The Seeder, Chapter Forty: Stripes of the Tiger

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Trust the Grub to completely forget that Senior Seeder Garrett Di Marco was persona non gratis at Guild Headquarters these days while remaining perfectly able to recognize the man instantly. What with the changes, he’d dared to hope…no matter. Sven nodded in friendly, twinkle-eyed fashion, remaining silent to avoid the chance of a voice print being left behind. One step closer, extending his right hand. Not a casual offer to shake hands in time honored greeting, but a lightning closed-fist strike that drove the slender shaft of a Phillips screwdriver to its hilt through the hunchback’s left eye and deeply into the center of his brain.

It took a followup hit from the side, through the temple, to finish the job.

Leave no witnesses.

He was becoming, perhaps, a bit too much of a Hoelringer himself, but what alternative could there be? Had Gubby lived, even on life support, any competent Seeder could have easily Boxed to read the fellow’s memory records. In full, including his precise image as he appeared this very day. Didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how long he’d live after that…milliseconds, maybe.

Leave no DNA.

Thank the medical community for surgical gloves. In the name of the Zarellan, Sven Jensen put on a blue pair without handling the outsides.

Leave no witnesses.

The hunchback appeared to be quite, quite dead, but–pulse or no pulse–one never knew. Young Garrett Di Marco had grown up a rancher’s son and had become an experienced hunter at an early age…and had once seen a supposedly dead grizzly bear rise up fast enough to bite the face off a man.

There was only one way to be sure. He dragged the body over to one corner, the Sorter having been way too heavy to carry easily despite his deformed frame. The blood would pool from here on the tile, hopefully stopping at the carpeted runway. From opening the door to finishing the decapitation ended up taking–he checked his watch–six seconds and change.

The Sorter (holoectro sorter, not the human version), measuring roughly five inches by eight by twelve and weighing just under ten pounds, went into his backpack first. There followed a dozen packets of sterile blank data chip inserts in Silithon wrap, then the tiny bin of data-filled chips not yet run through the machine. A few times over the years, Garrett had seen Gubby refer to manuals of some sort; these he found in a desk drawer. There were far too many to take with him, but only three fairly small volumes appeared to address topics beyond his present level of comprehension.

Good. He’d worried about that a lot.

No hidden security cameras to worry about, not in this room and not in the conference room. Not unless procedure had changed in the past year. Always possible.

He left the Data Room, closing the door gently and opening another, specially chosen door a mere quarter inch before returning to the conference room.

Back at the meeting, Chairman Cour-Bowser’s angry image was still thundering away, a deadly enemy who’d just become the Seeder’s unwitting ally. Sven reset his Box calibration slightly and launched from the darkened doorway, an 18-foot hop. Pretty close to the working limit of 20.833 feet, but good enough. He made it just fine, once again turning up in the hospital room where Ahot Ajki had been born. His watch showed he’d been Out precisely three minutes, fourteen point two seconds.

Felt like hours.

The route back to the Edge took roughly 45 minutes. He must not hurry. Despite needing to see what Cour-Bowser was really planning as a response to the Nails Hendrix article, remaining undetected took precedence. Patience. Patience. And more patience.

Yeah. Right.

By the time he’d taken up his former position–where the stale urine smell was even stronger, if that were possible–the Chairman had finished his tirade and signed off. Ahot and the others were mingling over coffee and sandwiches, discussing C-B’s irate assertion that they had a leak in the Inner Circles. Well..he could still put this time to good use, memorizing names and faces now that his ride was moving around restlessly.

That is, he could until a lot of screaming and yelling suddenly confirmed Sven’s hypothesis: There were other Seeders, not just this one roomful, in the buiding. One of the rank-and-file troops must have found Gubby’s body; none of the Seconds or Thirds had left the room.

Chaos.

The Data Doctor was murdered in cold blood. The Sorter was missing–no, not the Grub, the holoectro thingie. Somebody had gotten in and out; an exit door had been left ajar. No, must be an inside job. The traitor must die; who was the traitor? A.S.P.; had to be the Anti-Seeder Project. This is war! This is terrorism! This is f****d!!!

The waves of rage and terror rolling in through the Edge amazed Sven no end. Had he not witnessed this personally, he’d have found it impossible to believe. These were supposed to be professionals! They launched into the inner universes of total strangers every single day! In those personal universes, dependent only on their own skills, they survived gore, mayhem, all sorts of icky things run amok. Yet here they were, faced with a single death plus the theft of a backpack full of technology…and that was enough to scare them out of their gourds?

