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 TWELVE


Five days in solitary.

I've often wondered if that was deliberate, if somehow my captors knew enough about Sah'aaran psychology to realize what prolonged confinement in a bare room would do to my mind. Did Rochelle intend to keep me locked up until my sanity tottered, and I begged to be allowed to join his holy cause?

That's the conspiracy-theorist's point of view--but I have no way of knowing whether it truly is what Rochelle had in mind. I hope not, though, because I've always had the sneaking feeling that it might have worked, given time. More comforting to believe that he was merely vacillating.

At any rate, my solitude was indeed almost complete. It was broken only by the thrice-daily delivery of my meals, sometimes by Linda Rochelle and sometimes by Mary Crane--neither of whom could I engage in conversation, nor even induce to answer the simplest question. When Mary performed the task she did so quickly and mechanically, her eyes averted as if she knew she'd said too much already. Linda did usually meet my gaze, but wouldn't speak, and with each delivery became increasingly agitated. I began to wonder if my presence had been the coup-de-grace for an already strained marriage--but if so, it was scarcely my fault.

So, left alone, I occupied my time as best I could. I did endless rounds of calisthenics, as much to stave off depression as to keep up my muscle tone. I dreamed up--and rejected--dozens of meticulously-planned, utterly impractical escape schemes. In the absence of my portable shrine (and I tried not to think about what had become of it) I meditated, addressing my prayers for deliverance to a mental image of the Goddess, hoping that She heard them. I reviewed the events of the previous few days, trying to decide what I could have done differently. And in the odd moments when I could find nothing else to distract me, I wondered what was happening back in the capital city. Nothing good, I suspected. I imagined terse, poisonous exchanges between Captain Thunumm and Governor Odyn, with him attempting to assure her that I was most not certainly not a spy. The captain had access to my CF record; he knew that my loyalty to the Alliance had never been questioned. And as for "expressing sympathy for the dissidents"--he had done that himself. No, he would never believe that I had voluntarily joined the Protectors. Not, of course, that he would ever be able to convince Odyn. Clearly she cared less for the truth than for her political future.

More than anything else, during my confinement I cursed the lack of information, of fresh news. That, I am certain, was a deliberate attempt to keep me off-balance; and in fact it succeeded remarkably well. I had no way of knowing what was happening, and that alone drove me to the edge of insanity. Had Sah'ahl been taken into custody, or was he still at large; was a search still underway for me, or had it been abandoned; and was Yerba Buena still in orbit? Those were the questions which, try as I might, I could not keep out of my mind; they tormented me every waking hour, and sometimes even in my dreams. Several times I woke in the middle of the night gripped by sheer horror, inexplicably certain that my bond-mate was dead, that he had been shot on sight like poor Martin Crane. An utterly baseless and irrational fear--but one which persisted. For the sake of accuracy I should say that my questions were eventually answered--but in the most unexpected way possible.

Physically speaking I was not terribly uncomfortable, though my surroundings were far from luxurious. The bed was narrow and hard, but no more so than my bunk aboard the battleship. The portholes provided ample fresh air, and the cell never became uncomfortably cold: evidently there was some kind of under-floor heating. I was fed generously, and though I was growing heartily tired of fish, at least the catch of the day always varied. I was even able to keep myself reasonably well groomed. My cell came equipped with an ultrasonic-shower emitter, mounted on the ceiling above the WC. From the look of the thing--considerably more modern than the room it occupied--I could only guess that it too had been salvaged or stolen. Its pulsations were a little harsher than I was used to, but endurable, and definitely effective. I'd managed to convince Linda to provide me with a small brush, adequate for my fur and mane, and also with an emery board. A poor substitute for the claw-file I'd left in my sash-pouch, but it would have to do.

Only in the area of clothing did I feel seriously deprived: at no time during my stay with the Protectors was I given anything to replace that green bodysuit. After a while, though, that ceased to trouble me. Well, mostly. Though close-fitting, the thing was stretchy, and didn't hamper my movements at all. Its slick fabric was virtually indestructible, and when--as I did twice during those five days--I washed the suit in my basin, it dried in a remarkably short time. Only my lack of a collar still bothered me--and in private, even that could be ignored. Well, mostly.

