Authors: Stephen Kenson
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Contemporary, #Twenty-First Century, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction
To Christopher, for everything.
My thanks go to all the people at FASA who work so hard to keep the Sixth World going. Mike Mulvihill and Rob Boyle for keeping me in the Shadowrun® game, and Donna Ippolito for reminding me to do things like write my acknowledgments before I turn in the book.
The process of telling a story isn’t really complete until the story interacts with an audience, who take it and make it their own. I’ve been privileged to tell stories to a great audience—the fans of Shadowrun®—in three previous novels and much game product. I appreciate all the encouragement and feedback they have given me. Without them, the world of Shadowrun® wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is. This one’s for them.
Racing through the blackness of cyberspace. Dodging IC programs of glowing neon, digital nightmares from the hellish depths of some programmer’s psyche that could rip out his forebrain. Feeling the rush of adrenaline and heat in his meat body while his cyberself stayed cool and smooth as glass and chrome.
That’s what Roy Kilaro thought he should be doing.
Using his superior programming and decking skills to break into the heavily guarded data-fortresses of rival corporations, stealing away their secrets while thumbing his nose at the other deckers who tried to stop him. The megacorps were waging a secret war in the hidden recesses of virtual reality, and Roy Kilaro should be in there fighting the good fight.
He should be a Seraphim, a member of Cross Applied Technologies’ elite black ops team—not sitting in the Québec office sifting through data-traffic reports and system logs for CATco’s New England facilities. He should be running the Matrix, where he belonged, instead of trapped in a maze of cubicles that seemed to go on forever.
If there was a hell, it probably had a lot of cubicles in it, Roy thought glumly as he watched the data scrolling past. This was such mindless work. He could just as easily have written a program to scan through the activity logs for unusual data or variations in the normal patterns. In fact, he’d recommended it to his boss, and got assigned more fact-checking for his trouble. Cross Technologies was a leader in software development, but it still wanted the "human touch"—which Roy translated as having some human to blame if anything went wrong.
To keep his mind focused, he imagined that the data had been purloined from some other corporate system, that he was sifting it for information that had street value, something that would profit the company. It helped to take the edge off the boredom, but just barely.
The thought made him realize how stiff he felt, and he sat back in his ergonomic chair to stretched. He tended to work deep when online, sometimes forgetting about the needs of the flesh. He arched his back to relieve the strain, then put the data-stream on pause while he massaged his neck and rolled his head from side to side. When he settled back to work, the. chair’s temprafoam cushioning adjusted automatically to the contours of his body.
Roy checked to see make sure he hadn’t disturbed the fiber-optic cable snugged into the socket behind his right ear. The cable had caught on the arm of the chair, and he adjusted it. The cable was his lifeline, feeding data directly into his brain.
Resume, he thought silently to the terminal he was jacked into. The data began to stream past once more, and his brain sifted through it like sand trickling through his fingers or someone panning for gold in a muddy river. On and on and on until he thought he would scream with boredom. Then he hit a bump. It was like finding a hard object in the soft sand or catching a gleam of gold in the mud.
Wait a minute, he thought. What was that?
He zoomed in on the activity log from the corp’s Merrimack Valley research facility in southern New Hampshire. With a flicker of thought, he crosschecked the reference, bringing up a data-window before his field of vision. It gave him a view of the building’s exterior and other pertinent information.
Roy remembered the buy-out in which Cross had acquired the small biotech facility two years ago. The deal had turned into a fierce bidding war with Novatech before the rival corp mysteriously bowed out. The panicked owners lowered the price, and Cross bought them out for a song. Roy wasn’t the only one who’d suspected that shadow operations had made that happen.
The MV facility was under the direction of the company’s Bio-Medical Division out of Boston, so the data would already have passed their inspection. Someone who wasn’t too sharp must have missed the anomaly.
Roy checked the log entries again. There it was—just a slight deviation, nothing too significant. It was like one of those occasional glitches in the telecom system, where the worst that happened was some voice and vidmail getting lost. This looked more deliberate, more precise. Someone had intentionally deleted and altered parts of the outgoing message log.
