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 EIGHT


"Brother? Do you have a moment?"

This time, I'd cornered Sah'sell: I found him in the office he shared with Father. That space, next door to the library, was the de facto heart of Sah'surraa Publishing, Inc. Though the company owned one of the largest buildings in Sah'salaan, Father preferred to work from home, communicating by computer and visiphone--and he was rich and powerful enough to indulge that particular whim. I'd been fortunate to find my brother alone that morning (Father was making one of his extremely reluctant visits to his doctor) and I took advantage of it. What I had to say was not for Sah'surraa's ears.

"Of course," Sah'sell said. He waved me to a seat opposite his desk, and pushed aside a tall wavering stack of data cards. "What can I do for you?"

The contrast between the room's two desks was striking--and telling. Father's, by far the larger, was absolutely neat, with nothing atop it save a computer terminal and a single framed holo of Mother. Sah'sell's, on the other hand, was a mess, piled high with data cards and manuscripts, bills and invoices. A forest of pictures took up nearly a third of the surface, images not only of our parents, but of me as well, and of course Sah'sell's mate, kits and grandkits. My dear brother always rode the ragged edge of chaos--and thrived there, much to our father's disgust.

"Two things," I said, as I settled into his old and comfortable guest chair. "I am once again in your debt--and Tom too. The meeting with Ehm'varra went well."

He smiled and leaned back, his hands behind his head. "I noticed the four of you retiring to the verandah," he commented. "She proved more tractable than her mate?"

"Infinitely," I agreed. Briefly I described the events of the previous evening, and before I finished Sah'sell was nodding thoughtfully.

"Will she keep her promises, do you think?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I assured him. "If nothing else, she is a woman of honor."

"And how will she accomplish it, I wonder?"

I grinned. "Are you familiar with the ancient Greek comedy 'Lysistrata'?"

He was, judging from the widening of his grin. "They have been apart for some time," he commented. "I am pleased to have helped."

"…And that brings me to the other matter I wish to discuss."

"Go ahead."

"What can you tell me about Sah'larssh?"

"The grandson of Ehm'rael and Sah'majha," he said. "A personable and intelligent young male. He has had a difficult life, alas."

"Oh? Why?"

"His sister," Sah'sell said. "Are you familiar with Rrr'maal Syndrome?"

"Vaguely," I said. "It's a rare birth defect, isn't it?"

"Indeed," he confirmed. "It can take many forms, but in Ehm'talak's case, it caused her to be born essentially without limbs or tail, and with many other portions of her skeleton distorted and weakened."

"Poor girl."

"Fortunately, the story has a happy ending," Sah'sell hastened to add. "Thanks to Sah'majha. There was little conventional medicine could do for her, but he used his technology--" he smiled-- "or perhaps I should say his art--to repair and strengthen her bones. He then equipped her with prosthetics, Not unlike his own, but more extensive--and more pleasing to the eye. It has been an ongoing process, of course; constant adjustments have been needed to ensure that she would grow and develop correctly. But for all of that, she is a well-adjusted young woman, of exceptional intelligence. Father saw to it that Sah'majha's work was well-publicized; it did wonders for his popularity, after…" he trailed off, grinning.

I nodded. "I know," I said wryly. "But Sah'larssh--?"

"He was not affected," Sah'sell said. "Not physically, at least. But he has lived his entire life in his sister's shadow, aware that she was receiving far more attention than he. I do not say he resents her; at least not openly. That is why he is living with his grandparents now: to give him a chance to breathe, so to speak."

"Interesting," I said. That would indeed explain a lot…

"…At any rate, he will be starting Sah'salaan University in a few weeks," Sah'sell went on. "On one of our company's scholarships, as it happens."

"He has literary aspirations, then?"

"Quite so," Sah'sell agreed. "He has had several short stories published already, in the journal Mother edits. I have a copy here…somewhere. If he does as well at the University as I expect, I will have my eye on him as a junior editor."

"A disappointment to his grandmother, then," I observed with a smile.

He grimaced. "I revere Admiral Ehm'rael, as do you," he said. "But she has an unfortunate problem accepting the fact that not everyone is born to be an engineer."

I smiled. "True enough." Including me…

"May one inquire as to the reasons for these questions?" Sah'sell asked.

"One may. We were introduced to Sah'larssh at Ehm'rael's home yesterday. Or--more to the point--my daughter was."

Sah'sell's eyes widened. "I see…"

I nodded. "Exactly. Even Joel saw it happening this time." I paused. "Of course we can't be certain yet, but when a human notices…At any rate. Rae and Sah'larssh just boarded a shuttle to the city. Going to the Museum of Art and History, apparently. I don't expect to see her before dinnertime."

Sah'sell grinned. "I will say this for your kits, dear sister: they waste no time."

"A definite understatement." I shook my head. "Sah'sell, less than a month ago their greatest concern was whether the San Jose Silicons would win the Pan Am League pennant." I spread my arms. "And now look."

"Nature takes its course."

"Like a stampeding maxigrazer," I agreed wryly.

"If it is a bonding, Rae could have done much worse. As I said, a remarkable young man; he should have a bright future ahead of him. And certainly you will have no difficulties with his family, as you did with Sah'churaaf. Admiral Ehm'rael will see to that."

"I know," I said. "But there is a complication--one rather harder to overcome."

"Which is?" he asked, sounding mystified.

"Sah'larssh is here on Sah'aar, dear brother," I said patiently. "But as soon as I have completed my business, the Abrams family will be returning to Terra. We must; it's our home. And how, exactly, do I tear them apart?"

"I had forgotten that," Sah'sell confessed. "It seems so natural to have you all here." He stroked his whiskers thoughtfully. "I do not suppose…"

"No," I said quickly. "Despite Father's wishes, that is not an option. Certainly not for Joel--he'd never agree."

"This may affect her college plans," Sah'sell pointed out.

"It may," I agreed. "And that will be her choice. But it's still several years in the future--and until then, we won't split up our kits. Not for any reason."

"Even now?"

"Even now," I assured him. "For Joel, especially now."

"Then she and Sah'larssh must wait," Sah'sell said, "if bonding it is. It is not as if they will be out of touch with one another. There are letters, hyperzaps, vacations. Their bonding will survive, and they will have many years to be together--after they have established themselves."

I smiled. "Easy to say--for you and me. But tell me, brother, how do I convince a besotted sixteen-year-old?"

"Do not ask me," he said with a grin. "I leave that sort of thing to Ehm'sanzz."

I shook my head. "Males," I said despairingly. "You're all alike: no guts."

Whatever cutting reply my brother might have made was interrupted by a loud and strident throat-clearing. We turned, to see our father standing in the doorway, his arms crossed and a truculent scowl on his face. "Does no one work in this office?" he demanded.

###

I felt not at all displeased as I fled the office, leaving my brother to deal with Father's blustering.

