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

"THE DARKNESS BENEATH" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

PART THREE: UNDERCITY

CHAPTER TEN


When I finally woke, I wished I hadn't.

It began with a voice, distant and faint, as from the bottom of a well, speaking words I couldn't understand. But somehow it opened a tiny bright hole in the black pit surrounding me, and I clawed my way through the darkness to meet it. As I did, the voice became nearer and clearer, until finally I recognized it: my daughter, speaking in tones of desperation. "Mother, please wake up!"

She was shaking me too, I realized suddenly, her hands on my shoulders; and I wished she'd stop, because it was making me seasick. The first sound that escaped my dry and reluctant throat was a low groan.

Instantly the shaking ceased. "Mother?" Rae said, close to my ear.

I lay flat on my back, on what was undoubtedly a bed of sorts, hard and narrow. A coarse blanket covered me to the neck. My body felt numb, almost disconnected, my muscles tight and unresponsive; and with the return of consciousness came a pounding headache. With a supreme effort I forced my eyes open. The light was dim, but nonetheless it seemed to sear my brain like a supernova, and I quickly clamped my eyelids shut again. My headache had now graduated to splitting.

What I'd managed to see in that brief second only increased my confusion: a small, windowless space, utterly unfamiliar. My daughter, sitting on the edge of a bunk next to mine, gazed down at me, wringing her hands, her expression a mixture of worry and fear. Judging from the dark streaks on her face, she'd recently been crying. What in the Goddess' name--?

Finally I got my voice working. "Ehm'rael," I croaked. "Where are we?"

Her tones were choked too, but for a different reason. "We're in the Undercity," she said. "I think…we're prisoners."

…And that brought it all back. The cave-in; the hours of wandering in the dark with Joel; the ladder--and the strange dark-robed figure who first named me, then shot me. A stinger, of course, set for a low-power burst. Despite the pain, my eyes flew open, wide and searching.

The room was indeed small, about the size of a junior officer's cabin aboard a Survey vessel. Nor did the similarity end there. Walls, floor and ceiling were metal, painted a dreary grey. The light came from glowing strips around the ceiling's perimeter. Apart from the two bunks, the furnishings were sparse: just a desk, a chair, and a dressing table. In the far right corner, a translucent screen concealed the head. The only visible door, to my left, was a massive, hatch-like affair, tightly closed.

…But all thoughts of my surroundings were driven from my head as I turned to my daughter. At first glance she appeared to be naked, which was not true--but close. Her only clothing was a short kilt of rough grey cloth, extending about halfway to her knees, held in place by a woven belt with a crude metal buckle. Above the waist she wore only a collar, wide, black and unadorned: most definitely not one of her own. Her mane hung loose around her shoulders, and the four tiny holes in her right ear were empty. Noticing my bemused scrutiny, she blushed and glanced away.

In alarm I struggled to sit up, and she helped me. Under the blanket I was entirely naked, apart from a dozen or so strips of dermapatch, covering my injuries. My fur and mane were clean and fluffy. Feeling a curious stiffness around my neck, I reached up, already certain what I'd find: I too wore a collar. It was not woven, but rather molded from a smooth, tough plastic, with no give at all. Try as I might, I couldn't locate the clasp.

"They don't come off," Ehm'rael told me. "I tried. They've been sealed in place somehow."

Fear and rising anger had begun to drive away my weakness; but the headache lingered. I'd been stinger-stunned just once before, in training at the Officer's Academy--when I was thirty years younger. It wasn't worse than my one and only hangover; but I would have gone a long way to avoid a repetition. I saw then that Rae was shivering violently, though the room was warm. I took into my arms. "What happened?" I asked. "How did you get here?"

For a time she couldn't answer, and she clung to me, as a drowning swimmer clutches a log, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Despite my desperate need to know what the Dark was going on, I reined in my impatience. What I held in my arms was in no way a young adult, but a young and badly-frightened girl, battling to contain her tears. Finally, her voice barely under control, she said, "I'm sorry, Mother. I've been so scared…"

"That's all right, honey," I told her gently. "Take your time." I paused. "Just one thing: has anyone harmed you?"

"No," she said. "I'm all right."

Thank the Goddess. If anyone had so much as laid a finger on her…

Finally her shuddering slowed and ceased. I let her go, and she sat back--but she continued to grasp my hands. "Better now?" I asked.

Her answering smile was somewhat watery. "Yes," she said. She took a deep breath. "It started during the cave-in," she went on. She paused and shook her head. "I'm sorry--a lot of it is…hazy."

"No hurry," I said. "It doesn't look like we're going anywhere."

She nodded. "Tom was on the upper ladder," she said slowly, "and I was waiting to follow. Then the shaking started. At first I thought it was just you and Father starting to climb…but then the platform fell out from under me."

She was trembling again, and once again I enfolded her in my arms, until the spell passed. Dear Goddess, I thought savagely, what have I done? What she'd been through, no one should suffer--least of all a sixteen-year-old girl. And it was entirely my fault.

Finally she began again. "All of a sudden I was hanging by one hand, with nothing below my feet. I would have fallen--but Tom grabbed my arm."

I nodded absently. I vividly recalled her terrified scream, and my son's shout of "I've got you!" He had probably saved her life; at very least, spared her serious injury. "Then what?"

She paused. "That's where it starts to get blurry," she said. "I heard Father tell Tom to get me out of there; he was trying to pull me up onto the ladder. I couldn't see, and I was trying to find a foothold…when the ceiling collapsed. Tom couldn't hang on; I fell." She frowned, as if only then realizing the significance of her words, and shook her head. "I mean, I must have fallen. Mustn't I? What else could have happened?"

I glanced away. I didn't have an answer; but there was no point in articulating what we both already knew. If she'd fallen into that Armageddon of tumbling rock, she wouldn't be talking to me now. Something had prevented it--but what?

"I guess something hit my head," she went on. "I don't remember anything after that."

