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
I had a really bad night.
My father and I spent the rest of that day in seclusion, not venturing out of our quarters. In theory, Dad could have attended the late-afternoon tech briefings--but he did not. I don't think it would have occurred to him to do so, actually. Nor was it necessary: everything we'd seen that morning--all those "artist's concepts" and thumbnail sketches, plus the more substantive stuff from the focus groups--was available on the central computer, and with very little persuasion, Dad was able to convince me to help him review it. In that way the afternoon and evening passed quickly and pleasantly, and I had no time to dwell on the day's experiences. If I remained still (and tried not to laugh) I could almost ignore the ache in my side.
The problems began when we finally went to bed. Generally speaking, sleeping is one of my areas of expertise; I'd rarely suffered anything like insomnia. I'd even managed to sleep well in the Undercity, except when I'd lain awake pretending not to hear my sister crying her eyes out. But that's another story.
To begin with, I couldn't get comfortable. Sah'aarans like to curl into a ball when we sleep, and because of that we prefer a very soft bed. Long ago Mom and Dad invested in an adjustable mattress: plank-firm on one side, for the sake of Dad's bad back, and marshmallow-spongy on the other. (Dad called the transition in the center "No-Man's Land.") Compared to my bed at home, what I lay on that night was the pallet of a particularly flesh-mortifying monk. The previous night had been bad enough, and when you added my injury…curling up on either side didn't work, nor did stretching out flat on my stomach or my back. Around midnight I found myself silently cursing my father, as he lay snoring softly, oblivious to my torment.
And then there were the memories. Dad had worked hard to distract me earlier, and for the most part he'd succeeded--but now, surrounded by darkness and silence, the morning's happenings came rushing back. It wasn't the first time I'd been in deadly danger--but it was definitely the first time anyone had deliberately, cold-bloodedly set out to kill me. The scene replayed itself in my mind's eye, over and over, as I lay tossing and turning. The bright flash as the Zelazny model exploded into sparks…the look of wide-eyed terror on Mayer's pale face…jumping and dodging…and finally the burst of flame and shock of pain as the beam touched my side. Once or twice I almost drifted off, only to come wide awake, gasping for breath, my claws digging into the pillows.
At just past one a.m. I gave up. Moving as silently as I could (which is very), I pulled myself painfully from my bed for a brief discussion with the computer. It took a bit of persuasion--I was, after all, still a minor--but eventually, using an access code I probably wasn't supposed to have, I talked the autokitchen slot into delivering a mild sleeping aid, combined with a pain-killer.
The drug took the edge off the ache, and put me to sleep--but it did nothing for the memories, except to drive them underground. Nightmares are something else that had seldom troubled me--not since I was five years old, anyway--but that night I had a doozy. Or maybe several: they more or less blurred together, into a single, prolonged Grand Guignol performance. Several times Mayer opened fire, but not at me. Instead, he shot at Dad, or Mom, or Ehm'rael, while I--as is typical in those sorts of dreams--stood by, unable to move or make a sound. In the last, and worst, iteration, Mayer fired his laser at Ehm'tassaa, while simultaneously Sah'rajj clawed my sister and a satanic version of Dr. Sah'larrah dragged my mother into a dark hole by her mane. When six a.m. rolled around and Dad woke me, I felt more exhausted than when I'd gone to bed.
Stiff and sore, I slipped into my sweatpants and that scrub-shirt (maybe I wouldn't return it; call it a quid pro quo) and collapsed into a chair at the little round table. Dad handed me a cup of bad coffee, and he frowned as he saw me grasp it with both hands at once. That was the only way I could hold it steady. "Tough night?" he guessed.
"A little, yes," I admitted.
He patted my shoulder. "You should have woken me up," he said. "We could have gotten you something to help you sleep."
I didn't dare meet his gaze. "I'll--uh--keep that in mind."
He sat down across from me, peering closely at my puffy eyes and drooping whiskers. "Are you hungry?" he asked. He jerked a thumb at the autokitchen slot. "That thing has a pretty good breakfast menu…"
The thought of eating did perk me up--predictably. "Bacon and eggs?"
He smiled. "Coming up."
Food and coffee did help--a little, anyway. As we ate Dad said, "I hate to mention it, son, but I really should attend the morning meetings. Are you up to it?"
I thought about that, while I shoveled down the protein. "I think so," I said finally. "I'd like to try, anyway. It's got to be better than sitting and thinking--if you see what I mean."
He nodded soberly. "I do indeed," he said. He glanced at his chrono. "We'd better be getting ready, then."
I shook my head, and pointed at my empty plate. "Not until I've had another round."
After breakfast I took an ultrasonic shower, knowing that the dermapatch would protect my side; and afterwards, I stood for a long time before the mirror, examining the damage Mayer had done to my poor body.
Unfortunately--or fortunately--there wasn't much to see: that smooth, snow-white coating entirely concealed the wound, extending from about four centimeters below my armpit to about five centimeters above my hip. Around its edges the fur was somewhat tufted--the shower had removed a number of singed hairs--but what lay beneath I could only imagine. The burn was still plenty sore, though, especially to the touch, or with an overly-rapid motion of my arm. That too would pass, eventually.
As the physician who patched me up said, I was very, very lucky. Lucky that I'd been wearing a jacket, which had absorbed a good part of the bolt's energy; and lucky too that Mayer's aim was so poor. Any closer and I would have been in the hospital, with the doctors discussing skin grafts--and maybe even bone prosthesis for my barbecued ribs. And closer still…but that didn't bear thinking about.
