A chapter from the forthcoming Cat Among Dragons novel, tentatively entitled While Shadows Fall . .
First Sergeant Tony Lee twitched. Crowds made him uncomfortable. Even here, on the edge of the press of people streaming toward the Thames River bridges to be in place for the New Year’s fireworks, the mass of passing bodies seemed to trap him despite having an open road at his back. Still, he had to grin just a little when a disgruntled voice at his elbow growled, “At least you can see something other than backs and bums, Boer Two.” He tended to forget Commander Na Gael’s lack of physical stature until, well, he glanced down at the top of her head. It stopped level with the bottom of the unit insignia on his anorak sleeve. “Any sign of our sort of trouble?”
“Not yet, Ma’am.” He’d spotted a few cheerful drunks, two teen agers with surly expressions, and several people who might well walk into the river as they talked on their cell-phones, but nothing “exotic.” He did not want to encounter anything exotic. “I do hope this is one of our false alarms.”
“So do I, although,” she sounded thoughtful. “If we do encounter an exotic, the Mad Scotsman will have something to vent his frustration on.”
In fact, Commander Rachel Na Gael growled to herself, I could do with a little bit of hand-to-hand right now myself. There was a reason General McKendrick had caught her sneaking out and running the obstacle course in her personal field kit. He’d fussed, a little, more because she’d interrupted his own run and he was trying to improve his personal best enough so he could beat RSM Smith the next time the seniors had to run the course. Well, that and that she’d been using unorthodox techniques, as usual. Rachel snorted to herself as she looked around, part of her tracking the crowd and part of her a light year or so away. Of course I was. I hate getting wet, even indoors in the warm. Ugh, wet makes me grumpy and things tend to chafe which makes me grumpier and puts those nasty little knots in my fur in rude places and what in the name of hairballs is that?
“Boer Two, eleven o’clock, low, on the pave beside the second strut past the first cable attach.”
Beside her Sgt. Lee lifted his night glasses and looked over the stream of heads. “I don’t— Belay that. Something disk shaped and glowing that was not there a few minutes ago. Or that was not glowing.”
Rachel nodded at the confirmation and pulled her mini-scanner out of the pocket on her long, dark grey coat. It looked like a late model cell phone and she tapped it with the stylus, humming a random tune. “Hmm, mmm, mmm, hmm, mmmeeeowch cover your eyes!”
Tony ducked and turned away, one forearm up. Even so he sensed a flash and felt his hair lift and his fingers tingle. Screams began within moments of the energy flare, and he grabbed Manx One and hauled her to the side, away from the empty road and into the protection of a wall. As he’d guessed, after a heart beat or two of motionless silence, the crowd screamed and began to panic. People streamed past the warriors, ignoring the barricade in their flight. “Status, Manx One.”
“Flat,” she snarled from behind him. “Move.” He stepped sideways. “Thank you.” She shook all over. “Not flat. We need to get to the target marker and see what’s left of it.”
Of course they did, Lee groaned to himself. And that meant wading through the crowd. How were they going to—? He had an idea. “Right, come, Manx One.” Louder he said, “Idiots never can get their effects right. I told Mike all the cell phone signals would trip the flasher too early, but noooo, he never listens.”
Rachel caught on as they crossed the crowd. In the dark, Lee’s anorak and her coat looked like the kit of the roadies for the fireworks and effects team. “No, because it’s his baby,” she groused in turn. “So much for the surprise effect he was hoping for. That’s why God gave us wire and gaffer tape and timers. ‘Scuze me, sorry, thanks,” she squeezed between two of the now less frantic pedestrians, Lee close behind. “What a flippin’ mess.” Rachel ran a hand over her hair. “Mack’s going to be right peeved, he is.” She pulled a tiny pocket torch out of her other pocket and shone it on the remains of the device.
“That’s a mess, ma’am.”
“Aye. Better tell Mack. I’ll see if there’s anything salvageable,” she said, crouching down and poking at the rounded shape. The bottom appeared flat and it looked very much like a larger version of the skeet they used for shotgun training, but charred. As Lee passed the word to Command One and Boer One, Rachel tested the electronic circuits on the target. They remained intact. “Ah, this is a problem.” She stood up, glanced around for curious observers, and tapped the thing with her foot. It scooted a little, then stopped. Rachel walked around the device and tapped it back the other way. It scooted and remained loose. Further attempts to encourage it to the end of the bridge failed, but it would move toward the center of the bridge. Rachel wrinkled her nose as she calculated if she had enough charge in anything short of her sidearm to ruin the targeting receiver. She did not. Rachel cursed under her breath in Feltari, drew her side arm under the cover of her long coat, set it to low stun, and popped the device. The readout on her scanner showed that it remained functional. “Right.” She raised the power level, looked away and fired.
