Alien safari, p.3
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       Alien Safari, p.3
 

           Robert Appleton
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  Chapter Three

  Even from a hundred thousand miles out, he could tell the Hesp was going to give him trouble. It shone like a crown jewel next to the dozen other unremarkable worlds in its system. Terraqueous bands of blue-green and gunmetal brown stretched diagonally around its southern hemisphere, as though a giant claw had torn across it. Clouds covered the north—pinkish orange clouds, flashing violently. He hoped like hell the murder scene wasn’t under that storm.

  The satellite net sent him its automated warning in plenty of time:

  You are entering restricted space. Unauthorized approach to the planet L-12 is absolutely prohibited. All authorized visitors, transmit your security access code now and wait for a reply from the planet’s personnel before proceeding. Any unauthorized vessel found inside the satellites’ perimeter will be fired upon. You have been warned.

  He could see the little bastards from out here, through his ship’s telescope. Hundreds of them, glowing amber. Shaped like sharp and nasty bass clefs. He knew from experience the sats weren’t bullshitting either. A colossal cargo freighter had been blasted to bits last year when its pilot had died at the controls and the ship had drifted inside a quarantine ring around Gilpraxia. Partly the pilot’s fault. He should have activated the dead man’s switch while he was flying manually. Partly the shipping company’s fault. They shouldn’t have let him fly without a co-pilot. But for Vaughn’s money, these sat rings were the biggest goddamn menace in the galaxy. One of these days some poor schmuck with a malfunctioning comm system would wander into one and get annihilated, only he’d turn out to be some big shot far-flung dignitary, and there’d be another interstellar war quicker than you could say, Whose fault?

  He slowed the Pitch Hopper. Broadcasted his official ISPA greeting to the planet. He didn’t often require permission to land anywhere, and it irritated him. Especially since he was doing this as a favor. The waiting made it worse. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Over half an hour. He re-sent the introduction on every frequency and in every language in his computer’s database. Then he ran a few miles, inverted, on the grav treadmill in his bedroom. Dropped for a few dozen press-ups. Drank a soda. By the time he received a reply from the planet, he was ready to flip this shit off and head back to HQ.

  Then he saw her.

  The sorriest-looking woman he’d ever seen in a uniform. Corbija, Juanita E, according to her profile in the bottom corner of the monitor. But the profile picture and her actual self were tough to reconcile, even side by side. She’d suffered extensive burn damage since, to more than half of her face and neck. And peeking from beneath the right side of her collar, a scar he’d seen many times on war vets. Cybernetic repair.

  She yawned, then wiped the screen with a handkerchief. She moved closer. The image on the screen was crystal clear, which told him she was in the southern hemisphere, away from the storm. It also presented her in the least flattering light imaginable. Her shock of jet-black hair—some of it was tied in a pony tail, the rest was all over the place—suggested it was windy outside. At closer range, her damaged skin didn’t appear burned. It seemed, for want of a better phrase, imprinted upon. A thousand puncture scars in a perfect pattern, as if something strong and scaly had gripped her tight and held her for a long time.

  “Mr. Vaughn, is it? What happened to Mr. Kraczinski?” She sounded unimpressed. Intriguing voice, though. It wrapped around the syllables with a slightly superior, sultry Spanish twist.

  “He’s unable to come in person. I’m here instead.”

  “It’s just you?” She did that annoying thing people sometimes did when they weren’t used to communicating via direct visual link. She moved her head to try to see behind Vaughn.

  “It’s just me, ma’am. I can assure you.”

  “And you’ve handled murder investigations before? You don’t look like an Omicron agent.”

  Vaughn was silent.

  “Okay, I guess you’ll do. Just remember to do exactly what I say down here, or I’ll be flagging your buddies to come get you.”

  Vaughn was silent.

  “Transmitting code now.” She scanned her wrist tattoo into the front of her comm device. The hieroglyphic code filled half his screen, then unscrambled itself into numbers. He hit Auto Send. Immediately the several nearest satellites flashed green, giving him a safe window to fly through. “Enter the atmosphere and follow my beacon,” she said. “Use the last eight digits from the code I just sent you. That’ll guide your ship straight to me. Then land on the pad in the southeast part of the compound. Be careful—strong winds to the south.”

  “Understood. Thanks.”

  “Say, you don’t happen to have any McCormick’s, do you?” She leaned right up to the screen, then blinked her eyes with an amusing, deadpan coquettishness.

  He smiled. “You know what? I think I might have a bottle. The Vodka sort.”

