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 NINE


"Darling?" Joel said softly, into the darkness. "What's wrong?"

We'd made love that night, for the first time since our arrival on Sah'aar; and it was at my instigation, which--though hardly unprecedented--was less common than the other way around. And too, I'd found myself performing with more gusto, more ferocity, than I thought possible any more. Afterward we lay quiet, out of breath; Joel's arm enclosed my waist, while his hand gently stroked my mane, bringing forth a purr. My tail coiled lazily around his ankle, the tuft ticking his toes.

…But at those words I stiffened, the purr ceasing as if switched off. So many things were "wrong" just then: Sah'larrah, Rae, my father, Ehm'kall and Ehm'herra, the Chief of Police…I chuckled bitterly. "You'll have to be more specific, my dear."

"All right, I will," he said. "Ever since we arrived, you've been…different. Almost obsessive. I know what Sah'larrah meant to you, and that it hurts to think he died hating you for something you didn't do. But if I didn't know better, Ayla, I'd swear you're feeling…guilty."

I sighed. Even after twenty years, my husband's ability to read my mind had the power to amaze. "You're right," I said. "I am."

"But why? That's what I don't understand. You said it yourself: you did nothing wrong."

I chuckled bitterly. "Since when does that stop anyone from feeling guilty?" I asked. "But it depends on your definition of 'wrong.'"

"Meaning?"

I paused, collecting my thoughts, then went on slowly, "When you and I decided to get married, I did so with a clear conscience. My hormones were still my own, and I could do what I liked with my life. It had been months since I'd even thought about Sah'larrah. It's true, I'm not responsible for what he thought then. But later, when we asked him to help conceive the twins…"

Joel tensed, then relaxed. "A lot of things happened then I'd just as soon forget," he said. "I'm sure you feel the same. I know he was upset about those contracts my father drew up: the pledge of secrecy, and the release of paternity rights. That was my fault; you warned me that Sah'aarans prefer to make deals on a handshake, but I let Dad talk me into getting it in writing." He paused. "But Sah'larrah came back, apologized for his behavior, signed the papers, and went through with the deal. I can't believe he would have done that if he'd thought you'd wronged him so terribly."

"Me too," I admitted. "Especially since he knew from the beginning that he'd only be making a donation; that it wouldn't--couldn't--involve a physical encounter."

"Which means his…problem…must have developed later."

"Maybe so," I said. "But that only makes it worse. What if the 'deal' itself sent him over the edge? We've never discussed it, Joel, but you must know what I promised him. He stayed out of our kits' lives--and I kept him up to date. I sent him letters and holos for sixteen years, up until this spring. He never gave any indication that they upset him…but I have to wonder. Maybe I made him hate me…"

"Ehm'ayla," Joel said firmly, "stop. Please. You're going to drive yourself crazy that way. There's no way you can know now--literally none. But even if you're right…it still isn't your fault. I did know about those messages you sent him. I can't say I always felt good about it, but I understood why you were doing it, and I really couldn't grudge him: we owed him that much, at least. And as the years went by, and I became secure in the knowledge that I am their father, I stopped feeling threatened. Mostly. But, darling, if he never indicated that he was anything but grateful for the news…how can you blame yourself? If there's any fault here, it's his. Not yours."

"I know."

We were silent for a time, and he returned to stroking my mane. Finally he said, "So…what about Rae?"

I sighed again. "On that, I don't even have a theory--just questions. I saw a bonding, you saw a bonding. So did Tom and Admiral Ehm'rael. But Rae says there wasn't one."

"So what happened?"

"I wish I knew. I can't believe she's lying; she'd have no reason to. Were we wrong? Are she and Sah'larssh just scared? Or did something else happen? I've even found myself wondering if it's because she grew up on Terra."

"Tom did too," Joel pointed out. "Didn't stop him."

"No," I agreed. "It didn't. Which leaves us back where we started."

"So what do we do?"

"Wait and watch," I said. "That's all we can do. If they are in denial, we'll know soon enough: they won't be able to stay apart long. And if they really aren't bonded…well, Sah'larssh isn't the only young male in the Alliance."

"Uh-huh," Joel said dubiously. He paused. "I wonder if we could locate a Benedictine convent that takes Sah'aarans--?"

We were still chuckling as we settled in to sleep. I wish I'd known, as I drifted down and away, how long it would be before our next close and comfortable night.

###

The next day began bad--and got progressively worse.

I woke feeling fragile and old, with a dismal, deep headache that began behind my eyes and traveled a polar orbit to the nape of my neck. My stomach rebelled at the thought of food; and my muscles were weak and trembly. I snarled in response to Joel's cheery "Good morning!", but he just smirked and ducked into the shower, leaving me to rifle through the medicine cabinet.

No doubt the weather was the chief cause of my troubles. I'd known for many years that I was better tuned to atmospheric pressure than the best mercury barometer: up when the pressure rises, down when it falls. I never needed a weather report to know when things were a-changing.

Like many summer mornings in Monterey, the day hadn't actually dawned, just grown gradually brighter. Clouds filled the sky: not solidly, but with jagged, shifting veins of blue between the leaden-grey masses. A stiff wind propelled them north, but they were constantly replenished. Still not quite organized--but there was a tension in the air, to which my body responded, tuning me high and tight as a violin. The rain, when it finally came, would be as much a relief as a nuisance.

In the meantime, I had to keep functioning--though I would have preferred to crawl back into bed. The medicine cabinet contained no miracle cures; but I did find a powder which, foaming in a glass of water, took the edge of my headache. It also settled my stomach a bit, so that I was able to sit down to breakfast with Joel and the kits.

It was a quiet meal, except for the inevitable questions about the weather. The twins were astounded by the sudden change: two days ago we'd been sweltering: sweating or panting, depending on species. Now we ate indoors, and both Rae and I had bolstered our day-robes with sweaters. Even Tom wore long sleeves.

I forced myself to eat (liver, which was nutritious, and almost always palatable) and rehydrate myself with a quantity of strong tea. As I ate, I gazed sidelong at my daughter, seeking some manner of sign. She'd been all but silent since the previous evening, as if afraid to speak, and she was aware of my scrutiny now, judging from her nervously flicking tail. I still couldn't accept that I'd been so terribly wrong. No: easier to believe that Rae was covering up. Lying to herself, perhaps, a far subtler thing than lying to me. Perhaps that was my fault as well: I'd pushed her too hard, assumed too much. She'd grown up among humans, and had no experience with a natural, two-way bonding. Perhaps she'd been frightened by the decisions her body had so unilaterally made. For her own good, I'd pressed her to get to know Sah'larssh--but maybe I'd only deepened her confusion.

If she'd confided in anyone, it would have been her brother, and I briefly considered backing Tom into a corner and grilling him. Finally, though, I decided against it. In the final analysis, it wasn't my business--nor Joel's either; anything we could do or say would only make it worse. As I'd told Joel, we could only watch and wait.

By the time I finished breakfast, my condition had improved: the medicine had done its job (helped along by the caffeine) and I no longer felt eons old. "So," I said, gazing at my mate and kits, "what's on everyone's agenda today?"

Joel nodded out at the racing clouds and lashing branches. "Looks like a perfect day to curl up with a good book," he said.

…And copious amounts of coffee; I knew him too well. "Tom?"

He sighed tragically. "I suppose I should do the same thing," he said, and I smiled. My son, I suspected, had not even begun his summer reading list. Typically, he'd finish it in a marathon, red-eye session a few days before the semester began, and amazingly--maddeningly--he'd actually retain the material he would so rapidly skim. Just as typically, his sister had probably already completed hers.

"And you, honey?" I prompted her.

Staring out at the weather, her breakfast still half-uneaten, at my words she jumped and turned quickly. "Grandmother wants to see my holos," she said. "And…I've got some thinking to do."

I smiled. I had a feeling that her "thinking" might involve a dark room with candles and a big bronze sculpture. Hopefully the Goddess would be able to guide her, where I'd failed.

"What about you, Mom?" Tom asked hopefully.

I sighed. "I've still got work to do, I'm afraid."

"Oh," he replied, sounding disappointed.

"What's wrong now?" I asked, more sharply than I'd intended, and he drew back.

"Well," he faltered, "Sis and I have been hoping you'd be able to spend some time with us--so we could go into town, and see your old haunts."

I might have snapped at him again--but Rae was gazing at me too, and as I looked into their hopeful, wistful eyes, I bit back my harsh reply. "I know," I said gently. "And I really wish I could. But I can't--not yet. You heard Ehm'teel; you know what I'm trying to prove. And you knew when you came that this wasn't a vacation--not for me."

Tom nodded. "I know," he said. "Sorry."

I brushed his cheek. "That's all right. Hopefully we'll have time later. We don't have to go home quite yet."

Slowly he matched my smile. "Okay."

"--And anyway," I went on, "you have a date with Chaucer today."

He grinned. "Huudallaam's History of Quadrian Culture, actually."

###

I headed for the library, battling painful stabs of guilt.

