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 FOUR


Early the next morning, my husband and I boarded a landing pod for the short flight to the Orbital Docking Facility.

Most Combined Forces officers, I suspect, have strong feelings toward that huge and venerable facility, which circles Terra majestically in a geosynchronous orbit. For many, the ODF is their first view of Earth: I well remembered the bewildered twenty-year-old kit who disembarked there, travel case in one hand and Academy acceptance letter in the other. To her dazzled eyes the place seemed almost infinite. The ODF was also where, with real regret, I bid farewell to Zelazny.

It had been almost ten years since I'd last seen that structure, and as our pod drifted toward it, piloted by an efficient and taciturn Centaurii Navy lieutenant, I leaned forward against the seat-harness, my gut tightening and my breath catching in my throat. As always, I'd almost forgotten its sheer immensity.

From a distance the ODF seemed almost fragile, a glittering Christmas tree ornament: six narrow spoked wheels evenly spaced along a fat cylindrical hub. But as we drew nearer, it grew with frightening speed. In fact those wheels--the mooring rings--were more than a kilometer in diameter; the hub--offices, living quarters and suchlike--almost two kilometers long. Scattered around the rings I saw a wide variety of CF craft, ranging from small Patrol cutters to immense, heavily-armed battleships. As the Centaurii bent our course toward the pod bay at the cylinder's apex, I strained my eyes for a glimpse of the vessel we'd come to see; but it was out of sight on the structure's far side.

At the airlock we were met by Larry Inman. Joel wore a suit, for once, his CF civilian ID and security clearance clipped prominently to the breast pocket; he looked every bit the professional engineer. As we entered the perpetually-busy Embarkation Center, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the security guards snap to attention--having seen my rank stars--before a tall figure in a brown Ops uniform stepped forward, a smile of welcome on his long thin face.

"It's been too long," he said, as he grasped Joel's hand and mine in turn. "And my congratulations, Commodore," he added with a bow. "It was richly deserved."

After all those years, a simple handshake wasn't going to do it; I stood on tiptoe to nuzzle his cheek, a senior officer's aloof dignity be damned. "It'll be your turn soon," I told him.

Like me, Larry had never commanded a vessel, would never be a captain, and had thus spent an inordinately long time as a commander. His position in the Ops Division, though, was virtually godlike: no ship entered or left the ODF without his say-so.

He grinned, deepening the dimples in his narrow cheeks. "Not me, Commodore," he said. "I've reached my Peter Principle point." He glanced around, and frowned. "Your kids aren't with you?" he asked in disappointment--and I'd forgive him the incorrect consonant.

Joel shook his head. "No," he said flatly. "They were otherwise occupied."

The true situation being rather complicated, that was the easiest thing for Joel to say. In fact he and I had talked ourselves hoarse trying to convince Tom to accompany us; the experience would have taken his mind off his troubles. But he preferred to wallow in his misery--and, as might be predicted, Rae chose to remain with him. I wasn't sure if he deserved that much loyalty; but that was her choice too. I wished her luck in her attempt to cheer him up: I doubted he'd be interested in baseball, jogging or kayaking just then.

"Too bad," Larry said. "I've always wanted to meet those two." And then, brightening visibly, he rubbed his hands together. "So. you're here to take a look at Cuvier, eh?"

"That's right," I said. "And before I forget--I want you to know how much I appreciate what you're doing for us."

His face took on a wary, hunted look, his green eyes darting. "Uh--" he began uncertainly.

"The commodore," Joel said blandly, "has been thoroughly briefed on my concerns regarding the Darwin-class vessels."

"Thoroughly?" Larry echoed.

"Thoroughly," I said firmly. I touched my rank stars. "These haven't made me any less devious, Larry. You know how I've always felt about bureaucracy."

He grinned and ran a hand through his grey-flecked red hair. "I do indeed. All right, let's take a walk."

Something else I'd forgotten about the ODF: how damned crowded it was. As the three of us made our way down the narrow corridors we were surrounded by a beehive swarm of officers and enlisted, wearing blue, brown, grey and green: humans, Centaurii, Quadrians, and even the occasional Sah'aaran and Xerxian. A few eyes lingered curiously on Joel's civilian dress--and more than a few on my stars. It was a curious, almost frightening, thing to contemplate, but unless Admiral McPherson was in residence--unlikely--I was almost certainly the highest-ranking officer aboard the ODF that morning. Hopefully no emergencies would crop up: I'd be legally obligated to take command.

As we walked, descending about twelve levels in a busy drop-shaft, I scarcely heard my companions' ceaseless chatter; they seemed to be reminiscing about the parties they'd attended. Instead--as had been happening too often lately--I found myself adrift in a sea of memory.

To call Larry Inman's time at the Officer's Academy a "four-year drunken debauch" would be an exaggeration--but not by much. Even years later, his parties were legendary. I still remember the first one I attended, early in my freshman year; that was when I learned the hard way that Sah'aarans can not consume alcohol. It took exactly one drink to put me down for the count. What happened after that is a little hazy, but I seem to recall Joel and my roommate pouring me into bed. I remember the hangover, too, quite vividly: my first and last. Worse, I had a final exam that morning--and it is very difficult to work calculus problems when your head feels twice its normal size.

Larry was also well known for his practical jokes. Not cruel ones; even as an upperclassman he never became part of the "hazing" scene. But he was a master at puncturing inflated egos; even professors and senior officers weren't safe. More than once, his salacious limericks--distributed on his own underground cyberspace newsletter--almost got him expelled.

