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 TEN
 

The room seemed to spin, and had I not already been lying down, I surely would have fallen. "An Alliance agent?" I said in bewilderment. "I thought…I thought you were an engineer…"

"Actually I'm both," Lummis said cheerfully. "I've had an arrangement with the AIB for years. Whenever I work on Combined Forces projects, I report to the Bureau any suspicious activity I happen to observe. The Alliance government has been concerned for some time about the CF's use of civilian contractors, and the possibility of espionage or fraud. Up till now, I've never had much to report."

Uh-huh, I thought. I glanced at Dad. "And you knew this all along?"

He shook his head. "No," he said. "I didn't. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you. And there's your answer, Tom. Last night when you couldn't find me, and several days ago before the shuttle crash, I was working with Agent Lummis."

Across the room--which had become quite crowded--Reid uttered one of his careful chuckles. "So this is our missing engineer," he said. "The one Hammond's men have been searching for so tirelessly. The one widely suspected of sabotage."

"I know my disappearance appeared suspicious, Commander," Lummis said. "But I assure you, I had nothing to do with the crash. Except perhaps indirectly: it was almost certainly an attempt to eliminate me. I vanished because I couldn't afford to be rounded up and shipped back to Earth."

"At the time of the accident," Dad said, "I was helping Agent Lummis move his belongings out of his quarters. He ordered me to tell no one."

"And where have you been since then, Mr. Lummis?" Reid demanded.

"In this very building, in the offices of the Alliance liaison," Lummis said. He grimaced. "Camping out, so to speak. God willing, I'll never again have to sleep on a sofa."

"So," I said, just to keep everyone aware of my existence, "what happens now?"

"Two things," Reid said. He turned to Dad. "I don't blame you, Mr. Abrams; you were following orders from a government official. But you," he went on sharply, rounding on Lummis, "I do blame. You have caused us all a great deal of difficulty--not to mention the waste of resources that could have been far better spent. You will explain your actions to Admiral Teeheek, and then you will leave this planet."

Lummis drew back, startled. "What? You can't--"

"You have no jurisdiction here," Reid told him. "This is a CF installation; your 'authority' is purely civilian."

"I beg to differ," Lummis said. "My authority comes directly from the President of the Alliance--who is, as I recall, the Commander in Chief of the Combined Forces. And this is not entirely a CF matter. Not any more. These terrorists--the so-called Planetary Preservation Society--have not only disrupted the Isaac Haliday project: they've also threatened the colony on New Sah'aar."

I gasped, and Dad laid a warning hand on my shoulder, too late. Lummis nodded in satisfaction. "A planet with which you're familiar, I see. I don't pretend to be a crack agent--but I am part of this, and will remain so."

Whatever Reid might have said, Dad interrupted, smoothly but firmly. "At this point, Commander, we need all the perspectives we can get."

Eyeing Lummis dubiously, Reid sighed. "You may be right," he said. "But," he told Lummis, "your cloak-and-dagger antics are over, as of now. If Hammond had not been obliged to expend resources looking for you, Mayer might have been found much sooner--in which case we wouldn't be having this discussion in this poor young man's hospital room. And you will come with me to Admiral Teeheek's office--now. Is that understood?"

For the better part of a minute they glared at each other--and I didn't need telepathy to feel the instant antipathy that had sprung up between them. Finally Lummis dropped his eyes, and sighed. "No doubt I should have made myself known to her sooner," he said. He glanced at me. "And if I contributed in any way to this boy's injuries, I'm truly sorry. Always before I've been an observer, nothing more--I'm rather new at this secret-agent business."

"That much is obvious," Reid said. "And a more apt term for what you've been might be 'paid informant.'"

Lummis drew himself to his full height, some centimeters shorter than Reid. "Now look here--" he began, but Dad stepped between them, his hands raised placatingly.

"Gentlemen," he said quietly, "in case you've forgotten, this is a hospital room. My son was roused from his bed today, against doctor's orders, and he needs rest. Would it be too much trouble for you to settle your differences somewhere else?"

For a few seconds they continued to look daggers at each other; then, as one, they turned away. "You're quite right, Mr. Abrams," Reid said.

"My apologies," Lummis added. "I…suppose we ought to go see the admiral…"

"Agreed," Reid said. He bowed. "After you."

They departed then, but Reid paused in the doorway. "I'll have a guard posted at your door again," he told me. "To keep the riffraff out."

Shaking his head tiredly, Dad sank down on the foot of my bed. "I'm sorry about all that, Tom," he said. "And I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I intended to--but the time was never right."

"Is he really an Alliance agent?" I asked. "Or does he just think he is?"

Dad chuckled. "He really is," he assured me. "At a guess, he was the only person with AIB connections available on Minor when this situation broke, and the Bureau didn't have much choice. Has it gone to his head? Definitely."

"But you've been cooperating with him?"

