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
A swirling confusion of scents: rock-dust, metal and ozone, mingled with lingering traces of human, Centaurii and Quadrian; a quiet discord of sound: the rush of air, the deep throb of high voltage, and the static-shot roar of an open comm channel; and light, bright and inescapable, stabbing at my closed eyelids and spawning clouds of violet amoeboid afterimages. Am I awake, or still dreaming? And if it's the latter, will reality--when it finally arrives--be any easier to decipher?
I woke feeling reasonably good--a sensation which lasted all of thirty seconds.
I found myself lying flat on my back on what seemed to be a sofa, of the small, uncomfortable variety often found in offices and waiting rooms: a metal frame with rectangular cushions, foam-stuffed and covered with a rough tweedy material. My head was cradled by one of the arm-rests, my feet by the other; and my left shoulder and hip were pressed against the thing's sharply-angled back. As far as I could tell, my weight felt normal, or close enough, and there was plenty of air. That was the easy part.
For a moment I lay still, my eyes squeezed shut, trying to bring my memory up to speed before I tackled the much harder task of figuring out where the Dark I was. Let's see, I thought, somewhat murkily. An elevator crash; then a blowout--and then Osgood. Yes: that's how it had been. He taunted me, standing grinning over me while I lay terrified, but unable to move. Finally, aware no doubt that a rescue crew might already be on his heels, he lifted me like a sack of flour and tossed me over his shoulder--and after that, events became a blur. Whether that was his doing, or a result of the painkiller I'd self-prescribed, I didn't know; probably the latter. Hanging face-down, I could see nothing but my own dangling arms--and the floor. I remembered long stretches of hallway, dim and unchanging, except for the color of the carpet; and at least one set of rough metal stairs, descending into darkness. That endless spiral, circling, ever circling, made me dizzy, and finally I closed my eyes…and after that--nothing. Where Osgood had ultimately taken me, I had no idea. Pointless to curse my decision to ease my pain, though in doing so I had made myself ridiculously easy to capture. Had I not been drugged into helplessness, he would simply have stingered me--and then this awakening would have been much more unpleasant.
Finally I opened my eyes. Just a slit--and my caution was rewarded. About five meters above me hung a blazing white floodlamp, the brightest light I'd encountered since entering the elevator. Blinking away a few tears, I turned my head slowly to the right. At first I saw nothing but a jumble of shapes and colors; but gradually my eyes adjusted, and, as Nietzsche promised, order emerged from the chaos.
I lay against the left-hand wall of what was clearly a control room of some kind, a space about eight meters wide and five deep. Evenly spaced across the metal-plate floor opposite me were three large horseshoe-shaped panels, each equipped with a comfortable-looking swivel chair, and covered with a bewildering array of buttons and readouts. None was manned. Behind, the rear wall was virtually featureless, a blank slab of grey metal, broken only by a pair of large, hatch-like doors, both closed, and a single ventilator near the floor. And forward…
The front wall, and those to the sides, were made entirely of glass, or--more likely--a transparent polymer. Those huge windows looked out over a space so large that, after several days cooped up indoors, merely to look at it caused my vertigo to come rushing back with a vengeance. I swallowed, and tried again--and my mind still boggled.
It appeared to be a huge cavern, almost certainly artificial, carved out of Minor's peculiar orange-veined yellow native rock. Dome-shaped, the grotto was easily a hundred meters long and fifty wide and high, and was brilliantly, dazzlingly illuminated, by perhaps two dozen suspended floodlamps. Ceiling and walls were unfinished, rough-looking, still showing the marks of drills and other tools. Only the floor was entirely smooth, and covered with a gridwork of grav-plates. The room where I lay, so it seemed, was cantilevered into the rear wall, about three-quarters of the way up.
There appeared to be only one opening--so far as I could see, anyway: a circular tunnel about five meters in diameter, bored into the far wall. It wasn't lighted, but in the reflected glow of the cavern I saw that the passage angled sharply upwards, and was lined at every few meters with gleaming metal rings. At its mouth, a two-part hatch with serrated, tooth-like edges, hung from massive runners. Narrow, close-spaced rails extended from the mouth of the tunnel into the cavern, passing out of my vision to the rear. Before them, a pair of skeletal hydraulic lifting-arms with rounded claws stood waiting for…something. Cargo, perhaps?
I looked, and frowned, having not a clue what I was seeing--needless to say, this place had not been part of the official Fabrication Center tour I'd taken days before. But then I noticed the rows and rows of diverse-sized, bullet-shaped metal canisters lining the walls, and finally I understood. This was the mass-driver, that device which, catapult-like, used magnetic induction to fling steel cans full of completed components into orbit, saving fuel and therefore money. Mayer's old stomping-grounds--a thought which caused the fur along my tail and spine to tingle. But why here?
With an effort, I wrenched my mind away from that astonishing view, and turned my attention to my own condition. My head felt clear now, the effects of the painkiller having completely worn off. Exactly how long it had been since Osgood found me, I couldn't say--but judging from my raging thirst and growling stomach, six or seven hours at least. Lying still, I was in little or no pain, but taking more than a moderately-deep breath was still not a good idea. My shirt was missing--thankfully the place was warm, maybe even overly so--but my pants, badly torn during my misadventures, were still in place. So too was my bonding-band and my collar--and even that elastic wrap around my torso. That latter, in fact, seemed to have been supplemented, with what felt like a kilometer of gauze bandage; tight, yes--but in a way that felt good.
…But none of that held my attention for more than a few seconds. What did, was the fact that I was tied up.
My hands had been bound palm-to-palm, with a lavish wrapping of what appeared to be strapping tape, that tough, incredibly sticky stuff commonly used to seal cartons. Another band of the same material circled my waist, pinning my arms to my stomach. My feet were fastened together as well; not at the ankle, though, but midway between heel and pad. Unconventional--but effective. I could probably have slit the tape with my claws, given time--if I could have forced my fingers into a position where they could do any good. But I couldn't--as the person who'd done the job obviously knew.
A sudden surge of panic swept through me, and I began to struggle wildly, hurting myself. Then, from somewhere behind me, I heard a metallic clank, followed immediately by a bitter-sounding chuckle. "If I were you, boy," a familiar, rough-edged voice said, "I'd lie still."
