Executive Director Taran Kendrick did not appreciate being awakened at 2:16 A.M., but it was something he had come to accept as being part of his job. The head of Sarranas Development Enterprises rarely got more than four or five hours of sleep on any night, which was why he treasured those hours so strongly, but he also knew that emergencies arose at all times, no matter how inconvenient it was for him. Those who ignored problems to pursue personal comforts didn't last long at the top. That was how he had been able to oust his predecessor eight years ago, by acting while she pursued handsome men and high-profile society parties.
Kendrick's home was actually a penthouse apartment occupying the upper floor of SDE's downtown headquarters. The building was a modest one, twelve stories, nothing compared to Luveno's tri-towered headquarters or the Nakagaki Spire, but nonetheless an indicator of the corp's up-and-coming status. Kendrick's penthouse kept him close to the action, able to respond at once to a business crisis. It took no more than ten minutes from the moment the visiphone had woken him for the XD to be dressed and in his office, face-to-face with Reiko Yoshida.
Yoshida was SDE's Security Division Chief. What that title really meant was that she was not only in charge of protecting the corporation's facilities, usually through contracts with Emerald Legion Security, but also oversaw all kinds of industrial espionage and under-the-table business. She was a slender, wiry woman with a thin-lipped, hawklike face. Her shimmering lavender hair was her sole point of vanity; it fell in an exotic sweep to mid-back length against her jet black military-styled carbonsuit. Her looks and body language were strictly business; Yoshida never bothered with lulling her enemies into a false sense of security the way some women did.
"We have a situation on our hands, Mr. Kendrick."
"So I assumed."
"Ashlyn Dumont has vanished. We're presuming that it's an extraction."
"Dumont..." Kendrick mused, then placed the name. He made sure to stay familiar with the names, faces, and personal profiles of the corporation's executives, considering corp heads who did not to be short-sighted idiots. "She's on Herrod's staff, isn't she--one of the project managers?"
"That's correct. Currently she is assigned to the paratechnology project we're working on in conjunction with Nakagaki."
"Her disappearance is confirmed?"
Yoshida nodded again.
"Yes; we're certain. Moreover, it appears that she has taken the records of the paratechnology project with her. The computer files have been wiped, and the datachip backups were found missing."
"It's a matter of defection, then, isn't it?" The question was rhetorical, and Yoshida did not answer it. He wanted to ask her how this could have happened, how a trusted executive could have slipped through the cracks. Security should have been aware that she was a flight risk, maintained surveillance, had better protocols to protect the project data.
The XD rose from his chair and crossed the office to the floor-to-ceiling armored plastiglass window that made up one exterior wall. Outside the building, the archopolis spread out beneath him. On the southern edge of Downtown, the building afforded a near-unobstructed vista of half the city. The bright, steady glow of thousands of lights sparkled among the silhouetted of the buildings. In the countryside, one could look up in the sky and see an endless field of stars, while in Camineet the glow of man-made lights and the haze of polluted sky drowned them out. Yet, Kendrick thought, were the stars beneath him not more beautiful, more varied than those wrought by nature? They represented the power of Palmans, the power to go beyond what this world had given them and shape it for themselves.
"You believed this was possible as early as two months ago, didn't you?"
"Yes. It was suspected that she could harbor disloyal sentiments. Nothing was proven, as yet, but we kept a discreet eye on her."
"Too discreet, I'd say."
Yoshida flushed at the rebuke. She took her duties very seriously, and didn't like the implication that she hadn't been living up to them. She also wasn't egotistical enough to hide from the truth.
"Apparently so. We let her slip away from us."
Kendrick turned, resting one hand on the window. There was no point in fixing blame. Perhaps an individual security agent had made a mistake in surveillance, perhaps Yoshida had not handled the situation correctly, or perhaps the ultimate responsibility lay with Kendrick himself as executive director. Pointing fingers, however, would not solve the problem.
