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

CHAPTER TWO


I was tired, very--but that difficult day wasn't over yet.

We met in Sanchez's office in the Admin Building, up the path from the Officers Club. Not right away, of course. The party was still going strong, and we had to deal with the guests, see that they were properly fed and watered, and eventually get them headed home safely. I left those tasks almost entirely to Joel and our kits. Discourteous of me, I know, and tongues would soon be wagging; but my mind was as turbulent as the Bay in January. I could not have forced myself to be jolly.

And so--well after twenty-three hundred, past my bedtime as well as the twins'--the seven of us crowded into that small office. Apart from Sanchez himself, seated behind his desk with his chair leaning dangerously back, there was also Joel, Ambassador Sah'churaaf, Ehm'tassaa, Tom and Rae. The latter two were drooping in their seats; they'd also had a long day. Only Ehm'tassaa's presence beside him was keeping Tom awake, I suspect; and I couldn't help noticing her hand resting atop his, there on the arm of his chair. He and I needed to talk--but that conversation would have to wait.

"Admiral Ehm'rael could only give me the bare details," I said heavily. "I found out more from the Sah'aaran Interplanetary News."

I paused and took a deep breath. Though I might have wished she'd waited, my old friend's decision to hyperzap me immediately wasn't difficult to understand. Others on Sah'aar--my family and friends there--knew of my fondness for Sah'larrah, and our brief and fruitless affair more than twenty years ago; but only Admiral Ehm'rael knew of his relationship to my kits. Typically, she'd reasoned it out, not long after they were born; but she'd kept the knowledge to herself.

Exhausted and upset, I'd instinctively sought Joel's hand, grasping it tightly. He allowed that, of course, but strangely, when I smiled at him he turned away, a troubled look on his face. That wasn't good, but I didn't have time to dwell on it. I went on, "Dr. Sah'larrah and I are…old friends." Joel shot at glance at me, one I didn't dare meet. "He is--" my mind firmly rejected the past tense-- "Senior Professor of Archaeology at Sah'salaan University, where I took my undergrad degree."

"As did I," Sah'churaaf put in.

"His specialty is cities, ancient and modern," I continued. "For many years he's been studying the Undercity."

"The what, Commodore?" Sanchez broke in. He too spoke that word without stumbling.

"I suppose you'd call it a Utopian project, sir," I hastened to explain. "It was begun more than a hundred years ago, in response to Sah'aar's rising population. In those days our grazing land was being steadily lost to expanding cities. At the time it was a major crisis.

"A group of planners--the Sah'aaran word translates to 'Dreamers,' in the pejorative sense--decided that we ought to move our living spaces underground, and leave the surface to the maxigrazers. They were actually able to convince the Sah'sannran Confederacy to fund the building of a prototype buried city. That's one of the reasons the Confederacy eventually collapsed; but the Undercity was built, beneath the savanna about sixty kilometers west of Sah'salaan. It was occupied continually for almost twenty-five years."

"Completely underground?" Sanchez asked, intrigued.

"Yes, sir," I confirmed. "The place was quite large--almost the living space of Pacific Grove, for example. The lowest levels were more than five kilometers down. It had everything--housing, manufacturing, retail space, entertainment facilities. It was intended that the inmates--excuse me, 'citizens'--need never leave."

Sanchez nodded. "Very like the arcologies built here on Earth during the 21st Century."

"Somewhat, yes," I agreed. "With one important difference: if you were standing on the surface above the Undercity, you'd have no idea it was below you. It was built to have zero impact on the land, apart from the entry ports."

"So what happened?"

"It failed, of course," I said "The Dreamers had a sizable following at first. But the place was ruinously expensive to run, and the government couldn't keep funding them indefinitely. The Confederacy finally collapsed, replaced by the global government we have now--and they weren't in the mood to finance harebrained schemes."

"And," Sah'churaaf added quietly, "The Dreamers made the same mistake most other Utopian thinkers have, throughout history."

"Which is, Mr. Ambassador?" Sanchez asked.

"They believed they could change our nature, alter what evolution made us. Sah'aarans are not troglodytes, Admiral. No more than humans are. Apart from their own band of followers, the Dreamers failed to entice anyone to join them."

I nodded. "Just so," I said. "At any rate, once the funding dried up, the Undercity was no longer viable. The Dreamers abandoned it and scattered. The access ports were sealed, and the place was forgotten. Most Sah'aarans, even many Sah'salaanites, didn't even know it existed--until Sah'larrah began his work.

"He started more than thirty years ago, after a crew working on a new ground-shuttle line accidentally pierced one of the Undercity's upper maintenance tunnels. Sah'larrah persuaded the government to allow him permanent access. Since then, he and his students have made hundreds of trips down. I went myself many years ago, while taking his class on comparative city planning."

"What was it like?" the admiral asked.

"Unpleasant," I said. "Dark, damp, slimy, odorous. The service tunnels ran horizontally around the habitat section, carrying water, power and other utilities. Sah'larrah eventually managed to find his way from those ducts into the habitat proper, but it wasn't easy. There were many places where the ceiling or walls had collapsed, blocking the way. Turned the place into a real labyrinth. But it was an archaeological bonanza: when the Dreamers pulled out, they left everything behind.

"Apparently, about three weeks ago, Sah'larrah and some of his students began a major project. They wanted to find the control center, which they'd never before been able to reach. Some of the students were to maintain base camps, while Sah'larrah and his senior graduate students explored." I took a deep breath. I had only a limited quantity of vocal control left, and I had to ration it. "Sah'larrah had been warned that he was getting too old for that sort of thing, but he wouldn't listen. He never would.

