On the Brink
Return to Newcastle (Kasima Arrives)
Return to Newcastle
13 September 2110
TJ Michaels stepped off the Durabont and entered the passenger boarding bridge. It had been more than a month getting from the Plymouth colony to an orbital station, then on to a intra-system research station, and finally to Newcastle colony. In that time, TJ had been six different people. Anyone following his Grid trail had been shaken.
The Puerta de Oeste spaceport was relatively modest compared to Plymouth’s main one. Newcastle was a somewhat younger and certainly more vibrant colony at first blush. Everything seemed new and bright and fresh.
Or maybe it was just TJ’s optimism.
He needed optimism to keep going. ADMP had been on his tail ever since he’d fled Earth. They weren’t about to give up valuable property without some effort.
That’s all he was. A genie. Not even human. Not in the eyes of the law. He was corporate property.
TJ reached out and touched the spaceport’s Grid connections. Not with his ever-present earpiece but with his mind. One of the things that made him special. Like the nearly luminescent and semi-transparent ice blue eyes he hid behind shades and contact lenses.
He hurried through the concourse, then customs, then into the terminal. There was an exit just off the baggage claim area that opened onto a drop-off and pickup area. Beyond the drop-off and pickup area, a ramp led to a small crawler rental facility. There were three crawlers available. TJ rented the most affordable one.
As he exited the terminal, TJ scanned his surroundings with his eyes and his mind. He couldn’t sense any hostile feelings, but he spotted a crawler parked in a waiting zone with four men inside. Something about them set TJ on edge. He picked up his pace as he crossed the street to the ramp.
He imagined he could feel the eyes following him. He willed himself to be calm.
Halfway up the ramp, a hulking form separated from shadow behind him. TJ hadn’t even sensed its presence. TJ picked up his pace even more.
The form matched it without effort.
TJ heard doors opening below and to his left. The crawler full of threatening men. TJ sent a quick thought to the rental crawler not ten meters away: Disengage all security. Turn on your motor. Open the driver’s side door.
He was almost jogging by the time he reached the back of the crawler. The hulking form was closing even at a walk; it reached for him. Two of the men from the crawler below reached the top of the ramp.
TJ turned, ready to shatter the hulking man’s mind. The man’s face was devoid of hostility. It was devoid of any emotion. In fact, the skin looked artificial. Burn victim. War veteran. Something.
The man asked TJ to give him the crawler.
The men from the crawler were in the parking area now, sprinting, pulling out guns.
TJ told the hulking man to get into the vehicle. TJ crawled into the driver’s side and ordered the crawler to exit the parking area as quickly as it could.
The two closest men from the parking area below were at the back of the rental crawler, guns out. The crawler closed its doors and accelerated backwards, clipping one of the men and knocking the other to the ground before running over him with a sickening crunch. The man screamed, then went silent.
The other two men from the parking area below dropped to a crouch and fired. The crawler took the bullets without complaint, and TJ relaxed as the crawler’s acceleration pressed him against the seat. Once they were clear of the terminal, TJ took control.
He asked the hulking man who he was, and the man answered Otto. TJ introduced himself as Kasima. It was a safe identity. They pulled onto Spaceport Boulevard and TJ turned off the lights and let the crawler take over again. Rain fell steadily, and the occasional lightning combined with the lights over the boulevard for a hypnotic effect.
TJ— Kasima —closed his eyes and asked Otto why the men were after him. Otto didn’t seem a threat now. He made Kasima feel safer, actually. Otto said he wasn’t sure, but guessed it was business. Kasima smiled. Otto was a bad liar.
Konrad had just finished brushing his teeth when his earpiece chimed. It was Captain O’Meara, but he was calling from his personal earpiece. He warned Konrad that Jack Cyrus had gone crazy, attacking police and kidnapping his wife. There was a manhunt on.
Konrad sighed heavily. He’d wanted to get some sleep. He looked at Mariel’s sleeping form, admiring the gentle curve of her hip visible with the covers pulled back.
O’Meara offered to send a couple of his men to watch the building. Since Jack had attacked a policeman, the regular police might be trigger happy.
Konrad accepted the offer. O’Meara disconnected.
Konrad pulled the covers back over Mariel and headed off for his workroom. He filled a tumbler with Scotch and settled at his desk angrily. Jack was becoming a liability.
Penny woke to rainwater falling on her. She ached. Jack’s backhand made her forget the thugs’ rough handling. She was fast losing her patience with Jack.
A quick whiff and glance around, and Penny realized she was in a dumpster. She crawled out carefully. Bright lights and loud voices: the police had arrived. She hunched low and edged out the alleyway opposite where Jack had assaulted the policeman. And her.