Sah'sell had told me just about what I'd expected to hear--at least in regards to Sah'larssh himself. I'd known nothing of his sister's disabilities--any more than I had of Admiral Ehm'rael's recent health problems. That is our way: it was easy enough for Ehm'rael to say that there were "no secrets" between us--but Sah'aarans are taught from childhood never to burden others with our personal problems. I could hardly fault her for what's virtually a reflex.

But as for Sah'larssh…what I'd heard pleased me greatly. An honorable young man, with grades good enough to merit one of my father's jealously-guarded scholarships, and obviously devoted to his grandparents' needs. And with interests paralleling Rae's--a definite, and rare, bonus. If it had been given to me to choose her future mate, I could hardly have done better. Nor was the thought of merging my family with the admiral's displeasing--very much the opposite. She would see it that way too, I felt certain. No: the only difficulty was one of distance. Would Rae end up on Sah'aar, or Sah'larssh on Terra? Or would they both end up somewhere else, neutral territory as it were? Only the Goddess knew.

My late-night talk with Rae had been long and frank, delving into areas that would have caused Joel to flee in terminal embarrassment. It was well past midnight when we finished. If nothing else, I'd been able to reassure and relax her--to the point where she almost literally collapsed, her nervous energy departing as if someone had pulled the plug. For the first time in years I was obliged to put her to bed, and I added another blanket against the pre-Interval chill. She was down and out even before I turned off the light.

Yes, a profitable discussion, and I believed the situation to be progressing as well as it could. I ought to have known, though, that there'd be one person who wouldn't see it that way; to whom the process of bonding was as alien as fur and claws. And that he'd accost me in the hallway, as indeed he did, a scowl on his face and fire in his eyes. "Ayla, we need to talk."

"What about, Joel?" I asked cautiously.

"Tom informs me that Rae and Sah'larssh have gone to the city--just the two of them. Is that true?"

"Yes," I said placidly. "It is."

"And you knew?"

"Certainly," I said. "In fact I helped arrange it."

"You did what?"

I sighed. "Joel, in Sah'aaran homes it's very bad manners to have a screaming fight in the hall."

He glared at me…and his expression abruptly softened. "What about in your own room?"

"That's permissible."

He burst out laughing, and gathered me into his arms. "Why do I even try?" he said finally. "I never could stay mad at you." Her paused. "Seriously, darling, I am concerned, and I do want to discuss this."

I waved a hand. "Lead on, then."

He did--and he kept his silence until we were seated on the sofa in our living room. Outside, the morning was pleasant, though slightly cool, with a few fine wisps of cloud drifting lazily north. Across the yard Mother was tending her flowers, while closer at hand, Tom, once again stripped to shorts and collar, was exercising, swinging his smuggled bat in heroic arcs, knocking the imaginary ball out of the park. He was missing his ball gun--and his designated pitcher too--but as usual, he made do.

"All right, Joel," I said. "What's the problem?"

Briefly he floundered. "Well, my God," he said. "She's our daughter, she's only sixteen, and he's practically a stranger! Who knows what might happen?"

"I do," I said. "They'll go to the Museum, and they'll pretend to look at the exhibits; and later he'll buy lunch--but what they'll really do is talk. They have a lot to catch up on, and two very different backgrounds to reconcile. One day will scarcely be enough."

"I suppose you're right," Joel said grudgingly. "But that's not exactly what I meant."

I shrugged. "What else? They can't get lost; Sah'larssh knows the city well enough. Or are you suggesting he might harm her?"

"The thought had occurred."

"Impossible," I said flatly.

He quirked an eye. "Can we be certain of that?"

"Yes," I said, "we can. For one thing, Joel, he's Admiral Ehm'rael's grandson. She trusts him, and so should we. And for another…well, if I'm right, he'd give his life to save Rae from harm. As she would for him: it's in the genes."

For a moment he gazed out the window. Tom had laid aside his bat and moved on to calisthenics, while my mother watched in astonishment. "I wish I could be that certain, Ayla," Joel said. "I'll tell you frankly: if I'd known what was going on, I wouldn't have allowed it. I would have locked her in her room."

"Need I point out, dear," I said, "that you're sounding exactly like Sah'churaaf?"

"Yeah, well, maybe I'm starting to understand him."

I took his hand. "Joel, my darling, I understand what you're feeling," I said. "But please believe me: this has to be. You saw what happened to Tom and Ehm'tassaa. Sah'churaaf was a fool, trying to keep them apart; even his own mate said so. I won't have that term applied to us. And she's perfectly safe with him--you know that."

"I suppose," he said dubiously. He sighed. "I've been thinking about what Ehm'varra said last night," he went on. "Rae isn't a blackfur, but she's a treasure nonetheless--my treasure. All the more so because she isn't my biological child. She was a gift, one I never expected to receive. From my God, or your Goddess, I don't know which--but I do know I don't want to give her up."

"It was our own son who answered that," I pointed out gently. "She's a person, not an object, and you can't keep her locked up. Even if she was human, you'd have to give her up eventually. It's hard for me too, darling--but I accept, because I know my biology, and hers."

"I understand," he said. He stared into space for a moment, then turned to glare at me. "Why does it have to be so damned complicated with your species, anyway?" he demanded.

Incredulity struck me dumb for a few seconds; then I laughed in his face. "Complicated?" I echoed. "My dear dimwitted husband, compared to what you humans go through, bonding is simplicity itself. And you ought to be grateful for that."

"Why?"

"Think about our human friends with teenagers," I said. "Think about your brother and sister, and what they had to put up with: dating, 'going steady,' breakups, make-ups, heartaches, the whole emotional roller-coaster. Tom and Rae have stopped that cold. They won't break up with Ehm'tassaa and Sah'larssh, because they can't. The bond grows stronger as the years go by. You and I have been spared whole shiploads of trouble."

He drew me close, and I rested my head on his shoulder. "You've got a point there," he conceded. He paused. "But what if he wants to…?"

"Three points," I said. "First, it would be her choice, not his. He won't force the issue--physically or otherwise."

"If you say so."

"Second, it's a little early, and they'll be in public places. And third…" I swallowed. "If they do, they do. It won't be because she's 'bad,' or disobedient. Those concepts simply aren't valid. I know it's hard, Joel, but you can not apply human standards to a Sah'aaran bonding."

He looked away. "I know." He quirked a smile. "And she's fertile only twice a year."

Something my brother had said came back to me then. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it; but I've always tended--sometimes to my sorrow--to face the worst of a situation head-on. "Joel," I said softly, "what if she wants to stay?"

He jerked as if shot. "Pardon me?"

"Father's been trying for years to get the twins into boarding schools," I said. "Until now, they've wanted to stay with us, and we've respected that. But now…"

He was silent for a long moment, and I felt the tension in him. The logistics of the situation were simple--frighteningly so. Father could easily get Rae into any school he chose, and she could either board there, or live in the family home. A couple years of prep school, and then onto Sah'salaan U, no doubt on a company scholarship. Right now, she might find it attractive indeed.

