The moonlight shimmered across the surf as it lapped the beach, and the breeze rustled the trees and bushes lining the other side of the sand. A scattering of pre-fab tin shanties dotted the edges of this lonely stretch of sand, and an ancient fiberglass sailboat was beached just beyond the reach of the tide. There was no visual evidence of human presence, but the air vibrated with the thrumming of distant helicopters and a radio announced its existence in a dispassionate report.
"...Mitsumi's formal declaration of corporate war just three hours ago. The declaration is legal under the Commercial Conflict Act, enacted this afternoon by the Jamaican Parliament, which permits Mitsumi Industries to prosecute the conflict using any level of conventional force. The Act also mandates that the combatants assume liability for damage to property owned by third parties, and for casualties among persons who are not employees of Mitsumi Industries or Avatar Designs."
There was a pause, perhaps while the Oxford accent behind the microphone received new information. "Recent reports from Avatar Designs headquarters confirm that the compound is now fully under Mitsumi control. Damage is reported to be extensive, but there is no word as the extent of casualties among Avatar employees. Mitsumi, however, reports only minimal casualties..."
A group of trucks sped past the beach on a nearby road, and Paolo crouched down in the bushes where he was hiding. The trucks could be anyone—Avatar, Mitsumi, or even Jamaican police, who were reportedly evacuating civilians from regions of conflict. With the trucks gone, he shifted his vision into the infrared, and scanned the beach again.
His caution was rewarded by a small green-hot blip at one end of the beach. Under image-enhancement, it was bulbous and spider-like, making its way down the beach on eight spindly legs. Beside him, Colin started to rise, but Paolo grabbed the sleeve of his armored jacket and pulled him back down and pointed. Colin adjusted his infrared visor and looked up the beach, then nodded. They stayed down.
The spider-like thing made its way along the beach at a surprisingly rapid clip, clambering over driftwood logs and bits of debris. Its course took it, Paolo judged, within eight meters of their hiding place, but a low rise of sand blocked its view of the two fugitives. Paolo checked his watch and waited before looking again. The microbot, one of thousands of surveillance drones dropped by the invaders, was just disappearing around a curve of the beach, out of sight among the trees.
Sighing with relief, the doctor nodded to Colin, and the pair dashed forward toward the boat. While Colin pushed it into the water, the microchip in Paolo's skilljack advised him to grab the daggerboard, tiller and mast and toss them into the boat. He did so, splashing through the water to catch up with the boat as Colin waited.
The moonlight showed them to be an odd pair. Paolo was a Hispanic man of medium build, with the close-cropped hair, smooth skin and carefully toned musculature of a life-long corper. His cybernetic eyes were just black disks rimmed in gray, and seemed strangely out of place on his angular but otherwise very ordinary features. He wore an Avatar Designs t-shirt and a pair of cut-off jeans, and there was a sandal on the foot he put into the boat as he boarded it.
Colin stood holding the boat, his round, dark-skinned face invisible under a visored Avatar security helmet. He stood just over six feet tall, and his broad-shouldered frame was covered in an armored jacket and pants, and the tops of his boots came just out of the ankle-deep water. He held the craft steady while Paolo raised the mast and attached the tiller as the radio continued its report from the shore.
"...Mitsumi Industries has also re-iterated its offer of amnesty to all maintenance and clerical employees of who held a rank of Grade 3 or lower at the time the declaration was announced. All those wishing to claim amnesty should contact the Mitsumi external security office using the indicated contact protocols."
If the radio were a recent model, it would have a liquid crystal display to carry a summary of hypertextual information available in televised or networked broadcasts. That made no difference to the two erstwhile sailors, who were ineligible for the alleged benefits in any case.
"The spokesman declined to comment on the fate of other Avatar employees, but denied rumors of summary execution. 'We are mystified by the fact that virtually all the senior staff have chosen to run when confronted,'" the voice of the spokesman explained, "'And of course, we reserve the right to fire in such cases. But once in custody, all members of Avatar staff are well-treated.'
