Alien safari, p.4
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       Alien Safari, p.4

           Robert Appleton
 
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  ***

  Zipping over the vicious wilds of Hesperidia a mere twenty feet off the ground should have made him nervous. But Vaughn wasn’t nervous. He couldn’t explain why. Umpteen species they passed in the first five minutes alone were big enough to attack and maybe down the vicar, no problem. Instead, each had the same bizarre reaction to the hover craft. They packed tightly together to form impenetrable masses, with remarkable speed.

  One herd in particular, some sort of amphibian rhinoceroses with webbed feet and dimetrodon-like fins, rushed into formation on the lakeside with stunning coordination, so that their large horns formed a three-sixty palisade ready to repel any attackers.

  “Here, these might help.” Jan retrieved a pair of expensive-looking, black-and-white striped goggles from the glovebox, and handed them to him. As soon as he put them on, a stuttering purple line wiped across his vision. Then the Alien Safari title and logo—a winged dragon silhouette—blinked to life in vivid 3D.

  “What is it?”

  “Our interactive field guide. My vid footage was used for some of the pattern recognition constructs.”

  “Is it rigged for eye control?” asked Vaughn.

  “Yes, just like an omnipod. The software will follow your gaze, and if it recognises what you’re looking at, it will bring up as much info as you like on that specific animal or plant. I should warn you, the technical names are in Avrillic.”

  “The OC formal speak?”

  “That’s a pigeon version of Avrillic. The original sounds more like Neo-Latin. They make everyone in the academy learn it. I know I had to.”

  “I tried once. Never again.” He quickly discovered he could zoom in and out of the image by closing one eye or the other. A blink of his left eye brought up the menu file for the creature in his gaze, a blink of his right removed it, so he could move onto the next at will. Exactly like the IC store catalogue he used to order his ship’s supplies from over the podnet.

  This was more fun.

  “Shame we never got to finish it,” she said. “The tourists had a blast. But when the tour got pulled, so did the software development.”

  Vaughn focused on the odd-looking rhinoceros—terraquafin aurelei, a.k.a. “Webbed Earl”—

  a large, amphibious herbivore with an incredibly long lifespan (studies suggest up to 400 Core years), this placid, lumbering member of the terraquafin family is one of the most popular animals in its ecosystem. It can often be seen ferrying smaller species across rivers and lakes without complaint. But when confronted by a predator, it will wield its horn and use its enormous weight to vicious effect. The Webbed Earl is...

  Vaughn moved on. He was fascinated by this idea of cooperation across species. Whenever the vicar passed a herd, not only those animals but other species would gang together in the same tight-knit defensive unit, species he could swear had nothing in common. Large, creeping sloths with bee-like stripes—vervidian eloisei—gave sanctuary to much smaller, caterpillar-esque tree dwellers—vercilius decambuli. The latter swizzled down through the air in rapid, hairy spirals and clung to the sloths’ shoulders.

  Meanwhile, the sloths, who were anything but slow when the ship approached, bunched together with an even stranger species—troyelix centambuli—flat, stingray-like creatures with hundreds of legs, whose razor-sharp tails pointed out like bayonets from beneath the legs of the sloths. This kind of defensive cooperation went against everything Vaughn had understood about Nature and survival of the fittest. It was as if the creatures of Hesperidia had learned to ally against outside threats, for common survival.

  He asked Jan about it.

  “They’re just being cautious. They know me by now. But it does make them difficult to approach—especially when Stopper gets worked up about something.”

  “But how can they be so coordinated like that? It’s like we’re flying through a military inspection, with everything suddenly armed and standing to attention.”

  She chuckled through her nose. “I never thought of it quite like that, but yeah, it is, kind of. Have you heard of symbiosis?”

  “Yes. I don’t know much about it.”

  “It’s a controversial umbrella term for mutualistic relationships. De Bari described it as ‘the living together of unlike organisms’, so you could in theory extend it to all kinds of persistent biological interaction, like parasitic or commensal relationships. But what you’re observing is a shared defensive action—across species—that benefits the individuals and the ecosystem in all sorts of ways. You’ll find symbiosis everywhere in Nature, but on Hesperidia, it seems to have evolved on a much bigger scale. Many of the creatures on this planet have developed symbiotic relationships for survival.”

  “Survival against what? They’re not just being cautious; it’s like they’re expecting an invasion. What’s the genesis of that behavior?”

  Jan steered the vicar around a bioluminescent, misty swamp ringed with trees—wraithulia cronogenus—that grew so low and horizontal over the glowing area he couldn’t figure out how their trunks didn’t snap.

