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Perseus Spur 14
Gregoire nearly choked on her drink.
I said hastily, "I'm sorry, Matt. We keep talking over your head. Let me tell you both how I was drawn into Rampart's crisis in the first place."
I spun the wild yarn all over again, in considerably more detail than I had supplied to the Rampart Board of Directors. I told them about my first encounter with Bronson Elgar (I found it impossible to call him McGrath), the monster making a nosh of my house, the space chase, the Haluk star-ship, and the ominous message Simon had received, which seemed to imply that Eve was a prisoner of Elgar or his gang of Galapharma baddies. When I finished, Matt and Karl sat quietly for a moment digesting the data, then pronounced a single word in unison:
"I know it seems incredible," I admitted. "But there it is. Elgar—I mean, Quillan McGrath—boasted that the aliens were allied to Gala for reasons of mutual benefit. My friend Captain Guillermo Bermudez can vouch for the fact that a huge Haluk vessel of unfamiliar configuration came to the rescue when Elgar whistled. Two of the xeno bastards lashed me down on top of a cometary gas vent while he made jokes about human cannonballs."
"What allomorphic stage were the Haluk in?" Karl asked curiously.
"The gracile humanoid, judging from their space armor and brisk movements. I couldn't tell what color the eyes were. They kept the helmet domes opaque."
Matt Gregoire was frowning thoughtfully. "You know, we had an odd incident about five weeks ago with a Haluk angle. My Fleet Security people headed up the investigation rather than turning it over to ExSec Central on Eve's direct order."
I listened with increasing excitement as she described how Qastt raiders had engaged in persistent hijacking attempts during the past three years, targeting Rampart freighters bound from the planet Cravat to the terminal at Nogawa-Krupp. I knew almost nothing about Cravat apart from its dubious status as the most remote of the Rampart Worlds. It lies near the tip of the Perseus Spur, over eighteen hundred light-years from Seriphos and nearly three hundred from Nogawa. This is not a region that the Qastt customarily infest, being uncomfortably close to the no-man's-land between the Zone 23 boundary and the Haluk planets. The Qastt alliance with the Haluk is shaky at best, based on their mutual antipathy toward humanity.
Eve had assigned Rampart's fastest, most heavily armed freighters to the Cravat run to foil the Qastt pirates, who never took a single Rampart ship. But five or six weeks ago there was a serious confrontation. The Squeakers narrowly lost the firefight, their damaged starship was unable to flee, and it surrendered.
"The odd thing was," Matt said, "when our people boarded the bandit, they found a dead Haluk. Gracile. It had committed suicide. Our crew just managed to intervene before the Qastt could destroy the body."
I murmured, "Jesus!"
"Eve was notified immediately, in her capacity of Chief Transport Officer. For reasons she didn't explain, she ordered the Rampart skipper to deviate from standard procedure. Instead of reporting the incident and turning the pirate over to CHW Zone Patrol, we put a prize crew aboard. They did makeshift repairs and then took the starship and the surviving Squeakers into Nogawa-Krupp. I sent a crack alien-interrogation team to try to find out why the Qastt were so interested in Cravat ships, and what the Haluk was doing aboard."
"What did you learn?" I demanded.
"The interrogations were rigorous, but they produced only a single interesting piece of information. The Qastt were targeting specified Cravat freighters because the Haluk promised them a colossal price for the cargoes."
"The planet produces scandium, a small amount of prome-thium, and fifteen different biologicals—only seven of which were common to all the freighters targeted. The captive Squeak crew had no idea which product the Haluk particularly fancied. They admitted that Haluk agents had been riding along with them in hopes of scoring. If the Qastt managed to nab a Cravat transport, the Haluk on board was prepared to summon one of its own vessels immediately, transfer the loot, and pay off the bandits in unhexocton—element 168."
"Wow!" I marveled.
Karl said, "But what were the hot goods?"
She shrugged. "It can't be the scandium or promethium, even though they're Cravat's most valuable exports. The Haluk colonies have an adequate supply of both elements. Cravat biologicals are unique, but apart from an elemental concentrator and a euphoric drug, they're not exceptionally pricey on the human market. It seemed obvious that the Haluk undertook to use the Qastt as middlemen, hoping to prevent us from discovering their interest in ... whatever it is."
