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Perseus Spur 28
"Matt?" I pulled the plasfoil away from her face. She was breathing and her eyelids fluttered.
Satisfied, I turned with more trepidation to my sister, gently unwrapped her, and looked down at the pale blue face inside the framed hood of the envirosuit. I touched her cheek. It was cold, but the partially transmuted flesh was still soft and yielding. When I lifted an eyelid, I saw that the whites of her eyes had already changed to the vivid azure typical of the gracile Haluk morph. Her irises were still green with an inner ring of amber around the enlarged pupil, just like mine.
Her other eye opened and the pupils contracted slowly. She was alive, and looking at me.
She said, "Asa... you?" Her voice was still human.
I caught her up in my arms, crushing her to my chest. "Evie! Oh, God, Evie."
"Did... we make it?"
I heard Matt moan and say, "A good question."
My fierce embrace relaxed and 1 lowered Eve to the rock floor again.
"Take it easy, you guys. I've got to check things out."
I took the Swiss Army knife out of my belt pouch and cut the cords binding the second lamp to her chest. To my satisfaction, it also worked.
Matt was sitting up, rubbing her eyes. She still wore the Haluk uniform coat but not the helmet. In spite of the earlier soaking we'd endured, our clothing and our hair were now completely dry. I still had my navigator and the alien wrist unit, and both were functional.
The countdown now read +122:41. We'd been unconscious for two hours.
I went out of the groggery, shone the light around, and exclaimed, "Holy shit!"
I'd expected that the underground river would be reduced to a trickle. Instead, it was overflowing its channel and had very nearly reached the entrance to our shelter. The vile stench had completely disappeared.
Aiming the lantern in the direction of the main cavern, I discovered that the tunnel had been plugged by a rockfall about fifty meters back. Much closer to us, another section of the wall had partially collapsed, admitting a gushing torrent of water.
1 hurried back into the groggery. "Heads up, ladies! We've got to get out of here pronto. Ol' Man River is knocking at our door."
Matt grabbed up the other lantern, knotted its cord into a lanyard, and hung the light around Eve's neck. I slung the stun-gun over my shoulder and folded up one of the blankets and stuffed it under my sweater. My own lamp was fastened to my belt.
Between the two of us, Matt and I eased my sister out of the low doorway and half carried, half dragged her onto the diminished riverbank. Then I gave the gun to Matt and carried Eve piggyback until the lowering ceiling, the increasing slant of the ledge, and the presence of the devilish spikes made it impossible.
What followed was nightmarish. With Eve unable to move on her own, I had to drag her through the highest reaches of the Spike Farm. Matt and I used rocks to pound down the sharpest of the stalagmites, after which we padded the nubbins with her uniform coat and moved Eve over them. Our progress was excruciatingly slow, since we didn't want to risk puncturing Eve's envirosuit. I had lowered its visor in order to spare her from the constant drip of water from the ceiling formations, but Matt and I were soaked almost immediately.
It took us nearly an hour to traverse the Spike Farm. At the end of it, as we came into the squeezeway, it was evident that we had ascended above the level of the rising river. I breathed a sigh of relief, not having shared my fear that we might find the constricted tunnel rilled with water and impassable.
With the rock floor relatively smooth again, I improvised a travois from the coat and the blanket, towing Eve behind me as I wormed through backward. When we were safe at last in the dry Bowl Chamber, I declared time out for a good long rest.
My arm and shoulder muscles ached from the strain of hauling Eve, but aside from that, my physical condition seemed surprisingly good. There was no pain from my injuries and no other symptoms aside from normal fatigue. I decided not to use the medicuff.
Opening my sister's visor, I asked her how she felt.
"Better," she whispered. "Little... thirsty. Suit reservoir... empty."
"We can cut a piece from the space blanket," Matt suggested, "and I'll go back to the Spike Farm and catch some drips."
"No need for that." I picked up the empty Haluk liquor bottle. "Handy container right here, and there's nice clean holy water in the Goblin's Cathedral down the hall."
"Goblin's Cathedral?" Matt was disbelieving.
