Alien safari, p.11
Alien Safari, p.11Robert Appleton
Moments after he broadcast his access code to create a safe window through Hesperidia’s sat net, his ship’s CPU received a message from Jan. A typed message in a small font, very small. He had to squint to read it:
Vaughn, either you’ve changed your plans completely since we last spoke or you’re no longer in charge. I don’t like it either way.
P.S. The new people are no fun.
Not exactly the welcome back he’d hoped for. And why wasn’t she speaking to him with audiovisual, like last time? Who was with her? Might she be using tiny text to make it harder for someone to read, someone in the HQ with her, watching her?
He sent a reply in the same font size: What new people? You mean Kraczinski’s crew?
No. Kraczinski’s crew never showed. No word from him. I think these bozos outrank you. They’re coordinating the search effort...with rather less tact than you.
Who’s taken charge down there? Name and rank?
The man here is a Phi officer, name’s Kalstrom. Wound up tighter than a psamm coil. Told me to chain Stopper up or else he’d shoot a tranc in him. Sonofabitch. He smells too. D’ya hear that, Kalstrom, you reek like an unwiped arse on a hot day, sir.
Vaughn shook his head, amused. He typed, It goes with the grade—the more you rise, the more you reek. So he’s calling all the shots?
Nope. Which means his superior—flew straight to Jim Bilderbeck at Lima Outpost—must be seriously noxious. I haven’t spoken to him yet. Don’t know his name. Apparently he’s on his way here with Bilderbeck. I think they’re planning to go on safari...to bring in the fugitives.
Vaughn punched a sizeable dent into the bulkhead. Pain splintered through his knuckles, throbbed to his fingertips. He fetched an ice-wrap from the freezer and wrapped it around his hand to help with the swelling. It meant he had to type with his left hand.
What they’re doing is completely improper. No one outranks me until I relinquish the case. Tell Kalstrom he’d better lawyer up.
I think you’d better tell him that yourself. He’s a bit mean to me.
I will. Has he threatened you in any way?
You’re sweet, but no. Just ordered me to tell him every move the two of us made earlier.
What do you think?
Vaughn snickered. If he was right about Dr. Juanita Corbija, she’d give the truth, the half truth and nothing like the truth to anyone who demanded it.
Vaughn, don’t be long.
I’m starting entry now.
I’m buying my ringside seat. Can’t wait to see you stick it to these jerks.
Over and out.
Vaughn tightened inside as he retyped his message to Kraczinski’s substation, calling for assistance. He added the lines, Suspected illegal Phi breach on Hesperidia. Request immediate armed response force. Also, find out who has direct control over real-time sat net operations—its security has been compromised.
He sent it, but shook his head when the Message Delivered alert appeared rather quickly. He had a hunch that, like the previous communiqué, this request would never reach Kraczinski. Someone, somewhere had been manipulating Hesperidia’s security ever since the crippled Kingmaker’s approach. That someone had clout, an agenda, and was taking one helluva risk, pissing off someone like Vaughn—they must know he’d never let this sort of corruption slide.
Not as long as he had his badge.
The shuttle resting ahead of him just off the landing pad, a pristine but ugly Stellar Taipan, with its sparkly brown finish, was exactly the sort of bird a Phi would choose: expensive and tasteless. Phi were not law enforcement, they were strictly military, mostly battlefield combatants or intelligence gatherers, among the most dangerous hombres in the service because they spent much of their time behind enemy lines, infiltrating the Sheikers, the Finaglers, or even plain old colony uprisings. But for one to be here, on the Hesp, was troubling. A heavy-hitter like that brought in to bag a couple of smash-and-grab fugitives light-years from any of ISPA’s real enemies: this guy didn’t have the law on his mind. At least not any law Vaughn had ever heard of.
So who had brought him here?
The HQ entrance looks cluttered, he messaged Jan. Not your stuff?
Nope. They’ve come well-equipped for a manhunt, with what looks like enough firepower to take Altimere. Those are tracking drones in the crates, tech I’ve only read about. Kalstrom’s men are assembling them in the holding bay, so you should come in via the northwest building. I’ll leave the outer door open for you.
You’ve still got the mask I lent you?
