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 SEVEN
 

Late the next afternoon, they let me loose.

By the time they did, I must admit, I was getting a little worried; I was beginning to wonder if they'd forgotten all about me, a tiny detail adrift in a sea of crises. Perhaps they would leave me locked up indefinitely--or until my mind started to unravel. Of course I could have gotten on the intercom at any time, and reminded the officer on duty of my existence; but I didn't. Feeling sorry for myself is one of my best riffs--just ask my sister.

I spent most of the day surfing the news feeds. (Though I'd much rather have been surfing, period.) As I'd predicted, overnight someone in the fourth estate had made the connection between the shuttle crash and the Isaac Haliday--and now that simple "mechanical failure" was big news, all across the Alliance. The CF, trying to play the situation both ways, was failing miserably. On the one hand they persisted in calling the crash an accident. But on the other, they were keeping the survivors under tight wraps, twenty-seven-odd floors above my head in the Medical Center, and were not allowing them to be interviewed. The obvious conclusion--cover-up--was not long in occurring to the media. And when word got out that one of the shuttle's scheduled passengers had vanished before launch, and still hadn't turned up, either on Minor, Centaurus itself, or Terra…that's when it really got interesting. With few facts, the news outlets had to settle for speculation--which as time went by, became increasingly wild. So far, the Admirals had been silent; not even the Public Information Office had much to say. I had a feeling, though, that the lives of both Commander Hammond and Admiral Teeheek were about to become Ground Zero. And if I was to confess that I welcomed the chance to see them squirm…well, can you blame me?

I also spent considerable time contemplating my midnight message. Even now, wide awake, I still experienced a vaguely creepy feeling every time I looked at it. Obviously--all too obviously--it had not been mis-delivered: there was only one Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams on Centaurus Minor, if not indeed in the entire Alliance, and that was me. And obviously too, someone had gone to considerable trouble: to deliver it anonymously--and to deliver it at all. But it was the message, rather than the medium, that concerned me most.

In theory, the purpose of sending an e-mail is to convey information. It seemed logical, then, that someone had wanted to tell me something--but if so, the process had gone badly wrong. Perhaps the sender had overestimated the recipient's intelligence.

Three symbols, separated by dashes. Less than half a dozen mixed letters and numbers, all in the Terran alphabet. 15-C-27. A cipher, perhaps? If so, a darn cryptic one. I had no software available to me, either on my palm-reader or my terminal, for the breaking of such things--nor any idea where to begin, even if I had. Finally, in frustration, I put it out of my mind. Maybe Dad would have some better ideas; assuming, that is, that I ever saw him again.

At any rate, it was about half past three, and I was sitting at the desk, trying to decide whether I really wanted the lunch I'd skipped, when the door opened, and a voice rang out cheerfully: "Okay, kiddo, you're sprung!"

I spun, my jaw dropping. The voice was familiar, all right, but it wasn't Mazzaro's. In fact my savior was Neil Stewart. There in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, he grinned. "Hello, Tom," he went on. "Long time no see."

"Last I heard," I commented, "you were on suspension."

His smile fell. "I was," he said. "And I'm still on report. But with everything that's going on, Commander Hammond needs all his personnel." He spread his arms. "So here I am."

"I'm really sorry for what happened--" I began, but he waved that off.

"Not your fault," he said briskly. "None of us understood what was going on--we all just got caught in the middle."

And we're still there, I thought. Some more than others.

Stewart's smile widened again. "So--do you want out of here, or what?"

I jumped to my feet. In my surprise, the reason for his visit had slid right past me. "Completely out?" I asked.

"Well, almost," he said. "You and your dad will have to stay on Minor for a while yet. But you're out of protective custody." He shook his head. "The commander feels there's not a lot of point any more."

"I tend to agree," I said dryly. I didn't have much to pack--just my reader and a small bundle of clothes--and with the one in my pocket and the other tucked under my arm, I followed Stewart out into the corridor. Seldom--with the possible exception of the Undercity--have I departed a place with less regret. The lieutenant led me back through the maze of corridors, past the front desk, and into the elevator. As we paused to change cars in the lobby, I noticed that that wide space, usually bustling with activity, was all but deserted.

Stewart noticed my curious stare, and nodded. "We're still locked down," he said. "Nothing and nobody in or out. It's pretty well brought work to a standstill."

Alone then--fortunately--we stepped into another car, and as it began to rise, I said, "So--what's new?"

He sighed. "Where do I begin? Mayer's still at large in the tunnels. Our forces have located some of the places he's been--ransacked emergency lockers, that sort of thing. But he's still a step ahead of them. And he can hold out for a long, long time." He paused. "The shuttle crash is still under investigation, but it's looking less and less like an accident."

My eyebrows rose; but I didn't press him for details. No use getting him deeper into trouble. He went on, "The person or persons who stole and returned your reader--" he grinned bleakly-- "and thereby caused us both a lot of grief--are still unknown. And your father's friend Lummis is still MIA."

I shook my head. "Dad knows him," I corrected. "But I wouldn't call them friends. More like rivals, just barely on speaking terms."

Stewart glanced quickly at me, frowning. "Really? I'd thought…" He trailed off then, shaking his head. "Well, never mind," he went on. "But if he did leave the planet, there's no sign of it."

Curious, I thought. Lummis was undeniably eccentric (Dad sometimes claimed that having a few screws loose was a prerequisite for being an engineer); but what would cause him to want to vanish? He'd been mad at the CF, that I knew; had he wished to cause them trouble and embarrassment? If so, he'd committed professional suicide: he'd never work on a CF project again. But…well, it struck me as more than a little strange that he had managed to miss the very shuttle that had crashed. Almost as if he'd had advance warning, or…

"I don't imagine Commander Hammond is a happy camper right now," I commented, and Stewart grinned.

"No," he agreed. "Not at all. Nor is Admiral Teeheek." He shook his head. "Though I shouldn't be gloating. I was suspended from duty--but nine people died yesterday. Obviously there's no comparison."

"True," I agreed quietly. "And I suppose this isn't Hammond's fault--not entirely."

"You're partially right," Stewart said--but whatever he might have added I never learned, because at that moment we arrived on the fifteenth floor, Eagerly, all else forgotten, I pushed past Stewart into the hall, and with an indulgent chuckle, the lieutenant followed.

