Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
 
 

Hellhole was still there.

The way my luck was running, I might have expected it to be gone, vanished into the ether like a bad dream. But there it was, enigmatic as ever in its Trojan-point orbit, when Zelazny entered the system and began her long fall toward the triple suns.

When Captain Haliday ordered me to be on the Control Deck when we arrived, I'd expected to find myself hovering at the elbow of one of Zelazny's Scispecs like the proverbial fifth wheel. But not so: to my astonishment, the captain waved me immediately to the Science station, quite alone and unassisted. It was the first time I had ever done so: aboard Raven my turn had never come--for some strange reason.

As I settled in beneath the view-dome, in the midst of a dozen monitor screens and countless smaller readouts, Max and Aparna glanced over from their panels with encouraging smiles. Probably they believed I'd "made it;" that I was now a full-fledged Scispec. Little did they know. I had not yet told them the condition of my eyes. They'd have to find out eventually, but their sympathy--heartfelt though it would have been--was a distraction I couldn't afford just then.

Zelazny had built up a tremendous flat-space velocity during our transit, and so our passage through the system was brief. By the time I'd finished fine-tuning the various sensors to my satisfaction, Hellhole's mottled, green and brown continents and electric-blue saline seas were already clearly visible. As we backed in, shedding speed, Goodwin glanced over at the captain. "Ten minutes, sir," he reported. "Standard orbit?"

Haliday turned to me. "Will that be safe, Lieutenant?"

"I believe so, sir," I told him. "Whatever I saw, it clearly had no effect on Raven."

Haliday nodded. "Geosynchronous, Max," he ordered. "Over the coordinates where Lieutenant Ehm'ayla was found. Whatever we're dealing with, that seems to be the focal point."

"Aye, sir!"

We drifted in slowly, Hellhole growing larger and more distinct as the minutes ticked by. I fought to keep my mind on the instruments, but time and again my gaze was drawn back to the holoscreen. The feelings that surged through me as I gazed upon that sun-baked globe were frighteningly strong--and impossible to define. For sixty-three days that planet had been my home--in a manner of speaking. Better perhaps to say that for sixty-three days I'd battled the place, quite literally tooth and nail. The very sight of it ought to have horrified me--and somewhere deep inside I suppose it did. But that feeling was subsumed beneath a sudden and inexplicable wave of longing. Far from feeling repelled, I actually found myself drawn. As if something was reaching up and pulling me in…

"Lieutenant? If I could have a moment of your valuable time?"

I shook myself, and looked up to see Captain Haliday leaning on my console, frowning. With a hot rush of embarrassment I wondered how long he'd been standing there. In ten years' service, I'd never done that before. "Sorry, sir."

"Is something wrong, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir," I assured him. "My mind was...wandering."

He quirked a smile. "Understandable, I suppose." He nodded at my panel. "Any sign of those phenomena we detected during our last visit?"

I touched controls. "No, sir," I said a moment later. "The planet's magnetic field is as stable as it gets. The oscillation frequency appears to be slightly slower--" I tapped more keys-- "by seven-tenths of a second." I looked up. "Interesting, but probably insignificant."

"I tend to agree," Haliday said dryly. "And the other?"

I frowned at the holo-monitors, which my damaged eyes made difficult to decipher. "No sign, sir," I said. "Nothing at all resembling a hypertunnel."

The captain nodded slowly. "All right," he said. He clapped me on the shoulder. "Continue to monitor, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir."

"You were wasted as a Compcomm, Ehm'ayla," he commented quietly, but he stepped off toward Nav before I could wrap my tongue around a reply.

Daydreaming on duty like a kit up a tree! I berated myself sternly. Count yourself lucky you're not on report!

…But that feeling still wouldn't leave me alone. Every time I glanced at the screen the planet seemed to grab me, an almost physical pull that more than once brought me halfway out of my chair. Antilles was right, I thought. There is somebody down there! But that might turn out to be a moot point: whoever they were, they couldn't have me. I'd be getting no closer to Hellhole than Zelazny's geosynchronous orbit. That ought to have been a comfort--but instead, inexplicably, it caused vexation almost to the point of rage.

