Ocelot was there instantly. “‘Hawk!” he called.

The man carrying Winterhawk looked dully at the group and then sank to his knees. He was sweating profusely, pale, and looked like he couldn’t go any further, but still he was gentle lowering his burden to the ground. “Found—you—” he said between harsh breaths. He didn’t appear to notice that the group now contained three new members he’d never seen before. He looked like a man who was beyond fighting or caring.

Ocelot was over there in an instant, helping to get Winterhawk down. He got a look at the mage and his stomach sank. ‘Hawk’s face was gray in the rising dawn light, his hair plastered to his head, his breath shallow and uneven. What was almost worse, his right arm was badly swollen from his shoulder down to his hand, red and bloodstreaked. “Shit...” he whispered. He looked up. “Gabriel, he’s in a bad way. I think he’s in shock.”

Frasier nodded, still panting. “Got—hit—with that strange gun. Glancing blow—still bad. Couldn’t—heal—”

“Strange gun?” Kestrel demanded as Gabriel moved quickly over to examine Winterhawk’s injuries.

Again Frasier nodded. “Don’t know—what kind. Some kind of—energy weapon.”

“Laser?” Ocelot looked up from watching Gabriel work over Winterhawk.

“No. Not—not a laser. We don’t know—what it was.” He paused a moment, leaning back against a tree and closing his eyes. Then he opened them and spoke again, this time with a stronger voice. “There’s—something going on around here. Dr. Stone says—Ares. Testing—weapons—on prisoners. Secret. We saw—their installation.”

Ocelot bit out a curse under his breath, every nerve on the alert. A secret Ares installation testing weapons on innocents in the middle of the Amazonian jungle? This whole situation had just gotten about ten times worse than it had been a few minutes ago. “Gabriel?” he called. “How’s ‘Hawk?”

“Shh...” Gabriel’s voice sounded distracted; he didn’t look up.

“‘Hawk?” Frasier finally seemed to be realizing that he was talking to strangers. “Uh—do you mind telling me who you are?”

“We’re friends of Dr. Stone’s,” Kestrel said. “He sent a watcher spirit to ask for help, and we’re the help. You can call me Kestrel. This is Ocelot, and the guy over there is Gabriel.”

“‘Hawk is—a nickname,” Ocelot added, aware of how lame that sounded. “We go back a long way.”

“You must be Kevin Frasier,” Kestrel said to draw attention away from Ocelot. She offered him her canteen and an energy bar from her pack.

Frasier nodded, accepting both gratefully. “Yep, that’s me.” He noticed Whittaker and Kane in the background and his eyes narrowed. “Where’s everybody else?” When they didn’t answer he sat up a little straighter. “Something’s happened here, hasn’t it?”

Kane nodded wearily. “They attacked us after you left. Ram and Santiago are dead, and they’ve taken Catherine and Peter.”

“Taken them?” Frasier’s gaze sharpened. “What do you mean? Like taken them back to their—?”

“I don’t know,” Kane told him. “They grabbed them, stunned them with something, and carried them off. Like I was telling these people, Dr. Whittaker and I managed to get away from them, and they didn’t follow us. I guess they figured we’d be dead out here in hours by ourselves.”

“They were probably right,” Whittaker said faintly. “If you hadn’t found us—”

Ocelot wasn’t listening—he’d turned his attention back to Winterhawk. Gabriel’s eyes were closed. His hands moved back and forth a few centimeters over the mage, concentrating mostly on his arm and the right side of his chest.

“What’s he doing?” Gina Kane asked, coming over.

“Healing him, I hope,” Ocelot told her.

Frasier looked dubious from his spot against the tree. “I tried that already,” he said. “The injury is significant—it’s as if it’s a whole lot of small injuries rather than one big one. I did the best I could, but it didn’t help much.”

“Gabriel’s very good at what he does,” Kestrel told him. She had her gun in her hands and was prowling around the immediate area, keeping an eye out for approaching threats. So far she was seeing none, but she wasn’t taking chances.

It appeared that no one was inclined to do anything else until Gabriel finished with Winterhawk. The other members of the London University group looked nervous but grateful for the chance to rest for a few minutes in the company of well-armed and well-equipped rescuers—Whittaker finally let himself lie down, and Kane took a seat near Frasier. All three of them were happy to accept food and water from Kestrel’s and Ocelot’s packs. They all waited.

