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 TWELVE


Another five days passed.

Even now, that astounds me: I have no idea where the time went; it simply vanished into the ether. Days of imprisonment are supposed to drag on endlessly, each one a separate eternity of torment. I know my time on Hellhole did, though I was constantly busy with the business of staying alive. So why did those five days pass so quickly? I don't suppose I'll ever know.

As for what happened during that time, I can sum it up easily. I did not find a way out, and my daughter and I were left alone--with one notable exception. We ate and slept at the appointed times in the approved places; anything else was up to us. As I'd told Rae, they were letting us get acclimated--before putting in the screws. And despite our best efforts, it was working: this bizarre life was slowly becoming familiar, even natural.

Necessity eventually forced us to visit the bathing facility. As I'd expected, it proved to be communal, a huge ex-warehouse that had at least been divided into separate sections for male and female. To my surprise and amusement, however, it did not contain sonic, or even water, showers--but rather dust-baths, an artifact from our distant past which I'd never before encountered. Fortunately I was familiar with the theory, and was able to instruct Rae; otherwise she would have been lost. The "dust" was a dry, scented cleansing powder, the consistency of talcum: you simply rubbed it deep into your fur and mane, then brushed it out. Nowhere near as convenient as a sonic--but remarkably efficient. And in some sense. I guess it was Appropriate Technology.

By that time too our wardrobe had increased: we each had no fewer than three identical outfits. Fortunate, that: the facilities for cleaning our clothes turned out to be nothing more than washtubs, and that rough grey cloth was irritatingly slow to dry.

With remarkably little talking, Rae convinced our hosts to provide her with writing materials. Not a palm-reader--certainly not--but charcoal pencils and reams of rough hand-made paper. She adapted, of course: it was that or nothing, and my daughter seldom went an entire day without writing at least a few lines. It was her stress release, and without it I don't know what she would have done. Climbed the walls, probably. Of course not all the paper went into her journal; we used many sheets to write quick, shorthand notes to each other, expressing thoughts we didn't care to speak aloud. When the pages were too full to take another scrawl, we shredded them--and flushed them. The thought that we might clog the plumbing doing so gave me a certain perverse joy.

As for me…the shortness of my patience is the stuff of legend, and my sanity was soon in serious danger of tottering--but in such extremities, my mind has a way of finding diversions. I soon discovered that the Undercity possessed a library. Just a small room with a rack of book-cards and a few battered desk-readers--but it was my lifeline, and I spent long hours there. I was not surprised to find Sah'larrah's works well-represented, including all his Undercity monographs. Also in evidence were some of my own works, articles and textbooks I'd written over the years. I didn't need to ask who had contributed those.

Once again, Sah'larrah's books grabbed my immediate attention--but this time I ignored his journals, in favor of the maps and charts. Somewhere therein, I felt, was the way out of this mess: at some time he must have charted the secret access I knew existed. But it eluded me--unless these were expurgated editions.

I spent the remainder of my time as profitably as possible. For exercise I took long walks, sometimes with Rae and sometimes without--and at all times I kept my eyes open. I observed the inhabitants at work (there was no play, so far as I could see), and conversed with them, forcing myself to be friendly and outgoing. I had good reason for doing so, apart from simple courtesy: to separate the hunters from the prey. Who were Sah'rajj's supporters, and who Sah'jinn's? That was the question I kept constantly in mind--and over time I began to answer it. The adult citizens all wore that same contented, slightly idiotic smile--but deep into their eyes, that's where the differences lay. In many I saw wariness of prey: they darted fearfully at every passing shadow. But some--just a few--held a steely fanaticism I found unsettling. They were Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's chosen few, and some of them did indeed hold positions of obvious power: guarding the control room, for example, or escorting handcuffed newcomers. But that same steady assurance was just as likely to shine forth from the eyes of someone slopping the rooters.

…And once I'd spotted the True Believers, even speaking to them became a creepy experience. They didn't fear being overheard--and they'd bend your ear for hours, if you let them, describing the world they'd someday create--by force if necessary. As always in the presence of fanatics, I was repelled: five minutes and I found myself edging away, wishing for a stinger. Finding the TB's was easier than I'd expected--but doing something about them…that was something else again.

…Unfortunately, though, none of that that was enough. No matter how much studying, walking or interacting I did, I still couldn't escape the stultifying reality of captivity. It often brought me wide awake in the middle of the night, gasping. Sometimes it was all I could do to keep myself from giving in to panic; only my daughter's presence in the bed next to mine kept me from screaming and clawing the walls like a maniac. Ambassador Sah'churaaf was right: Sah'aarans aren't troglodytes. Any attempt to make us so is perverse.

Two new worries soon came to sit on my chest--as if I needed more. The first, and least welcome, was Sah'larrah. The day after our confrontation, he vanished. I don't mean that literally: obviously he was still somewhere in the Undercity. But I no longer met him in the hallways, or the dining room…or anywhere. And that disturbed me: he'd always been a social animal, craving company and conversation. Not even our present circumstances could have turned him into a hermit. As his absence lengthened I became concerned, despite myself. Finally I asked Ehm'maana--and the Mistress of Disinformation blandly informed me that he was "indisposed." It was from Dr. Sah'jinn that I finally learned the truth, one night when he joined us for dinner--an increasingly-common occurrence. What he told me jacked my guilt index to an all-time high.

"Dr. Sah'larrah's health is one of my major concerns," he said sadly. "He is our oldest resident, and I am becoming increasingly worried about his heart. Over the last few years he has occasionally suffered angina; his recent--ah--discussion with you caused the most severe attack yet. It left him quite weak, and I have prescribed bed-rest. It was a warning, however, and an ominous one. He may soon require an artificial heart--which this community cannot provide."

"Does he know?"

"He does," Sah'jinn said. "And that he must return to the surface for the operation. What he will choose to do, I cannot say; but as things stand, his life expectancy has been considerably lessened."

He came down here to die, I realized in horror. Whatever else Sah'larrah might be, he wasn't stupid. He'd known the state of his heart before his "retirement"--he must have. Of his own volition, he'd taken a one-way trip: there was no way he could reappear in Sah'salaan now without blowing the whistle on Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's plans. He'd come to the Undercity knowing full well that he was throwing away perhaps fifty years.

But why? I wondered angrily. Was he tired of life, or afraid of old age? A desire to die is utterly alien to me; only once had I experienced it, and that under extreme duress. The very last thing I want to do is die: if and when I need a new heart, I'll be the first in line. But I had a mate and kits, a full and rewarding life…the very things he'd been denied. Had loneliness driven him to no longer care whether he lived or died? For the moment those questions would remain unanswered, because he was refusing all visitors--even the daughter he claimed to love.

My second concern was Rae. Not how she was dealing with our predicament--indeed, sometimes she seemed to be handling it too well. No: she was resilient, and if we ever got out of the Undercity, she would recover, given time. My concern was external; assimilation had already begun, in a way I was not certain she'd be able to resist.

It began on the third morning of our internment. We were eating breakfast, she and I, at the corner table that had become our headquarters. Sah'jinn wasn't present--which may have been deliberate. We were about halfway through our meal when our desultory conversation was interrupted by a soft, somewhat unctuous voice: "Excuse me--may I speak to you for a moment?"

We looked up sharply--into the beaming smile and bright eyes of a stranger.

