Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 32

  Ivor looked hurt. "I realize that the others are important witnesses, but there seems to be no compelling reason why I shouldn't accompany you and render assistance where it's needed."

  "There are three reasons," I contradicted him coldly, "Uno: that bod of yours is recognizable at fifty meters. Dos: you got flushed down the toilet once already on this mission and it made me feel very guilty. I hate that. Tres: I really can do this job faster and better working alone."

  "He's right," Eve said.

  And that put an end to the arguing.

  I checked our position. We were about thirty thousand kilometers out, not quite halfway to Plomazo's orbit. I said, "Mimo—is it possible that your classy gig has an illicit programmable transponder ID?"

  He smiled sweetly at me. "Do bears shit in the woods? No smuggler could do business without one."

  "Excellent." 1 told him the registration number I wanted.

  He tapped it in. "Now turn us around and then cut off the signal that hides us from Cravat's scanner satellite."

  When the maneuver was accomplished and the disguise in place, I keyed Cravat Starport Flight Control.

  "Cravat Control, this is gig RA-733B Light, inbound from orbit. Please activate lander lock for a touch-and-go with passenger discharge."

  "Affirm, RA Light, you are locked to land... We do not scan your primary."

  I said, "Primary vessel Blue Rambler ex Seriphos is performing routine solar evaluation. I request surface transport for one passenger."

  The bored voice said, "Understood, RA Light."

  "Please patch me through on a video channel to Port Traffic Manager Robert Bascombe. My priority code: Alpha 311."

  There was a beat of silence. When the flight controller spoke again, he no longer sounded bored. "Uh ... RA Light, we will transfer you to Port Traffic Office. Stand by."

  The Cravat Port logo bloomed on our flight deck view-screen, along with a canned musical theme that might have been "It's Not Easy Bein' Green."

  I frowned. "Sounds like they know Bob's dead. It's too early for Cravat Fleet Security to have started a routine search. He told his people he'd be gone for at least two days, and we're only a couple of hours over the line. Elgar must have set off the ESC-10's emergency beacon."

  Cravat Starport was hardly a beehive of activity. The gig's terrain scan showed only a single big ship on the ground. Its transponder ID matched Rampion Sentinel, one of the fast, heavily armed freighters Matt had assigned to the Cravat run. The three other ULD vessels parked on the pad were small fry: the lone Fleet Security cop-cutter assigned to the remote world, a passenger ferry from Nogawa-Krupp, and a Rampart Starcorp mobile hospital, probably doing its scheduled planet-to-planet circuit with expensive diagnostic gear unavailable to the local pillrollers. Two SLD orbiters for satellite maintenance and shuttle service stood at a respectful distance from the starships. All of the other vehicles in port were aircraft.

  "Which one is it, mi capitán?" I asked Mimo. "Old Bron sure brought his own mount to the barn dance. Has to be one of the three down there."

  He studied the collection. "I vote for the traveling hospital. Those things go everywhere, and they have no hard and fast schedule."

  I gave a short nod. "I agree. When you're back aboard Plo-mazo, keep an eye out for it trying to sneak away. Give it the pirate's stand-and-deliver challenge. If it stops, disable its drive. If it runs, kill it."


  A middle-aged man with emaciated features, prominent front teeth, and a testy expression appeared onscreen.

  "Terence Hoy, Assistant Port Traffic manager. To whom am I speaking?"

  I kept the voice-only channel open. "Please turn on your communication encrypt."

  Grimace. "Very well. Encrypt activated."

  I showed him my freshly scrubbed, debearded face. I was wearing one of Mimo's violet designer sweatsuits, comfy garb favored by travelers, and I had a handy alias and cover story all prepared.

  But Terence Hoy gave a violent start as he caught sight of me, and I knew my infamy had once again blown the gaff.

  "Do you recognize me, Citizen Hoy?"

  "I thought," he blurted, "you were Thrown Away three years ago! What the devil are you doing in Blue Rambler's gig?"

  Unless he was a Golden Galaxy Best Actor candidate, Terence Hoy hadn't heard about Asahel Frost from Bronson Elgar, Ollie Schneider, or any of the other villains in the piece. So I had an honest man to deal with.

