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 SIX


"There's something I've been meaning to ask you," Joel said suddenly. He grinned. "But I'm almost afraid to."

I looked up warily from my large and half-devoured meal. There's nothing in the universe quite like fresh maxigrazer liver, which has never seen the inside of a freezer. I'd almost forgotten. "And that is?"

The two of us were having an early breakfast on the terrace outside our suite. Though the sun was barely risen, the temperature was already climbing. We were still comfortable, in the dense shade of the house's centerpiece Tatak; but very soon the heat would drive us indoors. The next few days would be brutally hot--but change was on the way. I could feel it. Before long the Interval would begin--and then there'd be no more alfresco dining for a while.

But until then, it was pleasant to sit there, just the two of us, in the gentle flower-scented breeze from my mother's gardens. As always, she'd known exactly what she was doing when she gave us those rooms, with the built-in kitchen. She knew that my father's insistence on silence at mealtimes would be a strain on Joel and the kits. We were more or less obliged to eat dinner with the household; but breakfast we could take at our leisure.

…If, that is, certain people would get up for it. As usual, the twins had overslept.

"That package Tom received before we left," Joel said. "The collar. When Ehm'tassaa sent it to him, did she…well, did she mean something by it, other than simple friendship?"

I sighed and turned away. Time for that conversation: the one I'd been putting off for a week. I should have told him before--certainly he had a right to know--but the discussion would open a can of worms I hadn't felt capable of handling. Obviously, though, I could put it off no longer. "In and of itself, no," I said. "Collars are common gifts on Sah'aar, like neckties used to be on Earth." I quirked a smile. "Except they're usually appreciated. Ehm'tassaa was motivated entirely by concern: she grew up here, and she knew what would happen if Tom paraded around town with a bare neck." I paused. "But," I went on, "if you're asking about the state of their relationship--you're right."

"Meaning?"

I took a deep breath. "I'm not absolutely certain yet--we didn't have time to haul him in for a physical exam--but I'm fairly sure he and Ehm'tassaa have bonded."

Joel froze in the act of pouring himself another cup of coffee. (He'd brought his own supply, along with a brewing device known as a "press pot." Good thing, too: a day without coffee and he'd have been impossible to live with.) "You mean--?" he said, aghast.

I nodded. "Afraid so. It's permanent. As I said, I'm not one hundred percent sure--but judging from what I've seen and heard, I don't doubt my guess. Ehm'tassaa realizes it too; she's the one who first brought it up, not Tom."

"I know she called him a few days ago…"

"That was part of the conversation," I confirmed. "A major part. So I understand, anyway."

He took an agitated gulp of scalding bitter fluid. "But, my God!" he objected. "They're only sixteen! Aren't they too young?"

"No," I said patiently. "Not at all. It only requires physical maturity; even twelve- or thirteen-year-olds can bond. Happens all the time, in fact. Or a person can wait decades; there's no telling." I decided against mentioning that early is generally considered preferable to late; it would only upset him more.

"Which means," Joel said thoughtfully, "that for all practical purposes, we now have a black-furred ambassador's daughter as a daughter-in-law."

"Basically, yes," I agreed. "And our son is an incredibly fortunate young man. Of course it will be some time before they actually set up housekeeping together; most likely not until they've both graduated college and established themselves in their careers--whatever those might be. But it's inevitable: they will be mates, for as long as they live."

"Speaking of which," Joel said darkly, "that day they spent together. Do you think they…?"

"Not then," I said. I frowned. "Or at least I don't think so. I don't think they had the opportunity. But the next time they meet, they will. Ehm'tassaa will see to that."

He choked and sprayed. "You're joking," he said, horrified.

I shook my head. "No," I said calmly. "I'm not. That's how it works, my darling: it's inevitable too. And the female almost always takes the initiative. By rights it would have happened already--if Sah'churaaf wasn't such a fool. The best we can hope for is that it will happen while she's out of season. She is fertile only twice a year, you know."

"How extremely unreassuring," he said. He took another sip. "You mean, even if they were both twelve years old, they'd still be allowed to…"

I nodded. "Yes," I said calmly. "But it's not a case of 'allow.' It's a case of accepting reality. These drives are extremely strong, Joel. Literally unstoppable."

He chuckled. "Just when you think you know everything about your family's species…" He sobered. "So--what about Sah'churaaf?"

I sighed again. "He's behaving shamefully," I said. "He wanted to separate them before this happened--but it was already too late. That night at the Officers Club was all it took. If I'm not mistaken, he has an extremely miserable blackfur on his hands right now. Eventually he'll send her to Dr. Ehm'maas. Then he'll know the truth."

"And what will he do?"

"Hopefully--unless he's a bigger idiot than I think he is--he'll accept reality. He'll have to; any Sah'aaran parent who tried to thwart a bonding would be a laughingstock. It's like the old Terran story of the king commanding the tide not to come in. He'll have to wake up eventually." I paused. "Unfortunately, neither Tom or Ehm'tassaa will be very happy until he does."

"And in the meantime," Joel observed, "we've put several dozen light-years between them."

"Unfortunate," I agreed. "But we didn't have much choice. He'll recover; and the time away will make their reunion all the sweeter."

"If you say so." Joel leaned back, rolling his cup between his hands. "In that case, I have just one more question."

"Which is?"

"What about Rae?"

I gave him a look. "Please," I said, "one crisis at a time." I glanced at my wrist chrono, and rose, draining off the remainder of my tea. "Well," I said, "I have no time to waste on lazy kits. I've got work to do."

"Sah'larrah's family?" Joel guessed.

I nodded. "Them first," I confirmed. "Then Ehm'luruus, if I can track her down." I sighed. "This might be a difficult day…"

"Would you like me to come with you?"

"No," I said. "Thank you, darling--but no. This is something I have to do myself. Among other things, I think Sah'larrah's mother and sister would be more comfortable speaking Sah'aaran. Will you be all right?"

"Yes," he said. "I suspected you might want to be alone. I spoke to your brother: he's agreed to play tour-guide. We're taking the twins to the city."

For a moment my resolve wavered. I'd been looking forward to that myself…but for me this wasn't a pleasure cruise. Let them have their fun. "Good idea," I said. "I might be able to catch up with you later."

"Maybe," he agreed. I headed for the door, and he called after me: "Oh--darling?"

I glanced back. "Yes?"

He smiled. "Good luck."

"Thanks," I said wryly. "I'll need it."

I turned--and ran headlong into two disheveled and sleepy-looking teenagers, still in their bathrobes. Tom grinned sheepishly as he ran a hand through his rumpled mane. "Uh--," he said, "are we too late for breakfast?"

###

It was with a curious sense of foreboding, almost a premonition of doom, that I boarded the shuttle. It was mid-morning by then, past the going-to-work rush, and the car was not crowded; I found an unoccupied seat easily, and settled in, arranging my day-robe around my knees. The other passengers gave me scant attention--a far cry from the stares I still received in Pacific Grove. Noticing that, I smiled and shook my head: after thirty-three years, I'd finally found a place where I could be anonymous. As long as I stay out of uniform…

As the car began to move I leaned back, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath, fighting to still my twitching tail. What I was about to attempt might be the hardest thing I'd ever done: worse than my Academy finals, or sixty-three days on Hellhole, or three months on that ship--or even giving birth at thirty-five. Sah'larrah's mother and sister--Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall--had been easier to locate than I'd expected: as simple as punching up the Sah'salaan visiphone directory. But Ehm'herra's response to my request had been brief, not to say terse. She and her daughter had agreed to see me--but that was all. My reception looked to be a chilly one…but I had no idea why.

