Xaero aided as and where needed to get the first probe dropped. The vid images were straight out of volcano hell, with temperatures to match. The probe died within minutes, so they jumped a hundred years and did it again. That probe died reporting a surface temperature and atmospheric profile that hadn't changed significantly. A thousand year jump showed some cooling, another thousand and they actually found a few polar areas. Eight thousand years ahead of their own time they finally had a merely steaming hot planet, with noticeable seasons, and on the scale of centuries, a cooling trend.
Ten thousand years into their future, Xaero finally released a suite of micro-organisms, some hotsprings bacteria that lived on hot sulfur and the toughest of the primitive photosynthesizing bacteria. She was pleased to find them still alive, and moderately spread out a century later, and added more.
Every stop L'on tried to give them time to recover, to rehydrate, to sleep off the effects and digest a good meal or two before they worked and then jumped again. It wasn't working very well.
"I can't believe I've lost this much weight." Arto moaned, "And most of it muscle I worked for, for the Blue trips."
"Eat." Xaero said, grimacing at the wafer she held in her hand. "Trev's lost weight too. Wretched male is one of the ones who just wants to be left alone when he's sick, instead of hovered over, so I haven't hardly seen him."
"Eventually you'll be glad of that."
"Yeah, but I wouldn't mind doing a little bit of hovering and comforting."
"Not that kind of comforting! Sand! No privacy even if I did want to do that sort of comforting."
"Suuure, Xaero, I believe you." Arto reached out and picked up a wafer herself. "How far into the future are we, at the moment?"
"About two million years. The algae are all surviving. L'on says we should start doing Beltova and Cirusta as well, in the hopes that we can develop all three at the same time. That'll give us longer stretches without jumps."
"Zero gravity is not much of an improvement!"
"Anyway, the end is in sight. L'on says ten more days and then we pack up and leave."
"After one last _huge_ jump to see if we can detect atmospheric changes. Bleck."
Patroller Hoty R'sah was irritated to find out that Imperial Guards were just like every other male she'd ever met—more impressed with her looks than her brains. She gritted her teeth and did not say anything as the two oversized males looked her over. One does not get snippy in front of a legend. Especially a legend with some really spooky rumors attached. General S'ank ran all of intelligence, all of Imperial Security, and all of the Imperial family's personal security, apparently without breaking a spine.
Everyone said he delegated well. Which made his personal attention to this matter all the scarier. She'd thought up fifteen variations on four general scenarios after the DNA results came in.
S'ank pointed at stools and the two guards sat obediently.
Good little lizards. Err, big lizards.
"Sergeant Gergi H'nkel and Sergeant Leri K'derat are Prince Fatreve's regular guards. They accompanied him on a recent monorail trip."
They both looked both worried and curious. The big one with the faint brassy stripe spoke up. "Has something happened to . . . that vehicle?" his voice was so deep it was almost more of a vibration than a noise.
"Not that we know of." S'ank answered. "This is Detective Jodeni Fre G'sele and Patroller Hoto R'sah. She responded to a report of vandalism on a monorail car. Patroller?"
"There was a concealed door between the male and fem lavs. Very well done. Invisible. I'm surprised the cleaning staff even noticed it. I swiped it for DNA, figuring I might catch a pervert. Next thing I know, I'm up here." Her eyes strayed from the Guards' fancy uniforms to S'ank in disbelief. I wanted a pervert, not a prince!
"DNA results?" the other big one asked. Sand it all, which was which? This one was a mottled sand color with a bronze crest.
"Metini L'azlod." The fourth man in the room spoke up. Hoty had met Detective G'sele of the Department of Martian Security only once before this came up. He was way above her and off to the side in the echelons of the DMS. "That triggered all sorts of alarms, and brought my department in. Then we got the rest of the results. A couple of his known associates, and Prince Fatreve."
The brassy guard closed his eyes in pain. "He went to the lav once on the trip to . . . on that trip three days ago. Didn't say much when he came back, picked up his book and read the rest of the trip."
"And then he went straight into pre . . . err." The second guard glanced at the Detective and the Patroller.
"So, we have two problems." S'ank said. "Where is Trev and what is Metini up to . . . where Trev ought to be. We were perhaps a bit too casual about just using Fatreve's nick name and paternal line, and Xaero's middle name in that project. In retrospect, they were both too recognizable. In any case, I will be assembling a different team to deal with that last. You two are seconded to Detective G'sele for the duration." He told the overgrown males.
