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Magic Man

Chapter Thirty-Two


So far, so good, Redflare thought as the rover moved smoothly through the city's groundways. Yoshida had made the meet with a band of eleven troopers, and had played it straight with the hunters. Her most hostile act had been a certain frostiness towards Ashlyn, which the magician supposed was only to be expected. Now, she, Dace, and the captain of the soldiers were going over the site schematics and planning the best method of attack.

Oddly enough, the troopers did not give Redflare the impression that they were company secmen. These were hard, battle-seasoned men and women, whom Kemet had taken one look at and labeled mercenaries. They all wore armor and headgear of titanium, with ceramics for the captain, and each carried no fewer than three weapons: a long gun (vulcan or laser) for main battle use, a pistol for when more precise work was called for, and a close-combat weapon such as a knife or mace for situations that couldn't be resolved with gunfire. Their mil-style carbonsuits were black against the white of their armor.

"Why mercs?" he asked Ashlyn quietly after the two groups had gotten underway in their full-sized rovers. With the two of them up front with Isis, they could talk semi-privately without being overheard by the people in the back compartment. "I thought she was supposed to bring along SDE security forces."

"Deniability," she responded. "SDE isn't big enough to have a black ops division of its own. They don't even fund their security to the extent they should. Most on-site guards are Emerald Legion contractors. And you remember what happened to the troopers who she sent with Holst."

"So by hiring mercenaries, she gets a trained unit of soldiers for a full-on combat mission, and if one happens to get killed, the DLE won't be able to trace their activities back to Sarranas. If she used her own people, she'd have a less-skilled fighting force who were a danger to the corp's reputation and could even wind up attracting punitive measures."

"That's it," Ashlyn beamed.

The rover jolted over a rut, making Redflare glad he'd worn his seat belt. The groundways in a number of districts weren't all that well-maintained, and most people bypassed them by using the network of elevated highways that rose above Camineet like an exotic spider's web.

"So why is Yoshida here? The whole issue of deniability goes away in an instant if somebody finds SDE's top security person."

Ashlyn smiled wryly.

"She shouldn't be, for exactly that reason. However, if I know Reiko, she would consider that to be incompatible with maintaining her honor."

Redflare blinked in surprise.

"I thought that she was heavily into that whole 'loyalty to the corp over all' thing. Shouldn't she be home rather than risking headlines reading 'SDE Sec-Agents Shoot It Out with Local Gang'?"

"Maybe, but there's another side to it, too."

"Oh?"

The landrover turned a sharp curve, sending Ashlyn sliding into Redflare. The contact was electric, nearly jolting him out of his train of thought. Apparently she felt the same; she didn't answer his question until she'd settled herself back on the seat and taken a moment to compose her mind. They glanced at each other and shared a sheepish grin, almost like a pair of teenagers not quite sure of their feelings.

Which wasn't far from the truth, he supposed--they were a pair of adults not quite sure of their feelings.

"Anyway, the flip side is that if I know Reiko, she blames herself for this. She didn't have enough security to keep me from bolting in the first place." Since Yoshida was in the back of the rover, Ashlyn wasn't going to mention the true facts just in case a stray word carried to her. "Her operatives failed to bring me back. She likewise had no knowledge of Herrod's involvement with the Circle and his anti-corporate activities. And, while this part may not concern you hunters, the Nakagaki Corporation sunk a great deal of meseta into the paratech project. That has the potential to develop into a huge disaster for SDE."

"And she considers all that her fault?"

"She's the Security Division Chief. The buck has to stop somewhere."

Redflare shook his head.

"There's a line between accepting responsibility and taking unearned punishment."

"You believe that. I believe that--in fact, if we're going to get into honesty now, I've made most of my mistakes on the other end, by not living up to what I ought to do. Reiko doesn't believe it at all. Dace could probably explain it to you better than I can; most sword-training includes a fair amount of warrior philosophy."

She shrugged, which did interesting things to the front of the carbonsuit they'd acquired for her (funny, he never noticed that about Isis). Ashlyn noticed his attention at once and winked playfully. She then looked around Redflare and over at Isis.

"Isis, can you spell it out a little more clearly?"

"I can attempt to do so. As I understand it, a knight's duty is to anticipate trouble. If this is impossible, she is at least supposed to be able to have a contingency plan in place to deal with unexpected events. No excuse for failure is adequate; a knight's shame can only be erased by death."

Now, Redflare understood.

"You can't get killed from a command position, can you?" he asked. "That's what it's about. If she'd here and we win, then she's wiped out her problems. SDE's not in trouble, the traitors are eliminated, the project files are recovered. Honor is redeemed. If we fail, then she gets gravestoned trying, and again her honor is restored."

Ashlyn nodded, her lips a tight line.

"That's exactly it."

Redflare shook his head in utter incomprehension. He'd spent too much time on the streets of Camineet trying to survive to understand how someone could sacrifice their life for an abstract concept. Risk it, yes, but to voluntarily throw it away, not even to save a friend or accomplish a goal but just to satisfy a philosophy? To his mind, if you made a mistake, you tried to fix it. You didn't kill yourself to wipe out the shame.

Then again, knightly honor had been for the nobility, the upper-class warriors of ancient times. Upper-class was definitely something Redflare was not. No one ever wrote stories about the codes of honor of medieval peasants.

His speculations were disrupted as his headset kicked in. The mercs were wearing similar models; the two teams were, as predicted, able to coordinate frequencies and encryption.

