by John R. Plunkett
"I've got you now," Private Salazar declared, sighting down his outstretched arm as if it were a weapon. "There'll be no escape for you this time."
Selah's only response was to shift her feet a little wider, crouch a little lower, and stick out her tongue.
Salazar brought the Frisbee to his chest, holding it before himself with both hands, his elbows thrust straight out to the sides. He closed his eyes and a deeply serene expression came across his face. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and his whole body sprang into motion like a catapult releasing. Muscles stood out like whipcords all over his lean, hard physique; reaction to his throw spun him half around and the Frisbee went hurtling across the recreation deck like a meteor.
Selah started moving almost before the private did, as if she knew exactly when he'd start his throw. She flew across the deck in a blur, her arms and legs pumping furiously. At the last instant she seemed to trip and fall headlong. Instead she curled into a ball, rolled, and unwound into a prodigious leap. She sailed into the air- more than double her own height- and deftly picked the Frisbee out of the air with her teeth as their tracks converged. She spread her arms in a graceful swan dive, tucked and rolled at what seemed like the last possible second or perhaps slightly after, and bounced to her feet. She turned to Private Salazar and gave him a stately bow, the dignity of which was marred only by the furious wagging of her tail.
"Hey, snake eater, looks like the Corps' taking a hit there," a sailor called.
"Watch your mouth, red shirt," Salazar responded, aiming his finger like a weapon at the offender. "If you squids think you can do better, be my guest." A derisive snort indicated how likely he considered that outcome.
"She sure has them wrapped around her little finger," Lt. Beckman observed. She stood in a conference room whose screen was hooked to a vid sensor on the rec deck.
"What do you have against her?" Commander Roquefort demanded, frowning.
"Sir-" Lt. Beckman glanced at the commander, then returned her attention to the screen. "I don't have anything against her. She's charming and friendly and her story is deeply moving. In fact I like her very much, and that's precisely the problem."
"I want to believe her," Lt. Beckman continued. "And when you want to believe something you ignore all the evidence to the contrary. I have to focus on the negatives. Because it's my job, and because it'd be way too easy to let 'em slip away."
"You still think it's a trick?"
"I'm absolutely sure it's a trick. The only question is exactly how. Sir, have you considered the possibility that Selah, as we know her now, isn't a real person at all? That is, she's just an artificial construction of memories injected into her by the Big Rat?"
A cold sensation crept up Commander Roquefort's spine. He'd avoided considering that possibility. Which, given the lieutenant's previous remarks, cast the whole affair in a rather grim light. "How do we test that hypothesis?"
"That's a very good question, to which I wish I had a good answer," Lt. Beckman replied. "On the surface of it, Selah's been exceedingly helpful. Whatever really happened, she's volunteered a wealth of information about the inner workings of the Gosper Fringe. Including some fairly detailed technical descriptions of the Big Rat and the Link. If she is a honey pot, she's loaded with an awful lot of real, honest to God honey."
"Surely we can confirm what she says?" Commander Roquefort suggested.
"Up to a point," Lt. Beckman allowed. "What she's told us agrees broadly with what we already know. We can send agents to confirm details, but in the process we run the risk of revealing to Dr. Havershiem how much we know. Or how much we think we know, which in many ways would be more valuable to him."
"Yes, I see," Commander Roquefort said grimly. "If Selah is on the level we tip our hand by revealing what we know, and if she isn't Dr. Havershiem knows we've taken the bait."
"In a nutshell," Lt. Beckman agreed. "It all comes back to the fact that Dr. Havershiem knows the rules of the game as well as we do. I can't shake the feeling that he's counting on us doing exactly what we are doing. We'll go through the default motions while we try to figure out what happening, and in the process we'll put ourselves exactly where Dr. Havershiem wants us."
