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.




As our Conga line of Combined Forces officers shuffled rapidly along the dark and swaying hallway, I swallowed my rapidly-rising nausea and panted, "What's the hurry? Is the building about to collapse?"

"No," Dad replied over his shoulder. "Not even in a Level Ten storm. The danger is, with the rigidity field down, the building might flex enough to pop windows loose from their frames. And if that happens…"

I nodded. "Explosive decompression," I finished grimly.

"Extremely rapid decompression, at any rate," Lummis corrected from behind me. "The blast-shields might hold--or they might not. The emergency bulkheads would close immediately, of course, sealing off the affected area…"

"…And you wouldn't want to be stuck on the wrong side when they do," Dad added.

"Will we be safe in the stairwell?" I asked, glancing nervously around, as if we might be sucked out into the storm at any second.

"We will," Dad assured me. "As safe as we'd be anywhere. The emergency stairs are designed to be an isolated environment, completely airtight. For just these sorts of situations," he added with a smile.

Assuming all the hatches are properly sealed, I thought sourly--but there was no point in saying so.

Mere minutes had passed since the alarm sounded. The evacuation of the top floor was organized by a thirtyish human woman with a voice to match her bulk: a Navy lieutenant commander, the highest-ranking officer in the vicinity at the time. As it happened, there'd been no more than two dozen people on that level--probably because it contained little beyond the Officer's Mess and a few offices--and those few responded without question to the commander's barked orders. Though some, it must be said, more efficiently than others. I'd often heard that Centaurii see poorly in dim light (which makes sense, I suppose, with Minor brightening their night sky so much of the time), and that a good many of them are openly afraid of the dark. That at least seemed to be true for a lieutenant a little distance ahead of me: he was shaking so badly that he had to be supported by two fellow officers, humans both. Though I wished I couldn't, I clearly heard every soothing, baby-talk word they whispered into his ears as they hustled him along.

I was feeling a little unsteady too, but for an entirely different reason. The low gravity had conspired with the building's suddenly-amplified movement to destroy my delicate Sah'aaran equilibrium. The oscillation was slow, almost majestic, and entirely regular; but even so, it was making me dizzy--and not a little queasy as well. My feet kept sliding out from under me too, and to keep from falling on my tail I had to dig in my toe-claws at every step. I don't doubt I was leaving behind me a trail of shredded carpet--which, I suspected, would be the very least of the Maintenance Department's worries, when this was all over.

The snaking trail of refugees had passed through perhaps half a dozen stretches of corridor--and I was quite thoroughly lost, assured that we were going in the right direction only by the glowing orange arrows on the walls--when a familiar voice rang out suddenly from the gloom to our right. "Mr. Abrams! Mr. Lummis! Tom! This way!"

We stopped short, stepping from the line lest we be run over, and turned--to see Lieutenant Mazzaro rushing out of the darkness, stinger rifle over his shoulder, helmet firmly planted on his head, and a bulbous pair of light-amplifying goggles enclosing his eyes. Breathing hard, he grinned. "Glad I found you." He gestured. "This way--I'm holding an elevator for you."

Dad chuckled. "You realized there was a pair of weak old men on the top level, I take it?"

"Let's just say I knew there were three people up here who wouldn't appreciate descending fifty floors' worth of stairs."

"Can't argue with that," Dad said. "Lead on."

The elevators were not far--and I'm glad Mazzaro knew the way, because I didn't. In the middle of that long bank of recessed doors, one set stood wide open, the car behind so brightly lit that I stumbled and clutched at my father's arm, shielding my eyes. As we stepped aboard, the missing three-quarters of my weight returned with a thud, and I snarled.

"Sorry," Mazzaro said. He pushed his goggles up onto his helmet. "Should have warned you." He waved a hand. "These cars are entirely self-contained: their own power, lights, life-support--"

"--And grav-plates," I finished ruefully.

"Right. And they run on mag-lev; they don't depend on surface gravity to descend." He punched buttons, the door closed, and we began to drop; far faster, yes, than could be accounted for by Minor's point-four G--but still, it seemed to me, slower than usual. Because of the building's sway, perhaps?

Dad cleared his throat. "So," he said, "what happened?"

