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 TEN
 
 

Rochelle and I regarded each other for a long moment, and deep within his gaze I saw a tiny spark of uncertainty kindle, flame, and slowly spread. I watched with grim satisfaction, and it seemed to me I saw a man beginning to realize he was in far over his head. Even in the midst of my anger, though, I couldn't help feeling just a little sorry for him--because he also looked like a man desperately trying to do his best with a bad situation.

Finally he shook himself and glanced aside. "No," he lied. "Nothing wrong. A minor internal matter, that's all. Now--where were we?"

"The governor making a deal with the Chrysaoans," I supplied blandly.

"Oh yes," he said. He grinned ruefully. "I have to admit, Commander, that particular bit of news hadn't reached us yet. The governor keeps a tight lid on the news media--unless it suits her to do otherwise." He frowned. "I wonder why, though, all of a sudden…?"

"Apparently the Legislature is afraid of what your people might say to the Terrans."

For some strange reason that seemed to surprise him. Why, I don't know; in his position I would have regarded that conclusion as stunningly obvious. Finally he nodded. "Of course," he said quickly. "And well they should too." He glanced at me sidelong. "I imagine you had this on the highest authority--?"

I shrugged. "The governor herself, yesterday."

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "She'll probably make an announcement today, then," he speculated. He smirked. "Unless she's otherwise occupied, of course." He paused then and frowned again. "But why a deal with the Hegemony--?" he mused, half to himself.

On that subject I had only Sah'ahl's speculations--and some developing ideas of my own. Neither of which I cared to share with the man who had ordered my kidnapping. I cleared my throat. "I'm curious, General…"

"Yes?"

"Why am I here?" I said bluntly. "Is it to supply information? If so, I've already told you everything I know." I fixed him with my gaze. "Or do you plan to use other means of questioning?"

He paled, and at that instant I knew what kind of man he was: one with no stomach for torture. Which did not necessarily make him a coward--but neither, despite what was implied by his self-proclaimed title, was he a cold-hearted military machine. Very much the opposite. "No," he said softly. "I don't think that will be necessary. I'm more than willing to take your word."

"Glad to hear it," I assured him. "But in that case, what are you going to do with me? If you want to know the details of the Alliance's fueling station, I'll be happy to supply them--for whatever they're worth. I can even describe the Chrysaoan design--the parts I remember."

He chuckled and shook his head. "No," he said. "Thank you, but no. As I'm sure you already know, Commander, those plans are matters of public record. And frankly, that installation--no matter who ends up building it--doesn't interest me much. Not as such. I'm more concerned with what the Alliance and the Hegemony offered in exchange." He reached across the desk and turned a framed holo toward himself; an image of Linda, looking about ten years younger, with what appeared to be the lower slopes of Discovery Peak behind her. Gazing at the image fondly, he said, "I do wish we'd been able to get hold of your friend the cyborg…"

I shrugged. "I don't know how much it would have helped, even if you had. He's simply an engineer, like me."

Rochelle hesitated. "I wouldn't be so certain about that," he said with a smile. "I rather suspect there are some things about him even you don't know."

"Very little," I said, dead-pan, and he quirked a confused eye. He shook his head, and when he spoke again his tone had firmed, as if he had suddenly reached a decision. Exactly what, I didn't know. Deep in his eyes, though, a tiny glimmer of uncertainty seemed to linger. To exploit that, to bring it to the surface and intensify it, might be my ticket out of here--but as yet I had no idea how to accomplish that.

"Not that it matters now, of course," he said "Obviously he's chosen not to accept my invitation. Having the two of you here together would have made things a lot simpler for me, but it's not absolutely necessary." He smiled. "To tell you the truth, Commander, I really didn't expect to be able to extract much information from you. And I'm certainly not fool enough to torture you. If any action would be guaranteed to turn the Alliance against me, it's that. No--I think you'll be the most use to me if I simply hold you for ransom."

I snorted in derision. "Ransom? Sounds like a great deal of trouble for a few dubious economic benefits."

He nodded placidly. "True," he agreed. "It would be--if we were discussing money. But if you think about it, Commander, there's more than one kind of ransom."

###

They took me back to my cell, and having absolutely nothing else to do, I reclined on my bunk. Lying flat on my back with my hands behind my head, I listened to the waves and the wind, and tried to make sense of the previous twenty-four Terran Standard hours. An almost impossible task, alas. Questions I possessed in abundance, but answers were in much shorter supply. And my interview with Rochelle had done nothing to reverse that--rather the opposite, in fact.