Monitoring the instruments required only half my attention, and to occupy the rest I brought up the readings of the odd phenomena recorded by Zelazny two weeks ago. First a massive magnetic disturbance, "almost like a target," centered precisely on the clearing where I would be found soon after. Second, a still-unexplained phenomenon strongly resembling a hypertunnel. As I examined the data, my teeth were bared in a quiet snarl of frustration. More than ever, I wished I'd had my wrist chrono with me on Hellhole. The exact timing of the events surrounding my rescue had become vitally important--but I had no way of reckoning it.

As near as I could determine, the magnetic anomaly occurred while I was still deep in the woods, hunting. Max and Aparna's pod passed over the forest not long afterward--and how I'd failed to notice that, I still could not explain. Which meant…the other phenomenon coincided exactly with my going mano-a-mano against a large and hungry animal. And just before that, I experienced a sudden and inexplicable wave of dizziness--very like what I'd felt after passing out on the trail, not long before Raven's "destruction." I'd chalked the first up to heatstroke…but that did not explain the second, which occurred long after I'd become acclimated. Though I didn't faint the second time, the feeling of disorientation was identical. That could not be a coincidence.

No one completely understands hypertunnels--or "wormholes," as they're sometimes known. Their existence, theoretical for decades, was proved by accident almost two centuries before I was born, when a deep-space probe launched from Centaurus suddenly appeared in the Sol system. We use hypertunnels--but no one has a clue how to manipulate them, let alone create them. But what if some extremely advanced species did know? What if they had found a way to produce hypertunnels to order--and to toss them around with gay abandon, employing them as we did drop-shafts? If so…

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla?"

This time I was forewarned, and shook free from my reverie instantly. "Yes, Captain?"

"What's the current time down below?"

I touched keys. "One half hour past midday, sir."

Haliday frowned and rubbed his chin, gazing at the holoscreen through narrowed eyes. "Too late to send down a landing party today," he decided. He glanced at me. "When will dawn occur?"

I did a quick mental calculation. "Just after ten hundred ship's time, sir."

He nodded thoughtfully. "That could work out quite well," he said. "We'll schedule the mission briefing for oh-seven-thirty, and the landing party will embark at oh-nine-thirty." He paused. "I want you to be at the briefing, Lieutenant. You're our expert on conditions down there--I want you to thoroughly acquaint everyone with what they can expect."

"Yes, sir," I said. I paused…and when I spoke again it was as if someone else was making use of my voice. Or perhaps that's simply a convenient rationalization; I no longer know. "Captain, may I make a request--?"

He cut me off with a frown and a slashing gesture. "No," he said curtly. "You may not."

"But sir…" I persisted. Max, Aparna and the rest of the Control Deck crew were staring by then, wondering no doubt what was going on. Squelching curiosity with a stern glance, the captain rose and crossed to my station. Bending low, he spoke quietly into my ear.

"Lieutenant, you know as well as I do, the Control Deck is not the place for this. And the matter is no longer open for debate. I understand your feelings, but I have to consider the safety of this entire crew. You will not be setting foot on the planet, and that is final. Understood?"

I glanced away. "Understood, sir."

"…And I don't want to have to tell you that again."

"You won't, sir."

"Good." He patted my arm. "Trust me--you will be part of this investigation. You'll just have to be patient, and let the landing parties be your eyes and ears."

I almost told him, and to this day I wonder why I didn't. Was I perhaps prevented from doing so? Or is that a another rationalization? Maybe I simply didn't think he would--or could--believe me. What I might have said was something like this: no matter how many landing parties he sent down, they'd all be looking in the wrong place.

###

Curled up on the floor of a maintenance locker, making myself as comfortable as possible in my brand-new and stiff field gear, I once again considered what I was doing…and shook my head in amazement. You've finally lost your mind, I told myself. You know that, don't you? Even then it wasn't too late: I could return to my quarters, undo the damage I'd done, and no one would be the wiser. An excellent idea, yes; the best course available…but I wouldn't be taking it. Whatever had grabbed hold of me when Zelazny came within spitting distance of Hellhole wasn't about to let go that easily.

