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 THIRTEEN


Tom exploded exactly one week after his arrival.

That could have been predicted too, right down to the timing--but prevented? I doubt it. Not even if I'd had all my wits about me. As well try to stop a plasma-containment failure with your bare hands.

During our imprisonment, he and his sister were both under a great deal of pressure--but in Tom's case, the situation was made far worse by the kind of person he was. A fortunate few among us never sweat the small stuff; they shrug off petty annoyances almost without thought, on their way to the Big Picture. But others are exactly the opposite: in their minds the little details grow larger and larger, until finally they loom as insurmountable obstacles. To such a person, any fresh irritation--however small--can be the proverbial back-breaking straw. And that, alas, was what the Undercity had done to my son.

He hadn't always been that way--but the stress he'd been under, those last few weeks, could easily have turned even the happiest teenager into a wild animal. Like Rae, he was resilient, and if removed from the Undercity, he would quickly recover his good humor. But in the meantime, trouble was virtually inevitable--and as with everything else, when he finally snapped, he did it up big.

It wasn't just the lack of sunshine and fresh air, nor the strange clothing--or even the absence of coffee. Those he could cope with. The collar was another matter. For most of his life he'd refused to wear one at all, and he still found them uncomfortable. To equip him with one so stiff, and non-removable too…was something akin to torture. Many times I caught him pulling at that shiny black band, as if it was choking him, or running a finger beneath it in a desperate attempt to loosen it. If we ever found our way out, he might never wear one again--Sah'aaran customs and his bond-mate notwithstanding.

But above and beyond all else, what bothered him most was his mane--or his lack thereof. He'd always been proud of that mass of orange hair--and of his sideburns, once they'd started to fill in. He spent endless hours before the mirror, trimming and shaping, having learned the technique from Joel. To wake up and find that carefully-tended growth sheared to a millimeter of fuzz…without a doubt, it was the single biggest shock of his young life. Nor did it wear off easily. Every day I caught him in the act of running a hand across his scalp, or absently trying to smooth his sideburns--and jumping a meter in the air when his fingers encountered nothing but bristles.

…In the end, though, collar and haircut were all peripheral to his real problem: the one he'd left back on Terra. At this stage in their bonding, he and Ehm'tassaa should have been together almost every day--and certain things should already have occurred. It was not the Undercity's fault they'd been kept apart; if anyone's, it was Sah'churaaf's--and mine. But to Tom, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's escape-proof utopia became a symbol for his broken heart. And that was a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

It was the morning of Tom's seventh day in the Undercity (and--the Goddess help me--my fourteenth), and I was alone in the library, when the messenger found me. Not a child this time, but rather a guard, a broad-shouldered TB with a stinger in his belt and a scowl on his face. "I have come to bring you to Ehm'maana," he said. "She must speak to you immediately."

I frowned. "Why?" I asked. "What's wrong?"

"It involves your son," he told me. "More than that, I cannot say."

Instantly I leaped to my feet, not bothering to switch off the reader or re-file the cards I'd borrowed. Useless, I knew, to question the errand-boy any further: he was too well trained. I'd have to go to the source.

…And so I did, hurrying through the corridors, my imagination working overtime. Was Tom hurt? (But if so, shouldn't they have summoned me to sickbay?) Or was it something else entirely? Sah'paar had been keeping his distance since that morning in the mess hall--but what if he'd decided to press his luck again? Goddess, what if they'd come to blows--or worse? I believed I'd instilled in my kits a healthy respect for their claws--but they had been raised on Terra. If Tom was pushed a little too far…

Ehm'maana met me in the hallway, near the closed door to her office--and for once she wasn't smiling. "Thank you for coming, Commodore," she said tightly.

"What has happened?" I asked. "Where's Tom? Is he injured?"

"No," she assured me. She nodded toward the door. "He is there, under guard. He was involved in an…incident, and it was necessary to restrain him. His only injuries are a few bruises--largely self-inflicted."

"How so?"

"He…resisted arrest, I fear."

My shoulderblades hit the wall with a solid thud. "What has he done?"

She crossed her arms, gazing at me earnestly. "Commodore, I cannot emphasize enough our need for order. The rules my brother and I have formulated are for everyone's good, to prevent the chaos that could destroy this community."

Otherwise known as "democracy." I said nothing, and she went on, "Up until recently, we had high hopes for Ehm'rael and yourself. Especially your daughter: I believed she had begun to accept the reality of her situation, make new friends, and perform useful work. But then your son arrived." She shook her head mournfully. "He has been a destabilizing influence, I am sorry to say. After much discussion, my brother and I decided to overlook the confrontation in the mess hall. It was not entirely Thomas' fault, in any case. Sah'paar overstepped his authority--and badly underestimated your kits' affection for one another. His own sister died in the Sah'riil tragedy, alas. His overly-familiar attitude toward Ehm'rael precipitated Tom's anger, I am told. That will not happen again--and Sah'paar has been taught a valuable lesson."

By this time I was nearly frantic, my tail lashing and my claws expressed. Ehm'maana was aware of that, of course: her rambling prelude was intended solely to infuriate. I could do nothing but swallow my impatience; I would not give her the satisfaction of an outburst.

"However," she went on, "what happened this morning we cannot ignore. Tom has demonstrated utter contempt for our regulations--and that must be stamped out immediately. For his good as well as the community's."

I waited, and she went on, "As you are aware, we require all male citizens to keep their manes short. This decision was made for two reasons. One was efficiency--to save time that would otherwise be wasted on grooming. But far more important is the issue of safety. Our shops contain a large number of power tools, any one of which could cause serious injury by grabbing an overly-long mane.

"As such, the males are ordered to report every seven days to have the new growth trimmed back. It is a quick and efficient process, requiring no more than a few minutes. This is the seventh day since your son's arrival. His presence was requested--but he failed to arrive. He was sent for, in the belief that he had simply forgotten. But when located, he became defiant, and then physically combative."

Terrible anger had begun to build deep within me--and not all of it was directed at Ehm'maana. "I see," I said. "And what happens now?"

"The offense must be punished," she said flatly. "To refuse his haircut was serious enough--but his contempt for authority is far worse. Because he is a recent arrival, I am inclined to be lenient, and I am certain my brother will agree. But we cannot simply ignore it--if only to prevent others from emulating him. I must now locate Sah'rajj; together we will decide upon an appropriate punishment."

