Copyright © 2001 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.
"THE RAVEN'S SHADOW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
Dad was right, though it pains me to admit it: tech briefings are incredibly boring.
Of course--as anyone could be forgiven for thinking--it was entirely my own fault. I could have been home in the pool, or taking batting practice, or paddling my kayak up Elkhorn Slough, or teeing off, or halfway up a rock-face…or, well, you get the picture. But instead, there I was, stuck in a room full of people not of my species, speaking a language I could barely understand. Yes, I ought to have known.
Actually though, it didn't start out badly at all. I hadn't slept well (first night in a strange and uncomfortable bed), but a big plate of liver and half a pot of strong coffee restored me to life. Unfortunately the coffee hadn't gotten any better. By the time we reached the conference room, a little before oh-eight-hundred, I was reasonably bright-eyed. Needless to say, my tail is always bushy.
The Administration Building's fifth floor was entirely filled with meetings halls and briefing lounges, dozens in all. The room to which we were directed, by glowing signs at the intersection of every corridor, was apparently the largest--and a good thing too, because it was already full nearly to capacity.
My father and I stopped just inside, he to search for familiar faces, and me to reorient myself. Sometimes it's no fun at all to have ears as sensitive as mine--especially when you live among humans. Despite a lifetime of practice (you haven't heard "loud" until you've entered a school cafeteria at lunchtime), whenever I come suddenly upon a noisy crowd, the waves of sound threaten for a second or two to overwhelm me, and my claws begin to express. It's always an effort of will to tune out the bedlam. Poor Ehm'tassaa, who spent her first fifteen years on Sah'aar, reacted far worse than me. More than once I'd had to hold her up, as the sound almost literally knocked her off her feet. Sah'aaran cities can be crowded--but they're almost eerily silent.
The hall descended in tiers of fixed, theater-style seats to a wide curved stage, backed by a huge silvery holoscreen, currently blank. Near the front edge of the platform stood a lectern, and behind that a long table with seven chairs. Having shown our clearance badges to a dour black-suited human at the door, Dad and I were directed to the front half of the hall--and as we made our way down, I quickly became aware of an odd stratification. The upper portion of the hall was occupied entirely by reporters--the self-same E-levels Dad had mentioned. They were of all species--humans, Centaurii, Quadrians, Xerxians, Hattosh; even a single Sah'aaran, a day-robed young female whose face and figure would once have been of more than passing interest to me--but they had several things in common. Their holocams, for one thing, or else their headset video cameras, which would focus wherever they pointed their eyes; their oversized palm-readers, on which many of them were already scribbling notes--and the suspicion and hostility with which they regarded each other. Competition, I guessed. As we passed them I felt more than one pair of eyes boring into my back, and my tail began to lash; but Dad laid a steadying hand on my shoulder, and I forced myself to be calm.
The bottom half of the hall--separated from the "press box" by no more solid barrier than a single unoccupied row of seats--was reserved for the engineers. And what a crowd they were!
At a guess, there were close to two hundred of them, of both genders and most known species, with the exception--I am sorry to say--of Sah'aaran. Well, my people always have been an insular crowd; and their absence from this meeting did not necessarily mean that none of them would be working on the project. It's difficult for me to judge the ages of other species, but the humans (who were by far the majority) ranged from early-twenties wunderkinder to white-haired octogenarians. They stood in the aisles, or sat together in groups, leaning over the backs of their seats, chatting amiably. No competition here--they were already assured of their contracts--and I assumed that they were comparing notes, figuring out who would be working on what.
Apart from the wide range in ages, the most striking detail--among the humans, at least--was the variety of clothing. Engineers are a notoriously Bohemian lot (as I knew all too well), and this group was no exception. I saw every style imaginable, from dark, simply-cut, starkly professional suits (worn, oddly enough, mostly by the younger ones) to mismatched, slept-in-it-for-a-week fashion disasters. As I gazed around, any worry I might have had about my wardrobe died a quiet and unlamented death.
…And Dad? He was at a point in his life when (as he put it) he didn't have to dress up for anyone. The outfit he wore was absolutely typical for him; Ehm'rael, who likes big words, would probably call it "ubiquitous." Grey, tweedy trousers, a little worn at the knees and on the seat; a matching jacket, frayed at the cuffs and patched at the elbows, and a white turtleneck--to me, that was my father; and that is how I will remember him, long after he's gone.
As for myself, I once again wore black and white. The trousers and jacket were brand-new, and were of a fine-textured, almost shiny material which (fortunately) breathed well. The shirt mag-sealed up the front. My collar had an intricate pattern of silver thread woven through it, which--not entirely by coincidence--matched well with the silver-and-ruby band around my right ankle. The palm-reader in my pocket was almost brand new, a slimmer, more functional model than the battered old veteran that had seen me through my last six years of school. It, and its twin, had been birthday presents to me and my twin just a few weeks before. It was an expensive device, and I kept touching the pocket to make sure I hadn't lost it, until finally, with a muttered curse, I forced myself to desist.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that as we made our way to our seats Dad would meet people he knew; and over the next few minutes I was introduced to at least a dozen assorted engineers. Some of them I already knew, having met them over the years; and others knew me, either by sight or reputation. I endured the usual "my how you've grown" banter stoically, knowing that they couldn't go on much longer: I'd already reached what would probably be my full height. And embarrassing though they were, those comments were nothing compared to the incredulous stares I got from those who hadn't met me before. I wondered darkly if I should have hung a sign around my neck: "Yes! I'm Joel Abrams' son! You got a problem with that?"