Dad was waiting for me outside the bathroom, with an impatient look on his face and my clothes--shirt, trousers and collar--draped over his arm. "I just got a call from Admiral Teeheek," he told me. "We're needed in her office right away. Mayer is conscious--and he's talking."
We found the admiral alone, seated behind her desk as if she hadn't moved from that spot since we'd seen her last. This time, however, she had refreshments waiting: fruit juice for herself, and coffee for Dad and me. And pretty good, too, which was curious, because most Centaurii--like most Sah'aarans--won't touch the stuff.
"Thank you for coming so quickly," she said. She glanced at me, her head tilted to the right. "I trust you are feeling better this morning, Tom?"
I hesitated--then decided to answer the question on its merits. "Yes, I am, Admiral. Thank you."
"You said Lieutenant Mayer has regained consciousness, Admiral?" Dad asked.
She nodded. "Yes," she confirmed. "Approximately an hour ago, but the doctors would not allow him to be questioned until they had run some additional tests. Commander Hammond will signal us when he is ready to begin."
"Are we…going to the medical center?" I asked. For a variety of reasons I was reluctant to do that. For one thing, I wasn't exactly anxious to occupy the same room as the man who had tried to kill me.
Teeheek shook her head. "No," she said. She swiveled her terminal to face us. "We will watch from here." Even as she spoke there came a soft buzz from beneath her hand, and she nodded. "It appears he is ready."
She touched keys, and the screen lit. Half-unconsciously I leaned forward; and beside me, my father did too. A second later we found ourselves peering down into a small, well-lit, white-walled hospital room. Upon the bed, almost invisible behind a mass of medical equipment, lay Lieutenant j.g. Albert Mayer. He wore a disposable green gown, and he was covered to the waist with a shiny blue coverlet. His hands lay folded in his lap. He looked…haggard, I guess I'd say, his hair disheveled and his eyes--squinting again, now--full of pain. Whether his distress was physical or existential, I didn't know.
On the far side of the bed, in profile to us, Commander Hammond sat atop a rolling stool, a palm-reader in his hands. He cleared his throat and began to speak, formally, obviously aware that he had an audience. "Lieutenant Mayer, do you know who I am?"
"Yes," Mayer said softly. His tone was expressionless, hopeless, as if nothing much mattered to him now. "You're Commander Hammond of Security."
"And do you know where you are?"
"In the medical center."
Having thus established that his interviewee was lucid, Hammond jotted a few notes on his palm-reader, then went on, "How did you come to be here, Lieutenant?"
"I hit my head," Mayer said.
"Yesterday morning, in the museum. The boy leaped at me, and knocked me over backwards, and I hit my head on a display case."
Dad and I exchanged a glance, but before either of us could say a word, Hammond went on, "What 'boy' was that?"
"The Sah'aaran. Joel Abrams' son. Tom, I think his name is."
Hammond seemed nonplused, if not actually disappointed: evidently he hadn't expected it to be this easy. Nor did I--though to be honest, I'm not sure what I expected. "And why did he do that, Lieutenant? Why did he knock you into the case?"
Mayer smiled, a horrible humorless rictus. "I suppose because I was trying to kill him."
I gasped, as if punched in the stomach. Hammond sounded shaken as he said, "You admit you tried to kill Tom Abrams?"
"And why did you do that?"
Mayer paused, glancing from side to side; then he lifted his head and spoke softly, privately. "He told me to."
"Him. Captain Antilles."
Beside me Dad flinched violently. Commander Hammond leaned back, his palm-reader--and the list of pre-arranged questions written thereon--entirely forgotten. "Can you explain that a bit more clearly, Mr. Mayer?"
The older man shook his head mournfully. "I didn't want to do it," he said. "But he ordered me to."
"When--uh--when did you receive this…order?"
"Two nights ago," Mayer said. "I got off duty at about midnight, and I went to my quarters. He was there. He's always there, these days. That's when he told me. He knew I'd met Commander--uh--Mr. Abrams in the mess hall that afternoon; and that the boy's mother is Lieutenant--er--Commodore Ehm'ayla. And he told me the boy had to die. I didn't want to do it…"
"Did Captain Antilles tell you why Tom had to die?"
Mayer shook his head. "No."
"You didn't ask?"
Ever so slightly, Mayer had begun to tremble; and he clasped his hands together hard enough to whiten the knuckles. "No, I didn't. Of course not."
Mayer's expression was one of astonishment. "He's my captain," he said. "You don't question your C.O.--you obey him. That's the CF, isn't it? I had to obey." His eyes fell. "I…didn't do a very good job. I was scared; I'd never killed anyone before. Never. I couldn't stop my hands from shaking. And I've never been a very good marksman…"
Thank the Goddess for small favors, I thought. "Dad--" I began, but he motioned me to silence; Hammond was speaking again. He must have decided he'd milked delusion as far as it would go; now he was trying reality. "Lieutenant, you know of course that Captain Antilles has been dead for ten years? And that he spent the last fifteen years of his life in prison?"
Once again, I have no idea what I expected. An outburst, maybe; a tirade? Would Mayer clutch his temples and scream, as in so many bad 20th-Century movies? But his reaction was considerably less dramatic: nothing more than a simple frown and shake of his head. "You must be mistaken, Commander," he said quietly. Then he turned over, burying his face in the pillows, and said nothing more.
