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 NINE
 
 

Without a doubt it was the most painful awakening of my life, exceeding even the one with the concussion and the broken arm when I was nine years old and a rotted limb abruptly ended my climb up the huge old tatak in my yard. I'm not certain how long my uneasy and dream-plagued sleep lasted, but evidence suggests about six hours. The touch of a hand on my shoulder brought me awake with a jerk and a snarl--which quickly became a cry of pain as the memories came flooding back. Sah'ahl--Goddess--someone--please help me! I can't take much more of this!

"Rise and shine, Commander," said a half-amused voice--yes, the Elder Kidnapper again. "We're here."

Indeed, the motion of the boat had entirely ceased, except for a gentle rocking, and the engine was silent. Once again I heard that slapping sound, which I knew now to be waves against the hull. The air in the cabin felt warmer now, and that sour smell--bilge--was more pronounced. Those facts registered dimly through my misery.

My reply was an inarticulate croak, forced through a dust-dry throat. My entire body seemed to be one solid cramp, so stiff and wracked with pain that I wondered whether I would ever be able to move again. My right leg ached horribly, having borne my full weight all night, and my arms screamed in agony at the slightest touch. My eyes burned beneath the blindfold. I was also terribly hungry and desperately thirsty. Nevertheless, a tiny spark of anger had been kindled, somewhere deep inside me: someone, somehow, was going to pay for this.

"Have a drink," the woman said, her tone suddenly softening. A hand was slipped beneath my head, raising it a little, and the rim of a bottle was pressed against my lips, moistening them with cool water. I swallowed in tiny sips, weakly at first but with increasing avidity. When I began to cough and sputter the bottle was withdrawn. "That's enough for now," the woman said. "Are you hungry?"

I paused, then nodded. "Yes."

"We'll get you something to eat in a little while," she promised, and to my surprise she sounded sincere.

"Where are we?" I asked. "What's going on?"

"We're home," she replied. "My home. You're here to meet the General."

"Frank?" I guessed.

"Yes, that's right," she said flatly. "Frank Rochelle. Our fearless leader." I felt the jolt as she sat down on the end of the berth, and I tensed as she drew my legs up into her lap.

"What does he want from me?"

"I'd have thought," she said coldly, "you'd be able to answer that for yourself. Hold still."

I heard a faint hissing sound then, and a fine, cool mist dampened my ankles. A sharp, chemical smell; some kind of solvent? Whatever it might be, the woman allowed it to soak in for a minute. Then, slowly and carefully, she peeled away the long strip of bandage. To my astonishment the process proved almost painless, and the weakened adhesive seemed to take little or none of my fur with it.

Though my legs were free now, I was scarcely likely to jump up and run. My captor began a rough massage, working from my hips down to my ankles; and slowly, painfully at first, my legs returned to life. Eventually she pulled me into a sitting position, and then, with her arm around my waist, lifted me to my feet. My legs held me--barely. To my disappointment, though, she still made no move to free my arms or my eyes.

"We're leaving," she said. "We'll take it at your speed. I'll guide you--and don't worry, I won't let you fall or run into anything."

So kindly was her tone that I shook my head in confusion. "I don't understand you people," I said. "You're willing to brutally abduct me in the middle of the night, and yet you're worried about me stubbing a toe?"

She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, quietly, "We're not monsters, Commander. We do what we must--but we take no pleasure in it. Come on--two steps forward and three up. And duck your head."

We left the cabin. Up on deck a stiff, almost chilly breeze whipped at my mane. I turned my head from side to side, listening hard, seeking some clue that might tell me where I was; but I could hear very little apart from the whistling of the wind. Nearby, the mutter of breaking waves; farther away, a faint hum, as of machinery; and farther still, a babble of voices which might have been those of children at play. I shook my head in frustration. Too generic…

The woman tugged my arm. "This way. Three steps up."

Onto a ramp of some kind then, angled sharply upward and with a surface like sandpaper; a gangplank perhaps? A dozen paces up, then a level platform, metal, cold beneath my feet and textured with a pattern of little raised X's for traction. A pause there, and the clank and screech of a heavy watertight door being opened. "Step over."