"As I understand it, Sah'larrah and his number-one assistant entered the habitat section--and vanished. After they'd missed several check-ins, the support crew contacted the District Police, and together they searched for days--without success. Finally the police came to the obvious conclusion: Sah'larrah and his student must have fallen into an airshaft, or had a ceiling collapse on them. Officially, they've both been declared dead."

As I spoke those words a tremor crept into my voice, and I fought to suppress it. Joel's grip on my hand tightened. In reassurance, so I assumed; but when I acknowledged it with a smile, he turned away again, and my heart sank a little farther. To confront the reality of this hurt terribly, and not only because of what Sah'larrah and I once shared. Somewhere deep inside I still regretted that things had not turned out differently between us, all those years ago…and I hated myself for that, because such thoughts were disloyal to the man I loved with all my heart. Sah'aaran biology is a stern taskmaster, though, and only rarely--and with great hazard--can it be circumvented.

I found myself praying that the telepathy which sometimes seemed to operate between Joel and me was temporarily disabled. And the twins: hopefully Rae was too sleepy, and Tom too besotted, to notice my anguish. They knew of Sah'larrah; they'd heard me mention him over the years--but only as a friend and colleague. I'd always dreaded the day when they would finally meet him, because for Tom it would be like looking into a mirror. For their sake, I would have to hide my feelings.

Sanchez shifted uncomfortably. He said slowly, "I met Dr. Sah'larrah once, when he visited you at the Center. What was it, seventeen years ago? I know how much he meant to you, Commodore--" Actually he didn't, hopefully-- "and I know how important his work was. I'm sure the authorities on Sah'aar have done everything they can…"

I made myself nod. "I'm sure you're right, Admiral."

On the far wall, the admiral's antique brass clock suddenly began to chime midnight. Sah'churaaf rose. "If you will all please excuse me, it is late, and I had best take Ehm'tassaa home."

"Of course, Ambassador," Sanchez said, also rising. "Thank you again for coming--and for bringing your charming daughter."

"Our pleasure," Sah'churaaf smiled. He turned to me. "Allow me again to offer my congratulations, Commodore, and my condolences as well. Admiral Sanchez is quite correct: Dr. Sah'larrah made incalculable contributions to science. If he has indeed met his end, all Sah'aar will mourn. For you, Commodore, this evening seems to have both given and taken away."

Ain't that the truth, I thought bitterly. "Thank you for your concern, Ambassador."

He bowed. "I will of course keep myself apprised of the situation, and I will pass on to you anything that comes to my attention. If there is anything the Embassy can do to assist you, please do not hesitate to contact me." He smiled. "My staff would not dare reject a call from the highest-ranking Sah'aaran in the Combined Forces."

And with that he left, taking Ehm'tassaa with him; but not before Tom spoke a few earnest words into the blackfur's ear. Over her shoulder, she smiled and nodded. Seeing that, and the venomous look in Rae's eye, I sighed. Just when you think your life can't get any more complicated…

###

As we prepared for bed, I kept glancing at Joel, and he kept avoiding my eye. He'd been silent, his mouth set in a grim line, ever since we viewed Admiral Ehm'rael's hyperzap; and that was both uncharacteristic and deeply troubling. Already I felt torn in two, divided between my love and loyalty to Joel and my lingering affection for Sah'larrah. For Joel to pull away now only made it worse. I felt a confrontation coming on, a reopening of old wounds--and I didn't want to be the one to begin.

To be honest, Joel's silence was not difficult to interpret. His own feelings toward Sah'larrah had always been mixed, at best. My desire to ask my old friend for help in conceiving the twins, rather than relying on a cold and uncaring sperm bank, caused the first--and so far, only--serious rift in our marriage. He gave in eventually, and the results were undoubtedly good; but the incident left scars that never fully healed, and I mentioned Sah'larrah as seldom as possible. If he truly was dead…well, Joel wouldn't be happy; he wasn't that callous. But he might not be entirely sad either. In Joel's mind, Sah'larrah's demise would solidify his own claim to fatherhood, in a way that no legal agreement ever had. Though my dear husband would never have admitted to harboring such thoughts.

But when we settled into bed, and I'd reached up to turn off the light, Joel drew me close and kissed me. "By the way," he said, "I'm sorry."

I'd tensed, just a little, as his arms closed around my bare torso; now I relaxed. "What for?" I asked warily.

"It's just penetrated my thick skull," he said. "Ever since you played Ehm'rael's message, you've needed my support, and I haven't been giving it. I do know what he meant to you, darling, and I understand how hard this must have hit you. It's just…well, I'm sorry to admit it, but I've always been a little jealous of him." He laid his hand on my abdomen. "He was able to give you something I couldn't. I know it was more a business transaction than anything else, and all he did was make a…donation. It wasn't as if he cuckolded me. But still…"

I moved a little closer, and slipped my arms around him. My tail found his ankle and coiled tight. "I understand," I said. "And there are two things I can tell you, for whatever they're worth. The first is this: if the Goddess had intended Sah'larrah and I to be together, we would have bonded. But we didn't, and that was that. And second: sometimes I do regret asking him for his help. Or I should say 'almost,' because Tom and Rae would be different people if that half of their genes came from someone else--and I certainly wouldn't want that. But I do regret the pain I caused you. Maybe I'm wrong, but I've always suspected you gave in out of guilt--because of what happened on that ship."