He was young, no more than seventeen, and reasonably good-looking, though nowhere near as muscular as my son. His muzzle was very light, almost beige, and a broad stripe of that some color descended his chest and belly, vanishing beneath the waistband of his kilt. He stood with crossed arms, gazing in evident appreciation at my daughter--and judging from the abrupt reddening of her ears and nose, his scrutiny was not exactly welcome. At a table a little distance away, a dozen other teenagers, a mixed group of males and females, watched with interest.

"Greetings," the young man said formally. "I am Sah'paar. Have I the honor of addressing Commodore Ehm'ayla and her daughter Ehm'rael?"

He knew perfectly well who we were--of course he did--but I had to give him high marks for charm. "You do," I said. "How may we help you?"

His eyes lingered on me for only a second, before returning to Rae. Her tail began to twitch, and she dropped her hands quickly out of sight beneath the table. Sah'paar seemed not to notice. He indicated the other teenagers with a wave of his hand. "My friends and I were hoping you'd join us, Ehm'rael," he said. He chuckled. "It's not every day we meet someone new…"

Rae's lips curled, exposing her teeth, and she growled softly. Impolite--but I had no intention of chastising her. She was thinking the same thing as I: this is a put-up job. Sah'paar and his friends had obviously been recruited by Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana; their attempt to make it look like a spontaneous expression of friendship was laughable. And as for the ringleader himself…he was probably one of the Sah'riil City survivors, and thus deserved a measure of pity--but he'd been thoroughly indoctrinated. As with his elders, I could see it in his eyes. He was well on his way to becoming a TB--an observation I found troubling…and sad.

For a moment Rae sat silent, and I fought to keep my expression carefully neutral. She was tempted--and I couldn't blame her. Ever since our arrival on Sah'aar, she'd been missing her friends; the prospect of having someone her own age to talk to was almost more than she could resist. Though this young man made me profoundly uncomfortable, I had no right to interfere.

It may have been the spark of fanaticism in his gaze that did it--or perhaps it was simply the way his eyes kept raking her, legs to chest. But finally Rae shook her head, her chin thrust out and her whiskers bristling. "No thank you, Sah'paar," she said firmly. "My mother and I are doing fine by ourselves."

His smile never wavered--but for a brief instant, something like fear blossomed in his eyes. Contemplating what Sah'rajj will say, perhaps? He bowed gracefully. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you," he said. "If you change your mind, you know where to find us."

He departed then --but Rae's eyes lingered on his retreating back, a look of regret on her face. "If you'd really like to join them, dear…" I began, but she shook her head.

"Not now," she said softly. "Maybe later--but not yet."

…Of course she did, though; it was inevitable. Loneliness drove her to it--something I could understand very well indeed. Soon she was spending almost eight hours a day with Sah'paar's group, joining them in their studies, helping them in their part-time jobs…and all I could do was stand back and watch, and try not to imagine Joel's reaction, had he been there.

I had no fear that they would turn her into a TB--she was too smart, too independent--but a good half of the group was male. That went beyond indoctrination, into something like biological warfare, coldly calculatedly deliberate. It could have made a difficult situation all but unendurable. But the Goddess and I had the last laugh: the days went by…and nothing happened: Rae remained no more than superficially friendly with those males, even the leering Sah'paar. Which was remarkable, not to say suspicious--but easily explained all the same.

…And that brings us to our seventh day of captivity--when the Dark Ones once again took hold of my life and squeezed. Once again we were at breakfast, my daughter and I; and once again Dr. Sah'jinn was not present. I missed him--but his absence gave me a perfect opportunity to ask Rae a very important question. I might have written it out, kept it private--but no. If what I suspected was true, it would be a slap in the face for our captors, and I'd enjoy that.

For a time I sat watching her, as she picked disinterestedly at yet another unseasoned fish fillet. She's losing weight, I realized in dismay. Every day she ate less and less--and every morning she cinched her belt a little tighter. It wasn't just the insipid food, I knew--and that worried me. Eventually it could damage her health--but in the short term, I needed her strong and alert. Perhaps my friend the doctor could suggest something… But for now that could wait. Summoning my courage, I said softly, "Ehm'rael?"

"Yes, Mother?"

"Rae, honey, why did you lie to me?"

Her head shot up, her eyes wide and terrified, her claws expressing. Guilty conscience, my dear? I wondered. She swallowed hard. "What…what do you mean?"

"You told me you and Sah'larssh hadn't bonded," I explained. "And that wasn't the truth. You have. At the time I wondered--but now I'm sure."

Her tail lashing, she glanced aside, shame-faced. "What makes you think that?" she said faintly. That was nothing more than a diversionary tactic, and I brushed it aside.

"You almost had me fooled," I said. "All that time in the drama club hasn't been wasted. What gave you away? Your new friends. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana have been trying to assimilate you in the most direct way possible: they've been practically throwing young males at you. Sah'paar, for example."

She grimaced. "Oh please, Mother, not him!"

"He's good-looking enough."

"I suppose," she said with a shrug. "But he's also the most stuck-up and single-minded person I've ever met. I couldn't bond with him, Mother. Not in a million years."

"Fine with me," I said with a smile. "But that's exactly my point. He's no more interested in you than you are in him--not now, since he's gotten a whiff of your pheromones. Nor are any of the others. And that means…"

She sighed and nodded. "You're right," she said softly. "I'm sorry, Mother. Please believe me, I didn't mean to deceive you. Sah'larssh and I were really lying to each other. We convinced ourselves we hadn't bonded. But you're right: we had. These last few days…of course I've been thinking a lot about Father, and Tom--but it's his face I can't get out of my head."

I clasped her hand. "I know," I said softly. "Believe me, I do. But I still don't understand why you tried to deny it."

"We couldn't make it work," she said sadly. "He's very nice--a lot nicer than Sah'paar--and he's interested in the same things as me. But…he doesn't want to leave Sah'aar."

"And--?"

"And I feel the same about Earth," she said. "I enjoyed visiting Sah'aar--until this happened. But Pacific Grove is my home. On Sah'aar I don't speak or dress correctly…or even think correctly. And I miss the ocean so badly I could just die. I can't live here. But he wants me to. In fact…" she trailed off, her nose suddenly turning crimson.

"In fact what?" I prompted.

"He…wanted me to mate with him," she went on, barely audible. "I don't just mean have sex--I mean permanently. He wanted us to start living together, start a family--right away,." She shook her head. "Is that even legal?"

"With the permission of both sets of parents, yes," I said. "You'd have as much chance of getting your father to say yes as the Chrysaoans would of joining the Alliance. You'd better not mention this to him, by the way. He'd be after Sah'larssh with your brother's baseball bat."

She flashed a brief, unhappy smile. "What am I going to do, Mother?" she pleaded. "I mean, if we ever get out of here. We are bonded, and that's forever--but…"

"Well," I said, "if you can't convince him to move to Terra, the two of you might have to pick somewhere in between." I paused. "For the record, I'm very much opposed to the two of you mating this early. Your father and I really want to see you get your degree. What you choose to study is your own business, but you have a great deal of potential, and we hate to see it wasted. You'll have plenty of time to settle down after you've established yourselves. Sah'larssh understands that too; I imagine he just let his enthusiasm run away with him."

She giggled. "You're probably right." She sighed. "Isn't bonding supposed to put an end to arguing?"