A toe tap moved the device a nice distance and Rachel chased after it, then picked it up. “Ow! Hot metal, blast it I know better.”
“So is it totally ruined?”
“Yeah. Mike’s going to be pissed.” Rachel walked back to where the device had been and looked up toward the top of the buildings around them. Where had the energy pulse originated? The pulse had overloaded her scanner, hiding its point of origin.
Lee leaned over, shining his own torch beam on the charred mass. “Boer One wants to know if we should look for more of those, and where the energy surge came from,” he said quietly.
Rachel holstered her sidearm and poked at the still warm half-sphere. “Yes. Send him a picture, and probably the top of a building or close to the top. It is probably a line-of-sight device.” Rachel continued her study, then looked around, tapping one clawed-tipped finger against the metallic shell in her other hand. They stood on part of the bridge that had been sealed over the metal base. Farther up the slope of the bridge deck, it reverted to bare metal along the edges. It would be very simple for someone in the crowd to drop more of the devices, and they stuck like limpets. Like limpets. “Boer Two, how do your limpet mines work again?”
“They stick to the hulls of ships and ah. I’ll pass the word.”
“Please do.” Rachel left him talking quickly and quietly on his portable radio. She trudged up the edge of the bridge, skirting the crowd. She found one more lump, but it proved to be the housing of one of the lights decorating the bridge. Right, if I were going to disrupt things, I’d run parallel walking blasts from the outside in, driving people into a mass for maximum panic and effectiveness per shot. But I don’t see any more . . . are they a distraction? She leaned against the railing and looked away from the crowd, running her scanner at max sensitivity. Nothing, because a mass of very local signals close by was drowning out what she wanted. Rachel frowned, peered down, then out through the safety mesh at the dark river below. Underwater cable connections? No, that made no sense. Security people doing something? No, she didn’t see the usual shapes and she and Lee would have been informed of their location. All she saw was a barge with a lot of tubes and “Blast it.”
She turned and looked up at Lee. “The barge, Boer Two. We saw a test.” I think.
Lee’s face went pale. “Understood.”
“And we need to look for more of these, but on the out route.”
“Roger.” Again Lee passed the word. Rachel wished her radio had not chosen that evening to break wires, but lowest bidder and Murphy the Universal Solvent had struck again. “Ah, ma’am, I think the view will be better back that way,” Lee pointed to the end of the bridge, and a little upstream. “We’re too close to see much from here.”
Don’t you want to be at the center point of the blast and crowd, Boer Two? It might be rather exciting. Rachel’s thoughts went no farther than her own mind for once, and she made the hand sign for “concur.” The two warriors wiggled their way out of the crowd once more, grumbling about technicians and vast ideas with half-vast wiring diagrams. Rachel felt Lee placing his hand under her elbow to steady her as they came to a rather nasty set of old, moss-slick stone steps. She took the support, looking up and around as she climbed. Something flashed in a window of the office tower ahead of them, about eight floors up. Rachel stopped, eye narrowing with concentration. A red light flashed from the same window, almost like a targeting laser’s dot but too large.
“Boer two, twelve o’clock, eighth floor third window from that appalling modern metal excrescence.”
“Ah, no one’s supposed to be in the building because of the fireworks barge, Manx One.”
“Then I think someone needs to find out what’s going on because I’ve seen two lights and, hang about.” A dark shape fluttered out of the window, like a curtain caught in the wind.
“Can’t be.” Lee radioed to Command One. He listened as Rachel watched the people around them.
“Sorry,” someone said, jostling her. She grabbed the wrist attached to the hand trying to slip into her pocket and bent it backwards after sinking her claws into the soft, fat flesh. “OOwwwww!”
“Sorry bout that ‘Duchess,” she exclaimed. “Didn’t mean to step on your foot.” Rachel released the pick-pocket with a firm shove and silent curse
Lee loomed up and the older woman took herself off with a parting curse in something Slavic sounding. Rachel rolled her eye. Whatever the woman had invoked would have to get in line. “What did Mack say?”
