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 THREE


All in all, the dinner went well.

It cannot be said that I was ashamed of the way the Abrams family lived. We had a good-sized house, well-maintained and clean (with the exception of my son's room); I had a collection of art and artifacts of which I was proud; our furnishings were a tasteful combination of modern pieces and 20th-Century antiques. We were comfortable, in a word; we wanted for little.

But even so, I came downstairs that evening with some trepidation. I'd been to enough Embassy functions to know what Ehm'tassaa's life was like; and the comparison to our simple existence was…embarrassing. We were comfortable, yes--but I feared she wouldn't be; that she might turn up her nose at our peasant ways. I even considered slipping into an evening robe.

So I'm stupid. Joel wasn't, fortunately--or rather, he had a better understanding of the situation. When I entered the dining room he was setting the table, and I winced to see our plain clear-glass dishware and stainless-steel utensils. "I wish I'd let your parents give us their good china," I said ruefully.

He smiled and shook his head. "Don't worry about that," he said. "Believe me, darling, she doesn't want a formal dinner--she's had quite enough of those."

He might have a point, I realized, as the three kits came downstairs. Ehm'tassaa, dried and sleek (Rae had probably lent her an anti-static brush), had changed clothes--but not into the day-robe she'd presumably been wearing when she arrived. Instead she wore a kind of khaki jumpsuit, with short sleeves and short cuffed legs, mag-sealed up the front and covered with pockets. Her collar matched the webbing belt, and a simple barrette held back her mane. The outfit looked new; purchased that very day, I suspected, during her whirlwind tour of the Peninsula. It looked good on her; she was trim and well-muscled (a champion gymnast, I later learned), and obviously born to wear light colors. But it was as far from last night's gold evening robe as it could possibly be; and gazing at her, I realized Joel was right. Ehm'tassaa had come here looking for a break from the stuffy, mannered Embassy--and judging from the look on her face, she'd found it.

The three of them were chatting nonstop in Sah'aaran, and I was pleased to see that Ehm'tassaa was giving as much of her attention to Rae as to Tom--and that Tom didn't resent it. Despite her many human friends, Ehm'rael needed someone of her own species to confide in--at least as much as Tom needed a girlfriend. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure if one poor blackfur could cover both roles.

Tom and Rae hurried to help their father--after he shot them a significant glance--leaving me alone for a time with Ehm'tassaa.

She stepped up before me, beaming her dazzling--even startling--smile, and lifted her hands for the ritual Sah'aaran greeting. Too seldom did I get the chance to practice that pleasant custom, and I eagerly raised my own hands, meeting hers at eye-level. Our fingers intertwined, brown and black, and we expressed our claws until they pricked the backs of the other's hands. A few seconds later we released our grip and stepped back. "It's good to see you again, Commodore," the girl said, in Terran.

"And you too," I replied, also in my adopted language. "Especially so soon." Tom was setting out the water glasses, and as I spoke I caught his eye. He turned away hurriedly. I've never objected to the twins bringing their friends home--but I don't appreciate surprises. "And please," I went on, "call me Ehm'ayla. I've already had enough of that 'Commodore' business to last a lifetime."

This time her smile seemed more hesitant; probably she was surveying the gulf of thirty-five years that lay between us, and contemplating what we Sah'aarans are taught from childhood about respecting our elders. Finally she nodded. "All right…Ehm'ayla," she said, stumbling a little. "Thank you."

"Have you enjoyed your visit, dear?" I asked.

Her eyes lit up. "Very much, thank you," she said. "Tom and I have had a wonderful time." Her whiskers twitched. "I think I could even learn to enjoy swimming. Maybe."

"I understand you came here alone," I commented. "Did you have any trouble finding the house?"

"No," she said. "Last night I gave Tom my e-mail address, and he sent me a map." She shivered and wrapped her arms around her stomach. "The trip was…exciting, though. I've never been so far from the Embassy before--not alone, anyway." Her face fell. "Actually, I've hardly been off the grounds at all since we moved to Terra."

She spoke those last few words so tragically, my heart went out to her. "Not even into San Francisco?"

She shook her head. "Not very much, no," she said. "Father is always too busy, and he says it's not safe for me to go alone…"

Which wasn't quite true--not any more. Earth's larger cities do have a violent reputation, but that's almost entirely a thing of the past. Crimes of violence are extremely rare on Terra these days. And at any rate, Sah'aarans--even teenage females--are uniquely equipped to defend themselves.

But her words had set off an alarm, and I grasped her arm. "Ehm'tassaa," I said urgently, "does your father know you're here?"

She glanced away. "Uh--no," she admitted. "Not exactly."

Goddess! I thought in alarm, picturing the Terran Police frantically searching the City and dragging the Bay. But Ehm'tassaa quickly supplied reassurance--some, at least. "I left him a note," she explained. "But he probably hasn't even noticed I'm gone. He usually doesn't notice me at all."

I'm not sure what I might have said--what can you say, when you suddenly learn that you're contributing to the delinquency of a minor?--but I was spared by the sudden arrival of Joel from the kitchen, bearing a heavily-laden tray. "Come and get it while it's raw!" he said cheerfully.

Our dining-room table was a massive oak antique. It would seat up to ten, if one put in the leaves; but even without, it was ample for five. We seated Ehm'tassaa between Tom and Rae, and I gazed at her sidelong, gauging her reaction, as Joel set out the meal.