"Yes," Dad said. "For two reasons. First because he does have genuine authority, at least for now. You know that he and I have never been the best of friends; I decided not to give him an excuse to make my life uncomfortable--or yours. And second, he has information--official briefings from the Bureau--that I'd love to get a look at. So, difficult as it's been, I've forced myself to stroke his ego while he plays Junior G-Man."

"But he didn't sabotage the shuttle."

"No," Dad said. "That much is certain. He thinks it was done by someone out to 'get' him--but I think it was probably just the opposite. The ship was grounded for hours, while Hammond's men searched for him. It's far more likely that it became an irresistible target, simply because it sat there on its ass so long. I think Ed might be overestimating his own importance a trifle."

I shook my head. Just what we needed, I thought. Another pompous idiot. "So what do we do now?"

He patted my knee, and rose. "You," he said with a smile, "are going to get some rest. And I'm going up to Admiral Teeheek's office. She'll be requesting my presence soon anyway, I imagine."

"Dad," I said, "I just want you to know--I still want to go home."

"Me too," he said. "But unfortunately, that doesn't look to be happening anytime soon."

###

I was resting--but not sleeping--when Stewart arrived.

It wasn't as if I didn't want to sleep. I did, very much. But it simply wasn't happening, and after staring up through the darkness for the better part of an hour, I gave up and switched on the lights.

Of the two of us, my sister was usually credited with having the most active imagination--but my own seemed to have gone into overdrive. I hadn't actually seen Mayer's body; only the tape outline on the floor. So why was it that every time I closed my eyes, I could clearly picture his faceless, charred corpse? That was one of the two hideous images which kept popping into my mind, over and over; that, and the memory of my clothes and other property artfully arranged around an old holo of my mother. I'm not sure which upset me more.

Something about Mayer's death troubled me--and I don't mean its gruesome nature, nor even the fact that his killer was still on the loose. No: something about the circumstances simply didn't make sense, and I couldn't decide what. Then too, something about that "shrine" didn't add up either. I wouldn't have said so out loud, but I couldn't accept Dad's theory of "obsessive attraction." Yes, Mayer had been Mom's friend aboard Raven--or at very least, had treated her decently, unlike most of the crew. But love? No--even accepting that Mayer was unstable, and had been for years, it still didn't ring true. There had to be something missing, some other reason why he'd felt compelled to build the Temple of Ehm'ayla. But I had no idea what.

And why, I asked myself for the thousandth time, was his face burned off? It would have taken time; it would have greatly increased the killer's risk of being caught. The choice of weapon might be entirely coincidental; the killer might have used a laser torch for the same reason Mayer had: it was quiet, deadly, and available, where a stinger would have been much harder to come by. But even accepting that, the use to which it had been put still made no sense.

Such were my thoughts when Stewart entered. He was dressed for office work, not patrol; he had a small package under his arm, and a troubled, almost fearful look on his face. My welcoming smile failed to pierce his gloom; seemed, if anything, to make it worse.

"Hello, Tom," he said. He paused. "Listen," he went on, quietly but urgently, "about this morning--that 'prisoner' business. I want you to know how sorry I am. I had no choice…"

I waved that off. "My mother is a CF officer," I reminded him. "She's often had to follow orders she doesn't agree with. Believe me, I understand. I never blamed you at all--I aimed all my bad thoughts at Hammond."

Curiously, even that failed to cheer him. He quirked a small, thin smile, but it fell almost immediately. "Thanks." He handed me his burden. "This is for you," he said, "courtesy of Admiral Teeheek. Hammond wanted the things for evidence--but your father convinced the admiral to release them."

With those words, I knew instantly what he'd brought me, contained within a large, lumpy white envelope. Levering myself upright, I slit the seal with an expressed claw, sure of what I'd find.

…And sure enough, the package contained everything Mayer had stolen from me, with the exception of my clothes. A collar; an ID card and a security clearance; a palm-reader; a wrist chrono--and one other, far more important item. Thanks, Dad, I thought. That's another dinner I owe you. I rather suspected he hadn't had an easy time talking Teeheek into letting the things go.

"Is that everything?" Stewart asked.

"Yes," I assured him. "It is. Thanks, Lieutenant. Very much."

That brought forth another small, sad smile. "You're welcome," he said. He turned to go, but at the door he paused and glanced back. "Whatever happens, Tom," he went on, "I just want you to know how sorry I am." And with those words--to which I wish I'd paid more attention--he departed.

I sat for some time then, gazing at the items in my lap. Most of them I set aside after a brief glance, just enough to reassure myself that they were still intact--but one I held for a long time in the palm of my hand, turning it over and over with my bandaged fingers. A circlet of gleaming, hand-tooled silver, inlaid with shimmering cabochons of ruby and narrow bands of malachite. Just an object, the product of Sah'aaran craftspeople whose names I didn't even know…and yet a large measure of what I felt for my bond-mate was bound up in it.

