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
"It's not what I'd call an easy read," Dad said. He grimaced. "In fact it's barely comprehensible." He glanced at me, and the reader I clutched tightly, lest someone try to take it away. "And it's not his life-story, not in the strictest sense. It's more like a stream of consciousness. There's little rhyme or reason to the way the thoughts are presented; obviously he just scribbled down whatever came into his head."
"And how much of it did you say there is, Mr. Abrams?" Admiral Teeheek asked.
Dad rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "If it was printed, I'd say more than a hundred pages." He shook his head. "And no, we haven't tried to read it all."
We'd reconvened in that fifth-floor meeting room, after a brief--but annoying--wait while the admiral was tracked down. This time, though, only four of us were present: Hammond and Lummis had not yet completed the tasks to which Reid had set them. As Dad spoke, the Special Investigator sat staring out the window; now he turned, raising his hand. "An observation, if I may," he said. "Mayer had possession of Tom's reader for only two days. You're saying that in such a short time, he managed to compose the equivalent of more than a hundred pages of text?"
"Most likely not," Dad agreed. "Probably the bulk of it was written elsewhere--on another reader, perhaps, or on a terminal--and then transferred into Tom's unit."
"Meaning," Reid mused, "that he intended it to be found--and by us."
"Exactly," Dad said.
"If Mayer did have another reader," Teeheek pointed out, "it has not been found."
"Nor has the stinger he stole when he escaped from the medical center," Reid said. "Which his killer no doubt confiscated. But not the items in the shelter--either because they were of no importance, or because the murderer feared leaving DNA traces."
I was scarcely listening. Dad and I had uploaded a copy of Mayer's manifesto into the Center's computer, for study by Reid and the others; but the original still resided in my palm-reader, and even as my companions argued, I sat slumped in my chair, obsessively turning pages. The horror and outrage with which I'd begun were slowly fading into something more like pity, as I began to understand that Mayer had been a victim too. Even more so than me: while I was still breathing, he was occupying a long cold drawer in the morgue.
Dad was right: it wasn't an autobiography. My sister sometimes experimented with what she called "non-objective" writing (and what I called "meaningless gibberish); but even that was limpid as a mountain stream compared to some of Mayer's ramblings. I don't mean that his sentences were too complex, or too full of archaic phrases; I mean that words all too often conveyed no meaning at all. I could only assume he'd written those lines while deep in a hallucinatory state.
And yet…as I read, I'd begun to piece together what kind of man Mayer had been. Someone had manipulated him--that seemed undeniable now--but they'd had no real idea what they were doing, nor of the strength of Mayer's inner demons. The man who'd shot at me in the museum had been firmly under someone's control--but the one who strung me up in the dome hadn't. Not entirely--and maybe not at all. He had been motivated first and foremost by the need to purge the devils that haunted him.
His killer knew he was out of control, I realized. Whoever had programmed him must finally have realized that his demons had taken over--and seen no other alternative but to kill him. And then to destroy, as much as possible, the evidence of manipulation.
Near the end of the document I found a string of sentences--he didn't use paragraphs--that chilled me to the bone. They were, by that point in the manuscript, among the very few that were anywhere near coherent. I almost went back. Four or five times I almost went back and let him loose. A part of me kept screaming, "Good God, what have you done?" But another part kept whispering "Kill him, kill him, kill him and you'll be free!" I made up my mind to go back, stun him, take him down, and leave him somewhere in the tunnels, where they'd find him. She wanted me to. I could see it in Her eyes. But They wouldn't let me. I lay and cried for hours--until I was sure he was dead. But They lied. I wasn't free. I gathered the things I'd taken from him and offered them to Her. But it didn't help. They told me She is evil, and that by destroying Her spawn I'd destroy Her. But She's still here too, and won't stop looking at me…
It wasn't hard to guess who She was--but the identity of Them was a bit more problematic. Possibly Mayer was speaking literally. We knew he was being manipulated, and Dad suspected Osgood of being the puppet-master. Perhaps he was one component of Them; but if so, who were the others? Or possibly They were figments of Mayer's damaged imagination. By the time he wrote those words, his grasp on reality was almost nil; he even personified inanimate objects. Probably the most likely explanation was a combination of both. We had evidence that the specter of Antilles had been part of Mayer's programming. Maybe They were the real Osgood and the phantom captain. We might never know.
Which reminds me--but before I could key my way back to the beginning, I was interrupted by the arrival of Hammond and Lummis.
They entered together, and their faces were so resolutely grim that all conversation ceased immediately, and Reid, leaning back with his hands behind his head, brought himself bolt upright. I knew how he felt. Hammond had spent the morning meeting staring at Lummis with undisguised hostility, and small wonder; but now their differences seemed to have been entirely forgotten, and that was ominous. I clicked off my reader and stuffed it into my pocket.
