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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
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Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Perseus Spur 19
While I mulled over alternative means of alien interlopery, Matt and Ivor studied a large-scale chart of the region north of Pickle Pothole where Bob Bascombe had originally found the Haluk remains. The vector-processing plant Nutmeg-414 seemed to be the only conceivable attraction for the hapless wanderer; but the site was twelve kilometers away from the scene of his death, an inconvenient distance in such rugged terrain. Eve's diary had said nothing about the deceased Haluk having transport, but in the intellectually challenged lepidodermoid phase, the alien probably would have been unable to operate anything more complex than a tricycle. Toward the end of the allomorphic cycle it would barely be able to walk ... until it finally turned into an immobile and defenseless chrysalis and unwillingly entered the local food chain.
If the alien had been lost, separated somehow from others engaged in exploration or the secret production of Vector PD32:C2, why hadn't its associates come looking for it? They would have known their compadre was on the verge of the Big Change and particularly vulnerable. Even a techno-challenged race like the Haluk would surely possess warm-body scanning equipment capable of being tuned to the racial signature. But the "poor devil" Eve had described had perished alone and unregarded, body cooled to the ambient temperature of the jungle and discoverable only by chance or through a highly dangerous ground search.
A bright idea came into my mind that might have explained both the Haluk's presence in the middle of nowhere and a possible way for an alien operation to remain undetected. I discussed the notion with my two colleagues, who thought it had promise. Matt wondered whether Cravat had been subjected to a complete geological survey. I relayed the query to Mimo, who sent it along to Karl via subspace, and after half an hour or so we received an answer that was no answer: if such a survey existed, it was in the main d-base at Cravat Dome.
Unfortunately, there was no way to access Dome's computer from the gig (or even from Plomazo) without setting off an alarm. But when Bascombe arrived in the hoppercraft, we could have him pull the data and see whether I'd guessed right.
Matt and Ivor finally got hungry and left the cockpit to find something to eat. My own appetite had vanished, so I stayed behind with a glass of milk and some snickerdoodle cookies, saying I'd keep watch through the buoy's sensors.
It was quiet except for the muted hum of the gig's environ-mentals and occasional sounds of our hull thudding against organism-coated rocks as we rocked in the current. I decided that Pickle Pothole would have been a lousy venue for Cap'n Helly's Dive Charters. Even with the mud settled out, plankton and some peaty natural dye made the waters murky. Now and then a dull glow of lightning pulsed up at the surface. Dim illumination from cockpit instruments revealed coiling strands of weed outside and exotic piscoids swimming among them. Small life-forms resembling slugs and barnacles crawled on the front viewport, inspecting the brand-new neighborhood that had dropped in. No aggressive beasts showed up. Maybe Nessie Jr. had spread the word.
I finished my snack and fell into a doze, rocked in the familiar cradle of the deep, until the communicator's cheep jolted me awake. But it wasn't Bascombe calling. It was Mimo again.
"Another subspace message just came from Karl Nazarian. Tokyo University finally turned over a preliminary report on the Haluk suicide's body."
"That's nice." Alien autopsies weren't exactly at the top of my agenda right then, and I wondered why he had bothered to call.
"It seems that Simon Frost had to grease wheels with a new research grant for Professor Shibuya and her team before they would agree to release the data. They were keeping everything top secret on instructions from the Secretariat for Xenoaffairs."
I came awake in a hurry. "Let me guess," I said. "Modified DNA in the Haluk corpus dee."
"Exactamente. The individual riding on the Qastt pirate ship had a rather good motive for killing himself. If he'd been held in custody on Nogawa-Krupp for more than a few months, his secret would have certainly come out. When Shibuya's people compared the body's genome to the Haluk species map, they found profound anomalies. The sequences that program the Big Change were completely altered. Verification isn't complete, but Shibuya is almost certain that the Haluk passenger would have remained more or less permanently in the gracile phase. No allomorphic cycle. No semiannual estivation."
"That confirms our own speculations—"
Mimo interrupted. "There's more, the real reason why Xenoaffairs is loco de remote. The big news is that the dead Haluk's chromosomes had big chunks of alien DNA: ours."
