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 THREE
 
 

As my landing pod drifted free from Yerba Buena's hangar and began its long fall toward the planet, I pivoted the little craft for a look back at the battleship…and was freshly re-appalled.

During my remarkably peripatetic career I had traveled aboard unarmed Survey vessels, lightly-armed Patrol cutters, and even a Navy destroyer or two; but never anything like the Juggernaut which now filled the pod's windshield to overflowing. A lumpy grey cylinder almost three-quarters of a kilometer long, Yerba Buena literally bristled with weaponry, from the stubby torpedo tubes clustered along its hull to the long and even more lethal-looking particle-beam emitters fore and aft. Even the fusion drive, hidden from view behind its massive exhaust bell, could serve as a weapon. In a certain sense, the ship's titanic hull was illusionary: the ordnance, the thick armor, and (especially) the fuel tanks conspired to leave very little room for the crew. Only enough, in fact, for a hundred and fifty people to live in each other's pockets.

It might also be said that those huge fuel tanks--large enough to drive the ship from one end of the Alliance to the other--were the reason why I was here. Back on Terra, my colleagues were hard at work on ways to make such things redundant--or at very least greatly reduce their size and bulk. But until those plans became reality (and that might be years away) satisfying the fleet's enormous thirst for deuterium would remain one of the CF's primary concerns. And tritium too--but that's another story.

With a curious and inexplicable sense of foreboding, I turned the pod's bow toward Lands-End. Behind me, the six passenger seats were empty, except for the one that held my skimpy luggage. Governor Odyn's invitation had been quite specific: for the time being, no member of Yerba Buena's regular crew was to set foot on the planet. Just the Sah'aaran engineer. Fortunately I kept my pilot's license up to date; because the alternative would have been for someone to drop me off--and for no reason that I could adequately explain, I found myself reluctant to be without an immediate means of departure. Perhaps Captain Thunumm's battle-hardened caution (I almost said "paranoia") was rubbing off on me.

I punched a course into the autopilot, feeling the small kicks of the thrusters beneath me; and then, tightening the seat-harness against the coming turbulence, I leaned back and tried to relax. I'd had a busy morning…

###

"Needless to say," Captain Thunumm told me, "I can't order you to do this. I'm not your CO; our missions just happen to be convergent."

Staring down at the palm-reader clutched between my suddenly nerveless fingers, I scarcely heard him. "I don't understand," I said. "Why me?"

Thunumm retrieved the reader and pocketed it. "Ostensibly," he said, "to present your diagrams. The ones," he added dryly, "which she wasn't interested in yesterday."

"But why me alone?"

Thunumm glanced aside and sighed. "I suspect that was directed primarily at me, Commander," he said quietly. "She's letting me know that the Navy is not welcome on Lands-End. To be honest, I can't say I blame her. If it had been up to me, I would have dispatched a much smaller ship for this job--certainly nothing larger than a destroyer. The risk of attack is small." He paused. "Or at least it was small. Suffice it to say that the governor feels threatened."

"I suppose," I said quietly; but something about his explanation--I wasn't sure what--failed to satisfy me. "I take it you're suggesting I go, sir?"

"I'd be very much obliged if you would," he said carefully. "Please understand, Commander: I'm not asking you to enter into negotiations. Obviously you have no more authority to do so than I, until we've heard from HQ…"

"Clearly not," I agreed quickly.

"…But we're badly in need of information," Thunumm went on. "We need to know exactly what the Chrysaoans have promised these people, how they got a foothold here…many things."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm also not suggesting that you spy." The captain speared me with all four eyes. "At least not too obviously."

…And so, while the captain relayed my acceptance and obtained landing clearance, I found myself hurriedly packing my travel case (a five-minute job at most); struggling into the thick, stiff, devoutly-to-be-avoided one-piece garment which the CF calls "field gear;" grabbing a bite to eat, and signing out my pod: a slim, silver dart that the battleship's crew had dubbed Lucy. Judging from his behavior, the lieutenant in charge of the hangar regarded that pod as his personal property--or perhaps one of his children. Only the captain's direct order overcame his reluctance to part with her.

