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Magic Man

Chapter Twenty-One

"The Fairlane Building is a luxury condominium skyrise in Skyhaven," Nima briefed the team. She'd sleazed the realtor's system with a fake name disguised as a prospective buyer and came away with most of the semipublic information available about the place. "Twenty-two stories, with eight luxury suites on each of the upper ten floors, sixteen less expensive condos on each of floors three through twelve. The lower two floors include the basic laundry and dry-cleaning facilities, a first-class restaurant and lounge, a full-service health club with pool, clothing stores--Tessier of Scion for him, Erima's for her--and Executive Flair."

"What's that?" Redflare asked.

"They sell personal accessories for corporate employees, from palm-comps to briefcases to desk-mounted mood screens," Dumont explained.

"More interestingly, the first and second floors also have management and security offices. The condo owners' association has a contract with Emerald Legion Security for both physical and electronic coverage. It's a Grade AA+ contract, which includes humans and androids on-site in addition to robots, and rapid-response teams on call."

Emerald Legion had once been known as Steel Lock Security, a competitor of Argus Protective for contracts. Failing in the marketplace, the company had been bought out by LIM. Luveno's new management and additional operating capital had revitalized the renamed Legion and ever since it had been highly aggressive in seeking new contracts. It was also highly aggressive in carrying out those contracts. Nothing suited its corporate and private clients more than a situation which could be swiftly resolved, and trespassers met with lethal force rarely occasioned the irritation of a DLE arrest and a legal trial, procedures which were often lengthy and inefficient by comparison.

No, Redflare decided, the Emerald Legion's presence was not going to make things very pleasant. Worse yet, the security troopers were just doing their jobs by protecting the building from hunters who wanted to abduct--and probably do worse to--one of its residents.

"Which means," he explained to the rest of the team, "no fatalities if we can help it. Destroying any robots which get in our way is one thing, but there's no point in butchering innocent sec-guards."

"It must be so annoying being plagued by a conscience," Dumont said sardonically.

"Brute force is not going to be the answer here anyway," Isis noted. "The only way a direct approach could succeed would be if we were able to remove Herrod from the premises before Emerald Legion and the DLE could converge on the site."

"Which would be a pain in the backside to pull off," Redflare said, "but more than that would be pointless. If Herrod is not the top man, the odds are that he's subject to the same kind of tech that Bright was, that killed him when he tried to talk."

"If our opposition is in fact a political or terrorist cell, he might be protected even if he is the leader. Ideologically motivated groups are the most likely to include the leaders in such extreme measures, since to them the leader is often considered merely another servant of their cause."

"Hell, under that kind of logic, the leader would be the most likely to have that kill-if-he-talks tech on him," Kemet told his sister, "because he knows the most about members, codes, hideouts, plans, and other allied cells."


"The point being," Redflare continued, "that we don't just want Herrod personally. We need to search his condo, access his computer and palmcomp to get into his secure files, and basically have free run of the place for an extended period of time. That means we can't just shoot our way in. Violence will just get us in trouble."

Kemet sighed.

"So we need to bypass top-rate private security, and we can't even get the guns out if it goes down badly."

"That's precisely it," Redflare agreed.

Another sigh.

"Well, at least I know where we stand."

"There's a good point," Nima continued her briefing. "The building's security network is accessible online."

They all looked at her in amazement.

"Why the hell would they do that?" Kem, naturally, spoke first. The trick of a remotely located hunter breaking into a sec-system and turning off alarms, looping vid through monitors, and generally making her team invisible to all the bells and whistles was so old that it was a cliche on holovid hunter shows.

"It's hooked into the Emerald Legion rapid-response net. It speeds up backup getting to the site if it all hits the fan. As you might guess, though, the firewalls are very high and very hot."

"Can you get in?"

"It's not likely, Redflare. I'd have to break into the Emerald Legion rapid-response routers and scoot backwards into the local system. That's pretty brutal, especially since Emerald Legion gets a lot of toys passed down by LIM's ComSec division."

"How about your winged friend?" Kem suggested.

"Oh, she could do it, I'm certain," Nima said at once with the eagerness of the faithful professing a creed. "Unfortunately, we don't have the money to hire that level of talent again. She already gave us more than we asked for, and at a reduced rate. I can hardly ask her to go out of her way, to bend the rules again."

By "rules" even Redflare understood that Nima didn't mean any kind of law or code but the basic methods by which hunters operated: your teammates and close friends got help for free, you stuck your neck out a little more than usual for more distant friends and acquaintances, and everyone else paid the going rate if you were willing to take the job.

"Maybe I can do it, though," the Motavian girl mused, "if I can piggyback in on some other transmission. It could get seriously hairy in there, though, and I have enough fur of my own, thank you."

"What about a fiber uplink?" Isis inquired.

"If you could connect from inside the building, you mean? Yeah, I could do that. Most of the heavy security is going to be to keep hackers out of the Legion subnet. Anyone who's an authorized user of the building system will have pretty much top-to-bottom access, so if you could wire me in, that would be fine."

