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 ELEVEN
 
 

Frank Rochelle looked exhausted, his eyes puffy and his mouth set in a hard, grim line. "Something you ought to hear, Commander," he said as Linda escorted me into the tiny room late that afternoon. He nodded to the man at the controls. "Play it, Sam."

"You got it, boss."

Was I speculating about the Protectors' communications equipment? Well, here it was, spread out before me: as patched-together a collection of castoffs and junk as I had ever seen, or hoped to see. If somewhere behind those rusted panels there lay a bank of glowing vacuum tubes, I would not have been surprised. The entire mess occupied a small space on the second floor of the main building, just a few doors down from Rochelle's office. Having recently learned that structure's history, I suspected that the room had been the "radio shack" of the old mobile cannery--which meant that some of the equipment could be almost a century old. Certainly it looked it. Other parts seemed newer: salvaged or stolen, I figured. The air smelled of ozone and scorched insulation, and an irritating whine--which my human friends could probably not even hear--set my teeth on edge.

The radio-operator--Sam--sat in the midst of this chaos of wires and spare parts exactly as a spider crouches in the center of its web. He was a young man, no more than sixteen or seventeen, with a shock of unruly dark hair, thin pale features, and a few embryonic strands of beard on the point of his chin. A huge pair of headphones hung around his neck, their coiled cord leashing him to his equipment. He selected a battered, antiquated data card from a haphazard stack and slipped it into a reader slot. He adjusted a dial, and we all leaned forward as a voice crackled forth from a speaker hanging by its own wires from an overhead panel. Though distorted by those peculiar surf-like waves of static which often accompany a short-wave transmission, the voice was immediately recognizable: Governor Odyn. So, unfortunately, were the words she spoke.

"The events of the past three days have made clear the direction which we as a people must take," she was saying; evidently--I assumed--as part of a speech. "I am deeply troubled by the behavior of two visitors, persons I myself welcomed to our world. Though they represent two separate governments, they are both members of a single species--one which I believed to be civilized and honorable. In that, I was obviously mistaken.

"In the one case, there may have been some slight justification. The men sent to abduct Representative Sah'ahl--and that they were sent to do so seems certain--were simply unaware what degree of savagery he is capable of. If he is anywhere within the sound of my voice, it is my hope and plea that he will turn himself in, so that this matter may be brought to a close without further loss of life. I also wish it to be clearly understood that I consider this incident to be in no way a reflection upon the integrity of the Chrysaoan Hegemony. It is my intention to resume negotiations with that body at the earliest opportunity."

She paused. "However," she went on, the hardening of her tone clearly audible despite the interference, "I cannot be so forgiving toward the Terran/Centaurii Alliance--nor toward their so-called representative, Commander Ehm'rael. Her disappearance does not represent an abduction, though we are meant to believe it was such. Rather, she has joined with those who would destabilize our government and destroy our way of life. Major Akad is convinced--and I share his conviction--that Commander Ehm'rael was sent to this planet as nothing less than a spy and provocateur for the Alliance, a government dominated by Terrans. By her own actions her guilt is proved: she has openly expressed sympathy for the dissident groups which plague us; and she has been seen and heard exchanging words with a member of the most notorious of these terrorist organizations, the so-called 'Protectors,' minutes after he and an accomplice stole valuable equipment from the Government Building.

"For that reason I have no alternative but to break off all negotiations with the Alliance forthwith. I have ordered the captain of the Combined Forces battleship to withdraw from orbit immediately, and I have instructed him to inform his government that Commander Ehm'rael, once she has been taken into custody, will be tried for espionage in accordance with our laws."

If the governor had anything else to say, it was lost in a sea of static. Sam turned down the volume and removed the card from the slot. I rounded on Frank and Linda, so furious that my mane was literally standing on end; my claws were expressed to the point of painfulness and my tail collided repeatedly with walls, panels, chairs and Sam as it lashed out of control.

