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 FOUR
 
 

My claws had expressed, and I hurriedly concealed them. "You," I said slowly, without comprehension, "a Sah'aaran…work for the…the…"

"The Jellies," the cyborg said with a grin. "Yes, that's right. My masters often employ members of other species as their business and technical representatives. It saves them the trouble of setting up environment cubicles everywhere they go. You didn't know that?"

I shook my head. "Apparently not," I said. A thought occurred to me then, and I turned quickly to Governor Odyn. "So that's how you knew about day-robes and portable shrines and the Goddess…!"

Her perpetual smile suddenly looked a trifle embarrassed. "Yes," she admitted, "that's true. That's also why I laughed when I saw you yesterday. And why I invited you down-- at least in part. I hope you'll forgive me for indulging my little joke…"

Judging from my lashing tail, I was not so inclined. I looked again at the scarred Sah'aaran, and he returned my gaze with a half-amused smile. At one time he would have been quite handsome, I suddenly noted. Actually he still was, if you looked beyond the scars and the hardware. He wore his mane unusually short, not even shoulder-length, and there was something else strange about it, something I couldn't define; as if the way it lay upon his skull was not quite natural. The matching tuft at the end of his tail was ragged, half-missing. But there was nothing wrong with his eyes, and when they caught mine…

I shook myself. "The Chrysaoans' representative?" I echoed. "Governor, I'm not authorized to enter into negotiations…"

"Neither is Sah'ahl," she said. "And please, it's Geeri."

"I'm here for exactly the same reason you are," Sah'ahl told me. "To present my employers' plans for the refueling station. Nothing more."

"Sah'ahl has been here for almost two weeks," Odyn said. "I'm afraid I've kept him hanging a bit, waiting for you to arrive, but I thought it best if my experts examined both proposals at once." She gestured toward the table. "Please, let's sit," she said. "I'll signal for dinner to be served."

We did that. The governor took her place at the head of the table, and Sah'ahl and I sat across from each other, flanking her. As we crossed the room I couldn't help but stare at those metallic legs, at the play of the joints and the pumping of the hydraulics. From an engineering point of view, I was extremely impressed. The devices worked efficiently and almost silently, and obviously Sah'ahl was as steady on them as I was on the legs I'd been born with.

Sah'ahl. Even his name piqued my curiosity. In our language "Sah" is the common male prefix, as "Ehm" is the female; but the "ahl" sound-part denotes "unknown." "Sah'ahl," then, could be translated "Unknown Man"--or even "Mystery Man." Clearly, not his given name--so how had he come by it?

He noticed my scrutiny, of course, and as we seated ourselves he smiled and nodded. "They do good work, don't they?"

It wasn't hard to guess who "they" were: those prosthetics were not a product of Alliance technology. "How did it happen?" I asked--and immediately cursed myself for being so forward. Sah'ahl didn't seem to mind, though.

"More than ten years ago, a Chrysaoan trade vessel found me in the wreckage of a freighter which had crashed on a small moon," he said. "I was the only survivor, and when they found me I was near death. They…repaired me." He lifted his left hand, flexed the shiny fingers, then delicately lifted a water goblet and toasted me. "The appearance leaves something to be desired, I know," he went on. "My employers are poor aestheticians--but excellent engineers. These prosthetics are far better than any I could have gotten on an Alliance world."

On an Alliance world you could have had transplants, cloned from your own cells. "They are excellent pieces of work," I admitted.

He smiled and set down the goblet. "Watch this," he said. He lifted the artificial hand before me, and a second later four long, shiny, steel-tipped claws silently expressed. "I even have toe-claws," he said proudly. "They thought of everything."

"Why were you aboard that ship?" I asked. "You said it was a freighter; I assume it wasn't a Combined Forces vessel?"

He shook his head. "I don't know," he said sadly.

"Pardon?"

