Alien safari, p.2
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       Alien Safari, p.2

           Robert Appleton
 
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  Chapter Two

  On his hands and knees, Vaughn scrubbed and scrubbed at the blood spatter staining the otherwise impeccable decor of his ship’s lounge. Fresh blood, old decor. Omicron grade detectives usually delegated things like clean-up to the sub-stations’ auxiliary staff, but to Vaughn it was an important part of any assignment.

  A time to reflect.

  A time to learn.

  The perp had put up one helluva struggle during her transfer to the holding station. She’d somehow slipped her magno-cuffs, injured three guards, snatched a sidearm and made a clever play for one of Vaughn’s EVA suits in the lounge. She’d probably planned to blast a window and take her chances outside, maybe hijack a shuttle, make for the warp gate and roll the dice on a code-less jump. Ballsy, desperate. Could have ended up anywhere within a 100z (one hundred light-years) radius, the animal.

  But no one got away from Ferrix Vaughn. Not until he said the hunt was over.

  The one-on-one fight had been quick, prop-free, and highly skilled. A perp with real panache. Vaughn massaged his bruised neck where the butch Chinese woman had applied her pinch chokehold on him, damn near clocking him out. If he hadn’t shattered her nose and her shoulder he might not be here now, scrubbing, obsessing, reliving every moment of the quadrant-wide hunt.

  What had he learned from this assignment?

  That he still hated traitors more than he hated himself. A good thing to know. His one consolation in life. But also...that he could do this for the rest of his career and never truly make up for what he’d done to Mom, to Pop, to Zach, Edie—and to his tiny, innocent nieces, who’d be, what, teenagers now? Would they still be visiting their Mom in prison? What did they think of their Uncle Ferrix, the famous lawman who’d put her there—who’d put them all there—and got a shiny promotion out of it?

  Shiny. The carbon fiber coffee table was certainly that—polished to a prismatic mirror finish. In it were the fractured features of the Vaughn family, winking back at him, a face splintered back into its antecedent shards, each a sharp reminder of the treachery he could never escape. Mom’s aqua-gray eyes, wistful and curious, and her tar-black hair. The broken nose Cousin Edie had given him when they’d clashed heads during that high-g tandem cycling crash. Pop’s permanently furrowed brow and (some had said) handsome profile. His elder brother Zach’s strong, wiry build made for endurance.

  Endurance.

  He scrubbed and scrubbed. Conjured several of his hardest, most thrilling arrests over the years as a distraction. The pursuits. Planet to planet, blow by vicious blow, he’d been close to death so many times but somehow he’d always pushed through. In fact, the closer he’d been, the harder he’d pushed. A finite way to live. And at the end of the day, what did he really get out of it? Spattered blood in his living quarters.

  Yet—it was also what sprung him out of bed in the morning, what sharpened his dreams at night.

  The hunt.

  The more he scrubbed, the more lactic acid and adrenaline shot through his veins, fizzing into that insatiable hunter’s cocktail man was supposed to have purged centuries ago, during the post-terrestrial enlightenment, but which had simply been diluted, suppressed, denied. It wasn’t something Vaughn could put on his arrest report, yet without it he wouldn’t be half the Omicron agent he was.

  In the past Core year alone he’d made over three hundred arrests. Ninety-two percent of those had stuck, resulting in the highest number of life sentences or executions attributed to any single Omicron in the bureau. He was proud of that, especially in today’s slack-jack political climate. It meant he was thorough, efficient, precise. Those bleeding hearts in the Core Congress could bleat all they wanted about outer colony corruption and oppression, they could moan all they liked about a lack of arrest supervision, but when cases were as watertight as Vaughn made certain his were, there could be no viable objection.

  And lest they forget, he had proved his trustworthiness with an unequivocal sacrifice...

