Two more snippets after this one.


“Immigration Services.” Harper pulled out his ID and laid it on the director’s desk.

Manning actually examined the ID. With considerable care, too, more than was really warranted given the rarity of identity theft on Torch. Judson got the impression the camp director was one of those people whose instinctive response to government authority was to dig in his heels.

“Okay,” he said sourly, after about ten seconds. He handed the ID back to Harper. “What’s this about?”

Manning’s attitude was triggering off an equivalent response from Ferry. “That’s not actually any of your concern, Mr. Manning. Where’s Allen?”

Manning started to bristle. Then, made a face and jerked a thumb at the window behind him. “You’ll find him operating one of the extractors. On the south edge of the camp. If you don’t know what he looks like –”

“We do know,” said Harper. He turned and left the office. Judson followed.

Once in the corridor and after having walked most of the way to the outside door to the building, Harper muttered: “What an asshole.”

Judson just smiled. He was quite sure that Manning had uttered — or at least thought — equivalent sentiments after Harper left his office.

Genghis bleeked his amusement, confirming Judson’s guess.

Once they were outside, they consulted a map of the camp that was posted on the wall of the building. It was hand-drawn, insofar as the term meant much given modern drafting equipment.

“Close enough to walk,” Harper pronounced. He headed south, tugging lightly on the grip of his pulser to make sure it would come easily out of the holster. Judson followed suit. For the first time, it registered clearly on him that they might be on the verge of a violent incident. Despite his intensive training and proficiency with weapons, Judson’s work as a forest ranger back on Sphinx had been a lot closer to that of a guide and sometime emergency medical technician. SFR personnel were policemen, as well, and they took that part of their training seriously, but Judson had never actually found himself acting as a policeman.

Not yet, at least.

Harper S. Ferry didn’t have a policeman’s background either, of course. He had one that had been a lot more violent. Judson could only hope that the year and half which had passed since Harper gave up his old profession had placed at least a patina of restraint on the man.

Something of his tension must have shown. Harper glanced at him and smiled. “Relax. I don’t intend to shoot the guy. Just find out why he’s got an identity number he’s got no business having.”

* * *

It didn’t take them more than ten minutes to reach the south edge of the camp and find Allen working on the extractor. The machine wasn’t particularly big, but it was incredibly noisy.

Noisy enough that Allen never heard them coming. The first he knew of their presence was when Harper tapped him on the shoulder.

The man turned a control, placing the machine on idle and drastically reducing the noise. Then he turned his head and said: “What can I do for you?”

He was quite relaxed. Then his gaze moved past Harper and fell on Judson, with Genghis perched on his shoulder.

The treecat’s ears suddenly flattened, and Judson could feel his claws tightening on his shoulder. There were protective pads there for precisely this purpose. Judson knew that Genghis was readying to launch an attack.

“Be careful –” he started to shout at Harper. But Harper must have spotted something in Allen’s stance or perhaps his eyes, because he was already reaching for the pulser on his hip.

Allen shouted something incoherent and struck Harper with his fist. The blow indicated the immigrant had had some martial arts training, but was certainly no expert at hand-to-hand combat. Harper rolled with the punch, catching it on his arm instead of his rib cage.

Still, the blow knocked him down. Allen was a big man, and very strong.

A lot stronger than Van Hale, certainly. But between his own pulser and Genghis’ formidable abilities as a fighter, Judson wasn’t really worried.

Allen apparently reached the same conclusion. He turned and darted around the extractor, heading for the nearby forest.

He was fast as well as strong. Judson probably couldn’t have caught up with him, and he was reluctant to just shoot the man down when they still didn’t really know anything.

But Genghis solved that problem. The ‘cat was off Judson’s shoulder and onto the ground and racing in pursuit within two seconds.

It was no contest. Genghis caught up with Allen before the man had gotten even halfway to the tree line. He went straight for the big man’s legs and brought him down in two strides.

Allen hit the ground hard, screeching. He tried to knock Genghis away but the ‘cat’s razor-sharp claws were more than a match for his fist. A human being in good condition and with really good martial art skills had at least a fair chance against a treecat in a fight, simply because of the size disparity. But it wouldn’t be easy and the human would certainly come out of it badly injured.

Allen didn’t even try. He wriggled around onto his stomach. Then, oddly, he just stared at the trees for a few seconds.

By then, Judson had reached him. “Hold still, Allen!” he commanded. “Genghis won’t hurt you any further as long you don’t –”

He saw Allen’s jaws tighten. Then the man’s eyes rolled up, he inhaled once, gasped, gasped again . . . and he was unconscious and dying. Judson didn’t have any doubt of it. From his little screech, neither did Genghis.

“What in the name of . . .” He shook his head, not sure what to do. Normally, he’d have begun CPR treatment, even though he was pretty sure there was no way to save Allen’s life at this point. But there was a nasty-looking greenish slime beginning to ooze out of Allen’s mouth, which he was almost certain was the residue or side effect — or both — of some sort of powerful poison. Whatever the stuff was, Van Hale wasn’t about to get close to it.

Harper came up, cradling his arm. “What happened?”

“He committed suicide.” Judson felt a bit stunned. Everything had happened so fast. From the time Harper tapped Allen on the shoulder to the man’s suicide, not more than thirty seconds could have passed. Probably less. Maybe a lot less.

Harper knelt down next to Allen’s body, and rolled him onto his back. The former Ballroom killer was careful not to let his hands get anywhere near Allen’s mouth.

“Fast-acting poison in a hollow tooth. What in the name of creation is an ex-slave immigrant doing with that kind of equipment?” He looked around, spotted a sturdy-looking stick within reach, and picked it up. Then, used the stick to pry open Allen’s mouth so he could look at the man’s tongue.

“And . . . that’s a Manpower breeding mark, for sure and certain. No chance at all it’s cosmetic.”

He straightened up from the corpse and rocked back on his heels, now squatting instead of kneeling. “What the hell is going on, Judson?”