Another pause, and the door slammed closed behind us, cutting off the wind. Around us now the smell of metal, rust and humans; my escort's footsteps raised ringing echoes, as from the walls of a narrow corridor. We proceeded on for perhaps five minutes, changing directions several times. We were not alone: on five or six occasions conversations paused as we approached, and resumed after we had passed. "Stairs. twelve up, turn right, twelve more."

Into another corridor then, entirely deserted; a dozen paces, no more, then another pause. A door to my left was opened. Once again metal, but from the sound of it not quite so massive. "Step over again." Another three paces, then she turned me a hundred and eighty degrees around. "All right. Have a seat."

I did so. The surface beneath me was flat and springy, clearly a bunk; I felt the rough texture of a blanket, like wool but almost certainly not. The bed bounced as she sat down beside me.

"I'm going to free your hands and remove the blindfold now," she said. "I'd strongly suggest keeping still. There's lots of corridor between here and the nearest exit, and lots of people to stop you."

I nodded. That of course was why she'd left me sightless: so I'd be too disoriented to find the way out. "Understood."

She freed my eyes first. I had been blindfolded for the better part of eight hours, and as the bandage came away I saw nothing but a bright featureless blur. That frightened me greatly, and I wondered if my eyes had somehow been damaged--but a few minutes and a few dozen blinks later they cleared, and I relaxed. Curiously I glanced around.

I found myself in a room which bore a strong resemblance to my cabin aboard Yerba Buena. A metal box about two by three meters, it contained a narrow bunk bolted to the floor against the wall; a small circular table and a stool, also bolted down; and--behind a thin, shoulder-high partition--a tiny head, a toilet and washbasin. A far cry indeed from my luxurious quarters in the Government Building.

While I looked around, wondering uneasily how long I'd have to remain in this place, the Elder Kidnapper went to work on my hands. I glanced back over my shoulder at her. Sometime during the night she had changed clothes, exchanging her diving suit for a pair of jeans of some rough dark-green material, bloused over the tops of heavy, worn black boots, and a homespun shirt of a lighter shade of green, the sleeves rolled up above her elbows and the top three buttons unfastened. She wore her sidearm in a holster slung low on her right hip. Her hair--almost the same shade as mine, I suddenly realized--was tied behind her head in a tight bun. My first estimate of her age had been a little off, I saw now: she was probably not much older than me, if at all, but a hard life had aged her prematurely. She noticed my scrutiny, and her eyes narrowed, but then she smiled tightly. "There," she said, and at that instant my arms fell free. Slowly and painfully I flexed them, massaging my wrists.

She stood, pocketing a small spray bottle full of clear fluid and crumpling the used bandages into a sticky ball. "Make yourself at home," she told me. "I'll let Frank know you've arrived."

I cleared my throat. "If you really intend to feed me," I said, "please remember that I'm a carnivore."

She grinned, showing teeth that could have used some orthodontic work. "That," she said, "would be difficult to forget." She departed then, and the clang as she slammed the door sounded ominously final.

###

For several minutes I sat still, battling despair and rubbing my poor abused arms. Then, with a sigh, I stood and began a closer examination of my prison. It was pure wishful thinking which made me check the door, and I was not surprised to find that I was indeed locked in, after a fashion. The door was a massive watertight bulkhead, and it opened in the standard way of such things: by the turning of a spoked wheel, which caused a pair of stout pins to be retracted from slots in the jamb. It had been rendered inoperative from the inside by very simply removing the wheel, leaving me a bare hub and no leverage. What, really, did I expect? So far as I could tell, there was no other exit.

Unlike my cabin aboard the battleship, this place had portholes, a pair of them set high on the rear wall. Both were propped open, letting in the breeze. Stiffly, careful of my sore muscles, I climbed onto the bed for a look outside.

Only thirty centimeters wide, the porthole was of course far too small to crawl through, but it afforded a most interesting view. And as I contemplated it, I finally began to understand the hopelessness of my situation.

