Meetings, Redflare had learned, were decidedly more complicated when there were people involved. If the job was just to pass over information, usually on datachip, or just to collect a fee for a completed task, then the meeting could be anywhere, from a dark alley to a bar to out on the street to a glittery skybox at a Knights-Corsairs game. It could be casual or out in the open, depending on the necessary level of privacy.
When the job involved people--and they usually were, because that's what most of Redflare's techniques were good for--things got complicated. In this instance, the meet was set for a large warehouse at Kelvain and Murrough in the Southern Industrial Sector, a district affectionately known to its residents as "Machine Hell." The name fit. There were manufacturing plants, run largely by robots, like concrete blocks where smokestacks belched toxins into the air at levels a hair's breath under the very liberal legal limit. There were refineries belonging to Alliance Oil and to petrochemical subsidiaries of Nakagaki and Scion-Colesburg, mazes of pipes and tanks and catwalks like a twisted product of an insane sculptor. And there were warehouses.
Southern wasn't the arch's biggest manufacturing district. That honor went to the Parolit Industrial Sector. It was possible that Machine Hell would have gone the way of Ossale Court, were it not for the warehouses. The Southern Industrial Sector served as the "road harbor" section of the archopolis. It was where the huge overland cruisers picked up and dropped off goods. The giant automated rigs, three hundred feet long and fifty wide, were about the cheapest way to ship things by ground, but no one wanted a landcruiser rolling down city streets. So, the firms that used them largely clustered their warehouses in Machine Hell, at the southern edge of the arch'.
The meet with Dumont's new employer was scheduled to go down at one of those warehouses. Probably, Redflare thought, it was owned or leased by the clients. Also probably, it would be owned through a series of shell companies, holding companies, even joint ventures with other firms so that even if a gridrider cut through all the financial backtrail they still couldn't be sure if they had the right company or just someone in the chain.
The warehouse looked dark and forbidding other than the lights illuminating the sign over its door. That door was big enough to accommodate a landcruiser, a massive barrier of reinforced steel. The team had been given a code to use at the meet, so Isis installed it into the skimmer's beacon (the device that let it tap into the city's autodrive system, for example). It, in turn, broadcast the code to another machine which read the code and analyzed it. Apparently it decided that it liked the hunters. The door rose smoothly and Isis guided the Brocknar inside. Behind it, the door closed again.
Redflare had expected something, crates, drums, pallets loaded with boxes, large pressurized containers like they used in ships--something. But there wasn't. The warehouse looked exactly at it had from the outside--bare walls, slightly angled ceiling. Thick steel beams crossed overhead, possibly providing support for winches and other loading equipment. There wasn't so much as a single crate for someone to hide behind, no windows or skylights, though there was a door in the back that probably led to the warehouse manager's office.
That made it very easy to see the landskimmer parked at the far end of the warehouse. It was a Palman Motors Microglide, long, sleek, and black, its finish glistening as if wet in the dim light. No doubt the warehouse illuminators could bring on near-daylight, but only auxiliary power was currently in use. The Microglide was among the elite in near-limousines, a personal hovercraft that gave a ride smoother than silk. Or at least that's what the rumors were; Redflare sure as hell hadn't seen the inside of one.
Two men stood by the doors of the vehicle. Both were tall and broad, wearing dark exec-styled two-piece suits. Probably carbonsuits, possibly with added protection underneath. They also wore dark glasses, an affectation more common to syndicate muscle than to corp bodyguards, and one for which that Redflare had never really seen the point. If your whole job was combat effectiveness, why inhibit visibility, of all things?
The actual contact, presumably, was inside the Microglide, waiting in comfort instead of standing around in a dusty warehouse.
One thing was for certain; there was no place to hide a sniper or other cover for a doublecross. It didn't seem to matter, though; Redflare's neck still itched as if someone was slipping up behind him. Was his intuition trying to tell him something? Or was it just lingering concerns about the gunjacks, who they were and why there had just been the three of them?
You should stick to magic, Rick, he told himself, not for the first time.
Isis drew the Brocknar to a stop about a hundred feet from the other skimmer and popped the doors. Dace, Kemet, and Redflare got out along with Dumont.
"Wait here," Dace told Kemet, "and cover us."