"You'll see it when we hit the trail again. Back in a short while."
Taking a lamp, I slipped through the Needle's Eye and filled the flask at a pool in the big room. All of us drank gratefully. Eve insisted that she was comfortable in the suit, sitting propped against the Bowl's wall. But I saw that Matt was pale. I'd begun to feel pretty chilly myself now that we were no longer scrambling for our lives. The Haluk lanterns gave plenty of light but no heat. I wished I'd checked the bottles back in the groggery more carefully. All of them might not have blown their tops, and I really would have welcomed a heartwarming snort of exotic booze.
A better idea then occurred to me, and I suggested to Matt that we share body heat. We sat with our arms around each other, shoulders covered with the space blanket.
Eve looked at us with a knowing smile. "Make ... a lovely couple."
I groaned. "Bag it, sis."
She gave a sly chuckle, then sobered. "Thank you, Asa... Matt. For coming."
"We're not home free yet," I said, "but maybe the worst is over."
"Did you really find Luckless Larry's route?" Matt asked me. "Emily didn't give me many details of your message." She grimaced. "There was a lot going on at the time."
I explained to Eve who Larry was and gave a brief recital of my caving expedition. "It's also my considered opinion that any way Larry went, given his lepido clumsiness, should be a relative piece of cake for two able-bodied humans toting a gracile crip."
Eve broke into helpless laughter. "Deserved... that." After a while I got around to asking Matt just what had happened back in the cavern.
"Emily took care of Eve, who was sitting in mobile invalid chair. Woritak was having a long and involved conversation with a Haluk named Administrator Ru Lokinak, who was the head of the facility. They'd turned off their translators so I couldn't tell what they were saying, but Emily understood and spoke the alien language. She said the two of them were talking about whether to tell the other Haluk about the photon camouflet and try to escape.
"I asked her if there were any flashlights available, and she sent me off with a lepido storekeeper to fetch them. When I returned, I found the three of them having a fierce argument. I gathered that Ru Lokinak didn't really believe you'd found a way out. He was also unwilling to order his people to participate in an escape attempt because it would mean abandoning the Haluk who were in genen dystasis or sleeping in the testu-dinal phase—and that was contrary to some ancient racial code of honor.
"When Woritak requested that Eve, Emily, and I be allowed to escape through the sump, the administrator flatly refused. He gave no reason. After that, Woritak just seemed to give up. He went away to join the others. Ru Lokinak called two alien troopers armed with stun-guns to guard us, then started the death-watch prayer."
I nodded. "The leader thought you'd expose the plot if you survived. I was afraid of that."
Matt said, "Emily had tried very hard to change Ru Loki-nak's mind. She really did her best, poor woman."
"She was... a deluded, fanatical idealist." Eve spoke with an awful tranquil certitude. "If she'd survived ... Commonwealth would have executed her for treason."
I protested. "Emily freed us from the Haluk prison, Evie. Without her help we never would have escaped."
"Without Milik"—Eve emphasized the alien name contemptuously—"none of this would have happened! And... and..."
She subsided, coughing. I went to give her water. Finally she was quiet, resting with her chin on her chest. I rejoined Matt under the blanket.
/> "How did you manage to get away?" I asked her, after a long overdue private interlude that was necessarily limited in scope.
"The praying Haluk were gathered in concentric circles around Administrator Ru Lokinak, standing quite close to the genen complex. Emily said they were including the tanked Haluk in their sacred gathering. Those colored crystal things were glowing, but almost all of the other lights in the cavern had been shut off. We and our guards were at the outer edge of the crowd, among the lepidos."
The Haluk had hummed their musical mantra, swaying in rhythm to the wordless song. After a little while the women noticed that many of the aliens seemed to be passing into a kind of trance—including the two troopers detailed to guard them.
The troopers weren't wearing translators, so Matt and Emily whispered together and came up with a plan. They pretended that Eve was in distress, and mimed her need for medication and a blanket. The guards didn't want to interrupt their prayers, and the treatment station was in plain sight not ten meters away, so Emily took Eve there without a trooper accompanying them. Emily managed to get four of the plas-foil blankets, along with two lanterns and some cord. She hid the extra things in Eve's lap after covering her and returned to Matt and the troopers.