It was a visibly shaken Admiral Teeheek who switched off the screen. She hissed softly, an untranslated sound which was, I suppose, equivalent to a nervous throat-clearing. "It appears we have our answer," she said. "However much we might wish it otherwise." She turned to me. "Tom, I must apologize for Commander Hammond's behavior yesterday. Clearly his suspicions were unfounded. It is sometimes difficult to accept that Combined Forces officers are as fallible as anyone…"
"That's all right, Admiral," I assured her--though "fallible" was hardly the term I would have chosen. "Nutty as a cheese log" might come closer. It was a relief to know, though, that I hadn't been the victim of some deep-seated conspiracy or mysterious anti-Sah'aaran cabal; just one poor screwed-up wreck who heard voices.
…When I glanced at my father, though, I was surprised to see a pensive frown on his face. It was a look I'd seen many times before; simply put, it meant that something wasn't adding up, and he was trying to decide what.
"Mr. Abrams?" the admiral said in concern, and Dad shook himself.
"Admiral," he said quietly, "would it be possible for me to see Mr. Mayer's psychological report?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Why?" she asked simply.
"What we've just seen has left me with some questions," Dad told her. "I think I could find the answers there."
Teeheek shook her head. "I am sorry, Mr. Abrams, but I cannot allow that. Lieutenant Mayer is obviously a deeply troubled individual, but he still deserves a measure of privacy."
"Of course," Dad said. He smiled, and suddenly his manner became brisk and breezy--for me, suspiciously so. He slapped the arms of his chair, and rose. "Well, thank you very much for an interesting morning, Admiral. It's a great relief to know that it's all over, and Mayer will get the care he needs." He laid his hand on my shoulder. "Shall we go, Tom? If we hurry, we can still make that design meeting."
We departed; but out in the corridor I grasped Dad's arm, bringing him to a halt. "What in the world was that all about?" I asked.
Dad put a finger to his lips, and--though the corridor was deserted--drew me into an alcove, a small space with two chairs, a strange, scarlet-leafed potted plant, and a high, narrow window. "I know how much you want this to be over and done with," he said. "So do I. But I'm afraid it's not quite that easy. Something doesn't feel right; something about Mayer's confession didn't make sense to me."
He shook his head. "I don't know yet. Call it a hunch; a gut feeling. But I'm going to find out." He clapped me on the shoulder. "Come on," he said. "Back to our quarters. We're going to get a look at that psych file, one way or another."
"What about the tech briefings?" I asked, as I hurried after him.
He grinned over his shoulder. "Screw the tech briefings."
"On a certain level," Dad said thoughtfully, "I suppose I'm contributing to the delinquency of a minor." He smiled. "But on the other hand, I don't imagine I'm teaching you anything you don't already know."
I cleared my throat hurriedly. As it happened, he was right: the art of the computer hacker was by no means unknown to me, or to my sister either. In part, that's how we'd uncovered the truth of our paternity--but that's another story too.
We'd returned to our quarters directly from the admiral's office, and as soon as we arrived Dad sat down at the computer terminal, frowning at the screen and tapping the keys with grim determination. I watched--but I was far too dazed to really understand what he was doing. The chilling memory of Mayer's calm confession kept running through my mind, over and over. And why had he done it? Because a man he hadn't seen in a quarter of a century had ordered him to--a man ten years dead. He was a walking time bomb, I realized grimly. It's a wonder he hasn't killed someone before.
"Ah," Dad said finally, bringing me back to reality with a jerk. "Here we are!" I leaned across to peer over his shoulder, and he pointed at the screen. "Have a look at this."
What I saw was a personnel file: every last detail of the career of one Albert Mayer, from the moment he entered the Officer's Academy to the present day. Or almost: his current difficulties hadn't yet been logged. "Mom's access codes?" I guessed, and Dad nodded.
"She'll kill me if she finds out," he said. He reached over to pat my side. "Or maybe not. Let's take a look here…"
Quickly he scrolled downwards, pausing at times to take note of details. Mayer's Academy records, for one: his exceptionally high marks, and the commendations he'd received. And also the glowing reports Dad himself had entered. Taken together, they indicated a man with a brilliant future; reading only that far, anyone could be forgiven for predicting that he would make captain within ten years.
"His next posting after Raven was a Patrol outpost in an asteroid-mining colony in the Xerxes system," Dad mused. "Assistant to the Operations Chief." He shrugged. "Not terrible duty, as such things go; pressure-dome maintenance mostly. Nowhere near as glamorous as deep-space duty, but scarcely a dead end."
"So?" I prompted, and Dad grimaced.
"So," he went on, "that's where his troubles began." He pointed. "Take a look at the comments entered by his C.O. 'Unresponsive. 'Non-creative.' 'Adequate performance, but no initiative.' 'Non-promotable at this time.' And that wasn't just one person's opinion, either; others officers concurred."
He scrolled a little farther. "He served there for fifteen years--as an ensign. They tried him at everything--Compcomm, Techspec, Ops, records clerking…" he paused. "I stand corrected. They tried him at everything except anything to do with weaponry or defense." Another page or two, and Dad smiled grimly. "It seems they were getting a little desperate by then." He glanced back at me. "The Combined Forces wants to promote," he explained. "Especially from the lower levels. It's possible for someone to end their career as a commander--your mother would have been perfectly happy with that. But an ensign? That's unheard-of. When they finally promoted Mayer, they did so because they were ashamed not to--and, I'd guess, as a kind of shock treatment. They seemed to hope that the extra responsibility would wake him up, get him interested in life. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have worked. A few months later they transferred him here--he didn't request it--probably to get him out of their hair at Xerxes. He was an embarrassment, a blot on his C.O.'s record."
