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Perseus Spur 31
There was no answer to that. "Are you ready?"
"I've been practicing breathing shallowly with the snorkel closed. I think quite a lot of air gets trapped in the suit."
"Just relax in the water," I instructed her. "Don't try to swim. I'll cup your chin and tow you across the lake on the surface, then close your snorkel and pull you under. Keep your legs together and your arms tight at your sides and your head down against your chest. That'll help me in the towing. Remember: when we reach the first air pocket, I'll deploy your snorkel and turn on the ventilator so you can breathe. Don't open your visor! There's very little headroom in the first space and I don't want to risk water slopping into your suit."
I sealed her up. She had the Allenby strapped to her back, along with my sneakers, Matt's bootees, and the trusty space blanket. When she was in the water, I attached one end of the rope to a suit hang-up ring on the ventilator housing between her shoulder blades. The other was fastened to the rear of my utility belt.
I stroked across the lake, hauling her with a rescue hold. After I prepared her, I gave myself a stimulant jolt from the medicuff, then dived into the pipe.
We almost didn't make it.
My sister's flaccid suited body had less water resistance than Matt's, but towing her for such a distance taxed my still-convalescent powers to the limit. Toward the end, when my limbs turned to lead and the lamplight unaccountably began to fade and hypoxia turned my brain to dull gray meat, I almost succumbed and breathed the water. Only a sudden vision of Matt, abandoned in that miserable subterranean slot, inspired me to poke the medicuff again. The drug boosted my heart and I managed a dozen strong kicks.
They brought me to safety.
I don't know how Matt realized that I was in extremis. But I felt a powerful yank on the lamp lanyard around my neck, and a moment later I broke the surface, wheezing and hacking. It was Matt who brought up Eve and opened her snorkel, she who placed my hands firmly on one of the few useful rock projections inside the pocket, she who improvised a float by trapping air in the plasfoil blanket, using it to prevent Eve's weights from carrying her back into the depths.
After a time we went on, not daring to rest any longer for fear that the cold water would fatally weaken Matt and me. This time Matt went forward alone, certain that she could easily cover the eighteen-meter distance. When I saw the dim blue glow blink three times and knew that she'd made it, 1 laboriously brought Eve through.
On shore in the anonymous beast's lair, I found myself shivering uncontrollably. I tried to start a fire in the twigs and other trash of the bone-nest, using my belt pouch's perma-match, but the material was too damp to catch. Fortunately, the air temperature in the den was much higher than that of the water, so Matt and I huddled together in the clammy blanket again to recover. She warmed up rather quickly, while it seemed to take forever for me to stop shivering.
I could tell that the women were worried.
"You're getting hypothermic, li'l bro," Eve declared. "Your face is almost as blue as mine. And no wonder, doing all that hard work."
Matt said, "Let me pull you through the next section, Eve. I've got my second wind."
I protested in vain. The two of them set off and I waited anxiously, still wrapped in the blanket, until the three faint blue blinks signaled that they had negotiated the twenty meters. My own trip was slow and torturous, nearly as difficult as the first long haul with Eve. I had not dared to take another dose of stimulant. Once again I felt myself blacking out as I neared the end, but this time I saved myself, surfacing in the Star Chamber like a wounded whale and drawing breath in an agonized whoop.
Matt pulled me out of the water. She had taken my sweater from Eve's suit, and drew it over my shuddering carcass. The wool was exquisitely warm and smelled of woman. Someone yanked off my dripping shorts, tugged on almost-dry jeans, and encased my icy feet in Matt's stretchy polypro bootees.
I could hear them talking over me as I came around, rolled in the space blanket as tightly as one of Mimo's cigars.
"It's just a short distance. Three meters, according to the chart. I know I can swim it."
"The animal could be waiting."
"I'll give it a triple magnum flechette. No problem. You've got to take care of Asa or he'll go into shock. I've seen people in this condition before. It's very dangerous."
"So is going into the outer cave."
"We've got to get the beacons in place."
