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Magic Man

Chapter Six

Good hunter teams had safehouses, boltholes to run to, set up in advance, before it all hit the fan. Dace's crew was definitely a good team, which is why they were coping with shellshock from a room at a boardinghouse in a low-rent district in Neroton rather than while desperately trying to find somewhere to flop. Shellshocked described it pretty well, too. Three of them had lost a team leader and friend, and Dumont was facing the fact that her nice, easy extraction was blown to hell.

As for Redflare, he was not only out a friend but also had to cope with the realization that his nice, easy life was almost as screwed as Dumont's. Biz with Dace's team had occasionally been difficult, with guns fired in his direction, but when it was done it was done. This was the first time a job had gone completely off the wire.

The door opened to Isis's knock; the room's only occupant was the last member of the team, Nima, whose computer was rigged into the fisheye cameras Isis had set up to reinforce their security. What took most people, Dumont included, off-guard about Nima was that she wasn't a Palman. The blue fur that covered her body, the yellow beak in place of her nose and mouth, the tufted ears, and the pupilless red eyes all marked her unmistakably as a native Motavian. Her race was uncommon on Palm; perhaps a few hundred thousand in total existed among the millions of Palmans. Many seemed to have a knack for technology and machines, almost a genetic predilection; Nima was a neon angel par excellence, a gridrider who might someday fly with the legends.

Her face didn't show emotions in the same way a Palman's did, but her drooping ears and the tears glistening in her eyes told Redflare how she was feeling.

"It made the holovid," she said quietly. Her voice was nothing like the one the team was used to hearing on the commlinks. That voice was generated by her computer, an electronic sylph on wings of data. "The DLE publicly called it an incident of gang warfare."

"Slow news day, I see," Dumont commented dryly. Isis slowly turned to the corp exec. The look on the redhead's face went beyond anger. She didn't curse or bluster, just walked over to Dumont, grabbed the defector's braid, and jerked her head back.

"I have no trouble with the fact that you don't have any friends, or at least none you value more than a few thousand meseta per year in increased salary. Judging your life is not my affair. again make light of the death of someone I care for."

She said it softly, in tomes almost devoid of emotion, which made Dumont take the warning all the more seriously. The corporate woman could see that she was only a heartbeat away from death without having to be told. She glanced past Isis to Redflare, her eyes beckoning with desperate appeal, but at that moment the magician was having a hard time deciding whether, if Isis made a move, he would or would not try to stop her. Finally, Isis let go with a flick of her wrist and strode into a back room.

Dumont rubbed the back of her neck. No one else said anything for several minutes. The hunters were still in shock, coming to terms with the fact that Dace was gone while Ashlyn Dumont was nursing her wounded pride. The way she'd been faced down would be a festering sore on her ego which, Redflare suspected, might make for trouble later. It could have been two or three minutes or half an hour--he couldn't tell--before Isis returned.

"I am sorry," she said. "I behaved unprofessionally in a situation where none of us can afford to lose our heads with emotion."

"Look," Redflare said, "it's obvious that we've been set up here. Either the whole deal was in bad faith from square one, or SDE's deniable assets have cut in on the action. We've got to figure out who, what, how, and all that or we're all going to end up where Dace is."

He dropped into a chair. Being the first to sit, he chose one that at least had the fewest number of unidentifiable stains. The others followed suit, Isis and Kemet taking the couch while Dumont and Nima pulled two more chairs into a rough circle.

"All right, so what have we got to go on?" Redflare asked. "Whom are we working for, anyway?" Since he had been "subcontracted" by Dace for the job, as usual he didn't know any of the background details.

"Kail Garriner hired us," Nima told him. "He's a headhunter--a fixer who specializes in arranging extractions, willing or not."

"Does he have a good rep?"

"Yeah; we've worked for him before."

"All right, so who was his client?"

Nima clicked her beak in the Motavian equivalent of a shrug.

"Beats me; we were just hired by Garriner to handle the extraction and delivery."

That held together; a pro like Garriner wasn't likely to spill his secrets to the hunters if they didn't need to know. The way this jump was supposed to go down, they wouldn't have required that info. They'd have been home asleep, with meseta in their pockets, not still awake at two A.M., trying to sort out what had gone wrong.

Kemet turned to Dumont.

"You'd know, though," he said. "I can't see our lady fair risking her neck in a corporate defection without having the details of her new contract hammered out, right down to the color of the paint in her new office."

The blonde woman nodded.

"Of course. I'd be foolish to do it any other way."

"So?" prompted Redflare.

For a moment it looked like she'd argue about it, sort of a that's-my-business-not-yours thing. There were all kinds of reasons why that wouldn't work, though, and she didn't bother testing them.