"I'm afraid not," I told her. "It helps; but Sah'aarans aren't Modifieds. Mated couples do argue, I'm afraid. Even your grandparents, and Ehm'rael and Sah'majha. The difference is, it never escalates to the point of breaking up--because it can't."

"That's something, anyway," she said. She glanced down at her half-finished breakfast. "Not that it matters any more, of course."

"What does that mean?" I demanded.

"I'll never see him again," she said softly. "He's up there, and I'm down here--forever. I guess neither of us will ever be mated."

It was like a punch in the stomach. Goddess, I thought desperately, she's giving up hope! Grasping her chin, I forced her to look at me. "Listen here, young lady," I began--but I was interrupted.

It was a child, a male about ten years old, a ball of dark-brown fur unashamedly naked except for his thick collar. He bounded through the mess hall to our table, and stopped before us, panting, his eyes wide and his tail waving. "Commodore Ehm'ayla?" he said meekly.

I smiled at him. A handsome lad--or would have been, with a proper mane. He reminded me strongly of my own son at that age: a compact bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Probably he was another of the Sah'riil City kits; if so, he didn't seem emotionally scarred. Nor, thank the Goddess, had indoctrination taken its toll yet: his gaze was pure and innocent. "That's right," I said. "What can I do for you?"

He stammered for several seconds before his motor caught. "Dr. Sah'jinn sent me, ma'am," he said. "You're needed in sickbay right away."

Alarm clutched at my throat, though I didn't know why. "What's wrong?" I asked, but the boy shook his head.

"Dunno," he said. "He just said you should come quick."

"I will. Thank you." I patted the orange fuzz atop his head, and he beamed an enormous gap-toothed smile.

"You're welcome." He turned. "Gotta go; I'm late for school." And with that he took off, at lightspeed. I shook my head. I thought my kits were energetic…

"What's going on?" Rae asked, as we rapidly bussed our table and headed for the exit.

"I don't know, honey," I said. Then it hit me, and I froze in my tracks. "Goddess!"

"What is it?"

"Sah'larrah," I said. "Maybe. Sah'jinn is worried about his heart…"

"May I come with you?"

I was about to say no--but then I saw the concern in her eyes. If it was Sah'larrah, I had no right to keep her from seeing him. "They didn't say you couldn't," I told her. "Let's go."

We'd learned our way around fairly well by then, and the mess hall was only a few corridors distant from sickbay. Less than five minutes after receiving the message, we arrived--and when I saw who stood smiling in the doorway, I stopped short, so suddenly that Rae bumped into me. "Thank you for coming so quickly, Commodore," Ehm'maana said. "There is someone here you will want to see."

She pointed the way with a sweep of her hand. Across the room, Sah'jinn was bending low over one of his exam tables, upon which a figure lay supine. Seeing me, the doctor moved quickly aside, a look that was half pity and half fear on his face. In confusion, Rae and I stepped forward. Not Sah'larrah--that much was instantly obvious.

It was a young male, his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling steadily. Covered to the waist by a rough grey blanket, under which he was otherwise entirely naked. A thick black collar encircled his neck, and his mane and sideburns were shorn to a fuzz. I moved closer…

Rae cried out and clutched my arm, and I reeled back, my body ice-cold, and my ears roaring. For a second I feared I would pass out, and I clutched at the table for support. The young man who lay there was Tom.

###

I rounded on Sah'jinn and Ehm'maana. "What the Dark is this?" I demanded harshly. "What is my son doing here?"

"He is not hurt," Sah'jinn assured me, his voice a nervous squeak. "He is merely stinger-stunned. He will awaken shortly."

"As for the rest," Ehm'maana said calmly, "you must ask him. You should be grateful, Commodore. Had we not rescued him from the service tunnels, he might have drowned."

"'Drowned?'" Rae echoed in confusion, and I nodded absently.

"The Interval," I explained. "It must have started raining up there days ago. The tunnels would be filled with water…"

"At times, yes," Ehm'maana agreed. "When the rainfall is especially intense. He was quite foolish to venture down there. It is fortunate indeed that we were watching for him."

I whirled. I might happily have strangled her--in fact my hands were already rising. But then Tom groaned and stirred, and I bent over him, one hand on his forehead and the other on his chest. "Tom?" I said in Terran. "Can you hear me?"

His eyes fluttered open, just a slit, and he smiled. "Mom," he whispered. "You're alive."

I embraced him; his muscles were limp and unresponsive. "Not just me," I said. Rae was hanging back, her eyes wide; grasping her arm, I pulled her close.

"Hi, little brother," she said faintly.

His jaw worked soundlessly, and to my astonishment, I saw his eyes fill with tears. He reached out his arms, gathering his sister tight against his chest. "Rae," he said hoarsely. "I was sure you were dead. I thought I'd killed you."

"No such luck, bro," she said, patting his back. She tried to sound breezy, but her voice was hoarse. "I'm fine, Tom," she assured him. "Really, I am. And please don't blame yourself. You did everything you could--I was the one who couldn't hang on."

By then I had recovered sufficient wit to become angry. What kind of people would stinger a sixteen-year-old boy? Tom was strong, and in perfect health; he was unlikely to suffer any lasting harm. But he was my son--and as I'd told Sah'jinn, protectiveness was in the genes. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"Uh--yeah," he said. "I think so. My head hurts a little…"

He reached up to run a hand through his mane, a characteristic gesture, but as his fingers touched his scalp he froze. An instant later he was sitting bolt upright, frantically feeling his head, face and neck. His wildly-darting eyes took in his unfamiliar surroundings, the odd costumes worn by his sister and me…and the two strangers who stood silent at the foot of the table.

I grasped his flailing arms. Usually he was stronger than me, but the stinger had left him somewhat weak, and I was able to force him to lie back down. "It's all right," I said. "You're safe."

"What's going on?" he asked, panting hard, "What is this place?"

"Basically," I said, "we're in the Undercity--and the people in charge want us to stay."

I glanced pointedly at Ehm'maana, and she bowed. "You have much to discuss," she said smoothly. "We will leave you to your privacy."

…Which, of course, was pure fiction; but I let it pass without comment. She and Sah'jinn departed quietly. Poor Tom had graduated to shuddering, and the gaze he turned toward me was one of helpless pleading. Rae held his left hand, and stroked his arm comfortingly, but without apparent effect.

"It's all right," I assured him again. "We're safe. Relatively speaking."

He rubbed his head gingerly, and cringed. "What did they do to me?" he asked. He touched his collar. "And what's this?"

"We'll explain everything," I promised.

"Can you help me sit up first?" he asked. "Looking at the ceiling makes me dizzy."

That was easily done, using the cranks beneath the table. I raised him to a comfortable sitting position, his head level with Rae's and mine, and pulled the blanket up under his arms. "Thanks," he said with a smile. "That helps."

He glanced at me expectantly, and taking a deep breath, I launched in. I was dying to know how he had ended up in Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's clutches--and more importantly, how his father had allowed it. But that could wait. Briefly, Rae and I described our adventures--an edited version, needless to say. By the time we'd finished, his jaw hung open; but at least he was no longer on the edge of panic.

"You mean…we're here forever?" he asked.

"That's their intention," I said flatly. I hoped my tone would alert him to my true feelings--and his quick, shrewd nod told me it had. I just hoped he wouldn't ask me to describe my plans.

"Your turn," I said. "What happened to you? And where is your father?"

