Sten hadn't heard the lock click or the thud of the door closing. He probably hadn't pushed hard enough. Yeah. Probably.
He tensed the fingers of his right hand. The muscle sheath that held his surgically implanted knife contracted, and the slender, deadly blade slipped into its resting place in his palm. He curled his fingers around the haft.
Just to keep himself honest, and in tone, Sten sometimes played a game with himself. He would imagine there was someone behind him. A breath would give the lurker away—or a slight motion, a rustle of clothing. Failing that, his old Mantis instructors had pounded into him, any sort of presence added to a space, changed and warped that space. More heat. A shift in pressure. It didn't matter what the change was. One's senses just had to recognize it when it occurred.
Sten spun, dropping away to one side, to avoid any blow. At the same time, he slashed up with his knife. The knife blade was only fifteen molecules thick. It would cut through steel like ripened cheese. Flesh would be no contest at all. If there was an arm bearing a weapon, coming down at him, that arm-its hand still gripped around the weapon-would be neatly sliced off. It would plop to the floor while his enemy stared blankly at him, eyes widening in amazement and then dulling to instant shock as blood spurted from severed arteries. His enemy would be dead in seconds.
Meanwhile, as Sten fell, he would try to spot any other threatening presence. Which way he rolled when he hit the floor would be determined by the angle of the next attack, if any.
Sten slashed empty air. He continued the fall, imagining the first kill, concentrating on the second. More slashing at empty air. Panting, he stood with his feet splayed apart, staring at the almost-closed door. Of course, there was no one about. There never was anymore. The knife disappeared back into his arm.
Grinning and shaking his head, Sten walked to the door to push it the rest of the way shut, idly wondering what he ought to fix himself for dinner.
Just as he touched the knob, the door slammed back at him. The heavy wood caught him flat. He was hurled backward, clawing for balance and trying to twist as he hit the floor to free his knife-hand. He curled into a ball and let himself roll all the way. He rebounded off the wall, and using the force, was coming to his feet and slashing out before the knife had even cleared.
"Dammit, Sten!" the man shouted. "Stop!"
Sten froze, gaping. What the clot! It couldn't be. It was...
"Get your wits about you lad," ex-Fleet Marshall Ian Mahoney said. "There's a Mantis team right on my heels. And if I stand here explaining, we're both for the meat locker.
Sten and Mahoney quick-crawled through the tunnel that snaked from the hidey-hole behind the fireplace toward a small stand of trees about eighty meters from the main dome. It was dimly lit-on purpose. And it contained many bends-also on purpose. They could hear someone breaking away the stones of the fireplace to get at them. Sten tried not to think of the months he had worked on the beast, or of all the heavy rocks he had carried from the edge of the lake to build it.
He was only very thankful to the gods of paranoia that had commanded him to construct a bolt hole in the face of no apparent danger. When-not if-the hunters broke through, Sten and Mahoney would be dangerous game to follow. The lights would make aim difficult. The many twists and turns would make it even harder. They would also lessen the force of any explosions set off. And the narrowness took away any advantage in numbers.
Of course, there was always gas. But Sten was comforted by the howl of the powerful ventilators constantly pumping in fresh air. The atmosphere of the entire tunnel was recycled in seconds.
They finally reached a dead-end vault where they could stand. Emergency clothing, gear, and weapons were stacked on shelves to one side. The exit was just beyond. With a press of a switch, the port would lift silently away. The exterior was artfully camouflaged with brush, dirt, and rocks. The tunnel emptied into a thick clump of woods near the edge of the frozen lakes.
Sten quickly began donning his gear. He motioned for Mahoney to pick up a pair of gravskis like his. A small explosion rocked the tunnel as the hunters finally broke through the fireplace.
"They'll have this end covered, as well," Mahoney said.
"I know," Sten said. He palmed the switch, and cold fresh air flooded in as the port lifted aside. It would close automatically behind them. He pressed a marble-sized bit of impact-explosive under the edge of the switch, a down and dirty booby trap.
"They'll find it," Mahoney said.
"I know that, too," Sten said. "But it'll slow them down."
"Maybe we ought to—"
Sten raised a hand, cutting Mahoney off. "No offense," he said, "but there isn't a clottin' thing I don't know about tunnels. And exiting some. I had a little experience, if you recall."