"I'll feel strong enough in a little while."
"I'm strong enough now, and you're shivering almost as badly as he is. We have no time to waste. Give me his navigator."
Fumbling at my wrist. Me trying to protest: don't do it, Evie!
No words coming out. All available energy diverted to the damned shivering.
"It shouldn't take more than ten minutes to set the things up. I'll be right back."
No Evie no! 1 forbid it absolutely forbid it. Fuck so cold. Mattie darling don't let her go. Here be monsters... Splash.
So quiet so cold so very very dark.
* * *
Painful light seared my eyelids. I protested, "For chris-sake!" and began to squirm out of the cosy wrappings. Even when I managed to open my eyes, I was blinded by the dazzling torch.
Matt said, "He's all right now. Warm, steady pulse and respiration."
"Good," Eve said. "We've got suits for both of you. How're you feeling?"
Matt laughed. "Better by the minute... I can't believe this!"
"Can't believe what?" I muttered, pulling myself painfully into a sitting position. "Will you quit shining the damn light in my eyes? Did you set out both beacons and—"
Three lights. Held by three people.
Matt knelt beside me, holding me up. I finally saw the others clearly after they dimmed the flashlights and lowered the beams to the wet rock ledge of the Star Chamber. A big sealed duffel bag lay at their feet. They wore dripping enviro-suits, and their hooded heads brushed the webs of the glowworms that hung from the small cave's ceiling. One by one they lifted their visors.
My sister Eve.
Captain Guillermo Bermudez.
And Ivor Jenkins.
Overstating the obvious, I said to Ivor, "You're alive!" and to Mimo, "You're here!"
Young Hercules shrugged. "I was very lucky."
"However you managed it, I'm damned glad to see you." I gave him an affectionate clout on the shoulder and he ducked his head shyly. I turned to Mimo. "You, too, you old smuggler. How did you work the miracle?"
"What miracle? There are still forty-two minutes remaining before your fifty-hour deadline expires."
"But you were gone!" I protested. "The Haluk searched the Cravat system and found no trace of Plomazo."
Captain Bermudez, that past master of astrogational chicanery, gave a derisive chuckle. "They couldn't find their ojetes with both hands."
"So how'd you do it?" I asked.
Eve interrupted firmly. "Later! The most important thing now is to get you and Matt out of here. Ivor, please help my brother with his suit."
We exited the cave in short order (the snoring two-hundred-kilo buzz-bear lying near the cavern entrance was such an anticlimax that no one even bothered to comment on it), boarded the gig that was waiting just outside, and headed for the starship at maximum velocity.
Ivor told us his story first, in characteristically pedantic fashion.
His first piece of good luck involved the flechette that had struck him in the face. The dart must have ricocheted off the rock floor, losing most of its momentum and dulling its point before hitting him, because it failed to deliver a full dose of sleepy-juice. Ivor was almost completely paralyzed but still half conscious when the troopers loaded him onto the trolley. He pretended to be out cold, while managing to flex his neck muscles and turn on the myostimulator collar.
In another piece of good fortune, his envirosuit hood was pushed back around his head as the troopers wrestled with his huge bulk and tossed h
im into number five sump. He went under only briefly and ended floating on his back because of the weight of the daypack that he still wore. Only a small amount of relatively uncontaminated water entered his suit, which retained enough air to support him.
He drifted slowly away into the darkness, barely able to move, too confused and fearful to think straight. Now and then he reached an obstruction and came to a stop, which delayed his journey to the chasm and allowed him time to recover further. After a while he regained partial use of his right arm, probably aided by the collar. When he heard the roar of the waterfall and realized what was about to happen, he was able to close his suit visor. The ventilator was already turned off.
The plunge down the shaft was vertical. At the bottom was a deep pool into which he sank, then bobbed to the surface. He managed to deploy his snorkel and turn on the ventilator as he was carried away into the bowels of Grant Microconti-nent, borne along a natural stream two levels beneath Pothole Passage.