"My son doesn't get a jury of his peers?" I asked.

She quirked an eyebrow. "That is something we have not yet been able to institute," she said blandly. "And in any case, there can be no question of his guilt: there were many witnesses. If it is any reassurance, this community does not practice corporal punishment. We do not believe in the infliction of pain as correction for error."

"That's good to know," I said, with heavy irony. "May I see him?"

"Of course," she said. "That is why I called you: I hoped you might be able to impress upon him the severity of his offense, and the necessity of corrective action."

Only the Goddess can perform miracles. "I'll do what I can."

She nodded. "That is all we ask." She bowed and waved a hand. "You may enter now."

I did, not without a certain trepidation. Tom sat slumped in a chair before the unoccupied desk, his head bowed. He was not alone, but his companion could not have been particularly jolly company: another security guard, a stone-faced and muscular young female. She stood beside the door with her back to the wall, her hand resting on her stinger.

Tom looked up sharply as I entered, his eyes widening; but then, shame-faced, he dropped his gaze. I glanced at the guard; she nodded sharply and departed, closing the door behind her. She'd go no farther than the hall, of course.

For a moment I stood silent, fighting to compose myself, while my son the felon stared dejectedly at his toes. Forewarned, I was not surprised to see that his hands were firmly cuffed behind his back. Poor Tom: the fate he'd managed to escape that first day had finally caught up with him, and worse. He looked disheveled, as if from a struggle, but any bruises he had were hidden by fur. His kilt hung loose and lopsided; if he stood, he'd probably have lost it.

Taking a deep, calming breath, I stepped up before him. Goddess, if only Joel was here! What this situation needed was my husband's easy rapport with his son. Amazing, really, the extent to which those two understood each other, when they weren't even the same species. But for better or worse, the job was mine; I could only pray I wouldn't botch it.

"Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams," I said sternly, "I am extremely disappointed with you."

His eyes remained downcast, and his reply was an inarticulate mumble. Cupping his chin with my hand, I forced his face upwards. "Look at me when I'm talking to you, young man," I said, and his whiskers twitched in alarm. I'd seldom spoken to him in such tones, or needed to.

I perched myself on the edge of the desk. "Tom," I said wearily, "what am I going to do with you? What in the Goddess' name did you think you could accomplish?"

His head remained erect, but his eyes shied away from mine. "I didn't want my mane cut," he muttered sullenly.

"I know you didn't," I said. "I wouldn't have either." I grasped his chin again, turning his head from side to side. "But your rebellion didn't get very far, did it?" I asked. "They cut it anyway, I see."

"And my sideburns too," he confirmed miserably. "They held me down in the chair after they handcuffed me."

I shook my head. "Did you really think you'd get away with it? That they'd just give up and let you break their rules? Them?"

He gazed at me defiantly. "They haven't made you cut yours."

I glanced away. "That's not the same thing," I said. "As you know perfectly well."

"Because you're an adult, and I'm not."

"Among other things, yes."

"Mom," he said plaintively, "I don't understand. I thought you'd be on my side."

"I am," I assured him. "Absolutely. But that's not the same as letting you do whatever you please. If I did that, you'd never have started school, or gotten your vaccinations." I smiled. "And you'd still be in diapers. I am thirty-five years older than you, my son, and believe it or not, once in a while I do know better."

"I suppose," he said grudgingly.

"We're all in a difficult situation," I said. "You, your sister, me. And I do understand what you've been going through. But violence isn't the answer." I laid my hand on his head. "This doesn't matter," I went on. "I told your sister the same thing, when they cut hers. It grows back." I grasped his bound arms. "This matters. They're going to punish you, Tom. I don't know exactly how--but I doubt I'll be able to prevent it. I can argue with them--and of course I will--but in the end they'll do as they wish.

"And that makes my job harder," I went on sternly. "I need you, Tom. You're strong and smart--and with your father not here, I need all the help I can get." I clutched his arms again. "But you're of no use to me like this. Still less, if they decide to lock you up. I need you free and ready for action. And that means you need to calm down, get a grip--and save your strength for what's really important. Do you understand?"

He looked away. "Yes," he said. "But it doesn't matter any more, does it?"

"What do you mean?" I demanded.

He raised his eyes, and they were dead and hopeless, just as Rae's had been a week ago. "There isn't anything left to fight for," he said. "We're never getting out of here. You know that--you just haven't admitted it yet. They've got all the power, and they'll never let us go, because they don't dare. We'll never see Terra again, or Dad…" His voice sank to a ragged whisper. "Or Tass."

"Tom--" I began, but he cut me off, his eyes suddenly blazing.

"And it's your fault!" he raged. "This whole damned thing! You and your honor and your pity for the dead! If you hadn't had to come chasing after Sah'larrah, we'd still be home, and--"

He broke off then, shrinking back--because at that moment I came within a hair's breadth of doing something I never had: striking my son. I'd actually lifted my arm, to deliver a backhand slap that would have knocked him silly. I looked into his wide, terrified eyes, saw him struggling against his handcuffs to ward off the blow…and realized what I was about to do. Retreating into a far corner, I sank to my knees, my face buried in my hands. Dear Goddess, I prayed in horror, forgive me!

The chair creaked as Tom twisted around. "Mom," he said desperately, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Please, Mom, don't…" he choked off, unable to say the dreaded word. Sah'aarans don't cry--even, sometimes, when we should.

Slowly I rose to my feet, to see him gazing at me pleadingly. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

I embraced him, a little harder than necessary. "No," I said. "I'm the one who should be sorry. You're right, Tom: it is my fault. If I'd just let Sah'larrah be dead, none of this would have happened."

"I didn't mean it," he insisted. "Really. I don't know what made me say that…"

I smiled. "I do," I said. "Hormones." The pain of his thwarted bonding had temporarily overwhelmed his good sense--a feeling I knew very well indeed. "But we can't let ourselves give in to despair. We have to keep believing we'll get out of here--and keep working for it, one step at a time."

He nodded. "You're right." He swallowed. "Mom, I'm really sorry for the trouble I've caused. It won't happen again--I promise. I'll keep my temper, no matter what. And I will help, Mom. You'll see."