And so, with a combination of thinking, planning, meditating and exercising, I slowly whiled away the long hours. Very seldom did I trouble myself to look out through the porthole; I had that view pretty well memorized already. But always I listened, keeping my sharp ears tuned for the slightest sound. Usually I heard nothing more than the commonplace: wind and waves, the shouts of children on the playground, the drone of the platform's engines, the occasional mutter of a boat coming or going. But a little past noon on the third day a faint noise caused my ears to prick up. Right on the edge of my hearing, it would have been quite inaudible to my human captors. Nor would it have meant anything to them--but to me, as to any member of the Combined Forces, it was quite familiar indeed. When I heard it I was down on the floor doing sit-ups--but the instant I recognized the sound, I leaped up onto the bunk and threw the porthole wide open. I almost wish that I hadn't, though--because in the end I accomplished nothing more than to multiply my torment tenfold.

What I'd heard was a high-pitched stuttering warble, a noise made by only one thing I know of: the thrusters of a CF landing pod. Clinging to the edge of the porthole, I frantically searched that part of the sky visible to me…and a few seconds later I saw it. Not close, unfortunately, but rather at the very limit of my vision; it took me a moment to convince myself that I really was seeing--as opposed to imagining--it. But once I had…well, on a planet entirely without aircraft, there was very little else it could be. A tiny silver dart, wedge-shaped and with outspread wings, it angled across the sky some ten degrees above the southern horizon, leaving a narrow thread of contrail. Impossible to tell how far away. Far enough, though, that from its pilot's point of view the Protector's platform would have been a nondescript blot, indistinguishable from hundreds of others.

I looked …and all the anger, all the frustration that had been building up inside me for days suddenly burst forth, with a violence that terrified me. "Down here, damn you!" I screamed, loud enough to cause passersby in the street below to stop and stare. "I'm down here!" Raging, I kicked the wall and pounded the solid-bronze sill of the porthole, bruising my hands and feet and bringing down flakes of rust, but otherwise accomplishing nothing much. Such a reaction is perhaps understandable--though that does little to lessen my shame. Finally, when the pod had vanished into the distance, I sank down onto the bunk and buried my face in my hands. I willed the tears not to flow, but a few disobeyed and dampened my fingers. So Yerba Buena was still in orbit. That was news--though for all the good it did me, the battleship might just as well have been on its way back to Terra.

###

I had no timepiece in my cell--my CF-issue wrist chrono was with my uniform, wherever that might have ended up--so I don't know exactly when it happened. Clearly, though, it was the middle of the night, very close to the fabled Witching Hour. So let's just say, very simply, that it was midnight, the beginning of what would have been my sixth day in solitary, when I was dragged from sleep by the clank of my door being opened.

I am an extremely sound sleeper, a habit even my Combined Forces training had failed to break, and I am never at my best or most alert in the first few seconds after waking. When that sound--and its implications--finally penetrated my consciousness, I sat up quickly, struggling to free myself from a tangle of blankets--and to force a degree of alertness upon my foggy brain. Once again, as when my the kidnappers came for me, I was at best marginally successful.

I could think of only one reason why someone would be visiting me at this hour--and an extremely unpleasant one at that. Is this it? I wondered wildly, as I rubbed sleep from my eyes. Has he finally made up his mind to do away with me? And if so, how would he go about it? A simple gunshot to the head? Or a more "humane" lethal injection? Surely he knew I wouldn't sit still for that

I raised my hands, prepared to go out fighting…and then a voice spoke quietly out of the pitch-darkness: "Ehm'rael? Is that you? I hope?" At that same instant I caught a whiff of a very familiar scent--and saw the eyes. Two softly-glowing green orbs, they seemed disembodied, hovering in midair somewhere near the door.

My heart skipped a beat, or more than one, and my throat closed tight. I swallowed frantically. "Sah'ahl?" I croaked.

A patch of light appeared then, dim and red: a small flashlight partially blocked by a hand. Hovering in its midst, as in a dream, I saw a face. The face, I should say, complete with long scar and half-missing ear, that had imprinted itself permanently upon my heart. He grinned, and his broken teeth gleamed. "In the flesh," he said grandly.

