Thursday, November 4, 2010

Anatomy of a Credit Assasination - Part 2

his short story takes place after the events of Under the Amoral Bridge and a few days before the beginning of The Know Circuit. Part 1 is available here

His trip to the utility office was an escalating series of anxious moments. He arrived in the absolute dead of the early morning when the place was deserted. Since the Chronosoft Corporation had taken civil control of the Los Angeles county area as part of the bailout of the United States government in 2027, the electrical and water utilities were all contained under one subsidiary, Chronotility Energy and Water. One favorable consequence had been the removal of "banker's hours" from the utility business. One could show up at any time of the day or night and get in-person customer service as well as the usual phone and GlobalNet support.

The office itself was a nondescript brick building at least fifty years old, though remarkably well maintained. Inside, the building was incongruously modern, the foyer full of video screens repeating branding messages, greetings to the visitor and customer support instructions that would allow the visitor to transact their business without the need to meet a CSR. The room felt like a giant telephone menu given physical form. However, given the nature of his problem, Matt needed a face-to-face interaction, but gaining access to a real person was a real problem. The help desks were hidden behind locked doors, and the only way to enter was to input account information including thumbprint verification. While Matt wasn't quite sure he believed any of this credcrashing business, the police presence at his apartment made him reluctant to offer up his identity before he could actually talk to a person.

He spent a few minutes throwing nervous glances around the room, trying to spot the security. Cameras surrounded the lobby. "Hello, is anyone there?" he yelled, timidly at first, then with real authority. He waited anxiously for a response, and had almost given up when a voice crackled to life from behind him. "Can I help you?" Matt jumped a little and turned towards the sound of the voice. A rather unappealing woman had appeared on one of the video screens behind him, opposite the thumbprint scanner. She bore a set of cybernetic goggles over her eyes, and he could see the faintest glimmer of a bleached moustache on her upper lip. Her natural chestnut hair was pulled back severely into a flame-like point from the back of her head, a style that had been popular ten years ago when this lady likely had been a teenager. Her skin was the pallid color of pancake makeup, revealing her as a late-night GlobalNet operator.

"Yes, I need to check on the status of my buddy's account," Matt stammered, using the cover story he'd worked on during the train ride with shaky confidence. "His power got shut off and he wants to know why."

The pale worker was uninterested. "Your friend can submit a request through any street term, sir."

"Yeah, that's just the thing, he can't. The terms shut him out, won't even let him make a phone call. He got freaked out and came over to my place, asked me if I'd come down here for him. I told him he could just come down here and get it taken care of himself, but he's really paranoid."

Her eyebrows were raised severely, and Matt imagined her eyes had shrunk to tiny pinpoints behind the visor. Her blistering squint made him feel even more uncomfortable. That bug-eyed cybernetic stare was unsettling at the best of times. "And what is your friend's name and address?" she asked with a tinge of sarcasm dripping from her voice. Matt gave the information and fidgeted. Looking up at the video screen made him feel so small, as if he was a child begging to go to the bathroom under the harsh glare of a severe teacher. "And what is your name, sir?"

Matt tossed out a name without thinking. "Cyndal Reeves," he said, using his rival guild leader's name with a perverse thrill. "Is my name necessary?"

"We have to document any request for confidential information from someone other than the account holder, sir," she said. It sounded convincing but at the same time suspicious. The sweat began to build under Matt's arms and down his spine. He was already starting to feel the urge to bolt for the door and just run as fast and as far as he could.

"I'm sorry, sir, we have no record of a Matt Farnsworth having an account with us."

"Are you sure? He's had power for months now, I've seen it. Is it possible to check the paper billing records to verify it?"

Her surprise at the mention of the paper billing records was obvious. "Sir, we don't just grab paper billing records for anyone that asks. The account holder must submit a request in writing and email and pay a processing fee of…"

"But what if this is an emergency? Like life or death emergency?"

"Sir, unless your friend is on life support in his home, it's hardly life-or-death. Besides, we'd still need the account holder's thumbprint for verification. Perhaps if you'd like to give us your thumbprint, we can verify that you are authorized to gain access to this account."

