Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights
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"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
I had almost reached the foot of the stairs when Sah'ahl caught up with me, his tireless metal legs carrying him much faster than my shaky flesh-and-blood models. He reached out his false hand to grasp my arm, and I rounded on him with partly-expressed claws. "Don't touch me!" I snarled--or was it more like a sob?
He froze a few steps below me, gazing at me with wide and wounded eyes. For a few seconds his gleaming copper hand remained outstretched toward me; then, with a sudden qualm, he clenched the skeletal thing into a fist and dropped it to his side. In his other hand he clutched his wig, crumpled like an orange rag, the rigid translucent membrane to which it was fastened bouncing against his leg.
"Ehm'rael, please," he said softly. "Can't we discuss this rationally? I'm still the same person "
Clutching the rail for support, I sneered: "Person? How dare you call yourself a person?"
"I am," he said firmly, his whiskers bristling. "More than ninety percent of me is living Sah'aaran, as real and organic as you are." He flexed his hand. "You've found it in your heart to accept this." He indicated his legs. "And these." He touched his skull. "Why not this? Why is it so different?"
I was trembling now, so violently that I could no longer stand; wrapping my arms around myself, I collapsed onto the lowest step. Sah'ahl started forward as if to comfort me; but then, apparently thinking better of it, he stepped back.
"I don't know," I said miserably. "I suppose--because the legs and hand are just tools. I'm not bothered by the idea of prosthetics. Most Sah'aarans older than seventy-five have artificial hearts. That's something we must accept, and it doesn't change who we are. But that "
"This is who I am," he told me. "In large measure, the person you know as Sah'ahl was created by this. Don't you understand, Ehm'rael? I've told you about the brain damage I suffered during my accident. Most of my memory was destroyed--and my motor functions, language skills and cognitive abilities were impaired as well. This is how my employers ameliorated that damage. This equipment compensates for the parts of my brain that were partially or wholly destroyed by anoxia." He shook his head sadly. "My memories of my past life are gone forever, of course--there was nothing anyone could do about that--but these devices have at least allowed me to remain functional and productive. The Goddess knows I didn't ask for this--but I've accepted it, because the alternative was life as a drooling imbecile."
Unbidden, my hand rose to my neck. The Goddess knows I didn't ask for this My tone softened a trifle as I said, "But they've used it to make you a slave."
He glanced aside. For a time he stood clenching and unclenching his fist, while the wind whipped the ragged hem of his day-robe. Finally he said, "Who among us is truly free? You yourself gave up much of your freedom when you became a Combined Forces officer "
"No," I interrupted sharply. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. The CF doesn't own me. I'm sworn to follow their orders--but that doesn't mean I'm forced to agree with everything they say or do. If I had no other alternative, I could resign my commission and walk away. Can you say the same?"
He sighed again, and with his gaze still averted, he said, "The Chrysaoans do not control my every thought and action. Obviously not; otherwise in situations like this, when I'm out of direct contact with them, I would be helpless. They recognize the value of improvisation. My implants do make it impossible for me to discuss certain subjects, ones which my masters would prefer remain secret; and I am predisposed to act in their best interests at all times. It is impossible for me to contemplate betraying them. Exactly how much free will do I possess? I don't know." He turned and speared me with narrowed eyes. "How much do you have, really?"
It was my turn to glance away, ashamed. "I don't know," I admitted. "I honestly don't." I looked down at him. "But you're telling me your conditioning is broken now?"
He shook his head. "No," he said. "Not exactly. What I'm saying is that our bonding seems to override it--but only in relation to you. To what extent I don't know; but I find myself able to tell you things now which I could not have before--things my employers would certainly not wish you to know. But whether I could be so forthcoming with your Captain Thunumm that I strongly doubt."
I buried my face in my hands. "I'm sorry," I told him. "Goddess, how sorry I am!"
He moved forward slowly, cautiously, and finally sat down beside me, wrapping his arm--his real one--around my shoulders. "I understand," he said. "And I'm sorry too. Had it been up to me, I would have told you much sooner. This is one of the things my employers did not wish to become public knowledge--for obvious reasons."
I glanced at him--and try as I might, I couldn't help but shudder. I'm not sure which was worse: the brazen hardware, or his bizarrely-bald, "round-head" appearance--something which would not be seen on Sah'aar, where short manes are never in fashion. "Do me a favor?" I said.
"Put the wig back on," I begged. "Please."