I turned my head. One of the two doors in the rear wall--the right-hand one, not that it mattered--had opened. Behind, I caught a glimpse of another brightly-lit space, filled with tables and chairs; a wardroom perhaps, or a lounge or mess-hall for the mass-driver crew. But I spared that barely a glance; I had other--much more important--things to think about.
It was Osgood who stood in the doorway, of course--who else would it have been? He still wore his stolen Security armor, which I saw now was at least two sizes too large for him, and filthy. As he crossed the room he tossed his helmet, goggles and stinger-rifle with ostentatious negligence into one of the swivel chairs. Stepping up close beside me, he flashed a sardonic, gap-toothed grin. "I didn't go to all the trouble of wrapping up those ribs just so you could bust them loose again."
Seeing him now for the first time in full light, I realized that he bore only a nodding resemblance to the holo Lummis had shown us--apart from that ugly scar. His narrow face was pale, almost grey in hue; his eyes were sunken and red-rimmed, and several days' growth of beard darkened his cheeks and chin. His hair, much greyer than in the photo, was straggly, disheveled and greasy-looking. He more closely resembled a scarecrow than either an engineer or an interstellar terrorist.
"I imagine you know who I am," he went on, and I nodded.
"Yes," I said between clenched teeth, feeling my claws digging into the backs of the opposing hands. "Wallace 'Wally' Osgood, former CF Engineer--and convicted felon."
For an instant his face darkened; then he laughed. "Oh, that barely scratches the surface," he told me, peering deep into my eyes. "And I know who you are--all too well," he continued. "Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams, son of the highly-decorated Commodore Ehm'ayla and the oh-so-perfect Joel Aaron Abrams, Consulting Engineer." He paused. "I wonder--do you have any idea what really happened aboard Raven? Have they ever had the guts to tell you?"
I glared at him. "Yes," I said. "They told me. A long time ago."
His eyes widened in obvious surprise. Apparently I'd scored a point, though I had no idea how. "Interesting," he said, staring into space. "Very interesting."
"What do you want with me?" I demanded. "Why have you brought me here?"
For a moment he didn't reply. He pulled over a chair and settled into it, propping his feet on a control panel and leaning back with his hands behind his head. "Nice place, isn't it?" he said. "Isolated, evacuated--and fully self-powered. And with the precautions I've taken, we shouldn't be interrupted before we finish our business."
A chill went down my spine. "And that is--?"
He gazed at me in amazement. "Getting the hell off this stinking dustball, of course," he said. "What else? And you, my furry friend, are my ticket out of here."
"You've lost me."
He pointed down into the cavern. "As soon as this storm dies down a little, you and I are going to pack ourselves into one of those containers and let the mass-driver launch us into orbit--where some associates of mine will be waiting to pick us up. And the CF won't dare do a thing about it--not with you aboard."
"You're out of your mind," I said flatly. "The acceleration…"
"Oh, it's not that bad," Osgood said. "Only about ten G's; and it doesn't last very long. And it's been done before. With enough foam padding, we'll be fine. I still have to rustle up a pair of pressure suits--but that shouldn't be hard. Must be some around here somewhere."
"I have three fractured ribs," I said desperately. "Ten G's will kill me."
"A risk I'm willing to take," Osgood said, with a predatory grin. "I hope not, though," he went on thoughtfully. "I'm counting on you to double my profit from this operation."
"How?" I asked, and his grin widened.
"Let's just say I have a buyer who's very interested in you."
He stood and departed then, back into the wardroom, and I bit back the words I almost shouted after him. I could not--would not--give him of satisfaction of hearing in my voice the fear that twisted my guts. He couldn't have failed to notice my claws, though, or my writhing tail, trapped between my legs. Those, I could do nothing about.
Alone then, I closed my eyes, trying to remember everything my mother had ever told me about my captor. He was a bully; that she'd discovered almost immediately. He enjoyed throwing his weight around, intimidating those weaker than him. But at heart, as she'd quickly discovered, he was also a coward. Could I turn that to my advantage, as she had? I couldn't see how--and at any rate, that was a long time ago. He was a quarter of a century older now--and he'd spent ten of those twenty-five years in prison. Surely that must have toughened him; but to what extent, I had no way to judge. What now? Goddess, what now?
As I had that night in the dome, I grabbed my tottering sanity by the metaphorical scruff of its neck, and shook hard. I had to focus, to force some kind of order on my scattered thoughts. I'd lived through both of Mayer's attempts on my life; I could live through this too--but only if I could make myself think, instead of giving in to panic.
What I needed most was data--and unfortunately, my sources were few. Fact: at least several hours had passed since the elevator crash. Fact: the sandstorm was still going on, somewhere far over our heads, and would be for a while at least. And fact: the remainder of the Fabrication Center was still blacked out and in chaos. Well, to be strictly accurate, that last was an inference--but a strong one: I had as evidence that open comm channel, still grumbling static from a speaker on the center control panel. Had main power been restored, it would have been crackling with voices instead. Probably that was why Osgood had left it on.
Hammond, Teeheek, Mazzaro…all of them had assumed--as anyone would--that Osgood would make his break via the tunnel-cars, probably with an eye toward losing himself in the bustle of Discovery Valley. Never in their wildest dreams would any of them expect him to use the mass-driver. Would anyone else make that half-insane leap of imagination? Reid, perhaps? Or Dad? And that, of course, brought me to the question that burned hottest in my mind: what had happened to my father, and the others in the elevator with him? Osgood might know, if he'd been monitoring the commpak traffic--but I'd be damned if I'd ask him. He could--and no doubt would--all too easily use the question against me.
Assume that no one knows we're here, I thought. And that Osgood has this place barricaded somehow. Where does that leave me? There seemed only a single answer to that; one of my father's favorite vulgarisms: Screwed. No amount of clever thinking would get me out of this one. And what does he mean, an "interested buyer"? Another question I didn't dare ask…
I opened my eyes. Osgood had returned, and sat staring at me with evident interest--and not a little amusement. Finally he chuckled. "This is the first time I've gotten a close look at you," he commented. "I didn't realize before how much you look like your mother." He shook his head, and his face took on a strange, almost wistful expression. "I'll never forget the first time I saw her, on Raven's Control Deck…" For almost thirty seconds he sat silent, then he went on, "…But I don't think I've ever heard who your father is. Your real father, I mean."
