And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought Michael and his angels. -Revelation 12:7 Lynn Osborne stared with complete dismay at the image of the man on the flat-screen display in front of her. She gripped the padded handle she was tethered to along the bulkhead of the orbital station as her world seemed to fall out from under her and she felt the effects of the zero-gravity beginning to disorient her for the first time since she’d become used to space travel. “What did you say?” she repeated. Had she been anyone else, her tone would have earned a rebuke. Considering the situation, Richard Villiers chose to ignore it. “You heard me,” he said. “We’ve lost him. As near as we can tell, a team hit the facility less than an hour ago. We’re checking through the facility’s data systems for any information, but it looks like they’ve been trashed by some kind of progressive virus the ComSci division can’t identify. Whoever they were, they were thorough.” “It could have only been one faction,” she said. The man on the screen nodded grimly. “Renraku. They’ve taken our ace in the hole.” “But how…?” “You let me worry about that, Lynn. You handle the Court.” Osborne considered for a moment. It was only a couple of hours before the court was due to reconvene.

“I could get a continuance,” she mused out loud. “Maybe buy us some time.” “Try and do that,” Villiers said. “We might be able to mount a recovery operation in time to make a difference. If not, we’re well and truly fragged. We have no case against Renraku without proof they were trying to make use of the otaku in some way, and they’ll use this to their advantage when the next court election comes up.” “Do you think we have a chance of recovering him?” Villiers stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. He looked tired. “I really don’t know, Lynn. We’ve got people working on it now. There’s one possibility that’s promising, but I can’t get into it now. Not over the comm-link. Just stall the court for now and hope for the best.” “What about Hague?” she asked. Villiers shook his head again. “He hasn’t been updated yet. I want you to take care of that. Hague is still in too tight with the Yamanas for my taste. He’ll go running to them at the first sign of any trouble and I don’t want them getting wind of this yet. Since the operation involved one of my companies, it’ll be a little while before the Japanese find out anything about the raid or the loss of the… evidence. I’d prefer to keep them off my back until we’ve got a handle on things. Keep Hague under control up there, understand?” Osborne nodded. It wouldn’t be difficult to get David Hague to follow her lead in this matter, considering what was at stake. Hague was loyal enough to the Yamanas, the Japanese clan who got him his position on the Corporate Court, but he was far more loyal to maintaining the high lifestyle he had become accustomed to. Any threat to his prosperity would be enough to keep him in line. “I’ll keep you updated,” Villiers said just as a chime sounded at the door. “I have to go,” Osborne said. Villiers nodded and broke the connection, the vidscreen going blank. Osborne smoothed her hands over her formal court robe and made sure her voice was steady as she called out the door. “Enter.”

The door hissed open to reveal Francesco Napoli lurking on the other side, like a cat waiting to pounce. He was certainly grinning like the cat who’d eaten the proverbial canary. Oh frag, Osborne thought. I should have expected this. He must have known about the snatching of the otaku even before I was notified. She did her best to keep her thoughts from her face, remaining composed and businesslike, with just a touch of surprise at seeing Napoli, even though she had been dreading this meeting. “Hello, Paco,” she said cordially. “It isn’t time to reconvene yet, is it?” Napoli shook he had, clinging to the support outside of the door like a spider, just waiting for a little vibration of his web to act. “No, not yet, but I thought I might take a little of your time to talk about this case. We might be able to resolve things more easily between us. May I come in?” Without waiting for a reply, Napoli flipped himself through the doorway and grabbed onto another handhold just inside. The door automatically hissed closed behind him. “This kind of expartate communication is really inappropriate, Mister Napoli.” Osborne put some emphasis on her formal mode of address. “Anything you have to say to me can be said when the court reconvenes.” “Come now, Lynn. I really don’t think you’re that much of a glutton for punishment. We both know your so-called case is nothing but smoke and mirrors. You have nothing on us and the court will have to dismiss your charges. Spare yourself the embarrassment of having to beg the court’s forgiveness for having wasted their time. Let’s tell them we chose to settle this matter between us quietly.” “Why would I want to do that?” Osborne asked cautiously. Napoli gave his crafty smile. “Because you’re a smart lady. You know you don’t have anything substantial and you know you can’t win. Why not cut your losses and have a shot at getting something out of this deal rather than losing face in front of the whole court and getting nothing but grief? Don’t you think you’d be serving Fuchi better to put the company’s best interests above any desire you might have of humbling Renraku?”

