Tony smiled and kissed her. “Don’t worry. As the inspector says, I’m going to be well out of range. But I have to go. You understand that, don’t you?” “No, but I accept it. Take care.”
Gus turned to Terry, who clearly hadn’t the faintest inkling of what the hell was going on. “You stay here. They want me and some of the others to go catch some very bad people and maybe save some very good friends. You can’t come because you can’t help and we might get hurt protecting you. Do you understand that?”
She frowned, then hesitantly nodded. She didn’t like this at all, but if Gus said to stay, then she couldn’t exactly argue. She suddenly realized that some of her new friends, maybe even Gus, could get hurt, though, and it scared her. He saw the somewhat sad, somewhat panicked look on her face.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be here with Anne Marie, and I won’t let them hurt me. You have to believe that.”
It would have been easier for her to believe it if she saw that Gus believed it, too.
“Where’s the Dahir?” somebody asked, and Gus responded, “Here.” “Oh, that is kind of nerve-racking, isn’t it?” one of the Agonese soldiers commented. “Wish I could do it, though, particularly now. Okay, any way to get this headpiece on you? It’s pretty small and flexible. If you can, you’ll be able to hear what we say and speak to us, even in a low tone. It will also be monitored here, so if anything goes wrong, a message can be relayed. Think you can handle it?”
“It’s uncomfortable, but yes. Over the head and then below the snout on my neck. That will put the output mike right against the translator.”
“Fair enough. You have done this before?”
“Yeah, but in another life and with a lot more equipment.”
“Okay, people! Let’s take a little walk in the woods!” Kurdon called to them all. “And keep it quiet, huh?”
Someone tried to hand Julian a rifle, but she refused, holding out a hand. “I’ll make do with these,” she told him. I have to.
It was a cloudy night, which helped conceal their movements but gave Tony some vision problems. Someone handed her an Agonese helmet, which was extremely loose on her and pinched her hair something awful in the back but which proved a little high-tech marvel. It probably would have been even more of one if it had been connected to the rest of the armor-plated suit, but the faceplate proved to have pretty good night vision abilities.
Basically nocturnal, Gus managed to keep position, and Julian needed no special gear, simply relying on infrared. They walked for what seemed like a great distance through increasingly thick woods and rolling terrain until at last they came upon a large unit already in place and surrounding what looked like a giant pencil the size of a small house on some kind of treads.
Kurdon went to the device, nodded to the technicians standing by it, and looked at his watch, then signaled for two of the technicians to move. They got up on the treads, pressed something, and a small room in the very rear of the thing was revealed. They got in, sat down, strapped in, threw some switches, and then the entry closed behind them. There was a dull whining sound from the device now, and Julian’s eyes could see a sudden glow from not just the “point” of the pencil shape but from the tapered area as well.
“What is that thing?” she asked a soldier near her. “Construction machine. It’s used for tunnels on the railway, for reshaping rock formations, that kind of thing. There are only three of them in existence, and somehow he’s got all three here tonight.”
“You mean he’s going to bore holes right into their roof? Can we follow? I mean, it’s bound to be molten.”
“It cools pretty quick. You have any feeling in those hooves?” “No, not really.”
“Then if we can go in with these boots, you can, too. Don’t worry about it. We’ll see that you make it.”
The comment irritated her, but she stilled her tongue. No use pissing off somebody who was supposed to give her cover.
“Market is secure,” Kurdon told them, the news coming through everybody’s communicator at once. “Demolition team in place. Air exchange patrols check in by number.”
They couldn’t hear the responses, but apparently Kurdon was satisfied. Nervous and scared, as he should be, Julian thought, but he’s having the time of his macho life. I bet he’s dreamed of this moment.
“Borer to full. Demolition team ready at my count. Ten … nine … eight … seven … six … five … four … three … two … one … Now!” Just to the northeast of them a massive explosion sounded, shaking the very ground. Liliblod was a nontech hex; Julian had to wonder what the hell they’d found that would make that big a bang.
At the same moment the entire tapered part of the borer glowed red and then suddenly shot a blindingly hot white energy beam so powerful that Julian’s eyes reflexively switched to day vision. It didn’t matter. The whole forest was lit up, and nobody could watch that beam. Not far away, there were similar illuminations in the no longer dark wood.
Kurdon’s plan was simple given the technology he had to work with. The first borer, almost on the border itself, would open up the main entrance to forces that could drop in and secure the hopefully trapped but panicked and confused denizens inside in one stroke. That done, they would move to secure all the security controls, taking command of them, then move a force back along the first level. The colonel would go in with this team.
