Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE DARKNESS BENEATH" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

PART TWO: SAH'SALAAN

CHAPTER FIVE


NC Cuvier arrived at Sah'aar dead on schedule, five days after leaving Terra--and not a minute too soon.

No, the kits didn't misbehave during the trip; I don't believe they knew the meaning of the word. But even as toddlers, Joel had compared their metabolisms to runaway fusion drives, and adolescence hadn't changed that--very much the opposite. Confining that amount of energy in small space, with no back yard or swimming pool…it's a good thing they liked reading and computer games, or they might have spontaneously combusted.

The four of us were together in the control cabin that afternoon, when we cleared the final hypertunnel and began our long fall toward the planet. The star--"Zrr'aal" in our language, the prefix being genderless, or universal--was a tiny bright point in the center of the windshield, until I spun Cuvier on her horizontal axis and ran both ramjets to full power, shedding the speed we'd built up during our voyage. That would take time, and distance; and though the one was precious to me, the other we had in plenty.

Behind me, Tom leaned forward to speak over the engines' roar. "There's nothing to see!" he complained.

"Wait a couple hours," I advised him. "Then you'll see plenty." Beside me, Joel grinned and winked: kits!

With our course set, and the ramjets roaring away at three G's, I had little to occupy me; and so I closed my eyes and relaxed, letting my head sink into the sumptuously-padded neck-rest. Yes, we'd had quite a trip…

It would also be inaccurate to say that the twins had had only checkers and murder mysteries to occupy their time. In fact they'd managed to keep quite busy indeed. And more: this experience seemed likely to prove seminal for both of them; we were, I suspected, seeing long strides on the road to their futures.

Tom, for example. From the moment we left the ODF, Joel had appointed himself Cuvier's "Techspec crew chief." Unnecessary, really: the little ship performed like a champ, and would have continued to do so without his help. But it had been more than twenty-two years since he'd had the chance, and who was I to tell him no? Every day he made his rounds, checking readouts, tinkering with drive efficiency, making a token effort to investigate those infamous life-support couplings--and every day, as he worked, his son was right there at his elbow.

Tom had often before shown an interest in his father's work--when he could spare time from baseball and golf--but it had suddenly evolved into outright fascination. Joel encouraged it; of course he did. In fact he was only too pleased. He waxed quite enthusiastic on the subject one night as we got ready for bed: "I'll tell you, darling, that boy is a born engineer. Like father, like son." I wasn't ready to accept that statement at face value; not quite yet. Tom was interested, yes, and his skills with computers and mathematics were promising--but he was only sixteen. He might change his mind a dozen times before the necessity of choosing a college major forced his hand. If nothing else, though, helping Joel did take Tom's mind off his frustrated bonding.

And Rae--? Our daughter had always been the quieter of the two, the more introspective, the more creative; and the trip had brought those qualities into focus as well. Every time I entered the control cabin, I found her sitting cross-legged in the copilot's seat, staring at the stars, her palm-reader in her lap and her stylus dancing across its screen. Several times she filled her reader's memory, and had to upload her work into the ship's computer. Words, and images--that was her future.

And as for me…the flight had given me entirely too little to do, and left me entirely too much time to think. Ship's operations occupied my thoughts very little: immediately after clearing the first hypertunnel, I turned control over to the computer, letting it worry about navigation and ramjet performance--a task it performed with aplomb. Only during hyperjumps, which occurred about once a day, did I take the helm myself; and that, unfortunately, left me plenty of time to fill with worry.

I liked to think my departure from Sah'aar, thirty-three years ago, had not been entirely a case of bridge-burning. I liked to believed my relations with the folks at home were still reasonably cordial. But the sad fact was, my leaving--and my subsequent life-changing decisions--had complicated an already complex situation, especially in regards to my father. This visit looked to be stressful all around.

The most Goddess-cursed aspect of the situation was that my father was absolutely predictable, not unlike a Greek tragedy. His first words, right after "hello," would be to question my fitness as a mother; then he'd ask whether Joel and I were ready to enroll the kits in a Sah'aaran boarding school. "Since they are already here…" Like Fate, there was no escaping it--and his threat to "intervene" in their upbringing still reverberated in my ears. I hadn't told Joel about that; I could clearly imagine what his reaction would be. At least, thank the Goddess and Ehm'tassaa, my father would be spared the scandalous sight of Tom's bare neck--and I'd be spared his apoplectic (or perhaps I mean "apocalyptic") reaction. Now, if I only could do something about my son's wardrobe…

Such were my cheery thoughts as Cuvier arrowed through the system, slowly losing velocity. In the rear-view scanner Zrr'aal gradually grew larger and brighter, until finally our course toward the second planet caused the star to slide off the screen and vanish.

Behind me I was dimly aware of Tom and Rae muttering back and forth. In Sah'aaran: for once they'd broken their self-imposed rule, to speak only Terran in their father's presence. I couldn't grudge them the opportunity to practice, though, and neither could he: very soon they'd be called upon to speak more of their ancestral tongue than ever before. I'd done my best, the Goddess knows, with help from all the educational media I could find. They could switch languages effortlessly, and their Sah'aaran vocabulary was excellent, their diction and grammar as good as one can expect from teenagers. But--because Terran was their primary language--they spoke Sah'aaran with a definite, and unfortunate, accent. Hopefully no one would actually laugh in their faces.

…And that was yet another reason why my father would be in a foul mood, I suddenly realized: because etiquette would demand that he speak Terran in Joel's presence. Wonderful.

Joel laid his hand atop mine. "Darling? Are you all right?"

I nodded, and tried to smile. "Yes," I said. "I am."

"Good," he said. He pointed at the control board. "Because it's time for turnaround."

He was right. Our speed had dropped sufficiently; we could make the remainder of our approach on momentum. I throttled back the fusion drive and collapsed the ramscoops; then, with gentle bursts of the bow thrusters, I spun the ship around. And as I did, the planet of my birth swept majestically into view.