At last Gabriel looked up from what he was doing. “I think he’ll be all right,” he said softly. He shot a significant look up at Ocelot and Kestrel. “His injuries were almost identical to the ones we found on Escuela. The only thing that saved him was that he was hit in the arm, while Escuela was apparently hit in the torso. Still, he was in grave danger. Another few hours and he might not have survived.”

“So—they were both shot with this weird energy weapon?” Ocelot asked, trying not to think about how close his teammate had come to death. He was looking down at Winterhawk—the mage was still unconscious, but his color looked significantly better and the swelling in his arm had gone down to almost nothing. All that remained now to show he’d been injured were the red patches and remains of the blood streaks. “Do you have any idea what it is yet?”

Gabriel didn’t answer, but Frasier did. “I saw one of them,” he said. “I got a good look at it when I took down the guy who shot Dr. Stone. I don’t know what it was, but I can sketch what it looked like if that will help.”

Kestrel was already pulling out a datapad. “Any reason why you didn’t take it with you?”

Frasier indicated Winterhawk. “He told me not to—said if they were testing experimental weapons, they probably have some sort of tracking device on them. Didn’t want to lead then straight to us.”

Ocelot was impressed. ‘Hawk must have been paying attention more than we all thought he was. He moved over to look over Frasier’s shoulder as the student took the datapad and began making a sketch.

When it was finished, Ocelot still didn’t recognize it. Frasier wasn’t the world’s greatest artist, but the drawing he made showed what looked like a rifle with a larger-than-normal stock and an odd flaring near the end of the barrel. “You sure it flares like that?” Ocelot asked.

Frasier nodded. “Yeah. That’s one of its most noticeable features. It’s also got a cable that comes out here—” he indicated the end of the stock “—and goes to a big backpack with batteries in it. “

Kestrel was staring at the picture. “This looks...” she started, then turned to Frasier. “Did it make any kind of sound?”

“All I heard was a whine—a really high-pitched one—for a second or two. Then nothing.”

Kestrel’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything; instead, she went back to studying the picture.

“You think you know what it is, don’t you?” Ocelot asked.

“I think so. I didn’t think they existed—at least not in something this portable.” She met Ocelot’s eyes. “Sound waves. High-frequency sound, focused tight enough that you can hit individual people with it. It’s no wonder it did the damage Gabriel was talking about—this kind of ultrasonic energy could rupture every blood vessel in a person’s body, not to mention vibrating their bones into powder if it’s sustained too long.” She shivered a little. “Nasty, nasty stuff. No wonder they’re testing it out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Shit...” Ocelot murmured. “And ‘Hawk and the rest of these guys dropped down right in the middle of it.” Something occurred to him suddenly. “That explains a lot.”

“About what?”

“Why everybody was dragging their feet about letting us come in here and search. Think about it—that kind of place has got to have some kind of approval. They’re probably greasing all kinds of government palms to the tune of big nuyen to get the authorization to have this place here. That means it’s in everybody’s best interests to make sure it doesn’t get found.”

Kestrel nodded slowly. “Right...so they just assume that the plane crash victims are lost anyway, so they throw roadblocks in front of any kind of investigation until it’s too late. They’ll probably issue some report in a week or so saying they’ve found the wreckage and everybody’s dead.”

“You mean—no one else is looking for us?” Whittaker sounded incredulous. “But—”

“That’s about the size of it, Prof,” Ocelot said. “I was talking to Aubrey, Dr. Stone’s caretaker, and he was telling me that his and the University’s search efforts were getting hosed up worse than ours were. Looks like we’re it. And as soon as ‘Hawk wakes up, we need to get the hell out of here. We’ve got a boat waiting to take us back home.”

“But—” Gina Kane spoke up. “What about Catherine and Peter? We can’t just leave them there. They’ll be killed for sure.”

The three rescuers exchanged glances. Ocelot was about to say something when a groan interrupted him. Winterhawk was coming to.

Ocelot dropped down next to him. “‘Hawk?”

The mage’s eyes opened. For a moment he looked like he wasn’t focusing properly, then his expression turned to confusion. “Ocelot? This is—a dream, isn’t it?”

Ocelot grinned, unable to disguise his pleasure that ‘Hawk appeared to be all right even though everything else was definitely far from all right at the moment. “Nope—You got the real thing. Your watcher worked. Nice stubble, by the way. How do you feel?”

Stone paused for a moment to do an assessment of his physical state. “Much better,” he said, sounding surprised. He glanced over at his arm and looked startled. “It’s—”

In answer, Ocelot hooked a thumb over his shoulder to where Gabriel and Kestrel stood watching.