"What happened to Tom?" I asked, dreading the answer.

She shook her head mournfully. "I don't know. I'm sorry, Mother. He isn't here--as far as I know. I don't know what happened to him."

He might have gotten out, I thought, if he climbed fast enough. Or would he have jumped in after her? "Go on."

"I woke up here." She waved her hand. "In this room. There was no one here, the door was locked, and my clothes were gone." She touched her throat. "All I had was this. I was scared to death. I shouted and pounded on the door for almost an hour." She raised her hands, and through the fur I saw the dark bruises along their sides. I rubbed them gently between my own, my guilt quotient rising another few notches.

"Finally, she came," Rae continued.

"Who's she?"

She frowned. "She called herself…Ehm'maana, I think. Yes, that was it. She was fairly young--about twenty-five, I guess. She was dressed strangely…"

"Like a Terran monk?" I suggested, and she nodded.

"Yes, that's it exactly," she agreed. She quirked a smile. "But that's not right, is it? Definitely more like a monk than a nun, though. She brought me this--" she nodded down at her strange semi-garment--"but she wouldn't answer my questions. All she'd tell me was that I was in the Undercity, that I was their 'guest,' and they weren't going to hurt me. Then she left. That was about three hours ago--I think; my wrist-chrono is gone too. Then, about half an hour ago, they brought you in." She peered closely at me. "They said you weren't badly hurt either…"

"I wasn't," I assured her. "Just stingered. By way of persuasion, I suppose."

"And that's all I know," she concluded, with a helpless shrug of her bare shoulders.

For a moment I sat silent, still clutching my daughter's bruised hands. This was it, I realized: the piece of the puzzle I hadn't even known I was looking for: the Undercity had been re-inhabited. By whom, how extensively, and for how long…those were still mysteries. But somehow, someone had brought the place back to life. Who'd a-thunk it, as Joel would have said.

Joel. An ice-cold stab of terror flashed through me, and I stiffened. "What's wrong?" Rae asked in alarm.

"Your father," I said. "I left him in the tunnels. The Goddess only knows what's happened to him…"

"Your husband and son are quite safe, Commodore. As are you and your daughter."

Engrossed in our conversation, neither Rae nor I had heard the door open. We whirled, our tails colliding in mid-lash. Her ears reddening, Rae crossed her arms over her small, fur-covered, out-of-season mammaries, tucking her hands into her armpits.

At first glance the two of them seemed so perfectly matched, like bookends, that I almost burst out laughing. Male and female, both in their mid-twenties--and obviously siblings. They stood with their arms crossed, their hands out of sight within the flowing sleeves of their rough grey robes. Their faces were half-hidden, but even so, I immediately recognized the male: he was the one who'd pulled a stinger on me. He and his sister stood calm and relaxed, with beatific smiles shining forth from beneath their hoods .

It was the male who had spoken, and as I sat gaping, he went on: "Welcome to the Undercity, Commodore. I trust we have caused you a minimum of inconvenience--?"

"Who are you?" I demanded. I might have stood, pulling myself indignantly to my full height--but I didn't: stark naked, or wrapped in a blanket, I would have cut a most unimposing figure.

"I am Sah'rajj," the male said with a bow. His voice was slightly hoarse, with a raucous edge. "And this is my sister Ehm'maana. We are the leaders of this community; our people are the spiritual--if not literal--descendants of the builders of the Undercity; those who history terms the Dreamers."

With that he cast back his hood--and I heard myself gasp. Rae shied violently, retreating into the circle of my arms, and I couldn't blame her. No wonder Sah'rajj wore that long, all-concealing robe: our host--or captor--was that rarest of Sah'aarans, less common even than a blackfur: an albino. His fur was translucent white, like fibers of spun glass; his nose was bright pink, and his eyes--small, weak and watery--were blood-red. Nor was that all: for some bizarre reason he had cut his mane and sideburns to a bristling fuzz, even with the surrounding fur. The "roundhead" effect thus produced was both bizarre and unpleasant, making his ears appear huge and his cranium tiny. He looked like a bleach-dipped Terran housecat.

It was some time before I could force my tongue to work. "What are we doing here?" I demanded finally.

Ehm'maana uncovered her head then. She was normally-colored, her fur golden-brown with a blush of red around her muzzle; her mane--far too short, in an unattractive squared-off style--was orange. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, her tone mild--but a disquieting brightness shone from the depths of her eyes. "As I explained to your lovely daughter," she said, "at the moment you are our guests."

"That's not an answer," I said.

"As for the rest," she went on, her voice hardening slightly, "you must ask yourself. It is not we who trespassed on your domain, Commodore. You placed yourself in danger--and your family as well. We saved you; for honor's sake we could do no less. If not for us, you might have died in the tunnels."

She had a point, I had to admit--and in any case, I wouldn't have gotten the best of an argument just then. Rae remained silent, her eyes darting uncertainly between Ehm'maana and me. "You say my husband and son are safe," I said. "What exactly do you mean?"

Sah'rajj spoke again, in measured tones, as if reading a story for the Interplanetary News. "Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams was found by the District Police, just before midnight, outside Dr. Sah'larrah's former access to the Undercity. He was suffering from shock, but was otherwise unharmed, and was returned to the home of his grandparents, where he is resting under sedation. Approximately six hours later, Mr. Joel Aaron Abrams was located some five kilometers west, at an airshaft apparently overlooked when the Undercity was sealed a century ago. He was suffering from a fractured wrist, and minor lacerations. He is currently under observation at Sah'salaan General, with a suspected concussion. It seems he cannot remember how he reached the surface."

Do tell, I thought. Tom may well have escaped under his own power--but not Joel. Like me, my husband had obtained some unexpected assistance. Assuming, of course, these two were telling the truth; I had no way of knowing. Nor was it lost on me that Sah'rajj seemed remarkably well-informed about events on the surface. "Thank you," I said. "That eases my mind greatly."

