"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
A captive. Again.
I woke with a cry, my eyes snapping wide open…but the sickening wave of swirling psychedelic colors that slammed into my brain forced me to squeeze them tight shut again. Too soon, too soon…Head pounding, stomach roiling, muscles aching, I struggled to bring my reluctant memory up to speed. The tunnels, yes. Trying to reach my pod…Then Akad. I'd been hit point-blank with what must have been a three-quarters stinger charge. No wonder I felt like fifty kilos of last week's maxigrazer steak; no wonder there was a sore spot directly over my sternum, a knife-sharp pain which made it impossible to draw a deep breath. By rights I ought to be…
More cautiously then I opened my eyes, just a slit. At first I saw nothing but a blinding-bright blur, and tears ran from the corners of my eyes; but slowly the day-glow mists parted and objects resolved--more or less. My vision was oddly blurry, though a few blinks seemed to clear it adequately. A small space--an office? No, a lab--an observation that caused my stomach to knot in terror. Walls lined with black-topped benches, the glass-fronted cabinets above filled with glassware and instruments. To my left a metal desk, holding a computer terminal and not much else. Light from a softly-glowing ceiling. All very functional, utilitarian, without a trace of the amphibians' usual decorative touches…but everything bright, clean and new, with no trace of wear or corrosion. Easy enough to guess where I was: in the Science Section of the Government Building. Perhaps the very lab from which Martin and Mary Crane had stolen the thing that still embraced my neck.
And as for my poor abused body…I lay flat on my back, cradled by the form-fitting surface of what looked and felt like a dentist's chair. In point of fact I was strapped to it. Wide black elastic bands were wrapped around my chest, my waist, my upper arms and wrists, my upper legs and ankles. Only my tail was free to move--and was taking full advantage of that fact. The bands were not tight, in fact they seemed loose enough to slip free of…until I attempted to do just that. Then they tightened, contracting sharply, becoming suddenly hard as steel. When I relaxed they did too. Except for those bands I was entirely naked, my bodysuit nowhere to be seen. Between and a little above my breasts, a patch of fur the size of my hand was burned away, the flesh below red and blistered. The wound had been coated with some kind of clear, spray-on bandage. My mane, still tightly braided, dangled partway to the floor.
No one else was in sight, and I was on the verge of calling out, when a familiar figure stepped into view, smiling, his hand resting casually on his sidearm. At the sight of him my claws expressed, digging impotently into the slick green upholstery. "Akad," I growled.
"Good morning, Commander," he said lightly. "I trust you're feeling better."
"Not particularly," I told him. I paused. "How--uh--how long was I unconscious?"
He glanced at something out of my field of view; probably a wall clock. "About five hours."
Five hours. Which meant--if he was telling the truth--that it was now almost six a.m., local time; a little less than an hour before dawn. I pictured Sah'ahl pacing the deck of our stolen boat, anxiously scanning the sky for my pod. What will he do, when it never arrives? Would he keep his half-hearted promise? Or had he broken it already? Questions I had no good way of answering. "Why aren't I dead?"
Akad seated himself casually atop a metal stool. "As a matter of fact," he said, nodding at the ugly burn on my chest, "you came very close." He patted my stinger, hanging on his belt opposite his pistol. "I'm afraid I'm a novice with this sort of weapon, and maybe I fired a bit too strong a charge. Your heart stopped for almost three minutes."
Goddess! I fought to keep the horror from showing on my face; but his eyes lit up, and I knew I'd failed. "And--?"
He shrugged elaborately. "And," he said, "it's a good thing CPR works on Sah'aarans as well as humans."
I shuddered in disgust, imagining the touch of his lips against mine. Better than the alternative, I guess. Or--considering my probable future--was it?
"--Fortunately your condition is stable now, according to our staff physician," he was saying. "He recommends that you take it easy for the time being, though."
As if I have another choice. I wriggled in my bonds, and once again felt them harden. No point asking him to remove them; he'd just laugh in my face. "Why did you bother saving me?" I asked.
"I might not have," Akad confessed. He nodded at my neck. "Except for that. You're the first person to test that ingenious little device, Commander. That alone means we need you alive, and able to answer questions. In the interest of science, of course."
"Of course." I chuckled bitterly. "But if you expect me to answer your questions, you can forget it."
"Partly mine," he said, ignoring the thrust of my observation. "But not entirely. There are a number of other interested parties." He hesitated, cocking an ear. "And here comes one of them now, I think."