Mazzaro flashed a twisted smile. "Three guesses," he said. "That bastard Osgood has shut down everything except life-support--and that could go next, for all we know." He tapped the side of his helmet. "We can still communicate, by commpak--but that's about it."

"Stewart gave him access to the computer," Dad recalled. "But haven't the passwords been changed?"

"Sure they have," Mazzaro said. "I don't know who thought of it--Reid, probably. But you've heard the old expression about locking the barn door after the horse is gone?"

Dad nodded sagely. "I understand."

"I don't," I said.

"Osgood created his own private way into the computer," Dad explained. "A back door, if you will. And if he's as talented as I think he is, it could be the very devil to root out."

"And it gets worse," Mazzaro said. "He's corrupted the entire password file, and even knocked out the manual overrides. And to accomplish that, he needed top-level command codes. Admiral Teeheek's codes."

My jaw dropped. "You don't mean--?" I began, but Dad shook his head quickly.

"Most likely not," he said. "I think we can safely conclude she isn't a traitor. Command codes--even high-level ones--have a way of becoming 'open secrets,' so to speak. If, say, she was too busy to personally unlock a secured file that someone needed. I've seen it happen time and time again. My guess is that Osgood got them from Stewart."

Mazzaro nodded wearily. "That's exactly what we figure," he agreed. "Reid is livid--and I can't say I blame him. Security in this Center has been terrible. And that's not only Hammond's fault, or Stewart's; everyone is guilty, including me. We've always assumed that the shipyard, where the real construction goes on, would be a far more likely target for espionage or sabotage. And until now we've been right."

"What Osgood did," I said. "Can it be fixed?"

"Yes," Mazzaro said. "But not easily, or quickly. We'll probably have to power down the computer core and rebuild it, from the base operating system up." He shook his head. "And believe me, that won't be fun."

"Which is exactly what Osgood is counting on," Lummis said. "He must surely have caused all this chaos with an eye toward escape. If it becomes necessary to evacuate the Center…"

"…He could mingle with the crowd," Dad finished. "All too likely, I'm afraid."

Mazzaro shook his head. "That might be what he hopes," he said. "But it won't be quite that easy. Nobody is going anywhere for a while. The shuttle tubes are locked down tight, and heavily guarded. He won't get out that way--and that's the only way."

"But surely this building is being fully evacuated?" Lummis said.

"It is," Mazzaro assured him. "We're setting up a shelter and temporary command center in one of the larger domes. We're gathering all non-essential personnel there."

"Any idea where Osgood might be?" Dad asked.

"None," Mazzaro said wearily. "He could be literally anywhere in the Fabrication Center--in this building, or in any one of the domes. Anywhere he can tap into the data cables. We're still searching for him--while the techs try to regain control of the computer. That's all we can do, until this damned storm blows over."

"Perhaps Joel and I might offer your technicians our assistance?" Lummis said.

"I'm sure they'll welcome it," Mazzaro said. He chuckled. "I can't vouch for Admiral Teeheek or Commander Hammond, though."

While I sit around like a bump on a log, as usual, I thought sourly. A sudden thought struck me then, and I turned. "Mr. Lummis, may I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Back in the Officer's Mess, you started to say that there was something strange about the report you'd received from the AIB. What did you mean?"

With a quick, half-suspicious glance at Mazzaro, Lummis said, "Oh yes--I'd almost forgotten. When this is over I'll need to call for confirmation. But if the report was correct, our friend Mr. Osgood was seen some months ago on Sah'aar. And he has recently received substantial sums of money from a business group calling themselves the Sah'challa Consortium. The information must have been garbled somehow…"

Dad laughed suddenly. "Let me guess," he said. "The Sah'challa Consortium is heavily invested in the New Sah'aar colony, right?"

"Why yes," Lummis agreed in surprise. "How did you know?"

Dad shook his head sadly. "Ed," he said, "when you get home to Fort Bragg, you'd better concentrate on engineering. You have no talent for espionage." He paused, gazing at a trio of confused faces, then went on impatiently, "Don't you get it? Osgood is a traitor, a double-agent. He's been playing both sides off the other. That consortium hired him to betray and expose the PPS, while at the same time the Society is paying him to stop the Haliday project. There's no telling where his real loyalties lie--if anywhere."

