Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights
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"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
Morning. And memories.
I woke with bright sunlight in my eyes--and a hard object clamped tightly around my neck. The one could be evaded simply by pulling the blanket a little higher but the other was more persistent.
Sah'ahl was still snoozing--for which I could scarcely blame him--his breathing deep, slow and even, his body warm, firm and relaxed against mine. Our limbs and tails were tangled together like the proverbial Gordian Knot, and any attempt to extricate myself would surely wake him. Which was fine with me, actually; I felt perfectly comfortable where I was. I'd had all the sleep I could profitably use, though--and then some. Fighting my way back to consciousness, my body felt curiously sluggish, my thoughts elusive and hard to capture.
I still had no way of knowing the exact time--a fact which irritated me out of all proportion to its real importance--but it appeared to be mid-morning. High up the wall on the far side of the warehouse (the east side, temporarily) the narrow slit windows blazed with sunlight. Purely by chance, one particularly intense beam fell directly across Sah'ahl and me, and our shiny survival blankets broke and scattered the light into a million dazzling reflections, dancing and shifting with each breath or movement. After so many hours in the dark the brightness hurt my eyes, so I squeezed them tight shut and settled a little deeper into the comfortable circle of Sah'ahl's arms. Around us all was quiet, or nearly so--and that might have alerted me to something very important, if my sleep-fogged brain had been capable of dealing with more than one thing at a time, and if it had not already been fully occupied chasing down an elusive thought, flitting like a moth through the dusty attics of my mind. Something extremely urgent, and something to do with time, or more specifically the passage thereof...
Let's see, I thought. I was held captive by the Protectors for about a week. Then I was unconscious for the better part of two days. That was part of it, yes. And the rest--? Just before my kidnapping, when I first began to suspect that I might be bonding, I'd had difficulty separating my feelings for Sah'ahl from something else, something even more basic and biological, which was due to occur with clock-like predictability in just over a week's time. And that was ?
I stiffened then, a sudden jolt of adrenaline jerking me wide awake. Goddess! I thought. It can't be! Not now! But indeed it was. The all-too-familiar feelings--or "symptoms," if you prefer--had been somewhat muted this time, subsumed into the novel experiences of bonding and being held for ransom; but were unmistakably there. My homeworld lay far away, its sun not even visible from Lands-End but no matter where I went, my body danced to the tune of its seasonal rhythms. Twice a year--whether it was convenient or not. And that meant, that had to mean
Do I tell him? I wondered. Do I tell my new-found bond-mate, employee of a government which was the rival and nominal enemy of my own, that in about eight Terran Standard months he would be a father? Do I add that to the list of complications confronting us? Sooner or later he would have to know
I should have told him, of course, right there and then; when we were alone, just the two of us, isolated from the real world and from the myriad problems it contained. Even though eventually--and on a time-scale much shorter than the cosmic--it would cease to matter, still I should have, and I curse the demon named Cowardice (who so often masquerades as Prudence) for preventing me. Yes, in time it ceased to matter--but in the Goddess' eyes that counts for nothing.
I felt a stirring then of the limbs tangled with mine, and I opened my eyes--just in time to see Sah'ahl yawn hugely, displaying his broken teeth. He smiled sleepily, and playfully licked my nose. "Good morning," he mumbled.
I freed a hand and stroked his cheek. "Good morning yourself," I told him. "How did you sleep?"
He gazed into my eyes. "Better," he said seriously, "than I have for a very long time. Better perhaps than I ever have." He smiled sadly. "At least so far as I can remember."
"I'm glad," I said. "I truly am." I paused. I had to tell him: it was my responsibility, my duty. "Sah'ahl--?" I began.
But at that moment, as I gazed into the depths of those melancholy golden eyes, the demon came and sat on my chest, and my courage drained swiftly and silently away. "Nothing," I said. "Nothing."
He frowned quizzically; then he glanced upward, and his expression suddenly changed. He raised himself on his elbow, cocking his undamaged ear. "Hear that?" he asked.
I listened, and shook my head. "I don't hear anything."
"Exactly." He flashed a grin. "The wind has died down."