…And now, with the planet's nightside sweeping by beneath me--a deep, almost surreal shade of purple, sprinkled randomly with tiny spots of brightness which could only be the lights of floating habitations--I heard, over and over again in the depths of my mind, Captain Thunumm's last words. "Keep in touch," he'd told me as I boarded Lucy; "--and watch your back."

I shook my head angrily, but the echoes refused to die. Ridiculous, I thought. He's been in the Navy too long…

A flash of light caught my attention then, and I looked up quickly to see the terminator sweeping toward me, a blinding-bright arc of yellow and blue. I had to close my eyes briefly as the sun broke the horizon…and then my little ship sailed into brilliant daylight. Almost simultaneously I felt the first tentative vibrations of atmosphere slapping the hull. I touched controls, extending the wings and converting Lucy from a spacecraft into an aircraft. For several minutes everything was turbulence and noise, and the windshield glowed cherry-red; but then I entered the stratosphere, my glide-path shallowed, and the ride gradually smoothed. And when it had, I finally had a chance to look around.

If the essence of beauty is variety, then Lands-End was not an attractive planet. Beneath my pod a vast convexity of blue spread out, literally as far as the eye could see, merging seamlessly with the cloudless azure sky. As yet I was too high for details to show--if indeed there were any. This world's beauty was that of an artificial sapphire: pure, flawless…and boring.

Prejudice, I chided myself. Do the grasslands of Sah'salaan really look that much different from the air? To Sah'aaran eyes our world held endless variety, true; and to the Lands-Enders this view would doubtless be a masterpiece of subtlety. And how would they see my grasslands? Probably as a choice slice of hell, dry and lethal.

Long before the island-continent came into view, I knew I was drawing near. Losing altitude, I quickly became aware that the blue smoothness beneath me was not quite as flawless as it had seemed. What first appeared to be tiny dark specks, like flecks of pepper, quickly grew and multiplied, resolving finally into uncountable hordes of floating platforms of diverse sizes and shapes. Widely-scattered at first, they clustered more and more thickly as I swept in. I had to smile as I pictured their inhabitants looking up, startled, to see a silver arrow screaming by overhead, shedding a contrail and a necklace of sonic booms. A unique experience for them: Lands-End, apparently by choice, was a world entirely without aircraft.

The truncated brown cone of Discovery Peak broke the horizon first, followed quickly by the remainder of the island. My course brought me in from the south, directly toward the feature for which the planet had been named: a sharp point of land, low-lying and almost flat. As I drew closer, I saw that a cluster of buildings, grey at a distance but quickly resolving into shades of blue, green and pink, hugged the shores, not penetrating more than two or three kilometers inland. At the very tip of the island, the literal land's end, a pair of kilometer-long, gently-curved breakwaters enclosed a harbor thick with vessels.

It was an interesting view, to say the least, unlike anything on Sah'aar. The closest comparison I could make--and it was only partially apt--was to San Francisco, the Terran city I knew best. For better or worse, seacoast towns were not my forte.

Shaking myself free from my trance, I keyed the comm unit, using a frequency band not generally employed by the CF. "This is Yerba Buena Pod Six calling Lands-End Harbor Control. Come in, please."

The voice that crackled through was human, and male, but curiously high-pitched and delicate, much as Governor Odyn's had been. Something to do with their unusual throat structure, I assumed. "This is Harbor Control. You are cleared to land, Pod Six. We have placed a guidance beacon at your landing site. The frequency is…" he rattled off a figure in kilohertz, and I committed it hurriedly to memory. "On behalf of the governor, welcome to Lands-End."

"Thank--" I began, but the connection had already gone dead.

"--you."

###

My "landing site" turned out to be nothing more or less than the roof of the Government Building.

That structure--or perhaps I should say that complex of structures, freely interspersed with gardens, plazas and fountains--occupied some two or three square kilometers at the very edge of the continent. Low and rambling--no part was more than three stories tall--the architecture reminded me of the later works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Curves and roundness abounded; there were no sharp angles anywhere, and only the roofs were truly flat. The predominant colors seemed to be turquoise and coral-red. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the structure looked like it would have been more comfortable at the bottom of the sea. Needless to say, there was nothing even remotely like it on my homeworld.