"I take it you have discovered something, gentlemen?" Teeheek asked.
"We have, Admiral," Hammond said flatly, He nodded to Lummis, a "you first" gesture, and the smaller man crossed the room to the computer terminal and holoscreen on the rear wall. As he spoke he punched buttons.
"My search was neither as long nor as difficult as I'd feared," he said. "In fact it was remarkably brief." The screen lit, and he stepped aside, giving us all a clear view.
We found ourselves gazing at a still picture, an oblique overhead view of a large crowd of people, a mixture mainly of humans and Centaurii, caught in the act of exiting a tube-shuttle onto a wide, brightly-lit platform within a transparent tube, with a riotous growth of jungle greenery beyond its walls. Something about it tickled my memory, and a second later Lummis confirmed my suspicions.
"We are looking at an image taken by a security camera at the Discovery Valley shuttle station," he said. "From a recording made exactly forty-two days ago. The people you see here have just arrived from Centaurus' capital city. Watch now." He touched a button and, in half a dozen jerky steps, the image zoomed in and shifted to the left, finally coming to rest on a single, partially-obscured figure. A human male, he wore a nondescript black suit and carried a silver travel case on a strap over his shoulder. Because of the extreme magnification, the face was an unrecognizable blur; but Lummis punched more buttons, and gradually, pixel by pixel, the features resolved. And as they did, my father cursed sharply under his breath.
"Osgood," he said grimly.
Lummis nodded. "The computer agrees with you," he said. "To the tune of a ninety-three percent probability." He paused, and quirked a smile. "He registered for the flight, though, as a 'Mr. Antilles.'"
Dad chuckled. "Did he really?" he said. Behind his smile, though, I detected the sound of a mind hard at work. Something--I had no idea what--had caught his attention.
"And what did he do after he arrived?" Reid asked.
"That's harder to say," Lummis replied, sounding disappointed. "If he checked into any hotel in the city, he did so under yet another pseudonym. And of course he might have gone to a private residence instead. I have the cooperation of the civil authorities--but it will take time to review security tapes, interview desk clerks, and so on."
"And it might be academic anyway," Hammond said. "May I?" he asked, and Lummis stepped aside with a bow.
Hammond wiped the image from the screen, and called up another. "I didn't have quite as much luck as Agent Lummis," he said over his shoulder. "Until I played a hunch. I decided to review the tapes from our own shuttle hangar, from the day of the crash. What I found was this."
What he showed us was another overhead view--but a moving one this time. We were looking at a small segment of a very large structure, the huge half- buried dome where the CF shuttles were stored. To the left, distorted by the wide-angle view, was a grey, curved structure that appeared to be the rear end of a vessel; behind was the ribbed wall of the dome. The lighting was poor, and the only motion seemed to be a dribble of vapor from one of the shuttle's thruster vents. "This is the very ship that crashed," Hammond said. "This footage was taken one hour before it lifted off." He glanced around. "During that time--as you know--the flight was delayed, while we searched for Mr. Lummis." He spoke those last few words matter-of-factly, with no hint of accusation; evidently he believed we'd gone beyond that. He went on, "In theory, all pre-flight maintenance should have already been completed. But observe."
Even as he spoke, a figure entered the field of view from the right. Once again human, male, and dark-haired, this person wore a green CF-issue jumpsuit, and carried a bulky toolbox. As the intruder strode purposefully toward the shuttle, Hammond touched controls, freezing the image and zooming it in. This time the lighting was poor, and the man's face partly in profile; but even so, those sharp, sardonic features were unmistakable.
"The computer isn't as certain this time," Hammond said. "But it gives an eighty-six percent probability that this is also our Mr. Osgood."
There came a moment of silence, as the implications of those words sunk in. I might have asked why this hadn't been found before--but I already knew the answer. Security cameras are everywhere, always snooping …but there is seldom enough manpower to monitor them all, or to review all those thousands of hours of recordings. Finally Admiral Teeheek clicked her beak. "And what exactly did he do, Commander?"
"Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell," Hammond said. He touched a button, and the frozen figure sprang to life, vanishing behind the shuttle's engine bells. "He remained out of sight for about fifteen minutes," the Security chief went on, "and then left the hangar as quickly as he'd entered."
"Long enough to complete the sabotage that caused the crash?" Teeheek asked.
Hammond hesitated, and Dad cut in: "Absolutely," he said. "For a CF-trained Techspec. Which Osgood is, God help us." He nodded at the screen. "We know what was done--and that recording does show Osgood headed toward the correct maintenance hatch."
Reid cleared his throat. "Need we debate this?" he asked. "The shuttle was sabotaged; it did crash. We now know that Osgood was near the ship shortly before it lifted off--and I doubt he was there to make repairs, out of the goodness of his heart. We have far more fundamental concerns. How did Osgood enter this facility, for one; and worse, how did he gain access to secured areas? Obviously this Center has been compromised more severely than I'd dared believe."