For a horrible moment I feared he would say "Which father?"--but he did not. He hadn't seemed especially surprised to learn that Sah'larrah was alive--but clearly, he was no more inclined than Rae to switch his paternal allegiance. He started to run a hand through his mane again, but desisted. "Dad's in jail, Mom," he said.

"What?" I exploded. "How? Why?"

"He was arrested about two days ago," Tom said. "Chief Ehm'luruus charged him with murder." He flashed a grin. "He's supposed to have killed you and Rae. Ehm'teel, too--she hasn't been found yet."

I staggered, and Rae guided me to an adjacent table. "How?" I repeated dazedly. "Why?"

"For the first couple days after you disappeared," Tom said, " I was…out of it." He glanced at his sister, and reached across to clasp her hand. "I thought I'd killed Rae. I was so upset, they had to keep me sedated. Dad was still in the hospital; they thought he had a head injury, because he couldn't remember how he'd gotten out of the tunnels. As soon as he was released, he told the doctors to stop doping me--that it was time for me to face reality." He swallowed. "He was right. He didn't believe you were dead. Something was fishy--so he said--and he was going to get to the bottom of it. Chief Ehm'luruus wouldn't help him, so he went to Admiral Ehm'rael. And together they contacted Admiral Rogers."

I nodded. I knew Amelia Rogers, the local Combined Forces CO, only by name--and reputation. Some years younger than me, she was a wunderkind of sorts, the kinds whose careers proceed with meteoric swiftness--and can sometimes burn out just as fast. "Go on."

"Admiral Rogers called in CF Security, and the Engineering Corps," Tom continued. "Dr. Sah'larrah's access to the Undercity was destroyed; the cave-in blocked it completely. They had to dig a new shaft, about half a kilometer west. It wasn't easy: the rain kept pouring down, and even after they'd pierced the service tunnel, they had to wait for it to drain before they could go down. Dad wouldn't let me go with them--but he went. They found…" he choked off.

"Remains?" I prompted gently, and Tom nodded.

"Yes," he said. "Your clothes, your collars…and some biological material too. Not much--but enough for genetic testing. The CF decided you'd both been crushed to death, and your decomposing bodies had been swept away by the floods."

He was shuddering again, struggling manfully to blink back his tears. I embraced him, and for a long moment he clung to me. Finally he went on, "Dad didn't believe it. He knew you hadn't been crushed, and even if Rae had, her body wouldn't have ended up anywhere near where they found…that stuff. He tried to convince Admiral Rogers to search farther, but she wouldn't. Then…the police came. Grandfather and Uncle Sah'sell have been trying to get him released--but no luck. No bail, for three counts of murder."

I nodded slowly. There was more to this than met the eye--more even than could be explained by Ehm'luruus' heavy-handed incompetence. Poor Joel, I thought. In the slammer again--and this time you're not even guilty! But that too would have to wait. "You haven't finished," I said. "How did you get down here?"

He looked away. "I…couldn't stand it," he said. "Seeing Dad in jail, not knowing what really happened to you and Rae. So this morning, before dawn…I came down. It wasn't raining; there weren't even many clouds. I sneaked out of the house, took the shuttle to the old access, and hiked to the new one. It wasn't guarded, or locked; there was just some warning tape to keep people from falling in. I'd brought a rope with me, and I rappelled down."

"How did you intend to get back up?" His "ascenders," as he and his rock-climbing buddies called them, were back home in Pacific Grove; surely he wouldn't have packed them.

"Prusik knots," he said cryptically. He took a deep breath. "Anyway, I got into the tunnel. It was only about ankle-deep in water…"

"What did you think you'd find?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Something to help Dad, or some sign of you. I had to do something, Mom. I couldn't stand just sitting around."

I sighed. "All right," I said. Useless to argue about it now; what was done was done. And I knew, better than most, my son's dislike for inaction: my genes at work. "Go on."

"I guess it started to rain while I was down there. I started back toward the old access, and I'd almost reached the cave-in when I heard a roaring sound behind me. I barely had time to turn around before the water was up to my neck. And that's the last thing I remember."

I shook my head. Without a doubt, this was the Abrams family's month for near-death experiences--a habit I wished we could break. I nuzzled his cheek. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" I said. "Rae, take care of your brother, please."

"Uh--okay, sure."

Turning on my toe-claws, I stalked out into the hall, my fists balled and my tail whipping. Perhaps I should have waited until I was calmer--but I couldn't. Hell's remittance was past due.

Ehm'maana and Sah'jinn stood just outside, and they looked up in alarm as I approached. Stepping up before Ehm'maana, I raised my claws before her face. "My husband has been arrested for murder," I snarled. "Did you have anything to do with that?"

Her eyes widened briefly; then she smiled. "Certainly we did," she said.

"Tell me why," I demanded. "Before I tear your whiskers out, tell me why I'm doing it."

She frowned, reaching into her sleeve. "Please calm yourself, Commodore," she said. "Do not force me to have you restrained."

Whether she was reaching for a stinger, or for those damned handcuffs, I don't know--but if it was the latter, this time I would not meekly submit. I could take her, I thought. She was younger and bigger--but by the Goddess, I was meaner. I could have mopped the floor with her…

…But it would have accomplished nothing--and my last set of bruises was only half-healed. I took a step back. "All right," I said quietly. "I'm calm. What did you do, and why?"

"It was necessary," she said. "Mr. Abrams proved more persistent than we expected. It was conceivable he could have forced another search, and our deception might have been discovered. And we also needed to give Thomas the motive and opportunity to enter the tunnels. Your husband's arrest accomplished both objectives admirably."

"And you don't care that an innocent man might end up in prison?"

She waved a dismissive hand. "Unlikely," she said. "The charges cannot stand; only Chief Ehm'luruus' supreme arrogance caused them to be filed at all. They will be dismissed within days. But Mr. Abrams will be obliged to leave Sah'aar, and our problems will be over."

"They'll search again," I pointed out. "When they discover Tom missing. My father will see to that."

She shrugged. "No doubt," she said serenely. "But the result will be the same. Your son drowned during a foolish stunt. A most regrettable accident--but one he brought upon himself."

"What gives you the right?" I demanded. "What in the Goddess' name gives you the right to destroy our lives?"

"We do what we must," she said. "As a military officer, surely you appreciate that."

I speared her with my gaze. "The ends never justify the means. Not in the CF--and not here."

"That is where we disagree," she said. She paused, and shook herself. "It is your responsibility to teach your son our code of conduct," she went on. "I do not believe the handcuffs will be needed--but I will tolerate no transgressions. Do you understand?"

I nodded tiredly. "Yes."

"Excellent. I will see to his accommodations and clothing, and inform Dr. Sah'larrah. Good day, Commodore."

As soon as she was out of sight, I collapsed. Huddled on the floor with my knees against my chest, I buried my face in my hands. This was a nightmare, a bad dream that refused to end. Would I ever awaken? Our would the madness continue to spiral out of control until my mind finally snapped? How could I protect my kits, if I couldn't protect myself?

A hand closed on my shoulder, and I looked up to see Dr. Sah'jinn crouched beside me, his eyes filled with concern…and anger. The latter, I knew, was directed elsewhere--though I was grateful for both. He rose and helped me to my feet. "I am sorry, Ehm'ayla," he said softly. "Truly sorry."

I found a smile and donned it. "Thank you for caring for my son," I said.