"Fighting continues in the Blue Mountains, where the Avatar field testing grounds have reportedly been reinforced by security forces that had previously withdrawn from their Kingston office..."
Colin slipped into the boat and hoisted the sail, letting the breeze take them away from the shore. Paolo dropped the daggerboard, jerking the boat to a stop. Colin's face was hidden by the opaque visor, but his posture suggested disgust with his companion's electronically simulated seamanship. Paolo raised the daggerboard a few inches, waiting until they were well clear of the shore before letting it fall into place again.
The security guard held the tiller impassively as Paolo relaxed into place. After a time, he brought the boat into a turn, and began guiding it along the coast instead of away from it.
"How far is it to your friend?" asked Paolo.
"He's not my friend, mon," answered Colin neutrally. "But it's maybe four miles. You think they'll spot us?"
"I don't know," replied the other. "They'll be watching the satellites for boats leaving the island, but with luck they won't be looking for boats hugging the shore. If we're lucky, the foot patrols and bots won't be watching the water, and we'll be OK there. It's the helicopters I don't know about." Paolo eyed the Avatar logo on his shirt, then stripped it off and tossed it over the side. "You should get out of your armor," he advised. "Maybe if they spot us, maybe they'll decide we're just a couple of locals."
"I am a local, mon," answered Colin. But he braced the tiller with his knee while he stripped off his helmet and jacket, revealing a non-descript black t-shirt under it. He took off his heavy boots as well, obviously deciding that bare feet were far more common on the tropical island.
"You really think your friend can get us off the island?" Paolo asked.
"I dunno," answered the other. "Maybe. But I don't think we've got the cash for it, and our credit's not going to be good."
"Yeah. Well, it doesn't hurt to ask."
Thoughts of money turned his attention to his possessions, and he began sorting through his pockets. He pulled out his cellular phone, and promptly cursed himself before tossing it overboard.
"What're you doin', mon?" demanded Colin angrily. "We need somethin' to trade!"
"It's got an Avatar tracking chip in it," answered Paolo firmly. "Even if your friend were stupid enough to take it, it'd just lead Mitsumi right to him - and then us." He pulled his personal databank out of his pocket, holding it in his hand. It probably isn't traceable, he thought, and so much of my life is recorded on that disk. But the Avatar logo in the corner of the keypad caught his eye, and he threw it overboard with a sudden ferocious joy. His corporate ID was next, lost to the black waves, and his tightly controlled corporate credit cards soon after.
Gone, he thought with satisfaction. All worthless. Avatar is dead - I outlived the bastards. I always told them I would.
I may not outlive them for long, he reminded himself, returning his attention to his possessions. He found himself left with his watch, his case of skillchips from the corporate library, a Swiss army knife, and just enough Jamaican scrip for a night on the town. This was the sum total of his worldly possessions.
Colin was making a similar inventory, and dropping items into his helmet. When he'd finished, that went over as well, leaving the boat fractionally lighter and the pair still more disturbed by their predicament.
Why don't I feel at least some regret, wondered Paolo. Everything I know is gone—my apartment, my friends, all crushed by Mitsumi, but I don't feel a thing. I may be dead in a matter of hours, but all I feel is an adrenaline high. Is this freedom? Falling into tomorrow, no one there to catch you? How terrifying. How magnificent.
As if wondering at his companion's calm, Colin asked, "You OK, mon?"
"Yeah," answered Paolo absently. "Yeah, I think so."
"You think Avatar could maybe win this?" the man asked hesitantly.
His Hispanic companion blinked in surprise, realizing the question had never even occurred to him. He was actually kind of amazed that a trained security operative would understand so little about the situation that he would have to ask. "No," he said after he'd recovered his bearings. "No, Avatar was just a spin-off. It's not a real corp."
"Seemed pretty real to me, mon," observed Colin.
