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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 9


  Ivor snickered. The bell went ding-dong a whole lot. Lois was beginning to sound irritated.

  "Please," he begged. Tears were glazing his eyes. "We've got to let her in. She might call security, or go 'round back and try to enter the house through the kitchen. I'll tell you everything I know tomorrow. I swear it. Tomorrow..."

  1 cursed mentally and tried to decide what to do. I wasn't thinking too straight myself. Finally: "All right. But God help you if you change your mind about cooperating! Now listen to me, Cliveykins. My friend here is going to stay overnight and keep an eye on you. His name is Ivor. He'll make certain you don't do anything silly. I'll pick you up at noon tomorrow and take you to the board meeting."

  "Yes. Yes. Anything!"

  I said to Ivor. "Go answer the door and pretend to be the new houseman. Tell the lady—" I turned to Clive. "What's her full name?"

  "Lois Swann-Hepplewhite," he said listlessly.

  "Tell her that Citizen Leighton has been unavoidably detained by an important business matter, but he'll be out in the garden with her shortly."

  "I'll pour her some champagne and finish coating the pepper steak," said the young Hercules. "And I'd better uncork that nice bottle of Chambertin. It really needs time to breathe." He went off.

  A belated thought struck me. I said to Clive, "Give me your telephone." He pulled it out of his back pocket and handed it over.

  "How many more phone units in the house?" I asked.

  "Six, seven, 1 don't remember."

  "Never mind. I'm going to disconnect your whole system from the satcom net. I know you wouldn't dream of making any compromising calls between now and tomorrow, but let's make certain of it, shall we?"

  I sat down at the computer, summoned up half-forgotten techniques that had once been part of my ICS investigatory arsenal, and after about three minutes' work rendered the Leighton establishment electronically incommunicado. He watched me without interest. When I finished and rose to go, I spoke to him very gently."Clive, I'm your only chance. You do realize that, don't you?"

  He hesitated, not meeting my eyes, then nodded.

  "Good. Now go change your pants, have a stiff drink, and get ready to be a gracious host."

  Chapter 7

  The Jaguar rolled smoothly along the elevated expressway, heading back into the city center and the hotel. The sky behind the mountains had turned purple and the sea was silver with pointy black islands dotting the mouth of Vetivarum Bay. On the stereo, Nat King Cole was singing "Adios, Mariquita Linda." Mimo commented on the beauty of the scene, and I responded with a dispirited mumble.

  Slumped back against the reclined leather seat, I gave myself another hit from the medicuff. I felt atrocious—weak as a beached jellyfish, short of breath, and aching in every extremity, including my thick head. I'd done the best I could with Clive Leighton, but I couldn't escape the conviction that I'd botched the job. I had serious misgivings about the wisdom of leaving a sharpie like Leighton in Ivor's inexperienced care. I knew I should not have postponed Clive's interrogation, regardless of my own frailty. I'd also forgotten that the girlfriend might have brought a phone in her purse.

  Ask Mimo to turn back? Not a chance.

  God, how I wished I were back on Kedge-Lockaby, convalescing in my new little house and being pampered by my friends! I wished I had told my father to go to hell. I wished 1 could forget about Rampart's corporate machinations and Bronson Elgar and just live my quiet Throwaway life again.

  Believe me—I'd have been gone in a cloud of sour owlshit if it hadn't been for my sister Eve.

  Mimo had continued to chatter away while I indulged in self-pitying mopery. I snapped out of it as I heard him say, "You could do worse than hire Ivor for the duration of your stay on Seriphos."

  "As what? A male nurse?" I was only half kidding.

  "He's an excellent bodyguard," Mimo said. "A valued associate recommended him very highly, and you said he did well."

  "I'm in no danger. If Elgar suspected I was still alive, he could have killed me easily while I was in dystasis back on K-L by just sneaking into the ICU and pulling the plug."

  "I was thinking of Clive Leighton, not Elgar. Even with his comsys out and Ivor guarding him, he might still manage to contact some other member of the cabal here on Seriphos who—"

  I didn't want to hear this. "The chance of some local tracking me down and trying to blow me away tonight is van-ishingly small. Besides, Leighton has nothing to gain by sending someone after me. For all he knows, I've already told Simon or Cousin Zed about his own starring role in tomorrow's show-and-tell. Clive's terrified. He knows his only hope of avoiding disenfranchisement is to cooperate with me. And he will."