  “You’re bright for a lawman, Vaughn.”

  He stayed silent.

  “The genesis of their cooperative instinct is a very real and very deadly threat that migrates across this continent once every few years. A super predator. As far as we can tell, it’s been top of the food chain forever.” She swallowed. “The animals, and even some of the plants, seem to have evolved their symbiosis around that common threat, to use strength in numbers to defend against it, to protect their own ecosystems. It’s a highly complex and paradoxical instinct I’m still trying to figure out. It probably goes back billions of years.”

  “So what’s this deadly threat?” Vaughn recalled her mentioning nasty indigenous in the north, and the way it had made her clam up. “You’ve encountered it personally, haven’t you.”

  “We’re almost at the crime scene. Best put your mask on.”

  Stopper started barking as they approached a flat, grassy isthmus about a quarter of a mile wide stretching over a large lake covered with floating, pastel-coloured flora. Spurts of water shot up here and there, followed by little tail fins wriggling up through the vegetation. Small, black skippers, resembling nippy catfish, darted after the water spurts in the hope of catching the fish before their wriggling tails disappeared.

  A deep space survey ship—Nina class, either an S-9 or S-14—stood about forty feet from the water’s edge, before the start of the isthmus. It was armed with military-grade pulse cannons, a precaution more and more corporations were taking these days when venturing anywhere near the 100z border. But this wasn’t the 100z border or anywhere near it.

  Jan set the vicar down close by, then stretched and yawned as though she hadn’t slept in days. “You want to study the sat footage first?”

  “No. I’ll see the bodies, then work my way back through what happened. Fill in the gaps as I go, with your help, of course.”

  “Suit yourself.” She gathered weapons, anti-venom, a survival bag, and oxygen canisters from the vicar’s cargo hold, and left them where they were easily retrievable in case of emergency. Then she led Vaughn out to the water’s edge, behind the Nina. “Stopper found the bodies in the dark last night,” she said. “Went right to them. I figured ISPA wouldn’t want them moved, so I put up airtight tents.”

  “You did well.”

  She deactivated the electric currents running through the tents’ spines, their only security measure, then collapsed and removed the four domes. “They’re all yours.”

  Five bodies in four tents. Two men had been hit by the same intense heat blast, fusing parts of them together, melting away others. Not a pretty sight. The fanning pattern of scorched ground around them indicated the blast had originated from the shoreline. A riot of footprints in the mud at the water’s edge showed him exactly where the killer had stood. He sent up a bird’s eye surveyor, calibrated it to circle the crime scene the standard twenty-seven times at various heights and angles, so it
could record the images and patterns in a series of light spectrums for spectro-analysis later.

  He put his gloves on, took DNA samples from all five victims, then rummaged through their clothing. Nothing of much worth: a handful of clipped credits, discount clubcards for several strip joints in the outer colonies, gum, injection vials for inducing lucid dreaming—one of Vaughn’s own harmless vices—and spare power cartridges for their pulse weapons.

  Vaughn stood on the spot where the killer had fired from.

  No, make that killers.

  There were two sets of boot prints, one a size twelve, the other much smaller, maybe a five. And the fact that there’d only been one heat blast suggested they’d had a weapon each. The other was a pulse cannon, probably a fairly powerful Shelby sidearm—ripples in the denuded topsoil were close together in a tight radius, and the victims’ wounds were extensive, deep, cauterized. No wasted shots. Every one had hit its target, if not dead center then close enough to impress Vaughn.

  Two shooters, then. One of them a solid marksman, maybe even a quick-draw. He couldn’t see any signs of blood near the water’s edge. Some kind of oily residue mixed in with the dew on the blue fronds of a trampled plant, nothing more. Had the dead men even got a shot off? No way of telling without checking their weapons. He’d do that later.

  Size five boots suggested a woman’s, twelve a man’s. But their prints didn’t lead anywhere. How had they got here, on the water’s edge, without leaving tracks across the grass or along the muddy shoreline? And how had they escaped? Had they swam here, killed the five men from the shuttle, then swam away? Possible, but it didn’t explain a more puzzling point.

  If they hadn’t landed in the Nina shuttle with the others, how had they got down to the planet’s surface alive?

  “Jan, you said the other ship exploded during entry, the courier ship?”

  “After entry. Can’t have been more than a couple of thousand feet from the surface.”

  “Whereabouts?”

  “Let me see...”

  “In this vicinity?”

