The corrugated-steel door of the loading dock was locked tight. There were any number of ways past that, but before the hunters tried any of them, Isis made a quick examination of the lock. It was a good move.
"Hm," she pondered. "There appears to be a functional alarm system in place. Most probably, the building's current inhabitants subverted and reactivated the original security measures to afford them some additional protection."
"Can you deal with it?" Myrlock asked.
"Assuredly." She flashed him a million-meseta smile and went to work. In addition to being a hot hand with any vehicle I knew about, Isis was also a first-class technician.
"Nima," Dace asked while Isis was trying to dance around the alarm without setting it off or making it too obvious to the building's security operators what was going on, "what kind of security have we got here?"
"Give me a minute," the Motavian replied. "Let me see...aha, here we are, the original security specs. Alarms on all doors, designed to trigger a silent alarm and summon a guard force from Emerald Legion Security--"
"You can bet these boys have changed that," Kemet interrupted.
"No biggie if they didn't though," Myrlock pointed out. "The contract with EL wouldn't be active anymore, and they don't respond to people who ain't paying them."
Much like he himself, the greedy skag. I was glad he wasn't the one making the choice to be here.
"--as well as alerting a master command panel here in the building itself. Nothing else, though, no cameras or internal security as far as I can see here."
"Good. You have that alarm finished off yet, Isis?"
"Not quite." She made a couple of adjustments, all of which were beyond me--hell, the entire process was beyond me--and stood up. "All right. You may break in now in whatever fashion you desire."
Dace nodded and drew his sword. We all stood back, and with one stroke he slashed through the thin steel of the door and the locking bar, then grabbed the handle and hauled the loading dock open. Sometimes there was something to be said for the direct approach.
The large room beyond was empty, with bare concrete walls and floor. I figured it had been a storage bay for loading and offloading back when this place was still being used. We moved out from there, with Dace on point flanked by Kemet and Myrlock so they could use their long-range attacks. Isis and I brought up the rear, natch.
The storage bay led to a short corridor with a staircase heading up to the second floor on one side, two restrooms opposite it, and another door at the far end. Dace beckoned me forward and we went up the stairs, with the others following. There was a door at the top of the flight leading into another corridor and in that corridor was a man wearing an armored fiberjacket and jeans.
I wasn't quite as in sync with the rest of the team as they were with each other from long experience of working together, but I knew this was my spot to act. The guard was reaching for the sonic gun in his waistband and starting to shout a warning when I pointed both index fingers at him and snapped, "RIMIT."
The paralysis technique isn't always reliable. I don't know if it's because of a hiccup in my own concentration, the willpower of the target, or just plain dumb luck, but sometimes it doesn't work. This wasn't one of those times. The guard lost voluntary muscle control (that is, no shooting at us, no shouting for help) and slumped to the floor. Dace smacked him over the head with his gun butt to make sure he'd stay down once the tech wore off.
"Nima," he murmured softly, "we just came up to the second floor. Where's the main office from here?"
"The security panel is in an office just to your right, while the plant manager's suite was straight ahead."
"Two rooms, an outer office for the secretary and an inner one for the boss."
"Thanks. Kem, try the security room."
Kemet opened the door, ready to spring if anyone had been inside, but it was empty. I'd figured as much; these doors were thin and someone in the sec-office would have heard even the small amount of noise our confrontation with the guard had made. Dace gave a wave, and we went into the secretary's office. Thankfully it was empty too, and we could hear voices coming from behind the frosted-glass door to the inner office.
"I'm tired of playing games, lady," a man's harsh voice said. "I'm getting paid to get something specific from you, not to keep you in one piece or even alive while doing it." There was the sound of a slap, flesh hitting flesh, and all my muscles tensed. Dace grabbed my arm, just in case I got the urge to do something stupid.
"Hey," he said softly, "this is why you called us, Redflare. Take it easy and we'll get her out of there."
"I don't think that talking's going to do any good," another voice said.
"Maybe you're right."