Finally Joel said, "I'm sorry, darling, but I can't even think about that yet. You know my feelings--but things are different now, and if she really wants to…" He shook his head. "No. I can't deal with it. Maybe later, when I've come to terms with the rest. Not now."

"All right," I said. I grinned. "One crisis at a time."

"They can carve that on my tombstone," he said ruefully. "I think we need a distraction," he went on. "Like to go to town?"

I thought about that, as I watched Tom run laps around the garden--and finally I shook my head. There was a job I'd been meaning to do, or rather a duty I needed to perform, and this was the first time I'd been at leisure to contemplate it. "I've got a better idea," I said, "if you're not adverse to a little work."

"'Work?'" he quoted with a smile. "What's that?"

###

The place hadn't grown any less desolate.

As we stepped from the shuttle onto the tiny "nonexistent" platform, Tom gazed around, taking in the scenery, such as it was: the dry grass, the scattered Tatak, and the little pillbox at the end of the dusty trail. "This is it, huh?" he said dubiously.

"This is it," I confirmed.

"Maybe I should have caught up with my reading…"

"Well," I told him briskly, "you decided to come along instead, so make yourself useful."

My mother's garden was wonderfully abundant, and she'd been easily persuaded to allow us to cull a quantity of blossoms. She and I had been trading plants for years, and I was pleased to see that the roses I'd sent her were doing well, coaxed into full and fragrant bloom. The fuschias were also thriving, but only in the cool depths of the conservatory: the First-Summer heat would have demolished them. I was trying not to think about my own garden--or the work I'd have ahead of me when we returned home.

We filled a basket with flowers, and it wasn't hard to find the other materials needed to create a presentable wreath. Not as professional-looking as one from a florist in the Public Market, perhaps--but the personal touch counts. Our activities soon attracted Tom's attention. Bereft of his sister's company, and having had enough exercise for one day, he jumped at the chance to come along. I drafted him to carry our creation, wrapped in plastic to forestall disintegration.

The shuttle we eventually boarded, after several transfers, was almost empty, which was good: there'd be fewer staring eyes when we disembarked in the middle of nowhere. I sat next to Tom, with our burden between, and as the car skimmed across the veldt he sighed tragically.

"Something wrong?" I asked.

He grinned in embarrassment. "Not really," he said. "I guess…I miss the ocean. All my life it's been right outside my window, and I never paid much attention. But now…"

I draped my arm around his shoulder. "I miss it too," I said. Strangely enough, I did. Over the last twenty years I'd experienced Monterey Bay in all its moods: sunny, foggy, calm and smooth as a sheet of glass, and--rarely, thank the Goddess--so stormy that waves broke across our front walk. I'd seen shades of blue and green that defy classification. But never had I seen it look the same two days in a row. Yes, I missed it.

…I had a strong feeling, though, that the Pacific wasn't all Tom was pining for, and that his thoughts were focused on a certain Sah'aaran diplomatic ship, which by now would have hyperjumped out of the system. When he spoke again, he proved me right: "Maybe I'll be able to keep my promise," he said softly. "I told Tass I'd show her Point Lobos. And she wanted to go to Carmel."

I turned away before he could see my face. Joel said it best: you can't stop 'em growing up. No matter how much you might want to…

When at last we disembarked, we were alone, just as I'd been two days before. I would have been very surprised if we weren't. As I'd hoped, the presence of my son and mate did indeed dispel that creepy, haunted feeling--to some extent, at least. One other thing was different as well: the weather. Then, it had been brutally hot, the air bone-dry and breathless. Now, a stiff breeze had blown in from the south, cooling us even as it kicked up the dust. The dark smudge on the horizon, had resolved into a definite line of clouds; but so far had advanced no farther.

The little memorial was still there, as were the wreaths and bouquets. Or mostly: the strong wind had made a terrible mess, shredding and scattering the sun-dried flowers. I didn't try to clean up; that would have been improper, bordering on sacrilegious. Once an offering is made, it is in the hands of the Goddess, and mortals may no longer touch it.

Tom was carrying our homemade wreath, and in response to my silent gesture, he passed it to me. I carefully stripped away and cast aside the wrapping; Tom retrieved it before it could blow away. Kneeling reverently on the sun-baked earth, I balanced the ring of blossoms and fern against the sheltered side of the pillar. Then I leaned back on my haunches, my hands clasped together and my eyes closed.

Sah'larrah, I thought, I still don't want to believe you're dead, but by now I have no choice. If somehow you can hear me…I'm sorry. I did care for you, very much. You came to me when I needed you. Please believe that I never meant it to turn out as it did. Wherever you are, I wish you peace.

"Mom?" Tom said in concern. "Are you all right?"

I looked up, to see him leaning over me, his eyes wide in alarm. He'd seen me do many things--but up until then, prayer hadn't been one of them. "I'm fine," I assured him. I raised a hand. "Help your old mother up, please."

"You're not old," he said instantly--and predictably--but he gave me a boost anyway. Brushing off my knees, I glanced around for Joel.

My husband had never been comfortable with rituals, especially Sah'aaran ones, and so he'd retreated, wandering over to the little pillbox. He circled it curiously, gazing at the explanatory panels, and stopped before the entrance, staring into the black pit behind the gate. "What did you want me to see?" he asked as I stepped up beside him.

I indicated the grey boxes on either side of the doorway. "Those."

"That's a stinger barrier, isn't it?" Tom asked, peering around us.

"It is," Joel confirmed distractedly. He pressed his ear against the left-hand box, and nodded. "It's active--I can hear the transformer humming."

So could I, from some meters back. "The question is," I said, "why is it here at all?"

"Pardon?"

I pointed at the chain and padlock. "Why bother?" I said. "The gate is already secured."

Tom grinned. "Maybe they're afraid of what might come out," he said in lugubrious tones. I growled, and he retreated quickly. "Uh--sorry."

Joel shrugged. "For all I know," he said helplessly, "Tom may be right. I can't think of any other explanation."

Tom edged as close as he dared to the barrier--any closer, and he'd have lost his whiskers--and squatted, shading his eyes to squint into the gloom. "Mom," he said, "you've been down there, haven't you?"

I shuddered. "Yes."

He pointed. "Is that the lock that was always there? Or did the police change it?"

Steadying myself with a hand on his back, I peered at the gate. My son, the Goddess bless him, had no idea what he was asking me to do: recall a trifling detail of a single visit, thirty-five years before. But that battered grey oblong certainly looked old enough to be the original. "I think it's the one Sah'larrah used," I said.

"And the police can open it?"

"Certainly," Joel said. "They have override keys for most types of lock."

Tom stood, a smooth unfolding I could no longer duplicate. "Other than them and Dr. Sah'larrah, who could open it?"

Joel and I exchanged a bemused glance. At that juncture, some parents might have told their offspring to mind his own business--but fortunately for all of us, we weren't like that. "I have no idea," I said. "His remaining assistants, I assume."