Sure. See you soon.
As a precaution, Vaughn switched on the Hopper’s em shield behind him and ramped up the SI level to a dangerous setting, in case anyone tried to get in while he was away. Jan he trusted completely; these interlopers, not a jot. No doubt they had some jurisdictional double-talk prepared, but unfortunately for them the rule was clear: the manhunt was his and his alone to attempt, or to delegate if he should see fit, or to call off if he deemed necessary. Woe betide anyone who didn’t savvy that.
The northwest building, a long, arched tunnel bespangled with sun-glints caught in its thousands of prismatic solar roof panels, appeared to be some sort of greenhouse. Lustrous orchids of all shapes and colors recoiled from him as he entered, several spraying out clouds of spores which the extractor fans immediately seized and sucked up out of harm’s way. Good thing he was wearing his mask.
This was a side of Jan’s profession he hadn’t seen before—the xenobotanical side. He’d assumed it was nothing more than gardening in alien soil. He was wrong. The plant life on display here was beyond impressive. Red plants that formed a cage-like dome to protect bioluminescent fungus. A flower that had evolved to resemble a porcupine-like animal—a defense mechanism? Seaweed that crawled out of its pond. Blooms that crackled with electricity—another defense mechanism? Blooms that puckered up when he passed. Suckered vines that crept over the windows to drink condensation (and snapped at each other for the right of way). Rows of little Bonsai-like trees that jived in the streams of air from the extractor fans, their fronds thrown high, giving a Mexican wave as he passed.
Fascinating stuff, like nothing he’d ever seen. Maybe when all this was over, he could get Jan to—
A crash from the next section as he opened the sliding door shot his palm to his holster. The room was dark after the first six feet, so he gave the command “Light.” A series of luminous arched strips flickered on, like giant ribs being tickled to life up and down the tunnel. The temperature was much cooler in here, the air drier. Either side of the central walkway—a platform with railings over a five meter drop—were dozens of vicars, all painted with black and white stripes and bearing the original logo:
The vehicles had never been used. Clearly ISPA had wanted to expand the enterprise into a sizeable tourist attraction; if all the other outposts utilised this many vicars, the Hesp could be a serious clip-spinner, enough to fund all the research Jan had ever dreamed of. But human poachers and a sat net and the planet’s own deadliest predator had curtailed Alien Safari in its infancy. A shame. He’d gladly sign up for an excursion, and if Jan were the guide, so much the better.
The crash had come from a faulty hydraulic platform that rose a couple of meters, stuttered, then fell back to ground, again and again. This place hadn’t been used in quite some time, and the tech was on its last legs. He switched the hydraulics off via a remote panel halfway across the walkway.
Piles of souvenirs and goody bags with the logo printed on them had been left to gather dust in copper crates next to the elevators at the far side. Vaughn quirked an eyebrow. Yes, he wanted one of those goody bags, with everything in it. Yes, she’d probably give him one. No, he must complete the full safari tour first, then he could have one.
Someone walked over his grave.
He entered the HQ half-clenched, fully bristling with the power of his office. Jan was alone at her console, playing a really old version of that classic adventure video game, Tomb Raider, a pre-Virtual Reality edition. But not really playing. Monkeying around with the bad guys. Demonstrating the heroine’s agility, and her impossibly voluptuous physique.
She looked up at him and cast a frown. It stung him a little. “Find what you were after?” she asked.
“I think so. It’s hard to explain. Are you all right?”
She shrugged, resumed her non-playing. “Why don’t you ask them.” An insolent nod over her shoulder guided Vaughn to the airlock, to the masked man making his entrance.
Vaughn waited until the door was sealed, the mask removed, the man on equal footing on this side of the airlock before he stepped forward and extended a hand. He mentally dredged the stranger of all clues of his personality, professionalism, the way he might handle himself in a fight. One of the first things DeSanto had taught him was to “Keep it simple. Block out everything that isn’t likely to be a threat. Whatever’s left, know it inside out in a single glance.”