It was only a short distance up the corridor to my other home away from home. There was a guard at the door--to keep Dad in, or to keep everyone else out, I didn't know--and he glowered suspiciously at me; but at a nod from Stewart he stepped aside. I hesitated for an instant, my hand on the keypad, trying to decide whether I was still mad at my father. Nah, I thought finally. I couldn't afford the luxury; we had too many things to discuss. I entered.

Dad was seated at the desk, staring at the computer screen. As the door opened he looked up sharply, his impatient frown shading quickly into a smile of delight. He rose so quickly that the chair tipped over backwards. I took a step forward, letting the door close behind me, shutting out both Stewart and the guard; and an instant later Dad's strong arms wrapped around me, tight enough to make my ribs creak.

"Take it easy," I begged. "I've been gone less than forty-eight hours."

He gazed at me seriously, his hands gripping my shoulders. "I know," he said. "But I can't remember when I've had two worse days. I shouldn't have done it, Tom--I shouldn't have let them lock you up like a common criminal."

I shrugged. "You said it yourself," I reminded him. "Hammond was determined to do it, no matter what."

He shook his head. "That's not an excuse."

That was my father. He was right when he said that Mom had never quite gotten over what happened to her aboard Raven--but seldom, if ever, did he stop to consider the lingering effects of those days on him. Had Mom been that kind of person, she could easily have manipulated him with guilt--as she herself knew, all too well. So could I, now--but somehow I managed to resist the temptation. "As far as I'm concerned," I told him, "that's past history."

He smiled. "Thank you." He righted the chair then and sat, and I perched myself on the end of my bed. Not much wider, nor softer, than the one I'd slept in the past two nights--but I was glad to see it anyway. "Did they treat you all right, Tom?" Dad went on anxiously.

I shrugged. "I guess they did," I said, "in that they mostly left me alone."

He grimaced. "You know about the shuttle crash, though?"

I nodded. "I do," I said. "Mazzaro told me yesterday, and I've been following the news feeds. I've also heard about Lummis' disappearance."

A quick glimmer of something--what, I didn't know--crossed his face. "I have too," he said. "Very peculiar."

"Dad--what do you think about the crash?"

He smiled grimly. "First and foremost, 'mechanical failure' is pure fiction. The general public might buy it--but I was a Techspec crew chief. The number of systems that would have to fail simultaneously…the odds are astronomical. No: it was sabotage. Had to have been."

"But it doesn't follow."

He smiled. "Yes, that occurred to me too," he said. "And you're right, it doesn't--if we assume that the person who stole your reader is the same one who sabotaged the shuttle. It makes more sense if we postulate two different parties."

I gaped. "You mean--two terrorist organizations?"

"Perhaps," he said. "Or two factions of one."

I frowned. "Meaning what?"

He shook his head. "I don't know--yet. It did occur to me, though…we've been speaking of the PPS as if they're a solid, monolithic group. But they're not. Their members run the gamut, from tree-hugging pacifists to militant thugs. Every organization has its extremists and conservatives, with very different means to approximately the same ends."

I nodded slowly. If the less reasonable faction didn't approve of the non-violent method, or believed it hadn't made enough of an impression…they might decide to go their own way. Which could actually be a good thing, if both sides were paralyzed by the infighting. Or the militant types could resort to even more extreme actions. But as had happened far too often lately, all of this was pure conjecture…

I shook myself and hauled out my reader. "Speaking of the PPS, Dad," I said, "I found out something about Mayer."

"So did I," Dad said. "But you first."

I keyed my way into Mayer's file, found the section I'd bookmarked, and showed it to him. "I know there's nothing sinister about reading a magazine," I said, "but this can't be a coincidence." I paused. "Why are you smiling?"

He was indeed grinning, wide enough to split his ears. "Great minds think alike," he said. He brought out his own reader. "I found that reference too--and I can do it one better."

He showed me a page--and I uttered a soft snarl of surprise. Over the last twenty-five years, because of that red flag in his psych file, virtually everything Mayer did had been recorded, in exquisite detail. The invasion of the poor dope's privacy made me shudder; but at the same time I couldn't help but be glad of it--because without that record, things like this would never have come to light. Not only had Mayer subscribed to Habitats Quarterly; he'd also been pulling up back issues from the Discovery Valley library. He'd read through at least the last twenty years' worth--but two issues in particular, both a little more than ten years old, had merited special attention: in the last two months he'd accessed both a combined total of twelve times. The first contained an article by one Commander Scispec Ehm'ayla, entitled "Ten Steps to Preserving the Native Biosphere of CAO 11378/4." The other--the very next issue, as it happened--contained an anonymous editorial, in which that same Commander Ehm'ayla was described as a "hypocrite," a "traitor," and a "puppet of corrupt, money-grubbing Alliance imperialist lackeys." And a lot more besides--all because she'd been forced to repudiate that article.

My tail was lashing as I handed the reader back. "Goddess!" I said. "Does this mean--?"

"I'm afraid so," Dad said. "Our revenge-motive theory just came back to life--and got a lot more complicated."

I nodded. "He starts reading the magazine about a year ago," I said slowly, working it out as I went. "Why, we don't know--maybe he liked the pictures. Then he begins reading back issues--and comes across a familiar name. That brings back memories of Raven; he starts to think about his ruined career, and who's to blame. And then we show up--or more specifically, I do."

"My thinking exactly," Dad agreed. "Unfortunately, we can't even discuss it with Hammond, because we're not supposed to know about the PPS connection."

I hesitated, gazing out into the darkness. Then I said, "Mazzaro told me that Dr. Zriss is recovering--"

"So I hear," Dad confirmed.

"--And that Commander Hammond had talked to her."

"That's right too." He shook his head. "So far I've only picked up the barest inkling of what they discussed. Apparently she has no idea what set Mayer off--or so she claims. One minute he's telling her about the voices in his head; the next--boom."

I quirked an eye. "You sound doubtful."

He smiled. "Let's just say I don't think we've heard the full story. But whether it's the doctor, the commander, or my informant who's holding back, I don't know."

I almost asked; but I was interrupted--or saved, as the case may be--by the buzz of the intercom. "Damn," Dad muttered, as he reached the for the button. "Abrams here."

The voice was familiar--but I can't say I was happy to hear it. "Good afternoon," Commander Hammond said. "I understand your son has been returned to you?"

