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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 21


  The rich fragrance of spice suddenly penetrated my ionic screen, inadvertently triggering a memory, as odors will. I found myself recalling a certain winter night at the Sky Ranch in Arizona—sipping a cup of hot wine mulled with nutmeg and cinnamon, a high desert blizzard howling against the bedroom window, Joanna and I sitting naked, side by side on a Navajo rug before a roaring fire of mesquite logs...

  "Yo!" Bob Bascombe's voice in my hood's intercom brought me crashing back to Cravat. He had come to a halt in a tiny clearing. "We're almost on top of the yaga. Those are young pseudomyr trees growing all around. Probably a nice grove of mature ones nearby. Ground's rising, getting rockier, kind of territory they favor. You all take a break while I scout ahead. Keep sharp, though. In places like this, open to the sky a little, simurghs can spot you, divebomb you with their poop. Stuff's full of caustic alkali. Splashes right through an ion face-screen."

  He disappeared into the forest and we gathered closer together. The slick surfaces of our envirosuits were smeared with ash, mud, and cooked plant sap. Matt had a splatter of dark exotic blood on her hip where she'd casually smacked a long-legged hitchhiker trying to drill through the tough fabric.

  I asked Ivor, "You doing all right in the suit?"

  "It's not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be," he commented, "except for not being able to scratch where it itches—and forgetting not to touch the ionic screen. I find myself constantly trying to poke my fingers through it and setting off the headphone buzzer."

  "I wonder what a simurgh is?" said I. The travelogue video hadn't mentioned it, probably for good reason.

  "In Persian mythology," Ivor said unexpectedly, "it's the gigantic, omniscient bird of the ages who has seen the world thrice destroyed."

  Matt murmured, "Dissolved in its own horrific shit, no doubt," and the athlete giggled.

  I was watching my wrist navigator. Its glowing map showed not only the position of Yaga 414H, concealed in the trees perhaps 350 meters away, but also bright numbered dots that represented us. Bascombe, who had modestly chosen transponder number four, was approaching the harvester's position.

  I tongued the RF intercom. "Can you see the machine, Bob?"

  "Not yet, but I think I hear it," said his voice in my ear. "The jungle floor's more open and rocky around here, except for big trees. Tons of nutmegs lying around. Kind of a big surprise. We thought the crop on Grant was—"

  Snap.

  Silence.

  "Hey, Bob?" I said.

  There was no answer.

  I felt my gut freeze. On the navigator, number four was no longer in motion. Then, as 1 stared at the display, the dot moved erratically to one side and was still again.

  "Let's go," I said quietly. "Matt, cover the flanks. Put your C-G on broad beam. Ivor, watch the rear." We set off at a slow trot.

  There was no need to bushwhack. Bascombe had followed a suspiciously wide path through head-high shrubbery. I realized it had to be a trail frequented by large creatures seeking water. The beautiful pseudomyr trees became increasingly larger and formed lacy draperies overhead. A breeze had begun to blow, dissipating the patches of mist and occasionally showering us with flower petals.

  I halted. "Listen!"

  We heard a distant animal roar, bird analogues gurgling and tweeting, the sound of wind in the trees, and a purring rumble of machinery.

  "Keep close," I whispered.

  The trail suddenly ended in a stony, gently sloping forest glade where the undergrowth was sparse and much larger nutmeg trees grew. Some had trunks four meters wide, with impressive buttresses. Only a few of their branches trailed to the ground.

  The purring sound came from a yaga about forty meters away on the glade's uphill side, parked near a low cliff with fallen rock and heavy plant growth at its base. The superstructure of the machine, seeming to crouch on its two massive metal legs, had a conveyor protruding from its rear. A robot chick that looked like a lidded bathtub with an anteater snout and caterpillar treads squatted at the conveyor's lower end and relieved itself of its cargo, which was drawn up into the body of the yaga.

  I checked my navigator again. Number four had shifted position when I wasn't looking and was now behind the large fruit-harvester in a tumble of rock and brush that extended to the foot of the bluff.

  Bob wasn't moving.