What Akad had heard--what I heard too, of course, even more clearly then he--was the sharp, staccato slapping of bare footsteps in the corridor outside. The sound of an amphibian in a great hurry. Akad stepped between me and the door, quickly adjusting his skullcap and his gun-belt, snapping to attention just as the portal slid open. Craning my neck to see around the major's broad torso, I saw at the threshold a very annoyed-looking Geeri Odyn. My friend the governor had evidently been asleep: her green hair was disheveled, her coral-red bodysuit seemed hastily-donned, and her usual filmy cloak was missing. As she entered her arms were wrapped tight around her torso, as if she missed the warmth of her bed. Well, it was a little early…
"Thank you for coming so quickly, Your Excellency," Akad said smoothly, and Odyn scowled.
"This had better be important, Dail."
"Oh, it is," he assured her. His back was to me, but in his unctuous tones I clearly heard his half-predatory, half-ingratiating smile. "There's someone here to see you."
"Who--?" Odyn began in confusion, and Akad, with a bow and a flourish, stepped aside to reveal me. The governor's gaze fell upon my helpless form…and the color drained from her horror-stricken face. "No," she whispered. Then, much louder, "No!" She staggered, but when Akad reached out to support her she shook him off angrily. She crossed the room swiftly and bent over me, clutching my shoulders with hysterical strength, pulling her contorted face to within millimeters of mine. "Damn you!" she hissed. "Do you have any idea what you've done?" she demanded. "The damage you've caused?" Her hands were trembling, her voice barely under control--but more with fear than rage. "My God--all those weeks of negotiations, ruined! Why? Why did you do it?"
I returned her gaze coldly. "What I've done," I said, "is been kidnapped, repeatedly held against my will--" I struggled briefly against my bonds-- "and attacked by an alien artifact. Is that the answer you had in mind, Governor? Or would you like the play-by-play?"
Odyn released me and staggered back, collapsing against the edge of the desk. "You mean it wasn't…you didn't…"
"Of course I didn't," I told her tartly. During this exchange Akad had retreated into the corner near the door, where he stood with his arms crossed, watching intently through shining eyes. What's his game? I wondered uneasily. "Who in their right mind would?" I went on. "This thing glommed onto me while I was trying to figure it out."
She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, God," she whispered. "Why now? Why her?" For several minutes she stood leaning heavily against the desk, her body trembling uncontrollably… but finally, with a visible effort, she got a grip on herself. She took a deep breath, and gradually her shuddering stilled. When at last she looked up, her gaze was steady and her voice firm. "You know what it is, then?"
"Yes," I said. "I do. I've even tried it. It works--quite well."
She shook her head in wonder. "Amazing," she said. She quirked a smile. "Needless to say, we never had a chance to test it." She paused. "You must also know who built it."
I nodded. "That wasn't difficult to deduce," I told her. "I've become well acquainted with the Chrysaoans' favorite building material."
"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose you would have…"
"I also know why they built it," I went on. "This thing represents the Hegemony's payment for permission to build the refueling facility."
She nodded. "Of course."
"And that's why you changed your mind so suddenly, and reneged on your contract with the Alliance. You knew that we would never give you anything like that."
"But what I don't understand," I said, "is what it's supposed to achieve--beyond the obvious. What good does it do to make it possible for a human to breathe water, if the rest of his body remains unaltered?"
She frowned and shook her head. "That's not the case," she said. "Obviously not."
"Pardon me? Isn't that what this thing does? All it does? Or did the Hegemony provide a full line of accessories too?"
Her eyes widened. "You don't know?" she asked. "You honestly don't know?"
"If I did," I replied testily, "I wouldn't be asking."
"I suppose not." She took a deep shuddering breath. "You're absolutely right, Commander. That device would be virtually useless--if it were nothing more than a gill. But in fact it is more--much more." She rubbed her forehead tiredly. "How to begin? Are you familiar with the concept of nanotechnology?"
I frowned. "Yes," I said. "Basically speaking, it's the idea of using millions or billions of self-replicating, molecule-sized machines to manipulate materials, or to build virtually any kind of structure, literally one atom at a time."
Odyn nodded. "That is my understanding as well," she confirmed. "Far beyond our capabilities, of course. The Alliance--?"
"No," I said. "We don't use it either. Not at present. Some experiments were conducted on Terra more than two centuries ago, and apparently they looked promising--but then there were several so-called 'grey goo' scares--nanobots breaking containment and replicating until they threaten to smother everything in their path. That pretty well frightened the Terrans off the entire concept. Then the Centaurii showed up with different methods of handling materials, and nanotech was virtually forgotten. I understand some work is being done on Xerxes…"
"Of that I have no knowledge," Odyn said flatly "But I do know that the Chrysaoans are quite advanced in nanotech." She nodded at my neck. "That device is their crowning achievement."
