The storm broke and he was on instruments until he arrived at the Deek, then he dropped as low as he could, flipped on the belly lights and camera and did a few quick passes. There was certainly something that looked like a meteor impact track and, yes, on the far side of the small island, a rocky beach that might serve as a landing zone.
The gathering clouds above and rough terrain below made it impossible to follow the impact track by air. Glancing at his instruments, Aggie marked the location and direction of the track, then veered toward the beach. Passing over the island's low, jungle-covered peak, the bowl of a long-dead volcano, Aggie noted sourly that a safe landing would leave hima good half day's hike from the track. He patted the duffel bag riding shotgun in the small plane, which held (he hoped) sufficient supplies for a few days in the jungle. The metal box knocking against his feet contained something extra -- a .44 automag, one of the few useful things Aggie had taken from his time in the infantry. It would probably be useless weight, Aggie thought -- these little islands usually didn't support anything larger than a tree squirrel. Besides, the really nasty critters were of the microscopic variety, and Aggie had made sure to have his shots updated, too.
Clearing the trees, Aggie saw the beach below. He pulled back on the stick, hovering briefly over the sand, and touched down as close as he dared to the treeline. The storm surge shouldn't come up this high, and so long as a tree didn't fall on the plane, everything would be fine. "What could possibly go wrong?" Aggie muttered under his breath, as he switch on the plane's homing beacon.
Aggie laced on his hiking boots, and slipped on a web mesh harness from which hung the gun, a flashlight, canteen, a coil of ultralight rope and a GPS unit. He slipped a machete out of the duffle, and slung the bag over a shoulder. Approaching the trees, Aggie took a reading from the GPS, noting thankfully that his route wouldn't involve too much uphill climbing, initialized the intertial locator as backup for when the weather prevented accurate GPS readings, and entered the jungle.
It was quite a slog. The fast-growing punja vines forced him to hack a path at numerous points, but three hours later he was standing atop a small rise, breathing heavily and resting for a moment while the fabric of his safari suit wicked away as much moisture as it could. Below him was the long scar of the meteor trace. Trees had been knocked over, vines had been burned away and the ground itself had been churned up. Already, after only a few days, green shoots were beginning to show in the areas which had been plowed by the celestial object.
ggie scrabbled down the slope and into the bottom of the trough cut through the jungle. "First things first," he thought to himself "let's make sure I don't come home glowing." He slipped a small box from the pocket of his vest, extended an antenna and ran it along the walls and floor of the gully. The digital geiger counter beeps a few times, as readings scrolled across the screen. "Interesting," he muttered. The readings were only a little higher than background. Whatever came through wasn't too hot, which was a comfort. The track certainly looked better than another slog through the jungle, so Aggie set out at a brisk clip along the bottom of track.
He didn't have far to go. Then he pulled up short and stared. The "meteor" was quite clearly a vessel, a spaceship.
"She'll never fly again," said a voice in heavily accented Greatethian. Aggie spun around. "Easy there," the voice continued, "we're all friends here. I hope." The speaker was standing at the edge of the jungle and was an alien. Not just an alien, though, but an alien-alien. The aliens who had set up the base could pass for somewhat scrawny Greatethians in a bad light, this alien could not. He, and Aggie assumed it was male, was upright and bipedal, but covered in short, wiry fur. A tail was clearly visible and it was held still behind the body at the moment. The alien was dressed it what looked like some sort of flightsuit, although of an unfamiliar type, and what looked like a sidearm was holstered - although one hand hovered near enough to it for quick access. The expression on the face was indecipherable, but showed a lot of teeth - whatever the alien had evolved from had been carnivorous, most likely. The posture showed wariness but not hostility.
Aggie slowly lowered the duffel to ground. The needle rifle was slung across his shoulder, but may have well been on the moon given how long it would take him to bring it to bear. Besides, he wasn't even sure that the rifle's knock out darts would work on his new "friend". The automag was a surer option, but it wasn't a weapon designed for a quick draw, either. Aggie's eyes darted quickly along the treeline behind the alien, looking for movement. Was he alone? How many of them could have fit in the downed craft? It was hard to tell from what was visible in the crater beyond.