And with that the moment was gone, my "duty" utterly forgotten. With rising excitement I strained my ears--and realized that he was right. Well, almost. The hideous, hysterical shriek of the wind had indeed diminished, to nothing more than a distant moan. The intermittent boom of the waves against the baffles was also much quieter, much less frequent. Obviously the worst of the storm-front had passed. And that meant
Firmly--but not without a certain regret--I wriggled free from Sah'ahl's grasp and sat up, wincing as muscles strained by unaccustomed exercise made their complaints known. I reached for my clothing, and in response to Sah'ahl's quirked eyebrow I explained, "We should check the boat."
He sighed and nodded. "You're right, we should," he agreed. He grinned and reached across to pat my stomach. "After breakfast."
Our borrowed boat had weathered the storm, only a little the worse for wear--fortunately for us.
A large rectangular opening like the entrance to a subway station (a common enough item on both Terra and Sah'aar) lay in the avenue between our building and its neighbor to the right. Beneath it, a long metal stairway--no less than eight flights, interspersed with wide landings--descended almost fifteen meters through the platform's superstructure to sea-level.
As Sah'ahl had indicated, the berthing facility lay under a roof, a massive shelf-like overhang some ten meters above the waterline, undercut perhaps twenty meters beneath the platform's leading edge. At its rear were the huge oblong ends of the flotation tanks, grey-painted and not visibly rusty. The dock itself was a floating structure, and lay several meters below the foot of the stairs, connected to them by a long ramp. It was divided into slips, twenty in all, and judging from their width and depth, the automated fishing boats which serviced this facility were many times larger than our little yacht. Big enough, perhaps, to brave the seas Sah'ahl had been forced to flee. Huge trapdoors in the overhang above hinted at machinery for off-loading the catch; but I never saw it in action. At the moment the slips were empty--except for the one in which our boat bobbed like a Terran child's bath toy.
Sah'ahl and I made our way down the long stairway in silence, each of us lost in thought. Time and again I found myself glancing at him sidelong, surreptitiously, in a way I thought I'd outgrown many years ago. Strange, I thought, when I finally caught myself in the act. After the previous night, I knew him--in the archaic sense of the word--in a way I had "known" only one other person in my life. (And that was fascinating too: how quickly Sah'ahl's face had replaced that other in my thoughts and dreams. It had been more than a week since the name "Sah'surraa" had even entered my head.) But in the modern, vernacular sense, I didn't "know" him at all. How could I, when he scarcely knew himself? What I felt for him wasn't love. Not yet, anyway. It would be, someday--but for now, even to contemplate the word was ludicrous. For Sah'aarans that is the rule, not the exception: our biology is a stern taskmaster.
As we stepped from the ramp onto the dock, Sah'ahl flashed a bright smile of relief: the boat was still afloat. "It's amazing," he said thoughtfully, "what one can learn merely by being observant."
"Back in the capital city, I noticed that most of the boats were moored in a particular way," he explained. He pointed. "When we arrived here I decided to give it a try. It appears to have worked."
I almost asked him what in the Goddess' name he was talking about--but then I took a closer look, and my engineer's brain provided the answer. Rather than tying the boat hard against the dock with short ropes, he had opted for a somewhat more complicated system. A long line ran from the bow to a dock-cleat near the stern, and another from the stern to a cleat forward. As the swells carried the craft away from the dock, the natural springiness of those ropes would gradually rein it in, rather than jerking it to a sudden--and potentially damaging--halt. Sah'ahl had also hung out a good number of "fenders," big garish-orange beach-balls which prevented the boat from banging against the dock.
"They'll make a sailor of you yet," I said teasingly, and he shuddered.
"I hope not."
Sah'ahl seized one of the lines in his artificial hand, pulling the stern close to the dock, and we scrambled aboard. And there I paused, clinging to the rail, frantically negotiating a cease-fire between my stomach and my vestibular nerve. Sah'ahl grasped my arm. "Are you all right?"
I swallowed hard, and nodded. A little too soon for morning sickness, thank the Goddess; which must mean "A touch of mal-de-mer, I think."
He nodded over my shoulder, toward the open sea. "Believe me, I know the feeling."