Paolo shrugged, then remembered Colin had never seen anything but the small branch offices the large corps kept on the island. He had no sense of the scale of their operations. "No, Avatar was just a spin-off company from Shinkuu. Shinkuu's a real corp—big offices all over the world, and corporate arcologies on three continents. They've got millions of employees, and assets worth more than the whole country of Jamaica—and that's not even counting their orbital and planetary facilities, where their real value is. AD is—was," he corrected, looking in the direction where the headquarters had stood. "Less than twenty thousand people, all here on Jamaica."
This was obviously all new to Colin. "Why'd they spin it off, mon?" he inquired.
Paolo shrugged, settling back into a more comfortable position. "They didn't need it anymore. Avatar was originally their cybernetics division, and its purpose was to build hard shell cyborgs for space missions. We did that for a while, but once the technology was well-established, the higher-ups decided it was more cost-efficient to license the technology out to Shiroko-Tsuhi—just Shiroko back then—and contract to them for assembly and future development. Shiroko bought up a few key personnel, and Shinkuu spun the rest of us off into Avatar, because they didn't have any reason to stay in the cybernetics business."
"So you went from building cyborgs to working over Pumas and Lynxes?" asked the Jamaican.
"Yeah," answered Paolo. He didn't add that they had done far more than that, building custom cybersystems for anyone who asked for it. It was the Pumas and Lynxes the natives notices around the compound.
"Money. Nobody but Shinkuu would pay for space borgs, but there's a big market for re-designed Pumas," explained Paolo. "Let's face it—the Mitsumi design is crap."
"They don' look so bad to me," Colin smirked.
"Nope, lots of problems under the hood," Paolo answered clinically. "Their reflex enhancement is shoddy, and they're prone to all kinds of problems with hormone balance. And their combat skills system is limited, so they're predictable—90% of incapacitated Pumas took a hit in one of three places. Jesus, I can tell you which ribs they always get broken," he added disgustedly. "Anyway, we figured out how to fix those problems, so execs who wanted better protection bought their Pumas from Mitsumi and shipped them to us to get 'em chopped."
His companion looked back down the beach. "Looks like you shouldna' shown 'em up." He observed.
"No, that wasn't it," said the doctor. "Well, not exactly. Those of us on the technical staff had been saying for a long time that we could do better by designing a new model from the ground up. Management decided to take us up on it—that's where the Fox series came from," he clarified. Colin nodded in recognition, and Paolo went on, "Fox's are better than Pumas—the beta release Foxes outperformed them in every category, and they were cheaper, too. If we'd gotten them into production, AD might have become a real corp. Right now, of course, it seems like a pretty stupid thing for us to have tried."
"Ya, mon," Colin said, exaggerating his natural Jamaican lilt for comic effect. "'Dese are dee islands, you come here an' take it slow. Work too hard, and bad 'tings happen."
"Yeah," chuckled Paolo. "Y'know, that's why the execs put our headquarters here in the first place. It's a big enough island that nobody'd bought it outright, but out of way of the big corps."
"Sounded like Mitsumi bought it today," Colin observed darkly. Evidently he didn't like the direction his homeland had taken.
"Yeah," answered Paolo. Too bad, he added mentally, this was a nice place.
The two sat in silence for a time, then Paolo asked, "Colin, why are you helping me, anyway? I barely know you, and you know I can't pay you. Your best bet is to just walk away and get on with your life—they won't hunt you."
"It's my job," answered the security guard casually. "Beside, I think you're alrigh'. You didn't try to sleep with that girl last week."
The doctor blinked. "It was our first date!" he objected.
"Doesn't stop most of you corp types," Colin pointed out. "You come here with money, and you think you own us. You're different—you treated her like a person."
Paolo grinned, suppressing bitter mirth. The guard thought he was saving a powerful corporate figure, and the surgeon found that tremendously ironic. "You're new on the security team, aren't you?" he asked.
