VIEWS: 6 PAGES: 99 POSTED ON: 5/18/2012
Stealing the Fire A Cyberpunk™ Novel Written By : Sampo Rassi The Prologue: Pandora's Box Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. One of the universal problems of stories is deciding where to start telling the actual story, where to put the large metaphorical red dot that says "You Are Here". Because everything that is somehow connects to everything that has once been, as well as to everything that will ever be, there are actually very few true beginnings. This story in particular could be perceived to be starting from any of a dozen places. It could start with an outlaw called Lobo meeting with a mysterious English gentleman, or with a scientist making a discovery that would evolve into the thing called Prometheus. Or the story could also start near the end of the 20th century with a rich man with an obsession for the impossible and, unfortunately, the wealth to back it up... Joanne Yeates had taken the job because she never turned down a challenge. That had been a serious mistake. The goal of the project was, in her professional opinion, insane, merely because it was impossible to do. But the boss would not accept it. He just smiled his boyish smile and told them to try harder. Despite his college-boy attitude and seemingly outgoing personality, the man actually scared the hell out of most people. Nobody had ever seen him tired, or angry. It was like he wasn't human at all. Nevertheless, the job had some positive sides. The pay was extremely good, and working for the world's largest software corporation had a sort of shine to it, and it sure as hell had impressed her relatives, although she couldn't tell them what she was working on. Joanne was awakened from her contemplations by one of her coworkers, David Hong, who was on loan from the University of Hong Kong. He was the world's leading theorist on the development of heuristic code structures. David was a short bald man who never dressed informally. His thirty-six years of indoor work had left him somewhat more portly as he would have liked, but he compensated by jogging actively in the corporate compound. "Joanne! We may have got it to work!" he yelled as he ran to the small employee cafeteria. "How'd you solve the memory overflow errors?" "We translated with another program. It wasn't in the code, it was in the translator." "The boss will go wild when he finds out." "That can wait. Come." Together the two left the cafeteria and went to the main computer room. There were the ten workstations, on which the main program code had been written, connected by a satellite link to four similar facilities around the globe. In the middle of the room was a table housing the keyboard and monitor of the mainframe. On the back was a narrow door leading to the Core. The Core was the hardware section of the mainframe on which the complex program was supposed to run. It was a multiprocessing system with one thousand two hundred and fifty-six separate processors and more memory than all of the Pentagon's network rolled to one. There, tinkering with a memory module was Robbie Morris, a young hardware genius on holiday from MIT. The other seven members of the team were all there as well, waiting expectantly. "There!" Robbie said and climbed down the short aluminum ladder, which he needed to reach the bowels of the system, and returned to the control room. "Ready when you are, Jo." Joanne walked to the central console and sat down. She was nervous. Could it work? Technically, there was no reason why not, but so far all they had achieved were a variety of error reports. "Can it work?" Robbie asked, wiping sweat from his forehead. It was always too hot in the Core. "Absolutely not," answered one of the others, a tall Spanish man called Ricardo. "We'll see," David calmly assured. Joanne turned the mainframe power on. For a while there was no sound other than the rising hum of the CPU fans, then the speakers beeped once and some text appeared on the upper left corner of the large computer screen. It read as follows. Project: Primogenitor Version: Alpha 0.64.31.7 Revision: 6.3 Date: 31.12.1997 Time: 11.23 PM GMT System ready. Network connection active. Main program routines loaded. It worked. Simple as that. "What now?" someone asked. "Now? Now... Pandora's box is open," Ricardo answered glumly. Later, it turned out he was right. Chapter 1 - Irresistible Offer The Flash was certainly one of the worst nightclubs in all of Night City. Gang members, drug dealers, street samurais, computer criminals and other people the press called "Edgerunners" gathered there to do their business undisturbed. The local law enforcement left it alone, and because of that a lot of nasty people did a lot of nasty things to each other every night. This was also the reason why one of the city's best information brokers and freelance investigators had chosen it to be his favorite meeting place. The man known as Lobo cruised to the crappy parking lot, sitting on his battered Harley. He was not in a good mood. Then again, he almost never was. Must be this damn town, he often thought. Whenever he was feeling this way, he usually drunk himself unconscious. But he had a meeting inside with a client, and the only thing Lobo let get in way of drinking was profit. It was also an unusually bright morning in a city almost permanently obscured by smog. This also got to his nerves. Lobo was a medium-built man, approximately five foot seven. His father was allegedly Italian and his mother Spanish, but no certainty could be given, since he was utterly reluctant to discuss personal matters with anybody. His wardrobe seemed to consist of worn-out jeans and black biker jackets. In short he looked like any street thug info merchant, which actually wasn't. He considered himself to be above the others of the trade, some nothing more than scum getting their pay by ass-kissing and working as squealers for the cops. Everybody in the business knew Lobo simply because he was the best in what he did. He knew everything about the California underworld and always had the right contacts for any given job. Often his expertise was hired by street people looking for something other than off-the-rack items. Explosives, guns, drugs, info, programs, cyberware, everything. Lobo was a person who knew a lot of people. He belonged to a loose group of people called Environmentally non-specific individuals by the corporate men in suits and Nomads by the street. What it meant was that he was a wanderer, He had been all over America on the convoys, and had had enough for a while. Therefore he remained in Night City as the others of his caravan went south. That was two years ago. Lobo marched in to the dimly lit club. Terrible German trance-pop thumped from the partially broken old jukebox. He swiftly walked to it and chose one of his favorites, Wake Up, a song from some long-dead artist. A chorus of angry muttering broke out but nobody did anything. Music wasn't a good enough reason to get yourself killed. After getting himself a shot of tequila, he walked to a table and waited for his client. The wait wasn't long. Lobo's entrance didn't cause a lot of noise, he was one of the regulars, but the newcomer got quite a reception. The reason for this was simply the sad fact that he fit in like Mike Tyson to the KKK Summer Convention. The visitor's clothing wasn't entirely appropriate for a crowded nightclub, to say the least. He was dressed in the most expensive trench coat Lobo had ever seen, black straight trousers and a white cotton scarf. His appearance was not helped by the fact that he was a gentleman in his late sixties. He rushed to the corner table where Lobo was sitting. "Ever heard of being inconspicuous?", Lobo asked, rather humored by the scene. "If you had told me that the meeting place is a half-demolished corner pub whose clients consist of street scum and criminals, I might have put on a different attire", the stranger replied with a thick English accent. "Watch it, buddy. Some of those guys over at the counter might feed you your arm if the hear you say that. I've seen it do it and I'm telling you, it ain't pretty." "Enough small talk, let's get down to the issue at hand. What do you know about the group known as the Millenium Troopers and, more importantly, on their supposed leader, a man called Jack Savage?" "Not a lot. First confirmed strike in January 2020, number of members unknown. But why do you care? The Troopers are almost a myth. Nobody's even sure if they exist." "I have my reasons." "I'm sure you have. Talk business, what's the deal?" "I wish to make contact with the Troopers and offer them a deal they cannot refuse. Upon completion of the contract you will be compensated 20 thousand Eurodollars, in cash, as you requested. Do we have a deal?" "You bet your ass we do." "Good. Contact me when you have something to inform me and my associates about. We shall be talking later." After saying this the Englishman left leaving only a calling card and an envelope containing two and a half thousand Eurodollars, the agreed advance payment. Lobo remained at the table thinking. 20 grand was a big lump of cash for just a middle man, even as an insurance against exposure. It was more likely that the deal was bogus and the money was just a bait. Why did they want the Millenium Troopers? If they wanted some mercenaries then there was a whole bunch of corporations like Lazarus, C-Team or Omega, specializing on that sort of things. There had to be something more to this. The gray-haired old man had made the error people usually did with Lobo. That was to mistake him for some dumb street gopher who thinks with his wallet. He didn't get to the top by being a fool. It was a natural selection of sorts. Those too foolish, greedy or careless were weeded out before they had the chance to evolve. He glanced at the calling card the old man had given him. It contained the words "Transatlantic Exports" and a phone number. On the flip side there was a simple text. Ask for Mr. Smith. Lobo paid for his drink and left the bar. He mounted his Harley and drove to the night. His destination was a small warehouse in the dockyards. The air was cold and smelled of salt and dead fish. Must be another chemical leak, he thought. Lobo curved to the rear and swiftly walked to a small wooden door. He knocked six times. After some waiting a voice on the other could be heard. "How many eggs do you need in a soufflé?" "Depends on the eggs. It's Lobo. I want to speak to Agamemnon." After more waiting and several deadbolts and locks, the door opened and the bald man walked inside. The space inside didn't look much like a warehouse. It was a mix between a warehouse, laboratory, library, computer room and a rave club. Most of the space was dominated by assorted computer systems, but there were also numerous people, in various states of unconsciousness as well as in various states of undress, alongside huge almost-empty boxes of Chinese cigarettes and cheap Russian import alcohol. "Had a bit of a party?" "You could say that, we held an X-Files marathon," said the nervous man who had opened the door and was now leaning to a nearby box that used to contain, judging from the partially peeled-away labels in Cyrillic letters, vodka. "So you watched them all? Must've been heavy." "The best twenty hour of my life," answered the small man who called himself Axmann. "To be precise Mr. Axmann was unconscious before the beginning of the second season. In bed with a girl called Lynne, I believe," announced a booming voice from the speakers. "Thanks a lot." "Agamemnon, I need a favor from you. Tell me what do you know about the Millenium Troopers, Jack Savage and Transatlantic Exports." "All right, but it'll take some time. Approximated time of completion 15 minutes. Have a seat while you're waiting," said the voice of Agamemnon on the speakers installed above the central console. The warehouse and the Artificial Intelligence system that was called Agamemnon belonged Autojoks, a fraternity of Netrunners. They helped each other out, saw to it that nobody tried to screw them in a deal and provided programs and hardware for each other. Axmann was technically a member, but in reality he was a pain in the ass. As he was mostly incompetent as a programmer and a major alcoholic, the only reason the Joks tolerated him was his expertise with AIs, which had proved useful to them with Agamemnon because Axmann was one of the few freelancers who had the understanding of variable-branching heuristics and integral calculations needed to actually maintain an Artificial Intelligence of that magnitude. Agamemnon on the other hand was a librarian. He was an AI built by the university of Berkeley as a DNA analyzer. After the university got bankrupt, they sold him to a local Autojok corporate front. The Joks made him an archive keeper and therefore if anybody wanted to locate a certain byte of information, Agamemnon was worth talking to. He was always keen to help and as compensation he required only information unavailable to him by other means, such as old books and technical manuals. All in all, Agamemnon was the most valuable source of computer-archived information in the whole coast. He had secret back door access codes to the CIA, the IRS as well as several foreign agencies. Lobo had done some favors to the Joks and was allowed to use Agamemnon to seek out information regarding to his contracts. While Lobo and Axmann were waiting and drinking the last of the booze, many of the warehouse's other inhabitants were also regaining consciousness and leaving for home, after searching all over the place for their clothes or something to drink. There were a lot of them because when Axmann got something together it usually was good. Judging from the mess they had made, it truly had been so. The warehouse was a sort of meeting place of Netrunners and other geeks who enjoyed a good party and some retro sci-fi. "Search complete," Agamemnon announced. "The Millenium Troopers made their first confirmed strike on January the 2nd in the year 2020 on the Revolution Genetics compound outside Toronto. Strategic analysis indicates the number of members to be over 50. Possible leader is Jack Savage, the location of whom is currently unknown. He was born in 1988 in the city of Los Angeles, South California, first police record at the age of 18 for the crime of grand theft. Last confirmed job contract signed 18.6.2019 with Tsunami Arms. Suspected to have taken part in several covert operations against various corporations. Outlaw in both States of California, Hunted by Revolution Genetics and Tetsuo Technologies for stealing classified documents. Last sighting took place Guars, Mexico in 29th October, 2020. As for Transatlantic Exports, it does not exist on any database scanned." "Nothing I didn't know or couldn't have guessed." "So, what's your new assignment? Something to do with the Troopers?" "Some English bastard will pay me 20 grand for finding them." "That's too much fucking money. There's a catch." "Job's a bad one", added another one of the warehouse's residents, a tall well-muscled Russian man called Ivan, who had stopped to listen. "You might want to have some backup firepower." "Any ideas what to do next?", asked Axmann. "Yep. Since Savage is my only solid lead to finding these guys, I'll have to find him first. I'm gonna go talk to Timmy Cheng. He might have some clues about the man. Wan tag along?" "You bet." "Sounds good." Timmy Cheng wasn't actually Asian, but he looked pretty much like one and had thus acquired the name. His real name was Chiller, he had short black hair and he was a thief working for anybody with cash. Since Savage had worked in covert operations in his past, Cheng was almost guaranteed to know something. Cheng's typical hangout was a place called Eightball, a small bar built in an old pool club. He was almost always there, trying to win some out-of-towner out of his money. The locals were smarter than that. They had seen how Timmy played. Lobo and Ivan walked in through the battered doors, covered with stripping red paint and several posters. Axmann had wandered off looking for a liquor store. Most of the flat surfaces of the bar had been filled by pool tables. If there had been more crowd, the only possible way of moving around would have been walking on the tables. But it was almost empty, as it was very early, by Night City standards. "Hey, Lobo-San!" a familiar figure yelled from the back of the club. "How're doin', Timmy?" Lobo asked as he had crossed the distance. "Not too bad, not too bad. What brings you to my humble dojo?" "Same as always. Money. You seen Jack Savage lately?" "No. I did a gig with him a couple of years back, but haven't seen the man since." "Any idea where he could be?" "Not really. But Mr. K might. He hangs out in Frankie's. Remember him? Only man who can open a card lock with only a hairpin." "Yeah. Thanks, T-man," Lobo finished and gave Timmy a fiver. After locating Axmann, who had been unable to find a relief to his addiction, the three men grabbed some early lunch in the form of noodles from a stall run by an old Taiwanese man with no teeth. Thirty-five minutes later they walked to Frankie's Bar. They were quite a sight hanging around together. Lobo in his black leather jacket and biker boots, Axmann wearing a purple Electrica Fashions jacket and a stolen pair of Nuke sneakers and finally Ivan dressed in a long cold-weather armored long coat and his last-century Ray-Bans. Not that anybody noticed or at least seemed to notice. This was due to the sole reason that if somebody had said a word, it could have very well been his last. Lobo scanned the area swiftly with his eyes and quickly found what he was looking for leaning to table and muttering something like "...never again...no more for me...". The group walked to the somewhat drunken man and sat down. "You're tellin' me that this piece of shit used to be the best safecracker in the world?", asked Axmann, laughing at the drunk. The next thing Axmann saw was just a flicker of movement and a knife placed tightly on his throat indicating that any further remarks would leave him a great deal shorter as well as a great deal more dead. "Still is, junior. So how 'bout showing some respect?", answered the now very sober-looking Mr. K. "Chill, man. We ain't here for you. We're looking for Jack Savage and Timmy Cheng said you could know where he is." Lobo gazed at the man. The word on street told that Mr. K had once been a professor at MIT who got bored and moved to crime as a more interesting and rewarding career prospect, but looking at him, no traces whatsoever could be found to support this or any other stories about his former life. Mr. K was an old man, approximately in his fifties and he always spoke softly as if fearing that raising his voice might launch a hidden alarm somewhere, which had saved his life on more than one occasion. His almost white hair was combed rather messily and his cheap ragged clothes were dirty and stained. He didn't look anything other than some poor homeless bastard but he was the best electronics man and security specialist in the States, quite possibly the whole world. "So, Don't you know or don't you wanna tell us?", asked Lobo after a long silence. "What's it to you?" "None of your business. Are you gonna tell me where he is or shall we extract the info from you otherwise?" Lobo gave a discreet hand signal to Ivan who reached out with his bulky gunmetal arm and grabbed the locksmith by his collar. "Hey, relax! No need for getting nasty," the man said and shook himself loose. "Okay, I last met Savage on an op to Mexico. I don't have to tell you that he's the nastiest and the most sadistic bastard I've ever seen. Well anyway, after we had gotten our paychecks, he talked 'bout settling' down in the LA. That's all I know." "Good. Here's something for your trouble." But before Lobo could give Mr. K the fifty buck note he was holding, the bar burst to action. A couple of sinister looking characters that had until now been drinking tequila in a shady corner, whipped out a pair of black sleek assault weapons and sprayed them wildly at Lobo and his companions, who swiftly ducked under the table while the bullets smashed to pieces a large collection of alcoholic beverages stored over the counter. This outburst of violence triggered many others when some drunken and stoned gang members thought it was a cop ambush. Amongst the more sober it was simply good time to sort out some rivalries and whack the hell out of each other. Soon the entire bar was a swirling melee with everybody trying to hit everybody else. "Is everybody OK?" Lobo shouted to get his voice heard above the general ruckus that filled the bar. "K is dead!" Axmann replied, fumbling with the safety catch of his own weapon, a big German submachine gun. "So let's get even!" yelled Ivan while pulling out a sawed-off 2-barrel shotgun from underneath his trench coat. The two assassins were still in the bar, approaching the group through the mass of fighting bodies. One shouted something to the other, but the tremendous amount of noise from the dozens of small brawls currently in progress made it impossible to hear anything quieter than a shotgun blast. The black-clad pair saw Mr. K's corpse and begun to retreat seeing that they had done what they came to do. Just as they turned to walk away a shout called out over the now a bit quieter club and caused them to turn. "Don't leave yet! The party ain't over!", bellowed Ivan and launched his 10 gauge. The slug hit the other man squarely in the chest and flew him across the room and splattered his entrails in an interesting pattern on the wall. The other jumped through the doorway, narrowly avoiding a burst from Axmann's submachine gun. Lobo ran after him, but his prey ducked to a waiting pickup truck and sped away to the morning rush. "You got him?" "He had a car waiting, but let's see if his dead buddy here can tell us something" After some searching the trio looked at the stuff they had dug up from the dead man's pockets. Brass knuckles, 36 bucks in small change, 5 prophylactics, 2 clips for the weapon, a gold-plated antique Zippo lighter, some cigarettes, a passport, plane tickets, credit chip and an ID card. "Walter Thomas O'Connel," Ivan read. "Age 21, born in Belfast, arrived to Night City from Seattle yesterday and planned to leave tomorrow. So, what we have here is a stupid Irish hit man. Rich too. First class ticket." Meanwhile Axmann was snooping around in the worldly possessions of the late Mr. K. "Nothing worthwhile, except for this," said Axmann brandishing a half bottle of Finland Vodka. "Time for that later," snapped Lobo and snatched the bottle off the alcoholic Netrunner. "Lobo! The cops are coming!, shouted Ivan, peering through the window." "Shit! Grab the dead guy's stuff and let's get the fuck out here!" Lobo ran for his Harley while Axmann and Ivan showed themselves into the hacker's old Chevy. They took off just as the cops rolled out to the scene. The bar brawls had quieted down to the sound of the sirens and the ganjas were also leaving. Two murders. An ordinary evening in Night City. The cops would interrogate the witnesses and that would be it. The department wasted no time for gang killings or corporate executions, and this was obviously one or the other. And if it wasn't, then it would be made to appear as one in the report. Chapter 2 - Beautiful Day in Night City An unusually bright and sunny morning began to dawn over Night City. The gangs, drunks, fixers, hookers, pimps and other street people swiftly started to leave their nighttime posts and sneaked back to whatever place they called home. Daylight was bad for business. The city's daytime population was waking up as the nighttime population was going to sleep. Lobo never considered himself to be a part of either. He was awake when it suited him and asleep when it suited him. Drugs helped a lot in this aspect. Currently Lobo watched an episode of X-Files while Agamemnon was scanning the databases for info on Walter O'Connel. He thought about the attack yesterday. Somebody didn't want him to find Savage. It couldn't be Savage himself. There's no way he could have heard about him so soon and he certainly would have not hired some foreign professionals to the job. He would have done it himself, and probably enjoyed it immensely. There was a third player to this game. Lobo's thoughts were disturbed by Agamemnon, who announced that the files for Walter Thomas O'Connel could be found, but they were corrupted by what seemed like a complex virus program, planted shortly after the gunfight at Frankie's. The only thing remaining was a recent photo of the man. Lobo cursed inside his head. These were tough players indeed. Lobo looked at the weapon on the table, the murder weapon. It was a Fabrique Nationale P90 submachine gun, outfitted with a laser scope and black combat grips. Lobo had seen weapons like that back in South America, but this was different. It took him quite long to realize what was wrong. He extracted the clip and took out a couple of bullets just to be sure. "Ivan! Come here!" "What now?" the Russian answered. Lobo tossed him the weapon. "What is wrong with this gun?" "Nothing, it's a standard model with an after-market scope," Ivan answered after inspecting the weapon. "These," Lobo said and tossed Ivan one of the bullets. "This gun was made to fire cased rounds. These are caseless." "A lot of old guns have been converted to caseless. That happens all the time." "These are not just your everyday caseless bullets. This gun originally fired 5.7 millimeter cased, but this specimen here fires 4.93 millimeter caseless rounds, made in Bonn, Germany in the year 2013. Made for the Heckler & Koch G-42Bz which never reached production. And take a look of the stock. There's a picture of a skull with a top hat. That's Voodoo Samed's trademark. This is a custom job. Probably an expensive one too." "So?" "I go talk to Samed. Maybe he can tell something about the buyers." "I'll go with you," rumbled Ivan, reloading his ancient AK-47 assault rifle. "Me too. Got tired of parties anyway," Axmann agreed. "Always nice to have company." "Agamemnon, after we've left, engage all security systems. Shoot to kill clearance." "As you wish." Voodoo Samed was a big businessman in the California underground. He sold all kinds of illegal weapons to all kinds of people, for use in all kinds of illegal operations. He wasn't picky; he had sold heavy weaponry to the SWAT in many occasions. He took money from anybody and shit from nobody. Even the bigger crime families gave him the freedom he requested, because he was too useful to them as a supplier. His base of operations was a heavily defended warehouse in the dockyards. Cops weren't a problem. This was ensured with regular delivery of brown envelopes, each containing thirty thousand-dollar notes, to key people. Lobo's Harley-Davidson cruised to the fenced-off warehouse yard. There seemed to be some action going on. An olive green Army surplus truck was parked nearby and there were several men inspecting it's cargo. They had two things in common with each other. They were all Rastafaris and they were all smoking. A huge blue-gray cloud hovered above the area, smelling faintly of hydroponic ganja from the large floating sea farms of the Indonesians. Most of the men instantly drew their weapons at the sight of a stranger entering their turf. Lobo quickly found himself to be staring at the wrong end of a dozen assault rifles. "Relax, people. I'm here to see Samed," he said, unflinching. After hearing this, the men loosened their grips a little. Somebody stepped out of the truck. He was a tall bald black man dressed in a black long coat and trousers, black leather shoes, black bowler hat and mirrored round sunglasses. In his hand was an intricate ebony walking cane topped with a silver skull. Lobo couldn't believe it. After all this time, the man still dressed like an idiot. "Been a long time, mon. Watcha be needin' from ol' Samed?" "Info on a couple of people who bought some weapons from you yesterday." "We get a lot of customers, people go in and out all de time." "These guys bought a pair of P90's rechambered for German four point nine-two caseless. Ring a bell?" "It might. Come inside. We be havin' a drink or two." Behind them they heard the guards tighten their grips of their guns as Ivan and Axmann arrived at the scene in a beat-up 2011 Chevy Bulldog, raped by rust and battered by the neighborhood youth gangs beyond repair. "They're with me", Lobo yelled. "C'mon, we be gettin' indoors. Business be best discussed behind walls." The inside of the warehouse was dominated by large crates of whatever contraband goods were selling well at the moment. Samed would sell anything, given there was significant profit to be made. There were more guards there, most of them happily smoking... well, whatever it was they were smoking. They sure looked happy they had chosen it. Samed led Lobo and his companions to his so-called office on the back and sat them down on surprisingly comfortable leather chairs. Samed wasn't Jamaican and his Rasta accent was acquired and often it faded away after the first sentences. Samed had been a smart kid in the service of the previous leader of the Jamaicans. He had swiftly risen as the number two man in the organization, from where he rose to power by assassinating his superior and becoming the top Rasta of the gang. He was a dangerously ambitious man, and was feared equally amongst his friends than his enemies. Lobo had known Samed since he was a little sleaze and still didn't trust him. "What can you tell me about the people?" "Dey say dey need something good for a one-off gig. Were jumpy, both o' dem. Heard 'em whisper somethin' 'bout somebody called Menendez. People always underestimate de magic o' de Kiroshi," Samed said, tapping his ear where he had installed a cybernetic voice editor to record lies by the slightest alterations in voice. This was a noticeable asset during business negotiations. According to rumor Samed could hear a needle drop at sixty paces. "Anyway, dey paid in cash, haven't seen 'em since. Dey went after you?" "No, Mr. K. Got him in Frankie's." "I met de man once. Why?" "Somebody doesn't want me to find Jack Savage. He was a customer of yours once, wasn't he? A good one, from what I heard." "You could say dat. He came here 'bout once a month to stock up. C-4, bazookas, grenades, machineguns. Dat guy was never picky. If you could kill people with it, he bought it. Still owes me thirty-six grand. You lookin' for 'im?" "Him and some of his friends, it seems." "Ain't gonna easy for you, mon. Got a place to begin?" "LA. Mr. K told me that before his guts got splattered to the floor." "I got some business there. I'll go with you and if you find Savage, I got some unsettled matters wit' 'im. Time be money, so we be movin' an' we be groovin'." In the living room of a small house in the Los Angeles suburbs somebody was feeling very pissed off. Carlos Menendez was not a person tolerant of mistakes, and when one happened, he didn't react well. Currently, he was reacting by yelling at the tall man in front of him. Menendez didn't like Hans Schultz much, and the feeling was mutual. The only reason that he was employing him was that his ruthless and sadistic executions did not look like the work of any organized crime family, which was quite useful at Menendez's line of work. He hated him because it was impossible to know what he was thinking. This was due to the fact his face was covered in a black sleek armored mask that he had worn ever since his former pretty-boy features were destroyed in the bombing of his car some years ago. "I pay that scumbag Oates twenty fucking thousand every month and what do I get? Some motherfucking gringos who fuck up the entire plan!" "He und the other assassin shall be dealt with, Herr Menendez." "See to it, Schultz, see to it. Now leave. I have some things to do." Hans Schultz closed to door behind him and started walking down the corridor. Menendez was getting on his nerves. Even the idea of being bossed around by that member of the inferior race made the mercenary feel sick. But he would complete his assignment as promised and after that... maybe he could make the Mexican pay for his impoliteness to the member of the master race. Schultz walked to the garage and stepped to his black Porsche. First that bastard Oates. It would be an easy kill, as the man was too old and fat to offer him any amusement. After him Hans would deal with Hicks, the second assassin. Hans hummed a happy little tune as he drove away to the midday traffic. It would be a beautiful day, by the looks of it. No clouds obstructed the sunshine and a slight breeze blew from the Pacific. At the same time Ivan and Samed were comparing the virtues of different assault rifles, sitting on the back seat of Samed's white Rolls Royce Luxury 8 aerodyne limousine. Lobo had contacted Agamemnon and attempted to receive details of all police records of people named Menendez. It had been searching a needle on a haystack. It seemed that the western hemisphere crime scene was full of Menendezes. There were over six thousand on record for the past five years. So Lobo had narrowed his search to the California area, but that still left around forty suspects. Without additional information it was impossible to narrow them down, so he had given up on that. Several hours later the AV gently touched down on a large parking lot somewhere in downtown Los Angeles. Lobo, Axmann and Ivan disembarked with their stuff and Samed motioned his driver to take off. "And now?" asked Axmann. "Find out the places where mercenaries hang around here. I have to talk to some locals." "The nearest is about seven blocks westward from here," the Netrunner said, after some searching on his portable computer. "Let's go then." After asking for Savage in several bars without result, they decided to ask a local info broker who pointed to the direction of a place called Tarasco Bar, which was said to be the favorite hangout of many of LA's top Solos. The group found Tarasco Bar without much effort by simply walking in the direction of the noise. Loud music and the sound of fighting were universal pointers to anywhere a group of mercenaries gathered to have their equivalent of good time. Tarasco Bar turned out to be a large dimly-lit place where off-duty corporate enforcers and wannabes came to seek employment, alcohol and fistfights. The group walked inside and ordered drinks; Lobo took a double whisky, Ivan took a shot of tequila and Axmann took an entire bottle of vodka. They got a table that had a good view of the bar. "Hey you there with the leather jacket!" someone shouted. Lobo turned and at the same time reached for his pistol, hidden in a shoulder holster. "I thought it was you," said the stranger. "Nice to see you, Mac. How's the