  After he finished scrubbing, he disinfected every inch of the lounge and the brig and the airlock. Fresh blood, old decor. Despite ISPA offering him an upgraded ship every year, Vaughn couldn’t bring himself to give up the Pitch Hopper. His home away from... Hell, it was his home. More than that, he insisted it be kept exactly the way it had been the first time he’d captained it, at least inside. The same seething colours and ugly Magmalava patterns on the walls. The same semitransparent fixtures in the lounge. The same exotic perfumes the aircon circulated randomly like tracks on a jukebox of aromas.

  His mentor, Saul DeSanto, had a fetish for all things alien. The Pitch Hopper had been his ship for over a decade; he’d risen through the ISPA ranks at its helm. But the day the Sheikers had destroyed the Vike Academy, all those youngsters, he’d lent the ship to Vaughn, for him to track down a cell of suspected traitors in their quadrant.

  And not just any old traitors. Christ, no. Vaughn’s entire freaking family. Poisoned by border politics. All that seditious shit he’d heard at the breakfast table growing up had suddenly exploded into horrifying reality while he’d been away as a cadet. They’d colluded with the Sheikers. No question. No fucking question.

  His first official manhunt. One he’d executed with such ruthless efficiency, DeSanto had graduated him on the spot, signed his Omicron grade law enforcement status and transferred the Pitch Hopper over to him without a word. A new career for young Vaughn. And a lonely one. His superiors might have lauded his integrity but his peers in the bureau just plain couldn’t stand any man who’d turn his whole family in. A vicious circle. No, a sucking black hole in the center of a vicious circle.

  It had also presented his mentor with a career opportunity. DeSanto had left the Omicron bureau shortly after to become an Omega grade diplomat, no less, a hugely powerful interstellar mediator during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the galaxy.

  War.

  A time for hunters.

  It was harder to clean blood off the woollen rug, something he’d never done before. Perps didn’t tend to get into the lounge. He didn’t know what to do. There were only a few drops, but the more he scrubbed, the more the stain spread. He decided to leave it until he reached a civilian colony. He’d give it to one of the laundrettes there, see if they had a solution.

  Meantime, he took a shower. Cut it short when the bureau buzzed him with an urgent fresh assignment. The holophone flashed lilac—a priority alert—on the other side of the steamed-up sliding door. It belted out the propaganda song Starward Bound in place of its screechy ring.

  Damn, this was quick work on Omicron’s part. Too quick. Word of his latest arrest—Pau, the Chinese woman—would have only just reached HQ through the warp gates’ relay, and he hadn’t even started his official report yet. This was irregular. Not how he liked to do things. Leaving one assignment unfinished to start another half-cocked went against everything Saul DeSanto had taught him.

  He fed the nano-ink tattoo on the back of his hand into the scanner, opening the secure channel. Strangely, the message wasn’t coming from HQ, it originated from a local ISPA sub-station.

  “That Vaughn?” a man asked. No video feed. The voice sounded familiar.

  “Who else would it be?”

  “Yeah, right. Sorry, bud, we’re kinda out of it up here. Been more than a while, I guess.”

  “Kraczinski?”

  “’Fraid so.” A rhythmic crunching sound at the other end could only be Pavel ‘Crash’ Kraczinski munching on potato chips. So nothing had changed there. He still refused to take his job seriously, hadn’t grown out of that laid-back, slack-jack approach to everything and everyone that had driven DeSanto and his other instructors nuts. Vaughn smiled as he recollected DeSanto chewing Kraczinski out for his less than efficient interrogation of two murder witnesses—a pair of hookers—and Crash’s response, an instant classic in the bureau, “But I got us a two-for-one special for tonight, boss. What’s not efficient about that?”

  Cras
h and Vaughn hadn’t seen each other since Vaughn’s early graduation, but they’d spoken a few times, long distance. Crash had somehow made Omicron grade maybe a year later, but his duties had been confined to a distant sector, where he was practically the interstellar sheriff, a law unto himself. Something of a joke to the rest of the bureau. But Vaughn had always had a soft spot for him—Crash was a solid lawman, a decent enough guy, and decent guys too often got the shit end of the stick out here. And when all was said and done, Pavel Kraczinski, God bless him, yielded pretty fair results in his sector. Slow, but fair.

  “How’s things?”

