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

CHAPTER SIX
 

Despite being surrounded by Security, I felt remarkably insecure.

Mazzaro and his squad escorted us directly to the Medical Center, aboard an elevator converted to an express by the lieutenant's override codes. On the way up, Dad pelted him with questions, which Mazzaro steadfastly refused to answer. Hammond, he said, would tell us everything we needed to know. I scarcely listened; my mind was whirling. I'd grown so used to thinking of Mayer as a closed issue, already headed out of my life on his way to an institute of mental hygiene. But now--it seemed--that wasn't true, and I could already feel him breathing down my neck, a creepy sensation that made the fur along my spine stand straight up. Jammed as I was into the corner of the elevator car, my lashing tail thumped painfully against the walls.

In the wide, brightly-lit, white-walled lobby of the Med Center we found Hammond, an island of stillness in a sea of pandemonium. Doctors, nurses and orderlies scurried around him like ants, and the place was of course simply crawling with body-armored Security, their expressions grim and their trigger-fingers itchy. Hammond had commandeered the registration desk, a high, semicircular edifice near the intersection of several major corridors, and there he sat, frowning at a computer screen. As we stepped up before him he rose, looking tired and grim; he'd had a long day too, and apparently without the benefit of a nap.

"What's all this about, Commander?" Dad asked. I saw the glint of contempt in his eye, but somehow--no doubt with great effort--he managed to prevent it from creeping into his voice. "Mr. Mazzaro tells us Mayer has escaped--?"

Hammond shot Mazzaro a stern look; evidently the lieutenant had overstepped his authority. He might have joined his friend Stewart on suspension--if Hammond could have afforded the loss of manpower. "Yes," he said, his voice flat an emotionless. "That is correct. Mr. Mayer escaped from his room a little less than an hour ago. I have the majority of my force searching for him--but thus far he has eluded capture."

"How?" Dad demanded. "How did it happen?"

His tone was openly hostile, and I expected Hammond to bristle; but he didn't. He seemed half-crushed, bowed down by the weight of his problems. He said softly, "At approximately twenty-one hundred hours, Mayer sent word that he wished to see Dr. Zriss. I believe you've met her--?"

Dad nodded. "We have."

"Mayer would not tell the guard what he wished to speak to her about. She was summoned, and he insisted upon talking to her alone. She agreed."

Hammond took a deep breath. He seemed to be composing his report even as he spoke--and wondering, as well he might, how Admiral Teeheek would take it. "Twenty minutes later the guard outside the room heard sounds of a scuffle, and cries for help. He opened the door and saw Dr. Zriss lying on the floor. Before the guard could react, Mayer jumped him. There was a struggle, during which Mayer was able to obtain the guard's stinger. The guard was stunned. The discharge of the weapon triggered an alarm--but before additional officers could respond, Mr. Mayer was gone."

"Gone where?" Dad asked.

Hammond shook his head. "We surmise he used the engineering access tunnels," he said. "But beyond that, we don't know. As I said, I have many officers searching--but this is a very big installation. If he got out of the Administration Building, there are a number of places he might be. An extremely large number."

Dad glared, and I wondered what he might say; Hammond seemed too defeated to put up much of a defense. But finally Dad's expression softened, and he glanced aside. "How is Dr. Zriss?" he asked quietly

"She will live," Hammond said. "She suffered a skull fracture and a broken jaw, but she will recover. I haven't been able to question her, but it seems clear that Mayer struck her, and when she reeled back from the blow she struck her head on a metal strut at the foot of the bed."

I frowned. Had anyone else picked up on the incongruity, or was I alone? Mayer--who'd been scared half to death when he shot at me, and meek as a newborn Leaper when Hammond interviewed him--now had the moxie to slug someone hard enough to break her jaw? And not just anyone, but a Hattosh? And worse yet, to tackle a trained Security officer? What's wrong with this picture? "What set him off, Commander?" Dad asked.

Hammond shook his head. "We don't know," he said. "We'll have to wait until Dr. Zriss regains consciousness."

"What about the security cameras?"

Hammond sighed heavily. "They were turned off," he said. "Doctor-patient confidentiality."

…A policy Dr. Zriss might well be re-thinking, when she recovered. "I appreciate you telling us this, Commander," Dad said. "But you could have done it by visiphone. Why did you need to see us in person?"

By then, of course, the reason for Hammond's radically-changed attitude was clear: failure. And not once, but twice, in less than twenty-four hours. First he had failed to prevent someone from making a mockery of his department; now this. He had utterly misread Mayer, believing him non-dangerous, and had thus guarded him too lightly. Probably--though maybe it was unkind of me to think it--Hammond was more worried now about his career than anything else. He'd be unlikely to face court-martial; but he could certainly be stuck on some ice-bound hellhole on the fringes of the Alliance for the rest of his career.

He glanced nervously from side to side, then drew Dad and me into a small, relatively quiet alcove a little distance away. "There are two things we need to discuss," he said quietly. "And I prefer to do it face-to-face. I'm not entirely convinced our comm system is secure. First of all, because of what happened this evening, Admiral Teeheek and I are in agreement: there is no point in keeping you or your son on Centaurus Minor any longer."

Shall I confess that my heart leapt for joy, despite Dad's good-citizenship lecture? My father, meanwhile, was doing his best to remain aloof. "Doubtless true," he said simply.

"…But unfortunately," Hammond went on, "That leaves us with one problem. The departures for Terra are booked solid tomorrow--because of your colleagues. The best we can manage is day after tomorrow, the oh-nine-hundred shuttle."

Dad shrugged. "One more day won't be a hardship."

