channel, heading for the corporate holding depot.  He followed his incoming masking down to its holding area and waited.  Patiently.  Minutes ticked by, seeming like hours.  He watched as new data appeared, and older data was removed or copied to different locations.

            Still he waited.

            There, a glimmer of movement, a trace.  He refiltered his detectors and the readings were the same as before.  He compared the signatures and wasn't surprised that they were an exact match.  He was being followed, only this time he was doing the watching.  Ethereal, almost unnoticeable, but Parker used only the best and newest filters for his VRI with custom written subroutines that were to his standards alone.  His shadow had software that was almost as good as Parker's.

            Almost.

            Parker flashed through his hand-off cache, selected a pair of customizable multi-code breakers, a reverse path tracing virus pack that was all ex-military issue and highly illegal to possess, and a line terminator subroutine; his usual, proven digital weapons of choice.  Flicking through his routines cache, he chose a tracer program of his own, a custom one again written to just his specifications, and also a pseudo presence generator.  Time to find out just who his shadow was, and why he was being followed.

            He downloaded a set of instructions to the PPG and let it fly out the nearest data output port, bound for a destination that Parker had selected, a destination half way around the world.  His shadow immediately noticed the PPG and, mistaking it for Parker, latched onto the wake trail following the PPG at a good distance.  Parker threw his own tracer program onto the shadow's tail and waited.  The longer the shadow chased the PPG, the more time Parker would have to find out where and who his shadow was.

            Parker slowly opened his data siphons again and began to filter the data that he needed back to his download area.  He switched filters and rerouted his data stream through six different channels and two sector fortresses before he allowed the stream to start to trickle into his reception pocket.

            He looked around, carefully.  Nothing.  He checked the status of the PPG; it was still going strong, hopping from gateway to gateway, getting farther away and the shadow was still following it.  His detectors were nominal.  He was alone, unless someone had better software than he did, which was a disturbing possibility.

            Parker finished up and moved on.

 

            Most of the probable locations of Eve Tabitha Gwen resided within the Pacific Rim, mainland Japan and China.  Half a world away from where he would have suspected her to be.  The hostile corporation had initiated a black operation so no record of the action was recorded or could be found.  That meant that Parker had to look for isolated incidents in the news, and in corporate data bursts and piece together the whole picture.  He looked for reports of injuries, equipment malfunctions, equipment damage or destruction, data loss, virus infections, and even gray areas where there were data blackouts.  Extremely unusual, unless equipment had failed or the data was being deliberately smothered.  Both causes were highly suspect and investigated rigorously by Parker's search routines.  Slowly, the scenario began to form.  Piece by piece.

            His trace subroutine drew his attention, it had found his shadow's real world physical location.  Old New York, Manhattan Island, East Side.  Too far away for Parker to make a physical intervention, but Parker had contacts on his payroll, and with that came a very long reach.  He sent a quick encoded message and a secured line of credit to one of his contacts in New York, outlining what he wanted.

            He didn't wait for a reply.

            Five real time minutes later, the door to his shadow's apartment was being kicked down by Parker's contact and three of his samurai.  Parker would have his answers soon.

 

            The next two hours were spent in the Net, filtering data and verifying points of contact.  Video was downloaded from potential sites and security systems, enhanced, imaged, and either cataloged or rejected.  The number of possible locations began to rapidly diminish, the path of his mark became clearer, almost like a road map.  Seventeen hours had passed since he accepted the offer.

            Parker disengaged himself from his interfaces, felt them fall away like fiber optic snakes, recoiling back into their receptacles.  He rubbed his stiff neck and took a long five minutes to compose a comprehensive progress report, filing it using the same VRSec encoding routine.  While he waited for an acknowledgement, he took a break, reviewing and cross-indexing his data.  He chose his most powerful multi-tasking subroutine engines, shifting their operations to the background so he could focus on the here and now of the actual world.  He keyed down his internal interface, bringing the real world back into somewhat dull focus.  The storm of data subsided, his normal senses came back to the foreground; his eyes were tired, his muscles ached, his hair felt funny, and his feet weighed more than lead.  He keyed up his stimulants and instantly his senses drew razor sharp, riding a chemical enhanced wave of alertness, the fatigue burning off like a light fog.  He couldn't keep this pace up much longer, but he was driven.  Another couple of days and he could take a long vacation.  Anywhere he wanted.