Sah'rajj bowed again, my sarcasm sliding right past him. "It pleases me to do so, Commodore."

If they were indeed telling the truth…then something about this situation was not making sense. Exactly what, I had no idea--yet. File it away, until my head clears…

"You must have many questions," Ehm'maana said smoothly. "They will be answered in due course. But in the meantime, you have had a difficult experience--and you must be hungry."

Rae's eyes lit up, and my stomach rumbled loudly. As near as I could figure, neither of us had eaten in more than ten hours. "Yes," I said. "We are."

"That is easily cured," Ehm'maana said with a smile. She nodded at the blanket that covered me. "And we shall provide you with suitable clothing as well." With that she and her brother departed, as silently as they'd arrived, and I heard the ominous click of a lock as the door closed behind them. "Guests," they'd called us--but in my experience, that word connotes a voluntary relationship. Rae might be right…

My daughter turned wide and fearful eyes on me. "Mother," she said, "what have we gotten ourselves into?"

I embraced her. "I wish I knew, honey," I said. "I really wish I knew."

###

The Undercity didn't go in for gourmet cuisine.

Ehm'maana and Sah'rajj returned less than fifteen minutes later, bearing covered trays; and Ehm'maana had a small grey bundle draped over her shoulder. In silence they deposited those items on the bunk, bowed, and departed; and once again I heard the snap of the lock.

I'd spent that time examining our prison. I don't know why; it just seemed the right thing to do--or perhaps I was simply pacing my cage, like the proverbial tiger. I explored every square millimeter, often on hands and knees, while Rae watched in fascination.

At best, the results were inconclusive. There was indeed no other way out; the ventilation ducts were only centimeters wide. I found no cameras or listening devices--but even so, I couldn't shake the feeling we were being bugged. I was warned by the rattle of the key in the lock, and when the door opened I was sitting motionless at the foot of my bunk, wrapped in my blanket, the very picture of innocent patience. Not that our captors seemed to care.

Despite my raging hunger, I clothed myself first--not that it took very long. Shaking out the bundle, I found a kilt and belt, identical to my daughter's: a one-size-fits-all proposition, apparently. But that wasn't all: unlike poor Rae, I wasn't being forced to go topless. It wasn't much--just a pair of sashes, made of that same grey homespun, stitched together into a rough double-X--and the fit was far from snug; but the coverage was adequate--as long as I made no sudden moves.

Rae's eyes narrowed as I slipped the thing over my head. "Why didn't they give me one of those too?" she demanded.

"I don't know, honey," I said. "My advanced age, maybe. It's yours if you want it."

She looked tempted--but she shook her head. "That's all right," she said. She smiled impishly. "You need it more than I do. And I don't think they'd like that. They don't do anything by accident."

"I have a feeling you're right," I said. "Let's see what they feed their 'guests.'"

I more than halfway expecting to find emergency-ration bars of some kind--and as such, I was both surprised and intrigued.

Both trays held a single battered metal plate, as well as a knife and fork, more Terran-style than Sah'aaran. Surplus, probably. Rae's was filled with meat, a whitish, fine-grained variety I hadn't seen in years. And that was all: no sauce, no seasoning at all. Hesitantly she cut a small cube and popped it into her mouth. "It could use some pepper," she said. "But it's pretty good--whatever it is."

This was something she'd never experienced before, nor her brother either: Sah'aaran "rooter," a compact creature very much like a Terran pig. It's not widely exported; I'd never seen the real thing on Terra. For Joel's sake, my mother had discreetly kept it off the menu during our visit--though he was nowhere near orthodox enough to care.

My own meal turned out to be fish: several firm-fleshed pink fillets. Once again a native species, a freshwater variety similar to Terran catfish. The presence of those two foodstuffs in this place--and obviously fresh, never frozen--fascinated me. It implied a great many things about the Undercity's new society. Later, I'd have to give that some thought; but for the moment I was interested only in not starving to death. We ended up sharing, Rae and I: she sampled a bit of my fish, and I accepted some of her rooter. Both were good, though they could definitely have used some seasoning. To drink, we had only water, in the tin cups that hung above the washbasin. I forced myself to eat slowly: my antacids might as well have been back on Terra.

As we ate, my head gradually cleared, and the last of my stinger-induced lethargy faded. And as my strength returned, so did my native feistiness. I felt ready for anything--most especially answers to the million questions banging around in my brain.

My unease had grown steadily too; the sense that something wasn't adding up…and suddenly I knew exactly what it was. Both Joel and I had been rescued from the service ducts--but while he'd been taken to the surface, I'd been delivered here, along with my daughter. Why? And more: I could understand why they'd given us new clothing--my day-robe had been shredded, and Rae's had no doubt been damaged as well--but why those non-removable collars? I didn't like the word "prisoners"--but I was rapidly becoming convinced Rae was right. But if so, why? Why us?

We were leaning back, resting, when the door opened again. I glanced up in irritation. Don't these people ever knock? But that thought was followed by another, far darker: jailers never do.

Our visitor was Ehm'maana; alone this time. She smiled. "I trust the meals were to your liking?" she asked, indicating our cleaned plates with a nod.

"Not bad," I said casually, "though perhaps a little bland."

She nodded sadly. "True enough," she admitted. "Such things will come in time; at the moment we must be content simply to feed ourselves. Even that has proved distressingly difficult." She brightened. "I have come to offer you a tour of the Undercity."

Rae and I leaped to our feet. "We're ready," I said.

Ehm'maana held up a forestalling hand. "One moment," she said. "Before we depart, there is one…requirement."

"Such as?" I asked cautiously.

She rummaged deep in her flowing sleeve. Must have pockets in there, I thought. Very handy. That's how Chinese Mandarins used to carry their Pekinese…But rather than a dog, she brought out two small black, floppy objects, made of the same tough polymer as our collars. I frowned. Short straps linking a pair of loops…Suddenly I understood, and my claws expressed. "Handcuffs?" I demanded indignantly. "Is that how you treat your 'guests'?"