"I'm afraid you've lost me," I said. "So far as I've been able to tell, it's pretty much a brute-force device. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. I haven't noticed anything unusual…"
"Oh, it's there," she assured me. "It just takes time--to accomplish this, for example."
She lifted my right hand as far as the straps allowed, spreading out my fingers across her palm. I strained my neck to look…and my heart tried to stop beating again. My fingers were webbed.
Not as conspicuously as Odyn's, I hasten to add--not yet, at least. But an unmistakable, translucent pink membrane had begun to fill the notches between my three fingers, and the wider space between my forefinger and thumb. Thus far it extended only to the first knuckle of each digit--but why should it stop there? At first I assumed it to be some kind of polymer, an artificial protein perhaps…but no. The membranes were in fact living tissue, complete with nerves--as Odyn proved when she took one of them between her thumb and forefinger and pinched--and a spiderweb network of dark-red blood vessels. Flesh, yes; built atom by atom by the hordes of nanobots the gill had pumped into me, on a pattern provided by my own genes. With a sudden qualm of horror I glanced at my feet--and saw that they were well on their way to becoming flippers, the ridged fringe of flesh engulfing my toes and ascending halfway to my heels.
"Great Goddess…" I heard myself say in strangled tones.
"I'm afraid that's not all," Odyn said. Searching briefly through drawers, she came up with a shiny stainless-steel tray. She held that makeshift mirror up before my face…and for the second time in less than a minute, I gasped. My eyes were now filmed over with turquoise, a protective membrane exactly matching the amphibians' own, and already so thick that the normal greenish-gold was entirely obscured, the vertical-slit pupils barely distinguishable.
For a time Odyn stood silent, watching me hyperventilate. "You see?" she said quietly, and I nodded.
"Yes," I said. And I did--many things. Why my swim the previous evening had taken much less time than I'd expected; why I'd found it so much easier to open my eyes underwater…and why my vision seemed so much sharper there too. Slowly, inexorably, I was becoming…what? A catfish? I swallowed, and somehow brought my rapid and painful breathing under control. Finally I went on fearfully, "Where--where will it end?"
Odyn shook her head, setting aside the tray. "I don't know. If you were human…You must understand, Commander: it wasn't meant for you. Your body, your organs…they're similar to a human's, but only to a point. I'm not a scientist; I have no idea what it might be doing to you. Nor do I know if anyone can stop it. The Chrysaoans…didn't intend it to be stoppable."
Did Sah'ahl see it happening? I wondered suddenly. Certainly I had not; in the press of events I had not as much as glanced at a mirror, nor had I spread my fingers or toes sufficiently to notice the growing webbing. But him--? Had he noticed my eyes beginning to turn blue? Or had all this happened suddenly, in the few hours after I parted from him? Possible--but unlikely. He'd given no indication that anything was amiss--but knowing him, he might not, even if he had noticed. He might not have been able to force himself to tell me; to give me--as he would have seen it--one more thing to worry about. I'll never know. But great Goddess, what do I do now?
…But I was not the only one involved; and with an effort I managed, temporarily at least, to put aside my own uncertain fate. What about the normal humans, those for whom the device had been intended--by hook or by crook? I had known for some time--really since that first meeting aboard Yerba Buena--that Geeri Odyn could be supremely, monstrously arrogant…but I had dismissed that as the normal attitude of the career politician. Never had I suspected the true depths to which her hubris ran. Until now.
I gazed at her coldly. "There's an old Terran saying," I told her, "something about 'leading a horse to water.'" But she merely frowned in confusion, and I went on patiently, "Just clamping one of these damned things around someone's neck isn't enough." I nodded down at my hand. "Even that isn't enough. What if they refuse to make use of the modifications? You can't force them to be happy with what you've done to them--"
Odyn smiled sadly. "You're only half correct, Commander," she said. She touched the gill. "That's the true beauty of the Chrysaoans' design. After it has taken hold, we need only immerse the recipient for a very brief period. The device itself does the rest."
"I don't--" I began; but then I broke off, a chill running down my spine, as I realized that I did indeed understand. "The device taps into the wearer's nervous system…" I went on slowly.
Odyn nodded. "Yes. And not only the autonomic functions. It also forms a connection to the brain's pleasure center. The simple fact of being submerged becomes… delightful. Physically pleasurable. You must have felt it yourself--?"
I nodded. "Yes," I said heavily. "I did, both times I used the thing. I didn't understand how it could possibly be, given my species' natural aversion to water--but I actually found myself reluctant to surface. I wanted to stay down."