  "Look at this thing carefully." I held the Red Card up to the viewer's eye. "It authorizes me, brand-new Rampart Vice President, to coopt your body and soul on pain of your dismissal and disenfranchisement. The signature and code are Simon's. You can have your people check its authenticity with Central, but if you value your ass you'd better not make me wait while you do... Are you in charge of the planet now that Bascombe's dead?"

  His affronted expression melted into perplexity. "Yes. But—But how did you—"

  "Never mind. I want you to meet my gig at the starport now. Come out to the pad on a transport van. Bring a computer with Cravat full-system access."

  "Very well."

  "My business here is extremely confidential. You will tell no one my true identity."

  "I understand. I'll be waiting."

  * * *

  It was full daylight on this side of the planet, and the fifteen-hundred-meter force-field that covered the enclave was a faintly sparkling hemisphere, The buildings inside, separated by wide swaths of parkland, were clearly visible. The landing pad immediately adjacent to Cravat Dome was fused native soil hemmed in by poisonously green forest. An electrified fence and guard pylons with zappers surrounded the pad, but it was otherwise open to the elements. Maintenance vehicles, ground transports, and industrial robots trundled about in the vicinity of the big freighter. We saw a few humans in full en-virogarb among the hoppercraft.

  Flight control set the gig down on the small X in the Light Spacecraft section. There was no ship conveyor, so after landing, we obediently trailed a follow me bot to a parking space next to the two orbiters. A van that looked like a big blue jellybean rolled up to us and extruded an airlock passage.

  I tucked a Kagi pistol into the waistband of my sweatpants and bloused the top to conceal it. "Take care," I said to my sister and my friends, and went off to do what I had to do.

  Terence Hoy was waiting in the van, which was some sort of VIP robolimo with leather seats, tables (one holding the computer), and a lavishly appointed bar. By the time we shook hands and sat down together at the computer table, the gig was already on the move, heading back to the X for liftoff.

  "Where would you like to go?" Hoy asked me. His smile was not reflected in his eyes.

  "Can we get into the Dome without passing through the passenger or freight terminals?"

  "Certainly." He addressed the van's robot. "Driver: enter Aperture Three." As we rolled away smoothly I studied the two parked orbiters. They were identical, with big cargo bays capable of carrying sizable satellites—or a respectable load of contraband viral vector.

  "The green decon module labelled One leads to the passenger terminal," Terence Hoy said. Only the unnatural rapidity of his speech betrayed his unease. "The yellow module at Aperture Two is for freight. Aperture Three, the red decon module, serves emergency vehicles, fuelers, supply loaders, and maintenance bots. The Dome has a total of twelve apertures at ground level. Its Sheltok DF-1500 force-field projector is state-of-the-art, able to deflect half-ton meteorites. Not that we have to worry much about hazards like that on Cravat."

  "Only man-eating humpies and birds with corrosive shit," I muttered.

  He gave a forced laugh. "So you're acquainted with our colorful wildlife. Are you a big-game hunter, Vice President?"

  "In a manner of speaking."

  Our van entered the red decon chamber and was zapped to sterility. We continued through an airlock into a short, featureless tunnel ending in a semicircular portal four meters in diameter, apparently curtained b
y dancing sparks. Heavy equipment and moving human figures were visible beyond the aperture arch.

  "I've never had any experience with such a powerful force-field," 1 said. "Is it harmless to the touch, like the lesser ones?"

  "Certainly. It feels very solid, like greasy glass."

  Interrupter units stood on either side of the portal interface. Our van triggered the interrupter and the sparkling curtain vanished. Rotating cherry-beacons on top of both units began to flash a warning and a loud mechanical voice said: "Force-field aperture now open. Please proceed. Do not stop in the zebra-stripe interface area. Please proceed. Do not stop— "

  We rolled through into a hangarlike building.

  I said, "What happens if you stop on the stripes and the field turns on?" The zebra area, about twenty centimeters wide, transected the portal. "Do you get shocked, like with the smaller generators?"

