Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 29
Chapter 9 – Icecube
A full whiteout blizzard obscured the landing ground by Station Forty-Three. They would never have found the place without the automatics. The station itself was an ellipsoid dome half buried in ice and snow. Two open-topped torpedo-shaped frames rather larger than the barge were already parked outside on solid skids shaped like ventral fins.
A repellor field switched on across the pad once Boswell shut down the barge’s frame field. This held off the snow and offered a degree of relief from the biting wind. Even so the chill factor was way down below zero. The travelers wasted no time in making a run for the tunnel that ran out from the dome to the pad. Allenson had brought a heavy coat for inclement weather but this was ridiculous.
The tunnel was empty but a door slid aside when they reached the end to give access to the dome. Inside a stocky man met the party. He had several days’ growth of untidy facial hair under a peaked cap.
“Good evening,” Allenson said, holding out his hand. “My name is …”
“I know who you are, General Allenson,” the man said curtly, ignoring the hand. “The automatics announced you. What I don’t know is why you’re here.”
Buller snorted in amusement.
“So you’re not welcome everywhere, eh, Allenson?”
Buller had not taken Allenson’s lionization by the Arcadians well. Of course, neither had Allenson himself but for a rather different reason.
“I’d hoped for some hospitality for the night and a recharge for my barge’s fuel cells,” Allenson replied, somewhat nettled by the man’s incivility. “Obviously I expect to pay my way.”
“You and your party are welcome to the use of the guest room,” the man said, unbending slightly. “You can buy meals in the staff canteen.”
“And my barge?”
“Won’t be recharged tonight,” the man said with a certain relish. “You may have noticed there’s a little bit of a blow on. The repellor field interferes with the charger.”
“Of course, right after we’ve recharged our own cars.”
The guest room boasted but Spartan accommodation in the form of bunk beds but it was at least warm. A functional staff canteen provided basic meals that suited Allenson but caused a degree of moaning and gnashing of teeth from Buller and Redley. They also took exception that Allenson invited Boswell to eat at the same table as the gentlemen. Allenson was pleased to note that Todd kept his own council on the matter.
None of the staff or employees in the canteen showed overt hostility but there was a definite coolness towards Allenson’s party that had nothing to do with Icecube’s climate. He retired early to his bunk and spent some time on his datapad checking through the news on Icecube’s open access net. He found nothing that he didn’t already know beyond the fact that the station was a private venture by a Brasilian perfume company. He fell asleep before finding out why a perfume company would want a station on a Hinterlands snowball world.
Buller skipped breakfast the next day. After he’d eaten Allenson tracked down the unshaven manager whose name, he discovered, was Whitbee.
This morning Whitbee was all smiles, oozing what he no doubt fondly considered to be charm.
“How pleasant to see you, General Allenson. I trust you slept well?”
Allenson had slept tolerably well despite being woken in the early hours by Buller staggering into the room much the worse from a drinking session with some of the riggers. He gave an appropriate response.
Whitbee clasped his hands to his breast and put on an expression of pious rectitude.
“I regret I have some bad news, General.”
“Our charger has broken down. I’m sure a mechanic will quickly rectify the problem but there’ll be a short delay before you can be on your way.”
“I see,” Allenson replied.
“We did get one of our cars recharged and the storm has passed so we’ll be sending out a hunt. I thought you might wish to accompany them to pass the time?”
“What do you hunt?” Allenson asked, intrigued.
Allenson looked blank. Whitbee hastened to explain.
“Spectacular marine organisms that filter feed on the plankton swarming around the edge of the ice sheets. The plankton congregate at the surface so we harpoon spirotrichs when they come up after them. The beasts themselves are valueless but they secrete fecal pellets in their digestive tract that are rich in a complex alcohol called ambrein. It’s prized for stabilizing perfumery so is valuable stuff back home. Terran women in particular will pay exotic prices for ambrein-based perfume.”
“And the chemical can’t be cheaply replicated in an industrial process?”
“Sure, but the top perfumiers swear that the artificial compound is too pure and lacks the necessary complex organic contaminants that give natural ambrein its unique qualities.”
Allenson suspected that natural ambrein based perfumes were simply another way for the ultra-rich to display their status through luxury unobtainable to the merely wealthy. Not that it mattered. Wealth display was a valuable way to recycle money back down the social system in a form that didn’t alarm the aristocracy. Redistribution of wealth without revolution was always a tricky issue in human society. Any system that had fat cats competing for the privilege of throwing cash at the proles was to be encouraged.
“I believe I would find the hunt fascinating. Thank you, Master Whitbee.”
“We’ll lend you a spare survival suit. I’m sure we have one somewhere that will fit you,” Whitbee said measuring up Allenson’s sizable frame with his eyes. “It gets pretty cold over the ocean.”
The dresser finally located a suit that more or less fitted after a search in the deeper recesses of his lockers. Suitably clad, Allenson headed out to one of the cars. The air was still and clear. You could see right up to where the blue sky was so dark it was almost black.
The car had the usual retracted frame pylons but what was unusual were the heavy turbofans mounted in pairs at the bow and stern. They must be incredibly power-hungry and Allenson could not for the life of him see what use they could be. No doubt all would be revealed.
Technicians prepared the craft. They pulled covers off the open crew area to reveal a large harpoon gun on three hundred and sixty degree gimbals in the bow.
Allenson introduced himself to the hunt captain.
“I hope I won’t be in the way.”
“Not at all, general, Master Whitbee has made the necessary arrangements. I’ve arranged for you to ride up front with the gunner where you’ll get a good view.”
Allenson climbed up a ladder affixed to the bow to enter the small front compartment partly filled with the harpoon gun. The only other crewman stationed there was the gunner. The captain and the other two crew members rode at the rear where the flight controls were located. The crew compartments were separated by bulky fuel cells so it was not possible to move between the two in flight.
The crew completed the final checks. They just switched on the drive when Todd hurtled out of the tunnel, still zipping up a survival suit. The captain stood up to wave him away but Todd ignored the man. He hauled himself into the crowded front compartment as the pylons extended and the field formed.
“There’s only room for two up here. You’ll have to get off,” the gunner said, moving to intercept Todd who brushed him aside.