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."THE DARKNESS BENEATH" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
PART ONE: PACIFIC GROVE
I stepped back for a better view--but still didn't like what I saw.
Standing before the full-length mirror in its ornate oak frame, quite naked, I turned a slow circle, frowning as I surveyed the damage done to my body by time and Terran gravity: not a pretty picture.
My fur had once been golden brown--I remembered that clearly. Now it had a faded or dusty look, as grey hairs slowly supplanted the brown--most especially on my face, neck and shoulders. My cheeks and muzzle had turned almost completely, as had my once-black whiskers, as if I'd dipped my face in flour. My orange mane had streaks of grey in it too--and I won't dignify the color by calling it "silver." Thank the Goddess, I had not yet developed anything so humiliating as a pot-belly. Long walks, kayaking, and sets of tennis that grew more languorous as the years went by, had kept my muscle tone fairly solid. No use denying it, though: certain things had begun a definite and inexorable downward slide. "You," I told the reflection, "are getting old."
Joel glanced around the partition from the bedroom, halfway into his favorite white turtleneck, a look of hurt surprise on his face. "That's a terrible thing to say to your devoted husband!"
"Not you," I assured him. I pointed at the mirror. "Her."
"Nonsense," he said firmly. He finished pulling on his shirt and stepped up behind me, enfolding me in his arms. Together we regarded our reflections.
Time had been at work on Joel Aaron Abrams too. His hair had been thinning since he was twenty, and was now almost gone. The remaining fringe was more salt than pepper, as was his short, neatly-brushed beard. He fought a constant rear-guard action against his "spare tire" with endless sit-ups. Wrinkles were well entrenched across his forehead, and at the corners of his eyes and mouth; "laugh lines," he called them. I had wrinkles too, but my fur concealed them.
"Fifty-two is not old," he went on. "You're got another sixty good years ahead of you."
According to the actuarial tables, he was right; though I sometimes wondered gloomily just how "good" they'd be. I'll make my confession here and now: the idea of advancing age, of the loss of youth and strength, and most especially of eventual dependence on others, was like a chilly wind from the Dark Domains. How Joel could view his greying hair and wrinkles with such equanimity, I could never fathom. "Thanks," I said, with a touch of sarcasm.
"You're welcome," he said, grinning. He paused, then went on more seriously, "How much of this has to do with uh that change?"
I had to smile at his delicate choice of phrase; evidently he didn't care to utter the dreaded M-word. "More than a little, I guess," I admitted. The symptoms had finally begun to fade--it had been a month since my last hot flash--but so far as the gods of fertility were concerned, I was past history. And yes, it had hit me hard, physically and emotionally--though it may have been harder on Joel and the twins. An aging Sah'aaran with hormone problems is not one you want to share a house with.
" And some of it is that ceremony tonight," I went on.
"Really?" Joel said in surprise. "I thought you were looking forward to it."
"I am," I lied. "It's just well, when was the last time you saw a young commodore? It's like Professor Emeritus--a synonym for 'decrepit.'"
Joe's grin, reflected a half-meter away, widened. "That's a word no one will ever apply to you, my dear." He bent down and kissed my cheek. "Not if they want to go on living. Listen," he went on, "I've come to the conclusion that this 'age' business is mostly a state of mind. We're both perfectly healthy, your heart is doing fine, we have loads of friends, we've got enough credit-chips to live comfortably and most especially, we've got Tom and Rae. So tell me: where's the problem?"
I smiled. He always did have a way of cutting to the heart of the matter. An engineer's habit, no doubt. "You're right, of course."
"And anyway, he concluded, "young or old or in between, I love you, and nothing will ever change that."
"I love you too," I replied, and I craned my neck to nuzzle his cheek. It hadn't always been easy, the path we'd trodden to arrive at that point; at times it was damned difficult. But the result was worth the pain--the Goddess knows, it was. "Now," I went on, realizing that I was still standing there stark naked, "are you going to let me get dressed, or do I go to the Research Center in my fur?"
Our kits were already up--amazingly enough.
When Joel and I finally made our way downstairs, we were greeted by a soft purr of conversation in Sah'aaran, and the quiet rattle of plates and cutlery, proving that Tom and Rae had beaten us to the breakfast table--and had prepared their own meals. Both of which were nearly unprecedented. They'd both inherited my allergy to morning, and during school vacations they usually had to be dragged from their beds. Their father (biological, I mean) had always been quite chipper in the early hours--but that gene must have been recessive. Fortunately, the rest weren't. As we stepped into the kitchen, their conversation ceased, and they switched to Terran. "Good morning," they said in unison, and Rae added, "I started your coffee, Father."
Yes, they were out of bed, both of them, and wide-awake too--which meant they were up to something. They sat together on one side of our butcher-block breakfast table, gazing at Joel and me through huge and innocent yellow-green eyes. Their plates were bare, except for some smears of blood, and their milk glasses were only half-full. They'd been up even longer than I thought; long enough to have devoured a couple kilos of steak apiece. Outside, Monterey Bay lay grey and sullen beneath a solid lid of clammy overcast--typical summer weather for Pacific Grove--but despite the consequent chill, the twins were both lightly dressed, in khaki shorts and dark-colored T-shirts. Rae wore a beaded collar, and her hip-length mane was gathered behind her neck with a silver clasp. This morning the studs in her right ear were rubies, like four tiny drops of blood.
"Thanks, sweetie," Joel said. He eagerly crossed the kitchen, pausing on the way to kiss her cheek gratefully. Many years ago, finding the capacity of countertop coffee makers to be inadequate, he installed a built-in, industrial-strength unit, fully automatic. It had run sixteen hours a day ever since. Retrieving one of his liter-sized mugs, he stuck it under the spigot, and watched as the machine dispensed a generous slug of steaming black ink. He took an appreciative sip, and sighed. "Ah," he said, as usual, "Elixir Vitae." And behind him, also as usual, his daughter stifled a giggle.
Like the rest of our home, our cozy kitchen was an eclectic mixture of old and new: gleaming modern appliances in a 20th-Century shell or dark-cherry cabinets and grey granite countertops. I've never understood the attraction, but many humans enjoy cooking. Myself, I'd prefer leaving it to machines--but autokitchens have never proved popular on Terra. I was on my way to the fridge, to see if the twins had left their poor starving mother any meat, when Joel stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Let me," he suggested. "This is your day, after all."
