“Sounded” was a misnomer. All of the building residents except for Gene Trask, Kate Jensen, and Nina Gohn wore wrist mounted alarms that vibrated silently until reset.
Gene was too old and feeble to do much but sit tight, anyway. Kate went into freakout mode too easily and had to be quietly advised by Sven. Nina was no warrior and was just stupid enough to jump the wrong direction.
As for Kate, though, nervous or not, she could also fight like a cornered cougar when the need arose. Her assignment was to stay in the fifth floor living quarters and kill anything unfriendly that popped by for a visit.
She got a break this time. It wasn’t the roof.
The alarms worked as wafer thin, close range pagers and included pulse codes every wearer had memorized. Thus, no need for light, and no sound to give them away. The pulses were saying three, side door, armed.
Down the ladder, then. Sven scooted over the edge of the unfinished floor, feeling for the hastily welded crossbars with feet cushioned by soft, silent slippers. Above those, he wore dark sweatpants and sweatshirt plus a night vision monocle held in place by a stretch band. History books said the first night vision viewers had weighed more than a pound and dragged every which way on the wearer’s head; thank goodness he didn’t have that to worry about.
It took a moment to forget about the lack of underwear, though. Security Alerts didn’t allow time for nonessentials, and he preferred to sleep naked.
Descending four floors without making undue noise or falling required deep concentration, but he was at the bottom in under thirty seconds despite the lack of light. They hadn’t yet installed the starlights that would allow him to see quite well through the monocle, nor was the furnace running at the moment to throw any infrared around. Not even this equipment could see in utter blackness.
Now that he was at ground level it was better; beyond the cheap fiberboard partitions, they did have starlights in place. He eased across the floor, checking the rifle’s safety by touch, and took up his preassigned position.
His code band pulsed. Intruders through outer door. That meant professionals; their deadbolts would defeat anything less.
More code. Home Team in position. Sven reviewed his mental map. If the intruders forged ahead first to the showroom, the defenders would have to move, but the building had been remodeled with side door forced entry in mind. Strong as they were, the front doors were also clearly visible from the street. The rear door had simply been welded shut from the inside, strictly against code but for a reason. Everything was designed to funnel robbers or saboteurs or government terrorists in through that side door, and that was the way they had indeed come.
Sven settled behind his shield, checking his field of fire. Anyone coming around the corner from the central hallway to reach the SCR access door would have to walk, scuttle or crawl practically down his rifle barrel. J.B. would be to his right, in place at least thirty seconds earlier.
They’d all chosen their own personal weapons. The big headed Greek carried a retro reproduction of an antique Striker 12 shotgun outlawed for street use in the twentieth century. Twelve blasts of double ought buck, as fast as the operator could pull the trigger. Boulder would not fire unless things began to go badly, at which point his reserve power would drop anyone exposed in the kill zone. Next, moving right to left, would be Sven himself. Unlike Boulder, he favored an extremely light rifle in .22 long rifle caliber. Semiautomatic, tube fed, with a quiver of spare tubes slung over one shoulder.
On the inner planes, of course, the former Seeder carried a much wilder array of weaponry. The rules were different there.
To his left, about thirty feet over, Pete and Ben would be ready with their laser rifles. Homer was probably at the far corner, and across the way, Kah would have slipped into the SCR to monitor the security console, relieving Hoelring killer Cory Arbogat for active combat.
They were here. Professionals perhaps, but they must have felt confident they were dealing with bumbling amateurs. Three men, all in Ninja-black attire and carrying stunners. Lousy stunners! What did they think this was, a shoplifting takedown at the local grocery store?? Sven found himself fighting an irrational urge to giggle, another urge to get very insulted, and a third to yell out a warning:
“Watch the exterior; this can’t be the main force!”
Fortunately, he got control of himself and thought about other things like playing baseball, doing pretty Chinese girls, whatever it took to keep these third rate intruders from feeling him watching them. He’d learned that as a kid, hunting rabbits for the family table. Look at a rabbit too much before you squeeed the trigger, and the bunny would get nervous. Maybe cost you the shot. Cory agreed with that premise, and so did Kate, so he knew they must be the brilliant fighters they claimed to be. They agreed with him, didn’t they?