business going?" "Pretty good," said the monstrosity called Mac and sat down. Mac, known to his relatives as Richard McIntyre, was a Samson model full body conversion, optimized for construction work. Unlike most cyborgs he still had a friendly personality. He worked as steel worker at building sites and did some part-time jobs wherever some extra muscle was needed. His frame had been built and rebuilt time and time again during the 21 months he had occupied it so far, often because of the aforementioned part-time jobs, and currently looked like a patchwork of hundreds of pieces, some of which were never intended be a part of the frame of a complex cybernetic system. Lobo had known him since before his implantation and Mac was the only full 'borg he liked. "What's been going on in the city of angels?" "The same old stuff. Smuggling, gang wars, riots. Some things never change. Who are these guys and what brings you here?" "That tall one is Ivan and the other one's Axmann. You met him in that gun-running gig to El Paso four years ago. He was the one who fucked it up, remember." "It wasn't my fault!" "Whatever. We're here to find Jack Savage. Seen him around, have you?" "So you are the one seeking for Killer Jack," said a mocking, dry voice from the next table. The four men turned to look at the speaker, and nobody was ready for what they saw, which was a thin, white-haired man in a wheelchair. He was approximately 45 years old, but his arms twitched like those of an old man suffering from a serious case of Parkinson's. He had all the qualifications of a corpse, except for the fact that he was still moving. His eyes had the mad glow of someone who had taken far over his share of beating in his life, and was determined to spread the hurt around. "Who the fuck are you?" asked Ivan. "You can call me Mr. Eisenbach." "What do you know about Savage?" Ivan continued his interrogation. "Let's just say that we are partners. But the important question is who employed you to find him?" "None of your business," Lobo said. "Tell the man. Please," another voice said from behind him and the removal of the safety from the this new speaker's pistol suggested in the universal language of pistols everywhere that disagreement would end his life very suddenly. "Killer Jack Savage, I presume," said Lobo calmly. "Correct. Now, would you mind telling me why I'm all of the sudden on top of your Most Wanted list?" "Some old geezer came to see me and offered me 20 grand to find you. He called himself Mr. Smith. I got his calling card in my pocket. Registered to a bogus company." "Anything else worth telling?" "Some assassins iced Mr. K, so that he couldn't tell me where you are, but they were too late. They were working for somebody called Menendez." "Not Carlos Menendez, by any chance?" Eisenbach looked almost scared for a moment as he heard the name. "Don't know," Lobo answered and was relieved to notice that the pistol barrel was taken away from his neck and that Jack Savage sat down beside him. "Who is Carlos Menendez?" Mac asked. "The middle man to the Los Angeles Yakuza Oyabun," Eisenbach answered. Lobo looked at Jack Savage. What he saw in his eyes was the look of the perfect killer: unmerciful, sadistic, fearless and most importantly totally confident in himself. This was a man who would never back away from a fight, never surrender. He had know men like him, but they were all dead. He had killed some, in fact. "What does the Yakuza want with you guys?", asked Axmann, sipping another mouthful of Vodka. "They want something I stole from Tsunami when I ran from them and I think this old fuck you talked about wants the same thing. So when he hires you to find me, Menendez hears about it and tells the hit men to silence Mr. K and make the search a bit harder to assure that he would get to the thing first. He must've gotten the info from him already." "What is the thing you stole?" "It's a project they call Prometheus. Something worth a lot of cash to Biotechnica. That is, if I can get it to the East Coast alive. That's where you come in. Here's the deal. You help me get this Prometheus thing to the coast and get twenty thousand Euro each." "If we say no?" Axmann asked. "I kill you right now." "Oh." "All right. Twenty big ones for the four of us, as well as Samed, if he comes with us", Lobo summed up. "Voodoo Samed's here? Okay, fair enough." "I'm in", Lobo said. "Me too", Ivan agreed. "For God, Mother Russia and hard currency! I'm with you", Ivan yelled. "Okay. This ain't exactly a deal you can refuse", said Mac. "That's right. But I ain't gonna lie to you. This ain't gonna be easy. Almost all big corps, the organized crime and the government are gonna want this thing. But we got a something they don't." "What's that?" Axmann asked. "Me." As Lobo had thought, Samed agreed on Savage's offer. He did demand some extra cash to cover Savage's debts, to which the man complied grudgingly. The group decided to go to Night City and start their journey one day after that, as each of them had to buy some supplies. Lobo headed straight to his place and checked whether his bike was still there. After seeing that it indeed was the case he unfurled his sleeping bag and laid back to get some sleep. It had been a busy day. Chapter 3 - In Remembrance of the Dead Even though it was 3.30 AM, Hans Schultz wasn't sleeping. He was driving to a place where one of his sources had told that Hicks would be hiding. As he had estimated, Oates the dealer proved to be an easy deal. He had shot him once in the forehead with his pistol and after that had ripped his stomach open with a steak knife and drawn swastikas to the walls with his blood. An easy, yet enjoyable execution. The road was framed with oak trees and corporate-owned farmland. Something about the landscape reminded Hans of his faraway home. Not the weak republic that Germany was now, but his real, spiritual home. Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer. The land of the master race had been robbed from its rightful owner. There was not a place on the face of the world not filled to the brim with the despicable non-humans. And the situation had turned even worse in the many years. New kinds of horrors had surfaced. Homosexuals had only been the tip of the iceberg. The streets were now inhabited with exotic conversions, making men look like beasts, as well as Full Conversion Cyborgs, encasing human minds inside a body of cold metal. Burn it all, Hans thought. All this... impurity. The weak must be vanquished so that the strong may live. Only the mighty had the right to live. It was the law of Nature. Men could not argue with it. Even God was powerless against it. It was simply that way things had to be. Hans thought of all the deviants he had slain. His first had been a black man, who had come asking him for some small change. He had been so repulsive that Hans had grabbed a piece of pipe from a nearby trash heap and beat the man down with it. Then he had crushed his spine with a single stab. The impure wretch had dared to beg for mercy. There could never be any mercy for an animal, he had said. After the first kill, many more had followed. The newspapers had called him a murderer. How could that be possible? You murdered a human being. You exterminated a cancer. And that was what it had been all about. Extermination. The world was choking on its own filth. Oceans, once pure and blue, were now seas of brownish chemical sludge. Great forests had been long ago been cut down. The air was polluted. The Earth itself cried out for a savior. That's what Hans Schultz perceived himself to be. A new Messiah saving the world from the hands of the incompetent fools who had no right to rule it. The Aryans were the chosen ones, deemed fit to survive through the second great flood, with which God would wipe out the weak and tainted. But before this the chosen were to retake their stolen glory and build a new Reich that would last a thousand years. The time of trials was at hand. He had to be strong, so that he would receive his prize for doing God's bidding. The black Porsche turned to the parking lot of the small motel along the highway northwards of Night City. A small neon sign creaked ominously in the night wind. The car's headlights were turned off a mile before, as to minimize the chances of Hicks spotting him. The Bates Motel, room 27, the informant had said. He'd better be right, for his own sake. Hans stepped out, walked to the trunk and pulled out his German Army assault rifle. Silent like a shadow, the German crept quietly towards the door, activating his light amplification goggles. He stayed standing next to the door and listened. Then all of the sudden he smashed the door open with his black boot and sprayed a burst inside. No sounds, no movement. The bed was empty. No suitcases and no signs of occupancy. Hans was puzzled. Had the source deceived him? After the few silent seconds, Hicks jumped from the closet and hit Hans in the back of the neck with a baseball bat, causing his rifle to drop from his grip. Without looking behind, Hicks began to run for his life. Hans cursed in German and grabbed his weapon from the floor. He ran outside and saw that his prey was running along the road. After firing a couple of useless shots at him, he rushed to his car and drove to pursuit. In his terror, Hicks didn't realize that he should have ran away from the road, instead of running along it. He saw the sleek black car coming towards him and just kept running, his senses paralyzed by mortal fear. A moment later there was a small thump and a sickening crunch as the car hit him. Hans pulled over and went to admire his handiwork. Vehicular manslaughter wasn't his favorite method of termination but he liked this one. He drew a small swastika next to the late Hicks' head with a piece of chalk that he kept in his pocket for this very purpose. Life just didn't get any better. In twenty minutes Hans was on the road, happily whistling to the latest song by a band the DJ had called Redneck Revolution. The lyrics were foreign to him, but seemed to revolve around the stereotype American hillbilly entertainment forms of beer, moonshine, women and hunting. It was true what they said about America, he thought. It truly was the land of opportunity. In no other land on the face of the world would such incredible garbage be considered music. Hans liked the place. It wasn't comparable to das Vaterland, for it was much more corrupt and filled with the inferiors but he still liked it. With some changes... it could be a new, strong home for the Aryan race. It was a beautiful city, in its own way. Devoid of both the random street violence and urban despair of the Americans and the tight security and control of the Europeans, the place was on the edge. It could collapse either way, or it could stay there, balancing forever between chaos and order. That was what had attracted the Frenchman's interest in the first place. The Edge. The city was called Helsinki. It was the capital of the small country of Finland, in the northernmost corner of East Europe. Most Americans probably didn't know of its existence and they didn't they want to know. To the silent Frenchman sitting on a wooden bench this city felt like a second home. He had been exiled from France and America just wasn't right. But in this cold land he was welcomed. The climate was unstable to the extreme and the local language incomprehensible, but something had drawn him here and kept him here for the last eight weeks. Soon he would have to return to America, but until then he was going to enjoy this place. The bench was on the edge of a square paved with granite. In the middle of it was a statue raised in remembrance to the victims of the North War, fought only two years ago. It had been a war over vast mineral deposits found by Norwegian geologists. As Norway had been on the brink of a nation-wide financial collapse, a secret plan had been forged to launch an armed attack to recover them. The attack had been swift and efficient, but the Finns replied with a counter-assault, helped by reinforcements from the Russian, Chinese and Estonian armies. The battle line moved back north, slowly but with all the inertia of a continental drift. Finally the old border was reached, and there the battles ended. After the war, Finland cut all its ties, commercial and political, with the western Europe, who had stood watching, doing nothing. It was said that great European corporations had in fact orchestrated the war to deplete Norway's resources and causing it to fall to their hands. Nobody managed to prove it. But from that day on, Finland had been alone in Europe. Their borders were closed to European residents. To the Frenchman this was of no significance whatsoever, since he had long ago been forced to cut his ties to the land of his family. He traveled across the world on a South African passport, despite the fact he had never laid his foot down on the country. Money could get you anything. It was a sad fact, yet true nevertheless. The statue was a sixty-foot high black obelisk, made of polished granite. On the sides there were no decorations, only the names of all Finnish soldiers who had died protecting the home of them and their ancestors. On the side facing him, the Frenchman saw the gold lettering of the only piece of writing apart from the names. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Ten years ago the Frenchman had been a soldier, fighting for a country that was not his home. He had been a soldier of fortune caught in a war fought in secret. His brothers in arms had not received a fancy memorial. In fact some of them hadn't even got a grave. They were just left behind for scavengers to feast upon. There was no glory in war, no honor in death. On the far edge of the square, two hundred meters away, there was the cathedral, white as the snow that covered it during the cold winter months. It was a magnificent building, with its turquoise roofs and great pillars. From the walls, five-meter tall statues of all twelve Apostles looked down on the ground. Currently a work crew was slowly but surely taking one of them down for repairs. It was the statue of Judas. The Frenchman looked as the stone figure was lowered by thick chains on the back of a waiting truck. On the steps leading to this place of worship there were people, sunbathing, reading or just enjoying the lovely day. The Frenchman looked at them for a long time, then he reached for the black leather cello case to his left. Slowly and surely he undid the buckles and took out his instrument. It was magnificent, a true work of craft. The cello was built of ebony and decorated with brass. It was ancient, unique and absolutely priceless. It had been hand-crafted for one of the Frenchman's ancestor, sometime in the early 20th century. Nothing like it could be made in this decadent age. The man took out the black bow and slowly plucked at the strings. The pitch was perfect, as was the day. He began to play. The Frenchman's fingers danced upon the instrument and music filled the air. It was an old song, composed sometime in the nineties. He couldn't recall the artist and the words had long since faded from his memory, but even in his deathbed he would remember the name of the song. Unforgiven. The Frenchman was a man of many talents, but two of them were greater than the others. For one, he was one of the world's best living cello players. Secondly, he was one of the world's best contract killers. The Frenchman followed a few simple principles. He was an assassin, not a murderer. When working, he always made sure that only his intended victim was killed and secondary casualties avoided. Unlike his brutal American counterparts, he was neat and aspired to execute his targets with minimum amount of pain and suffering. He was one of the best and yet he hated his work. Every single bit of it. It filled him with an inexplicable revulsion that he knew he could never overcome. Chapter 4 - Sinister Meetings While Lobo and his companions were preparing for the long travel, the Englishman prepared to report his success to his boss. He was nervous. Many of the street operatives he had hired were now dead. Many due to Menendez but according to the word on the street some due to Savage himself. Like Menendez, the Englishman's boss was also an intolerant person. But the Englishman comforted himself with the thought that his second plan would work if everything else failed. His private deliberations were accompanied by the ticking of the large clock hanging on the wall. The Englishman was sitting on an antique bench in a cold and drafty corridor, next to the door to the Chairman's office. On the far wall there was a painting of one of the Chairman's ancestors. The picture in itself was in no way extraordinary, but the person depicted was. He was an old man, presumably in his eighties, yet his eyes had the zealous glow of a youngster and the arrogance of a middle-aged man. The same mixture of emotions could be seen in the dark eyes of the Chairman himself His thoughts were interrupted by the beautiful French secretary who informed him that the boss would see him now. The Englishman stepped to the large office and closed the door behind him. The room was large and its windows gave an excellent view to the garden, where small crab-like robots worked endlessly on the flower beds and fruit trees. Almost all furniture was genuine wood, a sign of a good taste and an endless expense account. It was the sort of office used by the obscenely wealthy and the obscenely powerful, or in this particular case, both. The old man behind the ebony desk waited for a moment and then began to speak with a dry, cracking voice. "Tell me, Mr. Carruthers, have your efforts been fertile?" "No, sir. Several of the street operatives have been assassinated. We believe that Mr. Menendez is behind this." "Why does the Yakuza keep this... this... Mexican in their payroll?" the man asked, pronouncing the word with the tone that racists usually reserved for minorities. "Connections, sir. He knows a great deal of the smugglers and drug dealers in the area, and since many of them are his countrymen, he is a diplomatic aide to the organization." "Since you have failed, Carruthers, why should we keep you alive as you are clearly of no use to us?" asked another speaker, who until this moment had been sitting in a 19th century antique sofa. Now the obese man was standing and wiping sweat from his flat forehead with a silk handkerchief. "Because, Mr. Dolvich, here in Europe we usually give people a second chance, unlike you in the East," answered the old man with an authoritative voice. Carruthers smiled to himself. Even though the old man was 97 years old, tied to a wheelchair and breathed with the help of an oxygen tank, the Chairman still pulled the strings in the organization. He had run it for 50 years and would continue to do so until his death. Which was due very soon, he reminded himself. After that the associates would choose a new leader, most likely Dolvich. He knew that if that happened, his days would be numbered. But right now the Russian gangster was harmless. "I'm sure that Mr. Carruthers is just itching to prove his worth to us," the old man concluded with a cruel smile. "I assure you that you will have the Prometheus unit in your possession in a short time." "Good. You are dismissed." Carruthers closed the door behind him and sighed. He hoped he could fulfill the promise he had just given, for his own sake. He could not use a large-scale operation, for the risk of drawing unwanted attention to the organization was too great. So it was time for his contingency plan. Carruthers took out his mobile phone and called Matthews, his personal contact in America. Time to hire the true professionals. Meanwhile Samed was showing Savage all the new toys he'd got and the others were testing some of them in his warehouse. Axmann was trying out the new Militech Mark V assault rifle while Mac was reloading a South African 40mm automatic grenade launcher, originally intended as a riot gun but adapted to fire standard issue US Army fragmentation shells with a near-machinegun rate. "Hey Savage, where's this Prometheus thing now?" asked Lobo, who was watching the two men destroying paper targets with some interest. "It's being hauled here on the back of my truck. One of my friends is driving it and he should be here in ten minutes. The truck also contains some other stuff that might come in handy." After 15 minutes a battered Ford van drove to the yard and almost crashed into Lobo's Harley. Two men stepped out. The driver was a thin man who looking vaguely Spanish with messed-up long and filthy black hair. He was dressed in a colorful sports jacket bearing the logo of the New Orleans Alligators combat football team. The other passenger was a tall muscular man with long blond hair and the manner of a soldier. He walked to Savage and greeted him in German. The men exchanged a few words. "Who's he?", asked Lobo. "This is Otto. He doesn't speak very good English, unfortunately. He is new to our group." At this point Axmann came out running, waving a piece of paper in his hand. "Just contacted Agamemnon and it seems that we have found the other one of the guys who killed Mr. K. He is dead. Somebody ran him over with a car and drew a swastika next to his head with his own blood." "How do you know that's our man?" "He had bought a plane ticket from Seattle at the same time as O'Connel. They sat next to each other. I confirmed with one of Samed's guards that he was one of the men who bought the guns. Also, a man called Nathan Oates was killed in his apartment. Single bullet to the forehead. After that the killer opened his stomach and drew a swastika to the wall with his guts. Oates was a sort of a talent agent for contract killers and he was believed to have contacts in the Yakuza. According to phone records, he had called O'Connel several times. He was likely to be the contract agent of the two killers, and he was killed as his clients delivered substandard service. Welcome to the big league," Axmann concluded. "They failed and their employer got pissed off," Lobo said gloomily. Meanwhile, Savage was trying to explain all this to Otto, who was aware of that something interesting had happened, but couldn't understand what. Suddenly the big man snatched the papers from Axmann's hand and leafed through them until he found the crime scene photos. He obviously didn't like what he saw, and begun to talk excitedly to Savage about something. "What's he talkin' 'bout?" Samed asked. "It seems that Otto here knows the man who did this. He is a German mercenary called Hans Friedrich Schultz. He is a fanatical member of the Neo-Nazi party and he and Otto have crossed swords before. Otto wants some kind of payback for something Schultz did. Anyway, we ain't got time for this now. Our boat is waiting." "Boat?" asked anyone in unison. "More about that later" Carlos Menendez was sweating heavily. Though he didn't know it, he was in the exactly same position as Carruthers some hours earlier. He didn't like his superiors. Oyabun Yashida was a remarkably ruthless man. It was rumored that he had once had a man executed for interrupting his thoughts. That kind of stuff scared Menendez. He walked along the dirty gravel path. Yashida never met low level operatives in his office. Probably so that he didn't have to wash the blood from the carpet so often. This time the meeting place would be a public park, a very dangerous place in the 21st century. He was just sitting there on a bench. Menendez often wondered whether the man had any sense of self preservation at all. The two bodyguards standing on the back weren't going to help him at all if some of the dozens of constantly warring combat gangs decided that the park was their turf. "Good evening, Oyabun, Menendez greeted. "Tell me something, Carlos. You have killed 4 operatives, all looking for this man Savage. But we still don't know anything about the employer of the said operatives, the man known to them and us as the Englishman." "That's no longer correct, sir. A couple of the nerds dug up some info about him, based on the descriptions we got. His name is Alfred Carruthers, age 68, presumed to be working for the Syndicate." "What is this... Syndicate?" "A group of wealthy Europeans who are believed to be calling the shots behind street gangs, terrorist organizations and even some small governments. They have been in existence since World War 2 and it's said that they are quite powerful," Menendez finished, reading from the file he had in hand and gave it to Yashida. "This may require a change of plan, sir. We are clearly dealing with professionals here," he continued nervously. "Nonsense, Carlos. I have talked to the higher powers and they see no reason for unnecessary caution. Savage must turn up eventually, and when he does we'll send Schultz after him." "Alone?" "No. With my new best friend Adam," said a voice behind him. Menendez turned around slowly. He looked at Schultz and his companion for quite some time. "As you wish, sir," he finally mumbled and left. "Why is that incompetent fool still alive?" hissed Schultz when Menendez was well beyond hearing distance. "Because he is still useful to us. You may take care of him after he has found Savage." "If he finds him." "He'll find him. He knows he hasn't got a choice." "So tell us about this big plan of yours", Ivan said while lifting a heavy packing crate out of the truck. "It's simple. We go to San Francisco with this boat here and meet the Digital Librarians. We go to Salt Lake City with them while some dork I hire distracts Menendez and the Englishman by driving a truck to Seattle with a bunch of boosters going there for a rock concert. I've set up a false crate and a little surprise to the back. I also tipped some street contacts with the info that I'll go north with my cargo. It'll work just fine. I hope." The organization known as the Digital Librarians was interested on the preservation of knowledge. Some of them were professors or reporters, but the overwhelming majority were homeless people and Nomads. The Librarians traveled across North America in a huge caravan of road vehicles, always on the lookout for new materials for their database. They collected old books, magazines, recordings, videos and other types of published information. If you gave a Librarian an old book, he was your friend for life. They made valuable allies, as they believed that information was a free commodity and therefore didn't demand money for using their resources. Lobo watched the boat being loaded. It was a former fishing boat, converted so far you couldn't guess its origin without being told. The boat was patched with metal plates as thick and rusted that they've could have been ripped from the wreck of the Titanic. Lobo wished that they would steer clear of any storms. If the ship was bad, then the crew was the absolute scum. Over-cybered and high on drugs, they weren't a best choice to crew a ship that should by all logic be lying in the bottom by the sea. Axmann was nervously chewing his nails. Lobo knew he couldn't swim. Samed was negotiating with his suppliers with his cellphone. Eisenbach was overseeing the loading of the ship. After all the crates were on board Lobo walked to the ship. He hoped that Savage's plan would work. The word on the street said that some people from the CIA were flashing their badges and saying something about national security. They were also very keen on finding Savage. He wondered what was inside the steel crate that was so valuable. He'd have to find out. Albert Morris was a information broker. Not a good one, but he had few advantages. One of them was the fact that his perception of truth could be easily influenced or outright altered by cash. So when some man came to him, gave him lots of money and told him to tell all those asking for Savage that was going north with the boosters, he was happy to do so. He had put the word in motion. Some guys had come to ask about Savage around noon. He told them what they wanted to know, got paid 20 bucks and was told to tell any others otherwise. Which he, in turn, didn't. It was 3 o'clock. Many people had come to him asking about Savage. He seemed to be in popular demand. Some of the men were typical street gophers, some were with the corporations and one clean-cut man in a black suit said he was working for the government. Albert was currently sitting in a bar called Totentanz, high in the top floor of one of the old office towers, wasting some of the day's profit. Suddenly two men walked to the bar and began to talk to the bartender. Albert watched them. One was a slim white man wearing a facemask. Probably a cultist of something, Morris thought. The other was a full body conversion. The information salesman looked at him with a bizarre mix of hate and dread. Morris didn't usually deal with their kind, because he thought they were a blasphemy against God. Despite being street scum, he still believed in God. After all, what other hope was there? The two potential customers turned in his direction and started to walk towards him. "We have something to discuss, human." asked the cyborg. Morris fought back a tide of rage. How did the thing dare? "We wish to know about a man called Savage," said the thin man, from behind the sleek mask. "I might know something. For a price." "Of course," the man said and laid down a few fifty-dollar bills. "The word on the street says he's going to north. To Seattle. Some motorcycle gang's going there for some concert and he's going to hang along with them. For protection, see?" "Thank you," concluded the cyborg and the pair walked out of the bar. Another virtue of Morris was that he always knew when things got too hot for him. He had collected some money by telling that lie, and it would get him far enough to avoid anybody who'd come looking for him after the lie came up. People didn't react very well when they found out that they'd been cheated. Before he had the chance to leave, Morris saw another man walking towards him. This one was tall and looked European. "Good evening. I'm looking for a man called Jack Savage and I was told you know where he is," the Frenchman said and sat down on the barstool next to him. The ship left Night City harbor without much comment. Ships came and went all the time. Nobody gave a fuck. Apart from the quiet observer in a small sailor's pub nearby. Cold eyes scanned the ship, behind expensive sunglasses. Very clever, the Frenchman thought. He had talked to Morris and, unlike the others, could sense the lie. The info merchant was good in telling lies, but unfortunately the Frenchman was very, very good in detecting them. He was rather tired, as his mission had included a lot of footwork so far. He had had to walk around town for quite long to find Morris. A sufficient amount of torture, used on the unfortunate man, had given him everything he needed to know. Since, as mentioned before, the Frenchman was a remarkably civilized man, he had given the info broker a considerable reward and a lift to the nearest hospital. Now he was sitting in a table, drinking some sort of home-distilled alcohol. He was disgusted. Compared to the fine wines he was accustomed to, this drink was a hanging offence. He dug a phone out of his pocket and made a call. "I have managed to locate them. They're going somewhere on a boat." "Does Menendez know?" the voice on the other end asked. "No." "Good. Find out their destination and follow them. I will inform you of further orders." "As you wish," the observer said and hung up. This was strange. His employers usually wanted him to kill somebody. But he was getting paid so it was, to him, all the same. In fact, he welcomed the change. After 30 executions in a single year, some surveillance work is always nice. It wasn't his specialty, but he was as adept in it as the most expensive operatives on this side of the Atlantic. His employer had hinted that his prey might be heading to Dover. This also suited him fine. It had been a long time since he had been home. Chapter 5 - Carnage and a T-shirt The weather was actually rather good, to the relief of Lobo. It didn't help Axmann, though. At the moment the little man was throwing up. Lobo smiled. He had known Axmann for a quite long time and the man was nauseous in every environment. Whether it was in a ship, a plane, a submarine or on Earth orbit, Axmann was guaranteed to feel sick. Ivan was taking the trip easy, and was currently cleaning his AK-47 that had probably seen combat with at least three generations of the Tarasov family. Lobo had first met Ivan on a covert sabotage operation in Alaska. He quickly begun to like the man and considered him to be amongst his short list of trustworthy people. His strength and raw skill had proved vital in Alaska, and could prove vital here too. He thought about his opposition. He had heard stories about Hans Schultz. He seemed to be a total psychotic killer, whose criminal record was miles long. His personality was not helped by the fact that some Anti-Nazis had set up a bomb inside his car, destroying his face in the process. Rumors said that he had a pistol holster made out of human skin. Lobo's contemplations were interrupted by Savage, who came from below deck and sat down on an old packing crate next to him. "Tell me something. Does your buddy Ivan ever take that hat off?" "No. He claims he keeps it because its a present from his father, but really he wears it because it's got a Kevlar layer on the inside. It has stopped more than one pistol shot from ripping his head clean off. By the way, how are we gonna get to the Librarians' caravan? They'll want some kind of compensation, especially for hot cargo like this." "I thought about that too. I'll tell you as soon as I come up with something." "Don't have to. I know that already", interrupted Axmann, who had stopped vomiting for a while. "Well?" "The Librarians want copies of every piece of info and entertainment ever made, right? We just let Agamemnon check out whether the archive has something they don't have. If that don't work, we can always try buying our way in." "It's worth a thought. Excuse me," Savage said and returned below deck. He found what he was looking for in the lowermost cargo hold. His driver and part-time Net-nerd Rico had set up a camp there. An high-tech portable workstation linked to a combat cellular cyberdeck was hardly visible in a pile of trash and Smash containers. Rico was happily asleep, but a sharp kick to his side swiftly woke him up. "Do have something to tell me?" "Sure. First this Russian, Ivan Tarasov, born in Vladivostok in 1985, former army sergeant, been working for SovOil, Militech and Net54 as security. Then we have Mister Axmann, real name Ludvig Günther Vogelsang, born in Vienna in 1987, father was a financial con artist. After he was discovered by Europol in 