  "I'm not sure I agree with your logic," Mimo said. "Frightened men sometimes do rash things."

  "Not this one."

  He persisted. "It would have been more prudent to take Leighton and the woman into custody. We could have recorded his incriminating statement immediately."

  "Whose custody?" I asked wearily. "Ours? You think we should have kidnapped both of them, shlepped them along to the hotel or your starship, and played babysitter till tomorrow?"

  "You could have used your father's authority and had them locked up by Rampart security."

  "Rampart security," I said bleakly, "could be part of the larger problem ... And any statement we recorded privately would be legally uncertified and useless as evidence. The Rampart board will only believe Leighton if he talks to them freely in person and then checks out on the truth machines. Don't worry—the guy won't send anybody after me and he won't try to do a flit. Where would he go? The conspiracy won't protect him. They'd be more likely to vaporize his ass."

  "But—"

  I wiped sick perspiration from my brow. "That's enough. The matter's closed."

  The old man fell silent, and I tried to nap during the rest of the drive, lulled by Nat Cole's mellow Spanish warbling.

  We checked in at the Ritz-Carlton Vetivarum, a neo-Babylonian pile complete with hanging gardens, mosaic floors, and red jasper pillars with gilded capitals. The flunkies at the front desk were so overjoyed to welcome Captain Bermudez to their expensive establishment once again that I expected them to kiss the hem of his garment and strew his path with rose petals. Nobody said a word when I registered as Helmut Icicle and declined to submit an iris-print ID. I was still wearing the scannerproof sunglasses.

  Our bags had already been sent in from the starport. As we stood waiting for the transporter that would carry us to our suites, Mimo invited me to dinner. I pleaded mortal fatigue, at which he nodded in understanding. "You must rest, of course. Meanwhile, perhaps I could make a few discreet inquiries—"

  "Absolutely not! You have to promise not to go poking around in this mess by yourself. Don't misunderstand me. I'm grateful for all your help. But I've got to do this investigation my way, even if I bumble and fumble. If it's any consolation, I intend to tell my father the same thing."

  "Then perhaps I'll just look up a certain lady of my acquaintance." He winked. "We might go to the casino, then find other ways to entertain ourselves."

  I went to my suite, stripped off my clothes and tossed them into the valet, then had a hot shower. The palatial bathroom, like the one on El Plomazo, was equipped with a tanning unit. I took a double treatment of melanin enhancer, which turned my skin slightly darker than my stubbly hair, and ended up looking surfer-fit on the outside even though I was still a bucket of guano within.

  A royal-blue silk robe was part of the bedroom decor. I put it on and ordered supper from room service. During the voyage to Seriphos with Mimo, I'd found out the hard way that my digestion hadn't yet caught up with my appetite, so I contented myself with zikel Meunière, spinach souffle, baby peas and carrots, and rozkoz-gold cocoa. When the dumbwaiter pinged a few minutes later, I took out the tray of food and carried it to a table on the balcony where I could dine overlooking the lights of the city. The coves and promontories and heights of sprawling Vetivarum wer
e decorated with twinkling pinpricks of color. Nearly half a million human beings lived here, employed hi Rampart Central, in the extensive rozkoz production facilities, and in the service industries that modern civilization demands.

  A faint aroma of the peerless confection floated on the cool evening breeze from one of the rozkoz factories. I ate slowly, remembering my first day on the planet so many years ago: the steaming mudpools surrounding the spore collection depot, the native worker with his unreadable alien face and incongruous human voice (courtesy of the general translator), and my first taste of rozkoz-gold.

  Above all I thought of my uncle Ethan, the real founder of Rampart, dead now for five years. When reminiscence palled and I finished what I could manage of the food, I gave myself a sedative shot from the medicuff, flopped onto the king-size bed, and slept like a dead man.

