Redflare scowled down at the figure of Martin Bright. A frightened prisoner, he looked pathetic and weak. The magician didn't like putting anyone in that kind of position. He needed to be strong, though, in order to make it through the tangle he'd ended up in. Scared or not, Bright had set them up to be killed, and was one of those responsible for Dace's death.
The latter thought made his sympathy wither and die like a leaf in a drought.
"Don't try to insult our intelligence, Bright. We know who you are. We know what you've done, and we know that you know we're the ones you did it to. Nobody here is going to appreciate the 'oh-me-oh-my-I'm-just-a-poor-little-scientist' routine, and if you try it we're just going to get more annoyed with you."
"Since our annoyance level is currently bordering on homicidal," Kemet added, "I'd really advise you not to push it.
Bright didn't start whining, which was something at least, but he did fall back on the second most predictable response.
"If you, as you say, know who I am, then you also know that I work for Nakagaki Corporation. Do you really think that they'll take this kidnapping lying down? They'll root you out of the shadows where you hide and make sure each and every one of you is either arrested or killed."
Redflare glanced at Kem.
"It sounds like our friend here has comedic aspirations."
"Well, you know how it is. Marty probably figures if he can teach the lab rats to laugh at his jokes, he can do the same for people."
"This is hardly a joke--" Bright began, but Redflare interrupted.
"Of course it is. Right now, I'm in a better position with Nakagaki than you are. You've undermined the paratechnology project, which they've sunk a fair amount of capital into. You've also thrown their name around in connection with illegal business which they had nothing to do with. You're undermining their working relationship with SDE and given them a black mark in the underworld. You're a blot on their corporate honor and red ink in their account books. The only reason they'd take you away from us is because they might want to punish you themselves."
"Right now, though, our sense of humor is a little stressed out," Kem said, "so why don't we cut the crap and move on?" He smiled and patted Bright's cheek. "It might keep your pretty face intact, Marty."
"I wouldn't be so sure of yourself if I were--"
Bright was interrupted again, this time by Kemet's boot connecting with his breastbone, knocking him over onto his back. Kemet kept his foot in place, pinning the man to the van floor. The hunter's sonic gun was in his grip in a move so fast it could have been one of Redflare's sleight of hand tricks.
"My team leader, my friend, is dead because of you, you little sworm-kisser!" Kem snapped, the gun barrel shaking a little as his hand trembled with rage. He looked up at Redflare. "I say we gravestone him here and now, put him down and pick up our info from someone further up the food chain."
"Please try to restrain yourself," Isis contributed from the front seat. "Mr. Bright's information is, over the long run, more valuable than the benefits to be gained from revenge. In addition, bloodstains are extremely difficult to remove from automotive-quality carpeting."
Redflare noted that Isis's academy-professor voice was quite good for delivering threats. Everything was presented in so logical a fashion that it was eminently believable.
"What's the point? Sure, he knows stuff, but he's not telling us. All he's doing is running off at the mouth."
"Perhaps he merely failed to realize the seriousness of his position."
Kemet snarled down at the prisoner.
"All right, Marty boy. You heard the lady. You can either talk now, and I do mean right now, or I pull the trigger and save us all the trouble."
Bright's face was beaded with perspiration, his eyes consumed by fear.
"Look, all right, you've got me, but I can't tell you what you want to know, really!"
"Well, that's just too damn bad for you."
"No, really, please!" Bright squealed.
Kem pressed the gun to the prisoner's forehead.
"All right!" Bright screamed. "Look, you're right, I'm not doing this for Nakagaki. I only told Garriner that so the deal would look good."
"Who are you working with?" Redflare asked. "Who's your contact inside SDE?"
"So we're back to that again?" Kemet said.
"Look--okay! Okay, I'll--"
Redflare's eyes widened. Bright's entire body seemed to have taken on a hazy aura, a shimmering not unlike what the magician had seen at the warehouse before the gangers had appeared. His back arched upwards off the floor, a strangled noise issued from his throat, and his eyes rolled up in his head. Then, the prisoner's body relaxed, and he sagged limply to the floor. His skin had turned a dull, pasty hue with strong grayish shadows throughout.
"Bloody hell!" Kemet cursed, checking Bright's pulse. "He's dead!"