Which, of course, was our code-phrase for the SV Raven; even twenty-two years later we didn't name it, nor openly discuss what occurred aboard that benighted hulk. We preferred to believe that it had happened to two different people with the same names.

Joel lay silent for a long moment, and I felt the tension in him. Finally he relaxed and said, "You may be right. I don't know any more--it's been too long. But I agree: I couldn't wish the twins to be any different than they are. I am sorry about Sah'larrah, darling. I know the situation looks bad, and I hope he'll be found alive. But if he isn't…well, for your sake, and the kits', I will try hard to put away my jealousy. Whatever I can do to help you through this, I will. Fair enough?"

I felt my heart melt, and I was reminded yet again why I'd chosen to manufacture a bonding with Joel Abrams. "Fair enough."

He kissed me again; and as for what happened then…well, let's just say we didn't go to sleep right away.

###

Peter Kinsey was pleased as Punch.

Despite the broad hints I'd dropped the previous morning (it seemed a century ago now), I don't think he really believed his long-coveted promotion was his; not at least until Admiral Sanchez, grinning delightedly, pinned the new star on his chest.

No one at the Research Center knew about Sah'larrah, nor knew that I had any reason to be anything but jubilant. I'd arrived that morning to find my office festooned with streamers, balloons and banners, all of them bearing the word "Congratulations!" or variations thereupon; and the new, freshly-engraved nameplate was already in place beside the door. And as I'd expected, resting on my desk along with day's workload was a summons, a request for Commodore Ehm'ayla and Lieutenant Commander Kinsey to present themselves at the Presidio at their earliest convenience.

The ceremony was small and quiet, the way I wished mine had been: just Sanchez, Kinsey and myself, alone in the admiral's office. When it was over, I hung back. "Go ahead, Peter," I told the brand-new full commander. "I'll see you back at the Center."

He gave me a quizzical look, and I reassured him with a quick smile. After he had departed, I turned to the admiral. "Do you have a moment, sir?" I asked diffidently.

"For you, always," he said, waving me back to the chair I'd just quitted. As I sat, I grimly battled a wave of nervousness that set my tail to waving and my fingertips to tingling. Outside the morning was sunny, with a mild breeze from the west; the Bay was mirror-smooth and seething with sailboats. A beautiful day, the kind Monterey is legendary for. How I wished I could have been elsewhere; in my kayak, perhaps, communing with the otters.

"What can I do for you, Ehm'ayla?" the admiral asked, when several seconds had elapsed.

I took a deep breath. I'd thought this through, in the wee small hours of the morning as I lay comfortable but sleepless in Joel's encircling arms, and he snored softly into my ear. I'd made my decisions, with the surety that only the middle of the night can provide; but now I found the words sticking in my throat. Finally I said, "Sir, I must go to Sah'aar."

"Why?" he asked, surprised.

"Dr. Sah'larrah," I told him simply. I had spoken to no one else about this--not yet. I'd lacked the nerve to discuss it with Joel; and after their late night, the twins had not yet been up when I left for work. I was hoping to broach the subject over dinner that night. I took a deep breath and continued. "I'm sure you were right, sir, when you said that the authorities on Sah'aar are doing all they can. But as far as I'm concerned, that isn't enough. It can't be. I have to be there, Admiral. I have to see for myself. And more importantly, I have to offer his family whatever help and support I can."

"Did Dr. Sah'larrah have a…mate?" Sanchez asked.

"No, sir," I said. "He didn't. For some reason, he never bonded--as unusual as that is. But he does have a sister, of course, and I'm told his mother is still alive. I can only imagine what they must be going through."

"I understand," Sanchez said. "And I certainly agree. Which leaves me with only one question."

"Which is, sir?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"Pardon?" I said, startled.

He leaned back and smiled, his chair creaking ominously, and nodded at the stars on my breast. "In case it hasn't sunk in, Commodore, you're now a Combined Forces flag officer. Promotions to that level are only granted to those who are trusted to act independently. If you wish to do this, it's your affair, not mine. You'll make arrangements for Commander Kinsey to handle your department while you're gone; I consider that a given."

A profound sense of liberation passed through me then; it was almost as if I was expanding, like those balloons Peter had damn well better be getting out of my office. For thirty-three years, authority had pressed down upon me like a cast-iron lid. I can't complain, because I'd chosen that life; but at times I had indeed felt oppressed, even stifled, by the constant need to defer to my superiors. As I'd climbed higher, the weight had lessened, and running my own show at the Center these last fourteen years, there were times when I could almost pretend it wasn't there. But of course it always was. I need only step out of line, however slightly, to prove that. But now, for the first time in my career, that lid seemed almost gossamer.

"Thank you, Admiral," I said finally. "I appreciate your support--always."

"My pleasure," he said. "I needn't mention that you've always amply repaid my trust. If you need assistance--in booking passage, perhaps--don't hesitate to call on me. I doubt you'll need to, though."

I hadn't thought that far ahead; but as I took my leave of the admiral and made my way down the path to the shuttle stop, I realized he was right. That could be the hardest part of the task I'd set myself: actually getting to Sah'aar, in time to do any good. I preferred not to place myself at the mercy of the commercial spacelines, nor the Sah'aaran diplomatic packet; their schedules could take me far out of my way. What, then? I had many friends, many connections; perhaps I could find a CF vessel passing near my homeworld, one whose captain could be talked--or intimated--into giving me a lift. There was also a new class of ship I'd recently heard of, a five-man "scout" with a nearly unlimited range. One step at a time… And the next step, unfortunately, was to break the news to my mate.