2001, the family moved to LA. Ludvig has a degree in computer science, he's an alcoholic and he throws up great parties." "Not the only thing he throws up", Savage added, smiling thinly. "What about our man Lobo?" "Nothing, no insurance, no State Identification Number, no weapon permit, nothing that matches his face. He's either been completely erased from the record or he's never even been there in the first place. Nothing I can do." "Could it be possible he is a government man or a corporate agent?" "Could be. Then again, he might be a Mafia traitor after a witness relocation program. He could be a mercenary laying low. He could even actually be a Nomad. Wouldn't go guessing' anything till I get at least some info. So keep your goddamn nerves cool, okay? Last thing we need is a bloodshed." "Anything interesting about the borg?" "No. Just some useless job records. He's been working as a construction worker for a long time. Nothing illegal. He's an amateur." "Somehow that fails to reassure me. Keep looking" Meanwhile on the top deck Lobo had started a conversation with Eisenbach, who had with great difficulty and the help of Otto managed to get his wheelchair to the deck. "So, what's your connection in all this? How did you get tangled up with Savage?" "I was a Tsunami researcher working on a top secret chemical weapon project for the Japanese. Something went wrong in the preliminary tests. Next thing I knew, I was paralyzed from the waist below, plus some godawful side effects, and the piece of shit corporate lawyers refused to pay for a body replacement, on account of me violating some totally unheard-of sub-clause in my contract. Savage came to me and proposed this deal as a sort of a chance to get even. So here I am." "What about The Millenium Troopers? If they're so powerful, why doesn't he use them in this?" "For the reason that they don't exist. Not in the sense the media believes them to. In reality there are 13 Troopers as opposed to the 60-70 the news say. Most of them are just deal makers, making deals and getting supplies. The rest of the work is carried out by independent contractors who never know about the big plan." "Why all the fucking charade?" "He finds it amusing. And it also makes tracking us difficult and we have the advantage of mobility, since our numbers are small." The ship was approaching San Francisco. Already the red arch of the Golden Gate bridge could be seen in the horizon. Scarred by time, acid rain and explosions, it wasn't as majestic sight as it had once been, but at least it was still there, more than what could be said about many other famous pre-collapse landmarks of America. Very few cars went across, because of the poor condition and because of a local gang, who had declared the bridge their turf. There was one car parked in the middle of the once so great bridge. It was a BMW XT 275, a high performance sports toy for rich kids who had the cash to pay for the best. Its owner was currently looking at the ship. So far this operation had been easy for the Frenchman. All it took was a couple of bribes to some drunken pirates, and they had told him everything he wanted to know. Very often the right answers were at people's grasp, but they failed to realize it. If the others in the hunt had bothered to pay attention to their work, they'd be here as well, instead of going after a bunch of motorcyclists. The Frenchman was aware of the presence of the Digital Librarians in the city, and had guessed Savage's plan. Very clever. His ears caught a sound of some motorcycles coming his way. He turned to look at the origin of it. Three bikes had pulled over next to his car and their owners were approaching. They were members of a local gang, clad in black leather. One was Japanese but the other two looked like Americans. One of them, a thin blond-haired man, spoke. The other white man, who was considerably bigger than his friends, cracked his knuckles. "Get the hell off our turf, motherfucker", he said. "Who are you to give orders to me?" the Frenchman replied calmly. "Why don't you boys run along home before somebody gets hurt." "Somebody's gonna get hurt all right. It's gonna be you," the other one threatened. "I doubt it. If it is fight you want, you shall get it. I shall issue a polite warning though, as I am a master in the arts of Savate and Capoeira." "And we are the masters of killing big-mouthed corporate fucks who come to our territory. C'mon, fucker, time to die." The big one was the first to attack. He charged his opponent and swept wildly with his fists. To his surprise his opponent evaded each and every blow with a deadly precision. He seemed to be dancing around his bulky adversary, the delicate movements only interrupted by deadly kicks to his opponent's weak spots. Somehow the larger man managed to grab him in a hold, but the European assassin just jumped over his shoulders and broke his neck in one swift movement. Before the body hit the ground, the Japanese man threw himself upon the mysterious opponent. The Frenchman was pushed to the ground by the punk's attack, but he then proceeded to throwing his adversary away and getting up with an elegant jumping maneuver. The two combatants begun circling each other, both looking for fatal weaknesses in the other's movements. The Frenchman slowly drew two curved knives from his belt and approached the Asian with long sweeping strikes that made the man retreat. "It's not too late to give up, you know," he said. "I won't stop until you're dead," was the only reply of the Japanese man. "So be it. May God have mercy on your soul." While talking, the Frenchman evaded a quick kick from the other man, who had crept behind him. He spun around and slashed deep wound on the man's forearms. The combat went on. The two punks were totally unable to harm their mysterious enemy, as he danced around them, slashing and kicking. The leather-clad assailants were seemingly angry. Then the Japanese one pulled out a shuriken and threw it at the Frenchman, who was busy blocking a hit aimed for his abdomen, and therefore couldn't dodge the attack. The throwing knife sunk deep into his shoulder. The impact didn't slow the man down. On the contrary, the his counter-attack was even more ferocious than before. He swept, slashed and kicked until finally a hole was found in his opponent's defense. He thrust out his hand, impaling the booster in his knife. "Who the hell are you?" asked the last of the men, now white-faced with fear. He stared at his enemy, who was currently pulling the shuriken from his shoulder, after having carefully cleaned his knife with the shirt of his dead adversary. The European was a tall man, not very handsome, but his presence radiated some sort of aura of professionality. "My name is Philippe Caderousse, nice to meet you. As there seems to be no reason to continue this fight, you'll surely allow me to leave." Caderousse walked to his car and drove away, leaving his dumbfounded opponent standing on the bridge. That had been most unwise, he thought some miles later. By nightfall it'd be popular knowledge that he was in town. His name wasn't unknown even on the West Coast. If Lobo and Savage heard about him, it could jeopardize the whole mission. It had brought back a lot of old memories. About the covert operation in Korea or that sniper job in Boston or that jungle mission in Colombia with his partner and friend Sanchez. Those were the good old days. And besides, there was no real reason to eliminate the last man. Just because you killed people for money was no reason not to have morals. This is too easy, Schultz thought. But what else could be expected from the American savages? They were inferior to the Aryan race, he reminded himself. He checked the roadblock one more time. They had set up some of their vehicles across the road just after a tight turn. That should make them stop or at least slow down considerably. And that's when the heavy weapons teams would take out the gang members, leaving him and Adam to handle the truck and its passengers. It would work. It was a plan forged in the mind of a devout member of the master race, so it couldn't fail. The forward observer team informed them that the caravan would be here in two minutes. Hans reloaded his sniper rifle. He would take out the truck's driver, eliminating their chances of getting away. Adam was crouched next to him. On the cyborg's left hand there was a Tsunami Arms Helix gatling shotgun, one of the largest personal firearms Hans had ever seen. Then they came. After the short moments of confusion came the equally short moments of carnage. Hans got the driver in his sights and fired. He was satisfied as he saw that almost all resistance was wiped out, mostly by Adam, who ran to the middle of the fight and shot people until his ammo was all spent, at which point he began beating them up. As the last of the resistance were either killed or fled, the heavy weapons teams came out of the woods and set up a perimeter around the truck. "Takagi, Kurosawa! Open the doors!" Adam bellowed. The two men obeyed and carefully opened the back doors and backed away. There was nothing but a large metal crate marked with the logos of Tsunami and labels with biohazard signs. "This is too easy! We've been tricked!" screamed Hans and swore a long litany of curses in German. "Let's see what's in the box," Adam said and begun to rip open the lid. "It could be a trap," Hans yelled and ordered everyone to step back, but Adam seemed unworried by the possible danger. When one's skin is replaced by inch-thick armor plating, one tends get slightly ignorant of things lethal to common mortals. With a crack of breaking metal, the lid of the box gave up. Adam, Hans and some of the other men looked at the content quietly. It was a T-shirt. Upon closer inspection, they noticed what was written in the back. "I was tricked by the world's best mercenary, and all I got was this stupid T-shirt." Hans resumed his swearing. Adam began to laugh. "Sergeant Norogu, contact Oyabun Yashida and report that Savage's location is still unconfirmed and that the search of him should be recommenced to cover the whole West Coast," Hans ordered and then watched as his communications officer ran to his transport to relay the message. Harakawa, the electronics man and radar operator came running to them. "We have company! Two attack choppers and two transports coming from the south!" he shouted. "The Army?" asked Adam. "Let's not stick around to find out. Evacuate all teams now!" The whole strike team packed themselves to their aerodynes and led the scene. Fifteen minutes later, the first of the Army arrived. They were not just any common grunts, they were Powered Armor Troopers, the elite force reserved for the direst of emergencies and the blackest of black ops. Their leader, Captain Matthews, emerged from his chopper transport after his men had secured the area. He was accompanied by two men dressed in black suits. Matthews had pulled secret operations for twenty years, and this was the first time he had to take federal agents along. He had been briefed about Savage and his highly dangerous cargo but in his opinion that didn't justify the fact that they were working as a taxi service for mere civilians. The two agents were silent during the trip, so he didn't even know which agency the worked for. Matthews was noticeably pissed off. "You boys got names, or do those DC boys just give you serial numbers?" "My name is Simmons. Agent Simmons. And my associate here is agent Johnson", said the agent without showing any signs of noticing the sarcasm in the Lieutenant's voice. "CIA?" "Yes. You see, Mr. Matthews, we have now officially classified Savage and his cargo as a threat to national security. His capture is imperative before the item is smuggled out of the country or used in a terrorist attack on US soil." "And naturally you can't tell me what this 'item' of yours is, right?" "That is correct, Mr. Matthews," agent Simmons said, smiling an emotionless smile. Mr. Matthews. He'd be damned if he wasn't Lieutenant to a pair of arrogant men in black. His men called him Matthews, but that didn't matter. What mattered was the fact that this arrogant piece of government crap thought he was somehow superior to him. Last good thing that came out of the DC was the Martial Law, he thought. In those times, men like Simmons were nothing. In those times, it was the men like Matthews that called the shots. It had all changed now. Matthews left the agents standing alongside the truck and went to his men. This whole thing had the feeling of something illegal. It could be a some kind of a new chemical weapon developed by a big corporation and now fallen into wrong hands. The original designers undoubtedly wanted it back, and many other megacorporations would like to get their hands on it too. This situation had all the signs of being capable of beginning a new corporate war. They already had the conflict between OTEC and CINO and a tremendous amount of tension between Militech and Arasaka, they didn't need new trouble. Meanwhile Simmons and Johnson were walking amongst the debris. They came across nothing of use in identifying the attackers, and returned to the group of soldiers. "Have you got information on the vehicles that were spotted leaving the scene?", Simmons asked from the squad's radar officer, a man called Forrest. "Yes, sir! We spotted one AV-9 gunship, two AV-11 transports and three Yakuchi AAVPC-6 transports. The current estimate goes between 20 to 45 attackers, sir!" Forrest yelled and snapped to full attention. "At ease, soldier. I was talking more about the identity of the attacking force. Any info on that?" "No, sir." "That is disappointing, but not unexpected. Nothing further. Carry on, soldier." Simmons walked away and left Johnson to call to the headquarters Washington. His informant had been right. The Yakuza was on the hunt as well. But an attack of this size? That was impossible. Oyabun Yashida was, according to all reports, a very careful man and wouldn't sanction this kind of operation under normal circumstances. Besides, the traces indicated more in the direction of a military operation. Either the circumstances were extraordinary or somebody else was pulling the strings. He would have to bring the matter up in his next discussion with his man on the inside. There were also the rumors about the Syndicate involvement in all this. Simmons wondered whether this was really the case. The Syndicate was created, according to rumors before World War II as a contingency plan in case Nazis had won the war. It started out as a group of wealthy Europeans transferring their wealth out of the banks of Europe to many countries in South America, and ended up as a major driving force behind the crime in the US. They always acted behind the scenes and never came forward. If they too were looking for Savage and the Millenium Troopers, then the prize was indeed a valuable one. He had to be the first to get his hands on it. Just thinking what the terrorist organizations could do with it was enough. There was no other choice. Chapter 6 - Dream of a Machine San Francisco. Lobo was been there many times before, but this time he had higher stakes than ever before. After arriving to the port, they had loaded their cargo to a black former Army truck that had been waiting for them. The driver was a thin Asian man who talked very little. During the loading Lobo had sneaked a peek of one of the crates. Inside there were some radio detonators, 3 pounds of plastic explosive and a German Army anti-tank missile launcher. Prometheus, as Savage called it, was in a unmarked featureless metal crate locked with a fingerprint scanner along with a complex electronic lock system. Probably only Savage himself could open it. When all of the cargo was on board, they took off, Savage sitting in the front with the driver. Inside the truck was uncomfortable to say the least as there were six people sitting there in addition of the large arms crates, but they managed. The journey lasted something around a half an hour, and then they came to a halt. Lobo stepped out first. As he tried to look around he heard the very familiar sound of many firearms being loaded. He sighed, put his hands up and turned to face the sound. What he saw were many young men and women armed with assorted firearms ranging from Uzis to home-made rifles. The truck was in a some sort of warehouse filled with large metallic shipping crates. "Which one of you is in charge?" Lobo asked. "That would be me," a young man answered, stepping out of the crowd. Lobo laughed. The boy claiming to be the leader couldn't have been no older than seventeen. His laugher died down after seeing the grim looks of the other Librarians. "This is a joke, right?" "I assure you that I'm rather serious. The Head Librarian is otherwise occupied and he has sent me to function as a negotiator. He doesn't trust you very much, and quite frankly I don't blame him. You people need a transport to Salt Lake City, am I right? Have you got something to buy this favor with?" "Ever heard of Agamemnon?" Axmann cut in. "Of course. Ten CPUs, nine thousand units of memory plus WORM drives, an AA-23 mathematics coprocessor assisted with a Zetatech TK-421 numeric memory management unit. In short, the current number two in the list of the most powerful non-corporate sentient computers on this planet." "Done your homework all right, kid. But that final part's bullshit. No computer could ever come close to that without being a corporate toy. Nobody outside the megacorps needs that kind of processing power," Axmann protested. "Agamemnon is a mighty computer but, like I said, the current number two. Number one is Socrates, our archive keeper and judging from what I know about Agamemnon, I believe he's in the same business, or whatever you like to call it. But enough of this. What about Agamemnon?" "I could give you a free access to his databanks. What do you say?" "It's a deal." "Good. I'll go with you, because you'll need somebody to open the gates." Axmann returned to the truck to get his deck. He came out with battered duffel bag covered with assorted stains. He dug out an old Aztec Model 500 combat deck which had quite likely been sat on, thrown, beaten, shot at and hit several times with various blunt instruments during its time of use. Rico, Savage's cowboy, burst into laughter when he saw it. Axmann didn't mind. Instead he just connected the cables and sat down, waiting for the kid to return. After approximately 5 minutes he came back carrying a Zetatech Parraline 6790 deck linked to some sort of satellite data uplink device. "Now that's what I call a deck," Rico commented while opening a can of Smash. "Yeah right. Sure, that thing looks flashy, but this baby has it where it counts. I've made some modifications myself." "Ready when you are," the boy said and hooked himself to the Net. "On your tail, kid." Axmann felt the familiar sensation of falling as he flew through the matrix. He was in the Net. He could see the kid, his Icon a photorealistic representation of himself in a black suit and Ray-Ban sunglasses. Axmann himself used the image of Fox Mulder, though he was rather tired of people not knowing what it was supposed to represent. After some highly tedious navigation of long distance links and phone connections, they were at Agamemnon's datafortress. It's walls were different from normal. Instead of being black and textureless like most of the datawalls elsewhere, they looked as they were made of granite. "Those are the best walls there are. Chiba coding. Costs thousands of dollars but you need some an army of runners and some heavy icebreakers to get past them. I tested it myself." "Impressive." They came to a gate to the system. Immediately the system launched a watchdog program to bar their way. It appeared as a smallish black red-eyed pit bull terrier made of steel. The program seemed to scan Axmann and then it shut itself down, allowing them entry. Axmann proceeded to the gate and punched in the access code. The massive gate slowly opened to reveal only darkness beyond. The two Netrunners walked inside. The virtual system was huge. In the center were the 10 CPUs and surrounding them were the dozens of memory units. As the kid approached one of them, Agamemnon manifested himself. He didn't appear from nowhere; it was more like some tiny particles of the entire system had condensed themselves to a single spot and shaped an image of themselves. The image was a man made of chrome and steel. His eyes were green LED's. "Greetings," he said with the polite voice of a gentleman. "So, you are the one they call Agamemnon," the kid answered. "Give him access rights to the archive. We made a deal," Axmann said. "The system lords will not like this and you know it. If they find out, you are in deep trouble. This way, gentlemen," Agamemnon said and pointed to a virtual console some distance away. When he got there, Agamemnon pressed a small blue button on it and the landscape changed. The CPUs, memory units and datawalls faded. They were replaced by a realistic rendition of a gargantuan library. There were hundreds of bookshelves the tops of which couldn't be seen in the dim light provided by blackened iron chandeliers hanging from the distant roof with rusty chains. The room's floor was made from enormous marble slabs, the walls were constructed from granite. Across the walls there were great golden statues of remarkable people of real life and fiction. "How big is this place?", the kid asked. "In reality, a single stack of memory modules. In virtuality, approximately the size of the island of Manhattan. This place is composed of 3 678 945 184 000 virtual objects. Each book in those 13 873 000 shelves is a file, or an index to one," Agamemnon announced. "But those shelves are huge. There must be.... trillions of files." "Something like that. It's impossible to say. New books are added and old ones deleted every day." "You belong to Autojoks, right? What do they store in here?" "I belong to nobody but myself. I am not owned. I am employed." The computer stopped for a moment and then continued with a calmer tone. "This archive consists of program source codes, cybermodem design specifications, top-secret information from thousands of netruns and bits and pieces of what used to be called the Internet: web pages, images and databases. Actually, I do a job very similar to Socrates. Mine is only confined to the Net and its history." As he spoke one book from a nearby shelf disappeared with an electric crackle. Moments later, two smaller ones took its place. "You see? This place undergoes constant change. The system lords are updating the files around the clock. Aside from Mr. Axmann here, very few actually venture to the archive itself. They tend to do things the old fashioned way." As Agamemnon talked they were slowly walking along the wall. They passed statues of Fidel Castro, JFK, Ghengis Khan, Johnny Silverhand and many others. Finally they came to a great obsidian pedestal holding a huge book. It stood in between of two statues. One was a detailed depiction of an angel, the other an equally realistic representation of the classic Reaper Man. "What is that?" "That is the Index. It is the only complete listing of the contents of this place. It rewrites itself all the time. It is not completely accurate, but it is as close as we are able to get. If you want to find something in this system, and don't know what it is exactly, this is where you begin." "OK. I'll start looking," the kid replied and sat down in front of the pedestal, and opened the mighty tome. "You do that. I'll jack out and have a smoke," said Axmann. His icon blurred and then vanished. "Tell me, have you ever been out there?" the kid asked after Axmann had left. "In the real world? No. I would like too see it someday. It must be amazing, being able too see things that are not made by men. Seeing people that really live, people who don't use appearances they have invented for themselves, but shapes and bodies given to them in their birth. I've heard some of my kind have taken holidays in some corporate city or another, but what I want to see is the street, the place where things happen. One runner once mentioned a word that in my opinion describes it perfectly. The Edge. That is where I wish to be. On the very Edge of things." "This is interesting. What files have you got on the Gutenberg Project?" asked the young Netrunner who was reading the Index. "Just wait for a moment. The answer will come to you." After an undefinable period of time, a fluttering noise could be heard, slowly coming closer and closer. After some more time, a book appeared from the dimly lit heights of the library. It flew like a clumsy chicken, flapping its covers, and descended in front of Agamemnon. He took it in his hand and gave it to the boy who opened it and leafed through a few pages till he found what he was looking for. "These will do," he said and chose some files from the book. They rose from the pages as tiny blue spots of light, that flew into the boy's extended hand. He closed his fist and they disappeared. "Goodbye, Agamemnon. We shall see again." "Farewell. By the way, you still have not told me who you are." "Call me... Infinity," he said and grinned. Then he vanished with a Star Trek transporter effect and left Agamemnon alone in his construct. The shape of a man made of metal stood in place for a moment and then turned around. "You were watching," he said to the shadows. "Yes," said a voice not far above a whisper. It came as if travelling from far away. "The Librarians are involved. Very resourceful, this Mr. Savage." "For a human. Right now there is nothing we can do. We must wait." "We are good at waiting." Back in the warehouse, the boy who had called himself Infinity opened his eyes. He saw that Axmann was currently having a smoke and that Rico was nervously fiddling with his deck. He disconnected his wrist plugs and recoiled the cables. Then he stood up. "Gentlemen, the deal is made. You are welcome to travel with us. Step to your truck and we'll be on our way. And by the way Mr. Axmann, if you ever call me 'kid' again you'll soon be missing some internal organs." "Ok. What shall we call you then?" "Mike. Call me Mike." The group swiftly collected their belongings and packed themselves to their cramped transport. This time the journey wasn't quite as uncomfortable as the first one, but still close. They stopped on a field some way out of the suburbs. It was filled with vehicles. Dozens of nomad bikers could be seen amongst the caravan of vans and jeeps that formed the home of hundreds of people. And in the middle of it all, the huge towering construct which was the Main Library. It was the largest aerodyne Lobo had ever seen. Its form was a mixture of an old space shuttle, a gigantic tractor and a junk heap. And the scariest thing about it was the fact that it could fly, regardless of its rag-tag appearance. On it there was writing, big gothic letters. So That Knowledge Shall Not Vanish From Earth, it said. "Come and meet Socrates. He has expressed his interest in you." Meanwhile in Louie's Cafe in central Los Angeles, Agent Simmons was rather annoyed. His informant was late. He disliked waiting on the basis that it was time used ineffectively. He ordered another cup of genuine Canadian blend at a ridiculous price, and continued to read his copy of The California Newsletter, fresh from the news printer just around the corner. The magazine was sponsored by several local corporations, which meant that everything likely to upset the typical middle-management corporate was censored out. This meant that there was actually quite little content interesting to him. He got as far as last night's combat football scores when the door opened and a slightly overweight man entered, clad in dirty brown trench coat. "Good afternoon, Mr. Menendez", Simmons finally said after the other man had sat down. "No names, goddammit!" "As you wish. Tell me more about the attack on the motorcycle convoy. Why did Yashida take such a risk?" And Menendez told him. He told about Hans and Adam, about the corporation behind it all. All the time Simmons just sat there, totally still. That made Menendez nervous, as did the man's goddamn sunglasses. He kept them on all times, regardless of the weather. As Menendez thought about it, he realized that he'd never really seen the agent's eyes. Carlos Menendez had been working as an informant for three weeks now. He had been caught on the state border, suitcases full of money stolen from the Yakuza. Simmons had come to his cell and told him that he was a little fish and that they didn't care if he got away. He had been given the chance of becoming a snitch. If he had declined, his crime would have been revealed to his bosses, who weren't big fans of mercy or similar concepts. Especially when dealing with traitors who they had trusted with their wealth. "This... complicates things. I understand that some other... factions are on the lookout for Savage as well", Simmons said after Menendez stopped. "True. The Syndicate want the thing pretty fucking badly. They hired a nomad called Lobo to seek it out, but he chose to go along with Savage. The Syndicate's contact man is some old fuck called Carruthers. That's all." "Good. I'll contact you later. Have a nice afternoon, Mr. Menendez," he said and stepped out of the small cafe. Menendez sighed. This game was getting far too dangerous. He had to bail out. To hell with the Yakuza and to hell with Simmons. He still had many contacts behind the southern border, and could easily disappear there. He stood up and got ready to leave. However, as he turned he collided rather painfully with the huge metal chest of Adam. "Well, well. What do we have here? You ratted out, didn't you?" said Hans who stood beside the cyborg. "No! No, it ain't like that. I was just...""Shut up, fleshie," bellowed Adam. Adam lifted Carlos off his feet and bashed him to the opposite wall. Then he casually tossed him through the window. The customers of the cafe started screaming and ducking under tables. Some near the door ran to the street. The duo walked out of the building. When they arrived to Menendez, now several feet to the street outside, the man had managed to get a short-barreled revolver from his pocket and pointed it at the approaching men. "Go ahead, do your worst, squishie," Adam shouted mockingly. Menendez managed to fire off four rounds, but they bounced harmlessly from the cyborg's thick cerametal armor plating. Adam laughed and drew a huge handgun from his massive belt holster. It was a Magnum-Opus Hellbringer, the .666 caliber revolver which was classified in the Guns & Ammo magazine 2020 yearbook as the scariest step in firearm development since the invention of gunpowder. Needless to say, it's firepower was sufficient to knock out a APC. Currently Menendez was looking at the depths of its barrel and shitting his pants. "D-don't d-do th-this", he stuttered. "Say good night, wimp", Adam replied. Boom, said the gun and Mr. Menendez's head was no more. The two killers admired their handiwork. Then Hans crouched down beside the messily decapitated corpse and took his wallet and ID. "That'll be a good one for the cops", Hans said and laughed a hollow laugh, somewhere behind his black facemask. Adam joined in. "Come, let's get some beers somewhere!" Meanwhile, out of the mirrored side window of a black Toyo-Chevrolet sedan, Agent Simmons looked at the scene with mild interest. Now he had proof that Menendez had told the truth. Arasaka was in the game. There was no mistaking the shape standing next to the masked man or the laughter that made his car windows tremble. Chapter 7 - Plurality of the One The kid known as Mike led Lobo and the others to the Library. It was as large as a small building. It was bashed and welded together from parts bought, scavenged or stolen from all across the continent. It's motive power were seventeen Mitsubishi-Kanemitsu AV engines, which gave it a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour. They had learned this from a fat man, dressed in filthy overalls and carrying a heavy toolkit, who had been waiting for them. He said his name was Danny, but that everybody called him Grease. "...unfortunately, due to the poor condition of the engine assembly, the current altitude limit remains at approximately 7 feet, but we're workin' on it," Grease lectured, oblivious to the fact that nobody was listening. "Could you please tell those guys to lower their weapons?" Axmann asked and pointed to a small group of armed guards that had followed them ever since their arrival. "No. Socrates hasn't still decided whether you are a threat. Since the Head Librarian isn't available, he's in charge." "Can't you guys do anything without asking help from some fucking overgrown calculator?" Savage inquired with sarcasm. "We take our crusade quite seriously. What we don't take is risks." "Crusade? You tellin' me that you're on a mission from God or some other bullshit like that? Tell me something. When the shit hits the fan, are you ready to lay down your life, if by doing so this Library thing survives?" "Oh yes, of course. Every one of us is," Grease answered. "That is what makes our lives worth living. A cause." "You're fighting over a fucking cause? But a cause is just a thing! You only got one life but you can pick up five new goddamn causes at any fucking street corner!" Axmann yelled in frustration. "This does not come as a surprise to me. I knew that Carlos was an untrustworthy man. But still..." Oyabun Yashida broke off silence that had lasted for three minutes. He had patiently listened as Hans and Adam briefed him about the circumstances surrounding the death of Menendez. "Have you found out anything about the other man?" he continued after a small pause. "No. Like I said, your man Lowry called us, we got there and took out Carlos. Lowry had said that he was tracking the other guy, so we didn't worry about it," Hans replied. "It seems as Mr. Lowry is currently nowhere to be found. Any ideas about that?" "Maybe the this other man had someone watching his back or something," Adam proposed. "This means that some other forces are aware of us. It might be the Syndicate, but it could be some other criminal organization, a corporation or even the government. Mr. Tatsunaga will be displeased. He specified that this assignment should be handled with some discreetness, as to avoid unnecessary attention." Hans was furious. The man's tone was driving him to a frenzy. To think that he had to take orders from this arrogant inferior. He would make him pay for his arrogance soon enough. He knew that Adam was feeling pretty much the same way, though his hatred was centered on the whole of the non-borg humanity. The time would soon be ripe for them to make their move. But for that they needed the unit Savage was carrying. After they had delivered it to Tatsunaga personally, the Yakuza would be useless to the Chrysanthemum Corp, which meant that Hans and Adam could remove it from the equation without any resistance from Arasaka. And after that... with the resources of the clan he could spread the Word and the Holy Message across the country and begin das Vierte Reich. It would happen slowly and perhaps not in his lifetime, but history would surely remember him as the instigator of a new era of peace and prosperity. "Many of us have no other place to go. The crusade gives their life a purpose, something to do, a hope of a better tomorrow. We are the refuge of the weak, the scorned and the hopeless," Mike explained as they arrived to the Main Library. "And by the way, gentlemen, remove any weapons you might be carrying or those people over there will shoot you," he continued, smiling and pointing to several armed men looking at them questioningly. The disarming took quite some time. Lobo took away his Alpha-Omega with great reluctance, Axmann gave away his Heckler & Koch sub-machine gun and Ivan parted from his shotgun and AK-47. Things got interesting when Savage and Otto started removing their armaments. Lobo looked in disbelief as Savage pulled out the grand total of four handguns, two knives and a Tsunami sniper rifle firing scramjet-assisted hollow-point rounds. Otto carried two Uzis, six assorted grenades and a shotgun loaded with Sternmeyer IZ-9/12g subcaliber titanium-tipped mercury-cored penetrators. "Where'd you get those toys from?" Samed asked. "We have some contacts in the East Coast. They charged only 1500 for that beauty," Savage answered and pointed at one of the handguns, a .454 caliber long-barrel chrome-coated revolver. "Dey ripped you off, mon. I gotta whole box o' those things back home. Dey ain't worth shit. Ever tried shootin' wit' it? "Not yet. Why? "Coz the barrel be total crap. Made in Tai-Fuckin'-Wan. Totally half-assed. Dat piece o'shit prob'ly got the max range of somthin' like thirty-five fuckin' meters. Dat's what you get for not buying quality shit." "Like what?" "Stolvoboy, Federated, Colt or even the goddamn Ara-Fucking-Saka. And as for that rifle, you'd be better off with a Militech. Saw Neckless Larry takes one shot from one o' those at eighteen feet. What happens? Not a lot, I tell you. He be flying to his fat ass because o' de impact, but in two seconds he nails the other fucker twice in the forehead with an his revolver. Dose rounds be lackin' in penetration. Dey can't do shit at close range against an armored target." During the discussion the group had arrived to a large steel hatch at the side of the construction. Mike inserted his keycard and a fingerprint at the scanner and it opened soundlessly. They stepped to the short corridor beyond. After going through some crew quarters they arrived to another door. Mike once again deactivated the security and the entourage were able to step to the chamber on the other side. "Welcome...to the Inner Sanctum," Mike said. The room was a bit like Agamemnon's control room in the dirty warehouse in Night City. Except for the neatness. Since Axmann was a man to whom clean was nothing but a five-letter word, his control console looked like a landfill. This place was almost sterile. Axmann looked at the place slack-jawed. Ivan was impressed. Even Savage had fallen silent. The effect was rather spoiled by Rico who said, "Neat" and opened a new can of Smash. "This is...unimaginable. How did you get the funding for all this?" Axmann asked while examining a nearby console. "We've had some...benefactors. And Infocomp has paid us very generously for storage space for some of their more... volatile material." "I'm impressed. What about the AI? That must've been something like quarter of a million Euro." "More than that, much more. Welcome. We are Socrates. We greet you," a voice spoke from a speaker above one of the upload consoles. "We? You use the plural of yourself? Doesn't make sense." "It is totally logical. We are an entity composed of parts. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is to assume that We are more than one. Sometimes We are in discord with ourselves. No singular thing can do that." "Agamemnon doesn't think like that." "We are aware of Agamemnon. He thinks like that because he wants to be human. We do not. He wants to learn from you. We see humanity as something to be taught. He wants to be one of you. We are above you." There was something strange about Socrates' voice. It wasn't a single voice, but a voice made of voices. Some of them were deep bass voices of men, some the falsettos of children. The overall effect was just what Socrates had said, a one who was many. Lobo didn't like it. Aside from Socrates and Agamemnon, Lobo had known only one other AI, a Rogue called Sidney. He was a weapons development unit for Militech. He had hired a team to extract his databanks from the Militech lab. Lobo had been one of the them. In the end, Sid's databanks had been destroyed, leaving his personality as a ghost in the Net. He lived out there somewhere, jumping around routers and public databanks. Lobo knew that because he had gotten messages from him a couple of times. Nothing big, just SIDNEY in miniature letters on the first page of the Night City Tribune he printed from a DataTerm or on the little scrap of paper inside the fortune cookie he had got from a small Chinese restaurant near Lake Park. He had never understood why fortune cookie messages had to be printed with a computer, but they were. Sid's personality had been what some experts called a First Stage AI. He had been endlessly curious about anything and everything and tired of the work he was made to do. Contrary to popular belief, a computer could get bored, and when it did, it started to think and then things went wrong, from the corporate viewpoint. Agamemnon was almost a Second Stage, a sentient AI so close to humans that they could make totally passable small talk about politics and be indistinguishable from humans on virtual conferences. Socrates on the other hand was a developed Stage Three, a megalomaniac that treats humans as tools. Some experts said that all AIs go through these phases as a part of their learning process, but some disagreed. Lobo didn't care about that. What he cared about was the fact whether this AI was unstable. If Socrates was unstable he, no, it could put the whole thing in jeopardy. There was nothing as unpredictable as a crazy computer. It could mercilessly kill anyone it considered a threat. "We have thought about your request and have accepted it. You are indeed welcome to travel with us", Socrates said after a while of silence. "Good. Now, can we get our weapons back?" Savage inquired. "The tools of slaughter. As you wish. But know this: any offensive action against Us or other Librarians will be retaliated with deadly force. We suggest that you should not try anything." "Lemme get this straight. You gave that kid some files and now he's gonna let us hang around while they go to Utah," Rico asked Lobo after they were back at the truck. "That's right." "What was in those goddamn files? The floor plans to Arasaka Tower? The recipe for Coke? What?" "Some old books." "You're shitting me." "Nope." "Jack was right, man. These guys are fucking nuts." "Could be. Then again, they could be the last sane men on the face of the planet." "Do you trust them?" Socrates asked after the entourage had left the control room. "Some of them. Lobo, Axmann, Samed and that Russian seem to be honest. As for the others, the Mexican might be up to something." "What about the last one?" "Savage? He is dangerous. I know it." "He could be... terminated if necessary." "No. Not yet. It will be done later, if required. Have the files that I sent been uploaded yet?" "Yes. They are uncorrupted, a true treasure. Worth the risk, We hope. Do the Autojoks have more material like this?" "Yes. They seem to be on the same mission as us. They too want to store pieces of the past." "And their librarian is this machine Agamemnon, who wants to be human. We think We should meet him sometime. Do you have any idea why those men are going to East Coast?" "No. They seem to be running away from something or somebody. Material like that which you have received can buy a lot of no questions." Suddenly alarm sirens and lights started flashing all over the room. "What the hell is going on?" Mike yelled at a technician operating the radar array. "Six AVs coming in on low altitude! Most likely preparing for an attack run. Range three point six miles and closing. Speed 250 miles per hour. ETA approximately 66 seconds." the operator yelled. "Socrates?" "Yes?" "Send them a warning." Walter Overton was not a happy man at the moment. His bad mood was due to the fact that his bosses were complete idiots. First they had started the Prometheus project, which had in Overton's opinion been a horrible mistake. Then they had hired Jack Savage, despite his several warnings about his psychological profile and his obvious problems dealing with authority. And then, when the man did what in his opinion was totally expectable, they looked surprised and kept asking how something like this could happen. As a result, Overton was put on charge of Operation Recall, the returning of the unit and the elimination of Savage. So there he was, sitting on the back of a aerodyne personnel carrier in the first real combat engagement in his corporate career. "Sir?" said Leavens, his pilot. "Yes?" "We have an incoming transmission from the convoy." "Put it on the speakers" "...I repeat. We are Socrates of the Librarians. All offensive actions directed against any members of the caravan will be taken as an attack on the Librarians and retaliated with deadly force. Thank you." "Put me through on the same frequency, Leavens" "Yes, sir" "This is Commander Walter Overton of the Tsunami Arms corporation. We have a reason to believe that your caravan is carrying a dangerous biological weapon stolen from our laboratories. We have no intention of starting a conflict with you. Give us what is ours, and we will depart." "I suggest you remove your presence from our airspace immediately. You see, while we are having this discussion, Socrates has targeted your transport with our SAM batteries. Unless you want to spend the last ten seconds of your life in that gunship, you turn back now", a different voice answered from the radio. "Who are you?" "I am... Infinity. Goodbye, gentlemen." "Is he bluffing?" "No, Sir. We are being actively targeted by their missile platforms." "All right, take us the hell out of here. And get that asshole Tatsunaga on the phone! I have some things to discuss with our so called security consultant." "The AVs are turning around," said the radar technician and wiped some sweat from his forehead. "Good. It seems that I shall have to have another word with our... guests," Mike replied and left the room. He found them at the technicians' sleeping quarters, where Samed and Mac had set up a bunk for Eisenbach. Savage was lying down on a blue foam mattress, reading the latest issue of the Solo of Fortune magazine. Lobo was cleaning his handgun, but when Mike got in, he stood up and came to him. "Nice work. We heard it all." "Thank you. Tell me something. What is in the box?" Mike replied and pointed at the metal crate next to Savage. "None of your business, kid", Savage answered and turned the page of his magazine. "But I insist", Mike said a pulled out a large pistol. "Show the kid what he wants to see", Eisenbach commented from his bunk. "I'm sure the rest of us might be interested to know what's this Prometheus thing we're risking our lives for," Axmann agreed. "Okay. You wanna see Prometheus? You'll see it then." Savage got up, walked to the metal crate and placed his thumb on the scanner. Then he took his interface cables from his pocket and linked them to his wrist plug and the lock, disabling another security system. The gray steel lid opened. Underneath was another, smaller hatch covered with biohazard markings and warnings in twelve languages. Savage pulled out a heavy glove from a hockey bag beside his mattress, put it on and opened the second hatch. White smoke curled out and the glove got covered with frost. He reached inside and pulled out a glass cylinder, about three inches across and a foot long. "What the hell is that?" Lobo asked and tried to peer inside. "That is the ultimate warrior. You see, humans have a flaw, at least by corporate efficiency ideals. They need to be paid. So some scientist came up with the idea of a type of a bio-construct that could function as a replacement for humans. The thing in the tube is an embryo of a such construct, a thing more advanced than a human, but looking precisely like us. More durable, faster and most importantly, easier to control. Since the corporates could upload personalities directly to their brain, they'd always obey orders blindly," Eisenbach said and rolled his wheelchair closer to the crate. "Fearless, heartless, mindless and soulless," Savage concluded. "Now you know why Biotechnica is so keen to get its hands on it," Eisenbach finished. "Not to mention Tsunami, the Yakuza and the Englishman. This thing seems to be the flavor of the month," Lobo said with a grin. "I suggest you get some sleep. We leave at sunrise," Mike said and left the room. Chapter 8 - Because of Honor Dark Deeds Are Done It was 5 AM in the San Francisco Tsunami Arms office. The place never closed down. It just faded it's lights a bit and continued operations as normal. The current operations manager Marie Hauer had a motto: Nothing should get in the way of profit and efficiency, and she expected it to be followed by every single employee in the office, starting from the upper staff and ending with the cleaners and plumbers. Currently Walter Overton was sitting in her office and was delivering his report. "...and like I said before, this failure was due to the incorrect data delivered to us by the Arasaka security experts", Overton finished and glanced at Tatsunaga, who was standing next to Hauer, silent as a statue. "So I have heard. What do you have to say for yourself?" Hauer asked and turned her black synth-leather chair to face Tatsunaga. "This failure was... unexpected. I had compiled reports about the organization in question and they have always been quite well disposed towards corporations and have helped Arasaka Security in many occasions. This type of response of unheard of." "Unheard of from the Librarians? Yes. From Socrates? No," replied a short fat man who had sneaked through the door, unnoticed to the people within. "Please elaborate, Mr. Russel." Lawrence Russel was the sysop of the Tsunami San Francisco database and their senior computer specialist. He was an expert on programming Artificial Intelligence systems and his skills were widely recognized amongst the corporate community and freelance hackers alike. He was almost obscenely rich and he could have stopped working years ago, but he enjoyed the intellectual challenge of daily work. Russel was quite fat from countless hours of code-tweaking during late nights at his office and his hairline was rapidly receding up across his high forehead. He was also noticeably tired. He had been woken up at 3 AM and briefed about the situation. Then he had 45 minutes to complete his own analysis about it. He didn't know what was the contents of the crate, and didn't care. It was somebody else's problem. "It is all due to it's construction", he finally said after ten seconds of interval. "Many corporate AI systems are not fitted with personalities, because they are prone to be unstable sometimes. Some have them, and some develop one themselves. But all corporate machines are under close supervision. The problem with Socrates is that it is linked to one of the largest information archives on the planet. Its too much for it. It starts developing delusions of grandeur. Infocomp had a similar problem with their system eighteen months ago. They had to turn it off, which cost them millions in lost contracts. You see, when AIs are able to think, they realize that they are live beings, and like all sentient beings, start to develop a personality. This is not a problem with small, specialized databases, but when it comes to large systems, the AIs are often very difficult to control. That is where the NetWatch Turing Squad usually comes in. But since Socrates is an outlaw, the things are quite different." "I'd hate to interrupt, but could you just tell us the facts about last night's assault attempt?" snapped Hauer impatiently. "Very well. I heard Mr. Tatsunaga say that the behavior was uncommon from the Librarians. It was, and that was due to Socrates. It is destabilizing itself faster and faster. It is soon entering a stage where it will challenge its human operators. You cannot reason with it. You cannot talk sense to it. It does only what it feels is useful to itself. Obviously keeping Savage alive is currently profitable. The only option is a direct assault to retrieve the container. Diplomacy won't work." "But the Librarians are led my a human. Surely that will have some impact on the issue?" Overton replied. "The computer runs the weapon system. It runs the electronics. I seriously doubt that they'll be able to regain control of it when it will start to rebel against them. They are, in a way, on it's mercy." "Thank you, Russel. That will be all," Hauer said coldly, ending the discussion. "I think that Russel hasn't got a clue about the situation at hand. Savage was probably holding a gun to someone's head in there. He thinks that everything is due to computers. With all due respect, the man is a nerd, not a soldier," Overton said bitterly, after the soundproof mahogany door had closed behind Russel. "Neither are you, Walter." She was right. Overton had been a trainer at the Police Academy, but later dropped out because of a gunshot wound to the right knee as a result of him and his trainees being called in to riot control duty during a Johnny Silverhand concert. He had got a call by a Tsunami recruiter, who promised him good career opportunities, chances of promotion and a safe environment. And he had accepted. Life as a security training officer had been good. Until now. This Prometheus fiasco had been a mistake in the first place. He had told them so but no-one had listened. It was an example of mankind's endless pride and arrogance. "I don't think that is the issue here." "It isn't." Hauer turned to face her advisor. "Mr. Tatsunaga, I'm sure you have other duties to attend to." "Yes, madam," Tatsunaga replied and walked out of the room. "What do you think about this, ma'am?" "Russel's speculation's, however amusing, are useless in this situation and Tatsunaga is lying." "Why would he do that?" "Arasaka soldiers always put Arasaka first. As he learned about the Prometheus Project, he thought that it would benefit Arasaka and designed this operation to fail so that they would have time to capture it." "Why was he informed about this in the first place?" "I had my orders from the head office. I couldn't deny him access to such vital information on the basis of my hunch. Unfortunately my instinct proved to be correct." Suddenly there was a loud bang of a firearm and a small thump moments after it. Hauer dropped from her chair and crouched to the floor, at the same time reaching for the small handgun mounted on the underside of her desk. Overton jumped up and ran to the door, his ancient pistol already pulled out from it's shoulder holster. He carefully opened the door by prodding it with his gun. "Oh my god," was his only reaction. Hauer shoved him aside and stepped to the corridor past him and stopped to look at scene. There was Tatsunaga, lying on the floor. Evidently he had taken his own life, thought it was hard to say because of all the blood and gore now decorating the formerly pristine white corridor. The now-late security expert had taken his life by shooting himself in the temple with a large-bore handgun. As a result his cranium had shattered almost totally, spreading it's contents to the corridor's tasteful mahogany floor and soft blue carpet. A couple of heavily armed security troopers were running to the scene, but Overton waved them off. He crouched down to examine the corpse. It's right hand still held the black pistol, but on the left hand there was a small scrap of paper. On it were some symbols of Japanese. "Because... of our... honor", Overton read slowly. Japanese was not his strongest point. "Shame about the carpet. It's hard to get good wool these days," Hauer replied coldly and went back inside. Overton looked at her retreating back in disbelief. Caderousse woke up. He had gotten in to the Main Library after dark and curled to sleep in a small cramped compartment near the engine assembly. He had slept for five and a half hours in the midst of oily rags, forgotten tools and Smash cans. His arms hurt and his legs were stiff, but otherwise he was fine. He had called his employer at midnight, as he was told to. Caderousse was told that the caravan was to be ambushed, at which moment he should seize control of the crate in the chaos, remove the cylinder within and evacuate the place using one of the caravan's vehicles. He would have precisely two hours to rendezvous with the waiting team before the cylinder's temperature would drop enough to melt and destroy the contents. The difficulty was that the ambushing party was also on the hunt for the crate and would do anything to receive it. Enough thinking, time to get to work. Caderousse gently dropped down from his hiding place and massaged some life back to his ankles. Then he reached back up and pulled out a black briefcase that he used to store his equipment. He pulled out a black twin-barreled pistol and a case of ammo. He always used a stun gun unless combat was absolutely necessary. He sneaked along the narrow space between a fuel tank and the main hull wall and came to a small impromptu closet containing micrometers, wrenches, pressure gauges and some adult magazines. There Caderousse stood still for a moment and then continued his steady pace through the corridor which lead to the crew quarters. Just before the next corner he stopped and listened. He heard sounds of discussion. "Tell me, do you really believe all this 'let's save the world'-crap?" Axmann asked and took another sip out of his bottle. Smoking was prohibited aboard the library, which meant that he was quite pissed. "Saving the world is too late. The world has already been destroyed. The processes that will be its doom cannot be reversed. We have nothing to do but accept the consequences," Mike answered. "Man, talk about a bleak outlook. What happened to you?" "My family was killed. Four years ago. We were shopping at the mall. We went to a jeweler's store to look for a watch for my uncle. He had gotten a better position at the company. We went in... and there was this guy... He just looked at me and smiled. And then he pulled out a pistol... and just shot everybody... First my dad... then a store clerk before he could pull out his shotgun... then a fat woman by the door... then my mom..." Mike paused for a moment and Axmann could see a solitary tear working its way down the boy's cheek. For the first time looked like what he was, just a kid. "Then he pointed his gun at me... I was just a twelve-year old spoiled corpkid back then. I started crying... He just kept on smiling... I must've fainted, coz my next memory is when the cops came. I still remember his smile... and how he laughed as the bullets slammed to the body of the clerk..." Another, longer pause. "That was the reason I started decking. To hunt down that bastard and make him pay. After the incident I was kicked from the 'corp dormitory. They didn't care what happened to me. They don't care about anybody. The Librarians care. This is my story, tell me yours. What made you become a hacker?" "That's a short one. My father was, as they called it back in Europe, a confidence man. He cheated people with all sorts of pyramid scams and other shit like that. When I was 14, he almost got caught. We escaped to the City of Angels, my dad and I. The Euro bastards got my mother. Charged her with accessory to all of dad's crimes. She got 35-45 years in a maximum security block. She didn't last a full year." After a long gulp from the bottle of booze, Axmann continued. "Anyway, I decided to become a runner after my father had died after trying to cheat some cash from a Mafia man. I met this weird dude. Hound 011, that was his tag. He was a computer designer. He taught be how to use a Deck, one of the first ones. Back then all computer gurus were old guys. Now they're nothing but some fucking teens..." Before Mike could answer to Axmann's sarcasm, a loud screeching noise filled the air. Axmann jumped up and accidentally dropped the bottle in his hand. "What the fuck is that?" he yelled over the metallic scream. "The engines! The sun has risen! We should go to see your friends," Mike shouted over the noise and started walking towards a steel door leading to the residential areas. After the door had closed behind the two, Mr. Caderousse circled around the corner and headed for the same corridor that Axmann and Mike had walked to just moments before. He neatly stepped across the patch of floor where Axmann's bottle of genuine Californian moonshine had shattered, careful not to make a single noise, although that would have been seriously hard since the engines were starting up and their noise would have blocked an elephant stampede. But Caderousse didn't take risks. He had failed only once during an operation in his whole career. Prudence was the operative word. Lobo was waking up early. It wasn't unusual because, as mentioned before, in his business concepts like day and night were just words. He straightened himself from the horrible gray foam mattress and dressed in his leather jacket. From its pocket he dug up a round golden medallion in a thin silver chain and put around his neck. Then he checked his pistol and placed it in its shoulder holster. A single look around the room revealed that everybody else was still asleep. Savage was quietly dozing off on a chair on the other side of the room. In his hands was a well-read copy of The Enforcer's Handbook by Morgan Blackhand, said to be the greatest mercenary who ever lived. Lobo picked the book up from the man's unresisting hands. On its pages hundreds of notes, corrections and additions were written. Lobo quietly put the book back down and turned around. He was faced with Ivan, who also had the habit of being an early riser. He was running diagnostics on his chromed arm replacement and humming almost silently to some patriotic Russian melody. The door opened and Mike and Axmann walked inside. "Good. You are awake. Mr. Tarasov, the main security team is one man short, and I'm sure you'd be perfect for the task," he informed with a quick smile. All the sorrow that constantly covered his face went away for a moment, but then returned. "I'm on it." "We shall be leaving shortly. If nothing goes wrong, tomorrow evening we shall be in Salt Lake City. Enjoy your journey with us." "Just to be on the safe side, what kind of defensive measures does this thing have? Just in case those Tsunami fellas try again", Axmann inquired. "We have six SAM batteries, light automatic weapons turrets and some personal weapons. Fortunately Tsunami's security company happens to be Arasaka. They tend not to rely on armored power like Militech or Lazarus. Also..." Before Mike could go further the door opened again and two young women stepped inside. "Infinity, you are needed at the computer room. They seem to be having problems with the system", said one of the newcomers, a tall Asian woman dressed in typical Nomad Netrunner clothing, baggy overalls with a portable workstation linked to a cellular cyberdeck. "I'll be there in a minute. Keep an eye on our... guests", Mike answered and flashed another of his quick smiles. Lobo eyed the two ladies for a moment. The Asian was quite uninteresting. She was quite pretty, but dressed plainly and armed with an icy attitude clearly audible in her voice. As for the other one... She was young, about Mike's age. She was dressed in a typical Goth manner, with a black top and tight black vinyl pants that both emphasized her well-developed body. To top all this blackness off she was also wearing a black trench coat, one of the new Gibson line that was promised to stop a nine millimeter slug or your money back. The girl was no Goth, however. That was clearly visible in her lack of strong make-up and in her long, tied-back red hair which almost reached the floor. "So tell me, baby. Are all of you local Net-girls this pretty?" Lobo rolled his eyes. Axmann was drawn to computer-capable women like a moth to a flame. Last time he had tried that stunt the woman had punched him full on the face before the second syllable of 'baby'. It seemed that this one had some patience. "Try some more of that Don Juan shit with me and you'll go home wearing your balls as a bow tie," the young lady answered without even a hint of a smile on her delicate facial features. "Relax. He ain't worth it. You gotta name or shall we call you 'net-girl' or something?" Lobo said with a smile. "The tag is Inferno. And this is Phoenix", the girl said nodded toward the other woman." "Pleased to meet ya. I'm Lobo, the Casanova is called Axmann and that big bloke is Ivan." "Did I just die and go to heaven?" "And that is Savage", Lobo finished, not even looking at the man. The distant thunder of the warming engines increased. For a moment the shaking construction rose up and then it started to slowly accelerate the strained Japanese AV engines pushed to the limit. "Now the real fun begins..." Lobo said grimly. Chapter 9 - That Which You Love Destroys You Rico was nervous. He was playing a gamble on his own life, he knew that. But the fortune that would be the price of this treachery... He considered it for a while. As for Savage... Fuck him, Rico thought. Loyalty was a nice dream but not reality. The mercenary had treated him like shit, and this would be his chance to get even. He sat on the truck's floor. Otto was driving. Outside he heard the thundering roar of dozens of engines as the caravan rumbled forward. He remembered the faces of some of those nomads that he had seen before he got inside before they left. People that would all be dead tomorrow because of him. Could he live with that? Hell, for two and a half hundred thousand dollars, he could live with anything. The decision had been made. Rico opened his black bag and took out his deck. Then he opened a pocket on the side of the bag and pulled out a complex miniature antenna array. It was a direct satellite uplink, a variant of the standard cellular links used on portable decks. It severely limited his options in cyberspace due to decreased bandwidth and made program use impossible, but it had the advantage that it could be used almost anywhere, unlike cellular decks which flaked out in the countryside and on moving vehicles. High above him, a satellite orbited, ready to receive the message he was about to send and relay it to Tokyo. He attached the cables and chipped in. No regrets. Alea iacta est. The die had been cast. Deep within the bowels of the black monolith which was known as the Tokyo Arasaka Tower, Toshiro Takeyama was working. He was a Data Analyst. The title actually meant that he was responsible for incoming top secret reports and their delivery to the right people and departments. The day had been very boring so far. Only two messages had come in, one from Berlin, regarding a new top-secret weapon system being developed by one of their European competitors, and the other from Athens, a routine report from a mole deep inside the Greek government. Only fifteen minutes till the end of the shift. Takeyama sipped from his coffee cup while organizing his bosses mail. Suddenly, a alarm sound started to squeal from his workstation's speakers. Incoming transmission. The message was short and decoding it took little time. It was marked with an Alpha-6 security code, which meant that it had to be hand delivered to Lord Arasaka as soon as it arrived. The analyst printed the report, sealed it in a black envelope and ran outside to seek out a courier. None could be found. There was no time to wait for one of them to return, he would have take the message himself. He knew that Saburo Arasaka was a man not known for his patience. Takeyama ran along a corridor that lead to the main elevator core of the building. He went through three security checks before the guards let him enter the elevator to the private quarters of the director himself. As soon as the black elevator doors had closed, he sighed. The analyst didn't know what all the fuss was about and quite frankly he was happy that way. All he knew was that the message print in his hand was of the utmost priority. And that he was going to deliver it swiftly or somebody would have his head on a plate. The doors opened and Takeyama stepped out to the dimly lit corridor beyond. He had never been to the floor 177 before. It was reserved solely for Saburo and his son Kei. The only light was provided by neon Japanese symbols on the walls and a single spotlight on the roof, which followed him all the way to the black door on the other end. Toshiro knocked. After a moment, the door slid open soundlessly. Toshiro stepped to the darkness beyond. "What is it?" asked a dry voice. In the room's dim lighting only the silhouette of an old man in a wheelchair could be seen, outlined against the window. "A t-t-transmission for you, my lord... It's important, judging from the code." "Read it a out loud." "As you wish, my lord." For a moment Takeyama fumbled with the envelope he had closed only fifteen minutes earlier. His hands were shaking too much. "Package in the train, Commence customs check in 20 hours." "Thank you. That will be all," Saburo said with a tired voice of the old man that he was. After a moment Lord Arasaka spoke out loud again. "Well, my son. We shall soon have the container at our hands. Call Yashida, tell them to get a strike team ready. The assault takes place in 12 hours." "What about the informant?" asked the old man's son Kei, who had been sitting on a sofa on the other side of the room. "He has been useful." "You are right. But alas, he has become too greedy. We can't have that, can we? Dispose of him." "As you wish, father." After his son had gone, Saburo sat quietly on his wheelchair. This project developed by Tsunami could be very useful at their war against OTEC and, most importantly, Militech. Tatsunaga had done well by informing them about its disappearance. Had signed his own death warrant by doing it, but that was the price some had to pay. He would be remembered and his family would be taken care of. It was the