"So the change came just after Raven?" I asked.
"Apparently so," Dad agreed. "As I expected. Physically he seems healthy enough--though he did have some trouble with his vision a while back. Some kind of macular degeneration; the docs had to install some sort of implants on his optic nerves."
I nodded thoughtfully. "So that's why he squints all the time."
"No doubt," Dad said. "But that wouldn't stop him from being promoted. Let's see if I can find that psych file…"
A few moments later he nodded and leaned back. "The psychologists noticed the changes in him, of course--they could scarcely avoid it. And they were concerned. At first they blamed it on shock and dislocation, and predicted that he'd get over it in time. He didn't. He's been in counseling several times--ordered to, by various medical officers--but he was so uncommunicative that it got nowhere. Eventually the psychologists gave up. In fact that's a good epitaph for his career: everyone gave up on him, including himself."
If only the psychologists delved deeper, I thought. They might have discovered his growing delusional state. But I knew--from experience--that psychoanalysis can make no headway at all if the patient won't talk. I'd had a few sessions myself, and so had my sister, to help us cope with our Undercity experiences. Dad's idea. I never asked Rae what she told the psychiatrists; but as for me--well, it was absolutely typical, I suppose, that I started out all brave and stoic and silent. Typically male--and typically Sah'aaran too. But the doctor picked away at my resistance, and when finally I broke down and poured out all the pain I'd had bottled inside, all the anger and guilt, I felt much better. But of course there's a world of difference between my minor case of angst and Mayer's deep psychosis.
Dad tapped the screen, interrupting my flow of painful memories. "There's the red flag," he said. He shook his head. "Every medical officer who's been responsible for Mayer's health these last twenty-five years has been ordered to watch him. Good God, that's like telling them they had a certifiable lunatic in their midst."
And your point is--? I thought darkly. "Why did they flag Raven's crew?" I asked. "So they'd know how to react if they showed signs of post-traumatic stress?"
Dad smiled thinly. "I suppose that was part of their reasoning," he said. "Mostly, though, it was a case of the CF protecting themselves."
"The Admirals had quite a problem on their hands, after Antilles' plan collapsed," Dad explained. "Or at least they feared they might. They couldn't be absolutely sure who had and hadn't been affected. Antilles was incredibly charismatic, and like many people who seek to indoctrinate, he had a way of concealing his lies behind a mask of flattery and platitudes. The younger officers were especially at risk."
I nodded. "Because the Officer's Academy had pounded respect for authority into them."
"Exactly," Dad agreed. "So you see the Admiralty's problem. Reassigning Raven's crew separately, would virtually eliminate the risk of that particular cabal reforming--but it might also be like breaking up a clump of bacteria. They could be spreading the infection farther and wider. And because of that, everything Mayer said, all the friends he made, all the letters he received or wrote, all the publications he read…every aspect of his life was scrutinized for evidence that he still sympathized with Antilles--if indeed he ever had."
"Did he know that was happening?"
"He had to," Dad said. "Oh, I'm sure it was supposed to be confidential, just between Personnel and the medical officers involved. But these things have a way of getting out. I never knew an officer who didn't have a pretty good idea what his psych file said."
I quirked an eye. "Including you?" I asked wryly.
Dad didn't reply--not in so many words, anyway--but the look in his eye spoke volumes, and I backed off fast. "Uh--are there any notations in Mayer's file?" I asked. "Anything to suggest he did agree with Antilles?"
Dad scanned the file rapidly. "Apparently not," he said. "No overt racist sympathies." He paused. "Actually, Mayer doesn't seem to have much of a belief structure at all. Or if he does, it never enters into his conversations or his letters, or the books he reads. Or rather, doesn't read." He shook his head again. "According to this he's virtually non-existent. An automatic riveting machine would have a more interesting life."
An automatic riveting machine that takes orders from a dead man, I thought.
Dad leaned back, rubbing his eyes. "This isn't getting us anywhere," he said in disappointment.
"What were you looking for?"
He leaned back a little farther, straining the chair, and slipped his hands behind his head. "Something about Mayer's confession bothered me. History is full of people who committed crimes because they heard voices--'the devil made me do it.' But why should he be hearing Captain Antilles?"
"I don't understand."
"Well, you heard what I told Admiral Teeheek yesterday. To my knowledge, Mayer was never a part of Antilles' group. Antilles had very little use for junior officers or enlisted men--except as pawns. Oh, he'd preach his theories to them, via his first officer--but he didn't take them into his confidence. The only one I know of who did become part of Antilles' inner circle--more or less--was a trainee of mine--an idiot--named Osgood. Wally Osgood." He glanced at me. "And if you know what's good for you, son, you'll never mention that name in your mother's presence."
I nodded. "I know," I said softly.
"--And even he wasn't much more than an hanger-on. Antilles thought him a fool: he really hoped your mother would kill or maim him, that night when she lost her claws."
"Thank the Goddess she didn't," I observed.
"You're not kidding," Dad agreed. "But where was I? Oh yes--Mayer. As I was saying, of all the junior officers, Osgood was closest to Antilles, and even he was no more than a stooge. Mayer had no contact with Antilles at all, neither covert nor official; he worked for me, in the engine hull. So you tell me: why should he be receiving hallucinatory orders from a man who never gave him real ones?"
