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Actions & Adventure
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Mystery & Detective
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Perseus Spur 6
I asked the inevitable questions. "Where am I? What happened?"
"You're in Manukura Community Hospital, Mr. Helmut Icicle," the doctor said, giving my pseudonym an ironic inflection. "You've just successfully completed a three-week course of dynamic stasis gene therapy—"
I croaked, "Three weeks?"
"—that restored tissue and chromosomal material damaged by x-radiation and intense ionic flux. As to what happened, I think you'd better ask your friend here. Captain Bermudez brought you to us and he's paying your tab—but he's refused to give us any particulars about the source of your injuries."
"An accident in space," Mimo said. "The details are immaterial."
I hoisted myself up. "You sneaky old bootlegger. You followed me!"
He clasped me in a bony abrazo. "And a good thing, you bungling cagon de mierdas, or you'd be strumming a harp off-key instead of lolling in bed bankrupting me with the exorbitant cost of your medical care." He let me go and I flopped back helplessly onto the mattress. He said, "Can you prop the patient up a bit, Doctor?"
"Of course." She tapped a control pad on the bed's headboard. The aging mechanism shuddered and wheezed a little, then uplifted me so I was supported at a forty-five degree angle. I discovered that I was wearing one of those hospital gowns that fasten behind your neck and leave your buns bare. A neatly mended sheet and a threadbare blanket covered me to the midsection. I was nice and warm. My upper left arm was fitted with a medicuff armlet, and my seagoing tan had unaccountably faded, leaving my skin almost as white as chalk.
Dr. Batchelder did a fast once-over with her diagnosticon, prodding my half-shrouded form with brisk efficiency. "You'll do. How do you feel?"
"Pretty good," I admitted. "Very confused. A little woozy and stiff in the joints." I had been wriggling my fingers and moving my arms and legs. Everything worked. I tried to sort the wild flurry of thoughts capering in my brain: I wasn't dead. I wasn't adrift in the tail of comet Zl, barfing my dissolving guts into the helmet of my space armor. Somehow, Mimo had saved me.
"Your dizziness will pass," the doctor said. "The physical weakness is a side effect of the dystasis treatment that will wear off in about two weeks as you get up and about. You should feel well enough for moderate exercise sessions in three or four days. Until then, bed rest alternated with brief sessions of slow walking."
"Then I'm all right? I'm cured?"
"We even repaired your liver—and its general pathology had very little to do with your escapade in space. You can leave here tomorrow and complete your convalescence at home. You'll have to wear the medicuff armlet for ten days. It administers necessary medication and you can also use it if you need a stimulant, relief from pain, or help in sleeping. The radiation injuries to your nongerminal body cells were only moderate, thanks to your armor, and genen procedures have healed them completely. It will take somewhat longer for your sperm DNA to normalize. I wouldn't advise you to father a child for at least six months."
Mimo guffawed. "His many female admirers will be devastated."
The doctor rolled her eyes toward heaven. "The patient is allowed visitors for half an hour only today, Captain Bermudez, and there are others waiting." She pointed a finger at him. "Remember: don't light that cigar!"
She whirled out of the room and closed the door. For the first time I noticed that the place was hip-deep in vases of tropical flowers. The window, with salt-stained panes and curtains that were a trifle faded, had a nice view of the evening sea with the Moon of Manukura rising in romantic splendor. The bedstand and clothes locker were old but freshly painted apple-green. Mimo had sprung for one of the best private rooms in the Big Beach's overburdened little hospital.
"Other visitors?" I queried.
"Friends from Eyebrow Cay," Mimo said. "When they heard you were coming out of the tank today, they forced me to ferry them here for the occasion. They've already spent several hours in a nearby pub celebrating your safe recovery."
"Well. .. Jeez." Some sort of a pang passed through me. Mostly surprise.
"Shall I call them in?"
"Maybe you'd better tell me how I got off the goddamn comet first."
He shrugged, rolling the cigarillo from one side of his mouth to the other, and pulled up a white plastic chair.
