Just a Company Man
P. R. Morrison

The name's Kinkade... Sam Kinkade, Database Investigator. It began on a summer day in '26... April, I think. I remember it reasonably well because it was the first time in six years that the solar diffusion index had fallen below 5.1 and allowed the sun to be seen by the populace of L.A. Caused a lot of confusion, as I recall, and a few cases of retinal scarring amongst younger kids.

I'd stumbled into my office the night before with a dozen Ukrainian slammers under my belt and tried to catch a few hours sleep on the couch. It took all my willpower to prevent those little dissidents from staging a counter-revolution when the visiphone rang in the morning, raising me from semiconsciousness.

I crawled to the visiphone, noting before I hit the accept button that the call was being scrambled by the Federal Bureau of Database Investigation. Sure enough, the craggy face of Rick McLusky, the regional head of the FBDI sprang into view and pierced my eardrums with its opening remark.

"Kinkade," he said, "we've got another job for you. A big one this time."

"Great," I moaned in reply.

"What's wrong?" McLusky asked, clearly taken aback by my lack of enthusiasm. "You sick or something?"

"Sort of. What is it anyway? I've got no time for damned FBDI cases. You guys think it's big when some kid pisses on the vidiscanner in the john at the hover-rail center!"

"No, Kinkade... this time it's different. This time we got a renegade."

"So? Who hasn't? If I had 10 credits for every guy who had his universal identifier cut out of his wrist I'd be sitting in the Seychelles, lounging about on my gravity yacht. Look, can't you see I'm having trouble mapping onto reality at the moment?" I said, starting to look longingly at the vacuum sink in the corner of my office.

"Cut the crap, Kinkade," McLusky said suddenly. "This is no ordinary case. The guy was a dyed-in-the-wool Company man. Bluer than a laser blast and twice as straight... until now that is. The system hasn't recorded a transaction from him in over a week and the Board want him found. They don't like unerased Company men going renegade. It doesn't look good."

Although the rest of my body wanted to secede from my stomach, I was beginning to get interested in this case. My only reservation was that experience had taught me to avoid Company business if at all possible.

"Look, McLusky," I said to the Bureau man, hoping to ease myself out of this one, "You know me. I have the wrong psychprofile for Company business and they know it. In fact, that's the reason I left it in the first place. I can't tolerate their linearity. Come to think of it... why can't they handle it themselves? Internal investigations are always much neater. Hell, why doesn't the Bureau handle it? Giving it to a private DI is a risky business."

McLusky appeared as if he wanted to reach through the phone and rip out my tonsils.

"Kinkade!" he roared. "You know damned well the Company threw you out and you were lucky they didn't erase you at the same time! The only reason they didn't was because they knew you were the best DI they ever had -- screwy, but good. You've still got your memories because they wanted to keep you as a resource -- to use whenever they needed some different kind of help."

Having got that out, McLusky began to settle down and his nose looked less like an old Soviet distress beacon.

"Listen," he said in a subdued tone, "this guy is good... very, very good. They can't trace him. You know how they think over there -- in straight lines. But they think that your screwball logic might be able to find him. And apart from that, it isn't a request. You know your position. Your privacy level could be lowered like that," he said, snapping his fingers sharply. "You can only be monitored by level sevens right now, but in five seconds you could be a level one again. You won't be able to scratch your ass without the whole system knowing it."

McLusky was right of course. He knew it and I knew it. If they busted me to that level, every toilet cubicle had to be opened with my universal identifier, every food purchase involved it, every Ukrainian slammer... all of it on the system and available to anyone who wanted to look at it. It made me shudder.

"And remember this..." McLusky continued, "Tracking has been on the increase lately."

That was the final straw. Tracking had become the pastime for the modern pervert, invading lives and destroying them by denying the most basic elements of privacy. If a tracker selected me as his target, following me on the system wherever I went... It would be a nightmare. Some of them even took delight in predicting your movements and leaving obscene messages on the systemlink they thought you would use next. I knew I couldn't take that. Never again!

I rubbed my eyes, feeling very beaten all of a sudden.

"OK... I'll do it. Gimme his identifier and I'll see what I can do. No guarantees, though. If this guy is as good as you say, he might have already beaten the system."

McLusky nodded, apparently satisfied. As he tapped out the guy's code I headed for some coffee and decided that tomorrow would be a good time to start. In the meantime I had to rediscover what it was like to be human.

