The man who'd called me had refused to give his name, saying only that he had some information that I would be interested in. I probably should have had my head examined for coming to such a shady meet, but I must admit I was curious how the person mana ged to find out my telecom number and my name, and I also wanted to know what this info was. One of the hold-overs from my reporting days, I guess. I may not work for any network any more, but I'm still a snoop at heart.
After a few moments, I heard a voice from behind me whisper, "Holly?" I spun around, finger instinctively flipping the safety off my shotgun, and saw a familiar face. Relaxing a little, I said in annoyance, "Mitch! What are you doing here? Are you the one who called me?" As I looked him over, I made a mental note to pay closer attention to my surroundings. I must be slipping if Mitch Marvin was able to sneak up on me!
Mitch was a small man, wearing his usual corporate suit and tie. He was a reporter for the same trid station I used to work for, and was one of the few people from my old life I still kept in touch with. His short brown hair was tousled, and his suit wrinkled as if he'd slept in it. Mitch nodded, and I asked, "Why didn't you just tell me it was you? What's with all this anonymous drek?"
"I couldn't take a chance someone was listening in on your calls. Listen, Holly, I stumbled onto some drek-hot data. But the heat's coming down on me. I want to get rid of the chip and lay low for a while. You interested?" Mitch said, his voice showing the nervous strain he was feeling.
"What kind of data?" I wanted to know. Mitch didn't get a chance to answer. As he opened his mouth to speak, two black Mitsubishi Nightskys came barreling down the street, in our direction. My danger instincts went into overdrive. While Mitch stood there, staring oblivious at the oncoming limos, I dashed over to the nearest door. It was locked, and secure enough that I wasn't going to be able to kick it in. The cars were approaching, fast, and I decided there wasn't any more time to mess around with the doors.
Grabbing Mitch by the wrist, I pulled him after me as I ran across the street into Piedmont Park. The Nightskys screeched to a halt at the corner where we'd been standing, and the doors flew open. Three Asians in suits jumped out of each of the limos, all of them wielding SMGs. Cursing my luck, I stopped looking over my shoulder and concentrated on just plain running. Still dragging Mitch behind me, I tried to make my course a zigzag, putting the sparse amount of trees in the park between us and the guys with guns.
We got a small head start on the gunners before they started giving chase, firing as they went. They weren't shooting long bursts and spraying the area, I noticed, they were taking careful single shots, most of which skittered off the ground behind us. I guessed that the goons wanted us alive. Otherwise, they just would've hosed down the area with lead.
I risked a glance over my shoulder, and saw that three of the attackers had gotten back into one of the Nightskys and were circling around the park, trying to cut us off, I guessed. The other three were still giving chase. Mitch stumbled over a tree stump and went down. It was dark out this late at night, and Mitch was having trouble seeing, but I wasn't bothered much due to my cyber low light vision. Mitch screamed in pain an instant after falling as one of the Asians shot him in the left leg. "Come on, run!" I shouted, pulling Mitch to his feet again and half-dragging, half-carrying him along with me. He was slowing me down, I knew, but I couldn't just abandon my friend and run for it alone.
We weren't going to be able to outrun them, I realized as I looked back and saw that the gunmen were easily keeping pace with us. Time to get tricky. I knew the geography of Atlanta like the back of my hand, Piedmont Park included. I could only hope that they didn't know it as well as I did. I started taking the back trails, around the botanical garden and past the small, acid-rain filled pond. A short-cut through the trees got me to a connecting path, and I continued taking the unmarked trails in a random pattern across the park, heading for a good hiding place that I remembered. After a short time, when I looked behind me I couldn't see any signs of our pursuers.
