"Collateral Damage" - Part One

13 October 2042
Bay City, California Free State
14:22:12 PST

Carter sat in the driver's seat of the late model MitsuAudi sedan and watched the scarecrow-thin figure in the rumpled lab coat, emerge from the SaveMart carrying  carrying four plastic shopping bags filled to near-bursting. He smirked and shook his head. Typical 'Netjockey. Hair looking like he'd just woken up. Even cut short like that. He wondered for a moment if they even cared how they looked to other people and decided probably not. They spent most of their time jacked into the 'Net.
He watched the scarecrow figure weave past a few pedestrians then cross the street at Telegraph and 30th before turning to his companion in the passenger seat. "All yours, Hiller," he said.
Hiller, a tall, twentysomething woman with a nose-stud, red-highlighted dark hair, and slim-profiled wraparound mirrorshades, looked up from the datatab on her lap and looked in the direction of the figure. "That him?"
"And Marcus is on the way with the car?"
"He should be just up the block behind us," said Carter. "Waiting for your move."
"Got it." Hiller turned off the datatab, set it on the dashboard, then opened her door and got out of the car.
Carter pulled out his phone, still watching Hiller as she went around the back of the car to the sidewalk and make her way west on 30th toward the figure with the bags. Then he looked down at his phone's display, dialed a number, and put the phone to his ear.
A voice answered in two rings. "Yes?"
"It's Carter. What's your status?"
"Almost done here, Mr. Carter," said the voice. "Another two minutes, three tops, and then we're out."
"Clean insertion?"
"Clean. He won't know the difference."
"Good. Call me when you've left the shop."
"Yes, sir."
Carter hung up and turned his attention back to Hiller.
She was almost there.

*   *   *

Fast Eddie checked his optic clock as he opened the passenger door of the dark gray high-roofed ChrysFord LoadMaster cargo van.
Right on schedule.
Just enough time to get back to the shop before the trace program finished running.
He set one of the shopping bags on the passenger seat, the other in the footwell. This food run gave him at least two weeks of flash-cook ready meals, especially the Nissin-Stouffers chicken and noodle bowls ("Just add water! Yatta!"), and two additional bags of screamer chips (in case Mouse and Kat decided to drop by).
He grinned at the thought of Mouse and remembered he'd burned a copy of an old vid to disc for her. Squared-jawed explorer guy with the hat and whip. He'd always liked the second vid in that series. Mouse argued the third was the best out of the four but who could beat a bug tunnel, a mine car chase, and a ritual sacrifice over a flaming lava pit?
"You're hopeless, Eddie," she'd tell him after that.
Every time.
And she'd always say it with that lopsided grin that made his stomach go fluttery.
Eddie found himself grinning, too, gave a small sigh, closed the passenger side door, and caught Kat's reflection in the window.
What was she doing in the Lower East Side?
And where was Mouse?
Eddie started to turn to ask, and to also ask Kat when she decided to dye her hair red, get the nose stud, and the new 'shades, when he felt the sharp sting at his neck, then a hand at the middle of his back.
His gut clenched.
"What was--?" he managed, then his vision blurred.
He got one look at Kat, now seemingly close and looming over his face, her features blurring.
--that wasn't Kat.
And then he blacked out.

*   *   *
Hiller caught Fast Eddie under the arms just as his legs buckled, propped him against the side of the cargo van, and helped him sit down on the sidewalk with his back against the right tire.
She pocketed the jet injector, stood up, and looked around.
At the far end of 30th to her left, a pair of figures sauntered around the corner, spotted her, and stopped to watch. Both male, late teeners, with short cropped red-dyed hair, red high-top sneakers, and red Warball team jerseys--Corsairs and Demons--sporting the number 25.
Members of the 25th Street Posse.
Hiller frowned and flexed her fingers.
Was this going to get ugly?
Both gangers exchanged looks then strode toward her, grins etching themselves on their pockmarked faces.
Hiller sighed.
Yeah. Ugly.
Her right hand swept back the edge of her hip-length leather jacket and grasped for the Glock 40 holstered at her hip.
Then a car pulled up into the empty parking slot behind her and the cargo van. A door opened and closed and a pair of footsteps approached.
"Not inviting me to the fun?" said a gravelly voice to her left.
"Against cannon fodder?" said Hiller. "No fun in that."
She snorted and turned her attention back to the gangers.
They had stopped halfway down the street, frowning at Hiller and her new companion. Then they backed up slowly, turned, and sauntered back the way they'd come.
"So much for your fun, Marcus," said Hiller.
Marcus, big, bald, and bronze-skinned with the blank dead shark eyes, looking as if he'd been stuffed into a badly-fitting suit, stepped up next to Hiller. "You scared them off."
"Me?" said Hiller, looking up at him. "You're the one built like a refrigerator with legs."
"Are you calling me fat?" said Marcus.
Hiller shook her head and gestured at the figure by the wheel. "That's him. They're waiting back at the clinic."
Marcus looked down at Fast Eddie. " 'Netjockey, huh? What's Mr. S. want with him? He's got hundreds to choose from."
"You think they tell me?" said Hiller.
Marcus picked up Eddie and slung him over his shoulder. "You're working up close and personal with Carter. Pretty sure you hear things."
"I do what they tell me," she said. "Just like you."
"We should get paid more for this," said Marcus, frowning.
Hiller chuckled. "Not my fault you always lose in pai gow."
"Shut up, Hiller."

"Collateral Damage"
Part 2

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