Ever since I arrived on Lands-End my inner engineer had been quietly lusting after an opportunity to examine one of the "floating cities" which most of the amphibian population called home. Now, unlooked-for, that opportunity had arrived…but what I saw, spread out before me in the early-morning sunshine, was at least as repellent as it was fascinating. From my vantage point on the second floor of the settlement's largest building, situated at or near its southern edge, I could see almost the entire structure--and what I couldn't, I could imagine.

The platform was square, and appeared to be about a kilometer to a side. At base or "street" level, its upper surface was some five meters above the water. Invisible below were the huge pontoons, as well as the engines and the submerged baffles which broke the incoming waves. Very little of the original superstructure was visible; it had been almost entirely overbuilt--and in perhaps the most unattractive fashion possible.

I had no idea whether this place represented the typical floating settlement; but I doubted it. Having seen the capital city, I could not imagine that the amphibians would construct anything so ugly. Almost the entire surface of the platform was covered, as I said; but there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to the construction. Except for the one in which I was incarcerated, the buildings were uniformly low, none exceeding one story; but beyond that they matched not at all. Directly below lay a typical example: a hideous square box made of corrugated metal, windowless and squat; and next to it a geodesic dome of aluminum and glass, evidently a greenhouse. So far as I could tell, none of the buildings had been designed, as an architect understands the term; they had simply been assembled, thrown together out of whatever materials came to hand. The streets or alleys between them were meandering, usually narrow, and universally dark. Some of the buildings had been painted in the recent or distant past, in wildly different colors. Others had not, and rust had taken hold. On this ocean of fresh water it would proceed slowly; but proceed it would, and had.

In the middle of the platform I glimpsed a wide open space, which I took to be a schoolyard. A small number of children--twenty perhaps, of differing ages--played happily there, on improvised swings, slides and monkey-bars. As Sah'ahl observed, kids are the same everywhere. Their shouts echoed softly up to me: obviously the ones I'd heard during my blindfold walk. Elsewhere the streets were full of adults. Unlike the amphibians, these people moved slowly about their business, dispiritedly, as if dragging chains behind them. Their clothing was rough, and they themselves looked hard-bitten and desperate. Difficult to tell how many; three or four hundred, perhaps, and there could easily be that many or more out of sight.

"Welcome to paradise," I heard, and I turned, quickly jumping down off the bunk.

The Elder Kidnapper stood in the doorway, a sardonic smile on her face and a plate of fried fish in her hands. Intent on the view, I had not heard her enter. "Quite a place, eh, Commander?" she went on as she deposited the plate on the table.

"Who--who are these people?" I asked. "What are you all doing here?"

"Oh, haven't you heard?" she said with deep sarcasm. "We're the dreaded Protectors. We're terrorists, murderers and thieves." She shook her head then, and her tone softened into resignation. "We're refugees, Commander," she said. "Many of us are wanted criminals, and all of us have run away from our jobs, which is a crime in itself. We're people who have decided that it's better to live like this than as slaves. We're fugitives, living hand to mouth, always on the run…but at least we're free." She nodded at the plate. "Enjoy," she said. "There's more where that came from--one thing we're never short on is fish. I'll be back in an hour to take you to Frank."

She turned to go, but I called her back. "Wait," I said, and she turned, regarding me warily, as if bracing herself for a storm of complaints. I swallowed. "I…just wanted to say--thank you."

She quirked an eyebrow and grinned. "For kidnapping you?" she asked mockingly.

"No," I said. "Thank you for not making it worse than it was. I know you could have--if you'd chosen."

She glanced away, her cheeks suddenly reddening. "Like I said, Commander," she said softly, "we're not monsters."

"It seems I'm going to be here a while," I commented. "Won't you tell me your name?"

She hesitated, then shrugged. "Why not? I'm Linda--Linda Rochelle."

"'Rochelle'?" I quoted. "Didn't you tell me earlier--?"

"Yeah," she said. "Our intrepid leader is my husband. Eat hearty--I'll be back in a while."

And with that she departed, leaving me to swallow my curiosity along with my breakfast.

###

Frank Rochelle, leader of the Protectors and self-styled general, was a remarkably handsome man--and a remarkably sad one as well.