And (though he never knew it) Larry had a major effect on my relationship with Joel; for good or bad, it's hard to say. Long ago, during our third year at the Academy, Joel and I spent a three-day pass in the same Pacific Grove apartment where we lived after our marriage. These days we owned the lease, but that weekend we were borrowing the place from a friend of Joel's family. Late on the first evening, a perfectly innocent foot massage almost turned into something rather less so--but before it could, we were interrupted by a call from a gloriously drunk Larry and his party crowd. Later, thinking about the incident, I became convinced that he'd expected to interrupt something--because he, along with the entire universe with the exception of myself, knew of Joel's feelings toward me. But his timing was a little off: he only managed to break the mood. What would have happened, if Joel and I had made love that night instead of years later in his cabin aboard that ship…is open to debate.

"None of us were surprised to hear that you two had gotten married," Larry was saying, finally attracting my attention. "The only thing that surprised me was that it took so long."

Joel shot me a significant glance, and I turned quickly away. What Larry didn't know…

We'd come a long way by then, through a bewildering maze of grey hallways, and I was out of breath: my stride was shorter than theirs. Finally Larry stopped short. "We're here."

As we walked, we'd departed the hub, passed along one of the long connecting spokes, and finally entered the long curved corridor of a mooring ring, its outer wall lined at intervals with airlocks. Some of the hatch-frames glowed green, indicating that a vessel was docked there; others flashed a warning red. Larry had guided us to one of the former; on it was stenciled "Docking Bay 39A," and beside it a lighted panel read, "Navy Courier Cuvier. Status: Maintenance."

Larry punched an access code, and the door split in three, vanishing into the floor and walls. He bowed. "Ready for inspection, Commodore," he said formally.

The airlock opened into a corrugated pressure corridor, and that in turn to Cuvier's much smaller access hatch. Joel went first; as he entered the cabin he stopped in his tracks, and I crashed into him. "Something wrong?" I asked as I stepped around him.

He shook himself and looked down at me, a wan smile masking his haunted expression. "I'm sorry, darling," he said in muffled tones. "It's just…been too long."

I slipped my arm through his. "I know," I said softly--and I did. More than twenty years had passed since he'd last been aboard a CF vessel--or indeed seen one, except on a computer screen. Twenty years since his unplanned retirement. "For me too."

He smiled and kissed me on the forehead. "Let's take a look around."

We did--and were immediately appalled. Larry had been speaking facetiously when he'd declared Cuvier "ready for inspection." In fact she was anything but. Most of the access panels hung open; the components behind many were partially disassembled. Tools and testing equipment lay everywhere. It was as if the maintenance crew had just stepped out for coffee; or--more likely--had been told by Larry to take a hike. Carefully my husband and I picked our way through the clutter, while our host watched intently, leaning at ease against the hatch.

Just inside was the main salon, spacious, attractive and well-lit, its arched ceiling matching the curve of the hull. To the left--forward--was a round pedestal table, surrounded by a wraparound bench seat. It would do multiple duty, for eating, game-playing, and earnest discussions. The autokitchen hatch was on the bulkhead behind, and seeing that, I wondered idly how complete its database was. Farther forward, a narrow doorway led into the control cabin. Opposite were two monitor stations--they'd be Compcomm and Techspec, on a larger vessel--with comfortable-looking adjustable seats before them.

Aft, a narrow spiral stairway led down to the second deck, where we found the two identical sleeping cabins--a pair of bunks, a hanging locker, and a desk with a fold-down seat--and the single head. That could cause problems--but the cabins did include washbasins, which should help.

As we surveyed the cabins, Joel grinned sourly. "Twin beds," he observed. "Well, it's only five nights. I suppose we'll live."

I smiled and slipped my arm around his waist. "Are you sure about that?"

"More to the point," he went on, "will the twins survive sharing a cabin? They've gotten used to privacy these last few years…"

"If they want to come with us," I said pragmatically, "they'll adjust."

But would our nerves--his and mine--survive being cooped up in a small space with two active teenagers for five days? Perhaps we should look into having them put into hibernation for the trip; or consider tranquilizers. (For Joel and me, not them.)

Joel nodded at the open hatch in the floor of the bottom-level corridor. "I'd like to inspect the equipment," he said--predictably.

"Go right ahead," I told him. The space below-decks would be dark, cramped and dirty--and would contain nothing to interest me. "I'm going to take a look at the controls. I'm the one who has to fly this crate, after all."

"Suit yourself," he said affably.

We split up then, and--aware of Larry's amused gaze upon me--I climbed the stairs and made my way forward.

The control cabin--built into a conical projection on the apex of the main hull--was rather small, the U-shaped console tucked in beneath the rakishly-sloped wraparound "windshield." Before it were two couch-like seats--pilot and co-pilot--so closely-spaced that one had to slide them back on tracks to climb in or out. Definitely not intended for the corpulent--or for those rapidly approaching senility. Behind were a pair of fold-down "jump seats." Here too a few control panels hung open, the rest were mostly dark, with only a few "standby" lights glowing. Cuvier's fusion drives were shut down; temporarily she was living on ODF power.

The pilot's seat was already pushed back on its tracks, as if waiting for me, and with an effort I folded myself into it. I touched a button on the right-hand arm, and with a whoosh of compressed air the seat moved forward, bringing the control panel within reach.

I was already familiar with its layout, having studied it extensively these last couple days. Nor was it much different from those of most other ships I'd piloted. My fingers drifting across the buttons and keys, I felt a comfortable and pleasant deja-vu. Yes, I could fly the thing.

I closed my eyes then, and let myself sink into the seat, which--though designed for humans, and ones taller than me--was surprisingly comfortable. There were controls which would make it even more so, but I didn't bother with them. To be honest, I had no idea why I was here. The tour had told me nothing that floor-plans and diagrams had not; and with a dead control board, I certainly wouldn't be exercising my piloting skills. It was Joel who'd been eager to come: to see the ODF again, to set foot on a CF vessel after two decades, to see Larry Inman--and most importantly, to see his handiwork made real. I was simply along for the ride. Certainly he'd had no thought of rubbing my nose in his triumph--that he'd been able to secure a ship, when I hadn't--but it rankled nonetheless. What damn good was being a commodore, if my civilian husband had to solve my problems?

