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Perseus Spur 3
"And somebody put the transmitter in your house?" Oren said in disbelief.
"Probably this morning. Timed to sound off at an appointed hour when I should have been home. Only I wasn't."
Kofi nodded grimly. "Had to be one of the sports. Maybe the one who looked bogus to you."
"They were the only strangers in my.place all week," I agreed, "plugging in their credit cards while I checked out their dive gear."
Mimo Bermudez cleared his throat with tactful diffidence. "Helly, please don't misunderstand. But this seems to me a most chancy and inefficient way of committing murder. Why wasn't the transmitter set to broadcast later, at night, when you would certainly be home in bed? For that matter, why would any competent killer consider this charade with the sea toad at all, rather than disposing of you in a more discreet and workmanlike fashion?"
"The toads only hunt for pelagic prey during daylight," I said. "At night they go after ruby prawns and other quarry deep underwater, using different sensory equipment. The ultrasonic call would be useless after dark. As to the why..." I trailed off.
"It is none of our business, of course," Mimo said. "Forgive me for mentioning it." The other two made reassuring comments and began setting up the spotlights.
I said, "I haven't a clue why someone would want me dead. I'm no danger to anybody. Not anymore."
They stared at me, and I experienced an overwhelming desire to pour it all out. Anger was still on a slow boil inside me, an emotion that I hadn't felt since I first realized that the frame-up was going to stick. Then, I'd raged against the great companies that had financed humanity's colonization of the stars, trampling or sweeping aside anyone who dared oppose them. Until the end, I had refused to accept that it could happen to me.
Now it seemed that my foes weren't content simply to remove me from the gameboard. They wanted to obliterate me altogether.
Or was my death intended to serve another purpose?
I posed a question to my friends. "What would have happened if I'd died in the gulped house—a poor schmuck of a charter-boat skipper on an obscure little planet, wiped out in such a flat-out ridiculous way?"
"The Tabloid Web would have leapt on the story," Oren Vinyard said promptly, "and spread it from K-L to the Sagittarius Whorl. Absurd demise is always good for a gasp and a giggle among the jaded masses."
I said, "And the tale would have been all the more juicy if the webstringer at Manukura learned my real name from some anonymous source before sending the story out."
My pals again regarded me with silent speculation. They'd never ask the question, but I almost answered it anyway. If I had, I might have started to unravel the mystery right that minute. Unfortunately, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I excused myself and stepped away.
It was Jake Silver calling back from the cop shop on the Big Beach. "Bronson Elgar is somebody very special," the weary voice said. "His ID is ex-census-database. I had a devil of a time tracing his personal card, but I finally called in a marker from an old crony in ECID and got it. Elgar's bills are paid from a numbered account by CreditEuro Bancorp."
"That's the financial arm of Galapharma."
"Whatever. Your suspect never returned to his suite at the Luxor. His four buds—who claim they were only casual acquaintances, by the way—last saw him going off for a drink with a woman in a red uniform who met their hop-shuttle flight at the starport. The description matches the livery of the comet-broom crew. I checked, and GAL-6236's tender was in for supplies. It's presently on the way back to the mothership, and your alleged assailant is probably aboard."
"God! I forgot that the broom system still operates under the original Galapharma contract. That means Commonwealth law enforcement has no jurisdiction over any of the broom vessels."
"Not without a heavyweight warrant," Jake agreed. "Your homicidal toad-wrangler is home free."
"If somebody found a way to bring Elgar back, would you be able to hold him?"
"Not on a complaint by a Throwaway."
"Then I guess that's all, folks."
"Seems like," Jake said. He broke the connection.
I looked at the dead telephone in my hand, then stowed it away with an odd sense of relief. The small conflagration in my guts eased and began to peter out. For all my sassy backchat to Jake, I was glad that it had become impossible for me to pursue my attacker—ashamed to be glad, but glad nonetheless. Big Business had swung at me again and missed. I was safe until the next time ... but I could worry about that some other day.