I gasped, my hands tightening on the arms of my seat, my heart suddenly racing. Behind me the kits leaned forward, and I wondered what thoughts were running through their heads. For me, this was home; for them, it could only be a curiosity, a new world to explore, a piece of their past unconnected to their everyday lives. Sadly, neither they nor Joel could really understand what this meant to me.

From a distance, the planet looked much like Terra: a mottled blue ellipse, strongly sunlit from the right, with a hint of land and sea peeking through the gleaming white clouds. If there was any marked difference, it was that Sah'aar's cloud-deck was a little thinner, and the glimpses of land more gold than green. The savanna: millions of square kilometers of grassland, dominating the temperate zones, dwarfing the tiny regions of forest and desert. The savanna, where my ancestors evolved from solitary hunting cats to civilized members of the Alliance: that is Sah'aar.

At present, neither of the two moons was visible: tiny, airless worldlets in rapid low orbits, most likely captured asteroids--but nonetheless the sites of thriving colonies these last two centuries. Early in our space-faring era, the moons were the source of raw materials for our expanding industries. These days our asteroid belt supplied that need--and that of many other worlds as well. Which explains the strong CF presence in the system.

As we drifted in, a tiny silver speck swam into view around the planet's limb, and toward it I bent our course. I reached for the comm panel, but was beaten to the punch: apparently someone was awake at the long-range sensors. The voice that came through, speaking Terran, was Sah'aaran, male--and terminally bored. "Approaching vessel, this is STS Control. Please identify."

I smiled as I touched the button. Whoever this was--probably a CF enlisted man--he was in for a shock. "STS Control, this is NC Cuvier, Commodore Ehm'ayla commanding. Request docking instructions."

"Uh--stand by, please."

There came a pause, and I imagined the confused rush to confirm the words I'd so casually uttered. Some seconds later the voice returned--but with no trace of its previous boredom. "Cuvier, this is Control. You are clear to dock at Bay 26. Please switch to remote pilot; we will guide you in. And from all of Sah'aar, Commodore--welcome home."

My smile twisted to a sardonic grin. Some of Sah'aar, perhaps. "Thank you, STS. Surrendering control to you now."

I did this, and then I leaned back, feeling the small kicks as the thrusters aligned us, all by themselves. "It would appear they recognized your name," Joel commented dryly.

"It would appear so," I agreed. Or at very least my rank.

Even as this exchange took place, that little point of silver resolved--and grew. Goddess, did it grow! Behind me Tom snarled in amazement, and Ehm'rael grasped the edges of her seat, closing her eyes as if fighting a wave of vertigo. I couldn't blame her.

The Sah'aaran Transfer Station was twice as large as the Terran ODF: not surprising, when you consider the number of massive freighters it handled. A gigantic cylinder, open at both ends, it resembled the ribcage of some titanic spacegoing creature, four kilometers long and two wide. The "ribs"--huge, cross-braced metal struts--were spaced about two hundred meters apart. Vessels were docked both inside and out; at a guess, about fifty percent of the available moorings were occupied. We drifted toward the open end amidst a crowd of other ships, coming and going, their vectors--like ours--carefully controlled by the station's computers.

The twins were staring, their expressions rapt, their jaws slack, their eyes bugging out; and even Joel, who'd spent seven years of his CF career at the Centaurii Shipyards, looked impressed. "What you're seeing," I told Tom and Rae, "was designed and built by Admiral Ehm'rael."

That grabbed their attention immediately. They'd only met my old mentor once, and then when they were too young to remember; but, having grown up listening to my stories, they knew almost as much about her as I did. I hoped in the next few days to introduce them to her; it would be the highlight of the trip. The only one, perhaps.

"How do you even begin to design something that big?" Tom asked in awe, and Joel shrugged.

"Size is largely irrelevant in space," he said. He grinned. "But I'll admit, there is a certain complexity involved."

"Have you ever designed anything like that, Father?" Rae asked.

"Er--no," he confessed. "I've always concentrated on details, rather than the big picture. I guess it requires a larger ego than I have. Not to mention someone willing to let you try."

"If you're that curious, Tom," I said, "you can ask Admiral Ehm'rael when you meet her."

"I can?" he asked, sounding startled.

"Certainly," I said. "She never passes up an opportunity to discuss her successes."

"Wow," he breathed.

We had entered the structure by then, a huge outbound ore-barge skimming by a few hundred meters over our heads. I kept my hands near the manual overrides, but there was no need: our approach was smooth and flawless. A few minutes later we braked to a halt, then drifted smoothly toward a port-side strut. Magnetic clamps and a pressure tube were already reaching out like welcoming arms; with a metallic boom that echoed through the hull, they locked on and pulled us tight.

Joel was busy with the controls. "Docking confirmed, Commodore," he said. "Fusion drives at station idle; all other systems read standby."

I stretched out my arms and arched my stiff back, feeling the vertebrae crack and settle one by one. "We have arrived," I announced. And the Goddess help us, I added silently.

###

My brother met us at the Sah'salaan Terminal--thankfully.

Our passage through the STS was remarkably swift--mainly because the place was run by the Combined Forces, and I was the highest-ranking officer they'd processed in many a day. The staff did everything short of falling to their knees before me. My family and I were Alliance citizens, so there was no messing around with passports or visas or any such insulting nonsense. The only minor holdup was the medical scan, to make sure we weren't bringing in anything contagious--but, since we'd all had our shots, it took only a few minutes. I gave orders for the care and feeding of Cuvier, and for our baggage to be delivered to my father's house--and was both gratified and amused to see the junior officers and enlisted men fall over each other to obey. And then, shouldering our carry-on bags, we caught a transport shuttle, along with two dozen other new arrivals, human and Sah'aaran. I could have ordered up a pod, just for us--but there's a limit.

For the past two centuries, Sah'salaan has been the capital of Sah'aar's global government. It is, accordingly, the largest city on the planet, with a population of more than seven million; and its Transit Terminal, on the western outskirts, is a huge and busy place, a hub for ground and air shuttles as well as landing pods and personnel transports. As we stepped through its doors, a quiet murmur of conversation greeted our ears, along with a riot of sights and smells, all so achingly familiar I felt my heart begin to melt.

