Executive Director Kendrick looked across his desk at the two division chiefs he'd summoned into his presence. He was not particularly happy with either of them.
"I called the two of you here for a status report on the Ashlyn Dumont situation." His gaze swept back and forth between Reiko Yoshida and the R&D chief, Paul Herrod. "Reiko, where does your investigation stand?"
"We have identified the team of hunters responsible for the extraction. Dumont is presumably still with them because her contact, Kail Garriner, has been eliminated. Our operatives were able to take one hunter into custody this afternoon, but the rest of his associates managed to rescue him. Apparently, Dumont took an active part in the rescue, verifying her presence with them at that time."
Herrod's eyebrows rose sharply.
"Ashlyn Dumont is supposed to have taken part in a fight between a hunter group and our people?" he asked.
"I agree that it doesn't fit her psychological evaluation," Yoshida admitted.
"Honestly, this entire business seems at odds with--"
"You'll have your turn, Paul. Reiko, please continue."
Her face appeared drawn and tight.
"That's all we know at this stage, sir. We have been unable to identify which corporation commissioned the extraction, and we are still pursuing Dumont's current location."
"I see. So, at this point you have a good deal of information but have been unable to complete the task. What opinion do you have as to your prospects of future success?"
"I believe that we have a good chance of locating her if we act swiftly. We know whom she is with, and until she can make a new connection with her prospective employer Dumont and the hunters will be isolated from support. That gives us a window of opportunity to find them."
"I see. Paul, what about the status of the paratechnology project itself?"
"Needless to say there was some concern among the research staff when I shut down the project for the day. I attributed it to a computer maintenance situation, which isn't wholly inaccurate, but the usual rumors are starting."
"The 'usual' rumors?" Kendrick said mildly, but it was clear he was not amused. Herrod, conversely, gave him a wry smile.
"That gridriders had hacked the system core, or that hunters had staged an attack on the site, or that SDE was feuding with Nakagaki at the highest levels, or that the government suspected that the whole thing was some sort of treasonous conspiracy." He smiled again and added, "Those are only the least exotic of the suggestions I've heard. I suppose a fertile imagination is one of the major qualifications for being a skilled researcher, but they do seem to have a positive talent for gossip."
"So long as they don't start bringing Nakagaki down on us, their gossiping won't do any harm. In fact, it may buy us more time, if they keep from focusing on the mundane world." His face settled into a tight mask. "The project overseers from Nakagaki won't be as easily put off. Sooner or later, they'll demand answers, and I'll have to give them."
He rose from his desk and walked over to the window. Herrod and Yoshida glanced at each other behind his back, unaware that he could see them reflected in the armored glass.
"Reiko," he asked mildly, "why didn't you tell me that your assessment of Dumont as a flight risk had been countermanded by Paul, and that this was the reason your security watch on her was minimal at best?"
Yoshida was embarrassed; he could tell. She didn't blush, but that tight, borderline fuming expression she'd had before was even more pronounced now.
"The decision to keep security levels at a minimum was mine, as was the responsibility to keep key SDE personnel from defecting as well as protecting our electronic systems from penetration. There was no need to attempt to shift blame onto others; to seek to do so would have..." She broke off, not wanting to describe that course of action in strong language because it would sound self-aggrandizing to announce that she had not chosen dishonor. Yoshida, Kendrick reflected, could be like that on occasion.
"I am not talking about shifting or accepting blame, Reiko. I'm talking about withholding information from me, information about the decisions my senior staff are reaching and how those decisions affected the whole corporation. Do you understand?"
"Good. Continue your efforts to track down Dumont; I need to speak with Paul."
She nodded once, sharply, then left the office. Kendrick turned away from the cityscape to face Herrod.
"Don't be too hard on her," the junior executive advised. "You know that code of honor she lives by; securitywise she's the captain of the ship and therefore responsible for whatever happens. At least, that's how she sees it."
"And you, Paul?"
"Since she did it to benefit me, I can't really give an independent opinion. It's true, of course. I convinced her that Dumont wasn't a flight risk, that it would be a waste of corp resources to put a sec-net around her and that it would probably tick Dumont off to be treated that way, maybe even create a problem where one hadn't existed before. If we'd had her tagged, she couldn't have walked out the way she did."
"Extractions occur often enough despite security, but yes, I see your point."
"So in that respect, it's my fault she's gone. I made a bad judgment call and it cost us."
"The question is, how much?"
Herrod looked at him quizzically.
"Damage control. You're the division chief; you know our R&D capacity better than anyone. If we don't get Dumont or the files back, how much of the paratechnology project can be saved?"
"I can't say. The backups have been deleted, as you know. We still have the research staff, who could recreate their work from scratch, but that would take time. You can't reinvent something like this from memory; we just don't have the background knowledge."
Which, Kendrick reflected, was hardly unusual. SDE was a think-tank whose major asset was in its scientific personnel being able to forge ahead into new ground. Most of the time, they licensed or sold their discoveries outright to other corps, who turned groundbreaking theory into hard-core profit.
"In other words, this is so cutting-edge that if some rival gets it, Nakagaki will pull out because they'll be too far behind the curve. Instead, they'll wait until the technology is introduced and try to improve on it in the marketplace, which will leave us out in the cold, whether they seek reprisals or just pull out."
There was no middle ground. Either SDE recovered Dumont and the project files, or the corporation faced disaster.
* * *
Wulfeburne screamed. He'd been screaming for a long time, long enough that his vocal cords would have been reduced to emitting a soundless rasp, except that the forces that tore his body apart were simultaneously knitting it back together, keeping the injuries fresh and new. Worst of all, though, were the tickling fingers in his mind, tendrils that plucked at his consciousness as if his will was the strings of some exotic musical instrument.
The brain possesses a survival instinct; faced with stress, it tries to adapt. Constant pain causes it to go numb, dampening the sensations, or to seek surcease in madness. The expert torturer was forced to vary what was done in order to make the subject feel as much as possible. Wulfeburne's mind, though, could not seek any kind of relief. His master kept him focused upon the agony being inflicted, so that he was unable to ignore even the slightest impulse of the excruciating pain that wracked his body.
His tormentor seemed to drink it in, his suffering, as if it fed upon it and drew strength from the nightmare. Perhaps this was literally true. There had been other victims to feed its unholy need for pain. Their agonies had ended, occasionally, with death.
Wulfeburne's, however, did not.
Had it been minutes, hours, days? He did not know. All he knew was that it had ended, freedom coming like a slash of winter air pure and clean through him.
"You have failed me once," Wulfeburne's master said. "Should you do so again, I will not be so lenient with you."