I took my time with the shut-down sequence. I retracted the wings and shut the engines down; and a sufficiently strong echo of Captain Thunumm's words lingered in my mind to encourage me to encrypt both the control panel and the door-lock. I sorted through my equipment, clipping my commpak to my ear, deciding that I wouldn't be needing the scanpak right away. I slung my travel-case over my shoulder, and hoisted my other, smaller piece of luggage more carefully by its cracked leather strap. Then I popped the hatch and stepped out into the afternoon.

I was assaulted at once, from two different directions. First by the air. Warm, heavy and damp, it bore a definite whiff of fish and seaweed, like and yet unlike the well-remembered scents of San Francisco. And then by the sun. The roof was covered with some sort of nonskid coating, rough and pebbly beneath my foot-pads, so blinding white in the sunshine that I had to close my eyes against the glare. And when at last I opened them again, I snarled and jumped back a full meter--because I suddenly found myself nose-to-nose with a human. No: an amphibian.

Broad-shouldered and muscular, he appeared to be somewhere in his mid-twenties. He stood perhaps half a meter taller than me and massed a good twenty kilos more. He wore dark green tights, made of some slick and shiny material, and little else; from the waist up he was entirely bare, except for a tight-fitting green skullcap. Clipped to his right ear was a small device, a combination earphone and microphone very similar to my own commpak; but the sidearm strapped low on his hip was nothing like my CF-issue stinger. Massive, ugly and black, it appeared to be a projectile weapon--something I had never before encountered outside of a museum.

He stood with his arms crossed over his hairless, faintly scaly chest, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet--which, I couldn't help but notice, were bare, and fringed with delicate webbing from toes to arch. Gazing down at me with barely-disguised disapproval, he said, "Commander Ehm'rael?"

His voice was so incongruously piping that I could scarcely suppress a chuckle. "Yes, that's right," I said.

"I'm Akad," he said. "Governor Odyn's bodyguard. She sent me to greet you." An assignment which he obviously did not relish.

I essayed a smile. "I appreciate that."

"And," he went on, as if I hadn't spoken, "to familiarize you with our laws." He nodded at my belt, or more specifically at the U-shaped object which hung within easy reach of my right hand. "That is a weapon," he stated.

"Yes, it is. A defensive weapon."

Akad shook his head. "Defensive or not, it isn't permitted," he said. He held out his hand. "It must be secured until you leave."

I hesitated. By regulations, a Combined Forces officer is never without a sidearm, not even on shoreleave. And Captain Thunumm's words still echoed through my mind. But obviously the alternative was to climb back into Lucy and return to the battleship--and what Akad didn't know about the contents of my pockets wouldn't hurt him. I sighed, and then, slowly and carefully, I unclipped the stinger and handed it over. He glanced at the weapon curiously before fastening it to his own belt.

"Now," he said, "I'll have to search your bag."

Once again I hesitated, but finally I shrugged and laid the case on the roof before him. With a quick, cautionary glance at me, he knelt, opened the mag-seal, and rummaged inside. What he found was nothing much. Clothing, personal hygiene items, a scanpak, a palm-reader and a stack of cards; the only thing even remotely weapon-like was my claw-file. Finally, looking vaguely disappointed, Akad stuffed everything back into the bag--somewhat less carefully than I had an hour ago. He nodded at the other item I carried. "That too," he said.

My claws expressed. "No," I said flatly. "This is none of your business."

His scowl deepened, and he laid his hand on his weapon. "My orders are to inspect all baggage," he said stubbornly.

"Baggage, yes," a new voice said cheerfully. "But I think we can make an exception for religious items."

I turned, just in time to see Governor Odyn emerge from a large trapdoor some four or five meters to my left. She was dressed almost exactly as I had seen her the day before, in a close-fitting green jumpsuit and a filmy turquoise shawl, and for the first time I noticed that her feet, like Akad's, were bare. By no means an uncommon thing, as I was soon to learn. Her arms spread wide, she beamed a broad smile. "Welcome, Commander!"

"Pardon me, Excellency?" Akad interrupted brusquely. "A religious item?"