Rae gasped and shrunk back, clutching at me; I wrapped an arm around her waist. Ehm'maana returned my furious glare blandly. "Until they have proved their trustworthiness--yes. We deeply regret the necessity, but you are strangers to us. Our community is fragile; a single out-of-control individual can do irreparable harm. This we know, all too well. I will not force you: I merely present you with a choice. You wish to see our Undercity, and to have your questions answered. It is either these--" she dangled the cuffs-- "or you remain here, unenlightened."

I stared at her for a moment--then sighed. "All right," I said heavily. "But only me. I will be responsible for my daughter's behavior."

Ehm'maana shook her head. "No," she said. "I do not doubt that you mean what you say--but I cannot afford to be wrong. Either you both submit, or you both remain here. I will not barter our security."

I hesitated, in an agony of indecision--but it was Rae who broke the impasse. She brushed past me, raising her hands. "It's all right, Mother," she said. "I'm not afraid."

I could do nothing. I didn't want to watch, but I forced myself, making sure the cuffs didn't irritate her bruised hands. Rae's eyes were the size of platters, her tail lashing, as Ehm'maana slipped the loops onto her wrists and snugged them down, clicking the mag-seal bars into place. I remained silent, but inside I was cursing--not only Ehm'maana, but myself. The entire Alliance was not large enough to contain my guilt. To see that beautiful, brave, blameless girl manacled like a common criminal…someone will pay for this, I vowed. Somehow, someday, they will.

When my turn came I glanced away, my rage and shame skyrocketing. The cuffs were form-fitting, and not terribly uncomfortable--but they were inescapable. At least Ehm'maana hadn't insisted in securing our hands behind our backs; then I truly would have felt helpless. Only once in fifty-two years had such a thing happened to me; never in my worst nightmares had I expected it to happen again. It couldn't compare to having my claws cut off--but almost.

"This should not be necessary for long," Ehm'maana assured us placidly. "Exactly how long, however, depends upon your behavior. This way, please."

She turned, and Rae and I fell into step behind her. The tour had cost us too much to pass up now. We were not able to hold hands, as we might have wished; but Rae stayed close beside me, and at times rested her head on my shoulder.

The Undercity was conducive to claustrophobia--and to confusion. Our cell opened into a long, narrow corridor, dimly lit by glow-strips, and lined with several dozen identical closed doors. Waiting for us there were two more Undercity citizens; guards, I presumed. Males both, young and muscular, they stood with their arms crossed over their chests and tough, no-nonsense scowls on their faces. They wore kilts and collars, and nothing else; and police-issue stingers --which civilians aren't supposed to have--hung from their belts. Like Sah'rajj, their manes had been trimmed to fuzz. Ehm'maana turned right, leading us briskly down the corridor, and the guards followed closely behind us, silent and attentive. Combined with the handcuffs, that seemed like overkill--unless it was intended primarily solely to intimidate.

I cleared my throat. "Am I permitted to ask questions?"

"Of course, Commodore," Ehm'maana said grandly. "I am here to serve."

That, I doubted--but no point in saying so. "Where exactly are we?" I asked. "What part of the Undercity is this?"

She made a sweeping gesture. "We inhabit the heart of the structure," she said. "What was, in earlier times, the control and maintenance section. As you have no doubt surmised, what we see here are dormitories, originally built for the workers; there are several corridors of them. This area was not intended for long-term habitation; we have had to make do as best we can."

I nodded, my mind working furiously, struggling to remember the maps and blueprints that accompanied Sah'larrah's monographs. If I'd known I'd end up down here, I would have examined them more thoroughly… The Undercity, I recalled, was spherical, but flattened at the poles--and arranged in layers, like an onion. The control section lay at the core, surrounded by the residential, commercial, manufacturing, and agriculture areas, out to the service tunnels at the periphery. As living space, the core would have been comparable to a battleship's engine hull; in other words, damned uncomfortable. "What about the habitat sections?" I asked.

"At present, they are unusable," she said. "Due to time and neglect. The infrastructure is also lacking: we would have great difficulty supplying those areas with water, power, heat and ventilation. In the future, we hope to reclaim the entire Undercity--but that may be many decades' work."

"How many people are down here?"

"Three hundred fifteen," she said. "We can expect no more recruitment from outside; but--" she quirked a smile-- "we are expecting several increases from within, which pleases us greatly. One half our population is adult, the other half juveniles, from teenagers to infants."

"I see."

The dormitory corridor intersected then with a larger, more brightly-lit way. Our entourage turned left, and as we walked I began to see what kind of life these people led. It was not, I fear, a particularly inviting existence.

The hallways were entirely utilitarian: semi-circular in outline, grey-painted and entirely unadorned, except for the hatch-like doors and the undisguised runs of conduit and ductwork. It was a little like living in a mine-shaft--or a bomb shelter. Many of the doors had been propped open, or removed entirely, and I peered curiously into the spaces beyond.

The first room we passed was long and wide, with a huge doorway; at one time it had certainly been a warehouse of some kind--but now it was a mess hall. It was filled to overflowing with circular metal tables and uncomfortable-looking chairs, and at its head I saw the usual counters, warming trays, and racks of trays and utensils. No doubt the kitchen was nearby, out of sight. The illumination was harsh, and came from a combination of strip-lights and dangling floods. The walls were entirely undecorated: Nothing had been done to relieve the ugliness of the meandering conduits and ventilation shafts. I looked, and shuddered; and I felt Rae shiver too. How can they live like this? I wondered. It would quickly drive me insane--and I'd always believed that to be an integral part of the Sah'aaran psyche.

And that was only the beginning. Over the course of an hour, Ehm'maana led us on a bewildering tour through a maze of corridors and passages, all identical--and all entirely unmarked. Very quickly I became hopelessly lost, and so did Rae: several times I saw her gazing around, in bewilderment. If Ehm'maana had been leading us in circles, we would never have known. Obviously, though, she knew the place like her own claws.