Lummis cleared his throat. "I…hadn't considered that," he admitted. "It appears I'm still a bit out of my depth." He paused, and smiled. "Perhaps the Bureau ought to have recruited you, Joel."

"They might have," Dad replied with a grin, "If they hadn't suspected my wife of being involved with the PPS." He turned. "Do you know where we can find Commander Reid, Lieutenant? He'll want to hear about this."

"I'll check," Mazzaro said. He reached for the microphone attached to his helmet--and even as he did, the commpak to which it belonged beeped softly. With a bemused shrug, he tapped the reply key. "Mazzaro here."

He listened in silence for about twenty seconds. What he heard, I couldn't say; it was just beyond the range of my ears--but whatever it was caused his olive complexion to go dead pale, and the pupils of his eyes to contract, something I don't think I'd ever seen before. Finally he said, through clenched teeth, "Right--I'm on it. Have Gamma Squad rendezvous with me at the Evac Center in…oh, ten minutes. What? Well, as many of them as you can round up, then. Mazzaro out." He stood still for a moment, breathing hard, and then suddenly, explosively, drove his gauntleted fist into the wall, making the rest of us jump.

"Problem, Lieutenant?" Dad asked mildly.

"Yeah," Mazzaro said. "You bet there is. Stewart has escaped."

Dad's eyebrows rose. "What? How?"

"When the power failed," Mazzaro explained. "The stinger barriers in the security cells have a backup generator--but there's a split-second delay before it kicks in. Because main power isn't ever supposed to fail," he added bitterly. "Neil knew that--of course he did. And…well, he always did have good reflexes."

"What about the guard at the desk?" Dad asked.

"When I left there a little while ago," I said, "the guard was a Centaurii."

Mazzaro nodded. "Right," he said. "He got disoriented, and Neil overpowered him and grabbed his stinger. Didn't really injure him, though--not that I'd expect him to. And Neil knows his way around as well as me, or any of our colleagues. He knows all our strategies, our strengths and weaknesses."

"But he can't get away," Lummis said. "No more than Osgood can--not if what you told us is true."

"No," Mazzaro agreed, "he can't. But I'm not sure if getting away is what he has in mind."

"And you've been assigned to find him?" I asked.

"I have," Mazzaro agreed heavily. "And to stop him by any means necessary. Though if I'm right about his intentions, I'd sooner offer him my help." He shook himself then, and glanced up at the floor indicator. "Well--first things first," he went on. "Let's get you three situated."

I followed his gaze--and saw to my surprise that we still had more than fifteen floors to go. Not only had our descent been slower than usual, it had also been unnervingly bouncy, quite unlike the silky-smooth ride I'd become accustomed to these last few days. We'd started out with the car bucking like a Spotted Leaper calf in springtime, violently enough that I'd been obliged to hang on hard to the handrail. Why that was, I didn't know for certain; I could only guess that the shaft itself, and the mag-lev tracks on which the car ran, were twisting and flexing in response to the building's wind-dance. Part of the reason, no doubt, why the evacuees had been ordered to take the stairs. Orders I wished now we'd followed--despite what that long descent would have done to my feet and legs. Fortunately, as we'd passed the structure's midpoint, the jittery movement had diminished, and was now almost gone. In the heavy silence that followed, I stared hard at the indicator, silently willing its glowing amber numbers to change faster. A low-slung dome, half-buried, seemed a far safer place to weather a four hundred KPH wind than the upper floors of a slender metal reed, no matter how well-designed. And I still wanted to go home--to that place where the breezes were gentle, the air was breathable, and "explosive decompression" was something you read about in a physics text.

Dad cleared his throat. "Say, Lieutenant," he began--but he was interrupted, in perhaps the most dramatic way possible. Because at that moment, as the floor indicator clicked over from 15 to 14, the situation--at least as far as we were concerned--took a quantum leap from "emergency" toward "disaster."