He was a shortish, stocky, unguarded bulldog of a man. His macho prowess preceded him like a big lumbering shadow at dusk. He wore smart nylon trousers, a thin white cotton polo shirt, and a neckerchief bearing the colors of his favorite IC soccer team, Pacintic All-Stars. He was fortyish, severely tanned. Vaughn pictured him on leave between tours of duty, tearing along a low-g skyway in an open-top mini-cruiser, a famous fashion model clinging to his arm, begging him to slow down. But he wouldn’t slow down. Not then, not later when he got horny, whether she wanted it or not. Men like that made no apology for anything they did. For being born hungry. They simply devoured, in love, in sports, and never in the rearview. In life they never had to compensate, like, say, the school nerd who drives himself on bitter intellect and sheer envy to become a software billionaire; no, men like Kalstrom would just as comfortably walk around naked and let it all hang out, easy in the knowledge that they could break your neck if you challenged them, and would take your girl afterward as well, whether she wanted it or not.
All in a single glance.
But Vaughn didn’t dare lose eye contact. Both in a fight and in the simple fact that he was here, on the Hesp, Kalstrom was a threat.
“Where did you fly in from?” asked Vaughn.
“Does it matter?”
“Not where you flew in from, no. That you flew in.”
“That a fact?”
Kalstrom gagged for effect, then belched into his fist. “Omicron law, huh. Out here. That the best you’ve got?”
“You’ve got a better one?”
“Don’t need one, sport. Laws are for old women, didn’t you know? Out here, there are two ways of doing things: our way...” He looked around the office, yawned, looked some more.
“The second way of doing things.”
“I never count that high.”
Vaughn blinked, shifted his weight. “Why are you here?”
“To bring in a couple of runaways. You?”
“Who’s your superior?”
“On his way.”
“Who is he?”
After snorting a laugh, Kalstrom snapped up the levity and thrust his face into Vaughn’s, his lower lip clamped between his teeth in a kind mocking smirk. His intense glare was that of a bully, a bully who wasn’t entirely sure if he could win this fight, but willing to bet heavily on it if the need arose. Not much comfort to Vaughn. The man was still sizing up his opponent, but caution before a fight was no indication of anything; once a fight began, even the most rational of men could turn psychotic, the most timid could become homicidal. And Kalstrom was, by profession, as well-trained a killer as ISPA had ever devised.
Yet Vaughn didn’t flinch. Couldn’t. Despite what this asshole claimed, he really did give a shit about Omicron law—it was the only thing standing between him and a fist fight right here and now. To project weakness might undermine the only advantage Vaughn had all the way out here. “When your superior shows up, I’ll be waiting for his brief.”
“You really don’t get it, do you. This was never your call to make.”
“No?” That was funny; Vaughn distinctly recalled Kraczinski’s—
“No. But don’t take my word for it, lawman.” Kalstrom’s sneer, inches from his face, was accompanied by a phssssh from behind, from the airlock once again flooding with oxygen. “Try flashing that badge now.”
Vaughn barged past Kalstrom ready to accost his superior, whoever it was. Somehow he doubted any badge-flashing would be required; before the man had even removed his mask or the hood of his sports jacket, Vaughn was planning several moves ahead. I’m going to need a witness. And the only resident law enforcer with any clout in this sector was the one who’d been conspicuously absent from the Hesp so far. Yet even so, Kraczinski had gotten him into this, Kraczinski would have to back him up.
Vaughn recognised the balding dome immediately, but didn’t quite believe it; together with the sports jacket, and Kalstrom’s deference to the man’s office, there was only one man it could be...
Years of turbulent, shared history glimmered in the old man’s clay-milk eyes as he peeled off his mask and slung it onto the sofa without looking away from Vaughn. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”
“Sir? I don’t understand.” Then he half did, as if magnoing together these last two encounters with his old mentor—puzzling encounters, each of which made no sense on its own. “Why do you want the Fleece so badly?”
“So you know all about the Fleece.”
Vaughn was silent. He hadn’t read Mbowe’s stolen files yet, but he wanted DeSanto to think he’d obtained that information some other way.
“Okay, lad, I can see you have the whole thing laid out, so I’m sorry to have to pull the rug out from under you like this.”