There certainly was a problem, too. The Nakagaki Corporation was Palm's fourth-largest megaconglomerate and closing in hard on IMVE for number three. They were not going to be happy with SDE for losing key research, including information that had been compiled by Nakagaki researchers and had been obtained with Nakagaki funding. At the very least, they would pull out of the project, cutting their losses. That would send SDE's stock price and business reputation plunging. More assertive action could mean demands for reparations, possibly a lawsuit.
Not all corporate battles were fought with hunters and black ops. The ones fought at the boardroom table could be as brutal and more damaging.
"Do we have any idea where she's gone?"
"No; thus far our efforts have not been able to keep track of her. We aren't even aware of which corporation wants to acquire her."
"Unfortunate," Kendrick said softly. He glanced out the window, watching the running lights of an aerojet cut through the night sky as the jet descended towards Camineet. "Is there anything we can work with, some clue?"
"Not as yet. I have security teams reviewing surveillance information, backchecking her communication, and otherwise attempting to establish whom she dealt with--probably a professional headhunter." This was a fixer who specialized in corporate extractions. "Unfortunately, he or she probably wouldn't tell us much. Still, there are possibilities to be explored."
"Do you have any leads at all?"
Yoshida smiled nastily.
"All right, then. I'll leave the retrieval effort in your hands. We must have confirmation that neither Dumont nor the project files have reached our competitors."
"Do you want her alive?"
Kendrick considered the question.
"It would be preferable, but do not make it a particular priority. Our friends at Nakagaki will want a full recovery of data if possible but will insist that the situation be fully contained. Under the circumstances, their priorities should be ours."
"Hopefully, by the time they receive word of Dumont's extraction, we will be in a position to say that the situation is already under control, that the files have been recovered."
Yoshida nodded; she understood the dynamic as well as Kendrick. A large corporation like Nakagaki was hampered by its size when swift action was needed. Hopefully, SDE could move quickly and escape trouble.
"Thank you for reporting this promptly," the XD said. "I won't keep you any longer."
"Very well." Obviously dismissed, she turned to go.
"Oh, and Reiko?"
"Yes, Mr. Kendrick?"
As the security chief left, Kendrick was already back at his desk, requesting the personnel files for the Research and Development Division. Even if Dumont was brought back alive, she'd have to be replaced as project manager, and the director wanted to look over possible candidates. It was always better to promote from within whenever possible; it fostered loyalty.
Loyalty, Kendrick thought, was a quality that would rank very high among his criteria for replacing Ashlyn Dumont.
* * *
Reiko Yoshida was fuming inside when she left Kendrick's office, though her face remained blank and impassive. She took her failures personally; there had been few of them in her corporate career and each one still stung. The lean, whiplike woman was determined not to let this become one of them.
She went back to her office, footsteps muffled by the soft gray carpeting. Few people were around; most of the offices she passed were dark. It was indicative of SDE's status as a small-sized corp; the night shift at Nakagaki, for example, was as busy as its daylight counterpart. Yoshida didn't sit down; relaxation didn't come easy to her, especially when she was at work. Nor did she pace, just folded her arms across her chest and stood, eyes fixed on nothing on particular.
When security had first tagged Dumont as a flight risk, Yoshida had informed the project manager's superior, R&D Division Chief Herrod. He had downplayed the risk, noting that Dumont was highly placed and well compensated, extending his personal trust. Some people would have reported this to Kendrick in an attempt to shift blame, but Yoshida was not like that. As she saw it, the fault lay with her. Herrod was not trained in security work, and yet she had accepted his opinion, keeping only a limited watch on Dumont's comings and goings from work and home.
Now, due to her lapse in judgment, her corporation faced disgrace and financial ruin. If blame was to be placed, it should fall upon her.
By now, she reasoned, Ashlyn Dumont had either been safely delivered to her destination or had gone to ground to wait out the search efforts. If it was the former, then there was nothing left but to hope to learn that destination's identity. Therefore, she had to proceed on the assumption that the latter case was true. Even if it wasn't, investigation along those lines would probably turn up all there was to find, anyway.