"How long have you been here?" I asked, partway through the tour.

"My brother and I, and some of our associates, conceived the project more than six years ago," Ehm'maana said. "Two years later, we began to move equipment and personnel inside." She shuddered. "Not a pleasant period, Commodore. Our facilities are still somewhat primitive--as you have noticed--but compared to those first few months, we live in Sybaritic luxury. It is only very recently that we have been able to sever contact with the surface."

Her words contained multiple implications, but I lacked time and concentration to think them through. File it away, under "Mysteries"--though that file was already full to bursting.

"It's warm down here," I commented. I sniffed. "The air is fresh. And obviously you have power. How do you manage?"

"I am an engineer," she said, not without pride. "And most of the necessary equipment was already here, though in a state of disrepair. Our electricity is provided now as it was long ago: by geothermal energy. A simple but elegant system. You may know that as one digs into the crust of a tectonically-active world, the temperature grows higher the deeper one goes. At the time of the Undercity's construction, two shafts, about four kilometers deep, were driven beneath the structure. One was lined with thermocouples, which convert heat directly into electricity. That system was still in place, but only one quarter of the thermocouples remain operational. This has been adequate for our needs, especially as the strip-lights in the corridors are self-powered. The other shaft is lined with pipes, through which a fluid is circulated, providing heat."

"And the air?"

"Originally, the Undercity was equipped with chemical air-scrubbers," Ehm'maana said. "Unfortunately they were beyond repair. Some manner of purification was needed, however: too many of the old ventilation shafts have been blocked, and cannot be reopened. The best solution turned out to be biological. In various places throughout our inhabited areas, we have set up hydroponic tanks full of Terran blue-green algae. These tanks provide oxygen, purify our water, and provide a useful food-source for our animals."

Again I nodded. That was another question: food--an area in which we Sah'aarans are uniquely challenged. A human could survive on a wholly vegetarian diet; possibly even on that blue-green algae alone. But we cannot. The inhabitants of the Undercity would need to raise some kind of crops--but those plants would have to be cycled through animals to make them edible. An environmental economist would term that inefficient--and of course he'd be right--but you do what your evolution demands.

We passed a large number of rooms, large and small--but Ehm'maana allowed us only a brief glance at each, and so they soon blurred together. We saw hydroponic farms, where tanks of algae, grain and grass, baked under blazing floodlights; machine-shops, where scrap metal was recycled into furniture and tools--mostly, to my surprise, by old-fashioned hammer-and-anvil blacksmith techniques; and the factory where that ubiquitous grey cloth was woven, from plant fiber, on hand-looms. In an adjacent work-room, bedding and garments were cut and sewn--by hand, no less. And finally, the animal pens. Far from the dormitories, a number of corridors had been fenced into makeshift feedlots. There were no maxigrazers, alas--far too large--but we did see hundreds of rooters, thousands of Terran chickens and turkeys, and dozens of hutches full of bush-furs, a small Sah'aaran mammal not unlike a rabbit. To those not used to it--such as my daughter and myself--the smell was overpowering, and we were glad to retreat. The seething fish-tanks were more interesting, but made me homesick: they reminded me too strongly of Joel's beloved koi ponds.

In describing the place, I must not neglect the people. Immediately after leaving the dormitory section, we were surrounded--and a fascinating bunch they were. The inhabitants had apparently been warned, and didn't seemed surprised to see us. Giving us a quick smile and a few quiet words of greeting, they went on about their business. A little too pointedly, though, they avoided looking at our handcuffs. (Which, to be honest, I'd found all too easy to forget, unless I made an overly-expansive gesture.) The citizens were busy, determinedly so; always either engaged in a task or hurrying toward the next. All of them seemed entirely healthy--and happy. That at least I found hard to believe.

Physically, they were a diverse lot--their fur-color and markings, represented all eight of Sah'aar's continents--but their clothing varied only by age. The preadolescent children wore none; that at least was typical. The teenagers, both male and female, wore only kilts--a fact which seemed to lower my daughter's embarrassment level several degrees. The adult males also wore only a kilt--though in the workshops I saw a few heavy aprons. To that basic outfit, the adult females added those loose X-shaped double sashes. No jewelry was in evidence--not even bonding-anklets.

There was one constant: every individual, from infants to adults, wore a thick, black, non-removable collar. Even Ehm'maana: it was visible below her thrown-back hood. The females wore their manes square-cut, less than shoulder-length; and without exception, the males had been "boot-camp buzzed," to use an old Terran term. The reason behind that I couldn't fathom, but the sight of all those "bare" skulls made me ill. Good thing Tom isn't here…

We had just peeked into a classroom--and been amused to see a dozen fuzzy, naked ten-year-olds, their tails stiffly at attention, obediently reciting their lessons to a smiling young teacher--when the trouble started.

The pain began in my chest, as always, and swiftly climbed both sides of my neck, so suddenly and severely that I found myself gasping for breath, leaning on my daughter for support. Ehm'maana noticed, of course--she noticed everything. "Is something wrong, Commodore?" she asked in concern

"Yes," I snapped, irritated by my body's disloyalty--and that I'd been forced to reveal my infirmity. I swallowed hard, which sometimes helped…and sometimes didn't. "I have a chronic digestive problem," I explained, "which has decided to act up. Usually I just take an antacid…"

She nodded. "Which you do not have," she finished. "There is no need for you to suffer; please follow me."

She led us to a room a short distance away, while the pain progressed rapidly to the "please let me die!" stage. Without a doubt, it was the most remarkable place we had visited thus far--and at the same time, the most familiar. Sickbay, I thought, with a stab of despair--and I was right. I'd smelled the disinfectant two corridors away.