I had no idea how old that particular custom is, nor which of Sah'aar's three continents it originated on--though my mother could probably have told me. Nor did I care. But among our people it was nearly universal; even more so, in fact, than the human tradition of wedding rings. By no means could I claim to be pure, unadulterated Sah'aaran; I hated day-robes, and I loved baseball and Terran jazz. But bonding-bands were one part of my ancestral culture I'd been more than happy to adopt. The day Ehm'tassaa and I declared our lifelong pairing was perhaps the best of my life, a memory I will treasure forever. We sat together on a bench in the Embassy courtyard, she and I, and talked; and she tried hard not to stare at my mane, crew-cut in the Undercity and not yet begun to grow back. Then I brought out the little velvet-lined box. I was nervous, my hands clumsy, as I clasped the band around her ankle, but she smiled and nuzzled under my chin, and my hesitancy vanished. As always, her fingers were steady and confident. Afterwards we went upstairs to her quarters--and didn't emerge again for twenty-four hours. A day that passed far too quickly, as had all the others I'd spent with her.

…And now, lying there in a hospital bed on Centaurus Minor, I turned the little anklet over and over in my hands…and I smiled, despite a body still weak and wracked with pain, and a vast turbid ocean of trouble that seemed to have engulfed me to the tips of my ears. The hinge and pin-anchored clasp were undamaged; fortunately, Mayer had taken the time to unfasten the band, rather than simply breaking it. For long minutes I debated--then I threw aside the covers and drew my leg up into my lap. Without hesitation--before I had a chance to change my mind--I fastened the band back in place. Forever this time, the Goddess willing. Dad was right: what Tass didn't know wouldn't hurt her. Or me either.

###

My next visitor was invited. For once.

"You're looking better, Tom," Dr. Zriss said as she drew her coils into the room, and I smiled.

"I was about to say the same about you," I replied.

In fact she did--almost miraculously so. The last time I'd seen her, no more than a day ago, she'd been in terrible shape, her eyes wandering and unfocused, her movements slow and uncoordinated. Now she slithered steadily, with no need to hang onto anything, and those bloody orbs peered directly into mine. And she'd even returned to duty, at least to some extent: her pink bathrobe had been replaced by a shimmering light-blue sheath, her ID tag pinned to its breast. The wrapping of bandage had even been removed from her head. Of her injuries, the only remaining sign was her discolored, still-immobilized jaw; but even that seemed much less swollen and painful than before.

"Dr. Kiisriik of our Neurology Department remembered hearing of an experimental drug that was tested on Hattoa several years ago," she explained. "It is not without its hazards, but in many cases it has been shown to speed synaptic reconnection and encourage neural regeneration. And in fact it does seem to work remarkably well. I am not fully recovered, by any means; but Kiisriik is encouraged, and so am I." She paused. "I'm told you wanted to speak to me--?"

"Yes, I do." Reaching for the bed controls, I raised my head and shoulders, while the doctor draped herself across the rolling stool. I'd been dozing uneasily, post-dinner, while waiting for her, and it took me a moment to shake off the grogginess. She waited patiently.

"I have a few questions," I said. "Though maybe I ought to be talking to Dr. Kiisriik instead of you. It does involve neurology, in a way…"

"Not exactly my specialty," she agreed with a smile. "But I'll see what I can do." She paused. "Unless you mean Sah'aaran neurology. I'm afraid I can't help you there."

"No," I assured her quickly. "Human. One human in particular."

"Ah," she said. "I imagine that would be Lieutenant j.g. Albert Mayer, deceased."

"Exactly," I agreed. I paused, gathering my thoughts, then went on, "I'm sure you know what happened to him…"

Her eyes narrowed briefly, as in pain. "Yes," she said. "As his psychiatrist of record, I was required to review the autopsy records. Not pleasant."

"I've been wondering about his injuries," I said. "It seems pretty obvious that the shot to his chest was the fatal one, and that his face was damaged after he was dead."

She nodded. "That does seem to be the case."

"Which makes me wonder why it was done at all. My father seems to think it was done for reasons of terrorism: to send us a message, to show us how ruthless our enemies are. But I don't--can't--agree. I think it was done for some specific, practical reason."

"Such as?" Dr. Zriss asked blandly.

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," I said. "Our working theory is that Mayer was manipulated, somehow, and made to believe he was seeing and hearing Captain Antilles. If that's true, how could it have been accomplished?"

"Hypnosis would be one way," she mused. "As part of a program to increase his suggestibility. Hallucinatory drugs would be another. Or both together. To be honest, it wouldn't have taken much. Mayer's suggestibility was high to begin with."

"I don't know if there's a way to test for hypnosis," I said. "But there are ways to test for drugs. Were any found in his system while he was in custody?"

"No," she said. "Nothing unexpected, at least. He did take a mild serotonin enhancer, to treat depression, but we found no more of that in his system than we'd expected."

"Assume for a moment that he had been drugged," I said, "and that somehow you missed it. Would the burns on his face also have damaged his brain? Enough to destroy the evidence?"