I nuzzled his cheek. "I know you will," I said. I paused. "And I'll make you a promise too," I went on quietly. "What almost happened just now--never again. I swear."

He nodded solemnly. "I know it won't. Because there won't be any reason for it to." He chuckled. "At least I got in some good shots before they cuffed me…"

"Tom--" I warned, and he grinned sheepishly.

"Uh--sorry."

I was still embracing him, some minutes later, when Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana arrived. Tom began to rise--which would have cost him his dignity--but Ehm'maana waved him back to his seat. "My brother and I have discussed the situation," she said, "and reached a decision. Thomas, you have violated the rules which govern this community. Are you prepared to accept punishment?"

Tom nodded soberly. "Yes," he said, without a tremor. "I am."

Ehm'maana glanced at me in astonishment. "You do good work, Commodore."

###

Apparently Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana believed in making the punishment fit the crime. I doubt whether what they did was codified in any way; almost certainly they made it up on the spot. I'll never know for certain, because I didn't ask. But when Tom departed their office, grim-faced and silent, he did so with his hands firmly manacled before him--and with no prospect of being freed anytime soon.

We found Rae waiting for us, pacing the hallway in agitation. She knew what had happened: in fact she'd been a witness to the first part of the drama, when the guards caught up with Tom. She snarled in shock as she caught sight of her brother--then rushed forward to embrace him and lick his cheek. His kilt still hung askew, threatening to slip; quickly and silently she adjusted it and tightened his belt. The two of them had always been close--but never before so firmly united in solidarity. Linking her arm firmly with his, she led him away. They didn't look back, but I did--to see Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana watching…and frowning.

Though it may seem mild at first glance, Tom's punishment was in fact quite diabolical, especially for someone so active. He endured it in silence, proving that his maturity had indeed taken a quantum leap--but the Goddess only knows what his patience cost him. I'd argued, of course, loud and long, trying to talk our captors out of it; but as I'd expected, my pleas fell on uncaring ears. For an indefinite time--"until his behavior warrants"--my son was sentenced to spend his life in fetters. He was allowed brief periods of closely-supervised freedom, for purposes of hygiene; but that was all. Not even to eat or sleep would they let him loose.

Tom's handcuffs were similar to--but not exactly the same as--the standard models they'd clapped on him when he was arrested. The wide form-fitting polymer bracelets were held in place with mag-sealed bars--but the strap that connected them was a full twenty centimeters long, allowing him at least some slight freedom of movement. His life would have been unendurable otherwise. As physical restraints, they were fairly effective--but their psychological effect was much greater. That, of course, was the whole idea: they were intended to make him a pariah. The people were expected to point and stare when they saw him, and snicker behind their hands. And indeed, many did. Of course that was at least partially orchestrated by the TB's; to exactly what extent is debatable.

Only one person dared to stick by him: Rae. And that was enough. If they'd been inseparable before, now my kits seemed positively joined at the hip. At mealtimes she cut up his meat; and when his kilt began to slip she cinched it up. When at last she went back to work, he went with her. He was able to help only a little with her solitary fish-tank tending--but he kept her company more effectively than Sah'paar and his cronies.

And me? Of course I felt a stab of guilt every time I looked at my son, though there was nothing I could do to help him. After my vociferous--and unsuccessful--argument for a suspended sentence, I'd begun to wonder if silence might not be preferable. Apart from myself, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana were the most obstinate people I'd ever met; further protests from me might actually prolong Tom's nightmare. As much as it pained me, my best course was to stand back and allow him to earn his parole. And it might well be said the experience actually did Tom some good; teaching him, perhaps, a lesson in circumspection.

The incident did have one other, more immediate, result. That very afternoon, leaving Tom in his sister's care, I took myself to the little storeroom that served as the barber shop. My mane was nowhere near as long as Rae's had been--but a good thirty centimeters of rapidly-greying hair ended up on the deckplates. When I looked into the mirror afterwards, a stranger stared back at me--one with a truly hideous page-boy bob that would have horrified her husband. A blow for solidarity--and one I should have made days before. If I had, perhaps it might have headed off Tom's difficulties. As with many things, I'll never know.

…But when I saw the looks of astonishment and gratitude on my kits' faces, I knew I'd made the right decision. We were all in this together--and the Goddess willing, someday we could grow our manes back all together.

###

Two days later, Ehm'maana dropped another bombshell.

We were at lunch, the three of us and Sah'jinn. Simply to enter the mess hall had become an unpleasant experience for Tom, and--by extension--for his sister and me as well. The majority of the other diners rather pointedly ignored him, and when he chanced to catch their gaze, they looked away uncomfortably. Whether through disdain, or fear, I don't know--but in many cases I suspect it was the latter. That was bad enough; but then there were those who openly sneered. There weren't many, thank the Goddess--and without exception, they were those I'd already pegged as TB's. Not surprisingly, that group included Sah'paar and his buddies. Most of the time, Tom and Rae could avoid them--but not during meals. They were always there, at a table not far removed from ours; and the barbed comments they exchanged reminded me of those I'd endured many years ago aboard that ship. In that poisoned atmosphere, the young physician's presence was a comfort--though I had to wonder what his all-too-obvious sympathy cost him in our captor's eyes.

We were in the midst of another such joyless meal--and Sah'paar was expounding rather loudly on the shortcomings of "outsiders"--when Ehm'maana strolled into the dining hall. She paused in the doorway, watching with interest as my unfortunate son laboriously speared the cubes of rooter his sister had cut for him. At least his appetite hadn't suffered. Finally, her constant smile a little more self-satisfied than usual, she strolled over to us. "Ah, Commodore," she said cheerfully. "How are you today?"

"Can't complain," I said. Actually I could--but she already knew that.

"That is good." She draped her arms across the twins' shoulders. "Ehm'rael," she went on, "I am told you have gone back to work."

"That's true," Rae said shortly, not looking up.

"That pleases me greatly," Ehm'maana said. She was in a jolly mood, which scared me. "And Thomas--your behavior these last two days has been exemplary." She nodded at his handcuffs. "If that continues, those should not be needed much longer."

"Nice to know," Tom grunted.