He had raided the freezer, as well as the fridge and the pantry, to prepare this spread. The centerpiece--for us carnivores--was a huge platter of meat, the best cuts of Terran beef we'd had. His was grilled; ours…wasn't. Alongside that was a tray of condiments, including a Xerxian red-sauce I'd first encountered more than twenty years ago. He'd fixed a salad for himself; gazing at that towering plate of lettuce, Ehm'tassaa shuddered and quickly looked away. He'd also thrown together a pilaf of steamed bulgur wheat--and if you think the twins and I avoided it, you're wrong. Vegetables are bad news to the Sah'aaran digestive system--but in moderation, cereal grains are not. As a side dish, I'd long ago grown to relish bulgur, rice and even pasta. (There is, by the way, no Sah'aaran word for "side dish.")

I'm sure Ehm'tassaa was used to being served; she seemed a little taken aback by our free-for-all dining habits. After a moment's hesitation, though, she plunged right in. Our dining room wasn't the main reception hall at the Embassy, but the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked our garden, the flowers bobbing and dancing on the later-afternoon breeze, and Joel's rock-rimmed koi ponds beyond. I'd always found that view conducive to digestion. So too was the quiet conversation that ebbed and flowed around the table. Some very conservative Sah'aarans (including my father) insist on total silence during meals--another reason why I left home.

"Ehm'ayla," Ehm'tassaa began. (She still seemed a little hesitant to use my name, and I considered telling her to go back to "Commodore" if she'd be more comfortable.) "Tom tells me you were a Compcomm once."

I nodded, helping myself to another small steak. "That's how I spent the first thirteen years of my career," I said And got absolutely nowhere, I added silently. How much faster I progressed after that switch to Scispec!

"I'm…very interested in communications and computers myself," she said shyly.

"Are you really?" I asked. I shouldn't have been surprised, I know--but it honestly never occurred to me that someone of her status would be interested in things so mundane. Given the color of her fur, she'd never have to work a day in her life, if she so chose. "Are you interested in the Combined Forces?"

She looked down, her nose reddening. "I…don't think so," she said. "I mean, it sounds exciting, and challenging--but also a little…dangerous."

I smiled as I suddenly realized how much her Terran had improved. Already she sounded much less formal, less stilted. The reason why wasn't hard to guess: the influence of one Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams. Another day and he'd have her talking just like him--the Goddess help her. "It can be," I admitted.

"When Father told me we were going to your promotion ceremony," she went on, "I was certain I'd heard your name before. I did some research, and I found out how you were stranded on that planet all those years ago…"

"I called it 'Hellhole,'" I supplied blandly, and was amused to see her blush again.

"Yes," she said quickly. "That one. I couldn't imagine how you'd survived. How anyone could."

Amazing how vivid the memories still were, more than twenty years later. The endless broiling days and frigid nights. Hunting, butchering, watching for predators. Immersing myself in the stream when the heat threatened to overwhelm me. Curling around myself, shivering, in the night when the cold bit deep. Looking back, I found my survival incredible too. Thirty-year-old Ehm'ayla lived through it--but the fifty-two-year-old version wouldn't last a week.

I found myself rubbing my left wrist, the narrow strip of bare flesh marked with strange, angular symbols in brown and silver. Many people believed it was a tattoo, an outré decoration--but it was not. "It wasn't easy," I agreed. "But that was scarcely typical CF duty."

She smiled. "I suppose not," she agreed. "But still, I don't think the CF is for me."

"Or us either," Rae put in quietly; and Tom, with a quick glance at me, nodded his agreement. Silently I sighed. I was disappointed when they sprung that news on me, several months before--but on reflection, I had to admit they were right. The Combined Forces isn't for everyone; Rae was too sensitive, I feared, and Tom too independent. Some people have their best qualities brought out by a regimen of strict discipline; others wither away. My kits were of the latter type. They would be successful in whatever they chose to do--but it would not be military service.

"What I want," Ehm'tassaa was saying, "is to get into Sah'salaan University. And if I do, I want it to be by my efforts--not because Father uses his influence. And if I do, I want to major in communications theory and computer science."

I nodded. "Good choices," I said. Sah'aaran communication specialists are always in high demand--mainly because of our hearing, which is many times more acute than a human's. And these days, communications and computers are inseparable. "As I recall," I went on, "the Communications department at Sah'salaan is judged the best on the planet."

"That's what I've heard too," she agreed. Her whiskers drooped. "If I can get in. This move, and having to change tutors, hasn't helped my studies."

I like this girl, I realized suddenly. There was a great deal more depth to her than I'd thought, more than was indicated by her stunning ebony fur. I saw in her the qualities I most admired: she was intelligent, clever, quick-witted…and strong-willed. When she said "If I get in," I knew she really meant "When." She'd do it, I knew, by the tips of her claws if necessary. And that stolid old campus had better watch out: she'd be a live one. Maybe even more so than a certain archaeology major who so bedeviled her professors.

"Do try some of the pilaf, my dear," Joel told her. "It's a house specialty."

She looked dubious, but nonetheless reached for the serving spoon. "All right, Mr. Abrams. Thank you."

As I sat gazing at that impossibly beautiful young woman--and at Tom, who was watching her every movement with rapt, wide-eyed attention--I found myself speculating idly. So far I'd hardly dared ask myself what would happen if the two of them really were bonding. But what if they are? What an addition to our family she'd make! How lucky all of us would be, to have her in our lives!

But could my son really be that lucky? With all the upper-class young males who clustered around her wherever she went, what were the odds that plain old Tom Abrams held the key to her pheromonal lock? Surely this must be an infatuation, just another doomed adolescent fling…

…But I saw how Tom looked at her when he reached across to take her plate at the meal's end, and the way his hand lingered on her arm; I saw the warmth of her returning smile, and the way her hand briefly covered his; and I asked myself, Or is it?

###

It was about nine p.m. when Ehm'tassaa left for home. We'd been having a grand time, talking, sharing stories, laughing over Joel's outrageous anecdotes; but as the evening wore on she became increasingly aware that she was tempting fate. Finally she decided to risk her father's wrath no longer. I seconded that motion: the later it got the more nervous I became, waiting for the visiphone to ring with a call from an enraged junior ambassador.