Dace grinned humorlessly.
"Sounds like a cue. Let's move."
His booted foot slammed into the door, snapping it open into the inner office. Kemet somersaulted and rolled into the room, staying low, coming up with his sonic guns in hand. I barely had time to take in the details of our opposition--one man sitting on the desk, two others looking with shocked expressions at our appearance, and two stubby, conical Whistle-type robots--before he slagged one of the Whistles with rapid gunfire. Myrlock gestured and commanded, "ZAN!" and columns of air, miniature whirlwinds, exploded up around the two standing men. They staggered back and Dace leapt into the room as the man on the desk vaulted down, coming up with his own blade. The two men met, swords clashing as the second Whistle's turretlike head rose to reveal the barrel of its integral minivulcan. It too, though, fell victim to Kemet's lightning reflexes and repeated blasts from his sonic guns.
I did my part by taking down one of the ones stunned by Myrlock's tech with another RIMIT, while the techmaster called forth a FOI that knocked the second man back over the desk, barely missing the blue-haired lady, who was tied to the desk chair.
"Give it up," Dace snarled between thrusts and parries. "You've got no backup." Apparently, though, his opponent was one of those skags who'd rather die than lose face, because he only smiled and threw himself into the fight with greater energy. Dace beat the frenzied attacks aside, slashed once, and the man went down. I noticed that he'd turned his sword at the last minute and used the flat of the blade, but I didn't bother to ask why. I was already over at the desk.
"You!" the woman exclaimed, recognizing me. "How did you get here, and why?"
"We're kinda asking the same thing," Dace said.
Kemet offered me his knife to cut the ropes, but the knots were no problem for me and I whipped off the bonds with a flourish.
"A magician never reveals his secrets," I said archly. "Are you all right?"
"Y-yes, I think so."
"Good," Dace said. "Let's blow this joint before some of these skags wake up."
We got out the way we came and were soon back on the road. Before starting the van, Isis ran a bug-sweeping device over the lady in gray just in case she'd been marked with some nasty surprise that had allowed the goons to track her down in the first place. Thankfully, though, she was clean.
"Okay," Dace said once we were on the move again, "Let's cut to the chase. Redflare, here, wanted you bailed out of trouble, and since he's a pal we went along, but I've just about hit the limits of what I'll do for friendship's sake. I want to know who we may have just made an enemy of and just what the magic man has pulled us into."
Four pairs of eyes focused on our impromptu guest, but I was the only one she looked back at. There was a pleading in her gaze, and more than a little fear. I could see a bruise starting near the corner of her mouth.
"We've all got to trust sometime," I said. "Whatever you've gotten yourself into, my lady, I don't think it's something you can handle alone."
She combed her fingers through her tousled hair, restoring it to some semblance of order, then gave a deep sigh.
"My name is Vaya Sedgewick. I'm an account executive with Tambaya Electronics. We do a lot of business with Luveno Industrial Mechanisms; we manufacture components for some of their products. That's how I met Javi Martinez."
"I know he's some LIM bigwig," Dace said, "but I'm coming up blank on just what he does."
"He's the Industrial Division Chief," Vaya said. "He's handsome, stylish, and charming."
I felt an unaccountable stab of jealousy at her description of the man, and even more jealousy when I realized she had left out words like "rich" and "powerful" from her description.
"I admit it," she blushed, "I was swept off my feet. We dated, then became lovers, and things had been wonderful for a year and a half. Then came last night."
Her gaze dropped to the carpeted floor of the van.
"We had a little too much to drink. All right, a lot too much. Javi was in a giddy mood--he took me to Syrrethian's for dinner, and then we went to Aurora for dancing!"
Given that I had about as much chance of seeing the inside of either the restaurant or Camineet's hottest club as I did of pulling a dragon out of my hat, I assumed that Martinez had quite a bit of pull.
"Nice itinerary," Myrlock said, probably thinking the same thing.
