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"This is the Zone, man," Cray Alden heard someone say as he walked into the staging area, the attitude behind the voice pumped with synthetic steroids and the usual macho bullshit. "Sectors on the outside don't see it like we do. When it starts to come down, I ain't even gonna wait to see what happens before I frag 'em. Don't matter to me as long as I collect."
It was the Zone agent's mantra: pay for play. Without the cash, you might as well be dealing with a Boy Scout. That was the way it worked in the Franchise Zones, especially out here in the Asian Sphere. Sleaze and civilization had been one and the same here for centuries, untold pleasures opening the door to dirty riches.
That made for plenty of players, and where there were players there were runners: high-tech polar opposites of the kind of muscle in this room. The commerce of illegal information was big business, and there was usually no shortage of takers.
"I know, man, I know," another one of them picked up. "I think it's better to bring them in cold anyway. Seen runners do some crazy shit. Do yourself a favor and take 'em out the second you get a clean shot."
"Just as easy to dig flash from a corpse," someone agreed casually.
"Yeah, but then you miss out on the fun part," another observed. "You ever see an open extraction? Never heard screaming like that in your life."
This brought forth a howl of laughter, the kind Cray only heard when he was in the company of these missing links. He could smell the raw meat on their breath.
Cray would have preferred to do this by himself, but the Collective didn't allow that kind of leeway inside the Zone. Instead he had been assigned four agents to assist him in the interceptionoverkill as far as Cray was concerned, but to his superiors there was no such thing. Each of the agents carried three visible weapons, although Cray was certain they had more tucked away in the camochrome armor that plated their bodies. He hated working with them. Every time he heard them laugh, he lost a little more faith in the human race.
The cackles gave way to the pounding of boots as they saw Cray walking in. It was a thing they did whenever they met the man in charge of the missiona sort of tribal rite that had more to do with tradition than actual respect. They also put on a show with their armor, the camochrome pixels changing colors as Cray walked past, making them bright one second and nearly invisible the next. The effect was eerie, and made them seem even less real.
Cray didn't try to hide his contempt. They wouldn't have cared anyway.
"That's enough," he told the agents as he took the floor. The noise died down as soon as Cray stepped behind the small podium at the head of the room. His tone of voice made the agents pay attention, but it was the money Cray's boss had ponied up that made them listen. Phao Yin was the force behind everything Cray did, enough to make these agents think he was CSSeven though nothing could be further from the truth.
"I want to start by making one thing clear," he announced. "I don't work like the people you're used to. There is no bounty involved here, no price for flesh. I'm here to make a simple intercept, and you're here to make sure nothing goes wrong. So don't go thinking the mark is expendable. I want her taken alive. Is that understood?"
A snicker arose. The agents probably thought Cray was looking forward to torturing his mark. If they thought that, fine. As long as it meant they followed orders.
"Good," Cray finished. "I know you've already assimilated the dossier on our target, so I won't waste your time going over it again. If you have any questions, now's the time."
The agent Cray heard when he first walked in stood up. "Your dossier is missing some information," he said, putting on his own show of bravado. "You got no bio. You got no visual. All you got is a name and a possible description."
"So how the hell are were supposed to make the target if we don't even know what the bitch looks like?"
"I gave you everything you need to know," Cray said, his dark brown eyes glaring at the agent. "Identification of the mark is my responsibility, not yours. As long as you have my eyes, you don't need to use your own."
There were sneers, shaking heads, muttered obscenities. Cray didn't want to give this bunch any reason to believe he trusted them. If they didn't know what they were looking for, they wouldn't wander very far from him. And as long as Cray could keep them in his sight, they would be far less likely to screw everything up.
"You got any problems with that?" he asked, giving them all a chance to back out.
Nobody took him up on it.
The money must be good on this one, he thoughtand smiled.
Her name was Zoe, and Cray had spent the better part of the last eight months sorting her out in the Axis. The trail had not been easy to follow. It never was. Professional runners stayed alive only by keeping low profiles, hiding their real identities behinds stray bits of digital bait implanted in the Axis by the hammerjacks they worked with. The trick was in separating the fact from the fiction, and for that the Collective hired people like Cray.
It was a job only a handful of people in the world could do wellbut then again, so was running. In a place where every other depraved act of man was perfectly legal, information trafficking was a capital crime.
Zoe was one of the best. Cray could tell from the genius of the hammerjack who employed her, some golden boy who called himself Heretic. Tagura had deployed its own version of a semi-intelligent crawler module to protect the company knowledge basean effective deterrent, even if the crawlers were a little unstable. Heretic had taken advantage of this, using a series of protobenign viruses that attached themselves to the outer layers of the crawler and became part of its skin. Over the course of weeks, the viruses slowly mutated, making the crawler think it was under conventional attacks from the outside, when in reality it was consuming itself. By the time it realized what was going on, it was already hemorrhagingand the endless reams of company data were ripe for the plucking.
The climax had occurred two hours ago. By nowif Cray's profile was correctZoe would be converting the information to flash and looking for a way to get it out of the country.
That part was the runner's job. Taguralike most other companiesencoded its data to be proprietary. As long as it stayed in the local system, no alarm bells went off; but the second it was moved or copied to another location, the individual bits sent tracers back to their point of origin. Spoofing could delay the process for a few minutes, but ultimately there was no way around it. By downloading the data, you gave away your physical location. The only way to do it without getting caught was to dump it to a remote flash console, somewhere far away from where the jack had taken place. There, a runner would be waiting.