I made a sour face, but I allowed him to sit me down opposite the kits. A minute later he pressed a steaming mug of tea into my hands, and I watched in amusement as he bustled about, juggling plates, whistling cheerfully through his teeth. Frankly, he was a much better cook than I'd ever cared to become. That was not always the case; but he'd lived alone before our marriage, and invention wasn't the only thing mothered by necessity. Between the two of us, we managed to feed ourselves and our kits; but it's a good thing Sah'aarans--even ones raised on Earth--don't go in for gourmet cuisine.
While I waited, I fixed the kits with my suspicious gaze. "You're up early," I commented.
They exchanged a glance, and Tom cleared his throat. My son wore his mane much shorter than his sister, just brushing his shoulders; and hard wiry muscle corded his arms, legs and torso. Over the years I'd almost--almost--grown used to the sight of his bare neck: despite the Sah'aaran standards of decency I'd tried to instill in him, he seldom deigned to wear a collar. In his handsome face I saw a little of myself--but much more of his father, which was not, alas, entirely a good thing. "We're going on a hike with some friends," he explained. "Down at Pfieffer Big Sur." He pointed into the dining room, and for the first time I noticed their bulging day-packs leaning against the back door.
"And did I know about this?" I demanded, my voice a low and dangerous growl.
Tom opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Joel arrived with our breakfasts. "Er, actually," he began sheepishly, as he settled in beside me, "I did--but I might have forgotten to mention it." He grinned and shrugged. "You know how it is when you're getting old: the short-term memory goes first."
I sighed and rolled my eyes. In such situations, and they were many, I never knew which exasperated oath to utter: "Males!", or simply "Humans!" I turned a baleful eye on the twins then, meeting their innocence head-on--and my irritation abruptly crumbled.
As they well know, I could never look at them without a surge of love swelling my breast, and a deep awareness of how fortunate Joel and I had been, and still were. No longer kits: just turned sixteen Terran Standard, in fact. Where I came from they'd be considered young adults, and that was how I was coming, however reluctantly, to think of them. Healthy, strong, intelligent, reasonably obedient and irrevocably devoted to each other. If there were two better kids in the Alliance, Joel was fond of saying, we had yet to encounter them.
"All right," I said. "Evidently you've already asked your father for permission, and I can't go back on that. Just be careful."
They smiled. "We will," Tom promised, and Rae added, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," I replied, and I couldn't help smiling in return. It wasn't that big a deal--they'd been on hikes with their friends many times before, the Goddess knows--but that particular day, with my nerves jangling, everything was a big deal. They'd already proven themselves responsible, and Pfieffer Big Sur was only a short shuttle ride south. No, I wasn't worried about their safety. Not much, anyway. Sah'aaran mothers are extremely protective, and old habits are hard to break.
"One thing," Joel told them severely. "We're expected at the Presidio at exactly seven tonight. You'll be home in time to get ready, right?"
They nodded earnestly. "We will," Tom said. "Promise."
"Good," Joel said, smiling. "After all, it's not every day you see your mother made a commodore."
Three pair of eyes turned toward me, and I looked away. The frank admiration in their gazes embarrassed and irritated me, though of course it shouldn't have. "We'll be on time," Rae said firmly.
Tom glanced at his wrist chrono, and grasped Ehm'rael's arm. "We'd better get moving, Sis," he said. "They'll be waiting at the Transit Plaza."
With that, they went into action. They gulped down the rest of their milk, stacked their dishes in the autowasher (years of dire threats had finally paid off: these days they rarely forgot more than two or three times a week), and departed, pausing to strap on their ankle-braces and shoulder their packs. With a wave they were gone, out the door and through the gate.
With a sigh I applied myself to my meal, a large slab of maxigrazer liver warmed to blood-heat. Hearing that tragic exhalation, Joel glanced up from his granola. "They'll be fine," he assured me.
"I know they will," I replied, and I almost meant it. "That's not what's bothering me."
I shook my head. "The passage of time, I suppose. Not too long ago, if they wanted to take a long hike at Big Sur, we'd be taking them."
He patted my hand. "I know, darling," he said. "Believe me, I do. But come on, cheer up!" he went on brightly. "This is supposed to be your day! The way you're acting, a person would think you don't want to be a commodore."
And a person would be right, I thought darkly; but I didn't say so. No use starting an argument so early in the morning.
When at last I left the house, the breeze off the Bay was chilly enough to encourage me to bolster my grey uniform jumpsuit with a jacket.
The strange, pensive mood I'd fallen into simply did not want to let go. My daily walk to the shuttle stop at Lovers Point was usually a distinct pleasure, because of the ever-changing beauty of the rocky shore along Ocean View Avenue. But that morning the scenery failed to cheer me; and if anything, the sight of that same old desk in that same old office, that chair in which I had planted my tail these last fourteen years made me feel worse.
My invaluable assistant, Lieutenant Commander Kinsey, had been in before me--he was always in before me, which was why he was so invaluable--and had left the daily reports, a neat stack of data cards atop the blotter. I do not possess the temperament for paperwork, and I always confronted that pile with a shudder of dismay. Normally, I'd take a deep breath, square my shoulders, and dive in.
That morning, though it's probably not surprising that my mind was as far from work as it could get. I did try; I slipped the topmost card into the reader, and stared for a time, utterly without comprehension, at the words flowing across the little screen. Finally, with a snarl of disgust, I gave up. Snapping off the reader, I rose and crossed the room, seating myself cross-legged on the ancient, threadbare cushion of the north-facing window seat. I grunted in pain as I pulled my legs up, and I had to grasp my ankles with my hands to complete the task. Dimly I wondered what had happened to the days when I could, almost without effort, achieve the elusive full lotus. Resting my back against the window-frame, my tail twitching moodily around my ankles, I stared out through the rippled glass.
My office at the Planetary Research Center was on the top floor of the main building, constructed more than two centuries ago as the Del Monte Hotel. The east window faced a grove of Monterey pines; pleasant enough, but the other had the "money" view. It looked out across the Center grounds, over a field of shifting sand-dunes, and--if I sat up very straight--out to a narrow sliver of the Fort Ord seashore. That view (along with the window-seats, the redwood paneling, the endless shelves, and the private washroom) was the reason this office belonged to the head of the Archaeology Department; namely, me. I still remembered the day I moved in: the place had been bare, painfully so, stripped of Commodore Green's artifacts and junk. I was amused to see that my own collection had grown every bit as large as his--if not quite so disordered. I always had been a "gatherer"--as my husband and kits would readily attest.