"Of course," the governor replied airily. She nodded at the gold-inlaid tatak-wood case. "Don't you know a Sah'aaran portable shrine when you see one, Dail?"

Without waiting for a reply, she turned and grasped my hand. "I'm so pleased you were able to come, Commander."

"Thank you for the invitation, Excellency," I said, and her smile widened.

"You're welcome," she said. "But please--let's dispense with formality right now. My name is Geeri, and I'd be pleased if you'd use it."

I paused, and then I smiled. "All right," I said. "Geeri. I'm afraid my species doesn't go in for surnames, but you may certainly call me Ehm'rael."

"With pleasure," she said. She linked her arm with mine, steering me toward the hatch. "Come," she said. "I'll show you to your quarters." She glanced at my field gear and winked. "I imagine you'd like to get out of that uniform. Get the commander's bag, won't you, Dail?"

We departed the roof then, and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Akad's ugly scowl as he was demoted temporarily from bodyguard to porter.

###

Standing on the balcony, the breeze tossing my mane, my tail waving gently and the beginnings of a contented purr rumbling in my belly, I thought: I could get used to this.

By any definition of the words, my quarters in the Government Building were both "spacious" and "luxurious." And after five weeks aboard a battleship, I'd add "palatial" to the list too. Even my own home in Sah'salaan wasn't quite so ornate.

If the suite contained a sharp corner, I had yet to find it. Not that I'd been looking very hard. The sitting room was circular, some six meters across; it had a domed, softly-glowing ceiling and a floor covered with thick soft carpeting, very easy on the feet. Scattered around the perimeter were a number of pillowy, amorphous sofas and chairs, a small dining table with two chairs, and a desk with an antiquated, but functional, computer terminal. A somewhat more unique accessory occupied the center of the room. Here the color theme was coral pink, soft and soothing. A wide arch, covered only by a gauzy curtain, led into the sleeping quarters, dominated by an immense oval bed. A little too hard; but human beds are never soft enough for Sah'aaran taste. That room's major color was aquamarine, deep and muted. From the bedroom another archway led into the bathroom, a fantasia for mother-of-pearl which gave me the unsettling feeling of being inside an oyster. All three rooms had large windows, overlooking the sea; and the bedroom opened onto a wide, deep balcony. The only solid door in the entire suite was the one that led into the hall.

All in all a comfortable place, and except for the color-scheme, not too terribly alien: Sah'aarans also prefer rounded corners. But I defy any member of my species to accept with equanimity that which lay in the middle of my sitting room: a swimming pool. Circular, a little more than two meters in diameter, it sat there, entirely open, with no sort of fence or barrier at all. The water was azure-blue and evidently quite deep; exactly how deep, I couldn't tell. At its center, a fountain-head sent up a tinkling spray. Dreadfully unsafe…unless you have no reason to fear drowning.

Leaning on the balcony railing, watching the world go by, I felt the breeze caress my bare lower legs, and I smiled, knowing I'd made the right choice. Despite built-in temperature control, field gear was not appropriate clothing for Lands-End. Nor would the thinner--but still confining--shipboard jumpsuit have been a much better choice. Even though in some technical sense I was "on duty," I'd opted for a day-robe: in fact the only one I'd brought with me from Yerba Buena. The universal garment of my species is light, short-sleeved, open-necked, knee-length, and belted around the waist with a sash tied over the hip. I had to smile, again, as I considered the color I'd chosen, all unknowing, weeks ago before I left home: bold vertical stripes of blue, green and turquoise. My obligatory collar was black, but its delicate embroidery matched the robe. I'd fit right in.

Before stowing my field gear in the huge closet, I transferred my mini-stinger from one of its pockets to my sash-pouch. A smaller and much less powerful unit than the one I'd turned over to Akad, it required physical contact between discharge point and flesh to be effective. But its mere presence, riding on my hip alongside my commpak and claw-file, was comforting. Good thing Akad hadn't insisted on a body search.

My legs were beginning to ache now, with the strain of holding me upright after several days of zero-G; but somehow I could not tear myself away from the balcony. The view from it was entertaining--and instructive.

