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Perseus Spur 5
The lower crawl-strip now said: 3 minutes to target intercept initiation. The navigation data displays reassured me that my starship was poised to pounce just as soon as the broom tender came within the designated striking zone of 486,029 kilometers.
The computer spoke up: Target in scan range.
I told it, "Confirm target ID." A cartoonish diagram bloomed before my eyes. Bingo! The identification was positive for GAL-6236T. I said, "Cancel icon." The little vision winked out.
The computer said: Target vector deviates point oh-two-six percent from stored parameters. Do you wish to make a correction?
"Affirm. Feed precise target vector to ship navigation plot. Power-up ship actinic cannons. Merge ship proper situation display and suit targeting grid. Maintain ship full defensive shields. Open ship broadband hail. Adjust com wattage input to range plus-minus one kilometer."
The excursion bay where I stood waiting seemed to vanish. My eyes became the eyes of La Chispa, seeing what she saw. The cometary nucleus seemed to drift farther upward and then recede as the starship dropped into position for its waylaying sprint.
Initiating interception maneuver now.
We roared off at max subluminal. The crawl counted down the thirty-six seconds to intercept. Chispa came up from behind the tender, swooped and rolled, matched vectors, and ended up hovering nose-to-nose with the other ship, precisely two hundred meters away.
I'd done it. To the skipper of GAL-6236T, the Javelin would have seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Zap zap zap zap! Four actinic blasts framed the quarry in the classic piratical challenge and I called out a minimally powered hail.
"Attention GAL tender. This is a hostile intercept and you are a locked-on target. Do not attempt to change vector, do not erect class-three force-shield, do not attempt to transmit alarm or I will shoot to inflict serious damage. Acknowledge your surrender, audio only, on Channel 233 with input wattage no more than .25."
I waited, letting the tender scan me. Chispa's configuration would be evident to the prey's optical sensors, but her transponder ID and external designations, illegally suppressed by the tap of a pad once I had left Kedge-Lockaby restricted space, would not be.
The response came in an outraged contralto. "What the hell do you think you're doing, bandit? We're carrying groceries, for chrissake!"
I said, "Identify yourself."
"This is Captain Demetria Panayiotou, master of GAL-6236T."
"We can do this short and sweet or long and ugly, Captain Demetria. Believe me—I'll fire on your vessel and disable or destroy it if I have to. I'd rather not. All I want is your passenger, the man who calls himself Bronson Elgar."
"Are you out of your friggin' mind?"
Tempted to reply in the affirmative, I controlled myself. "Captain, is Bronson Elgar on your bridge, able to overhear this transmission?"
There was a pause, then: "No."
"Make certain that he doesn't hear it."
"No explanation is necessary. I demand, you comply, Then I go away and you forget that the passenger ever boarded at Manukura. Here's how we'll work it: You yourself—and nobody else—will take Elgar to your cargo-loading bay. I'll come over and collect him there. If you have to coerce the bastard at gunpoint, it's okay with me. I'd even recommend it as a safety precaution if you value your ship and your life. He might try to self-destruct and take you with him."
"That's ridiculous! The man is a Galapharma executive on urgent Concern business. He carries documentation to prove it—"
"You have a very nice voice, Captain Demetria, but I don't have time to debate Elgar's status with you. He's an assassin, a paid hit man. Back on Kedge-Lockaby, he tried to murder me. I'm going to take him in charge and hand him over to the authorities on Kedge-Lockaby."
"Planetary law has no jurisdiction—"
I cut her off. "That's enough!" I bracketed the tender with another brace of cannon shots. "Now listen to me. I intend to cross over to your vessel in an excursion unit and bring a second suit along for the prisoner. I'll be outfitted with personal armament and my crew will keep you targeted with my ship's guns until I return safely with Bronson Elgar. I'll give you two minutes to decide whether to comply. After that—"
"I don't need two minutes," she snapped. "Come ahead, bandit. He's all yours."
* * *
It seemed to go slick as a whistle.