Osborne wanted more than anything at that moment to simply bash in Napoli’s face and wipe that oily smile off of it. The fragger knows he has us right where he wants us. He extended a datapad to Osborne with a bit of a theatrical flourish and let it float from his hand. It tumbled across the short span separating the two justices and Osborne caught it easily. “That has the agreement for the out of court settlement on all of this,” Napoli said. “All you have to do is read and sign it. It drops all of the charges you’ve raised against us in exchange for Fuchi getting certain distribution and licensing rights for some of our more profitable developments. Fuchi can still get on the bandwagon by distributing some of that leading-edge Matrix technology.” Sure, as long as the technology is owned by Renraku, who will get a big cut of the profits while Fuchi does all of the work. Renraku gets fatter and Fuchi falls behind in developing and marketing their own products because they don’t want to compete with their own licenses. Nice try, Paco. Osborne glanced at the text displayed on the screen of the datapad for a moment before flipping the pad back to Napoli with a flick of her wrist and a bit more force than was necessary. The startled Napoli almost missed catching the pad as it sailed back toward him. “Forget it, Paco, no deal.” Napoli recovered from his surprise quickly and clutched the datapad as he glared across at Osborne. “Don’t be stupid,” he said in a low tone. “If you continue to press this case, I will personally bury you. You have no evidence, you have no witness, you have nothing. Nada. Zero. If you try this and fail, I’ll see to it you go up on charges of wasting the court’s precious time with this nonsense. And when the time comes, Renraku will make certain that… certain interests at Fuchi are encouraged over others, if you understand my meaning. We’ll see just how long your boss, Richard Villiers, lasts when the most powerful corporation in the world decides to come down on top of him like a ton of bricks.”

Osborne didn’t allow Napoli’s little tirade to shake her. If anything, it only confirmed what she suspected. “Don’t be so sure of yourself,” she said, her voice matching Napoli’s icy tone. “You’re not number one yet. You’ve got Lofwyr to deal with, and the dragon isn’t going to let some two-bit zaibatsu walk all over his plans. But before that even happens, Paco, you have to deal with me. You’re offering me a deal, an easy way out that saves face for everyone. Why?” Napoli started to reply, but Osborne cut him off before he could do more than draw breath. “Out of the goodness of your heart? I don’t think so. Why offer us a deal at all? You could have simply waited for this case to fall apart if you’re so sure we’ve got nothing. It would have embarrassed Fuchi and you could have walked away from it all looking squeaky clean. A settlement, even one favoring Renraku, makes it look like you’re guilty. So why bother? “I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re scared. It’s because you have something to protect that’s so big you don’t want to raise even the possibility we could win this case. You’re more willing to risk looking a little guilty than take the chance we might win, or at least create enough suspicion in the process for the court to find out something you’d rather they didn’t. Well, you don’t have to worry about dealing with the dragon just yet, Paco. First you’re going to have to deal with me, and when I’m finished, I’m going to make you wish Lofwyr had decided to bite your fragging head off. Now get out of here.” “You said what to him?” David Hague’s face was even whiter than usual and Osborne wished she had something to capture the look for posterity. “You should have seen it,” she said with a laugh. “He looked like he was going to explode. But I called one thing for certain, David. Napoli is scared, meaning Renraku is scared. They don’t want this investigation to continue, and they’re willing to start making deals to make sure it doesn’t.” “Maybe we should think about that,” Hague replied. “If they’re so scared, then maybe we can renegotiate, cut a better deal than what Napoli was offering.”