Mitch was whimpering in pain when we reached the old bridge that connected two sides of a gully in the park. I helped him down the hillside under the bridge, and we took shelter in a small drain pipe near one of the bridge supports. I held my shotgun, a Spas-22 model with burst-fire capability (great for personal protection, I always thought), ready to fire on anything that came down the drainpipe. Tossing Mitch a clean handkerchief, I said, "Tie that around the wound. It'll help stop the bleeding." I knew we'd have to get Mitch to a doctor, but first we had to get out of this place. He was pale and sweating buckets, no doubt a combination of shock and fear.
"Now, why don't you tell me about this data. Who are those guys, and what do they want with it?" I demanded, not happy about being dragged into the middle of a gunfight because of this whole deal.
"I don't know what it is," Mitch said through clenched teeth. "I was in the Matrix, and I think I took a wrong turn at an LTG. Next thing I know, I'm in one of Cord Mutual's datastores. I figured that there wasn't any sense in wasting an opportunity, so I started downloading everything in sight. But all I got was one file before I was dumped."
"What file?" I asked. Mitch held up an optical chip and handed it to me. "It's on there," he said, "I haven't had a chance to look at it. Ever since I got it, people have been shooting at me. Whatever this file is, it's wiz stuff."
My attention was drawn to the opening of the drainpipe as I heard someone coughing loudly, obviously trying to get our attention. Raising the shotgun again, I could make out two figures standing slightly to the right side of the drain opening. They were both armed, their weapons pointed in my direction. But they hadn't fired yet, which I thought was a good sign.
"Put down the gun and come with us," one of them said coolly.
"Yeah, right," I replied mockingly, "Why don't you put your guns down?" It went on like that for some time, a total stalemate. I wasn't overly worried. There were only two of them, and my shotgun could easily take them both out, probably before they could get off a shot of their own. My cyberware is nice that way. But I wanted to try to milk them for information, and maybe try to talk my way out of the situation. I didn't like killing when it wasn't necessary. I'm no saint, but I don't go out of my way to geek people like some street sams do.
Before the conversation could really get anywhere, however, there were two quick gunshots, and the two Asians suddenly found themselves with gaping holes in their skulls. The two of them collapsed limply, and I turned my attention to the area behind them, where the shots had come from. In the moonlight (amplified by my cybereyes to make it appear as bright as day), I saw an ork in ragged street-leathers, holding a SMG. He was a big fellow, well-muscled with long, tied back black hair. He gave me a toothy grin. "It looked like you could've used a little help there, Miss," he said smugly, lowering the weapon.
Great, I thought, just what I need: some ganger who styles himself a fragging knight in shining armor. At least he can shoot straight, I muttered. But what I ended up saying was a simple "Thank you", as I hauled Mitch to his feet and started heading out of the drain. The ork was searching the two bodies, taking anything that looked useful. As he rifled their jackets, I spotted the telltale dragon tattoos on their arms and chests. Yakuza. I cursed silently. What had Mitch gotten me into this time? Fragging with the Japanese mafia was something I tried to avoid. It was healthier that way.
"Iceman, at your service," the ork told me, extending his hand. I shook it, and told him, "This is Mitch, and I'm Holly." Most shadowrunners and gangers tend to go by a streetname, I knew, rather than their real name, but I didn't like it that way. Introducing myself as Holly had a tendency to throw people off guard. They seemed to underestimate me, seeing me as some weak woman who didn't know how to run the shadows. But that suited me just fine. It helps a lot sometimes when your opponents underestimate you.
"We'd better get out of here," I said to the two men, "Those shots probably gave away our location."
As if on cue, the second Nightsky came into view, its tires tearing deep grooves into the park's grass as it left the main path and sped down the hill into the gully under the bridge. "This way!" Iceman shouted, motioning up the hill, "Follow me!" He started off in that direction, looking back to make sure Mitch and I were following. I made a quick decision to take a chance, and I headed after the ork.