His face lit with his familiar grin. "You are welcome." He sobered. "They used a very light setting," he assured me. "There will be no lasting harm. I wish they would not use stingers at all…"

"…But it spares them the necessity of explanations," I finished with a wry smile. "How well I know."

Together we returned to sickbay. Rae was sitting on the edge of the table, her head alongside Tom's; and as the doctor and I entered, the sheaf of paper she called her "notebook" vanished smoothly beneath her belt. She caught my eye, and I nodded. She'd been filling her brother in on the facts of Undercity life--and she was fortunate indeed that Ehm'maana hadn't caught her at it. I laid my arms across their shoulders. "Our host is arranging a place for you to sleep," I told Tom. "And finding you some clothes."

"You mean like that?" he asked, flicking the hem of his sister's kilt. I nodded.

"Afraid so," I said.

"Maybe I should have stayed in bed this morning…"

"To be truthful," I told him, "yes. You should have But you're here, and we'll have to make the best of it. After you're dressed, we'll show you around. Lunch won't be for another few hours…"

As always when food was mentioned, his eyes lit up--but whether his legendary appetite would survive the Undercity's cuisine was another question. "There's something I forgot to tell you," he said.

"And that is?" I asked cautiously.

"You remember I said Ehm'teel hadn't been found yet? Well, Sah'raada has vanished too."

That statement had an extraordinary effect--but on Sah'jinn, not me. Tom had spoken quietly, but the doctor had Sah'aaran ears, and even from behind his workbench he'd heard every word. He looked up quickly, the flask he was holding nearly slipping from his hands; he caught it just in time. A look of wild hope spread across his face before he could compose himself. What was that about? I wondered. He'd started to say something about Ehm'teel's brother, during our clandestine conversation several days ago, but hadn't had time to finish. Was there a connection? Almost certainly. "Vanished how?" I asked. "When?"

"About four days ago," Tom said. Sah'jinn had turned away, but his ears remained cocked in our direction. As for the others who were no doubt listening…surely they knew already. "The doctors didn't think he was strong enough--but one morning the nurses found his room empty." He grinned. "Somebody must have brought him some clothes, though. He wouldn't have gotten far in a paper gown."

I frowned in confusion. Now what? I wondered. Certainly Sah'raada knew of his sister's disappearance; Joel must have told him, if no one else. Had he gone to search for her? In his condition? He'd been half-dead when I found him; four days would not have been nearly enough time to recover his strength. And according to our captors, his memories of his time in the Undercity had been wiped. He and his sister might both be dead in the tunnels…and if so, that was more blood on Sah'larrah's hands.

"Mother," Rae said fearfully, "what will happen to Father?"

I sighed. "Ehm'maana believes the charges will be dropped," I said. "But eventually he'll have to leave the planet. He might even begin to believe we're really dead…"

"No," Tom said firmly. "Never. Not him."

I hope you're right, I thought, as I embraced them both. I really hope you are.

###

Tom hated the Undercity.

That could have been predicted, by anyone who knew my son: the place represented the antithesis of everything he lived for. He had no use for moderation, economy, or self-denial. Confident and outspoken, he worked hard, when he had to--but he preferred to play hard. He took risks, more and more as the years went by. He liked his food highly-seasoned, and was adventurous in his diet; I have no idea how many times the Presidio infirmary cured his bellyaches. He loved the outdoors, fresh air, exercise…but most of all, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, he loved freedom. The very things the Undercity would do its best to take from him. From the very first I feared an explosion; when it finally happened, it was almost a relief.

Ehm'maana returned about twenty minutes later. Without a word, she handed Tom one of those ubiquitous kilts, and left, while he gazed at her with narrowed eyes and bared teeth. He always had been a good judge of character. Then, his ears and nose reddening in embarrassment, he tossed aside the blanket, rose somewhat unsteadily to his feet, and clothed himself--but not before I had assured myself that he was indeed unharmed. Actually he'd fared better than his sister and me: there was not a bruise or a dermapatch on him. "Everybody wears this?" he asked dubiously, as he tightened the webbing belt.

"Everybody," I assured him.

"And when you're our age," Rae added ruefully, "nothing but."

Though still a little shaky, he was immediately ready to explore. That too was typical--but his enthusiasm might not last long, alas. Rae seemed more animated than she had for days, I was pleased to see, laughing and chatting with her brother as if they were ambling down Lighthouse Avenue. For the moment, their troubles were submerged in the joy of their reunion--but not mine. Of course I was glad to see Tom--but his arrival had multiplied my problems a hundredfold. Someone else to watch out for, who could be made a hostage to my good behavior--that, I didn't need; and yet here he was, big as life and twice as furry.

What I needed was a chance to regroup--and so I caught hold of my kits' arms, bringing them to a halt. "Rae, why don't you show your brother around? I said. "I'll meet you in the mess hall for lunch."

Tom gazed at me quizzically--but over the last few days, Rae had gained a fresh understanding of my moods. She tugged her brother's arm, and off they went. I watched them go with a mixture of affection and trepidation. I wished I could be confident they wouldn't get into mischief--but trouble had a way of finding Tom. His sister had acted as his conscience more than once; hopefully she still could. Most definitely, though, they would meet me for lunch: my son had yet to miss a meal.

And me--? I wandered, heedless of where my feet were taking me, and of the curious stares that followed me. My mind was whirling, my heart heavy; seldom had I felt so helpless. All my life I'd been bold, decisive…and on occasion my decisions were even known to be correct. Why now did I have no idea which way to turn?

Finally I found myself in one of the fish-farm tunnels; the very one, in fact, where I'd argued with Sah'larrah days ago. This time it was just me and the fishies, and I sank down on the edge of a tank, rubbing my throbbing temples. What am I going to do? I asked myself, over and over. Goddess, what am I going to do?

The Terrans say it best: "You never appreciate what you have until it's gone." For the last twenty years my life had been settled, pleasant, almost idyllic. A happy marriage, a satisfying career, a loving family. Why did the Dark Ones seem so determined to take it all away? I couldn't bear to think what poor Joel was going through. Sitting in jail, with his wife, daughter and son all missing…I truly feared it would destroy him. Was our life together over? Could a benevolent Goddess--whose renewed grace I'd felt, just days ago--allow that to happen? Or was this actually Her doing? Was she punishing me for the sins of my youth?

I don't know how long I sat, wallowing in self-pity, but finally I sighed and shook my head. This isn't helping. I should be planning, scheming, finding a way to escape. Twenty years behind a desk: that was my problem. In my youth I would have fought my way out, by tooth and claw if necessary. But those days were gone, traded in for experience and knowledge--along with arthritis, digestive problems and kits. So, if brute force would no longer serve, what would? What in my life had prepared me for this?

"Ehm'ayla?"

The voice was familiar--almost: it had acquired an odd tremor. Frowning, I turned.

As I'd thought, it was Sah'larrah. I hadn't seen him in more than five days--and now I understood why. I rose to my feet, my tail lashing, and seeing the dismay on my face, he smiled wryly. "Have I really changed that much, my dear?" he asked.

I stammered a denial--but I was lying, and we both knew it. In fact he had: in less than a week he seemed to have aged thirty years. His body had contracted, curling like a question-mark, so that his monk's robe hung loose on him. His nose and the inside of his ears--previously a healthy pink--were yellowish-grey. He leaned heavily on an ugly metal cane, nothing like Admiral Ehm'rael's elegant walking stick, and he moved slowly, as if each step required all his strength.