"I never heard anything about this," Karl said. "Didn't you liaise at all with Rampart Central?"
"Of course," Matt said. "We submitted a full report to Schneider's office after the interrogation. But there was no follow-through."
I gave a suspicious little snort.
Matt continued. "Eve brought up the incident again in a conversation we had a day or so before she went on her fatal vacation. She was disturbed about Central's apparent indifference. She said they discounted the matter's importance, seemed to think it was just another example of Haluk eccentricity."
"Why did it bother her?" I asked.
"Eve wouldn't say. Using hindsight, in view of your evidence of Haluk collision with a Galapharma agent, I'm inclined to wonder if she had other information that she kept to herself."
"Where's the captured Qastt ship now? On Nogawa-Krupp?"
"Impounded and scheduled for scrapping," she said. "As far as I know, the crew are still in the N-K slammer waiting to be ransomed and repatriated in the usual way, once insincere apologies by the Qastt Great Congress are accepted by Toronto. The Haluk Council of Nine sent a strongly worded message to CHW Secretariat for Xenoaffairs requesting that we return the suicide's body for funerary rites, but it had already been sent to Tokyo University on an express courier ship. Scientists don't often get an intact Haluk corpse to examine, and they paid Rampart good money for this one. The fact that the subject was on a pirate ship didn't make the legal eagles at SXA very sympathetic to the aliens' request. Tokyo has promised to return the remains to the Haluk when the research is completed."
"Hmm. We'll have to check on the autopsy results. I don't know that much about Haluk physiology myself. And I think we'd better postpone scrapping that Qastt ship and keep a lid on its crew until we get a better notion of what's going down." I turned to Karl. "Can you use that computer without anyone else in Rampart following in your tracks and compromising our investigation?"
"You betcha. What's more, I can hack tracelessly into any part of the corporate net, including Confidential Services itself. Hell, I designed both the InSec and ExSec programs . .. After they stuck me on the geriatric shelf here in Archives, I didn't have all that much to do. So I spend a lot of my time cyberprowling, checking on what the younger generation is up to. What do you need?"
"For now I want two things. First, call up the cargo manifests for Cravat freighters encountering Qastt pirates during the past two years. Then access Eve's personal log and bring up anything with the key word 'Haluk.' "
He rose. "First one is easy. The other is a tougher nut to crack. The logbook will be encrypted. I'll need your sister's personal code sequence unless you want to wait a couple of weeks for me to pry open the file."
"I have the code." Matt opened her shoulder bag, took out her notebook, and spoke to it. After a moment she handed Karl a data-dime. "Following Eve's disappearance, I went over the more recent parts of her log looking for clues, but I found nothing obvious. She did note the Qastt-Haluk piracy incident, but I had no reason then to consider it significant."
Karl said, "Hang in there for a few minutes." He went to his computer console and got to work.
Matt Gregoire sipped the Campari and said very quietly, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Probably. If Eve had other information that made her suspicious of the Haluk, she might very well have decided to do an unofficial snoop job on Cravat. It's p
ossible she got caught at it." I had another glass of the marvelous Dortmunder beer. Mercifully, the feeling of mortal weakness seemed temporarily in abeyance. I made a snap decision. "I'll go to Cravat immediately."
"Good idea," Matt said. "The planet's Fleet Security contingent is small, but I can have a fully equipped SWAT team waiting for us—"
"I won't need an assault team. I intend to look into the matter myself. Very quietly. And you won't be going. I want you here on Seriphos, Matt, directing investigations into the corporate infiltration and sabotage angles."
"Karl can do that kind of job better than I," she protested. "For that matter, you could. Your background is in corporation law, for God's sake! You were a desk jockey at ICS, not a field agent—to say nothing of the fact that you're three years out of practice."
"I'll conduct this investigation in my own way. If you can't accept that, then bail out right now. This outfit has only one boss: me."
Her jet-black eyes blazed. "Have you ever been to Cravat?"