"Just wasn't expecting to make new friends out here, is all. You picked an odd spot for your retirement -- don't hermits usually look for mountain tops?"
The alien barked and showed even more teeth, "I didn't so much choose it, and the climate doesn't agree with me." That was clear enough; in these latitudes even Greatethians found the heat a bit much, this alien was covered in fur and when not talking, he panted gently with his long tongue out. "Besides, aren't most of these islands mountain tops? What brins you out this way?" During this speech the alien made no quick or abrupt movements and did not move his hand toward his weapon.
Aggie relaxed a bit -- it was always nice to learn that one probably wasn't going to be shot by an alien on a remote jungle island. "You, I suppose," he replied. "Your landing was tracked on lidar -- I imagine most kids with their first home observatory in the backyard saw it, too. You speak Greateth too well for someone who wasn't planning a visit -- where were you headed?"
"Who said I wasn't planning a visit? I was just hoping it would be a visit and not a permanent relocation," said the alien with just a hint of tail wag.
"I assume it wasn't for a family reunion." Aggie sat back against the embankment and took a pull from his canteen. "We've got our share of visitors from abroad, and I've seen nary a tail among them. If you were headed to the Bug House you missed by a long way."
At that point, a few fat drops began to fall from the sky and the alien started to look even more miserable. "Why don't you come inside and we can talk about this. The old girl isn't going to fly again but she'll still keep the rain off." He didn't wait for an answer but began to lope awkwardly in the heavy gravity toward the downed ship, exposing his back to Aggie.
Aggie heaved a deep breath. He'd come this far, it would be ridiculous to stop here. Besides, he clearly wasn't going to be shot. Probed was a different matter, but that's just a risk he'd have to take. Picking up the duffel and rifle, Aggie followed his new friend into the ship.
He arrived as the alien was giving a firm shake and spatters of water flew from this fur. After Aggie entered, he punched a button and the hatch irised close. "Sorry for the cramped quarters," he said. "We'll be most comfortable in here." He led Aggie down a short corridor and into a small galley. Although many of the details were alien, much of the layout was familiar - the exigencies of space travel and support for bipedal mammals drove most of the design decisions. "I can offer you water, but I don't know if my food is compatible with your biochemistry. I can offer you Scotch if your people can tolerate, umm, C2H5OH? I don't know how to say it in your language."
"Water will be fine, thanks."
Drinks were poured and the alien seemed to relax a little. "My name is Jack Buck," he said. "And this is my ship - at least until the batteries run down."
"Agammenon Kurtz. Call me Aggie. You don't seem too worried about that."
"Well now, yes and no. One the one hand, in my profession you develop a certain amount of fatalism. On the other, there is some room for hope," said Buck sipping his amber colored beverage.
"I'll bet that interplanetary philosopher doesn't pay very well. So what exactly does bring you to this neck of the woods? We haven't had the best track record with visitors, lately."
"Well, that's exactly it, isn't it?" said Buck with what Aggie hoped was a smile. "I'm a smuggler. I smuggle. If you lots of visitors there'd be less reason for me to come at all.
"You're a smuggler, therefore you smuggle? Maybe you're a space philosopher after all."
Aggie took a drink - he needed time to think this through. I'm reasonably certain that Greatheth doesn't have an interplanetary customs house. Our own resident aliens have seen to that. You're not avoiding the local tax man. So this planet really is under quarantine?"
Buck nodded, some gestures it seemed were common across multiple species. "Yeah. Interesting, eh? Do you know why? I haven't been able to find out."
"You don't know? Isn't that quite a risk then -- what if we're diseased? Or vicious xenophobes?"
"Please, I did my research. Monitored your broadcasts, got a bootleg ALC of your language, that kind of stuff would be hard to hide. You're no more xenophobic than most cultures and less than quite a few," he said. "There must be something else."
"We always thought it was you, so to speak. Some intergalactic big bad from which the benevolent bugs were protecting us. But I gotta tell you, you aren't *that* scary." Aggie smiled, "I'm disappointed, really."
Aggie finished his drink and studied the empty cup for a moment, he said "I think I'll try that 'Scotch' if you're still offering." Jack slid a bottle across the small table, and Aggie poured himself an inch of the amber liquid. He sniffed it tentatively.
