A hand gripped his wrist, then was gone.

It was time.

As they rose to make their dash, Mahoney saw a small, black orb in Sten's hand. There was a large red dot imbedded in the center—a pressure switch.

They soared out onto the ice, the wind at their backs so they barely had to pole to keep up the speed. The frigid air tugged at their garments, finding gaps where none in fact could exist. The cold nipped through those gaps with sharp, tiny teeth.

Mahoney thought his lungs were so brittle there was no way any self-respecting oxygen molecules could attach.

Ice gouted just in front of him, hurling up a thick cloud of particles that choked him as he sailed into it. The crack of the laser fire followed the shot. This was bad. The hunters had found them. It was also good. They were at a distance.

The far shore came crashing up at them. Mahoney could see the snow-choked trees just beyond. Without slowing, they plunged onto rocky ground. Mahoney felt the wind knocked from him, but he stayed low, hugging the frozen ground like a lover.

He saw Sten roll until he was lying on the ground, facing the enemy. Mahoney fought for air and dared a look, then ducked as an AM2 round powdered the rock in front of him. But he had just enough time to see the hunters advancing in a broken pattern so he couldn't get off a decent shot. Just to keep them honest, however, he raised his weapon.

The hand went on his wrist again.

"Not now," Sten whispered.

Mahoney found a safer angle to peer out.

The Mantis team was nearing the center of the lake. He heard motion beside him and looked over to see Sten holding the hard, black ball. His thumb rested on the red spot. The knuckle whitened as he pressed.

Instinctively Mahoney looked out on the lake. But all he saw was hunters coming on. Then there was an ungodly roar as the entire center of the lake lifted up. Sheets of ice the size of small buildings were hurled to the side.

A gleaming white ship arose straight through the center. He saw bodies—or what had to be bodies, from the way they were flailing—spin upward and then plunge into the frigid water.

He didn't know if death was instant, or long and agonizing. If anyone screamed, he wouldn't have been able to hear it over the noise of the rising spacecraft.

Then he saw Sten sitting up and fumbling another nutra stick out of his pack.

Mahoney groaned up himself. He looked worriedly up at the sky. "There won't be any question of capture, now," he said. "And they won't chance another team. If they've even got one. That command ship will just hunt us down and bomb the clot out of us. That's what I'd do, at least."

"I've been thinking the same thing," Sten said. "But we've got that—" He pointed at the white ship hovering obediently over the lake. "And we've got two spares. Yours, and the team's. Should be enough for a diversion, don't you think?"

Mahoney caught his drift. It might work—just. He started to get up. Sten motioned him back.

"I'm starved," he said. "It might be a while before we get another chance. Let's eat."

Mahoney felt hunger pangs gnawing at his own guts. It was a comforting, being-alive kind of feeling. What the clot!

They ate. 

CHAPTER THREE

Laird Kilgour of Kilgour, formerly Chief Warrant Officer Alex Kilgour (First Imperial Guards Division, Retired); formerly CWO A. Kilgour, Detached, Imperial Service, Special Duties; formerly Private-through-Sergeant Kilgour, Mantis Section Operational, various duties from demolitions expert to sniper to clandestine training, to include any duties the late Eternal Emperor wanted performed sub rosa with a maximum of lethality, was holding forth.

"... An' aye, th' rain's peltin' doon, f'r days an' days i' comes doon. An' her neighbors tell th' li'l old gran, 'Bes' y' flee't' high ground.'

" 'Nae,' she says. 'Ah hae faith. God will take care a' me. Th' Laird wi' provide.' "

It was a beautiful evening. The tubby man was sprawled on a settee, his feet on a hassock, his kilt tucked decorously between his legs. Conveniently to his right were his weapons of choice: a full pewter flagon of Old Sheepdip, imported at staggering—staggering to anyone not as rich as Kilgour—expense from Earth and a liter mug of lager.

The fire blazed in a fireplace that was tall enough for three men to stand in at their full height. Outside, a winter storm crashed against the walls of Deacon Brodie's Tavern with all the fury a polar frenzy could produce on the planet Edinburgh, Alex's three-gee home world.

A beautiful evening. Kilgour was on his fourth—no, fifth drink. There were good friends across from him, good friends who also had not yet suffered the complete repertoire of Kilgour's stories. The wee barmaid had shyly wondered if Laird Kilgour might not find the time—later—to escort her home through the muck an' mire.

It was safe and quiet and peaceable. It was just old habits that had Kilgour seated with his back to a wall, and his left hand, resting on his kneecap, was a few centimeters away from a miniwillygun holstered on his upper thigh.

"An th' rain comit doon an' comit doon, an' th' water's risin'. And her pigs are wash't away, squealin't. An' the' coo's swimmin't f'r shelter. An doon th' road comit ae gravcar.