Mahoney shut up. Sten had spent a small lifetime digging under the POW camp at Koldyeze. Actually, as Big X—commander of the escape committee—he had done a lot more than dig.
"Now, give me a hand," he said.
He pulled the cover off an elderly snowcat, which had been converted to burn combustibles. Together they muscled it over to the exit. Sten flipped the various switches to the "on" position and set a meandering course on the navigator, then told Mahoney to stand back as he fired the engine.
A great blast and gout of smoke roiled out. Mahoney coughed and wheezed.
"So, we'll not be sneakin' up on them, then," Mahoney said, dry. Sten silenced him with a glare.
Then he jammed it into gear and leapt to the side. The snowcat jumped forward with a loud roar and in a flash boiled out of the tunnel. Sten peered after it. The tracks churned up huge clouds of snow as the cat plunged forward—straight for a tree. Sparks showered out of its engine ports, eerie against the night. The cat brodied to one side at the last minute. Laser fire smeared the darkness, and several holes appeared in the cat's body.
"Now!" Sten shouted.
And he and Mahoney hurled themselves outside. Sten had just enough time to see one startled hunter whirl back from the cat and raise his weapon.
The hunter jerked, and a neat hole appeared in his forehead. As the hunter slumped down, Mahoney got another shot off at the man's companion, who dodged to one side. By the time she had recovered, Sten and Mahoney were gone. The Mantis operative moved forward, throat-miking hoarse instructions to the team inside the dome. She found the footprints leading deeper into the woods. They wouldn't be difficult to follow. They stood out starkly-almost deep blue-in the moonlight.
Then she sensed something behind her. She half straightened, bringing up her weapon and trying to spin to the side. Then she was lying in the snow, blood gushing from the red grin of her throat.
Sten wiped his blade on her tunic.
"Am I just getting old," he asked as Mahoney stepped out from behind a tree, "or are the new kids really just not as good as they used to be?"
Mahoney looked at the corpse of the Mantis operative. As the former chief of Mercury Corps-meaning Mantis, as well-he had mixed feelings about seeing one of his own in such a state. Then he looked at Sten. He was a little older, and there were a few hard lines etched in his face, but he seemed tougher, somehow. Harder. His dark eyes were sunk deeper into his skull. They were a little bitter, but there was still that touch of cynical humor in them. Mahoney saw the slender dirk disappear back into Sten's arm.
As for Sten's question: No. They weren't slower.
Mahoney shrugged. "You've been practicing," was all he said. "There's five more. I doubt we'll be so lucky with them, lad," he said. "I hope you have a plan."
"I do," Sten told him. Without another word he stepped into the bindings of the gravskis, flipped them on, and adjusted the lift so that he hung bare centimeters above the snow. He poled off into the woods, digging the poles in hard just to make sure no one would lose the track.
Mahoney had seen a lot of strange things in his long life, but the thick grove that Sten was leading him through had to be up high on his personal list of the bizarre.
The trees weren't really trees at all, although they took that form. They towered over what, from a distance, appeared to be a gigantic root system at least three meters high before the main trunk started. Up close, the root systems were revealed to be more like immense tubers. They were so huge that Mahoney thought it must have taken centuries for so many leaves to form together to make such large bulbs for water and nutrients. Later he learned that it had only taken a few years.
The branches were furry and appeared almost muscular-if a plant could have muscles. And they looped about like tentacles, although they seemed stiff and relatively sturdy, like wood. The leaves were long, needlelike, and edged with sharp spines, and they were covered with a thin film of moisture. Extremely odd in this climate. Why didn't the moisture freeze?
He reached out a hand to touch.
"Don't," Sten snapped. Then he saw the puzzled look on Mahoney's face and took pity—but only a little. "They don't like to be touched," he said. He pushed on with no other explanation.
As far as Mahoney could tell, they were doing nothing more than traveling in a wide circle. Moving closer to the lake, he thought. With a shrill cry, a large, white bird with leathery wings suddenly bolted for the sky. It circled about in the moonlight, obviously angry.
"They're coming," Sten said. "Finally. I was afraid for a moment we'd lost them."
"Not likely," Mahoney said. "Probably talking to their mother." He pointed to the night sky beyond the bird. He was referring to the command ship, which he assumed was in a stationary orbit—very low, very close.
"We'll have to do something about that, too," Sten said.
