"SDE will have its own comp-security people working against me," Nima's voice emerged from the
phone. Her body, only a few feet away, made no sound, as the Motavian was once again lost in the
virtual world of the datanet. "I can give you two minutes, but no more without a trace being almost
"I understand," Dace said. He glanced at Redflare. "This was your idea. Sure you want me to do
"Definitely. Negotiating with the clients is your job. Between you and Ashlyn, you can handle
things quite well without amateur me butting in."
"Okay; your call. Nima, let's do it."
For those expecting fireworks, disappointment was in order. All that happened was the phone dialed
an outgoing call. It was picked up on the second ring.
Redflare got his first look at the sec-chief. Her sharp features and lavender hair swept back from
her forehead were as he expected, but the fierceness in her eyes was more aggressive and emotional
than the cold corporate soldier he had expected.
This was a good sign. She was under pressure, and a solution would therefore seem all the more
"You can call me Dace. I hear that you've been having some trouble with our mutual annoyances, the
Bane Spikes. Fortunately, I'm in a position to offer help."
"Why would you make such an offer?"
"The best reason of all--it's my job. Here's my employer."
Dace beckoned, and Dumont stepped to his side so they would both appear in Yoshida's screen. The
effect was astounding. A look of absolute fury crossed the sec-chief's face and vanished, like a
passing wave, to be replaced by a frozen mask. It obviously took some effort for her to maintain her
calm in the face of her righteous anger, as the slight tremors that ran along her jawline indicated.
How can anyone feel such passion and loyalty towards a corporation, of all things?
Redflare couldn't help but marvel. A corp just wasn't his idea of the subject for a Holy and
"Ashlyn Dumont. The hunter would, of course, be Dace Maxwell. I should have recognized the name."
"Hello, Reiko. I'm sorry for the bother, but it couldn't be helped," Dumont said coolly. This
was, after all, her element. Negotiation. Deal-making.
"My time is short. Come to the point."
"I have the evidence I need, and I'm ready to come in."
"The evidence?" Yoshida immediately pounced on the single out-of-place line.
"Against Herrod. You didn't think I've gone to all this effort for my health, did you?"
"What is your point?"
"It's simple. Herrod made extra-corporate alliances for a private group he calls the Circle,
siphoning our research for their own use. I found out about it, but I had no hard evidence, so I
hired these hunters to obtain it. Unfortunately," she added with a scowl, "Herrod clearly decided
that I was a risk and plotted to have me discredited or simply killed. I deleted the paratechnology
project files so he couldn't obtain them, after making copies so that we wouldn't lose the data. That
night he tried to kill me while I was meeting with my team in a warehouse in the Southern Industrial
Sector, sending in the Bane Spikes to do his dirty work."
"You claim that the Bane Spikes are Paul Herrod's lackeys?"
A timer flashed on the screen, showing a countdown from thirty seconds. Nima's way of telling them
how much time they had left, of course.
"Herrod and the Circle's, yes. It didn't take a genius to realize that I'd been marked as a
corporate defector by them, which put me in an uncomfortable position."
Yoshida put in a scowl of her own.
"And what of your association with the late Kail Garriner? He was known to be a freelance
"Known to you and known to me. He'd tried feeling me out in the past; I turned him down--but it
did mean that I had his name, and he was in the position to help me find a first-rank hunter team to
work on Herrod. For a fee, of course, but that's the definition of what a fixer does."
"Here's the skinny," Dace cut in. "I'm about to download to you all the info we've dug up on
Herrod and his pals. Get a file ready because it's coming your way. There's a number at the end of
that file that'll be good only from three-thirty AM to three-thirty-five. Call that number if you
like what you see."
Yoshida paused, readying her own unit to accept the data transfer.
"All right. Send it."
Dace tapped the Send button, and the machine uploaded the files Nima had stored on chip while he
and Dumont had been working out their lines.
"Got it? Good. Think it over." He disconnected as the timer hit 0:01. "Well, that's that. It's
out of our hands now."
"Do you think Ms. Yoshida will accept your story?" Julian inquired. The Esper had largely faded
into the background while the hunters had planned their course of action.
"She should," Redflare said. It was his plan, after all, and he felt obliged to stand up for it.
"We're giving her everything she wants--Ashlyn back, the project files back, and the opportunity to
clean up the rat inside SDE."
"Yeah," Dace agreed. "You could tell, talking to her. She feels like she's under the gun."
"She probably is," Dumont noted. "SDE isn't big enough that it can afford to hack off Nakagaki and
get away with it. Even if not, though, being faced with this problem and not having an easy out has
her corporate honor in a twist. Like the ancient knights, it's 'Victory or Death' for Reiko."
"Preferably the former for us and the latter for the Circle," Isis got in the last word.
* * *
* *Taran Kendrick leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers as he looked across his desk at his
"Do you believe her?"
"About Herrod? Yes. I've reviewed her file and verified the incidents referred to therein."
Kendrick allowed himself a faint smile at Yoshida's formality; the hour was late and the pressure
they were under should have swept away some of the boundaries. But then again, no doubt Yoshida felt
an emergency situation should only heighten the need for protocol to keep the chain of command running
"So, Paul is a traitor, then?"
"Yes. I was further able to establish that there had been communications between him and one
member of the strike team assigned to Holst during the operation. Undoubtedly Herrod attempted to
deflect our search for Ashlyn Dumont through infiltration and when that proved impossible simply
eliminated our field team." She bit off each word sharply, revealing her anger at such blatant
"Then it is Dumont you have doubts about."
Yoshida nodded crisply.
"Her story is not directly disprovable, but it does not fit her personality profile. I do not see
her as putting herself at personal risk for the sake of the company. Money, power, or prestige would
be her principal motivation, not corporate loyalty."
"What about revenge?" Kendrick asked mildly.
"Possible, if the affront was severe enough."
The XD tapped his fingertips together.
"I think this one might have been. Paul was, after all, the one who had Dumont's security-watch
status downgraded. Without it, she could never have accessed the computer, copied and destroyed the
project files, or vanished into the shadows. Knowing as we do now that he was a traitor, why would he
"She was working for him," the sec-chief concluded.
"Was being the operative term. Possibly he manipulated her into believing that her actions
were appropriate, and Dumont later learned the truth. The alternative is that they were accomplices
in Paul's scheme--whatever its ultimate goal was--and later had a falling-out. Perhaps he
"Those two extremes make a great deal of difference. In one, Dumont is a loyal employee who was
duped. In the other, she's a traitor who is squabbling with another over the course of their
"Or the truth may lie, as it so often does, in the broad gray area between the two." He banished
the thoughtful, relaxed tone from his voice. "The question is, can she deliver what she promises?"
"She stole the project files in the first place. Undoubtedly she can return them."
"Then we should negotiate with her. SDE's future could be at stake." The XD smiled thinly and
added, "If additional measures must be taken later to properly compensate Ms. Dumont for her actions,
then I am sure they can be attended to at a later time."