In the entrance hall Ehm'tassaa donned her jacket and gathered up her packages. (She'd done a truly astounding amount of shopping, and I wondered at Tom's sudden burst of patience in accompanying her.) When Tom reached for his jacket as well, I glanced at him quizzically.

"Uh--" he faltered, "I thought I should walk Tass to the shuttle stop…"

On the surface, a good idea: places you've seen briefly by day can look quite different at night. Tom knew Pacific Grove like his own claws; Ehm'tassaa ("Tass"?) didn't. But on another level, a strong contender for the Lame Excuse of the Year award.

But once again I could think of no good reason to object; nor could I find it in my heart to deny them their nuzzle under the street-lamps. And so I nodded. "Good idea."

Ehm'tassaa smiled at Joel and me. "Thank you for a lovely dinner," she said.

"You're quite welcome," Joel said gallantly; she'd charmed him too. "I hope we'll be seeing more of you."

"I hope so too, Mr. Abrams," she said. She glanced fondly at Tom. "I think you will."

And that was that, except for one minor--but significant--occurrence on the front porch. Rae hung back, silent, while Ehm'tassaa said her good-byes; but as Tom and Ehm'tassaa stepped onto the front walk, she seemed to summon her courage. Brushing past Joel and me, she rushed up to the blackfur and grasped her hands. I couldn't make out the quiet Sah'aaran words they exchanged; but the results were plain enough. Ehm'tassaa smiled, unclasped her collar, and offered it on her open palm to Rae.

An age-old custom--but one my daughter had never before encountered. I held my breath, wondering what she would do. If she refused…but she was an even quicker thinker than I believed. She reacted properly, and without hesitation, removing her own collar and exchanging it for the one Ehm'tassaa offered. Rae's was black, and almost vanished around Ehm'tassaa's neck; but it's the thought that counts. Ehm'rael was purring as she joined her father and me to watch Tom and Ehm'tassaa vanish into the night.

Our living-room sofa was old and sprung, a veteran of our old apartment; we kept it because it was as loaded down with pleasant memories as it was with dust. Joel and I sat flanking Rae, and both of us slipped an arm around her shoulders. Gazing at her new collar, I smiled. A coarse khaki-colored weave with a round brass clasp, it was made to go with Ehm'tassaa's outfit, and didn't quite match Rae's shorts and T-shirt. Given the size of her wardrobe, doubtless she'd find something to wear it with--and it would be prize possession regardless. "You realize," I said dryly, "that the two of you are best friends now?"

She looked up at me quickly. "So that's what it meant?" she asked in surprise.

"Basically," I told her. "Do you mind?"

She thought about it. "No," she said finally. "I don't. You were right, Mother: I do like her. And…she's lonely. The more I talked to her, the more I saw that."

"I know," I said softly. "I could see it too. You and Tom gave her a better time today than she's had since she left Sah'aar. I think her father might be protecting her a little too much."

"I really hope we'll see her again," Rae said. She meant it, I could tell, which both surprised and amused me. A sea-change indeed.

"Your brother hopes so too, I think," Joel observed wryly.

Speaking of whom, it was not much later when Tom came drifting home. I mean that literally: I don't think his feet were touching the floor. He sank weightlessly into a chair across from us, a faraway look on his face, his tail flicking lazily. And seeing that, I wondered again if this might be more serious than I'd imagined.

"Did Ehm'tassaa catch her shuttle?" Joel asked.

"Hmmm?" Tom said. Gradually his eyes focused. "Oh--yes she did,. She told me there's a station right across from the Embassy gates, so she won't have any trouble getting home."

"Good," Joel said. "Hopefully her father won't be too angry with her. Or with us."

Sometimes I wish I'd paid more attention to his words--though it probably would have done little good. But thoughts of Sah'churaaf were not uppermost in my mind. I looked at my family's faces…and made my decision: Now. As much as I hated to puncture the balloon that was levitating Tom, my news could no longer wait.

I took a deep breath and looked around. "There's something we need to discuss," I told them. "All of us, together. I need to go to Sah'aar."

I instantly had their attention; even Tom sat up straighter. "Why?" Joel asked.

I told them what I'd told Sanchez that morning. "I have to be there," I concluded. "Especially now, after what that chief of police said. Sah'larrah doesn't have much family left, but I have to show them that somebody cares."

"Couldn't you just send them a postcard?" Joel asked.

I growled. "No," I said. "I couldn't. This is something I must do, Joel, or I won't be able to live with myself. It's a Sah'aaran thing, as you always say. It has to be personal contact; even a hyperzap wouldn't be enough. Wouldn't you feel the same, if one of your friends was missing?"

He turned away, while the twins watched with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty. Of course I knew what was troubling Joel: just last night he'd confessed his lingering jealousy of Sah'larrah. I certainly didn't wish to make him feel worse--but I meant exactly what I said: If I did not at least offer my sympathy to Sah'larrah's family in person, I could not endure the guilt. Nor could I ever have held up my head in Sah'aaran society again. Too many people knew of our brief relationship: questions would be asked, conclusions jumped to, if I failed to appear. I would go, family strife or not. I had no choice.

Joel knew this, of course; he could tell by the look in my eye, the set of my whiskers. He could make this hard, if he chose--but he couldn't stop me. Finally he sighed and nodded. "All right," he said. "I understand, and I certainly have no right to prevent you. How--uh--how long are we talking about?"

"Hopefully no more than three weeks, including travel time."

"I see," he said. He took a deep breath. "In that case--I'm coming with you."

I blinked. "Pardon me?"