In a situation like mine, many people might have grown maudlin and sentimental. Those are two emotions I despise, and have spent a lifetime avoiding--a habit I inherited from my father. But I couldn't win, because the act of avoidance made me moody and irritated.
Nineteen years. It seemed impossible, but nineteen years had indeed passed since I first set foot in the Research Center. I'd been young then (well, younger), a lieutenant commander, and fresh off a successful tour aboard ESV Zelazny. I'd arrived on Terra contemplating a very tempting offer: First Officer of the Navarro, an Extended Planetary Research vessel right out of the shipyards. But I'd ended up here, grounded, abandoning forever the fast-track to captaincy, because someone--Fate, the Goddess, whoever--had something else in mind for me.
What would have happened, I often wondered, if I hadn't taken those few quiet days in Monterey to consider the assignment? And if the sun hadn't broken through on my third morning there, prompting me to take a walk along the Bay--a walk which brought me face-to-muzzle with Joel Abrams outside his apartment? And finally, if I'd followed my first instinct, which was to turn and run, rather than let him talk me into coming upstairs and working through our differences? I had no way of knowing, and I sometimes felt that the entire episode had been choreographed toward just those ends. It's fair to say, though, that I would have accepted the position; and by now, perhaps, I would have had my own ship. So the Admirals intended, though I'd never believed myself truly suited for command. But if I'd remained in space, I also would have remained alone; and two exasperating, lovable kits would never have been born.
An unpleasant period, that, and I shuddered to remember how close I'd come to resigning my commission, when the Admiralty balked at allowing me to take a ground assignment. The letter had been signed, sealed--even delivered. It was Joel who marshaled the forces of Commodore Ehm'rael and Captain Haliday, to convince the Admirals otherwise; and that's when I realized I didn't care to be parted from him, ever.
Looking back, I truly had no regrets. And yet if I were to be brutally honest, I'd have to admit that somewhere deep inside I did occasionally feel a stab of remorse. I joined the Combined Forces because I wanted new experiences--and the Goddess knows I'd had them. Unfortunately, "new experiences" often translates to "deadly danger"; and nineteen years ago, I truly believed I'd had my fill of adventure. But somewhere inside, that twenty-year-old kit still existed, still longed to explore just one more strange world.
And in the end, that was the crux of my problem. I'd been a commander for nineteen years--and as long as I remained so, there existed a chance, however slim, that I might be called upon to head out into space again. But after tonight it was a sinecure, I knew; the first step on the slippery slope to retirement. The same thing had happened to Commodore Green; that's why I occupied his office now, while he putted away the days in Carmel Valley. And something inside me did not want to go gentle into that good night; it wanted to rage, rage against the dying of that particular light. It longed for one more adventure--just one--to prove that senility hadn't caught up with me yet. But a little past seven-thirty tonight, nineteen-thirty CF time, that possibility would be permanently foreclosed.
But even as I contemplated those cheerful thoughts, I knew there was no way out. Everyone--The Admiralty, Admiral Sanchez, Peter Kinsey, my staff, my husband, my kits, our friends and neighbors--believed I was about to receive a tremendous honor. None of them would ever understand how old and worn-out it made me feel. But for their sake I would put aside my reluctance, struggle into my dress uniform, and pretend to be proud (yet humble) as the admiral pinned those extra stars on my breast. Because that's what they all expected. Hopefully only my tail would express my true emotions; but that betrayal, I could not hope to prevent.
The voice was familiar, and full of concern. I turned quickly. "Peter?"
Kinsey stood at the threshold, holding the door partway open, and as I looked up, his worried expression quickly changed to one more apologetic. "Sorry to intrude, ma'am," he said. "You didn't answer when I knocked."
With a shock, I realized how deeply lost in thought I'd been; at least I hoped I wasn't going deaf. I couldn't fault Peter, though, not at all. He was thinking of a similar circumstance fourteen years ago, when I'd burst into that same office to find Commodore Green in the throes of a heart attack. "That's all right, Peter," I assured him. "I'm grateful for your concern. Please, come in. Sit down."
He entered, closing the door behind him, and started toward my guest chair; but on a sudden whim, I motioned him to the window seat beside me. Painfully I straightened my cramped legs--Goddess, how long had I been sitting there?--and scooted over, giving him room. He settled in, looking uncomfortable; to him this bordered on lèse majesté.
He smiled, realizing as I'd hoped that we were speaking friend to friend, not superior to subordinate. "I suppose you can be forgiven for being a little distracted today."
He'd come to the Research Center as a lieutenant, seventeen years ago, when I was still second-in-command to Josiah Green. From the very first I was attracted to him. Professionally, I mean, though by human standards he was undeniably attractive: tall and trim, dark-skinned, with eyes more expressive than he realized. He'd been a young, brash, brilliant archaeologist, not long out of the Officer's Academy; but for some reason he'd been judged unfit for deep-space missions. When, several years later, I found myself in need of an assistant, I'd been pleased to offer him the job, and the promotion that went with it. Unfit for spaceflight, perhaps; fit for administration, definitely. Much more so than me.
"I suppose so," I agreed wryly. The years had not spared him either, I saw. In his early forties now, his dark curly hair was still thick, and only lightly touched with grey; but his smile deepened the lines around his eyes. He got married several years after I met him, and now had two children. I remembered the mornings after his first was born: he'd come to my office haggard and sleepless, begging to know what to do about colic, croup, fussiness, teething pain, and the other joys of parenthood. I don't know that my advice was particularly useful; but he'd really been seeking sympathy and reassurance, and those I could provide.
Abruptly he sobered. "Commander," he said quietly, "I've never mentioned it--but I want you to know how much I've enjoyed working with you all these years. I had a bad break, I know, because of my psych report, and the Survey could have dumped me somewhere and forgotten about me. But I've never felt that was the case. I don't think I could have asked for a better CO."