  “Not exactly. The only wreckage I found was a mangled panel embedded in a tree, miles to the southeast. There’s a lot of swampland near there. Do you want to look?”

  “Not right now. ISPA can do a full crash-site investigation if it wants. The victims’ families might insist on it. But for the time being, I’m more interested in who these two are?”

  “Which two?”

  “The two that got away,” he said. “I think they were on the courier shuttle before it exploded. They must have escaped just in time, either by parachute or on a smaller craft. I also think they’re the central players in this whole series of events.” He collected a sample of oily dew from the blue plant, smelled it, recoiled with a cough. Definitely potent pyrofluvium content.

  “That reminds me,” Jan said. “The way you reacted to that just now—when we found the bodies, Stopper kept barking his head off at the water, wouldn’t go near that spot where you’re standing. See, look at him.”

  She was right. The dog hadn’t even approached the crime scene. He sat near the vicar, watching Jan, not making a sound, occasionally gazing out over the lake.

  “He’s never so reluctant to get involved. Normally I have to order him to sit still like that.”

  “What are you saying?”

  “That he’s sensed something he doesn’t like, something he hasn’t come across before.”

  “Like what?”

  She went back and cuddled Stopper, but still his tail wouldn’t wag.

  “You said some thing he doesn’t like. Could it not be someone?”

  “He knows people, Vaughn. He’s used to them. This is something else. Stopper’s spent his whole life exploring the Hesp. Believe me, if it’s got him spooked like this, it’s something entirely new. Maybe something those two people brought with them.”

  He crouched in the still shallows, inspecting the water’s surface by the unfettered light of the bright Herculean sun. One or two oily patches were visible on the lake. “There’s liquid pyrofluvium in this water,” he said. “Do any of your vehicles use that for propulsion?”

  “None. That’s outlawed, isn’t it? Except for long-haul interstellar travel?”

  “It is.”

  “So where do you think it’s come from? Not the exploded ship?”

  “No, I don’t think any debris would have reached this far,” he said. “My guess is it’s from some kind of hover vehicle used by our two escapees. There are no other tracks. They bailed from the courier ship in it, and were chased across the continent to this spot. These five individuals lying here pursued them, but not to kill them.”

  “Why not?”

  “This Nina ship is heavily armed. It could have annihilated a courier ship before it got anywhere near this planet. No, they wanted our two escapees alive, or they wanted something they were carrying. They forced them to land here.”

  Jan stood straight, eased her hands out of her pockets. “The courier pilot did say they were being forced down. They’d been hit during the flight, crippled. The sat net footage tallies. He wanted me to give his ship—the Kingmaker—entry through the sat net, but he also wanted me to destroy the second ship.”

  Vaughn rubbed his stubbly chin. “So how did the Nina get through, if you only gave access to the Kingmaker?”

  “Beats me. The sat net should have blasted it to pieces.” She cocked her head to one side, studying him. “It’s got you worried, hasn’t it?”

  “Not worried. Curious. I thought sat nets were incorruptible.”

  “They are. You have to have an override code—that’s sacrosanct.”

  “But what if they did have one, only it didn’t come from you?”

  She pulled a face. “You’re saying these are ISPA agents? Doesn’t make sense. If they were, why wouldn’t your bosses tell you? Why isn’t this place swarming with ISPA ships by now?”

  As he scanned the desolate panorama, Vaughn began whittling his headful of blunt theories down to a few salient points to consider. One, the Nina had forced the Kingmaker to land here. Two, the Nina’s crew had neither asked for nor required permission to pass through the sat net. Three, this was an ideal place to carry out an illegal operation, say an abduction, or a theft, if one had control of the satellites’ surveillance coverage.

  “Jan, who’s your direct superior? Who do you report to?”

  “Um, nobody. I send my research findings to the institute every six months, and they send me a quarterly newsletter. That’s pretty much the only interaction we have. I don’t know who their head of department is now. My instructor came here with me.”

  “Where is he?”

  “Dead.”

  “Recently?”

  “No. Eleven months after we arrived. North of the equator. Five of my colleagues were killed. I-I barely survived.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “I don’t think about it anymore,” she lied—her haunted gaze darting over the grass seemed to be questing for a place to hide.

  “So...you don’t know who monitors and maintains the satellites, I take it.”

  “No, do you?” she shot back, fists on hips.

  “Take it easy, doc. I’m just trying to get a handle on the chain of command.”