He grinned. "You heard me," he said. "It's been years since I was last off-planet." He sobered. "And…you shouldn't do this alone, Ayla. I told you last night I'd do anything I could do help you--and I meant that. You need my support, darling, as much as Sah'larrah's family needs yours."

I reached across to grasp his hand gratefully. "Thank you," I said. I hesitated. "Which leaves us with one small problem."

The twins returned our gaze silently. "Mom and Dad will be back in a couple days," Joel said thoughtfully. "Tom and Rae can probably stay with them…"

I nodded slowly. Thomas and Lucille Abrams were currently visiting relatives on Mars, and therefore had been unable to attend my ceremony. And yes, their sprawling home in Atherton had more than enough room for two rambunctious Sah'aaran teenagers. "Yes," I said. "That should be fine."

Tom and Rae exchanged a quick, almost telepathic glance, and Tom burst out indignantly, "No way!"

I turned to him in surprise. "What did you say?" I demanded.

He saw the look in my eye, but remained undaunted. "You can't go to Sah'aar without us," he said, his whiskers bristling pugnaciously. "It's our ancestral home--and we've never even seen it!"

"This won't be a sightseeing trip--" I began, but Rae interrupted.

"We know," she said softly. "But while you and Father are taking care of your business…"

"They have a point, darling," Joel said. "Your parents can look after them as well as mine."

I sighed. I'd wanted no encumbrances, no distractions--but I should have known better. They were right: despite the grim circumstances, I did indeed owe the twins the chance to see the planet where they'd evolved. And I did indeed need Joel's support, if only as a buffer between my father and me. "All right," I said. I smiled. "To tell the truth, I think I'll be glad of the company." True enough: the solitude would have contained too many ghosts.

Joel nodded. "That's settled, then," he said. "The next question is when?"

I shook my head. "I don't know," I replied. "I have carte blanche from Admiral Sanchez--but there are a lot of preparations to make. First I'll have to hyperzap my father. Then there's packing, arranging for someone to look after the house, and turning all my work over to Peter. And booking passage. If we can manage to leave in a week, it'll be a miracle."

"We'll help, of course," Rae said, and her brother nodded.

I smiled. "I know you will."

And I had to smile, seeing the enthusiasm on their fuzzy faces. For them, this would be an adventure, their first chance to explore an unknown world. I owed it to them not to dampen their enthusiasm with my grief. Joel was right: while he and I were dealing with Sah'larrah's family, helping them however we could, there was nothing to prevent the twins from having a wonderful time.

…Had I spoken one particular word, though, it would have instantly dampened Tom's enthusiasm for the trip; and knowing that, I refrained. It would occur to him soon enough anyway. That word, of course, was "Ehm'tassaa."

###

I retreated to my study to compose a hyperzap to my father--a task which proved more difficult than I expected. I have no idea how many times I erased and started over; I know only that I eventually worked myself into that peculiar state of hypersensitivity where you question the placement of every word, and finally, knowing I was in danger of spiraling down to madness, I hardened my heart and transmitted. Nothing I said to him could ever be right; why struggle for perfection? When I finished, I was astounded to see that it was well past midnight; Joel and the twins had long since gone to bed; and the house was freezing. Joel did not wake as I slipped in beside him, but almost instinctively he turned over and gathered me into his arms; and that was why I loved him.

###

The next morning dawned windy, foggy, drippy almost to the point of rain--and chilly, so much so that I almost wished for a set of heated field gear as I made my way to the shuttle stop. But over the last twenty years I'd developed a "weather eye" for the moods of Monterey Bay: the fog would soon break I knew, and the afternoon would be gloriously sunny, if blustery. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to open both of my office windows wide and let the sea-breeze clear out the mustiness.

I brewed a pot of green tea, eased myself into my chair, and, sipping gratefully at the first cup, keyed my computer. But for once, what I brought up on the screen was not Research Center business--not exactly.

One of the advantages of having so efficient an assistant as Peter Kinsey was that I could fob off any amount of work on him with remarkably little guilt. No matter how much, it always got done; and he never complained--at least not in my hearing. I did so very seldom: my work ethic was too deeply ingrained. But that morning I needed to clear my decks, so to speak, for the business of arranging a short-notice trip to Sah'aar. After I'd locked my door and told the Compcomm downstairs to hold all calls except dire emergencies, I logged into CFNet--that invaluable source of information and gossip for the entire Combined Forces--and keyed in a search routine. The results were both encouraging and disheartening.

Up until recently--if you'll forgive a brief semi-technical digression--the CF found it almost impossible to design a small vessel with interstellar range. The need is obvious: why dispatch a Navy destroyer or an all-too-scarce Survey vessel to carry a single ambassador from one planet to another through peaceful territory? Wouldn't a smaller vessel, requiring just a pilot and an engineer, do just as well?

Easy to conceive of--much harder to accomplish. In any given solar system, the hypertunnel nodes are usually tens of millions of kilometers apart; the distance, say, from Terra to Mars. A ship must accelerate from node to node, building real-space velocity with each jump--otherwise, even the short trip from Earth to Centaurus would take months. And that, of course, requires fuel. No small vessel can carry enough deuterium to give it that kind of range. A ship fitted with a Bussard ramjet doesn't need to--but until recently the required equipment had been far too bulky to install aboard a vessel much smaller than my beloved Zelazny. Smaller ramjets had been designed, but they were both unreliable and under-powered.

Until now. The ships I had my eye on were the dernier cri of the Centaurus Shipyards. Designated Darwin-class, they were about thirty meters long and ten wide, with a pair of trim torpedo-shaped ramjets flanking the blunt cylindrical hull. The specs claimed a safe acceleration rate of two G's; three in an emergency. The range was virtually unlimited, with power to spare; and the spacious and comfortable cabin had room for five. With their onboard computers they practically flew themselves; even my kits could have piloted one. That was good: I put in enough simulator time each year to keep my pilot's license, but it had been more than twenty years since I'd actually taken a vessel into space. Ship design was not really my field of expertise, and I might not have known about the Darwin-class at all, but for one interesting fact: the miniaturized life-support components which made that comfortable cabin possible were designed by J. Abrams Consulting, Inc.

