"You got the goods?"
Kristen sat on her motorbike, as still as she could, willing herself and her outfit to look just like more junk. She'd had the misfortune of doing some scavenging for parts in the wreckage near the north end of the Zone when most of the Tenth Street go-gang had crept into the area. She recognized a few of them... and the leader was probably still upset with the way she'd 'left', getting several members of the gang killed in the process. Hiding seemed to be the order of the day. But what on earth would the gang be doing this far north, and moving quietly?
The answer had come soon enough, as an obvious corp type with a small truck had eased out between a couple of the worse parts of the wreckage. He proceeded to pop open the back of the truck, and roll out... possibly the biggest, highest-tech motorcycle she'd ever seen. Full faring around the driver to protect him, and ports on the back that didn't look like exhaust was what came out of them. Looked like practically a mobile weapons platform. Someone must want a major 'accident' arranged to give a go-gang equipment like that. They immediately set to haggling, voices just muffled enough to keep her from hearing the details.
Just as the two sides came to an arrangement, lights came on to either side of them, and a new voice entered the fray, accusing the corp exec of selling out their secrets. A firefight ensued quickly; even better reason to get out of there.
That was when Kristen realized she wasn't the only one watching. A young girl, probably no more than eleven, standing in shock just behind what was left of a wall. She was utterly frozen in fear, and one of the members of the go-gang was just winding up with a Molotov cocktail in that direction...
Kristen didn't even stop to think; she slammed her still-warm motorcycle into gear, sending a pained shriek from the transmission. Ducking under the few bullets that flew her way, she skided the bike out to one side, swung out her arm, and grabbed the child by the waist, pulling her up. With mere moments to spare, the two slid into one of the relatively intact parts of the building.
Unfortunately for Kristen, another gang had been using the building for an ammo dump; the resulting explosion when the fire got inside it was seen for several blocks.
"Any word on who our little heroine is?"
Johnson leaned back in his chair, brushing his unruly hair back, and looked back at his boss. "Her name's Kristen McGuire. Born: 2012 in Elizabeth, New Jersey when it was still officially a separate city. Her family was pretty relentlessly middle class. Orphaned in 2026 as the result of an accident in northern Neo York; front half of the car was totalled, but she survived in the back seat with barely a scratch. No surviving family, at least none that claimed her. Bounced around a few places since then; drifted into the Zero Zone sometime in 2028. Things get a little fuzzier after that. She was apparently involved, involuntarily, with the gang that our ex-executive tried to sell us out to, and pretty much triggered off an inter-gang war when she ran out on them and let someone else know where they were.
"From what little we've managed to glean from others who have dealt with her, she's been sort of 'agressively cheerful'. Psychologically probably still hasn't dealt with her family's death, and has put up a front as a 'Pollyanna' to cover for it."
Doctor Stillman smiled. "Sounds like the perfect candidate."
"For the Falcon project? You do realize she's probably in denial and clinically insane. You want to trust the project to that?"
Stillman shrugged. "Something like two-thirds the population here is clinically insane, depending on who you talk to. Besides, she only needs to be able to handle it until the end of the decision period on the contract. And, to be honest, you'd have to be crazy to drive that thing through the middle of a burning building."
"Your call, of course."
"How is she physically?"
"Aside from numerous second and third degree burns, she's actually in amazingly good shape. Looks like she's already had some combat training, and not just from the school of hard knocks; probably Aikido or Wendo from one of those women's self-defense courses. We can get some gene boys in to grow replacements for the parts that were burned off, and some fixups for the rest of her; the doc says she'll be an easy repair job. Good foundation to work from."
"Good, and I think I know just the approach to take with her..."
Doctor Stillman was the first sight that Kristen saw when she awoke. "Good morning."
"Where am I?"
"A reasonable question. I work for Fantoma Vehicles. You're in our medical facility."
"Are you doing here? Well, you were caught in an explosion during the fight between some of our people and the go-gang. We'd seen you go in to rescue that young girl; we were impressed with your riding ability and your willingness to go into danger to help others." He smiled, a nice smile that almost reached his eyes. "It's not an easy trait to find these days; most people are too worried about themselves to do much to help others."
Kristen just nodded along with this.
"Anyhow, we couldn't bear to see someone like that go to waste. Did you get a good look at the motorbike that one of our less loyal workers was trying to sell off the other night?"
"Good. How would you like a job that involves riding that bike?"
"What?" Kristen tried to sit up, felt dizzy again, and dropped back to her pillow.
