The newcomer did not fit Matha's idea of an assassin. The impression she'd gotten from holovid and book disks was of big men, physically powerful, in dark clothing and glasses, or of sleek, beautiful women who put one in mind of a razor, a living blade.
The man in the doorway was tall, but almost painfully thin. His shirt and pants were white, and he wore a pastel blue jacket, undoubtedly to conceal a weapon harness. His face was angular, even handsome, and the bright green eyes which matched his hair held a flicker of humor.
His hands were covered by light gloves, and in his right hand was clenched the butt of a long-barreled pistol.
"Before you try anything foolish, Miss Grave, do be aware that I have been apprised of your talent as a Force. Should you prepare to use a technique, I am quite able to shoot you before you can release the power."
Matha hadn't actually been thinking of that; she was too stunned by the man's appearance and by how he'd evaded building security to try resisting. Now, though, her mind turned towards something, anything that might help her escape.
"Don't be stupid," Kendric told the man. "Fancy pad like this'll have photon-dets, and you can't tell me that you can disarm them like you did the door locks. You power up the charge on that gun and there'll be sec-bots all over you before you can decide which one of us to shoot first."
The gunman smiled, pleased to have the opportunity to show off his professional skill and foresight.
"I'm well aware of the presence of photon detectors in this suite. It is how I am aware that, for instance, you do not have a charged handgun ready to draw and fire. However, I planned for that eventuality. This gun"--He twisted his hand to indicate the weapon, though keeping its barrel focused on Matha.--"is something of a relic. An antiquity even. A non-photon projectile weapon. The military gave up this type of gun fifty years ago, with the exception of the Spread model, but I find it quite useful in...private practice. Not that you'll be able to make use of the information, but it is known as a Strike Needle." The smile had grown with the offhand announcement to Matha and Kendric of their death sentences.
The gun definitely wasn't a normal photon handgun, Matha knew. She believed the killer.
"First things first, though. The data." He walked over to the computer, chasing them away from it with the gun. With his left hand he took a disk out from under his jacket and slipped it into one of the access ports. "Let's see, now. Computer, access subdirectory Grave.res."
"Display security status on files within selected subdirectory."
"Files are unsecured."
The gunman's face settled into a frown.
"So, you've gotten that far, have you? That could be trouble. Computer, have any copy or transmit functions been executed on the selected subdirectory or any files thereunder?"
"No such functions have been performed."
"Excellent. Computer delete all files and backups within selected subdirectory, then reinitialize subdirectory."
Gone, Matha thought. It's gone, all of it. Now I'll never know. The loss of the data hurt almost like a physical injury, a stab in the heart. The fact that the man with the smooth, cultured voice was about to execute her paled to nothing next to the loss of the last active, "living" link to her loved ones.
It almost seemed appropriate. First her father and mother, then Blant, and finally herself. The entire family brought down by the same unseen forces.
Kendric, though, was not subject to the same emotions that plagued Matha. His only emotional tie to any of this was the very real fear of having a hole punched in his body by the killer's gun, ending his life a good eighty years before nature was likely to get around to it.
His chance came when the gunman reached to retrieve his security disk. He still kept his eyes on the teenagers while doing so, but his focus was on Matha, since her techniques did not require the use of any weapon. For that instant Kendric was the third priority for his attention, and the boy who'd clawed his way up on the streets of a city not unlike this one acted.
It was true that Kendric didn't have a charged photon weapon, didn't know any techniques. The flat, eight-inch shank of metal he pulled from the back of his waistband didn't need a photon charge to be dangerous, though. With a snap of his wrist, he hurled the homemade throwing knife, and it struck into the gunman's right shoulder before he could switch his aim.
The man didn't shout or curse, though the color drained from his face as the red stain spread on his suit. He only fumbled with his left hand to get ahold of the gun, switch it out of his useless hand into the other.
"No!" Matha screamed, and the reflexes of a girl who had fought--and survived--in the caves of Ragol cut through her pain and suffering. Power surged at her command, and before the man managed to raise his gun she'd called forth the Gifoie technique. Flame spiraled out around her, three blazing orbs hammering into the assassin's body.
He didn't get up.
* * * * *
Matha waited outside the military police headquarters for Kendric to be released. Inspector Laleham had been stern but polite with her. He probably didn't want me breaking down into hysterics, she thought cynically, but had to admit that he hadn't been at all browbeating.
She'd been worried about Kendric, though. The neon angel was, after all, a criminal, and the milipol might want him for crimes that had nothing to do with that night's events.
01:18, she noted by the giant holosign clock that topped the InfoNet broadcast center. It was the middle of the night, and yet it looked the same in the spacegoing city as it had at noon. For two years its inhabitants hadn't seen a sunrise, and now they were held here, the promise of a new home snatched from them.
How much, Matha wondered, did my parents have to do with that? She doubted she'd ever know; the gunman--the police had never even told her the name of the man she'd killed--had destroyed her only chance to learn.
