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.




Outpost Four had changed.

That became all too obvious, not long after Zelazny entered the desolate little system where the station was almost the only solid object. I witnessed our arrival on a small screen in the Rec Room, one which I'd set to repeat the view from the Control Deck's main holo-viewer. Officially speaking, I'd been relieved of duty--but Captain Haliday had kindly allowed me to use all of Zelazny's facilities; only the Control Deck itself was off-limits. Aboard Raven it would have been a different story; but as I'd already realized, Haliday was not Antilles. Alone in a little alcove, day-robed and black-collared, I sat, taking my ease with a cup of tea. I figured I'd better do so while I could: my life was about to become remarkably uneasy.

The last time I'd seen it, TCA Outpost Four had been only one-third complete. Most of the main ring and all but one of the six struts had been nothing more than latticework, open to space. That was true no longer. Only one short arc of the ring and two struts remained unsheathed, and lights gleamed through viewports in sections previously dark. Half a dozen ships of diverse sizes and shapes rested in the new docking clamps; among them I noticed a Navy destroyer, bristling with armaments, and a much smaller Patrol cutter. The growth spurt had to be Commodore Ehm'rael's doing: she always had a reputation for getting things moving. If someone hung a sign on the outpost now, it would read "Open for Business--Walk Right in!"

These changes--which became shockingly apparent during our long deceleration--brought home to me the passage of time. Though it hardly seemed possible, more than five months had passed since Raven departed the station for A-Benideel. With Zelazny enfolding me like a soft and familiar blanket, my sojourns on Raven and Hellhole had begun to seem unreal, a fragment perhaps of a half-remembered fever dream. Only those damn goggles and my vast collection of scars (physical and emotional) proved that my experiences were all too real.

As we prepared for docking, I found myself imagining the scene on the Control Deck. Max would be at Nav, of course, his long fingers dancing delicately across the controls. Meanwhile, Aparna would be contacting the station for instructions. I could clearly picture the buttons she would be touching, the words she would speak. That used to be me, and thinking about it caused an unexpected and poignant stab of nostalgia. Maybe I should have left well enough alone…but for the moment, the uniform in my closet bore a green patch.

Well, this is it, I thought. In less than two hours I was due in court for a preliminary hearing--and what the results of that would be, I had no idea. I might even be taken into custody. Who could say? Without a doubt, this was the very last ease I could look forward to for a while…

The transit from Hellhole to Outpost Four had taken just five days, a damnsight faster than poor old Raven could have managed it. Apart from eating, sleeping and ultrasound treatments, I'd spent most of that time worrying. With little else to occupy my mind, the impending court-martial had grown to a near-obsession. Everyone around me--including those who'd had direct contact with Combined Forces jurisprudence--urged me to be calm; but I'd been utterly unable to convince my subconscious. Ten years in the CF had too thoroughly programmed me: the words "court-martial" seemed to lead inexorably to "dishonorable discharge," even "stockade." I'd slept poorly indeed the past few nights.

It was in an attempt to assuage those fears that, on our second day in transit, I paid a visit to Commander Vandevere.

The First Officer's quarters had perhaps the most eclectic decor I had ever encountered--but given his background, that's hardly surprising. Barred from the Control Deck, I had to wait until he was off duty to see him; and I approached his quarters with a certain trepidation. Vandevere had never been anything but courteous to me--it was a pleasure to serve under him--but he did have a reputation as someone who valued his privacy. The response, however, when I buzzed at his door, was immediate. "Come in!"

A sweet, half-familiar scent drifted toward me as the door opened. Through my goggles the room seemed pitch-black, and I stepped forward blindly. "Commander?"

A flicker of movement to my left, and the ceiling light brightened. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla!" Vandevere said in surprise.

He was seated cross-legged on the workroom floor, atop what appeared to be a woven-grass tatami mat. Before him stood an incense burner, a brass dragon, in which a few sticks of sandalwood smoldered. Bare to the waist, he wore loose-fitting black trousers and slippers, and I caught a glimpse both of the terrible scars that crosshatched his right side, and of the seam above his elbow where his prosthetic joined his meat arm, before he snatched up a black pullover and covered himself.

"Am I intruding, sir?" I asked diffidently.

"Not at all," he assured me. He hauled himself smoothly to his feet. "Please, come in. Have a seat."

I settled down stiffly in the desk chair, arranging the folds of my day-robe, while Vandevere rolled up the mat and stowed it away, and extinguished the incense sticks between his (artificial) thumb and forefinger. As he worked, I glanced quickly around.