It began with an explosive chuff, somewhere far above our heads; a sound very much like that made by someone punched hard in the stomach. An instant later the car lurched backwards, throwing the four of us off our feet. The tearing shriek of metal on metal, as that floating box jammed hard against the sides of its shaft, was echoed and counterpointed by a hurricane of wind that howled up from below, slamming into the elevator like a giant's fist and bringing us to a sudden and violent halt. The lights flickered, just for an instant, and so too did the gravity. Inertia flung us high, in a tangle of arms and legs, and I bruised an ear against the gridwork baffles of the glow-plates; then our returning weight slapped us down hard. Smacking into the wall, Dad swore, and I heard Lummis cry out, a sound of pain that quickly and ominously cut off. Mazzaro grunted as he landed on his armored butt. I came down on my feet--pure coincidence, that--but my legs wouldn't hold me, and I toppled helplessly to my right. Something--I think it was the stock of Mazzaro's rifle--struck a hammer blow against my half-healed ribs. Fireworks exploded in my head, and an electric rush of pain shot through every nerve.

I think I must have blacked out, for a few seconds anyway--and when I came to, it was all over, except for the proverbial cleaning-up. I found myself curled into a tight ball, lying on my face in the far corner of an elevator car whose floor was canted back from the door at a crazy angle. All was silent now, except for an occasional metallic groan, and a harsh rasp of shallow breathing that I soon realized was partially my own.

A hand fell on my shoulder then, and I lifted my head, to see my father gazing anxiously down at me. His face was pale, his clothes and hair disheveled, and a slow trickle of blood oozed from a gash over his right eye. "Tom?" he said. "Are you all right?"

I tried to uncurl--and quickly gave up the effort. "No," I told him. "I'm not. I think I just undid all the doctors' good work."

"Let me see," he said. He pried my arm away, and laid his hand gently on my side--and I tried without success to bite back a sharp yowl of pain. I was still wearing that elastic wrap around my torso, the one the docs had applied following my near-fatal night in the dome. Even after a course of accelerated healing, my ribs had been plenty sore, and the bandage had eased the pain. But it had been nowhere near thick or padded enough to protect me from further damage. Before, my ribs had been merely cracked--now they were well and truly fractured, the ends grinding agonizingly together at the slightest movement.

"I'm afraid you did," Dad agreed. He patted my shoulder. "Take it easy," he went on. "We'll get you some help as soon as we can."

"Are you all right?" I asked.

He raised his hand to his forehead, and, frowning at the smear of blood that came away on his fingers, fished a semi-clean handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the wound. "A bit battered and bruised," he said. "I'll live."

With an effort that left me gasping, and caused dark spots to dance before my eyes, I sat up, resting my back against the tilted wall. The car's lights were dim and flickering now, and the grav-plates seemed to be operating at three-quarters power, maybe less. The control panel was a mass of red lights, among which one in particular stood out, flashing its insistent message every few seconds: "Malfunction--Unable to Proceed." An understatement, if I'd ever heard one…

At the front of the car, Lieutenant Mazzaro, helmetless but apparently unhurt, knelt over the prostrate Lummis. Of the four of us, the engineer-turned-agent had come through by far the worst. He lay flat on his back, unconscious, his arms and legs grotesquely sprawled, his face several shades lighter than Dad's. His mouth hung open, and his breathing was labored and rattling, painful to hear. Every once in a while he let out a sound halfway between a sigh and a moan.

"How is he?" Dad asked, and Mazzaro shook his head.

"Not good," he said. "A concussion for sure. Damage to the spinal cord too, maybe. He came down hard, right on his head."

"What happened?" I asked.

Dad glanced up, frowning. "At a guess," he said, "one or more windows failed, somewhere up there. The decompression must have blown out the door to this elevator shaft--and the blast of air from beneath jammed the car against its mag-lev track."

"Can we get unstuck?" Mazzaro asked--and without waiting for an answer, he climbed to his feet and jumped up and down with all his strength.

The car seemed to shudder under the impact of his boots, and with a groan like that of a tortured soul in the Dark Domains, it sank perhaps half a meter, before coming once again to a halt.

Dad grabbed Mazzaro's arm. "Please don't do that," he said. "Even if we could break loose, the mag-lev emitters are probably scrap metal now. And I for one don't fancy descending the hard way."