Frank nodded tiredly. "We picked that up a few hours ago, while you and Linda were touring the platform," he told me. Beside him his wife stood aghast, her jaw hanging slack, her face dead white. She glanced repeatedly from him to me and back again. I couldn't speak, not a word in either language, and finally Frank smiled bitterly. "Welcome to the Protectors, Commander."

###

"How much of it was political posturing?" Rochelle mused, rubbing his chin. "I'd guess about ninety percent, maybe more."

Afraid perhaps that in my fury I would destroy their communications equipment--and in fact I might have--he and Linda managed to get me out of the radio shack and into his office. I sat perfectly still, except for my tail, and if--as the old saying goes--there truly had been fire in my eyes, he would have become Lands-End's first recorded victim of spontaneous human combustion. Linda sat perched on the edge of his desk, eyeing me fearfully, probably trying to figure out some non-lethal way of restraining me should the need arise.

"The governor knows she made a major blunder, forcing through that agreement with the Alliance," Rochelle went on. His words were a soliloquy: I had not spoken at all. I still did not trust myself to. The anger which stopped my tongue was not new; it had been building up inside me for several days. It began, I think, when I witnessed a man being shot in the back for theft, and had been nurtured by subsequent events: Akad's thinly-veiled accusations, Odyn's betrayal of my trust, my kidnapping and separation from Sah'ahl…and now this. I had plenty of anger to go around, too: enough for Odyn, Akad and Rochelle, with a little left over for myself and my putative bond-mate. How long I could keep it in check, I didn't know.

"…And she's a politician," Rochelle was saying. "Of course she's trying to shift the blame away from herself--it's almost a reflex. For her purposes, the Alliance is the most convenient target--especially since she obviously wants very badly to make a deal with the Hegemony. It's unlikely she'd actually force you to face trial…"

That did it. I rose and leaned across the desk, grabbing the lapels of his ragged green shirt in both fists. He was too heavy for me to lift, so I pulled my face to within a centimeter of his. His eyes widened in terror, and he looked frantically at Linda, but she never moved a muscle. "General," I growled, "I don't give a damn what is or isn't 'likely.' The governor felt free to make those accusations because I wasn't around to refute them--and that's your fault. I'm through fooling around. I want to know why I'm here, and what you're going to do with me. I want the whole story, and I want it now."

I released him with a shove and returned to my chair, watching as he struggled to regain his composure. My claws had come nowhere near his flesh, but eight small fresh holes decorated his shirt-front, and he shuddered as his fingers passed over them. He glanced angrily at his wife, and she returned his gaze blandly. Finally he swallowed, shook his head, and sighed.

"All right," he said quietly. "Yes. I owe you that. I'm sorry things have turned out the way they have…"

I shook my head. "It's too late for that, General," I told him. The alternative explanation had of course occurred to me: that somehow he and his people had faked that recording. But I quickly discounted that, for three reasons: first, I didn't think they possessed the technology; second, I could think of no good reason why they should; and third, Rochelle's assessment of the governor's motives made too much sense. "I'm sorry too," I went on. "But that doesn't help clean up the mess you've made. If I know Captain Thunumm, he won't take the governor's words at face value. He'll send down search parties of his own, with or without her permission--if in fact he hasn't already. That might lead to clashes with the planetary militia, and that could have bad consequences for your people as well as the amphibians. Do you really want that to happen?"

"No," Rochelle said. "No, of course I don't." For a few seconds he stared into space; then he took a deep breath and continued.

"All right. The whole story. When we talked yesterday, I told you how much I wished we had been able to get hold of Sah'ahl as well as you." He grinned faintly. "And not because I wanted a matched set of Sah'aarans. The fact is, I wanted to question both of you about your respective governments' intentions for this world."

"So I'd gathered," I said. "But why, exactly? What did you hope to hear?"

