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Perfect Dark: Second Front Excerpt

Perfect Dark: Second Front Cover

Perfect Dark: Second Front Cover

JANUARY 17TH, 2021

When the pretty young woman with the dark red hair and the sapphire blue eyes tried to kill Zentek CEO Georg Bricker, Georg Bricker’s suit fought for his life.

It did this in several ways, activating counter-measure after counter-measure in the spread of mere micro-seconds. Sensing its owner’s sudden change in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, Bricker’s clothes correctly concluded that his fight-or-flight reflex had engaged, and dumped a massive dose of designer epinephrine into his system to augment his already natural release of adrenaline. On every out-facing surface of his suit jacket, millions of almost undetectable quills emerged at once, each coated with an artificially synthesized version of tetrodotoxin, the cumulative dose enough to momentarily paralyze an assailant’s central nervous system. Georg Bricker’s vest, which had appeared only seconds before to be a charcoal and gray serge, like the rest of his suit, both thickened and hardened, growing snugger around his torso while secreting a resin that, given the opportunity, would become hard enough to deflect all but the most determined bullet or blade.

While his suit switched into defensive mode and the pretty redhead brought her Falcon pistol to bear, Bricker’s Z-sleeve—the integrated PDA grown into the lower left forearm of his suit coat—automatically switched over to panic mode. It broadcast emergency requests for assistance to all local law enforcement agencies, as well as sending a separate priority transmission to Zentek corporate headquarters in Berlin, notifying Zentek’s internal security of his status, situation, and location—the last by providing Bricker’s GPS coordinates. Additionally, it commenced streaming live a/v to Zentek’s corporate data-hub in Frankfurt, in an attempt to record what was happening for posterity, or, at least, possible future legal action.

And finally, the Z-sleeve emanated a one-hundred-and-twenty decibel oscillating screech, in an attempt to both dissuade the redhead from continuing her efforts, and to alert anyone who might be nearby as to Bricker’s dire straits.

As a demonstration of the integration of technology and fashion, of the inventiveness and creativity of Zentek’s programmers, engineers, organics engineers, and fashion designers, it was a truly flawless display. Under different circumstances, Georg Bricker would certainly have felt a surge of pride at the quality of craftsmanship evident in his corporation’s work.

As a means of saving Georg Bricker’s life, it turned out to be entirely useless.

Bricker’s day had begun at his home outside of Frankfurt, and it had begun poorly, with his Z-sleeve alerting him to an urgent incoming message while he sat at breakfast with his wife and son. The message was terse, stating simply that Zentek stock had jumped on the Tokyo, Sydney, and London exchanges, up sixty-three dollars and seventeen cents. In other circumstances, such a change could only be seen as good news, but Bricker knew better, and with one call to the office, his suspicions were confirmed. Beck-Yama International, the hypercorporation second only to dataDyne in terms of size and power, had gone public in its takeover bid of Zentek, and the stock price had subsequently skyrocketed in anticipation of a buy-out.

The news dismayed Bricker, but it did not surprise him. Since the third quarter of 2018, Zentek had been tottering on the brink of financial disaster. Attempts to revitalize the company over the past two and a half years with the latest iteration of its signature “living clothing line” and by similarly introducing the same biomorphic technology to the home market had failed to staunch the corporation’s financial hemorrhaging. Zentek’s problem, and Bricker knew it but was too proud to compromise the fact, was that the corporation made quality material. Cutting costs meant cutting quality of work, and the thought was anathema to him.

As early as January 2020, almost precisely a year ago, Bricker had seen the writing on the wall—unless Zentek brought to market something as revolutionary as dataDyne’s null-gee technology or as ubiquitous as Core-Mantis OmniGlobal’s “ring rings,” Zentek would go the way of the dodo.

There were board members and CEOs who would have deployed their golden parachutes then and there. Several of Georg Bricker’s own corporate officers already had, in fact. But, in the same way that compromising the quality of Zentek’s work wasn’t an option, fleeing the company he had nurtured and guided for almost twenty years wasn’t one, either. Zentek wasn’t simply his company, it was his family, and he felt a strong and almost irrational sense of loyalty not just to the business, but to his one point two million employees. Beck-Yama wanted Zentek not for its market-share, but for its trade secrets and technology. Of those one point two million people, at most ten thousand would find work under a Beck-Yama controlled Zentek.