The next morning I logged into my systemlink and entered the identifier. He was a level six called James Tyler and he was Snow White. A traffic camera had caught him six months ago running a red light, but other than that there was nothing. The map of his auto use showed that he hadn't visited any known illegal establishments, but it did indicate a frequently visited apartment north of the stratoport. Probably his girlfriend, I reasoned. But then, who knew these days? DNA work regularly transformed men into women or vice versa, or things in between.

I made a note of the address and traced the last transaction he'd made. Two double scotches at a bar called the Purple Lizard in the rundown part of the Southside. And had he been ripped off! 20 credits each!

I grabbed my respirator, strapped on my blaster and headed for the hover-rail station. The smell of hydrocarbons would do me good.

To say that the Purple Lizard was a dive was like saying the sewer treatment plant had an odor. It was the basement of a rundown apartment building and it made you wonder where you left your lice repellent. It was a strange place for a Company man to visit.

As I descended the stairs a gigantic guy of Italian descent came out of the shadows and blocked my path. From the way the guy talked it was clear that he hadn't been behind the door when the brains were handed out. It sounded as if he wasn't even in the room.

"Sorry, mister," he said "but ain't nobody allowed ta have blasters in the Lizard. So gimme it or else I gotta bust ya."

I briefly thought about blasting the guy, but I knew that dinosaurs had small brains and you had to be a great shot or very lucky.

I handed over my piece and brushed aside a piece of black curtain, revealing the Lizard in all its glory. A couple of guys -- probably unidentifieds -- were playing magnetopool and drinking martian red. The bartender was an old guy with a lot of facial scars and big hamfists. All of them stared at me as I took my place at the bar.

"You got guts, anyway," said the bartender as I grabbed a stool.

"How's that?" I asked as I tapped a Cosmic Camel out of its pack and placed it on my lips.

"Well, we don't like upper levels in here. And in a minute, when me and those two guys feel like it, we're gonna bust your head open just for the fun of it," he said, looking very happy as he finished.

"Is that so?" I replied, taking a long drag on the Camel. "In that case, I just hope you guys are wearing blaster jackets."

"What blaster? Joey got it outside. I watched him!"

"Sure, he got that one. But you see, my left hand hasn't been the same since the assault on Petrograd. A fragmentation grenade blew it off and I thought it might be handy -- excuse the pun -- to have a miniblaster installed in the cyber replacement. Got the picture?"

The bartender clasped and unclasped his fists in suppressed rage.

"You better not stay too long, mister," he said. "You can't guard your back forever."

"Tsk, tsk," I said, knowing that I shouldn't push my advantage if I was to get what I wanted. "Look, all I'm after is a little information. See this guy?" I showed him a visifacsimile of Tyler. "He was here a week ago. The system says at 6:30 on the tenth. I just want to know what happened to him."

"Never seen him before," the bartender said. "We don't give information to the Company anyhow."

"I'm not from the Company. I'm a private DI and the system says he was here. I just want to know why."

I pulled out a gold Krugerrand and tossed it onto the bar.

"Trading in gold is outside the system and illegal," the barman said, perhaps surprised that an upper level would be carrying it.

"Well, I won't tell if you won't" I said.

"OK. He was here," the barman blurted out as he seized the coin.

"What happened to him?" I said, placing my hand on the man's closed fist.

"We beat him up, same as we were gonna do to you. We threw him out and that was the last we saw of him. That's it."

He had no reason to lie, so I decided to cut my losses and do some thinking outside the confines of the Purple Lizard.

"OK... thanks," I said as I stood away from the bar and pointed my hand at the barman's belly. I found the back door and as I weaved through the garbage cans, I spared a thought for Joey and his coming chastisement. The cyberarm was always a good con.

As I strolled up the street, donning my respirator, I thought about what I had. Tyler was beaten up in a bar he wouldn't be seen dead in. Why? He must have been meeting someone. Someone, who could've protected him, but didn't show up.

But who was the someone? It looked like a dead end, so I took a chair at a nearby diner and ordered a cup of coffee. Well, they said it was coffee. It was black anyway. As I slowly sipped, I wondered if I might be able to get a better angle with some database interrogation.