"So you're not being protected from us, and we're not being protected from you. Well, it's nice to finally meet you." Aggie raised his glass, tipped it toward Jack, and took a sip. This 'Scotch' wasn't bad at all.
"I also haven't heard of an interplanetary black market. If that were the case, we'd at least have flying cars by now. So what's your angle? Delivering black market booze to the bugs? Or to one bug in particular?"
"Quite frankly, the folks that have you locked down are viewed by some as the big, bad guys. Your system is quite strategically located, which explains why they're here - but not why they didn't just take over," Buck sipped his Scotch meditatively. "Would Scotch sell here? And what would you be able to trade me for it?" He leaned in, "There must be something special about this place."
"Perhaps not worth taking over, as far as they're concerned. I suppose I'm not one to tell you what's special about this place -- I don't have much of a basis for comparison. And strategic for whom -- you and the bugs? Or don't you involve yourself in politics?"
"Nothing personal, but it shouldn't be much of a problem for them to take you over. There aren't that many of you, you know." He sipped. "You probably don't know much about the rest of the star cluster, do you? Other than say, your nearest neighbors? Your system is a chokepoint. There's a gap of around ten or twelve parsecs, call it about forty light years, between two much denser clusters of stars. Almost exactly in the middle is one star system, this one. The longest recorded single hyperspace jump is just a hair over twenty light years."
Aggie laughed. "I think you might have underestimated just how much of a backwater you've decided to open a trade route to. My kind haven't sent anything past the moon in the last hundred years. The bugs have seen to that. Not that we have hyperspace trips to go visiting with. If you weren't on your way to see the bugs in the first place, you were going to draw an awful lot of attention. And not just for the Scotch."
"Nah, there's something else going on. Any major conflict between two interstellar powers is going to come through here, so if you got here first, wouldn't you lock down everything as hard and fast as you could? Especially if you leaned toward dictatorial policies in the first place?" Buck swirled his Scotch ruminatively. "I think there's something else going on."
Aggie took another sip. "By the way, you could make a fortune with this stuff. Though not here precisely," with a wave Aggie took in the jungle that pressed outside the ship. "I'm not sure what kind of batteries you have in this thing, but you might want to consider your exit strategy before nightfall -- I'd offer you a lift, but my ride is atmos only, I'm afraid."
Buck lifted his glass, "Good to know. Why nightfal, in particular? And, for that matter, what's your interest in all this? What brings you to my lovely summer home?"
"Meh. The bugs come out. The six legged kind, I mean. And like I said, you brought me here. We've been prisoners on our own planet for generations, now. I'd like to know why. So I've been watching our tenants -- trying to see when they come and go and how, and maybe why. I thought something might have crashed, but you weren't what I was expecting. By the way, was this an accident, or did the bugs help you down?"
"Both. I was coming in doggo, but some kind of automatic defense satellite decided I was too large or something and took a shot. I couldn't dodge or the jig would be up and it wouldn't be a single shot coming my way. It's just bad luck it did so much damage," he sighed. "Do you believe in fate?" he said abruptly.
"I don't think so -- at least not anymore. Fate's what we make for ourselves."
Buck nodded. "Sure, and I understand probability theory as well as the next guy, but ... so how many islands are there around here?"
"A lot," said Aggie. "But I landed on this one. And I'm not the first," Buck looked sharply at Aggie.
"Don't look at me. I didn't even know there was an island here, until I followed your track. We Greathans stick to the poles -- too damn hot here. What have you found?"
Buck looked closely at Aggie, "Really? No idea what's out here?" He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know if I can trust you, but I don't really have a lot of options do I? The reports on your planet say that you haven't developed Antimatter powerplants yet. Not far from here is an AMC plant, idling it looks like, but still ticking over." He waved back at the controls, "My sensors are still working, but they wouldn't have found anything unless we were more or less on top of it."
Aggie smiled, "Those reports conclude 'Mostly Harmless', right"? Buck cocked his head questioningly. "Nevermind - old joke."
