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Beginnings


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If it only left us something to work with! But it's deliberately designed to go after the axions and rip them out by the root. There's nothing left to regenerate, whether spontaneously or under regen therapy. But there has to be a way to—

His reader went flying over the balcony rail, his wine glass shattered as it hit the floor, and Alfred Harrington catapulted up out of his chair. For a split second he stood staring out across the campus. Then he wheeled away from the balcony, charging across his apartment, pausing only to open the thumbprinted personal safe in his closet, scoop out its contents, and grab a light windbreaker.

Three seconds later, two of his neighbors found themselves unceremoniously bowled off their feet as two meters of Sphinxian muscle and gristle bulldozed their way into the grav shaft.

* * *

Allison climbed off her old-fashioned, muscle-powered bicycle. She really didn't need the exercise after her morning's run, but it was her favored mode of transportation around her neighborhood, and it was always easier to fold the bike and rack it than to bother with an air car or a taxi. Besides, early spring was the very best season in Grendel, and she intended to enjoy it while it lasted.

She entered the unlock code, then hit the button to fold the bike's ultra-lightweight memory composites into a handy, briefcase-sized package. It began collapsing in on itself obediently, and she checked her chrono. She'd felt more than a little odd checking Lieutenant Harrington's schedule like some sort of creepy stalker, but she'd done it. And according to the file she'd convinced the registrar's computers to access for her, he didn't have any classes until fourteen hundred. That meant he should be free, and she didn't have to check where he was. She could feel his direction just fine—always assuming she truly hadn't lost her mind, of course—and according to her internal tracking device, he was almost certainly in his apartment. The number of which, she—like the creepy stalker she was certain she wasn't—had also obtained from the registrar.

You do have his com combination, too, you know, she reminded herself. You could just screen him like a normal human being instead of turning up on his doorstep like a creepy stalker. She grimaced as the last two words made their way through her mind yet again, but that description of her behavior was suggesting itself to her with increasing frequency of late. Especially when the dreams she'd been having started getting more and more explicit. Of course, how would you go about beginning the screen conversation with him? “Hello, Lieutenant Harrington. I don't want you to feel nervous or anything, but I've been obsessing over you for the last few weeks, and I think you're really hot. I'm not a stalker or anything! Honest! But I really want to jump your bones, so— Hello?” That's funny. Wonder where he went?

She snorted, amused despite herself, but this was a conversation she had to have face-to-face, if only to be sure that—

An agonizing, immaterial fist slammed into her from behind. Her eyes flared wide, but that was all she could do. The stun gun knocked out all other muscular control, and she went down, unable to catch herself in any way before she hit the pavement with shocking force. Pain exploded through her, and she tasted blood as her lower lip split.

Panic came on the heels of the pain, and then hands were rolling her gently over.

“Is she all right?” she heard someone ask. “That looked like a really nasty fall!”

“It was,” another voice responded in tones of deep concern. She'd never heard it before in her life, but it belonged to the hands which had rolled her onto her back. She tried to focus, but even her eye muscles seemed to be ignoring her and everything was a misty blur. The second voice's hands pressed a tissue to her bleeding lip.

“I think she's had some sort of a seizure,” the voice said, “but I've already screened for an—Ah! There it is now!”

Something grounded beside her in a soft whine of counter-grav, and then there were more hands. They picked her up, laid her on something. She felt straps being fastened across her inert body. Then she was moving again, sliding into some kind of vehicle. Doors closed, shutting off the outer world, and yet another voice spoke.

“Put her the rest of the way out,” it said, and panic was an icy dagger in her throat as something pricked her arm and the world slid away.

* * *

Alfred Harrington skidded to a stop at the university's Edgar Anderson Avenue gate. He looked around frantically, but he already knew she wasn't there. She was somewhere else, moving steadily away from him, and an almost paralyzing wave of terror flooded through him.

“Did you just see a young woman?” he demanded, reaching out and physically grabbing a Beowulfer of about his own age. “Right here—just a minute ago!”

“Hey! What do you think you're—!” the other man began, then gasped in pain as Alfred shook him. Gently, all things considered, but more than hard enough to leave bruises.

“Did—you—see—her?” Alfred grated.

“Yeah. Yeah, I did!” the Beowulfer said, looking at him the way any normal person would have regarded in obvious maniac. “Hey, ease up! What's your problem?”

“Where did she go?” Alfred snapped.

“I don't know! If she's the one you're looking for, she had some kind of turn or seizure or something. Fell right there.” The Beowulfer waved at the sidewalk. “But some guy was already helping her by the time I realized she'd fallen. Already called an ambulance and everything.”

“Ambulance?” A fresh and different fear stabbed at him as he thought of all the things that could have caused an apparently healthy young woman to collapse, yet somehow he knew that wasn't what had happened. He didn't know how he knew, but he knew. “What kind of ambulance? University Hospital, EMC, or from one of the other hospitals?”

“I don't know!” His unhappy informant said yet again. “Just an ambulance, man! White paint job, blue flashing light, siren—you know!”

“Which way did it go?”