The second borer, with Julian, would move in and secure the middle area, followed by a ground force larger than the other two. These would proceed in both directions, linking up with the first group on that end and the third group, with Gus, coming in the back and pressing forward. Once the first level was secure, they would use internal access if they could to go down; otherwise, portable borers would come in through the ceilings. The rear part of the second level was said to hold the cells; the forward part was the labs. Then the procedure would be repeated on the third and final level, where the computers, living quarters, and more cells were. That was the main objective and might possibly be the toughest-or the easiest. Few crooks bottled in so thoroughly liked to go out shooting; their chances were far better if they were taken prisoner. Or so it was theorized. The borers cut off, and it was suddenly too dark once more, except for a dully glowing, perfectly symmetrical tunnel going down at an angle just where the borer had been pointed. The technicians moved the borer back on its treads; its job was done.
A small rectangular vehicle now moved up to the hole and, parked right in front of it, was opened by two soldiers. Water or something like it gushed out and down the tunnel, creating a cloud of steam that quickly cleared. “Tunnels safe and coated,” Kurdon reported to them. “Prepare to move in. Take it slow and easy. Don’t slip. The angle’s a good twenty degrees.” That worried Julian, with her hooves, but while the tunnel appeared perfectly round from a distance, up close it proved quite jagged and irregular inside. The first group had also strung a rope along each side and secured it, so there was a handhold to use if need be. She found it tough going but not impossible, and she was well in before it suddenly occurred to her that at the end of this thing there was bound to be one heck of a drop and there was no way she was going to be able to get down on a rope or temporary ladder.
It was eerie at the end, a dark hole filled with lots of lights-like dozens of flashlights waving around in a black cave-lots of echoing shouts, and the sound of both conventional gunfire and energy beams not too far off. She brought herself as close to a sitting position as she could and was relieved when she saw an Agonese soldier on a ladder reaching up to grab her. They were remarkably strong for their size, she noted, accepting the offered hand and feeling not at all good that she had to do so.
There was the sound of muffled explosions both forward and in back of her. “Concussion grenades,” a sergeant told her. “We’re lobbing them in every doorway and opening we find. They’ll knock most anything inside cold but don’t do much damage.”
She switched again to infrared and saw a well-organized operation going on. It was also some headquarters for a criminal operation. The corridor seemed to be four or five meters high and carpeted, and the conventional lights from the soldiers’ helmets revealed a place that looked less like a drug hideout and more like a luxury hotel.
“Entrance area secure. Lights coming on on level one only,” Kurdon’s voice came to them, and soon the whole ceiling flashed on, bathing them all in a soft but ample indirect light.
For the second time Julian had an ego-killing thought. My God! What am I doing here? These people are more professional than I am! If Kurdon had invited her along to prove a point, he was doing a damned good job.
She could still hear firing in back of them.
“We’re moving out toward the back end with this squad, ma’am,” the sergeant told her. “You can come, but watch it. As you can hear, this place is a lot bigger and more complicated than we thought.”
She could only nod. “Shows you what you can do with unlimited money, doesn’t it? Go on, I’ll watch your back.” At least that’s something I can do here, she thought ruefully.
It wasn’t until they had the lights back on that the officer in charge of the rear complex team called for Gus.
‘These rooms go into rooms that go into rooms,” the officer said in a mixture of wonder and disgust. “We can’t be sure what’s still in there. Just go ahead on your own and scout it. We can tell where you are by the transponder, so you won’t get stunned or shot. Here’s a pistol. You look like you can handle one. We need to find the location of a downward stairway as quickly as possible, so that’s your objective.”
Gus stared at the pistol but felt very uncertain about it. I don’t kill people; I take pictures of people killing people, he thought, with a sense of unreality about it all. He didn’t know if he could kill anybody.
But he still took the gun. It felt heavy and all wrong in his tiny, four-fingered hand, but he knew he could hold it and fire it. It was one of those Buck Rogers ray guns; no problems with recoil or ammo, at least so long as the battery held out.
He was appalled at the size and scope of the place. Jeez! Don Francisco Campos was a two-bit piker, wasn’t he? This place is the fuckin’ Maui Hilton! Wonder where the swimming pool and saunas are. He wondered how Juan Campos managed to fit into this kind of setup. For crime, this was strictly first-class, and classy to boot.
He was careful not to enter any of the rooms until after they’d tossed in the stun bombs. It was quickly clear, though, that the complex went off in both directions for some distance, and just tossing those things in the first room in a series of rooms didn’t get too many people. Oh, there were a couple lying about in the first room he entered, but the others either stayed back out of that exposed area or came in after the blast, when the soldiers would feel safe. Damn if some of ‘em didn’t look like real live Donald Ducks. Not too funny-looking, though; some of ‘em looked real tough. Even so, there was a veritable United Nations of the Well World represented here. Gooey things and mean-looking suckers and women with goat heads and humongous breasts and a walking toadstool or two, not to mention a couple of two-legged alligators wearing pants and the biggest damned frogs he had ever seen.
