Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 20

  "Call me Helly. I have a question for you, Bob. Does your main d-base back at Dome contain a detailed geological survey of Cravat?"

  "I wouldn't call it detailed." He looked apologetic. "Our world just isn't all that important. The microcontinents with cratons and igneous formations are pretty well mapped. So's part of the sea floor—for the promethium mining and lutigestoid mariculture projects. But no detailed surveys were made of the limestone lands like Grant. Not much potential for ore bodies or important mineral deposits there, y'see."

  "Too bad... I don't suppose this hopper has a rock-reader?"

  "Why, sure! Shallow magnetometrics are essential for safe groundside excursion in most parts of Cravat. Grant's not so bad, but some of the other karst micros are really tricky. Place will look solid from the air, shrubs and other vegetation growing, but the soil covers only a thin shell of fragile rock with a whopping big cavern underneath. Set a hopper down—bam!—it can break right through. Can't even depend on trees to indicate firm ground. Some of them send a taproot right through the crumbly rock crust and into the floor of a cave fifty, sixty meters down."

  I gave a nod of satisfaction. "There's a theory I want to check out right away. Fly us to the place where you found the Haluk remains and hover so we can scope out the terrain."

  We followed him to the cockpit. He seated himself at the controls and the rest of us strapped in. The hopper ascended slowly and headed toward the northern lakeshore. He kept the sky-surveillance scanner going, but there was nothing in the air except a low ceiling of nimbus clouds, flocks of four-winged bat analogues, a zillion insects, and us.

  The bubble windows of the hoppercraft and our light-magnifying goggles provided an excellent view. We topped the irregular cliffs and continued inland across a line of pointed crags. Beyond them the ground fell away precipitously into a small blind valley choked with rain forest.

  We slowed and came to hover above the north end of the valley. "This is it," Bascombe said. "I never bothered with a rock survey myself. Big game hunters have been coming to the Pickle Pothole area for years. Everybody knows the limestone strata here are good and strong."

  "Turn on the STP first," I told him. "Let's see the lay of the land."

  "You might want to neutralize your nightsights," he suggested. "The map's kinda bright."

  I was a little slow flipping the switch, and the luminous stereoscopic terrain projection that sprang into view against the forward windshield seared my retinas. The valley, roughly cup-shaped with an uneven bottom, was about four kilometers wide. Its walls were extremely steep except on the side farthest inland, where a series of projecting rock ledges formed thickly wooded terraces cleft by a single long ravine.

  "I found the alien body here," Bascombe said. A red X marked the spot on the projection. "I had my base camp here"—a red square—"and I was tracking this humpback lacertilian through here"—dotted yellow meanders. "The humpy was a beaut, biggest crest I've ever seen. Maybe an all-time record! Tracked the big guy this far, crashing and smashing through the bush. Then all of a sudden the critter did a vanishing act. Off the face of the planet. Not a print, not a squeak, not a tickle on the IR targeter. 1 started casting around—nearly fell on top of the lepido husk. The partly eaten testudo chrysalis was only a couple of meters away. Spent the rest of the day trying to scare up the humpy again, then packed it in. I gave Eve a detailed map of the area."

  "Go to rock-read mode," I said. "What's the depth delimitation?"

  "About ninety meters in limestone like this."

  He tapped other pads. The 3-D surface projection faded to a flat crimson chart with a complex armature of emerald contour lines superimposed over it, giving details of subterranean geological structure. Even though the scan was difficult to interpret, I found myself holding my breath in sudden excitement. It seemed that what I had hoped to find did, in fact, exist.

  Matt saw it, too. I heard her murmur of satisfaction.

  "Rotate image to cross-sectional," I said.

  As the glowing diagram clarified, Ivor exclaimed, "Look! There is a cave! You were right, Helly."

  Not just a single cavern, but a whole system. Its multiple levels underlay the entire northern wall of the valley. One branch tunnel extended in a northwesterly direction, off the projection.

  Toward Nutmeg-414.