He smiled. "Gladly." He shook the thing out, so that the artificial hair lay mostly flat, and then carefully positioned the grey skullcap atop his head, pressing down around the edges. I heard the clicks as the magnetic fasteners took hold one by one. Now that I knew what to look for, the fact that it was a wig was painfully obvious, and--in hindsight, of course--always should have been. But wig or no, obvious or not, I preferred him with it in place. He adjusted some strands to merge more or less smoothly with his sideburns, and smiled. "Better?"
I nodded. "Definitely," I said. And then--much to my own amazement--I allowed him to pull me gently into his embrace. Leaning my head on his shoulder, I closed my eyes. Whatever else he might be, whatever he kept under his mane, he was my bond-mate and that, the Goddess help us both, was forever. Some minutes later I sighed and said, "Sah'ahl, what are we going to do?"
He took my meaning instantly: he knew I was speaking of something other than Lands-End, the Hegemony, or the Alliance--something much more personal. "I don't know," he confessed. "But we'll think of something."
"I give up," I said, slamming the uncomfortable headset back into its clip in disgust. "If they're still up there, they're not listening."
A little more than two hours had passed since Sah'ahl persuaded me to return to the boat--two hours I'd spent wearing out both my throat and the radio's short frequency range trying to raise Yerba Buena. Thus far my efforts had been rewarded only with wave upon mind-numbing wave of static.
Perched on the port-side railing, Sah'ahl stirred. "I doubt very much they've departed ," he observed mildly, and I nodded.
"I doubt it too," I agreed. I rubbed absently at my left ear, still sore from the human-style headphone. I glanced up at the dark ceiling far above our heads. "Could be all this metal " I mused.
"A distinct possibility," Sah'ahl said. He cleared his throat. "But before we move the boat, I think we ought to discuss this. I'm beginning to wonder if this is truly the right thing to do--"
Tired, stiff and frustrated, I rounded on him with a scowl. "Meaning what?" I snapped. "That I shouldn't try to contact my ship?"
Sah'ahl sighed and shook his head. "No," he said. "Not at all." Still patiently; but I couldn't help but notice that his saintly calm had begun to fray at the edges. I hated myself for the brief stab of pleasure that observation gave me.
"Then what are you saying, exactly?"
He shrugged. "Simply that we ought to examine the situation logically first, before we commit ourselves to what may be a grave error."
And you'd know all about logic, wouldn't you? I almost said; but just in time I held my tongue. Goddess, how long can I go on this way? I wondered in despair. Stuck like a computer in a recursion loop: on the one hand so angry I could have strangled him; but on the other so filled with pity and sorrow that I wanted to hold him, comfort him, and never let go. One emotion or the other was going to have to emerge triumphant--and soon, for my sanity's sake. They say that bonding conquers all, given time But a good part of my anger was rooted in fear and frustration, and had nothing to do with him; and so I forced myself to soften my tone. "All right," I said. "Logically. What's wrong with using this radio to contact my ship?"
"Because someone else might be overhearing our messages," he said. I frowned in confusion, and he went on, "You say your battleship's comm equipment can detect a signal from our radio. I have no reason to dispute that. You've also said that your ship's Compcomm officer--Saunders, I believe?--should be monitoring those frequencies, though they are not commonly used by the Combined Forces."
I nodded and rubbed my eyes. "That's all true," I said. "I've been operating under the assumption that they're still searching for me, though it's been days since I saw that landing pod. Standard procedure would be to monitor the widest possible range of frequencies, in case I managed to find some way to send a signal. Which I have," I added pointedly.
Sah'ahl nodded. "And therein lies the crux of the problem," he said. "The widest possible range of frequencies. A low-power signal on a seldom-used band how much longer might you have to broadcast before you attract their attention?"
I spread my hands helplessly. "I don't know," I said. "By rights, they ought to have responded already. It depends on a number of factors--Yerba Buena's orbit, how attentive the Compcomm on duty is it could be five minutes, or five days. There's no way to know."
"Exactly," he agreed. "When I say a 'seldom-used band,' I am of course referring to the Alliance. On this world, those frequencies are quite well-used. What concerns me is who else might be receiving our signals while you're waiting for Yerba Buena to respond. Someone who is perhaps much nearer than they."
My fingertips began to itch, and the bushy end of my tail swabbed the deck between my legs. "You mean someone in Odyn's government," I said.