Ivor's wrist navigator gave only a wan glow, not really bright enough to show much detail of the underground river's corridor. In most parts it was very narrow and the current was swift. Fortunately, it had no spiky speleothems hanging from its low ceiling.
As he floated through subterranean blackness, Ivor gradually regained full use of his limbs and oriented himself so he would travel feet first, avoiding knocks on the head when he inevitably bumped into the cave walls. He turned off the collar to conserve its power supply and watched the display of his navigator in bemusement as it tracked his progress along a featureless grid. During much of his journey, he prayed that his dying would not be too painful or prolonged.
After nearly four hours had passed, the navigator showed that he had traveled slightly more than twelve kilometers in a southerly direction. He recalled with increasing excitement that Nutmeg-414 was approximately that distance north of Pickle Pothole, and that the tall limestone cliffs overlooking the lake had numerous caves—some with waterfalls pouring from them.
Was it possible that he wouldn't die after all?
He turned on his collar again when he saw a faint pinkish light ahead. If it marked the end of the tunnel, within a few minutes he would either splash into Pickle Pothole and live, or be dashed to pieces on the rocks along the lakeshore.
Ivor braced himself as the cataract spat him out. He fell three meters into the water.
Afloat in a disbelieving daze, he watched Cravat's Gl sun rise, then swam ashore. He still had the gig's utility buoy; but since he lacked the technical expertise to summon the craft from its underwater hiding place as Matt or I would have, he simply turned on the emergency beacon of the navigator and waited to be rescued.
Mimo, in orbit in Plomazo, received the signal and feared that the mission had been aborted due to some disaster. He could think of no other reason for the ground party to use an open-frequency emergency signal. He activated the submerged gig's autopilot, returned the small orbiter to Plomazo, then descended in it to the planetary surface to find out what had gone wrong.
Ivor told him, leaving the old man in a quandary. Mimo's instincts urged him to come to the rescue of Matt and me and Eve, while experience and common sense dictated caution. Two men, no matter how well armed, were no match for Bronson Elgar and a cave full of aliens. The nearest Zone Patrol cruiser turned out to be over two days away.
Mimo had the Rampart Red Card I'd left with him. But he doubted whether anyone at Cravat Dome would accept its authenticity and obey his orders unless he presented it in person. That seemed risky. If there were Galapharma moles inside the sealed enclave, they might find a way to eliminate both Mimo and Ivor while their associates down in the cavern were disposing of Matt and me, leaving no one alive who knew the extent of Haluk involvement in the conspiracy.
Mimo believed there was a long chance that we'd get away from our captors. If we didn't, they would either kill us outright or keep us for hostages, as they had Eve. In either case, prudence seemed to dictate to Mimo that he wait the designated fifty hours. After that, he could consult with Simon via subspace before taking further action.
On further consideration, knowing men like Bronson Elgar all too well, Mimo deduced that I might be coerced into betraying his position. So he hid Plomazo in one of the local asteroid belts and waited to see what would happen.
The huge Haluk ship came roaring into the Cravat solar system not long afterward and began its search. The aliens would certainly have found Plomazo, even dissimulated, if Mimo's starship had remained in a Cravat orbit; but their wider sweep of interplanetary space was perfunctory and incompetent.
When the Haluk vessel finally went away, Plomazo returned to Cravat and took up its previous position. Mimo and Ivor rode the gig back down to Pickle Pothole and waited, underwater, until Eve activated her emergency beacons. They found her eight minutes later.
* * *
"Did Eve mention," I remarked to Mimo, "that the secret Haluk facilities beneath all of the factories on Grant Micro-continent were destroyed—vaporized by photon flares? Including the one where we were held captive?"
Eve said, "I forgot to tell him. I was too amazed when the gig came hurtling down out of the night. All I could think of was getting you and Matt out of the cave."
Mimo and I were sitting side by side in the gig's flight deck with the others behind us. He scowled at me. "If I'd known that the Haluk sites had been destroyed, then I would have had no choice but to call Zone Patrol—believing you had all been killed. How in God's name did you escape?"