The red-haired hunter drew his paired sonic guns, military-model Redfield Marksmen pistols similar to the gunjack's weapon, but kept them at his sides, pointed down. No threatening moves, just a precaution in case of trouble.
Dace and Redflare flanked Dumont as they walked forward, treading lightly on the bare concrete floor. One of the bodyguards opened the door of the Microglide, and a blue-haired man got out. He wasn't wearing shades; his face was clean-shaven and he looked to be in that thirty-to-fifty range that many corptypes settled anonymously into with the help of biosculpting salons. If he was armed, then his tailor had done a good job concealing it. Then again, the same could be said for the two hard men. The exec's suit looked like a designer weave, silver-gray, with specks that glittered in the pale light as he moved. Probably titan-laced, Redflare assumed. Armored designs by Oldoran or Tessier of Scion were all the rage among the modern corporators who felt their business negotiations might turn lively.
There was a curious look on Dumont's face as she regarded the man, as if she felt there was something out of place but didn't know exactly what it was. Was her subconscious bothering her too, Redflare wondered?
That was when he saw it. Only out of the corner of his eye, off to his right, but there all the same. There was a rippling in the air, like a reflection in a pool of water, or like when the pulse from a sonic gun is fired. No weapon had been fired, though; there were no heat sources that could disturb the atmosphere--so what was it?
The original ripple lasted only an instant, but now that he was aware of it, he could see others here and there.
"Dace," he said softly, barely moving his lips, "something's not right."
"Yeah, I can feel it."
"Something's wrong with the air; you can see it."
Dace acknowledged him with a slight, almost imperceptible nod, though whether to say that he could see it too or just that he'd heard and understood Redflare didn't know.
"Let's just get this done and bail," he said. "It ain't worth playing games over." He had a point. Oftentimes the best way to avoid trouble was not to get involved in it.
"Good evening, gentlemen, Miss Dumont," the contact said as they drew near. "I'm glad to see that everything went successfully." He had a pleasant, almost generic voice, the voice of a man experienced in corp dealings. It matched the face. At this range, though, Redflare could see something about him that was in no way off the rack: his eyes. The magician had never seen truly black eyes before--dark, yes, but not like these. The contact's eyes were like two chips of obsidian, and they were ringed with bands of gold, like jewels in their settings.
Deep in his heart, although the man had made no threatening moves, not so much as raised his voice, Redflare was terrified.
"Some complications, but nothing we couldn't handle," Dace assured the contact.
"That's good. Obviously I employed the right people for the job." He glanced at Dumont. "A practice I hope to continue with you, Miss Dumont."
"If the contract terms are identical to those Mr. Garriner provided to me, then I'm sure you'll have no trouble there," she replied smoothly.
The ripples seemed to be coming from closer, now, nearer to the Microglide and the six people by its side.
Dace cleared his throat.
"Not to get pushy, but--"
"Of course. The matter of your payment," the blue-haired man said. He reached into his pocket and took out a bank access card. Blank credit, no doubt--certified funds where the meseta had been transferred electronically through several accounts, usually at several different banks, so that discovering the original source of the money was for all practical purposes impossible. "As agreed, ten thousand meseta upon completion."
Dace took the card, then drew a portable reader from his pocket, slotted the card, and verified that the amount was there.
"Thank you," he said, putting the card away.
"Not at all."
The shimmers were too close, now; Redflare turned and saw them approach, almost forming a ring around them.
"What the hell's going on?" he snapped.
The bodyguards reacted to his stance and tone at once, reaching for their guns, but Dace was faster. Though primarily a swordsman, he also carried an Inverness AN-9 laser shot for those times when ranged combat was unavoidable. The pistol was pointed at one goon's head before the man's sonic gun could clear its holster.
"Let's not lose our heads here," he said quietly but firmly.
The contact chuckled.
"Oh, quite the contrary. You definitely need to do just that." He made a quick, slashing motion with his left hand and then, as if a veil had dropped away, the rippling spaces resolved themselves into people. There was no fading in, no progression from unseen to visible. One moment no one was there and the next, it looked like over a dozen men and women surrounded them.
They were gangers, Redflare was sure--the long, narrow, inverted black triangles painted or tattooed like spikes around each one's right eye, sleeveless black fibercoat vests, and green bandannas tied around their right biceps were obvious colors, and at least two-thirds were still in their teens. All had weapons drawn--guns, knives, swords, clubs, whatever was handy, Redflare supposed.