Hammond allowed himself a brief, unhappy smile. "I hope not," he said. "But there is one other concern." He paused, and when he went on, he was still speaking to Dad--but his eyes were fixed firmly on me. "Mr. Abrams, this is difficult for me to say. With Mayer on the loose, we must be concerned for your son's safety. Mayer tried to harm him once. That of course doesn't mean he'll try again; it's entirely possible that his only thought is to escape. But I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't at least consider the possibility."

Dad glanced at me. "I appreciate your concern, Commander, and of course I share it. But I don't quite understand what you're suggesting--?"

Hammond took a deep breath. "Purely for his safety, and until it is time for you and him to leave the planet, I have Admiral Teeheek's permission to place Tom in protective custody."

My claws expressed to their full length, instantly, while behind me my tail suddenly began to do figure-eights. There came a moment of silence, during which Dad glanced from me to Hammond and back again, his expression troubled. I know what I expected him to say--that Hammond could stuff his protective custody--and as such, I was in for a surprise. A nasty surprise. "Commander," Dad said slowly, "I think that's a very good idea."

"What?" I said, or rather tried; what emerged was a half-strangled, inarticulate yowl. Dad turned quickly to Hammond.

"May we have a moment, Commander?"

"Of course," Hammond said, and he stepped aside, back to the desk where Mazzaro was still patiently waiting.

Somehow I managed to regain control of my voice. "Dad," I said, "tell me you're not going to let them lock me up."

"I'd love to," he said. "But I can't, because I am."

"Why, for the Goddess sake?"

He frowned. "Two reasons," he said. "And I'll be happy to explain them--just as soon as you calm down."

I took a deep breath. Dad isn't Mom, I reminded myself. Among other things, he was a lot subtler. "All right," I said. "I'm calm."

He laid his arm across my shoulders. "First of all," he said, "Hammond is right. Mayer is out there somewhere. He may be intent on getting off the planet--or he might not. He's had one shot at you already, and I'm damned if I'm going to let him have another. I can't protect you, Tom. Not this time." He waved his hand. "But hopefully they can."

You mean the Keystone Kops? is what I might have said--but of course I didn't. "And second?" I asked.

"Second--they're going to do it anyway, no matter what we say. By force if necessary. You heard Hammond: he has Admiral Teeheek's authority. And don't kid yourself: he's at least as concerned with covering his own ass as he is with protecting you. At this point we don't have much choice but to let him have his way."

With those words, my mind flashed back almost a year. Dad wasn't Mom--but there were similarities. For one thing, both of them knew a losing battle when they saw it. Trapped in the Undercity, I'd spent more than a week in handcuffs. It was my own fault, brought on by my childish stubbornness, and Mom had been powerless to prevent it. She'd said then roughly what Dad was saying now: don't knock yourself out fighting battles you can't win. Save your strength for the ones you can.

…And so I sighed. "All right, Sheriff," I said. "I'll go quiet-like."

Dad grinned and clapped my shoulder. "That's the spirit." Together then we stepped over to Hammond. "One thing," Dad told the commander. "You're not putting my son in the brig."

Hammond shook his head. "No, of course not," he said. "We have some secure housing units available. They're actually quite comfortable." He glanced at me. "I am sorry about this, Tom," he went on, and he almost sounded as if he meant it. "Please understand: it's for your own safety. And of course it will only be for a day or so."

I nodded. "I understand," I said--and if the words emerged as something more like a snarl…well, I can't help that, can I?

"Good," Hammond said. He turned to Mazzaro. "Lieutenant, please escort Tom to his quarters and get him settled in." He glanced at Dad. "Don't worry, Mr. Abrams--we'll take good care of him."

Dad fixed Hammond with his gaze. "Yes," he said pointedly. "You will."

###

And so they locked me up.

Being a minor had some good points, I guess--but having other people in control of my destiny definitely wasn't one of them. By Sah'aaran standards, a person who has bonded is presumed to be an adult--but I didn't live on Sah'aar. And so, for the next eleven months or so, my parents would continue to make the decisions--at least the big ones.

Mazzaro escorted me to my prison personally--along with another of his officers, which pretty well precluded my asking him any questions on the way. Not that I felt much like talking anyway; I was far too busy seething.

I halfway expected to be strip-searched, or at very least forced to exchange my clothes for a disposable coverall (they were not getting my bonding-band!); but, to my surprise, neither happened. Mazzaro and his associate took me down to the Security department, there in the sub-basement of the Administration Building, and through a bewildering maze of corridors, ending up finally in a short, narrow hallway, lined on either side with half a dozen narrow, keypad-secured doors. Mazzaro stopped before the first of these on the left, punched in a few digits--far too quickly for me to follow--and then, as the door slid open, ushered me in with a half-sardonic bow. His partner remained outside.

To be honest, the place wasn't all that bad, as such things go; certainly a long way from a holding cell. In fact it wasn't much different from the room Dad and I had occupied these last few days, except that it was only about half the size, and windowless. It contained a single, narrow, hard-looking bed, a desk and a chair--and little else. In the far right corner, a sliding translucent panel concealed the head, the washbasin and the ultrasonic shower emitter, all together in one tiny compartment. There was no attempt at decoration, and as I gazed around, I felt a tiny, visceral chill. After five minutes in that room, my mother would have been breaking her claws on the door to get out.

Mazzaro must have noticed my shudder. "Be glad it isn't the brig," he said.