The main terminal was a massive geodesic dome, the triangular interstices filled with glittering glass, darkened now against the onslaught of the mid-afternoon First-Summer sun. Outside, the heat would be brutal; inside it was cool and comfortable. Dotted around the wide multi-level floor were a number of small oases: clusters of lush tropical vegetation in pots and planters, intermingled with comfortable chairs and couches--and the inevitable fountains. Some were small, meant for resting or conversation; the larger ones were centered around cafes or refreshment stands.

I led the way, toward the shuttle station on the far side of the dome, and behind me, like a pair of furry robots, came Tom and Rae. They were on the verge of sensory overload: I could see it in their nervously flicking eyes and tails, hear it in their stony silence. Their claws had even begun to express. Seldom in their lives had they seen anything like this; no wonder they were feeling overwhelmed. Their father walked behind them, unobtrusively herding them, keeping them from straying. His own expression was blasé: his CF career had left him considerably more cosmopolitan.

…Or, on the other hand, perhaps it wasn't the surroundings that had so nonplused the twins--but rather the cast of characters. That huge space was an anthill of activity: arrivals, departures, meetings, partings, conversations, meals, and business transactions. Of the hundreds who filled the place, the vast majority were Sah'aaran; among them the occasional human or Centaurii stood out like a maxigrazer on Main Street. In fur and mane, there was every imaginable variation on the theme of golden-brown and orange; in clothing, day-robes of every cut and color, a dizzying kaleidoscope of swirling hues. Small kits trotted along behind their parents, invariably in pairs. For the most part, the milling crowds ignored us--but a few eyes lingered on the twins' unconventional clothing. Rapt, they seemed not to notice.

We'd almost reached the platform when a tall male in a green-striped day-robe and brown collar rose suddenly from a seat in a nearby oasis. Leaving behind a glass--empty save for ice and a paper umbrella--he moved quickly to intercept us. In a voice just louder than the soft background, he called out, "Ehm'ayla!"

I turned quickly, and just in time: his arms were already closing around me in a rib-crushing embrace. "Dear sister--" he began in Sah'aaran; then he paused, glanced at Joel, and started over in adequate Terran. "Dear sister, it has been far too long."

"That is has, dear brother," I agreed, as I nuzzled under his chin. "That it has."

I turned then and performed the introductions. "My husband you have already met," I said. "These are our children, Thomas Sah'surraa and Ehm'rael Sarah. Tom, Rae, this is your uncle Sah'sell."

My brother exchanged a few words and a Terran handshake with Joel; and then, his smile widening, he turned to the kits. "I am very pleased to meet you," he said, grasping their hands in turn. Not at eye-level, though, as one would greet a mere acquaintance, but more familiarly at waist-level. "Though to be strictly accurate, it is not the first time," he went on. "When I came to Terra fifteen years ago, I was able to hold you both at once, one on each arm." He gazed at Tom, their eyes almost level. "I do not believe I shall attempt it this time."

The kits' answering smiles were tentative. "We're glad to meet you too, Uncle," Rae said finally, shyly.

Tom nodded. "Mom has told us a lot about you."

Sah'sell's smile broadened. "Nothing good, I am sure," he commented with a chuckle.

Slowly, hesitantly, the twins joined him, and I sighed in relief. I'd been fairly certain the two of them would get along with their crazy uncle--and I was pleased to see I'd been right. They simply needed time to get used to his overwhelming personality: "avuncular" in the literal sense of the word.

Sah'sell bowed and made a sweeping gesture. "If you will please follow me," he said, "Father has arranged a private shuttle car."

I shook my head in a mixture of disgust and amusement. Typical Sah'surraa: the consummate showman. Very few people on Sah'aar were powerful enough to command the exclusive use of a public shuttle; he, of course, had to flaunt the fact that he was one of them. Though admittedly, it would make the journey--a not inconsiderable distance--more comfortable, and keep our conversation reassuringly private.

"Unless," Sah'sell was saying, "you wish to refresh yourselves first--?"

Tempting: our lunch, taken just before the final hyperjump, had been sketchy indeed. But nonetheless I shook my head. In their state of deep culture shock, the twins would have little interest in food or drink; nor could I face the long search for something Joel could consume. And it would only serve to delay the inevitable confrontation with Father. "Thank you," I told Sah'sell, "but it would be best if we get settled first. Especially the kits."

"As you say," he agreed affably. "This way, please."

He took off at a brisk pace, and the four of us fell into step behind him. As we walked--struggling a little to keep up--I thought about my brother. He was the same age as me, of course, plus twenty-one minutes; and while the passing years had been pretty good to him, they had certainly not left him untouched. There was some grey in his mane and fur, most especially around his muzzle; his vibrissae, like mine, were pure white. But his step was still light, his eyes sparkling, his smile ready--just as I remembered them. And yes, it had indeed been far too long since I'd last seen him. Fifteen years--a figure which left me deeply ashamed. Nothing--not our busy lives, nor the distance that separated us--excused me for letting that much time go by.

As I'd told Rae, Sah'aaran twins share a unique connection, and during our childhood I was closer to Sah'sell than to any other living person, even the elder Ehm'rael. He was my confidant, my sounding board, my confessor; the repository for my hopes, dreams and fears. And in turn, I'd been all that and more for him. Since then I'd experienced many other relationships, including the ultimate: a bonded mating. But nothing had ever quite replaced the understanding I'd shared with my brother.

For more than thirty years he'd been Father's personal assistant. In fact--though this was not discussed outside the family--it was Sah'sell who really ran the day-to-day affairs of Sah'surraa Publishing, Inc. I could not have done that, so selflessly and so long, with so little recognition; but perhaps his ego was smaller than mine. Or maybe he was biding his time, knowing that someday he'd inherit the company. Unfortunately for him, it might be another thirty years.