“Ah...” A slow smile spread across Stone’s face. “I’ve had some expert assistance.” Slowly he sat up and let his breath out. “Expert indeed. I still feel exhausted and vaguely like I’ve been run over by a lorry, but compared to before—” He trailed off, realizing that they weren’t alone in the clearing.

Frasier came over. “Dr. Stone—welcome back. “

Stone looked up at him. “Frasier. I—you—” He smiled. “I think I owe you one, don’t I? Several, in fact.”

“Don’t worry about that right now, sir. We—still have some problems.”

Stone got to his feet, gripping Ocelot’s arm for support. He looked at his teammate as if to say, ‘what’s going on?’

Still, it was Frasier who answered. “They hit the camp, Dr. Stone—that’s what Gina and Dr. Whittaker have told us. Prakesh and Santiago are dead, and Hsu and Merriwether have been taken away.”

Gina Kane nodded. “Dr. Whittaker and I ran for our lives. They were shooting—” She shuddered, remembering.

Stone’s gaze sharpened. “Dead? When?”

“Half an hour or so after you and Frasier left. It was terrible—” Behind her, Whittaker nodded grimly.

“And you say Hsu and Merriwether were taken?”

“They grabbed them—stunned them with something and carried them off. We don’t know where they went—or even if they’re still alive.”

Stone digested this information for a few moments, then sighed and looked the newcomers. To the students and Whittaker, he said, “Can you excuse us for a couple of minutes, please?”

They didn’t look happy about it, but didn’t follow as Stone, Ocelot, Kestrel, and Gabriel moved off to the other side of the small clearing.

“We have to go after them,” Stone said. “I can’t leave two students God knows where out here.”

“You want to go up against an Ares installation?” Ocelot asked. “With an old professor and a couple of grad students?”

“No,” Stone said. “With us. They’re not expecting anything like what we can do. They’re looking for frightened students, not—well—us.” This last was said with a significant look toward Gabriel.

“Hey,” Ocelot said, raising his hands, “after all this frustration I sure as hell wouldn’t mind the chance to kick a little butt and take a few names. But we can’t do it herding these kids around. And the old guy looks like he’s going to keel over from fright any second now.”

“We’ll have to find a safe base for them,” Stone said, distracted. “But don’t discount these ‘kids’ quite so quickly—if it hadn’t been for Frasier there, I’d be dead right now.”

“That’s great,” Ocelot said. “But they’re still noncoms. Even if they’ve got combat experience, it ain’t for dealing with something like this. If we take ‘em along we’re going to be spending our time babysitting ‘em.”

“Why don’t we take them back to the Esperanza?” Kestrel asked. “It’ll take a bit longer, but they should be safe there with Ruiz while we take care of the situation.”

Gabriel nodded. “I can arrange some magic around the boat so no one will notice them while we are gone. I agree that we can’t leave prisoners behind.”

Stone looked back and forth between them. He was still pale and looked very tired, but his eyes were bright. “You’ve heard about what we’ll be up against?” he said at last.

“The sound weapon?” Ocelot nodded. “That’s another reason I want to kick their asses—they’re grabbing people off the streets back in Iquitos to be their little test subjects. Just like a bunch of fucking corpers.”

“Sound weapon?” Stone tilted his head, breaking in before Ocelot got up a good head of steam. “Is that what that damned thing was?”

“Ultrasonic,” Kestrel said. “That’s what we think, anyway, based on what Frasier said it looked like and how it behaved. Nasty. You’re damn lucky you just got winged.”

“I’m beginning to think so,” Stone said. He sagged a little against a tree as the realization of what had almost befallen him sunk in.

“You sure you’re up for this, ‘Hawk?” Ocelot asked. “You don’t look so hot. Maybe you should go back to the—”

“Don’t even suggest it, my friend.” Stone’s tone was cold and even. “These bastards have killed three of our group, along with God knows how many others. They aren’t going to get away with it—and I’ll be damned if I’m going back to London and explain to Merriwether’s and Hsu’s people why I left them behind while I could still function.” He bowed his head. “Henry and I are already going to have enough explaining to Prakesh’s parents.”

Kestrel gripped his arm. “It wasn’t your fault. But that doesn’t help, does it?”

Stone shook his head. “No. It doesn’t.” He looked up, eyes blazing. “But I can bloody well make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Thus united in their purpose, the four of them turned back to where the others waited. “All right,” Stone said. “Here’s the plan. Apparently my friends here arrived in a boat, and it’s waiting for our return.” He glanced at Ocelot. “How far from here is it?”