" 'Mum,' comit th' shout. 'Thae's floodin't. Thae must leave!'

" 'Nae,' she shouts back. 'Ah'll noo leave. Th' Laird will provide.'

"An' th' water comit up, an' comit up, an' th' rain i' pel tin' an comit doon. An' the chickens ae roostin' ae the roof. Floodin't her house't' ae th' first story. An' here comit ae boat. 'Missus, now thae must leave. We'll save y'!'

"An' agin comit her answer: 'Nae, nae. Th' Laird will provide.'

"But th' rain keep fallin't. An' th' water keep't risin't. An' coverin't th' second story. An' she's crouchin' ae th' roof, wi' th' chickens, an' here comit ae rescue gravlighter. It hover't o'er th' roof, an' a mon leans oot. 'Mum! We're here't'save y'.'

"But still she's steadfast. Once again, 'Nae, nae. Th' Laird will provide.'

"An' th' rain keep fallin't an' th' flood keep't risin't. An' she drowns. Dead an' a'.

"An' she goes oop't' Heaven. An' th' Laird's waitin'. An' th' wee gran lady, she's pissed!

"She gets right i' Th' Good Laird's face, an shouts, 'How c'd y', Laird! Th' one time Ah aski't frae help—an ye're nae there.' "

The com buzzed. The guvnor answered.

"Alex. F'r you. From your hotel."

"B'dam'," Alex swore. But he rose. "Hold m'point. 'Tis nae a good one, nae a long one, but be holdin't it anyway."

He went behind the bar. He recognized the face onscreen—one of the com operators at the hotel he stayed at when he came to the city.

"This is wee Alex," he said.

The operator was puzzled. "Laird Kilgour, this message wa' bounced frae y'r castle. A text transmission. But it seems a bit garbled."

"Gie it me, man. P'raps the twa ae us can decipher it."

The operator tapped keys. Across the centerscreen scrolled: xrme tracd bydg rrdg, and on for a full page.

Alex's face blanked.

"I'm sorry, Laird. But thae's all thae were."

"A garble, Ah ken. Ah'll be direct back ae th' hotel. Hae a call frae there." He forced a smile and cut the link. "Damned storm! Lost m'connection."

"They'll try again."

"Aye. That they shall," Alex agreed. "Tell 'em't' hold. Ah'm ta the recycler. Leith needs th' water. An' we'll be needin't another all round."

The smile fixed on his lips, Alex meandered toward the lavatory. His eyes skipped around the few people in the tavern. No. All known—unless this was a long-range setup. He thought to add an artistic, drunken stagger as he went into the bathroom.

Then he was moving. Foot braced on the washstand—it would hold his weight. Good. He pushed at the high, seemingly barred window. What looked to be rusted hinges swung smoothly open and the bars fell away. Kilgour wriggled headfirst onto the narrow ledge above the alley outside. He chose his pubs—or modified them—for more than cheery companionship, complaisant barmaids, and high-alk service.

He lay motionless for a moment. The ice-needled wind, the driven snow, and the below-zero cold did not exist in his mind. He was looking for movement. Nothing. Most of the message had, indeed, been a garble. Intentionally so, intended to bury the real message. The operative code groups were the second and third. They were old Mantis signals, and decoded as:

MISSION BLOWN. EXTRACT TO RV IMMEDIATELY.

Which posed some very interesting questions. Such as—Kilgour was out of the military. He certainly had no links with the Empire or with the supersecret Mantis Section since his hasty retirement after the assassination.

So: Who was trying to contact him?

Second: Why were they using a common, general code? One that was part of a standard SOI, had been around for many years, and almost certainly had been compromised?

Was Mantis looking for him? Did he want to be found?

Kilgour swore at himself. He was getting sloppy and careless in his declining years.

For the past several days he had been feeling that skin-crawl between his shoulder blades that he should have listened to: You are being watched. You are being followed. There are beings about with bad intentions.

But nae, lad. Y'were bein't th' city cock ae th' walk. Doon frae thae aird mors an' coirs, thinkin't th' eyes on ye were naught but thae lassies admirin't ae man ae means.

Enough, Kilgour.

Y'r mither said years gone y'r nae better'n ae purblind ox. Noo, try't' find y'r way out off th' killin't floor.

He had a second for a final mourn. Nae m'friends'll nae hear the last line:

"An' th' Laird looki't ae her, an' he's sore puzzled. 'Gran, how can y' say Ah dinnae provide? Ah giv't ae car, ae boat, an ae gravlighter!' "

With a silent chuckle he slid down the alley to the High Street. He held close to the high gray wall next to him for a few meters, then stepped out suddenly, as if coming from a doorway—a man intent on late business, with nothing else on his mind but his destination and how clottin' miserable the weather was.

