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From the Highlands


Eric Flint


Helen used the effort of digging at the wall to control her terror. She thought of it as a variation of Master Tye's training: turn weakness into strength. Fear drove her, but she shaped it to steady her aching arms instead of letting it loosen her bowels.

Scrape, scrape. She didn't have the strength to make big gouges in the wall with a pitiful shard of broken rubble. The wall was not particularly hard, since it was not much more than rubble itself. But her slender arms and little hands, for all their well-honed training under Master Tye's regimen, were still those of a girl just turned fourteen.

So what? She couldn't afford to make much noise, anyway. Now and then, she could hear the low sound of her captors' voices, just beyond the heavy door which they had placed across the entrance to her "cell."

Scrape, scrape. Weakness into strength. The root breaks the rock. Wind and water triumph over stone.

So she had been trained. By her father, as much as by Master Tye. Decide what you want, and set to it like running water. Soft, slight, steady. Unstoppable.

Scrape, scrape. She had no idea how thick the wall was, or even whether it was a wall at all. For all she knew, Helen might simply be digging an endless little tunnel through the soil of Terra.

Her abductors had removed the hood after they got her into this strange and frightening place. She was still somewhere in the Solarian League's capital city of Chicago, that much she knew. But she had no idea where, except that she thought it was in the Old Quarter. Chicago was a gigantic city, and the Old Quarter was like an ancient Mesopotamian tel. Layer upon layer of half-rubbled ruins. They had descended deep underground, using twisted and convoluted passageways that she had not been able to store in her memory.

Scrape, scrape. Just do it. Running water conquers all.


While she scraped, she thought sometimes of her father, and sometimes of Master Tye. But, more often, she thought of her mother. She could not really remember her mother's face, of course, except from holocubes. Her mother had died when Helen was only four years old. But she had the memory—still as vivid as ever—of the day her mother died. Helen had been sitting on her father's lap, terrified, while her mother led a hopeless defense of a convoy against an overwhelming force of Havenite warships. But her mother had saved her, that day, along with her father.

Scrape, scrape. The work was numbing to the mind, as well as the body. Mostly, Helen didn't think of anything. She just kept one image before her: that of her mother's posthumously-awarded Parliamentary Medal of Honor, which, in all the many places they had lived since, her father always hung in the most prominent place in their home.

Scrape, scrape. Helen would get no medals for what she was doing, true. But she didn't care, anymore than her mother had cared.

Scrape, scrape. Running water.


When he spotted the figure he was looking for, Victor Cachat was swept by another wave of doubt and hesitation.

And fear.

This is crazy. The best way I can think of to guarantee myself the place of honor—in front of a firing squad.

The uncertainty was powerful enough to hold him rooted in one spot for well over a minute. Fortunately, the grubby tavern was so crowded and dimly lit that his immobility went unnoticed by anyone.

It was certainly unnoticed by the man he was staring at. It took Victor no more than seconds to decide that his quarry was already half-drunk. True, the man sitting at the bar was neither swaying nor slurring the few words he spoke to the bartender. In this, as in everything, Kevin Usher kept himself under tight control. But Victor had seen Usher sober—occasionally—and he thought he could detect the subtle signs.

In the end, it was that which finally overcame Victor's fears.

If he denounces me, I can always claim he was too drunk to know what he's talking about. It's not as if Durkheim won't believe me—he makes enough wisecracks himself about Usher's drinking habits, doesn't he?

At the moment when he came to that conclusion, Victor saw the man sitting next to Usher slide off his bar stool. An instant later, Victor had taken his place.

Again, he hesitated. Usher wasn't looking at him. The Marine citizen colonel was hunched over, staring at nothing beyond the amber liquid in his glass. Victor could still, if he chose, leave without committing himself.

Or so he thought. Victor had forgotten Usher's reputation.

"This is a gross violation of procedure," said the man sitting next to him, without moving his eyes from the glass. "Not to mention the fact that you're breaking every rule of tradecraft. Durkheim would skin you alive." Usher took a sip of his drink. "Well, maybe not. Durkheim's a bureaucrat. What he knows about field work wouldn't tax the brains of a pigeon."

Usher's soft voice gave no indication of drunkenness, beyond the slow pacing of the words. Neither did his eyes, when he finally lifted them toward Victor.

"But what's more important—way more—is that I'm off duty and you're disturbing my concentration."

Victor's angry response came too quickly to control. "Fuck you, Usher," he hissed. "As much practice as you get, you could drink in the middle of a hurricane without spilling a drop."

A thin smile came to Usher's face. "Well, well," he drawled. "Whaddaya know? Durkheim's little wonderboy can actually use cuss words."

"I learned to swear before I learned to talk. That's why I don't do it."

The thin smile grew thinner. "Oh, what a thrill. Another Dolee about to spin his tale of poverty and deprivation. I can't wait."

Victor reined in his temper. He was a little shocked at the effort, and realized that it was his own fear which was bubbling up. Victor had learned to control himself by the time he was six years old. That was how he had survived the projects, and clawed his way out.

Out—and up. But he wasn't sure he liked the vista.

"Never mind," he muttered. "I know I'm breaking tradecraft. But I need to talk to you privately, Usher. And I couldn't think of another way to do it."

The smile left Usher's face completely. His eyes went back to the glass. "I've got nothing to say to State Security outside of an interrogation room." The smile came back—very thin. "And if you want to get me into an interrogation room, you'd damned well better get some help. I don't think you're up to it, wonderboy."

For just an instant, the large hand holding the shot glass tightened. Glancing at it, Victor had no doubt at all that it would take a full squad of State Sec troops to bring Usher into an interrogation room. And half of them would die in the trying. Lush or not, Usher's reputation was still towering.

"Why?" Victor mused. "You could have been an SS citizen general by now—citizen lieutenant general—instead of a Marine citizen colonel buried here."

Usher's lips, for just an instant, twisted into a grimace. A half-formed sneer, maybe. "I don't much care for Saint-Just," was the answer. "Never did, even before the Revolution."

Victor held his breath for a moment, before exhaling it sharply. He glanced quickly around the room. No one was listening, so far as he could tell. "Well," he drawled, "you don't seem too concerned with your health, that's for sure."

Usher's lips quirked again. "Are you referring to my drinking habits?"

Victor snorted. "You'll be lucky if you die of cirrhosis of the liver, you go around making wisecracks about the head of State Security."

"I wasn't making a wisecrack. I was stating a simple fact. I despise Oscar Saint-Just and I've never made a secret of it. I've told him so to his face. Twice. Once before the Revolution, and once after." Usher shrugged. "He didn't much seem to care, one way or the other. You can say that much for Saint-Just—he doesn't kill people out of personal spite. And I'll grant you that he isn't personally a sadist—unlike most of the people working for him."

Victor flushed at the implied insult. But he made no retort, for the simple reason that he couldn't. In the short time since his graduation from the SS Academy, Victor had learned that Usher's sneer was all too close to the truth. Which, of course, was why he was sitting in this tavern in the first place, as dangerous as it was.

Usher lifted the glass and took a sip. From the color of the liquid and what he had read in Usher's file—very big file, even if Victor suspected half of it was missing—he was sure it was Terran whiskey. Sour mash, technically, from some small province called Tennessee.

Usher rolled the glass in his hand, inspecting the amber contents. "But I decided it would be best if I made myself scarce. So, after a time, I took the commission they offered me in the Marines and volunteered to head up the security detachment at the embassy on Terra. Six months' travel, it is, from here to the People's Republic. The arrangement suits me fine. Saint-Just too, apparently."

Usher downed his drink in one gulp and set the shot glass on the table. The motion was swift and sure. The shot glass didn't even make so much as a clink when it hit the table top.

"Now get to the point, wonderboy. Why are you here? If you're trying to set me up, don't bother. My attitude toward SS is just as well known to Rob Pierre as it is to Saint-Just." For a moment, a wicked little gleam came to Usher's eyes. "But Pierre's a bit fond of me, don't you know? I did him a favor, once."

Usher's eyes came to Victor, and the gleam got a lot more wicked. "So go look for a promotion somewhere else."

Victor started to speak, but cut his response short. The bartender had finally arrived. "What'll you have?" he asked, as he refilled Usher's shot glass without being prompted. The Marine citizen colonel was a regular in the place.

Victor ordered a beer and waited until it was served before speaking. "I'm not trying to set you up for anything, Usher. I need your advice."

Usher was back to staring at his drink. The only sign he had heard Victor was a slight cock in his eyebrow. Victor hesitated, trying to think of the best way to say what he had to say. Then, shrugging, went straight to it.

"Durkheim's been dealing with the Mesans. And their cult sidekicks here on Terra. That stinking outfit called the Sacred Band."

Silence. Usher stared at his drink for a few seconds. Then, in another swift motion, drank half of it in one toss. "Why does that not surprise me?" he murmured.

The man's apparent indifference caused a resurgence of Victor's anger.

"Don't you even care?" he demanded, hissing. "For the sake of—"

"Ah! Stop!" Usher flashed him that wicked smile. "Don't tell me wonderboy was about to call on the deity? Rank superstition, that is—citizen."

Victor tightened his jaws. "I was about to say: 'for the sake of the Revolution,' " he finished lamely.

"Sure you were. Sure you were." The Marine citizen colonel leaned over, emphasizing his next words.

"Poor, poor wonderboy. You just discovered that the Revolution has a few blots on its stainless escutcheon, did you?" He turned away, hunching his shoulders, and brought the glass back to his lips. "Why shouldn't Durkheim get cozy with the scum of the universe? He's done everything else. State Sec's so filthy already a little more slime won't even show."

Again, Victor flushed at the insult; and, again, made no retort.

Usher started to down the drink, but paused. The pause was very brief. When he set the empty glass down on the table, he spoke very softly: "Did you know you were being followed?"

Victor was startled, but he had enough self-control to keep from turning his head. "Shit," he hissed, momentarily losing his determination to avoid profanity.

The thin smile came back to Usher's face. "I will be damned. I do believe you are the genuine article, wonderboy. Didn't know there were any left. How well can you take a punch?"

The non sequitur left Victor's mind scrambling to catch up. "Huh?"

"Never mind," murmured Usher. "If you don't know, you're about to find out."

* * *

The next half minute was a complete blur. Victor only had fragmented images:

Usher roaring with rage, almost every word an obscenity. Customers in the bar scrambling away. Himself sailing through the air, landing on his back. Up again—somehow—sailing onto a table. Usher's face, contorted with fury, still roaring obscenities.

Most of all:

Pain, and Usher's hands. Big hands. God, that bastard's strong! Victor's attempts to fend them off were as futile as a kitten's attempts to pry open a mastiff's jaws.

But he never quite lost consciousness. And some part of Victor's brain, somewhere in the chaos, understood that Usher wasn't actually trying to kill him. Or even really hurt him that badly.

Which was a good thing, since after the first few seconds Victor had no doubt at all that Usher could have destroyed him utterly. That much of the man's reputation was no figment of the Revolution's mythology, after all. Despite the terror of the moment, some part of Victor was singing hosannas.

The admiral and the ambassador

Edwin Young was a tall man, with a lanky physique. The uniform of a rear admiral in the Royal Manticoran Navy—stretched to the very limits of official regulations with little sartorial touches and curlicues—fit him to perfection. The man's fine-boned features and long, slender fingers completed the image of an aristocratic officer quite nicely. So did the relaxed and languid manner in which he sat in his chair behind the large desk in his office.

Even at a glance, anyone familiar with the subtleties of Manticoran society would have assumed the admiral was a member of the nobility—and high-ranked nobility, at that. The intelligence captain who sat across the desk from him thought that the small, tastefully-subdued pin announcing Young's membership in the Conservative Association was really quite unnecessary.

The pin was also against Navy regulations, but the admiral clearly wasn't concerned about being called on the carpet for wearing it while in uniform. The only Manticoran official who outranked him on Terra was Ambassador Hendricks. As it happened, the Manticoran Ambassador to the Solarian League was in the same room with the admiral and the captain, standing by the window. And, as it happened, the ambassador was wearing the identical pin on his own lapel.

The intelligence captain's eyes, however, were not really focused on the admiral's pin. They were focused on the admiral's neck. It was a long neck, slender and supple. Entirely in keeping with Admiral Young's elite birth and breeding.

The captain was quite certain he could break it easily.

Not that he would bother, except as a side-effect. The captain had already considered, and discarded, several different ways in which he could snap the admiral's neck. But they were all too quick. What the captain primarily wanted was the pleasure of crushing the admiral's windpipe, slowly and methodically.

Eventually, of course, the vertebra would be crushed. The pulverized fragments would sever the spinal cord and complete the job. Probably too quickly, since the captain was an immensely powerful man and he could not recall ever having been as enraged as he was at the moment. But—

The captain restrained his fury. The effort involved was difficult enough that he only caught the last few words of the admiral's concluding summary.

"—as I'm sure you will agree, Captain Zilwicki. Once you've had a chance to think it through in a calmer and more rational state of mind."

Through ears still rushing with the sound of his own blood, the captain heard the ambassador's voice chiming in:

"Yes. There is simply no reason they would harm your daughter, Captain. As you have pointed out yourself, that would be quite out of character even for the Peeps. As it is, this brutal and desperate deed goes far beyond normal boundaries of intelligence work."

The captain's blocky form remained still and unmoving in his chair, his thick hands clutching the arm rests. Only his eyes swiveled, to bring the pudgy figure of Ambassador Hendricks under his gaze.

The captain spared only a moment's glance at Hendrick's jowls. He had already concluded that the fat girdling the Ambassador's neck would present no obstacle whatever to strangling him also. But he still favored two or three maneuvers which were quite illegal in tournament wrestling. And for good reason, since all of them would result in ruptured internal organs. The captain thought Hendricks' obese appearance would be much improved, with blood hemorrhaging from every orifice in his body.

He forced his mind away from those thoughts, and brought his attention back to the ambassador's words.

"—can't believe SS is so arrogantly insane to pull something like this. On the eve of Parnell's arrival here on Terra!"

Admiral Young nodded. "They're going to be suffering the worst public relations disaster they've ever had here in the Solarian League. The last thing they'd do is compound it by murdering a fourteen-year-old girl."

Even to himself, the captain's voice sounded thick and hoarse.

"I keep telling you," he snarled, no longer even bothering with military formalities, "that this is not a Peep operation. Or, if it is, it's a rogue operation being conducted outside of the loop. There's no way of telling what the people who took Helen might do. I have got to have leeway to start investigating—"

"Enough, Captain Zilwicki!" snapped the ambassador. "The decision is made. Of course, I understand your concern. But, at least for the moment, all of our attention must be focused on the opportunities presented to us by Parnell's arrival here on Terra. As a professional intelligence officer, rather than a worried father, I'm sure you agree. We can play along with this Peep diversionary maneuver easily enough. What we musn't do is allow it to actually divert us."

"And mind your manners," growled Young. The admiral leaned back even further in his chair, almost slumping in it. "I've made allowances for your behavior so far because of the personal nature of the situation. But you are a naval officer, Captain. So you'll do as you're told—and stay within the boundaries of military protocol while you're at it."

For a moment, the captain almost hurled himself across the desk. But a lifetime of discipline and self-control stayed with him. And, after a few seconds, reasserted itself.

What kept him steady even more than training and habit was a simple reality: getting himself arrested, or even confined to quarters due to indiscipline, was the surest way he could think of to make his daughter's already slim chance of survival nonexistent.

That realization brought his own final decision. I'll get Helen out of this, no matter what the cost. Damn everything else.

The thought brought the first real calmness back to Anton Zilwicki since his daughter had been abducted. It drenched his fury like a bucket of icewater and restored his normally methodical way of thinking.

First things first, he told himself firmly. Get the hell out of here before they put any actual restrictions on your movements.

He rose abruptly to his feet and saluted. "As you wish, Admiral. I'll send the communication to the kidnappers from my own home. With your permission. I think that would be better."

"Yes," agreed the ambassador firmly. "If you send it from here, or your own office, they might get suspicious." His tone of voice actually managed a bit of warmth. "Good thinking there, Captain. I'm quite certain, along with the Admiral, that this is a long-term gambit on the part of the Peeps to create a conduit for disinformation. They'll be reassured if their contact with you seems completely private."

The words were spoken in the manner of an old intelligence hand, congratulating a novice on having figured out a simple task. Given the circumstances, Captain Zilwicki almost burst into laughter. The captain was an "old intelligence hand." What Hendricks knew about the craft was simply the maneuvers he'd learned as an ambitious nobleman in Manticore's political arena. That arena was complex and tortuous, true, but it was a far less savage place than Zilwicki had inhabited for many years now.

But he let none of his contempt show. He simply nodded politely, bowed, and left the room.


Sometime later, when he entered his apartment, Zilwicki found Robert Tye still sitting in the lotus position in the center of the living room. To all appearances, the martial arts master had not moved a muscle since the captain left that morning. Tye had his own way of controlling rage.

The martial artist raised an eyebrow. Zilwicki shook his head.

"About what I expected, Robert. The imbeciles are taking this at face value. And they're so obsessed with the propaganda coup provided by Parnell's coming testimony on the Peep regime that they don't want to deal with anything else. So I've been ordered to follow the kidnappers' instructions."

For a moment, Tye studied the captain. Then, a slight smile came to his face. "And clearly you have no intention of complying."

Zilwicki's only response was a faint snort. He returned the martial artist's scrutiny with one of his own.

Robert Tye had been the first person Anton contacted after he discovered Helen's abduction when he returned to his apartment the previous evening. The captain was still not quite certain why he had done so. He had acted out of impulse, and Anton was not by nature and habit an impulsive man.

Slowly, Anton took a seat on a nearby couch, thinking all the while. He and Helen had been on Terra for slightly over four years. Because of his duties in the Navy, Anton had lived a rather peripatetic life and he was sometimes concerned over the toll that took on Helen. Having to change schools and sets of friends frequently was difficult for a child.

But his daughter, to his surprise, had greeted the announced move to Chicago with enthusiasm. Helen, following in her mother's footsteps, had begun studying the martial arts at the age of six. As was his daughter's habit—her father's child, in this—Helen had studied the lore of the art as well as the art itself. To her, Chicago meant only one thing: the opportunity to study under one of the galaxy's most legendary martial artists.

Anton had been worried that Tye would not accept a young girl for a student. But the martial artist had done so readily. At his age, Tye had once told Anton, he found the presence of children a comfort. And, in the years which followed, Helen's sensei had become a part of their little family. More like a grandfather, in many ways, than anything else.

"Are you sure you want to be part of this, Robert?" he asked abruptly. "I'm not sure it was right for me to get you involved. Whatever I wind up doing, it's bound to be—"

"Dangerous?" suggested Tye, smiling.

Anton chuckled. "I was going to say: illegal. Highly illegal."

The martial artist's shoulders moved in a slight shrug. "That does not concern me. But are you so certain your superiors are in error?"

Zilwicki's jaws tightened. His already square face now looked like a solid cube of iron.

"Trust me, Robert. Something like this is completely out of character for Peep intelligence. And they've got nothing to gain."

His expression changed. Not softening so much as simply becoming more thoughtful. "By the nature of my position in Manticoran intelligence, I don't know anything of real use to the Peeps anyway. Not enough, that's for sure, to warrant such a risky gambit." He moved a hand across his knee, as if brushing off a fly. "The Admiral thinks the Peeps are engaging in a long-run maneuver, designed to turn me into an ongoing conduit for disinformation. Which is probably the single most asinine thing that asinine man has ever said in his life."

The martial artist cocked his head a bit. The gesture was a subtle suggestion that the captain's own subtlety had escaped Tye's understanding.

"Robert, the reason the Admiral's theory is nonsense is because it's in the nature of things that a long-run campaign of disinformation has to be reasonably stable. Disinformation campaigns take time—lots of time. You can't suddenly have your turned agent start flooding his own intelligence service with 'information' which seems odd and contrary to other information. It has to be done in a careful and subtle manner. Slowly adding one little bit of information at a time, until—over a period of months, more often years—a warped perception of reality becomes accepted without anyone really knowing when and how it happened."

"All right, I can understand that."

Zilwicki ran fingers through his short-cropped, coarse black hair. "Kidnapping a man's daughter and using her as a threat is about as far removed from 'stable' as I can imagine. Even if the father involved submitted completely, the situation would be impossible. If nothing else, in his anxiety the father would push the campaign too quickly and screw it up. Not to mention the difficulty of keeping a captive for a long period, on foreign soil where you can't simply toss her into a prison. And you'd have to do so, because under those circumstances the father would insist on regular proof that his child was still alive and well."

For all the captain's tightly controlled speech, his anxiety drove him to his feet. "Say whatever else you want about the Peeps, Robert, but they're not stupid. This is completely out of character for them in a hundred different ways."

"So now what shall we do?"

"I'll start with my contacts in the Chicago police," growled Zilwicki. He stalked over to the side table and stared down at the piece of paper resting on it. A cold, almost cruel smile came to his face.

"Can you believe this? An actual ransom note?" The barked little laugh which followed was harsh. "Professional intelligence! God in Heaven, what Hendricks knows about that subject could be inscribed on the head of a pin. Or his own head."

The savage smile widened. "Apparently, these so-called 'pros' have never heard of modern forensics. Which is not the least of the reasons I don't think this was done by the Peeps."

Zilwicki's eyes moved to the door of the apartment. The same door which, the day before, someone had managed to open without leaving any sign of a forced entry. "Everything about this operation smacks of amateurs who are too clever for their own good. Oil mixed with water. The ransom note is archaic. Yet the door's modern security devices were bypassed effortlessly.

"Idiots," he said softly. "They'd have done better to burn it open. Would have taken a bit of time, with a modern door. But as it is, they might as well have left another note announcing in bold letters: inside job. Whoever they were, they had to have the complicity of someone in the complex's maintenance staff. Within twenty-four hours, if they move fast—and they will—the Chicago cops can get me profiles of everyone who works in this complex along with the forensics results. I don't think it'll be that hard to narrow the suspects down to a very small list."

"Will the police cooperate to that extent?"

"I think so. They owe me some favors, for one thing. For another, they have their own attitude toward kidnapping, which usually makes them willing to bend the rules a little."

His eyes came back to the ransom note sitting on the side table. An actual note, written by an actual person, on actual paper. Again the captain barked a laugh. "Professional intelligence!"



At first, Helen had planned to just leave the digging shards out in the open, lying with the rest of the rubble which half-filled the cell. But soon enough she realized that if her captors took a close look at the interior of the cell, they would surely notice the signs of recent use on the shards.

Not that such an inspection was very likely. From what she could tell, her captors were so arrogant that they apparently never even considered the possibility that a fourteen-year-old girl might try to thwart them.

Helen had never gotten a good look at her captors, after the first few moments when they had jimmied their way into the apartment and abducted her. They had fitted a hood over her head right away and somehow smuggled her out of the huge complex without being spotted. How they managed that feat was a mystery to Helen, since the complex had a population density which was astonishing to anyone from Manticore. She had realized from the first terrifying hour that they must have planned her abduction carefully, and had the assistance of someone within the apartment complex's maintenance staff.

Once they got her underground, they had eventually removed the hood. Helen didn't think they had planned on doing that, but it had quickly proven necessary—unless they wanted to carry her. The footing in the subterranean labyrinth was so treacherous that Helen had continually tripped while wearing the hood. She had been snarled at and cuffed several times before the abductors finally bowed to the inevitable and took off the hood.

Her captors' angry exasperation with her was just another sign of the carelessness which lay beneath the arrogant surface. For all the meticulous planning that had clearly gone into her abduction, her captors had apparently never thought of such minor obstacles. From Helen's careful study of military history—she firmly intended to follow her parents' footsteps and have a career in the Navy—she recognized the classic signs of opponents who were too full of themselves and never bothered to consider what the enemy might do. Or to simply understand what the ancient Clausewitz had called the inevitable "friction of war."

But, even though the hood had been removed, they had cuffed her immediately whenever her eyes veered in their direction. And since they had shoved her into this cell they still demanded that she face the wall whenever they entered with her food. According to the novels she had read, that was a good sign. Captors who didn't want to be recognized were not planning to kill you.

That was the theory, at least. Helen didn't place too much credence in it, however. She still had no idea who her captors were, or why they had kidnapped her. But of one thing she had no doubt at all: they would no more hesitate to kill her than they would an insect. Granted, at the age of fourteen she could hardly claim to be an expert on human villainy. But it was obvious enough, just from the way her captors walked, that they considered themselves a breed apart. She had seen little of their faces, but she had not missed the little strut with which all of them moved. Like leopards, preening before sheep.

There were four of them: two males, and two females. From the few glances she'd gotten, they'd looked enough alike that Helen thought they might be part of the same family. But now that she had a chance to think about it calmly, she was beginning to think otherwise. Her captors had made no attempt to remain silent in her presence, for the good and simple reason that they spoke their own language. Helen didn't know the tongue, but she thought she recognized the language group. Many of the phrases resonated with the Old Byelorussian that was still spoken in some of the more rural areas of the Gryphon highlands. She was almost certain her captors were speaking a derivative of one of the Slavic languages.

And, if so, there was an ugly possibility. Her father had mentioned to her, once, that the genetic "super-soldiers" who had been at the heart of Earth's terrible Final War had originally been bred in Ukrainian laboratories. The "super-soldiers" had been supposedly annihilated in those wars. But her father had told her that some of them survived. And still lurked, somewhere in the great human ocean which was humanity's home planet.

By all accounts, those genetic "super-soldiers" had looked upon other people as nothing more than beasts of burden. Or toys for their amusement.

Or insects . . .

That last image brought a peculiar kind of comfort. Helen realized she was pursuing the ancient strategy of one of Terra's most successful species. Like a cockroach, she would find safety in the walls.

Her lips quirked in a smile, she went back to digging.


Durkheim came to visit Victor in the hospital. As always, the head of State Security's detachment at the Havenite embassy on Terra was curt and abrupt.

"Nothing really serious," he muttered. "Spectacular set of cuts and bruises, but nothing worse. You're lucky."

Durkheim was thin to the point of emaciation. His bony, sunken-cheeked face was perched on the end of a long and scrawny neck. Standing at the foot of the quick-heal tank and staring down at him, the SS citizen general reminded Victor of nothing so much as holographs he had seen of a Terran vulture perched on a tree limb.

"So what happened?" he demanded.

Victor's answer came without hesitation. "I was just trying to get Usher to cut down on the drinking. Looks bad for our image here. I never imagined—"

Durkheim snorted. "Talk about foolish apprentices!" There was no heat in his voice, however. "Leave Usher alone, youngster. Frankly, the best thing for everybody would be if he'd just drink himself to death."

He placed a clawlike hand on the rim of the tank and leaned over. Now, he really looked like a carrion-eater.

"Usher's still alive for the sole reason that he's a Hero of the Revolution—never mind the details—and Rob Pierre is sometimes prone to sentimentalism. That's it." Hissing: "You understand?"

Victor swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"Good." Durkheim straightened up. "Fortunately, Usher keeps his mouth shut, so there's no reason to do anything about the situation. I don't expect he'll live more than another year or so—not the way he guzzles whiskey. So just stay away from him, henceforth. That's an order."

"Yes, sir." But Durkheim was already through the door. As always, watching him, Victor was a bit amazed. For all Durkheim's cadaverous appearance and the angular awkwardness of his stride, the SS official managed to move very quickly.

Victor almost laughed. The way Durkheim jogged out his elbows as he walked resembled a vulture flapping his wings. But Victor managed to keep the humor under control. He was not that naive.

Like any predator, Durkheim would eat carrion. But he was still a predator, and a very dangerous one. Of that, Victor had no doubt at all.

* * *

He was released from the hospital three hours later. It was too late in the day for Victor to go to the embassy, so he decided he might as well return to his apartment. His apartment was buried in the enormous, towering complex in which the People's Republic of Haven leased a number of apartments for its embassy staff. Unfortunately, the complex was located in the city's easternmost district, on the landfill which, over the centuries, had slowly extended kilometers into Lake Michigan. A prestigious address, to be sure, but it meant a long trip on Chicago's labyrinthine public transport system. The hospital was located on the edge of the Old Quarter, not far from the tavern which was Usher's favorite watering hole.

Victor sighed. And that meant—

It was not that Victor had any prejudice against the hordes of poor immigrants who thronged in the Old Quarter and mobbed public transport in its vicinity. In truth, he felt more comfortable in their midst than he did among the Solarian elite that he hobnobbed with in the embassy's frequent social functions. The Old Quarter's residents reminded him of the people he had grown up with, in the Dolist projects of Nouveau Paris.

But there was a reason, after all, that Victor had fought so hard to get out of those projects. So it was with no great enthusiasm that he resigned himself to spending an hour crammed into the transport network. The Solarian League's capital city liked to boast of its public transportation system. Yet Victor had noticed that none of Chicago's elite ever used it.

So what else is new? He consoled himself with thoughts of the inevitable coming revolution in the Solarian League. He had been on Terra long enough to see the rot beneath the glittering surface.

Not more than five minutes after he forced himself into the mob packing one of the transport capsules—a good name for the things, he thought ruefully—he felt someone pressing against him.

Like everyone else, Victor was standing. He had been told once that the capsules had originally been built with seats, but those had long since been removed from the capsules used in the Old Quarter due to the pressure of overcapacity. Victor had the relatively short stature common to Havenites raised on a Dolist diet, but he was still taller than most of the immigrants in the Old Quarter.

He glanced down. The person pressed so closely against him—too closely, even by capsule standards—was a young woman. From her dusky skin tone and facial features, she shared the south Asian genetic background which was common to a large number of Chicago's immigrant population. Even if it hadn't been for the lascivious smile on her face, beaming up at him, he would have known from her costume that she was a prostitute. Somewhere back in the mists of time, her outfit traced its lineage to a sari. But this version of the garment was designed to emphasize the woman's supple limbs and sensuous belly.

Nothing unusual, in the Old Quarter. Victor had lost track of the number of times he had been propositioned since he arrived on Terra, less than a year ago. As always, he shook his head and murmured a refusal. As a matter of class solidarity, if nothing else, Victor was never rude to prostitutes. So the refusal was polite. But it was still firm, for all that.

He was surprised, therefore, when she persisted. The woman was now practically embracing him. She extended her tongue, wagging it in his face. When he saw the tongue's upper surface, Victor stiffened.

Speak of the devil. Mesa's genetic engineers always marked their slaves in that manner. The markings served the same purpose as the brands or tattoos used by slavers in the past, but these were completely ineradicable, short of removing the tongue entirely. The marks were actually part of the flesh itself, grown there as the genengineered embryo developed. For technical reasons which Victor did not understand, taste buds lent themselves easily to that purpose.

The stiffness in his posture was partly due to revulsion, but mostly to sheer anger. If there was any foulness in the universe as great as Mesa and Manpower Inc., Victor did not know what it was. But this woman, he reminded himself, was herself a victim of that monstrosity. So Victor used his anger to drive the revulsion under. He repeated the refusal—even more firmly—but this time with a very friendly smile.

