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.

"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER ONE
 
 

Eleven years in space--and I'd still never learned to love zero-G.

Strapped in before the narrow, fold-down shelf I called my desk, I found myself rubbing my stomach, grimly battling a rising queasiness: the inevitable result of a too-rushed and too-rich lunch. My own fault, really; I should have known better than to mix liver with freefall. Someday, according to the Admiralty, grav-plates would be standard equipment on all Combined Forces vessels. My digestive system and I could hardly wait.

But the sensation was unpleasant, and distracting, and when the intercom buzzed I snarled and flicked the switch with a half-expressed claw. "Yes?" I snapped.

"Commander Ehm'rael? Saunders here. Governor Odyn is aboard. She and Captain Thunumm are waiting for you in Tactical."

Instantly my gastric distress vanished, replaced by excitement. Finally, I thought. After more than a month in transit, a chance to get off my tail and accomplish something! "Thank you, Lieutenant," I said. "Tell them I'll be right there."

"Yes, ma'am."

I wormed out of my seat (something else I had never grown to love: the cramped quarters aboard a battleship) and hurriedly gathered up my palm-reader and the data cards which contained my notes and schematics. I paused in the doorway for a final glance at the monitor above my desk; what it showed--repeating the view from the Control Deck's main screen--was a smooth azure globe, shining serene and almost cloudless under a friendly yellow sun. The reason why I'd journeyed so far from home, and the reason why so formidable a ship as Yerba Buena had been dispatched to carry me. To Sah'aaran eyes, the planet looked about as alien as it possibly could: because Lands-End, as the inhabitants called both their world and its single tiny continent, was more than ninety-nine percent water.

###

Governor Odyn was a human. With gills.

Aboard every Combined Forces ship there is one particular room. Like the Control Deck or the Officer's Mess, it serves a definite, easily-definable function; but unlike those, its name changes depending on exactly what sort of ship one is discussing. Aboard a Survey vessel it's "Mission Planning;" on a Patrol cutter the "Wardroom;" and on a Navy ship, "Tactical." Three different terms for exactly the same thing: a place where a ship's officers meet and talk. And the Goddess help you if you should happen to slip and use the wrong name.

Yerba Buena's Tactical room was typical of the breed, though larger than many. Buried deep within the battleship's armored hull, it was entirely windowless, but the large viewscreens which lined the walls more than made up for that. Dominating--indeed, almost entirely filling--the space was a long rectangular table, its surface gleaming black, surrounded by a dozen chairs mounted on rails. As always, a handrail hugged the wall at waist-height, and a wide strip of red looped grip-carpet circled the deck. Because I never wore shoes, I lacked the corresponding hooks; but my toe-claws served every bit as well.

When I arrived, there were just two people present: about as disparate a pair as can be imagined. Captain Urah Thunumm was a Quadrian; his massive form--much like a Terran elephant, though not quite so large--was uniquely graceful, with or without gravity. Exactly how many square meters of cloth had gone into his dark-green Navy uniform I'd never been able to calculate. No chair could hold him, so he sat on his haunches at the head of the table, digging the hooked soles of his four slipper-like boots into the carpeting. As he caught sight of me the tentacles at the corners of his mouth lifted in greeting, and his outer pair of tiny red eyes shifted to focus on me, while the inner set remained fixed on our guest. "Ah," he said, in a voice which might have issued from the bottom of a mine-shaft, "here she is now. Governor, may I present Commander Ehm'rael of the Engineering Corps…"

The room's other occupant turned her large turquoise eyes upon me--and at that moment I realized that all the rumors I'd heard about this planet were true. Small and slight by human standards, the chief executive of Lands-End had pale skin with a hint of iridescence, as from scales, and long flowing green hair that cascaded down her back. Her hands, resting on the table before her, were webbed, to the third knuckle of each finger. On each side of her long neck (left bare in a way that my Sah'aaran sensibilities could never quite accept) were half a dozen horizontal slashes, tightly closed, but with a narrow fringe of blood-red feathery tissue protruding from each. She wore a simple, close-fitting shiny garment of emerald green, something like a diving suit, and a shimmering diaphanous blue cloak was thrown loosely over her shoulders.

I couldn't suppress a shudder of revulsion as I gazed at her. With some minor exceptions, my own species has chosen to leave our bodies--and our genes--as evolution made them. Not because we consider ourselves the crown of creation, but rather because we are (to coin a phrase) reluctant to tamper in the Goddess' domain. Not so the humans. Or at very least, some of them.