As he spoke, he gazed directly at Hammond; and the larger man turned away, his face reddening. "Mr. Reid is correct," Admiral Teeheek said, in soft, almost icy tones. "But he has left it to me to ask the obvious question. How did this happen, Mr. Hammond?"
The words emerged one at a time, from between clenched teeth. "Admiral, as yet I have no explanation," Hammond said. "But I will, before this day is out."
"I hope so," Teeheek said. She turned to Reid. "What is your recommendation?" she asked--and I suspect she already knew, long before she spoke.
Reid hesitated, gazing sidelong at Hammond. Finally, choosing each word with care, he said, "Admiral, I understand your desire for this matter to be handled locally, with your own resources. But that's no longer possible. My orders from Admiral Brewer are clear, and he has authorized me to take any steps necessary." He drew a deep breath. "First and foremost--Commander Hammond, as of this moment you are relieved of any authority in this matter."
Hammond stiffened, but remained silent, and nodded sharply.
"And second," Reid said, "I fear the time has come for me to push the panic button. I have no choice but to contact Admiral Brewer and request that additional forces be sent from Centaurus. As a major source of material for the construction of CF vessels, this facility's security must be protected."
Admiral Teeheek sat for a moment, gazing out the window. Probably she was saying goodbye to her career. If troops were landed, proving that she'd lost control of the situation…then her tenure as shipyard commander was likely to be short indeed. But Reid was right, and she was too consummate an officer not to recognize that. "Yes, Commander," she said, quietly and reluctantly. "I believe that is indeed the best plan."
"Mayer knew he was being manipulated," I said.
Dad and I had returned to our quarters late that afternoon, to find that there were now no less than two guards at the door--which did little, if anything, to make me feel safer. As soon as we entered, I made straight for the bed. I was not in need of sleep--I'd had enough of that to last me a while--but I did definitely need to rest. By no means was I back to full strength, not yet, and my ribs were aching. Lying on my back with the pillows bulked behind me, I once again keyed my way into Mayer's stream of consciousness.
…And if I was feeling just a little disoriented too, I think I can be forgiven. Over the past few days I'd been bounced around like the little steel spheres in the 20th-Century pinball machine I used to play at the antique mall. Guest quarters, protective custody, sickbay…it felt as if I'd left a little of myself in all three places. Seldom had Pacific Grove seemed quite so attractive.
Dad glanced up from the computer terminal. "Pardon me, son?"
"Mayer knew he was being manipulated," I repeated. "But he didn't know how, or by whom. It took him a while to catch on--he seems at first to have thought it was some kind of supernatural manifestation. Listen to this--it's from early in the manuscript."
I cleared my throat and quoted. "'I didn't know what was happening to me. I would be sitting at my control panel, or in the Officer's Mess…and my eyes would begin to ache. It was as if the lights had suddenly become ten times brighter. For a minute or two everything would be a blur. Then it would go away. Then one night in my quarters I saw a face in the midst of all that swirling color. Just for an instant. I thought it was my imagination--but it happened again, and again, and finally I recognized the face: it was Him."
"Him being Captain Antilles, I presume?" Dad said.
"I guess so," I agreed. "Though as it happens, Mayer never mentions him by name--at least not that I can find." I went on: "'He kept getting stronger and stronger--and finally I could hear Him too. I'd thought He was dead--but He told me that was only His body. He began to pressure me. There were things He wanted me to do--and He wouldn't let me alone, wouldn't let me rest, until I had. Terrible things, illegal things…He made me break my Combined Forces oaths. But I had to do what He wanted. I couldn't resist, couldn't report what was happening-- because nobody would believe me, and I'd never be rid of Him. He swore to haunt me until I died, if I didn't obey. But what He finally wanted me to do…I couldn't. I told Him I couldn't kill someone--especially not a boy who had done no one any harm. But He pounded at me, wouldn't let me sleep…He kept turning the lights up higher and higher until I thought my eyes were on fire. Finally I had to obey. I found the laser torch where He said it would be--"
Dad whirled. "You mean Mayer didn't steal the torch himself?"
"Apparently not," I said. "It reads as if someone else did, and hid it somewhere for him to find. But his grasp on reality…"
Dad nodded grimly. "I know," he said. "So--you say he discovered he was being manipulated?"