No use. Now the woman had her mouth against the side of his head, as if kissing him.

"Shut up, wonderboy," she whispered. "He'll talk to you. Get off at the Jackson transfer and follow me."

Victor was stiff as a board. "My, my," she whispered. "He was right. You are a babe in the woods."


The Chicago police lieutenant's frown was worthy of Jove. "I'm warning you, Anton—if we start finding dead bodies lying around in this complex, I'll arrest you in a heartbeat."

Zilwicki's eyes never lifted from the packet the lieutenant had handed him. "Don't worry about it, Muhammad. I'm just looking for information, that's all."

Lieutenant Muhammad Hobbs studied the shorter man for a moment. Then, the small figure of Robert Tye sitting on the floor of Zilwicki's apartment. Then, the cybernetics console tucked into a corner. Even at a glance, it was obvious that the capabilities of that console went far beyond anything that would normally be found in a private residence.

For a moment, Hobbs' dark face darkened still further. Then, sighing softly, he murmured: "Just remember. We're really going out on a limb for you with this one, Anton. At least half a dozen of us, starting with me, will be lucky if we just lose our pensions."

The Manticoran officer finally lifted his eyes from the forensics packet and nodded. "I understand, Muhammad. No dead bodies. Nothing, in fact, that would be awkward for the police."

"Such as a rush of people into hospitals with broken bones," growled the policeman. Again, his eyes moved to Tye. "Or worse."

Tye smiled gently. "I believe you misinterpret the nature of my art, Lieutenant Hobbs."

Muhammad snorted. "Save it for the tourists. I've seen you in tournaments, sensei. Even playing by the rules, you were scary enough."

He pointed a finger at Zilwicki. "And this one? I can't recall ever seeing him in a lotus, contemplating the whichness of what. But I use the same gym he does, and I have seen him bench-press more pounds than I want to think about."

The policeman straightened and arched his shoulders, as if relieving himself of a small burden. "All right, enough," he growled. He turned away and headed for the door. "Just remember: no dead bodies; no hospital reports."

* * *

Before the door had even closed, Zilwicki was sitting in front of the console. Within a few seconds, he had loaded the data from the police forensics report and was completely absorbed by the material appearing on the screen.


Victor had never been into the Old Quarter before. He'd skirted the edges of it often enough, and gone through it in public transport capsules. But this was the first time he'd actually walked through the streets.

If the word "streets" could be used at all. Urban planners, following the jargonistic tendencies of all social sciences, often preferred the term "arteries" to refer to public thoroughfares. The euphemism, applied to the Old Quarter, was no euphemism at all. Except for being square in cross-section rather than round, and the fact that human beings passed through them instead of blood corpuscles, the "streets" were as complex, convoluted, tortuous and three-dimensional as a body's circulatory system. More so, really, since the clear distinction between arteries and veins was absent here.

Victor was hopelessly lost within minutes. In that short space of time, the woman leading him had managed to take him through more streets than he could remember—including four elevator transits, three occasions when they passed through huge underground "plazas" filled with vendors' booths and shops, and even one instance in which she strode blithely through some kind of lecture or public meeting and exited by a door in the back next to the toilets. The only logic to her route that Victor could follow was that the "streets" always got narrower, the ceiling lower, and the artificial lighting dimmer.

At least I won't have to worry about being followed.

As if the thought had been spoken aloud, the women ahead of him cocked her head and said: "See? This is how you do it." She chuckled throatily. "Anybody asks, you just went to get laid. Who's going to prove otherwise?"

Suddenly, she stopped and turned around. The motion was so abrupt that Victor almost ran into her. He managed to stop, but they were now standing practically nose to nose. Well—nose to forehead. Like most Mesan genetic slaves except the heavy labor and combat breeds, the woman was very small.

She grinned up at him. The grin had a generic similarity to the professional leer she had bestowed upon him in the transport capsule, but there was more actual emotion in it. Humor, mainly.

Like all solemn and dedicated young men who don't suffer from extreme egotism, Victor suspected that the humor was at his expense. The woman immediately proved him right.

"You don't even have to fake it," she announced cheerfully. "If you want it kinky, of course, I charge extra. Unless it's too kinky, in which case I won't do it at all."

Victor liked her grin. It was almost friendly, in a rakish sort of way. But he still stammered out another refusal.

"Too bad. You would have enjoyed it and I could have used the money." She eyed him speculatively. "You sure?" The grin grew more rakish still. "Maybe a little bondage? Not—"

Here came the throaty chuckle. "—that you don't look like you're tied up in knots already."

Fortunately, Victor didn't have to think up a suitable rejoinder to that remark. The woman just shrugged, turned, and got under way again.

They spent another few minutes following the same kind of twisted route. Two minutes into it, Victor remarked that he was quite certain they had shaken whoever might have been tailing him from the hospital.

The woman's reply came with a snort: "Who's trying to? This is how you get to where I live, wonderboy." Again, that throaty chuckle. "I'm not in the business of shaking tails that way."

The chuckle became an outright laugh. For the next minute or so, leading him through the crowded "public arteries," the woman ahead of him put on a dazzling display of shaking her tail. Long before she was done, Victor was beginning to deeply regret his refusal.

Duty first! Discipline!

But he kept the thought to himself. He could well imagine her response, and the rakish grin and chuckle which would accompany it.

* * *

Victor spent the remaining minutes of their trek simply studying his surroundings. Chicago's Old Quarter—or "the Loop," as it was sometimes called, for no reason that anyone understood—was famous from one end of the Solarian League to the other.

Notorious, rather, in the way that such largely-immigrant neighborhoods have been throughout history. Dens of vice and iniquity, of course. You can buy anything in the Loop. But there was also a glamorous aura surrounding the place. Artists, writers and musicians abounded, filling the Old Quarter's multitude of taverns and coffeehouses. (Real coffee—the true Terran strain. Victor had tried some once, but found he didn't like it. In this, as in many things, the earnest young revolutionary from the slums of Nouveau Paris was more conservative than any decadent elitist.) The artists were invariably "avant-garde" and had the poverty to prove it. The writers were mostly poets and enjoyed a similar income. The musicians, on the other hand, often did quite well. Except for opera, the Loop was the center of Chicago's musical night life.

Rich or poor, the culturally inclined habitués of the megametropolis' Old Quarter rubbed elbows with their more dangerous brethren. Over the centuries, the Loop had become the center of the Solarian League's criminal elite as well as every brand of political radical.

Chicago drew all of them like a magnet, from everywhere in the huge and sprawling Solarian League. But since respectable Solarian society generally refused to acknowledge the existence of such things as widespread poverty and crime, the bureaucrats who were the real political power in the League saw to it that the unwelcome riffraff was kept out of sight and, and much as possible, out of mind. As long as the immigrants stayed in the Loop, except for those who worked as servants, they were generally left alone by the authorities. Within limits, the Loop was almost a nation unto itself. Chicago's police only patrolled the main thoroughfares and those sectors which served as entertainment centers for the League's "proper" citizens. For the rest—let them rot.

In some ways—poverty, danger, congestion—the Loop reminded Victor of the squalid Dolist slums which had grown like a cancer during the long reign of Haven's Legislaturalist regime. But only up to a point. The Dolist slums in which Victor had been born and spent his entire life until he volunteered to join State Security were grim, gray and sullen places. That was beginning to change, as popular fervor for the Revolution and the war against the Manticoran elitists swelled and Victor's class of people began to accept the necessity for discipline. Still, the Dolist quarters of the People's Republic of Haven were slums.

Victor suspected that the Loop was even more dangerous than the slums of Haven. Yet, there was a key difference. The Loop was a ghetto, not simply a collection of tenements. And, like many ghettoes throughout history, there was a real vibrancy to its life. Beneath the grime and the poverty and the sneers of respectable society, the Loop possessed a certain genuine verve and élan.

Alas, that dashing joie de vivre extended to pickpockets as well. By the time Victor reached their destination, he had lost his wallet. He did manage to hang onto his watch, but it was a close thing.

* * *

When the woman reached her apartment, she began punching in the codes to unlock the door. It was a time-consuming process, given the number of locks. She even had a key for one of them—a real, genuine, antique metal key. As he waited, Victor suddenly realized that he didn't know her name. He was deeply embarrassed by his lapse into elitism.

"I'm sorry," he muttered. "My name's Victor. I forgot to ask—"

Triumphantly, the woman turned the key and the door finally opened. Just as triumphantly, she bestowed her grin on Victor.

"Sorry, wonderboy. I only give out my name to paying customers."

She swept through the door like a grande dame making an entrance into a palace. Sheepishly, Victor followed.

The door led directly into a small living room. Usher was there, sprawled comfortably on a couch.

"He's all yours, Kevin," announced the woman. "But I'll give you fair warning. He ain't no fun at all."

She moved toward a door on the right, shaking her tail with verve and élan and joie de vivre. "I'll be in the bedroom. Probably masturbating, even if the pay is scandalous."

She closed the door behind her. Also with verve and élan and joie de vivre.

Victor took a deep breath and let it out in a rush. "She's quite something," he pronounced.

Usher smiled. The same thin, wicked smile that Victor remembered. "Yeah, I know. That's why I married her."

Seeing Victor's wide eyes, Usher's smile became very thin, and very wicked. "There's no mention of her in my file, is there? That's lesson number one, junior. The map is not the territory. The man is not the file."


Helen was working much faster now. From experience, she had grown confident that her captors would only enter her cell to feed her. They seemed completely oblivious to the possibility that she might try to escape.

The heavy door which they used to lock her in the cell had clearly been brought there from somewhere else. An impressive door, in many ways—solid and heavy. It looked like a new door, in fact. Helen suspected they had purchased it for that very purpose. And then, must have spent many hours fitting the door frame into the ragged entrance and sealing it shut.

She found it hard not to laugh, imagining her father's sarcasm. Amateurs! A splendid door, sure enough—except it had no peephole. If her captors wanted to check on Helen, the only way they could do so was to open the door itself. Which, needless to say, they had equipped with several locks—even, judging by the sounds, with a heavy chain to secure the entire frame to the exterior wall. As if a fourteen-year-old girl was likely to smash through it by main force!

The end result was that Helen would always have advance warning if her captors entered her cell. Enough time, hopefully, to cover her work—although that would become less feasible as her tunnel deepened.

She broke off from her labor for a moment. She had now managed to get two feet into the wall, almost too deep for her to reach the face any longer. The hole she was digging was just big enough for her to squeeze into once it became necessary to continue the work inside. And it was still small enough to keep covered with an old panel which she had found lying among the pieces of rubble in the cell.

Thinking the situation through, Helen realized that she would have to figure out some kind of timing device before she went much further. Unfortunately, her captors had taken her chrono before they thrust her into the cell. Once she was actually working inside the tunnel, the loud warnings which her captors inadvertently made when they opened the door might not penetrate. And, even if they did, might not leave her enough time to come out and cover her tracks before they entered the cell.

But she didn't spend much time pondering that problem. Helen had always enjoyed working with her hands, especially after her father introduced her to the pleasures of model-building. She was adept at jury-rigging little gadgets, and was quite sure she could manage to design and build some sort of simple time-keeper.

Instead, she concentrated on a cruder and more fundamental problem. Digging itself, fortunately, was not proving difficult. Helen had discovered, once she broke through the first few inches, that the rubble beyond was not much more than loose fill. She was quite certain, by now, that she was somewhere deep beneath the Old Quarter, in the endless layers of rubble and ruins which marked the ancient center of the city. Chicago was well over two thousand years old. Especially during the war centuries, no one had bothered to remove old and crumbled buildings and structures. Just—leveled them, and built over the wreckage.

The real problem was the classic quandary of all tunnel escapes: where do you put the dirt?

Regretfully, because it would be so time-consuming, she came to the conclusion that she would have to mix the fresh fill with the old dirt and dust covering the cell. Carefully blending them, so that the color contrast would not be too noticeable. Over time, of course, the color would start to change and the level of the floor would slowly rise. But she hoped that the process would be too imperceptible for her captors to notice.

All that, of course, presupposed that she had weeks ahead of her. She had no idea if that presumption was accurate. It probably wasn't. For all Helen knew, her captors intended to kill her in the next hour. But she had no other option, other than to sit and wait. Like a sheep.

Damn that! The memory of her mother kept her strong; Master Tye's training kept her steady. And she knew that her father would be coming for her. Not soon, perhaps, but surely. Her father was like that. If he had none of the romance which surrounded her mother's memory, he was as certain as the sunrise and the tides.

She went back to work. Scrape, scrape.


After he finished studying the police forensics report, Anton rose from the console and moved over to the window overlooking the city. He was oblivious to the view, however. Which was probably just as well, since the "picture window" in his relatively inexpensive apartment simply had a view of another enormous residential complex across the boulevard. If he craned his neck, he might catch a glimpse of the busy street far below.

But his eyes were not focused on the sight. His mind was turned completely inward.

"Jesus Christ," he murmured. "I knew this wasn't a Peep operation, but I wasn't expecting this."

From behind, he heard Robert Tye's voice. "You know the identity of the culprits?"

Zilwicki nodded. "The Sacred Band," he growled. "The 'Scrags,' as they're sometimes called. The genetic markers are unmistakable." He turned away from the window and stared down at the martial artist. "You've heard of them?"

"They're supposed to be a fable, you know," replied Tye. "An urban legend. All the experts say so."

Zilwicki said nothing. After a moment, Tye chuckled dryly. "As it happens, however, I once had one of them as a student. Briefly. It didn't take me long to figure out who he was—or what he was, I should say—since the fellow couldn't resist demonstrating his natural physical prowess."

"That would be typical," murmured Zilwicki. "Arrogant to the last. What happened then?"

Tye shrugged. "Nothing. Once his identity became clear, I told him his company was no longer desired. I was rather emphatic. Fortunately, he was not quite arrogant enough to argue with me. So he went on his way and I never saw him again."

"One of them works in this building," said Zilwicki abruptly. "His profile leaps right out from the rest of the employee files. The bastard didn't even bother with plastic surgery. The bone structure's obvious, once you know what to look for, even leaving aside the results of his medical exams. 'In perfect health,' his doctors say, which I'm sure he is. The man's name is Kennesaw and he's the maintenance supervisor. Which explains, of course, how he was able to circumvent the apartment's security."

His eyes moved back to the window, and again grew unfocused. "And it also explains why the Scrags selected Helen as their victim. Opportunity, pure and simple. Almost a random choice, given that they must have wanted someone connected to the Manticoran embassy."

"And why that?" asked Tye. "What does the Sacred Band want with your people?"

Zilwicki shrugged. "That's still a mystery. But if I had to guess, I'd say that they're working for Manpower Inc."

Tye's eyes widened a bit. "The Mesan slave-breeders? I didn't realize there was a connection."

"It's not something Manpower advertises," chuckled Anton harshly. "As much effort as those scum put into their respectable appearance, you can understand why they wouldn't want to be associated in the public mind with monsters out of Terran history. Half-legendary creatures with a reputation as bad as werewolves or vampires."

"Worse," grunted Tye. "Nobody really believes werewolves or vampires ever existed. The Final War was all too real."

Zilwicki nodded. "As for the Sacred Band itself, the attachment to Manpower is natural enough. For all that they make a cult of their own superhuman nature, the Scrags are nothing more today than a tiny group. Manticoran intelligence has never bothered to investigate them very thoroughly. But we're pretty sure they don't number more than a few dozen, here in Chicago—and fewer still, anywhere else. They're vicious bastards, of course, and dangerous enough to anyone who crosses them in the slums of the city. But powerless in any meaningful sense of the term."

He shrugged. "So, like many other defeated groups in history, they transferred their allegiance to a new master and a new cause. Close enough to their old one to maintain ideological continuity, but with real influence in the modern universe. Which the Mesans certainly have. And, although Manpower Inc. claims to be a pure and simple business, you don't have to be a genius to figure out the implicit political logic of their enterprise. What the old Terrans would have called 'fascism.' If some people can be bred for slavery, after all, others can be bred for mastery."

"But—" Tye squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "Oh, for the simple problems of the dojo," he muttered. Then: "I still don't understand. Why is Manpower doing this? Do they have some personal animus against you?"

"Not that I can think of. Not really. It's true that Helen—my wife—belonged to the Anti-Slavery League. But she was never actually active in the organization. And although not many officers go so far as to join the ASL, anti-Mesan attitudes are so widespread in the Navy that she didn't really stand out in any way. Besides, that was years ago."

Slowly, his mind ranging, Anton shook his head. "No, Robert. This isn't personal. The truth is, I don't even think Manpower is at the bottom of it. I wasn't kidding when I said they bend over backward to appear as respectable as possible. There's no way the Mesans would have gotten involved in something like this unless someone offered them a very powerful inducement. Either in the nature of a threat or a reward."

He clasped both hands behind his neck and spread his elbows. The gesture, which was simply a means of inducing relaxation, also highlighted the captain's immensely thick and muscular form.

After a moment, realizing what he was doing, Zilwicki smiled slightly and lowered his arms. The smile bore a trace of sadness underneath. His dead wife, Helen, had often teased him about the mannerism. "The Zilwicki maneuver," she'd called it, claiming it was a subconscious attempt at intimidation.

Yet, if he relinquished that form of projecting power, the cold grin which came to Anton's face probably served the purpose even better. "But now that the Scrags and Manpower have entered the picture, I think I've found the angle I need to get around Young and Hendricks. And, if I'm right, it'll be pure poetic justice."

Once again, Zilwicki sat down before the console. "This will probably take a couple of days, Robert. Unless those two are even dumber than I think they are, their security codes are going to take some effort to crack."

"Can you do it at all?" asked Tye.

Zilwicki chuckled humorlessly, as his thick fingers manipulated the keyboard with ease. "One of the advantages to looking the way I do, Robert—especially when people know I used to be a 'yard dog'—is that they always assume I must be some kind of mechanical engineer. As it happens, my specialty is software. Especially security systems."

Tye's face crinkled. "I myself shared that assumption. I've always had this splendid image of you, covered with grease and wielding a gigantic wrench. How distressing to discover it was all an illusion."

Anton smiled, but said nothing in reply. Already, he was deeply engrossed in his work.

* * *

By late afternoon, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. "That's as much as I can do for the moment. The next stage is pure numbers-crunching, which will take at least twenty-four hours. Probably longer. So we've got some time to pay a visit on Kennesaw. But first—"

The look which now came over Zilwicki's face made Tye think of someone who'd just seen a ghost. The intelligence captain's expression was almost haggard, and he seemed a little pale.

"What's wrong?"

Anton shook his head. "Just something I can't postpone any longer. I've been able to block it out of my mind so far, but now—"

Again, his fingers began working at the keyboard. Tye rose to his feet and padded over. Some sort of schematic diagram was filling the screen. None of it meant anything to the martial artist.

"What are you doing?"

Zilwicki's face was as gaunt as a square face could get, but his fingers never faltered in their work. "One of the standard techniques in kidnapping, Robert, is to simply kill the victim immediately. That eliminates the trouble of guarding the person, and it removes any witnesses."

He grunted. "But it's something which is done either by pure amateurs or complete professionals. The amateurs because they don't realize just how hard it is to dispose of a body quickly without leaving any evidence, and the pros because they know how to do it. What I'm hoping is that the people who took Helen know enough, but not too much."

As he had been speaking, several different diagrams and schematics had flashed across the screen. Now, as a new one came up, Zilwicki concentrated on it for some time. Then he grunted again. This time, however, the sound carried an undertone of satisfaction.

"Good. There are plenty of traces of organic disposal, of course, but not what a human body would show. If there had been, the alarms would have gone off. And the alarms themselves haven't been tampered with. Unless it was done by a software maestro, which I'm willing to bet Kennesaw isn't. Or any other member of the Sacred Band. Not, at least, when it comes to this kind of specialized stuff."

The haggard look vanished. Zilwicki's fingers began working again. "But I am a software maestro, if I say so myself, and while this is tricky it's not impossible. If you know what you're doing."

Robert Tye cleared his throat. "Do you enjoy speaking gobbledygook, Anton?"

Zilwicki smiled crookedly. "Sorry. Occupational hazard for a cyberneticist. Modern technology makes disposing of a human body quite easy, Robert. Any garbage processing unit in a large apartment complex such as this one can manage it without even burping. In the Star Kingdom, we just live with that reality and the police do their best. But you Solarians are addicted to rules and regulations. So, without any big public fanfare having been made about it, almost all publicly available mechanisms which utilize enough energy to destroy a human body also have detectors built into them. If you don't know about them, or don't know how to get around the alarms, simply shoving a corpse into the disposal unit will have the police breathing down your neck in minutes."

He tapped a final key and leaned back, exuding a certain cold satisfaction. "They may have killed Helen, but they didn't do what I most feared—killed her right away and shoved her into the building's disintegrator."

There was silence for a moment. Then, speaking very softly, Tye said: "I take it you have—just now—circumvented the alarms."

"Yeah, I did. For the next twenty-fours, nothing disintegrated in this building is going to alert the police. And after the alarms come back on, it will be far too late to reconstruct anything at all—even if you know what you're looking for."

The captain rose to his feet, glanced at his watch, and headed for the door. "Come on, Robert. Kennesaw works the day shift. He should be coming back to his apartment in about half an hour."


"He did what?" demanded Usher. The Marine citizen colonel lost his air of casual relaxation and sat upright on the couch. The tendons on the back of his large hand, gripping the armrest, stood out like cables.

Knowing—all too well—what those hands were capable of, Victor almost flinched. He did shrink back slightly in his own chair. "I'm not positive about that, Kevin. Not that last bit, anyway, about the Zilwicki girl. I'm sure he sent the order to the Mesans he's been talking to, but I may not have interpreted it correctly. It was—"

Usher wiped his face wearily. "You were right, Victor. We'll have to make sure, of course. But I'll bet on it."

It was the first time Usher had called him by his name instead of one or another appellation. Oddly enough, Victor found that he was delighted. But perhaps it was not so odd. In the short time that he had spent in Usher's secret apartment, Victor had decided that Usher was what he had always thought he would encounter in the field during his time at the SS Academy. Not simply an older, more experienced comrade serving as his mentor—but the spirit of comradeship itself.

Usher rose slowly to his feet and paced into the kitchen. When he came back, he was holding two bottles of that ancient Terran beverage called cola. Wordlessly, he handed one of them to Victor. Then, seeing the slight frown in the young SS officer's face, Usher chuckled drily.

"Lesson number—what is it, now?—eight, I think. A reputation for being a drunk can keep you out of as much trouble as being one gets you into." He padded to his couch and sunk into it. "I've got a high capacity for alcohol, but I don't drink anywhere near as much as people think."

Usher took a swig from his bottle. "No, this is exactly the kind of scheme Durkheim would dream up. Typical desk pilot idea—and Durkheim's a good one. It's a brilliantly conceived maneuver, sure enough. In one stroke, he gets both Parnell and Bergren assassinated, manages to keep the obvious culprits—us—from getting blamed, shifts the blame—or, at least, muddies the waters—by getting a Manty intelligence officer tied to the thing, and even, maybe, gets us a little bit of the first good media coverage since the Harrington news broke. Reminds the public that on the question of genetic slavery we're still the best guys in town."

Usher was silent for a moment, as he resumed his seat on the couch. Then: "Parnell, you may remember, was the admiral who cleaned out that Manpower nest on Esterheim when the Legislaturist regime was using extirpation of the slave trade as their excuse for territorial expansion. Bergren, as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, gave the official approval for it. So killing them could seem like Mesa's overdue revenge." He took another swig from the bottle and snorted savagely. "The idiot! Talk about your castles in the air."

Seeing Victor's gape, Usher chuckled. His quick sketch of Durkheim's purpose had left young Cachat behind in a cloud of dust. Way behind. Victor's account of Durkheim's actions had included no mention of the purpose of those actions, for the good and simple reason that Victor was as mystified by Durkheim's doings as he was outraged.

Usher leaned forward. "Think it through, Victor. Why else would the head of SS on Terra be having black liaisons with Manpower and their stooges? And why else would he do something as insane as have the daughter of a Manty officer kidnapped?"

Victor shook his head. The gesture was not one of negation, simply that of a man trying to clear his head of confusion. "I don't get it. Parnell, sure—I can see why he'd want to have him killed, the moment he sets foot on Terra. But we had a discussion of that already—the entire officer staff—and it didn't take us more than twenty minutes to decide unanimously—Durkheim too!—that we'd automatically get the blame for anything that happened to Parnell. Even if he tripped on the sidewalk or came down with a virus." Victor winced. "Which would only make the propaganda damage that much worse."

The wince turned into a lasting grimace. "Is it really true, Kevin?" he asked softly. "I mean—what they say Parnell's going to say?" He was holding his breath without realizing it.

"Victor," Kevin replied, in a voice equally soft, "I made my decision to accept a commission in the Marines the day I heard Saint-Just had appointed Tresca as the new commander of the prison planet. That wasn't handwriting on the wall, that was blazing comets in the sky. Every old timer in the underground knew Tresca, and knew what that appointment meant. It was Saint-Just's way of telling us that the good old days of the comradeship were over." He sighed, groping blindly for the bottle of cola sitting on the stand next to the couch. "Yeah," he said, "it's true. I don't doubt it for a minute."

Victor expelled his breath in a rush. The sorrow that came over his face in that moment belonged to a much older man.

Shakily, Victor tried to regain his composure. "Okay. But I still don't see how that changes anything. We knew—Durkheim told us—that whether the charges were true or not—and he swore they were all lies from an old Legislaturalist elitist admiral—that almost everyone in the Solarian League was going to believe them. Just because Parnell and Harrington were still alive after all, and we had been nailed with our pants down on that score. Since we'd lied about that, sure enough, who'd believe us when we insisted that the tales they brought back from their supposed graves were all fabrications?"

For the first time, the young officer took a sip of his own drink. "So I still don't see how anything's changed." His brow creased. "And you said Bergren too. Why him?"

Usher snorted. "The truth is, Victor, Bergren is the main target. I doubt if even Durkheim thinks the odds are better than fifty-fifty that we won't get blamed for Parnell, even if he is killed by Scrags and even if there is a Manty officer tied into it. But he's cut from the same cloth as Saint-Just. Durkheim cares a lot more about real power than anybody's perception of it. Bergren's the last remaining holdover from the Legislaturalist regime. The only reason he's remained here as our ambassador, since the Revolution, is because he had the good luck—or the good sense—to bring his whole family with him. So Saint-Just didn't have any real way of blackmailing him into returning, where he could be conveniently found guilty of something and shot. Or simply 'disappeared.' So they decided to just leave him here in place. If nothing else, Bergren's existence was a way of showing that the new regime's extermination of the Legislaturalists was because of their actual crimes rather than their simple status. 'See? Didn't we leave one of them—the only honest man in the den of thieves—as the head of our embassy on Terra?'"

Usher drained half the bottle before continuing. "But now—" He finished the bottle in one long guzzle. Watching him, and despite his anguish at seeing so much of what he believed turn to ashes, Victor had to fight down a laugh. Usher could claim that he didn't drink as much as everybody said—which Victor was willing enough to believe—but that easy, practiced chugalug proved that "not as much" was still a long way from abstention.

"But now everything's changed." Usher rose. Again, he began pacing about in the small living room. "Harrington's escape from the dead—not to mention the several hundred thousand people she brought out of Hell with her—is going to rock the regime down to its foundations. Durkheim knows damn well that Saint-Just's only concern now is going to be holding on to power. Screw public relations. There isn't any doubt in his mind—mine either—that once Parnell arrives Bergren will officially defect." His lips twisted into a sneer. "Oh, yeah—Bergren will do his very best 'more in sorrow than in anger' routine. And he's good at it, believe me, the stinking hypocrite."

For a moment, Usher's thoughts seem to veer elsewhere. "Have you ever dug into any of that ancient Terran art form, Victor, since you got here? The one they call 'films'?"

Victor shook his head. For a brief instant, he almost uttered a protest. Interest in archaic art forms—everybody knew it!—was a classic hallmark of elitist decadence. But he suppressed the remark. All of his old certainties were crumbling around him, after all, so why should he make a fuss about something as minor as that?

Usher may have sensed the unspoken rebuke, however, for he gave Victor that wicked, half-jeering smile. "Too bad for you, youngster. I have, and lots of them are excellent." He rubbed his hands gently. Then, speaking in a peculiar accent: "I am shocked! Shocked! To discover gambling in Rick's casino!"

The phrases were meaningless to Victor, but Usher seemed to find them quite amusing. "Oh, yeah. That's what Bergren'll say. Bet on it, lad." He paced about a little more, thinking. "Durkheim is certainly betting on it. So he'll move quick and see to it that Bergren's killed before he has a chance to defect. And he'll just hope that using Manpower and their local Scrag cult to do the wet work will distract suspicion from us. We Havenites do, after all, have our hands cleaner than anybody else on that score. That much is not a lie."

Victor felt a little warmth coming back into his heart. "Or, at least, we did until Durkheim started mucking Playing games with that scum," snarled Usher.

For a minute, the citizen colonel looked like he might spit on the floor. But, he didn't. For all the modest size and furnishings of the apartment, it was spotlessly clean and well kept. Whatever Victor thought of Usher's wife's occupation—and Usher's relationship to her, for that matter, which still shocked his puritanical soul—slatternliness obviously didn't extend into their own home.

But Victor didn't dwell on that. He'd lost enough heroes for one day, and firmly decided that he wasn't going to pass any judgments on Usher or his wife until he was certain that he was capable of judging anything correctly. Which, going by the evidence, he most certainly wasn't yet.

So, struggling, he tried to keep his mind focused narrowly. "What you're saying, in other words, is that by going completely outside the loop and using Manpower and the Scrags to do the dirty work—and tangling a Manty agent up with them—Durkheim can get rid of Parnell and Bergren both. And maybe even keep Haven from taking the blame."

Usher nodded. It was Victor's turn to shake his head. "All right. That much I can follow. But there are still two things I don't understand. First, why would Manpower agree? They hate our guts!"

The answer came to Victor before he even finished the question. The cold and pitiless look on Usher's face may have helped. "Oh, shit," Victor groaned, lapsing for a moment into profanity.

"Yeah, you got it, lad. Of course, whether or not Durkheim will be able to come through with his promise is another thing—Saint-Just will have to sign onto it—but don't doubt for a minute what the promise was. You do this for us and we'll look the other way, from now on, whenever Manpower starts extending the slave trade into our space."

Victor was mute. Perhaps out of kindness, Usher prompted him off the subject. "What was the other question?"

Victor swallowed, trying to focus his mind on top of heartbreak. "Yeah. You seem to have figured it all out—and you even said it was brilliant—but then you also said Durkheim was an idiot. So I'm confused about what you really—"

Usher snorted. "Oh, hell—Victor, for Christ's sake! Grow up! Hanging onto illusions is one thing. I'll forgive you for that, easily enough." For a moment, he looked uncomfortable. Then, shrugged. "Truth is, if I hadn't realized you had those illusions I wouldn't be talking to you in the first place."