So the question became, where was she? Camineet was the largest city in the world and there were a lot of nooks and crannies for one woman to hide in. She wasn't just hiding, though. Dumont would want to reach her destination corp because until she did she was a target. That meant staying in contact with her fixer; probably it was the headhunter's people who were keeping her out of sight. Ideally, Yoshida could find the headhunter and interrogate him or her as to Dumont's whereabouts, but that was probably not going to happen. Anyone who made a living in the extraction game was certainly familiar with the problem of a pursuing corp.
One lesson Yoshida had learned, though, was that there were always alternatives when the direct approach was unavailable. She used her corp ID passcard to unlock one of her desk drawers, then pressed her thumb against the hidden catch that opened the false back. The print reader verified that it was her, and she was able to manipulate the catch. Inside the secret compartment was her personal record of various agents, contacts, and hunters she could turn to in different situations--written on paper, not in any form that could possibly be hacked electronically. She already had a good idea of whom she wanted to call, but took the time to read over the entry, verifying her recollection of the individual's abilities and trustworthiness. When that turned out to be in tune with her memories, Yoshida checked what she had needed the record for: the method of contact. Some methods noted in the journal were extraordinarily complex; this one was not, just a visiphone number to call (one which connected to the man himself by several automated data relays no doubt set up for him by a friendly, or well-paid, gridrider).
"Yeah, what the hell is it?" was the sleep-numbed response.
Were this man one of her subordinates, Yoshida would be offended at his belligerence and lack of respect, but she reminded herself that he was not, in fact, subject to her authority except under the terms of specific contracts between them. She might deplore the attitude, but she also knew that it was not her place to chastise him for it.
"Are you interested in five thousand meseta?" The mention of money cut through many complaints.
"Hell, yeah," Gunter Holst replied at once. He squinted, getting a better look at Yoshida. "Well, whattaya know, the big cheese herself. Last couple times we had to deal with your flunkies."
"You didn't complain too much, as I recall."
"That's 'cause the pay came through on time. Nice to work for someone who don't put up a stink 'bout forking over the meseta when it comes time. You said five K?"
"You're paying the piper; name the tune."
"There is a person I need found and returned to me."
"Living or gravestoned?"
"Dead is acceptable. I would consider a bonus if you were able to capture her alive, but that is not your first priority."
Holst's mouth twisted thoughtfully.
"Five K now, plus a bonus if your lady is still breathing."
"One thousand up front, the rest on delivery," Yoshida countered.
"Two K on the front end, corp lady, or you find yourself another pack of errand boys."
"All right, two thousand meseta in advance."
The hunter grinned, showing bad teeth.
"Sounds like we can do biz, boss lady. What's the game?"
It didn't take long to pass the information to Holst, the sparse briefing supplemented by a transmission of carefully edited datafiles. With his street contacts, he had a better chance of tracking Dumont and her escort than the sec-chief did. No matter how smart or experienced she was, Yoshida was still one step removed from the world hunters and fixers moved in. Lacking the resources of a first-tier corp's black ops division, she preferred to work through agents. It wasn't like the days when she'd been a hunter herself, when she'd had her finger on the pulse of the city's underside. She had traded up into the realms of corporate finance, industrial espionage, and trade wars. Maybe that was why she so hated mistakes, because with every one she made she could feel the street stretching up to reclaim her. This is what happens to one who reaches too far; she falls back into the shadows that birthed her.
"I'll arrange for you to receive your payment in the usual way," Yoshida finished her orders.
"Yeah, and don't forget to make it in cash this time. I've got people to deal with that don't take damn bank access cards. You corps may do fine with computer transfers, but real people like to have money in their hands."
"Will hundred-meseta notes satisfy you?"
"Consider it done."
Yoshida cut the connection. Now it was just a matter of time.