The shuttle was at full speed now, the parched landscape flashing by. Predictable, perhaps, that over the last two weeks my memories of Sah'larrah had come flooding back, often at the most inconvenient times. One in particular I had resisted with all my strength; but now--prompted no doubt by my discussion with Joel--it had returned, and with a sigh, I decided to let it do its worst. I couldn't get much more depressed…

###

He was packing.

I sat at the foot of Sah'larrah's bunk, watching with a mixture of amusement and irritation as he worked. Everything, even the simple act of folding his day-robes, he accomplished with fierce precision. He laid each robe flat on the bed, smoothed out the (imaginary) wrinkles, folded the garment in thirds lengthwise, and then carefully rolled it into a tight, perfect cylinder. Nor was that all. The way he cut his meat into precise cubes, the way he dressed and undressed, the way he laid his collars in finger-spaced rows atop the dresser, the way he made his bed so tightly you could bounce a coin off the blanket…everything perfect, economical, by the numbers. Even the way he--but never mind that. It was enough to drive me insane.

As he worked, he glanced at me several times, a faint smile on his face. Finally he said softly, "It is not too late, Ehm'ayla."

I closed my eyes. My fault: I'd known this was coming. I shouldn't have lingered; I should have dressed and left his cabin quietly, said my good-byes later, in the pod hangar, in the inhibiting presence of others. "Yes, it is," I told him, as gently as I could. "You know that as well as I do."

He paused, setting his half-packed case aside, and sat down beside me, reaching out to grasp my hands. "Why?" he said pleadingly. "Why does it have to be? You have plenty of shore-leave due--you said so yourself. Zelazny is laying over here at Centaurus for maintenance; surely Captain Haliday would not grudge you the time."

I glanced around his VIP cabin, seeking strength in the now-bare walls. I'd become quite familiar with the place these last few weeks; in fact I'd hardly set foot in my own quarters. Some of my clothes hung in the wardrobe; some of my grooming items littered the bathroom counter.

I took a deep breath. "Sah'larrah," I said, "we've been over this time and again. I've enjoyed this month, I'm extremely grateful, and I'm genuinely fond of you."

"But?" he prompted wryly.

"But," I said heavily, "we are not bonding. The medical evidence doesn't lie. Dr. Zeeleeayykk has tested my blood a dozen times; my hormones are unchanged. And if you'd allow her to check yours, you'd find the same thing. I wish it was otherwise--truly, I do. But without bonding, there can be no permanent relationship. You know that too."

He looked away. "I cannot accept that," he said. "If I feel as I do toward you, how can you not feel the same? Perhaps you have somehow blocked the reality of it…"

"That's ridiculous," I said. "Asinine. A bonding either is or isn't, Sah'larrah. It's beyond conscious choice. And even if such a thing were possible, why should I? You've been good to me, and we have much in common. A mating would be advantageous to us both. And more: I'm thirty-two years old; my biological clock is ticking. I'd be an idiot to 'deny' a bonding, if one was actually occurring. I'd be leaving with you now--and the Dark take my career. But the Goddess has decided otherwise."

For a long moment he was silent, gazing at his hands. Finally he sighed. "Then…this must be goodbye."

"Yes," I said. As I've been telling you for days. "I fear it must."

He took me in his arms and nuzzled my cheek. "I will not soon forget you, Ehm'ayla."

I licked his cheek. "Nor I you," I said. "Don't worry, Sah'larrah. Somewhere on Sah'aar, someone is waiting for you. You won't be alone forever."

His gaze contained an infinity of sadness, before he turned away. "I wish," he said, "I could make myself believe that."

###

…And now, more than twenty years later, I turned toward the window, hiding my face from my fellow passengers. I did nothing wrong, I told myself. I never led him on, never promised him the proverbial rose garden. Never did I give him cause to believe that we were sharing anything other than four weeks of companionship and wild sex. He hated doctors; he wouldn't consent to allow Zelazny's Centaurii physician to test his hormones--and that was his choice to make, not mine. It wasn't my fault--so why was there still a rock-hard lump of guilt in my stomach?

Bonding, along with claws, teeth, tails and fur, defines Sah'aarans; it is what we are. From adolescence on, each of us broadcasts a cloud of pheromones, as individual as a Terran fingerprint. As we go through life, we are constantly--though unconsciously--seeking the matching scent: the hand to fit our glove, so to speak. It can happen anywhere, anytime--as my son had recently discovered. Sometimes it will be the girl or boy next door--and sometimes a stranger in the marketplace. The connection is unbreakable, life-long: the parties involved can do nothing but adjust. Plans, dreams and aspirations will often fall by the wayside, or at very least be drastically altered. But that is the way of it, determined long ago by the Goddess--or evolution, depending on whether you asked a theologian or a biologist. It isn't love; not at first. That comes later--but it does come, even between such disparate personalities as my mother and father.

Alone in Sah'aaran history--so far as I knew--I had short-circuited that process, or at very least bent it to my own ends. Long ago, when I was an infant, my friend and mentor Admiral Ehm'rael was nearly killed by Chrysaoan nanotechnology. Her mate, Sah'majha, was enslaved by the Jellies for ten years; they equipped him with the prosthetic legs and hand he still wore. After breaking free from his bondage, he dedicated his life to studying nanotech, in an attempt to erase the Chrysaoans' dangerous advantage. His work was frequently lauded, occasionally condemned--and never more so than when he offered to help me. His idea was simplicity itself: implant nanobots in my sinuses, which would trick my scent-receptors into believing that Joel's personal, human effluvia was my pheromonal match. It worked: my love for him was converted into a physiological connection, utterly indistinguishable from a purely natural bonding. I believed it my own business, and Joel's--but there were others who saw it differently. I was living on Terra when the wave of revulsion hit, and so it barely affected me; but poor Sah'majha was right in the thick of it, the subject of public scorn and devastating editorials. He would never admit to feeling any regret, nor any anger toward me--but I didn't doubt that he had.

Twenty years had muted the public hatred--but not, perhaps, the private. Simply by returning home, I'd placed myself in the line of fire. And my family too. Joel could take care of himself, but the kits…hopefully I'd take most of the heat myself.

I didn't regret the choice I'd made, all those years ago; at the time I believed it inevitable, preordained by the Goddess. For the most part, I still did. If I'd known the trouble my actions would cause, I'd have thought twice…but I still would have taken them. Because--as in an unassisted bonding--I'd had no choice…

A qualm of terror jerked me back to reality, and I looked up sharply, almost giving myself a whiplash, suddenly sure that I'd missed my station. I hadn't, according to the route-map at the front of the car, but almost: it was the very next one. I pressed the "Request Stop" button, and the shuttle slowed.

My travels had taken me far from Sah'salaan proper, through the greenbelt into an area almost a hundred kilometers west of the city. When I disembarked at a station too small to rate a weather-shield, I realized to my amusement that I'd finally found it: the elusive modest suburb.

The neighborhood hugged the banks of a dry meandering gully, which during the Interval would be an attractive stream. The houses were quite small, nothing like my father's home, or even Admiral Ehm'rael's. Built mainly of concrete block, they were square rather than round, with a small open space in the center. No towering walls or formidable gates here; just low fences of split rails. A narrow footpath and an arched stone bridge connected the homes to the shuttle station.

The house I sought proved typical. It sat on a small lot, surrounded by an attractive landscape of waving grass and topiary, its unadorned grey walls sandblasted to resemble stone. There was no movement, and the tinted windows were dark mysteries; but somehow, as I passed through the small gate and made my way up the path, I had the creepy feeling I was being watched.

