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Perseus Spur 29
Emily went to work in a Gala-equipped lab on the Haluk colonial planet Artiuk near the tip of the Perseus Spur. In a gratifyingly short time she demonstrated how allomorphism might be banished from the Haluk genome. It was somewhat disappointing to Alistair Drummond that the only feasible vector for the modification process turned out to be Rampart Starcorp's PD32:C2. However, he had plans of his own for Rampart, and the Haluk connection could only enhance them in the long run.
Emily Konigsberg labored on Artiuk and on planets within the distant Haluk Cluster for several years, overjoyed that her dream was being fulfilled. True, the Haluk were slow to show signs of genuine friendliness toward humanity. They largely remained aloof and suspicious, even toward her, and grumbled over commercial realties that forced them to hand over extravagant amounts of valuable elements in exchange for human genetic engineering expertise and relatively paltry quantities of critical viral material.
Later on, however, when other members of the Big Seven Concerns joined Gala in "mutually beneficial" illicit Haluk trade agreements, the attitude of the aliens improved. They willingly paid even higher prices for starships, computers, high-tech manufacturing equipment, and other marvelous contraband goods; and while they remained standoffish to Concern agents, they were much nicer to Emily and to the handful of human colleagues who assisted her good work on the Haluk worlds.
Emily Konigsberg's happiest day came in 2229, when she was presented to the paramount leader of the Haluk Union, the Servant of the Servants of Luk, who came to Artiuk specifically to meet her. The SSL not only conferred a Diadem of Honor upon Emily, acknowledging her noble efforts, but also deplored the continuing lack of genuine rapprochement between their races. Would she be interested in hearing his suggestion for a new direction in Haluk-human relations?
Was she familiar with the demicloning process, as it was applied to sapient entities?
Well ... it was illegal in the Commonwealth of Human Worlds, as were cloning and other radical forms of genetic engineering involving intelligent beings. But the technology was well-documented in scientific literature.
The SSL seemed to know that. He airily discounted the criminal aspect by pointing out that both her own great work and Big Seven trade with the Haluk were also technical violations of Commonwealth law.
Yes, said Emily. But why in the world were the Haluk interested in demicloning?
The SSL confessed that he, also, had a great dream. He was positive that if small numbers of Haluk were transmuted into human form, they could become potent envoys for peace among their own people. By making educational tours of Haluk worlds and familiarizing the xenophobic masses with humanity's goals, customs, and potential beneficence, the demiclones could defuse longstanding fears and hostility.
Truly? Emily had asked, not quite convinced.
Indubitably, said the SSL, citing obscure aspects of Haluk psychology.
The human-appearing envoys might also address unrest among the lower classes, who were resentful because only privileged Haluk were thus far being stabilized with the expensive PD32:C2, while the proles were obliged to keep on morphing.
The demiclone envoys could point out that when the Haluk finally overcame their racial prejudice and proclaimed to the entire Milky Way Galaxy that they were willing to become brothers (and open trading partners) with humanity, then surely the humans would reciprocate the gesture, and find ways to increase supplies of PD32:C2. A great new era would dawn for both races.
Think of it!
Emily diffidently wondered whether actual human ambassadors might do the ticklish public relations job better than demiclones.
The SSL thought not. Sadly enough, Haluk dealings with Concern agents remained grudging because of the inescapable constraints of illicit commerce. Each side, to be blunt, was wary of being screwed by the other because of the secrecy angle.
And aside from Concern agents (with the exception of Emily and her colleagues), no humans of stature interacted socially with the Haluk. Nor would they ever do so, until the Commonwealth changed its laws.
Displaying a surprising command of human idiom, the SSL described the paradoxical situation as a Catch-22, wherein the only solution to the problem is denied by inherent circumstances.
The SSL's words pierced Emily Konigsberg's idealistic heart. She agreed to devote her efforts entirely to the new project, and also agreed that it should be kept secret from Galapharma and the other Concerns conducting backstairs business with the Haluk, lest they misunderstand and put obstacles in the project's way due to crass commercial considerations.
