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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 4


  But neither Homerun nor Bodascon had anything to fear from me now, and my death as "message" made no sense in relation to either of those two Concerns.

  The threads of evidence pointing to Galapharma suggested a whole new scenario.

  Jake Silver's information about Bronson Elgar's source of financing—plus the fact that the assassin had fled offworld on a spacecraft owned by Gala—made it plausible that Elgar might be in the pay of that Concern. Further cogitation (yes, I know I was slow on the uptake) now hinted at a whale of a potential motive behind the attack.

  The toad incident was supposed to be a message, and the intended recipient was my father.

  Damn you to hell, Simon! Was it all aimed at you and Rampart from the beginning? Did you know it? Did you let me go down rather than cave in to the devouring colossus?

  I pushed aside the rozkoz-flavored dessert, suddenly taken with nausea, and called up two fingers of Pedro Domecq. I swallowed the brandy in a single belt and wiped stinging water from my eyes.

  On the viewer, Kedge-Lockaby and its moon had become thin crescents almost lost in a blazing kaleidoscope of comets. There were hundreds of them, glowing brush strokes on the star-spangled firmament, their proper motion imperceptible to the human eye. The comets were large and small, colored white, blue, greenish, and yellow. Their tails—some stumpy, others streaming across my entire field of vision—were variously curved, straight, knotted, multiple, corkscrew, fanned, or broken. All of the tails pointed away from the spotty sun, whether the comet was on approach or in retreat, as though the orbiting objects were medieval courtiers forbidden to turn their backs on a poxy-faced monarch. One four-tailed specimen had an uncanny resemblance to a swastika. Another seemed to wear an elaborate spiked collar of light. A few were mere fuzzy balls, lacking trains of glowing dust or plasma. The heads of others were encased in gauzy helmets, concentric envelopes of ionized gas shaped by the solar magnetic field. A particularly fantastic comet looked like a string of incandescent beads wrapped in twisted scarves and furbelows of golden mist. It was probably on its last go-around, shattered into pieces and doomed to fall into the sun or impact one of the gas-giant planets in the outer reaches of the solar system.

  None of these chunks of beautiful dirty ice posed any danger to Kedge-Lockaby. If a comet had been on a collision course with the planet, the broom's great computerized telescope array would have fingered it while it was still over a half a billion kilometers away. A small robocraft called a spiker, one of several controlled by the mothership, would then fly up and zap the errant iceberg in a calculated pattern, producing jets of superheated steam that would thrust it into a safer orbit. If spiking didn't work, the threatening comet could be vaporized by a small antimatter bomb delivered by a manned extirpation vessel—a costly and fortunately infrequent expedient. Broom systems were common enough among the human-colonized planets of the Orion Arm, but K-L was the only Perseus Spur world that had one.

  I had no idea why this particular broom was still operated by a Concern. Maybe there was some loophole in the original Commonwealth lease that didn't oblige Galapharma to turn over the system when it surrendered the unprofitable world. That would have left CHW with hard choices. It could abandon K-L to cometary bombardment, necessitating human evacuation, or install a new broom of its own at prohibitive cost, or contract the sweeping to Gala, on Gala's terms.

  Obviously, the Commonwealth had done the latter—and incidentally provided Elgar with an escape route.

  I doubted very much that the hit man had originally planned to leave Kedge-Lockaby on the broom tender. The next commercial starliner outward bound from the planet was a Hyperion flight scheduled to lift off at 2530 hours on the day after tomorrow. If I had been killed by the sea toad according to plan, that departure would have suited Branson Elgar's needs perfectly. Only my unexpected survival—and the possibility that I might use my friendship with Jake Silver to stir up a nasty ruckus—made it imperative for Elgar to get off the planet as soon as possible.

  He might have tried to hire a private starship for his escape, phoning the starport from the shuttle. But there were very few noncommercial ultraluminal vessels docked at Manu-kura, and their owners were wealthy vacationers, hardly types to respond favorably to a proposition from a poorly documented stranger who might be a pirate's shill. Freighter captains would be even less likely to accept such a passenger, for the same reason. The broom tender would have been Elgar's only option.

