“‘The stupid bastard who’s supposed to be in charge of this buggered-up dog-and-pony show’?” a voice asked from the far side of the room. The speaker was a big man, taller than Blade, bulky, with close-cropped brown hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. “That would be me; I’m Bridelow. C’mon, we can talk in the other room.”
“Hold on there, laddiebuck,” Blade said as he got to his feet, smiling. Had Bridelow been paying attention he would have noticed the smile never reached Blade’s eyes. “I said ye were the third thing on my list. First, my whisky and my cigar, then you.”
“I would think you’d want a situation report.”
“I do, when I’m good and ready. I’m good enough now, I’m just not ready. Ye’re time’s coming, don’t doubt that. Now, where’s the bar?”
“I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out, Blade, but you’re leaking.” Radome gestured first to Blade’s arm and then to his leg. He looked down and saw the wet stains on his clothing, just a hint of redness showing up on the black fabric.
“Why, yes, yes, I am,” he murmurred. “I’d best get a bandage on the leg right away – I hate to sound like the modest hero, but it really just is a scratch. Still, it will bleed like a copper-plated bitch if it’s not tended to.”
“And the arm? Or is that just a ‘scratch’ too?” This from Compton.
“Oh, not to worry, the nannies will take care of that.”
“There’s a nanotech maintenance unit built into the arm – it’ll have the skin there knitted up in a few hours. The arm itself is workin’ fine.”
Radome and Compton stared at him; Houston and the red-haired woman standing beside him were expressionless.
“I thought ye knew – seems most people in our line of work do. Eight years ago I was invalided out of the Army – the British Army, obviously – because somebody tried to kill me with a car bomb. I survived, but it cost me my left arm, left eye, and the hearing in both ears: they’ve all been replaced by cybernetic implants and prosthetics.”
It was Radome who recovered her composure first. “In that case, I guess we should see to getting a bandage on your leg, then.” She gestured to Compton and Houston. “Help him out of his harness, will you? Be careful with that rifle! Then get him into a chair and get that leg elevated, please.” She left the room, returning a moment later with a medium-sized carrying case prominently marked with red crosses. Moving over to where Blade was now sitting, she placed the case on nearby table and opened it, revealing a rather impressively stocked first aid kit. She extracted a pair of scissors and reached for the fabric on Blade’s wounded leg. He quickly jerked it out of the way.
“Here now, dinna cut it! Pull off my boot and roll up the trouser leg – these things are too damned expensive to be hacked up like that. It can be mended – just more work for Alistair, that’s all.”
“My…electronic concierge, Radome. He keeeps track of all of my bits and pieces and keeps them tidy.”
“Custom designed and built.”
“Ooooh! Can I talk to him?”
“If he’s in the mood for conversation. Ye have a cyberlink?” At that, Radome gave Blade a look that a teacher might give an exceptionally slow child. “Right, foolish question. Alistair?” he asked, apparently addressing thin air.
“Yes, Sir!” The reply came immediately, although only Blade could hear it.
“Miss Radome here would like to talk to you if ye have a mind for conversation. Do ye have her link address?”
“That I do, and I think I would enjoy talking wi’ her. She’s got a remarkable reputation fer developin’ new uses fer practical app-macros. I might learn a thing or two.”
“Well, then, go at it if ye like.” He turned back to Radome. “He has some hard and fast security protocols hardwired into him, so if he tells ye he canna talk about something, he truly can’t talk about it. Aside from that, I’ll leave you two alone. Och, wait, who’s going to finish stopping up my leaky leg?”
“I’ll do that.”
The voice was a soft soprano, the speaker the tall, lithe red-haired woman whom the extraction team had been rather unimaginatively christened “Red.” A heart-shaped face with high cheekbones, widely-spaced china-blue eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a slightly retroussé nose, all surrounded by a mass of shoulder-length wavy auburn hair, suddenly held Blade’s undivided attention. The woman was, to say the least, striking.
“I will. I know a thing or two about bandages and first aid.”
Blade opened his mouth to reply, then snapped it shut. Despite his curiosity, this was not the time or the place to be quizzing this woman about who she was and how she came to be here. Instead, after a moment, he said simply, “Then I’ll let ye be about yer work.” He raised his voice slightly. “And while ye do, can someone see about that whisky and that cigar?”
Compton frowned, then brightened, suddenly very animated – Blade would quickly learn that the young black man with the close-cropped hair was always at least somewhat “animated.” “Oh, yeah, right! I’m pretty sure that Calvin keeps a few bottles of the Macallan stashed away under the bar – lemme get it for you!” He rushed over to the bar and began noisily rummaging around.
Houston, tall, lanky, with long white hair and a rather impressive mustache adding extra character to an already well-worn face, gave Blade a wry grin and in a deep-voiced drawl said, “There’re times I think somebody must’ve dropped a handful of ants in that boy’s diapers, and after all these years he still ain’t got rid of ‘em all.” Blade smiled back, nodding agreement. “I’ll see what I can do about that see-gar, Mr. Blade.” And with that he went over to a wall cabinet and opened it wide. “Got some Romeo y Julettas here, Churchills. Will one of them do in a pinch?”
“‘Do in a pinch’? That’s my cigar of choice! Sir, I am deeply in yer debt!”
“Then here you go.” Houston held out a trio of the cigars to Blade. “One fer now, an’ a couple fer the road. Need a cutter?”
“No, I always use this.” Blade unwrapped one of the Churchills, then produced an old Swiss Army knife, popped out the Phillips-head blade, used it to neatly punch a hole in the end of the cigar. The knife disappeared, to be replaced in his hand by a box of matches. “I’ll do the rest of the honors in a moment, when I have my talk with Bridelow.”
Compton rushed up, the promised bottle of the Macallan in one hand, a whisky glass in the other. He set them on the table beside Blade. “I was right about Calvin’s stash! Do you need any ice for that?”
