He drifted in a sea of blackness, caught in dark dreams and shadowy visions in which
long, clutching fingers reached out to claw at him, their razored nails passing through his flesh to rend at his soul. He didn't know how long it lasted, but with every passing second it seemed like more and more of him was being torn away, bit by bit. He wondered what would happen when the last piece was gone.
It was actually a relief when Redflare awoke to the mundane reality of pain that was purely physical. His leg throbbed from the laser burn, and the back of his head ached badly enough to make him nauseous, but he was still glad to have escaped the nightmare.
Is that pathetic or what? he thought ruefully. At least waking up meant he wasn't dead, which was something to be happy about.
There were new pains, he realized, to go with the old ones. His wrists ached; they'd been bound with plastic tape-restraints that were tight enough to bite into the flesh. His ankles had been similarly bound, but his socks kept that tape from hurting. A mistake: if he pulled down his socks he could slip his feet free in a matter of seconds. Presuming, of course, that he got the opportunity. Other assorted bumps and bruises came from being jostled around; Redflare had been tossed into the back of a landrover and dumped on the floor. As he regained his senses, he saw two men seated on bench seats that ran along the side walls.
"Welcome back to the living world, techhead," growled one. Redflare recognized him as the one who'd wielded the laser shot. That weapon was slung across his back, and a long-bladed sword like Dace's was sheathed at his belt. The hunter was around six-one and broad-shouldered, with rugged looks that no one would have called handsome. The man on the other seat was younger, around eighteen, small and wiry, and kept a small poisonshot not unlike Redflare's aimed directly at the magician. "Now, before you get any stupid ideas, allow me to point out that my friend, here, has a nasty little weapon on you and will fire if he so much as suspects you're going to use a technique. So, don't let the lack of plasmarings lull you into a false sense of security."
"I'll make a note."
"Pretty ballsy for a guy who can't shoot straight."
"You're not likely to let me go if I whine and cry, are you? So, why bother?"
The hunter grinned, showing broken and decayed teeth. Maybe the guy had a phobia about biosculpting, Redflare mused, considering the scar along with the mouth. Being a street grifter gave him an eye for things like that.
"How did you get on to us, anyway?" he asked. "I'd have sworn our connection was pristine."
"Maybe so, but when corpsec's got links between your Dumont and our late boy Garriner, it doesn't matter much," the one with the poisonshot chimed in. "We just tagged him and followed the trail to you."
"Shut up, Vick," the other snapped. He was the leader, apparently, or at least enough of one that Vick stayed quiet.
He'd at least said enough for Redflare to figure out that the hunters were working for SDE; the corp had done some after-the-fact detective work and put the finger on the headhunter. Unfortunately, they'd also gravestoned said headhunter, cutting off a key source of information as to who had set up the extraction and why. That wouldn't matter much to them--the move cut off Dumont from a possible source of rescue, making her easier for them to capture. It mattered a heck of a lot to Redflare, though, because Garriner's death firmly closed off the best source they'd had to try and learn who was screwing them over.
The rover swung around a corner and Redflare skidded hard into the side wall.
"That'll leave a mark," Vick chortled. Funny man, that Vick, Redflare thought.
"So what do you want with me?" Redflare asked. "I assume it's not for my witty conversation."
Vick glanced at his leader.
"Actually, smart boy," Holst answered, "your conversation is why we want you. We may have missed the grab at Dumont, but I figure that with you in our corner we'll be able to fix that problem."
"Somehow, I doubt that."
"That really ain't the way you ought to be thinking right now, pal. Don't worry, though, you'll be changing your tune soon enough."
That was more or less what Redflare was afraid of. Physical courage wasn't his strong suit, and he'd hung with hunters often enough to know that anyone could be broken.
This was the depressing course his thoughts were on when the rover arrived at its destination. Holst shoved a blindfold over Redflare's eyes before opening the doors and dragged him out. The trip was short and went down a flight of stairs along the way, but other than the fact that he didn't hear any noises of people he had no idea where he was until he was dumped onto a hard concrete floor and his blindfold was removed. The complete lack of ornamentation, the twisted pipes with their valves and meters, and the dim yellow emergency lighting all screamed "basement," probably in an unused but not completely abandoned (or else the lights would be off) building.