            A long one.

            Anywhere.

           

            His Net monitor vibrated the left side of his jaw slightly.  Silently.  He jacked into the multi-media port of the room and keyed his visuals to full.  An image appeared, projected in front of his field of view on his eyes.  It was Roacher, his contact in NY, and he had information.

            "What did you find out?" Parker asked, subvocalizing.

            The image of Roacher turned to face him, dark shadows covered some of his features, a almost finished narcigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth and the tendrils of smoke seemed to have a life of their own as they snaked and wreathed around his face.  His dark hair, pulled back harshly into a braided pony tail and his fading hairline were in direct opposite relation to his groomed mustache and goatee.

            "Bad news.  We had to waste a pair of muscle, but we got your shadow.  He talked.  You're not going to like it."

            "You ok."  Parker asked.

            "Oh, yeah.  Nothing we couldn't handle.  I'm not out any money, but those muscle were odd.  Not corporate, but not independent either.  I'd say they were out of someone's hand picked army.  Anyway, they went down hard.  Someone is out some assets tonight and odds are that they won't be happy about it."

            "What about the shadow.  What did you find out?"

            The name of the shadow was unimportant.  His body was already cooling in a rusty stinking trash dumpster in a deserted alley.  It would be hours before anyone found it.  He had only lived long enough to tell everything that he knew, then his usefulness was expended and he had been discarded.  Roacher took a final drag and flipped the narcigarette butt out of the visual.  The smoke lingered behind as he purged his lungs.

            "It was contract work.  He only knew his contact.  The pay was good, but not enough to guarantee that he was the only one.  I did some background research.  This guy was good, but not the best.  If I was going to hire someone to track you, I'd either hire one good shadow, or twenty like this guy."

            Parker mused on that, nodded, and Roacher continued.

            "My guess is he was just the only one that bungled into you.  You've probably got a lot of watchers out there, some might have better software than you.  I'd watch your back before someone flatlines you...  Looks like there are some real players out there gunning for you now that you've been looking."

            "What have I been looking for?" Parker asked, interested in what Roacher may know.

            "Nothing that I know about, just what this guy said.  Said he found you because he was watching the flags.  He said that you tripped the flags and that's when he knew where you were.  You were just in the same sector of the Net as him, so interception was easy.  We were pretty persuasive, one of my girls used to be a dental assistant, oral surgery, three years, so I don't think that he was holding out on us.  Not with what she was doing to him..."

            Parker didn't think about it.

            "He said flags, right?"

            Roacher nodded, took another drag.

            "Yeah.  I've got the interview recorded.  I edited it for content, you understand.  All that screaming just extra noise to me, info is what I want to hear.  They've tagged data.  Someone doesn't want anyone else to get close to whatever it is that you've become involved in.  You understand data tagging, right?"

            Parker nodded slowly.

            "Right.  Yeah."  Roacher paused uncomfortably.  "Right.  Ok, well, whatever you've been downloading has been sending flags up.  Someone's tricked the data, you're in a mesh man.  Very few people would ever dig for the stuff that you are and They know it.  That's why They're spotting you.  You search for anything even remotely similar to whatever it is that you're in, then flags go up and people come running.  You're double blind when you're running, aren't you?"

            Roacher was asking if Parker could have someone trace his trail.

            "Triple, with alternate masking and pseudo path generation capability.  It'll be a cold day in hell before someone like you gets called to kick in my front door."

            Roacher shook his head and whistled.

            "I'm in the wrong business.  You should be looking out for me, man."

            Roacher leaned forward, put a fresh narcigarrette in his mouth, cupped his hand, and fired up from a stylized aluminum lighter.  He tilted his head back, took a long drag, and blew two green plumes from his nostrils.

            "They know that you're out there and they know that you're looking.  I don't believe that they know that you're active but be careful.  It's tight this time.  Real tight.  Squeaky tight, know what I mean?"

            Parker nodded.  He would have to be really careful.  More careful than ever before, but this job was worth it.  His latest credit reading kept reminding him of that.