  The question of whether its crew knew what kind of hitchhiker they'd taken aboard was still open. The killer could have simply bribed his way on board. In about fourteen hours the vessel would reach its mothership, leaving ample time for the Hyperion starliner to make an unscheduled stop there—provided the broom commander agreed to permit such an extraordinary action. More bribery might have turned the trick.

  On the other hand, the entire getaway would have been dead easy to arrange if the mystery passenger was a Gala-pharma agent.

  Chispa's powerful sensors easily located the subluminal drive signature of GAL-6236T, even though its two-hour head start placed it some seventy-seven million kilometers distant. The tender traveled the most economical course to its destination at rated cruising velocity, encouraging me to believe that Elgar had no notion he might be followed. Keeping him in the dark was the first priority of the pursuit plan Mimo and I had concocted.

  So I didn't head out directly after GAL-6236T. Instead I had set a reciprocal course taking Chispa in the exact opposite direction. My intention was to reach a position far enough from Kedge-Lockaby so that I would not disrupt electromagnetic systems on its surface when I made my hyperspatial leap, yet close enough to the planet so that it would eclipse the dazzling EM pulse of my ultraluminal crossover from the rinky-dink sensors of the tender. Emerging from the hype at a suitable intercept point and making the snatch without alerting the prey would be much trickier, however, unless I found an appropriate comet to conceal my exit flash at the other end.

  I had to strike from ambush, from behind a relatively large object. Mimo had warned me that my astrogational skills were too amateurish for me to attempt popping out of hyper-space close to the tiny, elusive target represented by the broom tender. I was certain to be disoriented during the critical moments after the jump, when inertial dampening took place and the sublight engines reengaged. Meanwhile the tender would slam up its heavy force-shield and go into evasive maneuvers a microsecond after its sensors registered my suspicious "piratical" exit pulse. An experienced space marauder might be able to match sublight velocities and get its quarry under the guns almost instantaneously. I hadn't a prayer. Hot pursuit was no option, either. Even though Chispa had superior subliminal drive capability and armament, the last thing I wanted was a running battle with the tender. Bluffing its captain into surrendering Branson Elgar was one thing; a dogfight with a possibly innocent vessel that might send an SOS to Commonwealth Zone Patrol was a different, and unacceptable, kettle offish.

  In going after Elgar myself, I was gambling that he—and his backers, whoever they were—would do anything to avoid attracting the attention of CCID. If I snatched the assassin without harming the tender or its crew, the incident would doubtless never be reported to the authorities. A skipper who had taken a bribe to transport an unauthorized passenger wouldn't jeopardize himself by reporting the abduction. On the other hand, if Galapharma had put a contract out on me, the big Concern wouldn't dare admit that Bron was their button man.

  Either way, his ass belonged to me.

  * * *

  Performing an accurate hyperspatial microleap is difficult under the best of conditions—rather like an Olympic-class broadjumper attempting a flea-hop precisely one millimeter in length. Doing it within the gravity well of a star is tougher still, requiring virtuoso computing and a barrel of luck. Mimo had assured me that pirates and certain smugglers carried out the maneuver all the time, which was why Chispa had such a superior navigation system. If I picked a largish comet for m
y target, I should have no trouble. Microleaping was a unique experience, Mimo said, one I would find memorable.

  I did the preliminary hyperspace vector calculations, then asked the computer to scour the ephemeris for a cometary stalking horse to suit my purposes. It gave me several choices, but the no-contest winner was comet 2231-001-Z1, a relatively huge mother thirty-six kilometers in diameter, just entering its perihelion swing and boiling off two tails and a bright plasma hood. The broom tender would have its closest encounter with Zl in 2.39 hours, passing it at a distance of 486,000 kilometers.

  If I emerged successfully behind this great snowball, then charged out of the sun at full subliminal velocity, I could confront GAL-6236T within thirty-six seconds. That was good enough. The tender's sensors, dulled by the ionization of the comet and the spotty solar orb behind it, would never lock onto Chispa's sublight drive signature or spot her visually in time to confirm a threat and flee.

  I entered Zl's orbital stats into the nav computer and asked for more data about its physical characteristics. What next popped onto the display made me frown. Z1 was a long-period near-virgin from the outer Kuiper Cloud of the system. Its enormous orbit took it close to the sun every nine million years. The nucleus, which was extremely active, was formed of dihydrogen oxide and exotic ices, with a thin crust of miscellaneous organic molecules. Z1 had an enormous knotted tail of ice and dust, a plasma tail, and at least three concentric ion hoods within its great coma. Made itchy by the sunspots, it was emitting significant amounts of x-radiation.