She thought about that--and shook her head. "No," she said. "The drugs--if any--would have been spread throughout his body. The coroner would most definitely have found them. And the damage to his brain was minor, and restricted entirely to the frontal lobes."

I sighed. "Then I guess somebody was sending us a message," I said. "Sorry I wasted your time, Doctor."

"That's quite all right," she said kindly. "I must admit, Mayer's case has been preying on my mind as well, and--" She broke off then, and her eyes suddenly widened. "Great Khaal," she breathed. "Could it be--?"

"What is it?" I asked; but she didn't answer. Instead she pulled my data terminal toward her and keyed it. Her stick-like fingers rattled across the keys for a few seconds, and then she leaned back, shaking her head.

"So simple," she said. "So terribly simple."

"What?"

"In concentrating so completely on psychology, Tom, we completely forgot that the brain has external connections." She turned the screen toward me. It showed a document with which I was already quite familiar: Mayer's medical records. But it was his physical, rather than mental, profile that she'd brought up. "Including the eyes," she went on. "Ten years ago Mayer was diagnosed with a rare form of macular degeneration, a disease of the retina. The doctors were able to halt the process, but a certain amount of damage had already been done. To compensate, he was fitted with tiny devices, signal boosters if you will, which encircled the optic nerves behind his eyeballs. They amplified and clarified the data sent from his damaged retinas to his brain."

I nodded. "I knew about that." I'd noticed when I first met him that he squinted constantly, as if he couldn't stand the light; though later, in the darkness of the museum, his eyes had been wide-open. And when he hung me up? I asked myself; but I couldn't remember. I'd had a few other things on my mind at the time. I recalled too that Dad had found that same notation in Mayer's file. "But I don't quite see--"

"We knew the implants were there," Zriss explained. "We had no reason to examine them. But it occurs to me now that--in theory at least--they could have been altered to feed information directly into Mayer's brain, via his optic nerves."

I sat up straight, my claws tingling. "Like an image of Antilles?"

She shook her head. "Nothing that specific, or complex. But simple subliminal messages, yes. Which over a period of time could conceivably have been used to program him like a computer."

"But how would they be sent?" I asked. "Radio waves would be too easily detected."

"True," she said. She paused, staring up at the glowing ceiling, then said, "Light. His implants could have been altered to pick up information from flashes or flickers of the ambient lighting, too rapid for the rest of us to detect. I'll have to check with the ophthalmology department, but…"

"But you're right," I said grimly. "You must be right. Burning off his face didn't do much damage to his brain--but I'll bet it destroyed those implants."

###

As he gazed at the little bedside screen, Dad's eyes widened first in astonishment, then narrowed in thought. Finally he leaned back and squeezed my shoulder. "Good work, Tom," he said. "I really think you're on to something here."

"Thanks," I said. "But I can't take much credit: it was Dr. Zriss' idea."

"True," Commander Reid put in, from his station near the door. "But it's an idea she most likely wouldn't have had, if not for you. Possibly no one would have. Even me: I never gave the matter of Mayer's facial injuries the thought it deserved."

I felt my ears redden. "It is possible, then?"

Dad shook his head. "Not my area of expertise," he said. "Commander?"

It was then early evening; about half an hour had passed since my discussion with Dr. Zriss. The moment she'd departed--on her way to her next treatment--I'd pounced on the comm; and this time I'd located my father instantly. I might have wished he'd come alone--but no such luck. Reid, however, I could endure. Hammond and Lummis were another story; fortunately, neither of them was present.

Reid paused, rubbing his chin with his forefinger. "I'm not an engineer," he said. "Much less a biotechnician. But from what I've heard about Mayer's implants, and the results of some experiments that were done on Centaurus a decade ago--I'd have to say yes. It is. And diabolically clever as well. Entirely hands-off, once the modifications to the implants had been completed--and almost completely undetectable."

"Then obviously," Dad said, "Mayer's killer knew about those buggered implants--and burned his face to destroy the evidence."

"Unquestionably," Reid agreed. "And did all too good a job of it, I fear." He held up his reader. "I've just been checking the autopsy report. The implants were indeed cooked--if you'll pardon the expression--along with Mayer's eyeballs. If they were indeed tampered with, it can no longer be proved."

"Not that way, at least," Dad mused.

"Pardon me, Mr. Abrams?"

Dad looked up in surprise, almost as if he hadn't been aware he was speaking aloud. "There may be one piece of evidence remaining. This is a secure installation--in theory, at least. There are cameras everywhere--including many places Mayer would have been. The Officer's Mess, the control room of the mass-driver where he was stationed." He glanced at me. "Even the museum."

"Doubtless true," Reid said. "And your point--?"

"The recordings from those cameras," Dad said. "If we play them back at extremely slow speed, we might be able to detect the flickering of the room lights Dr. Zriss mentioned."

Reid nodded. "I'll order a search immediately." He flashed a quick, tight-lipped grin. "Commander Hammond needs something to do, I daresay, now that we've located Mr. Lummis."