“About a day’s walk. Less if we can move fast.”

Stone nodded. “We’re going to head back there. With the fortification in our number and offensive capabilities provided by my friends, we should be safe. Once we arrive at the boat, you’ll remain there with the captain until we can set off back for Iquitos.”

“But what about Catherine and Peter?” Kane asked again. “We can’t leave them there.”

“After we’ve seen you safely to the boat, we’re going to see about getting them back,” Stone said grimly.

“You’re going to go back to that place?” Whittaker was shocked. “You were nearly killed before! We should go back to Iquitos as fast as we can and summon the local—”

“The local authorities?” Ocelot said before Stone could reply. “Yeah, sure, Doc—you mean the same ones that did everything short of blowing us up to keep us from coming after you in the first place? That ones who are probably getting paid more than you make in ten years to cover this whole thing up and keep it quiet? You know what’ll happen then? We go to the cops like good little tourists and tell ‘em, they make all the right noises about doing everything they can and keeping us informed. Then they make a couple of phone calls, and your two kids end up as jaguar chow half an hour later. Is that what you want?”

Whittaker stared at Ocelot, wide-eyed and fearful. Clearly he was beginning to wonder if the solution wasn’t as bad as the problem. He turned to Stone, appealing: “Alastair, you can’t—”

Stone shook his head. “I wouldn’t have put it quite so—baldly—Henry, but essentially it sounds like he’s right. Believe me, the sorts of places that we’ve stumbled upon out here aren’t generally operating openly. That’s why they have to build them out here in the middle of the great bugger-all.”

Kestrel nodded. “Even megacorps can’t get away with everything. Even if legally there’s nothing that can be done because of extraterritoriality, public opinion will fry them if it’s ever found out that they’re doing stuff like this. Plus, and probably more importantly to them, they can’t take the chance that the other corps find out what they’re working on. This is going to be worth way too much money to them to risk having it found out.”

Whittaker let his breath out, his gaze going between the three newcomers and Stone. “Do you think there’s a chance?” he asked at last. “That they’re alive, I mean?”

“Yeah,” Ocelot said. “Why would they take them prisoner if they wanted them dead right away? Maybe they ran out of test subjects. Either way, we need to get moving. The sooner we get you guys back to the boat, the sooner we can take care of business.”

“I’m going with you,” Frasier said suddenly.

“Huh?” Everybody turned to look at him; it was Ocelot who spoke.

“I’m not staying back on the boat and waiting. I can handle a gun.”

“No fraggin’ way,” Ocelot said, shaking his head for emphasis.

Stone also shook his head, albeit with less vigor. “Not this time, Frasier. My friends here are professionals. They know how to handle themselves in situations like this, and they know what they’re getting into. I know you don’t like it, but as long as this is a London University sponsored activity, Dr. Whittaker and I are responsible for the safety of the students.”

Frasier glared at him, but didn’t say anything else. Stone suspected he was holding his tongue for now and planned to renew the battle at a later time, but right now he didn’t have time to deal with it. “We’d better get going,” he said. “Lead on, you lot.”

Ocelot and Kestrel took point with Stone right behind them, and Gabriel provided a silent presence bringing up the rear where he could keep an eye on everyone. He hadn’t said much since they had located the crash survivors. After a couple of hours of walking, Kestrel dropped back to talk to him. “You okay?” she asked. “You’ve been quiet for awhile.”

“I’m often quiet,” he said with faint amusement in his eyes. “I usually find it is better to listen than to speak.”

“Got something on your mind?”

He shook his head. “Not really. I’ve been sensing an—odd presence—for awhile now, but it is far too faint to identify. It is probably just some property of the jungle itself. This place is so alive, Juliana—it’s incredible. I would like very much to come back here some time under less dire circumstances.”

She smiled. “Maybe we can go to Rio or something—afterward.”

He nodded. “Afterward,” he echoed softly. “Have you given any more thought to my suggestion about my lair?”

“I think so.” She shifted her pack on one shoulder and her gun on the other. “It does seem like the smart thing to do, assuming I don’t go crazy there.”

“I will make sure you are entertained,” he told her. He smiled a little. “I wouldn’t let you go crazy, Juliana. No more so than you already are, at any rate,” he added.

She ruffled his hair. “Yeah, sometimes I think I’d have to be crazy to do some of the things I’ve been doing lately. By the way, can you apply some of that dragon magic of yours to getting rid of my morning sickness? I’d really prefer not to be heaving every morning for the next few months.”

“I will see what I can do,” he promised.

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