For better or worse, Dad wasn't granted much time for schmoozing. Not long after our arrival, a door at the rear of the stage opened, and a CF lieutenant in a beige Ops uniform emerged. He stepped to the podium and tapped the microphone, creating a hideous squeal of feedback. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to begin, so if you'll please take your seats…"
We did. Dad and I ended up in the third row, and though the room was crowded, somehow I managed to have an empty seat to my right. I was used to that, though, and I welcomed the extra elbow room. Dad noticed me fumbling for my palm-reader, and he leaned over to whisper into my ear; "Don't bother--it'll be quite a while before anything noteworthy gets said." And he was right, too, as it turned out.
When everyone was seated, the door opened again, and two people strode out onto the stage. One was a massive male Quadrian, his elephantine body straining the seams of his grey Survey uniform. On his chest I saw the stars of an admiral. He was evidently quite old: his face, and the four long tentacles attached thereto, had begun to turn a peculiar, almost bruise-like shade of purple. Behind him came a human woman in beige. She was in her early forties, small and delicate of build, and had fine Asian features and long, straight black hair, which fell in a shining waterfall almost to her waist. While the Quadrian stepped up to the lectern, the woman took a seat behind the table. They were followed a few seconds later by six others, lieutenant commanders all, a mixture of species and of grey and beige uniforms. Silently, almost ceremoniously, they filled the remaining seats.
The Quadrian too tapped the microphone, making me wince, and then he lifted his tentacles in greeting. "Good morning," he said, in a voice at once booming and hoarse, almost strangled. "I am Admiral Chuulah of the Combined Forces Engineering Corps. I have the honor to be the head of the project which will design and construct the Survey's next flagship, a vessel named in honor of a man who is virtually emblematic of both the exploration and defense of our great Alliance: the UESV Isaac Haliday."
The admiral allowed the applause to go on for a few seconds before lifting his tentacles again. I wish Mom could be here, I thought. Certainly she would attend the launching--whenever that might be. "On behalf of the CF and my colleagues--" Chuulah gestured back at the table--"I welcome you to Centaurus Minor, and the beginning of what we hope will be a very interesting and productive series of meetings.
"Allow me to explain what will be happening today, and for the next several days." He paused, letting his gaze rove across the room; and did his two pair of tiny red eyes hesitate for an instant as they rested on me? Or was that my persecution complex acting up again? "As all of you are aware, the Combined Forces has a long tradition of seeking assistance from qualified independent contractors in the design and construction of our vessels, installations and equipment. We do so for several reasons. Not the least, of course, is cost-control; but far more important is that which can be expressed by one single word: innovation. What we seek from you--I might even say what we require from you--is that you challenge us. Tell us when we are wrong; show us a better way. Those of you with whom I have worked before have never failed me in this regard; and those of you who are new to the contracting process, I hope and expect that you will continue this fine tradition.
"Needless to say, the design of any deep-space vessel is one of the most complicated endeavors ever undertaken by any sentient species. It requires technical expertise of the highest order--but more importantly, it requires teamwork. Every part, every subsystem, is by necessity connected to, and dependent upon, every other. As you work you will--you must--remain in constant contact with your fellow engineers. That process begins here. In a few moments--after I shut up--Commander Chen will lead us through a general overview of the project: the design concepts, and what we hope to achieve. After that, we will break down into smaller, more detailed focus groups, to be conducted by our colleagues here. Following this general briefing, Commander Chen and I will be available to answer questions from the media. Commander?"
There was another smattering of applause--somewhat more tepid--as he stepped aside and the dark-haired woman rose to replace him. She was much shorter than he--so much so that she had difficulty seeing over the podium--but her voice was far more pleasant, with the faintest hint of a British accent. As she stepped forward the room lights dimmed, and the big holoscreen flickered on.
"Good morning," she said. "Our primary objective with this design is to far exceed the crew capacity, real-space velocity and effective range of the highly-successful Zelazny class of Extended Survey Vessels. Toward that end…"
And that's how it began. It would be pointless to repeat everything she said--especially in light of later events, which pretty much guaranteed that almost nothing discussed at that meeting was ever actually implemented. As Chen spoke she threw a number of illustrations onto the holoscreen; and every time a new one appeared, Dad snorted softly in derision. They were nothing like blueprints or completed designs; rather, they were "artist's conceptions," thumbnail sketches, and what Dad called "back-of-an-envelope stuff"--whatever that might mean. Obviously these meetings were preliminary indeed--but I was fascinated anyway. What did Zelazny look like at this stage? I found myself wondering. What kinds of choices, compromises and complications had gone into making it what it finally became? To be present at the moment of conception (so to speak) was oddly exhilarating--a feeling to which even my father wasn't entirely immune, I suspected.
I wish I could say that my fascination persisted--but unfortunately it didn't. That briefing was intended in part for public consumption--and at that time, as much as it galled me, my level of understanding pretty well matched that of the reporters in the rows above. Studying engineering, and looking over your father's shoulder while he works, are two different things.
I got out of my depth almost as soon as the general meeting broke up. A middle-aged, heavyset Survey officer by the name of Brookes conducted the seminar on life-support engineering, which was attended by some dozen engineers, including Dad and me. I tried, honestly I did; but within a few minutes I was utterly lost, adrift in a sea of unfamiliar jargon. For a while I tried to take notes, knowing I could quiz Dad later; but after a while even that became too difficult. Add to that the fact that the room was warm, that I hadn't slept much the night before, and that Brookes had a droning, soporific voice…and the results were predictable. I didn't nod off, not really; but…well, Sah'aarans evolved as hunting carnivores, and we have a way of resting with our eyes wide open but our minds drifting, ready to snap back to full alertness at an instant's notice. Very handy, I guess, for conserving energy while you're lying in wait for prey. I'd often found it useful too, in other circumstances--and fortunately for me, none of my schoolteachers was well-versed in Sah'aaran behavior.
