Alien safari, p.15
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       Alien Safari, p.15

           Robert Appleton
 
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  ***

  “No!”

  “Vaughn, what’s wrong?”

  “I...” It was cold in the open forest, but he was still pouring with sweat. “Where am—It’s nothing.”

  “You’ve had a nightmare.” Jan, barely visible beside him, wrapped in a warm blanket, knees tucked to her chest, gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. Stopper was curled up in front of her. He cast Vaughn a lazy gaze with one eye. “You were jerking.”

  He took a long, deep breath that didn’t relax him. The magno-cuffs chafed when he shifted position. His wrists were raw behind his back; he must have been struggling in his sleep.

  “And you were mumbling,” she went on. “Something about home.”

  “Oh.”

  “I don’t mean to pry, but we never did finish swapping war stories. You know, sometimes it helps to share. I speak from experience.”

  Vaughn was silent.

  “So I’ve been thinking, with what you know now about DeSanto, are you not having second thoughts about...what you felt you had to do, you know, with your family? It was him that put the case together against them, wasn’t it? I remember it from the podnet news.”

  “Yeah. So?”

  “So does what he’s doing now, how corrupt he’s become, not cast doubt over everything he’s been involved with? Fruit of the poisoned tree and all that? I’m no legal expert, but I’m guessing that, if this ever came to light, every case he’s ever given evidence in would have to be thrown out. Am I right?”

  Vaughn didn’t speak. It was something he hadn’t considered, and it galled him, the ramifications of his mentor’s betrayal, what it would mean for the bureau. Jan was right. His legacy would be wiped out, maybe hundreds, thousands of his convictions overturned. All those sons of bitches let loose in the colonies. Was it worth it? Had DeSanto been corrupt all along, or was this the first time, an act of desperation in a time of war?

  “Tell me to mind my own business if you want. It’s just that—”

  “No. You’ve made a good point. Only there’s not much to tell that you can’t already imagine. He put the case together, then suggested I make the arrest.”

  “Seems a bit...harsh. For your first official arrest.”

  “It made a twisted kind of sense at the time. I wanted a career in Omicron more than anything, but having relatives convicted of terrorism would have ended my cadetship there and then. DeSanto knew it, and I knew it. But he also knew I detested their politics—why they did what they did—and that washing me out was not only unfair, it was a waste of a valuable Omicron agent. So he suggested I bring my family in personally, that it be filmed and broadcast across the podnet to prove my loyalty to ISPA was beyond question.”

  “Did it?”

  “I guess.”

  “But you seem kind of a—excuse me for saying—kind of a loner.”

  “That’s the part we didn’t figure, DeSanto and me. On the one hand, the people in the bureau admire my commitment to ISPA, the sacrifice I made. On the other, they flat-out don’t trust anyone who’d sell their family down the river like that. I’m the biggest contradiction in the Service: poster boy for the bureau’s veracity, and persona non grata.”

  “I guess there’s such a thing as being too honest, Vaughn, at least to those who don’t know the meaning of the word.”

  “Nah, I don’t really blame them. The public saw the sensational headline—brave cop arrests own treacherous family—nothing more. But there was another side to it, a side I’m still trying to come to terms with, I guess. It is inexcusable. The guys in the bureau saw right through me, still do.”

  “Saw what?”

  “That there are some things you don’t do to further your career. When you get right down to it, I did use my family, didn’t I?”

  “You didn’t want to be washed out because of what they’d done. That wouldn’t have been fair.”

  “No, but did I have to become an Omicron agent? Would the galaxy have ended if I’d stepped aside and chosen a different career, one away from the public eye?”

  She cocked her head to one side. “I guess there’s only you can answer that.”

  “Hence the nightmares, Jan. And I’ve never admitted any of that to anyone.”

  “Not even DeSanto?”

  “Especially not DeSanto. He’s a lot of things, but an agony aunt ain’t one of them.”

  “So I should be flattered?”

  “You should be flattened, if you repeat it to anyone.”

  She pretended to zip her lips closed.

  “Who’s that coming?” He nodded toward the gloom, where heavy boot steps approached on the cool, brick-dry clay-soil. “That you, Finnegan?”

  “You’re both awake. Good.” The big man crouched, lit a hip torch and set it down beside him. “We need to talk.”

  Stopper sat up and growled. He looked to Jan—for permission to rip their captor’s throat out?—then started scratching himself behind his ear when she shook her head.

  “Linds says I should trust you, that you’re someone to be trusted,” Finnegan addressed Vaughn. “But I trust no badge, and sure as shit no uniform. The man behind them...that’s something else. You say you’re here against the orders of your superior?”

  “That’s correct. He has no right to be here, so I’m not obliged to obey him.”

  Finnegan rubbed the barrel of his Shelby against his stubbly chin. “So what did you intend to do if you caught us? And what would you do now...if I undid your cuffs?”

  Vaughn thought for a moment, thought like a politician, weighing and calibrating and mentally testing his response. No good. Finnegan was blunt, but not dumb by any stretch. He required an honest answer; manipulating him might be the surest way to eat a pulse blast.

  Jan nudged him.

  “I was going to bring you in on my own, into Omicron custody,” said Vaughn.

  “How? You can’t get off-world in that upended taxi.”

  “By shuttle. I know where there’s a shuttle.”

  “Where?”