The waves within the little harbor, which set the boat to rocking so alarmingly, were nothing compared to those which roiled and churned outside, beyond the breakwater and the baffles. No longer the terrifying, ship-eating monsters of the previous day, not quite; but high enough to make me fervently thankful for our safe haven. We wouldn't be leaving here quite yet, that much was certain.
The wind was still blowing too, less than a gale but more than a breeze. It had a definite edge to it, stinging my eyes and making my nose tingle, and I was glad to be able to retreat from it beneath the half-roof and windshield that sheltered the control board. Even there the wind was strong enough to ruffle and toss my unbound mane around my shoulders.
The rear deck seemed much the same as when I'd seen it last; but since that had been in pitch-darkness, that's not saying much. The inflatable raft was still there, still firmly lashed down, and that was good. Neither the boom nor the winch seemed to have suffered any damage. More importantly for our purposes, the two long whip antennas which rose from the sides of the cabin were still in place. Farther forward, Sah'ahl was already frowning at the controls, evidently trying to make sense out of unfamiliar readouts. I stepped past him and opened the louvered door.
"Great Goddess!" I uttered. "What a mess!"
Sah'ahl peered over my shoulder. The cabin, so tidy and shipshape when I'd last seen it on that fateful night, now looked as if a hurricane had struck. Lockers, drawers and cabinets hung open, their contents spilled across the deck; several of the sofa's cushions were missing, and the rest lay on the floor amidst the carnage. Cans and other small round objects rolled back and forth, bumping into the walls, as the boat rocked.
"Did the storm do all this?" I asked in astonishment.
Sah'ahl cleared his throat and grinned sheepishly. "Er--no," he said. "Actually I did most of it. I was in rather a hurry to get you topside, into a more stable shelter "
"And I appreciate it," I assured him. I took another look, shuddered, and firmly closed the door. "I suppose that can wait for now." I glanced at him. "How are the engines and the controls?"
"No damage," he told me. "Everything is functional. We can shove off whenever we choose--theoretically."
I nodded thoughtfully. "Good." I looked out at the open sea--and shuddered again. "I think we can postpone that for a while too. What I want right now is a look at the radio."
Sah'ahl bowed and pointed. "Be my guest," he said. "Though you may find it not quite up to Combined Forces standards."
I shot him a quizzical glance--but in the end, as usual, he was right. That which on a CF vessel would be called the "comm board" turned out to be two interconnected pieces of equipment, occupying a large panel mounted directly above the wheel. One part, as might be expected, was a ship-to-shore two-way radio. A common-enough item, under the circumstances--but hopelessly antiquated by Alliance standards. The other baffled me for a minute, until I realized that it was a kind of global positioning system. "But," I mused, as I struggled to decipher its settings, "these people have no space technology. How did they launch the satellites?"
"They didn't," Sah'ahl told me with a smile. He leaned past me and punched buttons. Studying the results on the small circular screen, he went on thoughtfully, "According to this we're about a thousand kilometers northwest of the capital. And this platform's course is taking us directly there--albeit rather slowly."
I growled softly, deep in my throat, and he looked down at me. "Oh," he said. "How does it work? As I understand it, they did exactly the opposite of launching satellites--they deployed a network of fixed radio buoys." He tapped the screen. "This device picks out the strongest signals and triangulates on them."
It made sense. For these people, wedded as they were to the ocean, it made sense. But as handy as that device could potentially be, at the moment it was irrelevant. Keeping my expectancy level as low as possible, I clicked on the ship-to-shore radio and set it to scan through all the available frequencies. What I received was nothing much. Waves upon waves of static, punctuated by weird buzzes, whistles and crackles, a concerto for solar wind and magnetic field. A few faint ghost-voices, speaking words which were impossible to decipher. And once or twice, the high-pitched warbling squeal of machines conversing in their own language. I looked up. "We might do better if we were out from underneath all this metal " I commented.
"Perhaps so," Sah'ahl agreed. He hesitated. "If you don't mind me asking, my dear, what did you expect to hear?"
I shook my head. "Nothing in particular," I said. "I was hoping that this thing might be more powerful. But it's obviously meant for near-shore use. Line-of-sight. Its range is no more than a few dozen kilometers."