The conversation I'd just endured was an unfortunate microcosm of the last sixteen years. Despite my best intentions, all too often I'd allowed duty to get in the way of spending time with my family. Joel and the twins sometimes had to drag me away by force--and even so, I usually found my thoughts stealing back to the Research Center. It was a constant challenge to keep my mind on the redwoods, or the mountains, or whatever it was I was supposed to be enjoying. I did indeed have many "old haunts," as Tom put it, which I should be showing them. But I couldn't, not with any enthusiasm, until I had completed my task.

Ehm'teel had given me a very good idea--but how to follow up on it? I'd been in the military long enough to know that loyalty to any particular commanding officer is rarely absolute--especially when that CO is someone like Ehm'luruus. Nor was she powerful enough to have engendered much in the way of fear. She certainly wasn't Captain Antilles (a name I still shuddered to contemplate.) Her ranks must have contained at least a few malcontents. Veterans, perhaps, who pre-dated her, and had seen their own hopes for advancement stymied. There had to be at least one officer who knew something, and would be willing to share it. The problem was how to find that person.

As a flag officer, my security clearance was high: I had access to an entire galaxy's worth of information. And what I couldn't access directly, I could hack my way into: the computer I can't defeat has yet to be whelped. One way or another, I could have found a personnel roster for the District Police.

…Except that doing so could have landed me in serious trouble. I was sworn not to misuse my authority; and while I'd always had a rather flexible definition of that word, my supervisors did not. To use CF resources in pursuit of a private agenda…well, it wouldn't be a court-martial offense--probably--but the local commanding admiral would certainly order me to cease and desist. I'd have to be more discreet.

Which left exactly two choices: Admiral Ehm'rael--and the Sah'salaan public records. Both had benefits and drawbacks.

Ordinarily I wouldn't have hesitated to consult my old mentor. The public records would give me names, but she could have uncovered much more: addresses, visiphone numbers, possibly even biographical information, making my search for a stoolie far easier. I'd have to get this right the first time, if I wanted to keep my operations secret: I needed the least-contented--but best-informed--officer in the Sah'salaan District Police. Needle in a haystack, yes.

Unlike me, Ehm'rael would have had no compunctions: she would have cheerfully taken advantage of every CF resource, called in every favor, and used the force of her rank to cajole or intimidate, as needed. What could the Admiralty do to her? She'd get the information, all right--while maintaining what Joel called my "plausible deniability."

Preferable, yes; logical, certainly; easier, absolutely…but I couldn't do it, for several reasons. First and foremost because I didn't dare speak to her: after my daughter's announcement, her namesake might be less than happy with my family. Second, pure and simple, was shame. All my life I'd depended on Ehm'rael to bail me out, one way or another. No longer a teenager, nor a young officer struggling for promotion, it was past time for me to stand on my own toe-claws. The Sah'salaan public records would be a start, and if I'd cut my hacking teeth during thirteen years as a Compcomm…well, what the Admirals didn't know wouldn't hurt them. Or me.

Such were my thoughts as I made my way down the hall. Strangely enough, I found myself eager for the fight, looking forward to tearing the guts out of another recalcitrant computer. It had been far too long; I'd grown too used to having information at my fingertips. The trick, I recalled, doesn't lie in finding out what you're not legally entitled to know; that's kit's play. The real challenge is in uncovering what those in power don't want you to find.

…Unfortunately, though, I didn't quite make it to the library. Halfway there I was intercepted by another complication--in the shape of my father.

Astoundingly enough, he smiled as he saw me, and clasped my hands. "Ah, daughter," he said. "I was about to seek you. I would like to speak to you, if I may."

I hesitated. I really didn't have time--and since I'd arrived in his house, Father had said very little I'd wanted to hear. But I did love him, after a fashion, and he was almost eighty years old. We might not have many more chances for honest, face-to-face conversation. His tone was mild, his expression friendly; perhaps he was ready to make peace.

And so, despite everything, I nodded. "Certainly, Father."

With a wave of his hand, he ushered me into the office. "We shall have privacy here," he said. "Your brother has gone to the city."

We seated ourselves. Not at his desk, though, but rather on the huge and ancient Spotted-Leaper-skin sofa beneath the windows. As we settled into its embrace, I peered closely at my father, really seeing him for the first time in a good many years. What I saw frightened me.

This man, this Sah'surraa, this rich and powerful individual: source of half my genes, and much more besides….I remembered him as anyone remembers her father: a tower of strength, overpowering, masterful, more than a match for any monster that lurked under my bed.

…But no more. The transformation from middle-aged to elderly seemed to have occurred in one step, overnight, with nothing in between. I hadn't been around to see his mane and fur gradually go grey, his limbs shrink and his back bend under the weight of years. All of it just suddenly was, as if by divine fiat. I was taller than him now, and my teenage son outweighed him. Suddenly he seemed fragile, a figurine made of twigs. In truth, he was in excellent health, and might last another thirty years--but nevertheless a hard lump of despair and panic suddenly grew in my chest, at the thought that he would not be there forever. The Goddess knew we'd had our differences--but my universe required its Sah'surraa.

He began to speak, quietly, and with a rueful smile. "Events have conspired to keep us apart these last few days. Sah'sell assures me that your family has been made comfortable--?"

"Indeed yes," I told him truthfully. "Thank you, Father. The hospitality of your home has not lessened."

"Your mother will be pleased to hear that," he said. "And you are most welcome." Wonder of wonders, he actually seemed to mean it. "I trust your business has proceeded well?"

I peered at him closely. His eyes were steady, his tone ingenuous; perhaps for once he wasn't baiting me. "To a certain extent," I said. "But there have been…difficulties."

He didn't ask, not exactly, just cocked a bushy white eyebrow--but nonetheless I found myself pouring out an edited version of my experiences. He smiled wryly as I finished,. "As we might expect," he said. "Our friend Ehm'luruus' deficiencies are well-known; her tenure will be short, I judge. As for Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall…they must be forgiven their bitterness--but they had no cause to treat you as they did."

I glanced away, wondering if he really meant that. With him, it was always hard to tell.

"…It would be just as well, however," he went on, "to keep your kits out of their sight. Especially Thomas."

Those words took a moment to sink in. When they finally did, my jaw dropped in horror.

He smiled tenderly. "I know of their relationship to Sah'larrah, daughter. So does your mother. We suspected, even before they were born--and the holos you sent us over the years were proof positive."

Great Goddess, I thought in despair. We went to such lengths to keep it a secret; we might as well have scrawled it on the walls of a public restroom. "Have you--?" I began fearfully.

"No," he said quickly. "Be assured, we have told no one. Not even your brother. If Sah'sell knows--I suspect he does--he has reasoned it out himself."

I sighed. "Who knew Tom would collect so many of Sah'larrah's genes?" I said helplessly. Maybe we should consider cosmetic surgery…

"It has become clear to me, however, that your kits themselves do not know."

"That is so."

"That causes me some concern," Father said. "Is it right to deceive them? They have treated your journey as a vacation; is it proper to deny them the opportunity to mourn for their father?"

I sighed. I'd wrestled with just that question these last two weeks, without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I knew what Joel's answer would be, even without asking. He'd never wavered in his belief that the twins should never know; that they should continue to believe their genes had come from an anonymous sperm-bank donor. And knowing that, I'd let the matter slide, rather than add a furious argument to my list of troubles.

"In any sense beyond the purely biological," I said softly. "Sah'larrah was not their father. Joel is. He has raised them, supported them; he is the one they love and respect. Sah'larrah provided no more than a seed. To know would only confuse and upset them needlessly."

"They will know, eventually," Father said. "They will reason it out. Holos of Sah'larrah are abundant--and there is also the fact of his visit to Terra, less then a year before they were born. They are intelligent; surely they will combine those facts sooner or later."

"You are correct," I said. "But we will deal with that when--if--it occurs."

"As you wish," he said dubiously.

"I'm curious, Father," I said, changing the subject as quickly as politeness allowed. "According to Ehm'teel, Sah'larrah sunk his life savings into that last expedition. Are Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall destitute?"

"Not entirely," he said. "They both had their own careers, their own income. Unfortunately, though, Sah'larrah dipped into their savings as well. He hoped to pay them back with the earnings on his next book; obviously, that will not happen."

"Ehm'herra told me, in no uncertain terms, that they wouldn't accept my money. Even before I'd actually offered."

"They are proud," he said sadly. "Too proud for their own good, perhaps. However, they will be provided for. I have published Sah'larrah's books for many years; it is not impossible that I might have made an error in the amount of royalties due."

His face wore an expression of bland inscrutability--but he wasn't fooling me. He was like that: rich, yes, tremendously so, but in no way a Scrooge. The Goddess only knew how many charities he'd endowed, how many down-on-their-luck acquaintances he'd helped. Sah'majha was one: Ehm'rael's mate arrived on Sah'aar, more than fifty years ago, a suspected Chrysaoan spy. Father paid for the lawyers who got him released--and for the cosmetic surgery to correct his terrible scars, which the Jellies had never bothered to repair. Father's philanthropic work was usually anonymous--perhaps because he didn't want to ruin his tough-as-nails reputation.

That thought gave rise to another, both amusing and mortifying. Was I supposed to insist? Was that why Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall treated me so badly: because I hadn't handed them my credit card and said "help yourselves"? Leave it to Father to clean up after me…

We were silent for a moment. Then I said, "I sense you have something else to discuss."