It's an interesting philosophical question: was I killing my career, or merely euthanizing it? "The Combined Forces doesn't throw away talented people," Haliday had told me--and no doubt he was correct. They might not discard me--but they could shunt me into an assignment which would make me wish they had. I could picture the remainder of a career spent buried in an office somewhere, having survey data read to me--which was not what I'd joined the CF to do. If I survived what I was planning…well, I'd return to Outpost Four under arrest. That much was certain. And after that…perhaps Joel and I would have something in common again.

My shift on the Control Deck lasted five hours. Long enough to conclude that nothing spectacular was likely to happen: Hellhole seemed determined to keep its secrets. Relieved finally by Commander Ancheta, I departed in search of food and rest. Eat I did…but sleep I did not. I tried; but as the hours passed that restless feeling steadily grew, until I feared I would literally explode. For a time I paced the floor, up and back endlessly, all but wearing a groove in the deck-plates. Finally, just before midnight, I sat down at my terminal. When eventually I was hauled before a court-martial--if I lived that long--my attorney would no doubt recommend that I plead temporary insanity. And perhaps at that moment I was insane. Certainly something must account for my appalling behavior. But if so, it had not impaired my natural cunning--nor my skill as a Compcomm.

And now, just before 0200, sitting in a tool locker five meters from the pod hangar, I reached for my bulging backpack and once again inventoried its contents, by the glow of a small flashlight strapped by my wrist. Hopefully I'd thought of everything; no time now to go back for anything I might have missed. Zero Hour was approaching fast.

Collecting my equipment had been the most time-consuming part of the process--and the most nerve-wracking. Fortunately the items I'd been obliged to pilfer were small and easily concealed. Some things--field gear, a commpak and scanpak, and a fresh stinger--I'd acquired before we left the outpost. The rest I located in supply lockers. Power cells; I was lousy with those. A full half-dozen for my cooling unit, and four each for my commpak, scanpak and stinger. A thin silver "survival" blanket, which folded into a package smaller than my hand. A first-aid kit. Food for two weeks, in the form of ration bars and dehydrated meal-packs. A darker pair of goggles. A claw-file. A palm-reader and a small packet of cards containing all our data on Hellhole. And last but not least, two liter-sized bottles. The same ones, in fact, scuffed and battered, that I'd carried throughout my exile. (Of course I'd deny to the death that they were a good-luck charm.) Three months ago, give or take, I'd landed on Hellhole completely unprepared for a stay of more than a few hours. But not again. This time I was loaded for bear.

By the time I'd finished fussing, less than a minute remained. Time to find out if my computer skills were still adequate. I sidled up to the door and pressed my intact ear against that thin partition. Gazing at my chrono, I watched the seconds tick by…and simultaneous with the turning of the hour, a siren began to blare hysterically. Even though I'd programmed it myself, hacking ruthlessly into Zelazny's security system, the sound sent a chill down my spine. To a space traveler it was the most dreaded alarm of all, apart from fire: decompression. In for a penny, as they used to say; if you're going to be court-martialed, you might as well do it up big.

I heard the clatter of running feet, receding quickly into the distance; and a few seconds later I emerged cautiously into an empty corridor. Flattened against the bulkhead, I peered carefully around the corner…and saw that I'd been successful. The security guard on duty at the hangar-deck airlock was gone. By now he'd probably reached his assigned decomp station.

I had no time to waste congratulating myself. Grabbing my backpack, I sprinted across the corridor and into the airlock. Cycling through, I leapt out into the hangar, my hand on my stinger…but that cavernous space was deserted too. Good: I wouldn't have to add "assault" to the list of charges. With a sigh of relief I turned to the panel beside the door and tapped keys. Silence fell with a thud as I canceled the alarm; and then the massive inner doors of the airlock slammed shut and locked. That wouldn't hold for long: Haliday's access codes, or Vandevere's, could easily override my jamming sequence. But if I was lucky, I'd need no more than five minutes.