  “I told you, there isn’t one. ISPA installed the sat net and gave me a quick run-through of the procedures for admitting guest ships, that’s it. That’s where our autonomy ends. If you’re looking for corruption, you need to look out there.” She pointed skyward. “We left that galaxy of lies behind. Things are real simple down here now, since they got rid of the poachers, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”

  Vaughn was silent.

  “Tell me what you’re thinking,” she said. “You’ll drive me nuts if you keep it all to yourself. I’m not saying you should deputise me or anything, but I’m pretty much the smartest gal within a five-light-year radius.”

  Vaughn plucked his bird’s eye surveyor from
its slow, midair hover pattern.

  “Just saying you might want to run it by me,” she added.

  “Oh, I see. You’re involved now, is that it?”

  “Sunshine, I involved you, remember?”

  He rolled his eyes, then patted her on the backside, half-jokingly, half...something else. He couldn’t quite untangle the knot of emotions that had prompted the gesture, nor the way he felt about her, or this case, or this planet.

  She slapped him on the ass twice as hard. Giving a mock frown, he led her toward the Nina, to the wing-door hatch left ajar. Stopper followed at Jan’s side. His tail now began to wag as they left the shoreline.

  “There’s a lot more to this, isn’t there, Vaughn.”

  “It appears so.”

  “Involving someone higher up in ISPA?”

  “It’s possible.”

  “Then I’m worried.”

  “No need to be. I won’t let anything happen to us.”

  “I know. But I’m still worried.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’ve decided—I don’t dislike you. You might be one of the good ones.”

  “Why should that worry you?” he asked softly.

  “Because it puts both of us in the minority.”

  He snickered. “Well, that’s never bothered either of us, let’s be honest.”

  “No, but this is different.” Jan glanced up to the cloudless, citrus-coloured sky. “Whoever gave the Nina entry through the sat net has authority over all of Hesperidia. Think about it.”

  Vaughn did think about it—the nerve, the underhandedness, the corruption—and sighed. He couldn’t fight enemies he couldn’t see. Not yet. That was for his superiors to deal with later. All he had was the hunt. An unusual one here, granted, but already well underway. And as soon as he uncovered the identities of the five dead men, he could investigate their backgrounds, who they worked for, who they might be chasing. Then he could speak with their employer, find out more about this pursuit-gone-to-hell.

  Jan was shivering. He took his jacket off and draped it over her. “Come on, this one last stop then we’re done for now. Don’t forget there’s a full McCormick’s waiting to be emptied.”

  “Damn right.”

  Before Vaughn had fully lifted the hatch door, Stopper bounded inside and barked so loudly it hurt Vaughn’s ears. Jan blew her inaudible-to-humans whistle, halting the impetuous canine, but he’d already cocked a leg up and was peeing all over the evidence.

  “Stopper. Damn it, you—” She ordered him outside, where he rolled around on the grass and then started scratching behind his ears. “You can tell he’s still a bit nervous.”

  Vaughn looked at her. “GenMod intelligence, huh?”

  She wrestled a sheepish smile as Vaughn strode around the puddle of urine. “I think maybe I’ll leave that part out of the report,” he said.

  “Or you could say we found a leak somewhere in ISPA.” She winked.

  Vaughn pulled a face. “And we followed a trail—turned out to be a damp squib.”

  “We were relieved.”

  “It was a slick bit of deduction.”

  He grinned. “P.S. We found the pee, we’re hoping there won’t be any S to follow.”

  “Eww! Wouldn’t that be a scoop. Sincerely, a dog.”

  He couldn’t open the door to the cockpit for laughing. Jan joined in, once again turning her scarred side away so that she looked really good as she watched him askance. But two things stopped the jest dead when he eased the door open. Stopper jumped in and snarled; and a heavy winged creature thrashed its way out, pummeling Vaughn to the floor.

  He reached for his sidearm but was too late—Stopper already had the creature pinned on the floor, his jaws clamped around its long, furry neck. The thing was extremely slender, dark green in colour, almost black, and so wiry it didn’t appear strong enough to create such a ruckus. But it possessed a formidable, sinuous exoskeletal frame hidden just beneath the fur. Its wings flapped inside the hold with maniacal force, damaging anything not already bolted down.

  Jan blew her whistle again, this time instructing the powerful dog to take its charge outside, where he quickly let it go and barked as the bird flew away to the east.

  “He did try to warn us,” Vaughn said, nursing a bruised shoulder.

  “We’ll let him lead the way next time,” she agreed.

  “And it’s the last time I make fun of him. What the hell was that thing?”

