"This doesn't make any sense!" Kemet exclaimed, looking wild-eyed at the corpse of Martin Bright. "How can he be dead?"
"Do you think it could have been a heart attack, brought on by stress and fear, or some manner of brain trouble--a burst blood vessel, an aneurysm, or the like?" Isis wondered.
"This guy was barely out of diapers--yeah, yeah, I know, age isn't a barrier to poor health. Still and all--"
"I don't think it was natural causes," Redflare contributed.
Isis rounded a turn, and Bright's head lolled to one side.
"When the attack struck him, I saw something." He told them about the shimmering in the air, and how it reminded him of the ambush at the warehouse.
"I didn't see a thing," Kem said. "Then again, I didn't see anything at the warehouse, either."
Redflare looked at the hunter curiously.
"You didn't see it?"
"Nope. Then again, you're the techmaster around here. Tech-wise, I'm a ziphead."
"Do you believe Bright was killed by a new type of technique?" Isis asked.
Redflare nodded, a useless gesture since she couldn't see him.
"Yeah, I do. The guy at the warehouse was throwing around all kinds of new techniques, ones none of us have ever seen. That's our link to the paratech project, after all. Dumont's team was studying new uses of mystic force and that's exactly what we're seeing from the other side. Maybe they've come up with a technique that works on the mind. It stays dormant until you start to talk about a certain subject, but when you do it goes off, protecting the tech-user's secrets."
Kemet joined the brigade of nodders.
"It makes sense, at least. Kind of like how some hunters wear a cortical detonator. If they flatline, the detonator blasts their brain to jelly so someone can't grow an active-memory clone off the corpse and interrogate it about what the hunter was doing. I've never heard of anything like this new technique on the streets, though."
"That just ties it more firmly to our enemy, though," Isis pointed out, "since we know that is exactly the type of capability he possesses."
"It does tell us where Bright stands in the food chain, though," Redflare deduced. "Either he works for the SDE insider, or they both work for some third person, but he wasn't calling the shots."
"No, the boss doesn't usually need insurance to keep his mouth shut."
"That's kinda how I saw it. He's a front, probably sent to Garriner because he gave a layer of credibility to the whole thing. It doesn't work unless the headhunter buys it."
Kem put the gun away and dropped into a seat.
"There is one thing I do not quite understand," his sister observed.
"Only one?" he tossed back. Redflare had to suppress a grin, which given the fact that they were traveling with a dead man was a testament to the adaptability of his psyche. As, for that matter, was being able to think about the psyche at all, he realized.
"Why not simply hire someone to steal the project files? Why go to this extreme?"
They'd tossed that question around once before, Redflare recalled, and came up with answers that, thinking about them now, weren't too satisfactory.
"Could be too much datanet security, or maybe just that Dumont had an easy in to the computers." Gunter Holst aside, even Redflare was aware that a think-tank like SDE would have its best security on the computers. Especially if it was tied in with Nakagaki, who had cutting-edge encryption and viruses to provide a business partner for the protection of their mutual efforts. All Dumont had to do, by contrast, was to input her company passcode and the data was hers for the taking. That almost held together, Redflare decided.
"I think we're still missing something," he said. "When you get down to it, this guy asked specifically for us." He indicated Bright, nudging the body with his toe. "He knew Kem on sight. There's something about us, the team, that's somehow important here."
"They wanted us dead at the warehouse," Kemet pointed out. "Maybe the one behind this wanted to link us to some third party. You know, leak files that we worked for so-and-so, making SDE and Nakagaki think that, say, IMVE ran off with the file while it was really going to Luveno?"
"Could be. You'd need pretty complete dossiers to pull off a stunt like that, right?"
"Certainly," Isis said. "The lies, moreover, would be best sheathed in as much verifiable data as possible--names, career notes, skill packages--in order to best sell the disinformation as fact."
"So that could be it. It wouldn't be that we were important, then, just that the other side was able to obtain information about us rather than some other team."
It had possibilities. At least it offered something of a solution. Redflare brushed the matter aside, though, almost at once instead of chewing it over further.
"Look, we've got other problems. We need to hook up with Nima and let her know what's going on, ditch this body somehow--"
"There's a couple of chop-shops I know that would take him, no questions asked."
"That's grotesque, Kem."
The red-haired hunter shrugged.
"Hey, not everyone can afford to have replacement parts cloned from scratch, especially on the shadow side where guys like that operate. Street docs ain't exactly swimming in Trimate to regrow stuff, either."
"I didn't say it didn't make sense, just that it was a little...well, nauseating."
"We've got to lose the body somehow, and it isn't like this is somebody's mother. He's the skag who set us up and got Dace killed!"
Redflare supposed that if a grisly posthumous revenge was all Kem could get, then that's what it had to be.
"Kemet? Redflare?" Isis interrupted their debate over practical street morality. "We have a problem."
"I've been trying to reach Nima over the commlink."
"She isn't answering."
* * *
"They're clear," Kurt said over his commlink. He'd already relayed the information to Holst and the other members of the hunter's team. The reply had been a curt, "Every unit's got a weak link. Looks like we found ours." The comment had made Kurt's blood boil. After all, he was sure he could have gravestoned them both, battle techniques or no battle techniques, if he'd actually tried to. The irony escaped him that as a traitor he was even more of a weak link than Holst believed. That fact could not pierce his armor of self-righteousness, though. Only anger was left as he made the call.
"Only two of them were here, the furball and Dumont. There was no sign of the rest."
"That made our intervention even more vital, for which I thank you."