It had been in early 2020, then, that Bricker had come to an all-but unheard of decision. Rather than allow Zentek to become the victim of a hostile take-over, he instead decided that some Zentek was better than no Zentek at all, and set about looking to broker a merger with another hypercorporation.

Once he’d come to that conclusion, Bricker had truly only one choice, only one hypercorporation he could turn to. Carrington Industries was even smaller than Zentek—not to mention that Carrington’s “Institute” was decidedly biased against big business. Core-Mantis OmniGlobal, while much larger than Zentek, had its own successful fashion and body-modification lines.

That left dataDyne, the monster of them all, the largest hypercorp on the planet. So big, dataDyne could swallow Zentek whole, absorbing his one point two million employees without so much as a pause.

His conclusion reached, Georg Bricker swallowed his pride and sent a politely worded letter—written by hand—to dataDyne CEO Zhang Li. In the letter he spoke of his admiration for dataDyne’s accomplishments and business acumen, for the quality of its services and its standards of product. He spoke of his belief that Zentek shared these qualities. He concluded his letter with the proposal of a merger of the two hypercorporations, one that could certainly benefit dataDyne. All Bricker had asked was that he be allowed to preserve Zentek under dataDyne’s auspices.

Much to his surprise, Zhang Li had responded almost immediately—or, more precisely, a phalanx of attorneys the dataDyne CEO employed in the Mergers and Acquisitions division had responded—saying that, yes, dataDyne was interested in brokering such a merger. A full accounting of Zentek’s resources and assets was required, of course, and an exhaustive audit, but once these things were in hand, merger language could be negotiated to satisfy both Zentek’s and dataDyne’s needs.

Bricker had been relieved almost to the point of tears. Zentek’s attorneys had gone to work at once, and the immense and tedious task of reconciling the one corporation with the other had begun. Work had been slow, but it had been steady, and Beck-Yama, sensing dataDyne’s interest and not wishing to antagonize the world’s largest—and, not coincidentally, most powerful—business entity, had backed off.

Then Zhang Li had unexpectedly disappeared from public life along with his daughter, Mai Hem, and for much of 2020 there had been nothing from dataDyne regarding the proposed merger. Bricker’s attempts at contact went unanswered, and Beck-Yama once again had begun moving in around Zentek in a manner that could only be described as vultures circling a prospective corpse.

Only to back off again when dataDyne announced the resignation of CEO Zhang and the appointing of Doctor Cassandra DeVries to fill his position. Bricker immediately attempted to contact the new CEO, sending DeVries both his compliments and congratulations, and inquiring as to the future of the merger. Since DeVries’ appointment almost two months earlier, Bricker had made eleven attempts to contact the new CEO. He received no response. Not a letter, not a call, not a memo, not a word.

Bricker didn’t know what to make of it.

But Beck-Yama did, and this morning announced, publicly, their intention to acquire and then dismantle Zentek.

From his home, Bricker flew to the main office in Berlin, where he presided over a meeting of Board of Directors and a video conference with Zentek’s division heads around the world. He declared his intention to fight Beck-Yama, and did his best to rally his troops. Despite his efforts, morale remained low. Back in his office, he once more fired off an urgent letter to CEO DeVries, all but begging for a response, and now all the more certain that one was not coming. Zentek stock had jumped another fifteen dollars and seventy-one cents in the last three hours, now trading up almost seventy-nine dollars from its price of the day before.

Bricker called a strategy meeting with his CFO and the upper echelon accounting staff. Pacing restlessly back and forth past the window-monitors in his office, they discussed options, attempting to build some sort of strategy to keep Beck-Yama at bay. Of immediate concern was the stock loss, and his CFO made it plain that a buy-back had to begin at once, or else Beck-Yama would hold controlling interest before the end of the day. But a buy-back would cost money, and money was Zentek’s problem; there wasn’t enough of it to counter the billions of dollars that Beck-Yama was now spending, eating Zentek stock like a cancer. Worse, the longer the day wore on, the higher the stock price climbed. Something had to be done immediately, or else nothing else could be done at all.

Against all of his principles, Bricker did the one thing left for him to do. He ordered two of Zentek’s manufacturing divisions closed. In so doing, he put sixty-eight thousand of his employees out of work, and freed almost three point two billion dollars to be redirected back into Zentek’s defense. The buy-back began at once, and the stock price began to stabilize. Bricker remained in his office through the night, surrounded by assistants and associates, monitoring trading on exchanges around the world. By midnight in Berlin, Zentek had stabilized, and by three in the morning—mid-day in Tokyo—it seemed that Beck-Yama International was once again backing off, if only for the moment.