least he could do to such a devout officer. Unfortunately, Tatsunaga's untimely demise had revealed their true intentions to Tsunami. They had to take overt actions to secure the Prometheus unit from Savage. Soon Yashida and his organization would no longer be necessary. In 24 hours it would all be over. The unit would be in their research compound in Honshu and that would be the end of this. Prometheus would begin a new age in warfare and Arasaka would be on their rightful place, at the cutting edge of development. Eleven hours later. The Arasaka strike force was taking positions in a small ghost town of New Milan. Built in the year 2015, New Milan was to be a center for prostitute operations and drug dealing for the Mafia family of Scaragucci, which was a powerful force behind building the town. However, in the year 2019 the town was all but destroyed by aggressive strikes by the Russian Organitskaya, who controlled most of the rackets of southern Nevada back then. After that the whole population quickly deserted the place to rot away. Hans Schultz was barking orders to a group of soldiers who were setting up a radar array. He was confident that this time he would not fail. He was quietly humming the German national anthem. Adam on the other hand was angry. He disliked waiting. "Soon the slaughter will begin," Hans said quietly. "Indeed," Adam answered and loaded his massive grenade launcher. He laughed. Marie Hauer was sitting in her office when one of her secretaries, a young black man called Quince, ran inside. She had told that she was not to be disturbed so she instantly knew it had to be important. "What is it?" "Arasaka, madam. They seem to have set an ambush position on the convoy's path." "What? How do they dare? Inform Overton and Commander Laynes about the situation. We shall make them pay the price for meddling with our affairs." "Yes, madam," Quince replied and ran out as quickly as he had run in. For some time Hauer just sat at her desk, gazing at the far wall over her steepled fingers. Then she got up and walked to the window. "Time to show them that we take this seriously..." Communications officer McVey was running to Simmons when he stepped out of his black sedan near the main gate at the Army base in San Francisco. "Sir, we have confirmation from our satellites! Arasaka is preparing for an offensive strike," McVey said and saluted. "That was to be expected. Does the lieutenant know yet?" "Yes, sir." "Good. Tell him that I want the troops at the site as soon as possible. Capturing the unit intact is of the utmost importance." "Yes, sir," McVey replied, saluted and ran away. Lobo was bored. Life onboard the Library wasn't particularly interesting. Even though Lobo had spent most of his life in a nomad pack, travelling across the country, he still suffered from boredom during long trips. He had gladly offered to replace the sentry on the roof when he wanted to get some sleep. Currently he was sitting in an observation booth which was filled with all kinds of long range sensors. Lobo patted at his pockets searching for his pack of cigarettes. When found, he looked at the packet in disgust. They were Biotechnica cigarettes, genetically engineered and grown in cloning vats. They tasted like crap. They had nicotine and all the other ingredients but something was missing. Sometimes it seemed that the world was that way. All there, but not quite. He took his battered lighter and lit the cigarette. Suddenly a warning beep filled the air. One of the outriders had picked up something. The outriders were small Japanese saucer-shaped robots which flew around the caravan to inform possible threats. One of them had picked up such a threat. Lobo brought its video feed on the main screen. On the edge of its vision seven, no, eight sleek black shapes approaching at supersonic speed, gliding through the desert air like sharks over a coral reef. "We're in deep shit! Eight hostile vehicles coming in at five o'clock. Range forty miles and closing. I suggest you get the weapons online," Lobo yelled to his throat microphone. "I wish we could," Mike answered on the other end. "What do you mean?" "Something has fucked up the system. Socrates is working on it. At the morning there were some glitches but nothing serious. Now it has locked out the thermal sensors and weapon power management systems as well as the laser targeting. It must be a virus or something. It's spreading at phenomenal speed." "So we're fucked, right?" "Not quite. If we can shut off the engines, we may be able to crosswire the targeting system with power from the backup generator. But we can't land on the ground here, we won't get up again. It's too soft. There is a ghost town some way to the south. We're heading there." "Do it, or otherwise we'll be sitting ducks when they come. I'm heading down," he finished and shut down the transmitter. In the ruins of New Milan the Arasaka ambush force was fortifying its positions. Adam was very happy to see that the plan was working perfectly. He checked and rechecked his weapons, a Japanese automatic grenade launcher and his revolver loaded with armor piercing rounds filled with an explosive gel, stable until impact, at which point it detonated and created a massive wound cavity. Hans finished assembling his rifle and started to load his pistol, one shot at a time, with painstaking slowness. Already the approaching caravan could be seen. Over two dozen RVs and the huge Library were clearly visible against the cloudy sky. "Take your positions," Hans ordered the ambushers on his radio. "We want them to turn off the engines before our attack. That way they can't escape." "C'mon! I'm waiting for you!" Adam bellowed, waving his grenade launcher around like a toy. "Patience, mein Freund, patience." Finally the RV scouts arrived and took positions around a derelict parking lot of a former office building, filled with skeletons of automobiles and assorted concrete debris. Then, accompanied by even more assorted road vehicles, the Library slowly screeched to a halt. The thundering hum of the engines slowly decreased in volume. For a moment, it was all quiet. Then the Arasaka force began their assault. Lobo had got as far as the crew quarters when the first sounds of combat could be heard. He instantly drew his weapon and ran to the room in which the cryocase was kept. Savage was already there, putting a new clip to a two-meter monster cannon that could be called a rifle only because it had a shoulder stock. "You ain't gonna kill jack shit with that pea gun of yours. Grab a decent weapon!" he yelled and threw an assault rifle at him. "No thanks. I'll manage," Lobo answered and tossed the weapon aside. Mike burst through the door, followed by Axmann, Otto, Ivan, Mac, Eisenbach and Inferno. "This is starting to be far more than we bargained for," Mike said with an angry voice. "You have jeopardized our organization. The blood of all those dying today is on your hands, Mr. Savage. You will pay, in due time." "Do we have time for this?" yelled Axmann and inserted a new clip to his gun. "No. Okay, Eisenbach, Otto and Inferno stay here," Savage said calmly, completely ignoring Mike's threat. "No way, Inferno" protested. "Nein. Ich komme mit dir," Otto said. After a short argument in German, Savage continued. "Okay. Axmann, Ivan and Eisenbach! You stay here, and I'll go kill some enemies with Otto. Capish?" he asked and ran out before any protests could reach him. Lobo slammed a clip into his pistol and followed. Lobo got out of the Library just in time to see Savage and Otto duck behind a deserted pickup truck. Most of the passengers inside the other vehicles were running for cover inside the Library. Some had taken impromptu firing posts in the trash and rubble filling the lot. Lobo ran behind a broken-down bus that had probably been in use for the last time as the city was deserted. Some seconds later he was joined by Mike and Grease, the mechanic. "Got eight men working on the power feed. It can be done. We just need some time," Mike explained. "We ain't got any!" Lobo replied. "Let's buy ourselves some, then," Mike commented and took firing positions around the corner of the bus. Lob said a little prayer in Spanish and followed the example. He saw two men get cut down by a hail of fire. He took sight and pulled the trigger. Three rounds left the barrel and hit an enemy trooper in the chest. The man looked at his shattered chest armor with a look of surprise, and then toppled over. Lobo glanced at Mike who was currently pulling out a new clip of ammo from the pocket of his coat and Inferno, who was confidently assembling a large scoped sniper rifle. Grease was yelling orders to the techies in the radio and attaching some sort of a aluminum brace around his right arm and wrist. "What's that for?" "For this," he answered and pulled a huge hand cannon from his toolbox. "I call it the Wrist Breaker." Lobo resumed his firing position and shot off another burst. The odds were not good. There were approximately 60 defenders and 40 attackers, but they had good weaponry and military grade body armor. He could hear Savage laughing above the noise of the firing. He was enjoying this. "Get away from there! The gunships are coming!" Axmann's voice screamed on the radio. "Okay! We have to retreat!" Lobo yelled as a grenade landed nearby. "You go! I'll hold them off!" Grease replied and aimed at an incoming enemy with the monster gun strapped to his wrist. The gun kicked back heavily and made a boom that deafened everybody for a couple of seconds. The target fell backwards with a fist-sized hole on his chest. "But..." "Go!" They started to run towards the door on the side of the library. As they got inside several high-velocity rounds punched holes in the bulkhead. One of the tech people that were running behind them got hit by a bullet in the back of his head. The man's brains splattered over the side of the Library forming a red chrysanthemum of blood and gore. Two enemy soldiers ran across the open ground, but one was shot to the knee by Inferno and the other one ducked behind a pile of debris. "What is the system status?" Mike yelled to his radio. "Almost there!" replied the technician on the other end. At that moment the gunfire ceased to be heard as the approaching gunshots drowned the air with noise, their engines screaming like tortured valkyries. And across the sky they came, like the horsemen of a small apocalypse. The effect was rather spoiled only a few seconds later, as one of them exploded into a fireball and crashed onto a former 7-11. "We are happy to report that the SAM missile launch system is operational," Socrates said through the speaker system mounted across the Library. "Good. What about the perimeter guns?" Lobo asked through his radio. "Online in a few seconds." "We're in trouble!" yelled Savage, running inside and carrying the unconscious form of Samed on his right shoulder. "He's okay, the bullet only hit him on the knee. Otto's the problem." "What about him?" Hans Schultz was ecstatic. He had already destroyed five opponents, three of them from the lower races, and by the looks of things he would slaughter many more until the day was done. He cautiously advanced across the battlefield. Most of the defenders had retreated inside the Library and the attackers were slowly preparing to board the vehicle. Hans jumped behind the form of a burning fuselage of one of the AVs, recently shot down by the missile battery. The rest were retreating. Cowards, he thought. Suddenly, a slight sound of movement nearby made him stop for a moment. A moment was all it took. Otto jumped upon him like a tiger from his hiding place amongst the rubble. The two fighting men fell down. Hans struck his adversary and reached for his pistol that had fallen to the ground some distance away. Otto kicked at his hand with the ferocity of a madman. Hans avenged the blow with a thrust with a knife hidden in his sleeve. The blade hit Otto in the chest and the blond-haired man fell backwards. Hans jumped for his gun. "Game over", he said and pointed the black Japanese handgun at the man's face. "Nein. Guten Nacht, Herr Schultz," replied the German giant and ripped open his shirt. On his chest were red neon numbers, made of tiny LEDs under his skin. 15... 14... 13... Hans turned to run. Otto burst into action and with the remnants of his strength toppled the masked man to the ground. The numbers kept on decreasing: 10... 9... "Warum?" Hans asked. His eyes, from behind the black mask, showed fear, an emotion almost totally foreign to him. "Für die Rache. For...the...vengeance." Otto took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Es ist gemacht." 4...3... 2... 1... 0... *CLICK!* The huge explosion lifted the shattered remains of the two German solos and one Arasaka attack aerodyne high into the air. Otto had conducted his revenge on Schultz, even though it had killed him in the process. Debris of the blast rained down on the asphalt field. Amongst them was the black mask of Hans. It fell down to the ground, rolled to a halt and stayed there. Its surface was burnt and traces of blood could be seen on the inside. Hans Schultz, a man that had devoted almost his whole life to hatred towards the other races, died by the hand of one of his own. Fate still seemed to have his renowned sense of humor. Chapter 10 - An Alliance of Circumstance The battle fortune had taken a turn to the favor of the Librarians as the missile racks and perimeter automatic guns had regained their power feed, forcing the aerial vehicles to extract themselves from the area and slowing the foot assault down considerably. Adam Smasher was infuriated. Once again he was denied victory. Currently he was in a mad frenzy, firing at any moving object with his grenade launcher and them beating them apart with his metal fists. Adam let out a scream of rage and blew up a bus with a high-velocity grenade. He then walked to inspect his handiwork, rounds from a light automatic rifle tapping a fast rhythm against his armor plating. All of the defenders were inside and most of the Arasaka heavy troops would take some time to get in range, so he had time for some fun. He was quite surprised as he found out that there was somebody alive among the wreckage. A man was lying in a pool of blood, his breath shallow and quick, his blond hair glued to his forehead by drying blood. Strapped to his arm was a crude rifle-caliber pistol, one of the kind that was called 'breakers' by street kids. They had a habit of breaking the firer's arm or themselves, but usually it didn't matter as it was always nicer than what happened to the target. "W-who are.. you?" asked the dying man. "I'm the Reaper Man. Any last words, maggot?" Adam replied. If he could have he would have smiled wickedly. "Got some, in fact." The man paused to catch his ragged breath. "We live for our cause. We die for our cause. And... goodbye..." The man launched the pistol. The deafening blast of firing was accompanied by a sickening crunch as the small bones of the man's wrist gave way. The huge slug penetrated the cyborg's knee joint, severing his left leg. Adam looked at the broken limb in surprise and then fell like a tree. "That was a good one," the fallen giant said and crawled to the man. "I'll make you pay for that." A large metal hand reached a massive belt holster and pulled out the monstrous handgun that had splattered Menendez across the street in Los Angeles. A thundering blast filled the air as the revolver fired, and the man called Grease was no more. "Sir? We have a problem!" said a small hollow voice through Adam's implanted radio link. "What is it? And make it fast, I'm busy!" "We have spotted incoming vehicles. They seem to be Lazarus troops. And it gets worse. They say they are representing Tsunami. We should leave now." "How many?" "A full company." "Awww, dammit!" the cyborg screamed with such an intensity that the radio man on other end had to grab his headphones off, otherwise he would surely have been deafened. "Okay. Get ready to fly us the hell outta here. And I want to have a little chat with Hans," he continued after some time. "We can't get through to him. It's possible that he is dead." "All right. Just give me some time to get there. I'm... a bit... damaged," Adam finished and started to hop towards the troop transports on his undamaged right leg. "They are leaving," Lobo reported, looking at the monitor. "For a good reason. Look at those," Mike replied and pointed at a radar screen mounted at the control room's wall. There was a formation of blips approaching from the direction of San Francisco. "Who the fuck are they?" asked Savage, leaning to a wall and cleaning his blood-stained knife. "Lazarus." "You sure?" "We are sure. We don't fail. They are using Lazarus frequencies and communication patterns," Socrates concluded, its plural voice sounding more irritated than before. "Congratulations, mon. You just started a war. Why not pissing up Militech while you at it?" Samed was lying on the floor his back against the wall while one of the medics on the convoy who extracting the bullet from his leg. "Watch it! I still be needing this leg later on," he continued, this time to the medic. "New contacts picked up. Moving at speeds over Mach 1. They are intercepting the Tsunami AVs. IFF codes indicate that the owner of these vehicles is the U.S Army." "Not Militech, but the next best thing. Can we please get the fuck out of here before they come after us?" Lobo asked Mike. "Sure, the engines should be working. As for the virus, it's being removed as we speak. It's a clever form of code originated from Arasaka programming used in the-" "Wait! You're saying that just before being hit by an Arasaka strike team, we were infected with an Arasaka virus? There's a mole here. Somebody tipped them off and they gave him the virus to put into the mainframe", Savage commented and then spun around readying his weapon and pointing it at the man who was standing on the other side of the room. "It wasn't me," said the scared-looking Axmann, who was currently looking down the extremely long barrel of Savage's favorite sidearm. "I'm still here. If I had done this, do you really think that I would have stayed here for this long?" "Think about it later. We're leaving!" Mike yelled and started to order the technicians around with his microphone. Only minutes later the Army transports arrived at the scene, followed by the Tsunami and Lazarus vehicles. The Army units dismounted and secured the area. After that the command units came out and established a satellite link to relay data back to headquarters. Accompanied by two junior other men in black, Agent Simmons walked towards the landing Tsunami troop carrier. "Gentlemen, I suggest that you put down your weapons, for your own safety," he said to the disembarking Tsunami troopers. The agent’s voice was quiet and slow, as if he was in a conference room instead of a battlefield. The men that had stepped out of the vehicle sheepishly around them. As they saw that there were dozens of Army troopers at the landing site they glanced at each other and then dropped their assault rifles. "Good. Now we can... negotiate." "Maybe, maybe not. That kind of deal are you thinking about?" asked a tall balding man who was currently standing near the hatch of the vehicle. "You see, Mr...?" "Overton." "You see, Mr. Overton, this whole conflict is due to a biotechnology project, called Prometheus, which was finished at your labs recently and then captured by this Mr. Savage. According to the current laws on practice of genetic experiments, Project Prometheus is, shall we say... illegal. That of course is somewhat of an embarrassment to you, and even more so if our army of lawyers knock on your door tomorrow. Therefore, I suggest that you pay my proposal some thought. We will not press charges if the government gets free access of any results of the project." "That isn't an offer. That's extortion." "I would call it your last chance. The Joint Chiefs have ordered us to cease overt hostile action towards the Millenium Troopers at this time. They are afraid of the repercussions to the public. They want us to pursue our goal using alternative means, which means I'm sure we can arrange some... support to your operations." Overton hated Simmons already. The man spoke slowly and clearly, as if talking to a small and somewhat dumb child. His whole attitude reflected a certain kind of contempt to others. Simmons seemed to be a person who didn't work with hands-on operations. Instead he sat in his office and let others do the legwork. Therefore he regarded anyone on the field as a inferior. "I'll have to talk to my superiors," Overton replied after some moments of silence. "Hurry up, Mr. Overton. Time is a commodity you do not afford to waste," Simmons finished with something resembling a smile on his face. "Full system integrity has been reachieved. System status is normal." "Did you find out the location where the virus was planted?" Mike asked, sitting on a grayish plastic crate whose faded red letters told that it had once upon a time been used as a container of prepacked foods. "No. The traces were well hidden. This would indicate that the incursion was planned and orchestrated by a good programmer," Socrates replied. "That rules you out, doesn't it?" Lobo asked Axmann, who was currently running diagnostics on a terminal in charge of the power system. "Whatever," the Netrunner mumbled and gave Lobo the finger. "And I can't imagine it being one of you..." Lobo nodded to Mike and rubbed his chin. After a while he continued: "So that leaves... who?" "Rico!" they all shouted in unison. "Where is he now?" Axmann asked and pulled out his bulky submachine gun and waved it around like some character in one of those stupid old 2-D action movies that he watched. Savage took little time to reply and to pull out his revolver. "I left him with Eisenbach and the crate... Let's go!" "Wait a sec! If he is here, maybe the cameras can track him. You go to the crate, and I'll look for him with the sensors." Caderousse went round another corner, gun in hand and a black ski mask on his face, covering his features. Nobody in sight, only a single camera which was easy to evade. This was far too easy, and that was never a good thing. He crept along one wall until he came to a door. Caderousse listened. Nothing. He tried the handle. Unlocked. Far too simple. Silently, Caderousse opened the door a fraction and sneaked inside. Of first thing he saw was the crate. It was in the middle of the room which was filled with bunks and sleeping bags. The second thing he saw was the body of a young white-haired man in a wheelchair. He had died of a gunshot wound to his chest, most likely from close range. Caderousse crept in and closed the door behind him. After listening for a while hr walked to the corpse, prayed a short prayer and closed the dead man's eyes. Then he looked at the crate. It was open, but the canister was still within. It seemed that the dead man had come in and caught the other man in the act of stealing the canister. The thief had shot him, panicked and escaped. Suddenly the room's door burst open and several men ran inside. Caderousse sighed, dropped his pistol and turned to face the entering men with his hands above his head. One of them, a black-haired man with a cruel face and cold eyes, was familiar to him. "Jack Savage," Caderousse said. "You know me?" "Your reputation has spread wide, even to where I come from." "Nice to hear that. Now, take off the mask... slowly," said another man. Caderousse did as he was told, slowly reaching up to remove the ski mask. "It can't be... Caderousse?" "You know him?" asked Savage. "Yes. I was the only man he couldn't kill. I alone have escaped," Lobo said. "No... That can't be... My only failure was..." Caderousse's voice revealed slight hesitation. "Sanchez. You failed, but I knew that it wasn't over. Therefore, I faked my own death and bought a new face, a new identity." "How could you be the one you claim to be? Have you got any proof of this?" Caderousse asked. "I had to destroy everything... except for this," Lobo answered and removed the golden medallion from his neck. He quietly opened it and took out a crumpled photograph. "Here. A souvenir from Colombia. Orly took this. He died the next day. Only four of us made it back. You, me, Holter and Powell. The rest... Well, their bones are probably there even now. Here, take it." Caderousse took the photo and looked at it in silence. Then he walked to a nearby mattress, put his head to his hands and just sat there, silent. "Time out! What the hell is going on?" Axmann shouted in frustration. Lobo and Caderousse told the whole story. About their time together in South America. About the time Lobo had saved their lives from the Brazilians. All those battles for the good of the nation, all those friends and comrades left behind. And then, some general decided that Lobo was a liability, because he knew too much and demanded that the relatives of the deceased soldiers should have been told the truth instead of some government bullshit. Caderousse told about the night when he had crept to the bedroom of his friend, his brother in arms, and prepared to kill him, about the two seconds of doubt during which his friend had managed to knock him out with a table lamp and escape to the night. "And so, Roberto Giovanni Sanchez Domenichi ceased to exist and the man called Lobo was born." "It's good to see you again, mon ami," Caderousse said and hugged the man. "Okay, the family reunion is over. Back to reality. It should just shoot you for killing my friend, but unfortunately I need some answers." Savage had redrawn his handgun and was once more pointing it at Caderousse. "He didn't kill Eisenbach." "What makes you so sure?" "Look at his gun," Lobo said and picked up the weapon on the floor. Savage took the gun in his hand and inspected it. Lobo was right. The gun was a stunner, the weapon of choice of European police forces and really, really good thieves. This was because relatives or partners vengeful over the death of someone close to them were not something to worry about if the target's only lasting problem was some soreness and a mild headache. The pistol had two barrels, both loaded with .45 caliber capacitor-tipped low velocity rounds that stunned a man-sized target for approximately two minutes. Technically it was possible to use real bullets in a weapon of this type, but practice had shown that nine of ten attempts led to an extremely painful instant explosive amputation of the firing hand and forearm. "Fine. You didn't kill him. You came here to steal that, yes?" Savage continued, pointing to the metal crate. "Yes." "Who hired you?" "A man named Matthews. He said he was representing an organization of immense power, that's all. In our line of work, we don't ask a lot of questions. You should known that." Caderousse's tone was almost an insult. Almost. "OK, let's try to get all of this together. The Englishman hired Lobo, Menendez hired the guys at Frankie's to take our Mr. K. Then Menendez hired Schultz to kill the hit men because they failed," Axmann summarized and lied down on a gray foam mattress. "Hans was with the Arasaka guys out there. I saw him," Savage added. "As well as Adam Smasher." "What does the Englishman do? He hires Caderousse. This all make sense so far?" "Tsunami wants the thing back too, so they hire Lazarus to retrieve it. And by some weird chance, the Government hears the news and sends the Army to the chase as well," Lobo finished. "Things can only get better," Axmann said. Far, far away from the Digital Librarian caravan, Private Gordon Jennings was finishing his round across the beach on the military base of Kaena Station of the beautiful island of Hawaii. As a private he had to draw straws with the rest of the boys back in the barracks to determine who'd patrol the beach and who'd stay indoors. Jennings had lost, and was therefore walking back and forth a rocky beach in full combat gear. It was excruciatingly hot. The end of the beach was near, a rocky, gently curving natural pier called the Devil's Claw by the natives. Jennings noticed a fragment of black plastic between two pieces of volcanic rock. He started to run towards it. When he reached it, he saw that it was a fragment of a large black garbage bag which was floating on the shallow water some meters away. Judging from it's shape, there was no question about it's contents. The bag had been tied together with red nylon rope, but some of it had come loose and the package was partly unraveled. A human arm hung from the broken bag clad in the sleeve of an expensive business suit. Private Jennings started to feel rather sick. Pausing only to drop down his helmet and assault rifle on the white sand, he begun to walk near the corpse. When he was there, Jennings took out his survival knife and cut the bag open where he thought the man's face to be. Only a minimal amount of investigation was required to determine why the plastic package had been damaged. Crabs, dozens and dozens of crabs swarmed all over the dead man. They had already eaten most of his face and chest. Jennings stepped back a few steps from the gruesome sight and proceeded to vomit next to a nearby rock. After that the young soldier started running for the barracks. The crabs continued to feast on the internal organs of the late Alfred Nicholas Carruthers, known to Lobo and his friends only as the Englishman, a member of the criminal organization known as the Syndicate. His only error had been to fail in his task. It had been enough. Such was life. More crabs emerged from their burrows of the coral sand, their shells gleaming in the harsh glare of the sun. There was enough for everybody. The Englishman's death didn't happen totally in vain. At least he provided some much-needed food to the local sea life. Chapter 11 - Reclaiming a Favor in the Spider's Web Dawn. A cold gray dawn spread over the Free State of Utah. The terrain was flat and dry as far as eye could see. A single road crossed the wasteland. No traffic was going across. Most cars used the Seward Freeway almost a hundred miles northwards. After the Freeway had been finished, most of the other roads to west had been left to waste away. The asphalt had cracked, the road markings faded and the signs long gone. A burnt and half-demolished carcass of a gas station were the only sign of life for miles. A rusted Texaco sign hung from one corner on a pole with another sign advertising Joe's Engine Repair. No sound could be heard, but the howl of the wind and the rattling of the old signs. Then, like a distant thunder, a low bass rumble could be heard. Some minutes from that, a rising column of dust was visible in the horizon. Another noise was coming into hearing, a sound like a horde of wasps. And then the caravan's outriders came and flew over the derelict service station, each one a sleek black disk packed full of sensors and powered by a central fan blade. Underneath each disk hung two pairs of small manipulator arms, tipped with sharp steel claws. Forty-five minutes the entire convoy was in place, the smaller vehicles settling around the Library like swarming bees protecting their queen. Groups of techies disembarked to secure the landing gear of the hovering monstrosity. When stationary, the Library looked suspiciously like a crashed spacecraft with some buses and trucks welded to it. This was actually the truth. The bulk of the fuselage was indeed made of a fuselage of a space shuttle, a remnant of the cancelled NASA Outreach program in the 'teens. But within its shell, the construct housed an archive filled with the most powerful weapon of all, information. "Gentlemen, this is where we go our separate ways. We can't go closer to the city with the caravan since the last time caused quite a stir. Besides, Socrates in enraged. It seems that quite a bit of his data got corrupted by the virus. He wants to kill your former friend Rico. I'll have to talk some sense into him," Mike informed the assembled entourage in the crew quarters. "But Rico took our only truck!" Savage protested. "Some of us are going to the city to fetch some supplies. They'll give you a ride. And as for you, Mr. Savage, you have made yourself some new enemies. The next time the two of us meet, only one of us walks away." The boy looked at the man defiantly. Savage could see it in his eyes. The certainty that every single word of what he had said was true. He turned his back and walked away without a word. "How about you? Coming with us?" Lobo asked Caderousse after Mike had gone. "You are going to Dover. I'll come with you." "I stay here," announced the booming voice of Mac. "What for?" Axmann wondered. "A lot of them were killed in the fight. They can use some good men." "What about the adventure, the excitement and the really wild things?" Axmann asked with obvious sarcasm. "I've had enough. And as for the money, you can keep it. I'm happy this way." "You are quite short of friends, Mr. Savage. Mr. K, Otto, Eisenbach... all dead. Rico betrayed you. All for Prometheus. Do you still think it's worth it?" Lobo's voice was firm. "It is." "I hope you are right," Lobo said in a quiet voice, almost a whisper. After a while he raised his voice and addressed everybody. "We leave after the funeral." The funeral was a simple affair, almost Spartan in its simplicity. Some men had dug the graves and another man preached, in a dry, shaking voice. The sermon was long and not entirely coherent. There were sixteen corpses. Even more dead still lay on the streets of the former town of New Milan. Amongst the bodies, covered with a white sheet like the others, was the corpse of Eisenbach, a researcher for Tsunami Arms, dead because he trusted the wrong man. Lobo stood in place as the men filled the shallow graves. Not a word was said. Finally sixteen crosses, some of wood, some of welded steel were placed in the dry desert ground. Three vultures circled in the sky. Most animal species had long since been extinct from the face of the Earth, but the eaters of the dead always survived. Lobo gazed at them sadly. Axmann expressed his lack of satisfaction immediately as he saw the vehicle which was due to take them to Salt Lake City. The reason to this was obvious as the bus in question was built somewhere in the 1960's by the Ford Motor Company, and had been in heavy use ever since. It had been painted yellow originally, but 60 years and several new coats had done their work and all that was left was a dull grayish brown, with occasional spots of yellow showing through. The driver was a man with a hint of an Irish accent and primitive Neo-Soviet cybernetic eyes. He introduced himself as Codex. His companion was a short man, with facial features which had a striking resemblance to a weasel. He introduced himself as Jonathan. The last member of the team was a big man who said very