"Yes he has," Dad said. "And not much the worse for wear. Thank you."

If the Security chief heard the deep irony in my father's voice, he gave no sign. He said, "Mr. Abrams, would you please come to my office?"

Dad's eyes narrowed. "May I ask why?"

"Of course," Hammond said. "I am becoming more and more concerned about Mr. Lummis--"

Translation, I thought wryly, "I need something to tell the media."

"--And you are the last person known to have spoken to him before his disappearance."

Dad frowned. "Maybe so," he said. "I couldn't really say. But one way or another, he certainly didn't tell me his plans."

"Nonetheless," Hammond said, "you are one of the few people on the planet who knows him. You might be able to give us some insights into his character."

Dad sighed. "On my way, Commander," he said, and clicked off. Smiling ruefully, he turned to me. "Duty calls," he said, "though I have no idea what Hammond expects to hear. Coming, Tom?"

I shook my head. "If it's all the same to you," I said, "I'd rather not. I just left the Security department."

He clapped my shoulder. "Fair enough." He stood, and reached for his jacket. "Won't be long," he said, and departed. Whether or not he kept that promise, I don't know.

For a few moments I sat motionless, drumming my claws. I glanced down at my palm-reader, there on the desk--and a growl escaped my throat. I'd completely forgotten to tell Dad about my midnight message. Time enough later, I guess, I told myself. Though what even he could make of it, I had no idea…

I turned the computer screen toward me then, and tapped on the keyboard, bringing up a diagram of the Fabrication Center rather more detailed than the one in my reader's memory. Mayer was still on the loose, and with our new speculations as to his motive fresh in my mind, I once again felt him breathing down my neck. Stewart said that he was moving around, staying ahead of his pursuers; but if they were systematic enough…

I peered at the map--and my tail, lazily waving, suddenly froze, the tuft at its tip bristling. For a few seconds I stared, scarcely able to breathe. Goddess, why didn't I notice this before? I wondered. The answer was simple: because the diagram I'd downloaded wasn't detailed enough. But I ought to have known, ought to have guessed at very least, that the domes, those scattered structures that formed the heart of the Fabrication Center, were numbered. And more: the numbering system was tripartite. First a number, denoting a sector; then a letter, indicating a corridor; and finally another number for the specific dome. Number-letter-number--a very familiar pattern indeed.

That more detailed diagram included a legend, giving the dimensions of each individual dome, and what it was currently being used for. My clearance was low, and not a few came up "Classified"--but most were reasonably specific: "Life-Support Component Assembly" or "Fusion Core Fabrication." It took me less than ten seconds to locate Section 15, Corridor C, Dome 27. It was one of the smaller ones, I saw, only about twenty meters in diameter and seven high; and its current usage was a rather ambiguous "Storage."

I leaned back, my tail lashing and my claws drumming. It was tempting to say "mystery solved"--but of course it wasn't, not at all. Yes, I'd discovered the meaning of my mysterious e-mail; but in so doing, I'd raised a hundred more questions. Who would send me the location of a dome? And more importantly, why? Because it was Mayer's hideout? Ridiculous. In the first place, why tell me? And in the second, surely that dome had already been searched. It was far too close to the center of things; if he had any brains, Mayer would be out in Section 200, far from the Administration Building. So--if not Mayer's location, what had my correspondent been trying to tell me? What would I discover, if I visited that dome?

There's only one way to find out.

The dominant religion on Sah'aar is strongly monotheistic, worshipping as it does a single, all-powerful, all-knowing Goddess. Arrayed against her are a horde of malevolent beings who delight in causing chaos, temptation and disorder; fairly typical behavior, I guess, for creatures of the demonic kind. The mythology of my ancestral world is a struggle between the two, the single force of creation against the multifarious agents of destruction. Or so they say. My sister and my bond-mate are devout believers, my mother a lukewarm one--but I'd always thought of myself as at best an agnostic. If ever there was a thought inspired by the Dark Ones, though, it was the one that had just popped into my head.

Suddenly, convulsively, I rose, deliberately turning my back on the terminal, and began to pace, even as I'd paced my cell the last two days. My right hand flexed, the fingers curling around the smooth horsehide of the baseball I'd forgotten to pack. You're out of your mind, I told myself furiously. How can you even be thinking about going down there, with Mayer running loose?

…But I'm not Dr. Zriss, some other part of my mind argued. I know enough not to trust him--and to keep looking over my shoulder. He can't sneak up on me again.

But he's armed, idiot! the more prudent part replied. He missed once; but can you count on that again? Are you willing to bet your life on it?

But what are the chances of running into him? Virtually zero.

"Virtually" counts for nothing if you're dead.

I shook my head angrily, putting an end to the debate. There was only one sensible thing to do: tell Dad. What he'd do about it I didn't know--but it was a pretty good bet he would not suggest an expedition into the tunnels. Yes, that was the reasonable, safe thing to do…but I knew I wasn't going to do it. Quickly then--before I could talk myself out of it--I clicked off the computer, stuffed my reader into my shirt pocket, and left the room.

The guard was still there, just outside the door. I'd utterly forgotten about him, and as I barged into the corridor, I don't know which of us jumped higher. "Is there…something I can do for you?" he asked.

If there's one thing my parents taught me, it's how to think on my feet. I flashed my most-disarming, least-toothy smile. "I--uh--I'm going up to the mess hall for a bite," I told him. I jerked my thumb over the shoulder. "Our autokitchen's menu isn't great."

The guard hesitated for a long moment, gazing at me through narrowed eyes. I was afraid he'd insist on coming along, which would have ended my trip right there. But finally he nodded. "All right," he said. "I'll let your father know when he gets back."

"Uh--thanks." I felt his eyes boring into my neck as I made my way to the elevator, and I had to fight an almost irresistible impulse to hurry, lest he change his mind. Once inside the car--alone, thank the Goddess--I hesitated. This was it: the point of no return. I could just as easily send the elevator up as down, turning my lie into the truth. I had skipped lunch; I was hungry. Maybe I should grab a steak and think this over…

I reached out my hand, the forefinger (minus a claw, oddly enough) stiffly extended…and punched a button. What it touched, though, was not the key for the top floor--but rather the one for the lobby. Dad isn't going to like this, I chided myself--but hopefully he'd never have to know.

###

The tunnels were easier to access than I'd expected; far too easy, in fact.