Where am I? That seemed as good a place as any to start. Obviously I was in the middle of a planet-wide ocean, aboard a grungy floating platform. But where exactly? By the position of the sun, seen through the porthole after Linda removed my blindfold, I judged that something like seven hours had passed between my abduction and my arrival here. Assuming that the boat ride had taken six, and assuming that the craft had traveled at, say, eighty kilometers an hour (and that estimate might be low) I could be anywhere within a circle almost five hundred kilometers in radius, centered on the capital city. No--make that a semicircle, excluding the remainder of the continent. And worse: whatever specific latitude and longitude the platform had occupied when I came aboard, I had no assurance that it had remained there. Those structures were not only floating but mobile. They had to be, to escape the violent summer storms. Somehow or other these people were able to prevent the amphibians from locating their platform. How, I didn't know; except that--as Linda observed--it was a big ocean. And the amphibians, for all their draconian authority, had a relatively low level of technology, the result of their isolation. Yerba Buena could probably have found this place within ten minutes--but first, her Navspec would have to know what he was looking for.

Who are these people? Refugees, Linda said; fugitives, runaways from their jobs or from the law. Obvious enough…but there seemed to be more to it than just that. They had an agenda, a goal, beyond that of simply living free. The fact that they maintained an active espionage unit in the capital, with access to the Government Building itself, seemed ample proof of that. And then there was Frank Rochelle's title: "General." Not "Leader," or "Chief," or "President," or even "Comrade," but "General." Obviously he desired to organize his group along military lines--though judging from his own wife's reaction, he had been at best partly successful. Did that mean he intended some kind of military action against the amphibians? If so, then he was a fool. The normal humans were greatly outnumbered and largely powerless, lacking in both equipment and technical training. Rochelle might manage to incite a major riot, even an armed insurrection…but in the end, inevitably, it would fail. A pointless goal--unless it was his desire to become his people's Spartacus.

…Curious too that they identified themselves with the original "Protectors," the unaltered humans sent to Lands-End to help the amphibians adjust to self-determination. People who, as harsh reward for their hard work (or punishment for their insufferable paternalism, depending on which side you asked) ended up an oppressed minority. Was this group's use of that old title simply a reminder of past glory? Or was there a more direct connection? How to know?

How do I get out of here? That was the most difficult question of all. For the moment at least it seemed unanswerable. Though I had not actually been brought to this place naked--not quite--I might as well have been. I had nothing, no tools whatsoever, apart from my claws and my wits--the former by far the sharper. Neither would suffice to get me out of this cell, let alone out of the building or off the platform. And even if by some miracle I found myself aboard a boat, which direction should I go? Would I be able to navigate back to the single continent before I ran out of fuel? Deep-space navigation I was pretty good at--but the oceanic variety I had never attempted. All right then, try another tack. This building apparently contained some kind of communications equipment. Even if I could locate it, though, what then? I might be able to contact the local authorities; but what could I tell them? "I'm somewhere in the middle of the ocean"? Whether these people possessed the equipment to contact Yerba Buena I strongly doubted.

What does Rochelle want with me? He'd spoken of "other kinds of ransom," but he'd left it at that. What did he mean? What could he demand that the Alliance give in exchange for me, if not money or some other negotiable commodity? Certainly not military aid against the amphibians; Rochelle knew better than that. What, then? Did he himself even know?

"Don't destroy us." Martin Crane's last words came back to me then, as they had any number of times during the past few days. It seemed to me now, in light of my conversation with Rochelle, that Crane had also feared some kind of deal had been made between the Alliance and the amphibians, to the detriment of the normal humans. Possibly that idea had been drummed into his head by Rochelle himself. And believing me to be a part of that--an advance scout, perhaps, for an Alliance death squad--Crane had pleaded with me to put a stop to it. I couldn't decide which was the more painful: his misconception, or the fact that he died before I'd had a chance to understand it, let alone disabuse him of it. But Rochelle…he had easily accepted my word that there was no plot, no cabal, and had moved on from there. Almost too easily, it seemed to me; as if he had never really believed it in the first place...

There on my bunk, I frowned and shook my head. Or is that really true? I asked myself. He took my word for it, yes--but only after two other pieces of information came his way. First, my news about the Legislature nullifying the Alliance treaty; and second, Linda's revelation of Sah'ahl's disappearance. After that Rochelle had seemed for a time unsettled, or uncertain. I'd interpreted it as the fear that events were spinning out of his control. But what if I'd been wrong; what if he had instead been rapidly rethinking his plans and reordering his priorities? If so, then he might be a better leader than I'd given him credit for--and my task all that much more difficult.