"Yes," he confirmed. "Or worse, someone reporting directly to Akad. He is certainly still searching for us both. There may be no government boats within five hundred kilometers of here--or there may be one just over the horizon. All that metal--" he waved his hand over his head-- "blocks our radar too, even more effectively than it does your radio signals. Or," he went on thoughtfully, "it might even be your friends the Protectors who receive our signal. I don't doubt that they are searching as well. Practically unarmed as we are, I would not care to meet either Major Akad or General Rochelle, or any of their minions. This is a large platform, and we could evade them for a time--but not indefinitely."
"It's Linda Rochelle I worry about," I said, "not Frank. She's the one with the hair-trigger temper. But you--you're really afraid of Akad, aren't you?"
He nodded. "I am," he said evenly. "And so should you be--especially now. Whatever his intentions are, we would both be liabilities--and therefore disposable."
I sat silent for a long moment, gazing out at the ocean. Even in the few short hours we'd spent at the dock, the swells had flattened noticeably, and the wind had dropped to little more than a stiff breeze. "Assuming that all of this is plausible," I said quietly, "I have just one thing to ask you."
"And that is?"
I whirled, facing him with bared teeth. "Why in the Goddess' name didn't you think of it two hours ago?" I snarled.
His eyes widened briefly in alarm; then he frowned. Gazing at me steadily, he said, "Would you have listened to me two hours ago?"
Ashamed, I turned aside. "I wonder--" I began, the words slipping out before I could bite them back.
I shook my head. "Nothing," I mumbled. Sah'ahl didn't reply, just stared at me with that maddening half-smile of his, and finally I sighed and went on. "I don't want to start another argument. But I can't help thinking--wouldn't preventing me from making contact with my ship be in the Hegemony's best interest?"
He grinned and bowed, acknowledging the familiar phrase; but immediately his smile faded. He shook his head. "No," he said. "It would not. Consider the situation, Ehm'rael. If I'm right, my masters will be arriving here in force, very soon--something which might cause your Captain Thunumm to open fire. I don't say that he will; only that he might. But if he did, it would almost certainly lead to casualties on both sides. And it could easily escalate into a conflict which would result in many more deaths. No--it is as much in my employers' best interest to avoid that fight as it is the Alliance's. And the best way to accomplish that is for you to warn your captain, and hopefully persuade him that --as the Terrans have it--discretion is the better part of valor."
"You don't know Captain Thunumm," I said grimly. "But you're probably right." I stood then, and moved slowly toward the stern. Leaning against the rail, I gazed down at the dark choppy water. It looked cold, forbidding, deadly--but that might simply be my imagination.
"As I see it," I went on, "These are our choices. We can broadcast and be damned, and hope we raise Yerba Buena before anyone else hears us and traces our signal."
Sah'ahl nodded. "That is one option."
"--Or," I continued, "we can try the platform's comm equipment instead."
He shook his head dubiously. "It will be more powerful," he agreed. "But it will most likely operate in the same range of frequencies. It might even increase the danger of unwelcome visitors."
"--Or we can try to reconfigure this radio, or the platform's, into something which operates on CF frequencies."
Sah'ahl smiled. "With the parts and tools we have, and in the short time available to us? That is beyond my skill, at least."
"--Or," I concluded, "there's my own equipment: my commpak or my landing pod."
Sah'ahl's eyes widened, and he stroked his half-set of whiskers thoughtfully. "Your commpak and your other property are almost certainly in Akad's hands. But your pod Can we be certain it's still there?"
"I think so," I said. "I doubt the amphibians could have stolen it--I encrypted both the hatch and the control panel. Unless they've blown it up, or hauled it away with a crane, it's still sitting on the roof of the Government Building."
"Unlikely that they would do either," Sah'ahl said. "But what about your captain? Might he have sent someone to fetch it?"
I paused. "Possible," I agreed. "CF command codes would override my encryption-lock. But with me still down here, he'd have no reason to do that..."
"Unless the Governor ordered him to."
Those words brought me up short, my claws expressed and my tail bristling. Was that my pod I saw, being returned to Yerba Buena ? I shook my head and sighed. "That might indeed have happened," I admitted reluctantly.
Sah'ahl smiled. "Or it might not. This may well be our best alternative. As our ancestors said, 'The boldest hunter gets the biggest buck.'" He paused. "Which leaves us with only one small problem: how to accomplish it."