"Keel, get Yoshida on the phone," Holst ordered, and one of the hunters scrambled to obey. Redflare noticed that his captors had done some decorating of their own after all; a visiphone unit had been wired into the hardline exposed by a cut-away section of a wall conduit. It was a cute trick, confusing possible traces because the physical location of the call didn't agree with the signal being sent by the phone itself. It was enough to but a few extra minutes' security against a standard trace, though a gridrider would see through it quickly enough. Depending on the skill of their electronics expert, other defenses might also have been added.
The thought gave Redflare an idea. He wasn't sure if he'd been searched, and quick pressure with his hands told him that if he had, it hadn't been well enough. Luckily, although Vick was still watching him, Redflare's hands had been tied behind his back, out of sight.
The visiphone lit up, and the harsh, angular face of a woman with almond-shaped lavender eyes and hair to match appeared.
"Yoshida," she said.
"Is this line secure?" Holst asked.
"Within limitations, yes."
"Ain't that always the way. Well, I'll chance it. We've gotten our hands on one of the team that ran the jump. We figure he makes a pretty good link to the target."
"I agree," Yoshida said. "May I ask why you are contacting me concerning this?"
"Hey, this is your show. Last I checked, we were the errand boys. You've got methods of persuasion that we just don't have access to, plus the authority to negotiate."
The woman inclined her head in a curt nod.
"I see. Your perception is most rewarding."
Redflare, his hands busy, understood that one. Yoshida was obviously the hunter's corp contact. Holst had been hired to bring in Dumont, and his pay was probably contingent on him doing so. Yet he was offering to turn his prisoner--his best lead to Dumont--over to corpsec because SDE's people had the best chance to make Redflare talk one way or another. In other words, he was putting the operation's ultimate goal ahead of his own meseta balance. The magician could almost see Yoshida making a mental note of it.
"I will be there in thirty minutes. Did you have anything further to report?"
"Good day, then." The "Call Terminated" message flashed onto the suddenly dark screen.
"Damn," the one called Keel swore. "You never told her where we are, but she's coming here?"
"I thought you had that line secured?" asked one of the three that Redflare didn't have a name for. This one he recognized as the man who'd gone down under Isis and Kemet's gunfire; apparently the hunters had gotten some healing meds into him before he termed.
"I did," Keel said. "SDE's a baby as corps go. They shouldn't have the resources to crack it so fast."
"Keel, they're a damn R&D corp, remember? Their biz is to think up hot new stuff for other corps--and you can bet they're first in line to install whatever tech toys they think up for Luveno, IMVE, or whoever's paying the freight. Maybe they ain't got a private army on hand, but that ice-witch has all the latest gear."
Wonderful, groused Redflare mentally. That hinted at how the corp had linked Dumont and Garriner so quickly after the jump. It sucked enough to be hunted, but being hunted by opposition with tricks he couldn't counter was an all-new level of crap. It was like doing sleight-of-hand for an audience of Wrens.
Fortunately, he'd only been performing sleight of hand for Vick, who was a much less discerning audience. The only question was one of time.
Basically, Redflare knew that he had half an hour to learn whether he lived or died. It wasn't everyone who got to find that out with such precision.
Then again, maybe he didn't have that long, he reflected as Holst strode over to his perch. The hunter leader was smart enough to be aware of Vick's line of fire and not block it.
"Okay," he said, "looks like we'll be a while. Case, go ditch the landrover; it might get tagged by the cops. Then score us some new wheels."
The sole female member of the team slipped to her feet.
"I'm on it," she said, and was gone.
"Now as for you," Holst said, turning his attention to Redflare, "I'm sure a smart guy like you was listening to that call, so you know that in half an hour the hard lady from SDE is going to be here to take you off our hands. That's a valuable bit of property you and your pals ran off with, and they're not going to be nice in asking for it back."
"I've gathered that," Redflare said, forcing himself to keep his voice level. A show of weakness now would be like waving a lure to a fish. Never mind that he was scared to death and his only chance lay somewhere between "slim" and "none"; he wasn't going to give Holst any hints that some quick, direct action could break him.
"Now for me, it's just biz," the hunter continued. "Nothing personal--hell, we might have gotten the nod for the extraction instead of you if the ball had bounced differently. Yoshida ain't that way, though. She's one of those corporate honor types, and figures that when Dumont jumped it was an affront to the whole corp. She'll do whatever is necessary to find the lady and bring her back, no matter what the cost to you."