He gazed at me steadily, almost challengingly. "When I was rescued," he said steadily, "there was some brain damage due to hypoxia. My employers were able to repair much of it…but not all. I have no memory of my previous life--nor anything, in fact, prior to waking up in the Chrysaoan medical facility."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "Something I've learned to live with," he said.

There were other questions I might have asked--one in particular came to mind--but at that point we were interrupted by the arrival of dinner.

My attention having been somewhat diverted, I never saw how the governor signaled for the meal to be served. At a guess, a button on the underside of the table. However she did it, a wide section of wall directly behind Sah'ahl abruptly slid aside, revealing a doorway. The first person through was Dail Akad, the governor's bodyguard. He made no move to seat himself, though; rather, he took up a station to the right of the door, standing at attention with his hand resting on his sidearm. Briefly I wondered why--and then I saw.

There were four of them, dressed identically in starched white jumpsuits. Two men and two women, of indeterminate age--indeterminate because I never saw their faces. They entered silently, pushing floating carts loaded with covered platters and tureens. Swiftly and smoothly they served the first course, and then departed. At the sight of them my fingertips tingled, and I hid my hands in my lap. When finally I reached for my soup spoon my claws were still partially expressed, but no one seemed to notice.

It was not the presence of normal humans that angered me. Rather, it was the attitude of my host and her bodyguard toward them. Governor Odyn treated the four like robots, not even bothering to acknowledge their existence, let alone smile at them or thank them. Akad, on the other hand, watched them through narrowed eyes, as if he considered them capable of violence. Several times during the next hour they returned, to clear away the previous course and serve the next; and each time they did, Akad's hand tightened on his weapon. I caught Sah'ahl's eye, and from his expression I saw that his thoughts mirrored mine--a fact which both surprised and gratified me.

"We've simplified our usual menu quite a bit," the governor was saying. She chuckled. "For the past two weeks poor Sah'ahl has been acting as a guinea-pig for my chefs. When he arrived we had no idea how to feed a Sah'aaran…"

Her words--and the utterly irresistible scent drifting up from the bowl before me--made me forget my anger, or at least shelve it temporarily. Righteous indignation is easier to manage on a full stomach anyway.

Predictably, the meal's unifying theme was…seafood. We started with a kind of shellfish soup, not unlike what the Terrans call "cioppino;" just on the right side of spicy and loaded with small life-forms resembling clams, scallops and shrimp. An appetizer followed: caviar, or a reasonable facsimile. Then on to the main course: a plateful of small silvery fish, poached whole, covered with a sweet red sauce and laid on a bed of…

"Rice?" I asked.

"Actually no," Odyn told me. "It's actually the floats of a marine algae, very similar to Terran giant kelp. Dried and steamed, they're very much like rice--so I understand. Dried and milled, they're used as a substitute for flour. Very high in carbohydrates and iron--one of our staple foods, in fact. We use the leaves of the same algae as a substitute for lettuce--but Sah'ahl has already explained the Sah'aaran attitude toward salad."

The food was excellent--better than I'd dared hoped--and for some time we applied ourselves to it in near-silence. While we ate the sun sank flaming into the ocean, and the sky slowly faded from azure to purple to star-flecked black. As the silence and the shadows both lengthened, I mulled over the wisdom of asking the governor one particular question. In other circumstances I might have refrained--but she had already enjoyed seeing me squirm. The least I could do was return the favor. "Geeri," I said, deliberately echoing her own words, "I hope you'll forgive my endless curiosity, but it occurs to me that I know almost nothing about you personally. You mentioned earlier that Jason, your people's liberator, was your ancestor. Does that mean your position is hereditary?"

"Oh no," she assured me. "Not at all. We're a fully democratic society."

I blinked; but she appeared not to notice the irony in her own words. "All the same," I said, "I imagine family prestige doesn't hurt."

For a second she looked stricken. Then, slowly, she smiled. "Indeed it doesn't," she said. "But to answer your question more fully, we hold a gubernatorial election every four years, and no governor can serve for more than two terms. I am in the third year of my first term--meaning that I must begin thinking seriously about my campaign."