He sighed again. "Commander, for months now this planet has been buzzing with news of contact with the Alliance. It would benefit us all, so we were told--real humans as well as amphibians. But that's something we've heard far too often to believe any longer. I felt certain there had to be more to it--that the governor had to be planning some kind of strike against us, with the help of the Alliance. If not against the entire normal-human population, at least against dissident groups such as ours."

"The Alliance wouldn't--" I began, but he raised his hand, cutting me off.

"I know, I know," he said. "We've discussed that already. Though as it happens, Commander, I have only your say-so on that."

"Which you were willing to accept yesterday."

He nodded. "And I still am," he assured me. "At least for the moment. And of course that's also what I hoped to find out from Sah'ahl: what his bosses have offered."

"He doesn't know," I said. "I told you: he came here to present their design for the refueling facility--nothing else."

"Again, I have only your word for that," Rochelle observed without rancor. "And even accepting that you're telling the truth, you have only his word."

Bond-mates can't lie to each other, is what I might have told him; at least not successfully. But it would have been pointless. I smiled mockingly. "And you think you could have gotten the truth out of him?" I asked.

"I don't know," Rochelle said levelly. "But that's a moot point now. Maybe he is just an engineer and an errand-boy; I'll never know for certain."

"And that's the whole story?" I asked, and Rochelle shrugged.

"Up until yesterday it was," he said. "Obviously many things have changed since then, and I've had to rethink my plans."

I gazed at him for a moment, trying to read the thoughts behind those bland grey eyes. He seemed to be telling the truth--which meant that my guesses of the previous day, as I'd lain in my cell fighting despair, had been largely correct. Small comfort. The truth, yes--but perhaps not the whole truth. Sometime during the long dark night it occurred to me: maybe there was something more to my abduction than a desire either for information or ransom. Could it perhaps have been intended as a demonstration of what the Protectors could accomplish? Had I been in the governor's place, certainly I would have been feeling a little than secure right now…and maybe that was entirely the point.

"Accepting all that," I said, "why am I still here? And what is 'another kind of ransom'?"

He smiled. "Ironic, isn't it, Commander? We suspected you of helping the amphibians; now they suspect you of helping us. The governor might not really believe it--but I'd lay odds Akad does."

I growled softly, and Rochelle nodded. "--But you're waiting for an answer," he went on. "Obviously, I won't be getting the information I was hoping for. But as I was talking to you yesterday, it occurred to me that there might be something else that having you here could accomplish. I intend to make the Alliance an offer in exchange for your freedom. And if what you've told me about them is true, I think there's a good chance they'll accept it."

"And that is?" I asked warily.

"Nothing too horrendous," he said with a smile. "The price of your freedom is simply this: that they listen to what I have to say."

I felt my jaw drop. "Pardon me?"

"Just that," Rochelle told me with a grin. "No guns, no troops, no overthrow of the government. Just a hearing. Because I have to believe that once your peaceful, benevolent Alliance knows what is really going on here, they will put a stop to it. And if they choose not to--well, maybe they're not as wonderful as we've all been led to believe. Yourself included."

I glanced away. For a moment I sat silent, feeling my anger ebb away into a kind of sad emptiness. Finally I said, "General, I was raised in the Alliance. More importantly, I've taken oaths to defend it and its Charter. I believe in its principles--but I'm not an apologist. In this case, something obviously went wrong; the Alliance should never have closed that deal. Somehow, the true situation was concealed from the negotiators--either that, or they chose to ignore it. Perhaps the opportunity to deny this world to the Chrysaoans was too tempting. Somehow there was a breakdown of those lofty ideals." I shook my head tiredly. "But this is all so unnecessary, General."

He gazed at me, startled. "Why?"

"Captain Thunumm," I told him. "He asked me to gather all the information I could about your situation, specifically so he could bring it to the attention of the Alliance. And he'll do it, too. He's a decorated combat hero, and he has many friends in the government; there's very little he has to fear from the Admiralty. He's not my CO, so he couldn't order me to do the job--but I agreed willingly. You would have had your hearing, General, without the necessity of kidnapping anyone."

