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Chapter 27

The last of the sunbeams crawling up the east wall faded and disappeared as the sun dipped below the mountain peaks to the west. It was still a good half hour until official sundown, of course, but Martel nonetheless felt heartened in the relative gloom that now filled the refinery. Darkness always made him feel safer.

A breeze tickled the back of his neck, and he turned as Axel landed beside him. "All set," the boy reported. "Those boxes of yours are awfully heavy, but there are only fifteen of them and we should be able to handle two each. They're lined up just inside the door over there."

"Good. What about the food supplies?"

"All packed and ready to go. Everyone's eaten now except you and Jarvis and the kids outside."

Martel glanced at the blue sky outside. "We might as well pull in the lookouts, I guess. Wherever the police are looking they'll have to quit reasonably soon; it's already getting dark in the valley beneath the temple site. Go call the kids in and let them eat. Jarvis and I'll eat after they finish."

Axel nodded and flew off to collect the outside guards. Martel watched him go, wondering exactly what to do with the boy... or, more accurately perhaps, when and how he would do it. That fabrication about priesthoods for the kids wouldn't hold him forever, especially with Jarvis right there to breathe on any sparks of doubt that might arise. Eventually, Martel knew, a showdown was inevitable, and he'd better be prepared to win it damn quickly.

Still, all things were possible to those who planned ahead. In a sealed cabinet two rooms over were several more bottles of sodium cyanide, and it would be simplicity itself to add one to the supplies they would be flying out with. When he and Jarvis went to eat, he would find a way to quietly take care of that little chore.

A motion across the room caught his eye. Jarvis, still sitting against the south wall, was shifting position, apparently trying to angle the pad of paper on his knees to catch as much of the waning light as possible. For a moment Martel frowned, wondering what about the doctor seemed different to him... and then he smiled as understanding came. Jarvis was a good three meters closer to the east door than he'd been when he first sat down. Still smiling, Martel walked over.

Jarvis got in the first word. "Don't you have any lights in this place?" he asked irritably. "I'm going blind trying to write over here."

"Of course we do," Martel told him. "Run by our own private generator and battery bank, since the service from Nordau seems to have been suspended. However, if we wanted to use the lights, we'd first have to close and curtain the windows, and I'm afraid it's still too hot in here for that."

"If I don't get more light, I'll have to quit working," Jarvis threatened.

"Oh, by all meansyou've worked so hard for the past hour and a half that you've earned some time off. Besides" he smiled pleasantly"it'll give you the chance to devote all your energy to sidling imperceptibly toward the door."

Some of the starch seemed to go out of the scientist. "Damn you," he muttered.

"Come now, Doctor," Martel chided mildly. "Don't sound so discouraged. Especially since I know it's all an act, anyway."

For a moment Jarvis's eyes blazed with anger. "You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" he said. "You know everything, understand everybody, and never make a mistake."

"Of course I make mistakesbut seldom any of consequence. And the reason is exactly as you said: I understand people. I don't know what if anything Tirrell told you of my background, but I assure you that I've been a master of psychology far longer than you've been studying hormones."

"Then you must know I'll die rather than give you what you want."

Martel shook his head. "I doubt it. You see, Doctor, all your professional life you've been solving problems that at first glance have looked unsolvable. This is just the latest one in a long string, and habit alone will keep you searching for a way around me for a long time yet. Besides, if you die before the project's complete, you'll never know if the damn thing works, will you?"

Jarvis remained silent, and Martel knew at least one of his shots had hit home. A small victory, but a potentially significant one. If he could convince even a fraction of Jarvis's mind that he, Martel, was unbeatable, he would in effect have gained an ally inside the scientist's own brain. "If you'll forgive me now, I have a few more things to attend to before our departure," he said, glancing out the window at the blue sky. "We'll probably be leaving in about"

He broke off abruptly as something hard and cold wrenched at his heart. Nestling almost invisibly just inside the window's lower left-hand corner was a tiny black cylinder... a cylinder hanging from a thin wire.

A microphone.

He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the nausea of fear and anger bubbling in his throat. "Axel!" he bellowed.