Matt looked sideways at the thumbprint scanner and began to back away. The paranoia had infused every cell of his body by this point, and nothing short of physical violence could make him stick his thumb on that scanner. "No, that's all right," he said as he began to back away towards the door. "I'll just tell ole Matt that he can deal with it himself…"He was a step from the door when he heard two distinct sounds. The first was the door labeled "Security" to the side of the inner entry opening, the latch unlocking and the doorknob turning slowly. The second was the distant wail of sirens, most likely police sirens but far enough away that Matt couldn't be sure. Either one would have been enough for him to lose his bottle completely, but the combination of the two sent him dashing through the door to the street. He cut through multiple alleys and side streets, avoiding the desire to peer back over his shoulder at any pursuit. He had gone at least six blocks before he stopped, bending over with pain and gasping for air.

Gathering himself as best he could, Matt retrieved the antiquated cell phone from his pocket and placed a call to Stonewall. "This is Matt. You were right," he said as soon as the phone was answered. "What kind of work are we talking about?"

Stonewall was surprisingly accommodating to a stranger who had doubted his word. But the ex-footballer just calmly directed Matt to meet an associate without a hint of gloating. "You're going to want to find my boy Bridge," Stonewall explained. "He ain't got no kind of routine, but you can usually find him in one club or another this time of night. I'll find out where he is and hit you back. Sit tight." Matt had nowhere else to go, so he spent the time sitting on a dirty bus bench. He could have gone back to the subway, but without a destination, he was unsure Stonewall's word was absolute all along the line. His body was somnolent with fatigue, his limbs heavy as lead, and his thoughts sluggish. The street had seen much unrest during the riots, and the Chronosoft rebuilding projects had not yet reached this neighborhood. A few buildings were nothing more than burned-out husks and the rescue technicians' graffiti still decorated the exteriors with the criss-cross body count tally. The recently elected Mayor Soto had promised to clean up all of these ruins, but Century City was apparently low on the list. Matt's head began to slip downward as his muddled thoughts pictured this street on fire, angry mobs running up and down with Molotov cocktails and rocks, the horrorshow light of a burning city casting macabre shadows over the twisted faces of humans reduced to the levels of animals.

He floated away, his limbs languidly shackled by chains of numbers, numbers wrapped around his body. The numbers led him one way, then another, and he was happy, warm and content in a womblike eddy of liquidity. Then one by one the chains began to snap, setting him adrift in the amniotic darkness, each strand sending a shockwave of uncertain fear tingling from his extremeties inward.

The phone ringing in his hand shocked him back to consciousness. He shook his head. 'Falling asleep on a fucking park bench in this place is a good way to get shot,' he thought to himself as he answered the phone. Stonewall had succeeded in locating this Bridge person. He instructed Matt to go to a club called Tanz, a high-profile dance club in a much better part of town. Bridge would arrange for the bouncer to get Matt in through the back, since he certainly wasn't dressed for the posh front entrance. Matt went to the nearest subway station, but rather than the easy entrance he'd gained when he met Stonewall, the set of guards appeared insulted by his presence. Dropping Stonewall's name got him a ride, but there was clearly some tension between this station's inhabitants and Matt's benefactor.

Tanz was a beautiful sparkling diamond in a row of brilliant clubs. This section of town was a stark contrast to Century. Not only had all traces of the riots been erased whoever had done so had upgraded the neighborhood with high-dollar investment. The street was like a Rodeo Drive for nightlife, and the glitterati were out. Matt tried to escape the notice of all the paparazzi, blogjournos and entertainment reporters that seemed to flock around the club entrances waiting for celebrities to exit. Just walking up the street he saw four television stars, and a couple of net porno actresses as well as the normal small "c" celebrity musicians and recognizable athletes. Though it was hours past midnight, the entire street was alive with activity, pulsing with lights and sounds and conversations.

He approached the Tanz with caution. The bouncer stared down contemptuously at Matt, but after a confused spew of explanation, the man reluctantly motioned Matt around to the back. Matt was soon ushered past empty dressing rooms, bathrooms overflowing with waiting patrons and a storeroom before exiting out onto the throbbing dance floor.

Even at his most social, Matt had never been a club-goer. He spent a few bleary-eyed nights during college sampling the local LA scene, but the fact that he couldn't hold his alcohol meant he rarely drank in public. And for all his bravado as King Matthias, Matt the accounting software programmer had the social skills of a nihilist with bipolar disorder. Tanz was unlike any bar he'd seen. The air was smothered with smoke, even though Los Angeles had banned smoking in public places during the previous decade. Matt had to stop halfway to his destination, racked by a coughing jag. The winking, strobing lights were hypnotic, pulsing with the reverberating rhythm of the club's music. Despite it being past two in the morning, the dance floor was packed with writhing masses of desperate flesh. Tables and booths surrounding the dance pit were filled as well. Random thoughts about fire codes and overcrowding flitted through Matt's thoughts. As the sensory overload of the club was reaching a crescendo, Matt's guide dropped him off at his destination not a moment too soon.

