At precisely three-thirty-two, the phone rang again, shunted from the artificial node Nima had
created in the visiphone system.
"We are willing to negotiate," Yoshida said, omitting any preamble.
"Good," Dace replied. "Here's the situation. Is your line secure?"
"As secure as our computer security experts can make it."
"We'll trust you, then. The bottom line is, we're going to hit the Bane Spikes' home nest and take
out whatever gangers are there along with the Circle members with the bad taste to be on-site. Since
there's only three of them left, we figure they'll be sticking close to plot their next move. Our
problem, as demonstrated by the late Mr. Holst and friends, is that the Circle has gone out of its way
to arm those skags with some nasty artillery, to say nothing of their new research into technique
Yoshida's nod told the hunters that she had scanned the file and the carefully edited information
they'd provided about Wulfeburne's capabilities.
"You wish us to contribute our security forces to your effort," she concluded.
"This is an SDE corporate problem, isn't it?" Dace countered. "We're hired guns, and one of the
things we weren't hired for is to walk into the kill zone without our backsides being damn well
covered. Gunter Holst would be here today if he took that advice."
Yoshida's scowl returned, though whether at Dace's disrespect or his implication that she hadn't
sufficiently supported Holst, Redflare couldn't say.
"Why insert yourself into this matter at all?" she asked, a hint of derision in her tone. No
surprise there, Redflare thought; vassal knights who served a liege lord and mercenaries who worked
for pay had never gotten along in the feudal era and it was no different in the modern world.
"Because that is what we were hired to do," Dace snapped, then seasoned the lie with some
straight truth. "When we're hired to do a job in good faith, we stick it out until the end. Risk is
an occupational hazard." Of course, the key was that "in good faith" phrase. They hadn't been
hired in good faith by the Circle; instead, they'd been set up to be killed so Wulfeburne and his
buddies could make more nasty little Espers.
"Look, here's the pitch. You work with us and you get a valuable employee back in the fold, you
get your project data back, you get a corporate traitor out of upper management, and you show the
street that amateurs that screw with SDE ops get what's coming to them. You don't work with us and
you don't get the files, you don't get Dumont, you're forced to take Herrod out yourself, your
attitude gets infodumped on the streets so good luck hiring talent in the future, and that all may be
irrelevant after Nakagaki wrings their investment out of your corp's bottom line. You've seen our
evidence; the ball's in your court now."
"What do you propose?"
"We're running out of night and good jobs aren't planned in the short term. You get your strike
team ready; somewhere around ten people and don't stint on firepower. We RDV tomorrow evening to
combine intel and coordinate plans, then we hit it. Are you in?"
"It would be in my corporation's interests to do this, I concur. However, a sign of your good
faith would be appropriate. Return the project files and we have a deal."
Dace, long experienced at this kind of negotiation, just chuckled.
"I'll give you this, lady, you've got guts asking that with a straight face. No, you get the prize
when we're standing over the bodies, not before."
"And what is to keep you from double-crossing us and vanishing into the shadows once the operation
Dace laughed again.
"Three things, Ms. Yoshida. Not counting honor, though, there's the fact that if the op succeeds,
you've received part payment on our offer even before we give you the data, while if we fork it over
up front we've got nothing. Also, let's be practical. You've got a hell of a lot more resources to
hold us...accountable...for a double-cross than we do if you put the knife in our backs. It's easier
to extend trust when you don't have to be looking over your shoulder at the other guy, wouldn't you
She inclined her head slightly.
"I accept your point--and your terms, Mr. Maxwell."
"Good. We'll be in touch."
The screen went blank.
"Okay, team. Let's bail," Dace said, clapping his hands. "If those gridriders of hers are even
halfway competent, they've traced that call by now. Maybe she'll play it straight, but on the off
chance she won't--or if Herrod's still got eyes in the system--we don't want to be here."
Of course, they'd been prepared for that even before Dace had taken the call; everyone except Nima
was packed and ready. She and Isis broke down the computer rig and stowed the components in under two
minutes, though, and they were gone.
