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 ELEVEN


It couldn't be--but it was.

"Sah'larrah," I croaked. My mind was whirling, threatening to descend into chaos and leave me gibbering. He was dead; he had to be dead. I'd mourned him these last two weeks; I'd placed a wreath on his memorial. And yet here he was.

"In person," he said. He was enjoying this, the bastard: my death-spiral toward insanity. "It's good to see you again, Ehm'ayla. It has been too long." His gaze shifted to Rae, and he smiled tenderly. "Won't you introduce us, my dear?" he asked me.

Anger revived me; it always did. "Ehm'rael," I said between clenched teeth, "this is the late Dr. Sah'larrah. Doctor, this is my daughter, Ehm'rael Sarah Abrams."

I almost said "our," but managed to bite back the word just in time. Rae didn't appear to notice. Her face wore that overwhelmed look again, along with a kind of wariness. "I'm pleased to meet you, Doctor," she said, her voice barely audible

"And I you," Sah'larrah said. "Very much. I have heard a great deal about you and your brother."

He reached out, as if to take her hand, then froze, glancing quickly from her lap to mine. With a frown of disapproval, he tuned to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "Those were not necessary," he said.

"We beg to differ, Doctor," Ehm'maana said. "They are strangers; we do not know what they are capable of. After last time, we can no longer afford to take risks."

"Strangers to you, perhaps," Sah'larrah said. "But not to me. I can personally vouch…"

"You vouched for the other as well," Sah'rajj interrupted coldly.

Sah'larrah's whiskers bristled. "Be that as it may. Commodore Ehm'ayla is a senior CF officer. She knows better than to damage vital life-support equipment. Those handcuffs are unnecessary and demeaning--and you will remove them now."

A battle of wills: for a full minute Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana stared at him, and he glared back, fire in his eyes. In the midst of my confusion, my curiosity was piqued. Who's really in charge here? I wondered.

Finally Ehm'maana sighed. Stepping around the desk, she reached into her sleeve for the key, a slim metal rod about five centimeters long. A few seconds later Rae and I were free, and as we sat rubbing our wrists, the handcuffs vanished up Ehm'maana's sleeve. Never again, I vowed silently. No matter what I have to do to prevent it.

Sah'larrah looked down at me expectantly. Waiting for some words of gratitude, I assumed--but if so, he was disappointed. "All right," I said, returning his gaze coldly. "What the Dark is going on here?"

"There is no need for you to be upset--" he began placatingly.

"No need?" I echoed incredulously. "My daughter and I were kidnapped, my husband injured; my son is under sedation because he thinks he caused his sister's death--and you're telling me there's no need to be upset?"

He smiled ruefully. "Mistakes were made," he admitted. "As always, you did not act according to our expectations. It will all work out in the end, however. You and your daughter are where you need to be--and your son will soon follow."

"You've lost me," I said. "Where we need to be is on our way home to Terra, with the rest of our family."

He frowned and shook his head. "No," he said. "That is no longer possible." He paused, glancing sidelong at Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "Would you please excuse us?" Sah'larrah asked them. "There are many things I must discuss with Ehm'ayla--in private."

They exchanged a glance; then Sah'rajj rose, and they headed for the door. "Should we take the girl with us?" Ehm'maana asked--already reaching into her sleeve, damn her.

Sah'larrah glanced at Rae, and smiled. "No," he said. "I'd prefer she stay."

"As you wish," Ehm'maana said. They departed--but I had no illusions: this discussion was no more "private" now than if they'd remained. No need to let Sah'larrah know I knew, though.

"You're involved with all this?" I demanded. "It was you who arranged for my daughter and me to be abducted?"

Sah'larrah pulled up a chair and sat facing me, an earnest, pleading look in his eyes. I'd seen that before, the day he begged me to depart Zelazny with him; and I knew what it meant: trouble. "'Abducted' is an ugly word," he said. "I prefer 'acquired.' And yes, I did indeed arrange it. With the assistance of Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, of course."

"But why?"

"Do you really not know?" he asked incredulously. "I am disappointed." He leaned forward. "You are here to correct an injustice committed more than sixteen years ago--when you, your human husband, and your Terran lawyer conspired to keep your kits from knowing their real father."

He'd done it. Placed himself in breach of contract, yes, just as I had several days ago--but that wasn't the worst of it. I wished now that Ehm'maana had taken Rae out of the room. Even handcuffs were preferable to this.

I began to stammer some kind of damage control, not even knowing what I was saying--but Rae interrupted softly. "It's all right, Mother. I already know. So does Tom."

My jaw dropped. Her hands, though unfettered, still rested in her lap, and she sat gazing down at them. "What--?" I began.

Slowly she raised her eyes. "Tom and I know that Dr. Sah'larrah is our father," she said. "Our biological father."

"How?" I demanded. "Who told you?"

She shrugged. "No one," she said. "We figured it out ourselves, before we left Terra. You were terribly upset when Dr. Sah'larrah vanished, and we wondered why. So we did some research. We found out he visited Terra about a year before we were born--and then there were the holos. We found an article about Dr. Sah'larrah's first expedition to the Undercity forty years ago, with pictures of him as a young man. I looked at the holos, and at Tom…and that was it. We knew then what really happened before we were born."

Father was right, I thought bitterly. But dear Goddess, I didn't expect it this soon!

"You see?" Sah'larrah said triumphantly. "Ehm'rael accepts me, and so does her brother."

"No," Rae said firmly, gazing steadily into Sah'larrah's eyes. "You don't understand, Doctor. Tom and I know now that you provided the sperm. Mother and Father had always told us it came from a sperm bank, and that there was no way of knowing who the donor was. Obviously that wasn't true. But it makes no difference to either of us. We've talked about it a lot. You're not our real father. You didn't raise us; you don't love us; you don't even know us. Our father is Joel Abrams."

Sah'larrah drew back, as if she'd clawed him--but my heart swelled with pride and joy. Goddess, if only Joel was here! I thought. There could have been no greater compensation for six years of uncertainty. They'd known, since they were ten years old and began to study biology, that Joel couldn't be their "real" father. And without daring to ask, he'd always worried if that knowledge had damaged their feelings toward him. But now the verdict was in, final and unassailable.

As always, Sah'larrah recovered quickly. "I do love you, Ehm'rael," he said. He reached out to brush her cheek, but she shrank away. "Never believe I do not. And while it is true that I did not raise you, it is only because I was not given the opportunity. That is now changed. From this moment on I am your father, in every sense of the word. In time you will accept that."

She glanced away, her expression troubled, and I quickly changed the subject. "How was it done?" I demanded. "How were we brought here? And what happened to Ehm'teel?"

Startled, he turned to face me. "Ehm'teel?" he echoed. "What about her?"

I frowned. Doesn't he know? I thought. Unless he was baiting me… "We went into the service tunnels searching for her," I explained. "We feared she had come to look for you. We couldn't find her, and we didn't have the means to keep searching; but before we could get out, the ceiling caved in."

Sah'larrah nodded, frowning. "That explains much," he said. "But it is not good. Sah'raada was sent to the surface as a lure for you. His memory had been altered, and he had been conditioned to say certain words--but to you, not Ehm'teel. It was intended that you would come flying to my rescue--and that our kits would insist on joining you. Nor was I wrong in that, it appears."

"What made you so sure I would?" I asked, uncertain whether to be fascinated or enraged by his matter-of-fact litany of treachery.

He smiled. "I know you, Ehm'ayla, and how you respond to challenges: with all eight claws. And I knew you'd have no confidence in the District Police. Ehm'luruus herself saw to that. It was inevitable you'd take the job upon yourself."

I held up a hand, halting him. "Wait a minute--Ehm'luruus is part of this?"

He shook his head. "Not knowingly," he said. "Her long-standing enmity for me overrides any good sense she might once have possessed, and that makes her the perfect tool. Her search parties would not have found me in any case: the route to this part of the Undercity is well-hidden. But her attitude guaranteed you would become infuriated--as indeed you did."

"You were responsible for the cave-in, then?"

"No," he said earnestly. "We were not. Nothing so violent was planned. You were to have been intercepted by a delegation of our people, and persuaded to accompany us."

At stinger-point, I added silently. "Then what?"