With each step I grew increasingly nervous, my tail going six to the bar, my claws slightly expressed. There was little I could do about the former--but the latter would be an inexcusable insult. I paused briefly before the wide red-painted door. Several deep, cleansing breaths did the trick, and my claws vanished. I touched the bell-pad, and heard a soft cascade of chimes from somewhere within.

Less than ten seconds later--proving that someone had indeed been watching--the door opened a few centimeters, to reveal a female some ten years older than me, her day-robe the traditional ash-grey of mourning. Her gaze raked me from head to toe. Too late to wonder if I should have worn grey also; I might have, if I considered it unquestionable that Sah'larrah was dead. "Yes?" she said.

Not a great beginning--but I had no choice. I bowed low. "I am Ehm'ayla," I said, deliberately omitting my rank. "I spoke to your mother earlier. I presume you are Ehm'kall?"

She nodded sharply. "Yes," she said. "You do." She opened the door wider, and stepped aside. "You are expected, Commodore. Enter."

"Thank you," I said, and followed her inside. I'd had friendlier welcomes--but perhaps she was naturally taciturn. She had every right to be.

I had never before met this woman, but even without an introduction I would have known her for Sah'larrah's twin. The resemblance was striking, to say the least. Her shoulder-length mane and fur were mostly grey, with random darker streaks. Sah'larrah would have looked much the same, but I remembered him younger. Oddly--or perhaps not--in her face I saw a definite echo of my own kits. Good thing I hadn't brought them with me this morning; they'd already garnered enough sidelong glances from my family to make me wonder if the identity of their biological father was as secret as I hoped.

As I followed Ehm'kall through the narrow hallways, I recalled what Sah'larrah had once told me about her. Compared to hers, my complex and difficult life had been an endless idyll. Ehm'kall was widowed at the age of twenty, her mate of less than a year killed while asteroid mining. They had no kits--and a childless Sah'aaran is an object of both pity and scorn. There are many ways in which our peculiar biology is a cruel taskmaster, and that is one: if we lose our mate to death, we can never have another. For better or worse, bonding is forever. To that, and to her brother's disappearance, I attributed the fact that Ehm'kall seemed worn far beyond her sixty-one years.

The house was small, but quite clean and tastefully-decorated. Indoors, the concrete-block walls were plastered, the smooth surface painted a restful light brown. The few paintings were mostly landscapes. The floor was not carpeted, but covered with the more traditional woven-grass mats. The windows were large, the rooms bright; but even so, I felt a troubling undercurrent of gloom. Perhaps I'd brought it with me.

Ehm'kall led me down a short hallway, then turned left and threw open a pair of glass-paned doors. I stepped through into the conservatory.

A typical feature of most Sah'aaran homes, including my father's, it was in the form of a lean-to, a metal frame filled with deeply-tinted glass, attached to the inner court. The floor was tiled, and covered with mats; several hidden fountains tinkled and splashed. Far from hot, the room was actually quite cool, the air a moist and pleasant change from the parched heat outside. Planters and pots crowded the small space, overflowing with ferns, creepers, vines, and profusely-flowering local orchids. All were beautiful, and I recognized some from my mother's garden, and my own. Like the family shrine, the conservatory is considered a place of peace and spiritual healing. I doubted, though, that I would find much of that here.

In the midst of all the greenery a woman waited, seated upon one of a pair of large white-wicker chairs. Her fur was snow-white, almost blindingly so in contrast to her grey day-robe. A dark cloth covered her head, probably disguising the sparseness of her mane; her collar was silver. She sat patiently, her features composed--showing neither a smile nor a snarl--her gnarled hands resting in her lap,. Behind the chair, discreet but not out of sight, stood the metal frame of her walker. She was well into her eighties--but Sah'aarans are a long-lived species, and like her daughter, she seemed prematurely aged. The reasons why were not difficult to guess.

As we entered, her gaze pierced me, her eyes steady if slightly milky, and I knew, before a single word had been spoken, that in her frail body resided a force to be reckoned with. There was a moment of silence, as we sized each other up. Ehm'kall stepped behind her mother, resting her hands protectively on the back of the chair.

"You are Ehm'ayla," the old woman stated. Her voice was low and steady, but ragged at the edges. "Commodore Ehm'ayla."

I bowed. "I am," I acknowledged. I tried to emulate her level tones, but my tail was lashing again, and my fingertips tingling. Already I felt off-balance, uneasy; this wasn't going well. The air was pleasantly cool--but the atmosphere decidedly arctic.

"I am Ehm'herra," she said. Once again I would have known that, just by looking--though the resemblance to Sah'larrah and Ehm'kall was obscured by age. My kits' other grandmother--though they might never know her as such. What a different person from the cheerful woman who had hugged me and licked my forehead that morning!

"I am honored to meet you," I said. "I have heard much about you both."

"And we you," Ehm'herra said. Still she betrayed no emotion, either on her face or in her words. She waved a hand, indicating her chair's twin. "Be seated, if you will."

I did so, feeling awkward. I hadn't been offered refreshment, not even a glass of water; on Sah'aar, that was a deadly insult.

"What would you have of us?" she went on, her tone acquiring a sudden edge of mockery.

I took a deep breath. This was it, the job I'd come so far to do…but now that the moment had finally arrived, I had no idea how to begin. Especially since I seemed to be receiving no glimmer of welcome…

"Thank you for agreeing to see me," I began. "I would have come sooner, but my journey was long, and the preparations time-consuming." I paused, waiting for some reaction from either of them, but there was none. I went on, "When news reached me of Sah'larrah's disappearance, I knew I must come. My feelings for him are deep. At one time he was my instructor--but that was not all. For a brief period some years ago, we shared a…very close friendship. This may be known to you. It occurred during a period of extreme emotional fragility for me. The kindness he showed me then was an act of generosity I was never able to repay. We were together only a short time, but I treasure the memories as among the brightest of my life."

Once again I paused, but still I saw not a single flicker of emotion. With rapidly-growing unease, but knowing my duty was only half-done, I forced myself to soldier on. "My heart does not wish to believe he is dead; but as time passes, we must accept that hope is fading. If he is indeed gone, he has taken a part of me with him. I grieve for him as I would for my own brother."

Ehm'kall's eyes narrowed, so briefly that I wondered if it was my imagination. An instant later her face was once again stone. It was almost as if she and her mother were waiting, biding their time until I finished; but why?

I concluded, "I have come to offer my help. I know this is a difficult time for both of you, and there are few now to whom you can turn. If there is any assistance I or my family can provide, we are at your service."

"By which you mean money," Ehm'kall said coldly.

I paused. I'd rehearsed this conversation in my mind countless times, in countless variations. But none of my carefully-built scenarios had included anything like this, and I found myself at a loss for words. Carefully I said, "I understood Sah'larrah to be well-supplied in that regard. But if that is truly your need, it will be gladly met."

Ehm'kall's eyes narrowed, her lips curling into a snarl, and for an instant I feared she would literally explode. "What makes you think we want your help, Commodore?" she growled. "Or your money?"

It was several seconds before I could reply. Her passivity had flared to rage with breathtaking speed; her own tail was lashing now, and her fingers had sprouted sharp black tips. Seeing that, I felt panic reach up and grasp me by the throat. Only once before had I experienced the horrible sensation of a situation escalating out of my control--and that on the worst day of my life. As softly as I could, I said, "I have offered you my aid freely and in good will, Ehm'kall, as our traditions demand. What have I done to deserve your anger?"