I was; indeed I was. Mazzaro showed me around, which didn't take long. "The autokitchen slot has a full menu, so you shouldn't have any problem. The computer terminal has access to the standard entertainment channels, but any messages in or out have to be cleared with the commander. If you need anything, the intercom connects directly to the main desk, and that's always manned." He grinned and smacked my shoulder. "Enjoy!"

And with that, he and his associate departed. I stood waiting, my ears perked--and a second later, heard what I'd been expecting, and dreading, to hear: the sharp click of the lock. It was an ominously final sound.

I shuddered then, and turned to examine my temporary home. Good thing I'm not claustrophobic, was my first thought--and my second was, I sure hope Dad knows what he's doing. I might have begun to pace my cage, as Mom certainly would, but…well, according to my wrist chrono--which, amazingly enough, they'd let me keep--it was almost eleven pm, and I'd had a busy day. Might as well try to get some sleep…

Aware that I was almost certainly being watched--and that there was nothing I could do about it--I undressed, draping clothes and collar over the back of the chair. The room lights wouldn't switch off completely, so I turned them down as far as they would go, to a dim orange gleam that was a little bright for me, but would have left a human stumbling and cursing. Then I climbed into the bed. Yes, it was hard, and it had only a single thin covering, slippery to the touch. But the room was reasonably warm. Turning onto my back, I lay with my hands behind my head, staring up at the faintly-glowing ceiling.

It would be pointless for me to deny that I felt a little miffed at my father just then. Though I suppose he did have a point. If I was Mayer, I'd be trying to find the quickest way off Centaurus Minor--but I wasn't a lunatic. Maybe he was hearing voices, and maybe he wasn't; but he was undeniably a few deuterium molecules short of a fusion drive. For some inexplicable reason he'd felt compelled to murder me--and who could say for certain that he didn't still? I knew my father: if he had anything to say about it--and whatever the cost--Mayer would not get a second chance. If for no other reason, because Mom would kill him if anything happened to me.

But at the same time, I had to wonder: was I really any safer here than I'd been fifteen floors above the surface? Obviously Dad thought so. But if we believed what Mazzaro had told us…well, let's just say it didn't sound as if Hammond ran a very tight ship.

Different situation, I told myself firmly. I was a person, not a palm-reader--and surely Hammond had learned from his mistakes. He'd reviewed Mom's service record; he must have known what she would do to him, if any harm came to me while in his custody.

…All of which was perfectly true--but I was still mad. Mostly because it had all been done so peremptorily, allowing me no input at all. That at least was very unlike Dad; he had never been one to rule with an iron fist, unlike my beloved Sah'aaran grandfather. This time he must really have been worried. I remembered the look on his face, three days ago, when he crashed into the examination room to find me lying there scorched and hurting. I remembered too what he'd gone through a year ago, during the brief, terrible interval when we'd believed Mom and Rae dead. Certainly I understood how he felt--but to be put away, shoved out of the action, just as things were getting interesting…that rankled, and I couldn't help it.

Well--for the moment I was as secure as I could get, until we left the planet; and I was too tired to think clearly. I turned over, curling into a ball with my head pillowed on my tail, and slept.

###

When I woke I was still locked up--and alone.

I honestly don't believe I suffer from many phobias. I'm not claustrophobic, nor agoraphobic, nor acrophobic; and I'm certainly not hydrophobic, though the majority of my species is. But if there's one thing that troubles me, probably more than it should, it's being alone, utterly and completely alone, for extended periods. I'd always believed that solitary confinement would drive me nuts; now, it seemed, I had a chance to find out.

I'd set my chrono to wake me at seven am, and it did, beeping softly in my ear. With no idea where I was, I shot bolt upright with a gasp, my heart hammering and that thin sheet flying. Then the memories returned, and I groaned, burying my face in the pillow. Why me? Goddess, why me?

I went through the motions. The room (I was trying to avoid even thinking the word cell) seemed twice as small as it had the night before, and when I rose and turned up the lights, it shrank a little more. Painfully, feeling battered and bruised after a night on that plank the CF called a mattress, I dragged myself to the tiny bathroom. I lingered for a long time beneath the sonic shower, letting its vibrations knead the kinks out of my muscles. I didn't have a hairbrush, so I did the best I could with my pocket comb. And the clothes I climbed back into weren't exactly fresh, even after I held them under the shower for a minute or two.

Now more than ever, I wished Ehm'rael was there with me. Not because I wished protective custody on my dear sister, but because I desperately needed someone to talk to, someone who truly understood me. A year ago, trapped in the Undercity, we'd done our best to keep each other's spirits up--until Rae began her long, inexorable slide into hopelessness, which probably would have killed her if we'd stayed down there much longer. In most situations, and especially in a crisis, our minds meshed perfectly. She undoubtedly would have had insights that would never have occurred to me. Once again, I'd have to make do.

I punched for a large platter of liver, and coffee--lots and lots of coffee. I took plate, carafe and cup to the desk, which would have to double as a dining table, and as I ate, scarcely tasting what I shoveled down, I pondered. A very unpleasant notion had crept into my mind, and try as I might, I couldn't seem to dislodge it. Was I being protected--or held hostage?

If things went according to plan, I'd be released tomorrow morning--just in time to join Dad aboard the Terra-bound shuttle. In the meantime he was expected to do nothing, apart from packing. Was I here as an inducement to inactivity? As a pledge of his good behavior, in other words, to prevent him from following up on any of the leads Mazzaro had spread around by the handful? Possibly--but if so, that meant Hammond had somehow learned of our late-night conversation with the lieutenant. And if that was true…well, why not go all the way, then, and wonder if Hammond had arranged Mayer's escape, just so he'd have an excuse to imprison me? Bricks without straw, someone once said; with no evidence whatsoever, the wildest theories can be as believable--or not--as you want them to be.