Sah'ahl nodded. "I have the feeling this boat was a rich person's toy," he said. "It has probably never before been this far from its home port."
"But still," I said hopefully, tapping the radio with a claw-tip, "there's a chance Lieutenant Saunders is monitoring these frequencies. And his equipment could pick up a kit's toy commpak."
"Doubtless true, from what I know of Alliance technology."
I reached for the combination headphone/microphone, hanging from a hook above my head but then I paused. "No," I said. I turned. "No, not yet. We're getting ahead of ourselves again."
Startled, he frowned. "Pardon me?"
"Things have been happening too fast," I told him quietly. "First you rescued me, then this happened--" I touched my throat-- "and then last night. There's too many questions left unanswered. So far I've been deferring them, because we've been too busy, too frightened, too exhausted. But we're both wide-awake and rational now, and before we go any farther I need to know what you know. Everything you know."
He gazed at me, an expression of sheer (and inexplicable) terror on his face. Then he sighed, nodded, and rubbed his forehead. "You're right," he said. "The Goddess help me, you are. I've been running at full-speed for days, but I've never managed to get ahead. All I've been able to do is to cope with each crisis as it arises. If I'd known "
I held up my hand, bringing him to a halt. "No," I said firmly. "That won't do. We've got to begin at the beginning, go about this logically."
He nodded again, and smiled. "Agreed," he said. He pointed. "Let's sit," he suggested. "This wind "
Together we crossed to the sheltered side of the boat and sank down on the deck, cross-legged, with our backs to the gunwale. For a time Sah'ahl sat staring into space, as if gathering his thoughts. Then he turned to me, his expression solemn and a little sad. "First--I want to assure you that at no time since we met have I lied to you." He paused. "But I have occasionally sinned by omission."
I nodded. "That doesn't surprise me," I said. "We were rivals, after all. Still are, officially." I quirked a smile. "But there'll be no more omissions?"
"No more," he agreed. He took a deep breath. "All right. What do you want to know first?"
An open-ended question, yes. "I already know why you came to find me," I said. "I think--I know--I would have done the same. I couldn't have helped it. And I know how you found me, with that homing device. So let's start with those two kidnappers. Who do you think killed them--and why?"
"A fair question," he said. He paused, and then, looking me straight in the eye, he went on, "They were killed by Major Dail Akad. Or--to be strictly accurate--if he himself did not pull the trigger, it was done at his direct order."
That ought to have shocked me--but it didn't. Somehow, subconsciously, I'd already known. Or at very least, suspected. "His order," I said. "Not the governor's?"
"No," Sah'ahl said. "Nor with her knowledge. For all I know she may actually believe it was I who did the deed--unless that was nothing more than political posturing. And please understand, Ehm'rael: Akad did not intend for his action to aid the governor. Very much the opposite."
"How how do you know it was him?"
He glanced away. "I lingered in the vicinity somewhat longer than I may have indicated before," he said apologetically. "I was too late arriving at your quarters, and by the time I returned to mine, a squad of guards was already there--including the major. I remained in the hallway, in the shadows--I don't believe I was seen. He and one of his subordinates entered the room--and a few seconds later I heard the shots. After that day on the breakwater, I know the sound of those projectile weapons as well as you do."
"So Akad--or one of his minions--murdered those two men in cold blood?"
"Yes," Sah'ahl confirmed quietly. "I doubt whether they had even regained consciousness. So you see," he added bleakly, "in a sense I am to blame for their deaths."
"No," I said firmly. "No, you're not. You had no way of knowing that would happen. Nobody would." Strange, I thought. Why should Akad and his troops respond so quickly to Sah'ahl's quarters? The alarm was at mine--caused by Sah'ahl breaking down my door. It's almost as if No proof, though, so file it away for now, under "Fink."
"Thank you," he said, with a brief unhappy smile. "You understand now why I decided to make myself scarce "
I nodded. "I do," I said. "But I don't understand what Akad stood to gain. Nor how you can be sure the governor wasn't involved."