"After you took off in La Chispa, I went back to the island. Kofi and Oren had finished with the toad. They managed to save three ceramic flowerpots, a few pieces of stoneware table crockery, your porcelain toilet and hot tub—minus the plumbing—and a platinum neck chain threaded through two gold wedding rings. Those are in my safe, at home. My red catamaran is repairable, amazingly enough. Unfortunately, the supersonic generator planted by your would-be murderer had melted away to an unidentifiable blob by the time Kofi and Oren located it."
"It doesn't matter. Without Elgar himself, the evidence is useless."
Mimo nodded somber agreement. "Sal and her tugboat towed away the toad carcass. The boys washed down the beach with hazardous material neutralizer and then went home. I sat on my veranda and drank strong coffee and began to have very serious regrets about urging you to go after Bronson Elgar. My senile machismo had overcome common sense. I decided that the interception scheme was foolhardy to the point of madness. Only an exceptionally large comet, located in an ideal position, would suffice to conceal the flash of Chispa's microleap from the tender you pursued. I feared that the odds of your finding such a comet, and executing the delicate maneuvers required for concealment, were impossibly long."
"Thanks all to hell for the vote of confidence."
"Try to understand my feelings, compadre. I knew in my heart that you would not turn back even if you failed to find a big comet. Your mood was both fatalistic and reckless. 1 believed you would leap behind an inadequate smaller comet rather than let Bronson Elgar escape, and if you did, the tender's crew would surely detect your presence. Elgar would know at once who was following him. He would order the tender's captain to erect class-three defensive shields. You would be forced to pursue and pound your target with actinic blasts for a dangerously long period of time before the shields collapsed and the ship surrendered."
1 didn't bother to correct his misconceptions. "Why a dangerously long time? I could still catch the tender before it reached its mama."
"Helly, my friend, I confess I had forgotten one vitally important fact! The broom mothership has ultraluminal capability to enable it to move between solar systems. It could have come to the tender's aid. And while it is not armed itself, the auxiliary robocraft called spikers that it carries are fitted with powerful cannons capable of boring through Chispa's strongest defensive shields."
"Yes. Sitting there on my veranda, I became convinced I had sent you to your death. There was only one thing 1 could do: stop you if I could. By then, nearly an hour and a half had gone by since your departure. I knew it might already be too late, but I raced for the hopper and returned to the starport at top speed. My second starship, a new Bodascon Y660 cutter named El Plomazo, with twice the sublight speed and three times the armament of Chispa, was ready for lift-off. Ordinarily these vessels are sold only to Zone Patrol squadrons and high executives of the Hundred Concerns, but I ... recently obtained one."
"You never can tell when a thing like that might come in handy."
He made an airy gesture. "Once offworld, I used Plo-mazo's exquisitely responsive sensor equipment to search for you. I located the broom tender easily, even though it had already passed beyond the sun. But there was no trace of Chispa."
"By then I was hiding behind the comet," I said. "And it was plenty big enough."
He nodded. "I discovered that for myself when I examined the ephemeris. Comet 2231-001-Z1 was your only logical choice for the ambush, and my calculations showed that the tender had not yet reached the appropriate intercept point. What joy! I decided that my worries had been meaningless and I now had every confidence that you would succeed. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the encounter fro
m K-L orbit to ensure that all went well. Visual observation was impossible at that distance, of course. But I picked up your subluminal-drive signature when you were about halfway through your attack charge. Then Chispa matched velocities with her prey and I knew you had won."
"Until the Haluk made the scene," I muttered.
"Imagine my amazement! My horror! At first I thought the EM flash belonged to the broom mothership, coming to the rescue of its tender. But analysis of the drive trace revealed at once that the fuel was Haluk and the vessel itself of unprecedented configuration—larger and more elaborate than any of those I am familiar with. I hesitated only for a moment, then executed a wham-bam microleap of my own. (Forgive my immodesty, but I'm an old hand at such things, and the calculations took no time at all.) I exited behind the comet and in line with the sun, as you had done, trusting that the Haluk starship was too busy to notice me. Then I shut down all my ship's systems except environmental and sensory, engaged a certain dissimulator field that has been newly developed, and became a virtual orbiting chunk of debris—a satellite of comet Zl— watching as you were marooned. I saw poor Chispa blown to bits. I had to wait until the big Haluk ship reentered hyper-space and the broom tender was well out of sensor range, then I rescued you and brought you home. Your injuries were only moderate, since the jet had not yet attained full eruption—but another half hour on the cometary surface..." He shrugged.
