Copyright © 2000 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.




There were three of them, humans, all wearing Survey dress uniforms: an older man, a middle-aged woman, and a much younger man. And it was the latter, with the stars of a lieutenant commander on his breast, toward whom I found myself moving as if pulled by magnets. "Joel?" I said again, quietly; then, a little louder, "Is it really…Joel?"

He glanced at me without recognition--and yes, it was Joel. Six years older than the last time I'd seen him, a few lines now creasing his narrow triangular face, and a little more of his curly dark hair gone, raising his forehead even farther than I remembered. Joel Aaron Abrams.

An instant later he recognized me, and he stepped quickly over to me, reaching out his arms. "Ayla!" he said in delight. "Can it possibly be my little Ayla?"

"Of course it is," I said, smiling though my heart was aching. He was the only person who had ever given me a nickname, or dared to try. "How many other Sah'aarans do you know?"

His face lit up with that bright smile I remembered so well, the same little creases parenthesizing his pale-blue eyes. He grasped my hands and drew me close. "Ehm'ayla!" he said. "My God--it's been forever! How are you?"

The others were staring--but strangely, not all their gazes were friendly. The man and woman who had entered with Joel were looking at the two of us with expressions that were half surprise and half…what? Displeasure? I scarcely noticed; my eyes and attention were fixed solely on Joel. I wish now I'd been more attentive. Goddess, how I wish I had!

The admiral cleared his throat significantly. "I beg your pardon, sir," Joel said. "Ehm'ayla and I are…old friends. We graduated the Officer's Academy together. She was at the top of the class. I…wasn't."

"Quite all right," the admiral said expansively. "Old friends can turn up in the strangest places." He raised his arms to gather my shipmates around him. "Captain Haliday, everyone, I'd like you to meet our colleagues from the Raven. The first officer, Commander Olivia Edgeworth."

She was middle-aged, as I said, about fifty-five: dark hair with a touch of grey, and a narrow, pinched face with suspicious green eyes. Even at first glance, there was something about her I didn't like. Possibly it was the fact that I couldn't catch her eyes; they slid away from mine. On Sah'aar that would have been unforgivable; but humans have different standards. She nodded and flashed a brief, tight smile. "Good evening," she said, her voice a trifle shrill. "Captain Antilles sends his apologies. He had a personnel matter to attend to."

"The Techspec crew chief, Lieutenant Commander Joel Abrams."

Joel smiled shyly, as uneasy as always in a crowd, and bobbed his head. "Hello," he said simply.

"And the ship's surgeon, Dr. Richard Enyeart."

The doctor was well into his seventies, his hair white, his face sallow and rather morose. Silently, he nodded and essayed a small, sad smile. Clearly he hated being the center of attention. But he was not forced to endure for very long, before Dr. Zee took her fellow physician's arm and steered him toward the bar. He looked somewhat startled, but allowed himself to be dragged away. I chuckled, knowing that their gruesome shop-talk would continue for hours if permitted. Commander Edgeworth's gaze followed the doctors, her eyes narrowed and her lips compressed; then she sighed and turned aside. Strange…

Retrieving my almost-forgotten glass, I followed Joel to the bar. I watched, repressing a shudder, as he sipped appreciatively at a scotch and soda. "So--Lieutenant Commander now, eh?" I asked. Was that envy in my voice? Probably. Dammit!

"A little over a year ago," he said with a nod. "What about you, Ayla? How is your career going?"

I sighed. "Still a lieutenant," I told him with a wan smile. "And still the second-shift Compcomm."

"That'll pass," he assured me briskly. "You're too good to be stuck there forever."

"Lately I've had cause to wonder," I said. I paused. "Goddess! We have so much to catch up on!"

"Years," he agreed. "And very full ones for both of us." He glanced over my shoulder then, and his smile suddenly froze. I followed his gaze, and found myself eye to eye Commander Edgeworth. She quickly turned aside, but not before I saw her glaring at me over the rim of a glass, daggers in her eyes. What's her problem--? I wondered.