Her scowl deepened, and her claws expressed fully, biting into the wicker. "What have you done?" she demanded, in tones of outrage. "You dare to ask what you have done?"

Ehm'herra raised her hand. "Enough, daughter," she said. She leaned forward. "Sah'larrah was a lonely man, Commodore. Did you know that? He never bonded."

I glanced away, and nodded. "Yes," I said sadly. "I know."

"Then you must also know it was your fault."

I looked up sharply. "My fault?" I said. "How so?"

She glared at me coldly. "I know you, Commodore Ehm'ayla. Better than you may believe. I know of your relationship with Sah'larrah, twenty years ago--what you so conveniently dismiss as a 'friendship.'" She leaned forward. "Know this, Commodore. I have allowed you into my home for one reason: to see what kind of Sah'aaran would rob a man of his life by refusing a bonding."

Shock rooted me to the spot, and it was long minutes before I could speak. "Not true, Ehm'herra," I said finally. "I did not 'refuse' a bonding with Sah'larrah; none existed."

"You dare lie to me in my own home?" Ehm'herra demanded. "Do you deny that you and that…man, that cyborg, Sah'majha, tampered with your body to bond you to a…human?" She all but spat that last word.

"No," I said. "By no means do I deny that. Nor do I regret it. But that has nothing to do with Sah'larrah…"

"Liar!" Ehm'herra screamed. "You did bond with my son--but you rejected him, because you were in love with that Terran. And then you used that…that…"

"Nanotechnology," her daughter supplied.

"Yes. That. You used it to break your bonding with Sah'larrah and redirect it. Do you deny this?"

Great Goddess, I thought in despair. So that's what they think of me? In a perverse way, it made sense--and in their position, it would be all too easy to believe. Had it become the prevailing opinion on my homeworld? If so, I might as well pack up and return to Pacific Grove right now. "Yes," I said. "I do deny it, absolutely. And I have medical records to support my case. Do you?"

Ehm'herra glanced away, her expression troubled, and I knew I'd scored a point. "No," she admitted. "I do not. My son refused to discuss the matter, with his physician or anyone else." She raised her head to glare at me again. "But how then do you explain that he never bonded?"

"I cannot," I said. "I am not a physician. Biological processes are not perfect; we are none of us machines. Perhaps there was a medical explanation--if he had chosen to seek it." And why didn't he? I asked myself. Maybe because he thought he knew the answer already --and didn't want to be confused by facts. If so, that was typical Sah'larrah.

"I am sorry your son never found a mate," I went on. "But I fear you must seek elsewhere for the reason why. I am to blame for many things--but not for that. As you know very well."

Ehm'herra was silent for a long moment. Then she said, softly, "I know only that I have no grandchildren, and there is no one to carry forth my son's genes, or his memory. If you are not to blame, Commodore, then who is?"

She spoke so sadly, so hopelessly, that my heart went out to her, and my anger drained instantly away. What would she say, I wondered, if I told her that Sah'larrah did have children; that they're happy and healthy and no more than a hundred kilometers away? Would she welcome the news--or would it give her further cause to revile me? Academic, of course; there was no way I could bring myself to tell her. I wouldn't drag my kits into this.

"I do not know," I said. "Perhaps there is no one to blame. I can only say that it was never my intention to harm Sah'larrah. I am sorry now I ever became involved with him, if this is the result. But I cannot change the past, Ehm'herra. Nor can I bring myself to regret my decision to bond with Joel Abrams. I understand your anger, and I can only ask you to believe that every word I have spoken is the truth. My offer of aid is still open, and will remain so."

She stared at me for a long moment; then, abruptly, she buried her face in her hands and began to weep. Immediately Ehm'kall circled around and enfolded her mother in her arms, comforting her with soft words. Embarrassed and troubled, I turned away. On Sah'aar, tears are shameful; they are never shed openly. I shouldn't be seeing this, and I wondered what I could say that wouldn't make the situation worse.

Ehm'kall glared at me. "You have upset my mother enough for one day, Commodore," she hissed. "Get out!"

…And I did, silently, aware that I'd once again proved the old Terran adage about the road paved with good intentions.

###

My steps were slow as I departed that little concrete-block house; my head bent and my shoulders slumped, as if someone had hung a hundred-kilo weight from my collar. For the first time in my life I truly did feel old, worn out, worthless. For a time--how long, I can't say--I wandered the dusty, deserted paths, finally finding myself at the crest of the arched bridge. Leaning on the railing, I stared down into the dry gully, as if it were already the torrent it would become when the rains came.

Goddess, if only I'd known! I thought in despair. What Ehm'herra had accused me of was despicable, unthinkable--and also impossible, until Sah'majha came along. Could his technique truly be used to break, or redirect, a bonding? As I'd told Tom, I thought not--at least as it had been applied to me. But it would take a bioengineer to know for certain, which I was not--nor was Ehm'herra, Ehm'kall…or Sah'larrah. The distinction--between carefully tricking one's scent-receptors to trigger a bonding, and brutally seizing control of the process, bending it to one's will--would no doubt be lost on them. The former was possible: I was living proof of that. The latter, who knew?--but I would never be a party to it. Few Sah'aarans would.

Unfortunately, Ehm'herra thought I would…and had. And she hadn't come by that belief all by herself--of that I felt certain. No: it had been planted in her mind--most likely by her own son. For some reason, he had never managed to bond. Unusual, yes, though hardly unprecedented. There may have been a medical explanation, as I'd told Ehm'kall--or it may simply have been bad luck. Perhaps his pheromones had no ready match; such things do happen. But apparently he'd believed otherwise. In his mind, I had deliberately abandoned him, "refusing" our bonding, and callously used nanotech to deprive him of his rightful place in my life.

Horrible, yes--but it got worse. If I was right, if those were his thoughts--then how long had he harbored them? Weeks? Months? Years? The latter seemed most likely, to have so thoroughly influenced his mother's and sister's thinking. But seventeen years ago, give or take, he'd willingly made the donation that gave life to my children. Would he have so readily agreed, if he thought so poorly of me? Or was I missing something?

If only he'd said something! An open accusation, a veiled hint; anything to give me a clue that something was wrong. I could have proved to him, once and for all, that what he feared wasn't true. Combined Forces medical logs don't lie. But he hadn't--and that was Sah'larrah too.

And--worst of all--was it possible he'd been right, in a backhanded way? A "one-way" bonding is an impossibility; there was no way he could have been bonded with me, if I wasn't with him. But could his fixation with me have inhibited his hormones? Could he, somehow, have psychosomatically prevented himself from responding to any of the female pheromones that subsequently crossed his path? Far-fetched, true--but at that point, confused as I was, anything sounded logical.

If there are indeed universal truths, then surely this is one: the pointlessness of "if only" thoughts, and how swiftly one grows weary of them. The sun was climbing, the heat pounding down, and the day passing too quickly. Finally, my steps wooden, I descended from the bridge. When the next shuttle arrived I climbed aboard, neither knowing nor caring where it was headed; just as long as it took me away from that Goddess-cursed place. Too bad my shame didn't recede into the distance as swiftly.

For some minutes I sat still, my eyes closed, until finally I felt able to cope with my surroundings. Then I glanced up at the route map.