"No doubt of it. Shibuya won't know the precise function of the hominoid sequences until experiments are carried out. That will take at least a year. Simon is on his way back to Earth on Mogollon Rim and wants you to get in touch with him at once. I could patch the subspace transmission down to you."
The last thing I needed now was a distraction like this— and having to discuss the implications of it with my father. "Let's hold off until I have a chance to think about it."
"Karl is afraid that Simon has linked your Haluk-Galapharma adventures with the Tokyo evidence and drawn certain conclusions." Mimo hesitated before continuing in almost apologetic tones. "Helly, your father may feel you're in over your head. And he could be right."
"There's this motto hung up inside my yellow submarine," I said." 'Sport divers are always in over their heads.' "
"I know that you're very worried about Eve," Mimo said gently. "The primary concern in your mind is her rescue, and after that the survival of your family's Starcorp. But you might ask yourself how your sister would react to this snowballing situation if she were in your place. Her life is of great importance; so is Rampart. But would Eve place either of them above the safety of the Human Commonwealth of Worlds?"
"Don't you go all righteous on me, amigo! I've already had this argument with Matt Gregoire. We won't gain a thing by panicking and turning this investigation over to Commonwealth authorities prematurely. If Simon starts pressuring you—or shows signs of jumping the corral fence and bringing in CHW on his own hook—do your damnedest to cool him down."
"I'll try, Helly. But my best advice to you is to work as fast as you can. Your father is the least of your worries."
Bob Bascombe arrived right on the mark, just as the stormy daylight was fading, flying in to the rendezvous without any attempt at subterfuge. If there were Haluk ground observers, I hoped they would take him for just another hunter.
Ivor and I watched the monitor screen over Mart's shoulder as the Vorlon ESC-10 descended vertically out of low-hanging clouds and touched down on the beach. The hopper was only slightly smaller than our gig. No sooner had it landed than a dozen dark shapes came slinking from the shadows at the base of the cliff and began circling purposefully. Matt zoomed in on them with the light amplifier and we saw that they were a pack of formidable predators the size of bears, quadrupeds built low to the ground. Their oversized heads had spiny crests, buzzardlike hooked beaks, and large eyes that gleamed in the fitful lightning. One of the animals attacked the undercarriage of the aircraft, gnawing a strut with slobbering frenzy. The others seemed to be cheering their pal on.
A small hatch opened on the hopper's roof and a slender jointed arm emerged and unfolded. At its tip was a cylindrical Kagi gun that swiveled about, took a bead on the chomper, and spat out a blue spark. Gigavolts of electricity coursed through the creature. It flamed hugely, its body fluids vaporized, and a shower of incandescent residue fell twinkling onto the surf-washed pebbles. The other beasts shrank back in terror and fled. Except for a few toothmarks and a patch of soot, the hopper seemed undamaged.
"Let's see if Bascombe came alone," I said. Matt toggled the buoy's thermal scanner. The monitor showed a spectral image of the vehicle in cross section. Its warmest parts glowed brightly green: the dual engines, the Kagi barrel, a section of the exterior bulkhead heated by the incineration of the varmint, some instrumentation in the pilot's compartment, and the unmistakable fo
rm of one adult human life-form sitting in the command seat, a half-filled mug of hot liquid in its hand.
She switched the buoy to communication mode and selected Channel 677, short-range and voice-only. "Bob? Come in, please."
"I'm here, Mattie. Speak up. Your signal's pretty weak."
"Did you follow my instructions?"
"To the letter," he said heartily. "Got the bus without a hitch and no one followed me. What next, kiddo?"
"I'm going to turn you over to the person in charge of the mission. He'll explain." She detached the small hand mike and gave it to me.
"Bob, this is Asahel Frost. Eve's brother."
"Dan! Long time no see! Welcome back to Cravat—"
"Not Daniel Frost. I'm Asahel. The other brother. That one."
Silence, then: "Oh."
Even in the uttermost corner of the galaxy, my name was mud.
"I'm working for Rampart Starcorp now, Bob. Vice President for Special Projects. My current, extremely special project involves my sister Eve. Tell me, did she come here to Cravat?"