I exited Chispa, towing the other suit of armor behind me, and soared across the void to the homely red ship with the stylized galactic-spiral G logo on its flank. The comet, now over half a million kilometers away, was fully visible on my left and breathtakingly beautiful. Zl's golden coma had three "onionskin" hoods, the enormous curved dust tail was silver, and the rippling ion tail shone blue with red wisps.
I gave it a mechanically augmented salute in passing. Then I helped myself to a generous swig of cognac to raise my anxiety threshold.
The tender's airlock gaped wide as I approached. The me-teoroid force-field winked out momentarily and I pushed inside, landing with a tooth-jarring thud in the artificial gravity. I clumped a few paces away from the second suit, unreeling the attached cable. The airlock chamber's outer hatch rolled shut, a ruby light blinked, and an illuminated sign announced that repressurization was in progress.
I found myself holding my breath at the same time I swiveled my shoulder guns to bear upon the inner hatch. The caution light went out, the interlocking leaves of the hatch slid apart, and I exhaled with relief.
The bluff had worked. Elgar stood in an aisle space of the densely packed cargo bay, hands clasped on top of his head. He wore the same black jumpsuit he'd worn on Per-nio and his face was as dour and unreadable as ever. Behind him was a gray-haired woman with a nose like the Statue of Liberty's, dressed in a uniform of crimson trimmed with black. She prodded Elgar in the small of the back with the nozzle of a Claus-Gewitter photon beamer. He stepped forward reluctantly.
"Is this your alleged hired killer, bandit?"
"The very same, Captain," said I through the suit annunciator, twiddling the Kagi guns so that their little servo motors buzzed ominously. I used the brainboard to pop open the second suit. "Elgar, strip off and climb into that armor."
The opaque dark blue eyes narrowed. "Where's my IM garment?"
"Oops," I said, letting satisfaction color my voice. "Forgot it. Afraid you'll have to go in buck naked."
He didn't utter another word as he removed his clothes and gingerly fitted himself into the excursion suit. I'd set the interior temp at a brisk 10°C.
Captain Demetria studied my own armored form with a wintry smile. "You did a hyperspatial microleap from K-L? I'm impressed."
"A tradition among us bandits. Did Elgar transmit any sub-space messages while he was on board your ship?"
"Ask him yourself."
I cut off the annunciator and spoke to my prisoner on the suit intercom. "Did you?"
"Fuck a duck."
"Difficult in armor. Are you all settled in and comfy?"
He spoke evenly. "You know I'm not, you sadistic jizzwad. I'm half freezing to death."
"Mercy me. I forgot to tell you that my computer controls your environmentals and I'm having a few problems with signal feed. Well, maybe things will heat up for you once we're landside again on K-L."
"Are you stupid enough to think the K-L cops will hold me?"
"I really don't give a doodly damn what they do with you after you tell me everything I want to know. And you will tell me, Bron, if you ever want to get out of that tin chilly bin."
I spoke to the tender's skipper over the annunciator. "You can cycle the airlock now, Captain Demetria. I'll be out of your hair in a nanojif. Bon voyage—but don't even think about changing your vector. Keep on trucking toward your mothership per sked, and I'll refrain from amputating your pretty tail."
She gave a contemptuous snort at my lame innuendo. The inner airlock hatch closed and the outer one
opened immediately. She'd spitefully shut off the gravity and my prisoner and I were blown out like spat melon seeds with the quick decompression, twirling merrily in the void ass over teakettle with the cable leash connecting us like a couple of bolo balls.
Well, I'd asked for it.
Elgar was cursing nonstop. I straightened us out and set off for Chispa, towing him on the tether. I traveled backward so I could keep the prisoner targeted in case Captain Demetria misbehaved.
"Shut up and hang in there," I told Elgar, "and remember my epaulettes can shoot large holes in you if the tender tries anything funny. Food and drink are available from your helmet sippers when you feel thirsty or peckish. But if I were you I'd go easy on the fritos refritos in the food tube—at least until your suit ventilation problems are resolved."