The room was long, but narrow; I have no idea what it might once have been used for. To the right lay the hospital section, such as it was: a dozen bunks, all unoccupied now, their blankets crisp and tightly tucked. In the center lay the clinic, with three exam tables and several glass-fronted cabinets full of dangerous-looking equipment. On the left was a pharmacy of sorts: it looked like a cross between a 19th-Century Terran apothecary and Dr. Frankenstein's basement. In the corner stood a large workbench, solid Tatak, its black-asphalt top almost hidden beneath an astonishing collection of museum-pieces. Mortar and pestle, balance-beam scale; retorts, beakers, pipettes, test-tubes, flasks…even an antique optical microscope that was probably worth a fortune. Behind, the floor-to-ceiling shelves were crammed with jars, bottles, and small bins. I squinted to read the hand-lettered labels…and my claws expressed. Herbs? I thought, outraged. Is this some twisted joke?

At first glance, the place appeared deserted; but as we entered, leaving the guards outside, a figure stepped smiling around the workbench. He was short and slim, almost scrawny, as if too preoccupied to eat regularly. Like most of the adults we'd seen so far, he appeared to be in his mid-twenties. He wore the ubiquitous kilt and collar, and also a much-stained, much-patched grey apron. His mane stood half a finger's width from his skull; too busy to get it cut, no doubt.

"Hello, Ehm'maana," he said, his voice unexpectedly high-pitched, almost piping. He bowed. "We have guests, I see."

"Indeed," Ehm'maana said. "Honored ones. This is Commodore Ehm'ayla, and her daughter Ehm'rael. And this is Dr. Sah'jinn, our physician."

I wasn't in the mood to be polite, for several reasons; but I forced myself. "I am pleased to meet you, Doctor."

"Likewise," he said. He glanced at my hands, and his whiskers twitched in surprise; after that he peered resolutely into my eyes. I'd learned a new rule of etiquette: it isn't polite to stare at someone's handcuffs. "You might not know," he went on, "but I have already met you, and your daughter as well. I treated your injuries after you arrived."

…And done a good job of it, too. I bowed. "I am grateful."

"The Commodore has a more pressing problem," Ehm'maana said. "Perhaps you can help her--?"

"I will certainly try," he said grandly. "What can I do for you, Commodore?"

I hesitated. As I grew older, I found my confidence in physicians steadily declining--but Sah'jinn was the only game in town, and the pain had become unendurable. Briefly I described my symptoms, and he nodded sagely. "Hiatus hernia?"

I nodded. "It was diagnosed some years ago…"

He frowned. "And you have done nothing about it--?"

"No." That single word would have to do, in place of a lengthy and tiresome explanation.

"But in the meantime," he said with a smile. Ducking behind the bench, he studied the shelves for a moment, pulled down several small bottles, decanted their contents into the mortar, and began to grind. I watched dubiously.

Hiatus hernias are common to Sah'aarans and humans both. The esophagus, which carries food to the stomach, passes through an opening in the diaphragm. Due to age--or sometimes injury--that hole can become enlarged, allowing the stomach to protrude into the chest-cavity. Which usually causes severe heartburn--and that's no laughing matter: the pain can be severe enough to make death seem a viable alternative.

I'd always felt much the same about my hernia as Admiral Ehm'rael had toward her recent lung troubles. To have it repaired was quite possible--but would leave me flat on my back for many days. And when you combine that with my abhorrence of hospitals… My damnable stubbornness, I suppose: I'd suffered far too long, popped too many antacids. Joel had spent the better part of a decade trying--without success--to convince me to have the surgery, before giving up in despair.

Finally Sah'jinn handed me a beaker. Accepting it in both hands--the only way I could--I peered at its turbid contents: a suspension of finely-ground herbs in water. It looked like a stagnant pond, and smelled like low tide…but it couldn't make me feel much worse. I took a deep breath and drank it down.

The stuff tasted much as I'd expected--which is to say, foul--but that mattered not at all, because it worked. The pain vanished instantly, like switching off a light. Not even the strongest prescription antacids had ever acted that quickly, or that thoroughly.

With a smile of gratitude, I passed the beaker back to the doctor. "May I have the recipe?" I asked.

For some strange reason, Sah'jinn hesitated before replying, glancing fearfully at Ehm'maana. What's gotten into him? I wondered. Did I ask for a trade secret? She returned his gaze steadily, and finally he nodded--but his expression remained troubled. "Of course, Commodore," he said smoothly, as if there'd been no interruption at all. "I will see you are well-supplied with the mixture as well."

We took our leave from the young physician then, and I found myself wondering--now that I could concentrate on something other than my agony--about his methods. During the cave-in, I'd suffered a number of small injuries: cuts, bruises, and scrapes mainly. I'd woken to find them all treated, and quite professionally too. Mostly with dermapatches--but a few deeper gashes had been neatly sealed, using an epidermal stapler. If Sah'jinn had that much modern technology at his disposal, what in the Goddess' name was he doing fooling around with herbal folk-remedies? Though it's difficult to argue with success…

"Feeling better, Commodore?" Ehm'maana asked, as we collected our guards and headed up the corridor.

"Much," I said. "Thank you."

"We hope to make you as comfortable as possible," she said. "Come. Our tour is over for now--though you may examine any area we have visited in greater detail later, if you choose. My brother is waiting for us in our office."

She set out again, and Rae and I obediently fell in behind her. We had little choice: we could not even have found our way back to our room unassisted. As we walked, I gazed sidelong at my daughter. During the tour she had remained silent, apparently content to let me ask the questions--in fact she'd spoken not a word since the handcuffs went on. She'd remained by my side, her arm pressed against mine; and I'd had little attention to spare on her--but now I was dismayed to see that her face wore a haunted, overwhelmed look, much as it had the day of our arrival on Sah'aar. Hardly surprising: once again, things were happening too fast for her to absorb. But there was an undercurrent as well, one which sent another stab of guilt through my heart. I saw it mostly in her eyes: they were flat, lusterless…and hopeless. I knew exactly why. "Prisoners," she'd said; and everything we'd experienced so far had only served as confirmation.

I leaned over to whisper into her ear, in Terran. "Are you all right, honey?"