Zelazny's pod hangar was more than twice the size of Raven's, taking up most of the top level behind the Control Deck. It held a full dozen pods, along with three massive cargo floats which doubled as lifeboats. The vessels stood before me in four neat lines, secure in their mooring clamps. The hangar doors lay directly overhead; they were huge, and curved to fit flush with the outer hull. No turntable here: any of the pods or floats could launch simply by thrusting upwards.

It was Haliday's practice to keep a pod constantly prepped for launch, and today's was Number Eight, also known as Betty. I popped the hatch and clambered aboard, tossing my pack into a passenger seat. As I strapped myself in I saw to my relief that she was indeed ready to fly, her propellant tanks full and her power unit charged. There was even a supply of water in the head. Quickly--because I could be interrupted at any second--I began the warm-up. Watching the lights wink green one by one, I took a deep breath and let it out as a long shuddering sigh. So much for the easy part. From here on in it would get much harder--in more ways than one.

With the pre-launch completed, I linked its computer with Zelazny's. I paused before I typed in the codes, quietly uttering a prayer--though I doubt the Goddess would have approved of my enterprise. Of all the programs I'd so quickly cobbled together, this one was by far the most chancy; and if it failed, this would be a very short trip. I tapped…and immediately the hangar lights flashed red and a klaxon whooped. There followed an agonizing half-minute as the hangar decompressed; then, finally, the overhead doors parted.

At that moment--as I knew all too well--an alarm would be sounding on the Control Deck. Nothing I could do about that; it was hard-wired into Zelazny's security system. What I had blocked--so I hoped--was the Compcomm's ability to do anything about it. Aparna could have overridden my program easily; but my best friend on this side of the galaxy should be off-duty--or on her way to her decomp station. Lieutenant Morley was a good Compcomm; but I'd trained him, and I could still outsmart him.

I didn't wait for the doors to open fully. The instant the opening was wide enough I released the docking clamps and keyed the belly-thrusters in a single swift motion. The acceleration slamming me deep into my seat, Betty shot through the hatch and into space. And with that, I'd made good my escape: there was nothing Zelazny could do to stop me now--nothing physical, anyway. Clear of the hull, I lit the main drive, and sent my stolen craft into a long slow fall toward Hellhole's night side. Behind me the hangar doors slammed shut; but by then it no longer mattered.

I barely had time to catch my breath--and to push aside the pangs of guilt and shame--before the radio buzzed to life. It was Vandevere's voice that blared forth, a little louder than necessary; he sounded as if he couldn't decide whether to be dumbfounded or furious. "Zelazny to Pod Eight! Your launch is unauthorized! Return to the hangar immediately! Repeat, return to the hangar immediately!"

I sighed and reached for my microphone. "I'm sorry, Commander," I said evenly. "I'm afraid I can't do that."

There was a pause, and then Vandevere said in disbelief, "Ehm'ayla? Is that you? What the devil do you think you're doing?"

For a moment I didn't respond. I directed the pod's scanners forward, and as I studied the readouts I growled. Not yet--but it was only a matter of time. Of that I was certain. "Commander," I said finally, "I want you to know how sorry I am. If I ever make it back, I'll willingly accept the consequences of my actions. But I have no choice."

"Lieutenant," Vandevere said, "please think what you're doing. I'm not interested in 'consequences'--I'm only concerned about you. You're not physically fit to go down there alone. I know you don't agree with the captain's decision, but he had no choice. We can talk this over, Ehm'ayla. Just the three of us. Return to the ship. I promise you, on my honor, there will be no disciplinary action. We can wipe this off the record--but only if you return now."

The dark bulk of Hellhole loomed large in my windshield now; less than five minutes and I'd hit the atmosphere. But still nothing. Could I be wrong after all? Could the feelings which had pushed me into acts of blatant insubordination--if not indeed mutiny--be nothing more than the meanderings of my subconscious? No, I decided. No, I don't believe that. I won't--not until I touch down and my shelter isn't there.

"Commander," I said, "I don't have a lot of time, so please listen. I'm not doing this to spite the captain. It's something I simply must do. The planet below isn't where I was stranded. I'm convinced of that now. Wherever that place is, none of your landing parties can possibly find it. Only I can. I know how that sounds, sir, and I wish I could explain--but I can't. If things happen as I expect…well, there won't be much point in sending a rescue team--because they won't be able to find me either. No more than Raven's could."

