'Got it.'

The next layer of ice materialized as a somewhat smaller batter dubbed Mookie Fujiwara. He took position to bat left-handed and I saw that did not please Val at all. The ball in her hand took on a bright orange color. She wound up and threw. The whirling screwball arced in and broke toward Mookie, jamming him on the fists. He fouled it off.

Up on the Scoreboard his batting average went from.500 to.375 and I took heart in that. It cheered Val up as well. She prepared another program, and the ball coalesced into an opalescent sphere. Her knuckles rested on the seams, then she started her motion and threw. The program flew slowly toward the plate. It spun not at all, but floated and dipped erratically. It dove toward the ground as it neared the plate, and Mookie missed it with a clean cut. Another strike toted itself upon the board and his average fell to.175.

Val shot me a wink. 'The knuckler always works on these cascaders-it reverses the value of the variables they use to get better, making them weaker. Better yet, it never shows them enough for them to create a countercode quickly.'

I smiled reassuringly. 'Gonna use it again?'

'Nope.' She studied the Scoreboard and shook her head. 'Do it again and I give it a chance to react. Got something else for this ice.'

A white ball formed in her hand. Val grinned cruelly and delivered the ball with a half-sidearm motion. It jetted in, then broke at the last second. Mookie swung and missed and the umpire called him out. He vanished and I heard a couple of voices cheering.

Turning around I saw a couple of figures in the grandstands. One looked like a glass spider and another wore the form of a black cat. 'What the hell?'

Val waved at them. 'Just some other deckers come to watch the fun. The Tarantula and Alley Cat are two locals I've met before.'

That weird feeling ran up my spine again. 'This was supposed to be a shadowrun, you know. What if Fuji learns we're here?'

Valerie fixed me with a stare that made me want to hit the showers. 'Wolf, just because you're a 'trix virgin doesn't mean you have to show it. We've had an audience in the owner's box ever since we started. Blowing the cascading 1C likely tripped some alarms, too, but they were here long before that. Looks like the yaks at Fujiwara have a line into La Plante's operation.'

I filed that information away for future use as the final batter stepped out of the dugout. Whereas Babe had looked like a cartoon, this layer of ice manifested itself as a long, lean player with incredibly thick forearms and wrists. His flesh had a grayish, metallic tint to it, and his head metamorphosed into that of a horse. His name appeared on the Scoreboard as Iron Horse Fujiwara and his batting average registered as.957. He batted lefty and the glint in his eye was nothing short of pure evil.

Val's skin took on an ashen hue. 'Dammit, I didn't think it would be this tough. I'm going to have to doctor some stuff here.' A white ball appeared in her mitt, but as her fingers worked on it, bloody tendrils shot through it.

Satisfied, but not looking as confident as I would have liked, she watched the batter, then let the ball fly. It cruised in at medium speed, then broke sharply as if it had fallen off a table. I looked for hesitation in the batter's eye, but I saw none and braced for disaster.

The Iron Horse's bat whipped around in a buzz-saw arc and smashed the ball back at the mound. Halfway there the ball burst into flame, but the line drive didn't slow at all. Val raised her glove defensively and managed to get it into place to stop the ball from hitting her in the face. Her glove burst into flame and she spun to the ground, but the ball hung there for a second, defying gravity.

I lunged at the ball. My glove boiled off and I felt as if I'd reached into a barbecue to barehand a glowing coal. 'Help here, Val!'

How she did what she did I don't know, but the flame died and the ball took on a blue tint. I flipped it over to my right hand and saw the runner on third make a break for home. I drew the ball back to my right ear and threw it as hard as I could.

The blue ball shot through the base-runner like a searchlight through fog. It flew on beyond him and into the dugout. A volcano of sparks shot from there, and the baseball stadium began to crumble. In an eyeblink we were back in the city-map Matrix for Seattle, and the third floor of the Fujiwara tower exploded.

Then that imaging system failed me as well. I found myself floating in a sea of data. Waves of telecom numbers crested up over me and drove me down toward spreadsheets and cost overrun statements. Just as I felt as though I were drowning in a vast inventory system, a hand grabbed me on the shoulder and the safehouse room with Zig and Zag swam back into view.

Val watched me closely and I knew Zag would have died to have her looking at him with such concern in her eyes. 'Are you okay?'

I thought about the question for a second, then nodded. 'Yeah, I think so. What the hell happened?'

Her eyes narrowed. 'I can't be certain, but I think whoever programmed Fujiwara's 1C built himself a back door. That blue ball was a simple virus meant to pump spurious data into the system so quickly that things freeze up and give me a chance to react with another program. You tossed it through one of the layers we bypassed and right through the back door into their system. That stopped the Iron Horse on his trip to first and I used my own little ALS virus to dust him.'

'Did we get the information we needed?'

On cue the Hitachi deck's EPROM platform slid out from within the black case, offering the computer chip onto which the Fujiwara information had been burned. 'Looks like it.' Her smile lessened a bit as she looked at me again. 'What else?'

I frowned. 'Something's digging around at the back of my brain.' I shrugged it off. 'I guess I just want to be in an arena where I can shoot anybody who looks like the Iron Horse. It's the warrior in me.'

'Pity,' she said with a laugh. 'You've got a future as a decker.'


'What's he doing?' Zag asked as I started preparing to go into combat. Val frowned at him and remained quiet as I closed my eyes and reached inside. I pressed my hands together and touched the wolf's-head amulet at my throat. Using it as a focus, I let my mind touch the Wolf spirit dwelling in my heart and mind.

I saw it as a huge beast built mostly out of shadows except where lurid red highlights rippled across its fur. Lean and hungry, it still contained incredible power. When it felt my caress, enthusiastic fires burned in its eyes, but they dulled to a bloody color when it sensed my hesitation.

'Is the time come, my son?' it asked in snarls and growls.

'Yes, Old One. I need your speed and your sureness of movement.'

It regarded me with the same disdain Val had shown in the Matrix. 'Let me deal with everything, Longtooth. You need not these machine men or the witch of the thinking machine. You will not need your guns. My way is pure. You know I am correct. Why do you resist me so?'

I didn't want to go down that road of discussion because I knew what a dark and dangerous path it was. 'I need what I need.'

The old wolf lay down to mock me. 'I grant you what you need. It will not be long before you and I will have this conversation again.'

I shook my head. 'Seven days. I'll be clear of Seattle by then.'

The wolf howled and the sound echoed through my head as I opened my eyes. I heard the hissed sizzle of the spells trail off and found Zag staring at me with new respect and a bit of apprehension in his eyes. I could smell his nervous sweat even over and above the tangy sea scent and musty mildew odor hanging over the dock area. I smiled and nodded.All set now. Let's hope La Plante hasn 't gotten stupid.

Zagswallowed hard. 'Look, Mr. Kies, I'm sorry about any static I gave you before. With your rep and all, I figured you were like us.' He held up his right hand, and the razor claws flicked out at the tips of his fingers. 'I didn't realize you weren't chromed.' I read the confusion in his eyes like a banner headline on a news service

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