Bricker could only guess that he’d taken them by surprise, that in his ivory tower overlooking downtown Tokyo, Beck-Yama CEO Takashi Noto had been given pause, forced to re-evaluate his own takeover strategy.

Bricker left the office at a quarter past three in the morning, boarded his private low-orbit transport, and flew to Seattle. He did not want to go to Seattle. He wanted to return to Frankfurt for some much needed rest and some even-more needed time with his family. But he went, because he felt he had no choice. Playing at the Zee Arena that night was a concert by the performance icon Candee, the concluding stop of her forty-eight city tour of North America. Both the tour and the arena had Zentek’s name on them, and that, combined with the events of the day, made Bricker feel that it was vital he be seen in public, that he attend to show his face and thus show his faith in Zentek’s future. The fact that he loathed Candee’s synth-pop music only slightly less than he loathed the young star herself didn’t enter into it.

In point of fact, he felt he was doing penance. He had spared Zentek from Beck-Yama for a day, perhaps two at the most, but the cost, he felt, had been too high. Sixty-eight thousand men and women out of work at his word; sixty-eight thousand men and women whose lives he had irrevocably altered, if not destroyed.

For Georg Bricker, sitting through two and half hours of Candee’s glass-shattering whining, whinging, and preening about on stage was a small price to pay.

On the ground in Seattle, Bricker was met by null-gee limousine sent by the local Zentek office, and with his security escort, was whisked quickly into the heart of the city. On approach to the venue, Bricker could see the floodlights lighting the dataDyne Spire, where the Space Needle had once stood. dataDyne had purchased the structure in 2010, shortly after Zentek had offered sponsorship of the arena, and in a characteristic fashion had then torn the Space Needle down, only to rebuild it as a much taller, and more commercially successful venture.

The limousine pulled to a stop at the main entrance to the arena, and Bricker emerged, surrounded by a phalanx of Zentek security that escorted him onto the red carpet. Candee Canes, predominantly young women who strove to emulate Candee in all things, right down to her Zentek wardrobe, greeted him with shrieks of delight without having the slightest idea who he was. Their noise and their energy momentarily distracted Bricker, and for that reason, he did not note the media presence until the reporters and their cameras were upon him. He made the walk into the arena with their questions shouted at his back, flashbulbs and null-gee cameras assaulting his vision from every angle.

He spent most of the first set in a private box suite with Candee’s managers, agents, attorneys, and hangers-on. The view, as befitted such exclusive seating, was excellent. On the stage, Candee thrilled the crowd with precision choreography and holographic dance displays, her costume changing from moment to moment, Zentek living fabric sliding over her body to reveal calculated expanses of bare skin and perfectly toned and tanned muscle. More than once, Bricker found himself wondering how it was he had ever been convinced to sponsor such a display of near-pornography.

For the most part, however, he ignored the show in favor of the requisite glad-handing. He smiled politely through insipid conversations, nodded earnestly, and feigned interest. Twice during the first set, he ordered his suit to medicate him, each time with a buffered analgesic.

All the same, when the message from Cassandra DeVries came, it was a mercy in more ways than one.

Candee was just coming off the stage, and the crowd in the private box beginning to move en masse to join her back stage, when Bricker’s Z-sleeve began vibrating. Bricker held back to examine the message now scrolling across the screen, vaguely puzzled. An unidentified caller, no I.D. signature, and that was unheard of; direct access to the Zentek CEO’s Z-sleeve was theoretically impossible, as all calls had to be routed through Zentek Security back in Berlin. No one contacted the CEO without identifying themselves first.

When Cassandra DeVries appeared on the screen, however, any suspicions were immediately forgotten. She was an exquisitely attractive woman, even on the small screen, a porcelain blond with pale blue eyes and aristocratic features, made all the more so by her look of near reproach. Bricker’s surprise immediately turned to concern at the sight of her expression, certain that she was calling to admonish him for repeatedly bothering her, certain that she was about to kill the merger altogether. He hastily pulled the ear-piece for the Z-sleeve free from his collar, fitting it into his ear.

“Herr Bricker?” DeVries was saying. She spoke in German, but with an English accent.

“Yes,” Bricker said. “Miss DeVries, thank you for calling.”