Those few words explained a great deal--or so I believed. Is our refueling station a hostage to her re-election? I wondered. Is she trying to score political points by playing both sides off the other? If so, it was scarcely the first time in history…but as Captain Thunumm had said, it might be a more dangerous game than she realized.

"And what about your family?" I asked. "I'd be delighted to meet your husband and children…"

Instantly her face fell--while across the room Akad suddenly stifled a cough. Odyn glanced at him; then, "I'm afraid I have neither," she said quietly.

"No?" I asked. She appeared to be in her early thirties, a little older than me; surely by this time…

"No," she said. "Perhaps someday…but as of yet, the Genetics Board hasn't located a suitable match for me."

The implications of that statement took a few seconds to sink in…and when they finally did, I almost dropped my fork. "The Genetics Board?" I echoed. "Are you telling me your reproduction is determined by committee?"

The governor nodded soberly. "Yes," she said. "Needless to say, it's not something we generally discuss with outsiders--they rarely understand. Sometimes I wish it could be otherwise…but unfortunately it's necessary, at least for the foreseeable future. In a sense we're a new species--and one with a painfully shallow gene pool. We wish to preserve our unique physical attributes, and if possible improve upon them. Such things must be done… scientifically." She paused and quirked an eye. "And you needn't sound so shocked," she went on pointedly. "As I understand it, your own species has precious little free will when it comes to choosing mates."

Suddenly, for some unknown reason, I found myself utterly unable to reply. Sah'ahl rescued me. "I'm afraid your analogy is somewhat flawed, Governor," he said. "In our case there is no outside agency involved--unless you count the Goddess. For us it's entirely a matter of pheromones. From adolescence on we broadcast a cloud of subliminal scent cues--until we encounter a member of the opposite sex with compatible pheromones. When we do, a biological linkage is made. A permanent and life-long linkage."

He glanced at me, and I felt my ears and nose redden. Why, I didn't know. Meanwhile the governor's gaze shifted quickly back and forth from Sah'ahl to me and back again, her eyes narrowing. "A system which evolved for the betterment of your species," she said.

"Perhaps so," Sah'ahl agreed airily. "But in our case it is quite inescapable. In your case, Governor, it would seem to be a matter of policy--and of choice. Perhaps that's why outsiders find it so hard to understand."

"You may be correct," Odyn said calmly. She shook her head. "But as for it having anything to do with choice--I must disagree with you there."

For a time heavy silence fell, during which time the four servants emerged, cleared the table, and served small bowls of sherbet and cups of steaming liquid. The sherbet was green and had a vaguely citrus-like flavor; the liquid bore a nodding resemblance to chamomile tea. Beyond that I didn't inquire. I waited until the hired (indentured?) help had retreated down the hall, and then I said, "Governor, why are there normal humans on this planet?"

All but forgotten against the wall, Akad stirred, but the governor glanced at him and he subsided. Spearing me with those turquoise eyes--in which I thought I saw, for the first time, a tiny glimmer of impatience--she said, "I thought you knew our history, Commander."

I shook my head. "Not all of it." Less than I thought, actually…

She smiled. "Then I suppose I'd better explain," she said. "Just so there'll be no misunderstandings." She leaned back in her chair, pausing as if to carefully choose her words; Watching curiously, Sah'ahl remained silent. "They are the descendants of our keepers," Odyn said finally.

"Pardon me, Governor? 'Keepers'?"

She nodded. "Yes. Oh, the Terran government didn't use that word, of course. They called them 'teachers' or 'advisors' or 'protectors.' But we knew." She leaned forward. "Can you imagine what life on Earth was like for my people, after the breakup of the Atlantis project? I can't, and it's a part of my own history. They were at home nowhere. You know about my ancestors' mental conditioning, I'm sure; it was supposed to make them happy and unquestioning slaves. In the end it wasn't as effective as it was supposed to have been, but still, it existed. They were confused, frightened. When Jason died they were practically rudderless. The Terran government regarded my ancestors as children, incapable of managing their own affairs. And at that time, perhaps they were correct."