“Why do that when we still have a chance at getting it all?” she shot back. “Renraku is standing on a house of cards, David. I can feel it. If we knock out the right ones, the whole thing is going to come tumbling down around them. We could take them down and be right there to pick up the pieces when it’s all over. That’s worth a little risk.” “Risk? Are you out of your mind? We don’t even have a case. Where is this evidence you keep talking about? What are we going to have to prove to the court that Renraku is a threat to the rest of them? They aren’t going to act based on anything I’ve seen so far. If anything, they’ll probably side with Renraku against us so they don’t end up on the losing side.” “Don’t worry,” she said in a firm voice. This line of thought had to be nipped in the bud before Hague panicked. “We’ve got a line onto something that will do what we need. I just need to ask the court for a continuance to make sure everything falls into place when we want it to. All you need to do is back me on it.” Hague looked out the window of his office at the blue-green globe of the Earth far below them. He sighed, and Osborne could almost read his thoughts. The Japanese weren’t going to be happy if he was even partially responsible of damaging Fuchi’s reputation in the court, but they would be even less pleased if they found out he’d had an opportunity to hurt Renraku and not taken it. “I don’t have much choice, do I?” Osborne smiled. “There’s always a choice. And you just made the right one. Trust me.” “Justice Osborne, this Court does not appreciate having its valuable time and resources wasted.” Jean-Claude Priault’s tone was icy cold and carried a distinct chill through the courtroom. Osborne did not wither under its touch or his hard gaze, but held her head high in a pose of quiet dignity. “I understand that, Chief Justice,” she replied, having chosen her words carefully before the court reconvened. “It is not my desire to waste any of this august court’s vital resources. That is why I must request this continuance of our case. In order to present our evidence in the most efficient and timely manner possible, we require the court’s indulgence. I can personally assure you that a further continuance will prevent the loss of considerable time and effort relating to this case and will be valuable to the court in the long term.” The recess hadn’t allowed Osborne to feel out the other justices on a continuance. She’d barely had enough time to brief Hague and be certain of his support. She knew that the other justices were eager to finish their business on board the Zurich-Orbital so they could return Earthside and resume their own affairs, either because they disliked the zero-g environment or because other matters were pressing for their attention. She was gambling that mere discomfort wouldn’t win out over a desire to see this case through to the end. It was a serious risk. If the other justices decided that her request was a sign that Fuchi’s case was weak, they might side with Renraku as Hague feared and dismiss the whole thing. They might even call for sanctions against Fuchi for wasting the court’s time. But Osborne had made a career out of being able to accurately read people and situations, and her instincts told her she should press this case now for all it was worth. She’d have continued even if Villiers hadn’t ordered her to do so. She was also counting on a little help from another quarter, even if he didn’t know it. “Mr. Chief Justice,” Francesco Napoli interjected. “I think it is clear Justice Osborne is merely stalling for time with this request for a continuance. On behalf of Renraku Computer Systems, I would respectfully suggest that the Corporate Court has wasted enough of its time on this hearing, not to mention the resources required for all of us to meet here in person. Fuchi has invoked the right to hold this closed-door hearing on board Zurich-Orbital, as is their right according to our charter, but I suggest they not be allowed to waste our time with further delays. If Fuchi has a case to present, let them do so. Otherwise, we should be allowed to return to the business we were called away from.”

Thanks, Paco, Osborne thought. That was just what I needed. Osborne refrained from pointing out what was surely obvious to the rest of the justices present in the courtroom. She knew Napoli, pit bull that he was, wouldn’t be able to resist twisting the knife a little in open court, especially not after how she’d thrown him out of her quarters earlier. In truth, all Napoli needed to do was keep his mouth shut and let Osborne dig her own grave. Her request had already annoyed the justices, who had been dragged up to the orbital for this special hearing by Fuchi. They probably would have voted against Osborne’s request out of sheer malice and a desire to have the whole thing over and done with. But Napoli’s little speech alerted them that something else was going on. He was too quick to try to shoot down Fuchi’s case. Not that the members of the Corporate Court didn’t admire ruthlessness. There was nothing wrong with kicking an opponent while he or she was down. None of them would be holding their high offices if they didn’t know the hard truths of the twenty-first-century corporate world. No, Napoli’s mistake was in showing his hand before the moment came to play his cards. His little speech told the Court exactly what his earlier offer to Osborne had revealed her: he and Renraku were worried about the outcome of this case, worried enough that they might make mistakes, that this was a real chink in their armor and Fuchi had a shot at doing some damage. Osborne could almost see the wheels turning as her fellow justices came to the same conclusions she had. She looked across the courtroom at Napoli and saw from the look on his face that he knew it. His face darkened and he seemed about to say something, but probably realized he could only hurt his case further by doing so. He tightened his jaw and kept silent. “Are there any other comments from the floor?” Chief Justice Priault asked, looking around the room. After a moment of silence, he said, “Then we place this matter to a vote. Shall we permit Fuchi Industrial Electronics a continuance in this matter to allow them to present their evidence in a timely and efficient manner?” Osborne was a bit surprised at the last bit. Priault’s phasing suggested that he was in favor, a sign of approval out of character for the normally neutral Saeder-Krupp man. Maybe Priault’s boss has an interest in this case as well, she thought. All of the justices entered their votes into the electronic touch-screens built into the bench, the decision being immediately tabulated and displayed on Priault’s screen. He glanced down at the display and raised his gavel. “Nine in favor, four opposed. The decision carries. Fuchi is granted a twelve-hour continuance and the members of the court will remain on board the orbital until this matter is resolved. We are adjourned until then.” He rapped the gavel sharply against the bench and the members of the court began to disperse, talking quietly among themselves. Osborne smiled and nodded over toward where Napoli glowered at her. Swords are drawn, she thought. Like samurai who fight at the bridge, only one of us is going to walk away from this now.


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