The shuttle, I saw, was headed for downtown Sah'salaan. Not surprising: that was the ultimate destination for most of the cars on the system. I could disembark at the next stop, and wait for a car to take me back to Father's house. That would have been sensible: go home, rest, eat--and hide in my mother's conservatory until the pain went away. Or go to the family shrine and pray for strength, if I could force myself to enter there. Sensible, yes; preferable in every way. But for some unfathomable reason, I did not. I remained seated as the next platform flashed by, and the next, and then the shuttle passed into the greenbelt, and it was too late. It may have been simple inertia; my confrontation with Ehm'herra had left me exhausted. Or perhaps it was the illusion of disconnection the speeding car gave me: so long as I remained aboard, no one could find me, nothing could harm me. Or maybe--more likely--it was my sense of duty calling. I did still have a job to do.

Less than an hour later the shuttle reached Sah'salaan. I watched the buildings grow, sprouting like blades of grass from the savanna, until they loomed as a solid wall, then reached out to engulf me, rising to dizzying heights and sparkling in the sun. Near the heart of the city the shuttle slowed, as its tracks converged with a number of others; then, smoothly and silently, it slid to a halt beneath the weather-dome of the Transit Nexus.

I sighed. End of the line; no choice now but to rejoin the world. I rose, my body stiff and sore, and joined the short queue exiting the car. As before, none of the other passengers paid me the slightest attention, and that was fine.

For a moment I lingered on the platform, the quiet bustle of the Nexus eddying around me as if I were a rock in a stream. Shuttles arrived and departed; day-robed business-people embarked and disembarked, their gaits rapid and their eyes straight ahead, intent on being someplace else as quickly as possible. Though similar in function, this place was nothing like the shuttle terminal we'd passed through yesterday. No oases of greenery here, no little cafes, not even many benches. It was generally assumed--intended, even--that no one would be here longer than the five minutes it took to catch a train. I had passed through the Nexus thousands of times in my youth, almost without seeing it; it was the kind of place that repetition renders invisible. Perhaps that was intentional too.

I now had several choices. I could go sightseeing myself, an idea that left me cold. Or I could try to locate my brother, mate and kits. My CF commpak was in my sash-pouch, and Joel would no doubt be carrying his civilian model. I could have tracked them down. But in my present mood, I would have been a killjoy; let them enjoy their day without dragging me along like a sea-anchor.

Or third--and worse--I could search for the Chief of Police. I'd hoped to be in a better mood when I confronted her--so that, by the grace of the Goddess, I'd refrain from going for her throat. But now…I had a feeling this was as good as my mood would get, and if I didn't see her now, I'd lose my resolve to do so at all. Already I was fighting an impulse to collect Joel and the twins, throw them aboard Cuvier, and head for home at three G's.

Well--if nothing else, standing there irresolute I was a hazard to navigation, and so I turned and joined the throng heading for the air-curtain doorways. Let my feet take me where they would.

###

I cornered Ehm'luruus in her office--and I mean that literally.

I've already mentioned the huge size of the buildings in Sah'salaan--but what I had forgotten, what I was forcibly reminded of when I stepped from the Nexus, was the openness and great beauty of my home town.

It is common--almost inevitable--for a city with many tall buildings to be shrouded in perpetual darkness. I've seen it many times, on Terra and elsewhere. But not Sah'salaan. The capital of Sah'aar is that rarest of things, a planned city. The buildings are set far enough apart to dispel the shadows, and most are of tapering, pyramidal shape. Below, the boulevards are wide, with shuttle tracks down their centers. Business, shops, stalls and cafés line the sidewalks, intermingled with trees, shrubs and other greenery. There are many small parks and gardens, cool oases centered around splashing fountains.

And then there are the people. No other Sah'aaran city is as densely-populated as Sah'salaan, and we dislike crowds; but somehow we endure. The sidewalks teemed with many thousands of people--Sah'aarans mainly, but with a mixture of humans, Centaurii and other species. Male and female, young, old and in between, they walked, shopped, sold, ate, served, conversed; and somehow managed to maintain a bubble of personal space. I had to smile as I gazed upon the kits: tumbling, exuberant balls of fluff, entirely and unashamedly naked except for their collars. Too bad it hadn't been possible for my twins to have that experience; it's a tremendously liberating feeling, one of the joys of kithood. Pacific Grove's climate and Terran law had made it inadvisable.

As I walked I looked around for my family, but I never saw them. I'm not sure what I would have done if I had. I might have been forced to avoid them: they would have asked me to join them, and I wanted nothing to come between me and my unpleasant task. For the first time, I was actually pleased not to see my loved ones.

But just to walk down those streets, after so many years was a balm to my soul, and I felt my spirits begin to rise out of the depths. To see the familiar sights, smell the familiar odors…even to realize with pleasure that I still possessed the knack of navigating swiftly through the crowds while maintaining that vital envelope of space. I felt my steps lightening, as if the burden of years had been lifted from my shoulders. For a brief time I could almost imagine myself a teenager again, carefree and innocent. Unfortunately the weight of my fifty-two years was quite real, and the heat stifling--but fortunately, I didn't have far to go.

Alliance Plaza, in the center of the city, is the single largest open space in Sah'salaan, a perfect circle a kilometer in diameter. Within it lies a vast park, with trees and grass and winding paths, numerous fountains, a children's playground, and--at the very heart--a monument marking the spot where Sah'aar became a member of the TCA, more than a century ago. I might have lingered there, as Joel and the kits would, or had; but my business lay across the Plaza, in one of the buildings flanking it.

To the west stood the titanic Government Building, the single largest building on Sah'aar; to the north the TCA Tower, only a little smaller. South lay a cluster of embassies. Only the Combined Forces was not represented: their local headquarters lay on the savanna outside the greenbelt. But it was to the east side of the Plaza that I turned, toward the smaller, silver-faced building that housed the City and District offices.

The Police Department was easy enough to find, there on the first floor. The officer at the front counter--a broad-shouldered, sturdy-looking male with a trim blue uniform and a nasty scar bisecting his muzzle--greeted me with a professional smile, which almost managed to conceal his suspicion. "May I help you?"

I'd made a tactical error, I suddenly realized, and I cursed myself for it: I should have worn my own uniform. I could not have looked particularly impressive in a wilted yellow day-robe. "Yes, you may," I said. I'd spent many years perfecting my "superior officer" attitude, and it had come in handy many times. "I am Commodore Ehm'ayla of the Combined Forces. I'd like to speak with Chief Ehm'luruus, if I may."

He melted under my gaze, as I'd hoped; but he had fortitude, and recovered quickly. "Your identification, please?" he said crisply.

I produced the little plastic card from my pouch and passed it to him. He glanced at it quickly, then ran it through a scanner. "One moment, Commodore," he said. "I will see if she's available."

She'd damn well better be! is what I might have said--but I refrained. I had no reason to be inflammatory. Not yet, anyway.

I waited, leaning on the counter, while the nameless young policeman spoke quietly into a visiphone. The office behind him was quiet, with barely a hint of movement, and that wasn't surprising: Sah'aar is anything but a high-crime area.

Finally he returned. "The chief will see you now, Commodore," he said. He handed me a badge on a length of plastic chain: the bold red Sah'aaran script upon it read "Visitor;" below that was the date, and the numeral "10."

"Her office is on the tenth floor," he went on. "This badge will allow you the use of the elevator, and take you directly there."

And nowhere else, I thought wryly, as I slipped the chain over my head. Well, the CF has its security concerns too; more than most people could ever imagine. "You have been helpful, young man," I said. "Thank you."

"My pleasure, Commodore."