"Did you know there are an average of almost five thousand fires in Neo York every _year_? Hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, dozens of lives lost. Every _year_. And that's not counting the Zone. Even in the areas that pay for full fire service, the department often can't get there fast enough. Most fires are noticed when they're small, and could be put out easily with the right equipment, but in the time a full squad can be mobilized they get bigger and do more damage. I'm sure you know what traffic can be like. What's needed is something that can move faster than a large truck and a half dozen people.
"That bike you saw is part of our plan on that. A fast motorcycle, with its own fire extinguisher and rescue equipment, can weave through traffic and be on site faster than anothing else. It can deal with small fires, and for anything that's too big it can help contain the blaze and get people out of the way until the main force arrives.
"We want you to help us test it out. If everything goes well, then we'll be making a lot more of those bikes for the Neo York Fire Department, and you'll be there to help train the new recruits. It's a chance to make a difference, to help save lives. What do you say?"
Kristen didn't take long to decide. "Yes." She smiled. A smile that showed off her looks in a way even the bandages couldn't cover.
"Good." Doctor Stillman got up to go. "Our doctors will be taking off most of your bandages at the end of the week, and starting physiotherapy with you. Until then, just rest. You'll be busy enough in a few days." And with that, he left.
Back outside the room, Johnson had been watching the proceedings, along with a few others. "Laying it on a bit thick?"
Stillman shook his head. "Not for her, from the psych profile you did up. Besies, none of what I said is false; we _are_ competing for a NYFD Inc. contract. She would make a perfect test driver; she can already ride, she wants to help rescue people, and she has no real emotional attachments to anyone. We've just given her something to live for."
Johnson shook his head. "She's in for a rude awakening sometime. Especially if she finds out who _else_ is interested in buying this bike."
"Well, we'll just have to make sure that's as soft as possible. And she doesn't need to know about any other tenders we happen to be involved with, does she?"
Inside, Kristen smiled to herself. The last four years had been... well, she preferred not to think about them too much. Especially not the last two in the Zone. She'd been on the run from everything, worried that the next day might be her last. Now, it looked like there was light at the end of a four year long tunnel.
The lessons started quickly; the first shock was seeing how much her body had changed thanks to the gene doctors getting at it. The shock soon turned to amazement as she started to test it out. Walking again took a little getting used to, but she was soon running and turning handstands with a speed that surprised even most of the physiotherapists.
The direct neural interface implant was another, milder shock after that. Kristen had never had cyberware before. This took somewhat more getting used to, but once she was told that it was needed to run the bike to its full potential, she worked hard at it. Biofeedback training was easy after the physio work.
The motorcycle was faster and more maneuverable than any she had ever ridden before. Deceptively so, given its mass. They showed her how to use the fire extinguishers built into the sides and front of the bike; the launchers at the back that could launch epoxy foam 'grenades' that could support collapsing beams or falling people; the sensory equipment in the helmet that could pinpoint fires and see things through the smoke; and the bike's own computer system that could trace her location and reports on local traffic conditions to give her the fastest route to her destination.
Soon enough, it was time for a proper field test...
"All right, you understand that this is all being taped for later analysis; if something goes wrong, we can work out how to fix it." The voice of her controller, Thomas, came through clearly on the helmet speakers; the sound of the motorcycle itself was blocked out by an active cancellation system. "I'll be here to help you if anything happens. Now, as you see on the display there, this is a relatively small fire; the nearby Neo York Fire Department trucks are busy at the moment, so this one is all yours."
The burning building was the upper florr of half a duplex. The fire hadn't spread to the other half yet, and hopefully it wouldn't. Sounding a siren to drive other people clear, she drove almost directly up to the front door of the house, giving the front wall a shot with the extinguishers built into the bike. Grabbing a more portable extinguisher, she was just about to go inside when a woman accosted her. "My son's in there!" She pointed up at the only visible upstairs window. Looking up, the bulk of the smoke was pouring out from there, and the infrared sensors picked up a big source of heat right behind it.
Giving the bike a quick twist and a pointing it directly away from the house, Kristen told the woman to stay clear of the house while she went inside. She ran up the stairs inside, getting to the door of the child's room. Sure enough, the heat sensors in her helmet were well into the danger levels. "No time to lose," she said, and shouldered the door open.