As the countdown continued and the ritual of docile thanatopsis became more intense, Matt and Emily began to edge away from their half-mesmerized guards, pushing Eve in the antigrav chair and keeping close to the outer ring of lepidos. No one seemed to notice when they abruptly took off in a mad dash across the cavern.
Their audacious plan seemed to have worked. They'd almost reached sump number five when one of the graciles gave the alarm.
"I think it was Physician Woritak himself," Matt said. "Someone in green medical clothing was shouting at the guards. They came after us. You know what happened after that."
"Damn," I said. "And I thought Woritak was a good guy." "Maybe not," Matt observed, "when forced to choose between his own race's political ambitions and the lives of three human women."
Eve spoke up suddenly in a labored whisper. "Do you understand... why they had a genen facility on Cravat?"
I looked at her in surprise. "I guess I thought it was a matter of convenience, or something. Close to the source of vector supply."
"No . . . very dangerous to work here. The principal transmutation facilities, ones that only eliminate allomorphism ... are located on Haluk planets. This Nutmeg-414 genen operation was unique. Different purpose. Milik told me when I was captured . . . why she was going to change me... as she herself had been changed."
Something frigid did a flipflop in my guts at the same time that a comic-strip lightbulb clicked on above my head. "The other Emily Konigsberg! The one who died in the alien lifeboat accident. She was some sort of Haluk ringer. A duplicate!"
"Proper term is ... demiclone. Adult alien individual transmuted radically. .. becomes virtually indistinguishable from DNA-donor human. No need to wait years for ordinary clone to grow up. Some alien genes remain, but most common tests would show demiclone was a true human. I'm not sure what was ... mission of Fake Emily. Perhaps to spy on Galapharma itself." "And if they'd made a demiclone of you" I said to Eve grimly, "the fake would have delivered the Rampart Worlds to Gala on a plate!"
Matt added, "And Fake Helly and Fake Matt would have helped serve dessert."
"Six months," Eve whispered. "That's how long it would have taken to prepare our ... doppelgãngers. Asa, do you know... that Simon wanted me to take over as head of Rampart Starcorp? Become CEO, bump Zed from the presidency?"
"He told me," I said. "I thought it was a super idea."
"I agreed only under protest. I told him the person he really needed... was you."
"Good God, Evie!"
I would have remonstrated with her, but she shut me up with an incisive command. "Never mind that. We can ... argue it later, with Simon. Now I must tell you everything I know about the Haluk's conspiracy with the Big Seven Concerns. Beginning with my capture."
Eve had come to Cravat for the very reasons that I had deduced. For nearly two years she had suspected that there were Galapharma partisans within Rampart, actively working for a takeover. What she could not understand was why Alistair Drummond was so desperate to acquire Rampart that he would risk his Concern's very existence in the attempt; for if Galapharma's sabotage, theft of significant data, and conspiracy to devaluate Rampart were proven, then under ICS regulations Rampart could sue the big Concern and demand all of its assets in compensatory and punitive damages.
The only theory that seemed likely to explain Drummond's audacious actions involved some truly obscene potential for profit.
The niggling little collection of Haluk mysteries was, on the face of it, unrelated to Galapharma's effort to engineer a Rampart takeover. Eve had not even remotely considered a connection until Bob Bascombe told her his odd story and she discovered that Oliver Schneider had never mounted an investigation of the Haluk corpse. Asking herself why had set off a new, admittedly far-fetched, train of thought.
Eve had never trusted Schneider. For one thing, he was Zed's man and had on more than one occasion obstructed internal investigations of Rampart affairs that she had personally initiated. She had no proof of Schneider's disloyalty; but like me, she had realized that the head of corporate security would have been the ideal person for Gala to suborn. And now he had failed to check out a Haluk corpse on Cravat, a planet producing something that greatly interested the aliens.