  “A bay skimmer, fumeghelius aerodynae. Very rare to see one up close. They’re swamp scavengers, normally keep themselves to themselves. This one obviously got trapped looking for food.”

  “Scavengers is right. It’s pecked the seat foam to shreds, and ripped through the gloveboxes. Made a helluva mess in here.” He didn’t even bother photographing the cockpit. It was too chaotic with all the bits of foam floating around on the wonky aircon streams. He rifled through the damaged gloveboxes, found only biscuit crumbs, then removed the ship’s transponder chip from the underside of the dashboard. The latter had been purposefully deactivated—an illegal act, probably during the interstellar pursuit—so he downloaded the registration details physically to his omnipod. He ran the serial number through the joint IC/OC database on the Pitch Hopper’s computer via a fairly weak uplink. The comm array at Jan’s station had to be interfering with the signal.

  While he was waiting for the results, Vaughn noticed a cushioned carbon fiber tube about three feet long strapped under one of the passenger seats. It was marked Handle With Care—Contents Temperature-Regulated. He screwed the top off and peeked inside. There was a cylindrical metal coolant container, shrink-wrapped inside folds of shock-absorbent foam. He asked Jan what she thought it was.

  “Could be pharmacological, or a biological specimen. Maybe even an organ for transplant, kept frozen during transportation. I wouldn’t open it to find out.”

  “Nope. I’m taking it with me, though. It’s unusual enough to jump the queue as evidence.”

  A double-beep on his omnipod concluded the database search. The information read:

  Nina S-14 VX3909-GHS14...

  Licensed to IC/141 Private Corporation, Spota-Veert Mining, Inc. [Ilya Lewartow, CEO]

  License Issued: 4.10.2242 at Io Farview Licensing Depot

  ISPA Customs Registration History: 231 Records...

  Last Registered: 20.6.2254 Carbon Mining Camp, Solzhik 3

  18.6.2254 Iolchis Core

  “Solzhik 3,” he called to Jan. “That’s where the Kingmaker set off from, wasn’t it? Before you sent them the automated access code, the sat net would have extracted that information from the ship’s CPU. It would have told you their last logged departure and intended destination, provided the transponder didn’t have an illegal scrambler.”

  “Yes, Solzhik 3. I’m certain. And its destination was Saint Jacques, the multi-rock asteroid colony that orbits the outer rim of this system. There’s a pretty big warp gate installed there. I travelled through it when I first arrived here.”

  “I know it. Thanks.”

  He retrieved the bird’s eye surveyor from his utility baldric, programmed it to hover in one spot and record a complete visual map of the cockpit, without him in it, of course. It took less than a minute. Outside, the temperature had cooled significantly, but it wasn’t windy and there were no clouds overhead. He ran through his mental checklist of things he needed to investigate now, before the crime scene got any more contaminated. Apart from checking the weapons, nothing sprang to mind.

  “Okay, I think we’re done for now. I’ll just collect the weapons.”

  “We’re heading back?” Jan sounded relieved, even enthusiastic. “What about the two killers? Aren’t they...like...enemies of the state?”

  “Yes. And should be considered dangerous. I’m going to send a warning to each of your colleagues on this continent, telling them to leave it immediately. They have shuttles, right?”

  “For emergencies.”

 
Where are the nearest outposts?”

  “There are three more on this continent: two far to the north, one southeast. The rest are scattered across the planet, impossible to reach without a shuttle.”

  “What sort of terrain would a small hover vehicle have to cross in order to reach the stations in the north?”

  “Some of the worst on the whole planet. Swamps, a maze of deep canyons, jungle, lakes dotted everywhere, maybe one of three small deserts, not to mention the predators they’ll encounter.”

  “So without knowing exactly where they’re going, it’s unlikely they’d find those stations?”

  “Extremely unlikely. And it’s doubtful if they’d make it, even if they had a map. Between here and there is the Hesp’s deadliest predator. Trust me, if they come across one of those at low-alt, they’re goners.”

  “How long would it take to reach the nearest station if they traveled at, say, a hundred kph without stopping?”

  “At least three days,” she said. “But they won’t be going anywhere near that speed, I can tell you, not with low-alt hover. The terrain’s too treacherous.”

  “Good. That’s good.”

  “You’re not going after them?”

  “No way. They’ve had too big a head start, and if I flew over in a shuttle, tried to spot them from the air, they could easily hide. I’d need to track them from the ground. No, our best play is to monitor the stations, wait for them to show up. They need to get off-world, so they’ll be looking for a shuttle. That gives me plenty of time to visit Iolchis, and to call Kraczinski for back-up.”