"Mr. Abrams would have been returned to the surface, his memory altered as Sah'raada's was. As it happened, that proved unnecessary; he did not see us."

"So what went wrong?"

"We may only conjecture," he said. "Perhaps the ceiling in that area was weakened by seepage, or by the vibration of shuttle-cars passing overhead. There is no way to know. At any rate, after we acquired Ehm'rael, we became aware that you might be inside as well. A number of us set out to search; but it was Sah'rajj himself who located you."

I gazed at him through narrowed eyes. Still unexplained was exactly how Rae had been "acquired"--or, less euphemistically, saved from a horrible death under tons of rock. Would he tell me, if I asked?--but I knew the answer to that already. But I knew now exactly why Joel had been excluded from this pocket-sized paradise: the last thing Sah'larrah wanted was a rival.

"But we did not know Ehm'teel had preceded you," he said. He shook his head. "That is bad; she must be found immediately. I do not wish her to come to harm."

I bit my lip, to keep from blurting out what I knew. According to Ehm'teel, he was unaware of her "delicate condition." But Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana had remarkable insight into events topside; and Ehm'luruus had known, though I still didn't know how. Telling the Chief of Police something like that would be as good as shouting it in Alliance Plaza. Was it truly possible Sah'larrah didn't know he was going to be a father again? And if not, should I tell him? No, I told myself immediately. This is war, and they're holding all the ammunition. If you know something he doesn't, don't give it away for free. Wait and watch.

…Which left aside the most important questions: had it indeed been Ehm'teel we'd followed? And if so, where was she now? Dead under the collapsed ceiling? Lost in the tunnels? But wherever she was, I could do nothing for her; she'd have to take care of herself.

"You meant her no harm," I said. "But what about her brother?"

He sighed and turned away, looking old and tired. "That was not my intention either," he said. "I did not wish him to accompany me. That expedition was to have been my last; I could not afford another. It was to conclude with my disappearance and apparent death. I wished to go alone, but Sah'raada and Ehm'teel would not allow it. I could not simply abandon him in the tunnels--and so I was forced to bring him here."

I nodded, recalling the talk I'd had with Ehm'teel. Sah'larrah had indeed attempted to accomplish the final stage alone. She'd assumed--as had I--that he'd simply been reluctant to share the glory. "So what happened?" I asked. "How did he end up like that?"

Sah'larrah took a deep breath. "He proved…intractable. He refused to be assimilated into the Undercity culture. Finally he went on a rampage, destroying more than a dozen tanks of algae before he could be stopped. We had only two choices: kill him, or alter his memory and expel him, in such a way that his survival could not be traced to us. He went on a hunger-strike while in custody, and lost a great deal of weight; it would be easy enough for the authorities to believe he had been wandering the corridors for weeks. At very least, it would convince Ehm'luruus."

…And that's why he was naked when I found him, I realized suddenly. In trying to assimilate him, their first move would have been to destroy his own clothing, as they had done with mine and Rae's. But neither could he be found wearing a homespun kilt and a sealed collar. They'd banked on Ehm'luruus coming to the obvious conclusion, as expressed by Joel: that Sah'raada had thrown off his clothing in delirium. Fortunate--from their point of view--that they hadn't yet cut his mane; probably he hadn't permitted them to.

"And after we had settled on that," Sah'larrah was saying, "we decided to use him as a lure. His memories were selectively erased, and several suggestions were planted in his mind. It is unfortunate he spoke to Ehm'teel first; evidently he was too weak when you found him."

What kind of monsters are these people? I wondered in horror. And what kind have you become, Sah'larrah? "If I hadn't chanced to be there," I said, "he would have died. How can you live with that? He was your most-trusted assistant; surely he was also your friend. How could you do that to him?"

"I had no choice," he said heavily. "And it was not mere chance that he was there for you to find. He was my friend, Ehm'ayla--but he brought his fate upon himself. We gave him a chance to live; that was the most we could do."

I shook my head. "I no longer know you, Sah'larrah. I don't understand what you've become."

"That makes us even," he said coldly.

I fixed him with my gaze. "Then I'll make myself clear," I said. "You and your friends have no idea what you've done. I am a senior Combined Forces officer. Ehm'luruus may have conducted a sloppy search for you--but she won't even be involved in searching for me. Joel will call CF Security; you know that as well as I do. Maybe even the Marines. And they're not sloppy, Sah'larrah. They'll find me--even if they have to reduce this place to rubble. Do you know what the penalty is for abducting a military officer? For kidnapping a minor? You're sixty-two years old; do you really want to spend the rest of your life in prison?"

As I spoke, he slowly went pale; clearly he believed me. For a moment he seemed to totter on the edge of surrender--but then he shook himself and smiled. "I do not doubt you are correct," he said. "But the search will not go on long. It will immediately locate evidence that both you and Ehm'rael are dead."

"What kind of evidence?"

He shrugged. "Bits of your clothing," he said. "And bits of you as well. We took tissue samples, and we have the technology do to a bit of rough-and-ready cloning. In a way, the cave-in was most fortuitous. The searchers will be convinced you were both crushed to death. Mr. Abrams, poor man, must have hallucinated those hours in the tunnels with you." He paused and leaned close. "You see, Ehm'ayla, there is no way out. In time you will accept that."

I shook my head in despair. "I give up," I said. "I can't talk to you any more. You're genuinely insane."

"No," he corrected. "For the first time in sixteen years, I am entirely sane."

###

Ehm'maana escorted us back to our room--sans handcuffs.

"Your sense of time might be somewhat disturbed," she observed, ushering us into that dismal little cell. "We observe Sah'salaan local time, and by that clock it is early evening. The kitchens are closed, but if you desire, I will see you are provided with dinner."

My stomach was a solid knot: I could have forced nothing into it. Nor did my daughter appear hungry--which would be all too common in the days to come. "No, thank you," I said.

"As you wish," Ehm'maana said. "I shall leave you alone now. At Dr. Sah'larrah's request, this door will no longer be locked. Your daughter has indicated her belief that you are prisoners; we wish to dispel that notion. You are free to explore our community at your leisure, and you will be provided with maps. You already know where the mess hall is: you will be alerted when it is time for the morning meal. At the other end of this corridor there are facilities for bathing, and for cleaning your clothing. If there is anything else we can provide, within our limited resources, you need only ask. We wish you to be comfortable in your new life."

"Thank you," I said, the irony in my tone completely lost on her. She bowed.

"You are most welcome, Commodore. Have a pleasant evening."

The instant the door closed, I took my daughter in my arms. "I'm sorry, Ehm'rael," I told her. "Terribly sorry."

"What for?" she gasped. I realized I was holding her a little too tightly, and eased off; but I couldn't make myself let go.

"Everything," I said. "Getting you into this; not telling you and your brother about Sah'larrah years ago. And mostly, being a bad mother."

"No," she said firmly. She disengaged her arms from my grasp and cupped my face tenderly in her hands. My own gesture, when I wished to dispense earnest wisdom; the role-reversal would have been ludicrous in other circumstances. "You're not a bad mother," she went on. "I couldn't ask for better. None of this is your fault. Sah'larrah and those other two were determined to get us down here, and they would have kept trying until they did. They played with your grief, making you think he was dead--and that wasn't fair."

I smiled. "Thank you," I said. "That helps."

We settled onto our bunks, facing each other. "Tom and I understand why you didn't tell us about Sah'larrah," Rae said. "As I said, we talked about it a lot during our trip to Sah'aar. We know what you and Father needed to do to have children; and we understand why you'd want to ask a friend, instead of using a sperm bank. We also know how Father must have felt. But I can tell you--and I'll tell him too, when we're back together--that he doesn't have a thing to worry about. He's our father, and we love him. Even now, there's no way we'd abandon him for Sah'larrah. Especially now."

Once again I embraced her, silently: there were no words I could speak that would adequately express my gratitude. She bore an honored name, as Sah'larssh observed--and was well worthy of it. "We're getting out of this," I whispered, close to her ear. "Somehow, we are."

She smiled. "I know we are," she said. "Together."

Abruptly then she yawned, and grinned sheepishly. "I'm sorry," she said. "I guess I've had a busy day."