"Dr. Sah'larrah," I supplied. Keep him talking, I told myself. Keep him occupied. Maybe you can figure a way out of this after all… "He's an archaeologist."
Osgood nodded. "Right," he said. "I've heard of him. The Undercity scandal. That was all over the news when I was on Sah'aar a few months back." He paused, apparently waiting for me to express surprise; and when I didn't, he smiled. "It appears you know about that. Very good. I imagine that little detail was uncovered by that Intelligence agent--Lummis. Maybe he's not as big an idiot as he seems."
If he's still alive, I might have said--but of course I didn't. Osgood stood then, and crouched over me, and I flinched violently as he reached for my neck. "Relax," he advised sourly--and then he ran his fingers with surprising gentleness along my collar. It was one Ehm'tassaa had given me, black, with a pattern of metallic silver threads woven through it. Not the one I would have chosen to wear to my abduction. Briefly I wondered if he would steal it; but he did not. "I've always wondered," he said thoughtfully, "why you Sah'aarans find it necessary to wear those things."
I shrugged, or tried to. "A matter of culture."
To my astonishment, Osgood threw his head back and laughed. "What makes you think you have a culture?" he asked. "I don't mean your species," he added quickly, cutting off my angry rejoinder. "I mean you, personally. You might as well be a half-breed, Tom Abrams--if such a thing was possible. A Sah'aaran mother and a human father; a Terran name and an alien face. Do you fit in anywhere? I doubt it. Your parents didn't do you any favors, bringing you into the world. But then you already know that, don't you?"
"No," I said softly. "I don't. Not at all."
He grinned. "They've got you well-trained, I see." He waved a hand. "Not that it matters much--not where you're going."
I kept expecting him to launch into a racist, anti-alien diatribe, as Antilles doubtless would have. Now, finally, I understood why he had not. and when he did not. Dad was right, I realized. Osgood truly was the archetypal "rebel without a cause." He no more believed in Antilles' theories than he did anything else. If there was anything at all he could truly be said to embrace, it was chaos and destruction--purely for their own sakes.
"I have to admit," he went on, "I expected you to be more scared than you seem to be."
You mean you hoped I'd be, I corrected silently. "Maybe it's a carnivore thing," I said evenly.
"Top of the food chain, eh?" he said. "Very good--I like that." He gestured at my bound arms. "Though it seems the hunter is now the hunted, eh?"
"Osgood," I said suddenly, "why are you doing this?"
His jaw dropped. "Why, for money, of course," he snapped. "What did you expect? With the PPS on one side and the Sah'challa Consortium on the other, I expect to collect a tidy sum for this operation. And if neither of them gets exactly what they paid for--well, I'll be long gone before they realize that." He winked. "And of course I'm not above working a deal or two of my own on the side."
I shook my head. "That's not what I mean," I said. I swallowed. "I mean--why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?"
He leaned close, his eyes suddenly blazing. "Just one thing," he said tightly. "You were born the son of Ehm'ayla and Joel Abrams."
I swallowed painfully; my throat was dust-dry. "And what did they ever do to you?"
"I spent ten years in prison because of them," he grated. "Isn't that enough?"
"You're wrong," I said. "You went to prison because you chose to follow Captain Antilles. All my parents did was blow the whistle."
Osgood turned away, his fists clenching. I went on, "And you want to know something else? Antilles thought you were a fool. He wanted my mother to kill you, that night they cut off her claws. What's the old saying? 'Two birds with one stone'?"
His face darkened, and his raised his hand. For a few seconds I thought he would slug me, and I braced myself for the blow. But finally he relaxed, and smiled. "Antilles is the fool," he said icily. "He could have had anything he wanted--power, fame, wealth. With his charisma he could have been the head of the Board of Admirals, if he chose. But instead he wasted his time--our time--on that damnfool search of his. And he paid the price."
The ultimate price, I started to say--but then something Osgood had said a few seconds earlier finally sunk in. "Wait a minute," I protested. "What do you mean, 'is'? Antilles died in prison years ago--there was a landslide…"
Osgood's smile widened. "And was his body ever found?" he asked mockingly. "Oh no--my dear ex-captain is very much alive. And he has a fine group of friends these days--the same ones who engineered his escape."
"I don't believe it," I countered, and Osgood shrugged.
"Believe it or not, I don't care," he said. "You'll be meeting him--and them--very soon."
His words hit me harder than his fist ever could have. Antilles, I thought wildly. That's his "interested buyer"--the one who will double his profits. "Goddess!" I breathed.
"As a rule," Osgood was saying, "I don't have anything to do with him any more. But somehow or other he learned that you and your father were here. He contacted me, and arranged a little--shall we say--purchase. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance."
"If you do this," I said, grimly battling to keep my terror from showing in my voice, "you'll never have a moment's peace as long as you live. My mother will come after you and Antilles both--and she'll have all the resources of the Combined Forces behind her."
Osgood hesitated, then said, in a strange, muffled voice, "I'm looking forward to it."
Two hours later, more or less, events took another sharp turn toward the bizarre--carrying me, like it or not, along for the ride.
Osgood didn't remain long to taunt me: almost immediately after he dropped his little bombshell about Antilles, he departed for parts unknown--leaving behind his stinger-rifle, and his helmet and goggles. I don't doubt he did that quite deliberately; partially, I'm sure, because he felt safe in his solitude--and also as another, more refined method of torture. For a long time I lay gazing at those items, resting casually in a chair no more than three meters away, wondering how I could get my hands on them--and what I'd do with them if I did. With a little effort I could roll off the sofa onto the floor, and eventually worm my way over to the chair. A few well-placed kicks might overturn it. Then what? The goggles I certainly didn't need, and the stinger would be useless to me, with my hands bound as they were. But the commpak built into the helmet…could I manage somehow to activate its emergency beacon? With my tongue, maybe? Would it do me any good? And--a far more basic question--if I rolled off the couch, landing on my injured ribs, might not I lose consciousness again before I could accomplish anything?