"Damn!" Tirrell snarled, ripping off the headphones as Martel's yell echoed off his eardrums. "We're in for it now, partner."

"They've spotted us?" Tonio asked, sounding a lot calmer than Tirrell felt.

"Just the mike, so far. But that'll give them our general direction if they sight along the wire. See if you can pull the mike back out; if not, better break the wire as far away from us as you can."

The righthand was already peering through his binoculars. "Okay... got it. Mike's down in the grass now, but I think I was too late. Someone was pulling from the other side. Do we get out of here or stay put?"

We stay put," Tirrell said grimly, trying to see through the dust coating the refinery windows. "They'll have to fly straight overhead in order to spot us, and once they're out in the open you'll have a strong tactical advantage. Just watch for flanking maneuvers and don't let anyone get too close. At least that crowd they'd left outside got in before the alarm went off; I guess that's something to be thankful for."

"What happens if they all sneak out the far side of the building?"

"Aside from the fact that they don't know we're alone, it wouldn't do them any good." The detective pointed. "Except where the river cuts through, the ground on the north side slopes up, and there's not a scrap of decent cover anywhere this side of that ridge. Ditto for east and west; they'd have nearly a kilometer to cross before they'd even get to any tall grass. No, they'll try to come this wayand they'll try to eliminate us first. So look sharp."

For several tense minutes nothing happened; and the first attack, contrary to Tirrell's expectations, did not come from high-flying preteens. Instead, one of the windows suddenly opened all the way and a large object shot out, heading straight for them.

Tirrell opened his mouth to yell at Tonioand bit down hard on his tongue as the projectile sailed cleanly overhead and thudded into the ground a good fifty meters upslope. It had barely landed when a second missile followed it, this one hitting less than twenty meters in front of them and nearly as far to the left.

"Trying to flush us out," Tonio murmured.

"Yeah. Waiting to see which shots come close enough for us to deflect." A third object followed its predecessors. "Tonioif this one's aimed high, deflect it at the last moment to land as close to us as you can."

"Got it."

Tirrell held his breath. The shot was indeed going to be a solid ten meters long... and suddenly it jerked in midair and fell, digging itself half into the ground less than a meter from Tirrell's feet. The detective swallowed painfully; but it had been what he wanted. "Nice job," he managed.

"Thanks. Now what?"

"They should be throwing everything loose at the place that one was supposed to hit. Deflect as many as you can in any direction you wantnot so close this time."

The words were hardly out of his mouth when the open window suddenly erupted with a veritable stream of flying objects. Tirrell ducked involuntarily, but Tonio was equal to the challenge. Directly overhead, the stream broke up, its component elements splashing into a roughly circular pattern centered a dozen meters upslope. Gritting his teeth, hating his own inactivity even while recognizing there was nothing he could do, the detective watched and waited... and, as abruptly as it had begun, the barrage ceased.

Beside him, Tonio exhaled loudly. "Whew! I'm glad that's over. Or are they just collecting more stuff to throw?"

Tirrell risked taking the time for a quick look at the objects littering the ground around them. Several sections of iron grating, what looked like an ingot mold, a wheel off a cart, a small box. "They're certainly throwing everything that isn't nailed down," he said. "But I suspect that last attempt cleaned out their stockpile, at least for the moment. My guess is that they'll try coming after us personally nextwe've pretty well proved this approach doesn't work."

Tirrell's prediction was quickly borne out; but with a twist the detective hadn't expected. Without warning, two kids came shooting out the same window the earlier barrage had come from and headed swiftly toward them. Simultaneously, a third boy took off from the building's east side, a small box clutched in his arms. At breakneck speed he headed for the trees a kilometer away.

"Stop him! Tirrell snapped, pointing at the fugitive. Their only hope was to keep Martel's group bottled up in the refinery until reinforcements arrived, and if they allowed even one of them to get away, the fagin would keep trying until all of them had made it.