  We advanced, Matt and Ivor continually sweeping the area with their weapons. The robot chick finished doing its duty and trundled away to find more boodle. Yaga 414H retracted its conveyor and the humming sound intensified. Eerily, the harvester rose from its squatting position so that I was able to see behind it. It loomed over five meters high at full stretch, almost even with the cliff top.'

  I switched my nightsights to warm-body capability, and as the scene went green I saw a string of vivid emerald splashes on the ground, together with something else that glowed brightly and was partially hidden behind some rocks. I motioned my companions to halt.

  "Bob's back there," I whispered. "Cover me. Keep back three meters."

  I approached, the shining object, then was brought up short, cursing silently. Just beyond two knee-high boulders, beneath a thorny alien shrub, I spotted a Harvey blaster still gripped by a gloved hand. Bones protruded from the torn flesh of a severed lower arm that glistened falsely green through the goggles.

  I started forward again, sick at the thought of what I was going to find hidden in the bushes. There was no movement except for the fluttering of the foliage, no sign of the animal that had attacked Bascombe.

  "Helly!" Matt screamed. "Above you!"

  My head snapped up, but I never saw what leaped off the cliff. Matt fired high and the actinic blast from her C-W blinded me. I heard an ear-splitting bellow. At the same time something enormous dropped out of the sky and crushed me to the ground, knocking me senseless.

  * * *

  Struggling in deep water, I tried to hold my breath.

  Dumb damn kid, falling out of the canoe right in the middle of Lake Kashagawigamog! Evie was going to kill me. She'd warned me about going out all by myself, me still unable to swim properly even though I was nearly six. Water up my nose and down my windpipe. Chest and head hurting. Can't breathe. Crinkly brightness overhead. The surface, out of reach, and the bubbles of my life's air rising. My eyes wide open and light fading and a last plaintive thought: Evie, don't be mad at me, it wasn't my fault...

  A moment later I came to, fighting to draw breath. All I could see was a dazzling blizzard of emerald sparks. The face-screen alarm trilled softly in my earphones. A great weight pinned me from my shoulders to my butt, but it certainly wasn't my teenage sister pressing water from my lungs. Both my arms were immobilized—one beneath my body, the other squeezed against rock. The hideous compression of my rib cage made it impossible to speak. I was lying prone with my head turned to one side. The ionic curtain of my hood fizzed frantically as it tried to protect me from the insistent encroachment of foreign matter.

  "I'll have to cut the leg off," I heard Ivor said. "No other way to shift the body, I'm afraid!"

  No! I screamed silently. No!

  "Go ahead," Matt said in a resigned voice.

  No, don't do it! Don't do it! ...

  Chwoik chwoik chwoik.

  I felt nothing but increased weight squeezing out my last breath. A discordant horn-bray now seemed to fill my head and the storm of sparks was fading to black. There wasn't really any pain.

  "That should do it," Ivor said. "I'll give it another try."

  I heard a long-drawn-out Herculean grunt. The pressure eased, then lifted away altogether. A great thud shook the ground. I inhaled raggedly, then let out a moan of relief.

  "You're alive! Oh, thank God!"

  I was still unable to see anything except dancing green flecks. Somebody fumbled with the ventilator backpack of my envirosuit. A cool blast of air momentarily inflated the coverall before dissipating through the fabric pores and swooshing past my face, blowing away the crud from the vicinity of the
ion screen. Most of the sparks vanished. I lay between two large boulders. Matt bent close to me, her face behind its protective ionic veil only faintly visible in infrared mode. The cinnamon skin of her cheeks was transmuted to dusty olive— except for two bright green tears that trickled out from beneath her grotesque goggles.

  Tears?

  I passed out again. This time the dream was of her. It probably lasted only a few moments, but it was a goodie ...

  When I woke, she had gone away. I heard her say, "Just un-clip his backpack and get his gun out of there. Don't try to move him yet. I have to check him with the tomoscanner."

  "Leg?" I whined pathetically. "You cut off my leg?"

  "Don't be stupid," she said. "It was the lacertilian's leg Ivor had to remove. That's what landed on you. We thought it had crushed you to death, but the rocks and the soft mud must have saved you."

  She knelt at my head, waving a wand over me with one hand and studying an instrument she held in the other. I heard the boop-beep of the small positron scanner attempting to diagnose broken bones, brutalized muscle, squashed internal organs, and other descompuesto parts of the human anatomy.