“Lad, I’ll no’ have ye mucking up perfectly good whisky with ice! Just bring me a small glass of water, please.” Blade poured a generous measure of the single malt whisky in the glass – a very generous measure – and when the water appeared, he dipped the tip of his right finger into it, then allowed a single drop to fall into the waiting amber liquid. Looking up at Compton, he said simply, “That is all the water good whisky ever needs. Remember.” He then raised the glass to his lips, took a long swallow, closed his eyes and sighed in contentment. From the beatific expression on his face no one would have ever guessed that not five minutes earlier he had been engaged in mortal combat.
Setting his glass down, Blade watched Red work for a few seconds, then looked up at Houston and Compton. “Right then. Would the two of ye mind keeping an eye on the door, as it were? By my reckoning, we’ve got thirty, maybe forty-five minutes before the Arasaka people get their act together and get permission to come in after us, but I could be wrong….”
“And yor thinkin’ a reception committee might be in order if they do decide to arrive early,” Houston finished the sentence for him.
“Just you leave that to young Compton and me, Mr. Blade.” The tall, lanky solo jerked his head at the younger man, and together they took up positions behind their makeshift but stout barricade inside the door to the safe suite. Houston hefted into position an impressive-looking rotary magazine semi-automatic shotgun, and Compton settled in with an H&K assault rifle that he looked quite comfortable with.
By now Red had Blade’s boot off and was methodically wrapping gauze around the middle of his calf, having already cleansed the wound and placed a thick gauze pad over it. Her movements were sure and precise, her face utterly expressionless: slight as it was, this was clearly not the first gunshot wound she’d ever seen, nor was it the first time she’d tended to one. Curiouser and curiouser, he thought. This is a most intriguing woman, in a number of ways.
Taping off the end of the gauze, Red paused for a moment to look at her handiwork, as if evaluating its quality, then said, “All finished here. You can put your boot back on.”
“Thank ye, lass. That was good work ye did and I appreciate it.” At that she gave him a small smile – it was memorable.
Lacing up his boot, Blade stood and tested the leg: the pain was an annoyance, but bearable. “Right, then. Time we had our little chat, Mr. Bridelow. I take it you want to talk in there?” He indicated the doorway Bridelow had approached earlier.
“That I do.”
“Then let’s get down to business. The sooner we get this over with, the happier I’ll be.” This time there was ice in Blade’s eyes, and this time Bridelow didn’t miss it. He suddenly felt very apprehensive. Something told him he was not going to find the coming conversation at all to his liking.
“Sir, I most humbly apologize for my failure.” If you will show me how I can atone –”
“Never mind, Nagumo, it isn’t your fault. You really never stood a chance of stopping him.”
“But, sir, he was only one man.”
“No, Nagumo, he was Blade. I should have told you, but I didn’t. If I had, maybe you would not have felt compelled to sacrifice so many reisen.” At the word “Blade,” Nagumo suddenly gave out a hiss, sharply drawing his breath between his teeth: for a Japanese it was a sure sign of agitation and anxiety.
“That would explain much, Nakajma-sama.”
“I sent a man up to ground level. He just informed me that all eight of the reisen who were posted in overwatch are dead, each one killed by a single headshot – it sounds like the work of very efficient sniper.”
“Indeed. That he is. Go on.”
“During the shootout I personally saw him terminate three of my people who were already incapacitated. Those were not mercy killings, Nakajima-sama.”
“No, they wouldn’t be. How many did you lose, Nagumo?”
“In addition to the eight on ground level, sixteen down here. I have thirty-two effectives, sir. Blade did not leave any wounded.”
“Understood.” A pause. “Nagumo, do you still have your heavy weapons?”
“Yes, sir. We hadn’t broken them out until now – we never imagined that we would actually need them.”
“Well, you do now. Our deadline has expired, and in any event, Blade’s actions made it meaningless. Get your people re-armed and re-organized, and be prepared to hit the night club as hard and as fast as possible on my order. I have another thirty-five personnel standing by – they will be joining you within the hour. Once they are in position and I’ve confirmed with our superiors that we will indeed conclude this mission, you must take possession of those memory crystals, no matter at what cost. Do whatever it takes, Nagumo. Do you understand? Do whatever it takes!”
“I understand, sir. May I ask about our status with the Atlanta police or other gaijun law enforcement?”
“That is being dealt with even as we speak, Nagumo-sama. I will comm Tokyo and inform them of what I’ve done and what I’ve ordered. I will also inform them that you acted entirely on my authority and at my direction.”
“I am grateful, sir,” Nagumo replied. Nakajima had a somewhat…flexible sense of honor, often determined more by circumstances rather than firm standards, but he had never embraced the idea of sacrificing subordinates for failing to carry out impossible orders or to cover his own mistakes, and he was not about to begin doing so now. Blade was neither superhuman nor immortal, as Nakajima well knew, but Nagumo and his reisen had been completely out of their depth trying to stop Blade without escalating the situation to the point where American law enforcement agencies would feel compelled to get involved.
“You’ll hear from me shortly, Nagumo.”
“Aw, shit, there goes my paycheck!”
Blade looked from Bridelow’s body to Compton and back again. “Sorry, but I do tend to have a rather short way with turncoats.” If there was any emotion in the Scot’s voice, Compton couldn’t detect it. He shook his head, staring at the corpse at his feet.
“Yeah, all right, OK, I mean, you left the door open and everything, so everybody outside heard everything you guys said…but…damn! Did you really have to shoot him like that? Dead, I mean?”
“I take it ye think there was a better alternative? Or maybe ye imagine ye’d be more…attractive to the ladies with a knife sticking out of the middle of yer back? Because that’s the way it would have gone if I’d left him alive.”
“Have Radome do an RF scan on the body He’s got a transmitter on him somewhere, probably an implant. DisCom, and probably Arasaka as well, was listening in to every word everyone of you said to one another.”