  "Well, I'll be jiggered!" said Bob. "The opening's right on the side of the hill near the ravine. Really well-hidden, see? Never suspected it was up there. Damn greenery is so thick you can hardly see beyond arm's length most of the time." He thought for a moment. "You know, a cave would explain how the humpy I was gunning for that day managed to disappear so fast without a trace."

  I said, "It might also explain what happened to Eve." The deductive threads were coming together. The dead Haluk Bascombe had found might have been part of a group living in an underground facility with access to the caves. Separated accidentally from its alert, gracile-phase companions, the confused lepidodermoid might have wandered through a dark labyrinth for days before reaching the surface. Subterranean thermal scans are impossible. Its friends had failed to find it in time.

  I asked Bob Bascombe if the hopper he loaned Eve had a rock-reader. "Of course. I told you the crate was loaded. You really think she went inside that cave? But why? Your sister's no fool, Helly. She'd know the danger. Why would she risk it?"

  "She was looking for proof that a very serious crime had been committed. My associates and I are after the same thing, and I think we'll have to go into the cave, too."

  "Crime? Here on little old Cravat? Explain!"

  "It's a mess that we're only beginning to unravel ourselves, Bob," I said evasively.

  "I see." He bit off the words and glared at me, the breezy good humor transformed into surprising bitterness. "One more time, I'm too low-echelon to be trusted by the king-shit Frost family!" Idiot that I was, I thought he was castigating Eve. "Okay, man, if that's how it is, just tell me what kind of grunt work you want done."

  "You can start," I said mildly, "by making us a subterrain geological plot of the region within a fifty-kilometer radius of a place called Nutmeg-414. You know where it is?"

  "Yes. It's the closest factory to Pickle. Mothballed, of course."

  "Go to the highest altitude that's practical and simulate a casual flyby."

  He shot me a shrewd look. "You think somebody's watching us?"

  "Could be."

  He programmed an appropriately evasive course that bisected the landmass and eventually took us back out over the sea, where we hovered.

  "Is 414 still ex-operational?" I asked.

  "Yes. All the Grant facilities have been shut down for five years. They'll reopen when the amount of virus-infected fruit available returns to commercially viable levels. The crop's been really slow to bounce back."

  "How often do your plant biologists visit the site?"

  "They don't—unless monitoring equipment sounds an alarm. We've got less than two hundred engineers and biotechs assigned to the Nutmeg project and three hundred and twenty-seven factories going full blast on fourteen other microcontinents. No time to waste visiting sleepers without a good reason. The ten sites on Grant are marginal, anyhow. Almost too far from Dome to be economical."

  There was a chime. The hopper's computer said, Geological survey complete.

  Bob hit a pad. A long printout rolled out of a slot at the side of the console. It was not nearly so detailed as the low altitude scan, but it showed clearly enough that the central region of Microcontinent Grant was a frigging Swiss cheese. And most of the caves were interconnected.

  One system, complex and multileveled, led almost directly from an area adjacent to Nutmeg-414 to the site where the Haluk body had been found. The depth limit made its southern extent unclear, but it seemed to continue on almost to Pickle Pothole itself.

  I showed the plot to Matt and Ivor. "Look at this! For all we know, the cave system could underlie the entire landmass. They could be using all the godd
amn factories."

  "Who could?" Bob demanded hotly. "Who's down there? What the fuck's happening on my planet?"

  Matt said, "Helly, I don't see how we can keep him in the dark any longer."

  "I'll decide that," I said. "Nothing's really changed."

  "Yes it has," she contradicted. "Our tentative plan of action was predicated upon there being only a small clandestine operation going. What if it's not small? What if there's a cluster-fuck going on?"

  "Perhaps I shouldn't speak up, Helly," Ivor said solemnly, "but you did say that I was a full member of this team. In my opinion, you should give consideration to Mart's very legitimate concerns."

  "Eve might very well be dead," I said, "but there's a fair chance that she's alive in one of these caves. You know what'll happen if we order Cravat's little SWAT team in there? Your clusterfuck will self-destruct—and take my sister along with it. In a situation like this, a small penetration force has the advantage."

  Bob Bascombe had turned in his command seat to stare at us, and his cerebral processing unit was computing away so fast I could almost smell the ozone. You don't get to be Port Traffic Manager of a Rampart World by being a dummy.