The voice of her controller hit her almost as hard as the heat of the flames inside. "Are you crazy?!" She ignored him, focussing on the local situation. The child was easy enough to spot, even through all the smoke and heat haze: he was lying down next to the window, having tried to open it. And failed, as the window was sealed shut. Kristen tapped a finger against her helmet, sending a command back to the bike through her link, then ran through the flames. The child seemed to be still alive, but there wasn't a moment to lose. Knocking the window open with the hard end of the fire extinguisher, she wrapped the child up in the only unburning sheet on the bed and dropped him out the window, face up, onto the pile of foam that had been launched from the rear of the bike. That taken care of, she proceeded to 'hose' the room down with the contents of the fire extinguisher, ignoring the rant she was getting from her controller.
By the time she got out, the foam had mostly disintigrated, and the woman from before was cradling her badly burned but coughing son in her arms. She could barely speak, but managed to mouth "Thank you."
Kristen smiled from behind her helmet. "You're welcome." Without any other comment, she got back on her bike and started to ride away. It wasn't until she sat down that she realized how badly burned she was; the pressure of the seat was rather painful. But she bore it until she got back to base.
"I can't believe she did something that stupid."
Johnson shrugged. "You knew as well as I did she was probably borderline suicidal; that was part of why you chose her in the first place. You've got to admit that this will make great PR work, and the younger firefighters will probably love it."
"I know, I know." Stillman sighed. "PR isn't much good if she dies and we have to retrain someone. There's still two weeks left before the decision is made on the contract."
"Well, almost all of the burns are superficial, first degree. Minor second-degree burns on her feet. Psychologically she's been on a bit of a high, though we tried to instill in her that getting herself killed would be a bad thing right now. And we can pad the suit a little better next time."
"True. How fast can she be up and ready again?"
"Depends on how much we're willing to dope her up. Assuming you want someone with judgement unimpaired by pain relievers, day after tomorrow at best."
"Well, that will have to do. Let me know if anything changes; I'll get the boys to work on the suit a bit more in the mean time."
The next week and a half went better; Kristen learned to take fewer blatant risks while still looking impressive and risk taking. Not all that difficult, given how easily impressed some people are. A local firefighter helped in his off-time, teaching her a few lessons.
A 'stealth' PR campaign got the media to play up the references to this mysterious 'Falcon' woman, with no references to who was actually supporting her yet. That would come after the official unveiling. Or not, if they lost the contract: the general public could be relied on to forget all about it if it wasn't mentioned for a couple of weeks.
The night before the official declaration of the contract and the resulting press releases, the unofficial word came through...
"We've got it!"
Kristen blinked, sitting up from where she'd been stretched out in her chair, reading. "We do?"
Stillman nodded to her. "Yes. We got an early notice so we can have our press releases prepared, and start getting production going. The official announcement is tomorrow afternoon; you'll be expected to be there, of course, to show off the bike. We'll have a couple of people go over with you what needs to be done tomorrow morning, no worries."
"Yes, it is." Stillman looked around. "This does mean that you'll be doing more training of the next people, and less actual work out on the streets, of course."
Kristen nodded. "I was told that before."
"And we've made a few improvements to the basic design based on what we learned from you. Nothing you need to worry about just yet; we'll get you up to speed on that before the new people come in."
Kristen looked up at Stillman, standing up. "Something wrong?"
Stillman shook his head. "Not really. This is really a make-or-break contract for Fantoma; if we didn't get this, we'd be in serious financial trouble. I just hope nothing goes wrong."
"Okay." A loud beeping came from the buzzer on the table next to her chair. "Sounds like my call, I'd better get going." Smiling as she bounced out the door, she added, "We've got the contract, after all. What could happen now?"
Stillman just watched her retreating back. "Never underestimate the power of a scorned ego."
The fire was at the 'Our Lady of Mercy' Mission, down on the south side of the Bronx, not far from Chinatown. Mostly a soup kitchen, of the type that had been around for the last century at least, it had seen better days. And decades. With the growing number of jobless trying to eke out an existence outside of the Zone, and the shrinking donations, they could barely afford food, much less fire insurance.
The fire had started when a fight started over someone trying to steal from the kitchen, and then tipped some of the greasy stew over onto the stove, which quickly started burning. The old sprinkler system had rusted shut, and the fire was slowly spreading over the kitchen floor when Falcon arrived.
Getting in was easy; the loading dock opened directly into the kitchen. Almost everybody was already outside, and she got a bit of a runup and jumped the bike onto the dock and inside. A quick check around showed nobody left inside the kitchen. One of the nice things about the priests, she thought to herself, is that they're a lot less likely to panic and get in her way.