"How did your meeting with Admiral Teeheek go?" I asked him.

Reid shook his head. "Painfully," he said. "Though in other circumstances it might have been amusing to watch Hammond. He couldn't decide whether to be angry or mortified--though he had a right to either. And I fear Mr. Lummis only made the situation worse: he's quite pleased he was able to fool CF Security--and utterly unable to conceal his pleasure. Admiral Teeheek would like nothing more than to ship him off-planet; but unfortunately, she can't. The Alliance government has demanded a role in this investigation, and Admiral Brewer has agreed. For the time being, Lummis stays."

"Meaning we're still locked down?" I asked.

"Yes," Reid agreed. "Mayer is dead, but we still have a saboteur and a murderer in our midst. I suspect they are one and the same person."

"Who?" I muttered, half to myself, but Reid overheard.

"An excellent question," he said. "And one my superiors would like very much to have answered."

"Commander," I said, "do you believe the PPS really is involved?"

"Thus far," he said carefully, "they are the only group that fits the facts as we know them. No others have made threats against the Isaac Haliday project, as the Society assuredly has--albeit veiled and indirect ones. And Mr. Lummis was correct: they have also hinted that something dire may soon happen to the colony on New Sah'aar. Why do you ask, Tom?"

"Two reasons," I said. "First--well, despite everything, I'd always hoped it wasn't them. The fact is, I agree with a lot of what they stand for. Except terrorism, of course," I added quickly.

"So do I," Reid said evenly. "As any thinking person should. And many of their members are entirely reasonable individuals, opposed to violence. But those few who do advocate terrorism--they must be stopped, before they cause further harm."

"I agree," I said. I paused, and swallowed. "The other reason is my mother--and my sister. You probably know where they are now, and what they're doing…"

"I do," Reid said. "And I agree, there is cause for concern. But thus far, I've heard of no disruptions to the conference on Quadria--and Admiral Brewer has been in contact with the authorities there, advising them to increase their security precautions. I suspect Commodore Ehm'ayla and your sister will have nothing to fear."

I smiled. "Thanks." His words were reassuring, in their way; but still, I couldn't entirely rid myself of a feeling of impending doom. Silly, probably; as Dad said, Mom was more than able to take care of herself. But still…Reid had said something about "synchronicity"--and I had a hard time believing that the sudden reappearance of the PPS and New Sah'aar in our lives was a mere coincidence. But for the moment, there was nothing I could do.

Dad cleared his throat. "Do you have anything more for us, Tom?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Not right now. But I'll let you know."

"Good," he said. "And I do mean that, son. You've definitely inherited your mother's talent for lateral thinking."

I grinned. "Thanks--I think."

They departed then, and on the way out, Dad took hold of Reid's elbow. "Commander, I wonder if you could dig up some facts for me…"

Alone again then, just me and my thoughts--and when the nurse arrived a while later to give me a med-patch, I didn't try to resist. In fact I'd requested it.

###

The "prisoner" business had been forgotten, it seemed--and good riddance.

The next morning after breakfast, as I lay rejoicing in the fact that I was feeling a great deal better, Dad arrived, a smile on his face and a bundle of my own clothing under his arm.

"It's moving day," he announced cheerfully. "Among other things. The docs have decided you're well enough to come back to our quarters--if you want to, that is."

"I'd like nothing better," I told him. Which wasn't quite true, but close enough. In fact the solitude and sameness of that little blank room had begun to take a toll on my nerves--I am Sah'aaran, after all. Mom wouldn't have lasted half an hour.

"And," Dad went on, seating himself on the foot of my bed, "we've been invited to another meeting."

"Will I be a participant, or a poker chip?" I asked, as I eased myself out of bed and toward the bathroom.

"Participant," Dad assured me. "That bit of information you came up with--yes, I know, it was actually Dr. Zriss'--really impressed Commander Reid. He's convinced Admiral Teeheek to include you in all the meetings from now on."

"And that's a good thing how, exactly?" I asked wryly--but I closed the bathroom door on Dad's cutting reply.

A little less than half an hour later, my father and I, closely shadowed by a Security officer, made our way to a meeting room on the fifth floor. Once again I felt more like myself, rather than, say, a lump of kelp washed up on Asilomar Beach after a winter storm. During the night, the clumsy gloves of dermapatch had evaporated from my hands and feet, leaving my frost-nipped fingers and toes tender and temporarily furless, but once again fully functional. My various bruises and contusions were better too, most of the swelling gone; only the elastic wrap around my ribs remained to remind me of my adventures; that, and the sharp twinge in my side whenever I made a too-sudden movement. Properly dressed, with a collar around my neck and my bonding-band embracing my ankle, I once again felt like a real Sah'aaran. I can't say I was ready for anything; but my claws were newly-sharpened, and so too--I hoped--were my wits.