  “Oh. In that case, you’ll definitely do.”

  “I’d better, Miss...Corbija, is it?”

  “Jan. Unless it’s tax month, I’m Jan.”

  “See you shortly, Jan.”

  “Not if I see you first.” She closed the link before he could.

  Wow, okay. This assignment promised to be...different, at least. She wasn’t exactly a damsel in distress down there. On the contrary, he had to remind himself he was the one in charge. Sort of.

  The climate and topography changed dramatically as he flew up the coast of the southernmost strip of land belonging to the ‘claw marks’ continent he’d seen from orbit. Ice floes and towering blue-white cliffs gave way to vast, desolate areas of tundra, where legions of huge anteater-like creatures marched in columns in every direction, as though they were tracing the lanes of an invisible Arctic metropolis. He passed over sharp, gunmetal-brown hills that belched up yellow fumes from their rivers and geyser lakes.

  Eventually he reached a reddish desert far inland, where trees had contorted into ridiculous shapes as they’d intertwined in dense clusters on the shores of watering holes. An impossible number of crimson-coloured jumpers—lizards of some description, well camouflaged in the sand—sprang away from the Pitch Hopper’s approach with astonishing height in their leaps, between thirty and fifty feet. They were so densely packed and numerous, their escape into two diverging halves resembled the parting of the Red Sea for at least twenty miles.

  The continent stretched farther than he could see in every direction. Those threatening storm clouds he’d seen from orbit formed an inky barrier far to the north, across much of the hemisphere. Lightning flashes appeared a little too close for comfort.

  He set the ship down on an empty landing area inside a rectangular compound of about ten acres, ringed with high, electrified fencing. None of the buildings were taller than forty feet. He counted seven, all adjoined, including the filthy-looking HQ and a garage that contained two of the weirdest-looking hover vehicles he’d ever seen. The pad was half-covered with sand and windswept foliage. His landing thrusters soon cleared it.

  A large, dilapidated sign standing askew on the roof of the building next to the garage read:

  A IEN SAF RI

  Th Adven re You’ll N ver orget

  A smallish woman wearing a natty beige sweater, corduroy pants, and an air filtration mask limped onto the landing area. She carried a spare mask. At her signal, he opened the Hopper’s outer airlock door and went to meet her, wondering if she really was alone in this outpost, and what that must be like, long-term, psychologically. He might be the first visitor she’d had in ages—well, the first official visitor.

  It was a first for him, too. He’d never met an ISPA-trained animal doctor before, nor had he touched down on a planetary preserve.

  “Dr. Corbija, how do you do?”

  She removed her mask, didn’t bother tossing her hair. “I only answer to Jan.”

  “Jan. Is it just you out here?”

  She limped forward, handed him the spare mask. “Just me. We had a VIP safari tour running at one point,
to help fund our research. Over a dozen permanent personnel in this outpost alone. Then ISPA was forced to send us a full garrison, to police the poachers. Fifteen outposts across the planet, with armed rangers in constant rotation. The poaching got so bad we had to cancel the safari tour. And when ISPA installed the sat net, they pulled the whole garrison as well. Now it’s just me and five other XZ rangers. We don’t see each other much. Not that I’m complaining. I signed on for the wildlife, not the people.”

  “XZ? What’s that?”

  “Xenozoologist. Omega grade. I’m also a Theta grade xenobotanist, and qualified to AESOP Level 3 in all-terrain survival.”

  “If you can spell all of that, you’re already smarter than me.”

  “I can. And I am.”

  “Well, I’m impressed.” He wasn’t lying.

  She was silent.

  “I’ll be even more impressed if you can take me to the crime scene before sun-down.”

  “That depends.”

  “On what?”

  “On whether or not you’re a man of your word.”

  “And which word is that?”

  “The magic one—McCormick’s.”

  Vaughn laughed, and crooked a finger for her to follow him into the lounge. “I’m curious about what it is you do here, Jan.” He offered her a seat on the guest armchair. She declined, preferring to stand. “It sounds pretty dangerous.”

  “Extremely. That’s why I threw all those qualifications at you just now. It’s the only chance I get to show them off, because believe me, the Hesp hawks them back in my face every chance she gets. No one’s qualified in anything here. Some people just last longer than others, that’s all.”

  He went to pour her a glass of Vodka McCormick’s but she gently took the bottle from him, poured him a glass instead, and swigged a mouthful straight from the bottle. She corked it and kept it. Amused, Vaughn swallowed his drink and immediately retrieved a second bottle—Arinto, a liqueur he didn’t really care for, a present from a widow he’d helped last year. He stuffed it under Jan’s arm.