At that instant, gazing into his earnest eyes, my foul mood broke, swept away by a wave of shame. I have no right to be feeling sorry for myself, I realized suddenly. All those things I'd craved--adventure, space, new worlds--I'd had in plenty during my years aboard Zelazny. But Peter hadn't. His experience with new worlds was entirely vicarious--and yet he had never complained. More important, he'd remained loyal. Over the years he'd been offered teaching positions at the Academy, administrative jobs at HQ many things. Even the chance to re-evaluate his psych report. But he'd refused them all. He'd spent the last fourteen years as a lieutenant commander, apparently content to remain in my shadow. And that's why I had no right to bitch. I had to accept this promotion, for his sake: so he could take the step up he so richly deserved.
I gave him a genuine smile, nothing like the wan grin I'd affected a moment before. "I know I couldn't have asked for a better Exec," I told him. "Your work--and your friendship--have been more valuable to me than I can possibly express."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said. "I appreciate that." He hesitated, and opened his mouth to go on; then shook his head and turned away. I already knew what was on his mind, though: his own promotion. He wanted it, I knew: though loyal, he wasn't entirely without ambition. I'd seen it in his eyes, ever since my impending promotion was announced. Even now he was dying to ask, but uncertain whether he dared.
I hesitated. To tell him that his promotion was in the bag, that the order was sitting, signed and approved, on Sanchez's desk, would be a breach of protocol, and could land me in trouble. Nobody said anything about hints, though. "By the way," I said casually, "the other day Admiral Sanchez and I were discussing your service record. He's extremely pleased with your performance. I have a feeling he'll want to discuss that with you personally--very soon."
Peter was nothing if not quick. His face lit up with an enormous beaming smile; then, with an effort, he composed himself. "I'm pleased to hear that, Commander," he said, almost comically serious. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I replied dryly. I could still be in hot water if Sanchez found out; but I could trust Peter. He'd keep his mouth shut--and more importantly, he'd act appropriately surprised when the admiral called us to the Presidio tomorrow morning.
He glanced at my desk then; none of the data cards had yet made it to the "out" basket. "Is there anything I can help you with, Commander?" he asked.
"Actually, Peter," I told him, "I think you already have."
The Abrams family was not in fact late that evening--but not through lack of trying.
We were due at the Officers Club at seven, for drinks and mingling before the seven-thirty ceremony; and it was ten minutes past six when the twins arrived home, blasting in the back door as if through a hypertunnel. They were exhausted, overheated, dehydrated, disheveled, covered head to tail with dust and glowingly happy. That, however, endured only until their father's eye fell upon them. Truly, I think the ceremony meant more to him than me; twenty-plus years after his resignation, he still made a fuss over Combined Forces functions. He and I were already dressed, and Joel had taken to pacing the living room and muttering, promising dire consequences if the twins made us late--none of which he had any real intention of applying. He was up to a three-month grounding and confiscation of their threevee sets by the time they arrived, and they received the full force of his wrath in one smoking glance that sent them scurrying upstairs, their tails bristling. Youth is resilient, though, and twenty minutes later they reappeared, clean, brushed and properly dressed.
Joel had sat down beside me (after I'd lovingly threatened to claw him, if he didn't stop pacing) and lapsed into a grim silence, a scowl creasing his forehead as he studied his wrist chrono. When we heard the soft rustle of cloth we looked up; and Joel's frown vanished instantly, replaced by a look of astonishment. I knew exactly how he felt. It wasn't simply the sudden transformation from bedraggled backpackers to young sophisticates, though that was startling; no, it was something more fundamental.
Ehm'rael had entered first, a few steps ahead of her brother, and stood in the doorway with her hands clasped before her and a shy smile on her face. There comes a time--so I've found--when a female, be she Sah'aaran or human, leaves behind the awkwardness of childhood and blossoms into womanhood. To my utter surprise, I suddenly realized my daughter had achieved that transformation. I wondered exactly when it had happened: she rarely stood still long enough for me to notice.
She wore a full-length evening robe, in soft, shimmering blue, purchased for just this event. It had an open neck and long, loose sleeves, and was belted with a wide sash of the same material, a shade darker. The studs in her ear were now sapphires, and her collar and the matching ornament holding back her mane were gleaming silver. I recognized those two baubles immediately: they'd been sent to Rae a few weeks ago by her namesake on Sah'aar, as a birthday present. The sight of them brought back memories; alas, not all of them were pleasant.
"Well," she said softly into the lengthening silence, "how do I look?"
Joel rose, like a puppet pulled upright by invisible strings, and took her hands. "Honey," he said, quietly and earnestly, "you look absolutely gorgeous."
She did. Thus far in her young life, she had spent little time in the company of other Sah'aarans. When finally she did, when she found herself among a group of unbonded males she would definitely be the center of attention. In short, she looked stunning.
"Hey," Tom said in mock protest, "what about me?"
Gazing at him sidelong, Joel grinned. "You don't look gorgeous," he said dryly. "But you look pretty good."
He did, too, I had to admit; but still, his outfit was sure to raise a few furry eyebrows tonight. My son, an unfailing source of pride and satisfaction, also had it in him to be utterly exasperating. On the subject of clothing he was impossible: he adamantly refused to dress like a Sah'aaran. He would not wear a day-robe or an evening robe, even the more severe male versions; and worse, he hated collars. That evening he had chosen to emulate his father: black slacks and a matching jacket, over a gleaming white shirt with a pleated front. The transition from boy to man is more subtle (the physical transition, that is: emotionally they never change.) But clearly, Tom had turned that corner too: his shaggy orange "sideburns" were more than halfway to their eventual rendezvous below his chin. Yes, he looked good, his fur and mane neat, his clothing spotless and wrinkle-free; but still, I had my doubts. Among humans his outfit would go unnoticed--but there would be other Sah'aarans present, and while they might choose to ignore his clothes, they could not fail to notice his shamelessly bare neck. There was little I could do, short of pinning him down and locking a collar on him--and he was bigger than me. I'd simply have to look the other way. Though had I known how soon his dislike for collars would catch up with him, I would have stopped worrying.
And me? My daughter would outshine me that evening, not that I grudged her the opportunity. My couture consisted of a full-dress Survey uniform, a grey jumpsuit somewhat heavier than the duty version, and a short dark-grey jacket, on the breast of which were pinned my hard-won medals and rank stars. Not my first choice for a night out--but duty called.