He only had a few moments to notice these things, though, because what happened next happened fast. Dace squeezed the trigger of his laser shot, piercing the bodyguard's skull with a searing blue-white beam. A flick of his wrist shifted his aim and he gunned the second bodyguard while the man was still bringing up his weapon.
Kemet vaulted for cover over the hood of the Brocknar and popped up, rapidly pumping sonic gun shots at the gangers. More than one returned his fire, adding to the landskimmer's already battered condition, blowing out one rear window.
Redflare went for his poisonshot, but a baton cracked into his right elbow and the gun dropped from numbed fingers. He punched out, bloodying the ganger's nose and making her stumble. Two more gangers grabbed Dumont, wrestling her arms out to her sides. That made the magician grateful; until then he hadn't been sure which side Dumont would join if she wasn't in personal danger.
The best move would have been to take the contact hostage. That way, the gangers' added numbers wouldn't matter. With the man's bodyguards down, Dace sprang to do just that, but he never got the chance. The blue-haired contact raised his right hand, then swept it out in an arc.
Instantly, Redflare felt incredibly sleepy. His brain swam, he staggered dizzily, and the ganger's baton pounded into his gut while he was defenseless. Redflare dropped to his knees, barely even aware of the pain due to his exhaustion. Somehow, with a surge of will he fought off the wave of unconsciousness threatening to consume him and at once his senses snapped back alive.
Maybe I should have stayed asleep, he thought, wincing as the pain from his stomach caught up to him. The baton was descending towards his head, though, so he found the strength to lunge up and head-butt the female ganger in the belly. A hard, two-handed shove knocked her down.
Dumont, too, had resisted the effects of the sleeping influence, and was struggling and kicking to break free. Dace, on the other hand, had not. He was laying prone on the warehouse floor, completely unconscious, unable to react to anything, even as one of the spike-eyed gang members rammed a knife into his back once, twice, three times, making his body jerk reflexively as blood gushed from savage wounds.
The fourth time, he just laid there.
Someone screamed, and the roar of the Brocknar's engine filled the air. Kemet wrestled open a door and dove in as the big sedan began to move with a screech of tires. More gunfire crashed into the skimmer as Isis drove right at the biggest knot of gangers. A sonic gun charge blew out the already-starred windscreen, actually improving her visibility even as it showered her with plastiglass shrapnel, but she kept right on coming. The gangers scattered, but not fast enough. One was hit dead-on; he bounced off the hood and nearly ended up in Isis's lap before falling off to one side. Another nearly dodged but the fender caught her hip and sent her sprawling.
The contact looked like he was going to try something else from his bag of tricks, but Kemet leaned out the window and opened fire, slamming multiple charges into the man's chest that knocked him over backwards. Redflare didn't see any blood, implying that whatever the man's armor had cost was worth it.
Worse the luck.
Redflare leveled his index fingers at the two punks holding Dumont and cried out, "Gelun!" The technique sapped their energy, actually making them react as if their aging had rapidly accelerated. The effect was limited in duration, but it made even an untrained woman like Dumont strong enough to wrest her way free. She and Redflare ran for the skimmer, yanked open a door, and clambered inside.
"What about Dace?" Isis asked. Just then came the low, ripping sound that could only mean that someone had brought out the heavy artillery. Vulcan shells pounded into the Brocknar, decimating its back end. Kemet started to fire back in the direction the shells had come from, but gave a gasp of pain and lurched back inside, his right arm bleeding badly from two wounds that had pierced flesh and shattered bone.
"He's dead," Dumont snapped. "If we don't want to join him, we've got to get out of here now."
The boom of shotgun fire had joined the vulcan and sonic guns. The sedan might have been tough but it wasn't armored; it wouldn't hold out much longer.
"She's right," Redflare said, wincing inwardly at the thought of losing another friend. "We have to get moving." The rear window went, illustrating his point; if the passengers hadn't been ducking they could well have been killed.
Isis gunned the engine as Redflare dug an injector of Dimate from his vest pocket. He set it against Kemet's sleeve and pressed the button, sending the powerful healing medicine into the hunter's system. Before Redflare's eyes, the bone reknitted itself together, the flesh healed over scarlessly as weeks of healing passed by in seconds. Moments later, Kemet was blazing away out the broken rear window with his sonic guns.