  Abruptly, he said, "Haluk! That's what this thing is basically all about, isn't it? Eve being so anxious to check out my Haluk carcass... that rumor about a dead Haluk on board the captured Qastt pirate ship ... the crazy way the Qastt have been targeting our freighters, when none of the ships carried cargoes the Squeaks usually go after. You think the Haluk are swiping PD32:C2!"

  "Yes," I said in resignation. "That's exactly what we think."

  "Why?" he demanded.

  "Maybe so they can quit being low-status allomorphs and start playing games with the big boys—the way the Kalleyni and the Joru and the Y'tata do over in the Orion Arm."

  "God almighty," Bob whispered. "But the Haluk are so—so—"

  "Contrary," I supplied, appending a smile without humor. "Right. A change in the Spur balance of power could open a monstrous can of worms. Especially since it seems that the Haluk have been upgrading their offensive technology on the sly."

  He said, "Oh, shit."

  Matt spoke quietly. "Perhaps we should ask Bob for his opinion on how this operation should proceed. As he reminded us—this is his planet."

  I gritted my teeth. "What do you think, Bob?"

  His reply was a surprise. Without hesitation, he said, "I think you should go with your original plan, Helly—but modified. Take me along with you. Not into the cave down south by Pickle, though. I don't think Eve got nabbed there. I think they took her when she went to check out Nutmeg-414 after confirming that Luckless Larry the lepido came out of a cave that might have connected to the factory."

  "You could very well be right," I conceded. "But we don't want to make the same mistake Eve made. If the Haluk are working at 414 they'll have the place guarded against casual intruders. The cave route is longer, tougher to navigate, but if we went in that way we'd have the element of surprise. And we've got a map to show us the route."

  "It could take a week to reach 414 going underground the way ol' Luckless Larry did. Maybe longer. There's a better way to get inside Nutmeg sites without sounding the alarm."

  "How?" Matt asked.

  Bob Bascombe told us.

  Chapter 16

  They were called yagas—a name originally bestowed by whimsical Russian technicians who thought the bipedal robotic fruit-harvesters resembled the hut on fowl's legs inhabited by the legendary sorceress Baba Yaga. We'd seen them at work in the orientation holovid, droll-looking machines with bodies about the size of a two-car garage. They strode carefully through trackless jungle on jointed ambulatory propulsion units, their sensors sniffing for the distinctive spicy odor of pseudomyr-nutmeg trees. Eight smaller auxiliary robots, the "chicks," scurried about gleaning fallen diseased fruit from the forest floor and conveyed their loot to the witch-mother for storage. When the yaga's bin was full, it hauled the chicks aboard for the return journey to the factory. During the off season, when the harvesting operation was restricted to sampling the quality of the fruit, the forays of the big machines were more infrequent and the loads much smaller.

  Bob told us he could reprogram a yaga to return home to the barn immediately, while each of us hid in an empty chick. Once inside the fully automated receiving and maintenance area, there was a good chance we'd be able to slip out of our hiding places undetected. The idea sounded like a winner to me.

  Before we left the hoppercraft, 1 called Mimo, told him what we'd learned, and gave him special instructions. If he didn't hear from us within fifty hours, he was to use the Open Sesame card to alert both Cravat ExSec and Zone Patrol, spilling the entire pot of beans—with the exception of our theory about an alliance between certain Concerns and the Haluk. "Don't tell anyone about that except Simon," I said. "He can decide how to pass it on directly to the Commonwealth Assembly. Maybe through Dan's wife Norma Palmer. She's got enough political clout to make sure that the charge is taken seriously."

  "Fifty hours," the old smuggler repeated. "Two Kedgeree days. Are you certain you want me to wait so long?"

  "It'll take time for us to get to the factory in the special ground transport that Bascombe is organizing, and we may have to go into the caves beneath the facility to assess the situation. The minute we find clear proof of Haluk activity or any trace of Eve, we'll contact you."

  "You know that the gig's utility buoy can't communicate from underground."

  "Monitor all of the factory's com frequencies. We'll find a way to get through to you. If another Haluk ship shows up, or you spot anything suspicious approaching our area, do what you can."