"Is there anything we can do for you, Ehm'maana?" I asked. Never before had I seen her in the mess hall--she and her brother had their own private dining room. Something was up--and unfortunately, it involved us.

"I have some news for you, Commodore," she said. "It is a day or so old, but I have just now been able to corroborate it."

"Go on."

"Mr. Abrams has left Sah'aar," she said brightly. "He departed three days ago, bound for Terra."

My body went numb, as if doused in liquid nitrogen, my heart an iceberg and my limbs glaciers. Great Goddess, he actually did it! I never thought he would: I'd expected him to stay, to keep searching for us until the bitter end. Joel never gave up, never said die: often he held on to hopes that I'd term delusional. That was, after all, how we'd ended up married. No: this had to be a deception, intended to speed our assimilation.

And yet…Some darker--but wiser--part of me found it all to easy to believe. Faced with overwhelming evidence of our demise, bills that wouldn't go away, and a life that somehow must be put back together…yes, he'd leave. He'd have to.

Will he even make it home? I wondered bleakly. Or would Ship's Security respond in the middle of the night to a report of stinger-fire in a stateroom? Joel had never seemed a likely prospect for suicide, any more than me. But if I was certain my spouse and children were dead…

The sudden ringing clang of utensils striking a metal tray made me jump. I spun--and my heart sank.

The knife and fork had slipped from Rae's suddenly strengthless hands. She sat rigid, as if turned to stone, her tail a wire brush, her face a mask of shock and despair. "That's not true," she whispered. "You're lying. You must be lying."

Ehm'maana shook her head. "No," she said. "I am not. I have just this morning secured a copy of the passenger manifest; it is in my office. There can be no mistake. I know this is difficult for you, child--but you must accept it, and move on."

"Damn you," Rae said softly, flatly. Then she screamed it, directly in Ehm'maana's face: "Damn you!" Her arm slashed a wide arc, sending dishes and silverware clattering across the floor, while Tom, Sah'jinn and I ducked. Leaping to her feet, Rae dashed from the hall, her face buried in her hands. I grabbed for her arm, but missed, and a second later she was out the door.

As the last echo died away, a sudden silence fell, the other diners turning to stare, meals and conversations forgotten. With a quick glance at me, Tom--handcuffs and all--headed out in pursuit. Sah'paar moved to intercept him; but my son wasn't in the mood to be stopped: he elbowed the older boy out of his way effortlessly, and kept going. Ehm'maana stood frozen, her jaw hanging open; clearly she hadn't expected so violent a reaction. Her eyes widened in alarm as I rose and took hold of her lapels, my claws sinking deep into the rough grey fabric. In my fury, I was capable of anything, even murder--but she wasn't worth it. I might have indulged the momentary pleasure of beating the stuffing out of her…but it wouldn't have ended there. Poor Rae had probably just bought herself a one-way ticket to Handcuff City--and at least one member of the family should remain unfettered, if only to help them cut their food. Pulling Ehm'maana's face within millimeters of my own, I bared my teeth in a snarl. "So much for assimilation," I growled, and stiff-armed her away. And if she knocked over a few tables on her way to the floor…blame it on gravity, not me.

###

Rae wasn't hard to find, fortunately.

I caught up to Tom just as he located his sister. Whether he literally sniffed her out, or simply read her mind, I don't know--but he tracked her unerringly, to one of the fish-farm tunnels. Slumped behind a tank with her face buried in her arms, she cried bitterly, her body wracked with helpless tearing sobs.

Seeing this, Tom drew back, glancing helplessly at me. He could deal with almost anything--but not tears. Kneeling beside her, I slipped my arms around her heaving shoulders. "Rae, honey…" I began soothingly.

She turned away, hiding her damp face and puffy eyes. "He can't be gone," she said brokenly. "He can't be. How could he do that to us?"

"He might not have had a choice," I said. "He couldn't stay on Sah'aar forever. His life, his work, is back on Terra. Eventually he'd have to go home and pick up the pieces…"

Finally she looked up at me, her gaze haunted, tears still dripping from her whiskers. Crouching down opposite me, Tom offered his hands, and she clasped them. "If he's gone," Rae said, "there's no hope left."

I shook my head firmly. "No," I said. "That's not true. You know it isn't." I forced a reassuring smile. "He hasn't dropped out of the universe; we know exactly where to find him. And when we get out of here, he'll be back as fast as the hypertunnels can carry him. You know that too."

She tried to smile; but it broke apart, and then she was sobbing again. Laying her forehead against my shoulder, I rocked her gently, just as I had when she was a colicky kitten. Of course I knew exactly how she felt. Throughout our imprisonment, the thought that Joel was somewhere up there, fighting to find us, had given me hope, and allowed me to sleep. But now…

"Come on, honey," I said. I slipped my arms beneath hers, and somehow--with assistance from Tom--levered her upright. She was utterly drained, and her legs barely held her. "Let's get you someplace more comfortable."

As I'd expected, we found Dr. Sah'jinn waiting outside the twins' room. He'd mixed a tranquilizer, a natural, herbal concoction, and she dutifully swallowed it, without even grimacing. Tom and I put her to bed then, and I remained with her until the mixture took effect. When finally her trembling stilled, her eyes closed, and her breathing deepened and slowed, I pulled the blanket up under her chin and crept out.

Tom sat cross-legged on the floor just outside, his hands clasped anxiously before him, and as I eased the door closed, he looked up in concern. "How is she?" he asked softly, as I dropped down beside him.

"Asleep," I told him. "For now. She should feel better when she wakes up--but she won't be getting over this any time soon."

Tom nodded sadly. "I know." His eyes glinted. "That was a rotten thing to do to her," he went on. "She loves Dad so much…"

I laid my hand on his knee. "Yes," I said. "She does. And you're right: it was nasty." Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana had much to answer for already--and the list kept on growing.

"Mom," he said, "do you think…well, do you think Dad really left?"

"I have a feeling he did," I said. "Under the circumstances, it makes too much sense. Especially if…"

"If what?"

"If your grandfather kicked him out," I said wryly.

Tom's jaw dropped. "He wouldn't!" he said, aghast.

"He might," I said sadly. "He never approved of our mating--as I'm sure you know. He might convince himself your father really did cause our 'deaths.' Indirectly, if not actually."