The fire itself was straightforward, if time-consuming, to contain, fortunately. Someone had obviously tried to put it out with water, exactly the wrong thing to do with grease fires, and little bits of burning oil were scattered all over. The walls and floor were all concrete and most of the furniture was metal, though, so once the grease was chased down and doused, it was literally just a mop-up job. The priests and volunteers came in to help with that part once the smoke cleared out.
Kristen stayed to talk briefly as the work was being finished, keeping an eye out for any heat sources that would indicate some still-burning grease ready to rekindle the fire. Finally satisfied everything was under control, she sent a mental command to her helmet, linking back up with the bike to check in with her home base at Fantoma.
There was no answer.
Kristen frowned under her helmet. "That's odd." She tried a general status display; the link between her helmet and her bike was working, but the link back to base wasn't. There was an error message listed there; she pulled up the diagnostics to look at it. 'Communications terminated due to apparent corruption of remote system: please enter full security code to re-establish.' She had a couple of security codes for local things on the bike, just in case someone else tried to abuse it, but none of those worked. She was going to have to go back to base to see what was going on. Of course, as the communications link had been cut off from that end...
"Is there something wrong?" One of the priests was asking from just behind her.
"Yes. I'd better go check it out."
The trip back was silent; she was used to getting some chatter over the line. She wasn't even sure exactly when the link had gone quiet; certainly there weren't any sounds of panic or indications that something had gone wrong before it stopped. It _could_ be just a glitch on their end... but she wanted to be sure.
She idled the engine just back a street or so from the building. She knew that as a safety feature if the link was lost, it was dropped from both ends; mostly this was so that if the bike was stolen, it couldn't be used to hack into Fantoma's own computers, but it probably worked the other way around as well, so nobody there knew where she was right now. Kristen half-walked the bike past the next intersection to take a look at the building.
There was a guard patrolling the front of the building. Nothing unusual about that, except it wasn't anybody she knew. Fantoma wasn't a large company, and didn't have a large guard staff, and she'd have heard if anybody new had been hired; it was company policy that all employees should know each other on sight for security purposes. So obviously there _was_ something wrong.
Abruptly, the front guard stopped walking. He stood still for a moment, then walked into the building. Not long after, the main garage door opened and a pair of unmarked vans with smudged licence plates drove out, heading off down the road at high speed. Kristen got down as much detail about the vans as she could, waited until they were out of sight, then quietly rode up to the garage herself and stepped inside.
The garage was a disaster area. Almost everything had been either ripped out or trashed, pieces of equipment scattered all over the place, the vans belonging to Fantoma either stolen or rendered unusable by the simple expedient of a large crowbar through the engine block. The few people inside were in similar condition, most of them shot at short range. The garage had been built with several levels of soundproofing to prevent espionage; nobody outside would have suspected a thing.
Then she noticed the box in the corner, near the internal exit to the rest of the building. A small box, with a clock display on it counting down the time from just over twenty minutes. Enough time for them to get well clear, and to help ensure nobody would connect the vans leaving before with the later explosion. But not much time left for her.
Kristen quickly raided part of the supplies cabinet for the epoxy foam grenades and some more of the fire extinguisher recharges. Tossing those into the bike's storage compartments left her with only fifteen minutes to spare. Then she started at the weapons cache behind it. Nothing big in there, just firearms. She grabbed a handgun, some ammo, something that looked like a taser, and was about to leave when she saw a box with several grenades in it that looked like they'd fit in the launchers on her bike. When she picked that up, there was a data disc underneath with 'Falcon' written on it. Kristen grabbed that as well, jumped on the bike, and dashed out the door.
She had a few minutes to spare, and was well down the street before the explosion rocked the building. Most of the garage itself could handle explosions like that, but the rest of the building wasn't; and anything inside either was likely reduced to unrecognizable scrap.
Kristen sighed as she let herself vanish into the city. The fact that this was done right before the contract deadline for the Falcon project probably wasn't coincidence, though she couldn't be sure about that. Which meant someone wanted to kill the project, someone who probably found out she wasn't on site when they hit the company. Which meant someone who might come after her to finish the job. Well, running for her life had become a familiar feeling over the previous several months, after she left the Tenth Street go-gang. But this time, the people after her were almost certainly a major corp, with a lot more resources to throw at her. The light at the end of the tunnel had just become an oncoming train.
Maybe that mission could use a couple of new hands around the place while she lay low. If nothing else, they would probably be willing to help her as she helped them, and her presence there wouldn't have been on the news yet. She just needed a little time to lay low and let the hounds get bored while she figured out what was going on. And, well, at least she was out of the Zone now...
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