He stared at me for a full thirty seconds; then he spread his massive arms and cast his eyes heavenward. "Now she tells me."

"Otherwise, your plan is a good one," I said. "And I think it might have succeeded--you may well have gotten the Alliance's attention. But I'm afraid there's one thing you haven't taken into account."

"And that is?" he asked, unconsciously echoing both my words and my tone.

"The Alliance will soon be out of the picture," I told him. "If the governor is truly determined to rush into the Chrysaoans' welcoming tentacles, I guess, the Alliance will very likely let her."

"I told you that, Frank--" Linda began, but he waved her to silence, looking shocked.

"They'll abandon us, then? Even after learning what's really going on here?"

"They will," I said flatly. "If that's what the duly-constituted planetary government wants. Because the alternative is armed conflict with the Chrysaoans--and quite frankly, General, this planet isn't worth it."

"But your battleship commander--"

"Captain Thunumm would be willing to use force to retrieve me, if necessary," I admitted. "But that's as far as he'll go. Once he has me back, he will retreat--and then you'll have the Hegemony to deal with, the Goddess help you."

Rochelle nodded soberly. "Which I don't look forward to, believe me. Of course it's difficult to separate fact from fiction where they're concerned…"

"I know," I agreed. "And if he was here, Sah'ahl would be staunchly defending them. But even he admits that they're really only interested in results. They will want the social instability on this planet ended--one way or another."

"Badly enough to actively participate in its ending?"

I shrugged. "I can't say," I told him. "But it seems not inconceivable. As you observed, they've offered Governor Odyn something she wants--and from what I've seen, an end to this strife is what she desires most strongly."

"So she has often said," Rochelle replied grimly. "The only problem being, what kind of end?"

"Again, I don't know," I said. "But even after that speech today, she doesn't strike me as someone who would participate in genocide--nor make a deal with anyone who suggested it."

"Perhaps not," Rochelle said uncertainly. He peered at me for a time, as if deep in thought; then he nodded sharply, having apparently reached a decision. "I have something I want to show you," he went on. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and reached inside. As he did, Linda stirred and cleared her throat, opening her mouth as if to speak; but when he glanced sharply at her she shrugged and subsided.

What he brought forth was a slightly battered white box, perhaps thirty centimeters wide and deep, and half that high. Handling it carefully, as if it contained something infinitely precious, he passed it to me. It was not heavy. I frowned quizzically, and he flashed a quick, grim smile. "That's what cost Martin Crane his life," he told me quietly. He nodded and waved a hand. "Take a look."

At that instant I realized what it was that had been niggling at my memory ever since the previous morning, the question which had remained unexplored because of my drowsiness. It was something I'd overheard, something Linda said to Frank after she broke the news about the two dead kidnappers. "A gadget nobody understands"--or words to that effect. Could this be what she meant? I opened the lid.

Inside I found a solid layer of packing foam, and nestled into that a strange, small, metallic object. I glanced at Rochelle, and he nodded his permission. Gingerly, I drew the thing out and held it up to the light.

It resembled the capital letter "C"--from an alphabet designed by H.R. Giger. The opening across its "limbs" measured approximately fifteen centimeters; the depth from opening to back was about the same. The body was thin, no more than a centimeter thick, and extremely lightweight. The curved section, the back of the C, was about a centimeter across, and was constructed from a number of small interlocking plates, making it flexible like an old "gooseneck" desk lamp. The ends splayed out into rectangular paddle-shaped plates about seven centimeters tall and eight wide. The inner surface was coated with a black rubbery substance; the outer was hard, copper-red metal--a material which was unfortunately quite familiar. Lines, deeply incised into the outer surfaces of the end sections, marked what appeared to be the covers of half a dozen long narrow horizontal openings; flaps so tightly closed that I could not insert even the tip of a claw under them.