* * *
In its final form, Emily's demiclone process required three steps. First, the Haluk subject was rendered nonallomorphic in the usual manner, receiving a small amount of human genetic material via PD32:C2. This normally required six weeks in dystasis.
The second step, preparing the human DNA-donor, required a longer period of time and more of the vector's wide-spectrum transferase. The human DNA-donor, resting in dystasis, was carefully infused with selected nonallomorphic Haluk genes in order to preclude rejection syndrome in the alien demiclone subject. After twelve weeks in the tank, the human donor was ready, having acquired superficial gracile appearance as a reversible side effect.
In the third step, the Haluk subject received an enormous amount of genetic material from the modified human donor. When the transmutation process was complete, in another twelve weeks, a human-appearing replica of the donor emerged from the tank. Only the most sophisticated genetic testing would be able to detect that the individual was an alien.
Becoming the first human demiclone DNA-donor was, to Emily, an act of loving communion. She hoped that her "offspring" would be a bridge to peace who would inspire trillions of frustrated and truculent aliens in the Haluk Cluster to become friends of the human race and live happily and prosperously ever after.
After a small ceremony of consecration, Fake Emily went away, supposedly to be trained for her delicate task.
The real Emily expected to be restored to human form after the initial experiment's success. But the Servant of the Servants of Luk told her, with profound regret, that she'd have to wait a bit. She was so valuable to them that they could not do without her services for yet another six months while she was treated in dystasis. She was needed to produce more demiclones as quickly as possible. More human DNA-donors were being assembled and transported to Artiuk (never mind how), and numbers of Haluk volunteers were eagerly awaiting transmutation.
And surely Emily didn't think that the Haluk gracile body she wore was repulsive?
. . . Of course not.
With only the smallest seed of misgiving sprouting in her mind, Emily Konigsberg did as the SSL asked and carried on—until Galapharma found out what the Haluk were doing, as a direct result of the death of Fake Emily in a Haluk starship.
It was a loquacious lepido's fault.
After the noteworthy accident, which was reported in the human media, Galapharma's liaison team, led by Alistair Drummond himself, came to Artiuk to discuss a replacement for Emily and do a general assessment of the situation.
A lepidodermoid waitron, who had been until recently a gracile technician in the secret demiclone lab, offered refreshments to the important humans visiting the huge establishment. It wore a translator to facilitate service, but was under strict orders not to chat casually with the humans. (When Haluk change from the gracile to the lepido stage they not only decline in intelligence, but also tend to be obsessed with the thing they miss most.)
As Alistair Drummond expressed condolences to one of the gracile scientists upon Emily Konigsberg's death, the lepido waitron turned to him and said:
"Dead? Oh, no no! This one give Emily breakfast in staff messroom this morning. She is alive. And looking very sexy, too!"
Drummond invited the stunned gracile scientists to explain. They hemmed, hawed, suggested that the waitron was befuddled by the Big Change, and commanded it to stop borin
g the distinguished guest with ridiculous babble and leave the room.
But Alistair Drummond was not to be put off. He ordered his associates to seize the lepido, and very gently told the terrified creature to lead the way to the real Emily Konigsberg at once. When the other Haluk objected, he repeated his request and suggested that if it was denied, the "mutually beneficial" arrangement would be summarily canceled.
The Haluk graciles found themselves in an impossible position. Short of doing violence to Drummond and his associates, who flatly refused to unhand the lepido, there was no way they could avoid letting the cat out of the bag.
Emily, in Haluk form, was duly produced. Then it was the humans' turn to be shocked and appalled—first by her appearance, and later by their guided tour of the demiclone project. During a private interview with Drummond, Emily tried to explain the project's lofty purpose.
"In a pig's arse!" Alistair Drummond said, and delivered a scathing lecture on interspecies espionage. Haluk spies inside the Commonwealth government were mildly worrying; Haluk spies inside the Hundred Concerns were serious trouble; Haluk spies inside the Big Seven were profoundly deep shit.