As before, the Administration Building's lobby was all but deserted--and that was both a blessing and a curse. The problem with being a Sah'aaran surrounded by humans and Centaurii (or, more generally, a civilian surrounded by CF) is that it's next to impossible to be inconspicuous. Of watching eyes there were few--but every one of them turned instantly my way as I stepped from the elevator. As casually as I could, my hands behind my back and my tail held low, I strolled across the lobby.

It was a large space, perhaps thirty meters square, and with a high, vaulted ceiling. Behind me was a solid bank of elevators, while opposite, the wide, blank south wall sported a huge mural, an idealized account of the first meeting of humans and Centaurii. It was extremely…non-representational, I guess would be the best term, as is most Centaurii art: broad, bold strokes of garish color, laid on thick and heavy. A native-born Sah'aaran would have been revolted; even I, who'd grown up on Earth, found it jarring. My sister probably would have been enchanted. Previously, I'd barely glanced at the thing; but now I examined it minutely, or pretended to, while through the corner of my eye I studied the situation.

Off to my right, along the west wall, lay the main reception area. Tall, transparent doors opened onto the transit station, from which one could catch a tube to the city, or to the shuttle pads. Confronting the doors was a high, black-topped desk, with tall metal-gated barriers extending out to the walls on either side. A pair of guards was stationed there at all times, I knew; one to check ID's and clearances, the other to inspect baggage. Even today, in the midst of a lock-down, the desk was manned; but the black-suited enlisted men who lounged there looked on the verge of dying from boredom. As I entered they straightened, peering at me in suspicion; but as the minutes passed, and I continued to study the mural, they eventually lost interest and returned to their languid conversation.

It was in the other direction that my real interest lay, and as I moved slowly along the length of the painting, I glanced repeatedly that way. The lobby's east wall was a wide archway, equipped with massive pressure-doors that could be lowered at a second's notice. It led to a long tunnel, angling gently downward. The light within was dim; compared to the brightly-illuminated lobby, it seemed pitch-black. There was a security desk there too, partially blocking the tunnel--but it was unmanned. A questionable move on Hammond's part, maybe; but given his lack of manpower, perhaps understandable.

As I sidled down to the east end of the mural I gauged the remaining distance, estimating the odds of making it into the tunnel unseen. Actually they didn't look bad. I had only about five meters to cover; no more than a few quick steps. And once inside, the darkness would quickly swallow me.

But still I hesitated. The guards seemed to be ignoring me--but could I be absolutely certain of that? When I made my move, might that not attract their attention? There was simply no way to know.

…But that, of course, was only part of the reason why I paused. Now that I was here, with my objective in sight, I'd suddenly acquired a case of cold feet--and not only because of the bare flagstone floor. I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea. There was no way I could get to the dome and back before Dad finished his business with Hammond. He'd grow worried, then mad--and who could blame him? I'd been counting on the old axiom that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission--and on finding something that would justify the risk. But now, as I stood dithering, common sense began to put in a reappearance.

One thing for sure: I couldn't remain there forever. Not only would the guards become suspicious eventually, but Dad would be entering the lobby soon, changing elevators for the trip back up to our quarters. One way or another, I had to go soon…

I have no idea how long I might have remained poised--but at that moment my hand was forced. Behind me I heard a soft beep, and I half-turned, to see one of the elevators slide open. In fact it was the special, restricted lift from the Security section--but it didn't contain my father. The two who exited were CF officers, ensigns both, a male human and a female Centaurii. Chatting amiably between themselves, they gave me scarcely a glance--and as they stepped over to the reception area I suddenly realized what was going on: the changing of the guard.

And that did it. I watched through half-lidded eyes, until the four of them seemed absorbed in the formalities of signing off the shift log and so forth--and then I made my move. I went silently, as only a Sah'aaran can, through the archway and into the tunnel in one smooth move. No alarms sounded; no shout of "Halt!" rang out behind me. For better or worse, I'd made it.

As soon as I dared, I stopped running and pressed myself against the left-hand wall, to catch my breath and get my bearings. I had entered the main access tunnel for all of the Center's domes. Some six meters high and five wide, it had an arched ceiling, reinforced with grey, sprayed-on polycrete, and a flat, rough-textured metal floor. The walls were lined with pipes, conduits and cables, all quite undisguised; this was workspace, totally and unashamedly utilitarian. This tunnel, I knew from my perusal of the maps, ran due east for about five kilometers. At intervals along the way, other, smaller tunnels joined it on either side; and those, in turn, branched into still others. The domes connected to the tunnels via massive airlocks.

That much I'd known, before I came--but now, standing there panting, trying to slow my too-rapid heartbeat, two things struck me. First there was the silence. I strained my ears to their utmost, but they detected nothing beyond the rush of air through the vents. And that was strange, bordering on eerie: during my last visit, the day of our arrival, these same tunnels had been bustling and almost unendurably noisy.

Second was the darkness. That was unusual too; but for some reason, more than ninety percent of the hanging lamps had been switched off, and those few still active had been drastically dimmed. Possibly--at a guess--it was meant to aid the search for Mayer: while he was stumbling around in the dark, the searchers would be using scanpaks and light-amplifying goggles. Whether it had inconvenienced him I didn't know; but it certainly inconvenienced me.

Finally--my nerves a little steadier--I began a rapid search through my pockets. I pulled out my palm-reader first, and once again called up the map of the tunnels; and in one of my trouser pockets I located a flashlight, a finger-sized unit with a surprisingly bright beam. With those in hand, I set off again, counting junctions; and a few minutes later I turned left. Shortly thereafter, I turned again.

Even then, it was difficult for me to understand why I was doing this, with the risks so great and the potential rewards so tenuous. I can offer only one word, which might serve to explain: Frustration.

A little less than a year before, I was on Sah'aar--and frustrated out of my mind. My mother and sister were missing, presumed dead; and my father was under arrest on ridiculous, trumped-up charges of having murdered them. I'd known, without a particle of doubt, that both Mom and Rae were alive, somewhere in the Undercity. And with no one listening to me (or so it seemed), I took matters into my own hands, rappelling into the massive sinkhole caused by the collapse of the Undercity's maintenance tunnels. The fact that I'd been expected to do so is another story--and in the end, all I got for my trouble was a haircut and a kilt. One might have expected me to have learned my lesson--but apparently I hadn't, because there I was again, letting frustration get the better of me. I'd been slapped into protective custody, shoved aside, put away like luggage stamped "Not Wanted on Voyage." I'd told Dad that I'd forgiven him, and maybe I had--but deep inside, some part of me was still angry. The same part that had led me into the Undercity--and the part I really had to stop listening to.