As I said, eclectic. In size and design, Vandevere's quarters were identical to my own--but the similarity ended there. The decor of the work-room was aggressively militaristic. Above the desk hung a fearsome-looking collection of edged weapons, including an American cavalry saber, a Japanese katana, and a French fencing foil. On the desk stood an enameled samurai helmet, complete with fish-scale neck armor. The prints on the other walls depicted battles, from cavalry charges to Terran sea combat, the latter running the gamut from Trafalgar to World War II. Scattered among them were holos of various CF Navy vessels, one of which was instantly familiar: I'd seen the same print in Haliday's office. A massive engine of destruction, a "ship of the line" in Naval parlance, it was a vessel whose history was well known to Zelazny's officers.

The bedroom could not have been more different. There the prints were serene natural images; among them were several views of Mt. Fuji by Hokusai, including his famous "Wave." More tatami mats covered the floor, and on a shelf near the bed squatted a serenely-smiling bronze Buddha. What that said about Vandevere's personality, I don't know; I have trouble enough figuring out my own.

He perched himself comfortably on the divider, gazing down at me curiously. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"

I took a deep breath--something I could once again do almost without pain, my ribs being all but healed--and said, "I need your advice, sir. This court-martial has me a little…concerned." Not to say "scared out of my wits"…

"Understandable," he said. "But you shouldn't feel that way. You're not charged with anything--"

"So I've been told, sir," I agreed. "But even so…this will be my first time on the 'hot seat.' I've spoken to several people who've had the experience; they all told me not to worry--but they also suggested I get a lawyer."

"That might be wise," Vandevere agreed. He grinned. "We have a saying on Terra: 'The man who is his own attorney…'"

"'Has a fool for a client,'" I finished with a smile. "Exactly my point. But that leaves me with a problem: we're at least a hundred light-years from the nearest law office."

"Maybe not," he said. Outpost Four has expanded quite a bit--there's probably at least one attorney practicing there now."

"You might be right," I said. "But even so…I'm not certain I'd feel comfortable with a total stranger. It's a Sah'aaran thing--I'd prefer someone who knows me."

"That might be rather difficult to accomplish."

"Perhaps not, sir," I said. I hesitated, and swallowed. "I was wondering…well, if perhaps you would agree to be my attorney."

His eyebrows rose, and he smiled slowly. "Well, I'm flattered," he said. "But why me? As I'm sure you're aware, I'm not a lawyer--thankfully."

"I know, sir, but as I understand it, my representative doesn't have to be a member of the Bar. Especially since--as you said--I'm not charged with anything."

"Touché," he said. "But that doesn't answer my question."

I paused, then said quietly, "Only two people aboard Zelazny have testified before a court-martial regarding the loss of a ship. Captain Haliday is one--and you're the other."

I'd debated long and hard whether to use that particular line of argument--and I saw now that I shouldn't have. Vandevere's expression darkened, and a spasm of pain crossed his face. His left hand, as with a mind of its own, reached across and grasped his right arm, massaging the seam where flesh met plastic. It's been twenty years since Ventana was destroyed, I thought, glancing at the holo above Vandevere's head. Is it possible the wounds are still painful? Or is it the memories which hurt the most? "I'm sorry, sir," I said.

He took a deep breath, regaining his composure, and shook his head. "No need," he said. "And you have a point: I am familiar with the sort of questions they'll throw at you. God help me, I am. All right, Lieutenant. I'll be honored to represent you."

It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Smiling, I clasped his ersatz hand briefly. "Thank you, Commander. Uh--how should we proceed?"

He sat silent for a moment, his eyes narrowed in thought. Then he said, "This will be a board of investigation--which means your memories of events aboard Raven will be extremely important. You've already filed your report; it will be read into evidence immediately, and will be their starting point. But they won't accept it as is; they'll pick it to pieces. They'll be obsessed with details, nuances, minutiae. They'll want to examine every minute of your time aboard that ship. They'll argue--with some justification--that even the most trivial-seeming incident might be significant.

"So I'd suggest you start there," he concluded. "Try to remember everything you can about Raven--on a day-to-day basis if possible. Write it down, or make a recording. If nothing else, that ought to help you keep your testimony consistent--and shorten your time on the hot seat."

I nodded slowly. "Yes, sir," I said. "Everything."