The next thing I knew a break had been called, and Dad, a half-grin showing through his beard, was offering me a steaming cup of coffee. Stretching my cramped muscles, I grinned sheepishly at him. "Sorry."
"That's all right," he said. Fortunately our group's briefing lounge had a table on which I could brace my elbows; otherwise I might have slipped right out of my chair. Dad's fellow engineers were milling about, chatting, and visiting the urns of coffee and trays of doughnuts on a side table. None, fortunately, was taking the slightest notice of me.
Dad cleared his throat. "To be honest, I more or less expected this. I realize how eager you are to learn, but when you don't know the terminology…"
"That's one way of putting it," I said. I took a cautious sip of my coffee, and was pleasantly surprised: it was much better than the weak dishwater served in the Officer's Mess. The admiral's private stock, perhaps? As Mom often says, RHIP.
"I have a suggestion," Dad said. "But just a suggestion, mind you. If you'd rather stay and tough it out, that's fine. But if not…"
He heard the aggrieved tone in my voice, and he smiled. "Down on the first floor, west side, there's a rather interesting museum--or so I'm told." He glanced at his chrono. "It's about ten hundred," he said. "Why don't you go take a look? You can meet me upstairs for lunch, and then we'll decide what to do about the afternoon sessions. Deal?"
For a long moment I hesitated. On the one hand I really hated to bail out on him--I was, after all, his dedicated assistant--but on the other, another couple hours of people talking over my head and I really would fall out of my seat. I'd have to decide quickly, too: Commander Brookes was on the verge of calling the meeting back to order. I sighed. "Deal," I said. I gulped the rest of my coffee, pocketed my palm-reader, and slunk out, hopefully before anyone could notice my defection. And seldom--though this of course is hindsight--did I make a bigger mistake.
It was Zelazny; good old familiar Zelazny.
The model hung in a deep alcove in a small, dimly-lit gallery, somewhere in the depths of the Centaurus Minor Spaceflight Museum. Open to the public--I didn't need my security badge there, though I was still wearing it--the place was nonetheless almost deserted that morning, and that was fine with me. I'd spent a bemused hour and a half there already, looking at models, mockups, videos, artifacts…but it's probably not too surprising that that particular room, dedicated to that particular ship, drew me in like a magnet.
I don't know offhand what scale the mockup was, but the blunt-nosed, cylindrical main hull was about two meters long, and the spherical engine housing and exhaust bell about half that. It hung by wires--a mag-lev field would have been more dramatic, but scarcely fail-safe--at a slight angle, spot-lit as by a sun. The background was black, sprinkled with tiny sparkling "stars," and in the bottom right-hand corner a remarkably realistic holo of Terra slowly rotated.
The surrounding walls held more displays: a large number of holos, videos and blueprints, depicting the ship's construction, many years before I was born. Below were angled, glass-fronted display cases containing artifacts: outdated stingers, commpaks and scanpaks, replaced long ago by more modern units; tools, medical equipment, electronic components and so forth. After the tragedy that cost the lives of my mother's old friends Captain Vandevere and Commander Hullumm, when my sister and I were in the fourth grade, the badly-damaged ship was towed to Centaurus for an extensive refit, during which her computer core and command systems were entirely replaced. A single old Control Deck console stood in the corner, dark and forlorn, complete with its holo-dome and badly-worn seat--and in fact it was Compcomm. Even without the plaque I would have known that, from Mom's description. Visitors were invited to give that comfortable-looking chair a try--and after a moment's hesitation, I did. There was no power hooked up, and so the seat did not fit itself around my body; nor did the control panel or dome come to life. But even so I experienced a deep, visceral, almost frightening thrill, comparable to what I'd felt when I first stepped into a Goddess shrine. This was not where the young Ehm'ayla had done her best work; in fact she regarded her years at Compcomm as a waste. But the knowledge that she had sat in that chair, touched those controls…at that moment I felt closer to her than I believe I ever had, and it was a long, long time before I could force myself to rise and examine the other exhibits.
…It was Zelazny itself that drew me back, though, and with my arms wrapped tight around my abdomen--having experienced a tiny, superstitious chill--I crossed the room to stare again at the hanging model. What would it be like, I wondered, to spend years of one's life so far from home and family that even a hyperzap would require weeks to cover the distance? What would it be like to depend so utterly on a vessel, a tiny, fragile envelope of metal and air? My sister and I had ruled out the Combined Forces as a career; most likely we would never know…
About then I became aware that someone else had entered the gallery. Until then I had been alone; but now I heard the sound of soft shuffling footsteps behind me. My attention was still riveted upon Zelazny, though, and I didn't turn; there seemed no reason why I should. Absently I noted that the footsteps had stopped on the other side of the room; whoever it was, he or she was probably trying out the defunct Compcomm console…
I have no idea what it was that alerted me. Perhaps I heard the quiet breathing suddenly change gear, becoming faster and shallower; or maybe (as my mother would have said) the benevolent Goddess reached down to save me. Whichever it was, I felt myself suddenly, inexplicably flinch violently to the left--just as a flash of brilliant red light streaked past me and struck the model's main hull, piercing it and showering me with sizzling chips.
I spun, my claws instantly and fully expressed--and my heart tried to stop beating.