Eve knew that Simon would have laughed at the notion of a Galapharma-Haluk connection. It was also unthinkable that she report her flimsy suspicions to the Commonwealth authorities. If she tried to gather evidence by mounting a Cravat investigation that bypassed Schneider's Internal Security Force and used Fleet Security personnel reporting to Matt Gregoire, Schneider would undoubtedly find out about it and find a way to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Crafty old Ollie had eyes and ears in every corner of Rampart. That was the way he earned his huge salary and generous stakeholder options.
So Eve decided to check out Cravat herself. She flew to the planet in disguise and swore her friends the Bascombes to secrecy. If her expedition was a wild goose chase, no harm would be done. There was an element of personal danger, but she was an experienced ET wilderness traveler and had visited the planet's boonies before. She intended to go very well armed.
She also believed that any aliens who might have invaded the Nutmeg factories of Grant Microcontinent would not dare to defend the sites overtly against casual human intruders. Bob Bascombe had already told Eve that big-game hunters prowled Grant with impunity. She also knew that the robot defenses of the mothballed factories were programmed not to harm humans, and that their main doors were left unlocked so that they could provide refuge in an emergency.
Her intent was to land in the jungle near Nutmeg-414, pretend to be a curious hunter, and simply wander boldly into the facility to see what she could see.
As she came through the gate and began touring the compound, two male humans wearing envirosuits with Rampart insignia came out the front door of the factory. They hailed her in a friendly fashion. Thinking they were project maintenance personnel, she concealed her disappointment and told them that she was Eve Frost.
Wow! The guys were really impressed that a Rampart VIP was visiting their backwoods establishment. They transmitted the good news to their boss, Chalky White, who was working inside.
Eve agreed to come in for a fatal glass of beer. Chalky and two other Galapharma security agents nabbed her as she stepped out of the airlock, disarmed her, and took her down to the cavern.
She was confined to a cell for four days while subspace messages corkscrewed around the infracosmos and Galapharma decided what to do with its spectacular catch. Someone came up with a diabolically brilliant idea.
Elgar/McGrath rushed to Cravat to make sure that the scheme was properly carried out. He personally told Eve that the process of transmuting her in
to a Haluk would begin the next day. He couldn't resist teasing her by saying that she'd be very surprised to know who had suggested her bizarre "punishment."
Some hours later a female Haluk paid a secret and emotional visit to Eve's prison cell. The alien identified herself as one Emily Blake Konigsberg, who had once been human. She told my appalled sister her own fantastic story.
* * *
Six years earlier, Emily Konigsberg said, she had been a well-paid senior researcher at Galapharma AC on Earth. Because she was attractive as well as brilliant in her chosen field of xenobiology, she caught the attention of Gala's debonair Chief Executive Officer, Alistair Drummond. They enjoyed a brief affair, which dissolved amicably. While they were lovers, Emily confided her great dream to Alistair: She wanted to free the Haluk—those highly intelligent, extremely numerous, misunderstood aliens—from the allomorphism that had so tragically hindered their progress. Emily had studied the Haluk for many years, admittedly from afar. She was convinced that the allomorphic trait could easily be eradicated through genetic engineering. And they would be so grateful!
She reminded Alistair that Haluk antagonism toward humanity was largely rooted in envy of our stable physiology and fear that we might dominate them with our superior science. No other nonhuman race of star-travelers, she maintained, had so great a potential as the Haluk.
Emily Konigsberg's motives for helping them were rooted in her deep conviction that the Commonwealth policy denying genen treatment and other high technology to qualified Insap races was immoral. She pointed out to Alistair Drummond that a Concern willing to bypass that shortsighted policy on behalf of the Haluk would not only redress a grave injustice but also glean enormous profits.
Alistair did not need reminding that the Haluk Cluster had abundant resources of valuable transactinide elements, which the aliens lacked the scientific expertise to utilize, yet had perversely refused to trade to humanity.
The Galapharma CEO was intrigued. He agreed to consider Emily's proposal, sent Concern agents disguised as pirates to sound out the Haluk, and was astounded when the previously intractable aliens bought the deal hook, line, and sinker.