Another portentous chunk of empty air. When he finally spoke, the words tumbled out, as though in relief. "Yes, she was here. She came about four weeks ago, no warning, in an express freighter from Tyrins. Regularly scheduled supply ship. Sometimes they take a few passengers. She was disguised as a middle-aged woman, unrecognizable. The ship's crew had no notion who she was. Neither did Delphine and I.
When Eve showed up at our apartment in Dome and peeled off the makeup, you could have knocked us over with a feather! We never dreamed—"
"Just tell me what happened."
"She wanted survival gear, requisite inoculations, and a hoppercraft. Said she was concerned about the Haluk body I'd stumbled across near Pickle Pothole. Wanted to find out if enough tissue residue remained for a DNA sample. I thought it was possible. Only about five months had gone by. The tes-tudinal Haluk morph is pretty well armored. Unless a really large scavenger showed up . .."
"And you just gave Eve what she asked for?" I didn't bother to conceal my disapproval. "Let her go off alone into your Green Hell?"
"I tried to talk her out of it! First I offered to send one of my field crews to fetch the tissue sample. She told me it was a highly confidential matter. She was the only one who knew exactly what was needed. That got me curious. You know— wondering whether Haluk chrysalids might be the source of some great new antibiotic, or some such thing. I offered to go for the sample myself. She said no. I warned her what a dangerous area Pickle was, said I couldn't accept responsibility for letting her go out there on her own. She got all in a tizz-wozz then, damn near chewed my ears off. Said she was perfectly capable of handling it. You know what a temper Eve's got. I finally gave in."
"Why didn't you report her disappearance?"
His reply was almost a shout. "Because she didn't disappear, goddammit! Before Eve left for the hopper pad, she made me and Del swear not to tell anybody about her being on Cravat. So we promised. Three days later the hopper she'd borrowed turned up at Cravat Starport. I figured she got what she came for, then went back to Tyrins."
My heart took a dive. Was it possible that my sister had left Cravat after all? "Did her hopper have a fully programmable autopilot? Could it have been sent to the starport from some outlying location?"
"It was a Garrison-Laguna, fully equipped. You can program one of those jobbies to dance Swan Lake. But why would Eve send her ship away?" When I didn't respond, he said, "You think somebody else did? Who?"
"Just tell me what happened after you received notice from Rampart Central ExSec that Eve was missing."
"But I never did! What we got was a missing-person advisory about a woman of Eve Frost's general description. A Jane Doe, no name given. Picture looked something like Eve, but the resemblance wasn't striking. No fuckin' way!"
He seemed to be protesting too much, and I would have pressed him further. But Matt put a warning hand on my shoulder and proceeded to calm his ruffled feathers. "I agree with you, Bob. The picture sent out from Rampart Central was deliberately generic. Zared Frost was trying to avoid a media sensation, having ExSec keep Eve's disappearance under wraps. He thought she might have dropped out of sight temporarily for personal reasons. How did your Cravat Planetary Security Force deal with the advisory?"
"Publicized it in the usual way. No special emphasis. I first saw it on the evening news. So did my wife. I admit Del was more concerned than I was. The missing woman might have been Eve, might just as easily have been somebody else. For chrissake—it just seemed impossible that an important Rampart exec could be the subject of a Jane Doe missing-person report! But Del wasn't satisfied. She nagged me until I put in a subspace call to Eve's office on Tyrins. The secretary said Eve would get back to me. He implied that she was there! I never did hear from her. But she's a busy woman, and since I hadn't stated the nature of my business. .."
"You just put the whole thing out of your mind."
"I tried to," he admitted unhappily. "Del wouldn't let it rest. She pushed me to get in touch with Ollie Schneider. But I promised Eve, and you know how she is—"
I heaved a sigh, or maybe just tossed it lightly aside. "Never mind, Bob. I do know." I instructed him to wait half an hour, then home in on the buoy's signal and pick us up.
* * *
In theory, an inoculated human being can walk about on an S-2 planet bare-bod and survive the experience. Based on the holovid I'd just seen, any theoretician who tried it on Cravat would be rash, verging on the imbecilic.