I said, "Thank you, Mimo."
He said, "Por nada."
After that the gang trooped in and there was happy bedlam. Kofi was there with Oren, and so were Sal Faustino, Seedy McGready, Glasha Romanova, Billy Mulholland, Gumercindo Hucklebury and Jinj and Peachy Tallhorse. I discovered that my friends had been busy while I was zonked out and afloat, getting my irradiated DNA put back together. Seedy, Goom, and Kofi were erecting a new shack for me, a little smaller than the old place but capable of expansion. They showed me a holo of the work in progress. Sal and Billy had hit up everybody in Eyebrow Cay for furniture and domestic appurtenances. Glasha and the twins had passed the hat and twisted arms for a clothing and food fund. Oren had even managed to repair Pernio's busted MFGS.
"You're gonna be back on line in a couple more weeks, sweetie," said Sal Faustino, giving me one of her juicy kisses. The other three women had already had their wicked way with me. "The medics say they'll toss you out of here tomorrow. All you have to do after that is rest up and eat and do something about that fishbelly inverse tan you're wearing."
"I think it's cute," said the lovely Glasha.
"You guys," I said. My vision had somehow become a mite blurred.
"We won't stay any longer," Mimo said. "You take it easy." He herded the others out the door and closed it.
I relaxed and helped myself to a drink of water from the bedside carafe. Then I cranked up the bed a bit higher. In a minute or two I was going to try to stand up. I felt pretty fair, except for my growling stomach. The last real food it had encountered was the refried bean paste in Chispa's space armor. The twins had brought me a little basket of pitless black cherries, a rare luxury that had to be imported from Yakima-Two. I ate a few, wondered what the hospital menu might have to offer, and decided to kick up a monumental stink if they tried to fob me off with invalid's slop. I wanted something substantial. A cheeseburger. Fried onion rings. Jojo potatoes. Meanwhile, I'd have the cherries for an appetizer...
The door opened again and all thoughts of eating were erased from my mind. Superintendent Jake Silver slouched in, looking sweaty, untidy, and put upon. He said, "Might have known you'd survive, Hell-Butt."
I groaned. "Oh God, it's Kedgeree Kop! Don't tell me you're here for an official statement."
"From a Throwaway? Don't make me laugh."
"Then what the devil do you want?"
"Don't get your fundament in a furor. Here's a little get-well present for you." He fished in his tunic pocket, pulled out a much-folded piece of paper, and handed it over. Then he grabbed a big handful of the cherries without asking, started chomping, and surveyed the collection of flowers. "Very pretty. I'd've sent some, but the florist was fresh out of skunk lilies and pissweed."
The paper had four names and addresses on it: the domiciles of record for Clive Leighton, Mario Volta, Oleg Bran-sky, and Tokura Matsudo. Leighton lived on Seriphos. The other three were from Hadrach, Plusia-Prime, and Tyrins.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Clues, numskull," Jake said, turning back to me with his mouth full, "as any competent cop would know without asking. What you do with the information is none of my business. The individuals are probably just what they said they were: innocent vacationers who'd never laid eyes on Bronson Elgar before. Or maybe not."
Damn straight, maybe not. But Jake's unexpected gesture assumed that I was going after Elgar and whoever had hired him. How much did Jake know, anyhow? Mimo would never have revealed details of my ill-starred venture into space piracy, and neither would the comet-broom commander. On the other hand, the story of the sea toad eating my house was probably K-L's Chuckle of the Month.
"Well, thanks," I said grudgingly. I put the note under my pillow. "But actually, I was planning to forget all about the unfortunate incident. Go back to Eyebrow Cay and resume my career as fish voyeur."
"Somehow, 1 doubt that. Toads are one thing. Comets are something else."
Rats. "Who told you?"
Jake gobbled up the last of the cherries and heaved a regretful sigh as he deep-sixed the empty plastic basket into the recycling bin. "Been years since I had any of these. Delicious."