He went from room to room to room, cataloging what he saw in low tones and warning the squad if any of the critters emerged with weapons in hand or lay in wait. He reckoned he was saving a number of lives, and that made him feel good, if not any less scared to death. With this big a zoo, there was no telling if he’d run into one or another creature that might not have a problem seeing Dahirs.
Finally, in one rear room that looked like a luxury suite at the Waldorf except for the fact that it was clearly built for some large humanoids with bull heads and horns and some of their cowlike girlfriends, whose unconscious forms he’d passed two rooms earlier, he found the jackpot. This was clearly a visitor’s suite, and visitors could easily get lost in a place like this. He couldn’t read it, but it sure as hell looked like a map of the whole place. Welcome to the Drug Lord Ritz, he thought with some amazement. Man! Had they ever been cocky and arrogant! He made his way carefully back out to the main corridor and hunted for the officer. “Got something that will make life a lot easier if you can read it,” he told the startled Agonite.
The officer looked at the maps, and his reptilian jaw opened in amazement. “I should say you did!” He looked at the first level map, then the second, then looked up and pointed. “Nine more doors up. Emergency stairs.” “I’m surprised they don’t have elevators,” Gus commented, still amazed at the place.
“They do, but they don’t have power now. Besides, do you want to be in the first car when the door opens?”
“You got a point there.”
“As soon as we do a linkup and get a first level secured, we go down. I’ll radio command and control where the other access stairs are.”
“How are we doin’ so far?”
“Well, we knocked out about a third of ‘em. The rest so far have been equally divided between giving up and fighting it out. We hope it’ll be easier below, since they know they don’t have a way out if we get down there, but you never know. A lot of their security people will be down there, and the bosses probably kept their loyalty with drugs. When an addict is faced with losing his drugs or is charged up on them, who knows?”
“Yeah. Thanks for the optimism,” Gus commented dryly.
As expected, they had captured a huge number of the staff trying to flee out of the main entrance into Liliblod. The explosion hadn’t completely sealed things off-there were more entrances and exits than they had thought-but it had trapped enough.
The colonel had come in with the first wave but didn’t stay for the wrap-up. Instead, he pressed himself against the wall and slowly and carefully oozed up it to the ceiling, then began a slow but steady flow back toward the middle group well ahead of the commandos. A Zhonzhorpian with an energy beam rifle emerged from a doorway beneath the suspended Leeming, huge crocodilelike jaws open and dripping saliva, eyes blazing mad.
A pseudopod shot out and struck the gunman on his head. He dropped the rifle and roared in pain, clutching at his head, but his hands went into thick goo and seemed to be stuck there. With slow deliberation, Lunderman flowed down and around the man and engulfed him. He remained like that for a short while. There was a sort of hissing sound as if something were being dissolved in acid, and then a larger Lunderman reached up and flowed back onto the ceiling area. There was no trace of the very large gunman who had been there except his rifle, still lying where he’d dropped it. A few moments later various metallic and plastic pieces fell from the ceiling to join it as the Leeming rejected what could not be digested.
Far from being satiated, Lunderman was instead irritated. There was a limit to how many of this size he could absorb without going dormant and dividing, and this bubble-brained idiot had known nothing of importance.
Worse, Lunderman had no idea what his limit was. He hadn’t ever eaten more than one a week until now, and that had been sufficient. Even dissolved, the additional mass of one was significant if not any sort of handicap. Judging from the added mass of this one, the upper limit might well be no more than five or six. If he doubled his size, he could not stop the process.
It was unlikely that there would be many of the cartel on this level who had any information except by sheer chance, anyway. He began to search for a way down. Best to find it quickly, anyway, lest some nervous soldiers spot him and not recognize him as a friend.
As he heard the concussion grenades going off not far in front of him and just as the lights came on, he found it. Some sort of service elevator, he decided, linking the upper rooms with perhaps the kitchen or even the labs. It didn’t matter. The door was easy enough to dissolve with the extra energy he’d absorbed, and to his great relief the car was down at the bottom. He flowed along the tiny, meter-square shaft until he reached the second level. The automatic trip on the door was obvious from this side; he didn’t have to burn through it to open it.