Kalstrom kicked his feet up on the sofa, watching and savoring Vaughn’s every reaction. Meanwhile, Jan spun her chair around to listen in. When she saw Kalstrom’s muddy boots on the upholstery, she hurled a juicy piece of half-eaten fruit at him. It missed.
“Miss Corbija, I’m going to have to ask you to leave us,” said DeSanto.
“No, stay where you are,” Vaughn told her. And to the old man, “She’s helping me with the case. I’ve already told her everything I know, and she will hear what you have to say, now, or later from me.”
DeSanto shot Kalstrom a glance. Jan saw it too. “Very well,” he said.
All four of them knew it wasn’t.
“You’re aware that the war’s hit a stalemate? No Finagler sightings, no new across-the-border incursions from us or the Sheikers in over three months?”
“And what do you think that means?”
“That you guys are out of a job,” Jan cut in.
DeSanto heaved a corrosive sigh, almost had to drag his gaze over to her. “Precisely the opposite, Miss Corbija.”
“It’s the calm before the storm,” said Vaughn. “It means they’re swelling ranks somewhere we can’t see them, preparing for another sneak offensive. That’s why we called them Finaglers in the first place, before they turned hostile; subterfuge is in their nature. They’re furtive little bastards.”
“As we’ve seen firsthand, lad.”
“Many times, sir. But what does that have to do with the Fleece? You’re not here representing ISPA, are you.”
On hearing that, Jan turned the damaged half of her face toward DeSanto. Was her artificial ear more effective?
“Not officially as of yet.” A politician’s response, loaded with righteous across-the-table boardroom blow-ups past and future.
“So that’s a no,” Jan corrected him. “You shouldn’t be here at all.”
Vaughn smiled gravely at her, and she winked back.
“It’s beside the point,” said the old man. “We’re going to need every advantage we can get. The Finaglers aren’t just superior to us technologically, they have a flexible society. That means they’ll appear as capitalists one minute, every one an entrepreneur in competition with every other, trading with our border colonies like benign gypsies, and the next minute they’ll relinquish their assets and pool their resources to mobilize entire worlds with astonishing efficiency, to take, by force, the very civilizations they’ve just traded with. They have no concept of honor or loyalty or obedience, except to their own malign order. We can’t compete with that sort of cold efficiency.”
He held a finger up to Vaughn’s interruption. “If you’ll let me finish, lad, you’ll see why we need to get our hands on the Fleece now, before our enemies hear of it. Rumors have already begun to spread.”
Jan opened her mouth to speak but quickly covered it. She then wagged a finger at the fridge, as if she’d suddenly remembered something. While DeSanto went on, she limped across to fetch a bottle of something cold, and a few glasses.
“The ability to heal damaged cells or grow new ones is something every general has been actively monitoring for the past three centuries. To restore wounded soldiers to the field without the need for encumbering prosthetics would be the advantage for whichever side knew how. But there’s always been a snag...”
“Time,” answered Vaughn. “It takes weeks to re-grow damaged tissue or nerve fibers.”
DeSanto indulged an emphatic nod. “But with the Fleece? Minutes. If the figures are correct, it takes less than five minutes to heal up a bullet wound or eradicate a localised infection. It works so fast the Iolchian scientists haven’t been able to classify it in any known branch of science.”
“No shit,” scoffed Kalstrom, hands clasped behind his crew-cut dome.
“All we know is it does work, and we can induce the material to replicate itself,” DeSanto added carefully. “I don’t need to explain how much that tips the balance of war in our favor.”
“No, sir.” Vaughn thanked Jan for the glass of ice-cold Coke, and swilled the dark liquid around a little so that more of the bubbles clinging to the sides could escape. Something he’d done since he was a boy. She also handed DeSanto and Kalstrom a Coke apiece. Both accepted.
“So you understand why it’s imperative we bring these two fugitives in now, the most effective way we can.” The old man raised his glass to Kalstrom, who returned the toast.
“I understand you’ve given me one side of the argument, sir. Your side.” In Vaughn’s opinion, truth to a politician was like true love to a Kappa Max hooker: supplied frequently and relentlessly to whomever couldn’t tell the difference. “But why isn’t ISPA falling over itself to get hold of this thing? If it’s going to tip the scales as much as you say, why aren’t you here officially, with the full colonial fleet backing you up, surrounding this planet, making sure our enemies don’t get their hands on the Fleece?”
