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As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from afar country -Proverbs 25:25 Alone in the dimness of a private office in the Mandala Technologies office building in the Boston sprawl, Miles Lanier, member of the Renraku Computer Systems Board of Directors and former Director of Internal Security for Fuchi Industrial Technologies, sat behind a desk rolling the slim datacord of the gleaming neural jack in his hand. It was quite late, and all of the regular employees had long gone home, leaving the hall outside silent and dark. As he turned the datacord over and over, Lanier thought about the strange turn of events that had brought him to where he was now. He had been a military man once, a master sharpshooter. That was in a time when the major factions of the world needed a lot of military people to settle their differences. Miles Lanier was the kind of man who specialized in troubleshooting, at first literally and later with more subtlety, but with no less precision than in his sniper days. He rose in the ranks to become an officer in the military and put his tactical skills to good use. Then the world changed and the military wasn’t solving the problems of people of power and influence. A quieter approach was called for, so Lanier went into the business of “security,” which was a softer name they used for military forces working for the megacorporations, the great powers of the world. He became Director of Internal Security for

Fuchi Industrial Electronics and prided himself on the efficiency with which his department was run. Fuchi’s security was respected. Everyone knew the corporation wasn’t to be trifled with. Lanier continued to do what he did before: find problems that were developing for his employer and eliminate them before they could become a serious threat. It was what he did best. Then the dragon changed everything. Lanier was never much of a believer in the idea that the return of magic to the world had re-written history. Certainly, the Awakening had put incredible power into the hands of people who previously had none, like the Native Americans and some of the other tribal peoples in the world. And they had used it against the governments that had formerly oppressed them. Used it to reclaim some of their lost land and lost heritage. There were magicians walking the streets, spirits appearing out of nothingness, and dragons flying in the skies, but Lanier believed the Awakening had changed very little in the end. Some land got shuffled and some borders redrawn. Some new professions were created and a few new security concerns were raised, but when the dust from the Awakening began to settle, the world was still run the same way it had always been. People, corporations, and governments with power did as they pleased to those without it, and people like Miles Lanier still found work taking care of the problems of those powerful entities. Things hadn’t changed much, but only because there were people-beings-who played the game of power and control better than any mega-corporation or government ever imagined. Beings whose existence was a kind of chess game on a grand scale. Creatures like dragons. A dragon had used his vast wealth to buy his way onto the airwaves more than forty years ago, coming live into the living rooms of people all over the world. Somehow, nobody really questioned that a creature out of myth wanted more than anything to have his own trideo show broadcast into millions of homes. In fact, most people thought it was rather cute. It made a creature weighing tons, with a maw capable

of crushing and swallowing a man in one bite, into a cuddly media icon almost overnight. People began to lose their primal fear of a monster out of legend and consider him almost a member of the family. He must have been planning it for a very long time, Lanier thought as he watched the reflections off the desk lamp gleam from the chrome datalink. But, then, what is forty years to a creature who might have been… what? Hundreds? Thousands of years old? No one knew for sure. It was a brilliant strategy. The dragon-Dunkelzahn was his name, the kind of name a friendly dragon from a fairy tale might have-became the darling of the media and had a reputation as “the friendliest dragon in the world.” He was the only one of his kind to actually deign to talk to the small, fragile creatures living around him, and he earned the trust of the people who saw him, or at least something very like it. The kind of trust people give to characters they see on their favorite tridshows. So when the dragon decided to apply for citizenship to the United Canadian American States and to move his vast lair to Prince Edward Island, who could possibly object? Who wouldn’t want the coup of having the world’s most famous and friendly dragon as one of their citizens? Not to mention his incredible wealth and influence. The UCAS government practically fell all over itself to