Alien safari, p.12
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       Alien Safari, p.12
 

           Robert Appleton
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  Chapter Eight

  “You sure you didn’t tell them about those traces of pyro fuel we found at the murder scene?”

  “I’ve already told you—no.” Jan had every right to get snippy, but it wasn’t that he didn’t believe her, it was just that...this was his only advantage over DeSanto. Without it, he might as well turn back now. He had to make doubly sure of every little detail. “For all they know, the fugitives might be on foot,” she added.

  “Then DeSanto will have to comb the surrounding area.” Vaughn liked the way that sounded. “Waste half a day, at least.”

  “Maybe. But you realise he’ll be monitoring every outpost. Even if we do collar the fugitives first, you’ll have to convince a posse of Phis that you have the shinier badge before you can get off-world.”

  “Leave that to me. But I love that you used the word collar. It’s about a century obsolete, but you pulled it off well with that accent.”

  “Gracias. I think.”

  Vaughn’s plan for tracking the fugitives—following the drips of illegal pyrofluvium fuel from their hover vehicle—was hardly a foolproof one, but DeSanto’s crew didn’t even have that. The lake was in fact a large tidal estuary of sorts. Its water level had risen a little during the day, and its tidal current had increased, enough to wash away most of the evidence from the lakeshore. Luckily Vaughn knew that the suspects had headed across the water. Further pyro traces on the far shore had confirmed it: they were making for the northern outposts. In hope, more than likely. If the fugitives had known what they were looking for from orbit, they’d have seen the energy signature from Jan’s outpost and would have tried for her shuttle instead.

  A horrid feeling gripped him. What if they had figured that out, they’d already doubled back to Jan’s base, and they’d been waiting all this time for the compound to be empty. They might be breaking into the Pitch Hopper right now, or stealing Jan’s emergency shuttle.

  Doubtful.

  He spotted another pyro spillage a few degrees to the right, up ahead—a long, fat, luminous pink dash on the floor of the forest. He’d had to turn the contrast on his omnipod lens filter up to full in order to see the fuel’s signature, and it made everything else blur into ghostly, inky streams; at the speed the vicar was traveling, the terrain appeared almost viscous, globby, painted sloppily by a child with an over-soaked brush.

  Twice so far he’d lost the trail—the spillages were inconsistent, as though they’d only occurred after the vehicle had risen sharply over an obstacle—so he’d had the idea to use Stopper’s instinctive dislike of the fugitives’ “new” smell to get him back on track. It could be the pyro. It could be the Fleece. But whenever they let him out, he instantly sat on his haunches and started barking in a specific direction. He hadn’t been wrong so far. The fugitives’ course had remained fairly steady, so only small adjustments were necessary.

  Mbowe’s smuggled chip finally completed its upload onto Jan’s omnipod around three hours after they’d left the compound. Which meant it contained mountains of data, more than Vaughn had ever seen on a single chip. He’d told her he knew nothing of its contents, other than it pertained to Iolchian research, especially the Fleece.

  He took over piloting the vicar while she explored the data on her omnipod. Unable to use his pyro-detection filter for more than a few seconds at a time while driving, he slowed the vehicle to a crawl so that he wouldn’t miss anything. Jan read for the best part of an hour in silence, giving only the occasional sigh, the odd word of advice about the changeable terrain, or shifting weight in her seat.

  She finally slid the visor off her head and massaged the bridge of her nose. “Man, it’d take me a year to go through all that.”

  “Anything worthwhile?”

  “Reams. My God, you’ve no idea what you’ve got here, Vaughn.”

  “A dying man’s last wish.”

  “Then he dreamed big. It looks like every experiment Iolchis Core ever undertook is on here. Your man, whoever he is, is my new hero.”

  “Name’s Mbowe. Dr. Otter Mbowe.”

  “I’ll remember it. I went straight to the data on the Fleece. It seems none of us knew what we were dealing with, except maybe the Iolchians.”

  “Why? What is it?”

  “Alien. I mean completely alien, as in they can’t synthesize it. It’s biotech, something along the lines of nanotech, but with amazingly creative organic properties. A kind of hive mind factory working at the atomic level, but with a problem-solving intelligence more complex than multiverse math. If I had to describe it crudely, I’d say it’s like programmable matter, only biological. There’s probably nothing it can’t do in terms of healing cells, regrowing cells, growing new cells. It figures out what’s missing, and replaces it, with an infinitesimal degree of accuracy. Any species, on any planet, you name it.”

  “What about combating diseases?” The ramifications suddenly dwarfed him, and he couldn’t think outside his own tired ebullience.

  She shrugged. “I haven’t read enough yet. But here’s the thing—” She plucked his stiff fingers off the wheel, one by one, while he was staring out into the night, and resumed control of the vicar herself. “Vaughn, are you listening?”

  “Huh—yes, go on.”

  “I said here’s the thing: the Iolchians only found a few cells of this stuff out in their desert, but they know what brought them.”