Rolling my coffee cup slowly between my hands, I leaned back and closed my eyes. The past twenty-four hours had been busy indeed; giving me little time to think; it might be a good idea, now that I had time and solitude in plenty, to spread out the pieces of the puzzle and see if I could make any of them fit…

Mazzaro. I'd had no chance to discuss his story with Dad, as I'd wished; or even to give it the consideration it deserved. In the light of day, then (figuratively speaking) did it still seem plausible?

The PPS. They had caused my mother a great deal of embarrassment, personal and professional, and even ten years later it still troubled her. I remembered her horror when she discovered that the innocent environmentalist group she'd been happy to write a paper for was actually a gang of suspected terrorists. She'd been angry, yes; but also sad, and disappointed--because she did share many of their beliefs, if not their point of view. So did I, come to that. What gives us the right to regard every planet we come across as free real estate? The major environmental problem of 21st-Century Earth, bar none, was habitat loss. It was supposed to have been solved, with population control, cleaner sources of energy and more efficient food production--but actually, it had simply been exported. Of all the species in the Alliance, humans were the more aggressively acquisitive--but my own people were certainly not entirely free of expansionist yearnings. They'd converted much of that far-flung world, that place that had so enchanted my mother all those years ago, into just another maxigrazer factory--and that saddened me. Had Rae been with me, she would have agreed wholeheartedly.

…But having said that, I had to draw the line at terrorism. And even if the PPS had never themselves committed any such act, their hands were far from clean. If you point to a colony world's fusion generators and say, "Wouldn't it be nice if those blew up?" are you any less guilty than the person who takes the hint and plants the explosives? Not in my book.

And the Isaac Haliday…it was easy enough, I believed, to understand why the Planetary Preservation Society would concern themselves with that as-yet-unbuilt vessel. It was the Survey, after all, who found the planets, and explored and named them; who built the colonies and transported the colonists and their supplies. The Haliday might be in service for decades--and in that time, might help colonize hundreds, if not thousands, of worlds. To destroy that ship--or better, to prevent it from ever existing--would be a powerful symbolic act, for a movement that thrived on symbols. And if Mazzaro was right, it was a deed they had already accomplished, at virtually no cost. All because of a palm-reader--my palm-reader.

I straightened then, and set aside the empty mug. My terminal had extremely limited access, but I did have available all the standard entertainment channels, and that included the news feeds: hundreds of them, from all around the Alliance. I lacked the patience to review them all, but I flipped through the couple dozen that were most familiar to me--and as I'd expected, the lead story on each and every one of them was the postponement of the Isaac Haliday project. Three words--"sudden," "unexplained" and "inexplicable"--told me that the Admirals weren't quite ready to 'fess up. Not yet, anyway. But it was on every channel, up to and including Sah'aaran Interplanetary, Mom's main source for news from home. I was amused to see that they'd interviewed Admiral Ehm'rael--but my sister's namesake had no answers either. Or at least none for public consumption. If the PPS truly wanted to embarrass the Combined Forces, they'd done a wonderful job.

Will they take credit? I wondered; but after a moment's thought I shook my head. No--not directly. That didn't seem to be their style. In the days to come, though, they'd issue statements, distancing themselves from the matter, deploring the use of terrorist tactics--while making it pretty damn clear who was responsible. That was how they had managed to remain unindicted for many long decades.

Briefly I wondered if the news had reached Mom on Quadria. Probably; the way the press was going wild with the story, she could hardly avoid seeing it. She'd be curious, I knew, and concerned--but even in her wildest nightmares, she'd never guess how deeply involved my father and I had become. A shame, really: I would have loved to see her come sailing in and strangle Hammond. But she was far away, and Dad and I were on our own.

And then there was the juggling act that had been performed with my poor palm-reader. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Mazzaro was right: it had to have been an inside job. And as the lieutenant had said, that was a frightening concept, on a number of levels. For one thing, could any outsider move freely around the corridors of the Security department? Or even access them in the first place? Security forces everywhere are tight-knit, insular, suspicious; a stranger would be recognized and challenged immediately. It must have been someone so familiar as to be above suspicion. And worse, it wouldn't have been just any ensign or enlisted man, because such a person wouldn't have the necessary access codes. It had to have been an officer. And that had implications far beyond the Haliday project. Either the PPS had infiltrated the Combined Forces; or they had convinced a high-ranking officer to break his solemn oaths. Take your pick, as Dad would say.

Yes, the logic was compelling--but it had failed to convince Hammond. Why? Perhaps because he didn't want to be convinced? Because it was easier, as Mazzaro had said, for the commander to believe in purely external threats? Or was there some other factor at work?

Sitting there, I began, almost idly, to test the limits of my intellectual confinement; in other words, exactly how much of the Fabrication Center's computer could I access?

Unfortunately, the answer remained "not much." A few hundred channels of video entertainment, all of which were drivel; and a number of insipid games. That was about it. I did find a music channel dedicated to late 20th-Century Terran jazz, of which I'd become something of an enthusiast, and I let it play softly. So--what next?

Finally--for lack of anything better to do--I brought out my palm-reader. Balancing the small device across the palm of my hand, I smiled ruefully. It had come quite a way from that little shop on Alvarado Street in Monterey; and as someone once said, what a long, strange trip it had been. Who's been handling you? I asked it silently, wishing, for an irrational second, that it could actually answer. And how did they break my password? It remained silent, though, the stubborn thing, and with a sigh I keyed it to life. I'd been forced to delete just about everything it contained; its memory was virtually a tabula rasa. But strangely, one thing had survived intact: a detailed diagram of the Fabrication Center, which I'd downloaded before we left Terra. Calling it up, I zoomed in on the Administration Building.