The soft moment passed. The cold and pitiless look was back. "But there's no excuse for plain stupidity. You're supposed to be a field agent, dammit! Durkheim's complicated scheme is right out of the book. You know, the one titled: 'Harebrained Schemes Hatched by Desk Pilots Who Don't Know a Dead Drop From a Hole in the Ground.' "

Victor couldn't help laughing. In that moment, Usher reminded him of one of his instructors. A sarcastic and experienced field man, who had peppered his lectures with anecdotes. Half of which, at least, had been on the subject of desk pilots and their harebrained schemes.

Usher sat back down on the couch and shook his head wearily. "Every single damned thing in Durkheim's plot is going to go wrong, Victor. Trust me. The man forgets he's dealing with real people instead of ideological abstractions. And real people have this nasty habit of not quite fitting properly into their assigned pigeonholes."

Usher leaned forward, sticking up his right thumb. "The first thing that's going to go wrong already has, and don't think for a moment even Durkheim isn't nervous about it. I'll bet you any amount of money you choose that he expected Manpower would use some of their own professionals to do the dirty work with the kid. Instead, no doubt because they want to keep their distance in case the thing goes sour—no idiots there—they turned it over to the Scrags they keep on their leash. They'll save their pros for the attacks on Parnell and Bergren."

He squinted at Victor. "Do you really know anything about the Scrags?"

Victor started to give a vigorous, even belligerent, affirmative response, but hesitated. Other than a lot of abstract ideological notions about fascistic believers in a master race—

"No," he said firmly.

"Good for you, lad," chuckled Usher. "Okay, Victor. Forget everything you may have heard. The fundamental thing you've got to understand about the Scrags is that they're a bunch of clowns." He waved a hand. "Oh, yeah, sure. Murderous clowns. Perfect physical specimens, bred and trained to be supreme warriors. Eat nails, can walk through walls, blah blah blah. The problem is, the morons believe it too. Which means they're as careless as five year olds, and never think to plan for the inevitable screw-ups. Which there always are, in any plan—much less one as elaborate as this scheme of Durkheim's. So they're going to foul up, somewhere along the line, and Durkheim's going to be scrambling to patch the holes. The problem is, since he organized this entire thing outside of SS channels, he doesn't have a back-up team in place and ready to go. He'll have to jury-rig one. Which is something you never want to do in a situation as"—another dry chuckle—"as 'fraught with danger,' as they say, as this one."

He held up the thumb of his left hand. "And the other thing that's going to go wrong—this one is guaranteed, and it's a real lulu—is that the Manty officer he selected to be the official patsy in the scheme is going to tear him a new asshole." Usher pressed the palms of his hands to his temples. The gesture combined utter exasperation with fury. "In the name of God! Bad enough Durkheim screws around with a Manty's kid. But Zilwicki's?" He drove up onto his feet. "What a cretin!"

Victor stared at him. He was acquainted with Anton Zilwicki, in the very casual way that two intelligence officers belonging to nations at war encounter each other at social functions in the capital of a neutral state, but the 'acquaintance' was extremely distant. Thinking about it, Victor could only summon up two impressions of the man. Physically, Zilwicki had a rather peculiar physique. Almost as wide, he seemed, as he was tall. And, from his accent, he came from the highlands of Gryphon.

Victor frowned. "I don't quite understand, Kevin. Zilwicki's not a field agent. He's an analyst. Specializes in technical stuff. Software, as a matter of fact. The guy's basically a computer geek. He's the one who tries to find out how much tech transfer we're getting from the Sollies."

Usher snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure that's what Durkheim was thinking. But you're forgetting three other things about him. First of all, the kid's mother was Helen Zilwicki, who was posthumously awarded Manticore's Parliamentary Medal of Honor for hammering one of our task forces half-bloody with a vastly inferior force of her own."

Victor was still frowning. Usher sighed. "Victor, do you really think a woman like that married a wimp?"


"Yeah. Oh. Second, he's from the Gryphon highlands. And while I think those highlanders are possibly the galaxy's all time political morons—they hate the aristocracy so they put their faith in Aristocrat Number One—you won't find anywhere a more maniacal set of feudists. Talk about stupid! Snatching one of their kids, in the scale of intelligence, ranks right up there with snatching a tiger's cub."

He slapped his hands together and rubbed them, in that mock-gleeful way of saying: oh, yes—here comes the best part! "And—just to put the icing on the cake—Anton Zilwicki may not be a field agent but he's hardly your typical desk pilot either."

He cocked an eyebrow at the young SS officer. "You've met him?" Victor nodded. Usher put his hand at shoulder level. "Short fellow, 'bout yay tall." He spread his arms wide, cupping the hands. "And about yay wide."

He dropped his arms. "The reason for that build is because he's a weightlifter. Good enough that he could probably compete in his weight class in the Terran Olympics, which are still the top athletic contest in the settled portion of the universe."

Usher frowned. "The truth is, though, he probably ought to give it up. Since his wife died, he's become a bit of a monomaniac about the weightlifting. I imagine it's his way of trying to control his grief. But by now he's probably starting to get muscle-bound, which is too bad because—"

The wicked smile was back. "—there ain't no question at all that he could compete in the Olympics in his old sport, seeing as how he won the gold medal three times running in the Manticoran Games in the wrestling event. Graeco-Roman, if I remember right."

Usher was grinning, now. "Oh yeah, young man. That's your genius boss Raphael Durkheim. And to think I accused the Scrags of being sloppy and careless! Durkheim's trying to make a patsy out of somebody like that."

Victor cleared his throat. "I don't think he knew all that." Which, of course, he realized was no excuse. Durkheim was supposed to know about such things. And that, finally, brought Victor to a new awareness.

"How is it that you know this stuff about Zilwicki?"

Usher stared at him for a moment in silence. Then, after taking a deep breath, said:

"Okay, young Victor Cachat. We have now arrived at what they call the moment of truth."

Usher hesitated. He was obviously trying to select the right way of saying something. But, in a sudden rush of understanding, Victor grasped the essence of it. The elaborate nature of Usher's disguise, combined with his uncanny knowledge of things no simple Marine citizen colonel—much less a drunkard—could possibly have known, all confirmed the shadowy hints Victor had occasionally encountered elsewhere. That there existed, somewhere buried deep, an opposition.

"I'm in," he stated firmly. "Whatever it is."

Usher scrutinized him carefully. "This is the part I always hate," he mused. "No matter how shrewd you are, no matter how experienced, there always comes that moment when you've got to decide whether you trust someone or not."

Victor waited; and, as he waited, felt calmness come over him. His ideological beliefs had taken a battering, but there was still enough of them there to leave him intact. For the first time—ever—he understood men like Kevin Usher. It was like looking in a mirror. A cracked mirror, but a mirror sure and true.

Usher apparently reached the same conclusion. "It's my Revolution, Victor, not Saint-Just's. Sure as hell not Durkheim and Tresca's. It belongs to me and mine—we fought for it, we bled for it—and we will damn well have it back."

"So what do we do?" asked Victor.

Usher shrugged. "Well, for the moment why don't we concentrate on this little problem in front of us." Cheerfully, he sprawled back on the couch. "For one thing, let's figure out a way to turn Durkheim's mousetrap into a rat trap. And, for another, let's see if there isn't some way we can keep a fourteen-year-old girl from becoming another stain on our banner. Whaddaya say?"

The Scrag

Kennesaw sensed his assailants' approach as he was opening the door to his apartment. Like all of the Select, his hearing was incredibly acute, as was the quickness with which his mind processed sensory data. Before the attack even began, therefore, he had already started his pre-emptive counterassault.

Given the areas of Chicago that Kennesaw frequented, he was quite familiar with muggers. It was one of the things he liked about the city, in fact. The high level of street crime kept his fighting reflexes well-tuned. He had killed three muggers over the past several years, and crippled as many more.

The fact that there were two of them did not faze him in the least. Especially once he saw, as he spun around launching his first disabling kick, that both of the men were much shorter than he was.

It took a few seconds for his assumptions to be dispelled. How many, exactly, he never knew. Everything was much too confusing. And painful.

His target was the older and more slightly built of the two men. Kennesaw almost laughed when he saw how elderly the man was. One blow would be enough to disable him, allowing Kennesaw to concentrate on destroying the thick-set subhuman.

But the kick never landed. Somehow, Kennesaw's ankle was seized, twisted—off balance now—

—his vision blurred—an elbow strike to the temple, he thought, but he was too dazed to be certain—

—agonizing pain lanced through his other leg—

—his knees buckled—

And then a monster had him, immobilizing him from behind with a maneuver Kennesaw barely recognized because it was so antique—even preposterous. But his chin was crushed to his chest, his arms dangling and paralyzed, and then he was heaved back onto his feet and propelled through the half-open door of his apartment.

On their way through, the monster smashed his face against the door jamb. The creature's sheer power was astonishing. Kennesaw's nose and jaw were both broken. He dribbled blood and teeth across the floor as he was manhandled into the center of his living room.

By now, he was only half-conscious. Anyone not of the Select would probably have been completely witless. But Kennesaw took no comfort in the fact. He could sense the raging animal fury that held him immobile and had so casually shattered his face along the way.

His legs were again kicked out from under him. A skilled and experienced hand-to-hand fighter, Kennesaw had expected that. What he hadn't expected was that the monster, instead of hurling him to the floor and pouncing on him, would do the exact opposite. Kennesaw was dragged down on top of the creature, who still held him from behind in that suffocating clasp.

He landed on a body that felt as unyielding as stone. An instant later, two legs curled over his thighs and clamped his own legs in a scissor lock. The legs were much shorter than his own, but thick and muscular. Kennesaw was vaguely surprised to see that they apparently belonged to a human being. He wouldn't have been shocked to see them clad in animal fur. Like a grizzly bear.

* * *

Some time passed. How much, Kennesaw never knew. But eventually he was able to focus on the face which was staring down at him. The genes which had created that face clearly had most of their origins in eastern Asia. The face belonged to the old man, the one he had tried to disable with a kick.

The man spoke. His voice was soft and low. "I used to be a biologist, Kennesaw, before I decided to concentrate on my art. What you're seeing here is an illustration of the fallacy of Platonic thinking applied to evolutionary principles."

The words were pure gibberish. Something of Kennesaw's confusion must have shown, because the face emitted a slight chuckle.

"It's sometimes called 'population thinking,' Kennesaw. A pity you never learned to apply those methods. Instead, you made the classic mistake of categorizing people into abstract types instead of recognizing their concrete variations."

Gibberish. Another chuckle.

"You're only a 'superman,' Kennesaw, if you compare the average of the Sacred Band to the average of the rest of humanity. Unfortunately, you're now in the hands of two men who, in different ways, vary quite widely from the norm. Partly because of our own genetic background, and partly due to training and habit."

The almond-shaped eyes moved slightly, looking past Kennesaw's own head. "I'm not sure how well this is going to work. I'm sure he's got an absolutely phenomenal pain threshold."

Finally, Kennesaw heard the monster speak. "Don't care," came a hoarse grunt. "I'm sure he was one of the men who took her, which means there'll be traces of where they went somewhere in the apartment."

The Oriental face frowned. "Then why—"

Even as dazed as he was, the brief exchange made clear to Kennesaw the identity of his assailants. He managed some grunting words of his own. "You crazy, Z'wicki? Anyt'in' happen t'me, 'ey'll kill 'er."

The clasp tightened, and Kennesaw couldn't prevent a low groan.

"I don't think so. As sloppy as you people are, they'll just assume you're goofing off somewhere. How would I know you were involved?"

Despite the crushing pain, some part of Kennesaw's brain was still functioning objectively. So he understood the incredible strength which lay behind those words. Precious few, if any, of the Select themselves would have been able to so completely immobilize Kennesaw. Much less, at the same time, manage to speak in what was almost a normal tone of voice!

"And you've already told me the only thing I really needed to know from you," continued the hoarse voice from behind. "I'm not cold-blooded enough to kill a man I'm not sure is guilty."

It took a moment for the meaning to register on Kennesaw. He tried to grunt another warning, but the hoarse voice overrode his words.

"This is called a full nelson, Scrag. It's an illegal maneuver in tournament wrestling. Here's why."

* * *

In the brief time that followed, Kennesaw understood some of what the little Oriental had been trying to explain to him. Variation. He never would have believed that any subhuman would have been strong enough to—

But the thought was fleeting. The pressure on his neck, crushing his broken chin into his chestbone, drove everything but pain and terror away. And then his vertebra ruptured and Kennesaw thought no more at all.


Victor spent the evening in the company of Usher's wife, being given a guided tour of the upper levels of the Loop. He had intended, burning with desire to undo Durkheim—somehow—to return to work immediately. But Kevin had driven that notion down with his usual sarcasm.

"And just what do you intend to do, youngster?" he demanded. "Stay out of trouble, dammit! I'll get the ball rolling at my end. You don't do anything—nothing, you understand—until you either hear from me or Durkheim approaches you, whichever comes first."

Victor frowned. Kevin chuckled. "He will, he will—I'll bet on it. Didn't I tell you this scheme of his is going to start unraveling? And that, when it does, he's going to have to slap together a jury-rigged back-up team to clean up the mess?"

Usher didn't wait for a response. Clearly enough, he had once again left Victor behind in a cloud of mental dust. "So who do you think he's going to approach? Not one of his experienced field agents, I'll tell you that. No, he'll go to the same wet-behind-the-ears, naive, trusting, dumb-as-a-brick, do-as-he-says young zealot that he used to pass messages to the Mesans in the first place. You."

"Me?" Victor scratched his cheek. "Why? He never told me what those messages were, or who I was passing them to. I figured it out on my own. As far as he knows, I don't know anything about the situation."

Victor hesitated, youthful pride warring with his innate honesty. Honesty won.

"The truth is, Kevin, I really am kind of"—sigh—"wet behind the ears." He scowled. "It hasn't helped any that Durkheim hasn't given me any really important assignments since I got here, fresh out of the Academy. All he's used me for is routine clerical stuff and as an occasional courier. My knowledge of fieldcraft is really pretty much book-learning. If I was putting together a back-up team to clean up a mess like this, I'd want an experienced field agent in charge of it."

"You don't think like Durkheim does," replied Kevin. "You're still thinking in terms of making the assignment work. For that, sure, you'd want a real pro." He shook his head. "But don't ever forget that Durkheim is a bureaucrat, first and foremost. His central concern—now and always—is going to be his position within the power structure, not the needs of the struggle. When a job goes sour, his first thought is going to be: cover my ass. And for that, ain't nothing better than a dumb young greenhorn—especially one who has a reputation for zealotry."

Victor flushed a bit. "What's a 'greenhorn'?" he growled.

"It's a Terran term. Refers to a variant they have here of cattle. A young bull, essentially, who's got a lot more testosterone than he does good sense."

Victor's flush deepened. "You're saying he'll expect me to fail?"

Kevin grinned. "Go down in flames and smoke, as a matter of fact. With enough pyrotechnics that he can wash his hands clean and claim afterward the whole thing was your idea and he didn't know anything about it until the boom happened."

Kevin looked away for a moment, thinking. "What I imagine he'll do is give you a squad of experienced SS troops, with a citizen sergeant in charge that he trusts. Someone with some familiarity with the Old Quarter—the upper levels, at least. You'll be told that the Scrags have run wild—went ahead and kidnapped a Manty officer's daughter, the maniacs. He'll probably claim they were simply supposed to search his apartment and panicked when they found the girl there."

Usher waved his hand. "Yeah, of course the story's ridiculous. Why didn't they just kill her on the spot? But he won't be expecting you to scrutinize his story for logical fallacies."

By now, Victor had caught up with Usher's thought train. "So I take this squad into the Loop with orders to find the girl and get her back." His face tightened. "No. Not get her back. Just—"

"He won't give you that instruction, Victor. No matter how zealous or naive he thinks you are, Durkheim's not dumb enough to think he can tell a youngster to murder a girl in cold blood without creating possible problems. No, he'll tell you the job is to rescue her. And kill the Scrags while you're at it. But the citizen sergeant will see to it that the girl doesn't survive."

"Or me either." The statement was flat, direct.

Usher nodded. "Or you either. When the dust clears, what do we have? A young and inexperienced Havenite SS officer, discovering some kind of Mesan/Scrag skullduggery underway, went charging off half-cocked—entirely on his own initiative and without getting authorization—and made a mess out of everything. Both he and the girl die in the crossfire. Who's to say otherwise?"

"The whole story's preposterous!" protested Victor. "The Manties'll never believe it. Neither will the Sollies, for that matter."

Kevin laughed harshly. "Of course they won't. But they won't be able to prove any different, and Durkheim doesn't care what they think anyway. After Harrington's escape—sure as hell after Parnell arrives here and starts shooting his mouth off—nobody on Terra will believe what Haven says about anything. So what's another little goofy story? All Durkheim cares about is covering his ass with Saint-Just."

Usher laughed again, and just as harshly. "Who won't believe the story either, mind you. But he'll be satisfied that Durkheim had enough sense to cut his losses. And Saint-Just has enough problems to deal with now that he's not going to run the risk of penalizing Durkheim."

Silence followed, for perhaps half a minute, while Victor digested this—indigestible—meal. He felt nauseated. As a young and eager SS officer, Victor had prepared himself for ruthlessness in the struggle against elitism. But this

"All right," he said. "So what do we do?"

"You leave that to me, Victor." Usher's face was bleak. "I'll do my best to see to it that both you and the girl survive. But I can't make any promises. The truth is, I'm going to be using you for bait. And bait has a way of getting eaten."

Victor nodded. He'd already deduced that much. But Victor had understood the risks of being an SS intelligence officer when he applied to the Academy. Danger, he could accept. Foulness—for no more purpose than a bureaucrat's self-aggrandizement—he could not.

"Good enough. Concentrate on the girl's survival." Stiffly, with all the pride of a greenhorn: "I can take care of myself."

Usher grinned. "The girl might surprise you, lad. Don't forget whose kid she is. She even has her mother's name. Oh, and I might mention something else that I'm sure Durkheim doesn't know—she's the youngest person who ever got a brown belt from Robert Tye."

Victor sighed. Again, he was in a cloud of dust. "What's a brown belt? And who's Robert Tye?"

I'm getting a little tired of that damn grin, he thought sourly, seeing its reappearance. The words which followed didn't help a bit.

"Not a devotee of the martial arts, are you? Well, I'd figured as much from our little fracas in the tavern." Grin.

* * *

So, Victor had wound up idling away the day with Usher's wife in the Loop. Her name—or so she claimed, in defiance of all logic—was Virginia. Victor had his doubts, especially in view of her scandalous clothing and the way she continually tormented him.

But he was obscurely relieved when she explained that she wasn't really a prostitute.

"Not any more, anyway," Ginny explained—although, at the moment she spoke the words, she was doing her best to prove to the world otherwise, the way she was pressed against him as they ambled through one of the bazaars in the Old Quarter. Under Victor's prodding, as they made their way through the crowded streets and open-spaced bazaars, Virginia gave him some of her life's history.

Before too long, he was sorry he had asked. Not because Virginia prattled—to the contrary, her narrative was terse and brief. But simply because it is one thing to understand, in ideological terms, that a social institution is unjust. It is another thing entirely to hear that injustice graphically described by one of its victims. The first causes abstract anger; the second, nausea and helpless fury.

Virginia had been born—bred—on Mesa. C-17a/65-4/5 was the name on her tongue. The label, it might be better to say. The "C" line was one of Manpower Inc.'s most popular breeds, always in demand on the market. Sex slaves, in essence. "17" referred to the somatic type; the "a" to the female variant. Her genotype had been selected and shaped for physical attractiveness, and for as much in the way of libidinal energy and submissiveness as Mesa's gengineers could pinpoint in the genetic code. Which, of course, was not much—especially since the two desired psychological traits tended to be genetically cross-linked with a multitude of opposing characteristics. One of which, unfortunately, was a type of intelligence popularly characterized as "cleverness." As a result, a high percentage of C-lines had a tendency to escape captivity once they left the extreme security environment of Mesa itself.

To combat that tendency, and in an attempt to "phenotypically induce" the desired submissiveness, the developing C-lines were subjected to a rigorous training regimen. Manpower's engineers, of course, had an antiseptic and multisyllabic jargon phrase to describe it: "Phenotype developmental process." But what it amounted to, in layman's terms, was that C-lines were systematically and continually raped from the age of nine.

"The worst of it," Virginia mused, "is that there wasn't even any real lust involved. No emotion at all. The rapists—sorry, the phenotype technicians—have to be chemically induced to even get an erection." She actually managed a giggle. "Sometimes, looking back, I almost feel sorry for them. Almost. I don't think there exists anybody in the galaxy as bored with sex as those people."

"Nine?" Victor asked shakily.

She shrugged. "Yeah. It hurts. A lot, in the beginning. And it's even worse for the b-variants. Those are the boys."

Victor felt like he was wading in a cesspool. But he finally understood the sheer savagery of the Audubon Ballroom. He had never approved of the kind of terrorist tactics which their militants often applied to individual targets. Counterproductive, ideologically. But—

She laughed harshly. "Almost! Ha! That one time Jeremy X and his comrades caught a phenotype technician here on Terra—stupid bastard went on vacation, can you believe it?—I raced down to see the body like everybody else."

At one time, Victor would have winced. Now, he simply growled his own satisfaction. He knew the incident she was referring to. It had been one of the most famous exploits of the Ballroom, and one which had produced a gale of official outrage. The Solarian League's Executive Council met in an elaborate palace. As part of the palace's decor, there was a statue in the center of the antechamber. The statue was a human-sized replica of a gigantic and long-destroyed ancient monument called the Statue of Liberty. The Council members had not been amused to arrive one day and find the naked body of a "phenotype engineer" impaled on the statue's torch, with a sign hanging around his neck which read: Hoist on his own petard, wouldn't you say?

He took a deep breath. "I still think the tactics are counterproductive."

Virginia smiled slyly. "That's what Kevin says, too." The smile faded. "I don't know. I suppose you're right. But—"

She took her own deep breath. "You don't know what it's like, Victor," she said softly. There was a hint of moisture in her dark eyes. "All your life you're told you're inferior—genetically. Not really human. You wonder about it yourself. Sometimes I think the way I put on such a slutty act is just because—" No hint, now; the tears were welling. She wiped them away half-angrily. "So maybe you and Kevin are right. All I know is that after I saw that body I felt a lot better about myself."

The moment passed, and Virginia went back to her customary badinage. "Anyway, after I escaped I made my living as a whore. The pay's good and what else do I know how to do?" Sourly: "Kevin insisted that I give it up, when he proposed."

Victor had learned enough to resist his natural impulse: But surely you were glad to abandon that life of degradation! Virginia, he was quite certain, had been happy enough to quit the trade. But she enjoyed goosing the greenhorn.

Ginny goosed him again. "And he was so mean to my pimp, too." Sigh. "Poor Angus. He was so refined, and Kevin is such a ruffian."

When she realized he wasn't going to rise to the bait, Ginny grinned. The grin, of course, was lascivious. Whatever the reality of their relationship and repartee, Victor realized that Ginny was a far more experienced field agent than he was. Except for that one brief teary-eyed moment, she had never once broken cover. Any of Durkheim's men who was following them would be quite certain by now that Victor Cachat had finally abandoned his stiff and proper ways. Another puritanical revolutionary undone by the fleshpots of Terra. Join the club.

And so, just as Usher had planned, it would never occur to them that the same Victor Cachat was getting a better introduction to the Loop and its secrets than they'd ever gotten.

"Smart man," mused Victor.

"Isn't he?" agreed Ginny happily.



Helen had no way of keeping track of time, beyond the meals which her captors gave her. After four meals, she decided that they were feeding her twice a day. Which, if she was right, meant that she had now been imprisoned for three days.

The food was plentiful, but consisted of nothing more than some kind of standard rations. For troops, possibly, although Helen suspected darkly that the rations were designed for convict laborers. Nasty stuff. She certainly wouldn't feed crap like that to armed soldiers. They'd mutiny within a week.

The stuff didn't do wonders for her digestion, either. Fortunately, her captors had provided her with a modern portable toilet instead of the crude bed pan which was always provided in the adventure novels she loved to read. She got plenty of use for the thing. More than her captors had intended, in fact, because she had quickly learned that the slot behind the heatflash disposal mechanism was perfect for concealing her digging shards.

That was about the only good thing about the disposal mechanism. It was so old and poorly maintained that it barely served for its official function. And not well enough to cover the stench which slowly, as the hours and days went by, began to fill the cell.

But that too, Helen decided, was all to the good. She noticed that after the second day, her captors came in and out of her cell as quickly as possible. Holding their breath all the while.

So she continued her dogged tunneling in a cheerful enough mood. She even had to restrain herself, once, from humming.

* * *


The next day seemed endless to Victor. The only assignment Usher had given him was to do nothing, beyond his normal tasks as an SS officer in the embassy. Which, in Victor's case, amounted to glorified clerical work.

He even found himself looking forward to the evening. He was supposed to meet with Virginia again, in a tavern deep in the Loop, and then spend the rest of the night with her at a nearby cheap hotel. The cover was the obvious one of a man having an assignation with a prostitute.

Despite his certainty that Ginny would tease him mercilessly—especially once they were in the hotel room—Victor was looking forward to it. Partly because she might have news, and partly because it would at least give him the feeling he was doing something. Mostly, he just wanted to see her again.

In the solemnly self-critical manner which was Victor's way, he spent some time examining that desire. Eventually, he was satisfied that there wasn't any foul concupiscence lurking beneath. It was just—

He liked Ginny, he realized. There was something clean at the center of the woman, which came like fresh water after the murky filth he had been plunged into. And, although he wasn't sure, he thought she liked him also. Victor had had few friends in his life, and none at all since he left the Academy. For all his stern devotion to duty, he realized, he had been suffering from simple loneliness for a long time.

By the time lunch break came around, Victor was actually feeling quite relaxed. Then, on his way to the cafeteria, he spotted Usher marching down another hallway toward the barracks and felt himself tighten up all over again.

If the Marine citizen colonel noticed him as well, he gave no sign of it. A moment later Kevin was gone, passing through the door into the section of the big building set aside for the Marine detachment which guarded the embassy.

Victor's stride, upon seeing Usher, had turned into an almost-stumbling shuffle. Then, frantically trying to recover his poise, he did stumble. He only kept himself from falling by an awkward half-leap which drew the eyes of all the other people in the corridor at the time. There were three of them—two clerks and a Marine citizen sergeant.

Flushing with embarrassment, Victor avoided their gaze and resumed his march toward the cafeteria. At first, he was almost petrified with fear. Had he given away his connection to Usher by his own carelessness and tyro stupidity?

But by the time he reached the entrance to the cafeteria, he came to the realization that his mishap was nothing to fear. In fact, much as he hated to admit it, even if the stumble was reported to Durkheim it would probably do some good. There was, after all, another perfectly logical explanation for why he might be taken aback by meeting Kevin Usher again.

A voice coming from behind him, speaking in a whisper which was still loud enough to be heard by anyone within twenty feet, confirmed the supposition.

"Try not to piss your pants, will you? The Citizen Colonel doesn't usually slap around punks more than once."

An instant later, almost roughly, Victor was shouldered aside by the citizen sergeant he had noticed in the corridor. Standing stock still, he stared at the Marine marching past him into the cafeteria. Then, realizing he was blocking the way of the two clerks, he stepped back. He saw one of the clerks glance at him as he went by, his lips twisted into a slight smirk.

By now, Victor realized, the story of his encounter with Kevin Usher in the tavern would have gone through the entire embassy staff. Causing no chagrin to anyone, not even other SS officers, and much amusement to many.

But it was not embarrassment which kept him standing in the doorway for another few seconds. It was simple surprise. Somehow—he hadn't noticed at the time—the citizen sergeant had managed to slip a note into his hand while he was manhandling Victor out of the way.

Victor recognized the fieldcraft, of course. From training if not from actual practice. But he was more than a little astonished to see it performed so precisely and perfectly by a man whom he would have assumed did nothing more precise than blow people apart in a combat assault.

Fortunately, Victor didn't forget his own fieldcraft. So he didn't make any of the tyro's mistakes, such as trying to read the note immediately. He just slipped it into his pocket and went to the line to get his food.

Nor did he try to read the note surreptitiously while he was eating. He was too well trained, for one thing. For another, he was far too preoccupied studying the Marines in the cafeteria.

And that, too, was a well-trained sort of study. Victor never gave the Marines sitting at their own table more than an occasional glance. He didn't really need to, after all, since he had observed Marines at lunch many times in the past.

Or, it might be better to say, had seen them. But he realized now that the Marines, as visible as they always were in the embassy, remained almost like ghosts in his actual knowledge. What really went on in the barracks? What did those combat troops think about anything?

He didn't know, he realized—and neither did almost any SS officer. As an institution, of course, State Security was always deeply concerned about the attitudes and political reliability of the military. But that assignment was so important that it was kept carefully shielded from the view of most SS men. As a rule, for a small detachment like the one guarding the embassy on Terra, only one officer would really know anything about the Marines.

That officer, in this case, was a certain Paul Gironde. About whom, Victor realized, he also knew almost nothing. Even by SS standards, Gironde was a close-mouthed sort of fellow. The few times Victor had found himself in a conversation with Gironde, the conversation had been brief. From boredom on Victor's part, if nothing else.

But of one thing Victor was almost certain, from certain subtleties in the way he had seen Durkheim and Gironde interact in the past. Gironde, while he was a respected SS officer, was not one of Durkheim's cronies.

Then came the hardest moment of the day, as Victor fought down a smile. He knew only one of the classical allusions which Kevin Usher was so fond of spouting. And he couldn't, even then, remember the actual Latin words. But he knew what they meant.

Who will guard the guardians?

* * *

Victor didn't finally read the note until he was in the jam-packed capsule heading into the Loop. There, carefully cupping the note in his palm while he was surrounded by a motley horde, he could be sure of reading it unobserved. By anyone, at least, connected in any way with State Security.

That his assignation with Virginia was in the Old Quarter, some time in the evening, he already knew. The note would tell him exactly when and where.

And so it did, in feminine handwriting, and then some:

Gary's Place. 8. Wear something pink. I love pink. It reminds me—

What it reminded Ginny of turned Victor's own face pink as well. But, this time, he made no effort to restrain his laugh. Why should he? In the crowded transportation capsules carrying the city's menials back into the Old Quarter after a day's work, there was a lot of laughter.

He found the time, before entering the tavern, to hunt down a clothing store and buy a scarf. A pink scarf. Bright pink, in fact. Victor felt silly wearing the thing. And it was probably a lapse into decadent habits on his part. Putting on a useless piece of garment just to please a lady!


She wasn't his lady, true. A lady she was, nonetheless, and some part of Victor took pleasure in the fact itself. In a way he couldn't explain, it seemed like another victory, of which there had been precious few in his life. A small one, perhaps, but a victory sure and certain.


"And there it is," said Anton softly. He leaned back from the console and arched his back against the chair. He was stiff from the long hours he had spent there. All day, in fact, since early in the morning. And it was now almost ten o'clock at night.

