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Prescott-Chatwell was the law which specifically prohibited the BSC, which was not a domestic police agency, from mounting ops in the Beowulf System, and violation of it was punishable by up to thirty T-years in prison. It could be waived under special cirumstances, but that required a signoff at the level of the Planetary Board of Directors. Getting that sort of signoff was a time-consuming business, and time, unfortunately, was something Allison Benton-Ramirez y Chou didn't have a lot of.

Now Hamilton-Mitsotakis looked into Allison's brother's eyes for a long, still heartbeat or two and then smiled slowly.

“Problem? Why should I have a problem? As far as I'm concerned, given the information these bastards want you to hand over, this is obviously a direct attack on the BSC. As such, it's clearly my responsibility to respond immediately in order to contain the damage. There'll be plenty of time to sort out any minor jurisdictional issues once the immediate threat's been contained.”

There was a moment of silence, then he shook himself.

“So if we can't track them, what do we do?” he asked.

“All I can think of for right now is to play for time, Sir,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou admitted flatly. “I think they're going to want a physical drop, because they'll be too afraid of what I might piggyback onto an electronic transfer. I doubt they'll be foolish enough to arrange the delivery anywhere near their actual base, but the problem with a physical drop is that somebody has to pick it up. Our best bet—and it's not much of one—is to set up surveillance of the drop and follow whoever collects the data. It'll probably be a drone, somebody who doesn't know squat, but eventually that information has to reach them if it's going to do them any good. All we can hope is that Alley survives long enough for us to follow the breadcrumbs to somebody I can . . . convince to tell me where she is.”

He met his superior's gaze levelly, and his eyes were bleak and cold. Cold with the promise that anyone who knew where his sister was would tell him in the end; bleak with the knowledge of how little likelihood there was that he'd ever have the chance to find her.

* * *

Alfred Harrington climbed out of the taxi and closed the hatch behind him.

He'd had it deposit him four and a half kilometers west of his destination, on the far side of a ridgeline from the people he was interested in. Hopefully, they wouldn't notice it, although he couldn't be positive they hadn't already picked him up. It all depended on the sensor systems they might have installed, and given the fact that they clearly wanted as small and unobtrusive a footprint as they could get, they were probably relying solely on passives. That would tend to limit the amount of reach and definition they had, but there was no point pretending that if they'd been watching, they wouldn't have seen the taxi fly over them, then swing to the northwest and—hopefully—disappear. The AI had been willing to come in to his present position at what passed for low altitude, but before he actually told it to land, it would never have agreed to violate the minimum hard floor of two hundred meters mandated by Beowulf's safety regulations. He was lucky it was prepared to wait for his return . . . and it had agreed to that only because he'd left a signed, thumbprinted authorization for it to keep the meter running against his card. At this rate, he was going to owe the cab company a solid month's worth of his lieutenant's pay.

It was possible he'd be making use of that taxi again. That was the plan—such as it was, and what there was of it, at any rate—although he wouldn't have cared to bet anything important on the likelihood. The best he could hope for was that before he'd cut back to the south, his approach had circled wide enough that the ridgeline had cut off any of the bad guys' sensors' line of sight to the taxi's actual approach and landing. And that by keeping it on the ground, he could prevent it from doing what it would normally have it done: lift straight up on counter-grav before heading back to Grendel for another fare. Even if he'd gotten in undetected, that would have been a flare-lit tipoff to any half-awake lookout.

This is insane, he told himself almost calmly as he made his way through the dense, unfamiliar Beowulfan trees. He might not know the names of the local species, but he'd spent enough years hunting and hiking in Sphinx's forests and the dark-bellied clouds were sweeping in from the east. He could smell the approaching rain, and a steadily freshening wind tossed the limbs overhead and filled the woods with the sighing song of dancing leaves and branches as they were flung about. A sense of motion and energy and life filled the air about him, and the scents of leaf mold, bark, and damp earth filled his nostrils. For the first time since his arrival in Grendel, he was actually in his element again, and in other circumstances he would have enjoyed the hike.