  "I understand. Vaya con Dios, Helly."

  "You too, mi capitán."

  Bob had told us that the local big-game-hunting crowd were pretty cavalier about landing in the jungle. It was their custom simply to zap a hole in the dense greenery with the ship's blaster and plonk onto scorched earth in convenient proximity to their quarry.

  "Let's go down a little more unobtrusively," I said. "Maybe the rascals know we're here, maybe they don't. But no sense announcing it with a brass band."

  The rain had stopped and slender mist tendrils were rising from the forest floor like the smoke of hundreds of small campfires. The hopper descended slowly between towering arboreals that Bob called asparagus trees and landed on the only bare patch of rock within a kilometer of our target yaga. The open space was large enough to accommodate the aircraft but without any room to spare. When I emerged from the corrugated decon tube into the foggy, dripping night, I found to my dismay that we were completely surrounded by a tangle of thorn-bearing undergrowth intertwined with stout lianas. The narrow asparagus trees soared a hundred meters high out of the thicket, which looked virtually impenetrable.

  Green Hell... but through our nightsights it was varying shades of gray.

  Bob was the last to exit and seemed unfazed by our situation—even exuberant. His hurt feelings seemed to have mended. Retracting the airlock tube with his belt controller, he gave the secured ship a farewell pat as he grinned at us through his helmet visor.

  "Defensive system will keep naughty critters from doing too much damage." He glanced briefly at his wrist to reconfirm the direction of travel. All of us had primed our personal navigators with the transponder code of Yaga 414H, the closest one to Nutmeg-414. "I'll do the bushwhacking, okay? Follow me close and watch your tushies. We should be safe enough, since we're cutting cross-country, not following a game trail. But humpback lacertilians and red orgoglios sometimes follow you quiet and sneaky, then come roaring up from behind like gangbusters. Great sport!"

  He wore a wicked-looking Harvey HA-3 blaster in a quick-draw scabbard on his back, and carried a smaller Romuald carbine similar to my own except for its fan-shaped nozzle. Lifting the latter, he hosed the vegetation wall with a swath of photons. There was a great sizzling sound, accompanied by a cloud of smoke and vapor. The succulent foliage seared away
instantly and left a corridor blocked only by brittle burnt stems that we could push through with ease. The hidden animals went crazy, setting up a din of shrieks, howls, and ratchety buzzing. Bascombe ignored the noise and strode forward over the waterlogged ground, zapping away.

  Matt and Ivor went side by side after him, and I came last, keeping an eye out for tailgating monsters.

  The route wound through closely growing trees, whose scaly trunks were too tough to be affected much by the beam of coherent light. After the first few minutes the cries of the disturbed wildlife diminished and the jungle became unnaturally quiet except for our crunching, squelching footsteps and the periodic dragon hisses as Bob incinerated the bush. There were oodles of flying insectiles, none exceptionally vicious. Now and then a small animal blundered into the freshly burnt tunnel and then fled. We saw nothing bigger than a house cat.

  I had given myself a stimulant dose from the medicuff before leaving the hopper. That, plus the adrenaline flooding my veins in semi-expectation of attack by ravening beasts, left me wired and jumpy. The fact that no large animals of any sort appeared increased my uneasiness. I finally exchanged my carbine for Ivor's more formidable Claus-Gewitter, which had a better targeting scope; but the dense undergrowth and the twists and turns of our course severely limited the spotter's effectiveness. The great lizardlike predators Bob had spoken about with such macho enthusiasm could be trailing us five meters back and we'd never know it.

  Most of the ground we covered was soggy but fairly level, and our progress was surprisingly swift, no doubt thanks to Bob's wilderness expertise. We left the rank asparagus forest behind after about half an hour and skirted a steep-banked pond where the brush thinned, so that no burning was necessary to clear the way. Beyond the waterhole grew trees of a different variety with jagged-edged leaves and graceful weeping branches that contained both flowers and plummy fruits. Mothlike insectiles winged among them. The scene might have been beautiful viewed naturally, in daylight, but the goggles made it flat and unreal, like an antique 2-D black-and-white screen image.