"Exactly," she said. "In your case, as you say, there was a deep-seated ancestral loathing to overcome. Humans--even our normal humans--don't feel that, not to the extent you Sah'aarans are reputed to. Even after a single immersion there would be a longing, a craving. A few more--and you wouldn't be able to keep them out of the water."
Anger rose up to choke me then, and it was some time before I could reply. How many more swims would it take before I'd be hooked? I wondered. One? Ten? A hundred? No way to know… "Don't you understand how dangerous that is?" I demanded, and she turned away.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Of course I do."
"Do you really?" I asked harshly. "No known chemical substance is one hundred percent addictive, for any species. But direct stimulation of the pleasure center comes damned close. Have you ever seen the old films of the experiments done centuries ago on Terra? Their scientists would drop a wire into the pleasure center of an animal--a rat, say--and then give the creature control over the current. Very soon, pressing the button would become more important than food, water, sleep…anything. Eventually the rat would starve to death."
She frowned and shook her head. "The stimulation isn't that strong…" she said, as if trying to convince herself. "You know; you've felt it yourself…"
"My nervous system and my brain chemistry aren't the same as yours," I said. "In my case it was simply a mild sense of exhilaration. Who knows what a human would feel? But that's not the point, Governor. You know that as well as I do. The only relevant question is: how in the Goddess' name can you possibly justify it? How can you excuse such a monstrous intrusion into the lives of a quarter of your population?"
Odyn was silent for a long moment, staring down at her own webbed hands. Then she said, almost inaudibly, "Because the alternative is so much worse-- and I don't want to see it happen. The majority of my people agree--but at the same time, they're not willing to grant full equality to the minority. As time goes on the situation can only grow worse. Inevitably, the minority will continue to agitate; groups like the Protectors will gain membership; acts of terrorism and sabotage will increase…and finally my people will be willing to take that last terrible step. Because by then it will seem the only way to insure their own survival."
"Negotiations?" I said helplessly. "Treaties? Compromises?"
She shook her head sadly. "They've all been tried, Commander. Trust me, they have. And they've failed. The differences between us are just too great. We're like…two different species."
"So are humans and Centaurii," I pointed out. "And Sah'aarans, and Quadrians, and Xerxians…but we've managed to form an Alliance."
She chuckled softly. "You're preaching to the choir, Commander," she said. "I agree with you--but it's not a situation I control. Or can control."
"But how will it help to turn those people into artificial amphibians?" I asked. "Especially against their will?"
"I' m hoping it won't be completely against their will," she said. "God willing, some of them will see the advantages." She paused, and once again touched the gill. "But even this isn't the ultimate solution--though it contains the seeds of that solution within it. Or so we hope."
I shook my head. "You've lost me again," I said. "Completely."
She rose and crossed to the desk. She tapped briefly on the computer keyboard, frowning at the screen, then swiveled the terminal around to face me. "This is us, in a few generations," she said. "All of us--if everything goes to plan."
I found myself gazing at a very strange creature. The image was not a photograph or hologram, but rather an "artist's conception," a 3-D rendering. Bipedal and hairless, the thing had dark-green, aggressively-scaly skin, huge gills, large silver eyes, tiny slit-like ears, hands that were webbed to the wrist, and flippers at the ends of its legs. Doubtful whether it could stand upright--but that didn't matter. Land was not its element. "Not amphibious," I guessed. "A true underwater creature."
"That's right," Odyn replied. "Do you realize how little of this world's resources we utilize now? There are millions upon millions of cubic kilometers of ocean--but we can only make use of a tiny fraction, because we are still tied to the surface. Our creators only went halfway in designing us--we were their fantasy of what an Atlantian should look like. Perhaps they were afraid to take it the rest of the way--afraid they'd lose control of us. I don't know, and the records were all destroyed. But we're sick of having to come ashore to eat and communicate and conduct business." She nodded at the screen. "This is our ideal. This creature has no lungs--just gills. It is fully functional underwater; it need never surface. That is what the Chrysaoans promised us, Commander. More than just an end to our strife. Literally, our dream come true."
"I don't understand," I said. "How will this gill help you achieve that?"
She peered intently at me. "That device has three distinct functions," she explained patiently. "First--but most superficially--it is an artificial gill. That prepares the recipient for life underwater. It is also a repository for nanotechnology." She touched my fingers. "In a month's time it would change a Terran human into a true amphibian, indistinguishable from one of us. And when the process is complete, the device would simply fall off--because it would no longer be needed. By then the recipient would have a full set of natural gills."