Emily implored him not to force the Haluk to halt the project. It would not only imperil Haluk-human detente, but it would also be a mortal insult to the Servant of the Servants of Luk, who had conceived the idea. She suggested a way that might eliminate (or at least minimize) the potential problem.
Dismissing Emily, Alistair Drummond conferred with his associates. After the dust settled, Galapharma and the other Concerns agreed not to cancel the "mutually beneficial" arrangement, provided that the Haluk demiclone project was transferred to a secure and secret facility on a human world, where Galapharma agents could keep a close eye on it. Gala would also provide all of the necessary human DNA-donors. Emily was sent to Cravat to supervise the revised operation, feeling sadly betrayed by her erstwhile Haluk friends and ill-used by her ex-lover Alistair Drummond, who had ordered her to find a foolproof way to mark the Haluk ringers, unless she wanted to spend the rest of her life wearing blue skin and a face that would frighten small terrestrial children. As it happened, she did both.
* * *
"What was the marker?" I asked Eve.
"She never told me. I presume it was some sort of redundant DNA sequence. I... don't know much about genetics."
"Never mind," I said. "Rampart must employ a whole gaggle of other people who do."
"But the point is moot, isn't it, Asa? We have no demiclone to test! All of the subjects—all that we know of, at any rate— were vaporized back there in the cavern . . . along with the donors."
"The donors?" A fresh frisson of horror swept through me. "Are you telling me—"
"I thought you knew," Eve said dully. "Only about half of the subjects in the dystasis tanks were Haluk. They'd begun their transmutation only ten days before I arrived. The rest were human DNA-donors. Milik said they were Throwaways, former employees of the Big Seven who were disenfranchised for some infraction. The poor devils were told that if they cooperated in a special project, they'd get their jobs and their citizenship back ... It was a lie, of course. Milik told me they were kept permanently in dystasis here. Used over and over as sources of modified DNA."
"That's appalling!" Matt said.
"That's economical," said Eve.
We were all silent for a moment. Then I said, "You know, I betcha that right this very minute, spies with human bodies and Haluk minds are engaging in skulduggery back on Earth. Gala and its cohorts probably think the Haluk are most interested in stealing scientific data from other Concerns and Starcorps."
"And what do you think?" my sister asked shrewdly.
I climbed to my feet, stretched, and pulled out the subter-rain chart. "I think it's time we got out of this hole."
We started off again, and most of the trip proved to be neither dangerous nor even very difficult. The two women admired the Goblin's Cathedral and were awed by the chasm with its infernal cascade. Larry's putative footprints in the dust impressed them as they had impressed me, and we began our ascent of the Staircase with high hearts.
The lower part of the steep tunnel was dry, wide enough so that Matt and I could support Eve together. Nearer the top there were rockfalls and a considerable amount of flowing water, and the way became trickier to negotiate. We finally had to tie Eve to my back with strips cut from the Haluk uniform jacket so I didn't have to worry about her slipping off. Her own strength was still insufficient for her to hang on tightly, although she seemed to be improving.
We had found no more traces of Luckless Larry. Any footprints would have been washed away long ago by water pouring down the narrowing rocky steps, and he hadn't tossed any more dead soldiers.
About ninety minutes after we had left the Bowl Chamber, the navigator's altimeter showed that we had reached the level of Pothole Passage and the moment of truth: Had the Staircase led to freedom, or would it open into one of the many blind corridors that the chart had showed, trapping us in a labyrinth with no outlet?
We climbed out of the hole and found ourselves in a stalactite-hung chamber. One end of it contained a pool about twenty meters wide, crowded with islandlike formations. Its spillway was the Staircase we'd just come from.
While Matt and Eve attended to some personal business, I found a high place, stood on top of it, and flashed my powerful lantern in all directions, hoping to orient myself. Check cave features. Check chart. Check navigator's compass.
A few minutes later I let loose with a jubilant "Yah-hoo!" that made the stalactites ring and the women call out to me worriedly. Compass bearings taken on the multiple narrow crevices at the north end of the pool and the single larger tunnel trending southward from its opposite shore corresponded exactly with features on the chart.