"Goddess!" I breathed. "What did this to you?"

He smiled faintly, "You did," he said. "Or more specifically, our last conversation."

I took his arm and helped him to sit; I feared he might fall into the fishtank otherwise. "Sah'jinn said you'd had some angina…" I began, and he chuckled.

"The good doctor is a master of understatement," he said. "Or perhaps he wished to spare your feelings. In truth I experienced what is generally called an 'infarction'--or, in layman's terms, a heart attack."

With a gasp, I reeled back. I shouldn't have left him, I thought angrily. Even though he told me to. Goddess, he might have died… But I'd had no way of knowing how serious his condition was. "I'm sorry," I said. "Terribly sorry."

He waved that aside. "You need not be," he said. "What you told me, I had to know; and I doubt the shock would have been any less had I found out later, or from someone else. And it might well be said I asked for it: I should know better than to goad you."

I turned away. I'd often had reason to regret my temper--but rarely one so graphic. "What happens now?" I asked.

"My heart has been damaged," he said flatly. "Dr. Sah'jinn tries to be encouraging--but he is fooling no one. I have a very short time to live."

"Is there nothing that can be done?"

"There is indeed," he said wryly. "A journey to Sah'salaan General for heart-replacement surgery. I might then live for a number of years, quite happily. But that option no longer exists for me." He paused, peering into my eyes. "I have made a number of choices lately," he went on. "All of them bad."

For a long time we sat silent. I could think of nothing to say, and Sah'larrah seemed lost in thought. Finally he shook himself and said, "I am informed Thomas is here."

"Yes," I said. "He is."

"I am sorry."

I quirked an eye. "You are? Forgive me, but I thought that was part of your plan."

He nodded, not meeting my gaze. "It was," he said. "Most definitely: a major part. But these last five days, as I lay all but helpless in my bed…I did a great deal of thinking. The decisions I made, the things I believed my due, by natural right…none of it seems as clear-cut as once it did. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana were indeed acting according to my earlier requests--but I would have stopped them, had I been well enough." He shook his head. "To be honest, I did not believe they could acquire Thomas. I appear to have underestimated their tenacity."

And Tom's. "Hindsight is easy, Sah'larrah," I said. "And regret is useless, after the fact. Surely you must realize by now: my kits and I can't live here. And you have no right to destroy an innocent life. Hate me, if you wish, for letting a human raise your kits--but Joel is guilty of nothing more than love."

He nodded. "I know," he said simply. "But that choice has also been made--irreversibly."

"Why so?"

He sighed. "Because we know too much, Ehm'ayla. About this place, and about them. They cannot risk that knowledge becoming public. They have staked everything on the success of this project; our lives are nothing in comparison. You and I, and your kits, will spend the rest of our days here--some longer than others. That. perhaps, is the Goddess' will."

I shook my head. "No," I said firmly. "I don't accept that. Any of it."

With a grunt he heaved himself to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane. "That is your choice. Let us hope it proves more fortunate than mine."

###

Later that evening, I looked in on the twins.

Ehm'maana's solution to the living-space dilemma was simple, even elegant: move me out--and Tom in. In retrospect, probably the best she could do.

My new room lay directly across the corridor from theirs, and was identical in every way, save that it contained just a single bunk. I can endure solitude, though I don't relish it; and the kits--as they did during our trip to Sah'aar--would have to get used to enforced togetherness. For a while at least, that didn't look to be a problem.

Unlike Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, I knocked softly before I entered. I found my kits still wide awake, and in fact still clothed, sitting cross-legged on their bunks. Rae was writing--of course--the blunt charcoal pencil flying across her notebook in her lap. Tom was engaged in that most common Sah'aaran activity: tending his claws. Smiling. I sat down on the edge of his bunk. "Not asleep yet?" I asked. Somehow it felt more natural to speak Terran.

Rae shook her head. "We…had some things to discuss."

That, I didn't doubt. Rae would have been desperate for news of the outside world; most especially of her father. And what she'd heard would go directly into her journal. I could only hope they hadn't let slip anything I'd prefer our captors not know.

"How did you like your first day?" I asked Tom.

He shook his head, his gaze still fixed on his fingertips. "It was…interesting, I guess," he said. "They've done an amazing job with this place--and I do see their point about appropriate technology. Dad would love to see what they've accomplished." He paused. "But I don't understand all the choices they've made." He nodded at my kilt.

I smiled wryly. The Undercity had already begun to work its dubious magic on my son. When we met for lunch, I'd noticed that his enthusiasm already seemed muted--and it quickly became more so as he stared in horror at the unadorned slab of rooter and cup of water that was his only nourishment. At dinner he'd been positively glum, obviously beginning to realize the true extent of the mess he'd gotten himself into. "Neither do I," I said. I paused, then continued, knowing full well that Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana wouldn't appreciate my words when they played back the tape. "I think it has more to do with their world-view than appropriate technology. Sah'rajj has some…unique ideas about the way things should be run."

Tom grinned and nodded. You can say that again. Lifting his hands and expressing all eight claws, he examined his handiwork. Evidently satisfied, he set aside the file. "I'm surprised I still have these," he commented.

No native-born Sah'aaran would ever had said such a thing, but Tom had been raised on Terra--and knew my own unfortunate history. I shook my head. "That's one thing they'd never do," I said. "They'd have a riot on their hands."

Tom nodded. For a moment he sat, staring into space. Then he said softly, "Mom--there's something I've been wanting to tell you…"

"Go ahead, dear."

"When I thought you were dead"--he swallowed--"and afraid I'd killed Rae…I went into the shrine at Grandfather's house. I'd never thought I was a believer--but something seemed to pull me in."

I winced, wondering if he'd profaned that sacred place by entering clothed. I hadn't had an opportunity to instruct him. But his next words reassured me.

"Rae had told me what to do," he said. "Keep your collar on, but leave your clothes in the foyer. At the time I thought it sounded silly." he paused, and his voice lowered even more. "But I did it anyway. At first it was awful. She was looking right at me--maybe even through me. And I thought I heard Her saying, 'You murdered your sister.'"

"Sometimes one gets out of the experience what one brings in…" I said.

"I know that now," he replied. "I couldn't move, couldn't leave. I must have knelt there an hour or more. And after a while…I realized She wasn't saying that at all; it was my own fears talking. What She was really saying…" He shook his head. "It's strange. Maybe I was fooling myself…but I was certain She was telling me you weren't dead--and it was my job to find you."

"Did you tell anyone else about this?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I didn't. I figured they'd all think I'd lost my mind." He shrugged. "But here I am, and here you are. I keep asking myself: did the Goddess really speak to me?"

I hugged him. "I wish I could answer that," I said. "I've never thought of myself as a believer either. But every once in a while something happens--something I can't quite explain."

"But what I can't figure out," he said, "is why? What good did it do? All I accomplished was to make myself a prisoner--and cause you more trouble."

I sighed. If one considered the situation in purely logical terms, he was correct. But I'd never wanted my kits to think of themselves as a problem or a burden--especially now.

…All the same, though: what could the Goddess' purpose have been? Was he here for his sister's sake, to revive her flagging desire to live? Or was there something else at work, too subtle for my poor mortal mind? If so, I wished She'd hurry up and reveal it…

I glanced around the painfully-bare room. "Will you two be all right here?"