Where have I heard that before? I wondered. The Terrans used to called it "The White Man's Burden."

"Jason was an old man when this planet was discovered. He knew it would be an ideal place for us, and he set in motion our migration here. The Terran government allowed us to go…but only if we would take those teachers, engineers and advisors with us. Our keepers; someone to protect us from ourselves. The two groups settled this planet together."

"And what happened?" I asked.

"We…changed," Odyn said flatly. "Within two generations the conditioning was broken, and we had as much free will as anyone. But our keepers didn't change. They would not recognize that we had gained the power to look after ourselves. But we were already the majority; and on this world, he who controls the ocean controls everything."

"A revolution," I guessed.

"A taking back of what was rightfully ours!" she shouted, slamming her hand down on the table. It was the first time I had ever heard her raise her voice. She took another deep breath, visibly calming herself, and then she went on, "By that time Terra had been subsumed into the Alliance. They might have stepped in and 'restored order'--but evidently they had other more pressing concerns."

"And now?"

She sighed. "And now we are stuck--I am stuck--with what may be an insoluble problem." She gazed at Sah'ahl and me in turn, her eyes wide and pleading for understanding. "Please believe me: I don't enjoy this state of affairs. It is divisive and dangerous; there have been acts of violence on both sides. Clearly something must be done. The problem--my problem--is achieving a consensus as to what it should be."

I fixed her with my gaze. "Such as granting these people equal rights?"

She shook her head. "It's not that simple," she said. "I truly wish it was. But the majority of my people would never accept that--not all at once. These things must be done slowly, in an orderly fashion…"

"Governor," I said, "I can't pretend to be an expert on your planet's sociology. But I have studied Terran history, and so have you. Over the centuries, how many minority groups were told exactly that? More to the point, how many of them finally stopped believing it, and took action? 'Slow and orderly' progress is all too often indistinguishable from no progress at all."

"I agree with you," Odyn said. Once again Akad stirred, and this time the governor's glance was more pointed. With a sigh he returned to bland inscrutability--but his eyes lingered on me for several seconds, and his expression troubled me for some reason. "I truly do," Odyn went on. She spread her webbed hands helplessly. "But I'm an elected administrator, not an absolute monarch. I can only suggest--the Legislature must enact. A bill of equal rights for our minority hasn't a prayer of passing--not anytime soon. No matter what I might personally believe or desire, that's the political reality I must face." She paused…and then she smiled, not at all pleasantly. "And quite frankly, Commander, I don't believe it's any of your business--or the Alliance's either."

I began to stammer out a reply, but before I could, she pushed back her chair and stood. Sah'ahl and I scrambled to our feet as well. "If you'll excuse me," the governor said, "I have some business to attend to. I've arranged for you both to meet with my experts tomorrow morning at eight. Please be prompt. Good evening."

With that both she and Akad departed, leaving Sah'ahl and me staring at each other over the remains of our dessert. Slowly he smiled. "Are you always so efficient a conversation-killer, Commander?" he asked, switching for the first time to the soft, purring tones of our native language.

"Not usually," I replied in kind. "But I don't appreciate surprises." A thought struck me then, and I frowned. "Uh-oh."

"Something wrong?"

"I've just realized--I have no idea how to get back to my room."

He smiled and circled the table, offering his arm. "Allow me," he said. "I've learned my way around this ha'char warren these last two weeks. And if I'm not mistaken, your quarters are just up the corridor from mine."

We departed the dining room arm in arm, walking in silence through corridors dimly-lit and eerily deserted. My companion's footsteps were not as noiseless as mine, but very nearly: I heard no more than a faint click as foot struck flagstone. How long did he have to practice? I wondered suddenly. Was it necessary for him to learn to walk all over again? Waking in a strange place, finding that part of your body has been replaced with machinery…that was an experience I hoped never to have. And adding complete amnesia to the mix…it astounded me that he had retained his sanity.

