Forerunners of Bosk

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

After several days of fruitless checking of stargates and spaceports, Wilma found herself back to the same conclusion.  The clues they needed were back on Neckar.  And she came back to the fact that the old woman the Neckarese had so hypocritically mourned had to hold the key they needed to narrow their search.  She had been alive up to the time Buck and Hawk had taken off.  Where was she now?    She had to have seen something, anything that would help them find Buck and Hawk. 

It was worth a try.  Anything was worth a try. 

“Admiral,” Wilma announced.  “I am going to go back down to Neckar and try and find that old woman.  I think she may have some information that will help us.” 

The admiral only nodded.  He had been expecting this and to be honest, he agreed with his second in command.  Crichton had recently told him that for each stargate coordinate leading away from Neckar, there were about twenty more leading from stargates beyond that first stargate.  Then the insufferable robot began giving him endless extrapolations and figures.   “Take Twiki and Dr. Theopolis.  They might be able to search computer databases, even as primitive as they are, while you inquire.” 

“Thank you, Admiral,” Wilma said, grateful for his understanding.  She realistically knew that a ship such as the Searcher could not suspend its activities in a search and rescue of this magnitude forever.  It was totally unfeasible that they would find Buck and Hawk by checking out all the stargate possibilities.   Stargates, for all that they were marvelous inventions, were also great equalizers.  If a person was being chased, they could hide with virtual impunity once they had reached a stargate. 

Wilma sighed as she strode down the corridor.  If she could only narrow the search, find some kind of clue that would help her find Buck.  Anything at all!   She found Twiki in Buck’s cabin.  “Quit moping, we have work to do,” she said tersely, while still understanding the quad’s feelings.  Feelings, she thought, astonished.  Yes, Twiki definitely was a thinking, feeling entity and she wondered about that phenomenon.  She knew that Buck had done some tinkering on Twiki, but it was still as though there had been an evolution of sorts.  And then Wilma determined that there had been an evolution for all of them.  So much had happened in the past two plus years.   So very much.  

“What’s up, Wilma?” Twiki asked. 

“We’re going to get Dr. Theopolis and go back down to Neckar,” she said.  “A bit of investigative research.” 

“About time,” Twiki grumbled.  

Soon the trio was flying down toward the planet’s surface.  “What is it you are hoping to find, Wilma?” Theo asked. 

“The men in the vineyard mentioned an old woman, a relative of theirs.  There were the tracks of three people leading toward the shuttle’s landing spot.  I want to find out who owns that property, and who this old woman is and where she’s at now.” 

“If we are allowed into their data bases, that shouldn’t be difficult,” Theo told her.  

“But they don’t have more than a primitive computerized record system,” Wilma said, as much to remind herself as to inform the others. 

“But a vineyard is a business and any good business keeps records,” Theo said.  “Land transactions, deeds, newspapers….” 

“Newspapers?  I seem to remember Buck mentioning something like that,” Wilma mused, feeling the twang of anxiety that she always experienced whenever she thought of Buck’s disappearance. 

“Yes,” Theo explained.  “A daily periodical printed on sheets of paper.  And yes, Buck was the one who told me about them, too.” 

“On paper?  Would they keep those kinds of records?” 

“One would hope so.  At least for a few years.”  Theo blinked.  “Buck said that they did on Earth in his day, even though most periodicals were beginning to be stored on computers by the time of his mission.  And remember, Dr. Junius has found printed material that has survived since the holocaust.”  

They landed at a small space/airport and after securing Wilma’s starfighter, took a land shuttle into the middle of a small city, the one nearest to the vineyard where Buck and Hawk had landed.   In the downtown stood several larger buildings, one or two exuding age, none over three stories tall. 

They were met with curious and not a few cold stares.  “What do you want?” a clerk asked tersely when they went into a local government office. 

“We want to access land records and the local newspapers,” Wilma answered.  

“For what purpose?” 

“Two of our crewmen were kidnapped on some property near here and I want to know who owns the vineyard.” 

“I was told your crewman destroyed some valuable property out there.  The old Brock mansion.”  Then the clerk stopped suddenly, as though he had said too much.  

Wilma smiled sweetly.  “Thank you for your information.”  She paused.  “Funny thing.  When I went out there, they didn’t seem that concerned about the house.  But they, like you, seemed awfully anxious to get rid of me.”  She paused again.  “I have heard that your planetary governments have applied to join the Galactic Council.  This certainly isn’t going to look good on the application.”  Wilma looked up, tapping her chin with one finger.  “Disappearance of two Earth Directorate members, obstruction of an investigation.  No, not look good at all.” 