"I'm not sure how familiar you are with SDE--"

"We researched it in preparation for this job," Nima jumped in. She wasn't being impolite; Motavians tended to be highly enthusiastic chatterers among themselves, speaking up whenever they had something to say. As Redflare understood it, Nima had to concentrate on the fact that she was with Palmans, who considered interruptions rude.

"Know your enemy," Dumont noted. "Very wise. In that case, I'll just say that my current assignment was as the project manager for a joint paratechnology study between Nakagaki and SDE."

"Paratechnology?" Kemet asked.

"The study of the interaction between so-called magical forces and the physical laws governing energy and matter in the absence of such forces," his sister provided. "Global Envirotech is the planetary leader in paratechnology and parabiology, but Nakagaki is also noted for its studies in that area."

"Quite so," Dumont stated. "In fact, the project was quite near to the discovery of two new techniques, to say nothing of certain breakthroughs which might explain how slashers work the way they do."

"Oh, great," Kemet groaned. "Bad enough SDE's on our backsides; now you're telling me that bloody Nakagaki is gonna be after you, too?"

Dumont smiled thinly.

"Of course they're after me," she said. "They're the ones who contracted for the extraction."

"That's just a little twisted, isn't it?"

"Not at all. The Nakagaki researchers were well aware of the joint project's success and my own contributions. As project manager, I was able to wipe the data from the SDE computers and take the backup copies." She patted her handbag.

It made a twisted kind of sense, Redflare decided. If the project had any valuable commercial applications, Nakagaki wouldn't want to share the profits with SDE, and they would have a better idea than any other corp of its value and Dumont's worth. Or they figured that meeting Dumont's price was cheaper than paying SDE its fair share of the proceeds.

Something bugged him about that, though, a thought that nagged at the back of his mind. Redflare's subconscious again, apparently doing its job.

"So who tried to kill us?" he asked. "Someone sent those gunjacks to the station and arranged the ambush at the warehouse."

"Gotta be SDE," Kem said.

"Then somebody sold us out," Redflare said flatly. "The 'jacks might have been lucky, or the results of surveillance, but SDE could never have done all that at the warehouse without advance knowledge of where we were going."

"No one on this team is stupid enough to mouth off about a job, not even as pillow talk," Kemet said with a shrug.

"I certainly didn't," Dumont stated. "I don't have any family to bring with me, and talking about my career plans on the job would border on the insane. Three years ago one of my staff actually bragged to his friends about the 'adventure' he was going to have. I'm sure you can guess the outcome." The exec's tone and expression elegantly conveyed her opinion of that kind of juvenile behavior. The story was believable, though; researchers in any field could get so far out of touch with reality that they'd need magic to summon them back.

"Garriner and the Nakagaki exec running this would hardly shoot their own project in the foot. No profit in that," reasoned Nima. "So that leaves our likely suspects as someone who heard about it from one of those two, some cut-out or staff member, and decided they needed a few more meseta than they were being paid."

"It seems logical," Dumont agreed. "After all, personal loyalty is something that seems to have vanished with feudalism and oaths of knighthood. I'm living proof," she added with a slight smile. It seemed Miss Corporate Executive had a sense of humor after all. "Putting that aside, though, I'm more interested in how you intent to deliver me to Nakagaki rather than in finding the informant. That part has nothing to do with me."

Kemet's temper flared up at once; unlike the usually-cool Isis he was as volatile as his red hair suggested.

"Nothing to do with you? Exactly who do you think those guys were after?"

"Oh, me, of course, but that was just business. It's the four of you who were betrayed by one of your own, or however the phrasing goes. Your private vengeance really doesn't concern me."

"It had best concern you," Isis snapped. "Until our 'private vengeance' is resolved, you will be staying with us."

"Is that a threat?" Dumont hissed.

Given what had already happened between the two of them, Redflare had the feeling that sooner or later the sparks they were striking off each other would explode into open conflict.

"No, it's good advice," he said quickly, cutting in. He glanced at Nima, and the Motavian picked up the explanation at once.

"It isn't safe for you to come out into the open until we establish who tipped off SDE, because you might walk into the hands of the person who works for the wrong side. If you go it alone, you have no protection against the bad guys, while if you stay with us, you've got guards."

"While you retain the opportunity to collect the remainder of your fee."

Kemet shrugged, smiling wryly.

"The best deals are those that benefit both sides, dear lady." His sudden shift to the urbane, almost elegant speech pattern indicated that he was starting to relax, let go of his anger. The more emotional he got, the more he slipped into street argot. Isis, Redflare thought, was at least consistent.

The real benefit to the hunters wasn't financial, though. So long as Dumont was with them, the people working against the extraction would have to come in contact with the hunters to reach her. It would, with luck, lead the betrayer to make a mistake they could catch him or her at. Dace's actual killer wasn't important to Redflare, nor were the SDE executives that had probably sent out the death orders. That, as Dumont would surely have said, was business as usual--part of the expected risk of being a hunter. The sellout, though, was definitely not business as usual, and that was the person the entire crew wanted vengeance against.