  I ventured to move fingers and toes, took deeper breaths. "You know, except for my back starting to hurt a little, I think I'm okay." I squirmed, groped for the eyewear switch on the side of my hood-frame and went back to normal light-amplification. "Is the suit torn?"

  "No .. . You have three cracked ribs, a bruised left kidney, and massive contusions of the upper back and buttocks. You haven't aspirated any exotic life-forms. Your suit ventilator is functional. The utility buoy you had in your pack doesn't seem to be damaged."

  I said, "Better me than it."

  With her assistance I crawled out from between the rocks and sat up. The dead monster lay beside us, vaguely lizardlike with a great spiny hump on its back. It was twice the size of an elephant. One of its mighty legs, neatly amputated at the hock, had been thrown to one side. The head, which Matt had blasted to a charred pulp, was as big as a desk and had saw-edged teeth nearly a third of a meter long.

  Great sport!

  I grinned at my savior. "Nice going, Chief Gregoire. You got the skydiving sonuvabitch with one shot."

  "I'll fix you something for the pain." She put the tomo-scanner away and began rooting through the big pack for the meds kit.

  "I really don't feel too bad."

  "You're in shock. The pain will come."

  "Thanks for crying when you thought I was a goner."

  She uttered a brief laugh. "Don't flatter yourself."

  "Admit it. You cared."

  She said nothing, intently studying a small e-book I presumed was a first-aid manual. Not that there was a hell of a lot that could be done for me so long as I was imprisoned within my envirosuit.

  Ivor had been prowling about among the boulders and brush at the base of the cliff, carrying the Harvey HA-3. When he returned, I asked him to help me to my feet. "I can't believe you lifted that monster's leg off me. The size of it! My God, it must weigh... what?"

  "At least four hundred kilos," the kid Hercules said calmly. "I couldn't have done it without my myostimulator collar. Are you sure you should be standing up, Helly? I could improvise a stretcher—"

  "Just let me catch my breath. I'll be okay."

  Matt gave me a plastic pouch containing a mixture of vitamin-laden fruit juice mixed with painkillers from the meds dispenser, and I drank it through my hood's sipping tube. Even before the drugs hit home I felt euphoric, overflowing with a goofy and irrational joy. I was alive and she had cried for me.

  Then I remembered.

  "What about Bob?" I asked.

  "I'm sorry," Ivor said. "He's dead."

  Matt gave a low cry of distress.

  "Damn it all to hell. I was afraid of that."

  "I found his remains back in the brush, partially consumed. I think he must have died instantly when the lacer-tilian attacked him. The later movements displayed on our navigators would have resulted from the animal carrying away his body."

  "We can't be sure that this is the same humpy that got Bob," Matt said. "Odds are that we have more than one in the area, unless there's a backstairs way for them to run up that cliff."

  Ivor ported the Harvey. "This weapon's targeter shows no large life-forms in the vicinity. Perhaps the other creature was frightened away."

  "Keep alert," she warned, then said to me, "Shall we check out the yaga?"

  "Might as well." I looked at the time on my wrist navigator and was surprised to find that only a little over an hour had passed since we left the hoppercraft. With Matt and Ivor following, I limped over to 414H, which was squatting again so that another robot chick could empty its load of sickly looking blotched fruit into the conveyor.

  The huge harvesting machine was mud-encrusted, festooned with encroaching vegetation, and hosting a mixed bag of small exotic creepie-crawlies. It had "arms" as well as legs, two cranes recessed neatly into channels on the sides of the cargo bin that could be extended to pick up the chicks and hook them onto brackets for transport. On the roof was an antenna housing with a small dish and a couple of spiral whips, together with a pair of defensive Kagis and a cylinder that looked as though it might contain gas under pressure. At the front of the bin, metal rungs led to an access hatch about a meter wide. Somewhere inside, I hoped and prayed, was the guidance unit that Bob Bascombe had been confident he could reprogram, turning the high-tech hut on fowl's legs into a Trojan horse.

  "Ivor," I said. "Would you please crawl up there and see if you can open that hatch? We need to find a redundant guidance terminal, probably just beneath the antennas. Watch out for the Kagis. If they start to deploy, run like hell."