###

I didn't see what hit me--but I found out soon enough.

Dome 15-C-27 was indeed used for storage. Around its perimeter, a large number of crates were stacked, rather haphazardly, with pockets of inky shadow between the piles. The light was dim--or would have been, for a human--coming as it did from a single under-powered floodlamp at the apex, more than six meters above my head. The middle of the floor was clear, and affixed there I saw a curious object: a pair of small black cubes, mounted to a horizontal rail about three meters long. What it was I didn't know--but it seemed to have a twin, hanging from rods some distance below the ceiling. After a half-curious glance I put it out of my mind. The air smelled of dust and disuse, making my nose tingle; and it was chilly, so much so that I wrapped my arms around my midsection. Should have worn my new jacket. It hadn't occurred to me to grab it.

I sighed. This is a waste of time, I thought sourly. Someone had obviously been messing with my mind, playing a bizarre practical joke. It had taken me more than an hour to find this place; out in the real world it was getting on toward evening, as my stomach delighted in telling me. By now Dad had returned from the Security offices and found me gone; no doubt he'd already phased from furious through worried back to furious. I'd better make this quick, then, and cut my losses. I'd take a look around, just to be thorough, then head back to our quarters as fast as I could. If I was quick enough, maybe Dad would actually believe I'd been to the Officer's Mess. Sure. Stuffing my reader back into my pocket, I clicked on the little flashlight, shining it ahead of me as I stepped cautiously forward. Behind me the airlock door slammed shut, making me jump, and I cursed. Get a grip, idiot!

Slowly I circled the dome, poking my flashlight into the shadows. I gripped the light in my left hand, and I held the right at the level of my eyes, claws expressed: the only weapon I possessed. Why not; it worked for my ancestors …

I was about halfway around when it happened. From somewhere behind me I heard a single footfall and a sudden intake of breath, and I caught a whiff of a half-familiar scent. I spun…and then I was falling.

It was Mayer, dressed all in black now. In his hand he held a CF-issue stinger, which he had just withdrawn from the back of my neck. Its discharge, directly into my upper spine, had the same effect on me as a pair of scissors on a marionette. I felt a shock at the base of my skull--and suddenly I had no control over my muscles. The flashlight dropped from my fingers and rolled away, and my limbs crumpled like a rag-doll's. I struggled to move, to stand, to resist what was happening to me…and couldn't. I had no control of anything apart from my eyes.

Mayer clipped the stinger to his belt, and sat down cross-legged next to me. I saw now that a pair of light-amplifying goggles hung around his neck; so much for inconvenience. He flashed a predatory smile. No longer afraid, or hesitant, or confused, he seemed absolutely in command of himself, possessed of an almost godlike confidence. "Welcome, young Thomas Abrams," he said, his voice far clearer than ever before, almost strident. "I'm pleased to see you again."

I tried to speak, but nothing emerged, not even a whisper. Mayer's smile widened.

"Don't worry," he said. "The paralysis is temporary. I might have destroyed your spinal column--but that wouldn't have suited my purposes. The effect will wear off in twenty minutes or so. More than time enough to complete our business."

My heart was hammering, my breath coming in gasps; but that was outside my control. I could see my right hand, sprawled there near my face, and the claws were still expressed; that was involuntary too.

"Let's get started, shall we?" Mayer said briskly. From the shadows he pulled a box--a maintenance tech's toolkit--and from it he removed several small items, which he arranged on the floor out of my sight. Then he went to work on me. He turned me over onto my back, straightening my limbs, then propped me in a semi-seated position against a crate. Not out of concern for my comfort, I am sure; rather, he wanted me to see everything that was about to happen.

What he did then left me burning with shame and horror, but there was no way I could prevent it: he stripped me. With a few brief, efficient motions he removed everything: trousers, shirt, underwear, collar, wrist chrono--and my bonding-band. Hot flashes of fear and rage surged through me--but I was helpless. And in a few seconds I was naked too.

"I imagine you're wondering what happens now," he said in conversational tones, as he folded my clothes and other property into a neat bundle, and stowed it in his toolbox. He showed me a small object, holding it close to my eyes: a black cylinder, about ten centimeters long by five in diameter, affixed to a wide woven strap with a heavy buckle. "This is a mag-lev focus node," he went on. "I've four of them here, each tuned to a slightly different frequency." He pointed. "The frequencies of those emitters, two on the floor and two near the ceiling. I'm sure you noticed them. What happens next is this." He took hold of my right wrist and wrapped the band around it, fastening the buckle almost painfully tight. He smiled as he let the arm drop. "Excellent," he said. "And by the way, thank you for being so cooperative. Now for he other three."

Within a minute, give or take, he had fastened identical devices around my other wrist, and around both ankles, locking down the buckles with the one-way ratchets of polymer wire-ties. He rose then, and, grasping me under the armpits, dragged me into the middle of the floor. He laid me down prone beside the long rail, then stepped back and pulled a device--a remote control?--from his belt. He touched a button…

Suddenly I felt myself rising, but not under my own power. The magnets near the ceiling had grabbed the cylinders strapped to my wrists, and they dragged me upward, my feet quickly leaving the floor. Meanwhile, those below took hold of my ankles. I wanted to cry out, to scream; but I could manage only a hissing exhalation. For a few endless minutes Mayer tinkered with the settings, raising and lowering me, until finally I hung perfectly suspended, about halfway between floor and ceiling, with three meters of air beneath my feet. My arms, spread above my head, were held solidly about a meter apart. My feet were separated by about the same distance, and also quite immobile. My tail hung limp, and my chin lolled on my chest.

The paralysis had begun to wear off by then, just a little, and I had enough control over my tongue to say, slowly and thickly, "What…now?"