More than likely someone having an affair, Roy thought. Or maybe some lonely cubicle rat logging on to one of those virtual sex hosts where you could play with "digital dolls" that looked and felt like the real thing but acted like something out of an adolescent programmer’s wet dreams. He should simply flag the file and pass it on to the higher-ups in Information Systems, who would send a routine notice to the employee involved. But something told Roy to keep looking. If nothing else, it was a break in the monotony, an excuse not to dive back into the endless sea of data that threatened to drown him.
He checked the logs again, and this time noticed that some sections were missing. With a thought to his terminal, he ran some pattern-matching algorithms.
It still looked like merely a random glitch in the system, but Roy wondered if whoever had made the changes was extra careful to make it look random. Flashing a command across the network at light-speed, he called up some additional data about the Merrimack Valley facility. Scanning through it, he noticed that the place was slated to get some extra security personnel. When he checked the facility’s maintenance schedule, he sat back and smiled.
It was Christmastime, and he had some vacation days coming. Maybe he could get away for a few days, check things out down at the MV facility, and see something of the Boston metroplex while he was at it. He knew all the right channels to send his request through, which managers were likely to simply rubber-stamp routine documents that passed through their systems. Within the hour, his request to cross-train with the Information Systems Department by handling routine maintenance and systems checks of the corp’s Boston-area facilities was approved.
He copied the relevant data from the logs and downloaded it onto the optical chips nestled in the back of his skull near his brainstem, where he could access the information at will. Then he returned to scanning through the logs, his mood considerably lightened. It would probably all turn out to be smoke and no fire, but he could make an adventure of it, pretend he was involved in some fantastic intrigue like they showed on the trideo. If there were time, he’d try to hit one or two Boston nightspots.
He’d heard that Boston had some good ones.
It a typical busy night at the Avalon, one of Boston’s hottest dance clubs. The floor was packed to the max with people writhing to the primal beat blasting from the speakers. Pulsating lights flashed from the ceiling, and a haze of smoke hovered over the dance floor like an artificial fog. A curved bar was set above the dance floor along one side of the room, and it too was crowed with people. There were also several tiers filled with small tables and booths where people could sit, drink, and watch the dance floor below.
Dan Otabi looked around nervously as his eyes adjusted to the dark. It was too bad he couldn’t afford Zeiss replacements, the deep emerald-green ones with gold flecks and light amplification powerful enough to see by night as well as by day. Eyes like Ethan Hunt had in
. Eyes that could stare down any man and melt the heart of any woman. Eyes like Dan had when he
Ethan Hunt, fearless corporate operative working in the deepest shadows of the metroplex. He touched the jack behind his ear, wishing he were Ethan Hunt right then, or anyone else for that matter—the very wish that had brought him to the Avalon.
He’d dressed for the occasion, trying to imitate the kind of outfits people wore in the sims, but he still felt woefully out of place. People took him in from his short-cropped dark hair to his synthleather boots and dismissed him with a shrug—or less—before turning back to their own pursuits. He glanced around, anxiously looking for the man he’d come to meet, and saw him seated in a booth two tiers above the sunken dance floor. There was an electric moment of recognition, but Dan tried to stay as cool and calm as his contact.
He picked his way through the crowd toward the stairs, apologizing once when he bumped into an ork. Barrel-chested and bulging with muscle, the big metahuman towered half a meter over Dan’s head and didn’t even bother to stop. His violet-haired companion, dressed in nothing but a strategically applied spattering of body-latex and glitter, hurried to keep up with him.
Dan pushed his way to the stairs, never taking his eyes off the man in the booth as he climbed. The man, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to Dan’s presence as he gazed down idly at the dance floor. It was only when Dan finally stood in front of the booth that the man acknowledged him. Once again, Dan wished for Ethan Hunt’s steel-hard eyes.
The man was human, an Anglo. His greasy brown hair was drawn back from his face into a stubby little ponytail at the nape of his neck. It looked like he hadn’t shaved for several days, but the stubble couldn’t hide the puckered, reddish line of a scar on his chin. Dan thought it looked like a slash from a knife or a broken bottle. He also figured the man’s muddy brown eyes had to be natural because no on would have eyes like that if he could help it. The man wore a battered leather jacket over a heavy black T-shirt and a couple of silver rings on each hand. He looked Dan over with studied disinterest, and Dan didn’t quite know whether to bow or extend his hand, so he just stood there.