Iceman, Mitch and I ran towards one of the back paths. The Nightsky had unloaded its three goons, who were running up the hillside after us. We reached the top of the embankment and about fifty meters away I saw a Harley Scorpion propped up against a tree. Iceman was heading towards the motorcycle, and I guessed that it was his. We had covered half the distance by the time the three Yakuza gunmen crested the rise. The took a few shots at us. Iceman stopped and spun around, raising his SMG to fire. He shouted with bravado, "I'll hold them, you get on the bike."
Frag that, I thought. I stopped running and flipped the safety off my shotgun. "You get on the bike," I told Iceman as I set the selector switch to burst fire. The three Yakuza were out in the open when I pulled the trigger on my shotgun. There was a tremendous roar as the weapon fired three times in rapid succession. I struggled to keep the gun level, the recoil compensation helping significantly. All of the Yaks were caught in the hail of lead buckshot, and they went down, dead or dying.
Iceman's jaw dropped. He didn't say anything, but he did get on the bike and started the engine. Mitch climbed up into the seat behind him, and as Iceman pulled the motorcycle around, I jumped on the back, squeezing onto the edge of the seat. The bike was designed for two riders, not three, but fortunately Mitch and I were both pretty slim. The bike lurched underneath us as Iceman gunned the engine and we went tearing off down the dirt road.
The ork ganger pulled the bike out of the park and onto Monroe, heading south. He gunned the engine, and we sped off down the road. "Where are we going?" I asked, struggling to be heard over the whipping wind and the engine.
"Somewhere safe. Trust me," Iceman replied. I decided to do that, for the time being. We drove out of the heart of the city, and entered the outer reaches of the sprawl known as Southtown.
The doss was small considering the sheer number of people who appeared to live there. One bed occupied the far wall, but there were a half dozen cots scattered around the room. A doorway led into a kitchen unit, and a second door apparently led to the bathroom.
There was only one person in the place when we arrived. He was very plain-looking human, with short brown hair and a five o'clock shadow that didn't do much to conceal his youthful face. He looked up as we entered the room. "Who are they?" he asked, glancing at Mitch and I and then fixing his stare on Iceman.
"The lady was in trouble, and I decided to help them out. They've got some people chasing them," Iceman explained. The other man raised an eyebrow. "Holly, Mitch, this is L.A." I gave him a brief smile in greeting, and then turned to Iceman and asked if he had a medkit around anywhere. L.A. got up off his cot and brought a small satchel from the corner of the room. He knelt down next to Mitch and began tending the man's leg. As he did so, Iceman and I filled him in on the earlier events of the evening. I told the two gangers about the chip Mitch had. L.A. didn't say much, he just nodded every once in a while to show he was listening.
As L.A. worked, Iceman turned to me and asked, "So what is this data, anyway? What do the Yaks want with it?"
I shrugged. "I don't know, but I intend to find out. Maybe then I can get these guys off our tails." As I said that, I slotted the chip Mitch had given me into the jack at the base of my skull. A simple thought linked my internal display unit to the chip, and a blank screen was overlaid on my left eye. I tried to view the file on the chip, but all that came up was a jumble of characters. It was an encoded file. I said as much to the others. "I'll need a telecom hookup to connect my deck so I can decrypt the file," I told them.
"You're a decker?" Iceman said in surprise. I nodded, and slid back the right side of my longcoat to reveal the small cyberdeck case slung over my shoulder.
"L.A., mind if I use your telecom?" I asked, spotting the unit which took up one corner of the room. L.A. grumbled a bit, probably thinking of the possibility that someone would trace the call to his doss, but eventually he said to go ahed. I pulled up a metal folding chair and sat down in front of the telecom. "I'm going to try to crack the code on this file. You guys had probably take turns keeping watch. Just in case somebody comes looking for us." Iceman and L.A. nodded, and L.A. offered to take the first shift.