They exchanged a wary glance, no doubt remembering those five days aboard Cuvier, and how their tempers had begun to fray by the time the journey was over. Here at least there were more places to escape to, when they desired solitude.

Finally Rae nodded and smiled. "Yes," she assured me. "We will."

"Good" I stifled a yawn "Well, you two might not be ready to sleep, but I am. Good night."

I began to rise, but Tom caught my arm. Grabbing his sister's pad and pencil, he scribbled a brief note and handed it to me, a look of desperation in his eyes. I can't stay down here forever.

I sighed and motioned for the pencil. I hope you won't have to.

As he read those words, I turned aside, unable to meet his hopeful, yearning gaze. I knew exactly what he was thinking: she's got a plan. Mom always has a plan. And how could I tell him I had none at all?

###

So began the next phase of our life in the Undercity--and thanks to Tom, it at least proved interesting.

My son's arrival was a turning point in our captivity. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana made the mistake of their lives, bringing him there--and believing he could be assimilated. They hadn't a clue who Thomas Abrams was, nor the extent to which he was an individual, answerable only to himself. As similar as he and his sister were, in likes and dislikes, habits and lifestyles, there were differences--the most important being, how they responded to a challenge. To an outside observer Ehm'rael might have appeared passive; but she was not. What she was, was very, very patient. Confronting a brick wall, she'd explore until she found a way around--but Tom would grab the nearest sledgehammer. That was why they made such a formidable team: her analytical nature tempered his hell-for-leather aggressiveness. No wonder no one ever stole second when she was on the mound and he was at first.

Under the circumstances, trouble was inevitable--but Tom's presence had good effects too: Rae soon began eating again, and the spark returned to her eyes. Watching them, and listening to their animated conversation (baseball, always baseball) I couldn't help but feel my spirits lift too. Having acquired so many of his human father's traits, it was almost as if Tom had brought Joel with him, and for brief moments I could almost forget my aching loneliness.

The next three days were fairly quiet, as Tom examined the situation and tried to find ways to cope with it. That brief period contained just three memorable events--one of which proved very important indeed, though I didn't know it at the time. But the mightiest Tatak grows from a tiny nut…

On my tenth day in the Undercity, Ehm'maana called me to her office. I went, but not without a certain trepidation: she'd never before been the bearer of good news, and why should this time be any different? She smiled at me across that wide expanse of unadorned grey desk, and once again I had to firmly suppress a desire to throttle her. "What can I do for you?" I asked cautiously.

"I have some news that should please you," she said. "But first, I am curious to know how your son is settling in."

You should know, I thought bitterly. You listen to every word he says. I shrugged. "As well as can be expected. This is a very different world than he's accustomed to, and it will take time for him to come to terms with it."

"Of course," she said loftily. "He may take as long as he needs--and Ehm'rael too. There will be ample time later to determine their futures."

That sounded ominous, but I let it pass. "And your news--?"

"Ah yes," she said, her smile widening. "You will be pleased to know that Mr. Abrams has been released from jail. All charges have been dropped, for lack of evidence."

Thank the Goddess. Despite Ehm'maana's assurances, I had darkly foreseen a situation in which he might actually be convicted of murder; or--in actuality--of being a human who'd dared mate with a Sah'aaran. "Where is he now?" I asked.

"Back at your father's home," Ehm'maana said. "But soon he will realize the hopelessness of his situation, and return to Terra to continue his life."

Or end it, I thought miserably. Humans don't bond--but Joel's feeling for me came close. Without me, without our kits…I couldn't be sure what he might do. I had no idea how Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana intended to convince him to leave the planet; but once they had, their victory would be complete. The irony of the situation--that the author of the plot had disavowed it--I didn't care to dwell upon.

"That is news indeed," I said. I kept my voice carefully neutral, giving her no satisfaction. I paused. "There's a question I've been meaning to ask you," I went on.

"Go on."

"How do you know so much about the happenings of the outer world?" I asked. "You seem better informed than the Interplanetary News."

Her face closed down instantly. Her smile never wavered, but her eyes became dark and inscrutable. "We have our sources, Commodore."

"Are you bonded, Ehm'maana?" I asked quietly.

She glanced away. "No," she said in embarrassment. "I have not yet had that honor. Why do you ask?"

I sighed. "If you were, you might understand. As hard as it is for some to accept, I am bonded to Joel Abrams--and I love him. Being separated from him has been hard on me, and on our kits. I can only imagine what it has done to him. Would it…be possible to send him a message? To assure him that we are alive? I can't bear the thought that he'll mourn us the rest of his life."

Whatever vestige of normal emotion still existed within her, I'd touched it. She fell silent, and her ubiquitous smile all but vanished. Finally, reluctantly it seemed, she shook her head. "I am sorry, Commodore," she said. "Truly, I am. I can think of no way to send such a message without compromising our security. At very least, it would give him incentive to continue searching. As painful as it may seem, it is best that you and your kits make a clean break from your former lives."

"Then you've condemned us to everlasting misery."

She met my gaze evenly. "I hope not," she said. "But if so--then so be it."

###

The second occurrence of those few days was less dramatic, if every bit as gloomy. Later that day I went to see Dr. Sah'jinn.

He was alone when I arrived, though his previous patient had apparently just left: I found him scrubbing down an exam table, and throwing instruments into a tray for their trip to the sterilizer. Seeing me, he paused in his work, smiling. "Ah, Commodore! What can I do for you?"

I grinned. "The other day you called me 'Ehm'ayla,'" I pointed out.

He nodded ruefully, scratching his fresh-cropped scalp. "So I did," he admitted. "I wondered later if I'd overstepped my bounds."

"Not at all," I assured him. "Believe me, that rank business can become tiresome. And anyway, it hardly seems appropriate now. Shouldn't I simply be Citizen Ehm'ayla?"

He bowed, a strange, sad look in his eyes. "Point taken. So, what can I do for you, Ehm'ayla?"

I handed him an empty jar. "I'm here to have a prescription refilled."

He nodded. "I thought you might," he said. "How has the mixture been working?"

"Very well indeed," I said. "I've been using it as a preventative as well as a cure--I hope that's all right."

"Quite so," he said. "It can't harm you."

"--And as such, it's been days since my last hint of heartburn."

He nodded. "Then I need not alter the formula. This will not take long."

He circled briskly behind his workbench, indicating with a wave of his hand a nearby stool. Seating myself, I watched in fascination as he bustled about, selecting jars, measuring and grinding. Over his shoulder he said, "How is your son?"

"Quite well," I said. "As you predicted, there was no lasting harm from the stinger."

"Good," he said. "I've also become somewhat concerned about Ehm'rael. It seems to me she's been experiencing some anorexia--?"

"That is so." He was observant indeed. "But it seems to be in abeyance at the moment. Her brother's arrival has cheered her considerably."

"That is good too," he said. "should it happen again, do not hesitate to let me know. I may have a way to stimulate her appetite."

I smiled. "A natural, herbal way?" I guessed, and he grinned.

"Of course."

From my waistband I withdrew a slip of Rae's paper, along with the stub of a pencil. Scribbling a few Sah'aaran characters, I handed the paper to Sah'jinn. Can we talk privately?

His eyes widened; then, accepting the pencil, he wrote, Not yet. Ehm'maana is suspicious. I am too kind to you.