"Matt, you'd better tell him." I got up from my seat and stretched. "I'm going to take a break and think about what to do next. Our presumed deaths give us a temporary tactical advantage, but the way I spilled my guts under interrogation is bad news in the long run."
1 went aft to the gig's little messroom, got myself some coffee and a nuked raspberry scone (no snickerdoodles, alas), and settled down with a scratchpad and stylus.
I began with the perception that Galapharma now knew about Karl and my Department of Special Projects back on Seriphos, about our suspicion of Cousin Zed and Oliver Schneider, about our probe of the presumed sabotage, and our scrutiny of the lines of communication between the Gala moles within Rampart. Elgar had asked me whether I had told Karl about the Haluk-Galapharma connection. I gave a modified affirmative, saying that I didn't know how much information Mimo had transmitted from Cravat.
Our first priority, then, was to get Karl and his people— and their database—out of harm's way. 1 only hoped it wasn't already too late.
The only person other than Mimo whom Gala would consider to be an immediate threat was Simon Frost. I was hazy on just exactly what I had told Elgar about my father's knowledge of the Haluk connection. Simon was certainly safe for the time being: the Concern's agents couldn't get at him while he was en route to Earth on Mogollon Rim. And when he arrived . . . what proof did he have that a Galapharma-Haluk conspiracy existed?
The anomalous Haluk corpse in Tokyo. I'd told Elgar about that.
Simon would have to use every bit of clout he possessed to ensure that the body was safeguarded, along with the test data showing the presence of human DNA and the eradication of the allomorphic trait. Aside from my partially transmuted sister, that corpse was the only concrete evidence of Haluk genetic hanky-panky.
And Eve herself was the only material witness to the demi-clone scheme. I presumed that by now almost all traces of clandestine Haluk activity on Cravat had been obliterated. The tunnels connecting the sites were probably still in place, along with miscellaneous bits and pieces such as the empty alien liquor bottles and lanterns. But those things of themselves wouldn't convince the Secretariat for Xenoaffairs that a grand conspiracy involving the Haluk and an outlaw human agency existed.
We needed more witnesses.
Such as the Rampart employees at Cravat Dome who had cooperated in the clandestine production of PD32:C2. Perhaps their bribery had been accomplished in such a conv
oluted manner that tracing the bagman and his source of funds would be impossible. But Emily Konigsberg had said that Bronson Elgar was in charge of security for the entire PD32:C2 operation. It was possible that he'd done the recruitment work himself, and that one or more of the bribees could finger him.
Candidates: the Nutmeg project engineer who had falsified the Grant sampling figures; the shuttle pilot who had flown the vector shipments to an orbital pickup point; and the Dome flight control personnel who had turned a blind eye to the unauthorized activity. Perhaps more Dome people had been involved, but those were the obvious targets.
In Elgar's position, I would have wasted the lot. But maybe not in an abrupt wholesale slaughter that might cause more problems than it solved. The assassin might have decided to make the deaths look natural by stringing them out over several days, or even weeks. After all, he still believed that Matt and I were dead, and Mimo and Simon and even Karl Nazarian posed only long-range threats. Bron might think he had plenty of time to tidy up the loose ends. I finished the coffee, licked the raspberry jam off my fingers, and went to tell Mimo to drop me off at Cravat Dome.
* * *
"Alone?" Matt exclaimed in exasperation. "So you're still determined to play cowboy! What if Elgar is still there?"
"Then I'll arrest him."
The black eyes blazed. "And if you're killed, what happens to our mission?"
"You'll take over, of course, and do the job a damn sight better than I would. My own part of the mission is accomplished." I tipped a solemn wink to Eve. "The next CEO and President of Rampart Starcorp is safe and pretty nearly sound. You four know everything about this conspiracy that I do, and it's vital that you stay alive and tell your stories to Karl, Simon, and the truth machines. I'm the only one of the bunch who's expendable, so I'm the one who goes hunting for rascals in Cravat Dome—right now."