"Me too," I said with a wry smile. "Get some sleep, if you can. I've got some thinking to do, but I'll try not to disturb you."

She leaned forward to lick my forehead, then headed for our tiny bathroom. She emerged some minutes later, her kilt draped over her arm, quite naked except for her collar. Crossing to her bunk, she laid the garment across its foot, then dove beneath the blanket. She wriggled around for a time before settling; she was used to a wider and softer bed. Turning a dial by the door, I dimmed the glow-strips to a soft yellow glow, then bent to nuzzle Rae's cheek. "Good night, honey," I said--but she wasn't quite ready for sleep.

"Mother," she said, "why is Sah'larrah doing this? Everything you've told Tom and me about him, everything we've read…this seems, well, out of character."

I sighed. "You're right," I said. "It is." I stroked her mane, where it lay across the pillow like an orange cloud. "And I wish I knew the answer--but I don't. Yet."

Or do I? I wondered, as I sat down on the foot of my bunk. My mind kept returning to that late-night conversation with Joel. Was it possible I had driven Sah'larrah over the edge, with my letters and holos? He didn't seem to hate me--but he was clearly contemptuous of the contracts he'd signed seventeen years ago. Certainly something had caused him to dream up this bizarre "reunion…"

And what about Ehm'teel? I thought. Is she truly pregnant with Sah'larrah's kits? Or was that a lie? Is she part of this too? Playing on my sympathy, so I'd follow her down the hole like a damned lemming?

I shook my head. Stop it, I told myself. If I kept thinking like that, I'd end up suspecting everyone--including myself. As yet I had too many questions, too few answers; all I could do was continue to dig--carefully--for the answers.

Another worry was chewing up my guts as well, one I didn't dare mention to Rae: her brother. Ehm'maana and Sah'rajj--and Sah'larrah too--had several times mentioned their desire to "acquire" Tom too. Could they actually succeed? How long was their reach? If Tom remained in Father's house, he'd be safe; but I knew my son too well--unfortunately. His insatiable curiosity and boundless energy had been his downfall more than once--like the time he spent six hours stuck up a tree. I very much feared our captors could devise a snare for him…and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

Goddess, if only I could warn him! Or better yet, warn Joel: tell him to throw Tom onto the next ship headed for Terra, in a cage if necessary. I had no idea how to extricate my daughter and myself from this Goddess-cursed situation; I had no desire to add Tom to the mix.

For a time all was silence, except for the distant sounds of water through the pipes and air through the vents; then Rae spoke again, surprising me. I'd thought her long since asleep. "Mother," she said, "Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. Do you think they're--"

I stopped her with a hand on her muzzle. My fear that we were being listened to had grown to a firm conviction, and I conveyed it as best I could, tapping my ear and pointing toward the ceiling.

She got the message instantly: her eyes widened, and she nodded. She completed her question with an age-old Terran gesture: a rapid spiraling motion her of forefinger near her temple. Are they nuts?

There was no way I could respond adequately with gestures, and so I shrugged. I don't know. But in truth I'd been wondering the same thing. The Appropriate Technology movement has been around for a long time, and whatever I might think of its chances for success, its goals are laudable. Too often in our modern society we use H-bombs to swat flies, so to speak. I was as guilty as anyone: married to an engineer and self-confessed "gadget freak," I lived in a house jam-packed with modern conveniences. And if I was to be honest, how many of them were really necessary?

And yet…there was more going on here than a simple demonstration of the folly of high-tech. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana exhibited an almost pathological need to control every aspect of their citizens' lives. Their strict and bizarre management of clothes, collars and mane-styles, their removal of any sort of personalization from their living spaces…what had that to do with appropriate technology? No: they were power junkies, worse even than my father--if such a thing was possible. How Sah'larrah--the most iconoclastic individual I'd ever known--had gotten mixed up with them, I couldn't fathom.

Bottom line, though--as Joel would have said--obsessive people can become very dangerous if you challenge their dearly-held beliefs. I'd been in worse situations, and I could take care of myself--but the same could not be said of Rae. I didn't care to contemplate what might happen to her, if our captors perceived me as a danger to their New World Order. The fact that she was Sah'larrah's daughter might not be enough to protect her. I'd have to be careful--most especially around Sah'rajj. Something about him disturbed me greatly; something far more fundamental than the color of his fur.

But in the meantime…I stood, turned down my blanket, and shrugged out of my own clothing. "I think we'd better try to get some sleep, dear," I said. "I have a feeling tomorrow might be another long day."

###

I woke the next morning with fierce determination--and a stiff neck.

The latter was easy enough to understand: I'd seldom gone through an entire night wearing a collar--certainly never one so thick and inflexible. Why had Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana chosen to make them non-removable--rendering inaccessible the most important Sah'aaran erogenous zone while they were at it? I could think of only one explanation; but apart from simply asking. I was unsure how to test it.

Rae was up before me--which also isn't surprising, considering that I'd spent much of the night tossing and turning. I woke to find her moving quietly around the room, brushing her fur and mane, fastening her kilt around her hips. "I guess it's not the most uncomfortable thing I've ever worn," she commented wryly. "But I'm already tired of being topless."

I knew what she meant. Except during her fertile periods, or when she's nursing, a Sah'aaran female's mammaries are small, almost unnoticeable beneath her fur. But Rae had grown up on Terra, where females of all ages do cover up--and the habit had become ingrained. I'd have been self-conscious too. "Think of it as practice for your next trip to Tahiti," I told her.

"When do we leave?" she shot back.

I threw aside my blanket and rose, biting back a groan. It wasn't only my neck that was stiff: my entire body felt sore and cranky. In part because I was used to a softer bed too--but mostly because of tension, of which I was only half-aware. I'd also grown unaccustomed to sleeping alone these past twenty years. With my clothing draped over my arm, I made my way slowly to our little bathroom.

It was small indeed, not unlike those W.C.'s that get tucked, as if by afterthought, into odd spaces aboard CF ships. The head, the tiny washbasin, and the mirror-frame were all metal. Shelves on the opposite wall held towels and washcloths (more of that rough grey cloth); hairbrushes and claw-files, and cakes of a peculiar, harsh soap that was certainly hand-made. By no means luxurious, but adequate--and better than a sand-pit on Hellhole.

I went through the motions, washing my hands and face and cleaning my teeth, brushing my mane and fur. Gazing into the mirror, I noticed old age gaining the upper hand even more quickly than before: stress, no doubt. I also saw that later, like it or not, I'd have to give their "bathing facility" a try. I could hardly wait.

As I settled my clothing, a harsh klaxon blared forth, somewhere out in the hall. "That," I commented dryly, "is presumably the signal for breakfast."

"I hope so," Rae said. "I'm starving."

I held out my hand, and she grasped it. "Are we ready to mingle?" I asked.

"No," she said. "But they're not giving us much choice, are they?"

###

The mess hall was crowded--but quiet.

Rae and I arrived to find about three dozen people in attendance, all adults and adolescents. (I found out later that the younger children had their own dining hall, near the school.) Some were already seated, scattered at random around the room, eating and chatting softly. Others were still in line, shuffling slowly past the service counter. All very familiar, to both Rae and me; and--except for the sea of strange faces--non-threatening. Apparently there was no "pecking order" involved: just first-come-first-served. If so, that was the only aspect of Undercity life Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana didn't micromanage. My daughter and I paused for a moment just inside the door, getting the lay of the land; then, reassured, we headed for the end of the line.

The service was quick and efficient. Trays, knives, forks and napkins lay in bins at the head counter, along with stacks of cups. Pitchers on the tables contained the only available beverage, water. Most cafeterias have at least a few choices of entree--but not this one. You ate what they happened to be serving; which is to say, whatever unfortunate creature had been slaughtered that morning. That day it was turkey. Those breast fillets and drumsticks aroused my hunger--and my homesickness as well. Would we ever again have Thanksgiving dinner in Pacific Grove?

We found a small table at the rear, and we settled in with our backs to the wall, so as to better observe the passing throng. For a time we ate in silence. Then Rae said, "What happens to us now, Mother?"

"What do you mean, dear?"