He smiled. "You are correct," he acknowledged. "Over the past several days I have had ample opportunity to observe your kits, and I have come to several conclusions regarding their welfare. I foresee great difficulties for them, if they continue as they are."

I buried my hands beneath my hips. Goddess, I thought in despair, doesn't he ever leave well enough alone? Obviously this was not the peace initiative I'd hoped for--more like the opening shots of another bloody and indecisive battle. I forced myself to be calm, and in even tones I said, "If this is to be a discussion of the twins, aren't we missing a participant?"

He looked puzzled. "Who?"

"Their father."

He waved his hand. "That was deliberate," he explained. "I have nothing against Mr. Abrams--indeed, he is one of the most agreeable humans I have ever met. But he is also the chief cause of your kits' difficulties. It was my intention to appeal to your considerable powers of reason, and leave you to convince him, in your own way, of the wisdom in my words."

Fat chance. "All right," I said in resignation. "Go on. What, in your opinion, is wrong with my kits?"

"Do not misunderstand me," he said quickly. "I feel no enmity toward them; in fact I am quite fond of them. That is precisely why my concern is so strong: in hopes that they might yet be guided to the correct path."

"In what sense, exactly?"

"I have no tolerance for circumlocutions," he said. "And neither do you. Therefore I will be entirely frank. When I look at your kits, I see far too much human influence. Some time ago I had contact with Ambassador Sah'churaaf on Terra; he wished to discuss Thomas. His description of your son's behavior frightened me greatly. I hoped Sah'churaaf was exaggerating--but to my sorrow, I have found that he was not. In short, Thomas and Ehm'rael will amount to nothing in Sah'aaran society unless they dispose of those human traits."

His words didn't surprise me: I'd already guessed that Sah'churaaf had been in contact with him. The ambassador's view of events would have been entirely one-sided--that was a given. I could take some comfort, though, in the fact that he'd soon be getting his comeuppance. "Tell me why," I said.

"I shall." He took a deep breath. "My concerns are many," he went on. "Your kits speak their native language with atrocious accents, and are known to frequently lapse into Terran slang. That would be laughable, if it were not so sad. Their habits of dress are even worse. Someone has convinced your son to wear a collar, and that is good; but the rest of his attire is horribly inappropriate. Your daughter is more aware of our standards, but even she has unfortunate lapses. The outfit she wore into the city yesterday, for example. Both of them are rapidly becoming laughingstocks.

"Their behavior also leaves much to be desired. Their tastes in music and entertainment are strongly Terran. I have monitored their computer usage, and I know the media they have requested. And as for that game of theirs--what do they call it? 'base ball?'--I can only say I have never seen anything so vulgar or disagreeable in my life. And I am told--I hope erroneously--that they actually enjoy immersing themselves in water."

"That's true enough," I told him flatly.

He shuddered, then went on, "To their credit, they are polite and well-spoken, and properly respectful to their elders. I hesitate to contemplate, however, what Terran public schools have done to their education.

"In their present circumstances, surrounded as they are by humans, what I have said may not seem to matter. But eventually they must interact with other Sah'aarans. Their mates will be of our species, and they may choose to work with Sah'aarans as well. In those situations, they will be objects of ridicule. And that, I cannot endure. I will not allow them to dishonor our family. Fortunately they are still young, their minds and habits malleable. With luck, it may not be too late to transform them."

Despite the waves of anger pulsing through me, I couldn't help but smile. In retrospect, it was a good thing Joel wasn't there. He'd have been at Father's throat already--and that wouldn't have been pretty. Nor was his comment about "mates" lost on me. How much did he know about Tom and Ehm'tassaa, or Rae and Sah'larssh? More than he was letting on, I suspected. My voice still tightly under control, I said, "Indeed. And you have a prescription, I take it?"

If he heard the sarcasm in my tone, he gave no sign. "I do," he said. He leaned back. "It is essential that we remove Thomas and Ehm'rael from all Terran influences immediately, and immerse them in Sah'aaran culture. Henceforth they will live here--and I suggest that little, if any, of their belongings accompany them. I will outfit them properly. Both of them shall discard their human names, and I shall see to it that they hear and speak nothing but our language. If necessary, I shall employ speech therapists to rid them of their accents.

"I will enroll them in the finest preparatory school in Sah'salaan; in fact I have already made the necessary arrangements. They are intelligent, and I have no doubt they will soon overcome their educational deficiencies. After they graduate, they will of course attend Sah'salaan University. I am told that Thomas wishes to study engineering. That is well: it is an honorable profession. I am also informed that Ehm'rael has literary aspirations. That cannot fail to please me. I shall encourage and support their studies to the best of my ability.

"After they have obtained their degrees, it will not be difficult to find careers and homes for them. If they wish, they may--as your brother and his mate do--continue to live here."

He trailed off, gazing at me hopefully, evidently seeking some sign of agreement or enthusiasm. And looking into his eyes, I suddenly couldn't take it any more. I was angry--furious, really--but the situation was so entirely ludicrous, I burst out laughing.

Father drew back, as if I'd suddenly gone mad. His expression shaded rapidly from shock, through indignation, and ultimately into anger. When finally I could speak again, I said, "Father, exactly what made you believe I'd agree to any of this? Or--more importantly--that Joel and the twins would?"

He sighed. "As for you, daughter, I hoped you would see reason. And you are known to have a great deal of influence over your…husband…where your kits' welfare is concerned. As for Thomas and Ehm'rael…is this really their concern?"

I really had been away too long: I'd forgotten my father's attitude toward child-rearing, which was that he spoke and they listened. Another item under the heading, "Why Ehm'ayla left home."

"Certainly it is," I said firmly. "I can make them do their homework, or weed the flower-beds, but I can't force such major changes on them without their consent. They're obedient, they'd do it--but not with a good will. I won't have them resenting me for the rest of their lives. And I may have less influence over Joel than you imagine. I might be able to convince him--if I had any enthusiasm for your plans."

"Surely you will agree something must be done."

For a time I gazed out at the racing clouds; no sign of Mother in the garden today, let alone Tom. Finally I turned back. I had no hope that anything I'd say would have any effect, but the attempt had to be made--for my kits' sake, if nothing else. "Father," I said, "for once in your life would you please listen to me?"

He growled--but he saw the look in my eye, and subsided. "All right daughter," he said quietly. "I will listen."

"You say you've have been 'observing' Tom and Rae," I said. "Tell me: do they appear unhappy?"

That caught him off-guard. "No. I suppose they do not," he said finally.

"Then why seek to change them?"

"I do not understand."

"Yes, my kits have grown up among humans. Their father is human; so too are their teachers, coaches, counselors and friends. What they are, and will continue to be, is a synthesis of the influences upon them. This is true of us all."

"That is exactly my point, daughter. They are not human."

"No," I agreed. "They're not. Physically, genetically, they are Sah'aaran--which places certain constraints upon them. Their diet, for example, and their reproductive biology. Such things can't be changed. But in many other ways, they are influenced by humans--and that troubles me not at all.

"Before they were born, I swore I wouldn't judge them--because I knew it would be impossible to hold them to a straight and narrow Sah'aaran path. I decided I wouldn't allow myself to become angry when they do something 'not truly Sah'aaran' in some narrow, deterministic sense. Joel and I do hold them to unswerving moral standards. They're teenagers, and certainly there have been some lapses, and small rebellions against our authority. That's to be expected. But as long as they accept our rules, and society's, their lives are their own. If they'll also accept our guidance, fine; if they won't, we can't force it on them. What they wish to be, they will be."

"What they will be," Father said bitterly, "is useless to Sah'aaran society."

I shrugged. "Sah'aar is not the entire Alliance, Father. There will be a place for them, somewhere. I'm certain of that."

"Their place is here," he insisted.

Abruptly I found myself growing tired. It was a feeling I'd had many times before: an overwhelming desire to be elsewhere. The problem being that the very situations that provoke it prevent one from acting on it. My headache had returned, fortissimo; this time there wasn't enough aspirin on the planet to cure it. "Father," I said, "you and I both know this has nothing to do with my kits."

"What, then?" he demanded.

"Control," I said simply. "I know you: you have an overwhelming need to be in charge, at all times. It's part of me too, and I've been fighting it for fifty years. You failed to control me: I left, went beyond your influence. Now you see another chance, using my kits. I will not have that, Father. If you wish to prolong our conflict, so be it. But you will not make my children prisoners of that war."

He thrust his chin out, his whiskers bristling. "The arrangements have been made."

"Then they must be unmade," I said firmly. "When Joel and I leave Sah'aar, our kits go with us. That is final."

He glared at me for a time--and then, as I ought to have known he would, he fired his final salvo. In a voice absolutely dripping with pity he said, "I always feared the dual responsibilities of parenthood and a Combined Forces career might be too much to handle…"

That, finally, was it: the last straw. Father or no, author of half my genes or not, at that moment I might cheerfully have strangled him. If I'd remained in that office even one second longer, I would have said things that would have ended any hope of an armistice, forever.

…And so I fled. Without another word I rose and departed, as fast as my legs would carry me. If I expected to hear words of contrition or apology behind me, I was disappointed--but I don't think I did.

