Wedged in the rear seat between Casey and one of the guards, with another armed guard sitting facing them while the third drove, Solomon Leppo stared gloomily out at the complex of levels and spaces beneath the tangle of intersecting domes that formed Wuhan. What he had gotten them both into now, he didn't know. He no longer had any doubts that the Knight was straight enough; but he was also somebody who didn't play with trivia, and extremely complex. Whatever aspect of the Knight's business this was part of was way over Leppo's depth.
His stomach still ached, his ribs felt raw, and his cheeks burned from the drubbing Mullen had given him to express his displeasure- and Leppo had the chilling feeling that worse was to come. Mullen was convinced that Leppo had somehow set him up and almost gotten him killed, and he just wouldn't buy Leppo's insistence that he didn't know what Mullen was talking about. He didn't know what any of those who had gone on ahead earlier-apparently to meet some important people who had arrived from off-planet-were talking about. Two of them hadn't seemed to be "with" the others at all, but acted as if they were in as much trouble as Leppo and Casey seemed to be. The short, flabby one with the black mustache and freaky eyes, that somebody had called Balmer, had wanted to know how big a split off the quarter-billion dollars Leppo had been offered. Trying to tell him that he'd never heard of any quarter-billion dollars was a waste of time. They seemed to think that the Knight was still out in the desert where Leppo and Casey had collected him from. Why else, they had argued, would the site out there be defended? They also seemed to think that a couple named Elaine and Sarda were there too. Leppo didn't know who Elaine might be, but he thought that the other of the pair-the yellow-haired one-was supposed to be Sarda. Maybe he had a brother or something. Leppo wasn't able to make any sense of it. He was starting to have acute second thoughts about this really being how he wanted to tackle the task of making substantial money. There had to be other ways, more conducive to health and longevity, than this.
They came to the approach lane of the Wuhan exit lock and joined a short line of vehicles waiting to make egress to the surface. "Looks like were going on an outside trip," Casey murmured needlessly.
"Didn't someone say Stony Flats?"
"Shuddup," the guard next to Leppo growled, elbowing his bruised ribs painfully. Leppo shut up.
They moved forward with the next batch of vehicles. The inner doors closed behind them; the lock emptied, then refilled with Martian atmosphere. Once outside, the other traffic quickly dispersed among the clutter of roadways and constructions extending along the canyon bottom beyond the extremity of the city. This thinned as the road began rising, until, by the time they came to the series of steep hairpins carrying the road up to the open desert, the signs of habitation had given way to dry, crumbling slopes of sand and rock, with a line of tired pink crags above in the distance. As they gained height, more of the Martian landscape unfolded beyond the canyon. And then, suddenly, on rounding what was almost the last of the climbing bends, they almost ran into the skeleton of a tow-trailer blocking the road. It lay across at a crazy, tilted angle, one end gouging into the sand mound bounding the roadside as if it had been dropped from the sky. The driver braked hard, throwing the occupants forward.
"Where the hell did that come from?" the guard next to Leppo called to the driver, pulling himself up on the door pillar hand grip.
"I don't know. It's . . ."
The driver's voice dried up. He looked from side to side. Figures in EV combat garb were rising from behind rocks and out of the gulleys, their weapons trained on the car. Two were holding emergency life-bags. It was an indication that they meant business. A few shots would be enough to decompress the vehicle. They would then storm in and cocoon the occupants, unconscious, or at least incapacitated. Resistance was out of the question. Nobody inside could even bring a defensive gun to bear.
"We've got no chance," the driver threw back over his shoulder. "What do I do?"
"Call them," the one beside Leppo said tightly. The sound of engines growing louder came from overhead, and moments later an airborne Armored Personnel Carrier with mercenary markings landed ten yards or so behind the car. The driver picked up the headband carrying his stem mike. "Okay, okay. Hold your fire. You've got us cold. What do you want?"
"Very sensible," a voice agreed over the speaker. "You've got two good friends of ours in there. Get them into breather sets and jackets, and send them out. Then, if you behave yourselves, as far as we're concerned, the other three of you can be on your way. You've got three minutes. Fair enough?"
Leppo turned in his seat and looked back disbelievingly at the jaunty, red-suited figure that had come out from the APC and seemed to be doing the talking. He'd recognized that voice the moment it started speaking. And the face behind the visor-still brown, but familiar enough by now-confirmed it.
It was the Knight!
The APC rose slowly until the slack was almost gone from the line connecting it to the trailer frame blocking the road. "Slow. . . ." Major Everit gauged the distance from a screen showing the vertical view below. "Hold it there," he instructed the pilot beside him. "Now, slow again. . . ."
"Taking weight," the pilot confirmed. "Okay, I've got it. . . . It's good."
"Fine. Get rid of it."
The APC lifted the frame clear, hovered for a moment, and then moved slowly forward to release the suspended load over the downward slope below the road. The car with the three guards inside waited warily; then, when nothing further happened, it began edging forward. Mahom watched it through a window as the APC resumed its ascent.
"I'm not so sure we should be letting them go like that," he muttered to Kieran, sitting across from him behind the flight deck. "The first thing they're gonna do is call ahead with the bad news." Kieran hadn't ordered the vehicle's phone or the guards' personal phones to be disabled to buy extra time. Deliberately leaving people out on the Martian surface without communications just wasn't done.