"Yeah, well, the next time you've gotta 'intervene,' how about passing on that I'm not trying to kill them, okay? Sworm-kissing tech-user tried to fry me!"
"Are you alive?"
"Duh, yeah," Kurt shot back sarcastically.
"Only thanks to my armor! It took most of the blast."
"Then what are you complaining about? SDE is paying you to take risks as a secman, after all. Just as I pay you to follow my orders instead of theirs. Or would you prefer that I terminate my arrangement with you?"
Kurt snarled, gritting his teeth.
"Don't get smart with me! I could tell plenty about you if I had to."
"I'm sure Yoshida would love to hear about it."
The voice at the other end of the connection grew hard and tight.
"In the spirit of friendship and cooperation, Kurt, I'm going to forget that you ever said that."
"Don't get all--"
"In a confrontation between Yoshida and myself, one or the other of us might win, but I guarantee that you would lose. In truth, you have suffered no injuries except to your pride, and you are being well compensated for that. Therefore, I hardly see what you have to complain about."
The link disconnected. Kurt was at least bright enough not to call back.
Besides, he's right, the smug bastard. All I got was low-rated by that hunter trash, and the two K waiting for me are worth that at least.
If any part of his feelings were due to his guilt over accepting a bribe to be his contact's inside man, he wasn't admitting it. Especially not to himself.
* * *
"Now what do we do?" Dumont asked Nima as the Metro-Link car rumbled through the city. They'd changed cars twice, paying cash for their tokens. Luckily, Camineet wasn't like some cities, which required transit passes linked to a citizen ID. Dumont's ID would no doubt raise a red flag for datanet pursuers if she was stupid enough to log it into any of the public usage databases. Which she wasn't.
"The others are going to be going crazy with worry if they try to raise us on the commlink. I've got to get back online so I can access the wireless net and talk to them."
"Except to do that, we need a safe place where you can access the datanet. A public data terminal won't do."
Nima brightened at once.
"What did I say?" Dumont asked.
"If we need to hook up, we can just make a phone call!"
Sometimes, Dumont thought, it was the obvious solutions that were the best.
"So what's Redflare's number?"
* * *
The vibration of his ringing visiphone startled Redflare. The last thing he expected was a call. He half presumed it would be more bad news, some SDE skag saying, "We've got your friends and the data; have a nice life." Luckily, it wasn't. Nima's blue-furred visage appeared as soon as he went to video mode.
"Thank goodness!" he exclaimed. "We've been worried sick. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, we got out just in time, both of us. We managed to save my comp, or at least most of it, and Ashlyn has her purse." Meaning, Redflare assumed, that the project files were still in their hands instead of the bad guys.
"Holst tracked us down at the safehouse, together with a squad of sec-goons."
"They weren't advertising, but I figure so. You haven't heard the bad part yet, though."
"It gets worse?"
"We only got out because somebody called the room and warned us. The caller knew Ashlyn's name and specifically identified the troopers as SDE secmen."
"Bloody heck!" Redflare cursed mildly, drawing a surprised look from Kem (whether at the expletive or the choice of words he didn't know). The magician's language tended to be a bit more temperate than his fellow hunters. "You know who that was, don't you?"
"She didn't recognize the voice."
Redflare shook his head.
"Nah, he could have been using a voice-mod or just be an errand boy. I meant the one sending the message in the first place. It's our mysterious X. The SDE insider. He or she was monitoring the security team's progress somehow and doesn't want them getting us before he or she does."
"How did things go with Bright."
"Ugly," he summed it up. "We got nothing, except that they know way too much about us. If you guys have any old hideouts, I wouldn't use them. The Bane Spikes might end up knocking on our door."
"Okay; you find somewhere and we'll check back in."
"Actually," Redflare said, "I think I have an idea, someplace we can go."
"I thought you didn't want to risk any of our old safehouses."
He flashed the Motavian a wide, toothy smile.
"That's just it. It's got nothing to do with anything we've ever done together, any shadow biz at all."
Sometimes, there were benefits to not being a professional.
* * *
Wulfeburne's master glared at him balefully.
"You assisted them. Two-thirds of my desire was within your grasp, and you assisted them to escape."
He could not suppress the shudder of fear that ran up and down his spine like the brush of a cold knife-point, but he shook his head in contradiction anyway.
"No, master. I helped them to escape from Gunter Holst and Yoshida, not from us."
"Holst works for Yoshida. His record suggests that, once bought, he stays loyal until the job is completed or if he discovers that he had been betrayed by his employer. Yoshida is incorruptible, a modern-day knight who serves her liege with honor even if asked to commit dishonorable or criminal acts. Our inside people lack the corporate authority to remove Dumont and the files from Yoshida's custody. XD Kendrick will insist on re-installing the files on the mainframe, besides, which will put us back at square one in that respect."
Wulfeburne's master gave a hissing sigh.
"Ahh, I see then that you have been thinking your actions through, indeed." It was as close to an apology as Wulfeburne knew he would get.
"Now, instead, they're back out on the streets, running scared. My call will generate confusion and fear. So, too will the fact that Holst was able to locate them. They will act fast because of it. They'll have to, because time isn't on their side." He smiled darkly, an expression which delighted his master. "They'll make mistakes because of it, because they can't think things through, and it will make them vulnerable."
"Fear always does." The master's gaze transfixed Wulfeburne with its inescapable intensity. "You have, it seems, divined the nature of this situation. However, I have not yet heard from you what steps you intend to take to pursue our quarry."
"I plan to do nothing."
He'd expected to have to justify himself, but instead his statement was received with loud, cackling laughter.
"Excellent, Mr. Wulfeburne. You may yet prove to be a fit servant after all."