I returned to the others. Oren worked with the cutting torch's power supply and Kofi loudly disputed some technical point with him while pulling on one of the envirosuits. Mimo sat a little way apart on a piece of driftwood, smoking one of the high-tariff Cuban cigars he regularly smuggles into the Spur. I hunkered down beside him and told him in a low voice how Elgar had escaped, together with my suspicion that he was an agent of Galapharma. "With luck, they won't try another hit now that I'm alerted."
Captain Bermudez smoothed his frowzy hair with a long brown hand. His eyes in their wrinkled pouches glittered as madly as the Man of La Mancha's. "My Javelin starship is yours, Helly," he said softly, "and my decrepit piloting skills also, if you wish to go in pursuit of this Bronson Elgar."
"Don't be ridiculous," I muttered. "The bastard's long gone. End of story."
"I know a way we could catch the tender before she reaches the broom mothership. Elgar and his pilot will never suspect they're being chased until it's too late." He explained while he studied the cylinder of contraband Earth-grown tobacco, smiling in what might have been fond reminiscence. "And we could board them quite easily! My ship has mechanical excursion suits, fully powered and with weaponry interfaces. I'm certain that the tender is only minimally armed, whereas my Javelin—"
"Absolutely not!" I hissed. "Why should you get mixed up in my private crock of shit?"
He tilted his head and lifted his shoulders in comical irony.
"Perhaps smuggling has lost some of its savor. You know I haven't been off K-L in weeks."
A harsh little yap that might have been a laugh forced its way out of me. "You don't even know who I really am."
"I know that you're my friend and that you need help badly. It suffices."
Kofi and Oren were still arguing about the equipment, paying no attention to Mimo and me. I spoke in a whisper through clenched teeth. "I'm Asahel Frost. Old Simon's youngest son. The family black sheep who refused to become an officer of Rampart Starcorp."
"Ah. I remember! You joined the ICS instead. And then—"
"I had a lot of silly ideas about exposing the corruption of the Amalgamated Concerns and breaking their grip on the Commonwealth. I thought my background would give me a unique advantage, and so it did. I turned into Supercop— crusader against corporate villainy. When I started cutting too close to the bone, the Concerns didn't dare kill me out of hand. Instead they arranged to have me framed for malfeasance and disenfranchised. Now it seems as though they want to finish me off. God knows why."
"But surely you see that this makes it even more vital that we pursue this corporate assassin! To restore your good name and citizenship as well as to expose Elgar's backers."
"I won't let you endanger your life."
"I do it on every contraband run I make from the Orion Arm into the Perseus Spur. No me importa dos cojones."
"You can't risk the Javelin."
"Pah! Do you think I have only one starship?"
Kofi and Oren, dressed now in slick white plastic and wearing Air-Paks, were prowling around the flank of the toad, apparently deciding where to make the first incision. Out to sea, the calm lagoon waters were darkening, while the comets overhead glowed brighter, omens in the gloaming.
The old starman's voice became an insidious wheedle. "If you won't let me join you in the pursuit, then fly the Javelin yourself. Her name is La Chispa. That's Mexican slang for a brazen woman. She's a real sweetheart." He began to elaborate on his bold plan.<
I said, "No."
"Do you mean you're unqualified to pilot a starship?"
"It's impossible, dammit!"
"Nonsense. I've known you for nearly two years, Helly. Watched while your soul-wounds healed over and turned to scars. You're a strong man once again, and whole."
He was wrong. "You don't understand, Mimo."
He puffed smoke at a stinkmoth. The carrion-loving insec-tiles had discovered the reeking toad carcass and were gathering for the festivities. "Nail the hideputa" the old man urged me. "Force Elgar to talk. When you have the truth, either stuff him out Chispa's airlock or send him back to his principal with a message of your own. Otherwise another killer will come. You know that."
I said nothing.
"You can have your pick of my portable arms collection for the on-board confrontation. We'll take my hoppercraft to the Beach. I'll call ahead and have the Javelin readied. There will be no formalities with the Port Authority." A sly wink. "For me, there never are."