  After Vaughn had collected the evidence, Jan called for Stopper to follow them back to the vicar, but the dog was already there ahead of her, sitting upright on his haunches, pawing at the air expectantly. “He’s waiting for his treat,” she said.

  “For a job well done?”

  “At the end of every field trip. It’s his favorite part.” She fed him a handful of chewy, meat-flavored snack sticks, which he took into the corner of the hold and guarded jealously until Vaughn had passed.

  “Why Iolchis?” Jan asked.

  “Two reasons: first, the Nina stopped there before it went to Solzhik 3. I want to know why. Iolchis isn’t the kind of planet you visit lightly. It’s a political minefield right now. It’s always been controlled by private enterprise, divided up by corporations for its natural resources, but ISPA’s dying to annex the whole planet.”

  “It’s already blockaded Iolchis, right? With a sat net?”

  “That’s right. And with the latest scandal—Simon Malesseur’s only daughter arrested for corporate espionage—the eyes of the galaxy are on Iolchis. For this Nina ship to have visited there, and for these men, presumably mercenaries, to then go straight from there to Solzhik 3, where they track the Kingmaker for the express purpose of capturing specific passengers by any means, tells me there are questions to be answered on Iolchis.

  “And second, the company the Nina is registered to—Spota-Veert Mining—is one of Malesseur’s many suspected corporate fronts. It’s legit, in that it does actually search for lodes in border systems, but my bureau’s still trying to figure out where its enormous profits come from.”

  “Not from mining?”

  “Possible, but unlikely. We don’t have the manpower or resources to check all his mining sites because they’re too far afield, but those we have checked are either defunct or operating at very low capacity, not much more than family prospectors. So we can’t prove that Spota-Veert isn’t a bullshit front, at least not yet, but we can flag anything to do with it as highly suspicious. This definitely counts. Malesseur’s currently on Iolchis, trying to extradite his daughter. And so is his right-hand man, Lewartow, the CEO of Spota-Veert. I’m going to see what I can find out from him especially.”

  “There’s a famous GenMod facility there,” she replied. “Or maybe I should say infamous. Iolchis Core, it’s called.”

  “I’ve heard of it.” Vaughn climbed into the vicar after her, removed his mask as soon as she’d flooded the cockpit with oxygen and sealed them in.

  Jan headed back to base via a different route, swinging by the swampland she’d mentioned earlier, so they could try to spot more of the Kingmaker’s wreckage. No dice. The large, twisted bulkhead panel she pointed out had sliced one of the wraithulia trees in half. It glistened in the sun, a lone, incongruous feature in an archipelago of dull marsh islands. It told him nothing about the crash.

  But it seemed to be telling Jan something—something that worried her. Sweat streamed from her brow, while all color had drained from her side profile. With one hand she steered the vicar to a shallow escarpment a mile or so to the southeast. It bisected the vast area of swampland, and was overgrown with thousands of thin, bedraggled vines that hung over the face of the escarpment like the hair of an old castaway. With her other hand she crossed herself slowly, repeatedly against the skin over her suprasternal notch. An unconscious habit? Or maybe she had one of those neural tattoos all the youngsters seemed to have these days, connected to subcutaneous nerve transmitters—able to trigger the brain’s natural chemistry to induce sedation, euphoria, creative impulses, even orgasms. But in Jan’s case? The sign of the cross was perfectly natural, still used by Neo Christians. He’d seen it all across the galaxy. It helped people overcome things like...fear, for instance.

  “You’ve spotted something?” he asked.

  She was silent.

  Instead she braced the steering wheel with both hands, and accelerated toward an overhang low on the rock face. Vaughn noticed a narrow cave beneath it, blotted by shadow. Water cascaded in several streams over the cave entrance, and appeared to be pouring out of the hollow ends of the vines. Without explanation she maneuvered the vicar around so it could back into the cave with less than a meter spare on either side. A neat bit of flying.

  She set down about fifteen meters inside the cave, then turned off the engine and the lights. Through the almost sheer blackness Vaughn made out a riot of winding, slithering shapes on the walls and roof of the cave, now on the roof of the vicar itself—the pitter-patter of a thousand tiny feet dancing, crawling across the glass dome, only an inch or two separating him from whatever nightmare insect the Hesp’s underworld had sent to investigate him.