I unslung my cyberdeck case from my right shoulder and carefully removed the deck from its protective shell. There was a chipjack in the side of the deck, and I slotted the chip Mitch had given me. The telecom was an old model, and it took me a moment to find the jack, but once I did, I plugged in the fiber optic cord which connected to my cyberdeck. Another cord came from the left side of the deck, and this one I plugged into the datajack at the base of my skull. "Here we go," I muttered, and punched the "ON" button of my deck. The world went dark for a fraction of a second, and I felt the familiar wave of disorientation as my senses were overridden by the virtual reality signals coming from my deck. Then I was in the Matrix, standing next to the icon which represented the telecom unit.
Working at the speed of thought, I adjusted my deck's memory allocation to make room for the decryption program I'd written. Then, I brought up the icon that was the Matrix representation of the file contained in Mitch's chip. It spun in space an arm's length away from me, bright swirls of alphanumeric characters wrapped around the file's icon. That was the file encryption, I knew, and it was those swirls that I had to decode.
It didn't take me long to do so. The encryption was a rather simple code, not something I expected from a big corp like Cord Mutual. As I tweaked the last bit of code, the bright swirls faded to black and I was left with a plain file icon. Now to see what all the fuss is about, I thought. I ran a simple text-reader program, and displayed the contents of the file. As the words scrolled by at an incredible rate (which I was able to comprehend thanks to the cybernetic connection between my brain and the deck), I thought that there must have been some mistake. I scanned the title of the file. "Great Expectations", by Charles Dickens. What was this drek? This is the file the Yakuza are willing to kill over? I had trouble accepting that. There must be something more about the file.
A quick trip to the Atlanta Public Library database got me a copy of the real version of "Great Expectations". I ran a program to compare the file Mitch found with the library's file, looking for any differences. The program didn't find any. The text was identical in both documents. I then tried to dissect the file itself, taking the code apart bit by bit. But once again, it was a perfect match with the library's file. It was as if somebody had downloaded a copy of the novel from the library data banks and placed it in Cord Mutual's datastore.
Before I could think much on the subject, my deck alerted me to an incoming phone call on my wrist phone. I transferred the call to L.A.'s telecom and quickly loaded my best anti-trace program into memory set it to guard the phone line. Then I jacked out and answered the call. The blank screen on the phone was replaced by a familiar face. He was a middle-aged man, with graying brown hair and a few early wrinkles on his high, Amerind forehead. "Wind!" I exclaimed, "I didn't expect to hear from you."
"I've been hearing some things on the street, Holly, and it's not good. Everyone's looking for you and Mitch Marvin. Are you all right?" Hands-Like-Wind asked, the tone of his voice telling me that he really was very worried. Hands-Like-Wind always did have a sort of sixth sense when it came to my well-being. He'd been a close friend of my father's for a number of years, and was like a favorite uncle to me.
"I'm okay so far," I told him. Then I asked nervously, "Who's everyone?"
"Yakuza, Seoupla, Mafia...the real fun people. You're in serious drek, my girl. The word is that your friend Mitch intercepted a transfer of some financial files on their way to one of Cord Mutual's subsidiaries. I talked to my chummer at Cord, and he told me that the files contained the updated system passcodes for the next twenty-four hours. Somebody with that data could get at a whole lot of Cord's financial assets if they act before Cord changes the codes. Everyone on the street that I talked to heard the same story, and they say that's why you and Mitch are so popular nowadays."
"Passcodes? Are you sure that's what's supposed to be in this file?" I asked with a look of bewilderment on my face.
Hands-Like-Wind shrugged. "All I know is what my friend told me. Why? What's wrong?"
I shook my head, trying to figure it out. I said to him, "I looked at that file, Wind. There's nothing on there but a copy of a novel." He asked me if I was sure. "I'm positive. I checked that file inside and out. There's nothing there." I paused, and asked, "Your friend said the files were being transferred?" Hands-Like-Wind nodded. Things started to fall into place in my mind. Mitch told me he'd found the file in a datastore, not in the middle of a transfer. So either Mitch was lying, (which I didn't believe) or Wind's friend at Cord was wrong (which didn't make sense, since Wind said everyone on the street got the same story). It was then that the thought struck me. What if the people on the street had been meant to get the same story? Even though it wasn't true?