Angrily I shook my head, and opened my eyes to gaze down at the controls. Most of them were dead, the circuit-breakers thrown to protect the workers--but a few were active. Touching keys, I dimmed the overhead lights to "running" mode, and opened the flare panels covering the windshield.

…And as they parted I froze, my tail bristling, my heart hammering. And not simply because of the breathtaking vista that opened up before me: a sweeping curve of the ODF's middle ring, glowing in sunlight with a brilliant white-on-blue wedge of Terra circling slowly beneath. No: what caused my stomach to do flip-flops was the large vessel moored one ring up, presenting her all-too-familiar profile to my suddenly misty eyes: ESV Zelazny.

The sight of her set off an avalanche of memories and emotions within me, ones that work, home, mate and kits usually helped me keep safely bottled inside. That's the worst part of growing older: you keep losing friends. Captain Haliday, long since retired; I had no idea where he was now. Captain Vandevere, killed in action almost ten years ago along with Commander Hullumm, when a landing pod's fuel tank exploded and took out almost three decks. Aparna Singh, returned to her homeland in northern India, and all but vanished. Max Goodwin--Admiral Max Goodwin--still in the CF, but a long way from my Research Center: the last I'd heard, he was serving in the Navy's Tactical Division, and was stationed on Xerxes. Only Dr. Zeeleeayykk, now a high official in the Medical Division at HQ, kept in regular contact with me. There was no one I knew aboard Zelazny now.

No, I didn't haul those memories out very often, because they made me feel old and worn-out. Perhaps that was my problem: age. Maybe the passing years had dulled the edge of my conniving mind. Maybe that's why Joel beat me to the punch…

Once again I shook my head. In one sweeping gesture, my claws half-expressed. I closed the flare shield, brought up the lights, and hit the button that slid back the seat. None of this--sighing over the past, moping because Joel had one-upped me--was helping. My new rank had failed to get me this ship; but did the fault lie in my authority…or my confidence in exercising it? I suspected the latter--and if so, that would have to stop, right now. It was past time I put those new stars to work for me.

Larry and Joel were sitting at the dining table, once again reminiscing, when I entered the salon. Joel caught sight of me first--back straight, arms crossed, tail waving, eyes narrowed in determination--and the laughter died on his lips. Larry didn't know me quite as well; but he scrambled to his feet, no longer carelessly lounging but stiffly at attention.

I turned first to Joel. "Have you completed your inspection?" I asked, quietly but firmly.

He gazed at me, his brow furrowed; then he nodded. "Yes, I have."

"And?"

"The ship is adequate for our needs."

"Excellent." I turned to Larry. "I understand this vessel will be ready to fly in five days, Commander?"

"That is correct, Commodore," he said. Without a tremor--but with no trace of his habitual breeziness, either.

"Let's make it three."

He eyed me for a second; but the set of my whiskers must have convinced him I meant business. "Aye, Commodore."

"Ayla--?" Joel began uncertainly; but I silenced him with a glance, and went on.

"Two alterations I want made," I told Inman. "First, I'd like the twin bunks in the forward cabin replaced with one full-sized bed."

I cocked an eye, daring him to smile, but he did not. "Aye, Commodore."

"And second, I'll be sending you a number of autokitchen programs. I'd be obliged if you'd see that they're installed."

"Of course, Commodore." He paused. "Anything else?"

"No," I said. "That's all for now."

"In that case, is it permissible to ask the Commodore a question?"

"Certainly."

"Which is the impostor--you or the nice one?"

###

The pod deposited us at the Presidio's small landing field that afternoon, and from there we walked home. A long journey, true; but the day was sunny and warm, just begging to be enjoyed, and we obliged. In silence, and at a brisk pace, we made our way west on Lighthouse to Eardley to Ocean view, downhill virtually all the way. As we walked, my husband kept glancing at me furtively, over and over, as if nerving himself to speak. Finally I sighed and said, "Do you have a problem, Joel?"

"Frankly, yes," he replied. "I've been trying to figure out what happened. My wife, the former Academy party animal, went into that control cabin--but Commodore Ehm'ayla came out. I'm wondering what caused the sudden change."

I chuckled. "Zelazny," I said.

"Pardon me?"

"Never mind." By this time we'd made the left turn off Eardley onto Ocean View, and had crossed over to the bicycle path on the Bay side, obeying the city ordinance by staying on the border, out of the way of those peculiar human-powered juggernauts. Over the years I'd become used to the feeling of crushed granite under my foot-pads, in all kinds of weather, and had grown alert to the agitated whir of approaching cyclists. We'd passed the Hopkins Marine Station, and were a few blocks from Lovers Point, when I discovered--much to my chagrin--that I needed to sit down.

It hadn't always been that way. There was a time when I could have made that walk effortlessly. There was a time when, if the notion struck, I'd walk home from the Research Center, taking the bike path past Fisherman's Wharf and Customs House Plaza, along Cannery Row and Ocean View--and be home in time for dinner. These days my poor joints ached just to contemplate it.

Fortunately there was a bench handy, facing the Bay, and we sank down onto it, watching the lazy summer surf climb the rocks in the little cove below. It wasn't age, not really: I wasn't that infirm yet. I'd simply started at too rapid a pace--and my uniform wasn't helping either. Joel had already removed his jacket, draping it over his arm; his forehead was filmed with sweat. I lowered my jumpsuit's mag-seal almost to my navel, shamelessly exposing my white undershirt. Officer's decorum is one thing; heat exhaustion quite another.

"Have I done something wrong again?" Joel asked plaintively.

I turned my face toward the breeze. A constant stream of pedestrians--tourists mainly--passed in both directions, many of them casting curious glances in our direction. After twenty years, I was used to that. "No," I assured him. "You haven't. It's just…well, let me ask you this. How do I usually go about getting what I want?"