Eventually I gave up the idea and turned away, closing my eyes. Now what? My legs and neck were beginning to cramp, and so too were my wrists; but I could do little to ease them. My hunger I could ignore--almost--but thirst was rapidly becoming a serious discomfort, bordering on pain. Nothing I could do about that either. If I asked Osgood for food or water, no doubt he'd just laugh in my face. I wouldn't die of starvation or dehydration before he'd made his "delivery," and that was all he cared about. My comfort couldn't concern him less.
Was he telling the truth? I asked myself, as I already had, many times. When Reid described for us the details of Antilles' death, Dad had seemed doubtful--but in the rush of subsequent events, neither he nor I had mentioned the subject again. It hadn't seemed important anyway. Was he truly alive? And did Osgood really have a deal to deliver me to him? Ex-Captain Mark Antilles was the bogey-man of my youth, the scary presence that had haunted my childhood dreams ever since I first heard the story of Raven. I'd never expected to meet him in person--nor seriously considered what would happen if I did. Now that meeting seemed a distinct possibility--and if it occurred, I would be entirely at his mercy. The best outcome would be that he'd hold me for ransom--which my parents would pay, one way or another, probably calling upon my Sah'aaran grandfather for funds. What they'd do afterwards was another question. The worst…didn't bear contemplating. My parents' testimony put Osgood in prison for ten years--but it got Antilles a life sentence. And--what was probably far more important to him--it ruined his holy mission. Osgood was amoral, mercenary--but Antilles had been thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his anti-alien crusade. What would he do to me--a Zeef, an animal in his cosmology? I could only hope, for my family's sake, that my life insurance was paid up. And Ehm'tassaa? What about her? But that was a thought I absolutely couldn't face.
Such was the cheerful turn of my thoughts when Osgood reappeared, grinning ear to ear. Over his shoulders he bore a pair of shapeless silver bundles, which he slung across a chair. He ducked into the wardroom again, and returned lugging two heavy-looking white backpacks with attached bubble helmets. "Pressure suits," he said, rather needlessly. "Found 'em in a supply locker down the corridor. 'Course, neither of them was made for a Sah'aaran--but we'll manage. If we can't stuff your tail inside, we'll just have to cut it off."
Why was it I actually believed he'd do it? "How's the storm?" I asked, dreading the answer.
He set down the backpacks, and crossed the room to lean over the rightmost control panel, frowning as he tapped keys. "It's beginning to subside," he said a moment later. "Ahead of schedule, actually. But it'll be a couple hours yet before we can launch."
He'll have to notify the authorities before we do, I realized. If the CF didn't know I was inside the canister, they might simply shoot it down. Considering the alternative, I could almost wish they would anyway--but Dad, if he was still alive, would never permit it. Would Osgood have to bring the entire power grid back up to send his message; or could he--as I suspected--selectively re-power the comm system? Did it matter, either way? More to the point, perhaps, he'd have to untie me to get me into the pressure suit. Could I escape then? Would I even be able to move? And how far could I get, before he shot me down? That seemed hopeless too, though I was almost willing to try…
Osgood seated himself, pulling the chair up near my couch. "Gotta rest," he announced. "Not as young as I used to be."
Who is? I thought. For a few moments he sat silent, staring into space in a way that was rapidly becoming familiar. When finally he spoke again, his tone was quiet, almost distracted. "You've never been in prison, have you, Tom?"
I shook my head. "Not exactly, no."
Unconsciously it seemed, he reached up to stroke the scar on his cheek. "It's terrible," he said earnestly. "I thought the Officer's Academy was regimented--but that's nothing compared to life on Pharos III." He shuddered. "Up every morning at oh-six-hundred. Half an hour for breakfast--if that's what you want to call the swill they force down your throat. Then six hours of hard labor, half an hour for lunch, and another four hours of work." He chuckled bitterly. "It's supposed to 'build character,'" he went on. "Can you believe that? Working like a slave is supposed to improve your moral state." He shook his head. "The only thing it built in me was hatred."
I said nothing, and a moment later he went on, "You still don't understand, do you? I didn't deserve to be sent to prison. All I did was follow orders. Antilles was my CO; I was supposed to obey him. Everyone did--even your father. Why did I rot in prison while he went about his business, making money and raising a family? What was the difference?"
"Maybe," I said, "you obeyed Antilles a little too enthusiastically. Especially when he ordered you to brutalize a certain Sah'aaran lieutenant."
Once again his face darkened, and once again, with an effort, he mastered himself. He sighed and shook his head. "You've only heard one side of the story," he said sadly. "Their side. I don't blame you for that, though. How could I?"
"What other side is there?" I demanded. "You followed orders you knew were illegal--or should have known. And by all accounts you did it willingly--cheerfully, even. And at the court-martial you pled guilty, just like everyone else."
"I trusted my captain," Osgood said tiredly. "The first lesson every good cadet learns: Don't second-guess your CO; he knows best. You would have learned that yourself, soon enough."
I gazed at him quizzically, and he frowned. "Surely your folks planned to send you to the Academy?"
"No," I replied. His constant use of the past tense in reference to me did something to the pit of my stomach, and I was determined not to buy into it. "My sister and I have decided our paths lie elsewhere."
"Probably a smart decision," Osgood said. "Your sister," he went on musingly, as if considering her for the first time. "Ehm'rael, isn't it? Named after the legendary admiral from the Engineering Corps?"
"I…imagine she'll take the news pretty hard, won't she?"
I didn't need to ask what news he meant. "Yes," I said quietly, "she would. So would my bond-mate--maybe even worse than my sister."
"Pardon me?" Osgood said. "Your what?"
"My bond-mate," I repeated, in some surprise. I'd always thought that to be a common term, even among humans. Everyone I'd ever encountered was familiar with it. But Osgood, it appeared, had a few interesting gaps in his education. "My fiancé, if you prefer. She and I are physiologically connected, for life. If I die, she'll be alone forever."
He turned away, and this time he remained silent for a full minute, while I lay staring at the shaggy back of his head, wondering what thoughts were passing through his mind. When he spoke again, without looking at me, his voice was hollow and emotionless. "I've been denied many things too," he said. "Not the least of which was a family."