"Oh boy." He took a deep breath. "I've been trying to convince myself this doesn't matter. But it's hard. I keep thinking Sis might be right--when Dad left, he took our last hope with him."

"I hate to say it," I said, "but I'm beginning to agree."

For a moment he sat silent, gazing at the floor. Then he chuckled bitterly. "One thing, anyway."

"What's that?"

He grinned and lifted his handcuffs. "At least it can't get any worse."

###

But it could--and did. The Goddess help me if it didn't.

If there was one constant to life in the Undercity, it was that it always got worse. But never, even in my wildest nightmare, could I have imagined what Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana would try next--nor the true depth of their megalomania. What would have happened, what I would have done, had they actually gone through with their plan, I don't know. I can only be grateful the merciful Goddess didn't force me to find out.

The next several days were relatively quiet. Rae slept for almost four hours after taking Sah'jinn's potion, and woke much calmer. She apologized to everyone involved for her outburst--Ehm'maana included. But something in her had died. The spark of hope in her eyes, revived by Tom's arrival, once again faded--and this time, I feared, it was gone forever. She still listened politely when I told her we would escape--but she no longer believed it. Nor could I blame her: my words sounded hollow even to my own ears. She had not cheerfully and productively acclimated, as Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana desired; rather, she had surrendered. Under those circumstances, she would not have lasted long. Her anorexia returned with a vengeance, and very soon--such is the Sah'aaran metabolism--her joints once again began to protrude. Nor could her brother or I cajole her to eat. Simply put, she had lost interest in life.

To my surprise, neither she nor I ended up in handcuffs. For my part, I fully expected to be punished, and mentally prepared myself, as much as was possible, for the restraints. But it didn't happen; in fact the incident was never mentioned again. Ehm'maana was a bit the worse for wear, and walked slowly and carefully for a few days--and she was lucky at that. I might as easily have broken her neck. Poor Tom may have born the brunt of our punishment as well as his own: as the days passed, his behavior continued to be "exemplary"--but there was no sign of his parole being granted. Perhaps they never would have let him loose. Once again, I'll never know.

It was Tom's eighth day in handcuffs (and my twenty-second in the Undercity) when things fell apart. Our life underground hadn't reached its final act--not quite--but the crisis was approaching. I only wish I'd read the script before I accepted the part.

The three of us were together when the summons came: for lack of anything else to do, I was helping Tom and Rae with their work. As stoop-labor goes, fish-tending is indeed a less odious job than many--almost enjoyable, in fact. It consisted mainly of feeding, removing the worst of the algae from the sides of the tank, cleaning the filter traps, and netting out the inevitable casualties. These fish were intended for the table, and certainly weren't Joel's pampered, individually-named koi--but even so, it was some time before Rae could dispose of the corpses without emotion. She always had been too sentimental. Her brother and I helped her as best we could. It was nearly noon, and we were about to break for yet another unpleasant lunch, when the guard found us.

"Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana wish to see you and your kits immediately," he told me blandly.

I was instantly suspicious: what now? Tom clearly thought he knew: his eyes brightened, and he glanced involuntarily at his hands. Only Rae kept working, not even looking up from her algae-scraping. Clearly, whatever those two had to say, she didn't care to hear.

But we had no choice; we never did. We left our equipment behind: buckets and brushes, scrapers and nets, hoses and sacks of food-pellets. I've often wondered if anyone ever cleaned it up; we never got the chance.

We found them in their office, smiling their insufferable smiles; Sah'rajj seated at the desk, and Ehm'maana standing behind him, her hands resting on his shoulders. Oddly, Sah'jinn was there too, slumped in a chair in the corner, trying hard not to be seen. As my gaze fell upon him his nostrils flared in alarm, and he hurriedly averted his eyes. What in the world--? "You wish to see us?" I asked.

"Indeed we do, Commodore," Sah'rajj said. He waved a snow-white hand. "Please, be seated."

Three chairs had been arranged in a semicircle before the desk; I took the middle. To my left, Tom leaned forward expectantly, his hands clasped together, while on the right Rae sat curled around herself, apathetic and hopeless. Gazing at our captors, I felt my eyes narrow in suspicion. Why is Sah'jinn here? I wondered, yet again. This was looking less and less like it had anything to do with Tom's punishment…

Sah'rajj squinted at us through watery red eyes. "Thank you for coming," he said. "I apologize for taking you away from your work, but the time has come for us to discuss an extremely important matter."

He subsided then, and Ehm'maana took up the tale; she always was the more eloquent of the two. "My brother and I have devoted much thought to your futures within our community. We wish now to share our conclusions."

She stepped out from behind Sah'rajj, and perched herself on the edge of the desk. "Let me begin in general terms," she went on. "Commodore, you and your daughter have been with us for three weeks; your son more than two. By now, it must be clear to you that your future lies here. Your previous lives are over; that is the reality you must accept. Those on the surface believe you dead, and since you will never see them again, that is for the best. You may indeed think of yourselves as dead, so far as the upper world is concerned: dead and reborn here. Mr. Abrams' departure underscores that fact."

Tom snarled, his whiskers bristling, and Rae quickly turned away, her eyes bright with tears. I turned my glare upon Ehm'maana. Damn you, I thought savagely. You just have to twist the knife, don't you?

She went on, "This need not be a bad thing--if you so choose. We have done what we can to welcome you, and we shall continue to, if you let us. If you are indeed prisoners--" she glanced at Tom--"it is because you yourselves choose to be. In our eyes you have become citizens, members of our community. And as such we welcome you indeed: your intelligence, your strength, your insights. Despite what you might have heard, there is room here for divergent viewpoints--so long as they are expressed in a civil manner. There are many ways in which you can contribute, if you will allow yourselves to."

She paused, gazing at us hopefully--but if she expected repentance and pleas for absolution, she was disappointed. Finally, with a sigh, she continued.

"There is one particular contribution which we require from all our citizens. I do not speak of work--though certainly that is important--but of another area in which absolute cooperation is needed." Her smile widened. "Though you yourself will be exempt, Commodore."

I frowned. What in the Dark? I wondered. Almost sounds as if…no. Couldn't be.