"What are you saying, Lieutenant?"

"Remember the second phenomenon you recorded? The one that scanned like a hypertunnel? I suggest you keep close watch on your monitors for the next few minutes. I suspect you're about to scan something very similar."

Vandevere attempted to reply, but his words were drowned out by a sudden deafening roar of static. I looked down quickly at the scanners…and then I saw it. Invisible to the naked eye, the phenomenon showed up with perfect clarity on the little screen. I watched in horrified fascination as it rose from Hellhole's surface. Its shape--if such a thing could have a "shape"--was eerily reminiscent of a tornado: an undulating vortex, narrow where it touched the ground, topped by a wide-open maw more than a kilometer across. It looked nothing like any hypertunnel I'd ever encountered--but the energy readings were unmistakable. It climbed high into the ionosphere…and there it halted, swaying back and forth seemingly in time with my own tail. Clearly the next move was mine. I could steer around it, avoid it entirely….and that was exactly the point.

"All right, you bastards," I growled. "You want me, you got me. And the Goddess help us both." And with that I plunged Betty into the heart of the vortex. There came a pale-blue flash, bright even through my goggles, and a wave of dizziness so brief it might have been my imagination. And then the pod was screaming through Hellhole's lower atmosphere, much too fast, and I had to turn my attention to landing--as opposed to "crashing." When finally I snatched a glance at the scanners, both the vortex and Zelazny had disappeared.

###

The day dawned frigid and blinding-bright…and strangely familiar.

Uncurling stiffly from my makeshift bed of grasses and leaves, I yawned and stretched, sharp and well-tended claws sprouting from each finger and toe. The temperature was still near freezing, and as I dragged myself upright I huddled gratefully within my thin (but astonishingly effective) survival blanket. Not for long, though: in half an hour it would be hot, by noon broiling. Welcome to Hellhole--again.

I brushed back my mane--not nearly long enough to need a thong--and reached for the extra-dark goggles that would protect my eyes from the blazing suns. With them in place I padded over to the shelf I had so laboriously hacked into the tree-trunk.

The artifacts of my past--and present--life as a Survey officer were arranged there, nothing like a shrine. Two full sets of field gear, neatly folded; one dirty and shredded past repair, the other brand-new, shiny and fully intact. Two stingers: one battered and dead, the other fully-charged. Two specially-built scanpaks and commpaks, ditto. Feast or famine, that was Hellhole's way: apparently somebody had a sense of humor.

My backpack lay nearby; rummaging through it, I located a ration bar and a water bottle. Settling myself cross-legged with my back against the tree and the blanket pulled tight around me, I slit the wrapper with the claw of my left forefinger. As I ate--mechanically, scarcely tasting the pungent meat concentrate--I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I'd made it to the surface, the Goddess help me; now what?

In the cold (but rapidly warming) light of day, I looked back upon the past twelve hours…and was utterly appalled. Who was this person who'd so blatantly misused her CF training? Who'd callously disobeyed her commanding officer, and committed acts which could lead to cashiering or imprisonment? Surely not Ehm'ayla, the thrice-decorated Survey officer. Surely not.

…And yet it was. It's tempting to exonerate myself by claiming that I'd been somehow manipulated--but that would not be true. Certainly something had reached inside me, and certainly it had known exactly what button to push: the one marked "Curiosity." But even so, the choices had always been mine. At any time I could have told Captain Haliday what was happening to me; I could have had myself locked up, put in restraints, sedated, anything, until Zelazny departed Hellhole. But I hadn't. Instead I had allowed that power, whatever it was, to gain control. And in the final analysis, I did so because I wanted it to.

It was a little after 0230 when Betty touched down, in the same clearing where I was rescued weeks before--or a reasonable facsimile thereof. By local time, it would be almost eight hours until the suns rose. The logical, sensible thing to do would have been to remain in the pod; the passenger seats would fold out into bunks. But somehow I knew I was not meant to do so. Immediately after the pod came to rest I grabbed my backpack and descended the ramp, my stinger in my hand and my defective vision and one-sided hearing as sharp as they could be. During my previous exile that would have been foolish, bordering on suicidal…but not now. This was no longer about survival: that test, I'd already passed.