"I have. It's borderline S-2—very nearly out of the human-compatible range. It takes nineteen inoculations and Class B envirogear for safe walkabout, unless you want to live inside your sealed hoppercraft. The small predatory life-forms drive you nuts nipping and pouncing, and the bigger ones don't give up unless you use drastic discouragement—Kagi blasters and C-Gs and gigatasers. I have a strong contact on the planet. I can arrange all the tricky logistics without alerting the wrong people." Her voice fell to a barely audible, fierce whisper. "I'm going, dammit! Eve is my friend. My dearest friend! If there's one chance in a million that she's being held captive somewhere in that green hell, I'm going to investigate it myself—not leave the job to a bloody bent has-been like you."
I was willing to ignore the nasty truisms, but not the imputation of an intimate relationship between the two women. My masculine disappointment must have been transparent as glass when I blurted out, "You mean you and Eve—"
"No," she replied coldly. "I love her the way you do. Like a sister.. . Not that it makes your chances any better."
"The thought," I lied, "never occurred to me." But then of course I had to ask the obligatory trolling-male question: "Do you have someone special back on Tyrins, Matt?"
"You might say I'm wed to my job."
According to the rules of the game, she was supposed to add: And you? She didn't, but I supplied the answer anyway. "I was divorced after the inquiry commission dry-gulched me and left me for the blowflies."
My attempt at colorful insouciance fell flat. She stared at me in silence for a moment, looking me up and down, taking in my fatuous White Hunter getup and dismissing it for the ego-propping sham it was, then letting her gaze drift away in feigned indifference.
She knew that I was attracted to her, that my impulsive request for her assistance had been colored by the oldest of ulterior motives. It must have puzzled her that my father and Yasser Abul Hadi, men she deeply respected, had concurred in my choice and pleaded with her to accept. Under ordinary circumstances, she would never have agreed to work with me. She firmly believed that I was a rogue cop, a Throwaway for cause, and a loser. Nevertheless, she'd give me her fullest professional cooperation.
Despising me all the while.
I knew that the wisest thing 1 could do would be to assign her to work that would keep us as far apart as possible... but if I had been a wise man, I'd never have left my beach-bum sanctuary on Kedge-Lockaby.
Besides, the piel canela was irresistible.
I said to her, "You can come to Cravat with me if you want to."
She smiled in triumph, showing marvelous white teeth and dimples in her cinnamon cheeks. "Was there ever any doubt?"
Karl Nazarian came back to us with printed copies and handed them over. "Here are the Cravat cargoes. The log scan will take a little longer because of the need for a subspace link to Tyrins."
I studied the manifests. Of the seven potentially relevant bioexport products, three were Pharmaceuticals used to treat obscure human ailments and two were viral genetic engineering vectors. The final pair of biologicals, significant moneymakers, were a recreational mindbender called Red Skeezix and a marine microorganism able to concentrate the rare element lutetium from juvenile water emitted by abyssal thermal vents.
Matt frowned as she scanned her copy. "This really doesn't tell us anything. For all we know, one of these products could be the Haluk rozkoz!"
"I can research them all quickly enough," Karl said.
"Wait," I told him, "till we see what Eve's diary says."
He and I had some more beer. My head had started to throb and my throat felt like sandpaper. I still held off using the medicuff. Matt worked with her notebook, setting up a new chain of command for Fleet Security on Tyrins during her absence. Karl and I discussed some nuts-and-bolts details of administering the new department.
Finally the computer said: Search completed. Four Haluk references found, all alphanumerical transcriptions from handwriting.
I might have known Eve was too efficient to have a verbal logbook. No matter how hard you try, you always end up dictating more words than you need. The three of us went over to look at the display, which showed an entry with the relevant word highlighted. The first was a single sentence dated four years ago:
1.6.28: HAWK DNY KDNAPG 6 FRM NAKN SWN.
"It's Eve's shorthand," Matt said. "It reads: 'Haluk deny kidnapping six people from Nakon Sawan.' That's a newly settled S-l Rampart world about 150 light-years from Cravat, adjacent to the Haluk planets that lie within the Perseus Spur. I'm afraid I have no knowledge of the case."
"We can pull up the particulars easily enough," Karl said.
The next item was three years old:
12.8.30: CPT S WOLLONGONG RSS GIPPSLAND CRAV-NK RUN RP DRLCT HALUK LFBOAT ENCNTRD 31.017/15.221/+40.916 (PROX CRAY SYS). D CRW = 3 GRC, 11 LEP, 2 TST. ALSO 1 D FEM HUM. ZPIR-ID EMILY BLAKE KONIGSBERG, X-RSRCHR GALA. UNCLR SHE PSGR OR CPTV GALA DSCL KNWL HR MVMTS.
