by Mark Kobrak

It was a slow night at 93 Underground, and Sylvie was in a mellow mood. Earlier, there'd been a sizable collection of the good kind of corper, who tipped well and didn't hassle the waitresses. And there'd been pleasantly few of the bad kind of corper, who was loud, groped people, and didn't tip to replicants like Sylvie. Even the handful of drunks who had drifted in and out had been remarkably well-behaved.

She frowned slightly at that thought, as she loaded her tray up with the latest round of drinks. One of those drunks was a regular, Doc Snakeye, and something was wrong with him. He'd been showing up pretty often for over a year now and he'd hardly ever gotten drunk, but when he did he was usually out to enjoy himself. He'd flirt with the waitresses—politely, no groping—and make passes at hot corporate babes he had no chance with. It was kind of fun to see the normally strait-laced Doc soused, slouching at the bar in his worn-out trenchcoat, trying out pick-up lines on women wearing clothes that cost more than a small groundcar.

But tonight was different. He was drinking alone in a booth, obviously angry as he shuffled a stack of papers and sucked down vodka as fast as Sylvie could bring it. Most people it wouldn't look too strange, but with the Doc it was really weird. Just a few weeks before, the waitress had heard the Doc's clinic had been trashed by some esper. Or was it a cyborg? She'd been sorry to hear it, because she sort of liked the Doc, even if she didn't know him well. But he'd been in just a couple of nights later, smiling and laughing as if nothing had happened. He'd even stayed late, and sat in a set with the band after the crowd thinned out, playing guitar. Sylvie liked to listen to him, because he'd get the band to play old songs she hadn't heard before, like "Death and Tax Shelters," and "Stainless Steel Virgin." Stuff was at least 10 years old, and Sylvie thought classical music was a nice change. Anyway, if he could walk in and have a night like that when his life was a pile of rubble, what could be eating him now?

She delivered her round to the gray suits at Table 14, and drifted over to the Doc to drop off his latest vodka. "You need anything else, Doc?" she asked.

The physician looked up at this. "An excellent question, Sylvie," he said, taking a sip of the shot glass she had brought. "Indeed, I have air, food, and liquor. If I desire sexual companionship, it is readily negotiable at many conveniently located establishments. I am clothed, and warm. What else could a man possibly need?" He took another pull from his glass. "You ask a remarkably astute question," he informed her, half raising the glass in a toast.

He's a strange drunk, the waitress decided. "So, is there something I can get you?" she repeated.

"No, you see, that's the trouble," he explained. "I don't want anything from anyone. Except myself," he corrected. "I'd like to have myself, but really, you can't miss what you never had. No, what I really want—need—is to give something. I wish I could give it to you, but you see, you're not equipped to accept it."

Sylvie looked around. Her tables were cared for, and Zeke at the bar gave her a nod. She sat down in the booth, sitting to face the patron.

"What are you talking about?" she asked. "I mean, if you're looking for a boyfriend, I know someone who might—"

"I'm not gay!" burst the doctor drunkenly. A few other patrons looked over at this, as the doctor continued, "Honestly, a man doesn't screw every fleshpot who comes to him with syphilis, and everybody thinks you don't like women."

"OK, OK," said Sylvie, trying to placate him. "So what are you talking about?"

"'S hard to explain," said the doctor, now speaking at a more reasonable level. "But I'm a genius. You know? I do SCOOP cybernetics better than anyone else in the world."

"Sure, Doc," the waitress reassured him, not wanting to aggravate him by asking what the Hell he was talking about. "Everybody knows that. You're the best."

"Exactly!" he said, slapping the table. "That's the problem! Look at this," he said, pulling a paper from the stack and sliding it over to Sylvie.

She looked down, and saw several four-legged, spider-like machines. They appeared to be standing on a curved surface, with a view of the night sky behind them. Those are cyborgs, Sylvie remembered abruptly. I saw a 3V program about that once—those are the kind of cyborgs they use in space.

"They need a new design," Snakeye explained. "Shiroko T --, Shirotsuki --, S-T's contract ran out, so Shinkuu's taking bids for a new design. But nobody's going to make a new design!" The thought seemed to outrage the doctor. "S-T's just going to resubmit the Pisces with a few twists, and nobody thinks they can beat it!"

"Well, maybe it's just a really good design," Sylvie said diplomatically.

The doctor laughed, pleased for some reason Sylvie could not fathom. "Of course it is," he said. "But it's outdated. It's over 10 years old—space has changed. Earth-kilo-to-orbit costs are down, Joule-in-orbit costs are about 1/10th what they were, and life-system-hour costs are down. 40% of cargoes are on high-speed railgun pallets—Pisces can't handle those!" He seemed to be warming to his subject now. "Don't you see!? The whole equation's changed. Pisces is out of its element." The last seemed to be some kind of joke the waitress didn't get.

"Well, what do you care?" asked Sylvie in confusion.

"I shouldn't," he conceded. "Not my problem. But don't you see—if I could give what I have to them, I could get myself with it. But I can't! If I try, I lose myself. Don't you understand?"

"No," admitted the waitress.

"I have what they want," the doctor said, obviously trying to explain. "But they don't know they want it. And if I tell them I have it, they'll take me and get it that way. But if I don't tell them it's me, they'll never take it. It doesn't matter if it's good—they only take things from people they know. They have to buy or steal it from someone they trust—" He broke off abruptly, staring off into space.

"You OK, Doc?" Sylvie found herself confused.