At that moment, with those words, I finally understood what had been driving him all those years--and too, why he seemed to revel in chaos. It was nothing so simple as greed, despite what he'd told me. His goal was to punish the entire universe, to make everyone pay for his misspent youth. The fact that it was entirely his own fault had never entered his head--or maybe, on reflection, it had. "You might get away from this planet," I told him. "But you'll never get away from yourself. You know that, don't you?"
"Oh, spare me!" he snapped. "Save your pity for yourself--you'll need it."
With that he flounced off, leaving me to savor an entirely Pyrrhic victory--and taking with him the stinger-rifle. This time he used the left-hand door in the rear wall; which--craning my neck to the utmost--I saw opened directly onto a set of spiral stairs, heading down into the cavern. For a brief time he was out of sight, though I heard the ringing echoes of his footsteps on the metal treads; then he reappeared on the cave floor. He stood still for a moment at the edge of the tracks, breathing hard, clenching and unclenching his fists; evidently I had touched a nerve or two. Finally he shook himself, and went briskly to work.
I watched in growing despair as he activated one of the hydraulic grapples, and used it to pluck a medium-sized canister from a cluster near the opposite wall, and set it on its side atop the tracks. He undogged its double-panel hatch and immediately clambered inside, obviously trying the damned thing for size. Apparently satisfied, he climbed back out, and vanished again into the rear of the cave. When he came back into view, some minutes later, he was pushing a mag-lev float, on which lay a pair of large blue cylinders, connected by long hoses to a narrow, stick-like nozzle. He fiddled with the valves for a while, and then, in a billowing cloud of yellow vapor, began to spray a thick layer of foam into the canister. Every few minutes he stopped and reached inside, shaping the fast-drying padding with black-gloved hands. In the back of my mind I'd harbored an irrational hope that he wasn't really serious, or that he'd change his mind when he realized the insanity of his plan. That hope now died, quietly, leaving behind only a desolate graveyard of despair. He's really going through with it, I thought. The Goddess help me.
It was about then, as I watched Osgood work, and noted with uneasiness the obsessive, monomaniacal look on his face, that I became aware of a strange noise. A quiet, intermittent tapping, as of metal on metal, it was at once familiar and unfamiliar--and it was growing gradually louder, though it remained so soft that human ears probably wouldn't have detected it. I turned my head from side to side, seeking the source--and when I found it, I had to bite my tongue against a sharp cry of alarm.
Just about floor level on the rear wall, directly between the two doors, lay a ventilation grille, perhaps fifty centimeters tall by sixty wide. As I watched, it began to wobble back and forth, gently at first but with increasing violence. Finally, with a crack, it broke loose--but it didn't fall. Rather, it was caught and set aside, by a pair of pale-skinned human hands with blackened palms and fingers. They were followed by arms, clad in dusty green; and then a head full of tousled red hair, and a grime-smeared face--a very familiar face.
At first, Stewart didn't seem to see me. He crawled from the ventilator and drew himself into a low crouch, glancing around with wary eyes. His prison jumpsuit was incredibly filthy, and torn in several places; his face and hands bore several long scratches. He wore a commpak, with the microphone pushed back, and a standard-issue stinger was thrust into his belt.
Finally his gaze settled on me, and his eyes widened. For a second he froze; then, crab-like, he scuttled across to kneel behind my head. Below, oblivious and self-absorbed, Osgood continued his work.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Stewart hissed.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," I whispered in reply. "I'm a hostage, of course--what does it look like?"
"Oh God," Stewart said. He rubbed his eyes, as if in pain, then glared down at me. "Tom Abrams," he declared, "do you have any idea what a pain in the ass you can be?"
Stewart clamped a hand down on my indignant reply, while with the other he rummaged through his pockets, coming up finally with a short-bladed knife with an orange handle and sheath. It looked familiar, and after a second's thought I remembered having seen several like it in the emergency locker. I wished now I'd thought to grab one. Staying low, at times almost lying full-length on the floor, and with many nervous glances into the cave below, Stewart cut my bonds. I had to firmly suppress a yowl at he pulled the tape away from my hands and feet: the stuff took great clumps of my fur with it. Finally Stewart lifted me off the sofa onto the floor--and that time, I couldn't entirely bite back a low moan of pain. His shrewd eyes took in the bolstered wrapping around my middle, and he nodded. "Your ribs?" he guessed.
I nodded. "I re-injured them a few hours ago," I said. "Pretty bad. Osgood taped them up, but I don't know how fast I'll be able to walk…"
"Walking isn't an issue," he said. "Not for a while, anyway. Crawling is." He pointed toward the open ventilator. "That's our only way out."
I nodded, and flopped fish-like over onto my belly; and then, slowly and cautiously, I drew myself up onto my hands and knees. It hurt--mostly in my side, but also in my cramped limbs--but I figured I could endure it. I had little other choice anyway. "Ready," I said--or rather gasped.
"Stay right behind me," he instructed. "It's dark in there, and there are some branches and turns. It wouldn't be easy to get lost--but it would be possible."
I glanced back and down. Osgood was out of sight again, and that gave me a nasty moment--but I couldn't hear his footsteps on the stairs. Hopefully he was just replenishing his supply of foam. That was a break, and Stewart and I took advantage of it, hurriedly crossing the control room. On the way, Stewart spied Osgood's light-amplifying goggles, perched atop his battered helmet on the seat of the chair, and he detoured to snag them. "Wish I'd had these hours ago," he said with a grin. "Now I'm ready."
We wormed our way into the ventilator, pushing against a strong flow of warm air. "Hang on a moment," I said, when I was almost fully inside. Turning over onto my back, I reached out my foot, and with my toe-claws hooked the grille that Stewart had set aside. I had no way of clipping it into place--the shaft was far too narrow for me to turn around in, in my present condition--but I was able to pull it more or less back where it had come from, covering the opening. Not a job that would have fooled Commander Reid--but hopefully it would mislead Osgood, if only for a while.
We began to crawl then, as quickly and quietly as we could. For perhaps the first two meters the shaft ran sharply downward; then it leveled off, and--thankfully--widened a trifle. It remained narrow, though, so much so that while I could go on hands and knees, Stewart was forced to wriggle along on elbows and hips, a painful-looking--and tediously slow--operation. Every five meters or so we encountered an intersecting shaft, which angled up toward some room or other. The light that spilled down through those ventilators was enough for me to navigate by--only just. With his stolen goggles, Stewart could probably see better than me. On the outward leg of his journey, though, he'd have been all but blind--and how he'd managed to locate the control room, I had no idea. Dead-reckoning, maybe.