"The problem being that, if we're free to carry out major electronics work to the building's systems, we probably don't need to have Nima hack the security," Dumont pointed out dryly.

"Maybe not," mused Redflare.

"You've got a plan?"

The magician nodded.

"The seed of one, at least. A Palm Communications repair specialist could do pretty much anything to the datalines, and no one would be the wiser or raise a fuss that she was doing it."

"Then you intend to have us bluff our way in, disguised?"

"Partly, Isis. There's more to it, but that's the key point."

"A high-security building will not easily be bluffed. It will be necessary to have a cover story that can stand up under examination."

"Well, they say that every sleight-of-hand artist wants to try his hand at stage magic sooner or later. I guess now is my chance."

"Just be careful," Kemet advised. "The critics in this audience carry large guns. Given that we're going to be part of the performance, I'd prefer that we avoid the bad reviews."

Ashlyn Dumont gave Redflare a quizzical look.

"There's one thing that I'm not quite sure I follow. Your plan will require uniforms, electronics gear, and otherwise quite a few...shall I call them 'props'? We lost a fair amount of such things when we had to abandon the safehouse, so how will we get more?"

"Offhand, I'd guess that we'll order in. The Cross Scar has some of the city's best black-market connections; they pretty much run things in this district. I'm sure that Toni can arrange to have whatever we need brought right to our door--for a suitable finder's fee, of course."

* * *

"They're on the move," Holst growled over the public visiphone. "We flushed 'em outta one bolthole already, and they had to leave a fair chunk of their gear behind." He'd snapped up a few items while he was there; there had been some nice electronics gear that had belonged to Isis which would fetch a decent price with a fixer he knew. A hunter on a budget always had to keep his eyes open.

"But you did not capture them."

"This time it wasn't my fault," he snapped defensively. "I found them, but two of them ran over one of your troopers to escape. He couldn't even wing one, so don't go pinning this screw-up on me."

Yoshida's cold expression did not so much as waver. Not that he'd really have expected it to. Holst knew that the woman never bothered with excuses. In her book, there were only two kinds of order: the order carried out and the order not carried out.

Still, Holst told himself, he wasn't going to take the fall for a mistake that he hadn't made. Letting Redflare escape, that was on him and the dead hunters, but this one wasn't. It was the SDE trooper who'd fouled up and hadn't even been killed for the mistake.

"Twice, now, the hunters and Dumont have eluded you. I do not appreciate failure, especially by those who are in my employ. Perhaps I should terminate our contract and replace you with someone more competent."

"Hey, lady, you got anyone else who could even get close to these skags, let alone do it twice, be my guest. Hell, if this wizard can do that and tell that your boy Kurt was a useless moron who can't shoot straight, I'll pay for him outta your advance. So bring him in, why don't you?"

Yoshida's gaze narrowed, her ire clearly rising.

"When you say 'can't shoot straight,' are you speaking literally or figuratively?"

"I mean exactly what I say. He took three shots at Dumont and one of the hunters with his shotgun. I checked over the weapon; there was no problem with it."

The sec-chief's eyes flicked to one side, just slightly off-center, as if she was looking at something else. Which might have been exactly it, Holst thought--another data window to the side of Yoshida's visiphone display. Of course, he had no way of knowing the specifics, that she was actually reviewing the training records of the trooper Kurt and noting that his marksmanship had universally been excellent, even under field conditions. He did see the slight tightening of her lips, though, and a glint of something in her dark eyes that boded ill for someone.

"Let me speak with him."

Holst nodded wordlessly. He set down the public phone's audio handset and opened the booth. The connection was as secure as possible, but he still didn't like it. On his end, the public phone was anonymous. On Yoshida's, the line was kept clean of bugs and traces by SDE's electronic security staff, whose skill he'd already had a chance to witness. He still didn't like it; open discussion over electronic lines ran against his instincts as a hunter.

Now, though, it wouldn't be his problem. Now it would be an SDE sec-agent talking to his boss, a purely corporate matter.

Their landskimmer was parked a couple of slots up from the phone. Case was inside with two of the troopers, while Bryson had stepped into the MultiMart on the corner for drinks and food. Holst pulled open the side door.

"Kurt, she wants you."


"Yoshida wants to talk to you," Holst repeated.

"What about?" the trooper asked with concern.

Holst snorted.

"The metroball scores? You figure it out. Better yet, just ask her. She's your boss and I doubt she wants you to keep her waiting."

Since they both had a pretty good idea what it was Yoshida had to say, Holst didn't blame Kurt for being worried. Since he did blame Kurt for fouling up, his sympathy didn't reach too far. His expression remained hard and uncompromising as the secman got out of the skimmer and Holst climbed inside.

The explosion of violence, when it came, was completely unexpected. Neroton was a place for subtle brutality, not an urban war zone like Rendak or Ossale Court. Knives in the dark, a soft shot in a back room, a troublemaker who disappeared. If the cops were uncommon in Neroton, it was because these matters so often went unreported, not because the DLE was unwilling to challenge the environment.