###

Joel was in his office, as usual, when I arrived home that afternoon. That small space just off the front hall had been built as a library, and when we moved in, the walls were lined with empty shelves, most of which became casualties of remodeling. These days the room was filled nearly to overflowing with Joel's massive old desk, his computer setup and plotting table--and his eight-hundred-liter saltwater aquarium, a fascinating swirl of color and motion which I could (and often did) watch for hours on end.

As I entered, drumming my claws on the open door, he looked up from his computer and smiled, just as he had every day for nineteen years. "Hello, darling," he said, as I bent low for a kiss. "Are you…feeling better now?"

"Yes," I said. I perched myself on the corner of his desk. "I think I am. Peter received his promotion this morning, and that took my mind off things."

"Glad to hear it," Joel said. "For both your sakes. Peter's been waiting far too long."

I nodded. "Yes, he has." Now? I asked myself. When it's just the two of us? No, I decided instantly. The twins deserve to be in on this too. Later. I reached up and lowered my jumpsuit's mag-seal a few centimeters. "Excuse me, dear," I said. "I've got to get out of this uniform."

"Before you get too comfortable," Joel said, "you ought to know: we have a guest."

I frowned. As I entered, I'd heard the noises echoing from our small indoor pool at the rear of the house: splashing and voices, sounds so common as to be unremarkable. I had, of course, assumed it to be Tom and Rae. "Who?" I asked.

He grinned and nodded. "See for yourself."

With a growl of impatience, I did. Our dining room had a clear view into the solarium, and I sidled up to the doorway, peering cautiously around the pillar. What I saw shocked me down to my tail--but in retrospect, it shouldn't have. There were indeed two teenage Sah'aarans out there. The one in the pool, treading water with arms and legs, was Tom; the other, sitting on the edge with her feet and the tip of her tail awash, was Ehm'tassaa.

The daughter of the junior ambassador was stunningly, spectacularly beautiful in a shiny-white, one-piece swimsuit and matching mesh collar, both of which looked brand new. She sat gripping the edge of the pool with fully-expressed claws, a look of abject terror on her face, as my son strove patiently to coax her into the water. She'd spent her life on Sah'aar, up until just a few weeks ago; and if she was anything like the majority of our people, the thought of swimming struck her as bizarre, even insane. Looking at her, I was instantly transported back some thirty-three years; once again I was the Officer's Academy cadet who had just learned that swimming would be part of the standard physical-fitness course--no exceptions. The sick horror I'd felt then was clearly reflected on that lovely black-furred face. I'd often been grateful that our house had a pool; that we could spare our kits the trouble I'd had, by introducing them to water at an early age. That they'd both turned into enthusiastic swimmers was a surprise. I made use of the pool myself, once in a while, having been cured of hydrophobia by my sojourn on Hellhole. Whether Tom would have much luck with Ehm'tassaa, though…

A hand gripped my shoulder, and I turned. "Surprise," Joel said, grinning.

We stepped back, out of sight: Tom would not have been pleased to find us spying on him. "When did she get here?" I demanded.

"Early this morning," he said. "Not long after you left. And no, I wasn't expecting her either. I had the surprise of my life when I answered the door and saw a black Sah'aaran looking at me."

"They must have arranged it last night," I mused. "Nice of Tom to let us know. What have they been up to?"

"Just about everything," Joel said. "He's taken her to the Aquarium, to lunch on Fisherman's Wharf, for a walk on Asilomar Beach, and shopping on the Alvarado Mall. They got back about half an hour ago. I imagine we'll have a dinner guest as well."

I sighed. Just when you think your life can't get any more complicated… Obviously the family discussion would have to be postponed. But that thought, irritating as it was, was driven from my head by another, far more serious. "Where's Rae?"

Joel's face fell. "Upstairs," he said. "In her room. she's been there most of the day--since Ehm'tassaa arrived. She did come down while they were out--but just long enough to grab some lunch. I don't know what's wrong. I tried to talk to her, but…"

Once again I sighed, in grief at the haplessness of the human male. Joel loved his daughter, doted on her…but didn't, couldn't, really understand her. Fortunately, I did--or at very least I understood what was troubling her now: a pain so old, so deeply buried within me, as to be almost forgotten. "I'll see what I can do," I told him. "In the meantime, you'd better break out the fillet mignon and the Xerxian red-sauce."

He grinned and saluted. "Aye-aye, Commodore."

###

Rae wasn't answering.

The twins' bedrooms lay side-by-side on the second floor, and were identical in size; but in decor they were worlds apart--literally.

I drummed my claws repeatedly on her door, but received no reply. I waited almost a minute, to be polite; then I tried the knob. It wasn't locked, and I opened the door a few centimeters and peered inside. "Ehm'rael?" I said softly.

Until their twelfth birthday, my kits shared a bedroom, and a bed--which is absolutely typical, even universal, for Sah'aaran twins. The other room, now Tom's, was their playroom. But with the onset of adolescence--and under the critical gaze of their human friends--they finally decided to separate. And in choosing their new decor, they went in very different directions. Tom opted for human-style: his furniture was light-grey molded polymer, very modern and nearly indestructible. His walls were white, and covered with holos of baseball players; and his room was, if not actually messy, at least artfully cluttered. Behind the door you'd find his bat and his first-baseman's glove, right next to his golf clubs and his backpack. His bed was seldom made, his desk was piled high, and his clothes were everywhere. Joel had long since cured me of nagging Tom to clean up; not that it had ever done any good.