  "No." Terence gave me a superior smirk. "Any object remaining on the interface area when a Sheltok DF-1500 field reactivates is sliced in two. There are safeguards in place to prevent such accidents, of course. Only in the event of an emergency dome lockdown or the unlikely physical destruction of an interrupter unit would there be any real danger."

  The sparkles reappeared behind us, the cherry-beacons turned off, and the admonitory voice shut up. We had arrived inside Cravat Dome.

  "Is there any reason," I asked, "why we can't pull into a quiet corner and stay here for a few minutes?"

  "No problem. Driver: return to van parking station." A fleeting trace of hospitality crossed his austere face. "I hope you'll allow me to give you a short tour of the enclave when you can spare the time. Rampart Starcorp did an outstanding job on Cravat, creating an attractive oasis for our nine thousand residents. Employee turnover is very small."

  "I'm here to discuss employee attrition, not turnover," I said baldly. "Tell me about any sudden deaths that have occurred here within the past thirty-six hours."

  His fingers tightened on the armrests of his comfortable seat. "We only found out about Bob—"

  "Besides Bascombe."

  "There have been two, neither of which were in any way suspicious. Jeremy Malvern, a shuttle pilot, died late yesterday of a drug overdose: yoxostiline, an autoerotic stimulant." He scowled in disapproval. "It's illegal, but there's always plenty of it available for a price."

  The poor bastard wouldn't be toting any more contraband PD32: C2 to Haluk ships in orbit, but maybe he'd died happy. "And the other casualty?"

  "Costanzia Vacco, a project engineer. She suffered a heart attack while jogging and was found on the Ring Promenade about two hours ago. I'd just learned about it when you called me. Very sad. Connie was only thirty-eight."

  "What project did she work on?" I asked. The answer would tell me whether or not I'd come on a wild goose chase.

  "Nutmeg. She was chief crop futures analyst."

  I let out a slow exhalation. Gotcha, Bron...

  If I was good enough.

  "Please get on your computer and see whether anyone besides this Connie had regular access to crop sampling data from mothballed Nutmeg sites."

  "Mothballed?" he repeated.

  "Yes. Anyone who might have been able to alter the feedback from the inactive sites to your Nutmeg-1 office here in Dome."

  Hoy picked up the little mike and whispered into it. Names began to scroll down the monitor screen. None were highlighted. "It looks like Connie was the only one." He eyed me resentfully. "Are you going to tell me what this is about?"

  Instead of answering, I asked, "How many flight controllers do you have?"

  "Twelve are all we need—plus the robotics, of course."

  "Regular shifts?"

  "For the eight senior controllers. There are always two on duty for six-and-a-half-hour stints, round the clock, twenty-six-hour planetary day. Four juniors do fill-in on days off, sick days, and so on."

  "Did the pilot Jeremy Malvern have a regular flight schedule?"

  "Let me check." After a few moments he pointed to the screen. "We only have three shuttle drivers. Their schedules are pretty flexible, depending on satellite maintenance needs and the schedules of nonlander starships—Rampart couriers and express shipping outfits like StelEx that deliver and pick up from our orbiting dump-station. Here's a record of Jeremy's hours over the past eight weeks."

  I studied the screen. Most of his flights lasted two hours or less. But once he had stayed up above the world so high for nearly five hours. "What was he doing this time?" I asked.

  Terence consulted the computer. "Weather satellite maintenance. One of our Carnie W5's is a lemon, always needing to be babied along."

  "Let me see Jerry's flight time for the past year."

  There were seven more of the long tours, at wide intervals. They would have been convenient for periodic transshipments from the secret Haluk dock on Grant.

  I said, "Please see which flight controllers were on duty during those eight time periods."

  Just two names popped onto the screen: Anders Foss and Franek Odnowski. Terence Hoy anticipated me by asking the computer another question, then said, "Andy and Frank are on duty right now."

  "Take me to them. Fast."

  Chapter 25

  The jellybean van's top speed was fifteen kph, but we didn't have far to go.

  Flight Control was in a tower on top of the passenger terminal module less than two hundred meters from the equipment hangar.

  We pulled up at an entrance flanked by a small garden and a parking lot full of go-carts, which seemed to be Cravat's ground conveyance of choice. One of them stood at the terminal door. A woman in an envirosuit with the hood down was kissing its driver goodbye.