I swallowed hard. "I think," I said softly, "I might have some ideas about that."
He quirked an eye. "Such as?"
"Such as this," I told him. And then, before he could stop me--and more importantly, before I could talk myself out of it--I swung my legs over the railing and dropped into the water.
I knew how to swim; of course I did. The Officer's Academy is very insistent on that, and doesn't take "no" for an answer--unless you happen to be a Roach, and therefore unable to close your breathing pores. In the Admiralty's view, phobias--even deep-rooted ones millennia in the making--are not an acceptable excuse for failing to complete one's physical-fitness training. And so, willing or no, I learned but it was not something I had spent a lot of time doing, not until circumstances landed me on this liquid hell of a world.
And so, my actions were not as foolhardy as they might seem--not quite, anyway. I was very unlikely to drown. At any time I could kick my way to the surface and yell for Sah'ahl to throw me a floatation ring--something with which our boat was copiously supplied. No, I was not in danger but neither was I entirely prepared for what was to come. In retrospect, of course, I could not have been. No one could.
Feet-first and ramrod-stiff, my body plunged into the water with barely a splash. It was a long way down, and momentum rapidly carried me some two or three meters deep. The water felt slightly chill, but certainly not frigid; hypothermia was not an issue. My arms rigid at my sides, my eyes squeezed tight shut, I grimly battled terror as the pressure increased over every square millimeter of my body. My downward motion quickly ceased, as buoyancy and viscosity overcame inertia. I hung motionless for an instant, then began to rise toward the surface and at that moment several things happened in rapid succession.
First I felt a tiny shock at the base of my skull, like--but nowhere near as violent as--the one I'd felt when the gill first fused itself to my flesh. For a fraction of a second I was paralyzed again, and my fear took a quantum leap but the sensation quickly passed. What followed was equally alarming. Deep within my abdomen my diaphragm suddenly and violently convulsed, and a great burp of air--the entire contents of my lungs, so it seemed--burst forth uncontrollably through my mouth and nose. The valve within my throat slammed shut, preventing the inevitable inrush of water. Something similar occurred within my nose--I could feel it, high in my sinuses--proving that the device was even more intrusive than Sah'ahl had believed. Briefly a fresh wave of panic gripped me--but then I heard the sharp metallic clicks as the vents on the sides of the gill snapped open. Inexorably then--reflexively, in the most literal sense of the word--I felt myself compelled to draw in a great mouthful of water and swallow. But my throat was blocked, and so the fluid was not forced into my stomach; rather, it was diverted, pumped into the tubes which pierced my neck, and thence through the semi-permeable membranes with which the gill was lined, and which in turn were filled with my own blood: circulating, absorbing oxygen from the water and giving up carbon dioxide. After that initial burst of air from my lungs there were no more bubbles, and near-silence engulfed me. The only sounds were the soft rush of liquid through the gill; the mutter of the swells; the intermittent thud of waves slapping our boat and the rumble of the platform's engines, a deep thudding vibration which I felt rather than heard, passing directly through my body. I lifted my hands to the sides of my neck and felt the water jetting forth, warmed slightly by contact with my blood, pulse after pulse in time with my compulsive swallowing.
Great Goddess, I thought wildly, it actually works! I'd expected well, I'm not sure what I'd expected, but certainly nothing so efficient and painless as this; not from a device intended for humans. But the Chrysaoans were excellent engineers: apparently they had built into the thing sufficient flexibility to allow it to interface smoothly with my Sah'aaran body and nervous system. The fact that I was a bipedal mammal, with a body-plan somewhat similar to a human's, probably helped. Whether the device would have worked so well for a Centaurii, say, or a Quadrian, I strongly doubted.
Gradually, as the seconds ticked by, my panic began to ebb. As Sah'ahl had predicted, that new and unfamiliar motion--gulp and swallow, gulp and swallow, over and over--had entirely supplanted my need to breathe, to expand my chest and pull in air. My diaphragm was entirely still, totally at rest for the first time in my life, and my lungs were virtually empty, compressed within my ribcage. A strange sensation, definitely--but not an uncomfortable one. My heartbeat, which had threatened to race out of control, slowed to normal, or perhaps even a little less; and as it did, so too did my "breathing." Finally, as usual with an effort of pure will, I forced open my eyes. In that pure water, innocent of salt or chemicals, that action did not sting as badly as I'd feared it would. Surprisingly little, in fact.