"Well, that's an odd one," I commended. "A derelict Haluk lifeboat, with assorted dead crew members and an anomalous human corpse, is found near Cravat by a Rampart ship. Zone Patrol checks the woman's eyes and finds out that she was a researcher once employed by Galapharma. It's unclear whether she was a passenger or a captive of the Haluk. I suppose the last part means that Gala disclaimed any knowledge of Emily Konigsberg's movements."
"Funny," Matt said thoughtfully, "that there were so many lepidodermoids aboard the lifeboat. As I understand it, that transition phase is only minimally able to perform starship crew duties. A major screw-up by the lepidos could account for the abandonment of their principal vessel. Some Haluk personnel exec must have miscalculated badly in the assignment roster."
"I'll do a background check on Emily Konigsberg," Karl said, "and get everything else we have pertaining to the incident."
The third excerpt was briefer, from late last year, and was more of a puzzler.
11.15.31: LNCH BOB B IN TRANS CRAVETH COMP LV HE FND HAWK LEP HUSK + 1/2ETN TST ON BKC-NTRY HNTTRP NR PICKL PH. POOR DVL! WH AWF PL TO DI BUT WH HELL DOING THR? NO SUIT ETHR. BOB RPTD TO XSEC BT NO ACTN TKN.
Matt deciphered. "It reads: 'Lunch with Bob B in transit from Cravat to Earth on a compassionate leave.' That must be Robert Bascombe, Cravat's Port Traffic Manager. He more or less runs the planet. He and Eve have been pals for years. I know him and his wife Delphine. He's the contact I mentioned."
"Go on. What does the rest of the entry say?"
"Bascombe found a Haluk lepidodermoid-phase husk plus a half-eaten testudinal-phase body while on a back-country hunting trip near Pickle Pothole. The alien wore no envirosuit when it was in the lepido phase. That's even more unusual. Eve says: 'Poor devil. What an awful place to die but what the hell was it doing there? Bob reported the incident to Rampart External Security but no action was taken.' "
Maybe just sloppiness or bureaucratic i
nertia in Central, maybe something else. No wonder Eve had assigned Fleet Security to the Qastt-Haluk piracy incident rather than leaving it to ExSec.
"What's a pickle pothole?" I asked.
"The name of a rather notorious place on Cravat," she said, "a deep, elongated lake of sulfurous dark water, ugly as sin but a famous haunt of dangerous big game. Macho humans like good old Bob go to Pickle to shoot things. He took me on a photo safari twice. God knows why a Haluk would be in the area—especially one on the verge of the Big Change. It must have morphed into the helpless testudinal phase unexpectedly and died when one of the carnivores found it. Bad luck. The Haluk chrysalis shell is extremely tough."
"Let's have a map," I said to Karl.
He was way ahead of me, whispering into the computer stylomike. A chart labeled cravat—microcontinent grant popped up on a second monitor screen. Grant was an isolated blob of land in the southern hemisphere, no more than six hundred kilometers wide, surrounded by sprinkles of low islands. Prompted by Karl, the zoom-frame locked onto a piece of real estate in the microcontinent's heart, magnified, and produced a three-dimensional topographic display. Pickle Pothole was gherkin-shaped, about thirty kilometers long and seven kilometers wide. It was surrounded by lesser blue features, most of them round lakes with precipitous shores. The terrain height nowhere exceeded two thousand meters, but it was horrendously irregular, a confusion of abrupt pinnacles, sharp ridges, and swampy hollows without surface watercourses.
"Eroded limestone," Matt said. "A couple of the larger Cravat continents have vast solfatara fields belching smoke, hydrogen sulfide, and other filthy muck that gets swept around the planet, giving it almost permanent smog and incessant acid rain. Grant and most of the other southern micros are nonvolcanic, all sedimentary rock. Geologists call the kind of country on this map karst. It's something like a giant distorted waffle—enclosed valleys of dense forest almost impossible to penetrate via surface routes. The water mostly flows underground except for the ponds and potholes."