He sat behind a massive paper-strewn metal desk in the midst of a small office, regarding me with stern grey eyes and downturned mouth. His gaze was one of appraisal, matching his name, and under it I felt myself wilting in embarrassment. I had been offered no clothing to replace that clinging green bodysuit, which emphasized rather than concealed my shape, and covered my neck not at all. I felt my left hand begin to rise toward my throat, and I forced it to my side. These people don't know Sah'aarans, I reminded myself. They had no idea that such a little thing as a bare neck could make one of us feel stark naked. And what they didn't know couldn't be used against me.

And so I endured, standing with waving tail and half-expressed claws, returning his gaze silently. Finally he smiled and leaned back, crossing massive arms across an equally massive chest. "So," he said, in a voice as deep and rich as the amphibians' were piping and shrill, "what have we here?"

"Ehm'rael," I replied flatly. "Commander, assigned to Combined Forces Engineering Corps. Serial number J7-6248-E."

Rochelle's smile widened, showing several gaps. He was a huge man, more than a match for Dail Akad in height, weight and bulk. He had the classically square jaw of a 20th-Century Terran action hero, and a bristling blond crew-cut. But he also had an air of melancholy that seemed somehow to diminish him, negating his larger-than-life physique. "Do you consider yourself a prisoner of war, Commander?" he asked. "I'd rather you think of yourself as our guest."

"Guests," I told him coldly, "are usually invited."

"And so were you," he said. "Just a little more forcefully than most." He waved a hand--or perhaps "meaty paw" might be a better term. "Have a seat."

I did so, perching myself uncomfortably on the only other chair, a rickety folding one with blooms of corrosion bursting through its grey paint.

"I apologize for the way you were brought here," Rochelle went on. "But I was afraid you wouldn't accept a more conventional invitation--"

"You're probably right."

"--And since you were due to leave the planet this morning…"

I jerked, and instantly cursed myself, hoping he hadn't noticed that tiny motion. He was right, of course: by now I should have been back aboard Yerba Buena, being chewed out by Captain Thunumm and contemplating suicide. But how did he know that? File it away for further study…

"…But there seems to have been no serious damage done?"

I shrugged. "I'm stiff and sore," I said. "But apparently not permanently crippled."

He nodded. "Good. I would have spared you even that." He shook his head and sighed. "But Linda refused to use the tranquilizer…"

For which my heart and I are profoundly grateful, I thought.

Rochelle's tiny and cluttered office was in the same building as my cell, and in fact on the same floor, just a few corridors away. His portholes had a much nicer view, looking out over the edge of the platform toward open ocean. I had been escorted there by Linda, and this time she had not bothered with the blindfold. As we made our way down the hall I looked around carefully, and was struck by two things. First and most forcefully, the building's solidity: clearly it had been designed to withstand heavy seas indeed. And second, its age and shabbiness. Unadorned bare metal--even Yerba Buena was more attractive--the building consisted entirely of narrow corridors and small dank rooms, which had been variously modified into offices, living quarters--and prison cells. Spots and blotches of corrosion were everywhere; in some places the walls and floor had rusted through completely. Many of the doors had been removed; still others stood open more or less permanently, sagging on broken hinges. And yet, for all that, the building had been designed; it had not merely happened, as had the other structures I'd seen from my window. I wondered if it--and by extension, the platform on which it rested--might date from the original settlement of Lands-End. Certainly it seemed old enough.

"…But now that you're here, by whatever means," Rochelle said, "I imagine you'd like to know why."

"The thought had occurred."

He leaned forward. His jeans and shirt were much the same as Linda's, except that his shirt was raggedly sleeveless. A round purple emblem was emblazoned on his right biceps, a mark which the Terrans used to call a "tattoo." It took me some time to realize that it was a stylized portrait of Earth itself, North America on the left and Europe and part of Asia on the right. What it signified I didn't know.

"As I'm sure you're aware," he began, "this planet is in a great deal of trouble."

"If you're referring to what used to be called 'race relations,'" I said dryly, "I tend to agree."