The most insulting thing of all, though, was the body language of the invaders. They moved slowly, putting on a nominal show of stepping with care, and they did wear some sort of night vision gear, but they actually stood upright. Their manner suggested no concern whatsoever, just understated scorn for their intended victims. The three literally meandered over to the heavy SCR door, which of course they would have to either pick or blow before being able to actually enter the room.
Sven went cold with rage. He had not killed in this lifetime, not on this physical plane, not a human, but he’d trained every day of his mental life for this moment.
They dared? They would pay the price.
One final pulse code. Fire at will. Sven decided the phony Ninja on the right must be Will and placed a copper jacketed .37 grain hollow point in Will’s left ear, precisely through the eardrum. A green laser lanced in from Pete’s position, burning a hole between the other flank man’s eyes, through his skull, and out the back. Ninja number three joined his brothers on the floor about half a second later, his heart punctured by Cory’s light slicer, the sword-length one.
The Hoelringer had accomplished this without stepping into the killing field herself, striking from behind a concealed panel. What a girl.
Long barreled .22 rifles don’t make a whole lot of noise. Lasers make none at all. There had been only the quick –crack!!– of Sven’s weapon, followed by little sizzling flesh sounds and the soft thumps of three bodies hitting the floor. One-two-three, crack-sizzle-sizzle, thump-thump-thump. Dead Man Waltz.
A song title there? He wondered.
Sudden light flooded the twenty-by-eight-foot kill zone, revealing a fourth man standing, stumbling, trying to find his balance. He was young, stocky, black, and wore a razor sharp, extremely expensive gray suit. The suit coat hung open. His back was to Sven, who let go of his rifle and lunged out of hiding, nearly getting skewered by Ben Boulder’s laser shot and losing most of the feeling in his left arm from Cory’s flying kick in the process. Even with that, he managed to lock in the full nelson. He and his target smashed to the floor together, and the struggle was on. This man was extremely powerful, what felt like three times his own not inconsiderable strength. He couldn’t maintain the hold for long. One, two, three seconds, he thought, seconds that felt like years.
Not much. But enough. The others had their captive under control now. Hands helped Sven to his feet. Plastic cuffs and other, more stringent restraints were being applied to the intruder, and the former Seeder was finally able to relax.
A little. It had been a close thing. Most of the Sandfire crew members were staring openly at The Box clipped to the black man’s belt.
Sven spoke. “Hello, Won Ton.”
The stocky man sneered. “F*** you, traitor.”
“All depends on whose ox is getting gored. Um, would someone check the all clear?” This meant several things: Reset the side door deadbolts, which would have to be reworked entirely come daylight. Notify Gene, Kate, and Nina via intercom that things appeared to be under control and maybe the girls upstairs wouldn’t have to shoot anybody tonight after all. And make sure that Kah was relieved on the Security console…while of course running a perimeter check to make absolutely sure that this had not been a diversion but the main force after all.
“The Chief is on it,” Cory advised. “I take it you know this gentleman?”
“Won Ton Sampson, Seeder extraordinnaire and about the most egotistical, arrogant, stuck up bastard I ever met in my life.”
“Thank you,” the black man said. He sounded sincere.
“All present and accounted for.” This from Jeremy Boulder, whose presence somehow managed to make Sampson look small and weak. No mean feat, that. The big headed Greek gave Sven a speculative look. “You’re faster’n greased catshit, dude.”
“Good thing, too.” Pete Boulder leaned against the nearest section of wall, his laser rifle hanging nonchalantly from one large hand. “Cory would have been about a millisecond too slow. Our visiting Seeder would have thumbed that stud if you hadn’t rammed your arm in under his when you did, my man.”
Jensen said nothing to this. It would not be cool, so he merely nodded acknowledgement and turned to the interrogation of won Ton Sampson. But his mind whirled. He’d moved faster than Cory? What the Hell? Nobody moved faster than Cory Arbogast, unless it might be Kate. That would bear thinking about…when there was time.
“Feel like talking, Wonny?”
Their captive underwent a sudden change. His eyes seemed to take in the overall scene for the first time. They bugged as only his eyes could bug. A strangled sound emerged from his throat, muscles tensing uselessly against his numerous bonds.
Sven got it. Squatting close enough to get spit on, he asked the question in the softest of voices.
Something broke inside Sampson. He nodded mutely. “She carried the DNA scanner.”