The team had found its new safehouse through Julian. Since the Espers had, after all, been viewed
as terrorists to be exterminated during Mother Brain's purge of Mota, they had gotten quite good at
hiding themselves. The apartment he took them to was one of their boltholes, similar to how the
hunters had used Mama Russi's before Holst had found them out.
"I assume that it goes without saying that you will not reveal this location to anyone," Julian
said as he led them inside what appeared to be an ordinary, middle-class residence.
"If that's true, then why did you say it?" Kem quipped.
"In all seriousness, this residence is the property of our order of Espers. Since two of you are
possible Espers yourselves, it should be a legitimate use, but it is still a matter of secrecy."
"Hey, you saved Dace's life," Nima chirped. "Trust me, that buys a lot of cooperation."
"Now that you have Ms. Yoshida's agreement, I presume our next step will be to formulate a plan of
attack and gather intelligence on our target?"
"No," Dace told him, stifling a yawn. "There'll be some of that later, but right now the top
priority is rest. That's why we make the strike tomorrow night. We're all worn to the core; you and
me are probably the best off since we've been running the least. Everyone else has probably gotten
what, three or four hours' sleep?"
"If that," Redflare noted.
"Exactly. The body needs rest. Push too long without it and reflexes slow, the brain gets
sluggish, the body gets clumsy. This phase of the op has that whole 'final battle' thing written all
over it. I'm not making the main strike with a team thinking more about taking a nap than taking out
the enemy. Everyone in this room gets eight hours, minimum, before we go.
"I see. Another example, I daresay, of the importance of letting the trained fighters make the
"It helps, yeah. So get this place locked down, set up the sec-systems, spy eyes, magic wards, or
whatever you need to, so we can get that rest."
* * *
"Things are rapidly spinning out of control," Herrod accused. "Your trap at my condo was a
complete failure, and now Corliss is dead--another one of the Circle lost. That is the second one
that has fallen during this operation due to your bungling."
The echo of Jason Wulfeburne's shoes striking the concrete floor stopped as he ceased his pacing
and rounded on the former leader of the Circle.
"The trap," he snarled, "worked perfectly. They arrived as we planned and our targets were
captured. The only reason they escaped was the addition of an unknown element. Or perhaps you were
aware that one with a command of magic had joined their side. Surely you must have been, since you
are so confident that your master plan would have accounted for his presence."
Herrod tried to flinch away from his superior as well as from the implications of Wulfeburne's
logic, but found both inescapable.
"N-no, I didn't know; I couldn't know! I wasn't holding anything back!"
Wulfeburne spat at the man's feet.
"Then curb your petulant whining. I am not in the mood to suffer through your character
flaws--your puerile resentment of my new position and the death of your strumpet."
"Corliss was not--" Herrod found the vigor to respond hotly, but Wulfeburne's voice sliced
effortlessly through the retort.
"I speak not of the woman but of the way you chose to regard her. There is nothing in your mind
but the aggrandizement of Paul Herrod. For once, do try to get past that and help us find a way to
get our hands on Dumont, Redflare, and that new one, that Esper."
The low-pitched chuckling of their master interrupted the debate.
"Why put yourself to such trouble?" he inquired, almost with amusement. "Once more, they will walk
right into our clutches. They cannot help themselves. Like moths to a flame, they are drawn in by
their desire for revenge and their craving for what they see as justice, and like the moths will be
destroyed if they come too close to their goal."
"We've tried that before and lost," Wulfeburne dared to say.
"No; we have never lost. They have been able only to escape from us, once by desperate
efforts and once by outside intervention unexpected even by them."
The master's gaze swept them both, extending to the gangers beyond.
"This time we will be ready. We shall call forth the entire force of the Circle, not merely
a portion of it. Through this power, our foes shall be crushed, once and for all."
Wulfeburne, somehow finding the courage to contradict his leader, spoke up.
"All the force of the Circle? How much can that be? Most of us lack any true power, and we've
already lost Bright and Corliss."
Something about the answer he received chilled the blue-haired man to the core.