I remained silent, knuckling my brow like a man trying to banish an excruciating hangover or some appalling temptation, actually weighing the pros and cons of the audacious scheme. It could work. I had never been an official interrogator, but I knew that if I got my hands on Elgar I could probably turn him inside out like a sock. But finding out why he was sent would be only a first step. Going on from there was the prospect that made my balls shrink, made the fear-demon whisper: Let it be. You can't win. Only a madman would start it all over again...
After a while I said to Mimo, "Okay."
He smiled beatifically. "Come to my house. Take a quick shower and get some fresh clothes from my malle-armoire. There's plenty of time."
I went over to where my other friends were at work. The glow of the lamps illuminated a great cloud of orbiting moths. Kofi had opened the monstrous body with the cutting torch, and Oren was using a fish gaff as an improvised flensing tool, peeling back the toad's rubbery hide.
"I'm going to Manukura on urgent business," I called out. "I might be gone for some time."
Kofi straightened. I didn't need to see the expression on his masked face. "No problem. You go on, do what you gotta do, leave this pile of crap for me and Oren to take care of."
"Do your best to find that ultrasound transmitter," I said. "It's the only real evidence we have that the toad attack was a setup. Never mind the rest of my stuff. It's toast. Sal Faustino said she'd bring the tugboat around later to tow away the carcass."
"Don't worry," Oren said. "By the time you get back, the whole mess will be taken care of."
I didn't have the heart to contradict him.
The Javelin starship named La Chispa was a marvelous vessel, much larger than I had expected, with a bridge worthy of a Commonwealth Zone Patrol cutter and a hold large enough for nearly fifty kilotons of cargo. Its computer voice was warmly feminine, addressing me first in Spanish, then switching resignedly to English with a piquant Hispanic accent when it realized that I was not Captain Bermudez.
Mimo had often invited me to join him on one of his extralegal jaunts to Earth or other worlds in the Orion Arm, but I'd never accepted. Frankly, I was afraid to leave my sanctuary and risk damaging the fragile new identity I had built for myself.
That was understandable. What I didn't understand was why I was leaving now—and why my entering Chispa's bridge and settling down in the command seat didn't deliver a chilling reality jolt instead of inspiring me to start whistling through my teeth as the computer and I worked through the lift-off checklist.
The song was the John Williams "Superman Theme" rip-off of Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration leitmotif.
Or was my unconscious reminding me that I was already dead, with transfiguration way overdue?
To hell with it.
It had been nearly six years since I had piloted a starship. ICS Divisional Chief Inspectors don't have to do their own driving. During the hop from the island to Manukura with Mimo I had expressed reservations about the upcoming stunt on a strictly practical basis; but he only laughed and assured me that the Javelin had SLD and ULD systems that an idiot child could operate.
I knew it wouldn't be that easy. But as he described the ship's goodies in more detail, I decided I could at least muddle through the primary astrogational punch-up leading to the intercept. You never forget the basics. Later on, when things got livelier and I had to do close-in maneuvering, I could use the cerebral command headset.
As Mimo had promised, I was able to lift off from Manu-kura without filing a flight plan or even feeding my escape vector into traffic control. K-L's starport was small and its operation underfunded and casual. Frequent solar flares made landside EM scans of local interplanetary space difficult and often inaccurate. Nobody in the tower really cared which ships flitted in or out, provided they weren't Qastt or Haluk, and didn't smash into orbiting rubble and force the Port Authority to write up tedious accident reports.
Comet-broom tender GAL-6236T hadn't filed a flight plan either, but there was only one place it could go—to its mother-ship, which my computer located in an orbit 597 million kilometers from Kedge-Lockaby, over on the other side of the sun. Since the tender was not a starship, it would have to travel home to its mommy using conventional sublight iner-tialess drive, while Chispa, with ultraluminal capability, had zippier options.
I was going to nab my prey by making a hyperspatial microleap.