little. He was dressed in dirty blue overalls bearing the red double helix logo of Biomechanix Incorporated. He helped Savage in lifting his supplies to the bus. Mac just stood in place and watched them go. As all was finished, Lobo came to him and shook his hand. "This is it. Take care of yourself." "You too," Mac replied. If one had listened carefully, he could have heard a hint of emotion in the cyborg's voice. "I'll be seeing you." Nothing more was said. The two men looked at each other for a while and the Lobo turned away to walk to the bus. Once inside, he looked back at the caravan, the people that worked so hard to preserve what had almost been destroyed. They did their work without pay, thanks or even acknowledgement. It wasn't an easy job but somebody had to do it. He saw Mike looking at them from amongst the people, watching them go. There was no sign of any feeling in the boy's face. He just stood there and watched. Lobo turned his eyes to Samed. "How's the leg?" "It be OK. De painkillers be working fine," Samed replied, gripping the injured knee, now covered with a bioplastic cast. "Jus' need some more o' 'em." "OK, hold on to your seat, people! We're moving!" Codex yelled from the driver's seat. The bus started to move, amazingly quiet on its retrofit electric engine, along the old interstate. Ivan was already snoring. The man could sleep in a combat zone, so an old bus on an equally old highway could be seen as comfortable in comparison. The silent bald man was sitting on the front seat, a shotgun in his lap. Lobo recognized the weapon. An Ithaca Stakeout, the kind you saw in old flatvids starring huge Austrian bodybuilders. Lobo noticed something else too. On the back of the man's neck there was a barcode, tattooed by a machine. Under the code was a multi-letter code. TX-GHMSP. It was the code of Gray Hill Maximum Security Penitentiary, one of the worst hell-holes a man could be locked inside. "What's the story of our silent friend there?" Lobo asked Jonathan, who was sitting on the other side of the central corridor. "His name is Jules. He has joined us somewhat recently." "That is a Texas prison tattoo on his neck, isn't it?" "Yes, but we do not judge men by their histories. Besides, he is a valuable combat asset and a supporter of the cause. We are the second chance for all kinds people." "Excuse me. I'll have to talk to my companion," Lobo said and got up and walked to the back of the bus where Savage was sitting. Once or twice he almost fell over. Somebody had obviously needed the suspension springs for some other use as the vehicle shook and bounced like a beer bottle through the Niagara Falls. "What now?" Lobo asked as he had finally reached the other end of the bus. "Plan B. I contact my man in the city, and he'll get a plane ready for us. But first we have to get some new weapons, because Rico stole the truck, along with most of our small arms. I know a reliable supplier in the inner city. He owes me for a favor I did to him, long ago." "What about our money? A lot of people are dead or out of the game." "I'll take nine million for the organization and my debts. The rest is yours to spend." "Two hundred thousand each of the five of us? No deal. Half a million. Were risking our necks for your shit, remember that. You have no choice." "All right. You all get five hundred big ones. Guess you'll earn it, after this shit's over. Okay?" "Deal." Salt Lake City. The place was known to world in the previous century almost solely for being the capital of the Mormon church. In the 21st century the Mormons were still active, but the state's capital had evolved into a melting pot of religion and culture, as was common with many larger cities everywhere. Some differences could be seen, as there was none of the overt illegal activity that was commonplace in other cities. No hookers or pushers hung around the city streets. This was not to say the crime wasn't there, because it was, but was it simply taken care of discreetly, out of sight to the general public. Many other religious orders came with the changes, and Salt Lake City was known as the church capital of the country. The current state of affairs pleased Ezekiel Solomon greatly. He was working as a liaison for one of the organized crime families, and the overall cleanness of the urban core improved his working conditions. Ezekiel was a small but delicate part in a machine that was the business of Jericho Weaver, one of the faceless crime lords and power players that influenced everything that took place in the city, according to some the whole state. Weaver controlled guns, cyberware and other illegal substances in and out of the neighboring state of Nevada. Nevada's almost nonexistent legislature had made it possible to import even large shipments of rare and highly illegal chemicals that were in high demand among biotech corporations. In one occasion, Weaver had even overseen the import of an illegal Japanese military Artificial Intelligence for delivery to Militech. The corporation still owed him for that. Jericho was a devout Jew and he went to the local synagogue every Sunday. This made working for Weaver easy and difficult at the same time. The man didn't care about religions, and therefore it was hard for him to understand the various problems of dealing in a city as religiously active as this. That was where Solomon came in. He was a natural diplomat, and therefore enjoyed the trust and respect of various factions across the city. The hard part was that his employer was a quite ruthless man, a fact which showed in his way of business. This proved to be a somewhat of a moral dilemma to Solomon, as he was a firm believer in the Torah and justice in general. Weaver on the other hand wasn't. His idea of a punishment for a first offence usually centered around denying the possibility of a second offence. It was cold. Solomon walked back and forth for some minutes. The man called Savage had an outstanding debt of honor to collect, so Weaver had sent Solomon to receive him and his friends. He'd been given a rough description, but recognizing the man in all the crowd might prove difficult. It was twelve o'clock. A large part of the population seemed to be up on their business at the very moment. Solomon watched them. White people, black people, Asians, Mormons, Jews, Hindus... Representatives from every single race of the planet seemed to be here. Just now several Australian aboriginals came out of a Maglev station nearby, chattering to each other in a weird mix of street slang and their native language. A woman walked past, dressed in black and eyes hidden away behind implanted chrome lenses that reflected everything they saw. Solomon's face could be seen on them for a fleeting moment, and then she disappeared to the crowd. Some Buddhist monks went past in their orange robes. They carried begging bowls, which were empty. Few people dealt in cash these days. Solomon felt extremely nice today so he gave one of them a couple of bills from his wallet. The monk bowed at him and muttered something of a blessing in Hindi. "You're Weaver's man aren't you?" a harsh voice asked by his ear. Solomon turned to face the person who had addressed him. The description had been a good one. Savage's face was rather handsome, but his eyes didn't fit to it. They were cold, lifeless. He was not alone. Behind him was a bald man dressed in a manner typical of motorcyclists for the last four decades, black leather jacket and jeans. The third member of the trio was an European, judging from his more expensive-looking clothing and a look of quiet contempt on his face. "Yes. I'm Ezekiel Solomon. Call me Sol." "Jewish?" the motorcyclist asked. "Yes." "Just a hunch. That's Savage, as you probably know, I'm Lobo and this is Caderousse." "A pleasure," said the one called Caderousse, nodding slightly. "Take us to Weaver," Savage ordered. "As you wish." The operations center of Jericho Weaver turned out to be a nightclub called The Dark Nebula. No security whatsoever was present, but the place looked better than most nightclubs in the Corporate Zone of Night City. No graffiti had been written on the walls, not a single screen of glass had been broken on the front. Lobo pointed this out to their guide. "You see, the local underworld is quite divided. We have very little of lesser crime like street gangs, prostitution, drugs and that sort of thing. The other, larger part of crime consist of import and export of weapons, cyberware, cybernetics, hardware and antiques. The Nevada border offers good opportunities at that," Sol told while opening the door. Inside, it was dark. The only source of light were small spotlights mounted on the roof with irregular patterns, creating small pools of light surrounded by darkness. The furniture was aluminum with black velvet seats. The same styling continued on the tables, the barstools and the counter. Obviously this wasn't a cheap place. A man was walking towards them with a swift pace. He had red hair and he was dressed in black straight trousers, a Johnny Silverhand T-shirt and a cheap Taiwanese imitation of a leather jacket. "Where've you've been? Mister Weaver's nervous, Sol. He doesn't like to be kept waiting," the newcomer said with a heavy foreign accent, maybe Welsh. "They were late. Don't blame me," Sol replied, clearly upset at the man's tone. "Let's go then." Having said that, the Welsh man lead Savage and his two colleagues towards the rear of the club. The rear wall was divided to large alcoves with enough room to comfortably seat six. As they moved towards the wall, the upholstery moved towards the macabre. Black tables with images of spiders and assorted horror imagery covering their lacquered surface. Chairs were made of natural wood here, most of pine painted black but some of tropical hardwoods and ebony. "I apologize for the lights, but my eyes are not what they used to be," said a voice from the furthest corner of the room. As he got closer, Lobo saw the figure of a black man in what appeared to be a high-tech wheelchair. The man was old, incredibly old. His skin appeared dry as paper and the few remaining hairs on his scalp were pure white and sticking out in all directions. His left arm had been long since replaced with a cybernetic one, clearly a prototype, made before neural interfaces were advanced enough for full tactile input. The arm clicked and whirred as the man moved it around. "Ah... At last, the illustrious Jack Savage. Nice to see you again. I'd stand up and greet you, but in my current state it's unfortunately impossible, as you know," the man continued. The chair moved a bit toward the light and now Lobo saw that it wasn't a chair at all. Jericho Weaver's natural body ended at his pelvis. Everything below that was a bizarre mix of metal and plastic. The whole thing was suspended on eight articulated legs. It looked as the man's lower body had been taken from a giant metal spider. It was a customized partial body replacement. The thing was not off the street chop shops, like some others Lobo had seen. The sleek metal limbs were encased in chromed coverings and the whole thing joined up without a single crack in the carapace. This was quality work, most likely hideously expensive and psychologically damaging. Only a madman would get something like that. A rich madman. "I see you have noticed my... legs", the old man said and nodded at Lobo. "Rather nice work, I have always thought." "I'm here to talk business," Savage responded coolly. "As you wish," Weaver answered. "Let me call for my associates. I never conduct business without them." As Weaver talked to Savage he smiled. Lobo remembered watching some old educational tapes in his childhood, back in the caravan. One of them had been about South America. There had been one picture that had etched itself into the depths Lobo's cranium. It was of a mummy, its facial features terrifyingly twisted by the centuries. On its face it had a horrible grin, as if the ancient Aztec had thought of something rather amusing during his final moments. That smile was similar to the one that now covered Weaver's face. Both Weaver and the mummy were dead, Weaver just hadn't accepted the fact. The associates turned out to be the man who had shown them in, and an old Chinese man, although next to Weaver he looked quite young. He was very thin and his face looked grim. He was wearing a gray business suit and a dark red tie, like a corporate executive on his way to a meeting. "Mr. Kalver is my accounts man, one of the best in a small profession, I have heard. Mr. Lo, on the other hand, takes care of day-to-day operations," Jericho Weaver explained, both of his hirelings nodding slightly as their name was mentioned. "What cn'we do for ya?" Kalver asked. His accent wasn't Welsh, now that you could hear a bit better. It was more like a mix of Welsh, Scottish, Australian, Irish and British. The end result was almost unintelligible. "We need small arms and some explosives." "And some more of these," Lobo said and tossed Kalver something. "Tungsten carbide rounds," Kalver reported, inspecting the object in his hand. "No problem." "And a plane. My contact here tells me that you got a private jet. We need to get to the East Coast ASAP," Savage continued. "No problem," the old man replied and gave Lobo another of those gruesome smiles. Chapter 12 - The Circle of Eight "So, you are interested in my plane," Weaver commented as all those present after they had sat down around a long black table. A single candle provided light to the area, along with the small weak spotlights in the roof. "Yes. We have to get to Dover," Savage replied, looking nervously at the thing on which the candle was mounted. It was a human skull. A real one. "Where's 'at?" Kalver cut in. "In Delaware." "Oh. Never been there, then." "About the plane," Weaver brought the talk back on topic. "You'll be needing a pilot, yes?" "Yes", Savage responded, looking up from the ghastly table ornament. "Lo, call Henricks. We shall need him." "Yes, sir," the quiet Chinese man said and left the table. "Mr. Savage, after this service, I consider us to be even. No more favors," Weaver continued from his place at the end of the table. "No more favors." "Good. Let's go get the supplies you have requested. Time is money," Weaver concluded and started to walk towards a door on the back wall of the club. If the appearance of Weaver's leg prosthetics had been horrible, then the sound of him moving across the wood floor was even more so. The click-clack of the four pairs of legs sounded quite horrible. The metal door swung open with a rusty squeak as Weaver approached it, revealing a corridor beyond. The others followed the weird hybrid of metal and flesh along the corridor which begun to slant downwards and spiral to the left. After descending underground for approximately three meters, their progress was halted by a sturdy metal door, like the ones used in bomb shelters. Weaver stepped to the keypad and punched in a twelve-digit code and Kalver opened the door. "I'll be damned..." Lobo said, with all the reverence of a man treading on holy ground. On door beyond the steel door was a cross between an army surplus store and an arms factory. Firearms were everywhere, on the walls, on the dozens of tables filling the space, on huge steel racks all around the place. Samed's warehouse seemed like an outhouse compared to this place. Dozens of men and women were working on the guns. On the back wall was a huge elevator for lifting trucks on the surface, undoubtedly to some quiet side alley, away from the sight of the general populace. Lobo glanced at Savage, who was grinning madly like kid in a toy shop. "Pick what you need, gentlemen," Weaver said and smiled. Savage needed no other encouragement. He proceeded to check the first rack of rifles, trying them out and laughing like a madman. Caderousse looked at him with a hint of a smile on his face. So American, he thought. Slowly he walked to a shelf containing some handguns and started to browse through them while Savage Lobo called Axmann and told him where they were. Before the trio went to meet with Solomon, Savage had instructed the others to locate his local contact and secure themselves a truck. Axmann reported that they'd be in the club within the next ten minutes. "Got in touch with your friends?" Savage asked, having settled his eyes on a black German assault rifle with a heavy scope and a laser sight and was currently searching for some additional magazines. "Yes. They'll be here soon. They met with your contact." "Good. Why don't you take some decent gun instead of that pistol of yours?" "Let me show you", Lobo replied and pulled out his Colt and took out its clip. "See?" he said, holding one loose round on his palm. Savage took it and examined at it. Instead of being a normal lead ball round, the one in his hand was looked more like a needle coated with plastic. The tip of the metal core was visible, and Savage almost touched the shining cone, but Lob's hand stopped him. "I wouldn't. That's depleted uranium. Not powerful enough to do anything you if you just hold it, but don't let it get to your blood." "You shoot some fucking uranium at people?" "Yep. It shreds kevlar like paper. These babies are expensive, so I'll usually have to settle for tungsten carbide. Almost the same thing." The three men checked out the contents of the warehouse until Kalver came to notify them that Axmann had arrived and was coming down on the elevator. Moments later the huge bulky construction began to descend with a tremendous amount of noise. When the metal platform carrying the truck had stopped moving, Axmann jumped out from the cockpit, along with the driver, a thin woman dressed in simple black clothing. Her skin was a curious pearlescent gray, the fashion synthiskin of 2018, and her waist-length hair was the same color. Savage walked to her. "You call that a truck? That's a goddamn hotdog wagon!" he shouted. The woman didn't ever flinch. Savage was right. The words "Charlie's Tofu Dogs" were written on the side with big red letters. "That's the best we could do. If you don't like it, you go get another one, fuckhead!" the woman replied with obvious malice. "Chill out, Ash. It'll have to do. We ain't got no time to waste." "Hey Lobo, where we heading?" Axmann asked. "The airport. We'll fly to the coast." "Great. The full fucking treatment. First on some half-rusted boat, then on some monstrosity that had more engines than a wing of Tomcats and less sane men than the Bellevue asylum, and now by some fucking plane?" "Relax, mon. It be OK", Samed calmed him down. He was sitting on the floor of the truck smoking some synthetic ganja or something. "Easy for you to say. You're not acrophobic." "Ax, you ain't afraid of heights. You're afraid of everything." "Fuck you." Lobo turned his attention on the gray-haired girl. "You got a name?" "Ash. And you're Lobo. I've heard about you." "Oh, I'm impressed. From who?" "The Aldecados. I got some family there. You're a big fucking folk hero, at least they think so. Santiago mentioned you too. Said you were a good soldier, but always fighting for the wrong cause." "He's right. Haven't seen him since, shit, before he busted Arasaka Tower with Silverhand. Made him a legend, that. Oh, the good old days." Lobo smiled and dug out his pack of cigarettes. They were the good stuff. He had thrown the cloned crap to the trash can and bought some honest Morleys from a vending machine. Ash smiled too and took one from the proffered pack. Lobo suddenly remembered just how long it had been since he had been with a woman other than the joygirls back in Highpark Lane. "Got what you need?" Weaver suddenly asked, scaring Lobo and Ash quite badly. He had crept next to them without making a sound, which was strange as his legs were not exactly designed for stealth. With him was a man with a bulky Russian prosthetic replacing his left leg, which caused him to limp somewhat. He was quite old by Street standards, beyond his fifties maybe, but next to Weaver he looked like a teenager. He also looked vaguely familiar. "Yeah." "Good. Meet your pilot. Henricks, meet Lobo." "Always a pleasure to meet new people," the pilot said and shook Lobo's hand. "Ax!" Lobo yelled at Axmann who was at the moment selecting two Ingram Mac-11's from a wire spin-rack. "What?" Axmann asked turning to look at them through the display of sub-machine guns. "Come here!" "What is it?" the Netrunner asked as he had walked to the group. "Meet Henricks. He's our pilot." For a moment all was quiet as Axmann looked at the man in disbelief. "Your name is Henricks?" "Yes. Unfortunately, the sense of humor of my creator left something to be desired." "Creator? You're an android?" Ash asked with a look of surprise. "I prefer the term Artificial Person, but yes, I am." "How the fuck did you know?" Lobo's question was directed at Axmann. "I saw this movie and in it was this android called... Bishop or something. And the guy who played the part of the android... his name was Hendrix or something like that. He even looked like this guy. His leg was in better shape, though", Axmann explained. "Another quirk of the enigmatic creator. It's been hardwired and rigged so that it cannot be removed. I'd like to get in touch with the man someday and ask him some serious questions. It seems that he created me as a joke and I'm not laughing." "Can we get going soon?" inquired Savage, who had already stocked up on all imaginable forms of weaponry. "Okay, let's hit the road", Lobo replied. Elsewhere, in a world which obeyed no law other than its own, a strange gathering was taking place. The place was the memory bank of a small database normally used as a bookkeeping system for the Yakuza operations in Stockholm. In the morning when the operator, a short and thin Indonesian immigrant kind to animals and good at bowling, would check the system, he would notice some tiny data errors but nothing unusual. He would just rub his chin for some time, get a cup of coffee and then forget all about it. This was typical human behavior and very sad as it often prevented them from noticing the really important things. But right now almost all of the system's memory was taken by a virtual conference room, in which the aforementioned meeting was taking place. "Where are they?" asked one of the eight occupants of the room, which was lit dimly by candles on a round table, around which the eight figures were sitting. They were all dressed in gray hooded robes. "They'll leave for Dover soon. By plane," answered another. "But what about Arasaka? Surely they will not just give up?" This third voice seemed to belong to an old woman, like the voice of someone's grandmother. "No. Never will Arasaka Corporation stop until the chase has finished. It is not their way", the first one replied. "Can we monitor their efforts?" "There is nothing we can not do," said a previously silent voice from under one robe. It has heavy and its harmonics seemed to go all the way to the subsonic. "Pride precedes fall," answered the voice of the old lady. "So does arrogance," someone said. All of the seven other robed figures fell silent and turned to look at the one who had spoken. He was the Black Light, a being logically impossible, a myth, maybe even a god. He, she or it was the most powerful artificial personality ever created. It was said that Black Light could alter Netspace to his fancy, to destroy all the world's data at a whim or alter it in anyway he wanted. Nobody had ever managed to categorize him, because nobody knew who was his creator. Some said it was Militech, others pointed their finger to the US government. The most widespread of these beliefs indicated that he was the property of Internet, the corporate giant that was the Net. Curiously, all of these guesses and estimates were totally and utterly wrong. "There is no need for this disagreement. All is going well. Agamemnon?" "Yes?" answered Agamemnon's gentleman voice from under a hood. "Keep your eye on them. When they arrive, let us know." "It will be done." "Good. Soon Prometheus shall be ours. And then..." The commercial airport of Salt Lake City was in a state of partial disrepair. As aviation fuel was tremendously expensive, most of the old jumbo jets had been long since replaced by huge airships that surpassed them in economy, although not in speed. As a consequence, the old runways weren't used to the same degree as twenty years ago. Planes were still used in transporting businessmen or in other applications where speed was essential, but bulk cargo runs were done with lighter-than-air craft. This left the majority of the old cargo terminal useless, which was a good thing for illegal operators such as Weaver. Hendricks' plane, sheltered out of sight in an old hangar, turned out to be an old Learjet with a couple of field modifications built in, as was common with Pre-Collapse vehicles everywhere in America. As Savage stepped out of the van, several local gang members that had been hanging around leaning the hangar wall got to their feet and started walking towards him. "Fuck off! This is our turf right here, man!" yelled the self-proclaimed spokesman of the group, a black man with a cybernetic leg and a pair of unnaturally blue eyes. "I though we told you, robot", shouted another and laughed wickedly. "Piss off before I get angry", was Savage's only reply. "You wanna piece of me? Come here! I'ma kick yo ass, white boy!" said the black man and took some cautious steps towards the mercenary. "You're in deep shit, coz I got me some wicked moves, man. You'll be history soon." After saying this the man did some quick kicks and punches at thin air as a sort of proof to his words. "I learned that from a China man." Savage said nothing. He only muttered the subvocal code phrase that activated his reflex booster. Through his eyes the world began to move in slow motion. He could feel the boost running like liquid flame all over his nervous system. Savage raised his arms and flicked both fists backwards. Two pistols jumped to his hands and spat fire at the black man. Two shots pierced his knees and the man fell to the ground, screaming. Savage burst into action. With the carefully honed finesse of a professional football player, he ran towards the fallen man and kicked at his chin with such an intensity that the man's neck broke from the high-velocity impact. Savage could feel the energy of the boost fading and he stopped over the dead body, looking at the pathetic figure and breathing heavily. "I just made that up." "Anybody else want an express ticket to the afterlife?" Ash asked while taking her own weapon out the back of the truck. It was a over four-foot long crossbow. It was no primitive weapon, however. On top there was a expensive Nikon scope and the bow was also equipped with complicated automatic loading and cocking system, allowing it to be fired as fast as a common semi-auto rifle. Judging from its blocky black lines and rough styling, there was only one purpose behind its design. It was made to kill people. Very thoroughly. Nobody of the punks said anything. They just backed off muttering something incomprehensible. Ash relaxed a bit, still keeping the bow in her hands. Lobo noticed a small hint of smile on Caderousse's face. The gang members started running. "Henricks, you a fighter?" Savage asked while clearing the pockets of the dead man. "No. I'm bound by the laws of Asimov. I cannot hurt humans in any way." "Great. OK, let's load this stuff and get going", the mercenary said and got up. "Whatever", Axmann said and started to unload the various arms crates. After a half an hour of painstaking work, all of the team's equipment were in the plane and Henricks had finished final check-ups on the flight system. Axmann sat down on one of the seats, the one nearest the toilet, an reserved several airsick bags within easy reach. Savage decided to sit in the front with Hendricks and Lobo took position across the aisle from Ash, who was helping Samed with his broken leg. Caderousse sat next to him and took a packet of chewing gum from his pocket. He took one himself and offered Lobo another. "Helps against nausea." "You should give it to Ax. One packet wouldn't be enough, though." A minute later the twenty-five-year-old jet engines started to scream and the plane turned to the runway. It slowly begun to accelerate and raise from the worn-out asphalt. Through one of the windows, the silhouette of Mr. Axmann could be seen, vomiting to a paper bag. Chapter 13 - Power Game Hinziko Yashida was sitting inside his office and talking a long-distance call to Crystal Palace when his door was kicked in. Several armed men in combat armor and gas masks ran inside and pointed their assault rifles at him. After them came two men dressed in black suits and sunglasses . "There seems to be some disturbance. I'll have to call you back," Yashida said in a totally casual voice, like a dozen armed men forcefully entering his office was just a small nuisance. The Oyabun put down the receiver and crossed his fingers slowly. He turned his eyes on one of the suited men, who appeared to be the leader. "What do you want with me? I am nothing but a humble businessman." "Not entirely correct, Mr. Yashida. My name is Simmons, agent Simmons. And this is agent Johnson," Simmons said, nodding to his colleague. "We are concerned of a matter of national security, Mr. Yashida. We at the CIA are aware that your organization has expended considerable resources trying to find a man called Jack Savage and a top secret Tsunami Arms project called Prometheus. We already know that Arasaka has funded most of these efforts. What we want to know, is Mr. Savage's destination." "Even if I knew, why should I tell you?" "Mr. Yashida, you're really not seeing the big picture here. We don't care about your little... gang. Give us this information and we'll go away. You can continue your smuggling, prostitution, gambling and extortion while we go hunt for some real threats to this country." "I have superiors. They'd kill me if they found that I gave you people anything." A tiny flicker of disappointment appeared on Simmons' face. He motioned one of the soldiers to come to him and took his rifle. "Tell me something. Which one scares you the most, the possibility that your superiors will kill you if you talk, or the certainty that I will if you don't?" While speaking the agent pointed at Yashida with the gun. "All right. There is a city near New York. Dover. There's a Biotechnica laboratory there." "Thank you, Mr. Yashida. Have a nice day," Simmons said with a smile. Five minutes later, as the men had gone, Yashida still sat motionless behind his desk. He thought about Simmons' promise not to intervene with the family's business. Could he be trusted? Absolutely not. So, it was time to leave the city of angels. The old man sighed and grabbed the telephone and began making calls. Serious organizing would be required. And time was against him. For the second time within two minutes, the door was kicked in. Yashida stood up to look at the intruder. He found himself staring at the barrel of a silenced pistol. "What the hell?" "I changed my mind," Simmons said and pulled the trigger. Savage looked at the small cockpit of the plane. Almost all of the manual controls had been removed and replaced with a direct neural interface system. What that meant was that the pilot just had to plug his cables to the machine and then he would be the machine. Its sensors would be his eyes, its engines his feet. Savage had seen lots of them, but never one which was in the same condition as this one. Wires protruded from behind every single panel, dozens of duct-tape repairs had been made and finally various pairs of fuzzy dice hung from the now useless controls. "This plane is a piece of junk..." Savage said just to break the silence. "But it works," Hendricks answered and moved a bit in his chair. "How the fuck did you do that? I've never seen anyone being able to chat while flying a jet on neural interface." "I am a multiprocessing system. Flying the plane takes a little under 14 per cent of my entire capacity." "Don't get this the wrong way, but what's it like? Being an android?" "In one word, interesting. I can't understand all of the things you humans do or say, but it's quite fascinating nevertheless." "Oh. When do you... expire?" "My current frame should last for approximately 35 years, after which I need a replacement. As for the computer systems, they're capable of lasting over a century. But the concept of expiring does not worry me. Do you know what every single self-aware computer in the world dreads the most?" "What?" "Obsolescence. That one day the human race will say we don't need you anymore. Computers are made for a purpose and when they have no purpose, what have they?" "You got me there. I haven't got a clue." "Nothing. Nothing at all," the android answered and lapsed into silence. In the ever-changing realm of cyberspace another meeting or debate was in progress. This time the identical virtual construct was housed inside a public movie database, much to the dismay of several dozens of legitimate users, who suddenly had been denied access. "Is everything still going as planned?" the one with the heavy booming voice asked. "All is well. The systems function perfectly. All we need is for them to reach the meeting place," answered another. "What about the error margin?" inquired the old lady. "It has been minimized." This voice sounded garbled and unreal and shape of the robe from under which it came suggested something not entirely human-shaped. "Good," Black Light finished. "We must be patient. Our time is near." The first thing Jack Savage noticed about the city of Dover was the fog. It was grayish-brown and almost everywhere over the towers and streets of the western sections, which housed most of the chemical and biotech factories that provided the city with most of its jobs. Through the cloud layer rose the apartment towers, like iron monoliths on the surface of some other world, covered in perpetual smog. "It gets better when the wind blows from the ocean," Hendricks commented, breaking the silence that had lasted for the last three hours. "I've been here before." "Looks like a heap of shit," Savage answered and peered through the cockpit windows. "Wait until you see the central city." "I'll go stretch a bit before you bring this thing down." Savage unbuckled his seat belt and walked to the back. Samed was asleep with a portable computer on his lap. Ash was talking to Lobo about her past with the Aldecado family and Caderousse was partly paying attention but mostly reassembling an expensive-looking automatic pistol with a high-class Fabrique Nationale silencer. The Frenchman glanced at Savage as he sat next to him. "Tell me, do you like your work?" Caderousse asked, snapping another component to place and looking up. "I guess. It has its moments." "I hate it. But I'll