"Sah'ahl!" I launched myself from the bunk into his arms, and they closed tightly around me, darkness falling again as my fur muffled the light. I buried my face in his chest, the rough cloth of his day-robe rubbing against my cheek, and his hands, one warm and one cold, gently stroked my bare shoulders and back. Somewhere deep inside, my common sense was rebelling: how in the Goddess' name could he possibly be here? This had to be a dream…but if so, it was an exceptionally vivid one.

I have no idea how long we stood clinging to each other; but finally Sah'ahl gave my throat a quick nuzzle--causing what felt like a bolt of lightning to shoot down my spine--and gently disengaged himself from my grasp. "No time for that now," he said with a chuckle. "Unfortunately."

I gazed into his eyes. "What…what are you doing here?" I asked stupidly, and his grin widened.

"I'm here to rescue you, of course," he said. "As for how I got here, I'd suggest we discuss that later." He touched my arm. "Hurry and get dressed. I've incapacitated the guards--but I have no idea how long it will be until their relief arrives."

My heart was hammering now, my tail lashing, as full realization of what was happening finally began to penetrate. Oddly, what I felt most strongly in those first few seconds was an irrational stab of fear, not unlike agoraphobia. Strange, how quickly habits can be established. I turned toward the bunk… then paused and glanced back. "Tell me one thing first," I said. "Those two kidnappers--did you kill them?"

The hovering eyes narrowed suddenly, and I heard the anger in his voice; but somehow I knew that it was not directed toward me. "So you already know about that, eh?" he said. "No," he assured me firmly. "As the Goddess is my witness, I did not."

Bond-mates can't lie to each other. Even ones who haven't yet acknowledged that they are bond-mates. I snatched up my bodysuit from the foot of the bunk and donned it, an action which--by virtue of many repetitions--required only seconds. "Ready," I said.

Sah'ahl stroked my arm, feeling the shiny, smooth material, and chuckled. "Very fashionable," he observed. "But you really should accessorize more. Come--I have a boat waiting at the landing downstairs."

"A boat--?" I began; but even as I uttered the words I berated myself for a fool. Of course he's got a boat, idiot. How do you think he got here? Walked?

"Unless someone has found it by now," he said, with a touch of nervousness. "I'd suggest we make haste…"

"After you."

The corridor outside my cell was almost completely dark, even to Sah'aaran eyes; what little illumination there was seemed to be starlight, entering through the portholes of rooms whose doors were missing or blocked open. I strained my ears, but there was nothing to hear, apart from our own breathing and the distant hum of the platform's engines. Sah'ahl closed and dogged down the cell door behind us, making me wince; careful as he was, the clang as the bars fell into their slots seemed to echo up and down the corridor like a grenade-blast. We stood still for a few seconds, listening for a frantic rattle of footsteps--but none came. Sah'ahl groped for my hand and turned in the direction of the stairway. I began to follow…but then stopped short, bringing him to a halt. "Sah'ahl, wait," I whispered. "We can't leave yet."

"Why not?" he asked, sounding annoyed. We were of course both speaking our native language, and in tones so low that a human standing a meter away could not have overheard us.

"I just remembered," I said. "There's something we need to take with us. An object, a…device. These people stole it from the amphibians…"

"From what I've seen," he replied dryly, "they've stolen a great deal from the amphibians. That's scarcely our concern…"

"No," I told him. "This is different. Their leader showed it to me a few days ago. It's--"

"Ehm'rael," he said, cutting me off firmly, "please listen to me. I've come a very long way and gone to a great deal of trouble for one reason: to get you out of here. We don't have time for scavenger hunts. I don't know about you, my dear, but I would prefer to be far away from here when those guards wake up."

"No, you listen to me," I snapped. "You don't understand. This is important. I don't know what the thing is, but I'm certain it was built by your employers."

Suddenly he stiffened, and I felt the prick of his claws on my arm before he hastily removed his hand. "Crane's burglary?" he guessed.

"Exactly."

He paused, and I imagined him gnawing his lower lip indecisively. "Where is it?" he asked a few seconds later.

"Rochelle's office," I replied. "Two corridors away. We can be in and out in less than five minutes."

"All right," he said reluctantly. "Five minutes. No more."

I grabbed his hand and turned in the opposite direction. "This way."