"Anyway, we went back to my apartment, and we had a couple of more drinks, which, well...it's good we were alone. That was when Javi let it slip, that he was leaving his job at LIM."
The Industrial Division Chief of LIM does not just slap a resignation memo on the XD's desk and clear out his file cabinet. The proprietary information he knows about Luveno's operations would be worth millions, even billions of meseta. Sure, an honest person wouldn't pass on confidential information from his old job to benefit his new employers, but let's face facts. How many people do you know working at that level who have those kind of ethics?
So, when a major-league exec for one of the big megaconglomerates wants to jump ship, the prospective employer can do one of two things. The open and aboveboard way is to buy out the exec's contract--cash, stock options, personnel swaps, whatever looks right on the balance sheet. The sneaky way, and also the much cheaper way, is a corporate extraction. The new employer hires hunters, often through a fixer who specializes in these little career changes, who "kidnap" the exec off the old corp's turf (corp-owned housing, corp-owned stores and clubs, even the HQ itself). I don't know precisely how the accountants and managers worked it out, but the way the game is played, until the extractee is in the hands of the new corp (and has told all he or she knows), they're fair game to be snatched back or reduced to a grease spot. Going after the exec once they've been installed in their new job, though, is off-limits and an act tantamount to corporate war.
I was suddenly struck by the thought that neither I nor any of Dace's crew had stopped to consider that Vaya might have been being extracted, that her fear might have been of being caught.
I was glad we hadn't, though.
"Do you believe that Martinez realized his mistake when he woke up the next morning?" Isis asked.
"I knew it right then. Javi's entire body just went stiff the moment the words were out of his mouth. He'd suddenly realized what he'd just given away. After a moment, he went on talking like nothing had happened, but I knew."
She sighed again, bitterly.
"I called in sick this morning and went out, not anywhere in particular, just trying to think. About eleven I got a call on my porta-visiphone from my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Andrini. She said that several men had broken into my apartment in broad daylight!"
"So you figured your boyfriend had decided his career was worth more than your love and called out the muscleboys," Dace concluded.
"Eleven's a little late for them just to get to her house, isn't it?"
Probably went to her office first, found out she wasn't at work, then came after her at home," Dace suggested. "That's how I'd have done it."
"I don't get what the big deal is," Myrlock said. "I mean, if you did love him or even if you just had some basic decency he could trust you to keep your yap shut. Worst case, you tell someone and they increase security on Martinez, making the extraction tougher. They wouldn't do more to a freakin' division chief on your word alone. For all the corp knows, he could have just dumped you and you wanted to get back at him."
"Guy's got a point," Dace noted. "Your boy tend to be the hyper and overreacting sort?"
Vaya shook her head.
"No. I...I think it was the recording that must have scared him."
"Well," she blurted, "we liked...there was a holovid camera in the bedroom."
"I'm not gonna go there," Kemet decided.
I also decided to skip past the uncomfortable question of why and concentrated on the end results.
"You have Javi Martinez on camera admitting that he was planning to jump ship? Not kidding around or that he was hoping to, but that it was a done deal?"
"Yes, I do. He even identified Scion-Colesburg as his destination."
Scion-Colesburg Technologies, of course, being Luveno's biggest competitor in the ongoing war to see who could screw over the most people for the most meseta. A division chief wanting to go to some little firm like Tambaya (which I'd never heard of until now) was an irritant. One heading to Scion-Colesburg was a disaster whose effects could possibly be measured in the billions. That's not an easy concept to think about for a guy whose pockets don't even hold enough cash to run into three digits.
"Then that is what the hunters were endeavoring to convince you to reveal, the location of the recorded conversation."
She opened her suit jacket and from a slit in the inside hem took out a plastic datapak, two inches by one by one-quarter, the size most commonly used in holovid systems. The datachips inside were smaller, the same as the toothpick-sized ones used by computer nuts like Nima, but I figured the focus groups had told the corps that this was the size people found most convenient to use, or the marketing people had said that any smaller and the IMVE Microtech logo on the pak wouldn't attract the eye, or some such corp garbage.