Rae's room was very different. She opted for a Sah'aaran motif, and the furnishings were imported directly from our ancestral world. Expensive, true; but Joel could deny his daughter nothing. The furniture was of dark Tatak wood; the bed wide, soft and close to the floor. A large collar-tree occupied a corner of her dresser, next to the rack containing her collection of earrings. The floors were covered with woven-grass mats; the walls were muted green, and lined with framed holos. Her own work, seascapes and nature studies mostly, and quite good. Her bed was neatly made, her clothes put away, her desk tidy. Her tennis racquet, pitcher's glove and backpack were out of sight. She at least had inherited my dislike for disorder.

…But at any rate, she was not in the room, and I was about to seek her elsewhere when I noticed that the balcony door stood ajar. I crossed over and peered outside.

The second floor of our house was encircled by a wide balcony, to which all three bedrooms and my study had access. It was one of the features that first sold me on the place, almost sixteen years ago. Many were the evenings I spent there, watching the Bay slowly darken and the lights wink on; and even late at night, when insomnia caught up with me, I would sometimes wrap myself in a blanket and sit listening to the mutter of the surf and the whisper of the breeze. I grew up on the savanna, a thousand kilometers from any large body of water; that I had come to so love the ocean was indeed strange.

And yes, Rae was there. She sat cross-legged on a big square cushion, soaking up the afternoon sunshine, her tail flicking lazily around her toes. She held a palm-reader in her lap, and over it her stylus was flying, inscribing swift characters in Sah'aaran script. That was my daughter: when something troubled her, she wrote about it. Where she'd acquired that habit, I had no idea.

I cleared my throat. "Hi," I said; speaking Sah'aaran, but in the less formal "family" mode.

Startled, she glanced up, her tail bristling; but almost immediately her eyes dropped. "Oh--hi," she said glumly.

I stepped up beside her. "Care to talk about it?" I asked.

"About what?" she countered warily.

Had I sat down, I couldn't have risen without an undignified scramble. Instead I pulled over a molded-polymer deck chair and settled into it. There was no fog, and the sun was intense; I wished now I'd taken the time to change out of my uniform. Too late now. Rae looked considerably more comfortable in thin white shorts and a sleeveless mauve T-shirt. "About what's bothering you," I said.

"Nothing's bothering me," she said unconvincingly. "Really."

I nodded. "So that's why you've been up here all day--because nothing's bothering you."

She sighed, admitting defeat: she couldn't brush me off that easily. Setting aside the reader and stylus, she jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "I'm up here because she's down there."

At the moment there was just one other she present in the Abrams household, so I didn't bother to ask. "There's an old Sah'aaran saying," I commented. "'Two can hunt--but three spook the prey.'"

"Exactly," Rae said. She took a deep breath, and the words came tumbling out, a rush of explosive Sah'aaran syllables. "I can't help it, Mother," she said. "When I look at her I get so jealous…She's so beautiful, and I'm so…so…" she trailed off, indicating her body with a disdainful wave of her hand. I saw the black points of partially-expressed claws at her fingertips.

Inwardly I sighed. Jealousy was invading our home like a virus; only Tom and I seemed immune. Teenagers, I thought in despair. They're the same everywhere. "Listen," I said, quietly but forcefully, "I know what you're going through, honey, because I've been there myself. This was bound to happen eventually; the only question was who it would happen to first. Up until last night I'd have predicted that Tom would be on the receiving end, not you."

"I'm…not sure I understand."

"Ehm'tassaa is beautiful," I said. "No one can deny that. But so are you, my child. Never believe otherwise. The only difference is that she's…unusual. Unique, literally one in six million. Your beauty is none the less for being a matter of degree, rather than a radical departure. You would have no difficulty attracting young males--even if you and Ehm'tassaa walked into room full of them together. Because your beauty is approachable. Hers almost says 'hands off.'"

"Not to Tom," she said bitterly.

"No," I agreed. "Not to Tom." Goddess! I thought suddenly. Could it be--? Rae's words had set off an avalanche of thoughts, ones which would have occurred to me earlier but for Sah'larrah. Is it possible they're…? If so, then Tom was the most fortunate young man on two worlds--but it was far too early to know. Nor was it all that likely. Watch and wait.

Forcing my mind back to the subject at hand, I went on, "But I'm afraid that's not what this is really about, Rae. You're jealous of Ehm'tassaa--but not because she's beautiful."

"Why, then?"

"Because she's threatening to steal your brother."

"Pardon me?" she said; but from her startled expression I knew I'd come closer to the mark than even she would care to admit.

"Sah'aaran twins have a unique relationship," I explained. "They're connected, in a way no other siblings are. Take your human friends, for example. How well do they get along with their brothers and sisters?"

She grinned. "Not at all."

"Exactly," I said. "But you and your brother--?"

"We always do," she said. She grimaced. "Mostly. Our friends can't understand it…"

"As I said, you two are connected," I told her. "Sah'aaran twins always are, from birth. It's the same for your uncle Sah'sell and me--always has been."

Rae nodded. "I understand," she said. "But what does that--?"

"I'm coming to that," I promised. "It's a relationship with benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, your father and I enjoy blessed silence, instead of the nonstop fighting that goes on in your friends' homes. But on the other hand…well, let's just say there comes a point when evolution takes over. Suddenly you're not the most important person in your brother's life, and that hurts."

"It's awful," she confirmed. "I know I shouldn't feel this way. If he's happy, I should be happy too. But I'm not. All I feel is…betrayed."

"I know," I told her gently. "Believe me, I do. And it gets worse, I'm afraid. Or will eventually."

"How?"

"Someday he'll bond--and so will you."