The ground-shuttle station to which he brought us was typical of the breed, on Sah'aar or Terra: a wide platform transected by several lines of mag-lev track, enclosed within a brightly-lit climate-controlled tube. Here too, we were surrounded by the quiet bustle so typical of our world, where feet are bare and voices soft: an orderly filling and emptying of cars, arrivals and departures announced by a whoosh of compressed air. Sah'sell threaded his way through the crowd with practiced ease, and I followed, while Joel, taking up the rear, somehow managed to keep the twins in line. Tom and Rae were gazing at the sea of furry faces, so much like their own, in unashamed wonder, and seeing that, I winced. I'd neglected to warn them--as I'd have to, soon--that Sah'aarans consider it extremely impolite to stare. It's a carnivore thing.

My father's commandeered car sat on a siding, removed from the throng. In itself, an unremarkable object: a bullet-shaped, light-grey cylinder about eight meters long and three in diameter, with wide wraparound windows. It was unusual only in that it stood alone, naked as it were, not part of a long train. Such is the power of the largest publishing firm in the sector.

Sah'sell opened the doors with a key-card, which he produced with a flourish from his sash-pouch. Inside, separated by a wide aisle, were two rows of wide comfortable seats, two dozen in all--and empty, in a way I found disconcerting. There was no driver, no chauffeur, nor any need for one: as soon as we were inside and the door closed, the car began to move, obviously following a pre-programmed route. The twins took window seats, plastering their noses against the deeply-tinted glass. Joel, Sah'sell and I settled in across the aisle, my husband with his arm around my shoulders, my brother facing us. As the shuttle gathered speed and emerged into bright sunlight, I smiled at Sah'sell.

"I'm forgetting my manners," I said. For Joel's sake I stuck to Terran. "How are Ehm'sanzz and your kits?"

"All very well, thank you," he replied. "But I fear you will not be seeing them during your visit. Ehm'sanzz and Ehm'sossaa are off-planet on business, and Sah'kell is still at the Central Hospital on Ehm'tarr Continent. He has almost completed his residency, however, and plans to establish a private practice here in Sah'salaan."

I nodded. "That is well." It was, however, another unfortunate reminder of the passage of time. Sah'sell and his mate had their children while they were still in their mid twenties, rather than waiting until the unfortunate age of thirty-five; so their kits, Tom and Rae's only Sah'aaran cousins, were adults now. Just as well that they were absent: they'd have had precious little in common with my twins. "How is Father?" I went on. I already knew, of course, all too well; but etiquette demanded that I ask.

"The same as always," Sah'sell replied, drawing a knowing chuckle from both of us.

"And Mother?"

"Patient," he said with a smile. "Her surgery earlier this year--I'm sure she wrote to you about it--relieved her back problems considerably. She is nearly free of pain now."

"That is good. Very good."

"Indeed. She will be happy to see you, Ehm'ayla--All of you. And so will Father."

Uh-huh. "And I them," I said. I paused. "Has there been any further news of Sah'larrah?"

"I fear not," he said, his whiskers drooping mournfully. "I am sorry."

"Before we left Terra, I learned that the Chief of Police had called off the search--"

"That is so."

"--And was petitioning the Government to seal Sah'larrah's passage to the Undercity."

"Also true," Sah'sell said. "But as yet, that has not been done--due to a protest from his family. The passage has been blocked by a stinger-barrier, to keep out the curious; but that is all."

I nodded slowly. Then maybe there's still hope…

Sah'sell, like Joel, could read my mind; perhaps with even greater efficiency. He clasped my hands. "I fear we must face facts, sister," he said. "It has been weeks since Sah'larrah vanished. He and his assistant were carrying very little food. It is not possible for them to be alive, after so long."

I glanced away. "I know."

Sah'sell glanced at Joel, seeking a diversion. "I hope we are not neglecting you, Mr. Abrams," he said.

My mate smiled. "Not at all," he said. "I'm enjoying the scenery. And please--call me Joel. We're all family here, I hope."

Sah'sell gazed at him, an uncharacteristically solemn expression on his face. "In the eyes of Alliance law, that is true," he said. "And in my eyes too; I am pleased to call you brother. But I must warn you: your mating--your marriage--to my sister remains unique, even now. Some on Sah'aar are still unwilling to acknowledge your connection to our family. Not, at least, unless they are forcibly reminded."

Joel nodded. "I read you," he said. "Thanks, Sah'sell."

"You're welcome--Joel."

By this time our hijacked shuttle had left the Terminal far behind, and was speeding smoothly through a brilliant, cloudless First-Summer day. With a stab of nostalgia I could not resist--nor did I try--I turned my attention to the familiar landscape. Here again, it had been too long.

Sah'salaan is large--but like all Sah'aaran cities, its limits are strictly defined and inviolable. It occupies a circle exactly thirty kilometers in diameter, and because of that, the downtown buildings are towering, some more than a kilometer tall: slender, tapering needles that literally touch the sky. Outside the city proper lies a fifty-kilometer greenbelt (or, more accurately at that time of year, "goldbelt"): a rolling grassland studded with twisted black Tatak. Within that circle there are no structures at all: nothing but the narrow silver ribbons of the shuttle tracks. Beyond, out on the open savanna, are the "suburbs" of Sah'salaan. Not in solid blocks, as they'd be on Terra, but in small, isolated enclaves, each perhaps ten kilometers from its nearest neighbor, constructed where small hollows or swales hid them from view. Sah'aarans are like that: few of us choose to live in cities. Towns are for business; the savanna is for living. Thus, the city is the low-rent district; an apartment at the top of a towering building, which on Terra would be a choice address, on Sah'aar is considered marginally habitable.

But we would not be entering the city that day. My ancestral home lay some sixty kilometers east, one of a group of perhaps a dozen, built around an ancient (and historically significant) water-hole. Our route took us through the greenbelt, skirting Sah'salaan; but the city was visible for much of the way, a crown of thorns silhouetted against the hazy pale-blue sky.

With a sudden stab of concern, I glanced at the twins. They'd been all but silent for more than an hour, since we left Cuvier--and that was almost unprecedented. Had we given them too much to absorb? Had we--to use an ancient Terran phrase--"blown their minds?"