“Ye heard me. Tell me, did Bridelow insist that everyone in yer ‘extraction team’” – Compton winced at the sarcasm dripping from those last two words – “use only the equipment he supplied – including electronics?”
“Well, yeah, of course. I mean, he told us that the serial numbers had all been filed off the stuff, so to speak, so it would be untraceable in case anything happened to us or something got left behind. ‘No loose ends’ was how he put it.”
“Did Radome stash her kit in here before ye left for DisCom?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“Have her run a scan on Bridelow here –” Blade prodded the corpse with his toe “– and see what she picks up. I’ll give ye pounds to pennies that when she does, and then checks the scanner he gave her, she’ll find that it registers every frequency in the RF band except for the one his implant is set to.”
“That goddamn sonuvabitch!” He turned toward the door and shouted, “Radome, can you get in here? And bring your scanner!” Then more quietly, he repeated, “That goddamn sonuvabitch!”
Radome appeared a moment later, RF scanner in hand, and looked inquiringly at Compton. He indicated Bridelow’s body. “Blade thinks there’s a transmitter implant somewhere on Bridelow – I know, I know, it sounds kinda weird but it makes sense, too, y’know? Better do it quick, too, because –”
“– Because if it’s electro-chemical powered, then the current stopped flowing when his heart stopped beating, and those things really don’t have much in the way of capacitance. I know my stuff, Compton.” Kneeling beside the corpse, she deftly worked the controls of the scanner; it only took a few seconds for Radome to begin nodding her head. “Yep, we’ve got a signal here. Looks like its coming from somewhere near the base of his throat, just under the skin.”
“How hard was he wired, do ye know?”
“He had a neural booster, I know that, and enhanced hearing. I don’t think he had anything done to his eyes, and he didn’t have any cyberlimbs.” She had the grace to blush slightly when she said that. “But I’ve known him off and on for about five years now, and this is the first I’ve ever heard about a transmitter.” There was concern in her sea-green eyes. “We really were set up, weren’t we?”
“Aye, that ye were.”
“This is not good.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Seconds passed as the three of them stood in silence, trying to work out all of the implications of Radome’s discover. Blade was the first to break it.
“Radome, could you –”
“– go get the first aid kit.”
“– go fetch the first aid kit, some –”
“– some bar towels.”
“– bar towels and –”
“– and a bowl of warm water. We have surgery to do.”
“– and a bowl of warm water. We have –” He stopped and stared at her. “How do you bloody do that?”
“My call sign isn’t ‘Radome’ just for my tech skills and my flowing silver locks, you know.” She gave him a cheerful, quirky smile, and with that, she left the room, returning a few moments later with the kit, the towels, and the water. “Here you go.”
Blade raised his voice. “Houston, can ye come in here for a minute?”
“On may way.”
When he appeared, he took one look at the body on the floor, the med-kit, towels, and water, and said, “Y’all need to get him on the table.”
“That’s it,” Blade nodded. “Can you give us a hand?”
“Sure thing.” With some amount of grunting and heaving the three men lifted Bridelow off the floor – he had been a big man, and the flap-limbed posture of death added to the effort. Meanwhile Radome began laying out the instruments she expected Blade would require for the task at hand. Blade looked at Houston inquiringly.
“She took Compton’s place when he came in here, and she’s holdin’ the fort. She snagged one of those MilTecs off’n one of the Rats ‘fore we holed up in here, and she’s sittin’ out there behind a couple of those overstuffed chairs, pointin’ it at the access panel and watchin’ the monitors with a gleam in her eye and what looks like Texas murder in her heart.”
“You can say that again.”
Radome broke in, handing Blade a pair of latex gloves; she was already wearing a pair. “You’re going to need these.”
Blade nodded his thanks, then took the offered scalpel – it was a very well equipped medkit – then took a deep breath and said, “Right then, Radome, let’s get started.”
Less than three minutes later, Radome was holding up a pair of forceps gripping a sealed electronic package no bigger than the nail on her little finger; two hair-fine electrical leads dangled from one side. Blade nodded approvingly. “There ye are, ye little bastart. Radome, would there be anything we could use to wrap up this wee beastie? Ah, perfect!” He took the proffered glassine bag and held it out as she dropped the chip into it, sealed the bag, and tucked the chip into the right breast pocket of his jacket. “I’m going to have a friend take a closer look at this the first chance I have – I suspect we might learn a thing or two from it.”
“That son of a bitch!” Calvin’s face was mottled red in outrage as he watched and listened to the video and audio feed from the saferooms. “That goddamned son of a bitch!”
“I take it you mean Bridelow and not Blade?”
“Of course I mean Bridelow!” Calvin snapped back. “That bastard was playing me! Nobody plays me, Mycroft, nobody!”
“Calvin, I suggest you try to calm yourself. Your biometric readings are spiking. Keep this up and you’ll wind up on life-support right next to Kim.”
Calvin made a conscious, deliberate effort to bring himself under control, and Mycroft was relieved to see his pulse and blood pressure dropping into less threatening territory. Calvin’s anger had not abated one whit, however; it had merely become more focused, and therefore, controllable.
“He tried to sell me down the river to DisCom. DisCom! My worst corporate enemy – and he tried to sell me out to them. If you get right down to it, he’s already sold me out.” Abruptly, his eyes flew wide open. “Oh, shit!”
“What is it, Calvin?”
“We’ve got to find out how much Bridelow knew – I mean really knew – about those crystals and why they’re so damned important to me. If he compromised me, I need to know how bad the damage is. Go find out.”
“This may take some time, since thanks to your friend Blade, we can’t actually interrogate Bridelow himself.”
“I know. Just do the best you can – and do it fast!”