DeSanto’s glass perspired onto his strong fingers. His chewed-ragged nails gleamed as he sipped his Coke.
“I’ll tell you why, sir,” Vaughn said. “It’s because even if we do get this thing mass-produced and implemented across the colonies, how long before our enemies get hold of it anyway? Heal their bullet wounds and grow new limbs for their mangled troops? Only they figure out what we can’t about this thing and really start to make use of it. Before long they grow new cells in a fraction of the time we can. How do you think they’ve gotten superior to us, technologically? They weren’t at first, otherwise they’d have wiped us out straightaway. No, they traded, they stole, they adopted our inventions and then improved on them until we had nothing more they wanted. And before we knew it, our own tech was used against us, only we didn’t recognise it as our tech because we hadn’t been as curious about them as they’d been about us. We let them beaver away behind the 100z curtain because, hey, that was their right as free traders, right? The capitalist’s biggest weakness: if the cash is there, he doesn’t care. Well we care now. But we’re not learning from our mistakes, by the sounds of it. At least you’re not.”
A part of him couldn’t believe he was talking down to the only man he’d looked up to since... that day. Since the re-making of Ferrix Vaughn. This was the man who’d re-written several complete chapters in the Omicron Conduct and Procedures handbook, whose investigations were taught year in, year out at practically every law enforcement academy across the IC.
DeSanto licked his perfect teeth, top and bottom, and looked into his glass as he spoke: “First they want concrete evidence that the Fleece exists, an actual physical sample. You know what ISPA bureaucrats are like: everything must be there in black and white, in triplicate, ready for their Jon Doe; if it isn’t, no laxative ever invented opens those crusty sluices.” A bit crude for an Omega god, but DeSanto had never liked politicians either. Did he even realise he’d become one? Maybe not a bureaucrat, but there were far worse things to be than a bureaucrat.
“That’s the way things are done, sir. You don’t like it, you argue your case, try to convince them. This—” Vaughn tipped his glass to Kalstrom, who didn’t return the toast, “is not the Omega way, and it sure as shit isn’t the Omicron way.”
The old man necked the remainder of his drink in one go, then set the glass down. “So what would you do, Mr. Vaughn?” A little late for formalities, but at least he was willing to discuss it.
Vaughn thought about it, realised he didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth on war strategy or politics with a man who’d already brought a soldier to the discussion. DeSanto’s mind was made up, and, as with ISPA, if he couldn’t convince Vaughn to cooperate, he’d do it his way anyway. “I’d do what I was going to do all along,” said Vaughn. “I’d bring the suspects in, my way. So far the only people who know the Fleece is here are either in this room, or they’re counting on you to retrieve it as quietly as possible.”
“You’re talking about Malesseur, right?” Jan observed. “Malesseur’s going to broker some kind of deal for you? Sell the Fleece to ISPA? Make you rich? Otherwise why would you be involved with him at all?”
“To extradite his daughter,” protested DeSanto. “You know nothing.”
Both DeSanto and Kalstrom shot her a withering glance, but she reciprocated with interest. A loud bark from outside split the tension. Had Stopper sensed an imminent threat, maybe from inside the room? The bark alerted Vaughn once again to the presence of the Phi; it advised caution. Helped confirm the plan he’d been formulating all along, ever since DeSanto had shown up.
“So here’s what I’m thinking, sir. If your team promises to bring the suspects in alive, for my custody, the rest is Omega business. I’m just here to solve multiple murders. Hand the fugitives over to me and I’m gone. The Fleece and the politics are your affair.”
He knew Jan would hate him for that, for folding under pressure, but instead she merely blinked at him, shrugged, and returned to her console. It cut Vaughn, and not for the first time. She had that ability, whether it was conscious or not, to bleed a man with paper cuts, with infuriating indifference.
“Good man.” In DeSanto’s poker smile, a hundred suspicious calculations worming away, threatening to collapse that appearance of trust. But it held. “You wait here with Miss Corbija, and we’ll bring them in, I promise. It’ll still be your show officiall
“Of course, sir. We’re all on the same team in the end.”