The elevator car was not large, but I was its only occupant. During the brief ascent I closed my eyes, trying--with partial success--to compose myself. I'd come here to confront this woman, this Chief of Police; but what did I stand to gain by alienating her? I'd already formed my opinion of her, based on what I'd seen and read: a pompous, self-important twit. But I, of all people, should know the dangers of prejudice. At very least I owed her a hearing, before I put my claws in.

With that resolve, I squared my shoulders, set my jaw, and stepped from the elevator into Ehm'luruus' outer office. She had a secretary, a day-robed cipher who was evidently a civilian. She'd been briefed, and waved me through with scarcely a glance.

The Chief of Police's inner sanctum was attractive, I suppose--if you like plastic. Her furnishings--desk, chairs, sofa and bookshelves--were mass-produced, molded polymer, right out of a supply catalog. The few artworks lining the walls were mass-produced prints, not originals. But the view through her windows, over Alliance Plaza and downtown Sah'salaan, more than made up for the paucity of taste. Knowing that, she had arranged her desk to take full advantage of that breathtaking panorama.

Ehm'luruus rose, beaming, as I entered. She was young, about thirty-five--a little too young, I thought, for such a demanding job. She was from Ehm'tarr Continent, I saw: her short mane was darker than mine ever had been, shading into red; her fur was almost coppery; and her muzzle was sharp, almost pointy, flanked by black "tear streaks" that ran from the inner corners of her eyes to her chin. She wore a shiny, dark-blue jumpsuit, trimmed with gold, short-legged and cap-sleeved; her calves were enclosed in black ankle-supports, and a pair of fingerless gloves lay on her desk. A holster containing a huge stinger was strapped low on her right hip.

"Commodore Ehm'ayla!" she said, in "at-last-we-meet" tones. "I had heard that you and your family were visiting Sah'aar. This is indeed an honor."

I bowed. "For me as well, Chief Ehm'luruus." The Goddess frowns upon lying--but this was politics.

"Please," she said with a sweep of her hand, "be seated."

I did, and she went on, "May we dispense with formality? It would please me greatly to be simply Ehm'luruus to you."

I nodded. "As you wish," I said. "And it would please me to be Ehm'ayla." Outwardly I was smiling--but inside I was cursing furiously. How can I hate someone who's so damned charming?

Folding her arms, she leaned forward, peering at me intently. "Now," she said, "How may I assist you, Ehm'ayla?"

I took a deep breath. This was it, again: the other job I'd come so far to do. The Goddess grant that it go better than the last! "I wish to discuss the disappearance of Dr. Sah'larrah, and your department's handling of the affair."

She scowled, and her tail and claws…well, you know what they did. She paused, then went on, smiling tightly, "You must forgive my confusion; I did not know the Combined Forces had any interest in the matter."

"The Combined Forces does not," I said between clenched teeth. "I am not here to represent the Admiralty. My concern is strictly personal."

Her eyes narrowed suddenly, her attitude clearly changing. To Commodore Ehm'ayla, a flag officer with the weight of a military organization behind her, Ehm'luruus would be polite and deferential--what Joel called a "schmoozer." But now that I'd converted myself to Citizen Ehm'ayla…It couldn't be helped, though. I might have lied; but she would have checked, and my credibility would have sunk to zero. No: the truth was the better, if more difficult, course.

"Indeed," she said, with a tiny edge of contempt in her voice. "And what is your personal concern?"

"Sah'larrah and I were colleagues and friends," I told her evenly. "At the time of his accident, I read and heard several comments made by you. Possibly they were distorted by the news media; I know only too well how such things happen. But if reported accurately, they demonstrated a shocking lack of respect for a distinguished scientist."

She leaned back, smiling slowly. "And so you are giving me a chance to explain myself," she observed. "The benefit of the doubt, as the Terrans say. Most kind." She leaned forward again. "If my words indicated a lack of respect, it is because I felt none. Does that answer your question?"

My heart skipped a beat, and my claws expressed, tingling madly. When finally I could speak again, I said, "Indeed. And why is that?"

She shrugged. "Because he was a self-aggrandizing old fool--and a nuisance besides. He made the Undercity his personal playground, with the cooperation of the Government and the University; and what for? To sell books; and that with the connivance of your father."

I ignored that. "It was my understanding," I grated, "that Sah'larrah was doing important archaeological work."

She threw back her head and laughed. "Important work? There? You are deluded, Commodore. The Undercity was an aberration, a blot on our history, a colossal mistake. It still exists only because it was too big to destroy. Any 'importance' came from his own imagination."

I nodded. "I see," I said. "In that case, I have only one question."

"And that is?"

"Sah'larrah was an archaeologist of galaxy-wide reputation," I said. "And so am I, if I may be permitted to say so. I believe his work on the Undercity was important; and obviously, so did he. Tell me then, what makes us wrong--and you right?"

She spread her hands. "I will not belabor the point," she said dismissively. "I have not the expertise. But I will say this. My department is responsible for the safety of a great many people; but my budget is limited. I cannot afford to waste resources.

"Sah'larrah explored the Undercity for the better part of forty years," she went on. "Or, more accurately, played there. During that time, my predecessors were forced to rescue him no fewer than a dozen times. When I inherited this office two years ago, I warned him I would spend no more of the public's funds on his folly. Despite my warnings, he chose to continue. I might simply have left him there, had I dared; it would have been evolution in action. But I must also be attentive to public opinion--which his mother and sister skillfully turned against me. And so I was forced to waste money on a prolonged and fruitless search. That is now concluded: Sah'larrah is dead. Of that there can be no further doubt. When I have persuaded the Government to seal his access, that will end it, once and for all."

She leaned close, and went on in wheedling tones: "I know you, Ehm'ayla: I know of your history. We are two of a kind, you and I; we do not suffer fools gladly. Must there be conflict between us? Sah'larrah was your friend, and he is dead; for that I am sorry. But did he not choose the manner of his own passing? There shall be a monument for him, I am sure; let it go at that."

I glared at her coldly. Then I said, "Little do laymen understand the workings of science. The Undercity was indeed a mistake--but even our errors are part of our history, and must therefore be documented, if only to keep them from happening again, I have read Sah'larrah's monographs, as you evidently have not; and I have spoken to him many times. Archaeology was his passion, Chief Ehm'luruus, as it is mine. Can you understand that? Or do you love only your budget? There will indeed by a monument, if I must build it with my own hands. Whether anyone will ever choose to raise one for you, I very much doubt.

"I do not intend to let this drop," I said. "I am not without resources, and I have many friends, in and out of the Combined Forces. You have admitted that your search for Sah'larrah was begun reluctantly. If that contributed to his death, I will see your pelt nailed to a tree. Do I make myself clear?"

Her eyes were blazing, but she shrugged in elaborate unconcern. "You are invited to try, Commodore," she said. "Your resources against mine. We shall see."

"We shall," I agreed. I rose to depart, but paused at the door. "In a way, you were correct," I said. "I don't suffer fools gladly. But unlike you, I know one when I see one."

###

Amazing, the changes a single hour can bring. I'd left Ehm'herra's house bowed down, defeated, crushed under a load of shame. But I departed the District Police offices with my head held high, my steps firm, my tail bristling and my eyes smoldering. Those who crossed my path quickly got out of the way. My life had been entirely too tranquil these last few years; I'd almost forgotten how cleansing, how liberating, a dose of good righteous anger can be.

Unfortunately--especially at my age--you can't keep it up for long, and as I stepped out onto Alliance Plaza, I took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly. Time to cool down, Commodore, I told myself. In more ways than one.

It was nearly noon by then, the sun riding high and the Plaza nearly deserted, the crowds seeking shelter. My stomach had waived its right to remain silent, and the heat was threatening to hammer my brain into a flat, impervious disk. I set off in search of lunch and a cold drink.