…And now, as Zelazny matched the outpost's slow spin, I grimaced, shook my head, and sighed. For the past three days I'd attempted to do exactly as Vandevere said: I'd wracked my brains for anything which might explain Raven's fate. My success had been at best limited. I simply didn't know enough; I was not a Techspec, and if Joel had experienced more problems than he'd mentioned to me…well, how was I to know? Perhaps Raven's Waterloo was a plasma containment failure; it was a plausible theory, and there was no solid evidence against it. Or--unfortunately--for it either.

Nor did my problems end there. No doubt Vandevere was correct: in their desire to "close the books" (or "squeeze blood from a rock") the court would indeed examine in detail every minute I spent aboard Raven. But did I really want that to happen? There were so many things I didn't want to talk about; didn't even want to think about…

I heard as well as felt the rumbling boom that echoed through the hull as the magnetic clamps grabbed Zelazny and pulled her close. Another triumph for Max--as if he could get any cockier. With a sigh I lifted my teacup and drained the last few stone-cold milliliters, then rose to my feet. Time to struggle into my dress uniform and let my life take another quantum leap into the complicated. I could hardly wait.


The courtroom was new.

The section of Outpost Four in which I found myself, waiting with scant patience and lashing tail for the hearing to begin, had been open to space when last I visited. In fact it was the very section completed using the supplies brought by Zelazny, on that mission which had so changed my life. Had led directly to this, in fact; that's irony, if you like.

As I waited, I looked around curiously. I'm proud to admit that my experience with courtrooms was virtually nil; but this one appeared functional enough--and not quite as ugly as it might have been. The space was quite large, two levels high. At its head was a raised bench, with seating for the customary four judges. The door behind presumably led to offices or chambers. Next to the bench sat the witness stand, a simple and uncomfortable-looking chair elevated on a small platform. Just that: the old-fashioned and notoriously unreliable Terran "verdaticator" was long ago outlawed by the Alliance. My judges would have to decide for themselves whether I was telling the truth; in the case of one of them, that would be no more difficult than it had when I was six years old.

Along the left-hand wall were the attorney's tables, defense to the rear and prosecution toward the front, each equipped with three chairs and a computer terminal. Directly across stood the jury box. It would not be used in this case, nor in any Combined Forces court-martial; but Outpost Four was already gaining a sizable civilian population, governed by Alliance law. Frankly I'm not sure which system I prefer.

Cantilevered above, like the balcony of a theater, was the public gallery, its hundred or so seats already packed full. Many of the spectators were Outpost Four crewmembers, curious or merely bored; and there were some as well from those other CF ships. At the rail sat Zelazny's contingent: it included Max Goodwin, Aparna Singh, Dr. Zee, and even Commander Hullumm, squatting uncomfortably on the steps. As my eyes came to rest upon her, Aparna smiled and nodded encouragingly.

Yes, the courtroom was new, everything bright and clean, the walls sparkling with a fresh coat of CF Grey. Gazing around, I wondered idly where they'd held their hearings before this facility was built. Was it possible I was christening the place? A distinction I could have lived without, if so…

I sat in the defense table's middle chair, flanked by--and feeling very small between--Commander Vandevere and Captain Haliday. The captain would eventually be called as a witness; but nonetheless he had insisted on sitting with me, and no one had dared prevent it. Judging from his scowl, he was every bit as impatient as me. Vandevere sat gazing at the terminal, scrolling rapidly through some document which I couldn't read. He looked perfectly relaxed, even serene--damn him.

At the other table sat one lone figure. Sah'aarans consider it rude to stare, but try as I might I couldn't help it--and under the circumstances, perhaps I can be forgiven. Even Vandevere and Haliday had cast a glance or two in the direction of our opponent. Not because she was a great beauty--in fact she was not--but because of her hardware. The JAG prosecutor was a Modified.

There were no more than a few thousand of her kind in the Alliance, all human--and none Terran, because the procedure was illegal on Earth. They were people who, for one reason or another, had replaced or augmented parts of their anatomy with machinery. Sometimes it was done to correct defects, physical or mental, and sometimes to enable a person to do a particular job. Which of those applied to this young woman, I couldn't say; but her modifications were extensive indeed. She was slightly-built rather short--about my size, in fact. Her hair--what there was of it--was light-brown and close-cropped. She wore the beige uniform of the Headquarters Ops division, with the stars of a lieutenant commander on her breast. And as for the rest…