I stepped up to the mirror above the fireplace, for a last-minute check of my mane--and as I did, my fingers brushed across the five stars pinned to my jacket. For nineteen years their number had remained unchanged, and I'd grown comfortable with that. Commander is a good rank, the perfect combination of authority and plausible deniability. But now, all of a sudden, I found my long-dormant sense of ambition beginning to kick in. If the Admirals would do this then anything was possible. After tonight I would be the highest-ranking Sah'aaran in active CF service, a fact duly noted by the local press. And I might not retire for another twenty years. Dare I even think it? "Admiral Ehm'ayla?"
"All right," Joel said briskly, breaking into my thoughts. "Now that we're all finally ready--?"
He offered Rae his arm, and the tip of her nose reddened as she took it. A little less suavely (thirty years less practice) Tom offered me his; and the Abrams family departed in style. Too bad it was only a CF hover-skim waiting for us, not a golden coach.
The place was crowded--and I hate crowds.
The Monterey Presidio (home of the famous Language Institute, developer of the Centaurii/Terran translator) occupies a rolling hill in the southwestern section of the city. Many of its buildings date back to the 20th Century, and the Officers Club is one. On a clear day, its large north-facing windows command a breathtaking view of the Bay and the mountains beyond; even on an overcast evening, to sit and watch the thousands of lights wink on one by one is worth the trip. Over the years I'd known many officers who spent long hours in the Club, or more specifically at the bar; I was not one of them. Partly because of my physical intolerance for alcohol; but mostly because of my psychological intolerance for drunks, blowhards and gadflies, which grows more intense as time goes by.
We had an impressive range of guests, I saw as the chill wind swept us in; an equal mix of Combined Forces dress uniforms and civilian finery. Prominent among them--in many senses of the word--was our host (and my CO), Admiral Emilio Sanchez. He was in charge of CF operations for the entire Peninsula, but he had a definite laissez-faire approach to the Research Center, and usually allowed us to mind our own affairs. A Navy man, he habitually kept his distance from scientists, often pronouncing them "moody" and "unfathomable"--opinions I could take personally, if I cared to. Now in his mid-sixties, over the years he had grown more and more rotund, his ink-black hair and thick mustache fading to grey. He bounced around the Club in a dark-green dress uniform that was straining at the mag-seals, beaming his avuncular smile at everyone who crossed his path. The Presidio was lucky to have him: he was a good administrator, an excellent judge of talent. But I wouldn't have cared to be under his command in the heat of battle. Beside him was his quiet, nondescript wife, Maria.
Although Sanchez could fill a room all by himself, his was by no means the only familiar presence. Looking around the crowded hall, I couldn't decide whether to be grateful that so many of my friends and colleagues had shown up, or grieved that so many others had not. Could not, in most cases; not on such short notice. I'd received apologies and congratulations from most; but still, every absence was a hole in my heart--some bigger than others.
My staff was there, of course, both CF and civilian. My gaze lit first on Peter Kinsey, who smiled and lifted a glass to me from the bar. Also present were many of our Pacific Grove neighbors, and some of Joel's business associates. Even our old housekeeper and nanny Mrs. Mason was in attendance, looking good at seventy-two. She'd retired a few years ago; these days her granddaughter came in to clean twice a week. At first glance, my roving eye found only one other Sah'aaran: Dr. Ehm'maas from San Francisco, the twins' pediatrician. She radiated enormous dignity in a simple, elegant peach-colored evening robe.
The guests were mingling, under the supervision of Admiral Sanchez; the bar was manned, and doing brisk business; and there were tables loaded with canapés and snacks scattered throughout the room. With a soft babble of conversation surrounding me like the rush of the surf, I made my way slowly across the room, pausing along the way to snag a glass of fruit juice. Acknowledging greetings from all sides, I found and donned a happy smile.
Joel went with me, hanging onto my arm; but the twins had already scattered. I was pleased to see that they were enjoying themselves. Rae was deep in conversation with Peter, an honorary uncle. Judging from my Exec's startled look, he too had noticed her sudden transformation. Tom, typically, was busy filling a plate at the buffet; specifically, at the table laid out for carnivores. Neither of my kits had had dinner, I realized with a rush of shame; unless they'd stopped somewhere on their way home. If not well, it was their own fault, and they certainly wouldn't starve to death here. For once, my parental guilt could take a hike.
I had almost worked my way over to Dr. Ehm'maas when all conversation suddenly stilled. I turned quickly, to see several dozen people stop and stare, glasses and snacks halfway to their lips, conversations and companions temporarily forgotten, at the pair who had just entered. I couldn't blame them--because I was gaping too.
It was not the first arrival who caused the fuss--though he was impressive enough. I had never met him, but I'd seen the RSVP list: he was the new junior ambassador from Sah'aar. About ten years younger than me, he was unusually tall for a Sah'aaran and incredibly good-looking. He cut an elegant figure in a black evening robe with silver trim, a black-and-silver collar encircling his neck. Gazing at him, I experienced a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, one I'd thought myself well past. For an instant, I almost regretted being happily married and fully bonded.
But I was (as was he), and so my gaze lingered on him for only a few seconds before shifting to his companion. The instant I laid eyes on her, I realized my good fortune: I was seeing in person what I'd previously only seen on threevee, and what few people will ever actually encounter: a blackfur.
I'd better explain that. An extremely small number of Sah'aarans--fewer than one in six million--carry a mutation which makes every hair on their bodies jet-black. It affects males slightly more often than females, and is never seen in both siblings of a pair of twins. The cause is elusive, but the effect--gleaming white teeth and glowing emerald eyes shining forth from a sea of inscrutable black--must be seen to be appreciated. The word "striking" doesn't even come close. We--other Sah'aarans--find blackfurs extremely attractive, and even humans are usually impressed. In an earlier era, blackfurs were respected, even a little feared: they would have been wizards, prophets, advisors to Matriarchs. In our equivalent of the 20th Century, film and video stars. Even in our advanced age, they are much sought after. I myself felt a twinge of regret when I learned that my kits were not so fortunate.
Beside me Joel whispered, "Wow!"--and I had to agree: wow was the word for it.
This particular specimen appeared to be about sixteen, and--like my daughter--had already gained the poise and confidence of an adult. Probably she'd had little choice. Her cap-sleeved evening robe and collar were glimmering gold; her mane was tied back with a large bow of the same color. If she was aware of the open-mouthed stares that followed her as she swept in on the ambassador's heels, she gave no sign. No doubt she was used to it.