  Shit.

  In order to balance safety with subterfuge, I was going to have to analyze that x-glow—and do a damned accurate job of it—before finalizing my exit point. I had to emerge from the hype near enough for the comet to eclipse my flash; but if I dropped out too close to the simmering icy mountain, there was a chance that even a well-shielded ship like Chispa might end up with permanently blinded sensors. If that happened, I'd be forced to fly the starship by the seat of my pants, without a hope of engaging my prey and boarding.

  Hell, I'd be lucky to get back to K-L alive.

  Whistling the "Superman Theme" just a tad off-key, I summoned a large pot of coffee from the galley and got to work on the x-spectrum analysis. It took an ungodly amount of time, but at last I obtained an auspicious positional resultant, fed it into the navigator, and locked up the plot. I'd allowed half an hour at the other end of the leap to suit up and prepare for the actual attack, which now left me about twenty-five minutes to spare before ULD engagement.

  I used the time practicing my marksmanship on jettisoned containers of food and drink. Zapping away incompetently, I depleted Chispa's provision stores considerably before I decided I'd pretty well got the hang of the brain-interface gunnery system. At least I knew how not to blast the tender out of the ether inadvertently, while sending cannon shots across her bows and ordering her to stand and deliver.

  Finally it was time to get going. I started the two-minute auto countdown for the leap, and as I waited I magnified the crescent images of Kedge-Lockaby and its attendant Moon of Manukura and just stared at them, remembering the good stuff and the good people.

  The computer cooed: Initiating solar-proximity ULD maneuver in five seconds. Four. Three...

  I ignored the countdown, expecting nothing more than the usual "stretched stars" effect of ultraluminal travel, truncated to an eye-blink by the minimum one ross pseudovelocity I had programmed. I had forgotten Mimo's remark about a microleap near a star being a memorable experience.

  When it happened, I couldn't help howling.

  There was the familiar blinding flash of hyperspatial entry. But then the viewer seemed to show Chispa hurtling directly toward K-L on a collision course. The blue-and-white sickle swelled with monstrous speed. Screaming, I knew I'd done something hopelessly, fatally wrong.

  We weren't ultraluminal in hyperspace at all. We were traveling below light speed in the normal continuum, and the racing starship with me inside was going to impact smack in the middle of the night side of the planet—

  We went through Kedge-Lockaby as though it were smoke and continued on our sunward course, accelerating but still apparently moving much slower than we should have been. The comets had seemingly vanished, but the stars and the fast-approaching solar orb remained, shining in an odd flat-black sky. I stopped yelling, only to gasp out an astonished curse as I realized that the stars were pulsing like novae about to explode. Then the speckled sun seemed to lurch, and an instant later began to waltz and whirl impossibly about the firmament, drawing fiery loops that became tighter and tighter while its light changed from white to orange to green to an impossible dazzling violet.

  Then Chispa whizzed past the giddy spinning anomaly and only the crazy stars were left throbbing on the view-screen. Slumping back in my seat with relief, I realized that the light show must be an artifact of the sun's gravity, wildly distorting the hyperspatial continuum and subjectively "prolonging" my brief trip. Chispa was actually traveling at over a billion kilometers an hour.

  Memorable.

  Another burst of light blinded me as the ship exited the hype. Inertial dampening was imperceptible, accomplished in about two seconds. I drew in a breath before my vision cleared. Ignoring the main viewscreen, which now only showed the speckled sun with a thick overlay of brilliant golden sparkles, I checked the control console before me. The shields were still up and all sensors were operational. The x-radiation and ionization levels were within acceptable range. The icons of the position monitor indicated that I had emerged at precisely the coordinates I had calculated, five hundred kilometers from the cometary nucleus in a matched solar orbit, with the bulk of the comet between Chispa and the trundling broom tender, and the sun in line with all three of us.

  So far, so good. Now for a look at the iceberg itself. I toggled the aft sensors, since the comet lay behind me and slightly to the left, and 2231 -001 -Z1 came onscreen.