But I was immediately reassured; and--albeit grudgingly--I blessed my father. Did he know--? I wondered. Probably not--but it was a nice fantasy. Tom and Rae were sitting across from each other, pressed against the windows, drinking in the landscape as quickly as it sped past. Their tails were flicking gently now, no longer nervously twitching; and their claws had vanished. Excited, yes; but not overwhelmed, or overwrought. The reason why was not difficult to guess: the private car. How different it would have been, if we'd been jammed into a public shuttle with two dozen strangers! Poor kits: they'd have to be introduced slowly to their own species!

Wriggling free from Joel's encircling arm, I crossed to sit beside Rae. "How are you two doing?" I asked.

Their smiles seemed genuine, not forced or anxious. "We're fine, Mom," Tom said.

"This land is beautiful," Rae said. She sighed. "I knew I should have packed my holocam in my carry-on…"

"You'll have plenty of chances later," I assured her. "And yes--it is beautiful."

"Reminds me of the way to Yosemite," Tom commented.

I nodded. There was indeed a resemblance, especially if one happened to be traveling those California foothills in late summer. Nor were Tatak all that different from oaks.

"How long until we reach Grandfather's house?" Rae asked.

I had to think about that: I'd never before ridden a shuttle that would ignore the usual stops and just keep going. "About half an hour."

"And what happens when we get there?"

"First, my parents will want to meet you," I said. "Then, before dinner, you'll have time to rest, unpack--and change into something cooler." They were both still wearing their traveling jumpsuits; all right for indoors, where the climate was controlled, but intolerably hot outside. I myself would waste no time trading my uniform for a thin day-robe.

"It does look hot out there," Tom agreed.

"It is," I assured him, gazing at the rising silver ripples that obscured the horizon and made the distant Tatak appear to float. At a guess, the temperature was over thirty-five already, and still climbing. Before sunset, it might peak near forty. Fortunately, it wouldn't last much longer: the Interval was almost due.

"Mom," Tom began hopefully, "are you sure there are no swimming pools on Sah'aar?"

"I'll find out," I told him. "But if there are, it's news to me."

Tom sighed tragically and turned back to the window, while I hid my chuckle behind my hand. I'd told the twins it would be pointless to pack their swimwear--but of course they had anyway. Just their luck to be the only two hydrophilic Sah'aarans in the universe. Maybe the Officer's Club at the local CF Headquarters…

"Mother?" Rae said, breaking into my thoughts, her voice quiet and hesitant.

"Yes, dear?"

"Are Grandmother and Grandfather…well, are they going to like us?"

That shocked me, right down to my toe-claws. I had bit back my automatic response: "What kind of question is that, young lady?" Her eyes were wide and anxious; and so too were Tom's. This was one of those moments, I realized: the kind parents dread.

This is my fault, I thought bitterly. If they were frightened of my father, whom they'd never met, or worried that he'd disapprove of them…it was because I'd taught them to be. I'd never said anything openly disparaging about him in their hearing; but all parents tend to forget how sensitive to nuance and implication their children can be. The twins knew, without my having to say a word, that I considered my father insufferable, tyrannical, a dictator. I had more cause to be angry with myself than with my daughter.

I smiled and grasped her hand. "Yes, they will," I told her. "And more. You'll see it in your grandmother immediately. With your grandfather it might take a little longer: he keeps his feelings to himself. But I do know he cares about you both. Once you've gotten to know each other, you'll get along fine."

She smiled. "I'm sure you're right."

…And the Goddess grant, I added silently, that I'm telling the truth.

###

The shuttle didn't deposit us directly at Father's doorstep--but almost.

In every city that has them, the suburbs form a continuum, from modest to exclusive. Perhaps some of the enclaves surrounding Sah'salaan were of the former type--but not this one. Definitely not.

The community was built in a wide hollow, a natural sink where a number of shallow gullies converged. At this time of the year, the water-hole at its center was almost dry, a tepid puddle ringed with brown, baked earth, and surrounded by thirsty Tatak. The dozen homes faced the pond, but were so situated as to be invisible to each other.

I stepped onto the deserted platform amidst an overwhelming mixture of sensations, both physical and psychological. My hand sought Joel's and hung on hard, as if to draw strength through the grasp. Behind us the kits had fallen silent again, staring owlishly at the landscape.

I was struck first--and I mean that literally--by the heat. It came down like a hammer as we departed the shuttle, making all of us except my brother stagger. I reached up to lower my uniform's mag-seal--not that it did much good. I grew up here; the climate shouldn't have affected me so strongly--but I'd grown far too used to the cool breezes of Pacific Grove.

My discomfort was quickly driven from my mind, though, by the smell that filled my nose, bringing forth an avalanche of memories. Strong and spicy, it was made up in equal parts of dust, grass and Tatak; pleasant, if a trifle overpowering--and so evocative that my chest began to tighten. Joel's quick, concerned glance told me that he was, as always, aware.

"Come," Sah'sell said. "We will be more comfortable indoors." He led the way, again at a brisk pace, and we followed without argument.

The shuttle station opened onto a wide concrete path, which formed a full--though somewhat meandering--circle around the water-hole. It was tree-lined, so that we proceeded from one patch of shade to another, and held our breath in between. Fortunately we had only half a kilometer to go. On the way we passed several gates: tall, imposing structures of ornamental iron, set into high stone walls. The houses they guarded were usually not visible. Halfway to our goal we passed one gate in particular, and I paused, smiling fondly. I knew it very well indeed: it led to the home of one Admiral Ehm'rael. During my childhood I had entered that portal many times. From the path we could see only a sliver of tile roof, but I knew that the house was somewhat smaller than most, though comfortable and attractive. That she was at home I didn't doubt: I could almost feel her presence. We had not been so close--physically speaking--in sixteen years.

Later, I promised silently. You and I have much to discuss, and I want my kits to meet you. But there are matters with which I must deal first. She knew that, of course; and she--of all people--would understand.

Finally we stopped, before a gate larger and more ornate than any we'd seen yet, fronting an imposing wall of brown adobe. Sah'sell opened it with another key-card, then stepped aside with a bow. "I need not bid you welcome," he said, freely translating an ancient Sah'aaran greeting, "for this home is yours, as long as you all shall live."