Robert Tye, who had been standing at the window staring at the brightly lit city, turned his head and cocked an eyebrow. Catching a glimpse of the little movement, Anton chuckled.

"Bingo, as you Terrans would put it. And where does that silly expression come from, anyway?"

Tye shrugged. "What did you find?"

Anton pointed a finger at the screen. "I had plenty already, just from the embassy's general files and the ambassador's. But the real gold mine is here in Admiral Young's personal records." He shook his head, half with anger and half with bemusement. "What a jackass."

Tye came over and stared at the figures. As always with the material which Anton had brought up on the screen over the past two days, none of it meant anything to him.

"Surely he wasn't stupid enough . . ."

Anton barked a little laugh. "Oh, no—he was quite clever. Which was his undoing, in the end. When amateurs try to cover up stuff like this, they almost always make it too complicated. Keep your laundry simple, that's the trick."

The martial artist's face was creased with a frown. "Why would Young launder money? From what you've told me, the man's so rich he doesn't need to supplement his wealth."

"Money," hissed Anton. "Money's not this bastard's vice, Robert. He wasn't trying to cover up his income. He was covering his expenses."

"Oh." Tye's nostrils grew a little pinched, as if he were in the presence of a bad smell.

"So were most of the people on this list," continued Anton. "And, I'm pretty sure, most of the people on that list of Hendricks' I turned up earlier. Although that'll take some time to determine, since the ambassador was quite a bit less careless than Young was."

Anton pushed back the chair and rose to his feet. He needed to stretch a little. As he paced around, swinging his arms in a little arc to ease the tension in his back, he kept staring at the screen. His expression was intense, as he considered a new possibility.

After a moment, Tye's eyes grew almost round. Apparently, the same possibility had just occurred to the martial artist. "You don't think they were involved . . . ?"

Hearing the question put so directly, Anton's answer crystallized.

"No," he said, shaking his head firmly. "I was wondering myself, once I saw how closely they've been connected to the Mesans. But there's no earthly reason for them to do it. Helen means nothing to them, and if they wanted to strike at me—and for what purpose?—they both have far quicker and simpler ways to do it. I am their subordinate, after all."

He left off his arm-swinging and began a little set of isometric exercises, one palm against another. "But if you look at it another way, everything begins to make sense. Those same ties to Manpower would make Young and Hendricks the perfect patsies."

Now he slapped the palms together. "And that—that, Robert—is what explains Helen. She's the daughter of a Manticoran intelligence agent. Another prybar, that's all. Another angle. Whoever's behind this isn't trying to get information of any kind, much less start a disinformation campaign." He barked another laugh. "Or, at least, not a subtle one. There's all hell brewing here, Robert, and when the explosion comes Manticore is being set up to take the blame."

"The blame for what?"

Anton smiled thinly. "Give me a break. I can't figure out everything in a few days." He studied the screen a little longer. "And, in truth, I'm beginning to suspect that the culprit—or culprits, if there's more than one—is being too clever himself."

"Peeps, you think? They're the obvious ones who'd want to damage the Star Kingdom's standing on Terra. Especially now. Parnell should be arriving in three days, according to the newscasts."

"Maybe." Anton shrugged. "But it still doesn't feel right."

He pointed a thick finger at the screen. "Too clever, Robert. Too clever by half. Whatever this scheme is, it's got way too many threads waiting to come loose."

"A Rube Goldberg machine, you're saying."

The Manticoran officer scowled. "And there's another stupid Sollie expression. I've asked six of you people since I got here, and nobody can tell me who this 'Rube Goldberg' fellow was supposed to have been."

Tye chuckled. But Anton noted, a bit sourly, that he gave no answer himself.

"Too many threads . . ." he mused. "I'd almost laugh, except the minute the thing starts coming apart the first casualty will be Helen."

Anton turned his head and stared at the data packet lying next to the console. Lieutenant Hobbs had brought it over just before noon. It hadn't taken the police lab long at all to analyze the material which Anton had given them the night before.

Muhammad's visit had been brief. He hadn't even come into Anton's apartment. He had just handed him the packet, scowling, and said nothing more than: "I am not going to ask where you got five pairs of shoes, Anton. Not unless I find the feet that used to fit them." Then he left.

Anton had read the data immediately, of course. That had taken no time at all, practically. The data was crystal clear: the owner of the shoes had—recently, and probably frequently—been in the lower depths of the Loop. Below the densely populated warrens, in the labyrinth of tunnels and passageways which marked the most ancient ruins of the city.

The intensity with which Anton now studied that packet was no less than that which he had earlier bestowed on the screen. Again, he was considering a possibility.

And, again, came to a decision. Quickly enough, if not as quickly as before. The decision, this time, was affirmative. And it was one which he came to only with reluctance.

"No way around it," he muttered. Then, snorting: "God, to think it would come to this! Talk about supping with Satan with a long spoon."

Tye was startled. "You're planning to talk to Manpower?"

Anton laughed. No curt bark, either, but a genuine laugh. "Sorry," he choked. "I misspoke. Calling that woman 'Satan' is quite unfair, actually. Hecate would be more accurate. Or Circe, or maybe Morgana."

Tye scowled. "What woman? And are you trying to get even with me by using meaningless Manticoran expressions? Who the hell are Hecate and the others? I'm not a student of the Star Kingdom's mythology, you know."

He scowled even further, hearing Anton's ensuing laughter. The more so, no doubt, since Anton didn't bother to explain the source of the humor.

When Anton was done laughing, Tye gestured at the door. "Are we leaving now? To see whomever this mysterious woman might be."

Anton shook his head. "It's much too late. I'll put in a call right away, of course, but I doubt if we'll get an audience with her until tomorrow morning sometime."

"An 'audience'? What is she, some kind of royalty?"

"Close enough," said Anton softly. He was studying the screen again, where Edwin Young's vile nature was displayed in antiseptic columns of figures. "The admiral would call her 'the Lady from the Infernal Regions,' I imagine. As much as I probably despise the woman, I suppose that's as good a character reference as you could ask for."

"What's 'the Infernal Regions'?" demanded Tye. "A province of the Star Kingdom? And what do you mean: you probably despise her?"

Anton didn't bother to answer the first question. As for the other, he shrugged.

"I've never actually met her. But her reputation, as they say, precedes her."

Tye cocked his head. "Nice expression, that. 'Her reputation precedes her.' Another old Manticoran saying?"




When she broke through the wall, Helen was astonished. She had long since stopped actually thinking about escape. She had kept digging simply to keep herself occupied and control the terror.

She held her breath. There hadn't been much noise when her digging shard punctured the surface. But, for all she knew, she had simply penetrated into a space within sight of her abductors. Even if they heard nothing, they might spot the little trickle of dirt spilling on the opposite side.

So she waited, holding absolutely still and breathing as little as possible. She started a little count—one, one thousand; two, one thousand, three—until she reached three hundred.

Five minutes. And—nothing.

She tried to look through the small little crack the shard had made in the wall, but quickly gave up the effort. The hole where she had been digging was almost eighteen inches deep and not much wider than her arm. She couldn't get her eye close enough to see anything. Nor was there any light coming through the crack. She had known she broke through by feel alone.

She waited another five minutes before she started digging again. Then, moving very slowly and carefully so as to make as little noise as possible, she began to widen the hole.

The Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor

"Anton Zilwicki, Captain in Her Majesty's Royal Manticoran Navy," announced Lady Catherine's butler, as he came through the door to her study. "And Mr. Robert Tye." Isaac stepped aside and politely held the door for the visitors coming through behind him.

Isaac finished the introduction: "Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor."

Cathy rose from her reading chair. For a moment, before she focused her attention on her visitors, she allowed herself an amused glance at Isaac.

My, he does that well! Her butler—Isaac insisted on the title, though it was absurd—seemed every inch the perfect servant. He rattled off the aristocratic titles without a trace in his voice of Isaac's utter hatred of any and all forms of caste society. He even managed to wear the traditional menial's costume as if he had been born in it.

Which, of course, he hadn't. As was the custom of escaped Mesan slaves, except those who joined the Audubon Ballroom, Isaac had taken a surname shortly after obtaining his freedom. Isaac Douglass was now his official name, Isaac having chosen the most popular surname for such people, in memory of Frederick Douglass. But he had been born V-44e-684-3/5, and the name was still marked on his tongue.

Cathy's amusement was fleeting, however. Almost immediately, she realized that Isaac was tense. The symptoms were extremely subtle, a slight matter of his stance and poise, but she could read them. Isaac's feet were spread apart a bit farther than normal, his knees were slightly bent, and his hands were clasped in front of his groin. Cathy was no devotee of coup de vitesse herself, but she had no difficulty recognizing the "standing horse."


Her eyes went to her visitors, trying to find an answer. The man in front, the naval officer, seemed to pose no threat. Zilwicki was on the short side, and extremely stocky. His shoulders were so wide he almost seemed deformed. Put him in the right costume, grow a thick beard instead of a neat mustache, and he'd be the spitting image of a dwarf warlord out of fantasy novels. But his stance was relaxed, and Cathy could read no expression on his square face.

Then, noticing the intensity lurking in the man's dark brown eyes, she began to wonder. Her eyes moved to Zilwicki's companion. Robert Tye, wasn't it?

Tye solved the mystery for her. The little man's head was turned, examining Isaac. Suddenly, Tye's round face broke into a very cheery smile. Because of his pronounced epicanthic fold, the expression almost turned Tye's eyes into pure slits.

"With your permission, Lady Catherine, I will assume the lotus. I believe your—ah, butler—would find that more relaxing."

Tye didn't wait for Cathy's response. An instant later, folding himself down with astonishing ease and grace, Tye was sitting cross-legged on the lush carpeting. His legs were tightly coiled, each heel resting on the upper thigh of the opposite leg. His hands were placed on his knees, the fingers widespread.

Isaac seemed to straighten a bit. And his hands were now clasped behind his back instead of in front of his groin.

"Do you know this man, Isaac?" she blurted out.

Isaac's headshake was so slight it was not much more than a tremor. "No, ma'am. But I know of him. He is quite famous among martial artists."

Cathy stared at Tye. "Coup de vitesse?"

Tye's cheerful smile returned. "Please, Lady Catherine! Do I look like a barbarian?"

Zilwicki interrupted. "Master Tye is here at my request, Lady Catherine." His tight mouth twitched in one corner. "It might be better to say, at his insistence."

Cathy was struck by the man's voice. His accent, partly—Zilwicki still bore the imprint of his obvious Gryphon highlander upbringing. But, mostly, it was that Zilwicki's voice was so deep it was almost a rumble.

Her natural impulsiveness broke through the moment's tension.

"Have you ever considered a singing career, Captain? I'm sure you would make a marvelous Boris Gudonov."

Again, Zilwicki's mouth made that little twitch. But his eyes seemed to darken still further.

"My wife used to say that to me," he murmured. "But I think she was mostly just tired of coming to church choirs, dressed in suitably conservative clothing. She'd have rather swept into the opera house in one of the glamorous gowns I bought for her. Which, sad to say, almost never got worn."

For all the affectionate humor in the remark, Cathy did not miss the sorrow lurking behind it. That, and the name, finally registered.

"Helen Zilwicki?"

The captain nodded.

"My condolences, Captain."

"It's been many years, Lady Catherine," was Zilwicki's reply. His deep-set eyes seemed almost black, now. Perhaps that was simply a shading, due to the relatively dim lighting in the study. His mass of black hair—cut short, in the military style, but very thick—added to the impression, of course. But Cathy did not doubt for a moment that, despite the disclaimer, the man before her had never stopped grieving his loss.

"I'm surprised you made the connection so quickly," he added. "Zilwicki is a common name on Gryphon." The captain paused; then: "And I wouldn't have expected someone on your end of the political spectrum to remember such things."

Cathy shook her head. The gesture was not so much one of irritation as simple impatience. "Oh, please! Captain, I warn you right now that I detest being pigeonholed."

"So I deduced, studying your file. But I'm still surprised." Zilwicki spread his hands in a little economical gesture. "My apologies."

She stared at him. "You studied my file? Whatever for?" Her jaws tightened. "And let me say, Captain, that I also detest being spied upon!"

Zilwicki took a deep breath. "I had no choice, Lady Catherine. Because of the situation, I am forced to operate completely outside of the command chain, and I need your help."

"My help? With regard to what situation?"

"Before I explain, Lady Catherine, I must tell you that I was not exaggerating when I said I was operating completely outside the command chain. In fact—"

He took another deep breath. "When this is all over, however it ends, I expect to face a court-martial. I won't be surprised if the charges include treason as well insubordination and gross dereliction of duty."

His eyes seemed like ebony balls. But it was fury rather than sorrow which filled his voice. "Ambassador Hendricks and Admiral Young were quite explicit in their instructions to me. And I propose to shove those instructions as far up their ass—pardon my language—as possible. With or without lubricant, I don't much care."

Cathy hated her own laughter. She had heard it, on recordings, and it sounded just as much like a horse's bray as she'd always suspected. But she couldn't suppress the impulse. She wasn't good at controlling her impulses, and laughter came easily to her.

"Oh, splendid!" she cried. Then, choking: "No lubricant, Captain—not for those two! In fact—" Choke; wheeze. "Let's see if we can't splinter those instructions good and proper beforehand. Leave the bastards bloody."

Captain Zilwicki's mouth began to twitch again. But the twitch turned into an actual smile, and, for the first time, the humor which filled his voice seemed to creep into his eyes.

He was quite an attractive man, Cathy decided, once you got past that forbidding exterior. "And just how can I help you in this magnificent project, Captain? Whatever it is."


Helen was so engrossed in her work that she completely forgot to gauge its duration. For the first time, escape was actually a tangible reality instead of an abstract possibility. It was only when the digging shard set loose a small pile of sand—a pocket of dust, rather, encysted within the crumbled stones and fill—that she remembered.

Helen was immediately swept by panic. She began hastily backing out of the small tunnel into her cell. As soon as she emerged, she scrambled over—still on her hands and knees—to her makeshift "hourglass."


Now the panic was almost overwhelming. Helen had made the timing device out of an old container she had found in a corner of the cell. A paint can, she thought, although the thing was so ancient that it was hard to tell. Fortunately, the can had been made of some kind of synthetic substance. Metal would have long since corroded away.

Helen had punched a small hole in the bottom with a sharp stone. Then, as soon as her captors provided her with the next meal, she began experimenting by filling the can with the dry and powdery dust which covered the cell's "floor." After three meal cycles, she had been satisfied that the can would run empty long before her captors returned with another meal. But she had always been careful to emerge from the tunnel and cover her traces while there was still dust in the container.

Empty. But for how long? For all she knew, Helen's captors were about to enter the cell.

For a moment, she almost pressed her ear against the door to see if she could hear them. But there was no point to that. The impulse was pure panic, nothing else. Helen forced herself to remember her training.

Breathing first. Master Tye always says that. Breathing first.

She took a slow, deep breath, letting the air fill her mind with calmness at the same time as it filled her lungs with oxygen. Another. Then another.

Under control. Now moving quickly but surely, Helen began to cover her tracks. First, she fitted the panel over the tunnel entrance. Then, as always, she piled debris against it, making sure that the various pieces were in the same arrangement.

After that, she began mixing the fresh fill with the old dirt and dust covering the floor. That was slow work, because Helen had to be careful to stay as clean as possible. Her captors provided her with enough water to wash her hands and face, but nothing more. Of course, after days spent in the cell—which was really nothing more than a grotto in the ruins—she was dirtier than she'd ever been in her life. But she couldn't make it too obvious that the grime covering her was more than could be expected from the surroundings.

Finally, she put on the rest of her clothing. Whenever she went into the tunnel, Helen wore nothing but underwear. She had no way to wash her outer garments. If she'd worn them while she was digging, her clothes would have become utterly filthy. Even her captors, who seemed as indifferent toward her as they would to a lab rat, would have noticed soon enough.

She finished just in time. She heard voices on the other side of the door. By the time her captors started the process of unbolting the door, Helen had assumed the position they demanded of her when they brought food and fresh water. Squatting in a corner, staring at the wall. Docile and obedient.

She heard the door open, and her captors coming into the cell. Two of them—a woman and a man, judging from the sound of the footsteps.

The woman made a comment in that unknown language. Helen didn't understand the words, but she grasped the emotional content. Contemptuous and derisive humor; alloyed, she thought, with more than a trace of lasciviousness. True, Helen wasn't certain about that last. She had just reached the stage in her life when her body began to take a new shape, and Solarian mores were very similar to Manticoran ones when it came to sexual disrespect. But she thought she could recognize a leer when she heard one.

The man responded with his own laughing remark, and Helen had no doubt at all about his. She couldn't see his face, but the words alone practically drooled.

She heard the sounds of the food and water being placed on the floor next to the pallet which served her as a bed. Again, the man said something and laughed, and the woman joined him. Listening, Helen thought she had never heard such a coarse and foul sound in her life.

But that was the end of it. They did not come over to her, nor did they do one of their occasional and very cursory inspections of the cell.

Swine. Helen willed herself into a pose of utter subservience. A mouse huddling in the presence of cats. She concentrated on her breathing.

They left. Helen waited until she heard the chain being put into place before she moved a muscle. Then, scurrying like a mouse, she began to refill the hourglass.

Running water.


After Zilwicki finished, Cathy felt as confused as she'd ever been in her life. Nothing of what he'd said made any sense.

"But surely the police—"

Zilwicki shook his head firmly. "No, Lady Catherine. On that subject Ambassador Hendricks and Admiral Young are perfectly correct. My daughter wasn't kidnapped by common criminals. This was a political act, of some kind. The Solarian police simply aren't equipped to deal with that, and I don't want to get the Solarian League's intelligence services anywhere near it." His square, blocky face tightened. "I trust those people not much more than I do the Peeps."

Cathy rose from her chair and moved over to the window. The act was not done from any desire to admire the view, but simply because she always found it necessary to be on her feet when she was trying to puzzle out a problem. It was one of her characteristic traits, which her friends were fond of teasing her about. Lady Prancer, they sometimes called her. Cathy thought the nickname was a bit grotesque, but she admitted the logic of it. Her nervous way of moving constantly, combined with her braying laugh and her tall and gangly figure, often reminded her of a skittish filly.

Once she was at the window, of course, she found it impossible not to admire the view. She was certainly paying enough for it, after all. Her apartment was located near the very top of one of the Solarian capital's most expensive apartment complexes. Cathy was looking down on the city from well over a mile above street level. Insofar as the term "street level" could be applied to Chicago, that is. Whatever other changes had come over the city in the millennia of its existence, Chicago still retained its fondness for underground passages and covered walkways. Which was logical, since the climate—and the wind—had not changed.

Cathy stared down at the teeming metropolis. It was like looking into a gigantic canyon. On the surface streets far below, and on the multitude of conduits which connected the various buildings on every level, she could see the crowds scurrying like ants. Most of them seemed in a great hurry. Which, in fact, they were. It was lunch hour, for the millions who worked in Chicago's center. And that, too, had not changed over the centuries. Lunch hour was never long enough.

She shook her head abruptly and turned back to face her visitors. The quick and jerky motions, though she had no way of realizing it, reminded the captain of a gawky young horse. Once again, silently, someone bestowed the old nickname on her.

"All right, I can understand that. I guess. But why are you so certain that the ambassador and the admiral are wrong in their approach?" She held up her hand and fluttered the long and slender fingers. "Yes, yes, Captain! I know they're both assholes, but that doesn't mean they're incompetent."

She flashed her visitor a jittery grin. "You'll have to pardon my language. I know I curse too much. Can't help it. Comes from being forced through snooty private schools when I was a youngster. Maybe that's why I'm such a rebellious creature." She pranced back to her chair and flung herself into it. "That's what my parents' psychologists said, anyway. Personally, I think they're full of shit."


Watching and listening to her, Anton was struck by how closely Lady Catherine's speech resembled her movements. Quick and explosive, with scant respect for grammatical elbow room. Her wide mouth and expressive blue eyes added to the effect, as did the great mane of curly blond hair. The only part of the woman's face which seemed subdued was her snub nose, as if it were the deaf mute in a lively village. And despite the title, and the Tor fortune which lay behind it, Lady Catherine's face was that of a villager, not a countess. She even had some sunburned skin peeling off of her nose. With her extremely fair complexion, of course, that was not surprising. But most Manticoran noblewomen would have been too mortified by the prospect to have taken the risk of getting a sunburn in the first place. Lady Catherine, Anton suspected, suffered that small indignity with great frequency and a complete lack of concern.

Oddly enough, the naval officer found the ensemble thoroughly charming. He had come here reluctantly, driven by nothing more than sheer and pressing need, and with the full expectation that he would dislike the countess. Like all Gryphon highlanders, Anton Zilwicki detested the aristocracy in general—and the left wing members of it with a particular passion. No one in the Manticoran aristocracy was further to the left than Lady Catherine Montaigne. Even hardcore Progressives like Lady Descroix considered her "utopian and irresponsible." Countess New Kiev, the ultra-doctrinaire leader of the Liberal party, had once denounced her on the floor of the House of Lords as a "dangerous demagogue."

Perhaps, he mused whimsically, that was because his own personality was attracted to opposites, when it came to women. His dead wife had not resembled Lady Catherine in the least, physically. Helen had been short, dark-complected, and on the buxom side. True, there was a closer ideological correlation. Helen, somewhat unusually for a naval officer, had generally followed the Progressives—but only up to a point, and always on the very right edge. And when it came to naval affairs, she was as pure a Centrist as you could ask for. She had certainly never been accused—as Lady Catherine had, innumerable times—of consorting with dangerous and violent radicals. But, like Lady Catherine, Helen had exuded rambunctious energy. And, though she had rarely lapsed into profanity, Helen had had the same way of expressing her opinions directly and forcefully.

Quite unlike Anton himself, who always tried—and almost always succeeded—in maintaining a tight and focused control over his thoughts and actions. Old Stone Face was the nickname his wife had bestowed upon him. Even his daughter, who was the one person to whom Anton unbent, teased him about it. Daddy Dour, she sometimes called him. Or just Popsicle.

On the rare occasions when he thought much on the subject, Anton ascribed his personality to the stark upbringing of the Gryphon highlands. The Navy's psychologists, in their periodic evaluations, had an infinitely more complex way of explaining the matter. Anton could never follow their reasoning, partly because it was always presented in that fearsome jargon so beloved by psychologists, but mostly—

Because I think they're full of shit.

But he didn't speak the words. He simply gave Lady Catherine a friendly smile. "I don't mind, ma'am. Curse all you want."

He planted his hands on his knees. His hands, like his face and body, were square and blunt. "But I'm telling you, the ambassador and the admiral—and Admiral Young's whole little flock of armchair intelligence advisers—"

He couldn't resist: "—are full of shit."

All traces of humor vanished. "My daughter was not kidnapped by the Peeps. Or, if she was, it's some kind of black operation being done completely outside the Havenite command chain. By amateurs, to boot."

Lady Catherine frowned. "How can you be so certain of that? The demands they are making upon you, in exchange for keeping your daughter unharmed—"

Anton flicked the fingers of his hands, without removing the hands themselves from his knees. In its own way, the gesture was also explosive.

"Doesn't make sense. For at least three reasons. First of all, the demands were left in my apartment. Written, if you can believe it, on a sheet of paper."

Seeing the frown on the Countess' face, Anton realized that he had to elaborate.

"Ma'am, no field agent in his right mind would leave that kind of physical evidence on the scene of a crime. They would have communicated with me electronically, in some form or other. Leaving aside the fact that a physical note is legal evidence, it's almost impossible to keep some traces of yourself off of it. Modern forensic equipment—and the stuff the Solarians have is every bit as good as what the Manticoran police use—is damned near magical, the way it can squeeze information out of any kind of physical object a person has been in touch with."

He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, flat package. "As it happens, although the Chicago police are not officially involved, I do have some personal contacts. One of them saw to it that the ransom note was given the full treatment. As well as the evidence which I, ah, uncovered elsewhere. The results are on this disk."

He tapped the package against his knee. "But I'll get to that in a moment. First, let me finish my train of thought."

With his left hand, he held up a finger. "So that's point number one. The people who abducted my daughter were not professional Havenite agents, nor were they following orders from one. Or, if he was one, he was a desk pilot rather than a field man."

He flicked up his middle finger to join the first. "Point two. The action itself—kidnapping, for God's sake—is completely out of whack with the supposed result. I'm an officer in naval intelligence, true, but my specialty is technical evaluation. My background's in naval construction. I was a yard dog before my wife was killed. After that—"

He paused for a moment, forcing his emotions under. "After that, I transferred into the Office of Naval Intelligence." Another pause. "I guess I wanted to do something that would strike the Peeps directly. Unlike Helen, however, I was never good enough at naval tactics to have much hope of climbing to a command position in the fleet. So intelligence seemed like the best bet."

Lady Catherine cocked her head. There was something faintly inquisitive about the gesture. Anton thought he understood it, and, if so, was a bit astonished at her perspicacity.

He smiled ruefully, running his fingers through his coarse mat of hair. "Yeah, I know. 'And how many barrels of oil will thy vengeance fetch thee in Nantucket market, Captain Ahab?' "

She returned the smile with a great, gleaming one of her own. Her eyes crinkled with pleasure. "Good for you!" she exclaimed. "A rock-hard Gryphon highlander who can quote the ancient classics. I'll bet you learned to do it just so you could show up the Manticore nobility."

For all the gravity of his purpose, and his own tightly controlled terror for his daughter, Anton found it impossible not to laugh. Chuckle, at least. "Only at first, Lady Catherine! After a while, I started enjoying them in their own right."

But the humor faded. Here, too, there was old heartbreak. It had been his wife Helen—a Manticoran herself, and from "good stock" if not the nobility—who had first introduced Anton to Moby Dick. Not, in truth, because Helen had been a devotee of classic literature, but simply because she had shared the passion for any kind of naval fiction which was common to many officers in the Manticoran navy. Among whose ranks was firmly held the opinion that Joseph Conrad was the greatest author of all time, except for a vocal minority which held forth for Patrick O'Brian.

He brought his focus back to the moment. "The point, Lady Catherine, is that I simply don't know enough of any real value to the Peeps to make it worth their while to commit such a crime."

"They are brutal bastards," stated the countess. "Especially those sadists in State Security. I wouldn't put anything past those thugs."

Again, Anton was surprised by the countess. Most Liberals and Progressives he'd met, especially aristocrats, were prone to downplay or even semi-excuse the viciousness of the Havenite regime with a lot of left-wing jargon. As if tyranny stopped being tyranny when you added more syllables to the term.

He shook his head. "That's irrelevant. They might well be brutal enough—SS is certainly brutal enough—but—"

He couldn't resist another chuckle. Talk about role reversals! "Lady Catherine, I am hardly an apologist for the Peeps but I'm also not a cretin. However foul that regime may be, they're not storybook ogres out of a child's fairy tale. There's simply no purpose to this. Not enough, anyway." He leaned forward, elaborating. "I was sent here to keep track of technology transfers from the Solarian League to the People's Republic of Haven. Because of my technical background, I can make sense out of information that most intelligence specialists—" He hesitated. "Oh, hell, let's call ourselves 'spies,' why don't we?"

The countess smiled; Anton continued: "Which most spies can't. But it's in the nature of my work that I am trying to ferret out the enemy's secrets, rather than keeping our own. So why would the Peeps go to the extreme of kidnapping my daughter in order to force information out of me that they already have? It's not as if they need me to tell them what technology they're getting from the League."

"What about—"

"That idiot theory of the admiral's? That the Peeps are playing a long-term game, figuring they can use me to pass along disinformation?"

The countess nodded. Anton turned his head and stared at the giant windows along the wall. Even sitting where he was, a good twenty feet away, the view was breathtaking. But he was completely oblivious to it.

"That brings me to the third reason this doesn't make sense. It just isn't done, Lady Catherine." He sighed heavily. "I don't know if I'll have any more success trying to convince you of that than I did with the ambassador and the admiral."

Anton hesitated, gauging the personality of the woman sitting across from him. The noble-woman. Then, moved by a sudden feeling that he understood her nature—some of it, at least—decided for straightforwardness.

"Lady Catherine, I will say this bluntly. Almost every aristocrat I know—sure as hell Ambassador Hendricks and Admiral Young—screws up when they try to understand the Peeps. They always look on them from the top down, instead of the bottom up. If they're right-wing, with a sneer; if left-wing, with condescension. Either way, the view is skewed. The Havenites are people, not categories. I'm telling you, this kind of personal attack on a man's family is so utterly beyond the pale that I can't imagine any professional Peep intelligence officer authorizing it. Not a field man, at least. It just—" He paused, setting his jaws stubbornly. "It just isn't done, that's all. Not by us, not by them."

Lady Catherine cocked her head again. "Are you trying to tell me that spies follow a 'code of ethics'? Including Haven's State Security?"

Anton's gaze remained steady. "Yes." He spread his hands slightly. "Well . . . I wouldn't call it code of ethics, exactly. It's more like a code of honor—or, better yet, the code duello. Even the Ellington Protocol doesn't allow you to just up and shoot somebody whenever you feel like it."

"That's true. But there's an official sanction standing behind—"

"And there is here too, ma'am," said Anton forcefully. "Any code of conduct has a practical basis to it, no matter how buried it might be under the formal trappings. Spies don't go around attacking each other's families, if for no other reason, because once you open that can of worms there'd be no end to it." He grimaced. "Well, I'm putting the thing too sharply. Certain kinds of attacks are permissible—long hallowed, in fact. Seducing a spy's spouse, for instance. But kidnapping a child and threatening to kill her—" Again, he set his jaws stubbornly. "It just isn't done, Lady Catherine. I can't think of a single instance, for all the savageness of this war between us and the Peeps, when anything like that has happened."

He took a deep breath before continuing. "As for State Security . . ." Another pause; then: "The thing is much more complicated, Lady Catherine, than people realize. The image most Manticorans have of State Security is that they're simply an organization of goons, thugs and murderers. Which"—he snorted—"they certainly have plenty of, God knows. Some of the foulest people who ever lived are wearing SS uniforms, especially the ones who volunteer for duty in concentration camps."

Seeing the countess' little start, Anton nodded. "Oh, yes. You didn't realize that, did you? The fact is, ma'am, that State Security allows its people a lot more latitude in choosing their assignments than the Peep navy does. Or the Manticoran navy, for that matter. It's quite a democratic outfit, in some ways, as hard as that might be to imagine."

He eyed her shrewdly. "But it makes sense, if you think about it. Whatever else Oscar Saint-Just is, he is most definitely not stupid. He knows full well that his precious State Security is a—a—" When he found the metaphor he was looking for, Anton barked a laugh. "A manticore, by God! A bizarre creature made up of the parts of completely different animals."

Again, Anton started ticking off his fingers. "A goodly chunk—undoubtedly the majority, by now—are people who joined after the Revolution looking for power and status. They've got as much ideological conviction as a pig in a trough. A fair number of those are former officers in the Legislaturalist regime's secret police. That's where you find your pure goons and thugs."

