Holst's finger settled over the Disconnect button, but before he pushed it he glanced at the call timer on the screen.
"About nine minutes ago. While I was talking to Yoshida." Angrily, he pitched the phone into a corner of the room.
"Who did he call?" asked the one who hadn't been yet named as Redflare got himself back to a sitting position.
"Who cares? The point is, they've had nine minutes to trace the call's location. The guy's been sending out what's basically a homing beacon all that time. We've got to clear this place, now."
"Do we wait for Case?"
"No time. Every minute counts. We go now."
* * *
"That's it," Kemet subvocalized over his commlink. "That's our cue."
"We are not yet in position," his sister countered.
"They're on to us," he shot back. "In a couple of minutes, they'll be long gone. We do this now or not at all--and I, for one, don't like that second option."
"You have," Isis admitted, "a point."
* * *
The hunters moved quickly and efficiently, grabbing up their gear, packing those items they'd left lying around. Keel and Tev disconnected the phone unit and stowed it and its connector cables in a hardpak which Keel slung over his back. Holst reached for Redflare.
Then it all hit the fan.
The one who'd been put down at the cafe went down again, only this time it didn't look like he'd be getting up; few people did from an acidshot hit to the face. A moment later, Holst was slammed onto his back, pulled away from Redflare by the impact of four sonic gun shots against his armored chestplate.
Keel and Tev clawed for their weapons, and Redflare acted, focusing his will on a technique. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vick's poisonshot flick into his hand and knew the sharpshooter could have him writhing in agony on the floor long before he got the tech off.
Luckily, someone had already covered that problem.
The crackling energy blast of the technique slashed out like a laser beam, neatly severing Vick's arm at the elbow even as he was pivoting the gun to fire. He screamed, and Redflare let loose his own tech.
Keel and Tev's motions suddenly slowed as the technique took hold. It was as if they were moving through water as they tried to draw their guns and move towards cover. They were easy victims as Kemet and Isis burst from the shadows of the basement and cut them down in a withering crossfire.
Redflare quickly slipped his ankles free and picked up Vick's dropped gun. Holst was already moving, rolling for cover; the shots had hurt him but not penetrated his armor. As he rose to a crouch, laser shot seeming to fly into his hands, he found himself the focus of three armed hunters.
The gravity tech slammed Holst off his feet again. Ashlyn Dumont strode out to join the hunters in the open, a commlink headset like theirs in her hair and a ceramic-mesh cape that probably belonged to Isis draped around her shoulders in armored protection.
"You bitch!" Vick screamed at her, recognizing the source of the technique that had maimed him. Running on pure rage, he launched himself at her, a knife in his remaining hand.
Dumont wasn't trained for battle; while she brought her Executech around to fire she flinched and the shot went wide. Redflare's didn't; it took the punk in the back. Vick collapsed, sprawling, dead, at Dumont's feet. She trembled slightly; apparently the shock of being directly involved in combat rather than just being a bystander was having an effect.
"Thank you," she said with a faint smile.
"Thanks, yourself," Redflare said. "I guess we're even."
"Hey, not to bust in on a moment," Kem said, "but we do need to get moving. Gunfights tend to attract attention."
"Not to mention the fact that Yoshida might get here early," Redflare pointed out.
"Yoshida? Who's she?"
"Reiko Yoshida, chief of SDE security," Dumont explained. "She's coming here?"
"They called her."
"In that case, I would agree with Kemet and suggest that we leave immediately. SDE may not be Nakagaki, but their security is fearsome enough, especially at the top."
They moved, leaving the basement and the building behind, stopping only to grab Redflare's visiphone on the way to the stairs. They emerged into the district of Lordan, which surprised Redflare because it was a solid, blue-collar area and not much of a hotbed for black ops other than a little syndicate action in its entertainment neighborhoods. Still, he supposed, there was something to be said for the element of surprise.
It wasn't until they were on the way back to the safehouse that Redflare said what was on his mind.
"Thanks for pulling me out of there, guys. It was pretty uncomfortable--heck with it, I was scared to death and afraid you'd have written me off as one more casualty."
"Hell, Redflare, we felt sick about leaving Dace behind and he was dead. Besides, before we could even think of leaving you, Nima was browbeating us to chase you down. I think the little furball's got a crush on you." He clutched spasmodically at his commlink and winced as a shudder ran through him.
"Nima begs to differ," Dumont said sardonically.
"Unfortunately, they lost our pursuit as we entered Lordan," Isis continued the story, "as they had too much of a head start in leaving the park. However, when your visiphone became active, Nima was able to triangulate your location from its signal. How is it you were able to make a call, incidentally? That surprised us."
"A magician never reveals his secrets. You should know that by now. I will say, though, that the man assigned to frisk me checked for weapons and nothing else. This proved to be very foolish for him."
Kemet smiled back at him.
"Your hands were free when we got there, so I suppose that they didn't tie you as well as they should have."
With a shrug, Redflare said, "I do make my living at escapes, among other tricks, and on the streets you can't count on rigged equipment like some stage illusionists use."
"One of these days I'll have to have you show me some of that. A skill like that could come in handy."