  “So you can last a bit longer,” he said.

  Her turn to smile, half turned away from him in embarrassment. A shame, really. She wasn’t unattractive from her right side—far from it, as it illustrated her fiery Latino heritage well, very well. Jan had once been dark and striking, with elegant high cheekbones and an athletic figure. She still had the latter, but her limp and the stiff, awkward way she held her left side, as though she was worried the pins holding her together would fall out, were painful to watch. And the extensive, scale-like scarring on the left side of her face and neck was even worse in person. Absurdly ugly. From one side she was a Mediterranean honey. From the other, Harryhausen’s Medusa.

  Such a shame.

  But he couldn’t deny she was intriguing company. Brusque, rude even, but certainly fun. And a breath of fresh air, considering the way people usually treated him—like some kind of timed explosive. She didn’t give a shit who he was, what he was, what he’d done in the past. All she wanted was for someone to clean up this mess that had landed in her back yard, as efficiently as possible, so she could get back to studying her plants and animals in deep alien isolation. So she could continue pretending to like her self-imposed exile. So she could go on facing whatever it was she’d stayed here to face...

  Stop with the psycho-analysis already. Who are you to judge anyone?

  But how had she got those injuries? Had anyone else been involved?

  “Vaughn.”

  “Hmm.”

  “Been trying to figure out where I know that name from. I’m bad with faces, even worse with names, human ones, that is. But I’m sure I’ve heard of an Omicron agent called Vaughn.” She scrutinized his reaction—one he’d had plenty of practice at hiding over the years. “Any reason I should know you?”

  “We’ve never met.”

  “No, but—”

  “What other gear will I need in the field?” He motioned his glass at the filtration masks she’d set down on the armchair next to her two liquor bottles. “Those are pretty light duty. I’m guessing the air isn’t too dangerous.”

  “Oh it’s dangerous. High methane and carbon dioxide—the greenhouse effect here is substantial. Let me see...seven percent argon, including a peculiar new isotope one of my colleagues is studying at the pole, which reacts strangely to the Herculean sun’s radiation. They had to update the Galactic Periodic Table last year. And one or two of the trace gases are exotic. That’s about it for the scary stuff—scary gases, I should say. The air’s the least of your worries, to be honest. Our mask filters were designed specifically for the Hesp’s atmosphere; there’s enough O2 out there to feed our lungs indefinitely. You just wouldn’t last long without one, that’s all.”

  “You mentioned isotopes. What about long-term exposure? Should we not cover up?”

  “Stable isotopes, Vaughn. Argon’s harmless in that way. No, as long as you don’t wander off into an orchid veldt, you shouldn’t have any need to cover up here. Plus, the vicars are airtight—”

  “Vicars?”

  “That’s what we call our hover vehicles—they used to be the safari taxis, back when the tour was running, and we never bothered to remove the white logo stripe around the cockpit. It sort of resembles a vicar’s dog collar. Dumb, I guess. But they’re more than versatile enough for what we’ll need. The spare survival suits are on board for if the weather turns. Then we’ve got supplies to last us for weeks, trancs and pulse weapons in case we run into any nasty indigenous.” She clocked him looking at her scars, and turned away.

  Vaughn felt sorry for her. “How nasty?”

  “Depends on how far north we go.”

  “How far north have you been?”

  “Farther than we’ll be going.”

  “Jan, look at me.”

  She glanced at him askance, then looked away, pretending to itch her left temple—unconsciously shielding the damaged side of her face.

  “What happened in the north?”

  “You don’t need to know. You don’t want to know.”

  He stepped toward her, touched her shoulder. “Sure I do.”

  She threw his hand off. “Mind your own beeswax, asswipe.”

  Vaughn recoiled, let his jaw hang for a beat, then spluttered a laugh. He couldn’t help it. He’d never heard that phrase before, and it sounded so blunt and ridiculous and uncalled-for at such a tender moment, in such an unusual accent, it left him in stitches.

  Jan, too, was soon covering her mouth to hide an uproarious laugh that brought tears to her big brown eyes. Then she removed her hand from her mouth and let her dirty, bellowing laugh fill the entire ship. They laughed so hard it provoked an even louder bark from the compound outside.

  “A friend of yours?” asked Vaughn.

  “Yes. A furry little asswipe. Called Stopper.”