Tonio's response was typical of the righthand's sense of humor. Instead of simply trying to halt the other's dash by brute force, he abruptly teeked hard on the box clutched in the kid's arms. Unable to react fast enough as the box suddenly slowed, the boy slammed into it stomach-first, legs shooting by underneath as he wrapped himself around it with a gasping yelp loud enough for Tirrell to hear a kilometer away. An instant later both he and the box were hurtling backward toward the refinery as all resistance to Tonio's teekay vanished into the boy's all-consuming need to get air back into his lungs. Satisfied his righthand had that part under control, Tirrell shifted his attention skyward.

The other two kids were almost directly overhead, drifting slowly now as their eyes swept the ground. Tonio, sitting right next to a large bush, was temporarily out of their line of sight; but Tirrell was perfectly visible from their position, and he knew he had seconds at the most before they spotted him.

There was only one thing he could think of to try. "Get ready to catch me," he muttered to Tonio. Waiting until the searching eyes above them were looking elsewhere, he scrambled to his feet and ran recklessly down the slope toward the refinery, the tear-gas grenade he'd scooped up concealed in his left hand.

He hadn't covered more than five meters when his feet found themselves treading air. Looking up, he saw one of the kids coming up behind him at a height of a hundred meters or so. The second, close behind, was glaring at the ground, and Tirrell got the impression that a teekay battle was underway between him and Tonio. Mentally crossing his fingers, Tirrell glanced at the ground, perhaps three meters beneath him now, and waved his empty hand at his captor. "Not so high! Not so high!" he yelled, putting an edge of hysteria into his voice.

The kid responded exactly as Tirrell had hoped he would. Instead of lowering the detective, he did just the opposite, yanking him swiftly upward as a fisherman would reel in a catch. Higher and closer he was teeked... and as the kid reached out toward him, Tirrell pulled the three-second fuse on his grenade, counted two, and threw it.

He had aimed the device to go off directly between the two kids, but whether or not it actually did so he never found out. The flat crack of the compressed tear gas bursting free and the cool wave of moisture that followed immediately afterward caught Tirrell with his head turned aside as far as possible, his eyes squeezed tightly shut with hands protecting both them and his nose. That his plan had indeed succeeded, however, was clear from the strangled gasps above himand from his sudden, uncontrolled tumble toward the ground.

Falling blind was a far more unnerving experience than Tirrell had expected it to be, but fortunately it didn't last long. A new teekay grip was on him in seconds, pulling him to the side and down; and with a moment's hard deceleration, the ground slapped at his feet.

"Tonio?" he whispered loudly, dropping into a kneeling crouch. Brushing his sleeve against the tear gas still clinging to his hair, he risked a quick glance, saw nothing but tall grass.

"Back here," came a muffled whisper from a few meters to his right. "Hereyour gas mask."

Something bumped lightly against the side of Tirrell's face. Grabbing it, he slid it on, fumbling a bit before he got the straps properly tightened. Exhaling what was left in his lungs to clear the mask of any traces of gas, he cautiously took a breath. Just as cautiously, he opened his eyes.

Tonio, his own mask firmly in place, slid through the grass to Tirrell's side a moment later, the remaining gas grenades held in a fingertip-and-teekay grip in front of him. "Grack, but you took a chance there," he murmured.

"Had to be done," Tirrell grunted, taking a second to examine the righthand's mask. Tightening one of the straps, he returned his gaze to the now empty sky. "Did you see what happened to them?" he asked.

"I think their friends teeked them back into the refinery. They sure weren't navigating on their own. Are they going to be all right?"

"Oh, they're not in any danger. But I think we can scratch them from any further action for the day." Raising his head cautiously, Tirrell peered over the grasses at the refinery. No activity was visible; the window Martel had been using for his attacks was now sealed against the bluish-looking cloud of tear gas that was slowly drifting toward the east in the light breeze. "In fact, depending on how close everyone else is crowding around them, we may be able to take out the rest of them, too. Grab another grenade, Tonio, and let's try to teek it straight down Martel's throat."

Gasping and rubbing almost viciously at their eyes, Kalle and Barth were teeked back in through the window. "Close that window tight!" Martel snapped to Axel, his stomach threatening to climb up his throat. "All the windowsas tight as they'll go." The kids flew off to obey, leaving him staring out the window. Not at the cloud of gas that had unexpectedly robbed him of a quick victory, but at the place where the man who'd executed the maneuver had disappeared back into cover.