A block later, Penny called Konrad. Konrad wasn’t surprised to hear about Jack, although he was disappointed to hear Jack had assaulted Penny. Hearing about the thugs and the Stevenson-Greene situation did surprise him. Konrad told Penny to come to his apartment. They would alert Alexei to the potential threat to Anton later. They needed to figure out what they were going to do about Jack first.
Jack stood in the shadows of the Kumbha Tower building. A police crawler was parked on the street between him and the Catalonia Building, home to the Aegis office. Jack shifted Anna’s insignificant weight from one shoulder to another and struggled against the rage filling his mind.
He only wanted a single moment of clarity. He settled for the idea of leaving Anna and making a run for it.
Jack found a battered crawler that almost certainly didn’t have working alarms and broke a window. He put Anna inside and sent a message to Konrad to let him know where to find her.
Then he ran.
He didn’t trust Konrad. He didn’t trust Penny. He didn’t trust anyone.
Jack toyed with the idea of escaping Puerta de Oesta. The best way to do that was to get to the spaceport. Maybe the better idea was to get off Newcastle entirely, start over. He missed the frontier feeling of Bermuda colony. The crocs had been the sort of challenge that appealed to him: visceral, life-or-death, a battle of brawn.
Jack thought back to living the moment on Bermuda as he ran on the southern shoulder of Spaceport Boulevard. He distractedly noted an unlit stretch of road that would be ideal to cross. He jumped onto the road and sprinted, noting too late the whine of an approaching crawler.
A form—silhouetted by the street lamps—dashed in front of the crawler. Kasima reached for the wheel and tried to swerve, but the crawler clipped whatever had run in front of them in darkened stretch. It had been too big to be a domesticated animal.
As he exited the crawler, Kasima searched the Grid for indigent animals of Newcastle that might be a threat. Nothing worrisome came up. There was only moderate damage to the crawler.
Kasima looked around and saw a man struggling to his feet. Kasima moved closer, calling to the man to see if he was okay.
Otto paused for a moment, apologized, then lowered the driver’s side door and drove away. Kasima blinked in disbelief. He’d sort of liked Otto. Kasima concentrated, connected to the retreating crawler’s computer, and ordered it to seal its doors and head for the closest police station.
Kasima turned his attention to the man the crawler had hit. The man said he was fine. Kasima sensed a troubled mind. He asked the man where he was going. The man said he was going away. Kasima offered to help the man, gently suggesting they might work together. The man paused a moment, then agreed.
Kasima introduced himself. The man said his name was Jack. Kasima asked Jack to lead him to Puerta de Oeste. The two of them trudged the next kilometer along the quiet Spaceport Boulevard, stopping at the Spaceport Grande Hotel. The Grid said it was a two star dump. Kasima loved two star dumps. They smelled like . . . anonymity.
Penny arrived at the Catalonia building and buzzed Konrad, who let her in. He warned her to take the stairs, just to be safe. Konrad met her at the door, towel in hand. He sent her to a bathroom where some of Mariel’s looser nightclothes and a bathrobe awaited. Konrad told her not to worry about hot water limits; they had plenty to spare.
Penny stripped, wincing each time she tested a bruise or scrape. She looked at herself in the mirror. She was a bloody, grimy, dripping mess. She stepped into the shower and cranked the water as hot as it would go. She scrubbed as hard as she could, but some of the impressions the thugs had left would be with her for a while.
Mariel’s loose nightclothes were tight, and the robe barely reached Penny’s knees, but she felt clean now and safe. Penny stepped out, still toweling her hair.
Konrad gave an approving nod and said Jack was a problem. Penny agreed. Konrad explained that the police had Anna now and had moved her and Jesse to a safe place.
Konrad sighed and said they had a bigger problem. He told her about the hacker or hackers attacking them. Penny toyed with the idea the Brits had been behind the attacks, but she quickly discarded the thought. Niles wasn’t a hacker, and Stevenson-Greene wouldn’t dirty his hands with something so pedestrian. The thugs were muscle who knew less about computers than Penny.
Konrad asked Penny if she was up to backing him up as he did some deep data dives. Penny knew she wasn’t going to get any sleep anytime soon, so she agreed. They stepped into Konrad’s workroom and settled into chairs. A few seconds later, they were deep into the hacker’s convoluted data trail.
Hours passed. Jack finally shook himself free from the raging storm in his mind. He was in a small bed. A man—Kasima?—slept in another bed close by. Hotel room. Jack struggled to remember the name. _ Spaceport Grande Hotel_.
He’d messed up. He was on the run. He remembered . . . everything. His heart sank. Everything was falling apart.
Finally, Jack worked up the courage to call Konrad. Konrad was cold. He told Jack that Aegis was reevaluating his role with the company. Jack said he understood. He knew his mind was in a dark place. Konrad convinced Jack to surrender to the police. Jack finally agreed.