  But the weaponry must have been taught to recognize human beings as nonthreatening. After a few tentative feints produced no adverse reaction from the yaga's defenses, the giant youth swarmed safely up one of the jointed propulsion units and onto the machine's roof. The hatch wasn't locked and he had it open almost at once and slithered inside. A few moments later his head popped up.

  "It's filled nearly to the top with fruit. No instrumentation is visible. Devices resembling sprinkler heads are mounted on the interior roof framing, and on the upper bulkheads are four small perforated boxes labeled ROVULO-12. I believe they may be fumigation units. The number of insectiles and other small organisms skulking about in the fruit is astonishing."

  My heart plummeted. I didn't even have the heart to cuss.

  So Bob had planned to access the yaga's guidance electronically—no doubt through the elaborate control-unit he'd worn on his belt. He'd either known the override sequence, or he could have called it up easily enough from the main computer at Dome via satellite link.

  We couldn't. Without the entry code, we'd set off an alarm that would warn Cravat Datasys of our unauthorized presence.

  I looked at Matt and she shook her head. She'd figured it out, too.

  "Any ideas?" I inquired dolefully.

  To give her credit, she sounded neither relieved nor triumphant. "We'll have to abort, Helly. It's the only realistic course of action. We can't simply call for a Cravat Fleet Security assault team. The message might be intercepted by Galapharma moles. We'll have to return to the gig, fly to Cravat Dome, and wave the red card. I'll assemble the best force possible and penetrate the factory. You're in no shape to lead a Boy Scout troop."

  She paused, daring me to deny it. I gave her a plucky, non-commital smile.

  "We ought to call Mimo first and get Plan B rolling," she added. "Just in case we don't make it. We'll have to contact him anyway to rescind the deadline... What about Bob's body?"

  I shook my head. "It would be a magnet for predators even if we wrapped—"

  "Helly! Matt! Look!" Ivor called out to us, still sitting on top of the harvester.

  We'd ignored the robot chick, never noticing that it had remained stationary beside the yaga instead of going away to gather a fresh haul. Now seven more of the colle
ctors had emerged from the grove of pseudomyr trees and chugged toward us in single file. The first arrived, deposited its fruit, and rolled aside to wait. The next one took its place.

  "Jesus!" I whispered reverently. "You don't suppose..."

  She stared incredulously. "Ivor did say that the fruit bin was nearly full."

  All three of us watched, transfixed, as the rest of the chicks transferred their loads to the yaga and lined up, four on either side. Then the large machine's arms unfolded and it slowly began to pick up the auxiliary robots. The workshift was over. Yaga 414H and her little ones were going home.

  "All aboard!" I cried, stumbling to one of the waiting chicks. I raised its lid and crawled awkwardly into it.

  Ivor slammed shut the yaga's hatch and slid down to the ground. He and Matt retrieved our scattered equipment, then found chicks for themselves. Like passengers in some outrageous amusement park ride, we were hoisted and secured to the right flank of the hut on fowl's legs.

  Five minutes later the yaga was striding through the green hellish night, and we were on our way to Nutmeg-414.

  Chapter 17

  The yaga's striding gait was smooth and unexpectedly comfortable. At first I didn't feel much pain. Riding with the lid partially open and doing my best not to succumb to the urge to sleep, I selectively squeezed three coffee pouches to achieve maximum heat and minimum cream and sugar. One after another I sucked them up while I studied the subter-rain chart Bob had made, brushing aside the odd bug or slimy that ambled over the print's surface.

  The only excitement on the journey came when a bat analogue the size of a terrier landed on my chick and persistently tried to crawl inside with me. Closing the lid made me feel claustrophobic but nothing else seemed to discourage the damned thing. Finally, feeling guilty, I shot it with a dart from my Ivanov sidearm. The amount of chemical that would only stun a man-weight life-form for an hour was probably lethal for a smaller creature.

  The contour-line cave diagram was convoluted, its multiple hologram levels hard to interpret without more expertise than I possessed. A sizable cavern certainly did lie a short distance southeast of Nutmeg-414, but the chart gave no positive indication of its total extent and depth, nor where an access tunnel might connect the cave to the factory.