The man glared at her for a few seconds.  “Personally, I don’t give a brishel of grapes for off-planetary affiliations.  And if your people did what I have heard they did, then maybe we don’t need to be part of this Galactic Council.” 

“Knowing my men the way I do, I can tell you that they did not do what I have heard they did.  They were ambushed,” Wilma said tersely.  “And I want to know who did it and where my people are.” 

“And I don’t want to be accused of anything by our government,” the man retorted.  “You don’t need to see the records.  The Ahern family owns the land you’re talking about.”  

“What about the Brocks?”  

“They used to own the land, but when old man Brock died, the Aherns paid the past due tariffs and took over the land.” 

“There was an old woman,” Wilma prompted.  

“Brisella Ahern Brock,” the clerk said.  “Joses Ahern allowed her to keep living in the old house.” 

“Where is she now?” 

The man shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I heard a rumor that your men killed her when they burnt down the mansion, but I don’t really know.”  He saw Wilma bristling and hastened to add, “They probably dumped her in an old folks home somewhere.”  

Wilma gazed at him for another moment or two and then smiled softly.  “Thanks for your information.”  She turned to leave, motioning to Twiki. 

After they had left the building, Theo said, “Very well done, Wilma.”  Twiki beeped his agreement.

“We still haven’t found Brisella Brock,” she said. 

“And do you think that could be a problem?” Theo asked.

“Yes.  Maybe impossible if the Aherns or those that hired them think she knows too much,” Wilma said tersely. 

“They would kill her?  An old woman?”   Theo was appalled, but when he checked his historical circuits, he realized that Wilma was right.  “Where do you propose to look first, the newspaper office?”

“Yes, and then find out where these old folks homes are,” Wilma said. 

At the newspaper office she was met with more curiosity than hostility.  “You from that big ship that’s been orbiting Neckar the past few days?” the older man at the desk asked when she had inquired about Brisella Brock.  He was balding, only a fringe of gray hair from above one ear around the back of his head to the other ear.  Slightly pudgy, the man was far from fat.  His blue eyes studied her carefully even as he seemed to be paying close attention to what she might say.  

Inquisitive, isn’t he? Wilma thought.   “Yes,” she answered simply.   

“Same ship the two pyrotechnic experts were from?”  The man wasn’t smiling now, but his eyes still seemed friendly, or maybe just curious.  

“Pyrotechnics experts?” Wilma asked. 

“If by that, you mean Captain Rogers and Hawk, your information is highly questionable,” Theo said, his voice even to anyone but Wilma, who knew the quad well.  She noted a touch of testiness.  “By all indications, our comrades were ambushed and not the other way around.” 

The man’s eyes grew large and he leaned over his desk to stare at Twiki and Theo.  “Well, I’ll be,” he murmured.  

Wilma decided to give the man the benefit of the doubt.  “I am Colonel Wilma Deering and this is Dr. Theopolis and Twiki,” she said politely.  

“Which is which?” the man asked. 

“I am a computer councilman from Earth,” Theo answered.  “Twiki is an ambu-quad and serves as my means of transportation.   

Twiki held out his hand.  “Glad to meetcha,” he said. 

The man took it gingerly and shook hands.  “I’m Leon Habris,” he said to all three.  He sat back down and gazed at them for a moment.  “Depending on which story you listen to, your men burned down the Brock mansion, killed Brisella Brock or kidnapped her.”  

“I am simply trying to find B . . . Captain Rogers and Hawk,” Wilma said.  “I know these men and I know they wouldn’t have done any one of those things.” 

“They aren’t on your ship?  The Aherns claim to have chased them off.”

“No, I’m afraid, from what little I’ve been able to find out, that they were kidnapped,” Wilma replied. 

“Kind of thought the Aherns were blowing smoke rings.  Ever since they began to prosper with off-world trade, they’ve been getting more and more arrogant and obnoxious.”  Habris pointed toward a couple of chairs.  “Have a seat and tell me your side of the story.”  He smiled.  “I am curious.  Newspaperman’s inclination, I suppose.” 