Slowly then, in silence except for the faint tick of Sah'ahl's footsteps, we made our way down the dark hallway. Exactly why I was doing this--endangering our escape, exponentially increasing the chances that we would both end up in little grey cells--I had no clear idea. But something about that object bothered me, had been bothering me since I first set eyes on it. Perhaps it was nothing more than my own wounded engineer's pride: seldom before had I been confronted with a device which I flat-out couldn't understand. Hopefully Sah'ahl would have better luck in that department. But whatever the reason, I knew I could not leave the platform without the thing.

As I walked, with Sah'ahl's infinitely-comforting bulk beside me and his flesh-and-blood hand clasped in mine, a million questions danced and tumbled through my mind. Hardly surprising, I suppose. Very soon my rescuer and I were going to have to have a lengthy and far-ranging discussion…but not quite yet. At the moment those questions--mostly of the "what happened to him," "how did he find me" and "where has he been for the last week" variety--were merely distracting, and I angrily pushed them away. One of them refused to depart: "does he feel for me what I feel for him?" I could scarcely imagine that he did not…but there would be time enough for that later too.

We moved slowly and carefully, but even so it took us only a minute to reach the building's rear corridor, where Rochelle's office lay. As we approached the intersection, I became aware of a gradual brightening ahead of us. I slowed my pace even more, and pressed myself against the right-hand wall, sidling forward as silently as only a Sah'aaran can. At the corner I took a deep breath and peered around cautiously. I'm glad I did, too; that for once I managed to curb my usual "fools-rush-in" recklessness.

On the far side of the connecting corridor, perhaps three meters away, was a guard-post of sorts. Underneath a dim lamp, a man sat tipped back against the wall, the front legs of his rickety metal chair off the floor. I had no clear idea of his features; only that he was dark-haired, well-muscled, and armed with a pistol. He sat still, but unfortunately he was not asleep. In fact he seemed to be reading, the book, or palm-reader, or whatever, resting in his lap.

I gazed at him, and my heart sank in despair; but Sah'ahl, peering over my shoulder, touched my arm and drew me back. Bending close to my ear, he whispered, "Stay here. I'll take care of him."

I started to ask how, exactly--but it was already too late. Quickly and silently he darted across to the far side of the connecting corridor; then he slowly made his way down the wall toward the guard. The stealth of a hunting carnivore: the guard never even looked up from his reading, and certainly never knew what hit him. When Sah'ahl had approached within arm's reach, he stopped and raised his prosthetic hand, the first two fingers extended in a curious "V-For-Victory" gesture. I saw that the gleaming artificial claws were expressed, and I took a deep horrified breath as they descended sharply toward the human's neck…but what followed was not a gush of blood from a punctured carotid. Rather, it was a quick electric-blue flash and a soft crackle. The man stiffened and slumped forward, but before he hit the floor Sah'ahl caught him and eased him back into a more-or-less sitting position, his arms hanging loose at his sides and his head lolling. Sah'ahl glanced quickly up and down the corridor, then beckoned to me. I crossed over to stand beside him.

"What in the world--?" I whispered, and with a grin he held up those two metal fingers.

"Just these."

I looked…and suddenly I understood. "A built-in stinger," I said in astonishment.

He nodded. "Comes in handy every once in a while."

What I wouldn't have given for one of those a week ago… "That's how you escaped those kidnappers too."

"Yes," he agreed. "What happened later wasn't my doing. The office--?"

I pointed. "That way."

In the darkness I could not be absolutely certain I had the right door; I could only hope that I'd counted correctly. It was closed, but not locked; those bulkheads were not so equipped. For a moment I stood with my ear pressed against the rusty metal, listening intently, but heard nothing. If Rochelle--or anyone else--was in there, he was as quiet as a corpse. Finally I reached for the wheel.

It was indeed Rochelle's office, saving us a great deal of trouble; and it was indeed deserted, saving us even more. I pushed the door closed behind me, but I didn't bother to dog it down. Then I turned and looked around--or tried to. The porthole glowed faintly with starlight, and I the desk, chairs and other furniture were visible, just barely, as dim looming shapes. Probably there was a light-switch somewhere, but I had no idea where--nor any particular desire to find it. "Lend me your flashlight," I said. "Unless it's attached," I added wryly.

Sah'ahl pressed a finger-sized cylinder into my hand. I fumbled for the switch, and then, dimming the lens with my hand, swept the ruddy glow around the room.