I've already described the Survey scanpak, a common scientific instrument. To use one effectively--and without losing your balance--takes years of practice. Imagine what life would be like with such a device as a permanent part of your anatomy. The entire right side of the prosecutor's head was encrusted with machinery: plates and tubes and conduits, black and silver and grey. Somewhat bulgy, the equipment made her skull appear lopsided. Even her ear was covered, unless--like mine--it was missing entirely. An oblong screen was mounted over her eye. The circuitry curved around her nose and mouth, descending her neck to vanish into her uniform; probably it covered that entire side of her body. Sensor pads, equivalent to a scanpak's gauntlet, were mounted to her fingertips; the flat black cables converged on the back of her hand and ran up her sleeve. Bulges showed clearly through her uniform at hips, knees and ankles. Mechanical assistants? If so, then it was at least partially a therapeutic job.

She sat staring straight ahead, as if deep in thought; but the fingers of her right hand were twitching, no doubt controlling a flow of information across her eye-screen. Her presence did nothing to improve my composure; in fact I could scarcely suppress a shudder of revulsion as I gazed at her. I did not look forward to her cross-examination.

Finally then--it seemed hours I'd been sitting, but it was probably no more than ten minutes--a boson's whistle sounded through hidden speakers, and a strident voice called: "All rise!"

Along with the others, I scrambled to my feet and snapped to attention, as the door behind the bench opened and four figures entered. My judges: the only command-level officers within a hundred light-years who were not also material witnesses. Two of them were instantly familiar: Admiral Conroy and Commodore Ehm'rael. The others, strangers both, were captains, from different divisions of the Combined Forces. One was a tall, dour Centaurii male, wearing the blue uniform of the Patrol. The other was a human woman of middle height, with sharp, angular features and long straight black hair. Her uniform was Navy green. Beside me, Haliday's eyes narrowed as he sized up the new arrivals. Obviously, they were the commanders of those two ships I'd noticed as we docked.

As she took her seat, Ehm'rael's gaze locked with mine. A human might have believed her expression quite neutral--but I knew better. Lingering on my emaciated form, my goggles and my missing ear, her eyes quickly filled with sympathy, pity…and curiosity. She had read my report, and knew the bare details of what I'd been through; now she was wondering how much I'd omitted.

"This general court martial is now in session," Conroy said. "You may be seated."

We did, and there was a brief pause as the admiral glanced at his terminal. Finally he looked up, directly at me, his eyes pinning me to my seat. No longer was he the avuncular dinner host who had gallantly bowed and kissed a furry Sah'aaran hand; this was a tough, no-nonsense combat veteran. The change was startling, and a shiver ran down my spine and frizzed my tail-tuft. He said, "This court is convened to investigate the reported destruction of Survey Vessel Raven, and the loss of all hands save one. Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, please rise."

At a nod from Vandevere, I did so. The admiral went on, "Lieutenant, the court recognizes that you have endured a terrible ordeal, from which you are not yet fully recovered. It is not our intention to add to your suffering. However, as the last surviving officer assigned to Raven, it is your sworn duty to answer for her destruction. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Admiral," I said evenly.

He nodded. "I'm certain you will agree that the loss of any Combined Forces vessel is a serious matter. It is vitally important that we provide as much of an explanation as lies within our power. Your parents were spared the loss of a daughter, but there are sixty-four other families who have not been so fortunate. It is to them that we owe this closure. Our purpose shall be to determine, in so far as we are able, the cause of Raven's destruction. To that end we will draw upon all available information, including the records of that vessel's refit at the Centaurus shipyards, and the service records of her crew. However, our most important source of information is you yourself. Your own record clearly indicates your devotion to the Combined Forces; I am certain you will acknowledge your duty to cooperate fully with the business of this court. Am I correct?"

"Yes, Admiral."

"Let me emphasize as well: at this time there are no charges filed against you; our sole purpose is to investigate. Allow me to introduce the other members of the panel: Commodore Ehm'rael of the Engineering Corps; Captain Keeleek, commanding the Patrol cutter Walter Colton; and Captain Rebecca Grey Wolf, commanding the Navy destroyer Blackhaw. Do you object to the presence of any of these officers, or have any reason to believe they will be unable to render an impartial judgment?"

"No objections, Admiral." Not that it would have accomplished anything if I had.

Conroy glanced at the prosecutor. "Commander Sutton, does the JAG office have any objections?"

The Modified rose to her feet--and as she did, I heard the faint whine of hydraulics. Those were mechanical aids attached to her legs, then. Her voice was entirely human, though, and exactly what I'd expected: very direct and matter-of-fact. "No objections, Admiral."