The man who confronted me was Terran, and wore a beige Ops uniform; his tousled hair was touched with grey, and his brown eyes were huge, the iris surrounded by a wide white ring of sclera. In his left hand he held a lumpy black cylinder with a small clear lens, connected to a thick cable that trailed back to a battery pack clipped to his belt. A laser cutting torch: a tool, not a weapon--but in the wrong hands, as deadly as any firearm ever invented. The man's hand shook so badly I wondered that he could hold the thing at all. In fact he looked absolutely terrified, a feeling with which I could definitely sympathize. And with a sudden shock I recognized him: Lieutenant j.g. Albert Mayer.
For an instant we both stood staring, frozen like a tableau, and I was dimly aware that an alarm had begun to scream. Then Mayer raised the torch again and fired.
For more than half my life I had been taking long leads at first, daring the pitcher to pick me off (few could); and now, suddenly, I was very extremely grateful for the experience. Even as Mayer's hand came up, I leaped and rolled. The beam passed over my head, punching another smoking hole in poor old Zelazny. Somewhere the alarm still shrilled.
Mayer's face was a mask, not of hate or aggression, but of stark terror. His entire body shook now, as with palsy, but somehow he managed to raise the torch for another shot. Once again I rolled out of the way, barely in time.
There was no thought in my mind as to why this was happening: why this man, a near-total stranger, had decided to kill me. I wasn't even wondering where in the Dark Ones' name Security was. My one and only thought was, this can't go on. I had one advantage, and one only: I'd seen that sort of torch before, and I knew (or thought I knew, anyway) that it would need a second or two to recharge after each full-power burst. But eventually, inevitably, I'd run out of luck. Mayer was a lousy shot--but it was a very small room. Already he'd driven me away from the one and only door; it was only a matter of time before he connected…
There was just one thing I could do; and I'd have to do it soon. I'd lost count of how many times he'd fired--later I'd learn it was four--but as I dodged his latest I rolled completely over, gathering my legs beneath me with my knees bent and my feet braced against the wall; and then, before the torch could recharge--and before I could talk myself out of it--I launched myself at him with all the strength I could muster.
I nearly pulled it off. The distance between us was less than two meters, and his next shot would have drilled me regardless; but--as I'd hoped--the sight of an enraged carnivore hurtling toward him, teeth and claws bared, rattled him. He fired reflexively, perhaps prematurely, and his shot went wild--almost.
The beam touched my right side, along my ribs below my outstretched arm, and there came a flash of flame and sparks from my shirt, jacket and fur. A paralyzing wave of pain shot through me, and I knew I'd been hit; but by then it was too late. My body crashed into Mayer, my arms--bent at the elbow--striking him full in the abdomen. He outweighed me--but I had momentum on my side. He was thrown backwards, the torch spinning out of his grasp; and I heard the solid crack as the back of his head struck a display case. It was the glass that had fractured, not Mayer's skull--but nonetheless he went limp and slumped to the floor.
By that time I was already rolling clear, curling myself into a ball as I tried, without success, to smother the agony in my side. My head was filled with the acrid odors of scorched fabric and fur. Finally then--just a little late--I heard the sound of running feet, and two black-suited Security officers dashed in, their stingers leveled. One of them, the larger, was yelling into a commpak: "We've found it, Control! We've got two people down--one CF and one…" he trailed off.
I levered myself up onto my elbow. "Sah'aaran," I supplied. "One injured Sah'aaran."
The other guard put away his weapon and knelt down next to me. Gently but firmly, he pried my right arm away from my side. "Looks like some kind of burn," he told his fellow. "And pretty bad. We'll need medics down here."
The officer with the commpak relayed this, then stepped over to join us. "The other one is Lieutenant Mayer from the mass-driver team," he said. "He's out cold--looks like he hit his head on the case." Then, to me, "Who are you?"
"Abrams," I ground out. "Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams. My security clearance is on my jacket." Underneath me now, unfortunately.
The smaller man didn't go searching. "What happened here, son?" he asked.
"Mayer…attacked me. With a laser torch."
"And you managed to disarm him?" I heard the disbelief in his voice, and I struggled to push myself upright.
"He was a bad shot," I said. It sounded lame even to me, but I didn't have enough breath for the full story.
"Uh-huh," the larger guard said skeptically, exchanging a glance with his partner. Before I could say another word, though, there again came the sound of feet, and both men looked up quickly. "Here they come," the larger one said. "Take it easy; we'll sort this out after the docs patch you up."
At that point, "taking it easy" was my only option: the reaction had set in, shock and pain overwhelming my lingering adrenaline rush--and before the medics even arrived, I passed out.
Dad's face was white--literally snow white, a paler shade than I believed possible from human flesh--when he barged into the tiny examination room, a desperate young guard clinging to his arm.
The doctor--whose name I hadn't quite caught--was a female Centaurii, tall, avocado-scaled and green-feathered, as are they all. Fortunately her long bony fingers were gentle. She glanced up in irritation at the interruption.
"Sorry, Doc," the guard panted. "Couldn't keep him out. Says he's your patient's father…"
They looked at me for confirmation, and had I been feeling humorous I might have said something like "I've never seen him before in my life." But needless to say, I wasn't, and so I simply nodded. "He is."