###

Beside the memorial my legs failed, and I sank to the ground. The place was still dusty--muddy, soon--and my rear end would be dirty when (or if) I rose; but I didn't care. My elbows propped on my knees, I buried my face in my hands. My headache had achieved epic proportions, my eyeballs literally pulsing with pain. Overhead, the clouds still raced by, dark and ominous, and the wind rattled the dry grass in sharp, cold gusts.

Strange, how events kept drawing me back to that place, hell's half-acre if you will. Not because it was my favorite picnic spot; in fact I wished heartily that it would vanish off the face of Sah'aar. More likely because it was the one place where I could be reasonably confident of solitude. No one in his right mind went there.

It was an indication of Father's advancing years--and mine--that our argument had been a low-decibel one, quite unlike the yowling fights of my youth. But the result had been much the same. I could never decide: were we too different to get along…or too alike?

But quiet or not, this argument was far more significant than any that had come before. Father seemed surprised, even hurt, that I hadn't bowed to the force of his overwhelming logic--but he should have known that I would not, could not. I'd told Sah'churaaf that an attack on my children was an attack on me; and this, an attempt to take them from me, was even worse. Of course I'd fight back; that was a given. Sooner than I cared to contemplate, Tom and Rae would grow up and move away; but until that happened, I would keep them with me. Males, I thought bitterly. They have mates, mothers and sisters--but none of them truly understands the female mind.

Looking back now, as objectively as I could, one other thing struck me: I hadn't been afraid of him. That was unprecedented: in my youth he would have quickly reduced me to a quivering mass of protoplasm. Age had not diminished his power to intimidate; so, logically, it must have been my ability to be intimidated that had faded. Perhaps it was a function of age, or perhaps all those years at the Research Center had taught me something about power. Whichever: I had neither weakened nor given in--or even compromised. The twins would leave with us, period. Whatever arrangements he'd made, he would have to cancel. Joel would back me up, I knew: he'd made his feelings on that matter quite clear.

Finally I raised my head to gaze at the memorial. Sitting where I was, as sheltered from the wind as I could get, the Goddess' back was to me--a bit of symbolism I didn't care to dwell on. My wreath was still there, and only a little wilted: the cooler weather had preserved it. The others were gone, scattered by the breeze, and no more had been placed. As I'd feared, Sah'larrah was becoming a footnote.

What are you doing here? I asked myself suddenly. Sah'larrah is dead. Ehm'luruus was already unpopular; this will be the final nail in her coffin. You might be able to hasten her demise, but why? Revenge? Is that really the closure you're seeking? Is that how he'd want to be remembered?

One thing seemed clear: as long as we remained, my kits would be sitting ducks for Father's disapproval. Having failed to convince me, what would be his next move? Kidnapping? Going to court and having me declared an unfit mother? I wouldn't put anything past him. He wouldn't succeed--but he might try. And the arguments could only get worse.

It's time to leave. With that thought came a wave of relief, greatly easing my headache. There's an old Sah'aaran saying: "Time to quit stalking and begin the chase." But the corollary to that is, "You can't keep chasing forever." Sometimes, exhausted, you have no choice but to watch your prey vanish into the underbrush. And if there was ever such a time, this was it. The twins would be disappointed--but with the Rae/Sah'larssh situation an apparent non-starter, there was nothing to keep us here. Time to make the Admiralty happy by returning Cuvier to the ODF.

With that resolve, I began to rise…but suddenly cold and wet struck my right ear. I looked up--just in time for another fat drop to land in my eye. A second later there came another, and another…and then the rain was hissing down in earnest, leaving small dark craters in the dust.

I scrambled to my feet, cursing myself for an idiot. This wasn't the Interval--not yet--but a rogue cloud-bank had decided to start the show a little early. From the looks of it, the shower could last an hour--long enough to leave one very wet and bedraggled commodore out in the middle of nowhere. The nonexistent shuttle platform had no shelter, and I might wait twenty minutes for a car to come my way. With the rain gathering strength, I made my way quickly toward the pillbox. It had no eaves or overhangs, but its gated side was in the lee of the wind. I edged as close as I dared to the barrier, and huddled down, making myself a smaller target. It rains upon the just and the unjust, so they say; which category I fit, I wasn't sure. Why, oh why, if I'd wanted to be alone, hadn't I just locked myself in the bathroom, like I did at home?

I should make a run for it, I thought, gazing at the shimmering silver curtain that had contracted my universe to a narrow misty circle. It was only water, after all: nothing to be afraid of. I couldn't get much wetter on the platform than I already was: my day-robe and fur were clammy now, going on damp, and would soon be soaked. Warm towels and dry clothing were just a short ride away--so why wasn't I running?

I may have been detained by a latent reluctance to drench myself; or perhaps the fascination of watching the rain fall, only to be absorbed instantly into the bone-dry ground. Or maybe--as had happened so many times before--the Goddess decided she had a job for me.

It was a small sound, barely audible…but in that desolate place it caused me to jump nearly a meter, my tail bristling. A low groan, and a single word: "Help!"--and it came from behind me.

With a snarl, I spun, my claws expressed. Within the little structure, behind a stinger barrier and a locked gate, a figure lay sprawled on the ground, its legs still dangling halfway down the ragged entrance to the Undercity.

For a few seconds I stood frozen, the rain pouring unchecked through my mane. The figure was Sah'aaran, and appeared to be young, but was too grotesquely sprawled for me to determine its gender. The voice had been deep, though, apparently male. Strangely, he appeared to be entirely naked, clad in nothing but his own fur. As I stood gaping, he raised his hands in supplication. "Help me," he said, his voice low and tormented. "For the Goddess' sake, please help me."

Those words broke my paralysis. "Hang on!" I cried. I scrabbled frantically in my sash-pouch, and with a single swift movement, clipped my commpak to my ear and keyed the SOS beacon.

The response was crisp and instantaneous: "CF Ops. What is your emergency?"

"This is Commodore Ehm'ayla," I said. "Home in on my signal; I have a civilian in need of immediate medical assistance."

"Understood, Commodore. Alerting the District Police now. Stand by."

"Acknowledged. And tell them to hurry."

I could do no more--or could I? For a few seconds I peered at the feebly-twitching body, gnawing my lip in indecision. It might be ten or fifteen minutes before help arrived; longer, if Ehm'luruus was involved. Whoever this was, by the look of him he might not be able to wait that long. But what--?

Maybe. I rummaged in my pouch again and found my CF-issue mini-stinger. Nowhere near as powerful as a field-gear model, but regulations required me to carry a defensive weapon, even on the peaceful streets of Pacific Grove. Flicking its discharge points into position, I keyed the unit to charge for a full-power shot. The generators mounted on either side of the doorway had metal housings, and with any luck…Pressing my ear against the left-hand box, I located the point where the transformer's humming seemed loudest. Shielding my eyes, I touched the stinger to the panel and pulled the trigger.

There came a bright-blue flash, and a loud pop!--and then the muted buzz of power faltered and died. As I'd hoped, I'd blown the circuit-breaker. Probably also I'd set off an alarm--but I didn't care. I passed my hand cautiously before the row of cones…and nothing happened. Another shot, half-power this time, disrupted the mag-seal padlock. I stripped away the chain and threw open the gate, its rusty hinges howling.

I dropped to my knees beside the huddled figure and lifted his head into my lap. Young indeed: somewhere in his early twenties. And as I'd thought--but still could not explain--he was indeed entirely naked, without even a collar. His fur and mane were matted and filthy, and he gazed at me through glassy, half-mad eyes.

"It's all right," I said soothingly. "You're safe now."

His mouth fell open, revealing a swollen, distended tongue and several broken teeth. "Water," he whispered. "Need water."

Easy enough: I simply wrung out my dripping day-robe into his mouth. To my layman's eye he appeared uninjured; just exhausted, dehydrated…and undernourished. His stomach and spine seemed to have become close friends.

A high-pitched whine pricked up my ears. I turned--but saw only rain. What I'd heard was a hover-skim, coming in from the west: the rescue crew was quicker on the draw than I'd expected. Not close, not yet: five minutes away, perhaps.

I bent over young man. "Who are you?" I asked urgently.

He was nearly unconscious now, and I leaned closer to catch his broken whisper: "Sah'raada. My name is Sah'raada."

###

Joel found me at Sah'salaan General.

There are few places I hate more than hospitals, and I've always done my best to avoid them. Even after giving birth, I put up with the Presidio's infirmary for less than a day before grabbing Joel by the lapels and demanding that he get me the Dark out of there. Visiting Commodore Green after his heart attack, was a penance. And yet here I was again.

At a full fifty floors, Sah'salaan General is the largest medical facility on the planet. It stands in the center of the city, a block west of Alliance Plaza--and is famous as the place where, more than two centuries ago, our first successful self-contained artificial heart was perfected: a turning-point in Sah'aaran history. My mother and father, as well as Admiral Ehm'rael, had passed through the cardiac ward there; so might my brother, someday.

The biggest hospital on Sah'aar--and by far the busiest. I sat, huddled uncomfortably on a hard plastic chair, in the midst of a cavernous, bustling emergency-room waiting area, while a, dizzying tide of patients, physicians, nurses and visitors ebbed and flowed around me. Even in our modern society, injuries and sudden illnesses still happen with distressing frequency.