I nodded. "Yes," I said. "After that day in the museum. Listen: 'It was quiet in the Medical Center. At first He didn't come at all--I think maybe because my head hurt too much. I told Commander Hammond what had happened, and as I'd thought, Hammond didn't believe me. I was glad to learn I hadn't killed the Sah'aaran boy; I was even glad that he'd made me hit my head. For a while I thought I was free--but I wasn't. After a while He came back, stronger than ever. But this time there was a difference: I could see that He wasn't alone. There was someone else there, standing behind Him. I couldn't tell who it was--he seemed to be masked or shrouded, like the puppeteers in a Bunraku theater. I began to realize that He was one of those puppets--and the other was controlling Him. I wondered why I hadn't seen that before--and that's when I knew that I was a puppet too. He told me I had to break out--that there were still jobs for me to do. But I couldn't do it any more. I wouldn't do it any more. Not for a mannequin. I called for Dr. Zriss--and when she arrived I tried to tell her what was happening. But all the time They were there, behind her, gesturing, mocking her, breaking my concentration. Finally the puppet-master jumped in front of her. I struck at him--but I hit her instead. They were screaming at me, telling me to run, run, get out…and I did. There was a guard; I took his stinger, and I ran. But I didn't follow Them. Not any more."
Dad rested his chin on the backs of his hands. "That makes sense," he said. "After he tackled the guard and grabbed his weapon, he made his way down into the service tunnels, through sections that weren't in use. They'd have been all but dark, the lights turned low to conserve energy…there'd be no way Osgood could control him down there; no way to manipulate the lights without leading the searchers directly to him. And that was doubly true after they shut down all the domes."
I nodded. "On some level Mayer must have known that," I agreed. "But not consciously."
"By that time Osgood's manipulation had all but destroyed Mayer's sanity," I said. "You'd think that getting away, getting to a place where he couldn't be programmed any more, would bring him back to rationality--but it didn't. In fact it seems to have done just the opposite." I glanced at the reader, and shuddered. "His description of his escape, his flight into the service tunnels--it's like something out of Dante. And it doesn't get any better. Osgood couldn't have been influencing him any more--but that doesn't seem to have mattered. They were still with him. It isn't clear any more who They were--but they kept getting stronger."
Dad shook his head. "Poor messed-up bastard," he said sadly.
I cleared my throat. "Dad? Do we--well, do we believe any of this?"
He shrugged. "Over the last week we've been pulled in all directions," he said. He grimaced. "My own fault, I know: practicing psychology without a license. Mayer's a liar; Mayer's with the PPS; Mayer's insane, Mayer's been manipulated--at the time, they all seemed plausible. The plain fact is, Tom, we might never know for certain. What you've found in that journal does fit the facts as we know them, though." He quirked a smile. "But I take it you're not so sure?"
"I don't know," I confessed. "It's just that some of it seems kind of…self-serving. He didn't want to kill me, he was glad he hadn't; he was trying to punch Osgood, not Dr. Zriss. If I wanted to excuse a whole lot of bad stuff, that's exactly what I'd say too."
Dad nodded. "To a certain extent, I'm sure you're right. But again, to exactly what extent, we'll never know." He paused. "I've been trying to hang on to my objectivity," he went on. "But it's hard--and it got a damnsight harder this morning. I have a lot of unresolved issues with Wally Osgood--and when they find him, they'd better lock him up quick, before I get my hands on him. But looking beyond that…this feels right. Osgood manipulated Mayer, programmed him. For exactly what purpose isn't clear--but whatever Osgood had in mind, it seems to me that as soon as you and I arrived, his plans changed. He gave Mayer a laser torch and pointed him at you. Not to further the PPS agenda, and not even because he gave a damn about you--how could he, really? He did it to hurt your mother and me."
"But something went wrong."
"Yes," Dad agreed. "It did." He scratched his chin. "I wonder--could it have been when he tried to force Mayer to kill?" He gazed out the window, at a sky that had already begun to lighten near the horizon. "You know your Terran history, son--how a couple centuries ago the major source of energy was petroleum, oil, pumped from the ground. Drilling a well got to be pretty much an exact science--the holes rarely came up empty. But in the early years they regularly did--and sometimes too the drillers got more than they bargained for: they'd strike a pocket of oil under high pressure. A 'blow-out,' they called it. Often it would be violent enough to destroy the drilling rig." He glanced back at me. "I think that's what Osgood did. He drilled into Mayer's mind, with no idea what kind of pressure he'd encounter. For twenty-five years, Mayer bottled up his demons--and when they finally escaped…" He shook his head. "We can't know but what it would have happened anyway, eventually. But maybe Mayer wouldn't have been armed when it did."
We were silent for a moment. Then Dad went on, "I'd still like to know, though, why he set up that shrine to your mother."
I shook myself. "I think I can answer that too," I said. "Hang on."