Tirrell. It had been Tirrell.

He swallowed once, hard, and as his brain slowly unfroze, he became aware of a sharp odor in the air. "Get over thereall the way in the corner," he ordered the two disabled kids. "Axel, teek them over there. Everyone else keep away; they've got the stuff on their clothes."

"Something coming!" the boy on lookout two windows away snouted.

Martel jumped to his side. A small black object, heading straight for the window. "Knock it down," he commanded the boy. "No, waitjust stop it and try to pull on anything that seems to be sticking out."

The cylinder hesitated in its flight, wobbled back and forth under the opposing forces, and a small ring near the front abruptly popped free. Seconds later the cylinder seemed to explode into another of the off-white clouds.

"What is that stuff?" the boy asked nervously.

"Don't worry, it won't hurt you," Omega growled. "It just makes your eyes water, like sliced onions."

Axel landed next to him. "Can we give Barth and Kalle some water? Maybe if they wash"

"You!" Omega barked, turning on him. "That was Tirrell, damn it! Why the hell didn't you teek him in here when he started falling?"

Axel seemed to draw back from the outburst; but even through his anger Martel could see it wasn't the recoil of puppylike subservience. Axel was regarding him coolly, almost measuringly. "We were busy getting Barth and Kalle back in, we had to pull Doane and that box in over there, and you were screaming at us to hurry up and not let any of the smoke in. If you'd wanted us to grab him, you should have said something."

With an effort, Martel forced himself to calm down. He couldn't afford to lose control now. "Sorry. But that was Tirrell, damn it."

"I saw him. You told me he wouldn't be any more trouble."

"I know." Martel watched the latest cloud move across the landscape. How had the detective escaped from the cabin? He didn't know, but he was for damn sure going to find out. "Put one of your kids on each side of the room to watch for attempts to break through the windows," he instructed Axel. "Someone else should make sure Tirrell and whoever he's got out there don't move from where they are. Then I want you, Axel, to stack the boxes we're taking with us in front of the door to the rest of the building; I don't want anyone sneaking up on our blind side."

Axel seemed to consider all that, then nodded. "All right. You just going to stay here and supervise?"

Martel made a note of the preteen's sarcastic tone for future reference. "No. I'm going to have a little talk with Dr. Jarvis." Without waiting for a response he stalked away.

He found the scientist seated with his back against the huge furnace, a nervous preteen hovering nearby. "Report to Axelhe has a job for you," Martel told the boy. The other nodded and flitted off, and Martel turned his glare onto Jarvis. "Enjoying the show?" he asked coldly.

"Wouldn't have missed it for the world," the scientist smiled. For some reason, he looked five years younger. "Did I hear you say it was Detective Tirrell out there?"

"Either him or his twin brother. I don't suppose you'd like to suggest how he got out of your cabin, would you?"

"Maybe Tonio didn't go for help after all," Jarvis suggested. "Perhaps he simply waited outside until you were gone and then nipped in and got them out."

Martel had seldom heard such a poor attempt at a lie; but on the other hand at least one part of that explanation fitted with the known facts. "Maybe you're right," he said, watching the other's face. "It's for sure that no one's arrived with any help so far."

A slight frown creased Jarvis's forehead. "What do you mean?"

"I mean the rescue attempt you're looking forward to is far in the future. Tirrell's out there alone, with exactly one kid assisting him."

"What makes you think that?"

"One: a group of police and righthands would have either stormed us by now or have used a loudspeaker to call for our surrender. Two: Barth was struggling with someone on the ground just before Tirrell fired his gas grenade; if there'd been two kids down there, they would have had enough combined teekay to yank Barth out of the sky."

"I see," Jarvis nodded thoughtfully. "So what you're saying is that a single kid out there is successfully pinning down all nine of yours. I think I understand why Tirrell didn't call for reinforcements."

"Then you understand wrong," Martel snapped, unreasonably irritated by the barb. "So far there hasn't been anything but one-on-one confrontations, and both were won only by tricks. They couldn't survive a massed attack, and you know it. If it weren't for that damned gas they wouldn't have a chance against us."