            "Oh, almost forgot!" Roacher exclaimed, scratching his forehead with his finger.

            Parker listened, finishing his water and setting the glass on the bed stand, laying back and puffing up the pillows to support his back.

            "This guy..." Roacher continued.  "His deck was new.  I mean brand fucking new, top of the line, Sanui with ALL the options.  This thing was factory custom.  Guy still had the packing and shipping boxes strewn out on the floor, wrapping, bubble pack, tape, the works.  Like he was in a real hurry to get up and running after you.  Guy had an old Victa 208 cee kay, custom job, looks like he did all the work himself, but everything was still in his kit, you know and his deck was old, I figure about a year, year and a half.  He didn't even unpack his deck, not that it was anywhere near what we found him with, but for the street his deck was a real heater.  You make your rep with your deck and here this guy was giving up everything that he knew and was familiar with for something he had only read about and tossed off to in hardcopies and vmags."

            Parker noted that.

            "Think that the muscle was there to keep him in instead of keep people out?" Parker asked.

            Roacher frowned.

            "Could be.  Evidence points both ways.  They might have been there to clean up if the shadow saw too much.  Lots of possibilities."

            "What about the conapt?"

            "The conapt was rented, hard currency so we can't trace it.  No forms and no questions.  There was a delivery to the apartment via independent courier about fifteen minutes before the guy checked in.  I'm running a trace down the shipping company but nothing yet.  I think the guy thought it was Christmas when he got here and couldn't wait to try out his new toys.  He probably got a little over confident and that's how you spotted him on the inside.  Thought that he was big league invincible.  Toys don't make you good, you know.  They just give you an edge.  You have to be good to start off with.  Understand?"

            Parker nodded, intrigued.

            "Yeah.  Whoever sent him this new stuff sent everything and I mean everything with big letters.  VR.  Audio.  Digital.  Tactile.  Full digital sensory emulation.  Jesus...  I could open a nice shop with just the haul from this party."

            Parker filed that for later introspection.  Hardware like what Roacher had described wasn't cheap.  Someone had paid a small fortune to equip the shadow, an investment that hadn't paid off.  That someone was going to be pissed.

            "Expensive hardware." Parker said flatly.

            "Yeah.  Real expensive.  Some serious super fucking delicious hardware, man.  Software too, real smurfy stuff and a few custom programs that I can't even guess where they came from.  Black customs, looks like real pro stuff, but it doesn't have any identification or corp logo, so I know it's custom.  I've got copies archived and on their way to you via batch disencoding.  I triple checked them for logical booby traps, nothing that I could find but I know you'll check them yourself as well."

            Parker checked his dumps, parts of the custom software was starting to trickle in now, slowly, through several blind filters.  Untraceable.  He started to assemble the programs in a secure area and erected two thick shells of virus hunter killers around the area, sealing it completely from his internal storage.  When he had all the pieces, he would decompile the software and reverse encode it to see just what Roacher had stumbled onto. 

            "You want the hardware too?"

            "No, do what you want with it but be careful.  Whoever paid for those toys may want them back." Parker said.

            "Too bad.  Let them try and take them."  Roacher said.  "Finders keepers is still the rule around here."

            Parker curled his lip.

            "Serial numbers?"

            Roacher leaned over, picked something up and looked it over outside of Parker's field of view.  He took another puff and looked up.

            "No.  They're gone.  Laser etched off it looks like."

            "Untraceable."

            "Looks professional, not your twenty minute swipe job.  We might get something off one of the component boards or a ultraviolet dye marking, not sure.  It looks like a total sweep.  Want us to try?  I've got a guy who's real good with a sweeper."

            "Take too long." Parker said.  "This'll be over before you can find out who bought the silicon and superconductors.  Get me the info when you can.  I have a feeling that there might be repercussions from what I'm involved in now and I want all the info I can get on who may want to cash me out.  Hold on the link, let me see what I've got so far."

            "You got it." Roacher said.

            A few seconds of silence passed between them.  Roacher hit his narcigarette hard as Parker raced through his databases, correlating what Roacher had just given him and fitting it into what he already knew.

