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 EIGHT
 
 

I heard the splashing, dimly, somewhere in the midst of my restless sleep; but somehow it merged with a disjointed, barely-remembered dream, and so failed to wake me. Even if it had, it would have done no good: it was already too late. When the harsh voice spoke into my ear I woke with a start, my eyes flying open--and found myself staring up through the darkness into two unfamiliar faces. I gasped, and a cold, blunt object jabbed against my neck. "Be quiet and lie still!" one of the strangers hissed. "We don't want to hurt you, but you're coming with us. Understand?"

I swallowed hard, and if I glanced quickly at my day-robe, hung over a chair with my mini-stinger and commpak in its sash-pouch…well, that's hardly surprising, is it? Fortunately neither of my assailants seemed to notice that quick flick of my eyes--which to them would have been little more than featureless, glowing green orbs anyway. "I understand," I said quietly.

"Good. Sit up."

I did so, slowly, gathering the bed-covering around me. The muzzle of the gun never wavered. The other intruder stepped to the wall and turned up the lights. Just a little, barely a glimmer, but more than enough for my eyes. I took a closer look at my uninvited guests…and felt my claws express, more in surprise than anger.

There were indeed just two of them, both women…and both normal humans. The older of the two held the weapon; she was in her late thirties perhaps, with fiery red hair, fair skin, and flashing blue eyes. Her mouth was set in a grim line of determination, the muscles at the corners of her jaw working. The other was younger, in her twenties, and had a Eurasian aspect: straight black hair, dark eyes and delicate features. She looked half-frightened and half-nauseated, and also tantalizingly familiar. It didn't take long to figure out why: bubbling up from my memory came a picture of that same woman leaping over a railing onto the deck of small boat.

For normal humans on Lands-End they were strangely dressed, both wearing the shiny, dark green, close-fitting bodysuits favored by their amphibian superiors. Slim packs of some hard white material were strapped between their shoulders, and streamlined helmets with clear faceplates, connected to the packs by short, thick tubes, hung upon breasts. They were barefoot, but out in the sitting room, on the edge of that damned pool, lay two pair of strap-on fins--along with a shapeless black bundle, contents unknown. That, and the line of wet footprints leading into the bedroom, instantly answered the question of how the intruders had gotten in--though not how they had managed to get past the retina-scans.

"Who are you?" I asked.

The older woman shook her head. "None of your business, Commander," she said brusquely. "Right now all you need to know is that we're the ones giving the orders."

"…And you're members of the so-called 'Protectors'," I observed.

The two of them exchanged a glance, and the younger one swallowed, but the older one merely smiled grimly. "Very good, Commander," she said. "Now let me tell you what's going to happen." She fumbled one-handed with a pouch on her weight-belt and brought forth a slim plastic case. "Like I said, you're coming with us. You won't be harmed unless you make it necessary." She flipped open the case, and what I saw inside made my tail lash in sudden terror: a hypodermic. Not a modern pressure-spray, but rather the old-fashioned kind--with a needle big enough for a maxigrazer. The huge syringe was filled with dark fluid.

"This contains a tranquilizer," she said. "It's meant for humans, though, and I have no idea what it might do to a Sah'aaran. I'd rather not find out--and I imagine you feel the same. Cooperate, and we won't have to."

Briefly, I considered my options. Even though my mini-stinger was far out of reach, I was certainly not unarmed; no Sah'aaran ever is. But quick on the claw though I might be, what good was that with a gun poked into my neck? I could glimpse the weapon, if I strained my eyes, and it appeared virtually identical to the sidearms carried by Akad and the local police. A kind of air-gun, they fired a small projectile, a cross between a pellet and a dart. Not particularly threatening…except that those little darts were barbed, and explosive. I had seen first-hand what they could do to living flesh. No: to lash out with my claws would be suicide, with that thing aimed at my carotid. What else? Break and run? Could I make it to the hall door in time? These people wanted me alive, that much was clear…but that might not prevent them from, say, shooting a leg out from under me. The only other alternative, to jump from the balcony, had an equal potential to be painful or fatal.

…And so, clutching the blanket tightly around me, covering my naked body and bare throat as best I could, I nodded. "All right," I said. "But I should warn you what you're getting into. There's an Alliance battleship orbiting up there, and its captain won't take kindly to one of his officers being kidnapped."

Those words made the younger woman look a little more ill; but the older one merely smiled again. "I know," she said, with a brief, bitter chuckle. "But it's a big ocean." She glanced over her shoulder. "Get the stuff, Mary."