"That's easy," he said with a grin. "Intimidation."

"Exactly," I agreed. "But in this case I didn't get the chance to try. I was distracted by that nonsense with Sah'churaaf--but I would have jumped into the fray eventually, and clawed my way to the top of that waiting list. Literally, if need be."

"Of that, I have no doubt," he said quickly.

"But you did your deal with Larry," I went on, "and that was that. I can't argue with success; but somehow I feel…cheated. In a way I was looking forward to the fight: to test my new weapons--and prove I'm still capable."

He turned away. "Oh boy."

"And," I continued, "there's also Larry. He was surprised to find out I was aware of your plot. He thought you'd sold me the same ridiculous story the two of you cooked up for Admiral McPherson. And that's hard to forgive, especially from him. He must think I've gone brain-dead, or--" I spat the word between clenched teeth-- "conservative."

Joel smiled and scratched the back of his head, as he always did when he had something painful to confess. "That wasn't Larry's fault," he said. "I planted that idea in his head myself."

I stared at him. "You did," I said. "Why, in the Goddess' name?"

His apologetic grin widened. "I was trying to keep your name out of it," he said. "Admiral McPherson can't do much to me, and he'd hardly dare touch Larry; there'd be chaos at Ops. But you…"

I frowned. "I'm a big girl, Joel," I said. "I can take care of myself."

His smile fell. "I know," he said softly. For a few seconds he sat silent, staring at the water. The day was clear, as few are in summertime; across the azure Bay, Point Ao Nuevo was sharply silhouetted. Finally he went on, "Darling, please believe me: I was only trying to help. I knew how distracted you were; and a couple nights ago you seemed to have given up hope of getting to the top of that list. I'm sorry I spoiled your fun--but the way I understood it, the objective was to get hold of the damned ship, by whatever means."

Joel Abrams had always known how to push my buttons--and this one was labeled "shame." I grasped his hand. "You were right," I said. "That was the objective--and as I said, I can't argue with success. I guess my real problem is this new rank. I told you before the ceremony that I thought it was a sinecure--and so far, nothing had indicated that it isn't."

"So you decided to try leaning on Larry."

"A little, yes," I confessed. "Do you think he'll forgive me?"

"I imagine he will," he said. "He's pretty resilient. Hey--are you going back to the Center today?"

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I don't think so. Peter can handle things there, and we've got a lot of work to do."

"In three days," Joel said with a grin.

I growled; but he was right. The fact that we now had to rush was entirely due to me flexing my muscles.

He rose and extended a hand, helping me to my feet. "Come on," he said. "I'm starving. Let's get some lunch--before we both expire from stress."

###

I was alone in the house when the visiphone sounded.

After years of shipboard service, I'd had some difficulty getting used to the concept of "weekends." Aboard a Survey vessel, every day of the week is divided into three eight-hour duty shifts--but the Research Center operated more like a civilian business, from oh-eight-hundred to seventeen hundred Monday through Thursday, and (because of a long-standing policy of Commodore Green's I'd never dared alter) a little shorter on Fridays. Saturday and Sunday were my own, and were usually family time.

But this weekend, because of our frantic preparations, we had no time for that. Which was a tragedy, really: the weather had turned spectacularly beautiful. But our departure had progressed from "soon" to "imminent"--and the list of things to do didn't seem to be shrinking. That Saturday morning found me exactly where I'd been the previous two evenings: in my study, in front of the computer. I trusted Peter Kinsey to run my department--but I didn't want to give him too much leeway, lest he come to regard a certain Sah'aaran commodore as redundant. I wasn't leaving him minute-to-minute instructions; certainly not. Hour-to-hour at most.

Fortunately the house was quiet. Joel and Rae had gone shopping (last-minute travel items and aquarium supplies), and Tom was out in the back yard. His presence there was announced by the sounds that drifted periodically through the balcony door: a muted "pop" followed by a sharp "crack," and then, a second later, a solid "thud." Clad in dark-blue shorts and nothing else, he was taking batting practice; it would be his last opportunity for some time. He'd been working as hard as the rest of us these last few days, and I didn't grudge him some relaxation. In the absence of his sister, he used a ball-gun; its pitches were almost as powerful as hers, if not as tricky. Our yard was minuscule--but Tom and Joel, using surplus CF equipment, had rigged a powerful magnetic "curtain," which shagged the specially-made balls before they reached our (or the neighbor's) windows.

Later, when Rae got home, I hoped he would turn off the ball-gun and let her get in some pitching practice. They were overdue for time together. As I'd feared, he'd had no interest in her attempts to cheer him up, that morning while Joel and I inspected Cuvier. We'd arrived home to find him slumped dispiritedly in front of the threevee, and Rae out with her friends, having abandoned in disgust her efforts to interest him in life.

So when the visiphone rang, there was no one to answer it but me. With a shudder of dread--that instrument had not been bringing me good news lately--I cleared the screen and touched the button.

The face that looked out at me was young, beautiful, furry…and black. "Ehm'tassaa!" I said in surprise. "I thought your father locked you out of the visiphones--?"

"He did," she said. She grinned impishly. "The day I can't get past an access block…"

Slowly I matched her smile. A girl after my own heart, true enough. "What can I do for you, dear?" I asked. As if I didn't know…

She sobered. "May I please speak to Tom?" she said urgently. "Just for a few minutes?"

I hesitated for an instant. By placing this call she was disobeying her father; did I want to be a party to that? I might have lied, told her that Tom was out; and that would have been that--except for the guilt. On the other hand, any girl her age who could defeat a comm lockout could also see through any subterfuge I might attempt. "Yes, of course you may," I said. "One moment, I'll get him."

