The girl’s response was a distant, muted murmur. “Okay, I guess.” She did not offer to elaborate, and Cardenas wisely chose not to push her. Let her do her work. Meanwhile, he would do his. Looking one way, he saw a maelstrom of information seething within the box tunnel. Glancing the other, he saw six wugs sitting on the floor blissfully ignoring him as they raptly monitored Katla’s efforts. They had not moved, nor had they reacted to the pair of explosions.
Something banged against the door. Inhaling sharply, Fourhorses tried to move toward Katla, but Cardenas held her back. At the same time, he sat down on the floor and shoved his back up against the unwavering mass of wall beneath the window. Hot, dry desert air poured in above his head, ruffling his hair as it collided with the room’s air-conditioning. Raising the muzzle of the service pistol, he dialed through Narcolepsy and Paralysis before settling on the setting for Explosive. If he now so chose, he could blow away the door, a good chunk of hallway wall behind it, and anything organic unfortunate enough to find itself sandwiched in between.
As Inspector and social worker waited motionlessly, the door was flung wide. A massive figure clutching an oversized automatic weapon came charging into the girl’s room. Fourhorses’s eyes went wide as she sucked in a lungful of air, and Cardenas’s finger tightened on the trigger of the pistol.
LETTING OUT THE BREATH HE HAD NOT REALIZED he had been holding, Cardenas lowered his weapon and gestured for Hyaki to get down. Dropping to all fours, the sergeant crawled over to join the wide-eyed social worker and his partner. The booming that had first alerted the Inspector to the fact that something was wrong was louder now, closer and more frequent. Echoes indicated that the defenders of the compound were starting to return fire.
Hyaki nodded politely at the cringing Fourhorses. “Can’t tell for sure yet. Ten, maybe more.”
“How’d they gain access?”
“Don’t know.” Raising his head into the warm incoming draft, Hyaki peered out the window. “Worry about that later. Right now everyone’s more concerned about how many we haven’t been able to count. A couple of them have made it in as far as the vehicle port. Main structure integrity is still intact. McCurdy is busy trying to establish a secure perimeter.” He looked in the direction of the raging tunnel. “I take it she’s not playing a game.”
Cardenas’s expression was all the explanation the sergeant required. “That’s what I figured. What’s she doing?”
Turning, the Inspector raised himself up slightly and rested the barrel of the pistol on the windowsill. There was movement on the far hillside. He pushed the gun forcefully forward until it was poking through the bug screen. Taking careful aim, he fired. Fourhorses jumped. Lost in a world of her own, Katla Mockerkin ignored the commotion behind her. Beyond the compound wall, a surprisingly large quantity of granite, cedar, and underbrush erupted in a shower of newly made gravel and flying splinters. The movement on the hillside was not repeated.
“Killing her father,” Cardenas informed his partner. “Maybe exorcising would be a more appropriate description.” As his gaze continued to sweep the hillside, he proceeded to explain.
“So you think whoever’s out there is operating under orders from this rogue gram?” Hyaki had positioned himself alongside his partner, his own much larger weapon piercing the bug screen at the other end of the window. Fourhorses sat with her back to the wall, her arms drawing her knees up to her chest.
“Can’t be sure.” Cardenas had always been a good shot. Of course, the explosive shells his gun was now keyed to fire allowed for a considerable margin of error when taking aim. “Could very well be. I might have been followed here. Or someone could have cracked the location through the Department box.” He nodded in the direction of the hillside. “Might be Inzini, or Ooze, or some other group that would dearly love to wring the girl’s mind like an old washrag. That’s not going to happen.”
“No.” Repositioning his weapon, Hyaki fired. For so impressive a killing device, its report was surprisingly muted. “It’s not.” Noticing something off to his right and slightly behind him, he nodded in the direction of the watching wugs.
“Where’d they come from?”
“Answer that,” Cardenas replied succinctly, “and you can name your own price and buy your own police force.”
Something struck the roof west of the room. Fragments of ceiling, insulation, and disturbed dust came showering down on those huddled within. As with everything else, Katla Mockerkin ignored the intrusion. Cardenas had never seen anyone, child or adult, so focused on the mechanics of a probe. Equally unperturbed, the wugs did not move.