Aggie craned his neck, trying to sneak a look at the controls Buck had indicated. "No, no, your reports were right. Antimatter power is purely theoretical, outside of a couple of particle accelerators at Southern U. And that's basic research stuff. There's always some talk of secret military testing facilities around the equator, but this region has always been quiet. Whatever you've found, the bugs must have put it there."
"So," said Buck, "Wanna go take a look at whatever it is?"
Aggie looked at the inscrutable, furry face for a moment, and finished his Scotch. "Well you have bought me a drink, so I suppose one date is in order. Let's go."
Buck knocked back his drink as well. "I don't suppose it ever cools down out there?" he asked rhetorically. He gathered up a few instruments whose design was not familiar to Aggie, although they looked like detectors of some kind to him - one was probably a geiger counter. The pair went back out into the humid heat and started walking. "This place has a big crater in it, I don't know if you saw it. I think it's volcanic, but it could be meteor infall or something. It's not my area of expertise. At a guess, whatever's giving off that AMC trace is in there."
"I passed over the peak when I was looking for a spot to land. I didn't see anything, but the jungle has covered the bowl of the crater. Most of these islands are old volcanoes-- there hasn't been any activity in this part of the region for a very long time. I suppose there could be a whole network of magma tunnels down there."
Buck nodded. "Lots of places to hide stuff, then."
Aggie shifted his pack on his shoulder and switched the rifle to the opposite side. The strap had started to rub. "You mentioned 'dictatorial policies' a while ago -- what do you know about the bugs, anyway? Are they one of those interstellar powers you were talking about?"
"Yeah," Buck puffed slowly along. "In this area of space, like I said, your system is a choke point. The Azur got here first, and they're a bunch of right bastards." He showed some teeth in what Aggie was beginning to suspect was a grin, "Although they do make it easy for me to find work. They have an empire which is really a military dictatoship, with just enough xenophobia to keep things going. It's not written down anywhere that non-Azur, like me for instance, can't hold high office or command, they just don't ever seem to be quite qualified.
"On the other side, you've got StellCon, the Stellar Confederacy. Better, but still a little too organized for my tastes. At least there's variety, Azur worlds all look pretty much the same." He shook his head, "Except for this one ... anyway, there's trade between the two, which means takes and import duties and restrictions. Which means there's a place for me."
They arrived at the lip of the crater and looked down a fairly steep slope. The ubiquitous punja vines crawled all over and down the chute, making climbing slow but safe. Buck stopped, panting in exhaustion. "I hate heavy gravity planets," he gasped. After a moment, he unslung one of his detectors and pointed it in various directions. "Yeah, looks like I was right. Signal is strongest down that way. Let's rest a bit before we start down." He flopped to the ground.
"We have heavy gravity? Who knew?" Aggie dropped his pack and sunk down facing Buck, his back against a tree. He waved vaguely in the direction of the instrument in Buck's hand. "What's that thing picking up, anyway?"
"Emissions from matter-anti-matter annihilation. It's just radiation, of course, but the spectrum is kind of distinctive," said Buck.
"And is that how the bugs . . . Azur, run their ships? Though I guess it would be hard for even them to use this island as a spaceport without anyone noticing. So, industry of some kind? Does that thing tell you how much antimatter is being used?"
"Most of the starfaring races use AMC power, it's just the most efficient. Some use fission or fusion to make the first few leaps into the void, but switch to AMC as soon as they can buy or steal the technology." Buck thought for a moment. "Not much radiation is leaking, which means either not much power being generated or good shielding."
"Which I guess would explain why no one noticed anything going on here before. Not that anyone pays much attention to these islands." Aggie stood up and surveyed the bowl of the crater as best he could. Trees as far as the eye could see. "Can that tell you how close we are? Or how much closer we've gotten? If the source is in an underground tunnel, the closest point to the source could be miles away from the entrance to the cave."
Buck smiled, at least Aggie thought it was a smile, "No good idea, but the readings are strongest around here, so it seemed like the place to start."
Aggie shouldered his pack and rifle again. He looked sourly at the wall of trees that descended down the slope of the crater and unsheathed the machete. "Heck, it could be fifty feet from here and it would still take us all day to get there. You ready to get moving?"
"I'm ready." Buck sighed, "I wasn't anticipating needing a machete."