I hailed Tom from the balcony, and he instantly dropped his Louisville Slugger and came running, not pausing to don his shirt or wipe his feet. Panting hard, he exploded into my study, his eyes wild and his mane disheveled.

I retreated downstairs for a cup of tea while they talked. As I sat gazing out into the sunlit garden, I found myself gripped by second thoughts. If Sah'churaaf ever found out about my part in this…suddenly I felt less like a Montague and more like Friar Lawrence. Maybe I should have left a bad situation alone…

It was about twenty minutes later--I was halfway through my second cup of tea, and thinking longingly of last night's leftover salmon in the fridge--when Tom came stumbling downstairs, his expression blank and his eyes glazed. He crossed the kitchen, pulled a mug from the rack, and stuck it under Joel's endless coffee spigot. (The first time I saw him do that--some months past--I almost swallowed my teeth. Most Sah'aarans, including Rae and myself, despise coffee. Yet another unfortunate habit he'd picked up from his father.) Then he collapsed onto the chair opposite me.

For several minutes we remained silent, him sipping and me watching; then I cleared my throat. "I don't mean to pry…," I began in Sah'aaran.

He looked up, startled; evidently he hadn't noticed I was there. Then he shook his head. "That's all right, Mom," he replied. He took a deep breath. "She told me she's sorry for the way her father is acting, and she's going to keep trying to get him to change his mind. Oh--she wants to thank you for letting me talk to her, and for how you stood up to Sah'churaaf the other day. She swore she and I will be together again."

Which could only be a good thing: he was utterly miserable without her. It had hurt me to see my poor boy so sunk in melancholy. "Did you tell her you're going away?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "She said it might be a good thing; it'll give her time to work on her father." He paused. "She also said…" He trailed off. For a moment he stared into space; then, without meeting my gaze, he went on, in quiet, almost strangled tones. "Mom--is it really possible that Tass and I are…bonding?"

I smiled tenderly and brushed his fuzzy cheek, an affront to his male dignity he'd only allow in private. "More than just possible," I said. "It would take a blood test to know for certain, and we don't have time for that right now. But I don't really think it's necessary."

In anguish he gulped at his coffee, his tail lashing, and finally turned his haunted gaze toward me. "What do I do now?" he asked.

"Depends," I replied calmly. "If you mean, what do you do to prevent it, the answer is: nothing. It can't be prevented. And you wouldn't really want to, would you?"

He shook his head. "No," he said with finality. "I wouldn't. Of course not."

"--But," I went on, "if you mean, what do you do about Sah'churaaf's stupidity…that's a bit harder. Right now all you can do is wait. He'll come to his senses eventually; he'll have to." I paused. "I hate to say this, Tom, but you weren't exactly his first choice of a mate for Ehm'tassaa…"

Tom nodded and grinned. "I know," he said sourly. "He wanted her to bond with the son of a diplomat, or a government official, or someone like that. Someone important. Not a Terran-raised nobody who dresses funny and thinks he's human."

"To be blunt," I said wryly, "you're right. But that was his intention--not the Goddess'. She has taken it out of his hands, for reasons known only to Her. And you are worthy of Ehm'tassaa. Never think otherwise. It won't always be easy, being mated to a blackfur, and both of you will have to make compromises. But you'll be happy--I know it."

He was silent for a moment, gazing into the garden, sipping his bitter brew. Then, suddenly, his eyes widened. "I just had a horrible thought," he said. "What if Sah'churaaf tries to break the bonding, using nanotech? Kind of the reverse of the way you bonded with Dad?"

I turned away. "I…don't think that's likely," I said. "For several reasons. First, because it doesn't work that way--and with too much tampering, she might end up unable to bond with anyone. No parent would risk that. Second, he'd be a hypocrite. He practically accused me of immorality for what I did. Third, so far as I know, the only expert on the technique is Sah'majha, Admiral Ehm'rael's mate. He wouldn't participate in anything like that. And finally, it would be illegal. She's a minor; it would be tantamount to child abuse."

Tom nodded slowly. "I'm sure you're right."

…Nevertheless, he had a point. What Sah'majha and I did, almost twenty years ago, was like the proverbial twig-snap that sets off the stampede. Thus far, law, custom and public revulsion had kept it in check--which was why neither he nor I was very popular on our homeworld. But what if, someday in the future, Sah'aarans were able to choose their mates, the way humans do; or worse, able to make and break bondings at will? The word "profound" doesn't begin to describe the consequences to our society--and it would be my fault. I could only hope to be dead and sprinkled before that day arrived.

Whatever else Tom and I might have said to each other was interrupted by the arrival of Joel and Ehm'rael. They came bursting in through the back door, talking and laughing, laden with packages that Tom rose to help them with. If Joel saw the hint of moisture in my eyes, he knew better than to inquire after its cause.

###

Ehm'luruus had called off the search--damn her.

That charming bit of information came my way the night before our departure, courtesy of the Sah'aaran Interplanetary News. As the days passed, I'd watched with dismay as Sah'larrah's disappearance gradually became "old news:" every day my automated key-word search turned up less and less, and what little there was became increasingly short and cursory. It's always that way, of course; today's hot story is tomorrow's fish-wrap. But when it involves someone you've known more than half your life, you tend to regard the waning interest as a personal affront. And now this.

A few thousand kilometers above, Cuvier's maintenance and modifications had been completed on schedule (my schedule), and some of our baggage had been taken aboard, courtesy of Larry Inman. The rest--carry-ons, things needed on the voyage--was stacked in the hallway, awaiting our departure. Though it was only nine p.m.--the kits were already in bed, and voluntarily too. They were unlikely to be asleep, though; probably they were talking, via the door that connected their rooms. Understandably, the prospect of their first space voyage had them walking on the ceiling. Even Tom: with the Ehm'tassaa problem on hold, he'd found his sister's enthusiasm contagious. Unable to even consider sleeping, I'd stepped into my study to check the News and CFNet. I wished now I hadn't.