"Who knows what goes on in the mind of a madman?" I countered.
"Granted," Dad agreed. "It's not an area where logic applies." He waved a hand at the screen. "That's what I was looking for here. If he was that violently delusional, shouldn't someone have noticed? He wasn't reluctant to tell Hammond about his conversations with Antilles. If that had been going on for some time--and he indicated it had--surely it would have attracted someone's attention."
I took his point--but what was the alternative? Mayer had convinced Admiral Teeheek and Commander Hammond--and he'd convinced me too. Or had we all just wanted to believe? And of the four of us, only Dad could claim to really know Mayer. I said slowly, "Do you mean he was…faking?"
Dad smiled. "'It is a possibility we must investigate.'"
I thought about that--and my tail began to lash. "Goddess!" I said. "If he was lucid enough to fool Hammond…"
"Then that really opens a can of worms, doesn't it?" Dad said.
"So what now?" I asked. "Go see Admiral Teeheek?"
Dad spread his hands helplessly. "What with? My gut feeling that something isn't right? I doubt very much she'd be willing to listen. Mayer has confessed--and provided them with a plausible motive. I have a feeling both Teeheek and Hammond would rather wash their hands of the whole situation--and us too."
"So…I'd much rather have a private word with Mayer's psychologist. If we can find out who that is."
I nodded at the terminal. "The file doesn't say?"
"No. It hasn't been updated yet. I suppose it will be--eventually."
I peered at the screen, and frowned. The file hadn't told us much, true; but we'd had time for only the briefest glance, and there was quite a bit we'd skipped over. I might do well to download it and read more at my leisure. I looked around for my palm-reader… "Uh-oh."
I searched the room thoroughly before I replied, even to the point of checking all the drawers and my empty travel case. "I think I've lost my reader," I said finally, sheepishly.
"Well, where did you have it last?" Dad was used to my losing things, and he spoke with resigned patience.
I thought about that…and slapped my forehead. "Of course," I said. "It was in my jacket pocket!"
"Uh--left. I think."
"Then it might have survived. And since nobody has returned it, we can safely assume it didn't fall out during the fight. In which case it's probably still in the pocket, in the evidence room down in the Security offices."
"Do you think we could get it back?" I asked anxiously. "I mean, I know how much you and Mom paid for it, and it's got all my notes…"
Dad held up his hand, bringing me to a halt. "I think we can accomplish that." He paused, then went on thoughtfully. "And maybe one or two other things at the same time. Let's go find out, shall we?"
The officer on duty was a friend of mine, it seemed.
The Fabrication Center's Security department was located in a sub-basement of the Administration Building, an unguessable number of meters below the surface of Centaurus Minor. The main elevators wouldn't take us there, and before we were allowed to board the secured lift, we had to convince an extremely suspicious computer that we had a good reason to do so. As it happened, the fact that I had been the victim of a crime on the FC grounds was sufficient.
It was a long ride down, and as we exited the elevator I shivered, and my fingertips began to tingle. I share with my mother--and most other Sah'aarans--an extreme dislike for places that are cold, antiseptic and impersonal. Upstairs, there was at least an attempt at decoration--faux-wood paneling on the walls; carpeting; paintings, sculptures and holos; and of course the windows--but here there was nothing. The hallway that confronted us was narrow and grey, the lighting flat and shadowless, the walls unadorned. Even the floor was bare. In a way it was worse than the Undercity.
The lift opened into a kind of lobby, a narrow space lined on both sides with hard, uncomfortable-looking benches. Its far wall, some six meters distant, was pierced by two openings: on the left, a narrow, waist-high sliding window, which was open; and on the right a door, which was not. Behind the window, as at a counter, sat a Security officer, a human. His head was bent as we approached, so that at first we saw only a shock of curly, fiery-red hair. He heard our footsteps--well, Dad's, anyway--and glanced up, and the look of incipient annoyance in his blue eyes suddenly became a broad beaming smile. "Mr. Abrams!" he said, speaking not to Dad, but to me; and he stuck his right hand out the window to grasp mine. Bewildered, I allowed my paw to be vigorously shaken.
"Uh," I said, "I'm sorry, but…"
"Oh, of course," the man said. He looked to be about twenty-five or so, and had a pale face with a dusting of freckles across his nose, a strong chin, and very even, pearly teeth. His black uniform had the stars of a lieutenant. "You probably wouldn't remember me. I'm Stewart--Neil Stewart. My partner Tony and I were on duty in the museum yesterday--we're the ones who found you after you were attacked."
As he spoke he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. The space behind the window seemed to be an office of sorts, also painfully bare, containing a few small metal desks and not much else. At one of these sat a young, dark-haired man, also a lieutenant, taller and of sturdier build than Stewart. He glanced up and smiled. "Hiya," he said--and yes, his voice did sound familiar, as did Stewart's; but I remembered their faces not at all. Under the circumstances I think I can be forgiven.
"We were glad to hear you'd come through all right," Stewart went on. "That was a pretty nasty burn…"
"Thanks for responding so quickly," I said, and I fought to keep the irony out of my voice. Twenty-four seconds is pretty fast. I wondered if they'd ever before had a security alert in the museum; probably not.
Stewart glanced curiously at Dad, as if noticing him for the first time, and I did the honors. "This is my father, Joel Abrams."
If the usual question was running through Stewart's mind, he didn't give it a voice. He shook Dad's hand firmly. "Pleased to meet you, sir." He paused. "Now--what can I do for you?"