“It went up! That's what counter-grav does. I didn't worry about which way it was headed, okay?”

Alfred suppressed a sudden desire to rip the other man's head off. Instead, he released him and began punching up a city map on his uni-link.

Ignaz Semmelweis University Hospital's ambulances wore the blue and white colors of the school. Most of the other hospitals—and God knew there were enough of them in Grendel—also painted their emergency vehicles in distinctive color combinations. Plain white was Grendel City Emergency Medical Services, but that couldn't be right either. Grendel EMC always transported to the nearest hospital unless they needed the services of a full up trauma center . . . and ISU Hospital was a trauma center. In fact, it was Grendel's primary trauma center. So if she'd had some kind of seizure and they'd transported her to a hospital, then he ought to be sensing her presence behind him, not in front of him and moving steadily farther away.

“You're crazy, you know that, man?!” the Beowulfer he'd manhandled said, once he was safely out of arm's reach. Alfred was vaguely aware that the other man was glaring at him, but he had no time to worry about that. For that matter, it was entirely possible the Beowulfer was right. It was crazy to be so certain she was in trouble—and that he knew the direction in which to look for her—when there was absolutely no evidence to prove that she was.

His uni-link showed him the map he'd been looking for and he scrolled quickly across it. There wasn't a single hospital on a direct line towards her receding presence. Assuming he was really sensing her presence, of course.

He punched in the campus hospital's com combination and waited as patiently as he could for an answer.

“Campus Medical Admissions,” the man on the tiny display said to him. “How may I help you?”

“Have you had an admission in the last five minutes?” Alfred asked as calmly as he could. “A young woman. She collapsed at the Edgar Anderson gate.”

“A young woman?” The man on the display looked down, eyes moving as if he were reading something. Then he looked back up and shook his head. “We haven't had any emerg

ency admissions in the last ten minutes.”

“None at all?” Alfred pressed, and the other man shook his head. Alfred's jaw clenched, and he cut the connection.

What the hell did he do now? In his own mind—such as it was and what remained of it—he was certain she'd been abducted, but he had exactly zero evidence to prove it . . . and even less of a motive to explain it. He'd sound like a lunatic claiming that he'd “felt” a complete stranger being kidnapped on a public sidewalk in Grendel on a busy weekday morning. “And why would someone have kidnapped the young lady, sir?” He could almost hear the question, see the sharpening interest in the official eyes as someone wondered if the oversized foreigner had burned out a circuit or two. Probably better to invite him down to the precinct office while they got to the bottom of it. And while they were doing that . . . .

He drew a deep breath, nostrils flaring, and used his uni-link to screen for a cab.

* * *

Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou growled a modestly foul obscenity as his com chimed. He'd just climbed into the shower after an all-night training exercise, and he was tempted to just let it ring. But it was Allison's call tone, and he decided that he owed his twin sister an answer, at least. Of course, if she wanted anything more than that, she was just going to have to wait.

The water turned off automatically as he opened the stall door, and he grabbed a towel and knotted it around his waist. His family wasn't big on nudity taboos, but Allison might be calling him from a public place and there were proprieties to observe. Of course, he could have simply accepted the call audio-only, but he wasn't averse to letting his sister see him dripping wet. If she was going to haul him out of the shower, he could at least try to make her feel a little guilty about having done it.

He reached the bedside com and pressed the acceptance key, then frowned slightly. He'd accepted the call without limiting it, but it came up audio-only from her end, anyway. And the privacy mode was engaged; only someone whose com possessed the encryption key could have made any sense at all out of anything which might be said.

“What can I do for you, Alley?”

“You can listen very carefully.”

The voice from the blank com display was computer synthesized . . . and badly. It was the sort of synthesis any listener was supposed to realize instantly wasn't an actual human being, and Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou's heart seemed to stop beating.

“Who is this?” he asked.

No stranger listening to him would have believed the intensity of the fear coursing through him, but the members of his team would have recognized that soft, relaxed note and been reaching for their weapons before he was done speaking.

“I'm not anyone you'd better piss off if you ever want to see the lady this com's registered to again,” the synthesized voice replied. “The fact that I have it should suggest to you that I also have its owner.”

Benton-Ramirez y Chou stood very still, his face expressionless, knowing the person at the other end of the link could see him whether or not he could see the man—or woman—behind that voice.

“I'm listening,” he said.

“Some people are very unhappy with you, Captain Benton-Ramirez y Chou. They don't like you, and they don't like your family, and they'd really, really like to hurt your family, because they figure you wouldn't like that any more than they like you. But they're willing to be reasonable. All you have to do is give them what they want and you'll probably get your sister back without any serious damage. Of course, I could be wrong about that. But even if I'm wrong about that, I can guarantee you won't like what finally ends up dumped on a corner somewhere—or possibly several corners, in bits and pieces—if you don't give them what they want.”