I'd come to about ten minutes ago, somewhere in the depths of the Administration Building's medical center, to find myself stripped of everything but my collar, lying atop a hard, cold table, with a complete stranger carefully cleaning the charred fur away from the long, oozing burn that angled obliquely along my right-hand ribs. She'd sprayed on a local anesthetic, or so I assumed: temporarily at least, I was feeling no pain. When I'd craned my neck for a closer look at the damage she'd pushed my head firmly back down, and so I'd given up trying, contenting myself with my clear view of the coat-rack, on which hung my clothes. My trousers seemed to be okay, but my shirt and jacket were both a total loss, fused together into a charred lump along their right sides. They hadn't been cheap, and I wondered what Mom would say; but then I shook my head. Forget the jacket, I told myself. That could have been your ribs.
Dad shook himself free of the guard's grasp, and crossed the room quickly to clutch my left hand. "That is all right, Ensign," the doctor said, a trace of amusement in her flat translated voice. "Obviously they do know each other."
The guard gave Dad a piercing look, and then left, closing the door behind him. Dad gazed down at me anxiously. "Tom--?"
I attempted a reassuring smile. "I'm all right, Dad," I said. "Just a little singed."
He glanced at the doctor, and she nodded. "He will be fine, Mr.--Abrams, is it? He did receive a rather nasty laser burn, but it is only skin-deep. His clothing and fur protected him from the worst. Once I have finished cleaning the wound, I will apply dermapatches; it should be fully healed within a few days."
"Thank God," Dad said, with feeling. There was a rolling stool beside the table, and he collapsed onto it, still clutching my hand. He fixed me with his gaze, half-relieved and half-stern. "What happened, son? They told me some crazy story--that you'd been shot by Albert Mayer."
I closed my eyes; trying to focus on his face was making me dizzy. "It's crazy, all right," I agreed. "But it's true." Quietly then, I told him my story. While I spoke the doctor continued to work, denuding a wide area along my ribcage, and applying a cool, soothing layer of dermapatch. It would be weeks before the fur grew back; but considering the alternative…
"You did what?" Dad exploded, when I had nearly finished.
"I rushed him," I repeated. I tried to shrug, and was firmly restrained by the doctor. "I couldn't keep dodging forever," I went on. "His hands were shaking--that's why he kept missing--and he looked even more scared than I was. But he would have gotten lucky eventually. I had to gamble that I'd surprise him, and that I was faster than him. I was almost right."
Dad shook his head. "I don't know whether that was incredibly brave or incredibly stupid," he said. He squeezed my hand. "A little of both, I guess. I'll settle for being glad you're still alive."
"Me too." I paused then, and swallowed. "Dad, are they going to believe me?" I asked anxiously. "The guards who responded to the alarm seemed to think I'd attacked him."
"They will," he assured me. "I'm sure there was a security camera in that gallery. The playback will show what really happened."
"I guess you're right," I said, relieved. I'd had a picture of going straight from the medical center to a security cell. "That leaves only one question," I went on, "What did happen? Why in the Goddess' name would Mayer shoot at me?"
Dad hesitated. "I…have some ideas about that," he said. He leaned close, and whispered into my ear: "That ship."
Before I could ask him what he meant, the doctor interrupted. "I am finished here," she announced. "And I need not tell you, young man, how fortunate you are."
I shook my head. "No. You don't." With Dad's help, I managed to sit up. There wasn't a single body of water on Centaurus Minor--never has been--so I guess it's unlikely the room itself was actually rocking like a small ship on a stormy sea. I flexed my right arm, and nodded in approval. The smooth white coating of dermapatch followed the curve of my ribs, almost twenty centimeters long and ten wide, entirely concealing the wound; in a few days, when it had done its work, it would evaporate.
"The area will doubtless be sore for some time," the doctor went on; a typical Centaurii understatement, I suspected. "The wound should give you no further trouble, however. And the fur should grow back cleanly as well." She tilted her head. "Eventually."
"Thanks, Doctor," I said, and I was rewarded with a bob of her crested head and a twinkle in her dark eyes.
"You are quite welcome." She glanced at Dad. "I would suggest, Mr. Abrams," she went on, "that you remain here for now. I have a feeling Admiral Teeheek will wish to speak to you both."
"I have a feeling you're right," Dad agreed--and the tone in his voice told me he was looking forward to the interview; that this admiral, whoever he was, had some very hard questions to answer. I might even ask a few myself.
Dad reached for my clothes, but checked himself when he caught sight of my shirt and jacket. "Uh, Doc--?" he began, and she nodded her understanding.
"I shall see what I can find."
Admiral Teeheek did indeed want to speak to us--but I don't imagine that feeling lasted very long.
She (yes, she: with Centaurii names it's impossible to tell in advance, and pardon me for being surprised) was the commanding officer not only of the Fabrication Center, but of the Shipyard as well. A position of enormous responsibility; and the attitude of barely-disguised, world-weary hostility with which she greeted us as we entered her office was a reflection perhaps of the many demands that job placed upon her. Or maybe it was simply the result of age: she was, I found out later, nearly two hundred and twenty years old. Her tabard uniform was Navy green and immaculate, but her feathers and crest seemed somewhat shabby and faded, and her scales had darkened almost to black. Her eyes were still bright, though, and they skewered me far more effectively than Mayer had.
I was able to walk, but just barely; not because my legs had been damaged--they hadn't--but because the world wouldn't stop rocking back and forth. I made it to the top floor hanging onto my father's arm, and when Security escorted us into the office--curiously bare, but with a spectacular view through its large bank of windows--he lowered me carefully into a chair on the other side of the admiral's desk. My ruined shirt and jacket--impounded for evidence--had been replaced by a green scrub-shirt, a loose short-sleeved garment with the words "Property of CF Medical" stenciled on the back. Before they took away my jacket I'd made very sure to retrieve my clearance badge, and clipped it to the front of the scrub.