The path beyond was long, and followed the natural curves of the grounds, through stands of tall waving grass and scattered trees, until finally we turned a corner and arrived at the house.

Sah'aaran houses are unique in all the Alliance. My childhood home was at least two centuries old, and was built to a tradition much older. It was circular--or more accurately, ring-shaped--and about a hundred meters in diameter. Running around its perimeter was a single unbroken corridor, illuminated by high slit windows that--apart from the front door--were the only exterior feature. On the inner side of the ring lay the living spaces: bedrooms, dining rooms, sitting rooms, kitchens, baths, offices and so forth. The flat roof was fairly low, and there was neither a second story nor a basement. The walls were of that same simulated adobe, smooth and beige.

The door jutted out from the house, the only break in that perfect circle. The last three meters of the path were sheltered beneath a Tatak pergola, hung with a dense flowering vine not unlike a Terran wisteria. My mother's touch: she'd always thought our entrance too sterile and uninviting. The door itself was also Tatak, elaborately carved, with the ash-grey patina of age. Flourishing his key-card, Sah'sell ushered us inside.

Inside was a wide space beneath a skylight, with a floor of terra-cotta tile, lined with lush greenery and filled with comfortable wicker chairs. A small fountain hidden among the plants tinkled quietly. The entrance hall: a place to get rid of rain-gear--when such was needed--and also for visitors to wait to be announced. As Sah'sell closed the door, a wave of cool air washed over us, and I sighed in relief. The twins and I were panting, and Joel sweating freely; too used to the seashore indeed.

Sah'sell threw open the identical inner door, and we entered the house itself. For me, it was as if I'd never left.

The corridor beyond was wide enough for the five of us to walk abreast. The walls were white, the carpet light brown, a Berber weave with big loops that felt wonderful under my singed foot-pads. The windows threw strong beams of sunlight against the inner wall; they were supplemented at intervals by glowing wall-sconces. Both walls were covered with paintings and prints, part of my father's extensive collection; niches held sculptures and pottery.

From where we stood, a left turn would take us to the private areas, the bedrooms and baths; to the right lay the more "public" spaces: the dining room and the offices. Knowing my father's legendary impatience, I expected Sah'sell to turn right--but to my surprise, he did not.

"Mother has prepared rooms for you," he said. "I left instructions that your luggage be taken to them; hopefully that has been done. No doubt you will wish to freshen up before seeing Mother and Father."

Eager as I was to put that confrontation behind me, I had to admit his suggestion made sense--especially for the twins. Events seemed to be running away with them again: their tails were flicking, their eyes narrowed and wary. And clearly they were overheated too. To give them a chance to cool down, unpack familiar items, change their clothes, come to terms with strange surroundings…a good idea indeed. I wanted them as calm as possible when Father lit into them.

And so I nodded. "Lead on," I told my brother.

"We dine early, these hot days," Sah'sell said, "so I imagine the meeting will segue directly into dinner. It will be a casual affair, just family."

"Good," I said. The last thing the twins (or I) needed was a room full of strangers. "Father won't be upset by the delay, will he?" I asked.

Sah'sell grinned. "Doubtless he will," he said. "But to give you time to rest was Mother's idea."

…And that was all the explanation I needed.

###

The kits loved their rooms.

A little more than half an hour had passed since the Abrams family arrived in the house of Sah'surraa. I stood before an ancient, slightly tarnished full-length mirror affixed to the front of a massive Tatak wardrobe, turning in circles as I smoothed the wrinkles from my yellow-striped day-robe. As I did I found myself smiling, remembering the pleasure on Tom and Rae's faces as their uncle showed them their accommodations.

I'm not sure what they'd expected; perhaps to be crammed together in a space the size of their cabin aboard Cuvier. But they didn't know my mother. She would never cram a guest, if she could help it; and even when she couldn't, they never felt as if they were.

Nor could I help but reflect on the irony: Tom and Rae had been assigned the very rooms that once belonged to my brother and myself, during our teenage years. More recently they'd been used by Sah'sell's own kits--but even that was in the past. My mother was no doubt ecstatic to see those spaces occupied again.

There were changes, of course. The furniture I remembered so well was long gone, worn out by two generations of active youth. The current furnishings were typical: wide low beds; dressers; wardrobes with mirrors; desks with computer terminals; and comfortable sofas. And enough artwork and decoration to keep a Sah'aaran sane. The rooms--quite a bit larger than those in our seaside home--shared a bathroom, and opened, via sliding glass doors, onto a screened porch. Tom and Rae were all but floating as they were ushered inside, and I wondered if they would heed my request not to take too long changing their clothes.

The suite my mother had prepared for Joel and me, a little distance up the hall from the kits' rooms, was intended for long-term guests; it was entirely self-contained, an apartment within the house. The large sitting room was furnished with a sofa and several chairs, a dining table for four, and a desk tucked into a corner. An arch to the right opened into the cavernous bedroom and huge bathroom. There was even a kitchen: not much, really, just an alcove tucked behind a folding door--but it contained every modern appliance known, and was fully-stocked, with Terran as well as Sah'aaran foodstuffs. Inspecting those rooms, I realized how well my mother understood both my father and myself.

Our luggage had already been delivered, and we turned immediately to unpacking--and to exchanging our traveling clothes for something lighter and cooler. I was tempted to meet my father in uniform, matching my authority against his…but no. It would have been uncomfortable, as well as impolite: Father would have seen it for what it was, a deliberate rebuke. And so I'd donned this day-robe: brand-new, well-fitting, and with a matching collar.

My husband had changed into lightweight, dark-blue slacks, and a short-sleeved white shirt. He had just bent down to fasten his shoes when we heard the polite drumming of claws on the hall door.

Joel leaned out into the sitting room. "Come in!"

It was the twins who entered, dressed and ready: for once they'd beaten us. They were gazing around in appreciation as Joel and I stepped out of the bedroom to meet them. "Well," Joel said, "how do you like your ancestral home so far?"

"Wonderful!" Rae said, and Tom nodded.

"It's great," he said. "I do have one question, though." He grinned. "When's dinner?"