The landskimmer was an old, broken-down 2062 model, not an antique, not a classic, just old and used hard. Its body was wide, seating five comfortably, and given a hand-done touch-up job that didn't match the original specs. Just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of Palman Motors C-line vehicles wheezing out their lives in the hands of the city's poor.

Only these poor were wearing gang colors.

Gangers out for a cruise were no surprise; while Neroton wasn't infested with the urban tribes, they had their share holding onto a few blocks of turf in the darker corners of the district, earning some meseta by dealing or breaking skulls for the syndicates who were Neroton's real masters. They rarely made trouble in areas that weren't gang turf except under orders and Holst hadn't stepped on any of the local crime bosses' toes lately.

He wouldn't have recognized the Bane Spikes' colors anyway.

As the skimmer swept by, its side windows slid down, and the barrels of two guns emerged. An instant later, vulcan fire roared, the shells ripping into the hunters' landskimmer and its occupants. Case's body jerked spastically behind the controls; in the driver's seat on the street side she was in the most vulnerable position.

Luke, sitting directly behind her, took several hits too as the vulcan rounds strafed the vehicle, but the secman's armor protected him. Blood blossomed from hits to his upper arm, his thigh, but the titanium plates preserved his torso. With Luke's body for cover, Holst was untouched, so he popped the door and rolled out of the skimmer, which had become a deathtrap with the driver gravestoned.

He knew their colors now, he thought, and once the job at hand was done, he'd be paying them a little visit to make them atone for the drive-by.

Only, it wasn't just a drive-by.

The gangers' skimmer squealed to a stop, spinning sideways to block the road. The doors flew open and punks, male and female, poured out. Fresh clips were slotted into vulcans as the other gangers opened fire with military-grade sonic guns.

Kurt had fought open the phone booth's door and was emerging, shotgun at the ready, when the second skimmer swept up. It wasn't a vulcan that fired from its rear seat, though, but the searing blue-white beam of a laser shot, one of the heavier models on a two-hand frame. Kurt screamed as the beam scythed into him, and his finger jerked his gun's trigger reflexively. The throaty boom was menacing but the effect was not; the flechettes sprayed harmlessly off the skimmer's door or lodged in the metal and plastic frame. Then the beam spoke again, and Kurt went down. Unlike in Mama Russi's back alley, he hadn't had to fake anything.

Bryson had better luck than the other troopers. Inside the MultiMart, he was off the street, not a visible target. Since he was clearly a security agent in full (if unmarked) uniform, no one had raised any questions about his walking into the shop kitted out in armor and weapons. Neroton wasn't Downtown, after all; it wasn't polite to ask about another person's gun if it was not being rudely pointed at you. Thus, when he burst from the shop's door, none of the spike-eyed gangers were watching or expecting him, and he had a weapon in hand to make them pay for the oversight.

While the flechettes from a shotgun blast were not the best weapon to use against hard cover or armor, they did an excellent job of shredding cloth, even carbonsuit fibers, and the flesh beneath. What's more, they spread out in a cone-shaped pattern from the gun's muzzle, capable of hitting multiple targets.

Two of the five gangers from the first skimmer went down ugly when the secman fired. The reaction of their fellows, though, was unusual.

"There's the fifth one!" cried one of them, and she suited her actions to her words, spinning and firing her vulcan on full automatic at the MultiMart's entrance.

Fifth one? Holst thought as his sword all but flew into his hands. The skags know who we are! This is a bloody hit!

The second gang landskimmer was stopped, now, with four more of them jumping out, weapons in hand.

What are gangers doing with this kind of firepower? Holst thought fleetingly, then focused on the problem at hand. The only way to deal with firearm-carrying opponents while wielding a sword was to get close, so he did, rolling out around the back of the skimmer even as the four newcomers closed on it.

His powerful two-handed swing all but clove a ganger in two, and all but simultaneously a second of the four died, his head dissolving into red ruin as Luke fired his sonic gun pointblank.

Unfortunately, the ganger with the laser shot retaliated, claiming his second victim.

Bryson got off another shot as the spray of gunfire shattered the doors and cut down a customer behind him, but then his titanium armor finally gave way under repeated impacts.

Holst next went after the ganger with the laser shot, but the other punk on his side got in his way, pulling a knife which showed the gleam of a wire-thin laser along its edge. Sparks flew from Holst's sword as the ganger parried. The next stroke forced the punk back. The third tore the knife from his hand.

The fourth never came.

The ganger with the laser shot, his line of fire blocked by his comrade, had taken the brutally practical way out. He shot through him. The beam exploded from the disarmed punk's torso and sheared into Holst's arm, cutting halfway through the bone. A moment later, there came the rattle of vulcan fire, and Holst's carbonsuited legs were torn out from beneath him. Many rounds were stopped, bruisingly, by the armor. Some were not, flesh torn and bone shattered. The hunter fell jarringly to the cold, grimy pavement, three of his limbs useless.

"Remember, head shots on all of them," he heard someone order through the haze of pain. "The Master doesn't want any clones back on the job--or talking about it."

Then, he heard the scream of a sonic gun.

Then nothing.

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