* * *
To say that Ashlyn Dumont was bored would have been an understatement. She did not consider herself a particularly restless person, but all her life she had been one to take action in her own interests. She was not one of those who waited passively, hoping that things would turn out all right. Unfortunately, that was exactly what she'd had to do. Nima was plugged into the datanet, lying back in her chair as if asleep. Not only was she working to try and save them, but in such a way that she was effectively as removed from the safehouse as the rest of the hunters. For all intents and purposes, Dumont was alone.
In truth, she was doing an important job, physical overwatch for the gridrider, but this job simply was not mentally compelling. Sentry duty never was, which was what made it so easy for too many sentries to be ambushed.
Ironically, though, it was a position of trust she'd been placed in. If Dumont had been intent on betrayal, she could open the door to enemy troops, call them up and try to strike a deal, or--if there was a reason to--simply take out her Executech and shoot the helpless Motavian. She'd known the hunters for less than a day, every one of them had formed the initial impression of her as a manipulative, cold-blooded corporate witch, and yet here she was, with the life of their most vulnerable member in her hands.
The feeling was extremely unusual.
Dumont wasn't exactly sure if it was a good or bad thing, and she was turning the matter over in her head when a phone beeped. It wasn't her personal visiphone, which she'd powered down anyway to prevent its location being triangulated by an SDE security gridrider hacking the PalmaCom network monitors. No, it was the room's unit, a cheap phone/holovid/audicast combination which flashed "Incoming Call" on its undersized holoscreen.
The thought twisted Dumont's stomach. None of the team would call the room phone; if someone was listening they could trace the physical location of the safehouse. They'd instead use their commlinks to talk to Nima via the datanet. The gridrider could easily set up a shell node to fool traces, or use one of any number of other sneaky measures.
There was only one way to find out. She deactivated the vid pickup and answered the call.
The screen was as dark as the one her caller was looking at.
"You are in grave danger."
"I think you have the wrong number. We didn't order any crank calls."
"Ms. Dumont." Damn! He recognized my voice! This is bad. "I am not playing games. You have been located by SDE security forces. They are moving on your position even as we speak. If you wish to get away, I suggest you leave immediately. Take the back way; it's your safest route."
The screen flashed the ubiquitous "Call Terminated" icon. Dumont swore loudly and fluently, then looked over at the still-recumbent form of Nima.
"How am I supposed to wake you up?" she asked the Motavian, whom she expected couldn't hear a word she said. She could simply tear off the electrodes and other data connections, but not only could that lead to unexpected consequences on the datanet but there was also the possibility of triggering a dangerous biochemical reaction from the sudden loss of the VR stimulus.
"That's okay; I'll be with you in a second." Nima's face had flashed onto the phone.
"You hacked the phone."
"It's the closest thing I could get to a set of eyes and ears in the room...well, ears now that you've got the video feed off."
"Then you heard everything?"
"I did. It looks like we have a problem."
"The question is, how many problems?" the corporate executive mused, her mind following the twists of possible plot and counterplot. "The caller knows we're here. That's one problem. If the warning is real, it's two problems. It could just be a trick to try and herd us somewhere. Can you hack building security to see if there's anyone here?"
"I'm sorry; there isn't any that we know of, and if there are cameras that Dace and Isis missed, they're not accessible via the datanet. Wait a minute; I'll try the front desk phone."
* * *
The boardinghouse lobby was small and shabby, barely ten feet square with a fake wood desk against one side, a threadbare carpet, and stairs going up. The desk was manned by a parody of an overweight, motherly woman, a broad mechanical body in dented blue-finish steel with a metal frame of "hair" supposed to resemble a cloud of curls but which looked more like a sawed-off globe. It wasn't an android; they were much more advanced in design as well as far too expensive for a dump like this. Some cheap joints used these low-end Luveno or Scion-Colesburg models as receptionists or bartenders who could work 24/7 and also act as bouncer. It was especially popular if the owner wasn't a sole proprietor but a small corp that owned several similar places, because they had the cash to buy the bot in the first place and make up the cost in later savings.
"Can I help you?" it asked in a tinny voice.
"Five people have a room here. One's a Motavian. Which room is it?"
"What makes it your business?"
Holst figured the bot was programmed to use mouthy responses instead of something like "I am not authorized to disclose that information." It probably played better for the clientele.