"It is our dream to someday rebuild and repopulate the entire Undercity," Ehm'maana said. "To accomplish that goal will require hard work, technical knowledge…and people. I once told you, Commodore, that we can expect no further recruitment from outside. Your own arrival has seen to that. Therefore, our population growth must now come entirely from inside. In short, is the duty of everyone, including your kits--to breed."

I'd experienced many strange things lately--but nothing half so bizarre as those few simple words. My mouth dropped open; and Rae uttered a brief, nervous giggle, quickly stifled. It was Tom who spoke first, his ears and nose bright red. "You've got to be kidding."

"No," Ehm'maana said mildly. "I am not. The program has already begun; even I will be expected to participate, in my turn. It is our goal not only to increase our population, but also to maximize the use of our gene pool. You are valuable additions to our genetic variability."

I couldn't help it: the situation had become so ludicrous, so entirely out of control, that I laughed in her face. "You're going to find that rather difficult," I said. "My kits have bond-mates--ones you can't possibly bring here."

Ehm'maana nodded, unperturbed. "We know," she said simply. "And you are correct; we cannot. Nor would we. But that does not matter."

"What do you mean?" I demanded. "Of course it matters--you know as well as I do, a bonded Sah'aaran is sexually receptive only to his or her mate."

Her smile widened. "True enough," she said. "But there are ways to circumvent that--ones that do not involve direct contact between male and female."

With a gasp of horror Rae shrank against me, clutching my arm, and Tom half-rose. "Artificial insemination," I stated flatly. "By force."

Ehm'maana nodded. "Yes," she said. "Though we make the process as comfortable and dignified as circumstances allow. Please believe me, it is not something we undertake lightly. But it is--"

"I know," I interrupted wearily. "It's necessary."

"Just so."

I shook my head. "No."

"I have asked Dr. Sah'jinn to join us here, to answer any questions you might have," she went on blithely. "He has had considerable practice of late. In Ehm'rael's case we must of course wait until her next fertile period; a suitable genetic match must also be found. But in Thomas' case there need be no delay: he may begin to donate immediately."

"No," I repeated, more firmly. "Do you have trouble understanding that word, Ehm'maana? They will not participate."

She shook her head, frowning. "That is not an option," she said. "We must insist upon universal participation. Your kits are at the peak of their physical condition; we must take advantage of that while we may."

"How dare you?" I exploded. "How dare you even consider such a thing? How dare you use my kits to breed your next generation of slave labor?"

She began to reply, but Sah'rajj overrode her. "We do what we must," he said. "Our population is small. If bondings occur--and they have--well and good. But if they do not--" his voice dropped to a near-whisper-- "or can not--other methods must be employed."

Rae still clung to me, her breathing rapid and her eyes wide in fear. Tom had sat back down, no doubt realizing the futility of revolt in his condition; but his claws were expressed. "You will violate the sanctity of their bondings over my dead body," I said.

"I am confused, Commodore," Ehm'maana said coldly. "'The sanctity of bonding,' you say--but you yourself have demonstrated precious little concern for that."

I turned away, clenching my fists. With a supreme effort, one that left me panting, I succeeded in calming myself--a little, anyway. I rounded on Sah'jinn, and he nearly jumped out of his fur. "Is what she says true, Doctor?" I asked. "Have you participated in this…process?"

He couldn't hold my gaze. Shame-faced, he nodded. "Yes," he said. He swallowed. "I have." He looked up at me, his eyes wide and pleading. "There is no actual force involved," he said hurriedly--and he seemed to be struggling to convince himself as well as me. "The female subjects are tranquilized. With the males it is of course necessary to--"

I held up my hand, interrupting him. "Spare me the details, please," I said mildly. "All I want to know is, why? Why would you become involved in such an abomination?"

He glanced at Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "I have no choice," he said. "And if nothing else, I can see to it the patients are treated with respect."

A wilting reply rose to my lips--and I swallowed it. Of course he had no choice; who in this Dark-cursed place ever did? And like the rest of us, he could do no more than make the best of an intolerable situation.

Rubbing my suddenly-throbbing temples, I turned to our captors. They returned my gaze impassively--but they were no longer smiling. "Why are we here?" I asked wearily.

Perplexed, Ehm'maana frowned. "Pardon me, Commodore?"

"You didn't kidnap us to deepen your gene-pool," I said. "There are far easier ways to accomplish that. So why did you?"

"It was Dr. Sah'larrah's request--" Ehm'maana began, but I interrupted.

"Sah'larrah was obsessed with my kits," I said. I paused. "And maybe with me as well; I don't know. I can understand why he would want us here--but why in the Goddess' name would you agree to help him? It must have cost you a great deal, in manpower and resources--and what do you have to show for it? That's what I've never been able to understand."

They exchanged a half-annoyed, half-troubled glance. "That is not your concern," Ehm'maana said.

Sah'jinn cleared his throat. "Of course it is," he said. "Very much so."

I turned sharply, to see him gazing at me with wounded eyes, raising his hands as if in supplication. Trying to vindicate himself, perhaps? Was my esteem really that important to him? "You deserve an answer, Commodore," he went on. "And I believe I can provide it--if you wish."

I shrugged. "Go right ahead."

He took a deep breath, and with a quick sidelong glance at our captors, he said, "Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana owe Sah'larrah a great deal. Without his information and insights, this community could never have been founded. That placed him in a position to make demands--and what he demanded was your kits. Of course he did not couch it in terms of kidnapping--certainly not. In his mind, they were his by right--and desperately required rescuing."

Sah'larrah and my father had something in common, then: goals, if not methods. "Go on."

"Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana knew how dangerous it would be," Sah'jinn continued, "that they could easily be exposed. But Sah'larrah convinced them the risk would be minimal. Thomas and Ehm'rael would accept his paternal authority, so he said, and would quickly assimilate." He smiled ruefully. "As it turns out, he was fooling himself. In any case, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana could not find it in their hearts to refuse, and so they set to work. They managed to secure Ehm'rael, though they missed Thomas--but then it came to their attention that you and Mr. Abrams were also lost in the tunnels."

"How?" I asked.