"Well, maybe the police want to keep them out."

"Kid might have a point, dear," Joel said. "If the Chief of Police really was reluctant to search, some of Sah'larrah's friends might have considered taking the job into their own hands."

Tom was nodding, as self-satisfied as if he'd come up with a new proof for Fermat's Last Theorem; I hated to have to deflate him. I shook my head. "I'll buy that," I said, "if you can tell me one thing: why didn't the police just change the lock?"

His whiskers drooped. "Oh," he said. "I didn't think of that."

He looked so comically crestfallen I couldn't help smiling. I draped my arm around his shoulders. "Don't feel bad," I told him. "In fact you've given me an idea. Come on, you two--I need a visiphone."

###

Sah'salaan University had changed very little.

I found my visiphone easily enough: the next station on the shuttle line was "real," and therefore so equipped. I might have consulted Admiral Ehm'rael, that bottomless fount of information--but she would want to know the reasons behind my questions. Instead, I called home, tracking down my ever-helpful brother. Sah'sell was nothing if not well-connected, and it took him only a few minutes to come up with the answers I needed. Finally, with facts in hand and my bewildered mate and son in tow, I boarded another car. Neither Joel nor Tom had asked any questions: they recognized my implacable mood, and knew it was best to simply follow and see what developed.

Tom's words at the pillbox had made me understand how foolish I'd been--and as always, that made me angry. Worse, when that mood strikes, innocent bystanders tend to get caught in the undertow. This was something I should already have done: the obvious course of action, given my free-floating suspicions--but I'm an archaeologist, not a detective. Better late than never, I guess.

The University's campus is located on the northeast side of the city, tucked into a wide arc on the edge of the greenbelt. Ancient and venerable--not to say "hidebound"--it is the most prestigious seat of higher learning on the planet, predating Sah'aar's entry into the Alliance by a good two centuries. I spent four years of my young life there, and my return, after three and half decades, triggered an avalanche of emotions. My week for it. As we stepped off the shuttle just outside the main gate, I angrily thrust aside a crippling wave of nostalgia. I had no time for that.

Besides being old, and large, the campus is generally regarded as one of the most attractive anywhere. Its dozens of buildings, big and small, are of wildly differing styles, and separated by wide, grassy, tree-studded quads, filled with fountains and sculpture. The close-cropped grass is kept irrigated, and remains mostly green even at the end of First-Summer. How well I remembered sitting cross-legged with my back against a rough shaggy Tatak, palm-reader in hand, pretending to study as I watched the passersby…happy days, yes, and innocent; the kit I was then could scarcely have imagined how her life would unfold.

At any other time, the campus would have been teeming--seething, even--with students from all over Sah'aar. But now, in the middle of the summers break, it lay all but deserted. Not entirely: there were signs of life. Classes would begin in a few weeks--at which time the student body would include one Sah'larssh--and before they could, there were classrooms and labs to be cleaned, lesson plans to be drawn up. The library would be open too, all day every day, and well-used, even in the middle of the night.

As we walked, crossing the campus obliquely to the southwest corner, Tom gazed around in amazement, his rapidly-shifting eyes taking in the multifarious buildings, the artwork lining the quads, the strolling staff members, and the few hurrying students. Many of the passersby slowed to gape at us, and I smiled. What, I wondered, did they take us for? I was old enough to be a professor--perish the thought--but Tom was too young to be a student. And then there was poor Joel. The normal Sah'aaran dislike of staring soon took over, though, and we were left in peace. Tom didn't notice--and Joel pretended he hadn't.

Finally Tom said, "This is where you went to college?"

"It is," I confirmed. Joel's eyes were upon me, and so I bit back what I might have added: "And you can too, if you want." Not that it hadn't already occurred to Tom: I could almost see the thought rolling through his head.

Of all those dozens of buildings, the one with which I was most intimately acquainted was the Department of Archaeology. Hardly an architectural triumph: just a concrete cube, ten stories tall, its windows deep-set and heavily tinted. A wide flight of a dozen steps led to the front doors, which wooshed open before us in a blast of cool air.

Though the exterior left much to be desired, the interior had its merits. The lobby was wide and deep, with corridors radiating off to the right and left, and was in the form of an airshaft, twenty meters long by ten wide, extending up to a huge translucent skylight. Planter boxes lined the balconies, overflowing with flowers and ferns. The floor was flagstones, random-sized rectangles of various colors and textures. Large glass-fronted display cases lined the walls, and the artifacts and holos within had not changed at all in thirty-five years. I found that strangely comforting.

Joel and Tom paused to look, and despite my impatience, I joined them. As a student I'd gradually ceased to notice those cases--but now I found myself examining them closely, as if greeting old friends.

"The area around Sah'salaan is usually called the cradle of our civilization," I said. I spoke mainly for Joel's benefit; Tom could read the displays. "The waterhole near Father's house is especially important--it's there that we find the first solid evidence of large-scale animal husbandry: clear indications of corrals and slaughterhouses, and many tons of cracked bone. It's probable that maxigrazers were first bred there. The transition from nomadic hunters to settled ranchers was the birth of modern society. It's as important as the change from hunting-gathering to agriculture was on Terra."

Tom and Joel listened politely to my lecture, as we moved slowly from case to case. Basic stuff, really, the kind of thing you get in first-year classes. I'd seen a thing or two since I'd so dutifully soaked up those "facts." Not that what I'd learned was untrue--far from it. But in the final analysis, no civilization can be reduced to such a tidy package of words. That's the major frustration of my business--and it's what they don't tell you in those lower-level classes. You find it out the hard way, in the field.

We'd reached the last case, and Tom's eyes widened in surprise. "Don't you have something like that in your office, Mom?"

I peered into the display, already certain what I'd see. Draped artistically within a climate-controlled glass box were a pair of hunting bolos, the leather straps dyed in bright primary colors, the smooth round stones elaborately etched. And yes, I did have a very similar set, in their own sealed case on my bookshelf at the Research Center. The only difference was that mine were about a thousand years older. The only others equally ancient resided in the Museum of Art and History in downtown Sah'salaan--under armed guard. Mine were given to me by Commodore Green, when he retired--but how he'd come by them in the first place, he wouldn't say. Simply stated, in crass economic terms, he'd presented me with the price of a Navy destroyer. I'll probably will them to the Museum.

"Let's go," I said, tugging my son's arm. "We've got work to do."

The department office lay a little distance up the northwest corridor. In a few weeks it would be packed with students, complaining that they hadn't gotten the classes they needed, or that Professor so-and-so wasn't keeping his office hours. But for now it was all but deserted, the long benches lining the corridor unoccupied.

Just inside, we were confronted by a long, high counter, which separated the harried office staff from the masses of angry youth. Behind it, a day-robed female about thirty years old was distractedly tending her claws. When she saw us she straightened, the file vanishing neatly up her sleeve, and put on a professional smile, which matched her robe's sunny hues. As she gazed at us, questions formed behind her eyes; but her smile never wavered. "May I help you?" she asked in Sah'aaran.