The younger woman--Mary--didn't move for a few seconds, and the other's scowl deepened. Mary shook herself violently then and turned. From the sitting room she fetched the bundle--a large waterproof satchel--and deposited it on the foot of the bed.

The older woman rummaged inside, her eyes never leaving mine, and selected one particular object, a small dark-green lumpy cylinder. She backed away slowly, her pistol aimed at my head, and tossed the thing to me underhand. Instinctively I caught it, and found myself holding a tightly-rolled bodysuit exactly like those worn by my visitors--except that this one had been altered with the addition of a tail-hole. It also appeared to be about a dozen sizes too small, barely big enough for a ten-year-old kit. "Put that on," she ordered. "Now."

I was extremely reluctant to leave the security of my bed, but the memory of that huge needle was all too fresh in my mind. Slowly, making no sudden moves, I cast aside my blanket and donned the jumpsuit--which proved much easier than I'd expected. There was a long, almost invisible mag-seal up the front; and the material was not only wonderfully stretchy, it also seemed to have a "memory." Even though my body is not shaped quite like that of a human woman, the suit conformed itself exactly to the peculiarities of my form, and in doing so proved to be almost comfortable. I say "almost" because Sah'aarans find close-fitting clothing confining, itchy against the fur.

When I was dressed, the older woman gestured with her weapon. "Stand up," she said, and I did. She glanced at Mary and nodded.

I saw what the younger woman selected from the bag, and I began to protest…but the older one scowled me into silence. Mary seemed reluctant to approach me, even from behind, but finally she did. "Your hands," she said, softly and almost apologetically.

What she held was a wide roll of thick, waterproof adhesive bandage--and with it she swiftly and securely bound my hands behind my back, my wrists crossed. The older woman watched impassively, and when this was done, she sighed, relaxed visibly, and stuck her weapon into her belt. Evidently she believed me helpless now--and in fact she was right.

Together, the two of them removed several more items from the bag. I watched…and eventually understood exactly what was in store for me--and how powerless I was to prevent it. I tried; I twisted in my bonds, fighting to get my claws onto the bandages. But I could not, and when the older woman laid her hand on her pistol I desisted.

Together they strapped a small, hard white pack onto my back, securing it with a crisscross harness and adding a heavy weight-belt. For the moment they left the helmet dangling behind my back. Then the older woman took my arm and walked me out into the sitting room. At the edge of the pool she induced me to sit.

"No," I said, feeling the shame well up within me even as my mouth shaped the words. Sah'aarans never beg. "Please, don't do this. You don't understand…"

"You'll live," the older woman said tartly. "Just keep still and you'll be fine."

Mary knelt down next to me, and with a long strip of bandage she bound my ankles together. But even that was not the end, nor the worst of it; because then she wound a strip around my head, blindfolding me. My breath came in shallow gasps now, and I was suddenly certain that I would pass out. In the sudden pitch-blackness I felt the helmet being lifted onto my head, my mane stuffed inside. The thing fit poorly, crushing my ears and my whiskers both, and just barely had room for my muzzle. A flexible skirt or collar at the bottom of the helmet fastened itself to my bodysuit with a sucking sound, forming an air- and water-tight seal. As this occurred I heard a sharp hiss, and the small space filled with cool, canned, metallic-tasting air. And then someone gave my shoulders a terrific shove, and I toppled headlong into the pool.

Inside my helmet I screamed, almost deafening myself, and my bound limbs thrashed wildly. I heard and felt the splashes on both sides as the two women dove in beside me; a second later two strong hands clamped down on my arms. With an effort of will, stronger than any I had ever before exerted, I forced myself to stop struggling and go limp. Fighting would avail me nothing.

I felt myself being drawn directly downward (or so it seemed to my horribly disoriented senses) toward the bottom of the pool, propelled by kicks which drove strong currents of water along my lower legs and feet. Around me all was silence, except for a faint liquid rush, and the confined rasp of my own breathing. No bubbles; apparently the device strapped between my shoulders was a "rebreather," absorbing the carbon dioxide from my breath and recycling the cleansed air back to me. A fact which signified, all things considered, basically nothing.

After perhaps ten seconds of downward motion we stopped short. I heard a dim, muffled clanking sound, and then we moved forward again, horizontally it seemed. This time the kicks were even more powerful, and our speed much greater, dragging the bushy tip of my tail out painfully behind me.