He hesitated. "For quite some time I've suspected that the relationship between Odyn and Akad is not all sweetness and light," he said, "despite the fact that he is sworn to protect her. Remember, I've been on this planet two weeks longer than you, and had more time to observe them in action. I believe the governor truly does want an end to the conflict between the amphibians and the normal humans. I can also believe that she might well see that--" he nodded at my neck-- "as a workable solution, better than anything the Alliance had to offer. But Akad would never agree. You've spoken to him--you know how he feels about the minority. Allowing them even a tiny step toward equality would be anathema to him."
I thought back upon my one and only lengthy discussion with the governor's bodyguard and I found myself nodding. "You're right," I said. "And he wouldn't welcome interference from the Alliance either."
"Indeed not," Sah'ahl agreed. "Before you were kidnapped, the Governor had already decided to renege on her deal with your government and pursue an agreement with mine. I have no way of proving this--nor any good way of demonstrating my own innocence, should it ever become necessary--but I believe Akad murdered those kidnappers in an attempt to sabotage the negotiations."
"Goddess!" I said. My tail was whipping by then, and my claws dug deep into the neatly-varnished deck. "Does the governor know that?"
"I don't know," Sah'ahl said. "As I mentioned, she might actually believe me guilty." He grinned and winked. "She might even truly believe you to be a spy. I have no way of judging how credulous she is. But she is a consummate politician. Whether she is aware of Akad's sabotage or not, she was able to deflect the worst of the damage."
I nodded. "I heard that speech," I said. I smiled. "Her agreement with the Hegemony won't be endangered by the innate savagery of their representative."
"As if a true savage would use firearms," he said with a wry smile. He sighed. "Next question?"
"You may have answered it already," I said. "I was going to ask why we didn't head directly for the capital after you rescued me."
He nodded. "I told you we had things to discuss before we decided on a destination. Now you know what I meant. Returning to the capital was an option--but it was by no means the best available. We both stood an excellent chance of being arrested. And if we'd fallen into Akad's clutches "
I shuddered, and he slipped a comforting arm around me. "We might have been 'killed while trying to escape,'" I said flatly.
I touched my neck. "But then this happened "
"Yes," he agreed. He shook his head helplessly, and his fingers tightened on my shoulder. "I scarcely knew what to do. It was immediately clear that I could not remove the device. At first I had no idea what it was, and for a time I feared it might kill you--but even at full-throttle, it would have been ten hours before I could have gotten you to a hospital. I set a course for the capital nonetheless--but then I examined you more closely, and finally understood what the thing was. And more importantly, that it was not endangering your life. So I veered off. And then the weather forced me to take refuge here."
"I still don't understand," I said. "Why did you veer off?"
He smiled tenderly. "My overactive imagination," he said. "I imagined showing up in the capital with you in that condition--and never seeing you again. I pictured you vanishing into the depths of a laboratory as--oh, what is the old Terran expression?--a 'guinea-pig.'"
"Not very likely," I scoffed.
He clasped my hands. "Perhaps not," he said softly. "But nonetheless, I couldn't risk it."
I gazed into the depths of his eyes and nodded. "I understand."
For several minutes we sat in gloomy silence, huddled together against the wind. Finally I cleared my throat. "So--now what?"
He shook himself free of his reveries. "You've mentioned how important it is that you contact your ship," he said. "In that, you're correct. More so than you know."
I frowned. "Meaning what?"
For a time he gazed down at his artificial hand, flexing the gleaming fingers. Finally he began to speak again, very slowly, and he seemed to be literally forcing the words out, as if uttering them caused him true physical pain. I had never before heard that tone of voice from him, and it frightened me. "Before you were kidnapped," he said, "you told me that one of the Alliance construction barges had been destroyed."
"That's right. The Antioch."
"You weren't yet sure how it had happened. But I know--I've known all along. My employers did it."
Amazingly, my claws did not express; the shock was that great. "What?"
He glanced at me quickly. "Yes," he said. "I'm sorry--I wish it was otherwise."
"Why?" I demanded. "Why did they do it?"
He shrugged helplessly. "To delay Alliance's project," he said. "With an agreement already negotiated, they feared construction might begin before the governor had time to fully consider their proposal. If it had, the Alliance would be very difficult to dislodge--so they believed."