Go figure.

The Sandfire crew had discussed just how potent the fear of the unknown might be in these specialized surroundings, but to see it demonstrated before his eyes…unbelievable.

Before long, the word came down: No one was leaving the building.

At 6:55 p.m., the Chairman’s personal assistant arrived, a fussy little white man with thick, rimless glasses, an utterly round bald head, and a nasty nasal voice that made a real man want to either punch him in the nose or just save time and squash him like a bug. Rumor had it that P.A. Laugito was a real lady killer; office humor had it that any lady who’d date him was probably already dead before the fact. Wiser heads, buzz kills one and all, pointed out that proximity to power did have its perks.

Only after Security had completed its third full sweep of the building did the Chairman himself deign to explain the protocol–via holo, of course. There were going to be Interrogatories.

In the conference room, now containing 17 brown uniformed Security types along with the complement of Inner Circle Guild Reps, it would go like this:

1. A special combat trained group of Third Echelon types would be arriving shortly.

2. The entire group would launch into each person present, one by one, to search for traces of a renegade who might be hiding inside one of their own.

Uh-oh. This didn’t look good. Sven swallowed hard, pondering the truth that he was about to be faced with a whole squad of goons with training exceeding even that of his own. Not good indeed, but even worse, what if? What if the Interrogatory Team wasn’t one to take chances? What if the moment they found traces of an intruder, they launched back Out and simply killed the Rep carrying the intruder? That would be cold, hard, nasty, costly, and they wouldn’t get their precious equipment back…but it would also be damnably effective.

Had Ahot Ajki and/or any of the others thought of that possibilty?

If they had, was there anything they could do about it?

Sh*t! Why hadn’t he thought of that?

Then he remembered: He had in fact thought of it but had also clamped down on that knowledge immediately so that–hopefully–Kate wouldn’t read his mind and panic completely. Of course, maybe she had thought about it and simply avoided bringing it up, afraid that speaking it aloud might make it come true. S**t! Maybe he’d better stop thinking about it now; one of those ultra Security types might be able to pick up on his thoughts and bring the hammer down!

The hours dragged on. Three men has been Interrogated so far; the Team was inside the fourth. Crap. It occurred to the hunter-turned-prey that anyone with a nose still attached would be able to pinpoint his position from thirty yards off, considering the ever increasing ammonia smell. His knees were killing him, especially the left one where a hayfield rake had landed when he was twelve and a tall young horse had fallen when he was fifteen.

Garrett Di Marco being fifteen at the time, that is. Not the horse, who had been three.

He spoke inwardly to the Zarellan, his spiritual guide, asking not for succor–you don’t go around offing people and then ask to have your own sorry butt saved if you’ve an ounce of spiritual savvy in the first place–but for guidance so that whatever was to come might serve the greater cause. He chanted the Hu, silently.

After a few minutes of chanting, a brighter thought came lancing through his fear-fog: If the IF (Interrogatory Force) truly suspected their enemy might be hiding within a Guild Rep, they themselves had much to fear. Sven knew himself to have certain skills, one of which involved the ability to calibrate his Box swiftly, smoothly, and accurately. Sort of like a quickdraw artist in an Old West gunfight. When Ahot Ajki’s turn came to be searched, there was no need to stay crouched under these scratchy danged bushes, sniffing his own stale pee.

It was simple.

Why hadn’t he thought of it? Why? Why?

Rainbows of optimism chased Lucky Charm pots of gold across his previously gloomy assessment of the situation. He, perhaps faster than any other Seeder alive, could launch Out, recalibrate, and launch in again…to another host…in a matter of about 1.4 seconds total, as little as 1.2 seconds at the top of his game. Unlike most, he’d always practiced, always timed himself, striving endlessly to get smoother and faster. Add real life or death adrenalin to that, maybe even less. A few newcomers in every class at the Academy played the game of Speed Calibration; young Garrett Di Marco ranked third in his group. At the time. But he’d continued to play after the rest gave it up as nonsense, continued alone and unobserved, kept it up for years until it became a ritual–more a sort of contemplation than anything else.

Ten minutes. Every night before bed. Roughly 300 settings and resettings, 365 days a year for the past 15 years plus.

A new resolve glinted in his eye as he watched and waited. This night, the Guild knew they had a killer in their midst…but they could not know that this assassin was no ordinary beast, that their very best would be lucky to catch a flash of the stripes of the tiger that killed them.

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