Five days ago, before they locked me up and left me, that strange device had been in the lower-right desk drawer. If Rochelle had moved it in the meantime, or if he was in the habit of locking the desk when he left his office, this would be a fool's errand. Knowing him as I did, though, I had a feeling that he had done neither--nor was I incorrect. The drawer opened easily, though with a heart-stopping screech, and inside, amidst an incredible collection of tools and junk, I found what I was searching for: a battered white box. I glanced inside, assuring myself that the device was still there; then I tucked the box under my arm, closed the drawer, and stood. "All right," I said. "Let's make tracks."

"My pleasure."

We did that, sacrificing a certain quantity of stealth for speed. We closed and secured the office door behind us, and then, as rapidly as we could, we made our way through the corridors, past my cell and down the stairs. Behind us we left only darkness, silence and a guard who was going to have a great deal of explaining to do.

At the bottom of the stairs we found another of Sah'ahl's conquests stretched out on the floor, still down for the count. A woman, small and slender, with long dark hair spilling out in a halo around her head…with a stab of guilt I recognized Mary Crane. I paused for an instant, looking down at her, and Sah'ahl pulled impatiently at my arm. "She'll be fine," he assured me.

"I know," I said, and with an effort I tore my eyes away and followed him. Physically she would indeed be fine. If Sah'ahl's built-in weapon was anything like the one Akad had confiscated from me, Mary would awaken in less than an hour, with nothing worse than a headache and a sore spot on her neck. Psychologically, though--I wasn't quite so sure. But there was nothing I could do about it, apart from returning to my cell; and that I would not do. Not without a fight.

The corridors Sah'ahl led me down were at once familiar and unfamiliar. I had walked them before, a week ago…but at the time I'd been blindfolded, my hands secured behind my back, utterly disoriented. I'd have to hope that he had either committed the route to memory on his way in, or marked it somehow. On several occasions that hope seemed shaky. Twice he paused at intersections, as if struggling with his memory; once had had to backtrack, and several times he examined some landmark or other, known only to him, in the muffled beam of his flashlight. Having nothing positive to contribute, I followed the old Terran maxim and remained silent.

Finally--it felt like an hour since we'd left my cell, but it was probably less than ten minutes--we entered a short corridor and drew up before a closed door, the widest and most massive I'd seen so far. Against the left-hand wall yet another human lay slumped, his breathing harsh and stertorous. Sah'ahl's third victim was a tall, slim man, barely out of his teens, unfamiliar to me. My bond-mate gave him scarcely a glance. "Here we are," he said in tones of satisfaction.

"Where's 'here'?" I asked, and he smiled and waved his arm.

"See for yourself."

We threw our weight against the wheel, wrestling open the huge, heavy door. A wave of cool fresh air struck us, bringing with it the smell and the sound of the ocean. Before us lay a wide slice of sky, ablaze with brilliant stars in unfamiliar constellations, cut off about halfway down by the wavery dark-grey horizon. Closer at hand, a ramp--one which my feet knew well, even if my eyes didn't--led sharply down to a wide floating dock. There were no lights, but the star-shine was bright enough for me to make out the dark bulks of several good-sized boats.

Quickly we made our way down, the ramp bucking and swaying on the gentle swells. As we stepped onto the dock I pointed to the line of boats. There seemed to be about half a dozen of them, their hulls shadowy and indistinct. "Which one is yours?"

"None," he said. He beckoned. "This way."

He led me to the far end of the dock, and when I saw what lay moored there, bobbing on the waves, my jaw dropped in astonishment. It was nothing more than a raft, an A-shaped inflatable launch of the type still commonly used by scuba-divers on Terra. Three meters long and two wide, it contained nothing more than a powerful-looking thruster unit clamped to its transom. "You can't be telling me," I said, "that you came all the way from the capital in that."

"No," Sah'ahl said. Extending a hand, he helped me aboard, an action which I found less terrifying than I might have expected. Seldom before had I had anything to do with boats, deliberately so; but perhaps the rumors I'd heard during my childhood were true. One of my ancestors, it was said, way back in the dim and misty, had been of the Fisher-folk, aborigines who long ago inhabited the shores of Sah'aar's Western Sea. A people whose diversity has, alas, long since been blended out of existence.