And where in the Goddess' name is Sah'ahl? If the question of escape was the most difficult, surely this one was the most painful. My one small consolation was that he himself was--must have been--feeling that pain too. Bonding is like that, especially in the early stages: new bond-mates can rarely stand to be apart for more than a few hours at a stretch. As time goes by they eventually find that they can endure longer separations, days or even weeks--though the operative word is "endure." If I was right, if what I'd felt deep inside these last few days was indeed the first stirrings of bonding…then Sah'ahl, the Goddess help him, would be as frantic with worry for me as I was for him. He couldn't avoid it.

He did not kill those two kidnappers, I told myself again. Not if the bullet-holes truly were the only marks on them. We Sah'aarans are taught never to use our claws against any sentient being, except in the extremes of self-defense. But instincts are instincts, and if one of us ever needed to kill someone, if it was something that literally could not be avoided, claws would be the weapon of choice. Not firearms--certainly not at close quarters. But if I was right…then where was he? Why vanish and give the impression of guilt? And who did kill those two men? Painful questions indeed…

Gradually I became aware that I was growing very sleepy. Which is hardly strange, considering the remarkably unrestful night I'd had. I stood and felt for the slide-tab of my bodysuit's mag-seal. To peel the thing off was pure hedonistic pleasure. I had no brush, so I fluffed up my matted fur with my hands, stoically ignoring the maddening itch which accompanied this action. As I had halfway expected, the bodysuit itself did not return to its original size, but retained a close approximation of my own shape. I would have enjoyed nothing more than to toss the damned thing out the porthole--but I still had no idea whether any other clothing would be forthcoming. I spread the suit out across the foot of the bunk, then crawled in beneath the blanket and--despite my lingering aches, curled myself into a ball--When you have no answers, and when your questions do nothing more than mate and give birth to little questions of their own, sleep is often the best use you can make of your time. It seemed to me that there was another question lingering, one which I had not yet considered; but for the moment I could not remember what. Worry about it later, I thought, and I let myself slip away.

###

"How old is this place?" I asked Linda, and she chuckled humorlessly.

"Depends on what part you're talking about," she said. "The platform itself, and our state-of-the-art headquarters, they're more than a century old." She waved a hand. "But if you mean Hooverville here, less than a decade."

Morning on the open ocean, the beginning of my second day as a hostage. Linda Rochelle had volunteered to give me a tour of the platform, a task she performed with a strange mixture of friendly enthusiasm and acid sarcasm. We walked slowly, randomly, amidst the grimy alleys and the hazardous-looking patchwork buildings, she with her hand not quite resting on her weapon, and me trying to convince myself that no, these humans were not staring directly at my bare neck. They had simply never seen a Sah'aaran before--certainly not one in a dark-green skintight bodysuit.

"This platform was never meant for habitation," Linda explained. She was dressed this morning almost exactly as she had been the day before, in jeans and rough shirt, boots and heavy belt with holster; the only addition to her outfit was a pair of fingerless black gloves. Today she wore her hair in a long tight braid down her back. As for me, I had still not been offered any other clothing, and I was too proud to ask: these people would never again hear me beg. Judging from the appearance of those we passed, though, I had begun to believe that I had been given nothing else to wear because they had nothing else to spare.

"It was built as a mobile base for a fleet of fishing boats," she went on. "The amphibians like to spread their fishing operations out as much as they can--so no one area will be over-harvested."

"They have a point."

She nodded. "Certainly," she agreed affably. "Of course it's impossible to bring fresh fish back to the mainland from the other side of the planet, or even distribute it among all those scattered floating cities. The distances are too great. So when they dispatch the boats, they also send one of these platforms to the same area. The fishermen bring their catch to the platform, and it's processed there--frozen or otherwise preserved for shipment."

I nodded. "I understand," I said. "Essentially a floating cannery."

"That's right. Also a mobile marketplace, because once it's reached quota, it can travel among the floating communities selling the stuff."

"So what happened to this one?"

"It was reported lost with all hands in a tropical storm, about twelve years ago," she said blandly. I glanced at her quickly, and she nodded and grinned. "You're way ahead of me, I see."