"Your grandmother has that well in hand, I'm sure," I told him with a stern glance. I couldn't blame him, though: I was starving too. I grasped their arms and drew them close. "Let me take a look at you."

They were clean and brushed, and looked relaxed, seemingly ready for anything. Rae had donned a day-robe similar to mine, the sleeves loose and elbow-length, the pattern one of interlocking polygons in brown and beige. With it she wore the collar she'd acquired from Ehm'tassaa. She'd taken her mane out of its braid, brushing that gleaming mass of orange straight back, securing it with an elastic barrette. During our trip I'd grown used to the braid and the jumpsuit, both of which made her look younger; the change was startling, and made me very aware that we'd entered prime head-turning territory. There would be no unbonded males present tonight, but in the days to come…Only one detail troubled me: the four fine gold loops dangling from her right ear. Father would not be pleased.

And Tom…gazing at him, I sighed. Ehm'tassaa had convinced him to wear a collar--he was now, and had all through our voyage--but no one, not even his bond-mate, could force him into a day-robe. His slacks were khaki-colored, his pullover shirt mauve and short-sleeved, like Joel's. For a casual affair he looked good: clean, neatly brushed and sans wrinkles. It made a change from the torn T-shirts and shorts he affected at home. But Ambassador Sah'churaaf's words still echoed through my mind, days later: "…such a ridiculous getup." My father was sure to feel the same. Well, we'd see whether my son had sufficient fortitude to stand up to his grandfather's wrath--a rather more potent force than Rae's fastball.

"You look fine," I said. I paused, then went on, "Listen, you two. This evening won't be easy--for any of us. To be blunt, your grandfather doesn't approve of the fact that I mated with a human--or of what I had to do to accomplish it. He's also less than thrilled that we've chosen to raise you on Terra. And I have reason to believe he's recently been in contact with Sah'churaaf."

Tom's eyes widened, and his tail began to wave; a few seconds later, so did Rae's.

"Now," I went on, "I don't want you to be afraid of him. In fact that's the worst thing you could do. He'll be testing you, seeing what you're made of. I want you to be polite, and speak when spoken to. All right? I know I can count on you to be responsible and respectable."

Beside me, Joel was nodding his agreement. "One more thing," he added. "Despite anything you might hear tonight, we have no plans to enroll you in a Sah'aaran boarding school." He paused. "Unless you want us to."

They shook their heads emphatically, and Tom grinned. "We'll stick to Pacific Grove High, Dad."

Joel smiled. "I thought as much."

We departed then. It would be overly optimistic to say we were ready--but we could no longer put it off. For me at least, that long walk up the hall felt like the proverbial Last Mile.

###

The evening went as well as could be expected; which is to say, it was something short of a total disaster.

The sitting-room where my parents received guests was one of the largest spaces in the house--you could easily have held my promotion ceremony there--and by far the most attractive. The walls were wood-paneled instead of whitewashed; and not in dark Tatak, but in the much lighter, red-tinged Talla--a wood so rare, it can no longer be harvested. The furnishings--numerous sofas, chairs, and low tables--were antiques, some older than the house, and lovingly cared for. None of them matched, not exactly, but the effect was surprisingly harmonious. There was even a fireplace, its hearth red slate, its mantle a massive Tatak bridge-timber. One wall was a solid bank of windows, overlooking the circular area in the center of the house--a view that included my mother's flower and herb gardens, and the massive old Tatak that was our home's centerpiece. First-summer afternoons are long, and it was still two hours until sunset, but already the shadows were lengthening.

My parents awaited us at the head of the room. Father was installed--that's the only word for it--near the fireplace, in the huge, richly-upholstered, throne-like chair that no one else dared touch. Mother sat beside him in her smaller, more generously-shared seat. Sah'sell was present too--as a referee, I suspect--draped fluidly across a sofa. As we entered, he stood, a broad smile on his face. "Ah," he said, "here they are!"

I waited, and less than a second later my father added, "At last."

And so it begins, I thought darkly. From somewhere--the Goddess knows where--I found a smile and plastered it onto my face. "Father," I said, bowing graciously. "Mother. It is good to see you again."

Mother couldn't contain herself any longer; nor had she ever been much for formality. She rose and launched herself toward me. Even at seventy-five, her arms were still plenty strong. She clung to me for a moment--and I to her--and then she held me at arms' length to gaze at me, her eyes suspiciously misty. Mine were too.

The years had been kind to my mother, and if I was even half so fortunate, I'd be well satisfied. Extremely beautiful in her youth, over the years she'd achieved a grace and dignity worthy of the Goddess Herself. Her long mane was pure white, her fur silver. She wore a shimmering, peach-colored day-robe and a matching silk scarf in lieu of a collar. It did my heart good to see her move so freely, so obviously without pain. For years she'd suffered terribly from back problems, until a recent surgery replaced the troublesome ruptured discs.

"My dear child," she said. Her Terran was excellent; she was, after all, a writer and editor of wide renown. "I have missed you terribly."

"I've missed you too, Mother," I said. "More than I can say." And it was true: her I had.

She turned to frown at her mate, who was still seated. "Do you not rise to greet your daughter and her family, Sah'surraa?"

For a horrible second I feared he might refuse; but then, with a grunt, he stood. His day-robe was grey, his collar black and unadorned. "I was waiting to be introduced," he grumbled, his distaste for the Terran language clearly audible.

"Oh, Sah'surraa, honestly!" Mother said in exasperation. "They're relatives!"

He seemed about to question that; but nevertheless he bowed. "I greet you, daughter," he said. "It has been too long since your last visit."

Always the rebuke, I thought in despair. Always the dig. And all I could do--apart from causing an ugly and profitless scene--was suck it up and soldier on. "I have missed you as well, Father," I said, with perhaps a touch of irony. Then I turned and performed the introductions.

Joel gave them both his most courtly bow. "Mr. Sah'surraa," he said simply. "Madam Ehm'nallaa. I thank you for your hospitality."

Father grunted, barely acknowledging Joel's existence; but Mother--after another exasperated glance over her shoulder--smiled and clasped my husband's hands, Sah'aaran-family style. "You are most welcome, Mr. Abrams," she said. "And you needn't call me 'Madam.' Indeed, it makes me feel far too old."

