While Eddie worked, Mouse and I loaded the SMG magazines. Every few minutes, muffled gunfire crackled in the distance and I looked toward the dirt-smeared window only to find a gunmetal-gray sky staring back at me.
My stomach felt tight. The hairs on my arms prickled.
Mouse gave me a questioning look. I shook my head and went back to loading.
After finishing a dozen mags for the SMGs, I started loading magazines for the Twins. Another dozen magazines later, I let out a long exhale, leaned back against the foot of the bed, and checked my optic clock.
Little over four hours left.
Mouse must've seen the expression on my face. "Time?"
I told her.
"We'll negotiate for more time," I said.
"Think he'll listen?"
"Dunno if he works like that."
"He knows we're good for it."
"I doubt he plays favorites."
"Come on, Mouse. The biz is all about favorites."
Mouse shrugged and went back to loading. "I hope you're right."
"How many you got left?"
She held up three empty SMG magazines.
I dug back into the duffel bag for the next ammo can, popped the lid, and gasped.
"What?" said Mouse.
I pulled out the contents of the can: two blocks of C4, detonators, and a remote control relay switch.
"Hot damn," she said. "He wasn't kidding about the goodies."
I grinned. "He comes through again."
Eddie's chair creaked.
I looked up, saw Eddie straighten. "News?"
He blinked then grinned. "Collins," he said.
Mouse and I got up and went to him.
"Go," I said.
He tapped the keyboard on the portable and an image appeared onscreen. "Him?"
"Him," I said.
Eddie read from the display. "Collins. Joshua Elliot. Born 10 March '04. Thirty-eight. Not married. Lives--lived--in Oakwood. Bit heavy. Watches adult movies--"
"Studied engineering at university. Dropped out to work for RGS Tech in '23. Network Systems Admin. More systems work at two other small companies. Tech guy."
He typed for a moment then studied the results on the screen. "Now here's the bit you won't like." He looked at me. "Collins worked for Lazlar Industries."
"Shit," said Mouse.
Lazlar Industries, along with Western Microsystems and AstraNova, made up the Big Three in the electronics world of the megacorporations. That meant global influence, nearly unlimited resources, and power.
And that meant trouble.
Really big trouble.
Eddie leaned back in his chair. "Stirred up a bleeding hornest's nest."
"Didn't stir up anything," I said. "More like walked into one." A thought. "What did Collins do at Lazlar?"
Eddie scanned the screen. "Listed as Director of Special Projects."
"Anything. R&D. Software or hardware development. That sort of thing."
"Okay. He told us he was headed for Sea-Tac. One way trip, from the sound of it. Wanted us as bodyguards."
Eddie frowned. "Seattle."
"Yeah. Then some mooks showed up, wanted something back from him."
"That's when the shit hit the fan," said Mouse. She mimed a gun with her thumb and forefinger and held it to her temple. "Blammo."
"You know the rest."
Eddie inclined his head at the other portable. "The disk."
I nodded. "So the question: What would a tech guy like Collins be doing on a one-way to Seattle? I'm guessing it's not a company-sponsored seminar."
"Corporate espionage stuff?" said Mouse. "Selling company secrets and all that."
"But the other two competitors are here," I said. "Doesn't make sense for him to go all the way to Seattle."
"Self-extraction then," Mouse said. "He's jumping ship..." She frowned. "But again--why Seattle?"
"Any electronics in Seattle?" I said to Eddie.
"Been thinking that," he said. "Just a handful. Nothing like the big boys."
"Small scale," I said.
"Five in the area. Softworks, Digital Solutions, Emerald City Industries, VRI, and Northwest Tech."
"Think Collins was scaling back?" said Mouse. "Getting tired of the grind?"
"Maybe," I said. "But there's the disk. If Collins was stealing corporate secrets, would they be of use to any of those five companies?"
"Only two," said Eddie. "Softworks and Digital Solutions. They deal with network system applications. Right up Collins's alley. The other three are consumer-based."
"Mouse could be on to something," I said.
"Damn right," said Mouse.
"What if Collins was scaling back? Maybe ran into problems at Lazlar as Projects Director. Decided to go somewhere else. Take some company goodies with him as revenge."
"So which one?" said Mouse. "Softworks or Digital?"
Eddie keyed commands into the portable. After a moment he said: "Softworks."
"Digital Solutions is a subsidiary of Lazlar," he said.
"Softworks would be Digital's direct competitor, right?"
"That's it then," I said. "Collins was jumping ship to Softworks. Now--what's so special about the disk? What would make Lazlar send secmen after him?"
"Blackmail," said Mouse. "He got goods on someone high up at Lazlar."
"Maybe." I looked at Eddie. "Disk?"
Eddie leaned toward the other portable. "Almost there."
"How much longer?"
"Give me another ten minutes."
"It's been almost forty," I said.
"Doing what I can," Eddie said.
"Can you do it faster?" said Mouse.
Eddie shot her a look. "You want to take over this?"
"Then let me work."
I looked at Mouse. "I need you to chill it."
She held up her hands, palms out.
The other portable made a series of electronic noises.
Eddie's face lit up. "Got it." He pulled the portable toward him, typed some commands, and studied the stream of alphanumerics on the screen.
"Bloody hell," he said.
I inclined my head at the screen. "What is all that?"
"Collins has--had an icebreaker," Eddie said. "And not just any icebreaker."
"Ice. I-C. Stands for Intrusion Countermeasures. Systems use it to protect against illegal entry."
"From your type," I said.
Eddie nodded. "Right. When one of my type gets hit by ice, one of three things can happen. The simplest is, your avatar--your visible representation on the 'Net--is kicked off. Worse, the ice fries your console. Worse than that--"
"There's worse that frying your console?" Mouse said.
"Yeah. It fries you."
"That's unhealthy," I said. "So what's this icebreaker?"
"Icebreakers are programs that bypass or defeat ice," he said. "But this doesn't just bypass or defeat. It turns you completely invisible. Nothing in the system sees you. Nothing touches you. The best bit? You don't leave a trace. A real ghost in the fucking machine. No wonder those wankers want this back. It's worth fucking millions..."
"Yes it is," I said.
Mouse gave a whoop. "Easy fucking money!"
She and I traded high-fives.
"Okay," I said. "Here's what we're gonna do--"
And the motion detectors went off.
(to be continued...)