  * * *

  I was sent to Seriphos when I was thirteen, chockful of adolescent angst, contrariety, and grief over the impending divorce of my mother, Katje Vanderpost, from Simon. Neither of my parents wanted me underfoot during the inconvenient summer break before I returned to boarding school, so I was dispatched offworld to my godparents, Ethan Frost and Emma Bradbury, who lived in the Perseus Spur. It was high time, Simon told me, that I visited the part of the galaxy where I would be working throughout most of my adult life.

  Aunt Emma was a frequent visitor to Earth, but 1 hardly remembered Uncle Ethan, whose reputation had made him a demigod to the younger generation of the Frost family. He had not traveled to the home world for many years. My father, who was happier coping with the complex political and financial aspects of the business, then served as Rampart's Board Chairman and Syndic, the Starcorp's official liaison to the Commonwealth legislature in Toronto. Simon's relationship to Ethan was peculiar, a combination of sincere respect and covert envy of his older brother's business acumen and unflagging drive. Ethan was the Starcorp's President and Chief Executive Officer from its inception in 2183 until his death in 2227. He was responsible for the discovery of rozkoz, which set the stage for Rampart's meteoric growth. He was also the one who had masterminded Rampart's expansion into the sixty-three other Spur worlds that comprised the corporate empire.

  I was sure that my father had sent me to Seriphos hoping that Ethan's influence would counteract the rebellious tendencies I was already beginning to display. I was a bright kid with a tender social conscience, and fancied myself a keen amateur historian and cultural anthropologist. My juvenile researches had convinced me that the commercialization of the stars superseded the Jewish Holocaust, the African Plague, the Great Seattle Earthquake, and the Martian Meteor Impact as the premier human disaster of all time. I had just begun to agonize over what I was going to do about it.

  My uncle was waiting for me at the arrival gate in Vetivarum Starport, which amazed me because I knew what a busy and important man the Rampart President was. Yet there he stood, alone, dressed in a none-too-clean blue corporate coverall, with a broad smile and an outstretched hand ready to shake mine after I hastily put down my encumbering carry-on case. After the greeting, he retrieved my other bags and carried them himself as he led me into the subway connecting to the private hoppercraft garage.

  I was also startled to realize what a small man Ethan was— only five or six centimeters taller than I, and I was a kid. His gray-green eyes were so deeply hooded that they almost seemed Oriental. He was fifty-nine years old at the time, but his face was nearly unlined. He had a narrow, beaky nose and a sandy gunfighter moustache, and he wore his hair combed over his forehead in a short fringe—perhaps to minimize the sharp widow's peak that characterized so many of the Frost family's men.

  "You mind if we make a little detour before heading to the house?" Ethan asked—as if any objection I might make was worth taking into consideration. "Something at one of the spore collection depots I need to check out personally. You know anything about the production of rozkoz?"

  "I've read about it, of course. Seen holovids—"

  "All showing nice, sanitary factories, I bet. The plants growing in stainless steel drums, tended and harvested robotically. Well, there's a bit more to it than that. I think you'll be interested."

  Uncle Ethan's hopper was an impressive machine with the corporation's crenellated castle wall logo on the door. He entered the destination into the navigation unit, then sat back and pointed out landmarks to me as we flew a programmed course out of the conurbation and into the precipitous wilderness in which the facility was situated.

  I had visited numbers of planets in the Orion Arm, many of them notably weird and picturesque, and I had expected the Rampart worlds of the remote Perseus Spur to be especially bizarre. But this part of Seriphos seemed to be a rather conventional blend of the geothermal areas of New Zealand and the Canadian Rockies, distinctive only because of the alien vegetation and the moderate vulcanism. Away from the temperate coast where humans made their homes and natives had permanent villages, the North Continent consisted mainly of steep mountains, with the lower slopes and valleys clothed in reddish or dull green foliage and the eminences thickly plastered with snow and ice. No roads led into the interior, but there was a webwork of faint trails at lower elevations that my uncle said were the work of the Zmundigaim Insaps. None of their camps were visible from the air.

  "Asa—how are things at home?" Ethan asked bluntly.