Guided by a memory more than thirty years old, I found my way to a small garden restaurant a few blocks from the Plaza. To my pleasure, I found it almost unchanged. Seated amidst the ferns and fountains, I ordered a huge cut of maxigrazer steak, smothered in tangy Tarrsh relish, and followed by a slice of Terran cheesecake. My girlish figure be damned; I was hungry. No doubt I'd be needing antacids later, but as always, I had a pack in my sash-pouch.

I forced myself to eat slowly, which would aid my stomach as well as my mood, and as I did, my anger drained away; or rather, converted itself into a firm resolve. The café was out of the way, almost hidden, and therefore not crowded; that helped too.

I'd told Ehm'luruus the literal truth: I did not intend to let this go. Whether she had been entirely honest with me, regarding the reasons for her animosity toward Sah'larrah, I neither knew, nor cared. What mattered was her actions. By her own admission, she'd wanted to leave Sah'larrah and his assistant to their fates; it was only the public outcry brought on by Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall that forced her hand.

…And there's irony for you, I realized as I sipped my iced herbal tea. If Sah'larrah's mother and sister didn't hate me so, I could have made important allies out of them. Obviously they weren't members of the Ehm'luruus Fan Club.

The Chief of Police was a public servant--though unfortunately her position was appointed, not elected. She was sworn to protect and serve the people. All the people; she could not choose who deserved her aid and who did not. That alone might be considered malfeasance. But if her search had indeed been half-assed (to use one of Joel's favorite vulgarisms), and if that contributed to the fact that Sah'larrah was still missing…I'd have her head. I didn't care how long it took, even if I had to ship my mate and kits back to Terra and finish the job alone. I swore it, with the Goddess as my witness: I would see Ehm'luruus tossed out of that comfortable office, and into a most uncomfortable jail cell.

Fortified--and in an odd way, much happier--I left the café and made my way back to the Transit Nexus. There I paused, gazing thoughtfully at the huge route map that dominated the far wall, while the crowd swirled impatiently around me. I might have caught a shuttle directly home…but I didn't. Instead I boarded a car heading in the opposite direction. Curiosity had gotten the better of me, as always: I wanted a look at the locus in quo.

###

The station was small, which was hardly surprising: officially, it didn't exist.

The shuttle's few other passengers gazed at me in suspicion as the car braked to a halt, and I rose and stepped out onto the tiny sun-baked platform. Their eyes were still upon me as the car continued on its way, leaving me utterly alone. With a sigh, I turned and looked around. There was little to see.

That particular shuttle route led to one of the most far-flung suburbs of Sah'salaan, a neighborhood built within the last forty years. In a way, the construction of that small cluster of homes began the chain of events which led to my standing there. The Undercity was entirely forgotten--until a group of workers, sinking pilings to support the shuttle tracks, accidentally pierced an airshaft which led to one of the structure's service ducts. The Government sought the advice of Sah'salaan U., and the head of the Department of Archaeology--the infamous old Dr. Ehm'talvas--assigned an eager young professor to the job. Sah'larrah. On such strokes of luck are careers made--and lives lost. Sometimes the line between the two is razor-thin.

At Sah'larrah's insistence, the tracks were shifted a hundred meters to the west, and that tiny station was constructed--though no route map ever showed it. It stood on the open savanna, a hundred kilometers from the city. Around it, apart from the ribbon of tracks stretching off into the distance, there was nothing of note; just waving dry grass and scattered Tatak; dry gullies and outcrops of rock, all but incandescent under the relentless sun. Nothing to betray the presence of a vast engineering project, many meters below; nothing, that is, except a single dark structure. A faint path led toward it, and slowly, almost reluctantly, I followed it. The soil was rough and hot beneath my long-suffering foot-pads.

I had been here before, just once, and my memories of that occasion had guided me to the correct shuttle; but it had been more than thirty-five years since I'd last seen that little rough shed. I remembered the day quite clearly. A field trip, led by Sah'larrah: hard hats, head-lamps, overalls, ropes…the works. Sah'larrah bouncing around, beaming his great smile, eager to show off his latest findings. Too bad the reality didn't live up to the hype. We didn't penetrate far--barely scratched the surface, in fact, compared to some of his major expeditions--but the place was smelly, damp, and unpleasantly cold, and I'd been happy to depart. How Sah'larrah had managed to endure four decades of it, I'd never understood.

The place hadn't changed much. The structure--about three meters square by two tall--was what the Terrans used to call a "pillbox," crudely built of concrete blocks with a sloping metal roof. The walls were covered with faded interpretive panels, describing both the Undercity and Sah'larrah's work. They had obviously not been updated lately, and the words "discoveries are still being made" sent a knife through my heart.

But it was the front of the structure that most interested me. The wide doorway was guarded by a strong metal gate, secured by a stout length of chain and a magnetic padlock. The interior lay in dense shadow, but I could see--and well remembered--the long metal ladder that plunged through a narrow ragged hole in the earth. Sah'larrah must have made that descent hundreds of times--until his luck finally ran out.

In front of the gate, someone had set up a makeshift memorial: a stone pillar about a meter tall, atop which sat a tiny gilded Goddess figurine. All around lay wreaths and bouquets, dozens of them, wilted now and falling to pieces. I needn't wonder who had put them there. Sah'larrah had been unmated--but hardly friendless. Probably Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall had arranged for the pillar and the figurine; the rest would have been placed by colleagues, friends and students. I wished now I'd thought to bring a wreath from the city. Later, I would; and later too, I would see a larger, more permanent memorial set up. Even--as I'd told Ehm'luruus--if I had to build it myself.

I didn't linger long at the memorial; in part because it was too painful--but mostly because something else had caught my eye.

On either side of the gate, grey metal boxes about two meters long had been bolted to the concrete. Protruding from them, pointing toward each other across the opening, were a number of small silver cones, like teeth. A stinger barrier: anyone who tried to pass through it would receive a painful, and thoroughly discouraging, jolt of electricity. Or--depending on how high the thing was set--might be zapped into unconsciousness.

But why? I wondered. For more than forty years, the gate and padlock had been sufficient to keep out trespassers; not that there'd ever been many. It seemed pointless to back them up with an energy barrier--and it must have been a strain on Ehm'luruus' limited budget.

Despite the heat, I found myself shivering, almost as if--as the Terrans say--someone was walking over my grave. Suddenly, the silence and solitude seemed creepy, almost frightening. Disgusted by my sudden timidity, I retreated to the platform to await the next shuttle. I'd be back, I knew--but not alone.

###

Joel was napping, and the twins practicing their favorite sport, when I returned home.

Wearing tan shorts, deck shoes without socks, and a white T-shirt, my husband lounged on the terrace outside our suite, at the same table where he and I had eaten breakfast--was that one or two centuries ago? On the table, beside his palm-reader, stood a tall sweating pitcher of sky-blue T'samma-berry juice and a stack of glasses. It was late afternoon, and the heat would have been unendurable, if not for the dense shade of the Tatak and the tiny misting nozzles overhead. The fine spray of water they emitted evaporated instantly, without making anything wet--and in so doing, lowered the temperature a welcome few degrees.

Joel opened his eyes as I stepped onto the terrace. "Hi," he said, as I bent to receive his kiss; but his smile quickly turned to a frown of concern. "You look exhausted."