She paused, picking at her breakfast. (As with yesterday's late lunch, the meal cried out for seasoning; even a pinch of salt would have helped.) Finally she said, "We're here, and obviously they want us to stay. But what now? What do they intend us to do with ourselves?" She waved her hand. "They all have jobs; what about us?"

"I don't think they'll try to force us into anything," I told her. "Not yet. I imagine they'll let us get used to the place and the people for a while--before they start trying to assimilate us."

"I don't want to be assimilated," she said firmly.

"I'm not crazy about the idea either," I replied. The operative word, though, was "try." Whether they'd succeed was another matter. I'd always been highly resistant to indoctrination, and Rae was her mother's daughter. But it wouldn't do to say that openly; why prompt the listeners to alter their tactics?

"There's something else I don't understand…" Rae said.

Join the club. "What's that?"

"I was just remembering my classes in Terran history," she said. "A long time ago--in the 20th Century, and earlier--humans with light skin hated ones with dark skin. And vice-versa."

I nodded sadly. "Unfortunate but true," I said. "And some humans still do. Very few, luckily."

She nodded. "But we--Sah'aarans--mostly have the same fur- and mane-colors…"

"With a few minor regional differences."

"…Except for ones like Ehm'tassaa--and Sah'rajj."

I knew where this was going, and I was tempted to interrupt, to change the subject--but I didn't. What did I care if our captor heard us discussing him? What did I care, if he discovered what I thought of him? Surely he already knew. "Go on."

"You told me blackfurs have always been regarded as beautiful," Rae said. "They're celebrities, important people. And to be bonded to one, like Tom, would make you the envy of the entire planet."

"True enough."

"But what about the opposite? Albinos--whitefurs--like Sah'rajj? Nobody ever says anything about them."

I smiled wryly. This is where his ears prick up. "You're right," I replied. "No one does. For one thing, because they're very rare--even more so than blackfurs. But also because historically they've been hated, discriminated against--even killed."

She almost choked on her turkey-leg. "Why?"

I shook my head. "I can't pretend it's logical--or even rational," I told her. "But it goes way back. A blackfur's hunting ability isn't impaired--in fact they can be more successful nighttime stalkers than normal-colored Sah'aarans. That's how they became associated with the mysterious and magical. But whitefurs…they're always conspicuous, day or night. Their vision is poor, and they tend to be physically weak, and to have other medical problems as well. These days, of course we can compensate; but in ancient times an albino would have been seen as a burden, even a danger. Unfortunately, that prejudice has lingered."

Ehm'rael nodded thoughtfully. "Is that why he--" she began, but fortunately she was interrupted by a soft throat-clearing. Turning quickly, we saw Dr. Sah'jinn standing with tray in hand, smiling down broadly.

"May I join you ladies?" he asked politely.

A little to my surprise, I found myself smiling in return. Of all the Undercity's inhabitants, the young physician was the only one who had done me good--as opposed to harm--having removed a metaphorical thorn from my paw. "Please do," I said, indicating the table's only other chair. "Though I fear my daughter and I are almost finished."

He settled in, his smile widening, and as I gazed at the huge wobbling mass of meat on his tray, I realized I'd have to revise my opinion. He was skinny, yes--but not for lack of food. "No problem," he said with a grin. "I am a fast eater."

He was a pleasant young man, upbeat, and with a ready smile. Or I should say that was his public persona. His private demeanor, I was soon to discover, was much less jovial--but every bit as earnest. "How are you this morning, Commodore?" he asked.

I could have given him quite a litany--but I decided to answer his question on its merits. "Quite well, thank you. That preparation of yours is miraculous. My stomach gave me no trouble last night, for the first time in years."

"It pleases me to have helped," he said, the warmth in his tone lending sincerity to that stock phrase. "And that reminds me," he went on. He rummaged in his apron pocket, and brought forth a glass jar, full to the top with a mixture of finely-ground green herbs. "As promised," he said. "One spoonful in a cup of water should suffice. Not as convenient as a roll of tablets, perhaps--"

"--But a good deal more effective," I finished. "Thank you very much, Doctor."

"You are welcome." He paused, then went on, "Unfortunately any antacid is at best a stop-gap measure. It would please me greatly if you would allow me to examine you thoroughly. There may be better alternatives available."

My knee-jerk reaction was to refuse. What would be the point? The physicians at the Presidio Infirmary had diagnosed the problem years ago--and made their recommendation. What could this earnest young man add to the discussion?

…But then I saw the look in his eyes. His face still wore an expression of professional concern, along with a broad beaming smile; but his eyes…there was something there, in those green-gold depths: a longing, a desperate, last-chance, hope-beyond-hope yearning. Whatever it was he really wanted from me, it had nothing to do with my hernia.

And so… "I would be very glad of your advice, Doctor," I said, smoothly I hoped. "When would be a convenient time for you?"

Profound gratitude flooded his eyes, though his smile never shifted. "Any time you like, Commodore," he said. "I am always available."

"I will stop by later today, then."

"That will be fine. Good morning, ladies."

With that he took his empty tray--having virtually inhaled his breakfast--and departed. When he was out of earshot, Rae turned to me. "What--?" she began.

I laid my hand quickly atop hers, my half-expressed claws pricking her fingers. She'd been about to say "--was that all about?"; but she was quick-witted enough to modify it to, "--are we going to do today?"

"I don't know, honey," I said, answering both questions. I glanced at her tray, and saw that her plate was empty; she'd virtually licked it clean. "Did you have enough to eat?" I asked.

"I guess so." She grimaced. "I wish they could afford the luxury of a few spices, though."

"Me too." I paused. "I suppose we could explore a bit, ," I went on. "Since we have the run of the community. There are a few things I'd like to take a better look at." Especially the exits…

"All right," she said. She smiled. "I don't have any other appointments."

We bussed our own table, as we'd seen the others do, and then we exited. I had no idea which direction we should go, nor any concept of how to navigate the Undercity. But we were spared that problem by the day's second visitor--this one somewhat less welcome than the first.

He met us outside the mess hall, smiling. Beside me Rae stiffened and shrank back, her writhing tail twining with mine. He raised his grey-clad arms, and I think he might have tried to embrace me, if he hadn't seen the look in my eye. "Good morning!" he said breezily. "Are you calmer today, Ehm'ayla?"

I shrugged. "That depends, Sah'larrah," I said. "Am I less inclined to claw somebody? Yes. But reconciled to the situation--no."

"You will be," he said, "in time."

"The Goddess willing," I said flatly, "I won't live that long."

He ignored that. "I am the bearer of gifts," he said grandly. Reaching deep into his sleeves, he pulled out two folded sheets of paper. "I was asked by Ehm'maana to give you these maps." He shook one out, and Rae and I peered over his shoulder.

"As you can see," he went on, "the tunnels are color-coded and numbered. Once you know where to look, you will find the numbers easily. For example, we are currently standing at the intersection of M-7 and D-1, the latter being your home corridor." He handed us the maps; having no pockets, we tucked them into our belts.

"I suppose I ought to thank you," I said.

His grin widened. "That would be nice," he said. "And therefore I do not expect it." He turned to Rae. "My child," he said kindly, "would you please excuse us? I need to speak to your mother in private."

She stared at him, and I could almost feel the conflict within her. She and her brother had been raised to respect their elders--a habit directly at odds with the contempt she felt for Sah'larrah. And those words, "my child"….for a moment I thought she'd hurl them back in his face. But then, with a sigh, she turned to me. "Is that all right, Mother?"

I was not eager to be parted from her; but of course we couldn't be together all day every day--not without getting on each other's nerves. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana had sworn she would come to no harm--and for once I believed them. Sah'larrah would have told them what I'd do if anyone hurt her: make Sah'raada's "rampage" look like a mild fit of pique.

I sighed. "Yes, that's all right." I handed her Dr. Sah'jinn's jar. "Take that back to our room, would you please? And I'll meet you there later."

She nuzzled my cheek, then headed down the corridor at a trot. I smiled fondly as I watched her go. She'd explore, all right, playing to perfection the role of an innocent, curious teenager--but her eyes would be wide-open, her fierce intelligence working overtime.

"Shall we go, my dear?" Sah'larrah asked.

"Where?"

He shrugged. "I have no idea," he said. "Wherever we please. I am in the mood to walk."