"All right, everyone, pay attention," Dace's voice crackled over the commlink. "There are three possible points of entry to the warehouse. We're going to hit all three of them simultaneously to cause maximum possible confusion. Captain Everett and Squad B--you know who you are--will take the loading dock."

"Odds are," the merc captain cut in, "that the gang is set up in the open storage area or shipping bay, which means we'll be going toe to toe with their main firepower. I'd suggest we all pay attention."

"My team, meanwhile, will take the front door leading to the office area. We figure that's where the leadership's going to be, and we want to hit them as quickly as possible, without their goons breathing down our necks the whole way. Chief Yoshida and Squad A get the roof. Hopefully, they can catch the main force of the Bane Spikes in a crossfire between themselves and Captain Everett's team."

"Or," Yoshida contributed, "if the main action proves to be in the office area, we can again catch them in a crossfire, this way between Dace's hunters and the tactical squads."

"What happens after we engage?" someone else asked, a male voice Redflare didn't recognize.

"You know as well as I do that no plan survives contact with the enemy," the merc captain told his man. "Our objectives are containment and to take down as many hostiles as possible. We'll react to the situation as it develops to follow up as best we can."

"Nima," Dace said.

"Yes?" the Motavian girl replied. Her digitized voice was not her usual chirpy tone; to protect her identity she was using a Palman voice synthesized on her equipment.

"Keep an eye on DLE comm channels for us, the way you usually do. If the cops are coming, we need to know when and how."

"I'm on it. Oh, and Chief Yoshida?"

"Yes?"

"You can tell your boy that he makes a really cute little octopus, but if he upgrades to Nakagaki's v2.7 he can increase the resolution of the tentacle-suckers."

Good one, Nima, Redflare thought with a grin. Obviously, SDE had their own gridrider running overwatch as they'd expected, and Nima was rather effectively letting the other side know that she knew he was there--and that she was better than he was, so having him try any funny stuff was out. She might be missing the main action, but she was taking her limited responsibilities seriously.

"Isis, how close are we?" Dace asked.

"We are about two minutes away from reaching the outer perimeter of Bane Spike territory."

"All right, look lively, people. We're going on gang turf, and there's bound to be a few out and about. You see 'em, don't give 'em a chance to call in an alert."

They did see two of them a moment later, the black spike-tattoo and the forearm bands obvious gang colors. They were talking to a third person dressed in shabby clothes; from the way they pushed him around it looked like a mugging, a shakedown, or just some evening's amusement for the nihilistic sworm-kissers. It ended quickly.

Gangbangers like the Bane Spikes were used to drive-by shootings. It was a standard gang tactic and one of the ones the DLE took an interest in because it had a bad habit of catching innocent bystanders in the field of fire. They were not, however, used to those drive-bys being conducted by two armored landrovers. Nor were the usual one-hit wonders and cheap bow guns used. The Spikes had moved into the major leagues and were treated as such. Cannon rounds and lasers decimated the two before they could make a coherent move to defend themselves.

The casual and effective brutality of it was almost enough to make Redflare sick. Never mind that the dead gangers were themselves members of a gang that regularly committed savage crimes. Likewise, never mind that the gang served a set of people that apparently wanted to twist Redflare into one of their black-magic pawns. Never mind that his express purpose in being there was to go to war against Bane Spikes and Circle alike. These things didn't matter. Something within the newly-made Esper simply revolted at the idea of negligently reaching out and destroying a life with overwhelming power, just as it had when Ashlyn had shot the gunjack back during that very first battle of this job. Back when it really was a job.

It wasn't professional, he knew; it could probably land him in serious danger eventually. Even so, he hoped he never lost that feeling, or the measure of his own humanity that went with it.

Then, there was no more time for reflection. The rovers stopped a couple of blocks from their destination. Anti-theft systems were engaged, and the teams split up under their various leaders. They made their way through the nighttime streets, each team approaching from a different direction.

Redflare let Dace lead the way. Even if there was something in what Ashlyn had said, they were in the field now, and the hunter was unquestionably in charge. When it came to small unit tactics, Dace was the best among them. Even on the move, Redflare had to admire the smoothness of how Dace, Isis, and Kemet supported one another, their fields of fire offering cover if any was necessary.

None, however, was required. The streets were all but deserted.

"Team C in position," Dace reported. "We're beginning to fix the door." He gestured to Isis, and she approached the single closed door in the warehouse's side. The only windows were high up, at least twenty feet up the sheer wall.

Knowing that there would be no alarms to summon the DLE or a private security firm, Isis simply pried open the lock case and went to work on its electronic guts. Not surprisingly, it was an easy job; the security was no better than nominal because it had been left over from before the Spikes' tenancy or, possibly, installed by a black-market street fixer. Redflare doubted, though, that the gang was interested enough in security for it to be the latter.

Isis nodded, indicating that she was set.

"Team C ready."

"Team B ready and in position. The loading dock is open; we can see several of them inside."

"Guards?"

"Nah, looks like they're drinking, partying, you name it--basically just hanging out."

"Watch yourself," Redflare advised. "Our target has shown a fondness for traps."

"Roger that."

"Team A in position," reported Yoshida. "We're ascending the roof now." A few more minutes passed. Redflare was glad of his neoleather gloves; they kept his sweaty palms from making his poisonshot's grip slick and hard to handle. "All right. We're ready at the skylight. It's been painted over, so we can't see through."

"'Kay, then," Dace said. "Let's do it."

Isis did something to the electronics and the door bolt snapped back. Dace's boot slammed into it, sending the panel swinging open.

They dove headfirst into the maelstrom.

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