The specs and blueprints were all there in the database, including some very specific weights and measures that probably wouldn't have been available to me a few days before. I gazed approvingly at the floorplan (control cabin, salon/rec room/galley, and two sleeping cabins); and I studied the layout of the pilot's console. I could fly this thing, I decided. If I so desired, I could journey to Mare Island and spend some time in the cockpit simulator; there might even be a full-sized mockup. That would be the easy part: no one would refuse a commodore. The hard part would be getting hold of the real thing. There were only half a dozen of them, and though they were brand-new--indeed still officially experimental--the little vessels were already much in demand. Still, it seemed worthwhile to make the attempt. Now that Joel and the twins would be accompanying me (whether I liked it or not), I was even more determined to avoid both the vagaries of the commercial spacelines and the tender mercies of CF captains. Nothing ventured…

It was then--as I stared in dismay at the lengthy waiting list, wondering who I could intimidate to get my name closer to the top--that the intercom beeped.

I sighed and reached for the button. "Yes?" I snapped.

The young, fresh-from-the Academy Compcomm was polite and respectful, not to say over-awed. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Commodore," she said. "But there's an incoming call I thought you might wish to take. Ambassador Sah'churaaf from the Sah'aaran Embassy."

I wish I'd refused; but immersed as I'd been in the problems of ship-finding, the events of the previous day had slipped my mind. And so, as the humans say, I walked right into it. "Put him through, Ensign," I said, clearing the screen.

The screen rippled and cleared, and I found myself looking into a brightly-sunlit room in downtown San Francisco. Sah'churaaf, unsmiling, sat behind a massive Tatak desk that must have cost a fortune to ship. The soapstone sculpture to his left seemed to be early Ehm'sallaa Matriarchy, about a thousand years old--or it could have been a reproduction. The curtains over the windows behind him rustled in the breeze.

"Ambassador!" I said, in Sah'aaran. "This is a surprise!"

"Commodore," he said flatly. I couldn't see his hands, out of sight in his lap; nor his tail. That, plus his grim expression, should have warned me--but it didn't, and I plowed blithely ahead.

"Do you have news of Dr. Sah'larrah?" I asked eagerly. My automated search routines had turned up nothing for more than a day; but the Embassy had access to far more information than the Interplanetary News.

"No," he said. "I fear not." He took a deep breath. "Commodore, I regret to say this is not a social call. What I must say, you will not wish to hear; but it is necessary that this be settled now. It regards your son and my daughter."

Those words brought the memories flooding back, and suddenly I had a very good idea what he wanted to discuss. Uh-oh, I thought, feeling my tail begin to wave, here it comes! Probably this had been festering within him all night, and had just now reached critical mass. With a certain sense of doom I said, "I fear I do not understand, Ambassador."

"Commodore, I am given to understand that my Ehm'tassaa and your--Thomas, is it?--spent the entire day together yesterday, in and about your home."

"That is so," I confirmed evenly. "And she had dinner with us as well, before Tom escorted her to the shuttle station. She arrived home safely, I trust?"

"Yes," he vouchsafed. "Yes, she did, the Goddess be thanked."

"That is well," I said. "Tom offered to ride with her, but she insisted it was not necessary…"

He sighed and shifted restlessly. "Commodore, that is immaterial. Yes, she did arrive safely; unfortunately, she could as easily have not. The point I wish to make is simply this: what happened yesterday must not recur."

I'd halfway expected that; still, I had to wait several seconds before I could speak--as opposed to snarl--my next words. "Am I to understand, Ambassador," I said, "that you have some objection to my son keeping company with your daughter?" My tone was mild--but anyone who really knew me would already have been heading for the hills.

The junior ambassador, however, did not. "Yes," he said. "I fear I do. Please do not misunderstand me, Commodore. I have nothing against Thomas personally. I cannot; I scarcely know the boy. I simply feel that any relationship between he and Ehm'tassaa is not in the best interest of either."

Strange: as late as yesterday afternoon I'd been thinking exactly the same thing--before I really got to know her. But to agree with Sah'churaaf was the farthest thing from my mind. My tail was whipping now, and at the tips of my fingers, resting on my desk where he could easily see them, were fully-expressed claws. "And why is that, Ambassador?"

He sighed and glanced away. "You force me to be blunt, Commodore. Very well. You are well-known on our homeworld; I might even say infamous. Many of our people found your decision to tamper with your own body-chemistry horrifying, to say the least. That you did so in order to effect an artificial bonding with a human only made it worse. And your subsequent decision to raise your kits among humans…it is well-known that your father has attempted on several occasions to remove his grandchildren from that environment, by enrolling them in boarding schools on Sah'aar. It is also well-known that his attempts have been rebuffed by your--" he used the Terran word-- "husband, who refuses to discuss the subject. As a result your kits, most especially your son, have been heavily influenced by this human society. That much was obvious from my first look at him: no true Sah'aaran would have appeared at a formal occasion in such a ridiculous costume. I have no desire for my daughter to be so influenced; I wish to raise a Sah'aaran--not a half-human. Already he has encouraged her to subterfuge and mendacity; I shudder to think what might be next."

"Do you truly have such contempt for the people you are ambassador to?" I asked in wonder.

He scowled. "Of course not--" he began, but I rode him down.