I could think of no good reason to refuse, and so I allowed him to lead me away at a leisurely amble. He offered me his arm, but I ignored it, and a moment later he sighed and let it flop. "Was I correct?" he asked. "Do you have more questions?"

I did--but I also had no confidence in his answers, and no idea what I could ask without tipping my hand. "A few," I said. "To begin with, have you found Ehm'teel yet?"

"Alas no," he said sadly. "Sah'rajj sent out as many searchers as he can spare--which, unfortunately, is not many. So far they have been unsuccessful. If she indeed entered the Undercity, I fear she may have perished beneath the cave-in."

In which case her blood is on your hands. "Let us hope I was mistaken, then," I said. "It was dark; it may not have been her at all." Though I was sure I'd detected her scent…

"Let us hope so indeed," Sah'larrah said. "She was a good colleague, a good friend. I have missed her greatly since my retirement from the world."

I'll bet you have. We'd reached a fish-farm tunnel by then, and with no one else in sight, we sat down side-by-side on the edge of a tank. The water was green and turbid, the fish visible only by their restless wakes. At the far end, the filter's spillway splashed and fretted pleasantly, like the fountains tucked into odd places all over Sah'aar. I sat silent for a time, gazing at him sidelong--and then I made a decision. To my knowledge, he had never lied to me; like Joel, he had no talent for it. Let's see if that's still true.

Catching his eye, I mimed the act of writing: one hand held flat for the "paper", the forefinger of the other making scribbling motions above it. He frowned in perplexity--then his face cleared, and he reached into his sleeve, bringing forth not a palm-reader, but rather a roughly-bound pad of handmade rag paper and a charcoal pencil. Seizing them, I dashed off a quick scrawl of hieroglyphic characters: Do these collars contain listening devices?

As he read, his eyes widened in alarm, and I glared at him, giving him no chance to retreat: answer me!

Taking back the pad and pencil, he wrote slowly: Yes. Tracking devices too.

I wasn't surprised. Logically, it was the only answer. That was why the collars were permanently attached, and why Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana so often seemed to know what had been said when they weren't in the room. I snatched back the pad. Who is monitored?

Everyone, he wrote. Even me. Not always--but no way to know when.

I could barely suppress a snarl of disgust. So we were bugged--and there was nowhere we could go to escape the listeners. They were literally at our throats.

The exchange of notes had taken only a few seconds: not enough time for the listeners to become suspicious. "I do have a few more questions," I said.

"Ask on," he said. "I will tell you what I can."

Sure. "What's your part in this?" I asked. "How did this place get started, and how did you become involved with it?"

"Oh my." He shifted, crossing his legs at the ankle, and went on, "To answer that I must go back almost eight years. Sah'rajj and his sister both attended Sah'salaan University. Ehm'maana is an engineer, as you may already know; Sah'rajj's degree is in astrophysics.

"As an undergrad, Sah'rajj chanced to take one of my general-education courses in urban development." He smiled wryly. "As you might expect, I centered the course around the Undercity, as an example of a wholly-planned community. And naturally we took a field-trip, much as you did many years ago." He shook his head. "I had no idea Sah'rajj would become so fascinated with the place. After our journey into the service tunnels, he and his sister came to me for more information. They had read my monographs, but that was not enough for them. Time and again they returned, and eventually I found myself sharing everything: my data, my sources, my speculations and guesses.

"Finally they told me of their plans," he went on. "They had gathered a group of like-minded friends, all young, and of scientific or technical background. Many were students at Sah'salaan. Together they intended to re-inhabit the Undercity.

"At first I was opposed; I believed it impossible. My explorations had shown me that much of the structure was unsafe. But Sah'rajj believed that the very center--" he waved a hand over his head-- "would, because of its position, be more stable, less prone to the ravages of time. And that the equipment needed to bring the place back to life would be found here, if anywhere."

"But you hadn't located a route to the center yet," I pointed out.

He nodded. "True," he admitted. "And it might well be said that I never did. It was Sah'rajj and his associates, exploring independently, who found a usable path."

"When you couldn't?" I scoffed. "You'd been searching for years. Decades."

"That is so. But Sah'rajj and his friends had three resources I lacked: time, the determination of youth--and money. All of them are from wealthy families; the combined funds at their disposal far exceeded my grudgingly-given University grants."

They have another way in, I realized suddenly. A secret way, known only to them. Sah'larrah's access was in the middle of nowhere, true; but heavy traffic at that little nonexistent shuttle-platform would have attracted unwanted attention. A possible escape route--but how to find it?

"It placed me in a rather difficult position," Sah'larrah was saying. "After they began to move in, I could of course never 'discover' the control center. But neither could I abandon my research; that would have raised questions as well. In that sense, my last few expeditions were mere formalities. But all the while I was putting my affairs in order, preparing for my disappearance. Needless to say, I do not intend to leave; this is my home now. A fitting culmination of my life's work, I would say."

"Why the secrecy?" I asked. "Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana want this place to be a monument to Appropriate Technology. How can they accomplish that if no one knows they're here?"

"That is necessary," he said, "and will probably continue for some time. At first they feared--no doubt correctly--that they would have been prevented from beginning the project at all. For their own good, of course."

"And well they should have been."

"They also wish to prevent the meddling of well-wishers, or indeed ill-wishers, who might harm the project. And finally, because of the kits."

I looked up, startled. "What about them?"

He smiled. "Have you not noticed anything odd about them, my dear?"

"Not really," I said. "They're naked, but there's nothing strange about that." I frowned. "There are an awful lot of them," I went on slowly. "And they all seem to be about the same age…"

"Exactly," Sah'larrah said. "Very few of the children here are the offspring of the adult citizens. Sah'rajj, Ehm'maana and most of their associates were unbonded when the project began; many still are. But a supply of youngsters was necessary, if a stable population was to be maintained."

"So--?"

"So, the vast majority of them were adopted six years ago, as orphans. Had you heard of the Sah'riil City disaster?"

I had; it was one of the worst tragedies to strike Sah'aar in recent memory. The larger of our moons, Sah'riil had been colonized for more than a century. Six years ago, an out-of-control shuttle crashed into the capital city's dome. Thousands died in the ensuing decompression. Out of the disaster came one miracle: a school that had its own dome and life-support system. Some three hundred children were rescued, along with their teachers--but a good many of them were left without parents or family. "You mean--?"

"Yes," Sah'larrah said. "They were adopted, as I said--and quite legally too--by Sah'rajj's associates. They have been given a good home--but the authorities might not be quite so understanding, if they knew the exact nature of that home."

"I daresay not," I said dryly. Taking those poor damaged kits and stuffing them underground… if it wasn't illegal, it should have been. "I begin to understand," I went on. "And that leaves me just one question: how is it possible for more than three hundred people to vanish, without anyone noticing?"

He waved a dismissive hand. "That was not difficult," he said. "And we have the Alliance to thank for that. You are aware of the colony world New Sah'aar--?"

I was indeed; in fact it had been a thorn in my side for a good many years. But that too seemed part of another life, another universe. "Let me guess," I said. "They expressed their intention to emigrate, said good-bye to their friends and families…"

Sah'larrah nodded. "And ended up here."

I nodded slowly. Of course there were a million other questions I could have asked, mostly regarding the many ways Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana imposed their will upon the community. But I didn't bother. He'd have refused to speak ill of those two--especially with them possibly listening in. I'd get nothing more than what used to be called the "party line." I said, "Sah'larrah, when you decided to come down here, did you give any thought to those who'd be hurt by your disappearance? Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall, for example?"

He sighed. "Certainly I did," he said. "Very much so. But there was only so much I could do for them, without giving myself away. And in any case, it was necessary that they be kept in the dark, so they could more convincingly play their parts."

"What parts?"

"Those of the bereaved mother and sister," he said calmly. "Who would so fill you with guilt that you would be compelled to remain on Sah'aar, and investigate further. They did so quite admirably--with Ehm'luruus' unknowing assistance."

I turned away, balling my fists. At that moment I could cheerfully have clawed him--and if he didn't still have information I needed, I might have.

"I have a question for you, Ehm'ayla," he said. "One I have wished to ask for years."

"Which is?" I said warily.

