by Anthony Bruno
August, Saturday 11th 2063 - 02:35
The night was as dark as coal but the freeway was well lit, and the Eurocar Westwind was speeding up to a hazardous 150 kph on the Autoroute-50. The driver would have been glad to push the pedal to the metal, but the French Gendarmerie had built a reputation on clamping down heavily on highway jockeys; there had been too many frenzied riggers on the French Riviera roads in previous years, wreaking havoc among the sometimes dense traffic. It wasn't good for France's image, and repulsed tourists.
Except that for now, Laurent Artaud didn't give a frag. He was fleeing from enemies that concerned him far more than the police, driving via the sports car's virtual dashboard, jacked in the onboard computer. He was tired, but at least he didn't have to hold the wheel. For the hundredth time he tried to call Céline or Nolwenn, to no avail.
He was now leaving behind him the war harbor of Toulon, which was sheltering most of France's naval fleet. Above the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea, lights were twinkling as helicopters were flying to and fro between the ships gathered around the Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing aircraft carrier and the land-based facilities.
They'll be leaving soon to join EuroForce operations in the Aegian Sea... there's no doubt the Marine Nationale is feeling nervous, Artaud thought.
As he was driving fast westwards through the easternmost parts of the Marseille sprawl, he tried to recollect the events of the night.
Monsieur Dupont had hired them through their regular fixer, a troll named Marius, an ex-mafioso from the Marseille Milieu and famous arts dealer. Nothing exceptional, they just had to find a specific file at a specific date on the personal computer of a corporate yuppie. The only problem was that the place would be so crowded that they would never have a chance to insert a decker. Plus, they had no idea where the computer would be. And naturally, they couldn't just steal it. They could have decked the place's host from the outside, but the inner security systems and the doors' maglocks were rigged with a CCSS system and not connected to the PLTG. It sounded hard, but in fact it was Laurent Artaud's specialty. He was an ork in his mid-thirties, and that made him very old for one of his kin indeed. But great age meant great experience, and experienced he was. Although he was an ork, he was well-educated, very clever, and a highly social person. And sometimes, fast talk and charisma worked where blazing guns or even stealth could only fail.
So there they were, in front of the Casino de Monte-Carlo, while the Grand Tour events were in full swing in the free city of New Monaco and the security thicker than black IC on a Z-OG glacier. Every summer, the Grand Tour went for weeks throughout several of Europe's social hotspots, gathering the corporate, political and cultural elite of the Old World as well as some figures from over the Pond, especially some famous ones boasting an aristocratic heritage. This was the perfect cover of social events to conduct backroom agreements and strike deals among aristos, corp execs or politicians. It also drew media sharks by the dozens, getting 24-hour coverage on some of the specialized trid channels.
Céline was at Laurent's side as they were crossing the gardens surrounding the luxurious building. Her role was perhaps the most dangerous: she would have to plug a miniature satellite dish onto the computer, allowing their decker, a young elven woman from Nantes street-named Nolwenn, to access the files. It would probably take only a few seconds, then she could get the dish back and walk out as if nothing had ever happened. Nolwenn was safe in a Renault-Fiat Eurovan, parked a few blocks away. She could follow Laurent's and Céline's moves through the micro-cameras set in his tiepin and her necklace. Accompanying the decker in the vehicle was the team's magician, a German witch with a disturbing, gloomy demeanor. His name was Kern, and he would provide astral overwatch for them all, leaving a spirit to watch the van. The whole place was warded, but he had managed to bypass it by attuning his aura to the magical barriers.
As the couple was stepping up the large stairs leading to the front door, going through the two discreet but very present and efficiently manned checkpoints, they were aware of the various security and surveillance devices scanning them. Artaud tried to remember who had once said that Casino security was like an onion: layer after layer after layer, and the more you peeled it back, the more you wanted to cry.
Artaud stirred in his seat, and sighed. He would soon reach the outskirts of Dragonville proper: there, he would be safe. Or at least safer.