The story was datelined Sah'salaan, and had been posted less than ten hours before. I scanned its few terse paragraphs with growing astonishment and anger. Amazing, how thoroughly I'd come to detest the Chief of the District Police--without ever having met her. Given her "blame the victim" philosophy, I had to wonder how long her tenure in office would be; when I caught up with her, even her life-span might be distinctly short. By her order--and over the objections of many--the search for Sah'larrah and his assistant had been canceled, and they had been officially declared dead. Ehm'luruus clearly believed her department had wasted enough money and manpower on the old fool. She'd also asked the Government to permanently close off Sah'larrah's access to the Undercity, so that--as she put it--"the people of Sah'aar can put this unfortunate incident behind us."

As a child I swore an oath never to use my claws in anger against any sentient being--but if, at that moment, I could have been teleported to Sah'aar, I would have cheerfully broken that vow. The article was text-only, with no video or audio clips; but I could clearly picture her expression of smug contempt, and the sarcastic twang in her voice. I wanted nothing more than to shove those words down her throat. She could thank the Goddess for the speed of light.

Joel found me there, some time later, still staring at the screen, my claws expressed and my tail vibrating. "Ayla--?" he began in concern, and I rounded on him, snarling.

"Look at this, Joel," I demanded. "Just look at it!"

He stepped closer. "I'm looking," he said, "but it's not telling me much."

The screen was filled with Sah'aaran hieroglyphic script, which my husband had never learned to read. His lighthearted rebuke instantly cooled my anger several degrees. I took a deep breath, centering myself, and gave him a capsule translation; but as I spoke my rage flared up again, and before I finished my voice was trembling on the edge of a growl.

Joel clasped my hand, and I let him lead me to the sofa. He wrapped his arm around me and drew me close, stroking my mane. "I'm sorry to say it," he told me softly, "but you're not looking at this logically."

"Meaning?" I demanded.

"You've got to look at it from Ehm'luruus' point of view. Yes, her attitude stinks; I can't argue with that. She has all the subtle tact of a fusion explosion. But logically, she's right. There's been no trace of Sah'larrah since he vanished: none. The District Police can't have unlimited funds or manpower--no law-enforcement body ever does. She can't justify expending limited resources on a lost cause."

I turned away. "You don't care," I said bitterly.

"Hey." Enclosing my face between his palms, he turned my head inexorably to meet his gaze. "Of course I care," he said. "Sah'larrah was your friend, not mine; I scarcely knew him. But I do know how much this hurts you, and I can't fail to care about that." His voice fell. "And there's also what he meant to the twins." He paused. "Listen," he continued, in his infamous "bottom-line" tone, "you have good reason to be angry at this Ehm'luruus. But is there anything you can do about it until we get there?"

"No," I said. "Not really."

"Well, then, what's the point in beating yourself up? Save your anger, my darling--for when you meet her face to face."

I sighed and leaned my head on his shoulder. "You're right," I said. "You're always right. And…it hurts me to say so, but in her place I'd probably do the same. I was just remembering the rescue operations, when the floods hit twelve years ago. I was ranking officer at the Center that morning, and I had limited resources too. I had to decide--me, solely--where to send my people, where I thought they'd do the most good. I received the Order of Valor--but I've always wondered if I made the right choices. Maybe I could have saved more lives…"

"You'll never know," Joel said. "Literally. And it's useless to drive yourself crazy wondering. Believe me, dear, I'm an expert in wondering what might have been--which is why I feel a little sorry for Ehm'luruus. And anyway, that level of arrogance must be a mask for low self-esteem."

"We'll see," I said. And we would: how her arrogance would stand up to the full fury of a CF commodore, the daughter of one of the most powerful males on Sah'aar.

…But in the meantime, Joel's words and stroking hand had served their intended purpose: my claws had vanished, and my tail was now flicking lazily around my feet. I moved a little closer, and his arm tightened around me. "Are we ready?" I asked.

"I think so," he said. "I hope so." He grinned. "We'd damned well better be, anyway."

The last three days had been frantic, perhaps the most hectic seventy-two hours since our wedding. Joel didn't say so--and wouldn't--but we both knew it was my fault. I'd been motivated by more than a simple desire to throw my weight around, when I ordered Larry to speed up Cuvier's maintenance cycle. Uppermost in my mind was the five-day transit that lay between Terra and Sah'aar--and how heartbreakingly fast the tides of time were rolling over Sah'larrah, rendering him little more than a footnote. If my presence was to have any meaning, I had to arrive soon. I almost regretted that I hadn't dropped everything, when the news first reached me, and hopped the next available ship headed in approximately the right direction. Had I been younger, and without a mate and kits to worry about, I might have.

But on the whole, we'd done well. We'd packed, and Joel and I had tried to instill in the twins something of the bare-bones, economical habits that CF weight restrictions had taught us. Easier than it might sound: Tom and Rae were experienced backpackers. More importantly, we'd made arrangements for the things we'd leave behind. Our part-time housekeeper would look in every few days, to make sure everything was secure--and that Joel's prize fish weren't doing the backstroke. Joel had put his contracts on hold, and the twins had informed their coach that the Pacific Grove Pines would have to do without their prize pitcher and first-baseman for a time.

And me? I'd left Peter Kinsey voluminous instructions--but I had no illusions. As soon as we departed Sol system, they'd hit the mass recycler, and he'd run the place as he damned well pleased until I returned. He'd do a good job of it, too, and I'd have no cause to be angry. But writing those instructions had, to an extent, eased the stabs of guilt inflicted by my work-ethic. Duty can become an addiction--and the withdrawal symptoms were never long in coming. How I'd survive retirement, I had no idea.