  “What?”

  “Apparently it’s a large alien lifeform that runs across the exact same latitude of that planet’s surface whenever a particular comet wheels across the sky. The ancients of Iolchis built statues to mark its path.”

  “Bizarre. So what is it? Where does it come from?”

  “Don’t know...yet. It might be on this chip somewhere. From the sounds of it, the Iolchians are so good at keeping secrets they haven’t told anyone who might actually be able to help them figure that out. Astrophysicists. Astronomers. Nobody. They’ve sealed themselves off in their little fortress to protect their discovery; that’s all they’ve cared about.”

  As she sped up once more, Vaughn remembered to put his lens filter back on, to watch for pyro. “So this lifeform, it has to be made up of that magic stuff, bioatomicwhatsit, some kind of synergy of organic and micro-tech engineering, right?”

  “Some scientists say that’s the only logical way to progress as a species, long-term, to integrate ourselves with our technology. We become the ghost in the machine. Like the song.” She snorted a laugh, must have seen him shaking his head. “All right, but I’m just saying it’s one possible way to evolve. And what you were saying about fighting diseases, if you could engineer your immune system to that level of adaptability, that level of intelligence, you’d never be sick again. I think these things, whatever they are, wherever they are, have achieved some sort of self-regenerating biological perfection. And we’ve just got hold of a sample.”

  “The Golden Fleece.”

  “It’s a game-changer, Vaughn. The Iolchians want it back because it gives them galactic sway; once they demonstrate it to ISPA, they’ll be able to demand anything. Only they waited a bit too long—Lori Malesseur’s raiding party got in there first. I think she wanted it to impress her old man. Maybe she heard him mention it, figured if she snatched it for him he’d see what a big, brave, darling girl she’d become, and that would be her ticket to finally running his business empire alongside him.”

  “Or he delegated the raid to her, and they’ve been working side by side all along.”

  “Could be. Your boss wants it because it could win us the war, like he said. Simple. Only as you pointed out, as soon as word reaches the Finaglers that we’ve got this tech, they’ll stop at nothing to get it for themselves. So not much of an advantage for us after all.

  “Then there’s Simon Malesseur himself,” she added, “who I’m sorry to say is going to be our game-changer—yours and mine.”

  “Because of the fugitives, you mean?”

  “Exactly. You traced t
hem back to him in no time, him and Lewartow. You know all about Lori and her raid, about how the fugitives double-crossed her. And about his band of mercenaries, how they caused the Kingmaker’s crash, killing all those civilians on board. But you also know about the Fleece, which he’s as eager to get his hands on as anyone else we’ve mentioned.”

  “It would finally make him god.”

  “He’s clearly got your boss in his clutches. I think he’s convinced DeSanto to let him sell the Fleece to ISPA. He wants to broker the deal, a deal that will make him, DeSanto and Kalstrom rich, and might even win Malesseur some high political office. I think that’s what he’s always wanted, don’t you? Never mind that he’s one of the biggest criminals who ever lived. He’s a businessman, and businessmen are a protected species. Forget the Hesp, the animals here; conference rooms ought to have their own sat nets.”

  “And the fact that we know all this means he can’t let us live. Is that it?”

  “That’s the view from where I sit,” she replied.

  “So what do you propose we do? How do we get out of this?”

  She was silent.

  “Jan, what would you do with the Fleece?”

  She rolled her shoulders, limbering up after more than an hour of stiffness glued to her omnipod. “I wouldn’t know who to trust with something like that. I don’t know that anyone can be trusted.”

  “So what—destroy it?” His instinct, and a sickening one. A crime against humanity. The greatest healing device outside mythology and he wanted to erase it, to send it back to legend? How many future generations would he be killing?

  “To stop our enemies getting hold of it.” Jan tightened her grip on the wheel. “But maybe we’ll think of another way.”

  “I hope so.”

  “So do I.”

  The trail resumed at the foot of a pale, tabletop mountain shaped like a badly-scarred bar of gold bullion. It was honeycombed with caves, and a frightening crevasse split it diagonally on its left flank. This fissure stretched for miles, skirting the lower slopes, an ever-present outside Vaughn’s window. A pitch, inky smear flowing like a tributary of the Styx...to a dark destination.

  It seemed far too early in the morning for a sunrise, and it took Vaughn completely by surprise. The instant they cleared the final high shoulder of the mountain range Jan had dubbed The Cache—the striking gold and copper veins suggested rich deposits, but the planet was protected, off-limits to prospectors—the instant the sunlight hit the vicar’s windshield, Vaughn wrenched his omnipod off. The searing brightness blinded him. It didn’t burn, it simply flooded his vision with warm, twinkling milk. But he’d never make that mistake again—looking at an angry star through an ultra-high-contrast lens. He couldn’t see a thing until it began to wear off, over ten minutes later.