An icicle ran down Benton-Ramirez y Chou's spine. If there was one thing he knew, it was that whoever had Allison would never return her alive, whatever he did. They might keep her alive as long as he did whatever it was they wanted him to do, but when the time came—when they had everything they wanted, or when there was nothing left for him to give them or do for them—they would kill her. The penalty for kidnapping on Beowulf was the same as the penalty for first-degree murder, and that didn't even consider his connections to the BSC and the SBI. They would kill her to dispose of any witnesses, and they would kill her because they knew how badly it would hurt him and his family.

Of course, he'd probably already be dead by then, as well, he thought harshly, because they couldn't afford to leave him as a witness, either. That wouldn't affect the thinking of whoever was hiding behind that voice, though.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

“I think of this in the nature of a first date,” the voice replied. “We'll start with something small, just to see whether or not you understand how to follow instructions. I want a roster of the Biological Survey Corps personnel operating out of your embassies and consulates in the systems of Posnan, Breslau, Sachsen, Saginaw, Hillman, Terrance, Tumult, and Carlton.”

Benton-Ramirez y Chou felt his teeth grind together. That list represented every sector capital in the Silesian Confederacy, which was steadily becoming a hotbed of genetic slavery transfers and sales points despite everything the Royal Manticoran Navy and the Imperial Andermani Navy could do about it. It was a region to which the BSC had been paying special attention for the last few T-years, because the situation was going to get nothing but worse. At least some Manties were beginning to realize what the People's Republic of Haven's military buildup was really all about, and it was inevitable that tensions between the Star Kingdom and the PRH were going to worsen. They were already pretty damned bad, given how enthusiastically Manticore had greeted Havenite emigres (and especially professionals fleeing the provisions of Haven's Technical Conservation Act). They'd grown steadily worse in the sixty-four T-years since the TCA was enacted, but when the SKM in general realized the “alarmists” were right—that the Peoples Navy's buildup wasn't just a “public works” job program, whatever the Legislaturalists had to say about it—the Manties would have no choice but to begin recalling more and more of their naval units in the face of that threat, and when that happened . . . .

“What makes you think I have the reach to get you that kind of information?”

“Oh, come now, Captain! We all know what an ingenious sort you are. You have all sorts of contacts, and I'm sure a skilled BSC officer such as yourself is well-versed in all the ways to break into theoretically secure databases.”

“That kind of information's not going to be in any one database I can reach.” Benton-Ramirez y Chou shook his head. “I might be able to get to some of it, but not all of it. Not without tripping security fences right and left, anyway.”

“Then you have a problem, Captain. Or perhaps I should say your sister has a problem.”

“How do I even know she's still alive?” Benton-Ramirez y Chou asked harshly.

“You have a point. Just a moment.”

Perhaps forty-five seconds passed. Then—

“Jacques?” It was Allison's voice, shaky and trying to hide its fear. “Are you there, Jacques?”

“I'm here, Alley!”

“They told me to tell you there's a reason you should listen to them,” his sister said. “They—”

Her voice broke off in a high, shrill shriek that went on and on. It couldn't possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to, and then it ended with knifelike suddenness.

“Pity,” the synthesized voice said as Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou stared at the blank com, his rigid face pale. “Passed out sooner than I expected her to. Oh well, there's always tomorrow, isn't there, Captain? I think you'd better go ahead and get me that information , don't you? I'm sure she'll think so, anyway.”

He paused, and Benton-Ramirez y Chou could hear his own breathing. Then—

“We'll be in touch for a progress report soon, Captain,” the voice said, and the connection went dead.

* * *

Alfred Harrington forced himself to sit back in th

e hovering taxi, eyes closed, concentrating on the tenuous connection he was certain now that he wasn't imagining.

He had no idea what it was or how it had happened, but it was real. He could point directly to where she was, and when he focused as hard—and as desperately—as he did now, there was more. It wasn't clear, it wasn't sharp, but it was deep and powerful. Her presence had stopped moving, and he was actually sensing her emotions.

And the more he sensed, the more desperate he became.

She was terrified, with the gut wrenching sort of terror that could come only to someone who was strong, who knew her own capabilities . . . and knew the horrifying reality of complete helplessness. And then, only minutes ago, had come something far, far worse—a frantic, silent scream for help she knew could not come that went on and on until it finally chopped off and all he could sense was the direction from which it had come.

His mind seethed with possibilities, questions, terrified speculation, but he forced all of them into the back of his brain, locked them down under the icy discipline of the Marine platoon sergeant he once had been, and forced himself to think coldly and logically.

He had absolutely no information about her captors, nothing upon which he could base an action plan, try to formulate a strategy or tactics. He had no idea how to contact any member of her family, and they would probably have thought he was a lunatic if he'd been able to reach them. Worse, they might conclude that he was the one responsible for her disappearance. The same was true where Beowulf law enforcement was concerned. If they checked, they could certainly determine that the “ambulance” which had picked her up had never delivered her to any of Grendel's hospitals, but that alone wouldn't be enough to convince them that a complete stranger like Alfred Harrington knew where to start looking for her. Hell, he wouldn't have believed it! His own immediate response would have been to take someone making such claims into custody on the grounds that he probably knew more about it than he was telling, but his knowledge had nothing to do with mysterious emotional links between complete strangers.



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