  I jumped out of the van. "Make it snappy," 1 said to Terence, who gave me another look. But he led the way with alacrity. 1 followed him across the uncrowded concourse to a cylindrical central structure with a ring-mezzanine restaurant and a spiral staircase. At its base was the tower elevator.

  When the doors slid shut on us and we began to rise slowly, I pulled the Kagi pistol out of my waistband and clicked off the safety.

  "For God's sake!" Terence cried. "What—"

  "Only a precaution. Does this elevator open directly into Flight Control ops?"

  "Of course not. There are other offices in the tower as well. Access to operations is restricted."

  "How many people normally working in ops?"

  "Just the two controllers, Andy and Frank. Traffic is normally very light... But, look here! Red Card or no Red Card, I've a right to know just what you intend to do."

  The elevator doors opened on an empty corridor. I tried to calm him. "I intend to take the controllers into custody, under authority granted by Simon Frost himself. I have strong reason to believe that the two of them and the dead shuttle pilot accepted bribes from a Rampart rival. Their scheme involved carrying contraband vector into orbit. The stuff was picked up later from the dump-station."

  He goggled at me in astonishment. "Christ! You don't mean to tell me that Connie's death was connected—"

  "And Bob's," I affirmed grimly. "She was involved. Bob was an innocent victim. I can't say anything more about it now. Where's the door to ops?"

  "It won't open without the day code." He looked embarrassed. "I can't recall it, but I can get it easily enough from the computer in this office." He nodded at a door marked PLANETARY METEOROLOGY.

  "Do it," I said. "And order your security personnel to seal the entrances to the passenger terminal. Quick and quiet. Nobody comes in or out."

  I remained in the hall and he left the door open. I glimpsed a big viewscreen showing atmospheric plots of both hemispheres and other paraphernalia of weather prediction. A couple of meteorologists went about their business after murmuring greetings to the Assistant Port Manager.

  Terence returned almost immediately. "The day code is 34B-6LQ. The precaution is really only pro forma, you understand, intended to keep out curious passengers and—"

  "Stay in the weather
room," I told him curtly. "If Andy and Frank surrender quietly, I'll be back with them in a few minutes. If you hear a ruckus, get a special-weapons assault team here on the double. Be sure to tell them not to shoot the guy in the purple sweats." I closed the door in his face and trotted down the hall to flight operations. The electronic lock was a travesty that a bright child could have hacked into. I tapped in the code, opened the door a crack, then kicked it open the rest of the way and burst inside, yelling "Freeze!"

  The room was about twelve meters deep. Its polarizing picture window filtered out the sparks of the force-field and had a striking overview of the starport and the forested mountains in the distance.

  It smelled of ozone and scorched meat.

  A voice drawled, "What does it take to kill you, Cap'n Helly?"

  He was standing sideways before the big double control console, motionless, as ordered. He still wore the navy-blue commando sweater, olive cargo pants, and Timberland boots. His Kagi was pointed at the head of a towheaded man in the left-hand control seat. A body was slumped in the other one.

  "Drop it, Bron," I said.

  "I'll finish him first," the assassin told me calmly.

  "No," the controller moaned. "Please. Oh, God! Poor Frank—"

  "Shut up, Andy," said Elgar. He entwined his fingers in the toffee-colored hair and gave a cruel yank. "Rotate your chair to face the man in the door. Stand up slowly."

  "You can't get out of here, Bron," I said. "Fleet Security has the terminal sealed."

  "Then you'll have to tell them to go away."

  He prodded the back of his captive's neck with the gun muzzle, still gripping the man's hair as he rose. Bad luck for me. The controller was a lot taller and bulkier than Elgar and made a perfect shield. "Start walking, Andy. To the door. The guy'll get out of our way."

  With only a second to decide what to do, I drilled the controller in the foot with a blue ray. He screamed and lurched back against the hit man. The pair of them tumbled to the floor. Before I could sort them out and take aim again, Elgar fired twice. The first blast went through Andy's neck. The second missed my head by less than a centimeter.