If I were Mayer, I asked myself, where would I go? The Center had just two entry points, and they were both on the first floor of the Administration Building: the main lobby, where Dad and I had arrived five days ago--and the museum. The latter was open to the public, but there was a portal between it and the Center proper. Frankly, though, neither of those seemed a good prospect for escape. Both were well-guarded, and at both you had to show a clearance badge and submit to a retina-scan. It seemed unlikely, therefore, that Mayer could have gotten out of the complex--but unfortunately, that didn't help.

I quickly located the access tunnels Hammond had mentioned. They ran through every part of the Administration Building, like hallways behind the hallways. They were used mainly for maintenance, and were thus packed with pipes, conduits and wiring; but they also served as a fire escape, so to speak, allowing the building to be evacuated if the elevators failed. One could enter the tunnels from any number of points, on every floor. The access hatches had alarms; but if you were quick enough, you could be half a kilometer away before anyone had time to respond. Whether Mayer had trusted to speed, or used an override code, I didn't know.

On the Administration Building's first floor, those passages met up with an even more extensive network of tunnels: the ones that led to the hundreds of half-buried pressure domes, where the Center's real work took place. The network resembled a huge, bewildering spiderweb, endlessly interconnected. Some of the tubes were huge, meant for the transport of heavy equipment; others were narrow; shortcuts, I guessed. And then there were the domes themselves. Hundreds, as I said, ranging from titanic to merely house-sized. Some--so Dad had told me--would be accessed every day; others, used for storage, might go weeks or months without anyone setting foot in them.

…And that's where Mayer would be: somewhere in that maze. Perhaps looking for a way out, when the heat had died down; or perhaps…but that thought didn't bear pursuing. Let's just say it made that tiny cell feel almost homey. I very much feared, though, that with all that space, and with the supplies he could loot from emergency lockers, Mayer could elude capture for a good long time…

Suddenly, without warning, the door opened, making me jump. With no idea who my unexpected visitor might be, I quickly switched off my reader and stuffed it into my pocket; then I rose to my feet, my tail flicking nervously.

It was Mazzaro, a broad smile on his face and a bundle in the crook of his arm. Today he was working a desk, so it seemed: rather than armor, he wore a standard uniform jumpsuit, jet-black. Frankly I preferred him that way: a little less intimidating. "Good morning!" he said cheerfully. "How are you holding up?"

I shrugged. "To be honest," I told him, "I've been better. But I guess I'll live."

"I guess you will." He stood silent for a few seconds, his ear cocked; then said, "Vince Guaraldi. Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

"That's right," I said in surprise. "How'd you know?"

"Hobby of mine." He handed me the bundle. "I brought you a change of clothes," he went on. "Some of your own, courtesy of your father."

"Thank you," I said. I'd more than half expected a prisoner's jumpsuit--suitably altered, of course. The bundle contained a fresh shirt and two pair of undershorts; no pants, but that was okay. Setting it aside, I said, "Lieutenant? Can I talk to you for a minute?"

He must have caught the look in my eye; he hesitated, then reached into his pocket for his commpak. Fitting it to his ear, he said, "Mazzaro to Control. Do me a favor--close the door of Secure Housing Unit One. I'll let you know when I want out."

On cue, the door slid shut, and Mazzaro stripping off his commpak, crossed the room and perched himself on the edge of the bed. "What's on your mind?" he asked affably.

I sat down across from him, straddling the desk chair backwards. "First thing," I said. "Are we being listened to?"

"No," he said. "Watched, yes--but not listened too. Illegal, you know." He smiled. "You can speak freely."

"Thanks," I said. I swallowed. Where to begin? "Has Mayer been found yet?"

Mazzaro shook his head. "No. It's pretty clear he's holed up in the domes--but it could take weeks to ferret him out."

Exactly as I'd feared. "And how is Dr. Zriss?"

"She's out of danger," he assured me. "She regained consciousness about an hour ago. Commander Hammond is talking to her now."

That was good. Personally, I thought the good doctor was a fool; but I hate to see even fools get killed. "And are the engineers off the planet?"

"Just about, yes," Mazzaro said. He frowned. "We've had to hold the last shuttle, though: one of the engineers has turned up missing. It's probably nothing; most likely he left on his own last night, from the civilian spaceport in Discovery Valley. I guess we can't blame him for being upset."

"Who was it?" I asked. I had no idea why I did--but I quickly found out.

"Oh, what was his name?" Mazzaro said, frowning and scratching his head as he fought to remember. "Loomis, or something like that. No--Lummis. That was it. He missed the boarding call for the shuttle, and some of my men found his room empty and his luggage missing. Like I said, he probably took a commercial flight--but we've had to hold the shuttle until we know for certain."

With a supreme effort of will I managed to control my claws, so that only the tips showed; and my tail, down near the floor, gave only a single near-random twitch. I'd pay for my self-control later; probably end up with a case of acid indigestion. But…Lummis? The man who'd been so wonderfully nasty to Dad the previous night? Missing? What did that mean?

"Interesting," I said, casually I hoped. I swallowed. "Lieutenant? Why am I here? Really?"

He quirked a grin. "Mainly to keep Hammond from getting deeper into trouble," he said. "And--as an afterthought--to keep you safe from Mayer. Why? What did you think?"

I glanced aside, shame-faced. "I thought…well, I wondered if Hammond had found out about your visit to our quarters last night, and was trying to keep Dad in check."