In fact, the vegetation was nowhere near as forbidding as it looked at first. Once over the lip, the trees thinned rapidly leaving only scrub and the omnipresent vines. They stopped frequently to check the meter and adjust their course. After a while, Buck stopped and looked back the way they had come. "Aggie, do you see that?" He pointed. Carving its way down the side of the crater where they had been walking was a wide but shallow depression.
"Huh. A vehicle track, maybe? Or something big was dragged. Doesn't look like another crash landing. And we seem to be going in the same direction." Aggie changed course to cut across to the track. "If someone went through the trouble of making a path for us, it would be a shame not to use it."
"I'm not an expert, but it looks old - really old," said Buck.
"Neither am I. But the bugs have been here for 100 years now, so it could go back a ways." Buck and Aggie made quick time across the vine-covered side of the ancient crater, and arrived at the depression. Aggie peered down toward the floor of the basin, trying to follow the depression to wherever it led. "Your gizmo picking up anything different here?"
Buck pointed and waved the sensor. "We seem to be on the right track." He shook his head. "I don't know, looks older than a hundred years to me," he shrugged, "but what do I know? And how could it be? Let's go on."
"Eh. Maybe the bugs were scouting us out before they made their big debut. Who knows?" Aggie shifted his pack again and set off down the center of the depression at a brisk clip, with Buck about a pace behind. Aggie tried not to glance over at his companion too much -- Buck's tongue *lolled* just a bit as they trotted along the brush. It was disconcerting; reminded him of his parents' German Shepard back home. Aggie decided to keep that observation to himself. Peering ahead, he saw they were approaching the center of the crater, but still no hint of where the path was leading. He slowed to a walk. "Anything new?"
"We're on track," said Buck. "It looks like this track, if that's what it is, cuts along the edge here. It seems more or less straight which means it might hit the crater wall over ... there." He pointed. He fished in his pack and came up with a monocular. He scanned along the area he had pointed then offered it to Aggie. "I think there's a cave or underhang of some kind there."
Aggie took his turn peering through the device and saw a darker patch about where Buck indicated. "Looks like." Aggie handed the instrument back. They continued walking toward the crater lip, and the dark spot. "I can't imagine that we haven't been spotted, if there's anyone in there to do the spotting. Still, it would be nice not to go in blind. Can you scan for any other transmissions from that spot? Or heat?"
"That would have been a good idea, huh?" Buck shook his head. "I've got nothing, I'm afraid."
"Well, if anyone was paying attention, I suppose they know we're here. And if they're not, best to press the advantage. Straight on, then?"
With the scar to guide them, they made better progress. It was still edging toward dark when they arrived at what they thought of as the overhang. Their flashlights revealed a cave perhaps 35 or 40 meters wide and perhaps half that high. Seeing no sign of sentient activity, with a shrug they ventured in. Another forty of fifty meters, they drew up short. The cave ended in what looked like a featureless wall of dirt. Buck checked his meter. "The source looks like it's right in front of us."
Aggie walked up to wall and ran two fingers across its surface, rubbing dirt between forefinger and thumb. "I didn't bring a shovel. This doesn't look like a cave in. Maybe the entrance is hidden -- or just dirty." Aggie continued walking along the back wall, looking for telltale seams or crevices. "That think tell you how far behind the wall we need to go?"
"Not really, since I don't know what I'm looking for." Buck approached the wall and gave it a kick resulting in a small shower of dirt. "It doesn't look solid, though."
Aggie pulled up short in his examination, he had found a place where something looked odd. He poked at it and more dirt collapsed revealing a patch of metal.
"Hey, looky here." Aggie took out his knife and started carefully scraping away dirt with the dull back edge. "What do you make of this?"
Buck joined him. "Hmm," was his only comment for a moment as they worked to clear some more space. After a while he said, "Looks like a wall or ... maybe a hull?" By now a span of three or four meters of gently curving metal had been exposed.
"Hull? A ship? Not the most convenient parking spot." Aggie reversed his knife and rapped hilt against the metal surface. "Anyone home?" A dull clang was the only response.
Aggie continued clearing dirt, working toward the far wall of the cave. "Well, wall or hull, gotta figure there's a door somewhere, no? Might as well find it."