She glanced up at me sharply. "You mean he and Ehm'tassaa--?"

I shook my head. "I don't know," I said honestly. "It is possible. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. But on the other hand, this could just be an infatuation. That happens too, at your age--more often than not, in fact. My brother had dozens of short flings before he bonded. And me…"

She nodded. "I know," she said quickly. She stared at the Bay for a moment, then shook her head. "I hope that's all it is."

From her point of view, I could almost agree; but from Tom's…I honestly wasn't sure. Once again I saw benefits and drawbacks, and I had too many things on my mind to sort it all out. Watch and wait.

"Bottom line," I said. I smiled. "As your father would say. I'm afraid your relationship with Tom will never be quite the same. But he isn't going to forget who you are. He will always be there for you--trust me. You'll just have to get used to sharing him."

"I hate that idea," she said forcefully.

"I know," I said. "Unfortunately, it's a force that can't be denied. You'll find out yourself, one of these days."

"I suppose," she mumbled.

"In the meantime," I said briskly, "why don't you see if you can make friends with her? She's a pleasant girl, and it's possible we'll be seeing quite a bit of her around here. Your brother hopes so, anyway. Making peace will be a lot more comfortable than making war. It will make Tom feel better too, when he recovers his senses and realizes he's been neglecting you."

She sighed tragically. "All right," she said. "I'll try." She paused. "Oh--Mother?"

"Yes, dear?"

She rose and threw her arms around me. "Thank you," she said.

Keep practicing this parenthood business, I told myself as I embraced her. Maybe someday you'll get good at it.

###

Ehm'rael changed into her own swimsuit (black, making for an interesting contrast) and went downstairs, where--so far as I could tell from my vantage point behind the pillar--Tom and Ehm'tassaa welcomed her. Her brother did indeed have a conscience, it seemed. By some miracle, Tom had managed to coax the blackfur into the water; and she, discovering that she would actually float, seemed to have to relaxed a little. For her, Rae's arrival was probably a welcome diversion.

With one crisis temporarily in abeyance, I left Joel to deal with the preparation of a dinner for five, and went gratefully up to our bedroom. I exchanged my uniform for a day-robe and collar (perhaps a little fancier than usual) and then ducked into my study.

That space, tucked into the back corner of the second floor, was about the same size as Joel's office, but a good deal less crowded, containing just my desk, a portion of my art collection, and a convertible sofa, in case we had an overnight guest. The room was slightly dark, as its windows were shadowed by a dense stand of Monterey pines; but that was all right with me. My refuge: when I entered there and closed the door, Joel and the kits knew that they disturbed me at their peril.

Free for the moment from the complications that surrounded me like the summer fog, I settled in behind my desk and activated the computer. Earlier, before leaving for work, I had programmed it to monitor the Sah'aaran Interplanetary News, and capture any articles with the keywords "Sah'larrah" and "Undercity."

About a dozen articles had been tagged, I saw. I skimmed through them, eagerly at first, but with a growing sense of disappointment. There was nothing new, nothing I hadn't known already. Only one item piqued my interest, as well as my anger: an interview with one Ehm'luruus, the recently-appointed Chief of the Sah'salaan District Police. She seemed terribly offended by the inconvenience Sah'larrah had caused; apparently she believed he'd gotten himself missing and presumed dead with the sole purpose of annoying her. Her personal opinion of Sah'larrah amounted--freely translated--to "senile old fool."

Unfortunately, she was too far away for me to claw her, as she richly deserved. Briefly I wondered where she went to school; apparently not Sah'salaan U, where Sah'larrah was held in something like reverence. But apart from that little diversion, the news was useless. Sah'larrah, dead or alive, had not been found; nor any trace of him.

I leaned back and closed my eyes. For the past eighteen hours, since I received Admiral Ehm'rael's message, I'd tried hard to think of anything except Sah'larrah; to thrust from my mind the memories of the brief time he and I spent together all those years ago. Not because they were painful, but because some of them were entirely too pleasant. One in particular…

###

"Ehm'ayla to Zelazny," I snarled, for perhaps the hundredth time. "I repeat, Lieutenant Commander Ehm'ayla calling ESV Zelazny. Come in please!"

I received only static, and with a muttered curse I pulled the commpak from my ear and flung it away. Shivering, I reached down to my belt-buckle and cranked up the heating unit another few degrees. If one of my souped-up commpaks couldn't punch through, nothing could. As much as I hated to admit it, we were stuck.

The end-flap of the shelter rustled, and I looked up sharply as Dr. Sah'larrah crawled in, clutching his scanpak. A blast of cold, dry air entered with him, until he swiveled around and secured the flap. "Well?" I asked impatiently.

He settled in next to me, crossing his legs before him, pulling uncomfortably at his close-fitting silver field gear. I'd nearly had to talk my whiskers off to persuade him to wear it; he simply wouldn't accept that there are some places where a day-robe isn't appropriate.

"The ion flux is over fourteen hundred and rising," he said. "For the moment, we're not going anywhere."

Tell me something I don't know, I thought. Snarling, I aimed a vicious swipe of my claws at the handiest solid object, which happened to be my backpack. They skidded across the tough fabric without leaving a mark.

Sah'larrah smiled and ran a hand through his disheveled dark-red mane. He was handsome, very, and more sturdily-built than one might expect an academician to be. "You really must cultivate patience, Commander," he observed. "As I recall, your temper was always your most unfortunate attribute."

"And yours, Doctor," I snapped, "was your arrogance."

Still grinning, he nodded. "Thank you."