"I suppose oxygen deprivation is next on your agenda, laughing boy."
"Nooo... not until we've gone as far as we can with hypothermia and cruder forms of distress. Of course, you could just answer my questions and spare yourself. Did Gala-pharma send you to kill me as part of some scheme involving Simon Frost and Rampart Starcorp?"
I sighed. "Who the devil are you, anyway? You've changed your face, but I know I've seen you before, on Earth."
"Did we meet at some regulatory confab in Geneva? Or at . an ICS corporate security briefing in Toronto? I have the distinct feeling that you're not just an independent contractor or a third-string corporate goon. You're special, aren't you? Why did Galapharma send the likes of you to do the wipe-out personally?"
"You know, it was sheer bad luck that gutted your game, Bron. I should have been an easy kill. My being able to come after you was equally flukey."
"On the other hand, your bosses have miscalculated badly if they think my death will cause Rampart to cave in to a hostile takeover or some other acquisition maneuver. Simon Frost doesn't give a damn about me."
"You're wrong," Bronson Elgar finally said, "not that it makes any difference."
"Why do you say that? My father's hated me for years because I defied him and wouldn't agree to work in the family store. After my frame-up, he decided I was criminally incompetent and a moral coward as well."
"You are a coward, Cap'n Helly," Elgar said softly. "In the ICS, you were nothing but a candy-ass bureaucrat—not a real copper. When the shit came down, you went to pieces."
"True," I admitted. "Everybody's got a breaking point. You may want to speculate what yours might be."
"You won't torture me, limp-dick," he sneered, "any more than you would have shot up the comet-broom tender. I tried to tell that stupid cunt of a skipper you were faking her out, but she wouldn't listen."
The conversation was wandering in a direction I didn't much like. I had certainly been bluffing about destroying the broom tender. How far I was actually willing to go to get information from Elgar was a matter I hadn't seriously addressed. Still, tough talk was cheap.
"We'll be taking a nice roundabout route back to K-L," I told him, "me in the nice warm command bridge eating recon rare fillet steak, and you chained in a garbage hold open to deep space, sucking Mexican bean-dip while your hands and feet freeze black. You can decide for yourself what kind of a lily-livered wuss I am."
He shut up after that and so did 1.1 guess both of us were weighing our options.
We were about halfway to Chispa when a tremendous burst of white light came from somewhere behind me.
For a terrible instant I thought that the Javelin had somehow come under attack. Then I realized that the silent explosion was a hyperspatial exit flash. Another starship had joined the party.
I spun my suit around. Chispa was still there but the starry sky behind her was obliterated by a massive shape that my ship-sensor feed pegged at over eleven kilometers overall length. It was the weirdest starship I had ever seen in my life, resembling nothing so much as a gleaming warty acorn pierced laterally by an ornate dagger. The upper surface of the knobbed main structure was surmounted by a shining sapphire dome, and myriad glittering blue ports studded the curving intricacies of the "hilt." The ship was not human and much too large and sophisticated to be Qastt. In the Perseus Spur, that seemed to leave only one other possibility.
"Haluk?" My voice was scarcely more than a shocked whisper. "You sent a distress call from the tender ... and a Haluk vessel responded?"
The immense starship disgorged a ladybug-shaped gig with two blue headlights like eyes, which sped purposefully toward us.
"They would have picked me up at the broom mothership tomorrow," Elgar said. "It was no big deal asking the Haluk commander to put the pedal to the metal in an emergency and come to the rescue at maximum ross."
I still hadn't taken it in. "Galapharma... working with the Haluk?"
Bronson Elgar chuckled. "Boggles your puny mind, does it? But it's only a matter of good business, mutually beneficial."
I was struck speechless by the manifest lunacy of the notion. Humans who first explored the Perseus Spur learned early on that it was impossible to make binding treaties with the unrelentingly hostile Haluk or even traffic with them in a civilized manner. They are an allomorphic race whose ethics are as mutable as their bodily form—fierce, envious, and deeply afraid of humanity. Only the limitations of their peculiar physiology, and the fact that their technology is inferior to ours, had prevented them from waging a war of expulsion when human exploiters penetrated their territory in the farthest reaches of the Spur. We dealt with the Haluk only when we had no other choice, and then only from a position of overwhelming strength.