Colin frowned. "Just a couple of weeks out of training," he admitted. "Why?"
"They warned you I might try to run, right?"
"Yeah," answered the guard. "I figured they were afraid you'd defect to some other corp."
"In a manner of speaking," answered the other. "I'm not an exec, I'm an indenture."
"What do you mean?" Colin asked.
God, you really don't know anything, Paolo suddenly realized. It?s like I thought - they saw this coming, and recruited any live body they could get into security. They gave you the low-priority jobs - like nurse-maiding me - so they could make a last stand at the compounds with their real strength. Greedy bastards couldn't bring themselves to sell out to a real corp who would defend us - wanted to keep it all for themselves. No wonder we got crushed.
"It's how they do things in Mexico City, at the Shinkuu arcology," he explained, trying not to let his thoughts show. "They screen the kids in the city to find out which ones look like they might be useful. I scored high enough on their math/science aptitude tests that they offered my folks an educational contract. They'd cover my education if I agreed to work for them until the costs were paid off. The offer included a signing bonus for my folks, so they took it. I was carted off to the arcology, put in a class with the other indentures, and that was that. I never saw my family again."
A trace of bitterness must have crept into Paolo's voice, because the other man asked hesitantly. "How old were you?"
"Six years old."
"God damn," whistled Colin. "So how long until you would have worked it off?"
The doctor was so surprised by the question that he actually burst out laughing. "I never would have," he explained, a hint of outrage creeping into his features. "The corp got to make all the decisions about my education. So I never made more than one dollar a year in cash after I graduated and started working for them - when I got cash, it was an allowance for "expenses." They controlled my movements, too—I had to get special permission to go out on a date with Denise last week, and tonight."
Colin digested that. "But you got money," he pointed out.
"A little," Paolo admitted. "And a nice apartment. But nothing like what the real corp-types get, and they could take it all away from me on a whim. They play games like that—miss a deadline, lose your stereo." His fists clenched, suddenly resentful. "Back when I was working for Shinkuu, I designed the Pisces chassis. It?s the basis for all the most popular space borgs in use today - the company made billions off the patent. The day it became the best-selling chassis in space, the 23-year-old snot who was in charge of overseeing my personal life came in and patted me on the back for my good work. Then he gave me my reward: A one year?s supply of gourmet coffee. I decked him," the surgeon recalled with some satisfaction. "Did a 6 month tour on Genaros Station as punishment. It was a god-forsaken rathole, but it was worth it."
Colin seemed thrown by the obvious bitterness. "Did that guy go with you to AD?" he asked. "?Cause he?s prob?ly dead if he did."
"No," responded the surgeon. "He was second-cousin to a friend of some Shinkuu board director, so he?s still there."
"Oh. Well, maybe he?s dead anyway," Colin laughed.
"Thanks," said Paolo with amusement.
The two rode on in silence, Paolo watching the shore with his cybernetically enhanced vision as Colin steered their small craft. Several tall, lithe forms darting through the trees alerted the doctor to trouble, and his fears were confirmed when two of the figures stepped clear of the trees and down to the water?s edge.
The feminine, six-foot-plus figures would have been distinctive enough without their elongated ears. A part of Paolo noticed with professional interest that the tufted features were a brighter green than the rest of the body, indicating that the feline features were shedding excess heat from the Pumas exactly as they were supposed to. Most of him, however, was focused on the fact that one of them was raising a pair of binoculars to its eyes, and staring right at him.
It was bad. Even if the Puma patrol decided not to shoot at them, it would certainly call in a Mitsumi helicopter to investigate more closely. Then Paolo noticed something out of place—the a long, sinuous tail which had no business on the hind end of a Puma or Lynx model.
What the Hell! He realized abruptly. They're Panthers! Jesus—we may have a chance.