grant Dunkelzahn citizenship. It was an election year, and a photo opportunity not to be missed: the President “shaking hands” with a gleaming, silver and blue-scaled dragon on the White House lawn. That was the setup move and still nobody saw the checkmate coming. When the election turned into the biggest political scandal of the century and everyone’s faith in the government was shattered, who better to restore hope to a defeated and battered nation than a creature of magic and fantasy? When Dunkelzahn offered the impossible idea of a dragon running for the highest office in the UCAS, who wouldn’t stop and think to himself for a moment, “why the frag not?” It was almost too easy, and Lanier had predicted from the moment the news of Dunkelzahn’s candidacy broke that they would have to start renovating the White House, and he was right. The thing Lanier didn’t see, that nobody foresaw, was what happened the night of Dunkelzahn’s victory, when the dragon-in human guise-departed a party at the Watergate Hotel, stepped into his presidential limousine, and then vanished in a fiery explosion only blocks away from the hotel, leaving nothing but a huge crater, a livid scar in the skin of the highway, to mark his passing. Maybe Dunkelzahn foresaw it, Lanier thought to himself. Or maybe there is someone better at playing the game than even a great dragon. Whatever the case, Dunkelzahn wasn’t finished playing yet. Even though the dragon was dead, his treasure, his vast horde, still existed. His will was read to a stunned nation, and the legendary treasure of a dragon combined with a financial empire a corporate raider would envy was distributed to Dunkelzahn’s beneficiaries, including Miles Lanier. Lanier had never dreamed of being a beneficiary of Dunkelzahn’s will. He’d met the dragon only once, during his presidential campaign, a goodwill meeting on behalf of Fuchi. A remarkable conversationalist, Dunkelzahn had inquired after Lanier’s background and seemed familiar with much of his work with Fuchi, much to Lanier’s surprise. The whole time they talked, Lanier had the strange feeling that the great dragon could look straight into his mind and soul and read him like a book. It was a strange feeling of being exposed to Dunkelzahn’s scrutiny. In his will, Dunkelzahn left Miles Lanier all of his stock in Renraku Computer Systems, enough to give Lanier a seat on the board of directors and increase his personal net worth by a billion nuyen. The day the will was read, Lanier packed up his office while Fuchi scrambled to change their security protocols-the protocols he had designed-before he could get out the door with them. He smiled faintly, recalling the chaos in the halls of Fuchi HQ over the announcement of his resignation. Lanier had been on the Renraku board for over a year, and they were only now beginning to believe he wasn’t a plant from Fuchi, that the dragon’s grand political schemes and fiery death weren’t somehow all staged solely for the purpose of putting one man in a position to betray them, so great was their arrogance. Lanier didn’t claim to understand Dunkelzahn’s motivations any better than anyone else. Who could say why a creature like a dragon did anything? Lanier worked hard for Renraku and did what he did best. He got rid of Renraku’s problems, large and small, with surgical precision and skill. He also got rid of people who opposed him with the same skill. It was a ruthlessness the other members of the board and Renraku’s highest executives had learned to understand and respect. Lanier made sure of that. Now he sat in the chair his ambition and good fortune had made for him, thinking about his next move in the game. He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation he needed to have, but there was no avoiding it, and time was of the essence. He let his breath out with a long sigh and slid the connector home into the dataport behind his ear, settling it there with a comfortable click. His headware immediately interfaced with the sophisticated communications system built into the desktop, and a virtual display superimposed itself on Lanier’s vision, buttons and data-readouts floating in space in front of him. He reached out and manipulated the virtual controls to set up the isolation protocols for the commlink. His military days had taught him the importance of protecting communications. Especially when you’re behind enemy lines, he thought with a grimace. Once he was satisfied that the scrambling and encryption systems were online, he waited. He didn’t have to wait long before receiving the signal of an incoming call. He reached out and tapped the Receive button floating in space to his right and the call connected. There was a brief shower of static in his field of vision as the encryption systems kicked in and negotiated with each other back and forth over the fiber-optic line. Then an image shimmered into place on the opposite side of the desk from Lanier. The man who appeared, chair and all, was