"I didn't," he went on, as he climbed in behind me. "This is just the lifeboat. My vessel is anchored about a kilometer from here. I deemed it somewhat less than stealthy to bring ten meters of white hull up to this dock--even in the middle of the night."

My chuckle was perhaps a little high-pitched: I'd had little experience with daring escapes, and my nerves had begun to fray.

Sah'ahl powered up the thruster. It made a deep, almost subsonic rumble, but was actually remarkably quiet for its size. I tucked my prize under the bench and crawled to the bow to cast off the mooring line. I braced my toes against the seat and pushed the little craft away from the dock…

…And at that instant a voice rang out from above. Strident, angry…and extremely familiar. "What's going on? Who the hell left this door open--?"

I looked up quickly. There at the top of the ramp stood a dim figure, hands on hips. Impossible to make out the face--but I didn't need to. Whether Linda somehow caught sight of the motion as Sah'ahl and I looked up sharply, or whether she heard my sudden horrified intake of breath, I don't know, and it doesn't matter. She spun to face us. "Hey!" she yelled, and then she came pelting down the ramp, her hand scrabbling frantically at her right hip.

"Go!" I told Sah'ahl. "Now!"

He gunned the thruster, and the launch leapt forward, so rapidly that I tumbled helplessly backwards onto its floor. By the time I'd scrambled up onto my hands and knees, fifty meters lay between us and the dock. I saw Linda raise her hand, and over the thrum of the engine I heard several sharp pops.

"Get your head down!" I shouted, throwing myself back onto the floor. "She's shooting at us!"

"Goddess!" Sah'ahl said, bending far forward. "If she hits one of the floatation tubes…" It was the first time I'd heard anything like fear in his voice. Small wonder, though: with those legs of his he would have sunk like a rock.

But she did not, by accident or design, and a few seconds later we were out of range. We straightened up, and I pulled myself onto the bench seat. The ocean was smooth, the wind almost calm, but nevertheless the ride was bumpy, and I hung on tightly lest I be tossed out of the raft. "They might follow us…" I said.

"Not very quickly," Sah'ahl told me serenely. "Only one of their boats is capable of sufficient speed--and I took the precaution of removing a few components from its ignition."

I laughed. I couldn't help it. I roared, until my ribs were aching and the tears ran unchecked down my cheeks. Sah'ahl endured it in silence. When finally I could speak again I said, "You definitely work for the Chrysaoans."

###

Sah'ahl's boat was long, low-slung, sleek, gleaming white…and stolen.

We found it exactly where he'd left it, a kilometer south of the Protectors' platform: not anchored in the classic sense, but rather "keeping station" by means of quick bursts from its bow- and stern-thrusters. We were guided to the craft by a single white lamp atop its tall radio aerial, a light readily distinguishable from the stars because it described a wide beckoning arc as the boat rocked.

Sah'ahl brought us up to the stern, where a boom with an attached winch protruded out over the water. We hauled the inflatable launch up onto the wide rear deck and lashed it down securely, the work of perhaps two minutes. When that was done, I looked around curiously. "Very nice," I commented. "Whose is it?"

Sah'ahl shrugged and stepped forward to the wide control panel, sheltered behind a windshield canted at a rakish angle. "I have no idea. I needed something seaworthy and fast--and something that I could 'hot-wire,' as the Terrans used to say. This one met the criteria."

Ordinarily I disapprove of theft--but in this case I'd make an exception. "Anything I can do to help?" I asked.

He glanced up, and in the glow of the instruments I saw his embarrassed grin. "Er--not really, no," he said. He nodded at a narrow door in the forward bulkhead. "In fact, I was thinking you might be more comfortable below…"

"In other words," I said dryly, "get out of your way and let you concentrate."

The grin widened. "Basically, yes."

I sketched a mocking salute. "Aye-aye, Cap'n," I said. I tucked the precious box under my arm and headed for the door--but on the way I paused to nuzzle quickly beneath his chin. "Thank you," I said.

He caught my hand and lifted it to his lips. "You're welcome."

Down below a small ceiling light was burning. Dim, but after so long in the dark it seemed as bright as fusion plasma, and I squinted into the sudden glare, my eyes watering. At a guess, this boat was half again as large as the one used by my kidnappers. In place of the tiny, smelly V-berth where I had lain helpless, here was a real cabin, somewhat small but comfortable. To port was a long, low couch, which no doubt converted into a bed. Farther ahead, a galley and a dinette; and in the bow a door which probably opened into a head. Everything was bright, clean and new; obviously this craft was someone's pride and joy--a realization that ratcheted up my guilt-index another notch or two.

