Echo. Part 48

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"We're coming out," said Alex. I translated for Turam. said Alex. I translated for Turam.

We heard the front doors open. And the sound of Alex's crutches scraping the steps down off the porch. And Rikki's voice, whispering, barely audibly, "Careful," but saying it in the local language, and not in Standard.

"I'm sorry to see you're injured," Salyeva said. Salyeva said.

"I'll be okay."

Maybe they'd gotten away with it.



The sounds stopped. They would be standing in front of the building.

"Come down to the riverbank," Salyeva said. Salyeva said. "I'll pick you up there." "I'll pick you up there."

"I've a broken leg," said Alex. said Alex. "That's a long walk. Why not pick us up here?" "That's a long walk. Why not pick us up here?"

That was good. Sound reluctant.

Rikki and Alex would be staying well apart from each other so they couldn't be taken out by a single shot.

I would have liked to remind Alex to stay as close as he could to the trees when he got down to the riverbank. That might give the people down there a chance to bring the Viper down. But I couldn't talk to him without alerting Salyeva.

"Petra, I was wondering whether we could offer you something to get you on our side?"

"Your cooperation will be sufficient, Alex."

"I doubt you're being paid enough for this."

"You have no idea what I'm being paid."

"Nevertheless, I think I can offer more."

"That is good of you, but ask yourself what happens to my career once word gets out that I can't be trusted."

"I understand."

"Good. When this is over, I would be available, should you have need of my services."

The crutches creaked across a wooden surface. They were on the pier.

"You've been quiet, Chase," said Salyeva. said Salyeva.

That was my cue. "I know," I said. "There isn't much to say."

"Chase, do you see the boat?"

I couldn't see the boat, of course. Couldn't even see the pier. But I remembered that we'd left two there. "The rowboat?" "The rowboat?" I said. I said.

"Yes. Chase, please push it into the water, then help Alex get into it." She chuckled. She chuckled. "Try not to let him fall overboard." "Try not to let him fall overboard."

"I can't get into a boat," said Alex. said Alex. "Come on, Petra, be reasonable." "Come on, Petra, be reasonable."

"I'm simply being cautious, Alex. I'll pick you up across the river, where I won't be quite so exposed."

"I can't do it," Alex said. Alex said.

"I'm sorry, but you'll have to, Alex."

I heard the boat strike the side of the pier as they (presumably) pulled it in. And I added my own contribution. "Be careful, Alex," I said into the link. "Watch your step."

Alex grunted. I heard the noises you would expect if someone climbed clumsily into a rowboat. "Okay," I said. "That's good."

"All right, Petra," Alex growled. Alex growled. "What now?" "What now?"

"You get in, too, Chase. And put out into the river."

Oars creaked. Dipped into water. Dipped again.

"You're doing fine. Keep coming."

The Viper stopped circling and moved out over the river. We caught glimpses of it now and then through the trees.

"Where are we going, Petra?"

"Just cross to the other side. That's all I want you to do."

Just cross to the other side? "Turam," I said, "we're at the wrong place." She wasn't going to bring them downstream.

Turam pointed at four of his people, and at himself. Follow me. The others were to stay in position.

Then we were running through the woods. Unfortunately, all of them were stronger and quicker than I was. The gravity weighed me down. Soon I was alone.

"Just a little farther," said Salyeva. said Salyeva.

I kept running until I was completely out of breath. I stopped and leaned against a tree, listening to the voices on the link. "That's good, Alex. Far enough." "That's good, Alex. Far enough."

I still couldn't see them, but there hadn't been time to get across. They had to be in the middle of the river.

"Now, Alex, I want you to do something for me."

"What's that, Petra?"

"Where's your link?" I took off again, moving as fast as I could. I took off again, moving as fast as I could.

"On this." I could see him removing the chain and holding it up for her to see. I could see him removing the chain and holding it up for her to see.

"Excellent. Drop it in the water."

"You can't mean that."

"Of course I can. Please do it. But leave it on, transmit mode, so I'll hear the splash."

"Petra-"

"Do it."

I heard the splash.

"Chase, where's yours?"

My heart stopped. I could see the river through the trees, but I didn't dare get rid of the link. Couldn't get rid of the link.

"Good. Throw it in the river."

I wondered what Rikki had shown her. It didn't matter.

I was still running, trying to get to the shoreline. Not sure what I was going to do when I got there.

I stopped long enough to say something into it: "It's all we have, Petra. You can't expect-"

"That's interesting, Chase."

"What is?"

"How you can still talk through it after you've thrown it into the water. Even more intriguing, when the woman in the boat is saying nothing. Well. I'm sorry, but I need you to understand I'm serious."

"Wait," I said. "I'm coming."

"Too late, Chase." The proton gun fired. A loud, crisp crackle. The proton gun fired. A loud, crisp crackle.

"You bitch bitch," I screamed at her.

And at that terrible moment, we caught a break. The Viper was drifting with the boat, facing the boat. Facing away from me. It was just off the water. And the current was bringing the boat around the curve. I could see it. Alex was in the water, clinging to the side of the rowboat. There was no sign of Rikki. I don't know where Salyeva thought I was, but I don't think it occurred to her there was anyone behind her.

I had to run out into the water to get a clear shot.