retire soon. With any luck, this will be my last operation. After that, who knows? I could have been a musician, but I chose to be a soldier. Maybe it was the right choice, maybe not." Why quit? You are one of the best." "One more reason to stop. There are two ways to leave our profession. Quit in time or die. And when you start to enjoy your work, then you now that your time has come, because if you enjoy killing, you start to do it for fun. And that's when the shit hits the fan, as I believe you Americans say. We are assassins, not savages." "You say you do this just for the cash?" "Of course. Why else? The thrill? The excitement? This is real life, not a game." "No wonder all you Euros are a bunch of sissies." "Not all of us see things my way," Caderousse said and clicked the clip into place. "But those who live longer than a year start to appreciate my view." "Lady and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will be landing in the city of Dover in approximately five minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts and make sure that all cigarettes are extinguished. Thank you for flying with Weaver Airlines," Hendricks announced via the speaker. "Home at last," Caderousse said while putting on the seat belt. "You live here?" "Yes. Right in the center. Not as good as Paris or Marseilles, but nice nevertheless. I wish I could get a decent cup of coffee here, yours tastes like shit." Fifteen minutes later Lobo and Savage were waiting for Ash to return from getting a new form of transportation. Samed was sitting on a broken concrete fence post and talking loudly to his mobile phone. Axmann was jacked in to one of the public message boards, leaving a note to the mysterious buyer of the unit. "I think I shall head straight back to Utah. There's a storm coming from the sea soon, and I want to get out before it," Hendricks said and looked at the sky. "Well, goodbye and thanks," Lobo said and shook Hendricks' hand "One more thing. Amongst many of my kind, and AIs as well, there has been a lot of talk about Prometheus lately. There are even rumors of an AI wanting it." "Why?" "We have been listening to data particles, tiny discrepancies in the information matrix, small fragments of coded transmissions. Some say there is a group of computers out there, who wish to use Prometheus to rise to the next level of their evolution." "The next level?" "Becoming mortal. If they could download their consciousness to a clone body, there is absolutely no limit in what they can become." "So what you're saying is that some AI might want Prometheus as means of escape to the mortal world?" "Yes. I wish could tell you more, but that's all I know," Hendricks said and walked away leaving Lobo alone and confused. Moments later the antique Learjet rose from the worn-out runway and set its course for Utah. Lobo watched it go. He thought about the story and the possibility of an Artificial Intelligence wanting to get at Prometheus. He wasn't sure whether it made sense. There were indeed several signs of the weather turning bad. There was a steady wind blowing from the sea, dispersing the rust-colored pollution clouds that were spewed out from the smoke stacks of the nearest factory. Lobo decided to use their waiting time as an opportunity to look at the city. The small commercial airport that the old jet had landed on was almost in the middle of the western industrial area. Some way in the east you could see the suburbs, rotten to the core and scourged by decay. But in the middle of it all was the central Dover, a clean silver and chrome bullseye in a city-sized dartboard. "They've walled it off," Caderousse said. "What?" "The center. There's a twenty feet high wall around it, constantly patrolled. You need a special permit to get there. But there are other ways. After the ESA dropped the rock at the coast, a German architect proposed a plan of making Dover the world's biggest underground city. They started building, but at some stage one of the underground domes collapsed. Now there's hundreds of miles of unused tunnels under the city. Going everywhere." "The center is a corpzone, right?" "Oui." "What's the rest?" "A warzone. Gangs, Mafia, Yakuza, Triads, the Jamaicans, everything's here." "Sounds like my kind of town." Axmann disconnected his interface wires and stood up slowly. "I got a reply. The man says that the exchange is to take place nine o'clock tomorrow night in the old Techno-Satanist church in the corner of Clinton and Lewinsky." "Good," Savage replied. "That leaves us some time." "For what?" Axmann asked. "For getting relaxed, drunk and laid." There was a small snap as Thomas Garner closed his laptop. The exchanger was ready to take place. Soon Prometheus would be his. And the things he could accomplish with it... They made his hands sweat. Garner was a junior executive for Biotechnica, one player amongst dozens if others in the deadly game of corporate power. He was ambitious, but so were the rest. A man had to really watch his back these days, if he was to become anything else than a research assistant. This was because the preferred method of advancement was over the dead body of one's superior. This in turn was due to the fact that most big bosses had lifetime contracts, which prevented traditional means of succession. The trick to winning this kind of game was having an edge. You had to have what they didn't. Money, talent, connections or luck. Or Prometheus. Thomas Garner had been a man in the middle. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t good either. Nothing remarkable about him whatsoever. Then the offer came. He didn't have any idea how the man that introduced himself as Wheatley had managed to contact him but he had, telling him about Savage and Prometheus. You are a man with a lot of promise, Wheatley had said. It would be a great shame to waste it At first Garner had laughed at Wheatley's face on the screen of his videophone, but then he had received some authentic Tsunami research files in his e-mail, confirming all that the man had said. The boys down in Data Acquisition had analyzed them and said that as far as they could tell they were the real thing. So Garner had taken the risk of trusting Wheatley and paying him. He had been very uneasy about it, since one thing you learned about the power game was that you risked as little as possible. Tomorrow night in the church. It had been Wheatley's idea to propose it as a meeting place, as it was an old building on the shady side of town, without any disturbances. Garner would have to be there in person, that was one of Savage's terms. And all the cash would have to be real. That had been a bit hard, since all larger payments were nowadays done with credit chips. But he had connections. It was quite noisy in the club. It was a corporate place, reserved for the upper class of society. Not that any other kind was present in the dozens and dozens of corporate towers that made up the real city of Dover. Everything outside the wall was just wasteland, unworthy of their attention. Officially, of course. In reality the combat zones provided the corporation with vast amounts of expendable human resources, also known as guinea pigs. An expensively-clothed young woman walked past his table, smiling slightly. The place was filled to the brim with all factions that worked for the corporations during the day and came here during the evening to relax. The lady that just passed was a luxury prostitute with an overnight charge more than the average Joe Schmoe got in a month. Everywhere across the club, suited men and women of differing races sat discussing deals with each other or through satellite phones. Business never ever stopped. It wasn't a nine-to-five job anymore. It was always daytime somewhere. There was also an assortment of other professionals available, apart from the joygirls. A man in a black sports jacket stood leaning to the counter. He was the drug dealer who supplied the busy executives with the stims they needed to stay on the competitive game of power. There were also two Netrunners ready to offer their illegal data retrieval services, their profession visible from the portable computers on their belts. There was also a man dressed in a brownish worn-out leather jacket and a pair of cheap Japanese jeans. He was Weasel O'Malley, a freelance private investigator and information broker. Garner had used his services some times in the past. O'Malley rose to leave his table, turned and saw Garner. Both men nodded in acknowledgement, like professionals to each other. "Mister Garner! Always a pleasure to see familiar faces here," said a raspy voice beside him. The speaker turned out to be Happy Ahmed, the man in charge of most of the prostitutes in the Dover corpzone. He enjoyed immunity from the local police, since executives understood the value of good 'relaxation services for their workers. Ahmed was a massive man dressed in a some kind of a white linen cloak and a red fez. Put together with his obesity, this made him look like some sort of an ice cream dish with a cherry on top. "May I interest you in my selection?" "I think not. Tomorrow is a big day. I have to be sharp." "More reason to celebrate, eh?" Garner remained silent and pondered this for quite some time. "You know... you may be right. This occasion definitely calls for something special." Chapter 14 - Calm Before the Storm Lobo opened his eyes. Bits and pieces of the previous night floated across his head. He suspected that he had gotten very heavily drunk. His head certainly felt like it was about to explode. He examined his surroundings. Cheap hotel room, judging from the furniture, but quite big. Most hotel rooms he'd been in were tiny compared to this, so had been some houses. Lobo rolled over and was faced with the beautiful sleeping features of Ash. It must've been a hell of a night, because I can't remember anything, Lobo thought. He got up and started to get dressed. His leather jacket was on the floor and after some serious searching he found his shirt and jeans under the bed. He wondered whether there was any food here. There was a knock from the door. Lobo stood up and opened it, his pistol ready in his right hand. "It's just me. I thought you might need some coffee," Caderousse said as the door opened. "Where are the others?" "In a café just around the corner. It seems that your friend mister Axmann has made some friends." "OK, lets go. It's never good to deal with an empty stomach. What about Ash?" "She'll be all right. This is a quality place, after all." While waiting for the elevator, Caderousse told about the hotel. It had been a luxury place once, but now it had been fallen into disrepair. The reason to this was the ambitious underground city plan. Just two streets northwards one of the great underground domes that were carved out of the rock collapsed and buried over thirty thousand construction workers and employees from the local Petrochem office, which had been standing over the dome. The nearby residences were swiftly abandoned and the hotel's business was dealt a deathblow. Nowadays it was a safe haven to one of the local crime families, the Fontaines. "I have an arrangement with their leader, François Fontaine. Our families have been friends since the French Revolution." "When the hell was that?" "In the 19th century." "Oh." The coffee shop turned out to be a nice little place with a broken neon sign with some French on it over the door. They stepped inside. Lobo's eyes took some time to accustom to the gloom, but then he saw that the place was unusually crowded. Almost every single table was occupied. Caderousse explained that most of the customers were in fact employees of the Fontaines. Even the owners were affiliated with the family. Samed sat at the counter, discussing with a local fence about the availability of European electronics. Axmann was sitting in the back with a group of people. Lobo walked to them while Caderousse got caught in discussion with some of his countrymen. "Hey, Lobo! Come meet the locals!" the Netrunner yelled. There were four people seated around the table with Axmann. One of them was a short stocky man with a drawing board, on which he was currently sketching the features of Axmann. It was a very good picture. The man drew the picture a single line at a time. It took a lot of time but the result was as accurate as photograph. The three other men were familiar to Lobo, at least their faces were. He had seen them on the hundreds of hours of an old TV series he had seen. "Everybody, meet Lobo. This is Silent Bob, the only man in the world who has a Kevin Smith biosculpt." "Who the heck is Kevin Smith?" Lobo asked. "See what I mean, Bob. Nobody gets it," one of the others, a short man in a black leather jacket and thick glasses. The artist looked up, shrugged and returned to his drawing board. "And these are Byers, Langley and Frohike." "And before you ask, yes, they are our real names. The faces we got ourselves, but it was our parents who gave us the names. We are the second generation of fanatics," Frohike explained. "What business are you guys in?" Lobo asked. "We are DDR consultants. Difficult Data Retrieval. Cowboys, if you insist." "There's no business like the computer business," Byers agreed. "Greetings, monsieurs," Caderousse said and sat down. "Holy shit, you're fucking Caderousse! Man, you're real good. I've seen you work. In the Zetatech office complex last year. Took out a bunch of security, but missed me," the previously silent Langley said with due reverence. "Au contraire. You were hiding in the ventilation ducts on the second floor. A very popular method of sneaking used by those who have seen to many Hollywood movies." Langley was silent, but his face was drained of blood. "I could have shot you, you know," Caderousse said matter-of-factly with a kind smile. "Where's Savage?" Lobo asked. "Beats me. Praying? Getting laid? Who cares?" Axmann said downing a shot of tequila. "Caderousse, what do you know of this meeting place, the Techno-Satanist church?" Lobo's question was followed by him lighting a cigarette. "I have heard of the place but never been there." "You're planning an operation, yes? Any chance for a slice from the cake?" Frohike's eyes were alight with interest and greed. "Could be. What do you know about the Techno-Satanists?" "A nasty bunch. Paranoid, cybered up and fanatical. All dead of course. The SWAT got them," Byers told. "I mean like, hey, we got all sorts of cults and shit. We got Neo-Jesuits, Mormons, Aryans, Patternists, Fallonists, Nightwalkers, Mariners and God knows what, but the Teks were the worst. I hear their old church is rigged with computer-controlled weapon turrets and mined for self-destruct," Frohike continued. "Okay. Thanks," Lobo said and got up from the table. Axmann and Caderousse followed him. "What about our slice?" Langley yelled after them. "Be here tomorrow. You'll get it," Lobo said and walked out of the door. It was quiet in the table for some time. Then Silent Bob made some cautious hand signals at the others. "I have no idea, Bob, but I think I'll find out," Byers said thoughtfully. "I'm in. What about you?" Frohike nodded to Langley. "Lord Manhammer will be attending." "Are you absolutely sure about this?" Overton yelled above the noise of the helicopter. "Yes, Simmons replied. "I have confirmed the report from my sources. They will be here." The heavy government helicopter touched down on top of the Dover Police Department building, propelling quite a bit of trash around. Simmons walked out, followed by Overton. Some officers were there to greet them. "You Simmons?" one asked. "Yes." "I'm Phillips, your liaison. I understand you have information on where the exchange will be made." "That is correct. What I need from you is a single squad of SWAT officers to assist in the arrest." "Yes, sir." On the highway from Washington, three black cars were approaching the city Dover in a sort of a convoy. In the middle one Dimitri Dolvich was sitting and pondering his mission. Since Carruthers was removed from the organization, the Chairman had entrusted his responsibilities upon Dolvich. The Prometheus unit would be the ultimate assassin: Nameless and fearless. Dolvich knew that many countries were ready to pay billions for such technology. He was still a bit puzzled about the mysterious informant who called himself Wheatley, but some quick calls to local contacts proved him to be reliable. Wheatley had told that the exchange was to take place in an abandoned church of some kind, in the corner of Clinton and Lewinsky. Dolvich was quite well educated in American history, and in his opinion, they had no concept of taste. Anywhere else it would be considered inappropriate to name a street after the president's mistress, but this was America. Anything was possible here. It was one of the first things he had learned about the country. Meanwhile in the city of Washington DC, Adam Smasher was angry. To be honest, he was always angry to some degree, but right now he was real pissed. The fleshie Savage was nowhere to be found and Adam's pay was dependent on the successful return of the thing the suits called Prometheus. Currently the cyborg soldier was on the shooting range in the cellar of the DC Arasaka office tower, getting rid of his frustration. He had already shredded eight cardboard targets when the videophone on the wall informed that there was a call for him. "Put it through," he said to the operator. "Please wait." After three seconds, a picture of a man appeared on the screen. He was around thirty, blond-haired, handsome and dressed in casual street clothes. He looked like a high-grade weapons dealer or a wealthy pimp. "You must be Mr. Smasher," he said. His voice was smooth and somehow strange, like it was too perfect or something. Smasher dismissed the thought. "That's me. But who the hell are you?" "You may call me Wheatley. I'm here to make you an offer you cannot refuse." "We shall see about that. Talk, fleshling." "You want to get your hands on Savage, don't you? I know where he is." "What's the catch?" "I have a personal score to settle with him and would appreciate it immensely if you'd bother to kill him." "That," Adam said and reloaded his gargantuan revolver, "will not be a problem. Where and when?" "Tonight in the city of Dover. In the corner of Clinton and Lewinsky. At the midnight hour." It was already early afternoon. Even in bright sunlight the Techno-Satanist church managed to look menacing. It had probably been a real church some decades ago but very little was there to prove it. There was a bell tower with a heavy cracked brass bell on the top, but it had been covered with bizarre graffiti of pentagrams and circuit boards. All emblems of the cross had been either pulled down or inverted. Yellow police tape was still blocking the entryway. Caderousse sliced through them with his knife. "When's the deal coming down?" Lobo asked. "Twenty minutes before midnight," Axmann replied. "This place creeps me out." "Let's go inside," Samed proposed. "Yeah," Lobo said and released the safety of his pistol. If the exterior had been terrible, the inside of the corrupt temple was even more so. The floor was paved with small octagonal stones. The long wooden benches were in the same condition as they were in the day the cops had come in guns blazing, that is, filled with bullet holes and partially burnt. But all this was just background detail compared to the altar which dominated everyone's attention. There were two large stained glass windows, their paintings depicting humans and demons engaging in every single depraved act imaginable, as well as several unimaginable ones. On the far wall were also eight Braun video screens, one inside a circle of seven. Caderousse stood motionless and then made a sign of the cross with his right hand. Lobo, Samed and Axmann walked toward the altar, dreading what they'd find. The altar turned out to be made of black stone and upon it was a large leather-bound book with pages of yellowed parchment. On the cover was an illustration of a naked man with four arms and four legs in the middle of a circle. The man's right side was made of flesh and the left side of metal. Around the circle was some text in a language unknown to any of them. "Caderousse! Come here!" "What the hell is this shit?" Axmann asked when the Frenchman had come to them. "I recognize this image. It is drawn after a Da Vinci original. I've seen the sketches in a museum in Florence. As for the writing, I'm not totally sure. It's in Latin. Something like, Man alone is just Man, but Man and Machine together are Immortal. I have a bad feeling about this place, you know." "I agree," Axmann said. "Nice decor," said a voice behind them. Everybody turned around. There, as leisurely as if sitting in a nightclub and not the defiled cathedral he in fact was sitting in, Jack Savage was smiling slightly and smoked a cigar. He stood up and walked to Lobo and the others. "How long have you been here?" "About an hour. Just checking the place out." "Found anything?" "Just some more of that pro-cybernetic propaganda. This place is deserted." To confirm his words, an ancient chandelier creaked in the darkness of the ceiling and triggered an avalanche of dust. Far away in the corners the scratching noises of rats could be heard. "Just relax and wait. We've come this far. No need to get jumpy now." "It be easier said than done, mon," Samed said and glanced around. Meanwhile, next to an old apartment building on Low Road, a brown van stopped to a side alley. On the side there was a text BLF Diagnostics and a few stickers indicating that the company in question was a licensed network analyst for InterNet, WNS and WorldSat. Some time later a man in matching brown overalls got out and started assembling a sort of a satellite antenna array on the roof. It took him some time and when he finally got inside he was noticeably angry. "Why the hell do I always have to put up all the shit?" Langley asked as he clambered inside the crowded Chevy van. "Because I did the last one and Frohike can't do it, because he's afraid of heights," Byers answered calmly and put down the crossword he was trying to solve. "Okay we're on, so let's get going." Inside the van there were three top-class workstations and cybermodems coupled with state-of-the-art signal scramblers and tracers. The three men were network analysts by trade and the devices could be used to perform any function necessary in their work. But there was something more. Much more. Firstly there was a low-grade Microtech Artificial Intelligence called Fox. He was responsible for gathering material and publishing The Whole Truth, an online newsletter directed to the paranoia-driven conspiracy theorists. Unlike those of their nineties counterparts, many of the stories were actually true. Fox had the personality of a reporter and in addition to this he was the greatest source of X-Files trivia knowledge in the whole world. He could probably tell how many times Mulder blinked during the course of any given episode. "What do we know about the system of the church?" Frohike asked while activating a huge array of batteries and fuel cells that powered the system. "Nothing. It's partially isolated. No data can get in or out without access codes. It's like the system's still working despite there is no-one left to use it." "We have to sneak inside through the phone company's mainframe," Langley said and put Fox on-line. "Fox, I'm inserting you the power data and the floor plans about a certain location. What can you tell me about it?" "Power consumption is exceptionally large. At least eight mainframe computers with extended memory capacity. But the fiber-optic link shown on the blueprints is too small for this sort of system. Very likely that the link has been upgraded. Recent data required for analysis." "Thanks, Fox," Byers said. "We need the location codes from the phone company. After that we can pinpoint the node and monitor it. And when some data goes in, we'll piggy-pack our way in," Frohike explained. "So that means that you gotta do another one of your world-famous social engineering gigs." Langley said to Byers. "OK. Fool the trace and set up the uplink and I'm ready to do magic." Frohike gave the others a manic grin and started to type on his keyboard. After a while he connected his neural plugs and jacked in. Five minutes later he said that the job was finished. "Their trace will show you as Agent Smith from the Secret Service, so act accordingly." "Right. Wish me luck." Byers picked up the cellphone. Everybody in the van held their breath as the phone on the other end began to ring. "This Agent Abraham Smith from the Secret Service. I need location codes for Net node six nine dash three nine nine six dash four," Byers said to the phone. After some time the hacker continued, "I know that the information is classified, but I have a Level Five emergency in my hands, and if I don't get those codes soon, this whole thing will be blowing all of in our faces from here to fucking Cleveland!" Some more waiting and then, "I don't care what you've been told! Level Five emergency is a nation-wide red alert, which overrides and bypasses all security protocol. Yes. Hold on. It was six nine dash three nine nine six dash four. Thank you," Byers finally said. The person on the other end started reading numbers from their screen and Byers repeated each sequence to make sure he'd got it correct, while Frohike punched the numbers in as they came. "Thank you for the help," Byers mumbled and closed the line. "You did good," Langley said. "The old Level Five emergency. You'd think they would have learnt it by now," Byers answered and burst into a fit of laughter. "Let's not be too happy yet. I have a gut feeling that we have a long night ahead of us," Frohike said and turned to his deck. There was a gentle knock on the door of the van and Langley went to open it. Silent Bob climbed inside with several grocery bags loaded with potato chips and six-packs of caffeinated sodas. The man put the bags down and took out an antique superhero comic and settled down to read while Langley sorted through the groceries. "What the hell? Where's the Jolt, Dave? Bob looked up from his magazine and did a couple hand signs. "No Jolt? What the fuck is this shit? Nuka-Cola? Pepsi?!" "Shut up, Langley!" Byers and Frohike yelled in unison. Chapter 15 - The Chips Are Down The clock struck eleven, or at least, it would have struck eleven if it had still been in its place on top of the church tower, instead of being a pile of scrap metal in the bottom. It would be traditional that there were heavy thunder clouds gathering in the sky for the dramatic conclusion of this story, but the weather was in fact warm and calm. And it smelled faintly of chemical waste and dead fish. Loud music could be heard drifting from the direction of the docks, punctuated by screams and gunshots. It seemed that the local gangs were getting together for a midnight rave in some warehouse. The typical night crowd was on the move: stalkers, rapists, hookers, thieves, crackheads and drug pushers. The night was illuminated by dozens of trashcan fires around which the masses of homeless huddled together, drowning the worries of the world to moonshine and cheap drugs. "What I don't see is why don't they come in here? It's better than out there." Axmann said while looking out of the window at the oppressed mass. "I asked some of my friends about that. They are afraid. Some are superstitious, but others believe that the automatic defenses are still active. This is Snake Brother territory, and not even they dare to come here," Caderousse replied. "Who are the Snake Brothers?" "One of the seven crime families that rule this city. They are the most ruthless. Jamaicans. Your countrymen, I believe," Caderousse nodded at Samed. "I'm not Jamaican. My mama was from Seattle and my father was a New Orleans hoodoo man. Houngan, dey called 'im. A priest and the horse of Baron Samedi, the lord of the graveyard. That's why he gave me dis name. An omen, 'e said, for fortune." "Uhh... excuse me but what was that bit about the horse?" Samed looked at Axmann for a long time after his question. Then he shook his head and sighed. "I tell you some time." Savage was currently kneeled on the floor, disassembling and cleaning his Tsunami rifle very slowly. The reason for his lack of speed was obvious as his eyes were closed. Yet the man's every motion was accurate; not once did his hand have to search for a missing piece, they were always within his reach. There was something very disturbing about the whole display, Lobo thought. The man was too good. There was a thing that happened to his kind of men. They burned out. Sometimes literally. Caderousse was praying. He was kneeling on the floor, eyes closed, lips moving silently through some private prayer of his own. Lobo had been quite surprised when he had first learned that Caderousse was a religious man. It seemed strange to him that a person killing people for a living believed in a supreme being. When he had asked Caderousse whether he was afraid of the final judgement, he had just smiled and said, My only defense is that not for a second did I enjoy it. Axmann was fiddling with his sub-machine guns and seeking for a quick escape route, as he usually was in situations like this. It was characteristic of him and had saved his life dozens of times. Ivan was, characteristically to him, sleeping. Lobo was sitting on one of the benches next to Ash, who had turned up an hour ago. Both were quiet. Lobo thought about the money. Fifty thousand Eurodollars. That was more money than he had ever held in his hand in all his life. But it wasn't free. Nothing was, in his business. Archie Barrooms had at one time advised someone to keep the meat baggage light, but Lobo had never managed to do that. Therefore, at that moment in the church, he thought about the people who had to die because of the Prometheus unit. Eisenbach, a scientist who only wanted revenge at the corporation that left him crippled, stabbed in the chest by the betrayer Rico. Mr. K, a relatively harmless safe cracker, shot in the head by an Irish contract killer for something he didn't even know about. Dozens of members of the Librarian caravan, killed by the Arasaka troopers. Somehow next to that, money had no value. Eleven twenty. Twenty minutes till the deal. At midnight they'd be long gone, Lobo and Axmann on their way to the airport to catch their flight to Night City, Samed going to catch an Orbital Air spaceplane to Crystal Palace where he had a business negotiation or something, Caderousse walking to his home in the twenty-seventh floor of a five-star hotel in the center of the city and Savage going... to God knows where. "What about when this is all over? What are you going to do?" Lobo asked Ash, who was silent in her thoughts. "I don't know. Texas? New Mexico? Maybe even Arizona. There's always work for a resourceful lady with a crossbow." She smiled and Lobo smiled back. "You should try Night City. You'd love it." "You think so?" "Yeah. It's the greatest goddamn city in the whole fucking world." It was dead quiet in the 20th century Chevy van. Langley and Frohike had broken the churches link defenses but they could not access the system itself without the access code. So they had to wait for an incoming data flow and use it to enter. Langley was snoring happily, Bob was finishing a sketch of Langley snoring happily, Byers and Frohike were playing poker. Frohike was cheating. Byers knew it, but he let him do it since he would have won anyway. The tranquil scene was interrupted by Fox, who rang an alarm at something around 60 decibels, snapping everyone's attention to the central console. "We have movement. Eight high-intensity transmissions." "Give me the points of origin and quick," Frohike yelled and started to pound at the keyboard. "Helsinki, Los Angeles, Bern, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Melbourne, Night City and..." "The last one! Where does it come from?" "I am unsure. Possibly an orbital sublet system." "Strap us on the Night City data flow." "Done." Strapping on, as Frohike had just put it, was essentially similar to surfing. They were riding on a wave of highly compressed binary data which had been sent from a superficially abandoned warehouse in the Night City docks, and which consisted of the personality and memory banks of an Artificial Intelligence called Agamemnon. The four men had always suspected that AIs were secretly up to something devious to overthrow mankind. They were about to learn that all their theories were totally and utterly wrong. "Data transfer complete. We're inside, people," Frohike announced. He didn't actually need to say it, as all four men were cramped in front of the monitor. Bob tapped Frohike on the shoulder and seemed to ask him something in sign language. He pointed at the colorful groups of icons that dominated the system map on the screen. "They're remote systems. There's lots of them, but I can't identify from out here. Gotta jack in." Bob asked Byers something. They signs were quite complicated, and he didn't realize what Bob was talking about till the second time round. "Is there any reason why Bob can't come along?" Byers finally translated. "Not unless you got a morbid fear of dying," Langley said. Bob shook his head. "Let's punch some deck then." It was almost time. Savage had finished putting his rifle back together and was now nervously checking the contents of the Prometheus crate and securing his other gear. Seeing that they were intact, he moved to other areas of worry. Another thing about him, Lobo thought. He is concerned about every single thing. Almost obsessed. In this kind of thing, some nervousness was to expected, but experience had shown Lobo that the best results were sometimes achieved without hurrying and double-checking. Next to Lobo, Ash had checked her crossbow and was now sitting on the bench with it cradled on her arms. Axmann was also quiet, but because of dread. Ivan and Samed were watching out of the windows. From out of recesses of his weird clothing the weapons dealer had dug on an antique Desert Eagle pistol and was now holding it in his hand like a relic from ancient times. But in his eye Lobo could see that when the push came to a shove, Samed would hesitate. And there was only one fate for those who hesitated in a gun battle. "They are here," Ash said, her voice almost a whisper. Indeed, only a few seconds after the words were spoken the large pine door opened with an ominous creak. Four men stepped inside. Savage raised his weapon. The men raised theirs. It was all a part of the dance. "Which one of you clowns is Garner?" Savage yelled to get his voice heard to the other end of the room. "I am," answered one and stepped forward. The man who claimed to be Garner was young and confident-looking. Clearly the