Paolo Zanabria was an expert on walking security systems in all their myriad forms, and could quote technical details for every major model on the planet. Like their kin the Pumas, the Panthers were inhumanly strong and agile, possessed preternaturally acute senses, and were ferocious when roused to anger. But the Panthers had one fatal weakness, one point of failure someone who understood them could exploit.
Paolo sat up and waved, throwing on the biggest, cheesiest smile he could muster.
"What the Hell are you doin?, mon??" demanded Colin in shock. He had apparently sighted the replicants even without the aid of his visor, and understood the threat.
"Shut up and wave or we?re dead," whispered Paolo, his expression never changing. The Jamaican obliged, plastering on a grin despite his companion?s obvious insanity.
If Paolo understood the situation correctly, the Panthers on the shore were very unhappy. The attacks had been launched by submersible vessels, which meant they had been crammed together with hundreds of other combat troops in an undersea transport for hours before the invasion had begun. Since then, they?d been on the move in unfamiliar terrain, coping with a host of new sights, smells and sounds which were anathema to the replicants? well-ordered corporate life. And the Panther design had been Mitsumi's first attempt to hybridize their pleasure and security synthetics; it had been a marketing victory of epic proportions, but their engineering had been a mixed success. Despite their incredible physical prowess, these were creatures who had adapted poorly to a genetic programming which mandated that they be attractive, submissive and eager to please their human masters while at the same time standing ready to deal death in an eyeblink.
Paolo's hunch paid off. Seeing her first friendly gesture in almost a day, the Panther on the bank responded by putting down her binoculars and waving back enthusiastically. The one beside her joined in, jumping up and down in excitement, and suddenly several more broke from the trees and joined in. In a moment, close to a dozen Panthers were jumping up and down on the beach, waving to them.
Paolo?s smile was more genuine now, as he watched the squad?s sole human officer come out of the brush and try to get the replicants under control. Her shouts were audible across the water, but order was slow to re-assert itself.
"What the Hell?" asked Colin. "I thought Pumas were dangerous."
"They are," answered Paolo in satisfaction. "Those are Panthers. It's an old design—frankly, I'm surprised there were any still in service. Mitsumi must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel when they put together their invasion force."
"They could still report us," Colin pointed out.
"Yeah," answered the other, watching the human trying to engage the replicants? limited powers of attention. "But we?re probably the last thing on that lieutenant?s mind right now."
The boat cruised on along the beach, leaving the excited soldiers behind them. "How much further?" asked Paolo some time later.
"Not too far," answered the Jamaican. He seemed to consider the situation, then asked, "If you do find some way out of here, where are you gonna? go?"
It was a question which had pre-occupied the doctor for years, not merely hours. "Even if Mitsumi doesn't want me dead, my indenture probably counts as a spoil of war - or defaults to some bank who loaned money to Avatar. I need to find some place to hole up and hide. It has to be?" He stopped, finding it hard to voice the possibility even though he knew it was his only chance. "It has to be a Zero Zone. The indenture doesn't mean anything there."
Colin seemed stunned by the idea. "Yeah, but wouldn't you be better off with a bank?"
"A bank would just sell me to Mitsumi," Paolo pointed out bitterly. "And even if they decided to let me work for them instead of killing me outright, they?d make my life a living Hell. I?d be grafting synapses for bread and water."
The security guard seemed about to say more, but stopped himself, and Paolo asked, "What are your plans?"
"I dunno, mon," he said. "Mebbe stick with you?" It was somewhere between an offer and a plea.
The doctor sighed inwardly, but found himself strangely touched by this misplaced loyalty. He really doesn't understand the situation at all, Paolo reflected. "Colin, don't leave. Just throw away the corporate uniform and go home - they won't come looking for you. I?m a threat to them, not you."
Before he could answer, both men became aware of the rhythm of an approaching helicopter. Paolo looked into the distance and saw a hot spot just above the horizon, skimming the coast. Neither man spoke, but Colin changed his posture a bit to make it easier to grab the pistol concealed under the gunwale. A futile gesture, the doctor knew, but he couldn't bring himself to vocalize it.