Which meant the man wrapped in restraints was just as dead as those three lying motionless on the floor; he just hadn’t stopped breathing yet.
Sampson started talking then, a lifeless monotone that reeked of despair. “I told her we shouldn’t have taken this one, but I could never say no to that girl.”
“I can understand that–” Sven began, then clamped his mouth shut. Jeremy had the recorder running. It was time to let the invading Seeder talk.
“Yeah, I know.” Won Ton nodded. “I know you understand. You always did want her.”
Nothing to say to that. Especially since it was true.
“This was a step into the Inner Circle, you know. At least the first of the Inner Circles. They take you into a whole new training program. You don’t even pay attention to dumb cluck Supervisors like Harlan Johnson after that; the Supervisors don’t know squat. They’re not IC.”
“Jen and I were offered the shot about a year ago. It was really something. We learned how to go in and reset memory, emotions, thoughts, even the subconscious crap. How to time an exit so the carrier will know the exact second you’ll be popping back out, if you want them to know. Like tonight. Even how to do double entry, carrying a Seeder inside a Seeder inside a carrier. Heavy stuff.
“The money tripled, and we even got to meet a few of the Third Echelon.”
He stared at Sven, whom he’d known as Garrett, his rival coworker for years on end.
“You, Di Marco, you were never considered for Second Echelon. Don’t know why, except you’re a bunghole, but they told us, and they never lied, the Thirds didn’t. They held back, but they didn’t lie. The only bad thing was, you didn’t dare even think about quitting. Not even think about it.
“Then they came up with this one. My Jen baby, she cried a little but when I said f*** it, let’s get out, she said no, we got it to do. They might have controls in us right now and know if we don’t go, maybe even know exactly what we’re thinking before we think it. We got to do it. And I said f*** it baby, I’m telling you there’s something about that bunghole Di Marco, there’s a reason he never got asked and there’s a reason the Thirds want him so bad. I never liked the bastard, I told Jen that, but I knew he wasn’t gonna be easy to take down. Knew it. Don’t know how, just knew it. F***ing knew it.”
Sampson was staring at the floor now, seemingly unaware that the subject of his monologue was right there in front of him. The man knew they were listening, but he was talking more to himself than to them.
“Then they give us the details and the carriers and a DNA scanner and tell us, get into this Sandifre place, it’s an old antique rat trap, easy to get in. Go get in, get a scan in there, and while you’re at it maybe the carriers will be able to kill that damned Jeremy Boulder and that half-n***** wife of his, and I just about clocked the arrogant bastards at that one but no. Jen said we go, so here we go and here we are and you know what, Di Marco?”
He lifted his head to look Sven in the eye. “I don’t even think they knew you were here, mostly just wanted the Sandfire formula if they could find it and if you happened to be around, that was f***ing bonus. So if we could take down Boulder but not kill him yet, Jen would run external control while I popped Inside and read his mind into The Box and bingo.”
“Only…I knew you were here. I knew it, man, don’t ask me how, and I didn’t say nothing except to Jen and she said we go and–”
Sampson stopped talking as if someone had turned off a switch in his brain. Sven studied his eyes for a moment, then rose to retrieve his .22. He shot the Second Echelon Seeder in the back of the head at point blank range.
None of the others said anything about that, just looked at Sampson’s body slumped over sideways on the raw plywood floor.
“Incinerator. Now!” Sven snapped the command with such authority that no one even questioned, just began luggiing bodies to the great burner hidden behind Ben Boulder’s shooting post. Homer came out from the SCR to help with the heavy hauling.
By the time all four corpses had been electronically reduced to unrelated moledules of lighter than air gases and released into the atmosphere, it was coming daylight. Kate called down to offer breakfast in the Jensen living quarters. Everyone except Pete and Ben, who volunteered to relieve Homer and Cory on security duty, sat around the big cherrywood table that was the tiny redhead’s most prized possession.
Now the talk could resume, and Kah asked the first question.
“Sven, why the rush?”
“To the incinerator?” The term was not terribly accurate, since the EDAR, the Electronic Disassembler And Rearranger, operated on an entirely different principle than did the old crematorium facilities. It helped, of course, that the beast was also used in the Sandfire glass production process and thus had a legitimate reason for being on hand when they needed it.