Another finger. "Then, there are a lot of young people who join up. Almost all of them are Dolists, from the lowest ranks of Havenite society. Some, of course, are just sadists looking for a legitimate cover or angry people looking to inflict revenge on the so-called 'elites.' " He shook his head. "But not most of them, ma'am. Most of them are genuine idealists, who believe in the Revolution and can see the gains it's starting to bring their own class—"

Lady Catherine started to interject a denial but Anton drove over it.

"Sorry, ma'am—it has. Don't ever think otherwise. A lot of people in Manticoran intelligence thought the Havenite empire would collapse, after the Revolution." He snorted. "Especially in the diplomatic service. Bunch of upper class snobs who think poor people are nothing but walking stomachs. Sure, Rob Pierre's war has brought Haven's Dolists a lot of bloody grief—not to mention that he's even frozen their stipend. But don't think for a moment that those Dolists are nothing but mindless cannon fodder. For them, the Revolution also meant lifting the Legislaturalists' hereditary yoke."

For a moment, Anton's eyes seem to smolder. Gryphon highlanders had chosen a different political course than Peep's Dolists—like Anton himself, they were fierce Crown Loyalists down to the newborn babes—but no highlander had any difficulty understanding the fury of the underdog. Over the centuries, highlanders had had their own bitter experience with Manticore's aristocracy. Anton himself hated the People's Republic of Haven—for killing his beloved wife, if for no other reason—but he had never shed any tears over the Legislaturalists executed by Rob Pierre and his cohorts after the Revolution. In Anton's opinion, a fair number of the Manticoran aristocracy would look pretty good, hanging by the neck. Half the members of the Conservative Association, for a certainty—with Ambassador Hendricks and Admiral Young right at the front of the line.

His innate sense of humor overrode the moment's anger. Indeed, for a moment, he felt a certain embarrassment. The friendly-faced woman sitting across from him—whom he had approached for help, after all, not the other way around—was also a member of that same aristocracy. Very prominently, as a matter of fact. If the countess was ranked only middling-high in the Manticoran nobility's stiff hereditary terms—all the stiffer for the fact that they had been artificially created when the planet was settled—the Tor fortune was greater than that of most dukes and duchesses.

Something in his thoughts must have shown, for Lady Catherine was suddenly beaming from ear to ear.

"Hey, sailor!" she chortled. "Go easy on me, willya? I can't help it—I was born there."

In that moment, Anton was stunned by how beautiful she looked. It was bizarre, in a way—a matter of pure personality radiating through the barrier of flesh. The countess' face was not pretty in the least, beyond a certain open freshness. And while her figure was definitely feminine, its lanky—almost bony—lines were quite a ways outside the parameters of what was normally considered, by males at least, "sexy." Yet Anton knew, without having to ask, that Lady Catherine had never even considered the body-sculpting which was so popular among Manticore's upper crust. Even though for her, unlike most people, cost was no obstacle. As expensive as body-sculpting was, Lady Catherine could have paid for it out of the equivalent of pocket change.

It was just—the way she was. Here I am. This is how I look. You don't like it? Then go—

Anton couldn't help it. He was grinning himself. He could just imagine the coarse profanities which would follow.

The moment lasted, and lasted. Two people, strangers until that day, grinning at each other. And as it lasted, began to undergo what Anton, from his reading of the classics, understood as a sea change.

And so, his shock deepened. He had come here, carrying years' worth of a widower's grief and the newfound rage of a father whose child was in danger, looking for nothing more than help. And found—damned if it wasn't true!—the first woman since that horrible day when Helen died who genuinely interested him.

He tried to pull his eyes away, but couldn't. And as the grin faded from the countess' face, he understood that he was not imagining anything. She, too, was feeling that tremendous pull.

The image of his daughter broke the spell. Helen, as a four-year-old girl, had been sitting on his lap at the very moment her mother died. Helen the mother had saved Helen the child. The father's responsibility remained.

Lady Catherine cleared her throat. Anton knew that she was trying to leave him the emotional space he needed, and was deeply thankful. Yet, of course, the same uncanny intuitiveness just deepened the attraction.

"As you were saying, Captain . . ." Her voice was a bit husky.

Anton finally managed to look away from her. He ran a blunt-fingered hand through his stiff and bristly black hair.

"The thing is, ma'am—"

"Call me Cathy, why don't you? Anton."

He took the hand away. "Cathy, trust me on this. There are fissure lines running all through Havenite society. State Security is no exception. Oscar Saint-Just knows that as well—hell, better than—anyone in the universe. Except maybe Rob Pierre himself."

He leaned forward, extending his hands. "So he's careful to keep the sheep separated from the goats. More precisely—since no one has still been able to nail down telepathy—he lets the goats and the sheep separate themselves. The thugs volunteer for the concentration camps, and the young idealistic firebrands head for the front lines. Which, for spies, means places like Chicago."

He nodded toward the window. "And that's mostly the kind of State Security out there. In the lower ranks, at least. Tough, yes—even ruthless. But I know they weren't the ones who took my daughter."

Cathy leaned forward herself, also extending her hands. But where Anton's movements had been tight and controlled, hers were jerky and expressive. "Anton, I can't honestly say that I share your assessment. I don't have your expertise in intelligence, of course, but my own work has brought me into contact with any number of young—ah, 'firebrands.' Some of them, I hate to say it, wouldn't shrink from any blow directed at their enemy."

Anton shook his head. "No, they wouldn't. But they would shrink from using the wrong weapon."

He held up the package in his hands. "This is the forensic report. You're welcome to look at it if you want, but I can summarize the gist. The people who broke into our apartment and took my daughter—probably male and female both, judging from the chemical traces—left a clear genetic track. Crystal clear, in fact—the idiots were even careless enough not to eradicate skin oils from the note."

"And they weren't Peeps."

"No. The genetic evidence carried not a trace of the normal Peep pattern. And it hardly matters, anyway, because the pattern they did carry is unmistakable. They were members of the Sacred Band—or, at least, people who came from that very distinct genetic stock."

Cathy didn't quite gasp, but her hand flew to her throat. "Are you serious?"

Anton was not surprised to see that Lady Catherine—Cathy—had not only heard of the Sacred Band but obviously didn't doubt their existence. Most people wouldn't have understood the term, and most of the ones who did would have immediately insisted that it was a fairy tale—a legend, like vampires. His suspicion was confirmed, and that knowledge brought him great satisfaction. There was only one way that the countess could have found out about the Sacred Band—she had been told by the very people Anton was searching for. The same people he had come here to find.

The countess was now staring blindly at the window. "But that makes no sense at all!" Her lips tightened. "Although I can now understand why you're so insistent that this wasn't a Peep operation."

She gave Anton a shrewd glance. There was hostility in her eyes, but it wasn't directed at him. "And—of course—I can understand why the ambassador and the admiral wouldn't believe you."

She sprang to her feet. "Fucking assholes!" The countess began pacing back and forth, waving her hands. "Fucking assholes," she repeated. "Charter members of the Conservative Association, the both of them, God rot their souls. Since their only guiding political principle is gimme—"

Anton smiled grimly.

"—they can't possibly understand people who take ideology seriously." For an instant, like a prancing filly, she veered at him. "You're a Crown Loyalist, I imagine."

"Rock hard."

Cathy brayed laughter. "Gryphon highlanders! Just as thick-skulled as their reputation." But she veered even closer. "S'okay. I forgive you." She ran slim fingers through his bristly hair before prancing away. Coming from anyone else except his daughter, that act of casual intimacy would have infuriated Anton. Coming from Cathy, it sent a spike down his spine which paralyzed him for an instant.

She was moving back and forth in front of the window, now. Her movements were jerky—almost awkward and ungainly—but they also expressed a fierce energy.

Anton was dazzled by the sight. The bright sunshine penetrated her skirt—a modest enough garment, in its own right, but not made of a heavy fabric—and showed her long legs almost as if they were bare. Very slender, they were, though the muscles were obviously well-toned. Anton felt a sudden rush of sheer passion, imagining them—

He forced that thought away. And, with his capacity for concentration, succeeded within seconds. But he retained a small glow in his heart. He hadn't felt that kind of rush since his wife died. There was something pure about it, like an emotional cleanser.

Cathy came to an abrupt halt, spun around to face him, and planted her hands on her hips. Extremely slim, those hips. Anton suspected that they had been a lifelong despair for her. "Snake hips," she'd probably muttered, staring at herself in a mirror. He thought, on the other hand—


"Shit!" exclaimed the countess. "No Peep I know would come within a mile of either a Mesan or a Scrag"—yes! She knew the pejorative nickname—"unless it was to blow their fucking head off. As much as they hate us Manticoran 'elitists,' we're just Beelzebub in their demonology. The Great Satan himself is called Manpower Inc. and Hell is on a planet named Mesa."

"Exactly," said Anton. "However dictatorial and brutal they are, the Peeps are also ferocious egalitarians. You can get executed in Haven for arguing too hard in favor of individual merit promotion." Again, he quoted from the classics: " 'All animals are equal even if some animals are more equal than others.' There's no room in there for hereditary castes—especially slave castes!—or for genetic self-proclaimed supermen."

He sighed heavily. "And, in all honesty, I have to say that in this, if nothing else, the Peeps have a pretty good track record." Another sigh, even heavier. "Oh, hell, let's be honest. They have an excellent track record. Manpower doesn't go anywhere near Havenite territory. That was true even before the Revolution. Unlike—"

"Unlike Manticoran space!" interjected the countess angrily. "Where they don't hesitate for a minute. Damn the laws. The stinking scum know just where to find Manticoran customers."

Anton scowled. "Cathy, that's not fair either. The Navy—"

She waved her arms. "Don't say it, Anton! I know the Navy officially suppresses the slave trade. Even does so in real life, now and again. Though not once since the war started. They're too preoccupied, they say."

Anton scowled even more deeply. Cathy waved her arms again. "All right, all right," she growled, "they are preoccupied with fighting the Peeps. But even before the war started, the only instance where the Navy ever hit the Mesan slave trade with a real hammer is when—"

Both of them broke into wide grins, now. The news of the incredible mass escape from the Peep prison planet of Hell was still fresh in everyone's mind.

"—when Harrington smashed up the depot on Casimir," she concluded. The countess snorted. "What was she, then? A measly lieutenant commander? God, I love impetuous youth!"

Anton nodded. "Yeah. Almost derailed her career before it even got started. Probably would have, if Courvoisier hadn't twisted some Conservative admirals' arms out of their sockets. And if—"

He gazed at her steadily. "—a certain young and impetuous left-wing countess hadn't given a blistering speech on the floor of the House of Lords, demanding to know why the first time a naval officer fully enforced the laws against the slave trade she wasn't getting a medal for it instead of carping criticism."

Cathy smiled. "It was a good speech, if I say so myself. Almost as good as the one that got me pitched out of the House of Lords entirely."

Anton snorted. Although membership in the Manticoran House of Lords was hereditary, not elective, the Lords did have the right under law to officially exclude one of its own members. But given the natural tendency of aristocrats to give full weight to lineage, it was very rarely done. To the best of Anton's knowledge, at the present moment there were no more than three nobles who had had their membership in the Lords revoked. One of them, the Earl of Seaview, had been expelled only after he was convicted in a court of law of gross personal crimes—which all the members of the Lords had long known were his vices, but had chosen to look the other way over. The other two were Honor Harrington and Catherine Montaigne, for having, each in her own way, deeply offended the precious sensibilities of Manticore's aristocracy.

Anton cleared his throat. "Actually, Cathy, that speech is why I'm here."

She paused in her jerky pacing and cocked her head. "Since when does a Crown Loyalist study the old speeches of someone who even aggravates Liberals and Progressives?"

He smiled. "Believe it or not, Cathy, that speech made quite a hit in the highlands. As it happens, one of our Gryphon yeomen was on trial at the time. Shot the local baron—eight times—for molesting his daughter. The prosecutor argued that a murderer is a murderer. The defense countered by quoting your speech."

"The part about 'one person's terrorist being another's freedom fighter,' I should imagine."

Anton nodded. But there was no humor at all in the face. Finally, Cathy understood his purpose in coming to see her. Her hand flew to her throat again, and this time she did gasp.

"Oh, my God!"

Anton's eyes were like coal, beginning to burn. "Yeah, that's it. I didn't come here to discuss the ins and outs of the political complexities which might or might not be involved with my daughter's kidnapping. Frankly, Cathy, I don't give a good God-damn. The ambassador and the admiral can order me to treat this like a political maneuver, but they're—"

He clenched his jaws. "Never mind what they are. What I am is a man of Gryphon's highlands. I was that long before"—he plucked the sleeve of his uniform—"I became an officer in Her Majesty's Navy."

The eyes were burning hot, now. "I can't use my normal channels, because the ambassador and the admiral would shut me down in a heartbeat. So I've got to find an alternative." He glanced at the little man still squatting on the floor. "Master Tye agreed to help—insisted, in fact—but I need more than that."

Once again, he lifted the little package which contained the forensic data. "The Scrags who kidnapped my daughter live—or operate—somewhere in Chicago's Old Quarter. You know what that maze is like. Only someone who knows it like the back of his hand could have a chance of finding Helen in there."

Cathy made an attempt to head him off. "I know several people who live in the Loop. Lots of them, in fact. I'm sure one of them—"

Anton shot to his feet. "From the highlands, woman!" His Gryphon accent was now so thick you could cut it with a knife. And the black rage of the Star Kingdom's most notorious feudists had shattered the outer shell of control.

"You are—have been for years—one of the central leaders of the Anti-Slavery League. And by far the most radical. That's why you've been here for years, in what amounts to exile." Anton's words, for all the Gryphon slurring, came out like plates from a stamping mill. "So don't tell me you don't know him."

"Never been proved!" she exclaimed. But the protest was more in the nature of a squeak.

Anton grinned. Like a wolf, admiring the grace of a fox. "True, true. Consorting with a known member of the Audubon Ballroom—any member, much less him—is a felonious offense. In the Star Kingdom as well as anywhere in Solarian territory. You've been charged with it on four occasions. Each time, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence."

A very angry wolf, and a rather frightened fox. "Cut the crap, Cathy! You know him and I know you do and so does the whole damn universe. This isn't a court of law. I need his help, and I intend to get it. But I don't know how to contact him. You do."

"Oh God, Anton," she whispered.

He shook his head. "What did they think, Cathy? That I would obey them?" The next words came through clenched teeth. "From the highlands. When they gave me that command, they broke faith with me. Damn them and damn all aristocracy! I'll do as I must, and answer only to the Queen. If she—she, not they!—chooses to call that treason, so be it. I'll have my daughter back, and I'll piss on the ashes of those who took her from me."

He reached into another pocket and drew out another package. Identical, to all appearances.

"You can tell him I'll give him this, in exchange for his help. I've spent the past two days hacking into the embassy's intelligence files to get it."

Anton's grin was now purely feral. There was no more humor in it than a shark's gape. "When I broke into the personal records of Young and Hendricks I hit the gold mine. I didn't expect either one of them to be stupid enough to have direct financial dealings with Manpower, and they don't. Technically, under Manticoran anti-slavery laws, that would lay them open to the death penalty."

Cathy's left hand was still clutching her throat. With her other hand, she made a waving gesture. "That's not the form it takes, in the Star Kingdom. Slavery's an inefficient form of labor, even with Manpower's genetic razzle-dazzle. No rich Manticoran really has much incentive to dabble in slave labor unless they're grotesquely avaricious. And willing to take the risks of investing in the Silesian Confederacy or the Sollie protectorates. Our own society's got too high a tech base for slavery to be very attractive."

"You might be surprised, Cathy—you will be surprised—at how many Manticorans are that stupid. Don't forget that the profit margin in Silesian mines and plantations can be as high as the risk." Anton shrugged. "But you're basically right. Most of the Star Kingdom's citizens who deal with Manpower do so from personal vice, not from greed."

Cathy's face was stiff, angry. " 'Personal vice!' That's a delicate way of putting what happens on those so-called pleasure resorts." She stared at the package in Anton's hands. Her next words were almost whispered. "Are you telling me—"

Anton's shark grin seemed fixed in place. "Oh, yeah. I was pretty sure I'd find it. That whole Young clan is notorious for their personal habits, and I'd seen enough of the admiral to know he was no exception." He held up the package. "Both he and the ambassador have availed themselves of Manpower's so-called 'personal services.' Both of them have invested in those 'pleasure resorts,' too, using Solarian conduits. Along with lots of others, for whom they acted as brokers."

"They kept records?" she gasped. "Are they that stupid?"

Anton nodded. "That arrogant, anyway." He looked down at the package in his hand. "So there it is, Cathy. I thought of using this information to blackmail them into rescinding my orders, but that would take too long. I've got to find my daughter quickly, before this whole crazy scheme—whatever it is—starts coming unglued. Which it will, as sure as the sunrise. And when it does, the first thing that'll happen is that Helen will be murdered."

Her hand was still clutching her throat. "My God, Anton! Don't you understand what he'll do if—"

"What do I care, Cathy?" No shark's grin ever held such sheer fury. "You'll find no Gryphon highlanders on this list, I can tell you that. Nobles aplenty, o' course"—the word nobles practically dripped vitriol—"but not a one of my folk."

Finally, the fury began to ebb. "I'm sorry, Cathy. But this is the way it must be. My daughter"—he waved the package—"weighed against these?"


Cathy lowered her hand and sighed. Then, shrugged. It was not as if she disagreed with his moral assessment, after all. Though she still found it difficult to match the man's ruthlessness with what she sensed of the man himself. But then, Cathy had no children of her own. So, for a moment, she tried to imagine the rage that must be filling Anton. Raising a daughter from the age of four as a widower, and coming from that unyielding highland clansmen background—

She glimpsed, for an instant, that seething void—like the event horizon of a black hole—and her mind skittered away.

"I'm sorry," Anton repeated, very softly. "I must do what I must." He managed a harsh chuckle. "In this area, you know, tradition rules. There's a term for what I need. Goes back centuries—millennia. It's called wet work."

Cathy grimaced. "How crude!" Again, a sigh. "But appropriate, I suppose. I'm sure Jeremy would agree."

She sighed again. "All right, I'll serve as your conduit to him. But I warn you in advance, Anton, he's got a peculiar sense of humor."

Anton held up the package anew. "Then I imagine this will tickle his fancy."

Cathy stared at the object in Anton's hand. Innocuous-looking thing, really. But she knew full well what would happen once Jeremy got his hands on it. Jeremy had come into the universe in one of Manpower Inc.'s breeding chambers on Mesa. K-86b/273-1/5, they had called him. The "K" referred to the basic genetic type—in Jeremy's case, someone bred to be a personal servant, just as Isaac's "V" denoted one of the technical combat breeds. The "-86b" referred to one of the multitude of slight variants within the general archetype. In Jeremy's case, the variant designed to provide clients with acrobatic entertainment—jugglers and the like. Court clowns, in essence. The number 273 referred to the "batch," and the 1/5 meant that Jeremy was the first of the quintuplets in that batch to be extracted from the breeding chamber.

Cathy ran her hand down her face, as if wiping away filth. In truth, she knew, Manpower's "scientific" terminology covered a genetic method which was almost as fraudulent as it was evil. It was the modern equivalent of the grotesque medical experiments which the ancient Nazis of fable were said to have practiced. Cathy was not a professional biologist, but in the course of her long struggle against genetic slavery she had come to be a lay expert on the subject. Genes were vastly more fluid things than most people understood. The specific way in which a genotype developed was as much a result of the environmental input at any given stage of development as it was on the inherent genetic "instructions." Genes reacted differently depending on the external cue.

Manpower's genetic engineers, of course, knew that perfectly well—despite the claims of their advertising that their "indentured servants" could be counted on to behave exactly as they were programmed. So they tried to provide the "proper environment" for the developing genotypes. On the rare occasions when a biologically-sophisticated prospective client pressed them on the subject, Manpower provided them with a learned and jargon-ridden explanation of what they called the "phenotype developmental process."

Strip away the pseudoscientific claptrap and what it amounted to was: We breed the embryos in artificial wombs, making the best guess we can based on their DNA; and then we spend years torturing the children into proper alignment. Making the best guess we can.

And, within limits, it worked—usually. But not always, by any means. Certainly not in Jeremy's case. Within less than a week after his sale, he had made his escape. Eventually, he arrived on Terra, through one of the routes maintained by the Anti-Slavery League. Within a day of his arrival, he had joined the Audubon Ballroom, probably the most radical and certainly the most violence-prone group within the general umbrella of the anti-slavery movement. Then, following the custom of that underground movement—whose membership was exclusively restricted to ex-slaves—had renamed himself Jeremy X. Within a short time, he had risen to leadership in the Ballroom. Today, he was considered one of the most dangerous terrorists in the galaxy. Or, to many—herself included, when all was said and done, despite her disapproval of his tactics—one of its greatest freedom fighters.

But if anyone could get Captain Anton Zilwicki's daughter back alive, it would be Jeremy X. Certainly if she were held captive in the Loop. And if, in the months and years which followed, a number of Manticore's most prominent families found themselves attending an unusually large number of funerals, Cathy could not honestly say the prospect caused her any anguish. Rich people who trafficked in slavery for the sole purpose of indulging their personal vices would get little in the way of mercy from her.

And they would get none at all from a man whose birth name was still marked on his tongue. Wet work, indeed.

* * *

As she ushered the captain and his companion to the door, Cathy remembered something.

"Oh, yes. Satisfy my curiosity, Anton. Earlier, you said there were three types of people in State Security. But you never got around to explaining the third sort. So who are they?"

"It's obvious, isn't it? What happens to a young idealist, as the years go by and he discovers his beloved Revolution is covered with warts?"

Cathy frowned. "They adapt, I imagine. Get with the program. Either that or turn against it and defect."

Anton shook his head. "Many do adapt, yes. The majority of them, probably. And when they do they are often the most vicious—just to prove to their superiors, if nothing else, that they can be counted on. But almost none ever defect and there are a lot of them who just fade into the woodwork, trying to find a corner where they can still live. Don't forget that, from their point of view, the alternative isn't all that attractive."

His lips twitched. "Even a Gryphon traditionalist like me isn't all that fond of some aspects of Manticoran society. Try to imagine, Cathy, how a man from the Legislaturalist regime's Dolist ranks is going to feel, at the prospect that he'd have to bow and scrape before the likes of Pavel Young, Earl of North Hollow."

Cathy was startled. "Surely they don't know—"

"Of course they do!" Anton's mouth started to twitch again, but the twitch turned into a genuine smile. "The Peeps tend to be a little schizophrenic on the subject of Honor Harrington, you know. On the one hand, she's their arch-nemesis. On the other, she's often been their favorite example of the injustices of Manticoran elitist rule.

"Not any more, of course," he chuckled. "From the news coverage, I'd say the Salamander's days in exile and disgrace are finished. Doubt there's more than three Conservative Lords who'll still argue she's unfit for their company."

Cathy brayed her agreement. "If that many!"

"But don't think the Peep propagandists didn't make hay while the sun was shining, Cathy. At least until Cordelia Ransom decided that there was more propaganda value in having Harrington 'executed.' " Anton scowled. "That whole stinking Pavel Young affair was plastered all over every media outlet in the Havenite empire, for weeks on end. Hell, they didn't even have to make anything up! The truth was stinking bad enough. A vile and cowardly aristocrat used his wealth and position to ruin an excellent officer's career. Even paying for the murder of her lover—and getting away with it until Harrington finally cornered him into a personal duel. And then, when she shot him in self-defense after he violated the dueling code, the Lords blamed her? Because she shot him too many times?"

The highlander's soul was back in charge, never mind the uniform. "A pox on all aristocracy," he hissed. "Inbred filth and corruption."

Belatedly, he remembered. "Uh, sorry. Nothing personal. Uh, Lady Catherine."

"S'okay, Anton. I forget I'm a countess myself, as often as not." She rubbed her sunburned nose.

"I—I'm really sorry we met this way, Cathy. I would have liked—I don't know—"

Cathy placed her hand on his arm and gave it a little squeeze. She was a bit startled by the thick muscle under the uniform. "Don't say anything, Anton. Let's get your daughter back, shall we? The rest can take care of itself."

He flashed her a thankful smile. They were now at the door, which Isaac was holding open in his best butler's manner. Robert Tye had already stepped through and was waiting for Anton in the corridor beyond.

Anton and Cathy stared at each other for a moment. Now that they were standing side by side, she realized how much taller she was than the stocky captain. But, also, that the width of his shoulders was not an illusion created by his short stature. He really was almost misshapen. Like a dwarf warrior from the hills, disguised in a uniform.

Anton gave her a quick little bow, and hastened through the door. Then, stopped abruptly.

"Good Lord—I forgot to ask. How long will it take you—" He broke off, glancing quickly into the corridor.

Cathy understood. "I should be in contact with the individual quite shortly, I think. I'll get in touch with you, Captain Zilwicki."

"Thank you." He was gone.


By the time Helen finished widening the tunnel enough to squeeze herself through, two-thirds of the dust in her makeshift hourglass had fallen through the hole. She had to wage a fierce battle to keep herself from leaving immediately.

That natural impulse was almost overwhelming. But it would be stupid. It wasn't enough to simply get out of the cell. She also had to make her escape. And that was not going to be easy.

Again, Helen's success had caught her off guard. She had never really thought about what she would do if she ever got out of the cell. But now she realized that she needed to think about it before she plunged into the darkness.

The darkness was literal, not figurative. Helen had stuck her head through the hole as soon as she widened it enough. And seen—

Nothing. Pitch black. Her own head, filling the hole, had cut off the feeble illumination provided by the cell's light fixture. Helen had never experienced such a complete darkness. She remembered her father telling her, once, of the time he and her mother had visited Gryphon's famous Ulster Caverns on their honeymoon. As part of the tour, the guide had extinquished all the lighting in their section of the caverns, for a full five minutes. Helen's father had described the experience, with some relish—not so much because he was fascinated by utter darkness as because he'd had the chance to fondle his new bride in flagrant disregard for proper public conduct.

Remembering that conversation, Helen had to control herself again. She was swept by a fierce urge to see her father as soon as possible. If Helen's long-dead mother was a constant source of inspiration for her, it was her father who sat in the center of her heart. Helen was old enough to recognize the emptiness which lurked just beneath her father's outward cheer and soft humor. But he had always been careful not to inflict that grief on his daughter.

Oh, Daddy!

For a moment, she almost thrust herself into the hole. But among her father's many gifts to her had been Master Tye's training, and Helen seized that regimen to keep her steady.

Breathe in, breathe out. Find the calm at the center.

Two minutes later, she backed out of the hole and went through the now-familiar process of disguising her work. Since she had plenty of time, she took more care than usual placing the coverings over the hole and blending in the fresh fill. But her own ablutions were as skimpy as she could make them. Just enough to remove the obvious streaks of dirt.

Helen had no idea how long it would take her to find water in that darkness beyond—if there was any water to be found at all. So she planned to drink the remaining water as soon as she heard her captors approaching. That way she could save the new water bottle her captors would bring her. She might have to live on that water for days.

Or, possibly, forever. Helen knew full well that she might simply die in the darkness. Even if she could elude her captors—even if she found water and food—she had no idea what other dangers might lurk there.

She stretched herself out on the pallet and began Master Tye's relaxation exercises. She also needed as much rest as possible before setting forth.

Breathe in, breathe out. As always, the exercises brought calmness. But, after a time, she stopped thinking about them. Master Tye faded from her mind, and so did her father.

There was only her mother left. Helen had been named after her mother. Her father, born and bred in the highlands, had insisted upon that old Gryphonite custom, even though Helen's mother herself—a sophisticate from the Manticoran capital of Landing—had thought it was grotesque.

Helen was glad for it. More now than ever. She drifted into sleep like a castaway, staying afloat on the image of the Parliamentary Medal of Honor.


As soon as Isaac closed the door on the departing figure of Captain Zilwicki, a huge grin spread across his face. "I should be in contact with the individual quite shortly, I think," he mimicked. "Talk about understatements!"

Cathy snorted and stalked back into the living room. Once there, she planted her hands on her hips and glared at the bookcase against the far wall. It was a magnificent thing, antique both in age and function. Cathy was one of that stubborn breed who were the only reason that the book industry (real books, dammit!) was still in business. But she insisted on having real books, wherever she lived—and lots of them, prominently displayed in a proper bookcase.

That was so partly because, in her own way, the Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor, was also a traditionalist. But mostly it was because Cathy herself found them immensely useful.

"You can come out now," she growled.

Immediately, the bookcase swung open. Between the piece of furniture's own huge size and the shallow recess in the wall, there was just enough room for a man.

Not much room, of course. But the reputation of Jeremy X was far larger than his actual size. The vicious terrorist and/or valiant freedom fighter (take your pick) was even shorter than Captain Zilwicki, and had nothing like his breadth of shoulder.

Wearing his own cheerful grin, Jeremy practically bounded into the room. He even did a little somersault coming out of the recess. Then turned, planted his own hands on hips, and exclaimed admiringly: "Tradition!"

Turning back around and rubbing his hands in an utterly theatrical manner, he said: "Never met a Gryphon highlander before. What a splendid folk!"

He gave Cathy a squint that was every bit as theatrical as the hand-rubbing. "You've been holding out on me, girl. I know you have—don't deny it!"

Cathy shook her head ruefully. "Just what the universe didn't need. Slavering terrorist fiend meets to-the-bloody-death Gryphon feudist. Love at first sight."

Still grinning, Jeremy hopped into one of the plush armchairs scattered about the large room. "Don't give me that either, lass. I was watching. Through that marvelous traditional peephole. You were quite taken by the Captain. Don't deny it—I can tell these things, you know. I think it must be one of the experiments those Mesan charmers tucked into my chromosomes. Trying for clairvoyance or something."

Cathy studied him. For all Jeremy's puckish nature, she never allowed herself to forget just how utterly ruthless he could be. The Audubon Ballroom's feud against Manpower Inc. made the worst Gryphon clan quarrels of legend seem like food fights.

Still, in her own way—dry, so to speak, rather than "wet"—Cathy was just as unyielding. "Dammit, Jeremy, I'll say it again. If you—"

To her astonishment, Jeremy clapped his hands once and said: "Enough! I agree! You have just won our long-standing argument!"

Cathy's jaw sagged. Glaring, Jeremy sprang to his feet. "What? Did you really think I took any pleasure in killing all the people I have? Did you now?"

He didn't wait for a response. "Of course I did! Enjoyed it immensely, in fact. Especially the ones I could show my tongue to before I blew 'em apart. To hell with that business about revenge being a dish best served cold. It's absolute nonsense, Cathy—take my word for it. I know. Vengeance is hot and sweet and tasty. Don't ever think it isn't."

He grinned up at her impishly. "Ask the good Captain, why don't you? He's obviously a man of parts. Wonderful fellow!" Jeremy lowered his voice, trying to imitate Zilwicki's basso rumble: " '—and I'll piss on the ashes of those who took her from me.' "

He cackled. "T'wasn't a metaphor, y'know? I dare say he'll do it." Jeremy cocked his head at Isaac. "What do you think, comrade?"