Mazzaro's eyebrows rose. "Interesting thought," he said. "But as far as I know, untrue." He paused. "Though it's certainly had that effect. I talked to your father earlier, and he's thinking far more about you than the PPS."

I felt my ears redden. "Lieutenant, can you do me a favor?"

"I'll try."

"This may sound like a strange request, but…can you get me Mayer's personnel file?"

His eyes narrowed. "Why?"

I shrugged. "I'm still trying to understand him," I said--which was at least partially the truth. "And why he thought he had to kill me."

Mazzaro hesitated for a long time, gnawing his lower lip. Then, finally, he nodded. "All right." He pointed at my terminal. "Give me ten minutes," he said. "I'll send it through as a text message, so watch for the light. Do me a favor, though: download it to your reader first thing, and delete it from the terminal. That'll be safer all around."

"Done," I said. I reached out my hand, and he clasped it--and without hesitation, which is more than I can say for most humans. "Thanks, Lieutenant," I went on. "For everything."

"Don't mention it." He stood then and reached for his commpak. "Mazzaro to Control. Let me out, please."

I spent the first two of those ten minutes gratefully changing clothes; and the rest waiting, drumming my claws impatiently on the desk. Finally the little amber "message" light began to flash, and I pounced on it--literally. I did exactly as Mazzaro asked: I took only one brief glance at the file, just enough to confirm that it was the correct one, then transferred it to my reader. The Goddess knows I had plenty of memory available. When the transfer was complete I wiped the original. Then I stretched out on the bed, with the pillow plumped up behind me, and read--and for the benefit of those watching, I tried to look as casual and relaxed as possible. Just the latest issue of Alliance Geographic, guys. Nothing to be worried about…

As before, the file wasn't entirely up to date; the previous night's incident had yet to be logged. But the details of Mayer's attack on me were there, and that was new. So too were Dr. Zriss' case-notes. Neither was exactly what I'd been looking for, but I couldn't resist taking a moment to review them. The account of my shooting was straightforward and factual, even a little dry. I had to chuckle, though, as I read the doctor's diagnosis. "Subject appears to be suffering from a severe delusional state, possibly indicating schizophrenia. He claims to have received instructions from a long-dead Combined Forces captain, one Mark Antilles. There has been some doubt expressed as to the veracity of this claim, which I have as yet been unable to confirm or refute, as Mr. Mayer has been almost entirely uncommunicative. Commission to an accredited mental institution seems the only alternative."

Wonder if she'll be changing her mind about that too, when she gets out of the hospital? I thought. Or would she regard it a moot point? Most likely I'd never know; nor did I really care. With a shake of my head, I scrolled farther into the file.

I had no real idea what I was looking for; but the previous night, as I lay waiting for sleep to find me, I'd remembered something my father had said, several days ago when we reviewed this very file. A cipher, he'd termed Mayer; almost nonexistent. No friends, no connections, virtually no life. But was that absolutely true?

The answer, at first glance anyway, seemed to be "yes." Mayer wasn't a joiner; he belonged to no clubs, no organizations of any kind. Nor did he seem to have any hobbies. Just as Dad said, a non-person. Except…I scrolled a little farther, down to the short list of personal communications Mayer had received since he arrived on Centaurus Minor--and suddenly my claws expressed, almost pushing the reader out of my hands. Dad had missed this, apparently; something for which he could scarcely be blamed, because he'd been far more interested in Mayer's psych profile than his mail. But there it was--and it shocked me, right down to the tip of my tail. For a little more than a year, Mayer had been receiving an electronic publication known as Habitats Quarterly. Innocent enough, yes; hardly worth a second glance. But HabQuar (as it nicknamed itself) was the journal of the Planetary Preservation Society; was, in fact, the very magazine in which my mother's article had appeared, almost ten years ago. And which published a flaming denunciation of her, after the Admirals forced her to repudiate said article. Goddess--!

I leaped to the desk and keyed the intercom. The voice that emerged was human, and male; it had a slightly nasal twang, and sounded impatient, as if its owner had far better things to do than talk to prisoners. "Control," it said. "Kincaid."

So this was Hammond's second-in-command, the only other person who knew the details of my palm-reader's incredible journey. I wished I could see him--though a face to match that voice wasn't hard to imagine. I said, "This is Tom Abrams, in your--uh--secure housing."

"I know," he snapped. "What can I do for you?"

"I need to speak to my father."

"For what reason?"

I swallowed hard. "Personal."

He sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Abrams," he said, "but my orders are clear. I am to allow no calls in or out. We have some security concerns regarding the comm system."

Yeah, right. I heard a shrill note of desperation creep into my voice as I said, "It's a rather urgent matter…"

"If it can't wait until tomorrow morning," Kincaid said with forced, almost condescending patience, "and if you can put it in a text message, I will clear it through Commander Hammond. It should be delivered within an hour."

"Thank you, Commander," I said in disgust, and clicked off. I stood then, and this time I did begin to pace. I'm not claustrophobic, I know I'm not--but what I felt at that moment sure came close. Suddenly that cell (I didn't bother to call it a "room" any more) was closet-sized or smaller; suddenly I felt trapped, caged, hemmed in, as surely as I had in the Undercity. I needed only a rough grey kilt, a haircut and a pair of handcuffs to complete the illusion. There was a connection between Mayer and the PPS! What it meant I hadn't a clue; but there it was, and it scared me half to death. And I had no way to alert my father. Put it in a text message? One that Hammond would see? Sure.

Finally--I have no idea how much later--my legs gave out, and I collapsed face-first onto the bed. You really blew it this time, Dad.