He had come aboard Zelazny during a brief layover at Centaurus some ten days before, just prior to our departure for the Epsilon Borotis system. He was taking what the humans call a "sabbatical leave," in order to complete his monstrous monograph on the common threads of city-building on many worlds, and for his purposes, our mission was ideal. Unfortunately, from the moment he stepped aboard, our relations had been…strained.

Many people would expect it to be otherwise; would expect us to get along famously. We had much in common: both archaeologists, both graduates of Sah'salaan University--and most importantly, both Sah'aarans. But unfortunately it hadn't happened that way--even though circumstances forced us to work together daily. Perhaps because I remembered him too well. He was about ten years my senior, and the last time we met, he'd been a freshly-appointed junior professor, and I an undergrad. It may have been the memories of his infamous oral exams that put me off now. He never spoke, never reacted, never even moved; just sat and stared, as the unfortunate student struggled to bring facts and words together into coherent sentences. Or perhaps it was the fact that he'd been the most self-satisfied and insufferable individual I'd ever met. Time had changed us both, and now, in hindsight, I wondered if his arrogance might have masked insecurity. But when you're forced to share a two-by-two emergency shelter for an unknown time… "I'm sorry, Doctor," I said. "Uncalled for."

"No need to apologize, Commander. As it happens, you're quite correct."

"I'm afraid I'm not at my best when I'm stranded," I told him, by way of explanation, and he nodded.

"So I've heard," he said. "That story was the talk of Sah'aar for months. But this is hardly a congruent situation." He waved a hand. "We have shelter, water, and emergency rations; and the storm should clear in less than a day. Possibly no more than hours. Certainly we will not be here sixty-three days."

He was right, of course; but that was part of the problem, not the solution. I was more angry at myself than at him: because he, not me, had taken the precaution of bringing along the shelter and other supplies. And I was supposed to be the command-level officer.

The second planet of Epsilon Borotis was a thoroughly unpleasant place. Cold, dry, barren, desolate; a good imitation of the Dark Domains, brooding beneath a hellish red-dwarf sun. Not lifeless, not quite: but what there was, was entirely vegetable. Grass, weeds, bushes, all growing low to the ground to escape the ceaseless howling wind. All in all, a bad place to be a carnivore--unless he carries his own lunch.

…And yet the planet had once been home to a thriving, advanced civilization. Their ruined cities were everywhere--and I do mean everywhere, pole to pole. And not mud huts, but steel-and-glass skyscrapers, as large as anything Terra ever produced. Who had built them, and when, remained a mystery. There was no one left to tell, and whatever disaster had claimed them had taken the majority of their artifacts too, leaving only the crumbling skeletons of the buildings. If a nuclear war, then the radiation had long since faded to background; if an ecological disaster, the biosphere had absorbed the pollutants; and if a plague, it had mutated into harmlessness--we hoped.

Myself, I voted for nuclear, or a similar cataclysmic phenomenon. Something had messed up the climate and the atmosphere--most especially the ionosphere. The world was given to gigantic ion storms, which began without warning and ended just as suddenly. To someone on the surface they were harmless, causing only a spectacular auroral display. The storms blocked communications, though, and to fly a landing pod through one would have been suicidal. I knew Captain Haliday: he would weigh the near-certainty of a crash against the fate of two people who were unlikely to come to harm--and take the prudent course. We could not expect recovery until this blew over.

"I'm sure you're right, Doctor," I said.

He frowned. "That business--'Doctor,' 'Commander.' Does it really have to be that way? My name is Sah'larrah, and I'd be pleased if you'd use it. That is, if I may use yours."

I gazed at him--and slowly I smiled. "Deal."

"And now, Ehm'ayla," he said with enormous dignity, "would you be so kind as to pass me a ration pack?"

I did, and a water-bottle too, and helped myself to a meat bar as well. I slit the foil wrapper with a claw-tip, peeled it away, and with a grimace took a bite. CF Emergency Ration Type C: nutritious, I suppose, but that's the best I can say. It helped if you were too hungry to notice the flavor or the texture.

For several minutes we ate in silence. We hadn't bothered digging out the lantern, and through the translucent fabric I watched the shifting, dancing colors of the aurora. The wind was screaming, as always, tearing through the exposed steel ribs of the roofless auditorium where we had pitched our shelter. No use thinking about the salmon fillet I could have been eating in the Officer's Mess right now--nor the warm bunk that would go unused tonight.

Finally, my hunger assuaged, I cleared my throat. "I was surprised you remembered me," I said.

"Why shouldn't I have?" he asked in surprise.

"Well," I faltered, "I was just a face in the crowd. You'd had hundreds of students before I came along, and thousands since."

"True," he said. "But some faces stand out."

I grinned. "Because I was the most sarcastic and belligerent student you'd ever encountered?"

"Partly," he agreed placidly. "But mostly because a teacher remembers his most outstanding pupils--and the ones who challenge him. You know," he went on thoughtfully, "there were many at the University who expected you to join the faculty after you graduated. They were disappointed when you didn't. I know I speak for the entire Archaeology Department in saying that we hope you will, when your Combined Forces tour is over."

"Perhaps," I half-promised. Privately, though, I doubted it. That prospect--endless days spent pounding dubious facts into unresponsive heads--was one of the reasons I'd fled the planet in the first place. I might be convinced to deliver an occasional lecture, but teaching was not in my future.

We were silent again for a moment; then he said, "May I ask you a personal question?"

"You may ask," I told him. "Can't guarantee I'll answer."

"Fair enough." He paused. "I'm told you've never bonded," he went on. "That seems so unlikely, I wonder if it's really true…?"