Mayer smiled sunnily. "Very simple." He placed the remote control on the floor directly beneath me, then stepped across to the dome's main control panel, on the wall beside the airlock. "As you know, we are still several days away from the dawn," he went on. "And as a consequence, the air outside is a little…chilly. These domes are not particularly well insulated; they rely on heating units to keep them livable. If one were to turn off the heat--" he touched several controls "--as I just did, things would shortly become a bit chilly in here as well. I estimate the temperature will drop below zero Celsius in a little more than an hour--and that's only the beginning. You have a good coat of fur, and I don't doubt you'll last considerably longer than a naked human would. But I'd give even you no more than seven or eight hours." He paused. "Oh--a suggestion. Very soon you'll be able to move again. But I'd be careful, if I were you. If you twist around too much, the mag-lev emitters will pull apart on their rails--taking your limbs with them. Have you ever heard the expression 'drawn and quartered'? And the same thing will happen if you make too much noise--not that it would do you any good." He turned away.

"Wait!" I said. "Please wait!"

"Sorry," he said. "Must dash." He gathered up his toolkit--leaving the remote control rather conspicuously behind--and departed. His last act before stepping into the airlock was to turn out the light, plunging me into darkness.

For some time I hung motionless, gazing down between my spread legs into the blackness below. The only sounds were the faint hum of the mag-levs, my own ragged breathing, and occasional faint creaks and pops as the dome began to cool and contract. The stinger hadn't interfered with my sense of touch--I'd felt everything that had happened to me--but so finely balanced were the magnetic fields that the suspension didn't even hurt. Not yet, anyway. As the minutes passed I concentrated on bringing my thundering heartbeat and runaway breathing under control. The last thing I wanted to do was hyperventilate and pass out. Finally, in a measure at least, I succeeded.

Gradually--through a series of random jerks and twitches--I became aware that the paralysis was passing. Finally able to lift my head, I rotated it slowly from side to side, working out the kink in my neck. As calmly and logically as I could, then, I assessed my situation. It wasn't good--in fact it was very, very bad.

Fact: the bands around my wrists and ankles were too snug and too wide to slip out of. I tried twisting an arm free of the field, and succeeded in rotating the cylinder perhaps two or three degrees; but too soon I had to relax the pressure, and the wrist snapped back to its former position. Fact number two: the mag-lev was far stronger than me. And fact number three: the temperature was already dropping sharply. All around the perimeter of the dome, evenly spaced at about the same level as my body, were perhaps a dozen large rectangular ventilators. I felt the air they emitted, washing over me from all sides: nice, fresh, life-sustaining, oxygen-rich air…that grew colder and colder as the minutes ticked by. At first I felt it most keenly in the semi-bare patch on my right side; but I was naked, and male; my legs were spread, and very soon, certain other parts began to get a little chilly as well. I could do nothing about that either.

Was he telling the truth? I wondered. If I twist around, will it--? Foolish, perhaps, but naturally I had to try. Taking a deep breath, I struggled with all my might, twisting and flailing…and then desisted, as quickly as I'd begun. Above and below I heard a whir, as the mag-lev emitters came suddenly to life, sliding rapidly toward the ends of their respective rails. They dragged my limbs with them, until I was certain my shoulders and hips would dislocate. For almost a minute--it felt more like an hour--I was held like that, pulled so tight I could scarcely breathe. Then the pressure gradually eased, the boxes drifting slowly back to their original positions. All too obviously, I'd been warned. Exhausted, I let my chin fall to my chest.

The true enormity of my situation had begun to sink in, and as it did, my heart began to race again, and my diaphragm to pump spasmodically. Once again I struggled for control, and achieved it; but my mind was not so easily calmed. My thoughts jumped randomly, tangling themselves in knots, as my mind teetered on the ragged edge of chaos. Why? was the question that surfaced most often. Why me? What did I ever do to him? I wondered too what had happened to the old Mayer, the one too scared to hold a laser-torch steady. This trap had required forethought and planning--not to mention an inhuman streak of sadism. It was a far cry from that clumsy, near-random attack in the museum. What had happened? What did Dr. Zriss really find? Some kind of multiple-personality disorder? Had Captain Antilles ordered this too? Or was that--as Dad believed--entirely a ruse? Looks like I'll never know…

…And in the end, that's what it came down to: I don't want to die. I twisted in my invisible bonds, just a little, not risking another "warning." Dear Goddess, help me! I don't want to die!

I shook my head firmly then, catching myself on the edge of gibbering, of giving way entirely to panic. Stop that, I told myself angrily. Dammit, stop that! Once again I forced myself to be calm--but the thought persisted, lurking in the cellar of my mind: You're not getting out of this. Mayer had been too thorough. I was trapped; utterly helpless; if there was any way I could save myself, it hadn't occurred to me yet. Rescue? Possible--but improbable. By now Dad was certainly looking for me; but with fifty floors of Administration Building and hundreds of domes to cover…like an idiot, I'd left him no clue where I'd be. Almost certainly I'd be located eventually--but what the searchers would find would be a frozen corpse hanging in a mag-lev field. The only other possibility--that all four fields would fail simultaneously--was laughable. Or would have been in other circumstances.

Mayer had turned out the light, but the dome was translucent, and as my eyes adjusted I became aware that it was glowing faintly. Whether it was starlight, or Centaurus risen, I didn't know, but for my eyes it was enough, only just. I saw the stacked boxes below me, silhouetted against the walls. I saw my own body, the only mobile part of which was my tail; it twisted and thrashed around my feet and legs. Looking up, I saw my hands, my claws expressed, my fists clenching and unclenching. And as I exhaled, I saw the cloud of vapor that appeared before my muzzle. I don't know how long I'd been hanging by then--an hour, perhaps, or ninety minutes--but the temperature was surely already below freezing. My hands and feet were growing numb--whether through chill, or lack of circulation, I couldn't say. The cold was like a spear jabbing into my just-healed side; and those other parts had begun to ache. The air burned my lungs with every breath. I became aware about then that I was shivering violently, and that it hurt.

How long until I lose consciousness? I wondered. I'd heard about death by hypothermia: eventually you start to feel sleepy, the pain fades…and then you just drift away. Not a bad way to go, they say--though exactly how "they" knew, I wasn't sure.