“Easily frightened little cucarachas, aren’t they?” Hyaki remarked irreverently.
“It’s not hard to be fearless when you don’t know the meaning of death.” Cardenas’s finger again started to tighten on the trigger of his pistol, but eventually eased back without firing. The sliver of movement he’d locked on was only a terrified jackrabbit, bolting from a burrow as speedily as the bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibers in its remarkable legs could carry it. The booming of gunfire was constant now, like the approaching thunder of an impending monsoon storm.
“At least,” he finished, “I assume they don’t know it. I’ve yet to encounter a machine that does, other than abstractly.”
“Please, will you two shut up talking about that kind of stuff?” Reflecting professional concern, Fourhorses jerked her head sideways in the girl’s direction. She needn’t have worried, Cardenas noted. Katla was deep into playing the box, all but oblivious to the gunfire and commotion that threatened to engulf her.
No one came running to tell them to evacuate, or to move to another part of the compound. In that respect, Cardenas mused, no news was good news—Lincoln’s comment to the contrary notwithstanding.
Someone did come running for another purpose, however. The woman was very slight, very agile, and exceedingly determined. But in the time it took her to throw open the door, quickly scan the room, and locate Katla, Cardenas and Hyaki had time of their own to turn their attention away from the window. As the intruder raised her gun and Fourhorses tried to scream a warning, both men fired simultaneously. When the dust cleared, there was very little left of the matara— or for that matter, the door.
“Probably going to dock our pay for that.” Hyaki nodded in the direction of the still-smoking wreckage that had been the entrance to the room.
Cardenas replied impassively. “Police work is a messy business.” He indicated a spot on the near wall where a tiny pressure hypo had embedded itself in the composite. The woman had managed to get off one shot before the two federales had blown her away. The ph would contain a miniscule dose of something unpleasant, and probably lethal. Drawing an invisible line between impact point and shooter, Cardenas estimated the shot had passed less than half a meter above Katla’s head. Insofar as he could tell, she had never so much as looked up.
Strange images boiled within the tunnel as the girl played the box like an electrified violin. A number of three-dimensional apparitions that swiftly came and went were particularly disturbing. They did not seem to trouble the serene twelve-year-old, who continued to croon into the vorec. The way she rolled it between her fingers and let it hover above her lips verged on the perverse.
At Hyaki’s shout, Cardenas retrained his pistol on the ruined doorway. The eyes of the pistol-wielding man who had appeared in the opening bulged. His feet scrambled for purchase on the floor, slipping amid the debris and the remains of would-be assassin.
“Jesus, watch it, you guys!”
Both federales lowered their weapons. The new arrival was one of their own. Breathing hard, his gaze flicked from the girl working the box, to the frightened social worker, to his armed and trigger-itchy colleagues.
“We’ve got three points secured on the perimeter, with the fourth coming under control.” Flush with adrenaline, he was young, and managed to look simultaneously scared, exhausted, and excited. Having someone shoot at you does that to people, Cardenas knew. “Lieutenant McCurdy says it’s safe to relocate to the entry hall, if you want to.”
Keeping clear of the window, Cardenas rose slowly to his feet. “We’re okay here. Tell Mitch.”
The young federale nodded energetically. “If there’s any change, I’ll let you know.”
“How’d they get inside Security?” Hyaki was back on his feet. He also avoided standing in front of the window.
The herald shook his head. “They’re working on that. Mitch says not to worry. They’ll recon the breach, and plug it.” He disappeared back down the hallway.
A crackling from the vicinity of the dimly roaring tunnel drew Cardenas’s attention. As he looked on, the raging images faded, the tunnel going to black. Katla Mockerkin set the vorec down on the desk. Her final words might have reached the aural pickup—or maybe not. Off to the right, there was an echo of activity on the floor. Cardenas caught a fleeting glimpse of fleeing alien constructions of ceramic and metallic glass and composite. Putting his head to the floor and turning it sideways, he struggled to see under the bed. It was dark, and he could not see a hole. But the wugs were gone, as silently and furtively as they had come.