dressed in an immaculate, tailored suit from one of the finest designers in Paris. Lanier knew because he owned a couple of them himself. The visitor’s short dark hair was swept back from a face with aristocratic European features, features Lanier remembered well. The imagery was perfect, down to the detail of the threads of his suit and the individual strands of hair. Lanier would have sworn the other man was actually in the room with him instead of being simply a virtual projection, but that came as no surprise. There was nobody in the world better at virtual-reality technology than Fuchi Industrial Electronics, and the image was as real as their tech could make it (which was “realer than reality,” if you believed their ads). The man who sat across from Miles Lanier was Richard Villiers, CEO of that megacorporation. He was also Lanier’s former boss and his good friend. “Hello, Richard,” Lanier said with a genuine smile. “It’s been a long time.” Villiers nodded, but the smile he offered in return was only the ghost of one. Lanier could see that stress had worn heavily on his old friend. There was more gray in the dark hair, which Villiers did not bother to hide with cosmetic or magical treatments or even alterations to his virtual image. There were a few more lines around his eyes and mouth, and he looked tired. Lanier saw instantly that things at the highest level of Fuchi weren’t going well. His ability to read Richard’s mood and intent with nothing more than a glance was one of the things that had made Lanier so valuable to the Fuchi CEO, both as head of Internal Security and especially now. “Too long, Miles,” Villiers returned, then he leaned forward in his chair and took on an air that was all business. There was no time for pleasantries. “Are we secure?” he asked. Lanier gave one of his trademark shrugs. “As secure as possible,” he said. “With some of Renraku’s capabilities, who can say?” Villiers gave a low “hrnmm” of agreement. “Do you have what we need?” he asked. Lanier leaned back a bit in his chair and rested his steepled fingers against his chin, a gesture some found arrogant, but which always gave him time to think and carefully plan his responses.

“I don’t know yet for sure. From his story, our boy is clearly one of these ‘otaku,’ or at least he thinks he is. We’ve gotten some unusual neural scans, and he does have some very high-grade cybernetic modifications. We’re working on tracing them now. They might be Renraku or they might not. It’s not likely they would have left the trademarks and serial numbers on them, and Renraku has been putting out a lot of new stuff lately. It won’t be easy to track down.” “That’s just the point, isn’t it?” Villiers said, looking Lanier in the eye. “Renraku has been putting out a lot of new patents, designs, and technology lately. Too damn much. It just doesn’t fit what we know about their capabilities. It contradicts all the predictions and models I pay the marketing department so much money to develop. Renraku used to be so predictable you could set your watch by them, Miles. They were triple-A, but they had a certain pattern to them that we’d learned to anticipate. Now nothing is like we predicted and Renraku is breathing down our necks. You know that the Yamanas want me removed as CEO?” “They’ve wanted that ever since you got the job.” “Yes, but now they might actually have a cause to rally around. We’re losing market share for the first time in years and Renraku is starting to beat us at our own game. That hurts the bottom line and that’s the one damn thing the Japanese can agree on. It’s turning into a mob scene at the board meetings, Miles, and the mob is going to start howling for somebody’s blood.” Lanier tapped his fingers against his chin as he considered the implications. He hadn’t known it was that bad, but Fuchi was good at keeping internal matters internal, and Lanier had definitely been out of touch for a while. Fuchi had always been a house divided, made up of the powerful families that controlled the megacorporation. Two of them, the Yamanas and the Nakitomis, were Japanese industrial families who’d provided much of the capitol and investment money to create the Fuchi empire. The third, Villiers, was the business genius who had made Fuchi the top corporation in its field and kept it there. Feuds and infighting for control over Fuchi brewed all the time between the three families, only now it looked like Villiers’ seeming inability to slow Renraku’s runaway growth was uniting the other families against him. Villiers controlled more of Fuchi than any one man, but it was still possible the Japanese could hurt him if they got their act together. “That kid is the only chink in Renraku’s armor we’ve been able to find so far,” Villiers continued when Lanier remained silent. “We know Renraku arranged for people to infiltrate the otaku.” Villiers left unsaid the fact that Fuchi knew about Renraku’s plan only because Lanier had been involved in the planning