Finally, perhaps five minutes later, I panted, "How far do we have to go?"
"A few hundred meters," he replied apologetically. "There's only one way into the mass-driver assembly: a tunnel that reaches out from the domes. Osgood has it blocked with an emergency bulkhead, some distance back from the launching chamber. We have to get around the obstruction."
"How did you know to look for him here?"
Stewart chuckled. "I have no idea," he confessed. "Just a hunch. I got to thinking about him and Mayer--and that's when I made the connection. I didn't know he had a hostage--though maybe I should have. I've been monitoring the commpak traffic; Security is going crazy trying to find you. Last I heard, they were afraid you'd been sucked out into the storm."
Curiously, that news caused my heart to lift, if only a little. On their own, Security wouldn't have wasted their limited resources looking for the likes of me--but with a little encouragement… "Have you heard anything about my father?"
"Yes," Stewart said. "He and Lummis and Mazzaro are all right. They weren't in the blowout zone--missed it by just meters, so I hear. The techs were able to lower some grapples from an upper floor, break the car loose, and lower it to the next level. I haven't heard how badly Lummis was hurt, but they are all alive."
Relief surged through me like a tidal wave, and I had to fight an impulse to collapse, right there and then. "Thank you," I said. "Very much. For the news--and for the rescue."
"You're welcome," he replied. He paused. "Though I have to admit, you've punched a hell of a hole in my plans."
"And those are?" I asked. "You have alerted Security, haven't you? Told them to send a squad to the mass-driver as fast as possible?"
"No," he said curtly. "I haven't. And I don't intend to."
"What? Why?" I demanded--but he would say no more. His words caused a nasty suspicion to take root in my mind, though. By his own admission, Stewart hadn't arrived with the intention of rescuing me; he hadn't even known I was being held prisoner. So why had he come--and why alone, without alerting his former colleagues? There was only one reason I could think of--a very, very hazardous reason. But even if I'd had the breath to try to talk him out of it, this was neither the time nor the place for such an argument: Osgood could discover my disappearance at any moment.
We proceeded in silence then. My arms and legs had quickly warmed up, the cramps working themselves out; but the pain in my side increased with every meter I crawled. How much longer I'd be able to stand it I didn't know--but I did know what would happen to me if I gave up and collapsed. The best I could do was to grit my teeth a little harder, and try to keep my weight on my left side. It'll all be over soon, I told myself. One way or another.
The shaft was dirty, the walls, floor and ceiling coated with grime, and our passage sent up clouds of fine, swirling dust. Many times I had to dig my claws into my palms to keep from coughing, or worse, sneezing. After a while Stewart must have heard me whimpering--embarrassing, that, but I literally couldn't help it. He glanced back over his shoulder and smiled encouragingly. "Not much farther now," he promised.
He was lying, of course--but I appreciated the sentiment. We pressed on, and the warm wind that blew in our faces grew gradually stronger. Several times we came to branchings, and Stewart never hesitated: he seemed to know exactly which way to go. Many of the turnings were very tight, and worming our way around them was a difficult and time-consuming business.
Finally Stewart halted, so suddenly that I almost jammed my forehead into his boot-soles. He flopped over on his side, facing to the right, pressed his hands against the wall, and pushed. I watched, nonplused--but then I saw that a wide section of the shaft's side had been cut through, the blackened, melted-looking edges suggesting a laser-torch. Thin strips of metal at the top had been left intact, and acted as stiff, jury-rigged hinges. Stewart crawled through, bending double, and turned right, and I followed. "You did that?" I asked, and he nodded.
"I did," he confirmed. "Took me more than an hour. I didn't have a breathing mask, and I could only work a few minutes at a time before the fumes started getting to me."
We found ourselves in another, parallel shaft, almost identical to the last, but slightly narrower--and almost entirely pitch-dark. As we entered it, my weight suddenly decreased, and I realized that we'd passed beyond Osgood's self-contained, self-powered domain. From here on in we were back in the world of surface gravity and emergency lights.
At Stewart's direction I backed up a little, enough to allow him to close his makeshift hatch. Then we proceeded on. As if to underscore the feeling of having crossed a border, the breeze here was much weaker, blew from our backs, and felt bitterly cold.
Our way angled gently down for ten meters or so, then leveled off. Soon afterward, Stewart turned right, entering a short, upward-climbing shaft. Seconds later we squirmed through an open ventilator into a large, dimly-lit space, which smelled of dust, disuse and human.
I could go no farther. My ribs were screaming, my head swimming, and my limbs felt like rubber bands. Even as I hit the floor I collapsed onto my left side and curled into a ball, shuddering violently, unable to move. "Got to…rest," I said. "Just a…little while."
"That's all right," Stewart assured me. He stepped away, and I heard what sounded like the ripping open of several cartons. A moment later his hand gripped my arm. "Here," he said kindly. "This might help."
I opened an eye--to see him kneeling beside me, holding a bottle of water and a handful of foil-wrapped ration bars. I accepted them eagerly, and downed them as if I hadn't eaten or drunk for more than a day--which, come to think of it, probably wasn't far from the truth. Some minutes later, my hunger and thirst temporarily in abeyance, I was able to sit up, resting my back against the wall. Slowly sipping the last few milliliters of water, I peered curiously around.
I found myself in a room perhaps twelve meters square, filled with rank upon close-set rank of tall metal shelving units, which in turn were crammed with boxes, cartons and plastic-wrapped bundles of every size and color. Only about one in ten of the overhead lamps was lit, and those few were dim and flickering. "Where are we?" I asked.
"Storeroom," Stewart said. "Off the access tunnel to the mass-driver." He rose to his feet, and crossed to an airtight hatch on the opposite wall. Opening it, he peered cautiously right and left, his stinger in his hand. Then, apparently satisfied, he relaxed, put away the weapon, and beckoned. "Take a look."
I rose shakily to my feet and made my way over. I peered into the gloom--and immediately understood the reasons behind our nightmare crawl.