On Georg Bricker’s sleeve, the CEO of dataDyne smiled.

“I must apologize for the delay in responding,” DeVries said. “I’m still getting settled into my new position, I’m sure you understand. Do you mind if we speak in English? My German’s positively dreadful.”

“Of course, yes—”

DeVries continued, as if not hearing him, switching to her native tongue. “And you’ve had quite the day yourself, haven’t you? Beck-Yama can be very insistent indeed. I won’t waste your time, Georg—may I call you Georg?”

“Certainly, yes, you—”

“And you must call me Cassandra. I think, given the circumstance of the day, that a discussion about the merger sooner rather than later might be a good idea, don’t you? You’re in Seattle? Yes?”

“At the moment, but I can—”

“No, no don’t bother. The concert, yes. Listen, Georg, I’m sending my assistant to pick you up, she’ll meet you just inside the lobby of the arena. Her name is Joanna, she’s a lovely young lady, you won’t be able to miss her, hair like copper at sunset, that one. I was in Redmond most of today on business, but I’m at my private retreat near Olympia now. Jo will bring you to me, all right? We can have a late dinner—well, I’m still on Paris time, so I suppose it’ll be, what, a lunch? Breakfast? We can discuss. All right?”

“Miss DeVries, ja, yes, absolutely. I cannot thank you—?

“Cassandra, Georg,” she said, smiling brightly. “See you in about twenty minutes, then.”

The screen of the Z-sleeve went dark, then reset itself to stand-by mode. Bricker removed the earpiece, letting it retract into the collar of his shirt. The box had emptied, Candee’s entourage already making their way backstage. He shook his head, trying to clear it. The whole conversation had taken place so quickly, so abruptly, Bricker wondered for an instant if it had occurred at all.

But it had, of course it had, and here was his chance to save Zentek, and he wasn’t about to keep Cassandra DeVries waiting.

The woman who met him in the lobby was as described, but even younger than Bricker had expected, not more than twenty or twenty-one at the oldest. She wore black leather—pants, boots, jacket, even, apparently, her shirt—and the shock of pale blonde—almost white—at her forelock seemed all the more stark for it, even against the red hair that, Bricker had to agree, seemed to burn like copper. Her hands were empty, and she showed him her palms even as she spoke.

“Herr Bricker? CEO DeVries has sent me to bring you to her.”

Bricker nodded, saying, “You are Joanna?”

“Joanna Dark, yes,” the young woman said, her accent strangely exotic, as if unable to decide if it was English, South African, American, or from half a dozen other spots from around the globe. “If you’ll follow me, please, I have a vehicle.”

The woman, Joanna Dark, turned and lead the way through the doors, stopping long enough for Bricker to reach her side. She rested a hand gently on his elbow, guiding him past the still-screaming throng of Candee Canes and the waiting assault of reporters without stopping. The vehicle was the latest luxury sports model from Royce-Chamberlain/Bowman Motors, a dataDyne subsidiary, sleek and black, and exactly what Bricker expected. Joanna Dark opened the door for him, hovering protectively.

As he took his seat, Bricker glanced up, taking in the dataDyne Spire once more. There were lights splashing along the top of the structure, more than there had been before, and Bricker could make out lances of lightning in the sky beyond, a storm moving in. Lit by one of the flashes, for an instant, Bricker could see what looked like multiple dropships, hovering in a stand-off position.

“Is that our escort?” he asked Joanna.

The redhead glanced towards the Spire, then shook her head, grinning at him.

“That’s something else entirely, sir,” she told him.

They flew for all of fourteen minutes, Bricker in the passenger seat, Joanna Dark at the controls. She flew them quickly, following the proscribed route along what had once been the Interstate south, before banking off and dropping to near tree-top level. The light dome in the sky around them began to fade, then disappeared altogether, and in the illumination from the null-gee vehicles running lights, Bricker could see an expanse of forest spreading out beneath them into darkness.

He glanced over to his driver, and realized that the young woman hadn’t looked his way once during the trip, focused entirely on her flying.

For the first time, Bricker felt a swell of nervousness.

“Where are we going, please?” he asked.

“It’s a secure location, sir,” Joanna Dark answered. “I’m sure you understand why I can’t divulge that. We’re almost there.”

“CEO DeVries makes her home in Paris, does she not?”

“That’s correct, sir. But dataDyne has private retreats all around the world, as I’m sure you know.”

