Chapter Twenty-Three

“What’s on your mind?” Harper S. Ferry asked, when Judson Van Hale came into his office. The former Sphinx Forestry Service ranger was frowning and the treecat perched on his shoulder seemed unusually somber as well. “You’re looking disgruntled this morning.”

Van Hale gave him a quick smile, but there wasn’t any humor in it. “Whatever happened to the background check you were going to do on Ronald Allen?”

“Ronald who?”

“He was one of the ex-slave immigrants who arrived here about two months ago. Genghis thought his mental — ‘taste,’ he calls it — was a little wrong. I brought the matter to your attention and you were going to do a more thorough background check.”

“Yeah, I remember now. Hm. Good question, actually. I’d forgotten about it. Let me see what Records has to say.” Harper began keying entries into his computer. “Spell the name, would you? The last name, I mean.”

“Allen. A-L-L-E-N, not A-L-L-A-N.” Judson drew a memo pad from his pocket and thumbed the entry he’d pre-selected. “Here. This is what he looks like.”

Harper glanced at the screen in Van Hale’s hand and saw a tall man in a brown jumpsuit. Going by his appearance, he was probably one of what Manpower called its “general utility lines,” which they designated either D or E. That was a fancy way of saying that they hadn’t bothered to do much in the way of genetic engineering.

A screen came up on Harper’s computer. After studying it for a few seconds, he hissed in a breath.

Judson could feel Genghis tensing on his shoulder. The treecat was picking up the emotional aura Harper was emanating as a result of whatever he’d seen on the screen. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“God damn all business-as-usual clerks,” Harper said. “This should have been flagged and brought to my attention immediately.”

He swiveled the screen so Judson could see it. The screen read:

Background search
Allen, Ronald
scanning error

“Oh, hell,” Judson said. “Where’s Zeiger? And what happened to Allen?”

Harper S. Ferry was working at the keyboard again. After a moment he said: “Zeiger’ll be easy to find, thankfully. He’s a resident of Beacon” — that was the name the ex-slaves had bestowed on Torch’s capital city not long after the insurrection — “and, better still, he works for the Pharmaceutical Inspection Board. He’s a clerk, too, not a field agent, so he ought to be right here.” He gestured at one of the windows. “Well, just a few blocks away. We can be there in five minutes.”

“And Allen?”

Harper keyed in some final words. “Oh, wonderful. He also works in the pharmaceutical industry, but he’s a roustabout. He could be anywhere on the planet.”

“Which company does he work for?”

“Havlicek Pharmaceutics. One of the Erewhonese firms.”

“Well, that’s a break. They’ll have good personnel records, unlike most of the homegrown outfits — and you didn’t hear me cast that aspersion upon our stalwart native entrepreneurs.”

Harper chuckled, and pulled out his com unit. “I’ll see if I can track down Allen’s whereabouts, while I’m pulling up the scanning records. Meanwhile, trot over to the PIB and see what’s up with Zeiger.”

Judson headed for the door.

* * *

He was back in half an hour, with a stocky, balding, middle-aged man in tow. “This is Timothy Zeiger. Tim, meet Harper S. Ferry. Harper, his number checks out.”

Without being prompted, Zeiger stuck out his tongue. Ferry rose from his desk and leaned over. There, quite visible, was the number at issue: D-17d-2547-2/5.

Harper glanced at the treecat. “What does Genghis say?”

“He thinks Tim’s kosher. A little apprehensive, of course, but that’s to be expected. Mostly, he’s just curious.”

“I sure as hell am,” said Zeiger. “What’s this all about?”

Harper didn’t answer him immediately. He’d resumed his seat and was studying the screen. “You’re pretty well-established, aren’t you? Married eighteen months ago — less than half a year after you arrived, congratulations — one child –”

“And another on the way,” Zeiger interrupted.

Harper kept going. “You belong to Temple Ben Bezalel. Hipparchus Club, center bowler for the club’s torqueball team, and you and your wife even belong to an amateur theater troupe.”

“Yeah. So what? And I’m asking again — what’s this all about?”

Harper leaned back in his seat and looked up at Van Hale. “What do you think, Judson?”

“Same as you.” He hooked a thumb at Zeiger. “He checks out all across the board. What about Ronald Allen?”

Ferry scowled. “He smells worse and worse the more I study him. He seems to have made no serious attachments since he got here. And he has no regular address.”

“Being fair, most roustabouts don’t. And he hasn’t been here that long.”

“True. Still . . .”

Zeiger was obviously on the verge of exploding. Harper raised a calming hand and said, “What this is all about, Tim, is that somebody else was registered with your genetic marker number. Which, so far as anyone knows, doesn’t ever happen. At least, I’ve never heard of Manpower duplicating numbers.”

“There wouldn’t be much point in it, anyway,” Judson said, shaking his head. “If we assume for the moment that there’s a covert operation involved. You’d run too much risk of the duplication being spotted, it would seem to me. Here on Torch, anyway. We’ve never kept quiet the fact that we require all ex-slaves to register when they arrive.”

Zeiger had an odd look on his face. Whatever emotions were stirring in his head were enough to perk Genghis’ interest. The treecat was looking at him intently.

“Uh . . . maybe not,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“The way I got freed was something of a fluke. A Havenite warship intercepted a slaver convoy — this was about thirty-five years ago –”

“Convoy?” Judson was a little startled.

Ferry nodded. “It’s not unheard of. Usually slaver ships operate solo, but there are some exceptions. So what happened, Tim?”

“Well, the Havenites sprang the trap a little too early. Most of the convoy was able to translate into hyper before they could be run down. The ship I was on was the last one and the Havenites destroyed it, just a couple of minutes before the slave ship ahead of it made the transition.”

Harper pursed his lips. “So . . . they’d have seen your ship blow up, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yeah. And according to the Havenites who rescued me, it was pretty spectacular. They were astonished to discover any survivors. There was just me and a girl and the two slaver crewmen who grabbed her and dragged her into a lifeboat. I scrambled in just before they closed the hatch. They were mad enough to beat me a little, but not much, since they were mostly desperate to get free. I guess we left the ship just in time.”

For an instant, his heavyset face got savage. “The Havenites pitched the two slavers into space less than an hour after they rounded us up. Without skinsuits. So me and the girl wound up being the only survivors.”