Movement. From the shadows across the street.

The first question was: Who was after him?

Kilgour was operating at an advantage and a disadvantage. On a normal E-world, his three-gee muscles might have provided an easy solution, either acrobatic or bloody. Here he was just another man. Of course, his pursuers would be under a disadvantage—unless they, also, came from a high-grav world.

He chanced a look back.

His tail had entered a commercial gravsled. The sled had lifted and was creeping down the street behind him. Kilgour grimaced. If this was a termination attempt, the sled would go to full power, lift over the sidewalk, and scrub him against the high stone wall beside him. An unfortunate accident. He listened, but the sled's McLean generators did not increase their pitch.

So let's see if we can find out who these lads are, he thought.

Three crossings down, he turned onto a narrow street. Very narrow. A close, actually—so steep it was not ramped but was instead a long stairway. Alex moved faster.

The close ended in a small courtyard. Four other lanes opened from it. Kilgour picked one, ducked into its shadows, and held for a moment.

Two figures moved down the stairs. The flurried storm broke, and Kilgour glimpsed them. Clot. He had no strength advantage at all. Either he was being chased by a pair of hyperthyroid Earth gorillas, or his pursuers were wearing fighting armor. Fighting suits were AM2-powered killing machines that turned the properly trained infantryman into something far more lethal than a conventional tracked assault vehicle. Amplified musculature gave the wearer many times the strength and endurance of an unsuited soldier. Their armor was impervious to conventional shoulder weapons and even medium-size shrapnel.

Against a suit, Kilgour was far more impotent than a man from a zero-gee environment would be against Alex.

Two of them. Just wonderful. Och well. Th' Laird wi' provide...

Kilgour was off, zigging through alleys at a dead run, his mind running at equal speed.

How were they tracking him? Had they planted anything on him? Was his kilt wired? Or that locator? He didn't think so but started to hurl the locator away, then considered.

He came out of the alley warren onto a street. It was very late and the streets were still. Ahead he saw a grav-sled land and three other monsters lumber out and up the hill toward him. He went into another alleyway.

Who was after him? Occasionally fighting suits came into the hands of big-time private warlords, but these, Alex thought, appeared to be current Imperial issue. Which meant? That for some reason he had offended the powers that be. Not the planetary officials on Edinburgh—Alex had purchased far too many friends in high places not to have gotten a tip—but off-world.

Worst case? The Empire—or those clottin' imbecile thieves who'd taken it over after the Emperor's death. Assume that, Kilgour. For whatever the privy council's reason, assume that.

Now, he thought. What do they want of me? If they wanted me just dead they would've had plenty of opportunities over the past few days, weeks, or months. There's more'n enough lads still in service who remember how to plant a bomb or look through a crosshairs.

So it's alive, alive-o, then.

If they looked up m'wee record—th' honest one—then they'll noo send a boy for a man's work. So think those lads in thae braw suits are Mantis. They are lookin't f'r me. But nae quite the way I thought. An' they're nae suited up because th' grav pulls hard on their wee bones.

So it would be a simple snatch, wi' th' minimum of screekin' an' broken bones. Then off't' th' brainscan.

Ah think not. Ah'll nae hae some psych's slimy fingers pryin't ae m'soul. But I hae nae desire't' put m'back 'gainst a wall, spit on m'sword, an' go down yodelin' like ae Vikin' sarky, or whatever thae dubbed themselves.

The storm was lashing down harder.

Two back of me—driving. Three more backup. Plus there'll be another team in immediate reserve. Solution: drop all five of them before they hae a chance to gurgle f'r help.

Five men. Five of the Empire's best operatives, wearing suits that could have let them walk through the thickest walls of Alex's castle and emerge with their hair unmussed.

Nae problem, lad. Nae problem at all.

Kilgour stayed moving—just fast enough to keep the Mantis people after him, but not fast enough for them to blow the whistle and think he was on a full-tilt run.

His path wound through the back alleys of the city. His pursuers may have been in suits, but Alex had grown up familiar with the cobblestones that the idiotically tradition-minded builders of the city—God bless them to the twelfth generation—had installed when Edinburgh was first colonized.

First a wee rope...

He found it—a coil of 5-mm wire, hanging from a building site. Alex grabbed it and pulled. He had, he estimated, nearly sixty meters of wire. A bit too much.

His route became more direct, heading back toward the heart of the city. The cobbles were steep and the muck on either side of the road greasy. He led his pursuers back to the High Street, then went into the open. He doubled up the center of the street, stopped, and turned. Now his pursuers were in the open, as well.