"From Ehm'rael herself," he said, glancing at my daughter. "Though doubtless she does not remember. She had been stinger-stunned as well--and she talked in her sleep, so to speak, while I treated her injuries. The words she mumbled were disjointed, but we were able to piece together that you and Mr. Abrams had been in the path of the cave-in." He glanced again at Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "They would have done nothing--but Sah'larrah was also present. He insisted you be brought here; 'the Goddess' will,' he termed it. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana agreed, albeit reluctantly--and have regretted their decision ever since."

I nodded thoughtfully. At long last, it had all begun to make sense. Their regret was easy enough to understand: my kits and I refused to roll over and cooperate, and had resisted every attempt at assimilation. And worse, our non-compliance was like a virus, one that threatened to become an epidemic. In their desperation, our captors had apparently decided to alter their tactics--and having made my son a helpless prisoner, they'd turned their attention to Ehm'rael. They'd tie her down, first with pregnancy, then with kits. "There's an old Terran saying," I said. "Something to do with having a tiger by the tail."

Sah'jinn smiled. "Exactly," he agreed. "They can neither hang on nor let go."

I gazed again at the two of them--and saw that their implacable calm had finally begun to slip. Ehm'maana's face was inscrutable, though her eyes were blazing--but Sah'rajj was openly furious, his hands clenched, his jaws tight, his tail twitching. I wondered uneasily if I'd been wise to encourage Sah'jinn to speak: he might pay dearly for his candor. And as for the three of us…

"This has gone on far too long," I told them. "We have all been victimized and misled; yourselves no less than my kits and me. Sah'larrah has no legitimate claim on us; and he has repudiated the plot that brought us here.

"Nor will we ever assimilate," I went on. "You must realize that by now. We have bond-mates--ones you will never be willing or able to 'acquire'--and without them we will eventually sicken and die. That is a fact of Sah'aaran biology. This is not our world, and we do not subscribe to your beliefs. As long as we are here, we will be a constant source of trouble." I nodded at my son's hands. "Incidents like that will continue to occur, and will become more serious as time goes on. We work, but only out of boredom; if I instruct my kits to stop, they will--and then you will be obliged to make literal slaves of us. And you know--you knew before you called us here--I will never allow you to breed my kits like maxigrazers. You speak of 'donations' and 'genetic matches'--but what I see is rape and violation. To prevent that I will die, if I must. You might be able to so use your Sah'riil City orphans--but never any kits whose natural parents are here to protect them.

"You're obviously reluctant to physically harm us," I continued. "I assume that's Sah'larrah's doing. But unless you're willing to use extreme force, you'll get no cooperation from us. Eventually you'll reach the point where you must either release us--or kill us."

Tom and Rae gazed at me, wide-eyed, and Rae clutched my arm; but they remained silent. Behind, Sah'jinn stirred uncomfortably; but he too said nothing.

Sah'rajj's blood-red gaze speared me. "Your talent for speechmaking is well-known, Commodore," he sneered. "But nothing has changed. You think us unwilling to use force--but we are not. At one command from me, you will cooperate; in ten minutes, if I so order, your son will be giving his donation. As for your daughter, we need not wait for her next fertile period: it is possible to induce early ovulation. And there is nothing you could do to prevent it. Whatever the circumstances, Commodore, you are here--and you are ours to use as we wish."

Slowly I stood. My claws were expressed, my tail lashing--but I forced myself to speak softly. "Call your guards, then," I said. "Let's see if they arrive fast enough to stop me from killing you."

Ehm'maana's eyes widened, but Sah'rajj smiled mockingly. "You are but one person, Commodore," he said. "And you know we are armed."

"No," Tom said. He stood, and so did Rae. "We are three. Mom is right: there's no way we're going to let you do this."

"You can shoot one of us," I said. "Maybe two. But as the Goddess is my witness, one of us will get through. That I promise."

"Stop it!"

The voice was faint, querulous, barely recognizable. I spun--and my jaw dropped "Goddess!" I breathed.

It had been several days since I'd last seen Sah'larrah, and every time I asked about him, Sah'jinn shook his head sadly. Now I saw why.

My one-time teacher, friend, and lover stood in the doorway, a walking skeleton, a bag of bones covered with loose sallow skin and patchy lusterless fur. He bent far forward, as if bowed down by some enormous weight, and the cane he clutched in his knobby hand barely supported him. Every step he took left him gasping for breath.

Sah'jinn sprang instantly to his feet. Wrapping an arm around Sah'larrah's waist, he guided the older man to the chair he had just quitted. He patted his apron pockets, finally locating his stethoscope; but even as he fit it to his ears, Sah'larrah irritably waved him aside. He looked ancient, aged far beyond his years--and terribly, mortally tired. "This has gone on long enough," he said, his voice a harsh whisper. "Ehm'ayla, sit down. There will be--must be--no violence."

Mute with horror, I obeyed. Tom and Rae stood staring, their hands grasping mine, and I had to pull them down into their seats.

"You are wrong to blame Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana," Sah'larrah went on. "The fault is solely mine; my own folly caused this." He sighed. "I am sorry, Ehm'ayla. I have wronged you, and your husband as well." He smiled tenderly at the twins. "But most of all I have wronged you--of all of us, the most blameless. I do not ask for your forgiveness; I know you cannot give it. But I have paid." He turned to our captors. "This must go no farther. Ehm'ayla is correct: you cannot assimilate them. I was foolish to think you could. This life is a constant misery to them, and I will not see their suffering prolonged. I can never be a real father to these kits--but they are my flesh and blood. I will not see this fine young man chained like an animal, nor this lovely young lady forced to bear kits she does not want. You must release them--and may the Goddess forgive us for the damage we have done."

"No," Sah'rajj said harshly, his spun-glass whiskers bristling. "Impossible. As you know very well, Sah'larrah. We told you so, when you insisted we bring them here. You knew their journey would be--must be--one-way. As I recall, you assured us that would not be a difficulty."

"So I believed, at the time," Sah'larrah agreed. "I was wrong. You have no alternative, Sah'rajj: they will destroy this community. Not out of malice, but because they cannot endure life without their mates. If you would save your utopia, you must release them. Remove their memories of this place if you must, as you did to poor Sah'raada."

Sah'jinn coughed nervously into his hand, but no one appeared to notice--and I could spare no time to wonder what it signified.