Dad cleared his throat. "We'd like to see Commander Hammond, please."
Stewart frowned. "I'm afraid he isn't available. Can I help?"
Dad glanced at me, and shrugged. "Maybe so," he told Stewart. "After the…incident… yesterday, my son's jacket and shirt were impounded. Tom thinks he may have left his palm-reader in a pocket. We'd like to know if we could retrieve it."
Stewart stood for a moment in thought, his eyes narrowed, gnawing his lower lip. Then he shrugged. "Can't see why not," he said. He glanced over his shoulder. "Tony, take over, will you please?" He pushed a button then, and the door to our right slid open. "Come on through," he said. "I'll take you to the evidence room."
We entered, Stewart led us across the office and through another door at its rear. Behind us the man named Tony rose from his desk and crossed to the counter, sparing Dad and me a quick, curious glance as he did.
The corridor Stewart ushered us into was long and absolutely featureless, except for the closed doors that lined it at regular intervals. As we walked, with two sets of footsteps echoing sharply from the metal walls, Stewart spoke over his shoulder. "Tom, I'd like to apologize for not believing you yesterday," he said. "When we arrived I honestly couldn't imagine how you'd managed to disarm Mayer. I also couldn't believe…" he trailed off, looking embarrassed.
"…That a CF officer would attack a civilian?" I finished dryly, and Stewart nodded.
"Exactly," he admitted. "Then Tony and I retrieved the recording from the surveillance camera." He shook his head. "All I can say is, if you ever want to join Security, you have our recommendation."
I exchanged an amused glance with Dad. "Thanks," I said. "I'll remember that."
We had come perhaps twenty meters by then, and we stopped before a wide, hatch-like portal. Stewart punched a series of digits into a keypad, and the door slid open. With a wave of his hand, our guide ushered us into a long, narrow, dimly-lit room, the walls lined floor to ceiling with gleaming wire shelves. They were about one quarter filled with slim white boxes, code numbers stenciled on their ends.
"Actually, we don't get a whole lot of crime around here," Stewart said distractedly, as he searched the shelves. "A little minor pilferage; a construction worker who has a few too many after his shift and gets into a fight--that sort of thing. As far as I know, we've never had an attempted murder before…ah!" He pulled a box from a shelf at eye-level, carried it to a fold-down shelf near the door, and lifted the lid. Inside was all the physical evidence in the case of the Combined Forces vs. Albert Mayer--which is to say, not a whole lot. A ruined shirt and jacket, impersonating a set of Siamese twins--and underneath, a standard-issue laser welding torch. We'd come for the former--but it was the latter that made me freeze in horror, my breath catching in my throat.
"Sorry about that," Stewart said. Quickly he lifted out the garments and replaced the lid, concealing the weapon, or tool--whichever you want to call it. "It's safe anyway," he went on. "The power cell's been removed."
"Do you know yet how Mayer got hold of it, Lieutenant?" Dad asked.
Stewart shook his head. "Not exactly," he said. "We know where it came from--a Maintenance Department tool room near his quarters. But you can't just waltz in and grab something; in theory at least, you're supposed to have to give the computer your ID--and have a valid reason for checking out the tool."
Dad nodded sagely. "To discourage that pilferage you just mentioned."
"Right," Stewart agreed. "And also because some of the tools could be dangerous in untrained hands. I suppose Mayer would have known how to use a laser torch--for its approved purpose, I mean--but I wouldn't. Never had to try." He paused. "Anyway, we're still trying to figure out how he managed to bypass the security system."
"He won't say?" Dad asked.
Stewart shook his head. "No. Since his confession, he hasn't said a word. Literally."
"Interesting," was Dad's only, enigmatic comment. He turned to me. "Is your palm-reader there, son?"
His words brought be back to reality with a jolt. So neatly had the jacket and shirt been folded--far better than I ever could, much to Mom's distress--that it was almost a shame to disturb them; but I did, shaking the fused garments out across the table. The left-hand pocket was mag-sealed, just as I'd left it, and my fingers immediately encountered a hard, rectangular lump inside. Good thing it had been in the that pocket: the other, I saw now, was half-melted.
Quickly I pulled the reader free and keyed it--and sighed in relief when the familiar "Password?" page flashed across the screen. "It still works," I said.
Dad and Stewart were both smiling at me, "indulgently" I guess would be the best word, and I felt my ears redden in embarrassment as I slipped the reader into my shirt pocket. "Thank you, Lieutenant," I said.
"Not a problem."
"Do we need to sign for it?" Dad asked. "Or are there any forms you need to fill out?"
Stewart waved a dismissive hand. "No," he said. "We're only interested in the clothes. And only because they establish what power setting Mayer was using, and the angle of the shot." He shook his head and sighed. "Not that it makes a lot of difference now, of course. Poor messed-up bastard."
"Did you know him?" Dad asked.
"Me? No," Stewart said. "I've never had anything to do with the mass driver."
Which was scarcely surprising. There had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of CF personnel in the Fabrication Center. The two of them would have had little reason to come into contact professionally. And as for socially…well, if Mayer was as reclusive as his file indicated, even those he worked with on a daily basis couldn't really claim to know him. "He was a strange one, though," Stewart went on thoughtfully. "I've never heard of a forty-five-year old j.g. before…"
"Neither have I," Dad said. Then, changing the subject smoothly, he went on, "What will happen to him now, do you think?"