So we put on Class 2 envirosuits, extremely tough and lightweight hooded coveralls of "breathable" fabric with glove and boot extensions. An integral backpack ventilation system filtered out noxious sulfur compounds, smog particu-lates, deleterious microorganisms, spores, pollen, and excess humidity. Positive pressure from the ventilator kept purified air constantly flowing out of the hood's front opening, and a frame around the wearer's face provided an additional invisible ion shield against invasive small airborne life and rain. Retractable nightsight goggles with an IR option were mounted on a headset that also had an intercom unit. A flip-down visor was useful if you encountered any of the really dire conditions Cravat sometimes vouchsafed—acid hail, flocks of kamikaze hat pin bugs, even moderate amounts of fire and brimstone in the solfatara lands.
The outfits were reasonably comfortable to move around in. Even swimming was possible with the visor sealed shut and deployment of a snorkel gadget that pulled out of the ventpack. As in space armor, you ate and drank through sipper ports—although the choice of groceries and beverages was a lot broader, since you could carry any number of different ration pouches in your backpack. It was easy enough to take a leak through the suit's pee-pipe. Defecation was also possible, using awkward little disposable sacks: but if you were smart, you saved it until you returned to base camp.
We all wore wrist navigators tuned to the local navsat. Out of consideration for my enfeebled state, my pack was small and my portable weapon lightweight—a Romuald photon carbine with adjustable beam width. Matt and Ivor picked heavier Claus-Gewitter Spotshot blasters, Ivanov stunner sidearms, and eighteen-centimeter Beretta serrated skeleton knives. Pumped by his stimulator collar, the kid was also toting an oversized pack with our survival gear and most of the food and water.
When we were ready, I programmed the gig's autopilot to bring us to the surface of Pickle Pothole under inertialess drive. The ship would remain topside for ten minutes before returning to the lake bed. I intended to retrieve the little utility buoy and carry it in my pack. Besides its other functions, it was our link to Mimo. And he was the only one able to repro-gram the autopilot of the hidden gig and send it after us... or summon backup, using the Open Sesame card I'd left with him. I had already shown Matt and Ivor how to use it, in case something happened to me.
We exited through the cargo bay, which was secure from the rest of the ship and had decon capability, and waited on the ingress-egress platform for pickup. It was
drizzling, but the wind had subsided almost completely and the waves weren't quite big enough to wash us into the drink. I could hear surf pounding against rocks and a distant choral howling of animals. A few odoriferous molecules managed to make it through my ion screen, demonstrating how Pickle Pothole must have gotten its name: the lake smelled like rotting Kosher dills. Some kind of tiny midge analogues buzzed around us in thick, hopeful clouds. Leechy life-forms emerged from the water, wriggled across the platform, and oozed slowly up our legs.
The ESC-10 descended and hung beside us, humming softly, a colorless ghost craft viewed through nightsight goggles. Bob extruded the hopper's "airlock" tunnel and it came to rest on the platform.
"You first, Matt," I said.
She crouched and slipped inside the corrugated tube. The lock closed and performed its decontamination cycle. After a few minutes Ivor followed her, towing his enormous backpack. I used my belt corn-unit to summon the utility buoy, secured it, and entered the tunnel myself. A brief zap sterilized my outfit. Then the inner portal of the hopper opened and I went inside.
The others had shed their guns and other cumbersome equipment and pushed back their hoods and eyewear. I did, too. Bob Bascombe was shaking Mart's gloved hand and uttering convivial commonplaces. He was a short man, wearing a slightly different style of envirosuit with a full helmet that tilted back. The four of us and our impedimenta crowded the main cabin of the Vorlon ESC-10, which was fitted out with spartan accommodations—narrow bunks, a compact galley with folding table and benches, storage lockers galore, and overhead racks holding a wide assortment of weaponry and miscellaneous equipment. At the rear were twin doors labeled toilet and shower.
I introduced myself to Bascombe, who had an overbright smile and a florid complexion. "Looks like you and your team are all ready for business, Vice President Frost! Are you sure you don't want to wait for morning to do the recon?"