My guest suite lay on the first floor of the Government Building, but that structure was built atop a small rise, so my balcony stood six or seven meters above sea level. From that vantage I had a full, and breathtaking, panorama. To my right, the west, lay the open ocean, promising a spectacular sunset. To my left, beyond the outstretched breakwater, was the harbor. Within its arms hundreds of boats, ships and other, less definable vessels bobbed gently on the swells. Attractive, yes, in its way; but something more interesting lay closer at hand.

Directly below my balcony, on the water's edge, lay a promenade: a broad strip of concrete lined with benches, fountains and small plazas. A good portion of it--as far as I could see in both directions--was currently in use as an open-air market. A wide range of stalls lined both sides of the walk, everything from neat, semi-permanent huts to temporary shelters of poles and canvas. The stock in trade seemed to be mainly fish, edible seaweed and handicrafts of various sorts--and judging from the teeming throng that moved slowly from booth to booth, business was good. A microcosm of amphibian society, passing directly beneath my curious gaze.

The citizens were at once alike and disparate. Certainly they all dressed the same. The men wore tights of shiny material, green, blue and coral-red predominating, with a belt supporting what was probably a money-pouch. So far as I could tell, no male wore anything above the waist. The women wore close-fitting jumpsuits of the same material and colors. The universal hair color seemed to be green, though the actual shade varied; the men wore theirs very short, and the women very long, braided or held back by clips. Their skin was uniformly pale and slightly iridescent. But homogenous they were not. In their facial features I saw shadows of all the major varieties of Terran: European, Asian, African, and all combinations thereof. That at least had not been bred out of them.

There were children too, in plenty, as boisterous and playful as youngsters of any species, running here and there along the walk, dashing in and out of the water with complete abandon. The boys wore close-fitting shorts of that same fabric; the girls, shorts and halters. Sah'aaran kits that age would not have bothered with clothing at all.

…And none of them, male or female, adult or child, wore shoes. Taking note of that, I grinned. Lands-End and Sah'aar had that in common at least: both would be very bad places to open a shoe store.

All in all, they seemed a happy, productive, industrious people. You can always tell, I've found--once you've learned how to read a particular species' emotions. Had these people been miserable and downtrodden, they would have plodded along silently, unsmiling, bowed down as with the weight of the galaxy on their shoulders. But they did not. Clearly, they did not.

As is so often the case, though, this watery Eden contained a serpent.

I noticed him instantly, even at a distance, because of his radically-different clothing. Instead of shiny tights he wore a brown jumpsuit--shapeless, ill-fitting and none too clean--and heavy boots. He approached from far down the promenade in a series of fits and starts, and for a few minutes I could not determine what he was doing. But as he drew closer it became clear; and so too did something else. He was collecting trash, emptying the curbside receptacles into a floating bin which he pulled along behind him. And he was a normal, unaltered human.

He moved slowly, and he kept his head lowered, as if willing the crowd not to see him; because of that I never got a clear look at his face. And in fact the passing amphibians ignored him utterly, exactly as crowds on Terra or Sah'aar ignore a robotic street-sweeper. Only if he got in their way did they notice him, with a scowl; but that seldom occurred.

He had reached a point almost directly beneath my balcony when a crowd of children--teenagers, actually--came running up the walk. The boy at the head of the line stuck out his arm in passing, knocking a trash can out of the man's grasp and scattering litter across the walk. For an instant a spasm of anger crossed the trash-collector's face, and he seemed on the verge of lashing out; but then he looked into the boy's defiant face…and his resolve visibly crumbled. He smiled in self-deprecation, as if at his own clumsiness, then knelt to clean up the mess. Laughing, the group of junior marauders kept running, and a few seconds later they ducked between two stalls and vanished into the water.

Commander Abrams was right, I thought. An underclass indeed. Why that was the case I could easily guess; but exactly how it had come about remained elusive. My knowledge of this world's history still contained a number of critical gaps.

…When finally I turned from the balcony, though, that opulent room did somehow seem just a little less inviting.

###

I was napping, curled up on one of those cloud-soft couches, a few hours later when the doorbell chimed.

Shaking my head to clear away drowsiness, I rose and smoothed down my day-robe. "Come in!"