The meeting, having grown too large for the admiral's office, convened in one of the mid-sized briefing lounges, not unlike the one where Dad and I had attended the life-support focus groups. A dozen chairs were arranged around the large rectangular table, and the huge bank of windows beyond was filled with the surreal beauty of the Centaurus Minor evening. Among many other things, the perpetual night had begun to depress me--but daylight, so I'd been assured, was only a day or so away; and when I saw what would accompany the dawn, I might find myself missing the darkness.

Most of the participants were already there, occupying seats as far from each other as they could get. Commander Hammond, his arms crossed over his chest, looked tired and glum. Reid, taciturn and watchful as ever, acknowledged our greetings with a nod, then returned to his perusal of his palm-reader. And Lummis, who appeared slightly out of his depth, gave us a wave and a half-nervous smile. As yet, the seat at the head of the table was unoccupied.

Dad and I helped ourselves to coffee from an urn on a table near the door, and Dad selected a huge, dripping jelly donut from an overflowing tray. We took seats near Commander Reid--thus clearly advertising our loyalties, though that didn't occur to me at the time--and I leaned back, gratefully sipping the first decent coffee I'd had in days. Definitely someone's private stock.

We had not long to wait--just time enough for Dad to wolf down his donut--before Admiral Teeheek arrived. Like Hammond, she looked exhausted and grim, her eyes dull and her crest lying flat atop her skull. Reid and Hammond came to attention as she swept in, and after a brief pause, both Lummis and I rose as well--but Dad, rather pointedly, did not. She appeared not to notice, and she headed immediately to her seat, ignoring the refreshments table.

"Good morning, gentlemen," she said as she settled in, rustling her feathers. "Tom, I am pleased to see you looking so much better."

I bowed. "Thank you, Admiral."

She glanced around. "I have called this meeting so we may pool our knowledge," she went on. "Far from solving anything, the death of Mr. Mayer has caused the situation to escalate drastically. So," she said, spearing us in turn with her gaze, "who goes first?"

Beside me, Reid stirred. "With your permission, Admiral," he said, "I will. I have here some information requested by Mr. Abrams, which may be of interest to us all. May I proceed?"

Teeheek nodded. "Please do," she said. "At this point, anything factual will be a welcome change."

Reid keyed his palm-reader. "Almost from the beginning," he said, "this situation has revolved around the late Captain Antilles. Mr. Abrams asked me to confirm the details of the captain's demise." He glanced at his reader. "Mark Sumner Antilles, former captain of the SV Raven. Sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, for crimes committed while in CF service, including murder, conspiracy, insubordination, and the violation of the civil rights of officers under his command. Sent to the penal colony of Pharos III approximately twenty-five years ago." He paused. "Fifteen years ago, killed in an accident while on a labor detail. Working to prepare ground for a new housing wing, he and eleven other convicts were caught in a landslide and crushed to death."

Dad had listened impassively, staring out the window, but with those last few words he looked up sharply. "A landslide, Commander?"

"Yes."

Dad chuckled bitterly. "Poetic justice, that," he said--and with the possible exception of Reid, I was the only one who knew what he meant. "There's no possibility of mistake, Commander?"

Reid paused. "He was declared dead," he said, "and the evidence seems to support that conclusion. A number of people saw Antilles and the others swept away by a huge mass of earth and rock. An excavation uncovered several of the bodies, badly mangled--but not his. Given the extreme unlikelihood that he had survived, however, the warden decided that the labor was better spent elsewhere, and called off the search."

Dad's eyebrows rose. "That is…extremely…interesting."

"Dad," I said, "he must be dead. All those witnesses…"

He shook himself. "Yes," he said. "Of course you're right." He glanced at Reid. "And the other names I gave you--?"

Reid consulted his reader again. "Olivia Edgeworth, former First Officer of SV Raven. Also convicted of murder, conspiracy and other crimes. Sentenced to life imprisonment, sent to the penal colony on Tasmin IV, where she still is. Peter Harris, former Security Chief of Raven; convicted of murder, as he was the trigger-man in the death of Lieutenant Commander Morada. Sentenced to life in prison, but became irrational soon after his arrival on Pharos III, and was transferred to a psychiatric facility." Reid flashed a sardonic grin. "He also claims to see and hear Captain Antilles."

"And the last?" Dad asked.

"That one was a challenge," Reid said. "Wallace 'Wally' Osgood, formerly a Techspec trainee aboard SV Raven. Convicted of gross insubordination, conspiracy, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, but paroled in ten, with time off for good behavior. Subsequently worked for a biotechnology firm on Quadria, but was dismissed eight years ago. Why, I have not yet determined. Current whereabouts unknown."

Across the room, Lummis suddenly frowned. "Did you say 'Osgood,' Commander?"

"Yes," Reid confirmed. "Wallace Osgood. Why do you ask?"

"I'm not certain yet," Lummis replied. He keyed his reader and tapped busily on its screen. "Give me a moment."

"You say he worked for a biotech firm?" Dad asked.