  “Better than ever,” Crash replied between crunches. “I got married again. Don’t know if you heard.”

  “No, I didn’t. Is it congrats this time?”

  “Sure is. She actually misses me when I’m gone.”

  “That’s good. That’s real good. I’m glad things are working out.”

  “We’re a bit shorthanded, though—the office, I mean—what with this legal shitstorm on Iolchis. You’ve heard about that, I presume?”

  “Just the headlines.” Vaughn dried himself off while he talked, anticipating his old friend’s request for assistance. “Malesseur’s daughter, isn’t it? Being held by the Iolchians for espionage?”

  “And Old Man Malesseur has brought ISPA diplomats in to try and extradite her. He has more clout than I realised. More clout than any other syndicate boss I’ve ever heard of. Anyway, that incident’s tied up my best people in the sector. I’m stretched pretty thin elsewhere. And I’ve just received a priority call to deal with a breach on Hesperidia.”

  “What’s that?”

  “One of those planetary preserves protected by a net of autonomous satellites. Full of alien wildlife.”

  “Satellite security? You mean to deter poachers and such?”

  “Exactly.” Crash opened a can of something fizzy. “We have a small number of human outposts monitoring the wildlife, for research, conservation, things like that. Far as I know there are only a few scientists left on the Hesp—that’s what we call it.” Typical Crash, always abbreviating everything. “But five people have been murdered on the surface. Five people who shouldn’t be there. And a ship exploded during entry. I got the call to go personally. It came straight from HQ. But like I said, I’m snowed under. Soon as I saw you were logged in to a holding station nearby, I didn’t hesitate. There’s no one better in a crime scene, bud. Do you think you could help me out?”

  Vaughn pondered the phrase alien wildlife. Could mean anything: sea monsters, flying critters, a nightmare jungle: all outside his expertise. He’d only ever been on safari once, as a tourist on Ireton 4, and he’d been bitten by a bug the size of a squash racquet. The minute amount of venom had damn near sent him into toxic shock. “There’s no one else nearby?”

  “No one I’d trust. Come on, bud. I need the best on this. The ranger’s statement has my people stumped, and I know how much you like a good puzzle.”

  He’d remembered Vaughn well. The more difficult it was to figure the story behind a crime, the more it brought out his talents, the hungrier he became. And this sounded like a solid hunt. “Anyone been down to the planet yet?”

  “Nope. We only received the statement a couple of hours ago. With the Hesp being a government preserve and all, I wasn’t sure of the protocol, so I fed it through to HQ right away. They got back to me a few minutes ago, requested that I go personally.”

  “So it’s a sensitive one.”

  “That’s what I figured, too. They want a seasoned Omicron. The best.”

  Vaughn tossed his towel into the shower, raked his fingers through his wet hair. “What gear will I need? Full EVA suit? Weaponry?”

  “The ranger will talk you through all that. They’re very thorough, everything by the book. If you need anything from me, just holler. I’ll be transferring a few more auxiliaries from the local EMS, the rock-hoppers, so I can have a back-up shuttle out to the Hesp with just a few hours notice if you need it. That sound good?”

  “It’ll do.”

  “Then it’s all yours, bud. Thanks for jumping in like this. I owe you one.”

  “Any time.”

  “Go get ’em.” Crash ended the call.

  Vaughn stood there, naked, his mind caught between a hundred different things he had to do before he reached the Hesp. Getting dressed might help. The custom-fitted, dual-layered undersuit that maintained body temperature in most life-supporting environments was probably enough for what this planet would throw at him. As soon as he’d decided on that, everything else fell into place, in perfect order, like clockwork.

  He commenced the jump through the warp gate to the Herculean-L system a little over half an hour after Crash’s call. Quite impressive, if he did say so himself. Either side of the jump, he tried to nibble on a few pre-cooked chicken nuggets dipped in barbecue sauce—a favorite snack—but his appetite puckered before he’d eaten a single nugget. Odd, since he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

  And that could only mean one thing.

  He was hungry again. Hungry for the hunt.

 
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