“This is what you call fun?”
The question should have made me wince, I suppose, but since she was looking the other way, I just grinned as I shoved her through an unmarked door. Bullets snapped as they impacted the wall, just missing us. I briefly wondered what material the wall was made of to produce that particular noise.
The truth was that not only was this not what I had planned for my first date with Cynthia, it was the last thing I had expected to actually happen — which meant, to my surprise, and probably hers as well, that the black-clad assassins were here for her. This made her much more interesting.
And yes. I did think it was fun.
The way I see it, anyone who devotes his life to a career he doesn’t enjoy is a fool and has thrown away his life. That includes those few of us left in the… hands on security and espionage industry.
The hallway we turned down led away from the main concourse. It was narrow with several doors at intervals on the sides. I had mixed feelings about the lack of people. There was no one in our way as we darted down it, but if we didn’t get out before our pursuers got in, we’d be easy targets. If we did, though, we’d be a step closer to throwing them off, and a lot closer to the trains that would take us to safety.
Cynthia’s breath was coming heavy already. She didn’t look unfit — I wasn’t too picky about body type, but my friend, Sven, who set up this blind date, knew that I insisted on a healthy life style. Cynthia clearly wasn’t a sprinter, let alone a long distance runner. “Don’t think about it,” I told her. “It’ll just discourage you.”
She sneered, clearly not impressed with my advice.
I glanced over my shoulder. One of the assassins was rounding the corner. I grunted an expletive and dragged Cynthia the last few feet to the end of the hall then yanked her to the left just as the bullets started spraying.
“What the heck is going on?” she hissed.
“Shut up,” I said simply. I don’t like rudeness as a rule, but it wasn’t the time. All thoughts needed to be on escape. Plus, other than the immediate escape I didn’t know what was going on. “Come on,” I said more gruffly than I intended as I took her hand and led her into the crowd on this concourse.
I’d been on protection detail many times, and I’d grabbed a lot of people a lot of ways. But taking Cynthia’s hand stood out to me. It felt good, like it was made to be in my hand. It irritated me, because twitterpation would just distract me from the current crisis.
Fortunately, Cynthia didn’t resist as I wove through the crowd. Our pursuers followed us into the mass of people and were considerably less polite than I was, shoving individuals aside. No one had noticed the gunshots — the killers had relatively quiet weapons and the crowd was loud. But there were a lot of shouts and protests at this.
“There’s a shuttle to the other side of the complex,” I said. “It’s not an escape, but it’ll buy us a moment to rest.”
She nodded without saying anything. Her face was turning red. We needed that rest.
At least she was trusting me. That made doing my job that much easier. The thought prompted me to shake my head. This had started as a date, and now it was a job. That was not a promising sign that this would be a relationship. Also, I wasn’t being paid.
Cynthia continued her relative silence, as we pushed through the edge of the crowd and crossed the relative open space to the line for the shuttle.
To the credit of their parents, some people have been trained in their manners that even when their person is in eminent danger they are unfailing in their courtesy. It was gratifying to me that Sven had set me up on a date with someone possessed of such fine etiquette. However, it was also disconcerting to me that Cynthia moved toward the end of the queue for the shuttle. I hissed softly through my teeth and jerked her toward the front. I intended to make some people angry.
The shuttle was just opening its door to bring in passengers as I shoved the line leaders aside ungently and push Cynthia in. I followed immediately on her heals and smashed my hand on the door’s controls, shutting them. My date fell into a chair as I slapped a magnetic hacknode on the manual override panel. I hadn’t been expecting assailants, but certain small devices, like the hacknode, were so convenient and useful that I always have one with me.
Symbols flashed across the security pad for a second, and then the controls popped out of their panel. I slammed the start button.
The shuttle was a vehicle designed to automatically fit a couple dozen people and carry them the twenty-five kilometers to the other end of the Nyark Mercantile Complex — the largest shopping mall on humanity’s home world. It slid smoothly into movement. We had about five minutes to breathe. I allowed myself to smile as the people I had shoved grappled our pursuers, clearly unwilling to allow anyone else to cut the line. The assassins would not be getting on the next shuttle without indiscriminate show of force. I hoped, even with the bluntness of their assault, the assassins would try to keep collateral damage to a minimum.
Cynthia was regaining her breath. “What is going on?” she asked again. I didn’t believe it was possible to lace a question with more impatience than she did.
I couldn’t afford to calm her though. I turned on the heads-up implant in my eye with a thought and took hold of her wrist. I was gentle enough that I wouldn’t hurt her, but firm enough that if she resisted I wouldn’t lose my grip. I looked her in the eye and asked, “Are you really an assistant at the Drieter firm?”
She tried only for half a second to pull away, and not with much force. “What are you talking about? Why would I lie about that?”
“Just answer.” I kept my voice low. I didn’t want to make her upset. In fact, I was hoping to calm her. But I needed the answers more than anything else.