"Bridge?" Matt said hesitantly.

"Who wants to know?" Matt was taken aback by the man's standoffish behavior. He sat at one of the booths away from the dance floor, his brown eyes scanning the whole club subtly. He was of average height and a little stocky, his brown hair close-cropped, thin heavily gelled bangs flipping across his eyes occasionally. His suit was impeccable with a dark jacket, thin black tie, perfectly pressed pants and shoes that sparkled like Christmas lights in the disco strobes. High cheekbones oversaw the thin mouth that betrayed a slight irritation at Matt's presence.

"Stonewall sent me. My name's Matt."

The man's face lit up, instantly switching from cautious irritation to gushing friendliness with no transition. "My name is my profession. Artemis Bridge is the name, but you can call me Bridge." Matt stuck out a hand but Bridge raised his hands away from the proffered shake. "Sorry, don't do physical contact. Never know what somebody is trying to give you these days." Matt pulled his hand back and looked at it strangely, his tired mind trying in vain to comprehend what Bridge was saying. Noticing Matt's confusion, Bridge said, "Nanoviruses, regular old viruses, wiretaps, contact explosives, all kinds of nasty shit out there."

"Oh, ok, I get it," Matt lied. He really didn't get it but it wasn't worth trying to figure out. Bridge motioned to the chair opposite his and Matt sat down. "Stonewall said you could help me out."

"Stonewall told me a bit about what's going on. What did he tell you about me?"

"Nothing. Just that you were the guy to see."

"Good on him. You must be one of his pet reclamation projects. So what was your story? Cred-crashing, right?" Matt nodded. "You know what that means? He explained it to you?"

"He tried but it didn't make any sense. How can someone kill my credit?"

"Easy. Well, ok, it isn't easy, but you get my drift. All your financial dealings, every single penny you get or spend, even the cash it all goes through the computers."

"I understand transactional theory. I write accounting software."

"And your software, it's meant to be accurate?" Again, Matt nodded. "These guys, these cred-crashers they fuck with that. They take all your accurate calculations and they spin a new formula. They make 2+2 equal a negative number. The really good ones will make it seem like you've been stealing all the services you paid for. Everything in your life from the termination point forward is reversed, like Bizarro credit."

"But why would someone do that to me? I just write accounting software!"

"And the bum on the street begging for change used to build medical nano software until some suit from a rival company decided that bum's product was too hard to compete against." Bridge took a huge swig of a brownish-liquid before continuing. "Now not every cred hit is corporate headhunting or espionage, sometimes it's just personal revenge. But most of the time, it's the privileged few shifting their serfs from one plot of land to the other."

"You make it sound like the Middle Ages," Matt said ruefully.

"Look around, my man. We're living in the age of the modern city-state. The corporations own this city. They put on a fancy dress theater of an election to give you the illusion that you have a choice, but really, you are their servant. They control your health care, your cash flow, the chemicals you put in your body, the thoughts you put in your head."

"You sound like your commie buddy Stonewall," Matt said.

"Nah, I don't give a fuck about the government. Communism, capitalism, those are just labels for the same basic human principle. Who do I gotta fuck to get mine?"

Matt laughed. "Your girlfriend must love your sunny disposition."

Bridge returned a shit-eating grin a mile wide. "She tells me I'm the most negative person she's ever seen, actually. Then she tells me to shut up and go to sleep."

"So what do I do? How do I get my life back? How do I find out who did this to me?"

"You sure you want it back?" Bridge asked. Matt nodded vigorously. "I onlyask 'cos some guys find freedom from the rat race liberating. Not you, huh? Fair enough. First thing we do is get you a place to crash and some hardware to work on. I know a guy that could use some software written. Something right up your alley."

"What job?"

"Little accounting thing, nothing to worry about; just a little something something in exchange for my services. Think of it as working for room and board. While you're doing that, I get another guy I know to check out the hit on you, dissect it, see if he can figure out who ordered it."

"And if he finds out? Then what?"

"That's up to you. Chances are the closer he gets to the source, the more likely it is you'll get some kind of job offer. If it was a corp that ordered the hit, it's probably going to be the one that offers you that job. That's how they get you. When you're so low that anything looks good, they give you a job. They own you, for all intents and purposes."