  “Hell’s that?”

  “Short for Back-Stop. We had a game of cricket one time, shortly after I arrived, and Stopper caught every bowl that got through, no matter how bad the bowler. Then me and one of the guys got into an argument about the rules of Leg-Before-Wicket. It got heated, almost came to blows. It ended when Stopper jumped between us and bit the guy’s scrotum.”

  Vaughn pulled a face. “I’d imagine it would.”

  She dried her eyes. “A handy dog to have on your side, little Stopper. His parents were both GenMods, engineered to breathe Hesperidian air. You remember ISPA’s Eden Project?”

  “Only the protests. It was shut down when someone leaked footage of that human girl they’d engineered to breathe alien air. Macy, was it?”

  “Millie. They were forced to pull the plug on any further research after that, but they’d already been at it for years. It was supposed to be a way to bypass terraforming, which as you know is incredibly expensive. Rather than change the planets to suit us, Eden was changing us to suit the planets. And they’d gotten really good at it. Everything from microscopic fungi to fully-grown huma
ns had been adapted to live on specific worlds. A lot of GenMod animals had already been sold to private investors, and there was no way to recall them all.”

  “So Stopper was—”

  “Stopper’s parents were designed to detect threats from alien creatures by smell, heightened sensitivity to changes in air pressure, body heat, bio-electricity. Canines like those are indispensible in the far-flung colonies. They give our pioneers plenty of warning whenever an alien organism’s nearby. Stopper’s my pal. He’ll only bark his head off when he perceives a threat, or when there’s a new creature he hasn’t come across before. Like you.”

  Vaughn grabbed his lightweight EVA jacket, his crime scene baldric, his Omicron-issue pistol in its holster, and the spare mask. “I’d like to meet him. I take it he’ll be coming with us?”

  “I never leave the compound without him.” In Jan’s hurry to lead the way, she dropped the bottle of Arinto. Vaughn lunged and caught it on his folded jacket, then presented it to her.

  She studied him for a few moments, cocked her head to one side. “So you’re that Vaughn.”

  “I said we’ve never met.”

  “You were on all the podnets. I remember. The Omicron agent who arrested his own family. For terrorism, was it?”

  Vaughn was silent.

  “Sorry. But you were prying into things I’d rather not talk about.” She put her mask on, bid him do the same. “Maybe we can swap war stories later.” Her voice was now gravelly, sounding less Spanish through the mask’s speaker.

  “Maybe.”

  He had no intention of reliving that day again...not with anyone.

  Hyper after his breakfast, Stopper, a very large, muscular boxer dog, bounded around the HQ’s unfiltered anteroom, wrestling a rubber AI playmate that could fight back a little, right itself when left alone and make a wide variety of animal noises. As soon as he saw Vaughn, Stopper raced at him and quickly toppled and pinned him to the floor, awaiting further instructions from his mistress. Amused, Jan simply shrugged and hummed to herself as the dog, with its tongue hanging out, slobbered all over the motionless Omicron agent.

  “So long as you know who’s in charge,” she said.

  “Tell him he can have my badge whenever he likes.”

  “Oh, he already knows that.”

  Jan blew into a pink whistle that made no sound Vaughn could hear, but which Stopper responded to immediately. He dashed to the door leading to the office’s airlock, reared up on his hind legs, and howled several times into a speaker over the keypad, each howl distinct from the others. The door opened. Jan sealed herself inside the airlock, flooded the chamber with oxygen, then took the bottles into the office. She returned with a bag of biscuits, an omnipod, and a flexi-screen that detailed the Hesp’s terrain and animal territories in incredible detail.

  “Interesting password,” Vaughn said.

  “I taught him that.”

  “Which reminds me—have you got a copy of the distress call?” he asked.

  She patted the omnipod. “And the sat net’s visual recording of both ships’ approach.”

  “I didn’t know there were two ships.”

  “It was in my report to ISPA.”

  “You said approach. What about their entry and landing?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Why not?”

  She shrugged, led the way across the compound. “I was hoping you might be able to figure that out.”

  “Tell me everything en route,” he said. “As much detail as you can remember.”

  “I’ll try. It was...confusing.”

  “It always is.”

  “How good are you, Vaughn? As a detective, I mean.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I should warn you, there are other things about these events that make no sense.”

  “In that case—” He helped her pull the rusty garage doors fully open when the auto-control didn’t work, “I’m the best.”

  Jan said nothing when he tripped over Stopper and fell in a dusty heap.

 
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