Joel nudged me and murmured, "Hadn't we better introduce ourselves, dear?"
I shook myself free of my trance, and nodded. Glancing around quickly, I rounded up the rest of the family, and together we advanced toward the pair. The male bowed low. He was still a stranger to me, so I couldn't greet him with the traditional clasping of hands; instead, a trifle more awkwardly, I emulated his bow. "I am Commander Ehm'ayla," I said. For another half-hour, anyway. "We are honored by your presence."
His voice was among the deepest I'd ever heard from a Sah'aaran throat, and his Terran was precise, exactly what you'd expect from a diplomat. "The honor is ours," he said. "I am Ambassador Sah'churaaf." He drew the blackfur close with an arm around her shoulders. "May I present my daughter, Ehm'tassaa."
"I am honored," the girl said, bowing gracefully. Her voice was a lovely low purr, and her Terran was good too, if a bit stilted; obviously she hadn't had much practice.
"Allow me to introduce my family," I said in turn. "My husband, Joel Abrams; our daughter, Ehm'rael Sarah, and our son, Thomas Sah'surraa."
Sah'churaaf took it in stride, even to the extent of shaking Joel's hand in the Terran fashion. No doubt he'd been briefed about us, the only human/Sah'aaran mated couple in history. And for his part, Joel was gallant enough--and brave enough--to bow and kiss Ehm'tassaa's furry hand, just as an admiral had once kissed mine. She'd been briefed too, or was a good actress: she accepted the unfamiliar gesture with good grace and without alarm.
The twins were another matter. Rae bowed politely, but as she gazed upon Ehm'tassaa her lips curled in a snarl, and I groaned inwardly. Envy: something my daughter had probably never felt before. I couldn't blame her, though, because I felt a touch of it myself. Had there been more than one young male Sah'aaran in attendance, they would have clustered around the blackfur like moonwings to a lantern, leaving Rae high and dry.
And Tom? My beloved son stood gaping as if he'd seen a vision, his mouth hanging open like the catch of the day down at the wharf. His sister had to elbow him hard in the ribs before he could find the wit to acknowledge Ehm'tassaa's greeting. Poor Tom; he was much more at home on the baseball diamond. His bow was clumsy, his words awkward and stammering. Worse: as Ehm'tassaa took in his human-style clothes and bare neck she raised her hand to her mouth, stifling a sudden giggle. Tom wilted like a rose under a blowtorch, his nose and ears reddened, and he swiftly and impolitely retreated. My heart went with him. He was outgoing, gregarious, popular; to be written off as merely ridiculous, especially by someone so beautiful, was more than he could endure. An open snub might have been preferable. Joel, scowling, turned to go after him; but I caught his eye and shook my head. Anything he or I could have said would only have made Tom feel worse, more awkward. He'd have to suffer in solitude. Well, I'd warned him
"The senior ambassador sends his regrets," Sah'churaaf was saying, neatly covering my son's faux pas. A born diplomat, all right. "A late session of the Security Council required his attention."
"The Chrysaoan negotiations?" I guessed blandly. Even out here in the wilderness, I had my sources.
Sah'churaaf glanced around quickly, as if seeking spies. "As it happens, yes," he confirmed, almost in a whisper. "Though perhaps we should not speak of it "
I nodded. "As you say."
"He asked me to express his admiration for you," Sah'churaaf went on, "and the pleasure this event brings to all of us at the Embassy. You have done Sah'aar and your family--" he paused. "Both your families--much honor."
He spoke with no trace of irony, and I wondered briefly just how thoroughly he had been briefed. To many people on Sah'aar my name was still anathema, even now. I bowed. "Thank you, Ambassador," I said. "I am gratified you were able to attend. This event has occurred on such short notice, my parents and many of my friends were unable to come."
"Unfortunate indeed," Sah'churaaf said. He slipped his arm lovingly around Ehm'tassaa's waist. "My mate and son are still on Sah'aar; it may be weeks before they can join us here. The separation has been uncomfortable for all of us."
"I can well imagine." My gaze shifted. "We are especially honored by the presence of your charming daughter. If you'll forgive me saying so, meeting her has been a unique experience."
"Thank you, Commander," the girl said, flashing her incredible smile. "Though I have to say, it's not always easy being a unique experience."
Rae growled audibly, and I shot her a warning glance. Ehm'tassaa was a pleasant young woman, and had no control over the genetic cards she'd been dealt. It would have been melodramatic for her to plead, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful!"--but in a way, that's exactly how it was. She had no doubt attended dozens--hundreds--of similar functions, and she must have long since grown weary of being the center of attention. Someday Ehm'rael would find out how that felt.
We were interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Ehm'maas, who glided up with a broad smile on her face. She put aside her glass to clasp Sah'churaaf's hands in the traditional fashion, proving that she'd met him before. "Good evening, Ambassador," she said. She brushed the blackfur's cheek. "And you, Ehm'tassaa."
"Good evening, Doctor," Sah'churaaf said. "It is pleasant to see you again." He turned to me. "Since our arrival on Terra, my daughter has been fortunate enough to be under Ehm'maas' care."
"So have our kits, since they were born," I said.
"A pleasure, in both cases," Ehm'maas said. "Though Ehm'tassaa has been a bit more of a challenge. She suffers from a number of allergies "
"Not uncommon for Sah'aarans on Terra," I agreed.
"More inconvenient than dangerous," the doctor said. "But quite uncomfortable. Preparing the appropriate serums proved interesting."
Ehm'tassaa looked away, her tail twitching in embarrassment. Curiously, the exchange had caught Tom's attention, as he hovered miserably in the background, and he gazed at her with interest, his humiliated scowl fading. Anyone with allergies must be mortal--and therefore approachable.
Admiral Sanchez stepped to the center of the room, tapping a spoon against a glass for attention. "If you'll all please take your seats, it's time for the ceremony!"
It took a few minutes for everyone to sort themselves out, herded this way and that by Sanchez. On the far side of the room, a wide semicircle of chairs had been assembled around a raised, spotlit podium. Joel, the kits and I found ourselves in the front row, with the ambassador and his daughter to my right. Peter Kinsey and Dr. Ehm'maas sat to Joel's left. My husband had a big silly grin plastered across his face, and even the twins were looking comically pleased. And me--? With the moment fast approaching I found myself growing more and more nervous; my heart was hammering, my tail lashing, my claws half-expressed. As Sanchez stepped up onto the platform amidst a smattering of applause, I took several deep breaths, frantically willing myself to be calm. My claws vanished, but my tail continued to writhe.