"And they were right," I said hotly.
He shook his head. "But that's not all," he told me. "There's worse--and this time, I'm afraid it is undeniably my fault."
I waited, and finally he went on, the strain in his voice growing steadily more pronounced. "During the first two and a half weeks of my stay here, I was in regular communication with my employers. It was not two-way; they were not able to contact me. But I was able--required--to send them daily reports "
"How?" I demanded. "Yerba Buena didn't detect any outgoing messages--Captain Thunumm would have informed me. And they didn't find any hyperzap relay satellites "
He smiled. "No," he said pointedly. "They didn't. Does that really matter, Ehm'rael? Messages were sent, by me, to my masters. That's the important part, yes?"
Abashed, I nodded. "Yes," I agreed. "You're right, of course."
"--And that's also the problem," he continued. "The equipment I used to send my messages was in my quarters, there in the Government Building. I wasn't able to take it with me when I so quickly departed."
"So the Hegemony has received no messages from you for more than a week."
"Exactly." He took a deep breath. "And immediately previous to that sudden silence, they received my speculations about Akad, and about the stability of Odyn's government. My masters' reputation is not entirely undeserved, Ehm'rael. They will interpret my silence as evidence of treachery; they will believe I have been imprisoned or killed."
A chill went down my spine. "And then--?"
"And then," he said, and trailed off. "If they follow their usual policy--and I have no reason to believe that they will not--they will assemble a battle fleet and come here to demand a reckoning."
"Goddess!" I said. "And if Yerba Buena is still in orbit "
He nodded. "I can't say that your captain would fire the first shot. Nor can I say that my masters would. But in such a situation, the odds that shots will be fired is frighteningly high. My employers are rather impatient with explanations."
"So is Captain Thunumm," I said grimly. "Goddess, what next?" I rubbed my aching temples. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" I demanded.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I couldn't."
"Dammit, Sah'ahl, do you know how many people were aboard that barge? And there are even more lives at stake--your people and mine! Isn't that more important than--"
"No!" he half-shouted. He swallowed hard, and with an effort he calmed himself. "No, Ehm'rael, you don't understand. Of course I care about the lives that were lost, and the ones that are at stake now--Alliance as well as Chrysaoan. Very much so. What I mean is this: up until now I could not tell you--literally, could not."
I frowned. Unconsciously I had begun to pull away from him; more than a meter separated us now. "You're right," I said. "I don't understand."
He looked away. "My employers did a marvelous job of putting me back together," he said bitterly. "And they provided for every contingency, every circumstance I might encounter as their representative. Except one." He lifted his head, fixing me with his haunted gaze. "They are asexual; they reproduce by fission. Matters of gender, of mating, are alien to them. And since my accident I have not come in contact with another member of my own species--until now. It simply never occurred to them that I might bond. And that's why I can tell you all this now, Ehm'rael--because we are bonded, and bond-mates can't lie to each other. That's a fact of nature--and seems to override my programming."
My jaw dropped. "'Programming'?" I whispered. "You don't mean--you can't "
"I'm afraid I do," he said. He paused, as if in reluctance; then, with a sigh, he reached up to his forehead. He seized a handful of mane and pulled sharply upwards and back. There came a series of quiet popping noises; then, suddenly and sickeningly, his entire scalp came away in his hand. That thick mass of orange hair--which had never looked quite right to me--was fake, a wig fastened to a rigid skullcap of translucent grey. But that was not the worst of it. Not by far. He turned his back to me--and I bit back a sharp cry of horror. What that hairy helmet had concealed was not the bare scarred flesh I might have expected, but rather a hemisphere of copper-red metal, thickly meshed with fine wires and encrusted with tiny multicolored devices of diverse shapes. Electronic components, clearly--but far more advanced than anything I had ever before encountered. The glittering circuitry encased his cranium from his hairline to the nape of his neck, interrupted only by the narrow slots through which his ears protruded.
I felt the blood drain from my face, and if I had not already
been sitting, I would have fallen. I couldn't speak, could utter
no sound but a strangled yowl, and finally Sah'ahl turned to gaze
at me sadly. "Now do you understand?"