I've also heard it said that when you're about to die your life flashes before your eyes. I still don't know if that's true--but as I hung there a parade of faces did indeed drift before me, so real it seemed I could reach out and touch them. Friends, family; Dr. Sah'larrah, a man I still didn't know whether to respect or hate. My grandparents, Sah'aaran and human. My aunts, uncles and cousins, ditto. My sister; my mother and father. I watched them pass, as in review, and as they did I said goodbye to each of them. Mom and Ehm'rael lingered the longest. Goddess, I thought, as I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. If only I'd known I'd never see them again…

They were not the last, though. One face, one form was yet to come. It hovered before me, fur and mane black as midnight, eyes emerald green…Ehm'tassaa. My bond-mate, my love. It was as if I could feel her, the warm softness of her body beneath my hands. Tass…but she turned away, shaking her head, a look of infinite sadness on her lovely face.

And that did it. By that time I'd been hanging for more than two hours, the temperature was dropping steadily, and I was far gone into hypothermia, my mind drifting, the pain fading into a false and comfortable warmth. But as the phantom of Ehm'tassaa faded into the distance, I shook myself hard, snapping back to reality with a supreme effort of will. Reality in that case was agony; but that was good: it helped me to focus. Sah'aaran bondings are for life; if I died, Tass would be alone forever. Once already I'd been careless of that fact; I would not--could not--do so again. For her, for our future together, for the kits we would someday have, I had to survive.

Think, dammit, I told myself. You want to be an engineer. You've been pestering your father, asking him "why," all your life. What do you know about mag-lev?

Between the pain and the cold, it was almost impossible to think; but I forced myself. I searched my memory; over the last seventeen years, surely Dad had told me something…and then, with a start that made me jerk in my bonds, I had it. A way to save my life.

I was about seven years old, and Ehm'rael, Dad and I had gone to the Research Center in Monterey to meet Mom for lunch. On our way to her office we passed a CF enlisted man transporting a load of heavy crates on a mag-lev sled, following a line of emitters embedded in the floor. He turned a corner…and the sled flipped over, dumping its load. At the time it was funny--to a pair of kits, anyway--but Dad explained that the man had taken the curve too quickly. With mag-lev--so he said--a too-sudden change of direction can cause a polarity shift, breaking the field. Just for an instant, true--but long enough to cause a sore foot.

Helpless, naked, slowly freezing to death in the dark, I nonetheless felt myself smile. Thanks, Dad, I thought. If I get out of this, I owe you dinner at the fanciest restaurant on Cannery Row. The answer was simplicity itself, the plan easily formulated--but did I still possess sufficient strength to carry it through?

The only way to know was to try--and the sooner the better, because it wouldn't be long before I didn't have the strength. For several minutes I steeled myself, breathing deeply, ignoring the sting of the cold air in my throat and lungs. This wasn't only a matter of strength, but of timing as well. And it was going to hurt--a lot. I felt my heart pounding, and I fought for control. I'd only get one chance at this; everything had to be perfect. I counted down, five to four to three to two to one…and then I struggled as hard as I could.

The cold hadn't impaired the emitters. Instantly they pulled apart, and as soon as I felt their tug I stopped moving. My muscles were cold and tight now, and at full extension the pull was pure agony. I had to bite my lip against the scream, and I felt a warm trickle of blood down my chin. Don't pass out, I coached myself. Not now!

Somehow I endured the minute that followed; and as I felt the boxes begin to move slowly together again, relaxing their grip, I took a deep breath. This is it. And when the emitters had almost reached their original position, but while they were still moving, I screamed at the top of my lungs, and simultaneously twisted to the right with all my remaining strength.

…And then I dropped like a stone. Mayer hadn't lied. Above and below me, the boxes, already in motion, had reacted to my scream just as he'd said they would: by changing direction to punish me again. And in that instant, as on that day ten years ago, the fields destabilized, and I broke free.

It was a three-meter fall. Somehow I managed to curl myself into a ball and roll with it. I struck the bottom rail hard on my right side, with a sudden, paralyzing stab of pain, and bounced away, tumbling helplessly over and over until I fetched up against the curved wall on the opposite side of the dome. And a good thing too, despite the fresh bruises it cost me: otherwise all my efforts would have been for nothing.

For a few seconds I lay still, curled around my fresh agony. That poor side again, barely recovered; and this felt bad: cracked ribs, maybe. But I couldn't let it distract me. I wasn't saved yet, not by a long shot; I still had to get out of the dome, or freeze. I rose shakily to my knees…

…And then I wrapped myself into a ball again, tucking my body into the angle where the dome met the floor. I still had one small difficulty, it seemed: the mag-lev emitters were still active, and still tuned to the nodes strapped around my wrists and ankles. A quick examination confirmed my fears: the wire-ties that secured the buckles were too strong for me to break--and I might spend hours picking at them with my claws, time I didn't possess. Until I encountered someone with robust cutting tools, the bands were on to stay.

And that was exactly the problem. Out where I was, at the perimeter of the dome, the pull was weak--I forget which of Newton's laws that follows--but the instant I'd risen, I'd felt the tug in my arms and legs. If I got too close, that invisible summons would increase rapidly, exponentially, and I'd be dragged right back where I started from.

What now? I wondered desperately. The route to the door was crowded with crates; trying to circumvent them, I feared, might put me too close to the emitters. Mayer's remote control was still on the floor, directly below where I'd been hanging; I'd almost fallen on it. Pity I hadn't thought to grab it on the way down. He'd left it there to add an edge to my torture; certainly he'd had no thought that I'd actually be using it. It lay no more than four meters away, but it might as well have been on Centaurus: there was no way I could reach it. If I lunged, I might miss; and in any case the emitters would grab me, and I'd find myself helpless in mid-air before I knew what hit me…

Hit, I thought wildly. That's it! Hit it with something, knock it closer to the wall…

On sober reflection, it's possible I could have made it to the door, by crawling low--where the fields seemed weakest--and pressing myself close to the crates. But I'd just spent more than two hours in suspension, and the thought of returning to that state was unendurable. I couldn't risk it; I'd never have the strength to break free again. And so--even though my shivering was now quite uncontrollable, and the fur on my muzzle was thick with the frost of my own breath--I began a frantic search for something to throw. There was nothing in sight, and obviously I had nothing about my person. But there were the crates. They were meant for storage, not shipping, and thus were not tightly sealed. I chose one at random, and attacked it with hands and claws. I got the lid off--slicing the tips of all four fingers on my left hand, though I scarcely noticed--and with my claws, cut through the sheet of plastic that lay underneath.

What I found was a solid block of beige foam, the kind of stuff that is sprayed in as a liquid, and expands as it solidifies. In a frenzy I tore at it, digging deep…and my hand finally closed on something solid. I pulled it up and out in an explosion of chips.