  “I was getting to that.” Vaughn crossed his legs, an uncomfortable posture but it was a change. “With things as they are, with what we know now about you and the Fleece, it’s probably best if we smuggle you off Hesperidia, you and Ms. Polotovsky.”

  Finnegan was silent. He looked to Jan.

  “Vaughn’s right,” she said. “He can make up whatever story he likes about what happened to you here. Death in the swamps, vaporized in an explosion, even suicide and then eaten by wildlife. We know you killed those men at the lake in self-defense, after they’d chased you all the way from Solzhik 3. Who’s to say what happened to you subsequently? DeSanto? He’s breaking the law by even being here. What’s he going to do, blow his career by disputing Vaughn’s testimony? Whose word are they going to take: a renegade politician’s, or their impeccable poster boy’s?”

  “And you wouldn’t turn us in, after we got off-world?”

  “No,” insisted Vaughn. “I don’t know you, either of you, but I know who you’re running from, so I’m inclined to believe your version of what happened on Iolchis. If what you say about healing those people from the fire on Solzhik is correct, if we can verify that, on the local podnet news, say, then you’re free to go.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I don’t want Malesseur, DeSanto or ISPA to get their hands on the Fleece. It isn’t a weapon. It shouldn’t be a means to get rich. And it shouldn’t belong to the select few who can afford it. Your way’s better. It’s fairer. Miracles should be administered where they’re needed, not when they’re made to order.” He sighed. “I only hope the two of you can fly under the radar.”

  “Then you were telling the truth,” said Finnegan. “You really don’t know me. Because I don’t fly under the radar, I live under the radar.”

  “That a fact?” Vaughn’s raised eyebrow suggested, Not my radar, not if you were my quarry.

  Finnegan aimed the gun in jest, almost cracked a smile as he pretended to
pull the trigger. “You do know you’ll be breaking the law if you let us go, Omicron?”

  “No shit.” Jan snorted a laugh.

  “I figure they owe me one,” Vaughn replied, suddenly deadly serious. “And anyway, there’s no one more full of shit than someone who never bends the rules.”

  “Bye, bye, Mary-Sue!” Jan gave his arm a gentle punch. “Hello, cowboy.”

  “You know the way to this shuttle?” Finnegan asked him.

  Vaughn quickly silenced Jan before she blabbed everything. “Yes, we do.”

  “Yes, we do,” she reiterated.

  “At first light, then,” said Vaughn, “help us right the vicar—our vehicle—and we’ll take you there.”

  Finnegan slid his cannon into his leg holster. “How far is it?”

  “A day, maybe two,” she replied.

  The big man stood tall, glowering down at them. Stopper matched his intensity, shielding Jan so completely she had to lean on Vaughn’s shoulder to see around the guard dog. “I’ll uncuff you when we’re in orbit. Not before.” Finnegan walked away.

  “Hey, no deal,” Jan shouted after him. “We’re doing you a favor, asswipe. We’re giving you a second freaking chance.”

  Finnegan was silent.

  “Well, how do you like that?” She jiggled Vaughn’s cuffs. They bit. “Maybe we were wrong about them,” she whispered. “What if we get them to a shuttle, we get them off-world, and they decide to jettison us out of the airlock? What then, huh?”

  He closed his eyes, satisfied with negotiations so far. “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “How long can you hold your breath?”

  She punched his arm again. This time, not so gently. “Vaughn, I’m serious.”

  “I know.”

  “So do you trust them?”

  “The woman, maybe.”

  “And him?”

  “About as much as he trusts me.” Vaughn flashed his magno-cuffs.

  “But we’re still going to help them, no?”

  “We’re going to help them escape DeSanto’s custody. I’ve given my word. And I do believe they were double-crossed by Lori Malesseur on Iolchis.”

  She grabbed his mask by one of its neck straps, spun him to face her. “You’re holding something back.”

  “Not me. The future. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

  “You haven’t decided what to do with the Fleece, have you? You’re not sure if they should have it.”

  He shook his head slowly. “Something so important, in the hands of someone like that...”

  “Even if they healed those people on Solzhik?”

  “One good deed doesn’t wipe out decades of lawlessness.”

  “But everyone can turn over a new leaf.”

  “Jan, you don’t know how dangerous he is. Why do you think Lori Malesseur hired him to steal the Fleece in the first place?”

  She shrugged.

  “We’ve got a long drive tomorrow,” said Vaughn. “Best get some sleep.”

  “You too.” Jan shuffled away from him and curled up next to Stopper, resting her head on the dog’s back as he snuggled up against her. “Sweet dreams this time,” she said to Vaughn. “Just remember who we’ve got watching over us.” She tickled Stopper behind the ear. “Works for me every time.”

  “Sure.”

  “And Vaughn.”

  “Hmm?”

  “We haven’t told them where the shuttle is yet. That’s our bargaining chip.”

  “I know.”

  “So we’ll get those cuffs off you sooner than he thinks. Or he’s grounded for good.”

  Vaughn couldn’t help but smile. Her eyes were closed, so she didn’t see it, but he would have given anything to kiss her right now. Alone, he might have overplayed his hand with Finnegan, antagonised the big guy with some misjudged remark; but with Jan as his ally he was thinking with absolute clarity, and he knew she would back up whatever course he took.

  “Night,” he said.

  “Yeah? Nothing gets by you.”

  He rolled his eyes. Let’s hope not, Miss Zookeeper. Let’s hope not.

 
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