"Is this really necessary, Admiral?" were Dad's first words as he seated himself, pulling his chair up close beside mine. "My son has been badly injured; he needs rest."
Teeheek glanced at me. "I appreciate his distress, Mr. Abrams," she said. Her translator, for some reason, had been tuned an octave lower than most; its slightly gravelly tones suited her. "But there are a number of questions which remain unanswered. We will be as brief as possible." She reached across to her terminal, and pressed a button. "Come in, please."
A door behind the admiral's desk opened, and a man entered. He was…burly, I guess the best word would be; short and thick-set, so much so that I wondered if he'd been raised on a high-G planet. His face was ruddy, and his hair close-cropped and blond. He wore a black jumpsuit with the stars of a full commander. He glanced at Dad, and his eyes narrowed, and Dad returned his scrutiny silently. Like a sudden chilly breeze, I could almost feel the instant and total antipathy that had sprung up between them. The man stepped to the right of Teeheek's chair, and remained standing there, as if at attention, throughout the discussion that followed.
"This is Charles Hammond, our Chief of Security," the admiral said. She turned to him. "Have you taken statements from the responding officers, Commander?"
He nodded curtly. "I have, Admiral." His tones, as I'd expected, were rough-edged and gruff, almost abrupt.
"And Lieutenant Mayer?"
Hammond frowned. "He has yet to regain consciousness, I'm afraid. He suffered a severe concussion when his head struck the display case." He glared at me accusingly, and I felt Dad bristle on my behalf. All I could do was look away. Thank the Goddess Mom isn't here, I thought. She'd already have had her claws into some tender part of Hammond's anatomy.
"Any final determination of what occurred will of course have to wait until Mr. Mayer has recovered," the admiral said. "However, this seems an opportune moment to take this young man's statement." Once again she speared me with her gaze. "Thomas, is it not? Perhaps Tom?"
"Tom, yes, Admiral," I agreed. I was a civilian; I didn't have to call her "ma'am." But it couldn't hurt to be polite--especially when she stood between me and the brig.
"I am very sorry that this occurred under my command, Tom," she said--a statement which could be interpreted several ways. Beside her Hammond stirred, but remained silent. "Now," Teeheek went on, "if you would, please tell us, in your own words, exactly what happened in the museum this morning. Before you begin let me caution you that you will be recorded, and you are making a legally-binding statement, so please speak carefully."
So once again I told my tale, much as I'd related it to Dad, but maybe just a little less dramatically, since I was speaking for the record. Teeheek's face remained inscrutable--I have no idea how to read Centaurii expressions, apart from the obvious--but Hammond's blunt features reflected a remarkable range of emotions: amazement, confusion, and (most alarmingly) disbelief.
When I had finished, the admiral nodded. "Thank you," she said. She glanced over her shoulder. "Do we have the security playback, Commander?"
"Yes, ma'am," Hammond said. He gestured at her desktop console. "With your permission--?"
She granted it, with a wave of her hand, and the commander swiveled the terminal so we could all see it. He touched keys, and the small screen lit and rippled.
The image wasn't great--the gallery had been dimly lit, after all--but it was adequate, if a little grainy. The camera, it seemed, was mounted at ceiling level, right above the door, and it had an ultra-wide-angle lens, taking in the entire room. In the lower right corner was the time-stamp, a line of digits showing the hour, minutes, seconds and tenths. 11:35 (rounding off); that seemed just about right. I'd been thinking about lunch even as I entered the Zelazny gallery. Hammond started the playback then, and the digits began to tick upwards.
For a few seconds the room remained empty. Then a figure with dark clothing and a bright orange mane entered. For some time he wandered back and forth, peering at displays, trying the dead Compcomm panel for size, staring intently at the hanging model. The light was just sufficient to make out his lazily-flicking tail. Then a second, larger figure entered, a brown-haired man in a beige jumpsuit. He crossed directly to the side wall, and gazed into a display case; he seemed to be cradling some small object in his arms. For perhaps thirty seconds he stood motionless…then he suddenly spun and raised his left arm. There was a flash…
The rest of what followed I couldn't watch, because it made me dizzy. I opened my eyes in time to see the orange-maned figure crash headlong into the uniformed one; then they both fell to the floor and lay still for a time. The recording ended, seconds later, with the arrival of a pair of black-garbed guards.
"May I ask a question, Admiral?" I said.
I pointed at the screen. In the bottom left corner, at the instant of the first laser burst, a red rectangle had begun to flash, and beside that had appeared a second series of numbers, counting up minutes and seconds. "What does that other time-stamp refer to?"
It was Hammond who answered. "When the first shot was fired, the automated sensors sounded a security alert. As it happens, it was the damage to the Zelazny model that set it off. Those numbers indicate the elapsed time from then until the first patrol arrived."
I shook my head in amazement. At the instant the guards rushed into the gallery, the second time-stamp had frozen at "00:24." Twenty-four seconds. At the time it seemed an hour at least.
"It appears young Mr. Abrams' recollection of events is essentially accurate," the admiral said. She cocked her head. "What we must discover, needless to say, is why: why one of our own personnel would do such a thing." She turned to me. "Did you know Lieutenant Mayer, Tom?"
"I was introduced to him," I said. "That's all. Yesterday, in the Officer's Mess." I glanced at Dad for assistance, and he explained:
"Mayer spoke to my son and me while we were having a late lunch. I did know him previously; we once worked together. Twenty-five years ago I was the Techspec crew chief aboard a Survey vessel named Raven…"
"You were in the Combined Forces?" Hammond blurted in surprise.