I stepped forward. "I am Commodore Ehm'ayla," I said. "I seek Ehm'teel; is she here?"

At the sound of my name, her eyes widened; apparently I was better-known around the University than I'd thought. "You are fortunate, Commodore," she said. "She is indeed here, sorting Dr. Sah'larrah's papers. Had you come tomorrow you would have missed her."

Maybe my luck is starting to change. "She is in his office, then?"

"Yes," she said. "Or perhaps the staff lounge. They are on the tenth floor…"

I nodded, interrupting her. "I know," I said. "Thank you."

Into the corridor then--and Joel, it seemed, had finally had enough. He grasped my arm, bringing me to a halt. "I may regret asking this," he said, "but who's Ehm'teel, and why are we looking for her?"

I realized then, with a rush of shame, how impolite I'd been, dragging them along without a clue as to our mission. "She's a graduate student in archaeology," I explained. "She is--was--Sah'larrah's number-two assistant. And a member of his last expedition."

The light of understanding dawned, and his eyebrows rose. "I get it," he said. "She ought to be able to explain what happened that day."

"I hope so," I said. "And maybe the stinger-barrier too." I shook my head. "I should have thought of this days ago…"

He kissed my cheek. "You had a few other things on your mind."

Unbidden, my memories of this place had come flooding back, most of them cloyingly pleasant. I could have found the elevators blindfolded. The ride to the tenth floor was rapid, and once there, my feet turned automatically to the left, down a long narrow hallway. Yes, I knew the way to Sah'larrah's office.

This was the staff floor, and contained no classrooms, lecture halls or labs: just endless corridors of offices. The doors were close-spaced, indicating how small those rooms were. The most desirable were along the outer walls: they at least had a view, though the windows didn't open. Sah'larrah had been luckier than most; his office was on the western wall, and looked out over the greenbelt. The hallways were eerily deserted, the doors firmly closed; Joel's booted footsteps rang sharply on the flagstone floors.

One door was propped open, a gap that reminded me of a missing tooth in a skull's permanent grin. As we approached, I heard a quiet, dry rustle from within. Pausing at the threshold, I drummed my claws lightly against the door's translucent-glass upper panel.

She sat with her back to us, a sheaf of papers in her hands, more spread across the desk before her. At the sound of my knock she spun, her tail bristling, a startled snarl curling her lips, then stood, quickly laying aside the papers. She was about twenty, and quite attractive, with black-tipped ears, fingers and toes; but her dark-red mane was a little too short for my taste. (A new fashion? If so, please the Goddess Rae didn't adopt it.) Her day-robe and collar were mourning-grey.

"Please forgive the intrusion," I said. For Joel's sake I stuck to Terran; hopefully she spoke it. "I am Commodore Ehm'ayla. Are you Ehm'teel?"

She peered closely at me, her brow furrowed, as if she'd heard my name before, but couldn't quite place it. "I am," she said simply. Her gaze flicked past me, and she frowned.

"This is my husband, Joel Abrams, and our son Thomas," I said.

She bowed. "I am honored." The look she gave Joel was one of frank curiosity; possibly she'd never before met a human. But when she turned to Tom…it was one of the few times in my life I'd actually seen someone do a double-take. She stared at him for a full ten seconds, her eyes wide in astonishment, until finally he grew uncomfortable and looked away. Joel and I exchanged a worried glance. It didn't require a telepath to know what she was thinking: obviously, Tom's strong resemblance to Sah'larrah had reached out and grabbed her. She would have believed it impossible, though, and I could almost feel her convincing herself it was just a coincidence. Finally she tore her eyes away. "How may I help you, Commodore?" she asked.

"I am informed you were Dr. Sah'larrah's assistant."

Her face fell. "That is so," she said sadly.

"He and I were old friends," I explained--again. "My family and I have journeyed from our home on Terra to mourn his passing. Some aspects of his disappearance trouble me, and I hope you can shed some light on them--if it will not be too painful."

As I spoke, her expression cleared, like one who has suddenly had a question answered, and she glanced again at Tom. I wished now I hadn't dragged my son along--but there was nothing I could do about it now. Whatever Ehm'teel knew, or thought she knew, I could only hope she'd keep to herself.

She smiled wryly. "Painful it shall be," she said. "I will manage, however." She waved a hand. "But not here, if you please."

My attention had been fixed solely upon her; now I glanced around--and my heart sank. Sah'larrah's office was less than half the size of mine at the Research Center, and even thirty-five years ago it had been crowded, with barely enough room for the desk and two chairs. The shelves had been crammed with books and data cards, leaning drunkenly against each other, freely interspersed with artifacts and junk, the walls crowded with art. A mess, yes--but a good mess, holding back the impersonal sterility Sah'aarans so dread.

…But now it was all gone. The shelves were bare, the books, cards and artifacts all boxed and piled in the corner, the paintings and prints stacked, leaving only discolored patches on the walls. I shuddered. The room was no more than pleasantly cool--but suddenly it felt arctic. Only one slim folder of papers remained, spread across the desk; I looked, as casually as I could, but Ehm'teel had turned them face down. She was right, though: I had no desire to linger amidst the ghosts.

She went on, "I was about to take my midday meal. Will you join me?"

I bowed. "We would be honored."

She closed and locked the door behind her, possibly to keep the spirits confined; then she led the way down the corridor, the three of us following close behind. As we walked, she said, perhaps a little too offhandedly, "I may have heard Sah'larrah mention your name, Commodore--but not your husband or son. How were you acquainted with him, may I ask?"

"I was once his student," I said. "Some time later we met again aboard a Survey vessel. And we corresponded for many years."

"I see," she said simply; but her gaze raked Tom and Joel again, a faint smile on her lips. I wondered in amusement what she thought she'd figured out; whatever it was, she was almost certainly wrong. It surprised me a bit that she hadn't heard of my infamous manufactured bonding, but perhaps she was too young. She'd have been a toddler at the time.

"You are familiar with the circumstances of Sah'larrah's last expedition?" she asked.

I shrugged. "As much as I can be," I replied. "Given the distance involved. What the Interplanetary News chose to publish." And what Admiral Ehm'rael ferreted out--but there was no need to go into that.

She nodded. "That is a beginning. And accurate enough--as far as it goes."

"Meaning there is more to tell?"

She smiled. "Is there not always? But we shall discuss that."

As I'd expected, she led us to the staff lounge, in the building's northeast corner. It was a wide-open space, with large banks of windows on one side and the open, planter-boxed railing of the airshaft on the other. The windows were dim, but the skylight cast a brilliant warm light. The place was deserted now, the chairs inverted atop the scattered round tables. A large rectangular island in the center contained the auto-kitchen machinery, and the racks of trays, condiments and utensils. Like the Officer's Mess aboard a CF ship, the staff lounge was strictly exclusive: students were not allowed, except by invitation. Only once had I been there, when old Dr. Ehm'talvas tried to talk me into remaining at the University for my doctorate and inevitable professorship; that was when I first became acquainted with my most constant companion, acid indigestion. I reached into my pouch for my credit card, but Ehm'teel quickly produced her own. "When I leave here today, I shall no longer be an employee of the University," she said. "I might as well take advantage of my expense account while I may."