According to the trace, the stolen data ended up here in Singapore. Cray figured Zoe for the run because she had been operating out of Malaysia on her last couple of jobs and knew the territory. As for identificationthat was something he hadn't let on to the agents. Cray had pieced together the little he knew about Zoe from chasing the scant few electrons that defined her existence in the Axis. None of it had included a picture or even a bio. He only knew a few of her work habits, and had extrapolated everything else from that. Even so, he had no doubt he would recognize her. Runners had a certain spirit that he recognized from a former life, before he had sold his skills in order to save his ass.
Cray watched for her in the parade of faces that moved through the airport. You could always tell when you were in the Zone, because no two people looked alike. Almost all of them were street species, or were at least trying to make it look that way. Cray saw that it made the agents who hovered close by even more anxious. The mark could be any one of themso they watched him for any hint that the intercept might be on.
It was hardly the crack undercover team Cray would have chosenbut at least the sight of agents in the airport wasn't uncommon. They were in the international terminal, loudspeakers announcing departures and arrivals in a dozen different languages. Huge windows looked out onto the tarmac where thousand-seat suborbital transports were parked, belching out people who had come to the Asian Sphere from Moscow, Berlin, London, New York. Cray saw a group of Japanese business types mixing it up with one of the Zone's flesh peddlers, who had brought a few samples of his stock for customers to admire. Not far from them, a couple of Crowleys were on the lookout for potential recruitsprobably to drag them off to a black mass, the kind of thing that passed for religion around here.
Nothing but the usual weirdness. Nothing like the image of Zoe that Cray had formed in his imagination.
"You think this thing is going down?" Cray heard in his ear. The agents used implanted transmitters to communicate with each other via encrypted hyperband. It was their way of keeping him out of the loop. Cray had jacked their frequency and was listening in.
"I think the boss is full of shit."
"I think you're full of shit."
"How much longer are we gonna give this?"
"Until the man says it's time to go," Cray interjected. "If I can tap your comm link, then the mark can, too. Shut the fuck up before you tip her off, okay?"
One of them sent back a burst of angry static followed by silence.
Assholes, Cray thought, returning his attention to the crowd. For some reason, his eyes were drawn back toward the Crowleys, who had accosted a woman headed for Flight 1571service to New York City and the U.S. Eastern Metroplex. That in itself wasn't unusual; she was tall, attractive, her black hair cropped strikingly shortthe kind of girl who would make for a nice display on their altar. What caught Cray's attention was the way she handled them. A single wordless glance sent the two Crowleys packing in a hurry, off to find an easier convert.
"Stand by," he signaled the agents, stepping in for a closer look.
The girl hadn't spotted him yet. When Cray managed to get within a few meters, he saw the features of her face and the curves of her body in fine detail. She wore black secondskin and a black leather jacket, leaving very little to the imagination. Underneath, Cray traced the lines of a muscled physiquenot the flawless product of steroid treatments or electromagnetic implants, but the harder edges of a life spent on the take. Cray had been a player long enough to know the difference. When she moved, she moved purposefully, not a single gesture wasted.
She was magnetic.
She carried a silver briefcase in her left hand. As she walked past, Cray closely watched the wrist of that hand, waiting for it to turn toward him and reveal the patch of bare skin that would tell him what he needed to know. If she were Zoe, and she had recently downloaded flash, it would still be there.
A transdermal contact . . .
It glinted at him briefly before Zoe tugged down on the black fabric to cover it up. But by then, she had made him. She was staring Cray in the face when he glanced back up.
Then she did something he had never seen a runner do. She smiled at him. It barely touched the lips, but it was there: a knowing smile, an expression of kinship. Maybe she had just figured it out, but she had his number.
Zoe bent down and placed her briefcase on the ground, her movements calculated and fluid. Her arms went up, as if she were already surrendering to him. Cray should have realized something was wrong in that instant. Maybe he did, but he just didn't want to see it. Zoe was just so perfect, so everything he imagined her to be, that it just didn't register.
He took two steps toward her. The sound of a loud metallic click crossed the space between themand that was when Cray sensed the danger. Zoe was better. She already knew the agent was behind her, and she was prepared.
She moved fast.
Zoe swung herself around, using outstretched arms to increase her speed to a blur. One hand clamped down on the agent's neck, while the other grabbed the v-wave emitter he had been aiming at the back of her head. She then shoved the emitter into the agent's face, hitting the trigger before he could react. High-frequency radiation flooded the agent's cranium, cooking his brains in the space of a microsecond.
He twitched once, then fell to the floor.
Zoe came back around, finding herself back in Cray's eyes. By then, he had his pistol aimed directly at her face.
Her eyes darted down to Cray's trigger finger, looking for a flinch. There was noneonly a second of hesitation. Enough to tell her that Cray had no desire to shoot.
She smiled again.
Then a nova of white light obliterated that vision.
A ripple of pulse fire opened up the floor in front of Cray. He felt a concussive wave and a flash of heat before he heard it; but by then he had hit the floor, weapon tumbling out of his hand. Other bodies fell on top of himsome alive, some nottrapping him under heavy weight and the smell of burned flesh. It was a signal for the stampede. Even in the dark, he could hear the screaming and the footfalls all around him. The terminal had become an instant war zone, and he was only moments away from being trampled to death.
Cray pushed the others off, emerging from the pile to find himself immersed in total chaos. Two more bolts of pulse fire tore apart the air next to his head, cutting more people down and tracing a line that led straight up to a fleeing Zoe. She broke across the terminal at kinetic speed, leaping over anything that got in her way, dodging fire like she had a sixth sense.