We faced a huge half-cylindrical tube, ten meters high and wide. Down its center, in a trench perhaps six meters wide and two deep, lay a gleaming line of mag-lev track; narrow walkways were elevated above it along each wall. The lights glowed dull orange, obviously on their last dregs of emergency power. To our right the tunnel ran straight for perhaps a hundred meters--and was then blocked by the massive solidity of an emergency bulkhead. To the left it curved away into distance and darkness.
"I get the picture," I said. I shivered then, and wrapped my arms around my torso. "It's cold down here, isn't it?"
Stewart glanced at my bare arms and shoulders, and my torn and tattered pants. "I think I might be able to cure that too," he said with a smile.. "Hang on a minute."
He re-entered the storeroom, and I followed. For several minutes he moved from shelf to shelf, opening boxes and peering inside, examining labels in the dim light. Finally, unexpectedly, he chuckled. "Well, I'll be damned!" he said. Digging into a carton, he tossed me a tightly-rolled, silver-and-grey bundle. "There you go."
"What is it?" I asked dubiously.
"Field gear," he said. "And made for a Sah'aaran, too--if you can believe that. There's no battery for the heating unit, but it ought to keep you warm. Warmer than those ventilated pants, anyway."
I shook the thing out. Field gear it was--that thick, close-fitting garment that I'd heard my mother describe many times, always in disparaging terms. Hurriedly I stripped away the remains of my trousers, pulled the jumpsuit on, and fastened its mag-seal up to my collar. It was indeed intended for a Sah'aaran--meaning that it had a tail-hole, and no boots--and it was only a little too large. Nor was it half as uncomfortable as I'd always been led to believe. "Thanks," I said. I paused. "So--what now?"
"Now I do what I came to do," Stewart said. He pointed to the left. "And you head that way, down the tunnel. It's only about two kilometers to the nearest dome…"
I shook my head. "I can't walk two kilometers," I protested. "Not in my condition."
He shrugged. "Then you'll have to wait for someone to come find you," he said. He pointed right. "Because I'm going back--alone."
For a moment I peered at him, seeing the grim, implacable set of his jaw. My supposition had been correct, then--as much as I might wish it hadn't. Rescuing me had been an afterthought--or perhaps I really mean a glitch, a case of Murphy's Law gleefully shredding a carefully-laid plan. What Stewart was after, it seemed, was redemption: a way to atone for the mistakes he'd made. That, I could certainly appreciate. But I could also appreciate, better than most, the folly of (as my father would say) running off half-cocked. "Listen," I said, "I understand why you'd want to capture him yourself…"
He shook his head. "Wrong," he snapped. "I don't give a damn about capturing him. I want to kill him. That son of a bitch ruined my career, my life--and I am not going to stand by and watch while they send him back to prison. And I'm sure as hell not going to share a brig with him. He's going down, here and now, by my hand--and I don't want any interruptions or encumbrances. Not from Security--and not from you."
I drew back from the harshness of the tone. "I'm not exactly in a position to stop you," I said, "and in principle I agree. If anyone deserves death, it's him. But cold-blooded murder…" I took a deep breath, and immediately regretted it. "A long time ago," I went on, "my mother was in a similar situation. Osgood taunted her, vandalized her office, and was openly insubordinate to her. She couldn't take it any more. It came down to a moment when she might easily have killed him, or at least mauled him within a millimeter of his life. But she didn't--because he wasn't worth it. And because if she had, she would have been no better than he is."
Stewart rounded on me angrily. "Oh, don't give me that bullsh--" he began…but he was interrupted.
"Tom's right, you know," a ragged, sardonic voice said. "You are no better than me."
We turned--to see Osgood's arms, his grinning face, and the business end of his stinger-rifle protruding from the ventilator, not three meters away. "If nothing else, Lieutenant," he went on, "you're a good deal stupider than I've ever been. Did you really think I wouldn't be able to figure out where my prize Sah'aaran had gotten to?"
We stood frozen, just for an instant. Then Stewart grabbed for his stinger--and Osgood shot him. It was a full-power discharge, an arcing blue-white lightning-bolt that transfixed the ex-Security man through the chest, and an instant later emerged from his back, directly through the P stenciled on his jumpsuit. For a second Stewart remained upright, his mouth open and his tongue thrust between his teeth; then he fell face-down on the floor and lay twitching.
And me--? I ran. Even as the bolt reached out for Stewart, I gathered my remaining strength and dashed--not for the door, which I knew I'd never make in time, but for the back of the room. Out of sight behind the shelves, I dropped to my butt and slid, as if coming in under a tag. A second later I slammed into the wall in the rear corner In the low gravity the impact was only moderately painful--but it was enough to leave me briefly helpless, the taste of blood once again strong in my mouth.
I heard the clatter as Osgood drew himself the rest of the way out of the ventilator and rose to his feet. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" he sang tauntingly. I made no sound, and he went on, his voice hardening, "I really don't want to have to shoot you, Tom. Our friend Antilles will pay a lot more if I deliver you reasonably intact. There's nowhere you can go; you know that. Make this easier on both of us."
I peered out between the stacked crates, hoping he wouldn't see the emerald glow of my eyes in the darkness. Stewart lay near the door, face-down and spread-eagled, and he had grown ominously still. Shot through the heart with a full-power blast; probably he was dead, his nervous system fried, even before he hit the floor. The goggles were still on his face, the lenses smashed. What had happened to his commpak I couldn't tell, but his stinger lay near his outstretched right hand.
And then there was Osgood. My nemesis, his rifle braced on his hip, was slowly, patiently checking the aisles, peering closely into each and every shelf. Without his goggles he would be practically sightless--and therein lay my one and only advantage. Unless by some horrible chance he had a flashlight--which didn't seem to be the case. He was right, though: there was no place for me to go. I could evade him for a time, crawling between, through or under shelves; but I had no confidence that I could reach the door unseen. And even if I could, I'd need to buy some time to get away. What I needed was a distraction--and as it happened, a beauty lay close at hand.