He nodded tiredly. "Yes," he said. "That's it exactly. It's a situation which has gone on for almost a century and a half, ever since the amphibians seized control of the government. But it's only in the last decade that it has become a true crisis. I'm afraid I'm not a historian…"

"That's all right," I assured him. As I'd told the governor, there comes a point in the history of any minority group when "slow and steady" progress toward equality becomes simple inertia, and all the old promises sound empty and meaningless. But it takes time for the pressure to build to the bursting point; that more than a century had passed before it happened here was scarcely unique. "I understand."

He peered into my eyes, and nodded again. "Yes," he said. "I think you do. Over the last few days I'm sure you've seen examples of how we're treated. You were present two days ago when one of my most trusted men was brutally murdered--"

I held up my hand, bringing him to a halt. "I was present when a man was killed by police officers, in the midst of what I was informed was a burglary," I corrected. "I was told his name was Martin Crane…"

"That's right," Rochelle said. "Mary--the woman who accompanied my wife last night--is his widow."

"I'm sorry."

"So are we," he said flatly. "Very much. Martin was a soldier, though, and understood the risks he was taking. So did Mary. But that was by no means an isolated incident, Commander. Many, many others have received the same treatment, or worse, from amphibian police officers. And they were not soldiers. In far too many cases they were guilty of nothing at all--except being human."

"On that I have only your word, I'm afraid," I said. "Though I certainly agree: from what I've seen and heard, the unmodified human population of this planet is treated deplorably." I paused. "But that leads me to ask: what does that have to do with me?"

"Just what I'd would like to know myself," he said. "Consider the situation. After almost two centuries of isolation, suddenly this planet is of great interest to both your Alliance and to the Chrysaoan Hegemony." I started to reply, but he overrode me. "I know what you're going to say, Commander, and I won't argue the point. The border between your respective territories has shifted, and now we're in disputed territory. Both governments want to establish a foothold by building a refueling station. So we've been told--the entire populace--by our beloved Governor Odyn. And I don't doubt she's telling the truth--as far as it goes. But I think there's more to it."

"Such as?"

"I don't know," he said. "Yet. But I do know that the 'phibbies have always treasured their isolation. If they'd wanted contact with the Alliance, they could have had it decades ago. It seems suspicious to me that Odyn is suddenly willing to abandon that precious sovereignty for a few dubious economic benefits. I think there must be another reason--and I can think of only one that would be sufficiently compelling."

"Yourselves," I said. "The 'true' humans."

"Exactly," Rochelle agreed. "You've only been here a few days, Commander, and you don't know the political situation. Some people on this planet, amphibians of wealth and influence, have openly called for a 'final solution' to the problem we represent." He cocked a challenging eye. "You're not Terran, but perhaps that phrase means something to you--?"

I nodded. "Certainly it does." I said. "But on the other hand, I also know that such phrases are often used by people on the fringes of society--and being wealthy doesn't necessarily exclude one from occupying the fringe, morally speaking. What matters is what the mainstream thinks."

He made a sound of disgust. "What they're taught to think, of course," he snapped. "Isn't that always the case? If propaganda and demagoguery are used to convince them that we are dangerous terrorists, out to murder them in their beds, that's what they'll believe--and they'll clamor for yet another round of restrictive laws." He waved a hand. "We're here, Commander, as free as we can possibly be; and we welcome any true human who has the ability to join us. But there are many thousands who can't, and have to live with the curfews and the labor laws and the enforced poverty."

"I sympathize," I told him. "But I ask you again, what's it to do with me?"

"You were sent here with the Alliance's proposal--"

"Wrong," I corrected. "I was sent here to build the refueling facility. Nothing more or less. Everything else that's happened has been out of my control. If you're looking for information, General, you've come to the wrong place. I'm an engineer, not a negotiator. As far as I know, the Alliance offered nothing more than what you call 'dubious economic benefits.' They did not--would not--offer to aid in any sort of 'final solution.' If they had, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't even be a CF officer, if I thought them capable of that."

"As you yourself said, Commander," he replied, "I have only your word for that."

I shrugged. "And in any event," I went on, "your information is outdated. Whatever the Alliance did or didn't offer, our contract has been nullified by the Legislature. The last I heard, the Governor is determined to make a deal with the Hegemony."