Not under these.

That other presence—Allison—was in front of him. He'd located her by the simple expedient of flying almost due north from the city, directly on his bearing to her, until suddenly that unerring sense of her presence was behind him again. The taxi had just crossed what appeared to be a nice-looking, remote hunting lodge, and as it had circled away to the west, he'd felt the bearing shift. There was no question in his mind. As preposterous as it sounded, he was certain Allison Chou was in that hunting lodge.

And if she is, what are you going to do about it, hotshot? he asked himself harshly. You're not a cop. You're not even a Marine anymore. And even if you were, you're not a Beowulfer. You've got exactly no authority or jurisdiction on this planet, idiot! And even if that weren't the case, what're you going to do? Just shoot the first poor bastard you see?

He grimaced, but he also reminded himself of the Marine Corps' motto: “Can Do!” And of the mantra of every Marine noncom who'd ever lived: improvise, adapt, and overcome. If there'd ever been a time and place for both of them, that time and place were here and now. And it wasn't like he'd never had to do it before.

A flicker of fear went through him with that thought, and he felt his hands begin to shake. He stopped in the dense shadow of a towering, vaguely oaklike tree and held those hands up in front of him, clenching them into hard-knuckled fists.

Stop that! This isn't Clematis!

Maybe it wasn't, but he was the same man he'd been on Clematis, and that was what really frightened him. That he was the same man, with the same monster deep inside, eager to get out.

He stood there for a long, dragging seconds, trapped between the memory of what had been and the fear of what might be again, and panic pulsed at the base of his throat. He couldn't. He couldn't let it out again. He just couldn't.

But then his head snapped up, his eyes wide. She was aware once more, and she was frightened—terrified. And then a dreadful, jagged bolt of anguish ripped into him. Not his—hers! The mere echo of it went through him like a vibro blade, and his teeth clenched. His hesitation disappeared.

There was a time for monsters, he thought.

* * *

Tobin Manischewitz heard the scream through the closed door and shook his head. He supposed it was unreasonable to expect anything else, and Ardmore did have a point about the need to record something suitably motivating for Captain Benton-Ramirez y Chou. But there was no need to start in on the girl this early.

No need except that it's how he gets his kicks, anyway, he thought.

Another scream, this one shriller and higher than the last, came through the door, and he grimaced. He thought about opening the door and telling the other man to lay off, but he didn't think about it very hard. In the end, it was no skin off his nose what happened to her before they disposed of her once and for all, and there was no point pissing Ardmore off any sooner than he had to. But he wasn't going to get any work done with that racket going on next door, so he gathered up his computer and headed down the stairs.

Yet another scream followed him.

* * *

Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou sat in the small, anonymous office. He knew all of the thirteen men and women assembled in the ready room on the far side of the borrowed office's door, completing the final checks on their gear. None of them were members of

his own team, but he'd worked with several of them before, and all of them were good, solid people. Good, solid people who wouldn't have been noticed by anyone who was watching his own teammates as they drew ammunition and climbed into their armored skinsuits.

It was unlikely he was going to have anything for them to do, but if he did—if the bastards who had Allison gave him even a hint of where to find them—he was prepared to drop the entire world in on their heads, and screw Prescott-Chatwell's provisions. The only chance they'd have would be to go in quick and dirty, rushing the Manpower thugs who had to be behind this. The odds were frighteningly high that Allison would be killed in that kind of confused firefight, but her chances would be infinitely better than if the people who had her were given even a few minutes to kill her or turn her into a human shield.

Now all he could do was sit here, waiting for the synthesized voice to contact him over his com and tell him where to take the data he'd been ordered to steal.