On the other side was a small room that possibly served as a crew lunch room or break station. Nothing special, and expected. It was deserted, and he moved to the door, listened carefully, but saw no crack or opening where he might extend a pseudopod to scout what was beyond. He flowed back up to the ceiling, reached down, and used the manual grip to push the door open slowly.
The room beyond was lit by recessed emergency lighting, giving it a dull orange glow. It was a big place and looked very much like a state-of-the-art, high-tech lab, which it was. There didn’t seem to be anybody there, although some things were still cooking and bubbling away.
It still wasn’t what he needed, but it was one step closer. Below this, if he could find another easy way down, would be the master computer room.
There was no way Tony could get down one of those tunnels, something Kurdon surely had known when he had agreed to allow the centaur to come along. Now she stood just inside the border, staring out into dark Liliblod.
“Damn! They say there’s like three entrances out!” one of the soldiers commented. “We got the main one, but the other two are beyond our reach by this point. They say the complex is bigger than an office building! Crime sure pays sometimes.”
“Until now,” Tony commented. “What about those other entrances? Anybody covering them now?”
“We sent a few people up there, but any of the big fish who wanted to get away are well into Liliblod right now, and our people are heading to shut them down from inside by now. One’s just kind of a side door, I guess, for private comings and goings, but the other one’s like a stable. They say they got some very strange animals in there.”
Tony was suddenly alert. “Any of them with a body like mine? Animal head, perhaps with a horn, but a body like mine?”
“I dunno. I’ll check. Hold on a moment.” The soldier said something into his communicator and waited for the reply. “A few with bodies kinda like yours, but nothing with a horn.”
“See if you can have somebody from the middle group contact Julian. That’s the name. Report this to whoever you can get and ask them to get word to her. If he’s anywhere around there, she’ll recognize him.”
“Just do it.”
The soldier complied. “Message received and relayed, they say. That’s all. I can’t guarantee it’ll be passed on. They’ll be linking and going down to level two shortly.”
Tony thought furiously, frustrated at not being able to get down there to see what was going on for herself. “How far is this stable? And how far in from the border is it?”
“About four leegs that way, and maybe just a harg inside, but that’s far enough. Why?”
Four leegs was maybe half a kilometer, and a harg was no more than ten meters. “I was thinking maybe I could enter from there.”
“Lady, you don’t wanna do that. You got colonies of them Liliblodians right up there in the trees; I don’t think they’re real happy with us at the moment, and they don’t give a shit about diplomacy and protests and all that other crap. They’d be on us like a plague if any of us went across that border, high-tech weapons be damned. They got sense enough to know they’d be wiped out, but they’d take a ton of us with ‘em before they went and might figure it’s worth it. They’re probably so mad at us for blowing up the main entrance in their territory, they’re just waiting for one of us to stray ever so slightly in.” “I came through there once before, and they didn’t even show themselves. And I’m not of Agon. They might hesitate.”
“Yeah, and if they don’t, you’ll be dead in ten seconds. Don’t think your size will save you. Dozens of ‘em will drop down on top and cover you, and you’ll get enough poison in the first few seconds to kill half the world. Besides, even if you managed to get in, how would you ever get the heck out?”
It was a good point. Still, she was determined to do something. ‘Tell your men up there I’m coming and not to shoot. Don’t worry. I accept your argument; I am not going to try it. But if I can be very close, perhaps I can be of some help.” With that, she trotted off toward the north.
Julian was frankly relieved to get the call. Frustrated and feeling useless, she was in no mood to follow them down to farther levels.
Assured that at least level one was now secure, she made her way forward toward the main entrance, from which someone would guide her to Tony. She was most of the way there when, just behind her, something came out of a doorway roaring with fury and charged right at her back.
She didn’t even think, she just acted, shifting forward on her forelegs, rearing up the powerful hind ones, and kicking with all the strength she could muster. The hooves struck the creature in the face and snapped it back. The thing gave a startled cry and then was flung backward against the far wall with the force of the blow.
Julian came down slightly unbalanced and with her hind legs splayed. She was a moment realizing what the trouble was and easing herself back up. Turning, still on all fours, she could feel her heart pounding in her throat and whatever the Erdomese used for adrenaline coursing through her. She feared a second attack, but the creature was not moving at all, just lying limply like a rag doll thrown to the floor by a bored child.
With some shock, she realized that the thing was dead. Looking around lest there be any more ugly surprises, she carefully approached the body as a couple of Agonite commandos ran toward her.
The thing looked like somebody’s nightmare of a teddy bear, perhaps a meter and a half tall when standing. Those teeth and that fierce expression, now frozen in death, were never on any teddy bear she’d have around, though. Two commandos approached the creature cautiously, then checked it out. “Dead,” one said, and the other nodded.