What I held was a round-ended metal cylinder, silver in color, about twice as big as the ones strapped to my wrists and ankles. Some kind of electronic components; I had no idea exactly what--nor did I care. It was ammunition, and that was good enough.

Carefully I circled the dome, seeking the best possible shot. It would do no good at all to simply drive the remote into the rail, nor to knock it into an inaccessible corner. The angle I finally chose may not have been the most advantageous; but I didn't have time to work trigonometry problems. I crouched down on my haunches--not my normal throwing stance, but it would have to do--and for a few seconds I juggled the cylinder, feeling its weight and deciding how it would behave. Then, finally, I launched it. Not like my usual double-play shot to third, though, but sliding along the floor like a Bocce ball. As I'd hoped and prayed, the cylinder clipped the remote--and that little device, much smaller and lighter, spun skittering across the floor and thudded to a halt against a box.

I was simultaneously elated and disappointed. The thing was indeed much more accessible now--but it was far from perfectly placed, being closer to the lower-left emitter than I would have liked. I considered digging for more ammo, and trying to knock it into a better position…but no. I had no clear shot--and more to the point, I had no time. I edged as close as I dared, nervously feeling the growing pull on my legs…and then I leaped.

It was not one of my best slides; had I been trying to steal second, I'd have been out by a kilometer. For an instant I was sure I'd been caught--my left ankle was suddenly yanked toward the center of the dome--but I had momentum on my side, and I broke loose. I snatched up the remote as I passed, hugging it to my chest, and a second later I crashed headlong into the opposite wall. For almost a minute I lay helpless, unable to move, with what felt like a railroad spike being sledgehammered into my right side. But I hadn't yet earned the luxury of collapse, and finally I turned over to examine my prize.

The remote was a simple device, and it had the rough, unfinished look of something home-made. It was built into a small plastic box, rectangular and hand-sized. From the top protruded a stubby antenna; on the back was a spring-metal belt-clip. On the front were the controls. Four dials, unmarked; obviously they controlled the balance among the four emitters. I recalled how Mayer had fiddled with them, until I was suspended to his liking. Below the dials was a single red push-button, click-on-click-off. I clicked--and the tiny, almost subliminal pull on my limbs ceased. I was free.

Overwhelmed with relief, I brought myself up short, in the act of sinking to the floor. Not yet, idiot, I told myself sharply. Clutching the remote, I climbed unsteadily to my feet and crossed the dome, stepping with some trepidation over the rail. I made my way to the airlock, touched the sensor pad…and nothing happened.

On the theory that the mechanism had been jammed by the cold, I tried again, two or three times, but with the same result. Even pounding on the portal with my fists didn't help. My blood running a little colder, I turned to the control panel.

It didn't take long to discover what the problem was. Mayer may not have expected me to free myself from the mag-lev--but even so, he'd been thorough. He'd slapped a quarantine seal on the outer door, effectively sealing me in until someone noticed and removed the thing. In short, I was still trapped.

The next bit of bad news came from the comm. It was stone dead, not a light showing, and I couldn't bring it back to life. More of Mayer's doing, of course, arranged long before I arrived. So calling for help was also out.

That left me with only one panel to try: life-support. And there I was third-time unlucky. Mayer hadn't lied about that either: he'd done nothing to the mechanisms that replenished the air. But the heating units, built into the ventilators, were switched off, and Mayer had locked those controls with an encrypted password. Ironically, perhaps, the thermosensors were working perfectly, telling me that the current ambient temperature in the dome was minus 22º Celsius, and dropping. The accompanying warning light--"unfit for habitation"--was entirely redundant.

And so, after all my trouble and pain, I was down to just one trick, one single way to save myself. If it failed, I was dead--as simple as that. I wasn't supposed to know my mother's override codes, but of course I did; so too did my father and my sister. In other circumstances Mom would have been very angry indeed--but just this once, I figured, she'd forgive me. It was hard to think, hard to remember the sequence of numbers and letters. With trembling fingers I punched them in…and instantly, with a cheerful beep, the life-support panel cleared, ready for input.

Once again the wave of relief almost overwhelmed me, and once again I firmed myself up by force of will. With the last of my strength, I keyed commands. I turned the heating units on, all of them, and instructed them to raise the temperature, as quickly as possible, to 24º C.

And at long last, that was all I could do. My legs gave way beneath me, and I slid to the floor, curling into a tight ball despite the jagged pain in my side. I'd run out of options; I couldn't free myself, couldn't speed the rescue. Either the temperature would rise fast enough to save me, or it wouldn't. I could only wait and hope.

Except…For several minutes I lay motionless, except for my painful fits of shivering; and then, slowly, a thought percolated up through the frozen strata of my mind. Heat rises. I lifted my head. Around the perimeter of the dome, far above my head, the ventilators were dark rectangular holes, pumping out BTU's as fast as they could be manufactured. Heat rises.

What I did then, some might regard as insane, and maybe it was; but I truly believe it saved my life. Using its belt-clip, I fastened Mayer's remote to the band around my right wrist, arranging it so that little plastic box, and its array of controls, lay in the palm of my hand. Then--crawling, because I lacked the strength to stand--I made my way to the center of the floor. Beside the rail I paused, took a deep breath, closed my eyes…and pushed the button.

The next few seconds were horrible--but brief. When I dared to open my eyes, I found myself once again three meters above the floor, suspended, my arms and legs held firmly about a meter apart, imitating the letter X. But not helpless, not this time: I had the remote, and I could free myself at any time. Now that I finally had that power, though, I didn't wish to use it. Suddenly the mag-lev had become a savior, rather than a death-trap; because I hung now directly in a wash of warm air, flowing over me from all sides. At floor level, it might have taken an hour or more for the temperature even to climb above freezing; up here, it already seemed almost comfortable.

For the first time in hours, I relaxed, letting myself go limp within my bonds, feeling the delicious warmth pour over me. I can't say my situation was enviable--among other things, I was in considerable pain--but at least I now had a chance of survival. It's all right, I told myself. I can hang. Dad would leave no stone unturned, I knew; and now that I was no longer freezing to death, I could wait a good long time if I had to. I could even lower myself, though it would be another hard landing.

I can wait. And with that thought, I rested the side of my head against my right arm, and let consciousness dribble away.


<--HomeIndesNext-->