"Yes," Dad said. "I had a commission as a lieutenant commander. As I was saying, Mr. Mayer served under me as a Techspec trainee and a landing-pod pilot. He recognized me and stopped to say hello. He seemed friendly enough; glad to see me, in fact. And yes, I did introduce him to my son."
Hammond made a dismissive, slashing gesture. "That is meaningless, Admiral," he said. "We're wasting our time investigating our own people. What we should be asking is what this boy--" he stabbed a thick finger at me-- "is doing in a high-security installation."
"He is my assistant," Dad said. "Duly registered."
"A seventeen-year-old child?" Hammond said in disbelief. "I find that extremely suspicious. And need I point out the obvious fact that this so-called father and son are not even the same species? There is more to this than meets the eye, Admiral. Perhaps Mayer knew that too; perhaps he discovered something…"
At that point Mom would have been going berserk. Dad's anger was no less--but he'd always been able to channel it more productively. In quiet, icy tones, he said, "Excuse me, Commander. Are you suggesting Mayer shot my son because he suspected Tom of some sort of security violation?"
Hammond thrust out his substantial jaw. "It is a possibility we must pursue," he said, speaking not to Dad, but to the admiral.
Dad addressed himself to Teeheek as well. "Admiral, I won't comment on Commander Hammond's speculations regarding my family, except to say that Tom is my son; the fact that it is by adoption makes it no less a fact. As for his suggestion--it is utterly ludicrous. The commander already knows it's ludicrous."
Teeheek leaned back, crossing her arms over her keel-bone. "Tell me why," she suggested.
Dad ticked the points off on his palm. "Mayer has nothing to do with security; he loads freight into the mass driver. He used a laser torch, not a stinger; a device which, if used as a weapon could only kill, not incapacitate. My son and I arrived just yesterday; we'd scarcely have had much time for mischief. And my son was attacked in an area that is open to the general public. He was doing absolutely nothing wrong."
"Commander?" Admiral Teeheek prompted mildly.
The Security man turned away, "Mr. Abrams raises valid points," he admitted reluctantly. He glared at Dad. "But does he have any better explanation for Mayer's behavior?"
"It's scarcely my job to come up with one," Dad said with a grim smile. "But as it happens, yes, I think I do. I believe his actions are related to what I mentioned just now--our service together aboard Raven."
Teeheek's eyes narrowed. "Please go on."
Dad took a deep breath. To the others, it may have seemed that he was simply gathering his thoughts--but I knew better. This was something he didn't like to talk--or even think--about. Mom felt much the same. They'd discussed it with my sister and me only because they thought it important that we know. When finally Dad had found the strength to speak dispassionately, he went on, "You may be aware that my wife is a Survey officer: Commodore Ehm'ayla. Twenty-five years ago she and I became involved--very much against our will--in what has since been called the Antilles scandal."
Teeheek nodded knowingly; but Hammond looked blank. "I'm not familiar with that," he said.
Dad smiled thinly. "I'm not surprised; it was hardly the CF's finest hour. Mark Antilles was the commander of SV Raven. It was a small vessel, a converted Patrol cutter, barely space-worthy. We were on a mission to explore and map the Benideel sector. I understand it's a bustling region now; back then it was empty except for a half-built space station.
"Antilles was a racist," Dad went on bluntly. "He firmly believed in the superiority of Terrans over every other species. He'd managed to assemble an all-human crew, contrary to regulations, and he tried very hard to sell us his unique view of anthropology. His most powerful allies were his first officer and head of security.
"Antilles had an agenda, above and beyond the mission the Admirals gave him: he was determined to locate the mythical species known as the Watchers--which, he believed, would validate his theories. He was deadly serious about it, too: when his Anthro-Paleo Scispec threatened to expose his scheme, Antilles had the poor bastard killed."
I'd heard all this before, of course; and so, evidently, had Admiral Teeheek. But it seemed very new to Hammond, and he listened with growing astonishment. Finally, almost against his will, he said, "What happened?"
"It fell apart," Dad said. "Inevitably--but not before a great deal of damage was done. Antilles and several of his officers were convicted of murder and other crimes, and were sent to a penal colony for life. What has happened to them since, I don't know--though about ten years ago I did hear a rumor that Antilles had died in prison. Needless to say, I didn't expend a lot of energy trying to find out whether or not it was true.
"There were a number of casualties," he went on wearily. "My career was one. My wife--at the time she was simply my good friend--was another. Antilles hated her for what she was, and ordered his crew to brutalize her."
"You are saying Mr. Mayer was involved?" Admiral Teeheek asked.
Dad shook his head. "No," he said. "I think it's a little more complicated than that. As a matter of fact he wasn't part of Antilles' cadre. Most of the crew wasn't; we were simply too intimidated to resist."
"Then I fear I do not grasp your point," the admiral said.
Dad went on, "After the scandal broke, Raven's crew was scattered, reassigned as far apart from each other as they could get. Some of the senior officers--myself included--were court-martialed, but were allowed to remain in the service. I chose not to; but that's another story. The junior officers and the rank-and-file were simply sent to other ships, where they could hopefully get on with their careers.
"But you know how gossip spreads in the Combined Forces, Admiral. Wherever Mayer went, the news would have preceded him: where he'd been, what had happened to him. That alone would have been enough to stigmatize him. And then there's his psych report. All of us who were aboard Raven were red-flagged; that is, our files contained a notation that we should be closely watched for signs of aberrant behavior. You can't tell me Mayer wouldn't have realized that.