Of course there were setbacks: last-minute trips to the mall, for example, for items someone just had to have. And far too much worrying about the things that were being left behind: duty, contracts, friends, fish, spots on the batting order. All of that was over now, dealt with; we would arrive at the ODF the next morning with clear consciences.

"Yes." I said softly. "We're ready."

Joel nodded. His steady stroking had not ceased, though his arm must have been growing tired; and that gentle smoothing of my mane had finally brought forth a contented purr. My boiling rage of minutes before was just a memory. "Joel," I said, "I want to thank you."

"What for?"

"Putting up with me," I said. "I know I've been hell to live with these last few days…"

He chuckled. "You're right," he said. "You were." He kissed my forehead. "But that's what I'm here for." He glanced at his wrist chrono. "It's getting late. Maybe we ought to think about bed--?"

I shook my head. "I'm too keyed-up to sleep."

He gazed into my eyes. "Who said anything about sleep?"

###

NC Cuvier left the Orbital Docking Facility at precisely oh-nine-hundred the next morning--but the departure was not without challenges.

First, before we even left home, came the last-minute flurry of repacking. I can forgive such behavior from teenagers, whose experience with long-distance travel was small; but when full-grown ex-CF engineers get into the act, that's when I put my foot down. Programmers have a term: "freezing the code"--and that's exactly what I did: I declared that the cases were to be considered sealed until we reached the ship. I might have been a little shaky with my new rank--but my authority in the Abrams household was unquestioned.

…And then there was the delivery. It arrived at almost literally the last minute, with our departure for the Presidio just moments away. Joel and I were in the kitchen, putting away the breakfast dishes with a curious sense of finality, and the twins were making a final check on light-switches and door-locks, when the doorbell sounded.

I glanced at Joel. "Who in the Dark can that be?" I asked irritably.

He shrugged. "Only one way to find out," he said, and, handing me a stack of plates, departed the kitchen.

He was back less than a minute later, a small object in his hand and a bemused look on his face. "Who was it?" I asked.

"A courier," he said. He extended his hand. The small plastic shipping box he held was not addressed to either of us, but rather to "Mr. Thomas S. Abrams." The return address, very familiar indeed, was in San Francisco.

"The Sah'aaran Embassy," I commented.

"Do tell," Joel said dryly. He leaned into the hall. "Tom!"

Mr. Thomas S. Abrams came downstairs at a run. A human mother would have had heart failure--but Sah'aarans are sure-footed. "Yes, Dad?"

"Package for you, son," Joel said, handing it over. "I wonder who it could be from--?" he went on, with deep irony.

Tom hadn't perfected my quick-frosting look, but he was getting close. Not bothering with a knife, he slit the packing tape with a claw-tip. The first thing out of the box was a letter, a carefully-folded sheet; and not plastic, either, but rather the brown-tinged, crinkly "parchment" used for formal invitations. I have no idea what it said--Tom didn't share, and I didn't ask--but it caused a smile to spread across his face and a purr to rumble forth from his chest. "It's from Ehm'tassaa," he said needlessly.

The other item the package contained may have surprised Tom--but not me. I'd already guessed, from the size of the box. A dark, tight coil, it unwound across his hand into a long, wide strip: a collar. It was an everyday model, meant to go with anything: shiny black, with a subtle multicolored pattern running through the weave. Too big to have been one of Ehm'tassaa's; she must have slipped her leash long enough to do some shopping; or--more likely--had placed an order at Sah'namma's indispensable "Sah'aaran Supply Store" near the Embassy.

"Very nice," I said, my tone carefully neutral.

"Uh--yeah," he agreed, eyeing the thing much as a human would regard a dead rat. "It is. Excuse me; I've--uh--got to go help Rae."

He retreated, and I sighed and shook my head. No good trying to coerce him; but sadly, I had a feeling I knew where the collar would end up: buried in his dresser-drawer along with his only other one, which he'd never worn and long since outgrown. "Kits," I said sadly.

"Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em," Joel agreed cheerfully. "I think it's time to go."

We were in for a surprise, though--or at least I was--when we met the twins in the hall. For the trip we'd equipped them with one-piece jumpsuits, not unlike my uniform; Rae's in shades of blue, Tom's in brown and tan. As my son turned toward me, I saw that he'd opened the mag-seal of his at the throat…and around his neck was a wide black line. "Tom--?" I began, scarcely daring to believe.

He grinned and ran a forefinger around the inside of the collar, as if to loosen it. "I--uh--figured I'd better get used to it," he said. "Tass thinks I'd cause a scandal on Sah'aar without one…"

I rolled my eyes heavenward, wondering if the day was marked in red on the calendar. Of course I'd been telling him roughly the same thing most of his life; but what do I know, I'm only his mother. Predictable, I suppose, that it would take his new-found bond-mate to convince him. Maybe if she told him to clean up his room…

But despite these--and other--distractions, we finally did catch our pod, and disembarked half an hour later at the ODF. I will leave to the imagination of the reader the difficulties involved in shepherding two starry-eyed and infinitely curious teenagers through the maze of corridors to Cuvier's mooring.

This time, the ship truly was ready for inspection. The maintenance hatches were closed and locked, the tools and test equipment gone; she looked like a spaceship now, not a junk-dealer's back room. A huge bouquet of flowers sat on the dining table; the "Bon Voyage" card propped next to them had been signed by Larry. Maybe I should have checked them for explosives.

We deposited our travel cases in our cabins, and I was pleased to see that the requested modification had been made to the one Joel and I would share. Then, while the twins conducted their inspection (translated: "got into everything"), and Joel checked the engineering readouts, I went forward to the control cabin.

Here as well, I found everything ship-shape, the panel-covers back in place and the breakers engaged. Touching keys, I brought the entire array to humming, glowing life. Cuvier was once again an independent entity: her fusion reactors were active, supplying power, and her thrusters were primed and ready to go. All across the board, telltales winked a reassuring green. I dimmed the cabin lights, opened the flare shield, and switched on the side- and rear-view monitors--and then I sighed. Zelazny was gone, her own maintenance cycle completed. Had she still been there, I would have regarded it a good omen.