“OK, OK, OK….” Compton’s usual stacatto delivery was almost manic. “I mean…I…I know we’ve been sold out – a blind man could see that in a pitch-black room. OK? But – but – but how? I mean, it was only Bridelow’s team, and…and the boss, and…and…and me who knew about this op. And we were under freakin’ em-con from the minute Bridelow began his first briefing! I mean, I know what you told Bridelow and what you think and I heard your ‘conversation’ so I know you think he was the one who did it, OK? But how? Why? I don’t freakin’ get it!”
“I’m going out to the front room to help Red keep an eye on the rest of the Arasakas,” Radome called over her shoulder, working the action on her Malorite rifle as she did.
Blade nodded his thanks to her, then threw a concerned look at Compton. “Best start getting a grip, lad. Bridelow was strictly a freelancer, a ‘hired gun,’ ye Yanks would call him – and I admit, he was rather good at it.” The rolling r’s and broad vowels of Blade’s Scottish burr stood in sharp contrast to the other man’s rush of words. “But a few years ago, he ran a rather dodgy op for DisCom that crossed over into all sorts of legal gray areas and even strayed now and then into the black. I ran a background check on him – or rather, a friend of mine did so. There seems to have been a very strenuous effort made at deleting any accessible records of that operation – and at burying what couldn’t be deleted as deep as possible. I suspect Hobbes took Bridelow at face value because he’d employed him before.”
“Kinda sloppy on Calvin’s part, wouldn’t ya say?” Houston drawled. Blade nodded.
“Ye ken how DisCom operates: once ye work for them, in any capacity, they find a way to sink their hooks into ye, and never really let ye go. They get something on ye that can hold over yer head whenever they need a…favor.”
“So it was Bridelow who – it was him – he’s the one that ratted us out to the Rat!”
“Precisely. Think about it. A security patrol in DisCom’s data center that had no business being where it was when it was. How did it get there at just the right moment? Someone – presumably DisCom – destroys yer CV-9 and kills the pilot at Herdon Airport just as ye arrive. How did anyone know the extraction team was going to Herndon, and how did they know that specific CV-9 was yers?”
“OK…yeah, so…they were expecting us?”
“They had to be, Compton.” The scowl on Houston’s face was fearsome. “Think about it – it’s pretty damn easy to see, at leastways, now it is. After we ran up I-75, the pursuit broke off around Gainesville. Why would they let us make it all the way across the Georgia line when the DisCom goons could have stopped us anytime, anywhere, short of it? They didn’t have to worry about undue attention, after all. We were in Florida, son, and you know as well as I do that any time DisCom wants the State of Florida to look the other way, every lawman and newsie in the state goes stone blind.”
Compton nodded, slowly at first, then with increasing conviction, the pieces rapidly falling into place now. “Yeah, good point – I mean, why let us get away unless they already knew where we were going, right?”
“Exactly. And the proof of that was…?” Blade cocked an inquiring eyebrow.
“That would be maybe that little reception committee the Rats had waiting for us when we reached the Underground?”
“Right the first time, laddie.”
“And they damn near succeeded. They had us outnumbered and outta position, and I honestly can’t say we would have made it inside here before they finally overran us, if’n it hadn’t been for Arasaka showin’ up when it did.”
Looking down, Houston thrust his hands in his pockets and scuffed the toe of one boot across the carpet for a moment, then looked back at Blade.
“So how come I never noticed any of this?” he asked. He didn’t doubt Blade, he just hated being duped as much as the next man.
“Probably because at the time ye were rather closely focused on staying alive.” The Scot grinned ruefully. “That does tend to have the effect of concentrating a man’s mind wonderfully, ye ken.”
“Yeah, you could say I was a mite preoccupied,” Houston nodded in agreement.
Compton appeared to be centering himself now. “So Bridelow was tipping off DisCom each step of the way?”
“Most certainly.” Blade began rummaging through the late, unlamented Bridelow’s kit, looking for spare magazines. Bridelow had carried a Smith & Wesson 99-Gamma, which fired the same .40 caliber round as his own Sig-Sauer: Blade had two nearly empty mags that needed to be topped off. “For that matter, he likely handed DisCom the entire plan for the op on a silver platter before yer team left for Orlando. Oh, and ye did notice, didn’t ye, that Bridelow was the only person in the extraction team who didn’t collect so much as a bruise or a broken nail during your little jaunt?”
“Damn! I missed that.”
“It’s all right. As I said, there’s this bit about being distracted by trying to stay alive. The point is, the Rats almost certainly had specific orders not to harm Bridelow if it could be avoided. He was still an asset to DisCom, and if I hadn’t come along, would still be inside Hobbes’ confidence.”
“OK, OK, OK….” This was Compton again. “Everything adds up, except for one…little…detail.”
“Arasaka! I mean, holy shit, Blade, what the hell are they doing here?”
“I think that’s kinda obvious, if’n ya ask me,” Houston said. “Arasaka’s got itself a mole in DisCom’s security department. Whatever is stored in those crystals that DisCom wants so badly, Arasaka wants it too. When the Rat got it paws on it, the mole just called his or her masters with the good news. As for showin’ up here when they did, I’d say it was probably pure ornery coincidence.”
Compton pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Oh, man, this is waaay above my pay grade! I mean, talk about overcomplicating the plumbing! All right. Let me see if I’ve got it straight now, OK? We have the crystals that Calvin sent us to retrieve from DisCom. They want them back – ”
“And you dead into the bargain.”
“– And us dead into the bargain. Yeah, right, I could do without that part. OK, so Arasaka has a mole in Ratland that tells them where we are, and the only reason they would be interested in us is the same reason DisCom is interested in us, and they would be just as freakin’ happy if we were dead into the bargain, too. How am I doing so far?”
“Full marks, lad, full marks.”
“So what I’m wondering is…if DisCom and Arasaka are working together now, how long will it last? There’s what, three or four of the Rats still outside in the club itself?” Blade nodded. “I don’t think we have to wonder whether or not everybody’ll start shooting at us again. But when they do, are they gonna start freakin’ shooting at each other, too? And when? Sooner? Later? Now?”