            "Who was his contact?" Parker asked, after reviewing all the info.

            Roacher looked back over his shoulder, said something and then nodded, turning back to Parker.  He leaned closer to the visual, his features getting larger and more distinct.

            "I was getting to that.  That's the part that you aren't going to like..."

            "Tell me." Parker said.

            "Spark."  Roacher said, with a almost reverence.  "He was recruited by Spark."

            Parker sank back into the pillows.  This added new light to his current situation, things began to fit into place.  Spark was major league and bad news.  He might be Parker's equal; he was, at least, a very major threat.

            "Thought Spark was dead." Parker said.  "Last year."

            Roacher shook his head.

            "Premature statement.  Someone burned him pretty bad, black software, frontal lobes had to be reconstructed, but he's back and twice as mean.  You don't want to know what happened to the perp who did it to him.  Spark made an example out of him.  An ugly one.  Nobody had moved against Spark since.  I've got some pictures of Spark's work, kind of batch posted to players like us by Spark as a reminder, but I don't look at them.  Don't think there's a market for pics like that so I can't even trade them."

            "Always a businessman, eh Roacher?" Parker asked.

            Roacher shrugged, looked down, and sighed.

            "Can you trace Spark back to anyone?" Parker asked.

            Roacher looked up, something drained from his face.

            "I knew that you were going to ask me that.  I knew it!"  Roacher said, becoming agitated.

            Roacher looked away, then turned back to Parker.

            "You want me to trace Spark?"  Roacher asked incredulously.

            "Yes.  Can you do it?"

            Roacher grew silent, pensive again.

            Parker waited.

            Roacher sat there, looking at the floor, or maybe his shaking hands.

            Parker had waited long enough.

            "I asked you if you could do it?" Parker repeated, firmly.

            Roacher nodded, slowly, every movement betraying that his mind really didn't want his body to answer such a difficult request with a mere nod of the head.

            "Yes." Roacher said softly.  "But that's going to cost you extra."

            Roacher's voice rose now, gaining strength and conviction.

            "A lot extra.  I'm putting my ass on the line just looking in the same direction as Spark.  Understand.  He's not stupid.  After someone hits one of his recruits and then starts digging data on him, and trying to reverse trace his origins, well, it doesn't take a genius to put those two actions together and draw a bad conclusion."

            Parker sighed.

            "How much do you require."

            Roacher thought long and hard for a moment.  Someone said something to him from behind him and he turned to look over his shoulder, nodding and shaking his head alternately.  He turned to look back at Parker.

            "Say triple, plus expenses.  It'll be a few hours, say three if I get delayed.  If not, then sooner.  I've got to go real slow.  Spark's my league, maybe higher.  Christ!  I shouldn't let you talk me into this..."

            "I'm not talking you into this, you're doing it for the credit..." Parker said.  "And because you like Spark as much as I do."

            "Whether I like him or not doesn't make me want to find him anytime soon.  I don't ask God for things that I don't need, God doesn't give me things that I don't want."

            Roacher grew silent again, thinking.  He shook his head back and forth slowly, smiling, running his hand through his scalp, finally looking up at the ceiling and sighing.

            "Ok.  Give me the transfer and I'll get back to you.  Money up front this time.  But here is a free piece.  If Spark is involved, it's major.  Spark doesn't do gutter work, and he doesn't work for amateurs.  Apparently he has no objection to hiring them..." Roacher chuckled dryly.  "But he doesn't work for amateurs and the only ones who'll work with him you can count on one hand."

            "Get me those names."

            "No problem.  That's professional knowledge."

            A new file appeared in Parker's download pocket.

            "If I can dig up anything, I'll let you know.  Take care, Jack."

            "Good work.  Watch your back." Parker replied.

            "Jack?" Roacher started.

            "Yeah?"

            "If you don't hear back from me it's because I'm dead."

            Parker nodded.

            "Yeah, well ... That's when things will really get serious.  You know that, don't you.  Especially for you."

            "Yes." Parker said solemnly.

            Roacher cut the link from his end.