"If you tell us, we can go up and see the people we're after. If not, we'll have to start kicking in doors until we get the right one."
Holst wondered if the bot's AI was sophisticated enough to recognize and respond to threats.
"Don't make me come out and crack your skulls."
Apparently it was.
The two secmen drew their shotguns and leveled them at the robot.
"That ain't gonna happen. One last time, what room?"
Robots did not include self-preservation as a motive for action. Even androids and other independent AIs did not put it very high on their personality priorities. The threat wasn't "comply or die"; it was "comply or we'll destroy management assets and screw with this fleabag's cash flow." Again, the key question was whether the robot was capable of analyzing and processing the concept.
If it wasn't, well, that was why the sec-troopers were armed.
* * *
Nima and Dumont didn't get to see how things turned out at the desk. In fact, they hadn't even waited to see it start. Nima had hacked the visiphone behind the desk and rechanneled its vid pickup to the room phone. Dumont had recognized Gunter Holst's face from when they'd rescued Redflare, and Nima had logged off at once. She packed up her computer and interface rig with a quick efficiency that spoke of long practice; the cables were unhooked, the power disconnected, and the unit folded and stored in the three cases designed for that purpose in less than two minutes. There wasn't much else to pack. They were leaving behind fingerprints, genetic data, and other material, but that didn't matter--the enemy already knew their identities and certainly weren't collecting evidence for a court case!
Two of the cases were soft-sided, with shoulder straps. Nima gave one to Dumont, slung the second over her left shoulder, picked up the third case, and headed towards the door.
"You don't have a weapon?" Dumont asked.
"No; I don't usually carry one. I don't go into the field with the team."
"Here." Dumont took out her sonic gun and handed it to the gridrider, who clenched her furry fingers around it.
"What about you?"
"I have techniques that will hit harder than the gun, and I can't use both at once." She didn't mention that tech use took a moment's concentration to focus the energies and that sometimes a gun was more efficient. It was hard enough to convince herself to give up the weapon without saying the arguments against it out loud.
"Either way, we're in trouble against those troopers. Let's bail."
"Do we believe the tip about the back way?"
"The caller was right about SDE finding us."
"It could be a double-blind, guess we were aware of them and get us to run into a trap," Dumont countered.
"Do you have any better ideas?"
The boardinghouse didn't have a fire escape on each window, but there was a flight of stairs which led to the alley out back. The two women cautiously moved into the hall. Nothing was happening, though they heard shouting from downstairs, so they hurried to the door to the back stairs. Nima hustled down the empty, uncarpeted concrete steps with Dumont on her heels. The Motavian threw her weight against the door bar, pushing it open. She led the way into the dim and dank alley.
The armored trooper waiting there seemed almost as surprised as the women were. At least, he gave a sudden jerk as he saw them, which caused the blast of microflechettes from his shotgun to go high.
Nima brought up the Executech, fired once, then again. Her shots missed wildly; she had not been lying when she'd claimed not to be skilled in battle. The attack served a purpose, though. Realizing he was facing armed enemies, the secman flung himself aside, and his second shot missed as well.
Dumont's fire technique did not miss. The burst of flame exploded against the trooper's armored chest and knocked him over onto his back.
"Run!" she told Nima, and the Motavian obeyed, turning away from the secman and dashing down the alley as fast as her short legs could carry her. Dumont was right behind her. The laserlike Tsu technique did more damage than Foi, but it lacked the explosive force of the fire tech. The trooper got his wits about him quickly, due most likely to his armor protection, and the throaty boom of his shotgun sent a sick fear through her. The flechettes spanged harmlessly off the pavement behind the fleeing women, though, and in another moment they were out of they alley and into a side street. Nima reflexively turned to her left, away from the street out in front of the formerly-safehouse, no doubt wary of anyone that might have been left on guard out front. Part of Dumont expected to see the sleek shape of a corpsec skimmer blocking the narrow street, but there was nothing there but the dingy pavement, a few passerby assiduously minding their own business, and the litter that accumulated in Neroton groundways.
The lit icon of a Metro-Link terminal caught both women's eyes at once. They headed for it, and in minutes they were off the street, onto the train, and completely out of the district.
Two people had found them, Dumont thought nervously. Holst had, and so had the anonymous caller. If the could both do it once, how long would it take for them to do it again?