"If Selah's provided information on the hardware, shouldn't that at least tell us if what you suspect is a serious possibility?" Commander Roquefort inquired.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Lt. Beckman responded. "And the answer is 'sort of but not really'. The Federation has never performed the kind of research that went into developing the Link and the Big Rat. We have plenty of experts who can make educated guesses, but we don't know."
"How did they develop this?" the commander exclaimed, gesturing sharply. "How did they invent mind control technology without us knowing?"
"First of all, because they didn't invent it, they bought it from the Damocles Hegemony. The Big Rat is a neural interface module pulled from a Hellcat battlemech and heavily modified. The original plan was that a Hellcat's combat performance could be significantly improved by replacing the pilot with a permanently installed Morph brain. It's actually a pretty good idea, if you don't mind the prospect of breeding and training Morphs for the sole purpose of cutting out their brains and installing them in massive robotic bodies. The project ran hideously over budget, though; the Hegemony provided a few Hellcats as engineering samples but the Fringe had to do all the production itself, and the tooling up ultimately cost way too much. That's not even counting that growing and training the pilot brains also cost vastly more than anticipated. The Privy Council decided its military budget was better spent on conventional warships and pulled the plug."
"But that's not the end of it," Commander Roquefort predicted.
"Not hardly. According to Selah Dr. Havershiem would have been glad to have the cybernetic Hellcats, but the real purpose of the project was to develop Selah herself. The rest of it was so that anyone watching- including us- would think it nothing but a great big boondoggle. Best of all, Dr. Havershiem's predecessor took the fall for it, clearing the way for the good doctor himself to take over the office of General Secretary."
"A two-for-one," Commander Roquefort marveled. "He does his research right under our noses and we don't see because we're watching the pretty show. And he disposes of his political rival at the same time." He rubbed his temples. "Now I understand why you're so paranoid."
"I keep telling people not to underestimate him," Lt. Beckman exclaimed, clenching her fists. "But no one listens. The Gosper Fringe is just a pack of backward hicks out on the ass end of beyond. There's nothing they could possibly do to hurt us. I mean, just look at the sanctions. We can sew them up in their own systems and there's not thing they can do about it."
"And now Selah is here," Commander Roquefort supplied.
Some time passed. Commander Roquefort's comm badge bleeped; he tapped it. "XO here."
"Sir, the security team is on board."
"Very good. XO out." He tapped the badge again. "XO to rec deck 1MC. Sorry kids, recess is over. Time to get back to school."
The marines responded with casual salutes before heading off to the locker room, casting smug looks at the sailors who, in turn, looked deeply relieved that the game had ended before Selah trounced them utterly, as looked to have been the case. Selah turned and went without a word or gesture, nor any indication that she saw the development as anything but perfectly ordinary, joining the female marines as they headed for the showers. It all looked perfectly natural and incidental; you'd never guess that the marines were actually escorting her. Despite Cinnamon's objections, members of the marine contingent were with Selah every minute of every day. They even slept in her room, while more stood guard outside. Selah wasn't restrained from wandering about the ship, but everywhere she went the marines went with her, even to the bathroom.
Commander Roquefort touched a control, blanking the screen. He faced the door and assumed a parade rest stance. When the captain entered he braced to attention and saluted.
"At ease," the captain replied, tossing off a casual salute. "Gentlemen, allow me to present Lt. Commander Corin Roby of the Intelligence Service.
"Sir." Lt. Beckman saluted. Lt. Commander Roby saluted Commander Roquefort, who returned it.
"Sit, please." Captain Van Nuys took a seat; the others followed suit.
"Lieutenant, I read your report," Lt. Commander Roby began. "Very thorough and professionally done; I commend you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Since you're familiar with the situation, is there anything you need?" Captain Van Nuys inquired.
"Thank you, sir, no," the Lt. Commander responded. "We already have more gear than we can possibly use. Admiral Zidane really pulled out the stops. Our problem is finding a place to keep it all."
"I'm sure we'll find room for it somewhere," Commander Roquefort put in. "Which leaves us with the most important question. Since Chase and the Psi Corps hate each others' guts, how is Worster going to convince him to help?"