She waved off my face-saving refusal, leaving me no choice but to accept. I was a little concerned for Joel--but as it happened, the autokitchen's database contained a number of Terran programs. The University, I knew, did occasionally have human guest-lecturers.

We took our trays to a table near the airshaft, and for a time we ate in silence. I hadn't realized how famished I'd become: placing wreaths is hard work, it seems. My son was always hungry, of course, and as for Joel…I don't know if he ordered a chef's salad solely to disturb Ehm'teel--but disturb her it did. Several times her gaze was drawn inexorably to that big plate of greens, and she shuddered.

Finally Ehm'teel cleared her throat. "Are you aware, Commodore, that Sah'larrah was not alone when he vanished?"

"Yes," I said. "I knew he had an assistant with him." I deliberately avoided saying "most trusted assistant"; that might have been a sore point with her.

"Do you know his name?"

She spoke challengingly, and I frantically searched my memory. "No," I said at length. "I don't believe it was reported by the Interplanetary News."

"His name was Sah'raada," she said softly. "And he was my brother."

Joel and I froze, and Tom paused in the act of stuffing his face. "My ignorance shames me," I said.

She waved that off. "There is no need." She sighed. "Indeed, his part in the tragedy has been all but forgotten. Sah'larrah was a world-famous scientist; Sah'raada merely a graduate student. That did not trouble him: he was content to remain in Sah'larrah's shadow. I hoped it would not last forever; that he would eventually find his own way, make his own name. It appears I was wrong."

"I am sorry--" I began, but she waved that off too.

"He made his choice--though it is we who must live with the consequences." She paused. "You say you are troubled by some aspects of their disappearance. What, exactly?"

"Many things," I said. "But my overriding concern is justice. My interests and yours are connected, unless I miss my guess. Justice has not been done to Sah'larrah's memory--or to your brother's. I refer specifically to the search conducted by Police Chief Ehm'luruus…"

Abruptly her teeth bared. "Do not mention her name in my presence," she snarled. "That woman is a murderer; their deaths are her responsibility."

Even a day ago, I would have agreed; but since speaking to Admiral Ehm'rael, I was no longer quite so sure. "Can we truly conclude that?" I asked. "Speaking logically--"

She cut me off with a slashing gesture. "I care nothing for logic, Commodore," she said. "That woman killed Sah'larrah and Sah'raada as surely as if she held a gun to their heads. I do not suppose this, or conclude it; I know. And I will prove it, if it takes the rest of my life."

If I was looking for an ally, I thought wryly, I came to the right place. "As I mentioned," I said, "I know as much as the news media reported. But you were part of the expedition; I hoped you could fill in the details."

"Perhaps I can," she said. She sat silent for a moment, toying with the bloody remains of her lunch. Above us the skylight dimmed and brightened repeatedly, as clouds briefly eclipsed the sun. Finally she went on, "No doubt you know of Sah'larrah's ambition to find the control center. He hoped to find details of construction and maintenance there, ones which had eluded his research. You are also aware how difficult it proved.

"The last expedition was the most ambitious ever mounted. Even had he not vanished, it would probably have been his last: he had finally realized he was growing too old for such escapades. His funding was running out as well. He invested everything he had in the venture: not only the remnants of his University grants, but his life savings as well."

My ears perked up. Ehm'kall had told me proudly that she and her mother didn't need my money; I had to wonder now how truthful she'd been. Sah'larrah hadn't been wealthy--compared to Sah'surraa, he'd been a pauper--but if his inheritance had been denied them…

Ehm'teel went on, "The expedition had fifty members, twice as many as any previous. Because the route he had mapped was long, it was necessary to establish several base-camps deep within the structure, from which supplies could be relayed inward."

"What were conditions like?" I asked.

She shuddered. "Unpleasant. The Undercity has had no power for more than a century, of course. Deep inside it is completely dark, very damp, and unpleasantly cold. There is little air circulation--and one must constantly be on guard for cave-ins. Sah'salaan is built on the stable craton of the continent, but even so, there are small earth-movements and tidal stresses. All food and water must be carried in--by backpack, because many of the tunnels are too narrow for hover-sleds. Communication is difficult: because the structure is metal, commpaks can rarely penetrate more than fifty meters."

Civilian models, I thought sadly. CF equipment would have done much better. I wished I'd known: I could have shown Sah'larrah how to boost the power of his commpaks.

"I was assigned to the innermost camp," Ehm'teel said, "a two-day journey from the surface. From there, Sah'larrah believed he could reach the control center. He wished to go on alone; but Sah'raada and I persuaded him that would be foolish. He finally agreed to allow my brother to accompany him.

"They carried supplies for seven days," she went on. "Sah'larrah hoped it would take them no more than two to reach their goal; that would leave them three to explore. He would have preferred more time--but the logistics of the situation would not allow it. In the meantime, my team and I proceeded with our own jobs, mapping and cataloging. When seven days had passed, I began to worry; but if they had found the control center, they might have rationed their supplies, stretching their time. But after ten days, I knew something was wrong. I gathered my people, and we headed in the direction Sah'larrah and Sah'raada had taken. At every step I expected to meet them, hungry and exhausted, loaded down with artifacts and holos. Needless to say, that did not happen.

"It was standard practice for us to mark our routes. We used a paint which is both luminous and radioactive, so the arrows can be detected with a scanpak even in the dark. In that way we traced Sah'larrah's path, until finally we came to a two-way branching. Beyond that, there were no more marks. We explored both routes, as far as we could; but our own supplies were running short, and finally we had to retreat. At no time did we detect any evidence that they had come either way--not so much as a footprint."

She fell silent for a time, staring into space with a wistful expression. "What did you do?" I prompted finally.

She shook herself. "We came out," she said. "We could do nothing else. I withdrew my team, leaving all but the bare minimum of supplies behind, in case Sah'larrah and Sah'raada found their way out. We made our way to the surface, collecting the other teams as we went." She sighed. "I have often wished that I did not; that I remained behind."

"Then you called the police?" I asked.

"We did," she agreed. "And I still curse myself for that. I spoke to Ehm'luruus myself." Her eyes flashed. "Her attitude was one of contempt; clearly she did not care that Sah'larrah was missing."

"Or perhaps she welcomed the news?" I suggested mildly.

Ehm'teel quirked a quizzical eye, and I smiled. "I know of her feelings toward him," I explained.

She nodded. "I see." She sighed. "You may be correct, Commodore. My requests for help were rebuffed at first; I was informed that Ehm'luruus had no intention of risking lives to save an old fool from his folly."