The night was bitterly cold, windless, utterly silent, and very dark: neither moon was in the sky. Orienting myself by means of my flashlight, I set off across the hard-packed earth. As I'd expected, nothing molested me; but I kept my stinger handy nonetheless. Confidence is one thing--stupidity quite another.

I found my tree easily; probably I could have done so in my sleep. I was not surprised to find my rope-ladder hanging exactly where I'd left it, nearly a month ago. Nor, when I'd climbed up to my shelter, was I terribly amazed to see that everything I'd left behind was still there, right down to my bedding. It even seemed entirely logical--certainly consistent--that my two big gourds were full of water…and that it was fresh and drinkable. All remanding doubt was now gone. I still didn't know where (or perhaps when) this place was; but I knew for certain what it was: a "lifelike habitat."

The moment I entered my shelter, the compulsion that had driven me suddenly broke, leaving me utterly drained. I had barely enough ambition to pull up the rope ladder--a precaution that was probably unnecessary now--and to remove my stiff and uncomfortable field gear, before I wrapped myself tightly in the blanket and tumbled headlong into the deepest sleep I'd known for a long time.

…And now, eight hours later, as I finished my breakfast and washed it down with a long drink of tepid water, I considered my next move. At very least I now knew what I was facing. Like those seventy-two hours in Death Valley during my Academy days, my previous exile had been nothing more or less than a test of my ability to survive. I felt certain of that now. Isolated in a place which contained the raw materials of life…would I live or die? There was one important difference, though: if during my survival training I'd managed to incapacitate myself, a rescue pod would have whisked me to safety immediately. If I'd been badly injured here…well, I'll never know for certain, but I have a feeling that nature would have been allowed to take its course. A thought which caused my mangled arm to ache all over again.

But all that was irrelevant now. My hosts knew that I could survive; that question no longer interested them. No: this was beginning to feel like a completely different kind of test, one perhaps of logic or deduction. In other words, of intelligence. In deducing the fact that I was being tested, I'd taken the first step--or so I believed. If so, what was the next?

One thing for certain: whatever I did, I'd have to do it quickly. And not because I would run out of food or water--not exactly. No, it was my eyes that imposed an implacable time-limit upon me. Dr. Zee had said that my color vision would go first, and she was correct. As I looked out upon Hellhole that morning, the landscape seemed somehow washed-out, the leaves less vividly green, the earth more grey than brown. Even my own fur had lost some of its hue. In and of itself, a mere inconvenience--but in the light of what I knew to be true, ominous. Clearly I had no time to sit and wait for something to happen.

I sat up, letting the blanket slip down around my waist; the day was already warming rapidly. From my pack I fished my palm-reader and its attendant stack of cards. There in my hands I held everything the Survey knew about Hellhole, from Raven's first orbital scans down to Antilles' fatuous maundering. It was the very last card that interested me most, the one containing the readings taken by Betty's sensors from the moment that weird cyclone appeared before me. I'd been presented with a puzzle to solve--and a clue of some kind must lay in the bizarre appearance of that vortex, so unlike a normal hypertunnel. It had been intended primarily to bring me here--but why so dramatically? The similar phenomenon recorded by Zelazny had not presented any such obvious "shape." The upper end of the vortex had been more than a kilometer in diameter, and was obviously intended as a challenge: come inside or go away. And while the middle had undulated like a snake, the lower--much narrower--end had remained rock-steady. Like a pointer?