"When I knew Albert Mayer all those years ago, he was a fine young officer, and I had him pegged for promotion. But what I saw yesterday was a dead-ended, beaten-down ruin of a man, promoted just once in twenty-five years. I have to believe it's related somehow to what happened aboard Raven--unless someone can tell me otherwise."
"You may be correct," the admiral said. "Until I have spoken to the psychologists, and examined Mr. Mayer's records, I cannot say. But if so--why then did he attack your son, not you?"
Dad laid his hand on my shoulder. "The Raven scandal ended soon after Ehm'ayla came aboard, as a replacement Anthro-Paleo. She was the catalyst that caused Antilles' downfall--that's common knowledge. Some of the crew had felt--mistakenly--that if they kept quiet, kept doing their jobs, they could come through the experience with their careers unstained. Ehm'ayla made that impossible. Mayer knows that she's my wife, and surely he made the obvious inference: that she's Tom's mother. If Mayer did blame her for his ruined life, he may have seen my son as a surrogate: hurt him to hurt her. Or it may have been simple opportunity: Tom went for a walk, alone, in a public area, while I was surrounded by many people--including Security."
The admiral and the commander exchange a glance. Then Hammond said slowly, "I assume these are matters of record…"
"They are," Dad assured him. "Though you might need to apply to the Admiralty for permission to view those records. I believe the affair might well have been classified. As I said, it was an embarrassment."
"--And of course we must treat this as sheer speculation," the admiral broke in, "until we hear what Mr. Mayer has to say for himself. Pending that, I see no reason to prolong this discussion."
Dad glanced at me. "I tend to agree," he said.
"I must, however, request that you both remain on Centaurus Minor until our investigation is complete."
Dad nodded. "That fits our plans."
The admiral cocked her head to the side, in place of a smile. "Unless I miss my guess," she said, "you want answers every bit as much as I do. My staff and I will do our best to supply them. And in the meantime, I see no reason why you should not continue the work which brought you here."
Dad nodded as he helped me to my feet. "We'll keep ourselves busy, Admiral," he promised. And we would, too, if I knew my father--but whether any of it would involve engineering was another question entirely.
I was a little steadier on my feet as we took the elevator down to our quarters, and I no longer had to hang onto Dad's arm; but nevertheless he hovered anxiously at my side, ready to catch me if I stumbled. The shock was beginning to wear off, and with it some of the dizziness; and as my head cleared I gradually became aware that I was ravenously hungry. Hearing that, my sister would have nodded knowingly: she believed--and not without reason--that I was always hungry.
The time was only fifteen hundred (and that astounded me: more than three hours had passed since this whole thing started. It felt like mere minutes.) Far too early for bed, of course--but by the time we reached our quarters I really, really needed to lie down. Dad helped me out of my trousers and into a more comfortable pair of sweatpants, soft and loose-fitting; and as for a shirt, that borrowed scrub was as comfortable as anything else I'd brought with me. Dad ordered food; and because our autokitchen slot had only a limited menu, he called for our lunch to be brought to us from the Officer's Mess, brazenly dropping Admiral Teeheek's name in the process.
As I ate, sitting up in bed with the tray balanced on my knees (and yes, a large salmon steak and a liter of milk did make me feel much better) Dad sat at the round table, facing away from me, punching at his palm-reader as he picked disinterestedly at a plateful of chicken salad. He had been very silent since we left the admiral's office, and as I gazed at the back of his head I wondered why. It was almost as if…
"Dad?" I ventured finally. "I'm really sorry I pulled you away from your meetings…"
The meekness in my tone caused him to turn quickly, and he smiled. "Offhand, I'd say it wasn't your fault."
"I guess not," I said. I paused. "Dad, you aren't…mad at me, are you?"
"No," he said quickly, He rose and perched himself on the edge of my bed, and as he spoke he patted my knee reassuringly. "No, Tom, I'm not angry with you. If anything, I'm mad at myself for putting you in danger."
"Not your fault either," I said. "Neither of us could have known…"
"You're right, of course," he replied. He paused for a moment, gazing at the perpetual night, then said, "Tom, only a few times in my life have I been utterly, viscerally terrified." He smiled thinly. "The first was almost thirty years ago, when a faulty readout convinced me that I, and the Centaurus Shipyard, were about to be vaporized by a fusion explosion." His smile fell. "The second was when Sah'rajj had his arm around your sister's throat. And then there was this morning, when Security came looking for me. If I seem a bit out of sorts, it's mainly because I'm getting a little old for that sort of thing. All right?"
I grasped his hand. "All right," I said. I paused. "So--what happens now?"
"Well, by morning, if not earlier, Mayer will wake up, and Hammond will question him. God only knows what he'll have to say. After that--most likely--there'll be a court-martial. Whether we'll be invited to that event depends on circumstances. Whatever happens, I imagine Mayer's days in the CF are over. Probably his days as a free man as well."
I shook my head. That was by far the worst part of the situation: that it made no sense at all. Was Dad right? Had Mayer brooded over his damaged career so long that he'd finally snapped? Had he blamed Mom? Was she indeed the intended victim, with me as proxy? And--most importantly, perhaps--how in the Goddess' name had he expected to get away with it? Or had that even mattered? If he'd decided he had no future…
"I'll tell you this," Dad went on. "I'm not leaving here until we know the truth. I've been stonewalled by the Combined Forces before, but not this time. Even if I have to dig for the facts myself."
I grinned. Joel Abrams, Boy Detective. "Can I help?"
He smiled and squeezed my knee. "Certainly," he said. "One thing for sure: I'm not letting you out of my sight again."