"Well, of course there'll be a court-martial, but that's just a formality now. I mean, he did confess, didn't he? And clearly he's not mentally competent. After Doc Zriss has evaluated him…"
If my father had been Sah'aaran, his ears would have pricked up--as mine assuredly did. "Who's that, Lieutenant?" Dad asked innocently.
"Dr. Zriss," Stewart said. "She's with the Spaceflight Psychology Department…"
"The Psych Boys," Dad translated, and Stewart nodded, looking surprised. Apparently he hadn't been aware of Dad's CF past.
"That's right," he confirmed. "Anyway, she's probably the most qualified psychiatrist on Centaurus Minor. She'll evaluate him, and most likely she'll recommend that he be sent for treatment."
I shuddered. The treatment of mental disorders has come a long, long way since the infamous "Bedlam" of 16th-Century England--but still, the image carried with it a number of very unpleasant connotations. And it was far worse on my ancestral world, where--though it's not considered polite to discuss it these days--the mentally ill were at one time simply killed. So too were the physically defective: if you couldn't hunt, you were basically expendable. But that was a long time ago also.
Stewart glanced down at the table. "Is that all you needed?" he asked affably.
"Yes, it is," Dad told him. "Thank you, Lieutenant--you've been most helpful."
"You're welcome," Stewart said. No doubt he thought Dad was referring solely to the palm-reader--but I knew better. Possibly he'd never know just how helpful he'd been.
We had another interesting encounter on our way back upstairs, this time with Admiral Chuulah.
He met us in the lobby, hailing us like an asphyxiated foghorn from across that large space as we were waiting for the elevator back to our quarters. We met him halfway, and he was puffing a bit as he trundled over. I had never been quite that close to a Quadrian before--there aren't any in Pacific Grove--and I must admit that as his wide tentacular face drew near, I pulled back, my claws tingling and my tail twitching. Fortunately, he didn't seem to notice. He ushered us into an alcove, a small space with a few chairs and a low table, separated from the bustle of the lobby by a screen of lush potted Centaurii greenery. "I've had my staff trying to track you down, Mr. Abrams," he said. "You're a difficult person to find."
"What can we do for you, Admiral?" Dad said. He emphasized the "we," but it made no difference; Chuulah still refused to acknowledge my presence.
"Lieutenant Commander Brookes informs me that you didn't attend the morning design meeting," he said. "Or yesterday afternoon's either. I'm beginning to wonder if you're still interested in the Isaac Haliday, Mr. Abrams."
Dad's eyes narrowed, and he laid his hand on my shoulder. "You may not be aware of this, Admiral, but my son was attacked and badly injured yesterday. By a CF officer, as it happens."
Chuulah finally glanced at me, briefly, and he made a slashing gesture with his upper tentacles. "I'm given to understand his injuries weren't life-threatening, and that the perpetrator is in custody."
"True enough," Dad acknowledged.
"Then I'm afraid I don't see your point--nor why you yourself have failed to attend. If your son needs to rest, that's fine; his presence will not be greatly missed--so I'm told."
My tail started to go on that one, and I stuffed my hands into my pockets. "He has decided to continue attending," Dad said icily.
"And you?" Chuulah demanded. "Can I assume you still want your contract?"
"I'll be at the afternoon meeting, Admiral," Dad assured him. "We both will."
"Good," Chuulah said. "I shouldn't have to remind you, Mr. Abrams, that those meetings are extremely important--even vital--to the success of the project. And I'm inclined to look very unfavorably on anyone who thinks otherwise."
Dad quirked an eyebrow. "I'm not one of your subordinates, Admiral."
Chuulah looked him up and down, and chuckled thickly. "No," he said. "Fortunately for both of us, you're not. But I am in charge of the project, and it's my responsibility to inform the Admiralty which contractors are producing--and which are not. I'd suggest you keep that in mind. Good day."
He departed, and as soon as he was out of earshot--which wasn't far, Quadrians don't have very sensitive hearing--Dad said, "Well, ain't that a kick in the head."
"What now?" I asked.
He chuckled and scratched his beard. "I'm tempted to tell him where to stuff his contract," he said. He sighed. "But there is the little matter of our bank balance to consider. You wouldn't believe what it costs to feed Sah'aaran kits. Come on."
"Lunch first," he said. "Then we'd better keep my promise and put in an appearance at the design meeting."
"And Dr. Zriss?" I asked, as I followed him toward the elevators.
"She'll have to wait," he said. He sighed again, in irritation this time. "That's all right. I don't suppose Mayer will be going anywhere soon."
…Words which, all too soon, he would be forced to eat--unfortunately for all of us.
It was a terrible choice to have to make: did I fortify myself with a massive dose of coffee, keeping myself awake for the meeting, and almost certainly have to rush out of the room long before the first break; or did I lay off, saving wear and tear on my bladder, but running the risk of dozing off? In the end I chose the latter, preserving my dignity--but as it turned out, I was in no danger of falling asleep. Not this time.
I was still fuming as we sat down to lunch in the Officer's Mess. It was noon, local time, and the place was crowded; we were obliged to take a table tucked into a far corner, well away from the windows. Which was fine with me, actually: it was quieter, and there were fewer Centaurii to look aghast at my meal. Out of spite--since the CF was paying--I'd dialed up a huge cut of filet mignon, and as I attacked it I said, "Who does that admiral think he is, anyway, talking to you like that?"
Dad shrugged, almost spilling a spoonful of chili. "Basically," he said, "he's someone in charge of a very large and very complicated project--and someone who has the Admiralty breathing down his neck every day, pressuring him to bring it in on time and under budget. He's also someone used to having his orders obeyed without question."