"We live in a cosmopolitan galaxy, Ambassador," I went on. "I know this well, after thirty-three years in the Combined Forces; and I would have expected someone of your diplomatic experience to have realized that as well. There is no planet in the Alliance where one may be entirely free of other cultures--not even our blessed homeworld. It is true that my kits are exposed to many influences, including their father, their schoolteachers and their friends. And myself, of course. Those they choose to accept--as long as they are not antisocial--are their own business. My husband and I have every confidence that they will integrate their experiences into life-paths that will please both them and us. I can assure you that they are well-versed in what it means to be Sah'aaran. I have seen to that."

I leaned forward. "I will also say this, Ambassador." (I was having a hard time not calling him "young man.") "The circumstances of my bonding are not the business of anyone at the Embassy, or on our homeworld. That is solely a matter for my mate and myself. So too is how we choose to raise our children. I love my father, though I do not always agree with him, and I will tell you what I have told him, many times: Thomas and Ehm'rael are ours to raise. Not his, nor anyone else's."

The ambassador shook his head. "I feared you would not understand," he said sadly.

"And you were right," I snapped. Even two days ago, I wouldn't have dared to speak to him in such a tone; those extra stars on my breast truly were having an influence. "I am Sah'aaran, and I am a mother. You should have known that an attack on them is an attack on me."

"That was not my intention," he said desperately. "I only wish to protect my daughter."

"From what exactly?" I demanded. "Tom? Are you implying that because he has been influenced by humans, his morals are somehow deficient; that he might harm her?"

Sah'churraaf did not reply, and he could no longer meet my furious gaze. I went on, "I'll have you know, Ambassador, that both my kits are on their schools' honor roll; they are well-known and well-liked in our community; and they have never been in any trouble more serious than passing notes in class. My son is an honorable young man, and his behavior toward Ehm'tassaa was entirely appropriate."

"Nevertheless…"

"Nevertheless nothing, Ambassador. Your daughter is in much less need of protection than you believe. I have spoken to her, and I can read between the lines of what she says: since coming to Terra she has been desperately lonely. She needs friends; she needs involvement; she needs a life not defined by her social status or the color of her fur. She had fun during her visit yesterday--as simple as that. More, perhaps, than she ever has."

"Commodore, I have no intention of being lectured," Sah'churaaf said. "You say your kits are your own to raise. Very well. I claim that same right. I do deeply regret that this has become a personal argument. We have met only briefly, but I did hope to get to know you better."

"As did I," I said regretfully.

"But if circumstances have made that impossible, so be it. What I have said stands. For their own good, any relationship that might have arisen between Ehm'tassaa and Thomas is over, permanently. She left the Embassy grounds yesterday without my permission; that will not happen again. The guards have been instructed. I have locked out her access to the visiphones, and closed her e-mail box. If Thomas attempts to contact her, his calls will be rejected; if he attempts to visit, he will be stopped at the gate. You may regard this decision as final."

I gazed at him for a moment, shaking my head in pity. Then I said, "Ambassador, for her sake I hope you'll eventually come to your senses. But in the meantime, I think you ought to know: unless I'm very much mistaken, the Goddess has taken that decision out of your hands."

With that I clicked off; and as I did, I wondered if my name had suddenly changed from Abrams to Montague.

###

Tom was devastated, and Joel furious, when I broke the news to them that afternoon.

It was just the three of us, there in the living room; for obvious reasons, I'd asked Rae to go practice her split-finger fastball for a while. She'd find out eventually--but for the moment it was not her concern. Tom sat perfectly still, his face set like concrete, as I spoke; but I had uttered no more than dozen words when his tail began to wave, and all eight claws gradually and fully expressed. When I finished, he rose without a word and departed upstairs, as silent as only a Sah'aaran on carpet can be.

Joel rose to follow, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm. "We'd better leave him alone for now."

He sighed and sat back down, shaking his head. "You're probably right," he said. "Poor kid." He turned to me, his pale-blue eyes suddenly blazing. "Let me get this straight," he went on angrily. "This ambassador person thinks his daughter is too good to hang around with our son?"

I sighed. "No," I said. "Not really. That is what I accused him of when he called--but I've had time to think about it since, and I've changed my mind."

"What, then?"

I hesitated. How to put this? "He's frightened," I said. "He's a long way from home, and his mate and son are still on Sah'aar. He's been entrusted with sole responsibility for Ehm'tassaa's welfare--probably for the very first time. Suddenly she's asserted her independence--the way our kits have--and that scares him; it makes him feel he's losing control."

"That, I can sympathize with," Joel said wryly.

"Hopefully, for her sake, he'll eventually realize he can't hold her prisoner," I went on. "I doubt she'll let him, anyway." Indeed, unless I had badly misjudged that spirited blackfur, she would not long put up with such draconian restrictions. At least I hoped she wouldn't. I felt more than a little guilty at the thought that we--our son--had been the cause of it. She might end up transferring her anger to Tom--and that would be a shame.

"There's an old saying," Joel observed. "Something about 'How do you keep them down on the farm…'"

"Exactly," I agreed. "She's had a taste of life outside the Embassy walls, and she'll want more. I told Sah'churaaf that, more or less, but my comments weren't appreciated." I grinned sheepishly. "I may have lost my tempter a little…"

He matched my grin. "And how well I know that temper." He paused. "Seriously, though," he went on, "I wonder if some good might come of this."

"How so?"

"A…cooling-off period, I guess," he explained. "Frankly, events in that relationship were happening a little too rapidly for my liking. If they can be apart for a while and still be interested in each other, we'll know it was more than just adolescent hormones. Always assuming Sah'churaaf eventually relents."

I glanced away. Actually, hormones define Sah'aaran relationships, though not exactly in the way he meant. He was applying human standards. But in a backhanded way, what he said made a certain sense: if I was right, Sah'churaaf was about to receive a major wake-up call. "Tom is going to have more of a cooling-off period than he knows, if he comes with us to Sah'aar," I pointed out.