"Maybe," I said slowly. "Maybe not. Would the platforms happened to be manned by normal humans--?"

"Yes, they are," she said. "With a small staff of 'phibby supervisors." She shook her head. "One of the few places on this planet where we're the majority. One day the crew of this platform got fed up with the working conditions--and with their bosses. There was a storm brewing, and the boats the platform serviced were running for safety. It was easy enough to broadcast a false SOS, cut the communications links with the mainland, and make it appear that the platform had gone down."

"Were you involved?"

"No," she said. "Neither was Frank. We came aboard later. But those who were involved formed the core of what eventually became the so-called 'Protectors.'" She pronounced that last word as an open sneer, and I looked at her curiously.

"You don't approve of the name?" I asked.

She shook her head. "What I object to is our making use of it. I think it might be a little…presumptuous."

"How so?"

She frowned, clearly uncomfortable with the subject. Finally she said in clipped tones, "I just think that if you're going to adopt the name of a particular group, and if you're going to claim to espouse similar aims, you ought at least to have a chance in hell of achieving them."

She turned away then, pretending to study a corrugated wall that was crumbling into rust, her black-wrapped fists clenching and unclenching. I realized to my dismay that I had inadvertently dredged up something unpleasant--probably a long-standing disagreement with Frank, if I read their relationship correctly. I saw too that I would have to postpone asking any more questions. I'd already pegged her as a difficult and thorny personality--takes one to know one, I guess--and from such people information must often be teased a little at a time. When we began to walk again, we did so in a thick pall of silence.

Actually that did not particularly distress me, despite my urgent need for answers. Just to be out of that damned cell was joy enough. While I am not claustrophobic--people who are seldom join the Combined Forces--I do share with most members of my species an aversion bordering on horror to places that are impersonal or coldly generic. Anywhere I go, any place I am to occupy for more than a few hours, must contain something to make it "mine." Even a little thing will do: in the capital city, for example, I'd had my portable shrine. Here I had nothing at all; even the clothes I wore were borrowed. And that, even more than the mere fact of being locked in, threatened to drive me over the edge. Maybe not soon, but inevitably. Yet another thing these people hadn't understood when they snatched me. Out here at least, in the open air, I didn't feel as if the walls were closing in.

For a time Linda led me down the narrow noisome streets, past the close-spaced dwellings. I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no places of business, as one would expect in a true city; no stores, no tailor's shop or doctor's office; not even a fruit stand. This was a refugee camp, not a functioning community. The purpose of the buildings that we passed was nothing more or less than shelter, something to keep the rain out--a task they obviously could have performed somewhat better.

Of course the people did work…but so far as I could see, largely on their own behalf. A couple examples out of many come immediately to mind. Here a man, fifty years old or so, standing atop of a rickety ladder using sheets of what appeared to be zinc to patch the gaping rust-holes in his lean-to roof. And directly across the street, a woman of perhaps twenty-five, sitting on her doorstep sewing a shirt. And not with a machine, either, but with needle and thread--a fascinating sight I had never before encountered. Both of them glanced up from their work as Linda and I passed, staring at me dully, neither in hostility nor in welcome, for a few seconds before returning to their tasks. They at least had jobs to do. Too many others we passed seemed to have none, and wandered the streets with empty hands and hopeless expressions. Some few of those did cast unfriendly gazes at me--but turned hastily aside when Linda glared at them and touched her weapon.

By the time we had walked another two blocks, my guide's fists had unclenched, and I ventured another question. "These buildings--I assume you salvaged the equipment from the cannery for the materials?"

She nodded. "Yes," she confirmed. "Among other things. Ships do go down in the summer storms, every once in a while. We haunt the fringes of the storm belt, looking for wreckage. Sometimes we get lucky. And some of the newer fish-packing plants are fully automated. Once in a while some of their equipment goes missing." She flashed me a brief conspiratorial smile.

"How many of you are there?"

"At the moment, on this platform, about four hundred. That doesn't count our people in the capital, and our sympathizers in the other amphibian cities and the townships."

"How do you feed yourselves?"

"We have our own small fleet of fishing boats," she said. "And we gather seaweed. The ocean on this planet is pretty shallow, and anyplace it's less than fifty meters deep the stuff grows like a…weed." She plucked at her green shirt. "The stipes are fibrous--they can be dried and spun into thread. Makes a very tough cloth. We're lucky there--some of our people grew up as weavers and garment-workers."