  Chispa was so close to the comet that the filmy double tail could not been seen. Even the hoodlike envelopes of the corona were invisible, lost in the pixie-dust glitter of the inner coma. I had expected the sunlit nucleus to be chunky and irregular in shape, resembling close-up images of other comets I'd studied in long-ago astronomy classes back at the University of Arizona on Earth. But I'd forgotten that Zl was a near-virgin, making its latest pass around the sun after lurking for nine million years in the outer reaches of Kedge-Lockaby's solar system. It was no misshapen clinker but rather a nearly perfect sphere, turning very slowly as I watched, mesmerized.

  The surface was reddish-black, a thin cindery crust of polymerized organic material punctuated with countless holes and crevices like an enormous sponge. From the orifices, luminous jets spewed at me, straight as a die and glowing with rainbow splendor, fountains of mingled water-ice crystals, dust, and gases sublimed from the comet's frozen interior by the heat of the sun. To me, Zl looked almost like a celestial sea urchin with hundreds of luminous spines radiating from its sunlit side, an eerie and beautiful simulacrum of life.

  I gave Chispa a minuscule nudge with the AG thrusters, emerging from behind the comet, and picked up the broom tender, which was presently some eight million kilometers distant. It had not changed course, so I assumed it hadn't seen my exit flash and spooked. The odds were good that Zl's electromagnetic hyperactivity would conceal whatever small-scale maneuvering Chispa now did within the inner coma.

  I had 24.55 minutes in which to prepare my ambush.

  Chapter 4

  Romping through interplanetary space in a mechanical excursion suit is not my favorite activity, but there was no other way I'd be able to abduct Branson Elgar from the tender. The more efficient ship-to-ship docking maneuver customarily used by Qastt and human pirates (and smugglers) would not have been a prudent option unless I first disabled my quarry's engines. Unfortunately, only a primo gunner could manage the trick without also breaching the hull and killing the tender's occupants, and I didn't qualify. I'd be lucky t
o do a decent job firing bluff shots as I'd planned.

  I linked the cerebral command headset into navigation and made certain that all the peripheral-vision displays were functioning. The lower data crawl-strip, evanescent little yellow letters that blurred if you tried to look at them directly, said: 19 minutes to target intercept initiation.

  Right. I visited the captain's head, relieved myself of some of the coffee I'd drunk, then trudged off to the excursion bay to don armor for the joust.

  I propped two units, doing a special job on the one intended for my prisoner, which I tethered to my own suit with a six-meter steel flex on a zing reel. After I had disabled the internal command and monitoring systems of Elgar's suit, switching its controls to the computer in my own unit, the number-two piece of space armor became nothing more than an elaborate man-can. Its occupant would be incapable of independent movement or even environmental adjustment. I figured that final modification might come in handy later, when I had the bastard safely aboard Chispa and started to interrogate him...

  Almost ready. I fastened a pair of Kagi blue-ray blasters to the shoulder mounts of my own suit and made certain that the brainboard hooked them into my optic nerves. Then I exchanged my clothes for the technolongjohns of the armor, climbed inside, braced myself, and powered up. Things grabbed, stabbed, and engaged. The suit computer announced that the abominable machine was supporting my life and showed me prideful displays to prove it. I responded with an obscenity.

  I loathe the way excursion-suit plumbing insults my family jewels. I find servo augmentation of my human musculature to be creepy. I dislike hearing my own breathing—to say nothing of pops and squeaks from my sinuses and inner ears and the gurgles of my gastrointestinal tract. The wondrous gadgetry that virtually transforms a human being into a miniature spaceship had a certain small-boy fun factor; but it can't compensate for the attendant claustrophobia and divorce from normal human sensation. To my mind, excursion suits suck. Nevertheless, on that day I was going to learn to love mine. I wriggled and shrugged and made myself as comfortable as possible. I sampled the helmet's quartet of sipping tubes, which typically provide water, insipid electrolitically balanced faux juice, high-calorie vanilla soyshake, and pro-teinoid gunk that tastes like off-brand peanut butter. Thanks to Captain Bermudez, the refreshment reservoirs of Chispa's suits had a better menu. Besides the water, there was nonalcoholic piña colada, a decent cognac that I couldn't quite identify, and a spicy paste of refried beans.