I'd been an island in the stream for some considerable time, and many of the passersby had paused to stare at me before hurrying on. I must have been quite a sight. A kindly nurse had provided me with a towel, but my mane was rumpled and dirty, and my day-robe and fur were stiff with dried mud. I probably looked as if I'd been dragged through a swamp by my tail.

A machine in the back of the room had provided me with a cup of wretched tea, but that was long since gone. I pulled my legs up against my chest and rested my forehead on my knees. No headache now--adrenaline is a better painkiller than aspirin--but the emergency's passing had left me exhausted. Closing my eyes, I let the quiet rush of activity wash over me.

How? I'd asked myself that at least a thousand times since the District Police hover-skim deposited us here, and Sah'raada was whisked away by a small army of doctors and nurses. How could he possibly have survived? In no way could he have stretched his supplies that far. Unless… but my mind shied in horror from that thought.

On the verge of dozing off, I was roused by a large, familiar hand on my shoulder, and a welcome voice in my ear. "Ayla? Darling?"

I turned, and found myself looking into Joel's blue eyes, narrowed now in concern. Over his turtleneck sweater he wore a beige wind-breaker, a veteran of many a breezy day on Asilomar Beach. Silently I held out my arms, and he gathered me in. For a long time I clung to him, shuddering uncontrollably, while his hand smoothed my disheveled mane. Finally he said, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "What are you doing here?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing," he said, smiling grimly. "You scared me half to death. First you vanish, and nobody knows where you are; then I can't raise you on your commpak. Finally I call CF Ops, and they tell me there's been an emergency, and you're at the hospital. If you don't mind me asking, what the hell's going on?"

Shame colored my nose and ears. Of course he couldn't find me: after my argument with Father I'd simply fled, without a word to anyone. And I remembered now, belatedly, that I'd set my commpak to block incoming calls, so I'd be undisturbed in my misery. Briefly then, I described my experiences, and as I spoke his jaw dropped by degrees. Finally he collapsed into the seat beside me.

"It's definitely him?" he asked.

"Undoubtedly," I assured him. The resemblance to Ehm'teel had been clear, even through the dirt--once I'd known to look.

"And her--?"

"She's here," I said. I nodded at the large set of double doors to our left--the ones marked NO ADMITTANCE. "The hospital staff was able to track her down--fortunately she hadn't left Sah'salaan yet. She's with him now."

"How could he have survived?" Joel asked in astonishment, mirroring my own thoughts.

"There's only one way I can think of." I swallowed. "But it's a horrible thought."

His eyes widened. "You don't mean--?"

I nodded. "I do: cannibalism. I don't want to believe it; but Sah'aarans are carnivores, and when you get hungry enough…"

He nodded sadly. "Donner Party," he said. "I hope not. Humans who have been forced to survive that way usually end up wishing they'd died."

A flash of movement caught my eye, I grasped his arm, bringing him to a halt. Ehm'teel had entered the waiting room, and she paused in the doorway, looking dazed. Her day-robe and collar were still grey, and rumpled as if donned hurriedly. Her wandering eyes eventually found Joel and me, and she made her way across, her steps stiff and mechanical. As she neared us she stumbled, and Joel, rising quickly, took her hand and guided her to a seat.

"How is he?" I asked her.

She tried to speak, but nothing emerged; she cleared her throat and tried again. "Alive," she said. "They have taken him to intensive care. He is exhausted, dehydrated and undernourished, but uninjured."

"He will recover, then?"

"Yes," she said. "The Goddess be thanked." She grasped my hands. "I owe you a debt I can never repay, Commodore. Had you not been there he would have died, trapped."

I bowed my head. "I am honored to have served." Doubtless she was correct: Sah'raada had been exhausted, on his last legs. Climbing the ladder had taken the remainder of his strength. Days might have passed before anyone else came along--and they would have found a corpse.

"Was he able to tell you how he survived, Ehm'teel?" Joel asked.

"No," she said. "He barely recognized me. The doctors believe he may be more alert tomorrow." She paused. "I heard what you were saying as I came in," she went on. "But it is not true. My brother would rather die than…than…"

"We know," Joel said quickly. "And we don't believe it either. There must be another explanation…"

"Yes." She paused, then went on thoughtfully, "Perhaps he found one of the Undercity's water mains. One can survive quite a long time without food…" She turned to me. "I wished to take charge of his personal effects," she said. "But I was told there were none--?"

"That's right," I said. "He was naked--not even a collar."

Her brows contracted. "That is…strange. To say the least. I cannot understand why he would abandon his clothing."

"He was exhausted," Joel pointed out. "Maybe it was too much of a burden."

"Perhaps," she said dubiously. "But the Undercity is cold, even for someone covered with fur. He would need his clothes--especially in a state of exhaustion. But in any case, he would scarcely abandon his collar. No Sah'aaran would."

She had a point. During my exile on Hellhole, after I shed my uniform because of the blistering heat, I immediately fashioned a collar out of woven grass. It made me feel far less naked. In a similar situation, any Sah'aaran would do the same--maybe even Tom.

"No doubt there will be a logical explanation," I said. I didn't care to mention the one that came immediately to mind: that he'd been irrational from dehydration. "We shall know in the morning."

"Doubtless true," Ehm'teel said. She sighed, and a brief shudder passed through her. "I have been wondering, Commodore," she went on, "how did you come to be there to find him?"

I paused--but whatever I might have said was interrupted by a new voice, harsh and strident. "An excellent question, Ehm'teel. I wouldn't mind hearing the answer myself."

Unfortunately familiar, that voice--though this was the first time I'd heard it speaking Terran. I turned, already knowing who I'd see.

She stood with her arms crossed over her shiny blue uniform, and a sardonic smile on her face. Beside me Ehm'teel tensed, the dark tips of her claws appearing. My fingers were tingling too. Joel's eyes narrowed, and his hand, resting atop mine, tightened warningly.

She bowed. "My greetings to you, Ehm'teel. Commodore." Her eyes shifted, her smile broadening. "And this must be the famous Mr. Joel Abrams. I have heard a great deal about you, sir. As has everyone on Sah'aar."

My husband's reply was a soft, easygoing drawl. "You have the advantage of me."

"This is Ehm'luruus, chief of the Sah'salaan District Police," I supplied.

Joel nodded, a bare-minimum display of politeness. "Chief," he said. "I've heard a great deal about you as well."

She glanced quickly at me, wondering no doubt what I'd been telling him. "And what brings you here today?" I asked.

She spread her hands. "Concern for Sah'raada, of course. I was quite surprised to hear that he had been found alive. Quite surprised indeed."

"No doubt you were," Ehm'teel said softly. Ehm'luruus shot her a venomous look, but the younger woman's gaze was elsewhere. I watched with interest as Ehm'luruus struggled to regain her composure.

She's scared, I realized suddenly. Frightened to death, and trying to hide it with bluster and arrogance. The reason why was obvious: Sah'raada. Questions would be asked; people would be demanding to know why her so-called "search" had failed to locate him. She was wondering now if he'd regained consciousness--and what he might have said. Probably she saw her job hanging by a thread.

Finally she shook herself, and turned to me. "Well?" she asked pointedly.

"Well what?"

"You were about to tell us what you were doing at the Undercity access."

I fixed her with my gaze. "I'm under no obligation to account for my actions to you," I said. "But as I was about to tell Ehm'teel, I felt a desire to meditate on Sah'larrah's memory." My family problems were not Ehm'luruus' business--nor Ehm'teel's either, come to that.

Gesturing at my mud-streaked day-robe, Ehm'luruus snorted. "In a rainstorm?"

I shrugged. "My visit was ill-timed."

"To say the least."

We might have traded insults indefinitely, but Ehm'teel was growing impatient, her tail flicking.. "My brother has not awakened," she said coldly. "You will learn nothing here."

"I wonder," Ehm'luruus said. "For some time, the circumstances behind Sah'larrah's disappearance have troubled me. And now my suspicions are revived. In short, I wonder how accidental his death really was."

"What do you mean?" Ehm'teel demanded.

"Well," Ehm'luruus said, "if someone desired Sah'larrah to vanish, a dangerous expedition would be an opportune time, would it not?"

Ehm'teel's jaw dropped. "You are accusing my brother of murder?"

"Stranger things have happened."

"Not to them," Ehm'teel said firmly. "Sah'raada loved Sah'larrah as a second father. There was no hint of enmity between them."

"Can we be certain of that?" Ehm'luruus asked. "There are many cases of assistants growing envious of their superiors. Perhaps Sah'raada wearied of life in Sah'larrah's shadow…"

"You are insane," Ehm'teel said flatly. "My brother was content with his position. If there was anyone who wished him to escape Sah'larrah's 'shadow,' it was me. Am I to be accused next?"

Ehm'luruus shrugged. "At present I have insufficient evidence to accuse anyone," she said. Her tone hardened. "But I do have two unexplained events to account for: Sah'larrah's disappearance, and your brother's reappearance. I can discount nothing."

"Then you must look elsewhere," Ehm'teel said. "My brother had no reason to harm Sah'larrah."