###

My agony was short-lived--or, more accurately, was soon driven straight out of my head.

I don't know how long I lay there, beating my brains out, trying to think of some way to get the information to Dad in time for it to do any good. I had come to no good conclusion--and had begun to contemplate a series of crazy escape plans--when the door suddenly opened again. I rolled over, and sat up quickly.

Once again it was Mazzaro--but in the space of an hour, he seemed to have aged fifty years. His olive complexion was dead white, paper white, and he stood visibly trembling, his hands clasped tightly before him.

"Lieutenant--?" I began in trepidation.

He took several wooden steps forward, not even bothering to call for the door to be closed. "Tom," he said, and choked off. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Tom, I'm afraid you and your father might not be leaving as soon as we expected."

"Why not?"

He paused. "That last shuttle--the one they had to hold while we were searching for Lummis…"

"Yes?"

He peered at me through wide, haunted eyes. "It…crashed just after liftoff."

###

"What?" I demanded. The word came out in Sah'aaran--I think--but somehow Mazzaro understood. He stumbled across the room and dropped heavily into the desk chair, once again ignoring the wide-open door. When he spoke again, his voice was muffled and expressionless.

"They held the shuttle for almost two hours," he said. He shook his head. "We never did find Lummis. Finally Launch Control couldn't wait any longer--the passengers were complaining, and there were other departures stacking up. The shuttle lifted, climbed to five hundred meters, began its orbital insertion run…and lost power. Or so we assume. It plowed into a mountain about twenty kilometers south of here."

"Great Goddess, I whispered. "Any…any survivors?"

"Thank God, yes," Mazzaro said. "Fortunately, the inertia-dampers and crash-fields are fail-safe. There were a hundred and ten people on board--but it appears there were fewer than ten fatalities. The rescue crews are out there now."

I sighed in relief. Any number of deaths, even one, was of course a tragic thing--but it could have been far, far worse. "Any idea of the cause?"

"Not really," Mazzaro said. He smiled thinly, more like a grimace. "But Commander Hammond has a theory."

I nodded. Of course he did, and it could be summed up in one word: terrorism. But why now, when the PPS had already made their point? That, to say the least, made very little sense. But I couldn't blame Hammond for leaping to that particular conclusion. In his place, I would have too. "So what now?" I asked.

Mazzaro took a deep breath. "To begin with, the entire facility is on security alert." He waved a hand. "The shipyard too. And that's a problem. We're spread thin as it is, with a good part of our force out searching for Mayer. This can only make it worse--and Admiral Teeheek isn't exactly eager to call for reinforcements."

I chuckled bitterly. "I guess not." Though she may have no other choice…

"And second," Mazzaro went on, "The Fabrication Center is locked down. No one in or out, no shuttle departures or landings, no mass-driver launches, until further notice."

My eyebrows rose. Someone would have to be pretty desperate to try to escape by mass-driver--seeing as how it launched its steel canisters at something like 10 G's. "And when will 'further notice' come?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Who knows? At very least, not until the wreckage of the shuttle has been examined for evidence of sabotage."

I shook my head. "Lieutenant," I said, "I really hate to sound selfish at a time like this--but does Commander Hammond really intend to keep me in protective custody that long?"

He smiled again, grimly. "Frankly, I doubt he's even given the matter any thought. Of all the things on his mind right now, you're at the bottom of the list. But," he went on quickly, forestalling my protest, "of course you're right. He can't keep you here indefinitely. I'll talk to him," he promised. "As soon as I can catch up with him, that is."

He rose and moved toward the door, and there he paused, with his hand on the jamb. "If I were you," he said, "I don't know if I'd be too anxious to get out of here. This might be the safest place on Centaurus Minor right now." And with that he departed, leaving me to remember, a little too late, that I'd neglected to tell him about Mayer's magazine subscription.

###

After Mazzaro left I sat for some time, my head in my hands. This makes no sense, I thought, over and over. They plan so carefully, and maneuver so cautiously, that they're able to achieve their objective with little more than sleight-of-hand…and then they destroy a shuttle? It simply didn't follow. It was tempting to see the crash as a coincidence--mechanical failures do happen--except that there were already far too many coincidences floating around, bumping into each other and generally making a mess. Only one thing seemed certain: if this did turn out to be sabotage, then the stakes had just risen considerably. More so than I cared to contemplate.

###

I spent the rest of that day in custody, alternately pacing, watching the local news--and thinking.

That last, I couldn't help, though it would have been a relief to be able to turn my mind off, or at very least throttle it back. The first I seemed powerless to prevent as well, though I was in serious danger of wearing a groove in the deck-plates. And the other…I hadn't intended to do it, but I felt myself somehow compelled--perhaps by that deep-seated psychological quirk, shared by humans and Sah'aarans alike: the urge to rubberneck. I resisted for almost an hour--but finally, with a muttered curse, I sat down at the desk and switched on the terminal.

The shuttle crash had not yet made it to the interplanetary feeds--though eventually some bright boy would make the connection between it and the Isaac Haliday debacle--so for the moment, I had to content myself with a local channel out of Discovery Valley. I don't know whether or not the CF had tried to hush up the crash; if so, they'd failed.

The coverage was just about what you'd expect, an equal mix of the factual and the sensational, endlessly repeated. The earliest video came from the belly-mount camera of the first rescue skim to reach the scene. The image was ragged and somewhat jumpy, and grainy too, made that way by the high level of light-amplification, Centaurus being inconveniently absent from the sky. It showed a rough hillock, sculpted by the wind into a form like a breaking wave, its sharper downwind slope cradling the remains of the shuttle. Not itself an interstellar vessel, it was really nothing more than a transport, an overgrown landing pod, whose sole purpose was to ferry passengers and light cargo into orbit. This particular shuttle, however, would never fly again--at least not under its own power.