“As for how closely they’re workin’ together, that I canna answer for ye, Compton.” Blade smiled mischievously. “I’m reminded of Aragorn’s dilemma: ‘It is difficult with these evil folk to know when they are in league, and when they are cheating one another.’” Compton threw a sour look at Blade.
“OK, yeah, well, you know, you might have been able to get an answer to that question if you hadn’t shot him in the head.” He nudged Bridelow’s body with his foot.
“Nobody’s perfect, lad.”
Compton expression turned baleful.
“As for the ‘when’ of it – ” Blade glanced at his watch – “I’d say the balloon is going to go up in exactly…eight minutes.”
“‘The balloon will…’ – what the hell are you talking about?”
Blade made a great show of looking at his wristwatch. “I’m expecting the shooting to begin again exactly eight minutes from…now.”
“Wonderful. Just freakin’ ducky! You know, I’m starting to think this getting-shot-at-for-a-living shit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Compton took a deep breath, then noisily let it out: he was a much calmer man than he had been just moments before. “Eight minutes, huh? How can you be so sure?”
“Because in eight minutes we’re going to give those Arasaka goons the surprise of their lives.”
“What the hell is he talking about?”
“I should have thought that would be obvious, even to you, Calvin,” Mycroft replied in his most supercilious manner.
“Shut up, Mike, I don’t need that right now. If you can tell me, tell me! What the hell is he up to?”
“He was an army officer – he still thinks like an army officer. He knows that the best time to launch a counter-attack is when his enemy is preparing an attack of their own. Watch and learn, Calvin, watch and learn….”
Mycroft was, of course, right.
“Uh, Blade, just whaddya mean by ‘the surprise of their lives’?”
“Unless I’m sadly mistaken, young fella, he means that this is where we grab ‘em by the nose and kick ‘em the ass,” Houston drawled, a hint of a twinkle in his eye. “Seems like a perfect opportunity for it. Leastways, that’s how I see it.” Cocking his head to one side, he gave Blade a considering look.
The Scot nodded firmly. “Short version, Compton is this: while we’ve been sorting out who has been selling out whom in yer little excursion to the Sunshine State, the aether between here and Tokyo has been burning up. Whoever is in charge out there has been waiting for instructions to finish us off, and if he’s got the balls to make suggestions of his own, permission to carry them out. Tenacity and thoroughness are mother’s milk to a Japanese – thinking for himself isn’t. These people are professionals, but they’re also hidebound traditionalists.” Compton cocked his head and gave Blade a quizzical look while Houston nodded sagely.
“Son, yor basic Japanese don’t take a most honorable crap without a plan” – the Texan’s drawl was marked by tiny note of derision – “and yor basic Japanese underling won’t make a move without first coverin’ his honorable ass with his superiors, all the way up the line, ’lessn’ somethin’ he does causes his boss – or worse, his boss’s boss – to lose face. So whatever they’re gonna do, it’ll be by The Book – whatever ‘tradition’ says is the way to go. Y’see, son, the Japanese’ve got a talent for exquisite refinement, but they’re not innovators. They don’t think ‘off the ranch,’ so to speak: when they find a solution to a problem, that solution becomes Tradition, and God help any Japanese who bucks Tradition.”
Blade picked up the thought. “And in this case, Tradition says they wait for instructions from on high. The Japanese aren’t particularly swift when it comes to making a decision: once that decision’s been made, though, they tend to get their arses in high gear very quickly.”
“How many d’you reckon are still left out there,” Houston asked, cocking at eyebrow at Blade.
“Twenty – perhaps twenty-five of them left.”
“And they’re still goin’ t’be shaken up by that ass-whuppin’ you gave ‘em on yor way in…. Catch ‘em off balance, hit ‘em hard, get ourselves up to ground level where we’ve got some room to move and maneuver. Hopefully there’ll be some cavalry somewhere who can arrive in time.”
Compton cocked his head at that. “Yeah, speaking of cavalry, I’ve noticed that APD’s been doing a whole lotta nuthin’ since this whole shitball began. I suppose that means that Arasaka’s been leaning hard on APD to leave them alone while they finish us off?”
Blade nodded. “Got it one, lad. Which gives us two choices: we let them come to us and blow us all away with heavy weapons – and they won’t need more than a few minutes to do that once they get started – or we take the fight to them and get the hell out of here.” Blade looked at Houston. “Well?”
“I’m not much on glorious last stands, Blade. I know it falls somewhere ‘tween sacrilege and heresy for a Texan to say so, but I always thought them fellas at the Alamo were a buncha damned idjits.”
Blade grinned, then raised his voice to be sure Red and Radome could hear him. “Right then, gear up, everybody! Now!”
“Sir?” Alistair’s voice in Blade’s ear was quiet but urgent.
“What is it?”
“All of the internal audio and visual feed aboot yer location has been lost. As near as Ah ken, the loss o’ signal is due to the feed lines being disconnected or cut at the main junction inside yon complex.”
“Och, hell, Blade’s Law Number 22, right on time.”
Compton, not privy to MacLaren’s conversation with Alistair, did a double. “Say what?”
“One of my Laws of Combat, Compton – ‘Communications will fail just when you need something desperately.’ I just found out that our tactical feed has been cut off. That tells me the Arasakas are close to making their move and don’t want us to see them getting ready. Right then, Alistair, give me a display of the last known positions of all the Arasaka personnel inside the mall and above ground.”
“Here ye go, Sir.” The display was projected into Blade’s left eye, and he studied it for a few seconds.
“People, they’re moving a bit faster than I expected. From the looks of things on the last images he got, they’re still getting their shite together, so let’s make that work in our favor.” He turned to Houston and nodded at the semi-auto shotgun. “Have ye got flash-bangs and smoke for that?”