"Come to think of it," Nima suddenly said, "it doesn't necessarily have to be SDE who's after us."

"I don't quite see what you mean," Dumont said. "Of all the possibilities, I thought it was certain that they would want to prevent my extraction."

The Motavian shook her head, ears twitching.

"No, I mean, of course they're after you now, or at least they will be once they discover that you're gone and that you've taken the project data with you. What I'm saying is that they aren't necessarily the ones who sent the gunjacks or arranged the ambush at the warehouse."

Redflare thought he was starting to see where Nima was going with this, and it reminded him of just how twisted the world of corporate intrigue could get.

"Do you mean," he asked, "that the one who sold us out might not have gone to SDE, but to somebody else?"

Nima nodded rapidly.

"That's exactly it. If this paratechnology research is valuable to Nakagaki, it might be valuable to their competitors, too. Global Envirotech, maybe, or Alliance Oil, or really any of the big corps could have a use for it. They could have cut out the people we were supposed to meet at the warehouse and set up the ambush."

"Also," Kemet noted, "there would be a much bigger payoff for selling the project to, say, G-Tech then back to SDE. If you're going to be a sellout, it usually tends to be for the most meseta possible. I think you may be on to something, Nima."

The Motavian girl looked a little flustered at the praise.

"There's another possibility, too," Redflare said as his subconscious finally deigned to tell him what it had been working out. "There may not be a sellout."

"You lost me there, magic man," Kem said.

"Okay, consider this scenario. As we see it, Nakagaki wants the paratechnology project data. Aghast at the 'breach of security,' they pull out of the deal with SDE. Then, a few months later, their scientists 'replicate their original research'--aided by the files Dumont has stolen--and complete the project. Result: Nakagaki patents the new discoveries and reaps the benefits. Then, some bright-eyed SDE sec-agent finds Ashlyn Dumont working at a corp that, if you follow the money trail far enough, happens to be part of the Nakagaki umbrella. SDE takes Nakagaki to court, and Nakagaki loses big face and lots of cash.

"Now, how much neater would it be to take the files, slip them to their R&D people, and render Dumont into a corpse? Then there's no tie to link them to the extraction, nothing to get SDE honked off at them. Safer all around."

Dumont scowled. It was obvious that she hadn't considered that possibility yet--none of them had. Her small fists clenched in her lap.

"It could be," she said slowly. "I didn't even think of that. All I thought of was the money I'd be making, the prestige of my new position with a much richer and more powerful corp. I never stopped to think about what a liability I'd be to them--more valuable dead than alive."

"Hold on a sec," Kemet noted. "Those gangers definitely wanted to take Dumont alive. Nobody was shooting at her until we made a run for it."

"That does not necessarily disprove Redflare's theory," Isis told her brother. "A cautious approach would be to interrogate Dumont to make certain that she did not have information other than that on the chips she was bringing, or had coded some kind of encryption that would make the files difficult to access without her assistance. Had she anticipated treachery, she could have taken such precautions to make Nakagaki live up to their side of the arrangement."

"Three possibilities," Redflare said with a sigh. "Someone selling out to SDE, someone selling out to a third party, or a betrayal by Nakagaki--and not enough information to pick out one of the three."

"We could start with the gang," Nima said. "If you can give me a good description of their colors, I can find out who they are and flag any corpse or syndicates they have a known relationship with."

"What about the contact?" Kem threw in. "That blue-haired guy I shot. Damn, I hope he's dead; he was scary."

"He's alive," Redflare was forced to disappoint him, "unless he cracked the back of his head open when he hit the floor. He had some kind of armor on; your shots didn't penetrate."

The red-haired man cursed fluently.

"He's the one who really did for Dace. That mindblast or whatever he hit you guys with left Dace a sitting duck for the knife. How the hell did he do that, anyway? It couldn't have been a tech, right? I didn't hear him say anything when he used it."

"It may have been a so-called skill," explained Dumont, who did, after all, have experience in the field. "Unlike the more refined power of techniques, skills can be highly individual, even self-taught. Alternatively, it could be a newly refined technique; breakthroughs in paratechnology happen regularly."

"And the invisibility, too; I've never heard of that before, either. Who knows what else he's got up his sleeves?"

"An enemy who commands unknown powers isn't something to toy with," Redflare agreed.

"Yeah, that's one skag I've got no desire to go up against."

"Unfortunately," Isis pointed out, "I doubt that will be feasible."

She was right, Redflare reflected. If they were going to find out who had betrayed them and killed Dace, it would seem that, sooner or later, they would come into contact with the blue-haired man and whatever deadly new techniques he possessed.

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