The dot grew larger, moving along the coast, and Paolo grew increasingly less certain of his success in dealing with the Panthers. Had they called it in? Was it looking for them? If not, would it be scanning far enough away from the coast to notice them? And what would the pilot think then?
It was an impossibly long wait for the helicopter to swing past them, but it did, and headed off into the distance without hesitating. The two men decided to believe their luck had held.
"How far?" Paolo asked again.
"Right here," answered Colin, turning the boat toward the shore. The doctor made out several shanties on the bank.
They beached the boat beside one of them, deciding it would be better to make it look like someone else?s property rather than hiding it. Colin led them to the largest of the shacks, a pre-fab aluminum structure which showed signs of corrosion and age, and knocked on the door. "Hey, Lucky! You there?" he called.
There was a rustling, and the door slid open. "What's up, mon'?" asked Lucky. He was a short, wiry Jamaican with an incongruously broad, easy-going face and a tangle of dreadlocks that reminded Paolo of some fractal images he had once seen. The faded jeans and ancient Bob Marley t-shirt reeked of ganja, and the slightly dazed expression indicated a Rastafarian who had recently been accepting the religion?s best-known sacrament.
"I got a friend here, he needs to get off the island," Colin explained, indicating Paolo.
"Oh. You're an Avatar higher-up?" he asked Paolo. Even half-baked, he seemed to understand the situation better than Colin.
"Yeah," answered the doctor, deciding not to burden the conversation with nuances that could only damage his case.
"How much money you got?" asked Lucky matter-of-factly.
"Just about none," he replied. It would do him no good to lie. "I?ve got a good watch and some skillchips I can trade, though," he added, holding up the watch and his case.
The fixer just laughed, somewhere between amusement and irritation. "Why you wastin? my time," he asked Colin. "No bread, no boat."
"C'mon, he's a good guy. Maybe we can work somethin' out..." proposed the islander.
"Sorry, mon?. I don't do credit when Mitsumi's tryin' to kill the guy, and your credit?s not so good either," Lucky added. Paolo sensed there was some history between the two, but didn't dare interrupt.
"Hey, he?s worth the risk," objected Colin. "He?s a hot-shot cyber-doc, and those guys make big money. He can pay you back?"
"Only if he?s got a pulse, mon," the fixer pointed out, then paused, as if in thought. "Mebbe I can do somethin? for ya," he said slowly. "You a good doc?"
"The best," the surgeon answered confidently. Inwardly he wondered where this was going.
Their host gave him a measured look. "C'mon inside," said Lucky finally, turning and stepping back inside the shanty. The pair followed the fixer into the dimly-lit interior, carefully avoiding tripping over the assorted junk which was strewn about the floor. Lucky sat down at the crudely cobbled-together collection of hardware which served as a terminal, and Colin and Paolo stepped up behind him.
Still moving a trifle unsteadily, Lucky maneuvered a track ball through a complicated series of gyrations, until the terminal displayed a section of want-ads. "There!" he said, finally finding the one he wanted. "That's the one." He was pointing at an English-language version of an advertisement.
SKILLED CYBER-SURGEON REQUIRED FOR SINGLE OPERATION IN NEO YORK AREA. MUST BE HIGHLY SKILLED AND DISCREET. SUBSTANTIAL RISK.
Below was printed a contact protocol. Paolo looked at the fixer in surprise. "How does this help me get off the island?"
"Mebbe they'll pay your way," Lucky explained.
"What!? You want me to take the job?"
"You want off the island?" the fixer asked. "This might do it. I can set it up for ya, if ya take the job. You don? wan? it, hey, no problem mon. Just come back when you got some cash."
Paolo sighed, and Colin asked, "What about me? Could I come along?"
"No," the surgeon objected. "You don't want to do that."
"You can't do it anyway, mon?," Lucky explained. "Island?s shut down tight. I t?ink I can get one ticket, but it?s too much if I go for two."