"You'd actually be good; you've got the dexterity and flexibility for it." Actually, Redflare considered, Kemet could be a first-class escape artist; he had the best overall agility and coordination of anyone he knew--and was a born showman, besides.
Considering Kemet's personality naturally led him to think of another person's temperament, someone who had acted out of character from his expectations.
"Speaking of escapes, Miss Dumont, why did you help Isis and Kem pull me out of there?"
"Would you rather I hadn't?"
"I wouldn't think of arguing with the results. I was just surprised that you'd agree to pitch in what's essentially private business for the team."
Dumont looked like she'd have another snappy retort for him, but it seemed to die on her lips. They'd saved each other's lives, after all, and those acts had forged a link of understanding between them, albeit one that was ephemeral, likely to fade soon.
"It shouldn't be unusual. I've already told you that I'm safer with your team."
"Yeah, but you walked right into danger. That's something else entirely."
She shook her head. Even after the fight, not a hair was out of place.
"At this stage, the four of you are the only ones I can trust. At least two groups are after me--SDE and the ones responsible for this mess. I'm nothing but a target until the situation is resolved, and every one of you is a key asset that can keep me from harm's way." She smiled wryly at the magician. "Although it may not seem like it from a hunter's point of view, we in corporate employ do recognize the value of teamwork."
"That's quite a bit different than what you were saying last night," Redflare noted.
"I've had time to sleep on things," she told him. "Like I said this morning, by throwing my skills in with yours I stand the best chance of getting through this alive."
He couldn't deny that staying alive was a suitably selfish goal for the corporate defector. Unfortunately, given the forces arrayed against them, it didn't seem a likely outcome for her or for any of the team.
* * *
Yoshida watched icily as one of her security escorts applied a dose of Monomate to Gunter Holst. His wounds were mostly superficial; he'd been stunned but not seriously injured thanks to his armor and his titanium headgear had kept him from suffering a concussion or possible skull fracture when his head had hit the floor. The other surviving member of the hunter team, a woman named Case, was unharmed, having been away during the attack.
To the sec-chief, that made her a likely suspect.
"Explain this," she said to Holst as the hunter sat up, the sweep of Yoshida's hand indicating the carnage. "Spare me the excuses and confine yourself to facts, if you please."
Holst's jaw tightened at the implied insult. His eyes swept the bloody scene, the fallen bodies of his men.
"The bastard managed to send a signal to his friends," the hunter stated. He told Yoshida about the tech-user's escape, his porta-visiphone. Holst did not try to pass off the ultimate responsibility for the careless search to the dead Vick. This, at least, she appreciated. One of the responsibilities of command is to delegate tasks, and not to choose a flawed tool for any given job. It was beginning to appear as if she had not followed this precept herself, to judge by the escaped prisoner. The story did exonerate Case, at least, making things somewhat more straightforward.
"In other words," she summed up, "we now have no leads. Garriner is dead, and the hunter gave us nothing."
Holst shook his head.
"No; I recognized the hunters when they rescued their pal. They're a regular team of first-rankers. I didn't catch on at once because the techmaster's not one of the ones I know, but I've crossed paths with the others a time or two. You might even have them in your corp database."
Yoshida nodded. That might be worth something.
"The leader's named Dace. Ex-ganger, ex-syndicate gunjack, the usual routine. Likes to use swords. I didn't see him here, though. The ones I did see are a shooter named Kemet and an electronics ace named Isis, brother and sister who work with Dace. Word is they've got a pretty hot gridrider on the string, too, though they lost their regular techmaster a few years back. I was in on that biz, so I know it's true. Maybe the new guy's a replacement, or they signed him up for this job 'cause he's got a bunch of non-lethal techs."
The sec-chief nodded again, processing the information. This was Holst's area of use, his familiarity with the hunter underworld.
Was it enough, she wondered, to justify the man's continued employment in the face of his failure? She decided that it was, at least for now. Yoshida needed every asset she could muster, and the hunter's knowledge of the extraction team had obvious utility towards tracking them down.
"Give your information to Theron," she said, indicating one of her escort. "We'll turn up what we can on them while you continue the search."
"Continue?" Case exclaimed. "Two-thirds of the team is gone!"
Yoshida quelled her with one glance.
"Hire more. Muscle is always available."
"I'm more concerned about quality than I am quantity," Holst noted. "Muscleboys are eight to the meseta. Talent ain't as cheap, and for this we need talent." He paused, then said to Yoshida, "You didn't tell us your prize could sling techs."
"She played a big part when they hit us. Didn't handle herself like a pro but she was no bystander either. That ain't just self-defense; she was taking the field on their side."
Yoshida frowned. That did not fit the psychological profile she'd established for Ashlyn Dumont. An essentially self-centered individual, it was assumed that she would fight only if cornered, rather than contribute offensively. The file would have to be updated.
"Since you stand in need of skilled personnel, I will provide them."
"SDE sec-agents? Wouldn't it be easier just to foot the bill for fresh hunters?"
"No. Not only can I provide you with support personnel without further delay for negotiation, but SDE will not pay more unless you deliver Ashlyn Dumont."
"Then I guess I'll just have to go get her."