"Now," she was saying, she was saying, "we'll try this exercise again. You have one hour to get the other link for me. Or the consequences for this community will be severe. In one hour, Chase, get into a boat, and come back out here. Do that, and everybody will live." "we'll try this exercise again. You have one hour to get the other link for me. Or the consequences for this community will be severe. In one hour, Chase, get into a boat, and come back out here. Do that, and everybody will live."

I figured I had one shot, after which she'd clear out before I could reload. But it was a good shot. The rear pod was dead in my sights. So I stood knee-deep in the water and pulled the trigger. I moved quickly to pop another round into the chamber, but I saw the Viper dip, drop tail first toward the water, and try to climb. I'd hit the son of a bitch. I fired off several more rounds, and I think I hit the forward pod as well. Couldn't be sure, because the target was jumping around. But it plowed into the river.

It sank slowly. The hatch never opened, and the lander simply went down, leaving behind swirling water and a rising cloud of steam.

I swam out and barely caught the rowboat as it drifted past. "God, Chase," Alex said, "I tried to save her."

I climbed into the boat but wasn't able to get him in. So I just hung on to him until help arrived.

PART IV.

Fallout

FORTY-FOUR.

Conscience can be a mosquito that bites and gnaws at the psyche. It can be an avalanche. It can be a voice in the night. It is a Darwinian force without which civilization could not survive. But for all that, it is not infallible.

-Avram Zale, The Last Apostle Salyeva's link remained silent. Turam put together a diving team, but they reported that the lander's hatch couldn't be opened and that they could find no way into the vehicle. As far as I know, she and her Viper are still at the bottom of the river.

We never found Rikki. There was a memorial tribute to her the following evening. It was odd: I'd known her only a very short time, but when they said that they'd asked her to go with Alex because she was so much like me, I wanted to believe it was true.

I don't think they blamed us. Nevertheless, a distance opened between us and our hosts. For the first time since we'd arrived at the compound, I felt like an outsider. An alien alien. "They lost one of their own," Alex said later. "And I think the technology scared them, as well. They didn't realize the kind of weaponry we have."

"We told them-"

"Hearing about it is not like seeing it. And seeing what kind of trouble it can bring."

The night after the memorial, Viscenda called a meeting in the dining hall. "For everybody."

When we got there, the place was already overflowing into the passageways. We picked out a spot where we could probably hear, if not see, what was going on. We sat down, Viscenda and Turam entered from a side door, and she walked over to the lectern. She had to rap for quiet. When she got it, she said hello, looked around, and asked whether we we were there somewhere. were there somewhere.

People looked our way. A few stood so she could see us, and she asked us to come forward and take seats at the head table.

When we'd gotten to our places, she welcomed everyone. "I think we can be proud of how we came through that experience yesterday," she said. "Nobody comes here and threatens us or our friends." That got the entire audience on their feet. "I'd especially like to offer my appreciation to Turam and his team, to Alex and Chase, and especially to Rikki Brant, who sacrificed everything for us."

She invited Turam to say a few words. He advanced to the lectern, said how proud he was of his people, and turned the floor back to Viscenda.

"We think," she said, "that the issue is settled. But as a precaution, we've posted an enhanced security detail to ensure we don't get taken by surprise.

"Also, I'm pleased to report that there were no other casualties, which is remarkable considering the nature of the threat we were facing. If I've missed anyone, if anyone else was injured, please see Aleska or Dr. Seepah. Both will be in my office when we finish here.

"By now, we're all familiar with the talking jewelry belonging to Chase and Alex. Chase, I wonder if you'd be good enough to bring your bracelet up here so I can show everyone what it looks like? In case they haven't seen it."

I was surprised. I took the bracelet up and handed it to Viscenda. "Thanks, Chase," she said. She held it up. A few people applauded.

"We've discovered," she continued, "that not everyone is as friendly in that other world, wherever it is, as Chase and Alex. And it occurred to us last night that it might be dangerous to let them know where we live. Without this"-she looked at me and lifted the link higher-"people from your world would have no easy way to find us. In fact, it seems we'd all be safer if this one piece of jewelry simply got lost." Her voice became quietly menacing. Her fingers closed over the link. She was gazing at me, and she couldn't have missed the look on my face. Then she broke into a smile. "Just kidding." She opened her hand and gave it back.

The audience, after a moment's uncomfortable silence, broke into laughter. I didn't think it was funny, but I smiled politely and sat back down.

"You all know Alex Benedict, who, with Chase, has been with us through this ordeal. He's asked if he could speak with us about yesterday's events. Alex?"

They applauded as he made his way to the lectern. When the room quieted, he thanked them. "I won't keep you long," he said. He paid tribute to Rikki. Then: "I just wanted you to know that Chase and I appreciate everything you've done for us. Viscenda could have pushed us out the front door, offered us as a sacrifice to the woman in the lander, who wanted only to kill us. It would have been the safest thing for her to do. Instead, she, and you, risked everything for us. I wanted to say thanks. And I want you to know we will never forget."

He invited me back to the lectern, and I simply repeated the sentiments. When someone asked why "that woman" wanted us dead, Alex replied with the truth. "Might as well tell you," he said. "You're going to find out eventually."

Echo. Part 48

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Echo. Part 48 summary

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