I turned away, my ears burning. "It's true enough," I said--as he knew perfectly well. Briefly I wondered who had put him up to this--my father, perhaps? Or did he have an agenda of his own? "It's my career," I explained. "I rarely meet unbonded males, and I don't get home much."

"I see."

I speared him with my gaze. "What about you?" I demanded. "You don't have a mate either--so I'm told."

"That is true," he confirmed sadly. He shrugged helplessly. "I don't have the Combined Forces as an excuse, of course. It appears the correct pheromones haven't come along yet. Someday they will." He chuckled hollowly. "Though they'd better hurry."

Why I said what I said then, I have no idea. Possibly--as had happened before--it was the Goddess speaking through my throat. "Do you ever feel…lonely?" I asked hesitantly.

"I would be untruthful if I said no," he replied softly. "The urge to bond is deeply ingrained in our genes. Of course I do--as do you, I imagine."

Joel. Two years later, the pain was every bit as keen. Even without Captain Antilles' help, our relationship was doomed from the start--my biology would have seen to that, sooner or later. But I would have given anything to somehow go back and ease the harshness of our parting. It would have ended eventually--but it needn't have ended as it did, with us staring at each other through the barrier of a jail cell. "I have plenty of friends," I said in feeble defense, and Sah'larrah chuckled again.

"As do I," he said. "Friends, colleagues, parents, a sister; at home it is often impossible for me to be alone. But in some circumstances, they are of little help."

Abruptly I realized how close we were sitting. We'd moved nearer together as he spoke, without realizing it; until his leg pressed against mine. And with that realization came others: that my heart was hammering, my throat dry, and my tail lashing. This was insane, I knew: he was almost a stranger, at best a casual acquaintance. But the situation was inevitable, predestined, and had only one possible outcome. "A friend could be," I said softly. "In certain circumstances."

He gazed at me, the crazy auroral light dancing in his eyes; then, slowly, he slipped his arms around me. And then everything--that desolate world, the ion storm, the howling wind--went away. It wasn't love; much less a bonding. Even then I knew that. Rather, it was the desperation of two people more terribly lonely than they would ever admit.

***

Ten hours later, give or take, I was shaken from a sound sleep by a tiny voice speaking near my head. "Zelazny to Ehm'ayla! Come in please!"

For a few seconds I had no idea where I was, and my heart surged in panic. Then the impressions sorted themselves out--and with them came the memories. I was lying in a tiny emergency shelter, naked except for the crisscross elastic harness that held the life-sign monitors against my chest, beneath a thin survival blanket and two spread-out sets of field gear, their heating units going full-blast. Beside me, his strong arms enfolding me inescapably, lay an equally-unclothed Sah'larrah. The rising sun was turned the shelter blood-red above us.

"Repeating. ESV Zelazny calling Lieutenant Commander Ehm'ayla. Please respond!"

I wriggled in Sah'larrah's grasp, freeing one arm, and groped blindly for my commpak. Finding it, I immediately pulled my arm back under the blanket: it was cold out there. I clipped the little instrument to my ear and tapped the button. "Ehm'ayla here. Is that you, Aparna?"

"Yes, it's me," my friend and erstwhile supervisor said, in tones of relief. "What's your status? Is Dr. Sah'larrah with you?"

"Affirmative ," I said. He was awake now, and purring; his left arm was wrapped firmly around my abdomen, and he was running the claws of his right hand very gently down my spine, over and over. It was extremely distracting. "And we're both fine."

"Glad to hear it," Singh said. "We're launching a pod now; ETA about twenty-five minutes."

"No hurry," I said. I swallowed and hardened my tone. "I mean--that will be quite acceptable, Commander. We need some time to--uh--gather our equipment."

"Of course," she said. "See you soon. Zelazny out."

Sah'larrah caught my eye--and we both burst out in gales of helpless laughter. We were still giggling when the pod arrived, and we spent the entire flight ignoring the questions in the pilot's eyes.

###

Someone was knocking.

There in my study, the windows shaded by a stand of Monterey pines, I shook my head hard, fighting free from a sea of memory. "Come in!"

Joel poked his head in, frowning in concern. "Are you all right, darling?"

"I'm fine," I assured him. "Just…thinking."

"I see," he said dubiously. "Anyway, I came to tell you that dinner is almost ready."

"I'll be right down," I promised, and he nodded and withdrew.

I switched off the computer, banishing those unhelpful news reports to whatever hell would receive them--and smiled. For Sah'larrah and me, that was the beginning…and the beginning of the end as well. It wasn't really an affair; more like a four-week co-dependency. Terribly unhealthy, I know; probably that month caused more grief, left more scars, than it was worth. So why, twenty years later, despite a custom-built bonding and a solid marriage, did I still treasure those memories so deeply? And why, given subsequent events, did that make me feel guilty?

Funny, how you can latch on to certain words, which retain the power to bring forth a smile or a tear years after the events that spawned them. So it was with that phrase: "Gather our equipment." Throughout the brief time Sah'larrah and I spent together, those were our code-words. I doubt whether it fooled any of my shipmates; they knew exactly what was going on. But I could still picture Sah'larrah, after dinner in the Officer's Mess, or after a game of chess in the Rec Room, catching my eye and saying, "Well, we'd better go gather our equipment…" Even with numerous repetitions, it never failed to make me laugh.

I sighed and stood. No time for memories now: I had a job to do. Time for me to go downstairs and play charming hostess to an ambassador's daughter. I wasn't sure if I was up to it.


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