It was my hostess who stood there in the hall, and as she caught sight of my outfit she smiled and nodded. "The Sah'aaran national costume," she said knowingly. "Very becoming--and appropriate colors too. May I come in?"

"Please."

As the door closed behind her, she glanced around. "I hope you're finding your quarters comfortable, Ehm'rael?"

"Very," I said. "Geeri." I pointed to the center of the room. "With the possible exception of that."

For a few seconds she looked perplexed. Then she nodded. "I understand," she said. "Please excuse my confusion. Every home, office and public space in the city has a pool just like that--and not only because we enjoy being submerged. They connect to a network of underground, water-filled tunnels A subway system, if you like. If I need to get to my physician's office, say, I can do so much quicker swimming than walking.

"--But I do understand your concern," she went on, "and if you like, I can have it covered."

I shook my head. "No need," I said. "I'll just refrain from crossing the room in the dark."

"A wise precaution," she observed dryly.

The full implication of her words struck me then, and I glanced up sharply. "Wait a moment," I said. "Do you mean to tell me that someone could emerge from that pool at any time of the day or night?"

She smiled and shook her head. "No," she said. "Not at all. The tunnels which lead to private spaces--this room, for example--are protected by locked hatches. They'll only open for the correct retina pattern."

I nodded in relief. "Good to know."

Odyn cocked her ear as the breeze brought the a babble of voices into the room. "I trust the Public Market didn't disturb you…"

"Not at all," I assured her. "In fact I spent quite a while watching it earlier. Most interesting."

Her smile fell for just an instant. Then her eyes lit on my portable shrine, sitting rather incongruously on a coral-pink shelf near the desk, and she crossed quickly to it. She reached out a hand, hesitated, and looked back over her shoulder. "May I?"

I paused, a refusal on my lips…but then I nodded. "Go ahead."

She swung the little doors wide and peered inside. "Fascinating," she said. She glanced at me again. "Is it true that Sah'aarans disrobe before prayer?"

"Yes," I said. I touched my throat. "Except for our collars."

"Then we'll have to see about getting you a privacy screen," she said. She closed the doors. "Thank you," she went on. "I've always been curious about the Goddess faith. Of course I meant no disrespect…"

"Of course not," I said. "Forgive me for asking, Geeri…"

Her smile widened again. "Why am I here?" she finished. "Excuse me--I'm so terribly forgetful. Dinner. I thought you might be getting hungry, and I came to invite you to dine with me."

In fact I was ravenous: I had not eaten since a hurried--and interrupted--lunch, just before I left the battleship. And by local time the afternoon had indeed begun to shade over into evening. I nodded and bowed. "I would be honored."

We left my suite then, our footsteps equally silent on the flagstone floor of the wide, arch-ceilinged corridor, a space flooded with light from high slit windows and entirely deserted. After office hours, I assumed. As we walked, making turn after turn until I was quite thoroughly lost, the governor said, "Excuse my endless curiosity, Ehm'rael, but is it true what I've heard about Sah'aarans? That you're…afraid of water?"

"'Afraid' might be too strong a term," I told her. "Better to say that we strongly dislike the sensation of being wet. I do know how to swim--the CF demanded that I learn--but it's not something I enjoy doing."

Odyn nodded thoughtfully. "I see." She shook her head. "Please don't be offended," she went on, "but that attitude is utterly alien to me."

I smiled. "As the opposite is to me," I pointed out.

We turned a corner then and entered a huge rectangular foyer, three stories high and roofed with translucent glass. The soaring walls of coral pink, and the fluted columns supporting the ceiling, made the place seem almost sacred, like a Terran cathedral--in which atmosphere the wide oblong pool in the center of the floor seemed doubly incongruous. The side walls were lined with closed doors, and were otherwise bare; I gave them scarcely a glance. What grabbed my attention and held it firm was what hung at the far end of the foyer, illuminated by filtered sunlight and floodlamps: an immense painting. More specifically, a portrait.

Four meters tall and three wide, well-painted, the canvas depicted a ruggedly-handsome male amphibian. His hair was short-cropped and green, his features strong, with turquoise eyes and the ghost of a confident smile on his thin lips. His arms were crossed over his bare chest. Both face and musculature were exaggerated, idealized, in much the same way as the supernally-beautiful Goddess in my traveling shrine--and for exactly the same reason.