Unlike Jeremy, Isaac preferred restraint in his mannerisms and speech. But, for all its modesty, his own smile was no less savage. "Isaac Douglass" was his legal name, but Isaac himself considered it a pseudonym. Isaac X, he was, like Jeremy a member of the Ballroom.

"I'll bring the combustibles," he pronounced. "The Captain's so preoccupied with his daughter's plight that he'll probably forget. And wouldn't that be a terrible thing? To fail of revenge at the very end, just because you forgot to bring the makings for a good fire?"

Isaac's soft laughter joined Jeremy's cackle. Staring from one of them to the other, Cathy felt—as she had often before—like a fish stranded out of water. For all the years she had devoted to the struggle against genetic slavery, and for all the closeness of her attachment to the Mesan ex-slaves themselves, she knew she could never see the universe the way they did. There was no condemnation of them in that knowledge. Just a simple recognition that no one born into the lap of privilege and luxury, as she had been, could ever really feel what they felt.

But neither was there any condemnation of herself. Decades earlier, as a young woman newly entered into the Anti-Slavery League, Cathy had been a typical guilt-ridden liberal. Like many such women, she had tried to assuage her guilt by entering a number of torrid affairs with ex-slaves—who, of course, had generally been quite happy to accept the offer.

Jeremy had broken her of that habit. That, and the guilt which lay beneath it. He was already quite famous when she met him, a romantic figure in the lore of the underground. Cathy had practically hurled herself upon him. She had been utterly shocked by his blunt and cold refusal. I am no one's toy, damn you. Deal with your guilt, don't inflict it on me. Stupid girl! Of what crimes could you possibly be guilty, at your age?

It was Jeremy who had taught her to think clearly; to separate politics from people; and, most of all, not to confuse justice with revenge or guilt with responsibility. And if Jeremy's conclusion had been that he would have his justice and enjoy his revenge too—why not? As long as you know the difference—he had enabled her to do otherwise. Unlike most youthful idealists, Cathy had never "grown wiser" with age. She had simply become more patient. Close friends and comrades, she and Jeremy had become over the years, for all their long-standing and often rancorous quarrel over tactics.


"Stop joking!" she snarled at him. Then, at Isaac: "And you! Quit playing at your stupid butler act!"

Jeremy left off his cackling and plopped himself back in the armchair. Moving more sedately, Isaac did the same.

"I am not joking, Cathy," Jeremy insisted. "Not in the least."

Seeing the suspicion and skepticism in her eyes, Jeremy scowled. "Didn't I teach you anything? Revenge is one thing; justice is another." He nodded toward the door. "That marvelous officer of yours is about to hand me the instrument for my justice. In the Star Kingdom, at least. D'you think for a minute that I'm such a fool that I'd forgo it for simple revenge?"

She matched his scowl with no difficulty at all. "Yes. Damn you, Jeremy! What else have we been arguing about for the past how many years?"

He shook his head. "You're mixing apples and oranges. Or, to put it better, retail with wholesale." He held out his left hand, palm up, and tapped it with his right forefinger. "As long as my comrades and I only had the names of the occasional Manticoran miscreant, now and then, justice was impossible. Even if we'd gotten the bastards hauled into court for violating Manticore's anti-slavery laws, so what? You know as well as I do what the official stance of the Star Kingdom's government would be."

Now, he did a sing-song imitation of a typical Manticoran aristocrat's nasal drawl: " 'Every barrel has a few bad apples.' "

Cathy thought the imitation was a lot better than his earlier mimicry of Zilwicki's Gryphon basso. Which was only to be expected, of course—he'd been in Cathy's company often enough, and she herself spoke in that selfsame accent. She'd tried to shed it, in her earlier days, but found the effort quite impossible.

Jeremy shrugged. "There was no way to prove otherwise." His eyes gleamed pure fury for a moment. "So better to just kill the bastards. If nothing else, it made us feel better—and there was always the chance that another upcoming piglet would decide the risk wasn't worth the reward. But now—"

He studied her intently. "Tell me what you think, Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor. Tell me true. How many names of Manticore's highest and most respectable society d'you think are on that list of Zilwicki's?"

She shuddered slightly. "I don't even want to think about it, Jeremy. Too damned many, that's for sure." Her wide lips pressed together, holding back an old pain. "I won't be entirely surprised if I even see some of my childhood and college friends. God knows how far the rot has spread. Especially since the war started."

She waved feebly at the door. "I was being unfair to the Captain's precious Navy. Of all Manticore's major institutions, the Navy's probably been the best when it comes to fighting the slave trade. Since they've had their hands full with the Haven war, the swine have been able to feed at the trough unhindered. In the dark; out of sight, out of mind."

"The best by far," agreed Jeremy forcefully. "And now—" He clapped his hands and resumed his gleeful, grotesquely melodramatic hand-rubbing. If he'd had mustachios, Cathy had no doubt at all that he'd be twirling them.

But Jeremy X had no mustachios, nor any facial hair at all. That was because K-86b/273-1/5 had been genetically designed for a life as a house servant, and Manpower Inc.'s social psychologists and market experts had unanimously decreed that facial hair was unsuitable for such creatures. Jeremy had once told Cathy that he considered that Mesa's final and unforgivable crime. And the worst of it was—she hadn't been sure he was joking. Jeremy X joked about everything, after all; which didn't stop him from being as murderous as an avalanche.

"Everything will come together perfectly," Jeremy chortled, still rubbing his hands. "With Zilwicki's list in our hands, we'll be able to kick over the whole barrel and show just how deep the slave-trade infection really is." He spread his hands, almost apologetically. "Even in the Star Kingdom, which everybody admits—even me—is better than anywhere else. Except Haven, of course, but those idiots are busily saddling themselves with another kind of servitude. So you can imagine how bad it is in the Solarian League, not to mention that pustule which calls itself the Silesian Confederacy."

Cathy frowned. "Nobody will believe—"

"Me? The Audubon Ballroom? Of course not! What a ridiculous notion. We're just a lot of genetically deformed maniacs and murderers. Can't trust anything we say, official lists be damned. No, no, the list will have to be made public by—"

Cathy understood where he was going. "Absolutely not!" she shrieked. "That idea's even crazier!" She began stalking back and forth, her long legs moving as gracelessly as a bird on land. "And it's fucking impossible, anyway! I'm a disreputable outcast myself! The only living member of the nobility cast out from the House of Lords except that fucking pedophile Seaview and—"

Her screech slammed to a halt. So did her legs. She stumbled, and almost fell flat on her face.

A very pale face—paler than usual—stared at Jeremy with eyes so wide the bright blue irises were almost lost.

Jeremy left off his cackling and hand-rubbing. But he made up for it by beginning a grotesque little ditty, sung to the tune of a popular nursery rhyme, and waving his fingers in time with the rhythm.

"Oh! Oh! The witch is back!
The witch is back! The witch is back!
Oh, woe! The witch is back!
The wickedest witch
In the wo-orld!"

The ditty ended, replaced by—for Jeremy—an unusually gentle smile. "Oh, yes, Lady Catherine. Tell me again, why don't you—now—just how likely d'you think it is that some holier-than-thou Duke or Duchess is going to get up in the House of Lords and huff and puff about just who belongs and who doesn't. Today? After their most notorious outcast just shoved their own crap down their precious blue-veined throats?"

He rose to his feet with the lithe grace and speed—so quickly he could move—that made Jeremy X such a deadly, deadly man beneath the puckery and the theatrics. "Harrington's back from the grave, Cathy. Don't you understand—yet—how much that changes the political equation?"

Cathy stood ramrod straight. She was unable to move a muscle, or even speak. She realized now that she hadn't thought about it. Had shied away from the thought, in fact, because it threatened her with her worst nightmare. Having to return to the Star Kingdom, after the years of exile, and re-enter the political arena that she detested more than anything else in the universe.


"Please, Cathy," pleaded Jeremy. For a rare moment, there was not a trace of banter in his voice. "Now is the time. Now." He turned his head and stared out the window, as if by sheer force of will his eyes could see the Star Kingdom across all the light years of intervening space. "Everything works in our favor. The best elements in the Navy will be roaring. So will almost the whole of the House of Commons, party affiliation be damned. The Conservative Lords will be huddling in their mansions like so many sheep when the wolves are out running with the moon. And as for your precious Liberals and Progressives—"

Cathy finally found her voice. "They're not my Progressives, damn you! Sure as hell not my Liberals. I despise Descroix and New Kiev and they return the sentiment—and you know it perfectly well! So—"

"From the highlands, woman!" This time, Jeremy made no attempt to imitate Zilwicki's voice. Which only made his roaring fury all the more evident. Cathy was shocked into silence.

"From the highlands," he repeated, hissing the words. He pointed a stiff finger at the richly-carpeted floor. "Not half an hour ago, as fine a man as you could ask for stood in this room and explained to you that he was quite prepared to cast over everything—everything, woman—career and respect and custom and propriety—life itself if need be, should the Queen choose to place his neck in a hangman's noose—and for what? A daughter? Yes, that—and his own responsibility."

He breathed deeply; once, twice. Then: "Years ago, I explained to a girl that she bore no guilt for what her class or nation might have done. But I'll tell the woman now—again—that she does bear responsibility for herself."

He glanced at the door. "You know I've never cared much for doctrine, Cathy, one way or the other. I'm a concrete sort of fellow. So even though I think 'Crown Loyalty' is about as stupid an ideology as I could imagine, I've got no problem with that man."

His eyes were fixed on her, hard as diamonds. "So don't tell me that they're not your Liberals or your Progressives. That's ancient history, and damn it all. Make them yours—Lady Catherine Montaigne, Countess of the Tor. Whether you asked for that title or not, it is yours. The responsibility comes with it."

She avoided his gaze, hanging her head. Not with shame, simply with reluctance. Jeremy's eyes softened, and his humor returned. "Listen to me, Lady Prancer," he said softly. "It's time the filly finally re-entered the race. And no filly, now, but a true grande dame. You'll dazzle 'em, girl. I can hear the roar of the crowd already."

"Cut it out," she muttered. "New Kiev has a death lock on the Liberals."

"Not after Zilwicki's list gets made public!" cried Jeremy gleefully.

Cathy's eyes widened, and her head came up. Her mouth formed a perfect round O of surprise.

Jeremy laughed. "Are you still such a naif? Do you really think the only traffickers in human misery sit in the Conservative Association?"


"You are! Ha!" Jeremy was back to cackling and hand-rubbing—the whole tiresome lot. "Oh, sure—New Kiev herself will be clean as a whistle. Descroix, too, most likely. But I'll bet you right now, Cathy—don't take the wager, I'll strip you of your entire fortune—that plenty of their closest associates will be standing hip deep in the muck. Won't be surprised if that whole stinking Houseman clan's in up to their necks—with each and every one of the self-righteous swine oinking sophisticated gobbledygook to explain why slavery isn't really slavery and everything's relative anyway."


Cackle, cackle. "Bet on it! If anything, Zilwicki's list will hit the Liberals and the Progressives harder than the Conservatives. There won't be as many of them on the list, of course, but nobody expects anything more than piggishness from High Ridge and his crowd. But I do believe, once the rock's turned over, that we'll find the Liberals and Progressives have taken their holier-than-thou draft to the bank one too many times." Cackle, cackle. "Their ranks will be shaken to the core—in the Lords as much as the Commons. Bet on it!" His hand rubbing went into high gear. "Just the right time for another disgraced outcast to make her return. And demand her rightful place in the sun."

Cathy hissed. "I hate those people."

Jeremy shrugged. "Well, yes. Who in their right mind wouldn't? But look at it this way, Cathy—"

He spread his arms wide, theatrically. Christ on the Cross. "I'm giving up the pleasure of shooting each and every one of the slaving bastards. Justice before vengeance, alas. If I shoot even one of them they'll make me the issue. So you can console yourself, as you sit through endless hours of rancorous debate in the House of Lords, with the knowledge that you finally won me over to the tactics of nonviolence."

From his armchair, Isaac hissed. Still standing in crucifix position, Jeremy wiggled his fingers. "Only in the Star Kingdom, comrade. That still leaves us the Solarians and the Silesians for a hunting ground."

Cathy glared at him. "Aren't you forgetting something, you great political strategist?"

Jeremy dropped his arms. "Finding Zilwicki's daughter? In the Loop?"

He cocked his head at Isaac. Simultaneously, both men stuck out their tongues, showing the mark.

Like two cobras, spreading their hoods.




The first few hours of her escape were a nightmare. The world Helen had entered was lightless chaos, as if the primordial ylem were made of stone and dirt and refuse. She realized soon enough that she had entered some kind of interconnected pockets of open space, accidentally formed and molded over the centuries, branching off from each other with neither rhyme nor reason beyond the working of gravity on rubble and debris.

Branching off in all directions, to make it dangerous as well as confusing. Twice, within the first few minutes, she almost fell into suddenly yawning holes or crevasses. She wasn't sure which. Thereafter, she was careful to feel her way thoroughly before inching forward on her hands and knees.

Soon enough, those knees and hands were beginning to get bruised and scraped. The pain was not Helen's principal concern. Although Master Tye's syncretic regimen emphasized its philosophical and emotional aspects, it was still, when all was said and done, a school of the martial arts. So, like any such school which is not simply oriented to the tournament world, Master Tye had trained Helen in the various manners in which to handle pain.

Pain, thus, she could ignore. At least up to a point, but even for a fourteen-year-old girl that point was far beyond a matter of mere scrapes and bruises. What she couldn't ignore, however, was the fact that she would begin to leave a trail of blood. Not much of a trail, true, but a trail nonetheless. Soon enough her captors would discover her absence and begin a pursuit. Unlike her, they would undoubtedly have portable lamps to guide them in their path. They would be able to move much faster than she.

Seeing no option, she tore off the sleeves of her blouse and wrapped them around her hands. For a moment, she considered removing the blouse completely and using the rest of the material to protect her knees. But she decided, after a gingerly tactile inspection of her knees, that the tough material of her trousers would hold up for quite a bit longer.

That done, she resumed her slow progress, feeling her way in the dark.

* * *

She had no idea how long she spent in that horrid place before she finally saw a glimmer of light. Early on, she tried to count off the seconds, but she soon discovered that she needed all of her concentration to avoid injuries.

At first, she thought the light was nothing more than an optical illusion, her mind playing tricks on her. But, since there was no real reason to go in any other direction, she decided to crawl toward it. After a time, she realized that she was actually seeing something.

A powerful surge of relief swept over her. Of course, she had no idea if that source of light was a refuge. For all she knew, she had been crawling in circles and was headed back toward the tunnel she had made in her own cell. But by that point, she was desperate simply to be able to see something. Anything.

It proved to be the light cast through some kind of ancient aperture. A drain grille, she thought. But it was impossible to be sure. The metal which had once spanned that hole had long since rusted away. The reason she thought it had been a grille was because the area she was looking into, standing on tiptoe and peering over the bottom lip, seemed to be some kind of ancient aqueduct or storm drain. Or—

Yuck. A sewer.

But the distaste passed almost as soon as it arrived. Whatever that broad low channel was, lined with still-solid masonry on all sides, it was an escape route. Besides, even if it had once been a sewer, it hadn't been used as such in many centuries. Other than a small, sluggish little rill running down the center of the age-darkened channel, the aqueduct/storm drain/sewer was as dry as a bone.

Helen placed her water bottle and little packet of food on the ledge. Then, using her arm strength alone, she hauled herself into the opening. Most girls her age wouldn't have been able to manage that feat of sheer muscle power, but Helen was very strong. Once her head, shoulders and upper torso were onto the ledge, it was a quick matter to scramble—wriggle, rather—through the opening and slide down the sloping ceramacrete ramp beyond.

Except it wasn't ceramacrete, Helen realized as soon as she felt the roughness of the surface scratching at her. She wasn't sure what the masonry was, but she suspected it might be that ancient and primitive stuff called concrete. She felt like she was entering a pharaoh's tomb.

Once she got her feet under her, she reached back and hauled down the water bottle and the food packet. Then, wobbling a bit on unsteady legs, she began walking as quickly as she could along the narrow ledge which bordered the former water channel. Since she had no idea which direction to take, she simply decided to follow the lamps which periodically lined the passageway. The lamps were some kind of jury-rigged devices and were very infrequent in their placement. She would have thought the lighting was absolutely terrible if she hadn't spent hours in total darkness. But they seemed to be a little less sparse to her left, so that was the direction she took.

She was so relieved to finally be able to see where she was going that it wasn't until she had traveled perhaps three hundred yards, moving as quickly as she could while using a pace she could maintain for hours, that the obvious question sprang into her mind.

Jury-rigged lamps, in a long-unused passageway.

So jury-rigged by whom?

* * *

The answer came almost simultaneously with the question. She had been approaching a bend in the passageway when she recognized the puzzling nature of the lamps. She came to a complete halt, peering into the dimness beyond. Helen was aware, vaguely, that the Loop's long-forgotten subterranean passageways were reputed to be filled with all manner of dangers. She had simply not worried about it, since her captors had been a far more tangible menace. But now—

The lurkers apparently decided she had spotted them, for within two seconds they were scrambling around the bend and racing toward her.

Shambling toward her, rather. After an instant's spike of fear, Helen saw that the three men approaching bore no resemblance whatsoever to her captors. They had strutted like leopards; these scurried like rats. Her abductors' clothing had been simple jumpsuits, but clean and well made. The creatures lurching toward her wore a pastiche of rags and filthy garments that were almost impossible to describe. And where her male captors had been clean-shaven and short-haired, these things looked more like shaggy apes than people.

Short, stooped apes, however. One of them was shouting something in a language she didn't recognize at all. The other two were simply leering. At least, Helen thought they were leering. It was hard to tell because of the beards.

Whatever. One thing was certain—they were not advancing with any friendly intent. And if tunnel rats are not leopards, they can still be dangerous.

Helen didn't even consider the narrow ledge. In that cramped space, the advantage would all be against her. For a moment, she thought of fleeing. She was pretty sure that she could outrun the three men, even burdened with a water bottle and a package of food. They were about as far removed from physically fit specimens of humanity as could be imagined.

But she discarded that idea almost instantly. For one thing, she didn't want to retrace her steps back in the direction of her captors. For another—

Even fourteen-year-old girls, pushed hard enough, can become enraged. She was tired of this crap!

Rage, of course, was the ultimate sin in Master Tye's universe. So, as she sprang off the ledge and half-ran, half-slid down the concrete slope to the flat and wide expanse of the channel—fighting room—she summoned his memory to her aid. Breathing first.

By the time Helen trotted down to the largest dry space within reasonable range, carefully set the water bottle and the food packet to one side, and assumed the standing horse, the rage was harnessed and shackled to her purpose.

Calmly, she waited, breathing steadily. Her three assailants—there was no doubt about that any longer, not with one of them brandishing a club and another holding a short length of rope—spread out and advanced upon her.

Scuttled, say better. Helen's eyes remained fixed on a blank space in her mind, but she absorbed the way they moved, their balance—everything. By the time the men began their charge, she had already decided upon her course of action. Master Tye would not have approved—keep it simple, child—but for all Helen's control over her rage it was still there, burning at the center.

So the man facing her went down in a tangle, his legs twisted and swept away by the Falling Leaf, tripping his club-wielding companion. The one still standing—the rope-holder—fell to the Sword and Hammer, clutching his groin and bleating pain and shock through a broken face. The bleating ended the moment his buttocks hit the cement, as Helen's heel completed the Scythe. A sturdier man would have been stunned; his scrawny neck snapped like a twig.

The club-holder was starting to rise when the Owl By Night crushed him from existence. Master Tye would have scolded Helen for using that Owl—keep it simple, child!—but he could not have chided her for the execution. Beak and talons had all found their mark, and in just the proper sequence.

The man still alive joined his fellows in death three seconds later. Again, the Scythe; and again, the Scythe.

When it was over, Helen fought for breath. Not because she was winded, but simply because her mind was reeling from the destruction. She had practiced those maneuvers a thousand times—for years, now, against padded and armored opponents—but had never really quite believed—

Nausea came, was driven down. Rage and terror also. She fought and fought for her center.

Breathing first. Breathing first.


When Usher let himself into the hotel room in the Loop which Victor had rented for that night, the young SS officer was asleep. Seeing Cachat's fully-clothed form lying on the room's only bed next to Ginny, Usher grinned. The first night Victor had rented a hotel room for his new "debauched habits," he had insisted on sleeping on the floor.

Usher glanced at the table in the room. Clearly enough, Victor and Ginny had spent the previous evening playing cards. If Kevin knew his wife—and he did—Ginny would have teased Victor by suggesting a game of strip poker. Seeing the lay of the final hands, Kevin's face twisted into a moment's derision.

Gin rummy, for God's sake.

But there was no real sarcasm in it. And, as his eyes moved back to the sleeping form of the young officer, Kevin Usher's expression took on something which might almost be called paternalism. In truth, in the past few days, he had become quite fond of Victor Cachat. He even had hopes of awakening the wit which he was certain lay buried somewhere inside that solemn young soul.

But first, he's got to learn not to sleep so soundly.

Kevin's method for teaching that lesson was abrupt and effective. After Victor lurched upright, gasping and wiping the glassful of cold water off his face, he stared bleary-eyed at the culprit. Next to him, Ginny murmured something and rolled over, her own eyes opening more slowly.

"Up, young Cachat!" commanded Usher. "The game is afoot!"

As usual, the classical allusion went right over Victor's head. Kevin snorted again.

"You're hopeless," he growled. Kevin pointed an accusing finger at his wife. Ginny, like Victor, had been sleeping in her clothes.

"I'm not a cuckold yet? What is wrong with you, Cachat?"

Victor scowled. "That wasn't funny yesterday either, Kevin." Then, seeing the grin on the citizen colonel's face, Victor's eyes widened.

"Something's happened. What?"

Kevin shook his head. "Not sure exactly. But Gironde just called and told me Manpower's headquarters suddenly came alive last night. Busy as ants in the middle of the night they are, over there. I'll bet damn near anything Durkheim's scheme just fell apart at the seams."

Confused, Victor shook his head. "Citizen Major Gironde? He's in the SS. Why is he calling you? And what's he doing watching the Mesans anyway? Durkheim assigned him to—"

He clamped his jaws shut, almost with a snap. Kevin smiled, and sat down at the card table. "Good, lad," he murmured. "Remember: the map is not the territory. The file is not the man."

Victor replied with a murmur himself, quoting one of Kevin's own maxims: " 'And there's nobody easier to outmaneuver than a maneuverer.' "

"Exactly," said Kevin. His eyes went to the only window in the room. It was a small window; grimy as only a cheap Loop hotel window ever gets. The view beyond was completely obscured, which was not the least of the reasons Kevin had insisted on a hotel in the Loop. Windows which can't be seen out of can't be seen into either. Not, at least, without specialized equipment.

Of course, the SS detachment on Terra had such equipment—and plenty of it. But the equipment was under the control of an SS officer and couldn't be checked out without his permission. A certain Citizen Major Gironde, as it happened.

"Dollars to donuts," Kevin mused, "the girl escaped. I can't think of anything else right now that would stir up Manpower's headquarters. Not in the middle of the night, anyway."

Victor was confused again. "What are 'dollars'? And 'donuts'?"

"Never mind, lad," replied Kevin, shaking his head. "Are you ready?"

Classical allusions might have been above Victor's head, but the last question wasn't. Instantly, his face was set in stone, hard and firm as unyielding granite.

By now, Ginny was lying half-erect on her elbow, her cheek nestled in the palm of her hand. She gazed up at Victor's face admiringly. "Anybody ever mention you'd make a great poster boy for an SS recruitment drive?"

Ginny's repartee usually left Victor confused and embarrassed. But not this time.

Hard; firm—unyielding as granite.


Durkheim was awakened by the insistent ring of the communicator. Silently, he cursed the Mesan idiots who were careless enough to call him at his own residence. Granted, the communicator was a special one, carefully scrambled. Still—

He only spent a few seconds on that curse, however. Soon enough, he had other things to curse the Mesans for—and not silently.

What did you expect—you morons!—using Scrags? I can't believe anyone would be stupid enough to think—

But he didn't indulge himself for very long in that pointless exercise. For one thing, the Mesan on the other end was indifferent to his outrage. For another, Durkheim himself had always understood that his plan was too intricate to be sure of success. So, from the very beginning, he had designed a fallback.

After breaking off his contact with the Mesan, Durkheim spent an hour or so staring at the ceiling of his bedroom. He didn't bother to turn on a light. He found the darkness helpful in concentrating his attention, as he carefully went over every step of his next maneuver.

Then, satisfied that it would work, he even managed to get some sleep. Not much, unfortunately. The problem wasn't that Durkheim couldn't get to sleep—he'd never had any trouble doing that—but simply that he had to reset the alarm to a much earlier hour. He would have to be at work by the crack of dawn, in order to have everything in place.


It didn't take Helen long to find the lair of her three would-be assailants, even moving as carefully as she was. The place was less than a hundred yards distant, just around the bend in the channel.

She spent five minutes studying it, before she crept forward. The "lair" was just that—a habitation fit more for animals than men. The lean-to propped against the sloping wall of the channel reminded her of a bird's nest. Made by a very large and very careless bird. The shack—even that term was too grandiose—had been assembled from various pieces of wreckage and debris, lashed together with an assortment of wire and cordage. At its highest, it was not tall enough for even a short adult to stand up. From one end to the other, it measured not more than fifteen feet. There was no opening at her end, so Helen supposed that whatever entrance existed was on the opposite side.

She hesitated, but not for long. Her water was getting low and so, soon enough, would her food. There might well be something in that lean-to, however unpalatable. Besides, she had no choice but to go past it—unless she wanted to retrace her steps back toward her captors—and so she might as well investigate it along the way.

The decision made, she moved quickly, racing toward the lean-to on quick and almost silent feet. If there were more men lurking within, she saw no reason to give them any more warning than necessary. One or two, she was certain she could handle. More than that, she could outrun them.

But there were no men in the lair to pose any danger to her. Instead there was something infinitely more dangerous—a moral dilemma.

* * *

The boy, she thought, was probably not more than twelve years old. Hard to tell, due to his bruises and emaciation under the rags. The girl was perhaps Helen's own age. But that was even harder to determine, despite the fact that she wore no clothing at all. The girl didn't have bruises so much as she seemed a single giant bruise.

Helen removed the filthy blanket and gave the girl a quick examination. The examination, for all its brevity, was both thorough and fairly expert. Her father had also seen to it that Helen received first aid instruction.

When she was done, and despite her recognition that an immense complication had just entered her life, Helen felt relieved. Immensely relieved, in truth. Less than half an hour earlier, for the first time in her life, she had killed people. Despite her concentration on her own predicament, some part of Helen's soul had been shrieking ever since. Now, it was silent. Silent and calm. If ever men had deserved killing, those men had.

Since she entered the lean-to, the boy had huddled silently against one side, staring at her with eyes as wide as saucers. Finally, he spoke.

"You won't hurt my sister, will you?" he whispered. His pale eyes moved to the battered figure lying on the pallet. The girl, for her part, was conscious. But she was just staring at Helen through slitted eyes, as if she were blinded by the light. "I don't think Berry can take much more hurting."

He started to cry. "I don't know how long we've been here. It seems like forever since they caught us. We were just looking for food. We weren't going to steal any from them, honest. I tried to tell them."

Helen heard the girl whisper something. She leaned over.

"Go away," were the words. "They'll come back soon."

Helen shook her head. "They're dead. I killed them."

The girl's eyes popped open. "That's a lie," she whispered. "Why are you lying?"

Helen looked at the boy. "What's your name?"

"Larens. People call me Lars."

Helen jerked her head. "Go down the channel, Lars." She pointed the direction. "That way. Just around the bend."

He didn't hesitate for more than a few seconds. Then, scurrying like a mouse, he scrambled out of the lean-to. While she waited for him to return, Helen did what she could to help Berry. Which wasn't much, beyond digging out some food and wiping off the grime with the cleanest rag she could find. Fortunately, while Helen didn't find much food there were enough water bottles that she was able to use some of it to wet the rag.

Throughout, other than an occasional hiss when Helen rubbed over a particularly sore spot, Berry kept silent. The girl was obviously weak, but Helen's principal fear—that the girl's wits were gone—soon proved false. As best as she could, given her condition, Berry tried to help by moving her limbs and torso to accept the rag.

Still, it was obvious that the girl was in no condition to walk. Helen wondered what was taking Lars so long to return. But while she waited she started assembling the makings of a stretcher. Or, at least, a travois—she wasn't sure Lars would be strong enough to hold up his end of the thing.

"What are you doing?" whispered Berry, watching Helen dismantle part of the lean-to. Helen had found two rods which she thought would make a suitable frame. She had no idea what they had been originally, nor even what they were made of. Some kind of artificial substance she didn't recognize. But, for all that they were a bit more flexible than she would have liked, they were about the right length and, she thought—hoped—strong enough.

"We've got to get out of here," Helen explained. "There are some people chasing after me. Just as bad as those three. Worse, probably."

That news caused Berry to sit erect. Try to, at least. The effort was too much for her. But, again, she gave evidence that her mind was still intact.

"If you—you and Lars—can get us maybe two hundred yards, there's a crossover to another channel. And after that—not far—there's another. That one leads up, and then down. That'll be hard. I'll try to walk, but you'll probably have to carry me. But if we can get down there it's the perfect place to hide."

For a moment, something like pride seem to come into the battered face. "That's my secret place. Mine and Lars'. " Softly: "It's a special place."

Helen had already decided that she would have to take the two children with her. In truth, the "decision" had come automatically—even though she understood that she was almost certainly ruining her chances of escape. Now, for the first time, she realized that Lars and Berry would be an asset as well as a liability. She was quite certain that they were two of the small horde of vagrant children who were reputed to dwell in the lower reaches of the Loop. Castoffs of castoffs. They would know the area—their part of it, at least—as well as mice know their cubbyholes and hideaways. Helen would be moving slower, but at least she would no longer be moving blind.

She heard Lars re-entering the lean-to.

"What took so—"

She closed her mouth, seeing the object Lars was gripping. She recognized the knife. It had belonged to one of her assailants. Lars had apparently wiped it off, but the blade was still streaked with drying blood.

Lars' eyes were bright and eager. On his hands and knees, he scurried over to his sister and showed her the knife.

"Look, Berry—it's true! They can't ever hurt you again." He gave Helen an apologetic glance. "I think they were already dead. But I made good and sure."

Berry managed to lift her head and stare at the knife. Then, smiling for the first time since Helen had met her, she laid her head back down. "Thank you, brother," she whispered. "But now we have to help Helen go away to our special place. There are more men coming to hurt her."

Less than ten minutes later, they were on their way. Lars, somewhat to Helen's surprise, proved strong enough—or determined enough—to carry his end of the stretcher. He had trouble at first because he refused to relinquish the knife. But, soon enough, he discovered the obvious place to carry it.