Mazzaro's eyes widened. "You've got a point there," he said. "So--?"

"So," Dad said, "our best course is to call for assistance." He reached for the intercom panel, but Mazzaro shook his head.

"Don't bother," he said. "That connects directly to Ops--and the power's out down there. We're strictly on commpaks." Glancing around, he located his helmet in the opposite corner. Scooping it up, he jammed it onto his head and adjusted the built-in microphone. "Mazzaro to Control," he said. "Come in, Control." He waited several seconds, then repeated the call--and finally, removed the helmet and shook it. From somewhere within the shell came the sharp rattle of loose parts. He grinned ruefully. "I guess they don't make 'em like they used to," he commented. "The Marine-issue stuff is tougher--but it's also a lot bulkier, and…"

Dad nodded. "…And was deemed unnecessary for a place where nothing ever happens," he finished. "Say no more."

"I don't suppose either of you has a commpak?" Mazzaro asked hopefully.

I shook my head. "I left mine at home."

"And mine is with my luggage," Dad said. He stooped and searched quickly through Lummis' pockets. "Nothing here," he said finally. He glanced up. "They will come looking for us, won't they?"

"Eventually," Mazzaro said. "When I don't rendezvous with my squad as scheduled. But Security is spread awfully thin--I'm afraid we might have a bit of a wait ahead of us." He nodded at Lummis. "And in his condition…"

And what about my condition? is what I might have asked--but I didn't. Obviously, Lummis was in far worse shape than me--though my ribs were inclined to dispute that.

"Options?" Dad said crisply--and had the situation been a little less grim, I might have been tempted to laugh. Without even realizing it, my father had once again become Lieutenant Commander Abrams, Techspec Crew Chief. And if Mazzaro noticed the transformation, he was evidently content to let Dad take control.

Staring up at the flickering lights, the lieutenant ran a hand through his hair. "Let's see if I can override the interlock and get the inner doors open," he said at length. "If we're lucky, maybe we can reach an outer door."

"Hang on a minute," I said quickly.

They both turned, frowning. At that moment, I know, I was in their eyes an ensign--or worse, an enlisted man--interrupting the discourse of his superiors. But then Dad shook himself, and his expression softened. "Yes, son?"

"Are we sure there's air in the shaft?"

"Good point," Dad said. He pressed his ear against the rear wall. "No wind," he said a few seconds later. "Wherever the blowout was, the bulkheads must have already sealed if off--or else air would still be pouring through every elevator door along this shaft." He smiled. "In this case, silence really is golden." He nodded at Mazzaro. "Go ahead."

Mazzaro produced a small orange chip--a key-card--and slipped it into a slot just below the main control panel. A small hatch dropped open, revealing another, even more complex, series of keys and readouts. A few of the latter were green--a very few. "Cross your fingers," he said over his shoulder, and punched several buttons in quick succession.

The door was made up of two panels, which met in the middle with padded, airtight polymer edges. The left-hand half trundled open immediately, though with a high-pitched squeal of complaint; but the right slid only halfway before shuddering to a halt. Mazzaro put his shoulder against its edge and pushed, but it would go no farther. That was enough, though: enough to tell us that our situation had improved--but only marginally.

As with everything else in a CF installation, the Administration Building's elevators were built to serve multiple species. The car itself was quite large, made to the measure of a Quadrian--and the doors were almost two and a half meters tall, so as to not muss a female Centaurii's proud crest. The bottom three-quarters of that opening--give or take--was filled now with the blank, and grimy, wall of the shaft. At the very top, above Dad's head and even Mazzaro's, was a thin slice, maybe thirty centimeters, of the back side of an outer door.

Reaching up, Mazzaro jammed his fingers into the seam between the panels, and pulled. A second later Dad joined him, and together, grunting with effort, they heaved the door open perhaps a quarter of the way. Beyond could be seen a dim, deserted hallway, a fake-wood-paneled wall and darkened glow-plates above. But the door would go no farther, and as Dad and Mazzaro relaxed their grip, it sprang closed again.

"Well, that's it," Mazzaro said in disgust. "I can't release the outer interlock from here; it's a manual lever, at the top of the door-frame. And even if I stripped down and greased up, I couldn't get through an opening that small."