“When I give the word, Alistair will open the door here, and I’ll take out the remaining Rats. That will alert the Arasaka goons that we’re coming, though, so on your command, Houston, Alistair will open the door leading out to the mall and you open fire.”
“Lay down the flash-bangs and the smoke together, two or three of each, alternating?” Houston asked. Blade nodded.
“That should buy us a couple of seconds’ worth of confusion. We hit the entrance running: Houston, you take the point, Red, you and Radome follow him. Who has the crystals?”
“I do,” said Red, holding up a small, squarish metal security case that looked to be made of titanium.
“Give them to Radome.”
“What, you don’t think I can take care of them?” The indignation in the woman’s voice was almost corrosive. “Or don’t you trust me with them?”
Blade sighed. “Radome is the smallest person of the five of us – that means she’s also the smallest target. Figure it out, lass.”
“Oh.” Almost sheepishly Red handed the case to the other woman.
“Raven, did you copy that? Radome has the crystals.”
“Radome has the crystals, got it.”
Blade looked at each of his four companions in turn as he spoke. “Compton and I will be the rearguard. Once you’re through the door, turn left and run like hell down to the corridor to the main stairway. Don’t stop for anyone or anything, except the crystals – if they don’t get out, everything we’ve done will have been for shite. Whatever it takes, get up to street level and head toward the pavilion at Spaeth Plaza.”
“Then what?” asked Radome.
“I don’t know – I’ll worry about that when we get there.” Radome gave Blade another of those old-fashioned looks but said nothing more.
“Right, then, people, load and lock. Sound off when you’re ready.”
“So am I.”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” This was Compton, and the words were spoken accompanied by a cheeky grin. Blade grinned back, made certain the Enfield had a fresh magazine and a round chambered, then slung it over his shoulder and settled it. He checked that the magazine in the big Sig-Sauer was full, then nodded.
“Alistair, open the saferoom door.”
“He’s a madman! He’s damned well certifiable!” Hobbes was incredulous, watching Blade lead his four companions out of the nightclub and into the smokescreen Houston had laid down. The microphones inside Bits clearly picked up the cacophony of gunfire erupted, but with no video feed from outside the club available, he had no idea what was actually happening – so naturally he assumed the worst. “He’s going to get them all killed, and Arasaka will have the crystals! Once they do, we’ll never get them – or Kim – back! Goddamn Scottish bastard!”
“As I said before, Calvin, Blade still thinks and acts like an infantry officer. My suggestion that you watch and learn still holds. Oh, my!” The last two words came out almost as if Mycroft had been startled.
“What is it?”
“Uh, nothing, sir, at least, nothing that changes the advice I just gave you.”
The sudden rush out of Bits took everyone outside by surprise. Blade disposed of the four remaining Rats with a quartet of headshots while Houston blew apart the front windows and fired off his smoke and flash-bangs. Caught off-guard and off-balance, the reisens scattered, roughly half of them running to the left, toward what was, in fact, a dead end, the rest falling back down the mall toward the main entrance. Confused and disordered, their return fire was, at least initially, scattered, almost desultory.
Radome, Red, and Houston wasted no time, but took the attack to the Arasakas immediately, pressing forward, moving at a half-walk, half-trot as they laid down suppressive fire, picking off a target whenever one presented itself. Radome and Houston were no surprise there, their reputations made it clear they could handle themselves in a firefight; it was Red who was the revelation. She appeared to be every bit as competent as the late, unlamented Bridelow had assured Blade she was. There was a calm, almost detached expression on the face of the leggy redhead as she searched for targets that never wavered even for an instant when she fired.
As he and Compton took up the rearguard, Blade noted that, in sharp contrast to the rather excitable demeanor that Compton displayed whenever someone wasn’t shooting at him, under fire the younger man was tightly focused. He methodically squeezed off controlled three- and four-round bursts of fire, and shifted from target to target with a swift deliberation. A good man to have at your side or on your six, Blade mused as he lined up on yet another reisen. And the lad was fast – unnaturally so, it seemed – moving from target to target with frightening speed and proficiency. If we get out of this, I think there are a few questions I’ll need to ask him about that, a corner of Blade’s mind thought absently.
Nakajima was furious. Goddammit! What the hell is Blade even doing here? I never expected him to show up – and now, for the first time ever, he’s actually one step ahead of me!
Umori looked at his superior and said simply, “Orders, sir?”
Nakajima hesitated, but only for a moment. “Numbers are the only advantage we have at the moment. They are clearly the more skilled fighters, and Blade is a force multiplier in his own right. But that Russian gaijun, Stalin, was right: quantity has a quality all its own, and right now our only choice is to make that sort of ‘quality’ work for us!” He pressed a key on his laptop, then spoke into the comm unit at his throat. “All available personnel move into the attack immediately. It doesn’t matter what task you’ve been assigned, if you have a weapon, move into the mall and press the attack on the gaijun trying to break our containment. They cannot be allowed to escape, so, dead or alive, contain them!”
The dynamics were shifting, something was changing: the returning fire from the reisen, which had been noticeably slacking off, suddenly increased in volume and accuracy. Blade staggered as a small caliber bullet struck his chest, while two more shots narrowly missed his head.
“Alistair, something’s happening! What’s going on? Have you got anything you can give me as a tactical feed?”
“Nae, Sir, Ah haven’t onything for ye. The video feed is still down. Ah’m blund here.”
“Do what ye can, Alistair.”
Compton gave a snort and glanced at Blade. “Christ, this is going south so fast I think I can see the red shift. I never expected it to be this bad!”
“Oh, this is no’ bad, Compton. In fact, ye haven’t seen bad, yet,” Blade replied. “But if ye just wait a few minutes, it’ll be along.”
“You coulda spared me that.”