I looked up. "What is it?" I asked bluntly.

Frank and Linda exchanged a glance. "We were hoping that you could tell us," Frank said with a chuckle. "You're the engineer, after all."

I turned the thing over and over in my hands, gazing at it through narrowed eyes…and finally shook my head. "I haven't a clue," I said truthfully. "Not without some kind of context." I paused. "Crane and his wife stole this from a laboratory in the Government Building, I understand?"

"Yes," Rochelle confirmed. He grinned. "Though I prefer the word 'confiscate.' Of course I'd rather not discuss exactly how…"

I shook my head. "I don't care about that," I said. I returned the device to its box and slid it across the desk. "I'm more interested in why."

Rochelle dropped the box to the drawer. "If you mean, why did we choose to acquire it," he said, "that's easy to explain. It came to my attention from various sources that government scientists were examining a strange artifact--one which appeared to be of alien origin." He speared me with his gaze. "That is true, isn't it?" he asked quietly. "The amphibians didn't build that thing, whatever it is."

I paused, then nodded. "You're right," I confirmed. "They didn't."

"Neither," he said insinuatingly, "did any member of the Alliance."

Again I hesitated, and for a longer time. Rochelle's words were not a question--not in the sense of a request for information. What he wanted from me was confirmation of something he already knew. I thought back on what Sah'ahl had told me, that day when we'd stood on the breakwater. He had delivered a package to the governor, so he said, upon his arrival on Lands-End; and though he didn't know what it contained, it seemed safe to say that it was somehow related to his employers' payment offer. Had I just seen the contents of that package? If so, the sight had left me remarkably unenlightened.

"No," I said quietly. "It's not a product of Alliance technology either. At least none that I'm familiar with."

"And that leaves us with only one other choice, doesn't it?" Rochelle said. He shook his head and sighed. "Commander, I'm truly sorry you've gotten mixed up in our troubles. But you have to understand my position. I have no choice but to view everything and everybody as a threat until they're proved otherwise. That includes you and your government, and Sah'ahl and his." He glanced at his wife. "Linda has told you about us, I understand--about the very worst thing the 'phibbies have done to our people."

I nodded. "Yes," I said softly. "She has."

"I don't believe the governor is planning genocide either," he went on. "The 'phibs need us; who else would mine their ore and sew their clothes and clean their floors, while they're swimming around thinking deep thoughts? But they have no qualms at all about reducing our numbers to the point where we're utterly and permanently powerless. That's happened to a certain extent already. The only hope for our people lies with groups like this one. We happen to be the most powerful, the most effective, because we've managed to acquire and defend this platform…"

How? I wondered yet again. How do you defend it? But clearly this was not the time or place to discuss that.

"…but even we have neither the manpower nor the technology to go up against the government," he went on. "Even if all the groups banded together, it still wouldn't be enough. Most of the real humans on this world are afraid to get involved, and I can't really blame them. They don't have much, but what little they've got is too much to lose. I know, because I used to feel that way myself. Without some kind of outside help…our cause truly is hopeless."

"I sympathize," I told him. "And I will make sure that the Alliance is informed." I shook my head. "But that's all I can do."

"Maybe not," Rochelle said. He glanced at Linda, apparently seeking support, but she merely frowned in confusion, obviously having no idea what he was getting at. Which made two of us. He clasped his hands together in supplication and leaned forward earnestly. "Stay," he said. "Here. With us. The governor claims to believe that you've joined the Protectors. Make that come true."

I blinked, several times. "Why?"