Her returning smile was wan. "I will be, I guess," she said, also in her more familiar language. "But I really, really want to go home."

You and me both, I thought, cursing the fate that prevented me from hugging her. She didn't mean the surface, I knew, or Father's house: she meant home, that two-story neo-cubist structure on Ocean View in Pacific Grove. We'd been away less than two weeks, but already it seemed like something from another life. "We will," I told her. I knew that Ehm'maana could hear every word, if she chose; let her. "I swear."

She smiled again, a little more strongly, and nodded. "I know we will."

We fell silent then, continuing our forced march. As might be expected, my mind was occupied constantly by thoughts of Tom and Joel. I could only imagine what they were going through. Physically, they'd be fine. Tom was uninjured, according to Sah'rajj; apparently he was as quick a climber as Joel had thought. And as for my mate…I knew the extent of his injuries, and none of them were life-threatening. The fractured wrist would trouble him longest, but even that was relatively minor. The "concussion" was pure fiction. Of course he couldn't remember how he'd reached the surface--not after being stingered.

No: their torments would be purely emotional. Especially Tom: he loved his sister, and to watch helplessly as she slipped from his grasp…no wonder he'd needed sedation. He and Joel would be mourning Rae as dead. Thank the Goddess, they'd have each other, and my family would move Bright and Dark to help them--even Father. For the moment, I would have to content myself with the fact that they were alive and well. I couldn't afford the distraction of worrying about them.

We'd reached the very center of the Undercity by then: the place where all the conduits, ducts and corridors converged, as all roads once did at Rome. And if so, that meant we were close to the one place Ehm'maana hadn't shown us, hadn't even mentioned--an omission I regarded as quite deliberate. And at that moment, as if in confirmation of my suspicions, we rounded a corner--and for the first time saw a door with armed guards.

The portal itself was unremarkable: just another massive metal hatch, firmly closed. But the two who guarded it obviously meant business. Male and female, they stood stiffly at attention--even their tails hung perfectly still--their hands resting on their stingers. As we passed they glared at us with preternatural alertness and a touch of suspicion.

"Is that by any chance the main control center?" I asked innocently.

Ehm'maana paused, obviously debating with herself. She might have lied, or prevaricated; but either would have been tantamount to an admission, and she knew it. Finally she said, "Yes, Commodore, it is."

"May we be permitted to look?"

Again she paused. "I think it best if it remains off-limits for now," she said. "As it is for most of our populace."

So even they have secrets. Somehow, strangely, that thought pleased me. "As you say," I replied meekly. But as we passed, I gave the door a last, lingering gaze. The answers to a great many questions lay behind it, I suspected--but how to get past those guards, I had no idea.

The room Ehm'maana led us to was not far from the control center, and was probably the only one in the Undercity still used for its original purpose; which is to say, an office. It was about the size of my own in Monterey; and contained no more than a pair of desks and several chairs. Even here, no attempt at decoration or personalization had been made: there were no paintings, no sculptures, not even a single holo. None of the things I considered essential to my sanity. The ceiling-lights were dim and soft, a concession no doubt to Sah'rajj's weak eyes.

He was waiting for us, seated behind a grey metal desk, and as we entered he extended his hands in welcome. His muzzle was short, I saw now; his chin weak--and the teeth exposed by his smile were small. "Ah, Commodore!" he said. "And the charming Ehm'rael. Please, be seated."

Rae and I settled uncomfortably into his guest chairs, our hands in our laps, while Ehm'maana circled the desk to stand beside her brother. Squinting at the handcuffs, Sah'rajj shook his head in commiseration. "No doubt my sister has apologized for our security precautions," he said. "And I do so as well. Recently it has been demonstrated to us, all too clearly, the damage that one disgruntled individual can do. We cannot risk that again."

What does that mean? I wondered. Who among them would have been so upset as to wreck the place? Everyone I'd seen so far had seemed contented, happy even--as bizarre as that was. So--an outsider? A vision came to my mind then, of a young man half-dead from exhaustion and dehydration, and my tail began to lash. But I had no proof, nothing to support the accusations I might have hurled, so for the moment I kept them to myself. "In my daughter's case especially," I told him, "your precautions were unnecessary. But I do appreciate your community's fragility."

He nodded. "I am grateful for your understanding," he said. "And I assure you, it will be rewarded." He leaned back. "So tell me," he went on. "What do you think of our Undercity?"

"An impressive accomplishment," I said truthfully. "To have brought so much of the structure back to life, after so long."

"A long and difficult process," he said, "as my sister has no doubt told you. Too long we struggled and sacrificed--but those days are behind us now. We have turned the corner. Not mere existence, but true prosperity, lies ahead. Of that I am entirely certain."

Of that, I was much less certain. I hadn't slept with an engineer these past twenty years for nothing, and from what I'd seen, the Undercity was far more than merely fragile. In fact it was a disaster waiting to happen. Too many things could go wrong: the power could fail, or the plumbing, the ventilation, the heat…any of which would be disastrous. They relied too heavily on equipment more than a century old, long-neglected and patched back together. The thermocouples that provided their electricity seemed especially vulnerable.

"Are there any more questions we can answer?" Sah'rajj said. "Feel free to ask."

"Just one," I said. "What's the point?"

Brother and sister frowned in confusion. "Pardon me?" Sah'rajj said.

"This place was originally built as a solution to Sah'aar's population problem," I explained. "The idea was to stuff the people underground, and leave the surface for agriculture."

"That is so," Sah'rajj agreed.

"But that was more than a hundred years ago," I said. "Our population is stable now, and we have interstellar commerce: we import much of our food, and our own production has become much more land-efficient. So why re-inhabit the place?"

Sah'rajj paused, as if mustering his arguments. Then he said, "Your points are of course valid, Commodore. And I know better than to argue history with an archaeologist of your standing. I agree, the conditions which motivated the construction of the Undercity have long since passed. But it is my belief that the cure may have been worse than the illness."