Now, as all truly great systems men know, databases are very fallible, capricious and unpredictable. Sometimes they go down for no reason or function perfectly when they shouldn't, or perform differently on tasks that are completely routine. The true art of systems use is to regard them as very delicate beasties. That was the secret of Sam Kinkade, plus a few tricks I'd kept from the Company. I felt capable of working a little magic, so I had the coffee credited and found the nearest systemlink.

It was an old model; no voice recognition, just a battered old keyboard. Still, it would do. I placed my wrist identifier over the reader, logged in and looked at the systats. There was a lot of activity and that would make tracing the system failure a lot harder. I punched in the node and vector code of a program that had cost me two thousand credits from an old, alcoholic systems designer whose only memory after erasure was the location of a very special, hidden program. That remarkable piece of code caused the system to crash and in the last few moments of sentience while the protection was failing, it copied the files of anyone up to level eight. That should be high enough to get what I wanted -- the files of Tyler's immediate boss; somebody that even Tyler had probably never met.

I placed in a wildcard identifier for Tyler's superior. Then, with trembling fingers (crashing systems still gives a thrill) I executed the program and watched as the network with its thousands of mainframes slowly died, wracked by the cancerous spread of confusion that the program unleashed. Finally, on the bitmapped image of the world map that showed the operational status of the various nodes, the last pixel faded out.

Of course it would be restarted within minutes, with much head scratching. But the fault would never be traced. The system was too complex. It could never know which of the millions of programs active at that moment, or what combination of them, actually caused the crash. Meanwhile, I knew that the information I needed would be safely in my disk area to peruse at my leisure. All I had to do was wait for the inevitable return of the system.

At that moment, I sensed something behind me and had half turned around when the butt of a blaster smashed into my temple, sending me crashing to the ground. As I lay there dazed, I was vaguely aware of someone stepping over me and manipulating the systemlink.

Suddenly, a blur of red hit him squarely in the back and he fell heavily, rolling for some distance before getting to his feet and running off. I was still pretty much out of it, but managed to stand and lean on the wall. Next to the systemlink I noticed an ice cool blonde in a red jumpsuit regarding me with some concern.

"Are you OK?" she said in a very husky voice.

"So you're my savior," I said feeling like the cat who got the cream. "What have I done to deserve this?"

"You're looking for a friend of mine I believe" she said. It all made some sense now.

"So you're 1139 Catalonia Boulevard," I said, noting to myself that James Tyler was a man of good taste.

"Yes. Pamela Aldiss is my name. Although you probably know that."

"No, I didn't, actually," I said. "Although if I'd known you could wear a jumpsuit like that, I would have made it my business to find out."

"You're very flattering Mr. Kinkade," she said with some wariness. "But I have often found that flatterers are no match for karate."

"Yes, I noticed," I said, raising my hands in mock surrender. "I'll keep it in mind."

She responded with a fleeting smile. "The most important thing right now is to find Jim. Have you made any progress yet? The FBDI said they'd engaged you yesterday."

I hated to disappoint her, but after rescuing me she deserved the truth.

"Unfortunately... no." I said flatly. "But somebody else is interested in this case. That guy could have killed me, but didn't. He was more interested in what I was doing with the systemlink."

She thought about that for a while, then helped me into her car -- a gas turbined pink Maretta. I tried not to notice the curvature of her legs as we tore down the high velocity lane of the expressway, exchanging what little information we had.

"Jim was in the Global Division," she began, the past tense bothering me at first. "He was involved in negotiations with foreign governments... you know, installations, software capabilities. It was tricky stuff. These days, no government can afford not to be part of the system. Their commerce and trade would suffer enormously. But at the same time, they've always been concerned about who has the information and what they do with it. Of course, anybody with any brains knows that the Company has it all and it's probably just a matter of time before governments cease to exist. Jim's job was to placate them while it all happened."

"Hmmm," I replied as I patched into her car's mobilelink.

"What are you doing?" she asked, unable to take her eyes off the road and focus on the dim display.

"Oh, just checking my creds," I replied, trying to suppress my shock as I read the system output. "Where are we going anyway?"

"To my place."

I grinned. She scowled.

"Jim may have left a message there," she explained. "He can beat the security monitors. The system told me where you'd left the hover rail, so, while I waited for him to contact me, I thought we could team up. OK?" she smiled, turning to me briefly.