"They searched my purse," she said, "and patted me down for weapons, but they hadn't searched me yet."
"Sloppy," was Dace's comment, "but it's a good break for our side."
Our side. Now, that was funny. Dace, who'd been reluctant to sign on for this at all, was calling it "our side." As for me, well, I had to admit that the magic was going out of it. The damsel in distress had come up mildly tainted (no surprise there; romantic illusions will do that to you), and the dragons to slay were all of the corporate variety.
That didn't change the basic fact, though, that my lady in gray was still a very scared young woman in a great deal of trouble, trouble that wasn't her fault.
A young woman, moreover, who liked magic.
I found that, feet of clay or not, I still wanted to help her.
"The real question," I said, taking out a deck of cards and starting to shuffle, "is what are you going to do now, Vaya?"
"I don't know," she said. "I never expected anything like this to happen to me. I...I don't even like suspense novels!" she exclaimed, her frustration coming out as mild petulance.
"Well, as I see it, you have three choices."
I flipped over the top card of the deck with my thumbnail. It turned out to be (surprise!) the queen of crowns, who in this pack was pictured with blue hair.
"First off, you can find the deepest hole you can and disappear"--I turned the card face-down--"leaving Martinez to look helplessly for you." I turned the card back over, only this time it was the knave of hearts, a particularly scurrilous-looking chap I thought appropriate for Martinez.
Her eyes lit up just a bit, but then her face fell.
"I couldn't do that," she said. "I haven't the first idea about how to disappear."
"We can help with that," Dace said, "though it'll cost."
"Also," Isis noted, "you would only have to remain incommunicado until Martinez makes his move to Scion-Colesburg. Once the extraction is finished, you no longer pose a threat to him and so you can return to your normal life."
Vaya nodded slowly, beginning to think that there might be a chance for her after all.
"What's my second choice?" she asked.
I turned over the ace of coins, showing a gleaming gold piece.
"You take this opportunity to blackmail Martinez for everything you can get. You have evidence that can be used against him, at least until the extraction. This would let you get back in money some of what he's cost you in fear and pain. The downside to that is risk."
I shuffled, then flipped over the ace again, then dealt the next four cards. The blue-haired queen again, another ace, and two eights. I hoped that Vaya knew the symbolism, that aces and eights were the "deadman's hand."
"You'd have to make contact at some point, exposing yourself to Martinez, giving him a chance to get at you. You'd also give him a reason to want you dead personally instead of because of business, and once he moves to Scion-Colesburg you wouldn't have anything to use as insurance."
Vaya shook her head.
"I don't want to try that. Getting rich off someone else's misfortune is Javi's style. I only wish I could have seen that before and saved myself all this."
She looked up at me.
"What's the third choice?"
I called up the knave again, slipped the rest of the pack away.
"You find someone at Luveno, give them the recording, and get back at the bastard."
I clapped my hands together, and when I separated them, the knave was gone.
"Again, though, this would involve putting yourself in danger. Whomever you go to at LIM might well be loyal to Martinez instead of the corp, or try some blackmail of his or her own. Either way, it lands you right back where you are now. Plus, if Luveno decides not to gravestone Martinez--"
"I believe the corporate euphemism you are searching for is 'terminate,'" Isis supplied.
"--then you've guaranteed that he'll want payback in turn."
Vaya looked up at me helplessly.
"Are these my only choices?"
"From your position, yes." I'd left out a variation on the revenge theme, namely that she could hire an assassin and try to get Martinez before his people got her, but I doubted she had the contacts or the will to do that, so it wasn't really an option.
If she did, then I didn't want to know about it.
"Javi destroyed my life," Vaya said quietly. "I'd have married him if he had asked, and...and he was going to have me killed instead of trusting me not to stab him in the back. What kind of person would do that?"
"By my count, most of the suits in Camineet," Myrlock said dryly. He should know; it was the corps that gave hunters the bulk of their work.
"I want him to know what it feels like."