"Sylvie—You're brilliant!" He burst, suddenly standing up. He pulled out a wad of cash and threw several bills on the table, laughing crazily. "It's perfect! Thank you!" He bent over suddenly and kissed the stunned waitress wildly, breath still thick with vodka. "It's perfect!" he repeated, staggering off to the exit.

Duke looked over from his seat by the door, but Sylvie shook her head. At the bouncer's continued hesitation, she simply shrugged, as if to say, "How the Hell should I know?" Normally she'd have wanted to see a customer who did that beaten to a pulp, but somehow it wasn't threatening from the Doc. She collected the bills—which totalled out to include a really huge tip—and made her way back to the bar.

Weird, thought Sylvie. Natural humans can get so screwed up. Must come from having a childhood.

Paolo sat in the booth at Louie's, watching the leather-clad woman across from him page through the report he had given her. She seemed intent on the content, her delicate Eurasian features focused on the pages and striking amber eyes roving across the page. The expression of careful intellectualism somehow seemed at odds with the dark bodysuit and leather jacket she wore, but the pageboy cut of her jet black hair seemed to play to either image. She had been focused on the paper for almost ten minutes now, obviously reading the report in detail rather than simply skimming it, but the doctor did not let himself become impatient. The document was his best argument in favor of the scheme he had proposed.

At last she set the paper down on the stained, faux-wood grain table. "And this is a forgery?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. He sat up as she returned her attention to him, straightening the white Panama suit he had donned for the meeting.

"But factually correct in every detail?"

"Yes," repeated the doctor. "You should be able to confirm most of that for yourself fairly easily."

The woman nodded, obviously mulling it over. "It's a very clever scheme," she observed. "Is all of the data publicly available?"

"No," Paolo explained, shaking his head, "Some of it I obtained through low level hacks at Shinkuu. But only the data on railgun and semi-ballistic transport costs were at all protected, and even those are things which would be handed over to Shinkuu contractors on request."

"Hmmm..." His companion pursed her lips. "And how much would this be worth?"

"The Shinkuu contract is worth two billion dollars over twelve years," the doctor replied. "Inside information of the type this report implies should easily be worth a cool million, and perhaps five times that."

The fingertips protruding from the fingerless black gloves drummed along the tabletop. "It would be easier to market if we had the completed designs," she pointed out. "Asking for cash up front—even a small down payment—and selling the rest in dribs and drabs is likely to put off some buyers."

"I need money for development," answered Paolo. "I need to buy some computer power, and get some design software." He hesitated, then added, "I was hoping you could help me get that more...affordably."

"If I choose to partner with you, I can," answered the woman in black. "But I don't get involved in con games. They undercut my credibility."

"You never have to say anything about the origin of this document," answered Paolo. "In fact, you should refuse to divulge it. Anyone who reads it will assume it's from Shiroko-Tsuhi, and you're just trying to protect your inside source. And since the design is good, their money is well-spent whether they know it or not." The doctor smiled. "You won't be conning them. They'll be conning themselves."

The woman nodded. "That's the only reason I'm considering it. But if I fence this, it will be under an alternate identity, and I will not tell you who it is."

"Agreed," answered Paolo. "But I want to know the corp who buys it." This earned a hard look from the hacker. "If they ever figure out what we've done, I'm the one they're most likely to find."

Her fingers drummed on the table. "And what exactly are you expecting from me?"

"I need you to move the data untraceably," the cyberneticist explained. "And to make this really convincing, I need inside information from Shiroko-Tsuhi. Details about their personnel, facilities and resources. We're not going to put a single name in anything we hand over—in fact, we're going to make it look like we've deliberately removed or altered any specific names or places. But any buyer of ours is going to hand the documents over to corporate intelligence for analysis, and they're going to find just enough clues to convince them they know who's generating these documents."

"Any corporate intelligence service capable of doing that is going to know what S-T is actually doing," objected the hacker.

"No," answered Paolo. "They're going to know S-T has succeeded in camouflaging a major research effort. They're going to think their own people have been duped into believing S-T is going with the Pisces, and their dataraiders are hitting dummy targets. Think about it the way a paranoid spook would," the doctor urged, smiling in bloodthirsty satisfaction, "The best evidence of a cover-up is no evidence of a cover-up."

The woman laughed, white teeth somehow catching the murky light of Louie's weak fluorescent lamps. "I like it," she answered. "But one last question: Why should I believe you can do what you say you can?"

"Because you know who I am," answered Paolo. "And if you don't, you're not the right person for this job."

"You're delightfully arrogant, Doctor," answered the hacker, smiling. "I respect that. Very well. My cut will be 40%."

Paolo had checked the woman's reputation in advance, and had anticipated the figure. "Agreed," he replied. "But my equipment and software costs are to be taken out of the gross."


The two shook hands. "It's been a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Asagiri," Paolo offered, rising.

"And you, Doctor," the woman replied. "I'll leave word with Louie when I have the buyer lined up. Please prepare a list of the items you'll need for the next phase."

Paolo nodded, and made his way to the exit. He stepped through --

And was sitting at a booth in Louie's bar, half-empty cup of coffee-colored sludge in front of him. He pulled the datacable from the socket behind his ear and returned it to the wall slot, tossed a bill on the counter, and rose to leave.

"Thanks, Louie," he offered the proprietor. The beefy man merely grunted in reply.

That went as well as I could have hoped, the doctor mused, making his way to the exit. But that was the point of no return. This is no longer an intellectual game—the ball is in motion. I'm committed.

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