"…But not here," Joel said, as smoothly as if he'd never paused. "After dinner. A Xerxian café just opened on the Walk. We can talk there."

I sighed in frustration; apparently this was Put Off Ehm'ayla Day. Not that I wanted everyone else listening to our private memories, some of which were…well, private. "All right," I agreed. "Later."

He smiled and squeezed my hand, but whatever else we might have said was interrupted by Admiral Conroy, clinking a spoon against a glass for attention. "All right, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Let's take our seats, and we'll see what my chefs have whipped up."

I glanced around hurriedly, seeking Commodore Ehm'rael; from the other side of the room she nodded and flashed a quick smile. How she'd managed to make the arrangements so quickly I'll never know--but made them she had. I would be able to swallow my dinner. En masse, then, we moved toward the big table. Admiral Conroy flitted around anxiously, guiding us to our seats, mixing us up as a good host should. The crewmen along the wall sprang suddenly to life, proving that they were not indeed mannequins, and dinner was served.

I was dying to speak a few more words to Joel, but I found myself seated at the opposite end of the table, between Commodore Ehm'rael and Commander Merton, the admiral's obsequious aide. I honestly don't remember much about the meal; I have no real idea what the commodore had arranged for me to eat. I think it was fish--and obviously I found it edible. The servers kept my water glass filled, and that was good too. Of course I had to hold up my part of the conversation; not only with the commodore, but with Aparna, who was directly across from me, and even with Merton, when I couldn't avoid it. I had to join my fellow officers in chuckling warmly at Admiral Conroy's funny stories. And occasionally I had to switch to Sah'aaran to answer brief, almost subsonic asides from the commodore, for the most part wry comments about the admiral himself. In real life, so it seemed, our jovial host was a stern taskmaster, and was not happy that the Engineering Corps had encumbered him (as he put it) with Commodore Ehm'rael. They were seldom in agreement on matters of construction--but she was the Admiralty's appointed troubleshooter; and so he acquiesced. All in all, a busy evening--but whenever the conversation lagged, I found myself thinking about Joel.

I often recalled our long-ago friendship; but as the years passed and I gained experience, some of the memories had become…troubling. Mostly because I still couldn't decide whether our relationship had represented a missed opportunity…or a barely-averted tragedy.

Underclassmen at the Officer's Academy stick together pretty tightly--mainly in self-defense. To the upperclassmen they're the "rats," fair game for a particularly rough brand of hazing. When you get to be an upperclassman yourself, associating with the "rats" is a dire faux pas; in fact you're expected to join right in on the hazing. (I never did.) An odious system, yes, one which should be changed; but it's a time-honored tradition, and might even have one semi-redeeming value: it introduces you to the rank system--in the most direct way possible.

Joel Abrams and I were in the same class, and in fact almost exactly the same age. Almost from the day we met we were inseparable; famously so within our circle of friends. As the only Sah'aaran in my class, I might have had a lonely and miserable four years; but with Joel around, never.

We went everywhere together, on our free-days. The Terran campus of the Officer's Academy is on Mare Island in the city of Vallejo, on the north edge of San Francisco Bay; and with that as our base, our explorations ranged far and wide across northern California. It was Joel who finally convinced me to join our friends on a trip to San Francisco, which I was afraid to do at first because of the crowds and the noise. And that was only the beginning. We visited Marin County, the redwoods, Napa Valley, Monterey…I have no idea how many little cafés we closed down around us, talking and laughing long into the night. I don't like coffee, and my physical tolerance for alcohol is nil, but that didn't hamper us. It was also Joel who introduced me to tennis--which I still played--and coached me to a singles championship our third year.

And then…well, it always happens, especially in organizations like the Combined Forces. We graduated, were posted to different branches of the service; and finally, inevitably, we lost touch. We promised to write, and for a while we did; but the difficulties of trying to find each other with messages was great (I ought to know) and after a time we…stopped. Perhaps he no longer even thought about me. Like me, he had doubtless made new friends, gone on with his life.