The first guard's hands clenched. "No bodies found?"
"No. So we're hoping he's alive. Standard kidnapping investigation, from here on out, with the 'advantage' that we know who instigated the snatch."
"Do we?" the first guard stared at his clenched fists. "Metini is a criminal as well as a terrorist, and he's got lots of government associations as well. This could be the Union, using L'azlod, rather than L'azlod on his own."
"True." S'ank admitted. "So go talk to the political analysts as well. Find him." That last was a plea, and the guards nodded.
"And warn Xaero, if she hasn't noticed, yet." The first guard spread his hands helplessly. "When they get . . . back in communication. Very soon after they get back in contact."
"Umm." Might as well get it over with, Hoty told herself. "You seem quite sure this was a kidnapping, not a spoiled prince working a drug deal, or treason." She managed to keep her voice level. Her gizzard sank as the silence lengthened. The two guards had gone expressionless, but Brassy was leaking . . . fury.
S'ank finally sighed and sat back, looking at G'sele. "You want her in on this investigation?"
"Yes. She's very bright and as you can see, has spent a great deal of time thinking of all possible ramifications. Intelligence has had their eye on her since she graduated from the academy."
They have? Hoty blinked, but kept quiet.
S'ank nodded to the detective and looked back at her. "This is classified. It is not to be discussed with anyone not cleared by H'nkel or K'derat. Prince Fatreve is a very active undercover agent. He has been with the DMS since his graduation, and is currently supposed to be someplace very very secret. He is a near ringer for Metini L'azlod, a fact we have taken advantage of before. This time we're afraid the claw's on the other hand."
"In other words," The first guard growled, "We trust him completely, and hope he has enough intrinsic value that L'azlod will have kept him alive for ransom. Sort of a bonus on top of all the intelligence he's no doubt currently collecting."
"All right," she said. "Another scenario I had was that it was pure coincidence that the prince boarded the same car L'azlod had fixed for other purposes."
"In our fondest dreams," the second guard said.
"I think we got too predictable," The first guard hunched his broad muscular shoulders. "Nearly always the first car of the train, nearly always the Ten express." His hands were clenched again.
"All right." She could feel her cheeks flushing in embarrassment. "Since we'll be working together, I didn't actually catch which of you was which."
"Leri K'derat." The second Guard said, "Call me Leri, please." He smiled.
"Gergi H'nkel, Vee to my friends, story too silly to tell." The first, brassy stripped one said. With his deep rumble it was hard to tell if he was still pissed or not. At least he wasn't flirting.
G'sele pulled out his comm. pad. "The first thing I want is a minute by minute replay of your monorail trip."
S'ank rose, returned the salutes of the two guards and slipped quietly out. Apparently he had just delegated.
"We were the first lizards on board." Vee started. "I checked both male and fem lavs, they were empty, clean. Obviously the car was just out of the yard, and had been cleaned, vacuum cleaner tracks on the rug, and so forth. We sat all on the right, in one of those setups with two benches facing each other. I faced rear, Leri front, Trev was against the window facing front. That way very few other travelers saw his face, to recognize him."
"Periodically, one or the other of us would get up and take a stretch stroll up and down the aisle, which got us a good look at the other lizards aboard." Leri jumped in, still smiling at her. Urk! "There were seven women, traveling together, over-weight, over-dressed in those frilly long drapes that were fashionable last year."
"They were chattering, and talking about males. Eyeing us." Vee said, "So Trev just hunkered down and didn't even look around. Two business types, pseudo males, traveling separately, both reading the whole time. A young couple, all over each other. That was it." His eyes half closed. "The women came and went from the lav frequently, usually in pairs if not trios. Three of them went in just before Trev got up and walked down there. He came right back, fished his reader out of his pocket and went back to reading. The women . . . two more went in and three left. Then another, then three. Then four came out." His eyes opened. "Sandy hell. There was always at least two in there, it wasn't empty even when we got off in Daeda. Trev was there, with a guard or two. He was there and we walked off with L'azlod and left him."
Hoty called up her monorail schedule. "The Ten keeps going all the way to Cimmi Cliffs, then returns."
"They may have decided to remove him at West Plateau, to avoid any chance of a Customs check." G'sele said. "I'll talk to them, see if they even remember, let alone checked a party of women."
"And then, cart or tram to Ice Cap South." Vee said. "Cimmi Cliffs doesn't check lizards or vehicles leaving nearly as rigorously as they do what's coming in."