"I don't understand."

"We Sah'aarans are in the jaws of a trap," he said. "One of our own making. Nor are we alone: most Alliance worlds share our fate. Dependence upon high technology: it is one of Terra's chief--and least welcome--exports."

Since I considered myself a citizen of Earth, that was something I could take personally. "I still don't understand," I said. "From where I stand, technology makes possible a standard of living--and a degree of longevity--that would otherwise be impossible."

"To a certain extent, that is true," he said. "And in any case, it is inevitable that you would believe so. You are a Combined Forces officer, used to depending on the very highest technology. But I ask you: at what cost have these things been purchased? Our lives are enmeshed in an engineering web--and if one thread breaks, the rest will inevitably fail, possibly precipitating the collapse of civilization."

Funny, I could say the same thing about his beloved Undercity. "I've heard this before," I said. "Do you advocate a return to the land, then? The pastoral idyll?"

"Not at all," he said emphatically. "That of course is impossible. The price would be too great: our longevity, our art and culture. This I know; I am not a Luddite, as the Terrans have it. No: what I advocate is the appropriate use of technology."

"Meaning what?"

"I recognize that not every problem requires a high-tech solution. Some do; but in many cases there are less expensive, less dangerous, less damaging alternatives. Our purpose here is to develop and demonstrate those alternatives--a challenge we have taken upon ourselves. This facility was constructed more than a century ago, using the highest technology then available. It is our purpose to rebuild it, using the appropriate tools for each particular task."

"Two examples, Commodore," Ehm'maana put in. "Medical care, for one: your own case. You were brought to Dr. Sah'jinn with a number of minor injuries. If we rejected all high technology, he might have treated them as our ancestors did, with needle, thread and gauze bandages. But to do so would have prolonged your healing, and exposed you to needless discomfort, and the possibility of infection. And so he used the modern alternatives: dermapatches, and an epidermal stapler. Your wounds will heal much faster, and more cleanly.

"But consider your gastric distress," she went on. "He might have offered you a synthetic drug of some kind--but with his knowledge of herbology, he was able to relieve you just as effectively with natural products."

I nodded. "I begin to see."

"And another example," she said. "As I mentioned, the Undercity was built with massive and complex air-purification equipment. We have accomplished the same ends through photosynthesis--and at a great savings in energy."

I glanced away. What could I say? Most modern civilizations have had their "Appropriate Technology" movements. In general, they all promoted the same arguments: logical, compelling…and ultimately worthless. Nowhere in the Alliance has the juggernaut called Engineering ever been stopped, nor even slowed down for long. And if this group aimed to show us the error of our ways, they were going about it in a rather peculiar fashion.

"Not being an engineer," I said, "I'm not really qualified to comment on your plans." I glanced at Rae; she sat silent, listening in evident fascination. "But my daughter and I arrived here against our will--and that tends to dominate my thinking."

"And we do very much regret it," Ehm'maana said. "But as I said before, the ultimate responsibility is not ours."

I shook my head. "Forgive me, but I don't think I believe that."

They exchanged a worried glance. "I do not understand," Ehm'maana said.

"Too many things about this situation don't make sense," I said. "Or rather, they do--but only if we assume a particular set of circumstances. Ehm'rael and I were almost certainly brought here deliberately; I might even say we were kidnapped. The only question is why."

Sah'rajj smiled, but his white tail and dun-colored claws gave him away. "And what brings you to that conclusion?" he asked with forced amusement.

"You yourself, Sah'rajj," I said. "When you found me in the service tunnels, you made no attempt to persuade me to accompany you; you simply shot me. Obviously, you wanted to separate me from my husband. You knew I'd have insisted--demanded--that he be brought along. Ehm'rael and I are here because you want us to be--not because we were 'trespassing.' I wouldn't be surprised if you wanted my son as well…but he was too fast for you."

For a long moment Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana remained silent, and I returned their stare evenly. Beside me, Rae's eyes darted fearfully between their faces and mine. I was well aware of the danger attending my challenging words: my daughter and I were handcuffed and powerless, in a place we couldn't leave without help. Perhaps I oughtn't to be antagonizing our hosts…

Finally Sah'rajj sighed. "You are indeed as intelligent as we were led to believe, Commodore," he said softly, almost apologetically. "And you are quite correct: we did bring you here--and your daughter as well. From this moment on, you are both members of this community. Neither of you will ever leave it again."

Rae cried out, as if physically struck; and even though I'd expected those very words, still they stung, like a slap in the face. "I see," I said mildly. "And Joel--?"

"We regret the necessity of the separation," Ehm'maana said. "But this community is not set up to support a human. Our foodstuffs, our environment, are geared toward Sah'aarans."

"I see," I said again. Her words were logical--and a lie. I didn't know why they'd chosen to expel Joel, but it wasn't because they would have had to cook his meat. "And my son…?"

"He is an entirely different matter," she said matter-of-factly. "We did indeed attempt to acquire him; but as you surmised, he was too fast. Once he was on the surface, we could do no more. We hope, however, that your separation from him may not be permanent."

I'll just bet you do, I thought viciously, feeling my teeth bare in a snarl. They'd been quite right to handcuff me. Not because I might have damaged their precious community--but because I would most certainly have damaged them. I might have tried anyway; but my daughter's presence restrained me. I couldn't risk them harming her.

"There's just one thing I want to know," I said between clenched teeth. "Why us? Of all the people on this planet, why me and my kits?"

"Perhaps you'd better ask me that."

The words came from behind me. Rae and I both whirled, to see a male Sah'aaran standing smiling in the doorway. In his early sixties, his fur was mostly grey, his cropped mane and sideburns entirely so. Like our captors, he wore one of those monk-like robes, only the third I'd seen. In astonishment--and recognition--I gasped, and the intruder's smile broadened to a grin. "No," I said. "It can't be--!"

"Hello, Ehm'ayla," Sah'larrah said. "Have you missed me?"


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