stages of it. Lanier’s skills as an intelligence gatherer had been too useful for Renraku to pass up. They had never revealed to him why they’d wanted someone to infiltrate a scruffy tribe of techno-mystics living in the Barrens, but they did call upon Lanier’s expertise to help set up the means to do so. “This kid has the profile to be the agent the corp chose,” Villiers said. “If he is, then he could be the proof we need that Renraku has been overstepping their bounds. We need evidence that this is part of the project you’ve told me about, the plan to use the otaku to get leverage over the Court. We need to get him to name names and give us the information Renraku sent him to look for.” “Part of the problem,” Lanier said, carefully choosing his words, “is that we can’t get any leads on our subject. We’ve run all of the usual identification checks on his fingerprints, retinal patterns, and DNA traces. There are no records in any of the national databanks or SIN files we’ve checked. Our mystery otaku just doesn’t exist in any of them.” “Could Renraku have erased those records?” Villiers asked, not hiding the note of concern. “All of them? In every database in the world?” Lanier shook his head. “I doubt it. If Renraku has that kind of ability, then this little game might as well be over. More likely he was born SINless. There are plenty of blanks who aren’t in the records who they might have recruited. He could even be a shadowrunner.” Lanier waited for Villiers to say something. When he didn’t, he went on. “The other problem is that the kid’s memory may really and truly be fragged up. Whether it was conditioning Renraku gave him or something that happened with the otaku, we just don’t know yet. If it is, then we might not be able to get anything useful out of him. Unraveling the mess of his wetware is going to be difficult and take time.” “Time is something we don’t have a lot of,” Villiers said, starting to look more worried. “The push is already on with the Corporate Court. If our case is going to be successful, we have to get evidence fast enough to present it to the Court before Renraku can make some kind of counter-move. That means doing some of this operation on the fly and gambling we can get what we need in time to make use of it. It’s a big risk we’re taking here, Miles, a high-wire act with no net. There’s no margin for error.” “You don’t have to remind me of that,” Lanier countered. “My position is probably the most precarious of all.” Lanier had worked hard to get even a modicum of the Renraku board of directors’ trust, and he knew if Renraku knew what he was up to they’d have had him killed long ago. And they still might. “I’m not so sure of that.” Villiers’ voice was cold. “Your seat on the board might protect you if this thing blows up in our faces. After all, if this operation fails and our case against Renraku collapses, you’re still on the board of the corporation that’s number one with a bullet. If it works, then you stand to be the one who knows when to jump before Renraku’s ship sinks. It sounds to me like you’ve got all of your bases pretty well covered.” Lanier was shocked at Villiers’ comment. Even though it was delivered in a cold and even tone, to Lanier’s trained ear it clearly carried a note of desperation. After all they’d been through, how could Richard even think to question his loyalty? How could he doubt Lanier’s loyalty? Villiers leaned back in his chair, visibly settling himself. “I’m sorry, Miles. That was uncalled for. This whole mess has me on edge. We’re taking a serious chance to get this whole thing cleared up.”

Lanier leaned forward in his seat, his voice low but urgent. “We’ll do it, Richard. We haven’t come this far to lose it all now. I know in my gut that this kid is the one we’re looking for. I’ll get the information out of him no matter what I have to do, and then we’ll be able to convince the Corporate Court to take Renraku down a peg or two. Renraku won’t risk a corporate war when they’ve already gained so much. They aren’t going to throw it all away.” Villiers nodded soberly. “We’d better hope so. If we can’t pull this off, there may be no stopping Renraku, and then the Japanese will probably have me for lunch. You’ve got to find the proof we need, Miles. And as soon as possible. If anyone can do it, it’s you. I’ll be waiting for your call.” His virtual hand brushed air off to his left, and the image of Richard Villiers vanished. Lanier shut down the connection and reached up to pull the datacord from his jack. He held the plug in his hand and looked at it for a long moment before allowing the inertia reel in the desk to spool up the fiber-optic cable and stow the cord away. He stood up and smoothed “his dark suit, adjusted his tie, and looked around the dark, quiet office for a moment before returning to his work. Whatever it takes, he thought to himself. Whatever it takes, I’ll find out the otaku’s secrets.

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