"Still," I said, unrepentant, and Dad grinned.
"Still," he echoed, "his PR skills could use a little polish. If he antagonizes too many contractors, he most certainly won't make that completion date."
It was a good thing for our family's finances, I suppose, that Dad could be so forgiving. Myself, I probably would have told Chuulah where to stuff his contract. But that's my mother's genes at work.
"Listen," Dad said seriously, "I appreciate your dedication, Tom, but I know you didn't get much sleep last night, and I imagine your side is probably pretty sore. If it turns out you can't make it all the way through the meeting, that's perfectly all right. You can go back up to our quarters any time. I for one--" he winked-- "value your presence very much, if only to keep me on my toes. But not at the cost of causing you pain."
"Thanks, Dad," I said. "I'll remember that." Privately, though, I was determined to stick this one out--if only to thumb my figurative nose at Admiral Chuulah.
"You're welcome," Dad said. One-handed he fished out his palm-reader and keyed it. "Now, if I may request a few minutes of respectful silence, I have some catching up to do."
Gloomily I returned to my steak. Dad would never say so, of course, but the reason why he needed to catch up, and the reason why the admiral had come down on him so hard, was directly related to the reason why he kept getting held up at security checkpoints. In a word, me. I definitely should have stayed home, I thought. Maybe I should hop the next ship back to Terra… An idle thought, of course--but one I've often wished I'd acted on.
We made it down to the fifth floor in time for the meeting, and as we entered that small briefing lounge, I suddenly found myself the object of intense--and not entirely welcome--scrutiny. Obviously Dad's fellow engineers knew what had happened to me; that was inevitable, given that they'd all been witnesses when Security pulled him out of the yesterday morning's meeting. The frank curiosity in their gazes made me uncomfortable; but Dad's comforting hand closed on my elbow, and I allowed him to steer me toward a seat. Commander Brookes arrived just seconds later, and he wasted no time: "Good afternoon. Before our break we were discussing the Admirals' desire that emergency life-support functions be separate from the central computer core…"
I settled in for the long haul, arranging my abused body as comfortably as possible, and I brought out my rescued reader, ready to take notes.
…And that's when I noticed something very strange. The devices known generically as "palm-readers" have a wide range of specialized functions, depending on the needs--and the tastes--of the user. Mine was a typical "college" model--which was jumping the gun just a little, but I appreciated the thought. Its primary purpose was to display books, and other "printed" material, in the form of tiny flat slivers that slid into a slot on the back. But it also functioned as (among other things) a calculator; an address book; a word processor; a clock, calendar and alarm; a rather low-resolution holocam; and--when linked to a commpak--a unit for sending and receiving e-mail, linking to computer networks, and even navigation. In the couple months I'd owned it, I had just begun to explore its capabilities--but already I'd stuffed its internal memory with a truly amazing variety of junk: baseball stats, tide tables, jokes, a Sah'aaran dictionary…you name it. My filing system was maybe a little idiosyncratic ("Disorganized, like your brain," my sister would have said), but it suited me. Now, though…even as I keyed the thing and entered my password I knew something was wrong, and when I checked the file directory I felt my claws express, sliding across the smooth casing.
I have no idea what was discussed at that meeting; I spent the time hunkered down in my seat, as unnoticeable as I could get, frantically pressing keys on the touch-screen. If nothing else, it did keep me awake. An hour later, at the coffee break, I caught hold of my father's arm and pulled him aside. "Dad," I said, "someone's been tampering with my reader."
"What?" He frowned. "How? You have it password-protected, don't you?"
"Yes," I assured him. And since I'd chosen a word in hieroglyphic Sah'aaran, I'd always thought it pretty secure. "Someone must have gotten past it."
"What makes you think so?"
I showed him. "Half my files are missing," I said. "And most of what's left is corrupted."
"User error?" Dad suggested blandly, and I gave him a look I'd inherited from Mom. "All right, all right," he said. "Not user error." He paused. "Malfunction? It did get jostled around a bit…"
I shook my head. "I ran a self-diagnostic. It's working perfectly. It looks like a memory dump--like someone tried to copy the files onto a computer or another reader, and either did it badly, or didn't care what happened to the originals."
"Which leaves three questions," Dad said reasonably. "Who, when and why."
"The who and why, I have no idea," I said. "But the when is obvious--it had to be sometime between yesterday afternoon and this morning. That's the only time it's been out of my hands."
Dad rubbed his nose. "While it was supposedly locked in the evidence room," he mused. "You had your notes from yesterday's meeting in it?"
"Uh, yes," I said. I took a quick look. "They're about half gone too. They were mostly from the general briefing--nothing secret. I didn't take many notes during the focus group…"
Dad smiled. "I understand. Still, no one else could have known that…"
I frowned. "What are you suggesting?"
He shook his head. "I'm not certain. But it looks like we'll be having that talk with Commander Hammond after all, if we can track him down." By this time the meeting was coming back to order, and as we made our way back to our seats, Dad bent low to whisper into my ear: "Listen, Tom, I have a funny feeling about this. Let's keep it to ourselves for the moment, all right?"
"Er--sure, Dad. Whatever you say."
He clapped my shoulder. "Good boy. Let's get back to work."
I shook my head in confusion. Goddess, what now? I wondered. Surely this can't have anything to do with Mayer!
…Words upon which I too would soon be dining--and believe me, they tasted no better the second time around.