Gritting my teeth, I grasped the handrail and hauled myself to my feet--and this time, the queasy rocking was entirely in my head. "I can," I said. "If you'll give me a boost."

Dad turned, frowning. "No," he said. "Absolutely not. Your ribs…"

I shrugged, which hurt. "Do we have a choice?" I asked. "Does Mr. Lummis have a choice?"

Briefly, Dad glared. Then he dropped his eyes. "No," he admitted softly. "We don't."

There was nothing more to say. Once again Dad and Mazzaro pried the door open--obviously it didn't become any easier with repetition--and when the opening was as wide as it would get, Mazzaro transferred his left hand to the opposite panel. "I've got it," he said, the strain clearly audible in his voice. "But for God's sake hurry!"

Dad wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me--not difficult, in three-quarters gravity. I seized the edges of the outer panels and began to wriggle through, closing my throat tight against the whimper that threatened to well up. When I'd reached the halfway point, and he could be of no further assistance, Dad let go of me and turned to help Mazzaro--and a good thing too, because the lieutenant's strength had begun to slacken. It was a tight fit, very, and having to force my way past four sets of knuckles didn't make it any easier. Hooking my claws into the carpet of the corridor beyond, I dragged myself forward as someone trapped in quicksand might ascend a vine, hand-over-hand. I forced myself to hurry, despite the pain; if Dad and Mazzaro lost their grip, the door most likely wouldn't actually cut me in two--but I had no desire to find out for certain. As it was, I got my feet out of the way just in time, and I lost some hairs from my tail-tuft as the panels slammed closed. But most of me made it, more or less.

For a time I lay prone, breathing as deeply as I could--which wasn't very. If we ever make it to the Evac Center, I thought, there'd better be a doctor there. Or at very least a warm and comfortable place where I could become horizontal, and remain that way a good long time. But for the moment…

Somehow--Goddess knows how--I got my knees beneath me, turned, and pressed my mouth against the gap. "Dad!" I called. "Lieutenant! Can you hear me?"

Once again the door was laboriously heaved open--and this time Mazzaro shoved his helmet into the opening, partially--but not completely--blocking it. "Are you all right, Tom?" Dad asked.

"I'll live," I said--though privately I had my doubts. "What now?"

Mazzaro pointed up. "Just inside the top of the door-frame you should see a red lever. You need to pull it down to release the interlock."

I stood, and squinted up into the narrow opening. The lever was there, all right, just where he'd said it would be--but it was far above my head. No choice, I thought grimly--and I clenched my teeth, took a careful breath…and jumped.

I was only partly successful. I caught hold of the lever with my left hand, but my full mass wasn't enough to shift it, even when I bounced up and down several times. And the effort was viciously painful. Finally I let go and sank to my knees, wrapping my arms tight around my abdomen. "Sorry," I said. "It won't budge."

"That shouldn't be," Mazzaro began in irritation. "Are you sure you…"

"It shouldn't be," Dad interrupted firmly. "But if Tom says it is, then it is. The release mechanism must have jammed the during the crash."

"Must have," Mazzaro agreed heavily. "Damn!"

"Meaning--?" I prompted, and the lieutenant sighed.

"Meaning there's only one other choice," he said. He pointed to the right. "A few dozen meters up this corridor there's an emergency locker. You can't miss it; it's marked in day-glo green. Among other things, it'll contain at least one commpak, and a first-aid kit."

I hauled myself to my feet. "Aye-aye, sir," I said. Just what I need, I thought wryly. A long walk. A hero's work is never done… "I'll be as quick as I can."

"Wait!" Dad called, and I turned, to see his hand protruding from the gap. I crouched to clasp it.

"For God's sake be careful," he said softly.

I bit back the sarcastic reply that rose instantly to my lips, and instead I smiled. "I will," I promised. "Don't go away!"