Conroy turned back to me. "The Combined Forces are represented by Lieutenant Commander Alicia Sutton," he said. "Do you have any objection to this?"

I glanced at her--and once again had to firmly suppress a shudder. Objections, yes; ones that would hold up in court, no. Just my own unfortunate prejudices. "None, Admiral."

"Very well. Have you secured representation?"

"Yes, Admiral," I said. "I will be represented by Commander Justin Vandevere, first officer of ESV Zelazny."

Conroy glanced quickly at Ehm'rael and the others, and they nodded. "The court has no objections. Commander Sutton?"

"No objections, Admiral."

"So noted. You may be seated, Lieutenant. The court will now hear opening statements. Commander Sutton will begin."

I sat, grimly fighting a sudden bout of helpless shivering, as the prosecutor crossed to the center of the room, her steps slow and mechanical. So it begins, I thought darkly. And where it would end, only the Goddess knew.


Krav's place was no longer a dive--but it was still popular.

The preliminary hearing did not last long; only an hour, though it seemed an eternity. And afterwards, seeking solace, I went for a walk on the outpost's pedestrian level.

The ghost-town emptiness I'd found so depressing during my last visit was gone--or at least fading fast. The Walk itself had nearly doubled in length, as more of the main ring was sheathed; eventually it would form an unbroken circle. It still ended in blank walls--but they were much farther apart than they'd been five months ago. During that time too, those dark empty storefronts had begun to come to life: no longer was the Roach café the only independent business on the station. Not all the available space was occupied, but a good forty percent was, and that made all the difference. As I strolled I noticed several other restaurants (including a Hattosh place which thankfully had an airlock door); barber and hair-styling shops; tailors and milliners; boutiques and shops with merchandise of many kinds. Truly, an explosion of commerce. Most of the customers were station personnel, plus the crews of the three CF ships currently docked--but that would soon change. And in the meantime…well, Combined Forces personnel are well-paid, and we do tend to spread it around.

My own funds were ample, and normally the boutiques would have been of definite interest to me, especially those featuring clothing and objects de art. Aparna Singh and I had shopped our way through more shore-leaves than I cared to remember. But at the moment, my enthusiasm for that pleasant pastime was somewhat muted. Later perhaps, when this was all over--but not now. I wandered, glancing disinterestedly at a few windows…and finally found myself at Krav's.

As I said, the Xerxian was no longer the only game in town, and I was both amused and disappointed to see that he'd cleaned up his act. He'd repainted the place, for one thing; his tables and chairs were new, and matched; and it seemed he'd been mopping the floor once in a while. He'd even cranked up the ceiling lights. Competition had forced him into it, of course, and the café was still crowded; but all the same it was a little sad. It was as if the Summer of Love in San Francisco had suddenly gone mauve and faux granite. In a word, yick.

My ordeal having left me ravenous, I entered the restaurant--and immediately found myself in prolonged and somewhat strained negotiations with Krav: his Terran was broken, and I don't speak Xerxian. Eventually I convinced him to serve me a large cut of K'Valla steak--which is usually grilled to cremation--raw. In compensation for this affront, I allowed him to smother the meat in a sweet-and-sour sauce which proved…interesting. I took my meal to a booth in the back, in approximately the same position once occupied by the rickety table I'd shared with Joel all those weeks ago. And then, from behind the privacy of my goggles, I watched the passing crowd. To my relief they were all strangers, and none of them gave me so much as a second glance. Fine with me: I wasn't in the mood for company anyway.

The hearing was brief--but agonizing. Sutton's opening statement came perilously close to just the sort of accusations which Conroy had promised would not be made. Force of habit, I suppose. She didn't exactly promise to prove that I personally destroyed Raven--but almost. Or perhaps that was just my overwrought imagination. After she'd finished, Vandevere gave his own counter-argument: calm, reasoned, insightful…and rather dull. In promising to prove that Raven's destruction was accidental, due to age and decrepitude, he had the easier prospectus.

There followed several minor turf-battles over obscure points of law and procedure, which served only to prove that Vandevere had been studying. Only one meant anything to me: Sutton more or less insisted that I be taken into custody and housed in quarters aboard the outpost, where presumably I could be watched. In rebuttal, Vandevere pointed out that I was scarcely a flight risk. He also reminded the court that I was under a doctor's care (true enough, and I had another treatment due that very afternoon); and insisted that I would be more comfortable in my own quarters aboard Zelazny. Admiral Conroy and the two captains seemed not to care; what difference did it make to them where I slept? They allowed Commodore Ehm'rael (who did care, very much) to rule in my favor. I was free to return to Zelazny whenever I chose.