They had walked inside after presenting the invitations Marius provided them. I got them from a friend who's a regular, so null sweat guys, he'd said. You're supposed to be a high-ranking exec from ESUS's PR department and her husband. Artaud prayed this was true. They went in without further complications, taking a first glance at the gigantic hall. It was crowded with the crème of Europe's elite. While heading to the back of the room, Artaud spotted at least five members of the Royal Family of Orange, including Queen Amalia, Saeder-Krupp rep at the New European Economic Community Julian Sergetti as well as French Minister of Culture Thierry Lang. Artaud wasn't sure, but he also thought he saw the beautiful Ga‘lle de Rohan before she got lost in the crowd. Few people knew yet that she had a romance with a recent expatriate from North America who was none other than Aithne Oakforest. And the king of the hill, the lord of the city, Spinrad Industries CEO Johnny Spinrad was surrounded by Sol Media and DeMeko paparazzis while ending his thanks speech.
- Looks like all the crowned heads of all Europe have gathered here, Céline muttered in his ear.
- Yes, and even more: the corp suits are here, too, he answered with a smooth nod towards a CATCo executive speaking with a dwarf and an older woman.
- Did you locate our Mr. Yuppie, Laurent ?
- Not yet... Maybe...
They were interrupted by a trio of men in their late forties, early fifties.
- Don't tell me it's... , Artaud thought.
- Yeah, Nolwenn answered in his head. Piotr Dabrowski. The drek has hit the fan.
- No, Artaud thought. I think this fan was already full of drek. It stinks of treason.
Artaud turned to face his old enemy, who was smiling broadly, offering Céline and him flutes of champagne.
"My old tusky friend... If I had only thought I would find you here. Let me introduce you to His Highness the Cardinal Mazotti, of the Roman Catholic Church, and to General Hermann Reuber of the German military. But who is that delicious person that accompanies you?"
Artaud didn't hesitate. For years he had learned never to look embarassed. "My wife... "
"... Céline Chaumont," she completed. "Delighted to meet you, Your Highness... General... And Mister... ?"
"Ivan Davidowicz," Dabrowski answered, his eyes on Artaud.
- Abort ? Nolwenn asked in his mind.
Artaud slowed down as he was entering Marseille. He wanted to get to the Tunnel du Prado, the decaying walls of which ran like a hollow snake of concrete and metal underneath the Old Port.
Yep. I should have cancelled the run right there and then.
"Honey, why don't you go and look for our friend, while I talk to these gentlemen?" Artaud said.
"Yes, of course. Maybe I'll see you later," Céline said to Dabrowski, who nodded gently, her champagne flute still in his hand. She served him the coldest smile she could give, then disappeared in the crowd. Dabrowski kept his gaze on her for a little while, then absent-mindedly emptied her glass before putting it on the tray of a passing waiter. Then he looked back at Artaud.
"You've always had good tastes regarding women. Well, since you are here, have you seen Adam Alomé's latest exhibition in Paris? I take it you like troggish art?"
- From what I get from her feed, Laurent, it looks like she found the guy.
Laurent Artaud's 'ware was well-concealed, and fully dedicated to his art. Nothing lethal. No boosted reflexes, just knowsofts and linguasofts, a voice synthesizer, a cranial phone, some memory and naturally a datajack. No synthacardium or enhanced articulations, but tailored pheromones and a mnemonic enhancer. Tonight he would have killed to have an oral slasher, just to see Dabrowski's head ripped off and dripping with blood. The discussion was going on and on, and he couldn't get away from it.
"... I mean, the secular powers of Neo Atatźrk in Ankara won't stand if EuroForce doesn't step in against the fundamentalists in Eastern Turkey," General Reuber was explaining. "They're gathering forces around Adana, and plan a major offensive to retake Constantinople. And we don't want a third act in the Euro-Wars, do we?"