It took me a minute or two to find the passage I wanted, deep in the manuscript, in an area where Mayer's thoughts slipped in and out of reality without warning.. "By the time he did," I said as I searched, "she was no longer a person to him. She was a force, almost like the Goddess. Here it is: 'They wanted to destroy Her. They didn't say so, but I knew. It was obvious. Why else have me kill her son? And since They were evil, it followed that She must represent good. I decided to ask Her for help. I hoped She would forgive me for what I'd been forced to do--but She wouldn't. She wouldn't speak to me at all--just kept staring, and I couldn't bear to look into Her eyes. It wasn't just that I'd tried to kill Her son; She also blamed me for what happened all those years ago. I tried to tell Her it wasn't my fault--it was Theirs. I couldn't have helped Her; no one could. We were all trapped, helpless, because of Him. But She wouldn't listen. Finally I grew angry with Her--and They knew it. When They found me, and demanded that I kill again…I agreed. Just to spite Her.'"
Dad nodded. "I'm beginning to understand."
"But," I said, "did Osgood really order Mayer to try again? I can't see how he could have--that must have come from within Mayer himself."
"Maybe," Dad said. "It does seem he was out of Osgood's control by then. But there's something you're not considering: that message, the one that lured you into the tunnels. Could Mayer have sent it?"
I snarled. He was right: in the press of events, I had forgotten all about that. "I…don't know," I said. "He was pretty well irrational by then…"
"Exactly," Dad said grimly. "But that's not what has me really worried." He stood, and crossed to the window. "Osgood had help," he went on. "The more I think about it, the more sure I become. And I don't mean just Mayer: I mean someone with almost unlimited security access. Someone who could get Osgood into this facility, and make it possible for him to enter secured areas--like the shuttle hangar. And someone with access to the environmental controls. That's beyond the capacity of any civilian--it was, had to be, a CF officer. And until we find that person, that traitor, we're no closer to stopping Osgood."
"Any suspects?" I asked.
Dad shook his head. "None," he said. "Or maybe I really mean 'too many.' Hammond won't want to hear this, but the way I see it, the traitor must be someone in his department--and someone fairly high-ranking too. Someone trusted. The average ensign or enlisted man wouldn't have the access."
A trusted, fairly high-ranking Security officer, I thought…and then something dropped into my mind with a clang, and suddenly my claws and tail were both doing their hereditary thing. A memory; a few words spoken to me just recently, and which I'd neither understood nor paid much attention to. But now they returned, loud and clear--and abruptly they made sense. "Dad--?"
"Dad--I think I know who the traitor is."
The corridor was quiet and deserted as the four of us stepped from the elevator; so much so, in fact, that for some reason I found myself whispering. "Are you sure he's there?"
Reid nodded. "He's there," he assured me. "He went off duty two hours ago, spent an hour in the Officer's Mess, then returned to his quarters. He hasn't ventured out since."
I shuddered. My sister and I had both decided against careers in the CF--and every once in a while I came across a fresh reason why we'd made the right decision. I don't know if I could have endured forty years knowing that cameras were pointed at me almost everywhere I went.
The staff quarters at the Fabrication Center occupied the thirtieth through the fortieth floors of the Administration building, enlisted on the bottom and officers on the top, in ascending order. The one for which we were searching was on level 36, a floor entirely occupied by lieutenants. A supremely useless bit of information, I know--but the kind that tends to stick in my mind, especially when I'm trying to distract myself from ugly feelings of guilt. Nobody loves a snitch--no matter how noble his cause. Closely shadowed by our guard (a Centaurii enlisted man who seemed a little nervous, this deep in Officer's Country), Reid, my father and I made our way briskly through the maze of hallways. Reid was silent, inscrutable as ever; impossible to tell what he was thinking. Dad, however, was visibly angry, his eyes narrowed and his fists half-clenched. I suppose I ought to have been mad too, but I wasn't; my claws were sheathed, and my tail almost still. Dad hadn't wanted me to come along--but oddly, Reid had supported me. Why, I don't know; maybe he thought my presence would further lessen the already-slight possibility of violence.
Finally we stopped before a door, identical to dozens of others stretching off into the distance in either direction. Dad and I stepped back, and at a gesture from Reid, so too did the guard, his hand resting on his stinger. Reid cleared his throat and touched the doorbell.
The door opened almost immediately; unlike the postman, Reid didn't need to ring twice. The man who answered was casually dressed, in grey sweatpants and a white T-shirt, with ankle-high, mag-sealed gym-slippers on his feet. On a table behind him stood a bottle, and a glass half-filled with amber fluid. I sniffed, and recognized the scent immediately: Scotch whisky, my father's favorite libation. Probably it was the only thing they had in common.
As he looked us over, his morose expression turned quickly to one of surprise and alarm. "Commander Reid," he said. "Mr. Abrams. Tom--?" He swallowed. "What--uh--what can I do for you gentlemen?"
Reid eyed him dispassionately. "Lieutenant Neil Stewart," he said, "we're here to discuss your relationship with the Planetary Preservation Society--and with Mr. Wallace Osgood."