If my reaction to Governor Odyn was strong, hers to me was nothing short of bizarre. She gazed at me for a moment, her eyes widening; then, abruptly and incongruously, she burst out laughing. Immediately my claws expressed, and I concealed them behind my back; but I could not so easily hide my lashing tail. "If I may inquire," I said between clenched teeth, "what Her Excellency finds amusing?"

For perhaps a minute she was unable to reply, but finally her delicate, tinkling laughter wound down. "I do beg your pardon, Commander," she said. Her voice was soft and liquid, like wind chimes under water. "I assure you, I meant no offense. I was caught off-guard, you see. I would have thought my world to be the very last place where one would find a Sah'aaran."

"The commander is one of the most respected engineers in the Combined Forces…" Captain Thunumm began, but Odyn cut him off.

"Oh, of that I am quite certain," she said. She gazed at me, and suddenly I had the uneasy feeling of being played with. "And I do hope she will forgive my outburst."

I caught her eye and held it for a few seconds, as only a carnivore can; but she did not visibly react. "Of course, Governor," I said. "No offense taken."

"Good," Captain Thunumm said hurriedly--and in relief. "Perhaps now we can get this briefing started…"

"Yes, sir," I said briskly. By grip-carpet and handrail I crossed to the far side of the table and strapped myself in at the computer terminal. The magnetic tabletop grabbed my palm-reader and held it fast; and while I sorted through my handful of data cards, I continued, "I believe you'll find, Your Excellency, that what our Combined Forces engineers have designed will be of great economic benefit to your world, while causing minimal environmental disruption…"

By then I'd found the correct card; but before I could slip it into the reader, the Governor held up her hand. "That will not be necessary, Commander," she said pleasantly.

I froze, the little orange tile gripped between my claw-tips. "Pardon me?"

"Your presentation," she explained. "It will not be necessary. I'm well-enough acquainted with the physics and mechanics involved." She leaned back and laid her hands flat on the table, the spread of her fingers stretching the delicate webbing into translucency. "Your vessels are powered by nuclear fusion," she went on in flat, pedantic tones. "For which they require deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. You are proposing to build an installation which will use electrolysis to break ocean water into its component atoms. The deuterium would then be isolated, and ferried to an orbital refueling station by vehicles burning the leftover hydrogen and oxygen. And if I am not mistaken, you are proposing to power the installation with a combination of solar, tidal, and ocean-thermal-energy--which we also possess in plenty."

Nonplused, I glanced at Captain Thunumm; but he merely lifted his tentacles and let them fall, the Quadrian equivalent of a helpless shrug. Suddenly queasy again, I gathered up my cards and slipped them into my breast pocket. Evidently I wouldn't be needing them after all. "That is essentially correct, yes," I agreed. "Though of course there are many technical details…"

The governor waved her hand again, dismissively. "Those do not concern me, Commander," she said. "If need be, they can be discussed with our engineers." She leaned forward, and abruptly her gaze and her tone both hardened. "I'm more interested in the social and political ramifications. For example, it has not been made clear to me why my planet in particular has been selected for this…honor. Especially when there are so many easier alternatives."

Once again the captain and I exchanged a glance; and once again he offered no help. "Pardon me, Governor?" I said. "What alternatives are those?"

She smiled, displaying pearly, perfect teeth. "I also understand the economics of the situation, Commander. My planet has abundant water, that is true; and that water is fresh, not salty as are the oceans of most other worlds. You need not trouble yourselves with distillation, or with the removal of sodium or dissolved minerals. But my world also has a surface gravity almost equal to that of Terra. It will be necessary for you to burn a great deal of hydrogen to boost your tankers into orbit. Something which would not be necessary if--for example--you were to mine a comet, as is done in so many other places."

"Your Excellency--" I began, but she interrupted me again, and this time her tone was positively harsh.

"I am also very curious to know why this particular vessel was sent to bring you here, Commander. This is one of your largest battleships, is it not? A 'Ship of the Line?'"

That last question was directed not at me, but at the captain. He cleared his throat, a sound like the rattling of a huge sheet of tin. "Yes, Governor. It is."

"Was it intended as a show of force, then?" Governor Odyn demanded. "Am I being given a choice between surrendering our resources, or having them taken by force?"