"Turkey doesn't strike me as critical, General," Dabrowski answered. "And the Balkans are here to serve as a buffer... as they always did," he added with a smile in Artaud's direction. "But you have one real problem in the north, if you want my opinion. If Suchov decides to get rid of Rybinski in Poland and crushes the Liberation's Army, your country will face a new threat on its Eastern range... "
"This is nonsense and you are not serious, 'Ivan'," Artaud said. "The Russians want Poland under control, but they would never dare to threaten the German Alliance, even with popular support. Moreover the Poles are Catholics and Rome would throw its weight in the affair. By the way, Cardinal, what is the Vatican's stance in what regards the current Russian presence in Poland?"
"Well... we naturally defend the Catholic community in Poland, but we are also fervent advocates of peace in Europe. The Church supports the aims of the Liberation Army but we believe an agreement should be reached with the current government, that of Rybinski... even if it is influenced by the Russian occupation forces," the Cardinal said.
"I don't think the Big L would agree with granting Suchov full control over Poland," Dabrowski added with a smile.
"I think you overestimate the Wyrm, Herr Davidowicz. He's not that powerful in terms of political and military power. At least not compared to our Bundeswehr," said the General.
"Last time I heard, it's been a few decades since your military blasted one of those lizards. As far as I know, it's not one of your jet fighters that blew Nachtmeister off the face of the planet. And do you believe the sudden exodus of wyrms out of Germany is a result of your army's operations, Herr General?" Artaud asked over his flute, with a touch of irony in his voice.
A conniving light shone in Dabrowksi's eye. "My friend's fair enough. In fact, General, some people in France and Great Britain pretend that the German dragons used to protect the country more effectively than the Bundeswehr do... "
Reuber's face burned red with anger. "The thing is, meine Freunde, we have the means and will to defend our country. Whatever Saeder-Krupp wants, if we do not help the right side in Poland now, and the Liberation Army overthrows the current regime, the next government in charge could be that of that ultranationalist madman Wysocki, and the situation there will look strangely similar to Hitler's rise to power in 1935. And that is a real threat. And what would you say about it, Mr. Artaud?"
He was losing some precious time. What was worse, this was getting unbearably boring. "I'd point out to you the fact that no, the situation would really have nothing in common with the one you mentioned. And that Hitler rose to power in your country in 1933, not 1935, Herr General."
Reuber gawked at him. Dabrowski was smiling broadly.
"Now if you would pardon me, I need to leave your company. I really can't leave my wife alone any longer. You know, women... " Artaud said. "Or maybe you don't, after all," he finally added after an amused look in the direction of Cardinal Mazotti.
He left them behind, losing himself in the crowd.
- So? What gives?
- Everything's fine, man. Kern says the astral is clean, he's back here with me. Céline is in the room.
Artaud mentally dialled Céline's number in his headphone. She answered immediately.
- How are you doing, my dove?
- Pretty well, honey. I've talked our chummer into showing me the interesting parts of that place. He had to get to his room to take his passkey, and I managed to see his door's code. Thank God for the eyezoom. He showed me the opera, the gambling grounds and more. I left him after promising him some surprises for later in the night.
- What kind?
-You don't want to know, honey. Anyway, I managed to say good-bye and enter his room... and now I'm almost through with the installation of the sat dish. By the way, how was it with Dabro? You're still with him?
-Nope. I've just left him. But I couldn't find out what the fragger is doing here. I'm wondering...
- Wait a minute... Good. Nolwenn, the link and the terminal are on. Deck in, but please hurry up.
- Acknowledged, the decker answered on her second line.
Artaud's Westwind emerged from the tunnel, soon reaching the docklands of the western districts of Marseille. He drove to reach the northwestern districts, where he had a small flat. There he could rest for a while and think about what his next move should be.
They had almost made it. It had been hanging on a thread...
- Any info on the corp suit?
- Not much. Young, a slight Yankee accent...
- Maybe, I... Hé! Nom de... ?!
- Céline? Céline?!
The comm had been shut down.
- Kern, go see what happened!
He switched to Nolwenn.