“I’d have thought you might ask me why I just up and drilled Sampson in the head when we might have gotten more information out of him.”
“Okay. Here’s the theory. First of all, I really don’t think Wonny was going to add any more. He might have, but he knew his beloved had been condemned to a long and uncertain Hell.
“Every Seeder knows from firsthand experience that reincarnation is fact, not fiction, but getting back with a lover who’s been trapped in another person’s inner Universe…well, it’s like this. Jenny Santha Lee was inside one of the first two fake Ninjas we killed with brain shots. With her carrier instantly and totally dead, she couldn’t exit. The Box has to orient on the same vibration it locked onto when you went Inside. If the carrier dies too soon, it’s like getting told the number you’re trying to reach has been disconnected.”
They stared at him with dawning horror.
“That’s right. Jen might be stuck inside for hundreds, even thousands of years as we measure time here. She might even grow old and die inside, and eventually get out that way, but what the Lords of Karma do about your placement in such a case, I have no idea. Never tried it and don’t want to.”
“Me either.” Kate Jensen shuddered, almost spilling the coffee she was pouring for Gene Trask. Since Gene wasn’t too sure about any aflterlife at all, especially one that included reincarnation, he listened closely without venturing an opinion. After all, he and Death were next door neighbors these days; might as well try to learn something.
“Nor me.” Sven sipped his iced JD soda and continued. “That’s what made Wonny decide to die. He’d lost the love of his life. I hadn’t realized they’d grown quite that close, but clearly they had. It’s not that he welcomed death. It’s that he was already dead the instant he realized Jen was trapped. I just assisted his suicide.
Kate’s involuntary shudder seemed to be contagious. More than one listener looked distinctly uneasy.
“Then he said something else. What he called, what was it…Second Echelon? Second Echelon. That they knew how to time exits, and that a Seeder could hide inside a Seeder inside a carrier.
“First, the timing. Sampson, I strongly suspect, was scheduled to pop into our premises ahead of Jenny. She had the scanner, and while he was a Grade A bunghole from the get-go, he was also protective of her from the beginning. She and the scanner were locked out of action once we killed her carrier, but what if Second Echelon Seeder Sampson carried another Seeder inside himself? What if he carried more than one? Maybe that wasn’t the way of it–I’m thinking on reflection that it probably wasn’t–but what if it was? Heavily armed, elite Seeders could have started popping out of the woodwork like roaches out of a fumigated building in south Florida.”
He paused to let that sink in, then confessed. “That accounts for putting a bullet in the man’s head. As for the incinerator, I was just nervous as Hell all of a sudden. I wanted the bigger chunks of evidence out of here.”
Cory got up and relieved Kate, taking over the task of serving more coffee cake and freshening drinks.
“We all did,” she announced. “I don’t think any of us wanted to see those bodies fouling up the premises any longer than necessary. But the question now is, will this trigger a massive assault? ”
Homer nodded silent agreement. His beloved wife did have a way of cutting to the chase.
Sven shook his head. “I can almost guarantee it won’t, at least for a while. Of course, we’ll need to be extra careful when we’re away from the Tower. But I was a Seeder for a long time, and I can tell you one thing: No Seeder much likes having to deal with the unknown. Popping into a client’s etheric world, where all is thunder and chaos and raw power, is bad enough, but there are known ways for Guild Reps to protect themselves in such cases until they can get firmly oriented. This is different. So far as I’m aware, there’s never been anything like it. I’ve never heard of more than one Seeder being lost at a time, and I’ll bet even that is rare as Hell among these so called Second Echelon types. The most they can possibly know is that at least five of their troops–two Seeders and three carriers–tackled this building and vanished.
“In the eyes of the Guild, we’ve just become the Bermuda Triangle of Seederland. We’re a mystery, and they don’t like mysteries. They’ll hesitate, at least for a while, trying to figure it out.”
“I hope you’re right,” Kate said fervently. “I know you know what you’re talking about. But there is something else.”
“We had just persuaded the last of the old ghosts to move along to ghostie la la land. Now maybe we have several more.”
Her Master gave her a sour look. “Trust you to come up with that one, baby.”
“Screw a bunch of flipping ghosts,” Jeremy Boulder growled. “I said any bunghole who woke me before noon was going to get shot.”
They all laughed at that. The Rock did have a way with words.