"No," Captain Thunumm said flatly. "Certainly not." He paused. "The reason why my ship is here, and the reason why the Alliance prefers not to attempt cometary mining in this region, are one and the same. As I suspect you already know. To be blunt, your world has the misfortune to lie in a disputed area. This system, and a number of others along a line a hundred light-years long, are the subject of a territorial disagreement between the Terran/Centaurii Alliance and the Chrysaoan Hegemony."

Governor Odyn nodded in satisfaction. "Thank you, Captain," she said. "You've just restored my faith in the Alliance's honesty--partially at least."

Captain Thunumm cocked his head, gazing at her curiously with all four eyes. "Meaning that you expected me to lie?" he asked mildly.

"Meaning that I expected to be…oh, what's the word? 'Stonewalled,' that's it--with claims of military secrecy or TCA security."

The captain apparently had no answer for that, and for a few seconds all was silence. Finally I said, "Governor, I'm confused. When I was sent here, my superiors led me to believe that you had already agreed to our proposal. Is there not a contract with your signature on it?"

Unperturbed, she smiled. "Yes, Commander, there is," she said. "But recently I've had reason to believe that my agreement may have been a bit…hasty. You see, I've had another offer." She looked up at the captain. "You said that my planet has the 'misfortune' to lie in disputed territory. That might not be strictly true."

The captain looked perplexed; but I heard myself gasp. "You don't mean--?" I began, horrified.

"Yes I do," Governor Odyn said. "If the Alliance wants a refueling station, they'll have to outbid the Chrysaoans."

###

Conventional methods of expressing frustration work very poorly in micro-gravity.

As my cabin door closed behind me I flung my palm-reader and data cards across the room with all my strength. The reader struck the desk-shelf with a clang and stuck; but the cards bounced off the far wall, the neat stack disintegrating into a cloud of randomly-ricocheting projectiles. With a sigh--such is the price of letting your temper get the better of you--I plucked the multicolored missiles out of the air one by one and stowed them. I might just as well have tossed them into the mass recycler.

Abruptly--predictably--my uniform became intolerable, and with a few quick movements I stripped it off, jumpsuit and underwear alike, right down to my fur. I reached behind my head and released my mane from the clips which kept it out of my face, allowing that thick mass of orange hair to fly where it would. Naked except for a snug grey collar, I began to reach for a day-robe; but, then, changing my mind, I strapped myself into the chair instead. Resting my head in my hands, I rubbed at my suddenly-throbbing temples. Now what? I wondered. The task I'd come so far to do seemed to have ended before it began...

If someone deliberately set out to design a space which would drive a Sah'aaran insane, the result would resemble my quarters aboard Yerba Buena. Rectangular, two meters wide by three long, it contained little more than a narrow hard bunk, a hanging locker and a few drawers, a fold-down desk and a chair on rails. At the rear, a sliding door led to the tiny head. No portholes, because of the ship's heavy armor; and no decoration whatsoever. I'd had worse accommodations over the years; but seldom for so long--or for so little purpose.

In that grey shoebox there was just one spot of color: a small, richly-carved and gold-inlaid cabinet of dark tatak wood, wedged into a narrow shelf above the foot of the bunk. I had carried it with me throughout my career, onto more planets and vessels than I cared to remember, occasionally skimping on clothing when the weight restrictions were severe. Leaning over, I hooked the tiny brass rings with my claw-tips and swung the doors open. Glass cups, containing half-burned votive candles, hung inside each panel. I dug through drawers for a sparker and lit the candles, their flames steady but strangely globular in zero-G. In their glow, in the heart of the red-velvet shrine, the tiny golden Goddess seemed to shine with an inner light. Bracing my elbows on the foot of the bunk, I clasped my hands together and leaned my forehead upon them. I couldn't kneel--not without floating away--but She understood.

The meeting with Governor Odyn ended in a shambles, of course; it could scarcely have gone otherwise. Both Captain Thunumm and I had arrived at Lands-End expecting to finalize a deal already brokered by Alliance negotiators. My job--as I'd understood it--involved little more than turning over the schematics (the contents of the cards I'd launched so viciously across the room), answering any questions the locals might have, and then waiting for the construction barges, which were due to arrive in a little more than a week. Captain Thunumm's job, in turn, had been nothing more or less than to protect those barges until the orbital facility had been towed into place and its own armaments brought on-line. Simple and straightforward; neither of us had received any orders to cover these circumstances.