Searching through the data, I quickly discovered where the vortex had been anchored. And when I had, I instantly understood the nature of the puzzle that lay before me--and what I'd have to do to solve it. The hypertunnel had emanated not from the forest, but from a small circular range of hills about two kilometers distant. They were virtually the only feature on an otherwise flat, hellish plain, extending perhaps a hundred kilometers west from the edge of the forest. They were low, averaging no more than thirty meters, and they formed a ragged ring half a kilometer across. Obviously, the remains of a long-extinct volcano slowly eroding to death. During my exile I'd given them no thought whatsoever, though I could see them clearly from my shelter; I knew only that they looked hot, waterless and lifeless. Even if I'd thought it worthwhile to explore them, I'd had neither the time nor the wherewithal. But now…

Now I would have to, like it or not, because the lower end of the vortex had been centered directly on that ring. And in placing it thus, my hosts had sent me a message clear as day: "Come find us--if you can."

###

Betty wouldn't start.

Not surprising, I suppose. Inconvenient, yes; damned frustrating, definitely--but not surprising. My unseen hosts controlled the rules of the test, and just as it would be "cheating" for the rat to jump the walls of the maze, or gnaw through them, so it was unfair for me to use modern transportation.

I sat for a moment, drumming my claws on the dead control panel, upon which not a single light glowed. I now had two choices. I could attempt to repair the pod--though that, I suspected, would be a waste of time. Or I could abandon Betty and make my way across the waste the old-fashioned way. Which was obviously what I was supposed to do. No doubt there was a black mark on my record now, for wasting time; and worse, I'd squandered part of the morning. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow…

No, I decided instantly. I would waste no more time. And not only because I couldn't afford it. When my ancestors caught a scent, they would never give up until they'd made the kill. That I knew; and I knew also that behind my mask of civilization, I still possessed some of those age-old instincts.

Which must account, partially at least, for what I did next. Into a passenger seat I dumped my pack, and rummaged quickly through my equipment, re-packing most, laying some aside. More than three-quarters of my food supply went into the discard pile, including all the dehydrated meals; I repacked only a dozen ration bars. Most of my spare power cells I also left behind, returning to the pack only two each for the scanpak and stinger and one for the commpak. Doing so reduced my burden by half. I settled the scanpak's eyepiece onto my head, adjusting it to fit over my goggles, and pulled the gauntlet onto my left hand, fastening my chrono over it.

I hesitated for a long moment, clutching the other item I'd borrowed from Zelazny's stores: a narrow silver strip twenty centimeters long and three wide. Finally I wrapped it around my right wrist and pressed the ends firmly together. There was a brief pulse of heat, intense enough to make me gasp, and then a sizzling sensation as the band dissolved the fur and fused itself to my flesh. The device was a prisoner ID bracelet, identical to those worn by Joel and the others in Outpost Four's security cells, and from the instant it locked itself into place, it began to transmit a powerful homing signal. And it was on for the duration: there was no tool for removing it this side of the space station. I had no assurance that my crewmates would ever find their way to this reality--but if they did, at least they'd have a way to locate me. Or my corpse.

And then--quickly, before I could change my mind--I stripped myself. I draped my field gear over the back of the pilot's seat, and removed its belt, fastening it low on my hips, On it I hung my water bottles and stinger. From one of the big patch pockets I drew a CF-issue grey collar and fastened it snugly around my neck. Once again I was a naked hunter; a technological savage if you like. I settled my backpack and departed the pod, angling across the clearing toward the wasteland.

I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing--and almost immediately that feeling was confirmed. At the edge of the clearing my foot struck something small and hard; I stumbled and almost fell. I turned to curse the thing…and the words caught in my throat. To my astonishment, I found myself staring at a stone knife, crudely chipped from obsidian, its handle wrapped in grass. My knife.

Slowly I knelt and picked it up, gingerly, as if it might evaporate or explode. Yes, it was mine: made by my own inexpert hand during those horrible few weeks of clawlessness. But…it couldn't be. I'd lost it during the attack, yes, when the creature threw me across the clearing. But that hadn't happened here, in my lifelike habitat, but rather in the universe occupied by Zelazny and the rest of the Alliance. How in the Goddess' name could it be underfoot now?

There was only one possible answer: it was there as a reward--or perhaps a signpost; an indication that I was on the right track. I gazed up into the blinding sky. I had no idea who or what I was talking to, but I addressed it, or them, in Sah'aaran: "Thanks." I slipped the knife into my belt, where it rubbed familiarly and comfortingly against my right thigh. And then I moved on.


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