His jaw dropped and his eyes widened, and I knew that I had indeed surprised him. In the brief silence that followed it seemed that I could read his mind: he was coming to the realization that he had kidnapped the wrong person--or at very least, failed to kidnap the right one. He took a deep breath…

At that moment we were interrupted. Without benefit of a knock the door was wrenched open, and Linda stuck her head in, her face paper-white and her eyes wide. "Frank," she said tightly, "we need to talk. Right now."

The "general" glanced at me. "Can't it wait, Linda--?"

"No," she snapped. "It can't."

He sighed and rose. "All right. This will only take a moment, Commander. Make yourself at home." He nodded to a side table, where sat a tray containing a pitcher and several mismatched, none-too-clean glasses. "Help yourself to water, if you wish."

They went no farther than the other side of the door, and that pretty well negated the precaution of closing it behind them. Humans always underestimate Sah'aaran hearing. Without moving a millimeter, without needing to press my ear against the door, I heard every word clearly.

"What's wrong now?" Rochelle said with weary patience.

Her tones were clipped, her voice barely under control; but not, I thought, with anger. Not exactly. "Frank, we've just picked up some news out of the capital. We found out what happened to Matt and Kyle--why they never came back with the other Sah'aaran."

My ears pricked up instantly. "Arrested?" Rochelle asked.

"No," she said grimly. "Dead."

A pause, then "What?" he demanded, speaking for both of us.

"They were found in his suite." I heard her swallow. "One on the floor and the other floating in the pool."

With those words, my claws dug furrows into the arms of my chair. No, I thought. No, he couldn't have. Not Sah'ahl. No Sah'aaran would break his oaths like that

…But Sah'ahl had no memory of his childhood, the time when those oaths are so thoroughly pounded into us. If the kidnappers took him by surprise, threatened him…his most basic instincts might have kicked in. Horrible, unthinkable--but possible.

"How did they die?" Rochelle was asking. I closed my eyes, waiting for and yet dreading to hear one particular word…but she did not speak it.

"Shot," Linda said. "Both of them, once through the heart. With their own weapon, it seems. Not another mark on them."

My eyes snapped open. Shot--? At the risk of sounding callous, I must admit that a vast feeling of relief spread through me then, causing my fingers, toes and tail to tingle. My claws vanished. Something bizarre was going on back in the capital city…but whatever it might be, one thing at least was certain: Sah'ahl was not guilty of murder.

"And what happened to the Sah'aaran?" Frank asked.

"Gone," Linda said. "Vanished into thin air, poof." She chuckled hollowly. "The cops sure as hell want to find him, though--he's wanted for questioning about the deaths."

In that I saw the hand of Akad at work. But where in the Goddess' name was Sah'ahl? And why--if he was innocent, as I firmly believed him to be--should he vanish? Questions I hadn't a prayer of answering, not where I was.

Linda sounded near tears now. "Frank, that's three of our people dead in just the last few days. And for what? A gadget nobody understands, and an alien. Worse than that: an officer in the Alliance's armed forces. Just how long do you think you can hold her? How long until that battleship captain comes after your ass? You've ruined us, Frank! You and your goddamned war!"

"For heaven's sake, Linda, calm down," he said desperately, and I imagined those big hands clutching her shoulders. "It's going to be all right."

"So you say," she told him bitterly. She took a deep shuddering breath. "All right. What do you want me to do?"

He paused for a few seconds. Then he said tiredly, "Keep monitoring the news broadcasts, and see what you can pick up. Let me know right away if they locate the male--what's his name, Sah'ahl. And also if the search for the commander heats up."

"Yes, sir, General," she said sarcastically, and I heard the echoes of her footsteps as she stalked away.

Rochelle returned to the office, his face ashen. He stumbled across to his desk and collapsed into the protesting chair. He seemed to have forgotten all about me, and there was surprise mingled with the horror in his eyes when he finally looked up.

I couldn't resist placing a tiny down-payment on my revenge. I flashed him my sweetest, most innocent smile. "Something wrong, General?"


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