"That's about how I'd sized it up," Redflare agreed, drawing a chuckle from the hunter.
"You've got guts," Holst admitted. "Think about it, though. What's that woman to you? Is Dumont worth dying for?"
Belatedly Redflare figured out what was going on.
"You want to cut a deal?" he asked incredulously.
"Exactly. Once she gets here, it's out of my hands. You get just what Yoshida gives you. We make a bargain, maybe you don't have to be here when she arrives."
Redflare looked at him with a little grin.
"And of course," he said dryly, "you get the paygirl instead of me to show the corp."
"Doesn't work out too shabby for either one of us, does it?"
No, it didn't, if one didn't mind selling out one's friends, which wasn't exactly Redflare's routine of choice. Who knew? Maybe Holst was actually telling the truth. Stranger things could happen.
"Maybe. Or maybe Yoshida's going to bring back a higher bid, and you're trying to get in the way. It's as easy for her to pay me as it is for her to pay you, after all."
Holst's brow darkened, and Redflare was glad he was sitting down; his knees had turned to water and probably couldn't have supported him. Had he gone too far, pushed the hardboiled hunter routine too hard? No matter how mercenary they were, these were people, not robots, and if pushed emotionally would do things that weren't in their best interest.
The big hunter's fist made Redflare's head snap back, cutting the inside of his lower lip against his teeth.
"I've got to keep you alive and basically well for Yoshida," he said, almost amiably. "That doesn't mean I have to listen to your wiseass mouth."
Redflare spat out blood.
"Okay, how about this, and here's the holy truth: I'm not going to sell out my team, either for my freedom or for meseta." He just hoped that the reverse was true.
This time, Holst didn't get angry; he just nodded.
"Can't fault you for that."
"Too bad it won't mean nothin' when corpsec gets its hands on you," he cackled. "Got lots of fun little toys up at SDE to make you talk, I bet."
Holst scowled at the man.
"Shut up, Vick."
The little man bounced to his feet.
"Why should I? Hotshot tech-user here, thinks he's better than us even though we took him easy." Vick wiggled the poisonshot at Redflare. "I saw you using one of these in the fight. Only difference is, I hit what I aim at."
He pointed up into the mazework of pipes.
"You see that gauge up there? Watch this."
Vick stuck the poisonshot back in its harness, prompting two of the other hunters to draw guns and level them at Redflare, just in case he got any ideas. Vick then snapped the gun out and shot from the hip, an even trickier stunt because his shot was almost vertical. Predictably, the globule of chemicals from the gun struck dead-on and started dissolving the gauge.
Actually, it wasn't a bad shot at all. The man could handle a gun. Even as a novice hunter, though, Redflare knew several reasons why showing off like that was a boneheaded play.
"Hey, Vick," one of the hunters snapped. "What is your bloody problem? You want to maybe shoot out a fire sensor and trigger an alarm? That'd be bright."
"I hit what I aim for, Zedd," the thin hunter snapped back. "Unlike this tech-freak here."
"I took you on for this job because you're a pal of Tev's," Holst growled. "He said you were trustworthy and good with a gun. He didn't say you were so damn stupid. Or did it ever occur to you that you were supposed to be watching this 'tech-freak,' and that if Tev and Keel hadn't been paying attention he might have been able to put us all down with a bloody Nazan or something like that?"
Vick flushed. From what Holst had said, Redflare was starting to get the picture. Vick was just some gunjack trying to make the jump to the big-time. He was full of brag and bluster, mostly to cover up the same kind of insecurity that Redflare felt whenever he joined Dace's team.
Dace. He hadn't meant to think of that.
"What's so hot about this guy, anyway?" Vick protested. "He's not so great. All I've seen him do is screw up one tech and shoot like a blind man. He's nothing but cheap trash."
Vick's foot lashed out, connected with Redflare's side, and sent him sprawling. Unfortunately, this did two things. The natural motion of his body caused his hands to fly apart, revealing the fact that the street magician had freed them. It also caused his porta-visiphone to spill out of his back pocket.
"What the--?" Holst grunted, and scooped up the phone. "I thought you frisked him, Vick?"
"I did! He didn't have a holdout piece or any other weapon."
"My own damn fault for trusting you. You know what this skag did while you were supposed to be watching him?" He held up the phone, so they all could see the little green light. "He made a damn phone call!"