  “If you’re trying to scare the shit out of me, doc, congratulations.”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” She rummaged around in the glovebox, then shone a hip torch in his face. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

  He shielded his eyes from the beam. “What’s in here, you mean. And I’m not sure I want to know.”

  “They’re Gemini crawlers, Vaughn. About as dangerous as big earthworms. I thought Omicron agents were tough.”

  “We deal with creeps, not creepy-crawlies.”

  She snorted a laugh. Forced. Clipped. What was freaking her out like this?

  “You’ve deflected every time we’ve got near to talking about it,” he said, shifting position to face her squarely. “If it’s something traumatic, something personal, you should know I’d never betray anything you said. I’ve taken an oath to protect anything said to me in confidence during an investigation.”

  She pulled his hand away and shone the light in his right eye, then his left, studying every contour of his face. “Is that all this is to you? A part of the case? Just more background data for your investigation?”

  Vaughn was silent. He found himself mesmerised by the fiery intensity with which she scrutinised him. God, she was disarming. And melodramatic. This whole absurd scene was like the set-up to some elaborate Halloween practical joke, only he knew there would be no fun gotten from this. Not this side of a bottle of McCormick’s, at any rate.

  “Anything useful you can tell me about this planet and its wildlife might prove helpful. Remember there are fugitives out there with likely no conception of what they’re dealing with. You’re my ace Omega-Theta-Zoonygaloonyologist. With you on my side, I have the advantage
in this manhunt. So please, for me...what do we have to be afraid of?”

  Jan heaved a sigh, then set the torch on the dash. “The Hesperidian Hydra.” Stopper barked once from the hold, as though he’d objected to her even intoning the words. “I always knew it would come back for me someday. You never really escape a grip like that, not really.”

  “This thing injured you, didn’t it. Badly?”

  “As close to death as only death can know. Eight of us went out that day, Vaughn. My instructor, Ed Jelicho, was one of them. He was the only man I’ve ever come close to falling for. He said I was the reason he came out here on his two-year sabbatical from the institute—he followed me here, gave me my big start as Station Chief when I had no real field experience. That kind of trust defines you, like you wouldn’t believe. I’m a daughter of colony farmers, a third generation terraformer. The only animal and plant life I’d ever worked with was what we’d put there, artificially. I’d never even seen indigenous wildlife in its natural habitat until I landed here, shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday, a lovestruck labbie bristling with ISPA badges and too many years of half-assed expertise.

  “This was my obsession, to learn as much about life on a virgin alien world as I possibly could before I died. It drove Jelicho nuts, how much this meant to me. He wanted me to return with him to the institute after I’d qualified as an Omega XZ, maybe to become an instructor. And you know what? I might have. As much as this meant to me, he saw something in me—the real me, not just the talented labbie—like no one ever had. He used to say I was more of an explorer than a scientist, that if I stayed with him he’d make sure I one day led those expeditions to the farthest corners of the galaxy, you know the ones you read about, where they discover absolutely unprecedented life-forms our scientists can’t even begin to describe until they’ve invented a new branch of biology. He said I was good enough to be spearheading those projects and, well, you can guess how much that got him laid.”

  Vaughn cleared his throat.

  “So one day we were heading for Libra—that’s the nearest northern station—me, Jelicho, and six other XZs, to compare Hydra specimens. We’d found aborted eggs in the lakes much farther south than we knew the Hydras ever went. Their domain is a freshwater region to the northwest. And these eggs were gigantic, I’m talking eight times the size of any we’d seen before. It didn’t make sense.

  “We made camp a couple of degrees past the equator, set up a perimeter, alarm security, everything by the book, then lit a campfire ready for supper. We were conjecturing on the anomalous eggs, as only geeks like us can, I guess, but more animated than usual—I think a couple of the women had got high on their own supply, if you know what I mean—when all of a sudden the dogs started howling. Going insane. Then there was this terrific thud from the lakeshore. Everything came alive, only we couldn’t see that far. It sounded like a waterfall was pounding the soil. That gradually slackened. Then it went silent for a minute or two. And I mean totally silent.”

  She crossed herself again, quite by instinct, and Vaughn now discerned the faded tattoo just below her neck: a crucifix, perhaps worn out over years of demonstrating her fear on that hollowed suprasternal notch.

  “It struck out from the dark so fast it snatched five of us before we could even react. And it towered over the camp.”

  He felt like crossing himself. If he’d been at all religious... “What was it?”

  “A full-grown Hesperidian Hydra. The biggest we’d seen up to then had measured eight or ten feet long at most. We knew how vicious it was, an apex predator in its domain. We’d filmed it feeding on lakeshore herds. But this dwarfed it—it was nearer eighty feet long.”