“Blade’s Law Number 9: ‘If you’re short of everything except the enemy, you’re in combat.’ They’re definitely getting reinforced from somewhere.”
Ahead of them, Red, Houston, and Radome were pressing their own attack. Radome kept up a steady suppressive fire, four- and five-round bursts that kept the Arasakas from getting too adventurous. Houston kept a close eye on where she directed her fire, so that when the reisen popped their heads back up, he was ready with a full charge of buckshot. Meanwhile, Red seemed to have a preference for single shots, aimed and cleanly spaced, that took a steady toll on the opposition.
“How you doin’, Missy?” Houston called out to Radome.
“I’m OK, but the ammo situation is getting tight. I’ve got maybe five rounds left in this magazine, and another three full ones in my ruck.”
“We’d best git a move on then, get to the stairwell and get the hell outta Dodge!”
“I hear you! Let’s hoof it!”
Though he heard none of that conversation, a quick glance over his shoulder a few seconds later told Blade that the trio had picked up their pace considerably, creating a gap between them and Compton and himself.
“C’mon, lad, close it up!”
“Hey, I’m moving my black ass as fast as I can, dude!”
“David!” Raven’s voice unexpectedly crackled in Blade’s ears, barely audible over the gunfire. “I’ve got something for you. It’s about that implant you took out of Bridelow.”
“Not right now, Raven! I’m a bit busy here!”
“But – “
“I love ye, lass, but it’ll have to wait.” A bullet’s impact blew chips off the face of a concrete pillar just inches from Blade’s face. “The Arasakas and I are having a wee divergence of opinion at the moment.” Raven’s reply was drowned out by a long burst of automatic fire from Compton, who swept across a line of advancing reisen. They all went down, some permanently, the rest to find what little cover they could in the open mall. But now there were more of them than there had been just moments earlier, and those who dropped to take cover were quicker to get back on their feet.
Calling over his left shoulder, Blade shouted, “Houston, Radome, Red! Get to that concrete kiosk as fast as you can! Wait for us there, then we’ll take the stairs together!”
“Y’all got it!” “Roge-o!” “Will do!” all came back to him simultaneously, as the three of them set off at a run for what proclaimed itself to be an information booth. It was that, but it was also a security feature, built of cast concrete, designed and placed to prevent someone from attempting to drive a vehicle down into the mall. It was well suited to serve as a momentary redoubt, and Blade was determined to take advantage of it. As Radome, Red, and Houston charged forward, the remaining reisen before them, clearly disorganized and apparently demoralized as well, began retreating up the stairs.
Blade jerked in surprise when a quartet of pistol shots – from the sound of them, from a powerful pistol at that – burst out on his right. Spinning in their direction, bringing his Sig-Sauer to bear on the source, he was astonished to see a slender, very tall, incredibly good-looking blonde holding a classic Isoceles stance, calmly picking targets among the Arasakas and dispatching them one by one.
“Who the hell are ye and what the hell are ye doing here?” he shouted above the din.
The woman never took her eyes off her targets and continued to shoot as she shouted back, “They call me Spazz!” Bang! “It’s a long story and don’t ask!” Bang! Bang! “Anyway, I’m here to help – it looks like you could use it!” Bang! Bang!
Blade wasn’t inclined to argue – “Spazz,” whomever she really was, definitely knew how to shoot. Consequently, the added firepower was very welcome: his little band of merry warriors needed all the help it could get. Questions could wait until later – assuming both of them were still around whenever “later” arrived.
Raven stared helplessly at the bank of monitors before her. She had no idea what Blade and his companions were actually facing: the video feed from his cybernetic eye had either stopped working or else he had shut it down. But there had been a disturbing undercurrent in Blade’s voice, an urgency that Raven had rarely heard before. It took a moment for her to sort it out, and then she knew what it was: fear. Blade, for all of his accomplishments, wasn’t superhuman. Raven knew that, in fact, he was sometimes as lucky as he was good – and in her opinion he played on that luck harder and more often than any truly sane human being ever should have done. Now, though, the realization that his luck might be running out and that he just possibly wasn’t good enough to get out of this mess had driven itself home.
Yet the fear she was hearing wasn’t that of a man in fear for his life. No, what Blade dreaded above all else was failure, to be weighed in the balance and be found wanting. It wasn’t vainglory, nor was it ego, nor was it a devotion to some absurd “warrior ethos” concoction. It was duty, pure and simple, self-imposed, but no less binding for that. What Blade feared was failing to do what he understood to be his duty: getting the survivors of the extraction team to safety.
Raven’s mind raced as she sought some way she could help the man who had once been her lover and was still her best friend. Her resources were vast, but they were electronic, and what Blade and his people needed right now was raw firepower. Scrolling through a series of displays with a speed that would have left any and all of them a meaningless blur to most anyone else on the planet, she stopped abruptly when her eyes flickered on the display for low-level aerial traffic over downtown Atlanta. There was a lot of traffic, far more than would be expected in the predawn hours of a Thursday. Her eyes narrowed as she took note of one particular icon.
“Why, hello there, Mr. NSA drone. Let’s see what you can tell me today….” Her fingers flew over her keyboard as she tapped into the video and data feed being sent from the drone to the amateurs at Ft. Meade, Maryland. What she saw in the overhead imagery almost stopped her heart. “Oh, my God,” she murmured, then took a quick glance at the other icons in the area, and without an instant’s hesitation, she spun up a new com-link.
Spazz, Compton, and Blade slid inside the concrete kiosk, still blazing away at the Arasakas behind them whenever a target presented itself. Houston, Radome, and Red all looked at Spazz, then at Blade.
“Her name is Spazz, I’ll explain more later if I can, but for right now, the lady can shoot and she’s on our side.”
“Good enough fer me,” Houston drawled, potting a quick shot at a careless reisen atop the main stairway, thirty yards away. “‘Specially if’n she can shoot.”
“OK by me,” Radome chimed in.