"Yes," Reid repeated. "And your point, Mr. Abrams?"

"Mayer's eye implants," Dad said. "It may be sheer coincidence--but if they weren't a prime example of biotechnology, I don't know what is."

Reid's eyebrows rose, but before he could speak, Lummis suddenly rose and crossed the room. He handed his reader to Dad. "Is this your Mr. Osgood?"

I peered over Dad's shoulder. The holo that filled the little screen was an example of what they used to call a "mug shot": just a face--and a grim-looking one at that. It belonged to a human male in his mid-forties, with close-cut dark hair, unfathomable brown eyes, a narrow face, a sardonic curl to his lips, and a long, puckered scar that crossed his right cheek from temple to chin. Dad nodded. "Yes," he said. "That's him. Older, of course, than when I knew him. Where--?"

"This image," Lummis explained, as he handed the reader around, "was one of several sent to me several days ago by the AIB, as part of a list of persons known to have had dealings with the Planetary Preservation Society--or more specifically, its more radical element."

Dad's jaw dropped. "Good God!" he said, horrified. "You don't mean--?"

Lummis quirked an eyebrow. "I don't know what I mean, Joel. Why don't you tell us?"

Dad leaned back, shaking his head, his face pale and haggard. I hadn't seen him this upset since they wheeled my sister into surgery, more than three years ago. "If what I suspect is true," he said finally, "if Osgood is on this planet, and if he was the one pulling Mayer's strings…then we are all in a great deal of danger--but my son and myself most of all."

###

Admiral Teeheek raised her hand, stilling the murmur that circled the table. "What do you mean, Mr. Abrams?" she asked.

"Something never felt right to me," Dad said. "We've all wondered about Mayer's motives, and a number of speculations have been floated--not the least my own. None of them, though, really satisfied me. But this--" he nodded at Lummis' reader, lying in the center of the table. "This does. Mayer had no reason to hate my wife, my son--or me. But Osgood does, very much so. It was Ehm'ayla's testimony, and mine, that sent him to prison."

"I have read the files regarding the Raven scandal," Teeheek said, "and I know of Osgood's role. He was assigned by Captain Antilles to be a provocateur, with the intention of goading your wife into losing control. But what would be his interest in the PPS?"

"It's been my experience," Dad said flatly, "that organizations with a radial social agenda tend to collect more than their fair share of…kooks. Often they're people who don't give a damn about the group's goals. Their only desire is to cause chaos and destruction. Sometimes they'll even switch sides, if the opposition proves more amenable to violence."

"And Osgood is that sort of person?" Teeheek asked.

Dad nodded tiredly. "I believe so," he said. "Or rather, the Osgood I knew could easily have become such. Aboard Raven he was a bully; he loved to throw his weight around. On any other ship that behavior wouldn't have been tolerated--but Antilles found him useful." He paused. "He'd have cause to hate the CF as well; he may have seen this as a chance to strike back at them."

"Let me get this straight," Hammond said, in tones of outrage. "You're saying this man, this Osgood, is here in the Fabrication Center?"

"I'm saying he may very well be," Dad corrected. "If he is, it explains a lot. And remember, we still have to account for Mayer's death. If he went beyond Osgood's control, or if he was no longer useful…"

Hammond shook his head. "No," he said flatly. "Impossible."

Reid cleared his throat. "A curious statement," he said, "given what we know. Mayer was able to successfully evade your search for several days, and might have continued to do so indefinitely. So too did Agent Lummis."

"Yes," Hammond snapped. "But that's different. Lummis had--" He broke off, his eyes widening, and his voice dropped to a near-whisper. "--help."

Reid nodded. "Precisely," he said. "If Mr. Osgood--or any other terrorist agent--has been operating in this shipyard, he too has had help. If our notions of how Mayer was manipulated are correct, someone must have had substantial access to the environmental controls, to program the subliminal impulses into the lighting system. Have you investigated that, by the way?"

"Yes," Hammond said thickly. "We have. Security tapes from the places Mayer frequented--such as the mass-driver control room--do show some odd flicker patterns, when the playbacks are greatly slowed. We're still trying to decipher the pulses." He glanced at me. "The tape from the museum--the day Mayer shot Tom--shows them too."

Reid nodded in satisfaction. "As expected," he said. "We must now determine whether Mr. Osgood truly is here. Agent Lummis, far be it for me to tell you how to do your job, but may I suggest you check the records of the civilian spaceports?"

Lummis nodded. "I will," he said. "But it will take time."

"Unavoidable," Reid said grimly. "And Mr. Hammond, would you please review the security recordings from the last several weeks, and see if any of your cameras have caught sight of anyone who can't be accounted for?"

Hammond glanced at Teeheek for confirmation, and she nodded. "Yes," he said. "Sir."

"Excellent." Reid turned to Dad. "I understand you were Osgood's supervisor for more than a year?"

"Yes," Dad said, "but that was a long time ago."