"They'd just have been in the way here," Kieran answered. "And the Stony Flats celestial choir is no doubt tracking them. If the car had stayed there much longer, they'd know something was wrong, anyway."
Next to the pilot, Major Everit was looking perturbed. "Two troop carriers and a gunship rigged for ground suppression," he said, turning to Kieran. "We don't have the firepower to take on something like that. We were commissioned as a light defense force."
"It's bluff," Kieran assured him. "They want me and a couple of other people they think are down there. They won't just come roaring in with guns blazing."
"So what do you need us for? if you're not there, they'll go away again."
"A show of force on the ground-so those goons don't take it into their heads to start slapping any scientists around."
Everit still didn't seem happy. "I don't like asking my men to face odds like that. If we had firepower to offset that gunship. . . ."
"There's the Guardian Angel," Leppo said from the seat behind, where he and Casey were listening.
"What's the Guardian Angel?" Everit asked.
Kieran turned his head abruptly, wondering why he hadn't thought of it. "Sol and Casey's flymo," he said to Everit.
"Flymo?" The major started to scoff, but Leppo defended their creation indignantly.
"More than a just flymo, Major. Man, it's got lockon auto-cannon, rear-firing laser or radar homing missiles, target acquisition and incoming tracking radar . . ."
"Not fully tested ye-" Casey started to blurt, but Leppo kicked his foot beneath the seat.
"Mil D-spec countermeasures package. . . ."
"Where is this machine?" Everit asked.
"Right under the roof at the Cherbourg skylock," Leppo said. "We could be there in minutes."
"Fight bluff with counterbluff," Kieran said. "Put there by Providence. You said that was what you needed. Okay, let's go for it. You can drop us off at Cherbourg and then carry straight on to Tharsis. We'll follow as soon as we get the Angel airborne."
Everit was looking dazed. "You'll get used to it," Mahom told him, grinning. "Things kind of happen when the Knight's around."
"Alter course for Cherbourg," Everit told the pilot resignedly.
The pilot entered a code into the navcomp, which flashed a request to Cherbourg Local Area Traffic Control for an inbound slot in the skylock schedule. A few seconds later the associated comscreen responded: CONFIRMED AND HOLDING. ESTIMATED COMPLETION 6 MINUTES.
Consternation had broken out in the partitioned office at the rear of the warehouse at Stony Flats, where Lee Mullen and the Firm's local team had been updating the two expediters just arrived via Phobos to take charge. A call had come in reporting that Leppo and his partner had been hijacked en route by an unidentified military unit that came down out of the sky. The guy who seemed to be in charge of the grab wore a red suit and had a brown face. There was even a picture that one of the guards had managed to snap with his phone as the rescuers and their two charges were embarking.
The mention of a brown face triggered "Mr. Black's" recollection of the brief encounter in the hotel elevator. "Let me see him," he demanded. An enlarged version of the face in the helmet appeared on one of the screens. Black studied it intently. "Lighten it a bit," he said to the graphics tech who was with the group. "Make the color normal. . . . Now take the gray out of the hair."
"How do you want it?"
"Dark. . . . No, say maybe more brown." Mr. Black watched the transformation. The result was still a little on the old side, but he no longer had any doubts. "That's him!" he pronounced. "It's the guy who was at the Zodiac Bank with his twin brother." He pointed at Sarda, who was standing with Balmer. "The one who said he was the lawyer."
Sarda stepped forward for a closer look. "He's right. That's who stopped me on the street when I was on my way there. He's the guy with the dog!"
"I saw him at the Oasis," Black told everyone. "I knew I'd seen him somewhere."
"He met Leppo there," Mullen said. "Dressed up like a genie. Looks like he came back into town for the wedding party."
Balmer looked at the two arrivals from Phobos. They were both tanned, unsmiling, athletically built, and expensively dressed in dark suits with white shirts. The syndicate upper hierarchy was picky about appearances conforming to position. Only the topmost levels sported lighter shades, some individuality in adornment and style, and an allowance of color. "Well, that's over with now," he said. "They'll be going back to Tharsis. That's where Elaine and the other Sarda will be too . . . and the key to finding your quarter-billion dollars."
The two expediters conferred briefly, then spoke to the leader of the backup force. "Board your men and let's get out there," the one who was in charge said.
Meanwhile, in the upper atmosphere, the vessel from Asgard began its braking maneuver to descend from orbit. It was of a fast, robust design capable of landing on the Martian surface, making it unnecessary to transfer to a shuttle at Phobos. Aboard, in the forward lounge, Hamilton and Achilles Gilder, Thornton Velte, Mervyn Quinn, and Slessor Lomax stared woodenly with greening, blotchy countenances at the wall screen showing a view of the surface. Marissa sat anxiously with the others who had accompanied them. There would be no fooling around with the doctors at Lowell, who had accomplished nothing. The only person to show any understanding of the affliction and demonstrate a successful cure had been the Kahl, but the Khal had since vanished. But there was another who had tried to warn them: the eccentric but seemingly equally capable Keziah Turle, with Professor Hashikar's scientific group at Tharsis. Very well, Hamilton had decided. Then they would descend directly to Tharsis.