At the moment I was in need of neither head nor galley, so I sank down onto the sofa, dropping the box carelessly beside me. As I did, the engines suddenly roared to life, an impressively powerful sound. I closed my eyes and leaned back against the cushions as an unexpected wave of dizziness overtook me. For the last hour I'd been running on adrenaline, pure and simple; now, with our escape all but accomplished, exhaustion had suddenly taken hold of me and squeezed. To stretch out on that couch and sleep would be the most wonderful thing in the universe--but I couldn't let myself do it. Not yet; not while those million unanswered questions still darted and capered through my head.

Below me I felt, as I had several days ago (though at a less advantageous angle) the surge of power as the boat leapt forward. The bow tilted up--so sharply that I had to dig my claws into the upholstery--then gradually leveled off. We swung through a rapid and somewhat sickening turn to port, then stabilized; and a few seconds later we were skimming smoothly and at great speed across the swells. The maneuvers, though similar to those I'd experienced before, were jerkier, less skillful: evidently Sah'ahl did not count boat-piloting among his many areas of expertise. Somehow that thought heartened me. Smiling, I let my mind drift…

Suddenly I heard the click of the door-latch, and I looked up in surprise to see Sah'ahl enter the cabin. Smiling, he sat down next to me, so close that his hip pressed comfortably against mine. "Well," he said, "that's that."

I peered at him closely. Seeing him now in the light, for the first time since his abrupt epiphany in my cell, I felt a wave of shock, pity and concern pass through me. He looked absolutely exhausted, despite his bright smile; his eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, and his one-sided whiskers drooped. His mane, always rather strange-looking, was tangled and matted, and his fur unkempt. His day-robe was dirty, ragged at the hem, its right sleeve torn almost to the shoulder. Wherever he had spent the last week, clearly it had not been in the lap of luxury. But another, more pressing concern pushed that aside. "Who's driving the boat?" I asked apprehensively.

"The autopilot," he replied. He chuckled. "Quite frankly I trust its skills more than mine." He peered at me closely, anxiously, examining me as I had examined him. "Are you…all right, Ehm'rael?" he asked.

I nodded. "I'm fine," I assured him. "They didn't harm me at all. They even fed me regularly."

He squeezed my hand. "Thank the Goddess," he said. "I feared…. well, never mind what I feared."

I smiled. "I understand," I said. "And never mind what I feared either." I paused. "Where--uh--where are we going?"

"For the moment, away from here," he said. "Once we've put some kilometers between us and your hosts, we'll have to confer. We'll need to compare notes before we decide what to do next." He hesitated. "You may not be aware that we're both wanted by the law…"

I nodded. "Actually I am," I said tiredly. Another question occurred to me then: a very important one, which had somehow become sidelined during the rush of events. "How in the Goddess' name did you find me?"

He grinned and opened a cabinet on the opposite wall. He drew out a small device and handed it to me. "I borrowed this from one of the kidnappers," he said.

Flat and grey, about the size of my palm, the thing had just two distinguishing marks: a red push-button and a dark, recessed screen which appeared to be ground glass. I pushed the button and the screen began to glow softly green; a second later a small red arrow appeared at its bottom edge. On a hunch I turned a slow circle--and saw that I was correct. No matter what direction I angled the screen, the arrow continued to point toward the place we had just departed. "A homing device," I said.

"Exactly," Sah'ahl replied. "Tuned, it would appear, to a beacon aboard that platform." He grinned. "It led me to the place--but once on board, I had to follow my nose."

I switched the thing off and handed it back. That answered one or two questions--but at the price of raising a good many more, none of which Sah'ahl would have been able to answer. But I knew one he definitely could, and I asked it. "What happened?"

He took my meaning immediately. He leaned back, his hands clasped together and his expression troubled. "I wasn't asleep when the kidnappers arrived," he said. "If I had been, they might well have gotten me." He gestured with his artificial hand. "I was able to stun them," he went on, "and then I searched them, trying to determine what they wanted with me. That's when I found that homing device--and one or two other interesting items as well. It didn't take long to discover their purpose--and then I grew fearful. I left them and ran to your room. I had some trouble with the lock, and by the time I had gotten in, it was too late--your abductors had already taken you below the surface, and I had no way to follow: I cannot swim. By then also the security guards had been roused--I assume by my breaking down your door. I decided then that it would be best for me to be…elsewhere."