 

            Parker reviewed his contract.  His orders were specific, the mark was not to be harmed, any amount of force was pre-approved when used to protect the mark.  The mark was to be extracted and a rendezvous was pre-arranged, always within a time table, a very specific time table.  More credit flowed into Parker's account from various sources, each with a segmented branching data fork so as to be untraceable by Parker.  He watched his account swell for half a minute, slow to a trickle, and then balance even.

            Parker jacked back in to his interfaces, feeling the actual world slide away to be replaced by a digital representation of the vast Net.  The next thirty minutes were all that he required to use several double blind accounts to acquire what he would need to complete the contract.

 

            His reservation on the intercontinental flight was still an hour away.  It was two hours via the JapanAm Orient Express to the Pacific Rim counting pre-flight, liftoff, hypersonic power climb, trans-atmospheric coast, descent, landing and debarkation.  That left him with ten hours until the deadline.  He formed a plan, reviewed it, and added several contingency plans as backup, reviewed these, and added two more.  He had two fail safe plans and three in case the operation snafu'd.  Three hours until arrival half way around the world, another hour to arrive at his destination, half an hour for target acquisition and extraction, and the other seven and a half hours were to get his mark to the pre-arranged rendezvous.  He checked his chronometer; he had wasted five minutes booking his reservations and another ten minutes planning his strategy.  He had forty-five minutes to pack and reach the aerospace port.

            He went to his closet and pulled out a flat travel bag, laid it on the bed, unzipped the duffle bag and pulled it open.  He did the same with his jacket, laying it on the bed

next to his bag.  He wore a black sleeveless muscle tee-shirt that was beginning to smell of sweat and interface grease.  He hadn't showered or shaved since he got his contract, he could do that on the flight. 

He pulled out the essentials, the trip would be short, the contract complete in the next two days.  Parker had a large collection of man portable artillery, but getting past security and onto the Orient Express would be impossible, even with some of the newer carbo-ceramic models that he owned.

            Even unarmed, Parker could take care of himself.  His body was hardwired to two separate co-independent tactical combat processors.  His combat software had over five thousand subroutines within his storage media, and a chip interface could either load replacements or update his current selections on the fly.  His memory media was heuristic, a neural net processor that could learn from his opponents actions and compensate.  Parker and his hardware had been through a lot during his career.  They had learned a lot, and all of it was stored digitally, ready to be recalled in a nanosecond.

            He only had to will his body into combat mode to bring his systems on-line.  Bacterial augmentation supplied by a hundred and seven individual subcutaneous injectors scattered throughout his body would speed his reflexes to near superhuman reaction times.  His internal processors were nearly sentient, and had a almost feral desire to both neutralize threats and to protect the carrier. 

            His sensors included motion tracking, digital video uplink, amplified audio, and shielded scalable video.  His visuals were amplified for telescopic, low light, infra-red, and thermal tracking.  His eyes were Texas Instrument, gray, with just a tint of chrome.  The whole process was automatic with a built-in override allowing him to choose which options were active at any time.  Berserker, was what some called his type, but that wasn't a fair comparison.  A throwback to a dim reference to a sci-fi series by some author in the last century, and before that to Viking warriors of old who frenzied at the sight of blood.  Whether it was the blood of friend or foe didn't matter.  They lived for death.

            He didn't lose control in combat, didn't frenzy, and he didn't live for death.

            Quite the opposite, he became a very calm, efficient killing machine capable of military surgical precision when the situation arose.  A more apt description would be what the military had termed his product model; puppet soldiers.  He was a puppet when he went into battle, the microprocessors manipulated the strings that were his muscles.  The micro processors and subroutines would take control his body and react quicker than Parker ever could.  He became a mere soul, trapped in a computer controlled flesh and bone vehicle that existed at that moment in time for only one purpose; combat.  A military idiot savant.  A lot of the stress of physical combat was removed from his thought process and he was privy only to the most filtered, directed flow of information that any soldier had ever received.  He used this information to act in the most decisive and efficient manner possible, with startling results.