And the troubling part? Well, in those days I was young and naïve; in regard to human relations, painfully so. It was several years later, after long observation of my crewmates, that I thought back on my relationship with Joel…and was profoundly embarrassed. It finally dawned on me: during the entire time I'd known him, he'd never had a human girlfriend, nor tried to acquire one. Why? Obviously, because he'd considered me his girlfriend.

But at the time, I had no idea. And that's the embarrassing part. The social--largely biochemical--cues for sexual attraction are very different for humans and Sah'aarans. About as different as can be, in fact. In other words, he'd been transmitting, but I hadn't been receiving. And that must have been terribly disappointing for him, not to mention perplexing and ego-killing. Or I could be entirely wrong, fooling myself. I had no way of knowing for sure, just suppositions based on watching the interactions of my human friends.

But assuming my suppositions were correct…then if I had known, my dilemma would have been far worse. Not--certainly not--that I had any trouble with the concept of inter-species romance. Such relationships are possible--at least between species that aren't too physically different--and many of them are quite successful. But for Sah'aarans it simply doesn't work that way. When we mate it is literally forever. We call it bonding: a linking of hormones and pheromones which lasts as long as we live. Someday, inevitably, it would happen to me: I would encounter an unattached male, our pheromones would mingle, and that would be that.

And so… if I had recognized Joel's feelings, I would have been virtually compelled to reject him, push him away, simply to avoid a painful and inevitable breakup sometime in the future. Which would have spoiled a beautiful friendship. It wouldn't have been the same after that; couldn't have been.

Except…as I thought about it years later, it was not without a some pangs of regret. My fondness for Joel truly had been deep; maybe I could have overcome my fears. And perhaps he could have understood that our relationship would perforce be temporary. I'd always thought I'd never know.

But now…as I glanced down the table at him, deep in conversation with Goodwin and Vandevere, I again had to wonder. How different the past six years might have been! Possibly…a lot less lonely. I did fine for friends; and I'd always prided myself on being self-sufficient. But of course there are times when friends aren't enough. There aren't many Sah'aarans in the CF, and I'd always expected that particular brand of loneliness to someday force me to return home--whether I liked it or not. Perhaps if we'd tried, we could have found a way to be posted together, and then…Catching me staring at him, Joel smiled and winked--and my stomach did flip-flops again. Goddess, what do I do now?

Admiral Conroy was obviously not a night person. Shortly after dessert (an exotic ice-cream creation which I indulged in, and enjoyed) he stretched out his arms, yawned, and looked at his wrist chrono. "Well," he said, "I'm sure we all have duty tomorrow…," and that simply, the dinner was over. Must be wonderful to be an admiral, I thought as I rose; I wonder if I'll ever know?

At the door, Commodore Ehm'rael grasped my arm and drew me aside. "Do not forget," she said in Sah'aaran. "Tomorrow morning, in my office. We will speak then"

"I will be there, Commodore," I promised. "Thank you."

"The least I can do," she said with a smile. She glanced quickly at Joel. "Have a good evening, my dear."

Joel hung back until Commander Edgeworth and Dr. Enyeart had departed, along with my crewmates. Then he stepped across and linked his arm with mine. "Just like old times, eh?" he observed with a smile.

I paused…and then I nodded. Maybe a little too like…


Krav's Place was a dive; but it was popular--especially for a café run by a Roach. As the only independent business on Outpost Four it could hardly be otherwise, though.

It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while a group of people--a species, a social class, a race--will take what was originally a derisive or xenophobic term applied to them and make it a badge of pride. So it was for the inhabitants of Xerxes IV, the most distant member of the TCA. They weren't insects; they weren't even arthropods, technically speaking, because they possessed an internal skeleton of sorts; but their black, shiny, multi-legged bodies evidently reminded the humans who first encountered them of a common Terran bug. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dark and atmospheric (a better word than "dingy") the café was a collection of perhaps twenty mismatched tables scattered around a counter. The artwork on the walls was abstract, brightly-colored, and slightly revolting. And Krav? He was a typical specimen of his reclusive species: his lower body carried horizontally on ten wide-spaced stiff-jointed legs; his thorax and head vertical above a sharp-angled, wasp-thin waist. Four short arms ended in fingers like bundles of twigs; and black-jointed antennae drooped over three huge multifaceted silver eyes. His stained apron gave him an aspect somewhere between incongruous and ludicrous. He spoke Terran fairly well, by rubbing his mouth parts together; but it took a stronger stomach than mine to watch that.