I set off at a jog, which quickly became a rapid walk. Goddess, what I wouldn't do for a cup of good coffee and a nice soft bed…When we got home--if we did--I fully intended to lock myself in my room and not come out for at least a month--or until my bond-mate returned from Sah'aar. Better stock up on beef jerky first

Halfway to my goal, I felt a sudden, uncontrollable urge to cough, and somehow managed to suppress it, because I feared it would split me in two. Instead, I cleared my throat hard--which was bad enough--and as I did, a half-familiar, rusty taste rose in the back of my mouth. Blood: specifically, my blood. The splintered ends of one or more of my ribs must have been driven into my lung. Simply by walking I might be worsening the damage; I had no good way to know for certain--and no choice but to go on. I could still breathe, after a fashion, and I certainly didn't have a pneumothorax--not yet, anyway--but that discovery did lend a certain urgency to my search.

The corridor I traversed was deserted, and almost silent, except for the distant shriek of the wind, and a faint, persistent metallic rattle, source unknown, which might have become irritating if I'd had the attention to spare. Lined as it was with countless numbers of identical, closed doors, lit only by the red flicker of rapidly-failing emergency lights, the hall resembled nothing so much as a huge mausoleum or catacomb. I could almost hear the pattering of little feet, and the guttural chuckle of harsh voices, as the Dark Ones crept up behind me…

Stop that! I told myself sharply. I had more than enough problems already, without adding a load of childish superstition to the mix. Concentrate on the job at hand…Though concentrating on anything except the red-hot rivets being driven into my side was becoming increasingly difficult…

As the lieutenant had promised, the locker wasn't hard to find--and I had to chuckle as I read the bright-red legend beside the latch: "For Emergency Use Only. Breaking This Seal Will Alert Security." If only…

If indeed I sounded an alarm, it wasn't audible--or, more likely, it fell on deaf ears, because Ops was blacked out and evacuated. The locker was about a meter and a half tall, and a meter wide and deep; and within that small space was crammed a wide assortment of items. Water bottles and ration packs, tools, scanpaks, air-bottles and breathing masks, and much more besides. No weapons, though--not that I'd expected any. I quickly located the first-aid kit, a slim orange case with a red cross on its lid, hanging from a wide webbing strap. I also pocketed a bulgy envelope containing a foil survival blanket. And in a charging unit near the hatch I found not one, but half a dozen fully functional commpaks.

I know I should have started back immediately, but I just had to rest for a moment--and I could put the time to good use. The commpak I'd grabbed wasn't designed for Sah'aarans, and wouldn't clip to my ear; I had to hold it in place. Clearing my throat again--and renewing the alarming taste of blood on my tongue--I tapped the call button. "Calling Control," I said, just as Mazzaro had. "Come in, Control."

The voice that came through was female, human, awash in static--and slightly perplexed. "Control. Ensign Swann. Who--uh--who is this?"

"Tom Abrams," I said. "This is an emergency. My father, Lieutenant Mazzaro and Mr. Lummis are trapped in an elevator on the thirteenth floor. Lummis is badly hurt--" I paused, and shifted uncomfortably-- "and I'm not in great shape myself. We need help right away."

"Understood," the Security officer said. "I'm dispatching a team now. Stay on the line until they arrive."

"Roger Wilco," I said. Relief surged through me, and it would have felt so nice to give in to unconsciousness--but I couldn't, not yet. Slinging the first-aid kit over my shoulder--on the left side, where its weight was less painful--I turned to retrace my steps…and froze. Something wasn't right.

It took me a few seconds to decide what--and when I did, my heart skipped a beat. That quiet rattling sound, ubiquitous, constant, easy to ignore, had suddenly become more insistent. A lot more insistent. As I stood transfixed, barely breathing, the noise rose rapidly to a sharp clatter, and then to a splintering crash, like the tearing apart of a huge sheet of steel. It was a painful sound, and I raised my hands to my ears--just as a great mass of air struck me in the back and threw me violently to the floor.

I tried to hang on, digging in with all my claws, but the screaming wind was stronger than me. I was dragged for several meters, and in the carpet I left sixteen long rents, like plowed furrows; but all too soon my grip was torn loose, and I tumbled helplessly over and over, a fresh wave of agony paralyzing me every time my right side struck the deck. Even in the midst of the terror that flooded my mind, I knew exactly what had happened: somewhere ahead of me, another set of windows had blown out, creating a huge sucking hole to nowhere. The only question was whether I would lose consciousness from pain, or from lack of oxygen, before I found myself in the middle of a raging sandstorm.