Ehm'luruus smiled. "No professional reason, perhaps," she said, her voice a smooth, low purr. "But a personal one--?"

"Meaning what?" Ehm'teel asked uneasily.

"You and your brother are close?"

"Of course."

"And he is protective of you? He would help you, if you were in trouble?"

"Naturally." The Chief of Police was grandstanding, enjoying being the center of attention; but Ehm'teel's unease was rapidly turning into something more like fear. Ehm'luruus was herding her into a trap, and she knew it.

Ehm'luruus bent close. "It occurs to me," she said, "that Sah'raada may have been angry on your behalf. Perhaps he knew your little secret."

The effect of those few words on Ehm'teel was extraordinary. Her nose and ears turned white, and she gasped, her rising hand to her throat. Joel turned toward her, but she waved him off.

"What--?" I tried to bite the word back, too late, and Ehm'luruus turned a sunny smile on me.

"Didn't you know, Commodore?" she said. "I'm surprised Ehm'teel hasn't told you. She is pregnant, you see. And Sah'larrah is--was--the father."

In an eyeblink Ehm'teel was on her feet, her claws expressed, lunging at Ehm'luruus' throat. Joel and I grabbed her arms, holding her back. She struggled briefly in our grasp, then collapsed, her body sagging against me. Shuddering, she fought to contain her tears.

Ehm'luruus hadn't moved; she stood grinning, her arms crossed. I let her see my teeth. "Consider yourself lucky we didn't let her," I snarled. "Get out of here!"

For a moment I feared she would resist, and I didn't know how to back up my brazen command. But with the full force of my glare upon her, she wilted: for once she knew she'd gone too far. "I will see you soon, Commodore," she said with forced breeziness, then turned on her toe-claws and departed. Off to harass Sah'raada's doctors, no doubt.

My knees were buckling under Ehm'teel's dead weight; Joel and I lowered her into a chair. I glanced at my husband, indicating with my chin the water-fountain across the room; he nodded and made his way through the crowd. Kneeling before Ehm'teel, I rubbed her hands between mine. She hadn't fainted, not quite, and she gazed at me dully. "I am sorry, Commodore," she said. "My weakness shames me."

Joel returned then, bearing a cup of water. Ehm'teel gulped at it, her hand shaking, and several drops cascaded into her lap. She batted at them absently. A very practical garment, the day-robe: it covers a multitude of sins.

"She would try the patience of the Goddess Herself," I said. I paused, then went on, "Ehm'teel, forgive me, but I must ask: is what she said true?"

She glanced aside. Strange, really, how that entire scene had occurred in the middle of a busy, crowded space, and no one had even noticed. It was as if we were in a world of our own. "Yes," she said finally. "It is."

"How far along?"

She gazed at me with haunted eyes. "About two months," she said. "I have considered abortion…but I cannot. It would dishonor his memory."

It made sense now. Not all of it--but enough. That was why she'd been prepared to leave Sah'salaan, abandoning her work at the University: because she couldn't bear the shame of having her colleagues see her with an unbonded, unmated pregnancy. As for the rest… "How did it happen?"

She spoke quietly, her eyes downcast. "Sah'larrah and I had been attracted to each other for some time; really ever since we met. For my part, I thought it was simple infatuation. I had not bonded; and I knew that he had not either, unusual as that was at his age. But one night…we were training for the final expedition, he and I and a few others. We spent several nights at one of our permanent camps deep inside the Undercity, testing some new equipment. And while we were there, it…happened. What more can I say? I eased his terrible loneliness. I believed my fertile period had not yet begun, since I was able to respond to him. Evidently I was mistaken."

"Did he know?"

"No," she said, barely audible. "No, I had not yet told him. I did not wish to distract him. I planned to tell him when the expedition was over."

She turned away, and I grasped her chin, forcing her to look at me. "Ehm'teel, listen to me," I said. "I do know how lonely Sah'larrah was--better than most. You need feel no shame for helping him; in fact I am glad you did. Nor need you hide yourself away. Your situation is unusual, but scarcely unique. Despite what Ehm'luruus may believe."

"You are kind," she said with a wan smile.

I clasped Joel's hand. "Thirty-three years among humans has given me some unique perspectives." I paused. "You say you can't bring yourself to abort. I agree, wholeheartedly--but what will you do now?"

She sighed. "Up until this morning, I believed my plans were made. I intended to leave Sah'salaan and return home, as I told you yesterday. When my kits were born, I was to have put them up for adoption." She shook her head. "But now, nothing is certain. Obviously I must remain here to care for my brother. After he has recovered…I may reconsider my decisions. I will depend upon his advice."

"If there is any assistance my family can provide…" I began, and she smiled.

"Thank you." She took a deep breath. "It was kind of you to remain, Commodore, but there is no need for you to stay any longer. I will be fine. I am sure you wish to clean up…"

"As Ehm'luruus so kindly observed," I agreed wryly. In fact she was right: the prospect of a shower, clean clothing, and food--especially food--was indeed irresistible. "Would you care to accompany us?" I asked "The situation here seems to be under control; there is little more you can do until morning. We'd be glad of your company at dinner."

She shook her head sadly. "I appreciate the offer, Commodore," she said. "But my duty is here. He may regain consciousness before morning, and I would never forgive myself if I was not here. As I said, I will be fine."

"As you wish," I said. "But if you change your mind, the offer remains open."

"Thank you," she said. She paused. "You have given me back a part of my life, Commodore," she went on. "One I thought gone forever. If you or your family should ever need anything, I am yours to command."

I smiled. "I shall remember that."

###

Joel made wonderful cocoa.

For as long as I'd known him, he'd considered hot chocolate a sovereign remedy--especially if what ailed you was exhaustion and chill. I can't count the number of bleak, stormy evenings when he greeted me at the door with a kiss and a mug, both steaming. He knew how I liked it, too: neither too hot nor too sweet. Emerging from the bathroom, I found a marshmallow-topped panacea--along with Joel himself, and the twins--waiting for me.

Reluctant as I'd been to leave Sah'salaan General--I wasn't certain Ehm'teel was as stable as she claimed to be--I was terribly tired and horribly uncomfortable, and so I allowed Joel to take me home. As we exited the hospital, I found to my amazement that it was already late afternoon. Much less astounding was the fact that the storm had passed, and even the puddles had vanished. The cloud-cover had solidified, the jagged seams of sky closing, and the wind had died. The main event would not be long delayed.

The sonic shower was a blessing; the clean day-robe a benediction; and my first sip of cocoa a visitation from the Goddess. Seldom in my life had I grown so exhausted doing nothing. As I settled in next to Joel on the sofa, he smiled and kissed my fresh-scrubbed cheek. "Feeling better?"

That question was largely for the twins' benefit: they sat across from us, nursing their own cups of chocolate, gazing at me in concern. We'd arrived home to find them nearly frantic, and I couldn't blame them: the last they'd heard, their father was rushing off to the hospital in search of me. I reassured them with a smile and a nod. "Much," I said. "And I'm sorry I worried all of you."

Standing in the shower, the ultrasound pounding the dirt off of me, I'd thought over the day's happenings, all of which had occurred far too rapidly to absorb. Forgotten now was my argument with Father--and so too was my resolve to leave Sah'aar immediately. No way could I do that, not now. Not until I heard what Sah'raada had to say. Very likely his words would put Sah'larrah in his grave--and provide the closure I'd been seeking. The drama seemed to be reaching its final act, and I couldn't bear to walk out early. I'd paid too much for the tickets.

"Darling," Joel said, breaking into my thoughts, "do you think it's possible Sah'raada killed Sah'larrah?"

I snorted in derision. "Not for an instant," I said. "I think it's much more likely they became lost, and Sah'larrah's strength finally failed. Sah'raada pooled what was left of their supplies, and made it through--just barely. Ehm'teel is right, though: he must have found a source of drinkable water."

"Which still doesn't explain his missing clothes and collar," Joel pointed out.

"True enough."

"What will Ehm'teel do now, do you think?" he asked.

I glanced at the twins; but Joel had evidently briefed them while I was in the shower. Well, if they were old enough to bond… "I don't know," I said. "A lot depends on her brother and parents. I'm certainly glad she doesn't want an abortion; I agree, it would dishonor Sah'larrah's memory. But what she'll do after the kits are born…that's harder. Placing them for adoption might well be the best choice. She's strong and capable, and she could raise them herself--but so-called 'polite' society wouldn't approve. And it depends too on what kind of family support she could expect."

"Mom," Tom said, "there's one thing I don't understand. I thought…well, I thought it couldn't happen outside a bonding."

"It's extremely unusual," I told him. "Unbonded females commonly have a strong physical and emotional reaction to their fertile periods." I nodded at Rae. "As your sister can tell you."

She turned away, her ears reddening, and Tom grinned. "Yeah, I guess she could," he quipped.

"…And that's why they take hormone supplements," I went on, "to keep that reaction in check. But even with those drugs, during her fertile period an unbonded female will violently refuse sexual advances--except from the male who would become her bond-mate regardless. Him, she'll respond to eagerly. Bonding and pregnancy often occur simultaneously."

Tom's eyes widened, and he swallowed. "Does that mean Ehm'teel and Sah'larrah….bonded?"