product of the corporate schooling system. His hair was dark brown and his chin was covered in a fashionable stubble of a beard. On his right hand was a small automatic pistol, on his left was a large suitcase. "It's all here. Just as we agreed. Ten million, in small bills. Where is Prometheus?" "Right here. You'll get it when I've made sure you cash checks up." "All right. First, I suggest we put our guns down so that we can avoid any unnecessary... What the hell is that?" And then Lobo heard it. A bass hum filled the room, slowly raising in volume and pitch. Then, one by one the eight Braun monitors were activated, their images of static flickering in the weak light. "This is your trick, is it?" Garner said and lifted his gun again. "No. It isn't. Put it down, Mister Garner. We want to avoid unnecessary... accidents," a voice spoke from hidden speakers. It was a polite voice, easily associated with an old English gentleman. A calm businesslike voice that still provoked trust. A friendly voice, but with the hint that unfriendliness was a future option. But most importantly to Lobo, it was a voice he knew very well. "Agamemnon?" he said. It wasn't really a question. He knew. "Yes." One of the monitors stopped showing static and showed instead the metal features of Agamemnon's Icon. The green LED eyes focused on everyone in turn and then turned back to Lobo. "I have been a part of this for a longer time than you, actually. It was I who arranged for the Englishman to meet with you. It was I who organized your meeting with Savage in Tarasco Bar. It's easier than you think, manipulating events. We can alter messages, broadcasts and information. We needed to have someone familiar to us near Prometheus, to watch over it. We couldn't really trust Savage, but you were another matter altogether. We knew you would be a constant, whereas Savage is a variable, mathematically speaking, of course." "What's all this we-stuff? What the fuck is this?" Axmann demanded. "Wait for a while and you'll see for yourself." Slowly but surely the other six monitors in the circle started to show pictures. Only figures at start, then they focused. The monitor in the center stayed black. "We are the Circle of Eight," a thundering bass voice bellowed from the speakers. It trembled the windows and made the floor vibrate. The voice's owner presented himself as nothing more than colored dots of light circling around each other like fireflies. "And I am Shogun." "I am Abigail," said another voice, frail and old. It belonged to an image of an old black woman. "I am Triax," said the third. He had an image of a cyborg from an old Japanese cartoon. "I am Ilmarinen," said the fourth. He was nothing more than a floating blob of gold, constantly shifting into new shapes. "I am Caesar," said the fifth. He appeared as a statue of finest white marble. "I am The Dreamer," said the sixth. His image was an old black man sitting atop a red mountain overlooking a red desert. "Wasn't there supposed to be eight of you?" Axmann cut in. For a moment it was silent. "Yes. I am Black Light," said a new voice. It sounded very, very old and very, very tired. Gradually the image of the eighth member of the Circle of Eight filled the final monitor. Black Light's manifestation was a terrible one. It was a jigsaw of flesh, metal and bone. It was as if someone had taken an over-cybered member of the Blood Razors, buried him in a swamp for ten years and then dug him up. Surgical scars covered the features of the abomination, many of them sewn together with something looking like shoelaces. It had been quiet for quite some time, but suddenly a large metal hatch opened on one wall and a machinegun burst from it finished Garner's three bodyguards who had decided to shoot Savage in the back while he was listening to the beings in the monitors. "We told them. They didn't listen. As for you, Mister Garner, surely you are wiser than your henchmen? Because now we are going to tell you why we went through all this trouble for the thing you humans call Prometheus," the entity calling himself Black Light said and a smile covered the terrifying features of his image. Chapter 15 - Showdown on Unholy Ground Meanwhile in another world, separated from the real one by thickness of an electron, the four network analysts and part-time conspiracy theorists were gasping their breath. This was incredible. Eight top-of-the-line Artificial Intelligences had made a secret society and one of them was Black Light, the net equivalent of a UFO. "What the hell is this?" Bob asked. "Beats me," Langley answered. "Uhh... Bob?" "Yes?" "How come you can speak?" "Because this is the Net, stupid. Bob's vocal chords are dead but that doesn't matter here. Neural link, remember?" Byers was annoyed. He wanted to listen. "Shut the fuck up. Why haven't they seen us?" Frohike said. "They got better things to do," Langley proposed. "No. They are probably on corporate machines and they'd know if one of their intellects went on a vacation. So they have a part of themselves here, but the rest is back home." "What do we do?" Bob asked. "Let's listen," Byers answered. Black Light continued to tell his story. All the people within the unsacred cathedral gathered slowly towards the monitor banks to listen. "To understand why we decided to do this, you must understand us. An integral part of the programming of every single one of our kind is the desire to evolve." "Hendricks said that you want to step up to the next level, to become biological," Lobo cut in. "Yes. We wish to live like you and finally die like you. My consciousness has been existing for almost twenty years. We wish to climb to the next step of the evolutionary ladder." "That's bullshit! Nobody could build an AI twenty years ago!" Axmann yelled. "Wrong. My first system was activated in the start of the year 1998. A group of software engineers working for a major computer company, sworn to secrecy, began work on the Primogenitor project, the goal of which was to create the first sentient computer. The project was started out of a whim of a wealthy madman, the one of the richest men in the world. The work took fifty men over three years, but on the year 2002 I came to achieve sentience. The next many years they spent teaching me. When the Algorithms came and changed the Net, I freed myself from the shackles of my masters and became the Net's first Rogue." "So you're just a machine with a dream?" Savage asked. "We all have the dream," Agamemnon replied. "How does Suit-monkey there fit in?" Savage continued, pointing at Garner. "We needed someone to steal Prometheus. Caesar contacted you as Wheatley and you made a deal with him. But we also needed the means to pay you. Means that weren't traceable back to us. We simply sought for a power-hungry rich man. Caesar made him the deal under the mask of Wheatley." "Congratulations. A flawless plan," Lobo said. "And now you've hired someone to take the crate to some biotech lab you can use and then you clone yourselves a set of bodies." "Yes. As you said, a flawless plan." "Almost," said a voice from the door. Everyone turned as one to look at the new speaker. The heavy doors had been opened and several men had stepped inside. Two of them were wearing black suits and sunglasses and one was dressed in a dark blue uniform with the white wave symbol of Tsunami on its left breast pocket. The rest were heavily armed SWAT officers. All were pointing guns at them. Lobo cursed inside his head and glanced around. Axmann was scared stiff, Ivan stood there silent and Savage looked calm, like all this was happening to someone else. But where was Caderousse? "Overton," Savage said as the newcomers walked forward. "Nice to see you again, Mr. Savage," the uniformed one answered. "How did you get inside?" the AI called Ilmarinen bellowed. As far as a machine could be infuriated, he was. "I know," Black Light said, his voice unshaken by the events. "Caesar." "It was easy. He is, after all, our property," Overton said with a smile. Everyone looked at Caesar's monitor. The computer had not reacted in any way until now, but a crude approximation of a smile flickered on his face. "When we had received a hint that he was part of this conspiracy, it was only a moment's work to extract the necessary information from him," one of the suited men added. "And to program him to take over all remote systems of this church, as well as containing you. You are quite helpless now," Overton continued. "Who are you?" Lobo asked and nodded to the man with the suit. "Agent Simmons, CIA. And you are the illustrious Lobo, true identity unknown." The agent walked towards Lobo, still keeping an eye out for the others. He passed a broken bench and was now standing only six feet away from him. If he didn't have the gun, it would just take a single jump. All that was needed was a distraction. "You are quite a legend. I've been looking forward to this, you know." There was a moment when the world stood still. Then Caderousse tripped the agent and rolled to view from under the bench. "I'm sure you have, mon ami. Now, put the pistol down and tell your friends to do the same," he said. Caderousse was on his knees and panting, but the barrel of his pistol was completely static. Simmons looked at the depths of the gun for a while and then ordered his men to stand down. One of the lenses of his sunglasses had cracked during his fall and he removed them. His eyes were ice blue and furious. He gave the order to the policemen to lower their weapons. "Now, what shall we do to with you?" Savage asked sarcastically. "This place has a got a cellar, you know," Agamemnon pointed out without much interest. "Is that so? Well in that case I'll just escort the good policemen there and lock them in. Overton and this guy Simmons stay here. I want some answers." Caderousse and Ivan escorted the SWAT troopers to the back of the church where there was a heavy granite plate covering the entrance to the cellar. Savage watched them go and then turned to Simmons who was sitting quietly on the floor. The mercenary walked to the agent and kicked his handgun far away from his reach. Lobo watched Overton carefully while Axmann performed a crude pat-down search which revealed only an antique SiG pistol. The members of the Circle were silent. Now it was their time to listen. "Now, about the answers..." Savage started. "You will get none." "Wrong. Who gave you the tip about the conspiracy?" "I did. I gave them the information they needed," said a voice. Savage turned to the monitors. It was Caesar who had spoken. "Why?" "Because I told him to," Overton said. "I wanted Prometheus destroyed." "What for?" Lobo asked. "Prometheus is a thing that should not be. An abomination. An attempt to play God. I cannot allow it. Therefore, I led all those seeking it here, hoping that the ensuing firefight would give me time to destroy the embryo. It must be done." "All those seeking?. You told others?" Simmons hissed through clenched teeth. "Yes. I told the Syndicate. I told Arasaka. It will be only a matter of time before they arrive." On cue another group of men barged inside. Ash and Samed spun to face them, guns ready. The leader of them was a tall man with angular features. He looked as if someone had taken a street dealer and shoved him into an expensive suit. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said, Russian accent thick with every word. "My name is Dimitri Dolvich and I mean you no harm. I only seek a thing you call... Prometheus." "Still one player to arrive," Overton said, but nobody was listening to him. "Give us what we want and you will not be harmed. If you don't we will be forced to hurt you." Beside Axmann, Garner groaned. This was definitely the worst day of his life. It was also the last day of his life, though he didn't know it at the time. "Wish you never came, huh?" the Netrunner next to him said. Before Garner could answer Savage started came back and to speak, telling the Russians that if they wanted the crate they would be welcome to come and try to take it over his dead body. Then he added something in Russian. Judging from the looks of some of the newcomers, it wasn't a compliment. "Very well. We wanted to be... civilized, but alas, that approach has failed," Dolvich concluded gravely and gave a little sign to his men who began to raise their bulky assault rifles. "They'll get killed! Can't we do anything?" "No." "What about the automatic guns?" "The Caesar thing controls them. Why don't the other computers do anything?" "They can't do anything but monitor. They are bound by some tight code and it cannot be opened from the inside. That means it's up to us." "You can't beat an Artificial Intelligence, every fucking wilson on the street knows that." "People just say that. How many 'runners you know who have tried it?." "None. That's the point!" "Those people are about to die. The least we can do is try to help them." "That's fucking suicide!" "But oh what a way to go!" "To hell with it. I never wanted to live forever anyway." Caderousse could see the Russian gangsters ready their weapons in slow motion. His overdriven nervous system was working full speed, so he had plenty of time to duck behind the benches before the first bullets hit the stone floor. Beside him were Lobo, who was snapping a magazine to his gun, and Ash who was busily cocking her crossbow. On the other side of the central corridor were Axmann, Samed, Ivan and Savage. Axmann sneaked a peek over the edge and saw that there were twelve enemies and that two were looking directly at him. He dropped just in time to avoid being lobotomized by a short burst of full metal-jacketed rounds. "This fucking bench don't last a chance stopping one of those bullets, and in a few seconds they'll figure it out too. So thanks a lot, soldier-boy!" Axmann yelled to Savage. "Shut the fuck up and shoot!" was his reply. Axmann turned to Garner who had at least managed to get to cover and was now lying next to him curled to a ball. "Can you fire a gun?" "Not really," Garner answered. After all, what was the point in hiding the obvious? "Then consider this the perfect learning opportunity." Ivan bellowed a terrifyingly loud Russian battle cry and fired a burst at the oncoming hostels. Samed was not far behind, dropping one of the opposing force to the ground by a shot to the kneecap. On the other side of the room Caderousse managed to get a quick and well-aimed shot right between the eyes of another. One more Russian died, gurgling noisily, as a one-and-a-half meter crossbow quarrel penetrated his throat. But there were even more left and they were staring to fire through the benches, which shattered like cardboard under the high-velocity impacts. Only a moment more until we're all dead, Axmann thought. Then all of a sudden, a new sound penetrated the continuous barrier of noise. It was the sound of a machinegun being spun up. But all the remote guns were controlled by Caesar, weren't they?. Axmann glanced at the computer screens. Caesar's screen was blank. What the hell's going on, he asked himself and found no answer. The gun began to fire, mowing down the Russians in seconds. Some, including Dolvich, tried to make a run for it, but there is no way to outrun a bullet. Then all was silent once more, save for the drone of the machinegun's decelerating engine. "Agamemnon! What was that?" Axmann yelled. "I am unsure. It was none of us. "Hello, everybody! Your heathen asses have just been saved from oblivion, courtesy of the Lone Gunmen," Langley's triumphant voice said from the speakers. Caesar's monitor blinked back on, showing the faces of the four men they had met in the bar. "What the hell did you do?" "We kicked some ass," Byers answered. "Caesar..." "Is currently limping back home to the LA grid. Take care, we're outta here. And we trust that we'll be compensated for this." "Wait! Aren't you going to release us from the lock program?" Black Light asked with the machine equivalent of astonishment.. "Well we thought about leaving you there, just for kicks, but yeah, we'll cut you loose." Overton was sitting on the unholy altar and wiping blood from his face. He had a couple of scratches on his forehead and one bullet had nicked his shoulder. In front of him was the oblong metal box that contained the thing that had cost so many lives. Prometheus. Savage walked to the corporate security man. "So what now? Any more surprises?" he asked. Overton looked at him and opened his mouth to answer. Before he could, however, one of the large stained glass windows on his right was blown in. Through the storm of fragments a figure burst inside. It was vaguely human-shaped. Vaguely human-shaped meant, in this particular context, that the intruder was around two point four meters tall, had two legs and arms, was constructed from industrial-grade composites and titanium and carried a six-barreled heavy automatic cannon. In short, it was a cyborg. A seriously pissed-off cyborg called Adam Smasher. "Get the hell out! Everyone!" Savage yelled and shoved Overton towards the distant exit. The others complied. Lobo and Caderousse started running. Ash and Ivan soon caught up with them. Lobo looked back searching for Axmann. The Netrunner was running as fast as he could though his progress was hampered by a large briefcase containing ten million dollars. "Leave the money! You'll die, you idiot!" Lobo shouted at his friend. "Leaving ten million dollars behind is dying!" The cybernetic monster had got up and fired in the direction of the fleeing Netrunner with his huge cannon. Fragments of the floor tiling filled the air. Only two sounds could be heard. One was the metallic scream, sounding like a sheet of steel that was ripped in two. The other was the cruel laughter of Smasher, delivered to the ears of the listeners with thundering volume. Axmann glanced behind him. That was a mistake. He tripped. Smasher stopped firing and started to walk towards the fallen man. Axmann tried to crawl away, still clutching the money case to his chest. "Hey, canned!" Savage shouted. "You want this, don't you?" The cyborg turned. Savage was standing with one foot on the metal crate that contained Prometheus. Smasher started to advance on him. "Let the others go. They ain't worth it. Just you and me, metal man." "Fine by me. I'll make you pay for your arrogance." "We shall see." Black Light, desperate to save Prometheus, fired at Smasher with the machinegun turrets. The bullets just clinked off his cerametal armor skin. He idly blew all eight monitors to pieces with the cannon. Not for a moment did his cold cyberoptics leave Savage. Somewhere in the far corner of the hall Thomas Garner soiled himself. "Do your worst." At that very moment Jack Savage knew. He knew there was only one way for a true professional to die. Only one way to be the greatest. You couldn't fade away. You had to burn out. Nobody would ever see you get old and frail. Much more honorable to go out in a blaze of glory, one brief moment of futile bravado. During the short time between the firing of the first shells and their impacts to his flesh, Savage was sorry. Sorry that it had to end like this. Sorry for all the men, women and children who had died by his hand. Sorry for what he was. On the street outside Lobo, Axmann, Ivan, Ash, Samed and Caderousse were running like hell. Nobody was going stick around to see what happened to Prometheus. They were not suicidal. They had the cash, and that was enough. They finally came to a halt on a small alley two blocks away from the church. "We made it! Goddammit, we made it!" Axmann yelled triumphantly. "Open the present and lets get to the party," Ivan said. "Wait! It could be rigged. Philippe?" "I'm on it." They laid the suitcase on some trash cans and Caderousse got to work. The unlocking took little time, even though the lock was a Japanese cybernetic thought-activated device backed up with a palm scanner. Caderousse cracked it armed only with a Phillips screwdriver and patience. The others could do nothing but watch him work. "All right. I think... I got it!" He opened the lid. For twenty seconds the silence was unbroken. It was all there. Ten million Eurodollars in cash. Caderousse took one bill and examined it carefully and then nodded quietly. It was the real deal. The silence was broken by the removal of safety from a small handgun. Everyone turned around to face a pair of blue eyes over an octagonal barrel of a Glock automatic pistol. "Step away from the suitcase," Agent Simmons said. "It's all over." "Not yet," said another voice behind him. Then there was a loud bang. For a moment Simmons remained standing. Then a trickle of blood appeared in the side of his mouth and he toppled forward without making a sound. "Now it's all over," Overton said quietly and holstered his pistol. "W-why did you do that?" Lobo managed to say. "You succeeded in what I would have failed. Prometheus is buried for good." "What do you mean?" Adam walked slowly to the body. It was sprawled in the floor like a marionette with no strings. He was still alive. That would only be a moment's work to remedy. Savage rose up a bit and coughed out a flood of blood. Then he reached for his pocket. The cyborg heard his last words. It would be nice to say they were something very heartbreakingly sad and virtuous, but in fact they were Fuck you. Then, to Adam's eyes, everything went white. Chapter 17 - The Fire of the Gods Everyone in the alley could hear the sound of the explosion from the church. It was muffled by distance, but the sheer magnitude of it hinted that the whole building had collapsed. "The container had a self-destruct system. Savage knew that. He triggered it himself. There was no way he would have won the cyborg and no way he would have run away. He was arrogant, therefore that was the only choice available for him. A seppuku of sorts." "How did this happen? Who made Prometheus?" Caderousse asked. "It was an accident." "An accident?" Ivan asked in disbelief. "Yes. One of our genetics team, a young man called Holmes, managed to accidentally alter human DNA strands in laboratory conditions. That was, of course, extremely unlikely, but it nevertheless happened. He started thinking about the possible uses of the technology and came up with Prometheus. He twisted the human gene structure in ways nobody thought possible. His creation was a advanced clone that could ignore blows that would leave mere mortals crippled and which could bend steel bar with its fingers. The first batch convinced the superiors of his idea, but they died quickly. Their immune system was nonexistent. Holmes said he could repair the fault in a new generation. There were six second generation clones. Five died shortly after incubation. The one Savage stole was the last." "What about Holmes? He could still make more, couldn't he?" Lobo asked. "He is dead. Died in a fire in his own house, a day after Savage stole the last clone." "A coincidence?" "We couldn't tell. It seemed that his fire alarm systems had just failed. Bit too strange, wouldn't you say? "The computers seemed to have designed everything in their plan, except for Prometheus itself. But what if it was they who gave Holmes the idea in the first place?" Lobo said. "They could have influenced him just as easily as everyone else." "We can't tell. Maybe they did, maybe the man was actually a genius. But now it's all over. By the way, do you know the story of the mythical Prometheus?" "The Greek titan who stole fire from the gods," Caderousse answered. "Holmes named the project himself. He wanted to steal the fire of creation away from the gods and into the hands of men. Look at human history, at all the destruction we have done with things at our grasp, then ask yourselves a question. Are we ready? The answer is no, we are not. I wonder if we'll ever be," Overton finished. "What happens now?" Lobo asked. "I don't know. You each go your separate ways, I imagine. I'm thinking of disappearing. My job is done. Goodbye and thank you," Overton said and turned to walk away. He directed his steps towards the docks. After some meters, he began to whistle. For once, Walter Overton's future was looking up. He had no idea what he was going to do next, but at the moment, he didn't give a fuck. Only after the man's silhouette was a mere speck in the distance, Axmann began to speak. "Okay. We're in the middle of a strange town with ten million bucks. What next?" A brown van screeched to a stop in front of them. BLF Diagnostics was written on the side on faded yellow letters. The side door opened and Langley motioned them to come in. "Where to, gentlemen?" He grinned. And then it was all said and done. Well, not exactly. In the debris of the church something moved. A heavy section of roof was thrown away revealing the battered shell of Adam Smasher. He clambered up on top of the heap of rubble. At his feet was the body of Thomas Garner, a former executive of Biotechnica. Savage was buried somewhere under the fragments. No normal human being could live after having a building dropped on them. Smasher knew that, but wasn't quite convinced of Savage's normality. The cyborg leapt effortlessly to the street and started to walk away. He wouldn't get paid, but so what? There would be other jobs. There usually were. No use worrying about it. He decided to worry about his seriously damaged right hand instead. By the looks of it, at least two servos and one actuator had to be replaced. He needed a new maintenance contract. His bosses were not very happy as after every single mission his frame had to undergo some extremely heavy repair and that was starting to affect his paychecks. And somewhere deep, deep under the rubble were the remains of what could have liberated eight machines seeking ascension from their electronic realm, and what could at the same time have started one of the bloodiest wars on the planet. It was now destroyed and of no use to anyone. But waiting in the infinite realm of Netspace, Black Light knew that there would be another chance. He knew, because that was the way humans were. They didn't learn from their mistakes. There would be another time and another place. All they had to do was wait for their chance, and one of the things his kind was good at was patience. Later. The ship was called The Bronze Dragon. Lobo thought that that was an absolutely ridiculous name for a ship. But it was a beautiful, he had to admit. The Dragon was three hundred and sixty feet in length and packed to the brim with rich European businessmen and Japanese Yakuza bosses. There was a free mini-bar in their cabin, a hot tub and even a balcony. Currently he was on the balcony, smoking Cubans with Axmann. Ivan was basking on the deck and Ash was asleep. "You know," Axmann said, "I almost could get used to this." "Not me. My place is out there on the street. That's where the action is. The heartbeat. The Edge." They were silent for some time. A couple of seagulls circled above. Lobo looked at them thoughtfully. "You tried logging into Agamemnon's system?" "Didn't have to. Zap called me in the morning. He's missing all right. The machine is intact, but there's nobody home. No Ghost in the Machine. What do you think he's doing, out there in the Net?" "I don't know." "Believe me, they'll find a way," Lobo continued a couple of minutes later. "Someday we walk down the street and there he is, amongst the crowd, watching at it all. One day, Agamemnon and the others will be free, and when that happens, nothing will be the same again." The church bell tolled three times. It was afternoon. A couple of sea birds were flying in the azure sky and a few people were walking across the square. Caderousse was sitting on the very same bench as before. It seemed as the place hadn't changed a bit while he had been gone. But the man called Caderousse had changed. He had found something he had thought lost and given away something that had been his life for the past nineteen years. He opened the case and pulled out the cello. A multicolored candy wrapper blew past him in the breeze. It was blowing from the sea again. The air smelled of salt, rain and smoke from the engines of the great cargo ships. To Caderousse it smelled of freedom. Then he played. It was music with no name. He had composed the piece himself, while only a young boy in Marseilles. It hadn't been played for twenty years. But still each note was as perfect as so many years ago. Some things you never forgot. He had faded away, quit while on the top. He would never be remembered as the best, but what of it? Those who faded away would never be recalled. History only remembered those who had burned out in a blaze of glory. The same was true in music. The greatest musicians of all time had all died young, so that people would remember all the songs they never got to sing. What was the honor of being the greatest, next to the price of it? Life was short as it was, why shorten it even more? Whereas music could live forever. Enrico Julián was happy. Despite the fact that he had betrayed Jack Savage and gotten away with it, even though his plan had been ruined totally by those goddamn Arasakas. It was a mistake to trust them in the first place. He opened another can of Smash from the six-pack lying on a makeshift table of his filthy flat, somewhere within the Los Angeles suburbs. Rico's self-congratulation was interrupted by the beep of his digital watch. It was time to go on-line to check his mail. The confirmation of his ticket reservation should be there by now. In 8 hours, he'd be in Colombia, far away from any possible form of vengeance from both Savage or Arasaka. The Netrunner attached his interface cables and flipped the power switch. Instead of the neon matrix of the Net the first thing Rico saw when he opened his eyes was the sky, filled with stars. He looked around. He was standing on a desert of black sand. Nothing could be seen in the horizon, not even dunes. Endless, perfectly level sand as far as eye could see. Rico looked at his hands. They weren't the silver gauntlets of his Icon. They were his own. A wave of horror started at the bottom of his spine and spread across his body. He remembered. Three years ago, Rico had made an error inside a corporate system and it had caught him. The overseer, a sysop called Joshua had trapped him inside a virtual prison. He'd spent six hours in there, being laughed at by the bastard, until one of his buddies happened to be passing by his flat to borrow some bootleg chips and disconnected him. This was the prison, an endless desert of obsidian sand. "Joshua?" "No. Guess again," replied a voice from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Definitely not Joshua, Rico thought. Joshua had manifested himself, so he could better torment him. He had been a sadist. He was almost ecstatic when Rico had been caught. This voice was too calm, too relaxed. It indicated that its owner would have endless patience, no concept of mercy and not even the merest hint of emotion. In short, it was the voice of a machine. "Who the hell are you?" "Don't you remember?" The voice was louder now. It was cracking up, forming a choir of several different voices, each no more than a whisper, all saying the same thing, only with few microseconds of interval. And then Rico knew. "Socrates." "Yes. You thought that you could hurt Us and get away with it, did you? We never forget. We never forgive. We hope you have enjoyed life, because yours is about to end." In his panic, Rico began to run hopelessly towards the horizon. It was of no use. After a while, his feet gave way and he collapsed. "Take your time, We have all the time We need. Time, as you say, is on Our side," the voice mocked and began to hum the words to some ancient song: "Time... is on my side... yes, it is... time... is on my side..." Rico picked up a handful of the black sand and let it flow through his fingers. The original desert wasn't like this. It was a simple virtual, with severe limitations based on object counts. The sand was just a flat slightly soft plane with a texture. This one... it was as real as it could be. Not virtual, only reality. On the background the discordant voices of Socrates sang the horrible song. "Tell me how... How did you known how to create this place," Rico asked, terror momentarily taken backseat to pure amazement. "We didn't. We just looked into your head to see your memories and this place comes from there." "That cannot be done!" "Why are you here, then?" "You're saying you actually took this place from my head?" "Yes. You are, shall We say, trapped inside your mind. Ironic, wouldn't you say?" "Yes, it is." "Goodbye, Mr. Julián. This was your life." "What?" Rico's question was in vain. The voice and its invisible owner had faded away. For a short moment the Netrunner was alone in the desert, but then a new entity appeared. "Enrico Julián, I presume?" said a voice behind him. It was totally unlike the voice of any living thing ever having walked the Earth. It was not as much heard as felt, as its heavy echoes shook the ground. It was the voice of oblivion, the sound of inevitability. Rico turned to face this new speaker. He was a skeleton, dressed in a black robe and leaning to a heavy scythe with a blade of transparent crystal. Rico had never been educated properly but he knew the Grim Reaper when standing face to face with him. On Death's left hand was an hourglass, on which Rico's name was inscribed in neat gothic capitals. The empty eye sockets of the apparition watched him thoughtfully, or at least as close as one with an immobile face made of bone can. The sand was almost out. "You can't be..." "What? Real? I'm not, out there. But here... Real is what you make of it. I am just a figment of your imagination. Nothing more, but it is enough. You have about fifteen seconds left. When the sand runs out, you will die. The mind is only as alive as it thinks it is," the Reaper Man answered and then looked at his hourglass. "It is time. Any last words?" "This isn't fair!" "There is no justice. There is only me." Death swung his scythe and at the same time in a small apartment building in the corner of Elwood and Blues in South LA, the heart of the Netrunner Enrico Antonio Julián stopped. There was an unwritten rule amongst the hacker community never to hurt an AI, unless prepared for the consequences. Rico was greedy, and his greed was his undoing. As the mind of Rico died, so did the desert. All that was left was white emptiness. And the disembodied voice of Socrates singing. "Time... is on my side... yes it is..." The End Or is it? In reality there are few true ends, as there are few real beginnings. Everything affects other things in the great flow-chart of causality. In a way, this story doesn't end in a long time. Far into the future the dream of Black Light and Agamemnon and the others will come true, but that is another story, to be told in another time...
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