My husband and kits came forward then. "Everything is stowed," Joel announced. "And all systems check out. We're ready."

"Good," I said. "Take the co-pilot's seat, please. I'm going to need all the help I can get."

His eyes lit up, but he hung back. "Uh--my pilot's license expired twenty years ago," he reminded me.

"I won't tell the Admirals if you won't."

He grinned hugely and folded himself into the seat to my right. Behind, Rae cleared her throat. "Can we stay?" she asked plaintively.

I smiled. "Certainly," I said. With a wave of my hand I indicated the jump-seats. "Make yourselves comfortable."

Joel was studying the control panel with fierce concentration, and I smiled. "Do you still remember how?"

He grinned, a little nervously. "I think so," he said. "It's probably like riding a bicycle." He frowned, apparently pondering those words, then turned to gaze at the twins. "Listen, you two," he told them seriously, "your mother and I are about to attempt something extremely complicated. We'll be happy to answer your questions--after we're underway. Until then, we'd appreciate an admiring silence." He paused. "Oh--and don't touch anything. Okay?"

"Okay, Dad," Tom replied with uncharacteristic meekness, and Rae nodded her agreement. As Joel turned back to his panel he winked, and I stifled a chuckle. After all these years, he was still tickled by his ability to command instant and total obedience from his children--especially since he didn't have claws.

"The crew appears to be ready," he said dryly.

As for me…well, Shakespeare said it best: "Cowards die many times before their death." In short, I was terrified. It had been far too long--simulator time be damned. What I was about to attempt wasn't exactly combat--but despite the computers, the potential for disaster was all to real, should I slip. Nor did I have the luxury of giving in to fear--not with Joel and the twins watching. I cleared my throat. "Status, Mr. Abrams?"

"Life support nominal, Commodore," he replied. "Thrusters on line; navigation on line; fusion drives on standby; ramscoops available."

I took a deep breath. There was no putting it off, no backing out; not now. I keyed the comm. "ODF Control, this is Cuvier," I said, in a voice almost my own. "Requesting departure clearance."

The voice crackled back immediately: a Centaurii, calm and businesslike. "Cuvier, this is Control. You are clear for departure on Vector 93 Alpha."

Now, I thought, you either take us out of here, or plow us into a deuterium tanker. "Understood, Control. Vector 93 Alpha." I glanced at Joel. "Clear moorings, please."

He hesitated, then touched keys. "Moorings read clear. All umbilicals retracted."

Indeed, we were already beginning to drift. I hesitated, swallowing butterflies, then punched several buttons in quick succession. A few bursts from the port-side thrusters took us clear of the ring; when we were perhaps a hundred meters out, I began to alter our course, a few puffs at a time.

"Vector 93 Alpha achieved," Joel reported a moment later. "We're all clear."

With a few more taps on the thrusters I arrested our spin, and started us on our way. When we were sufficiently far from the station, my hand fell to the fusion-drive throttles. I ran them up slowly, until the thrust meter stood at a quarter of a G; and as I did, their barely-audible mutter deepened: first to a growl, then to a familiar throaty roar. Irritating now, very soon it would fade into the background. In the rear-view screen, the ODF vanished like one of Tom's home runs.

I keyed the comm. "ODF Control, this is Cuvier. We are underway."

"Confirmed, Cuvier," the unnamed Centaurii replied. "Have a good trip."

I realized then, rather to my surprise, that my nervousness had disappeared like the morning mist. In its place had blossomed a feeling of calm assurance--and something suspiciously like enjoyment. Goddess, how I've missed this!

Gradually I ran up the thrust to one G, and, as soon as the computer indicated that our velocity was sufficient, I activated the ramscoop fields. The twin skewed cones of magnetic force were invisible, of course, except on the monitor screen; but the surge of thrust was unmistakable. At a full two G's of acceleration, we headed for one of Sol's outbound hypertunnels.

Joel smiled and clasped my hand. "Nicely done, Skipper," he said; the greatest compliment any pilot can be paid.

I smiled back. "Thank you," I said. "And for your help."

A little more than an hour later we reached the node, and as I made the final course correction I realized to my astonishment that I hadn't heard a sound out of the kits since we cleared our moorings. I glanced back--and had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing.

They were sitting bolt-upright in their fold-down seats, unmoving, hardly daring to breathe; even their tails hung perfectly still. Their eyes, staring fixedly at the windshield, were as large as dinner plates. Looking at them, I experienced a painful stab of nostalgia. I'd grown so used to thinking of them as young adults…but seeing the rapt wonder on their faces, I could almost believe they were still children. Rae had braided her mane for the trip, something she seldom did these days, and that made her look younger too. So too did those almost-matched jumpsuits. No matter how big they get, I thought, they will always be my kittens. "Are you two all right?" I asked.

Rae shook herself. "Yes," she said--or rather, squeaked. "It's just a little…different."

Joel and I exchanged a glance: they ain't seen nothing yet! "ETA?" I asked him.

"At present velocity…one minute."

I touched controls, collapsing the ramscoops and throttling back the fusion drive to idle; the sudden silence left a ringing in my ears. Undetectable by the naked eye, the hypertunnel node loomed before us, and I centered our bow on it. The passage, when it came, was almost instantaneous: there was barely enough time for Tom and Rae to gasp. A bright electric-blue flash, a momentary disorientation…and then we were elsewhere, falling through a white-dwarf system twenty light-years from Sol. Finally, miraculously, almost unbelievably, we were on our way; nothing could stop us now. Softly, unaware that I was speaking aloud, I whispered, "Next stop, Sah'aar."


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