"Granted," Reid replied. "But even so, you are the closest thing we have to an authority on his character. Your thoughts, your insights, will be most welcome."

Dad shrugged. "I'll tell you everything I can."

"Do you seriously intend to go chasing after this…phantom?" Hammond demanded. "Just because he's on Lummis' list…"

"I do," Reid told him firmly. "Because he would appear to be our only lead." He paused and shook his head. "No," he corrected himself. "Not quite. There's also the person who helped him. Find him--or her--and you may well find Osgood too."

###

"At this rate," Dad said glumly, "your mother and Rae may be home before we are."

"That reminds me," I said, through a mouthful of steak. "What exactly are we going to tell them, when they ask what we've been up to?"

He glanced at me over the top of his reader. "Good question," he said. "Let me know when you come up with an answer."

We'd gone up to the Officer's Mess for lunch, he and I; at the moment, there was little else we could do. The admiral's strategy meeting had broken up almost before it started, as Hammond and Lummis both departed to go chasing after Osgood. Soon afterward Teeheek excused herself too, no doubt to compose a report to the Admirals. Left alone, and with all our business sitting in the "pending" file, Dad, Reid and I decided to examine the security tapes Hammond had located. As it turned out, there was hours of footage available, far more than we had the stamina to watch. Nor was it necessary.

As Dad had surmised, most of the Fabrication Center's interior spaces were monitored constantly by security cameras. Only the private living areas seemed exempt. Mayer--who, as we already knew, hadn't had much of a life--had spent the majority of his time in just two places, apart from his quarters: the control room of the mass driver and the Officer's Mess, with occasional forays to the PX and the gym. And when the recordings taken in those areas were slowed to a crawl, it became obvious that the ceiling lights had indeed been flickering in a complex pattern--but only when Mayer was present. It was quite eerie to watch, because he could be quite clearly seen to react: when the flashing started, he would pause in whatever he was doing. Just for a fraction of a second, and not enough to attract anyone's attention--unless you knew what to look for. Clearly the messages, whatever they might contain, were reaching him on some not-quite conscious level. More significantly, recordings from the same areas, taken when Mayer was not there, showed the lights rock-steady.

To me, the most fascinating (not to say horrifying) tape was that taken in the museum, in the minutes before Mayer shot me. Using recordings from several cameras, Hammond had assembled a montage, tracking Mayer as he searched for me. The flickers followed him, room to room, corridor to corridor; and finally, in the Zelazny gallery, they reached an almost fever pitch. I was surprised I hadn't noticed--but dramatic as it seemed on the slow-motion tapes, we were dealing with something far below the level of conscious perception, even for a Sah'aaran. The evidence, though, seemed incontestable--and even now, almost an hour later, the images on those recordings still haunted me. Probably they always would.

…But finally we'd called a halt, and now there we were, my father and I, at a table near the windows, far removed from the few others present, and under the watchful eye not only of a security guard but (as I now knew) five cameras as well. It was a rather silent meal; I sat pensively staring out the window, watching the slow rise of Centaurus, while across from me my father, a frown on his face, picked absently at a salad as he scribbled on his palm-reader. He was, I guessed, trying to remember everything he could about Wally Osgood--and judging from his expression, it wasn't a pleasant exercise.

Those flickers had obviously contained some kind of binary code, which Mayer's implants had been modified to translate and send directly to his brain. And obviously too, the signals had to be kept at a subliminal level; had he become conscious of them, he might have resisted. Probably they'd been simple messages, constantly repeated, which over a period of time had built up a picture in his mind. Was the image of Captain Antilles intentional, I wondered, or a product of his own imagination? Probably we'd never know.

What we did know, with a fair degree of certainty, was how long it had been going on: no more than four weeks, a remarkably short time. The recordings prior to then were free of flickers. Also--no doubt significantly--before that time he'd squinted a good deal less. Goddess, if only someone had noticed! I thought. If he'd been hauled in for an eye exam, the doctors might have discovered the altered implants.

Which brought an intriguing thought to mind: when would Mayer's next scheduled physical exam have been? Surely the doctors couldn't have failed to notice how much he'd changed…

My palm-reader was in my shirt pocket, and it should still contain Mayer's personnel file, which I'd downloaded while I was still in protective custody. I hauled it out and keyed it…and realized instantly that something was wrong.

Since the reader had been returned to me, I'd had no reason to use it; after assuring myself that it was still in one piece, I'd simply stuck it in the drawer of the bedside table. The last time I'd used it, days ago, it had contained only one thing besides Mayer's file: a map of the Fabrication Center. But now, strangely, I saw that a third file had been added. It was fairly large--and it was not of my making. I brought it up…

It was some seconds before I could speak, and when finally I did, my strangled tones attracted my father's attention instantly. "Dad--?"

He looked up sharply. "What's wrong?"

I slid the reader across to him. "You'd better take a look at this," I said. "It's Mayer. He appears to have left us a parting shot."


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