When she saw Kendric walk almost jauntily out of headquarters, his hands stuck in two of his capacious pockets and whistling off-key, she nearly jumped for joy.
He saw her almost at once and strolled over.
"Hey! You waited."
"I've been out for over thirty minutes. I was worried that they were going to hold you."
"Nah. All they've got on me is possession of a concealed weapon, and they can't even prove that if you and I swore I snatched the knife off a shelf in your place or something. Had to let me go."
"What about your computer disks?"
"Hacking software isn't illegal to own, just to use it on an unwilling system. Heck, what you wanted me to do would be legal if it hadn't been government-secured data."
He stretched his arms above him, as if demonstrating his freedom.
"All I did was stick to the story. Guy comes in, points a gun at us, deletes your folks' files--now that's illegal hacking--I throw the knife, then you fire off the tech. Just the truth, except for the part about us looking at the files first."
"Then they believed you when you told them...what we agreed to say?"
"That I was your not-so-reputable boyfriend from the wrong side of town? Heck, yeah. Every rich girl's supposed to have at least one bad-seed fling." He chuckled. "I even got to be in the room when they gave Laleham the news about the dead guy. Shoulda seen his face. Cursed so bad it nearly scared his aide out of the room. Cool guy, for a cop."
Matha looked at him, perplexed.
"The gunman, you mean? Something about him?"
"They didn't tell you?"
She shook her head.
"No, they didn't tell me anything, just that they were satisfied with my story and were letting me go."
"Typical milipol. Hey, you're just the one whose home was broken into, whose data got wiped, who got a gun pointed at her and threatened with death. Who are you to be told anything?" He turned to leave, beckoned to her. "C'mon, I'll clue you in, but not here, not right in front of the cop shop, okay?"
Matha nodded. She was still feeling a little numb, and wondered if she was in shock, still, from killing the man. He'd been going to kill her, yes, but she was supposed to feel something, wasn't she? Unless it had all gotten caught up in her grief in one emotional tangle. It would probably take a mind-doctor to sort it out, she thought. She was just glad that Kendric was okay, that he hadn't gotten in trouble because she'd hired him.
They took the skylift up two levels, then an elevated walkway across to an air park. Ordinarily Matha liked these spots of cultivated greenery, trees, and flowers, but this time she turned her back on them, instead choosing to lean against the plastiglass rail and look out over the city. Kendric moved up beside her.
"That's Downtown, just a couple of blocks that way," Matha told him, pointing.
"Looks a lot nicer from up here," he replied. "Oh, by the way, this is why I really wanted to get away from headquarters." He took a disk out of his pocket and handed it to her.
"What's this, Kendric?"
"A complete copy of those files."
"But how? The computer said that nothing had been copied."
Kendric didn't meet her gaze, instead looking out over the city.
"I duped it for myself. These days, black market data goes for a big price, especially anything about Pioneer 1 or Ragol. That's prime government code, there. Piece of cake to wipe the record of me making the copy."
"You...you were going to steal from me?"
Kendric still wouldn't look at her.
"Hey, that's what I am, okay?" he said defiantly. "A hacker, a bloody datathief. I didn't have to tell you, y'know. I could have just walked off into the sunset and you'd never have heard a thing about it."
He made the mistake of glancing up at her, saw the hurt on Matha's face, the tear-rimmed eyes.
"Aw, damn," he swore, hanging his head. "Damn it all, Matha, you saved my life back there. I couldn't do you dirty after that. That's the data. It's all yours."
She looked down at the disk. Kendric was telling the truth; he hadn't had to own up to anything. He'd gotten clean away with it. Even if he'd thought twice about selling the data--if he was scared, for example, of the people who'd sent the killer coming after him--he could have just destroyed the disk. He didn't have to confess or give the data to Matha.
"I think I understand."
His eyes brightened.
"Yes, I think so. I can't say that I like it, but you did stand by me in the end." She held up the disk. "And now I have this."
"Just be careful with that, okay? Whoever sent that guy now thinks the data's gone. No reason to off us now, since we've already told the milipol all we know. You start poking into it and asking the wrong questions, they'll learn soon enough. I don't want to see you hurt, Matha."
She put the disk away.
"This is very important to me, Kendric."
"So's your life. You know what got Laleham's shorts in a twist? It turns out the gunman wasn't in the citizen database. Unregistered--he didn't exist, so officially we didn't kill anyone." It was a harsh rule, instituted because the spacecraft had limited resources to offer the people it had to support. "Even guys like me are in the system. Killer like that ain't a stowaway, so somebody powerful put him on board." He shuddered. "That's too out there for a guy like me to mess with."
He had a point. Powerful forces were involved, ones with very deep secrets to protect. The datadisk was heavy in Matha's pocket, heavy with the cost in lives it had exacted, and she wondered what was more frightening: the danger of prying deeper, of facing death, or the danger of not looking, of hiding from the threat and having to know she had while facing life.