- Are you OK? What's up?
- She's down, Laurent. Her cam is aimed at the ceiling. On est mal. What are we doing now, for frag's sake? I've decrypted the file and I'm downloading it.
- Try to complete the d-load if you can, but prepare for possible dumpshock if someone pulls the plug. Is she... ?
- Don't know, sorry Laurent. Kern is back in astral to check what happened to her.
Struggling to keep his calm, Artaud was crossing the hall of the Casino, moving for the door. Someone clasped him on the shoulder. He stopped, his heart missing a beat. Then he turned back.
Dabrowski was smiling. As usual.
"You don't really think you are going to leave me like this, Tusky Trog?"
"We are no longer in Vienna or in Prague, Piotr. Leave me alone."
"You are right. But I know you are here for business... "
Nolwenn's voice anounced in his head: Deleting clues of my intrusion... Chié, Laurent, security is zeroing on you...
"... and I'm here for business, too," Dabrowski said. "Nothing personal, you know. But you are not leaving this time."
- Keep a low profile and do whatever you can. Prepare to get into gear with the van if anything turns ugly for you.
- Okay. I'm jacking out, Nolwenn said.
Three humans and an ork dressed in black suits, dark glasses covering their eyes, surrounded him and invited him to follow them without resistance. They led him out of the hall through the Euro-elite crowd and into a deserted corridor. Dabrowski was following them.
"You know, I couldn't let you steal those files. Richard doesn't like when someone messes with his collection, even on this side of the Atlantic. You didn't choose the right sheep to shave, Laurent. He's got many connections in this country," he said.
Artaud didn't answer. Suddenly, the leading guard stopped and turned back, startled.
"Astral assault! Jean-Pierre warns me the elementals have been disrupted!"
Then two ethereal forms, small humans in hooded dark robes, each of them wielding a staff, appeared and immediately attacked the guards. A third spirit was standing in front of Artaud, his scary, piercing red eyes looking directly in his.
- Run, Mann. My spirit is concealing you. Behind the spirit materialized a fourth entity, the manifested astral form of Kern, pale and clad in dark robes too. I'll keep them busy while you get away.
Before he really knew what he was doing, Artaud found himself running in another corridor, the spirit beside him. He looked back, saw the guards struggling with the apparitions, and heard Dabrowski shouting orders. For thirty frightening seconds he ran, and eventually found a door that according to the signs on the richly decorated walls lead outside. Praying for it not to be locked, he pushed it. The door opened, and he was out in the gardens and the hot summer night. Breathing heavily, he forced himself to calm down. The spirit was gone.
- Laurent? Nolwenn's tense voice asked over the phone line. There are men with SMGs outside the van! They are going to break in, and Kern's still unconscious.
Oh, yes that was botched.
- Get away, as fragging quick as you can, and leave me on my own. He didn't want to lose a second teammate through his fault. And what about the magician? What if his meat body was hurt, or worse? But he could not do anything for now, just try to escape and save his skin. He walked towards the edge of the garden, spotting a small gate in the outer fence opening on the street. A young man wearing the uniform of the Police de Monaco guarded it. He breathed in, and drew a small cell phone from his pocket. Then he strode towards the gate.
"No, just tell him I want to talk to him about Haneda," he said in the phone, with a menacing tone. "I-don't-give-a-fragging-clusterfrag he's with the Wuxing representative, Morris!"
The young cop gestured hesitantly towards him to block his way. Artaud took a scornful look at him, still talking in the phone.
"You call your boss, chummer, or Fextron Cybertronics' future in Europe is sealed and... wait a minute." He looked at the young man with as much contempt as he could muster. "So what, kid, I'm not going out this way? I must go round? Don't waste my time, I really could take it very bad."
The cop stepped back before the ork's expression and teeth.
"N... No, sir, naturally there is no problem sir please go this way... " he said, puzzled.Artaud ignored him and went forward through the gate, still shouting in his phone. "Ah, now this is better. Yeah. And tell him to move his butt or I'm selling my shares to Cross."He was out of the gardens, out of the casino and back to the streets.