As they stumbled as quickly as they could down the channel, Helen found it hard not to laugh. She'd read about it, of course, in her beloved adventure books. But she'd never actually thought to meet one—especially twelve years old! A pirate, by God, with the blade clenched between his teeth to prove it.

Suddenly, she felt better than she had since she was first abducted. She actually had to restrain herself from whooping with glee.


Victor Cachat reported to work as early as ever the next morning, Durkheim noted. The young officer's new found vice hadn't affected him that much, apparently. Quite the little whore-chaser the boy had turned into, according to the reports.

But Durkheim didn't let any of his amusement show when he summoned Cachat into his office, immediately upon his arrival.

"We've got a problem," the SS commander snapped. "And I need you to fix it."

* * *

In the time that followed, as Durkheim spun his tale and elaborated his instructions, Victor Cachat leaned forward in his chair and listened attentively. Durkheim, though not generally given to humor, almost found himself laughing. Cachat could have made an ideal poster boy for an SS recruitment drive. Young and earnest officer of the Revolution, eager and willing to do his duty.

And though Durkheim noticed the hard, dark gleam in the eyes of the officer across the desk from him, he thought nothing of it. Simply the natural ruthlessness of a young zealot. Ready, at an instant's notice, to strike down the enemies of the Revolution with neither pity nor remorse.


By the time Anton reached the rendezvous, he was utterly lost. Not in the sense that he had any trouble following the directions given to him by Lady Catherine's messenger. Anton had years of experience finding his way through the three-dimensional maze of giant warships under construction, guided by nothing more than blueprints or verbal instructions. But when he walked through the door of the small coffeehouse at the end of an alley in the Old Quarter, he couldn't for the life of him have told anyone if he was headed north, east, south or west. He thought he still knew up from down, but he was beginning to wonder about that.

He wasn't entirely pleased, then, to see Robert Tye bestowing upon him that particularly obnoxious grin by which the expert greets the tyro. Tye had taken a different route than he. But, though they had left at the same time, it was obvious the old martial artist had been comfortably ensconced on his seat at the table for quite some time.

But Anton didn't give Tye much more than a sour glance as he strode up to the table. His attention was riveted on the other two people sitting there. In the case of one, because he was fascinated. In the case of the other, because he was flabbergasted—even outraged.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Lady Catherine," he added, a bit lamely.

Cathy started to bridle, but Jeremy cut her off.

"Didn't I say it?" he remarked cheerfully. "The good Captain's sweet on you, girl."

That remark caused both Anton and Cathy to choke off whatever words they had been about to speak and glare at Jeremy. The ex-slave bore up under the burden with no apparent effort.

"Those who speak the truth are always despised," he added, turning to Robert. "Isn't that so?"

Tye said nothing, but the smile on his face as he reached for his coffee indicated his full agreement. Anton and Cathy looked back at each other. Cathy seemed to flush a bit. Anton didn't—his complexion was quite a bit darker than her ivory pale skin—but he did straighten stiffly and clear his throat.

"I am simply concerned for the Countess' safety," he pronounced.

"Isn't that what I just said?" asked Jeremy. "Why else would a proper Gryphon highlander give a damn about the well-being of an idle parasite?" He cocked an eye at Cathy. "Well . . . parasite, at least. You can hardly accuse the lady of being idle."

Anton restrained his temper. Partly, by reminding himself of his daughter. Partly—

Damn the imp, anyway! But there was a trace of humor lurking under the irritation. Anton could not deny that the impudent little man—like a sprite, he was, both in size and demeanor—had cut rather close to the truth.

Bull's-eye, actually, admitted Anton, as his eyes moved back to the countess. This morning, Cathy was not wearing an expensive gown made of thin material. She was dressed in much heavier garments—pants and a long-sleeved shirt—suitable for outdoor hiking. The outfit was obviously well-used and fitted her comfortably.

Cathy, Anton knew, was in her fifties. But she was a third-generation prolong, with the youthful appearance that such people carried for decades. Although most people would have said her outfit did nothing for her tall, slim figure, Anton thought it made her perhaps even more appealing than the gown she had been wearing the previous evening. The practical clothing fit her plain, open face to perfection. Young, healthy, vigorous—a woman who enjoyed life to the fullest.

He found himself swallowing, and groping for words.

"I am concerned, Cathy," he muttered. "This is likely to be dangerous."

"Not for the two of you," announced Jeremy. "And her presence here is essential anyway." He gestured politely to the remaining chair at the table. "Sit, Captain Zilwicki. There is news—and a change in plans."

That announcement drove all other thoughts out of Anton's mind. He slid into the chair and leaned over the table, planting his hands on the edge. "What news?" His enormous shoulders, hunched with apprehension, made his square and blocky head look like a boulder perched atop a small mountain.

Finally, Jeremy's grin went away, replaced by a much kindlier smile. "Good news, Captain. For now, at least. Your daughter has escaped her captors."

Anton had been holding his breath. Now, he let it out in a rush.

"Where is she?" he demanded, half-rising. He had to restrain himself from reaching across the table and shaking the answer from Jeremy. Fortunately, years of habit as an intelligence officer did not completely desert him. His was the one trade which, along with philosophers, always understood the precedence of epistemology.

So, after a moment, Anton lowered himself slowly back into the chair. "How do you know?" he demanded.

Still smiling, Jeremy shook his head. "I'll not give you an answer to that question, Captain. Not that I don't trust you, of course." The impish grin made its reappearance. "Heavens, no! But after this is all over, I'm afraid you might remember that you are an officer in Her Majesty's Royal Manticoran Navy and feel compelled to strike a blow on your Queen's behalf."

Jeremy was not the first person who had underestimated the intelligence hidden beneath the Gryphon highlander's thick-headed appearance. It did not take Anton more than five seconds to make the connections.

"I was right," he stated flatly. He glanced at Cathy. "You told him our conversation?"

She nodded. Now it was Anton's turn to bestow a grin on Jeremy. And if his grin could hardly be called impish, it had something of the same devilish humor in it.

"It was a rogue Peep operation. And you've been in touch with the Peeps. The ones who aren't pleased with the rogue."

Jeremy started. Something in the expression on his face led Anton immediately to a further conclusion.

"No," he rumbled. "I've got it backwards. The operation was outside of normal channels, but it was no rogue who ordered it." His grin was now utterly humorless. A murderous grin, in truth. "It was Durkheim, wasn't it? That stinking pig. And the ones you have contact with are the real rogues."

There was no expression at all on Jeremy's face. His pale gray eyes, staring at Anton, were as flat as iron plates. Slowly, he swiveled his head and looked at Cathy.

"Tell me again," he rasped.

"You're too fucking smart for your own good," she snickered. She beamed upon Anton. "He's such a clever little man. But he always has to poke the wild animals, and sometimes he forgets to use a long enough stick." Her smile was very approving. Very warm, in fact. "Congratulations, Anton. It's nice to see him get bitten for a change."

"The reminder was good enough," rasped Jeremy. "I don't need the whole song and dance."

"Yes, you do," retorted Cathy forcefully.

Jeremy ignored her. He was back to staring at Anton with those flat, flat eyes. Suddenly, Anton was reminded that Jeremy X, whatever impish exterior he chose to project, was also one of the galaxy's deadliest men.

For a moment, he began to utter some sort of reassurance. But then, moved by his innate stubbornness and his own cold fury, he bit back the words and simply returned the stare with one of his own. Which, if it was not exactly ruthless, also indicated that he was not a man who intimidated easily, if at all.

Anton heard Cathy suck in a breath. In his peripheral vision, he saw Robert Tye's sudden stillness. But his eyes never left Jeremy's.

And then, after perhaps three seconds, the moment passed. Depth seemed to return to Jeremy's gaze, and the little man leaned back in his chair.

"Ah, but you wouldn't, Captain. Would you, now? It's that highland sense of honor moves you. You'd keep the knowledge that there was an opposition amongst the Peeps to yourself, and not pass it on to your superiors."

Anton snorted. "We've known for years that there was disaffection among the Havenites."

Jeremy's gaze didn't waver. After a moment, Anton looked away. "But, yeah, this is the first time there's ever been any concrete indication that it extends into SS. And the first time—given the relatively small size of the Peep contingent here—that we could probably pinpoint the individuals."

He drew in a deep breath, swelling his chest and squaring his shoulders. Then: "From the highlands, as you say."

"A life for a life, Captain," said Jeremy softly.

Anton understood the obscure reference at once. For some reason, that made him feel oddly warm-hearted toward the man across the table from him. A concrete sort of fellow. Much like himself, whatever other differences separated them.

"Yes," he murmured. "The daughter for the mother, and I'll take the knowledge to the grave."

Jeremy nodded solemnly. "Good enough." And now he was back to being the imp. "And good it is, boyo! Because it'll be those selfsame wretched rotten Peeps who'll get your daughter. Not you or me."

Anton goggled him.

Imp. "Oh, yes—for a certainty. We've other fish to fry."

Goggled him.

Damned imp. "But it's as plain as the nose on your face, man! They can get close to her, through the manhunt. Girlhunt, I should say. We can't."

Anton was clenching his fists. "Then what—"

Jeremy shook his head. "And to think he was so shrewd not a moment ago. Think it through, Captain. The rotten wretched Peeps—Peep, I should say—can get the girl. But that's not to say he can get her out."

Again, it didn't take Anton more than a few seconds to make all the connections. He turned his head and gazed at Cathy.

"And that's why you're here. To distract them, while"—a stubby forefinger shot out from his fist, pointing at Jeremy—"he settles his accounts."

"Long overdue accounts," murmured Jeremy. The flat, flat eyes were back.

Anton leaned back in his chair, pressing himself against the table with the heels of his hands. Slowly, the fists opened.

"That'll work," he announced. "If the Peep's good enough, at least."

Jeremy shrugged. "Don't imagine he's really all that good. But he doesn't have to be, now does he, Captain? Just determined enough."


Not for the first time, Helen bitterly regretted the loss of her watch. She had no idea how long it took her and her two companions to finally make their way into Berry's "special place." Hours, for a certainty—many hours. Just as Berry had feared, making the upward climb—and, even more so, the later descent—had been extremely difficult. Berry, for all that she had tried heroically, had simply been too injured and feeble to make it on her own. And her brother, for all his own valiant efforts, too small and weak to be of much assistance. So, for all practical purposes, Helen had been forced to make what would have been an arduous enough trip for herself burdened by the weight of another strapped to her back.

By the time they finally got to their destination, she was more exhausted than she had ever been in her life. If it hadn't been for the years she had spent in Master Tye's rigorous training, she knew she would never have made it at all.

Vaguely, with fatigue-induced lightheadedness, she tried to examine her surroundings. But it was almost impossible to see anything. The two small lanterns they had taken with them from the vagabonds' lean-to were too feeble to provide much illumination.

They were resting on a large pallet under a lean-to. Both the pallet and the lean-to, Lars told her, had been built by him and his sister after their mother disappeared (some unspecified time since—months ago, Helen judged) and they had found this place. The lean-to nestled against some sort of ancient stone staircase. It was the buttress of the staircase, actually. They had come down very wide stairs to a platform, where the stairs branched at right angles to either side. At Berry's command, Helen had taken the left branch and then, at the bottom, curled back to the right. There, thankfully, she had found the lean-to and finally been able to rest.

Now, lying exhausted on the pallet, Berry nestled against her right side. A moment later, dragging a tattered and filthy blanket out of the semi-darkness, Lars spread it over them. A moment later, he was nestled against Helen's left.

Helen whispered her thanks. She didn't really need the blanket for warmth. In the depths of the Loop, the temperature never seemed to vary beyond a narrow range, which was quite comfortable. But there was something primordially comforting about being under that sheltering cover, even as filthy as it was.

No filthier than me! she thought, half-humorously. What I wouldn't give for a shower!

But that thought drew her perilously close to thoughts of her father and their warm apartment. Always warm, that apartment had been. Not so much in terms of physical temperature—in truth, her father preferred to keep the climate settings rather low—but in terms of the heart.

Oh, Daddy!

Summoning what strength remained, Helen drove the thought away. She could not afford that weakening. Not now. But, as it fled, some residue of the thought remained. And Helen realized, as she lay there in the darkness cuddling two new-found children of her own, that she finally understood her father. Understood, for the first time, how courageously he had struggled, all those years, not to let his own loss mangle his daughter. And how much love there must have been in his marriage, to have given him that strength. Where another man, a weaker man, might have felt himself weakened further by his wife's self-sacrifice, her father had simply drawn more strength from it.

People had misunderstood him, she now realized—she as much as any. They had ascribed his stoicism to simple stolidity. The resistance of a Gryphon mountain to the flails of nature, bearing up under wind and rain and lightning with the endurance of rock. They had forgotten that mountains are not passive things. Mountains are shaped, forged, in the fiery furnace. They do not simply "bear up"—they rise up, driven by the mightiest forces of a planet. The stone face had been shaped by a beating heart.

Oh, Daddy . . . She drifted off to sleep, as if she were lying on a continent rather than a pallet. Secure and safe, not in her situation, but in the certainty of stone itself. Her father would find her, soon enough. Of that she had no doubt at all.

Stone moves.




When they found the bodies, Victor had to restrain himself from grinning. Whoever had cut the three men had done so with as much enthusiasm as lack of skill. So far as Victor knew, there was no antonym for the word "surgical." But if there was such a term, the half-severed heads of the wretched vagabonds lying sprawled in the middle of the dry channel exemplified it perfectly.

The small mob of Scrags accompanying Victor and his squad of SS troopers were convinced that the girl had done it. And that was the source of Victor's humor. He wasn't sure what amused him the most: their fury, their bewilderment, or—the most likely source—their obvious relief. As in: There but for the grace of God . . .

There was more ferocity than genuine humor in Victor's suppressed grin. The Scrags were notorious, among other things—the females as much as the males—for their predatory sexual habits. Victor had no doubt at all that they had planned to rape the Zilwicki girl when her immediate purpose was served. Before killing her.

Now, looking at the corpses, the thoughts of the Scrags were not hard to read. Easier said than done . . .

Victor leaned over the sergeant's shoulder. "And?" he asked.

Citizen Sergeant Kurt Fallon shook his head. "I don't think it was the girl cut 'em, sir." He pointed to the small pools of blood which had spread out from the wounds. The blood was dry and covered with insects, as were the corpses themselves. "They didn't bleed much, as you can see. Not for those kinds of wounds. She couldn't have cut 'em any time soon after she killed 'em. And why would she wait?"

"Did she kill them?" asked Victor.

Fallon nodded, pointing to the small tracking device in his left hand. Victor was unable to interpret the readings on the screen. The chemo-hormone sensor was a highly specialized piece of equipment. As rare as it was expensive. That was the reason, Durkheim had told Victor, that he was assigning Fallon to the squad. The citizen sergeant was an expert with the device.

"Her traces are all over them," said Fallon. "Adrenaline reading's practically off the scale. That means either fear or fury—or both—and as you can see . . ." He shrugged. "She didn't have much to fear. Besides—"

He pointed to the head of one of the corpses. The filthy, bearded thing was unnaturally twisted. "Broke neck." He pointed to another. "Same." Then, at the third, whose throat had clearly been crushed as well as slit. "And again."

Fallon rose. "Didn't know the girl had training, but that's what you're seeing." He studied the sensor screen. "But there's someone else's readings here, too. Besides her and the croaks. Male readings. Prepubescent, I'm pretty sure."

Victor glanced around. The Scrags had now collected in a body around them, staring at the tracker in the sergeant's hand. For all their strutting swagger, and their pretensions at superhuman status, the Scrags were really nothing much more than Loop vagabonds themselves. They were clearly intimidated by the technical capacity of the SS device. During the hours in which they had organized a search for the girl after discovering her escape, before they finally admitted their screw-up to their Mesan overlords, the Scrags had accomplished absolutely nothing. After they found the bodies and the lean-to, the girl's trail seemed to have vanished.

"Can we follow her?" Victor asked. "Or them?"

Fallon nodded. "Oh, sure. Nothing to it. Won't be quick, of course. But—" He cast a sour glance at the nearby Scrags. "Since they at least had the sense to come to us before too much time had gone by, the traces are still good. Another couple of days, and it would have been a different story."

"Let's to it, then."

They set off, following the traces picked up by the sensor. Victor and Citizen Sergeant Fallon led the way, flanked by the other three SS soldiers in Fallon's squad. Victor and Fallon didn't bother carrying their weapons to hand. The other SS soldiers did, but they held the pulse rifles in a loose and easy grip. The Scrags trailed behind, with their own haphazard weaponry. For all the bravado with which they brandished the guns, they reminded Victor of nothing so much as a flock of buzzards following a pack of wolves.

He glanced sideways at Fallon. The citizen sergeant was too preoccupied with reading the tracker to notice the scrutiny. There was no expression on his lean-jawed, hatchet face beyond intense concentration.

Like a hawk on the prowl. Which, Victor knew, was an apt comparison. Fallon was a raptor—and he was hunting bigger prey than a fourteen-year-old girl.

And that, of course, was the other reason Durkheim had assigned Fallon and his squad to Victor. The hatchet-faced man was a hatchetman in truth. And Victor's neck was the target of his blade.


As he watched the rally, Anton was struck by the irony of his situation. He really didn't approve of this kind of gathering. For all the stiff-necked belligerence of Gryphon's yeomanry toward nobility, the highlanders were very far from being political radicals. They were a conservative lot, when all was said and done. That was especially true of the large percentage—perhaps a third of the population—which belonged to the Second Reformation Roman Catholic Church, a sect which retained its ancient attitude of reverence for monarchy and obedience to authority in general.

Anton himself had been raised in that creed. And if his continued membership as an adult was more a cultural than a religious habit—his basso was much sought after by church choirs, and he enjoyed singing himself—his career as a naval officer had done nothing to weaken his traditional political attitudes. A strong monarchy resting on a stout yeomanry—that was Moses and the prophets, for Gryphon highlanders. Their quarrel with the nobility was, in a sense, the opposite of radicalism. It was Gryphon's nobles, after all—not the commoners—who were continually seeking to subvert the established order.

So, watching the huge crowd of poor immigrants who were packed into the amphitheater, applauding the firebrand speakers and chanting distinctly anti-establishment slogans, Anton felt a bit like a church deacon trapped in a sinners' convention. That was all the more so since the rally's hidden purpose was directly bound up with the scheme to rescue his daughter. In a certain sense, he was responsible for this disreputable and unseemly affair.

Something of his discomfort must have shown in his posture. Sitting on one of the benches next to him, far up in the galleries, Robert Tye leaned over and whispered: "I'm told this sort of thing is contagious. Spreads like an aerosol, I believe."

Anton gave him an acerbic glance. Tye responded with a sly smile. "But perhaps not, in your case," he murmured, straightening back up. " 'My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is royalist.' "

Anton ignored the jibe. On the podium far below, he could see that Cathy was next in line for the speaker's dais. He thought so, at least, from the way she was fidgeting in her chair and hurriedly scanning through her handwritten notes.

Anton had to force himself not to fidget. In his case, the problem was not nervousness so much as the fact that he was torn by conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Anton was fascinated by the prospect of finally hearing Cathy speak in public. Even as a young woman in the Manticoran House of Lords, the Countess of the Tor had been a famous orator. Notorious, it might be better to say. From what he had learned since he arrived on Terra, her reputation had not declined in exile. Rather the contrary.

On the other hand—

Anton took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His lips quirked in a wry smile of self-deprecation.

Leave it to a thick-skulled highlander to get infatuated with a damned wild-eyed radical! What the hell is wrong with me?

Trying to distract himself, Anton let his gaze roam the amphitheater. "Soldier Field," it was called, a name whose original meaning was long-forgotten, buried under the rubble of Chicago's fabled millennia. The structure was so ancient that here and there Anton could even see a few patches of that incredibly primitive construction material called cement.

Over the centuries, of course, the original shell of the amphitheater had been rebuilt and rehabilitated time after time. In a way, there was something almost mystical about the place. There was nothing much left of the original gathering area except the space itself. The material components which encapsulated that large and empty cyst buried deep below the modern city's surface had changed time and again, as the millennia crept forward. But the emptiness always remained, as if the spirits of the people who filled it—forgotten ghosts, most of them—kept the city's encroachment at bay.

Here, over the centuries, Chicago's outcasts had come, time and again, to voice their grievances and air their complaints. And mostly, Anton suspected, just to be able to look around the one place in the Old Quarter which was not cramped and crooked. The one place where the masses who swarmed in the city's ghetto could actually see themselves, and see their number.

An incredible number, in truth. Given that the rally had been literally organized on a moment's notice, he was astonished by the size of the crowd. Anton had no idea how many people were packed into the amphitheater, but he was certain that the figure was in the tens of thousands.

All of whom, at that moment, roared their approval of the speaker's concluding slogan. Anton winced, as much from the sheer aural impact as the content of the slogan itself.

Self-determination! Ha! He enjoyed sour thoughts, for a few seconds, of how that principle might be applied by the notoriously cantankerous and particularistic highlanders of his youth. Every hill a kingdom, every hollow a realm!

Sheer nonsense. The crown welds the nation, and that's that. Otherwise—chaos.

But he left off the rumination. Cathy had risen from her chair and was advancing toward the podium in her characteristically jerky and high-stepping gait. She reminded Anton of a young racing horse approaching the starting gate.

He braced himself. Oh, well, he thought, it'll all be for the best, once I hear her prattling nonsense. Let this idiot infatuation be dispelled.

His military training recognized the subtle but ferocious security which protected the Countess of the Tor. Anton spotted Isaac immediately, standing at the foot of the speaker's platform. Cathy's "butler"—who was actually her chief bodyguard—had his back turned toward her. His attention was entirely given to the crowd packed near the podium. Within seconds, Anton spotted several other people maintaining a similar stance. He recognized none of them, but he knew that they were all either members of the Audubon Ballroom or other organizations of Mesan ex-slaves in alliance with the Ballroom.

The sight made him relax a bit. The genetic slaves who escaped from Manpower's grip and made their way to the Loop were the lowest of the low, by the standards of Solarian society. For all the League's official egalitarianism, there was a taint which was attached to those genetically manipulated people. Subhumans, they were often called in private.

The Old Quarter's other immigrants—who constituted, of course, a vastly larger body of people than the ex-Mesans—were by no means immune to that bigotry. Indeed, some of them would express it more openly and crudely than any member of the genteel upper crust. But if those immigrants shared the general attitude that the ex-slaves were the lowest of the low, they also understood—from close and sometimes bitter experience—that there was a corollary.

The hardest of the hard. Not all of the blows which Jeremy X and his comrades struck fell on the rich and powerful. A time had been, once, and not so many years ago, when a Mesan ex-slave had to fear pogroms and lynchings in the Old Quarter. The Audubon Ballroom had put a stop to that, as savagely as they felt it necessary.

Cathy reached the podium and began to speak. Her words, amplified by the electronic devices built within the speaker's stand, brought instant silence to the entire amphitheater.

Anton was impressed. The immigrants who lived in the Loop were drawn from dozens of the Solarian League's so-called "protectorate worlds." Most of them subscribed to a general principle of solidarity among the downtrodden, but that unity was riven—fractured, often enough—by a multitude of political differences and cultural animosities. No one had tried to shout down the previous speakers, representing one or another of the various groups which had agreed to sponsor this rally. But neither had they felt constrained to listen quietly. Cathy was the first speaker who was getting the huge crowd's undivided attention.

In truth, Anton was not simply impressed—he was a bit shocked. He had known, abstractly, that Cathy had the authority to call for such a rally on a moment's notice. Or so, at least, Jeremy X had claimed when he laid out his plans for Helen's rescue in the coffeehouse. But seeing that authority manifested in the concrete was an altogether different experience.

How does she do it? he wondered. She's not even from the League, much less one of its protectorates. For God's sake, the woman's a foreign aristocrat!

Cathy began to speak, and Anton began to understand. Slowly and grudgingly, of course—except for that part of him which realized, with deepening shock, that his ridiculous infatuation was not about to go away.

Part of it, he decided, was precisely because she was a Manticoran aristocrat. If the Star Kingdom had a certain reputation for arrogance and snobbery among the huge population of the Solarian League, it also had a reputation for—to a degree, at least—living up to its own standards. Quite unlike, in that respect, the officially egalitarian standards of the League itself. The Sollie upper crust and the comfortable middle classes on the Core Worlds could prattle all they wanted about democracy and equality, and sneer at the "reactionary semi-feudalism" of the Star Kingdom. The immigrants packed into that amphitheater knew the truth.

In the far-off and distant protectorate worlds from which they had come—fled, rather—the iron fist within the Sollie velvet glove was bare and naked. The protectorate worlds were ruled by the League's massive bureaucracy, whose institutional indifference was married to the avarice of the League's giant commercial interests. If none of those protectorate worlds was precisely a hell-hole, a modern equivalent of the King Leopold's Congo of ancient legend, they did bear a close resemblance to what had once been called "banana republics" and "company towns." Neocolonialism, many of the previous speakers had called it, and even Anton did not disagree with that characterization.

There was nothing of that nature within the Star Kingdom. Anton himself, as a Gryphon highlander, could attest to that. The conflict between Gryphon's yeomanry and its aristocracy was the closest the Star Kingdom had ever come to that kind of open class war. And that conflict paled in comparison to anything which these immigrants had experienced.

But most of it, he realized as Cathy's speech unfolded, was due to the woman herself. Anton had been expecting another histrionic speech, like the ones which had preceded Cathy's, wherein the speakers bellowed hackneyed slogans and shrieked phrases which, for all their incendiary terminology, were as platitudinous and devoid of content as any politician's. What he heard instead was a calm, thoughtful presentation of the logic of genetic slavery and the manner in which it undermined any and all possibility for human freedom. Speaking in her husky, penetrating contralto—without, he noted with some amusement, any of the profanity which peppered her casual conversations—Cathy took up the arguments advanced by the Mesans and their apologists and began carefully dissecting them.

For all that her own motivation was clearly one of simple morality, Cathy did not appeal to that. Rather, as cold-bloodedly as any Machiavellian politician devoted to Realpolitik, she examined the logic of slavery—especially slavery which was connected to genetic differentiation. Her speech was filled with a multitude of examples drawn from human history, many of them dating back to the ancient era when the planet on which she now stood was the sole habitat of the human species. Time and again, she cited the words of such fabled sages as Douglass and Lincoln, showing how the logic of genetic slavery was nothing new in the universe.

Two things, in particular, struck Anton most about her speech. The first was that the woman had obviously, like many exiles before her, taken full advantage of her long years of isolation to devote herself to serious and exhaustive study. Anton had been aware, vaguely, that even professional scholars considered the Countess of the Tor one of the galaxy's authorities on the subject of "genetic indentured servitude." Now he saw the proof of that before his own eyes, and reacted to it with the traditional respect which Gryphon highlanders gave to any genuine expert. The Liberal and Progressive Manticoran aristocrats whom Anton had encountered in the past had repelled him, as much as anything, by their light-minded and casual knowledge of the subjects they so freely pontificated about. Lazy dabblers, was his opinion of them. His former wife Helen's opinion had been even harsher, for all that she considered herself a Progressive of sorts. There was nothing of that dilettantism in the woman standing at the podium.

The second thing was the target of her speech. Although Cathy was focusing on the plight of the Mesan slaves, her words were not addressed to them but to the big majority of the audience in the amphitheater—who were not Mesans. The point of her remarks—the pivot of them, in fact—was her attempt to demonstrate that any waffling on the issue of genetic slavery by any political movement which demanded justice for its own constituents would surely undermine its own cause.

Before she was more than ten minutes into the speech, Anton found himself leaning forward and listening attentively. A part of his mind, of course, paid no attention to her words. In one sense, the entire rally and Cathy's speech itself was a gigantic diversion designed to cover the effort to rescue his daughter. But that part was quiescent, for the moment, simply waiting with the stoic patience of Gryphon's great mountains. The rest of his mind, almost despite his own volition, found himself enjoying the quick humor and slowly unfolding logic of the woman he was listening to.

So it was almost—not quite—with regret, that he broke away when he felt the nudge on his elbow.

He turned his head. One of Jeremy's comrades was leaning over his shoulder. He recognized the young woman, although he did not know her name.

"It's time," she said.

Anton and Robert Tye immediately rose and began following her out of the amphitheater. Dressed as they were in the typical clothing worn by many immigrants in the Old Quarter, nobody took note of their departure.

"How far?" asked Anton, the moment they had exited from the amphitheater itself and could no longer be overheard.

The woman smiled, almost ruefully. "Would you believe it? Not more than a mile. They're somewhere in the Artinstute."

Tye's eyes widened. "I thought that was a fable," he protested.

"Nope. It exists, sure enough. But talk about your buried—!" She broke off, shaking her head. "Never been there myself. Don't know anyone who has, actually."

Anton frowned. "But you're sure Helen's there?"

They were moving quickly now, almost running down a long and sloping ramp. Over her head, the woman said: "Guess so. Jeremy didn't seem the least unsure about it."

Anton was not entirely mollified. From what he had seen of Jeremy X, he suspected the man was never "unsure about it" with regard to anything. He could only hope the assurance was justified.

And now they were running, and Anton drove everything out of his mind except his own implacable purpose.


When Helen awoke, the first thing she saw was a blue glint. It came from somewhere high on the wall opposite the pallet where she was resting. The "wall" was more in the nature of collapsed rubble, which seemed to have forced its way into some kind of opening. As if one wall—she could still see remnants of what must be an ancient structure—had been filled by the centuries-long disintegration of walls which came after. The glint seemed to come from a piece of that most ancient wall, a jagged and broken shard.

Blue. As if it were shining by its own light. Helen stared at it, puzzled.

When she finally realized the truth, she sat upright, almost bolting. That was sunlight! Shining through something!

Next to her, Berry stirred. The girl had apparently already been awake. Seeing the direction of Helen's stare, Berry followed her eyes. Then, smiled.

"It's so special, this place," she whispered. "There's light down here—all the way down here!—coming from someplace above. Must be little crevices or something, all the way up to the surface."

The two girls stared at the blue glint. "It's the Windows," Berry whispered. "I know it is. The Shkawl Windows everybody always talks about but nobody knows where they are. I found it—me and Lars."

Helen had never heard of the "Shkawl Windows." She was about to ask Berry what they were, when another thought occurred to her. She looked around. Then, seeing that the cavernous area she was in was too poorly lit by the feeble light to see more than a few feet, listened.

"How long have I been asleep?" she asked, her voice tinged by worry. "And where's Lars?"

"You've been sleeping forever, seems like. You must have been real tired."

Berry nestled closer. "Lars said he was going back to make sure we didn't leave any tracks. He took a lantern with him." She frowned and raised her head. "But he's been gone a long time, now that I think about it. I wonder—"

Helen rummaged under the blanket, searching for the other lantern. When she found it, she rose and headed for the stairs. "Stay here," she commanded. "I'll find him."

* * *

But Lars found her, instead. And brought the terror back.

"People are coming," he hissed. "With guns."

Startled, Helen lifted her eyes. She had been looking at the floor, picking her way through the debris which filled what seemed to have once been a wide hallway. From a corner twenty feet ahead and to her left, Lars flicked his lantern on and off, showing her where he was hidden.