Bricker nodded, looking out his windows again. The hum of the null-gee engine shifted pitch, dropping, and he realized they were coming in to land. He adjusted his position in his seat, trying to get a better look around, and still, there was only darkness, the forest at night.

Then the vehicle came to a rest, and Joanna Dark disengaged the power, shutting down the car. She was out of the vehicle before Bricker could ask any further questions, and opening his door before he realized that he was becoming very afraid, indeed.

“This way, Herr Bricker,” Joanna Dark said, offering him her left hand.

Bricker hesitated.

“If you’ll get out of the vehicle, please.”

Bricker nodded, extended his right hand to take the young woman’s left. As he got to his feet, he saw her other hand, saw the gun in it, the metal barely shining in the darkness.

dataDyne is going to kill me, Georg Bricker thought.

And that was when his clothes tried to save his life.

She shot him four times, square in the chest, and the vest held, but Georg Bricker found he couldn’t breathe. The noise from his Z-sleeve was tremendous, and he realized, in the way that people do when they have more adrenaline than sense running through them, that anything the device might be recording certainly would be inaudible next to the incredible sound of the alarm.

He fell to his knees, and Joanna Dark lunged forward, seeking to take hold of him, and just as quickly she yanked her hand back, swearing in Chinese. Bricker thought that odd, but as he struggled to his feet to run for his life, he thought that Joanna Dark was even odder.

For a moment, the woman had stopped trying to attack him, wobbling almost unsteadily on her feet, the tetrodotoxin assaulting her central nervous system. As she struggled to stay upright, her form seemed to shimmer, the black leather losing its shine, her features blurring. The red hair turned suddenly to black, the tiny star-shaped tattoo on the side of the woman’s neck vanishing. Her shoulders grew out, broadening slightly, and at the same time, she seemed to lose height by as much as an inch, maybe two.

For a moment, just for a moment, the pretty young Caucasian woman who had just shot Georg Bricker seemed to turn into a pretty young Chinese woman.

Then Georg Bricker turned and ran for his life, crashing into woods, feeling the branches scratching at his exposed skin, snagging on his clothes. He slapped at the Z-sleeve on his forearm, trying to silent the awful screeching, and somehow managed to disable the audible alarm without poisoning himself in the process. Or maybe he had poisoned himself and his clothing had delivered the anti-toxin already, along with the extra adrenaline that was making his heart pound in his ears, that was making the back of his throat taste like tin.

He ran, stumbling, and fell hard, tumbling amidst wet pine needles and broken branches. He lurched back to his feet, paused for an instant with his hands against a tree for support, straining to listen. The noise of movement through the forest came to him, quick and light, and he knew the changing woman was now making her pursuit, that she’d shaken off whatever effects the poison had caused.

Bricker resumed running, trying to think. He had no idea where he was, and while his Z-sleeve would have been more than happy to tell him the quickest route to the nearest road, he didn’t dare take the time to ask it. And there was no light, there was nothing, now, as if the whole world was growing dimmer. His chest ached, burning with each breath, and he wondered how badly the shots had hurt him. Bulletproof the vest may have been, but the blunt trauma was still precisely that. The adrenaline in his veins dulled his pain reception, and he realized that he could well have been running with cracked ribs and not have realized it.

He fell again, this time harder than before, and when he tried to get to his feet again, he discovered that his right foot wouldn’t support him. When he went down the third time, the pain finally smashed through the epinephrine haze, and he screamed, his hands going reflexively to his foot. They came back slick with blood, and as he moved his eyes from his now gore-covered hands to look up, he saw the woman, a shadow in the darkness, unmoving, holding her gun pointed at his head.

“Who are you?” Bricker’s voice was hoarse.

The woman moved forward, and again he saw her as she had first appeared. Even in the darkness, the tinge of red hair was visible.

“I told you,” she said. “My name is Joanna Dark.”

“You’re not…you’re not dataDyne. Beck-Yama? But I saw DeVries.”

The woman seemed to think that was funny, and laughed at him.

“This is a hostile takeover,” she told him, readjusting her aim.

Bricker swallowed, trying to find what was left of his courage, thinking that if he had a little more time, he and his suit could still escape.

“Don’t I get any last words?” Georg Bricker asked.

“No,” the woman who called herself Joanna Dark told him. “We’re already taken care of that.”

Then she fired once, into his head, and followed it with a second round, and Georg Bricker died before he had time to even consider what the young woman had said.