“To stay put and watch for more failures.” He turned his attention to the building and Rachel looked back toward the dark river. She could still see the hole in the shimmering reflections of London’s lights that marked the location of the pyrotechnic barge. “Oh, and they are checking the other barge as well, the one near Parliament.”
Rachel and Lee took turns watching their target and keeping an eye on the people and buildings around them. After too long for Rachel’s comfort Lee put his had to his ear to hear better, then spoke into his radio. “They are checking the building now. Which floor again, ma’am?”
“Eighth I think. Bottom, then eight up from that, three windows from the ugly metal swirl-drape-slug thing.”
“Eighth floor, three windows upstream from the art installation,” Lee told someone.
“And a fine waste of my tax money that was, too,” a Scotts accented voice announced, but quietly. Rachel did not jump as Brigadier General James McKendrick walked out of the shadows on her blind side. “That’s the sort of thing that makes me sympathize with the separatists. Charles Rennie Mackintosh must be rolling in his grave at being called the inspiration for that . . . thing.”
The curtain-like object flapped again where solid glass should have been. “They should be there,” McKendrick growled under his breath. “Have you identified the— Damn!”
Red and yellow flared and flames burst out of the opening in the building like a chrysanthemum from hell. Rachel pulled her scanner out and looked from the flames to the display, then turned to the bridge and river. A mass of voices chanted, “Three, two, one,” and explosions leaped from the barge into the air, turning into shimmers of color as the crowd cheered in the New Year.
“That was too close,” all three warriors said in unison, then looked at each other.
With her free hand Rachel reached back and tried to smooth the fur on the back of her neck. “Remind me to get some local currency, Boer Two, because I need to make a very large donation come Sunday.” Farging Gehenna, that was stupid. I am so stupid. Sod it, I should have gone in there myself as soon as we saw the flash.
Both humans listened intently to their radios, leaving Rachel fuming and frustrated. Damn it, she was going to use her own bloody kit from now on, full stop. So what if she looked strange? McKendrick spoke quickly, his back to her, and she couldn’t hear him over the fireworks and crowd noise. Rachel growled low in her throat and flexed her claws. She really needed that hand-to-hand practice right now.
Lee bent over and whispered into her ear-holes. “Whoever was in the office hit a self-destruct just before Hunter One and his support reached the door. Took out at least two people, maybe four. It’s hard to say, ma’am. The equipment is slagged.”
Rachel opened her mouth, then closed it. She waited for McKendrick to turn back where he could see her face before saying, “I do not think that was a deliberate self-destruct, Boer Two, Command One.” She held up her scanner and the two men bent to look at the palm-sized screen. “You can see some kind of energy building until five seconds before midnight, then a discharge of sorts.”
McKendrick looked from her to the smoke oozing out of the missing window and back. “We were too late?”
“Almost. Whatever they were using failed, or someone panicked, but I am not confident in the last, Command One.”
Three days later Rachel and McKendrick looked at the heap of melted and charred metal and other things now taking up a corner of the 58th Regiment of Foot’s headquarters laboratory. “You are certain,” McKendrick said. “I don’t doubt your analysis, Rachel, but others will.”
“I’m as certain as I can be, Sir, and Capt. Ahkai and the wizards are 90% certain as well. It included exotic materials.”
The redhead stared at the mess, a morose expression on his round face. “According to Inland Revenue, that office belonged to one of theirs, and the glass should not have been missing. The manager to whom the office belonged is also missing.”
“Presumed charred, I assume. And one of the bodies was not human. Humanoid, very close, but not human. Humans do not have triple-rows of teeth in their jaws.”
McKendrick stared at her over his glasses. “Like a shark?”
“Yes.” Rachel leaned over to the side and fished a bit of sooty something out of a shallow pasteboard box. “This is exotic. The lens and half the circuits are imports. Ah, were imports, sorry.”
McKendrick folded his arms. “I di’ nay like this.”
Rachel rubbed under her blind eye. “Neither do I, sir. I can’t tell where it came from, or when, but the important bits were imported.”
“And worse. I missed Hogmanny because of them,” McKendrick growled.
“There’s always Burns Night, sir.”
“It is not the same.”
“Then may I have your haggis?”
He drew himself up and glared at her. “Certainly not. Nor may you have my tattie scones, either.” He relaxed. “The leeks, however, are all yours. Only someone as mad as the Welsh would consider those edible.”
Rachel risked sticking her tongue out at him. He wagged his finger and chuckled. “Do not abuse my generosity, Commander Na Gael.”
“It is my stomach, not your generosity, that leeks abuse, sir.”