“Uh, guys, we’ve got a problem.” This was Red, who gestured toward the top of the stairway. An almost solid phalanx of Arasakas had appeared and began shooting at the kiosk. Blade estimated there were at least forty of them, a count seconded by Red. “I make at least twenty, maybe twenty-five, half of which are in a postion where they can shoot at us.” She grinned. “I just love rock ‘n’ roll!” With that she sent a long burst of automatic fire slamming into the advancing reisen. Those who weren’t taken down didn’t stop, however – they barely slowed down. “Uh, oh.”
“Uh, Blade, a little help here?” Compton nudged the Scot in the ribs. “We’ve got our own problems here on our six.” As if to emphasize his point, he emulated Red, firing full auto into the Arasakas coming up the mall, perhaps fifty yards away. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an unlimited supply of ammo, and this ‘target-rich environment’ shit really sucks!”
It was then that, as if in response to an unheard command, all the Arasakas really opened up on the half-dozen people huddled inside the kiosk….
“Yes! We have them now!” Nakajima pumped a fist as he shouted in triumph, a singular demonstration for someone who imagined himself a traditional stolid and stoic Japanese. “You made a stupid mistake, Blade, and now you’ll pay the price for your stupidity!” Nakajima gave no further orders to his minions – there were none to give, they all knew what was expected of them now.
“Goddammit, Blade, I can’t get a shot off!” Houston shouted over the din. “There’s just too much metal flyin’ this way! I know they’re mostly sprayin’-and-prayin’ but sooner or later they’re gonna get lucky! And I’m thinkin’ it’s gonna be sooner!” Radome, Red, and Spazz had all taken to simply holding their weapons above the countertops of the kiosk, blindly firing toward the Arasakas in the hope of hitting someone. Even Compton had given up on trying to achieve anything like accurate fire, but just fired random bursts into the oncoming masses of reisen.
Chips and shards of concrete flew everywhere, one of them laying open Blade’s left cheek. Three times he’d been struck by spent bullets, once in each shoulder and once in the chest. Spazz’s right hand and forearm were bleeding from a half dozen cuts opened up by flying debris, Red’s form-fitting coverall was ripped and ragged, there were small bloodstains in Radome’s platinum locks. Amazingly, Compton seemed to be unmarked, although it was highly unlikely he would remain so for much longer.
A sudden grunt, a cough, and an “Aw, shit!” sounded to Blade’s right, and Houston slumped over on his side. A ricochet had gotten lucky, bouncing off the side of the kiosk and into his side, where it found a gap in his body armor, and retained just enough kinetic energy to penetrate his flesh and force its way into his left lung. Blade had seen enough chest wounds to know that without medical help, Houston had perhaps fifteen minutes to live. It really didn’t take all that long for a body to bleed out….
“Right then, that’s enough of this shite,” Blade murmured to himself, and holstered his nearly-empty SIG-Sauer. “It’s about time somebody taught ye little yellow bastarts how to shoot.” In a swift, fluid motion, the Lee-Enfield came off his back up to his shoulder, the working of the bolt a series of half-heard clicks as he rose to one knee and sighted over the countertop.
And so it went for a series of ten shots, less than two seconds separating each one, and with them ten Arasaka reisen died, a single, neat .303 calibre hole appearing in the bridge of each one’s nose. Out went the spent magazine, in went a fresh one, and within seconds Blade resumed his deadly fusilade.
As he had hoped it might, the sudden onslaught of incredibly accurate rifle fire caused the Arasakas to hesitate, confounding them with its precision and methodical ruthlessness. Blade was trying to buy his comrades time, time to regroup their thoughts, to reorganize their own methods, a few precious seconds to shift into action rather than mere re-action. It might not be enough – it almost certainly wouldn’t be – to let them find a way to survive, but Blade had given his word to Hobbes that he would get these people out of there, and Blade never broke his word: the first time he did so would be the time he died while trying to keep it.
More sensed than seen behind him, Spazz, still skillfully choosing and capping her targets, smoothly slid into a position to cover Blade’s “six” as he brought the Lee-Enfield into action. Taking advantage of the Arasakas’ brief hesitation, Red and Radome brought their rifles to bear and began dispatching their own targets. Compton did likewise, and for a few seconds the little group held their own and gave better than they got. But in the long run, Blade knew, it wouldn’t be enough; the thought shamed him, but still he continued to mark his targets, work his rifle’s bolt, squeeze the trigger. It would be over soon enough.
Raven watched her monitors with a fevered intensity, not knowing what was going on inside Underground Atlanta, knowing only that Blade was still alive because his comm link was still functional. She saw the mass of Arasakas rushing toward the entrances to the subterranean mall, fumed in impotent rage as the APD stood idly by, and prayed a prayer to any god who might be listening. Please let me have called him in time, please! Please get there in time, Nathan, please get there in time!
The grin of triumph on Nakajima’s face was almost demonic in its glee, an expression mirrored by Umori. The glee abruptly gave way to surprise, confusion, and then consternation when his communication links were suddenly filled with the intense hiss of pure static, the white noise by product of broad-spectrum jamming.
“What the hell? Where did that come from Umori? Get my comm links back up! I want to watch Blade die!”
Within seconds of each other, all three skylights that illuminated the upper level of Underground Atlanta imploded as the hulls of a trio of VA-10s settled on them, and a score of heavily-armed men and women wearing suits of black Weclar armor rappelled from the bottom hatch of each, firing stunner rounds at the Arasakas. An amplified voice that mixed a central Texas twang with an Ivy League drawl issued forth from a loudspeaker in each vehicle.
“Cease fire! Cease fire immediately! All Arasaka personnel are directed to put down their weapons and offer no further resistance – refusal to comply will be met with deadly force. This is Nathan Gerrard, U.S. Marshal. We’ll take it from here, fellas.”
Preview #3 <—> > Preview #5