And that was all: the testimony--my testimony--would begin in the morning. And so too would my problems.

Vandevere had told me that every minute of my time aboard Raven would be examined. No doubt he was correct--but there were many details I was not anxious to have as part of the public record. Most especially anything to do with my claws--and absolutely not in the presence of Commander Ehm'rael. It was enough--more than enough--that Aparna Singh knew what had happened. To be forced to reveal it to the commodore, or indeed any Sah'aaran, would be more than I could endure. Forgetting the incident was beyond my ability--I will carry the memory to the crematorium--but with my claws regrown, I could pretend that it never happened. The shame I would endure, privately and forever.

Then there was the conspiracy. I still had no clear idea what it had involved. Antilles had been pursuing an agenda of his own, searching for something; that was all I knew. It was somehow connected with the hatred the crew felt toward me--that seemed highly probable. But what accounted for the sheer terror exhibited by Joel and Gaetano whenever I skirted close to the truth? I had no details, just suspicions; whatever Joel might have told me, had I made it to his cabin that evening, died with him.

But in the end…did it matter? Antilles' plot, plan, conspiracy--whatever--exploded to atoms above Hellhole. It might still be possible to discover what he'd been after, by examining the details of his life; but that was a job I had no desire to undertake. He was dead; let his secrets die with him.

As I saw (or rationalized) the situation, to describe in detail my experiences aboard Raven would accomplish nothing more than to expose me to pain and humiliation. Was that wrong of me, given my oaths as an officer? Probably. But I truly believed there was no other way to preserve my sanity--and my Sah'aaran dignity. I would restrict my testimony to the ship's destruction; everything else was irrelevant.

Such were my thoughts as I sat toying with my drowned steak. (Actually that sauce kind of grew on me.) I was pensively examining the dessert menu--wondering if anything on it would be digestible--when my gaze was suddenly caught by a tall, spindly figure entering the café, ducking through the low doorway. A male Centaurii, wearing a tabard of Navy green with the single star of an ensign, he paused just inside, rapidly scanning faces. He seemed somehow familiar--and as his beady black eyes lit on me and he stepped purposefully toward my table, I suddenly realized why: he was Commodore Ehm'rael's secretary. But why is he looking for me--?

Stepping up before me, he bobbed his head respectfully. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla? This is for you." He handed me a small slip of paper, then turned and fled, as swiftly as if those forelimbs really were wings.

Frowning in puzzlement, I watched him go; then glanced down at what he'd delivered. It was not the matte-surface plastic which passes for "paper" these days, nor even the real thing, made from wood pulp and rags in olden times. This was light-brown in color, and had a crinkly texture not unlike parchment. Its outer surface held a few dark markings…which I couldn't read. I muttered a curse, and then--grateful that Dr. Zee couldn't see me--removed my goggles. Squinting into the sudden actinic glare, I looked again…and as I did, my tail began to lash. The markings were my own name. Not in Terran characters, though, but rendered elegantly in Sah'aaran hieroglyphic script. And by a skilled hand too.

Eagerly I opened the note--and found inside several more lines of glyphs. Loosely translated they read: "My child: clearly you have suffered much more than I was led to believe. It is inappropriate for us to speak together at this time; but rest assured that we shall, at length, as soon as the court has completed its business. Until then, my thoughts and prayers are with you." And--of course--it was signed "Ehm'rael."

By this time my eyes were burning and starting to water; I hurriedly replaced my goggles. Glancing nervously around the café--though I have no idea who I expected to be spying on me--I folded the note and slipped it into an inner pocket. Maybe I was expected to swallow it--but my dinner seemed likely to cause quite enough indigestion. I leaned back, smiling fondly and shaking my head. The very existence of that note, its careful content, and the way it had been delivered, were all typical of Ehm'rael, and the old Terran saying she'd adopted as a motto: "Use your head to the damnedest with no holds barred." She knew that to be seen speaking to me could cause a mistrial; but at the same time, she couldn't let me believe she was ignoring me. Anxious to ease my mind and hers, she'd accomplished it the only way she could.

…But what she didn't know--couldn't possibly have known--was that she'd just given me yet another problem. As terrible as it may sound, the last thing I wanted then was a long talk with my old mentor. Not because of what she would say to me; but because of what I'd be obliged to say to her.