I nodded slowly. A rough existence, one of hard work under difficult conditions--but apparently they were used to that. And if nothing else, at least the products of their labor would be their own, not taken from them in exchange for starvation wages.

We had almost reached the center of the platform by then, and ahead of me, at the end of a particularly dark and dingy alley smelling strongly of fish, I saw a patch of brightness: a wide space open to the sun. In the midst of it I seemed to see a blur of movement, and a babble of high-pitched excited voices drifted toward us. The playground I had noticed yesterday; I'd assumed it to be connected to a school.

"How do you keep this place from being discovered?" I asked. "The amphibians are aware of your organization; I can't believe they haven't guessed that your headquarters is out here on the ocean."

"Oh, they have," Linda said with certainty. She gazed at me with narrowed eyes, and finally shook her head decisively. "No," she went on. "I'm sorry, Commander, but that's where I have to draw the line. No offense--but what you don't know you can't spill."

I shrugged. "All right," I said; but beneath my nonchalance my mind was working furiously. That this was only one platform among thousands was surely a factor; so too was the fact that the Protectors kept their home moving, never giving their enemies a stationary target. But that wasn't enough. If the amphibians truly believed these people to be terrorists, murderers and thieves, they would stop at nothing to find and crush them. Unless, of course, they were somehow prevented from doing so--but exactly how, I couldn't imagine.

I pointed ahead. "Is that your school?"

She nodded curtly. "Yes," she said. "It is."

"May I--?"

She shrugged. "Okay by me--though there's not a lot to see."

We walked slowly toward the patch of brightness. Halfway there I cleared my throat and said quietly, "Linda? What's going to happen to me?"

"I don't know," she said flatly. I glanced at her curiously, and she shook her head in sudden anger. "I don't," she insisted. "Frank is handling this one himself--and he's not soliciting anyone's input. Not even mine." Obviously that fact offended her deeply. "At the moment my orders are to make you as comfortable as possible, and to prevent you from escaping."

The latter being the easier job, I thought wryly. "Did he order you to give me this tour?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Yes," she confirmed sourly. "He did. Insisted on it, in fact."

Those words set off a whole cascade of new thoughts, too many to deal with right there and then. Suffice it to say that I was beginning to get an inkling of what "another kind of ransom" might be.

"One thing for certain," Linda was saying. "You're not going to be harmed by anyone here." She patted her weapon. "Not if I have anything to say about it."

"Oh?" I said casually, and again she shrugged.

"Our beloved general can order me to be a kidnapper," she told me. "But he can't order me to enjoy it."

We had reached the vicinity of the school by then, and looking around, I had to admit that Linda was right: there wasn't a lot to see. A small, tired-looking building, flat-roofed and with tiny dark windows crouched forlornly beside the small playground, as if looking for the slightest excuse to collapse. Nor was the yard itself anything to write home about. Instead of the huge grassy fields and sandboxes of my youth, here there was nothing but the bare deck-plates. The play equipment, such as it was, had been cobbled together out of odds and ends: two lengths of steel cable and a pipe, suspended from a rusty girder, made a swing; a slab of sheet metal, curled into a half-cylinder and propped up on a stack of barrels, formed a slide. I wondered if the kids themselves had done the work.

In the midst of this sad ersatz, some twenty children were at play. An equal mix of girls and boys, representing a wide variety of Terran ethnic groups, they ranged in age from about four to twelve. Their clothes were ragged, the younger kids obviously wearing the older ones' well-used hand-me-downs; they were barefoot, and their faces were dirty. But it is a talent of youth to find joy even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances, and so these children had. Refugees, fugitives with at best an uncertain future, they still managed to laugh and play as if they hadn't a care in the world. I envied them that.

For several minutes we stood leaning on a rough fence, watching them. Their game--if it can really be defined as such--seemed to be a kind of "keep-away," the taller youngsters tossing a ball back and forth over the heads of the smaller. I knew from bitter experience that such play can quickly become an exercise in cruelty, but so far that seemed not to have occurred. I looked…and it came to me suddenly how similar these children--and their games--were to the amphibian kids I had seen a couple days before. Similar…and yet a whole world apart. That thought saddened me greatly.

I nodded at the seething, shouting mass, and smiled. "Are any of those yours?" I asked Linda.

Instantly she rounded on me, raw fury in her eyes, her fist clenched and rising. I backed up a step, raising my hands to protect my face…but then she sighed and let her arm drop. She glanced away. "I'm sorry," she said. "You had no way of knowing." She took a deep shuddering breath. "No, Commander," she went on harshly, "none of them are mine. Nor will there ever be. You see, Frank is sterile." She waved her hand. "Almost half the real humans on this planet are."