She extinguished her own lantern and moved toward him, as quickly as she could in the darkness.

"Who are they?" she whispered.

"Most of 'em are Scrags," came the answer. "Must be a dozen of 'em. Maybe more. But there's some other people leading them. I don't know who they are, but they're real scary-looking. One of them has some kind of gadget."

Helen was at his side, her hand resting on the boy's shoulder. She could feel the tremor shaking those slender bones.

"I think they're tracking us with it, Helen," he added. His voice was full of fear. "Our smell, maybe. Something."

Helen felt a shiver of fear herself. She knew that there were such devices, because her father had mentioned them to her. But the devices were very expensive.

Which meant—

Helen didn't want to think about what it meant. Whatever it was, it was bad news.

"How close are they?" she whispered.

"Not too far any more. I spotted 'em a while ago. After that I stayed ahead of them, hoping they were going somewhere else. It was easy 'cause they've got a lot of lanterns and they're not afraid to use them."

The fear in his voice was stronger. For a waif like Lars, anyone who would move through the dark caverns of the lower Loop without worrying who might spot them was an automatic danger. The arrogance of power.

"Stay here," she whispered. A moment later, after adjusting the lantern to its lowest power setting, Helen began moving ahead into the darkness. The soft glow emitted by the lantern was enough to illuminate her immediate footsteps, no more. She was searching for the oncoming enemy—and that they were her enemies, she didn't doubt at all—using her ears and her nose.

* * *

She found them two minutes later. And felt the worst despair of her life. There would be no escaping these.

The Scrags, maybe. But not the five people in front.

From her vantage point, peeking around another corner in the endless hallways which seemed to make up this place, Helen studied the oncoming searchers. She gave no more than a momentary scrutiny to the Scrags bringing up the rear, strutting and swaggering exactly the way she remembered them. It was the five people in front that she spent her time examining.

They were dressed in civilian clothing, but Helen knew at once that they were trained professionals. She had spent her whole life as a military brat. Everything about those four men and one woman shrieked: soldiers. It was obvious in the way they maintained their positions, the way they held their weapons, everything—

Peeps! The thought flooded her, unbidden. It made no sense that a Peep military detachment would be down here, but Helen never questioned the logic. Peeps were her enemies. Peeps had killed her mother. Who else—what other soldiers?—would be looking for her? She was much too politically unsophisticated to understand the illogicality of an alliance between Scrags and Peeps. Enemies were enemies, and there's an end to it. Such is the root of highland political logic, as it has been throughout human existence. Helen had been born in a military hospital in the great orbiting shipyard called Hephaestus, and had only occasionally visited Gryphon. No matter. She was her father's girl. From the highlands.

She focused her eyes on the two Peeps in the very forefront. The leaders, obviously. The one on the left had all the earmarks of a veteran. He was studying a device held in his hand, his hatchet face bent forward and tight with concentration.

Her eyes moved to the man standing next to him. The officer in charge, she realized. She wasn't certain—it was hard to be, with prolong—but she thought he was as young in actual fact as his face would indicate.

She took no comfort in that youthfulness. She saw the veteran's head nod, like a hatchet striking wood, and his lips move. The young officer's face came up and he was staring directly at her, from a distance of not more than twenty yards.

He could not see Helen in the darkness, but she could see him clearly. There was nothing soft and childlike in that lean face; nothing boyish in the wiry body. She saw his jaw tighten, and the dark gleam which seemed to come into his eyes. That was the face of a young fanatic, she knew, who had just come to an irrevocable decision. Pitiless and merciless in the way that only youth can be. Helen realized, in that instant, his true purpose.

That was the face of a killer, not a captor.

* * *

And so, in the end, Helen belonged to her mother also. Helen Zilwicki came back to life, reborn in the daughter named after her. As she continued her examination, Helen gave no thought at all to her own certain death. That her enemies would catch Helen herself, and kill her, she did not doubt for an instant. But perhaps, if she did her job and led them astray before they trapped her, the monsters would be satisfied with her alone. And not seek further in the darkness, for her own new-found children.


"Almost there," said Citizen Sergeant Fallon. "She can't be more than a hundred yards away. And whoever's with her. Youngsters, I think, the way these readings keep coming up. One boy and one girl, would be my guess. Her age or younger."

Victor raised his head and stared at the wide opening which loomed before them. The room they were in, for all its size, was like a half-collapsed ancient vault. It was well-illuminated by their lanterns, but the ancient corridor ahead was still buried in darkness.

He hesitated for not more than a second or two. His jaws tightened with decision.

Here. Now.

Victor hefted the flechette gun in his hands. Except for one of the Scrags, Victor had the only flechette gun in the party. Everyone else was armed with pulse rifles. As casually as he could manage, he looked over his shoulder and studied the soldiers and the Scrags following him. Quickly, easily—an officer doing a last inspection of his troops before he led them into combat. He spotted the Scrag holding the other flechette gun and fixed her location in his mind.

"Citizen Sergeant Fallon and I will take the point," he said. His voice sounded very harsh, ringing in his own ears. The other three soldiers in the SS detachment, hearing the announcement, seemed to relax a bit. Or so, at least, Victor hoped.

Fallon cleared his throat. "If you'll pardon me saying so, sir, I think—"

Whatever he thought went with him. Victor leveled the flechette gun and fired. He had already set the weapon at maximum aperture. At that point-blank range—the muzzle was almost touching Fallon when Victor pulled the trigger—the volley of 3mm darts literally cut him in half. The citizen sergeant's legs, still connected by the pelvis and lower abdomen, flopped to the ground. Fallon's upper body did a grotesque reverse flip, spraying blood all over. The Scrags standing near him were spewed with gobbets of shredded intestine.

The butt of the gun came up to Victor's shoulder quickly and easily. He took out Citizen Corporal Garches next. Other than Fallon, she was the only combat veteran in the Peep detachment. The other two were simply typical SS guards.

A burst of flechettes shredded Garches. Victor's aim moved on, quickly. The Scrag holding the other flechette gun came under his sights. The woman was standing paralyzed. She seemed completely in shock. One of her hands, in fact, had left the gun and was wiping pieces of Fallon from her face. An instant later, her face was disintegrated, along with the rest of her body above the sternum.

SS next. Quick! He swung the flechette gun back and took out the two remaining members of Fallon's squad with a single shot. They never did more than gape before Victor erased them from existence.

Victor had never been in combat, but he had always taken his training seriously. He had never stinted on the officially mandated hours spent on the firing range and the sim combat tanks. Indeed, he had routinely exceeded them—much to the amusement of other SS officers.

Dimly, he heard the Scrags shouting. He ignored the sounds. Some part of his mind recognized that the genetic "supermen" were beginning to react, beginning to raise their own weapons, beginning—

No matter. Victor stepped into their very midst, firing again and again. In close quarters, a flechette gun was the most murderous weapon imaginable. The weapon didn't kill people so much as it ripped them apart. In seconds, the underground cavern was transformed into a scene from Hell. Confusion and chaos, blood and brains and flesh spattering everywhere, the beams from wildly swinging hand lanterns illuminating the area like strobe lights.

Abstractly, Victor understood his advantage—had planned for it. Despite his lack of actual combat experience, he had trained for this. Had spent hours, in fact, thinking through this very exercise and quietly practicing it in the sim tanks over the past two days. He expected what was happening, where the Scrags were still half-paralyzed with shock.

Or, even where they weren't paralyzed, they had so much adrenaline unexpectedly pumping into them that their motions were too jerky, too violent. When they managed to get off shots, they missed their target—or hit one of their own. Shrieks and shouts turned the nightmare scene into pure bedlam. The noise, added to the bizarrely flickering light beams, added to the gruesome splatter of wet human tissue flying everywhere, was enough to overwhelm any mind that wasn't braced for it.

Victor ignored it all. Like a methodical maniac, he just kept stepping into them. Almost in their faces, surrounded by their jerky bodies. Twice knocking rifle barrels aside to get a clear shot himself. He expected to die, in the instant, but he ignored that certainty also.

He ignored everything, except the need to slay his enemies. Ignored, even, the plan which he and Kevin Usher had agreed upon. Victor Cachat was supposed to spray the Scrags with a single burst of automatic fire. Just enough to scatter them and confuse them, so that the Ballroom would have easy pickings while Victor made his escape.

It was insane to do otherwise. If the Scrags were not trained soldiers, still and all they were genetically conditioned warriors with superb reflexes and the arrogance to match their DNA. Suicide to stand your ground, lad, Kevin had told him. Just scatter them and race off. See to the girl. The Ballroom will take care of the rest.

But Victor Cachat was the armed fist of the Revolution, not a torturer. A champion of the downtrodden, not an assassin lurking in ambush. So he thought of himself, and so he was.

The boy inside the man rebelled, the man demanded the uniform he had thought to wear. Say what they would, think what they would.

Officer of the Revolution. Sneer and be damned.

Victor waded into the mob of Scrags, firing relentlessly, using the modern flechette gun in close quarters like a rampaging Norseman might have used an ax. Again and again and again, just as he had trained for in the years since he marched out of the slums to fight for his own. He made no attempt to take cover, no attempt to evade counterfire. Never realizing, even, that the sheer fury of his charge was his greatest protection.

But Victor was no longer thinking of tactics. Like a berserk, he would meet his enemies naked. The Red Terror against the White Terror, standing on the open field of battle. As he had been promised.

He would make it so. Sneer and be damned!

The shots went true and true and true and true. The boy from the mongrel warrens hammered supermen into pulp; the young man betrayed wreaked a war god's terrible vengeance; and the officer of the Revolution found its truth in his own betrayal.

Sneer and be damned!


"Crazy kid!" hissed Jeremy. He and the others had been following Victor and his would-be executioners. They were now hidden in the shadows toward the rear of the chamber. Jeremy sensed his Ballroom comrades raising their own pulse rifles. They were aiming at the mob of shrieking Scrags swirling in the center of the vault. But there was no way to fire without hitting Victor himself. He was right in the midst of the Scrags.

What was left of them, anyway. Half the Scrags were down already, ripped to shreds by Cachat's murderous madness.

Murderous, yes, and mad besides. But Jeremy X had been accused of the same, often enough. And there were times, the truth be told, when he thought the accusation was dead on the money.

Such a time was now.

"Hold your fire!" he shouted to his comrades.

With the agility of the acrobat he had been brought into the world to be, Jeremy sprang over the rubble and landed lightly on his feet. Then, bounding forward like an imp, he hefted the handguns which were his favored weapons. One in each hand, as befitted his version of the court jester, gleefully calling out the battlecry of the Ballroom.

"Shall we dance?"

The Scrags who had managed to survive Cachat's fire just had time to spot the capering fool, before they were cut down. Court jester or no, Jeremy X was also, in all likelihood, the deadliest pistoleer alive. The shots came like a master pianist's fingers, racing through the finale of a concerto with a touch as light and unerring as it was thunderous. The sound was all darts flying and striking. There were no screams, no groans, no hisses of pain. Each shot was instantly fatal, and the shots lasted not more than seconds.

Not one of the Scrags managed so much as a single shot at Jeremy. The only moment of real danger for him came at the very end, as the last Scrag fell to the ground. His body one way, his head another. Jeremy's shot had severed the neck completely.

Jeremy found himself looking down the barrel of Cachat's flechette gun. Jeremy was the last thing still standing in the chamber, and the young SS officer had naturally brought the deadly weapon to bear on him.

A tense moment, that. Cachat's young face looked like the face of a ghost. Pale, taut, emotionless. Even his eyes seemed empty.

But the moment passed, the gun barrel swung aside, and Jeremy gave silent thanks to training.

By the time Jeremy's comrades made their way into the chamber, it was all over. Stillness and silence. Slowly, Victor Cachat lowered the flechette gun. More slowly yet, as if in a daze, he began to examine his own body. Astonished, it seemed, to find himself alive.

"And well you should be," muttered Jeremy. The lanterns dropped by the dying Scrags cast haphazard light here and there. He swiveled his head, examining the corpses scattered all over the chamber. The ancient stone floor was a charnelhouse of blood and ruin. Carrying their own lanterns, the Ballroom spread out and began moving slowly through the human wreckage, searching for survivors.

They found one still alive. His last sight was the tongue of his executioner.

Then, silence again.

Jeremy caught motion in the corner of his eye. He turned, raising a pistol, but lowered it at once. With his uncanny reflexes, of mind as much as body, he recognized the motion. A captain and a master of the martial arts, advancing slowly into the light.

The silence was broken, by a scream out of darkness.


Motion anew, a girl's blurring feet. Racing across a field of carnage as if it were a meadow; skipping through havoc as easily as they would have skipped through grass.

"Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"

"It's an odd sort of place, this universe of ours," mused Jeremy. He smiled at the comrade at his side. "Don't you think?"

Donald X was cut from more solemn cloth, as befitted such a thick creature. F-67d-8455-2/5 he had been, once, bred for a life of heavy labor. "I dunno," he grunted, surveying the scene with stolid satisfaction.

"Master Tye! Master Tye!"

"Seems just about right to me."

Daughter struck father like a guided missile. Jeremy winced. "Good thing he's a gold medalist. Else that's a takedown for sure."

His eyes moved to a young man, standing alone in a lake of blood. The flechette gun was held limply in his hands. There was nothing in that face now but innocence, wondering.

"Odd," insisted Jeremy. "Galahad's not supposed to be a torturer."


The first thing he recognized, as he faded back in, was a voice. Everything else was meaningless. Some part of him understood that his eyes were open. But the part of him that saw did not.

There was only the voice.

Your plan worked perfectly, Rafe. Beautiful! They'll make you a Hero of the Revolution. In private, of course. Just like they did with me.

Oddly, the first concrete bit of information that returned was the name. He felt a trickle of emotion re-entering a field of blankness. He hated being called "Rafe." He would not even tolerate Raphael.

Everyone knows that! There was less of anger in the thought than sullenness. The pout of an aggrieved boy.

Yeah, it was damned near as perfect an operation as I've ever seen—and I'll make sure to include that in my own supplemental report to Gironde's.

The name "Gironde" registered also. Gironde was a citizen major in the SS detachment on Terra. One of his own subordinates. Not close, though; not one of his inner sanctum. An "ops ape," Gironde was; not his kind at all.

You'll be glad to know that the Ballroom's sweep of the Loop seems to have damned near wiped out the Scrags completely. Lord, that was a stroke of genius on your part!

The word "Lord" was not supposed to be used. He remembered that. And remembered, also, that it was his responsibility to see to it that it wasn't.

Between the confusion caused by the rally at Soldier Field—all those people crowding through the streets and alleys—and their own efforts to catch the girl, the Scrags all came out of their hideyholes. Well . . . No doubt there's a few left. Not many.

The next sound he recognized as laughter. No, more like a dry chuckle. Very dry. Very cold. Then, more sounds. Someone, he understood vaguely, had pushed back a chair and risen from it.

Oh, yeah. You're a genius, Rafe. Just like you planned, the Ballroom wiped out the Scrags in one day. And the girl's safe, of course, so you got us out of that mess. Can you imagine? The nerve of those Manpower bastards! Trying to set us up as the patsy, figuring everybody would believe anything about Peeps now that Parnell's arriving.

That was the sound of a man pacing, he realized. And then, suddenly, understood that he was seeing the man. His optic nerves had been working all along, but something in his brain must have suddenly switched on. He had been looking sightlessly. Now he was seeing.

He arrives today, you know. Just after the Mesan assassination squad gets arrested by the Sollies we tipped off. You tipped off, I should say. Credit where credit is due.

Another harsh, dry laugh. He remembered that laugh. Remembered how much he detested it. Remembered, even, how much he detested the man who laughed in that manner.

But he couldn't remember the man's name. Odd. Irritating.

Like a bird, his mind fluttered in that direction. Irritation was an emotion. He was beginning to remember emotions too.

The man who laughed—very big, he was, especially standing in the center of a room looking down at him—laughed again. When he spoke, the words came like actual words instead of thoughts.

"Of course, there isn't the horde of newscasters waiting at the dock for him that everyone expected. Plenty of them still, needless to say. But half of the Sollie casters are in the Loop, covering what they're already calling the Second Valentine's Day Massacre. Good move, Rafe! Everything about your plan was brilliant."

Usher. That was the man's name.

He remembered how much he detested that grin. More, even, than the man's way of laughing.

"Yeah, brilliant. And after the final masterstroke, which—" The man glanced at the door. "—should be coming any moment now, you'll go down in history as one of the great ops of all time."

He had been drugged, he suddenly realized. And with that realization came another. He knew the drug itself. He couldn't remember its technical name, although he knew that it was called the "zombie drug." It was so easy to use as an aerosol. He remembered thinking that his office had grown a bit muggy, and that he'd intended to speak sharply to the maintenance people. Highly illegal, that drug. As much because it left no traces in a dead body as because of its effects. It broke down extremely rapidly in the absence of oxygenated blood.

There was a knock on the door. Very rapid, very urgent. He heard another voice, speaking through the door. Very rapidly, very urgently.

"Now! They're about to blow the entrance!" Footsteps, scampering away.

Again, that hated grin.

"Well, there it is, Rafe. Time for you to put the capstone on your career. Just like you foresaw, Manpower saved its real pros for the attack on the embassy. Here they are, raring to go. 'Course, we got Bergren out already, so they're walking into a massacre. Just like you planned."

An instant later, he was being lifted like a doll by huge and powerful hands. Now that he was on his feet, he could see the Marines lining the far wall. All of them in battle armor, with pulse rifles ready to hand.

"Such a damn pity that you insisted on leading the ambush yourself, instead of leaving it to the professional soldiers. But you always were a field man at heart. Weren't you, Rafe?"

He was being propelled to the door. Usher was forcing something into his hand. A gun, he realized. He tried to remember how to use it.

That effort jarred loose his first clear thought.

"Don't call me Rafe!"

The building was suddenly shaken by a loud explosion and then, a split-second later, by the sound of debris smashing against walls. The shock jarred loose more memories.

This was exactly how I planned it. Except—

Usher was opening the door with one hand, while he shifted his grip onto—

Durkheim! My name's Durkheim! Citizen General Durkheim!

He heard Manpower's professionals pouring into the embassy's great vestibule. He could see the vestibule through the opening door.

There's not supposed to be anybody here, except Bergren and a squad of Marines. Newbie recruits.

The huge hand holding him by the scruff of the neck tightened. He could sense the powerful muscles tensing, ready to hurl him into the room beyond.

"Don't call me Rafe!"

"Hero of the Revolution! Posthumous, of course."

He was sailing into the vestibule. He landed on his feet and stumbled. He stared at the Manpower professionals swinging their pulse rifles. Call them mercenary goons if you would, they were still trained soldiers. Ex-commandos. Hair-trigger reactions.

He was still trying to remember how to use the gun when the hailstorm of darts disintegrated him.



The admiral and the ambassador

Sitting behind his desk, Admiral Edwin Young glared up at the captain standing at attention in front of it.

"You're dead meat, Zilwicki," the admiral snarled. He waved the chip in his hand. "You see this? It's my report to the Judge Advocate General's office."

Young laid the chip down, with a delicate and precise motion. The gesture exuded grim satisfaction. "Dead—stinking—meat. You'll be lucky if you just get cashiered. I estimate a ten-year sentence, myself."

Standing at the window with his hands clasped behind his back, Ambassador Hendricks added his own growling words.

"By your insubordinate and irresponsible behavior, Captain Zilwicki, you have managed to half-wreck what should have been our greatest propaganda triumph in the Solarian League ever." Glumly, the ambassador stared down at the teeming streets and passageways over a mile beneath his vantage point. "Of course, it'll blow over eventually. And Parnell will be giving his testimony to the Sollie Human Rights Commission for months. But still—"

He turned away, adding his own fierce glare to the admiral's. The stocky officer who was the object of that hot scrutiny did not seem notably abashed. Zilwicki's face was expressionless.

"Still!" Hendricks took a deep breath. "We should have been able to start the whole thing with a flourish. Instead—" He waved angrily at the window.

Young leaned forward across his desk, tapping the disk. "Instead, all everyone's talking about is the so-called Peep–Manpower War. Who wants to watch testimony in a chamber, when the casters can show you a half-wrecked Peep embassy and a completely wrecked Manpower headquarters?" He snorted. "Not to mention the so-called"—his next words came hissing—" 'drama' of Mesa's slave revenge. With most of their pros gone, Manpower was a sitting duck. Especially with that terrorist Jeremy X on the loose. Christ, they didn't leave anyone alive over there."

For the first time since he'd entered the admiral's office, Captain Zilwicki spoke.

"None of the secretaries in Manpower's HQ were so much as scratched. Your Lordship."

The glares were hot, hot. But, still, the officer seemed unconcerned.

"Dead—stinking—meat," Young repeated, emphasizing each word. He straightened up. The next words came briskly.

"You are relieved of your duties and ordered to report directly to Navy headquarters in the Star Kingdom to account for your actions. Technically, you are not under arrest, but that's purely a formality. You will remain in your private quarters until such time as the next courier ship is ready to depart. In the meantime—"

"I'll be leaving immediately, Your Lordship. I've already made the arrangements."

The admiral stumbled to a halt, staring at Zilwicki.

That moment, the admiral's secretary stuck his head through the door. The admiral had deliberately left the door open, so that the entire staff could overhear his dealings with Zilwicki.

The secretary's face was a mixture of concern and bewilderment.

"Excuse me for interrupting, Your Lordship, but Lady Catherine Montaigne is here and insists on seeing you immediately."

The admiral's frown was one of pure confusion. From the side, the ambassador gave a start of surprise.

"Montaigne?" he demanded. "What in the hell does that lunatic want?"

His answer came from the lunatic herself. The Lady Catherine Montaigne trotted past the secretary and into the room. She bestowed a sunny smile on the ambassador. Her cheerful peasant face clashed a bit with her very expensive clothing.

"Please, Lord Hendricks! A certain courtesy is expected between Peers of the Realm. In private, at least."

She removed the absurdly elaborate hat perched on her head and fluttered it. "In public, of course, you're welcome to call me whatever you want." The smile grew very sunny indeed. "Now that I think about it, I believe I once referred to you as a horse's ass in one of my speeches."

The smile was transferred onto Admiral Young and grew positively radiant. "And I am quite certain that I've publicly labeled the entire Young clan as a herd of swine. Oh, on any number of occasions! Although—" Here the smile quirked an apologetic corner. "I can't recall if I ever singled you out in particular, Eddie. But I assure you I will make good the lack at the very first opportunity. Of which I expect to have any number, since I'm planning a speaking tour immediately upon my return."

It took a moment for the last few words to penetrate the indignation of the ambassador and the admiral.

Hendricks frowned. "Return? Return where?"

"To the Star Kingdom, of course. Where else? I feel a sudden overwhelming impulse to revisit my native land. Thinking of moving back permanently, in fact."

She glanced at her watch. The timepiece seemed more like a mass of precious gems than a utilitarian object. It quite overwhelmed her slender wrist. "My private yacht departs within the hour."

The smile was now bestowed on Captain Zilwicki. And what had been a radiant expression took on warmth as well.

"Are you ready, Captain?"

Zilwicki's square head jerked a nod. "I believe so, Lady Catherine." He peered at the admiral. "I think the admiral is finished with me. His instructions were quite clear and precise."

Young gaped at him.

Zilwicki's shoulders twitched in a minute shrug. "Apparently so. With your permission then, Your Lordships, I will do as I am commanded. Immediately."

Young was still gaping. Hendricks found his voice.

"Zilwicki, are you mad? You're in enough trouble already!" The ambassador goggled the tall and slender noblewoman. "If you return to Manticore in the company of this—this—"

"Peer of the Realm," Lady Catherine drawled. "In case you'd forgotten."

The smile made no pretense, any longer, of disguising its contempt. "And—in case you'd forgotten—I am thereby required to provide Her Majesty's armed forces with my assistance whenever possible. That is the law, Lord Hendricks, even if that herd of Young swine and your own brood of suckling piglets choose to ignore it at your convenience."

She laid a slim-fingered hand on the shoulder of the captain. As broad and short as he was, they made an odd looking pair. She was a good six inches taller than he. Yet, somehow, Zilwicki did not seem to shrink in the contrast. It seemed more as if Lady Catherine was in orbit around him.

"So—I must see to it that Captain Zilwicki is brought before the Judge Advocate General as soon as possible, to face the serious charges laid against him. And since I was leaving at once anyway, because of my other pressing responsibility to the Crown, I would be remiss in my duty as a peer if I did not provide the captain with transport."

Again, it took a moment for the words to register.

Admiral Young finally stopped gaping. "What 'other' responsibility?" he demanded.

Lady Catherine's eyes grew a bit round. "Oh, you hadn't heard? It seems that the self-destruct mechanism in Manpower's vault failed to operate properly. When those savage Ballroom terrorists wreaked their havoc on Manpower's headquarters, they were able to salvage most of the records from the computers. I received a copy, sent by an anonymous party."

She planted the hat back on her head. "I haven't had time to study it fully, of course—such voluminous records—but it didn't take me more than a minute to realize that the information needs to be presented to the Queen as soon as possible. You all know how much Elizabeth detests genetic slavery. She's said so in public—oh, I can't keep track of all the times! And in private, her opinion is even more volcanic." She shook her head sadly. "Such a hot-tempered woman. I worry about her health, sometimes."

The smile was back. "Elizabeth and I were childhood friends, you know. Did I fail to mention that? Oh, yes. Very close, at one time. Our relations have been strained for years, naturally, due to political differences. But I'm quite certain she'll want to speak to me on this subject. And Lady Harrington also, of course. I've never met her personally, but my butler Isaac is an old acquaintance."

She'd left them completely befuddled, now. The smile widened. "You didn't know? How odd, I thought everyone did. Isaac was one of the slaves Lady Harrington freed—well, she wasn't a peer in those days, of course, just another commoner naval officer—when she smashed up the depot at Casimir. I'm sure she'd agree to see him again, to allow him to present his overdue thanks. Along with a copy of these records. Quite certain of it."

Her hand squeezed Zilwicki's shoulder. "Captain?"

"Your servant, Lady Catherine."

A moment later, they were gone. The two men remaining in the room stared at each other. Their faces were already growing pale.

"Records?" choked Hendricks.

The admiral ignored him. He was already scrabbling for the communicator. In the minutes which followed, while Hendricks paced out his agitation, Young simply sat there. Listening to his chief legal officer explain to him, over and again, that he had neither the legal grounds—nor, more to the point here on Terra, the police authority—to detain a Manticoran Peer of the Realm engaged in the Queen's business.


As he leaned over the railing on the upper level of the terminal, studying the small party below getting ready to enter the embarkment area, Victor had mixed emotions. Which, sad to say, seemed destined to be his normal state. He almost felt regret for past simplicities and certitudes.

Almost. Not quite.

He heard a chuckle. The big man standing next to him, with the very pretty woman nestled under his arm, had—as usual—read his mind. Victor was almost getting tired of that also.

Almost. Not quite.

"Grotesque, isn't it?" mused Usher. "All that obscene wealth, in the hands of a single person? You could feed a small town for a year on what a private yacht like that costs."

Victor said nothing. He had learned that much, at least. One thing at a time. He didn't want to hear the lecture again.

"What do you think he's saying to her?" he asked.

Usher's eyes moved, focusing on the girl below. She was giving a fierce hug to the small man who had accompanied the party to the terminal.

"Well, let's see. He's probably stopped chiding her for using the Owl By Night. And he's probably already told her exactly which schools to investigate, once she gets to Manticore." A large hand came up and rubbed his jaw. "So I imagine he's simply telling her the kind of things which she really needs to know. Things from the heart, so to speak."

Below, the embrace ended. With the quick motions of someone steadying loss with new determination, Helen Zilwicki marched her entire party to the gate. There were six people in the party. Her father and Lady Catherine and Isaac brought up the rear. In the front, nestled under Helen's wings, her new brother and sister advanced toward a new life. Master Tye alone remained behind, simply staring.

* * *

Usher turned away from the railing. "And that's that. Come on, Victor. It's time for Ginny and me to introduce you to a new vice."

Victor followed obediently. He didn't even grimace at the gibe.

"Good lad," murmured Usher. "You'll like it, I promise. And if the elitism bothers you, just use the plebe word for it. Movies."

He leaned over, smiling at his wife. "Which one, d'you think?"

"Casablanca," came the immediate reply.

"Good choice!" Kevin draped his other arm over Victor. "I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


On the second night of their journey home, her father didn't return to their suite on the yacht. Once she was sure he wasn't going to, Helen made up her bed on the couch in the small salon. It took her a while to settle Lars and Berry for the night, in the stateroom which she was sharing with them. Partly, because something of her own good cheer seemed to infuse them. But mostly it was because they were afraid of sleeping without her.

"Come on!" she snapped. "We aren't going to be sharing a bed forever, you know." She eyed the huge and luxurious piece of furniture. "Not one like this, anyway. Not with Daddy on half-pay, at best."

She did not seem noticeably upset at the prospect of future poverty. Lars and Berry, of course, were not upset at all. Their new father's "half" pay was a fortune to them.

"Get to sleep!" Helen commanded. She turned off the lights. "Tonight belongs to Daddy. And tomorrow morning too."

* * *

In the time which followed, Helen set her clever alarms. She did the work with the same enthusiasm with which she had spent the evening designing them.

But, in the event, the alarms proved unnecessary. She never managed to sleep herself. So, when she heard her father coming through the outer doors, early in the morning, she had time to disengage them before he entered. She even had time to perch herself back on the couch. Grinning from ear to ear.

The door to the salon opened and her father tiptoed in. He spotted her and froze. Helen fought to restrain her giggles. Talk about role reversal.

"So!" she piped. "How was she?"

Her father flushed. Helen laughed and clapped her hands with glee. She had never managed to do that!

Her father straightened, glared at her, and then managed a laugh himself.

"Rascal," he growled. But the growl came with a rueful smile, and he padded over to the couch. The moment he sat down next to her, Helen scrambled into his lap.

Surprise crossed her father's face. Helen had not sat in his lap for years. Too undignified; too childish.

The look of surprise vanished, replaced by something very warm. A film of tears came into his eyes. A moment later, Helen felt herself crushed against him, by those powerful wrestler's arms. Her own vision was a bit blurry.

She wiped away the tears. Whimsy, dammit!

"I bet she snores." She'd planned that sentence for hours. She thought it came out just right.

Again, her father growled. "Rascal." Silence, for a moment, while he pressed her close, kissing her hair. Then:

"Yeah, she does."

"Oh, good," whispered Helen. The whimsical humor she'd planned for that remark was absent, however. There was nothing in it but satisfaction. "I like that."

Her father chuckled. "So do I, oddly enough. So do I." He stroked and stroked her hair. "Any problem with it, sugar?"

Helen shook her head firmly. "Nope. Not any." She pressed her head against her father's chest, as if listening to his heartbeat. "I want you full again."

"So do I, sugar." Stroked and stroked her hair. "So do I."

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