Joel smiled and bowed again. "In that case," he said, "you needn't call me 'Mr. Abrams.' I don't want to feel old either."

Then it was the kits' turn. I'd done everything I could to prepare them; unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Mother swept them into her earnest embrace. "I am so glad to meet you at last," she said. "I have received many reports of your doings--but those are mere words. Nor do your holos do you justice--such a lovely young lady and handsome young man."

The twins were positively glowing; that relationship was cemented. But Father gazed at them disdainfully, his eyes lingering--as I'd feared--on Tom's clothes and Rae's earrings. Finally he snorted. "If nothing else," he said, "perhaps we can feed them properly while they are here. And cure of them of fidgeting."

To my poor kits, his words were like a bucket of icewater. They were utterly defenseless. Father was no longer physically large--Tom probably outweighed him--but at that moment he must have seemed at least ten meters tall. They stood speechless, their tails lashing in confusion.

As for me…the word "furious" doesn't even come close, and I had to conceal my claws behind my back. I'd been expecting an attack on my fitness as a mother--but a direct assault, not an oblique one bounced off the twins. I was furious with myself, too, for allowing them to be blind-sided. I don't know what I might have said; I only know that we would have been looking for a hotel afterward.

But my mother, as she'd done countless times, saved me. She gave Father a look that promised mayhem, then laid her arms lovingly across the twins' shoulders. "Come," she said. "You have had a long trip; you must be hungry. Dinner shall be ready in half an hour." She smiled at Joel. "Our cook is a student of Terran cuisine; he has been eager to test his knowledge. Until then we will talk; I must hear about your journey. And these fine young people shall sit with me, and tell me of their home and friends."

Over the years, I'd often wondered how my parents came to be bonded; they were such different people. But now, I suddenly realized what Ehm'nallaa represented to Sah'surraa: someone to prevent him being murdered by the victims of his acid tongue.

###

Before going to bed, I peeked in at the twins.

That was something I hadn't done in years, not since they shared a bed. But there was a time when I couldn't have slept until I'd assured myself they were safe. I'm a mother: sue me. It was with difficulty that I gave up the habit as they grew, and began to value their privacy. But now, driven by an impulse I scarcely understood, I found myself creeping down that long curving corridor and easing their doors open a few millimeters, just enough to peer inside. What I saw immediately reassured me.

Mother had been right in preparing separate rooms for them, I realized. They were close, yes, inseparable even; but they were teenagers. For years they slept together happily; now the very thought would embarrass them to death. They'd endured the five nights aboard Cuvier with good grace, but their tempers had been fraying a bit by the end of the trip; any longer and claws might have been expressed. This way, they could be alone when the chose; and if they desired each other's company, they need go no farther than their shared porch.

I'd feared they might have trouble sleeping, because of space-lag or the rush of events--but I needn't have worried. Actually I should have known: they were masters of the art of going to sleep, anywhere, any time. I found them out for the count, in their wide, low Sah'aaran-style beds. On that warm First-Summer evening, a far cry from the nighttime chill of Pacific Grove, they needed nothing more than a light sheet. Tom lay on his stomach, his head cradled on his arms, the covering pulled halfway up his back. Rae was curled tight around herself, with the sheet gathered at her waist and her mane spilling across her face. Even in the darkness I could see the wide stripe of speckled beige "baby-fur" along her spine; she'd never quite outgrown it, and didn't seem likely to.

…At any rate, though, they were obviously comfortable. If I'd eaten as much as they had, I'd be too. Even Father's insistence on silence during the meal hadn't dampened their ravenous appetites.

The sight did wonders for my mood, as it had during their childhood, and I was purring contentedly as I made my way back to our suite. Joel was already in bed, sitting up with the thin covering around his abdomen and the cylindrical pillows bulked behind him. He'd eaten well too, and had been pleased to inform Mother that her cook's grasp of Terran cuisine was well advanced. A rack in our bedroom contained several hundred book-cards--Father was a publisher--and as I entered I found my husband bent over his palm-reader, perusing a Terran translation of Sah'aaran bonding-poetry. "Well?" he asked.

Gratefully I shrugged out of my day-robe, and laid my collar atop the dresser. "Sleeping like kittens," I told him.

"Did you really expect anything different?"

"I suppose not," I said. As I undressed and brushed my fur and mane, Joel's eyes followed my every move, with evident and gratifying appreciation. Exactly what he'd always seen in my furry body, so unlike a human female's, I'd never dared ask. At my age, I ought to be grateful he still saw it, whatever it was. With an effort--I'd slept in taller beds, these last thirty-odd years--I slipped in next to him. He put aside his reader, switched off the bedside lamp, and gathered me into his arms.

"I hope Father didn't make you too miserable," I said.

"Not at all," Joel assured me. "I think I'm getting a clue how to handle him." I felt the rumble of his chuckle pass through me. "Or maybe I'm getting braver in my old age. Anyway, your mother more than made up for it. She's a treasure. The twins love her already."

"Yes," I agreed. "They do. Thankfully." Father had managed one surprise that evening. Having evidently given up trying to convince us to ship the kits to a boarding school, he'd embarked on a new program: to dictate their choice of colleges. The only choice--according to him--was Sah'salaan U. How to tell him that the twins were leaning toward Stanford--their father's alma mater--was beyond me.

I hesitated, then went on, "Joel? Did I do the right thing?"

"In what?"

"Coming here."

His arms tightened around me. "It was something you had to do, right or wrong," he said. "But for the record--yes, you did. And anyway, we've only just arrived. You haven't even begun the job you came to do."

He was right, of course. Tomorrow, I told myself. Tomorrow you can begin. It would be a day of meetings; of interviews. First Sah'larrah's mother and sister, if I could find them; later, Police Chief Ehm'luruus. And the Goddess give me strength not to claw her! I added darkly.

Yes, tomorrow would be quite early enough to begin: right now I was one tired commodore. With a sigh I snuggled closer to my mate, and let oblivion take me.


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