“And there might even be a promotion at the end of it, who knows.”
Vaughn was silent.
Kalstrom got up, put his mask on, and left through the airlock without a word. Five men waited for him on the other side. One wore short soccer shorts and knee-high socks and had skinny, tanned legs with knobbly knees. Bilderbeck?
“Expect us in a day or two.” DeSanto expertly affixed his mask, then shook hands with his former protégé. “Probably best you don’t send any more comms off-planet till we’re done. Keep this as quiet as possible.”
Vaughn swilled the Coke around in his glass as he watched the posse leave. Three ships’ worth of people brazenly flouting his jurisdiction. There were less bubbles now, but the glass was sweating more than ever. And it was half empty. It might always be half empty from now on, he decided, because the only man he’d ever completely trusted was a friend no more.
DeSanto wore an expensive mask.
Maybe he’d been wearing one all along.
“How much of a head start do we give them?” asked Jan.
“None. We’re going on safari right now.”
“Oh, goodie. I hope you’ve got some bright ideas for how to track your suspects, Omicron guy?”
“I’ve got a few.”
She gathered the empty glasses, plonked them into the dishwasher. “Your boss might be having second thoughts en route.” She whistled tunelessly.
“What do you mean?”
“Your boss, and the other jerk. They really swigged that Coke, didn’t they.”
Vaughn gulped. “What did you do?”
“Gave it a brand new aftertaste, my own special recipe. I call it Tranc a la Fizz.”
“You micked them?” He wiped his tongue over his teeth, mimicking DeSanto; he could swear there was a sudden spike in his stomach acidity.
“No, I helped them sleep. Some people have strange reactions to a new atmosphere. They needed a couple of days in Tra-La Land. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”
“You were...discerning, I take it, with who you...treated?”
“Ooh, I hope so. I mean I think I only tranced two, but with all the double-talk flying around in here, I can’t be sure what I told myself to do.” She limped over to him, patted his stomach. “If you’re not sloshing in a few hours, you weren’t dosed.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“Only that I’m driving. You know, just in case.”
He grabbed her by the shoulder, not as gently as he’d have liked. “Listen, you’re making a joke of all this, but I don’t think you realise how serious these guys are, what they’ll do to get hold of the Fleece.”
“Vaughn, ask yourself why I micked them. Now ask me again if I understand what’s going on.”
“You...you figured I was going to back down?”
“Only pretend. You had no choice. Your boss, trained killers-for-hire, Malesseur backing them up: even you aren’t Mary Sue enough to lay down the law indefinitely. Though I was worried there for a minute. And I think Kalstrom was really hoping you’d flash your Mary Sue badge one more time, so you and he could fight for the title of Dumbest Hunker South of the Equator, using my furniture. Nah, you had to say your piece, then back down. It was a nice compromise you came up with in the end. Way to save face. Your boss played it well too, very...controlled. I hate to say it, but I was a step ahead of you two ISPA chumps all the way.”
“Right, it’s official, if we make it out of this, I’m putting you on the Omicron payroll.”
“You can’t afford me.”
“How much do you earn?”
“More than you and DeSanto and Boots-Up put together. I have more letters than a drunk calligraphist.”
Vaughn laughed. “So I guess you can spell inconspicuous.”
“Sure. With an i, a u, and a cheeky little con somewhere in the middle. Follow me.” Jan grabbed her omnipod, a warm jacket, and two masks from the rack. She handed him one.
“Alien Safari, up and running again?” Vaughn quipped when he saw the dilapidated sign atop the roof outside.
Jan was silent. For the next half hour, while they gathered supplies for the hunt from around the compound, some dangerous, most imprinted with the official company logo, and a few from the Pitch Hopper, Stopper did most of the talking. He seemed to know there was something extraordinary going on on the Hesp, and that his mistress was about to put herself in very grave danger.
It was pitch black when they set out. The gates closing behind them rattled, and the amber beacons atop the electrified fence flashed red sequentially, in a wave around the compound, signifying it was secure once more. Everything inside was safe.
Outside everything was Nature’s.
Alien Safari by Robert Appleton / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on32 votes