Colin seemed to want to argue, but Paolo intervened. "Let it go," he said. "It?s probably safer for both of us this way."
The guard nodded reluctantly, and the doctor turned to Lucky. "OK. If I agree to do this, how do we work it?"
"We answer the ad, give them your fee, and tell them how much I need up front for travel," Lucky explained. "Then, I get you to Neo York. From there, it?s your problem."
Paolo considered the situation. The job would put him near a Zero Zone, which was where he had to go, and he would have money in his hands when he finished. "SUBSTANTIAL RISK," did not sound good, but staying on the island when he had no money and a major corporate military would be gunning for survivors sounded more like, "SUICIDAL INSANITY." Still..."Any other jobs like this?" He asked.
Lucky shrugged, and obligingly ran another search. "Nope," he concluded after a moment. "Looks like you missed an opportunity in Berlin about a week ago, though."
Paolo chewed his lip. "How much of a fee do you think I can get from these guys?" he asked.
"This is corporate, mon," the fixer explained. "So it'll be big. Gimme a 10 percent cut and I?ll negotiate for you."
"5 percent," objected Paolo.
Lucky just smiled looking over the young doctor. "You don? have a clue what to ask for," he concluded wryly. "10 percent, and I'm bein' generous."
Paolo sighed. "Will you throw in some shoes and clothes?" he asked resignedly. "And some dinner?"
He laughed in reply. "Sure, mon - you get dinner for free. There?s jerk chicken in the back—Help yourself while I set this up."
Paolo and Colin stepped into the indicated back room, a cramped space with a bed and a small table. Clothing and sundry items were strewn around the room, and almost lost among it was a plate of chicken. Paolo swatted away a few flies and took a piece, sniffing it carefully. Reflecting that it could not be too old if the ants hadn't gotten to it already, he took a bite. Colin helped himself to a piece as well, and pulled an unopened bottle of water out of the debris on the floor. The two shared the drink as they ate.
After a few bites, Colin said, "I?ll go home."
The doctor nodded. "That?s for the best."
They ate in silence, until a howl from Lucky called them into the room. "All set, mon?," he answered, gesturing them over to the terminal. Paolo read over his shoulder.
GROSS PROPOSED FEE FOR SERVICES OF DOCTOR SNAKEYE ACCEPTABLE. TRAVEL ADVANCE WILL BE WIRED TO THE SPECIFIED ACCOUNT ON ACCEPTANCE OF TERMS. BALANCE OF FEES WILL BE PAID ONLY ON SUCCESSFUL COMPLETION OF OPERATION. PLEASE SPECIFY PAYMENT INSTRUCTIONS IN YOUR REPLY.
"Doctor Snakeye?" demanded Paolo.
"You wan? I should tell them your real name?" the fixer challenged. Paolo subsided. "T?e part you should be worried abou? is the, ?Successful completion,? stuff, mon," he added. "They might be setting up to stiff you."
"That?s a moot point," answered Paolo. "They're paying travel expenses, so we're both guaranteed to get something," answered Paolo. "Look, tell them we'll take it. Take your 10% however you want it. I'll take mine in cash."
"Fair enough." The fixer sent his reply, and seemed gratified that the money appeared in his account only minutes later. "Help yourself to any clothes you can find in the back," added the Fixer, reaching for a phone. Paolo noted with approval that it was an old-fashioned land-line. "I gotta arrange your pick-up."
The surgeon and the guard once again made their way into the back room, and began sorting through the detritus in search of clothing which would fit. Paolo dug up a pair of jeans which must have been too loose for Lucky, but fit him tolerably well. He turned his own cut-offs over to Colin. "It?ll be too cold for them in Neo York, anyway."
The other nodded. "Try this," he said, turning over an only slightly-stained Bob Marley t-shirt.
He pulled it on. "It?s tight," he commented.