"And if it's not a corp?"

Bridge stared directly into Matt's eyes, a killing smirk on his face. His eyes filled Matt with a tingle of fear, the depth of venegful intent washing over the destitute programmer. "Then you get to go Old Testament on somebody."

"What, kill them? Just like that?"

"Hey, it's up to you what you do with that information. You want to whack them? I know a guy. You want to cred-crash them back? Hey, I know a guy for that too. You want to throw them a parade? I know a guy. Long story. Now, do you want my help or not? You're not making me any money sitting here jawing."
Matt made up his mind, a cold rock of anger building in his stomach. "I'm in. I got nowhere else to go."

Bridge set Matt up in one of the dirtiest shitholes he could imagine, a fleabag hotel in spitting distance of the urban nightmare Century City was in the process of becoming. Trip addicts and old school meth heads stumbled around the exterior of the motor hotel next to the low class whores, all observed by the pimps and dealers through remote cameras placed on the whores' clothes. Matt had to hold his gorge to keep from vomting at the smells of urine and desperation outside his room. Inside the room was a battered creché, its shiny surface scuffed with age and misuse. Matt was sad to admit to himself that the image of that dusty outdated creché was the best thing he'd seen in days.

Bridge and his mysterious girlfriend had set Matt up with some forged GlobalNetID's that were clean. Using a fake ID like this was a crime that could lose him GlobalNet rights, but Matt had no choice. He could only use them and hope the forging was solid enough to go unnoticed. Bridge's girlfriend helped Matt setup once he'd jacked into the web. During the week he worked in the hotel, he never saw her in person or got her real name. She only appeared in the GlobalNet as a white-skinned undead liche of terrifying beauty, calling herself the Baroness Eletheia. It took Matt a few meetings before he realized where he'd heard that name before. Eletheia was one of the mods controlling Ars-Perthnia, one of the main demigods who ruled the lands. Her haunted estate, infested with hordes of shuffling zombies, skeletons and various other undead, was an important landmark in his character's level progression. One could hardly ascend to the ranks Matt had without making it through the Cursed Estate of Eletheia.

The work was challenging, both morally and intellectually. Matt had to create a spreadsheet structure that appeared to be a typical set of accounting books, tracking accounts receivable, payable and all the usual expenses and calculations all businesses needed. But it also had a hidden payload, a second set of numbers that were made to look legitimate. The second set of numbers would be the kind to make the business appear completely above board, while the real numbers in the spreadsheet were hidden. Just loading the files would show the fake numbers and the program would monitor access to the information, sniffing for specific queries that would indicate a forensic accountant was examining the file. Without the access codes and encryption keys, the file would only display the fake numbers, and any attempts to decrypt the program or search for evidentiary data sets would lock the file's real numbers further. It was an ingenius piece of work, a source of guilty pride for Matt.

Unfortunately, each code module that tested out was another spike in Matt's morals. The true worth of accounting software was measured in its rigid accuracy, and he had always taken the utmost pride in honing to that standard. The cloaking device Matt had created was a total repudiation of his entire life's work. But as he thought about what had been done to him, how his life had been upended in such an arbitrary fashion, his anger grew. He fumed, cursing his invisible tormentor with venomous regularity. His life had been devoted to helping businesses track every micro penny with precision. Yet those same businesses could use some hopped-up hacker to destroy his life.

Many times Matt would pause in his work and ponder his future. He'd emerge from the crèche and look around his squalid surroundings and wonder, could he live like this? It had a certain allure, the outlaw's freedom a tempting counterpoint to the rigid routine of his everyday life. The 9 to 5 often became twelve-hour crunch time marathons of blurry-eyed walls of code. The all-too brief but tempting respites of escapism in the lands of Ars-Perthnia. Maybe he had been too cloistered, his life too sheltered from the normal press of actual people and real physical contact. He wasn't a complete shut-in, but the nervous moments in the club with Bridge had highlighted how often he retreated from flesh meetings in lieu of the virtual worlds where he could forget his physical shortcomings and social awkwardness. In real life, he was a follower, a corporate drone reliant on his regular job and his regular schedule. In the GlobalNet, he was the leader, the lightning rod others followed. The outlaw's life that had been forced on him was one he'd never chosen, but its exhilarating uncertainty offered an attractive future.