As we entered, as I stared aghast at the proprietor, Joel paused to look around carefully. The café was crowded, almost every table occupied, and his gaze touched briefly on each face, his expression curiously anxious. Finally he sighed, as if in relief, and we continued to the counter.

"What was all that about?" I asked him curiously.

"What?" he echoed blankly. "Oh-- just looking for familiar faces. Raven crewmembers. But none of them are here."

It appeared that there were indeed none; nor any Zelazny crew either. I could tell that at a glance. The outpost crew wore standard Survey uniforms, but with one obvious difference: in addition to the standard silver CFS badge, a flashy gold "E," the symbol of the Engineer Corps. As far as I could tell, everyone in the café sported that E. A few of them looked up curiously at us, and several pairs of eyes lingered on me, bemused no doubt by the incongruity of a formal evening robe and collar into a place like that.

"Reminds me of that coffeehouse in the Haight-Ashbury," Joel commented. "Remember?"

I nodded. "Indeed I do." I'd been a lot younger then--and a lot less discriminating. The place was called "Summer of Love," the decor was Early Packing Crate, and the clientele was young and angst-filled. At first they'd eyed our Academy uniforms with hostility; but the owner--a spiritual refugee of the 1960's--was a definite xenophile, thrilled to have a Sah'aaran as a regular customer. I wonder if the place is still there--?

I wasn't hungry, not after the dinner I'd just had; and one look at Krav's Place made me even less so. Joel ordered Xerxian coffee, black as ink and probably tasting like it too, and I settled for a cup of mild herbal tea. Funny, that's just about what we used to order at the Summer of Love too. We found a table in the rear, away from the crowd, and settled in to gaze at each other closely.

Finally Joel reached across and grasped my hand. The feel of his palm against my fingers brought back a flood of old memories, enough to make my breath catch in my throat. "I can't tell you what this means to me, Ayla," he said. "I've missed you terribly."

"So have I," I assured him. I'm just starting to realize how much…

He had no intention of removing his hand from atop mine, it seemed; and I certainly wasn't going to ask him to. "So tell me about it," he said with a smile. "The last six years. How have my favorite Sah'aaran's life and career been going?"

I tried; but how do you condense six years of living into a thousand words or less? You hit the highlights, that's how. It helps if the person you're talking to has had roughly the same experiences. I told him about Point Cabrillo and Zelazny, and the circumstances behind my two promotions. I was not surprised to learn that he knew almost as much about our mission as I did; as I've already mentioned, news of Captain Haliday's exploits got around.

"It's funny," Joel said, when I finally wound down. He signaled for a refill for both of us, and then dropped his hand to cover mine again. I shuddered, watching the lugubrious Roach pour another slug of steaming black goo into Joel's cup. Somebody's going to be awake all night…

When Krav had scuttled away, Joel went on, "Our paths might have crossed a lot sooner. I almost ended up on Zelazny, as Bussard tech. If I'd known you were aboard…"

I quirked an eye. "Why 'almost'?" I asked.

He shrugged. "At the time, I thought Raven was more challenging."

I almost choked on my tea.. "That floating scrapyard, more challenging than Zelazny?" I demanded incredulously. "Are you insane?"

He grinned. "It's been said," he replied. "Actually, just keeping her spaceworthy is a constant challenge. But she's really not all that bad. She'll make one point five G's, on a good day with a following wind."


"--And I think I've finally got the plasma pinch-bottle stabilized."

"Always a plus," I commented. If your goal is a spaceship, as opposed to a nuclear bomb. "All right, your turn. What about last six years of your life, Mr. Abrams?"