"That is also impossible," Sah'rajj said. "They have been missing too long. It was a risk to release Sah'raada; his survival was barely plausible, even to that idiot Ehm'luruus. Their reappearance would be far worse. Even if their memories were altered, they would demand an explanation for the missing time--and they would call in the Combined Forces. We would be found, and that would be the end. We sacrificed much to build this community, and we will not give it up--not for their sakes."

"What will you do, then?" Sah'larrah demanded. "Your choices are destruction from without, or within. There is dissension here, Sah'rajj--believe it or not. So far, it has found no focal point, no effective leader…but I submit that she sits here before you."

"Then we may indeed have no other choice," Sah'rajj said. "Until now, we have been untroubled by the malcontents among us; we have found it possible to prevent them from organizing." I didn't dare glance at Sah'jinn; I could only imagine his pale face and sickly expression. "But Dr. Sah'larrah may be correct," Sah'rajj went on, fixing me with his sanguine stare. "If not a leader, you may be a catalyst. You and your kits are already too visible, too well-known. We may indeed have no alternative but your deaths."

Poor Rae was on the verge of hyperventilation, her eyes glassy with terror--but Tom was growling dangerously, flexing his bound hands. Before I could reply--whatever I might have said--Ehm'maana spoke up. "There is perhaps another way."

Sah'rajj turned quickly. "Pardon me?"

"To end their lives would be wasteful," she said. "It is necessary only that they be removed as a source of rebellion. It is desirable that they serve as an example of the consequences of disobedience. In Sah'raada's case we were careful, of necessity, and left no trace of our tampering…"

Sah'rajj nodded thoughtfully. "But the same techniques might be used more aggressively," he said, with rapidly-growing enthusiasm. "To wipe their minds clean."

"Lobotomize us, you mean," I said in horror.

He shrugged. "The terminology is obsolete," he said with a cruel smile. "But the meaning is essentially correct. An excellent suggestion, sister. It would leave them alive, healthy--and quite tractable enough for our purposes. No doubt it would then be possible to teach them some simple repetitive work…"

The dark suspicions I'd harbored since the day of our arrival were indeed correct: Sah'rajj was a sadist. He would have enjoyed watching our brains being burned out. Looking into his eyes, I realized that he expected us to plead for our lives. And indeed I might have--if not for my own, then for my kits'. But I was spared that humiliation, by the solid thump of Sah'larrah's cane against the floor.

"No!" he cried. He levered himself upright, leaning heavily on that ugly metal shaft. "That you will not do. I cannot--"

But he got no farther. He stopped short, his eyes widening, and grasped his chest--and then, without another sound, he collapsed.

"Sah'larrah!" I cried. I leaped to my feet, but Sah'jinn was closer and faster--and he was the expert. I stood back, grasping my kits to my sides, as he knelt over Sah'larrah's prostrate form, fumbling again for his stethoscope.

Finally Sah'jinn looked up, his face drawn and anxious. "I must get him to sickbay immediately," he told Sah'rajj. "I need guards with a stretcher now!"

It took only a few minutes, and when Sah'larrah had been borne away by a pair of guards, with the young doctor trailing anxiously behind, I turned to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "What kind of monsters are you?" I demanded. "Have you no decency? Dear Goddess, have you not one shred of decency?"

"What we have is duty," Sah'rajj said. "To protect this community, and the people who inhabit it. The people as a whole, Commodore. If individual lives must be sacrificed to achieve our goals, so be it."

Ehm'maana shook herself, and a brief flicker of something like uncertainty clouded her eyes; but she remained silent. Sah'rajj appeared not to notice. "Your duty is to obey," he went on. "You have been given a choice. You may continue to live--though in a state of somewhat reduced self-awareness. Or you may die as painlessly as we can arrange. The choice is yours--and can no longer be delayed."

I stared at him defiantly, my arms still wrapped firmly around Tom and Rae. Sometimes I wonder if he really would have gone through with it; if he was truly sick enough to lobotomize, or kill, sixteen-year-old kits. But it's not a subject on which I care to dwell.

Nor do I know what might have happened then--except that it would not have been pretty. Bloodshed, probably: a fight for our lives, and for our minds. Of course we would have lost in the end; but possibly we would have had the momentary satisfaction of seeing those two go down first. But at that moment, even as I was tensing myself for battle…the lights went out.

For several seconds we stood in pitch darkness, my son and daughter clutching at me in fear; then the emergency glow-strips around the ceiling's perimeter flickered on, dim and yellow. From somewhere outside I heard the faint hooting of an alarm. Exchanging a brief panicked glance, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana dashed over to the blank metal wall behind the desk. Sah'rajj pressed with his thumbs on a pair of points a meter apart, and a wide panel slid silently upward. My kits and I watched in astonishment, apparently quite forgotten, as a control panel complex enough to drive a battleship popped from that opening.

"What is happening?" Sah'rajj asked.

Ehm'maana scanned the readouts, most of which were dark and dead. "The entire power grid is down," she replied tightly. She paused. "Goddess!"

"What is it?"

"The thermocouples," she said, turning a fearful gaze on him. "If there has been a cascade failure…" She punched a button. "Control room, this is Ehm'maana. Control room, please respond."

There was no reply, and Ehm'maana shook her head. "There is not enough power for the comm system," she said. "We will have to go to the control room ourselves…"

But once again we were interrupted. The voice that spoke out of the darkness behind us was low, male, Sah'aaran--and for some reason, speaking Terran with an atrocious accent. "Step away from the panel, please. And kindly keep your hands out of your sleeves."

We spun. The office door had opened again, and three figures stood just inside, the ruddy flickering glow of emergency lights behind them. They were dressed entirely in black, and their faces were shadowed--but the CF-issue stingers they held were plain enough. The one in the middle stood a little taller than the others, and was broader of shoulder; something about his shape was strange, not quite right…

"Who--?" Sah'rajj hissed.

As one, the intruders stepped forward. Two of them were Sah'aaran: a young male and female, as alike as the proverbial two peas, grim and determined. But the other was not. A human male, middle-aged and balding, with a half-grey beard covering his narrow chin…I gasped, and my knees began to buckle; my kits' arms tightened around my waist. "No," I whispered. "It can't be!"

Joel threw me a grin and a wink, then turned to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "You know," he said brightly, "I think you could use a really good engineer."


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