Mitch had told me that he didn't know how he ended up in that datastore at Cord. What if it had been a setup all along, with Cord using Mitch (and subsequently, me) as a distraction, leaking the info that we had the file? It made sense, but I couldn't figure out why Cord would need a distraction like that. Unless they were worried that someone was going to intercept the real passcodes, and wanted a decoy. Too many "what if's", I thought. I needed some real answers, and fast.
I looked at the face on the telecom screen. "Thanks, for the info, Wind. Listen, I need a favor. I need to access Cord's main system. Can your friend there get me inside?" Hands-Like-Wind looked concerned, but he saw the determined look on my face and told me he'd try to work something out. I thanked him, and broke the phone connection. I jacked back into the cyberdeck, and began running some searches on Cord Financial and its subsidiaries.
As I was decking, I heard something on the fringes of my perception. It sounded like a gunshot. I immediately jacked out, and my senses were jerked back to the real world. That was one of the big disadvantages of decking...the virtual reality signals overrode your own perceptions to a great degree, making you nearly oblivious to the real world. Fortunately, it was only "nearly oblivious". I reached for my shotgun and scanned the room quickly, my reactions jacked up by the synaptic accelerator implanted in my skull. Mitch was cowering behind one of the cots, and I saw that the door was open. Iceman was taking cover in the doorway, firing at someone down the hall with his SMG. L.A. was crouched in the middle of the hallway nearby, also firing. As I moved towards the door, L.A. took a slug to the shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him down. He fired from the ground, cradling his injured arm against his chest.
I reached the doorway in a split-second, and strode out into the hall, raising my Spas-22 shotgun to my shoulder. I saw the three Asians in suits at the other end of the hallway (a fourth had been downed already by Iceman and L.A.'s fire) and the rangefinder link calculated the distance to them. My smartgun link adjusted the choke of the shotgun accordingly, for the best possible spread of shots, and I pulled the trigger, loosing a hail of flechettes down the corridor. At this close range, flechettes hit flesh, and it was very messy indeed.
Iceman lowered his SMG, and looked at me, shaking his head. He glanced back down the hall at the bodies. "You really didn't need my help at all, did you?" he asked, more a statement than a question, and I assumed he was referring to the original incident in Piedmont Park.
I shrugged. "Not really, but that doesn't mean it's not appreciated." I smiled at him and gave him a good-natured slap on the back, and then moved to help the injured L.A. Iceman, meanwhile, searched what was left of the attackers, and discovered a small business card on one of them. It didn't have any writing on it, just a stylized beetle symbol. Seoulpa ring, I realized. Hands-Like-Wind had been right. First the Yaks, now the Korean mafia. Just fragging great.
Since the apartment obviously wasn't safe any more, we decided to relocate. As we were gathering our things, I got another call from Hands-Like-Wind. Fast service, I noted. He had spoken with his friend at Cord and called in some old favors. We were supposed to meet the friend, Garcia, in an hour outside the Cord Mutual skyraker downtown. And from there, Garcia would get us into the building, where I'd be able to access Cord's system. Hopefully, there I'd find the info we needed to get out of this mess alive.
L.A., Iceman and I waited in an alley across the street from Turner Savings and Loans, concealed in the shadows. Hands-Like-Wind had arranged for Mitch to stay at a safe-house across town while we took care of things here.
We had met up with Garcia as planned, and everything went smoothly. I had decked Cord's system from one of the terminals on the 22nd floor, sleazing my way into the CPU and then convincing the system that I was really an authorized user. From there, I had the run of the entire system. Besides managing to get my virtual hands on some good paydata (which would help out significantly with the rent for quite a few months, once I sold the files to a fixer I knew), I had also found some tidbits of info more applicable to my current problem.
