Now he opened his eyes, slow and with a little difficulty, and found himself staring up at the roof of a van, the overhead dome lamp casting a dim, diffused light, the rubber flooring at his back.
He was back in his van.
His tongue was dry and he felt the skin around his lips crack as he opened his mouth.
Then a man's face swam into view above him. Clean-cut, blond slick-backed hair, square chin, wearing stylish mirrorshades.
"Water?" said the man.
"Wha--" Eddie began, his voice sounding raspy, and he started to cough. The muscles of his upper chest and back spasmed and tightened and he grunted in pain.
"Easy, Mr. Fast Eddie," said the man.
Eddie felt the mouth of a plastic bottle touch his lips, and cool water spread onto his tongue. He drank two big gulps before the bottle was pulled away. He licked his lips and looked at the man again.
He was seated on the stool and had an elbow on the workstation that sat against the van's inside wall. Designer suit. Designer tie.
Why would a corp be talking to him?
"Who are you?" Eddie croaked, his voice still raspy, as if he hadn't spoken in months.
"Who I am," said the man, "is not important. What is important is the information I'm about to share with you, Mr. James Howard, late of Harrington Gardens, London."
Eddie felt his gut clench.
"That's right, Mr. Howard," the man said. "We know all about you and your prior indiscretions at Paradigm Systems." He grinned.
"James Howard is dead," said Eddie and tried to sit up but his vison swam and he lay back down with a groan.
"Fast Eddie, then," said the man. "And you'll want to stay lying down. At least for a bit longer. The anesthetic is still wearing off."
Eddie's gut tightened further.
"Listen carefully, Mr. Eddie," said the man. "We've replaced your cyberdeck link with a new model."
Eddie frowned and immediately reached toward his lower back.
"That's the one," said the man. "Now this new link is hardwired to disable any and all masking programs. It's also wired to act like a snaildeck."
Eddie's eyes went to slits.
The man smiled. "Yes, that's right. When you jack in, you'll be just like everyone else who uses a regular terminal. Portal address right on your 'Net avatar like a big goddamn signboard."
"What the bloody--?"
The man held up a hand.
"As of now," said the man, "your link is working just like any other link used by persons of your persuasion. But those new features can be activated remotely. As long as your do what we ask, we won't turn those on. Cross us, and you'll never be able to run the 'Net without giving yourself away. A big liability for someone in your line of work."
"So what is it I'm supposed to do?" said Eddie through gritted teeth.
"Wait for our call," said the man. "Until then, relax. Watch some vids. Shop on the 'Net. And don't worry about your shopping. Your food's been put away. You know, you should really stop drinking Tsunamis. I hear they rot your teeth."
"Sod off, mate," said Eddie.
"Two more things," said the man. "First, we're watching you. Make any attempt to contact your colleagues and we'll turn those lovely features on. Second, the link is wired to a cortex bomb. Try to remove it and--" He mimed an explosion with his hands. "Messy."
"I'll make you pay for this, you fucking tosser," said Eddie.
"I'm sure you will," said the man. He reached back toward the driver's side window and rapped twice on the glass.
The side cargo door slid open and Eddie felt cool air wash over him. It was dark outside, save for the light from one or two nearby streetlamps.
The man rose from the chair and stepped out of the van.
"Good night, Mr. Eddie," said the man. "We'll be in touch."
They left the door open and Eddie heard two sets of footsteps cross gravel and concrete, then cars doors open and close, and a car start up and drive off.
Eddie stared back up at the van's ceiling and the dome lamp and felt his gut churning.
Bloody fucking hell.
He checked his optic clock.
He'd been out for five bloody hours.
And the bastards had violated him.
He'd make them pay. Just like the wankers at Paradigm paid. Entire bloody system down in flames.
He hadn't heard that name in three years.
No one else knew about them and their glass and steel North Quay den of iniquity.
And no one else knew about James Patrick Howard, former star security 'Netjockey.
Except, it seemed, these bastards.
Oh, he'd make them pay. Pay through the bloody fucking nose.
But first, his new add-ons had to go. The new link and the cortex bomb.
We're watching you, that pompous git had said. Make any attempt to contact your colleagues and we'll turn those lovely features on.
Eddie's frown deepened.
Eyes on him.
Probably tapped his systems in the shop. Dataline. Mics. The full monty. Maybe even the ones in the van. Phone, too.
And then he grinned.
Except the other phone.
He sat up, slowly, making sure he wouldn't get light headed. When he didn't, he levered himself to a sitting position.
They may say they were tracking him.
But Fast Eddie still had a few tricks up his proverbial sleeve.
* * *
Ten minutes later, seated at the U-shaped workstation inside his shop, partially jacked in, and staring at the screen of the cellphone in his lap, Fast Eddie read the text message from Valkyrie.
<Holy shit. They ganked you? That is totally fubared!1!>
Eddie typed back, careful to keep his movements small: <Aye, it is.>
<You sure they don't see this?>
<No chance in hell, luv. I've got an angle on it. Literally.>
<LOL> Valkyrie replied. <You pos on that?>
<Two minutes gone and they haven't broken down the doors. So can you help?>
<Heard of a masking hardwire before. Experimental stuff. Alliance mostly.>
<Figures *they'd* want it.>
<Right? Asshole foggies. Best thing is remove it. Put a standard link back in.>
<Which standard then?>
<LOL. The non-burbee ones, you bonehead. Like a Fairchild. Or HyperDyne.>
<Then there's the bit about the bomb> typed Eddie.
<Yeah> Valkyrie replied. <Tricky. Doc'll have to take a look.>
<Can you get him out here?>
<Done. Give me an hour. Tunnels?>
<LMAO. Doc's gonna hate that.>
<He can charge me extra> typed Eddie.