And then there was the matter of the person responsible. If Bridge wasn't full of it, if the slick-talking fixer could find out who had done this to him, what then? If it was some faceless corporation, would he be able to go to work for that company knowing how they had trapped him? And if it were an enemy, someone he knew, what would he do then? Would he instruct Bridge to hire an assassin to take revenge? Could he do it himself? He pictured his hands wrapped around the throat of a faceless enemy, squeezing the life out of another living being with methodically dispassionate efficiency. Every time he pictured the scene, he grew so nauseous that he had to bury himself back in his work. He slept sparingly, his dreams tortured by the same scene repeating over and over again.

Before he knew it, the program was done. He informed the Baroness, who set up a meet with Bridge in the Tanz that evening. Even on a weeknight, the place was as packed as usual, the same sort of vapid celebrities drawing the crowds like moths to the flame. Bridge was in an especially chipper mood, loading the flash chip into a portable reader that wirelessly interfaced with the fixer's personal data HUD. "Fantastic work, my man," he grinned. "I knew you had the knack."

"I do good work," Matt said with uncharacteristic confidence.

"Yes, you do, but it's nice to hear you acknowledge it. You were so mousy when we first met, I wasn't sure you could cut it without the corporate paycheck. Angela said you could, but I didn't believe her."


"Elethia. Shit, I wasn't supposed to tell you her name." He waved it off. "Ah, doesn't matter, it isn't like you even know what she looks like. And I hope we can continue our working relationship in the future."

"Yeah, about that," Matt began hesitantly. "I got to thinking about this code you wanted. It's not for some client, is it? It's for you."

Bridge seemed to mull something over for a moment, then chuckled. "You are sharper than I thought. Yes, I'm the client."

"Why not just tell me?"

"Because then you might not do it. It's one thing to write some illegal shit for some faceless asshole you'll never meet, but when you've got a good idea of what kind of lawbreaking you might be doing…" He trailed off without finishing the thought. "Besides, if I need someone to write this kind of thing, it always helps…"

"To know a guy," Matt finished.

"Yeah, now I know a guy." Bridge appeared to be on the edge of continuing, but was patient enough to be asked.

"So what now?"

"I'm glad that you asked. You've paid your way and then some this week, so I got two things for you. First thing is the job offer."

Matt remembered Stonewall's warning about the offers that he would receive. "The offer? This quick?"

"I know a guy. I floated your name and vitals to him and he wants to offer you a job with Chronosoft." Bridge let that sink in. "I don't know what you think of them. I think there a bunch of cockweasels personally, but whatever. Name me one corp that isn't. Anyway, they want to talk."

"You said the first offer is usually from the guys who did this to me," Matt replied angrily. "How bad are the terms?"

"Oh, 3-year, NDA tighter than a nun's habit, slave wages, the usual leash job. It's steady, it comes with shitty corp housing so you don't gotta worry about a place to live. It's about as good an offer as you're going to get."

"Are these the guys that did this to me?"

Bridge shook his head begrudgingly. "Much as I'd love to attribute this to them, because they do some seriously egregious shit, no, it wasn't this merry magnum of assholes."

"Then should I take it?"

Bridge shrugged. "Hey, I'm not your mentor. It's your decision. You don't have to. I just want to make that clear. I know me and Angie could give you more than enough work to be competitive with this offer. It wouldn't be steady, you understand, but we got the work."

"Illegal work," Matt confirmed. Bridge nodded and held up his hands.

"It's what we do. Some dudes can hack it, some can't. You're the only guy can judge that."

"You said Chronosoft didn't do this to me. Do you know who?"

Bridge nodded. "That's why we're meeting here instead of the hotel. I found out who bought the hit."

"You found the hacker?"

"Yes, but that's not for you to know. It doesn't matter who pulled the trigger. He's the tool. You don't blame the gun for the bullet, you blame the asshole what aimed it. And she," Bridge pointed over Matt's shoulder. "She's the bitch that aimed the gun."

Matt turned around quickly, following the finger. Three tables over sat a moderately attractive brunette. She was a little on the heavy side, with slightly droopy eyes. Matt had never seen her before in his life. "Who the hell is that? I don't know her. I've never met her."

"That's what you think," Bridge answered. "Does the name Cyndal sound familiar?"

"That's Cyndal?" Matt yelled. Bridge shushed him quickly.

"Shhh, no. That's not him. But that is one of his guild chippies, Ashen. According to Angie, she's been trying to snuggle up next to Cyndal for weeks now, but he's kind of given her the cold shoulder. Apparently, he likes Marithia, which is really funny because not only is Marithia a man in real life, but Cyndal knows it. He likes them that way or something. Of course, this Ashen doesn't know that, but Angie's got all the gossip. I never liked it myself. I'm more of a PVP guy."