He rubbed the side of his nose, a gesture I remembered all too well. "Let's see…the last time you and I managed to find each other with a message, I had just been posted to the Patrol…"

I nodded; I did indeed remember. It was his first posting out of the Academy, as the Point Cabrillo was mine. On the whole, I imagined I'd been the luckier one. I reached across and brushed his sleeve: dark grey, not blue. "Something must have changed," I commented.

"Eventually," he agreed. "But it took quite a while. I started out as a Techspec trainee on an old revenue cutter, the John Sutter. We did a patrol run from Centaurus to the Xerxes Cluster, looking for smugglers. A month each way, ten jumps. Five round-trips a year. That was my life for three solid years."

I winced. "Any action?"

"Very little. In all that time we stopped perhaps a dozen ships--I don't think we found contraband on any of them. I wouldn't really know, though: I was stuck in the engine hull." He grinned and lifted his cup. "The only thing I got out of it was a taste for this stuff."

"How did you get your parole?"

He paused for more dubious refreshment before he went on. "Well, by that time I'd managed to claw my way up to lieutenant j.g.--er, if you'll forgive the expression."

I gave him my broadest smile. "Of course. Go on."

"Um--yes. We were at the Centaurus end of the run when I heard that the Shipyards had an opening for an engineer with experience in life-support systems."

"So you jumped at it."

"'Jumped' is too mild a term," he told me. "'Flung myself bodily' is more like it. Anyway, I did that for a year, getting myself promoted to full lieutenant along the way. Then I transferred to ramjet mechanics. I'd heard about a position aboard Zelazny, but while I was thinking about it, the Survey brought Raven out of mothballs. I got involved in the refit, and then I decided it was time to ship out again, that I'd been hanging around the dockyards too long. I was about due for promotion again, so they made me an LC and the Techspec crew chief." He held up his arm. "And that's how I got the grey uniform."

"Has the mission been difficult?"

"Not too bad," he said. "Of course I haven't been personally involved with the survey work. But on the whole it's been quite successful. In the past year we've mapped and surveyed thirty systems. So far we've found eleven habitable planets, and five that will be terraformable someday."

"Not a bad average."

His face fell suddenly. "The last survey, though…didn't go quite as well. We…lost a man."

"I'm sorry," I said. "Who was he?"

"Lieutenant Commander Enrique Morada," Joel said. "Our Anthropology-Paleontology Scispec. He and the others Scispecs were doing field work on an Earthlike planet. A real paradise, apparently: temperate climate, lots of vegetation and animal life; perfect place for a colony. Henry was excavating a fossil bed…and a gravel bank gave way underneath him. He fell almost fifty meters. Killed instantly."

I heard the pain in his voice, and I squeezed his hand. "A friend?" I guessed.

What he said, a few seconds later, was simply "Yes." But there was something else in his tone…some other emotion which I couldn't then identify. I almost asked…but finally decided not to pry. It wasn't until much later that I found out what else I'd heard in that single syllable.

"So anyway, that's caused a problem," Joel went on, visibly shrugging off whatever had gripped him. "By Survey regulations, we can't continue with our mission until we have a new Anthro-Paleo. Captain Antilles was hoping to find one here, but no luck. We're stuck until the Admiralty can send us someone."

"Way out here, that could take a while."

"Only too true," Joel said ruefully. "What about you? How long are you in town?"

"Probably no more than two days," I said. "Maybe less. We need to off-load our cargo, and Captain Haliday will give everyone a chance for shoreleave." I glanced around and grimaced. "Such as it is. Then it's back to civilization."

"Lucky for you." Joel smiled wryly. "I'll be out here for another year."

"Then what?"

He shook his head. "Frankly, I'm not sure. After we complete our mission, we'll be taking Raven back to Centaurus. I doubt the Admiralty will think it worthwhile to refit her again. She's the last Osprey-class left, you know. She'll be headed to the scrapyard, or maybe the Luna Spaceflight Museum. And I'll be headed…who knows where?"