  “Jesus. How does it attack?”

  “As a threesome.”

  “You mean as a pack of three?”

  “Yes and no. Technically the three segments are part of the same Hydra, but they can dislocate from one another for short periods, for hunting, for intense combat. Each segment is sentient, has its own brain, its own independent offensive and defensive behavior. They also coordinate through a kind of hive intelligence. We think their visual cortices are linked via some kind of neural transmitter each is attuned to. What one sees, they all see, even when separated.”

  “Like a shared uplink?”

  “Possibly. We’ve never caught one to examine it.”

  “Too dangerous.”

  Jan wiped her glistening brow with her sleeve. “You’ve no idea. You can’t imagine how terrifying that was, suddenly finding out the most deadly creature on any discovered world is really eight times bigger than you thought...and that it’s here to end your life...the life of the man you’re sharing everything with...” She gazed into the torch beam as it reached feebly out through the windscreen into the black alien cave.

  Vaughn guessed what was coming next, but he sensed—hoped—Jan might feel better once she’d told him, once she’d told somebody. To live alone with that kind of traumatic experience, with the memory of one’s whole world crushed into less than a person could truly live with, he knew that all too well, and what he’d give to be able to tell it to someone willing to listen.

  “How did you survive, Jan?”

  “I don’t know. I never did know. All I felt was the crunch—my right side, skull, ribs, arm, shoulder, pelvis, snapped in and jammed together so tight I couldn’t breathe to scream the pain. I’ll never scream again. That was my last shot, and it didn’t even make a whimper. I lost consciousness at the sound of a dog snarling.”

  “Stopper?”

  She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes with the heels of her palms.

  “And you never found out why it took the rest but let you go?”

  Jan shrugged. “Can’t exactly ask Stopper, can I?”

  “I guess not. And did his parents...?”

  “Yeah. They were both taken, along with Jelicho and four more of our team. Then the thing just left, as quickly as it had arrived, or so I heard. Of the three surviving XZs, I was in the worst shape—a tomato omelette, one of them said afterward, while we were recouping at Med Lake. The bones on my entire right side were shattered and splintered. And this permanent imprint left by the Hydra’s scales.” She dragged her fingernails down her coarse right jawline, twice, to demonstrate the dry, flaky sound it made.”

  “You didn’t want cosmetic surgery? They could’ve easily done a symmetrical op, you know, using the undamaged half of your face as a model for the other half. I’ve seen it done a few times. They could still do it if you wanted.”

  She looked down. “I’m not that girl anymore, Vaughn. I don’t know her—don’t want to know her. I wouldn’t know what to say.” She sniffed. “No, this is who I am now.”

  Vaughn motioned to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but stopped short, used it to scratch his ear instead. God, he really had to figure out a way to pop his own emotional freaking cork before he became some kind of goddamn monk. He could never truly be a help to anyone else—at least on that level—until he quit making every encounter about him, what he needed. Right now Jan didn’t need an Omicron agent, she needed a guy named Ferrix Vaughn; he’d had a family once upon a time, and knew what being close to someone felt like. It had never required a badge.

  “You were lucky to get that far.”

  “Yeah. I honestly don’t know how I made it. I don’t think the doctors at Med Lake could figure it out either. But I hung on, somehow, from somewhere, and things were never the same again. The institute offered me a teaching post after I’d gotten used to my bionics, but I returned here instead. Helped with the safari tours at first, then took on more and more of my original research work. Eventually, when the sat nets were installed and the garrison left, I ran the whole station by myself. With Stopper, of course. Part of me came back for him, I think, because I’m convinced he saved me that day. I don’t know how exactly, but his snarl was the last thing I heard, and the others said he dragged me up from the water’s edge after the Hydra had submerged
for the last time.”

  She puffed her cheeks, shot out a breath. “Some story, huh?”

  “I can’t imagine.”

  “I can’t describe.”

  “Well, now I know why you brought me in here to tell me. No wonder you’re jumpy. Alien safari? Give me a safe old cave any day.”

  She picked up the torch, shone it at him again. “Um, Vaughn, I didn’t bring you in here just to tell you that.”

  “Then why—”

  “Because of the swamps. You must have noticed the swamps.”

  “No. What about them?”

  “They’re completely deserted. No sound, no life at all. Just like that night round the campfire.”

  And not just that; her old pal, Stopper, was snarling again.

 
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