"I am," I said, sinking gratefully into a chair across from him. I helped myself to a glass of juice and gulped at it thirstily. He'd mixed it a little too sweet, but I couldn't fault his human taste-buds. As kits, my brother and I went through liters of the stuff every day, and thrived; but I hadn't tasted it in more than thirty years.

"How was your day?" I asked quickly, to prevent him asking me exactly the same thing.

He grinned. "I," he said, "am done in. So is your brother--I think he had to go lie down."

"The twins didn't--?" I began darkly.

"Oh no," he assured me. "Nothing like that. We didn't need to put the leashes on. But they were very…energetic." He nodded across the yard. "As you see, they haven't run out of steam yet."

A little distance away, where the branches were higher, Tom and Rae were engaged in an activity which had probably never before been seen on Sah'aar. I smiled and shook my head. Obviously I should have supervised their packing a bit more closely.

Tom, stripped down to bright-red shorts and a collar (his shirt was draped over the chair next to me) crouched low on his haunches, a well-worn catcher's mitt held out before him. Rae, in a black halter with an attached collar, and matching tight-fitting shorts, fished a baseball from the pocket of her pitcher's glove and snapped off her infamous "claw-ball." Its trajectory curved wickedly, but Tom's mitt flicked to the right, and the horsehide missile thumped solidly into the leather. Without rising, he tossed the ball back to her.

"They brought a bat with them too," Joel said, with an indulgent chuckle. "But I told them the quarters were a little close for that."

I had to agree, as I gazed around at the solid banks of windows surrounding us. I couldn't remember whether Father had ever had the glass replaced with unbreakable polymers--knowing him, probably not. "The land out by the water-hole is public property," I said. "They can use that--and give the neighbors something to talk about."

"I'll let them know."

Once again I shook my head. Baseball on Sah'aar… I envied Rae the lightness of her clothing: shorts and halter together would have tipped the scales at no more than thirty grams. I had an outfit like that in my luggage--but I wasn't sure if I dared. "What did you show them?" I asked.

"What didn't we show them? Let's see--we visited the Museum of Art and History, the Government Building, Alliance Plaza…you name it. It didn't start getting hairy, though, until we reached the marketplace."

I winced. The Sah'salaan Public Market was more than two kilometers long, a warren of passageways lined with shops and stalls. And not just food, but goods and imports from all over the planet and the Alliance. Rae, who had cut her shopping teeth on Lighthouse and Alvarado, would have thought she'd died and gone to the Bright Domains.

"I didn't think we'd ever get them out of there," Joel was saying. "Even Tom--and you know how he usually feels about shopping." He nodded at our son's bare furry back. "He's now the owner of half a dozen new collars, a number of assorted T-shirts, and various other items. As well as a shipload of gifts for Ehm'tassaa, if he can figure out how to get them past her father."

He would, I knew; and Joel would help. "What about Rae?" I asked, dreading the answer.

"I haven't compiled an inventory," he said. "Let's just say I hope Cuvier's cargo hold is big enough."

That's my daughter: around Pacific Grove she was known as Ehm'rael "Shop 'Til You Drop" Abrams. She was forever going over her monthly budget--and every time she did, Joel made me furious by granting her another extension. How's she supposed to learn fiscal responsibility? I'd asked him, over and over; but he just shrugged and smiled. In the final analysis, though, she came by her shopping genes honestly: just ask my mother. "Are we broke?"

"Actually, no," he said. He scratched his head, looking embarrassed. "To be honest, your brother paid for what they bought. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted. I hope I did the right thing…"

"You did," I assured him. By the rules of Sah'aaran etiquette, an initial refusal was expected, of the "oh-no-you-mustn't" variety; but then, if the giver insists, you cave in graciously. Any further refusals would be an insult. Not that money was an issue: my father--and Sah'sell by extension--could have bought the entire marketplace, let alone the kits' few oddments.

"So," Joel said, "we'll be seeing a new outfit on our daughter tonight, and it would probably be a good idea to notice."

"I shall," I said. Actually he didn't need to warn me: I always noticed Rae's fashion statements. On occasion I even approved.

I glanced at the two of them, my motherly instincts once again in conflict with the need to let go. Despite shade and light clothing, it would be all too easy for them to overheat: they still weren't used to the climate. Should I call them in, or let them decide when they'd had enough? They didn't seem to be panting excessively yet…

"And how was your day?" Joel asked.

My familial contentment vanished instantly. "Awful," I said. "Absolutely awful."

"How so?"

My voice barely under control, I told him. I left nothing out. His expression shifted several times as I spoke; first surprise, then sadness, and even a brief smile as I told him of my encounter with Ehm'luruus. He knew my temper, none better. But as I finished, he turned away. He was silent for a time, then he sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "God, how sorry I am!"

It was more than a simple expression of sympathy, and I brushed his cheek. "I'm not," I said firmly. "I never have been, and I never will be."

Smiling he took hold of my hand and kissed my fingers. "Neither am I," he said. He paused. "Can you be certain that's how Sah'larrah felt? The two of you sent messages back and forth for years; was there any hint of jealousy in them?"

"No," I said. "There wasn't. And no, I can't be certain. Maybe his mother and sister did come up with that on their own. Maybe Sah'larrah knew the cause of his problem, but couldn't bring himself to tell them. Anything is possible--and we may never know the truth."

"And--obviously--it would be better if Ehm'herra's suspicions didn't become public knowledge."

"You're right, it would," I agreed. I glanced at the kits, aware that they could hear every word we were saying, if they chose. "For several reasons."

We were silent again for a few minutes. Then Joel cleared his throat. "Now what?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well," he said, "your responsibility is fulfilled, isn't it?"

"As much as it can be, yes," I said ruefully.

"And Ehm'luruus knows what you think of her."

"True enough."

"Then," he began, and hesitated. "Forgive me for saying so, darling, but is there any point in hanging around?"

For a time I considered that, while the kits continued their game. Finally I shook my head. "I'm not ready to leave, Joel. Not yet."

"Tell me why."

I nodded across the garden. "Because of them, partly," I said. "They deserve to see more of their ancestral home. But that's not all. Something about Sah'larrah's disappearance doesn't smell right to me. 'Cover-up' is too strong a term--maybe. But something is wrong; I can feel it."

His eyes narrowed. He knew about my premonitions--and that we ignored them at our peril. "What do you suspect, Ayla?"

"I don't know," I said. "Yet. But Ehm'luruus wasn't telling me the whole story. I'd bet my last credit on it. And then there's the stinger-barrier at the Undercity access; that doesn't make sense either. I'm not leaving until I know what's really going on."

Joel nodded thoughtfully. "All right," he said. "We've got plenty of time. And if we keep the twins out of the Market, we'll have money. I'm here to help--you know that. Whatever you want me to do, just say the word."

I grasped his hand. "Thank you," I said. "Right now, just looking after those two fuzzy dynamos is plenty. But I'll let you know."

"Where will you start?"

The answer to that, at least, was easy. "Admiral Ehm'rael," I said. "If there's anything happening on this planet she doesn't know about, it isn't worth knowing. I'll arrange for us to see her tomorrow afternoon." A meeting which could have multiple purposes…

I caught a glimpse of movement then, out of the corner of my eye, and I turned. About halfway around the curve of the house were the windows of my parents' sitting room--and they were there, standing side-by-side at the glass, peering out at their grandchildren. Mother was smiling in curiosity and wonder--but Father's face wore a thunderous scowl of disapproval. It may have been for the twins' scandalously unclothed state--in his mind, teenagers belonged in day-robes, period--or the fact that they were desecrating his garden with their Terran game. Either way, I was certain to hear about it. Just what I needed, yes.


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