Never before had I seen such a look of sick terror as passed across Stewart's face, just for a instant before he mastered himself. He swallowed again, harder this time, and shook his head. "I…don't know what you're talking about, Commander," he said, all but inaudibly.
"Yes, you do," Reid countered. "May we come in, Lieutenant? Or shall we continue this discussion in a cell? The choice is yours."
Stewart hesitated, blinking. Then his right hand twitched, ever so slightly.
Instantly, as if it had materialized from thin air, a stinger appeared in Reid's hand, pointed directly at Stewart's midsection. "I'm disappointed, Lieutenant," he observed. "You of all people should know how little good it would do." He gestured. "Hand it over, please."
Stewart seemed to collapse in upon himself, like a burst balloon. With a sigh, he slowly and carefully completed the movement he'd begun, reaching around behind his back to pull a tiny weapon--an officer's mini-stinger--from his waistband. He handed it to Reid. "Much better," the commander said. He pointed. "Have a seat," he continued, "and finish your drink, if you wish. After all, you're not on duty."
Stewart moved backwards woodenly, hardly seeming to see where he was going, and collapsed into his chair, his head in his hands. He made no move to touch the glass. Our party entered behind him. Reid put away both stingers, and pulled over the room's one and only other chair, straddling it backwards as Dad often did. The guard took up a position with his back to the door, silent and implacable as a statue. Dad stepped forward to stand beside Reid, and I wedged myself into a corner, feeling once again like the proverbial fifth wheel. For a long moment no one spoke. Stewart's shoulders were heaving, but whether he was weeping or hyperventilating, I couldn't tell.
Uncomfortable--but unwilling to leave--I glanced around. Stewart's quarters were not much different from the guest room my father and I had been assigned. The single narrow bunk stood against the right-hand wall; it had a bookshelf headboard and a built-in reading light. The desk along the opposite wall was a little bigger than ours, the computer terminal more complex. The dining table was also a bit larger. The only illumination came from a single ceiling light, turned low; by a strange coincidence it was centered directly on Stewart, leaving the rest of us in semi-darkness. A potted fern on an ornate iron stand stood near the window; a few framed holos were clustered atop the desk and headboard, and several others, much larger, hung on the walls. The latter were all landscapes, depicting a rugged, raw-boned land under a brooding cloudy sky, sharp grey crags interspersed with patches of low-growing shrubbery. At first glance they seemed to have been taken on Terra; but as I looked closer, I realized they hadn't. The colors of sky, brush and rock weren't quite right.
Finally Reid spoke. "You did an excellent job, Lieutenant. Had I not known exactly what to look for, I might never have found out at all. For the record, how long have you been a member of the PPS?"
Stewart looked up sharply, his eyes blazing. "That's not a crime, Commander," he said. "It's not even against regulations."
"No," Reid agreed readily. "It isn't. An officer's political views are his own business--so long as they don't interfere with his duties. But I find it peculiar that you have gone to such lengths to conceal a perfectly legal association. Perhaps you had a good reason; if so, I suggest you tell us what it is--or I will prosecute you as a suspected terrorist. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"
"Excellent. Now we will begin again. You are a member of the PPS, are you not?"
Stewart nodded tiredly. "Yes, I am. I have been since I was fifteen." He paused, then went on, "I was born on the colony world New Edinburgh. If you've even been to Scotland, you'll understand why my ancestors settled that planet." He waved a hand. "All these holos were taken there. I loved the place." He took a deep breath. "But the colony started to grow too fast. Most of the places you see in those images are gone, buried under homes, shopping malls, factories. They say modern civilization no longer pollutes--but from where I stand, there's more than one kind of pollution."
"You'll get no argument from me," Reid told him. "Go on."
"Even when I was a boy, I realized it was wrong," Stewart said. "And when the PPS opened an office in my home town, I knew I had to join." He gazed around. "It's been claimed that the Society is automatically opposed to any settlement on any planet other than Terra. But that's not true. What they oppose is raping the land. My ancestors, the first settlers, lived gently. They let most of the planet be, didn't try to make it an exact copy of Earth. But those who came later saw it differently.
"I was already a believer when I attended my first PPS meeting," he went on. "But until then I was unfocused; I didn't know where to turn my anger. They showed me where, and how."
"And how did a Planetary Preservationist become a CF Security officer?" Reid asked.
Stewart shrugged. "Time passes, Commander," he said. "Things that seem terribly important when you're fifteen aren't quite so pressing when you hit your twenties and have to make a living. My father is in the Navy, so it was almost inevitable that I'd attend the Academy too. I left home, I immersed myself in study and training…and things back on New Edinburgh faded into the background. I've never stopped being a member, or a believer--but up until recently, it just hasn't been a vital concern."
Reid's eyes narrowed, and so did my father's. The same thought was running through both their minds, I knew: that Stewart was not telling the entire truth. He wasn't lying--but he was definitely sinning by omission. "And you recruited Mr. Mayer?" Reid asked.