Once again she was silent, struggling with anger. Her claws expressed and vanished several times in quick succession. Finally she began again, in strangled tones. "For that, I will never forgive her. Her feud with Sah'larrah was her own affair--but she had no quarrel with my brother."

She gazed at me. "The rest you have no doubt gleaned from your own sources. Almost a week passed before the search began; it took public pressure--and the threat of legal action from Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall--to incite Ehm'luruus to action."

"Were you involved in the search?"

Once again her eyes flashed. "No," she said. "None of Sah'larrah's associates were. Ehm'luruus would not be responsible for the safety of 'amateurs'--so we were told." She laughed bitterly. "As if she knew anything about the Undercity. But no: the search was conducted entirely by the District Police."

Swallowing my bitter disappointment, I said, "Then you can offer no opinion as to the quality of the search?"

"By direct observation, no," she admitted. "But by inference--yes. I know the distance to our innermost camp, and the size of the operation required to support our expedition. Ehm'luruus employed just five officers for the search, and they spent less than a week in the Undercity. She herself did not go. Needless to say, the mathematics do not work out. I cannot prove it, but I doubt they came anywhere near where Sah'larrah and Sah'raada vanished--and if I am correct, it was at Ehm'luruus' direct orders."

"I don't doubt it," I said. "But as you say, we can't prove it."

"Only too true, I fear."

"May I ask a question?" Joel said quietly, speaking for the first time since our arrival. Ehm'teel glanced at him in surprise, as if she'd entirely forgotten his presence.

"Certainly, Mr. Abrams."

"Why is there a stinger barrier across the Undercity access?"

She snarled. "It is meant to keep Sah'larrah's friends out, of course. Including me. Ehm'luruus knows I can open the gate; she fears we might attempt to continue the search."

"Then why didn't she just change the lock?" Tom put in.

"That is more complicated," Ehm'teel said. "It is her way of following the letter--but not the spirit--of a legal judgment. She wishes to have the access permanently sealed; in fact she attempted to do so after her 'search' was completed. But Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall filed suit, along with the University, and gained a restraining order. Ehm'luruus may not remove or alter any part of the access until the case has been judged in the Central Court. That includes the gate and the lock. The stinger barrier was her way of complying and defying simultaneously."

I didn't dare meet Tom's triumphant gaze, but I acknowledged my defeat with a nod and a wink.

"--Though the joke may be on her," Ehm'teel was saying.

"How so?" I asked.

"The barrier has proved unreliable," she explained. "Its power cells have failed several times since it was installed. District Police technicians have been out there almost daily. It may have been cheaper for her to post a guard--or to leave well enough alone."

I joined her in a dry chuckle at Ehm'luruus' expense; but something in her words troubled me. Exactly what, I didn't know, and so I filed it away for further study. Beside me Joel was frowning, his brow furrowed; obviously he'd caught it too, whatever it was.

"Forgive my curiosity," I said. "You say this is your last day at the University?"

"That is so," she said. "I was asked by the department head to sort through Sah'larrah's effects. I had almost finished when you arrived."

"What will become of it all?" I asked. "Did Sah'larrah leave a will?"

She sighed. "No," she said. "He did not. Like most males, he believed himself immortal. Many times his friends begged him to prepare one; but he simply laughed and said he would get around to it someday. That day never came; he died intestate."

"And so--?"

She shrugged. "His estate will go into probate," she said. "But in the end it will go to his mother and sister, reduced somewhat by lawyers and tax-collectors. Who else? No one else has any claim upon him."

Not even you or me, I thought. "We are straying from my point," I said. "Why are you leaving? Were you not offered a position here?"

"Indeed I was," she said. "Sah'larrah's death created an opening; I was asked to teach his lower-level courses while I completed my doctorate."

"But--?"

She glanced away. "But…I cannot. My enthusiasm for this place, this work, died in the Undercity with Sah'larrah and my brother. I will return home to Sah'taal Continent; perhaps I shall leave the planet."

"I am sorry," I said. "Did Sah'raada have a mate?"

"No," she said. "That is a mercy, I suppose; he did not leave a widow or fatherless kits."

On impulse, I clasped her hand, and she did not pull away. "May I offer you some advice, from the vantage of a long and full life?"

"If you wish."

"Don't be so quick to throw away what you have," I said. "I speak from experience. Many years ago I found myself in a similar situation, in which it seemed easier to simply walk away. I've always been glad I didn't. Time has a way of restoring perspective."

She stared at me for a moment, then smiled ruefully. "Perhaps you are gifted with a stronger will than mine," she said. "But I will give it thought. What will you do now?"

I sighed. "I don't know," I said. "You've given me quite a bit to think about too, and I'm grateful for that. But I'm afraid you didn't provide me with the proverbial 'bloody claw.' We have good reason to suspect Ehm'luruus of gross dereliction, but we have no proof. Apparently she believes the situation will blow over--and she may be right. I don't know where to turn now."

"I wonder…" Ehm'teel said musingly, staring into space.

"Pardon me?"

Her brow contracted, and she spoke slowly, as if struggling to catch an elusive thought. "A police force is a collection of individuals. Loyalty to Ehm'luruus cannot be absolute."

I took her meaning, and nodded thoughtfully. She might be right; but having been in an all-too-similar situation, I knew that where loyalty fails, fear often takes up the slack. From the look on his face, Joel was thinking the same thing. Still…

"That may be worth pursuing," I said. I stood. "We've taken enough of your time," I went on. "We'll leave you to your work--and my apologies if we've upset you."

"Not at all, Commodore," she lied. "In truth I have been spending too much time alone lately. It has been good to associate with the living for a change."

That wasn't the end, though--not quite. I helped Ehm'teel take our trays to the mass recycler, and as we did, she said in low tones, "Your son is a handsome young male."

"Yes," I agreed. "He is. Thank you." I paused. We'd finally come down to it, the moment I'd been dreading since we arrived on Sah'aar. Did I remain silent, obeying the terms of a contract seventeen years old; or did I explain, and rescue my reputation and Sah'larrah's? The Goddess showed me a middle way, and I gratefully took it.

"My husband and I wished to have children," I said, "but we could not. A Sah'aaran male of my acquaintance provided a sperm donation, by which our kits were conceived. Joel was a willing participant at all times. The kits do not know the identity of their biological father--and we wish to keep it that way."

She gazed at me, her eyes narrowed--then she nodded. "I understand," she said. "The donor--whoever he was--must have been a kind and generous man."

"He was," I agreed. Or so I'd always thought…

###

Three very quiet and pensive persons departed Sah'salaan University that afternoon.

As we left the Archaeology Building, my feet automatically took a direct path toward the front gate and the shuttle station, and I didn't argue with them. Joel and Tom fell into step beside me, silent and uncomplaining I owed them a more thorough tour, I suppose--but I lacked the heart. Maybe later, when we could include Rae as well. By now she might be vitally interested.