The shelving unit directly before me was almost empty, holding just a few crates in its upper reaches--and was therefore top-heavy. If it was bolted to the floor I was dead--but it didn't appear to be. Bracing my back against the cold metal wall, I set my foot-pads on the edge of a lower shelf--and pushed. Gently, carefully; this was not a matter of brute strength, which I didn't have, but of overcoming inertia, and finding the natural frequency.
As I'd hoped, the unit soon began to sway, just as the Administration Building had during the storm--and for basically the same reason. Just a little at first, but then, as I increased the pressure and learned the proper rhythm, more and more.
Osgood couldn't have failed to hear the quiet creaking--but he couldn't localize it, and I'd lay odds he had no idea what it signified. From several aisles away I heard him sigh. "Tom," he said, "whatever you're up to, you might as well quit. If you come with me quietly, right now, I promise I won't hurt you. I won't even sell you to Antilles. As soon as we're clear of the Centaurus system, I'll set you down on an Alliance planet, unharmed."
Uh-huh, I thought. The legs of the shelving unit had begun to lift a little off the floor on each oscillation. Soon now, very soon…
"That's the best I can do for you, Tom," Osgood said, and now he was a row closer, and almost directly opposite my position. "I have to get off this planet--you know that. And you're the only one who can help me do that." He paused, and his voice took on a wheedling tone, along with an undercurrent of desperation. "I can make it worth your while. A quick trip into orbit, a few days in space…I made a lot of money off this operation, Tom. I'm willing to share. I can set you and your bond-mate up real good. A nice little nest-egg for your cubs. How does that sound?"
Now! "I'll think about it," I said--and gave the shelf one final shove.
It took out the entire row, like dominoes, with an earsplitting, spectacular crash--in the midst of which I heard Osgood cry out, a sound of anger and pain. I didn't hang around to learn the results, though. As soon as the shelves toppled I was on the move, out the door--pausing only long enough to scoop up Stewart's fallen stinger. I would have liked his commpak too--but it was trapped under his head, and I couldn't bring myself to touch him.
In the tunnel I turned left, and began to run--but I had gone no more than ten meters when the stars before my eyes told me I had to stop, or risk passing out. I slowed, then halted, leaning against the wall, panting hard, frantically willing the dizziness to go away and leave me alone. Goddess, not now! I thought desperately. Not when I've got so far to go!
I rested for a few seconds, just long enough to clear my head, and then levered myself upright again. I had to get away, to put distance between myself and Osgood--and if I couldn't run, I'd walk--or crawl. Anything to keep me from falling into his hands again. I squinted at the weapon I held, clicking off its safety. I'd held a stinger before, a Sah'aaran police-issue model; but never had the chance to fire one. Never expected to, the laws on Terra being what they are. But now…
I struggled on a few more meters, expecting at any second to hear Osgood's harsh voice behind me--and then, suddenly, in a soundless explosion of light, the overhead lamps bloomed to full brightness, one after another down the full length of the tunnel as far as I could see. At the same instant my normal weight returned, dragging me to my knees. Osgood's doing? I wondered--but somehow I thought not. Very much the opposite, I suspected. Despite his best efforts, the main power grid had been restored at last. And that meant…
I heard a sound behind me, and I jumped to my feet--just as a stinger-bolt sizzled into the deck-plates where I'd been kneeling. I felt the jolt of current in my feet. Full-power, again; intended to kill, not stun. Apparently I'd made him mad. I spun, and snapped off a shot of my own--and for a first try, it was either incredibly lucky, or guided by the Goddess herself.
Osgood stood some seven or eight meters behind me, dirty, disheveled, his face and hands blood-streaked, sighting down the length of his rifle with his one good eye; the other was rapidly swelling shut. My shot struck him in the right thigh, and with a choked cry he toppled, falling sidelong into the mag-lev trench. The rifle, flying out of his flailing hands, thumped against the wall and spun to a stop, almost at my feet. I stood for a second, staring unbelievingly at the thing--and then, almost casually, I stepped forward and retrieved it. It's over? I asked myself. As simple as that?
Well, no. Not quite. "Damn you, you little flea-bitten Zeef son of a bitch!" Osgood raged, struggling to pull himself upright with a leg and side as numb as granite. "When I get my hands on your stinking hide--!"
"Which won't be anytime soon," I told him. I turned, seeking the nearest comm panel--and froze, feeling my ears prick up as they detected in the distance a very familiar sound. "Osgood!" I shouted. "Get out of there! A car's coming!"
"I can't!" he yelled back. "Goddamned leg won't work!"
Tossing aside both weapons, I cast myself down at the edge of the trench and extended my arms. Why I was doing this, I had no real idea. Osgood was a murderer and a saboteur; he'd tried to kill me, multiple times; he'd kidnapped me, threatened to sell me for Goddess knew what purpose to my mothers' oldest enemy; obviously he cared not a bit for anyone besides himself. Why in the world should I save him now?
To prove that you're better than he is, I told myself firmly. Which wasn't really a reason--but it would have to do. "Give me your hands," I said, and he did. I leaned back, pulling with all my strength, digging into his sleeves (and his wrists) with my claws, trying desperately to raise his all-but-dead weight to a point where he could get his good leg onto the edge of the walk and roll clear. The muted whoosh I'd heard was growing steadily louder, and glancing to my left, around the final curve, I detected the gleam of a headlamp on the wall; the car was approaching with terrible speed.
Sweating and straining, Osgood peered up into my eyes--and then, to my astonishment, he ceased to struggle. He pulled himself free of my clinging hands, and shoved me away, so roughly that I sprawled onto my back, half-stunned. "Tell your mother," he wheezed, "that I'll see her in Hell." And then he closed his eyes and let himself fall across the track.
I buried my face in my hands, so I wouldn't see what happened next; but I couldn't so easily block my ears. I heard the rush of the approaching car, and felt its wind; I heard the sudden shriek of brakes as the sensors, too late, detected an obstruction on the track; and finally I heard a thud, a brief, howling cry, and a crunch, like the breaking of a handful of twigs. And that was all.
There came a hiss, followed by the sound of many booted feet and numerous shouting voices. And then a pair of hands closed on my arm, and I felt myself being turned over. "Tom? Son?"
I opened my eyes, to see a familiar bearded face peering down at me, pale, mussed, dirty and frightened. I smiled. "I'm all right, Dad," I said--and then I let myself drift down and away.