            Parker had once been a soldier, a very expensive soldier and most of his body had been enhanced or augmented in one way or the other with cybernetic and nano technology.  He was a cyborg with enough meat on and in him to still be considered quite human.  No flashy chrome legs or breastplates, that was the stuff of the pulp serials and bad sci-fi games.  Modern military cybernetics stressed a low impact on their environment, that of the human body.  A complicated fusion of man and machine on a cellular and structural level.  He could feel pain, though he could control the flow of signals to and from his nervous system, even block and filter those signals.  Nanites in his blood stream would rapidly repair any physical damage he might sustain, up to a limit, and would bind and remove toxins as well as nerve agents.

            Above all the military hardware, Parker still had human needs, wants, and desires.  Very real ones that he indulged and fulfilled to satiation on frequent occasions.  His credit line allowed him to do this with zeal, when he could find the time.

 

            Parker reviewed the possible levels of resistance that he might encounter, analyzed the capacity and capability of several of his favorite pieces of equipment, compared that to what he felt through experience that the resistance could field, and made his final decisions based on power, concealment, and availability given the current time constraints.  He composed a list of the supplies that he would require, double checked it, VRSec encoded it, and sent it to his contact in Japan.  He didn't wait for a reply, he had a flight to catch.

            Parker sent a Ehail that would have a dispatched cab waiting for him at the curb when he exited his building.

            He packed light.

           

            The flight was uneventful, giving Parker plenty of time to shower, shave and review.  He kept his presence from the Net, no use in advertising that he was now a moving digital entity.  If he had thrown any actual shadows off, they would still be looking for him in Canadamerica.  He dressed in his stateroom and had a light meal, followed with a single mixed drink done to perfection.  He felt better.  A forty-five minute nap, helped along by time release REM inducers and a time release waking agent brought his edge back sharp.  He was just clearing his system of intoxicants using his internal filters when the flight touched down in Tokyo.

            Customs and security were thorough, but he had nothing to hide and was passed on through.  His reconstruction provided several methods to defeat modern security and his papers were in order.  No one questioned his build or his destination.

            The disembarkation procedures took a little longer than he anticipated, but he could make up the time on the road.  He picked up his travel bag and hopped on a mass  mover headed toward the rental terminal on the other side of the 'port.

 

            His rental was waiting, along with a steaming cup of hot java from the agent.  Heavy on the sugar and creamer.  Parker reviewed his choice; a Mazda Dai.  Small, red and black pedestrian two seater powered by a three hundred and fifty cee-cee ceramic triple rotor engine that relied on a variable pitch turbocharger, a high capacity air to air intercooler, and a overly complex digital fuel injection system to make its unimpressive one hundred and ten horsepower.  The torque curve was flatter than the slope of the canopy but it was efficient, small, and maneuverable in the heavy traffic that choked Tokyo.  All key tactical advantages in an urban environment.

            The little Mazda looked like a flattened egg, designed for a smaller Oriental frame than for a larger European one.  The bubble cab slipped forward and up to allow access to both driver and passenger seating, two plastic recessed tubs with minimal cushioning, separate controllable climate systems, and a high center console to separate them.  The Mazda was a domestic model, with very little export capability or market space.  The Mazda's size was important in the overcrowded streets and roads of Japan, where space, not to mention parking, was in short supply.  The car was a three wheeler, manual steering, electric brakes and adjustable suspension.  The wheels turned up to ninety degrees to each side for ease in parking and maneuvering, but it was no sports car.

            Lots of shatterproof plastiglass and a cab forward design produced a canopy that required equally artistically designed front and rear wipers to keep the driver's vision unimpaired during the frequent Tokyo drizzles.  The design was mid-engine, with the fuel cell and power plant behind the driver / passenger compartment.  The trunk, if it could be called such, was located in front of the cab, extending underneath and only accessible when the canopy was open and tilted forward.

            Parker unlocked the Mazda and slid the canopy forward and up.  He breathed in the unique smell of cleaners and solvents.  A collage of olfactory teasers that were universal to almost all rental vehicle agencies.  The car had relatively low mileage showing on the odometer, only seventy thousand.  The rotor was just getting broken in and was probably still under factory warranty.

            Parker reached over to the passenger seat, hit the locking release and moved the seat all the way forward, tilting the back forward as well.  Behind the passenger seat was a locking storage compartment just big enough to put a attaché or briefcase in.  In the compartment was a non-descript gray duffle bag, new, it still had a credit scan tag on it.  He hefted it before placing it on the seat next to him, heavy, it was the answer to his request for equipment and hardware.