Lt. Commander Roby slumped back in his chair. "Sir, I wish to God I had an answer to that. I've asked, and been told to let Psi Corps handle it."
"I have to say, I'm not impressed with their track record," Commander Roquefort put in darkly. "I mean, they couldn't even pull off one simple little coup."
"Sirs, I believe Lt. Worster is up to the job," Lt. Beckman inserted into the heavy silence.
"Oh?" Lt. Commander Roby crossed his arms. "Why is that?"
"He's earnest," Lt. Beckman explained.
"How does that help?" Captain Van Nuys inquired, frowning slightly.
"Chase is a telepath," Lt. Beckman said. "Yes, I know he's not technically a telepath, but that isn't important right now. Point is, he knows when you're distorting the truth. Even if you don't know you're doing it. Even if you're just being polite. Lt. Worster, he believes. From his head right down to his toes. You can't get any more real than that."
"You're saying his being a sentimental sop is actually a good thing," Lt. Commander Roby ventured.
"In this particular case, yes. With any practical minded person, the question of ulterior motives would inevitably cloud the conversation. With Lt. Worster it's obvious to everyone who he is and what he's about. You may think he's a fluff-headed idiot, but there's still no doubt about it."
"I want to say that's incredible, unbelievable, ridiculous, and a whole bunch of other things," Lt. Commander Roby opined. "Sadly, it's about on par with everything else in this nuthouse operation." He sighed heavily. "Anyway. I understand you have some extra briefing material for me."
"Yes sir." Lt. Beckman activated the wall view screen. "You'll meet Selah in person soon enough, but with new people she's very... restrained. Quiet. You may find it informative to see how she behaves with friends." On the screen, Selah played Frisbee. Selah scaled the climbing wall. Selah fenced with Lt. Gibson.
"She's quite the sprightly little thing, ain't she?" Lt. Commander Roby mused, idly fingering his chin. Despite his casual demeanor his eyes watched Selah recorded activities with frightening intensity. "This whole cyborg army thing seems a lot more serious all of a sudden."
"You think she might try to escape?" Commander Roquefort asked in a flash of inspiration.
"I think if any one of us knew for sure what she'd do, we wouldn't be here in the first place," Roby answered. "If she is going to escape, this is her first real opportunity. Not so many places to run on shipboard, but now she'll have a whole planet to hide in." He stroked his chin. "She's an amazingly good fencer, I see. I wonder how many other weapons she knows? At least one for certain; she did kill two men with a memory-plastic knife, as I recall."
"I... we didn't have the opportunity to find out," Lt. Beckman said, woodenly. Why the devil didn't I ask her about that? she thought frantically. "She hasn't been allowed near any weapons..." she trailed off. It was an excuse, and it sounded lame even in her own ears.
"Captain, I'd like to show this clip to my squad," Commander Roby said briskly. "I want them to understand what they're up against."
"Do you really thing she's that much of a threat?" Commander Roquefort inquired. Captain Van Nuys just watched, his eyes flicking from one person to the next.
"We are speaking of a person who single-handedly captured a starship, and in the process executed the entire crew?" Commander Roby inquired. "And who then navigated said ship into Federation territory, despite claiming not to be an astrogator? Whom we just saw besting an entire squad of Federation marines? Oh, she's just playing, you're thinking, and that's exactly my point. Did you notice how amazingly strong and fast she is? Or how skillfully she swung that sword during the fencing exercise? We know she killed two adult male Terrans- one of whom was easily three times her size- with a blade about as long as my finger. You ask if I still think she's dangerous. I can't understand how you ever stopped thinking she was dangerous." Lt. Commander Roby rose to his feet. "With your leave, sir-" he nodded to Captain Van Nuys- "I'll brief my unit."
Captain Van Nuys nodded in agreement. Even his expression looked deeply thoughtful.