Artaud drove his Westwind to a small neighborhood in the north of Marseille, called La Carrére. It was poor, but hadn't fallen in the same state of decay and anarchy as other parts of the Quartiers Nord. Still, litter covered the streets and the sidewalks, and small-time gangers were roaming. Nothing to be really afraid of, and at least the police never went to those parts of the metroplex. Dodging obstacles, he headed towards his secure parking lot.
He could reach neither Céline, nor Nolwenn or Kern. Unsure, he walked rapidly a few blocks deeper in New Monaco towards the underground parking where he had left his Westwind. He had parked it there the week before, in case they would have needed a quick getaway. Since all of them had come to Monaco tonight with the Eurovan, he could reasonably believe Dabrowski's men weren't informed about the Westwind. Still, he was frightened. He reached his car and left the parking without noticing anything unusual or threatening. Less than five minutes later he had left Monaco, quickly reaching the highway. East towards Italy, or west towards Nice and Marseille?
He chose the second solution. He wouldn't stop in Nice, which was a reactionary and racist free city since conservative aristos had taken over after the '43 quakes, and where he had no connections. It was different in Marseille, where he could use contacts in the Milieu.
And there he was, crossing the street at 4 AM to enter his run-down building. There were several people outside tonight. Most of them young, most of them of North African origin. One of them was a changeling. That was one of the things that helped him to hide: he just had to change his clothes and his speaking mannerisms to seem like a guttertrog. It was funny to see how a thug or a squatter in Marseille was so similar to one in Seattle, Berlin or Hong Kong. Misery was probably the thing most commonly shared among metahumanity.
He went up the concrete stairs, opened his door on the third floor and locked it behind him.He turned the trid on and fell on the sofa. Nothing about New Monaco on the news channels besides the regular Grand Tour coverage, and nothing on him or his team. Artaud was starting to drift towards sleep, when he remembered that he had left his gun in the car. He forced himself to get up to go and retrieve it; it would help him feel safer. He left his flat and crossed the street once again. The night was clearer, and in one hour dawn would arrive. The ork was about to enter the parking lot, when he spotted a black van rolling down the street, all lights out. He swiped his passkey in the cardreader and slipped inside, looking through the small window at the top of the door. The van stopped across the street in front of his building, and four men in long coats stepped out of the vehicle. Too hot for the season. Even late at night.
Two of the men entered the building by the front door, while the other two were going round the block. It couldn't be a coincidence. Artaud hurried for his car, and sat in the driver seat.
How did they know?
He swore. Naturally. Rule number three: never mingle private life and biz. And he had brought Céline here once, back when they had been together. Frag.
So she talked.
He couldn't blame her. God knew what they had done to her in order to make her talk. Or had she... Horror fell on him. Could she have betrayed him? No. Nolwenn had said she was down. And what if she too had been lying... After all, he wasn't sure that Nolwenn had really decked the computer, nor that Kern's help wasn't a trap...
No. That didn't make sense. They had caught him for good, and he couldn't have escaped without the magician's help. He was becoming too paranoid. Still, he didn't know what to think anymore. One thing was clear, though: he had to flee, far from here. He drew his Fichetti from under his seat and looked at it for a few seconds, then dumped it on the passenger seat.
Thinking about it, he realized the old motto was double edged. It's not about what you know, it's about who you know. This time "who he knew" didn't really help him, to say the least. Maybe it's rather who knows you, he thought.
He looked in the rearview mirror, and saw a tired and old ork wreck. Then he smiled, his tusks emerging from his lower lip. He frowned, just a little. Oh yes, he had everything he truly needed. He had his gun, his car, a few chips and certified credsticks as well as a fresh tuxedo on the back seat. And above all, he had his face. Paris, London, Amsterdam... Anywhere he could start all over again, and find out what had really happened.
Artaud entered the code of the parking door, jacked in, and was ready to drive.