"What did I do to make you hate me so?" he asked. "I loved you, Ehm'ayla--I still do. Yet you chose to destroy me, to trample on my heart--and not once, but twice. Why did I deserve that? What did I do?"

I shook my head. "We've had this conversation before, Sah'larrah," I said. "And it all boils down to one thing: we never bonded. Sah'majha's nanotech didn't 'break' or 'redirect' an existing bonding. It created one, from scratch. And if we ever get out of this hole, I'll prove it to you."

He cut me off angrily. "I know that," he said. "I am not an idiot, Ehm'ayla. I had my hormones tested after I returned to Sah'aar; and indeed there was no bonding--no matter how much I wished there had been. Nor am I fool enough to believe in a 'one-way' bonding; that is the stuff of cheap fantasy."

I shook my head. "I don't understand," I said. "Surely then you must accept that what happened wasn't my fault. How exactly did I 'destroy' you?"

He glared at me coldly. "You mated with a human," he said. "And worse, you did so by artificial means."

I turned aside. That again, I thought in despair. Goddess, will I ever live that down? "My life was my own, to do with as I chose," I said. "What did that have to do with you?"

"Because it should have been me!" he flared. He paused, took a deep breath, and went on quietly, "You knew how I felt about you; and you said yourself that our mating would have had many advantages, personal and professional. And yet, when a technology became available that allowed you to mate with whomever you chose, you used it to connect yourself to that Terran instead of me. He could have had any woman; humans are as promiscuous as bush-furs. But no such opportunity existed for me. How could you do that, Ehm'ayla? And why him, after what he did to you?"

"Because I love him," I said simply. "Because I'd known him much of my life. Because he redeemed himself for what he did, and stood by me during a difficult time. And because I couldn't endure being parted from him again--for his sake."

"I do not understand."

For a few moments I stared into the roiling water. Then I said, "Twenty years ago, give or take, I came to Terra on shore-leave, to think over an offer from the Admiralty. I met Joel on the street-corner in Pacific Grove; I had no idea he was living there. He invited me up to his apartment, to talk, to work out our differences. And do you know what I saw when I looked at his desk?"

"No," Sah'larrah said. "How could I?"

"Pictures," I said. "Framed holos. Many were of his family: his parents, his siblings and their families. But at least half a dozen of them were of me: at our graduation, on the tennis court, or hiking in the woods."

Sah'larrah shook his head. "I still do not understand."

"He hadn't just put them out, for my benefit," I explained patiently. "They'd been there for more than a year, since he moved into the place. I picked one up; it was dusty, and so was the desk around it--but the place where it had stood was absolutely clean." I paused. "Joel and I were separated twice," I went on. "Once after our graduation--and again after Raven. Both times, it broke his heart. He told me he understood our relationship could only be temporary--but as the weeks went on, I realized his understanding was intellectual, not emotional. I came to understand that I couldn't do that to him--not again. Sah'majha saw it too; that was why he approached me with the idea of using nanotech. I'm sorry you were hurt, Sah'larrah; that was never my intention. But as far as I was concerned, our relationship had been over for almost a year. We parted amicably, but with Joel I had…unfinished business."

He fixed me with his gaze, his eyes flashing. "If that had been the end of it," he said coldly, "I might have been able to endure. But it was not. You and your 'mate' added insult to injury, by asking me to give you kits--and then keeping them from knowing me as their father."

Suddenly I understood, and I drew back, my jaw dropping in amazement. "That's what this is really about, isn't it?" I asked. "Not me, or Joel, or how we came to be bonded. It's them--Tom and Rae. They're what you wanted all along."

He turned away, saying nothing; but his tail was flicking madly. "What was the real plan?" I asked. "If Tom hadn't gotten away? Leave me to die in the corridors? Or stinger me and dump me on the surface, like Joel, with no clue how I'd gotten there?"

Still he remained silent, his expression troubled, and I went on, "And now I'm bait, is that it? To attract my son? And if you manage to get Tom down here, then what? Alter my memory and let me go, like poor Sah'raada?"

"No," he said softly, unwilling--or unable--to meet my furious gaze. "No, you have been here too long already. Questions would be asked. Whatever happens, you must stay."

"You won't win," I said. "You know that. You're not my kits' father--Joel is. You can't force them to reject him--much less embrace you. Not after what you've done to them. They're more likely to end up despising you."

"They are mine," he said stubbornly. "And in time they would accept me."

I shook my head. "You don't know them."

"Only because I have not been allowed to."

I rose suddenly and began to pace, my tail lashing, my claws expressed. "You made your donation willingly," I said desperately. "Or so it seemed. And you signed those agreements…"

"A decision I have regretted, over and over," he said. "Every time I received one of your letters. 'They should have been mine,' I thought, as I looked at their holos--and finally I knew I would have to make them mine, one way or another."

I collapsed onto the edge of the tank, rubbing my temples. My headache was back, stronger than ever. I was right, I thought. I did drive him to it. "This is all so unnecessary."

"What do you mean?"

I lifted my head to glare at him. "You want kits of your own? You will have them, if Ehm'teel is still alive. And if she isn't, you've murdered your own offspring as well as her. She is--or was--pregnant, Sah'larrah. And you are the father."

His eyes widened. "That night in camp…" he breathed, and I nodded.

"Yes," I said. "That night. I don't know exactly how it happened--perhaps she was right on the edge of her fertile period. That doesn't matter. But they were yours: kits who would willingly acknowledge you and call you 'Father.' That is, if you hadn't chosen to vanish--and if they and their mother aren't buried under a hundred tons of rock."

With a groan of sheer agony, he buried his face in his hands and slumped forward, shuddering uncontrollably. Startled, I rose and backed away, wondering--even in the midst of my blazing anger--if I'd gone too far. "Sah'larrah, I--"

"Leave me!" he cried, his voice muffled. "You have done enough--leave an old man to his misery. Go!"

I hesitated…then turned and fled. Too late now to call back my words; too late to wish I'd thought before I'd spoken. Story of my life, really.

###

I went to see Dr. Sah'jinn.

I might have put off that assignation; my confrontation with Sah'larrah had left me shaken and troubled. But the young physician had infected me with his urgency; and so, with the aid of my map, I made my way to his sickbay.

I found him alone, sorting jars on the shelves behind his bench. As I entered he smiled and bowed. In his eyes I saw gratitude, mixed with surprise: evidently he hadn't expected me to come. "Ah, Commodore," he said, circling the bench. "I am pleased to see you. Your case has been much on my mind; it distresses me to contemplate the pain you have suffered." He indicated an exam table. "If you would please remove your top and lie down…"

With a sigh, I did. Whatever he really wanted from me, we'd have to go through the motions first, for the benefit of hidden ears. And why not: he might actually be able to help. For the next ten minutes I lay still, curbing my impatience as he poked and prodded, probing my diaphragm with expert fingers, listening to my abdomen with an ancient stethoscope, and finally--last resort--donning the gauntlet and eyepiece of a civilian-model scanpak.

"A classic hiatus hernia," he said at length. "You say it began with an injury--?"

"Yes," I said. "More than twenty years ago; I was still serving aboard Zelazny. We were working an archaeological site, and I was hauling some equipment out of a pit on the end of a line. My feet slipped, and my torso twisted. It didn't hurt, but I felt a kind tearing sensation, like cloth ripping. Nothing came of it, and I forgot all about it until years later, when I was pregnant." I winced to remember that terrible night. I'd eaten a little too well on Cannery Row, and later, after Joel and I went to bed, I experienced a pain like nothing I'd ever felt before. Though scared half to death, Joel nonetheless had a good idea what was wrong: his father suffered from heartburn too. Bicarbonate of soda eased the pain that time--but in later years I'd had to resort to stronger medicines.

"I fear your CF physicians were correct," Sah'jinn said, stripping off the scanpak. "Surgery is your only hope for lasting relief. It is not difficult; I could do it myself."

Oddly enough, I was actually tempted: he had gained that much of my confidence. When I refused, as I did a moment later, it was with a certain regret--but I couldn't allow myself to be bedridden. Not then.

"As you wish," he said affably, handing me my top. "If you change your mind, however, I am available." He helped me to sit up, then leaned back against one of the other tables. "I'm curious, Commodore…"

"Yes?"