"So she fucked up my entire life over a game?" Matt whispered incredulously. His anger was a raging fire swelling within his belly. Bridge just nodded matter-of-factly. "She did all that to shack up with that asshole? He's a complete prick! Is she fucking mental?"

"Very likely. The question is what do you want to do about it?"

"What do you mean?" Matt wasn't sure where Bridge was going, but the anger was replaced with a cold knot of nervous fear.

"Well, she obviously didn't give a shit about flushing your life down the toilet," he began. "You want some payback? You want her whacked? I know a guy. You want a little eye for an eye? I know a guy can hit her credit by tomorrow. And then there's this," he finished, holding up a tiny, paper-thin tab. "The latest in contact nanoviruses. You can program it to make her really really sick for a week. You can make her hallucinate like bugs are crawling out of her skin. Or you can end her. All you have to do is wirelessly select your effect, palm it and touch her bare skin. Whatever you want will happen within 24 hours. It's all up to you."

Bridge continued with absent-minded aloofness. "Now, if it were me, I'm the type that'll fuck you and smile all the way out the door. I don't appreciate that kind of abuse. I'd drop this on her and make for the door, and I'd sleep the sleep of the just. And I say that as someone who avoids violence like the plague. But that's me."

Squaring up on Matt, his brown eyes piercing through Matt's soul, he asked, "But what do you want to do?"

Matt reached out and grabbed the tab. He stood up quickly, palming the paper-thin death sentence and connecting his HUD to the nanobot's programming interface while walking in a daze. The anger bubbled beneath the surface; his skin broke out in the coldest sweat he'd ever experienced. His anger was a righteous one, the innocent man facing the lies of his jailer. It seethed through his every pore, threatening to drown his thoughts in revenge fantasies, his hands wrapped around this trifling bitch's throat as he squeezed out her life. His mind screamed with conflicting emotions, alternately shrieking for revenge before begging him to stop and think of what he was doing. It was wrong. It was murder, no matter how detached he would be from the final outcome. He'd heard of such nanoviruses, completely untraceable. He could kill her and get away with it, an invisible retribution. The war within his mind raged on, right up to the moment he reached her table.

"Ashen?" he said timidly, still unsure of what he was likely to do.

"What?" she yelled, unable to hear him over the throbbing beat. He repeated her name. "Do I know you?"

"Sort of," he replied, his throat aching with the effort of making himself heard above the din. "You knew me as Matthias."

Confusion dribbled onto her face slowly followed by the shock of realization. She was nicked, and she knew it. "How did you know it was me?" she asked.

"Why? That's all I want to know is, why? Why would you do that to me?"

"Why not? I got rid of you when we needed it. Your guild fell apart. We got what we wanted. We even took in some of the stragglers."

"Did Cyndal know?"

"I tried to tell him, but he wouldn't even listen to me. Too busy snuggling up to that bitch Marithia. But at least you're out of the way." Her condescension was palpable, her words infused with an unmistakable contempt. She turned her attention back to the dance floor, her husky shoulders swaying with the beat. He had no more importance to her than an irritating fly.

Matt felt the tab in his hand, but with each passing second, the anger in his bones was replaced with something approaching pity. He wanted so badly to kill her then, to just shake her out of her seat while applying the patch to her shoulder or arm, but something stopped him. He could never pinpoint whether it was a twinge of guilt, or some connection to an absolute morality he'd never acknowledged, or just the empathic compassion for the mentally inferior that stayed his hand. But he put the tab in his pocket and walked away. As he did so, he heard her exclaim to her friends, "What a loser." She would never know how close she came that night.

He strode slowly back to Bridge's table and sat down. Putting the tab on the table and pushing it back to Bridge, he said, "Couldn't do it. I just couldn't kill her, no matter what she's done. I guess that makes me a pathetic shmoe."

Bridge made the tab disappear in his jacket and shrugged. "The world needs good guys, too. Now what?"

"I'm no outlaw. I'm the kind of guy that needs that structure, a steady paycheck and benefits and a boss telling me what to do. I need to fill out seven different reports for fifteen different bosses, none of whom understand what I do one damn bit."

"Somebody's got to," Bridge smiled. "And if you get tired of it and want to try to bring the whole corportocracy down, I know a guy."

"Right now, I'd settle for a beer," Matt replied. "The revolution can wait."

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