Before Mahoney could ask exactly what, he saw the knife slip into Sten's hand again. Sten moved cautiously toward one of the odd trees. Picking out a low-hanging branch, he inched forward, knife blade gleaming. As his hand neared the branch, Mahoney swore he could see the branch ever so slightly move toward Sten. But the motion was so miniscule, he wasn't sure. The drops of moisture seemed to swell into larger beads, almost dripping like saliva, and the leaves seemed to be rotating so the teeth were facing out.
Sten leapt forward and struck. Moisture boiled from the wound and the branch snapped forward at Sten, trying to curl around him. But he bounded back again, just to the edge of safety. Mahoney felt his blood run cold. The liquid pouring out of the wound hissed and bubbled in the snow.
"That should make him nice and mad," was all Sten said.
He pressed on, Mahoney in his wake. Sten repeated his attack at least a dozen other times, each time with the same result: the tree lashing out in agony, just missing Sten. For a few moments, it was all painful motion. Limbs squirming, seeking justice; caustic moisture pouring out. But the wounds seemed to heal instantly, and in a few seconds the tree would fall still.
When Sten had first come upon the plants during his travels, he had been instantly repelled by their appearance and attracted by their nature. They possessed a defense system only an ex-Mantis kiddie could love. Something had once found them extremely delicious—hence the sharp leaves and caustic fluid. When attacked, the plant reacted by pouring even nastier fluids into the area where it was bitten. That took about fifteen minutes. Some creatures got around it by developing a tolerance to the normal fluid and just nibbling small areas at a time, moving on to a new section before the plant could react. The plants were a bit like cabbage or tomato.
But the plant species had not stopped there. A drastic change in climate, perhaps, had sent it in search of further means to feed. Why not the beings that ate it? With its superefficient tuber storage system as a base, it evolved into a carnivore. Oh, it would make do for years at a time on the nutrients in the soil and water, but the flesh and blood of any number of species were its particular dining pleasure.
And now that Sten had gotten their attention with his attacks, they would be laying for whoever or whatever followed. Such as the Mantis team.
Mahoney heard a terrible scream. It was not the kind that cut off abruptly. It went on and on, growing more horrible as long minutes passed. Laser fire cracked. Silence. Mahoney shuddered.
"Now there's four left," Sten said.
Mahoney didn't answer.
They knelt by the edge of the ice. Their cover was a small outcropping of rock. It was false dawn, and the light was tricky. But Mahoney could make out the tree line on the far side of the lake. It was little less than a kilometer, perhaps a two-minute crossing on their skis, if they didn't stumble.
He and Sten had led the surviving hunters on an all-night chase. Sometimes he thought Sten was trying to lose them. Then he would slow—purposely, he thought—and soon he could hear them on their heels again. By now, he thought they should be tiring. Clot! So was he.
The only good news he could think of was that the Mantis team had yet to be reinforced. There could only be one conclusion. There weren't any beings aboard the command ship to spare.
There had been no time for Mahoney to do more than hazily sketch in what was going on. Nothing about himself. Only the situation at hand.
The privy council was desperate. They had sent out similar teams all over the Empire. Their mission: Capture and return for questioning any being who had been close enough to the Emperor to know his deepest secrets.
Sten was amazed. "What the clot could I know? Sure, I commanded his bodyguard. And I had clearances up to my eyebrows during the Tahn business. But that's old news. Nothing worth ferreting about. You could stuff it in the small end of nothing and it would still rattle about. They should have saved themselves all the bother and just asked."
"It's the AM2," Mahoney said. "They can't find where our boss has it stashed."
Sten gobbled. "But, I thought—I mean, everybody assumes..."
"Too right, lad," Mahoney said. "And we all assumed wrong. Now the AM2 is running out."
Sten thought about that for a moment, munching on a dry nutra stick. Then, anxious, he said, "Alex! They'll be after him, too. We have to—"
"I already took care of that," Mahoney said. "I sent warning. Hope he got it. I didn't have much time."
He waved out at the darkness in the direction of the hunters. No further explanation was needed. Obviously Mahoney had only been half a step ahead when he reached Sten.
"We'll have to get word to Kilgour when we get free," Mahoney said. "Tell him where to meet us."
Sten laughed. "No need," he said. "Alex will know where to find us."
Mahoney started to ask how, but something cracked deep in the woods.
They moved on.
They were at the edge of Amos Lake, waiting to cross. Sten wanted just a bit more light. Mahoney cursed. The little clot wanted to be seen.