            His contact in Tokyo was very dependable.

            Parker turned the key, the dash came alive with the HUD and the rotor started on the first try, barely audible through the insulation of the passenger compartment.  A dull hum, not at all like the annoying whine of the American diesel turbines or the vibration of the German internal combustion models.  He shifted into gear, tested the clutch, the brakes, getting a feel for the commuter, slipping into the ambience of the machinery.  A full tank of fuel, concierge road service, onboard navigator.  First class, for a economy model.

            He hadn't expected less.

            He lowered the canopy and locked it.

            The safety harness was a bit too confining, but he could live with it.  The air bags and anti-lock brakes added new tactical possibilities to his plans and he noted this.  He released the parking brake and edged out of the rental berth.  Five minutes found him merging with the Tokyo traffic.  One of thousands like him on the road.  Low profile, he was just another commuter.

 

            The alley where he parked was vacant.  Parker reached over and unzipped the duffle bag, examining the contents.  Everything was there that he had asked for.  He checked each item off of his list then erased the list from memory.  The black nylon shoulder holster held a Porsche Mephatia 5.4mm snubmachinegun, a work of art from the ergonomics department, ugly to look at, but easy to use and brutal in its effectiveness.  The Mephatia was fed from a disposable cassette through the carbon fiber pistol grip.  It's action was pure Getrag, a full floating magnetic bolt operating in a high tolerance precision closed environment.  An integral silencer / flash suppressor helped mask the emissions of the weapon; the bolt cycling was the most audible noise and a distinctly characteristic one of this particular model.  A infra-red laser targeting

 scope, adjustable stock pad, ambidextrous safety and select fire controls, external gyro stabilization, video uplink to Parker's processors and a fire line design that allowed Parker to pull the tiny weapon in close while still maintaining full control, these were his main reasons for choosing this room broom.

            Compact.

            Lightweight.

            Controllable.

            He counted off his ammunition; five full cassettes.  Each cassette held one hundred and twenty-five rounds, staggered.  Six hundred and twenty-five rounds total.  The Getrag's closed action liked to cycle ammo at the rate of 3500 rounds a minute, yet the Porsche was so balanced that Parker could fire it full auto with just one hand.  The Getrag action could cycle so fast that the grouping from a three round burst from the weapon was often less than the diameter of the barrel, the rounds were down range long before the barrel had even begun to climb in recoil.  You could drive nails with it on single shot at three hundred meters with enhanced optics, it was that accurate.

            His internal databases contained all the technical schematics for this weapon, available at an instant's notice.  He reviewed any designer's notes, searching for any new factory service bulletins.

            None.

            Parker checked the cassettes; fresh.  The expiration dates for the core charges were less than three weeks old and they still smelled of packing glue.  This batch of cassettes had never made it to the shelf.  The 5.4mm HiVeloc rounds were caseless, pre-fragmented standard military issue, with an anti-personnel / armor piercing explosive collar on the tip.  A nano-delay blasting cap within the body would guarantee critical expansion inside soft targets or lethal spall of hard body armor once the round had achieved penetration.

            Armor busting people wreckers.

            The serial number had been laser etched clean on all surfaces and components of the Porsche, then those areas had been blued again with a hand brush.  Professional.  Parker confirmed this with a thorough field strip, examination, and reassembly of the weapon.

            Untraceable.

            It had been fired a limited number of times, probably at the factory.  This weapon was out of the box new, still smelled new, and even had the weather caps still in place on the barrel and sight.  He undid

the Velcro fasteners and black plastic couplers that held the harness and let it slide onto his shoulders, making sure that it was comfortable.

            There was a Tishini combat knife, monofilament, non-ferrous, undetectable.  The kind that SAS and GS-9 swore by.  Black polymer handle, carbon ceramic blade, flat black finish all over.  The scabbard clipped onto his shoulder rig and was held inverted under his left arm and against his side.

            The last package in the bag was a full field kit, medical supplies that a corpsman would have access to, and a update for his internal databases regarding new info on field surgery and practices.

            Everything was ready.

 

 

 

 

 

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