As I said, we walked in silence. Partly because I was frantically trying to memorize the route; but partly also because I suddenly found myself with nothing to say. I felt unaccountably nervous in the presence of this person, this cyborg. Perhaps because he was an unknown factor, a mystery, as his name implied--but that wasn't the only reason. The Goddess help me, it wasn't.

Finally we stopped before a familiar-looking door. Sah'ahl smiled and bowed. "As promised," he said. "Good evening, Ehm'rael."

He turned to go…but I stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Please wait," I said. I took a deep breath. "Would you--like to come in?"

He cocked an eye, and I went on hurriedly, "I…thought perhaps we could talk. We didn't have much of a chance to get to know each other over dinner--"

"True enough," he agreed wryly. He bowed. "I would be honored."

We entered, and the ceiling lights came on automatically, filling the sitting room with soft pink radiance. I turned toward one of the sofas, but he shook his head, pointing through the archway. "The balcony," he suggested. "The view at night is rather remarkable."

We did that. The Public Market had of course long since packed up and departed, and the promenade was deserted except for the occasional strolling couple. Sanctioned by the Genetics Board, I assumed; or else keeping each other company until that august body decided their fates. Sah'surraa and I used to walk like that too, beneath the moons and stars, before we were forced to admit that it simply wasn't happening. Sah'surraa…

Together we leaned on the railing, Sah'ahl and I, and gazed out into the night. The sky was brilliantly star-filled, the interstices inky black. Closer at hand, the lights from hundreds of vessels in the harbor rippled and danced on the dark water. At the end of the breakwater stood a lighthouse, of which I had previously been unaware; its brilliant beam swept over us every few seconds. The soft breeze felt pleasantly cool against my legs, and except for the muted slap of water on stone, all was quiet.

"When I arrived," Sah'ahl said, "this view seemed impossibly alien to me. But now I find myself growing quite fond of it."

"It is lovely," I agreed. I paused. "You didn't seem particularly surprised to see me this evening."

He chuckled. "In fact I wasn't," he admitted. "Governor Odyn had already told me that the Alliance's engineering representative was Sah'aaran--and female. I will confess, though, that I've been quite anxious to meet you. In my life--my new life--I've encountered no other of our people."

"I hope I live up to your expectations," I said primly.

His gaze raked me. "Very much so, yes," he replied. "In more ways than one. I must say I admire the way you confronted Odyn this evening. The very same thoughts had occurred to me as well--but I lacked the courage to express them."

"Courage or foolhardiness," I said bitterly. "I'm not sure which. And the governor is right: it is none of my business." I hesitated for a moment. Then I said quietly, "Sah'ahl? Do you mind a personal question?"

"Not at all, if you'll allow me one as well."

"Certainly." I swallowed hard. "I realize you can't remember your previous life. But have you ever had your hormones tested--to find out whether you'd bonded before your…accident?"

"I have," he said. "And…it appears that I hadn't."

For some reason my heart began to pound. "I…see."

"And what about you, Commander Ehm'rael?" he asked teasingly. "What's a lovely lady like you doing so far from your mate and kits?"

That question brought into my mind, unbidden and unwelcome, a memory I had been trying all day to suppress. On my way to Yerba Buena's pod hangar I'd decided, literally at the last minute, to grab something to eat, as I had no idea how long it would be before I got another chance. I ducked into the Starboard Officer's Mess, ordered an extremely rare steak and a squeeze-bulb of warm milk--and found that the only available seat was at a table with Commander Abrams. As I sat down across from her I saw that she was smiling broadly--an almost unprecedented thing. Smiling and gazing down at a palm-reader.

"What do you have there?" I asked.

Still smiling, she spun the reader around for me to see. "Some holos from my family on Terra," she said proudly. "My nephew--my brother's boy--and his wife had their second child a few months ago. I just received some pictures. That's him--his name is Joel."