I shook my head. "Apparently not," I said. "They both would have known. It appears she was right on the edge of her fertile period. They were training fairly rigorously for their expedition--maybe the stress suppressed her hormones."

Tom nodded thoughtfully. Ehm'teel's kits will be their half-siblings, I thought wistfully. Will any of them ever know?

"What would have happened if Sah'larrah hadn't vanished?" Joel asked.

"I'm sure he would have supported her and her kits," I said. "Beyond that, there's no way to know. Our law would not have considered them mated. Under Alliance law they could have married--but not on Sah'aar."

"Would she have been an outcast?" Joel asked. "Will she, even now?"

"Historically, there have been taboos against child-bearing outside bonding," I said. "It was considered unnatural, uncanny. In very early times…her kits would have been drowned at birth."

Joel almost dropped his mug. "You're joking!"

"I wish I was," I said. "They'd have been considered demonic. But that was a long time ago. Now…if she chooses to keep them, she will almost certainly have to leave the planet. On Terra, for example, nobody would care; single parents are common."

"What happens when she does bond?" Rae put in softly.

I shrugged. "I don't know, honey," I said. "This situation is so uncommon. It's not impossible her pregnancy will change her hormones--she might not be able to bond now."

Joel shook his head. "Ayla, my darling," he said, "I'm afraid I have to stick with my original assessment: with you Sah'aarans, it's damned complicated."

I sighed. "I'm beginning to agree with you."

"I wish Ehm'teel had come home with you," Rae said. "I'd like to meet her."

"You might get a chance before we leave," I told her. "And yes, I think you'd like her."

At that moment my stomach rumbled audibly, and I grinned in embarrassment. The hot chocolate was delicious, but it had only served to remind my belly how empty it was. "If that's the end of the question-and-answer period," I said, "I'm starving."

###

We had just finished our meal when the visiphone rang.

I don't know if it was more properly a late lunch or an early dinner; but as we ate, the sky darkened steadily toward an early, overcast dusk. We'd be absent from the family table tonight, and Father would be angry--but I could not have faced him. Not then. I polished off two large slabs of maxigrazer steak, washed down with endless glasses of milk, while Joel and the kits looked on in amazement. I'd pay for it later--the word is "reflux"--but it sure felt good going down. I wish I'd known how long it would be before my next relaxed family dinner.

By the end of the meal I was quite relaxed, going on sleepy, and the sharp buzz made me jump. I levered myself to my feet and pressed the button. "Yes?"

The face that looked out at me was unfamiliar: a male in his mid-forties, his day-robe and collar gleaming white, a worried frown on his face. "Commodore Ehm'ayla?" he said, in Sah'aaran.

"That is correct," I replied. "And you are--?"

"Dr. Sah'zemm," he said. "A resident at Sah'salaan General. Sah'raada is my patient."

My heart skipped a beat. Goddess! I thought. Is he--? And fearing the worse, the doctor's next words took me completely by surprise. "Commodore, do you know the whereabouts of his sister?"

"No," I said, rapidly shifting mental gears. "I fear not. Why? Is something wrong?"

Joel and the twins had joined me, and I heard Rae muttering a rapid-fire translation for her father. "I am not certain," Sah'zemm said. "Sah'raada regained consciousness briefly, an hour ago. His sister was summoned, and the two of them spoke for a few moments. We do not know what was said--the nurses had left the room, of course--but Ehm'teel left the hospital immediately thereafter, and has not been seen since. Those who witnessed her departure say she seemed agitated. Sah'raada is awake again, and calling for her, but she cannot be found."

By then, confusion had supplanted concern. What in the Dark--? "That is…odd," I said. "You have tried her home, of course?"

"Yes," the doctor said, "and Sah'salaan University as well. Without success. I have considered contacting the District Police."

As if Ehm'luruus would even care, I thought sourly. Fear had returned, along with, a very nasty surmise. My tail began to wave, and my claws, below the level of the camera, were digging into the desktop. I forced my tone to remain even as I said, "I fear I cannot help you, Doctor--but if she does contact me, I will certainly let her know she is needed at the hospital."

"Thank you, Commodore."

"Before you go," I said quickly, "what is Sah'raada's condition?"

He smiled. "Very good indeed," he said, "considering what he has been through. He is responding well to intravenous feeding, and may soon be strong enough for solid food. He will be weak for some time, but I expect a full recovery."

"That is well," I said. "I am glad to hear my efforts were not wasted."

"Indeed. I must return to my patient, Commodore. Thank you for your assistance."

He clicked off, and I leaned back, staring at the blank screen, drumming my claws on the desk. What could he have said, I wondered, that would upset her so? Why would she rush off, when she'd already promised to stay with him? And where could she have gone?

There was only one answer I could think of, that would tie all the evidence together…and as I contemplated it, terror tightened its grip on my throat. I leaped to my feet, so suddenly that Joel and the kits had to scramble out of the way. "Come on," I told Joel. "There's no time to lose!"

"Where are we going?" he asked in astonishment.

"The Undercity."

His eyes widened. "My God," he said. "You don't think…"

"I do," I said grimly. "And we've got to stop her. She's in no condition."

He grabbed his jacket, and we headed for the door--but the twins blocked us. "We're coming too," Tom said.

I glowered at him. Bigger than me, yes, his arms crossed and his whiskers bristling…and for once, he didn't wilt under the head of my glare. His sister stood beside him, equally determined, her arm linked with his. I'd told my father they were obedient--but I must have been thinking of two other kits. Younger ones, probably.

Finally I nodded. "All right," I said. "But stay out of the way!"

Tom flashed a grin. "Don't we always?"

###

Full circle.

To my sorrow, I'd become familiar with this place in all kinds of weather: clear and hot, cloudy and breezy, even pouring rain. But twilight was a new--and eerie--experience.

The clouds hung low and solid, and the wind was calm; the air felt almost balmy now, and so thick that I was tempted to claw it out of my way. The feeling of tension, that knife-edge sensation of something about to happen, had increased a hundredfold.

The sun had set--or so I assumed--but the sky was far from dark: the lights of the distant city reflected from the clouds, bright yellow near the horizon, fading to bruise-purple at the zenith. Against that glow, the Tatak, the rocks, and the little pillbox were sharp silhouettes, featureless and black.

I paused on the platform, letting my eyes adjust to that weird light, and Rae tugged at my sleeve. "Mother," she said softly, as if afraid to break the heavy silence, "why do you think Ehm'teel is coming here?"

"It might be my imagination," I confessed. "But I have a horrible feeling her brother told her he left Sah'larrah alive down there."

"Oh," Rae said. Her eyes widened. "Oh!"

"Exactly." The very last person she'd call for help would be Ehm'luruus--I knew that only too well. Why she hadn't called us, I could only guess; perhaps she didn't know me well enough, or thought she didn't. Ask her when we find her.

"So what do we do?" Tom asked.

"Hope we're here first--and that we can overpower her."

I was interrupted then, in the most Goddess-cursed, inconvenient way possible. The pain began in my chest and progressed rapidly up the left side of my neck, ending at the point of my jaw. Very familiar, these last few years--and occasionally so severe that if I hadn't known better, I would have suspected a heart attack. I reached down to my sash… "Damn!"

"What's wrong?" Joel asked, startled.

"I forgot my antacids," I said irritably. And that wasn't all: in fact I'd neglected to transfer any of my usual paraphernalia from the mud-spattered pouch into the clean one: my ID and credit card; my claw-file, commpak and stinger. In fact I was singularly ill-equipped for this mission. Heartburn can't kill you, I thought grimly. I hope.

Suddenly Tom grabbed my arm and pointed. "Mom, look!" he hissed.

I did--and gasped. Something was moving in the vicinity of the pillbox, a slim shadow that crept rapidly to the front of the building and vanished into the darkness.

"Ehm'teel, wait!" I cried, and took off running, Joel and the twins right behind. The brief rain had laid down the dust, leaving the path as firm as a running-track; my toe-claws, expressed for traction, flung small clods of mud in every direction.

The gloom behind the doorway was nearly impenetrable--but not quite. No one had yet repaired the damage I'd done: the stinger barrier was still dead, its humming silenced, the gate stood half-open, just as I'd left it, the chain and lock flung carelessly aside. And that was all: no one was in sight.

Cursing softly, I knelt to examine the ground. Sheltered from the rain, the dirt floor was still a sea of dust, imprinted with a confusion of footprints: mine, those of the paramedics who had loaded Sah'raada into the hover-skim…and one other set, deeply-incised and purposeful. Someone small-footed but heavily-laden had made his--or her--way to the head of the ladder, very recently indeed. I sniffed…and a familiar, strong scent filled my head.

I leaned over the hole. The darkness beneath was absolute, even to my eyes; I could see no more than a meter or so of ladder, descending into a narrow, ragged-edged hole. "Ehm'teel!" I shouted.

Answer came there none, and again I cursed. In other circumstances I might have considered my next move a little more closely--but I probably would have done it anyway. Grasping the top rung, I swung myself into the hole. "I'm going down."

"I'm going with you," Joel said. He turned to the twins "Stay here," he said firmly. "I mean that--stay here!"