It was an engaging smile, but one that didn't last. As I looked down some text slowly assembled on the systemlink.

"It's for both of us." I said. "Tyler wants us to meet him at the Stratopark. 82nd level in half an hour."

We left 50 meters of rubber as we did a 180 on the expressway, the injectors shrieking with power. Pam knew how to drive. My mind considered what else she was good at.

The Stratopark was windswept and although swirling with smog we left our respirators off to help our visibility. It didn't take us long to find Tyler. He was sitting on the bonnet of a Blue Maretta. Blue for boys, pink for girls.

"Darling!" Pam exclaimed as she ran with open arms toward him.

"Not so fast!" Tyler said as he pulled out a pocket blaster.

Pam stopped short, the smile sliding off her face and falling onto the concrete.

"So, you know," she said.

Tyler chuckled wryly to himself. "I had an idea. But I had to be sure. Kinkade got the information I needed."

"You mean about Pam?" I said, starting to piece it together.

"Yes. You see, I was working in Moscow, placating what's left of the government. You know, reassuring them about the system, but at the same time, buying certain individuals, eliminating others. The problem is, New Russia is a closed society. The central executive is aged and almost inseparable in its new-found hatred for the West. Buying them wasn't easy, hitting them impossible. The Company was unhappy. So, sensing failure, I allowed the executive to buy me. In exchange for a comfortable mansion near the Baltic, I'll tell them how to use the system and avoid being subjugated by it. Pam was to go with me. It was all arranged. We were to meet a Russian operative at the Purple Lizard and make good our escape. But both of them didn't show and the local yokels took out their frustration on me."

"That much I can see," I said, noticing his bruises.

"Yes, but you also found out that Pam is really my boss and the Company's best eliminator. She blew away my contact. I had suspicions, of course. Pam was the only one who knew of our rendezvous at the Lizard. And when the Russian agent who had tailed you managed to get a glimpse of the systemlink you'd used and saw it storing files on Pam in your area, I decided to have a look for myself. I am a level seven, you know. I read them just before I came here."

I screwed up my face at the thought of Tyler rummaging through my love letters and other desiderata.

"Those files revealed the truth. You see, the Company has a nice policy these days. It arranges for top executives to meet and become involved with their best eliminators. It makes it neater if the exec goes renegade. Lovers are much cleaner killers."

"True," Pamela said coldly. "And it would have been much cleaner, Darling, if not for your contact. I had to garrote him, but obviously I couldn't meet you covered in blood. You can thank Russian training for your life."

"And I'm afraid that your life, my lover, has just about run out," Tyler said with a smile.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Jim," she replied, unperturbed. "You see, the Russians aren't here. Your backups are gone. Ten minutes ago, we sold them an operations exec. A level nine man. We sold him for you and a few million credits."

"You're lying! You couldn't risk the information."

"Unfortunately, I'm not. He's been erased. Of course, the Russians don't know that. It was a very nice job. Bye-bye, Jim," she said, as she pressed one of her earrings. A second later, Tyler's abdomen disappeared as a microgrenade from a sniper's rifle punched through his body.

Pam walked over to the body, and felt for a pulse, always the professional.

Then she pressed her fingers against her lips and placed them on Tyler's cheek. She looked up and engaged me with those empty, crystal blue eyes.

"And how is your memory, Mr. Kinkade?" she asked. "They said that your involvement would bring him to us. All I had to do was stick with you. They said it always seemed to happen that way. 'Screwball logic' was the term."

I blushed and stammered as I recalled the dismemberment of Jim Tyler and observed the closeness of her hand to the two-way transceiver in her earring.

"Frankly, I... I've had trouble with my memory lately... Miss... Miss...?"

She smiled at me, crocodile-like, then got up and began to walk away.

"Hey!" I yelled in sudden realization. "What about my creds? You owe me."

She turned around, slowly reaching up to her neck, then chuckled as she looked where I'd been standing.

When pressed, my impersonation of thin air is totally amazing.

P. R. Morrison (swkmorri@nuscc.nus.sg) lives in Singapore. His stories have been published in a Singaporean SF magazine. (Bio last updated in 1992.)

InterText stories written by P. R. Morrison: "Just a Company Man" (v2n5), "The Long Way Home" (v2n5).

"Just a Company Man" won an SF writing competition in Australia.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 P. R. Morrison.