I found myself hanging vertically in mid-water, so to speak, perhaps three meters down, with my head pointing toward the surface and my toes and tail dangling above the abyss. All around me was cool, glowing blue light, turning my fur to violet and my drifting mane to magenta. Above me I saw silvery brightness, shaded sunlight sparkling on the underside of the choppy waves, clouds of shimmering, dancing bubbles forced briefly below and quickly fleeing toward the surface. And in the opposite direction--nothing. Not far below my feet the light faded, blue to purple to black. What sort of depth there might be beneath me I didn't care to contemplate. Curiously, though I wore no weight-belt, I felt no tendency to rise. Evidently the expulsion of air from my lungs had left me neutrally buoyant in this freshwater sea. I could rise, I knew, with a few sharp kicks--or, just as easily, I could turn myself end for end and descend. Almost tempting but I had no idea what my limits might be, the depth below which I would be courting the bends or worse. Best for now to stay near the surface.
With a few gentle kicks I adjusted my attitude until I floated more or less horizontal, my back pointing toward the surface. My digitigrade feet were not very efficient paddles, so I supplemented them with wide strokes of my cupped hands; much better. I swam back and forth several times beneath the rocking, algae-encrusted keel of our boat, taking care to stay away from the sharp-edged jet-tubes. Gaining confidence then, I took off toward the end of the dock as fast as I could, passing below the floating slips and somewhere along the line, in spite of my lifelong fears, I actually began to enjoy the exercise. Crazy--but true nonetheless. Was this the same person who had screamed in terror when her kidnappers dumped her into the water? I could swim rings around them now, with their clumsy rebreathers and helmets
But can I out-swim a real amphibian? That thought stopped me in mid-stroke, gripped by a fresh wave of fear. The answer was of course obvious: no. Bred for the water, born in it I suspected, with their webbed hands and feet, their scaled flesh and their modified eyes I would be to them as a deuterium tanker is to a squadron of gunboats; or--more appropriately--as a sunfish is to a school of sharks. I had one advantage, and one only and I would have to make the most of it.
I might have remained happily submerged all day (and that is the strangest thing of all); but eventually I became aware of a new sound, a rhythmic splashing much sharper and more insistent than the dull thump of waves against a thin metal hull. I looked up and saw, near the end of the slip beyond our boat's stern, the unmistakable outline of a furry hand, the four stubby fingers and wide palm agitating the shimmering surface vigorously. A sudden wave of guilt sent hot blood rushing toward my ears. Sah'ahl. I had not descended nearly deep enough to worry about decompression--I hoped--and so I wheeled around and drove myself upwards. Seconds later, with a violent splash, I broke the surface.
Sah'ahl sat cross-legged on the dock, a white bundle in his lap. He looked down at me expressionlessly, and his voice was curiously flat as he said, "I realize you're upset with me right now--but may I request that you never do anything like that again?"
For the moment I couldn't reply--because the Chrysaoans were even more clever than I had imagined. Inevitably, I had carried to the surface with me a mouthful of water--and not until I had rid myself of it, clearing my throat, would the gill-slits click shut and the valves open, allowing air into my lungs. I might have simply forced that mouthful through the gill--but why waste it, when so tempting (and deserving) a target lay close at hand? Sah'ahl ducked, though, and I missed. Laughing, I inhaled a drop or two, and coughed; but that was small price to pay to see the look on his face. Buoyant now, my breathing entirely back to normal, I paddled toward the dock and reached out my arms. Sah'ahl stood and leaned down, pulling me out of the water with easy strength, water streaming from my sodden mane and sheeting from my impermeable bodysuit. He reached for his bundle--a large fluffy towel--and wrapped it around me. I had to hold onto him, lest I fall: my legs had been left wobbly by an exercise even less familiar than the previous night's.
I gazed up at him challengingly. "I had to know," I said, and he nodded.
"Yes," he agreed. "You did." He paused, and quirked an eye. "And?"
I smiled. "It works. Better than I expected."
He sighed and drew me closer, nuzzling under my soggy chin--and at that moment, all that there was left in me of anger drained swiftly and silently away, like the water trickling from the tip of my tail. "I suggest we leave tonight," he said softly. "The sea should be even calmer by then. I estimate it will take a little more than twenty hours at full-throttle to reach the capital."
I nodded agreement. "And after that?" I asked.
He grinned and shook his head. "After that," he said,
"we'll have to improvise."