They nodded--but we were soon to learn that their fingers, metaphorically speaking, had been crossed behind their backs.

I went first, with Joel a meter above. "Uh--darling," he said apprehensively, "exactly how far down are we talking about?"

I struggled to remember; it had, after all, been more than thirty years. "There's a landing about eight meters down," I told him. "That's where the shaft actually pierces the maintenance tunnel. And then another ladder to the floor. Say about fifteen meters in all."

"Are we up to this?" he asked dubiously.

"Probably not. Come on."

As we descended my eyes gradually adapted, and a rough grey wall materialized a few millimeters from my nose. Originally just a puncture-wound in the planet, the shaft had many years ago been sprayed with foam polymer to prevent cave-ins. Above me, the opening gradually shrank to a small ragged circle, dark purple, eclipsed intermittently by Joel's descending form. The hole was intended for Sah'aarans; his shoulders barely fit.

"I can't see a damn thing down here," he grumbled.

I growled softly. Among the usual contents of my sash-pouch was a powerful finger-sized flashlight. Fortune smiles upon the prepared, so they say; I didn't dare contemplate what she does to the careless.

We'd descended perhaps five meters--and the strain was beginning to tell on my knees--when I felt a vibration through the ladder. I looked up quickly. At the top of the shaft, two slim, lithe shapes had appeared: two particularly disobedient teenagers. I couldn't spare the breath to yell at them--nor could I pause to catch it, lest Joel run right over me.

Suddenly--sooner than I'd expected--the ladder ended, and I found myself standing on a creaky metal platform about three meters square, hanging from strong cables. I could see nothing, but I didn't need my eyes to tell me that we'd entered the Undercity. I could literally feel the massive space around me.

The tunnel was about six meters in diameter; roughly cylindrical, but with a flat floor. From where I stood it ran east and west, curving imperceptibly to circle the Undercity's north polar region. Other passages, of similar appearance but much greater length, lay farther below; Sah'larrah had explored many of them.

The clatter of Joel's boots, as he dropped down next to me, echoed hollowly from the unseen walls; and so too, a few seconds later, did the panting of two soon-to-be-grounded kits. "Phew," Tom said in disgust. "What's that smell?"

He was right: the Undercity stank. The tunnel-walls were damp, and upon that film of moisture a whole microbiology of mold and mildew flourished. There was nothing that could be called a breeze, but a palpable exhalation of cold, damp, noisome air blew past our faces, on its way up the shaft.

"What did I tell you two?" Joel demanded angrily.

"We know, Dad," Tom replied sheepishly. "But everybody's been talking about the Undercity. We couldn't come this close without seeing it."

Joel's tone softened. "'Seeing' has very little to do with this experience, I'd say." He sighed. "All right. We'll talk about this later." He fumbled for my hand. "What now, darling?"

I hesitated, straining my ears; but I heard nothing beyond four sets of racing heartbeats and the distant drip of water. "Let's go down," I said finally. "Maybe we'll see her light, if she's not too far ahead."

"All right," Joel said dubiously.

The second ladder, bolted to the platform's edge, descended some four meters to the floor. Reaching the bottom, I braced myself--nor was my memory inaccurate. The floor was concrete, ancient and pitted; but slimy, coated a centimeter thick with disgusting stringy ooze. The closest thing I could liken it to was stepping on a cast-up kelp frond on the beach--an experience which always made me want to wash my feet. My toe-claws expressed, but there was nothing they could bite into, my balance remained precarious. Beside me Joel slipped, cursed, and gripped my shoulder for support.

I turned to warn the kits, but my questing hand told me they were already holding each other up. Rae sniffed, and said in muffled tones, "Maybe we should have stayed on the surface…"

I shuddered again, and wrapped my arms around my abdomen: the cold and dampness were biting deep through my thin clothing. Great Goddess, I said, Why are we down here? Why are any of us down here? An overwhelming desire to flee suddenly clutched me: to go home and forget that this place even existed. For several seconds I stood poised, my hand on the ladder--but I couldn't bring myself to climb. Why? I asked myself again, but the answer was easy: To save a foolish young woman from her folly. Already I felt kinship with Ehm'teel; her relationship with Sah'larrah, and the kits she carried within her, made me feel toward her as I would a sister. I couldn't let her risk three lives for one.

With that resolve, I turned west. That was the way she must have gone: the only way she could have. About a hundred meters east, the tunnel was blocked by a cave-in that even the CF Engineering Corps would have had difficulty clearing. West, then; and, hanging onto Joel's hand, I strained my eyes until they seemed about to pop from my skull--but saw nothing. She had to have a light; it would be foolish for her to be blundering around in the dark. But to be honest, my chances of seeing it were small: it would already have vanished around the tunnel's curve. She could be no more than a hundred meters away, and still be quite invisible.

I tugged Joel's hand. "Come on," I said urgently. "She can't have that much of a head start." And with that I took off at a rapid, stumbling shuffle, my feet slipping and sliding. The sounds of squishy footsteps and labored breathing proved that Joel and the twins were following.

…But we had proceeded no more than ten meters when Joel brought me to a halt. The twins, following closely behind, bumped into us. "Ayla, wait!" Joel begged.

"Let me go!" I cried. I tried to pull free, but his grip tightened, and I subsided.

"Darling, listen to me," he said urgently. "This is crazy."

"Meaning what?"

"You and Tom think you saw someone come down here," he said. "It might have been Ehm'teel--or it might have been your imaginations."

My son and I began to protest simultaneously, but Joel rode us down. "Even if it was Ehm'teel, what can we do? We have no equipment--not even one flashlight among us. All we can do is get ourselves lost."

"So what do you want us to do?" I demanded.

"Get out of here," he said firmly. "You know I'm right. We get out of here, all of us, and contact the authorities."

"You mean Ehm'luruus?" I said with a bitter laugh. "What makes you think she'd even bother to respond?"

"Then to hell with her," Joel said. "You're a commodore: call CF Security. But the four of us get out of here, now. There's too much at stake, Ehm'ayla, You know that."

I glanced over my shoulder, and saw two pair of wide, faintly-glowing eyes. I sighed. "Agreed," I said. "Let's go."

Joel muttered something--it might have been "Thank God"--as we turned to retrace our steps. We hadn't come far, and before long a faint patch of brightness appeared over our heads, guiding us more effectively than a spaceport's chase-lights. And as it came in sight, Joel's grasp upon my wrist relaxed. Not for his own sake had he experienced this sudden attack of timidity, but for our kits'. He could not bear the thought of them being harmed. He might have continued to follow me, however reluctantly--but not with them in tow. Of course he was right, and I could only be grateful that he'd reminded me. For that reason alone, I should be glad they'd followed us: their presence had saved me from myself.

My hands quickly found the ladder. "All right," I told the kits, "up you go. We'll be right behind you."

I don't know which of them went first, but history suggests it was Tom. I waited until I was reasonably sure they'd reached the platform, then I followed them up. My legs cried out in protest, and I grimly contemplated the fourteen meters of ladder ahead. This might take a while…

I had ascended perhaps two meters, and Joel was beginning his climb, when events suddenly and violently spiraled out of control. It started with a low, subsonic rumbling, which I could easily have mistaken for the trembling of my abused muscles--but then the ladder began to dance wildly, and my feet nearly went out from under me. Something whizzed past my head, nicking my right ear. Whatever it was, it hit the floor with a splintering thwack, and Joel cried "Hey!" And then…

With a tortured scream of tearing metal, the platform above us dipped violently. The ladder bent double, and the rungs were snatched from my grasp. With a yowl I toppled backwards, directly onto Joel, and the two of us fell heavily to the floor. As we hit the slime, we slid--and a good thing too, because a second later the platform came crashing down, narrowly missing my outstretched legs. The bolts from which it had hung had torn loose, along with a huge chunk of the ceiling--but why?

I had no time to ponder that question. Suddenly the air was choked with dust, filling our eyes and throats and setting us to coughing. The vibration had increased, and all around us things were falling; chunks of concrete and stone, fist-sized and larger. They splatted to the floor, some of them striking me painfully across the back as I lay, too stunned to move. Far above I heard my daughter scream, an almost hypersonic shriek of pure terror. It cut off suddenly at Tom's shout: "I've got you, Sis! Grab my hand! I've got you!"

We heard it coming, like an ancient freight train, and this time it had a direction: from the east, where the tunnel was blocked by a massive cave-in. Joel sprang to his feet cradling me in his arms. "My God!" he cried. "The ceiling's coming down!"

From somewhere above Tom called desperately, "Mom! Dad!"

The approaching roar was deafening, and growing louder; the hail of rocks around and onto us was constant. Joel raised his head and bellowed: "Tom! Get your sister out of here! Do you hear me? Get her out of here!"

"Yes, sir!" we heard--and that was all. Joel turned and sprinted west, dragging me behind until I could get my feet underneath me. Time had finally caught up with this ancient, unmaintained, accursed structure: the ceiling was collapsing in a massive rippling chain-reaction, like a run of dominoes, pursuing us as we ran and throwing obstacles in our path, so that we stumbled and tripped with every step. We were in a race with gravity, and with a sickening rush of despair I knew we would run out of energy before the planet did.


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