Joel nodded soberly. "I doubt that's occurred to him yet," he said. "But you're right. In a cruel sense, it might be easier this way: the decision has been made for him."

I sighed and shook my head. Joel reached out his arm, and I settled into its circle, my head on his shoulder. "It's a mess all around," I said. "Unfortunately, it was bound to happen eventually. I shudder to think what will happen when it's Rae's turn."

"Please," Joel said, reaching up to stroke my mane. "One crisis at a time." He paused. "Speaking of which, any luck finding a ship?"

"Very little," I said. "The ships are out there, six of them--but they have huge waiting lists. Every admiral on a junket and every captain on shore-leave wants one. Not to mention official duties, like ferrying ambassadors around the sector."

"Captains you can bump," Joel mused. "Admirals and ambassadors are a little tougher. Do we have a chance? In a reasonable period of time?"

"Depends," I told him. "If your definition of 'reasonable' is 'some time in the next two years, Terran Standard,' then maybe."

"Ouch."

"--But if your definition is 'in time to do Sah'larrah's family and my conscience any good,' most likely no."

"Any alternatives?"

"Only one that makes sense," I said. "The commercial spacelines. I tracked the schedules of other CF ships in the sector, and none are going directly from Terra to Sah'aar anytime soon. We'd have to make too many transfers, go too far out of our way--it just isn't feasible."

"The Sah'aaran diplomatic packet--?"

I shook my head. "I don't imagine I could get much cooperation from the Embassy right now."

For a time we sat silent, his hand smoothing and re-smoothing the fur on my upper arm in a way I always found extremely relaxing. Almost against my will, a purr rumbled up from my belly. Finally Joel said, "Tell you what, Ayla--don't call the travel agent just yet."

"Why not?"

"I may have the beginnings of a cunning plan."

I twisted my neck to stare into his face. "You have?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes," he said, sounding hurt. "You're not the only one with CF connections, dear heart. I'm one of their most valuable contractors, you know."

"Modest, too," I observed. "What are you up to?"

His hand shifted to scratch behind my ear. "Frankly, I'm not sure," he said. "I'll make you a deal, though. Give me--oh, two days. If what I've got in mind hasn't panned out by then, we'll book the first commercial flight out. Deal?"

Given the horrendous number of preparations we had yet to make, a delay of two days wouldn't matter much. I didn't have much confidence in his "cunning plans"--I'd been the victim of far too many of them over the years--but I might be wrong. Miracles do happen. "Deal," I said dubiously. Sometimes I wish I'd refused; I'm not sure I'm comfortable being an accessory after the fact.

He kissed my forehead. "Thanks," he said. He paused. "I suppose one of us ought to go tell Rae it's safe to come in now."

I considered that, and the peace and quiet of the empty room…and I slid closer to him. "A little later," I said.

###

My father's reply was waiting for me when I arrived at the Center the next morning.

I did everything I could to avoid viewing it, while I struggled to get up the nerve. I scanned the Sah'aaran Interplanetary News, the Monterey Herald and CFNet; I dealt with the pile of work on my desk (cursing Peter because it was so small); I took a long lunch; I stared out the window for a while, nursing a cup of tea; I even completed some of the personnel reviews that had been piling up. But finally I ran out of delaying tactics; and steeling myself, I sat down before the computer and pressed the "Play" key.

By some quirk of cosmic forces--or perhaps the bad luck that had gripped me lately--the recording was quite clear, with no more than the occasional flicker of static. Wonderful.

Sah'surraa (the Sah'surraa, whose publishing empire is known throughout the Alliance) sat in his sunlit office in our ancient family home on the veldt in Sah'salaan, a shelf full of antique books and scrolls behind him. He smiled, very slightly, and began to speak; his voice was roughened by age, but still had more than a hint of the stern authority I remembered so well. "It was good to hear from you, daughter," he began pleasantly--but then, of course, he had to spoil it. "Especially as it happens so seldom."

Amazing. I was fifty-two years old; I was in the upper echelons of the Combined Forces; I was widely regarded as a leading authority in my field. And yet it took less than five seconds for him to make me feel like a simpering infant.

My father was seventy-eight years old, Terran Standard, and his fur and mane were snow-white; but the robust good health he enjoyed gave me hope for my own future. Like many Sah'aarans his age, his heart had long ago been replaced by a fist-sized plastic and ceramic pump. Unlike Joel's father, he sneered at the idea of retirement: he would do so, he often said, when the crew from the crematorium arrived to haul him away.

He went on, "I have been inexcusably tardy in offering my congratulations for your promotion. I do so now, on behalf of your mother and brother as well. You have done us all much honor."

I felt my lips curl in a snarl, and forced myself to desist. I suppose he did mean it, in his own way. He'd said much the same thing on the occasion of my other promotions, and always sounded sincere. After all this time, he must surely have been reconciled to the fact that I would not be joining the family firm.

"Now to business," he said briskly. "I am pleased to see that you recognize your duty to Sah'larrah and his family. There are some who claim you owe them much more; but that is not for me to say."

I sighed. I had not been lying when I told Ambassador Sah'churaaf that I loved my father; of course I did. He was--always had been--a strong male, a tough disciplinarian in a way that neither Joel nor I could bring ourselves to be, utterly intolerant of failure or indifference; a terror to work for. During my childhood those qualities had been tempered by a certain tenderness--but unfortunately, my relations with him had been strained for the last thirty-three years, since the day I announced my decision to join the CF. He might be proud of my rank and status now; but I still remembered the day he told me, flatly and coldly, that by leaving the planet, by not joining his company, I was bringing shame to him and to me. And that's why--sadly--I regarded his congratulations with a certain suspicion. Over time he grew resigned to my career choice, and our relations had thawed a little--but nineteen years ago, when he learned of my plan to subvert my biology and mate with a human…that did it. Not even the birth of Tom and Rae had done much to break the ice. Had they been his only grandchildren, maybe…but he had others, much closer at hand, and was somewhat immune to the charms of fuzzy infants.