"Shows off your muscles. It?ll impress the girls," noted Colin. A pair of shoes and socks which fit surprisingly well were all that was necessary to complete the ensemble, and they went out to meet Lucky.
The fixer seemed non-plussed by their selections. "That?s a collector?s item," he objected, pointing to the t-shirt. The doctor simply threw him a dark look, and said, "I?m going to need something warmer over it. It?s cold in Neo York."
Lucky frowned, looking around the room, then pulled a bundle of neoprene off the shelf. "This?ll do," he said, tossing it to Paolo.
"That?s a wetsuit!" objected Colin.
"All I got, mon. I?ll throw in a couple of blankets, keep you warm over the trip."
Paolo shrugged, and nodded. "When do we leave?"
"Almost didn? make the boat, mon," answered the other. "Truck?ll be by in ten minutes on its way to the airport. You?ll be in Neo York in about eight hours."
Colin noticed he was still holding the wadded up bundle of his corporate uniform?s pants. "The jacket for these is out in the boat," he told the fixer. "And my gun. You interested?"
The fixer eyed the armor cloth. "Ja, mon," he said. "Go out and get it, and we?ll do some business."
Colin disappeared, and a thought struck Paolo. "Interested in buying some skillsofts?" he asked.
The fixer shook his head. "No, mon - not much market. But I got some ta? trade, if you wan?."
Some polite dickering followed. Paolo was delighted to find out the fixer had an eight-year-old copy of Fodor?s skillsoft for Neo York, which included an introduction to the local slang. He gratefully offered up his sailing and kayaking modules. Colin returned and auctioned off his armor, but the surgeon stopped him when he got to the gun.
"I?ll buy it," he offered, "And the spare clip and shoulder holster." He offered up his watch and handful of Jamaican scrip.
"I was plannin? ta give you the money," objected Colin, simply handing over the items in question.
"No, you keep it. In fact," the surgeon pulled out the rest of his scrip. "Take it all. The less there is to trace me back here, the less likely Mitsumi is to find me."
The guard frowned, but handed it over. Paolo put the holster on under the wetsuit, swallowing his amusement at the way the skintight neoprene failed to conceal the weapon. Still, it felt more natural than letting it hang in the open.
Colin seemed about to comment on the situation, when the sound of an approaching motor drew their attention to the half-open door. "That?s your ride," said the fixer. "C?mon."
Paolo followed Lucky out, and was surprised to find a shiny blue Agronomics Unlimited van awaiting them. The driver did not emerge - instead, Lucky simply walked to the back of the van and pulled out a key to open the door. Inside was a stack of boxes, including one oversize livestock carrying case.
Lucky opened the case. "Get in," he instructed urgently.
"What?" Paolo asked in surprise.
"?Dis is your ride, mon. Take you all the way to the address. But dere?s a rule: You don? talk to no one. Not the driver, nobody, not ?til you get where you?re goin?." Seeing the surgeon?s reluctance, he added, "C?mon, mon. It?s got its own air supply, and food and water. Now get in - you make ?im late," he gestured to the driver, "They gonna catch you."
Paolo nodded, walking over to the truck. "Thank you," he said to Colin, earnestly. "You saved my life."
"Haven't saved it yet," answered Colin.
"No, you have," Paolo reassured him. "I?d have been dead long ago if you hadn't come along." He shook the guard?s hand. "You?re a good man, and I wish you all the best."
"Good luck," was all Colin could find to say. With a nod to Lucky, Paolo slipped inside the van. The fixer tossed in the promised blankets after him, and closed the door. Paolo could hear the sound of the van door closing as well, and some word to the driver before the van went into motion. He arranged the blankets into a mat beneath him and sat, there not being space to lie down.
Falling into the future, he thought again. His past was gone, his future was a nebulous risk. His entire existence seemed contained in one small dark cube of space.
This is freedom, he realized. No one looking out for you. And God help me, I'm never going back.
END OF PART I
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