For some unfathomable reason I found myself whispering. "Who is he?"

Governor Odyn was no longer smiling; she looked up at the portrait with an expression of reverence. "His creators--slavers--called him Jason," she said. "He was the founder of this world--though he himself never set foot on it. He was also my direct ancestor." She glanced at me. "Do you know our history, Ehm'rael?"

"Only a little."

She nodded at the painting. "What he did might not seem terribly heroic," she said. "He fought no battles, led no troops; nor was he called upon to be a martyr for his cause. All he did was pick up a telephone and call a reporter. Nothing more. But for us that was the beginning." She smiled and waved a hand. "I like to have his portrait here, in my inner sanctum."

I wanted to ask for the rest of the story: how her people had ended up on this world, and why there were normal humans among them. But now was not the time, with that huge face looking down at me; and at any rate, she didn't give me the chance. She grasped my hand and steered me toward a door on the left. "My private dining room," she said grandly.

We entered. "Private" the place may have been--if dinners for fifty are private affairs. The room had a low, glowing ceiling, and walls a muted shade of sea-foam green, textured to suggest stone. Spaced along them were a number of paintings (seascapes; didn't these people ever get tired of looking at the ocean?) and holos of underwater scenes. Dominating the space was an immense oblong table of green glass, upon which just three places had been set. The chairs might have been carved from white coral; no two were quite alike. Soft, rippling music for flute and electronic synthesizer played from hidden speakers. The far wall, facing west, opened onto a wide balcony…and that was where I found my eyes suddenly, inexorably drawn. And with good reason too.

A dark form stood on the balcony, leaning against the rail, silhouetted against the bright early-evening sky. As the governor and I entered the figure turned quickly to face us…and I heard myself gasp, and felt my heart skip a beat. That figure--that person--was Sah'aaran.

About my own age, he stood a full head taller than me. In almost every measurement--legs, arms, shoulders, hands, feet, tail, muzzle--his body was distinctly larger, more massive than mine; that's the most readily-visible way our genders differ. He wore a plain beige day-robe and an unadorned black collar.

The instant his eyes settled on me he stepped quickly into the room, smiling…and as he did, as the light fell upon him, my astonishment turned to something more like horror…and pity. At some time in the past--the distant past--he had suffered terrible injuries. His left ear was somewhat missing, the usual tall triangle lopped off about halfway down, the scar ragged and ugly. Another scar, long and seam-like, the fur tufted and puckered on either side, ran from his hairline, down the center of his forehead and the bridge of his nose, spilled over to the left side of his muzzle, circled his jaw, and vanished beneath his collar. His left-hand whiskers were gone. But that was not the worst of it--not by far. His day-robe made it shockingly obvious: both of his legs were artificial from the knees down. So too was his left hand and wrist. The prosthetics were unlike any I had ever seen before: copper-red, with no attempt whatsoever to make them resemble flesh. The tubular, skeletal structures, interspersed with hydraulic pistons and corrugated tubing, were entirely naked, almost obscenely so. Clearly, though, they were functional: he stood securely on metallic analogues of digitigrade Sah'aaran feet, and--as I would soon see--his prosthetic hand was every bit as dexterous as one made of flesh and bone.

We stood regarding each other for at least half a minute, this apparition and I; and I rather suspect that I was gaping like the Catch of the Day. Finally Governor Odyn broke the silence. Grinning, she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying my discomfort. "Commander Ehm'rael," she said, "may I present Sah'ahl."

The cyborg bowed gracefully. "I am honored," he said, in a voice rich and deep, but slightly hoarse.

"As am I," I replied with a nod. At very least, I had remembered my manners. I turned to the governor. "I'm a bit confused," I said. "I understood that your world accepts no immigrants."

"Oh, Sah'ahl isn't a resident," she assured me quickly. "Like you, he's merely a guest."

Sah'ahl smiled broadly, showing several broken teeth on the left side of his jaw. "To be more accurate," he said, "I'm a representative."

"A representative?" I echoed. "Of whom?"

"My employers," he replied. "The Chrysaoan Hegemony."


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