“Not much to tell,” Wilma said, feeling that this was a man she could trust.  “When we came into this quadrant we received a Class I emergency distress signal.”  Seeing his puzzled look, she explained, “That’s a signal that is powerful enough to be picked up outside of the solar system of origin and is also one deemed of dire emergency.  Usually natural disaster or some kind of cataclysmic man-made accident.   To not respond to one is tantamount to criminal disregard.  So Buck, uh, Captain Rogers, and Hawk flew down in a shuttle to access the situation and let us know what help was needed.  While they were down there, we noted that there were no natural disasters, no attacks, and no wrecked ships.   There was also some kind of interference, natural, we thought at the time, that prevented us from communicating with them.  Before we could act on this information our two men took off after a starfighter.”  She paused to see if Habris understood what she was saying.  When she saw that he was, Wilma continued, telling him of her investigations thus far.  And even as she spoke of the past days, she felt the renewed tension of inactivity, the despair of helplessness building in her mind.  With a shake of her head, Wilma tried to rid herself of the feelings that had been with her constantly since Buck and Hawk’s disappearance.  

When she had finished, Habris leaned back, deep in thought.  Then he sighed.  “I knew the Aherns were ruthless, but….” 

“Do you have a picture of Brisella Brock?” 

“Oh, yes.  She was quite the lady when her husband was alive.   Always doing charity work and holding social events.”  Then he got up.  “Follow me.” 

They went to a back room filled along one wall with metal cabinets.  Habris opened a drawer and pulled out a small box.  “This contains film disk copies of the gazette from about five years ago.  The year Mrs. Brock’s husband died.  The year the Aherns paid the tariffs and took over the Brock properties.”  He paused.  “I think it will be enlightening.”  He put a small round disk in a machine, which he turned on.  Almost immediately, Wilma saw a picture of a very elegant looking, white-haired woman, an older, but tall and straight man next to her. 

“That’s Brisella Brock and her husband, Edward.  You can put her name into the search and the projector will pull up everything about her.  Just let me know where you’re done,” Habris said. 

“Thank you,” Wilma said, sitting down in front of the small screen.  She carefully read and looked at everything the machine brought up, as did Twiki and Theo.  When they were finished, she leaned back and sighed.  

“A very interesting woman,” Theo said. 

“Yes,” Wilma concurred.  “And an interesting society.”  A society where slavery had only been abandoned a scarce twenty years before, about the time that modern technology began to make headway.   

“She took all of these trials very hard,” Wilma added after a slight pause.  “I wonder what she looks like now.”  She got up and turned the machine off, stretching cramped muscles.  “If she is still alive.”  

“She didn’t allow any pictures after her husband died, or very few anyway,” Habris said from the doorway.  He came in and pulled the disk out of the machine.  Then he added softly, “But if she is still alive, the Aherns have probably put her in a home in the city, certainly not here.  Someplace where she’s not known.” 

“The city nearest here?”

Habris shook his head.  “Most likely the capital city, Dubros.  More anonymity there.  But if she is in a home, your nosing around could very likely cause an early death, especially if she saw and heard things the Aherns would rather leave unsaid.”  He rubbed his chin.  “I can’t help but wonder, though, what the Aherns had against your two men.  Why this device?  What possible reason would Joses and his brood have for enticing a couple of off-world pilots to their land?  And what about that other ship you mentioned.  If that was the reason for the distress call, it didn’t seem to be in distress if it took off.”  He gazed meaningfully at Wilma.  

“I have been wondering that myself and can only think of one thing,” Wilma said and then paused, wondering just how much to tell this man.

“The Aherns were just the agents for someone else,” Habris supplied.  “Someone off-world.” 

Wilma looked at him in surprise, then she nodded.  “That was my thought, in fact that is the only explanation.”  She sighed. 

“I just wish there was a way to interrogate one of the Aherns, but we are walking a fine tightrope just as your planetary governments are,” Theo interjected.  “We have to do this as discreetly as we can, because if our suspicions are correct, then this is not a planetary scale scheme, this is the action of one small group of people going for revenge.  And we would not wish to endanger the negotiations that are going on between your planet and the Galactic Council.” 

Habris nodded.  “Your crewmates must have made some particularly nasty enemies.” 

Negotiations be damned, Wilma thought, but she left her feelings unsaid.   She felt trapped.  Whoever had done this had planned well and executed even better.  They had picked their place and time with utmost care.  And it was going to be very hard to unravel this plot.  “I don’t want to endanger Brisella Brock, but she is the only connection that we have right now.  How can I find her?” Wilma asked plaintively, desperately pushing back the despair she was feeling.  “How can I find my crewmates?”  She gazed intently at Habris.  “One of them is my fiancé,” she added softly. 

Habris paused a moment, then sighed.  “Give me a couple of days.  I might be able to find somebody who can tell me something.  Come back for an interview.  Readers would be interested in hearing about your, uh, friends here.” 

Wilma smiled.  “Thank you, Mr. Habris.”

 

 

 

Chapter Seven
Forerunners of Bosk Prologue
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