The weather had continued to deteriorate while we were indoors, a number of substantial clouds detaching themselves from the mass on the horizon. They drifted rapidly by, dark-grey and ominous, and every time one obscured the sun, the breeze against my bare calves acquired a cutting edge. It wasn't cold--no less than 20, I'd guess--but compared to the blazing heat of the past few days, the wind seemed to blow directly off a glacier. The clouds weren't organized yet--but soon.

As we walked, Joel linked his arm with mine. "So," he said, "did you believe her?"

I thought about that, as we cut diagonally across the soft grass of the main quad. I didn't doubt her honesty--but I did wonder about the exact nature of her relationship with Sah'larrah. Like him, she was unbonded--according to her ankle--and even the vast difference in their ages wouldn't have precluded a more-than-casual relationship. Or was that just my imagination at work?

"Yes," I said finally. "I did. Most of what she said agrees with what we've already learned, from Admiral Ehm'rael and elsewhere. I didn't know about her brother, but she wouldn't lie about that; it would be too easy to check. Why do you ask? Didn't you?"

"I'm not really in a position to judge," he said. "But on the whole, I think I did."

"Then what's troubling you?"

"Two things," he said. "But not because I thought she wasn't telling the truth. I think she simply didn't recognize the significance of what she was saying." He paused. "Number one, the stinger barrier. Unless the District Police employ idiots as engineers, why should it be failing so often? And number two, the disappearance. She and her team came to a branching, and there was no evidence that Sah'larrah and her brother had gone either way. 'Not even a footprint,' she said. Isn't that a little…melodramatic?"

I looked up sharply. "What are you suggesting?"

"I have no idea," he said. He grinned. "But this situation does keep on getting stranger."

I sighed. "True," I agreed. Too many questions, not enough answers--and damn few places to find any. Maybe Admiral Ehm'rael could get hold of the District Police personnel roster…

As we stood beneath a line of agitated Tatak, waiting for a shuttle, Joel rubbed his hands together. "Who's for latté?" he asked cheerfully.

"Yick," I said. Another blast of wind stung my legs then, and I glanced up at the racing clouds. "--Though I might not say no to the steamed milk."

###

As expected, Rae arrived home just before dinner. I met her just outside her room. It would be inaccurate to say I was pacing the hall waiting for her--but perhaps my presence there wasn't entirely coincidental.

Except for her holocam, she was empty-handed, proving that she had not dragged poor Sah'larssh into the marketplace; but I had to wince as I saw her outfit. Not a day-robe, but rather her common Terran uniform: a sleeveless white T-shirt, blue short-legged coveralls, and--the Goddess help me--a dark-green baseball cap with ear-holes. My daughter looked good in anything (which was not the case, oddly enough, for Ehm'tassaa); but she must have received quite a number of very strange looks that day. Not to mention what Sah'larssh had thought. No doubt, though, she'd chosen her outfit quite deliberately, to let him know immediately who she was. On reflection, probably a good idea.

I smiled as she appeared around the hallway's curve, moving slowly and thoughtfully, her tail waving. "Hello, dear," I said in Sah'aaran.

She jumped, as if she hadn't seen me, and her answering smile seemed distracted. "Oh--hi."

As might be expected, I found myself torn. On one hand I was dying to know what had happened; but on the other, I had to respect her right to privacy. As usual, curiosity won. "I don't mean to pry…"

Her smile broadened into a grin: she knew me too well. "We had a nice time," she said. "We saw the Museum, and he bought me lunch, and then we walked around the Plaza and talked."

"And--?" I tried to bite back the word, but it escaped.

She shrugged. "And then we came home. That's all. He's very nice, and pleasant company. We had a good day."

I peered at her, my eyes narrowing. Something about her words, her attitude of careless indifference, had set off an alarm in the back of my mind. I knew my daughter--and something wasn't right. "What aren't you telling me, Ehm'rael?" I demanded gently.

She glanced away, taking a deep breath, and when she looked back her expression seemed almost apologetic. "Mother," she said softly, "you know that talk we had last night, about bonding and…other things?"

My breath caught in my throat. Dear Goddess, I thought. They didn't! Not in the middle of Alliance Plaza! "Of course," I said cautiously.

"I don't want you to think I don't appreciate it. Of course I do. But…it wasn't necessary."

That was not what I expected to hear, and I blinked several times, trying to change mental tracks without derailing. My subconscious alarm had suddenly become a call to Battle Stations. "Meaning--?" I asked.

"You told me about bonding," Rae said, "but it turns out Sah'larssh and I…aren't."

My tail froze behind me, the tip bristling like wire brush, and the tips of my fingers burned as if dipped in acid. Rae was already walking away, and I grabbed her wrist, bringing her to a halt. "Just a minute, young lady," I said harshly. "What do you mean by that?"

She gazed at me wide-eyed for a moment, then winced and glanced down. I realized I was grasping her arm hard enough to bruise, and I let go.

"Sah'larssh and I talked for a long time," she explained. "Like I said. I guess we were a little embarrassed, because it took a while before we got around to…that. When we did, and talked it through, we decided we're not bonding. I mean, he's very handsome, and of course I was attracted to him. Any female would be. I haven't seen many young males in my life, apart from my brother, and I…overreacted. Sah'larssh was attracted to me to--so he said--but that's all. He's fun to be around, sure; but we don't feel anything else."

My body went numb. I stumbled back several steps; only the wall, striking me between the shoulders, prevented me from falling.

"Mother?" Rae said in concern. "Are you all right?"

Somehow I managed to straighten. "I'm fine," I assured her. "Go get ready for dinner--and put on a day-robe, unless you want to give your grandfather a stroke."

She departed, glancing back over her shoulder several times, and as her bedroom door closed behind her my legs failed, and I slid down the wall until my forehead rested on my knees. Had I really become that big a fool, to see a bonding where none existed?

…But Admiral Ehm'rael saw it too; and Tom. Even Joel, who was as sensitive as a sackfull of hammers to the finer nuances of Sah'aaran behavior. He swore he'd heard Tchaikovsky's theme from Romeo and Juliet. So--what? Had we all been monumentally wrong? Or had an incipient bonding simply fallen apart? And if so--as impossible as that was--what next? Would Tom announce he was breaking up with Ehm'tassaa? Would Joel demand a divorce? Was the universe really that unstable?

Both Rae and her brother had their father's talent for lying--none whatsoever--and so I had to accept that she was telling the truth. All she'd felt for Sah'larssh was a surge of teenage lust. Happens all the time.

…But I'd been so sure!. No doubt because I'd wanted it to happen. As I'd told Joel, having our kits both safely bonded would spare us many heartaches--and I could hardly have hoped for a better mate for her. Maybe wishful thinking had overwhelmed my good sense.

Unfortunately, there was little I could do, other than find a way to break the news to her father. And my father would be waiting for his dinner. With difficulty--I didn't want to sink my claws into a fresh-painted wall--I rose to my hind legs, and made my way slowly to my room. Raising kits is not without rewards…but the Goddess knows it's never easy.


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