He went on, "Thank you for informing us of your impending arrival. I understand that your plans must perforce be somewhat indefinite as yet; but be assured that you will be made welcome. Your mother will see to that personally." Once again, though, he couldn't resist a dig: "But as it is your home as well, you scarcely needed to ask."

I felt the heat in my ears and nose. By the rules of Sah'aaran etiquette, he was correct: I could walk in the door at any time, as if I'd never left, and stay as long as I chose. But since this would be more like an invasion, I'd thought it at least polite to ask.

"I am pleased that you will be bringing Thomas and Ehm'rael with you," he said musingly. "I have felt recently that it is past time I examined them, face to face. Lately I have heard things regarding them which trouble me; I wonder if I may need to intervene in their upbringing."

I cannot begin to describe the rush of emotions those few offhand words produced. First, of course, was a wave of anger that threatened to choke me. How dare you, I thought furiously. What in the Goddess' name gives you the right to "intervene"? Never in my life had I heard such blatant, arrogant presumption; not even from him, the grand master.

But the anger was quickly supplanted by worry. What did he mean, "lately I have heard things"? From whom? And come to think of it, how had Sah'churaaf known about my father's frequent attempts to get Tom and Rae into Sah'aaran boarding schools? It was almost as if they'd been in communication…If so, and if I could prove it, I would cheerfully strangle them, ambassador and publisher both.

"Be that as it may, however," Father was saying, "you will all be made comfortable. And I am certain we shall make your kits' stay quite interesting--and educational as well."

That's what I'm afraid of, I thought gloomily.

"I await further communications. Good-bye for now, daughter."

As the screen went blank I collapsed, resting my forehead on my outspread hands atop the blotter. At times like these I could almost regret my intolerance for alcohol: a good stiff drink sounded mighty tempting.

###

I had barely recovered from my ordeal when the intercom buzzed. I considered ignoring it; but it was persistent; and finally, as with a will of its own, my hand slid across the desk and touched the button. "Yes?"

The Quadrian Compcomm was resolutely cheerful, damn him. "Incoming call, Commodore," he said. "Mr. Abrams."

Immediately I straightened. "Put him through." I had no idea what he wanted, but talking to him was guaranteed to ease my nerves. And if nothing else, him I could dump on.

His face was composed and serious, almost comically so; he sketched a crisp salute. "Commodore Ehm'ayla."

I sighed. I usually appreciated his humor, really I did. But now… "What is it, Joel?"

"Commodore, ma'am," he said, "I beg leave to report that the Darwin-class vessel NC Cuvier will be at your disposal for an indefinite time, beginning five days from today."

"Joel," I growled, "if this is supposed to be in a joke, I'm not in the mood."

"No joke," he said, dropping the mock-military pose. "I have the order right here, signed by Admiral McPherson of the Ops Division. The Cuvier is at the ODF for routine maintenance. When that's finished, she's all yours."

I gaped. "One word, Joel," I said. "How?"

He grinned and scratched his beard. "Well," he said, "I happened to call Commander Inman at HQ this morning. Just to chat, you understand; friend-to-friend. Haven't seen him in years. Somehow we got to taking about the Darwin-class. And during the discussion I might have implied that I had a few reservations about those new power converters they put in. You'll remember that I had to change my design for the CO2 scrubbers when Noyo Engineering introduced those converters…"

"I suppose," I said, wondering where in the Dark this was leading.

"Well, to make a long story short--"

"Please do."

"--I may have given Larry the impression that there could be some problems with the converters; ones I hadn't anticipated."

"Such as?"

"The words 'life-support failure' might have been mentioned."

"Joel," I said in horror, "you didn't!"

"Afraid I did," he said with a tragic sigh. "Anyway, the next thing I knew I was volunteering for a series of test flights to gather data for a redesign of the life-support power bus. Larry wanted to assign me a pilot, but I told him there was no need." He spread his hands. "And there we are."

He wasn't fooling me, not for an instant. We'd both known Larry Inman--the "Czar" of the Ops Division--since our Officer's Academy days, when he was a member of our tight circle of friends. He would never have bought such a blatant cock-and-bull story. In reality, Joel had called Larry, poured out his problems, and begged for help. Between the two of them they'd concocted a story that the Admiralty would buy. It had been truly said of Inman that when it came to conniving or Finagling, you couldn't beat him; obviously the passage of thirty-odd years hadn't changed that.

"So," Joel said finally, "what do you think?"

"Joel Aaron Abrams," I said severely, "I think it's the most devious, underhanded, sneaky thing I've ever heard of." I paused and smiled. "I like it."

Slowly he matched my smile. "I thought you might."

"And you've proved your point," I added.

"Meaning?"

"That I'm not the only one with CF connections."

He grinned and saluted again. "Oh," he said, "I almost forgot: I made arrangements for us to meet Larry at the Docking Facility to take a look at Cuvier. Eleven hundred tomorrow. The twins can come too, if they like."

"I'll be there," I promised. Whether the kits would be interested I couldn't say; given Tom's present mood, he almost certainly would not be.

Joel clicked off, and as I gazed at the darkened screen I smiled and shook my head. As a senior CF officer I ought to have been appalled; I should have called Admiral McPherson and reported this base treachery. Instead, I was wishing enviously that I'd thought of it first.

Suddenly I had a lot more to do, but as I cleared my desk, one thought kept running through my mind: if--as Ambassador Sah'churaaf implied--my son did indeed have a streak of mendacity in him, at least he'd come by it honestly.


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