"To help us," he explained. He spread his hands. "We're ignorant," he went on flatly. "I'm not proud of that, and I would argue that it's not our fault, but it's true. Among us we have a lot of practical knowledge, and we're always on the lookout for more…but when it comes to advanced technological training, the amphibians are infinitely ahead of us." He paused. "But you--you're far ahead of them. You have access to almost two centuries of innovation which they've missed, because of their isolation. There's no end to what you could teach us. You could help us find some way to fight them…"

His expression was one of unabashed pleading, like a kit begging for another helping of liver. And so I resisted my first impulse, which was to laugh in his face. Instead I shook my head slowly. "Let me get this straight," I said. "You're asking me to give up my home and my family, break the oaths I swore to the Combined Forces, and open myself up to either a court-martial for desertion or a well-founded charge of espionage? For your sakes? No. I'm sorry, General, but no. I'm afraid you overrate your importance--and my sympathy."

Rochelle's face fell; but curiously, in Linda's expression I seemed to see a flash of triumph, just for an instant before she composed herself. Rochelle appeared not to notice. What it signified I couldn't imagine.

"Then it seems," Rochelle said sadly, "we have nothing more to discuss."

###

That evening my portholes faced west, into the sunset.

Such was not always the case; I'd already noticed that the motion of the Protectors' platform was all but random, seldom holding the same course or bearing for more than an hour at a time. Part of the way in which they kept the place secret, no doubt--though scarcely sufficient for the entire task. Had I wished to, I could have stood on my bunk, observed the sun sinking into the waves, and perhaps seen the fabled Green Flash. But instead I contented myself with watching the play of fiery light and deep shadow on the opposite wall, as I lay on my back trying to decide what to do next. Needless to say, my options were limited.

I'm of no use to him, I thought. He knew that by now: I did not possess the information he'd hoped I would, and he was too squeamish to try torture. The "ransom" he had hoped to extract from the Alliance was ultimately worthless. And I would not sacrifice my hopes and plans to join his rebellion. By any sane, logical criteria, I was a liability.

…And yet he still would not release me. In part, of course, because he was afraid to, and for that I could scarcely blame him: I had seen too much. Though I had no idea exactly where on Lands-End I was, still I could describe the Protectors' platform in exquisite detail. I also knew more about their leadership, operations and goals than might be entirely healthy. Oddly enough, most of that information had come from Linda rather than Frank. Given the cold logic of current situation, the reasonable thing for him to do was to kill me. Was that what he was doing now? Trying to get up the nerve?

…Or, alternately, did he still hope to enlist me? At the moment I was adamant--but I'd heard too many stories of kidnap victims who come to identify with, and eventually join, their captors. No amount of indoctrination would be sufficient to change my mind, I believed…but could I be absolutely certain of that?

…And then again, he might be trying to decide how to release me. To simply deliver me back to the island-continent would not be a good idea; even I would have to resist that solution. Rochelle believed that the governor's threat to try me for espionage was merely saber-rattling, but I did not share his certainty. I had no desire to be languishing in prison when the Alliance was forced to pull out. The best solution would be for the Protectors to contact Yerba Buena directly--but that, they did not possess the equipment to do. Having seen their radio shack, I knew that all too well. At best they could broadcast a general message, short-wave perhaps, and hope that Lieutenant Saunders chanced to be monitoring that frequency. But that signal would be just as likely to be picked up by the amphibians. Almost certainly, Rochelle would not risk it. Have one of their agents in the Government Building steal my commpak? Possible, maybe; but after what had happened to Martin Crane, Rochelle would be unlikely to risk that either.

And where in the Dark Domains is Sah'ahl? That question was always with me, deep inside, a nonstop keening which I struggled to keep from dragging me down to despair. To be parted from him now, at this stage in our bonding, was both a torment I could not endure and a distraction I did not need. Nor had I decided what I would do about our situation. How could a Combined Forces officer be bonded to a representative of the Hegemony? We might be endangering our careers, if not indeed our lives…but the Goddess help us, there was nothing we could do to prevent it. Our biology cannot be denied.