* * *
Outward bound through restricted space at mandatory one-tenth SLD velocity, I had a striking view of sea-girt Kedge-Lockaby. The abyssal plains and submarine valleys were deepest indigo-blue, while the sunken continental masses were blotched with overlapping circular basins of cobalt, turquoise, and varying tints of green—scars of the huge primeval comets that had not only pockmarked the little world but also left it with an overgenerous cloak of water.
The outer atmospheric reaches shimmered with an endless bombardment of micrometeoroids, those dust-sized bits of rocks, metal, and simple organic compounds that are the ashes of defunct comets. At this point in its history, the Kedgeree solar system had very little large-scale asteroidal material left over from condensation of its primordial nebula. Few of the space rocks that remained were large enough to survive passage through the planetary atmosphere or pose a danger to cruising spacecraft carrying conventional shields.
The comets, of course, were something else—or would have been, without the broom.
While I waited for Chispa to power up to full subluminal auto I ordered a bland reconstituted supper of saffron rice, grilled galloid, and rozkoz-blue flan that I hoped would lie easy on my turbulent stomach. A couple of Carta Blanca beers helped relax me. I ate slowly and watched the scenery on the main viewer, thinking about the wretched sea toad and my friends' salvage hopes. Realistically, almost none of my possessions would have escaped the beast's invincible gastric juices unscathed. Except for my crippled sub, I was probably wiped out.
It made any decision about my future easier...
Whoever had tried to engineer my demise had been exceptionally well-acquainted with the obscure fauna of Kedge-Lockaby. Ever since the cosseting of amateur divers became my bread and butter, I have made it my business to check out those marine creatures most apt to appeal to visiting thrill-seekers. The sea toad was an uncommon sort of monster. Its life cycle had never been studied and filed in the public database by Commonwealth exobiologists, who still scrabbled for funds to inventory the life-forms of freesoil planets in the populous Orion Arm—never mind the godforsaken Perseus boondocks. Only a handful of us Out Islanders, professional fishermen and divers, knew how the toad tracked its musical food.
Had one of my friends or acquaintances on Eyebrow Cay conspired to set me up? Perhaps. But there was another way my assailant might have found the information necessary to bait his trap: he could have read it in the dead-files of K-L's previous tenant, Galapharma AC.
no doubt that the mammoth drug Concern had once compiled a dossier on my designated predator. A century ago, when Gala exploration teams first cruised Zone 23 of the Milky Way and claimed Kedge-Lockaby, they would have inventoried every living thing on the planet that might have furnished a valuable new product—an antibiotic, a genetic engineering vector, a cosmetic, a heretofore undiscovered source of pharmaceutical excitement for bored middle-class humanity.
(But Galapharma had unaccountably missed rozkoz when they combed Seriphos, so the confection more delicious than chocolate had founded the fortunes of the Frost family!)
Even today, when Gala's old exobiology files were still top secret, it was theoretically possible for a determined outsider to hack into them and study the sea toad's life history. But was it probable, when there were so many easier ways of stopping my clock?
Unless Galapharma itself had planned my grotesque death. . .
Three years ago in 2229, when my ruin had been so artfully contrived that there was not a single clue left to hint at the perpetrator, I had concluded that there were two categories of evildoer with a motive for destroying me—the most obvious being crooks with a grudge. Every enforcement official leaves human wreckage in his wake, embittered individuals who blame the catcher when they're forced to pay the price for their crimes. There were hundreds of commercial-sector felons who would have loved to slice and dice my ass back then, but almost all of them were either in prison or Thrown Away at the time of my frame-up. Of those remaining at large and enfranchised, none had seemed to command the resources and clout necessary to concoct such an elaborate conspiracy.
A more probable candidate for my nemesis was one of the Hundred Concerns.
Homerun, the Japanese heavy-industry behemoth, and the great Franco-American starship conglomerate, Bodascon, had both been under investigation for criminal violations by my division of the Interstellar Commerce Secretariat at the time I was discredited. Both had managed to get the probes quashed once I was out of the picture. Then, I had been virtually certain that one of them had been responsible for my downfall.