I found a memo from the VP of Cord's financial division, detailing the whole fragging plan. It seems Cord was a bit paranoid about wayward deckers in their Matrix system getting a hold of the updated passcodes, so they wanted to transfer the codes via a real courier, rather than electronically. And to keep anybody from finding out about the courier, they decided to use a decoy.
Enter Mitch Marvin, nosy reporter for Channel 48, who just happened to be decking in the wrong place at the wrong time. They arranged for him to "find" the decoy file, and then made sure everyone who was anyone knew that he had it. Let them fight it out among themselves, and then drive themselves crazy trying to figure out how "Great Expectations" was going to be the key to Cord's files. Meanwhile, the courier would carry the real file to Cord's subsidiaries without anyone being the wiser.
The plan would've worked perfectly, if Mitch and I hadn't managed to elude the Yaks, Seoulpa and Mafia (the Mafia had paid a visit to L.A. and Iceman's doss a few minutes after we had left...we saw them arriving as we were driving safely away) hit teams long enough for me to figure out what was really going on. And once we knew what Cord was planning, L.A., Iceman and I had decided to make sure they didn't get away with it. So the two gangers and I had made our way across town to the Turner building, and here we waited. The memo had contained a detailed explanation of the route the courier would be taking. I glanced at my watch. It was nearing midnight, which was when Cord's courier was due to make his stop at Turner Savings and Loans.
I adjusted my grip on my shotgun, and noticed Iceman looking impatiently at his watch as well. L.A. on the other hand was calm as always, his twin silenced Ares Predator II pistols held loosely in his hands. Iceman had his trusty Uzi SMG, also silenced. We were kept waiting another few minutes before the courier arrived. A van pulled up in front of the building, and three men stepped out. Two were obviously bodyguards, and the third matched the picture I'd weaseled out of Cord's main computer system. It was the courier. I nodded to the two men, and we all sprang into action.
It was over in an instant. L.A. took a head shot at each of the guards, nailing them both, and Iceman fired a burst of non-lethal gel rounds from his SMG. The bullets splatted against the back of the courier's head, knocking him out cold. Not a sound had been made aside from the three corp men hitting the pavement. We dashed across the street, a shimmering in the air around us telling me that Wind's spirit was still there, concealing us. To the rest of the world, we were pretty much invisible. Iceman picked up the courier and slung him over one shoulder, and then we dashed back into the alley, got on our bikes and sped off to rendezvous with Hands-Like-Wind.
The courier turned out to be a very weak-willed individual. It didn't take much for Wind's mind control spell to do its work, and the courier happily downloaded the file he carried in his headware memory. I took the optical chip he handed me and plugged it into my cyberdeck. Time to do some decoding. The encryption on this file turned out to be pretty sophisticated...no surprise there. Much tougher than the decoy file had been. But decrypting codes was my specialty, and I'd cooked up a really wiz program to aid me in the task. It took some time, but eventually the file was like an open book to me. Not a classic like "Great Expectations", natch, but more valuable in other regards.
I stared at the financial codes for some of Cord's more influential clients (not all of them, mind you, Cord was smart enough not to put all its eggs into one basket), laid out on the screen in front of me, and it took some effort to keep from drooling. There was enough money in those accounts to set me up for life. The only trouble was, I probably wouldn't live to spend it. True, with Iceman and L.A.'s help, I had managed to elude the hit teams for a few hours, but I wasn't naive enough to think I could keep that up for 24 hours. Especially not after the real hard-hitters, the corporations, got wind of this and sent their boys out to play. And once Cord found out what had happened to their courier, I'd have them to deal with as well.
Then, suddenly, an idea hit me. Nobody was really after Mitch and me personally. They just wanted the codes. So to get them off my back, all I had to do was give them what they wanted. I smiled to myself and began calling up the LTG numbers of every public database I could think of.
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