* * *

Alfred Harrington reached the fringe of the cleared area around the hunting lodge and made himself pause. It was hard—one of the hardest things he'd ever done—and the waves of terror, the jagged bursts of agony, coming to him over that impossible link battered at him. He didn't know if she would have been able to sense his proximity the way he sensed hers even under normal circumstances; the possibility that she could sense him now, through the maelstrom of her fear and her pain had to be vanishingly small. She couldn't know where he was, yet her frantic, silent plea reached out to him, gripped him like fiery pincers. He had to get her out of there! Yet if he simply charged in, he would succeed only in getting both of them killed. He knew that, but he also knew he might be running out of time. They were hurting her deliberately—terribly—yet he had no idea why.

The one thing he clung to was that the entire operation had been far too elaborate if all they'd wanted was to kill her. A pulser dart from a passing air car would have sufficed for that. It was entirely possible they wanted, for whatever sick reason, to take their time, make sure she suffered enough to satisfy them first, and that thought dried his mouth with a terror he'd never felt for himself. Either way, they were unlikely to kill her immediately, though. He couldn't know that, but the cold focus he'd forced upon his thoughts told him it was more likely than any other outcome . . . and that if he simply went crashing in in some sort of berserk charge, they would kill her.

The good news was that since he'd been planning on spending the day in his apartment, catching up on Dr. Mwo-chi's notes, he'd been in civvies, not uniform, so at least anyone who saw him wasn't going to automatically assume he represented some official law enforcement or military agency. That probably meant they were unlikely to just shoot him and be done with it instead of trying to fob the nosy neighbor off with some cover story. Presumably they'd be prefectly ready to kill him if it looked like they couldn't fob him off, but he ought to have at least a few seconds before they started trying to.

The better news was that even though he was no longer officially a Marine, some habits died hard. That was why he'd paused to collect the contents of his closet safe, and he reached inside his windbreaker to touch the butt of the pulser in the holster under his left armpit. Bewoulf's laws on weapons and the use of deadly force were less . . . understanding than the Star Kingdom's, which was why it had stayed safely locked up in his safe since he'd arrived at ISU. Beowulfers weren't totally unreasonable about guns the way some people—Old Earth came to mind—were, however, and he was a military officer, even if he was on-planet as a medical student. That created a certain gray area . . . and under the circumstances, he wasn't all that worried about a misdemeanor weapons charge even if the matter ever came up.

The holster was an old friend, a civilian rig his father had presented to him on his sixteenth birthday and he'd used ever since, but the pulser was pure military. He and his company's armorer had tweaked and tuned the long barrelled, three-millimeter Descorso to suit his personal preferences, though, including after-market Shapiro grips, a Simpson & Wong 216 holosight, and an action smoother than glass, and two spare magazines rode the leather under his right arm. The Descorso might not have been with him as long as the holster, but it had been with him long enough, and so had the Marine-issue vibro blade mag-locked horizontally across the back of his belt. They were tools he knew how to use only too well, but they were also all he had, and he had no idea what he might face in the next few minutes.

He did have a little information, though. As soon as he'd located the lodge, he'd punched up a query on his uni-link, and he'd been lucky. It had been built as a commercial operation and it was the better part of three hundred T-years old, but it had been on the market for almost a full local year until someone purchased it barely three months ago, and as soon as he'd called up the deed and checked the record of the transaction, Alfred had realized the buyer had been a front. The sale had been registered by a shell corporation which no longer existed and had almost certainly been set up for the sole purpose of making the buy. That struck him as pretty solid evidence that Allison's abductors were indeed professionals, not simply some psycho stalker, and he tried to tell himself that was a good sign.

The acutal transaction record had been interesting, if not terribly informative, but the original real estate listing for the lodge hadn't been cleared from the realtor's site. It was still there, including a profile that showed a floor plan for the main lodge, specified its construction standards, and included a virtual tour of the house and the grounds, extolling a whole raft of recent renovations to the rather elderly buildings. The tour had obviously been intended for a sales tool, and it wasn't remotely close to anything he would have called a complete intel packet, yet at least it meant he had a firm notion of the physical layout of what he was going to be dealing with.