The cell was growing darker, and I had not yet switched on my one and only light, a small, not overly-bright reading lamp built into the bulkhead above my bunk. The darkness suited my mood; and I had nothing to read anyway. The sunset had faded into purple twilight when the flow of my morose thoughts was abruptly interrupted, by the creak and clank of the cell door being opened. I sat up quickly, my heart pounding…but a faint, unmistakable odor informed me that it was just dinnertime. Another damn plate of fish; my eleventh or twelfth straight since arriving on Lands-End--unless I'd lost count. Nothing surprising there. What was, though, was the fact that the person making the delivery was not Linda Rochelle. I knew that as soon as I saw the shorter, slimmer form silhouetted in the doorway and heard the sudden intake of breath. I switched on the light.

It was Mary Crane, a covered plate in her hands and a pistol strapped to her waist. She attempted a smile, which came off rather sickly. "Commander," she said, "I've brought you something to eat."

From somewhere I found a smile of my own. I nodded. "Thank you."

She deposited the plate on the table and turned to go; but before she could depart I called out, "Wait!"

She turned, a questioning look on her face, and I allowed my smile to broaden disarmingly, without showing the teeth. "I'd like to speak with you for a moment," I told her.

She hesitated, one hand on the door, her delicate features alternating between uncertainty and outright fear. Her other hand crept toward her sidearm.

"It's all right," I assured her. "I don't bite. And I promise I won't cause trouble."

She gazed into my eyes…then she relaxed, smiled, and nodded. "All right," she said. "For a moment."

I waved her to the bolted-down seat before the table, and I moved down to the end of the bunk. Briefly I wondered why she, rather than Linda, had delivered my meal; my friend Mrs. Rochelle seemed to have appointed herself my primary caregiver. Was she perhaps having a knock-down-drag-out with her husband right now?

"I've been hoping I'd get a chance to speak to you," I said quietly. "I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your husband."

Mary glanced away, two tiny bright tears forming instantly at the corners of her eyes. She blinked them away. "Thank you," she said brokenly. "He died fighting for something he believed in. I have that, at least."

"At least," I agreed. "I've…been feeling these last few days that his death might have been partially my fault," I went on. "If Sah'ahl and I hadn't been standing there…"

She shook her head. "Maybe it would have made a difference if you weren't," she said. "Or maybe not. There's no way to know." She raised her head. "We really didn't see the two of you," she said. "We were so intent on getting away. When Marty turned and looked at you, in those last few seconds…I think he must have believed you'd been sent there to stop us."

I nodded thoughtfully. Which is why he said what he said. "I can only ask you to believe that wasn't the case," I told her. "It was sheer coincidence." Unless Sah'ahl…No. Impossible. Forget it.

"I believe you," she said.

"Why?" I asked. "I mean, thank you, I'm glad you do--but what makes you so certain?"

She shrugged prettily. "I only got a quick look at your faces before I had to leave," she said. "But you looked as surprised as Martin. Maybe more."

"I was," I agreed with a brief grin. "And horrified too. Where I come from, there isn't any such thing as summary execution for burglary."

She smiled sadly. "That makes me wish I came from the same place you did."

I joined her in a brief chuckle. Then I said, "Perhaps someday things like that won't happen here any more."

She gazed at me with hope in her eyes--a great deal of hope, and clearly directed toward me, personally. I retrenched rapidly. "I have to believe that someday you'll achieve equality…"

Her reaction to that statement was strange, to say the least. If she had interpreted my previous words as a promise of help, I might have expected disappointment now…but that was not what I saw in her large dark eyes. Rather, it was something more like confusion. "Equality," she said quietly, as if hearing the word for the first time.

I cocked a curious eye. "Yes," I said. "That is what you're fighting for, isn't it?"

"Certainly," she said, a little too quickly. "Of course it is. At first, anyway."

"Pardon me?" I said, startled; but she rose hastily to her feet.

"Excuse me, please, Commander," she said. "I'm needed on guard duty downstairs." And with that she fled from my cell, slamming the door behind her, leaving me with a plateful of something that resembled smoked salmon--and a headful of very nasty suspicions.


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