"The next time we meet," I predicted, "you'll have a ship of your own."

He smiled. "Nice thought," he said. "And I could say the same about you." He shook his head sadly. "But who knows when that will be? That's one part of CF life I've never gotten used to: all the good-byes."

Don't I know it, I thought.

We were both silent for a moment, lost in thought; then Joel said suddenly, "Ayla, before you joined up, didn't you study archaeology?"

"It was my university major, back on Sah'aar," I said. I smiled over the rim of my cup. "Surely you haven't forgotten that."

His face reddened. "No," he said quickly. "No, of course I haven't. I really meant to ask, what do you know about the Watchers?"

I snorted derisively. "That they're a myth," I told him flatly. "Pseudoscience at its spectacular best. A combination of misinterpreted evidence, ethnocentric wishful thinking, and possibly even deliberate fraud--though that's never been proven."

"Tell me about it," he said earnestly. "Please."

I shrugged. "There really isn't very much to tell," I said. I took a deep breath. "In a way it's not unlike the 'ancient astronauts' fad from 20th-Century Earth. About sixty years ago a Terran archaeologist--and I use that term loosely--named Brenner claimed he'd found proof that humans--or at very least a humanoid species--visited a number of widely-scattered planets all over this part of the galaxy, many centuries before Earth even possessed space travel. He had evidence, if you want to call it that, from more than a dozen worlds: cave paintings, sculptures, carvings and statues…He even had some items from Sah'aar, as I recall. The figures depicted were all bipeds, that much is true…but Brenner insisted they were actually human."

"Why?" Joel asked.

I grinned wryly. "How can I put this?" I said. "You humans have a deep-seated need to believe you're something special. Your world was the center of the universe until Copernicus; your species was the crown of creation until Darwin; your planet was the only one with life, until the Light-Sail One probe reached Centaurus two centuries ago. This Watcher business is exactly the same. For a while there was quite a furor. Brenner's artifacts were all quite ancient, ranging between two thousand and thirty thousand years old. Obviously the figures couldn't be Terrans; so what were they? The chances against another humanoid species evolving are astronomical--so perhaps he had found evidence of a precursor to Terran humans. Maybe humans didn't really evolve on earth, but were seeded there at some time in the past."

Joel smiled. "I'm beginning to understand. But why 'Watchers'?"

"Another invention of Brenner's," I explained. "He claimed that his putative aliens hadn't visited those worlds out of simple curiosity; they intended to keep tabs on the non-human species."


I shrugged. "Who knows? Brenner believed humans to be the descendants of the Watchers. Perhaps they wanted to make sure no other species would be a threat to their 'children.'"

"So what happened?" Joel asked. He was looking absolutely fascinated, his coffee all but forgotten; but in the depths of his pale eyes, I saw…what? I couldn't quite decide--but clearly, something other than idle curiosity.

Once again I shrugged. "The usual," I said. "For a while many humans believed Brenner's nonsense--largely because they wanted to. But eventually it all fell apart. It's unclear whether Brenner was a shoddy worker, a charlatan, or merely self-deluded. He didn't live long enough for anyone to find out. We do know that some of his artifacts were outright forgeries, and others had been altered to make them appear more human. And as for the rest…" I shook my head. "Out of seventeen known sentient species, more than half are bilaterally-symmetrical bipeds. Why? Because it's an efficient body plan for a tool-user. On the homeworlds of those species, of course you'll find primitive artworks depicting bipedal forms. But it's all in how you look at them. I can see Sah'aarans in Brenner's artifacts as easily as he saw humans. It's all relative."

Joel nodded slowly.

"And," I added, "it was bad science all along, as your geneticists pointed out. Your DNA proves that your species evolved on Terra, just as mine proves I evolved on Sah'aar. Brenner was thoroughly discredited a long time ago."

I paused then, embarrassed, suddenly aware how thoroughly I'd been monopolizing the conversation. Well, that wasn't entirely my fault: Joel had started it. As engineering had been his first love, archaeology was mine, and too seldom these days did I get a chance to practice. Not since the CF, in its infinite wisdom, decided I'd make a better Compcomm than a Scispec. "Why--uh--why do you ask?" I finished lamely.