He'd also had the taxi AI bring up the sight-seeing features built into its windows and view screen and downloaded the magnified imagery of the terrain they'd overflown on their entire flight from Grendel to his uni-link, which meant he'd gotten at least some aerial shots of the lodge as they passed over it. It wasn't much—certainly not the kind of information military-grade sensors could have pulled up—but it had confirmed there was a commercial-style air-van in the vehicle park for the main lodge. He didn't have a very good angle on it, but it looked like the same sort of body that was used by almost all ambulances here on Beowulf, and if it wasn't painted white, it was easy enough to use smart paint and reprogram it to a different color combination when you were done playing dress-up.

He'd made himself spend several minutes looking at the plat from the sales site and from the Registrar of Deeds' office, as well, and comparing both of them to his own overhead imagery and the topographical maps available over the net from the planetary geographical base. The maps seemed to be very good, as good as anything the Sphinx Forestry Service could have provided back home. That was why he'd come in from the west. Not only had the maps suggested the ridgeline would offer the taxi at least partial concealment on its approach, but his overheads showed that the perimeter of the cleared area around the lodge pinched in closest to the main building from this direction. Even better, a ravine—it looked like it was probably a seasonal watercourse—snaked through the trees and out across the clearing, passing within no more than seventy meters of the lodge, and the maps indicated it was well over a meter deep—more than two meters, in places—for its entire length.

Now he looked out across that clearing, confirming his impression of the terrain. There was a small utility building between the ravine and the lodge. According to the real estate site, it housed the lodge's power receptor, tied into Beowulf's orbital power stations. The entry on the site had had very little to say about the receptor, although it had waxed almost lyrical about the many ways in which the lodge's internal systems had been renovated and updated. That suggested one possibility, at least, and it also came closest to affording him cover for that final seventy meters. It wasn't much, but when the sit

uation offered so little, it was up to a man to manufacture his own edge.

Another of those frantic, agonized bursts sizzled through him with the knowledge of someone else's pain and terror, and his nostrils flared. Enough! It was time to stop thinking and start doing.

* * *

The lights flickered.

It was so quick, so fleeting, Tobin Manischewitz might not have noticed under other circumstances. Under these circumstances, his nerves were cranked up to maximum sensitivity and his head came up abruptly. He looked around the sunny office on the lodge's ground floor, although he wasn't certain what he was looking for. At least it was far enough away from Ardmore to muffle the sounds as he . . . amused himself, and it offered a nice view of the mountain range rising misty-blue with distance to the north. It did not, however, offer him any clue as to why the power had just hiccuped, and he started to get out of his chair, then paused as the door opened and Riley Brandão, his third in command, poked his head into the room.

“What?” Manischewitz asked before the other man could speak.

“The frigging power receptor's down,” Brandão said sourly.

“What happened?” Manischewitz sat up straighter, his eyes narrowing. The sudden failure of normally reliable bits and pieces of technology at critical moments in operations always sounded internal alarms.

“Looks like it's the tracking unit,” Brandão replied. “The diagnostic panel in the kitchen says we've stopped tracking the assigned satellite. anyway. Sawney's gone out to check.” He grimaced. “I told you we should've had the damned thing replaced when we bought the place. Piece of crap's older'n I am!”

Manischewitz resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. Brandão took an irritating relish in “I-told-you-so”s, and he could be relied upon to find any potential fault with any plan, order, or piece of equipment well ahead of time, thus providing himself with endless opportunity to utter the fateful phrase. The fact that almost none of his gloomy prognostications ever came to pass didn't faze him one bit. Instead, he seized upon the thankfully few occasions on which he'd been right, and Manischewitz was torn between hoping it really was something as minor as the tracking unit and hoping it was something else entirely just so Brandão couldn't look at him triumphantly.



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