  I shrugged. "Civilized, I suppose. Simon spends most of his time at the Sky Ranch when he's not in Toronto doing Syndic lobbying. Mom lives in the corporate apartment complex in Phoenix and does her charity work and goes to cocktail parties and dinners given by closet Reversionists. My sister Beth cries a lot. Dan's too busy with work to come to any family affairs. Eve's finishing her business administration studies at the university and does the best she can to be with me and Beth, but you can tell the divorce thing has got her down."

  "And how do you feel?"

  I took a breath. "I don't know how Mom put up with Simon for as long as she did. He doesn't really give a hoot about any of us—"

  "He does, in his own way," Ethan said.

  "His way stinks," I said. And then I shut up for the rest of the trip.

  After an hour or so the hoppercraft descended into a steep valley carved by a brawling torrent. The right-hand slope was conventional mountain country, thinly vegetated weathered rock. The left side held a series of peculiar geothermal terraces framed with lush growth. The gently steaming stepped ponds looked as though they held different colors of bubbling paint—pink, teal-blue, greenish yellow, and terra cotta. As we landed on a small pad beside a medium-sized building crowned with antennas, a geyser erupted from one of the higher pools, spraying the landscape with rosy mud-mist.

  "There are thousands of depots like this scattered through the North Continent interior," Ethan said. "Insap tribes collect the koz spores by hand and bring them in. One part of the depot is a company store stocked with all kinds of goods that the natives favor. They can also order special items from a catalogue."

  The door of the depot opened and a single aborigine emerged. The Zmundi wore a translator lavaliere pinned to its Rampart coverall. It was very tall and thin, of roughly hu-manoid form, with smooth reddish skin. Its rounded head was bald, with a cluster of gemlike compound eyes at the center of the bulbous forehead above four small nostrils. The wide mouth bore clasping mandibles like those of an insect. Its hands, which seemed made of chiton or some other hard material rather than flesh, had six articulated digits of uneven length. The Zmundi's unshod feet made it seem as though the being walked on tiptoe on three stout claws or stubby hooves.

  "I am Lmuzu," it said. The mandibles buzzed and vibrated slightly when it spoke. "Welcome to Depot G-349, Ethan-frost and companion." It was strange to hear the perfectly articulated human voice come from such an alien creature. Since the translator provided a baritone timbre, I presumed that the Insap was a male.

  "Greetings and good health to you, Lmuzu," said my uncle, speaking carefully to accommodate
the translator. "This is my nephew, Asahel Frost, who has come to live with me for a little while. Why have you summoned me in this special manner? Is there some trouble?"

  "Not at all, Ethanfrost. It may even be a matter for rejoicing. Please follow me."

  He turned and beckoned for us to enter the building. Inside it was very warm, probably over forty degrees. We passed through the trading post area into a test laboratory/storage chamber. The place was filled with equipment interconnected by a tangle of technical plumbing. At the rear was a neat stack of hexagonal storage modules that I presumed were filled with koz spores. Over against the right wall stood a compact lab bench with smaller testing instruments.

  Lmuzu opened a gray incubation cabinet and took out a lidded culture dish. Something that looked like crinkly peach-tinted lichen was growing inside.

  "Gzonfalu of the Mlaka clan brought in a sample of an unknown variety of koz last sixday, saying that the clan's women were very excited by its properties. He had traveled over three hundred of your kilometers in order to bring the specimen to my attention."

  Ethan peered at it intently. "Interesting!"

  Lmuzu's translator gave off an unnerving ha-ha-ha. "The rozkoz made by the Mlaka women from this stuff was even more interesting." He set aside the culture dish and picked up a little round basket that seemed to have been woven of red and white grass. Inside were pale orange crystals, like rock candy. "I have prepared a human-style recipe."

  Ethan ate one. His eyebrows shot up. "Hey! That's really different—but good."

  "Ha-ha-ha," laughed Lmuzu. "Very good! Perhaps as good as rozkoz-blue, no? You can call it rozkoz-gold."

  "If it tests out." Ethan turned to me. "Would you like to try it, Asa?"

  I nodded bravely, accepted one of the small crystals, and put it into my mouth. The exquisite flavor made me exclaim out loud. "Wow! It's like regular rozkoz, but with—with—" I broke off in confusion. "I don't know. But I like it."