"Please forgive my inquisitiveness," he said with an embarrassed smile. "But yours is a unique case, and it fascinates me. Twenty years ago, so I am told, you employed a bioengineer to alter the pheromone receptors within your nasal passages, so you could bond with a human male."

"I don't imagine there's anyone on Sah'aar who doesn't know that by now."

"--And the nanobots he employed remain active to this day."

I didn't like the direction this conversation was taking--but I had no reason to lie. "True enough."

He gazed into my eyes. "When you first arrived here, two days ago," he said softly, "I was asked whether it would be possible to alter those nanobots."

By whom? I almost demanded--but the answer was obvious. "To shift my bonding from Joel Abrams to Dr. Sah'larrah, I presume?" I said.

Sah'jinn paused, then nodded sharply. "Yes."

My claws appeared, and I hid my hands behind my back. I'd been wrong, then: he was after more than just my kits. We wanted us all to be one big happy family, hidden away where no one could find us. Whether it would have worked I couldn't say: I'd been married to Joel for a long time, and was not likely to stop loving him. But obviously, I'd badly underestimated the depth of Sah'larrah's jealousy. "And if I'd declined to cooperate?"

He hesitated. "To be truthful, Commodore, I doubt that would have been an option." He shook his head. "But it is a moot point, as I told Dr. Sah'larrah; I have neither Sah'majha's expertise, nor his equipment."

--Nor any desire to do the job; I could see that in his eyes. "Glad to hear it," I said wryly. I was surprised he'd dared to tell me--unless the idea had come solely from Sah'larrah, without the approval of Sah'rajj or Ehm'maana.

"I am also curious about your kits," Sah'jinn went on briskly. "I am told you were artificially inseminated with Sah'larrah's sperm…"

"Yes and no," I interrupted.

"Pardon me?"

"Yes, the sperm was donated by Sah'larrah," I explained. "But it wasn't artificial insemination--not exactly."

"What, then?"

I took a deep breath. Why I was telling him this, I had no idea--especially since our conversation was all too likely to be overheard. Maybe I wanted it to. "The physician who performed the procedure--Dr. Zeeleeayykk--was an old friend; we served together for some years. She devised a more comfortable alternative. When I entered my fertile period--she took a quantity of the donated spermatozoa, encapsulated them in a protein coating, and injected them into Joel's vas deferens." I quirked a smile. "He wasn't exactly enthusiastic--but he was willing. After that we went home, had a candlelight dinner, and let nature take its course."

Sah'jinn nodded thoughtfully, staring into space. "Once within your body, the protein capsules broke down, releasing the Sah'aaran sperm cells. They were able to penetrate your eggs, where your husband's could not…"

"Exactly," I said. "And you've seen the result--or half of it."

He smiled. "Remarkable," he said. "I do not believe I have ever heard of a similar case. But I am still not certain I understand why--?"

I shrugged. "If you were female, you would," I said. "During our fertile periods, there are certain parts of our bodies we will only allow our mates to touch. Dr. Zeeleeayykk knew this--and also that I didn't care to be strapped down, or drugged unconscious, while my kits were being conceived. She kept aside enough sperm to try the more conventional approach, if her method failed."

"Very interesting indeed," Sah'jinn said. He held out his hand to help me down from the table. "Can I interest you in a cup of tea?" He smiled ruefully. "Or at least what I call tea."

My ears perked up. His tone was almost too casual--but in his eyes had once again appeared that look of hopeful, pitiful yearning, virtually demanding that I accept.

And so, of course, I did. "That sounds lovely," I said.

He bowed and indicated a door at the left. "My work-room," he said. "The kettle should be boiling by now."

That space was about the size of a tool-locker--which it probably had been, once upon a time. The crude shelves within were packed with jars, glassware, and other equipment, most of which I couldn't identify, not being a doctor or an antiques dealer. Atop a smaller bench against the back wall, an Erlenmeyer flask was perched on a metal ring above a Bunsen burner, a liter of water boiling briskly within. Sah'jinn pulled up a stool and gestured for me to sit. I did, and watched in amusement as he bustled around, lifting the flask from the flame with a pair of tongs and pouring its steaming contents into a large beaker. Selecting a jar from the shelf, he spooned a quantity of crushed green leaves into the beaker, stirring the mixture with a glass rod. A moment later he poured the result through a filter-cone into two smaller beakers. "I apologize for the makeshift arrangements," he said. "But I assure you, my glassware is clean."

"No doubt," I said. I took a cautious sip. Not bad: it reminded me somewhat of Japanese green tea. "Delicious," I said. "Thank you."

"You are most welcome," he said. "It contains some of the same herbs as your stomach mixture, and also a mild natural sedative. I find it quite soothing…"

After the morning I've had, I thought wryly, I could use some soothing.

"Excuse me for a moment," Sah'jinn said. He crossed to the left side of the room and knelt before a curious object, like a chrome-plated trash can mounted horizontally on a heavy metal frame. He flicked a switch, a pilot light glowed, and the device began to emit a low-pitched hum.

"What's that?" I asked curiously.

"An old ultraviolet sterilizer," he said. "Still quite useful--especially for the amount of radio-frequency noise it produces. We have about fifteen minutes before it switches itself off." He straightened and turned toward me. "Now," he went on, "we may talk."

I looked up at him sharply, astounded by his abrupt transformation. Gone was his beaming smile, his jovial and superficial persona. His voice had dropped a full octave, and I drew back in alarm from the glowing intensity in his eyes. "Do not be alarmed," he said. "I mean you no harm. I have asked you here to beg for your assistance."

Suddenly I understood. The RF noise was jamming the transmissions from our collars; for a brief time we could not be overheard. "What kind of assistance?" I asked.

He seated himself across from me. "All of us here are prisoners," he said. "Me no less than you. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana must be stopped, or they will destroy us all."

So, I thought, paradise contains a serpent--or two. "I don't quite understand, Doctor," I said carefully. This could be a trap, I knew; an attempt to discover my plans and intentions. As if I had any. "Do I infer that you no longer support the Appropriate Technology movement?"

"Yes, I do," he said firmly. "All of us do. That is not the issue, Commodore. The 'movement'--as you put it--is still our cause, and the Undercity our means to that end. But Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana have departed from our original aims. If I am correct, they represent a real danger--to us, and possibly to all of Sah'aar."

"How so?"

He sighed. "The Terrans have a saying about absolute power," he said, "and those two are a perfect example. They have turned this community into their personal fiefdom. There is no aspect of our lives they do not control. Our clothing--" he indicated our kilts-- "and our haircuts are obvious examples. But there is much more: we are allowed no art, no decoration; nor have I been allowed to use my wares to add variety to our diet. That would be 'frivolous', they say." He touched his collar. "And these, of course: their way of maintaining control.

"At first we accepted their rules," he went on heavily. "This place was primitive, and mere survival was a constant challenge. Strong, undisputed leadership was needed. They promised to establish a democratic government, when we were ready--but we are still waiting."

I nodded. As I'd thought, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana had set themselves up as the fraternal monarchs of their hand-built society; and having had a taste of power, they had no intention of relinquishing it. An old, sad story, played out on more worlds than I cared to contemplate. "What is their level of support?" I asked. "And your own?"

"Theirs is the minority," he said. "Of that I am certain; they have few true believers left. But they have the stingers, and access to the control room; and they monitor the collars. My group--if I may use that term--is the majority--but we are disorganized and powerless. We cannot meet openly, and situations such as this are difficult to arrange. I am not even a 'leader,' except by my own declaration."

That I could well understand: Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana did indeed hold all the cards. "You indicated they are dangerous to all of Sah'aar. In what way?"

"Commodore, our group was formed to demonstrate the benefits of appropriate technology. But Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana are not satisfied with mere demonstration; they wish to impose their views upon all of Sah'aar."

"How?" I scoffed. "Less than two hundred adults, buried deep in the ground? How much force could they possibly bring to bear?"

"There are many kinds of force," he said grimly. "In the strictest sense of the word, you are correct. They have no army; they cannot impose their will on anyone outside the Undercity. But they are capable of terrorism--the destruction of anything they deem to be inappropriate technology."