That much I had already guessed--though the prospect horrified me. "And the third?"
"The third function is…chromosomal," she said. "A different application of nanotechnology. Not the piecemeal conversion of a human into an amphibian--something much more basic. Alterations to the genetic structure of egg and sperm. The Chrysaoans are extremely advanced in genetic engineering, far beyond anything your Alliance has accomplished. It took Terran scientists decades to make us what we are, and in the ensuing two centuries we have been forced--as you know--to institute strict controlled-breeding programs to avoid reverting to the standard human model. Even the Chrysaoans can't accomplish the conversion in a single step…but within two, perhaps three generations, we can achieve our dream." She nodded at the terminal. "That dream--of becoming true underwater creatures. All of us."
Egg and sperm, I thought--and an icy stab of terror raced down my spine. Great Goddess, what is that thing doing to my kits? Odyn had said it herself: the gill was meant for humans. Three days into their existence, my hypothetical offspring were still no more than two small clusters of rapidly-dividing cells. Were Chrysaoan nanobots already at work on them, altering them, attempting to turn them into something aquatic? If so…then only the Dark Ones knew what the results might be. Was there still time to halt the process? Or had irreversible damage already been done? My muscles tensed, and so too did the bonds, cutting into my flesh. My heart began to hammer wildly, and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. I had to get up, to get out of there, to find someone who could remove that damned thing from my neck. But for the moment that was utterly impossible, and somehow, gradually, I forced myself to be calm. There was only one way out of this situation, I knew: the long way. And I was certainly not about to reveal my condition to them.
"For which you'll use the normal humans as guinea-pigs," I said finally, and she nodded.
"At first, yes," she said calmly. If she had noticed my distress--and I can't imagine that she hadn't--she gave no sign. "Until we're certain the process is safe. Eventually we will transfer the nanobots into ourselves. Of course the breeding of those test subjects will be strictly controlled, and their offspring isolated for extensive study."
"And you truly think the minority will put up with it?"
"Yes," Odyn replied simply. "Considering the alternative."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. So this is what it comes down to, I thought in despair. All her pious words, all her heartfelt concern for the plight of the normal humans. She was working to save them, so she'd said; to help them survive. Sure she was--for the same reason a hunt club preserves Spotted Leapers. My eyes still tightly shut, I said, "Governor, for the record, I want you to know that you and your people are the most odious excuse for a sentient species it's ever been my misfortune to encounter." I glared up at her. "But that's not important right now."
Odyn's expression, which had begun to darken with anger, suddenly twisted into surprise. "What do you mean?"
I took a deep breath. Finally. "Governor, is Yerba Buena still in orbit?"
She frowned. "Yes," she said. "Despite my repeated orders to depart. They've also violated our airspace daily, searching for you, and…"
I tried to hold up my hand, but could not. "That's not important either," I interrupted. "Please, Governor, listen to me. It's vital that I contact my ship immediately." I glanced at the silent Akad. "That's what I came here to do--all I came here to do. And your idiot bodyguard prevented me."
Odyn speared Akad with a brief, exasperated glance. He returned it impassively--but I could almost hear the lightning-fast workings of his mind. "Why?" the governor asked. "Why is it so important?"
"I have reason to believe that the Chrysaoan Hegemony will be arriving soon, in force, looking for their missing representative."
Odyn's eyes widened; but then she shrugged. "Let them come," she said. "If they want an explanation, I'll give them one: he disappeared under very suspicious circumstances after a murder. That's his problem, not mine. To be honest, I'll be just as glad to get him off my planet and deal with his employers directly. I assume you know where he is--?"
I wish I did. "Maybe," I said carefully. "But that's not the point--nor is it the problem. Yerba Buena is. You've spoken with Captain Thunumm; you know what kind of commander he is. What do you think he'll do when he sees a Chrysaoan fleet heading full-tilt toward him?"
The governor stared, aghast. "…oh," she said finally.
I nodded curtly. "Exactly. Governor, I frankly don't give a damn about you or your problems. I still think they can be solved without having to alter anyone's DNA--but that's not my business. Saving the lives of my crewmates is. And so too is preventing the Alliance from going to war over this miserable planet."
"Yes," Odyn said vaguely. "Yes, of course. I never meant…never thought…" She shook herself then, and glanced back over her shoulder, her tone abruptly firming. "Dail, release Commander Ehm'rael at once, and have her communications equipment brought to her. There might still be time…"
For a few seconds Akad remained motionless, peering at her owlishly. Then he straightened and cleared his throat. "No," he said. "No, Governor. I will not."