As my captors propelled me helplessly along, I tried to force myself to be calm…and partially succeeded. At least--amidst the chaos of unanswered questions swirling through my mind--I needn't bother wondering where I was. That, I knew well enough already. All through the capital city ran a network of water-filled tunnels, which the amphibians used as a kind of rapid-transit system. (And also--I realized suddenly--so they could avoid sharing the sidewalks with the minority.) Obviously we'd entered that net, and more than ever I cursed my blindfold. I'd have given a lot to see those tunnels, which I'd never in my wildest dreams expected to enter. Where they were taking us, though, was another--far more serious--question.

Exactly what time it might be I had no clear idea; well after midnight, I guessed. At seven a.m. Dail Akad would arrive to escort me to my landing pod. He would find me gone, having left behind a rumpled bed and all my property, including my clothing and collars. There would be no obvious signs of a struggle; still, it seemed likely that the word "kidnapped" would occur fairly quickly, even to a mind as obtuse as Akad's. What then? Certainly the governor would institute a search. Would she inform Captain Thunumm? Probably--but not right away. Not until my absence threatened to become embarrassing. He would insist on joining the search, I knew, using Yerba Buena's resources…and should the governor prove reluctant to allow that, Thunumm would no doubt remind her of the battleship's other attributes, by way of persuasion. Surely my captors knew all this--but evidently they didn't care. What had the older woman said? "It's a big ocean." All too true

Why? Not surprisingly perhaps, that was the question that echoed most persistently through my mind. Why kidnap me, of all people? What did they hope to gain? That it was somehow connected with the theft I'd witnessed seemed obvious: the presence of the woman named Mary in both places proved that. But the exact nature of the connection eluded me.

How long that nightmare swim lasted I don't know. It felt like forever, of course, but it was probably no more than half an hour. Several times--exactly how many, I lost count--we paused briefly, floating in mid-water, and during those intervals I once again heard that faint clanking. Junctions in the tunnels, I guessed: gates or hatchways. Passing through them, we invariably changed direction. On two such occasions, the tunnels beyond the junctions took us straight down rather than forward.

Finally we halted before what I presumed to be a larger or more massive gate--because the sound of its opening was louder, and our wait longer. When we had passed through I felt a subtle difference in the water around us: it was suddenly cooler, though by no means cold, and several times my dangling feet brushed quickly against something soft and slimy. Seaweed, perhaps? Had we passed out of the tunnels into the open ocean? It seemed reasonable that such portals would exist…

We continued in a straight line and without pause, for some time. Then abruptly we stopped, and from somewhere above I heard a faint, half-familiar slapping. My abductors propelled me upwards, and a few seconds later we broke the surface together. From nearby I heard voices, speaking words which I couldn't make out, and two pair of strong hands grabbed my arms and hauled me out of the water. At first they drew me, dripping and shivering with the sudden cold, onto a narrow ledge, which seemed to be rocking back and forth. The railing of a floating dock? No, not quite. Almost immediately they lifted me over that ledge and deposited me, with surprising gentleness, upon my knees on a hard flat surface.

Several pair of hands went to work on me then. I was quickly relieved of my weight-belt, rebreather and helmet, and I was rubbed briefly from shoulders to toes with a rough towel, which--since that bodysuit was virtually waterproof--seemed to dry me almost entirely. No move was made to free my arms or legs, though, nor to remove my blindfold.

"Where am I?" I demanded. "What do you want with me?" But the questions were ignored. I tried again, hearing and hating the growing desperation in my voice: "Please, won't you cut me loose? Or at least let me see?"

"Not yet," said a half-amused voice, which I recognized as belonging to the older kidnapper. She muttered a few more words, clearly not directed at me; all I caught was "take her below."

Once again I was lifted, one pair of hands under my armpits and the other around my calves. To struggle would mean being dropped painfully, so I didn't. I was carried perhaps eight or ten steps, and from nearby I heard a creak, as of hinges. A few steps down then, and I was deposited on my right side on a rough, yielding surface. I heard the sound of retreating footsteps, and a sharp bang, as of a thin door or hatch being slammed.

"Please!" I cried. "Don't leave me like this!" But once again I was ignored.