For some reason that simple question seemed to frighten him greatly. For an instant his eyes filled with sheer terror--but then he chuckled and waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, no reason, really," he said. "Something I read a while back. I wanted an expert opinion."

"I see."

He took a quick sip of coffee. Then he said, "Is there--anyone who still believes in the Watchers?"

I frowned. "No responsible scientist," I told him. "I suppose there might be a few crackpots who do. I really couldn't say."

He nodded thoughtfully. "Very interesting." He patted my hand. "Thank you."

"No charge."

Sitting there, with my hand still clasped by his, I was suddenly very grateful for my formal evening robe, despite the discomfort it was causing after four straight hours of wear. Without its weight my tail would have been lashing, signaling my agitation to everyone in the café. As it was, only the bushy tip flicked nervously back and forth, doing a better job of sweeping the floor than Krav ever had.

The realization had grown slowly, as our conversation ebbed and flowed: he isn't going to mention it! So either I'd been deluding myself all these years, or…what? I didn't know, but one thing was clear: if I didn't say something myself, nothing would ever get said. Except…well, I wasn't sure what I could say, without making a fool of myself.

Finally I took a deep breath. "Joel," I said, "since the last time I saw you, I've thought a lot about us: what we meant to each other, and the good times we had. But I sometimes think…maybe we didn't communicate quite as well as we thought we did."

He put down his cup and gazed into my eyes, looking stricken. Goddess! Those eyes of his! I couldn't believe it, the first time I looked into them: pale blue, a color I'd never seen before--and round pupils! Amazing! Slowly he said, "I…don't think I understand, Ayla."

I took a deep breath, and then the words burst forth, all at once, before I could call them back. "I've always wondered if what you felt for me was more than just friendship, and if I was too inexperienced and too Sah'aaran to realize it."

He was a long time answering. And when he finally did…he might have changed my life and his forever, if he'd truly spoken his mind. Unfortunately, he did not. "Well, I…," he began.

And then…it was like a light switch, or the closing of a relay, or the change in state of a data bit from 0 to 1. He glanced over my shoulder, his eyed widened, and his hand stiffened atop mine. And that suddenly, his entire demeanor changed.

"I…think I'd better be going, Ehm'ayla," he said awkwardly. "I've got an early shift..."

"What--?" I began in confusion. I turned to see what he'd seen. Two young humans, a man and a woman, had just entered Krav's Place. They wore Survey uniforms without the gold E, and I didn't recognize either of them; so, logically, Raven crewmembers. My fingertips begin to tingle. What's going on? I wondered furiously. Was Joel--my friend, my long-time confidante--unwilling to have his crewmates see us together?

Then I forced myself to relax. No, I told myself. Ridiculous; unthinkable. We'd been everywhere together during our Academy days, and never once had he shown the slightest sign of being ashamed of me. Not even when I met his parents. No, this had to be my fault: I'd been pushing too hard. An unfortunate tendency of mine.

I said, "All right, Joel." I reached for my sash pouch; but I wasn't wearing it. "I seem to have left my credit card in my cabin," I said.

He smiled, retrieving his own from his jacket pocket. "Allow me," he said. "Higher pay grade."

"Will I see you again?"

Again, inexplicably, his attitude changed. "I'm…not sure," he said, his eyes shifting nervously. "Call me, though, when you get your shoreleave assignment. We'll see what we can work out."

"All right," I said again. I smiled and grasped his hand. "It's been lovely seeing you again, Joel. Really."

His answering smile looked a little seasick, and his eyes shifted away from mine. My peripheral vision wasn't as good as a Quadrian's, but I could easily see that Joel's crewmates were at the counter talking to Krav. They had not yet noticed us in our dark corner.

"Me too," Joel said. "Very. Good night, Ayla."

"Good night, Joel."

And then he practically fled from Krav's Place, leaving me to wonder what the hell I'd done wrong.