I don't know how long my nightmare lasted--ten seconds, maybe, no more, though it seemed far longer. Then, from somewhere just ahead, came a sudden clanking, rumbling sound, barely audible over the gale's howl. The wind diminished, then died--and I fell flat on my stomach, my outstretched hands pressed against the cold ribbed metal of an emergency bulkhead.

For a long time I lay helpless, my limbs twitching spasmodically, fighting to balance my need to breathe deeply in the thin air with the knife-thrust pain that accompanied each inhalation. I know I came close to cyanosis, my face, fingers and toes numb, my thoughts fragmented--but life-support was on the job, busily replacing the lost atmosphere, and eventually my ragged gasps slowed and steadied. Finally I managed to raise my head.

How close I'd come to the elevators, I didn't know--but not close enough. They lay somewhere on the other side of the bulkhead, that solid wall which had dropped from the ceiling to seal the leak. That much I could tell at a glance. What I couldn't know--and what was far more important--was how near Dad, Mazzaro and Lummis had been to the blow-out. If they'd been far enough away, they might have been saved by yet another bulkhead. And even if they'd been nearer, the elevators were self-contained, with their own life-support. If they'd managed to shut the airtight inner door in time, they might well have survived. But if so…then the rescue crews would have a Dark of a time reaching them--to say the least. How they'd accomplish it, I couldn't imagine. And as for me…Where were the emergency stairs, in relation to where I lay? Was I trapped too, cut off from help? I hadn't a clue--and I lacked the strength to find out.

I looked around. The commpak had been torn from my hand, and was long gone; probably it was halfway to Discovery Valley by now. But the first-aid kit, on its shoulder-strap, had stayed with me, and the emergency blanket was still in my pocket. That was something, anyway.

I managed to get the blanket wrapped around me, more or less; and then I rummaged through the first-aid kit. Amidst the dermapatches, tourniquets and suchlike, I found a painkilling med-patch, guaranteed safe for humans, Sah'aarans and Quadrians, and I rubbed it into my upper arm. How much good it would do, I couldn't say--but it had to be better than nothing.

And that was all I could do. Resting my head on my arms, I relaxed, as best I could, feeling a warm, comfortable numbness gradually spread through my battered body. I tried, I thought in despair. Goddess knows I tried, as hard as I could. Surely that had to count for something…

I'm not sure how long I lay there, sprawled awkwardly with my face in my hands; but it couldn't have been much longer than ten or fifteen minutes. The pain was almost gone, wafted away on a purple narcotic haze, taking most of my mind with it, when I was roused by the quiet thump of approaching footsteps. I raised my head--and my sharp intake of breath brought with it a mostly-unfamiliar scent. A human, obviously--but not one I'd ever encountered before. "Hello--?" I croaked.

A figure appeared out of the darkness then, and paused a little distance away. Human, yes, and male; but slightly-built, and rather short. He wore ill-fitting Security armor, and carried a stinger-rifle slung over his shoulder. His helmet concealed his hair, and a breathing mask, connected to a cylinder on his belt, made a mystery of the lower half of his face. All I could see, as he peeled away his goggles, was a pair of icy blue eyes--which widened first in evident surprise, then narrowed.

"Well, well, well," the man said. His voice, muffled by the mask, was high-pitched and slightly ragged, and had a biting, ironic edge. "What have we here? A stray kitten?"

I raised my hand. "Please…"

"'Please' what?" he demanded, his tone hardening. "Please rescue you? Please get you to a doctor? I'll think about it--after you've given me what I want."

I didn't reply; fear had taken hold of my throat, squeezing off voice and air both. No, I thought. It can't be. Not here. Not now.

He knelt down before me. I tried to shy away, but my body wouldn't cooperate; I achieved nothing more than a painful flinch. The man barked a laugh, and then, still chuckling, reached up and stripped away his mask. The face thus revealed was half-familiar: I'd seen it before--but only in a holo, never in person. He flashed a crooked smile, deepening the ragged scar that bisected his left cheek, temple to chin.

"Peekaboo," Osgood said. "I see you."