I was halfway out of the bed. "Who told you, Jake?"
But he didn't answer the question directly. "You've got one last visitor. I'll have to go outside and fetch him from my cruiser. He wouldn't stay in the hospital waiting room. Afraid your tacky friends might recognize him."
He went out, leaving me furious and worried. My only hope of being left in peace was for Elgar & Co. to think I was dead. The fact that I was alive today was pretty good evidence that the assassin didn't know I'd been rescued. I knew I could depend on my Throwaway buddies to help me sink back into anonymity, but Jake and this other mystery visitor were another matter. If my survival became common knowledge among the enfranchised, the word would eventually find its way to Elgar's backers.
Then I'd have to leave Kedge-Lockaby. Find another wildcat planet. Build a new fake identity and start all over again, hoping Galapharma's spies wouldn't track me down.
I lay back wearily and let my eyes close. Tomorrow. I'd think about it tomorrow .. .
The door opened and I heard heavy footsteps. Someone came in, closed the door, and approached my bed. To hell with him, whoever he was. I could pretend I was asleep—
He said, "Asahel. We have to talk."
I knew that voice. The sound of it hit me like a punch in the belly. I opened my eyes. A tall man stood at my bedside, dressed in immaculate tan Western wear and improbably holding his broad-brimmed Stetson hat in both hands.
The rough-hewn trail-boss face was my own—modified by forty-eight additional hard years of life and a modicum of genen rejuvenation. High forehead, hair the color of bread-crust, with an exaggerated widow's peak, pale brows above skeptical hooded eyes of cold green with an inner ring of amber around the pupil, thin-bridged nose, mouth habitually downturned so as not to give away the fact that the infrequent smile could charm and bedazzle.
I said, "Hello, Simon. So Galapharma delivered the message."
My father blinked, his customary understated indication of acute astonishment. His voice was harsh, with only a touch of Western twang. "A holovid dime and a printed note appeared mysteriously on the desk in my study at the Sky Ranch in Arizona. The holo showed a man in space excursion armor lashed down on the surface of some sort of celestial object. The note said: 'One dead, one on hold, three at risk unless you fold.' "
"Atrocious doggerel," I said. "The poker analogy seems to indicate a certain familiarity with your lifestyle."
e on hold?
"The note went on to say that your corpse was to be found in the vicinity of a comet in the Kedge-Lockaby system. The armor's emergency beacon would serve as a guide to the remains."
"A considerate touch. I'm surprised you didn't just dismiss the whole thing as a hoax. Or ignore it on general principles."
"I'd been thinking about you recently, Asa. Last September, Eve was at the Sky Ranch for a family conference. She said you'd been .. . coming along well."
I gave a noncommittal murmur. No doubt she'd had another go at trying to patch up the rift between Simon and me and got nowhere. Good old Eve.
"I contacted the head of Kedge-Lockaby's CID and demanded an inquiry into your alleged death." Simon's lips tightened in distaste. "A certain Superintendent Jacob Silver said that you were more or less alive, being treated for radiation trauma. He told me the day you were scheduled to be released from the dystasis tank but refused to give me any more details, the insolent shit."
"Unimpressed by Rampart's Lord High Plunderbunder, eh?" I flashed him my own version of the family grin, the one Joanna used to say would melt a glacier. It hadn't a hope in hell of thawing Simon Frost. He only stared at me, frowning. I couldn't tell if he was pissed off or perplexed.
"So you came," I prompted him.
"At maximum ross on the Mogollon Rim. Twenty days."
"Eve would have flown over from Tyrins to check me out if you'd asked her."
"I tried to." He clammed up again. His gaze shifted for an instant and his prominent Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his corded neck as he swallowed. More portentous silence. Then he sat down heavily in the bedside chair.
"I called Eve's office from Earth. And her personal assistant tried to give me the runaround. Me!" The lese-majeste of it all made me smile for an instant, but my amusement evaporated as he continued. "All he'd say was that Eve was unavailable. I finally told the stupid galoot I'd personally tear out his sweetbreads and fry 'em in bacon grease if he didn't explain. That's when he admitted that she had disappeared."