The admiral turned a slow circle, machine-gunning the crowd with his smile. Then he cleared his throat and began to speak. "We are gathered here to honor a distinguished career," he said. "In her thirty-three years with the Combined Forces, Commander Ehm'ayla has proved herself time and again the consummate officer. She has seen duty aboard the most respected ship in the Survey, ESV Zelazny, under the legendary Captain Isaac Haliday; and here, at our own Planetary Research Center, she has worked tirelessly to expand our knowledge of this galaxy's life and civilizations. She has gathered many commendations; not less than four times she has been decorated for courage. Those honors include the Alliance Order of Valor, the most prestigious award any CF officer may receive, in recognition of the many civilian lives saved by her and the officers under her command during the terrible floods that threatened to consume Monterey twelve years ago.
"She has also made herself one of the most valued citizens of the Monterey Peninsula. She is well-loved by the Pacific Grove School District--" A small ripple of laughter went through the audience, at least those who appreciated the joke. My relationship with that body had been (so far) a twelve-year running battle; they had no idea how to handle Sah'aaran kits. "--and is well known by all. There is no one here whose life has not been touched by Commander Ehm'ayla; no one who has not benefited from knowing her. And so it is fitting that we gather to celebrate her accomplishments. Commander, will you please step forward?"
Every eye in the place, from Joel's to the bartender's, turned to me, and I suddenly felt less than a centimeter tall. Slowly, with no awareness that my feet were touching the floor, I rose and ascended the platform. I kept my gaze rigidly forward, fixed on Sanchez; otherwise I would have fled screaming from all those staring faces. Why, oh why, couldn't this have been a quiet little non-event, like all my previous promotions? My luck to have a CO with a flair for the dramatic
I drew myself rigidly to attention, but my tail was lashing like a flag in a gale, and the admiral smiled and winked. He went on, "Commander Ehm'ayla, in accordance with the orders of the Combined Forces Admiralty, it gives me great pleasure to bestow upon you the rank of Commodore, and all the rights, duties and privileges thus obtaining."
With that he fastened a pair of bright, shiny new stars to the breast of my jacket, joining them in a seven-pointed burst to the ones already there. He stepped back and saluted. "Congratulations, Commodore."
And that was it. I have no memory of my speech, save that it was short. Trite, predictable words of thanks, I suppose. But my heart was swelling with pride, until I feared it would burst through my sternum. In that one moment, I had accomplished what few before me had: taken a quantum leap over the heads of every commander and captain in the CF. A sinecure, perhaps; the first step on the road to retirement--but the authority was real, and considerable.
My ordeal wasn't finished yet; not quite. With the ceremony over, my speech delivered, and the drinks and snacks flowing freely again, I was obliged to station myself at the head of the room and acknowledge the well-wishers who gathered before me, like the line that used to form at Lenin's tomb. I shook hands until my right paw was sore, and I had to keep glancing down to make sure my claws hadn't expressed. For me, a journey through the Dark Domains; give me a swamp full of huge reptiles anytime, or sixty-three days alone on a hot and hostile planet. By the time the line finally petered out I was a nervous wreck, fighting hard to control my panting.
Finally, though, it did end, and I was free to leave my station and mingle; to lose myself in the crowd. I helped myself to another glass of juice, and with the sudden realization that I was ravenously hungry, I drifted over to the snack tables, feeling my jacket pocket to make sure I'd remembered my roll of antacid tablets.
In the forty years that Joel and I had known each other, he had come to understand me quite well, most especially my moods. He knew when to stick close, and when to give me space. This was definitely one of the latter occasions. I filled a plate hurriedly, and retreated into a corner, where I more or less collapsed into a handy chair, taking a load off my poor aching feet. The caviar was fake, of course, an autokitchen re-creation--but not bad. The applewood smoked salmon, though, was real, and delicious. For a few moments I gave myself entirely to the pleasure of filling my stomach. Then I glanced around.
My husband stood in the center of the room, nursing a scotch and soda, speaking earnestly to Ambassador Sah'churaaf. Comparing notes, perhaps: they were the only ones in the room who knew what it was like to be mated to a Sah'aaran. They were unlikely to be discussing the Chrysaoans--though the ambassador might have been surprised to learn that Joel, because of his engineering contracts with the CF, had a security clearance almost as high as his own. Mine of course had just taken a quantum leap--how high, I wasn't yet sure.
In the opposite corner, Rae was deep in conversation with Ensign McPhee, the most junior member of my staff, and he was gazing at her with more than casual interest. Seeing that--and the warmth of her answering smile--I heard myself growl. I don't object to the idea of inter-species relationships; obviously not. But she was my daughter, she was still in high school, and he was more than eight years her senior. Doubtless, though, I was worrying needlessly; flirting is as ancient (and harmless) a custom on Sah'aar as it is on Terra. Nor could I live her life for her. And that was why I deliberately turned aside, instead of giving in to my first impulse--which was to quick-frost McPhee with my best superior-officer glare.
And finally, rounding out the family tree, on the other side of the room Tom had managed to corner Ehm'tassaa. I chuckled. Nature versus nurture: Tom was not genetically related to Joel, but all the same, had picked up an astonishing number of his adoptive father's traits and habits. His tenacity, for one--obviously. Nor was that all: I heard their laughter, and realized that Tom had also called upon Joel's quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor. I could never get away with it, wouldn't even try; but Joel had long ago taught me that acting the clown, just a little, can sometimes make you more headway than maintaining your dignity at all costs. Whether it would do Tom any good I didn't know; probably that young blackfur had more males interested in her than she knew what to do with. But here again, there was little I could--or should--do.
I sat for some minutes, enjoying the solitude, polishing off my plate of canapés. Then Joel broke off his conversation with the ambassador and strolled over, pausing briefly at he bar for a refill. How he knew that my need for company had reasserted itself, I don't know--but was right.
Bending low to wrap his arm around my shoulders, he kissed my cheek. "How are you doing, Commodore?"
"I'm all right, I suppose," I replied. "It really doesn't feel much different from being a commander, though."