And so the meeting broke up. Captain Thunumm retreated to his cabin, presumably to draft a message to the Admiralty, asking for guidance; and Governor Odyn boarded a landing pod to return to the tiny speck of land where her government held forth. The smile on her face as she departed left me wondering uneasily which of us was the feline.

Five weeks. As hard as I tried to keep my mind on my prayers, that one bitter thought kept seeping back into my head. Five weeks, it had taken me to get here from Sah'aar. Five weeks and almost two dozen hypertunnel jumps. Seldom before had I been sent so far from the populated heart of the Alliance; it was an experience I found decidedly unpleasant. Most especially when it seemed to have been a waste of time…

As usual, in the presence of the Goddess I found it impossible to remain upset for long. Sitting with my eyes closed, murmuring my personal litany over and over, I felt Her calm descend over me like a warm and welcome blanket. So much so, in fact, that when the intercom buzzed I accepted the interruption with equanimity. My eyes still closed, I groped for the switch. "Yes?"

The young Compcomm sounded more than usually hesitant; he knew, or guessed, what sort of mood I'd likely be in. "Commander? I'm sorry to disturb you, but you've just received a message."

My eyes snapped open. "From the Admiralty?" I asked. Surely not this soon…No. Physically impossible. It would be days before they knew what was happening here.

"No, ma'am. It's marked 'personal,' and it was sent from Sah'aar."

I frowned. Who--? I wondered. Then I realized, and for an instant my heart soared, before nosing over and crashing in flames. "Send it through, Lieutenant."

"Yes, ma'am."

It took Saunders only seconds to route the data package to my terminal. Quite small as such things go, it consisted of straight text and a single holo-image, rather than a video or audio recording. Gazing at the file header, seeing that I had correctly guessed the sender's identity, I smiled. Typical, I thought. He always was old-fashioned. Not to mention "frugal…"

I had to pause for a few seconds, gathering additional strength from the Goddess, before I could force myself to open the file. When I finally did, I saw to my dismay that my hand was shaking. Perhaps I should save this for later…But by then it was too late: the screen was already filled with Sah'aaran hieroglyphic script. The message was brief and to the point, and most people would have termed it "joyful." But as I read, my heart continued its steady descent toward my toes.

My dearest Ehm'rael, it began, in translation of course. It is with great pleasure that Ehm'naala and I inform you of the birth of our kits. Ehm'naala's labor was easier than expected, and as I write this, only a day later, she is already up and around. Both kits are healthy and strong.

My mate and I both very much regret that you cannot be present for the naming ceremony. Because it may be some time before we see you again, I shall risk the Goddess' displeasure and reveal the names we have chosen: Ehm'ayla and Sah'sell.

Ehm'naala and I wish you every success with your mission, whatever it might be. May we dare to hope that you will be home before the end of the year?

And it was signed, of course, Sah'surraa.

Rather against my will, I keyed up the holo-image. It appeared to have been taken in the hospital, probably just hours after the birth. Ehm'naala, sitting up in bed, looked tired, her whiskers drooping, her mane and golden-brown fur matted and disheveled; but at the same time radiant, in the way that only a new mother can. Beside her stood Sah'surraa, a broad beaming smile on his muzzle, his green-gold eyes glowing with pride. In their arms they cradled a pair of blanket-wrapped newborns, tiny balls of beige fluff with their eyes still firmly closed. I looked…and my heart struck the deck-plates with a solid thud. They should have been mine.

Horrified, I glanced into the shrine, certain that She would disapprove of such an unworthy thought--and indeed, I seemed to see a frown on that tiny beatific visage. And of course She was right. Where there is no bonding there can be no true mating. Not a tenet of Sah'aaran law--but rather a fact of Sah'aaran biology. Despite what I'd felt for Sah'surraa all those years ago--and he for me--our pheromones had proved incompatible, and that was that. The envy I felt toward the mother of those adorable kits was unworthy too. Unworthy--but unavoidable.

I scrolled back to the file header. The message had been sent two weeks ago, three weeks after I left on this ill-starred mission. It had taken that long to catch up with me. By now the naming ceremony was long over; Sah'surraa needn't have feared the Goddess' wrath. The kits' dewclaws would have been removed as well, yet another milestone in their young lives. That's the Combined Forces for you.

I looked again at the final line of text, and I chuckled. Home before the end of the Sah'aaran year? Up until an hour ago I would have thought that unlikely at best--but now it seemed a distinct possibility. As the humans say, 'tis an ill wind.


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