Technically speaking, the ship hadn't actually crashed into the hill; in fact it seemed to have pancaked into the desert about half a kilometer away, and slid, cutting a deep trench through the yellow dust and leaving behind a ragged chunk of engine or undercarriage every time it encountered a rock. The hill had served mainly to arrest its momentum. The sharply-pointed nose was crumpled, like an old-fashioned beer can, and the angled windshield of the control compartment was shattered. The starboard atmospheric wing had been ripped entirely off; the other hung at a twisted, almost painful-looking angle, battered and torn. One of the three exhaust bells was also gone; the other two looked as if they'd been stomped flat.

But there were survivors. Even as that first rescue ship spiraled in, signs of motion were clearly visible behind the portholes: the flicker of a flashlight, the frantic waving of arms. And the main hull, though dented and abused, seemed basically intact; with luck, life-support might still be functional, if only at a minimal level.

The later video was better, coming as it did from someone's helmet camera. A transparent pressure tunnel had been stretched between the wreck and a rescue vehicle, and through it the passengers were being transferred. Many, though injured to a greater or lesser extent, were able to walk, cradling splinted arms or holding blood-stained gauze pads to their faces. Some were transported on stretchers, surrounded by anxious medics and life-support equipment--and some, fortunately very few, were brought out in body-bags, opaque black oblongs which could not entirely conceal their contents.

The narrator, a steady-voiced, implacable Centaurii, told the story--or at least as much of it as the CF wished to reveal. The shuttle had lost engine power; it was tentatively attributed to mechanical failure. Out of a hundred and ten persons on board, passengers and crew, nine had died, including the pilot and co-pilot. None of the rest had escaped unscathed, but only another twelve had what were described as serious injuries. If not for the inertia-dampers and crash fields, it was unlikely anyone would have survived.

Those were the bald facts; but what grabbed me and wouldn't let go were the faces. Civilians, for the most part; the shuttle had been packed with engineers, departing the planet by Admiral Teeheek's orders. Their faces were masks of pain, and shock, and confusion; none of them has as yet come to terms with what had happened to them. I didn't recognize any of them, but I had no doubt that Dad would. He might even have known some of the dead. Finally the horror overcame my morbid curiosity, and I blanked the screen. As the hours went by, though, I found myself tuning in again, over and over. I told myself I was looking for updates--but in fact nothing was updated. I hadn't really expected it to be.

Other than that pleasant little diversion, I spent the rest of the day alone and totally unmolested. Forgotten, probably, by everyone except Dad--and I could hardly blame them. With the Fabrication Center spiraling into chaos, who had time for a lone Sah'aaran teenager? He's safe enough where he is; worry about him later. I had ample food and water, and in theory they could have left me there indefinitely--but what would have emerged would have been a gibbering maniac.

I remember that I ate twice, though I have no idea what I ordered, and I exercised for a time, though rather half-heartedly. I also spent some time wondering how Dad and I were going to explain our adventures to Mom--and live through the telling. Eventually--according to my chrono; I had no independent confirmation--evening arrived, and I went to bed.

Sleep proved elusive, though, and for a time I sat cross-legged with the sheet pulled up to my chest, leafing idly through Mayer's file, searching for something--anything--that I might have missed. Finally, though, the words began to shimmer and dance before my half-closed eyes, and I gave up and set the reader aside. What's Dad doing now? I wondered, as I turned down the lights. Of course he'd heard the news--that was a given. What was he thinking? Did the situation make any more sense to him than it did to me? If only I could have talked to him, compared notes…

So thinking, I drifted off. Some time later I fell into a strange dream, in which it seemed that I was being tickled mercilessly, as in the no-holds-barred wrestling matches my sister and I used to engage in when we were kits. Eventually the sensation--which seemed to be centered on my right side, over my ribs--crossed the line from dream to reality, and I woke with a start. What in the Goddess name--?

My questing hand quickly discovered the truth, and there in the darkness I smiled. The dermapatch covering my burn had finally evaporated, leaving behind a wide patch of bare flesh, quite smooth except for a millimeter-high stubble of regrowing fur. Of the wound itself there seemed to be no sign; it had healed completely, and without a scar that I could feel.

Still smiling, and with the beginning of a purr in my belly, I turned over…and froze. Across the room, like a lighthouse in the twilight, the message signal on my terminal was flashing.

I stood and crossed to the desk, not bothering to reach either for my clothes or the light switch. For some strange reason I felt reluctant to touch the button; but finally, overcome perhaps by my unfortunate feline curiosity, I did.

The message was text-only, and short. According to the time-stamp, it had been delivered less than an hour before. The "TO:" was unequivocal: "Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams"--but the "FROM:" was an indecipherable string of random characters. Below, the message itself--if that's what you want to call it--was, if anything, even more cryptic. "15-C-27." Just that, and nothing more. Needless to say, it wasn't signed.

For a moment I sat blinking, my tail flicking, wondering if I was still dreaming. Somehow I didn't believe that this had been cleared by Commander Hammond--or that he'd even seen it. But if not, how had it reached me? And with no "FROM:" stamp? And what in the Goddess' name could it possibly mean?

Scarcely knowing why, I fetched my palm-reader and transferred the message into it, deleting the original from the terminal. Then I returned to my bed; but it was a long, long time before I could get back to sleep.


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