Vulcan rounds spattered off the concrete as the landskimmer drove full-speed towards the closed door.
"The door isn't opening," Isis said, the tension in her voice giving the lie to the apparently calm, rational analysis of her words. "The opposition must have anticipated we would seek to escape at some point and invalidated our code."
"Hell, then, ram it!" Kemet shouted.
"That would not work; it's reinforced steel."
"Do we have a choice?"
"Maybe I can help." Ashlyn Dumont clenched her fists, teeth gritted as she went through some obvious mental effort, then all but flung her hand at the door, opening her fingers as if hurling something, and commanded, "Gigra!"
The Gra series of techniques focused waves of gravitational energy over a large area. Generally they were used against living targets, but there was no reason that they couldn't be applied to objects. Dumont must have been a fairly powerful tech-user; the reinforced steel buckled and crumpled under the impact of the Gigra. The landskimmer hit it going about fifty--nice acceleration, a somewhat detached portion of Redflare's brain noted--a second and a half later.
The ensuing jolt was major. In fact it was about halfway short of "thunderous." Redflare, Kemet, and Dumont were all catapulted into the back side of the front seat; the magician was stunned by the impact despite the thick foam padding inside the imitation leather.
It worked, though. The corp defector's tech had damaged the door badly enough that the hinges tore free with a hideous shriek of metal that sounded like a soul in torment, and then the door fell one way and the Brocknar skidded the other, and they were out into the open streets. By this point, Redflare was half-expecting anything from another gang pack to a double squad of corpsec troopers to a bloody DLE battalion backed up by a couple of Aerotanks, but it appeared that the streets were deserted.
They were free.
* * *
Slowly, the blue-haired contact rose to his feet and surveyed the damage. The decision to wear the augmented carbonsuit had paid off; the three sonic pulses would leave several ugly bruises, perhaps a cracked rib, but nothing that a dose of Monomate couldn't deal with.
The gang members were checking out their own condition, cursing the target's escape. Several of their own were dead, but this did not concern them overly much. The price of doing business, the man's corporate side thought, though the gang didn't think that way. They just didn't care.
He observed one of the gangers, a boy of about sixteen, slotting a fresh clip in his vulcan to replace the last one he'd exhausted against the hunters. The contact's eyes narrowed. He'd heard the shattering of plastiglass under the impact of the weapon's shells. The ganger had fired at the skimmer, not low at the tires but high, at its occupants.
"What," he snapped, "were you told about the use of weapons?"
The boy looked up, then flinched as he found the contact's coal-black gaze on him.
"Indiscriminate fire was not to be used," the contact answered his own question.
"They were getting away..." the boy protested feebly.
"How does this permit you to disobey a direct order?"
The stammered replies fell silent. The contact turned to another ganger, nodded once. The girl pulled out a laser knife, took one step, and ripped it across the offender's throat.
"Someone else take the vulcan," he ordered. "Someone who can remember that knowing when to use a weapon is as important as how. Someone who can follow orders."
"But what about the hunters? They got away."
"Then we'll just have to find them, won't we?" He smiled wolfishly. Even if they couldn't dredge the mercenaries out of their hiding place, it didn't really matter. Sooner or later, the hunters would come back to them.
He glanced at the sprawled form of the fallen hunter.
Oh, yes. They'll come back to us.
The contact walked back to the Microglide and slid into the rear seat. Not having a driver was inconvenient, but no more than that. The landskimmer was equipped with a highly advanced autodrive that would take him to his destination in response to voice commands. The Microglide started up and left the warehouse, and after a bit of looting of the dead, the gangers followed.
When they were gone, a figure detached itself from the shadows across the street. He'd arrived too late to have a hand in the outcome of events, but worse than that he had arrived too late to learn what he needed to know.
Possibly, he supposed, there might be something left behind at the scene.
Inside the warehouse, he found only the evidence of violence, only bodies--one hunter, five gang members, and two individuals who, curiously enough, looked to be corporate or syndicate muscle. It was an intriguing combination. He examined the room carefully, using his mind as well as merely his senses, and after only a few seconds he realized how he could get the information he needed.