"Give it time," he said. "Wait till the next time you're in a room full of captains. Then it'll feel different."
"No doubt," I said. Contemplating that, I smiled and shook my head. In our CF careers (his sadly truncated) both Joel and I had caught hell from our respective captains; now, finally, I was in a position to give some back.
He glanced around. "Seems to have gone off quite well," he commented. "Everyone's having a good time "
True enough--and that was a minor miracle. Given the varying backgrounds--even species--of our guests, one might have expected Babel, if not Bedlam. But we seemed to have achieved something a good deal more harmonious. Admiral Sanchez's influence, no doubt: he was still busy riding herd over the throng. "Including our kits," I observed wryly.
Joel glanced around, quickly locating Tom and Rae. He smiled. "Can't stop 'em from growing up," he said wistfully. He nodded at Tom and Ehm'tassaa, still deep in conversation. "They seem to be getting along well."
"Right now, yes," I agreed. "Though I don't know if we should be encouraging it. He isn't exactly in her league."
"Nonsense," Joel said firmly. "So she's the daughter of the junior ambassador. The Abrams have been among the leading families of Atherton for over a century. And your father is one of--what?--the five wealthiest men on Sah'aar. Some might say Tom is slumming."
I had to chuckle at the image that formed in my mind. Ehm'tassaa had grown up in the embassy, the drawing room. If Tom did manage to cultivate a friendship with her, would she participate in his favorite activities? I tried to picture her--a beautiful, elegant blackfur--on the baseball diamond, on the golf course, or trudging up a dusty trail with a pack on her back and failed. She would be as lost in those places as Tom would be at a formal embassy dinner. But stranger things do happen: a Sah'aaran mating with a human, for example. Though in that case Fate had a little help
I was shaken free from my amused reflection by a flurry of motion at the rear of the hall. I glanced up quickly. A Navy enlisted man--a Centaurii--had entered, and stopped just inside, looking bewildered and uncomfortable. He had no business being there, not without at least one star on his breast, and was evidently very aware that he'd invaded a forbidden zone. He was rescued by the ever-present Peter Kinsey. The two of them spoke a few quiet words; then the enlisted man gratefully retreated. Peter turned and threaded his way through the crowd. I expected him to make his way over to Sanchez, and the admiral to leave the party to deal with some minor crisis. But to my surprise, Peter crossed directly over to me. He'd visited the bar several times that evening, and was a little unsteady on his legs as he bent down to speak into my ear. "Commodore?"
For a second I savored the sound of that word. It amused me to note that he spoke it with no hesitation, as if he'd been uttering it for years. "What is it, Peter?" I asked, with a touch of impatience.
"I'm sorry to disturb you and Mr. Abrams, ma'am," he said. "But the Comm Center just received a hyperzap addressed to you."
I sighed. "So have them route it to my inbox--" I began, but he shook his head.
"It's labeled 'Urgent,'" he said. "It's from your friend Admiral Ehm'rael, on Sah'aar "
Across the room my daughter's head turned sharply; evidently she thought she was being addressed. My own hearing wasn't quite that acute any more. But that wasn't topmost on my mind. I rose, setting aside my plate and glass. "I'll take it," I said.
"There's a terminal in the foyer, Commodore," Peter said. "We can have the Comm Center route it there."
"Thank you," I said. "Please do."
He hurried off, and I reached up to brush Joel's cheek. "This shouldn't take long," I said. "She's probably just sent her congratulations " But why marked "Urgent"?
Joel frowned. "I hope so."
As quickly as decorum allowed, I made my way through the crowd and into the blessed silence and cool dimness of the foyer. And as I did, a strange and inexplicable feeling of alarm began to grow within me. My old mentor had known about the ceremony tonight--of course she had--and she'd regretted not being able to attend. But to interrupt the festivities like this wasn't her style. She would have routed her message directly to my office, or to our home, where I could take it at my leisure. No: something was wrong. And knowing her, very wrong.
The video was terrible.
That's only to be expected, given the distance between Sah'aar and Terra, and the number of hypertunnels and relay satellites the message had traversed. But as I sat down before the screen and touched the "Play" button, the jagged, rolling lines and flashes of static that greeted my eyes did nothing to improve my mood. My skills as a Compcomm were twenty-three years out of date, but I found my hands falling immediately to the keyboard, keying the enhancement algorithms I'd once known so well. The screen cleared, a little, enough for me to recognize my lifelong friend.
She was seated in a pleasant, sunlit room, which I immediately recognized as the solarium of her Sah'salaan home. Long retired from the Engineering Corps, she wore civilian dress, a simple brown day-robe and a matching collar. At eighty-two Terran Standard, her mane and fur were snow-white, but her eyes were as shrewd and piercing as ever. Behind her, silent and attentive, stood her mate Sah'majha, his copper-red Chrysaoan prosthetic hand resting on her shoulder.
As I watched, she smiled and began to speak. Her voice was a bit less steady than once it had been, a little less forceful; but there was still a ring of steel in it. If indeed I did know how to be a commodore, it was because of her.
"Greetings, my child," she said in Sah'aaran. At that moment I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I knew that Joel had joined me at the terminal. The twins were there too, standing behind their father, and I didn't try to shoo them away. They stood listening, and Rae whispered a running translation into her father's ear.
"Please forgive this intrusion into your celebration. Of course I offer my sincere congratulations; it was my intention to do so at length--but at a more convenient time."
The recording was getting bad again, her image breaking up, and I tapped more keys.
She went on, "I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I believed you would wish to hear immediately; and I feared no one else would think to tell you. I did not wish for you to see it in the news broadcasts."
She was reluctant, I saw, nerving herself to get to the point; and my feeling of alarm grew. Goddess! I thought. Surely not a death or illness in my own family; they would have called to tell me that, not her. She herself seemed healthy, and her mate stood in plain sight behind her. What, then?
"It involves Dr. Sah'larrah," she went on. At the mention of that name I gasped, and Joel's hand tightened on my shoulder. I didn't dare look at the twins; my face would have betrayed me. Tom and Rae didn't know--would hopefully never know--that Sah'larrah was their biological father; that he, rather than some anonymous donor, had provided the seed that gave them life.
"There has been an
incident at one of his archaeological
sites," she said. "A serious one, I fear. He and one
of his students are missing--and presumed dead."