Stewart shook his head. "'Recruited' is too strong a word," he said. "Mayer never became a member, and I never tried to make him one. I scarcely knew him. But one day in the Officer's Mess he saw me reading Habitats Quarterly. He expressed an interest, mostly in the holography, and I told him how to subscribe. It's a worthwhile publication…"
Reid nodded. "I know," he said. "And that was all?"
"As far as I knew then, yes," Stewart said. "A few times afterwards, Mayer asked me some general questions about the Society, and I answered them as best I could. Then he stopped. A couple months ago I ran into him in the corridors, and I asked him if he'd seen a particular article in the most recent edition. It had a style of holography that he'd seemed particularly interested in. But he didn't answer; he just gave me a strange look and hurried away."
After he became fixated on Mom's article? I wondered. It seemed likely. Dad cleared his throat. "I find it odd," he said, "that none of this came to light before. Not even the fact that Mr. Stewart is a member of the PPS."
Reid smiled thinly. "Not so odd," he countered, "when you consider who it was that Commander Hammond put in charge of researching the Society." He glanced at Stewart. "And who was that, Lieutenant?"
Stewart dropped his eyes. "Me," he said. "Along with Lieutenant Mazzaro. But Tony doesn't know a thing--I got to the records before he did."
"Why?" Dad asked.
Stewart looked up at him. "Wouldn't you, Mr. Abrams? Look at what your wife went through, just for writing an article. It's legal for me to be a member, it doesn't break any regulations--but it would be held against me. Especially now."
Once again that sounded like a half-truth--and from the expression on my father's face, and on Reid's, they thought so too. Reid took a deep breath. "Lieutenant," he said, "we're not here to discuss who is and isn't a member of the PPS. A terrorist is operating within this Center. Clearly he was sent to disrupt the Isaac Haliday project--but he also seems to have a personal vendetta against Mr. Abrams and his family. Someone helped him enter the facility, and has also been assisting him with his operations. I believe that person is you. Is that true, Mr. Stewart, or is it not?"
The younger man thrust out his jaw truculently, and his gaze hardened, as if he would seek to deny everything. But then he looked at me, and his resolve crumbled like a sand-castle before the incoming tide. "Yes," he said, sounding almost relieved. "Yes, commander, it's true. His name is Wallace Osgood, and he was sent to Centaurus Minor to disrupt the engineers' meeting with acts of terrorism. I arranged for him to enter the Fabrication Center, and I provided him with the means to move about freely." He turned his gaze upon me again, his eyes wide and pleading. "But as God is my witness, Tom, I had no idea he intended to kill anyone. He was ordered not to; but when he found out you and your father were here…"
Dad started forward, his fists clenched. "And just what the hell did you think he was going to do--?" he began between clenched teeth.
"Not now," Reid interrupted firmly, laying a hand on Dad's arm. He gazed hard at Stewart. "What I want to know is why? I've seen your service record, Lieutenant; until now you've been an exemplary officer. Why throw that away? I can't believe the PPS means more to you than your career."
"No," Stewart said. "Very much the opposite. My career means a great deal to me--and in fact I was trying to save it, not destroy it." He sighed. "Impossible," he went on flatly. "I know that now. But…"
He trailed off, and for a few moments he sat silent, gazing out at the night. Finally he began again. "There are several factions within the Society," he said. "Most of the members are moderate: they believe in legal solutions, legislative remedies. They hope that by publishing their magazine, and keeping the public aware of the issues they raise, they can effect change a little at a time. And in some cases that actually works. But then there are the radicals. To them, legal or legislative means are too slow, too cumbersome. They believe in direct, drastic action.
"What happened here--what was intended to happen, if I understand correctly--was the result of tension between those two factions. The moderates abhor violence--they won't condone anything stronger than Gandhian civil disobedience. The radicals recommended blowing up the conference rooms, engineers and all. Finally they compromised, and Osgood was ordered to disrupt the meetings with little incidents--a bomb threat here, a power outage there. Just enough to drive Hammond and his officers to distraction. He wasn't supposed to harm anyone."
"Very interesting," Reid said. "But we're discussing your participation."
"Yes, sir," Stewart said. "I've never been involved with the radical elements--except once, back on my homeworld. I was sixteen years old, fired up, filled with righteous indignation as only a teenager can be. I was persuaded to participate in a…burglary. There were five others, off-worlders; I have no idea what happened to them afterward. Late one night we broke into the offices of a major developer, and we stole some data cards; financial and personnel records, I think. We hoped they would contain something embarrassing--dirty laundry, they used to call it. We did as much damage as we could, too--and set a fire before we left." He sighed. "Even at the time I was ashamed. The others were true radicals, and they reveled in the destruction; it seemed to give them an almost sexual thrill. That disgusted me--and scared me too. I realized then I didn't want to be involved with that kind of person. I didn't quit the Society--but from then on I stayed on the sidelines. I didn't even attend their meetings or rallies any more.