I found myself looking at the cheesy grin of a six-month-old human boy, dark-haired and with pale blue eyes. He sat before the camera on a sunlit patch of grass, wearing a diaper and nothing else, clutching a rather alarmed-looking Siamese cat.

"Apparently he just adores that animal," Abrams was saying. "Can't get enough of it--" But that was all I heard before I abandoned my half-eaten steak and departed the mess hall as fast as zero-G would allow. Sah'surraa

"The Goddess has not yet so honored me," I told Sah'ahl flatly.

"Then it appears we have something in common after all," he observed.

For a time we stood silent, watching the harbor lights and listening to the intermittent moan of a marker buoy somewhere out to sea. Finally I cleared my throat. "There's one thing I don't quite understand…"

Sah'ahl chuckled. "That being, what makes a Sah'aaran go to work for the Jellies," he stated.

"Basically, yes."

He paused for a moment. Then he said, "Gratitude, mostly. When they found me I was dying. They put me back together--" He lifted his left hand. "Replaced what they couldn't repair. If not for them I would be dead. Isn't that sufficient reason?"

"I honestly don't know," I said. "But…haven't you ever wanted to go home? To find out who you really are? You're no older than me--you might have family living on Sah'aar, still wondering what happened to you."

"If so," he said, "how would I know? I've already told you: I don't remember anything about my old life."

"It could be done," I persisted. "Missing-persons reports, ships reported lost, genetic records. It could be done."

"Maybe so," he agreed. "But what would be the point? Say for a moment that I do have family on Sah'aar. The person they knew--the person I was, ten years ago or more--is dead. What's left is Sah'ahl. Who's to say they'd even want to know me, as I am now? No--it's kinder all around if I remain dead to them. And if there's no one…so much the worse. I'd be rootless, a stranger in a strange land." He paused, and I saw the green flash of his eyes as he turned toward me. "You think I'm a traitor, don't you? To my people, and to the Alliance?"

I shook my head. "I don't know about that either," I said. "My training as a CF officer insists I say yes. But…well, let's just say I have a hard time taking at face value everything the Admiralty says about your employers. Someone once said that in war the first casualty is the truth…"

I saw the brief gleam of his smile. "Well taken," he said. He paused. "Well, we're not at war. We both represent governments who want to build something on this planet. Our jobs are to present our respective masters' plans--period. The negotiating will be done by someone else. And that being the case, I see no reason why we should be enemies. Deal?"

I looked at him quickly, but in the darkness I couldn't read his expression. "Deal," I said.

…And that's when I made the mistake. Or was it a mistake? Did it really make all that much difference, in light of subsequent events? I'll never know. I know only that I reached out, guided perhaps by a whim, and squeezed his hand. The furry one, that is. And as I did, a feeling like a jolt of electricity passed through me. Or perhaps that was entirely my imagination. I'll never know that either. I felt something--but if Sah'ahl felt it too, he somehow managed to shrug it off. "If you'll excuse me, Ehm'rael," he said a few seconds later, without a tremor in his voice, "most of me is organic, and grows tired. And we both have a meeting to attend early tomorrow morning. Good night."

"Good…good night," I managed.

He departed then, moving gracefully and silently on his mechanical legs. For a long time after he was gone I stood rooted to the spot, staring at the closed door. Then finally I shook myself. Wrapping my arms around my torso, as if with a chill, I left the balcony. I was suddenly exhausted, totally spent, and that big oval bed beckoned to me…but I had one last duty to perform before I could allow myself to collapse. I fetched my commpak from my sash-pouch and clipped it to my ear, adjusting the little microphone clear of my whiskers. Just in case anyone chanced to be listening, I keyed in the scrambler. "Ehm'rael to Yerba Buena. Repeat, Commander Ehm'rael calling NV Yerba Buena."

"Yerba Buena. Saunders here."

I took a deep breath and seated myself on the edge of the bed. "Preston, please get me the captain."


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