I sighed as I crumpled the note. It was useless to argue with him; he knew, far better than I, how far he dared go. I'd simply have to wait until he felt more secure. But there was one matter we could discuss openly; Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana would be expecting us to. "I saw Sah'larrah two days ago," I said. "His condition frightened me greatly."

Sah'jinn nodded sadly. "I did not tell you the whole truth," he admitted. "I feared you would feel yourself responsible…"

And you were right, I thought bitterly. "Must he die, then?"

I expected a platitude, something along the lines of "we all must, eventually"--at which point I probably would have clawed him. But he surprised--and horrified--me with his candor. "As things stand," he said, "yes. His heart was badly damaged. I can make him comfortable, prolong his life somewhat…but that is all. Without a heart replacement, he is doomed. He has no more than weeks to live."

"Wouldn't Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana allow him to be saved?" I asked desperately.

The look in his eyes said it all: Do I really need to answer that? "They will not jeopardize their project," he said. "For them, its importance transcends individual lives."

What were Ehm'maana's words? That is where we disagree.

"And in any event," Sah'jinn was saying, "they would argue that Sah'larrah brought it on himself. They are firm believers in individual responsibility."

Do tell, I thought wryly. Perhaps someday we'd put that to the test…

"Here you are." He handed me the jar, once again full to the brim with fine green powder. As I reached for it, he grasped my hand. "Be assured," he said, "I will do everything I can for him. If he must die, he will do so in comfort and dignity."

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

And with that, I grabbed the jar and fled. I suppose there's something to be said for a comfortable and dignified death--especially when you consider the alternative. But an unnecessary and meaningless death…that's a little harder to take.

###

The third memorable happenstance was the most unusual, in many ways the most telling--and definitely the most serious. It provided me with clues I wish I'd followed up on; if only I hadn't been so preoccupied! I might have saved my son a great deal of trouble, and not a little pain. Or perhaps not. Maybe what happened to him was the Goddess' will: a lesson in circumspection. I'll never know.

It involved the group of adolescents who'd been assigned to assimilate Ehm'rael, and their creepy straw-boss, Sah'paar. Before Tom arrived, she'd been spending her days almost entirely with them, studying and working. (Her favorite activity, so she told me, was tending the fish-farms; it reminded her of helping her father with his koi ponds.) Not because she felt any great kinship with those youngsters, but simply as a way of filling days that would otherwise have been barren. Though I felt a stab of anxiety every time she left with them, I had to admit she showed no signs of brainwashing--yet.

…But then her brother showed up, and everything changed. Of course she preferred his company to theirs; and of course she immediately dumped them like a truckload of maxigrazer droppings. As time passed, they might have begun to get on each other's nerves--but for the moment they were inseparable, and I saw no reason to interfere with that. Most especially because Rae's protruding joints had begun to vanish. If the Goddess had no more plan for Tom than that, I could only be grateful.

I might have known, though, that Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana wouldn't see it that way--and that they'd immediately send in the troops. But they couldn't have anticipated that their assault would be repulsed by a one-man commando squad named Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams.

It happened the morning of Tom's fourth day in the Undercity. We were at breakfast; Sah'jinn and I together at one table, Tom and Rae at an adjacent one. As the doctor and I conversed, I was dimly aware of an animated conversation in Terran behind us, on such subjects as ERA's, batting averages, and pennant-race standings. A discussion no one else in the Undercity could possibly have understood--even me, to be honest.

I didn't see Sah'paar's arrival, but when my kits' voices suddenly ceased, I looked up sharply. There he was, standing smiling beside Rae, his hand resting rather familiarly on her shoulder. Uh-oh, I thought uneasily. Now what?

"We have missed you, Ehm'rael," Sah'paar said, without preamble. "Will you be coming back to work soon?"

Tom gazed at the intruder through narrowed eyes, and the tip of his tail began to vibrate. I'm not certain why he took such an instant dislike to Sah'paar. Possibly he saw that young man as a symbol of Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's authority--which of course he was. More likely, though, it was Tom's instinctive protectiveness toward his sister. No one touched her and got away with it--especially when she clearly didn't appreciate the contact. "Excuse me," he said pointedly. "We're having a private conversation."

Sah'paar gazed at Tom in mild surprise. He had perfected Ehm'maana's beatific smile, as well as her maddeningly soft tones. "You must be Tah-mahss," he said. His smile widened. "Please forgive my pronunciation; I have some difficulty with Terran."

A full thirty seconds passed before Tom replied. Sah'paar's hand was still resting on Rae's shoulder, and she had begun to squirm. His eyes fixed on that hand, Tom bared his teeth, ever so slowly. Sah'paar got the point--he could scarcely have failed to--and quickly lowered his arm. Finally my son spoke, his voice a low growl. "You can call me Tom if it's easier," he said. "Or you can just go away."

A brief stir, like a rustle of leaves, passed through the waiting group of Sah'paar's supporters, and quickly stilled when he glanced sharply at them. Rae remained silent, her eyes wide, grasping the edge of the table hard enough to leave fingerprints.

"I am sorry to have disturbed you, Tom," Sah'paar said, a little less suavely. "Before you arrived, Ehm'rael had agreed to help us with our work. We have missed her, and hoped she would choose to rejoin us. You are welcome as well, of course."

"She and I have plans," Tom said flatly.

Sah'paar's eyebrows contracted. "Obviously you don't yet understand our community, Tom. Work comes first. Your 'plans' come later. You must learn this--if you are to fit in."

Tom turned to Rae. "Sis, have you been told you have to work?"

She shook her head. "No," she said faintly, staring at the table. "Not really. It was just…something to do."

Tom shrugged. "There you have it," he told Sah'paar. "If Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana want us to work, they can tell us so themselves. Otherwise we'll do as we like."

This exchange had taken less than a minute, and as I watched, I grew more and more alarmed. I began to rise…but Sah'jinn's hand closed on my arm. Catching my eye, he shook his head.

He's right, I realized in chagrin. There was only one word for this: dominance. Tom had to demonstrate that he couldn't be intimidated, or Sah'paar would never leave him alone. The last thing my son needed was his mother's intervention. And so I continued to wait and watch--along with everyone else in the hall.

By now Sah'paar was definitely frowning. "That is not acceptable…" he began.

Slowly, Tom rose, eyes blazing, tail lashing, and claws fully expressed. He was taller and better-built than Sah'paar, and the older boy gave way before him, step by step. "I don't care what isn't acceptable," Tom snarled. "We didn't ask to be in this place, and there's no way we're going to roll over and let you indoctrinate us. You're going to have to work for it. Now leave us alone!"

Rarely had I seen Tom so angry; he'd seldom needed to be. And if he'd suddenly morphed into a full-grown brush-demon, Sah'paar couldn't have been much more alarmed. He stared, open-mouthed--then retreated, almost at a run. At the door he glanced back. "This will be reported, Tom. You may be certain of that."

Tom shrugged. He knew, as did we all, that it already had been. "Feel free," he said. Sah'paar vanished then, and a few seconds later his supporters followed.

Tom watched them go; then he took a deep breath and shook himself. When his claws had vanished and his tail had stilled, he sat back down. Gradually the other diners returned to their own meals and conversations.

I rose and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I appreciate your feelings, Tom," I said. "Believe me, I do. But was that really wise?"

Before he could answer, his sister linked her arm with his, her eyes shining with admiration. "Yes," she said firmly. "It was."

…And after that, what more could I say?


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