"Well, I suppose you could all sneak out the far side of the building and make a run for it," Jarvis shrugged. "Of course, you'd probably have to leave me and your little stash of bullion if you wanted to be fast enough to outfly any tear-gas grenades that might be thrown at you. But if you'd like to run along, I can assure you we'll be fine here alone."

Martel smiled thinly. "Cutevery cute. But I don't think we're quite that desperate yet. It's just occurred to me that there's another way to keep Tirrell off my back. Or had you forgotten I have a valuable hostage?"

He watched Jarvis's face long enough to get the satisfaction of the other's startled expression and then turned toward the door where Axel was busily stacking boxes of gold. "Axel!" he called. "Come here!"

"Well, so much for that approach," Tonio commented as the second cloud of tear gas floated harmlessly past the refinery. "Martel's got at least one kid in there who's still able to see straight. What now?"

Tirrell shrugged. "We sit tight and enjoy the stalemate, I guess. Those windows are undoubtedly too strong for you to break, especially in this light, so as long as they're alert in there, we're not going to get any reasonable amount of gas inside. Storming the place would be futilethe windows are too filthy to see through when it's as dark inside there as it is, and I don't think we want to get teeked at when you can't teek back. On the other hand, as long as we've got grenades left to throw, they aren't going anywhere, either."

Tonio yawned audibly. "Well, I hope Lisa hurries back with those reinforcements. I'm absolutely dead."

"It has indeed been a long day," Tirrell agreed, his own lack of sleep a permanent layer of sand under his eyelids. "I'd offer you a nap, but we might need fast action."

"I'm okay."

The righthand fell silent. Shifting position a little, Tirrell stared at the dark windows and ran through the calculation one more time. Lisa had left just after four; call it half an hour to get free of the area, another half hour to get to the Nordau Police Station and contact Plat City, at least forty minutes more for the troops to arrive. Five-forty at the earliesta good half hour away and uncomfortably close to the time when it would be dark enough for Martel's crowd to slip away. Of course, artificial lighting could postpone any break the fagin might be planning, but whether lights could be set up such that the kids inside couldn't teek them off was another problem entirely. He hoped someone in the Plat City team had given the matter some serious thought.

He was just trying to bend his tired brain toward that question when one of the windows in the refinery cautiously opened a crack and a faint voice drifted across the intervening distance. "Tirrell?"

"Don't answer!" Tonio urged. "They'll figure out where we are!"

"They already know that reasonably well," Tirrell shook his head. Taking a deep breath, he raised the lower part of his gas mask and called, "I'm still here, Martel. You ready to surrender?"

"Hardly," the reply came a few seconds later. "I've got Dr. Matthew Jarvis in here, Tirrell. He's a hostage to your good behavior. I've got him booby-trapped with about a quarter kilogram of sodium cyanide powder. Any attempt to break in or interfere with my kids' teekay and he'll die. You understand?"

It took Tirrell two tries to get his tongue to work. "Understood. What do you want?"

"For now, just stay back and don't try anything cute. We'll talk more later."

"All right. You understand that if Dr. Jarvis is hurt, you'll pay with your own life."

Martel didn't answer, and the window was once again closed. "Has he gone crazy?" Tonio demanded.

"Nojust desperate." Carefully, Tirrell fastened his mask in place again, a feeling of cold unreality displacing the fatigue in his brain. Could Martel truly be willing to gamble with Jarvis's life? Surely notsurely he was merely bluffing. And yet... The detective's earlier conversation with Tonio sprang unbidden into sharp focus. With his drugs and notes destroyed, only Jarvis himself had the clue now to the elimination of Transition. If he didn't survive the night...

"Do you think they'll try escaping now?"

With an effort Tirrell brought his mind back into focus. "No, they'll still wait a while. Whatever this booby-trap is, they can't try to leave until it's too dark for you to see the mechanism."

"So it's back to waiting," the righthand said with a tired sigh.

Tirrell nodded, glancing at the darkening sky. "That's right," he said. "Let's hope the support troops hurry." And hope, he added silently, that I know how to advise them when they get here.

Chapter 26 | A Coming Of Age | Chapter 28