She glared, but answered. “Yes, I am. I told you…”
I nodded and interrupted. “Do you have any enemies? Anyone who would have a reason to hurt you?”
“What? No! I’m just an assistant. Why would I have enemies?”
I didn’t have an answer to that. More importantly, the bio-readings in my HUD confirmed that she didn’t have an answer for it either. She was worked up but wasn’t holding back.
I released her hand and sat back in the chair facing her, my arms spread across the backs of the seats next to me. She ran her fingers over the spot I had been holding. It was time to review my earlier thesis. I had friends. With a little work I could get a good outlook for my immediate future. To be sure, I had enemies as well. But I didn’t actually interact with many of the people I dealt with professionally, targets or colleagues. My identity was a closely guarded secret – completely divorced from my work. I had safeguards and triggers in place to let me know the instant anyone so much as looked at a file containing information about me. There hadn’t even been a sniff. Nothing’s one-hundred percent, of course, but I had confidence that this was about her, not me. It just remained for me to figure out why.
“Look,” I said calmly. ” I considered that these guys might be after you. If you knew what I really did with my life, that would be the reasonable assumption. But…” I held up my hand to quiet her interruption. “Those men aren’t good enough to go after me, and anyone competent enough to even figure out who I am would know that. And there’s the snippets of chatter I’ve managed to hear from our attackers. Their target appears to be a woman. And I promise I haven’t lied about that.”
I was in luck. That remark elicited the slightest of smiles from her lips.
“But why would they come after me?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, but I am going to find out. More to the point, I feel responsible for you. These guys have pissed me off by going after you while you were in my care.” It sounded corny, like an old, twentieth century vid, and I was a little bit surprised to hear myself talk like this. Funny thing was, I rally did feel that way. A half dozen guys with guns after one woman was hardly fair – but this type of thing was never about anything fair. But they had also ruined my date.
“So you don’t think chivalry is passé?” She said, the tiny smile returning to her full lips.
It was infectious, and I smiled broadly. “I suppose not. I hope that’s not a bad impression for modern times.” After a brief pause I continued. “I know this has been strange and probably frightening, but I need you to trust me so I can get you out of here alive. It’s not done yet. They’re far behind us, but they might have reinforcements at our destination.”
She caught my gaze and held it, looking into me with her sharp green eyes. “I trust you,” she said.
What an amazing woman.
The shuttle followed the track it was attached to until it reached the friend of the complex. I had a few moments to look over my date. Her wide eyes were set under thin, dark eyebrows. The left brow was pierced with four gem like studs. The crystal structures held her ID and credit info, attuned to her DNA. Her raven black hair dangled close to her brow in front, and in back was held in a series of silver colored rings that made her single pony tail hand down from a point several inches away from her head. It was a chic style. By contrast she didn’t wear the form fitting coveralls that were all the rage. Instead she wore an old-fashioned skirt to her knees with a short-sleeved blouse. It was a less explicit demonstration of her figure, and it made her seem less common — it suited her. The material her skirt and blouse were made of was quasi-reflective and of a silky texture. The color seemed to shift with her movements and the light — for the skirt dark colors: blue, green, black, red; the top played in lighter colors but always complemented the bottom.
The shuttle bumped to a stop, shaking me out of the observation. I wondered for a moment why they couldn’t invent a way to smooth out those stops, but evenas I did I waved Cynthia to join me near the door. “Stay with me,” I told her. “Remember, you’re not safe until I say so. Until then, assume that somewhere there’s a guy trying to line up a shot at your head.” It was blunt, but break was over; speed was again imperative. I saw her head nod quickly as my attention turned toward the outside. I felt a small weight leave me, she really was putting her trust i me.
There wasn’t anyone down below the shuttle who looked like the attackers. Either we really did have some breathing room (too good to be true), they had disguised themselves (unlikely given the short time), or they were hiding, which miggt even mean a sniper.
I pulled my hacknode off the controls and the door slid open. Cynthia took my hand as I stepped out. It was strange, but exiting the shuttle felt like enteringa completely different environment. My senses, even th cybernetic ones, were reaching out, finding suspicion in everyone and everything around us.
We pushed through the light crowd toward a nearby hallway.
And the bad guys revealed themselves. From both sides a group of two or three appeared.
They were dressed in black still, and making too much noise. “These guys really suck at this.” I said. It had stopped being fun and was just annoying now. These guys were nothing but thugs, not remotely professional. Beneath me, really. If it weren’t for Cynthia, I would have just stopped and beaten them to death. Well, maybe not to death, at last not all of them. Somebody would need to learn how deep the trouble they volunteered for was.
But Cynthia was with me, so instead I just led her away, breaking into a run she could keep up with. The main hallways were too wide – they provided no cover. So I found myself again turning to side passages.