"I don't understand," I said slowly. "How did it happen? Some kind of disease, or genetic damage--?"

"No," she said tartly. "Surgery. Involuntary surgery. It's the law."

That shocked me, right down to my toes. Unable to speak, I gaped.

"In a way," Linda went on hollowly, "that's how this whole damned business started for me. Frank and I wanted to have children--and we couldn't." She shook her head. "We didn't know why--until we remembered what happened when we were both about six years old."

"Goddess!" I said. "That young?"

"Yes," she said. "Back then, of course, we had no idea what was going on. Nor did any of the other kids. What does a kid that age know about reproduction?"

"I can only imagine how that must feel," I said carefully, "and I'm sorry to bring back bad memories. But I want to understand exactly what you're telling me. You said it's the 'law'--by which you mean a law passed by the amphibians?"

"Of course," she said testily. "Who else? It's been in force for almost seventy years now. At first it was twenty-five percent. Now it's fifty. Who knows where it goes from there--maybe a hundred percent. That would solve their problem very nicely, wouldn't it?"

"I know they strictly control their own reproduction," I said carefully. "For eugenic purposes, trying to stabilize and improve their modifications. You say that half of you have been sterilized. How is the selection made?"

"As far as I know," she said, "completely at random. I remember one day a bunch of us girls were rounded up out of school and taken to the hospital in the capital city. They told us to line up against a wall--they didn't care how, just however we got off the transport. Every other kid they took out of line and sent back to school. The rest they took inside. I was one of the lucky ones. Frank--when the boys were sent--wasn't. All he remembers is being sedated, and having a sore spot on his lower abdomen for a few days afterwards."

"Then it was done solely to control population?"

She nodded. "And still is," she said. "All the time, in those mining and manufacturing townships around Discovery Peak."

As a means of reducing headcount, it would be extremely effective. A simple surgery, barely remembered by the child. Humans have a lot more freedom of choice when it comes to choosing a mate than we Sah'aarans, even the ability to change their minds. But even so, they do often form lasting attachments. Later in life, a person who chanced to be fertile might choose a mate who was also--or might not. As had obviously been the case with Frank and Linda Rochelle.

"What did you mean," I asked, "when you said that's how this all started for you?"

She sighed, and when she spoke again it was with infinite weariness, as if repeating a story she had already told far too often. "Frank and I were miners," she said. "We always knew that our lives in the township stunk, but we figured there was nothing we could do about it. We couldn't imagine that it could ever be any different. But then we discovered that we couldn't have children--or more specifically, he couldn't." She paused, peering into the playground, and her voice lowered to a whisper. "He…he wanted me to find a man who could. He said he wouldn't mind. But I couldn't. I just…couldn't." She looked up at me. "I don't know if you can understand that--"

"Yes," I said. "I can. In our case it's biological, but I can understand the psychological side too."

"--And after that he was…changed. Brooding, obsessive." She chuckled bitterly. "I guess that's not too hard to understand, is it? I mean, you can make a man a virtual slave and keep him in poverty, but when you screw around with his virility…" she paused. "It didn't take him long to hook up with this group, the Protectors--and pretty soon he found himself at the top."

"The surgeries," I said. "I imagine they used the simplest technique--vasectomies for the males and tubal ligation for the females?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "That's what we figure, anyway."

"Those procedures aren't necessarily permanent," I pointed out. "They can be reversed…"

She snorted. "Sure they can," she said derisively. "In a well-equipped hospital." Once again she swept her arm in a circle around her head. "You see anything like that here, Commander? We don't even have a qualified doctor."

I was silent for a time, watching the kids. "The Legislature was right," I said thoughtfully.

"Pardon me?"

I shook myself. "They nullified the contract with the Alliance because they feared reprisals, should the Terrans find out how your people are treated. Or so Governor Odyn told me. They were right--but they didn't know how right. Reproductive freedom is a basic tenet of the Alliance--it's in the Charter."

She looked at me with a mixture of amazement and disgust. "Then why did the Alliance negotiate that agreement in the first place?"

"That," I told her seriously, "is exactly what I intend to find out."

Linda glanced at me sharply, gazing into my eyes; then she nodded slowly. "Maybe," she said thoughtfully, "Frank isn't as big an idiot as I thought."


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