Konrad called Captain O’Meara. Once he had his assurances O’Meara would use only his own trusted police and they would do everything they could to take Jack alive, Konrad gave Jack’s location up.
Kasima woke to the sense of danger. Jack was stretched out on the other bed. Kasima touched Jack’s mind, saw the plan to surrender to the police, then reached out and sensed the police in the hallway outside the room.
Kasima didn’t trust the police. Even if he was only interrogated, there would be a record and an unnecessary trail.
Kasima reached out to Jack’s mind. He suggested the police weren’t here to take him alive. Jack tensed. The door burst open and several armored police entered the room, heavy stunners held at the ready. They ordered Jack to get on the ground.
Kasima strengthened the suggestion that the police meant him harm.
Two policemen stepped between the beds, ordering Kasima to move away from Jack. Jack got off the bed and went to his knees. When a policeman closed to cuff him, Jack snapped.
Kasima gave a final push, suggesting Jack try to escape.
The police were on Jack then, their numbers and mass finally doing what their stunners couldn’t. Kasima fled. He took the hotel’s feeble security offline and slipped into a stairwell, then down to the parking lot.
The rain had stopped. Kasima found a rental crawler and overwhelmed its security. A moment later, he was en route to the address where the call that had convinced Jack to surrender had come from.
He wanted to meet Konrad Wulff.
Konrad yawned and stretched. Paulina had asked to meet in the green space off Wayfarer Street, near Castilla Estates. Penny was stationed on a southern building’s rooftop looking down on the mini-park. She was scanning the area with her sniper rifle. James was crouched a few dozen meters from the park bench Konrad sat on, watching, waiting.
Paulina finally arrived. She had her hair down, make-up applied, and she wore an outfit that complimented her figure. Konrad had sensed at their first meeting she was more attractive than she liked to let on. He had no idea just how stunning she could be. Penny whispered through the earpiece that she was recording everything.
Konrad took the hint.
Paulina shook his hand and settled on the bench next to him. Her hip touched his. Konrad shifted to get some distance. Paulina’s perfume was high-end, keyed to her DNA. It was intoxicating. The lack of sleep was getting to him.
Konrad studied Paulina’s face, saw the strain despite the make-up. He asked her what she wanted. She turned and leaned even closer to him. Her breath was sweet, fruity. She told him what had been happening to RPC, to her.
It was the same story Mariel had told.
Paulina took his hand in hers and begged him to help her. She pulled his hand between her breasts and squeezed it earnestly, pleading, worrying aloud about her sanity.
Penny whispered the hi-res optics on her sniper rifle scope were phenomenal.
Konrad pulled his hand free and told Paulina that Aegis would take the case, but he needed more data. He wanted access to RPC’s systems. Paulina agreed without hesitation.
Konrad worried for a moment. Paulina had been every bit as secretive about RPC’s operations as her husband and Thomas Rackers.
Paulina offered to pay for Aegis’ assistance however Konrad saw fit. Konrad ignored the suggestive look she offered and thought back to the case they’d taken for RPC. Paulina had lost her husband. They’d been doing cutting edge MMI—Man-Machine Interface—research, awareness transfer. He guessed they were working on proxies, remotes, maybe other applications for a metacorporation.
Risky stuff, and they’d been very, very close. But Harry Cho had died. Whatever they’d come up with wasn’t foolproof.
Konrad told Paulina Aegis would expect the conventional rates and promised to send her a contract, then he left her.
By the time Konrad walked past James’s hiding place, he was gone. Konrad met Penny at the Aegis crawler. They discussed the case’s disturbing elements as they drove back to the Catalonia Building. The only thing Penny said about Paulina was that she had no idea Paulina was so pretty. Konrad wasn’t sure if that was a threat or an observation. He left it alone.
No sooner had they settled into the apartment and started to share the meeting with Mariel than Konrad’s security probes detected a new hacking attempt. He traced the origin and realized there was a man at the apartment door, trying to overwhelm the authorization system.
Konrad pulled out his weapon and told Mariel and Penny to take up positions watching over the door. Jack went to the door and messaged the man there to stop trying to gain entry. The man agreed.
Konrad opened the door and Kasima took a quick measure of him. Konrad was handsome enough, armed, and had a twinkle in his eyes that said he was no one to be trifled with. Kasima tested Konrad’s mental strength. Konrad pointed the pistol at Kasima and told him to stop. Now. Mariel and Penny showed themselves and pointed their guns at him.
Konrad waved Kasima in and closed the door behind him.
The next hour was an exchange of information. Kasima laid out his history and what happened to Jack (filtering out some damning moments). Konrad laid out his and Aegis’ history (filtering out some damning moments).
Ultimately, everyone agreed they should be working together. Kasima’s computer skills rivaled Konrad’s, and whoever was hacking them was better than either of them.
Konrad had a sinking feeling the RPC case was the core of their problem.