  It left him feeling crabby. How many hours without sleep now? Thirty six? Facts and clues nipped at his mental skin—skin that wanted nothing but to draw closed and rest like an eyelid over the day’s events, to uncrease him. The nips were frequent and random. They were twinkles in the milk, spitting hot. Each one vying for control of his insomnia. Each one worth staying awake for.

  “There he goes again.” Jan threw something at the hatch door at the cabin’s rear.

  “Who? Stopper?”

  “Uh-huh. Don’t tell me you can’t hear that yowling. He’s been at it for the last twenty minutes, on and off.”

  Vaughn couldn’t remember if he’d heard it or not. Or if he’d imagined hearing it, or when. He said nothing.

  “With me over there?”

  “Huh?” he replied.

  “Right, that’s it. You’re no use to us like this.” She veered left, avoiding a cluster of gray, webbed trees, the upper branches of which resembled finely and loosely strung squash racquets, and took the vicar onto the straightarrow course of a brackish river. This river bisected a valley of thick woodland. The only other signs of life were either stuck in the racquet strings, struggling futilely, or scampering away from the hover ship between trees, across the cracked-clay forest floor.

  “Where are we going?”

  “There’s a lookout point on the other side of this valley, at the top of a winding rise. We’ll be able to see for miles. I’ll let Stopper out for a run-around, let him do his business. And you can get some much-needed shut-eye.”

  “Won’t we be on display...at the top of a hill like that?”

  “We’ll be discreet. There’s only so far they can—”

  A sudden, over-revved whine erupted from the port hover thrusters. Jan’s side of the vicar geed up as though it had been punched high into the air by a giant fist from under the river bank. The vehicle flipped upside down. With it went the thrusters’ whine, now shrill and deafening above them. Another heavy punch hit the vicar’s underside. It clanged, sent a shockwave down Vaughn’s spine. He lunged forward, tried to snatch his omnipod as it was flung from its hook on the dash, but he missed. It smashed against the windshield, broke into several pieces.

  Good thing he and Jan were buckled in.

  Their flow inverted, the thrusters sucked in pint after pint of water displaced from the river. It drowned the ear-piercing squeal, replaced it with a hissing rumble. Jan quickly shut the engines off before any serious damage was done. She thought like Vaughn—practically. Right now the how and the why of the accident was less important than saving their transport. Their lives, out here.

  “You okay?” he asked.

  She hung there for a few moments, gazing out at the upside-down alien world.

  “I said are you okay?” he reiterated.

  “Don’t know. We need to get out. Find out what flipped us.”

  “It didn’t sound mechanical. It sounded external.”

  “I know.”

  “You don’t think it’s...you know. We’ve headed north all night. We’re next to water.”

  She lashed him with her glance, then let out a breath. “Vaughn, don’t do that.” She held a palm against her breast. “I’m supposed to be the nutty zoologist here. I’ll be the one to scare the snot out of us...if the time comes. No, it’s something else.”

  “How can you be sure?”

  “If it was that, we wouldn’t be having any down time, I can tell you. They attack so relentlessly they’d squeeze us out of this thing in seconds.”

  “If you say so.” Vaughn braced himself before peeling out of his harness. He dropped onto the two-inch-thick glass dome of the cabin roof, slithered on the spilled orange beverage from Jan’s canteen. He helped her out of her harness, righting her gently. “Masks.”

  She handed him one from the rack, and took one for herself. “You’ve got your weapon?”

  Vaughn patted his sidearm, then tightened his utility baldric. “You’ve got your dog whistle?”

  Jan affirmed. They affixed their masks. Half-expecting the cabin to flood with water when they opened the pressurized hatch into the hold, Vaughn was surprised to find the vicar’s interior bone dry, and the dog sitting up obediently, tail wagging, amid a mess of upended supplies. He was even more surprised to find taut, shimmering webbing outside both of the hold’s porthole windows.

  “A fallen tree?” Jan pulled a face.

  No, he didn’t believe that either. “Stay behind me.” He drew his sidearm, then unlocked and slid open the port door. “You’d best stay in here till I say it’s safe to follow.”

  “Deal.”

  Vaughn ducked under the tangle of wiry strings—the primary branches had splayed astride the vicar, stretching the webs taut. It was definitely a fallen tree.

  But no accident.

  The cut on the trunk was unnatural, surgical. There were two coils of cable. One was attached to the upper half of the trunk; it had pulled the tree down. The other cable hung from a smaller, silt-covered tree several meters behind the vicar. A long, deep gouge in the silty riverbank told of the ingenuity of this snare.

  Someone had bent the trunk of the smaller tree to its tensile limit and bu
ried its top half in the silt, attached to a cable. Then, on the cable’s release, the tree had flung up, overturning the vicar. The second, larger tree had then been pulled down on top of the stricken vicar, to ensure it couldn’t right itself. And there the vehicle lay wedged, caught in the trap.

  Vaughn turned slowly around, dropped his weapon in the mud and raised his hands aloft.

  There were two guns pointed at him from the riverbank.

  They belonged to a man and a woman.

 
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