"No one was ever arrested for the burglary," he continued, "and after a while I stopped worrying about it. The damage was relatively minor, and the information turned out to be useless. Maybe I should have confessed--but I didn't. I rationalized it, called it a 'learning experience,' and tried to forget. Needless to say, the CF never knew.
"Then, about two months ago, I received a message from the Society--or more specifically, from the radical wing. Somehow or other they'd found out about my part in the burglary--probably from one of the other participants. To be brief, they blackmailed me. They told me one of their agents would be arriving to 'work' the engineering meetings, and they expected me to help him--or else."
A growl of surprise escaped my throat, and both Dad and Reid looked startled as well. We'd come here expecting--maybe even wanting--to learn that Stewart had been a willing participant in Osgood's schemes. The very last thing I'd thought to find was yet another entry on the growing list of victims. "What would have happened if they'd exposed you?" I asked.
It was Reid who answered. "An investigation, certainly," he said. "Possibly a court-martial. And with feelings toward the PPS running so high…"
"Exactly," Stewart said heavily. "I couldn't risk that. I know I acted foolishly. But I saw no way out except to take things as they came, and hope Osgood would cause no serious harm."
Those words struck my father through the heart. His hand dropped to his side, his fist loosening, and he seemed to stagger; grasping the edge of the table for support. Probably only I knew the reason why.
"I thank you for your candor, Lieutenant," Reid said. "And may I assume you're also willing to tell us exactly how you 'helped' Mr. Osgood?"
Stewart nodded grimly. "Yes, sir," he said. "I am."
"--But that can wait," Reid went on. "There are more important matters at hand. First and foremost, do you know where Osgood is now?"
"No," Stewart said. "I arranged a hiding place for him, in some unused storage space on the tenth floor. But when I checked it this afternoon, it was abandoned. But I don't think he could have gotten out of the Center. He must still be here somewhere, in this building or in the service tunnels--but I have no idea where."
Reid nodded. "And second," he said, "we believe Osgood made use of a unique technique to influence Mr. Mayer. Do you know anything about that?"
"Yes, sir," Stewart said. "I helped him with that. I ambushed Mayer in his quarters, and stood guard while Osgood reprogrammed his implants. And then I gave Osgood the codes which enabled him to manipulate the lights in any room in the Center."
"And did you know to what use Mayer would be put?" Reid asked.
Stewart glanced quickly at me. "No," he said firmly. "I did not. I assumed he'd be used to create some kind of disturbance." He paused. "When I entered the museum, after he'd shot at Tom…I still didn't realize exactly what had happened. I thought the programming had somehow gone wrong. Finally I figured it out, and confronted Osgood--but he just laughed at me, and told me to forget it." He shook his head. "That almost did it," he went on sadly. "I almost went to Admiral Teeheek…"
"As I told my son in a similar situation," Dad said, "'almost' counts for nothing." He glanced at Reid. "I have a question, if I may?"
"Be my guest," Reid said. "We seem to have a cooperative witness."
"My son's palm-reader," Dad said. "Did you have anything to do with its disappearing act?"
"Yes," Stewart said. "As a matter of fact, I had everything to do with it. I stole it from Commander Hammond's office; I broke Tom's password--which wasn't easy, and I ended up corrupting most of the files in the process--and later I returned it to the evidence room."
"Why?" Dad asked. "What was the point of any of that?"
"Two reasons," Stewart said. "First, I wanted to send a message. I broke into the reader with the intention of leaving a warning--telling Tom that Osgood was out to get him. But I couldn't make myself do it; I was afraid it would be traced back to me. I dithered for hours--and then settled for a something oblique. Putting the reader back where it wasn't supposed to be started the chain of events that led us here." He shook his head. "I had no idea it would get me suspended, though."
"We might have wished for a more explicit message," Reid said wryly. "There are a great many more questions we'll be wanting to ask you--but it's been a long day, and I'm too tired to think of them." He stood. "Lieutenant Stewart, on my authority as a CF Special Investigator, I hereby place you under arrest on charges of conspiracy--for starters. Shall we go?"
Stewart was totally unresisting, almost limp, as Reid and the guard led him away. Left behind, forgotten, my father and I watched them go, and Dad laid a hand on my shoulder. "We'd better get some rest, Tom," he said quietly. "As the commander said, it's been a long day."
I couldn't argue. We made our way to the elevator, and as we waited for a car, Dad chuckled briefly, bitterly. "What's funny?" I asked.
He glanced at me. "I was just thinking--Hammond did the right thing after all, when he suspended Stewart. But as usual, for the wrong reason."