Yet here they were, apparently at the beck and call of Galapharma's enigmatic hatchet man. And their starship didn't look all that "inferior" either—at least not in my none-too-expert evaluation.
"Now what?" I asked the cosmos at large. The enormity of the situation had thrown me on my beam ends. My Brit pal Oren Vinyard would have called me well and truly gobsmacked.
"Well," Bronson Elgar remarked dryly, "I suppose you could finish me off before the Haluk gig picks us up. Just pop my helmet seal. Get instant revenge for your munched-up house, maybe piss off my principals a little."
I said nothing. Didn't kill him, either.
He laughed at me. "No? I figured it wasn't your style ... Don't even think of firing on the Haluk starship with your cannons. It's shielded up the wide wazoo with improved defensive fields. And if you target the gig, the aliens will blast your little crate to subatomic soot, and you and I and the crew of the broom tender will die in the shock wave."
"Scragging you wouldn't bother them?"
Elgar said, "Plenty more where I came from, Cap'n Helly. If I were you, I'd surrender."
So I did, knowing I was a dead man but curious to see how the assassin would orchestrate my termination the second time around. I figured he still had to send an unforgettable message to my father, but what could possibly be more bizarre than being eaten by a sea monster?
* * *
They marooned me on the back side of the comet. Bronson Elgar used a Haluk holocam to make a video while two aliens spread-eagled and pegged me down over one of the smaller sublimatory jet orifices on the "night" surface of Zl. He and his associates had other business, so they weren't able to wait around for the comedy's finale in two hours' time, when rotation of the comet nucleus would carry me into sunlight, activating my jet. As the icy interior warmed, the hole I plugged and others around it would erupt with incandescent gases, x-rays, and steam at a velocity of approximately 2,900 kilometers per hour. The excursion suit would not be able to save me. My armor-clad form would be hurled into space and I would suffer massive radiation trauma. Bleeding from every orifice, skin hideously inflamed, wracked with vomiting and unending pain, I would endure until my air supply ran out or I strangled on my own puke.
So many times I'd toyed fearlessly with the notion of ending my life! But always doing it the easy way, snuffing my
self tidily like a candle flame, flying away, fading into negation. I'd managed to keep my mouth shut while Elgar and the Haluk tied me down, but my self-control cracked when they went away and I lay alone and helpless, facing the actuality of a messy, agonizing death.
Self-pitying tears coursed down my cheeks. To keep from screaming I nursed away desperately at the cognac sipper in my suit, staring at the colorful wisps of plasma and sparkling ice crystals of Zl's inner coma through bleary eyes.
After a while all things passed away into infinite night.
My last conscious thought was of my friend Captain Guillermo Bermudez. I wanted to tell him how sorry 1 was that the Haluk bastards had destroyed his lovely Chispa before casting me away on the comet to die. In my imagination I heard the old man chuckle and utter his familiar disclaimer: No me importa dos cojones—it doesn't matter two balls' worth.
I whispered, "So long, pal. Nice knowing you."
He replied, No seas capullo, muchacho. Which means: Don't be stupid, kid. Then he said, "Are you awake, Helly?"
I said, "Of course not, I'm dead."
"Nonsense. Open your eyes."
I did. He was bending over me, his grizzled hair an Ein-steinian bird's nest, dark eyes twinkling in their wrinkles, an unlit cigarillo clamped in his cosmetically enhanced teeth. He had on a white linen shirt with an embroidered yoke, and a dark blue Jaffé windbreaker. Above him was a lumi-ceiling with half the tiles burnt out. Behind his right shoulder stood a redheaded woman wearing a pale blue medic's coat. She had a diagnos-ticon hanging on a lanyard around her neck and a name tag that read dr. fionulla batchelder—cytoplasmic medicine.