I almost asked him why; why he hadn't stayed and given a report, gotten the pursuit going faster. But something stopped me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the answer would open a can of worms I didn't feel capable of coping with just then. Instead I asked, "So you don't know who killed them?"

He frowned. "No," he said quietly. "Not for certain. But I have a very strong suspicion." His eyes shifted then, and before I could ask the obvious question he nodded at the object resting beside me. "So that's what we risked our lives for?"

"Yes, it is," I said. I passed the box him, and he carefully drew out the strange C-shaped artifact. Holding it up to the dim cabin light, he turned it over and over in his hands, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

"You were right," he said at length. "It is Chrysaoan." He held the device up against his prosthetic fingers; the metals matched exactly. "My employers have a method for strengthening the atomic bonds of copper, making it many times harder than steel, but considerably lighter. They use it extensively--and as far as I know, they're the only ones who do."

"But do you know what that thing is?"

He shook his head. "No," he said. Truthfully, too--I could tell. "I don't. Is it what I delivered to the governor three weeks ago? Undoubtedly. But beyond that, I have no idea. If I had the proper tools, I might be able to take it apart. Or maybe not; my masters are rather secretive about many things. I wonder…"

We were interrupted then by a loud beeping from above. Sah'ahl handed the device to me and stood. "What is it?" I asked anxiously.

"The radar," he said. "I set it to sound an alarm if anything comes within twenty kilometers. Excuse me."

He vanished out onto the deck. I suppose I ought to have followed him…but I didn't. I couldn't seem to muster the energy. I remained seated, staring down at that strange object. I'd stolen it--or "re-confiscated," as Frank Rochelle might have preferred--mainly as a bargaining chip, something with which to purchase my passage off the planet. But I had a feeling that it represented much more; that I held in my hands the answer to a great many questions…if only I could figure out what the damned thing was.

I examined the device closely, flexing it gently, noting how its jointed rear section enabled it to hold a curve of almost any radius. Suddenly, incongruously, I was reminded of the pair of headphones worn by Sam the radio-operator: this thing had more than a small resemblance to them. Not, however, in the literal sense. Headphones like those are pretty well useless to Sah'aarans, because of the shape and position of our ears; and this device was too shallow to serve that function for a human. No: what stuck in my mind was the way he'd worn those phones, draped around his neck…

Now, it is undeniably true that the events of the last few days had left me somewhat fixated on the subject of necks--mainly because mine had not been left bare for such a long time since I was an infant. But once conceived, the idea refused to go away: that this thing, this mysterious device, was the perfect size and shape to fit around someone's neck. Not like a Sah'aaran collar, not exactly; it would leave uncovered the throat, which is the most--shall we say--sensitive area. But still…

On impulse then, guided surely by the Dark Ones, I brushed back my mane and slipped the thing around my neck, the narrow curved section in back. And yes, it did fit, almost perfectly. I snugged it down a little tighter, actually enjoying the sensation…and then the thing attacked me.

I heard a soft whir first, as of a tiny motor. Then I jumped in alarm as the device began to move of its own volition, adjusting its curve to fit even more closely around my neck. This took no more than a second; then the side-plates clamped down, hard. I reached up frantically to tear the thing away…too late. I felt a shock at the back of my neck, and suddenly I was paralyzed, my arms frozen in midair and my incipient scream cracking in my throat. In helpless terror I felt and heard a kind of sizzling or bubbling sensation, as the device dissolved away the fur from beneath itself.

At that moment Sah'ahl stepped back into the cabin. "False alarm," he was saying cheerfully. "Probably just a passing fishing boat…"

He caught sight of me then, and froze in mid-step and mid-sentence, his hand still clutching the door-latch. I couldn't speak, but my pleading eyes telegraphed my message as clearly as if I'd shouted: Get this thing off me!

He leapt the last couple steps, his face a mask of horror but his jaw thrust out in determination. He reached out with both hands, flesh and metal…and then the pain came, like daggers through my neck, and everything went away.


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