I lay quiet for a moment, catching my breath, and then I began to explore, such as I could, worming around to feel behind me with my bound hands, and reaching out with my toes. From the echoes of my own breathing, I deduced that I was in some small space; a storeroom perhaps? The ceiling was extremely low--as I discovered, painfully, when I tried to sit up--and the walls angled forward sharply, meeting at a point about a meter beyond my feet. A little current of cool fresh air spilled over me from somewhere above, but I couldn't determine its source. I was lying on what seemed to be a padded, upholstered bench a little more than a meter wide, set directly against the wall. The fabric was coarse and tweedy. The only sounds were those of distant voices--too far away to make out the words--and that peculiar rhythmic slapping, much louder now and coming from directly beneath me. I also caught an occasional whiff of an unpleasant sour smell.

…And the entire space moved: it rocked gently back and forth. At first I chalked that up to imagination, an aftereffect perhaps of my ordeal…but eventually I decided that it was quite real. And realizing that, I suddenly knew exactly where I was: the front cabin of a small boat, a utility craft like the one which had served as Mary's getaway vehicle--if not indeed the very same one. From the motion I guessed that we were riding at anchor in mid-ocean, rather than tied to a dock in the harbor.

For the moment I seemed to be alone--I could hear no breathing but my own--and so I redoubled my efforts to escape my bonds. But once again I failed. Immersion had not softened or loosened the bandages--rather the opposite, in fact--and I still could neither twist free nor get a claw on them. I tried to drag the blindfold off against the rough upholstery, but the bandages had been wrapped thick and tight, and clung to my fur and mane. The removal--if indeed it ever came--would be painful. I struggled for perhaps half an hour, until my muscles were screaming and my tears formed twin puddles behind my blindfold. Finally, exhausted, I subsided.

About then I became aware of the sharp rap of footsteps passing back and forth outside the cabin, as of someone pacing the deck in agitation. I heard the voice of my elder captor, muttering unintelligibly at first, then speaking up loud and clear: "Where in hell are they? They should be here by now…"

And in reply, an unfamiliar male voice: "Dunno. Maybe they got delayed…"

"Or caught," the woman said grimly. She paused, then went on decisively: "That's it. We can't wait any longer--we're already almost an hour behind schedule. Fire it up--we're getting out of here."

"But…" the man began uncertainly, but my captor rode him down.

"Now!" she demanded. "If they were caught, how long do you think it will be before the police are after us? Frank will have to be satisfied with half his prize. Get moving!"

Even in the midst of my pain and fear those few words pricked up my ears, but the resulting avalanche of thought and speculation was quickly interrupted. First by a deep-throated roar from the stern: the boat's engine starting up; then by a whine followed by a clang and a thud from the fore: the windlass drawing up the anchor. When the boat started forward it did so full-throttle: the bow rose sharply, and a cry was forced from me as I slid helplessly several centimeters down the berth. Almost immediately the ride leveled off, as someone adjusted the boat's trim. As her speed increased the boat rose higher and higher on its hull, until it seemed that she skimmed across the water with her keel barely damp. Exactly how fast we were going I don't know; let's settle for "very."

To make myself comfortable was of course impossible. The best I could manage, after several minutes of cautious wriggling, was something just short of unendurably painful, lying on my side with my knees drawn up against my abdomen. There were several small rectangular cushions against the wall behind me, so my fingers said; working mainly with my teeth I managed to drag one over to use as a pillow. My muscles were taut as harp-strings, threatening to cramp; slowly, and with the aid of many deep centering breaths, I forced myself to relax. For the moment I could do no more.

Frank will have to be satisfied with half his prize. Pointless to beat my brains out wondering who "Frank" might be: no doubt I'd find out soon enough. Clearly, though, he was someone in charge, someone of authority among these humans who called themselves the "Protectors." Probably also he had ordered my kidnapping. If so, I had a few choice words for him when at last we met--maybe more than a few.

But half his prize…that phrase stuck firmly in my mind. Who or what was the other half? I could think of only one reasonable answer to that, and contemplating it I alternated between soaring elation and black despair. If his kidnappers had failed, then he would still be free, able to aid in the search. That was good. But at the same time I would have welcomed his presence there beside me, even if we could do no more than commiserate in our captivity. Simply to have him near would have been infinitely comforting--but that's what bond-mates are for, isn't it? Goddess, why was I so afraid to call him? We might have been together; perhaps we could have resisted them…But such recriminations were pointless now.

The endless rumbling vibration of the engines, transmitted through the boat's frame to my berth, felt like a thousand gentle hands massaging and relaxing me, gradually soothing away my pain and fear. My mind began to drift, and my poor abused body felt curiously disconnected, as if it belonged to someone else. For a time I fought to remain awake, knowing I must stay alert for a chance to escape…but finally, inevitably, the Goddess took pity on me, and I slept.


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