"It's okay, gals!" I shouted. "We're in Pothole Passage."
I returned to the spot where Matt and Eve were resting and accepted congratulations. Now all we had to do—all!—was continue on for roughly eight kilometers until we reached the exit into the Green Hell.
"How long do you think it might take?" Matt's gaze flicked meaningfully toward Eve, who sat propped against a formation with her eyes closed and a slight smile on her face.
I tried to be encouraging. "If we're lucky, ten hours. Then we set off Eve's suit beacon and the one in my navigator, sit back, and wait until they pick us up."
Eve murmured, "Hope ... no humpies join the party before that."
And no Branson Elgar, I thought.
After half an hour's rest we started again.
Matt and I alternated carrying Eve and breaking trail. The route was serpentine but rarely confusing, occasionally so constricted that we were forced to slither, and at other times opening into large rooms or long galleries decorated with dripping speleothems. The water came and went according to the vagaries of the rock strata; but Grant was a humid land-mass and almost all of its drainage was underground, so very few parts of Pothole Passage could be classified as dry.
Periodically I'd check our scrolling track on the navigator against the chart, only to be reassured that we were going exactly right. We didn't talk much. Most of the time, like any hikers on a long, long trail, we saved our energies and tried to ignore our aching muscles and growling stomachs.
Now and then the one of us who wasn't carrying Eve would sing. I contributed off-key cowboy laments and Mexican canciónes. Matt sang bouncy little ditties in Creole patois or Caribbean dialect. She could carry a tune much better than I. The song Eve pronounced to be her favorite was a Calypso ballad called "Matilda," about a poor jerk whose girlfriend took all his money and ran away to Venezuela.
For some reason, the two women thought it was very funny.
After we'd traveled for six hours through depressingly damp passages, we reached a chamber with ledges that were fairly dry. We made camp on one and slept like the dead until our cramping stomachs woke us in misery sev
en hours later.
There was no more singing after that, only slogging onward like robots in the bobbing lamplight, stumbling across streams, squeezing though the occasional crevice or crawl-way, climbing rockfalls, listlessly eyeing formations so beautiful they should have taken our breath away.
But we had none to spare.
We continued on until weakness and exhaustion felled us again, less than two hours later. My sleep this time was fitful, not because of hunger (my stomach had given up and was sulking) but from a belated attack of nerves. When I finally did fall into a doze, I kept having petty nightmares—the looping kind where you do some tedious task over and over again and never get it right. In my dream I was installing a gas stove (the only kind to have) in the kitchen of my beachfront shack on Kedge-Lockaby, trying to get the damned thing working but never succeeding because stinkmoths kept flying at me, preventing me from seeing straight...
I woke up in a cold sweat, pawing at my face. We had left one of the lamps burning at low setting while we slept, and damn me if I didn't spot a bug skittering away from my head on dozens of hair-thin legs! I remained absolutely still with Matt lying zonked beside me. After a few minutes three of the exotic insectiles came tippy-toeing out of a crevice, foraging daintily. They lacked pigment and looked something like glass centipedes. Since they made no attempt to attack either of us (and I felt no bites), I decided they were harmless.
A glow of excitement kindled inside me. Most cave-dwelling animals survive only in areas relatively near the entrances. The lightless regions deeper underground are sterile unless organic matter is regularly washed in from the outer world to serve as the bottom link in the food chain, seeding the mud and water with bacteria and other tiny edibles.
The glass centipedes signaled that we were nearing trail's end.
Tucking the blanket around Matt, I crept over to check on my sister. Eve was also sound asleep, breathing regularly and with a strong pulse in her slender not-quite-alien neck. The suit's powerpack was less than half discharged, and she seemed warm and dry. When we got outside, we could turn on her ion screen and she'd be shielded from ambient perils of a minuscule kind, while Matt and I would have to take our chances with noxious bugoids and germies until rescuers arrived.