I frowned. Is that really possible--? The planet's capital city lay right at their doorstep, so to speak. In theory, they could damage shuttle lines, power plants, water mains…many things. They could hold Sah'salaan hostage, and thereby the entire world. Many lives could be lost--and it would be nearly impossible to trace their actions, because no one--most especially the Chief of Police--would ever believe that anyone had been so foolish as to re-inhabit this old boondoggle. "Do you know of any specific plans, Doctor?"

"No," he admitted. "As yet I do not believe they have any; the difficulties of life here still take up the majority of their time. But I fear that will not last long. Every day that finds this community a little more secure makes them think fondly of their long-range plans. Even their relatively small number of supporters would be sufficient--and the rest of us will be powerless to stop them. Please believe me, Commodore: these are not mere scare-images. The threat may not be immediate, but it will happen. It is their only purpose for being here."

I hesitated. His arguments were compelling, but…well, with no evidence, nothing but his unsupported word, certainly I had a right to be skeptical. He might be imagining things--or he might have an agenda of his own. But on the other hand…having met Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, having seen what kind of people they were, I found it hard to entirely disbelieve this earnest young man. "Assuming, for argument's sake, that you're correct," I said, "what do you want me to do about it?" I touched my collar. "I'm as powerless as you; even more, because I'm an outsider."

"We lack leadership," he said, "and you are a Combined Forces officer. It was my hope…"

I interrupted him with a shake of my head. "Sah'jinn," I said, "I don't know who or what you think I am, but you might be in for a disappointment. I'm a Survey officer--not Navy, not even Patrol. I've never been in combat; and for the last twenty years I've ridden herd over an office full of archaeologists. I'm a poor choice to lead a revolution."

"You must at least have some insights…"

"Perhaps," I said. "But you might not like them."

His whiskers twitched. "Pardon me?"

"Let's examine this logically," I said. "A large number of the Undercity's inhabitants oppose Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana; well and good. Do they possess stingers, or any weapons at all, apart from their own claws?"

"No."

"Do they have access to the control room?"

"No."

"Do they know a way to disable these collars, for longer than fifteen minutes at a time?"

"No."

I shrugged. "I served for many years under one of the greatest military minds in the Combined Forces," I said. "But even he couldn't win battles with his bare hands. You have nothing to work with. You've allowed Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana to put you in this position; surely they would have been easier to dislodge years ago. Now you're under their thumbs. The moment you allowed them to equip you with these collars, your fate was sealed."

He nodded morosely. "I fear you are correct."

"I have another difficulty as well," I said. "I have never been in combat, true--but neither am I afraid of a fight. If I had only myself to consider, I'd join your cause; with hope, or without it. But my daughter is here too, and I will not endanger her. Any overt action on my part might cause them to harm her. I will not--can not--risk that."

His eyes widened. "Surely Dr. Sah'larrah would not permit…"

I shook my head. "Perhaps not--but I can't be certain he'd be able to prevent it. I don't know how much power he holds, but I fear it's less than even he imagines."

"You would place the welfare of one girl above that of this entire community?" he demanded.

I fixed him with my gaze. "I take it you're not a parent?"

"No," he said. "I am not. I have not even bonded yet."

"If you were, you'd understand," I said. "Especially if you could be a mother. Yes, Doctor, I do place my daughter's welfare above everyone else's. Even my own. I can't help it; it's in the genes."

He sighed. "You counsel us to surrender, then?"

"Not at all," I said. "But clearly, what you need is outside help. The Sah'salaan District Police is of no use, not with Ehm'luruus as its chief. But I have other resources. As I told Sah'larrah, CF Security would stop at nothing to retrieve me--if they knew I was here. Can you get word to them? Do you have access to communications equipment?"

"No," he said. "I fear not."

"Then you have only one alternative," I said. "I don't intend for either Ehm'rael or I to spend the rest of our lives down here. I am going to depart, with her, by any means necessary. Your best choice might be to help me. Once I'm out, I swear by the Goddess I won't abandon you; I'll have the CF Marines down here in an eyeblink."

He sighed. "Then we are doomed," he said, "because you ask the impossible. No one leaves this Undercity, Commodore, unless by order of Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana."

We were silent for a moment. Then Sah'jinn said, "Perhaps our hopes are not entirely forlorn."

"How so?"

"'Outside help', you said. We cannot summon it; but perhaps it will come of its own accord."

"How can it?"

"Sah'raada," he said. "Dr. Sah'larrah's assistant. There is something about him Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana do not know…"

He was interrupted by a loud click, and he stopped short, raising a finger to his lips. The sterilizer had switched off, and our fifteen minutes of privacy were over.

"Thank you for the tea, Doctor," I said smoothly. "And for your advice. I will consider that operation, and get back to you."

"My pleasure, Commodore," he said. His public persona had returned: once again he was the smiling, jovial, entirely contented young physician. I knew now how much of that was an act--and that a number of our fellow citizens were engaged in the same performance. "Do feel free to stop by again, if you need anything."

"I certainly shall."

I departed then, but as I headed for the door he caught my arm, and silently mouthed a single word: Wait.

###

Returning to our room that afternoon, I found Rae in tears.

I'd spent the intervening time exploring, courtesy of my map…and thinking. Neither activity was particularly fruitful.

The currently-inhabited area of the Undercity formed a circle no larger than a typical city block on Terra or Sah'aar, and lay entirely on one level. On its periphery I saw a number of doorways, hatches and shafts, leading to other parts of the structure--but they had all been firmly welded shut. Without a cutting-laser or a gas torch, we were effectively sealed in.

That, combined with the words of Sah'larrah and Sah'jinn, set me wondering. Certainly the control center was the most stable area--but to what purpose had that strength been turned? To keep the populace safe? Or to keep them imprisoned? In the Undercity's heyday, this would certainly have been a restricted area, for authorized personnel only. How easy it must have been to turn Limited Access into No Access…

But they have a way out. Of that I was certain. They would not have sealed up everything; that would have been foolish. Surely they'd left themselves a bolt-hole somewhere. In fact they must have, to be able to send searchers into the service tunnels. The only problem was how to find it--and how one aging commodore and one teenage girl were supposed to fight their way through it.

While I wandered, taking in these details, I thought about my new friend Sah'jinn. I felt guilty for refusing to help him--of course I did. But I still could see no alternative. As long as Rae was in harm's way, I could not possibly join a revolt. I would provide what little advice I could, off the record and undercover--but that was all. I'd made the best offer I could; it was up to he and his friends to decide how to act on it.

Rae was sitting on her bunk, her face buried in her hands, and as I entered she turned quickly to face me, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at her in horror.

"Mother," she whispered brokenly. "Look what they did to me!"

It would have been difficult to miss. All her life, my daughter had cultivated her long, silky mane, brushing it morning and night, trimming it just enough to keep the ends even; until finally that orange cascade fell far below the base of her tail. Now it was gone--or most of it. More than a meter had been lopped off, leaving her with the same ugly square-cut style worn by all the Undercity's females. Skillfully done--but butchery still. I scarcely recognized her.

I took her in my arms, and for long minutes she clung to me, trembling. For her, I know, this was worse than being kidnapped, worse even than being half-naked or equipped with a permanent collar. It was as if they'd cut off her tail. "What happened?" I asked gently.

Her voice was unsteady, and muffled by my shoulder. "I ran into Ehm'maana," she said. "You remember, she told us we should 'just ask' for anything we need. I told her I wanted a string, a strip of cloth--something to tie back my mane, because it kept falling in my face. She said she had a better idea. And the next thing I knew…"

I stroked her shoulder. "It's all right, honey," I said. "It grows back." I forbore from telling her that leaving her mane short--though not that short--would save her time and trouble. She would not have wanted to hear it, and I couldn't blame her.

…But I knew exactly why they'd done this: it was the first step toward assimilation. My mane was shorter than hers had been, but I'd probably be next. If they dared: I was considerably more dangerous than her. And from there…

"Rae, honey, listen to me," I said softly, into her ear. "I know this hurts--but you can't let it tear you apart. We need to save our strength--both of us. For bigger battles."

She looked up at me questioningly, and I nodded. We are getting out of here, I told her silently. By hook or by crook, we are.


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